harry knows every word of 'ashes to ashes' by david bowie. he heard it for the first time on the last day of year six, a month before his eleventh birthday when their teacher brought in chocolate hobnobs and let them off class for the afternoon, and after that he would seek to hear it everywhere he went. it was on the radio for weeks, at the library and in big tesco. it runs through his head the whole time in the car out to the shack on the ocean, after the owls start coming. he can't even stop thinking about it when hagrid arrives to take him to diagon alley.
'ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know major tom's a junkie, strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all-time low...' and he doesn't really know what a junkie is, but he figures it must be something cool if david bowie is singing about it, right? that guy must be a wizard, he thinks. he's pure magic in a way even magic isn't really.
he's got a good memory for stuff like that. it's one of the things about himself that he figures out in his first year of hogwarts, something about his brain he hadn't had time to sit and examine before. he's spent most of his childhood trying very hard not to think about things (the consequence of growing up with people who won't say they hate you, but will certainly act like it). now, he's got a chance to actually use his head when he wants to. it's weird.
for the most part, he doesn't use this newly-discovered talent to get ahead in school. he's content being middling, like he was in primary school back in little whinging. it keeps people from paying much attention to you and, thus, it's a good survival technique, and he hoards survival techniques like a dragon (do actual dragons hoard things? he'll have to ask). instead, he uses it to deal with another thing he used to think he wasn't very good at at all: people.
it's in the small things. he remembers ron's birthday without being prompted, 1st of march, st. david's day. he doesn't have much money left at that point and doesn't really know how to get more, so he gives ron five galleon coins in an envelope with a handmade card.
"mate," ron tells him that morning. the others aren't awake yet. "mate, you didn't have to."
"oh, shut it," harry says, and tries not to imagine that he's done something wrong. "i wanted to. you're... sort of the first friend i've ever had."
"0h," ron says. "well, thanks." he gives harry something really weird then: a hug.
harry can't remember being hugged before. he's sure he must have been; after all, everybody tells him that his parents loved him, and that's what parents do, right? but it's faded with time and he doesn't remember it, no matter how much time he spends trying to. he doesn't really know what to do with his arms. after a moment, because he feels like he has to do something, he hugs back, grabbing onto the back of ron's sweatshirt and digging his fingers in.
it's too short. there's something magical (magical like bowie) about being hugged and harry loves it. but when it's over he doesn't initiate it again, because that'd be weird, and he doesn't want to be weird. not here. not in the place where he finally feels like he belongs.
ron grins at him from the other end of the bed. "thanks so much, seriously," he gushes. "seriously. when's your birthday? i forgot."
"uh," harry mumbles, "end of july. you don't need to get me anything. i think the dursleys might, um, not like owls showing up."
"it's okay. honest."
"nah," ron says determinedly. "nah, i'm going to get something. i'll give it to you after the summer, okay? can i tell hermione?"
"you don't have to."
ron shakes his head. "we want to," he says. "it's what friends do, right?"
there's insecurity in there. harry wonders for the first time whether ron has ever had any friends before, outside of his family, who harry isn't sure count. dudley isn't really a friend to him, after all.
"yeah," harry says, mostly because he feels like it's the right thing to say. "yeah, of course. sure."
just like that, it's over. ron rolls off the bed and stubs his toe and the day rolls on. harry doesn't forget how that hug felt, though. he doesn't think he could if he tried.
at the end-of-term feast, hermione throws her arms around harry at the table and squeezes him very tight.
sort of like the last time, he doesn't know what to do with his hands. they find their way to the back of hermione's robes and grip on tight. harry doesn't want to say it, because he doesn't know if it's okay to say it, but he sort of wants to tell her not to let go for a while. the security of somebody's arms around you is something wonderful that he's desperately upset he won't be able to feel for the next two months.
too soon, she pulls away, beaming. her tightly-coiled hair bounces around her head. for the first time since harry met her, she looks like she isn't trying to be less than what she is. weird, that.
"i'm so glad we're all here," she gushes, and she leans over to hug ron too, who roars with laughter and embraces her back like it's second nature, until he realises he's getting his tie in one of the bowls of mashed potatoes. she cleans it for him with a spell as fred and george cackle down the table. "it's wonderful, isn't it, harry?"
"yeah," harry says, heart bleeding with fondness. having friends is wonderful indeed. "what are your plans for the summer, hermione?"
her face falls just a little. "well," hermione says, "my parents are going on holiday to visit relatives in ghana, and i'm going with them. it's only for two weeks. after that... i suppose i'll have to get started on the homework! i should really get to the library before we get on the train tomorrow, i wanted to compare sources for the transfiguration essay..."
"you'll do fine, hermione," ron says, half exasperated, half sincere. "relax for once."
she purses her lips, a little put out. "i'll go with you," harry offers, just to put the smile back on her face.
hermione grins at him. "oh, that's wonderful, harry. can we go after the feast?"
"anytime," harry tells her, feeling very benevolent indeed.
ron rolls his eyes. "if you're both going, i'll go too."
"you will?" hermione's face brightens further. "i had this book i wanted to show you on the history of quidditch, ron, i think you'd really like it -- i can get you a copy to read. do they let you take books out over the summer? oh, i'll have to check..."
harry and ron exchange amused looks over the feast. gryffindor colours burn over their heads, the colour of bravery.
when harry comes back for second year, ron takes hermione aside to talk to her after the feast. dogged by dozens of questions from students about the flying car incident (which harry thinks he will surely never live down; people weren't this eager to talk to him at the start of first year, even, so evidently flying a car to hogwarts is a margin more heroic than saving the wizarding world in their eyes), harry doesn't really have time to wonder where they've gotten to.
the evening of the following day, however, hermione asks to speak to him with something strange in her eyes. she pulls harry into an abandoned transfiguration classroom on the third floor and sits him down with ron there, too, and they stand in front of the desk he’s sitting on with strange expressions.
“did something happen?” harry asks, confused.
"harry," hermione starts, sighing. "ron told me about this summer. about how they had to go get you."
"oh," harry says. "yeah. uh, thanks again for that, ron."
ron nods, looking mildly sick. he juts his head towards hermione as if to say, listen to her.
"i wanted to make sure you were okay." hermione kicks ron in the shin. "we both did. he said they were starving you, harry."
"uh, it wasn't as bad as that," harry says. "i had, uh, soup."
"they would put cans through the flap in the door."
"the... the flap? in the door?"
"yeah," harry says, mildly confused. "they've got one of those, they put it in this summer. for food and stuff."
"just..." hermione stares. "just cans of soup?"
"yeah. i had to share it with hedwig but it wasn't too bad. it was only for a few weeks," harry explains. "and it's only because they were angry. they're not normally like that."
"they only started flap in the door thing after this... thing that happened at a dinner they had with this client. since i sort of ruined it. it wasn't my fault though! but uh, yeah. i used to eat food out of the kitchen."
"right," says hermione, looking mollified.
"i don't know if they could've put a flap in the door of the cupboard, now that i think about it," harry laughs nervously. "dunno if it would've fit onto it. since it's smaller than the bedroom door."
hermione and ron's heads both shoot up.
"what?" ron asks.
"excuse me?" hermione says.
"the cupboard," harry elaborates. "did i not... tell you both about that?"
"what cupboard, mate?" ron asks.
"it used to be my bedroom." harry glances between them both. "before my letter arrived, i mean."
"they... they kept you in a cupboard?" hermione asks, in that voice she uses when she's trying very hard not to shout or say something she'll regret. "is that true?"
"well, yeah," harry says. "with the guest bedroom and dudley's second bedroom they didn't really have space for me. it wasn't too bad, honestly. i think i'd be a bit too big for it now but it was... fine."
"that's not fine, harry," ron says gravely.
"it had a light," harry tries.
"a cupboard," hermione says, sounding faint. she finds her way over to a desk and sits on it. "they kept you in a cupboard."
"yeah," harry replies. "i don't see why it's such a big deal to you both."
"mate," ron says. he crosses the room to stand in front of harry. he's shot up through the summer so he's a lot taller than he was, and he looms over him now. "that's not..." he looks supremely uncomfortable. "that's not normal. being kept in a cupboard, i mean."
"it's not?" harry asks. now he feels a little lightheaded.
hermione makes a strangled sort of sound. "harry, that's enough to get you put in foster care! did none of your teachers ever... ask?"
"no," harry says. his primary school had been so overoccupied and underfunded that he can't remember having a proper conversation with a teacher at any point while he was there. surrey schools are close enough to the southeast to avoid extra council funding, and close enough to london to need it. "erm, not really, no."
"oh," hermione says. "i see."
"it really wasn't that bad," harry tells them both. "i'm fine, aren't i?"
"well... well, i mean..." hermione bites her lip. "harry, sometimes i wonder."
"i don't want both of you to worry about--"
"we'll worry anyway," ron cuts over him. "that's what you do when you're friends."
despite himself, harry glows with pride at that. sometimes he remembers he's got friends and it bowls him over and he grins for hours. now, though, he would feel a little out of place smiling, he supposes. since ron and hermione both look like they're attending his funeral.
"i'm fine," he says again. "and plus, it doesn't matter now, does it? i've got a bedroom--"
"a bedroom with bars in the window where they starve you!" hermione half-shouts, a little hysterical.
"that'll stop next summer!" harry says, not knowing if he believes it himself. "they'll give up on it, since i got out this time."
"harry, that doesn't make it okay."
harry waves her off. "i've known for a long time that they hate me," he says flatly, trying to ground himself. "that's just sort of been how life is for most of it. for all the time i remember, anyway. i'm fine. i've made my peace with it."
"you shouldn't have to," ron says uncertainly.
"yeah, well i do have to," harry snaps. "i've got no other choice. they knew i was in a cupboard, anyway; it was on my letter. and they didn't do anything. so can we just drop it?"
ron and hermione exchange their harry-is-being-stupid looks. harry does his best not to scowl.
"okay," hermione sighs. "but you should... write to us, if you can, okay? next summer. tell us if you need anything. anything at all. okay? and that includes food."
"okay," harry agrees tiredly. "please don't be worried about me."
"we can't really help it."
"i know, but it doesn't make it any better. it just makes me feel worse."
hermione's face draws up and then she crosses the room and hugs harry tight around the shoulders. that wonderful, sharp glow of being held takes him hostage again. trying not to do something stupid like hold on too long, harry hugs her back, and ron comes over obediently (harry's sure hermione's got him up to this) and joins their little embrace. he's got very long arms, long enough to hold them all together.
too soon (though it's longer than the last one) the hug ends. uncomfortable with the desperation flowering inside his chest, harry stands up and backs off.
"i'm going to, uh, quidditch practice," he tells them both. "the gryffindor prefects want to talk to us all about how we lost the house thirty points last year for being out on the pitch too late. bye."
harry shuffles out before either of them can keep him back. they keep talking about him after that, he's sure of it, but there's nothing they can do. nothing anybody can do. he's spent most of his life being deeply disliked and sure, maybe it's not great, but that's probably just the way things are meant to be.
when sirius black corners them in the shrieking shack, harry doesn't even have to think about it before throwing himself in front of ron and hermione. ron is bleeding and crying, and hermione has that bright look in her eye that tells him that logic has flown out of her like a freed bird. if somebody has to be the protector today, it'll be him. he will not let them die; not here. he'll die first, he decides. when hermione reaches out to grab his hand, he squeezes back tight.
and of course, they don't allow that. when black advances on them, raving like a lunatic, hermione pushes herself in front of harry-- and then ron does the same-- and harry only has a moment, in the midst of the panic, to think about it, but when it does it burns like medicine or alcohol. that he's protected. that they would die first, too.
it turns out sirius black isn't a mass murderer, though, and isn't that the kicker? when he offers harry a place to stay, a home, harry says yes so fast that he thinks it would probably be concerning if they weren't all busy trying to stay alive.
and then, of course, it's not to be. nothing good ever is.
sirius does hug him, though, right before he flies off with buckbeak. it's short and very rushed, but harry clings on as long as he possibly can and, seeming to feel the same sort of lonely, longing desperation (both of them have probably been deprived of physical affection for about the same amount of time, actually, twelve years, isn't that depressing?), sirius allows it. he's got a parenty sort of way about him. like he's trying to keep harry safe as he holds him against his bony chest.
“you’ll be okay?” sirius asks him before he leaves, like he’s reconsidering disallowing harry to come with him. “you could…” and he trails off.
“i’ll be alright,” harry promises, even though it’s probably at least a little bit a lie. “now go!”
too soon, it's over. that whole night, long after snape and the minister and dumbledore have left the hospital wing, harry lies awake watching the ceiling and imagines, just for a moment, living with people that want him there. living with somebody who's going to keep him safe. somebody who likes that he's alive, that he's here.
in the following days, hermione and ron seem aware that harry is morose. hermione must have told ron that sirius offered him something he couldn't give, because ron offers about ten times for harry to come back to the burrow with him, and each time, harry has to say no.
"i'm sure it'll be better this year, though," he tries to reassure them both. neither believes him. he says this every year.
"if it isn't, you gotta write, mate," ron says, casting a glance at hermione, who is tearing savagely into her toast.
"yeah, of course. y'know. i'll tell them i've got this murderous godfather and then that'll freak them out and they'll lay off--"
hermione shoots up from her seat. "your relatives shouldn't have to be threatened with murder to feed you!" she cries, so loudly that a few people look over.
"hermione," harry starts, but she storms away, robes streaming behind her. he looks at ron helplessly. "what did i do wrong?"
"she just wants you to be okay," ron sighs. "she's not actually angry at you. she's angry at herself."
it's a surprisingly mature thing to come out of him. harry stares for a few seconds. "oh," he says eventually. then, he reaches for another sausage.
on the train back that year, they both sit on the same side of the compartment as him, which is unusual in itself. hermione takes the window seat, watching green england flash by as they travel south, and ron sits on harry's other side, near the door. they talk to him a lot. harry gets the impression they're trying to distract him.
"i'm fine, you know," he tells them, unimpressed, about an hour into the train ride. "you don't need to try to... y'know."
ron shoves his shoulder. "come off it, mate. anyway, did you hear about what happened to the seeker for the appleby arrows? apparently he's going to be on injury rest for at least a year..."
"i just don't know why you don't see it!" ron is saying, as harry comes down the spiral staircase from the boys' rooms. "he's loving this, hermione! he loves every bit of the attention, you should've read that article in the prophet..."
harry goes still, out of sight. against his better judgement, he leans against the stone wall and listens in.
"oh, ron, i did read it," hermione moans. "and i don't know why you can't see that he hates this! it's made up, all of it, because he's old enough now that they can sensationalise him and nobody's going to complain about it. it's horrible. don't you see how much this must be hurting him?"
"so, what, you think somebody just put his name in there instead of their own?" ron snaps. "somebody went to all the effort to take down the wards and put his name in the cup and then... what? for what? it doesn't make any sense! of course he did it himself, or paid some older student to do it. he's got enough money to..."
ron's voice is so bitter that it actually hurts. they've been fighting for weeks now, but this is the first time, though it all, that harry has actually... felt it. the deep, stinging, horrible ache of losing a friend. he slides down the wall and sits in a heap. maybe having friends isn't so wonderful, he thinks, when losing them is so awful.
"you think that's consistent with what you know of him, then?" hermione asks. her voice is rising dangerously. it must be only them in the common room. "you seriously think harry potter, of all people, looks for attention? ron, open your eyes!"
"they are open! i don't think it'd be too bloody inconsistent with what we know of him, honestly," ron snarls.
"oh, really?" hermione's voice is closer now. she must be pacing, harry thinks vaguely. "you think harry potter, who you've been best friends with for three years now, looks for attention?"
ron's voice falters now. "i mean... i mean, just because he didn't used to doesn't mean he hasn't changed..."
"you think growing up in a cupboard made him desperate for the limelight?" hermione cuts in coldly. "you think having to live with people who hate him, who blame him for everything that goes wrong with them, who convince him he isn't worth anything-- you think that's what's made him such a conniving, attention-seeking person?"
ron pauses. "well, no," he starts.
"was it losing his godfather, his only living relative, his only chance at living a decent home life? or was it being entered into a competition he didn't want any part in, and being picked apart by the newspapers, and risking his life for some stupid tasks he doesn't care about? or, let's see, almost being killed in second year? meeting the dark lord face to face in first? was it any of that?"
"so when was it that he changed, then?"
"this summer didn't seem so bad," ron protests weakly. "he wasn't with them for long. we got him out of there. and he loved the game--"
"a month!" hermione shouts. "he was with them for a month! and you see how he changes! how much weight he loses, how he smiles less, the way he talks about himself like he's not a real person. i wouldn't be surprised if they hit him, ron. you can be so selfish sometimes, you know that?"
harry makes a mental note: hitting is also, apparently, a prerequisite for authorities to get involved. hermione acts like it's common knowledge. maybe it is. every year he seems to learn a little more about various messed up things that have happened to him not, in fact, being okay.
ron is quiet for a bit. "i just hate being in his shadow, alright?" he says lowly. "it's been like this for three years. more than three years."
"but you can't blame that on him."
"then who else do i blame?"
"i don't know," hermione sighs. "you'll find somebody someday. but for now, you need to go apologise to him. alright? find him and say sorry. if anybody deserves this right now, it's not him."
harry drags himself to his feet and stumbles back up towards the boys' dorm, lest ron find him here. as he does, he thinks he hears ron in the common room murmur, "you're right. you're always bloody right, you know that?"
"you've told me," hermione says, a little less angrily.
the following day, a few days before the second task, ron finds him and does, indeed, apologise to him. it takes everything in harry to walk the thin line between two extremes. a part of him wants to take ron's apology and throw it aside, and another bit of him wants to say all is forgiven and say it was all his fault anyway, and beg to be friends just like they used to be again.
in the end, he just grins and says there's no harm done. the relief that comes with being together with them both again is enough. more than enough. it feels like with the resolution, the pieces of him fall back into place.
perhaps they're getting a bit codependent, harry contemplates that following night, as hermione rests her head on his knee to read and ron naps against his legs on the sofa in the common room. it's a problem they can deal with later.
the moment ron finds out about umbridge's detentions, he drags harry into the common room.
"wait there," ron says, pushing him onto the sofa.
coming to terms with the fact that he doesn't have a choice in the matter, harry nods, staring into the fireplace.
"hello?!" ron shouts up the girls' staircase. "someone!" he raises his voice to holler. "a girl?!"
there's silence for a bit. the empty common room flickers with light from a guttering candle. resigning himself to his fate, harry slides down to lie lengthwise on the sofa, head on the arm. he's not tall enough yet for his legs to reach the other arm, which makes him feel a little more emasculated still. the whole world's trying to fuck him over this year.
after a while, footsteps come down the girls' stairs. "what do you want, wealsey?" somebody calls down.
"can you get hermione?" ron shouts back. "hermione granger! she's a fifth year!"
"please?" ron pleads, a little more politely.
an exasperated sigh. "fine." footsteps pound back up the stairs.
ron crosses the room and sits down on harry's legs.
"ow, git," harry mutters, trying to wiggle his shins free. "ge'rrof."
ron obeys after a bit of kicking and swatting, standing up and then sitting back down again with a very heavy sigh. harry stretches his legs out in his lap in retaliation.
"your feet stink," ron says, not sounding like he means it.
"yeah," harry replies, "that's because you said you'd put my washing out for the house elves the other day and then forgot."
harry wiggles his socked toes for emphasis. "you still owe me a sickle for that butterbeer the other day, too."
"thought that was a gift."
"did i say it was?"
"nah. i'm just a great friend, and i deserve it."
harry kicks him again.
hermione comes running down the stairs, hair halfway out of a plait. "what happened?" she asks breathlessly. "are you okay--"
"c'mere," ron calls to her. she rushes across the room and pushes harry to sit up, taking the other side of the sofa to sit down and sandwiching him between them. great. no viable escape route.
"what happened?" she asks again, peering between them both.
ron gestures at harry. "show her."
"it's seriously not a big deal--"
they have a silent staring match.
"fine," harry sighs, and offers his left hand to hermione.
she gasps softly, taking his wrist with exceedingly gentle grip and turning his hand over in her own. she's quiet for a while. "this is what she's been doing in detentions?" she asks softly.
"it's not all that bad," harry grumbles. "honest. it usually heals on its own a few seconds after..."
"she's been carving words into you?!"
"no!" harry shouts. "it's just a quill. when you write it... it cuts it into your skin. but like i said, it usually heals itself, and honestly it doesn't even hurt much anyway..."
he trails off at the horrified look hermione is pinning him with. he should probably shut up, he figures, before he says something incriminating.
"she's been hurting you," hermione says after a moment. "and you didn't tell us."
"this isn't fine!"
"there's nothing anybody can do about it!" harry tries. "she's got too much power, and it'll only get worse if i report it. it's what she wants. honestly, i'm okay. i've had worse."
"telling her you've had worse isn't gonna make her lay off, mate," ron says in a low voice.
hermione lets go of his hand. she slumps back against the red cushions, staring into the flames. after a stretch of silence, she says, "harry, i'm so tired of this happening."
despite itself, harry's heart clenches with anxiety. "this?" he asks. she’s tired of you.
"you getting hurt all the time!" she shakes her head, not looking at him. "if anybody in the world doesn't deserve it... it's horrible, harry. you shouldn't have to go through it. any of this."
immensely uncomfortable, harry stares down into his lap. "i'm fine," he says.
"can you go three seconds without saying that?"
"you..." hermione struggles for words, which is very rare. "it's... you're..."
and then, seeming to realise that words aren't going to work, she launches herself at harry and hugs him tight. surprised, harry falls back against ron, and then they've got him between them, which is simultaneously very scary and very nice. to just be held like this.
she doesn't let go for a while. harry breathes in the smell of her shoulder and puts his arms around her in turn. ron's hand squeezes his shoulder and they just stay like that. it's peaceful and nice and made horrible by the idea of it ending.
"i'm okay," he murmurs against her. "honestly. it's been a shit year, but i'm alright."
and it's true. 1995 has been trying to kill him since it dawned, and it doesn't feel like it's about to stop anytime soon. he wishes he was ten again, listening to bowie and learning all the words. he spends a lot of time these days wishing for things he doesn't have. but he's alright. he's sort of got to be alright.
"one of these days," ron says, "you're gonna kill us all worrying about you. doesn't stress make you die young? or is that just for muggles. it sounds sort of muggleish, actually."
"i'm gonna die young anyway," harry says. neither of them laughs.
hermione pulls back, rubbing her eyes. "i'm going to find a way to get my hands on a healing draft," she promises. "or murtlap, or dittany, or something. okay? we can't make it stop, but we can help. you really should tell mcgonagall..."
"it won't work," harry says immediately. "she'll just get fired."
"it's worth trying!"
"i just don't want to!" he says. "i'm tired. and... and i'm tired," he ends, unsure of how else to get the point across to them. "sorry."
hermione chews her lip. "you have to come to us after every detention," she makes him promise. "okay? don't keep this from us."
"okay," he lies.
"i mean it!"
she grabs him by the shoulders. "you don't deserve to be alone, harry."
and that sort of hits like a punch in the face. "i know that," harry says weakly. "i know." and he doesn't know, not really. but maybe he can learn.
in the days following the battle of the department of mysteries, neither of them leaves him alone for even a minute. harry hates being worried about (it's the worst thing a human can feel, he theorises, some awful mixture of infantilising and isolating and embarrassing) but he doesn't have the energy to be angry anymore. he doesn't really have the energy to feel much of anything.
still, it's at least a little heartwarming. ron follows him around like a lost puppy and waits outside the bathroom when harry goes in, even if it's the middle of the night. harry suspects that hermione has taught him the reversal spell for silencing charms, because whenever he wakes up from a nightmare ron seems to know, and they take a lot of trips to the kitchen those nights, wandering around the castle under the cloak until they're tired enough to try to sleep again, talking about the quidditch world cup rankings and theorising on next year's defence professor.
hermione is great about it, too. she's not a particularly subtle person in anything that she does, but she tries valiantly to pretend things are normal and fine, even as she surreptitiously checks his wrists and arms whenever they sit down together and makes an effort to hug him whenever she can manage it, pinning him between herself and ron wherever they are, keeping him in arm's reach. she watches his face for miniscule changes through every conversation. i'm not bloody suicidal, he wants to tell them both, no matter what you saw that night at the veil, and if i was, you wouldn't know about it. he doesn't say anything about it, though. he knows it wouldn't help.
neville and ginny hover. without the twins, gryffindor tower is starkly devoid of laughter. harry spends most of his time thinking about sirius and wondering what it's going to be like to spend the rest of his life fighting in a war he didn't ask for. hermione and ron drag him into conversations to keep his mind off it and he wonders whether they'll mourn him when he's gone.
they get a compartment alone on the train back that year. ron shoos away some firsties who try to join them, and hermione tells him off, and harry lies down with his head on her knee and closes his eyes, pretending to sleep. she strokes his hair with a hand and uses the other to gesticulate wildly as she tells ron about this new magical academic she's been studying. ron occasionally puts in a word to let her know that he's listening.
"you think he'll be okay?" ron asks after a while. the chugging of the train almost drowns the quiet question out.
"i don't know," hermione says, with an honest sort of sigh. she brushes some of the hair back from harry's forehead. "i hate that he's going back there. with nightmares and everything and... and he's not eating properly," she frets. "and i worry. you know i do."
"there's not much we can do now. another summer after this one and he's out of there," ron says, not with much reassurance.
"another two summer is two too many," she murmurs.
ron sighs and drums his fingers audibly on the tabletop. "it's all we can ask for."
harry makes a point of rolling over, resettling his head on hermione's knee. they stop talking about him after that.
he'll survive another summer, he tells himself. because if sirius is dead because of him, the least he can do is stay for a while longer. and isn't that a messed-up thought.
hermione cries against his shoulder until harry can feel it soaking through his robes. a quiet, unfamiliar anger at his best friend has been swelling inside of him for a while now, and it rises like a tide in his throat. ron loves you, he has to remind himself. he's stupid and he takes what he has for granted, every opportunity he gets, but he loves you. don't throw that away. people don't do that often, not for you.
"i shouldn't pull you into this," hermione sniffs. she rubs at her red eyes with her hands. "he's your friend too. he just... i don't know how he can be so mean."
"he doesn't mean it," harry murmurs. he squeezes her tight and they sit in that patch of moonlight together for a while longer. "you know he doesn't."
"i know. but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt."
"you can't blame him."
"then who can i blame?"
"i don't know." harry tucks a bit of hair behind her ear with clumsy fingers. "i'm sure you'll find somebody."
lavendar brown. it's almost poetic irony. or perhaps none of it is poetic, harry thinks, as hermione breaks down again.
he just can't stand to see his friends cry. she hasn't done it much in all the time they've known each other -- in fact, he thinks ron must have cried more, over bad quidditch losses or fights with his brothers, or vacant, possessed little sisters. something about it makes him feel very wrong inside, an anxiousness that lasts for days, like food poisoning or night terrors. he wonders if this is how they feel when they see him get hurt, too.
"you'll be okay," he murmurs to her. "we'll be okay."
"yeah." hermione rubs at her nose furiously, trying to pull herself together. "oh, all the things we deal with. and this has made me... oh. i hate it, harry."
"we've got so much more to worry about. the war--"
"the war can wait," harry says. "you're allowed to be upset. and even if you've got nobody to blame, you're allowed to be upset. it's okay."
"since when do you give advice?" she asks, and laughs a little wetly.
"since i made friends with you," harry answers.
she casts a drying spell on his wet shoulder and then cries into it all over again.
"and he... i've never seen him like that," harry says stiltedly. "the look on his face. he didn't look like himself anymore. just... agony. and he kept begging me to stop. he asked to die. he wanted to die."
he's sat back against ron's chest, long freckled arms slung over each of his shoulders, so he can feel the hitch in his breath. hermione's holding one of his hands between both of her own like it's a treasure, her fingers stroking absent circles over the blood quill scar. she looks like she wants to personally take a trip to heaven to tell off god.
it's been three days since dumbledore died. harry didn't speak for the first one, didn't get out of bed for the second. now, they've forced some food into him and it's just the three of them, like it's always been, sitting in harry's four-poster in the gryffindor dorm with the curtains drawn. it's fiercely bright outside and the castle is deserted.
"i managed to get him to drink it all," harry manages to force out. "and he's begging me for death. and i don't know what to do, so i grab the locket, and... and he wants water. and i need him to pull himself together if we're going to survive, and he's crying so... so i try to conjure water, and it doesn't work, and eventually i..."
he's shaking, he realises faintly. that's not good. shaking all over, hard enough that he feels like he'll tremble right out of himself. one time when he was nine, dudley locked him out of the house on a rainy day and he sat in the front garden in the cold for two hours and that's the last time he can remember shuddering like this. like he'd never be warm again.
"you don't have to go on," hermione murmurs. she shuffles closer. "not if you don't want to."
"i have to," he gasps, and plows on. "and i go to the water to get some water into the... the goblet." his face is wet. no time to think about it. the survival instinct that consumed him through the awful ordeal in the cave is back, and it closes cold fingers around his neck. "there are inferi in the lake. dead people. i get pulled under."
"you can stop, mate," ron says. "harry, you can stop."
"i can't breathe," harry continues, and he's not sure if it's for then or for now. "i'm drowning. and somehow, he comes back to himself, and... and i get to the surface. and he gets us out. but he's weak, and he can't walk on his own, so... so by the time we get back to the astronomy tower... and i watch them kill him."
hermione pulls her sleeves over her hands to wipe his face. "harry, stop."
"and he falls off the--"
"sorry," harry croaks. "sorry. just... just had to say it all. i don't want to have to say it again."
ron's arms over his shoulders come up to squeeze him gently. "you're here."
hermione holds his face between her hands. "it wasn't your fault."
"harry, if he couldn't stop them, you couldn't have either--"
"i watched!" harry snaps. "i watched him die, i didn't do anything..."
she hugs him very tightly, pressing his head to her shoulder. between their bodies, harry thinks he'd like to die here, the warm, red sheets under him and friends on either side. he would rot here and never leave.
he's half tempted to ask them to wake him when the war is over. but if anybody in the world has that option, it isn't him. so he just lets them fuss. perhaps that’ll get them all through 1997.
"you can't seriously be thinking of going alone, though, mate?" ron asks.
the quiet of the weasleys' unkempt garden stretches into the fields beyond it. cold night air whispers across harry's face. his left side is still aching where he shattered his ribs earlier.
"no," harry says tiredly. "no, i just needed some air. i won't... i won't go. not tonight."
"okay." ron sounds uncertain. "hermione's coming out too."
ron opens his arms questioningly. harry steps into them, misery setting in over him. like an extension of them, hermione crunches through the summer-brown grass and joins, pressing against harry's tired, aching back. they all stare out over the hills.
they've learned, the both of them, through the years, that harry rather likes physical affection. if it was anybody else, harry would have the good sense to be very embarrassed about it. with ron and hermione, he doesn't really have the energy to feel much beyond relief in moments like this. they're both aware enough of his tragically deprived childhood to do stuff like this, and not aware enough to get angry about it much anymore. the days when they worried about him are over. most of the worry between them all now is a general, communal sort. they worry for one another in interconnected, web-like ways nowadays. a big fuzzy ball of static that hangs between them every day. it's the only thing keeping them sane.
eventually, harry pulls away. "he's angry," he says. "about his wand."
"you can't keep," hermione starts.
"he knows," ron staves her off. harry shoots him a grateful look.
"right." hermione sighs very heavily. she hooks her chin over harry's shoulder. he's still shorter than her by an inch or so. "we won't be here for very long, will we?" she asks.
"i don't think so," harry agrees. "i don't think it'll be long."
ron stiffens at their side. "guess we've got to get out there soon," he agrees. "once the trace is off. we can head out then."
hermione and harry don't have to exchange glances to know what the other is thinking; that they probably won't have long enough to take the initiative on their own. they were all almost murdered tonight. they can keep it for another time.
"i'm glad we're all still alive," harry confesses.
hermione laughs. "me, too."
"you expect me to disagree?" ron scoffs. "of course i'm bloody glad we're alive. we can't die. yet. not until." and he doesn't seem to know how to finish that.
"yeah," harry says. a funny thing about growing up in a cupboard is that it inexplicably makes you constantly feel like you're living on stolen time. he thinks this might be the year in which death catches up.
the day ron comes back, after his and hermione's fierce argument, harry clambers up to his bunk and they sit facing one another, cross-legged, like they did when they were eleven (ron recently twelve) to exchange birthday presents. harry thinks about junkies and bowie, and the vivid red of gryffindor, and he says, "off with them, then."
"if you want a piece, you could've just asked," ron replies, without much vigour.
ron sighs and shucks his shirt off. his pale torso is one of the only things in the tent that looks recently washed. "one of them had a pocket knife," he says. "i didn't tell bill, so nobody healed it."
"too embarrassed?" harry asks, a little coldly.
"i guess." ron wilts.
and he sighs. "lemme see."
the gash along the side of ron's chest is long and shallow, stretching from the top of his hipbone to a few inches under the top of his ribs. it's healed alright, without infection, which harry could recognise from a mile away.
"it shouldn't scar," harry says mildly. "looks like it hurt."
"bloody well did."
"you deserve it."
"thought you weren't angry?"
"i'm not," harry sighs. and it's true; he isn't. he's really bad at keeping grudges. just another thing he's learned about himself in the time he's been able to. "not really."
"good. don't think i could handle the both of you being upset at me," ron says, with an air of honesty. "the snatchers weren't that bad, really. the fingernails hurt, though."
"they get you anywhere else?"
"i stepped on a nail."
"did you get your tetanus jabs as a kid?"
harry sighs. "you know," he says, "i'm sure there's a potion for it."
"right." ron smiles at him tentatively. in the dim light of the tent, he looks more human than anything harry's seen for weeks. a surge of warmth swells inside him. he thinks they'll be okay.
"i think we'll be okay," he says out loud. "and... and thanks. for saving me."
"nah, mate," ron says immediately. "thanks for letting me."
they grin at one another. everything in the world feels just right again, then. perfect. the way it should be. even the hungry gaze of death, chasing harry all his life, can't reach them in here.
outside on watch, hermione leans heavily against the canvas entrance. perhaps she feels the contentment of it too.
harry finds them sitting together outside the great hall.
grief hangs heavy on the air. the stone steps are cracked in places, but ron and hermione have found a flat spot to sit, and they're leaning against one another like they share one body.
he's wrapped in his invisibility cloak, so he just watches them for a while. ron is still red-eyed and trembling with grief. hermione is staring off into the distance like she'll never find whatever it is she's looking at.
"wonder if he's done yet," ron says after a while. a bird caws high overhead. the nighttime sounds of rural scotland pour over them all. "with those memories."
"i hope so," hermione murmurs. "he'll want to say his goodbyes to, uh--" she wipes her nose. "professor lupin."
harry's heart throbs with grief. for a sweet moment, he had forgotten. now, the awful ache of it consumes him again. every marauder, dead. the castle feels like it's weeping for their loss, too.
"yeah," ron says. his shoulders jerk. "i can't... i can't believe..."
hermione pulls him close to her and, ragged and awful, ron sobs into the front of her sweatshirt. his hands clutch at her so hard it must hurt. harry knows in that moment, standing in the dull glow of the entrance hall, that he can't tell them. he had hoped to say goodbye one last time, but he can't do this to them. they might stun him, or worse they might cry more, and he can't let that happen.
he remembers being thirteen and deciding to die first. it feels just as easy to do it this time.
after the fighting is over, after the news has been spread, ron and hermione take harry by the arms, one on either side of him just like they used to, and they haul him out of the great hall and up to gryffindor tower. harry allows it, mostly because he doesn't have a choice in the matter. if there's anybody in the world left he can't fight, it's them.
"please?" hermione asks the fat lady, once they reach her. the castle is collapsing around them, dust falling from the ceiling.
the fat lady purses her lips at them. "is that potter?"
"hi," harry says weakly. "been a bit."
"let us in, please," hermione urges. "he's going to pass out. he died three hours ago."
"i didn't actually die," harry mumbles as they shuffle him through the portrait hole. "i'm fine. i was dead for a bit, i think. but only a bit."
"shh," ron tells him.
they herd him up the boys' stairs and into one of the dorms (it must be the first or second years, harry thinks, since the younger ones won't be back at the castle for a while yet). ron piles him into a shower. harry leans against the wall until the water runs cold and rediscovers what grief is by the feeling of the tile against his back, and then steps out and dries himself off with a scratchy red towel.
"i know i've got stuff that needs healing," he tells them, as ron hands him a pair of sweatpants and an old, ratty weasley jumper. "i'm not doing that right now."
hermione checks him over. there's no modesty left between them all. "you won't bleed out in your sleep?"
"no," harry agrees, like it's a business deal.
"you're not concussed?"
"okay," she sighs. "bed."
harry willingly collapses in the four-poster furthest from the door. he phases in and out of existence as he lies there, filing abstractly through every emotion he's going to have to feel for the next few days; loss, elation, terror, a hint of sirius' old madness, a pinch of dumbledore's wisdom, a helping of professor lupin's consuming worry. a whole inheritance's worth of suffering to work through.
sunlight streams through the window. hermione draws the curtains. and despite the morning sun, despite the war, they pile under the covers with him, and harry drifts towards asleep like he has reached the end of a very, very long day of work, and a merciful night has finally come.
"we're so proud of you," hermione tells him sleepily.
"yeah," run mutters into his back.
"thanks," harry yawns. "me, too."
they all sleep for more than twelve hours. nobody wakes them.
“we should get rid of the house system,” harry tells them both one day, almost a year later. their NEWTs are half done, and those exams are almost scarier than fighting in a national war effort and going on the run for seven months. “i’ve been thinking about it a lot. i think it could help kids make more friends. nothing more important than that, right?”
ron and hermione exchange looks which very clearly say, we’ve been unsuccessful in keeping him from what he wants this long, what’s one more thing?
“yes, we should,” hermione replies, as the morning owls arrive. “toast?”