An Unexpected Gift
Holiday at the Burrow turned out to be much better than Ron had feared, and although there were sombre moments over the break, there was plenty of laughter as well. The only problem was that Ron didn’t feel quite sincere whenever he joined in. But Harry and Ginny were there, and so were Bill, Fleur, Charlie, and Percy. Moments like this were few and far between, and it’d be a long time before they’d all be in one place again, so he tried to laugh, hoping that somewhere along the way, it’d actually feel genuine.
The holiday also helped ease some of the unresolved resentment and suspicion that sat between him and his friends, but Ron could still feel lying under the surface, waiting to erupt.
Sleep was easier, though; not because he didn’t have nightmares, but because by the time all of the talking and laughter was done, he was completely knackered. But he’d always wake with a faint feeling like he’d been running again.
On Christmas day, the smell of the feast to come drifted upstairs, rousing Ron from sleep. Childlike excitement sparked by nostalgia caused him to bolt into a sitting position and spring out of bed, elbowing Harry in the process.
“Sorry, Harry. Wake up. It’s Christmas!” Ron exclaimed as he searched for some sweats.
Harry turned over and yawned. “Ron, we’re not kids anymore.”
“Well we’re still in school, aren’t we? That has to count for something.”
Harry chuckled and reached over to the nightstand to retrieve his glasses. When he sat up, Ron clapped his hands.
“Come on, don’t dally about. Let’s get downstairs.”
Ron quickly washed up and dressed. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, the assault of smells from the Christmas feast his mum was preparing had him absolutely giddy with excitement. It was almost as if nothing had changed.
Before darker thoughts threatened to dim his mood, a clap on his back sent him stumbling forward.
George was standing behind him with a cheeky grin. “Just had to be the first one down, didn’t you?”
Ron smiled. “You know it.”
Soon, everyone else joined them. Everyone except for Hermione. Ron groaned, remembering that she’d promised to join them after she exchanged gifts and shared a special Christmas brunch with her parents.
But Percy was already eyeing the gifts under the tree. When he bent over to pick up a medium blue box with a blue speckled bow, Mum promptly smacked it from his hand. “Just a minute, Percy! Aren’t we missing someone?”
“Yeah…Hermione,” Ron said with sigh. “She said she’d come as soon as she exchanged gifts with her parents.”
“Well, we’ll just wait until she arrives,” Mum said. “In the meantime, you can all help me tidy the place up a bit.”
There was much grumbling, but everyone did as they were told. One hour turned into two, and then three. With the chores done, everyone was getting restless until at last, Hermione Apparated into their living room. They all dropped what they were doing to greet her and gather around the tree once more. Ron gave Hermione a long embrace, and a chaste kiss on the cheek, aware that his family was watching. His mum was the last to join the clan in the living room, wiping her hands on her apron as she emerged from the kitchen. She gave Hermione a firm hug and asked her how she was doing. When they were done exchanging pleasantries, she turned to see everyone looking on in barely constrained anticipation.
Mum laughed at their impatience and extended her hands. "Oh, all right, now we can exchange gifts!"
There was a collective “Yes” and a few excited claps as the circle closed in around the tree.
Dad gave a small smile, but his eyes were quite serious. “Wait. Before we start, let’s have a moment for Fred.”
Ron's smile fell and he looked around, suddenly feeling bad for feeling so good. As they stood in silence, memories of Fred from Christmases past turned in his head like pages from a wizarding scrapbook. Fred playing pranks, Fred laughing, Fred making weird faces.
Since Fred’s death, Ron had managed not to think about his brother for too long at any one time. A few minutes here and by accident there. But here, in the midst of his family, in the blank void of deafening silence that allowed no other distractions, Ron could feel his throat constricting. It was hard to breathe; something terrific and frightening was welling inside of him, and he wasn’t sure if he had the reserve to hold it in. So he closed his eyes, trying to force it back down into the numb void where it usually resided. A hand fell on his shoulder and he looked up to see George staring down at him, the sadness in his eyes at odds with his small comforting smile.
“I’d say that’s enough silence. Fred would have been on his second gift by now.”
They all smiled, and the atmosphere in the room shifted as the temporary moratorium on frivolity was lifted. George had given them permission to move on, and although Ron couldn’t quite push the sadness aside, his guilt subsided.
He bent down to pick up a shiny red box. It was addressed to Percy, so he handed it to him while George picked up a gift and handed it off to Ginny. As they all chose and passed on gifts to their appropriate recipients, Ron was pleased to find he was accumulating an impressive collection this year. Then again, last year he hadn’t been home for Christmas.
He hadn’t even been with Harry and Hermione.
That lonely Christmas day spent at Shell’s Cottage with Bill and Fleur seemed like light-years away from this Christmas, and a wave of gratitude swelled within Ron as he looked to find Hermione and Harry both engaged in gift swaps with content smiles on their faces.
Once the gifts were sorted, they all sat down and tore into them. Ron was pleased with everything he received: a book on Quidditch full of collector’s cards from Harry, a Keeper’s glove from Ginny, a Muggle CD player from his Dad, a new but very familiar-looking handmade sweater from his Mum, and a rather expensive-looking marble chess set that all his brothers had pitched in to buy.
The only thing left was Hermione’s gift. He gasped when he opened it.
The entire family leaned in with wide eyes, looking between Hermione and him.
“Oh, Ron, that’s gorgeous,” Ginny said.
Ron was speechless as he reached into the rectangular box and picked up the white gold chain with a pendant hanging from it. There was a dazzling raised engraved symbol of an animal carved on it; the head, wings and talons looked to be that of an eagle, but the lower half and tail were that of a lion.
Hermione piped up. "It’s Celtic, the griffin symbol. It represents courage and strength. I thought it fit you perfectly."
Ron couldn’t stop staring at it, his eyes suddenly feeling sensitive to the light and dust in the room- or at least that’s what he told himself.
"Do you like it?" Hermione asked anxiously.
At a loss for words, Ron put down the box and went to her, hugging her fiercely.
“I suppose that’s a yes, then?” she laughed.
“Yes, thank you,” he said, blushing as he looked down at the gift he’d given her.
“What is it?” she asked, looking up at him expectantly. Ron shrugged, trying to hold in his smile as Hermione ripped open the box.
She squeaked and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him unabashedly.
“Let’s see it,” his mum said.
Hermione held the box out, showing them around so everyone could see. “They’re diamond earrings.”
“Whoa, not quite,” Ron said quickly.
“They’re not?” Hermione asked.
“Nope, they’re petrified dragon tears, not quite as fancy as diamonds, but harder to get your hands on,” Ron said proudly.
“Dragon tears? Ron, how did you—”
Ron glanced to Charlie, who nodded.
"I may have assisted him in acquiring those…" Charlie said.
“I hope you didn’t use all of your Order of Merlin money on these, Ron. It’s very sweet but—”
“Hermione, please … just accept them, and leave it be,” Ron said firmly, hoping she’d back down for once.
She stared down at the earrings once more and looked up with an appreciative smile. “Thank you,” she said, kissing him once more on the cheek.
They sat on the couch together watching everyone else open their gifts, until finally there were no more gifts left save for a small silver box with a green bow sitting under the tree.
“Whose gift is that?” asked Percy.
“Not sure. It didn’t have a name on it,” George said.
“It came early this morning by special owl,” Ron’s mum said. “Right fancy owl, too.”
Harry, Hermione, and Ginny all turned to Ron. There was a hush around the room as he stood to retrieve it.
The box was small, able to sit comfortably in his right hand. He studied the fancy silver wrapping and silken green bow.
“Well, open it, already,” George said.
Ron ripped into the package and lifted the hood of the box, nearly uttering an “oh shit” when he laid eyes on the miniature red and gold hookah inside. There lay a note underneath.
Something to get you through the hols. Dinner will be served at 2pm and the Apparition coordinates are enclosed. I don’t expect you to actually drop by, but to be honest, I’m terribly bored, and I thought you might like an opportunity to get away. If you show, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine as well. Either way, have a happy one.
Bugger, Draco! How dare he!
Ron knew his face reflected shock and anger, but there was no graceful way to cover it up now.
“Well, what is it, dear?” his Mum asked, making her way over to him.
Ron gnawed at his lip as everyone threw curious glances between him and the box.
“Uh, nothing. Some sort of prank.“ Ron said, pulling the gift away from his Mum’s probing eyes.
“A prank? Well, let’s have a look,” George said, moving in. Ron clutched the box tighter to him, trying to control the scowl on his face. Leave it to Malfoy to ruin the one good day he was actually enjoying.
“Who’s it from, Ron?” Hermione asked.
Ron opened his mouth and then reconsidered. It would only invite more questions and curious stares. Instead, he headed towards the staircase.
“Ron, what is in that box?” his mum demanded.
“Nothing, Mum. Listen, there’s something I have to do,” Ron said, bracing himself for a row, but his mum only stared back at him with concern in her eyes.
It made him feel guilty for not being honest. “Uh … I have to run an errand.”
“An errand?” his father said. “Ron, it’s Christmas!”
“I know. I’ll be back soon,” he said as he began to walk up the stairs.
“Ron?” Hermione said, her eyes begging for an explanation.
“I’ll be right back, Hermione. Promise,” he said, giving her an apologetic smile.
There were many exclamations and questions, mostly from his mother, but Ron didn’t hear any of them as he bolted upstairs to escape them so he could Apparate properly. He had a Malfoy to straighten out.
By the time Ron Apparated outside of the gates of Malfoy Manor, he was livid. How dare Draco send him a druggie gift in front of his family and friends! How dare he presume that Ron wanted or needed such a gift! What they did on the Tower every night was a casual habit; it wasn’t a need. He didn’t need to smoke to get through the hols. In fact, he didn’t need anything or anybody.
Ron closed his eyes, cognisant that he did need his family and friends. But he didn’t count Malfoy or his drug habit among that group.
When he opened his eyes, he was staring at cast iron bars with a moulded Olde English ‘M’ insignia over the faded Malfoy family crest. The bars were shut and locked, but he could see the Manor through them. Like lightning, a jarring memory straight out of his nightmares flashed before his eyes. He grimaced, his anger reinforced. He rapped his knuckles dead center on the ‘M’, and the gates opened immediately.
The walk up the path to the front door seemed unusually long. By the time Ron reached the door and knocked, he’d worked himself into a state of outrage. The door creaked open, and a house elf peeked out.
“Hi, I’d like to speak to Malfoy. Uh, Draco Malfoy, please,” Ron said, trying to affect authority in his tone.
The elf stared up at him as if he had just spoken another language and then a woman’s voice drifted to Ron's ears.
“Who is it, Minnie?”
“I donts know.”
Ron tensed as soft footsteps approached. The door opened wider, revealing Draco’s mother. For a moment, Ron was at a loss for words. It was as if Narcissa Malfoy had aged several years since the last time he had seen her. There were new worry lines etched into her brow, she was much paler, and her blue eyes were harder than he remembered. But her beauty remained. Her long blonde locks were swept back, except for a few tendrils, showcasing her high cheek bones and distinguished nose. Even in her casual dark blue house robes, she exuded elegance and grace. Ron coughed, suddenly aware he was gawking at Draco’s mother.
She gave Ron a strange, puzzled look. “Yes?”
“Hello, Mrs Malfoy, you may remember me. I’m Ron … Ron Weasley.”
“Yes, I remember you,” she said stiffly, a chill in her words. “How may I help you?”
Ron swallowed. “I need to speak with your son.”
Her eyes canvassed Ron from head to toe suspiciously, and then she glanced over her shoulder before looking back at him.
“Minnie, please tell Draco he has a guest,” she ordered.
As Ron stepped inside, his anger dissipated into doubt. Draco’s mother looked cautious and distrustful, and the idea of actually confronting Draco in front of her suddenly seemed irrational and boorish. Perhaps speaking with Draco in private would be better.
Waiting in the foyer with Mrs Malfoy was awkward to say the least, and Ron debated about whether he should attempt polite conversation or keep his mouth shut. He chose the latter, trying to remain still under her appraising gaze until he heard footsteps.
“A guest?” Ron heard Draco say as he approached. “Mother, who—”
Draco stopped at the entrance of the foyer, clearly stunned by Ron’s appearance. His eyes darted to his mother. “Ron- uh, Weasley...”
Ron could feel perspiration breaking on his forehead as he tried to muster up the same nerve that had brought him.
“I need to talk to you.”
Saying the words out loud sounded even more ridiculous than it had in his head, and he held his breath as Draco’s eyes shifted to his mother uncomfortably. Mrs Malfoy was watching her son as if waiting for an explanation.
Ron’s eyes darted from Mrs Malfoy to Draco. “It’s private.”
“Whatever you have to say to my son, you can say it right here, Mr Weasley.”
She held up her hand to silence him. “Mr Weasley, if you think you can come into my home, and talk to my son in any way you like, you are sorely mistaken. I’m not ignorant of what has been going on. I know how you and your friends are treating Draco.”
Ron held his breath, caught between denying her claim and defending himself.
“You don’t understand.”
“Oh, I do. And we do not appreciate your unannounced visit.”
“Mother, please,” Draco said, stepping closer to her. “I invited him.”
“Draco …?” Mrs Malfoy said softly in disbelief.
“That’s why you came, isn’t it, Ron?” Draco asked, with imploring eyes that begged for Ron to cooperate.
Ron nodded slowly. “Yeah. That’s right. Draco sent me an invitation, said you were having dinner at 2, so I thought I’d take him up on it. I just wanted to speak to him in private to make sure I wouldn’t be intruding.”
“Is that so…” Mrs Malfoy said slowly.
“I know what you’re thinking, Mrs Malfoy, but it’s not like that at all. At least, not between him and me. Draco and I actually hang out at school now. Quite a bit, really,” Ron said, struck by just how truthful his words were.
“I see,” Mrs. Malfoy said, clearly taken aback. She looked between her son and Ron before offering a small head bow. “Well, please accept my apologies, Mr Weasley. I didn’t mean to be so brusque.”
Ron gave her a small forgiving smile. “It’s all right. I’m still getting used to the idea of being friends with Draco myself.”
An unexpected smile from Mrs Malfoy had Ron sighing silently in relief.
“Well, I suppose we can have an early dinner. There’s plenty of food, so I hope you came with a full appetite.”
Ron smiled. Eating actually sounded good right about now. “I sure did.”
Dinner was surreal. Ron found his emotions vacillating from curiosity to awe to unease. He tried to remember everything Hermione had attempted to impart to him about table manners, but he still had the feeling he was terribly unprepared for such a fancy dinner. He mimicked everything Draco did instead. There were five courses, and each one seemed fancier than the last.
Narcissa asked Ron about his family and their traditions, and that seemed to ease the last bit of lingering tension. They laughed as Ron recounted how much of an event it was to get the tree up, and some of the rows George and Percy had got into over the years.
After a while, Mrs Malfoy’s demeanour changed considerably, and she smiled freely, sharing a few of her own memories about Draco and Christmases past. This seemed to please Draco, as Ron observed him looking at his mum with a satisfied smile several times during dinner.
“Would you like some wine, Mr Weasley?” she asked as the house elf poured her another glass.
Ron nodded eagerly. “Uh, sure. Thanks.”
He took his time sipping his wine, relishing the grown-up feeling of drinking fine wine at the Malfoy dining room table. Who would have ever thought he’d be here a year ago?
After dessert, Mrs Malfoy excused herself, giving Ron a kind smile. “Well, as lovely as this has been, I’m quite full and would like to take a nap. Mr Weasley, it’s been a pleasure.”
Ron rose awkwardly with her, unsure if that was the right thing to do. “Yes it has, Mrs Malfoy. Thank you for inviting me to dinner. It was really great.”
“Well, I do hope it won’t be the last time you join us,” she said, giving Draco a meaningful look before disappearing.
Draco summoned the elf for more wine, but instead of letting the elf pour, he grabbed the entire bottle from the creature and motioned Ron away from the table.
“Let’s go up to my room.”
Ron paused for a moment. His family was probably waiting for him to return. But he was in no rush to field the litany of questions they probably had. A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. He nodded, unable to deny his increasing curiosity about what other things there were to discover during his visit.
As he and Draco made their way back to the grand staircase, Ron couldn’t help but look around the parlour. An unexpected shudder passed through him as his eyes fell onto the stairway leading down to the Malfoy basement, so he kept his eyes on Draco as he climbed up.
They walked a good ways before reaching a doorway. Draco opened it, and Ron entered a black-and-silver decorated bedroom large enough to hold two of his parents’ master bedrooms.
“Whoa, your room is huge!”
Draco shrugged. “If you say so.”
Ron plopped onto Draco’s grand king size canopy bed without thinking twice to ask his permission. When he realised what he had done, he sat up quickly.
“It’s all right, Ron, you can relax.”
But suddenly it didn’t seem okay at all. Ron remained sitting upright, staring at Draco’s back as he went to his desk.
“You know you nearly bolloxed up Christmas for me,” he said.
Draco turned, eyebrow raised. “How's that?”
“By sending a special owl on Christmas day to deliver a hookah to my house! You may as well have sent a howler announcing to everyone I smoke grass!”
Ron scowled. “It’s not funny, Draco. What in the world made you think that was all right?”
Draco rolled his eyes. “Is this your way of thanking me? It’s not very gracious, but then again, that’s no surprise coming from you.”
“No, I’m not thanking you at all. Actually, that’s why I came over — to give it back. I don’t need it,” Ron said with a conviction he no longer felt.
“Fine,” Draco said with a challenge. “Hand it over, then.”
Ron pulled the hookah out of his pocket, giving it one final look. It really was a nice piece— the gold appeared to be of high quality and the red coils wrapped around it looked and felt like genuine soft leather.
“How much did it cost?”
Draco huffed. “Does it matter?”
“Yeah, it does. This may be a surprise to you, Draco, but blokes don’t go around buying fancy gifts for other blokes they’re not related to. I mean, we’re not even—” Ron paused, glancing up. Draco was watching him closely, his whole body rigid as if waiting for rejection.
Ron ate his words, shaking his head instead. “I didn’t even get you anything.”
Draco’s face softened as he sat down at his desk. “So? It’s Christmas— good will, charity and all that.”
Ron narrowed his eyes. “I don’t need charity from you.”
Draco groaned. “Please, keep it. If anyone needs a smoke, it’s you. You’re so damned sensitive. If it’s really bothering you, you can pay me back later.”
“Oh? And how exactly would you like me to pay you back?”
Draco smirked. “By keeping your oafish housemates off my arse. You know, be my bodyguard.”
Ron chuckled. “I’ve been doing that. And I suppose it’s about time I got proper payment for it.”
Draco snorted and Ron smiled for a moment before remembering something Mrs Malfoy had said.
"And while we're on the subject...what did your mum mean when she said she knew how people have been treating you?"
Draco shook his head. "She only knows what I tell her. She thinks I'm being teased. She has no idea what's really going on. If she did, she'd pull me out of school, and I won't let that happen."
Ron stared back at Draco with a mixture of pity and admiration. A blush crept on Draco's face, and he turned his back to Ron, fiddling with something on his desk.
Ron sighed, and reclined back on the large bed. He closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of lushness surrounding him. It was the softest firm mattress he’d ever felt. Just sitting on it made Ron want to sleep.
“You sure do have it good here. If I had this much money, I’d quit school.”
“Money isn’t everything…”
“Sure it is,” Ron said. “I mean that’s why we’re in school, isn’t it? So we can get decent jobs and earn money to live.”
“No, that’s not why I’m in school.”
Ron turned his head to look at Draco, but the other boy was staring down some sort of photograph in his hand.
Draco remained silent, wiping the surface of the frame with his hand before putting it back on his desk. Ron strained to get a good look at it. It was a photograph of Lucius Malfoy with Draco at some sort of high profile event. Lucius was smiling; it was a strange sight to see. Two Malfoys smiling—genuinely, without malice or smugness, simply a father and son enjoying the event and each other.
Draco must have noticed Ron’s bemusement because his tone became defensive. “I know what you think of him, but he’s really not a bad person.”
Ron met his eyes and saw fire there and something else. Pain.
Ron sat up. “Have you had a chance to visit him yet?”
Draco’s eyes dropped and he shook his head. “They don’t allow it.”
“Are you serious?”
Draco’s eyes sharpened. “Yes. Why are you surprised? You’ve seen what your lot can do when they set themselves up as judge and jury.”
Ron bit back a retort, cognisant that Draco was clearly angry and upset about being kept from his father.
“Mother petitions for it every week. And every week they reject her request.”
Sympathy punched Ron in the heart, and he tried to punch back with rationalisations: Lucius Malfoy was a Death Eater. Lucius Malfoy tried to kill his friends. Lucius Malfoy was a bad man … but none of those explanations held up against the sadness in Draco’s eyes. Ron didn’t know how to reconcile it, but he knew better than to say anything that would add insult to injury.
“I’m sorry,” was the only thing that seemed appropriate.
Draco raised his head, his mask of neutrality returning. “It’s not your fault, is it?”
Ron didn’t know how to respond to that. As the weight of Draco’s melancholy began to suffocate him, he looked around the room in desperation, trying to something else to talk about, a distraction.
“Do you have any games?”
“Games?” Draco asked.
“Yeah, you prat,” Ron said, affecting a light-hearted tone he didn’t feel. “Like exploding snaps or magical darts?”
Draco grinned. “You should see our game room.”
“Game room?” Ron exclaimed, sitting up abruptly. “No way! Show me!”
When Ron finally returned to the Burrow, it was nearly dusk. His mum greeted him at the door, her face reflecting worry and relief.
“Oh, Ron! Ron, my sweet boy,” she cried when he entered the door. Ron was immediately smothered in a firm hug as the rest of the family gathered around. “Where in world have you been?”
Finally her death grip loosened, and Ron had to suck in air as she pushed him back and held him firmly by both arms. “We were worried sick! Don’t you ever leave like that again without telling us where you’re going!”
Ron glanced at the Mortality Clock in exasperation. “I don’t know why you're so upset. The clock says I’m perfectly fine!”
“Oh!” his mum said in frustration as his Dad gave him a concerned look.
“Son, where did you go?”
“There was something I had to do, Dad. What matters is I’m back, I’m safe, and just in time for dinner.”
“Just barely,” Mum grumbled, finally letting him go. “Everyone wash up and take your seats.”
“We were just about to start without you,” Bill said, giving his brother a wink.
“We should have. Would have served you right,” said George, giving Ron a not-so-playful push on the arm.
As the rest of his family cleared out, Hermione, Harry, and Ginny remained, their eyes demanding a better story than the one Ron had fed his parents.
“Ron—” Hermione started.
“Not now, guys, all right? Let’s just eat. We can talk about this later.”
But Harry stepped in front of him, blocking Ron’s path. “Did you go and see Malfoy?”
Suddenly the room felt much smaller as the three closed in on him.
“And what if I did? Is being friends with Malfoy a crime now?” Ron asked defensively.
“You tell us!” Ginny said, her arms folded across her chest. “If there’s nothing to be ashamed of, then why do you have to sneak around to hang out with him?”
“Because of questions like this! You guys act like he’s You-Know-Who. You don’t even know him!”
“That’s right, and I’d like to keep it that way,” Ginny said with a fierce whisper. “I can’t believe you, Ron. Running out of the family to see that pompous git!”
Ron clenched his fist, trying to keep from snapping at his sister. Did they actually attend the same school? The pompous had been kicked out of Draco a long time ago.
“Have you seen Draco lately? He’s far from pompous. He’s... listen, you just need to relax. It’s nothing.”
Now it was Hermione’s turn to lean in. “Ron, it’s not nothing! He sends you a gift that you don’t show anyone, and then you run out without telling us where you’re going so that you can meet up with him. Something is going on and you’re not telling us anything. It’s rude, and inconsiderate, and… and I won’t tolerate it anymore!”
“Hermione, please, let’s not do this. It’s Christmas.”
Hermione was fuming, her chest was rising and falling rapidly and her fists were balled at her sides. “I don’t care, Ron. This stops now. Either you come out and tell us what’s going on, or I’ll ask Malfoy myself!”
“Hermione, I’m not doing anything wrong!”
“How can we possibly know that when you’re not telling us anything. What are we supposed to think?”
“You’re supposed to trust me,” he said through gritted teeth, pushing past Harry to head to the kitchen.
As everyone gathered around the table, Ron could feel Hermione, Harry, and Ginny watching him. Their scathing glares were hard to ignore, but Ron did his best, trying to engage the rest of his brothers in playful banter.
After a few minutes it seemed to do the trick, and the tension began to slowly diffuse. Somewhere between eating, listening to George’s tales of magical gadgets gone wrong, and Charlie’s dragon stories, the wariness was replaced by genuine laughter and teasing. Ron was relieved and pleased to see that the previous questions about where he had gone didn’t matter. At least for the moment, everyone seemed content to enjoy the gift of family and friends gathered around the feast Mum had prepared.
I’m Just Fine, Thank You Very Much
The cheer and familial bliss of Christmas lasted only a little longer than the day itself. Hermione left two days later on a rather bad note. She had already planned to leave the Burrow to spend the rest of her holiday with her parents, but the night before her departure, another awkward moment presented itself, widening the burgeoning gulf between her and Ron.
Hermione had been waiting on the porch when Ron had come in from a long walk with his hookah in his pocket. A bit loopy from the drug, Ron’s guard had been down when they embraced. He had nibbled on her neck while she giggled and buried her face into his chest. It was only then that Ron had remembered he’d forgotten to cast Draco’s smell-extinguishing charm.
“Ron, what’s that smell?”
He had pulled back and stumbled away from her, his eyes falling to the porch’s floorboards. “What smell?”
“Ron Weasley, look at me!”
Slowly Ron raised his eyes to meet hers, his entire face burning.
Hermione had stepped closer, her eyes wide and full of horror. “Are you doing drugs?”
Ron had simply shaken his head and scoffed as if Hermione was the loopy one.
“What are you on about?”
“Oh, Ron,” she whispered in shock.
“Leave off, Hermione. It’s nothing, all right?” he’d said hastily, turning his back on her to go inside and run up the stairs.
He had closed himself off in his room, waiting for her to follow him, but no knock came. Holding his head in his hands, shame and guilt had overtaken Ron, and kept him prisoner in his room for the remainder of the evening. The charade was up. Hermione was smart, and Ron knew she had already figured out that whenever he said, “I’m fine” or “it’s nothing”, he was lying. Over the past few months, every ‘nothing’ wound up being something Ron either wanted to bury or forget. Only, no one around him would allow it.
The next day, Hermione had left without even kissing him goodbye, offering only a small forced smile and wave after embracing everyone else but him.
In the days after, Ron had tried to drown out the nagging self-loathing and insecure whispers in his head by catching up with his brothers. Their teasing and laughter were effective in silencing the voices telling him he wasn’t good enough for Hermione, that he was really about to lose her. But mostly, he had spent a lot of time learning and appreciating his new gift.
In the evenings after supper, he’d wander away from the house, turning the hookah in his hand every which way to see how quickly it would heat up. There was barely enough grass in there to get him through the rest of the hols, so he smoked sparingly, out in the fields surrounding the Burrow. He could practically feel Harry and Ginny watching him from the house, but it no longer mattered. They had each other, and Hermione was gone, so how could they begrudge him the simple comfort of solitude? Although, if Ron were to admit it to himself, the solitude he sought was anything but simple. He rarely reflected on anything too long, because his mind was constantly looking for a way to keep from dwelling on anything at all. But no matter how long he tried to avoid thinking of uncomfortable things, they always managed to worm their way into his thoughts. Fred, dead students strewn across the lawn, Remus, Hermione’s torture, Fred, being chased by Fiendfyre, Tonks, the fight with Harry, being splinched, Dobby, the moment he’d left Harry and Hermione and the despair he felt when wasn’t able to find them right away, Fred…
As he sniffed the remaining contents of the hookah, he tried to recall the feeling it gave him. Perhaps he wouldn’t need to suck on it so much if he could just recreate the same experience of relaxation that came over him when he inhaled it. The difference it made between a restful night and a hellish one was remarkable, even if it did come with a side order of self-loathing and guilt. But sniffing it wasn’t really working. He turned it twice in his hand until it warmed and a small stream of smoke drifted from its lid. One tiny little puff before bed wouldn’t hurt. In fact, Ron it was positive it would do him some good.
After the holiday break on the day they were set to return, the Weasley family and Harry Floo’ed to Diagon Alley to pick up a few minor things before making their way onto Platform 9 ¾. Hermione was already there, waiting with her parents. She waved when she saw them, and they began to walk over. Ron mentally swore; things were beyond tense between them now. Deciding to get it over with, he met them halfway.
“Mum, Dad, you know Ron,” Hermione said with a stiff smile.
Ron shook their hands and told them how nice it was to see them again, despite feeling the opposite.
Mrs Granger had a pleasant smile on her face, but her eyes were measuring. Mr Granger, however, looked as jolly as father could be.
“Yes. It’s nice to see you again, Ron. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Mr Granger said.
Ron smiled. “Yes, it has.”
“Although now we’re meeting again under entirely different circumstances,” Mrs Granger said with knowing smile. “You’re obviously making quite an impression on our daughter. She always includes something about you in her correspondence.”
Ron looked at Hermione in surprise. Hermione’s face flushed as she gave her mum a weary look. “Mum…”
“Oh dear, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I think it’s very sweet.”
“How are you enjoying your final year, Ron?” Mr Granger asked.
“It’s great. We’re actually having a pretty good year. Hermione here has really whipped the school into shape with the Restoration project,” he said, giving her an appeasing smile.
The Grangers beamed at their daughter proudly as Hermione gave Ron a grateful smile.
“And are you still playing Quidditch?” Mr Granger asked. Ron gave the man a small sympathetic smile, knowing he had never even seen a Quidditch match.
“Yes, I’m a Keeper.”
“And is that what you plan to do after school?” Mrs Granger asked, her eyes probing again.
Ron licked his lips as doubts about his future bubbled like curdled milk in his stomach. He tried to exude self-assurance in his reply, but it came out just as shoddy as he felt about the subject.
“Uh, no, I uh … well, I think I’m going to be an Auror.”
“Auror?” Mrs Granger repeated.
“Wizarding police, Mum,” Hermione said quickly.
“Ah!” both Mrs. and Mr Granger said in unison, giving him approving smiles.
Hermione turned to look at Ron. The unease in which they had parted at the Burrow was transparent through her smile. Ron tried to maintain a cheery, bright expression anyway, although at the moment, it felt plastered to his face like it’d be hexed there with a sticking charm.
Hermione motioned with her head towards Ron’s family. “Mum, Dad, we haven’t said hello to the Weasleys and Harry yet.”
“Oh, right,” Mr Granger said. “Well it was nice seeing you again, Ron.”
“Yes, Mr Granger, same here. Nice seeing you as well, Mrs Granger.”
“It’s always a pleasure, Ron,” she said as Hermione pulled them over to where the rest of Ron’s family stood.
Ron stuffed his hands in his pockets, feeling like an outsider looking in as the Grangers mingled with his family and Harry. It was evident that Hermione didn’t want to interact with him right now, and Ron never was one to be where he wasn’t wanted. His eyes scanned the platform, pausing when he noticed a distinguished-looking woman in a fancy petticoat and gloves. Her blond hair was pulled up beneath a rather expensive looking hat. Ron removed his hands from his pockets and began to make his way over to her.
“Uh, Mrs. Malfoy?”
She appeared distracted and turned around abruptly, as if she’d been expecting an attack. When she saw that it was Ron, her face relaxed and she put her hand over her chest. “Oh, Mr Weasley, hello.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Ron said.
She shook her head and offered a small smile. “It’s quite all right. I seem to startle easily these days.”
Ron frowned, remembering what Nott had said about the Malfoys being regarded as traitors.
“Are you looking for Draco?” she asked.
Ron nodded. “Yeah.”
“Well, he should be along any minute now. He said that he had to tend to some last minute shopping and didn’t need me tagging along. I suppose he’s old enough to do that sort of thing alone now,” she said in a whimsical tone that was betrayed by the sadness in her eyes.
Ron smiled. “He’s lucky you let him go alone. My mum still won’t let me out of her sight for five minutes.”
Mrs Malfoy chuckled, which made Ron feel useful. She seemed to need cheer right now.
“Well, I certainly understand. You boys grow up so very fast. It can be difficult for a mother to accept.”
Ron nodded in understanding and fought the urge to fidget. As surprisingly nice as Mrs Malfoy was, it was still weird to be in her company alone.
He looked around and spied Draco’s white blonde crown.
“Ron?” There was a slight note of surprise in Draco’s voice as he approached.
“Hi, Draco,” Ron said, offering a small smile even though he felt a little creepy. He hoped Draco didn’t think he had been waiting for him or something.
“Oh, Draco, I was beginning to worry,” Mrs. Malfoy said, turning towards him to check his coat.
Draco grimaced as his mother inspected him. “Mother, I was only gone for fifteen minutes at the most. I can shop alone, you know. I’m not a child. “
“Yes, so you’ve told me again and again,” she said, brushing his hair away from his face with a gloved hand.
Ron watched on in amusement as Draco stiffened and tried to endure the public grooming. But soon his icy grey stare turned onto Ron, as if he was the only safe place to retaliate.
“What are you doing over here? Shouldn’t you be taking part in the Weasley Platform love fest?”
“Draco! That’s very rude,” Mrs. Malfoy admonished.
“He’s just joking, Mrs Malfoy,” Ron said with a wry smile. “It took awhile, but I’m starting to get his sense of humour. If you want to call it that.”
Draco began to sneer, and then stopped when he realised his mother was watching him in disapproval.
“Ron!” Ginny called from where she was standing with the others.
Ron looked back to see his entire family, Harry and Hermione included, staring at him, and the Malfoys like Aurors suspecting foul play. Why, he couldn’t tell. Perhaps they wanted to know why he was standing with Draco and his mother, or why Draco and his mother would even want to be in Ron’s company. Either way, it was borderline offensive.
“They’re boarding!” his mum called with a strange, strained smile. Even from this distance, Ron could see her sizing up Mrs Malfoy and Draco.
Ron nodded and turned back around. “I suppose that means we should get going.”
Draco nodded. “Goodbye, Mother.”
“Goodbye, darling,” Mrs Malfoy said, embracing her son tightly. “Please take care of yourself, and write me as soon as you get there. And remember if there are any problems, I want you to owl me immediately.”
“I will,” Draco said.
“I mean it, Draco, ” she said sternly.
“I know,” Draco sighed.
“Mr Weasley,” she said, turning towards Ron. “I trust I can count on you to look after my son. That’s what friends do, correct?” she said. But it sounded more like an order.
“Mum, I don’t need anyone to look after me,” Draco said forcibly.
“Yes, of course, darling,” Mrs Malfoy said in a patronising tone before levelling a meaningful stare at Ron.
“Come on, Ron,” Draco said, already walking away, his face flushed with embarrassment.
Ron nodded, understanding that Mrs Malfoy needed his reassurance, no matter how bizarre it felt to give it to her.
“Take care, Mrs Malfoy,” he said as began to retreat.
“You as well, Mr Weasley.”
As they approached Ron’s family and friends, he cast a sidelong glance to Draco, whose walk had turned into a quick stride. The boy’s nose seemed to lift higher with each step he took.
“I’ll see you back at school,” Draco muttered as he broke from Ron to avoid the Weasley clan.
“All right,” Ron said under his breath before joining his own family. He was grateful that no one asked any questions; instead, they were all looking at him as if trying to decide if he’d been Imperio’d.
After giving everyone farewell hugs, the four of them boarded. As they chose their car, Ron found himself wondering if Draco was still sitting in the back or if he had ventured to sit among his own house.
Not that Draco would have had any trouble finding a seat, Ron noticed. There were many unoccupied cars, much more than at the beginning of the school year.
“Where’s everyone?” Ron asked, looking out of the car into the aisle.
“Must have something to do with all of the bad press Hogwarts is getting,” Ginny said.
“It most certainly is,” Hermione said. “Parvati told me before break that her parents were considering a transfer for her and her sister to Beaubaxtons.”
“Cowards,” Ron muttered.
He turned away from Hermione’s disapproving glare to talk to Harry, who was busy nuzzling Ginny’s ear. Ron rolled his eyes, irritated. It seemed Harry and Ginny were always under each other, kissing, touching, and exchanging sweet talk. They made it look so easy.
He glanced back at Hermione. She looked at Harry and Ginny and then at Ron, who could only offer her an awkward smile. It felt quite false. Hermione must have thought so as well because she didn’t even bother to try and return it. Instead, she simply sighed, and reached into her bag, pulling out a book to read.
Suddenly the car felt very crowded, and Ron wished he could just get up and sit by himself somewhere, maybe even with Draco in the loser’s section. At least there, he knew he wouldn’t feel so alone.
Throughout the train ride and opening feast, Ron noticed a dramatic drop in the temperature —Hermione’s icy silent treatment grew more amplified as the day wore on. She hadn’t even tried to hold his hand, and he certainly wasn’t going to try to hold hers, not after she had made a point of talking to everyone around him, ignoring him completely.
Ron couldn’t figure whether she was still mad about him running out on Christmas, or if it was the suspicion of drug use, or if it was Ron’s new friendship with Malfoy. Perhaps it was all three, not that she’d ever tell him. Hermione was rarely forthright about her anger. As Ron thought on their relationship, heavy weariness set in.
When they finally arrived at Hogwarts, everyone scattered to their respective dorms, unpacked, and then filled the Great Hall to wait for McGonagall’s welcome-back speech. Ron looked over to the Slytherin table and three things stood out right away. Goyle looked absolutely soused; his eyes were droopy, his cheeks were red, and his tie wasn’t even close to his collar. Several seats away, Draco appeared quite uncomfortable, running his hand through his hair and constantly looking to his left. Ron eyes followed the line of sight to where Draco kept looking. Astoria Greengrass had moved her seat. She was now sitting four seats to his left, instead of eight, and her stare was anything but coy or discreet. In fact, she looked as if she was trying to get Draco’s attention. Several seats down, her sister Daphne looked on in disapproval.
Ron smirked and filed the interaction away as something to poke Draco with later just as McGonagall stepped up to the podium. A hush fell over the Great Hall.
“Welcome back, everyone. We are very happy to see all of you. As you may have noticed, a few of your classmates have chosen not to return this term. We know it has been a difficult year for many of you, and we would like all of you to know that we are doing our best to support each and every student in every way we can. In an effort to do a better job of this, St Mungo’s and the Ministry have coordinated efforts to provide several Mind Healers for our students and staff. Starting tomorrow, each and every student and staff member will be required to meet with a Mind Healer for a mental health screening.”
There was a loud collective groan and many complaints, but McGonagall waited it out as the prefects silenced their housemates.
“You will be evaluated for depression, anxiety, and general stress related to the events that took place here last year in order to determine if you need on-going support. Let us embrace this as an opportunity, not a sanction. The first step in healing is recognising that there is a problem. I have the highest hopes that all of you can and will do well this year, and we as staff will do everything in our power to support you in that effort. If you have any questions or concerns about this matter, please see your prefect or Head of House. Now, without further ado, dinner is served.”
Ron barely noticed the food that appeared on the table in front of him. McGonagall’s speech had his head buzzing with warning bells, and he looked all around him to see if everyone else was as equally disturbed by her announcement. But everyone was busy eating or catching up about their break. Ron leaned over to get Harry’s attention.
Harry paused from his conversation with Ginny to look at him. “What?”
“Can you believe McGonagall?”
Harry looked perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“It’s ridiculous! She’s actually making us get our heads examined!” Ron said with a dry chuckle. It sounded rather forced, even to his own ears, but the idea of seeing a Mind Healer really was funny. A genuine laugh spilled out, and he made no effort to conceal it.
Harry, Ginny and Hermione all paused, looking at him strangely, and for the umpteenth time that day, Ron felt completely disconnected from all of them.
“Ah, come on, it is a little funny. I mean, I understand she’s under a lot of pressure, but Mind Healers? It’s a bit much, don’t you think? I thought this was a school, not the Janus Thickey Ward.”
“Ron, that’s not funny,” Hermione said with disapproval. “It think it might do you some good, actually.”
Ron’s smile turned into a sneer. “I don’t need any Mind Healer telling me which way is up. I’m fine. All of us are. This is just McGonagall’s way of making nice with the press and nosy parents.”
“That may be,” Harry said, “but it can’t hurt, mate. I’m sure they’re a lot of people here who want to talk someone.”
“Yeah, well, not me,” Ron said, picking up a roll and taking an angry bite. He hated the way they were looking at him as if they all knew something he didn’t. It took all of his self-control not to just stand up and leave.
After dinner as they were all walking back, Ron decided to take another route. He didn’t even bother making an excuse for catching up with them later. Hermione’s frustration was clear; she paused, as if she was about to say something, but Ron didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t have the energy for another row. They could argue later, so he gave her swift kiss on the cheek to placate her, which garnered a weary sigh. As she turned away, Harry and Ginny continued to watch him.
“See you later, guys,” he said casually as if he didn’t notice their disapproving stares.
It didn’t matter. His craving for his former nightly ritual was overwhelming and beckoned him to walk swiftly towards the Tower. His heartbeat quickened as he got closer; he could practically smell the scent of the herb above.
Fingering the hookah in his robes, he ran up the stairs, expecting to see Draco, but no one was there. So he conjured a chair for himself and removed the hookah from his pocket. There was no more herb left, but the odour of it was strong. He put it to his nose, closed his eyes, and breathed it in.
It was all mental, really. Sniffing an empty hookah, on top of the Tower like a drug fiend. He didn’t really need to, he rationalised. But it was a good way to unwind as any. And Merlin, did he need to unwind with all the flack he was catching from his friends and now this business with Mind Healers invading Hogwarts!
Besides, it was legal, and it made sleeping easier. Ron was absolutely certain no Mind Healer could do that.
“I can’t believe you actually beat me up here,” Draco said, startling Ron.
Ron looked up and smirked. “For a minute there, I thought you might not show.”
Draco chuckled, “I have nowhere else to be.”
“Thanks, I enjoy your company as well,” Ron said smartly.
Draco rolled his eyes. “There you go, being sensitive again ... maybe this will make you feel a little better,” he said, pulling out a satchel of herb and throwing it at Ron’s chest before conjuring up a chair to sit across from him.
Ron licked his lips. “You know me so well.”
They laughed as they loaded and turned their hookahs to light them.
“Can you believe McGonagall?” Ron said between inhaling and exhaling. “Setting up us up with Mind Healers like we’re all bunch of nutters …”
Draco took a long drag and sat back. “Actually, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. It’s obvious some people are having a really hard time this year. Perhaps it will help.”
“Now you sound like Hermione and Harry,” Ron said, shaking his head before taking another hit. Maybe if he sucked hard enough, everyone’s rationalisations about why Mind Healers were a good thing would start to sound funny. Everything always sounded a bit funnier when he smoked.
“Great Salazar, you mean I actually agree with something Granger and Potter said?” Draco asked in mock horror. “I may have to change my opinion on sheer principle.”
Ron chuckled. “Yeah, Hermione is really on this whole mental health kick. She always wants me to talk about my feelings. It’s annoying as hell.”
For a moment, Draco said nothing, and his eyes were cast down when he finally spoke. “Maybe she’s just worried about you,” he said softly.
Ron scoffed. “For what? I’m doing better than most here. I’m not trying to top myself, I’m not constantly hitting the bottle like Goyle, or cutting my skin. I mean, what kind of sick fuck does that? Hell, I don’t even have nightmares or flashbacks anymore.”
“You had flashbacks?” Draco asked, sitting up. “You never told me that.”
Ron swore under his breath, hating that he had let that slip. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have them anymore. Not really.”
“Because of this?” Draco said, raising his hookah.
Ron put his hookah down on his lap. “No, not because of this. I really don’t need this stuff. I only smoke it because it’s relaxing. I was fine before I tried it, and I’d be fine without it.”
Draco gave him a sceptical once over. “Right, you’re perfectly fine.”
“That’s right, I am,” Ron snapped at the sarcasm in Draco’s words.
Draco looked out over the wall as Ron tried to calm down. His whole body was charged like he was gearing up for a fight, which was so ridiculous that it only made him angrier.
Draco didn’t speak for several minutes, but when he did, Ron was blindsided by his question.
“So how are you two doing?”
“You and Granger, genius.”
Ron put on his standard blasé mask. “We’re fine.”
Draco tilted his head. “Is that your answer to everything?”
Ron closed his eyes and exhaled smoke directly into Draco’s face. It was satisfying, at least for a moment. But when the smoke cleared, Draco’s stare was still boring into him, causing Ron to shift in his seat.
“What? What do you want to hear?”
“How about the truth … for once,” Draco replied.
Ron clicked his teeth. The truth. Everyone wanted it, but no one cared how hard it was to tell.
“All right, you want the truth? The bloody truth is … it’s just not working. Me and Hermione are too different. She’s … I don’t know … really into books and … feelings, and I’m not. She’s organised and I’m messy. She knows what she wants to do after school. I don’t. She has buckets of hope for the future of Hogwarts, and I have none. And she takes everything so damned seriously, and I refuse to.”
By the time Ron had finished he was nearly breathless and surprised by his words. They had just rolled off of his tongue so easily. But what wasn’t easy was hearing every thing he’d been thinking about his relationship with Hermione out loud. The truth of it hurt.
“Yeah, but it was working before, right?” Draco probed. “So what changed?”
Ron looked out over the wall. That was the big question. What had changed, or had it always been this way between them, and they chose to simply ignore it?
“Nothing really. I’m not sure if it was ever really working. We actually haven’t been seeing each other that long; we were just friends before. Well, perhaps more than that, but nothing serious like this. This is different. I mean, we’ve always had our differences, but we’ve always been there for each other too. Mostly.”
Ron realised he was rambling and not really answering Draco’s question. He looked back expecting to see confusion, but Draco was listening intently and there was no judgment on his face. It helped, but it didn’t take away the fact that it felt bizarre talking to Draco about this.
“So, what brought you two together?” Draco asked.
“I dunno,” Ron said slowly as he thought on it. “We’ve always had this attraction. Last year … really brought us a lot closer together. To be honest … I actually like that she’s different from me. She’s really smart, and caring, and … she’s good for me. And I think she likes that I’m different from her as well. But, I’m not sure if I’m good for her.”
“Or good enough?”
Malfoy’s words was grating, rousing an old insecurity about being worthy of Hermione. An insecurity Ron thought he had laid to rest.
Ron scowled. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Malfoy!”
Draco held up his hands in peace. “I’m just asking questions.”
“No, what you’re doing is playing Mind Healer on me. Is that your new career goal? Because you’re not very good at it.”
Draco sneered but held his peace, and Ron considered ending the conversation. But getting it all out had felt good, and he was mildly curious about what Draco had to say on the matter.
“Anyway, I think Hermione deserves a good boyfriend. And right now I’m not sure I can be one. I’m not even sure I really know what being her boyfriend means. If it means constantly talking about my feelings and worrying about how what I say and do affects her, then that’s a lot of work. More than it should be, I think.”
“It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.”
Ron bit his lip. Had he? He and Hermione always seemed to miss each other when it came to communication, not that they connected in any other way right now. He had ceased thinking about her sexually, and as their arguments grew more frequent, touching her in an intimate way seemed more and more taboo. Worse still, Ron really had no desire to touch anyone. He didn’t even wank anymore. Sometimes he thought he’d be doing Hermione a favour if he just ended it. It would hurt at first, but the arguments would cease, and so would the pressure.
But the real question was: Was he really ready to completely give up on the idea of being with her?
When a powerful ache pulled at his heart, Ron knew the answer.
He shook his head. “No. I haven’t made up my mind about anything. But I do think she may be getting tired of me.”
In fact, Ron was more sure of it with each passing day. Long before their Christmas row, Hermione’s requests for walks and snogging had all but ceased. What exactly were they still doing together? It made Ron wonder why they had invested so much in their Christmas gifts in the first place. Perhaps they were both hoping that expensive gifts would somehow mend what had been broken.
He glanced up to see Draco studying him, and Ron realised with dawning unease that Draco knew much more about him than Ron knew about Draco.
“And what about you?”
Draco’s eyebrows rose. “What about me?”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
Draco gave Ron an absurd look. “If I were, I certainly wouldn’t be up here with you every night.”
“Well, do you fancy anyone?”
Draco scoffed. “At this school? Please. The girls here are so uncultured … no one is really up to my standards.”
Ron gave Draco a sceptical once-over. “You’re such a liar, Draco. I’ve heard rumours about you. And I know for a fact you used to mess around with Parkinson.”
“That was before … Pansy isn’t here now, and the whole school has gone to shit.”
Ron thought to say that it wasn’t just the school that had gone to shit but also Draco’s reputation. But he was wise enough to bite his tongue before that crack could leave his mouth. He smirked as the perfect opportunity presented itself.
“And what about Greengrass? I’ve seen you looking at her.”
“Daphne? She’s my potions partner, I have to look at her, idiot.”
“No, not Daphne,” Ron said, pointedly.
Draco looked away, taking a long drag before exhaling slowly. “It doesn’t matter. She’s a little girl, that one. Besides, her sister doesn’t approve of me.”
Ron gave Draco a bemused smile. “Since when do you need someone’s approval? If you’re interested, just talk to her.”
Draco narrowed his eyes. “Is Ron Weasley trying to give me advice about how to talk to girls? I’d laugh if I wasn’t sure I'd lose my dinner.”
“I’ll have you know that I know a thing or two about girls.”
“Clearly,” Draco said, with snigger, and Ron couldn’t help but do the same. He really was clueless about girls, but it made him feel much better to know that someone like Draco didn’t seem to have many answers in that department either.
When they finally retired from the Tower, it was quite late, and everyone was asleep, except for Harry. Ron didn’t have to see his best mate clearly to feel Harry’s stare as it followed him through the darkness.
When Ron managed to climb into bed, Harry’s voice was low but firm.
“Where were you?”
“Because I want to know.”
“I was up on the Tower. Happy?” Ron asked, not even bothering to mask his annoyance with Harry’s prying.
“What’s with the nosy questions?”
“Ron, is there something you want to tell me?”
Ron sat up, “No. Is there something you want to ask?”
There was a moment of silence, and Ron hoped Harry had thought better of saying anything else, but he wrong.
“Hermione’s been crying again.”
Ron fell back on the bed, exhaling loudly.
“She thinks you’re hiding something from her.”
“For God’s sake, Harry. I’m not hiding anything. Hermione’s reading into things and overreacting.”
“So what do you and Malfoy do on the Tower every night then?”
“That’s not what she thinks.”
“Of course not. She’s probably already come up with a dozen theories about what we do. You know how she gets.”
“Why can’t you just answer the question, Ron?”
Ron sat back up, his annoyance with Harry quickly turning into anger. He had to ball the covers in his hand as he tried to keep his voice lowered. “Because I don’t have to answer anything. You’re not my bloody father.”
“Save it, Harry. What does it matter to you, anyway? You should be happy I’m out of your hair. You get to snog my sister all you like now without worrying about me.”
“Is that what you think? That I’m glad you’re not around so I can snog Ginny? Because you’re wrong. I miss you. Hermione does too.”
I miss you too, prick. I miss a lot of things, like how the three of us used to do everything together, the way we used to laugh and have fun. But none of that changes the way things are now, does it?
“Harry, it’s late, and I don’t have the energy to talk about this right now.”
“But what about Hermione? I mean, doesn’t it bother you that she’s so upset?”
“Of course it does,” Ron whispered fiercely. “I just … I can’t explain it. You just wouldn’t understand.”
“Listen, I still care about Hermione, all right? I just feel … detached, and not just from her, from everything, really.”
“Well, let us help you then.”
“You can’t!” Ron said, his whisper breaking into his regular speaking voice.
“Shhh,” came a voice from the darkness. It sounded like Dean. “Guys, can you lower your voices?”
“Sorry,” Ron mumbled.
Ron could see Harry watching him, waiting for whatever came next. It was Ron’s move, and he planned to nip this in the bud right here and now.
“Listen, Harry, I appreciate your concern. But I don’t ask about what you do with my sister when you two disappear after practices, so I expect the same courtesy. Goodnight.”
Ron didn’t wait for a reply. He lay down and drew the covers over his head, trying to push away the self-loathing voice whispering what a great friend he was proving to be once again.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
When Monday arrived and they began pulling students out of lessons for their initial Mind Healer session, Ron was quite anxious about whether he would pass the assessment.
Slughorn’s class was boring as usual. The man droned on about all of his most prized Potions students and some of the discoveries they had made until one of the assistants from Pomfrey’s infirmary arrived and handed him a list.
He nodded and read it over. The entire class watched in anticipation.
“All right then, the following people should excuse themselves from class immediately for their mental health assessment: Amanda Dickerson, Hermione Granger, Gregory Goyle, and Ron Weasley,” Slughorn called.
Ron cursed under his breath and glanced back at Draco, who gave him a sympathetic, closed-lip smile. When Ron looked at Hermione, both she and Harry were staring between him and Draco with disdain. Hermione stood up and walked towards the door, and slowly, one by one, those who had been called followed her.
Ron kept his eyes on the back of Hermione’s head, wondering when she was going to turn around and demand for him to walk with her. But she never did. As they approached Pomfrey’s infirmary, a nervous twitch and perspiration began to worry Ron's hands. He stopped as the rest walked on, turning around.
“Ron, where are you going?” Hermione called. “You can't skip out on this; it’s mandatory!”
“I know. I’ll be right back,” Ron called back, running down to the lavatories just to the side of the main hall.
He locked himself in a stall and rummaged through his bag until he found it. Turning the hookah in his hand until it heated up, Ron took several quick puffs until a familiar peace began working its way through his entire body. With his nervous twitch dulled along with his senses, he pulled out his wand and cast the smell-extinguishing charm, checked himself in the mirror, and ran back to the infirmary.
Running while high was a strange experience. Ron’s limbs felt out of sync with his body, and he had the strongest urge to simply take a seat in the hallway and tell Pomfrey just what she could do with her Mind Healers. The picture of Pomfrey’s face at being told off made him giggle, and he laughed all the way to the doors of the infirmary before stopping to collect himself. He was winded, like he had just climbed a hill. When he finally caught his breath, he opened the door.
As he entered, Pomfrey throw him a stern look. “Mr Weasley, you’re late. Where have you been?”
“Sorry, had to run to the loo.”
“I see, well, you’ll be meeting with Healer Gordon,” Pomfrey said, gesturing with her hand to a man behind her. “He’s one of Britain’s top Mind Healers. He’s also a former apprentice of mine, and a Gryffindor,” she added.
Ron eyed the Mind Healer with lethargic appreciation. He was rather tall, and had dark wavy hair and striking blue eyes, the latter of which were not unlike Ron’s. In fact, Ron couldn’t help but think that if he were a girl, he’d probably be squealing for being paired off with such a good-looking bloke. He offered the man a lazy smile. The Healer wasn’t so scary at all, especially with the effect of the herb dimming Ron's anxiety and fears at having his mind probed.
Mr Gordon extended his hand. “Hello, you must be Mr Ron Weasley?”
“Yup,” Ron said, giving the man a firm handshake. That was supposed to communicate confidence, or so he had read somewhere. As much as he tried, though, Ron was unable to control the goofy smile taking over his face. There was nothing funny, but then again, nothing ever needed to be when he was high.
Mr Gordon’s smile remained, but Ron could see him inspecting him, his eyes questioning, perhaps wondering why Ron was so damned happy. That was Ron’s cue to take it down a notch. He immediately stopped smiling.
“Let’s go somewhere a little more private, shall we?” Mr Gordon said.
Ron nodded and followed the man to the far corner of the infirmary where wooden partitions had been set up to create long booths.
As he followed Mr Gordon inside of one, and took a seat across from him, paranoia began to creep in. He quickly raised his arm to wipe his nose, discreetly smelling himself for any lingering odour from the herb. To his relief, there was none.
“So, let’s get right into it. This won’t hurt a bit, I promise,” Mr Gordon said with an easygoing smile.
“Okay,” Ron said, smoothing his hands over his thighs as he prepared himself.
“How are you doing these days, Ron?”
“I’m doing all right.”
“Just all right?” Mr Gordon asked with unassuming eyes.
Ron bit his tongue, taking a moment to think on what approach to take. Although Mr Gordon had a laid-back demeanour, Ron knew the man was studying his every move, from the blink of Ron’s eyes to the placement of his hands. What was Mr Gordon really looking for? Probably someone who was healthy, but not too healthy- that probably would come across as rehearsed. Ron figured he had to appear disturbed by last year’s events, but not too disturbed. He wanted to make sure he would not have to return.
He looked up at the ceiling, and took a deep breath. It was time to play chess.
“Well, honestly, it’s been a pretty rough year,” he said.
“Oh? Tell me more about that.”
“It’s just … hard, coming back. So much happened last year and this year, and a lot of people are really having a rough time of it.”
“Yes, I can imagine it would be difficult. Are you having, as you say, ‘a rough time of it’ as well?”
Ron shrugged. “Not really. I’ve been doing what I can to help everyone else. But all you can do is listen. I wish I could do more. “
“Hmm, it sounds like you’re doing your best to stay strong for others.”
Ron nodded. “Yeah, I suppose I am. Makes me feel useful.”
“And that’s commendable, Ron. But staying strong for others takes a lot of energy. How do you feel about what happened here last year?”
Ron swallowed. This was it. It was time to put on his best show ever, or else he’d wind up here every week like the rest of the weaklings who couldn’t cut it.
He dropped his eyes and began to twiddle his thumbs together. “Well, I have a lot of different feelings about it all. I uh...well, I lost my brother, Fred, in the Battle of Hogwarts.”
Just uttering his brother’s name stirred something deep within Ron that threatened to choke off the rest of his speech. He closed his eyes, caught off-guard by the genuine sadness that swept through him.
“It’s all right, do you need a moment?”
Ron took another breath and forced his eyes open, shaking his head slowly. “No, I’ll be fine. It’s just hard to talk about. “
“I understand. And I’m very sorry for your loss. That must have been very difficult for you.”
Ron nodded. “Yeah.”
“So, how have you been coping with the loss of your brother?”
Ron sighed. “It’s been hard. It was a rough summer, but … I think I’m finally coming to terms with it all.”
“You know, Ron, the grieving process can be quite long and there are different stages, and not everyone experiences them the same way. So tell me, have you noticed any dramatic changes in your mood? Are you experiencing sadness, anger, numbness, sometimes all in the same day?”
“Yeah, sometimes,” Ron said. “But whenever I start feeling like that, I think, what did Fred die for? He would have wanted me to go on living, and be happy. It’s hard to do, but thinking about him keeps me going. It makes me want live a better life.”
The healer’s eyes were glassy, as if he had been deeply affected by what Ron said, and it took everything Ron had not to smirk back. It wasn’t as if he was totally lying, but these people were too easy.
“It sounds as if you’re very determined to stay positive.”
Ron gave him a small smile. “It helps.”
Mr Gordon wrote something else down. “Ron, I know you said you want to be strong for your friends, but have you noticed any changes in your relationships with them?”
“Like what?” Ron threw back at him.
“Well, sometimes when people go through something difficult, especially something as traumatic as a war or losing a loved one, they may withdraw or find themselves lashing out at others. Would you say you’ve maintained the same level of engagement with the people closest to you? Or have you noticed yourself taking a step back and spending more time alone?”
Ron looked at the Mind Healer in confusion. “No way. I need my friends, now more than ever. If anything, I’d say we’ve grown closer.”
Mr Gordon nodded, scribbling once more. “That sounds great, Ron. Now, what about your studies here? Have you noticed any change in your focus or level of concentration? Do you ever find yourself daydreaming, or tuning out?”
“Sometimes, but I did that before …”
Mr Gordon chuckled. “Fair enough. What about your daily habits, such as sleeping and eating? Have you been getting enough rest? Are you eating properly?”
“Yeah, I love meals; those are my favourite times of the day. And as far as sleep … I mean, sometimes I have a nightmare or two, but not often.”
“And when you have these nightmares, what are they about?”
Ron shrugged. “I can never remember.”
“Have you ever had a nightmare or sudden vision of something unpleasant while you were awake?”
“They’re called flashbacks. It’s a common occurrence in veterans of war.”
“Oh. No, nothing like that has ever happened to me. I hope it never does. I think I’d freak out.”
“Well, there’s no rule of thumb for survivors of war. You may go the rest of your life without experiencing one, but if you do happen to have one, you should know that it’s perfectly normal. Now Ron, I need to ask you something very important. I don’t want to alarm you, but we’re here because there have been some concerns for the safety of the students. Have you ever thought about hurting yourself or someone else?”
Ron shook his head. “Nah. Well, maybe if you count that murdering bastard Rookwood who killed my brother. But he’s at large, isn’t he? So I can’t bloody well get my hands on him at the moment.”
The Healer smiled a little and nodded. “That’s very true. It sounds like you’re dealing with things the best way you can, and that you’re a great support for others as well.”
“I do what I can,” Ron said trying his best to sound earnest and not arrogant.
“It seems like you have a good head on your shoulders, young man.”
“Thank you, I really appreciate you and the others coming down to look after us. I’ve been worried about my classmates.”
“Anyone in particular?”
Ron looked up at the ceiling, feigning contemplation. “No, no one specifically, but it’s just a general mood. Like there’s this heavy cloud hanging over the school. It’s hard to tell how people are really taking things, you know?”
“Yes, we do. That’s why we’re here.”
Ron nodded, giving him an approving smile. Relieved that the assessment seemed to be at an end, he clapped his hands and began to rise.
“Ah, just one more question, Ron.”
“Yeah?” Ron asked, slowly taking his seat again.
“We’re finding that many students here are attempting to self -medicate. That is to say, they are trying to treat symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks, depression and anxiety by themselves. Have you ever used alcohol, drugs, potions, or other substances to make yourself feel better or as a sleeping aid?”
Ron laughed. He hoped it didn’t sound as nervous to Mr Gordon as it did to his own ears. “No. I don’t even know where I would get my hands on stuff like that. I mean I’ve had a drink or two. But that was just during hols. Oh, and one time last term when someone spiked the punch after a game.”
“And no other substances?”
Ron shook his head.
“Very well, well thank you for coming in, Ron. We’ll be in contact if necessary. And you’re always welcome to drop by, should you need to talk.”
“Sure,” Ron said.
Mr Gordon took his hand once more and shook it, rising with Ron. The man’s smile was kind enough, but his eyes were still measuring, searching in a way that made Ron feel self-conscious. He gave the man one last quick smile and headed out of the booth.
The door to the infirmary may as well have been at the first goal post of the Quidditch pitch, it seemed so far away. As Ron walked away from Mr Gordon, he couldn’t escape the feeling that the man had seen through his act and was scribbling down prescriptive notes suggesting he be transferred to a real loony bin. The thought of waiting for Hermione to get out of her assessment briefly crossed Ron's mind, but as his paranoia grew, staying around the infirmary seemed more and more like a bad idea. Just making it to the door without speaking to anyone else or having anyone stop him was much more important right now.
When he finally broke through the door, it was all Ron could do not to run. He considered going back to class, but on his way, many classroom doors flew open as students spilled out into the hallways. Ron slowed down his pace, happy to see the people around him engaged in their conversations and moving about without giving him a second glance. With any hope at all, he could get through the rest of the school year in the same way.
Only a few bricks remained unsettled on the East Wing, and the ivy Draco had imbued there had begun to take root in the newly-mortared cracks, its young vines hanging in fragile tendrils against the stone. These days, the group spent more time chatting and marvelling at their creation than actually working. They were nearly done, but no one was in a rush to finish. For Ron, time spent in the group was very much like the time he spent atop the Tower with Draco. There was no pressure, no bad vibes-- it had become an escape, one that offered rare moments of hope and familiarity of what Hogwarts could be and what it once was.
As they all sat near the edge of the wall, sprawled out and talking amongst themselves, Ron leaned back on his hands and looked around. A Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were sitting across from two Slytherins, all laughing over some inside joke. Behind them a Gryffindor and Ravenclaw were engaged in a serious but courteous debate about the new Ministry and post-war politics surrounding the use of Dementors, while a Gryffindor and Hufflepuff watched on. And then there was Ron and Draco. They sat slightly apart from the group on the fringes. Every once in a while someone would pull them into the conversation, but mostly the duo was left alone to sit in comfortable silence, watching, listening, and occasionally working.
Suddenly there was a bustle of movement, and Ron was jarred out of his quiet observations. The group scrambled to their feet, many extending their wands to face the wall like they were busy working. Ron looked up to see Hermione approaching, her eyebrows drawn together in discontent.
“What’s going on over here?”
Several of the students looked at each other as if they had no idea of what Hermione was talking about.
“We’re working,” replied one Ravenclaw.
“Now you’re working. Just a second ago, I observed all of you lounging about. And some of you still are," she said, looking down at both Ron and Draco, who exchanged an amused smile and then struggled to their feet.
“Sorry, Hermione, we were just taking a break,” Ron explained.
“I see,” she said, looking between him and Draco. “I suppose this means your group is close to finishing its task?”
“Actually, yes, that’s exactly what it means, Granger,” Draco said.
Hermione looked genuinely surprised. “Oh, really?”
“Yes, take a look for yourself,” Draco said, motioning his head towards the wall.
Hermione gave Draco an once over, glanced at Ron and she pushed between them to walk towards the wall.
The students parted to give her room, watching in thick silence as she conducted a thorough inspection.
“The colouring, it’s different. It doesn’t match the rest of the castle,” Hermione said with disapproval.
“Yes, it’s much brighter,” said one of the Hufflepuff girls. “We decided to go with a lighter grey that compliments the old stones of the castle, but stands out as distinctly new. It’s really lovely when the sun hits it.”
“Hmm, all right,” Hermione said sceptically. She turned around and leaned over the wall. They all heard her gasp in surprise, and Ron tensed as he waited for her to turn around.
Please let her like the ivy. Please let her like the ivy.
He glanced sidelong at Draco and saw that the boy was the very picture of cool, save for his tightened jaw.
Hermione turned around. “Whose idea was it to cover the bricks with ivy?”
All eyes turned to Draco, and Ron watched as Hermione's face transformed from one of authority to surprise. “I see. Well, Malfoy… I must say, ivy on the stones was a rather brilliant idea. It looks wonderful.”
“Thank you,” Draco said as his eyes swept the entire group. Ron smirked. He could tell that Draco was enjoying this small moment, and Ron himself felt a measure of pride on behalf of his friend.
“And when do you think the wall will be ready for viewing?” Hermione asked.
The group looked around, giving scattered shrugs. They hadn’t even discussed a final date.
“I’d say we’ll be finished by the end of next week,” Draco said with confidence.
They all looked back at Draco in surprise, and then slowly, everyone in the group nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, next Friday sounds good,” said one of the Gryffindor boys.
“Who made you team captain?” Ron asked, giving Draco a playful smirk.
Draco scrunched his face up at Ron. “Jealous, Weasley? Don’t hate me because I have the bollocks to take initiative.”
“Bollocks? Is that what you call it? And here I was thinking it was your deluded ego at work.”
Draco’s lips curled into a snarl and Ron delivered a playful punch to the boy’s arm, prompting Draco to punch Ron back in the chest. Ron snorted.
Hermione was staring between him and Draco so contemptuously that it put Ron to shame. For what, he wasn’t sure, but there was no mistaking the accusation in her glare.
Draco looked away awkwardly, and Hermione forced a smile as she looked at other members of the group.
“Congratulations, everyone. It’s obvious that you all have been working very hard. I applaud you for your teamwork and contribution to this project,” Hermione said with a pleased smile. However, it quickly faded at she made her way back towards Ron and Draco.
Ron put on a cheerful face. “So you really like it, then?”
“It’s great,” she said dryly, shooting Draco a suspicious glance. She turned her eyes back to Ron. “May I have a word?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Ron said, glancing back at Draco before following Hermione around the corner.
As they walked to an adjacent corridor in awkward silence, Ron tried to peek at Hermione from out of the corner of his eyes, gauging what kind of mood she was in. When she was in a bad mood, he found it best to just nod and agree to everything rather than prolong an argument.
But Hermione appeared pensive and sad this time, not angry.
Finally, she stopped in the middle of the hallway; it was completely deserted.
“What is it, Hermione?” Ron asked anxiously. She had him all alone—getting out of this, whatever it was, wouldn’t be easy.
“How have you been, Ron?”
Ron stared at her in dumbfounded confusion. “Uh, I’m fine … how are you?”
Hermione sighed. “Not so good. I was up half the night … thinking …”
“Oh? What about?”
“Ron, is there something you want to tell me?” Hermione asked.
Hermione folded her arms over her chest as one eyebrow rose in silent demand.
Ron glanced around. “You’re going to have to clue me in this time, Hermione, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Hermione rolled her eyes and looked past Ron’s shoulder. “Is Malfoy the reason why you’ve been pushing me away?”
Ron sighed. “Hermione, I’m not pushing you away.”
“Right. You’re just always picking fights with me and disappearing most evenings. Haven’t you heard the rumours? Or do you even care?”
A slowly rising dread was snaking its way through Ron’s belly, making his mouth go dry. He coughed, “What rumours?”
“Oh Ron, sometimes you’re so oblivious. Everyone is talking. And you and Malfoy aren’t exactly making it hard to believe.”
“Everyone is talking about what, Hermione?” Ron demanded.
Hermione huffed. “You and Malfoy! The way you two sneak off in the evenings, how you’re always sticking up for him. The way you stare at him, and —“
“What? I don’t stare at him.”
“You don’t even realise how much you watch him, do you? I’ve caught you myself! It’s like you’re infatuated or something.”
“What? I’m not the only one who’s noticed. In fact, I’ve had to defend you twice now.”
“To who? Who’s saying all of this rubbish?”
“Ron, it doesn’t matter. Enough people believe it.”
“Hermione,” he chuckled, trying to demonstrate just how ridiculous the rumour sounded, even though it was anything but funny. “Come on, you can’t be serious? Me and Malfoy? I’m not even gay! And I’m not pushing you away either, we’re just having a few problems. We’ll work it out.”
“And how are we supposed to do that, Ron? You can’t even stand being around me for more than ten minutes.“
“That’s not true.”
“Actions speak louder than words. Even if you don’t fancy Malfoy, it’s just as well. You spend more time with him than you do with me, your girlfriend, and that doesn’t bode well for us.”
When her eyes dropped and she began to bite her lip, Ron’s throat constricted, and his entire body went as rigid as drum. For the first time in a long time, he noticed how delicate and smooth Hermione's skin was, her long lashes, and the way her soft curls perfectly framed her face. She was beautiful, and he was … screwed in the head to have messed this up. Inside his head, a voice screamed for him to say or do something before Hermione could speak another word. Ron already knew what was on her mind; he could feel it in the pit of his stomach.
“Things are so different now. I mean … before, we used to argue a lot, but it was more … fun, you know? I mean, you’ve always been able to say or do things that infuriate me and annoy me to no end,” she said with a sad smile.
“Gee, thanks,” Ron said in a lame effort to inject sarcastic humour.
Hermione closed her eyes and sighed. “That’s not what I meant. Before, it was just childish. I actually enjoyed some of it. I liked the way you challenged me, and our fights were just … silly really. More of a game.”
“Yeah,” Ron said, trying not to wince as he waited for her next words.
“But now … it’s like you’re a different person. We don’t bicker; we really argue, if we talk at all. I hardly ever see you now. And when I do, we don’t really talk.”
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t really have anything to talk about,” Ron said, shuffling his feet.
“How about what’s bothering you? What keeps you awake at night? Why smoking marijuana makes you feel better? How you’re feeling … that would be a good start.”
Ron stood looking at her in surprise. She had actually said the word ‘marijuana’ out loud. He felt dirty and small and it was a struggle to maintain eye contact with her. But Hermione’s eyes were imploring, pleading, and he could see a glassy sheen that told him this was it—if he wanted to save whatever hope they had for a relationship, he had to lay it out on the line right here. But how could he when he spent so much time trying to block out the very things she wanted to know?
He opened his mouth, hoping the words would just pour out, but nothing came. Suddenly the hallway felt too open, and he could practically feel every portrait on every wall staring down at them, waiting for him to bear his heart and soul so that they could laugh and call him a coward.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Hermione, listen, we’re both kind of wound up right now. Let’s take some time to cool down and talk about this a little later?”
“No, Ron. Later is now. This is exactly what I’m talking about. You never want to talk to me. You don’t want to do anything with me.”
“Hermione, just calm down, all right? I’m still the same bloke. I’m sorry I can’t be such a Romeo like Harry … I’m just me …”
“That’s just it, Ron—you’re not the same boy I fell in love with. I don’t know you anymore. And I certainly don’t understand why you’re always so angry, and what Malfoy is giving you that I can’t.”
“So that’s what this is about, then? You're jealous of Draco.”
“No, Ron! This is about us … about the way you speak to me, or don’t speak to me, actually. It's about the way you act as if it’s a chore to hold my hand or kiss me. Do you know how that makes me feel?”
Ron looked down at his shoes, unable to hold Hermione’s tearful gaze. If only he could tell her he didn’t want it to be a chore, that something inside of him was broken … but the only thing that came out was a feeble ‘sorry.’
“I am too,” she said. “I think …”
Closing his eyes, Ron braced himself for her to finish.
“I think we need some space. Perhaps we should … break up and think things over a bit more.”
Ron forced himself to look at her. There was a tear sliding down her left cheek, and he wanted to reach out and wipe it away, but he didn’t feel he had the right to even touch her right now.
“If that’s what you want,” he said softly.
“I think that’s what’s best,” Hermione said, her voice choking on tears. The urge to reach out and pull her close was strong, but Ron’s nerve wasn’t. He stood there, petrified by shock and sadness until finally Hermione tore her eyes away from his and turned to walk down the hall, taking all of Ron’s air with her.
The evening of the breakup Ron skipped dinner as well as his nightly meeting with Draco, opting to stay within the temporary shelter of his bed instead. For a few hours he found reprieve from the questions, whispers, and stares he knew would be waiting for him in the Common Room.
I have to pull it together, he kept telling himself. But every moment spent under the covers was a painful reminder that he was, in fact, falling apart.
Alone, he was left to replay how he had mucked things up with the only girl he’d ever loved and his best friend.
Ron curled into himself, half wishing the duvet would smother him, or at least make him pass out. But without the benefit of the herb to dull his senses, the darkness and silence courted every disturbing feeling he’d been trying to block out.
You’re not the same boy I fell in love with … I don’t know you anymore.
He hadn’t seen Hermione cry like that since the funerals.
Everyone had cried at the funerals, especially Fred’s. Everyone but Ron. Even then, he’d suspected something was wrong with him. That maybe whatever innate lever that made people cry was broken inside him. Perhaps he had even been unknowingly cursed …or damned.
Shutting his eyes tight, Ron tried to silence the voice of self-loathing whispering to him and invoking memories of inhaling a steady stream. He always knew when the herb’s magic was taking hold, because in those moments, Ron always felt a little more normal. And then there was the laughter. The hearty, liberating, soul-healing laughter that always came after exhaling. It felt so good and authentic that sometimes he wondered whether if it was drug induced at all, or merely some side effect from being in Draco’s company.
Just thinking of Draco ushered in a fresh tide of guilt mingled with sadness. He would be waiting on top of the Tower tonight, wondering if and when Ron would show up. And Ron didn’t have the heart to tell him ‘never’. Nor did he have the courage to tell Draco why.
It wasn’t that Ron was ashamed of being labelled ‘gay’; at least, that’s what he told himself. But if people actually believed him to be gay, then that would make Ron look like a liar, and Hermione a fool.
Ron shook his head as he thought of the poor bastard. With the rumour mill going, Draco was in for a new wave of taunts and bullying, perhaps worse than before. And as much as Ron wanted to shield the boy from the coming tide of derision, he wasn’t sure he could be strong for anyone right now.
Besides, Draco wasn’t really a friend. They didn’t share any deep dark secrets, and they hadn’t endured any real trials together. He was just a boy Ron smoked grass with. They were associates, at best. Besides, would Draco stand by Ron if the situation were reversed? Probably not.
That’s what Ron kept telling himself over and over again as he lay awake, trying to will himself into his first night of sober sleep.
The next morning, Ron woke up tangled in his sheets, soaking wet, with half of his body hanging off of the bed and through his curtain. When he tried to untwist himself from the knot, he landed on the floor with a huge thump.
His dorm mates gathered around, looking down at him with concern.
“Ron, are you all right?” Neville asked.
“Uh, yeah, I’m fine,” Ron said as he hoisted himself back on the bed.
“What are you doing twisted out of your bed like that?” Seamus asked.
Wet, sore, and confused, Ron shut his eyes and sighed. “I don’t know. Slept wrong … I suppose.”
Harry gave him a small, pitying headshake and turned away, and Ron was grateful that the others followed suit. He quickly untangled himself, climbed out of bed, straightened and folded the wet sheets, and then crawled right back into bed and drew his curtain. Feigning sleep, he waited for Neville, Dean, Seamus, and Harry to finish dressing and leave.
Only Harry didn’t. Ron grimaced as he peeked out to see his best mate fumbling with his clothing. He was taking forever to get sorted out. As Ron lay there, trying to wait Harry out, he contemplated skipping breakfast all together, but his stomach wasn’t having it. Pangs of hunger rippled inside his belly.
Looking over once more, Ron saw Harry smoothing out the corners of his bed. Harry never made his bed. That’s when Ron knew his best mate had no intention of leaving the room without him.
But Ron couldn’t move. As he lay there in bed, staring at the back of Harry’s tousled head, he couldn’t fathom how he was going to get through the day. How could he ever face Hermione again?
Finally, Harry turned around.
“Ron, you can’t hide up here forever. You have to eat.”
Ron’s stomach loudly concurred, forcing him to move. With the effort of one pushing a large stone, he put one leg on the floor and then the other.
All the while Harry watched him. “Don’t worry, I’ll wait.”
Gratitude and guilt swelled so full within Ron, his chest began to ache. Harry was still here, even after Ron had pushed him away, even after he’d told his friend where to stick his advice.
“Harry … I—”
“I know,” Harry said with a slight smirk. “Just hurry up, all right? I’m starving.”
Ron nodded quickly, trying to blink away the sudden flurry of dust irritating his eyes, making them water.
When they entered the Great Hall, it was like a wireless radio going dead. The volume decreased sharply, and the chatter became hushed whispers as eyes followed Ron to his seat. As always, Harry took his seat beside Ginny. Ron paused when he came upon the empty chair that had come to be his own. It was directly across from Harry and right beside Hermione.
“Good morning, Harry,” Hermione said in a more formal tone than usual.
“Good morning, Hermione,” Harry said, glancing up at Ron before motioning for his friend to take his seat.
But Ron couldn’t move. He swallowed as his eyes rested on Hermione’s head until finally she looked up at him, offering a small, pained smile. “Good morning, Ron.”
Ron glanced up at Harry and Ginny, the latter watching him stiffly with a thin frown on her face.
“Good morning, Hermione,” Ron said slowly as he took his seat.
“Hi, Ron,” Ginny said with a stiff smile.
“Hi, Gin,” Ron said, glancing to his side at Hermione, who was watching him out of the corner of her eyes.
“So, er, Ginny, how’s Runes coming?” she said in an unsteady voice.
Ginny sighed. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. I’m pants when it comes to the Thurisaz variations.”
Ginny’s voice faded, playing like background music to a scene out of one of those Muggle picture shows Hermione used to take him to see— with Ron in the starring role. Only he wasn’t prepared. He didn’t know his lines or what came next. For a moment, Ron just stared at his plate. But the camera was still rolling, and he knew there were people watching. So he picked up his fork and began going through the motions of eating, even though his appetite had completely vanished. He began to notice ridiculous things like the consistency of his food and how long it took for the minute hand to move on the great clock on the wall, which was a lot longer than he remembered. Trying to eat as if everything was normal while he sat next to his ex-girlfriend was hard, so Ron was grateful when Harry tried to engage him in safe conversation about Quidditch.
He glanced up briefly to look past Harry and find Draco, only the boy’s seat was unoccupied. It was probably for the best. Ron didn’t need to see another person he had let down.
A few chairs away, Goyle sat with his face laying down on the table, like he was in deep slumber. A few younger Slytherins sniggered and pointed as some older Slytherins artfully decorated his head with fruit until finally the prefect came along, sending them all scattering. The prefect jostled Goyle awake, ordering him to rise and come with him. Ron shook his head in pity and then noticed a pair of eyes on him.
Astoria Greengrass was staring right at him.
Do you know where Draco is?
At least that’s what Ron imagined her eyes were asking. Perhaps she wanted to know something else, like whether Draco was really gay or not. It didn’t matter what the question was. Ron couldn’t help her, so he quickly returned his gaze to his plate where it was safe.
The following week was more bizarre than any drug haze Ron had ever experienced. Withdrawals from his nightly smokes with Draco had made his nightmares more memorable than they had ever been. Now, Ron not only remembered his dreams, but they were lucid, haunting him with such vivid and horrid detail that it often left him lying in bed, afraid to close his eyes. When the morning came, he’d awake in a frazzled state, having hardly slept.
Meals were the worst. Formerly his favourite time of the day, now Ron’s stomach knotted every time he had to take a seat beside Hermione. He kept quiet mostly, giving a polite but quick hello. Harry and Ginny tried to make things more normal by keeping the mindless chatter going, but if anything, it only emphasised just how abnormal things had become.
Most of the time, Ron tried to keep his eyes on Harry or his plate. But sometimes he’d catch Draco staring at him, and guilt would wash over him like a hot shower, leaving him flushed with shame.
Ron quickly learned to inhale his food. Afterward he’d make an excuse to leave, getting as far away from Hermione and Draco as possible.
But some things were unavoidable. On top of the rumours about his illicit affair with Draco, the news that Hermione had broken things off had added gasoline to fire. The ridicule and public suspicion he’d endured alongside Harry in second and fifth year paled in comparison. Back then, the focus had been on Harry, but this time, Ron was at the centre. Wherever he went, every sidelong glance was like a pointed finger, and the whispers followed until they became a constant buzz in his ear. It seemed like the entire castle was talking about him. He’d gone from a war-hero to a freak in a matter of a few days.
And if there was any doubt, Scott and his cronies stamped it out any time Ron was within earshot and without Harry by his side.
‘Hey, Weasley, where’s your boyfriend?’
‘Are you two meeting on the tower of love tonight?’
‘I wonder who the taker is … Weasley or Malfoy?’
‘Malfoy!’ they’d say with a resounding confidence before breaking into laughter.
Ron tried to ignore it, realising his temper had been partially to blame for this mess. Still, the taunts and knowing smiles made his blood boil, and it took every bit of willpower not to hex the offending troublemakers.
By Friday, he was so on edge that he could hardly concentrate on his reading, so when a gentle hand fell on his shoulder, he jumped and drew out his wand.
Harry’s eyes went wide as he held up his hands in surrender. “Whoa, I come in peace, I swear.”
Ron relaxed a little as Harry took a seat across from him in the library.
“How are you doing?”
Ron gave Harry an energetic ‘I’m fine’, but Harry’s eyes were sceptical.
Ron sighed in defeat. “All right, I feel like troll dung. I’m sure you’ve heard the things people have been saying …”
Harry nodded as he threaded his fingers together. “I’ve given a fair share of them a piece of my mind about that. I don’t think Scott and his friends will be bothering you again. “
Ron sat back, giving his friend a small appreciative smile. But Harry wasn’t smiling.
“Ron, I don’t know what was going on between you and Malfoy, but … I do know that whatever it was, it seemed to make you happy. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad about being around him. I was just concerned.”
Ron shook his head. “I know. But you and Hermione were right—I was acting like a git. It was all rather shady, really. Sneaking off all the time like that, not telling anyone anything … that’s not how you treat your friends. I would have thought the same if I were in your shoes. I mean, it is Draco Malfoy.”
Harry chuckled and Ron tried to smile, despite the pang in his heart from his tongue’s betrayal. There was so much more to Draco than what Harry knew.
Harry’s smile faded quickly as he leaned in with a grave expression. “Were you really doing drugs?”
Ron narrowed his eyes, and looked around self-consciously, his paranoia flaring once more. “What? Who told you that?”
Harry raised his eyebrow in reply.
Exposed, Ron’s eyes dropped to the table, only now noticing the ‘Slytherins Stink’ carved in the wood.
Ron put his head in his hands.
“Yes,” he reluctantly admitted. “But it’s not like the stuff is illegal. It's just grass. And Draco said that in wizarding high society, it’s a perfectly legitimate way to relax.”
Harry stared back at Ron in disbelief. “Malfoy said that, did he? If it’s so legitimate, why did you two have to sneak about to do it?”
Ron ground his teeth, knowing there was no justified reply.
“Hermione thinks you were hooked on it … that you probably still are.”
“Well, she’s wrong,” Ron whispered fiercely. “I haven’t had any all week. And anyway, what if I had? It helped me sleep. I didn’t hear any complaints from you or the rest when I was doing it. I’m not saying it’s all right to do all the time, but it’s not as bad as Hermione thinks. She just wouldn’t understand.”
Harry shifted in his seat, an awkward look of contrition crossing his face. “I’m sorry about you and Hermione.”
“Don’t be. It’s my fault, isn’t it? I mean, there’s no way around it. I really messed up this time. She deserves better,” Ron said with weariness.
Harry studied him for a moment. “Ron, I know you’re blaming yourself, but I think this is bigger than you. Other people are having problems too. You don’t even know the half of it.”
His curiosity piqued, Ron raised an eyebrow. “I don’t?”
Harry looked around and his voice dropped a level as he spoke. “You remember that cutter they were talking about in Hufflepuff?”
“No … no way!”
“It’s true. Neville found her nearly passed out by the lake. She'd almost cut an artery. Apparently she’s been doing it since the end of last year.”
“Merlin,” Ron said.
“And that’s not all. Hermione says she knows for a fact that there have been three suicide attempts this year, not two like they’re reporting. She also said she overhead McGonagall talking to the Heads of House about someone having a fit a few weeks ago.”
“Panic attack or something. She didn’t hear a name, but she said that they were discussing a girl who’d been discovered one night running around the castle completely starkers, screaming about one of the Carrows coming to get her.”
Ron covered his mouth in shock.
“And Ginny said that she knows at least three girls in our house who are either starving themselves or eating and vomiting it back up.”
Ron grimaced. “What the hell is going on?”
Harry sighed. “I’m not sure, but it seems everyone is struggling to deal with what happened last year in their own way… even Ginny…”
Ron froze, panic rising. “What about Ginny?”
Harry bit his lip. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.”
"Harry, she’s my sister."
“You have to promise not to say anything.”
Ron steeled himself for whatever Harry had to reveal. “All right.”
Harry’s eyebrows furrowed as he looked down at his hands. “Well, she’s been having a hard time… coping with Fred’s death. She has these crying spells and trouble sleeping.”
Ron wrinkled his face. “Funny, she never told me that. How is it that you more about my sister than I do?” he asked bitterly.
“Well it’s not like you’d ever given her a chance to tell you. You change the subject anytime something like that comes up. “
“Maybe because talking 'bout stuff like that doesn’t make anyone feel better,” Ron said snippily.
“Neither does trying to ignore it,” Harry replied.
“Oh yeah? Seems to be working for you. You look like you’re having a bloody great time this year,” Ron said, hating the accusatory tone in his voice.
A dark shadow crossed Harry’s face, immediately making Ron regret his words.
“You have no idea what I’m going through. And do you know why? Because you’re never around. You don’t even ask.”
A lump formed in Ron’s throat, rendering him completely mute as Harry continued.
“You want to know my secret? Why I look so damned happy all the time? Huh? Because I don’t have a choice! Everyone is watching me. If I even so much as frown for more than five minutes, it’s news. People see me as some sort of beacon of hope. When they look at me, they want reassurance that it’s really over, that they can go back to being normal. Whatever the hell that means! I don’t even think I’ve ever known what normal is. All I know is that I don’t get to wallow in self-pity now, at least not in front of anyone. Because if I don’t have hope, then what’s that say about what we fought for?”
Harry’s words hit Ron like a ton of bricks. The weight of his friend’s burden made his own struggle seem minuscule.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” he said. “I had no idea you’ve been feeling like this… It doesn’t seem fair. You shouldn’t have to be a beacon of hope or whatever.”
“Life isn’t fair, Ron. But that’s beside the point. I want you to know that just because I look fine, doesn’t mean I am. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about someone we lost. Sometimes the only thing that gets me through the day is Ginny.” Harry paused, a curious smile appearing on his face. “Come to think of it, maybe she’s my drug. I just hope she doesn’t get sick of me.”
A small snort escaped Ron. “I doubt that’ll ever happen. She loves you.”
The ache of regret and sadness returned as Ron realised what Harry and Ginny had and what he had let slip away.
“She’ll come back, Ron,” Harry said softly.
“I doubt it,” Ron said.
“Well, that all depends on you, mate,” Harry said. “She really does love you, but … she loves herself too.”
Ron nodded. “I know.”
“If you really want her back, you have to show her you’re serious.”
“And how do you propose I do that?” Ron asked before rolling his eyes. “Hold on, I know—I bet you want me walk myself down to the infirmary and make an appointment with one of those Mind Healers?”
Harry threw up his hands. “Yeah, why not? That’s what they’re here for. And if you don’t want to do that, then you have us. But you’re going to have to talk to someone eventually because you can’t just keep it all bottled up inside.”
Ron looked away; he was getting tired of this song and dance, but he couldn't think of anything that would dissuade Harry.
“Ron, I understand what you’re going through.”
Ron’s head snapped back, and he couldn’t help but glare. “No, you don’t, Harry. You said it yourself, you have Ginny. I don’t have anyone. Even when I had Hermione, I couldn’t talk to her. Not about this.”
“How about me?”
Ron shook his head, hating the invisible wall sitting between him and his best friend. But it was still all he had. If Harry managed to break through it, Ron didn’t know what else would crumble, and he couldn’t risk it.
“No offence, Harry, but … I can’t.”
Harry sighed in resignation. “I don’t know what else to do, then.”
“There’s nothing to do, Harry. It’s just something I have to sort out on my own,” Ron said wearily as he reclined, staring back at his friend. There was no more to be said on the topic. They had reached a stalemate.
“Well I’ll be here if you want some help,” Harry said. “And … well, I can’t really speak for Hermione, I know things with her are complicated right now, but I think she feels the same.”
“Thanks, good to know,” Ron said stiffly.
Harry’s face lifted a little as he forced a small smile. “So, what are you doing after this? I was thinking we could have a fly.”
“I have Restoration group,” Ron replied.
Harry nodded, rapping his fist on the table as he stood up. “Right. Well, perhaps later, then?”
“Yeah, sure,” Ron tried to say casually. When Harry left, Ron kept his eyes glued to his book while his mind replayed Harry’s words again.
Ron took his time walking to Restoration group. He was in no rush to see Draco or face the others. Undoubtedly, the rumours had already infected the group, and every little interaction would be scrutinised for clues that could confirm that he and Draco were lovers.
As he walked, his thoughts wandered once more from the rumours to what Harry had told him. Was everyone really trapped in their own private hell? If so, then why were some people able to hide it so much better than others? Did that make them stronger?
He stopped as he neared the opening of the hallway leading to the infirmary. The white double doors with the clouded glass showed nothing.
‘Go on’, a voice whispered. It wasn’t the self-loathing one he had grown used to—this one was different; it was tired and fatigued from pretending to be strong.
‘Because you’re not strong. You’re weak and pathetic. Go on, and get your head examined, you little freak,’ said the voice of self-loathing.
Ron closed his eyes. “I’m really losing my mind.”
When he opened them again, he had stepped a little closer to the infirmary, but then he stopped once more.
What would Healer Gordon say? Would he have a knowing smile, having already seen through Ron’s charade? Or would he be shocked and disappointed that Ron had played him for a fool?
Suddenly, the doors opened and a waifish-looking brunette Slytherin girl came out. Her eyes were puffy and red, and as she approached Ron, her head bowed slightly in deference. It made his stomach turn.
Through the swinging doors, he caught a glimpse of Healer Gordon. He hoped the man hadn’t seen him. Ron turned around quickly and began walking.
Ron slowly turned around. Healer Gordon was standing just outside the doors of the infirmary, a small smile on his handsome face.
“Oh, hi there, Healer Gordon. How’s it going?”
“Pretty good. Were you coming in?”
Ron shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no. I ... uh ... I have Restoration group to get to.”
“I see,” Healer Gordon said, sounding a little disappointed. “Well, do drop by sometime. We could even have a tea in the Great Hall if you like.”
“A tea?” Ron asked, bewildered.
Healer Gordon chuckled. “Yes. Just a chat. It doesn’t have to be anything heavy. Just a check in, to see how things are going.”
Ron stared back at him, his self-consciousness returning. Had Hermione, Harry, or Ginny said something about him in their assessment? Because he was certain Gordon knew something. He had to.
“Listen, I’m not suggesting you need a chat,” Mr Gordon said quickly. “It’s just that I have a lot of free time on my hands, and I enjoyed talking to you the other day.”
“Right, well, maybe I will … drop by sometime.”
“Great. I look forward to it,” Healer Gordon said cheerily before disappearing behind the doors once more.
Ron exhaled, wondering if he would ever take the man up on the offer.
In Restoration group, things weren’t quite as bad as Ron had imagined. People were still goofing off, chatting, and working at their leisure, paying little regard to him or Draco. However, Ron noticed that Draco was much more subdued. He only spoke when spoken to, and Ron tried to stay out of his way. But that wasn’t hard since Draco kept a fair amount of distance between himself and everyone else. Still, Ron couldn’t help sneaking glances, but Draco seemed intent not to look at him, busying himself with various tasks.
But just when Ron had resigned not to look at Draco anymore, concentrating on the wall in front of him, he felt Draco’s eyes on him. He whirled back around, trying to catch the boy in the act. Draco made no effort to hide his gaze. His haughty grey glare barely masked the strain of stress and sadness. There were bags under his eyes, just as dark as before they started smoking together, and Ron could see the end of a long scratch peeking out just above his collar. Ron realised he’d been staring too long when he heard whispering around him.
He looked around, and sure enough, eyes darted and the whispering ceased as the other Restoration group members tried to appear as if they hadn’t just been gawking at him and Draco.
When Ron looked back, Draco's back was already turned, busying himself with the final touches on the ivy.
Ron tried his best not to look at Draco again, but there was so much he wanted to say—but he wasn’t sure how, or even what he’d actually say if he had the chance.
I’m sorry for ditching you.
I’m not mad at you, or anything … I actually think you’re pretty cool.
Draco, I just want you to know that I’m not avoiding you.
Only that would have been a lie.
Ron stood there, thinking of what he should say, if anything at all, when the sound of shuffling feet pulled him from his thoughts.
He blinked and saw no one looking back at him. Everyone was leaving, and Draco was gone. Ron began to run, searching for the familiar crown of pale blond hair.
“Draco,” he tried to call without shouting too loudly.
Draco continued to walk down the hall without missing a beat in his pace until Ron finally caught up with him.
He pressed his luck, reaching out to grab the boy’s sleeve. Draco yanked his arm back, his eyes full of contempt.
“Don’t. Touch. Me,” he said in a steely voice.
Ron was taken aback by the pure hatred and anger he saw in Draco’s face.
“I just wanted to —”
“What? Make some pathetic excuse for why you no longer come around? Save it, Weasley, I already know why.”
Ron shook his head. “No, you don’t. It’s … complicated.”
“No, Weasley, actually, it’s really quite simple. You’re a coward. And all the medals in the world won’t change that. It’s no wonder you can’t sleep at night. If I were you, I wouldn’t be able to sleep with myself either.”
Ron clamped down on his anger as he gritted out his next words. “Oh yeah? Well, if I’m such a coward, then why did I spend most of the year sticking up for you then?”
Draco’s dry, humourless laugh told Ron that he’d given the boy another opportunity to cut him down.
“Don’t act as if you did me any favours,” Draco said. “You did that for yourself. You’re still trying to prove you’re really a hero, only no one believes it. Least of all, you. Just stay away from me, Weasley. I’d rather get my head kicked in again than get help from you.”
Draco’s words struck Ron like a Stinging hex. The sheer brutality of the truth rendered him speechless, and before he could even think of a response, Draco turned on his heel and walked away.
When The Dam Breaks
Looking back, Ron should have known Saturday was going to be a bad day. Of course, it was always easier to look back and see the telltale signs of an approaching disaster. But if he were to be honest with himself, the signs had been there all along in bold, flashing, fluorescent lights. A dark cloud was hovering over Hogwarts, its unstable and combustible energy slowly infecting everyone inside of it.
But as Ron recalled the days leading up to the day everything changed, he realised he had been too consumed by his own pain and suffering to see anyone else’s.
And apparently, he hadn’t been the only one.
After Friday’s confrontation with Draco, Ron was given the fun task of explaining to Hermione why their Restoration project had to be delayed another week. The truth was no one on his team really wanted the project to end. Restoration group filled a need they hadn’t realised they’d been craving — peace. It was a safe space where House loyalties and the past didn’t really mean much. All that mattered was rebuilding the wall, and the camaraderie they shared while working (and not working) on it.
But that was hardly a proper excuse, so they had sent Ron to deliver Hermione a better one.
“Hey, Hermione, the group wanted to know if we could get a week’s extension. There was an unexpected snag in weather proofing the magical binding. We want to make sure the wall is properly secured from top to bottom,” he said.
“Sure, Ron, another week is fine,” Hermione replied. “In fact, tell them to take two or three if they need it.”
Ron’s eyes popped in response to her cavalier reply. Hermione laughed at his reaction. It was so light and genuine that it made him ache not to be able to wrap his arms around her and laugh with her in that moment. He stuffed his hands in his pockets instead, giving her a grateful smile.
“Your group really impressed me the other day,” Hermione said. “They’re so far ahead of everyone else, except for the Tower group, of course. But that group didn’t have nearly as much work as the rest.”
Ron nodded and began to fidget. Simple polite conversation and exits were never easy with Hermione these days.
Hermione’s relaxed demeanour quickly changed to discomfort. Her eyes began to wander as she chewed on her bottom lip. “So…how have you been?”
“I’m fine,” Ron said quickly.
“Right,” she said with disappointment in her eyes.
Ron mentally kicked himself. ‘I’m fine’ was a dead giveaway that he was anything but fine, and nothing had changed.
“Well, good luck in tomorrow’s game,” she offered.
“I, uh, I have to go and check on the other groups,” she said hurriedly.
“OK, well, talk to you later, then.”
She nodded and quickly moved on, leaving Ron standing alone, cursing himself.
The night before a Quidditch match was always a bit rowdy, but that evening at dinner, the energy at the Gryffindor table was downright explosive.
They were chanting, and singing songs of victory as if they had already won the upcoming match against Slytherin while the rest of the house tables watched on.
The prefects and Heads of Houses monitored the Gryffindor table and the rest of the Great Hall with silent trepidation. The energy in the room was charged, and it felt like anything had the potential to happen, especially since some of the Gryffindors seemed hell-bent on shaking the Slytherins’ morale.
“Oi, incoming!” shouted a fifth year Gryffindor as a line of rolls levitated and propelled forward towards the Slytherins.
A collective gasp broke when the rolls were deflected and ricocheted off of the invisible ward surrounding the Slytherin table, landing right back on top of the heads and shoulders of the Gryffindors who had thrown them.
Several Slytherins smiled, looking elated with their brief victory, but they were quickly silenced when the offending Gryffindors rose from their seats, wands drawn.
“Hold on! There’ll be no duels in the Great Hall,” shouted one of the prefects. “Save it for the field tomorrow.”
Ron glanced at the Slytherin table, and saw several smug smirks. Inwardly, Ron felt like smirking with them. Perhaps things were finally turning around.
He was wrong.
The following morning at breakfast the Gryffindor team sat together, going over team plays before heading out to the pitch to warm up. Once again, the Great Hall was alive with anticipation and energy of team rivalry.
Scott and his friends seemed to be at the heart of it all. Ron rolled his eyes at their show of bravado, and then froze when Scott stood up on his seat and let out a loud roar. The eighth years at the table all turned their heads in surprise when most of the Gryffindors at the table roared back.
Ron and Harry exchanged a bewildered look.
“What the hell was that?” Ron asked.
“I suppose it’s the new Gryffindor call,” Demelza Robins said with a shrug.
“It’s rather loud isn’t it?” Ron asked.
“Just like everything we do this year,“ Harry said wearily.
After the roar, several Gryffindors stood on their seats like Scott, while others perched themselves on the table to sit facing the Slytherin table.
Many of the students at the other house tables appeared taken aback by the Gryffindors' aggressive show of prowess. Some appeared to be intimidated by their presence, while the rest looked rather annoyed, but too hesitant to say anything.
“Are people afraid of us?” Harry asked in concern.
“Why would they be afraid of us?” Alicia Spinnet asked. “We’re a pretty harmless bunch.”
Some of us are.
Ron held back the retort as he glanced back at Scott once more.
A whisper spread along the Slytherin table. Soon several Slytherins were either sitting up rigid and glaring back at the Gryffindors, or they had risen and taken the same position as the Gryffindors, standing on their chairs or perched on the table, their faces defiant, determined not to cower.
Wands were drawn on both sides, in preparation for a full-on fight, while the rest of the Great Hall looked on.
Ron noticed that Draco was one of the few that seemed unaffected by the rising tide of Slytherin defiance and solidarity. He actually looked rather bored. Astoria had moved three seats closer to sit near him, and was now openly staring. Draco returned her gaze a few times, but without a smile or flirty eyes. That didn’t seem to deter her though, and Ron found himself admiring her boldness and persistence.
Goyle was absent. Ron didn’t know why he noticed Goyle’s absence, but he did, and he couldn't help but wonder if the bloke was passed out somewhere. For all of the interference from Mind Healers and prefects, no one seemed to really care whether Goyle was there or not.
Looking around, Ron was struck at how contentious the Great Hall had become. Never before had the tension that pervaded the castle throughout the year been so close to the surface, threatening to erupt and unleash all of the anger and resentment that had been festering for far too long.
Suddenly McGonagall’s voice rang out, enhanced by a Sonorous spell. “Everyone will take their seats and put away their wands, immediately. If you do not comply, you will not be able to attend today’s Quidditch match, and you will face more severe consequences.”
The Gryffindors and Slytherins slowly put away their wands and returned to their seats, while maintaining hateful glares at one another.
“I never thought it could get this bad,” Ron murmured.
“Me either,” Harry replied.
The prefects and Head of Houses converged in the middle aisle separating Gryffindor and Slytherin, pacing as they watched the students with a warning in their eyes.
And that was just the start of the day…
The game was just what Ron needed, without the benefit of the herb to dull his senses, he felt more charged than ever and he channelled all of his frustration into beating back Quaffles. But with adrenaline running high and the crowd going mad beneath him, the players became increasingly aggressive and at times, combative. The Gryffindors were using every opportunity they could to assault and intimidate the Slytherins, while the Slytherins seemed determined to fight back, getting in as many licks as they could in retaliation for all of the crap they had been dealt throughout the year. Ron himself got an elbow to the nose and a Bludger to the arm, and had to restrain himself from rushing to the aid of Ginny and Harry who were taking a fair amount of hits.
“You’re attacking the wrong ones, arseholes,” Ron grumbled, wishing his more troublesome housemates were up here taking the brunt.
A Chaser flew past his peripheral vision and threw the Quaffle with such surprising speed that it made Ron tilt sideways in anticipation. He quickly got over his momentary awe, and flew just enough to the right to knock it right back at the Chaser, sending her backwards.
The crowd beneath him went wild, and Ron pumped his fist in the air, enjoying the triumphant feeling rushing through him. Harry nodded in approval. Consumed by the glory of his moment, it wasn’t until moments later that Ron noticed the cheering had died, and the crowd in the stands had gathered around someone below.
All of the players flew down to the field and dismounted. Ron followed, trying to edge his way through, to see what was going on.
There was a lot of chatter and, if Ron wasn’t mistaken, some crying.
A woman’s voice, someone with authority that Ron couldn’t see, ordered everyone to return to their seats until further notice, and slowly, they all did.
But the look on several peoples' faces told Ron that something terrible had occurred. He searched among his teammates to find the answer.
“What happened?” he asked Harry, who looked dumbfounded.
“Not really sure, but Ginny said she heard someone say Goyle tried to off himself.”
“Goyle?” Ron repeated.
“Yeah,” Harry replied.
Ron immediately scanned the stands, looking for Draco, but he was nowhere to be found. He glanced up at the hills, and sure enough, a lone tall gangly figure with pale hair was making his way up to the castle.
A brief consideration about what people would say if he went chasing after Draco held Ron in place, but then he thought of Draco and what he must be going through. As much as Draco claimed to not need people, there weren’t many people at Hogwarts that really knew him, and Goyle had been among that few—even if they no longer hung out.
A small voice whispered for Ron to catch up to Draco, and sod anyone who had anything to say about it.
“Ron, where are you going?” yelled Ginny.
Ron didn’t even reply as he quickly made his way off the pitch and up the hill. When he finally caught up, Draco’s face was a stone mask and he didn’t acknowledge Ron’s presence. Still, Ron fell in line with his steps, staying silent as they made their way up towards the entranceway.
There was a flurry of activity above, the bustling of Pomfrey’s assistants, Head of houses, and Mind Healers from what Ron could tell. Ron’s eyes followed the movement and anxiety began to rise as he realised all of the traffic was occurring on the seventh floor, where the Room of Requirement was located. Draco turned right to take the stairs, and Ron followed him, waiting for the boy to turn around at any minute to tell him to get lost.
But that moment never came; in fact, Draco seemed to appreciate Ron’s presence, glancing back a few times as if to make sure he was still there. Relief and consternation warred within Ron as the stairs shifted from the fourth floor to the seventh floor. He was glad Draco didn’t mind him following, but he was scared to see what exactly had happened to Goyle. What if the boy had succeeded in killing himself, what then? Why was this even allowed to happen? Goyle should have been sent home a long time ago. Everyone knew he had a problem.
As they neared the top of the stairs, a sweat broke on Ron’s brow. They got off on the seventh floor and followed the movement, passing Gryffindor’s common room door and rounding the corner to enter the hallway that led to the Room of Requirement. Two Mind Healers ran past them, and then Ron stopped, immobilised as he stood staring at the gaping hole in the wall where the Room of Requirement’s hidden door should have been. Someone had blasted it open.
One of Pomfrey’s assistants came out of the hole, shouting orders to two girls coming up from behind Ron and Draco. Ron tried to breath regularly as the anxiety that had gripped him before became full-blown panic. He could feel his lungs struggling to move air, and his whole body shivered as sweat began to wet his underclothing.
He stared at Draco’s back as the boy continued to walk on. But Ron was rooted to the floor, his eyes fixed on that gaping hole. The smell of burning things began to fill his nose and mouth, making it even harder to breathe, and then it happened.
The Fiendfyre he’d been running from in his dreams since last year was waiting right there, in front of him. Ron shook his head in denial and then shut his eyes, but when he opened them again, the vision was closer. Whether it was waking nightmare or real didn’t matter because it was as high as the ceiling and ten times hotter than the sun on the pitch.
Only his feet wouldn’t move, and the Fiendfyre was sliding towards him like a fiery serpent ready to strike, its flames consuming the walls around it. Heavy smoke began to smother Ron, blinding his vision and making his eyes water.
He coughed, choking on the fumes.
Someone was calling his name, but he couldn’t identify the voice. The smoke muted everything, making it difficult to distinguish a male’s voice from a female’s. It didn’t matter, Ron was certain that either Harry or Hermione had somehow followed him and were trapped up here with him. Only this time, he had no broom, there was nowhere to run, and his legs were useless.
He couldn’t help them, he couldn’t even help himself - the fire was too big.
“I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” Ron began to repeat over and over.
“How about just putting one foot in front of the other? Don’t get cold feet on me now.”
That voice didn’t belong to Harry or Hermione. The smoke began to dissipate as the vision of Fiendfyre slid back and dimmed. In its midst stood a familiar figure with pale blond hair.
Draco’s face was pinched and frightened, his grey eyes desperate. “Are you coming or not?”
Clutching his hand into a fist, Ron watches as the Fiendfyre moved further behind Draco, fading slowly into nothing. The smoke thinned even more, until it vanished completely. But the charred smell remained.
Ron took a big gulp and did just as Draco said—he put one foot in front of the other, and began to walk forward.
Draco waited until Ron reached him to give him a curt nod. They walked shoulder to shoulder towards the gaping hole in the wall.
The burning smell grew stronger, and through the hole, Ron could see people gathered around in a tight huddle around someone. There were legs and feet splayed on the floor, and then Ron heard Draco say, “Oh no. No, no, no.”
Draco rushed forward, breaking into the circle.
“Get him out of here!” shouted one of the assistants.
Ron looked around for Healer Gordon, but he wasn’t there.
“Malfoy, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to leave,” said Professor Flitwick.
“Greg!” Draco shouted as he wrestled with one of the assistants.
“Mr Weasley, please take Mr Malfoy, and leave,” begged Pomfrey from her position on the floor.
Ron tried to grab Draco by the arm, but was rebuffed as Draco pushed off the assistant to kneel beside next to Goyle.
Ron flinched as Draco let out a loud sob that reverberated throughout the room. Time came to a standstill as they all listened to his anguished cries.
“Greg, what did you do? What did you do to yourself?” Draco cried.
Ron clenched his teeth and pushed himself to lean forward and take a look. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. Goyle was laid out on the floor with a strange protective translucent cloud of magic covering his head. The entire left side of his face was unrecognisable: his left eye appeared glued shut, and the skin around it was charred black in places, in other places the remaining flesh was raised in grotesque flesh bubbles, and where there wasn’t any skin, the blood vessels and jawbone were exposed. Goyle’s right eye, his one good eye, was wide open and looking up at Draco as drool slid from the unscarred left corner of his mouth.
“What did you do?” Draco repeated.
Ron jumped when an arm fell on his shoulder. He looked back to see McGonagall staring up with an uncharacteristically troubled expression. “Mr Weasley, please,” she whispered.
Still in shock, Ron nodded and turned back to look down at Draco as he bent over to nudge him to stand.
Draco shook his head, and took Goyle’s right hand into his and began to sob freely.
It was too much— the sound of the carefully composed and aloof Draco Malfoy openly crying in front of everyone, Goyle’s exposed scalp, disfigured face, singed clothing, and that one perfectly intact eye staring up at them. Ron’s masks of apathy and strength seemed inadequate against the rising tide of despair welling up within him, and he could feel the last vestiges of his resilience giving way. Something huge was stirring inside of him, something he had been holding down ever since the war had ended, and whatever it was, he was sure it was big enough to destroy him from the inside out. He couldn’t let it out.
So he ran.
When everyone came back from the pitch, Ron was held up in his dorm room, the cover drawn over him. Harry cautiously walked over to his bedside and reached inside the curtain, pulling the duvet back.
Ron stared up at his friend, unable to speak.
“What happened? Did you find out what happened to Goyle?”
Ron nodded mutely.
“Is he… dead?”
Ron shook his head, hoping Harry wouldn’t press for any more.
Harry opened his mouth, but then looked back at Ron’s face and closed it.
They watched as the rest of their dorm mates cleared out, throwing curious glances their way.
When everyone were gone, Harry turned back to face Ron. “Everyone’s going down for dinner. Care to join us?”
Ron grimaced, hating the thought of having to be near anyone right now, knowing what he knew. The weight of all that he had seen and heard was still pressing down on him, threatening to crush him. He felt like he could break any minute now, but he also knew that staying in his room meant drawing more attention to himself, more questions, and whispers.
“Okay,” he croaked, slowly rising.
When they arrived in the Great Hall, Ron’s eyes immediately searched out the Slytherin table. Draco was absent, but so was Astoria. He raised his eyebrows at that, and followed Harry to their seats. There were many whispers as his classmates boldly stared up in his face.
Ron gave away nothing, keeping his eyes on Harry’s back as they moved.
He took a seat beside Hermione, who looked at him with a worried expression.
“Ron, are you all right?”
His defences weakened, Ron didn’t have the strength to lie. “No. No, I’m not. I feel rather shitty, actually.”
Hermione’s eyes went wide with surprise, and she immediately covered his hand with her own.
“Is there anything I can do?”
Ron tried to offer her a small smile, grateful that she still cared. “Not right now. Maybe later…”
Hermione nodded, her eyes, becoming glassy with tears. “All right. Just let me know when.”
I need you now.
Ron nodded and quickly looked away, willing the voice to be quiet.
Both Harry and Ginny were watching him closely with worried expressions.
“I just need to eat, guys, really,” he reassured. They all nodded and began to dig in.
As he ate, Ron looked around the Great Hall. There was a heavy sombre mood at every table, especially at Slytherin, where virtually no conversation was taking place.
So when the sound of sniggering and jeers erupted at Gryffindor table, it stood out like laughter at a funeral.
Ron turned his head to glare at the middle of the table, where several Gryffindors were chuckling and slapping hands.
“What’s so damn funny?” Ron asked loudly.
“Something stupid, I’m sure,” Harry said, glancing at the offending jesters sternly.
Ron couldn’t take his eyes off of them; even if they weren’t laughing about anything of consequence, it seemed very disrespectful in light of what had just occurred.
“Ron, just ignore them,” Hermione urged, returning her hand to his. “They’re just being immature gits.”
Ron shook his head. “This is has to stop.”
Harry sighed. “There’s no talking to them. We tried. If we give them any more attention, they’ll just get louder.”
But then Scott began to speak, and the centre of the table drew in closer to listen. A chorus of low ‘oooo’s’ and laughter followed, spreading from the middle to the end of the table. Ron didn’t hear the joke, but he did hear people repeating snippets: ‘Goyle’, ‘lard’, and ‘grease fire’.
The stirring of emotions that had begun in the Room of Requirement was back, only stronger. Ron could feel a gathering storm brewing inside of him, a growing funnel of anger and frustration. He stood up and walked towards the centre of the Gryffindor table, disregarding the calls from his friends for him to come back.
He stopped right at Scott’s seat, staring down at the boy’s head. The laughter slowly subsided as everyone around Scott stared up at Ron in silent apprehension.
Scott slowly turned around, his eyes hard and daring.
“Excuse me, Scott, what did you just say?” Ron asked.
“Inside joke, Weasley, you wouldn’t get it.”
“Try me,” Ron said through gritted teeth.
Scott slowly stood up, and Ron saw the Gryffindor prefect rise with him from the left. She was watching them closely.
“I don’t have to repeat it.”
“Maybe you’re just too scared to repeat it,” Ron challenged. “Because you know it was wrong to say in the first place.”
Scott’s eyes shifted to the prefect and then around to his friends before he looked back at Ron with a determined look in his eyes.
“I’m not scared. You want me to repeat it? Fine. I was trying to spare the feelings of some people in the room, but since you want to make a scene, I’ll repeat it. I said, ‘Goyle must really be stupid to have tried to kill himself by fire. Everyone knows that when you set a tub of lard to flame, it takes forever to burn.’”
The vision of Scott’s bloodied face flashed before Ron’s eyes. He could use a nose breaking hex or a simple punch in the mouth, but what would that prove, and what would it lead to? It had to end here.
Ron took a step back, and Scott smirked in victory.
“Do you think that’s funny?”
“Yeah, and so do a lot of other people here,” Scott said.
Ron looked around at the Gryffindor table.
“You think that’s funny, Natalie?”
The sixth year brunette girl blushed and looked down at her plate in disgrace.
“The thought of Goyle burning himself alive make you laugh, Andrew?” Ron asked a fresh-faced fourth year. The boy looked to his side, his cheeks flushed.
“And how about you, Dennis? Since when do you think death is funny? Your brother died here.”
“That’s right, he did,” Dennis Creavey said angrily. “Because of scum like Goyle. If he’s not dead already, I hope he dies.”
There were several gasps among the Slytherins, and an overwhelming sadness filled Ron as he looked at Dennis. Pain and bitterness stared back at him.
“So Slytherin is to blame for Colin’s death, then?”
“What about everyone who died last year?” Ron interrupted, looking around the Great Hall. “Is anyone in this room responsible for killing them?”
“Nice try, Weasley,” Scott said. “but everyone knows that last year wouldn’t have happened at all if Slytherin had never existed. You name any dark wizard, and nine times out of ten, they came from Slytherin, including the Dark Lord himself.”
“Not only that, but you weren’t here last year, Ron,” said Amanda, a fifth year Gryffindor. “Slytherins didn’t treat us any better than they’re being treated this year.”
“There you go,” Scott said to a group of agreeing voices.
“So that makes it right?” Ron asked.
“It makes it fair,” Dennis said. “What comes around goes around.”
There were a handful of affirming murmurs and head nods.
“And what about next year?” Ron asked. “Whose turn will it be then?”
The students stared up at him, but no one answered.
“When will you be even? Do you think Goyle dying will make up for your brother’s death?” he asked Dennis. “Hmm? You think it’s going to bring back mine?”
Dennis seemed to be battling about how to respond, his eyes focused on the table before him.
“It won’t, I promise you that,” Ron said to Scott. “You want to put Slytherin in their place, make them pay for last year, but when does it end?”
Scott looked around, his face tight with frustration, but he didn’t reply.
“Right. That’s what I thought,” Ron said. “It’ll never end, because if it’s not us attacking them, then they’ll be attacking us for what we did this year. It’ll just keep going on and on.”
Ron glanced up front, where the staff table was located. McGonagall was standing, her eyes focused on him. Ron looked back at his friends and sister, who seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for him to finish.
Every student and staff member was watching him with rapt attention, and for the once in his life, Ron didn’t feel self-conscious. He had something to say, and he had to get it off his chest.
“Listen, what happened here last year happened because one group of people decided that another group was inferior. They said, ‘we’re better than them, and if you don’t agree with us, then you’re scum just like they are’. You tell me how this is any different. No one here is superior. We’re not better than Slytherin, we’re not even better than an Death Eater if we think someone’s life isn’t worth anything just because of what House they belong to. That’s not what we fought for, that’s not what my brother died for, it’s not who we are.”
He swallowed and considered sitting down, but then more words began pushing their way over his tongue.
"And another thing: Draco Malfoy is my friend. Sure, he’s made a lot of mistakes, but so have some of you. But he’s not a bad bloke, and he doesn’t deserve getting the shit kicked out of him.”
Someone from the professors’ table loudly cleared their throat.
"Sorry, I meant, he doesn’t deserve getting attacked. Perhaps if everyone took more time to get to know someone before judging them, we’d find we have a lot more in common than we thought. Try it, you might be surprised. Oh yeah, and before you start another nasty rumour, let’s get something else straight. Just because Draco and I hang out, doesn’t make him my secret lover. I may have messed things up with Hermione, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still in love with her."
By the time he was finished, Ron could barely catch his breath. The words seemed to have come out of nowhere, but he knew better. As he stood there, looking at the shamed and confused faces of his classmates, he could feel the funnel inside of him spinning out of control, threatening to tear away the fragile wall holding him together.
He turned to exit before any more cracks could form, but not before catching Hermione’s tear-filled eyes.
Outside the Great Hall, Ron walked with determination, only he had nowhere to go, and he hoped to Merlin no one followed him. He couldn’t talk anymore, he could barely think. He went to the only place he knew he’d find solace. As he took the winding narrow staircase of the Tower, the nostalgia of smoking told hold of him, so that once he reached the top, he was licking his dry mouth, wishing he could.
He stopped abruptly as Draco’s back came into view. There was a petite blond girl standing next to him. She turned around, locking eyes with Ron, and then whispered something to Draco.
Draco nodded, and she rubbed his arm and raised herself on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek before turning to leave.
As Astoria approached, she gave Ron a small smile.
He tried to smile back, but it felt more like a grimace. He listened as she descended the stairs, his eyes on Draco’s back.
Guilt and shame for running away earlier kept him from saying anything or moving for several minutes.
“Are you just going to stand there like a statue all night?” Draco asked.
Slowly, Ron walked over to the ledge where Draco had both of his arms extended, leaning over.
Ron looked down at the depth of the fall below, and then glanced back at Draco.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to jump or anything like that.”
A snort escaped Ron. “I never thought that for one second, you’re too full of yourself.”
Draco turned to him, his face streaked like it had been recently washed, and his grey eyes, blood shot as one who had been crying.
Ron’s smile disappeared, and he had to brace himself not to look away. “I’m sorry I deserted you… again.”
“It’s all right. I understand why you left,” Draco said. “Besides, I didn’t even notice you were gone until they dragged me away.”
“They dragged you away?” Ron asked.
Draco nodded, a small embarrassed smile on his face.
Ron took a deep breath. “What then?”
Draco sighed. “Then they gave me some Calming Draught, and kept me under observation for over an hour.”
Ron gripped the ledge, trying to find the right words to ask his next question. “So how’s… how’s Goyle?”
Draco took a ragged breath, his eyes focused on the field. “He really messed himself up. They said he cast an ‘Incendio’ on himself, only he didn’t point it straight at his heart like he was supposed to. The tip of his wand must have been off, that’s why only his left side was so badly burnt. That probably saved his life. That, and his screaming. They said one of the Heads of Houses was doing a final sweep of the castle when he saw Greg fall out of the door of the Room of Requirement. He was screaming and on fire. When he disappeared back inside, they had to blast through the door to put him out.”
Draco closed his eyes. Ron watched him, waiting for him to break down again. But he didn’t. When he opened his eyes again, one tear escaped, sliding down his cheek.
“He can’t talk. He’s barely conscious, and they don’t know if he’ll make it. They sedated him and transferred him to St. Mungo’s."
“He’ll get the best care there,” Ron said reassuringly. It felt lame, but it was all he could offer.
“You know what the really fucked up part of it is?” Draco asked.
Ron shook his head.
“I understand why he did it. I bet he was tired. Tired of the nightmares, tired of the shame, tired of being less than nobody. He probably wanted to put an end to it all so he could join Vincent. And do you know why I know that?”
Ron held his breath.
“Because sometimes, I wish you hadn’t saved me that day. Sometimes I think everything would be much easier if I had just died. I wouldn’t have to deal with my mum being lonely, or my dad being in prison. I wouldn’t have to remember, or… feel…"
Ron swallowed, trying to hold it together as Draco's words seeped in, widening the cracks in the wall that was barely holding the avalanche of feelings raging inside of him.
Draco turned to face Ron. “I should have been there for Greg. He didn’t have anyone, and I… I abandoned him. I was wrong to call you a coward the other day, Ron. I was being a hypocrite. I was really talking about myself, about the way I treated Greg. I couldn’t even look at him. Every time I saw him, I thought of Vincent, and the fire, and everything I’ve ever done that I can’t take back.”
Ron closed his eyes against the well of sadness and regret spilling over, pushing tears into his eyes. He couldn’t…not here, not now, not in front of Draco.
“I know how hard it was for you to go in that room today.”
Ron furrowed his brow, his sadness giving way to anger. Was Draco trying to make him cry? Push him into some sort of confessional?
Stepping to the left, Ron put more distance between them.
“No, stop. Stop it. I know what you’re trying to do,” Ron said angrily.
“I’m not trying to do anything other than to tell you how brave I thought you were for coming with me today.”
Ron kept his eyes on the field below, trying to focus on his anger, hoping it would reinforce the crumbling wall and keep the other emotions at bay.
“Right. You’re just trying to get me to pour my heart out. You’re probably embarrassed that I saw you crying, and you think that if you get me to talk about it, I’ll start crying too, and then I can’t hold it against you.”
Draco didn’t reply, and Ron found the silence even more troubling than his question. He looked up to see Draco watching him.
“Isn’t that right?” Ron demanded.
Draco shook his head slowly. “No, that never crossed my mind. Why would you hold that against me?”
Ron narrowed his eyes. “You know why! Because crying is…something that weak people do!”
“Is that what you think I am?” Draco asked, his eyes reflecting apprehension.
Ron paused, momentarily confused by Draco’s response and question. “No, I’m just saying….crying is…well it’s seen as weak, by some people.”
Draco stepped closer as Ron watched him warily, his body tense.
“Is that why you can’t talk about it?” Draco asked. “Because you’re scared? You think— no, you know that talking about it is going to make you cry, don’t you?”
Ron shook his head in denial as the dam began to crack a little more.
Draco gave Ron the tiniest of smiles. “You know, I used to think that crying was something weak people did too. Until two years ago, when the Dark Lord threatened to kill my entire family if I didn’t kill Dumbledore. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, and I really didn’t want to. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, except for Moaning Myrtle. She cries all the time. It’s rather annoying really, but now I understand why she does it… It feels good. Especially when you can’t talk, when you want to rip everything inside of you out, and tell someone what you’re going through, but you can’t put it into words. Or you’re not allowed to… Crying is the easy part, Ron. It doesn’t make you weak, sometimes, it can even make you feel stronger."
Ron tightened his face, holding himself rigid as Draco stepped closer.
“Don’t,” he warned.
When Draco stepped even closer, almost touching him, Ron pushed back at his chest, hard. “I said stop it! You can’t make me,” his voice giving out on the last syllable, cracking just like the wall inside.
“It’s all right, Ron,” Draco pressed, moving forward again. “You were almost killed, probably a countless number of times. You lost friends. You lost your brother. You’re allowed to cry.”
The heavy feeling of loss and sadness was rushing back and forth like a gigantic wave, rearing up to crash over and through the dam. It wasn’t just about what Ron had lost, or almost lost. It was all of the things he had never told Fred, like how much he loved him, or just how funny he thought his brother was. If only he could apologise for taking him for granted, for not spending more time with him when he could.
A low and steady drum hummed in Ron’s ears. It could have been his heartbeat, but it sounded more like a breaking levee. He curled his fingers into a fist, trying to hold steady as the storm broke through the wall and his remaining strength gave way. Everything inside him shook and his knees went weak, but someone was there to catch him—Draco’s arms were wrapped around him. Ron held on as the dam completely caved in. And for the next half hour, Ron Weasley did something he hadn’t done in nearly two years—he cried.
After the Storm
Ron didn’t know exactly how long he’d spent crying in Draco’s arms, but by the end, after the tears were gone and there was nothing left but dry sobs, he felt loads better, and a little silly as well. In fact, Ron found it hard separating from Draco, not because he enjoyed being held by the boy, but because he really didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness that was sure to follow. While he knew Draco wouldn’t cut him down, Ron also knew that things would be different now, and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that.
When he finally pulled back, Draco’s arm and shoulder were soaked, and his hard grey eyes were soft with understanding.
“You all right?”
Ron nodded, feeling his ears beginning to burn.
Draco looked at his wet shoulder and shook his head. “When I said it was all right to cry, I had no idea you were going to cry a river and leave me drenched.”
Ron blanched, taken aback. Draco smirked.
Sniggering in spite of himself, Ron wiped his cheeks, gaining his composure. “I didn’t know I was going to cry like that. But I suppose I needed that though.”
Draco simply nodded.
Ron looked around, taking a big whiff of the crisp spring night air before tilting his head back to stare up at the clear sky. The stars looked a little brighter than they did before, and the moon seemed more luminous than ever.
“What now?” Ron asked, still gazing up.
“I’m not sure. I suppose that’s up to you,” Draco replied.
Ron lowered his head, giving Draco a curious look. “And what about you?”
Draco raised one eyebrow. “What about me?”
“Are you going to be okay?”
Draco shrugged. “Yeah, I just hope Greg pulls through.”
Ron nodded. “Well, you’re not alone. You have me and... your girlfriend.”
Draco scoffed, trying to hide an embarrassed smile even though Ron could already see his face turning red. “Girlfriend? Get your mind out of the gutter, Weasley. Astoria is just a really nice person. She’s hardly my girlfriend.”
“You might want to tell her that,” Ron said with a smirk.
Draco scrunched up his face. “So do you really think…no,” he said, shaking his head. “It would never work; she’s too young.”
“Oh come off of it, Draco. She’s only two years younger than you are.”
Draco sighed, “We’ll see…and what about you? Think you’ll be able to patch things up with Granger?”
Ron felt utterly helpless on that point. “That’s up to her,” he said.
“And you. Don’t be such a wuss. If you can return to the Room of Requirement, you can win Granger back, “Draco insisted.
Ron looked towards the door of the Tower. “Maybe. I suppose there are a few more people I need to talk to.”
Draco nodded in agreement.
They stood before each other, in awkward silence. Ron didn’t know where his relationship with Draco would go from here—they had build a friendship around smoking grass, well… perhaps a bit more than that. But Ron knew for certain that he couldn’t fall back on that anymore.
Draco reached into his pocket, pulling out the hookah. “For old times' sake?”
Ron licked his lips, the craving hitting him like a blow to the body. “We really should stop. It may be legal, but it can’t be healthy to smoke as much as we do.”
Draco shrugged. “Well, no one’s perfect.”
“Draco, I’m serious…”
“I know,” Draco singed. “But, I have all of this.” He pulled out a substantial velvet satchel and proceeded to wave it in front of Ron seductively. “And I simply can’t let it go to waste. I suppose I’ll just have to smoke it all by myself.”
Ron stared at the pouch, his willpower battling with his craving. Finally, he groaned in defeat. “It’ll take forever for you to smoke all of that. I’ll help you get rid of it, but only because I want you to be done with it. This ends tonight. We’ll finish it off together.”
Draco appeared amused. “And then what?”
“And then we both get some help… there’s this Mind Healer. His name is Gordon, he seems like a pretty decent bloke.”
“Oh that tosser? He’s been trying to get me to have a tea with him,” Draco said wearily.
Ron chuckled. “You too?”
Draco nodded gravely.
Ron stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Tea isn’t so bad. It may even be good.”
Draco looked sceptical. “Perhaps… All right, since you’re set on it, we’ll make this the last one, at least for a little while.”
“This is last one for me, period,” Ron said resolutely before conjuring a chair.
“We’ll see, Weasley…we’ll see.”
Ron smiled confidently as he waited for Draco to light the hookah, since he’d left his own in his room. He felt like a man at the entrance of a newly discovered footpath. He didn’t know where it would lead, but he knew where he’d come from, and it could only get better from here.
When Ron crept back into the common room it was dark as always, but the fire was a crackling, highlighting three familiar silhouettes on the couches.
Harry, Hermione, and Ginny turned to look at him.
Ron froze, suspecting that they were going to scold him for sneaking about late at night again with Draco. Or perhaps they’d fuss at him for publicly claiming Draco as a friend and humiliating Gryffindor in front of everyone…
“It’s about time you got back,” Ginny said in exasperation. “I really didn’t want to spend the night on the couch.”
Ron looked to Hermione. There was a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She scooted over, patting the space beside her in invitation.
“Come sit, Ron.”
Ron walked over awkwardly, wondering what exactly they were up to. Was this going to be some sort of intervention? He’d heard about those. They didn’t sound fun.
He took his seat slowly, his stomach tightening in anticipation for a row.
Harry and Ginny exchanged a glance, and then so did Harry and Hermione. When Ron looked at Hermione, she forced a smile.
“That was some speech you gave today,” Harry said.
Ron adjusted his seat, looking at all of them. “Sorry. I don’t know where that came from, but, if I said anything that offended you, I apologize.”
“Offended? Ron, it was brilliant,” Hermione said.
Ron turned his head in surprise to look at her plainly. “Yeah?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling.
“Ron, Fred would have really enjoyed seeing you put Scott in his place,” Ginny added. “Well, you really gave us all a reality check. I’ve never been so proud of you.”
Ron giggled, and Ginny frowned.
“I’m serious, you dimwit!”
“I know, that’s what makes it so damn funny,” Ron said, unable to control his giggling. It soon turned into outright laughter, and when he was done, they were all staring at him rather strangely.
“Ron…are you high?” Hermione asked, biting her lip.
Ron looked down at his clothing, smoothing out the wrinkles of his robes. He sniffed himself, but smelt nothing. When he looked up, Harry, Hermione, and Ginny looked disturbed, and Ron could feel heat creeping into his cheeks.
“Yeah, I am,” he admitted.
Their proud smiles turned into frowns and looks of concern.
“But, honestly, this was the last time,” Ron said quickly. “I didn’t think you’d be up to see me like this.”
Harry sighed. “Your last time, Ron?”
“Yeah, I swear. I was going to stop after tonight, and tomorrow, I had planned to uh…go in and talk to someone.”
“Really?” Hermione asked, sitting up.
Ron nodded. “Yeah… Hermione, I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. I didn’t know… what to say really, or how to say it.”
“And now?” Hermione asked hesitantly.
“Well now I’m ready to talk, but… it’s too late, really, and I wouldn’t want to keep you guys up.”
There was instant protest: “No, it isn’t!” and “It’s fine!” and “We’re already up.”
Ron laughed to see them so eager, and then he laughed again when it hit him how much they cared for him. He really was lucky.
“Do you always laugh like this when you’re high?” Hermione asked with a troubled expression.
“Yeah,” Ron said, smiling hard, it was no use to even try to control it.
Ginny shook her head, looking at her brother in bemusement. “Well, although I don’t approve, it is good to see you smile again.”
Harry reclined back in his seat, setting his feet up on the table. “So…”
“Sooo…” Ron repeated.
“So, what’s been going on, Ron?” Ginny pressed.
“Well, it’s a long story, really…”
“That’s fine, because we’ve got all night,” Harry said.
Ron took a deep breath, summoning the same strength he found when facing the imaginary Fiendfyre in the hall.
“Right. Well, I suppose it all started the day Fred died, the day you beat You-Know- Who, Harry. That night, I had a wicked nightmare. I couldn’t remember what it was, but I remember waking up thinking I’d just escaped something terrible. It was scary, but, I didn’t think it would happen again. But it did, every night… And then I started having them while I was wide-awake too. That’s when I knew something was wrong…”
The day after the world changed, Ron awoke feeling utterly drained and groggy, having spent nearly the entire night up talking. They talked about everything… Ron’s nightmares, his flashbacks, what had been happening with Draco, his new friendship with the boy, and Goyle. They even talked about his drug habit a little. He was surprised at how open and supportive his friends were. They seemed just grateful that he was talking at all. Ron also listened a lot as well. He found out Ginny’s crying spells were more like crying episodes that would last for up to an hour or more, several times a day, and they seemed to come out of nowhere. Ron also found out that as in control as Hermione seemed, she had been burying herself into the Restoration project and schoolwork, sometimes avoiding sleep all together. When she did sleep, she often awake in the middle of the night with no recollection of what she dreamed, but was too scared to scream or speak.
As Ron lay there in bed, trying to will himself to rise for the day, he wondered why it had taken something so drastic as what happened the previous day for them to all open up to each other.
“Hey, you two sleepy heads,” Neville called, “it’s time to get up! You’re going to miss breakfast.”
Ron heard Harry groan, and he cracked his eyes open to watch his best friend throw the covers over his head in protest. He sniggered and stretched before finally sitting up.
“Come on, Harry.”
Harry grunted. “Let’s just skip breakfast, I’m completely knackered from last night.”
“No way, you know how I get when I don’t eat,” Ron said, pushing himself up with a much effort. “I’m not missing another meal this term. Besides, I’m starving…”
“That wouldn’t have anything to do with you getting the munchies from smoking that crap, would it?”
“I told you I’m quitting,” Ron said irritably. He hoped Harry wasn’t going to ride his arse about the smoking thing.
“Do want me to go with you when you see Gordon?”
“No, I want go alone,” Ron said, feeling slightly guilty for shutting Harry out of something else.
Harry finally rose, and gave Ron an sympathetic nod. “I understand…”
When they came downstairs, Harry and Ginny embraced each other, exchanging a lazy morning kiss, while Ron and Hermione watched them, sneaking not-so-covert glances at each other.
“So, er, Hermione, how did you sleep?” Ron asked.
“I didn’t really, but it still was a good night,” she said, with a small smile.
“Yeah,” he said as a nervous flutter bothered his stomach.
She smiled again and then looked elsewhere, and all Ron could do was stare at her long lashes and perfect lips. He tore his eyes away, trying to squelch the hope for a second chance growing inside of him.
When they entered the Great Hall several people looked up, some giving him small smiles, others watching Ron with trepidation. He was eager to let everyone know that he had no plans to be the moral police or go off again, so he tried to offer smiles where he could, and head nods of greeting.
“I hope they all don’t hate me,” Ron whispered.
“I doubt that, mate,” Harry said. “It needed to be said. I bet a lot of them were probably relieved that someone said it. Uh…” Harry paused, looking up over Ron’s head. Ron frowned, and slowly turned around to see Dennis Creevey standing behind him.
“Hi, Ron,” Dennis said.
Dennis bit his bottom lip as his eyes nervously darted to Harry, and then back to Ron. “Look, what you said yesterday, well… it made a lot of sense. I just… I needed someone to be angry with, and Slytherin was easy enough.”
Ron nodded. “I know.”
“Anyway, thanks. I’m glad you spoke up,” he said, turning away before Ron could respond.
Ron turned back around, his eyes wide as Harry and Ginny gave him “told you” smiles.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hermione beaming at him, but when he turned to face her, she turned her head quickly and began talking to Ginny as if she hadn’t noticed anything at all.
Ron smiled to himself, as hope bloomed once more. Perhaps he had a chance to win back Hermione’s heart after all.
After second lesson dismissed and the students entered the hallways to congregate during free period, Ron stood at the crossroads. Really, it was just the entrance of the hallway leading to the infirmary, but it was also a choice between change and the familiar, however dysfunctional it was. The hallway seemed much longer than he remembered, and as he began to walk down it, he could imagine dozens of scenarios: Gordon recommending him to the Janus Thickey Ward; Gordon scolding him for lying before; Gordon telling him how disappointed he was that a war hero would engage in smoking grass... The list went on, but when Ron reached the door, his fear began talking to him.
You’ve already cried like a baby in front of Draco and babbled to your friends. What do you need a Mind Healer for? Man up, for Merlin’s sake!
Before Ron could turn around, the door opened, smacking him in the forehead.
“Oops,” Draco said, not looking the least bit apologetic.
Ron stood with his mouth hanging open, staring past Draco to where Healer Gordon was standing, making notations.
“Close your mouth, Ron.”
“What? Oh, what are you—”
“I told you I’d come, and I did.”
Ron looked at Draco, still surprised.
Draco held his head up higher, looking every bit the arrogant Ferret he used to be. “It was…mildly interesting. Although, the wanker lied. We didn’t even have tea.”
Ron chuckled nervously. “Uh, maybe I’ll do this tomorrow.”
“Oh no you don’t…oh Healer Gordon,” Draco called.
Ron snarled at Draco and then quickly stopped, forcing a smile as Healer Gordon approached.
“Ron! What a pleasant surprise!”
“Oh, hi, Healer Gordon,” Ron said, suddenly feeling self-conscious again.
“Gordon, Ron here is a little nervous about coming in to see you. I told him you’re perfectly harmless.”
Ron’s eyes widened as he gaped back at Draco. The nerve of the prat—going to the Mind Healer had been his idea, not Draco’s!
“Ah well, you can tell him to relax, I don’t bite.”
“You certainly don’t,” Draco said, with a charming smile.
Ron fought the urge to roll his eyes as Draco gave him that infuriating smirk.
“Have fun,” Draco said.
“Gee, thanks,” Ron murmured as Draco brushed past him.
Healer Gordon waved Ron inside, and once the doors closed behind him, the man held out his hand. Ron took it, shaking it firmly once again.
“Good to see you, Ron. You have good taste in friends.”
“M. Malfoy… he spoke very highly of you.”
“He did?” Ron asked, dumbfounded, wondering what exactly Draco had said about him.
“Yes. Are you surprised? He is your friend, isn’t he?”
Ron stared back at Healer Gordon. “Yeah. Yes, he is.”
Healer Gordon smiled, and led Ron back to his booth, where they both took a seat.
“So, Ron, what would you like to talk about today?”
Ron drew a blank. What exactly had he planned to tell this man?
“Uh, I don’t really know where to begin.”
“How about starting with yesterday…”
Ron blew his breath out hard, and sat back. “Yesterday was… bizarre.”
“Yes. As you already know, one of your classmates tried to commit suicide…”
“Yeah, I was sorta there.”
“So I heard. Tell me more about that…”
Ron closed his eyes, a cacophony of emotions sweeping through him. Finally, he opened his eyes.
“Uh… well, I’ve never seen anything like that before. I never thought someone could do that to themselves—on purpose, I mean. I wish I could just forget what I saw. I wish I could forget everything that’s ever happened in that room.”
“What do you mean, Ron?”
Ron took a deep breath. “It all goes back to last year…”
Two Months Later…
The late spring air was warm, so Ron loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt before leaning back over to study the chessboard.
“So… are ready for your NEWTs?” Draco asked.
Ron scowled at him, knowing all too well Draco was trying to distract him. “Sure, I only have four to take.”
“Four? You need at least six to be an Auror.”
“Well, I don’t want to be an Auror,” Ron said resolutely.
Draco gasped in exaggeration. “Say it isn’t so! What does the saviour of the wizarding world think of this shocking bit of news?”
“Leave off, Draco. Harry would support me no matter what career I choose. He doesn’t care if I’m an Auror, in fact, no one does really. I just thought they did.”
“So, what do you plan to do then?”
Ron took his eyes off of the board for a moment, thinking. “I’m not sure. I want to explore my options. I might work with my brother George for a little while, until I sort it all out.”
Draco nodded, his eyes turning pensive.
“What are you going to do?” Ron asked.
“That depends. Once I pass my NEWTs, I might elect to study under… Slughorn.”
Ron nearly choked. “Slughorn? Are you serious? You hate him.”
“He’s an pompous arse, but an apprenticeship in Potions will put me where I want to be in five years.”
“Owning my own Apothecary.”
Ron raised an eyebrow, genuinely impressed. “Nice.”
Draco cleared his throat, casting his eyes back to the board. “Are you going to stare at me all night, or are you going to make your move?”
Ron scowled. “If you’d stop talking my head off, perhaps I could concentrate.”
“What’s the matter, Ron? Do you have trouble thinking and talking at the same time?”
Ron narrowed his eyes and considered the board again. He smirked. “Queen to Ee4.”
The queen rose and walked gracefully over to Malfoy’s Knight, proceeding to remove a small dagger from her robes and stab the knight in the neck.
Draco grimaced. “If you’re going to play, at least play like a gentleman.”
“Is this wizarding chess or cricket?”
Draco gave Ron a fake smile and sighed as he considered his options.
Ron leaned back, studying his advantage and his opponent. In just a few weeks the school term would end. Sometimes Ron still had trouble believing where they had ended up, especially in light of where they had started.
Draco brought his arm up, checking his watch. “Ah, look at the time. It’s getting late, Astoria will not be pleased if I stand her up.”
“Then don’t. Just make your move, and we’ll be done,” Ron insisted.
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you? But I’m afraid I’m going to have to put this game on pause,” Draco said, sitting back with a challenge in his eye.
“How convenient…” Ron said sarcastically.
“Pardon me, but aren’t you and Granger trying to spend more quality time together now? I hardly think your girlfriend would appreciate you disregarding your new vows in favour of playing chess, with me.”
Ron sighed loudly, conceding. The git really was persuasive.
“All right, we’ll freeze the game here,” Ron said, casting an ‘Immobulus’ and leaving it out.
They both sat in silence for a moment, the sounds of the forest in the distance nudging at Ron’s memories—some good, some bad.
“How are you sleeping?” Ron blurted out.
“Some nights are better than others. You?”
Ron shrugged. “Same, I suppose.”
“Do you miss smoking?” Draco asked tentatively, a nervous look in his eye.
Ron nodded, feeling guilty for the craving that still rose within him from time to time, especially late at night. “Yeah.”
“You know… it’s a rather nice night. Perfect for a smoke,” Draco said with a suggestive smirk.
Ron chuckled and shook his head, reaching inside his robe pockets. Draco smiled and leaned in eagerly. When Ron brought his hand out, Draco’s face fell, and he clicked his teeth.
“Gum?” Ron opened a small tin of gum he frequently carried around these days.
Draco sighed, retrieving a stick. “Gordon’s really got you under his thumb.”
Ron rolled his eyes. “You’re still seeing him as well, I believe.”
“Yes. But that doesn’t mean I do everything he suggests. He’s not all wise and knowing. Having a smoke once in a while won’t kill us.”
Ron shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m getting used to the gum.”
Draco shook his head. “You’re such a goody-goody, Weasley.”
“Well, one of us has to be,” Ron said with a smile. “Come on, our girls are waiting…”
Draco rose, heading for the door, and Ron standing to follow him. But then he turned to steal one last look out over the edge of the Tower, where a gentle breeze was blowing, caressing his hair and cooling his skin. It carried the scent of flowers in bloom. Ron inhaled, taking in the fresh air, and held it in his lungs for a moment. He exhaled slowly, savouring the calmness he felt.
Although scattered storms still raged inside of him, he no longer needed a dam to contain them. He trusted himself enough to weather it out. And if ever the storm proved to be too much, Ron now knew, without a shadow of a doubt that his friends—Hermione, Harry, Ginny, and Draco—would be there to shelter him and lead him through.
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