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“Rubbish,” Ron muttered glumly, dropping his bag haphazardly by the fire, a few textbooks skittering dangerously close to the flames. He sank into a squashy armchair and exhaled wearily.

“Didn’t go so well, then?” Harry returned, his eyes flickering up from a heavily marked-up constellation chart.

Ron had announced his plan to ask Hermione to the Yule Ball that morning as the boys had gotten dressed for the day. It had felt like a foregone conclusion, an obvious solution to an inescapable problem. And, although Ron was loathe to admit it, even to himself, he had noticed her in a different sort of way this year.

The way her eyes had shimmered as the scenery swirled by on the Hogwarts Express. The split of a grin she tried to swallow whenever he made a rude joke. The strain of her forehead the morning after an all-night study session, the splatter of ink on her wrists, the rush of her brisk march down the corridors of the castle. The slightest, slenderest curve of her side.

Hermione was pretty. And when they weren’t bickering, they got on surprisingly well.

So when the time came to pair up for the Yule Ball, he thought maybe, just maybe…

“She said she was sorry, but she’d already agreed to go with someone else. And then she said we were really good friends, and she didn’t want to muck about with that.”

Harry’s eyebrows furrowed slightly, his green eyes slightly blurred beneath smudged frames. “That’s rough. Who’s she going with?”

“Padma Patil, Parvati’s twin. From Ravenclaw,” Ron answered, his arms drawn tightly across his chest. “What do you think about that?”

“About what? Hermione’s going with a girl?”

“Yeah. I mean, I didn’t know she was…y’know…” Ron’s voice dropped low.

Harry’s lips tightened slightly, and he ran a hand through his dark hair. “If she’s happy about it, then I think it’s great.”

“You’re right. S’whatever. Guess I’m just not her type, then” Ron sighed, slumping in his chair. It didn’t really bother him that Hermione was going with a girl. It was the shock that had stung - maybe she hadn’t noticed in him the shifting he had seen in her, maybe she wasn’t even interested in guys, and most painfully, that there might be something about her that he didn’t already know. “Did you have better luck? With Cho?”

Harry shook his head. “She’s already going with someone, too. Diggory.”

The fire crackled, flicking shadows over the boys’ faces, whispering smoke into the quiet air of the common room. Ron let his chin drop to his chest, the picture of resignation.

“Reckon we should’ve asked them sooner.”

“Couldn’t have hurt,” Harry replied, his gaze dropping back to the muddled chart in his lap. He seemed more concerned with his Astronomy work than their lack of romantic prospects, and it was clear that he wouldn’t be offering any words of comfort to Ron that evening.

“Maybe Moaning Myrtle’ll go with me,” Ron said humorlessly.

 

Time marched relentlessly onward, propelling the castle into a state of frenzied thrumming as preparations for the Yule Ball began in earnest. And on the eve of the ball, Ron and Harry were still without dates.

“Everyone’s sorted. Even Neville’s got some girl from Hufflepuff to go with him,” Ron announced, as he flung himself on top of his blankets. “What am I going to do, ask McGonagall if she fancies a dance?”

Harry perched on the edge of his four-poster, his expression twisting into a grimace. “At least you don’t have to dance. In front of everyone.”

“At least your dress robes don’t look like my great-auntie’s nightie,” Ron countered.

Harry choked back a laugh. “Who’re Seamus and Dean going with?”

Ron shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno, they haven’t mentioned it. Probably’ll just hang out together and have a laugh.”

Harry paused thoughtfully. “We could do that, you know.”


Twisting in his bed to face Harry, an incredulous expression curling across his freckled forehead, “What, go together?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Well, for starters, you’ve got to dance with whoever you go with,” Ron said slowly, as if he were speaking to a small child.

Harry grinned and adjusted his glasses, lacing his fingers together and drawing his knees to his chest. “What, can you not dance?”

That twist of a defiant smirk, the glint of his eyes a challenge - this was a side of Harry that was usually tempered by the cautious hesitancy he carried from his years at the Dursleys’, the heavy shadow of a childhood spent unwanted. Sometimes, Ron wondered what his best friend would have been like, if he hadn’t grown up with those Muggles, if he had gotten to keep his parents, if he would have had brothers and sisters, if his godfather hadn’t spent twelve years turning haggard, if Harry had grown up happy. Would he still have befriended the pale, freckled boy with his wrapped-up sandwiches, on that first Hogwarts Express? Sometimes, Ron could see this version of Harry, a boy who wasn’t responsible for anything but himself, a boy who played pranks and liked Quidditch and didn’t have to worry about much at all, in the rare bright moments of their lives. Ron liked to coax out this more relaxed, more boyish version of his best friend.

But really, what was Harry thinking.

“No, I can dance,” Ron said in that patient, long-suffering tone. “But what’s it going to look like, two blokes wrapped up in each other’s arms, dancing?”

Harry’s jaw clicked as the set of his mouth hardened ever so slightly. “Like two people dancing. Come on, it’ll be fun. We get the stupid dance over with, we drink some punch, and then we get out of there as soon as we can.”

Ron said nothing, simply staring at Harry as if his friend had suddenly taken leave of his senses. Harry sighed, and he rubbed at his eyes tiredly, the bright glare of grin that had curled in the corners of his eyes suddenly doused.

“Look, it’s just an idea. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, dance by myself?”

Ron’s eyes took in Harry’s defensive posture, his drawn brow, his pursed lips. Anxiety hummed audibly in the air around Harry; his voice was sunken.

Maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, people would know that it was just for a laugh. Just a joke. Neither of them were into blokes, like that. And if agreeing would send the shadows from Harry’s eyes, well…There wasn’t much Ron wouldn’t do.

“Fine.”

Harry, who had been gazing determinedly at his knees, looked up so quickly his glasses slid down the bridge of his nose. “Wait, what?”

“I said fine,” Ron repeated, tugging bedclothes over his lanky frame. “Let’s just go together, then. Could be funny. And this way, you won’t have to dance with Dumbledore, or old Mad-Eye Moody…”

Harry exhaled softly, and it sounded like relief to Ron’s ears. It sounded like music.

 

The next night, as they walked into the glittering Great Hall, Ron felt his stomach turn and his heart rise into his throat. This had been a mistake.

He’d agreed to Harry’s plan because he’d felt badly for his friend - and maybe, just maybe, because he didn’t want to have to go alone, either. But he knew that participating in the Triwizard Tournament, bearing the searing mistrust of the majority of the school, all while wondering just how his name had even made it into the Goblet of Fire - all of this had taken a visible toll on Harry, who wore his worry in the sinkholes beneath his eyes and the warped steel of his spine. But as they marched in lock-step across the Great Hall, to stand with the other champions and their dates, Ron regretted his late-night capitulation. This was weird.

Wasn’t it?

Growing up with a bevy of older brothers, all simultaneously jockeying for attention and independence, Ron knew that to be in the spotlight was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he often rankled at the perpetual sidelining, at forever being an afterthought, the second-string, the sidekick. But on the other, he knew that there was a kind of freedom in this absence of burden, a liberty in not being the person everyone wanted to look to, let alone look at. Stepping onto the dais, Ron felt sweat bead on the back of his neck, the tattered lace of his dress robes adhering to his wet skin. Ron felt like everyone was watching.

And they were, of course. A few students pointed not-so-surreptitiously at the champions, at Krum and the sharply pretty Durmstrang girl by his side, at Fleur and the Ravenclaw Quidditch captain, Davies or something, and at Cedric and Cho, and at him. And Harry. Together.

The noise of the Great Hall melted in Ron’s ears, a dull, throbbing roar. He kept his hands in his pockets, ripping a hole in one as he jammed his fists into the tattered folds. He stared fixedly at the floor, and let everything recede into that rushing roar. He felt heat rising in his cheeks.

Words were said, and the music began, and before Ron could even register what was happening, Harry had tugged his hands out of their protective pockets and they were off.

They danced. And it wasn’t awful. Ron didn’t stumble (too much), and Harry was laughing for most of it, and they weren’t nearly as close as the other couples. They didn’t look like a couple. As the song drew to a close, Harry grinned and pushed Ron into a little twirl; Ron almost tripped at the unexpected maneuver, but he felt solidity sink into his jelly-like limbs as the crowd around the dais erupted into friendly, appreciative titters. And then, the song was over, and Harry had dropped his hands, and it was done.

“See, not so bad,” Harry muttered to Ron as they escaped the prominence of the raised dais and slipped into the crowd as the music started up again.

Ron laughed, his voice slightly strained. “Yeah, I guess. But let’s not make a habit of it, all right? People’ll talk.”

He rubbed his thumb along the inside of his palm absent-mindedly, feeling the echo of touch.

Hermione appeared suddenly at their left, beaming excitedly, Padma in tow. “Oh, that was so wonderful, you two! You set such a good example, Harry, Ron, really - I know it’ll mean a lot to some of the other students - “

“What sort of example?” Ron asked quickly, unthinkingly. He learned a sharp, short huff of breath from Hermione, who directed her answer at Harry. He stiffly returned his hands to his pockets.

“Honestly, Ron. For the students who think it’s okay to bully people just because they’re different, because they look different or they love differently. The wizarding community isn’t exactly hospitable to queer relationships. Well, Muggles aren’t much better, of course, but things could change, and it’s visible displays of support like this - “

Harry smiled tightly, surreptitiously stepping on Ron’s foot to halt the cascade of words that were about to defiantly splutter off his tongue. “That’s great, Hermione,” was all he said.

And then she was off, Padma on her arm, wading into the dancing crowd. Harry headed towards the punch bowls, and Ron followed, not knowing what else to do.

“What was that about,” he hissed at Harry as he jerkily filled a goblet with the bright punch.

Harry shrugged. “It’s nothing, it’s not a big deal -“

“Does she mean that people are going to think that - well, you know - that we’re…together? Like that?” Ron cut in.

“No, Ron,” Harry muttered, rolling his eyes. “Look, she was just saying that it was nice to see something other than straight couples dancing.”

“So she thinks we’re what, gay?”

“Bloody hell, Ron. She’s known us for how long? And you think that just because we danced around at this stupid ball she’s going to assume we’re secretly shagging each other’s brains out?”

“No,” Ron retorted sharply. “But other people will.”

“Absolutely no one is going to think that, Ron. And even if they did, it doesn’t mean anything, because we aren’t. And that’s exactly the point Hermione was making, honestly. That this is the kind of judgment some people have to deal with, just because they’re a girl who wants to dance with girls, or whatever.”

Harry drained his goblet, and left the Great Hall, without so much as a look in Ron’s direction.

 

Harry had been right. Nothing really changed after the Yule Ball. A few people from other houses shot the trio curious glances as classes began after the winter holiday, but no one said anything, and their fellow Gryffindors were wholly unperturbed by it all. Fred and George had waltzed around the common room one night, twirling over Harry and Ron, who were desperately trying to finish a potions essay, knocking their books about and catcalling good-naturedly. Ron saw Dean catch Harry’s elbow one morning, hanging back in the dormitory before they walked to breakfast, but he wasn’t even sure what they spoke about. When Ron asked him about it over sausages and toast, Harry simply shook his head.

There had been a cool edge to Ron and Harry’s interactions since the dust-up over the punchbowl, but as the new term began, the tension thawed. There were other things to worry about, and it was simply easier to forget about that night, and so that is precisely what Ron did.

For now.

 

The term wore on, and February was consumed by the Second Task and then spring came, and the Easter holidays, and the Third Task loomed ominously. Rita Skeeter scuttled about, writing rumors and stirring up trouble. They had gone to visit Sirius on the outskirts of Hogsmeade in March, and he had been thin and gaunt and shrouded in dark pronouncements of danger on the wind. Ron knew that it had hurt Harry to see his godfather scrounging for scraps, hiding in caves; he knew that Harry blamed himself for Sirius’ reckless return, even as his presence offered some comfort.

This general feeling of uneasy restlessness stuck to Ron like a second skin, and he knew that Harry and Hermione felt much the same. It was always a shock when normal life pierced through the fog of worry that hung about the three friends. The night when Hermione turned up by their beds, her eyes red from spent tears, because Padma had broken things off. An uncharacteristically lazy Sunday afternoon spent playing wizarding chess with Harry in the common room. Jagged laughter bursting from constricted vocal chords when something was just funny, the sound breaking into sharp-edged pieces because they weren’t doing much laughing these days.

As the hedges on the Quidditch pitch grew higher, and the weeks before the Third Task shortened, it was hard to deny the bitter taste of danger in the air. Ron and Hermione tried to help Harry prepare as best they could, but on the day of the Third Task, Ron felt that he was watching Harry run headlong into hell.

And then, the world changed.

Because Harry was coming out of the maze, carrying the limp body of Cedric Diggory in his arms. Because He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was back. Because nothing was certain anymore. Because Mad-Eye Moody hadn’t been Mad-Eye Moody, after all. Because it didn’t seem like you could really trust anyone.

Harry seemed very, very far away, after Diggory died and He lived. Again. Hermione said they shouldn’t press Harry, they should just be supportive and present, and Ron tried. But he felt like he was missing something, like there was something he should do to cross that immeasurable distance between Harry and the rest of the world, and he just couldn’t figure out what.

They went their separate ways, because even though the world had changed, the seasons still turned, and it was summer.

 

“I wish we could actually give him some proper news,” Hermione said frustratedly, her quill scratching out another cryptic letter to Harry. “He must be absolutely miserable.”

“Yeah,” Ron said softly, trying to compose his own letter while defending his fingers from Hedwig’s sharp beak. She was angrily nipping at the skin, spurring Ron’s quill onward. There was so much to say, but they had promised.

He missed Harry.

 

One day, Bill appeared on the steps of 12 Grimmauld Place, his long red hair tied up messily, his eyes tired. But he smiled as he crossed the threshold.

When she had seen her eldest son, Molly Weasley’s eyes lit up with the horrific relief known only by mothers with soldiers for sons. Traveling for his work at Gringotts gave Bill the perfect cover to alert foreign witches and wizards to the return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But weeks would go by before word was received from Bill, who traveled alone and slept in tents and moved hurriedly, quietly.

“Oh, Bill! I didn’t know we would be seeing you so soon, this is absolutely wonderful - you must be famished, I’ll fix you up something - and then maybe we can see about your hair, you know…”

Bill just laughed. “Ease off, woman! I’ve only been here for a breath, and I’ve got to report to Dumbledore just as soon as he gets here -“

“How long will you be able to stay, dear?” Molly asked, her voice steady but her fingers tight around her wand as she conducted a culinary symphony, pots clanging about and steam sputtering.

“Couple of days, I reckon,” Bill said easily. “Can’t wait to sleep in a proper bed.”

Dumbledore arrived, and the members of the Order slipped away behind closed doors for Bill’s briefing. Fred and George did their best to listen in on the meeting, but they couldn’t catch much. Ginny and Ron sat at the top of the stairs silently, waiting to see their brother, waiting for proof that he was in one piece. Hermione sat with them, her head on Ron’s shoulder.

Ron didn’t have a favorite brother, exactly. He was closest with Fred and George, in a way, simply because they were closest in age. But the twins had their own language, and they spun an impenetrable web around themselves most of the time. Charlie had always been unreachable for Ron - for all of them, really. He had always been different from the others, and when he had finished at Hogwarts, he had gone the farthest, away to the dragons. Ron knew that their mother couldn’t quite understand why her son had done that, why he had left them all to collect dragons’ eggs and shiny burn scars. Arthur understand his son a little better, and Charlie and Ginny had always been unusually close, but really, Charlie had been unreachable even before he’d gone away.

At this particular moment, Percy didn’t even merit consideration.

But Bill. Ron had always looked up to Bill, who was just cool. He was a good son; he had been an exemplary student. He wore bits of metal in his ears and his long hair was a constant source of maternal tutting, but Bill was also a son to be proud of. And he had been the first, which leant him a special kind of distinction in Ron’s eyes, the last of the boys. Bill always knew the right thing to say to soothe his mother’s worries, to capture his father’s interest, to mediate between sparring siblings. Bill had always seemed like someone who had answers when other people didn’t, and Ron had a question that needed asking.

Ron wanted to talk to Bill about something that had been on his mind since last December.

 

He hadn’t realized it until the day the world changed, until he saw Diggory’s body in Harry’s arms.

He and Hermione and leapt up as one, terror streaking across her face, and he had whispered involuntarily, “That could have been him.”

When they got close enough to see Harry’s eyes, they were hard and grim and dull. Suddenly, Ron realized just how old his friend looked. Too old to be a boy, like they were supposed to be.

That could have been him, Ron thought as they carried Diggory’s body away.

In a rush, the memory of a winter night crashed through the haze of Ron’s shock. He remembered the pull of Harry’s hands and the sound of the music and the way the crowd had giggled when Harry twisted Ron into a twirl, but mostly, he remembered the light in Harry’s eyes. That light was gone, and what if, what if it had been him. He felt his stomach cave in, and his skin went cold and white, and he felt like someone had sucked all the air from his chest.

Ron wanted to push through the crowd of professors and grab Harry by the shoulders and pull him away from all of this. He wanted to take a magnifying glass to his skin and inspect every inch for injury. He wanted to pull Harry into his arms, this time.

And the wanting was hard and heavy and violent, and it made Ron shake, out of fear and need all at once, but before he could reach Harry, he was gone.

That night, Ron had dreamt of the Yule Ball. But this time, he let his arm curl around Harry’s waist, and they moved a little closer, and he felt the roar of that wanting again, and Harry’s eyes were bright, bright green, and then suddenly, they were too bright, everything was too bright, everything was blown to pieces, and Ron jolted upright, sweating in his bed.

“S’wrong, Ron?” Neville murmured sleepily from his nearby bed. “You okay?”

“Yeah, Neville,” Ron had whispered back. “Just a dream.”

 

After the Order had dispersed, and Molly had stuffed Bill full of stew, and Ginny had wrapped her brother in a tight hug, and Arthur had beamed fondly at his eldest, and Fred and George had dizzily Apparated around Bill with that obnoxious crack crack crack, after all of that was done, Ron caught his brother by the sleeve on the stairs.

“You’re probably exhausted, but can I…Can I talk to you for a minute?” Ron asked, shame stealing into his cheeks.

Bill smiled, the corners of his eyes heavy but the spread of his lips welcoming. “Any time, little brother. Come up to mine?”

Ron followed Bill to a little room at the end of the warren-like hallway. It wasn’t much bigger than a pantry, and it was empty except for Bill’s tightly packed knapsack and a small cot. It was a makeshift bedroom, clearly; a way-station for Order members on-the-go.

Eyes fluttering shut, Bill collapsed onto the cot, which groaned a little as his long limbs slid off the edges. Ron leaned against the closed door, his breath quickening. After a moment’s silence, Bill pulled himself into an upright position, leaning against the dark wall, turning his eyes up to trace his younger brother’s crooked, nervous frame. Suddenly, the weariness seeped out of Bill’s face, and he was wide-awake.

“Want to come sit?” he asked gently. Ron’s chin jerked up, as if he had forgotten that he wasn’t alone. He took the few short steps to the cot and sank, arms pressed tightly to his chest.

Silence stretched, and once again, it was Bill who broke it.

“What’s wrong, Ron?”

He dipped his shoulder to nudge Ron gently, as if waking someone from a deep sleep. Ron blinked rapidly, returning to the little room.

“When you were at Hogwarts, you…y’know, you dated people, right?”

“Yes,” Bill answered evenly, smoothing the edge of uncertainty from his voice.

“What…what sorts of people?”

It wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t often discussed. Their family hadn’t been upset when Bill had come out as bisexual, but it simply wasn’t something anyone knew how to talk about, and Bill had been so very Bill about it. He hadn’t needed to talk about it. He hadn’t been unsure. He had just come home one summer, and when Molly asked him about that nice Ravenclaw girl he had been seeing in the fall, Bill had smiled easily and said that they weren’t going out anymore, but they were still friends. When Fred had nosily prodded Bill - bright, brilliant Bill, so handsome and so perfect, the apple of their mother’s eye, always taking pretty girls out to Hogsmeade - and asked, “So who’s on deck now, then?”, Bill had just laughed.

“His name’s Richard, he’s my year, in Hufflepuff.”

Molly had looked up quickly, carefully. “Oh, he is? Well, Bill, that’s wonderful, that’s lovely.”

And really, that had been about it. Because everything that Bill did was wonderful, lovely, because he did it all calmly and confidently. A couple conversations with their parents to explain the finer points (“No, mum, not gay, I’m bisexual, so yes, I fancy just about everyone. Well, not everyone, but you know what I mean.”), and one brotherly but firm dismissal of a rather rude comment of Fred’s, and that was really that. Percy had gone a little tense at the news, but then, that was Percy - always afraid of any sign of difference. Arthur instantly warmed to the idea, especially when he learned that Richard’s father was a Muggle who owned an auto garage. Charlie had just shot Bill a wink over the dinner table, and while no one ever asked, everyone was pretty sure that Charlie had known for a while. And that was that.

“All sorts, mostly in my last couple years. You remember Vesta, she was a year younger than me, in Ravenclaw. And Richard, that was the guy who helped Dad with the car?”

Ron nodded, but he didn’t say anything.

“There were a few others, nothing really significant…But you’re asking me about something else, aren’t you?”

Ron drew his knees to his chest. “I’ve just…been wondering. How you knew. That you were, y’know…”

“Bi,” Bill finished gently.

“Yeah, that,” Ron agreed, and he looked miserable.

“Well, I just felt the same way about girls and guys, I guess. It’s not a very profound answer, but I didn’t have a big moment of realization, or anything. I think I always knew. I fancied ‘em both, and sometimes when my mates were talking about the girls they really wanted to kiss, I knew that there were some blokes I’d like to kiss as well.”

Ron tilted his head back against the wall.

“You make it sound so easy, though…Weren’t you ever confused about it, or anything?”

Bill paused. “Sometimes. Mostly, I knew it for myself, but I didn’t know how to explain it to other people. And I was afraid, sometimes.”

Ron turned quickly to catch Bill’s eye at that. He had never known his brother to be afraid about anything.

Bill chuckled. “Yeah, I was! I mean, it’s scary. It’s being different in a way that makes some people hate you, which isn’t right or fair or my fault, but it’s just true.”

“But Mum and Dad, they were okay with it, right?”

“They were great about it,” Bill said firmly. “You all were. Pretty much everyone was.”

Ron exhaled.

“Is there something you want to talk about, maybe? Do you think you might…” and Bill trailed off, because he wasn’t sure how to ask his brother without frightening him out the door.

But Ron didn’t move at all, except to nod his head, ever so slightly. Bill waited quietly for Ron to speak.

“I think…I think I might be like you? I might like girls…and guys?”

Bill smiled. “Anyone in particular?”

Ron went quiet again, and when he spoke, he didn’t answer. “Have you ever fancied someone who…didn’t fancy you back?”

“Oh, loads of times,” Bill said with a laugh.

Ron’s eyebrows knit together. “No, I mean, because they weren’t. Like you.”

“Well, yes,” Bill said softly. “But you don’t really know until you ask.”

“Ask…what?”

“Ask them if they like you. Ask them if they like blokes. Ask them if they want to go to Hogsmeade with you. There’s a lot of ways to ask, really.”

“What if it’s someone you know? What if it’s your friend?”

Bill studied his younger brother’s face carefully, recalculating. “You wrote me about Hermione, last December…are you talking about her?”

Ron had sent Bill a letter late one night when he couldn’t sleep, about how he’d asked Hermione to the Yule Ball only to be turned down, about how he thought she might not even be interested in guys, let alone him. He had regretted sending the messy letter immediately, but Bill’s response had winged back almost immediately, all calm and collected.

The only way to know if she likes you is to ask her. And if you’re worried about whether she’s gay, or bi, or straight, or something else entirely, the only way to know is to ask her. But those are probably two separate conversations.

Ron never had the first conversation. He found that, after the initial sting of it all faded, he really just wanted to keep his friend. But the second conversation did occur, although not because Ron (or Harry) asked, but because Hermione volunteered.

“Just so you know,” she had said briskly one night, shaking out her parchment scrolls, “I’m going out with Padma again.”

“That’s great, Hermione,” Harry had replied absently. When Hermione’s sharp eyes had focused in on Ron, he just grinned and nodded. She seemed relieved.

“I’ve come to the realization that I fancy girls,” she said in that same tone, although her voice was a little softer now.

“Me too,” Ron had laughed, smoothing out the lines of worry on Hermione’s brow. Harry shook his head, smiling at them both.

 

“No,” Ron said in a thin voice. “Not Hermione. I don’t…I don’t know. It’s so bloody confusing.”

Bill waited.

“It’s…” and Ron trailed off, and then sighed resignedly, like he was ready to let the weight roll from his shoulders. “Harry, I think?”

Bill nodded, a smile twitching his lips upward. “Harry seems great, Ron.”

“I know,” Ron replied miserably. “But what do I do about it?”

“You already know what I’m going to say. You’ve got to ask him. But if you’re worried about your friendship, I wouldn’t be - Harry doesn’t seem like the type to let his friends go too easily. It might be a bit rough at first, but I don’t think you’ll lose him, no matter what.”

Ron didn’t say anything, but as he stood to go to his room, he walked a little lighter for having spoken the secret that had been growing in his chest.

 

About a week after Ron’s late-night conversation with Bill, Harry came to stay at 12 Grimmauld Place.

He was angry. Hermione bit back bitter tears as Harry lashed out at their silence, and there was little either of them could say to convince Harry that they hadn’t forgotten him, that they never wanted to leave him to his isolation at Privet Drive. They filled him in as best they could, and over dinner, a few scraps of information were passed along by Sirius and Remus (or, Professor Lupin, as Ron always thought of him), in spite of Mrs. Weasley’s best efforts.

But Harry was still angry, still unsatisfied, still bent on punishing Ron and Hermione for his pain. He erupted volcanically at unpredictable moments, bruising anyone he clashed against. He was thinner than he had been at the end of term, and his skin had gone the grey of the sleepless. He felt farther away than ever, and when Ron scanned his eyes, the light had gone out entirely.

Harry was supposed to share a room with Ron at Grimmauld Place, but when Sirius had offered up his bedroom - “I’m spending most nights with Buckbeak, trying to keep him calm as I can, so it’s yours if you want” - Harry took it. When they all met in the mornings to wage war against Sirius’ ancestral home, Harry held himself sharply, and he rarely spoke to the others.

“I don’t know what we should do,” Hermione whispered worriedly one afternoon. “We can’t help him if he won’t even talk to us.”

“I dunno, Hermione,” Ron replied. “If he doesn’t want to be around us, he doesn’t have to be.”

 

When Harry had arrived, a white-hot coil of tensed anger and hurt and betrayal, Ron had shoved away any thought of his conversation with Bill. Harry couldn’t even stand to be friendly, and Ron couldn’t imagine how it would go over if he tried to…What? Profess his undying love? Ask him if maybe he fancied blokes, too? Kiss him?

It just wasn’t possible.

But at night, as Ron lay awake in his empty room, memories came unbidden. Of the Yule Ball, the day Diggory died, and all the days in between. He wasn’t even really sure how he felt about it, how he felt about Harry. Bill had made it all sound so easy, like you just knew, but Ron wasn’t so sure. Maybe this is just how you feel about your best mate.

But then he thought about the way Harry’s hands curled into quiet fists whenever he was angry, or how his warm, dark skin contrasted with the cool, white sheets of their Hogwarts beds, or the sound of his voice when he was muttering a joke, just for Ron’s ears. And he remembered how he felt watching Harry stumble out of the maze, holding a dead boy. Like his body was being turned inside out, like he was swallowing down gravel, like he had flown so high he couldn’t breathe. That could have been him. What would Ron have done if it had been?

And sometimes, he thought about what it would be like to kiss Harry. To hold him in his arms, to look into his eyes and see that bright, glinting laughter reflected green, all for him.

Maybe this was just a reaction to the horror of Harry’s pale face, and Diggory’s limp body in his arms, on the day of the Third Task. Maybe it wasn’t real.

But if Ron really thought about it, if he demanded honesty of himself, he knew that wasn’t the case. He knew that something had shifted the day Harry asked him to the Yule Ball, the day he contemplated the mere possibility of something more.

It just wasn’t possible.

 

The wind howled at the window, and Ron kicked his stiff blankets to the foot of the bed in frustration. Another sleepless night spent watching the sky through grimy glass, trying not to think.

At first, he thought that the light knock on his door was just a phantom of the house’s creaking skeletal system. But when he ignored the tapping, it came again more insistently, accompanied by the quiet whisper of his name. Ron shot up, reaching for the familiar spine of his wand on the bedside table, a faint breath of fear at the back of his neck.

The door creaked open haltingly, and a figure slipped in, features obscured in the dark shadows. Ron murmured lumos and the glow of his wand illuminated the late-night visitor’s face.

“Harry?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Harry replied softly. “Did I wake you up?”

“No, I couldn’t sleep…Are you okay? What’s up?”

Harry stepped slowly across the rough floorboards, his glasses glinting in the light. “I just…I wanted to talk to you.”

Ron’s breath caught in his throat. “Okay…”

“It’s stupid, really.”

“No, it’s not - I mean, it’s all right. What’s going on?”

Harry sat at the foot of Ron’s bed, and suddenly, he seemed so small. Harry had arrived at Grimmauld Place swollen with bitterness, overblown with anger and frustration, and now, he just looked tired. And alone.

Ron extinguished his wand’s light and waited.

“I have…dreams. About Cedric. About Voldemort…” - and Ron, for once, did not even twitch at the sound of the name, he held himself very, very still as Harry spoke in crushed tones - “I can’t sleep. I’m scared to sleep.”

Ron opened his mouth to respond, to reassure, but Harry kept going, his words falling in a rush, as if he stopped speaking he would never be able to start again.

“I’ve been absolute shite to you, and to Hermione, and to everybody, really. I know you tried and that it’s not anybody’s fault. It was just terrible to have to go back there, all alone, after everything. And when I thought about you and Hermione, together…I was jealous, and that wasn’t fair, and I’m sorry, I really am.”

Ron’s fingers twitched, an involuntary movement as he instinctually stretched out across the dark distance to Harry, but he was too far to reach.

“I just…I don’t know. I shouldn’t even be bothering you, I’ve been a complete tosser to you, you probably don’t even want to talk to me - “

“Of course I do, Harry,” Ron said in a rush. “We both do, me and Hermione. We…I can’t imagine what it’s like for you, mate, but we knew you didn’t hate us or anything. We just wanted to help. I just want to help, that’s all.”

“Thanks,” Harry said quietly.

For a few moments, they sat in companionable silence, listening to the wind tear by.

“Do you think…” Harry began. “No, it’s stupid.”

The bedframe groaned as Harry began to stand, began to walk away.

“No, wait,” Ron said quickly, sitting up a little straighter. “Whatever it is - of course.”

Harry stopped, paused, and then spoke.

“Can I just - can I stay here tonight? I don’t even know if I’ll be able to sleep, but I don’t want to go back up to that room by myself. His voice faltered, caught with embarrassment.

“Of course,” Ron repeated quickly, moving to the left side of the bed, just as Harry knelt to the floor.

“Hey, look, you’re never going to get a decent night down there. The bed’s big enough, just come up here.”

Harry didn’t say anything as he slipped under the quilt.

When Ron woke up the next morning, he was gone.

 

Harry seemed to be settling back into his skin. The grey tint of his skin faded, and the purple half-moons beneath his eyes began to wane. His smile came more easily, and the permanent perimeter which had grown up around him receded. Hermione shot Ron grateful glances as their best friend steadily resurfaced, and one afternoon, she tried to corner him on the landing to swap explanations for the sudden change. Ron just shrugged her off, but he did have an idea.

Every night that week, Ron had heard that soft rapping against his door, and the quiet scratching of Harry’s bare feet on the floorboards. The bed’s gasping wheeze as he slipped under the quilt on the right side. The murmur of exchanged goodnights.

And in the morning, he was always gone.

They didn’t talk about it; that seemed to be an unwritten rule. Harry never asked for permission, save for his gentle knock on the door, although it was more of a greeting than a question. Ron never asked Harry why.

Ron left the right side of the bed empty for Harry, after that first night. He hadn’t known if Harry would come back; they had barely even acknowledged each other, that first morning after. But he came back.

They slept apart. The bed was wide and stiff, and it was easy to maintain a valley of bedclothes between them. Ron did not allow himself to think about stretching across that chasm.

On the third night, Harry kicked Ron’s shin, thrashing in his sleep, gripped by a nightmare. Ron jolted awake, disoriented at the sudden, sharp pain and Harry’s strained cries.

“Harry? Harry, mate, you’ve gotta wake up - you’re having a bad dream,” Ron said in a low, urgent voice, gripping Harry’s shoulder with his hand and shaking him lightly. Harry stilled under the touch, but he didn’t open his eyes, he didn’t seem to wake. Ron watched him for a few nervous moments, but it seemed that Harry had escaped whatever specter haunted his sleep, and his breathing settled. Ron drifted back into his own sleep, dreaming of towering trees and bright sparks of light and the pounding of his own heart, the feeling of being chased.

In the morning, Harry was gone, as always.

 

Night fell, and for the fourth time, Ron heard that soft knock.

They said their goodnights, and while Ron had spent most of the day wondering if he should bring up the nightmare with Harry, it seemed easier to just sleep. There was something comforting about listening to the rhythm of Harry’s breathing, feeling his weight on the bed. Solid, present, close.

As the first rays of light refracted across the room, Ron woke to the dip and swell of the bed as Harry rolled onto his side, ready to steal out of the room without a sound. Unthinkingly, unquestioningly, Ron threw a long arm across the chasm of tangled bedsheets and curled his hand around the crook of Harry’s elbow.

Harry turned, startled. Until this morning, he had always been able to escape from Ron’s room without comment, and they could go about their days pretending that they didn’t, in some small way, share their nights.

“Don’t go,” Ron said, his voice muffled by sleep, yawning into his pillow. “You don’t have to go. S’early. Go back to sleep.”

And Ron released Harry’s arm, opening his eyes sleepily to fix Harry with a look.

“All right,” Harry said quietly.

He settled back into their bed, but this time, it was different. It was intentional. That gorge had been breached, and it seemed that the immeasurable distance was now little more than a hair’s breadth. Ron’s eyes tilted shut, and he rolled onto his right side, breathing slowly, carefully. He was awake, now, but he had the courage of dreamstuff and he let his arm rest outstretched, a bridge across the great divide in this small bed. Harry turned to face Ron.

For a few moments, they lay still and close like this. As the room lightened with the rise of a grey dawn, sleep returned to the both of them, slowly leadening their limbs and evening out their breaths. But before he returned to dreaming, Ron dared to move just a little closer, to curl forward - still not touching, but in the space of possibility.

Later, as the inhabitants of 12 Grimmauld Place began to stir and rattle and shuffle towards a new day, Ron woke to find Harry still asleep for the first time. In their morning respite, they had moved even closer, unconsciously and consciously all at once, and Ron felt the heat of Harry’s skin, the whisper of his breath, and even, it seemed, the gentle rhythm of his resting heart. So, so close. Close enough to reach out and touch in a deliberate way, not in this happy accident of cohabitation, but in a way that couldn’t be taken back. He could lean forward and press his lips to Harry’s, even; he could steal a kiss.

But the theft seemed like a crime too great, and Ron held himself still as Harry began to twitch out of his own slumber. Green eyes swelled open and blinked up at Ron, lips curving in a thinking frown, mouth opening to expose soft white teeth and sweet rotting breath. “Oh,” Harry said, and that was it. There was something else said in the language of their close, close bodies.

And then, Harry was up, and he was gone. The room was cold. Ron shivered and a dull, swollen ache trembled from his toes to his ribs to his throat, where it stuck.

 

The day was spent cleaning out dark alcoves and threatening cupboards, washing away spiderwebs (which made Ron’s stomach turn) and listening for the rustling of living things in the curtains. Harry had withdrawn again, eyes guarded in a steel-set mask. Hermione’s eyes flicked between Harry and Ron, her mind clearly turning possible explanations over and over. Ron studiously avoided her eyes. Harry barely spoke.

Ron knew that he couldn’t expect to hear the sound of Harry’s knuckles against the wood of his door that night, but even so, he found himself waiting up for it. Hoping.

Something had snapped, when they’d woken up together that morning. And now, Ron twisted restlessly under his quilt, thinking up half-apologies and wondering if Harry was awake, too. He felt like he’d somehow deceived his friend, tricked him into that warm closeness. Like he’d stolen something much greater than a kiss. And he had just wanted to help, he was just trying to help…But there was that memory of dancing under magically charmed snowflakes, and the lingering pressure of dreamt-of lips. The lurch of hope in his gut when Harry had turned to face him, had stayed in bed that very morning. So, he wasn’t only trying to help his friend. He was trying to help someone…Someone he loved, and it was a kind of love with sharp edges and soft swells.

Ron pushed the quilt away, and slipped out of the too-empty bed. They couldn’t keep dancing around each other - dancing, dancing, the sound of music returning like the thud of the ocean - they had to say something, do something. Ron had to ask.

He pushed his door open and glanced up and down the dark hallway. The house was quiet, save for its usual creaks and hisses, and the faint echoes of snores behind closed doors. Ron turned toward the stairs, and headed up, to Sirius’ room, to Harry’s bed.

When he stood outside that silent, dark door, he wondered if this was what Harry had felt like the first night. If he had knocked on the wood not knowing what to say; if he had stepped over the threshold with a lump in his throat. Harry had come to ask for help, and Ron was here to ask for something entirely different, but maybe, just maybe, the trepidation was the same.

He rested his closed hand against the door silently, before drawing a breath and knocking one, two, three, as quietly as he could manage. He opened the door without waiting for a reply.

Harry was awake, sitting cross-legged in a wide bed, the detritus of Sirius’ arrested development scattered across every surface, peeling posters clinging determinedly to the walls. A single candle cast light across Harry’s face, which tightened to see Ron’s head peer around the door.

“Can I come in?” Ron whispered. Harry nodded.

Stepping into the darkened room, Ron immediately, brightly, fiercely regretted this impulse. What was he going to say? What was he going to ask?

“Harry,” he said in a halting whisper, hovering at the foot of the bed. “Look, I’m sorry, but we’ve got to - we ought to talk about this. I’m sorry if I did something wrong, and I’m probably about to do something even worse, but I have to tell you something. And ask you something.”

Harry nodded again, still silent.

Ron’s next words flew in a feverish, stuttering rush. “I think - well, no, fuck it, I know - that I’ve got, well it’s that I fancy you, a bit, or maybe a lot, I don’t know. Fuck. I don’t reckon I’m gay, but maybe I like both, or something, but well, I like you. And I wanted to know if maybe you might like - to do something together? Oh, fucking hell, like a date. No. I should - what I wanted to know - do you think you might, well, fancy me? A bit? Probably not. Fuck. Why am I even, this is absolute shite, never should’ve -“

“Ron.”

Harry’s voice dammed the flood of half-broken sentences flooding from Ron, who snapped his eyes to meet Harry’s.

“Yeah?” he replied wearily.

“Do you think you could maybe come sit on the bed? And not like…tower over it?”

“Yeah, of course,” Ron said hastily, moving to sit at the very farthest edge of the bed, and looking absolutely tortured over it.

Harry inhaled heavily and fidgeted with his glasses, an uncharacteristically nervous twitch. When he spoke, his voice was soft and calm.

“What do you mean, you think you fancy me?”

Ron shook his head. “No. I mean, yes, I do. But I don’t think it, honestly. I know it. I think - no, fuck, I know that it started a bit with the Yule Ball? I didn’t realize it then, only. But at the maze, when you came back…I knew then. And I thought that if I ignored it, it would go away, because maybe that’s just how mates feel about each other. But then I talked to Bill, and -“

“You talked to Bill?” Harry asked, and he almost sounded amused.

“Yes,” Ron sighed. “And I dunno, I think - I know that it’s real. I really do. Fancy you, that is. And it’s okay if you don’t back, I mean, I’d understand it, totally. And I would want to be friends. Like we are. Please. Fuck, I shouldn’t’ve said anything, and now -“

Harry interrupted again. “I’m glad you did. You thought…you thought I wouldn’t want to be your friend anymore? If I knew?”

“Yeah,” Ron said quietly. “It’s weird. I know it is.”

“It’s not weird.”

Those words thundered down Ron’s spine. “It’s not?”

“No,” Harry said simply, and he reached across that ever-present chasm, towards Ron’s uncomfortable perch at the foot of the bed, stretching his hand to Ron, palm-upturned and pink. Ron’s head started to buzz, and he uncertainly, gingerly placed the tips of his own freckled fingers in Harry’s.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come tonight,” Harry said. “I just - it felt like a lot, this morning, somehow. And I thought it was in my head. So I didn’t come down, because I realized - well, I knew it all along, but I thought about it - about how weird it was, me just showing up in your room. I didn’t think about it, when I first came to you - I was just…I was scared to be alone and I thought being with someone would help. I thought being with you would help.”

Here he stopped, breathing shallowly, but Ron didn’t speak, afraid to cut whatever thin threads were weaving around them in the candlelight.

“So, yeah…I think. Maybe me, too?”

Ron’s fingers instinctively curled into a fist, taking Harry’s along in the motion. Suddenly, somehow, they were holding hands. Harry’s palm was warm and a little wet against the chill of Ron’s hand.

“You…like me?” Ron asked hesitantly, because what if this was all a mistake, a mistranslation.

“Well,” Harry said with a small smile, tightening his own hand around Ron’s, leaning further forward to the foot of the bed. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

And suddenly, somehow, they were closer. Close. Harry’s eyes were dark and dancing but green, so green, and they were right in front of Ron, and that meant his nose was near Ron’s nose, and his lips were…His lips weren’t just near, suddenly, somehow. They were pressed against Ron’s, and they were dry and trembling just a little, and that feeling in Ron’s gut lurched again, that feeling of fear and wanting and needing and, and, and hope.

They broke apart awkwardly, Harry pulling away, and now Ron saw the fear and worry on his face.

“Thank you,” Ron said automatically, horrifically.

Harry bit a smile into his lips, his teeth scraping against skin. “You’re welcome.”

Ron shook his head, reddening furiously. “That was stupid.”

“A bit, yeah,” Harry said, the smile escaping his teeth.

“I meant that, um, I liked that. I wanted to do that, earlier. But I’m glad it…Glad it was now.”

“Me, too,” Harry said.

Their fingers were still intertwined.

“So, do you think you might be…gay? Or something?” Ron asked after a moment of quiet.

“Or something,” Harry said, shrugging his shoulders. “What about you?”

Ron looked briefly horrified to have his own question turned back on him, and he began to study the thick blankets below. “Bisexual…I think I might be that? I dunno. Bill is.”

“Bisexual?” Harry repeated.

“Yeah, that’s why I went to talk to him.”

Harry nodded. “Yeah, that’s why I went to talk to Sirius.”

Ron’s neck cracked as he looked up at Harry. “Sirius is bi?”

“Not exactly,” Harry laughed quickly. “He’s, um - he’s queer? Says he doesn’t much like labels. Says a lot of things, actually, once you get him going. But mostly, I think he goes in for certain former-Defense Against the Dark Arts professors, you know.”

Ron’s jaw dropped, mind racing. “Not…Like, do you mean Mad-Eye? Because, blimey, that’s just unexpected -“

Harry laughed even harder. “No, not Mad-Eye, you twit. Remus, obviously. Lupin. I mean, come on - they’re practically inseparable, they’re always looking at each other, Lupin’s the only one who can get Sirius to be…well, serious. Anyways, I went to him, a couple nights ago? To ask about…about all of this. And he told me. I mean, where do you think he actually sleeps, with Buckbeak? Says they’ve been together for ages, but they just like to keep it quiet because it’s easier, what with the whole convicted murder, werewolf thing.”

Ron nodded, dumbstruck. It seemed like everyone had secrets and surprises.

“So, then…what do we do?” Ron asked, still uncertain.

Harry let go of his hand, unmooring Ron, and leaning back further into the bed, against the pillows.

“Come over here, maybe?” he said softly.

Ron clumsily drew himself to the head of the bead. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Harry replied.

This time, Ron leaned in for the kiss. And it was wetter than the first, because their mouths opened and their tongues got tangled, and then arms wrapped around waists and legs fit together like puzzle pieces, and Ron felt like the air was being sucked from his lungs, but in a good way, and they only stopped because Harry knocked his teeth against Ron’s in a messy, awkward, painful sort of way. And when they broke apart for the second time, they both knew that they would come back together, again and again.