Ron strode briskly down the driveway of The Burrow, heading for the paddock where the brothers and Harry had played Quidditch many a time during the summers. He wanted to break out into a run so that the wind could cool his fevered face, but held himself in … no need to further embarrass himself, after that display.
His face burned, so much so that anyone looking at him would be quite unable to say where his hairline ended or began. ‘Of all the stupid …brainless … daft … things to say … if there’s one thing guaranteed to make Hermione barking mad … making her sound like … like she’s a maid or something …’
He shook his head, angry at himself and his hair-trigger temper …he had lost count of how many times his temperament had gotten him in hot water … not just in Hogwarts (especially when Malfoy was around) … but all during his growing up years … at times, it seemed that his life was nothing but a series of fights and near-fights, of insults given and insults taken … of his brothers and Ginny holding him back from trying to rub someone’s nose in the dirt … and, lately, of Harry and Hermione holding him back from making an ill-timed or ill-conceived move.
He smiled grimly – at least, he’d had a chance to bloody Malfoy’s nose in first year … although he hadn’t had that satisfaction again until the incident on the Hogwarts Express as they came home from fourth year. The last wasn’t as satisfying, however; he was only one of the five who had hexed Malfoy and his cronies (Fred and George had been with them), and he wasn’t sure if he had hit Malfoy … too much smoke from the combination of hexes they had simultaneously thrown.
He faltered in his walk … ‘yeah, that was fun,’ he thought savagely. ‘About time the stupid gits got something back for all those insults that Harry and Hermione stopped me from. Good thing I had a working wand …’
He shivered suddenly as his mind brought back the time he had tried hexing Malfoy with his Spell-o-taped wand, and he had ended up in Hagrid’s hut spewing up slugs. The mere thought of it made him want to throw up right there … he forced his mind to other things.
The brown hair that fell way past her shoulders and always seemed to fall like a curtain around her face … the brown eyes that sparked with laughter or anger (he had to admit, though, that it more often sparked anger at him) … the strong chin … the perfect teeth …
Teeth. Now why should he be thinking of that, of all things? He’d been there, but not with them, when Draco Malfoy and Harry had cast the hexes that ricocheted against each other – Harry’s Funnunculus Curse hitting Goyle, Malfoy’s Densaugeo hex hitting Hermione, causing her front teeth to grow at an alarming rate …
It wasn’t one of his fondest memories of the four years spent, so far, at Hogwarts. He and Harry had been so furious at Snape that they lost fifty points for Gryffindor (thank God there was no House Championship then because of the tournament!), and a detention pickling rat’s brains in Snape’s dungeon.
To top it all, that was the time when he wasn’t talking to Harry … teed off as he was with the Goblet of Fire’s designation of Harry as the second Hogwarts champion. Even now, he wished he could sink into the ground at the thought … better yet, he sometimes wished he could perform a Memory Charm on himself and Harry so that the recollection of those weeks would not come back to haunt him and taunt him, especially at times like this.
He forced his thoughts away from that, but they only shifted back to Hermione … Hermione going back and forth between the two of them, trying to convince them to start talking to each other again … his stubborn refusal to do so unless and until Harry admitted that he had lied to him about putting his name in the Goblet …
‘God, what an absolute prat I was!’, Ron thought. He knew, deep inside, that he was acting the complete fool, but he was just too stubborn to admit it. What made it worse was Rita Skeeter’s article on Harry, the Hogwarts’ Champion – she had quite forgotten that Cedric Diggory was also a Hogwarts’ Champion – and Harry’s supposedly “finding love” in the person of Hermione.
That had pissed him off, royally. It was as if he were a non-existent, unimportant smudge of dirt in the whole scheme of things … that his friendship with the great Harry Potter was of no consequence … the only reason Hermione even got a mention then was because she was a girl … on the other hand, maybe that was better. If Skeeter had focused on him … what would she have come up with?
He stopped, and burst out laughing. ‘Weird,’ he thought, “I was so mad at being left out of that dammed article that I didn’t even think of what it would have looked like if she did … what was that French word that Fred and George were sniggering about? Menage–a-trois? Now that would have sent Mum and Dad to the moon on their own power … On the other hand, if Skeeter had focused on me … bleargh!”
He looked back at his house … his home … the place he had shared with his best friends for the past three years. Was that the problem? he thought. He’d shared so much of what he could share with them … his home, his family, his knowledge of the wizarding world … his time … that he had felt left out … he couldn’t believe that Harry didn’t even tell him about putting his name into the Goblet …
He sighed, again, and sat on the dewy grass, holding his head in his hands. Yes, he thought, Hermione was a better friend than I was at that time … he couldn’t get past his anger at Harry, even with Hermione’s logical explanation at breakfast the day after Halloween. He could still remember her brown eyes flashing in anger at him as she said in a coldly furious voice, “Fine! Be a prat for all I care … why should Harry tell you anything when it’s obvious that he didn’t do anything?”
He’d watched her gather a stack of toast into a napkin, on her way, no doubt, to console Harry. He couldn’t stop himself hissing at her, “You care for him more than you do for me, Hermione! Why? Because he’s famous Harry Potter and I’m just an ordinary Weasley?”
For a single, wild moment, Ron fully understood what Draco Malfoy must have felt when Hermione, in a fit of righteous anger, slapped him in their third year. The fury in her eyes was something to behold … he’d consciously braced himself for the slap that he had so richly deserved … and sighed with relief when she stormed off with her stack of toast.
The whole table had fallen silent at that exchange. When he looked around at his companions, no one was looking at him. Even Fred, George and Ginny had avoided him when he looked at them … only Neville had the courage (or the sheer tactlessness) to make the statement that capped that morning for him, “That was stupid, Ron.”
He knew everyone at the table agreed.
He sighed. He’d made up for that stupid remark later, and was always extremely grateful that Hermione seemed to have forgotten about it by that afternoon. But, like a still unhealed wound, the memory kept pricking at him at unwanted times … reminding him, once again, of the flaws in his character … the flaws that made him, Ron Weasley, what he was now …
He shook the thought off, and stood up. He didn’t need that kind of thinking to muddle up his day, so early in the morning. He continued his brisk walk to the paddock, but the turmoil in his mind refused to leave.
What was he now, he wondered to himself. Ronald Weasley. Sixth child in a brood of seven. Family of pure-bloods, as far as he knew. Father, Arthur Weasley, head of an obscure and boring department in the Ministry of Magic. Mother, Molly Weasley, house-witch. Tall, red headed, with big feet and hands. Two brothers, former Head Boys of Hogwarts – one now working with Gringotts, the other with the Ministry of Magic. Another brother, star Quidditch player and Seeker, who could have played for England if he wanted to, but happier and thriving as he chased dragons in Rumania.
Two other brothers, Quidditch Beaters but better known for the pranks and misdeeds that matched or even outshone the pranks of the legendary Marauders. If ever Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes got off the ground, they’d be even more popular in the wizarding world, rather than in the limited circle of the Hogwarts’ student body and alumni.
One sister, who opened the Chamber of Secrets in her first year. He reflected that that was a reputation he could very well do without but wondered, briefly, how Ginny put up with it.
And he? What was his claim to fame?
He was the best friend of The Boy Who Lived.
Yeah, right … but even that was being threatened by Hermione Granger. After Skeeter’s articles in the Daily Prophet during the Tri-Wizard Tournament, the fact of his friendship with Harry Potter was thrown into the shadows, eclipsed by the titillating matter of The Boy Who Lived’s love life. More so when her name was linked with that of Victor Krum, the star of the Bulgarian National Quidditch Team.
So, what was he? He did have that Award for Special Services to the school, after they had rescued Ginny from the Chamber of Secrets … but who cared? Who would even remember about it, fifty years from now? He remembered his detention in the trophy room during that same year, polishing up all those plaques and awards … he had surprised Harry and Hermione when he told them who Tom Riddle was, but that was only because he had spent so much time polishing the dammed award – only to spew out slugs all over the shiny thing …
Was that how he was going to be remembered in the future? By some unfortunate student in detention, forced to shine plaques and awards without resort to magic, and thereby coerced into remembering his name because of the odious task? And if that unfortunate ever tried to find out what it was that earned him that award … he’d have learned that it had something to do with Harry Potter … and his moment of glory will fade away …
He mused again about the Mirror of Erised, and what it had reflected back to him when he stood before it the first time. He’d had an easier time of it than Harry … Harry had kept coming back again and again, evading detection from Filch and the professors so that he could sit in front of the mirror and contemplate his parents.
It had taken Dumbledore and the actual removal of the Mirror to break Harry’s enchantment with it. He, on the other hand, needed only that one look to convince him that the Mirror was lying, and was a bad influence. Why? Because he knew that what he saw in the Mirror, enchanting as it was, a reflection of his deepest desires that it was, was ultimately false. He would never be Head Boy … he would never be captain of Quidditch … he would never be receiving the Quidditch Cup or the House Cup from Dumbledore … he would never be anything than what he was now … a virtual non-entity in the wizarding world, except for his friendship with Harry.
From the depths of his mind’s graveyards where a thousand or a million unwanted thoughts were buried, came Draco Malfoy’s cutting words as they waited to be Sorted: “No need to ask who you are. Red hair, hand me down robes. You can only be a Weasley.”
That was his claim to fame then … and he remembered with immense gratification and surprise Harry’s reaction when Draco extended his hand to him: “I think I can decide who I want as my friends.”
Malfoy had never been able to live that snub down; he had taken every opportunity to taunt Ron and Hermione ever since. He had never taken those insults lightly: too many times had Harry and Hermione stopped him from trying to curse Malfoy. Hermione, on the other hand, allowed the insults to roll off her … except when she had slapped Malfoy for laughing at Hagrid, and on the Hogwarts Express when they were going home.
He had to admit, though, that he admired Hermione for her coolness in dealing with insults – even during their fourth year with all the insults and jeers, to say nothing of the hate mail when Skeeter claimed she was playing with the affections of Harry and Krum. She had never let it affect her … it had always been Ron who stood up for her …
No, he admitted to himself. Harry did, too … again, the “teething” incident came to mind. Harry hadn’t reacted when Draco and the Slytherins were flashing their “Support Cedric Diggory” buttons around – he’d pulled his wand when Draco insulted Hermione … which led to the unfortunate circumstances … or maybe not. At least she’d gotten her teeth fixed magically … the now-perfect teeth that …
Again, he pushed the thought away. He was beginning to feel like that Greek guy who was forever pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it slide down and away every time he neared the top. Walks alone like this bothered him … too much time to think and reflect. He preferred walking with someone beside him, chattering … at least, he didn’t have to think about his life …
Which, to a large extent, was the reason why he often seemed to be bickering with Hermione. Harry, good friend that he was, too often fell prey to introspection and deep thinking, used as he was to silence when he was growing up. Ron, on the other hand, liked the noise … it kept him from thinking too much. Which was why he often picked on Hermione … even when they’d called a truce after the Yule Ball …
He’d reached the paddock and stopped. Taking a deep breath of the fresh, cool air, he looked around at the place where he had grown up. The paddock was high enough to afford a good view of the surrounding countryside … but he had never liked that view. It made him feel insignificant … as if he didn’t feel insignificant every day of his life.
‘This is a bad idea,’ he thought. ‘Best get back to the house …’ but he cringed at the thought. How was he going to take back that hurtful tone of voice he used to Hermione … and how did he explain things like that to his best friend? They were both guests of the family … as well as his two best friends in the world …
Startled, he spun around to see a slight figure sitting on the ground, wearing a scarlet Quidditch robe … and saw brown eyes staring at him. His mouth dropped, his chest beating rapidly for a split second before his brain registered the ray of sunlight that brilliantly highlighted a head of hair as red as his own, as well as the fact that the Quidditch robes were old, worn and faded.
“Wh … what are you doing here, Ginny?” he croaked.
“Thinking,” his sister replied. Peering at his stricken expression, she asked, “Why? Were you expecting someone else? Like … ummm … Herm-own-ninny?”
“Shut up, Ginny,” he said as he leaned against a tree. He was looking away from her, and heard her giggling softly. His face flushed, but he resolutely forced the retort away from his lips. “So, what are you doing here, Gin?”
“As I said, thinking. I’ve been up for hours … sitting here … watching the world go by and the sun come up.”
His head whipped to her and he heard his voice speaking before he could clamp down on his lips, “Did you …”
“Uh-huh. It was so sweet …” Ginny said in a wistful voice. She was looking off into the distance, pictures, images and words passing through her mind’s eye. Ron turned away from her … he didn’t want to hear anything about that right now. Although he hadn’t really seen anything, the image of Harry and Hermione when they fell through the door, with Hermione in Harry’s mud- and grass-stained robes was something he would gladly do without. His head whipped back, however, as he heard Ginny say in a near-whisper, “It reminded me so much of Bill …”
Ginny looked at him with an exasperated air. “Is there any other Bill that you know? Hellooo … of course, Bill … you know, your oldest brother?”
Ron gaped at her. She continued in a wistful voice, “He and I used to sit out there when I was seven or eight years old, just watching the sun rise. We never really talked … he just sat there with me … it was somehow … comforting to me … sometimes, he’ll just hug me and I would feel safe … as if everything that was happening was going to be all right.”
Ginny’s voice and breathing hitched, “He found me sitting on that terrace outside the hotel in Egypt … he just sat down beside me … gave me a hug, and we watched the sunrise together … I felt comfortable … at peace, finally after … after …”
He caught the sheen of tears in her eyes, and stood there, frozen. He didn’t know what to do or how to react … wildly, his mind went back to third year when a crying Hermione suddenly hugged him when he promised to help her with Hagrid’s appeal for Buckbeak … and he knew what he must do now.
He walked over and sat down beside his sister, and gave her as tight a hug as he could, and felt her tears leaking through his shirt. “Shhh,” he whispered as he tried to comfort her, “Shhh, come on, it’s all right … it’s all right …”
He heard Ginny’s muffled voice coming from the region of his chest, “It was so sweet, Ron … I thought I heard Harry going out of the house, and I wanted to go with him … but then I heard Hermione getting up and going out … I couldn’t help myself … I went and got Charlie’s old robes … remember, he gave them to me when he graduated from Hogwarts … and went out here to watch … it was so beautiful …”
“They weren’t snogging the whole time, were they?” Ron said, trying for a light moment – and was surprised when Ginny suddenly shoved him away. He fell back on the wet grass, narrowly missing the thick roots of a tree. “Ow! What did you do that for?”
Ginny was standing over him, hands on hips, brown eyes blazing with fury. For a brief, frightening moment, he thought it was Hermione standing over him – except that this Hermione had blazing red hair … “You can be a daft, insensitive, dense, prat, Ron! And you’ve got a dirty mind, to boot!”
“Well, what the hell am I supposed to think?” he blazed back. “They spend hours out here, and come back to the house all muddied up, as if they’ve been mud-wrestling … looking happy and contented … leaving me, their “best” friend behind … they’re not even sharing what they’re talking about with me …”
“Wow!” Ginny said, in a highly sarcastic tone, “Jealous, are we?”
“Shut up, Ginny,” he said from his position on the ground. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? Harry and Hermione had a quiet moment together … in much the same way that Bill and I had our quiet moments … and then, you come up here with your dirty mind and mess it up …”
“Well, he’s not her brother, is he?”
Ginny stared at him, momentarily stunned into silence. In a hoarse whisper, she said, “You dumb, stupid, pathetic git. Harry might as well be, they might as well be … he’s an only child … she’s an only child … where else do you think they’ll find that kind of comfort and affection? From you? That’s a laugh!”
Ron, who had stood up, was rocked back by that statement. Brother-sister affection? Harry, thinking of Hermione as nothing more than a sister that he’d never had? Hermione, seeing in Harry a brother that she never had? Some part of his fevered brain locked on to that thought and saw the logic behind it … but the stubbornly tactless part of his being responded, “Stop that oh, so holy act, Ginny! You’re just jealous of Hermione … you wanted to be in her place … you want to be the one hugging and kissing Harry … you wanted to be the one to get his Quidditch robes …”
Some primal instinct made him duck and step back, barely missing the open-handed slap that Ginny threw at him. As he stepped back, however, he stumbled once again on an exposed tree root, and laid there, looking up at a blazingly furious Ginny Weasley.
“So what if I wanted to? At least, he’ll be there for me … he’d be hugging me … he’d be comforting me … he’d have protected me! He’d be better as a brother than you, you stupid git … so tied up in yourself … so tied up with the Trio that you don’t have any time for your sister … at least Harry cares … you never did!” With that, Ginny turned and ran away from him, her robes flapping.
Ron froze, shocked. “Bloody hell,” he thought, “I’ve really done it this time!”
He jumped to his feet and looked around. Ginny was running away from the paddock, her tear-clouded eyes blurring the fact that she was not headed for The Burrow but was running blindly away. Ron started running after her, his long legs swiftly closing the distance, as he shouted, “Ginny! Wait! I’m sorry, Ginny … please!”
Ginny didn’t hear him, or wouldn’t listen to him. He doubled his speed, finally catching up with her and, using a tactic from their younger days, grabbed her in a crushing bear hug. Ginny, however, tried to fight back, hitting him with her fists, crying all the time, telling him, “Let go of me! Let go, I said …”
He only hugged her tighter, whispering, “I’m sorry, Gin … I’m so sorry … It’s just that … I don’t know … call it jealousy … call it what you will … I’m so sorry … You’re right … I should have been more of a brother … I’m just a stupid, insensitive git … you don’t deserve me …”
Finally, Ginny gave up hitting him, but she did not return his hug. She stood still, while he hugged her and, to her utter surprise, she felt tears falling on her hair. She heard him speaking in a hoarse whisper, “I’m sorry, Ginny … I should have been there for you … I didn’t know what to do … when I learned you’d been taken into the Chamber … I just … just collapsed … I couldn’t think straight … couldn’t do anything …”
Finally, Ginny hugged her brother. “But you were there, Ron … I was so surprised … getting out of the Chamber … seeing you there, trying to dig a way out of the tunnel …”
Ron interrupted her, “I wouldn’t have been there if Harry hadn’t gone after you … I would have been sitting around the common room with Fred, George and Percy … sitting around, waiting for word whether they’d found you … it’s a good thing that Harry decided to go to Lockhart …”
He trailed off. That was another memory he would prefer to have forgotten, or obliviated out of his mind. He didn’t want to go over it again with Ginny … she had been the cause of it, whether she liked it or not, even if she had been corrupted and enchanted by that infernal diary … he didn’t want to dredge up old, painful memories again.
He felt her shifting uncomfortably, and he let go. Ginny turned away from him, and said in a small voice, “I miss Bill.”
“So do I.” Ron took a deep breath. “He’d always known what to do … what exactly to say … I should have learned more from him.” He looked away from Ginny, and said in a low voice, “He’s almost like Harry in some ways … he’ll just do the right thing … say the right words … he won’t even need to think about it … he’ll just do it, and things turn out all right, one way or another.”
“He’s a great friend, Ron.”
They’d sat down, facing each other, lost in their respective thoughts. The silence stretched … and then Ron said, “You’re right. He’d make a great brother … especially to an immature, insecure git like me.”
“But … I think he’d make a better brother-in-law, don’t you?”
Ginny’s head snapped up, eyes narrowed – prepared for an angry retort. She was surprised to see Ron smiling at her, an eyebrow raised in that mocking look she knew too well … and realized that he was serious. He wasn’t joking, wasn’t being sarcastic … he was simply stating a fact to her.
“Yeah, he would.” A smile flickered across her face. “For you or for me?”
“Oi,” he shouted, throwing some grass at her, which she ducked. “What do you think of me? A fairy?”
“Well …” she said with a smirk. This time, Ron grabbed her in a headlock and started tickling her, saying “Take that back, you … you … witch.”
“OK, OK,” she said, laughing. “I take it back … I take it back …”
Ron let go of her, and they looked at each other. Ginny giggled … Ron snickered … soon enough, the siblings were rolling on the ground, laughing. The paddock rang with their laughter … manic, hysterical, but somehow cleansing, for both of them … they hadn’t laughed together like this for ages … he’d always been laughing at her, or she would be laughing at him … they’d forgotten the joy that shared merriment gave, especially to siblings that seemed to have grown apart …
Soon enough, the laughter stopped as they felt a stitch in their sides. They looked at each other, and smiled.
“Thanks, Ginny. I needed that,” Ron said.
“No, thank you, brother o’ mine.” Ron smiled, Ginny hadn’t called him that, except in a sarcastic manner, since he had gone to Hogwarts four years ago. Somehow, it seemed right that she called him that now, a reaffirmation of the affection that they’d had for each other somewhere in what had seemed to be a lost childhood for both.
“So, what now, Gin-ninny?” Ginny glanced at him with a smile – that was his nickname for her when she was much, much younger. She’d always found it endearing … until the day she learned what a “ninny” meant … it had taken Ron a week before the bruises she gave him faded.
“Want a fat lip, brother o’ mine?” Ron held up both hands in a defensive gesture, and shook his head. Ginny looked up at the sky, as if hoping that an answer could be found there. She suddenly stood up, excitedly pointing something out to Ron, “Look, Ron! School owls!”
He shaded his eyes and looked where she was pointing. Sure enough, several owls were flying towards The Burrow. He also stood up, and brushed off the seat of his pants. “Let’s head back, Ginny … Mum’ll be worried.”
They started walking back to the house; for once, Ron felt comfortable with the silence from his sister. After a minute, however, he spoke up, “Ginny?”
She stopped and looked at him, eyebrow raised in a question. “Ummm …” he said, uncomfortably. “Promise me … next time I start acting like a prat … don’t wait for Hermione to hit me … do it yourself.”
She looked at him, surprised – and saw that he was serious. Slowly, she nodded, “OK. I promise.”
Ron nodded at her, and started walking again. She stood still for a moment, a smile slowly forming on her face. In a lilting voice, she called out, “Ronnnie!”
Ron stopped and looked at her. Suddenly, she slapped him – a move which he just barely ducked. “What was that for?”
She smiled. “You asked for it … that was for what you did earlier.”
“Hey, I said staring now … I haven’t done anything yet!”
“You will,” she smirked at him. “You will …”
“Why, you …” he made a move to grab her, but she eluded him. Sticking her tongue out at him in a gesture again reminiscent of their childhood, she suddenly bolted for the house, laughing.
Ron shook his head, smiled, and started running after her, calling out threats the whole time.