Apparition wasn't always Harry's favourite method of travelling, but when the choices fell between that, Floo powder or spending half an hour on the Muggle Underground, he would Apparate every time - even if it did mean that he sometimes ended up in the broom cupboard by mistake.
It could have been worse, he thought philosophically, as he disentangled himself from an old vacuum cleaner and stepped out of the cupboard. He could have actually ended up inside the machine - as Neville had once - and accidents could be forgiven as the little hallway was very small. Even in a shared student house, one didn't Apparate directly into the living room or kitchen without warning (highly impolite in the wizarding world), and Apparating into the bedrooms or bathroom was a sure way to get yourself yelled at by someone.
As he pulled his cloak off wearily and hung it on his peg, his eyes flicked up at the clock reflexively. Seamus's hand was still pointing at Gringotts; Dean's at the Ministry of Magic; Ginny's at St. Mungo's Hospital; Neville's, unsurprisingly, was pointing at "lost"; and Ron's said "travelling". Only Hermione's was pointing at "home", other than his own. Harry nodded to himself, and wandered through the house until he tracked down Hermione in the kitchen.
"Isn't it my turn to get dinner?" he asked, a little surprised to find her standing before the stove, stirring a pan of something firmly.
"I was home early," she said with a shrug and a smile. "I thought I might as well give you a hand. You can butter the bread if you like. Ginny's on a late shift and Seamus is going to be late."
"Seamus is always late. And Neville's - "
"- lost, yes, I noticed. I don't know why he doesn't just use the Floo network, if he's scared of splinching himself."
"Probably because the last time he used Floo powder to get home, he landed in some elderly witch's fireplace in Somerset." There was another clock on the wall in the kitchen; Harry looked up at it again, but Ron was still "travelling". "Where's Ron been all day? I haven't seen him since early morning."
Hermione shook her head. "I'm not sure but I think he got sent up to Hogwarts. Wherever it is, he decided to fly, and you know how slow that old Nimbus 2000 of his is now. The tail-twigs are practically dropping off."
"I'm amazed he didn't simply Apparate to Hogsmeade and walk to the school. He's the laziest sod I know - he wouldn't get up in the morning if I didn't kick him out of bed. And why didn't he take my Firebolt if he was going that far?"
"You know what he's like about borrowing your stuff," she reminded him.
Harry sighed. "I'm going to have to have the "what's mine is yours" talk with him again."
"Good luck," she said dryly. The "talk" hadn't been very successful in the past.
Ron's hand on the clock suddenly spun around to "home" and moments later he was walking through the kitchen door, looking very pink-cheeked and windblown. He also looked extremely grumpy; probably the result of having to travel a great distance on a slow broomstick.
"Hey," Harry greeted him.
Ron sort of grunted in response, making Hermione roll her eyes in exasperation, and went straight to the fridge to grab a bottle of Bertie Bott's Famous Fizz-Zing Cola.
"Long trip?" persisted Harry patiently.
"Mmph." Ron flipped the cap off the bottle and took a long swig. At twenty-one he was over six feet tall, though he would always be slender in build, and his red hair was, like Harry's, naturally untidy.
Right now it was practically standing on end. Harry resisted the urge to go and flatten it for him, knowing that the effort would be as fruitless as with his own. And attempting it while Ron was in a bad mood was not a good idea anyway.
He tried again: "So where've you been?"
"Hogwarts." Ron took another swig of cola and rested his back against the fridge door wearily.
"You must have been flying nearly all day, to have got there and back by now."
"Tell me about it. My rear end's numb, and the damn compass went nuts at one point - I nearly ended up in Pontypridd."
"It's probably losing its direction spell," Hermione advised him. "Swap it for the compass on my Comet. It's not like I'm ever going to take that old thing any great distance."
Ron shrugged, clearly not appeased.
"Why didn't you Apparate to Hogsmeade?" asked Harry, muttering a softening charm over the rock-hard block of butter.
"Because I was specifically requested not to." Ron's tone became even sourer. "Apparently they're testing some kind of new anti-Apparition spell over Hogwarts, and last week someone Apparating to Hogsmeade nearly got fried by it. So I had to fly there. I've never understood why Hogwarts isn't on the Floo network."
"You could have taken the Firebolt - that would have knocked a couple of hours off the time."
There was a sticky pause. Then Ron said, in an embarrassed mutter, "Actually, I thought Seamus said something about the saddle spell on it slipping."
Harry nearly jumped on the statement, for he knew perfectly well that there was nothing wrong with the Firebolt - it was still the most reliable broom money could buy, and the saddle spell had never been known to slip. But arguing the point with Ron when he was in already in a temper was simply an all-round bad move, so with an effort Harry bit his tongue and said more mildly, "I didn't realise. It seemed okay to me the other day."
A little red-faced, Ron said, "Well, we're not all Mr. Perfect-Balance like you."
The comment might still have stung if he hadn't reached out and touched Harry's shoulder as he said it.
"None of us are Mr. Perfect-Balance-Ex-Gryffindor-Seeker-and-most-wanted-man-for-the-England-Team," Hermione joked, breaking the ice, and they all grinned. Harry being chased to be the England Seeker was an old joke between the three of them.
Like being anything other than an Auror had ever been an option for any of them.
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Harry said, with a melodramatic sigh.
"I think the crowning moment," Hermione reminisced, "was the way Oliver Wood nearly wept with frustration when you said no was no, and that was final."
"Wept? I thought he was about to curse him." Ron tossed his empty bottle in the waste bin, and seemed to relax.
That reminded Harry of something he'd been itching to tell his friend all day. A laugh might lighten him up a bit.
"I saw Percy today."
"That must have been nice for you," Ron commented sardonically.
"Someone sent him a curse - "
"Hope it was a good one - "
"The Chatter-Teeth Curse. Every time he said something, his teeth dropped out onto his desk and repeated everything he said."
Ron let out a great snort of laughter.
Harry hid his grin, pleased. "Well, you know what Percy's like," he continued. "He was outraged and kept going on about it, so we had a really hard time keeping his teeth in his mouth long enough to put a fixing spell on them."
That got a laugh from Ron and Hermione, although the latter tried hard to look sympathetic.
"Excellent!" Ron grinned. "Who sent it to him? It sounds like one of Fred and George's inventions."
"We checked but it couldn't have been them, so we're still looking. Good thing Cho was with me, though – I could never have kept a straight face if I'd been on my own."
Ron tried to keep his tone casual, but neither Harry nor Hermione was fooled. Like Harry, he tended to be an insecure person, but for entirely different reasons. Old flames were a touchy subject, and Harry had been involved with Cho Chang for the whole of his sixth year at Hogwarts.
Of course, the fact that Ron had been involved with Hermione for part of that time was beside the point.
"Yeah. She drew the short straw." Harry shrugged, transferring slices of buttered bread to a plate with a wave of his wand. "If you'd been in London, it would probably have been you with me and Percy would never have got his teeth back in."
"That'd be a disaster, wouldn't it?"
"Who would send a curse like that to Percy?" Hermione wondered, giving the contents of her pan an absent-minded prod with the wooden spoon. "I mean, I know he's pedantic and a bit stuffy – "
" – but it's not like he holds a major position at the Ministry of Magic. He's just a paper-pusher, really."
"Wash your mouth out," Ron advised her. "The Ministry would be lost without him and his cauldron reports."
Harry shook his head, and directed his wand at the store cupboard, causing several packets of Busy-Witch Quick-Cook Pasta Shapes to fly out and deposit themselves on the worktop.
"I'm thinking it's old Mundungus Fletcher again," he commented, putting a second saucepan on the stove and tapping the rim with his wand. The pan began to fill with boiling water, and Ron obligingly opened the pasta packets for him, tipping the shapes into the water. "We'll have a hard time proving it, but he's had it in for Percy ever since he turned down the old miser's compensation claim after the Quidditch World Cup."
"Why did they even bother calling the Aurors in?" Ron demanded. "Dad and Percy's offices get sent curses and Howlers practically every day."
"Yeah, but this one turned up without a return address on the envelope. That's pretty rare these days; no one wants the Aurors actually turning up on their doorstep when they're finally identified," Harry pointed out.
"Barking," Ron said, shaking his head. "With You-Know-Who and his gang of sycophants gathering strength out there, why would anyone be stupid enough to send curses to the Ministry without identifying why they're being sent? No, scratch that – why does anyone send curses at all? It's a sure way to get a fully armed Auror Apparating onto your dining room table when you least expect it."
Harry had a sudden, bizarre image of Ron, untidy hair, messy robes and all, erupting like a Strippergram out of the middle of some harmless wizard's birthday cake. He let out an explosive snort of laughter and sparks shot from the end of his wand, blasting hot water and half-cooked pasta out of his saucepan and halfway across the kitchen.
"Someone could have warned me it's Neville's turn to cook dinner," a weary Dean Thomas complained, as he walked through the door and got plastered in the soggy stuff.
Harry awoke to the kind of darkness that usually only falls during the very early hours of the morning. For a moment he lay very still, wondering what had woken him. Then he realised he couldn't hear another person breathing. He rolled over and flung out one arm, but the bed beside him was empty.
Ron was missing.
That was unusual, for generally speaking Ron slept like the dead, and rarely got out at night even to use the bathroom. It was Harry whose occasional nightmares and sleepwalking fits tended to wake the entire household.
Harry waited for perhaps five minutes, in case Ron really had gone to the bathroom, then got up and pulled on his dressing gown. Fumbling a little in the darkness, he found his spectacles and wand on the bedside table and whispered "Lumos," to the latter.
A tiny glow appeared on the tip of his wand and produced enough light for him to see – much to his disquiet – that Ron had cast off his pyjamas and dressed in his outdoor clothes; jeans, sweatshirt and an old brown robe he wore during off-duty hours.
How did he manage that without waking me up? Harry wondered, but the truth was that they were both so accustomed to each other that he wouldn't necessarily wake if Ron was very quiet.
In fact, he still wasn't sure what had woken him now, except that he had gone to sleep feeling concerned about his friend. Despite the temporary lightening of his mood during dinner, Ron had been tense and edgy all evening, and had eventually slouched off to bed early without saying anything to anyone, even Harry.
He could be a moody person at the best of times, but his behaviour last night had been unusual enough for Dean to remark on it, and had they not all been more concerned with Neville still being "lost" at nearly midnight (although it wasn't the first time he'd gone missing overnight, and he usually turned up looking sheepish the next morning), Harry might have made a greater push to find out what was on Ron's mind.
But by the time he'd climbed the stairs himself to their bedroom in the attic, Ron had already been huddled up on the far side of the bed, hogging most of the covers and resolutely refusing to crack open an eyelid.
Puzzled and disquieted, Harry left their room and slowly walked down the stairs, checking in the communal bathroom on the way, just in case. When he reached the first floor and peered over the banisters, he could see a light under the living room door.
Padding barefoot and silent down the passage, Harry stretched out a hand and pushed the living room door open –
- and nearly had a heart attack when something solid and furry howled and went streaking past his ankles at top speed.
Harry leaned back against the wall for a moment, gasping softly. "Damn cat!" he whispered, for he realised almost immediately that it must have been Crookshanks.
Then he frowned. What on earth had made the creature behave like that? He glanced back up the stairs, but there was no sign of the ginger monster; he was undoubtedly in Hermione's room already.
Straightening up, he pushed the door open completely and walked into the living room.
Ron was standing in front of the curtained windows, with his back to the room and his shoulders hunched. His arms were wrapped tightly across his chest and he was pacing back and forth – a few steps to the left and a few to the right.
Harry whispered "Nox" to his wand and the light on its tip went out. He stepped forward cautiously, worried by the furrows on his friend's brow and his agitated movements.
"Ron? What's going on? Why are you out of bed?"
"Go 'way, Harry." The words were muffled, but it almost sounded like the other man was in pain.
"Don't be stupid." The words came out with an automatic roughness born of deep affection. "What's the matter? Are you ill?"
"No. Please go away. I'll – I'll come to bed in a while."
His voice was pitifully small, and suddenly Harry remembered times from their schooldays when Ron had been utterly terrified and unable to hide it. He had sounded just as small then, like a child who realises that his parents can't stop it hurting this time.
Shocked, Harry stretched a hand out to his shoulder. "Turn around – "
But it was too late. Harry had already grabbed him and the force of his pull dragged Ron around to face him.
Harry took an involuntary step back. It was Ron, but it wasn't. Something about his eyes was just plain wrong.
"Ron?" he whispered, horrified.
And like a sudden splash of acid to the face, the scar on Harry's forehead burst into white-hot, crippling pain. Harry let out a cry before he could stop himself, and clapped both hands to his head, but the agony was total, like the worst infliction of the Cruciatus curse, as bad as he had ever felt from his scar. Tears sprang to his eyes, but sensing movement he looked up –
- and saw Ron levelling his wand at him, with a look his friend had never seen before on his face.
Sheer luck saved Harry's life. As Ron opened his mouth to speak a curse, bright green flames sprang up in the fireplace and a whooshing sound heralded the arrival of someone via Floo powder. The distraction was enough that his aim was off when he shouted the words:
A bolt of searing heat and bright green light shot past Harry's left cheek, knocking him sideways to the floor and blasting a hole the size of a dinner table right through the wall behind him. The noise was incredible, adding to the sickening ringing sounds in Harry's left ear as he lay on the floor, half-stunned.
He stayed conscious just long enough to hear Neville's voice, high-pitched with shock, shouting, "Stupefy!".
And then he passed out.