He was drowning. It was so cold and he was drowning. The locket was choking him and he was drowning. Arms were closing around his chest but he was still drowning.
Then he was coughing and spluttering and he was not drowning. Harry was lying prone on the frozen ground, drawing rattling breaths of crisp, cold air and he was alive.
He could hear someone else staggering around heavily. Then they were yelling at him.
The sound of his voice was all Harry needed to find the strength to get to his feet again. Ron was holding the sword of Gryffindor in one hand and the locket in the other. He was soaked and his clothes were beginning to stiffen in the frigid air.
“Why the hell didn’t you take the damn thing off before diving in?”
Harry was too cold and shocked to answer. He just stumbled forward towards Ron numbly. Ron dropped the sword and locket and bent to pick up Harry’s discarded clothes. By the time Harry was close enough to reach out to him Ron had stretched open the neck of his first sweater and was shoving it over his head. Ron tried to pull it the rest of the way on but Harry’s hands were clinging to the front of Ron’s jacket. Harry was leaning very close to his face and squinting at him.
Ron immediately realized the problem and bent to find Harry’s glasses. He placed them carefully on Harry’s face and smiled at him cautiously. “It’s me.”
Harry was beginning to shiver violently. “H-how are y-you here?” He asked with his hands still clutching at Ron’s jacket.
“I came back.” Ron wouldn’t meet his eyes now. “I’ll tell you about it later. Right now we need to get your clothes on or you’re going to freeze to death.”
Harry nodded numbly. He relaxed his grip on Ron’s jacket and Ron immediately seized the opportunity to start stuffing his arms into the sweater. Harry continued to shiver and tremble as Ron helped him with his two other sweaters and his jeans. He then grabbed Harry’s hands and started breathing on them. They were so cold that Harry couldn’t feel the difference but he was sure it would help. When Ron finally stopped Harry drew his hands up into the sleeves of his sweaters and crossed his arms over his chest. He glanced at the locket lying on the ground near Ron’s feet. It’s malign presence couldn’t be ignored for long. Ron bent to pick up the sword and held it out to Harry. Harry shook his head and drew his arms closer to his body.
“I think you should do it.”
Ron stared at him. “Why?”
Harry looked away. He didn’t know how to say it without it sounding awful and accusatory. He shrugged.
Ron was still holding the sword out to Harry. Harry took a step back and Ron stepped forward. “I can’t do it, Harry.” He thrust the sword towards Harry. “Please, Harry, you don’t understand. I can’t do it.”
Harry bent to pick up the locket and placed it on a flat rock. “You can.”
Ron was shaking his head now and backing away from the locket. “No! I can’t! That thing is bad for me, Harry. I can’t handle it. It makes me think things! Stuff I was thinking anyway but it makes it worse. I’m not trying to make excuses for how I acted, Harry, but that thing made me lose control. I left you.”
Harry reached for Ron’s left hand, the one not holding the sword now hanging limply at his side. He held Ron’s hand in both of his and spoke to the side of his face while Ron watched the locket fearfully.
“That’s why it has to be you. You can do it, Ron. I know you can. It doesn’t control you anymore. Don’t let it.”
Harry let go of his hand and backed away slowly, still watching Ron’s face. “Okay?” Ron nodded. “It’s going to put up a fight.”
Ron nodded again, not looking away from the locket. His grip on the sword tightened and he lifted it in front of him, grabbing it with his left hand as well.
“I’m going to open it, okay?”
“Okay.” Ron’s voice was rough but steady.
Harry finally looked away from Ron towards the locket. “Open.”
Ron tensed at the sibilant sound and the locket opened with a tiny click. There was an eye behind each of the two glass windows in the locket. Tom Riddle’s eyes. Ron raised the sword to strike but hesitated as the locket began to speak to him.
“I have seen your heart, and it is mine.”
Harry’s jaw clenched but he held his ground. “Don’t listen to it.”
“I have seen your dreams, Ronald Weasley, and I have seen your fears. All you desire is possible, but all that you dread is also possible....”
Harry didn’t speak this time. He had no doubt that Ron could handle this.
“Least loved, always, by the mother who craved a daughter… Least loved, now, by the boy who prefers your sister... Second best, always, eternally overshadowed…”
Harry felt nauseous, his throat dry. “Ron-”
Before Harry could say anything else something began to emerge from the windows of the locket. A grotesquely distorted image of Harry’s head rose and rose followed by his body until only his feet remained in the locket. It spoke and the voice was that of Voldemort himself. Harry trembled at the image, one of his worst fears come to life.
“Why return? I was better without you, happier without you, glad of your absence.... I laughed at your stupidity, your cowardice, your presumption. How could I look at you next to Ginny? So much smarter, so much more beautiful than you. What could you be to the Boy Who Lived?”
Harry was watching Ron now. Ron’s face was drained of color and the tip of the sword was shaking violently.
“Your mother has said she would have preferred me as a son. And I prefer your sister. What is to stop me from taking your place? It’s only a matter of time before Ginny and I are married. And it would be so much better if you were out of the picture completely.”
Harry had stopped breathing at some point during his doppelganger's tirade. He couldn’t move, couldn’t run to Ron’s side to support him, to tell him it’s not true.
“You are nothing, nothing, nothing to me.”
Ron howled in anguish and raised the sword high before plunging it down into the locket. A scream tore through the air as locket-Harry vanished. Ron stood before the destroyed locket for a long moment before dropping to his knees. At this, Harry was finally spurred into action. He rushed forward and fell to his knees beside Ron. He put a hand on Ron’s shoulder and said his name softly. Ron only looked away from him. Harry dropped his hand away and turned to pick up the locket. It was nothing but a scorched and twisted piece of metal now. He placed it in his pocket and turned back to Ron to take the sword from him but Ron did not seem inclined to give it up just yet. Harry didn’t try to force it from him and instead focused on getting Ron to stand up.
“Come on,” Harry coaxed. “I can take you back to the tent.”
Ron responded by slowly getting to his feet. He seemed quite shaky though so Harry wrapped his arm around his waist for support. Harry could see now that Ron’s face was wet and that at least some of his shakiness was from repressed sobs. Harry pretended not to notice for Ron’s sake.
The trek through the woods back to camp was silent except for the crunching of their feet on the frozen ground and the occasional sniffle from Ron. Harry was still supporting Ron as much as he could, but Ron was much bigger than he was so it was slow going. Harry thought that the sun might be beginning to rise when they arrived at the tent, but the faint light in the sky could have been his imagination. Either way he was sure Hermione was still asleep and he thought that for now he would like to keep it that way, so he held a finger to his lips before helping Ron into the tent. Ron nodded in understanding. They both knew he wasn’t in any condition for a confrontation with their other friend just yet.
Harry led Ron to the cot he had slept on before he left. Ron sat on the edge of it while Harry went to get him some warm clothes. The ones he was wearing were stiff and frozen from saving Harry in the pond. Harry realized that Ron would probably need help getting them off in this situation. He swallowed dryly and steadied himself before returning to Ron’s bed.
Ron was hunched over and staring at the floor. Harry squatted in front of him and whispered, “I’m going to help you get some fresh clothes on. Is that alright?” Ron just nodded at him, still avoiding his eyes.
Harry started by peeling off Ron’s jacket. It was so stiff he was surprised Ron had been able to move at all. His sweater was easier to remove but his jeans were nearly as difficult as the jacket. He had to have Ron lay back on his bunk so he could pull them off from the ankles. He picked up the frozen articles of clothing and gave Ron a hand back up to sitting.
“Can you manage the rest?”
“Yeah,” Ron said softly. “Thanks.”
Harry nodded and squeezed Ron’s shoulder before taking the clothes over to the wood stove. He hung them carefully and slowly on the drying rack. With any luck, they would be dry and warm by the time they packed up again. He dawdled a little longer than necessary to give Ron time to finish getting dressed.
Harry grabbed an extra blanket on his way back. Ron was already lying down with his back to Harry but he rolled onto his back when Harry placed the blanket over him.
Ron pulled the blanket up to his chin and thanked him quietly.
He was finally looking at Harry. Ron was lying down. Harry was standing. Ron was in the more vulnerable position but somehow Harry was still afraid. He was afraid to say it but he knew it had to be said.
“It’s not true.” He forced himself to keep looking at Ron as he said it.
Ron seemed to relax a little. “I know.”
They watched each other for a bit longer and it wasn’t uncomfortable. Ron eventually rolled back over onto his side facing away from Harry. Harry stood there for a while, a bit worried that if he stopped looking and went to sleep, Ron wouldn’t be there when he woke up.
But Harry was still stiff and cold himself and it was time to wake up Hermione for her watch so he could get some sleep. When he woke her he was careful to make sure she wouldn’t catch sight of Ron’s sleeping form. When she was safely outside he allowed himself to relax and collapse onto his bunk without even changing. He rolled onto his side facing Ron and watched the other boy’s steady breathing for a long while before falling asleep himself.
Harry was rudely awakened before he wished to be by Hermione’s screeching accompanied by violent thumps and pained grunts. He jumped out of his bunk, quickly realizing what was going on.
“Hermione! Get off him!” Hermione was thumping a cowering Ron with a pillow. She ignored Harry’s plea and continued to rant at Ron.
“You come back here after weeks - weeks - and all you can say is ‘sorry’? Harry has been worried sick! Some state you left him in! But you don’t care about that, do you! Do you!”
Harry decided it was time to physically intervene. He dashed forward and grabbed Hermione’s right arm which he could see was reaching for her wand. “Hermione, please, let him explain-”
“Don’t tell me what to do Harry Potter!” She wrenched her arm away from him and pulled out her wand. Harry jumped in front of Ron with his hands held up to her. “Harry, move !”
“Hermione, stop! Ron just saved my life!” Hermione didn’t lower her wand but she was listening now.
“What? When? How?”
“Last night. It’s a long story. Would you like to hear it proper?”
Hermione pursed her lips. She lowered her wand but kept glaring at Ron.
“Fine. Go on then.”
Harry let out a breath of relief. “Okay, let’s sit down. I don’t even know the whole story yet and I’d like to be comfortable when I hear it.”
As he said this Harry sat down on Ron’s bed. He gestured for Ron to do the same and Ron accio ’d a chair for Hermione to sit on in front of them.
“So,” Harry said. “Ron, I think you should start since even I don’t know your side of the story yet.”
Ron agreed and began telling them what happened to him after he disapparated that night. He had a run in Snatchers, people rounding up Muggleborns and blood traitors to bring to the Ministry for a reward. There had been a scuffle and Ron had managed to escape with his wand and one of their own. But by the time he got back to where he had left Harry and Hermione, they were gone. He had no idea how to find them again so he ended up going to stay with Bill and Fleur at their new home.
“How did you find us in the end?” Harry asked when he reached this part of the story.
Strangely, Ron blushed at the question.
“Er, with this.” He pulled something out of his pocket, and Hermione leaned forward with interest, apparently too curious to remain angry.
“The Deluminator?” Hermione asked.
“It doesn't just turn the lights on and off,” said Ron. “I don't know how it works or why it happened then and not any other time because I've been wanting to come back ever since I left. But I was listening to the radio really early on Christmas morning and I heard ... I heard you.”
He was looking at Harry now.
“You… heard me on the radio?” Harry asked, confused.
“No, I heard you coming out of my pocket. Your voice,” he held up the Deluminator again, “came out of this.”
“What was I saying?”
“You said my name. And something to do with a wand…”
Harry swallowed. It was the first time he had said Ron’s name since he left. Hermione had been telling him about his broken wand after leaving Godric’s Hollow, apologizing and telling him she would find a way to repair it. He had said ‘Ron’s wand never the same again after he broke it. He had to get a new one.’ He had been too upset to bring Ron up before then.
“So I took it out,” Ron went on, looking at the Deluminator, “and it didn't seem different or anything, but I was sure I'd heard you. So I clicked it. And the light went out in my room, but another light appeared right outside the window.”
Ron raised his empty hand and pointed in front of him, his eyes focused on something neither Harry or Hermione could see.
“It was a ball of light, kind of pulsing, and bluish, like that light you get around a Portkey, you know?”
“Yeah,” Harry and Hermione said in unison.
“I knew this was it,” said Ron. "I grabbed my stuff and packed it, then I put on my rucksack and went out into the garden. The little ball of light was hovering there, waiting for me, and when I came out it bobbed along a bit and I followed it behind the shed and then it ... well, it went inside me.”
“Sorry?” said Hermione. Harry was too captivated by Ron’s story to ask any questions.
“It sort of floated toward me,” said Ron, illustrating the movement with his free index finger, “right to my chest, and then -- it just went straight through. It was here.” He touched a point close to his heart. “I could feel it. It was hot. And once it was inside me, I knew what I was supposed to do. I knew it would take me where I needed to go. So I Disapparated and came out on the side of a hill. There was snow everywhere....”
“We were there,” said Hermione. “We spent two nights there, and the second night I kept thinking I could hear someone moving around in the dark and calling out.”
“Yeah, well, that would've been me,” said Ron. “Your protective spells work, anyway, because I couldn't see you and I couldn't hear you. I was sure you were around, though, so in the end I got in my sleeping bag and waited for one of you to appear. I thought you'd have to show yourselves when you packed up the tent.”
“No, actually,” said Hermione. “We've been Disapparating under the Invisibility Cloak as an extra precaution. And we left really early because as I said, we'd heard somebody blundering around.”
“Well, I stayed on that hill all day,” said Ron. “I kept hoping you'd appear. But when it started to get dark I knew I must have missed you, so I clicked the Deluminator again, the blue light came out and went inside me, and I Disapparated and arrived here in these woods. I still couldn't see you, so I just had to hope one of you would show yourselves in the end and --Harry did. Well, I saw the doe first, obviously.”
“You saw the what?” said Hermione sharply.
It was here that Harry found his voice again and took over the storytelling. He left out everything that the locket had said to Ron though. That was… personal.
When he was finished and Hermione was done asking questions and had moved on to making breakfast, he asked Ron about the wand he had acquired from the Snatchers. Ron handed it to him, commiserating when Harry told him about his own being broken. Harry shrugged it off. Somehow it didn’t seem so bad now that he had Ron back, and he told Ron as much.
Ron blushed furiously. “Shut it!” he said, but he looked rather pleased which made Harry smile.
“I missed you,” said Harry, and he immediately wished he hadn’t. Ron’s face fell and he looked ashamed again.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I left, mate.”
Harry was glad they were sitting together on Ron’s bed because it made it easy to lean forward and embrace Ron. Harry hugged him around the waist with his face smushed against his chest.
“I forgive you. I’m glad you’re back.”
It was a moment more before Ron found the courage to wrap his arms around Harry’s shoulders, and a moment after that before he laid his cheek on top of Harry’s head. Harry hoped that when he did, it felt as nice for Ron as it did for him. Ron felt so warm and familiar and… big. Harry decided he probably could have stayed like that forever.
But of course, all moments must come to an end, and theirs ended abruptly when Hermione called them to the kitchen for breakfast.