Leave the ocean's roar in the turquoise shell
Leave the widower in his private hell
Leave the liberty in that broken bell, today
Bright Eyes, I Must Belong Somewhere
He thinks maybe he belongs nowhere, maybe they're all just floating and drifting and occasionally landing on one another, because no matter where he goes he's always second best, always the least at something. Patterns, see.
His mother sweeps her knuckles, pale with scattered freckles, across the jutting stones of the countertop, smooths away the edges till it's neat, till it's clean. She likes it that way. She likes to say, Bill is the wise one and Charlie's the brave one, Percy is clever, Fred is funny and George is sweet, and Ginny, Ginny is like fire, because Molly likes to keep her things in boxes, tucked away safe and organized.
There was never a box for Ron.
There are pretty girls in Hermione's class with shiny hair that curls in strands of gold, and at story time there are little boys who race to sit beside them on a red square rug, and each time Hermione thrusts her hand into the air to answer a question correctly they giggle, they titter, they sneer.
Her hair, her hair, they whisper, loud enough to hear, and these girls are not eleven yet but once Hermione is it's all the same. Rat's nest, Lavender hisses to Parvati, and it's true Hermione never liked blondes.
In Harry's dreams there is a man whose arms swing outward when he walks, whose voice goes straight to the heart in Harry's chest, whose eyes shine bright when he smiles.
And there is a woman who clings to his arm, who brightens at his touch, who picks Harry up in her arms and holds him to her chest, so he can feel her breath, feel her pulse, feel her life against him, whispering, Harry dear, and then is gone when Harry wakes.
Ron meets Harry first, meets him entirely by chance on a train to Hogwarts, and for a while Ron resents this. It could've been anyone, he tells himself, and it happened to be you. It could've been Hermione, and then where would he be.
- until Ron is fourteen, and water lags at the bottom of his lungs, a blanket itches at his shoulders, and a beautiful veela has kissed his cheek. He picked Ron. And it's stupid, and silly, and so fucking juvenile, but for just a second there Ron thinks to himself, Somebody loves me best. Harry Potter loves him best.
And it's not until months later, till they're in over their heads even more so than usual and somebody dies, just a boy, just a little boy who tried to win at a big man's game, and his father rushes out onto the field and the ends of his hair brush his son's cold chin, crying, Cedric, Cedric, my little boy... It's not until later that Harry kisses him for the first time; the bones beneath his skin are slant and his cheeks are wet against Ron's own, and he says, "I need you," and Ron says, "I know."
When Hermione is sixteen a part of her is still nine, and it's the part that still flinches when the girls walk in to the dormitory, see her sitting there, exchange silent glances and back out again.
But she's so ugly, she heard Parvati say once - they've been saying it ever since Viktor, that bewildered fold of the brows, that disgusted wrinkling of the nose: Why her? - but this is the first time she's heard it out loud, the words strung up in a bow and aimed straight at her heart so there's no use in pretending. It's silly, she knows. But just because it's silly doesn't mean it doesn't hurt.
Later, Ron looks across the common room at her with that lopsided grin on his face, that shaggy head of orange hair falling sideways into his shining eyes, and he laughs and tells her, "I love you, Hermione." Just like that.
She blushes. Tilts her head down to repair his homework, feels the flyaway strands of ugly hair tickle at her forehead. Or maybe not so ugly. "Don't let Lavender hear you saying that," she warns, but for a second there she almost hopes he does.
It's a much longer time before Hermione realizes she and Harry are missing the same person, and missing him the same.
Harry often wishes that Ron could understand the way Hermione does the value of a good long silence. Not that it matters, anyway, since he's - since Ron has - but. Sometimes Harry shoots her a question with a glance, and she answers with a sigh, a hand to the hip, a shift of her feet. And there's always been something about the quiet, about the look on Hermione's face while she's reading, that makes him want to kiss her.
It's not as often as he wants to kiss Ginny, and not in the same way either, not with that sifting sense of urgency deep in the pit of his stomach, not with his tongue shoving hot into her mouth, not with her body pressed up tight against his, no.
And it's not the way he wants to kiss Ron, not to tell her something, not to unfold the pieces of her and show her what they mean, not to prove how much he needs her, no.
"My parents took me camping in these woods when I was little," and it's then Harry realizes that at this moment they are the same, young and brave and scared and alone. Orphans, the both of them. "Maybe we should stay here, Harry... grow old," she sighs, and it's probably because of the hell she knows lies ahead of them, but maybe there really is something to that sentiment, something to do with them. She starts reading again and he wants to kiss her, to say, Thank you, Hermione, and I love you, Hermione, and You're beautiful. Simple, very simple, like the thought of them living out life here in this forest, alone, together. He doesn't even want to snog, just - kiss her.
He's never had more of a family than right now.
And then there were three.
They are whole again. After Ron fishes Harry out of a frozen lake, yields the Sword of Gryffindor and then kills a fragment of the Dark Lord's soul, Harry grins at him and laughs, "Still up in arms about that whole 'second best' thing, eh, mate?" Because, you know. The Horcrux's illusions, or whatever.
"Oh, shut up," Ron returns, shoving Harry's freezing cold bare shoulder, the tops of his ears turning red, and Harry's still laughing as he catches Ron's wrist, yanks him closer so they're chest to chest and says, "Jesus, Ron, you're not second best, how many times do I have to show you," and then kisses him. Slow. They're both grinning into it.
They walk back to the camp on a high, because they're here, they're all three together again, and Hermione yells of course and when she's finished Ron looks back and forth between the two of them, smirking a bit and pointing with his finger.
"Something happened here," he guesses, at which Hermione blushes bright red and Harry ducks his head, his hand raising to the back of his neck. He glances up.
"Yeah, I mean, it wasn't - we weren't, like - "
"It was one kiss!" Hermione squeaks, mortified, and Ron surprises them both by laughing, and genuinely, too.
"No, it's fine," he tells them. "I honestly don't mind. Just - " and now he starts to shuffle his feet, nervous. "-don't leave me out of it next time, yeah?"
Harry and Hermione exchange a glance. Then Hermione - Hermione, of all people - takes a step towards the both of them. Grabs both of their hands. Presses a kiss to each of their knuckles.
And then Harry and Ron shuffle closer, and all three lean their foreheads together, puffs of air from their breath collecting in the space between them, and Ron thinks, Here is my box, mother dear. Here is my box.