When he comes back, it’s raining. He’s soaked through with it, so he wonders if it was raining when he left or if he’s been gone longer than he thinks he has. He can never be sure anymore, about time. His sense of it goes all wonky when he wears that thing, same as everything else inside him does. Always takes a bit to shake off the feeling, after, and get his head back in order.
He swallows as he takes in the sight of the little tent, holding steady against the pouring rain. Mud squelches beneath his shoes, and he closes his eyes against the knot in his chest. He can’t believe he’s actually come this close to letting them down. He can’t believe he stormed out and actually Disapparated. Actually left them. Alone, here, in the middle of sodding – where are they? He thinks it’s Wales, but Wales might have been last week.
His hands are trembling, so he presses his fingernails into his palms until he’s sure there’ll be marks, four thin lines across each, before taking a slow breath and reaching for the entrance flap.
He steps inside quietly, the warmth welcome against his skin as water drips from his hair and his nose and his fingertips. He sees them immediately but finds he can’t quite look at them, so it’s only in his peripheral vision that he watches them both start and reach instinctively for their wands, before the beat of recognition passes. He sees them sigh with relief – the tent itself seems to sigh along with them – before the air between them turns tense.
And now he wishes he’d taken another minute or two out in the rain to work out what the hell he was going to say, because he can feel his mouth opening, ready to make a case for himself, but there isn’t the barest hint of suggestion coming from his brain as to what that case should be.
So he just stands there, for an age or two, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and chewing on the inside of his cheek, before he manages to look at them.
Harry raises an eyebrow at him and Ron flinches before he realises that it's not altogether unkindly. And that doesn’t make sense, because Harry should not be kind right now, Harry should be very, very angry. But for some reason, he doesn't look it, and Ron suddenly knows what he needs to say.
“Sorry,” he says, and feels stupid for how simple it is. “I shouldn’t have, uh…” He swallows and tries to work out where to begin. “You know.”
“Forget it,” says Harry, as Hermione says, “It’s all right.”
He blinks at them. “It is?”
Harry smiles at him, a little. “’Course, mate.”
“But–” Ron protests. He’s shaped up to be a pretty rubbish second, he knows, but he’s still supposed to try.
“We understand, Ron,” Hermione says.
“You – you do?”
“Of course,” she says. “You couldn’t control it. We know how hard it was on you. You don’t have to wear it anymore, we’ve decided.”
He just stares at them.
“Yeah,” Harry says, nodding. “None of us do, actually.” He gestures to the pouch hanging around his neck. “It’s in here now, and I can’t feel it at all. The mokeskin must insulate it, or something. We really should have tried it sooner – you wouldn’t even know it’s there.” Harry looks at Ron expectantly, his tentative smile faltering when Ron doesn’t respond. “So, I can keep it in here all the time. And it’ll be safe, but it won’t bother us. We don’t have to wear it anymore, so it’ll be better now, see? No more locket.”
Harry continues to look at Ron very earnestly, and this moment isn’t right, not at all, because Harry’s pleading with him, for something like forgiveness, when Ron’s the one who –
“And, Ron, look,” says Hermione, her eyes large and a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Look what we found, while we were out looking for you.”
He frowns at her, and in the length of time it takes for him to look in the direction she is pointing, he suddenly notices the smell of something delicious, and that isn’t right, either, because certainly he would have noticed that the moment he stepped inside.
But then he looks, and his heart skips a beat, because there’s food. Heaps of it. Roast beef and potatoes, bread and butter, chicken, ham, and sausages—and not a single, godforsaken mushroom. There are three different kinds of pudding and about a million other things that Ron can’t even see because that smell is coming from the cauldron over the fire, and he’s craning his neck to see what’s in there.
“Ron?” Hermione says, gesturing again, urging him forwards. “Surely you’re hungry?”
“Where did this come from?” he whispers.
Hermione colours a bit as she shrugs. “Someone was camping nearby, and I think our Muggle repelling charms must have sent them off a bit quickly, so they didn’t have time to pack it all up. It’s sort of stealing, I know, but we didn’t mean to, and it would’ve gone to waste, otherwise. And it’s really good. Harry and I’ve already had more than our fill.”
He stares at her a moment more, wanting to say... something, but then it just clicks, and this whole absurd situation suddenly starts to make sense, and he’s not sure what his problem was, before, because he’s here, and Harry and Hermione don’t hate him, and there’s all this food, and it’s all so bloody perfect that Ron thinks for one horrifying moment that he might actually cry.
But then he’s smiling at them, and they’re beaming back at him, and the knot in his chest is dissolving into nothing as he sits near the fire with a plate full of food. And Hermione’s right next to him, with her shoulder pressed against his right arm, her hair brushing against his jaw as she leans across him to steal a biscuit off of Harry’s plate. And Harry’s right there, pressed against his left shoulder, smiling at Ron around a mouthful of bacon sandwich, and Ron can’t quite breathe, because he’s never felt this happy in his entire life.
“Tuck in, Ron,” Harry says, spraying bits of food from his mouth, and it’s disgusting, really, but it only sets the three of them laughing. Ron feels his arm move against Hermione’s as he presses his fork into a thick, juicy piece of beef and raises it to his mouth, and it’s in that moment, just before it touches his tongue, that he remembers that none of this is real.
The spare bedroom at Shell Cottage was cold and quiet as Ron woke. He stirred, then went very still, holding his breath, before opening his eyes with a heavy sigh. His right thumb ran over the tops of two unnaturally fleshy fingertips, and he turned his head to the window with a shudder.
The sky was less dark than it had been the hour before (and the hour before that, and the hour before that), and Ron breathed a small sigh of relief as he sat up and scooted back against the wall, drawing his knees up to his chest. He wore a pair of jeans and a jumper that were both crumpled and dull, as though they’d been worn continuously for several days.
Looking down to the crease of his hip, he fished his fingers into his pocket and pulled out a silver cigarette lighter. He flipped it open and clicked it. The lamp by the bed suddenly lit up. He clicked it again, and the light was sucked out, leaving the lamp dark. He clicked it again, and then again, and the room flashed in and out of darkness.
“Useless, fucking thing,” he muttered, the lines of his face going hard as he clicked again and again.
His face was illuminated in intervals as his scowl grew darker, until finally he winced and closed his eyes. The rhythm his fingers had fallen into against the lighter stumbled, but resumed in earnest at a higher speed, as he took a laboured breath.
Minutes passed like this, and his agitation grew, his eyelids twitching and his breath becoming ragged as the lighter took on a steady, syncopated beat.
Click-click, click-click, click-click. A tiny, mechanical heartbeat echoed against the walls of the small room.
Ron shuddered and reached up to his neck, fingers clawing at something that wasn’t there as the beat grew faster, and the clicks louder. His fingers worked ever more roughly, and his whole body tensed and twitched as the light flashed on and off, on and off.
A sudden loud noise came from the opposite corner of the room, a great angry squawk and a chaotic rustling of feathers and wings, and Ron’s eyes flew open as his fingers reflexively scrambled for something under his pillow. The lighter bounced off the mattress and clattered to the floor, leaving the room in near-darkness.
“Fucking hell, Pig!” Ron exclaimed, when he had regained the ability to speak. “Are you trying to kill me?”
The owl, whose tiny size seemed out of proportion with the ruckus he’d just created, hooted angrily and continued gracelessly flailing about the room. Ron reached over the bed to retrieve the silver lighter and clicked it, lighting the lamp. Pig squawked and flapped his wings spastically.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ron said, rolling his eyes. “You and Hermione both. I’m so terribly sorry.” He sighed heavily. “Happy Christmas, anyway. You should probably get back, before Mum starts to miss you.”
Pig fluttered about the room for another minute, then settled on the bed near Ron’s feet. “Is she all right, then?” Ron asked. “My mum? Bill says she is, but –” He didn’t finish the thought, instead falling quiet for a long minute, rolling the lighter between his fingers. “The ghoul isn’t giving her any trouble, is he?” He looked at the owl, who said nothing.
He sighed and looked down at his hands, and the room was silent for several minutes, punctuated only by the small sounds of Pig’s beak against his feathers as he began to preen.
“Her parents don’t even know, you know. Hermione’s. They’re probably having Christmas on a beach right now, and they’ve got no idea that she’s out there. That she’s freezing her arse off, doing the work of two people to keep Harry alive.”
Pig clicked his beak and continued working his feathers, occasionally straightening up to ruffle, leaving a mess of feather on the bed.
Ron watched the owl for a few quiet minutes, chewing at his bottom lip and toying with the lighter, rolling it between his fingers and flipping the top open and closed. “It wasn’t really so bad, you know?” he said, eventually. “Well, I mean, it was, but it – it wasn’t, too.” The owl looked at him and blinked, owlishly. “Sometimes, it was – some of it was kind of nice. Even if Harry did smell bloody awful all the time.”
He clicked the lighter, and the light went out. Pig turned his head suddenly to stare at the lamp, but said nothing.
“It’s better this way, though,” Ron said, his gaze shifting to something in the middle of the room that wasn’t actually there. “I was only ever – I only ever got in their way.”
The room began flashing light and dark again. Pig ruffled his feathers and stretched his neck, making his tiny body as tall as possible as the light flew repeatedly past, and gave a few irritated hoots.
Ron ignored him, and the steady click-click, click-click continued as he clenched his jaw and closed his eyes.
Pig flapped his wings and squawked.
“Stop it,” Ron snarled, jerking his head to the side. Pig ruffled and bounced, but Ron’s eyes were closed. “Just fucking stop it, you idiot. It’s not real. It’s not here, and they’re not – they’re not –” He fought to draw a steady breath through flared nostrils as the light continued to flash on and off.
Pig squawked more loudly and flapped his wings, before finally resorting to inexpertly bouncing across the bed, and biting Ron’s finger.
“Oi!” Ron cried, his eyes snapping open. The lighter fell to the bed, and the light held steady inside the lamp.
Ron glared at Pig as he sucked on his bitten finger, and the owl glared back, ruffling his feathers. Glaring at the lighter, Pig hopped over and nipped at it, his beak clicking against the metal.
“Have it, if you like,” Ron said. “You should know it’s useless, though. Just some cracked old man’s idea of a joke.”
Pig didn’t answer, but backed off, apparently satisfied that the lighter was ineffectual on its own. Ron sighed and rubbed his hands over his face.
The pair sat in silence for several minutes, until the sound of someone moving about in the kitchen had both boy and owl looking up.
The sky outside the window had brightened significantly, and Pig hooted expectantly.
“Yeah, I reckon so, too,” Ron said, picking up the lighter and standing to open the window. Pig hooted and beat his wings laboriously before managing to fly out into the early morning.
Ron stared after him, watching his tiny body shrink and disappear into the landscape, and tightened his fingers into a fist around the lighter. He took a deep breath and bounced his hand as he squinted out the open window, then drew his fist back over his shoulder.
He held it there for a long moment, focusing his gaze on the farthest away point he could see. The muscles of his jaw twitched, and the morning light caught the metal between his fingers as his face finally fell, and his arm dropped to his side.
With a heavy sigh, he shoved the lighter back into his pocket, closed the window and shuffled out into the lounge in search of the wireless.
When he comes back, it’s snowing. He hasn’t any idea where he is, and he doesn’t care.
He charges up and down the hillside, calling out to them at the top of his voice, hoping it’ll be loud enough to get through their protective charms. There’s snow collecting inside his shoes and mittens and collar, but he doesn’t care. He ignores it and continues to plough sweeping circles through the forest as he shouts and shouts and shouts until his voice is hoarse, and then he shouts again, four times more, just in case.
Then he takes out his sleeping bag and he waits.
He’s cold and he’s hungry, but he waits and he waits and he waits, because he knows they’re here. He knows they’re here, and he thinks maybe – maybe this means they still need him.