Ron is twelve when he hears that complete and utter twat Ernie Macmillan insult his best friend.

Ron is twelve and already lanky; he doesn't really know the length of his limbs or the right stride to hit when he's walking and ever since his early growth spurt this summer he's been hitting his head on things he usually slipped under easily.

Ron is twelve and his best friend Harry is twelve and they're both skinny but Harry is even skinnier than Ron, and shorter too. Ron is twelve and Harry is too and Ron has never seen Harry not be skinny and small and outrageously unaware of both of these facts.

Harry Potter is the first friend Ron has ever had. He's also the best friend Ron has ever had.

So they're both twelve and they're walking together to the Great Hall for breakfast and Harry is saying something about being famished ("Of course you are, ickle Harry-kins, with your scrawny arse," George crows cheerfully on the way past) and wondering if there will be any Pumpkin Pasties left.

And then Ernie Macmillan and Hannah Abbott are walking by and Ernie leans over and whispers to his friend, "He's just like a snake that one; all wily and slippery. No wonder he's friends with them."

Ron is only twelve but Ron also has five older brothers who play sports and like to roughhouse and a precocious little sister so he knows how to pack a decent punch.

Ernie Macmillan definitely does not have five older brothers and a little sister who can kick like the dickens, because he rockets back from Ron's boney fist into the stone wall behind him and rebounds to land on his arse on the floor. Hannah Abbott screams, Ron thinks he hears Fred- or maybe George- swear so loud their Mum probably heard it, and Harry shouts "Ron! What the-"

"You take that back," Ron snarls. He's only twelve but he feels this rage in his chest, it's never been there before but it's here now and it's hot and painful and it's flooding his throat. He feels that if he doesn't let it all out at Ernie Macmillan right now the anger might just burn him up from the inside.

Ernie Macmillan thinks he knows everything, but he doesn't. Ernie and Hannah and all the rest think they know Harry because they heard stories about him when they were young. They think there's nothing left to figure out about Harry Potter; they think that he's an open book or an insect caught and spread out for them to poke and prod at. Even when they're terrified of him they think they know everything about him.

But Ron knows things they could never know- would never want to know. Yeah, Harry is the Boy Who Lived, the one who defeated the Dark Lord when he was one and when he was eleven, and he's the boy who can talk to snakes and always seems to be at the center of whatever trouble is brewing. But Harry Potter is only twelve, and Ron has seen the darkness he's lived in for those twelve years.

Harry is only twelve, but Ron has seen the bruises and the ribs that stick out too far under his skin. Ron is only twelve, but he knows that when Harry says things are "awful" at the Dursley's he doesn't mean that they don't let him practice Quidditch, or that they won't let him get a dog or some banal problem that people like Ernie Macmillan and Hannah Abbott think are the worst things in the world. Ron is only twelve but this summer his best friend dropped off the face of the earth and Ron kept sending him letter after letter, hoping that this one will get to him, he's just busy, nothing bad has happened. Ron is only twelve, but when he finally got up the courage to explain what was happening to his older brothers (he'd been trying not to cry and may have been hyperventilating in his panic, because for once the twins seemed less focused on embarrassing him and more focused on calming him down) Ron saw the bars on the window and his best friend's gaunt, shadowed face looking back at him through the moonlight. Harry is only twelve but he's still too thin even having been at Hogwarts for a good few months since Ron broke international law to save him; and Ron may only be twelve, but he's seen his best friend hurt and scared and starved and hopeless.

Like hell is he going to let one more person make Harry feel hopeless again. Especially, he thinks, glaring savagely down at Ernie Macmillan, some nobody jerk like Ernie.

"You take that back, or I swear you'll end up in the Hospital Wing," Ron grinds out and Ernie turns a faintly alarming shade of red.

"What, like all those people your friend Petrified?" Ernie snaps back, trying to hide his slight stutter with bravado. "Sorry, but I think they'll need the space before he's done. You're just lucky you're a Pureblood, Weasley, otherwise you'd probably be next. Bet Granger's keeping her distance from Potter now."

Everything goes red.

Ron can't really hear or feel anything, but when he comes back to himself he does know that he leapt on Ernie at some point and just started punching. There are hands on his back and someone is cutting off his airflow trying to pull him back by the collar of his robes. He's making a kind of horrible choked gurgling sound, trying to yank himself away from the hands and stay on top of Macmillan.

Finally three pairs of hands rip him away from the Hufflepuff, and Hannah Abbott collapses to her knees beside Ernie. Ron doesn't know how long the red had blinded him, but thankfully for Macmillan Ron is only twelve and scrawny at that, so it looks like he's gotten away with a broken nose and a bloodied mouth. His cheek is bruising too, but that's about it.

Ron still feels pretty satisfied though.

"Mr. Weasley!"

Okay, now he feels bad.

McGonagall marches imperiously down the steps to the Great Hall towards them. Fred and George, who had been poised to frog-march Ron away, let go of his arms and take three large steps back. Harry stays where he is though, and sidles a little closer to Ron's side. He raises his hands and starts talking fast, even though Ron could tell him to save his breath when McGonagall has that look on her face.

"Professor, it's not his fault-"

"Not Weasley's fault he attacked a fellow student, Potter?' She asks primly. "What was it, he tripped and his fist ended up on Mr. Macmillan's chin?"

"Well, no, but he did it for me- I mean, not that I was going to do it, just-"

"I feel certain, Mr. Potter," McGonagall interrupts, "that Mr. Weasley can speak for himself."

Turning to him, she fixes him with that glare of hers that always made Ron feel like he was under a magnifying glass. "One hundred points from Gryffindor and detention for two weeks, Mr. Weasley. You'll certainly be able to explain yourself in the meantime. Abbott, Potter, please see your friends to the Hospital Wing. Everyone else, get to breakfast!"

Abbott hurries her friend away, clutching at Ernie's sleeve as if she were the one in a fight less than five minutes ago. For a moment, Ron is perplexed; why would he need to go to Madame Pomfrey? Then the stinging in his knuckles registers, and he looks down, frowning. His hands are bloody, although how much is Ernie Macmillan's and how much are from the cuts on his knuckles, Ron isn't sure.

"Damn, Ron," Fred whistles lowly, "didn't know you had it in you."

"Yeah, seems like our kid brother has a few tricks up his sleeve after all," George agrees amiably.

"Learned some of it from us, of course."

"Most of it, really."

"A true apprentice, our ickle Ronny-kins."

"Wait till Mum hears about this."

"Ugh," Ron groans, smacking his forehead, "Mum. I forgot about her."

George is grinning gleefully now; Fred is rocking on his heels. "Think she'll send a howler?"

"Oh, there's no doubt."

"Well, little brother," Fred claps a sage hand on his shoulder, "have fun in the Hospital Wing. Try not to get into too many fights on the way. Good work creating chaos and furthering the cause of anarchy at Hogwarts."

George pretends to wipe away a tear as they turn back for the Great Hall. "They grow up so fast."

Ron turns to Harry wearily. "Well, better go face the music, I guess."

Harry has been conspicuously silent for a long time. Ron knows that never bodes well.

"You didn't have to do that, Ron," he mutters, scuffing his feet along the stones as they head off. "It was fine really; it's not anything I haven't heard before."

"That's why I had to do it, Harry," Ron answers, feeling too tired entirely for this conversation. "Look, just. Can we forget that I tried to defend your honor to the most useless person in our class and move on?"

Harry still looks upset and confused and Ron is only twelve but he already knows that he'll do just about anything to make Harry feel better. "I just don't get why it was such a big deal that you had to get into a fight."

"I'm telling you, that's why I had to do it," Ron stressed, feeling somehow more defensive than when he was in a literal fistfight. Harry looks like he's getting pissed now, like he always does when he doesn't understand what's going because they're only twelve and neither of them are very good at this emotions thing. They usually leave this stuff to Hermione.

"Look, mate," Ron sighs, going to run his hand through his hair. Harry stops him because, oh yeah, he's bleeding. "Look, they just can't get away with this- this saying stuff like that about you all the time stuff. I know you're taking the high road and whatnot, but that doesn't mean I have to."

Harry opens his mouth at that, but Ron shakes his head. "No, listen. You shouldn't have to deal with that, Harry. And-" he falters because Ron is only twelve and he doesn't really know how to say everything that made his thoughts go hazy when Ernie Macmillan opened his big fat mouth. "And you gotta know that- that you don't have to fight alone, I guess."

Harry stutters to a stop at that, and thank Merlin, they're already at the Hospital Wing. Ron thinks he might faint from all the blood rushing to his face. "Uh, um," Harry clears his throat, "thanks, Ron."

And really, Ron is just twelve and won't tell his best friend he loves him for years to come and he's always been better at actions than words anyway, so he doesn't expand on the sharp protectiveness that wells up every time someone whispers behind his friend's back and simply nods instead. "Don't uh- mention it. Seriously. I'd rather not get an earful from Hermione this morning."

Harry grins and Ron grins back. "I guess I'll see you in Transfiguration then?"

"With how McGonagall looked at me? I'm thinking I'll skip. I'll be in Charms, though."

Harry laughs, and the knot in Ron's stomach eases. "See you around, mate."

Ernie Macmillan is still there when Ron opens the door, but his nose is fixed already. Ron doesn't sneer or growl or smirk at him; their fight is over, at least until Macmillan says something stupid again.

Madame Pomfrey makes the appropriate amount of fuss at him for being in a fight and spreads some foul salve over his hands. She tells him to sit quietly for fifteen minutes, in which the cuts would heal right up, and then she'll be back to release him. As she bustles off for the Petrified patients, Ron reflects sourly that she almost positively used the worst-smelling thing she had on hand for punishment.

"Hey, Weasley," Ernie mutters from the next bed over. Ron doesn't turn, but thunks his head back against the wall. "Hey, I'm talking to you."

"And I really wish you wouldn't," Ron snaps. But when he looks over, he realizes that on the other side of Ernie is the bed containing Justin Finch-Fletchley.

Ernie catches him looking and his face goes hard. "Yeah. He's my best friend and he's gone."

"He's not dead," Ron tells him, caught between comforting and defensive.

"He might as well be," Ernie says. "Why the hell did you punch me?"

He knew this was where this was going, with how pompous and self-righteous Macmillan is, but Ron pulls up short. He can't very well rehash his defenses for hitting a boy with his Petrified best friend in the next bed.

"Justin is your best friend. You'd probably do a lot to keep him safe, right?"

Macmillan goes pale and Ron remembers that he, too, is only twelve and his best friend has been lying in bed with a terrified look on his face for months and there's nothing Ernie can do about it.

"Yeah, so?" Ron is only twelve so instead of reaching out, he pretends not to notice the tears Ernie dashes away. "So what?"

"Harry's mine," Ron says haltingly, "and I know that things look bad, but he's not evil and he's my best friend and he's been through a lot so I need you and everybody else to lay off, alright? And I guess I'm sorry I hit you, but I couldn't do anything when his parents died and You-Know-Who tried to kill him or when Quirrell went crazy and tried to kill him but I can do something to stop people like you from being twats to him. So. That's it, I guess."

Ernie is quiet for a long moment and Ron is thankful for the silence. His head aches; all the adrenaline and anger and sentimentality are making the backs of his eyes pound.

"You did, though," Ernie returns finally. "Do something. Nobody's supposed to know, but everybody can tell that you two and Granger did something to save the school last year."

Ron shrugs. "So does that sound like Harry would just up and try to destroy Hogwarts this year?"

The other boy huffs because he's only twelve and admitting you're wrong is always hard to do. "Fine. Whatever."

Ron thinks about telling him he should apologize to Harry, but figures he's already punched enough retribution out of him.

"Your brothers teach you how to throw a punch?"

Ron grins at him and leans back with his hands behind his head (probably not advisable, since Pomfrey would definitely yell about contamination and stupidity when she saw her pristine work grating against the wall, but oh well). "Yeah."

Ernie Macmillan snorts. "How many do you have, anyway? Five, right?"

Ron is twelve and Harry Potter is his best friend. He was only eleven when he laid down his well-being to get Harry and Hermione across that chess board. He's just a kid, really, but he knows deep down that he's going to be with Harry to the end of the line, because Harry Potter is good and kind and was the only one who looked at Ron and saw him and not just his family name. Harry is only twelve but he was willing to die for Hogwarts last year and Ron is going to stick like glue this year, through thick and thin, because he knows that if the roles were reversed and he spoke Parseltongue, Harry wouldn't care. Ron is only twelve but he's been with Harry since they were eleven and he's not going to leave now, just because some weird snake talked inside Harry's head.

"Nah," Ron answers. "I've got six."