A/N: Thanks for all the great reviews! Hope you enjoy!
After the weighing of the wands and the disastrous interview with Rita Skeeter—if you could even call it an interview—all Harry Potter wanted to do was find Hermione to discuss the contents of Sirius' letter. She hadn't been in the Great Hall that night—likely owing to Malfoy's curse—which had made for a lonely dinner for Harry, something he was routinely getting used to.
But then he'd returned to his room, and there had been the letter from Sirius, asking to arrange for a time to speak via the Floo. It had made him feel good, knowing that someone else was unequivocally on his side—though he doubted Sirius would be able to give him any tangible advice on facing a foe he had no information about. Still, getting that reassurance that Sirius was okay—in real time, and not with the delay of an owl—would mean everything to him.
He got his chance to tell Hermione everything the following morning on their way down to breakfast. Or, at least, he thought he did. He'd been glancing around the corridors—avoiding the nasty looks from the Hufflepuffs, Slytherins and Ravenclaws—waiting for a good moment to bring up his convicted-murderer godfather without everyone else listening in, when he realized Hermione was deep in thought, worlds away.
"Huh?" she glanced up, as if she hadn't realized Harry was right next to her or that they were, in fact, in Hogwarts.
She studied him, and then suddenly grabbed his arm, whirled around and dragged him into an empty classroom. He perched on a desk, waiting for her to say what was on her mind. She usually did.
Finally, she spoke and he wished she hadn't.
"Why didn't you tell me your aunt and uncle put bars on your window?" she asked, a bit timid, eyeing him carefully. "And… a cat flap on your door?"
He felt his face grow hotter and his cloak felt entirely too tight, and he wished they were still walking so he didn't have to look at her face for this particular conversation. He looked down at his shoes.
"Oh, that," he said flatly, shrugging. "It was just for a bit that one summer. It's not a big deal. They wouldn't dare do anything like that now that I've got a murdering lunatic for a godfather who only wants to keep me happy."
He tried for a grin, but her face remained solemn.
"It is a big deal, Harry," Hermione said fiercely. "You should have told someone! You should have told me."
He couldn't look at her. The fact of the matter was, he couldn't have told her. He had been at his lowest point that summer, assuming Hermione and Ron didn't actually care for him at all thanks to Dobby pilfering his mail, so when the Weasleys showed up in their flying car, an affirmation that people actually cared about him, he had wanted to just put the whole rubbish summer behind him. Besides, it was bad enough that Ron and the twins had seen him like that—having to explain it to anyone else would be torture.
Especially Hermione. He knew her well enough to know she would have told every adult she knew whom she thought would have the power to do something about it, and while Harry appreciated how very much she cared, the idea of everyone going on about poor, sad Harry put a pit the size of a Quaffle in his stomach.
He shrugged again, this time looking up at the ceiling. "Don't we have enough to worry about with the Triwizard Tournament without adding on the Dursleys, who I won't even see until next summer?" he asked. "Maybe I'll get lucky and one of these tasks will do me in, and the Dursleys won't be a problem anymore."
"Don't say that," Hermione chastised, her voice gaining an octave as she fidgeted with her hands, and Harry instantly felt guilty. He knew how much she worried about him, how anxious she got when he did anything especially dangerous; he didn't need to feed her fears, alienating the one person he had left.
"Sorry," he muttered, searching for something to make them both feel better. "I heard from Sirius last night. He reckons he can help."
Hermione was intrigued. She bit her lip—Harry could tell she wanted to discuss the Dursleys more—but luckily, the problem of the first task seemed to shift to first priority in her mind and she let the Dursley topic go—for now. He was certain a more in-depth conversation was in their future.
"What did Sirius say?" she asked finally.
He motioned for her to follow him out of the classroom—the corridors were mostly empty now and he wanted to get to breakfast before it was time for class.
"He wants to meet in the fire in Gryffindor Tower at 1 a.m. in a couple of weeks," he said. "He wanted to know if we could arrange it so no one would be in the common room."
Hermione considered that. "I'm sure we could," she said. "Most everyone is asleep by then, and worst case scenario, we could always drop some dungbombs."
"Filch would kill us," Harry pointed out.
"If he found out it was us," Hermione countered. "He'd probably just blame Fred and George."
Harry looked at her, his eyebrow raised, and she rolled her eyes. "I'm not saying we frame them," she laughed, "just that they would be Filch's first suspects… Besides, I highly doubt it will come to dungbombs. We'll just have to be… inventive."
Harry felt a bit more cheerful at the look on her face. Hermione got a lot of flak for being a fastidious goody-two-shoes, but those who knew her best knew that when she thought a rule was unfair or the ends justified the means, she was an epic rule breaker.
Harry thought things couldn't get worse, and then Rita Skeeter's article came out. Suddenly, he was being attacked from all sides with other students quoting him talking about his dead parents, how he cried himself to sleep, how they were his inspiration for the Tournament. Hermione didn't fare much better, what with the article calling her his "stunningly pretty" girlfriend.
She bore the ridicule much better than he did, and he remained consistently in awe at how she was able to constantly keep up her mantra: Ignore, ignore, ignore.
"So what if the Slytherins are calling me ugly," she told Harry one morning after a particularly nasty comment from Millicent Bulstrode, who, in Harry's opinion, didn't have much room to talk. "I don't care."
"You're not ugly," he responded reflexively, as they continued down the corridor.
Hermione rolled her eyes, and Harry wasn't sure if she didn't believe him or if she truly didn't care what the Slytherins thought of her appearance.
"Regardless, none of that matters," she said. "Just ignore the comments, pretend they don't exist."
"Look, there goes The Boy Who Lied!" someone shouted.
"Don't you mean The Boy Who Cried?" another voice retorted.
"Hey Potter, you dropped your hanky! Wouldn't want you blubbering into your cauldron in Potions!" some first-year Hufflepuff called out.
Great. It'd gotten to the point that even first years thought he was fair game.
"You know something, Hermione?" he said, a little louder than necessary. "I'm beginning to regret stabbing that basilisk."
He then whispered a few hisses that were absolute nonsense but likely sounded like parseltongue to anyone who didn't actually speak it. He earned a few stricken looks from his adoring fans, who quickly scurried away, and a mirthless laugh and head shake from Hermione.
"Just ignore it," she stressed.
He admired her ability to compartmentalize the ridicule, but personally, he thought he'd have as much luck ignoring the comments as he would the cries of a mandrake.
The one thing he was quite glad about was that all the attention—and everyone talking about them as if they were a couple—hadn't created any awkwardness between them personally. Hermione was the same Hermione, going with him to the library to study the theory behind summoning charms, making sure he ate a proper breakfast even though trips to the Great Hall had become a torturous affair, and theorizing with him about where in the world Sirius was hiding out at that very moment. Merlin knows what he'd do without her.
Worse than the ridicule was Ron. The night the article was published, he had detention with Snape and Ron thanks to the incident with Malfoy. Harry wasn't sure which of them hated him more at the moment, but it was hard to tell. Snape didn't say anything aside from giving them directions, a look of pure hatred on his face, which Harry found a bit surprising—Snape usually didn't miss a chance to tell Harry he was arrogant and full of himself, just like his father, and Rita Skeeter had offered up the perfect opportunity to do so.
Ron didn't say anything at all, though every so often he would glance at Harry over his pickled rat brains, and make a "Pfft" sound as if he was rereading the article in his head and finding Harry lacking.
All in all, he was glad to get back to the dormitory and gladder still when Ron popped into the shower. He paced around the room a bit, feeling the bitterness rising inside him. He was facing this massively dangerous task, something he felt woefully unprepared for and certain would kill him, the fear affecting his nerves in ways he hadn't felt since he learned how to conjure a patronus charm and was able to hold off the soul-sucking dread the dementors instilled in a person, and in the meantime, he had to deal with constant pettiness from all sides, including from the mate he thought would stand by him through anything, his very first friend, the person he thought knew him best. They had faced down trolls and acromantulas and werewolves together, and this was how well Ron knew him? He kicked his trunk in exasperation, and then felt very stupid as all of his toes started throbbing.
Harry turned, surprised. He had thought he was alone, but Neville was sitting quietly on his four-poster bed, their Transfiguration book spread out in front of him.
"Bad day?" Neville asked.
"Detention with Snape," he responded, not bothering to get into all the rest, and Neville shuddered. It was well known to the fourth-year Gryffindors—and the whole school, in fact, thanks to Neville's boggart—that Snape was what Neville feared the most.
"The worst," Neville groaned, sending Harry a sympathetic look. Harry offered him a small smile, and turned back to his trunk, aiming to grab his exploding snap cards. Hermione was downstairs, furiously reading from what looked like three separate texts—whether she was doing work for one of her classes or researching for S.P.E.W. was anyone's guess, but he figured he might be able to get her to put that aside for a quick game. Certainly, he needed to get his mind off things.
"I don't expect Rita Skeeter's lies helped your day much either," Neville said, and Harry looked at him, surprised.
"How do you know they were lies?" he asked. It was shocking how quickly he had become used to people branding him a liar.
Neville looked at him like he was stupid, and Harry felt very dumb indeed. It wasn't often that Neville was the one explaining something to someone.
"I've known you for years, Harry, and in all that time, you've never once said something to me—or anyone, except Ron and Hermione, I expect—about your parents," Neville said. "But I'm supposed to believe you said four pages worth of stuff to some random reporter you've just met?"
Harry felt instantly more cheerful.
"Besides," Neville added, "Gran always says that Rita Skeeter's a bottom-feeder whose stories aren't fit to line the bottom of her owl's birdcage."
Harry grinned. "Thanks, Neville."
Neville looked down at his book and then up again, blushing slightly. "I believe you about the rest of it, too," he said quickly. "About not putting your name in the Goblet of Fire."
"You're not a liar, Harry."
Harry felt lighter than he had in weeks. It wasn't just the words or the sentiments behind them, but the way Neville had declared it—simply and without reservation.
"I saw Hermione behind a pile of books in the common room when I was coming up," Harry said. "Want to help me coax her into a game of exploding snap?"
"Sure," Neville replied, smiling, shutting his book as he stood. They walked out together, neither of them noticing that the adjacent door to their bathroom was ajar.
After that night, Neville was with Harry and Hermione almost constantly. He sat with them in the library and the common room, ate with them in the Great Hall and switched to their workstation in most classes. Ron, for his part, joined Seamus and Dean.
It drove Hermione nuts. Much as she liked Neville and was glad he was their friend, she didn't see why Ron couldn't be their friend too and still spent a significant amount of her time going between Harry and Ron, urging them to talk to each other. Harry didn't know what exactly Ron said to her, but his own response was always the same: Not until Ron admitted that Harry hadn't lied and apologized for the whole thing.
If Harry were being truthful, he probably would have forgiven Ron even without the apology. If Ron would only talk to him again, that would have been enough for him. He liked Hermione and Neville very much, but they were both more serious than Ron—and Harry would give just about anything for a bit of laughter in his life right now.
But, if anything, his hanging out with Neville had only served to make Ron surlier, and Neville had admitted to Harry and Hermione, with a look of slight amazement on his face, that he was fairly certain that Ron was jealous of him now, too.
"Well, of course he is," Hermione had declared to Harry in confidence one night. "He's mad that you've got a new friend."
"So Ron doesn't want to be friends with me, but he doesn't want me to have anyone else either?" Harry retorted.
"No," Hermione said. "He wants to be your best friend."
"That's stupid. If Ron wanted to be my best friend he would just apologize and be my best friend."
"You're both being stupid," Hermione replied. "You miss each other, and you both refuse to do anything about it."
"I don't miss him," he gritted out.
Hermione threw him a look. "Right," she said skeptically.
In response, Harry threw himself into his Transfiguration notes.
And so, they had gone on like that, Harry, Hermione and Neville, and as the days passed Harry found that, while they did spend more time in the library—Hermione complaining all the while about the gaggle of girls following Viktor Krum, while Harry worried what exactly Krum was studying in the library every day and whether Harry should do the same—he didn't exactly mind it. At least when they were in their own little bubble he didn't have to hear sneers about how he cried into his pillow at night about his dead parents.
The biggest issue they faced was the Sirius problem. Hermione and Harry often wanted to discuss the clandestine meeting, but felt awkward bringing it up in front of Neville. They knew he wouldn't betray them—Harry doubted if any of the fourth-year Gryffindors would—but they didn't know if it was fair to Neville to tell him. Technically, the Ministry was still out looking for Sirius, and anyone with information about him could get in serious trouble. Harry thought it would be okay—that Neville wouldn't mind knowing—but Hermione put her foot down that they should keep Sirius' circle as small as possible for now, and Harry didn't particularly feel like doing anything to alienate his remaining friends, so he agreed.
And so, they discussed it any chance they got when Neville wasn't around.
"What if Angelina stays in the common room late?" Harry mused worriedly one afternoon when it was just him and Hermione in the common room. "She's been staying up all hours studying for her apparition test."
Hermione shook her head. "Not on a Hogsmeade weekend she won't," she said. "You don't have to worry. She won't be around the common room when you take that call."
Harry and Hermione looked up. Neville had just walked down the stairs to the common room, his bag in his hand. Hermione stared at Harry, apprehension flitting across her face for a second before she forced a blank look onto it.
"Harry's getting a Floo call, Saturday," she said airily, trying—and succeeding—at sounding nonchalant. "We don't really want anyone to know, given everything that's going on."
"Oh, of course," Neville replied.
Harry could see him mentally going through the list of people Harry knew outside of Hogwarts who might have access to a Floo. The list wasn't exactly long.
"Is it Professor Lupin?"
"Your call," Neville said. "I imagine you wouldn't want it getting out if you had help with the tasks, and he really seemed to like you, what with all of those extra lessons. Plus, he was amazing at Defense Against the Dark Arts. I expect he'd be right useful with the tournament."
"Yes," Hermione piped up.
Neville beamed. "Great," he said. "If you need any help getting people out of the common room, let me know. I've got to get to the greenhouses now. Professor Sprout asked a few of us to help out with the Venomous Tentacula."
Hermione and Harry bid Neville goodbye, Harry half marveling at the fact that Neville was hopeless in most classes, yet when it came to a spiky plant that actively tried to kill the people around it, Neville was aces.
Hermione was marveling for a different reason.
"Why didn't we think of Professor Lupin?" she said, a chastising tone to her voice. "Of course he can help. And he won't have to risk a dementor's kiss to do it."
"I don't know that I should bother him," Harry said. Professor Lupin had enough of his own problems without Harry adding on his own.
Hermione gave her head a little shake. "He'd want to be bothered Harry. Your dad was one of his best friends. You should go get Hedwig right now and write to him."
Harry considered that. He wasn't sure where Professor Lupin lived, but Hedwig had always been able to find anyone. Harry hadn't seen Hedwig since she'd gotten mad at him for using a school owl to send a note to Sirius instead of her, but Sirius had specifically instructed him to use a more discreet bird. Hedwig had been noticeably agitated at that, so maybe a letter—especially a hard-to-deliver one—would be just the thing to get her on Harry's side again. And Neville was right—Professor Lupin knew more about Defense Against the Dark Arts than most people Harry knew. And, he supposed that Hermione was right too—Professor Lupin would want to help.
"Yeah," he said, "I think I will."
The Saturday before the first task was a Hogsmeade weekend. Hermione and Neville convinced Harry to go, but he preferred to wear his invisibility cloak so that he could avoid any nasty remarks. For her part, Hermione was happy that, thanks to Neville's presence, she didn't have to look like a blithering idiot who was talking to herself while Harry remained hidden under his cloak.
It was the happiest Harry had been in ages. The day was cool and brisk, but sunny, and for the first time in weeks he could walk around without hearing Rita Skeeter's words being thrown in his face. Even better, he thought with satisfaction as they left Honeydukes, the cloak enabled him to avoid the reporter altogether. She was prowling around the village, a photographer in tow, no doubt looking for Harry. He watched her exit the Three Broomsticks and head down toward Zonko's.
So when Hermione suggested a butterbeer—promising that he wouldn't have to talk to Ron—Harry readily agreed, figuring Rita Skeeter wouldn't be back there for a while.
Harry and Hermione grabbed a table, while Neville went to pick up their drinks. Harry settled into his seat, and Hermione took her record of S.P.E.W. members out of her bag.
She looked around the pub. "Maybe I should try to get some of the villagers involved in S.P.E.W."
Harry didn't know what to say. On the one hand, he generally agreed with Hermione about house elves. When he has questioned both Dobby and Winky about their lives, it had been clear that both were ill-treated and could do with some protections. It's why Harry had freed Dobby, after all.
But Winky had been adamant that fighting for wages and vacation time wasn't the right path, and everyone in the wizarding world—including Hagrid, who frequently wished all manner of dangerous and violent magical creatures had more freedoms—kept telling them that most house elves agreed with Winky. It wouldn't do to give them freedom they weren't prepared to take, but he did think they should do something—but Harry suspected that S.P.E.W. might not be the best way to go about things.
"Maybe you should talk to some house elves first?" he suggested. "See what they want?"
"Why wouldn't they want proper wages and working conditions?" Hermione asked, a dangerous note to her voice, which only grew stronger as she went on. "Why would they want to be slaves subjugated to a cruel system that lets their masters do whatever they want, even maiming and torturing their slaves!"
Harry held up his hands, then realized that was a bit counterproductive as he was under an invisibility cloak and Hermione couldn't see him.
"I'm not saying that," he said. "Just that if you're going to be advocating for them, doesn't it make sense to get their input on what you should advocate for?"
"They've been brainwashed to think that they like slavery," Hermione hissed.
"And I'm sure telling them they've been brainwashed will go over really well," Harry replied, a mock-cheerful tone to his voice. "'Oh, that's right,' they'll say. 'Wizards and witches have been dictating to us for centuries how we should think, but now this other witch is telling us how we should think, that's the ticket, let's all start a revolution now.'"
Hermione's ire visibly lessened, and she looked thoughtfully at the seemingly empty space where Harry's head was.
"Maybe it is time for more direct action," she murmured. "I wonder how you get down into the kitchens."
"Fred and George would know," Harry replied, before offhandedly adding, "Sirius probably would too."
Hermione looked at him, a plan very obviously forming in her head.
"I'm not wasting time asking him about the kitchens," he said quickly. "Not when we see Fred and George every day."
Hermione seemed to agree because she nodded and returned to checking over her notes. Neville returned with their drinks, slipping into the seat beside Hermione.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Hermione's single-handedly planning to overthrow centuries of oppression of house elves," Harry replied.
"I'm wondering how you get into the kitchens," she clarified. "I'd like to talk to some house elves to gain their perspective."
"Well, you can talk to Diggy," Neville said, taking a sip of his butterbeer.
"Our house elf," Neville replied nervously, his ears turning pink. He had clearly heard the S.P.E.W. pitch before. Harry groaned inwardly, while Hermione looked scandalized.
"You contribute to slave labor?" she asked fiercely.
"Well, my Gran does."
"Has she ever considered freeing Diggy?" Hermione asked.
"I don't think so," Neville said. "But she treats Diggy well. None of that ironing their hands nonsense or anything."
"That's not exactly a high bar," Hermione retorted, and Neville blushed even more, looking like he rather wished he could disappear into his chair.
Harry had seen this conversation play out a million times before with Hermione and Ron: Hermione, passionate about the cause, and Ron, who'd grown up in the wizarding world, casually dismissive of everything she was saying, treating it like some sort of joke. (To be fair, Harry agreed that the Spew name could probably use some work.)
He didn't think Neville would go that route. Over the past couple of weeks, Harry had gotten the impression that Neville wanted to impress Hermione; he had a bit of a look of awe on his face anytime she spoke. And certainly, he couldn't picture Neville dismissing outright anything anyone believed in as passionately as Hermione believed in things.
So he wasn't exactly surprised when Neville screwed up his face in concentration, like he was trying to find exactly the right words to say.
"I know you both didn't grow up with house elves, so it's kind of hard to explain," he said. "I've met a bunch—Gran has a lot of friends and acquaintances who come from the other old pureblood families. To be honest, whenever we went visiting her friends, I spent most of my time in their kitchens with the house elves—it was better than hanging around Gran's friends who liked to hit me with antler jinxes and Tarantallegra to see if I would do any accidental magic to protect myself. Gran was half-convinced I was a squib."
He blushed. "Anyway, if you'd met these house elves, you'd get it. They don't just talk about how happy they are doing work. The Fawcetts gave their house elf clothes when I was eight—the other elves are still talking about it," he said. "And they are savage. The things they say about him, how he got what he deserved. If you tried to give them wages and vacation, most of them would consider it an insult. Diggy would. But she likes when I make her hot chocolate when she's sick—extra marshmallows are her favorite—and chocolate pudding on her birthday."
Hermione was silent for a moment.
"Well, that's nice that you do that for Diggy, of course," Hermione said. "But it's not nearly enough. There are plenty of purebloods who don't care at all about the well-being of house elves."
Neville looked at her nervously—then shrugged in a helpless sort of way. "But how do you give someone something if they don't want it?" he asked, echoing Harry's earlier words.
Hermione looked at Harry—clearly thinking the exact same thing as him—and to Harry's amazement, Hermione actually seemed to ponder what both boys had said.
Harry struggled as he ran down the corridor. After Hermione got lost in her thoughts about house elves, Professor Moody and Hagrid had stopped by their table at the Three Broomsticks, and Hagrid had told Harry to come down for a visit that night.
Dragons. The first task was going to be dragons. He knew, Madame Maxime knew, Karkaroff knew—everyone but Cedric knew—and Harry was very close to being late for Sirius.
"Balderdash," he cried, flinging himself through the portrait hole and into the common room. He looked around. He was alone.
Not for long though, because there was Sirius looking younger and more like the man in his parent's wedding photo than ever.
"Sirius, how are you doing?"
"Never mind me. How are you?"
Harry was about to say he was fine—an automatic response at this point—but couldn't.
"Awful. Everyone thinks I put my name in the Goblet of Fire, like I'm some kind of nutter with a death wish. Oh, that's right, dark wizards and basilisks and acromantulas and dementors and Voldemort haven't been enough of a challenge for me at Hogwarts—instead of hanging out with my friends in Hogsmeade this year, I want to top all of that and enter the tournament that routinely offs its contestants. Sign me up for the murder competition, that sounds fun.
"I expected the Slytherins to be jerks about it but the Hufflepuffs think I stole their glory and the Ravenclaws have sided with them. The Gryffindors are all congratulating me, but every one of them—except Hermione and Neville—are certain I put my name in that cup, that I wanted all of this to happen. And now Rita Skeeter's written this article that's all lies—I never said anything to her except that I didn't put my name in the cup and now there's front page news all about how I cry myself to sleep at night. Even Mrs. Weasley is going on and on about it, according to Charlie, and I bet she's not alone.
"And the stuff they're saying here! I can't walk down the halls without someone quoting that stupid article at me. Did you know, Sirius, that dead parents are a supremely funny joke topic? It's basically gotten to the point where the entire punchline is, 'Haha, your parents got murdered.' Like, wow, how original.
"And the worst of it is Ron. He hasn't talked to me in weeks, except to tell me that I'm a liar. He doesn't believe me at all. He actually thinks that I told him all about how Hermione and I broke all sorts of laws to go back in time to save you, but telling him how I got past some stupid age line, that's where I draw the line on secrets.
"I'm just so sick of his jealousy. I didn't ask to be famous, I didn't ask for this scar or for my parents to be killed, and for most of my life I didn't live any better than him. But no, according to him, I'm just an attention hog. I mean, how can he think I actually want this? Ever since Halloween there's just been this pit in my stomach—all of the other champions, they're older, they know more, they're...taller. They actually wanted this, and there's no way I can do this. And now Hagrid's just shown me what's in the first task, and it's dragons, Sirius, and I'm a goner."
He sounded desperate. He knew he did. It was the most Harry had spoken in weeks—probably the most he'd spoken ever—and it spoke to how close Harry's nerves were fraying over this whole terrifying mess.
But Sirius was calm, and while his eyes were full of concern, his voice was soothing. Harry had never had an adult with whom he could be completely honest before, completely himself, and he found he rather liked it. With everything Sirius said—about Karkaroff being a Death Eater, about Moody catching him, about Bertha Jorkins—Harry felt a bit better. Sirius was composed, and that made Harry feel composed, too.
Sirius was about to tell Harry how to get past the dragons—all it would take is a simple spell—when Harry heard a noise coming from the boys dormitory.
"I think there's someone coming!" Harry hissed, standing up to get a better look and hide the fire.
"Gerroff, Neville!" He heard a yell—it was Ron—and then a loud crash.
Two bodies tumbled down the stairs, and Harry watched helplessly as Ron and Neville tried to disentangle from each other. Ron had somehow wound up with Neville's foot squashed against his nose.
Harry heard footsteps behind them, and turned back to Sirius. "You'd better go—half the house is likely to come down here."
With a pop, Sirius was gone. Harry turned back to Ron and Neville, who had finally managed to separate. Ron's eyes had narrowed, focused on the fireplace, and Harry was sure he had seen, but he didn't think Neville caught the face in the fire.
"I'm sorry, Harry," Neville said. "I tried to stop him."
"You tried to kill me," Ron muttered, nursing his elbow.
"I tripped," Neville retorted.
"What were you doing coming down here anyway?" Harry asked, turning stone-faced to Ron.
Harry hadn't felt a rage like this in a long time, which was saying something given he wanted to hex somebody every time he turned a corner. He knew it wasn't Ron's fault, but he didn't care. He was going to get killed by dragons in a few days, and Sirius could have helped him, but because Ron couldn't keep his freckled nose out of Harry's business—even though he'd decided to stop being Harry's friend—now Harry had no idea how to get past a bloody dragon.
"I just wondered where you—" Ron broke off. "Forget it. I'm going back to bed."
Ron had stood up and turned, but the path was now blocked by Seamus and Dean, who'd come down to see what was going on. Boys from other years were filtering down the stairs behind them, sleepy looks on their faces.
"Just thought you'd snoop around?" Harry shouted. "Who asked you to?"
Ron's ears reddened. "Right," he nodded. "I forgot that the Gryffindor common room belonged to the all-mighty champion. All the better to prepare for your next interview. Better get your lackey here"—Ron jerked his thumb at Neville—"to help you sign all your autographs."
Harry was vaguely aware of more people coming down the staircase as he picked up a Potter Really Stinks badge and threw it at Ron. He felt a small sliver as satisfaction as it hit its target, bouncing off Ron's forehead. But that satisfaction was fleeting, and Harry quickly slipped back down into his misery.
"There. Something for you to wear on Tuesday. You might even have a scar now if you're lucky… that's what you want isn't it?"
Ron just stared at him, his face getting redder as everyone around him began to murmur. Harry blindly pushed past the people on the stairs—he thought Dennis Creevey and Cormac McLaggen were there—and strode up to the dormitory.
Neville followed immediately, but Seamus, Dean and Ron did not. Neville sat on his bed, silent.
"He shouldn't have called you that," Harry said gruffly. "You're not a lackey."
"I'm really sorry," Neville replied, his voice small. "I tried to stop him."
Harry wished with everything in him that Neville had been able to succeed—if it had been Hermione, Ron would be laying on the floor thanks to the full body bind, and Harry would be sitting beside the fireplace discussing dragon strategy with Sirius—but Neville wasn't Hermione. He tamped down on his anger, filtering all of it in Ron's direction because, after all, he was glad to at least still have a friend willing to take a tumble down a flight of stairs for him.
"I know you did," Harry said, giving Neville a small smile.
He could only imagine what everyone at school would say about him now.