Hermione remained staring at the gap in the trees where Harry had disappeared for several long moments before she whirled on Ron and yelled, her brown eyes smoldering, "Ronald Weasley, how could you say such things to him? After all he's been through, how could you be so-so selfish and . . .and immature and so . . .bloody beastly?" She was so angry she was shaking and tears were scalding her eyes, as always happened when she was furious. "Harry's supposed to be your best mate and this is how you treat him? You . . .you obnoxious, self-centered, dimwitted PRAT!"
And with that she hauled off and slugged the dumbfounded redhead, right in the jaw. It rocked Ron backwards a little, though she didn't know how to put her full weight behind the blow, lucky for him, otherwise he might have ended up taking a surprise nap in the meadow.
As it was, he rubbed his jaw and winced. Who would have thought Hermione Granger had such a good right hook?
Before he could say anything else, the angry little witch had stomped off into the woods. "Hey, where're you going, Hermione?"
"To find Harry, you stupid twit!" she shouted back. "If you're not going to apologize for your disgusting comments, don't bother coming!"
Ron swore. Who died and made her queen of bloody England? What right does she have to lecture me like that? And yet, irritating as she was, he didn't want anything to happen to her. Hermione was like his sister, though Ginny had never slugged him in the jaw. Then again, he'd never made Ginny furious enough to attempt it.
And a part of him was still reeling from Harry's pointed comments, the part of him that was not consumed by the green-eyed monster Envy. That part felt remorseful and sad that he had ever let his resentment take control, that he had allowed his own selfish desires to run wild and cause his best friend to be hurt. Go after her, his conscience whispered. She's right, you know. You behaved worse than Malfoy and you need to apologize to Harry.
But the other part, the bitter resentful part that saw the material things Harry had and lusted for them, that part was crying to just walk away and leave the two to wander the woods on their own. Harry was supposed to be so woodswise, he could find his own way back, and Hermione would probably get scared and come out in ten minutes, she never liked having any adventures except those in books. What do they know anyhow, about being two Knuts shy of the Needy Family Services? Of how his mother sewed and knitted in order to save money on her children's clothing, of how it felt to see others in school waving around shiny new wands and broomsticks and knowing you'd be lucky to get your older brother's thrice-worn copy of Fantastics Beasts and Where To Find Them? Of seeing pureblooded snots like Malfoy receiving package after package from home and knowing you were lucky if you got two packages a year, one on your birthday and the other for Christmas? Hermione never knew what it was like to be known as a Weasley by the color of your hair and the patches on your hand-me-down robe, the school charity case, who ended up going to the Gryffindor supply closet every other week to snitch extra quills and parchment and ink because you didn't have a Knut to your name and didn't dare ask the folks since tuition was expensive enough as it was. What did the famous Harry bloody Potter know about watching your two oldest brothers practically barter their souls in exchange for extra schooling as a Dragon Tamer and a Gringotts bank manager, since there was no way Arthur Weasley could afford to send them for additional private classes? People practically kissed Harry's arse when he entered a room, and if HE desired to become Minister of Magic they'd probably kick Fudge right out of office and swear in Harry in two seconds.
Ron shoved through the underbrush, following the trail Hermione had spotted, not even sure why he was doing so, for his resentment was still at full boil, and he wasn't quite ready to admit that he had behaved like a wicked selfish git just yet. Still, he didn't want Hermione to be walking through the woods alone, not after what Snape had said this morning. Snape. You're damn lucky he didn't hear what you said, otherwise your arse would be kicked from here to the cliffs of Dover, his conscience hissed. And you'd deserve it.
He irritably told that part of himself to shut up. He had only spoken the truth, after all. Hadn't he?
He continued walking, not wanting to admit to himself that he'd screwed up royally, and could have cost himself a good friend. He examined the ground, seeing Hermione's small footprints in the damp earth. Good, she had come this way. He quickened his pace and within five minutes caught sight of the slender girl, who was scanning the trees intently.
"Harry? Where are you? Harry, it's me, Hermione."
"He's probably long gone by now," Ron said stiffly, coming up behind her.
Hermione startled like a red deer. Then she turned and gave him a look that should have shredded him. "What are you doing here? You nearly gave me a heart attack, you idiot!"
"Making sure no hungry wyvern takes you for a snack. Snape said we ought to stick together."
"Humph! Since when do you do what the professor says?"
"Since it makes more sense to follow his advice than it would be to get eaten by a stupid manticore. He can't have gone far, even if he knows these woods like the back of his hand."
"Are you going to apologize to him for your big fat mouth, Weasley?" she demanded. "Or should I give you another fat lip to match your fat head?"
Ron held up a hand. "Relax, Hermione. Okay, maybe I was a little out of line . . .but some of the things I said were true. The teachers do favor him."
"Professor Snape doesn't."
"No? Just wait till next term. He'll change his cloak, watch and see, now that Harry's family. You always favor your own."
Hermione shook her head. "Maybe that might be true for some people, but not for him. You don't know him the way I do, Professor Snape might appear to favor his own, but he's hardest on them too. All the Slytherins have to maintain above an Acceptable average in their academics, or else get put on academic probation."
"Really? Then why aren't Crabbe and Goyle on it?"
"Because Malfoy does all their assignments or something probably," Hermione snapped.
"How would you know what goes on in Slytherin anyhow?"
"Because I talked to Annie Fallon in the library one night while I was studying for my Potions final. She's a first year too and a Muggleborn like me, only she was raised by her witch aunt since her parents got killed in a fire."
"And she's in Slytherin?"
"Yes, only most of her House doesn't know she's Muggleborn and Professor Snape told her not to advertize it, it would only cause problems. But that's not important right now. The important thing is that you're mistaken in thinking Professor Snape will let Harry get away with anything just ‘cause he's his son. The other teachers might, but not him. And even so, it's not Harry's fault they're so lenient, I think they feel kind of sorry for him, and they think they're doing something good by, uh, bending the rules for him. But he never asked for them to treat him that way, and it's totally unfair to blame him for their attitude, Ronald. That's like blaming a fish for becoming a cat's dinner."
Ron chewed his lower lip, then yelped because it was sore. Still, he had to admit that Hermione had a point, much as he didn't want to. "Fine, but . . ."
"Don't." She held up a hand. "If you're not going to admit you were wrong and give Harry a real apology, just turn around and go back to Malachite Cottage. Come back when you're ready to be a decent friend again."
"Who the bloody hell died and made you Harry's bodyguard?"
"You did, when you attacked him like that. Didn't you see how much what you said hurt him, Ronald? How the blazes would you feel if he'd said that to you?"
"He never would. Because I've got nothing he would ever want."
"Weasley, sometimes you're dense as a post! Didn't you hear a word of what he said? You've got the one thing he wanted most of all-a decent family and a home. That's worth more than all the gold in Gringotts, you stubborn git."
"But now he's got that too, with Snape."
"But it's not for always. They can't even acknowledge their relationship openly, it has to be a secret. Can you imagine the kind of pressure that puts on him? How would you like it if you had to pretend to hate your own father? The only one who ever cared for you? I could never do it. He doesn't have a charmed life at all, just a life of sacrifice and hardship. Can't you see that?"
Ron hesitated. Gradually, her logic was penetrating the fog of jealousy.
"Forget it. There's no sense in talking to you, is there?" Angrily, Hermione stalked off.
"Wait!" Ron called, running after her. "Okay, maybe you're right. And I'll . . .tell him I'm sorry."
She eyed him distrustfully. "Are you saying that ‘cause you mean it? Or because you feel guilty and don't want to face the wrath of Severus Snape?"
"What's that supposed to mean? You gonna run and tattle on me?"
"No. He'll find out, even if I don't say a word. All he has to do is look at your face and Harry's and he'll know something's wrong. It won't take a genius to figure out you've had a fight and once he starts questioning you, how long d'you think you'll last before you crack?"
Five minutes, tops. Ron thought gloomily. "I said I'd apologize, okay?"
"Saying and doing are two different things. I'll believe it when I see it. Come on, dunderhead. Let's find Harry before it gets dark." She led the way down the path.
But after fifteen minutes and no sign whatsoever of Harry, Ron dragged Hermione to a halt. "You sure we're going in the right direction?"
"Yes. There's only one path and like you said, how far could he have gone? Harry! Harry!"
"Shhh! What if something hears you?" Ron hissed.
"We're safe, we didn't cross the second circle of white oaks," she sighed exasperatedly. She suspected Harry was somewhere nearby, perhaps crying or something, and didn't want them to see him. She could hardly blame him.
Ron glanced around uneasily. The woods seemed darker once they were beneath the canopy of trees and he could swear he heard the trees whispering to each other. This was a magic wood, like the Forbidden Forest, and Ron had never cared much for that place either. Where was Harry? Nobody could vanish so quickly . . .unless he had an Invisibility Cloak. Ron hit himself in the forehead. "Hermione, we might as well give up. We're not going to find him unless he wants us to."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because he's got an Invisibility Cloak and we don't. He could hide out in here till next June and we'd never find him."
"He didn't have the cloak when we came out here, Ron. What makes you think he's got it now?"
"He could have summoned it to him." Ron argued.
"I think you're stalling, Mr. Weasley," Hermione sniffed. "You just don't want to admit you were wrong and swallow your pride or whatever and apologize."
Ron stiffened. Sometimes the little witch was too intuitive for her own good. "Get stuffed, Granger! I'll bet you ten to one that Harry's here somewhere, under the cloak, laughing up his sleeve at us two, wandering through the woods like two dumbasses, calling for him."
"Ron, you really are an-"
She never finished her sentence, for Ron abruptly spun around and stalked off into the bushes. He had sworn he had heard something rustle nearby and a sound like an amused chuckle. "Harry? That you? Look, I know you're mad as blazes at me right now . . ."
There came an odd sort of noise from the bushes, like a cross between a laugh and a snarl, then Ron yelped and backed away hastily, nearly tripping over his own feet.
"Ron, what . . .?" began Hermione.
A strange-looking creature that resembled a cross between a large badger and an American porcupine emerged from the brush, growling in warning. It was stocky and had a long pointed snout with sharp teeth and its fur was brindled black and gray and contained inch-long barbs among the bristly short hairs. It had large black eyes and a wet dark nose, and would have almost been cute if it were not growling so fiercely.
"Hermione, don't move," Ron hissed, moving backwards again.
The creature followed, its fur standing on end, including the wicked barbs.
"Ron, that's a needlethorn beast!" Hermione exclaimed softly. "They're really rare, almost extinct except in remote parts of Yorkshire and . . .here, I guess."
"Who cares what it's called? I just want to know how to get away from it." Ron said, his voice trembling.
"Umm . . .back away slowly, needlethorns can be aggressive when startled . . ." she too started to back away from the angry beast.
The needlethorn beast continued to make threatening noises, advancing on them.
By this time, Ron and Hermione were about five feet away down the path and that was when Ron grabbed Hermione by the arm and shoved her in front of him. "Run! Hurry up!"
The girl did not argue, she began to sprint away down the path.
Ron whirled too, and would have followed, but his foot turned upon a hidden rock in the path and he stumbled, going to his knees for an instant.
That was all it took for the angry needlethorn beast to release its barbs.
It flexed itself onto its front paws for a moment and snapped its barbs with deadly accuracy.
Right into the inviting target that was Ron's backside.
Thirteen super sharp barbs embedded themselves in Ron's buttocks, piercing easily through the thin cloth of his trousers.
Yelping, Ron managed to scramble to his feet and hobble down the path. The barbs pricked him with every step, but he was desperate to get away.
"Ronald!" Hermione cried, terrified. She forced herself to start back down the path, afraid Ron was dying or something. "What's happened?"
Ron was bawling softly, and Hermione could only make out the words, " . . .barbs . . .owww . . .really hurts . . .my bum's on fire . . .!"
"Oh, dear God!" she gasped, upon seeing the barbs protruding from the seat of Ron's pants. "I don't think you ought to move, Ron."
"I have to get away . . .!" sobbed Ron.
Hermione peered up the path and saw that the needlethorn beast had gone. "Stop, it's gone. It must have left after it stuck you."
"Shot me . . ." Ron corrected, gritting his teeth.
"What to do? Let me think." Hermione mused. "We need to get you back to the cottage. . . .Maybe I could cast Locomotor Mortis?"
"Is there some way we may be of assistance, young witch?" queried a shrill voice.
A slender brown-skinned man about the size of a small child wearing a long tunic and trousers made of leaves appeared upon the path. It was a woodkin, armed with a small bow and arrows. Beside him was a large black fox.
"Please, my friend here is hurt, a needlethorn beast shot him-"
"Ah. You will be needing the services of Master Snape then, children. He knows how to extract needlethorn barbs. My name is Mellinar and this is Swift. Take my hands, please."
Mellinar held out his hands and Hermione took one and Ron the other. Then the woodkin blinked them all away with a loud pop and a shower of golden sparkles.
* * * * * *
Whisper was having a grand time pouncing and stalking butterflies, doing his best to forget why he had run away and transformed into his Animagus form without Severus's permission. He knew his father would be angry if he ever found out, but right then he was too involved in hunting the pretty winged creatures to care about parental disapproval.
Until he heard the screams and froze.
It sounded like someone was in trouble.
And the only other people besides his father here were Ron and Hermione.
Whisper halted in his pursuit of the blue silkwing and turned to head back towards the trail that led to the meadow and home.
He arrived at the garden gate panting and tired, then blurred into Harry, who quickly pushed open the gate and ran across the yard. He thundered onto the porch and halted, for he could hear a series of sharp yells coming from inside.
"Oww! . . .Stop . . .Oww . . .Professor, please . . .!"
Harry went pale, for the voice crying belonged to Ron and he wondered if Severus had found out what the other had said to him and was now walloping him or something. Tentatively, he opened the back door and slipped into the hallway just before the kitchen alcove, where he nearly banged into Hermione.
She gasped and then hissed, "Oh, Harry! I'm so glad you came back! We tried to find you, but all we found was a needlethorn beast, actually Ron found it and it . . .umm . . .shot him with about thirteen barbs in his . . .err . . .behind. Your dad's in the kitchen with Rellah, trying to get them out . . ."
She winced as Ron let out another howl.
"Is that why he's yelling? Why didn't he take a Pain Reliever?"
"Your dad offered and he refused, I guess he figured he didn't need one,"Hermione snorted.
"Guess he knows better now," Harry murmured, peering around the alcove. He couldn't help but feel sort of sorry for the other boy, he disliked to see anyone in pain, but at the same time he thought Ron deserved to suffer a little after saying such hurtful things to him.
Inside the kitchen, Ron was bent over the table, his bare bottom sticking out, with several long black barbs embedded in the skin. The boy was sobbing, for the barbs were quite painful to remove, though Severus was being as quick and gentle as possible. Rellah was sitting astride Ron's back, holding him down while Severus extracted the pointed needles.
"Mr. Weasley, take the Pain Reliever," Severus ordered, for the boy's howls were grating on his ears. "It will dull some of the pain from the barbs' venom." He handed Rellah the bottle and she crawled over to Ron's head and held the bottle to his lips.
"There now, child. That's better," she crooned, as Ron gulped the potion.
She went and sat back down atop the boy at Snape's gesture, rubbing his back soothingly. "Now, just try and relax and Master Sev will have the barbs out in a flicker."
Severus took a jar from the table and opened it. "Perhaps some more drawing salve, Rellah?" He leaned over and began to rub the salve about the skin where each of the barbs was embedded, it had properties to draw out the swelling caused by the venom contained in the barb's tip, making the barb much easier to remove.
Ron sucked in a breath, then asked weakly, "How many more, sir?"
"Ten." Severus replied evenly. Ron groaned. "That needlethorn beast must have been very aggravated, to have released so many barbs at once. However, I will be able to remove them all, if you can grit your teeth and hold still for five minutes longer."
"I'll try . . .but it really hurts . . ." sniffled his student. His bum felt as if it were engulfed in flames.
Snape sighed and shook his head. "Only you, Mr. Weasley, could get attacked by a rare creature that normally remains hidden from humans while walking through the woods." He picked up the slender metal tweezers again. The drawing salve should have worked by now, he peered at the backside in front of him, and nodded. "All right, child. Try and keep still."
He leaned over, clasping a barb with the tweezer and yanking quickly and firmly.
"One." Severus counted, then reached for another.
"Oww! Oww! Oww!" Ron yelped as he removed three in rapid succession.
"Almost done, only five more," the professor murmured, as Ron squirmed. "Hold still, boy."
"Can't! It HURTS!"
"It'll hurt worse if you move, Ronald. Count to ten out loud."
"Just do it."
Ron began counting, and while he was thus distracted, Snape applied the tweezers again. The Gryffindor's recitation was interrupted by several loud yelps, but by the time he got to ten, Snape had removed all the barbs and rubbed the very sore backside with some quick-healing salve.
"Better now?" Severus inquired. Ron nodded, still sniffling. Rellah patted the boy on the head and hopped off of him so Snape could help Ron stand and fix his clothing. "You'll still be a little sore tomorrow, but I have more quick-healing salve should you need it. In fact, keep this with you." He handed Ron the jar he'd been using and the redhead tucked it into a pocket.
Ron found himself nearly unable to meet Severus's gaze, and it was more from shame than from embarrassment. Still, he managed to make himself say thanks to Snape for helping him, though having those barbs removed had been a singularly painful experience he never wanted to repeat.
"You are welcome, though I would have done the same for anyone in that situation, child." The Potions Master said matter-of-factly.
Ron lowered his gaze to his trainers, flushing as red as his hair for an instant. He had never imagined he would ever be thanking his potions professor for anything, yet here he was doing so. When the woodkin had brought him back here and Hermione had run to fetch Snape from the lab, Ron had been certain that the greasy dungeon bat would take one look at him and sneer mockingly. But Snape had done nothing of the sort. He had been cooly professional, summoning Rellah to assist, telling Hermione to fetch him certain items, like the tweezers and a soft cloth and then he picked up Ron gently and carried him into the kitchen, using magic to remove his pants and underwear and explaining calmly what he was going to need to do to remove the barbs. He hadn't sneered, hadn't made any kind of sarcastic remark, he had even ordered Hermione from the room before beginning the unpleasant task. Ron had been terrified, yet Snape's demeanor had eased his panic and fear like nothing else could have.
And this was the man you accused of being a dark wizard, a part of his mind scolded, and his shame increased threefold. Harry had been right about Snape all along.
Severus was watching the young Gryffindor intently, sensing the boy was troubled by something, and it wasn't anything to do with the attack from the needlethorn beast. "Ronald, where is Harry? I didn't see him return with you and Miss Granger."
That question was all it took to start Ron babbling and crying, though Severus had asked it in a quiet tone and without even a hint of one of his famous glares. "He's gone, sir! And-and it's all my fault! I never should have said he had a charmed life . . .Mione was right . . .I'm a terrible friend . . .now he hates me . . ."
Severus stared. What on earth had gotten into the boy? He'd seen Weasleys in fits of temper, sullen, teasing, injured, but never falling apart like this. He put out a hand to lift the boy's chin, for half of what he was saying was garbled, and the boy abruptly pressed his face into his shirt, sobbing remorsefully. Of that, Severus was certain, he had taught children for too long not to know genuine remorse and shame when he saw it, and Ron was making no effort to disguise his feelings.
For an instant Severus stiffened, then he put an arm cautiously about the distraught boy, as he would have done for his own son. "There now, what's all this, Ronald?" he queried softly. "What do you mean, it's all your fault? Stop crying and look at me and explain yourself."
But it was a moment or two before Ron could obey, and during that time Severus found himself patting the child on the back as if he were Harry. At last, Ron mastered his tears and looked up. "Sorry, sir. I just . . ."
Severus handed him a handkerchief. "Dry your eyes, blow your nose, and start at the beginning, if you would."
"Okay." Ron did as he had been told, not knowing quite why he felt compelled to tell Severus about the whole sorry situation, but once he began talking, he found it eased his conscience to speak of his jealous behavior, though a part of him was screaming Shut up, you bloody idiot, he'll kill you if he knows the truth. You'll be sent back to the Burrow in pieces with a note attached explaining why.
Severus remained silent while Ron spoke, amazed that the child chose to admit his guilt to him, of all people. What is happening here? I pull a dozen barbs out of his backside and suddenly I'm his confessor? Maybe I'm dreaming.
" . . .then he went off into the woods and Hermione and I tried to follow, but he disappeared entirely and we couldn't find him. I thought he was using his cloak, and that's why I went into the bushes, ‘ cause I thought he was in there, and that's when I scared the needlethorn beast." He gazed pleadingly up at the tall wizard. "Are you gonna . . .like kick my arse out of here now, sir? ‘Cause it's okay if you are, I'd have been mad as blazes too if some prat talked like that to my kid."
Snape raised an eyebrow. "While I am angry that you spoke that way to Harry, Mr. Weasley, you ought to know by now that I would never kick a student out of my home."
"Then what are you going to do to me?" Ron asked uneasily. "Are you going to wallop me or . . .make me disembowel toads or something?"
"Are you asking me to punish you?" Severus repeated incredulously.
"No . . .umm . . .well, aren't you?"
"Do you think you deserve to be punished?"
Ron hesitated. He knew he did but he didn't want to have to say it. "Err . . .I . . .umm . . . guess so."
"I'll take that as a yes. First off, young man, I think the needlethorn taught you a very pointed object lesson, far better than I could have. The wood is like that sometimes. It is said that you take away what you bring into the glen, and it does not like envious and selfish hearts. However, if you think that is not sufficient, I will set you a few chores to complete without magic and order you to apologize to Harry when he returns, if he hasn't already done so."
Ron swallowed hard. "You want me to apologize to his face?"
"Why yes, Weasley, because it would be rude to talk to his rear end," Severus said sarcastically.
Ron flushed. "Sorry. Okay, I'll . . .I'll try. But what if he won't accept my apology, sir? I was a right git to him."
"Then that is his prerogative. You were wrong, you allowed envy to do the talking for you and now you must face the consequences. All you can do is hope Harry does accept it and move on. Harry does not normally hold grudges, but in this instance . . .I could not blame him if he refused to talk with you or knocked you down, young man. You betrayed him, hurt him worse than an enemy, Mr. Weasley, and you cannot expect him to just forgive and forget that."
"I know. But I'm really sorry!" Ron said miserably.
"And so you should be." Severus said sternly. "Come, let us go into the den, you can wait there while I go and see if Harry has returned yet. If not, I shall go and look for him, and you and Miss Granger can stay here until I return."
"Yes, sir. Uh . . .Professor? What sort of chores are you going to give me?"
Severus smiled a slightly evil smile. "That is for me to know and you to find out. I shall let you know tomorrow morning."
Ron gaped. "Tomorrow?" he cried in dismay. "But why not now? I don't want to wait until tomorrow, I need to know now!"
"You do not get to decide on punishments, young man," Severus told him firmly. "Now quit whining and go into the den. Unless you want extra chores added to what I have already planned for you?"
"No, sir," Ron was quick to say. He headed through the second alcove towards the den and Severus walked back towards the alcove leading to the back porch.
Hermione and Harry quickly straightened and acted like Harry had just come in.
Severus looked at them and Harry was sure his father suspected he had been there longer than a few minutes, but all Severus said was, "Harry, I assume you know what happened to Ronald. He owes you an apology and he is waiting in the den for you. We will give you privacy if you wish to discuss your quarrel now, or later if you prefer."
Harry thought for a moment. "Will Ron be okay, Dad?"
"Yes. He will have a sore bottom for a day or two, but the needlethorn beast did him no lasting injury. Do you wish to hear his apology?"
Harry scowled. "I guess, but I'm still mad at him, the bloody prat."
Severus nodded. "After what he has said, I'm not surprised."
"You know what he said?"
"Yes, he confessed all to me, in a fit of guilt and remorse, son. Now, I would suggest you go and confront him, try and keep your temper, and see what he has to say. Forgiveness is up to you." He then turned to Hermione. "Miss Granger, come with me, I would like to discuss the assignment you did for me over the summer."
Hermione followed Severus out of the kitchen and down the hall to his study, leaving Harry to confront Ron alone.
Harry sighed and went towards the den, wondering if he could bring himself to forgive his friend, or if Ron's ill-considered words had put the nail in the coffin of their friendship.
Chapter End Notes:
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What will happen now?
Next: More problems await Harry and Boreal and Severus from a surprise visitor.
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Next: More problems await Harry and Boreal and Severus from a surprise visitor.
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