Ron was having an unusual summer. Like most of the rest of the regular inhabitants of No. 12 Grimmauld Place, he had become nocturnal since the middle of July. That was when Harry had joined them, thanks to a little subterfuge on the part of his friends.
Without a Black in residence, all the snakes in the House of Black had become... difficult. The only really unmanageable ones were on the chandelier in the hallway, but the door handles could be obnoxious, and Lupin, Ron, Ginny, and Hermione had set up such a clamor that Dumbledore agreed to bring Harry to the house earlier to yell at the snakes in Parseltongue. The doorknobs were all right now, but the chandelier still snapped at people. This included Snape, though, so Harry wasn't in much of a hurry to fix it. Plus, Harry had to be kept around to talk it into giving Professor MacGonagall's hat back, things like that.
They had all gradually adjusted their sleeping patterns when Harry arrived. Harry and his nightmares that were only nightmares some of the time. The regular ones were bad enough-- Ron knew that-- but now old You-Know-Who liked to amuse himself by sending Harry visions when he was caught asleep. And Harry couldn't really study Occlumency again until school started, so he was stuck.
Harry refused to talk about them, but Ron knew they were variations on the Department of Mysteries. Only this time, of course, Harry didn't win. Ron could piece some things together. Whatever Voldemort (Ron could think the name but not say it) was showing Harry, for some reason it was worse for the girls. To avoid the dreams, Harry slept at odd times during the day, and he liked to have the girls in the same room with him. He would wake up and stare at them, and twice he had actually made Ginny floo Luna. Ron had noticed Harry look for him and for Lupin as well, but the girls definitely got the worst treatment.
Ron didn't know what happened to them in the dreams-- visions?-- but he felt sick to his stomach when Harry would wake up and reach a shaking hand out and touch Hermione's hair. He always touched it just a little, as if (Ron thought) he had to make sure it was still there. Ron didn't want to know what Harry saw, even if it did give him the freedom to touch Hermione's hair, something Ron craved.
For her part, Hermione ignored Harry whenever he did this. But when he wasn't looking anymore, and when he was asleep, she'd look at him worriedly, and fret over him. Ron refused to discuss it with her.
Once, Harry had woken up and stroked Ginny's hair, twice, along its full length. Ginny had frozen and slowly turned completely red.
Ron didn't know what it was about their hair, although his mind suggested things. It wasn't always the hair, but that seemed to bother Harry the most.
So Harry stayed up all night and napped at random intervals during the day, usually when his body forced him, and it was more like passing out than sleeping. It had taken Ron, Hermione, and Ginny some time to get used to this. In the beginning, they stayed up as late as they could-- 3 or 4 in the morning. Lupin sat up with Harry the rest of the night. Lupin never seemed to sleep. In the midmorning, when Ron had woken again and come downstairs, Lupin was reading a book in the library by the window with Harry asleep on the couch.
They had to do something at night to keep themselves awake and occupy the dark hours. Ginny accidentally discovered the solution, with help from the twins. Grimmauld Place, it turned out, was so shielded the Ministry couldn't tell if anyone was performing magic there-- let alone who. Of course, if Ron's mum caught them they would be in quite enough trouble. But Lupin and Harry got around it by describing what they did as tutoring. Actually, they were dueling.
Ron, Hermione, and Ginny always came to watch, of course, and Ginny was even asked to demonstrate the Bat-Boogey Hex. They did not, however, normally join in. They simply weren't good enough-- not yet-- so they sat on a couch out of the way.
It was scary, watching them duel. By the end of the summer, Harry was as fast as Lupin, which shouldn't be possible (Hermione said so). They looked serious and scary, and the only way you knew they weren't was because they never threw hexes that really hurt. Funny, embarrassing, and then stunners and Petrificus and leg-lockers. Sometimes Lupin made Harry practice nasty ones, so Harry would learn them and then not use them. Not against Lupin, at least.
Tonks often came to watch as well, and declared they would both pass Auror Dueling at once. The night before the full moon, Tonks came to duel with Harry instead. He soundly beat her. The next two nights, Kingsley Shacklebolt came.
The first night went on for a long time, until finally they Stunned each other. The second night, Kingsley won eventually.
"Vary your attack" Kingsley told him. "I knew what you were going to do this time."
Ron overheard him telling Tonks: "If he'd been throwing serious curses, or, and, if he'd had the freedom of movement he usually does, I would not have won."
Ron, proud, repeated this to Harry, who shrugged. "I'm not throwing painful curses at my friends" he muttered. Hermione had sent him a concerned look, although Ron was not inclined to argue with this plan.
After the beginning of August, Neville Longbottom came to stay with them as well, after the Longbottoms were attacked and his grandmother ended up in St. Mungo's. He had no trouble staying up all night. Neville seemed as determined as Ron to learn how to duel better, but unlike Ron, Neville actually took notes.
For the August full moon, Mad-Eye showed up. "I hear you're beatin' Aurors, Potter. Wanna try me?"
Harry had looked rather alarmed, but agreed.
Moody beat him, fairly quickly. "C'mon Potter" he growled after bringing Harry around. "I know you can do better than that. I've seen it." Harry's face took on the dark scowl Ron knew so well from last year.
"Eruption's eminent" he whispered to Hermione. She nodded and watched Harry closely.
"Now," Moody said. "Attack me like you mean it. How do you expect to survive Death Eaters if you won't hurt them?"
Harry took up his wand, face grim. "Right," he said, "let's go."
Harry used something Ron privately thought of as "the Malfoy Reserve." Loads of nasty things went sailing Moody's way; he blocked most of them. But Harry blocked most of Moody's as well, and Ron started to wonder if they were going to have to call a draw.
That was eventually what happened: Moody called a halt and an adjournment until the following evening. The duel went on a total of four nights and only ended because Moody had to go away on a mission, and Ron's mum forbid them to carry on afterwards because she was sick of cleaning up bloodstains.
Lupin said Harry was certainly better than he was, but he'd carry on if Harry wanted to. Harry did, of course.
The duels became famous in the Order. Ron's father often came to watch for part of the night. Bill and Fleur came, and when they were both there, Bill cheered on Lupin and Fleur cheered on Harry so devotedly Bill got jealous. One duel became instant legend-- Lupin and Harry vs. Fred and George. The twins lost badly, but not before a great many explosions took place.
Ron and Hermione and Ginny and Neville watched faithfully every night. Ron was desperate to improve his skills-- he'd munged it badly in June, and was determined that next time (and there would be a next time, he didn't need Divination to tell him that) he would be a help to Harry, instead of a bloody hindrance who had to be saved by his little sister and Luna Lovegood.
To Ron's horror (and not only his), one night Snape came to watch. Hermione and all the Weasleys present glared at him. Neville hid behind Hermione. Snape stood in a corner sneering, and making rude comments about both Lupin and Harry.
Finally, Lupin stood back and said: "Sn-Severus, perhaps you would like to duel one of us, then?"
Snape looked furious and Harry smirked, while Lupin smiled a not-entirely-patient (but still in good humour) smile. Snape sent extra-vicious glares at Harry and Lupin and swept from the room.
"About bloody time!" Ron shouted when the door shut, and even Hermione didn't correct him.
Then, the last night before they went back to Hogwarts, Dumbledore came to duel Harry.
A large crowd came to see this, and Ron noted the room had been subtly enlarged. Even his parents were there-- his mum had refused to watch before. Ron, Hermione, and Ginny sat on their usual couch on "Harry's side" of the room; it was the side he always stood on, anyway. The twins were nearby and Lupin stood at the end of the couch next to Ron, clearly nervous. Neville dragged a chair against the back wall, well out of the line of fire. It seemed like everyone who had ever come to watch was back, and that included Snape, who stood on the opposite side. Fred and George were complaining they should have been selling tickets.
Harry came in first and waited almost patiently, refusing to speak to anyone. Dumbledore finally came in, in good humour. Harry did not smile back. They bowed solemnly, and Ron found himself holding his breath.
Usually, Harry started duels like he never started chess, boldly. Harry liked to come out with a strong attack. But this time, against Dumbledore, Harry was more cautious. They circled each other warily, and traded quick hexes, one at a time. Harry finally lost patience and shot out the Bat-Bogey Hex, followed by a stunner. Dumbledore blocked both, but the duel had begun in earnest.
Harry had developed a habit of shouting "Protego!" followed by "finite!" just in case one got through. For the first time, Ron saw this actually work.
Harry managed to hit Dumbledore by firing two in a row, one at Dumbledore and one to the side he guessed Dumbledore would move to. The hits were few and far between, but Harry made them, and considering that it was Dumbledore....
Most of the spectators gasped at appropriate moments, and made other enthralled-spectator noises. Their heads whipped back and forth between the two duelists, with only two exceptions that Ron noticed. Lupin, as far as Ron could tell, only watched Harry, and mouthed instructions and suggestions that even Ron couldn't hear. Snape stood in a corner with his arms folded and didn't move, although Ron thought his eyes were flicking back and forth as he watched. It was sort of like watching quidditch. Harry was becoming sweaty-- Ron hoped Ginny could control herself.
Harry was taking a series of bad hits, and Ron thought it would be over soon. Harry's gaze seemed to land on Snape and he burst out with "Serpent sortia!" The room gasped; even Snape looked startled. Harry followed immediately with an engorgement charm. And suddenly there was a very large snake in the room. Ginny grabbed onto Hermione, who squeaked, and Ron didn't blame them at all. The giant snake made him uncomfortable and he hadn't seen one before.
Harry was now hissing at it; Ron shuddered. He would never get used to hearing those evil sounds come out of his best friend's mouth. By this time, Harry had taken refuge behind a sofa that had been left empty. Ron saw at once that it was a good choice. It was low to the ground, so it would be very hard for Dumbledore to get anything under it, but Harry could see and probably send spells. And he could definitely speak Parseltongue.
The snake was now rearing up facing Dumbledore, and it was a few feet taller. It started to circle, taking snaps at the headmaster as it went, though not seriously trying to get him. In another moment, Ron realized what Harry was doing, and silently congratulated him. Dumbledore, in small degrees, was slowly but surely turning his back to Harry. Once he had done, Harry could do whatever he wanted. Of course, Harry wouldn't hex someone when his back was turned....
But a Death Eater would, Ron thought. And you have to take whatever advantage you can get. For a moment, Ron forgot Harry wasn't fighting a Death Eater. "Get him!" he whispered. "Just get him!"
But then Dumbledore Vanished the snake and blocked the spell Harry had jumped up to send. Harry immediately ducked again. It was extraordinarily quiet, now.
"Very clever, Harry" Dumbledore said. "But that would not have worked against Voldemort."
But it would've against Malfoy, Ron thought. And it would have against that Lestrange woman.
"But sir" Harry's voice, disembodied by the couch, was breathy but oddly flat. "I'm not fighting Lord Voldemort. I'm fighting you." There was an odd undercurrent Ron could hear but not place. Other people didn't have that problem, though. Next to him, Hermione frowned and Lupin drew in a sharp breath.
Ron leaned around to look at Harry. He could just see him, sitting on the floor with his back pressed against the sofa back. Then Hermione leaned against Ron to try and see Harry too. There is only so much a bloke can stand, and with Hermione pressed against him, Ron missed what happened next.
Somehow, Harry was up from behind the sofa and he and Dumbledore were at it again. Ron was distracted now, though-- he couldn't help feeling like he'd missed something important. The glance Hermione and Lupin exchanged just confirmed this.
Neither Harry nor Dumbledore spoke again but dueled intently, Harry rather moreso. It wasn't like watching quidditch anymore, for some reason. The tone had changed. Harry wasn't fighting for his life, of course, but Ron knew him well enough to know he was taking this completely seriously.
And he would have gotten away Ron thought. He would have escaped, if he wanted to, with that snake. That was all Harry could be hoping for.
Harry continued throwing everything he could at the headmaster, who must, surely, be holding back still. Ron could tell from Harry's face-- he kept looking angrily at Dumbledore.
Ron was rather lost in thought on one level when an arc of light shot from Dumbledore toward Harry. As impossible as it seemed, Harry was apparently expecting this and jumped out of the way easily.
"You have to teach me that one, sir" Harry finally spoke.
"As you wish, Harry." Dumbledore seemed impressed. Ron noticed that Harry was the only student Dumbledore ever called by first name. Well, Ron supposed that if you were Harry Potter, you might be on a first name basis with Albus Too-Many-Middle-Names Dumbledore. Ron wondered if Harry called him "Albus" in private. That was so funny Ron snickered. Hermione and Ginny glared at him.
Ron properly turned his attention to the duel. How could they still be going? Harry had to be exhausted, but he still kept on. Mad, Ron thought. Harry looked like he might collapse, but since he was Harry, he couldn't do so until this was over. Ron now felt sick and angry. This wasn't fun, not for Harry! What were they playing at?
Finally, Dumbledore seemed to agree with Ron. He mumbled a word Ron didn't quite catch, and a wide blast finally caught Harry-- and the rest of the room for a few meters on either side. Harry fell onto his back and his wand flew toward Dumbledore, who caught it easily.
Harry did not get up.
Ron was on his feet in an instant, Hermione and Ginny right behind him. Lupin was already crossing the room, but stopped when he got to Harry. Ron reached them a second later and saw Harry was conscious, just laying on his back, staring straight up, and breathing heavily.
"I'm dead" he said.
Ron and Lupin both flinched. Hermione cried "Harry!" and grabbed onto Ron's arm in her distress. Neville gasped. Only Ginny looked at him calmly.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I can't move" Harry said, sounding vague and puzzled. "I mean, I can, but I won't."
"Correct, Mr. Potter. Finite." Dumbledore handed Harry back his wand. "I had almost forgotten about that particular spell." Dumbledore sounded tired.
Harry dragged himself to his feet, disregarding all offers of assistance. He stood and flexed his arms and legs, looking at them curiously.
"Headmaster" Hermione (of course!) asked, "what was that curse?"
Ron noticed everyone was listening, particularly the Aurors.
"A very old curse" Dumbledore said. "The curse from which the Imperious curse is derived, actually. But much more powerful, because not as extensive."
Harry was nodding. "It was my legs and arms that didn't want to move" he mused. "But I can throw off Imperio." Ron winced. He was so bloody matter-of-fact about it!
Harry looked at Dumbledore. "You'll have to teach me that one too" he said. "Sir."
Dumbledore was looking at Harry very solemnly. "As you wish, Harry."
Dumbledore then turned to face the rest of the room and got a round of applause going. Everyone started to mingle and chatter and rehash. Ron turned to Harry, who was talking to Lupin.
"Do you think I can? Eventually, I mean." Harry seemed to be pressing him for an answer.
Lupin looked like he didn't want to give it. "I don't see why it matters" he said.
"Remus" Harry was pleading. Ron was baffled.
Lupin looked at Dumbledore, then back at Harry. "Yes" he said. "Eventually."
This must have been the answer Harry wanted because at first he looked pleased, but then changed his mind. He shoved his hands in his pockets. Behind him, Ron heard Hermione sigh.
"Harry?" Harry looked back up at Lupin. "Do you feel better now?"
Harry seriously considered his answer for a moment before nodding. "Yes. I do."
"Good" Lupin smiled, and suddenly looked as exhausted as Harry. "You did well" he said, patted Harry's shoulder, and left the room.
Later that night, when they were supposed to be asleep (Mum's orders, but Ron knew Harry wouldn't sleep), Ron said "You wanted to fight Dumbledore."
"Yeah" Harry answered.
Ron very badly wanted to ask why, but knew Harry wouldn't tell him. "You can tell me if you want" he said finally. "You don't have to, because I can't make you, but I wish you would." Harry said nothing. "Do you still want to fight him?" Ron asked.
"No" Harry said. "Not anymore."
"Okay" Ron said. "That's enough for Hermione and me."
"I'll tell you soon" Harry said suddenly. "You both deserve to know. But I can't...."
"It's okay, mate" Ron said, and it was.