"Stop. Just stop."
Harry shook the hand off and kept going, down the dank stone corridor, deeper and deeper into the building. To where he knew lights would grow dimmer, solid stone would give way to cracks and crevices, to cages.
He couldn't shake the arm off this time, no matter how much he wrenched in its grasp. But he couldn't let anyone stop him, this was too important, this was what he was born to do. He relaxed his body, then when his assailant loosened his grip Harry swung his fist around and contacted hard flesh.
He was free, but...
"Bloody hell, Harry, why've you got to hit so hard?"
"Ron, what are you doing here?" he said frantically. "They told me you were safe, in hiding. You've got to go, you'll be seen! You'll be captured!"
"Harry," said Ron again, rubbing his cheek gingerly with one hand. "Harry, stop. Think. Where are you?" Voldemort's underground lair, passages twisting around each other like so many snakes, making his way further and further inside. "You're at Hogwarts, Harry. You were dreaming again."
Dreaming? No, that punch was solid, this was real. "You're not Ron..."
"In sixth year I caught you snogging Terry Boot outside Charms when I stepped out to use the loo," Ron said instantly. "Afterward you told me he slobbered too much and couldn't find your arse with a map and a bloody signpost." Harry had never told anyone else about that. "I am Ron. We're both safe. The war's over."
Harry slumped against the cold wall as it came back to him, the real outcome of the mission he'd imagined himself on again, the one that had ended it all. And he remembered the months that followed, while he and the rest of the wizarding world recovered. The corridor he was in was not Voldemort's lair but the Hogwarts dungeon, part of a route he'd taken often on his way to Potions.
"Oh God, Ron," he said and closed his eyes. "Did I hurt you?"
"No more than last time," said Ron. "Do you think you'll hit me again if I touch you?"
Harry shook his head, and felt Ron tentatively take his hand. "Let me take you back up to bed. I think we still have some Dreamless Sleep potion left. It's early yet, and you haven't got to be up in the morning anyhow."
No more lessons, no overwhelming task that had to be done, nothing for him to do but sleep and be. "But you do," he said suddenly. "You've got a lesson..."
"No I haven't," said Ron. "It's not my morning to teach. I haven't got anything to do until after lunch. Are you ready to go back, or do you need to stay here a little longer?"
Harry opened his eyes to see Ron looking at him with what was now too-familiar concern. He didn't want to stay where they were any longer, safe or not, but he didn't want to sleep either. Not even when he knew that Ron would be right there next to him. All the love in the world couldn't keep the dreams away.
"I could eat," he murmured.
"To the kitchens, then," said Ron, smiling at him. "I could eat, too, come to think of it."
"Is there ever a time you couldn't?" teased Harry, and started to feel like himself again.
The dreams didn't come every night anymore, nor every other night, and sometimes a week would go by without them. But when they did come it took more than a few minutes to shake them off again. Snape told him that they would grow less and less over time, but Harry knew Snape well enough now to know that they never really left you entirely.
"Do you ever dream of it?" he asked Ron as they climbed a set of stairs that mercifully stayed put.
"Sometimes," he said, squeezing Harry's hand. "Not like you dream of it. I wasn't there, at the end."
"I'm glad you weren't," said Harry. "I wanted you safe." Ron hadn't been safe; he'd been off fighting a battle on another front. But Harry hadn't known that at the time, and in retrospect he was glad of it. He mightn't have been able to do what he needed to, if his mind hadn't been fully on the task at hand.
"I wanted you safe, too," said Ron. "But neither of us had much of a choice about that."
Ron liked to be the one to tickle the pear, for some reason he'd never explained, so Harry let him. It was such a small thing, really. "Do you think they've got roast beef?"
"You're Harry Potter," said Ron with a sharp laugh, grasping the green handle and opening the door. "They'll have everything you could ever imagine wanting, and you know it. But wouldn't you rather some breakfast? They'll have started it already..."
"Bacon?" said Harry hopefully.
"And sausages and eggs and toast," Ron assured him, and almost as soon as he said it a pair of eager house-elves were on hand to lead them to some waiting food. Neither of them Dobby, Harry thought sadly, but at least Dobby was safe, even if he was no longer at Hogwarts. "And pumpkin juice..."
"Tea," said Harry firmly. "Bacon and tea. And toast." Comfort food, all of it, at least for him. But then, even being down in the kitchen while the house-elves scurried around them preparing a meal was a kind of comfort. "By the fire."
Ron sat down, not across from him, but hip to hip on one side of the table, a heaping plate of food in front of them. Harry twined his ankle around Ron's and ate with his fingers, and was glad that no one was around to stop him. Ron never would, not when he already had crumbs on his chin and grease on his fingers.
"I don't want the Dreamless Sleep," said Harry finally, sucking off his thumb. "I don't like it."
"Nobody likes it," said Ron. "Not really. But Harry, do you really want to start having to put wards up on the door at night again? Or have me tie you to the bed? I won't. I won't."
"Would you want me to, if it was you?"
"Now how'm I supposed to answer that?" said Ron, tossing down his bit of sausage back onto his plate. "You know I can't. Just as well as you know I wish it'd been me and not you in the first place..."
"I know, I know," Harry admitted. "It just can't go on like this, Ron."
"And it won't," said Ron firmly. "Not if I have anything to say about it, and I do."
"Well," said Harry slowly, "at least I didn't find myself hexing a stuffed badger this time."
"You see?" said Ron with a careful grin. "Things are looking up." He picked up that last bit of sausage and popped it in his mouth. "Take the Dreamless Sleep, Harry, just for tonight. You know Snape--" And Ron made a brief, gagging noise. "--is working on something that will be easier on you."
"He's not making it for me."
"So?" said Ron. "What works on him will work on you, too, and you know it. It doesn't matter if he's only making it because he's a selfish git who can't see past the end of his oversized nose to see how much somebody else--"
"You're right," Harry interrupted him. Ron may have been right about all of that, but that didn't mean that Snape didn't sometimes come find Harry when Ron was teaching his lessons, on some pretence or other, and subtly inquire as to how he was doing. "He's not doing it for himself, though. He's doing it for Dumbledore. If it was for himself he would've done it years ago."
"Well, then that's even better," said Ron. "Dumbledore would make sure you got what you needed, no matter what it took."
Harry trusted Snape to help him more than Dumbledore, but he didn't say so. It didn't really matter anymore now that he didn't really have to rely on either of them, now that they wielded no power over him.
"You look ready to go back to bed," Ron noted, rubbing his ankle lightly against Harry's. "Sleep, maybe. Are you finished mutilating that toast?"
Harry looked at the pile of crumbs in front of him and had to smile, just a little. "Better the toast than..." he said, and shook his head. "I'm exhausted, Ron. Help me sleep?"
"In any way I can," he promised.
Harry didn't think there was really any way, but the fact that Ron would promise it so freely and sincerely meant as much as any cure. Ron, who was now sporting a bruised cheek thanks to Harry's nightmares, who had endured them before and would again. Ron who promised a long time ago to never leave his side.
Maybe love couldn't keep the dreams away, but it could at least make them bearable.