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Chapter Twelve
An Unexpected Gift


Holiday at the Burrow turned out to be much better than Ron had feared, and although there were sombre moments over the break, there was plenty of laughter as well. The only problem was that Ron didn’t feel quite sincere whenever he joined in. But Harry and Ginny were there, and so were Bill, Fleur, Charlie, and Percy. Moments like this were few and far between, and it’d be a long time before they’d all be in one place again, so he tried to laugh, hoping that somewhere along the way, it’d actually feel genuine.

The holiday also helped ease some of the unresolved resentment and suspicion that sat between him and his friends, but Ron could still feel lying under the surface, waiting to erupt.

Sleep was easier, though; not because he didn’t have nightmares, but because by the time all of the talking and laughter was done, he was completely knackered. But he’d always wake with a faint feeling like he’d been running again.

On Christmas day, the smell of the feast to come drifted upstairs, rousing Ron from sleep. Childlike excitement sparked by nostalgia caused him to bolt into a sitting position and spring out of bed, elbowing Harry in the process.

“Ouch!”

“Sorry, Harry. Wake up. It’s Christmas!” Ron exclaimed as he searched for some sweats.

Harry turned over and yawned. “Ron, we’re not kids anymore.”

“Well we’re still in school, aren’t we? That has to count for something.”

Harry chuckled and reached over to the nightstand to retrieve his glasses. When he sat up, Ron clapped his hands.

“Come on, don’t dally about. Let’s get downstairs.”

Ron quickly washed up and dressed. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, the assault of smells from the Christmas feast his mum was preparing had him absolutely giddy with excitement. It was almost as if nothing had changed.

Almost.

Before darker thoughts threatened to dim his mood, a clap on his back sent him stumbling forward.

“What the—”

George was standing behind him with a cheeky grin. “Just had to be the first one down, didn’t you?”

Ron smiled. “You know it.”

Soon, everyone else joined them. Everyone except for Hermione. Ron groaned, remembering that she’d promised to join them after she exchanged gifts and shared a special Christmas brunch with her parents.

But Percy was already eyeing the gifts under the tree. When he bent over to pick up a medium blue box with a blue speckled bow, Mum promptly smacked it from his hand. “Just a minute, Percy! Aren’t we missing someone?”

“Yeah…Hermione,” Ron said with sigh. “She said she’d come as soon as she exchanged gifts with her parents.”

“Well, we’ll just wait until she arrives,” Mum said. “In the meantime, you can all help me tidy the place up a bit.”

There was much grumbling, but everyone did as they were told. One hour turned into two, and then three. With the chores done, everyone was getting restless until at last, Hermione Apparated into their living room. They all dropped what they were doing to greet her and gather around the tree once more. Ron gave Hermione a long embrace, and a chaste kiss on the cheek, aware that his family was watching. His mum was the last to join the clan in the living room, wiping her hands on her apron as she emerged from the kitchen. She gave Hermione a firm hug and asked her how she was doing. When they were done exchanging pleasantries, she turned to see everyone looking on in barely constrained anticipation.

Mum laughed at their impatience and extended her hands. "Oh, all right, now we can exchange gifts!"

There was a collective “Yes” and a few excited claps as the circle closed in around the tree.

Dad gave a small smile, but his eyes were quite serious. “Wait. Before we start, let’s have a moment for Fred.”

Ron's smile fell and he looked around, suddenly feeling bad for feeling so good. As they stood in silence, memories of Fred from Christmases past turned in his head like pages from a wizarding scrapbook. Fred playing pranks, Fred laughing, Fred making weird faces.

Since Fred’s death, Ron had managed not to think about his brother for too long at any one time. A few minutes here and by accident there. But here, in the midst of his family, in the blank void of deafening silence that allowed no other distractions, Ron could feel his throat constricting. It was hard to breathe; something terrific and frightening was welling inside of him, and he wasn’t sure if he had the reserve to hold it in. So he closed his eyes, trying to force it back down into the numb void where it usually resided. A hand fell on his shoulder and he looked up to see George staring down at him, the sadness in his eyes at odds with his small comforting smile.

“I’d say that’s enough silence. Fred would have been on his second gift by now.”

They all smiled, and the atmosphere in the room shifted as the temporary moratorium on frivolity was lifted. George had given them permission to move on, and although Ron couldn’t quite push the sadness aside, his guilt subsided.

He bent down to pick up a shiny red box. It was addressed to Percy, so he handed it to him while George picked up a gift and handed it off to Ginny. As they all chose and passed on gifts to their appropriate recipients, Ron was pleased to find he was accumulating an impressive collection this year. Then again, last year he hadn’t been home for Christmas.

He hadn’t even been with Harry and Hermione.

That lonely Christmas day spent at Shell’s Cottage with Bill and Fleur seemed like light-years away from this Christmas, and a wave of gratitude swelled within Ron as he looked to find Hermione and Harry both engaged in gift swaps with content smiles on their faces.

Once the gifts were sorted, they all sat down and tore into them. Ron was pleased with everything he received: a book on Quidditch full of collector’s cards from Harry, a Keeper’s glove from Ginny, a Muggle CD player from his Dad, a new but very familiar-looking handmade sweater from his Mum, and a rather expensive-looking marble chess set that all his brothers had pitched in to buy.

The only thing left was Hermione’s gift. He gasped when he opened it.

The entire family leaned in with wide eyes, looking between Hermione and him.

“Oh, Ron, that’s gorgeous,” Ginny said.

Ron was speechless as he reached into the rectangular box and picked up the white gold chain with a pendant hanging from it. There was a dazzling raised engraved symbol of an animal carved on it; the head, wings and talons looked to be that of an eagle, but the lower half and tail were that of a lion.

Hermione piped up. "It’s Celtic, the griffin symbol. It represents courage and strength. I thought it fit you perfectly."

Ron couldn’t stop staring at it, his eyes suddenly feeling sensitive to the light and dust in the room- or at least that’s what he told himself.

"Do you like it?" Hermione asked anxiously.

At a loss for words, Ron put down the box and went to her, hugging her fiercely.

“I suppose that’s a yes, then?” she laughed.

“Yes, thank you,” he said, blushing as he looked down at the gift he’d given her.

“What is it?” she asked, looking up at him expectantly. Ron shrugged, trying to hold in his smile as Hermione ripped open the box.

She squeaked and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him unabashedly.

“Let’s see it,” his mum said.

Hermione held the box out, showing them around so everyone could see. “They’re diamond earrings.”

“Whoa, not quite,” Ron said quickly.

“They’re not?” Hermione asked.

“Nope, they’re petrified dragon tears, not quite as fancy as diamonds, but harder to get your hands on,” Ron said proudly.

“Dragon tears? Ron, how did you—”

Ron glanced to Charlie, who nodded.

"I may have assisted him in acquiring those…" Charlie said.

“I hope you didn’t use all of your Order of Merlin money on these, Ron. It’s very sweet but—”

“Hermione, please … just accept them, and leave it be,” Ron said firmly, hoping she’d back down for once.

She stared down at the earrings once more and looked up with an appreciative smile. “Thank you,” she said, kissing him once more on the cheek.

They sat on the couch together watching everyone else open their gifts, until finally there were no more gifts left save for a small silver box with a green bow sitting under the tree.

“Whose gift is that?” asked Percy.

“Not sure. It didn’t have a name on it,” George said.

“It came early this morning by special owl,” Ron’s mum said. “Right fancy owl, too.”

Harry, Hermione, and Ginny all turned to Ron. There was a hush around the room as he stood to retrieve it.

The box was small, able to sit comfortably in his right hand. He studied the fancy silver wrapping and silken green bow.

“Well, open it, already,” George said.

Ron ripped into the package and lifted the hood of the box, nearly uttering an “oh shit” when he laid eyes on the miniature red and gold hookah inside. There lay a note underneath.

Something to get you through the hols. Dinner will be served at 2pm and the Apparition coordinates are enclosed. I don’t expect you to actually drop by, but to be honest, I’m terribly bored, and I thought you might like an opportunity to get away. If you show, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine as well. Either way, have a happy one.

-D.M.


Bugger, Draco! How dare he!

Ron knew his face reflected shock and anger, but there was no graceful way to cover it up now.

“Well, what is it, dear?” his Mum asked, making her way over to him.

Ron gnawed at his lip as everyone threw curious glances between him and the box.

“Uh, nothing. Some sort of prank.“ Ron said, pulling the gift away from his Mum’s probing eyes.

“A prank? Well, let’s have a look,” George said, moving in. Ron clutched the box tighter to him, trying to control the scowl on his face. Leave it to Malfoy to ruin the one good day he was actually enjoying.

“Who’s it from, Ron?” Hermione asked.

Ron opened his mouth and then reconsidered. It would only invite more questions and curious stares. Instead, he headed towards the staircase.

“Ron, what is in that box?” his mum demanded.

“Nothing, Mum. Listen, there’s something I have to do,” Ron said, bracing himself for a row, but his mum only stared back at him with concern in her eyes.

It made him feel guilty for not being honest. “Uh … I have to run an errand.”

“An errand?” his father said. “Ron, it’s Christmas!”

“I know. I’ll be back soon,” he said as he began to walk up the stairs.

“Ron?” Hermione said, her eyes begging for an explanation.

“I’ll be right back, Hermione. Promise,” he said, giving her an apologetic smile.

There were many exclamations and questions, mostly from his mother, but Ron didn’t hear any of them as he bolted upstairs to escape them so he could Apparate properly. He had a Malfoy to straighten out.

~~~*~~~


By the time Ron Apparated outside of the gates of Malfoy Manor, he was livid. How dare Draco send him a druggie gift in front of his family and friends! How dare he presume that Ron wanted or needed such a gift! What they did on the Tower every night was a casual habit; it wasn’t a need. He didn’t need to smoke to get through the hols. In fact, he didn’t need anything or anybody.

Ron closed his eyes, cognisant that he did need his family and friends. But he didn’t count Malfoy or his drug habit among that group.

When he opened his eyes, he was staring at cast iron bars with a moulded Olde English ‘M’ insignia over the faded Malfoy family crest. The bars were shut and locked, but he could see the Manor through them. Like lightning, a jarring memory straight out of his nightmares flashed before his eyes. He grimaced, his anger reinforced. He rapped his knuckles dead center on the ‘M’, and the gates opened immediately.

The walk up the path to the front door seemed unusually long. By the time Ron reached the door and knocked, he’d worked himself into a state of outrage. The door creaked open, and a house elf peeked out.

“Yes?”

“Hi, I’d like to speak to Malfoy. Uh, Draco Malfoy, please,” Ron said, trying to affect authority in his tone.

The elf stared up at him as if he had just spoken another language and then a woman’s voice drifted to Ron's ears.

“Who is it, Minnie?”

“I donts know.”

Ron tensed as soft footsteps approached. The door opened wider, revealing Draco’s mother. For a moment, Ron was at a loss for words. It was as if Narcissa Malfoy had aged several years since the last time he had seen her. There were new worry lines etched into her brow, she was much paler, and her blue eyes were harder than he remembered. But her beauty remained. Her long blonde locks were swept back, except for a few tendrils, showcasing her high cheek bones and distinguished nose. Even in her casual dark blue house robes, she exuded elegance and grace. Ron coughed, suddenly aware he was gawking at Draco’s mother.

She gave Ron a strange, puzzled look. “Yes?”

“Hello, Mrs Malfoy, you may remember me. I’m Ron … Ron Weasley.”

“Yes, I remember you,” she said stiffly, a chill in her words. “How may I help you?”

Ron swallowed. “I need to speak with your son.”

Her eyes canvassed Ron from head to toe suspiciously, and then she glanced over her shoulder before looking back at him.

“Minnie, please tell Draco he has a guest,” she ordered.

“Yes, Missus.”

As Ron stepped inside, his anger dissipated into doubt. Draco’s mother looked cautious and distrustful, and the idea of actually confronting Draco in front of her suddenly seemed irrational and boorish. Perhaps speaking with Draco in private would be better.

Waiting in the foyer with Mrs Malfoy was awkward to say the least, and Ron debated about whether he should attempt polite conversation or keep his mouth shut. He chose the latter, trying to remain still under her appraising gaze until he heard footsteps.

“A guest?” Ron heard Draco say as he approached. “Mother, who—”

Draco stopped at the entrance of the foyer, clearly stunned by Ron’s appearance. His eyes darted to his mother. “Ron- uh, Weasley...”

Ron could feel perspiration breaking on his forehead as he tried to muster up the same nerve that had brought him.

“I need to talk to you.”

Saying the words out loud sounded even more ridiculous than it had in his head, and he held his breath as Draco’s eyes shifted to his mother uncomfortably. Mrs Malfoy was watching her son as if waiting for an explanation.

“About what?”

Ron’s eyes darted from Mrs Malfoy to Draco. “It’s private.”

“Whatever you have to say to my son, you can say it right here, Mr Weasley.”

“Mrs Malfoy—“

She held up her hand to silence him. “Mr Weasley, if you think you can come into my home, and talk to my son in any way you like, you are sorely mistaken. I’m not ignorant of what has been going on. I know how you and your friends are treating Draco.”

Ron held his breath, caught between denying her claim and defending himself.

“You don’t understand.”

“Oh, I do. And we do not appreciate your unannounced visit.”

“Mother, please,” Draco said, stepping closer to her. “I invited him.”

“Draco …?” Mrs Malfoy said softly in disbelief.

“That’s why you came, isn’t it, Ron?” Draco asked, with imploring eyes that begged for Ron to cooperate.

Ron nodded slowly. “Yeah. That’s right. Draco sent me an invitation, said you were having dinner at 2, so I thought I’d take him up on it. I just wanted to speak to him in private to make sure I wouldn’t be intruding.”

“Is that so…” Mrs Malfoy said slowly.

“I know what you’re thinking, Mrs Malfoy, but it’s not like that at all. At least, not between him and me. Draco and I actually hang out at school now. Quite a bit, really,” Ron said, struck by just how truthful his words were.

“I see,” Mrs. Malfoy said, clearly taken aback. She looked between her son and Ron before offering a small head bow. “Well, please accept my apologies, Mr Weasley. I didn’t mean to be so brusque.”

Ron gave her a small forgiving smile. “It’s all right. I’m still getting used to the idea of being friends with Draco myself.”

An unexpected smile from Mrs Malfoy had Ron sighing silently in relief.

“Well, I suppose we can have an early dinner. There’s plenty of food, so I hope you came with a full appetite.”

Ron smiled. Eating actually sounded good right about now. “I sure did.”

Dinner was surreal. Ron found his emotions vacillating from curiosity to awe to unease. He tried to remember everything Hermione had attempted to impart to him about table manners, but he still had the feeling he was terribly unprepared for such a fancy dinner. He mimicked everything Draco did instead. There were five courses, and each one seemed fancier than the last.

Narcissa asked Ron about his family and their traditions, and that seemed to ease the last bit of lingering tension. They laughed as Ron recounted how much of an event it was to get the tree up, and some of the rows George and Percy had got into over the years.

After a while, Mrs Malfoy’s demeanour changed considerably, and she smiled freely, sharing a few of her own memories about Draco and Christmases past. This seemed to please Draco, as Ron observed him looking at his mum with a satisfied smile several times during dinner.

“Would you like some wine, Mr Weasley?” she asked as the house elf poured her another glass.

Ron nodded eagerly. “Uh, sure. Thanks.”

He took his time sipping his wine, relishing the grown-up feeling of drinking fine wine at the Malfoy dining room table. Who would have ever thought he’d be here a year ago?

After dessert, Mrs Malfoy excused herself, giving Ron a kind smile. “Well, as lovely as this has been, I’m quite full and would like to take a nap. Mr Weasley, it’s been a pleasure.”

Ron rose awkwardly with her, unsure if that was the right thing to do. “Yes it has, Mrs Malfoy. Thank you for inviting me to dinner. It was really great.”

“Well, I do hope it won’t be the last time you join us,” she said, giving Draco a meaningful look before disappearing.

Draco summoned the elf for more wine, but instead of letting the elf pour, he grabbed the entire bottle from the creature and motioned Ron away from the table.

“Let’s go up to my room.”

Ron paused for a moment. His family was probably waiting for him to return. But he was in no rush to field the litany of questions they probably had. A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. He nodded, unable to deny his increasing curiosity about what other things there were to discover during his visit.

As he and Draco made their way back to the grand staircase, Ron couldn’t help but look around the parlour. An unexpected shudder passed through him as his eyes fell onto the stairway leading down to the Malfoy basement, so he kept his eyes on Draco as he climbed up.

They walked a good ways before reaching a doorway. Draco opened it, and Ron entered a black-and-silver decorated bedroom large enough to hold two of his parents’ master bedrooms.

“Whoa, your room is huge!”

Draco shrugged. “If you say so.”

Ron plopped onto Draco’s grand king size canopy bed without thinking twice to ask his permission. When he realised what he had done, he sat up quickly.

“It’s all right, Ron, you can relax.”

But suddenly it didn’t seem okay at all. Ron remained sitting upright, staring at Draco’s back as he went to his desk.

“You know you nearly bolloxed up Christmas for me,” he said.

Draco turned, eyebrow raised. “How's that?”

“By sending a special owl on Christmas day to deliver a hookah to my house! You may as well have sent a howler announcing to everyone I smoke grass!”

Draco laughed.

Ron scowled. “It’s not funny, Draco. What in the world made you think that was all right?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Is this your way of thanking me? It’s not very gracious, but then again, that’s no surprise coming from you.”

“No, I’m not thanking you at all. Actually, that’s why I came over — to give it back. I don’t need it,” Ron said with a conviction he no longer felt.

“Fine,” Draco said with a challenge. “Hand it over, then.”

Ron pulled the hookah out of his pocket, giving it one final look. It really was a nice piece— the gold appeared to be of high quality and the red coils wrapped around it looked and felt like genuine soft leather.

“How much did it cost?”

Draco huffed. “Does it matter?”

“Yeah, it does. This may be a surprise to you, Draco, but blokes don’t go around buying fancy gifts for other blokes they’re not related to. I mean, we’re not even—” Ron paused, glancing up. Draco was watching him closely, his whole body rigid as if waiting for rejection.

Ron ate his words, shaking his head instead. “I didn’t even get you anything.”

Draco’s face softened as he sat down at his desk. “So? It’s Christmas— good will, charity and all that.”

Ron narrowed his eyes. “I don’t need charity from you.”

Draco groaned. “Please, keep it. If anyone needs a smoke, it’s you. You’re so damned sensitive. If it’s really bothering you, you can pay me back later.”

“Oh? And how exactly would you like me to pay you back?”

Draco smirked. “By keeping your oafish housemates off my arse. You know, be my bodyguard.”

Ron chuckled. “I’ve been doing that. And I suppose it’s about time I got proper payment for it.”

Draco snorted and Ron smiled for a moment before remembering something Mrs Malfoy had said.

"And while we're on the subject...what did your mum mean when she said she knew how people have been treating you?"

Draco shook his head. "She only knows what I tell her. She thinks I'm being teased. She has no idea what's really going on. If she did, she'd pull me out of school, and I won't let that happen."

Ron stared back at Draco with a mixture of pity and admiration. A blush crept on Draco's face, and he turned his back to Ron, fiddling with something on his desk.

Ron sighed, and reclined back on the large bed. He closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of lushness surrounding him. It was the softest firm mattress he’d ever felt. Just sitting on it made Ron want to sleep.

“You sure do have it good here. If I had this much money, I’d quit school.”

“Money isn’t everything…”

“Sure it is,” Ron said. “I mean that’s why we’re in school, isn’t it? So we can get decent jobs and earn money to live.”

“No, that’s not why I’m in school.”

Ron turned his head to look at Draco, but the other boy was staring down some sort of photograph in his hand.

Draco remained silent, wiping the surface of the frame with his hand before putting it back on his desk. Ron strained to get a good look at it. It was a photograph of Lucius Malfoy with Draco at some sort of high profile event. Lucius was smiling; it was a strange sight to see. Two Malfoys smiling—genuinely, without malice or smugness, simply a father and son enjoying the event and each other.

Draco must have noticed Ron’s bemusement because his tone became defensive. “I know what you think of him, but he’s really not a bad person.”

Ron met his eyes and saw fire there and something else. Pain.

Ron sat up. “Have you had a chance to visit him yet?”

Draco’s eyes dropped and he shook his head. “They don’t allow it.”

“Are you serious?”

Draco’s eyes sharpened. “Yes. Why are you surprised? You’ve seen what your lot can do when they set themselves up as judge and jury.”

Ron bit back a retort, cognisant that Draco was clearly angry and upset about being kept from his father.

“Mother petitions for it every week. And every week they reject her request.”

Sympathy punched Ron in the heart, and he tried to punch back with rationalisations: Lucius Malfoy was a Death Eater. Lucius Malfoy tried to kill his friends. Lucius Malfoy was a bad man … but none of those explanations held up against the sadness in Draco’s eyes. Ron didn’t know how to reconcile it, but he knew better than to say anything that would add insult to injury.

“I’m sorry,” was the only thing that seemed appropriate.

Draco raised his head, his mask of neutrality returning. “It’s not your fault, is it?”

Ron didn’t know how to respond to that. As the weight of Draco’s melancholy began to suffocate him, he looked around the room in desperation, trying to something else to talk about, a distraction.

“Do you have any games?”

“Games?” Draco asked.

“Yeah, you prat,” Ron said, affecting a light-hearted tone he didn’t feel. “Like exploding snaps or magical darts?”

Draco grinned. “You should see our game room.”

“Game room?” Ron exclaimed, sitting up abruptly. “No way! Show me!”

~~~*~~~


When Ron finally returned to the Burrow, it was nearly dusk. His mum greeted him at the door, her face reflecting worry and relief.

“Oh, Ron! Ron, my sweet boy,” she cried when he entered the door. Ron was immediately smothered in a firm hug as the rest of the family gathered around. “Where in world have you been?”

Finally her death grip loosened, and Ron had to suck in air as she pushed him back and held him firmly by both arms. “We were worried sick! Don’t you ever leave like that again without telling us where you’re going!”

Ron glanced at the Mortality Clock in exasperation. “I don’t know why you're so upset. The clock says I’m perfectly fine!”

“Oh!” his mum said in frustration as his Dad gave him a concerned look.

“Son, where did you go?”

“There was something I had to do, Dad. What matters is I’m back, I’m safe, and just in time for dinner.”

“Just barely,” Mum grumbled, finally letting him go. “Everyone wash up and take your seats.”

“We were just about to start without you,” Bill said, giving his brother a wink.

“We should have. Would have served you right,” said George, giving Ron a not-so-playful push on the arm.

As the rest of his family cleared out, Hermione, Harry, and Ginny remained, their eyes demanding a better story than the one Ron had fed his parents.

“Ron—” Hermione started.

“Not now, guys, all right? Let’s just eat. We can talk about this later.”

But Harry stepped in front of him, blocking Ron’s path. “Did you go and see Malfoy?”

Suddenly the room felt much smaller as the three closed in on him.

“And what if I did? Is being friends with Malfoy a crime now?” Ron asked defensively.

“You tell us!” Ginny said, her arms folded across her chest. “If there’s nothing to be ashamed of, then why do you have to sneak around to hang out with him?”

“Because of questions like this! You guys act like he’s You-Know-Who. You don’t even know him!”

“That’s right, and I’d like to keep it that way,” Ginny said with a fierce whisper. “I can’t believe you, Ron. Running out of the family to see that pompous git!”

Ron clenched his fist, trying to keep from snapping at his sister. Did they actually attend the same school? The pompous had been kicked out of Draco a long time ago.

“Have you seen Draco lately? He’s far from pompous. He’s... listen, you just need to relax. It’s nothing.”

Now it was Hermione’s turn to lean in. “Ron, it’s not nothing! He sends you a gift that you don’t show anyone, and then you run out without telling us where you’re going so that you can meet up with him. Something is going on and you’re not telling us anything. It’s rude, and inconsiderate, and… and I won’t tolerate it anymore!”

“Hermione, please, let’s not do this. It’s Christmas.”

Hermione was fuming, her chest was rising and falling rapidly and her fists were balled at her sides. “I don’t care, Ron. This stops now. Either you come out and tell us what’s going on, or I’ll ask Malfoy myself!”

“Hermione, I’m not doing anything wrong!”

“How can we possibly know that when you’re not telling us anything. What are we supposed to think?”

“You’re supposed to trust me,” he said through gritted teeth, pushing past Harry to head to the kitchen.

As everyone gathered around the table, Ron could feel Hermione, Harry, and Ginny watching him. Their scathing glares were hard to ignore, but Ron did his best, trying to engage the rest of his brothers in playful banter.

After a few minutes it seemed to do the trick, and the tension began to slowly diffuse. Somewhere between eating, listening to George’s tales of magical gadgets gone wrong, and Charlie’s dragon stories, the wariness was replaced by genuine laughter and teasing. Ron was relieved and pleased to see that the previous questions about where he had gone didn’t matter. At least for the moment, everyone seemed content to enjoy the gift of family and friends gathered around the feast Mum had prepared.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Thirteen
I’m Just Fine, Thank You Very Much



The cheer and familial bliss of Christmas lasted only a little longer than the day itself. Hermione left two days later on a rather bad note. She had already planned to leave the Burrow to spend the rest of her holiday with her parents, but the night before her departure, another awkward moment presented itself, widening the burgeoning gulf between her and Ron.

Hermione had been waiting on the porch when Ron had come in from a long walk with his hookah in his pocket. A bit loopy from the drug, Ron’s guard had been down when they embraced. He had nibbled on her neck while she giggled and buried her face into his chest. It was only then that Ron had remembered he’d forgotten to cast Draco’s smell-extinguishing charm.

“Ron, what’s that smell?”

He had pulled back and stumbled away from her, his eyes falling to the porch’s floorboards. “What smell?”

“Ron Weasley, look at me!”

Slowly Ron raised his eyes to meet hers, his entire face burning.

Hermione had stepped closer, her eyes wide and full of horror. “Are you doing drugs?”

Ron had simply shaken his head and scoffed as if Hermione was the loopy one.

“What are you on about?”

“Oh, Ron,” she whispered in shock.

“Leave off, Hermione. It’s nothing, all right?” he’d said hastily, turning his back on her to go inside and run up the stairs.

He had closed himself off in his room, waiting for her to follow him, but no knock came. Holding his head in his hands, shame and guilt had overtaken Ron, and kept him prisoner in his room for the remainder of the evening. The charade was up. Hermione was smart, and Ron knew she had already figured out that whenever he said, “I’m fine” or “it’s nothing”, he was lying. Over the past few months, every ‘nothing’ wound up being something Ron either wanted to bury or forget. Only, no one around him would allow it.

The next day, Hermione had left without even kissing him goodbye, offering only a small forced smile and wave after embracing everyone else but him.

In the days after, Ron had tried to drown out the nagging self-loathing and insecure whispers in his head by catching up with his brothers. Their teasing and laughter were effective in silencing the voices telling him he wasn’t good enough for Hermione, that he was really about to lose her. But mostly, he had spent a lot of time learning and appreciating his new gift.

In the evenings after supper, he’d wander away from the house, turning the hookah in his hand every which way to see how quickly it would heat up. There was barely enough grass in there to get him through the rest of the hols, so he smoked sparingly, out in the fields surrounding the Burrow. He could practically feel Harry and Ginny watching him from the house, but it no longer mattered. They had each other, and Hermione was gone, so how could they begrudge him the simple comfort of solitude? Although, if Ron were to admit it to himself, the solitude he sought was anything but simple. He rarely reflected on anything too long, because his mind was constantly looking for a way to keep from dwelling on anything at all. But no matter how long he tried to avoid thinking of uncomfortable things, they always managed to worm their way into his thoughts. Fred, dead students strewn across the lawn, Remus, Hermione’s torture, Fred, being chased by Fiendfyre, Tonks, the fight with Harry, being splinched, Dobby, the moment he’d left Harry and Hermione and the despair he felt when wasn’t able to find them right away, Fred…

As he sniffed the remaining contents of the hookah, he tried to recall the feeling it gave him. Perhaps he wouldn’t need to suck on it so much if he could just recreate the same experience of relaxation that came over him when he inhaled it. The difference it made between a restful night and a hellish one was remarkable, even if it did come with a side order of self-loathing and guilt. But sniffing it wasn’t really working. He turned it twice in his hand until it warmed and a small stream of smoke drifted from its lid. One tiny little puff before bed wouldn’t hurt. In fact, Ron it was positive it would do him some good.

~~~*~~~


After the holiday break on the day they were set to return, the Weasley family and Harry Floo’ed to Diagon Alley to pick up a few minor things before making their way onto Platform 9 ¾. Hermione was already there, waiting with her parents. She waved when she saw them, and they began to walk over. Ron mentally swore; things were beyond tense between them now. Deciding to get it over with, he met them halfway.

“Mum, Dad, you know Ron,” Hermione said with a stiff smile.

Ron shook their hands and told them how nice it was to see them again, despite feeling the opposite.

Mrs Granger had a pleasant smile on her face, but her eyes were measuring. Mr Granger, however, looked as jolly as father could be.

“Yes. It’s nice to see you again, Ron. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Mr Granger said.

Ron smiled. “Yes, it has.”

“Although now we’re meeting again under entirely different circumstances,” Mrs Granger said with knowing smile. “You’re obviously making quite an impression on our daughter. She always includes something about you in her correspondence.”

Ron looked at Hermione in surprise. Hermione’s face flushed as she gave her mum a weary look. “Mum…”

“Oh dear, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I think it’s very sweet.”

“How are you enjoying your final year, Ron?” Mr Granger asked.

“It’s great. We’re actually having a pretty good year. Hermione here has really whipped the school into shape with the Restoration project,” he said, giving her an appeasing smile.

The Grangers beamed at their daughter proudly as Hermione gave Ron a grateful smile.

“And are you still playing Quidditch?” Mr Granger asked. Ron gave the man a small sympathetic smile, knowing he had never even seen a Quidditch match.

“Yes, I’m a Keeper.”

“And is that what you plan to do after school?” Mrs Granger asked, her eyes probing again.

Ron licked his lips as doubts about his future bubbled like curdled milk in his stomach. He tried to exude self-assurance in his reply, but it came out just as shoddy as he felt about the subject.

“Uh, no, I uh … well, I think I’m going to be an Auror.”

“Auror?” Mrs Granger repeated.

“Wizarding police, Mum,” Hermione said quickly.

“Ah!” both Mrs. and Mr Granger said in unison, giving him approving smiles.

Hermione turned to look at Ron. The unease in which they had parted at the Burrow was transparent through her smile. Ron tried to maintain a cheery, bright expression anyway, although at the moment, it felt plastered to his face like it’d be hexed there with a sticking charm.

Hermione motioned with her head towards Ron’s family. “Mum, Dad, we haven’t said hello to the Weasleys and Harry yet.”

“Oh, right,” Mr Granger said. “Well it was nice seeing you again, Ron.”

“Yes, Mr Granger, same here. Nice seeing you as well, Mrs Granger.”

“It’s always a pleasure, Ron,” she said as Hermione pulled them over to where the rest of Ron’s family stood.

Ron stuffed his hands in his pockets, feeling like an outsider looking in as the Grangers mingled with his family and Harry. It was evident that Hermione didn’t want to interact with him right now, and Ron never was one to be where he wasn’t wanted. His eyes scanned the platform, pausing when he noticed a distinguished-looking woman in a fancy petticoat and gloves. Her blond hair was pulled up beneath a rather expensive looking hat. Ron removed his hands from his pockets and began to make his way over to her.

“Uh, Mrs. Malfoy?”

She appeared distracted and turned around abruptly, as if she’d been expecting an attack. When she saw that it was Ron, her face relaxed and she put her hand over her chest. “Oh, Mr Weasley, hello.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Ron said.

She shook her head and offered a small smile. “It’s quite all right. I seem to startle easily these days.”

Ron frowned, remembering what Nott had said about the Malfoys being regarded as traitors.

“Are you looking for Draco?” she asked.

Ron nodded. “Yeah.”

“Well, he should be along any minute now. He said that he had to tend to some last minute shopping and didn’t need me tagging along. I suppose he’s old enough to do that sort of thing alone now,” she said in a whimsical tone that was betrayed by the sadness in her eyes.

Ron smiled. “He’s lucky you let him go alone. My mum still won’t let me out of her sight for five minutes.”

Mrs Malfoy chuckled, which made Ron feel useful. She seemed to need cheer right now.

“Well, I certainly understand. You boys grow up so very fast. It can be difficult for a mother to accept.”

Ron nodded in understanding and fought the urge to fidget. As surprisingly nice as Mrs Malfoy was, it was still weird to be in her company alone.

He looked around and spied Draco’s white blonde crown.

“Ron?” There was a slight note of surprise in Draco’s voice as he approached.

“Hi, Draco,” Ron said, offering a small smile even though he felt a little creepy. He hoped Draco didn’t think he had been waiting for him or something.

“Oh, Draco, I was beginning to worry,” Mrs. Malfoy said, turning towards him to check his coat.

Draco grimaced as his mother inspected him. “Mother, I was only gone for fifteen minutes at the most. I can shop alone, you know. I’m not a child. “

“Yes, so you’ve told me again and again,” she said, brushing his hair away from his face with a gloved hand.

Ron watched on in amusement as Draco stiffened and tried to endure the public grooming. But soon his icy grey stare turned onto Ron, as if he was the only safe place to retaliate.

“What are you doing over here? Shouldn’t you be taking part in the Weasley Platform love fest?”

“Draco! That’s very rude,” Mrs. Malfoy admonished.

“He’s just joking, Mrs Malfoy,” Ron said with a wry smile. “It took awhile, but I’m starting to get his sense of humour. If you want to call it that.”

Draco began to sneer, and then stopped when he realised his mother was watching him in disapproval.

“Ron!” Ginny called from where she was standing with the others.

Ron looked back to see his entire family, Harry and Hermione included, staring at him, and the Malfoys like Aurors suspecting foul play. Why, he couldn’t tell. Perhaps they wanted to know why he was standing with Draco and his mother, or why Draco and his mother would even want to be in Ron’s company. Either way, it was borderline offensive.

“They’re boarding!” his mum called with a strange, strained smile. Even from this distance, Ron could see her sizing up Mrs Malfoy and Draco.

Ron nodded and turned back around. “I suppose that means we should get going.”

Draco nodded. “Goodbye, Mother.”

“Goodbye, darling,” Mrs Malfoy said, embracing her son tightly. “Please take care of yourself, and write me as soon as you get there. And remember if there are any problems, I want you to owl me immediately.”

“I will,” Draco said.

“I mean it, Draco, ” she said sternly.

“I know,” Draco sighed.

“Mr Weasley,” she said, turning towards Ron. “I trust I can count on you to look after my son. That’s what friends do, correct?” she said. But it sounded more like an order.

Ron gulped.

“Mum, I don’t need anyone to look after me,” Draco said forcibly.

“Yes, of course, darling,” Mrs Malfoy said in a patronising tone before levelling a meaningful stare at Ron.

“Come on, Ron,” Draco said, already walking away, his face flushed with embarrassment.

Ron nodded, understanding that Mrs Malfoy needed his reassurance, no matter how bizarre it felt to give it to her.

“Take care, Mrs Malfoy,” he said as began to retreat.

“You as well, Mr Weasley.”

As they approached Ron’s family and friends, he cast a sidelong glance to Draco, whose walk had turned into a quick stride. The boy’s nose seemed to lift higher with each step he took.

“I’ll see you back at school,” Draco muttered as he broke from Ron to avoid the Weasley clan.

“All right,” Ron said under his breath before joining his own family. He was grateful that no one asked any questions; instead, they were all looking at him as if trying to decide if he’d been Imperio’d.

After giving everyone farewell hugs, the four of them boarded. As they chose their car, Ron found himself wondering if Draco was still sitting in the back or if he had ventured to sit among his own house.

Not that Draco would have had any trouble finding a seat, Ron noticed. There were many unoccupied cars, much more than at the beginning of the school year.

“Where’s everyone?” Ron asked, looking out of the car into the aisle.

Harry shrugged.

“Must have something to do with all of the bad press Hogwarts is getting,” Ginny said.

“It most certainly is,” Hermione said. “Parvati told me before break that her parents were considering a transfer for her and her sister to Beaubaxtons.”

“Cowards,” Ron muttered.

He turned away from Hermione’s disapproving glare to talk to Harry, who was busy nuzzling Ginny’s ear. Ron rolled his eyes, irritated. It seemed Harry and Ginny were always under each other, kissing, touching, and exchanging sweet talk. They made it look so easy.

He glanced back at Hermione. She looked at Harry and Ginny and then at Ron, who could only offer her an awkward smile. It felt quite false. Hermione must have thought so as well because she didn’t even bother to try and return it. Instead, she simply sighed, and reached into her bag, pulling out a book to read.

Suddenly the car felt very crowded, and Ron wished he could just get up and sit by himself somewhere, maybe even with Draco in the loser’s section. At least there, he knew he wouldn’t feel so alone.

~~~*~~~


Throughout the train ride and opening feast, Ron noticed a dramatic drop in the temperature —Hermione’s icy silent treatment grew more amplified as the day wore on. She hadn’t even tried to hold his hand, and he certainly wasn’t going to try to hold hers, not after she had made a point of talking to everyone around him, ignoring him completely.

Ron couldn’t figure whether she was still mad about him running out on Christmas, or if it was the suspicion of drug use, or if it was Ron’s new friendship with Malfoy. Perhaps it was all three, not that she’d ever tell him. Hermione was rarely forthright about her anger. As Ron thought on their relationship, heavy weariness set in.

When they finally arrived at Hogwarts, everyone scattered to their respective dorms, unpacked, and then filled the Great Hall to wait for McGonagall’s welcome-back speech. Ron looked over to the Slytherin table and three things stood out right away. Goyle looked absolutely soused; his eyes were droopy, his cheeks were red, and his tie wasn’t even close to his collar. Several seats away, Draco appeared quite uncomfortable, running his hand through his hair and constantly looking to his left. Ron eyes followed the line of sight to where Draco kept looking. Astoria Greengrass had moved her seat. She was now sitting four seats to his left, instead of eight, and her stare was anything but coy or discreet. In fact, she looked as if she was trying to get Draco’s attention. Several seats down, her sister Daphne looked on in disapproval.

Ron smirked and filed the interaction away as something to poke Draco with later just as McGonagall stepped up to the podium. A hush fell over the Great Hall.

“Welcome back, everyone. We are very happy to see all of you. As you may have noticed, a few of your classmates have chosen not to return this term. We know it has been a difficult year for many of you, and we would like all of you to know that we are doing our best to support each and every student in every way we can. In an effort to do a better job of this, St Mungo’s and the Ministry have coordinated efforts to provide several Mind Healers for our students and staff. Starting tomorrow, each and every student and staff member will be required to meet with a Mind Healer for a mental health screening.”

There was a loud collective groan and many complaints, but McGonagall waited it out as the prefects silenced their housemates.

“You will be evaluated for depression, anxiety, and general stress related to the events that took place here last year in order to determine if you need on-going support. Let us embrace this as an opportunity, not a sanction. The first step in healing is recognising that there is a problem. I have the highest hopes that all of you can and will do well this year, and we as staff will do everything in our power to support you in that effort. If you have any questions or concerns about this matter, please see your prefect or Head of House. Now, without further ado, dinner is served.”

Ron barely noticed the food that appeared on the table in front of him. McGonagall’s speech had his head buzzing with warning bells, and he looked all around him to see if everyone else was as equally disturbed by her announcement. But everyone was busy eating or catching up about their break. Ron leaned over to get Harry’s attention.

“Harry… Harry...”

Harry paused from his conversation with Ginny to look at him. “What?”

“Can you believe McGonagall?”

Harry looked perplexed. “What do you mean?”

“It’s ridiculous! She’s actually making us get our heads examined!” Ron said with a dry chuckle. It sounded rather forced, even to his own ears, but the idea of seeing a Mind Healer really was funny. A genuine laugh spilled out, and he made no effort to conceal it.

Harry, Ginny and Hermione all paused, looking at him strangely, and for the umpteenth time that day, Ron felt completely disconnected from all of them.

“Ah, come on, it is a little funny. I mean, I understand she’s under a lot of pressure, but Mind Healers? It’s a bit much, don’t you think? I thought this was a school, not the Janus Thickey Ward.”

“Ron, that’s not funny,” Hermione said with disapproval. “It think it might do you some good, actually.”

Ron’s smile turned into a sneer. “I don’t need any Mind Healer telling me which way is up. I’m fine. All of us are. This is just McGonagall’s way of making nice with the press and nosy parents.”

“That may be,” Harry said, “but it can’t hurt, mate. I’m sure they’re a lot of people here who want to talk someone.”

“Yeah, well, not me,” Ron said, picking up a roll and taking an angry bite. He hated the way they were looking at him as if they all knew something he didn’t. It took all of his self-control not to just stand up and leave.

After dinner as they were all walking back, Ron decided to take another route. He didn’t even bother making an excuse for catching up with them later. Hermione’s frustration was clear; she paused, as if she was about to say something, but Ron didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t have the energy for another row. They could argue later, so he gave her swift kiss on the cheek to placate her, which garnered a weary sigh. As she turned away, Harry and Ginny continued to watch him.

“See you later, guys,” he said casually as if he didn’t notice their disapproving stares.

It didn’t matter. His craving for his former nightly ritual was overwhelming and beckoned him to walk swiftly towards the Tower. His heartbeat quickened as he got closer; he could practically smell the scent of the herb above.

Fingering the hookah in his robes, he ran up the stairs, expecting to see Draco, but no one was there. So he conjured a chair for himself and removed the hookah from his pocket. There was no more herb left, but the odour of it was strong. He put it to his nose, closed his eyes, and breathed it in.

It was all mental, really. Sniffing an empty hookah, on top of the Tower like a drug fiend. He didn’t really need to, he rationalised. But it was a good way to unwind as any. And Merlin, did he need to unwind with all the flack he was catching from his friends and now this business with Mind Healers invading Hogwarts!

Besides, it was legal, and it made sleeping easier. Ron was absolutely certain no Mind Healer could do that.

“I can’t believe you actually beat me up here,” Draco said, startling Ron.

Ron looked up and smirked. “For a minute there, I thought you might not show.”

Draco chuckled, “I have nowhere else to be.”

“Thanks, I enjoy your company as well,” Ron said smartly.

Draco rolled his eyes. “There you go, being sensitive again ... maybe this will make you feel a little better,” he said, pulling out a satchel of herb and throwing it at Ron’s chest before conjuring up a chair to sit across from him.

Ron licked his lips. “You know me so well.”

They laughed as they loaded and turned their hookahs to light them.

“Can you believe McGonagall?” Ron said between inhaling and exhaling. “Setting up us up with Mind Healers like we’re all bunch of nutters …”

Draco took a long drag and sat back. “Actually, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. It’s obvious some people are having a really hard time this year. Perhaps it will help.”

“Now you sound like Hermione and Harry,” Ron said, shaking his head before taking another hit. Maybe if he sucked hard enough, everyone’s rationalisations about why Mind Healers were a good thing would start to sound funny. Everything always sounded a bit funnier when he smoked.

“Great Salazar, you mean I actually agree with something Granger and Potter said?” Draco asked in mock horror. “I may have to change my opinion on sheer principle.”

Ron chuckled. “Yeah, Hermione is really on this whole mental health kick. She always wants me to talk about my feelings. It’s annoying as hell.”

For a moment, Draco said nothing, and his eyes were cast down when he finally spoke. “Maybe she’s just worried about you,” he said softly.

Ron scoffed. “For what? I’m doing better than most here. I’m not trying to top myself, I’m not constantly hitting the bottle like Goyle, or cutting my skin. I mean, what kind of sick fuck does that? Hell, I don’t even have nightmares or flashbacks anymore.”

“You had flashbacks?” Draco asked, sitting up. “You never told me that.”

Ron swore under his breath, hating that he had let that slip. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have them anymore. Not really.”

“Because of this?” Draco said, raising his hookah.

Ron put his hookah down on his lap. “No, not because of this. I really don’t need this stuff. I only smoke it because it’s relaxing. I was fine before I tried it, and I’d be fine without it.”

Draco gave him a sceptical once over. “Right, you’re perfectly fine.”

“That’s right, I am,” Ron snapped at the sarcasm in Draco’s words.

Draco looked out over the wall as Ron tried to calm down. His whole body was charged like he was gearing up for a fight, which was so ridiculous that it only made him angrier.

Draco didn’t speak for several minutes, but when he did, Ron was blindsided by his question.

“So how are you two doing?”

“Who?”

“You and Granger, genius.”

Ron put on his standard blasé mask. “We’re fine.”

Draco tilted his head. “Is that your answer to everything?”

Ron closed his eyes and exhaled smoke directly into Draco’s face. It was satisfying, at least for a moment. But when the smoke cleared, Draco’s stare was still boring into him, causing Ron to shift in his seat.

“What? What do you want to hear?”

“How about the truth … for once,” Draco replied.

Ron clicked his teeth. The truth. Everyone wanted it, but no one cared how hard it was to tell.

“All right, you want the truth? The bloody truth is … it’s just not working. Me and Hermione are too different. She’s … I don’t know … really into books and … feelings, and I’m not. She’s organised and I’m messy. She knows what she wants to do after school. I don’t. She has buckets of hope for the future of Hogwarts, and I have none. And she takes everything so damned seriously, and I refuse to.”

By the time Ron had finished he was nearly breathless and surprised by his words. They had just rolled off of his tongue so easily. But what wasn’t easy was hearing every thing he’d been thinking about his relationship with Hermione out loud. The truth of it hurt.

“Yeah, but it was working before, right?” Draco probed. “So what changed?”

Ron looked out over the wall. That was the big question. What had changed, or had it always been this way between them, and they chose to simply ignore it?

“Nothing really. I’m not sure if it was ever really working. We actually haven’t been seeing each other that long; we were just friends before. Well, perhaps more than that, but nothing serious like this. This is different. I mean, we’ve always had our differences, but we’ve always been there for each other too. Mostly.”

Ron realised he was rambling and not really answering Draco’s question. He looked back expecting to see confusion, but Draco was listening intently and there was no judgment on his face. It helped, but it didn’t take away the fact that it felt bizarre talking to Draco about this.

“So, what brought you two together?” Draco asked.

“I dunno,” Ron said slowly as he thought on it. “We’ve always had this attraction. Last year … really brought us a lot closer together. To be honest … I actually like that she’s different from me. She’s really smart, and caring, and … she’s good for me. And I think she likes that I’m different from her as well. But, I’m not sure if I’m good for her.”

“Or good enough?”

Malfoy’s words was grating, rousing an old insecurity about being worthy of Hermione. An insecurity Ron thought he had laid to rest.

Ron scowled. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Malfoy!”

Draco held up his hands in peace. “I’m just asking questions.”

“No, what you’re doing is playing Mind Healer on me. Is that your new career goal? Because you’re not very good at it.”

Draco sneered but held his peace, and Ron considered ending the conversation. But getting it all out had felt good, and he was mildly curious about what Draco had to say on the matter.

“Anyway, I think Hermione deserves a good boyfriend. And right now I’m not sure I can be one. I’m not even sure I really know what being her boyfriend means. If it means constantly talking about my feelings and worrying about how what I say and do affects her, then that’s a lot of work. More than it should be, I think.”

“It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.”

Ron bit his lip. Had he? He and Hermione always seemed to miss each other when it came to communication, not that they connected in any other way right now. He had ceased thinking about her sexually, and as their arguments grew more frequent, touching her in an intimate way seemed more and more taboo. Worse still, Ron really had no desire to touch anyone. He didn’t even wank anymore. Sometimes he thought he’d be doing Hermione a favour if he just ended it. It would hurt at first, but the arguments would cease, and so would the pressure.

But the real question was: Was he really ready to completely give up on the idea of being with her?

When a powerful ache pulled at his heart, Ron knew the answer.

He shook his head. “No. I haven’t made up my mind about anything. But I do think she may be getting tired of me.”

In fact, Ron was more sure of it with each passing day. Long before their Christmas row, Hermione’s requests for walks and snogging had all but ceased. What exactly were they still doing together? It made Ron wonder why they had invested so much in their Christmas gifts in the first place. Perhaps they were both hoping that expensive gifts would somehow mend what had been broken.

He glanced up to see Draco studying him, and Ron realised with dawning unease that Draco knew much more about him than Ron knew about Draco.

“And what about you?”

Draco’s eyebrows rose. “What about me?”

“Are you seeing anyone?”

Draco gave Ron an absurd look. “If I were, I certainly wouldn’t be up here with you every night.”

“Well, do you fancy anyone?”

Draco scoffed. “At this school? Please. The girls here are so uncultured … no one is really up to my standards.”

Ron gave Draco a sceptical once-over. “You’re such a liar, Draco. I’ve heard rumours about you. And I know for a fact you used to mess around with Parkinson.”

“That was before … Pansy isn’t here now, and the whole school has gone to shit.”

Ron thought to say that it wasn’t just the school that had gone to shit but also Draco’s reputation. But he was wise enough to bite his tongue before that crack could leave his mouth. He smirked as the perfect opportunity presented itself.

“And what about Greengrass? I’ve seen you looking at her.”

“Daphne? She’s my potions partner, I have to look at her, idiot.”

“No, not Daphne,” Ron said, pointedly.

Draco looked away, taking a long drag before exhaling slowly. “It doesn’t matter. She’s a little girl, that one. Besides, her sister doesn’t approve of me.”

Ron gave Draco a bemused smile. “Since when do you need someone’s approval? If you’re interested, just talk to her.”

Draco narrowed his eyes. “Is Ron Weasley trying to give me advice about how to talk to girls? I’d laugh if I wasn’t sure I'd lose my dinner.”

“I’ll have you know that I know a thing or two about girls.”

“Clearly,” Draco said, with snigger, and Ron couldn’t help but do the same. He really was clueless about girls, but it made him feel much better to know that someone like Draco didn’t seem to have many answers in that department either.

~~~*~~~


When they finally retired from the Tower, it was quite late, and everyone was asleep, except for Harry. Ron didn’t have to see his best mate clearly to feel Harry’s stare as it followed him through the darkness.

When Ron managed to climb into bed, Harry’s voice was low but firm.

“Where were you?”

“Why?”

“Because I want to know.”

“I was up on the Tower. Happy?” Ron asked, not even bothering to mask his annoyance with Harry’s prying.

“With Malfoy?”

“What’s with the nosy questions?”

“Ron, is there something you want to tell me?”

Ron sat up, “No. Is there something you want to ask?”

There was a moment of silence, and Ron hoped Harry had thought better of saying anything else, but he wrong.

“Hermione’s been crying again.”

Ron fell back on the bed, exhaling loudly.

“She thinks you’re hiding something from her.”

“For God’s sake, Harry. I’m not hiding anything. Hermione’s reading into things and overreacting.”

“So what do you and Malfoy do on the Tower every night then?”

“Nothing …”

“That’s not what she thinks.”

“Of course not. She’s probably already come up with a dozen theories about what we do. You know how she gets.”

“Why can’t you just answer the question, Ron?”

Ron sat back up, his annoyance with Harry quickly turning into anger. He had to ball the covers in his hand as he tried to keep his voice lowered. “Because I don’t have to answer anything. You’re not my bloody father.”

“Ron—”

“Save it, Harry. What does it matter to you, anyway? You should be happy I’m out of your hair. You get to snog my sister all you like now without worrying about me.”

“Is that what you think? That I’m glad you’re not around so I can snog Ginny? Because you’re wrong. I miss you. Hermione does too.”

I miss you too, prick. I miss a lot of things, like how the three of us used to do everything together, the way we used to laugh and have fun. But none of that changes the way things are now, does it?

“Harry, it’s late, and I don’t have the energy to talk about this right now.”

“But what about Hermione? I mean, doesn’t it bother you that she’s so upset?”

“Of course it does,” Ron whispered fiercely. “I just … I can’t explain it. You just wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“Listen, I still care about Hermione, all right? I just feel … detached, and not just from her, from everything, really.”

“Well, let us help you then.”

“You can’t!” Ron said, his whisper breaking into his regular speaking voice.

“Shhh,” came a voice from the darkness. It sounded like Dean. “Guys, can you lower your voices?”

“Sorry,” Ron mumbled.

“Sorry …”

Ron could see Harry watching him, waiting for whatever came next. It was Ron’s move, and he planned to nip this in the bud right here and now.

“Listen, Harry, I appreciate your concern. But I don’t ask about what you do with my sister when you two disappear after practices, so I expect the same courtesy. Goodnight.”

Ron didn’t wait for a reply. He lay down and drew the covers over his head, trying to push away the self-loathing voice whispering what a great friend he was proving to be once again.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Fourteen
You Win Some, You Lose Some


When Monday arrived and they began pulling students out of lessons for their initial Mind Healer session, Ron was quite anxious about whether he would pass the assessment.

Slughorn’s class was boring as usual. The man droned on about all of his most prized Potions students and some of the discoveries they had made until one of the assistants from Pomfrey’s infirmary arrived and handed him a list.

He nodded and read it over. The entire class watched in anticipation.

“All right then, the following people should excuse themselves from class immediately for their mental health assessment: Amanda Dickerson, Hermione Granger, Gregory Goyle, and Ron Weasley,” Slughorn called.

Ron cursed under his breath and glanced back at Draco, who gave him a sympathetic, closed-lip smile. When Ron looked at Hermione, both she and Harry were staring between him and Draco with disdain. Hermione stood up and walked towards the door, and slowly, one by one, those who had been called followed her.

Ron kept his eyes on the back of Hermione’s head, wondering when she was going to turn around and demand for him to walk with her. But she never did. As they approached Pomfrey’s infirmary, a nervous twitch and perspiration began to worry Ron's hands. He stopped as the rest walked on, turning around.

“Ron, where are you going?” Hermione called. “You can't skip out on this; it’s mandatory!”

“I know. I’ll be right back,” Ron called back, running down to the lavatories just to the side of the main hall.

He locked himself in a stall and rummaged through his bag until he found it. Turning the hookah in his hand until it heated up, Ron took several quick puffs until a familiar peace began working its way through his entire body. With his nervous twitch dulled along with his senses, he pulled out his wand and cast the smell-extinguishing charm, checked himself in the mirror, and ran back to the infirmary.

Running while high was a strange experience. Ron’s limbs felt out of sync with his body, and he had the strongest urge to simply take a seat in the hallway and tell Pomfrey just what she could do with her Mind Healers. The picture of Pomfrey’s face at being told off made him giggle, and he laughed all the way to the doors of the infirmary before stopping to collect himself. He was winded, like he had just climbed a hill. When he finally caught his breath, he opened the door.

As he entered, Pomfrey throw him a stern look. “Mr Weasley, you’re late. Where have you been?”

“Sorry, had to run to the loo.”

“I see, well, you’ll be meeting with Healer Gordon,” Pomfrey said, gesturing with her hand to a man behind her. “He’s one of Britain’s top Mind Healers. He’s also a former apprentice of mine, and a Gryffindor,” she added.

Ron eyed the Mind Healer with lethargic appreciation. He was rather tall, and had dark wavy hair and striking blue eyes, the latter of which were not unlike Ron’s. In fact, Ron couldn’t help but think that if he were a girl, he’d probably be squealing for being paired off with such a good-looking bloke. He offered the man a lazy smile. The Healer wasn’t so scary at all, especially with the effect of the herb dimming Ron's anxiety and fears at having his mind probed.

Mr Gordon extended his hand. “Hello, you must be Mr Ron Weasley?”

“Yup,” Ron said, giving the man a firm handshake. That was supposed to communicate confidence, or so he had read somewhere. As much as he tried, though, Ron was unable to control the goofy smile taking over his face. There was nothing funny, but then again, nothing ever needed to be when he was high.

Mr Gordon’s smile remained, but Ron could see him inspecting him, his eyes questioning, perhaps wondering why Ron was so damned happy. That was Ron’s cue to take it down a notch. He immediately stopped smiling.

“Let’s go somewhere a little more private, shall we?” Mr Gordon said.

Ron nodded and followed the man to the far corner of the infirmary where wooden partitions had been set up to create long booths.

As he followed Mr Gordon inside of one, and took a seat across from him, paranoia began to creep in. He quickly raised his arm to wipe his nose, discreetly smelling himself for any lingering odour from the herb. To his relief, there was none.

“So, let’s get right into it. This won’t hurt a bit, I promise,” Mr Gordon said with an easygoing smile.

“Okay,” Ron said, smoothing his hands over his thighs as he prepared himself.

“How are you doing these days, Ron?”

“I’m doing all right.”

“Just all right?” Mr Gordon asked with unassuming eyes.

Ron bit his tongue, taking a moment to think on what approach to take. Although Mr Gordon had a laid-back demeanour, Ron knew the man was studying his every move, from the blink of Ron’s eyes to the placement of his hands. What was Mr Gordon really looking for? Probably someone who was healthy, but not too healthy- that probably would come across as rehearsed. Ron figured he had to appear disturbed by last year’s events, but not too disturbed. He wanted to make sure he would not have to return.

He looked up at the ceiling, and took a deep breath. It was time to play chess.

“Well, honestly, it’s been a pretty rough year,” he said.

“Oh? Tell me more about that.”

“It’s just … hard, coming back. So much happened last year and this year, and a lot of people are really having a rough time of it.”

“Yes, I can imagine it would be difficult. Are you having, as you say, ‘a rough time of it’ as well?”

Ron shrugged. “Not really. I’ve been doing what I can to help everyone else. But all you can do is listen. I wish I could do more. “

“Hmm, it sounds like you’re doing your best to stay strong for others.”

Ron nodded. “Yeah, I suppose I am. Makes me feel useful.”

“And that’s commendable, Ron. But staying strong for others takes a lot of energy. How do you feel about what happened here last year?”

Ron swallowed. This was it. It was time to put on his best show ever, or else he’d wind up here every week like the rest of the weaklings who couldn’t cut it.

He dropped his eyes and began to twiddle his thumbs together. “Well, I have a lot of different feelings about it all. I uh...well, I lost my brother, Fred, in the Battle of Hogwarts.”

Just uttering his brother’s name stirred something deep within Ron that threatened to choke off the rest of his speech. He closed his eyes, caught off-guard by the genuine sadness that swept through him.

“It’s all right, do you need a moment?”

Ron took another breath and forced his eyes open, shaking his head slowly. “No, I’ll be fine. It’s just hard to talk about. “

“I understand. And I’m very sorry for your loss. That must have been very difficult for you.”

Ron nodded. “Yeah.”

“So, how have you been coping with the loss of your brother?”

Ron sighed. “It’s been hard. It was a rough summer, but … I think I’m finally coming to terms with it all.”

“You know, Ron, the grieving process can be quite long and there are different stages, and not everyone experiences them the same way. So tell me, have you noticed any dramatic changes in your mood? Are you experiencing sadness, anger, numbness, sometimes all in the same day?”

“Yeah, sometimes,” Ron said. “But whenever I start feeling like that, I think, what did Fred die for? He would have wanted me to go on living, and be happy. It’s hard to do, but thinking about him keeps me going. It makes me want live a better life.”

The healer’s eyes were glassy, as if he had been deeply affected by what Ron said, and it took everything Ron had not to smirk back. It wasn’t as if he was totally lying, but these people were too easy.

“It sounds as if you’re very determined to stay positive.”

Ron gave him a small smile. “It helps.”

Mr Gordon wrote something else down. “Ron, I know you said you want to be strong for your friends, but have you noticed any changes in your relationships with them?”

“Like what?” Ron threw back at him.

“Well, sometimes when people go through something difficult, especially something as traumatic as a war or losing a loved one, they may withdraw or find themselves lashing out at others. Would you say you’ve maintained the same level of engagement with the people closest to you? Or have you noticed yourself taking a step back and spending more time alone?”

Ron looked at the Mind Healer in confusion. “No way. I need my friends, now more than ever. If anything, I’d say we’ve grown closer.”

Mr Gordon nodded, scribbling once more. “That sounds great, Ron. Now, what about your studies here? Have you noticed any change in your focus or level of concentration? Do you ever find yourself daydreaming, or tuning out?”

“Sometimes, but I did that before …”

Mr Gordon chuckled. “Fair enough. What about your daily habits, such as sleeping and eating? Have you been getting enough rest? Are you eating properly?”

“Yeah, I love meals; those are my favourite times of the day. And as far as sleep … I mean, sometimes I have a nightmare or two, but not often.”

“And when you have these nightmares, what are they about?”

Ron shrugged. “I can never remember.”

“Have you ever had a nightmare or sudden vision of something unpleasant while you were awake?”

“Huh?”

“They’re called flashbacks. It’s a common occurrence in veterans of war.”

“Oh. No, nothing like that has ever happened to me. I hope it never does. I think I’d freak out.”

“Well, there’s no rule of thumb for survivors of war. You may go the rest of your life without experiencing one, but if you do happen to have one, you should know that it’s perfectly normal. Now Ron, I need to ask you something very important. I don’t want to alarm you, but we’re here because there have been some concerns for the safety of the students. Have you ever thought about hurting yourself or someone else?”

Ron shook his head. “Nah. Well, maybe if you count that murdering bastard Rookwood who killed my brother. But he’s at large, isn’t he? So I can’t bloody well get my hands on him at the moment.”

The Healer smiled a little and nodded. “That’s very true. It sounds like you’re dealing with things the best way you can, and that you’re a great support for others as well.”

“I do what I can,” Ron said trying his best to sound earnest and not arrogant.

“It seems like you have a good head on your shoulders, young man.”

“Thank you, I really appreciate you and the others coming down to look after us. I’ve been worried about my classmates.”

“Anyone in particular?”

Ron looked up at the ceiling, feigning contemplation. “No, no one specifically, but it’s just a general mood. Like there’s this heavy cloud hanging over the school. It’s hard to tell how people are really taking things, you know?”

“Yes, we do. That’s why we’re here.”

Ron nodded, giving him an approving smile. Relieved that the assessment seemed to be at an end, he clapped his hands and began to rise.

“Ah, just one more question, Ron.”

“Yeah?” Ron asked, slowly taking his seat again.

“We’re finding that many students here are attempting to self -medicate. That is to say, they are trying to treat symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks, depression and anxiety by themselves. Have you ever used alcohol, drugs, potions, or other substances to make yourself feel better or as a sleeping aid?”

Ron laughed. He hoped it didn’t sound as nervous to Mr Gordon as it did to his own ears. “No. I don’t even know where I would get my hands on stuff like that. I mean I’ve had a drink or two. But that was just during hols. Oh, and one time last term when someone spiked the punch after a game.”

“And no other substances?”

Ron shook his head.

“Very well, well thank you for coming in, Ron. We’ll be in contact if necessary. And you’re always welcome to drop by, should you need to talk.”

“Sure,” Ron said.

Mr Gordon took his hand once more and shook it, rising with Ron. The man’s smile was kind enough, but his eyes were still measuring, searching in a way that made Ron feel self-conscious. He gave the man one last quick smile and headed out of the booth.

The door to the infirmary may as well have been at the first goal post of the Quidditch pitch, it seemed so far away. As Ron walked away from Mr Gordon, he couldn’t escape the feeling that the man had seen through his act and was scribbling down prescriptive notes suggesting he be transferred to a real loony bin. The thought of waiting for Hermione to get out of her assessment briefly crossed Ron's mind, but as his paranoia grew, staying around the infirmary seemed more and more like a bad idea. Just making it to the door without speaking to anyone else or having anyone stop him was much more important right now.

When he finally broke through the door, it was all Ron could do not to run. He considered going back to class, but on his way, many classroom doors flew open as students spilled out into the hallways. Ron slowed down his pace, happy to see the people around him engaged in their conversations and moving about without giving him a second glance. With any hope at all, he could get through the rest of the school year in the same way.

~~~*~~~


Only a few bricks remained unsettled on the East Wing, and the ivy Draco had imbued there had begun to take root in the newly-mortared cracks, its young vines hanging in fragile tendrils against the stone. These days, the group spent more time chatting and marvelling at their creation than actually working. They were nearly done, but no one was in a rush to finish. For Ron, time spent in the group was very much like the time he spent atop the Tower with Draco. There was no pressure, no bad vibes-- it had become an escape, one that offered rare moments of hope and familiarity of what Hogwarts could be and what it once was.

As they all sat near the edge of the wall, sprawled out and talking amongst themselves, Ron leaned back on his hands and looked around. A Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were sitting across from two Slytherins, all laughing over some inside joke. Behind them a Gryffindor and Ravenclaw were engaged in a serious but courteous debate about the new Ministry and post-war politics surrounding the use of Dementors, while a Gryffindor and Hufflepuff watched on. And then there was Ron and Draco. They sat slightly apart from the group on the fringes. Every once in a while someone would pull them into the conversation, but mostly the duo was left alone to sit in comfortable silence, watching, listening, and occasionally working.

Suddenly there was a bustle of movement, and Ron was jarred out of his quiet observations. The group scrambled to their feet, many extending their wands to face the wall like they were busy working. Ron looked up to see Hermione approaching, her eyebrows drawn together in discontent.

“What’s going on over here?”

Several of the students looked at each other as if they had no idea of what Hermione was talking about.

“We’re working,” replied one Ravenclaw.

Now you’re working. Just a second ago, I observed all of you lounging about. And some of you still are," she said, looking down at both Ron and Draco, who exchanged an amused smile and then struggled to their feet.

“Sorry, Hermione, we were just taking a break,” Ron explained.

“I see,” she said, looking between him and Draco. “I suppose this means your group is close to finishing its task?”

“Actually, yes, that’s exactly what it means, Granger,” Draco said.

Hermione looked genuinely surprised. “Oh, really?”

“Yes, take a look for yourself,” Draco said, motioning his head towards the wall.

Hermione gave Draco an once over, glanced at Ron and she pushed between them to walk towards the wall.

The students parted to give her room, watching in thick silence as she conducted a thorough inspection.

“The colouring, it’s different. It doesn’t match the rest of the castle,” Hermione said with disapproval.

“Yes, it’s much brighter,” said one of the Hufflepuff girls. “We decided to go with a lighter grey that compliments the old stones of the castle, but stands out as distinctly new. It’s really lovely when the sun hits it.”

“Hmm, all right,” Hermione said sceptically. She turned around and leaned over the wall. They all heard her gasp in surprise, and Ron tensed as he waited for her to turn around.

Please let her like the ivy. Please let her like the ivy.

He glanced sidelong at Draco and saw that the boy was the very picture of cool, save for his tightened jaw.

Hermione turned around. “Whose idea was it to cover the bricks with ivy?”

All eyes turned to Draco, and Ron watched as Hermione's face transformed from one of authority to surprise. “I see. Well, Malfoy… I must say, ivy on the stones was a rather brilliant idea. It looks wonderful.”

“Thank you,” Draco said as his eyes swept the entire group. Ron smirked. He could tell that Draco was enjoying this small moment, and Ron himself felt a measure of pride on behalf of his friend.

“And when do you think the wall will be ready for viewing?” Hermione asked.

The group looked around, giving scattered shrugs. They hadn’t even discussed a final date.

“I’d say we’ll be finished by the end of next week,” Draco said with confidence.

They all looked back at Draco in surprise, and then slowly, everyone in the group nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, next Friday sounds good,” said one of the Gryffindor boys.

“Who made you team captain?” Ron asked, giving Draco a playful smirk.

Draco scrunched his face up at Ron. “Jealous, Weasley? Don’t hate me because I have the bollocks to take initiative.”

“Bollocks? Is that what you call it? And here I was thinking it was your deluded ego at work.”

Draco’s lips curled into a snarl and Ron delivered a playful punch to the boy’s arm, prompting Draco to punch Ron back in the chest. Ron snorted.

Hermione was staring between him and Draco so contemptuously that it put Ron to shame. For what, he wasn’t sure, but there was no mistaking the accusation in her glare.

Draco looked away awkwardly, and Hermione forced a smile as she looked at other members of the group.

“Congratulations, everyone. It’s obvious that you all have been working very hard. I applaud you for your teamwork and contribution to this project,” Hermione said with a pleased smile. However, it quickly faded at she made her way back towards Ron and Draco.

Ron put on a cheerful face. “So you really like it, then?”

“It’s great,” she said dryly, shooting Draco a suspicious glance. She turned her eyes back to Ron. “May I have a word?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Ron said, glancing back at Draco before following Hermione around the corner.

As they walked to an adjacent corridor in awkward silence, Ron tried to peek at Hermione from out of the corner of his eyes, gauging what kind of mood she was in. When she was in a bad mood, he found it best to just nod and agree to everything rather than prolong an argument.

But Hermione appeared pensive and sad this time, not angry.

Finally, she stopped in the middle of the hallway; it was completely deserted.

“What is it, Hermione?” Ron asked anxiously. She had him all alone—getting out of this, whatever it was, wouldn’t be easy.

“How have you been, Ron?”

Ron stared at her in dumbfounded confusion. “Uh, I’m fine … how are you?”

Hermione sighed. “Not so good. I was up half the night … thinking …”

“Oh? What about?”

“Us …”

Ron swallowed.

“Ron, is there something you want to tell me?” Hermione asked.

“Huh?”

Hermione folded her arms over her chest as one eyebrow rose in silent demand.

Ron glanced around. “You’re going to have to clue me in this time, Hermione, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Hermione rolled her eyes and looked past Ron’s shoulder. “Is Malfoy the reason why you’ve been pushing me away?”

Ron sighed. “Hermione, I’m not pushing you away.”

“Right. You’re just always picking fights with me and disappearing most evenings. Haven’t you heard the rumours? Or do you even care?”

A slowly rising dread was snaking its way through Ron’s belly, making his mouth go dry. He coughed, “What rumours?”

“Oh Ron, sometimes you’re so oblivious. Everyone is talking. And you and Malfoy aren’t exactly making it hard to believe.”

“Everyone is talking about what, Hermione?” Ron demanded.

Hermione huffed. “You and Malfoy! The way you two sneak off in the evenings, how you’re always sticking up for him. The way you stare at him, and —“

“What? I don’t stare at him.”

“You don’t even realise how much you watch him, do you? I’ve caught you myself! It’s like you’re infatuated or something.”

“Hermione!”

“What? I’m not the only one who’s noticed. In fact, I’ve had to defend you twice now.”

“To who? Who’s saying all of this rubbish?”

“Ron, it doesn’t matter. Enough people believe it.”

“Hermione,” he chuckled, trying to demonstrate just how ridiculous the rumour sounded, even though it was anything but funny. “Come on, you can’t be serious? Me and Malfoy? I’m not even gay! And I’m not pushing you away either, we’re just having a few problems. We’ll work it out.”

“And how are we supposed to do that, Ron? You can’t even stand being around me for more than ten minutes.“

“That’s not true.”

“Actions speak louder than words. Even if you don’t fancy Malfoy, it’s just as well. You spend more time with him than you do with me, your girlfriend, and that doesn’t bode well for us.”

When her eyes dropped and she began to bite her lip, Ron’s throat constricted, and his entire body went as rigid as drum. For the first time in a long time, he noticed how delicate and smooth Hermione's skin was, her long lashes, and the way her soft curls perfectly framed her face. She was beautiful, and he was … screwed in the head to have messed this up. Inside his head, a voice screamed for him to say or do something before Hermione could speak another word. Ron already knew what was on her mind; he could feel it in the pit of his stomach.

“Things are so different now. I mean … before, we used to argue a lot, but it was more … fun, you know? I mean, you’ve always been able to say or do things that infuriate me and annoy me to no end,” she said with a sad smile.

“Gee, thanks,” Ron said in a lame effort to inject sarcastic humour.

Hermione closed her eyes and sighed. “That’s not what I meant. Before, it was just childish. I actually enjoyed some of it. I liked the way you challenged me, and our fights were just … silly really. More of a game.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, trying not to wince as he waited for her next words.

“But now … it’s like you’re a different person. We don’t bicker; we really argue, if we talk at all. I hardly ever see you now. And when I do, we don’t really talk.”

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t really have anything to talk about,” Ron said, shuffling his feet.

“How about what’s bothering you? What keeps you awake at night? Why smoking marijuana makes you feel better? How you’re feeling … that would be a good start.”

Ron stood looking at her in surprise. She had actually said the word ‘marijuana’ out loud. He felt dirty and small and it was a struggle to maintain eye contact with her. But Hermione’s eyes were imploring, pleading, and he could see a glassy sheen that told him this was it—if he wanted to save whatever hope they had for a relationship, he had to lay it out on the line right here. But how could he when he spent so much time trying to block out the very things she wanted to know?

He opened his mouth, hoping the words would just pour out, but nothing came. Suddenly the hallway felt too open, and he could practically feel every portrait on every wall staring down at them, waiting for him to bear his heart and soul so that they could laugh and call him a coward.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Hermione, listen, we’re both kind of wound up right now. Let’s take some time to cool down and talk about this a little later?”

“No, Ron. Later is now. This is exactly what I’m talking about. You never want to talk to me. You don’t want to do anything with me.”

“Hermione, just calm down, all right? I’m still the same bloke. I’m sorry I can’t be such a Romeo like Harry … I’m just me …”

“That’s just it, Ron—you’re not the same boy I fell in love with. I don’t know you anymore. And I certainly don’t understand why you’re always so angry, and what Malfoy is giving you that I can’t.”

“So that’s what this is about, then? You're jealous of Draco.”

“No, Ron! This is about us … about the way you speak to me, or don’t speak to me, actually. It's about the way you act as if it’s a chore to hold my hand or kiss me. Do you know how that makes me feel?”

Ron looked down at his shoes, unable to hold Hermione’s tearful gaze. If only he could tell her he didn’t want it to be a chore, that something inside of him was broken … but the only thing that came out was a feeble ‘sorry.’

“I am too,” she said. “I think …”

Closing his eyes, Ron braced himself for her to finish.

“I think we need some space. Perhaps we should … break up and think things over a bit more.”

Ron forced himself to look at her. There was a tear sliding down her left cheek, and he wanted to reach out and wipe it away, but he didn’t feel he had the right to even touch her right now.

“If that’s what you want,” he said softly.

“I think that’s what’s best,” Hermione said, her voice choking on tears. The urge to reach out and pull her close was strong, but Ron’s nerve wasn’t. He stood there, petrified by shock and sadness until finally Hermione tore her eyes away from his and turned to walk down the hall, taking all of Ron’s air with her.
~~~*~~~


Chapter Fifteen
Alone


The evening of the breakup Ron skipped dinner as well as his nightly meeting with Draco, opting to stay within the temporary shelter of his bed instead. For a few hours he found reprieve from the questions, whispers, and stares he knew would be waiting for him in the Common Room.

I have to pull it together, he kept telling himself. But every moment spent under the covers was a painful reminder that he was, in fact, falling apart.

Alone, he was left to replay how he had mucked things up with the only girl he’d ever loved and his best friend.

Ron curled into himself, half wishing the duvet would smother him, or at least make him pass out. But without the benefit of the herb to dull his senses, the darkness and silence courted every disturbing feeling he’d been trying to block out.

You’re not the same boy I fell in love with … I don’t know you anymore.

He hadn’t seen Hermione cry like that since the funerals.

Everyone had cried at the funerals, especially Fred’s. Everyone but Ron. Even then, he’d suspected something was wrong with him. That maybe whatever innate lever that made people cry was broken inside him. Perhaps he had even been unknowingly cursed …or damned.

Shutting his eyes tight, Ron tried to silence the voice of self-loathing whispering to him and invoking memories of inhaling a steady stream. He always knew when the herb’s magic was taking hold, because in those moments, Ron always felt a little more normal. And then there was the laughter. The hearty, liberating, soul-healing laughter that always came after exhaling. It felt so good and authentic that sometimes he wondered whether if it was drug induced at all, or merely some side effect from being in Draco’s company.

Just thinking of Draco ushered in a fresh tide of guilt mingled with sadness. He would be waiting on top of the Tower tonight, wondering if and when Ron would show up. And Ron didn’t have the heart to tell him ‘never’. Nor did he have the courage to tell Draco why.

It wasn’t that Ron was ashamed of being labelled ‘gay’; at least, that’s what he told himself. But if people actually believed him to be gay, then that would make Ron look like a liar, and Hermione a fool.

Ron shook his head as he thought of the poor bastard. With the rumour mill going, Draco was in for a new wave of taunts and bullying, perhaps worse than before. And as much as Ron wanted to shield the boy from the coming tide of derision, he wasn’t sure he could be strong for anyone right now.

Besides, Draco wasn’t really a friend. They didn’t share any deep dark secrets, and they hadn’t endured any real trials together. He was just a boy Ron smoked grass with. They were associates, at best. Besides, would Draco stand by Ron if the situation were reversed? Probably not.

That’s what Ron kept telling himself over and over again as he lay awake, trying to will himself into his first night of sober sleep.

~~~*~~~


The next morning, Ron woke up tangled in his sheets, soaking wet, with half of his body hanging off of the bed and through his curtain. When he tried to untwist himself from the knot, he landed on the floor with a huge thump.

His dorm mates gathered around, looking down at him with concern.

“Ron, are you all right?” Neville asked.

“Uh, yeah, I’m fine,” Ron said as he hoisted himself back on the bed.

“What are you doing twisted out of your bed like that?” Seamus asked.

Wet, sore, and confused, Ron shut his eyes and sighed. “I don’t know. Slept wrong … I suppose.”

Harry gave him a small, pitying headshake and turned away, and Ron was grateful that the others followed suit. He quickly untangled himself, climbed out of bed, straightened and folded the wet sheets, and then crawled right back into bed and drew his curtain. Feigning sleep, he waited for Neville, Dean, Seamus, and Harry to finish dressing and leave.

Only Harry didn’t. Ron grimaced as he peeked out to see his best mate fumbling with his clothing. He was taking forever to get sorted out. As Ron lay there, trying to wait Harry out, he contemplated skipping breakfast all together, but his stomach wasn’t having it. Pangs of hunger rippled inside his belly.

Looking over once more, Ron saw Harry smoothing out the corners of his bed. Harry never made his bed. That’s when Ron knew his best mate had no intention of leaving the room without him.

But Ron couldn’t move. As he lay there in bed, staring at the back of Harry’s tousled head, he couldn’t fathom how he was going to get through the day. How could he ever face Hermione again?

Finally, Harry turned around.

“Ron, you can’t hide up here forever. You have to eat.”

Ron’s stomach loudly concurred, forcing him to move. With the effort of one pushing a large stone, he put one leg on the floor and then the other.

All the while Harry watched him. “Don’t worry, I’ll wait.”

Gratitude and guilt swelled so full within Ron, his chest began to ache. Harry was still here, even after Ron had pushed him away, even after he’d told his friend where to stick his advice.

“Harry … I—”

“I know,” Harry said with a slight smirk. “Just hurry up, all right? I’m starving.”

Ron nodded quickly, trying to blink away the sudden flurry of dust irritating his eyes, making them water.

When they entered the Great Hall, it was like a wireless radio going dead. The volume decreased sharply, and the chatter became hushed whispers as eyes followed Ron to his seat. As always, Harry took his seat beside Ginny. Ron paused when he came upon the empty chair that had come to be his own. It was directly across from Harry and right beside Hermione.

“Good morning, Harry,” Hermione said in a more formal tone than usual.

“Good morning, Hermione,” Harry said, glancing up at Ron before motioning for his friend to take his seat.

But Ron couldn’t move. He swallowed as his eyes rested on Hermione’s head until finally she looked up at him, offering a small, pained smile. “Good morning, Ron.”

Ron glanced up at Harry and Ginny, the latter watching him stiffly with a thin frown on her face.

“Good morning, Hermione,” Ron said slowly as he took his seat.

“Hi, Ron,” Ginny said with a stiff smile.

“Hi, Gin,” Ron said, glancing to his side at Hermione, who was watching him out of the corner of her eyes.

“So, er, Ginny, how’s Runes coming?” she said in an unsteady voice.

Ginny sighed. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. I’m pants when it comes to the Thurisaz variations.”

“Which ones?”

“Well …”

Ginny’s voice faded, playing like background music to a scene out of one of those Muggle picture shows Hermione used to take him to see— with Ron in the starring role. Only he wasn’t prepared. He didn’t know his lines or what came next. For a moment, Ron just stared at his plate. But the camera was still rolling, and he knew there were people watching. So he picked up his fork and began going through the motions of eating, even though his appetite had completely vanished. He began to notice ridiculous things like the consistency of his food and how long it took for the minute hand to move on the great clock on the wall, which was a lot longer than he remembered. Trying to eat as if everything was normal while he sat next to his ex-girlfriend was hard, so Ron was grateful when Harry tried to engage him in safe conversation about Quidditch.

He glanced up briefly to look past Harry and find Draco, only the boy’s seat was unoccupied. It was probably for the best. Ron didn’t need to see another person he had let down.

A few chairs away, Goyle sat with his face laying down on the table, like he was in deep slumber. A few younger Slytherins sniggered and pointed as some older Slytherins artfully decorated his head with fruit until finally the prefect came along, sending them all scattering. The prefect jostled Goyle awake, ordering him to rise and come with him. Ron shook his head in pity and then noticed a pair of eyes on him.

Astoria Greengrass was staring right at him.

Do you know where Draco is?

At least that’s what Ron imagined her eyes were asking. Perhaps she wanted to know something else, like whether Draco was really gay or not. It didn’t matter what the question was. Ron couldn’t help her, so he quickly returned his gaze to his plate where it was safe.

~~~*~~~


The following week was more bizarre than any drug haze Ron had ever experienced. Withdrawals from his nightly smokes with Draco had made his nightmares more memorable than they had ever been. Now, Ron not only remembered his dreams, but they were lucid, haunting him with such vivid and horrid detail that it often left him lying in bed, afraid to close his eyes. When the morning came, he’d awake in a frazzled state, having hardly slept.

Meals were the worst. Formerly his favourite time of the day, now Ron’s stomach knotted every time he had to take a seat beside Hermione. He kept quiet mostly, giving a polite but quick hello. Harry and Ginny tried to make things more normal by keeping the mindless chatter going, but if anything, it only emphasised just how abnormal things had become.

Most of the time, Ron tried to keep his eyes on Harry or his plate. But sometimes he’d catch Draco staring at him, and guilt would wash over him like a hot shower, leaving him flushed with shame.

Ron quickly learned to inhale his food. Afterward he’d make an excuse to leave, getting as far away from Hermione and Draco as possible.

But some things were unavoidable. On top of the rumours about his illicit affair with Draco, the news that Hermione had broken things off had added gasoline to fire. The ridicule and public suspicion he’d endured alongside Harry in second and fifth year paled in comparison. Back then, the focus had been on Harry, but this time, Ron was at the centre. Wherever he went, every sidelong glance was like a pointed finger, and the whispers followed until they became a constant buzz in his ear. It seemed like the entire castle was talking about him. He’d gone from a war-hero to a freak in a matter of a few days.

And if there was any doubt, Scott and his cronies stamped it out any time Ron was within earshot and without Harry by his side.

‘Hey, Weasley, where’s your boyfriend?’

‘Are you two meeting on the tower of love tonight?’

‘I wonder who the taker is … Weasley or Malfoy?’

‘Malfoy!’
they’d say with a resounding confidence before breaking into laughter.

Ron tried to ignore it, realising his temper had been partially to blame for this mess. Still, the taunts and knowing smiles made his blood boil, and it took every bit of willpower not to hex the offending troublemakers.

By Friday, he was so on edge that he could hardly concentrate on his reading, so when a gentle hand fell on his shoulder, he jumped and drew out his wand.

Harry’s eyes went wide as he held up his hands in surrender. “Whoa, I come in peace, I swear.”

Ron relaxed a little as Harry took a seat across from him in the library.

“How are you doing?”

Ron gave Harry an energetic ‘I’m fine’, but Harry’s eyes were sceptical.

Ron sighed in defeat. “All right, I feel like troll dung. I’m sure you’ve heard the things people have been saying …”

Harry nodded as he threaded his fingers together. “I’ve given a fair share of them a piece of my mind about that. I don’t think Scott and his friends will be bothering you again. “

Ron sat back, giving his friend a small appreciative smile. But Harry wasn’t smiling.

“Ron, I don’t know what was going on between you and Malfoy, but … I do know that whatever it was, it seemed to make you happy. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad about being around him. I was just concerned.”

Ron shook his head. “I know. But you and Hermione were right—I was acting like a git. It was all rather shady, really. Sneaking off all the time like that, not telling anyone anything … that’s not how you treat your friends. I would have thought the same if I were in your shoes. I mean, it is Draco Malfoy.”

Harry chuckled and Ron tried to smile, despite the pang in his heart from his tongue’s betrayal. There was so much more to Draco than what Harry knew.

Harry’s smile faded quickly as he leaned in with a grave expression. “Were you really doing drugs?”

Ron narrowed his eyes, and looked around self-consciously, his paranoia flaring once more. “What? Who told you that?”

Harry raised his eyebrow in reply.

Exposed, Ron’s eyes dropped to the table, only now noticing the ‘Slytherins Stink’ carved in the wood.

“Ron?”

Ron put his head in his hands.

“Yes,” he reluctantly admitted. “But it’s not like the stuff is illegal. It's just grass. And Draco said that in wizarding high society, it’s a perfectly legitimate way to relax.”

Harry stared back at Ron in disbelief. “Malfoy said that, did he? If it’s so legitimate, why did you two have to sneak about to do it?”

Ron ground his teeth, knowing there was no justified reply.

“Hermione thinks you were hooked on it … that you probably still are.”

“Well, she’s wrong,” Ron whispered fiercely. “I haven’t had any all week. And anyway, what if I had? It helped me sleep. I didn’t hear any complaints from you or the rest when I was doing it. I’m not saying it’s all right to do all the time, but it’s not as bad as Hermione thinks. She just wouldn’t understand.”

Harry shifted in his seat, an awkward look of contrition crossing his face. “I’m sorry about you and Hermione.”

“Don’t be. It’s my fault, isn’t it? I mean, there’s no way around it. I really messed up this time. She deserves better,” Ron said with weariness.

Harry studied him for a moment. “Ron, I know you’re blaming yourself, but I think this is bigger than you. Other people are having problems too. You don’t even know the half of it.”

His curiosity piqued, Ron raised an eyebrow. “I don’t?”

Harry looked around and his voice dropped a level as he spoke. “You remember that cutter they were talking about in Hufflepuff?”

Ron nodded.

“It’s Hannah.”

“No … no way!”

“It’s true. Neville found her nearly passed out by the lake. She'd almost cut an artery. Apparently she’s been doing it since the end of last year.”

“Merlin,” Ron said.

“And that’s not all. Hermione says she knows for a fact that there have been three suicide attempts this year, not two like they’re reporting. She also said she overhead McGonagall talking to the Heads of House about someone having a fit a few weeks ago.”

“A fit?”

“Panic attack or something. She didn’t hear a name, but she said that they were discussing a girl who’d been discovered one night running around the castle completely starkers, screaming about one of the Carrows coming to get her.”

Ron covered his mouth in shock.

“And Ginny said that she knows at least three girls in our house who are either starving themselves or eating and vomiting it back up.”

Ron grimaced. “What the hell is going on?”

Harry sighed. “I’m not sure, but it seems everyone is struggling to deal with what happened last year in their own way… even Ginny…”

Ron froze, panic rising. “What about Ginny?”

Harry bit his lip. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.”

"Harry, she’s my sister."

“You have to promise not to say anything.”

Ron steeled himself for whatever Harry had to reveal. “All right.”

Harry’s eyebrows furrowed as he looked down at his hands. “Well, she’s been having a hard time… coping with Fred’s death. She has these crying spells and trouble sleeping.”

Ron wrinkled his face. “Funny, she never told me that. How is it that you more about my sister than I do?” he asked bitterly.

“Well it’s not like you’d ever given her a chance to tell you. You change the subject anytime something like that comes up. “

“Maybe because talking 'bout stuff like that doesn’t make anyone feel better,” Ron said snippily.

“Neither does trying to ignore it,” Harry replied.

“Oh yeah? Seems to be working for you. You look like you’re having a bloody great time this year,” Ron said, hating the accusatory tone in his voice.

A dark shadow crossed Harry’s face, immediately making Ron regret his words.

“You have no idea what I’m going through. And do you know why? Because you’re never around. You don’t even ask.”

A lump formed in Ron’s throat, rendering him completely mute as Harry continued.

“You want to know my secret? Why I look so damned happy all the time? Huh? Because I don’t have a choice! Everyone is watching me. If I even so much as frown for more than five minutes, it’s news. People see me as some sort of beacon of hope. When they look at me, they want reassurance that it’s really over, that they can go back to being normal. Whatever the hell that means! I don’t even think I’ve ever known what normal is. All I know is that I don’t get to wallow in self-pity now, at least not in front of anyone. Because if I don’t have hope, then what’s that say about what we fought for?”

Harry’s words hit Ron like a ton of bricks. The weight of his friend’s burden made his own struggle seem minuscule.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” he said. “I had no idea you’ve been feeling like this… It doesn’t seem fair. You shouldn’t have to be a beacon of hope or whatever.”

“Life isn’t fair, Ron. But that’s beside the point. I want you to know that just because I look fine, doesn’t mean I am. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about someone we lost. Sometimes the only thing that gets me through the day is Ginny.” Harry paused, a curious smile appearing on his face. “Come to think of it, maybe she’s my drug. I just hope she doesn’t get sick of me.”

A small snort escaped Ron. “I doubt that’ll ever happen. She loves you.”

The ache of regret and sadness returned as Ron realised what Harry and Ginny had and what he had let slip away.

“She’ll come back, Ron,” Harry said softly.

“I doubt it,” Ron said.

“Well, that all depends on you, mate,” Harry said. “She really does love you, but … she loves herself too.”

Ron nodded. “I know.”

“If you really want her back, you have to show her you’re serious.”

“And how do you propose I do that?” Ron asked before rolling his eyes. “Hold on, I know—I bet you want me walk myself down to the infirmary and make an appointment with one of those Mind Healers?”

Harry threw up his hands. “Yeah, why not? That’s what they’re here for. And if you don’t want to do that, then you have us. But you’re going to have to talk to someone eventually because you can’t just keep it all bottled up inside.”

Ron looked away; he was getting tired of this song and dance, but he couldn't think of anything that would dissuade Harry.

“Ron, I understand what you’re going through.”

Ron’s head snapped back, and he couldn’t help but glare. “No, you don’t, Harry. You said it yourself, you have Ginny. I don’t have anyone. Even when I had Hermione, I couldn’t talk to her. Not about this.”

“How about me?”

Ron shook his head, hating the invisible wall sitting between him and his best friend. But it was still all he had. If Harry managed to break through it, Ron didn’t know what else would crumble, and he couldn’t risk it.

“No offence, Harry, but … I can’t.”

Harry sighed in resignation. “I don’t know what else to do, then.”

“There’s nothing to do, Harry. It’s just something I have to sort out on my own,” Ron said wearily as he reclined, staring back at his friend. There was no more to be said on the topic. They had reached a stalemate.

“Well I’ll be here if you want some help,” Harry said. “And … well, I can’t really speak for Hermione, I know things with her are complicated right now, but I think she feels the same.”

“Thanks, good to know,” Ron said stiffly.

Harry’s face lifted a little as he forced a small smile. “So, what are you doing after this? I was thinking we could have a fly.”

“I have Restoration group,” Ron replied.

Harry nodded, rapping his fist on the table as he stood up. “Right. Well, perhaps later, then?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ron tried to say casually. When Harry left, Ron kept his eyes glued to his book while his mind replayed Harry’s words again.

~~~*~~~


Ron took his time walking to Restoration group. He was in no rush to see Draco or face the others. Undoubtedly, the rumours had already infected the group, and every little interaction would be scrutinised for clues that could confirm that he and Draco were lovers.

As he walked, his thoughts wandered once more from the rumours to what Harry had told him. Was everyone really trapped in their own private hell? If so, then why were some people able to hide it so much better than others? Did that make them stronger?

He stopped as he neared the opening of the hallway leading to the infirmary. The white double doors with the clouded glass showed nothing.

‘Go on’, a voice whispered. It wasn’t the self-loathing one he had grown used to—this one was different; it was tired and fatigued from pretending to be strong.

‘Because you’re not strong. You’re weak and pathetic. Go on, and get your head examined, you little freak,’ said the voice of self-loathing.

Ron closed his eyes. “I’m really losing my mind.”

When he opened them again, he had stepped a little closer to the infirmary, but then he stopped once more.

What would Healer Gordon say? Would he have a knowing smile, having already seen through Ron’s charade? Or would he be shocked and disappointed that Ron had played him for a fool?

Suddenly, the doors opened and a waifish-looking brunette Slytherin girl came out. Her eyes were puffy and red, and as she approached Ron, her head bowed slightly in deference. It made his stomach turn.

Through the swinging doors, he caught a glimpse of Healer Gordon. He hoped the man hadn’t seen him. Ron turned around quickly and began walking.

“Ron?”

Shit!

Ron slowly turned around. Healer Gordon was standing just outside the doors of the infirmary, a small smile on his handsome face.

“Oh, hi there, Healer Gordon. How’s it going?”

“Pretty good. Were you coming in?”

Ron shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no. I ... uh ... I have Restoration group to get to.”

“I see,” Healer Gordon said, sounding a little disappointed. “Well, do drop by sometime. We could even have a tea in the Great Hall if you like.”

“A tea?” Ron asked, bewildered.

Healer Gordon chuckled. “Yes. Just a chat. It doesn’t have to be anything heavy. Just a check in, to see how things are going.”

Ron stared back at him, his self-consciousness returning. Had Hermione, Harry, or Ginny said something about him in their assessment? Because he was certain Gordon knew something. He had to.

“Listen, I’m not suggesting you need a chat,” Mr Gordon said quickly. “It’s just that I have a lot of free time on my hands, and I enjoyed talking to you the other day.”

“Right, well, maybe I will … drop by sometime.”

“Great. I look forward to it,” Healer Gordon said cheerily before disappearing behind the doors once more.

Ron exhaled, wondering if he would ever take the man up on the offer.

~~~*~~~


In Restoration group, things weren’t quite as bad as Ron had imagined. People were still goofing off, chatting, and working at their leisure, paying little regard to him or Draco. However, Ron noticed that Draco was much more subdued. He only spoke when spoken to, and Ron tried to stay out of his way. But that wasn’t hard since Draco kept a fair amount of distance between himself and everyone else. Still, Ron couldn’t help sneaking glances, but Draco seemed intent not to look at him, busying himself with various tasks.

But just when Ron had resigned not to look at Draco anymore, concentrating on the wall in front of him, he felt Draco’s eyes on him. He whirled back around, trying to catch the boy in the act. Draco made no effort to hide his gaze. His haughty grey glare barely masked the strain of stress and sadness. There were bags under his eyes, just as dark as before they started smoking together, and Ron could see the end of a long scratch peeking out just above his collar. Ron realised he’d been staring too long when he heard whispering around him.

He looked around, and sure enough, eyes darted and the whispering ceased as the other Restoration group members tried to appear as if they hadn’t just been gawking at him and Draco.

When Ron looked back, Draco's back was already turned, busying himself with the final touches on the ivy.

Ron tried his best not to look at Draco again, but there was so much he wanted to say—but he wasn’t sure how, or even what he’d actually say if he had the chance.

I’m sorry for ditching you.

I’m not mad at you, or anything … I actually think you’re pretty cool.

Draco, I just want you to know that I’m not avoiding you.


Only that would have been a lie.

Ron stood there, thinking of what he should say, if anything at all, when the sound of shuffling feet pulled him from his thoughts.

He blinked and saw no one looking back at him. Everyone was leaving, and Draco was gone. Ron began to run, searching for the familiar crown of pale blond hair.

“Draco,” he tried to call without shouting too loudly.

Draco continued to walk down the hall without missing a beat in his pace until Ron finally caught up with him.

He pressed his luck, reaching out to grab the boy’s sleeve. Draco yanked his arm back, his eyes full of contempt.

“Don’t. Touch. Me,” he said in a steely voice.

Ron was taken aback by the pure hatred and anger he saw in Draco’s face.

“I just wanted to —”

“What? Make some pathetic excuse for why you no longer come around? Save it, Weasley, I already know why.”

Ron shook his head. “No, you don’t. It’s … complicated.”

“No, Weasley, actually, it’s really quite simple. You’re a coward. And all the medals in the world won’t change that. It’s no wonder you can’t sleep at night. If I were you, I wouldn’t be able to sleep with myself either.”

Ron clamped down on his anger as he gritted out his next words. “Oh yeah? Well, if I’m such a coward, then why did I spend most of the year sticking up for you then?”

Draco’s dry, humourless laugh told Ron that he’d given the boy another opportunity to cut him down.

“Don’t act as if you did me any favours,” Draco said. “You did that for yourself. You’re still trying to prove you’re really a hero, only no one believes it. Least of all, you. Just stay away from me, Weasley. I’d rather get my head kicked in again than get help from you.”

Draco’s words struck Ron like a Stinging hex. The sheer brutality of the truth rendered him speechless, and before he could even think of a response, Draco turned on his heel and walked away.
~~~*~~~



Chapter Sixteen
When The Dam Breaks


Looking back, Ron should have known Saturday was going to be a bad day. Of course, it was always easier to look back and see the telltale signs of an approaching disaster. But if he were to be honest with himself, the signs had been there all along in bold, flashing, fluorescent lights. A dark cloud was hovering over Hogwarts, its unstable and combustible energy slowly infecting everyone inside of it.

But as Ron recalled the days leading up to the day everything changed, he realised he had been too consumed by his own pain and suffering to see anyone else’s.

And apparently, he hadn’t been the only one.

After Friday’s confrontation with Draco, Ron was given the fun task of explaining to Hermione why their Restoration project had to be delayed another week. The truth was no one on his team really wanted the project to end. Restoration group filled a need they hadn’t realised they’d been craving — peace. It was a safe space where House loyalties and the past didn’t really mean much. All that mattered was rebuilding the wall, and the camaraderie they shared while working (and not working) on it.

But that was hardly a proper excuse, so they had sent Ron to deliver Hermione a better one.

“Hey, Hermione, the group wanted to know if we could get a week’s extension. There was an unexpected snag in weather proofing the magical binding. We want to make sure the wall is properly secured from top to bottom,” he said.

“Sure, Ron, another week is fine,” Hermione replied. “In fact, tell them to take two or three if they need it.”

Ron’s eyes popped in response to her cavalier reply. Hermione laughed at his reaction. It was so light and genuine that it made him ache not to be able to wrap his arms around her and laugh with her in that moment. He stuffed his hands in his pockets instead, giving her a grateful smile.

“Thanks.”

“Your group really impressed me the other day,” Hermione said. “They’re so far ahead of everyone else, except for the Tower group, of course. But that group didn’t have nearly as much work as the rest.”

Ron nodded and began to fidget. Simple polite conversation and exits were never easy with Hermione these days.

Hermione’s relaxed demeanour quickly changed to discomfort. Her eyes began to wander as she chewed on her bottom lip. “So…how have you been?”

“I’m fine,” Ron said quickly.

“Right,” she said with disappointment in her eyes.

Ron mentally kicked himself. ‘I’m fine’ was a dead giveaway that he was anything but fine, and nothing had changed.

“Well, good luck in tomorrow’s game,” she offered.

“Thanks.”

“I, uh, I have to go and check on the other groups,” she said hurriedly.

“OK, well, talk to you later, then.”

She nodded and quickly moved on, leaving Ron standing alone, cursing himself.

The night before a Quidditch match was always a bit rowdy, but that evening at dinner, the energy at the Gryffindor table was downright explosive.

They were chanting, and singing songs of victory as if they had already won the upcoming match against Slytherin while the rest of the house tables watched on.

The prefects and Heads of Houses monitored the Gryffindor table and the rest of the Great Hall with silent trepidation. The energy in the room was charged, and it felt like anything had the potential to happen, especially since some of the Gryffindors seemed hell-bent on shaking the Slytherins’ morale.

“Oi, incoming!” shouted a fifth year Gryffindor as a line of rolls levitated and propelled forward towards the Slytherins.

A collective gasp broke when the rolls were deflected and ricocheted off of the invisible ward surrounding the Slytherin table, landing right back on top of the heads and shoulders of the Gryffindors who had thrown them.

Several Slytherins smiled, looking elated with their brief victory, but they were quickly silenced when the offending Gryffindors rose from their seats, wands drawn.

“Hold on! There’ll be no duels in the Great Hall,” shouted one of the prefects. “Save it for the field tomorrow.”

Ron glanced at the Slytherin table, and saw several smug smirks. Inwardly, Ron felt like smirking with them. Perhaps things were finally turning around.

He was wrong.

The following morning at breakfast the Gryffindor team sat together, going over team plays before heading out to the pitch to warm up. Once again, the Great Hall was alive with anticipation and energy of team rivalry.

Scott and his friends seemed to be at the heart of it all. Ron rolled his eyes at their show of bravado, and then froze when Scott stood up on his seat and let out a loud roar. The eighth years at the table all turned their heads in surprise when most of the Gryffindors at the table roared back.

Ron and Harry exchanged a bewildered look.

“What the hell was that?” Ron asked.

“I suppose it’s the new Gryffindor call,” Demelza Robins said with a shrug.

“It’s rather loud isn’t it?” Ron asked.

“Just like everything we do this year,“ Harry said wearily.

After the roar, several Gryffindors stood on their seats like Scott, while others perched themselves on the table to sit facing the Slytherin table.

Many of the students at the other house tables appeared taken aback by the Gryffindors' aggressive show of prowess. Some appeared to be intimidated by their presence, while the rest looked rather annoyed, but too hesitant to say anything.

“Are people afraid of us?” Harry asked in concern.

“Why would they be afraid of us?” Alicia Spinnet asked. “We’re a pretty harmless bunch.”

Some of us are.

Ron held back the retort as he glanced back at Scott once more.

A whisper spread along the Slytherin table. Soon several Slytherins were either sitting up rigid and glaring back at the Gryffindors, or they had risen and taken the same position as the Gryffindors, standing on their chairs or perched on the table, their faces defiant, determined not to cower.

Wands were drawn on both sides, in preparation for a full-on fight, while the rest of the Great Hall looked on.

Ron noticed that Draco was one of the few that seemed unaffected by the rising tide of Slytherin defiance and solidarity. He actually looked rather bored. Astoria had moved three seats closer to sit near him, and was now openly staring. Draco returned her gaze a few times, but without a smile or flirty eyes. That didn’t seem to deter her though, and Ron found himself admiring her boldness and persistence.

Goyle was absent. Ron didn’t know why he noticed Goyle’s absence, but he did, and he couldn't help but wonder if the bloke was passed out somewhere. For all of the interference from Mind Healers and prefects, no one seemed to really care whether Goyle was there or not.

Looking around, Ron was struck at how contentious the Great Hall had become. Never before had the tension that pervaded the castle throughout the year been so close to the surface, threatening to erupt and unleash all of the anger and resentment that had been festering for far too long.

Suddenly McGonagall’s voice rang out, enhanced by a Sonorous spell. “Everyone will take their seats and put away their wands, immediately. If you do not comply, you will not be able to attend today’s Quidditch match, and you will face more severe consequences.”

The Gryffindors and Slytherins slowly put away their wands and returned to their seats, while maintaining hateful glares at one another.

“I never thought it could get this bad,” Ron murmured.

“Me either,” Harry replied.

The prefects and Head of Houses converged in the middle aisle separating Gryffindor and Slytherin, pacing as they watched the students with a warning in their eyes.

And that was just the start of the day…

~~~*~~~


The game was just what Ron needed, without the benefit of the herb to dull his senses, he felt more charged than ever and he channelled all of his frustration into beating back Quaffles. But with adrenaline running high and the crowd going mad beneath him, the players became increasingly aggressive and at times, combative. The Gryffindors were using every opportunity they could to assault and intimidate the Slytherins, while the Slytherins seemed determined to fight back, getting in as many licks as they could in retaliation for all of the crap they had been dealt throughout the year. Ron himself got an elbow to the nose and a Bludger to the arm, and had to restrain himself from rushing to the aid of Ginny and Harry who were taking a fair amount of hits.

“You’re attacking the wrong ones, arseholes,” Ron grumbled, wishing his more troublesome housemates were up here taking the brunt.

A Chaser flew past his peripheral vision and threw the Quaffle with such surprising speed that it made Ron tilt sideways in anticipation. He quickly got over his momentary awe, and flew just enough to the right to knock it right back at the Chaser, sending her backwards.

The crowd beneath him went wild, and Ron pumped his fist in the air, enjoying the triumphant feeling rushing through him. Harry nodded in approval. Consumed by the glory of his moment, it wasn’t until moments later that Ron noticed the cheering had died, and the crowd in the stands had gathered around someone below.

All of the players flew down to the field and dismounted. Ron followed, trying to edge his way through, to see what was going on.

There was a lot of chatter and, if Ron wasn’t mistaken, some crying.

A woman’s voice, someone with authority that Ron couldn’t see, ordered everyone to return to their seats until further notice, and slowly, they all did.

But the look on several peoples' faces told Ron that something terrible had occurred. He searched among his teammates to find the answer.

“What happened?” he asked Harry, who looked dumbfounded.

“Not really sure, but Ginny said she heard someone say Goyle tried to off himself.”

“Goyle?” Ron repeated.

“Yeah,” Harry replied.

Ron immediately scanned the stands, looking for Draco, but he was nowhere to be found. He glanced up at the hills, and sure enough, a lone tall gangly figure with pale hair was making his way up to the castle.

A brief consideration about what people would say if he went chasing after Draco held Ron in place, but then he thought of Draco and what he must be going through. As much as Draco claimed to not need people, there weren’t many people at Hogwarts that really knew him, and Goyle had been among that few—even if they no longer hung out.

A small voice whispered for Ron to catch up to Draco, and sod anyone who had anything to say about it.

“Ron, where are you going?” yelled Ginny.

Ron didn’t even reply as he quickly made his way off the pitch and up the hill. When he finally caught up, Draco’s face was a stone mask and he didn’t acknowledge Ron’s presence. Still, Ron fell in line with his steps, staying silent as they made their way up towards the entranceway.

There was a flurry of activity above, the bustling of Pomfrey’s assistants, Head of houses, and Mind Healers from what Ron could tell. Ron’s eyes followed the movement and anxiety began to rise as he realised all of the traffic was occurring on the seventh floor, where the Room of Requirement was located. Draco turned right to take the stairs, and Ron followed him, waiting for the boy to turn around at any minute to tell him to get lost.

But that moment never came; in fact, Draco seemed to appreciate Ron’s presence, glancing back a few times as if to make sure he was still there. Relief and consternation warred within Ron as the stairs shifted from the fourth floor to the seventh floor. He was glad Draco didn’t mind him following, but he was scared to see what exactly had happened to Goyle. What if the boy had succeeded in killing himself, what then? Why was this even allowed to happen? Goyle should have been sent home a long time ago. Everyone knew he had a problem.

As they neared the top of the stairs, a sweat broke on Ron’s brow. They got off on the seventh floor and followed the movement, passing Gryffindor’s common room door and rounding the corner to enter the hallway that led to the Room of Requirement. Two Mind Healers ran past them, and then Ron stopped, immobilised as he stood staring at the gaping hole in the wall where the Room of Requirement’s hidden door should have been. Someone had blasted it open.

One of Pomfrey’s assistants came out of the hole, shouting orders to two girls coming up from behind Ron and Draco. Ron tried to breath regularly as the anxiety that had gripped him before became full-blown panic. He could feel his lungs struggling to move air, and his whole body shivered as sweat began to wet his underclothing.

He stared at Draco’s back as the boy continued to walk on. But Ron was rooted to the floor, his eyes fixed on that gaping hole. The smell of burning things began to fill his nose and mouth, making it even harder to breathe, and then it happened.

The Fiendfyre he’d been running from in his dreams since last year was waiting right there, in front of him. Ron shook his head in denial and then shut his eyes, but when he opened them again, the vision was closer. Whether it was waking nightmare or real didn’t matter because it was as high as the ceiling and ten times hotter than the sun on the pitch.

Run, dumbarse!

Only his feet wouldn’t move, and the Fiendfyre was sliding towards him like a fiery serpent ready to strike, its flames consuming the walls around it. Heavy smoke began to smother Ron, blinding his vision and making his eyes water.

He coughed, choking on the fumes.

“Ron!”

Someone was calling his name, but he couldn’t identify the voice. The smoke muted everything, making it difficult to distinguish a male’s voice from a female’s. It didn’t matter, Ron was certain that either Harry or Hermione had somehow followed him and were trapped up here with him. Only this time, he had no broom, there was nowhere to run, and his legs were useless.

“Ron!”

He couldn’t help them, he couldn’t even help himself - the fire was too big.

“I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” Ron began to repeat over and over.

“How about just putting one foot in front of the other? Don’t get cold feet on me now.”

That voice didn’t belong to Harry or Hermione. The smoke began to dissipate as the vision of Fiendfyre slid back and dimmed. In its midst stood a familiar figure with pale blond hair.

Draco’s face was pinched and frightened, his grey eyes desperate. “Are you coming or not?”

Clutching his hand into a fist, Ron watches as the Fiendfyre moved further behind Draco, fading slowly into nothing. The smoke thinned even more, until it vanished completely. But the charred smell remained.

Ron took a big gulp and did just as Draco said—he put one foot in front of the other, and began to walk forward.

Draco waited until Ron reached him to give him a curt nod. They walked shoulder to shoulder towards the gaping hole in the wall.

The burning smell grew stronger, and through the hole, Ron could see people gathered around in a tight huddle around someone. There were legs and feet splayed on the floor, and then Ron heard Draco say, “Oh no. No, no, no.”

Draco rushed forward, breaking into the circle.

“Get him out of here!” shouted one of the assistants.

Ron looked around for Healer Gordon, but he wasn’t there.

“Malfoy, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to leave,” said Professor Flitwick.

“Greg!” Draco shouted as he wrestled with one of the assistants.

“Mr Weasley, please take Mr Malfoy, and leave,” begged Pomfrey from her position on the floor.

Ron tried to grab Draco by the arm, but was rebuffed as Draco pushed off the assistant to kneel beside next to Goyle.

Ron flinched as Draco let out a loud sob that reverberated throughout the room. Time came to a standstill as they all listened to his anguished cries.

“Greg, what did you do? What did you do to yourself?” Draco cried.

Ron clenched his teeth and pushed himself to lean forward and take a look. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. Goyle was laid out on the floor with a strange protective translucent cloud of magic covering his head. The entire left side of his face was unrecognisable: his left eye appeared glued shut, and the skin around it was charred black in places, in other places the remaining flesh was raised in grotesque flesh bubbles, and where there wasn’t any skin, the blood vessels and jawbone were exposed. Goyle’s right eye, his one good eye, was wide open and looking up at Draco as drool slid from the unscarred left corner of his mouth.

“What did you do?” Draco repeated.

Ron jumped when an arm fell on his shoulder. He looked back to see McGonagall staring up with an uncharacteristically troubled expression. “Mr Weasley, please,” she whispered.

Still in shock, Ron nodded and turned back to look down at Draco as he bent over to nudge him to stand.

Draco shook his head, and took Goyle’s right hand into his and began to sob freely.

It was too much— the sound of the carefully composed and aloof Draco Malfoy openly crying in front of everyone, Goyle’s exposed scalp, disfigured face, singed clothing, and that one perfectly intact eye staring up at them. Ron’s masks of apathy and strength seemed inadequate against the rising tide of despair welling up within him, and he could feel the last vestiges of his resilience giving way. Something huge was stirring inside of him, something he had been holding down ever since the war had ended, and whatever it was, he was sure it was big enough to destroy him from the inside out. He couldn’t let it out.

So he ran.

~~~*~~~



When everyone came back from the pitch, Ron was held up in his dorm room, the cover drawn over him. Harry cautiously walked over to his bedside and reached inside the curtain, pulling the duvet back.

“Ron?”

Ron stared up at his friend, unable to speak.

“What happened? Did you find out what happened to Goyle?”

Ron nodded mutely.

“Is he… dead?”

Ron shook his head, hoping Harry wouldn’t press for any more.

Harry opened his mouth, but then looked back at Ron’s face and closed it.

They watched as the rest of their dorm mates cleared out, throwing curious glances their way.

When everyone were gone, Harry turned back to face Ron. “Everyone’s going down for dinner. Care to join us?”

Ron grimaced, hating the thought of having to be near anyone right now, knowing what he knew. The weight of all that he had seen and heard was still pressing down on him, threatening to crush him. He felt like he could break any minute now, but he also knew that staying in his room meant drawing more attention to himself, more questions, and whispers.

“Okay,” he croaked, slowly rising.

When they arrived in the Great Hall, Ron’s eyes immediately searched out the Slytherin table. Draco was absent, but so was Astoria. He raised his eyebrows at that, and followed Harry to their seats. There were many whispers as his classmates boldly stared up in his face.

Ron gave away nothing, keeping his eyes on Harry’s back as they moved.

He took a seat beside Hermione, who looked at him with a worried expression.

“Ron, are you all right?”

His defences weakened, Ron didn’t have the strength to lie. “No. No, I’m not. I feel rather shitty, actually.”

Hermione’s eyes went wide with surprise, and she immediately covered his hand with her own.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Ron tried to offer her a small smile, grateful that she still cared. “Not right now. Maybe later…”

Hermione nodded, her eyes, becoming glassy with tears. “All right. Just let me know when.”

I need you now.

Ron nodded and quickly looked away, willing the voice to be quiet.

Both Harry and Ginny were watching him closely with worried expressions.

“I just need to eat, guys, really,” he reassured. They all nodded and began to dig in.

As he ate, Ron looked around the Great Hall. There was a heavy sombre mood at every table, especially at Slytherin, where virtually no conversation was taking place.

So when the sound of sniggering and jeers erupted at Gryffindor table, it stood out like laughter at a funeral.

Ron turned his head to glare at the middle of the table, where several Gryffindors were chuckling and slapping hands.

“What’s so damn funny?” Ron asked loudly.

“Something stupid, I’m sure,” Harry said, glancing at the offending jesters sternly.

Ron couldn’t take his eyes off of them; even if they weren’t laughing about anything of consequence, it seemed very disrespectful in light of what had just occurred.

“Ron, just ignore them,” Hermione urged, returning her hand to his. “They’re just being immature gits.”

Ron shook his head. “This is has to stop.”

Harry sighed. “There’s no talking to them. We tried. If we give them any more attention, they’ll just get louder.”

But then Scott began to speak, and the centre of the table drew in closer to listen. A chorus of low ‘oooo’s’ and laughter followed, spreading from the middle to the end of the table. Ron didn’t hear the joke, but he did hear people repeating snippets: ‘Goyle’, ‘lard’, and ‘grease fire’.

The stirring of emotions that had begun in the Room of Requirement was back, only stronger. Ron could feel a gathering storm brewing inside of him, a growing funnel of anger and frustration. He stood up and walked towards the centre of the Gryffindor table, disregarding the calls from his friends for him to come back.

He stopped right at Scott’s seat, staring down at the boy’s head. The laughter slowly subsided as everyone around Scott stared up at Ron in silent apprehension.

Scott slowly turned around, his eyes hard and daring.

“Excuse me, Scott, what did you just say?” Ron asked.

“Inside joke, Weasley, you wouldn’t get it.”

“Try me,” Ron said through gritted teeth.

Scott slowly stood up, and Ron saw the Gryffindor prefect rise with him from the left. She was watching them closely.

“I don’t have to repeat it.”

“Maybe you’re just too scared to repeat it,” Ron challenged. “Because you know it was wrong to say in the first place.”

Scott’s eyes shifted to the prefect and then around to his friends before he looked back at Ron with a determined look in his eyes.

“I’m not scared. You want me to repeat it? Fine. I was trying to spare the feelings of some people in the room, but since you want to make a scene, I’ll repeat it. I said, ‘Goyle must really be stupid to have tried to kill himself by fire. Everyone knows that when you set a tub of lard to flame, it takes forever to burn.’”

The vision of Scott’s bloodied face flashed before Ron’s eyes. He could use a nose breaking hex or a simple punch in the mouth, but what would that prove, and what would it lead to? It had to end here.

Ron took a step back, and Scott smirked in victory.

“Do you think that’s funny?”

“Yeah, and so do a lot of other people here,” Scott said.

Ron looked around at the Gryffindor table.

“You think that’s funny, Natalie?”

The sixth year brunette girl blushed and looked down at her plate in disgrace.

“The thought of Goyle burning himself alive make you laugh, Andrew?” Ron asked a fresh-faced fourth year. The boy looked to his side, his cheeks flushed.

“And how about you, Dennis? Since when do you think death is funny? Your brother died here.”

“That’s right, he did,” Dennis Creavey said angrily. “Because of scum like Goyle. If he’s not dead already, I hope he dies.”

There were several gasps among the Slytherins, and an overwhelming sadness filled Ron as he looked at Dennis. Pain and bitterness stared back at him.

“So Slytherin is to blame for Colin’s death, then?”

“No, but—”

“What about everyone who died last year?” Ron interrupted, looking around the Great Hall. “Is anyone in this room responsible for killing them?”

“Nice try, Weasley,” Scott said. “but everyone knows that last year wouldn’t have happened at all if Slytherin had never existed. You name any dark wizard, and nine times out of ten, they came from Slytherin, including the Dark Lord himself.”

“Not only that, but you weren’t here last year, Ron,” said Amanda, a fifth year Gryffindor. “Slytherins didn’t treat us any better than they’re being treated this year.”

“There you go,” Scott said to a group of agreeing voices.

“So that makes it right?” Ron asked.

“It makes it fair,” Dennis said. “What comes around goes around.”

There were a handful of affirming murmurs and head nods.

“And what about next year?” Ron asked. “Whose turn will it be then?”

The students stared up at him, but no one answered.

“When will you be even? Do you think Goyle dying will make up for your brother’s death?” he asked Dennis. “Hmm? You think it’s going to bring back mine?”

Dennis seemed to be battling about how to respond, his eyes focused on the table before him.

“It won’t, I promise you that,” Ron said to Scott. “You want to put Slytherin in their place, make them pay for last year, but when does it end?”

Scott looked around, his face tight with frustration, but he didn’t reply.

“Right. That’s what I thought,” Ron said. “It’ll never end, because if it’s not us attacking them, then they’ll be attacking us for what we did this year. It’ll just keep going on and on.”

Ron glanced up front, where the staff table was located. McGonagall was standing, her eyes focused on him. Ron looked back at his friends and sister, who seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for him to finish.

Every student and staff member was watching him with rapt attention, and for the once in his life, Ron didn’t feel self-conscious. He had something to say, and he had to get it off his chest.

“Listen, what happened here last year happened because one group of people decided that another group was inferior. They said, ‘we’re better than them, and if you don’t agree with us, then you’re scum just like they are’. You tell me how this is any different. No one here is superior. We’re not better than Slytherin, we’re not even better than an Death Eater if we think someone’s life isn’t worth anything just because of what House they belong to. That’s not what we fought for, that’s not what my brother died for, it’s not who we are.”

He swallowed and considered sitting down, but then more words began pushing their way over his tongue.

"And another thing: Draco Malfoy is my friend. Sure, he’s made a lot of mistakes, but so have some of you. But he’s not a bad bloke, and he doesn’t deserve getting the shit kicked out of him.”

Someone from the professors’ table loudly cleared their throat.

"Sorry, I meant, he doesn’t deserve getting attacked. Perhaps if everyone took more time to get to know someone before judging them, we’d find we have a lot more in common than we thought. Try it, you might be surprised. Oh yeah, and before you start another nasty rumour, let’s get something else straight. Just because Draco and I hang out, doesn’t make him my secret lover. I may have messed things up with Hermione, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still in love with her."

By the time he was finished, Ron could barely catch his breath. The words seemed to have come out of nowhere, but he knew better. As he stood there, looking at the shamed and confused faces of his classmates, he could feel the funnel inside of him spinning out of control, threatening to tear away the fragile wall holding him together.

He turned to exit before any more cracks could form, but not before catching Hermione’s tear-filled eyes.

~~~*~~~


Outside the Great Hall, Ron walked with determination, only he had nowhere to go, and he hoped to Merlin no one followed him. He couldn’t talk anymore, he could barely think. He went to the only place he knew he’d find solace. As he took the winding narrow staircase of the Tower, the nostalgia of smoking told hold of him, so that once he reached the top, he was licking his dry mouth, wishing he could.

He stopped abruptly as Draco’s back came into view. There was a petite blond girl standing next to him. She turned around, locking eyes with Ron, and then whispered something to Draco.

Draco nodded, and she rubbed his arm and raised herself on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek before turning to leave.

As Astoria approached, she gave Ron a small smile.

He tried to smile back, but it felt more like a grimace. He listened as she descended the stairs, his eyes on Draco’s back.

Guilt and shame for running away earlier kept him from saying anything or moving for several minutes.

“Are you just going to stand there like a statue all night?” Draco asked.

Slowly, Ron walked over to the ledge where Draco had both of his arms extended, leaning over.

Ron looked down at the depth of the fall below, and then glanced back at Draco.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to jump or anything like that.”

A snort escaped Ron. “I never thought that for one second, you’re too full of yourself.”

Draco turned to him, his face streaked like it had been recently washed, and his grey eyes, blood shot as one who had been crying.

Ron’s smile disappeared, and he had to brace himself not to look away. “I’m sorry I deserted you… again.”

“It’s all right. I understand why you left,” Draco said. “Besides, I didn’t even notice you were gone until they dragged me away.”

“They dragged you away?” Ron asked.

Draco nodded, a small embarrassed smile on his face.

Ron took a deep breath. “What then?”

Draco sighed. “Then they gave me some Calming Draught, and kept me under observation for over an hour.”

Ron gripped the ledge, trying to find the right words to ask his next question. “So how’s… how’s Goyle?”

Draco took a ragged breath, his eyes focused on the field. “He really messed himself up. They said he cast an ‘Incendio’ on himself, only he didn’t point it straight at his heart like he was supposed to. The tip of his wand must have been off, that’s why only his left side was so badly burnt. That probably saved his life. That, and his screaming. They said one of the Heads of Houses was doing a final sweep of the castle when he saw Greg fall out of the door of the Room of Requirement. He was screaming and on fire. When he disappeared back inside, they had to blast through the door to put him out.”

“Bloody hell…”

Draco closed his eyes. Ron watched him, waiting for him to break down again. But he didn’t. When he opened his eyes again, one tear escaped, sliding down his cheek.

“He can’t talk. He’s barely conscious, and they don’t know if he’ll make it. They sedated him and transferred him to St. Mungo’s."

“He’ll get the best care there,” Ron said reassuringly. It felt lame, but it was all he could offer.

“You know what the really fucked up part of it is?” Draco asked.

Ron shook his head.

“I understand why he did it. I bet he was tired. Tired of the nightmares, tired of the shame, tired of being less than nobody. He probably wanted to put an end to it all so he could join Vincent. And do you know why I know that?”

Ron held his breath.

“Because sometimes, I wish you hadn’t saved me that day. Sometimes I think everything would be much easier if I had just died. I wouldn’t have to deal with my mum being lonely, or my dad being in prison. I wouldn’t have to remember, or… feel…"

Ron swallowed, trying to hold it together as Draco's words seeped in, widening the cracks in the wall that was barely holding the avalanche of feelings raging inside of him.

Draco turned to face Ron. “I should have been there for Greg. He didn’t have anyone, and I… I abandoned him. I was wrong to call you a coward the other day, Ron. I was being a hypocrite. I was really talking about myself, about the way I treated Greg. I couldn’t even look at him. Every time I saw him, I thought of Vincent, and the fire, and everything I’ve ever done that I can’t take back.”

Ron closed his eyes against the well of sadness and regret spilling over, pushing tears into his eyes. He couldn’t…not here, not now, not in front of Draco.

“I know how hard it was for you to go in that room today.”

Ron furrowed his brow, his sadness giving way to anger. Was Draco trying to make him cry? Push him into some sort of confessional?

Stepping to the left, Ron put more distance between them.

“Ron—”

“No, stop. Stop it. I know what you’re trying to do,” Ron said angrily.

“I’m not trying to do anything other than to tell you how brave I thought you were for coming with me today.”

Ron kept his eyes on the field below, trying to focus on his anger, hoping it would reinforce the crumbling wall and keep the other emotions at bay.

“Right. You’re just trying to get me to pour my heart out. You’re probably embarrassed that I saw you crying, and you think that if you get me to talk about it, I’ll start crying too, and then I can’t hold it against you.”

Draco didn’t reply, and Ron found the silence even more troubling than his question. He looked up to see Draco watching him.

“Isn’t that right?” Ron demanded.

Draco shook his head slowly. “No, that never crossed my mind. Why would you hold that against me?”

Ron narrowed his eyes. “You know why! Because crying is…something that weak people do!”

“Is that what you think I am?” Draco asked, his eyes reflecting apprehension.

Ron paused, momentarily confused by Draco’s response and question. “No, I’m just saying….crying is…well it’s seen as weak, by some people.”

Draco stepped closer as Ron watched him warily, his body tense.

“Is that why you can’t talk about it?” Draco asked. “Because you’re scared? You think— no, you know that talking about it is going to make you cry, don’t you?”

Ron shook his head in denial as the dam began to crack a little more.

Draco gave Ron the tiniest of smiles. “You know, I used to think that crying was something weak people did too. Until two years ago, when the Dark Lord threatened to kill my entire family if I didn’t kill Dumbledore. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, and I really didn’t want to. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, except for Moaning Myrtle. She cries all the time. It’s rather annoying really, but now I understand why she does it… It feels good. Especially when you can’t talk, when you want to rip everything inside of you out, and tell someone what you’re going through, but you can’t put it into words. Or you’re not allowed to… Crying is the easy part, Ron. It doesn’t make you weak, sometimes, it can even make you feel stronger."

Ron tightened his face, holding himself rigid as Draco stepped closer.

“Don’t,” he warned.

When Draco stepped even closer, almost touching him, Ron pushed back at his chest, hard. “I said stop it! You can’t make me,” his voice giving out on the last syllable, cracking just like the wall inside.

“It’s all right, Ron,” Draco pressed, moving forward again. “You were almost killed, probably a countless number of times. You lost friends. You lost your brother. You’re allowed to cry.”

The heavy feeling of loss and sadness was rushing back and forth like a gigantic wave, rearing up to crash over and through the dam. It wasn’t just about what Ron had lost, or almost lost. It was all of the things he had never told Fred, like how much he loved him, or just how funny he thought his brother was. If only he could apologise for taking him for granted, for not spending more time with him when he could.

A low and steady drum hummed in Ron’s ears. It could have been his heartbeat, but it sounded more like a breaking levee. He curled his fingers into a fist, trying to hold steady as the storm broke through the wall and his remaining strength gave way. Everything inside him shook and his knees went weak, but someone was there to catch him—Draco’s arms were wrapped around him. Ron held on as the dam completely caved in. And for the next half hour, Ron Weasley did something he hadn’t done in nearly two years—he cried.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Seventeen
After the Storm


Ron didn’t know exactly how long he’d spent crying in Draco’s arms, but by the end, after the tears were gone and there was nothing left but dry sobs, he felt loads better, and a little silly as well. In fact, Ron found it hard separating from Draco, not because he enjoyed being held by the boy, but because he really didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness that was sure to follow. While he knew Draco wouldn’t cut him down, Ron also knew that things would be different now, and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that.

When he finally pulled back, Draco’s arm and shoulder were soaked, and his hard grey eyes were soft with understanding.

“You all right?”

Ron nodded, feeling his ears beginning to burn.

Draco looked at his wet shoulder and shook his head. “When I said it was all right to cry, I had no idea you were going to cry a river and leave me drenched.”

Ron blanched, taken aback. Draco smirked.

Sniggering in spite of himself, Ron wiped his cheeks, gaining his composure. “I didn’t know I was going to cry like that. But I suppose I needed that though.”

Draco simply nodded.

Ron looked around, taking a big whiff of the crisp spring night air before tilting his head back to stare up at the clear sky. The stars looked a little brighter than they did before, and the moon seemed more luminous than ever.

“What now?” Ron asked, still gazing up.

“I’m not sure. I suppose that’s up to you,” Draco replied.

Ron lowered his head, giving Draco a curious look. “And what about you?

Draco raised one eyebrow. “What about me?”

“Are you going to be okay?”

Draco shrugged. “Yeah, I just hope Greg pulls through.”

Ron nodded. “Well, you’re not alone. You have me and... your girlfriend.

Draco scoffed, trying to hide an embarrassed smile even though Ron could already see his face turning red. “Girlfriend? Get your mind out of the gutter, Weasley. Astoria is just a really nice person. She’s hardly my girlfriend.”

“You might want to tell her that,” Ron said with a smirk.

Draco scrunched up his face. “So do you really think…no,” he said, shaking his head. “It would never work; she’s too young.”

“Oh come off of it, Draco. She’s only two years younger than you are.”

Draco sighed, “We’ll see…and what about you? Think you’ll be able to patch things up with Granger?”

Ron felt utterly helpless on that point. “That’s up to her,” he said.

And you. Don’t be such a wuss. If you can return to the Room of Requirement, you can win Granger back, “Draco insisted.

Ron looked towards the door of the Tower. “Maybe. I suppose there are a few more people I need to talk to.”

Draco nodded in agreement.

They stood before each other, in awkward silence. Ron didn’t know where his relationship with Draco would go from here—they had build a friendship around smoking grass, well… perhaps a bit more than that. But Ron knew for certain that he couldn’t fall back on that anymore.

Draco reached into his pocket, pulling out the hookah. “For old times' sake?”

Ron licked his lips, the craving hitting him like a blow to the body. “We really should stop. It may be legal, but it can’t be healthy to smoke as much as we do.”

Draco shrugged. “Well, no one’s perfect.”

“Draco, I’m serious…”

“I know,” Draco singed. “But, I have all of this.” He pulled out a substantial velvet satchel and proceeded to wave it in front of Ron seductively. “And I simply can’t let it go to waste. I suppose I’ll just have to smoke it all by myself.”

Ron stared at the pouch, his willpower battling with his craving. Finally, he groaned in defeat. “It’ll take forever for you to smoke all of that. I’ll help you get rid of it, but only because I want you to be done with it. This ends tonight. We’ll finish it off together.”

Draco appeared amused. “And then what?”

“And then we both get some help… there’s this Mind Healer. His name is Gordon, he seems like a pretty decent bloke.”

“Oh that tosser? He’s been trying to get me to have a tea with him,” Draco said wearily.

Ron chuckled. “You too?”

Draco nodded gravely.

Ron stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Tea isn’t so bad. It may even be good.”

Draco looked sceptical. “Perhaps… All right, since you’re set on it, we’ll make this the last one, at least for a little while.”

“This is last one for me, period,” Ron said resolutely before conjuring a chair.

“We’ll see, Weasley…we’ll see.”

Ron smiled confidently as he waited for Draco to light the hookah, since he’d left his own in his room. He felt like a man at the entrance of a newly discovered footpath. He didn’t know where it would lead, but he knew where he’d come from, and it could only get better from here.

~~~*~~~


When Ron crept back into the common room it was dark as always, but the fire was a crackling, highlighting three familiar silhouettes on the couches.

Shit!

Harry, Hermione, and Ginny turned to look at him.

Ron froze, suspecting that they were going to scold him for sneaking about late at night again with Draco. Or perhaps they’d fuss at him for publicly claiming Draco as a friend and humiliating Gryffindor in front of everyone…

“It’s about time you got back,” Ginny said in exasperation. “I really didn’t want to spend the night on the couch.”

Ron looked to Hermione. There was a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She scooted over, patting the space beside her in invitation.

“Come sit, Ron.”

Ron walked over awkwardly, wondering what exactly they were up to. Was this going to be some sort of intervention? He’d heard about those. They didn’t sound fun.

He took his seat slowly, his stomach tightening in anticipation for a row.

Harry and Ginny exchanged a glance, and then so did Harry and Hermione. When Ron looked at Hermione, she forced a smile.

“What?”

“That was some speech you gave today,” Harry said.

Ron adjusted his seat, looking at all of them. “Sorry. I don’t know where that came from, but, if I said anything that offended you, I apologize.”

“Offended? Ron, it was brilliant,” Hermione said.

Ron turned his head in surprise to look at her plainly. “Yeah?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling.

“Ron, Fred would have really enjoyed seeing you put Scott in his place,” Ginny added. “Well, you really gave us all a reality check. I’ve never been so proud of you.”

Ron giggled, and Ginny frowned.

“I’m serious, you dimwit!”

“I know, that’s what makes it so damn funny,” Ron said, unable to control his giggling. It soon turned into outright laughter, and when he was done, they were all staring at him rather strangely.

“Ron…are you high?” Hermione asked, biting her lip.

Ron looked down at his clothing, smoothing out the wrinkles of his robes. He sniffed himself, but smelt nothing. When he looked up, Harry, Hermione, and Ginny looked disturbed, and Ron could feel heat creeping into his cheeks.

“Yeah, I am,” he admitted.

Their proud smiles turned into frowns and looks of concern.

“But, honestly, this was the last time,” Ron said quickly. “I didn’t think you’d be up to see me like this.”

Harry sighed. “Your last time, Ron?”

“Yeah, I swear. I was going to stop after tonight, and tomorrow, I had planned to uh…go in and talk to someone.”

“Really?” Hermione asked, sitting up.

Ron nodded. “Yeah… Hermione, I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. I didn’t know… what to say really, or how to say it.”

“And now?” Hermione asked hesitantly.

“Well now I’m ready to talk, but… it’s too late, really, and I wouldn’t want to keep you guys up.”

There was instant protest: “No, it isn’t!” and “It’s fine!” and “We’re already up.”

Ron laughed to see them so eager, and then he laughed again when it hit him how much they cared for him. He really was lucky.

“Do you always laugh like this when you’re high?” Hermione asked with a troubled expression.

“Yeah,” Ron said, smiling hard, it was no use to even try to control it.

Ginny shook her head, looking at her brother in bemusement. “Well, although I don’t approve, it is good to see you smile again.”

Harry reclined back in his seat, setting his feet up on the table. “So…”

“Sooo…” Ron repeated.

“So, what’s been going on, Ron?” Ginny pressed.

“Well, it’s a long story, really…”

“That’s fine, because we’ve got all night,” Harry said.

Ron took a deep breath, summoning the same strength he found when facing the imaginary Fiendfyre in the hall.

“Right. Well, I suppose it all started the day Fred died, the day you beat You-Know- Who, Harry. That night, I had a wicked nightmare. I couldn’t remember what it was, but I remember waking up thinking I’d just escaped something terrible. It was scary, but, I didn’t think it would happen again. But it did, every night… And then I started having them while I was wide-awake too. That’s when I knew something was wrong…”

~~~*~~~


The day after the world changed, Ron awoke feeling utterly drained and groggy, having spent nearly the entire night up talking. They talked about everything… Ron’s nightmares, his flashbacks, what had been happening with Draco, his new friendship with the boy, and Goyle. They even talked about his drug habit a little. He was surprised at how open and supportive his friends were. They seemed just grateful that he was talking at all. Ron also listened a lot as well. He found out Ginny’s crying spells were more like crying episodes that would last for up to an hour or more, several times a day, and they seemed to come out of nowhere. Ron also found out that as in control as Hermione seemed, she had been burying herself into the Restoration project and schoolwork, sometimes avoiding sleep all together. When she did sleep, she often awake in the middle of the night with no recollection of what she dreamed, but was too scared to scream or speak.

As Ron lay there in bed, trying to will himself to rise for the day, he wondered why it had taken something so drastic as what happened the previous day for them to all open up to each other.

“Hey, you two sleepy heads,” Neville called, “it’s time to get up! You’re going to miss breakfast.”

Ron heard Harry groan, and he cracked his eyes open to watch his best friend throw the covers over his head in protest. He sniggered and stretched before finally sitting up.

“Come on, Harry.”

Harry grunted. “Let’s just skip breakfast, I’m completely knackered from last night.”

“No way, you know how I get when I don’t eat,” Ron said, pushing himself up with a much effort. “I’m not missing another meal this term. Besides, I’m starving…”

“That wouldn’t have anything to do with you getting the munchies from smoking that crap, would it?”

“I told you I’m quitting,” Ron said irritably. He hoped Harry wasn’t going to ride his arse about the smoking thing.

“Do want me to go with you when you see Gordon?”

“No, I want go alone,” Ron said, feeling slightly guilty for shutting Harry out of something else.

Harry finally rose, and gave Ron an sympathetic nod. “I understand…”

When they came downstairs, Harry and Ginny embraced each other, exchanging a lazy morning kiss, while Ron and Hermione watched them, sneaking not-so-covert glances at each other.

“So, er, Hermione, how did you sleep?” Ron asked.

“I didn’t really, but it still was a good night,” she said, with a small smile.

“Yeah,” he said as a nervous flutter bothered his stomach.

She smiled again and then looked elsewhere, and all Ron could do was stare at her long lashes and perfect lips. He tore his eyes away, trying to squelch the hope for a second chance growing inside of him.

When they entered the Great Hall several people looked up, some giving him small smiles, others watching Ron with trepidation. He was eager to let everyone know that he had no plans to be the moral police or go off again, so he tried to offer smiles where he could, and head nods of greeting.

“I hope they all don’t hate me,” Ron whispered.

“I doubt that, mate,” Harry said. “It needed to be said. I bet a lot of them were probably relieved that someone said it. Uh…” Harry paused, looking up over Ron’s head. Ron frowned, and slowly turned around to see Dennis Creevey standing behind him.

“Hi, Ron,” Dennis said.

“Hi, Dennis.”

Dennis bit his bottom lip as his eyes nervously darted to Harry, and then back to Ron. “Look, what you said yesterday, well… it made a lot of sense. I just… I needed someone to be angry with, and Slytherin was easy enough.”

Ron nodded. “I know.”

“Anyway, thanks. I’m glad you spoke up,” he said, turning away before Ron could respond.

Ron turned back around, his eyes wide as Harry and Ginny gave him “told you” smiles.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hermione beaming at him, but when he turned to face her, she turned her head quickly and began talking to Ginny as if she hadn’t noticed anything at all.

Ron smiled to himself, as hope bloomed once more. Perhaps he had a chance to win back Hermione’s heart after all.

~~~*~~~


After second lesson dismissed and the students entered the hallways to congregate during free period, Ron stood at the crossroads. Really, it was just the entrance of the hallway leading to the infirmary, but it was also a choice between change and the familiar, however dysfunctional it was. The hallway seemed much longer than he remembered, and as he began to walk down it, he could imagine dozens of scenarios: Gordon recommending him to the Janus Thickey Ward; Gordon scolding him for lying before; Gordon telling him how disappointed he was that a war hero would engage in smoking grass... The list went on, but when Ron reached the door, his fear began talking to him.

You’ve already cried like a baby in front of Draco and babbled to your friends. What do you need a Mind Healer for? Man up, for Merlin’s sake!

Before Ron could turn around, the door opened, smacking him in the forehead.

“Owww!”

“Oops,” Draco said, not looking the least bit apologetic.

Ron stood with his mouth hanging open, staring past Draco to where Healer Gordon was standing, making notations.

“Close your mouth, Ron.”

“What? Oh, what are you—”

“I told you I’d come, and I did.”

Ron looked at Draco, still surprised.

Draco held his head up higher, looking every bit the arrogant Ferret he used to be. “It was…mildly interesting. Although, the wanker lied. We didn’t even have tea.”

Ron chuckled nervously. “Uh, maybe I’ll do this tomorrow.”

“Oh no you don’t…oh Healer Gordon,” Draco called.

Ron snarled at Draco and then quickly stopped, forcing a smile as Healer Gordon approached.

“Ron! What a pleasant surprise!”

“Oh, hi, Healer Gordon,” Ron said, suddenly feeling self-conscious again.

“Gordon, Ron here is a little nervous about coming in to see you. I told him you’re perfectly harmless.”

Ron’s eyes widened as he gaped back at Draco. The nerve of the prat—going to the Mind Healer had been his idea, not Draco’s!

“Ah well, you can tell him to relax, I don’t bite.”

“You certainly don’t,” Draco said, with a charming smile.

Ron fought the urge to roll his eyes as Draco gave him that infuriating smirk.

“Have fun,” Draco said.

“Gee, thanks,” Ron murmured as Draco brushed past him.

Healer Gordon waved Ron inside, and once the doors closed behind him, the man held out his hand. Ron took it, shaking it firmly once again.

“Good to see you, Ron. You have good taste in friends.”

“Huh?”

“M. Malfoy… he spoke very highly of you.”

“He did?” Ron asked, dumbfounded, wondering what exactly Draco had said about him.

“Yes. Are you surprised? He is your friend, isn’t he?”

Ron stared back at Healer Gordon. “Yeah. Yes, he is.”

Healer Gordon smiled, and led Ron back to his booth, where they both took a seat.

“So, Ron, what would you like to talk about today?”

Ron drew a blank. What exactly had he planned to tell this man?

“Uh, I don’t really know where to begin.”

“How about starting with yesterday…”

Ron blew his breath out hard, and sat back. “Yesterday was… bizarre.”

“Yes. As you already know, one of your classmates tried to commit suicide…”

“Yeah, I was sorta there.”

“So I heard. Tell me more about that…”

Ron closed his eyes, a cacophony of emotions sweeping through him. Finally, he opened his eyes.

“Uh… well, I’ve never seen anything like that before. I never thought someone could do that to themselves—on purpose, I mean. I wish I could just forget what I saw. I wish I could forget everything that’s ever happened in that room.”

“What do you mean, Ron?”

Ron took a deep breath. “It all goes back to last year…”

~~~*~~~


Two Months Later…

The late spring air was warm, so Ron loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt before leaning back over to study the chessboard.

“So… are ready for your NEWTs?” Draco asked.

Ron scowled at him, knowing all too well Draco was trying to distract him. “Sure, I only have four to take.”

“Four? You need at least six to be an Auror.”

“Well, I don’t want to be an Auror,” Ron said resolutely.

Draco gasped in exaggeration. “Say it isn’t so! What does the saviour of the wizarding world think of this shocking bit of news?”

“Leave off, Draco. Harry would support me no matter what career I choose. He doesn’t care if I’m an Auror, in fact, no one does really. I just thought they did.”

“So, what do you plan to do then?”

Ron took his eyes off of the board for a moment, thinking. “I’m not sure. I want to explore my options. I might work with my brother George for a little while, until I sort it all out.”

Draco nodded, his eyes turning pensive.

“What are you going to do?” Ron asked.

“That depends. Once I pass my NEWTs, I might elect to study under… Slughorn.”

Ron nearly choked. “Slughorn? Are you serious? You hate him.”

“He’s an pompous arse, but an apprenticeship in Potions will put me where I want to be in five years.”

“Which is?”

“Owning my own Apothecary.”

Ron raised an eyebrow, genuinely impressed. “Nice.”

Draco cleared his throat, casting his eyes back to the board. “Are you going to stare at me all night, or are you going to make your move?”

Ron scowled. “If you’d stop talking my head off, perhaps I could concentrate.”

“What’s the matter, Ron? Do you have trouble thinking and talking at the same time?”

Ron narrowed his eyes and considered the board again. He smirked. “Queen to Ee4.”

The queen rose and walked gracefully over to Malfoy’s Knight, proceeding to remove a small dagger from her robes and stab the knight in the neck.

Draco grimaced. “If you’re going to play, at least play like a gentleman.”

“Is this wizarding chess or cricket?”

Draco gave Ron a fake smile and sighed as he considered his options.

Ron leaned back, studying his advantage and his opponent. In just a few weeks the school term would end. Sometimes Ron still had trouble believing where they had ended up, especially in light of where they had started.

Draco brought his arm up, checking his watch. “Ah, look at the time. It’s getting late, Astoria will not be pleased if I stand her up.”

“Then don’t. Just make your move, and we’ll be done,” Ron insisted.

“You’d love that, wouldn’t you? But I’m afraid I’m going to have to put this game on pause,” Draco said, sitting back with a challenge in his eye.

“How convenient…” Ron said sarcastically.

“Pardon me, but aren’t you and Granger trying to spend more quality time together now? I hardly think your girlfriend would appreciate you disregarding your new vows in favour of playing chess, with me.”

Ron sighed loudly, conceding. The git really was persuasive.

“All right, we’ll freeze the game here,” Ron said, casting an ‘Immobulus’ and leaving it out.

They both sat in silence for a moment, the sounds of the forest in the distance nudging at Ron’s memories—some good, some bad.

“How are you sleeping?” Ron blurted out.

“Some nights are better than others. You?”

Ron shrugged. “Same, I suppose.”

“Do you miss smoking?” Draco asked tentatively, a nervous look in his eye.

Ron nodded, feeling guilty for the craving that still rose within him from time to time, especially late at night. “Yeah.”

“You know… it’s a rather nice night. Perfect for a smoke,” Draco said with a suggestive smirk.

Ron chuckled and shook his head, reaching inside his robe pockets. Draco smiled and leaned in eagerly. When Ron brought his hand out, Draco’s face fell, and he clicked his teeth.

“Gum?” Ron opened a small tin of gum he frequently carried around these days.

Draco sighed, retrieving a stick. “Gordon’s really got you under his thumb.”

Ron rolled his eyes. “You’re still seeing him as well, I believe.”

“Yes. But that doesn’t mean I do everything he suggests. He’s not all wise and knowing. Having a smoke once in a while won’t kill us.”

Ron shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m getting used to the gum.”

Draco shook his head. “You’re such a goody-goody, Weasley.”

“Well, one of us has to be,” Ron said with a smile. “Come on, our girls are waiting…”

Draco rose, heading for the door, and Ron standing to follow him. But then he turned to steal one last look out over the edge of the Tower, where a gentle breeze was blowing, caressing his hair and cooling his skin. It carried the scent of flowers in bloom. Ron inhaled, taking in the fresh air, and held it in his lungs for a moment. He exhaled slowly, savouring the calmness he felt.

Although scattered storms still raged inside of him, he no longer needed a dam to contain them. He trusted himself enough to weather it out. And if ever the storm proved to be too much, Ron now knew, without a shadow of a doubt that his friends—Hermione, Harry, Ginny, and Draco—would be there to shelter him and lead him through.


The End





Thank you for reading! We encourage you to share your thoughts about this piece with the author and artist. You can show your appreciation by leaving reviews here.
ronbigbang: (Default)
Title: Stand by Me
Author: [personal profile] softobsidian74
Rating: R
Pairing(s): Ron and Draco (friendship) with canon side pairings of Ron/Hermione, Harry/Ginny, Draco/Astoria
Genre general fic, angst
Warnings: DH compliant, language, angst, PTSD, bullying, homophobia, violence, heavy substance abuse, other triggers (suicide attempts, panic attacks, eating disorders, & cutting- not main characters), hurt/comfort, language, het (kissing only)
Word Count: 75,776 words/17 chapters
Summary: The war is over, but at Hogwarts, new battles are being fought. As the school tries to rebuild, Slytherins find themselves at the bottom of a new social order where Gryffindor arrogance and retribution reign. While Ron struggles with loss and guilt, Draco encounters daily threats and social isolation. When an unlikely friendship develops between the two, Ron must find the courage to face the backlash, and something far more terrifying – himself.
Author's Notes: I’d like to thank my very supportive betas [profile] ultrasonicbop & [personal profile] end1essly for all of their hard work and input. Thanks to [personal profile] lady_of_clunn for giving me a great justification for using hashish in this story. Thank you to the talented [profile] otterandterrier for her hard work on the photomanipulation. I really love it. And I’d also like to thank my friends [personal profile] emilywaters1976, [profile] willowfaerie2, & [profile] hollywoodlawn, for all of their input, support, and encouragement during the writing of this fic.


Title: "The Peace Pipe"
Artist: [profile] otterandterrier
Characters: Draco and Ron
Rating: PG
Media: Photomanipulation
Artist Notes:As with my other illustration for the challenge, it was hard to pick only one scene, but this was an interesting moment in a story with an interesting concept. And I had fun building it!





Chapter One
Oh, How the Mighty Fall




“Ron! Wake up!”

Ron squinted against the light hitting his eyes and jerked back. Hermione stood over him with fearful wide eyes while Harry and Ginny peered at him from the other side of his bed. They all looked gravely concerned.

Ron drew the covers closer to his body as the tingle of shivers made him shake. He looked down to see his shirt and the bed beneath him soaked with his own sweat.

“Are you all right, mate?” Harry asked.

Ron tried to find his voice. He could tell he had been screaming; the strain of it still ached in his throat.

“What happened?” he finally managed to say.

Ginny leaned closer to inspect her brother. “You were screaming for help.”

Hermione tenderly placed her hand on Ron’s forehead. "You almost knocked Harry out when he went to wake you up.”

Ron fell back on the mattress, trying to remember. But there were no images, no memories of what had come before waking up, only a slowly dissipating dread he couldn’t describe or place. Something terrifying had held tightly him in his sleep, but it was gone now, and all that remained was soaked sheets and his embarrassment at being discovered in such a state.

“Blimey, I must’ve looked mental. Sorry, mate,” Ron said to Harry.

Harry gave him a small smile. “S’all right. We’re just glad you’re awake now. Do you remember what you were dreaming about?”

Ron shook his head. “No. And from the sounds of it, I don’t think I want to …”

They all gave him small smiles, but their eyes still held concern.

“Is everything all right up there?” Ron's mum bellowed from below.

“Yes, Mum, everything is fine,” Ginny called back.

“Good, then tell Ron it’s time to get his bum out of bed and get washed up for breakfast. You kids are going to be late, and that’s no way to start off a new school year!”

Ron rolled his eyes, “We’re of age now, and she’s calling us ‘kids’?”

“That’s never going to change, Ron. She still fusses at George about combing his hair,” Ginny said with resignation, turning to leave the room.

Hermione smiled down at him and gave him a quick kiss on his forehead. “You better do what she says.”

Harry smirked. “You've got about ten minutes.”

Ron nodded, watching them as they left.

“Bugger,” he grumbled, rising up from his sticky trundle to head off to the shower.

After breakfast, they all Floo’d to Diagon. There weren’t many books to purchase, but they all got new robes, courtesy of the Minister. They each were also rewarded with medals; Ron, Harry, and Hermione got Order of Merlin, First Class, which came with a nice cash reward—five hundred Galleons to be exact. His mother and father had forced Ron to put most of it away in savings, but he got to keep enough to buy himself a new broom for Quidditch, and new books— not the used goods he was accustomed to.

They gathered on Platform 9 ¾ with their peers. They had done this every year except for last year, but this year the Slytherins and their parents were all standing very close to each other. A strange silence hovered over the group as they avoided making eye contact with their classmates, who cast wary looks in their direction. Everyone else seemed to be going about business as usual.

Almost all of Ron’s class, especially those in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw had returned, even those that had attended Hogwarts the previous year. The curriculum and testing from the former year was deemed invalid, disqualifying anyone who attended last year from passing their N.E.W.T.s While pupils were given the option to make up the work at home, and come in for a sit in exam at the end of the year, it appeared as if most had decided to return.

Ron was happy to see all of old friends: Seamus, Dean, Hannah, Neville, and Luna. They all congregated to greet each other and catch up, while the younger students wandered around reacquainting with old friends.

“I’m so glad you agreed to come back, Ron. For a moment there, I didn’t think you would,” Hermione said with a smile, squeezing his hand as they waited for the conductor to make the formal announcement about loading.

“Eh, yeah,” Ron said with a small smile. It was still surreal that Hermione was his girlfriend and he was returning to Platform 9 ¾ holding her hand. “I wouldn’t miss this year for anything. This is going to be our best year ever.”

“Yeah? And why’s that?” Harry asked.

“Think about it, Harry,” Ron said. “We’re war heroes, we’re of age, the oldest kids in the school. We can do anything we bloody well want. We’ll rule the school.”

Harry shook his head, giving Ron a small smile. “Ron, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. It’s going to be different. And there’s lots of mess to be tidied up.”

Hermione nodded in agreement. “Yes, on top of preparing for the N.E.W.T.s, we’re practically rebuilding the castle. I still can’t believe McGonagall appointed me to head up the Restoration project. It’s going to be a lot of work!”

Ron grinned at her. “You didn’t have to accept the position, you know … you could have easily been Head Girl this year.”

Hermione sighed. “I know, but … this seems more important, doesn’t it?”

Ron nodded. “Yeah, it does. And who else would be better for the job?”

Hermione blushed. “Yes, well, it won’t be easy. There’s more than just a castle to mend; there are a lot of memories at Hogwarts … and I’m sure people are still shaken up about everything that occurred there.”

Ginny’s face was grim. “You don’t know the half of it. Last year, Hogwarts was a terrible place to be. I don’t suspect anyone will forget what happened there any time soon.”

Ron felt a flash of annoyance at Ginny’s remark. In fact, the whole conversation was taking a sombre turn that he disliked. All everyone talked about lately was the war and the dead. How was anyone supposed to get over it all when they kept bringing up bad stuff like that? Were they all supposed to remain in a perpetual state of grief? Sure, he and Ginny had both just lost a brother, but life went on! Ron wanted to spend this year trying to have a little fun after the hell they had just been through.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Gin?” he asked with irritation in his voice. "Just because last year was bad doesn’t mean this year will be too.”

Hermione squeezed Ron’s hand. “Ron, Ginny just means that for many, this is going to be a difficult year. It may take some people years to get over what happened.”

“Yeah, well, not me,” Ron insisted. “I’m tired of crying and griping about what happened. Besides, Fred wouldn’t want us to spend the year moping about. He’d tell us get on with life and have some bloody fun!”

Hermione, Ginny and Harry exchanged uncomfortable glances, but Ron wasn’t going to stick around for this pity party. He quickly turned around to step onto the Hogwarts train with the three of them on his heels.

As he walked down the aisles, people greeted him with unusual enthusiasm and admiration. Ron puffed out his chest as he walked on, heading to the front. The way some of the students were staring up at him made him feel like a real leader. When they finally came to an empty car, Ron put his bags over the seat and sat down, joined by, the other three. Soon the rest of the gang arrived to sit in the compartment across the aisle: Luna, Neville, Seamus, and Dean. There was much talking within and across compartments. It felt good to be surrounded by friends who understood everything without having to talk about it. Everyone seemed to be excited about starting a new year and moving forward, and for the first time he could remember, Ron felt genuinely confident and comfortable in his skin.

They ordered loads of candy from the candy cart and drank plenty of pop as they laughed and speculated about who would be teaching Defence of the Dark Arts, Potions, and how their dormitory assignments would be arranged. Stuffed with food, Ron had to excuse himself for relief.

But there was someone in the front car’s toilet. Ron could hardly hold it, so he quickly made his way down to the other end of the train where hardly anyone ever sat.

However, before reaching that car, he had to pass through the Slytherin section. As Ron passed through, he looked around as nonchalantly as he could, but hardly anyone was looking back or talking. In fact, the entire Slytherin car was eerily silent, and there were many more empty seats than usual. Ron scanned the faces and noticed that Blaise Zabini was not present, nor was Pansy Parkinson. He had heard rumours that they may have transferred to other wizarding schools since their families had relocated after the war. Tracey Davis and Millicent Bustrode were sitting together, quiet and subdued, giving Ron cursory glances as he passed.

Finally, he reached the loser car where the usual suspects sat. The creepy Ravenclaw Michael Buckley, who always kept his hands in his pockets like he was secretly wanking or something, Hufflepuff Chris Tellus, who held no shame in picking his boogers and wiping them on the nearest objects, and a small waif of a Gryffindor girl named Priscilla Moxley, who wasn’t particularly strange, just very socially awkward. Ron felt sorry for her; she sort of reminded him of Luna before they had all got to know her. He made brief eye contact with her, giving her a small smile and kept moving towards the back.

His mouth dropped open in surprise as the person in the next booth became apparent. Gregory Goyle’s large frame was slumped against the seat; he looked to be brooding with a frown on his face as he stared out the window. Ron felt a small twinge of irritation that the boy had received a full pardon because of his father’s so-called coercion. It was a pitiful excuse, one that Ron still didn’t think Goyle deserved. Slowly, the other boy's eyes met Ron’s and then returned to staring out the window as if he could care less. Thankful the bigger Slytherin didn’t seem interested in exchanging unpleasantries, Ron kept moving until he reached the last car.

He froze as his eyes laid on white blond hair— no longer slicked back but long, falling to just above the shoulder, some of it covering stone grey eyes. The pale, pointy-faced ferret who, more than anyone else, Ron had wished to be sent to Azkaban, was staring out the train window as well. Malfoy quickly turned to look at Ron, his jaw set and his body stiff as if waiting for insult.

The invitation was so tempting. Ron had so much to say to the Ferret.

‘Hiya Malfoy. Boy aren’t you lucky Azkaban doesn’t have a kiddie detention center?’

Or maybe, 'Who did you come back to kill this year, Malfoy?’

Oh, that was a good one. Ron was about to deliver it with perfect calm coolness when laughter burst through the car door behind him.

“There he is! Told you!”

Ron turned to see Nott and two seventh years he recognised as Edwards and Porter coming up from behind him.

“What are doing in here, Malfoy? Hiding?” Nott asked.

“Can’t really blame you,” Porter chimed in. “We’re surprised you had the nerve to come back.”

Ron walked past Draco’s seat as if moving towards the loo, but moved very slowly so he could hear the exchange. He glanced behind him to see Malfoy slowly turn his face towards his fellow Slytherins. The boy’s face was tight, his lips drawn into a thin line.

“What do you want, Nott? “

“I just came back here to see if it was true … if Draco Malfoy was really sitting in the loser section where he belongs.”

“Piss off, Nott” Malfoy spat. “I’m sitting back here so I don’t have to look at wankers like you.”

Nott withdrew his wand and moved forward. Ron turned around fully to observe.

Malfoy didn’t flinch at the sudden movement; in fact, he sat up straighter, pulling out his own wand and aiming it in front of himself defensively.

But Porter held Nott back, giving Malfoy a nasty smirk. “You’re in for a lonely year. We’ve all been waiting for you to take a fall, and now that you have, don’t expect anyone to help you up,” he said, twiddling his wand through his fingers.

Malfoy slid out of the booth, standing up in front of them. Ron felt glued to what was unfolding in front of him; he was suddenly grateful the other loo had been full. That was, until Malfoy turned around and glared at him.

“What are you looking at, Weasley?” Malfoy spat.

“Not much. Not much at all,” Ron sneered, rolling his eyes and shutting himself in the loo.

His nerves were tense, and he realised he too had physically been prepared for a duel or confrontation of some sort. Why, he didn’t know. Something about seeing Malfoy’s face again, that smug look—of all of his evil shenanigans and cowardice— made Ron want to smack the git. He almost wished Malfoy’s housemates would do it for him.

As he began to do his business, Ron closed his eyes, trying to shake off his annoyance with the Ferret and the past when something slammed into the door, hard. He jumped, finishing up, with his ear pressed against the door.

“Sod off!”

“Your entire family is a disgrace to pure-bloods,” Ron heard Nott say, “with your mother saving Potter’s life, and your father ratting out everyone who remained loyal so he could save his own arse.”

“And don’t forget, Potter testified that Malfoy here lied for him and his friends,” said Edwards.

“Oh yeah, that’s right. You really are a snake,” Nott said. “Aren’t you, Malfoy?”

The door shook again.

“Aren’t you?” Nott demanded.

There was no reply, just tense silence. Ron flinched as something hard struck the door, like someone’s head, and then he heard a pained groaned.

“Your dad is the reason my father received the Kiss, and I’m going to make sure you pay for that. All. Year. Long.”

Ron froze as a missed hex hit the door and then a cling that suggested another one had hit the train window. Ron moved closer to the door to press his ear against it, but jumped back as something slammed against the surface. He stood there in shock as the heavy thud of a body being pushed back against the door repeated again and again. There was a loud smacking sound of skin colliding with skin.

There was laughter and then another loud thump and a pained groan.

“And that’s just the start of things. Better get used to it,” Ron heard Nott say.

“Or you can always just run back home to mummy,” he heard Porter say.

There was more sniggering. Ron listened as their footsteps retreated.

Malfoy groaned again, and there was a creak as the body resting against the door pulled away. Slow shuffling dwindled into silence, leaving Ron staring in disbelief at the bathroom door.

The smug smirk he had always hated so much had finally been removed from the Ferret’s face. Draco Malfoy was no longer anyone of any importance; he was a loser—less than a loser. He’d been beaten up by three members of his own house.

Ron’s heart swelled with vindication, and he couldn’t keep the smile from growing on his face.


~~~*~~~

Chapter Two
Karma or Something


When Ron returned to his seat, he was anxious to share what he had seen and heard, retelling the sordid tale to the whole compartment. Seamus and Dean had a laugh, but Neville looked uncomfortable, and Harry just looked disturbed. Hermione’s brow wrinkled, scowling, apparently upset at Ron for taking so much joy in seeing the suffering of others, even if it was Draco Malfoy.

“Wha, Hermione? He almost killed us, remember?”

“Oh, I remember just fine, Ron! But, he wasn’t the one who started the fire. Crabbe did, and he paid for it with his life. How are we ever going to move on if we keep harping on about things like that?”

Ron stared back at her in shock. Hermione Granger talking about forgiveness and letting go of grudges. At times, she could be the queen of grudges.

“That’s a new one, coming from you,” Ron retorted snidely.

Hermione held her chin up. “I want to be a part of the solution and not the problem.”

Ron rolled his eyes, huffing, and then turned to Harry. “You think it’s funny, right, Harry? What’s it called? Karma or something.”

Harry frowned. “Or something. Let’s talk about something else. I don’t want to waste this year talking about Malfoy or Voldemort, or the war for that matter.”

Luna smiled. “That’s too bad. I was hoping you’d tell us the story about how you broke into Gringotts once more.”

Harry glanced at Hermione and Ron, whose annoyance was quickly dissipating.

“Now that was mental,” Ron said. “I can’t believe we made it out alive. I thought I was going to burn to death.”

Hermione nodded. “It was frightening …”

Seamus looked at Dean and then back at Harry. “Well don’t hold out. Tell us the story.”

Harry gave Ron a small smile. “Ron tells this much better than I do.”

Ron smiled. “All right …”

~~~*~~~


When they finally pulled up to the school, Ron felt even better about his decision to return. They had all laughed at his interpretation of the adventure at Gringotts. While telling it, it occurred to him just how much shit he had been through in the past year.

Hermione grabbed his hand and gave him a swift kiss before rising. Ron smiled proudly. Hermione Granger had just openly kissed him in front of everyone. He glanced around, hoping that someone had seen it, and found Luna and Neville smiling back.

As they left the train, everyone gathered round. The eighth years, along with Ginny and Luna, kept close. The group was still smallish, and very much defined by house, but there was also something new in their midst: a shared sense of understanding that they would be the first, and hopefully last, ‘eighth’ years.

As they approached the carriages, Ron paused, staring.

“What is it?” Hermione asked.

Ron swallowed. He had never seen a thestral before, and in fact, there had been a time when he had thought that Luna and Harry had been making it all up. Luna had a way of infecting Harry with her craziness. But as he stood before them, he could clearly see the wispy black manes framing their skeletal horse-like faces. One of the thestrals was staring right at him, and for a moment, he didn’t see its eyes. Instead, he saw baby blues, shaggy red hair, and the familiar smile of his brother Fred. And then the image was gone.

“I can see them,” Ron whispered.

Hermione drew closer, rubbing his arm soothingly. “So can I.”

As they boarded the carriages, Ron glanced back at the group behind them, his eyes searching for the familiar white-blond patch of hair. Malfoy had hid his face from view before, but now that they were all out in the open, Ron wanted to see just how badly the git had been beaten.

But Malfoy was nowhere in sight.

“Where is he?” he whispered.

“Where is who?” Hermione asked, looking behind Ron.

“Malfoy …”

“Oh, Ron, leave him be. Perhaps he went ahead of us or is waiting until everyone clears out.”

“That’s probably the best thing to do,” Harry said. “From the sounds of it, he may be in for a rough year.”

“Yeah, well, what comes around goes around,” Ron said coldly. Why did Harry and Hermione sound so sympathetic? The Ferret had tormented them for years; he was a bully. He was getting the short end of the stick now, and he deserved it. So what.

Hermione shook her head at him, a concerned look in her eye. “Oh, Ron.”

Ron’s pulsed quickened as he took in her lush and slightly frizzy brown curls, bright brown eyes, and perfect lips. She seemed to become prettier with each passing day. When she smiled up at him, he leaned in and awkwardly put his arm around her. He was still getting used to this girlfriend business. Hermione slid even closer, and Ron frowned. What was he supposed to do now? Just hold her? Or kiss her? Is that what boyfriends did? He didn’t want to smother her, but he didn’t exactly feel compelled to kiss her either. He was still trying to figure her and this boyfriend thing out. The carriage began to move, and after a few moments, Ron’s arm started to cramp. He stretched it out and pulled it back. She gave him a puzzled glance and he returned it with an apologetic smile. He looked up to see Harry staring between them in amusement.

He’d have to work on his moves later. Of course Harry had all the moves; he’d had plenty of practice with his sister.

Tosser.

~~~*~~~


As they entered the castle, Ron was struck by the faint smell of burnt wood. A shiver passed through him as they approached the entrance of the Great Hall. The last time he’d been there, it had been a odd den of celebration as well as a makeshift morgue. No one spoke as they made their way to their tables; reminders of the final battle were everywhere from the hex riddled walls to the cracked stained glass windows. Ron was thankful that at least all of the blood had been cleaned away.

“Bloody hell, they could have at least fixed up the Great Hall,” Ron murmured.

“That’s for us to do, remember?” Hermione reminded.

At dinner, Ron had a clear view of Malfoy. Everyone did. He had a nasty cut over his eye and his left cheek was starting to turn purple. But what really stood out was that he was sitting all by himself with a large space between him and the few other eighth-year Slytherins.

“Look at him; it’s almost sad,” Ron remarked with a bit too much satisfaction, earning him a disgusted eye roll from Hermione.

Before dinner began, McGonagall stood in front of them all. She looked considerably older since the end of last term, and her face appeared even more sombre than usual, which was saying something. She cleared her throat loudly, and the chatter all but ceased.

“Welcome back, everyone. Before we begin the Sorting ceremony, I would like for Miss Hermione Granger to come forward and say a few words about a very special project that all of you will be participating in this year. Miss Granger…”

Hermione looked at Harry and Ron nervously. Harry smiled at her and mouthed the words “You can do it”, while Ron gave her a small nudge and whispered for her to pretend she was speaking as Head Girl. That seemed to help. Hermione promptly rose with her head held high. She walked up the aisle to the front of the Great Hall, exuding an air of authority that silenced the entire dining hall.

Ron’s chest swelled with pride as Hermione stood in front of everyone. The entire dining hall had their eyes focused on her.

“Hello. Many of you already know me. My name is Hermione Granger, and I am an eighth year Gryffindor. I have been appointed a most important task: I will be overseeing the Hogwarts Restoration Project. As you may have already heard, there has been a lot of controversy about the decision to not restore Hogwarts to its previous condition before the start of this new year.

“I assure you this decision was not made lightly. Headmistress McGonagall has requested that we, the pupils of Hogwarts, take charge of this very important task. Many of you may be wondering why—It is because this is our school. Hogwarts would be nothing without its pupils— past, present, and future. This is an opportunity to reflect on everything that has happened here and mark a new chapter in our history.

“You will be receiving your team assignments shortly. Please understand that this will not be a competition. On this project, there will be no Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, or Ravenclaw. We are all part of a very special family, and Hogwarts is home to all of us. We will honour those who lost their lives here by working together, by overcoming old rivalries and grudges, and most of all, by rebuilding.

"I look forward to working with all of you. Thank you.”

There was a heavy silence so thick that Ron couldn’t find his breath. Hermione looked absolutely terrified by the lack of response, and then Ron stood up and began to clap, not caring who joined him. It was the catalyst for a thunderous applause, and students began to stand up as well, whistling and shouting out the names of their deceased friends and professors whom they wanted to honour.

There was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm from the Slytherin table. Some of them stood up awkwardly and clapped, while others, like Malfoy, Goyle, and Nott and his friends, either remained seated or looked around at their plates. It was no secret that their house had suffered the least losses, mainly because many of them had fled during the final battle, with only a handful returning to help fight.

But whether it was because of Slytherin’s lack of enthusiasm or in spite of it, the standing ovation and rally for the Restoration project continued for another five minutes. By the time it was over, there were plenty of tears and lots of hugging among houses and across houses, except for Slytherin. And that seemed to be just fine to the rest. Ron threw a glare Slytherin's way, but when Hermione came back to the table, he hugged her fiercely, whispering how proud of her he was. She simply smiled and thanked him, taking a seat beside him. The air was full of the same anticipation and excitement that Ron had felt at Platform 9 ¾, and once again, the promise of a new and better year, and life seemed within his grasp.

After the Sorting ceremony, everyone settled down and began to eat. Throughout dinner, several people came up to the Golden Trio to give them thanks and handshakes. Ron got a few condolences for his brother. He had learned how to accept those with a gracious ‘thank you’ and a disarming smile to put others at ease, no matter how uneasy it made him feel.

~~~*~~~


The next day in Advanced Defence Against the Dark Arts, Ron sat next to Harry. The room was crowded with the added eighth years, but it was also more exciting. No one knew what to expect from their new professor. Ron noticed Malfoy sitting in the back, an empty seat beside him. The boy looked tense and watchful.

“Sucks to be him,” Ron murmured with a smirk, nudging Harry to look at Malfoy's state of isolation.

Harry glanced back and shook his head. “Give it a rest, Ron. It’s like you're obsessed or something.”

Ron’s brow furrowed. “Right, obsessed over him? I just think it’s funny, is all.”

“Yeah, real funny,” Harry said dryly, turning his eyes back to front of the room.

Harry was called on repeatedly during the lesson. The new D.A.D.A. professor, some daft chap named Phillip Driver, continued to jokingly remark that Harry should be teaching the class instead of himself. Ron tried not to roll his eyes. Perhaps it was funny the first few times, but it soon got quite tiring. Ron glanced over to see Harry grinning and blushing as if embarrassed. Rubbish. Ron knew better, Harry loved the attention. Who wouldn’t?

“Harry, do you mind coming up here for a demonstration?” Professor Driver asked.

Harry glanced at Ron, who shrugged.

“Ah, no, not at all,” Harry answered, rising to walk to the front of the class.

“Now, not many wizards can do a proper Levicorpus, but I’m sure you can, Harry.”

Harry looked back at the new professor in surprise before sputtering, “Ah, sure.”

Ron raised his eyebrows, holding his breath with the rest of the class to see if Harry would live up to the man’s expectations.

Of course he did, which earned Harry another impressed clap on the back. “Now, how about you help me teach the rest of the class that? Everyone stand up. We’re going to form two lines," he said, waving his wand, parting the desks neatly into two rows against the wall.

“Well, go on, line up,” he said.

Harry remained up front with Professor Driver while Hermione took a place beside Ron and across from Padma. Seamus was opposite Ron, who positioned himself next to Dean, who stood next to Malfoy. Ron immediately glanced to his right to see who was standing opposite Malfoy. It was Neville.

“Watch yourself there, Longbottom. Keep your wand at the ready with that one,” said Ernie McMillan, glancing at Malfoy suspiciously.

Malfoy set a death glare on the boy, prompting a round of shushes in the classroom.

Professor Driver glanced nervously between Malfoy and Neville and then over to Goyle, Nott, Edwards, Porter, Daphne Greengrass, and Tracey Davis.

“Well then, how about we split up according to houses? That may make things a bit easier.”

Hermione’s hand shot up in the air, but she spoke immediately, as if she had already been called on. “But Professor, McGonagall specifically said we should try to get away from the old business of house rivalry.”

“Yes, well, with all due respect, Miss Granger, McGonagall is not teaching this class,” Professor Driver said with offense in his voice.

“Slytherins partner up. Everyone else, you’re free to choose,” he continued defiantly.

Everyone glanced around hesitantly before shifting to make the change.

The Slytherins glared at Professor Driver as they moved to the end of the rows to stand across from each other. Ron watched as the boys moved around Malfoy and Goyle like they were invisible, taking their positions across from each other. Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis, however, looked sympathetic, and took respective positions across from the two boys. Goyle gave Tracey a feeble smile and then looked away, while Malfoy didn’t even acknowledge Daphne. His eyes remained focused on the floor right in front of her with a frown of indignation on his face.

Meanwhile, Nott, Edwards, and Porter were glaring menacingly at both Malfoy and Goyle, as if they were to blame for their current alienation.

Ron watched, very interested in the dynamics between the Slytherins, when he felt a hard nudge in his ribs.

“Pay attention,” Hermione scolded.

He gritted his teeth. “Fine.”

~~~*~~~


Dinner was filled with more congratulatory praise and storytelling. Ron was getting quite used to constant pats on the back and smiles, and best of all, Hermione seemed to be always smiling at him.

Afterwards, she pulled his hand and led him into a darkened hallway. He was taken aback and … nervous. What did she want with him? What would he be expected to do? The summer had been spent going to funeral after funeral and then the memorial and commemorations followed by award ceremonies. Ron and Hermione had shared hardly any time alone. And the few moments they did have together were spent holding hands with only an occasional innocent kiss here and there. They had never full on snogged. Would Hermione want him to be knowledgeable and experienced? He’d spent a fair amount of time snogging Lavender, but that wasn’t serious snogging, at least not the kind Ron thought Hermione wanted. Who else had she kissed to compare him to? Krum? Ron grimaced as the thought crossed his mind.

“Finally, we get to be alone,” she said great sigh, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“What—what are you doing, Hermione?” Ron asked.

“I want to be alone with you,” she said, inching closer to press her body against his.

“Yeah? “Ron laughed nervously, pulling back a little. “And why’s that?”

“Ron! You’re so silly. Because it means I can do this,” she said, reaching up all the way on her tiptoes, puckering her lips.

Ron’s mouth went dry, and he could feel his heart in his throat as her hand slid through his hair to pull him down for a kiss.

Ron’s eyes widened. Did she want to put her tongue in his mouth? There had once been a time when he would get aroused just by the thought of kissing Hermione, but now that he was actually here doing it, the pressure was overwhelming, and Ron wasn’t turned on at all. In fact, he felt anxious and uncomfortable. He pulled back.

“Uh, Hermione … not here,” he said, anxiousness creeping into his voice.

Hermione frowned. “Why not?”

Ron glanced around shiftily, pushing out the lie. “Come on, we’re in the middle of a hallway, for Merlin’s sake!”

“Well, it’s not a very heavily trafficked hallway!” Hermione protested.

“I know, but still,” Ron said, forcing himself to lean forward and press his body against hers. He could feel her breasts against his chest, and though he knew it was supposed to make him hard, he felt absolutely nothing.

Maybe he was just nervous.

“Not here, not now. I’ll pick out the perfect spot for us,” he whispered. “Just you wait … it’ll be private, some place just for us. ”

Hermione smiled. “Oh, all right,” she said, planting another large, wet kiss on his cheek.

Ron gave her an agreeable smile. “We better get back. People will be asking where we are.”

Hermione nodded reluctantly, grabbing his hand for the walk back to the common room.

As they began to walk, Ron could hear sounds just beyond the corner, near the stairway leading to the dungeons. There was lots of laughter, clapping and “ooos” and “awws”. Ron and Hermione glanced at each other.

“I wonder what’s going on?” Hermione said.

Ron shrugged. “Let’s have a look.”

As they approached they could see Draco’s distinct silhouette surrounded by the shadows of several other boys.

“Better watch out lads, he’s getting angry now!" There was another smattering of “oooos” and then a “Why don’t you try one of your killer hexes on us, Death Eater!” following by more laughter.

Hermione’s brow furrowed. “I can’t believe they’re picking on him right here, in plain sight. Everyone can hear them … I really should have accepted the Head girl position.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t. Imagine having to run around after that lot all year. They’re not going to stop, and you’d probably only make it worse for him. “

Hermione pursed her lips. “Head Girl or not, this has to end, now. I’m going to get a Prefect and put a stop to it!”

Ron jerked her hand sharply. “Hermione, stay out of it! You think Malfoy would have ever done the same for you? He used to be the bully, remember?”

“Oh, Ron, sometimes, you can be so insensitive. That’s an awful thing to say,” she said before turning quickly to find assistance.

Ron watched her as she left, feeling glued to his vantage point near the stairs where all the commotion was going on. The yelling and jeering was dying down now, and he could see the shadows of the crowd dispersing two by two until there was only one shadow left. It was thin and crouched over; the torchlight of the hallway illuminated the outline of a poor soul kneeling on the floor, his ragged breathing captured along the stone wall.

He swallowed. So what if the Ferret was getting the shit beaten out of him at every turn. He could probably give Malfoy a few kicks himself.

Ron huffed, looking back over towards the hallway and stairs leading to Gryffindor. Hermione had gone to get Malfoy help. Surely that was more than enough assistance; this was none of his concern.

Fuck Draco Malfoy.

And with that thought in mind, Ron turned his back on the wounded shadow of Malfoy and headed back to his common room, where his friends and admirers were waiting for him.


~~~*~~~


Chapter Three
A Different World


Despite his desire to pay the Ferret no mind, over the next few weeks Ron became more aware of Malfoy than he ever had before. Every other day it seemed a new bruise or cut would appear on the boy’s face, neck, and hands. What was worse was that the incident he and Hermione had witnessed seemed to fuel and give license to any and everyone who wanted to treat Draco Malfoy like a piece of shit. This was beyond occasional taunting; students who weren’t even known for bullying were joining in on the harassment, and it all appeared to be led by younger Gryffindors.

The prefects, professors, and Heads of House did what they could when they observed it, but as with most acts of malevolence at Hogwarts, they couldn’t stop what they couldn’t see.

One day at lunch, Hermione leaned over, eyeing Malfoy with a concerned expression. “You’d think McGonagall would do something about it,” she whispered. “It’s just horrible the way he's being treated.”

“What I don’t understand,” Ginny said, “is why they’re all treating Malfoy like that but not Goyle? He’s just as bad.”

“Well, Goyle’s a lot bigger, and he looks murderous,” Harry said. “I bet the lot of them are scared of him. Besides, he keeps to himself. I think Malfoy is making it worse; it’s almost like he’s daring them to push him further or something.”

“It doesn’t help that your testimony publicly identified his family as traitors to Voldemort,” Hermione said. “It certainly hasn’t won him any friends in his House.”

Harry nodded. “True, but he’s not known for being the most charming bloke either. I’m sure his mouth hasn’t helped any.”

“I’m surprised his mummy hasn’t shown up and made a big stink of it,” Ron quipped.

Harry frowned. “Lay off, Ron. You know his mum saved my life.”

Ron held in a sigh. Did he have to be reminded again?

“Besides, I’m not sure the Malfoys have any influence left,” Harry said.

“I don’t see why he doesn’t just give up and go home. He doesn’t even need school,” Ron said.

“Yes, he does!” Hermione protested. “Everyone needs school, Ron.”

Ron rolled his eyes, annoyed that Malfoy was taking up their conversation, annoyed that his friends seemed to care, and most of all, annoyed that it was something that had crossed his mind more times than he could count over the past few weeks.

“Can we talk about something else besides the Ferret?”

Harry smiled. “Yeah, how about all of the time you’ve been spending in the library.”

Ron scoffed. “Do I have to remind you that I’m preparing to take six N.E.W.T.s? Since when is studying a crime?”

“It’s not,” Ginny said. “It’s just … so different for you. Mum will never believe how much you study now.”

“Well, I think it’s a brilliant change. It’s nice to see you applying yourself,” Hermione said, sliding her hand over his thigh to give it a tight squeeze. Ron looked around self-consciously, fighting the urge to push Hermione’s hand off.

“Yeah, well, you’re not the only one who can pick up a book, Hermione,” he said irritably.

Hermione withdrew her hand. “I was trying to give you a compliment, Ron.”

“It sounded more like a backhanded compliment to me,” Ron said.

Hermione huffed.

As soon as Ron said the words, he regretted it, but it was out now. He had always struggled with when to speak his mind and when to hold his tongue with Hermione, and now that they were seeing each other, the choice seemed more difficult than ever.

“Sorry,” he said, quickly, offering a sheepish smile as he stretched his arm over to rub her back. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. Actually, I’m a bit surprised at how much I want to study as well … I suppose the N.E.W.T.s mean more to me than I thought they did.”

Hermione’s face softened, and she gave him a small smile, her hand returning to rest on his thigh. “Well, that just means we’ll get to see each other more. I’ve already made my study schedule; perhaps we can coordinate so we can study together?”

“I’d like that,” Ron said genuinely as his hand covered hers. They gazed at each other for a long moment before the sound of someone coughing interrupted them.

Ron looked over to see Ginny and Harry smirking at them.

“Oi, would you two stop gawking,” Ron said.

~~~*~~~


In his next class, Ron found himself staring across the room at Malfoy, who appeared to be concentrating intently on the professor. He’d never really looked at the boy before, and certainly not the way he saw him now. Despite the scars and bruises, and all the harsh treatment he’d been receiving, Malfoy still held his shoulders back and head up, that little Ferret nose pointed high, always poised.

Ron sat back, almost admiring the grace and inner strength it had to take to carry on like a snooty aristocrat even in the face of the humiliating truth—the Malfoy name was despised now, the customary fear and respect no longer associated with it.

Sudden curiosity bloomed. What exactly was Malfoy’s motivation for coming back to Hogwarts? Why hadn’t he summoned his mother or transferred schools? Was this a test of pride and endurance, or was there some darker purpose for his steadfast resistance to cave in to the onslaught of ridicule?

“Mr Weasley …”

Ron blinked. The entire class was looking back at him, and he was looking at Malfoy, who was sneering in disgust. Ron felt his face burning with embarrassment and he shook his head at Malfoy to appear disturbed by the boy’s presence rather than intrigued.

“Yes?”

The Charms professor sighed in frustration. “I asked you to name the properties shared by each of the five major Healing Charms most commonly used today."


“Uh … right,” Ron stalled, his face burning hotter than ever as he leafed through his book. Merlin, he hated Charms.

~~~*~~~


Quidditch practice was a welcome relief. It was the one thing Ron really enjoyed, and as an eighth year, he was more confident than ever in his abilities to show as a good Keeper.

Try-outs were a breeze. He’d coasted through, making first line Keeper easily.

Once try-outs were over and everyone had been chosen, the new Gryffindor team gathered for their first team meeting, with Ginny and Harry acting as co-captains. It was so cute it almost made Ron sick.

“First off,” Harry said. “each of you should now have the practice schedule. Monday and Wednesday practices at 4:00pm, Friday scrimmages at 4:00pm.”

“Why don’t we get first pick of the pitch?” asked Dean. “It says here that Slytherin has the field first on Monday and Wednesdays …”

“What difference does it make?” asked Harry.

A grumble broke out amongst the gathered team, and sixth year Alex Notley spoke. “Because last year, Slytherins got first pick of everything. In fact, they didn’t even allow us to practice most weeks towards of the end of it.”

Ron looked around. There were lots of nods of agreement and eyes burning with bitter memories of the previous year.

Harry grimaced, a look of worry on his face as he glanced at Ron. “Well, that was last year. Things were different.”

“They sure were,” said Dean angrily.

“We’ve got to put that behind us and move on.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Potter. You weren’t here last year. You don’t know what it was like,” said another sixth year.

Ginny gave Harry a sympathetic, closed-lipped smile. “Guys, what’s important is that we have practices this year, and no one is going to take them away from us. Ever again.”

There was a subdued acceptance of her words as Harry carried on awkwardly.

“Right, and, uh, let’s remember that this year is about having fun,” Harry said.

But there were no smiles given at this statement, the ghost of the past year still lingering, sitting amongst them in grim silence.

Ginny smiled at Harry defiantly, determined to keep up his spirit. “All we can do is our best and not take ourselves too seriously. Congratulations to all of you, first and second string. We’re looking forward to a brilliant year.”

The team gathered their things and began to leave, some grumpily and some with half-hearted smiles.

“Well, that went well,” Harry said sarcastically once they were all gone, leaving him, Ron, and Ginny standing by the bleachers.

“It actually went better than I thought it would,” Ginny said. “I knew there was going to be a problem once I saw the schedule.”

“Why would Hooch give Slytherin the pitch first like that?" Ron asked. "She should have known better.”

“Perhaps she didn’t think it’d be such a big deal,” Harry said.

“Well, she’s wrong! It is a big deal,” Ginny said bitterly.

“Ginny, I thought you said—”

“Oh, forget what I said, Harry. I was just trying to support you. And I know they’re looking to us to be examples, but if you want to know the truth, after what we endured last year, they have every right to be pissed off. As far as I’m concerned, Slytherin should be last for everything; in fact, I’m not sure they deserve to even participate in most school activities.”

Ron and Harry stared back at her, surprised and unsure of what to say. Ginny looked more than a little defensive by their silence.

“Listen, it’s like Dean said: you guys wouldn’t understand … you don’t know what it was like here … what happened. We didn’t tell you everything …”

Ron and Harry exchanged a worried look. Ron wasn’t sure if he wanted to know …

“Anyway, best to drop it,” Ginny said, unfolding her arms and gaining her composure. “What’s done is done, right?”

Ron nodded. As much as he wanted to bombard his sister with a million questions he held his tongue instead.

“Let’s have a fly,” Harry suggested quickly. He was becoming very good at the transition-from-awkwardness thing.

Ron and his sister both nodded.

They flew around the pitch, then beyond it and over the lake. It was a gorgeous sight, and all of the tension and concern slipped behind Ron as he followed Harry and Ginny. For a minute, jealousy pricked him. Harry and Ginny were lucky they could share the sky together. It was an experience like no other, and to ride the wind beside someone you loved had to be the most comforting experience in the world. If only Hermione weren’t so afraid of flying, Ron would take her up with him. But he already knew what she’d say if he asked her, and so instead of longing and wishing for what would never happen, Ron took a detour, breaking away from Harry and Ginny to circle back around the lake and up above the castle.

Dark ripples and the breaking white current turned into sand and then green forest as Ron approached the mammoth that was Hogwarts, its turrets stretching far into the sky. The highest point had been flattened. The tower was really more of a platform now, its proud peak a jagged line of rubble. He could see clear down into the seventh and eighth floors, much of it having been blackened by the fire from last year. He stared down at the ruins, only barely aware that he had stopped in mid air. It was a mess, really. The west wing was only partially standing, and most of its stone lay strewn across the lawn. The east wing was just a quarry of rock, the only thing providing shelter from the elements was a shielding ward of some type. As Ron hung in the air gazing down at what used to be Hogwarts, he wondered just where exactly the dead had met their end.

By the time he dismounted his broom, the tension had returned. He was agitated and uneasy. He had foolishly allowed himself to think on the past, to dwell on bad things. It was something he had promised himself he would not do. Quickly, he ran to his dorm room, showered, and returned to the common room, searching for the one thing that could make him forget.

“Hermione!”

Hermione closed her book, a curious smile on her face. “Where have you been?”

“Quidditch try-outs, and then Harry, Ginny and I went for a fly.”

“Where are they?”

Ron shrugged. “Don’t know, but I do know where I want to take you now.”

“Oh?” Hermione said, practically jumping out of her seat.

“Yeah,” he grinned. The agitation, restlessness and unease stirring within him needed to be purged, and if he couldn’t purge it out, he’d drown it out. And Hermione was the perfect well.

They left the common room in haste, and Hermione gasped as Ron pulled her into a darkened corner near the fifth floor greenhouse. No one ever hung out there.

“You sneaky little git,” she whispered. “For a moment there, I thought you didn’t want to snog me.”

Ron drew her tight against his body. “Not want to snog you? That’s all I’ve been dreaming of since fourth year.”

“Fourth year?” she asked sceptically.

Ron grinned. “Well … maybe third.”

Hermione laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck and rose on her toes to meet his lips. “Well, you don’t have to dream any more.”

Her hair, her arms around him, the outline of her breasts mashed against his chest was maddening. Without thinking, his mouth crashed down into hers as he moved them back against the wall. Hermione’s moans were encouraging, and Ron took it as permission to explore. His tongue probed her mouth possessively and his hands wandered daringly from her hair to her back and further down. He cupped her arse with both hands, pressing his hardening erection into her. As Hermione’s moans became louder, the adrenaline he sought to relieve only climbed higher. Kissing Hermione was only a tease; he needed more. He jerked her hips forward as he thrust his own against her again and again in a lewd imitation of what he wanted.

But Hermione was no longer moaning; she was making strange noises and whimpers, and her arms and hands were no longer wrapped around him in warm invitation. They were pushing him away.

“Ron! Stop it!”

Ron froze, the haze of lust and force of adrenaline waning.

Hermione was breathing hard, her eyes bewildered and scared.

“What?” he asked.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked, hitting his chest once more.

“Nothing! What--what did I do? I thought you were enjoying it.”

Hermione grimaced, straightening her clothing and her hair. “I was, but then you … well, you lost control. It was like you were someone else. Didn’t you hear me say stop?”

Ron swallowed, embarrassed and confused about what just happened. It felt like he’d been in some sort of trance before and Hermione had given him some Pepper Up potion.

“No, I honestly didn’t. I would have stopped if I had.”

Hermione’s eyes searched his and then softened. “Ron, are you all right?”

Ron nodded mutely, his eyes dropping, unable to meet hers. “Yeah, I suppose. Just a bit tense maybe.”

Hermione’s reached up to gently lift his chin until his eyes met hers. “Want to talk about it?”

Ron shook his head. “Nah, it’s just Quidditch stuff. You know how worked up it gets me. I’m fine … really.”

Hermione studied him, her eyes full of doubt, but thankfully she decided not to press.

“If you say so," she said, stepping back to put a few more inches between them.

Ron dropped his eyes once more in shame.

“Listen, what do you say we go back to the common room and study a little?” she offered.

“All right,” Ron said, forcing himself to look straight at her with a reassuring smile that felt every bit as fake as McGonagall’s inter-house unity plan.

~~~*~~~


As they walked back to the common room, chatter and laughter echoed throughout the castle. Evening at Hogwarts was always much more relaxed than the school day. The prefects were around, but even they wanted to hang out with their friends. And since the Heads of House and professors were usually occupied in their private studies, the general rule was “don’t do anything flagrant and no one will care”.

The corridors were littered with students from Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor from almost every year. The Gryffindors had taken the lion’s share of the hallways, some of them standing on the ledges, pointing at the more awkward or younger students as they walked past.

Hermione stopped in her tracks, scanning the hallway.

“What is it?” Ron asked.

“You don’t notice anything strange?”

Ron looked around and shrugged. “No.”

“This is terrible,” Hermione said in exasperation. “The entire purpose of the Restoration project is to bring the houses together. That’ll never happen if everyone shuns Slytherin.”

“Who says anyone is shunning them? Maybe they don’t want to hang out,” Ron defended. “Maybe they’re ashamed … they have good reason to be.”

“Ron, that’s a terrible thing to say,” Hermione admonished. “Many of them came back to help us.”

Ron snorted. “Yeah, right after all of the major fighting was done … after nearly everyone had died. How many people did they lose? I’d wager it's not even close to the rest of us.”

Hermione looked away, and Ron felt compelled to smooth things over. Especially since he had already made a mess of their snogging session.

“Look, Hermione, McGonagall’s inter-house unity idea is…well, it’s a good idea, but it’s not going to happen overnight, if ever. An idea can’t make everything that happened go away.”

“You’re right, Ron. It’ll never go away if everyone uses Slytherin as a scapegoat for last year. That’s much easier than dealing with what happened.”

An uneasy coil began to tighten in his stomach as he absorbed the accusation and demand in her eyes. Hermione was digging at things that were best left buried, and besides, what good came of stirring old ghosts? She was wrong.

He cleared his throat. “Uh, I think I’m going to hang out here for a bit, if that's all right with you.”

“Fine,” Hermione said, pursing her lips before turning away from him. As he watched her walk away, a strange feeling of loneliness crept over him in the middle of the crowded hallway. He glanced around at the familiar faces staring back at him, but among them there were no real friends. There was a joviality and camaraderie among the students that seemed borne of something foreign and unknown to him.

You guys wouldn’t understand, you don’t know what it was like here … what happened. We didn’t tell you everything

Perhaps he would never know. He thought of going to the library to get away from everything when one of the younger Gryffindors waved him over.

“Hey, Ron, over here!" shouted Scott Anderson, a rather large sixth-year Gryffindor boy with brown eyes and short sandy blond hair.

Ron felt some relief and a measure of pride that he was being asked to be a part of a group. They all watched him as he approached, their chests puffed out and eyes proud like he was the prize Quidditch trophy itself coming home.

The boys on the ledge made a space for him to sit in the middle, high above everyone else.

“There you go, special spot for you, King Weasley …”

Ron felt his face flush as he waved off their compliments with a humble grin. But he took the seat anyway.

They looked up at him and then returned to their conversations, talking around Ron, but not to him. The previous feeling of being out of place returned.

“Oi, would you look at that,” said one of the boys. All eyes turned upward to where he was pointing. Black robes with green and silver accents swished down the hallway, an audible hush passing over the group as two fourth-year Slytherin girls approached. They looked around nervously before finding two fourth year Hufflepuffs who were overly welcoming as if trying to shield them from the hateful glares being thrown their way.

“What do you say, King Weasley?” asked Scott loudly so that the girls could hear. “Shall we banish the Slytherins from the hallway or allow them to stay?”

Ron stared back at the boy, a nervous laugh escaping him until he looked up and saw that everyone was indeed waiting for his decision.

“Uh, they can stay, of course,” he said slowly, still in disbelief that the words needed to be spoken.

“Well, all right, but only because you say so,” said Scott with a glint in his eye that held the promise of something darker.

The chatter in the hallway resumed as if nothing had happened, but as Ron sat back on the ledge watching his schoolmates, he realised this was not the Hogwarts he had defended last year. That in the span of only a few months, everything had changed.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Four
Numb


By the end of the week, things with Hermione had turned awkward. Intent on not repeating his show of unbridled and unwanted advances, Ron had made it a point to avoid any situation or opportunity to be alone with her. In turn, Hermione had become moody and frequently gave him the silent treatment, which only made Ron want to put even more distance between them.

By Friday lunchtime, the tension between them had grown so much that it took its own space at the table.

“All right, enough of this. What’s wrong with you two?” Harry asked bluntly.

“What?” Ron said.

Ginny studied her brother and then looked to Hermione for an explanation.

“Everything is fine. Really,” Hermione said stiffly, offering a small smile.

“Right,” Harry said, giving them both an impatient glance before returning to his soup.

There was a loud chorus of cheers as the owls flew in delivering the post. The flurry from their wings was enough to generate a breeze all on its own.

“What’s going on?” Ron asked. “I’ve never seen so many owls arrive at once.”

Hermione quirked a smile. “You’ll see.”

Ron, Ginny, and Harry stared at her, but she refused to elaborate, instead taking another drink of pumpkin juice. They looked up to the ceiling where the owls hovered over their owners with a curious scroll and a gold key dangling from their legs. There was a great deal of excitement as everyone began to untie the scrolls from the owls’ legs.

“What are you up to?” Ron asked.

Hermione smirked. “Just open it.”

Ron pulled the tie and key off to unfurl the scroll.

“You’re the key to Hogwarts’ future,” he read aloud.

“Read on,” Hermione said excitedly.

Ron scanned the note, and then re-read it again slowly before raising his eyes to glare at Hermione.

“Hermione, are you mental?”

“Pardon?”

“You assigned me to be on the same Restoration team as Draco Malfoy? What were you thinking?”

Hermione raised her chin defiantly. “It’s an excellent way to demonstrate inter-house collaboration. You and Malfoy are both eighth years, and whether you realise it or not, Ronald, people look up to you, and your attitude this year is bordering on—”

“What?”

Hermione pursed her lips. “You have to be mindful that you’re a role model now, and this is a perfect opportunity—”

“For you to punish me!”

“Punish you?”

“I know you’re still mad at me because of what happened the other night, and this is your way of getting back at me!”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Ron, that’s ridiculous. Malfoy isn’t the only one on your team; there are others too. You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want, but it might help.”

“Besides, Ron,” Harry interjected. “Malfoy has his own problems to worry about, he isn’t going to be bothering you.”

“But why does he have to be on my team?” Ron whined.

“The least you could do is try to support me," Hermione said tersely. "This is a tough enough job as it is without dealing with your complaining.”

“Well, I just found out about it,” Ron said irritably. “What did you expect me to do, jump up and cheer?”

“Ron, I care about you, I really do, but sometimes you make me want to hex your mouth shut.”

“You’d love that wouldn’t you?” Ron shot back. “Then you could talk all you like and I’d just have to sit and listen.”

Hermione gaped back at him, affronted.

“Will you two please stop it?” Ginny said in exasperation. “Can we have one meal where you aren’t bickering? You two fight more than you kiss.”

“Tell me about it,” Hermione murmured. Ron turned his head sharply to stare at her. Hermione appeared to be just as shocked as he was.

“I … I didn’t mean—” she stammered.

“Sure you did,” Ron sneered. “It’s not really my fault, though, since you can’t make up your mind about whether you want to kiss or argue!”

Hermione closed her mouth, her face flushed.

Ginny glanced between the two before filling the awkward silence with questions about the rest of the team assignments. When Harry joined in, everyone seemed to be over the argument, but Ron wasn’t. As hard as he tried to concentrate on the conversation, the thought of what Hermione had done only made him angrier. How dare she be so self-righteous to think that she was teaching him a lesson about being a role model! He knew how a bloody role model behaved, and it didn't include playing nice with former Death Eaters.

“Ron!” Harry said sharply, snapping him out of his brooding.

“What?”

“Have you heard anything I’ve said?”

“Yeah, I heard you. Listen, I’m not hungry anymore, and I need to study.”

His three companions looked at him in confusion, but Ron didn’t stick around to hear if they would ask him where he was going.

~~~*~~~


After lessons ended, Ron stayed to himself upstairs in his dorm, trying to read his Charms book. That was, until Harry found him.

“Ron…”

“Just leave me alone, Harry,” Ron mumbled.

Harry ignored him, taking a seat at the foot of Ron’s bed. “Hermione feels terrible about assigning you to team up with Malfoy.”

“Does she now?”

“Yes. She said she thought she was helping you.”

“How?” Ron asked, turning over on his back to stare up at his friend.

Harry sighed. “Well, she’s right. You are a role model now. We all are. And since we’ve been back, you’ve been acting … strange.”

“Strange?”

“You don’t joke around as much anymore, and you sort of seem on edge. It’s not hard to get you riled up. And at night, you keep the lot of us awake.”

“I do? Don’t tell me I talk in my sleep?”

Harry gave him a pitying look. “More like shout; It’s like you're fighting something.”

Ron blushed, suddenly embarrassed. “Well, if I do, this is the first I’m hearing about it. And it’s not like I can help it. I’m asleep.”

“Yes, I know, but this grudge you have against Malfoy …”

“I don’t have a grudge against Malfoy, Harry. I just can’t forget all the shit he put us through like you and Hermione have.”

“Still,” Harry said, forging on. “You have to get hold of your anger. It’s starting to look bad. People are watching you, especially the younger pupils. Hermione just wants you to put your best foot forward. She loves you.”

Hearing Harry say that Hermione loved him loosened the hardness he had been holding onto since lunch. It had been difficult. Staying mad at Hermione was always difficult, even when he put as much energy as he could into trying.

“But do I really have to work with Malfoy? You remember what happened last year.”

Harry nodded. “A lot happened, Ron. He hasn’t had it easy either. His dad is in Azkaban and—”

“Wait a minute. Are you defending him? I thought you hated him too.”

“Well I don’t like him; he’s a spoiled brat,” Harry said in exasperation. “But he’s having a really rough year, and I hate to see anyone being treated the way he is. Honestly, I’m a little surprised you’re enjoying it so much. It’s a bit scary, really.”

Ron frowned, looking down at the floorboards. It wasn’t like he was taking delight in seeing Malfoy get beaten up. Well, maybe at first, but now…

He groaned. “Fine. I’ll be on the stupid Restoration team with him. But Hermione can’t make me talk to him.”

Harry gave Ron a small smile. “That’s all she’s asking, Ron. Just try and make an effort. You’re a war hero now. It’s not all fun and glory, you know. You have responsibilities.”

Ron threw a pillow at Harry’s face. “I get it.”

Harry chuckled. “All right. Well, she’s waiting for you downstairs.”

Ron stood up slowly and took a deep breath. The things he did for that woman.

~~~*~~~


Over the next few days, Ron made an effort to be more amiable to Hermione. They fell into the habit of taking long walks through the castle and into the grounds, but with each trip a quiet apprehension began to grow. What exactly did Hermione expect of him? It had been a lot easier to talk to her when she was just a friend or someone he secretly wanted but didn’t have the nerve to tell. Now he just listened as she talked. And Hermione talked a lot. It felt like she was demanding more time, more attention, and more conversation. Ron found it all a bit exhausting. Being a boyfriend was hard work! Sometimes she would ask him what he was thinking about, and Ron always felt compelled to lie. What he was thinking about wasn't exactly worth talking about.

Besides, some of his thoughts of late were disturbing and dark. He didn’t even know how to make sense of them, let alone talk about them. Ron preferred to not think on those things, he liked to keep things simple, enjoy life as it came, and it felt like Hermione took joy in complicating everything.

Like kissing. It should have just come naturally; it should have been simple. But now it was a major event. Ron tried to avoid it entirely, but Hermione had become adept at trapping him. That evening, after dinner, was no exception.

Ron could feel a sweat breaking out across his brow as he watched Hermione’s lips approach his as if in slow motion. He tried not to pull back, and when her lips collided with his, he told himself to relax and enjoy it. But when Hermione’s tongue began to probe his mouth—Ron felt numb, disconnected from her—and he couldn’t bear to continue.

“Hermione …”

“What’s wrong now, Ron?”

Ron swallowed. “Listen, I just think … we’re rushing things. Just because we’re seeing each other now doesn’t mean we have to kiss all the time.”

“Yes, but once in a while would nice. We never kiss!”

Ron gulped. He wasn’t sure how to express how weird it felt to kiss her. Even holding her hand sometimes felt like too much now. He needed space. “I just want to take it slow. You know, ease our way into this …”

Hermione narrowed her eyes. “Is that what you told Lavender when she had her mouth all over you?”

“Hermione, that was years ago!”

Hermione scowled and turned to walk away, leaving Ron feeling confused and guilty.

She had a point. He had no problems snogging Lavender. Then again, that really was years ago, and he had been infatuated with the attention Lavender had given him more than anything else.

So what was different now? It wasn’t like he wasn’t attracted to Hermione. She had been the focus of many wanking sessions over the years. But now it just felt like pressure whenever she was around. He had even stopped wanking to the image of her naked. In fact, he didn’t even wank at all anymore.

Ron frowned, baffled by the revelation that his desire for sex, even self-pleasure, had completely disappeared. But then he was startled out of his thoughts by a loud anguished cry.

Ron whipped his head to the left where the sound had come from and peered down the hallway. He couldn’t see anyone, but he could hear the sound of running footsteps, and they were coming towards him.

He stopped as a group of young Gryffindor boys, mostly sixth and seventh years, walked briskly past him looking anxious and fearful. One of them in particular stood out. Ron recognised him immediately— it was the boy from the hallway the other day, Scott Anderson. He was red-faced with shame, or was it guilt? Ron grabbed the boy’s arm, pulling him back as the rest of his friends ran on.

“I didn’t do anything! I swear it!” Scott said in a hushed, anxious voice.

“Yeah, right! Just what the hell were you guys doing? Who was that screaming?”

Scott swallowed, his eyes darting down the hallway in the direction from which they had emerged. Ron followed his gaze and then turned back, shaking the boy’s arm hard.

“Is someone down there?”

Scott opened his mouth and then closed it, nodding quietly.

Ron narrowed his eyes. “Who?”

“I...I have to go,” the boy stammered, pulling out of Ron’s grip to run down the hallway.

“Yeah, all right,” Ron called after him. “Just remember everything you do affects the whole House!”

Ron stared in the direction he had disappeared, wondering when Gryffindor had become so mean and cowardly. That was Slytherin behaviour. What unfortunate soul had those boys decided to use as a punching bag?

Ron turned to walk down the hallway, determined to show the poor sod that not all Gryffindors were arseholes.

The torchlight gave an eerie sheen to everything it touched, casting odd shadows against the stone wall. As Ron drew closer, he saw the hair first. White blond, shimmering in the orange glow of the torch light. No face though, because Draco Malfoy was balled up in the fetal position, facing the stone wall. There was blood … lots of it. It seemed to be coming from his head, and Ron noticed that Draco was barely moving.

“Malfoy!” he said roughly, hating that he even cared enough to bother.

But Malfoy remained motionless on the floor.

Ron took a deep breath and glanced around. What the hell was he supposed to do?

He inched closer to the still body, bending over to get a better look. The coppery smell of blood wafted up, making him grimace. His stomach began to turn as he eyed the deep gash in Malfoy’s head. He could see the blood there was still running, tainting his hair and collar and gathering into a puddle beneath his head on the floor.

“Oh, no… no…” Ron gasped, backing away. It was dangerous handling someone with a head injury, and he didn’t want to make the situation worse. He pulled out his wand and after a few attempts, finally conjured up his Patronus, sending it to Madam Pomfrey.

Within minutes, Pomfrey was there with Headmistress McGonagall following close behind.

“Oh, my! Get away from him, Mr Weasley! I’ll take it from here,” she said, bending down to look at Malfoy.

Ron watched as she performed several spells and then lifted him with a levitating charm, floating his body down the hallway towards the hospital wing.

“Explain,” McGonagall said, giving Ron the gravest expression.

He gulped. For a brief second, Ron considered telling her the truth, the entire truth: that a group of Gryffindor boys had hexed or beaten Malfoy up. But that could mean expulsion and shame on Gryffindor.

Not for Malfoy. It was good enough that he was discovered in time, but that was all he deserved.

“I came across him, and he was just lying there. I don’t know what happened, but I figured I should call for help,” Ron said without batting an eye.

McGonagall stared at him for a few minutes longer, perhaps trying to discern whether he was lying, and then nodded her head.

“Very well, Mr Weasley. You may go. But if you do find out anything else that could shed light on what happened here, you will report to me immediately. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Professor,” Ron said quickly, nodding and turning to leave.

With every step he took towards the stairs, Ron felt a little better. He was leaving McGonagall behind to sort out the mess. He was leaving behind the guilt he had about not telling her everything he knew. And best of all, he was further away from that moment had felt sympathy for Draco Malfoy.

~~~*~~~


When Ron came back to the common room, he saw the group of boys who had beaten up Malfoy gathered in the corner. He made eye contact with Scott. The boy still looked nervous; his eyes were full of question and fear.

Ron gave him a warning glare, and then glanced around; Hermione was nowhere to be found. He sighed in relief.

He took the stairs, set on having an early bedtime, but when he entered his dormitory, Harry was sitting up in his bed, a book in his hands.

They locked eyes but no words were exchanged, and Ron could tell that Hermione had already spoken to him by the disapproval on his face.

Ron rolled his eyes, turning his back to Harry to undress. As he did, his thoughts wandered back to Malfoy, the way he lay motionless, the gash in his head, the way the boys had just fled thinking nothing of it. Was Malfoy’s life really that worthless? Was anyone’s life ever that worthless?

“Ron!” Harry called.

Ron blinked, turning to look at Harry. “Yeah?”

“Where have you been?”

“I dunno, just around.”

“Hermione is upset. She looked as if she’d been crying. Did you two have a row?”

Ron chewed the inside of his lip. What did Harry really want to hear? Ron knew Hermione had already told him they'd had a row. Guilt began to eat at him as he thought of her crying to Harry about what he had done. But it wasn’t entirely his fault. Why was she so bloody needy all of a sudden? She’d never really needed him before. He liked the old Hermione better.

“Sort of.”

“What do you mean, sort of? You either did or you didn’t.”

“Fine, we had a row.”

“About what?”

Ron threw up his hands. “I’m not sure, really. I mean … I suppose things are just different now.”

“Different? How?” Harry asked, closing his book.

“Well,” Ron said, sitting down. “You remember that year Lavender was all over me?”

Harry gave him a bemused smirk. “Yeah, who can forget that.”

Ron shuddered. “Well, this is going to sound bizarre, but I think maybe Hermione is turning into Lavender …”

“What are you on about? Hermione? Our best friend? The brightest witch of our age?”

“Yes. That one. The one who has been demanding all of my time and gets angry with me because I don’t want to snog all the time!”

Harry levelled a stern look at him. “Ron, if you hurt her …”

“Harry, I’m trying not to!”

“I don’t want to go through this again, with either one of you,” Harry said in frustration. “And I don’t think Hermione wanting to kiss you is strange at all. She’s your girlfriend! You should want to kiss her back.”

“I know that!”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I don’t know! I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of kissing her. I never thought I’d see the day that Hermione would want to kiss me,” he said in puzzlement, “but … it’s not exactly turning me on. In fact, I think it’s doing just the opposite.”

“So what are you going to do? You can’t keep pushing her away.”

Ron sighed. “I suppose I could try harder, but the last time I did it was a total disaster. I mean, I went way overboard, and she freaked out.”

“Well then, maybe you should ask her how she’d like to be kissed instead of going to extremes. Stop being such a git and think about someone else’s feelings for a change!”

That hurt. Ron felt slighted by Harry’s words and didn’t know what to say. Not that it mattered; Harry had already turned over and closed his curtains, signalling the end of the conversation.

As Ron lay down, he thought of what Harry said. Comparing Hermione to Lavender had been unfair. She was still brilliant, feisty, and very much her own person. He just didn’t want her running around after him, begging for more snogging sessions.

Because truthfully, Ron didn’t want to snog at all. He frowned. What was wrong with him? He had been dreaming of Hermione for a long time. But now his dreams were shadows that dissipated as soon as he opened his eyes. Whatever his dreams were about, they left behind imprints of horror and fear like mosquito bites. Ron didn’t even want to know what he dreamed of now.

He stared up at the ceiling, thinking of Hermione, of how far they had come and what lay ahead for them next, if they would actually make it or simply drift apart. Would he lose a friend if their relationship didn’t work? That thought bothered him more than anything. It was the reason he had postponed telling her he liked her before. Having Harry and Hermione as friends meant everything. Friends were priceless, and he felt sorry for any lonely sod that didn’t have any.

Suddenly the image of Malfoy lying alone in the infirmary with his head cracked open invaded Ron’s thoughts. He shut his eyes against it, willing himself to clear his mind as he waited for sleep to come.

~~~*~~~




Chapter Five
Not My Enemy’s Keeper


The following afternoon for the first Restoration project meeting, Ron joined a first year and fifth year Gryffindor, a second and eighth year Ravenclaw, a fourth and fifth year Hufflepuff, and a third and sixth year Slytherin at the East wing of Hogwarts. When he arrived, Hermione was giving out instructions to another team, complete with a detailed blueprint, a spell book, and work helmets. They all were smiling enthusiastically and did a weird team clap that made Ron snigger.

Hermione caught him with the corner of her eye, delivering a warning glare so effective that all his happy thoughts immediately vanished. This was going to be a nightmare.

When Hermione was done speaking to the other group, she joined Ron’s team and began a roll call.

“Where’s Malfoy?” she asked when she came to his name.

All of the team members looked at each other quizzically.

“He’s probably hiding,” the fifth year Gryffindor said. “I wouldn’t want to show my face if I were him either.”

The Slytherins in the group dropped their eyes, clearly ashamed that Malfoy was in their house.

Others sniggered and began to make snide comments about Malfoy’s absence, and Ron suddenly found himself speaking. “Actually, I don’t think he’s hiding. I hear he’s in the infirmary.”

Everyone stared at Ron waiting for more information.

He shrugged. “That’s all I know.”

Hermione gave a slight nod before addressing the group. “All right then, we’ll make sure Malfoy gets caught up when he feels better. For now, I was thinking that your team could work on repairing the damage in and around the Room of Requirement.”

There was a sudden vacuum of sound in Ron’s head, like someone had stuffed his ears with cotton, and he could feel his pulse in his temple. Hermione may as well have told him to go to the Forbidden Forest alone at midnight to get reacquainted with the nice spiders that lived there.

“No, absolutely not,” he said.

“Ron,” Hermione said in a pleasant but firm voice. “We need everyone’s full cooperation.”

“Fine, but not there,” Ron insisted.

“Ron—”

“I said no, Hermione!”

Hermione gaped back at him in shock. The confusion and hurt on her face speared him, but how many ways could someone say no before they were heard? Why did she have to make things so difficult?

The other students in his team glanced between Ron and Hermione with curious fascination.

Realising he had just made a scene and that everyone would want an explanation, Ron tried to compose himself, and took a deep breath.

“Uh, sorry… I didn’t mean to raise my voice. It’s just that, well, I was hoping to work on something more substantial,” he said, giving her a pleading stare.

Hermione nodded slowly, her eyes studying him. “I see. All right. Well … we still need a team to do work in this area. It’s going to be a pretty big task. Is anyone here opposed to that?”

Ron looked around, and everyone was looking back at him to see if he disapproved.

Hermione clapped her hands and forced a smile. “Perfect. So let’s get started, shall we?”

After the debriefing, Ron and his team began discussing plans for repairing the wall of the east wing. Most of it lay scattered on the field below. After debating how to return it to its original design, they started lifting several pieces into sorted piles. It was a challenging few hours, but afterwards, Ron felt a sense of accomplishment and hope.

When they had all dispersed, Hermione approached him, looking hesitant.

“Ron …”

Ron cast his eyes to the floor, guilt returning. “Hermione, I’m sorry.”

“No, I am,” she said. “I completely forgot about the Room.”

“How could you forget?” Ron asked. “You were there. You were right there.”

“Yes, Ron, but I was also in the dungeons, on the East Wing, and on the field. Everywhere I look reminds me of that day. It’s all the same,” she said with tears shining in her eyes.

He hated seeing her cry and immediately felt selfish for letting his fears control him.

“I hadn’t thought about it like that,” he admitted.

One tear escaped Hermione’s eye as she embraced him around the waist. “It’s all right. It’s probably because we never discuss it … we never even mention it.”

Ron didn’t know what to say to that, so he remained silent as he held her.

“Perhaps we need to start talking about it,” she suggested.

Ron squeezed her tighter. “I’m sorry for yelling at you.”

“I know, you said that,” she said. “But did you hear what I just said, Ron?”

“Yeah, I did,” Ron said, leaning over to give her a kiss on the forehead. “Are you hungry? It’s almost time for dinner.”

A look of concern darkened Hermione’s features, but it quickly faded as she gave him a bright smile. “Yes, it is. Let’s eat.”

Ron exhaled.

~~~*~~~


When Ron awoke the next day, he felt completely drained. He hadn’t got to sleep until nearly four that morning, and when he awoke, he had the familiar feeling that he’d just narrowly escaped some horrific event.

So he was tired and cranky about being tired. When he rolled over to see if Harry was awake, he saw that the bed was empty and made up. Harry was already dressed and messing with his hair. “You better get up, you’re going to be late.”

Ron groaned. “Just go on without me. I’ll catch up with you guys.”

Harry gave Ron a concerned looked but nodded and left. After several minutes of lying there, Ron finally got up, showered, and came down the stairs. The common room was empty save for Neville, who had a large tome open and a strange plant in his lap. He alternated between inspecting the leaves of the plant and reading, as if trying to solve a puzzle.

“Hiya, Neville, what are you doing here?”

Neville jumped, startled by Ron’s presence. “Oh, hi, Ron. Just studying. I thought everyone was gone. You’re not going to breakfast?”

“Er, nah, I’m not really hungry,” Ron said. “I was going to try and head to the library before first lesson.”

Neville raised his eyebrows in surprise. “The library? Are you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just got a lot of studying to do as well. Not doing too well in Charms, and I have to get a N.E.W.T. in it if I want to make a try for the Auror trials."

“So you’re really going for it then?”

Right now, nothing seemed certain, but Ron had no intention of telling Neville, of all people, anything like that. Instead, he gave him a half-hearted smile. “Yeah. Why not?”

Neville smiled. “That’s great, Ron. I think I’m going to try and get an apprenticeship here under Sprout.”

“Wow,” Ron said, genuinely surprised. “So, you want to become a professor?”

Neville nodded eagerly. “Yeah. What do you think?”

“I think you can do anything you want, Neville.”

“Yeah? Thanks,” Neville said, clearly flattered. He shut the tome, rising carefully as he tried to balance the plant in one hand. “I suppose I should get a move on. First lesson starts soon. Good luck with your studying. I’ll see you later.”

“Sure,” Ron said.

As he watched Neville exit, a heavy feeling of doubt descended over him. Neville seemed so sure of what he wanted. And right now, Ron couldn’t think about the future because if he didn’t pass Charms, there would be no future.

First class started in just a half an hour, and he really did need to brush up on a few spells. As soon as he stepped out of the Gryffindor Common Room, McGonagall was there to greet him.

“Mr Weasley, I was looking for you at breakfast.”

“Uh, yeah. I’m not really hungry,” Ron said quickly. “Actually, I was headed to the library.”

McGonagall raised an eyebrow, giving Ron a sceptical look.

“Charms,” Ron explained. “I need to brush up.”

“I see. Well, it’s nice to see you paying extra attention to your studies this year,” McGonagall said.

Ron nodded awkwardly and gave her a small, closed-lipped smile. “I better get going, lessons start soon.”

“Not so fast, Mr Weasley, I need to speak to you about something rather important. Don’t worry, I’ll let him know you were with me. Follow me.”

As Ron fell in behind the new Headmistress, he racked his brain about what in the world this could be about. Was he in trouble? But for what?

As he stepped onto the Phoenix staircase, the question lay on the tip of his tongue, but he figured she would tell him everything he wanted to know soon, so he remained quiet. McGonagall had always given him the chills, so he concentrated on the marble walls as the staircase winded its way upward.

“Have a seat,” she said once they arrived.

Ron looked around the office briefly, his eyes falling upon the portrait where both Snape and Dumbledore were wide-awake and engaged in a game of chess.

The thought of saying ‘hello’ to them crossed his mind, but then he thought better of it and sat down as instructed.

McGonagall took her seat at the large mahogany desk in front of him and clasped her hands before her, peering down at him over her spectacles.

“How have you been, Mr Weasley?”

That was not the question Ron was expecting, but he knew the right answer to say.

“Fine. Just fine.”

“You look tired. Have you been sleeping all right?”

“Er, sure,” he said, widening his eyes to look alert. “Just loads of studying, really.”

“Professor Flitwick said that you appear to be tired and agitated in class.”

Ron wrinkled his brow. It really wasn’t any of that dwarf’s business how he was feeling.

“I don’t know what he means. I don’t really talk much in his class, but I don’t goof off either. Charms is giving me some trouble, but I’m doing my best to keep on top of things.”

McGonagall nodded, her eyes still measuring Ron in a way that made him want to squirm. He fought the urge.

“And your Restoration team?”

Ron smiled. That was something he actually felt good about. “We’re great. We have a name—the East Wing Builders, and everyone is really excited about rebuilding the East wall.”

“Yes, well I heard about your reaction to the original assignment in the Room of Requirement.”

Ron held his breath. Had Hermione gone behind his back and told her that? How could she?

“One of the professors was nearby and saw the confrontation.”

“Yeah, I suppose I sort of freaked out.” His ears were burning. He couldn’t even look at McGonagall. How embarrassing.

“It’s just that … there are certain parts of the castle I’m not quite ready to see again, not just yet.”

McGonagall nodded. "That’s perfectly understandable after what you’ve experienced. Many of your fellow schoolmates are in the same predicament."

Ron nodded, his eyes still focused on the desk instead of the woman before him.

"Unfortunately, Mr Weasley, we don’t have the staff to give students everything they need."

Ron finally found the nerve to lift his eyes and look at her directly, trying to discern where she was going with this.

McGonagall's eyes softened. “We all suffered greatly last year. There were many losses. But, what you, Mr Potter, and Miss Granger endured last year is … beyond what most people ever have to imagine. And for you to lose your brother as well …”

Ron shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable, but he just couldn’t. He forced himself not to look away as the picture of his brother's body in the Great Hall played in his head. Fred had still been smiling …

“I’m fine!” Ron snapped.

McGonagall’s lips tightened and she drew back, appraising him with concerned eyes.

Ron looked down at his lap, realizing he had just yelled at the headmistress because she was concerned about him. He did look mental.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I just meant that no one needs to worry about me. I’m fine. Just as well as everyone else.”

McGonagall nodded sympathetically. “Mr Weasley, the reason why I called you here is because I am also concerned about another student, and I thought you might be of some help.”

Quickly, Ron thought of all of the students at Hogwarts and those who may have been having trouble. His inner circle was fine. At least they appeared to be. Neville seemed to be more confident than ever. Perhaps it was Seamus. Some days he looked a bit down. There were rumours about what the Carrows had done to him and Dean. Although Dean looked like he was fairing all right.

“It is a bit of an unusual request since the student is not in your house, but I am trying to start something new here. I think house divisions may have contributed to last year’s tragedy, and I want to make sure that never happens again.”

Ron clutched chair rail as he stared back at McGonagall. What was she on about? How could he help anyone outside of Gryffindor? Wasn’t that what house prefects were for?

“The other night, you showed particular thoughtfulness and maturity in tending to Mr Malfoy,” she started.

Ron’s mouth went dry and his fingers gripped the sides of his chair. “Well, I—”

“Your regard for him is an exemplary example of everything we are trying to impart in our students this year,” McGonagall explained. “And I must say, I was very surprised. Clearly, whatever loss or grief you are dealing with has affected your attitude.”

Ron didn’t know what to say to that. It was true, but not in the way McGonagall thought. If anything, he felt more angry and resentful towards Slytherins than he ever had before.

“As you have probably already observed, Mr Malfoy is having a rather difficult time here. I have grave concerns about his safety.”

“But what about his house prefect and Head of House?”

McGonagall nodded. “Yes, they have both been alerted, as have all of the other prefects and Heads of House. Everyone will do their very best to keep watch over Mr Malfoy in order to prevent any further harm from coming to him. But you, Mr Weasley, share several classes with him and are sometimes in places where prefects and Heads of House may not be present.”

“What do you want me to do?” Ron asked in exasperation. “Be his bodyguard?”

McGonagall nodded. “Yes, in a manner of speaking. I would like for you to watch over him.”

“You must be barking!”

McGonagall’s eyes grew sharp. “Pardon me?”

“I mean …it’s just that Malfoy doesn’t even like me,” Ron rushed to explain. “He hates me, as a matter of fact. And I don’t much like him either.”

“Yes, well, you don’t have to like him to watch after him.”

“Do I have to do this?” Ron asked.

McGonagall frowned and then sighed. “No, Mr Weasley. Your only obligations as a student here are to go to class and obey school rules.”

“Good,” Ron said in relief, reclining in his chair.

She looked disappointed, and Ron hated that. Who the hell was she anyway? It wasn’t fair for her to even ask him to do such a thing. Looking after Malfoy would be a thankless chore that would alienate him from his friends and bring unwanted complications. Ron may as well just join Slytherin.

“You may find, Mr Weasley, that helping someone else get through this school term may help you as well,” McGonagall said with a meaningful look.

“I don’t need any help,” Ron retorted quickly. “Besides, Malfoy isn’t a first year. He’s an eighth year like me. He can take care of himself.”

McGonagall stood up and gave Ron a small tight-lipped smile. “Very well. I will not hold you up for class any longer. Have a good day, Mr Weasley.”

Ron rose slowly. The look of disappointment in McGonagall’s eyes was maddening.

“Good day,” he mumbled, quickly turning away to head for the stairs.

By the time he made it to Charms class, Ron was furious. How dare McGonagall ask such a thing of him? And then to have the nerve to look disappointed when he refused! Had the old cow gone completely nuts?

He sat down grumpily, noisily dropping his bag and opening his book, which drew curious stares from other students and the professor.

“Mr Weasley, if you’re going to come to class late, at least do it quietly so as not to disturb the rest of us,” said Mr Flitwick.

Ron glanced around the room and found Harry eyeing him strangely before he turned around.

Ron pictured smacking Harry upside the head but quickly shook off the thought, appalled that he had just visualized assaulting his best friend. What was wrong with him?

His eyes were drawn to the empty seat behind Susan Bones. That was where Malfoy would be sitting if he weren’t in the infirmary. Ron cursed silently to himself as he thumbed through his textbook.

He was hardly in the mood for Charms now, and he was already behind. Really, all of this was Malfoy’s bloody fault.

~~~*~~~


That night at dinner, Ron searched out the Slytherin table. Nott appeared unusually subdued, and Goyle looked loopy, his eyes half lidded and his face flushed. Ron wondered if he was sloshed. Malfoy was nowhere to be found. Ron looked down his own table at the group of boys who had been responsible for his injury. They were being loud and rowdy, none of them reflecting any concern about Malfoy being missing or the possibility that they could be in trouble.

Looking past them and back up the table again, Ron noticed for the first time that Gryffindor, as a whole, was an unusually loud and rowdy table. Some were throwing things while others sniggered and pointed at Slytherin table. It was really rather obnoxious. He frowned and turned to look at Harry and his sister, who were staring into each other’s eyes like they were alone.

He cleared his throat until they finally acknowledge his presence.

“What is it, Ron?” Ginny asked irritably.

“What’s got into us?” Ron asked, glancing back down at the table again.

Harry and Ginny followed his gaze.

“I suppose we are a bit loud this year,” Harry said with a smirk.

"More than that," Hermione broke in. Ron looked up at her, startled as she took a seat beside him. “We’re turning bad.”

They all frowned, staring at her.

“What do you mean?” Ginny asked.

“Well, it’s just the beginning of the school year and the prefects have already taken lots of points from Gryffindor. More than any other house,” Hermione explained.

“Oh, and they just had to, right?” Ron asked sarcastically.

“Ron, they’re acting like animals. They think just because Harry's in our house that somehow they're entitled to do whatever they want!”

“Well, I’m sure it’s just a few, ” Ron defended.

“Ron, you just said the house has changed,” Ginny said.

“Yeah, I know but …” Ron glanced down the table again and felt caught between defending his house and admitting something had changed for the worse. "Maybe we should have a talk with everyone tonight. I’d hate to lose the House Cup over a couple of tosspots."

Harry nodded. “Good idea.”

“Great, because I could use some help,” Hermione said. “They’re causing problems in the Restoration groups, and I don’t think I can stand dealing with this all year.”

~~~*~~~


The prefects agreed to let Harry call a Gryffindor House meeting. He, Hermione, Neville, Ron, and Ginny all stood before the crowded common room. There was high anticipation and curiosity about what they were going to say. However, when Hermione started off, noting what she had observed in terms of behaviour and attitude, she received a few aggravated sighs and eye rolls.

Once Harry started speaking, everyone grew quiet, listening intently. There were many shamed faces and averted glances as he reminded them of why Hogwarts was still standing, detailing the bravery of those lost and the responsibility and burden of Gryffindors to uphold that legacy. Raw sadness hit Ron as he recalled his brother, and it quickly turned to anger. He scanned the crowded common room and found the eyes of the boy he’d grabbed the night he’d discovered Malfoy lying on the floor. Ron wanted to shake him and smack him upside of the head for being so reckless and cocky. Who the hell did Scott think he was? He could have killed Malfoy, and that one act alone would have erased everything Fred had died for.

Ron cracked his knuckles, and Scott visibly gulped, looking elsewhere.

When the meeting was over the students scattered, talking in hushed voices.

“How do you think it went?” Ginny asked.

“I think they got the point,” Harry said.

“Thank you for doing that, Harry,” Hermione said before turning to Ron. Her hand snaked along his arm as she slid closer on the couch.

Ron couldn’t help it; his body stiffened at her touch.

“Do you want to go for a walk?”

“Er …” Ron swallowed, glancing around. Harry was staring at him, hard.

He forced a smile. “Sure, why not?”

They walked down the corridors, hand in hand. Ron glanced at students they passed. They were all laughing and talking and having fun. He found himself envious.

Hermione squeezed his hand, bringing his attention back to her. She pulled him along, a mischievous smile on her face as they came upon empty hallway.

“Hermione …”

“It’s all right, no one ever comes down here,” she said.

Ron glanced around nervously. Despite all of the pep talks he had been giving himself, the task of snogging Hermione properly for once suddenly seemed like a test he'd always be ill prepared for.

“Hermione, I’m—”

Hermione dropped his hand. “What is the matter now, Ron? And don’t give me any foolishness about taking it slow. This is just as about as slow as it gets. Ever since we’ve got back, you go from one extreme to the other. But most times you act as if you’re not interested in me at all!”

“That’s not true,” Ron said.

“It is. Even Ginny and Harry have noticed. Ginny even asked me if we were still together. And I can’t blame her. We hardly look like we’re seeing each other. It’s like you can’t stand to touch me. Are you trying to tell me something?”

“No, Hermione. I’m not trying to tell you anything, I—I just don’t know if I’m ready for all of this … I mean, we’ve been friends for so long. Sometimes, it just feels … off. Know what I mean?”

Hermione’s face tightened. “No, I don’t know what you mean, Ron. But you’re right. Something is off, and it’s not me!” She turned on her heel, and walked away.

“Hermione! Come back!”

Ron watched her disappear around the corner with a sinking feeling that he had just run out of chances. Ron lightly knocked his head against the wall. Perhaps it was for the best. He was almost tired of trying. He stood against the stonewall , staring out of the window. But the sun had long since faded in the horizon, and now there was just the blanket of night as dark as Ron’s future. There was a time when Hermione had figured prominently in it, but now, he didn’t know where she fit. He didn’t even know where he belonged.

Going back to Gryffindor common room would mean facing her, Harry and his sister, who were probably both on Hermione’s side.

Feeling confusion and self-pity pulling him into despair, Ron forced himself not to think on it any longer. He could just turn it all off. He didn’t have to think about anything he didn’t want to.

He pushed himself off of the wall and began walking back to Gryffindor, taking the long way, walking down stairways he knew would shift and give him a detour. The longer it took to get back, the better. The urge to go outside and get a breath of fresh air hit him, and so he climbed down to the first floor, making his way towards the front door when he came upon the corridor leading to the hospital wing.

Ron stood staring at the heavy glass doorway at the end of the hallway. Just how bad was Malfoy, anyway? Pomfrey usually didn’t keep anyone this long unless it was serious.

The door to the infirmary opened, and Ron turned around, feeling caught.

“Mr Weasley?” Pomfrey said.

“Yeah?”

“Did you want something?”

Ron quickly shook his head. “No, ah, I’m just on my way outside. Wanted to get a bit of air before they lock the doors for the night.”

Madam Pomfrey narrowed her eyes at Ron. “Is that so? Well…” she paused as if considering a proposal Ron hadn’t made. “It is getting quite late, but I suspect a visit would do Mr Malfoy some good. Come on.”

Ron’s mouth dropped open. “What?”

“Oh don’t play coy with me, young man. I know that’s why you’re really here. And it’s perfectly understandable since you are the one who found him,” Pomfrey said with an expectant stare.

“Uh, perhaps I should come another time,” Ron rushed to explain. “I don’t want to bother him so late in the evening.”

“It’s fine. I’m sure he’ll be grateful to see you. Don’t be shy, come on.”

Ron inwardly groaned as he slowly walked down the hallway. Madam Pomfrey disappeared inside and Ron followed her, letting the door close behind him.

‘In and out. Just say hi and then be on your way,’ Ron muttered to himself.

Madam Pomfrey had one hand on Malfoy’s forehead, while the other held her wand, which was pointed at his wrist. Malfoy looked quite pale, even in the dim light, he was giving off a strange glow, and his head was wrapped in bandage.

Ron squinted as he drew closer. “Shouldn’t he be healed up by now?”

Madam Pomfrey pursed her lips. “Mr Weasley, head wounds are unique. I can’t just give him some Skele-gro or do a simple healing spell to patch up a concussion. The mind is a funny thing. Extra care must be given whenever someone has an injury of this nature.”

“Well then, shouldn’t he be at St. Mungos?”

“No! I’m one of Britain’s top Healers,” Pomfrey exclaimed, affronted. “He’ll be just fine here. Now, I’ll give you about five minutes to say your hellos and then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“He’s not even awake.”

Pomfrey pushed Malfoy’s hair back from his head. Malfoy stirred, his eyes slowly opening. He looked confused but guarded as he stared up at both of them.

“It’s all right, Mr Malfoy. You’ve been sleeping all day,” she said softly. “It’s time for you to eat and take your potions. And, look, you have a visitor.”

Malfoy narrowed his eyes at Madam Pomfrey, and Ron waited for his grey glare to shift to him. But Malfoy seemed to either be unaware of his presence or was just set on ignoring him.

Ron cleared his throat. “Er, hi, Malfoy.”

Malfoy turned his face away.

Ron looked up at Pomfrey helplessly.

“Mr Malfoy, don’t be rude.”

“How’s the head?” Ron tried again, feeling ridiculous. He didn’t even care … well, not really.

“It’s fine. And I don’t need any visitors,” Malfoy said in a low steely voice.

Ron sighed. “Well you heard him, I guess I’ll be leaving now.”

“Mr Malfoy, that’s no way to treat your guest,” Madam Pomfrey chided. “Mr Weasley practically saved your life. If you had been found a moment later—“

Instead of smoothing things over, her words seemed to enrage Malfoy, who turned his head to glare up at Ron.

“What are you here for, Weasley?" Malfoy snarled. "A thank you?”

Ron opened his mouth, ready to tell Malfoy that he didn’t even want to be here, that he would gladly finish off what his Gryffindor classmates had started, but before he could, Malfoy spoke again.

“Get out.”

Pomfrey shook her head. “I’m sorry, looks like he’s in rather foul mood. Perhaps you should be on your way.”

Ron huffed. “No wonder you got beat up, prat.”

“Mr Weasley!”

“Don’t worry, I’ll see myself out,” Ron said briskly, walking out the door.

He didn’t realise how upset he was until he began walking back up the hallway. His blood was boiling, his nostrils flaring and his teeth clenched.

“Ungrateful git,” he muttered, hastening his walk to the Gryffindor common room.

~~~*~~~


The following day when Ron awoke, Harry didn’t give Ron a second glance or say a word before taking to the stairs. Ron had to talk himself into getting up and taking a shower. It was going to be a long day.

When he came down, Harry, Hermione, and Ginny had already left for breakfast. It was just as well. For the rest of the day he kept his distance from them, which was easy since they were giving him the silent treatment anyway. By dinner though, Hermione seemed to have grown tired of their standoff.

“Hello,” she said stiffly.

“Hi,” Ron said cautiously, noting her guarded expression. Harry and Ginny were both eyeing him closely.

“I forgive you,” she said simply.

Ron tilted his head, staring at her as he tried to remember the reason they had been fighting in the first place. Oh yes, she wanted him to do something he wasn’t comfortable with doing, and when he refused, she had gone stomping off like a petulant child. But he’s the one that needed forgiveness?

“Oh, thank you, great goddess, for showing me mercy,” he said sarcastically.

“You see! I tried, Harry. I really did! He’s hopeless.”

“I’m hopeless? Maybe if you treated me like a person instead of kissing post I could relax.”

“So this is my fault?”

“Ron!” Harry interjected.

“It’s certainly not all of mine.”

“Hermione! Please!”

Hermione had angry tears in her eyes, and Ron felt like punching something. He almost wished she’d go back to not speaking to him again.

“Ron, what’s got into you, mate?” Harry asked gently.

Ron turned to glare at his friend, surprised that Harry was singling him out. “Oh, you’re taking her side, now?”

“No, Ron. We’ve all noticed it,” Ginny said. “You’re … different. Edgy.”

“Angry,” Harry added.

“And distant … all the time,” Hermione said. “You’ve been this way since school started.”

Ron glanced around at all three of them. Hermione was definitely tearing up now, but she also looked concerned. Harry and Ginny were both studying him with concerned looks on their faces.

“I’m fine! I wish everyone would get just off of my back!” Ron snapped.

Ron couldn’t help but notice the sudden hush in the dining hall as many students at his table turned their eyes towards him. He silently cursed, looking around. Another flash of anger surged through him. Harry, Hermione, and Ginny all seemed to be hell-bent on pushing him. No wonder he was “on edge” or whatever they called it. What was everyone’s problem? Were they trying to send him to the loony bin? He grabbed a biscuit and rose from his seat.

“Ron, please sit down,” Ginny urged.

“Just leave me alone, all right, Gin,” he said, walking off and trying to ignore their worried expressions.

He walked right outside where he knew he wouldn’t run into anybody or be asked fifty questions about his feelings or mood swings, and sat on the edge of a wall outside the entrance of the courtyard.

As he stared out at the vast castle grounds and the forest framing it, a vision flashed before his eyes. Ron grimaced, wanting to shut it out, but it was no use.


There was yelling and shouting. Endless shouting and lots of smoke. Flashes of green light and dashes of red lit up the field like fireworks. There were many faces twisted in agony, anger, and fear. Bodies littered the field, some of them looked just like him. Young, too young to be dead.

Hermione was screaming, and Ginny seemed petrified. He looked up and saw Hagrid.

The great half giant was crying and there was a procession behind him, led by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and they were carrying someone who looked dead. Someone who looked familiar. It couldn’t be. No … not him…



Ron scowled. That was old news. It had all been a trick, and a brilliant one at that. Harry was alive and well, and they had won. What the hell was he doing, daydreaming about the past? What was done was done.

The war was over, and everything was fine. He was fine, and he’d just have to try a little harder to make people see that. This was his year to really shine, and he wasn’t going to let it go to shit.

He looked back up at the castle, and his eyes caught on something in one of the first-floor windows — a pale, pointy face staring down at him.

“Prat,” Ron murmured, turning back around to gaze in envy at the fresh green field that bore no signs of the battle or the tragedy that had taken place there.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Six
Reasonable Force


When the East Wing Builders met the following day after lessons, there was a new face present.

Everyone turned curiously to stare at Malfoy as he walked up quietly to stand in the back. Ron surveyed the group to see if there were going to be any troublemakers, but no one said a word to the boy.

The group broke up to go about their tasks, leaving Malfoy standing alone. Ron hastily explained to Malfoy everything they had been working on when it became evident no one else was going to do it. He really disliked having to be the one to inform the boy about the project, but Ron also knew it would really bother him if Malfoy got to sit off to the side brooding like a spoiled prat while everyone else worked their arses off. Malfoy didn’t respond to anything Ron said, but he nodded to show he understood.

“So, is there anything in particular you’d like to work on?” Ron asked. “We still need people to help line up the rocks properly, and to cast the lifting spells, (which can be murder if you have poor concentration) and we also need a few extra wands to help lock them in place once they’re in formation.”

“What’s the wall going to look like once it’s done?” Malfoy asked loudly, prompting everyone around him to pause and turn around.

“Uh, like a wall,” replied Kevin Entwhistle, an eighth year Ravenclaw.

There were sniggers, but Malfoy didn’t look bothered, just unimpressed.

“Just a wall?” he said. “Sounds rather plain if you ask me.”

One of the girls scoffed. “You would say that. I’m sure you consider the entire castle plain compared to your family’s estate.”

The group laughed; Ron watched Malfoy, expecting him to put on his usual sneer and cut the girl down to size.

Instead, Malfoy levelled a cold stare at her. “Pardon me, but I thought this was the Hogwarts’ Restoration Project, where we are supposed to honour the memory of the past and build a new legacy. Those were Granger’s words, I do believe,” he said, glancing at Ron.

Ron’s eyebrows rose, surprised that Malfoy had practically memorised Hermione’s words from the first night.

“He’s right,” said the sixth year Slytherin girl. “We shouldn’t just rebuild the wall. We’re supposed to be adding something new to it. Something that represents us now.”

The cherub-faced fourth year Hufflepuff gasped, practically jumping up and down. “I know! How about we change the colour of the wall from grey to something fun, like orange or pink?”

Most of the younger students smiled at her suggestion, but the older students all groaned.

“That’d be perfect if Hogwarts was a wizarding fashion school,“ Malfoy remarked to several agreeing chuckles. Ron himself couldn’t help but smile.

“I was thinking, we could charm the rocks to grow ivy …” Malfoy suggested.

Everyone in the group looked around at one another, giving head nods in agreement.

“That’s a great idea, Malfoy,” said a skinny third-year Hufflepuff boy. “But how do you charm a rock to grow plants?”

Malfoy smirked. “Potions of course. With the right potion, you can breed life out of anything. I’ll head up that task.”

There was clear excitement as people began to talk about the new suggestion. Malfoy looked content and smug with his contribution, and for once, Ron didn’t begrudge him that.

~~~*~~~


Two weeks later, everything had gone back to normal — or as normal as things could be.

Ron had placed a silencing charm around his bed so as not to disturb his dorm mates on those nights when he’d wake himself up from shouting. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare he couldn’t remember and simply stare into the darkness. And when the darkness would encroach on his thoughts, poking at his memories, he’d go down to the common room to sit and play wizarding chess against himself.

He and Hermione were on better terms; Ron had made several efforts to arrange walks and opportunities to be alone. They even snogged regularly now. Sometimes Ron even felt something, but most times, the interaction was just wet and he’d count down the moments until it was over. He had decided that whatever problems he and Hermione were having physically could be rectified with more time and effort—she was going to be his wife, he knew it. Not all relationships were perfect. They simply had to work on it a bit more than others.

Sometimes he’d catch Harry watching him, but mostly the two had gone back to their usual rapport: playing chess, teaming up on Quidditch, and chatting during meals.

Even the Malfoy problem seemed to have solved itself. At meals, at least, hardly anyone ever bothered him, not even Nott, which Ron found curious. In fact, Nott appeared to be more withdrawn lately. Ron wondered what had occurred to change his behaviour. He, Malfoy, and Goyle were all like islands unto themselves.

But it was Malfoy Ron paid the most attention to. In class, the boy wouldn’t say much, but when he was called on, he was always prepared and left no room for teasing or mocking. It probably helped that the teaching staff and prefects were all doing a better job of controlling the bullying, at least for a little while.

Everything seemed to be going just fine, until the day Ron decided to take an emergency bathroom break after breakfast. His stomach was worrying him, so instead of using the usual bathroom, he decided to find some privacy and use the bathroom on the fourth floor.

The bathroom was usually empty, so Ron ran in, his eyes focused on one particular stall. He was so relieved to be able to do his business in piece and quiet, he didn’t even notice the soft cursing coming from the far stall at first. When he finally heard it, he leaned over so he could to listen.

The foul words turned incoherent and became less frequent, but they were still unmistakable. Someone was in the bathroom having a fit, angrily cursing to himself like a loon.

Ron rolled his eyes up at the ceiling, wishing that the bloke would get it all out of his system and just leave. He listened for any sign that the person was going to exit, but it was suddenly very quiet except for Ron’s breathing. Was the guy waiting for him to leave? Ron scowled. Why should he have to rush out so someone could have the bathroom to themselves to vent? That wasn’t even the proper use of a bathroom!

He leaned over again, listening. The tension between him and the stranger was palpable as if they were sitting right next to each other. There was some shuffling and then a flush. Ron flushed and waited for the bloke to emerge, but there was only silence.

Slowly, Ron stepped outside of the stall and cast his eyes to the stall at the far end, where two rather large feet stood right near the stall door, as if waiting for Ron to leave.

On the stark white floor there were dark drops of blood trailing from the bathroom door to the person in the stall, some smeared by his own footsteps. Whoever was in there was bleeding, and pretty badly from the looks of it.

Ron sighed and turned to look at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He thought of making a dash for the door and leaving the poor bloke in the stall alone. That’s probably what the guy wanted anyway.

But against his better judgment, Ron called out to the stranger instead. “You OK in there?”

He watched the door of the stall in the mirror, waiting for a reply, but there was none.

“Are you hurt?” Ron pressed.

The feet on the other side of the cubicle remained still, standing close to the door. Ron gazed in the mirror, staring down at the bottom of the door for movement. Ron had a hunch, and decided they had played this game long enough.

“Right,” he said. “I know it’s you, Malfoy. You don’t have to have hide in the cubicle like a big baby.”

A second later, there was a small click of the lock, the door slowly opened and there he stood: Draco Malfoy. A dark crimson stain marred the collar of the shirt he wore under his robes, and he had charmed an absorbent cloth over his bloody nose. Malfoy's grey eyes held a challenge in them, as if waiting for Ron to make a joke about his injury. But Ron had nothing to say.

Malfoy walked forward, taking slow, measured steps towards the sink, his eyes still on Ron. A small sneer began to form but then he lowered his gaze and began to wash his hands. Ron studied him as he methodically built a lather, rinsed and then repeated.

Even as he stood slightly bent over the sink, Malfoy exuded the same cocky disposition he’d always had. Ron would have scoffed if the boy wasn't looking considerably paler and thinner than ever before. He leaned in discreetly to peer at Malfoy’s head. There were no marks or scars where his head had been split open, but there was a small, thin patch in his hair that looked as if he had tried to comb over the wound.

Ron cleared his throat. “How’s your … how’s your head?”

Malfoy shot Ron a contentious glare. “Drop the act, Weasley. Stop acting like you care.”

“I don’t. Just being polite, is all. You might want to try it sometime; it may save you from getting your face smashed,” Ron retorted.

Malfoy violently ripped a napkin out of the tissue dispenser to dry his hands.

“Oh, and you’re welcome,” Ron said pointedly.

Malfoy turned abruptly, walking up to Ron so that they stood almost nose-to-nose.

“Don’t delude yourself, Weasley. You didn’t 'save me! You couldn’t save me if you tried. You just happened to be there. I don’t know what kind of absurd tale you told McGonagall, but I do know it was a Gryffindor that landed me in the infirmary, and I intend to make sure that all of you pay!”

Ron glowered but refused to go for his wand despite the fact that Malfoy was damned near challenging him with his close proximity. He clenched his fists.

“If I were you, Malfoy, I’d spend less time worrying about taking revenge on Gryffindor and more time worrying about your own house. Not even your housemates like you.”

“I don’t need anyone to like me! Especially at this poor excuse for a school.”

“If Hogwarts is so beneath your standards, then why don’t you just go home!”

“You’d love that, wouldn’t you, Weasley?” Malfoy sneered.

“I don’t give a rat’s arse what you do, Malfoy.”

“Good, then stay out of my way and stop asking me if I’m all right! I don’t need your brand of politeness!”

Ron scoffed. “More like pity … not that you deserve it, Ferret.”

Malfoy’s hand was quick to reach into his robe. Ron’s eyes widened and he stepped back, drawing out his own wand and waiting for any slight movement. He could see the tendons in Malfoy’s neck as the boy seethed in anger, his wand pointed at Ron.

The silence seemed to stretch out for several minutes, but it may have only been a few moments. Ron was thinking of what spell he would use, while Malfoy stood sneering, his eyes daring Ron to make the first move.

Suddenly Malfoy’s red, pinched face looked familiar. And it wasn’t because Malfoy always looked angry whenever Ron was in close proximity. It was something else. That angry expression mixed with exaggerated bravado nudged a memory, only Ron couldn’t remember what the memory was. Wherever it was, it was buried some place deep, somewhere Ron couldn’t recall but would never completely forget.

As he stood there in a battle stance, ready to duel with Malfoy while trying to remember what he had almost forgotten, Ron’s wand hand became heavy with fatigue.

He lowered it. “I don’t need this shit; I’ve got a lesson to attend.”

Malfoy gave Ron a once over, but lowered his wand as well.

Ron walked forward, and for a moment he thought the boy would block him, but at the last moment, Malfoy simply stood aside, glaring at him.

As he walked out, Ron tried to push away the rising sickness in his stomach. He could have taken Malfoy on. The Ferret probably thought he had won a fight or something. But in that moment, something dreadful had threatened to punch through Ron’s reality. And that, more than anything, had unnerved him.

“Stupid git,” he muttered as he made his way down to the dungeons for Potions.

When Ron walked in the classroom, he immediately noticed that Harry was sitting in the second row and getting to him would mean passing three rows and announcing himself as late. So he took an empty seat on the back row instead, hoping not to be noticed by Slughorn, who had agreed to come back and teach Potions this year.

“Ah, Mr Weasley!” Slughorn said enthusiastically upon spotting Ron.

Ron smiled; hearing Slughorn say his name properly this year never got old.

“So glad you could join us. I do hope you didn’t run into any trouble?”

The class turned and looked at Ron, who could feel his ears burning. He inwardly cursed himself and Malfoy before giving Slughorn a small smile. “No, Sir. Just running a bit late.”

Slughorn gave Ron an understanding nod. “Of course, I suppose even heroes are allowed to be late from time to time. We’re glad you’re here now. Please turn to page forty-five.”

Ron pulled out his book and did as instructed.

“Now, since many of you are planning to take your N.E.W.T. in Potions, you will have to pay particular attention to the following series of lessons, or quite simply, you might as well not take the N.E.W.T. at all.”

As soon as Slughorn finished, the door of the classroom creaked open. The entire class turned to watch Malfoy walk in, his head held high and all evidence of his bloody nose gone. Save for the seat next to Harry, the only other empty seat was the one beside Ron. Malfoy’s eyes scanned the room anxiously for another possible seat.

“Ah, another one. Draco, is it?” Slughorn questioned smartly.

There were several sniggers and Ron smirked up at him, as seeing Malfoy’s ego deflate always brought him a degree of satisfaction.

Malfoy’s upper lip curled as he lifted his chin. “As Head of Slytherin House, surely you know my name.”

Slughorn waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, of course. Well, please hurry and take a seat. You’ve already disrupted class enough with your tardiness.”

Malfoy loudly pulled out the seat beside Ron and folded his arms across his chest. As Slughorn began the lesson, Malfoy’s indignation and aggravation manifested in waves of sharp, prickly magic that tickled Ron’s skin. Ron scooted his chair farther away to get out from under the magic's reach. He glanced at Malfoy and was greeted by the same terse glare given to him in the restroom. Class was already off to a bad start.

“Now, on the N.E.W.T. you’ll be asked about the seven properties of Calming Draught. It is not an easy potion to brew, but it is highly valued and any wizard or witch who can brew it will never want for a job, I can guarantee you that.”

Ron frowned. Seven more things to memorise for the N.E.W.T. He didn’t even like Potions. Once more he asked himself why he was trying so hard to be an Auror.

Because that’s probably the only thing you’ll be good at. That is, if you can manage to pass Charms and Potions, said a small, insecure voice.

But what if he didn’t pass? If he failed Charms and Potions, what could he do then? He’d always wanted to try his hand at working with George at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. But he didn’t think Hermione would be too impressed with that.

For the next hour, Ron tried to focus on the lesson and not on the disgruntled boy beside him. Malfoy’s entire disposition emanated a chilly air, which made concentrating on Slughorn’s annoying voice even harder than usual. Malfoy was infecting Ron with his unhappiness without saying a word.

Just what was Malfoy’s problem? So what—Slughorn had asked him his name even though everyone knew he knew it. That was no reason to act like a prima donna throughout the lesson. Maybe it was good Malfoy finally understood he wasn’t as important as he thought he was. Ron quickly snuck another glance at the boy beside him.

When he did, Malfoy met his eyes right away and sneered. Ron rolled his eyes and turned his eyes back to the front of the room.

Why did Malfoy always have to be such an arsehole? One would think getting beat up and sent to the bottom of the social food chain would have been enough to humble him, but it seemed to have only made him worse.

Ron frowned. Why the hell did he even give a shit? Malfoy wasn’t worth thinking about. Still, Ron found himself wondering who gave the boy the nosebleed today. Was it the same lot that had split his head? Or perhaps this time it was the Slytherins…

He heard shuffling, and beside him a seat was loudly pushed back. Ron looked around. Class was over, and he hadn’t really heard a thing. He blamed Malfoy for that, mostly. Ron turned to give the boy a hateful glare, but Malfoy was already gone.

“What are you doing sitting back here?” Harry was staring down at him with a puzzled expression.

“Well, I didn’t want to make a scene after coming in late and all.”

“Right. Speaking of that, where did you run off to after breakfast?”

Ron stood and began walking out with Harry, contemplating whether he wanted to tell Harry about his interaction with Malfoy in the bathroom. However, that would lead to explaining his previous run-ins with Malfoy as well. Harry would want to know why he hadn’t told him any of this before, and right now, Ron had no idea how to answer that question.

“Got stuck in the loo. Too many crumpets, I think.”

Harry sniggered, making a face but then stopped to stare up ahead. Ron followed his gaze. There was a condensed crowd in the middle of the hallway, and from its ranks there was a growing chant.

“Duel. Duel. Duel.”

Harry and Ron exchanged a quick glance and then rushed to the crowd. They elbowed their way through until they could get a clear view. Malfoy was at the centre, his nose bleeding once more and his wand drawn. He had a snarl on his face that was directed at Scott Anderson, and he looked like he was about to deliver some payback for having his skull cracked open.

“Go on, you imbecile, try that again!” Malfoy growled.

Scott raised his wand.

“Scott, no!” Harry yelled, pushing forward.

Before Harry could reach Scott, Malfoy shouted out, “Tarantallegra!”

Scott began to do a sort of jig, his legs wobbly and his feet shuffling back and forth and to the side in no certain pattern. Laughter broke out among the crowd but was quickly silenced when Malfoy cast his next spell.

“Stupefy!”

Scott’s jig abruptly stopped as he flew back, his body parting the crowd to land on his arse. But Malfoy still wasn’t done. Ron watched with wide eyes as Malfoy raised his wand again, and a fearful hush fell across the crowd.

“Malfoy, stop it!” Harry yelled.

Thankfully, Malfoy lowered his wand. Ron sighed in relief, only to tense once more when Malfoy stepped closer to peer down at Scott, who was groaning and trying to get up.

“And this is for my nose, you pathetic cretin!” he said, lifting his foot. There was a loud crack as he brought his heel down on Scott’s face.

A collective gasp broke at the awful sound, and Ron shuddered. Someone screamed, and Ron looked down at Scott, whose nose was clearly misaligned and spouting blood. There were many shouts of anger and faces turned away, while others stared on in shock.

Ron could only take his eyes off of Scott’s damaged face long enough to get a look at Malfoy. He stood over Scott triumphantly, no remorse or fear on his face. He looked vindicated and stared back at the crowd as if daring someone else to take him on. Harry was enraged; his nostrils flared and his eyes were keenly focused on Malfoy as if contemplating whether to answer the boy’s challenge.

“What’s going on here? Let me through!” came the voice of Professor Slughorn. A pathway cleared for the Potions professor, and when he came to the centre of the circle, his mouth dropped open.

“What have you done, Malfoy? Explain yourself!”

“He attacked me!”

“Liar!” shouted one of the fifth-year Gryffindor boys. Several other students from the other houses quickly supported him.

“I saw the whole thing!” a sixth year Gryffindor girl cried. “Malfoy is a lunatic. He cast two spells back to back and then stomped on Scott’s face. He didn’t even give Scott a chance to stand up and fight back!”

There were several nods in agreement.

Malfoy looked at the crowd in disbelief. “She wasn’t even here when it started! Anderson attacked me first! And it wasn’t the first time!”

“Scott would never attack someone without a reason!” Seamus defended. “You’re the bully, Malfoy. Harry and Ron can vouch for that. You and your friends tried to kill them last year!”

Ron’s mouth went dry as he stared back at Seamus and all the sound around him seemed to go mute.

You and your friends tried to kill them last year.

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest and every nerve in his body was strung tight like stretched yarn. What was Seamus on about? Why was he bringing up old shit? That thing that happened last year didn’t even seem real anymore. Did that really happen?

Of course it did.

But so what if it did? What was done was done.

Ron’s breath left him as the memory of Fiendfyre chasing him in the Room of Requirement danced before his eyes. Malfoy pinched red face was right behind them, looking just as scared.

I can’t breathe, Harry! What are we going to do? There’s no spell that can make Fiendfyre go away! How are we going to escape? What if this is the way it ends? I don’t want to burn alive. I hope the smoke chokes me before I can feel it …

“He started it!” Malfoy insisted, cutting through Ron’s memory to bring him back to the present.

“Quiet! I’ve heard enough, young man!” Slughorn proclaimed in a rare show of public chastisement. “Now, you’ve already pressed your luck by coming to class late. I’ll have to give you detention for the next month … with me. And if you say another word, you’ll find yourself in the Headmistress's office!”

Malfoy looked visibly upset, his jaw moving back and forth like he was gnashing his teeth.

You couldn’t save me if you tried, Weasley.

But Ron had, hadn’t he? Or had it been just blind luck? The same luck that had helped him, Harry, and Hermione escape the Fiendfyre. The same luck that was with him the moment he found Harry by the lake. Was he really a hero or just a tag along that got lucky every now and then.

“Wait a minute” Ron blurted out. Everyone’s eyes turned on him.

“Yes, Mr Weasley?” Slughorn asked.

Ron gave a shifty glance to Malfoy. Why in the hell was he even doing this? He didn’t really know.

“I, uh … well, I don’t think Malfoy is lying. Scott and his lot have been giving him a rough time this term. I’ve seen it myself. He probably provoked Malfoy.”

There was an audible gasp followed by several murmurs as the Gryffindors shot Ron traitorous glares. He didn’t care, though. Enough was enough. Even he couldn’t tolerate seeing Malfoy getting ganged up on like this.

Slughorn looked confused. He gave Malfoy a sceptical glance and shook his head. “I see. Well…there are still consequences for such behaviour. Two nights detention, and I’m warning you, Mr Malfoy …”

“Two nights? That’s all he gets? Look at Scott’s face!” cried one of Scott’s friends.

“Oh, put a sock in it, Thomas,” Ron snapped. “You and Scott should have been in detention weeks ago, or should I say more?”

All of the Gryffindor boys stared back at Ron in trepidation, waiting for him to rat them out. Ron simply raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, well, that’ll be all,” Slughorn said hastily. “The rest of you can go on to your next lesson. There’s nothing more to see here. And would someone please help that boy to the infirmary.”

Several sixth year Gryffindors leaned down to help Scott up and slowly people began turning away, but not before casting disapproving glances toward Malfoy and Ron.

Ron and Harry stood by as Slughhorn turned to give them both a forced smile, patting Ron on the shoulder before he returned to his classroom.

“Don’t think you did me any favours, Weasley. I can handle myself just fine,” Malfoy said gruffly.

“So I see,” Ron sneered.

Malfoy gave Ron and Harry one more odious glare before turning on his heel and walking away.

“What was that all about?” Harry asked.

Ron was stumped about how to reply.

“Ron, are you all right?” Harry asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Ron said in annoyance. He was beginning to really hate that question.

Harry sighed. “Well that was really nice of you, mate. I mean, I know Malfoy is having a bad year, but what he did to Scott was just cruel.”

“Yeah, well, in case you hadn’t noticed, Scott’s not exactly a nice person, Harry.”

As soon as Ron said it, he regretted it. Harry was studying him curiously. “Ron, are you actually saying Malfoy had a right to hurt Scott?”

Ron frowned, thinking. “No, of course not. Malfoy is an arsehole, but Scott and his lot have been bad news since the start of the year. I’m not saying he deserved what he got, but maybe this time he pushed Malfoy too far.”

Harry didn’t respond, but was eyeing Ron as if he didn’t quite recognise him. And Ron understood why, but didn’t want to think on it any more. In fact, he just wanted it all to go away.

“Should we go to the library and study? I need to work on Charms,” he offered.

“First you speak up on behalf of Malfoy, and now you want to go to the library … this year is getting stranger and stranger by the day,” Harry said with a bemused grin.

Ron gave Harry a playful shove. Charms was just the thing he needed to put as much distance as possible between Malfoy and himself. The prat had already taken up too much of his time and thoughts today.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Seven
You've Got Issues, Weasley


After the altercation between Scott and Malfoy, the slow burning tension between Gryffindor and Slytherin bubbled over and seeped throughout the entire school. Many Gryffindors took extra delight in outright belittling and making fun of Slytherin. Whenever a Slytherin would retaliate, it would only bring the condemnation of the other two houses, thereby winning more support for Gryffindor. The message was clear: Slytherins had no power.

In Restoration team meetings, Malfoy started keeping to himself, rarely engaging in conversation with anyone. Ron tried to avoid him. It was simply easier to perfect the art of ignoring Malfoy than it was to actually care about the occasional black eye and cuts that would appear, fade, and then reappear on the boy’s face and hands.

By late fall things had become so bad that all of the prefects seemed to have given up on trying to form some resemblance of inter-house unity, settling instead for minimum confrontation.

But on Halloween night there appeared to be a truce in the war against Slytherins. The castle was filled with laughter and the air was charged with excitement. Besides going to Honeydukes, the annual Halloween feast was the biggest opportunity to have all of the sweets one could eat. Ron made sure his lot didn’t waste any time going down when the Great Hall opened for the feast.

The staff had charmed the ceiling to appear as a thunderstorm, flashes of light and dark foreboding clouds hovering over them while the ghosts of the castle flew to and fro, regaling in their special day. Even Filch was in the holiday spirit and had painted his face white. In Ron’s opinion, he didn’t need a costume to resemble a decrepit skeleton.

Everyone was bursting with excited energy as they speculated about what novel treat and special brew had been chosen for this year’s feast. The Gryffindor table was packed, save four noticeable seats. Those seats belonged to the most troublesome Gryffindors. Ron and Harry exchanged a wary glance.

“What are they up to now?” Ginny asked suspiciously, staring at the empty seats.

Hermione glanced up at the head of the table. “And look, our so-called prefect Anna Hazelwood is chatting it up. She hasn’t even bothered to look around. Not to mention the Head Boy and Girl are both at their respective tables, ready to stuff their gobs. The entire prefect system is a joke this year.”

Ron shrugged. “I suppose that’s good for Gryffindor. The less the prefects care, the less points we lose.”

“That’s the problem, Ron,” Hermione said. “No one cares about House points. It’s as if Gryffindor can do no wrong.”

“And you’re complaining?”

“Ron, there are more important things than winning the House Cup!”

“There they are,” Ginny said, glancing to her left.

Ron looked up to see the trouble making group stroll in with smug smiles on their faces. All of them except Scott, whose face was strained.

“They look entirely too happy,” Hermione murmured. “I hope they haven’t done anything horrible.”

“Whatever they were up to, it’s left one of them limping,” Harry noted. Ron, Hermione, and Ginny all leaned over to inspect the boys. Sure enough, Scott's gait had a noticeable limp.

“Oh well, whatever they did, if it’s bad enough it’ll come out sooner or later,” Ron said.

There was loud tapping on a cup and then McGonagall’s distinctive voice rang out over the Great Hall, silencing everyone.

She made an announcement about how proud she was of each and every student for their presence and efforts to help rebuild Hogwarts. There was a moment of silence for Dumbledore, who loved Halloween even more than Christmas, and then the feast commenced.

Halfway through their meal, Hermione leaned over the table and swiped something from Ron’s lip. His mouth was full of chocolate mousse.

“Oh Ron, look at yourself.”

“I can’t,” Ron tried to say with a stuffed mouth.

Hermione rolled her eyes and glanced over at Ginny, who was feeding Harry a piece of pumpkin pie.

“Oh… look,” Hermione said, staring just over Ron’s shoulder.

“What?” Ron asked, not wanting to follow Hermione’s gaze.

“Malfoy’s not here.”

Ron shrugged. “So? He misses meals all the time.”

“Ron, no one misses the big feasts.”

“She’s right, ” Harry said. “Everyone comes. Perhaps we should alert the prefects.”

“Harry, his prefects are sitting a few seats down from where he’d be sitting if he were here,” Ron pointed out. “Obviously they're aware that Malfoy isn’t here and they aren't worried about it, which means we shouldn’t be worried about it either. Now, can we please stop talking about Malfoy?”

The worried threesome all exchanged uneasy glances that annoyed Ron even more than their questions about Malfoy. Ginny began talking about the horror of last year’s Halloween’s feast under the Carrows, but Ron wasn’t really listening.

It was too late. The brief discussion about Malfoy’s absence had already ruined Ron’s appetite and just like that, all of his hard work at putting up a screen between anything related to Malfoy and himself was ripped away.

Where could the wanker be? Surely the prefect had noticed. And what about McGonagall? Or Filch? No one missed the holiday feasts. No one.

A terrific flash of lightning from the ceiling above triggered the memory of his first year. The year Hermione had been missing from the Halloween feast, the year a troll had been set loose in the castle. A sick feeling began to grow in Ron’s stomach as he thought of how close they had come to losing Hermione. If no one had looked for her, she would have been killed for sure.

The nagging voice was back, the one that repeated McGonagall’s request for him to watch over Draco, and why it was the right thing to do. He had managed to dismiss and rationalise it away for the past few weeks.

What if Malfoy was hurt? Or worse?

Ron surveyed his table. The Gryffindors were carrying on very loudly and there was lots of laughter. Students from both ends had risen out of their seats to congregate there. He looked at Scott, who appeared to be the picture of confidence, and his friends, one of whom Ron noticed wore an ugly cut on the side of his face.

“I’ll be back,” Ron said, rising from his seat.

“Where are you going?” Hermione asked.

“Uh, I’ll be right back,” Ron said, walking away before she could ask again.

As he left the Great Hall, Ron looked left and right, trying to think of where they may have jumped him. The bathrooms were all empty, and so were all of the classrooms, or at least the ones he checked. He didn’t dare go to the Room of Requirement, telling himself there was nothing there.

After circling around the castle completely, he decided to check out the dungeons, not expecting to find anything there. He was almost convinced that Malfoy had retreated into his dormitory and was recovering in bed. But the smell of pumpkin pie, treacle tart, and hot chocolate was wafting into his nose, and he was nowhere near the Great Hall.

He stopped— the kitchen was down here. The aroma of fresh baked Halloween goodies was making him salivate.

With stealth, Ron approached the busy kitchen, peeking around the corner. It was full of elves rolling dough, decorating cookies and cakes, and preparing tea and cocoa. If only he could just steal one tart. He quickly vanquished the thought. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Besides, he could just go back to the Great Hall before the feast ended and …

His eyes caught a patch of white blond hair tucked in the corner, the profile nearly obstructed by a large metal cooler. There was an elf tending to Malfoy, wiping his face and fussing, although Ron could barely hear what he was saying over the racket that the rest of the elves in the kitchen were making.

“He can’t be coming down here,” said another elf from behind the one tending Malfoy. “You remember last time; Filch will be coming for all our heads. Send him to Pomfrey.”

“No nos…Pomfreys doesn’t understands. They beats on him. I sees it. He's not safe up there.”

“He’s can't be staying down here.”

“But—”

“No, he’s right. Thank you, Pinky,” Malfoy said, struggling to stand to his feet. Ron had to clamp down on his tongue to keep from gasping. Malfoy’s face was visibly bruised and his bottom lip was swollen.

“Here Master Malfoy. I’s fixed you a plate of all your favourites,” said another female house elf.

The objecting house elf huffed, making a shooing motion with his hand towards the door. Ron pulled back quickly.

“Yes fine, takes it and go. Now!”

“All right! No need to get bossy with me!” Malfoy snipped.

“And stay away from ‘dem boys Master Malfoy. One of dez days theys gonna hurt you real bad!”

“Not if I can hurt them first,” Malfoy said. His voice seemed near, as if he was standing right beside Ron, and for a moment Ron felt as if he had been petrified. He wasn’t sure if he should make a run for it or just wait for Malfoy to pass and hope that he wouldn’t be seen.

Before he could make a decision, Malfoy strutted out, and his eyes immediately caught sight of Ron.

“What are you doing here, Weasley?”

Ron cursed under his breath, as he tried to look surprised. “Oh, hey there, Malfoy, how’s it going? I, uh, well, I was just coming down to see if they had more treacle tart. It’s my favourite and there’s no more left upstairs.”

“No more treacle tart!” an elf cried, coming to the door and looking up at Ron with disbelieving eyes. "That can’t be true! We’s made twice as much as last year. Yous lying.”

“Oh,” Ron said, glancing down at the elf and then back to Malfoy, who looked ready to cast a killing curse.

“Cut the shit, Weasley! What are you really doing down here?”

“Please stop your yelling,” the elf cried. “The both of yous has to get away from here before Filch be coming down. Out! Out!”

Both Ron and Malfoy shuffled out of the doorway and into the open dungeon.

“I thought I told you to leave me alone,” Malfoy whispered fiercely.

“Well, if you didn’t want anyone to come looking for you then maybe you should have showed at dinner! No one misses the Halloween feast!”

Malfoy’s eyes widened slightly with concern. “Is anyone else looking for me?”

“No, but—”

Malfoy scoffed. “Then why were you?”

“I— hell, I don’t know! I thought you might be lying dead somewhere!”

“So what if I were? Why would you even care, Weaselbee?”

Ron opened his mouth, ready to say that he didn’t, but he knew that wouldn’t make any sense. Why would he be here if he didn’t care?

He clenched his teeth. “I don’t know why I care, Malfoy! You should be happy someone even noticed that you were gone since it’s obvious you’re too thick to care for yourself.”

“Well, now you’ve found me, Weasley, and I’m alive! Satisfied? What do you want, a biscuit? A pat on the back?”

Ron scowled, ready to turn, when the faint moonlight illuminated Malfoy’s face. The bruise around his eye was worse than he thought, and his lip wasn’t just swollen, it was split.

“Who did this to you?” Ron asked. “Gryffindors?”

Malfoy sneered. “Does it matter? Gryffindors today, another house tomorrow.”

“I don’t get it. Why don’t you just tell McGonagall?”

Malfoy scowled. “Why don’t you stay out of my affairs! Just because you have a bloody medal doesn’t give you a right to play the hero anytime you see fit!”

“You need a hero; you certainly aren’t doing a good job of protecting yourself!”

“I’m doing just fine! You should have seen the bloke who did this to my lip. He’ll be limping for the rest of the term.”

Ron tried not to smirk. The idea of Malfoy maiming Scott gave Ron a small degree of satisfaction.

“Malfoy, even if you did fend him off this time, you can only fight so many off at once, and it’s always your word against theirs. That puts you at a serious disadvantage.”

Malfoy narrowed his eyes. “What’s your point, Weasley?”

What was Ron’s point? Where was he going with this? There was something on the tip of his tongue, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to say it. There was still time to walk away.

Ron braced himself, biting out the words: “Maybe you need some help.”

“What?”

Ron forced the words out. “I said, perhaps you could use some help. You know, keeping these tossers off of you.”

Malfoy chuckled dryly. “And I suppose you think you’re the one to do it?”

“Listen, I don’t like you at all, but I hate to see someone getting attacked this way. It’s pathetic. Just … put aside your pride for once and accept the offer.”

Malfoy drew back. “Offer? Ronald Weasley is offering to help me, eh? I should be so honoured.”

Ron rolled his eyes.

Malfoy eyed him suspiciously. “So what’s in it for you? What do you want? Money? More praise?”

“I don’t want anything, Malfoy, especially from you.”

“Good, because I’m not going to give you anything,” Malfoy said with conviction. “I don’t owe you anything, and I never will.”

Ron raised his eyebrows, ready to remind Malfoy that he actually owed him a life debt, but bit the retort back. Malfoy’s bruised face and warrior stance only incited pity in Ron.

“You’re missing a really good feast,” Ron said awkwardly, trying to change the subject.

Malfoy eyed Ron sceptically. “It can’t be that great—you skipped out of it to come looking for me.”

Ron felt his face flush. Why had he really run out on the feast? He loved Halloween. But this year, nothing could inspire his former excitement. In fact, he almost felt dead inside.

He shrugged. “It’s all right, just not as fun as it used to be.”

“Nothing is,” Malfoy said dryly.

They stared at each other for a moment before Ron looked down at the plate in Malfoy’s hands. “What did they give you?”

“Some of everything …”

Ron licked his lips, his eyes focused on a huge pink frosted cupcake sitting on the edge of Malfoy’s plate.

Malfoy smirked and picked up the cupcake to take a bite. Annoyed, Ron clicked his teeth and began to turn away. “Later, Malfoy.”

“Weasley…”

Ron turned around, ready for another jab, but instead saw that Malfoy had taken a seat on a stone bench near the wall. He was still holding the pink frosted cupcake but hadn’t taken a bite.

“I can’t eat all of this …”

Ron slowly walked over, hesitantly taking a seat next to the boy.

They ate in silence. The cupcake was every bit as delicious as it looked, and Ron was in bliss until Malfoy began to speak.

“Why are you really down here, Weasley? You should be having a ball, showing off your brand new medal to all of your admirers and laughing it up with your new girlfriend.”

Ron looked at him sideways, licking the icing off of a piece of his cupcake. Oddly, the bitterness in Malfoy’s voice didn’t irritate him. He was more annoyed that things weren’t nearly as fun as Malfoy made them sound.

“Not sure,” Ron said. “It’s just … different now. Everything is the same, really, but different too. I can’t really explain it. “

He could feel Malfoy watching him, and for a moment it made him feel self conscious, but as Malfoy continued to eat in silence, Ron began to relax, reclining back against the wall. It was as if someone had offered him a couch and told him he was free to say whatever came to mind.

So he did.

“For instance, the trips to Hogsmeade. I used to really look forward to those. I mean, who didn’t?”

Malfoy didn’t reply. But his silence seemed less like a dismissal and more like permission to continue, so Ron kept talking. “And now I have a free pass to go every weekend, but … it’s just candy, you know? I can’t believe we used to get so excited about candy, and Butterbeer, and … things like that. It’s all rather silly, really. Everything seems sort of pointless that way now … even Quidditch.”

When Ron looked to his side, Malfoy was looking straight ahead, nibbling at a truffle.

“You know what, Weasley?”

“What?”

“I’ve been observing you …”

Ron frowned. Malfoy had been observing him? That was freaky.

“Not like that!” Malfoy said in disgust. “You’re not that interesting. But you are starting to stick out like a sore thumb.”

Ron scowled but didn’t reply; he wanted to hear what Malfoy had to say.

“Your temper tantrums, the way you and Granger go from taking long walks to having loud rows in the hallways. It’s not hard to miss. “

Ron dropped his eyes in embarrassment. He had no idea Malfoy had seen all of that. Had everyone else seen it as well?

“I think you've got issues,” Malfoy said in a clinical voice.

Ron’s eyes quickly turned on Malfoy, his embarrassment turning to anger. “I have issues? Says the junior criminal who’s getting the crap beat out of him everyday.”

Malfoy’s upper lip curled into a snarl and he stood up abruptly. Ron stood as well so he could face him, eye to eye.

“At least I’m not an insecure mental half-wit masquerading as a war hero,” Malfoy sneered.

“Don’t expect me to save your arse next time,” Ron said, turning his back on Malfoy to walk back to the feast.

“No one asked you to!” Malfoy called after him.

“If only you knew,” Ron murmured before taking the last bite of his cupcake.

As he retreated, his footsteps slowed. Just the thought of returning to the Great Hall made Ron weary. It meant putting on another façade. It was hard not to reconsider whether he should have returned to Hogwarts. He could have easily been working alongside George right now, selling gags and having a laugh. A genuine laugh; no fake smiling, no difficult courses for a career he wasn’t even sure he wanted, no complicated girlfriend issues, no Malfoy…

Ron paused in his tracks and turned around. Deciding to skip the rest of the Halloween feast, he made a detour to the common room instead. He passed several students on his way. They all greeted him with a smile and friendly ‘hello’, but Ron had no energy to put on the mask and return their pleasantries.

When he arrived back at the common room, half the House was already there. He cracked his knuckles in frustration to hear all of the laughter and chatter.

As the revelry continued, Ron sat on the couch next to his friends, watching them laugh it up while they played parlour games. They invited him to join in, but he declined, overtaken by a strong urge to excuse himself and shut himself inside his dorm room.

You’re starting to stick out like a sore thumb.

Ron scanned the room to see if anyone was looking at him. Hermione looked back over her shoulder, a warm smile on her face. Ron forced a smile in return, but it made him feel empty and false, like an imposter.

Somehow he managed to make it through the rest of the evening until eventually things died down and everyone started to head off to bed. Relieved, Ron retired as well, unable to shake the lingering worry that perhaps he’d never enjoy anything the way he used to.

~~~*~~~

Chapter Eight
The Malfoy Puzzle


The vision before Ron didn’t appear rational or real. He couldn’t move, startled by the sight of Harry damn near naked and standing on the edge of a lake in the freezing cold.

What is he doing?

Before Ron could call out, his best mate dived into the water.

“No! Harry!”

Ron ran as fast as he could until he reached the frozen lake. Without thinking, he dived into the gaping hole Harry had created. The sensation of ice-cold water hit his body like a thousand knives, stabbing him all over. He could see Harry, but he couldn’t reach him. Ron tried to swim harder, but the water was dense like molasses.

And Harry kept sinking.

‘This is all your fault!’ a voice laden with loathing shouted in his head.

His best mate was drowning because he had deserted them. He hadn’t been where he needed to be in order to prevent this. If he would have just kept his emotions in check and resisted the poison of the locket, none of this would have happened.

Ron summoned all of his strength, pushing forward through the prison of ice water. Harry was so close, but now his eyes were closed.

“Harry!” he cried, water filling his mouth.

He didn’t care; Ron grabbed hold of his best friend, kicking furiously until they reached the surface.

Please don’t be dead, Harry.

Harry’s eyes flew open, and Ron felt overjoyed with relief until the boy in his arms released a gut-wrenching scream.

The ice-cold water of the lake began to bubble up, and when Ron looked down at Harry, he no longer recognised his friend’s face. The skin was running like a wax mask set to extreme heat, melting in great gobs and dripping over Ron’s arms into the boiling lake.

There was a circle of fire around the lake’s edge, trapping them. Some of the flames were as high as Fiendfyre.

Ron had seen flames like that before…

No! he told himself. What’s done is done. Fire can’t follow you. Not here.

Only it was here, in his dreams, and Ron couldn’t wake himself up.

Wake up, you stupid git! It’s not real. It can’t be.

But it was, at least here. Sweat dripped off Ron’s face, and he could feel his body heating up. The fire was closing in, spreading over the water like the lake was made of pure petrol.

A burning sensation spread throughout his body, scorching Ron's skin until there was only pain. But his hands were still intact and they were still holding Harry’s melting body.

“I’m never going to let you go, Harry. I’ll never desert you again, I swear. No matter what.”

He searched Harry’s face for any sign of understanding, of consciousness, but Harry’s eyes were gone. They had burst like overcooked marshmallows, sliding down the cheekbones of his bloody skull.

That’s when Ron woke up screaming.

He heard himself before he saw anything. When his eyes finally came into focus, he saw that they were all surrounding his bed: Neville, Dean, Seamus, and Harry.

“Ron, it’s all right. It’s all right, mate,” Harry was saying, sitting on the bed.

Dean and Seamus were watching at a distance, as if they might be bitten.

When Ron realised he was still screaming, he clamped his mouth shut and fell back, covering his face with his hands. The bed was soaked, and so was he.

“Perhaps I should get a prefect,” he heard Neville’s frightened voice say.

“No!” Ron said. “Don’t … don’t get anyone. I’m fine.”

“Uh, no you’re not,” Dean said.

“Listen, it was just a bad dream,” Ron insisted, dropping his hands and staring up at all of them shamefully.

“I’ll say,” Seamus said. “Must have been bloody awful. It sounded like you were being murdered.”

“And it wasn’t the first time,” Harry said. “You’ve been having a lot of bad dreams lately.”

All of the boys nodded in agreement.

“I’m sort of getting used to it,” Neville said hesitantly. “But sometimes it’s hard to sleep through.”

Ron inwardly cursed his absent-mindedness. He’d become lax with putting up the Silencing Charm before he went to bed. Suddenly he felt exposed, and despite his wet sheets, he pulled the covers up over him.

“Yeah, you moan and whimper like you’re being cornered or someone is hurting you,” Dean said.

Ron shook his head.

“Yes, Ron. It’s true. You also toss and turn,” Harry said in exasperation. “We’ve all seen it.”

“Yeah, well, so what?” Ron said defensively.

“It keep us up, that’s what,” Seamus said.

“Fine. I’ll make sure to put a Silencing Charm around my bed.”

“Ron, this isn’t just about you keeping us awake,” Harry said. “It’s about you not sleeping well.”

“All right, then, I’ll try to control it,” Ron said resolutely.

“And how are you going to do that?” Seamus asked.

“I’ll take some Calming Draught before bed or maybe even ask Pomfrey for some Dreamless Sleep Potion. I’m sure she has plenty.”

Before they could say another word, Ron quickly rose and grabbed some clothing. He locked himself in the bathroom and took a long shower. When he came out, his friends were gone except for Harry, who was sitting on his bed looking concerned.

“Ready for breakfast?”

Harry didn’t reply, but the worry in his eyes said everything.

Ron sighed. “Harry, I know I gave everyone a fright, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I promise.”

“How can you promise something like that, Ron? You were asleep.”

Ron turned away from him, focusing on his own reflection as he dressed. “I’ll work on it, all right? Just don’t tell Hermione, or Ginny … or anyone.”

“Hermione doesn’t know?” Harry asked in surprise.

“No! Because there’s nothing to know!” Ron snapped, his irritation with Harry’s doting spilling over.

Harry stood up and came over to sit on Ron’s bed.

“Ron, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Sometimes I have nightmares too …”

“Right,” Ron said dismissively.

“I do. I dream about running into Bathilda Bagshot again. Only in my dreams, I don’t escape. Usually, Nagini eats me.”

Ron closed his eyes, willing away the memory of his nightmare and the guilt that came from deserting Harry. He hadn’t been there when the Bathilda incident occurred, and he hated that.

“And I have nightmares about Gringotts too,” Harry continued. “Every time you tell that bloody story, it gives me the creeps.”

Ron chuckled, surprised by his friend’s admission. “Really?”

Harry nodded. “Yeah. But Ron, every time I have a really bad nightmare like that, I talk to Ginny about it, and somehow that makes it better.”

Ron quietly grunted. Although it was good to hear that Harry had started opening up to someone for a change, Ron hardly thought talking about his nightmares with Hermione would make him feel better. She’d probably think he was mental or something.

“Last year was … absolutely insane,” Harry continued. “We went through a lot. More than most people do in a lifetime.”

“More than I ever want to see again,” Ron added, slipping on his robes.

“Right, and it’s okay if you still have nightmares, or if there’s still … stuff you need to work out. But you can’t work it out on your own, mate. You have to talk to someone. Me, Hermione, maybe even Ginny.”

“Well isn’t this interesting!” Ron said sarcastically. “As I recall, you used to hate talking about stuff like this…”

“That was before,” Harry said. “and besides, you and Hermione always managed to pull it out of me. Even when I thought I had to do it alone, you two would remind me that I couldn’t.”

Ron gave Harry a dismissive headshake. “I just need to pull myself together, Harry. These dreams … they’ll go away soon enough. This is the first one I actually remembered, really. Maybe that’s a sign that the worst of them is almost over.”

Harry gave him a sceptical look but nodded reluctantly. “Perhaps.”

Ron did one last comb of his hair and clapped his hands. “Come on, enough talk! Let’s eat!”

~~~*~~~


That evening at dinner, there was a noticeable buzz and more chatter than usual. No sooner than they had taken their seats did the Headmistress take the podium.

“Good evening to all of you. We have a very special announcement,” she said, her voice revealing uncharacteristic excitement.

“I am very pleased to inform you that Restoration Team Number Three has completed its assignment. The Astronomy Tower is now fully restored and accessible to advanced students. Eighth years will have unrestricted access within curfew hours, of course. All others must have a note or be attending lessons to visit.”

The members of Restoration Team Number Three from Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor were all cheering, while the rest of the Great Hall congratulated them with loud praise and clapping. It was the first finished Restoration project.

Ron leaned over to make eye contact with Hermione. Her face was radiant with pride. When Ron gave her a congratulatory smile and kiss on the cheek, her smile widened.

He glanced up at the Slytherin table and saw Malfoy watching the celebration. He appeared pensive, and Ron found himself wondering what he thought about the restoration of the Astronomy Tower.

After dinner, the older pupils all went up to have a look at the Tower. There was a sombre silence as they ascended the winding stairway and gathered around the tower’s wall. Ron watched as Harry walked right up to the ledge and peered over, his eyes cast directly below.

Ginny put a hand on his shoulder, and Hermione came round to his other side. Ron followed her.

“I can’t believe so much time has passed,” Harry said softly.

“He’d be proud of you, Harry,” Hermione said.

“I think he’d be proud of all of us,” Harry said, smiling at her and then at Ron. As hard as he tried, Ron just couldn’t return Harry’s smile. The flush of shame was creeping up his neck into his cheeks. All he could think of was how wise and perceptive Dumbledore had been. Wise enough to gift Ron a Deluminator, because somehow Dumbledore had known he’d need it. Somehow he’d known Ron would leave.

As Ron gazed out at the starlit sky and the expansive fields just beyond the courtyard below, the memory of the battles fought and lost became real. Fred’s last expression wormed its way into his thoughts once again. Had he done enough? Could he have done more?

“Ron,” Hermione whispered, slipping her arms around his waist and laying her head on his chest. Her body should have been a comfort, but he felt cold, inside and out. As he tried to mentally erase the image of Fred’s face, a morbid thought slithered into his head: perhaps a piece of him had died with Fred, and life would always be a little duller now.

There was an audible hush among those gathered, and several people turned their heads towards the entrance of the Tower.

Silence ensued as Draco Malfoy walked slowly towards them. He appeared unaffected by the visible sneers and glares as he approached an empty space by the wall.

“You have some nerve coming up here, Malfoy,” said an eighth year Ravenclaw boy.

There were agreeing murmurs, and then Hermione spoke. “Quiet, all of you. This Tower was rebuilt to honour the dead. Don’t shame them with your pettiness.”

Ron watched as people shifted awkwardly. Harry stared at Malfoy for a long moment before turning his attention back to the field over the wall. Quietly, in small groups, people began to leave, until there was only Harry, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, Luna, Ron, and Malfoy.

They all stayed, listening to the quiet of the night, to the cold November wind whispering remembrances they’d never forget until finally Harry turned his back.

“I think I’m going to turn in,” he said.

Ginny squeezed him round the waist, and they walked out together. Luna and Neville followed shortly after.

Hermione sighed. “It is getting late; come on, Ron.”

“Uh, why don’t you go on. I think I want to stay a little while longer,” he said.

Hermione looked up at him curiously and then over at Malfoy. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah …”

She gave him one last concerned glance and turned to leave.

Once Hermione was gone, Ron turned back to the wall, looking out. It was a beautiful view. It was hard to believe that so much ugliness had consumed it just months before. He glanced to his left, and saw Malfoy leaning over the wall as if straining to see something. When he pulled back, he gave Ron an irritated eye roll.

“If you’re staying because you think I’m going to jump or something, you’re even dimmer than I thought,” Malfoy said.

Ron gave him a puzzled glance and snorted.

“You think that’s funny?”

“Yeah, I think the idea of you taking your own life is pretty far-fetched. You’re way too into yourself.”

Malfoy looked surprised by Ron’s insult but then smirked.

Ron frowned. They were standing on a memorial— Dumbledore’s memorial— and here Malfoy stood, alive and well, looking as if nothing had happened.

Malfoy’s smirk faded as Ron’s lingering resentment and anger charged the air between them like a warming charm.

“I know what you’re thinking, Weasley.”

“Do you now?”

“Yes. You and the others think I have no right to be up here. That this is some sort of sacred place, and my presence defiles it.”

Ron stiffened as the words “you’re damn right” sat heavy on the tip of his tongue.

“But you’re wrong. You’re all wrong.”

“You were going to kill him,” Ron said accusingly.

“But I didn’t.”

“You might as well have,” Ron said, his voice rising. “Either way, it all ended the same, didn’t it? He’s dead.”

“Yes.” Malfoy said quietly. “But not because of me.”

Ron gave Malfoy a disgusted look. “Save your excuses, Malfoy. It’s too late. He’s gone.”

Something that resembled sadness flickered in Malfoy’s eyes before he abruptly turned to leave.

Ron moved quickly to block his path.

“Get out of my way, Weasel,” Malfoy said with a steely, quiet voice. “I don’t have to explain myself to someone like you.”

“Someone like me?” Ron snapped. “And what’s that supposed to mean? Someone you tormented just because my family associated with the “wrong sort”. Or someone who doesn’t have galleons falling out of his arse? Or did you mean someone who fought on the right side while you helped that monster? Innocent people died while you and your lot were trying to save your arses. You’re a coward, Malfoy. And that’s why everyone thinks you don’t deserve to be up here.”

Malfoy’s face tightened as he moved closer to Ron, who stood his ground, his hand reaching into his pocket to wrap around his wand.

“A coward, eh? Then why didn’t I kill him?”

“I just told you … you were too chicken.”

“So if I had killed him, that would have made me brave?” Malfoy questioned, one eyebrow raised.

Ron opened his mouth and then shut it, temporarily baffled by the question. Of course that’s not what he had meant.

“Tell me, Weasley, what exactly were my options? The Dark Lord threatened to kill my entire family if I didn’t kill Dumbledore. A year ago, I was still ashamed I couldn’t go through with it. But now … now, I’m proud I didn’t do it, and if that makes me a coward, then so be it,” Malfoy said, pushing past Ron to walk towards the stairs.

Stubbornness kept Ron in place, while sympathy and confusion compelled him to speak.

“Malfoy!” he called.

Footsteps slowed, but the boy didn’t turn around.

“I didn’t know.”

“Of course you didn’t. You never bothered to ask …” Malfoy said before disappearing down the stairs, leaving Ron feeling like he didn’t really know who Draco Malfoy was at all.

~~~*~~~


Ron awoke the next morning with Malfoy on his mind. It was if someone had given him a new game to learn or puzzle to solve. Ron wondered how much Harry knew about Malfoy’s situation during sixth year. He had never heard Malfoy or anyone mention that Voldemort had blackmailed him to assassinate Dumbledore. During Malfoy’s trial after the war, Snape’s role as a double spy and Lucius Malfoy’s role as a Death Eater figured heavily in Malfoy’s defence. According to the Wizengamot, Malfoy's status as a minor at the time made him susceptible to coercion and bad influence, quickly laying all questions about his part in Dumbledore’s death to rest — at least for the public. For the pupils at Hogwarts, all the evidence in the world couldn't change the fact that Malfoy had tried to kill Dumbledore.

Throughout the day, Ron found himself sneaking glances at the boy while combing through his memories to re-examine their past interactions. Perhaps there had been clues he’d missed. That was how he caught a fifth year Slytherin boy levitating a glass of pumpkin juice over Malfoy’s head at lunch. Ron winced as a vision of Malfoy’s humiliation flashed before his eyes. He couldn’t bloody well pull out his wand and shield Malfoy in front of everyone; it was too obvious. But thankfully, he didn’t need to. Malfoy seemed to sense something foul was afoot, and looked up moments before, withdrawing his wand to send the glass of juice back to it owner, its contents splashing into the boy’s face.

There were shocked gasps and glares thrown Malfoy’s way, but he didn’t seem to notice or care and continued eating as if nothing had happened at all.

Ron chuckled to himself, mildly impressed by the way Malfoy kept his cool despite being the target of endless pranks and bullying.

When grey eyes glanced up to meet his, Ron gave the boy a small congratulatory smile.

Malfoy returned it with a sneer and rose from the table.

Near him, Ron could hear whispering. He looked over and saw that his friends weren’t sitting beside him anymore. Seamus, Dean, Neville, Harry, Ginny, and Hermione were all gathered over something in the center of the table.

“What’s going on?” he asked, squeezing in between Hermione and Harry.

The Daily Prophet was spread out, with moving pictures of McGonagall waving her hand before the cameras as if trying to shoo them away.

“The paper says there’s been a suicide attempt here,” Hermione said. “Some parents are calling for a formal investigation. It says McGonagall has no comment on the matter, and that the Governors have issued a statement that swift attention will be given to the matter.”

“Suicide?” Ron said, flabbergasted. “Who?”

“It doesn’t say,” Hermione said. “They’re protecting the identity of the pupil, but there are already rumours that it’s a Ravenclaw.”

“Who do guys think it is?” Ginny whispered.

“Not sure,” Neville said in a hushed voice. “But I heard it was Mandy...”

“Mandy Stuart?” Ron asked in disbelief.

“Yes, that one. But I heard different. Someone told me it was Padma,” Seamus said.

Dean nodded. “That’s what I heard as well. She does have a history of being really emotional, and you guys remember what Alecto did her last year.”

Ron watched Ginny’s face go pale. He wished he could ask what Alecto Carrow had done to Padma but then again, he really didn’t want to know.

“No,” Harry said, shaking his head. “She wouldn’t ... she and her sister are too close. Parvati wouldn’t let this sort of thing happen.”

“How do you know for sure, Harry?” Hermione asked. “Parvati can’t be everywhere Padma is; they’re in different Houses.”

“Right,” Dean said. “It could be anyone, really. And they say it’s the second attempt this year.”

Ron scoffed. “Second? That’s rubbish. If someone had tried to kill themselves here, we’d know about it.”

They all looked at each other uneasily.

“What?” Ron asked, looking at his friends in alarm. “Do you guys know something I don’t?”

Ginny bit her lip. “No, Ron. It’s just that … there’ve been all sorts of unexplained absences and loads of people coming in and out of the hospital wing. Who knows what they’re being treated for.”

Ron thought back to when he had visited Malfoy, there had been several curtains drawn, but he hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.

Seamus nodded. “Kenneth said he heard that there’s a cutter in Hufflepuff.”

“A cutter? You mean—”

“Someone who cuts themselves for relief,” Hermione finished.

Ron swallowed. “Who?”

“He won’t say, just that it’s an eighth year.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more than one in Hufflepuff,” Dean remarked. “They had it pretty bad last year.”

“All of us did,” Seamus said with a steely voice. His mouth thinned and he turned his eyes away from Ron’s questioning stare.

Ron looked to Harry uneasily. “What do you think is going on?”

Harry sighed. “I think people are having a tough time getting over last year.”

“Last year?” Ginny said. “Try the past four years, Harry. Last year was just the worst of it. I don’t care how many new bricks or decorations we put up. You can’t erase all of the bad that’s happened here.”

“Ginny, we’re doing the best we can,” Hermione said in a delicate voice. “Rebuilding is a good start. All we can do is stay positive and try to make things better.”

“No Hermione, what you, McGonagall, and the Governors want to do is cover up everything and pretend like it never happened. And it’s not working very well, is it? I actually think its making things worse.”

Hermione’s face flushed and Ron could tell she was trying to maintain her composure as she replied to Ginny in a steady voice. “That’s not true. The Restoration teams are designed to increase communication by bringing people together to work towards a common goal. And it’s working; people from different Houses are talking more. How can that be any worse than it already is?”

“Hermione, everyone appreciates what you’re trying to do,” Dean said, “but this is a whole lot bigger than rebuilding the school.”

“So what do you suggest, Dean?” Hermione asked. All eyes were on her, and Ron could see the slight tremor in her hands as she continued to speak. “That we do nothing? Simply let the school drown in misery and bad memories? We don’t have to forget the past, but we have to keep moving forward or we’ll just get stuck.”

“Well, it looks like some of us already are,” Ginny said, glancing over to the Ravenclaws where a round of jeers had just broken out. A crumpet flew from the Ravenclaw table and landed on the plate of a Slytherin girl. Before anyone could react, several more pieces of breakfast food were being thrown towards the Slytherin table.

Several Slytherins threw food back while others used levitation, making targets out of particular Ravenclaws. Luna held a newspaper over her head as several breakfast items flew her way.

The Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs were all leaning over, watching the food fight, some in amusement, others in shock.

“What the bloody hell?” Ron asked.

Hermione looked outraged. “Oh, this is ridiculous!”

“What are they doing?” Harry asked. “I’ve never seen Ravenclaws act like this.”

Hermione shook her head. “They’re retaliating because they think Slytherins are to blame for what happened to their housemate!”

“That doesn’t make any sense. How could an entire house be responsible for someone trying to take their own life?” Ron asked.

Ginny gave her brother a weary look. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

Harry, Ron, and Hermione all stared at Ginny, waiting for her explain. Ginny exchanged a quick glance with Neville, Seamus and Dean who seemed to understand.

“The Slytherins had it good last year,” Ginny explained. “Really good. The Carrows, and even Snape, let them do anything they wanted. It wasn’t bad enough that the teachers were torturing some of us, but then we’d get it again from our own classmates. What some of the Slytherins did…” Ginny paused, clearly flustered. “Ron, I can’t even talk about it without getting upset. I’m not sure that can ever be erased.”

Hermione opened her mouth, but Ron put a hand on her arm to deter her. She huffed in frustration and took a seat, clearly irritated. Everyone else remained standing, watching as the food fight escalated. Prefects and professors were running to and fro, confiscating wands and making threats, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

The lack of order, defiance, and anger in the room was suffocating. Ron couldn’t even bring himself to take a seat; he needed to escape.

“I’m getting out here,” he said.

“Ron, we should stay and help the prefects diffuse the situation,” Harry insisted.

“Uh, well, it’s just that I have a few things to tend to before the next lesson. I’ll catch up with you guys later,” Ron said quickly, turning before Harry could question him.

Ron practically ran out of the Great Hall, anxious to find a place where he didn’t feel so trapped by anger, pain, and confusion. But leaving didn’t help. His anxiety remained, hanging on like a bad cold, and when lessons finally resumed, the tension he’d been trying to avoid seemed to close in on him from all sides. The events at breakfast had unleashed the great hippogriff in the room that no one wanted to discuss: the betrayal and pain from last year. There was no way of escaping it. It was in the faces of his peers, the worried expressions of his professors, and it lingered in the strained silence of the hallways as pupils made their way to their next lesson.

Everywhere Ron tried to hide, the tension found him, until finally that night, he found some solace in the Great Hall. Unlocked and dark except for a few torches, it was empty, undisturbed and unfettered by House rivalries. There were bad memories here, yes, but they paled in comparison to the memories that haunted other parts of the castle, and one area in particular. Ron shuddered as he thought of his last dream. He took a seat and conjured up a chessboard.

He played against himself until the elves pushed him out to clean. By the time he left, it was very late. The castle was deadly silent, and Ron figured it had to be past curfew, which was irrelevant— Filch didn’t seem to care what the eighth years did. He always was more focused on terrorizing fresh new faces. The hallways were very dark save the faint light from one lone wand up ahead. Probably the prefects on patrol, Ron thought. He slid into the shadows, waiting for the girls to pass. When the glow cast by the 'Lumos' dimmed, he made his way towards the stairs leading to the Astronomy Tower.

The winding stairway was narrow and he could barely see one foot in front of the other until he reached the middle, where the moonlight began to spill, shedding light. He exhaled as the fresh autumn air kissed his face. When he reached the top of the stairs he stopped, his eyes fixed on a figure leaning over the wall. The boy was slight, tall, with pale blond hair falling over the collar.

Malfoy turned around immediately, as if sensing Ron’s presence. “Oh, great,” he drawled with an eye roll.

“Happy to see you too,” Ron said dryly, walking over to stand a few feet to the left of him.

They stood in silence, the cold air slapping their faces, and all Ron could think was that it was better than fire.

“What are you doing up here, Weasley?”

“Dunno. Can’t sleep … why are you up here?”

Malfoy didn’t answer. Only the wind and forest replied. Ron could hear the distant sounds of creatures in the Forbidden Forest. The open lawn just beyond the courtyard oddly reminded him of the Burrow, and he was struck with sudden sadness, realising just how unhappy he was.

“What a year this is shaping up to be,” he murmured to himself.

“Yeah,” Malfoy replied, his eyes still on the courtyard below.

Ron blinked. For a moment he’d almost forgot that Malfoy was standing beside him. He could feel himself tensing as he became more aware of the boy. They had nothing in common, nothing nice to say to each other, nothing to talk about. But the silence was deafening, so Ron said the first thing that popped in his head to end it.

“Did you hear about Mandy?” he blurted out.

Malfoy turned his head. “What about her?”

Ron swallowed. “Well, I heard she might have tried to kill herself.”

“How do you know it was Mandy?” Malfoy asked. “I heard it was a Hufflepuff.”

Ron’s eyes widened. “Really? Who?”

Malfoy shrugged. “Pick one. Seems like Pomfrey is treating half the house.”

“For trying to kill themselves?”

“For depression, Weasely. Cutting, panic attacks— you name it … that house is full of overly sensitive dimwits.”

Ron narrowed his eyes, angered by Malfoy’s insult of Hufflepuff. “Seen a few of your lot coming out of Pomfrey's as well.”

Malfoy scoffed. “Just a few, I’m sure. And probably for good reason. It's not easy being the pariahs of the school. Oh, I forgot who I was talking to, Mr Popular.”

“I’ve had some experience with not being popular,” Ron said defensively. “It hasn’t been easy being Harry’s best mate.”

Malfoy rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, you never had to walk down the hallway and wonder if someone was going to hex you, did you?”

Ron remained silent as uncomfortable sympathy took root.

Malfoy gave Ron an irritated glance and turned to look out at past the courtyard to the field once again.

Ron stared at the side of the boy’s head where he could see a bruise fading. For some maddening reason he felt partially responsible. He wanted to apologise on behalf of his house, but pride kept him from going that far.

“Sounds like you guys are having a rough time of it,” Ron offered instead.

“As if you didn’t know! Your house is to blame. They’ve set the entire school against us,” Malfoy said bitterly.

Old pride and annoyance surfaced as Ron sneered. “Yeah, well, you know what they say: what comes around goes around.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean, Weasley? You think it’s right or fair that the Gryffindors get to terrorize the school?”

“They’re just doing what you did last year, or so I heard,” Ron retorted.

“I wasn’t even here for most of the year, you twat,” Malfoy replied.

“I’m talking about your house, Ferret. Your lot had it easy, from what I hear,” Ron said.

Malfoy scoffed. “I hardly think last year was easy for anyone.”

Ron was determined not to feel any contrition for Malfoy or Slytherin. He was certain that at least some of the treatment they were receiving was justified.

“Well, they certainly had it better than the rest.”

“So now it’s time to take it out on us, is that it?” Malfoy asked, standing up straight, his eyes challenging. “You Gryffindors really are a piece of work. Hypocrites, the whole lot of you. You talk about honour and courage and then turn around and try to justify taking revenge.”

“I didn’t say it was justified, Malfoy.”

“You might as well have.”

The silence between them was taut with old grudges and memories Ron wanted to forget. This wasn’t the escape he’d been seeking. Constant stress seemed to follow him everywhere like a curse, and Ron was too tired to run away from it anymore.

“Bloody hell. I don’t even really care about any this shit. I don’t even really know what it’s all about. I wasn’t here either. I’m just sick of it.” Ron put his head in his hand and leaned against the wall.

Malfoy didn’t reply, and somehow that was the perfect response. Ron exhaled and closed his eyes. “I wish I had never came back.”

He waited for a taunt, but instead he heard a soft sigh. Ron peered through his hand to gaze at Malfoy.

Malfoy turned to look at him. “What?”

“Why did you come back? You had to know it wouldn’t be easy.”

“You wouldn’t understand, Weasley,” Malfoy said flatly.

“Try me.”

Malfoy took a visible breath, looking out to the field. “Sometimes you just have to do the opposite of what people think you’ll do.”

“So you’re here to prove a point or something?”

Malfoy huffed. “I’m here because I was invited back, just like you. I want to finish school. And no one is going to tell me I can’t!”

Taken aback by Malfoy’s spirited response, Ron didn’t reply. The determination and fire in those grey eyes cooled as Malfoy took a breath.

“What about you, Weasley? Why did you come back?” he asked almost casually.

Ron shrugged. “I suppose because everyone expected me to. And Hermione and Harry are here … it would have been weird not seeing them the entire year. Although, I probably could have just waited until the holidays to see them. I’m sure I could have kept myself busy in the meantime.”

“Doing what?” Malfoy asked.

Ron thought of his brother, George, who seemed a million miles away right now. As he thought of the joke shop George and Fred had prided themselves on, nostalgia for happier times swept over him. “Dunno. Probably help George run the shop ... if you weren’t here, what would you be doing?”

“I’m not sure,” Malfoy replied softly.

“You don’t really ever have to work, do you?” Ron asked.

The reproach in Malfoy’s glare was scathing. “I’m not some lazy sod who wants to sit on my arse, living off my parents. I would find something to do.”

Ron’s eyebrows rose. Who would have known Malfoy had ambitions other than being rich?

“Right,” Ron said uneasily as he realised any further conversation would be venturing into uncharted territory. And he had no intention of doing that with Malfoy. “Well, uh, it’s getting late. I probably should be turning in.”

Malfoy didn’t reply, his eyes were still set on the fields.

“I’ll see you in the Restoration group, yeah?” Ron said awkwardly.

Malfoy grunted, but didn’t respond or turn around. Ron stared at him for a moment, another question on the tip of his tongue before he decided he’d spent entirely too much time with Draco Malfoy for one night and turned to leave.

But even though Ron had made the excuse to turn in for bed, it was a few hours before he managed to get any sleep.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Nine
Sleeping Aid


The following morning at breakfast, Ron and Malfoy exchanged a brief glance before Malfoy returned to his usual 'ignore the world' routine. Ron tried to do the same until Hermione gave him a wet kiss on his cheek. Temporarily startled, Ron turned to stare at her.

“What?” she asked. “Am I not allowed to give my boyfriend a kiss now?”

“Sure, you can give me as many kisses as you like,” Ron said with a grin. “As long as I get to kiss you as well.”

“Of course,” Hermione said, beaming.

Ron felt a measure of accomplishment. For the first time in several weeks, he hadn’t totally mucked up a romantic interaction with her.

When their kiss broke, Hermione nuzzled up to his ear. “A few of the eighth years are heading over to Hogsmeade on Sunday. You want to come?”

Ron sighed. “Well …”

Hermione pulled back, her smile fading. “It’s Hogsmeade, Ron. You love Hogsmeade.”

“I know, it’s just that I have a lot of studying to do. Charms is really giving me a rough time,” he said, giving her a troubled look.

Hermione gave him a sympathetic smile as she lifted her hand to his cheek. “I never thought I’d see the day you’d skip Hogsmeade to study.”

“Yeah. Crazy, eh?”

She laughed, running a hand over his head. “As long as you’re studying, I won’t bother you about it.”

Ron smiled to see her so happy, wishing he felt the same.

~~~*~~~


Sunday morning arrived, and all of the eighth years were preparing to leave for Hogsmeade, all of them except for Ron, Malfoy, and Goyle. Everyone watched as a prefect argued with Goyle about the thermos in his hand. Goyle insisted that it only contained water, but the prefect wanted to take a whiff. Ron could tell that it was going to end badly. Ever since they had returned, Goyle had become a shadow of his former self, always lurking about with a cup or thermos in his hand. The prefect’s voice was loud now, and he looked irate. But Goyle’s voice hadn’t risen at all, and he looked rather dead around the eyes, like he had already had a few too many. Finally, the prefect grabbed Goyle by the arm, pulling him back into castle.

There was some murmuring about the scene, but it soon gave way to excited chatter about the trip. As the eighth years gathered, Harry asked Ron if he would re-consider joining them. Ron declined and sent Hermione off with a firm hug and a request to bring him back some chocolate before watching them disappear along the path to Hogsmeade.

The rest of the pupils were scattered throughout the castle, some hanging out in their common room while others lounged about in their dormitory or lingered in the Great Hall.

Ron didn’t want to be in any of those places, and the thought of doing Charms homework made him feel nauseous. The last place he had found some measure of solace, the library—was occupied by pupils, so he wandered to the second best place— hoping he’d find himself alone.

But when he reached the top stair of the Tower, Malfoy was sitting in a chair by the wall with his legs crossed, holding something in his hand.

Their eyes locked. Reluctant to be chased off by Malfoy’s presence, Ron asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Why do you always ask me that?” Malfoy asked in annoyance. “Same reason you’re here. It’s the only place to find a bit of peace, isn’t it?”

Ron scowled in frustration. There was no solitude to be found here.

Malfoy sniggered.

“What?” Ron asked defensively.

“You really are wound up this year, Weasley. You just got up here, and you’re already set to have a row with me.”

Ron clenched his teeth. “I just want to find a place where I can be alone, is all.”

“Well I won’t talk, if you won’t.” Malfoy offered. “You won’t even know I’m here.”

Ron eyed him strangely. Did Malfoy just invite him to sit with him?

Before Ron could think on it further, Malfoy brought the thing in his hand to his mouth. Ron cautiously walked closer, peering at the object. It was a very small, silver vase-looking thing with a thin metal pipe sticking out of it. Malfoy put the tip of the pipe between his lips and inhaled deeply.

Ron watched in fascination as Malfoy’s eyes drooped halfway closed. He seemed to be holding his breath, and then he exhaled a cloud of smoke.

When Malfoy opened his eyes to look up at him, Ron felt his face flush. It felt like he had intruded on something dirty and private.

“Oh, relax, and have a seat,” Malfoy said.

Ron looked around but there were no extra chairs. Malfoy gave him a pitying headshake. “Honestly Weaslebee, you’re an eighth year. You should be able to conjure up a chair by now.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to talk?” Ron grumbled before conjuring a chair from the dining hall.

Malfoy rolled his eyes, taking another puff of the small pipe thing.

Ron waved his hand in front of his face. The smoke didn’t even smell like the regular pipes Dumbledore used to smoke. Whatever Malfoy was smoking was distinctly more pungent, rank even.

“What are you staring at?” Malfoy asked with annoyance.

Ron grimaced. “You. What are you smoking?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Draco replied smartly.

“Well if it’s not tobacco, it must be grass…I can’t believe you’re smoking that stuff. It’s rather … Muggleish, isn’t it?”

Malfoy gave him an once-over, the look reminiscent of their first encounter when he had cut Ron down to size for his second-hand robes. “It’s a shame—your family is so enamoured with the Muggle world that you can’t even distinguish between a wizarding practice and Muggle one.”

Ron tightened his fist as he glared back at Malfoy.

“There’s nothing Muggle about hashish, Weasley. Although I hear Muggles have stolen the practice and claimed it as their own,” Malfoy said with disdain. “It’s been around for centuries, long before your precious Muggles ever discovered it.”

“I don’t care what you call it; you’re doing drugs,” Ron accused.

Malfoy held up his chin, looking at Ron defiantly. “It's legal in the wizarding world and a perfectly acceptable form of relaxation for wizards. In fact, it’s practiced by some of the most powerful wizards all over the world.”

Ron frowned. “Oh yeah? Then how come I don’t know anyone who does it?”

“Perhaps because you don’t know anyone who can afford to do it,” Malfoy quipped.

Ron scoffed. “I’m sure Harry could afford it if he wanted to. But who wants to go around smelling like that?”

Malfoy narrowed his eyes. “The smell isn’t that bad. Besides, there are spells for distinguishing the odour.”

“Whatever you say,” Ron said. “It smells bloody disgusting … never would have figured you for the type.”

Malfoy lips thinned for a second, but then a smile broke. He shook his head at Ron, took another drag, and then sat back as if he was resigned to not argue.

Ron sat stiff, watching the boy closely as he exhaled.

“Weasley, you have no idea. I’m full of surprises.”

A strange discomfort hit Ron as he realised he was gawking at Malfoy like the blond was the new kid in school or something. But he couldn’t help it; for some reason, Ron’s curiosity was piqued. What other surprises did Malfoy have to reveal?

“You know, even if it is legal, it’s not allowed up here or even in the castle, really,” Ron remarked.

“Yeah, well, neither is casting hexes in the hallways or beating the crap out of people, but that still goes on, doesn’t it?” Malfoy retorted.

Ron forced out a question he expected wouldn’t be answered. “Is that why you didn’t go to Hogsmeade?”

Malfoy’s face became tight as he tried to veil his anger.

“Having a Butterbeer while people whisper about me or throw things at my back isn’t my idea of fun. Besides, the Butterbeer isn’t that great.”

“It’s really good,” Ron argued.

Malfoy looked away. “Not when you’re drinking it alone. Anyway, what’s your excuse? Don’t you have a girlfriend you should be tending to?”

Ron began to gnaw at the inside of his lip. “She’ll be all right without me. Harry and the rest are with her. I wasn’t really in the mood to go.”

Malfoy raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. Ron dropped his eyes, hating the self-loathing thoughts whispering in his head.

“You better be careful, Weasley. She just might get used to not having you around.”

“Mind your own business, Malfoy,” Ron snapped.

Malfoy looked smug, evidently pleased he’d pushed a button.

Ron assessed him more closely under the guise of contempt.

There were bags under the boy’s eyes, and another fresh bruise was beginning to darken right beneath his jaw line.

“Stop staring at me!” Malfoy said sharply.

But Ron couldn't stop looking at the boy's injuries. “They’re really laying into you, aren’t they? Don’t you have any friends in your House?”

“I don’t need friends, Weasley,” Malfoy said hauntingly. “What I need is for self-righteous Gryffindors like you to stay the fuck out of my business.”

“Fine,” Ron said tersely.

“And for your information,” Malfoy added quickly. “I do have friends. Maybe not as many as an Order of Merlin, First Class can buy, but at least I know they’re genuine.”

Ron rolled his eyes, but his mind was quickly trying to figure out who in the world Malfoy could be referring to. It couldn’t be Goyle; he never saw them occupy the same space for more than five minutes unless they were forced to, and Ron hadn’t seen Malfoy talking or eating with anyone since the school year started. Still, he did notice that Nott and his friends had mellowed out considerably. Had some sort of truce been struck?

He wanted to ask, but he figured he was already over the limit as far as questions were concerned. What exactly he and Malfoy could talk about, Ron didn’t know.

Malfoy leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out and crossing them. With his eyes half drawn and his head tilted back, he exhaled, making funny shapes with his smoke. For someone so bruised and friendless, he looked perfectly content and relaxed.

In that moment, Ron envied him.

Malfoy opened his eyes a little wider, peering at Ron from his reclined position. “You want some, don’t you?”

“No thanks. I bet it gives you bad breath,” Ron said.

“Suit yourself.”

The smell alone disgusted Ron, but as he watched Malfoy pull another long drag and exhale slowly as if he was expelling everything bad inside of him, Ron desired that feeling too.

“Well, maybe just one puff,” Ron said with an unsure voice.

Malfoy smirked and sat up, looking at the pipe and then Ron as if contemplating something. “You’ve never done this before, Weasley, so just do what I say.”

Ron waived his hand impatiently. “Whatever, just hand it over. It can’t be very complicated.”

Malfoy gave him an amused smile, holding it out. Ron took it and Malfoy leaned in.

Ron studied it. The vase part of the pipe looked like black marble, but the top was definitely silver, with tiny thin serpents lining the edges. Ron narrowed his eyes, suddenly sceptical.

“Well, put in your mouth,” Malfoy chastised.

“Right,” Ron said, slowly bringing the pipe of the strange smelling object to his lips. He looked down his nose at the circular opening at the top.

“You have to inhale first, Weasley,” Malfoy said with amusement in his voice.

Ron froze momentarily, frowning. “I know that,” he said irritably.

There was a moment of brief panic in Ron’s chest, but he quickly decided that if Malfoy could do it, so could he. He took a deep breath, sucking on the tip. A cloud of smoke filled his mouth, spilling into his lungs. The loss of air was startling, and immediately Ron began to cough, bowling over as he tried to find air again.

Above him, Malfoy chuckled, and the thought of coming up with an upper left cut briefly crossed Ron’s mind. But he was in no shape to fight or talk. He continued coughing until his lungs felt raw and then swallowed several times, trying to make the feeling go away.

When Ron finally looked back up, Malfoy was watching him with that infuriating smirk on his face.

“You all right there, Weasley?”

Ron nodded, clearing his throat once more.

“You inhaled entirely too hard.”

Ron grunted, but it lacked any bite. He could feel his head becoming woozy, and whatever anger he would have normally felt towards Malfoy was slipping from him like water through fingers.

Ron took a breath, coughed a little and breathed out, relaxing in the chair as he looked out across the wall.

For once he could see the field just beyond the courtyard for what it was. There were no war-torn images flashing before his eyes. In fact, the only thing Ron could think of was how beautiful the sky was, and how much, in that moment, he wanted to fly.

~~~*~~~


Ron and Malfoy didn’t leave the Tower until dinner, returning to their tables as if they didn’t know each other at all. The Great Hall was filled with lots of chatter, and everyone in his house was already there. Ron’s eyes immediately found Hermione’s when she flashed a brilliant smile.

Ron ran a hand over his face to check if Malfoy’s odour disintegration spell had actually done its job. Satisfied, he walked over to join his cohorts.

Hermione stood up to greet him. “Ron! Where have you been? We came back almost two hours ago.”

“Oh, really?” Ron said, genuinely surprised. “Uh, I got through with studying earlier than I thought and decided to walk around a bit.”

Hermione gave him a curious look that made Ron feel self-conscious. What if she could tell? But then she turned around and reached down to grab something from her seat.

“Your favourite,” she beamed, handing him a bag of gummy flobberworms.

“Oh, Hermione,” Ron gushed, pulling her in for an unabashed kiss on the lips.

There was a wave of ‘oooos’ and whistles from the Gryffindor table, and Ron smiled against her lips as she giggled against his.

“So, this is what I have to do to get you to snog me?” she asked.

Ron's grip behind her back tightened. The relaxed feeling he’d felt on the Tower was quickly dissipating.

His eyes darted to his side, and he saw Harry and Ginny smiling up at them. He let Hermione go and took a seat, Hermione watching him closely as she took hers beside him.

Ron listened in dazed silence as his friends and housemates talked about the Hogsmeade trip and the upcoming Quidditch match. Hermione's hand brushed against his and she smiled at him in an effort to engage him in the conversation, but all Ron could do was give her a half-hearted smile in return. And he was sure it was delayed because she was staring at him like he looked ill or something. He didn’t feel ill, just disconnected and slightly loopy. Actually, it was all rather funny; everyone carrying on about HoneyDukes and the Three Broomsticks like they had never been before. It was all Ron could do not to laugh at them.

He glanced past his sister to find Malfoy. The boy looked the way Ron felt, and they exchanged an amused smile. Soon Ron’s smiling broke into sniggers. His friends all turned to look at him.

“What’s so funny, Ron?”

“What? Ah, nothing,” Ron said, grinning hard. He tried to wipe the smile off his face, but it seemed permanently frozen there.

When dinner was finally over and everyone had returned to the common room, Hermione took his hand into hers and pulled him aside before they reached the stairs.

“All right, out with it,” she demanded. “What’s wrong with you, Ron?”

Ron tried to feign a bemused smile. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’ve been acting really strange. First you back out of Hogsmeade, and then all through dinner you don’t say anything, all the while sitting there looking … dazed like you’re daydreaming or something, and then you start laughing for no apparent reason. Are you feeling all right?” Hermione asked, her brow knitted in concern.

“I’m fine. Better than fine, really,” he lied with forced enthusiasm.

“You keep saying that, Ron but I’m not so sure anymore. You used to enjoy hanging out with me and Harry. You used to make jokes. And the Ron I know would never skip a Hogsmeade trip. You didn’t even touch your gummy worms.”

Ron rolled his eyes. “Oh, for Merlin’s sake, Hermione. Is that what this is about? I’ve offended you because I didn’t eat my sweets?”

“No, Ron, that’s not what I’m saying at all,” Hermione said in frustration.

“Then what are you saying? That I need to hang around and make you laugh more? Well, sometimes I don’t feel like joking around. Is that all right with you?”

“You don’t joke around at all anymore.”

Ron ran his hand through his hair, his mind working furiously on what would be the best possible response to end this conversation. Hermione’s eyes and words felt too prying and he wished he could turn away. There were questions that he didn’t want to think about, assumptions and speculations that made him feel transparent and vulnerable.

“I’ll work on it, OK?” he said finally.

“Ron—”

“That’s all I can do, Hermione! I’ll try harder to be happy!” He knew he sounded frantic, but the look on Hermione’s face was slowly undoing him.

“Ron, please, you’re not listening to me. I don’t want you to put on an act. If you’re not happy, that’s fine. Just don’t shut me out.”

She pulled on his robes, drawing him closer. “Remember last year?”

Ron groaned. That was the last thing he wanted to think about right now.

“Not the bad stuff. The day after it was all over …”

Ron stared down at her as the memory of those first few hours of being with Hermione as more than a friend resurfaced. It had been exciting and confusing. Ron could remember feeling overjoyed that they were finally together, but also feeling devastated by his brother’s death.

“We said we’d always be truthful with each other. No more secrets, no more guessing. Just the truth.”

As Ron looked into Hermione’s eyes, his heart began to melt, and his shoulders slumped in guilt as he thought about how much he had been keeping to himself.

He gave her a small guilty smile. “I remember.”

“That’s all I want, Ron. The truth. You’d tell me if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?”

Ron gripped her tight around the waist, pulling her close as he let his head fall onto her shoulder. Hermione wrapped her arms around him and Ron closed his eyes, hoping the storm in his heart would pass.

When it didn’t, he straightened up. “I’m fine, Hermione. It’s just that … coming back here ... it’s been a little harder than I thought it would be.”

Hermione gave him a understanding smile. “Yes, for me as well. But we have each other. If you need to talk to someone, I’m always here for you.”

Ron nodded. “I know.”

She smiled, taking his hand and squeezing it tight. “We got through last year, we’ll get through this. It may take some time, but you’ll see, sooner or later, everything will return to normal.”

As she stared into his eyes with silent reassurance, for one fleeting moment, Ron almost believed her.

~~~*~~~


Later that night, when Ron awoke drenched in sweat, he could still hear the echoes of Hermione’s screams. No matter how many times he dreamed about Malfoy Manor, the dream never changed. In the dream, he could never will himself to intervene sooner, and so he never made it in time to stop Bellatrix from torturing her. The conclusion was always the same.

As he stared into the dark, listening to his breath return to normal, he could see the faint outlines of his sleeping friends. Even awake, the weak and inept feeling of not being able to help the girl he loved remained. He flung the covers off and tiptoed to the bathroom, where he gave himself a good wipe down before coming out and changing into warm clothing.

His eyes swept the room one last time before sneaking out.

As Ron strode out into the hallway, the feeling of ineptness gave way to a heavy sadness. On any other night, the chilly dark hallways of Hogwarts would have sent him running back to the safety of his bed. But his bed wasn’t a safe haven anymore. Anywhere that would take him away from his dreams would be better.

The snoring of the portraits seemed to mock his inability to sleep, and he wandered deeper into the castle, waiting for drowsiness to sneak up on him. But the more Ron walked, the more he began to despair. Even after endless walking, sleep was nowhere to be found. Only a muted, anxious feeling remained that he couldn’t quite describe or name.

What the hell was he doing?

His eyes barely adjusted in the dark, Ron stopped as his toe stubbed against something.

“Lumos,” he said, lighting the tip of his wand.

It was a statue, the one that stood at the foot of the Tower staircase. How Ron had wandered back to the place he’d spent most of his day, he wasn’t sure.

He jumped as a low groan echoed in the dark. There was a faint clanking noise, like chains being dropped on the stairway. Ron gulped, torn between investigating and running back to his room, when he remembered something Nearly Headless Nick had told him.

“Baron?” Ron croaked, trying to keep the fear out of his voice.

The clanking and groaning stopped. Ron heard a soft grunt, and then the clanking continued, growing louder as the Bloody Baron’s silvery white form emerged from the shadows of the doorway.

He gave Ron a disgruntled look before moving on, resuming his groan as the chains around his body clanked behind him.

Ron sighed in relief and turned to take the stairs up to the Tower. The higher he climbed, the colder it became, but the growing brightness of the moonlight hitting the steps encouraged him to continue.

When Ron reached the top, he almost choked as he spied a familiar silhouette.

“Christ, Malfoy, do you live up here, now?” he asked in annoyance.

Malfoy's head was set back as if he had been staring up at the stars, his longish white blond hair falling over his thick black winter cloak. There was a cloud of newly expelled smoke over his head.

He laughed. “No, but that’s not a bad idea, Weasley. I wonder if McGonagall could have them build an outcast wing for me.”

Ron scrunched up his face, surprisingly disturbed to hear Malfoy refer to himself in such a way.

Malfoy snorted in amusement at his own joke, and then took a long pull of his pipe before exhaling. “It’s nearly 2am. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“Can’t sleep,” Ron mumbled, pulling the arms of his jumper down over his hands. It was quite chilly, but oddly, he found it more comforting than inconvenient. At least the cold air felt real.

Malfoy opened his eyes, and lowered his head to level Ron a stare. “Bollocks isn’t it?”

The knowing in Malfoy’s eyes was unnerving. He seemed to understand something that Hermione and Harry couldn’t. Not that Ron could ever explain it to either one of them what exactly that was.

Ron withdrew his wand, conjuring up a chair from the Great Hall and taking a seat.

Malfoy took another puff and then extended his hand, offering Ron a smoke.

Ron stared at it, remembering the free feeling it had given him.

“Come on, Weasley, take it,” he said, waving it in front of Ron.

Ron reached over, snatching the pipe from Malfoy’s hand.

“You know, I’m still surprised you’d share anything with me. Thought you’d be afraid of getting ‘Weasley germs’ or something.”

Malfoy laughed. It was hearty and loud, and Ron stared at the boy in shock momentarily before remembering why Malfoy was laughing so freely. Ron drew the pipe to his mouth and inhaled carefully.

The smoke filled his mouth and burned his throat. Ron coughed, trying to adjust to it. It only took a few seconds for the burning sensation to subside, and Ron’s anxiety died with it.

Malfoy was holding out his hand insistently, an impatient look crinkling his features. Ron smirked, his former self-doubt fading. He took another puff, this one much longer.

“Weasley, that’s rude! Hand it back over!”

Ron coughed as laughter bubbled up from his belly.

Malfoy snatched the pipe from him, and Ron sniggered as the last bits of nerves disappeared completely, replaced by a heavy feeling of serenity. He plopped back against the chair, his eyes settling on Malfoy’s crown.

“Whatever this stuff is, it’s brilliant. I feel like I could close my eyes right here and go to sleep,” Ron said in contentment.

Malfoy nodded. “Why do you think I smoke it?”

Ron laughed. “Honestly? I thought you were doing it just because we’re not supposed to. Seems like the sort of thing you’d do.”

Malfoy rolled his eyes. “You’re not the only one who can’t sleep, Weasley.”

Ron watched as Malfoy shifted in his chair, averting his eyes as if suddenly abashed.

When the uneasy tension threatened to poke through Ron’s high, he held out his hand with a silent request.

Malfoy’s eyes slowly returned to Ron. He leaned in to pass the pipe to him once more. Ron took another deep drag, handing it back over immediately so as not to make the same mistake twice.

Malfoy took it, but his eyes remained fixed on Ron’s.

“What?”

“Do you ever … have dreams about it?” Malfoy asked, so softly it was almost a whisper. “Last year, I mean.”

Ron gripped the edge of his chair, the hard wood of the armrests offering relief from the mounting pressure building in every nerve of his body.

“Yeah,” he admitted finally, staring at Malfoy plainly. “Sometimes. Do you?”

Malfoy simply nodded.

The silence that followed was filled to the brim with more questions that would never be asked and answers that couldn’t be given. Ron wanted to reach out and ask for another go with the pipe, but the price seemed too high. He wasn’t ready to confess what he’d be dreaming about. Especially to Malfoy.

“I hate fire,” Malfoy said, his eyes sharp with contempt. As soon as he said it, images from daydreams and nightmares flooded Ron’s vision, making him shiver.

Malfoy took another puff and extended his hand.

Ron gave the boy a nod as he accepted. “Yeah. Me too.”

“I thought I’d never get out alive,” Malfoy said, looking up at the sky again.

Ron swallowed the smoke in one gulp, holding it for as long as he could stand in hopes it would be just enough to knock him out completely for the rest of the night.

“Sometimes, I don’t even have to dream,” Malfoy continued. “Sometimes, it just pops in my head. Like in the middle of a lesson or something.”

Finally, Ron exhaled.

“Yeah,” was all he could say, as the welcomed daze of the herb began to take hold.

“And this,” Malfoy said, holding up the pipe. “Is the only thing that seems to make it disappear. It takes the edge off, helps me sleep better.”

“Yeah? So why are you up here at 2 am, then?” Ron sniggered. It wasn’t even funny, but suddenly everything seemed much more amusing.

Malfoy sniggered as well. “Thought I could get through one bloody night without it. Turns out, I was absolutely wrong.”

Ron laughed.

Malfoy laughed with him.

Ron had no idea what they were laughing about, but it felt good.

“So you have regular nightmares too?” Ron asked, when their laughter had settled.

Malfoy nodded. “You?”

“Not really. I mean, once in a while. But it’s really not a big deal,” Ron said.

“You’re lying.”

“Just shut up and pass me that pipe thing. What’s it called?” Ron said, extending his hand.

“A hookah, Weasley,” Draco said, passing it to him once again. “A very rare and expensive hookah. That’s antique silver you’re holding. It’s probably worth more than all of the silverware in the Great Hall.”

Ron grimaced. “Is that supposed to impress me or something?”

“I’m not bragging. You asked me what it was, and I was simply telling you.”

“You’re hopeless,” Ron said with disappointment.

Malfoy’s mouth tightened and the fire in his eyes returned. “You think I’m some rich brat don’t you?”

“I think you’re a prat.”

“You’re not exactly Mr Charming, Weasley. But if you’re nice, I do believe I could educate you in that particular area. ”

Ron stared at Malfoy, dumbfounded. “You? Teach me how to be charming?”

“That’s right,” Draco said proudly.

Ron tried to scowl, but it quickly broke as the absurdity of Malfoy giving him lessons on how to be charming. Laughter tore from somewhere deep inside his chest.

Malfoy attempted a frown, but it soon disintegrated into a smile, and then he too began to laugh. They laughed and laughed for several minutes for no apparent reason until they were both drained of it.

And when they said their goodnights moments later and parted ways to return to their dormitories, Ron continued to smile to himself. Yes, Draco Malfoy was an arrogant prat. And yes, Ron had just done drugs twice in one day. But as far as Ron was concerned, a little time spent with a spoiled brat smoking weed seemed like a fair price for a laugh and a good night’s sleep.

~~~*~~~


Chapter Ten
Do You Know How Fucked Up You Really Are?



Ron awoke the following morning feeling refreshed and relaxed, like he’d taken a dose of Calming Draught. There were no memories and lingering echoes haunting his thoughts. It was enough to make a bloke want to sing or whistle, and that’s exactly what he did all the way to the shower and back.

“You sure are in a good mood,” Harry remarked with a curious smile on his face.

“I had a good night’s sleep,” Ron replied.

“That’s great, Ron! So you’re finally getting back to yourself, then?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Ron said, trying to ignore the flash of irritation at Harry’s comment. How could he be anyone else but himself? Just because Harry didn’t like his new temperament didn’t make it any less genuine.

He pushed his choler aside and followed his best mate downstairs to meet the others for breakfast. Hermione and Ginny were by the couches waiting. Hermione stood up and threw her arms around his neck, giving him a tight hug. He embraced her back enthusiastically, feeling strangely liberated enough to express the affection that he’d been withholding. Feeling her body pressing against his nudged at a less innocent thought he’d been devoid of since coming back. As he felt himself harden, Hermione pulled away, blushing, her smile indicating her awareness of his arousal. Ron cleared his throat and held out a hand. Hermione took it, and they held hands as they walked behind Harry and Ginny to breakfast.

At breakfast, the conversation flowed without any misunderstandings or tension. Everyone appeared to be in good spirits for once, and Ron had to wonder if it had anything to do with his own mood. Sometimes he thought he had a way of infecting those around him more than he liked.

His eyes scanned the Slytherin table. Malfoy was sitting alone, Goyle was absent, and Nott was engaged in conversation, paying Malfoy no mind; however, there was someone paying attention to Malfoy. Eight chairs away, a young blonde girl was staring rather intensely in his direction. Reaching for another piece of toast, Ron racked his brains, trying to remember the girl’s name, when her sister, Daphne Greengrass, came up from behind. The younger girl’s name instantly came to him. Astoria. Ron watched as Daphne whispered something quite fiercely in her sister’s ear, as if scolding her. Astoria’s face turned pink, and as soon as Daphne sat down, she refrained from looking at Malfoy again, keeping her gaze on her plate.

The rest of the day was rather ordinary without any problems, and by the time Restoration Group met, Ron was actually excited to see Malfoy and the rest of the group. Their team was more cohesive now, and everyone were really working together and talking, even to Malfoy. When he spoke, people actually stopped to listen, and that gave Ron a sense of hope for the future for Hogwarts.

Finally, the group dispersed, and Malfoy turned to walk towards the stairs.

“Malfoy!” Ron called, walking briskly to catch up to him.

Guarded grey eyes turned with a question in their stare.

“Uh, where you going?”

Malfoy frowned. “That’s none of your business, Weasley.”

“I was just asking because I wanted to see if … well, you know.” Ron’s widened his eyes meaningfully, hoping Malfoy would catch his drift.

Malfoy’s eyebrows rose, as a smirk grew on his face. “No, I don’t know. What?”

A group of curious Hufflepuffs passed between them, and Ron gave them a fake smile, hoping they’d mind their business.

“I wanted to see if you wanted to, uh, take a break, with me,” Ron tried to say as discreetly as possible.

Despite his efforts, he heard whispering to his left. He turned to see two Gryffindor sixth years averting their eyes as they talked in hushed voices, presumably about him and Malfoy talking openly in the hallway.

“Never mind,” Ron murmured, turning away. He could feel his ears burning.

“Weasley!” Malfoy called.

Ron stopped and looked back.

“Maybe later, all right?”

Ron gave Malfoy a quick nod. There were people openly staring at them now, and suddenly Ron felt on display, as if a spotlight had been cast directly onto him.

“Sure,” Ron mumbled, unsure of why he was suddenly ashamed to be seen talking to Malfoy.

Maybe it was the way those Gryffindor boys had avoided his eyes and whispered, as if Ron had made some egregious error in judgment. Or was it because Malfoy was an outcast? Ron didn’t want to think about why hanging around Malfoy was much easier when no one knew about it, but it certainly was. And for the time being, he planned on keeping it that way.

~~~*~~~


After dinner, Ron and Hermione went for a walk. The night wind was especially strong, chilling the air to considerably, but it was the perfect excuse to snuggle against each other on the more remote side of the castle. She always kissed first now, and Ron simply followed, allowing her full control to prevent any misunderstandings. As her tongue delicately slipped inside his mouth, a nostalgic spark of passion spread through his lower body, and he instinctively pulled her closer to him. The feeling of her body against his made his nature rise, but this time there was no shame; he’d been waiting to feel something for so long, and now that he could, he wanted Hermione to know how she was affecting him.

She sighed contently against his lips, so Ron took a chance and put one hand in her hair, pulling her head back ever so slightly to take control over the kiss. Using his tongue, he tried to communicate everything he couldn’t say. Hermione moaned and Ron had to restrain him not to push her against the wall and ravish her right there. When the kiss broke, they stared into each other’s eyes, and Ron didn’t have to wonder what to do next. He knew.

He opened his mouth, ready to suggest that they get inside and find some place private, but Hermione beat him to it and spoke first.

“Ron, I love you.”

Time stood still.

Those three little words had the power of a stunning spell. Ron couldn’t move; his whole body was useless, and the erection in his trousers withered. Hermione drew back, surprise and fear etched upon every feature of her face.

Ron tried to talk but his mouth had gone completely dry. He licked his lips, and tried again. “Uh …”

Hermione shook her head, her cheeks turning bright red. “I—I shouldn’t have said that.”

All Ron could do was stare down at her in complete and utter shock.

Hermione drew further away, wrapping her arms around her body. She looked like she wished she could be anywhere else. “It’s getting cold. Let’s get back inside.”

Ron nodded, his heart clenching at the look of hurt in her eyes.

Hermione turned away, leading them back into the castle. Once inside the common room, she said a quick goodnight and ran up the stairs, leaving him standing alone in the middle of the room. Ron glanced around and saw people laughing and chatting. His sister and Harry were nuzzling against each other on the couch by the fire, oblivious to the world.

Seeing them so happy together hurt like a punch to the gut, and a self-inflicted one at that. He’d had his chance with Hermione, but when it counted, he froze, again. Frustration and longing topped with a heavy helping of guilt sent Ron right back out into the hallway.

There was nowhere to go but the Tower. But when he arrived, the only thing that greeted him was the cold wind and silence. He waited. At first, he tried to delude himself about what he was waiting for. He told himself he needed to think, to clear his head, to get a grip on what had just occurred between him and Hermione. But as the minutes went by, and then a full hour, Ron stopped lying to himself, and turned to check the door, again, and again. He was waiting for Malfoy. But after an hour and a half, his hope that the boy would show faded, and he gave up and left to go to turn in for the night.

As he descended the stairs, the faint sounds of voices echoed just beyond the corridor. But rounding the corner, Ron saw nothing. Still, the voices grew louder, so he walked with great care through the next corridor and stopped when he saw a faint glow of light near the ceiling. He studied the strange position of the light. Torchlight didn’t glow like that, but the muted glow of a Lumos spell did.

Why would someone’s wand be on the ceiling?

Ron snuck to the edge of the corner and saw four shadows outlined in the soft light emanating from the ceiling.

He dared to peek around the edge and was surprised to see Malfoy standing in the midst of three Gryffindor boys. One of them was Scott, and the other two were his cronies, Clive Davies, and Richard Nutley. They had blocked Malfoy into a loose circle, and he was actively looking about at all of them, waiting for their attack. But none of them had a wand except for Malfoy. Ron looked up and gasped silently. All three of the Gryffindors’ wands were stuck to the ceiling, and one of them was lit.

‘Good one, Malfoy,’ Ron thought.

“I’m ready when you guys are,” Malfoy challenged.

“You really are a thick one, Malfoy; your little wand trick may have just cost you more than a few hexes. This calls for major payback,” said Scott.

Malfoy's laugh startled Ron.

“Is that supposed to scare me, Anderson? You’re always running off at the mouth about what you’re going to do to me, but so far, by my count, I’m winning. If you were any good at this, you wouldn’t have to keep doing it. You’re pathetic.”

“I’m so sick of that gob of yours,” Scott growled, moving in with his fists clenched.

Malfoy cast a Stunning spell that sent the boy flying backwards, and he fell like a board. But Malfoy was so focused on disabling Scott that he neglected to keep an eye on Scott’s taller friend, Clive. The lean brown haired boy tackled Malfoy around the waist, sending him to the floor, struggling in his grip. Clive proved to be stronger and wrestled Malfoy’s wand from his hand, throwing it to Richard, who ended the Stunning spell on Scott. Clive started decking Malfoy on the side of the head, landing a few blows as Scott rose to his feet. To Ron’s shock and disgust, Malfoy wasn’t given a moment's reprieve before Scott and the other boy rushed over to join in the beating.

Ron’s own stomach tightened. The entire scene was like something out of his bad dreams. He half expected one of the boys to morph into a Death Eater. To see a Gryffindor acting so cruelly was just wrong. Surely the Sorting Hat must have made a mistake.

“That’s enough!” Ron said, stepping from around the corner, his wand drawn.

All four boys paused to look back. Ron could feel his pulse thrumming at his temple as he tried to ignore the looks of betrayal and shock from his Gryffindor housemates.

“Hey, Ron, how’s it going?” Scott asked in an almost casual voice as he straightened up.

“Not so good,” Ron said with a deadpan stare.

Scott chuckled, and threw an easy smile to his friends. “It’s not what you think, is it, guys? We were just having a walk, see, and—”

“Yeah,” Clive jumped in, “and then Malfoy here decides he wants to try to get a little revenge, so he attacks us.”

“Is that right?” Ron asked, folding his arms across his chest.

“That’s right,” Scott said quickly.

“You know what I think, Scott? I think you’re lying, and I think I’m going to tell our prefects and McGonagall about it. This has gone on long enough.”

“Are you mental?” Clive exclaimed. “If you rat us out, Gryffindor might lose the House Cup!”

“Just chill out, Ron. Malfoy’s not worth bringing shame to our House,” Scott said.

Ron didn’t even think about what he was doing. The entitled and condescending tone in their voices was like pin puncturing a balloon. Ron’s patience snapped, and in the next minute he was at Scott’s throat, pushing him against the wall.

“Weasley, what the hell are you doing?” one of Scott’s friends cried. Ron didn’t even know who said it, and it didn’t matter. He wasn’t letting go. The little prat had to be taught a lesson.

He felt the sting of his flesh being clawed at while Scott tried to grab at his face and shoulders, but that didn’t distract Ron from pressing into the boy’s jugular.

“Listen to me, you little shit! I will never bring shame to Gryffindor. I was out there fighting! Where were you? Huh? I bet you were hiding somewhere waiting for it to end! I don’t remember seeing you out on the field. And now you come back acting like the whole school should kiss your scrawny little arse! You’re the one bringing shame to Gryffindor! You and your entire lot. But you’re not so tough now, are you?”

“Get off of him!”

“Weasley— Ron!” Malfoy’s voice cut through the red haze of Ron’s rage. He blinked, looking down at Scott with new eyes and a growing horror that the boy’s face was reddish purple. Ron immediately loosened his hold on Scott’s throat and the boy slid down the wall onto the floor, gasping for breath.

“What the hell is wrong with you? You almost killed him!” Clive shouted, rushing to his friend.

Footsteps could be heard in the distance, and the small shadow of a feline sprinted forward.

“Oh no, it’s Mrs. Norris! Filch is coming!” Richard said.

Unfazed by the warning, Ron stared down at his bare hands; they were shaking. The rage was slowly seeping away, leaving the dull ache of confusion and regret about what he had almost done in its wake.

“This isn’t over, Malfoy,” Clive said with a snarl, holding Scott up. “Give us back our wands.”

Malfoy held his head up defiantly. “No. I don’t feel comfortable doing that.”

Clive started and then Ron spoke. “I’ll have them back to you by morning. Get out of here.”

Scott gave Ron a traitorous look. “You’re no hero, Weasley! You’re a nutter!” he said with a hoarse voice. “I’ll make sure you pay for this. Both of you!”

Ron rolled his eyes dismissively, but inside, anxious and uncertainty about the rest of the school year was already blossoming.

“Come on, guys,” Richard said. “Let’s go!”

The boys all ran off, leaving Ron with Malfoy, standing in the hallway.

“We better get moving,” Malfoy said, rubbing his offended cheek. “The last person I want to see right now is Filch.”

Ron tilted his head back and pointed to the ceiling.

Malfoy sighed and waved his wand. The wands fell to the floor noisily.

Ron gathered them quickly, while Malfoy walked past him up the corridor. Ron followed. They didn’t speak as they turned one corner and then another to stand in the shadows. Mrs. Norris ran right past them, and then Filch walked by with his lantern, not even looking to his right where they stood.

Ron let out a sigh of relief. “Close one.”

“Not really,” replied an unfamiliar voice from the darkness. Ron withdrew his wand and stepped forward while Malfoy froze beside him.

“Who said that?” Ron whispered fiercely.

There was a low chuckle and then a very large, stout figure holding a silver flask emerged from the darkness.

“Greg?” Malfoy asked.

Goyle took a swig from his flask and gave both Malfoy and Ron a lopsided grin.

“Cheers,” he said, holding up the flask. “Looks like you boys are getting the hang of sneaking about. Not that it’s very hard to do now. Old Filch is slipping. I haven’t been caught yet.”

Ron took a good long look at Goyle for the first time since the Hogsmeade incident with the prefect. Besides his slurred speech, Goyle’s eyes were bloodshot and there were heavy bags underneath them.

“I see you found yourself a new friend, Draco,” Goyle said with a sad smile. “Good for you.”

“You’re drunk, Greg. Go to bed,” Malfoy said with disgust, moving past Ron and walking on.

Ron gave Goyle a pitiful glance before sprinting to catch up with Malfoy. They walked around another floor until they had almost made a complete circle, arriving at the bottom of the Tower stairs. If Malfoy’s angry stomps up the narrow staircase were anything to go by, he was upset.

“You didn’t have to follow me up here, Weasley. You’re not my bloody keeper,” Malfoy grumbled without turning around.

Ron looked down, wondering why exactly he had followed Malfoy around the castle and up the stairs, and then he remembered.

“I wanted to make sure you were all right. That they weren’t waiting around to jump you or anything.”

Malfoy snorted. “Playing hero again?”

“I don’t care what you say, Malfoy, I couldn’t walk away and not do anything. They had you outnumbered. It wasn’t a fair fight.”

“Fights aren’t supposed to be,” Malfoy said.

“Well, they should be,” Ron said, walking slowly over to the wall to stand beside Malfoy.

“Look, I’m- I’m sorry about my housemates,” Ron said, meaning every word of it.

Malfoy turned to look at Ron with cold, sceptical eyes. “Are you?”

“Yeah … Hey, how did you do that anyway? I mean, that trick with their wands?” Ron asked.

“What’s with you, Weasley?” Malfoy asked, ignoring Ron’s question.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what’s the real reason you follow me around?”

“I told you, Malfoy; I was trying to save your arse. A simple thank you would do,” Ron said irritably.

“Right, I should thank you for almost killing someone? You’re no bodyguard. You’re a glory seeker with a nasty temper. Your so-called ‘protection’ is just an excuse to let off some steam. Anderson was right— you really are a nutter.”

Ron scowled, set to curse Malfoy and just leave, when the boy withdrew his wand and conjured up two chairs.

Ron stared down at them, still fuming about Malfoy’s hurtful words. The wind howled as a gust pushed past them. It was getting colder, and Ron could feel himself shivering.

Malfoy conjured two cloaks as well, throwing one at Ron’s chest.

“Sit down,” he said.

Ron looked down at the cloak in his hand. It was the thickest, softest material he'd ever felt, and on the collar there were two silver clasps: one a dragons head, and the other the tail.

“Just put it on, you daft git. Staring at it isn’t going to keep you warm.”

Ron scowled at the insult but reluctantly wrapped the cloak around his shoulders, enjoying the feeling of the heavy material draping him. Slowly he took a seat, still feeling out of sorts until Malfoy withdrew the familiar hookah from his pocket. All was forgotten as a familiar anticipation began to rise.

Ron watched in rapt attention as Malfoy lit the hookah and took a long drag. He instinctively licked his lips. The aroma alone was intoxicating, and it promised the type of relaxation he’d been longing for all day.

By the time Malfoy finally passed it to him, Ron was nearly drooling. “Thanks.”

He sucked in deeply, taking in as much as he could until he began to cough. When he opened his eyes, Malfoy was staring at him again, his cool grey eyes assessing Ron as if waiting for something.

Ron thought about how to answer Malfoy’s question. Why did he follow the prat around and defend him? Truthfully, Ron wanted to sort it out for himself as well, but before he could reflect on it any further, another drag was needed.

He inhaled excessively until he was choking again. Once he was able to breathe properly, a welcome easiness returned, relaxing his nerves. He sat back, mimicking Malfoy’s stare.

The staring war continued until finally the effect of the drug took over, loosening Ron’s tongue.

“All right. You want to know why I follow you around and defend your sorry arse?”

A small smirk crept onto Malfoy’s lips as he reclined back. “Do tell…”

Ron took another puff. This time the smoke went down smoother, sliding down his throat, and he felt a calm rippling through him, making his speech lethargic as he spoke.

“Because I hate sitting by and doing nothing. I hate watching someone get hurt. I may as well be the bully if I just allow it to go on.”

Malfoy’s stare was piercing and it threatened to ruin Ron’s high. The Ferret had a way of making him feel cornered like a bug about to be squashed.

“Then why aren’t you running behind all of the other Slytherins?” Malfoy asked smartly. “I’m not the only one getting harassed. The whole lot of us are targets now.”

Ron took a deep breath. “But you’re getting the worst of it, and … I’m not sure you deserve it.”

“Not all of it, eh? Just some of it, right?” Malfoy asked with a sneer.

Ron smirked. “Maybe, just a little.”

Malfoy moved in quickly to snatch the pipe out of Ron’s hand. “You owe me, Weasley.”

Ron drew back, genuinely confused. “How’s that?”

“I saved you and your friends’ arses last year, or did you forget already?”

“What do you mean, you saved our arses?” Ron asked angrily. “You nearly got us killed, you and your stupid friends! Besides, we saved your arse twice. I know you haven’t forgotten that!”

Malfoy narrowed his eyes. “I remember just fine. That fire was Vincent’s doing, not mine,” Malfoy said, his voice deflating on the last note. Malfoy looked away, and for a moment, Ron thought the boy was going to cry.

Ron held his breath. Watching Malfoy cry would definitely ruin his high.

But Malfoy pulled it together, setting his eyes back on Ron’s with strong conviction.

“Remember this, Weasley: you would have never lived to save my arse if I hadn’t saved yours first.”

Ron stared at Malfoy but no longer saw him. Instead, the memory of Malfoy Manor’s dungeon surrounded him, and the sound of Hermione’s screams filled his ears.

“That’s why you do it, isn’t it?” Malfoy asked, jarring Ron from the flashback.

Ron blinked. “Do what?”

Malfoy handed him the hookah again. “Why you come running whenever those goons try to attack me. You want to prove yourself … prove you can save someone, because you couldn’t before.”

Ron’s jaw tightened, his buzz rapidly evaporating.

Malfoy smirked. “You’re so transparent. Tell me, why do you need to prove anything? You’ve have a bloody Order of Merlin, First Class…”

Ron looked down at his hands. He felt exposed, like his very soul was on display for Malfoy to mock.

“Well?” Malfoy pressed.

Finally, Ron forced himself to look at Malfoy’s expectant face. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Perhaps, or perhaps you’re just too afraid to talk about it,” Malfoy said knowingly.

“I don’t have talk about anything with you, Malfoy. You’re not a Mind Healer, or even my friend,” Ron spat, unsure of why he was so agitated.

Malfoy’s eyes went sharp in the moonlight as he leaned in. “And it wouldn’t matter if I were either. I mean, really, Weasley, do you even realise how fucked up you are?”

Ron could feel practically hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He was about two seconds from lunging at Malfoy.

“I remember that night as well,” Malfoy said with heavy regret in his voice. “I still think about it, you know.”

Ron gripped the hookah tightly, picturing it as Malfoy’s head.

“How is Granger doing, by the way? Is she sleeping all right? Better than you, I hope.”

“Like you care,” Ron said bitterly.

“You think I had any say in what happened? It was bloody awful, having to listen to that,” Malfoy said, his eyes falling on the object in Ron’s hand.

“Well, if you’re not going to smoke it, hand it over. I’ll put it to proper use,” Malfoy said.

Ron practically threw the hookah at Malfoy, who caught it with the swiftness of a Seeker.

As Malfoy took another drag, Ron found himself growing angrier. Angry at Malfoy for bringing up that horrible night at Malfoy Manor, angry he hadn’t been able to do anything to prevent it, angry it still haunted him.

Ron sneered as his anger boiled to the surface. “Just where do you get off, acting all sympathetic and guilt free. If you’d really wanted to help us that night, you could have stopped it, or at least tried. It’s easy for you to say it was out of your control now. But I’m not buying it, Malfoy. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

“You'll want to watch it there, Weasley,” Malfoy said in a steel tone. “Say what you like about me, but don’t you dare talk about my family.”

Ron straightened in his chair. “Fine, let’s talk about you, then. Look at you: you’re addicted to grass, you're getting your arse kicked daily, you don’t have any friends, and you just blew off the one person who actually gave a shit about you. And you call me fucked up?”

Malfoy glared back at Ron for a moment before speaking. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Weasel.”

“Yeah? I think I know enough. I know you and Goyle used to be friends, and you’re not now. And I know the way you just dismissed him was really messed up.”

Malfoy exhaled a cloud of smoke in Ron’s face, causing him to cough a little.

“I think I’ve had enough for tonight. I’m tired,” he said, standing up.

Ron looked away. “Yeah, fine. I’m tired too.”

~~~*~~~


Chapter Eleven
Friends But Not Really


After that night, things changed.

Former lines in the sand washed away, and although boundaries certainly still existed, Ron wasn’t sure exactly where they began and ended. He and Malfoy continued to meet most evenings on the Tower, usually right after dinner. For the most part, Filch and the prefects didn’t even bother to check the space because it should have been too cold for anyone to hang out there. But for Ron and Malfoy, the Tower became a refuge. Sometimes they’d talk, usually about the present, and primarily about superficial things. On rare occasions the past would creep into their conversation. But mostly they’d sit in silence, taking turns with the hookah. And even though Ron had no plans to bare his soul to Malfoy, he knew the boy understood him— probably better than even his best friend and girlfriend did at the moment.

But with the new comfort of Malfoy’s companionship and well-rested nights from drug-induced sleep, new discomforts emerged. Like a fragile old sweater weathered by constant wear, Ron’s relationship with Hermione began to tear at the seams. At first their fights were about him pulling away, but of late, Hermione had begun questioning Ron about his evening disappearances. Ron had little patience for her inquiries. He couldn’t hear anything from her but ‘need more time with you’ and ‘we need to talk’. And the more Hermione insisted Ron talk, the more he wanted to run away. Instead of answering truthfully, he resorted to making empty promises and lying about studying or practicing for Quidditch, which only made Hermione even more suspicious. Clearly vexed about their relationship, she’d confide in Ginny, who would then confide in Harry. Then the three of them would punish Ron with their accusatory glares and silent treatments. That only made distancing himself from them much easier. With Malfoy, Ron didn’t have to deal with questions and nagging. And any guilt he felt was quickly assuaged by the drag of the pipe.

“Ron, we need to talk,” Hermione said one afternoon, right after lunch.

“What is it, Hermione? I need to study.”

“You’re not fooling me, Ron. I don’t even study as much as you do now. Why are you avoiding me?”

“For the last time, Hermione, I’m not avoiding you. Some of us just have to work harder than you to get good marks.”

Hermione folded her arms across her chest. “Ron Weasley, you look me in the eye right now, and if you can tell me that every time you disappear you’re studying, I’ll leave you alone.”

Ron looked everywhere but at Hermione, searching for a good excuse. It had to be something that wouldn’t hurt her feelings or drag out the conversation.

Finally, his eyes returned to hers. “All right, you got me. I’m not always studying. Or playing Quidditch. This may come as a shock to you, but sometimes, I just need to be by myself. I just need … to be alone.”

The anger in Hermione’s face quickly turned to worry as she drew closer to him. “Is it something I said?”

Her eyes were fearful, and for a moment Ron saw her face as it had been several nights before, the night she had uttered those three little words. Three little words he wanted more than anything to say to her but couldn’t. They were tucked away safely in a box of other feelings he’d successfully boarded up.

Ron moved in quickly and pulled her close, giving Hermione a firm embrace in hopes of reassuring her.

“No, Hermione. It’s not about you,” he whispered.

She held onto him for a few moments before pulling back. “Well, what’s it about then?”

Ron gritted his teeth. Why did she always have to press so hard?

“Is it about … Fred?” she asked hesitantly.

She may as well have shaken Ron like a snow globe. Just the mention of his brother’s name stirred a flurry of emotions that left him feeling off-kilter.

“I dunno, maybe,” he mumbled. It was closer to the truth than anything else he’d told her recently.

“Ron, I know what you’re going through,” she said, giving him a supportive squeeze.

‘No you don’t!' a voice in his head screamed.

“But this isn’t helping.”

“Are you sure about that?” Ron asked with a challenge. “If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been in a better mood lately.”

“I’ve noticed a lot of things,” Hermione said, pausing as if contemplating whether to say more.

“Like?” Ron asked.

“Well, like you’re never around, for starters. You don’t hang out with me, or Harry, or anyone, except for …”

Ron’s eyes went wide, and Hermione bit her lip, looking up at him anxiously.

“Ron, there’s something I need to ask you,” she said as she let go to take a step back from him.

“What?” Ron asked guardedly.

“A few weeks ago, Scott Anderson and Clive Davies said they saw you and Malfoy going up to the Tower. They said they’ve seen you two disappear up there more than once. And that when you go up, you stay for hours.”

Ron could feel his ears heating up as he tried to keep from sounding defensive. “Hermione, Scott Anderson is a bloody wanker. He’s just mad that I told a prefect about him and his friends bullying Malfoy.”

Hermione sighed. “Yes, I know, that’s probably true. But Ron, you do disappear a lot, and so does Malfoy. We all notice it. Are you two friends now?”

Ron looked away, unsure of how to answer that. He and Malfoy did hang out a lot, and he had obviously shown some concern for the boy’s well being… But for some reason, it was hard to say the "f-word" when it came to Malfoy.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” was all Ron could manage.

“Then what would you call it? You obviously spend time with him,” she said, her voice unsteady with resentment. “I mean, what do you guys do up there anyway?”

“Nothing, Hermione … we don’t do anything.”

“So it's true, then. You do go up there with him every night?”

“Hermione!” Ron snapped.

Hermione flinched and that made Ron feel even worse. He pulled her close, resting his head on hers.

“Listen, it’s nothing. All right. Malfoy just needs a shoulder to cry on right now.”

Hermione raised her eyebrows, disbelief written all over her face. “Malfoy? Crying to you? You can’t be serious…”

Ron shook his head. “No, not really crying…what I meant was that he just needs someone to talk to. We’re not mates or anything like that, and he knows it, but I feel sorry for the bloke. He’s getting the shit beat out of him, and he doesn’t have any friends of his own. “

Hermione stared back at Ron, her expression changing from doubt to wonder. She wrapped her arms around his waist again, giving him a firm squeeze.

“Oh, Ron, I’m so sorry. I just assumed...I don’t know what I was thinking really. But that’s really sweet of you. I would have never guessed you’d do something like that for Malfoy.”

Ron shrugged, giving Hermione an awkward smile. “He’s not so bad really…once you get past his bullshit.”

Hermione laughed, tilting her head back to gaze up at Ron with a proud smile. “This is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to accomplish with the Restoration Project! It’s really working, isn’t it?”

Ron nodded, trying to quell the fraudulent feeling twisting his insides. He didn’t even know why he had just lied about not being Malfoy’s friend, or Malfoy crying on his shoulder, but it was too late to take it back now.

“Do you think he’ll need your company tonight? It’d be great if the rest of us could get a little time with you too,” she said jokingly, but there was a serious undertone to her words.

“Yeah, sure,” Ron said, inwardly groaning.

~~~*~~~


That evening Ron tried to laugh it up with the gang as they played Exploding Snap and wizarding board games, but it was more difficult than he had thought. He kept licking his lips, the phantom taste of Malfoy’s special herb haunting his tongue. Ron knew that the stuff wasn’t physically addictive, but it seemed to have a hold on his mind. Smoking had become a comfortable habit, and he had no clue just how comfortable until he couldn’t have it.

“Ron? Are you listening?” Ginny asked.

“Huh?”

“It’s your turn!”

All eyes were on him, and for the twentieth time in an hour, Ron tried not to think of where he’d rather be.

That night he tossed and turned and awoke sweating, with the distinct feeling he’d been running very hard. From what, he couldn’t remember. As he listened to the snores of his dorm mates, the thought of sneaking out to see if Malfoy was on the Tower crossed his mind. But when Ron sat up, he saw movement behind the thin veil of Harry’s curtain.

“You all right, Ron?” Harry whispered.

Ron closed his eyes, disappointed. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“More bad dreams?”

“Nah, just feeling a little sick, is all.”

“Do you need anything?”

“I’m fine, Harry.”

“Right. Well, good night.”

“Good night,” Ron said, lying back down again and pulling his pillow over his face.

~~~*~~~


The next week crept by painfully like a detention with Umbridge. Under Hermione, Harry, and Ginny’s watchful eyes, Ron avoided the Tower and Malfoy. In Restoration group, Malfoy gave him curious looks but never approached or asked Ron any questions. It was just as well; Ron had no idea how to explain his recent absence. But he did think about the Tower often. In fact, since he’d stopped smoking with Malfoy, there was little else he could think about. His nightmares returned with a vengeance, and he’d wake up more irritable than ever. Worse still, his frayed nerves were ruining his timing in Quidditch.

On Friday during practice, Ron missed several saves. Finally, Harry had to call him out of the game and put in the second string Keeper. He watched on as Harry, Ginny, and the rest of the team played several drills. In the locker room, after practice, Harry was cautious but concerned in his approach.

“How’s it going, Ron?”

Ron shot Harry a ‘don’t patronise me’ glare. Harry took a deep breath.

“Mate, I know it hasn’t been easy for you since you got back, and if there’s something bothering you…”

“For God's sake, Harry, am I not allowed a few bad practices?” Ron asked.

Harry looked uncomfortable as he forced a small smile. “Sure, Ron, everyone has off weeks, but I’ve noticed you’ve gone back to having trouble sleeping as well … and you and Hermione have been having more rows lately.”

Ron shook his head. “That’s got nothing to do with my game. Hermione and I always have rows; that’s just how we are. It’s always been that way.”

“Ron, it’s more than that, and you know it! At first I was worried. We all were, but then you turned around. You were getting better, but it didn’t last long. Now things are back to the way they were before.”

Ron tried to hold his tongue and listen as Harry talked on, but the more his friend spoke, the louder his thoughts became.

What the fuck do you know? You seem to be doing just fine. But I suppose burying your tongue in my sister’s throat is a good way to forget about everything.

Ron barely heard Harry’s next words, but he did pick up the last bit.

“You’re always agitated and sometimes it feels like we have to walk on eggshells around you. We don’t know what will set you off.”

When Harry’s mouth stopped moving, Ron tried to hold himself together, not wanting to prove Harry’s words true. He closed his locker and Harry flinched.

Ron looked back at him in disbelief. “Why ‘cha flinch like that? What do you think I’m going to do? Hit you?”

“Honestly, Ron? The way you’ve been acting … sometimes, I don’t know. I’m worried about you. All of us are.”

“Well, I don’t need you guys worrying about me. What do you do? Sit around and talk about how poor old Ron is turning barmy?”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“Yeah? Tell me what’s it’s like, then?”

Harry shook his head. “You’re taking this all wrong.”

“No, I think I got it right. Just leave me alone, Harry,” Ron said, moving past his mate. “You don’t have to worry about me screwing up the match. The next time I play, I’ll make every save.”

~~~*~~~


After his encounter with Harry, the last place Ron wanted to be was at the Gryffindor table sitting amongst everyone while they made polite conversation and snuck speculative glances.

So Ron headed straight to the kitchens.

“Yous not allowed down here,” said one of the elves.

“I just want a plate. You could put anything you want on it.”

The elf shook his head. “No. Wes can’t. No more favours. Tinky got caught feeding the Malfoy boy and now Filch is trying get her punished.”

“Malfoy is still getting food from the kitchens?”

“No more! Filch forbids it! Now go before he be coming along. Go!”

Ron cursed under his breath and headed back to the Gryffindor dorms. If he couldn’t eat in peace, he could at least get some sleep.

Only sleep didn’t come easy at all. He had only been asleep for a few hours before he heard the heavy footsteps of his dorm mates barrelling up the steps.

Laughter and light-hearted insults reached his ears and tore at his heart as Dean and Seamus traded words. Neville and Harry were laughing at their jabs, encouraging them.

“Take that back! I did not say that!” Dean cried.

“You right well did! I was there, remember? You said these exact words: 'Luna is definitely shaggable; she’s actually pretty hot.'”

“No, I did not!” he heard Dean whisper fiercely.

“Just because you were too pissed to remember doesn’t mean you didn’t say it!”

“Sod off, Seamus.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault you talk out of your arse whenever you drink.”

“You’re one to talk, Finnegan. You’re probably the only Irish bloke I know who turns into a blabbering idiot after two drinks.”

“That’s because I’m the only Irish bloke you know!”

Harry and Neville laughed loudly at that last statement, and then Ron heard the bed creak and moan. Seamus and Dean were probably wrestling.

“I put my money on Dean,” Neville said.

“No, he’s gone and made Seamus angry — he’s in for it now,” Harry said with laughter.

Ron squeezed his eyes shut, hoping he could sink back into the abyss of sleep. But the more he tried to block out their laughter and playful grunts, the more aware of them he became. Seamus growled and then there was a thump of someone diving on the bed. It was followed by more laughter, this time Dean's, and then Neville and Harry’s laughter followed. With each passing minute, Ron grew more agitated and annoyed. Why was Harry laughing? What could possibly be so damned funny?

The voice inside of his head hurled a dozen curses and Ron balled up tighter, trying to curl into himself.

A careful ‘shhh’ was ordered, and the laughter quickly subsided.

“Guys, I think Ron is trying to sleep,” he heard Harry say softly.

“Oops,” Seamus said, to Dean and Neville’s giggles.

“Seriously … we should be quiet. He needs to sleep,” Harry said.

There was silence, and then the sound of whispering. Ron listened closely, but he could barely make out the words. But he did manage to pick up “I don’t know” “edgy” “practice” “sensitive” “Hermione” and “Malfoy”.

At hearing Malfoy’s name, Ron opened his eyes and sat up to glare at them.

“If you’re going to talk about me, at least do it outside. I’m trying to sleep!” he growled, rising from his bed and taking his covers with him. Dean, Seamus, Harry, and Neville all looked stunned.

“And stop looking at me like that!” he snapped before turning to the door to take to stairs.

He plopped down into the plush armchair in the corner of the common room, hoping the peaceful darkness it offered would lull him into much-needed sleep. But as soon as he drew the covers over his body, he heard the door to his dorm room open, and light footsteps descending the stairs. Ron peeked over the cover he’d pulled up to his eyes and saw Harry standing before him with the same worried expression he’d worn in the locker room.

“You want to talk?’

“No, Harry, really, I’m fine. I just … I can’t sleep around all of that racket.”

“We weren’t saying anything bad about you.”

“Right. Just that I’m barking and I’ll probably lose my girlfriend and spot on the team.”

Harry sighed. “No one thinks you’re barking. I told you, we’re just concerned. And Hermione isn’t going anywhere. She cares about you.”

“And what about my spot on the team?”

Harry shrugged.

Ron gasped.

Harry sniggered. “Relax, mate. You’re still the best Keeper we have. You just had a rough week at practice.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, although he had a sinking feeling it wouldn’t be his last bad practice.

Harry remained, standing awkwardly until Ron sighed.

“You really should go back up. I’m just going to stay down here.”

“You can’t sleep down here,” Harry said.

“That’s the problem, Harry. I can’t sleep anywhere. But at least down here there’s peace and quiet. Maybe I’ll manage a bit of rest.”

Harry gave Ron a sad smile and nodded before returning to their dorm.

Long after Harry left, Ron’s eyes remained on the spot where he had stood. He shifted in the seat, trying to get comfortable, but it was no use. A chair was no bed. Ron slowly got up and spread himself out on the couch, which gave him a direct view of the common room’s hearth. His eyes were drawn to the fire burning low there. Patches of dark red and orange wood fading into black bathed the common room in its eerie glow; the fire would be out soon. Supposedly. But minutes went by, and the last burning embers persisted, even under the weight of blackened dead wood that threatened to suffocate the flames. Ron swallowed. How long had the fire been burning? All day?

And it still lived.

His eyes remained fixed on the hearth, even as he tried to stretch out and get comfortable. The warmth from the heat was soothing, even if the vision of the flames inspired a disquieting fear he couldn’t name.

You really are going barmy … scared of a little fire. Grow a pair, why don’t you? scolded the voice he had come to rely on over the past few months. It was a voice of reason, a voice of courage. It didn’t tolerate sissy crying spells and things like nightmares.

What’s done is done. Go to sleep, you worthless ninny.

But Ron couldn’t, so he arose from the couch, taking the duvet with him as slipped out of the common room.

By the time he arrived at the top of the Tower, a wild and desperate hope had bloomed.

He couldn’t help but sigh in relief when he found what he had been hoping for. Malfoy was sitting in his usual chair, his cloak covering him as he smoked his hookah.

He didn’t look up once as Ron approached, even though Ron was certain he’d made quite a bit of noise coming through the door.

He watched Malfoy take another drag and exhale until finally grey eyes lifted to meet Ron’s gaze.

“I knew you’d be back,” was all Malfoy said as he extended the hookah.

Ron licked his lips, excitement building for the familiar taste. He conjured a chair and accepted the offer reverently, as if the hookah were holy. The pipe was warm, and the scent of it made his eyes flutter. He lifted it to his mouth, pausing only for a moment to glance at Malfoy.

“Thanks,” he said before sucking in the longest stream of smoke he’d ever attempted. It was too much, and his whole chest heaved trying to expel it. He coughed and coughed as the smoke burned his throat. But it was a good burn, and hearing Malfoy’s chuckles only reminded him of how much he had missed this.

“You’re welcome, Weasley … now pass the bloody thing back.”

~~~*~~~


It was only supposed to be a one-time thing, a brief return to a crutch he’d sworn he didn’t need. But once became twice, and twice soon multiplied into weeks. In the month since Ron had resumed his nightly smoking habit with Malfoy, his Quidditch game improved greatly, but his relationship with both Hermione and Harry continued to deteriorate. No one spoke of the Malfoy issue, but whenever Ron sat down to eat with his old mates, Malfoy might as well have been sitting at the table with them. Ron didn’t miss the suspicious glares Hermione and Harry cast in Malfoy’s direction, but he didn’t dare address them either. That would open up a discussion he wasn’t even prepared to have with himself, let alone with his friends.

But discussion wasn’t necessary- the unspoken accusations and resentment were deafening, silencing all of Ron’s lame excuses for his absences. They didn’t believe him anyway, so he just stopped trying to make up new excuses. Still, even though he had alienated himself from everyone he cared about, there was a strange comfort in the separation. He didn’t have to talk about things he didn’t want to. It was lonely sometimes, yes, but loneliness was only a dull ache compared to the sharp prick of remembering. He resolved he could endure the pain, especially with a little help from Malfoy and his hookah.

On the eve of the last day at Hogwarts before the Christmas holidays, Ron went up to the Tower and found Draco with not only the hookah on his lap, but also holding a flask that looked suspiciously like Goyle’s.

“Are you mad? If McGonagall catches you, you’ll be expelled!”

“Cool your pants, Weasley. She hasn’t bothered us yet. Besides, she’s got enough problems … the Ministry and Governors are on her arse; she doesn’t want any attention for another 'troubled' student. Anyway, Greg’s been caught plenty and he’s never been sent home.”

Ron sat down slowly, his eyes fixed on the silver flask in Draco’s hand.

Draco.

When had he started thinking of Malfoy as Draco? He couldn’t even recall.

“Did you get that from Goyle?”

Draco snorted. “No. He wouldn’t let me borrow his even if I asked. Besides, he’s probably off somewhere getting pissed all by himself right now. I reckon’ he’s going to spend the entire month like that, there’s nothing else to do here.”

“He’s staying here?”

Draco nodded. “Probably. I mean, what’s he got to go home to? He doesn’t even really have a home now. His mum has a new family in another country, his father is in Azkaban, and he doesn’t have any friends to stay with.”

“Not even you?” Ron asked cautiously.

Draco glanced down at his lap and raised the flask to his lips, taking a sip.

Ron sensed he’d stumbled upon one of those invisible boundaries that had been redrawn and hidden, but he pressed on, testing it to be sure. “What happened to you two?”

Draco’s eyes didn’t meet Ron’s, but rather looked past him when he replied, “I don’t know.”

Ron put his hand to his lips, mildly surprised that Draco had even replied in a reasonable fashion. He chose his next words carefully. “Does it have anything to do with … Crabbe? I mean, people usually get closer after a friend dies.”

“Really?” Draco said, his eyes returning to Ron’s, his mouth twitching with the start of a sneer. “Is that how it works? That must explain why you and your friends are so chummy right now.”

That hurt, but there was truth in it. Ron sighed. “Fair enough. But you said you had friends in your House…who?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t call them friends… but there are a few tolerable people there. Daphne Greengrass doesn’t really like me, but she’s polite enough. And her sister, Astoria…well, she’s really a nice girl.”

Ron nodded, tempted to ask more about Astoria, but he also sensed that his time for asking Draco personal questions was quickly coming to an end. So he ventured to ask about something that had been bugging him since the school year began.

“So what’s the deal with you and Nott? He seemed really set on making your life miserable this year, but now—”

“Now that git is on the receiving end,” Draco finished. “He’s taken his fair share of threats and hexes this term as well. I suppose that took all the charm out of fucking with me.”

He held out the flask like it was a peace offering. “Want a swig?”

Ron shook his head. “Nah…”

“Ah, I know what you want, Ron,” Draco said, picking up the hookah and turning it twice in his hand until it began to leak smoke.

“Give it here,” Ron said, grinning as he took the beloved object. Whether he was smiling because the hookah was in his possession once more or Draco had referred to him by his first name, he didn’t know. Perhaps it was both.

Draco took another drink as Ron tried to reconcile the burn in his throat with the dizzying feeling taking hold, making his head feel light.

“I bet hols is some event at your house,” Draco said.

Ron nodded. “Yeah, it’s a big deal. Everyone comes over.”

Draco chuckled. “I’ve always wondered how you fit so many Weasleys into such a small house.”

“What makes you think it’s small, prat?” Ron said defensively. “You’ve never even seen it. It’s actually rather large. I mean, it’s not a mansion or manor, but it’s big enough.”

“Calm down, Ron. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Right, you never do,” Ron muttered.

Draco’s face grew sombre. He took another drink as he stared out over the wall.

“You’re lucky, you know… all of those brothers, and a sister, mum and dad. This year, it’ll just be me and my mum.”

Ron swallowed, strangely touched and uncomfortable that Draco would share such a thing. He didn’t know what to do with the information, though, so he consumed another large quantity of smoke before daring to respond.

“I dunno about that. It’s going to be weird this time, with…” Ron paused. He hadn’t said his brother’s name in nearly four months. He hadn’t spoken about him, he hadn’t even thought about him in the past few weeks. Guilt rose within him, dampening his high.

“With what?” Draco asked.

“With Fred gone,” Ron whispered.

Draco shifted, looking at his feet. “I’m sorry about your brother.”

Ron quickly did his standard dismissive shake of the head. “It’s all water under the bridge now, isn’t it? Life goes on…”

Draco gave him a look of incredulity. “You’re worse off than I thought; you can’t even talk about him, can you?”

“Whatever, Malfoy. I can, I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“I noticed.”

Ron was suddenly reminded of Hermione and her incessant nagging. Had she Polyjuiced herself into Draco tonight?

He huffed. “Ah, come on, don’t pull this Mind Healer shit on me tonight. If I knew you were going to be such a downer, I wouldn’t have come.”

“So why did you?” Draco asked. “Is it because you enjoy my charming company? Or did you come for that?” He nudged his head to indicate the hookah.

Ron’s jaw tightened; he wasn’t even going to attempt an answer.

Draco smirked, raising the flask high. “To Fred and Vincent.”

Ron tried to ignore the tremor in his hand as he raised the hookah in hand. “To Fred,” he said pointedly, taking a long drag.

Draco’s face grew stony as he stared back at Ron.

“What?”

Draco gave Ron a contemptuous once-over and shook his head. “Nothing,” he said as he took a large swallow.

Ron exhaled and then glanced back at the door. Suddenly, his brother’s face was as clear as the day he died. The smile, the ever-present mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Thinking about Fred made Ron think of George; George, who was working his arse off, running the shop by himself. George, who hadn’t wallowed in grief the way everyone thought he would. He had returned to the joke shop, doing what he did before, and the way he did it spoke volumes. It was as if returning to normal was his way of honouring Fred.

Ron’s eyes fell to the metal crutch in his hand. How was he honouring Fred’s memory? What kind of brother was he being to his sister? What kind of friend? Hermione and Harry’s faces flashed before him, and thoughts of what Fred would have said about his behaviour poked through his drug-induced haze to pierce his conscience.

“I better get back. I’ve got to pack and say goodbye everyone,” he said, handing the hookah back to Draco.

Draco nodded with understanding, but his eyes reflected sadness. “Right.”

Ron stood up, casting one last look at the boy. Half-sloshed, sitting in a huge chair that engulfed his thin frame, Draco looked more fragile than usual, and the sombreness in his face culled sympathy in Ron.

“Have a good one, Draco.”

Draco gave Ron a small smile. “You as well, Ron.”

~~~*~~~


To continue reading, please click here.
ronbigbang: (Default)
Title: When Shall We Three Meet Again?
Author: Brumeux ([personal profile] brumeux77)
Pairing: Bill/Charlie/Ron
Rating: NC-17
Genre: PWP
Warnings: Incestuous threesome
Word Count: 3,927; but there are 309 words of quotation, making my contribution 3,618 words.
Summary: Scotland. A desert heath. Fog and filthy air. Three wizards meet. But instead of prophecies about the future of the Scottish monarchy, there’s Weasleycest.
Author’s Note: I’ve quoted a paragraph each from three fics. For the purposes of my story, yes; but also as a lure for you to go read the excellent pieces they come from. There are links at the end of this piece, the better for you to find them. Many, many thanks to my beta, M, who found (amid other things) an enormous plot hole almost before the story began; and to E, who filled it in.



Title: "Three Freckled Redheads"
Artist: [profile] foryourstereo
Pairing: Ron/Bill/Charlie
Rating: PG
Media: Digital
Artist's Notes: There are more written, but basically the illustration revolves around this scene.






When Shall We Three Meet Again?


Curse breaker, Auror, dragon wrangler. One on medical leave for injuries, one on leave because stress was making a breakdown imminent, one simply on holiday from a physically exhausting job. It doesn’t really matter which was which. What mattered was that we three met in a little cabin on a desert heath in Scotland—and very glad to have just made it in time to shelter from the thunder, lightning, and rain of a chilly summer storm.

Bill and Charlie were still admiring the elements when I came back from a quick look around the cabin. “Uh, guys—didn’t the landlord say there were three beds?”

Bill had made the arrangements. He answered, “Of course. I wouldn’t have taken the place otherwise. Two bedrooms, three beds.”

I grimaced. “Then he lied. The bigger bedroom only has one big bed, not two singles.”

“We’ll manage,” Charlie said. “It’s all family.”

“Yeah, well, it’ll take a bit of managing,” I went on. “The bed in the other room is under a window that was left open. There’s a year’s healthy crop of mould growing on and in the mattress.”

“What?” cried Bill, rushing in to see it with his own eyes.

“It’s fairly foul,” I muttered to Charlie. “Good thing I’ve got a strong stomach, eh?” I laughed.

Bill returned fuming. “I’m going to call that Paddock bastard and get our money back.”

I looked at the bare mantel. “Unless you brought your own supply of Floo powder, mate, you’re not calling anyone.”

“Even better. In person I can get our money back and then strangle him. I’ll just Appa…”

Charlie grimaced. “Except the Apparition wards to keep previous guests from returning uninvited keep us from leaving, too. In this muck you’ll never find the ward boundaries, let alone your way back.”

Bill’s curses were lengthy and inventive.



We had known we’d be responsible for our own food, so we’d brought plenty along. On the other hand, we hadn’t expected to find that every pot and pan in the tiny kitchen area would be crusted in the residue of meals past. Lucky we were wizards—and had had Mum for a mum—so we knew spells to clean those up, unlike the mouldy bed. We’d be just as likely to set the thing on fire as dispel the mould.

Finally, tired from our travels and full of our supper we were ready for bed. It was the work of a moment to Transfigure the bed into one of a larger size, but there was still the matter of getting into it. Easy for Charlie to say it was all family, but as far as I could remember none of us brothers had shared a room, let alone a bed—always excepting Fred and George. And then there were pyjamas. Or rather, there weren’t. I hadn’t brought any and Bill was apparently used to sleeping in the raw, since he hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his pants; but he’d only moved them about half an inch before he caught our eyes. He had a sort of “I’m not going to be the first” look and snapped them back into place. Charlie? Charlie, for all I know, might have been accustomed to wear a clinging silky negligee—because by that time my attention was already caught up in a different question: with three people, one of them had to be in the middle. Squished by the others, with no room to spread out. (And I’m definitely a stretcher.) Stymied if you needed the loo in the middle of the night. And who would it be?

It wasn’t even open to a vote. Bill and Charlie pulled rank as older and therefore the middle spot was mine. We all climbed in in our underwear and settled down to sleep.

Exhaustion caught up with me, I guess. I just know I was out as soon as I climbed into bed and stayed out until morning. Maybe I was unable to stretch out, maybe I was haplessly squished, but if so I was happily unaware of it.



We didn’t pay much attention to the weather the next day. We had plenty to catch up on, as it had been I don’t know how long since we’d all been together. New and ever more complex and devilish—and fascinating—curses devised by the ancient Egyptians. The observation of the bizarre courtship rituals of a species of dragon that had never before bred in captivity. My own tales of the continued deviousness and deviance of Dark wizards. And of course gossip. Mostly my gossip, since Bill and Charlie knew most of the people I had to talk about.



That night of course, just as I had dreaded, I woke up needing the loo. I found Charlie snuggling his head on my shoulder with his hand wrapped around my forearm. I detached him as gently as I could, then turned to attempt crossing Bill without waking him. Only to find that even asleep he had his hand shoved into his pants working on an impressive erection (not that one would expect anything less than impressive from a Weasley). I managed to get over without significant contact, and by the time I got back Bill’s hand was resting on his chest and Charlie was facing in the opposite direction. The rest of the night was uneventful.



I was up first in the morning. Bleary-eyed, scratching his belly and rubbing his hair, Charlie joined me, yawning, “Where’d you get to, young Ron?” Then he saw I was munching granola bars. “Ooh: gimme,” he said and reached for one.

“Geroff, arse!” I pulled them into my lap to keep them from him.

“I’ll do you later,” he griped; and poked around for his own breakfast.

I finished my bars and was soon drumming my fingers on the table. “Why did we come up here again? I’m bored already.”

Just then Bill wandered in.

“Oh look.” Charlie bowed in his direction. “His lordship deigns to join us.”

Bill gave us an annoyed look. “I feel like I haven’t slept in a week.”

Really he did look a bit like death warmed up. But that was no reason to let him off lightly. I snickered. “Well, if you will spend half the night wanking…”

“I wasn’t wanking!”

“What would you like me to call it when you’ve got your fist shoved down your pants to pull on your hard-on? That’s the lovely sight I had to deal with when I woke up in the night.”

Bill’s response was a two-fingered salute.

He started rifling the pantry while Charlie and I laughed.



The fog had thickened overnight so that a person standing at one corner of the cabin wouldn’t be able to see the next corner, and it only worsened throughout the day. There was no question of going out: you’d be disoriented and lost in thirty steps. And like I said, we hadn’t thought to bring Floo powder.

We hadn’t really realised how much we’d been expecting long walks in the summer sunshine to get us energised and ready to get back to life. The weather had left us almost completely unprepared. Exploding Snap can only keep you entertained for so long. Gobstones likewise. Not surprisingly, neither of them would play chess with me, but they tried each other for a while.

“Three to you and three to me,” said Charlie after a while.

“And three to me just on principle,” I added, an edge to my voice because of boredom.

“Calm down,” said Bill. “Didn’t Harry give you some Muggle games?”

I’d forgotten the sack Harry had Reducio’d for us. I had good hopes, seeing as he’d spoken well of them; but it seemed he hadn’t really thought about there just being the three of us. He’d put in things with names like “Cluedo” and “Apples to Apples” that we found needed more than three players to be enjoyed properly. And he’d put far fewer things in that sack than I’d thought.

In the rota we’d set up for fixing meals lunch was my job. I stretched out making sandwiches as much as was humanly possible just because it was something to do. And we ate slowly, and I did the washing up slowly. But despite my efforts to shorten the coming afternoon, it promised to be a repeat of the morning. Everyone’s nerves began to fray.

When time came for dinner it was Charlie’s turn. He started on stew, but at Bill’s comment that it smelled like it was made with frog toes and lizard legs Charlie threw a spoon at him and walked off, leaving Bill to finish.

The day was not a success. And even though it looked fair to be a dismal night too, we turned in early.



I kept waking up from Charlie’s nudging, but I’d just dislodge his hand or give him a little shove and he’d move off. The last time, though, he had his arm clear across my chest, and his leg was slung over mine with the knee pulled so far up it was pressing against my dick. His cheek was rubbing gently against my shoulder and he was murmuring something I couldn’t catch; and his hard cock was rubbing not so gently against my hip. In the meantime on my other side, Bill had his pants shoved down to his thighs and was bashing the bishop and moaning while his head moved from side to side. There was an occasional “yes” mixed in with the moans.

Rampant hard-ons and sleeping sex to my left and to my right, and pressure on my prick—well, you’d get hard too, wouldn’t you? But I put my brothers out of my head. Instead I put Hannah Abbot on my right and Terry Boot on my left; both, as I knew from experience, attentive and flexible lovers—although I’d never been with both at the same time. So I imagined Terry’s tongue in my mouth while Hannah stroked my cock; alternating with Hannah’s tongue and Terry’s hand—and all the time Charlie’s knee providing real stimulation in lieu of their hands—it wasn’t long before I shot. And before I could get to my wand under my pillow, Charlie’s frotting had got him off too. So I cleaned my own spunk off me, and Charlie’s off him, his pants, the sheets, and me. And I should have known better than to bother putting my wand away because I had to take care of Bill’s mess as soon as I had.

How I was going to get through the week with orgasms surrounding me I had no idea.



Staying in bed—alone—the whole next day was unfortunately not a realistic option, so thank goodness Bill had an inspiration before we could start hating each other. He conjured up a book. It seemed so obvious once he’d done it and Charlie and I immediately followed suit. I had a couple of books on Quidditch and Quidditch players waiting for me on the table next to my bed at home, but somehow Harry and I had found ourselves promising Hermione that—as a birthday present to her—we’d read Hogwarts: A History before September so we could talk about it with her. As I reluctantly pulled up a copy of it I just hoped I could stay awake. Harry and I love her dearly, but there are times when having an obsessive bookworm for a best friend has its drawbacks. I expected it would be just as boring as the day before had been (after all, whether in Hermione’s favourite book or in Professor Binns’s class, goblin wars are goblin wars), but it would be a completely different kind of boring. I wouldn’t be getting on my brothers’ nerves nor they on mine.

Bill fetched a book he said was hilarious: supposedly about wizards (although no wizards anyone would have thought imaginable) at an Unseen University. Like Hogwarts? I wondered; that Muggles can’t see? Charlie said he taken something at random. It turned out to be something like a collection of short stories about King Arthur—“except,” he said, “in some lunatic world where Uther is still alive, and Arthur is living with him, and—” he nearly choked laughing “—and Merlin—Merlin is Arthur’s servant!” It did sound like Charlie got the best deal.



The way things had been going, that night I was half expecting a big purple dildo being wielded on one side of me and some auto-fellatio on the other side. But Bill’s dreams were apparently peaceful and innocent; and while Charlie did cuddle up to me, he was turned on his other side—I got his back and his bum pressed against me, but no nuzzling or rutting. But the expectations had me unable to close my eyes, sure that things would start happening the moment I did so; and they also had me half-hard. I did not have a restful night.



Still, the next day was better. Bill started reading some of the funnier bits from his book, and Charlie finally shared with us the fact that his book was pure pornography. It turned out that Merlin was not only Arthur’s servant, but his lover; and they were having sex nearly non-stop.

“Listen to this,” he said.


His prince—no, his Arthur—is seated on his bed, completely naked and stroking his cock. There are many words he can use to describe his Arthur: intelligent, arrogant, assholely, commanding, self-destructive. But the only word that comes to mind in this moment is beautiful. Arthur is a study in contrasts: flat planes and gently sculpted muscles, bare matte skin and dense blond hair, wildly passionate and fiercely focused. Watching Arthur work his gorgeous cock in the early morning light makes the heaviness of the past eighteen hours in a very busy castle dissipate like clouds.


Prince. Naked. Wanking. Yeah, that gave me a tingle where it counts. Fortunately there was the rebuilding of the Astronomy Tower to convince myself I was not really turned on—I mean listening. But then:

“Oh, this one’s even hotter. They’re actually fucking.”


Feet pulled up, Arthur dug his heels in, feet slipping on the sleek wood of the floor as he thrust up into Merlin. Merlin moaned, pushing down hard, driving Arthur deep inside, fingers digging into Arthur’s shoulders and there was nothing better than seeing Merlin lose control, to see him desperate and needy, his skin shiny with sweat, shirt hanging off his shoulders, his hard cock jutting forward. Arthur slid his hands over Merlin’s lean thighs, fingers gliding over slick skin and then he took hold of Merlin’s cock.


This was not good. Topping from the bottom is a special turn-on for me. I hadn’t had a lot of chance to do it—Terry really preferred bottoming from the bottom. Still… There was more than a tingle this time. I crossed my legs hoping Bill and Charlie wouldn’t notice I was hard.

But Charlie was quiet. Bill had finished his book and had conjured another by the same author. “Hey! You won’t believe this: Death is a major character. He walks around talking. Not that anyone can see him. He…”

Charlie broke in. “A virgin! Arthur’s a virgin! Merlin hasn’t shagged him yet but…”


Merlin looks at the blond head bent over his cock and wonders dazedly if it’s the feel of Arthur’s mouth, uncertain but growing more sure, or the sight of him bent over and taking Merlin’s cock that makes him shudder. Curling a leg over Arthur’s, Merlin holds as still as he can, petting Arthur as he opens his mouth, the head sliding over his tongue, and it’s unbelievably good. Running his heel down Arthur’s calf, Merlin whispers, “God, yes, that’s good, Arthur, take more, you can do it,” and losing his breath when Arthur does. Stroking shaking fingers over Arthur’s cheek, Merlin fights the urge to close his eyes, wanting to see Arthur do this, the first time anyone’s ever breached that perfect mouth.


That was it. I couldn’t take any more. I took the long way around their chairs to hide my straining cock from them as much as possible and zipped into the loo as quickly as I could. In a shake I had my jeans and my briefs down around my ankles and in half a shake more my hand was flying up and down my prick. The first time anyone’s ever breached that perfect mouth. I thought of perfect mouths that no one—at least not me—had ever breached. (Plenty of leeway there—I had the whole population of the world for my fantasies, barring Hannah and Terry, with whom there’d been plenty of breaching.) Lavender: I’d had my hopes there but she hadn’t shared them. Fleur and a few dozen other Beauxbatons girls I’d never even spoken to. Susan. Dean, Seamus, Neville; umm: Neville. And Harry. How had I missed a moment with Harry? I knew he wasn’t into blokes, but I’ll bet I could have convinced him to give me a go anyway. Oh, Harry… Harry… Breaching Harry’s perfect mouth… My cock’s head sliding over his tongue… Unbelievably good… Yes; Harry… Suck it… Harry, Harry, Harry…

The orgasm was fantastic. I cleaned up, straightened my clothes, and went back out to the living room. If Charlie gave Bill a strange look I was careful not to notice—I was too busy being nonchalant.

Hogwarts: A History had actually managed to get interesting. Stories of trees being blown down in the Forbidden Forest, not too bad. The time the whole castle threatened to topple on the headmaster’s head, kind of intriguing. But Hermione had never told us about the sections on the sex lives of the various headmasters and headmistresses. Details about the chap who admired the “power” of men and wanted none of women, and how his “heart” throbbed. This was almost as good as Charlie’s book. The headmistress who had a “special tutorial” for some of the best (however that might be construed) seventh-year boys. All at once.

I don’t even remember dinner. And suddenly it was time for bed.



Once again I woke up in the middle of the night. And once again Charlie had his hard-on pressed against my hip. And once again Bill was stroking an impressive Weasley erection. Except this time Charlie was whispering “Ron” in my ear when he wasn’t licking the shell or nibbling on the lobe. And the erection in Bill’s hand was mine.

“We agreed,” said Charlie’s warm throaty voice in my ear, “that your attention perked up when I read about the prince wanking.”

“And we agreed,” Bill was now working on my other ear, “that more than your attention perked up when the prince was ploughing the wizard.”

“And when that delicate virgin mouth—”

“—was sliding down that thick wizarding prick—”

“—and the tongue was swirling around—”

“—and orgasm was imminent—”

“—and you rushed into the loo—”

“—with your boner almost tearing through your jeans—”

“—we agreed that maybe the thought of men with men wasn’t repellent to you—”

“—and that maybe we should help you take care of that.”

My hands were directed to the hard-ons on each side of me; Charlie began caressing my nuts and titillating the skin behind them; and the lips and tongues that had lately been teasing my ears began to explore my jaw, my eyebrows, my eyelids, my cheeks, the bridge of my nose… And finally, my mouth.

Under the onslaught of two gorgeous men (who just happened to love me besides) I was already gasping; so Charlie’s tongue had no barrier as it slid between my lips and teeth to stroke against my own. Bill took the opportunity to lick and nibble at my Adam’s apple while sliding a thumb along the line of my collarbone.

Charlie slowly teased my tongue out of my mouth as his retreated, and suddenly Bill’s face was pressed between ours, and somehow his tongue joined the dance, and someone’s hand (I’d lost track) stroked my prick a time too many, and my bum convulsed, and my spine convulsed, and my cock convulsed, and my spunk sprayed us all.

“Don’t worry, little brother,” someone sighed. “We’re just beginning.”

Charlie moved over me, rubbing his prick in my spendings as he nibbled on my jaw and throat. Bill took some too and spread it on his cock that he was rocking through my fist until I came to and took over the wanking myself. And Charlie came, and Bill came, and there was cum everywhere, especially on me. I was exhausted, and all three dicks were limp as a limp thing. I figured that was it. But I figured without the Egyptians.

Bill took his wand and tapped each of our used-up bits as he said,


“.yllis uoy kcuf nac I os em kcuS”


Of course that’s not what he said, and I have no reason to expect those squiggles are even words; in fact I strongly suspect that they’re unpronounceable. I just copied random bits out of one of Bill’s books to be impressive. But the thing is that my dick turned steel-hard again, and I was energised and ready for another round.

Bill straddled me. “You like hearing about Merlin riding Arthur, didn’t you?” he said, positioning me at his entrance. “Sliding down the princely prick?” He kept being Merlin to my Arthur as he spoke. “Up and down until they were both losing control?”

I couldn’t answer Bill because just at that moment Charlie’s hard-on slid across my mouth; and he shut Bill up at the same time by snogging him thoroughly. I opened my mouth and tried to wrap my tongue around that lovely flesh as it moved back and forth. Charlie eventually moved far enough that I was able to catch his tip in my mouth and start sucking him properly. While their tongues struggled together, each had one hand teasing one of my nipples and the other pulling each other’s cocks. My hands were gliding up Bill’s thighs, my thumbs pressing the flesh behind his ballsack. I began losing track of whose parts were whose—I definitely couldn’t tell you who orgasmed first or last.

Bill told us it was dangerous to use his Arabic spell again too soon, so we drifted off in a tangle of limbs.



We didn’t spend all of our time in bed. There were meals, there was more sharing of amusing stories (including some of the choicer bits of Hogwarts: A History), there were even more games of Exploding Snap and Gobstones. And still neither of them would play chess with me.

But we were never bored again. By the end of our stay there had been more wanking and sucking and frotting than any of us had ever had squeezed into such a short period, and each of us had fucked both the others several times over. If there was any experiment with double penetration, I for one plan to remain silent on the name of the intrepid shagee.

We never did notice when the weather improved to the point where Apparition was a viable choice—but then, who cared? What mattered was that we’d come for relaxation and relief and found it; that we’d spent time with people who were important to us and got really close to them.

And that there wasn’t enough cum left in the three of us combined to drown a gnat.



We’ve already booked the cabin for next summer.




Charlie’s readings came from these stories, all of which I highly recommend…

His Jim, by [personal profile] abigail89. It’s a
Star Trek story, where for my purposes I’ve substituted Merlin for McCoy and Arthur for Kirk.

Respite, by [personal profile] thegrrrl2002.
Supernatural, with Castiel becoming Merlin here, and Dean Arthur.

Truth Is a Whisper, by [personal profile] seperis. This truly began life as Merlin/Arthur.




Thank you for reading! We encourage you to share your thoughts about this piece with the author and artist. You can show your appreciation by leaving reviews here
ronbigbang: (Default)
Title: Murphy's Law

Author: [personal profile] edenskye
Pairing: Ron/Neville, mentions of other pairings
Rating: NC-17
Genre: Romantic Comedy with some smut
Warnings: First time sex, oral, anal, switching
Word Count: ~ 8000
Summary: Ron, who is tired of feeling left out because everyone he knows is married, finds love while trying to rekindle on old friendship with Neville.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank [personal profile] scarysnapey for doing a great job as BETA. I would like to thank [personal profile] maevemist for a wonderful job as cheerleader. I would like to thank [personal profile] deathjunke for her beautiful artwork to go along with my story. I would also like to thank [profile] purpledodah and [profile] rivertempest for holding my hand, helping my muse out, and for their honesty and input into my story.

Titles: "Untitled"
Artist: [personal profile] deathjunke
Pairing: Ron/Neville
Rating: all ages
Media: pencil sketches colored in photoshop.
Artist’s Notes: n/a



Chapter 1


“Now this is pathetic.” Ron concluded as he looked at his almost vacant flat. He could not believe how lonely and depressed he had become since Harry and Ginny married. He had not only lost his flatmate, but he'd also lost a furnished flat. All that was left was a wall sized viewing screen, a reclining couch, some side tables, and his bed. There wasn't even as much owl crap as there used to be. He didn't get anywhere near as many owls as Harry had. He thought for a moment longer and realized that it wasn't just Harry and Ginny's marriage that depressed him. Everyone he knew was married or far away from him. George and Luna had eloped, Bill and Fleur had been married for years, Percy and he never got along, Fred was gone, and Charlie was in Romania. Hermione's marriage to Draco had caused Ron the most pain and had sent him into a deep depression for quite some time. He still had strong feelings for her, but was never able to admit them to her. It seemed like everyone he knew was busy being a “we” while he was left being a “me”. He mentally checked over his friends list and realized that Neville Longbottom was his only single friend. Ron decided that he needed to rekindle their friendship so he would have someone to hang out with. Later that night he Floo called Neville to invite him over to watch the Quidditch World Cup. After all this was the first time in years that England had made it this far, plus he was overjoyed that his classmate Oliver Wood was keeper for the team.

“What time should I be there?” Neville asked with his usual nervous tone.

“How about noon? We can have lunch first and catch up.” This would also give Ron time to blast his flat with as many cleaning and freshening charms that he knew. While he had been busy being lonely, 
he let his flat become untidy and smelly. Molly would be horrified with him. He knew better than to let it get this bad. Finding clean clothes and bathing wouldn't go amiss either, the flat wasn't the only thing that was neglected.

Ron made sure that everything was ready for lunch at noon because Neville was always on time. The flat was so clean and tidy, it would have made Molly proud. The few bits of furniture he had left sparkled. The air had been charmed to smell of freshly baked bread. This was Molly's favorite scent as it ensured growing boys had a ravenous appetite.

“Thanks for inviting me. I've been lonely since Gran passed and Seamus moved in with Pansy.” Neville confessed as he looked around at the sparsely furnished living room. It was what Neville had always associated with Ron and the Weasleys in general. Homey, comfortable, and clean. Ron looked good as well, in his Muggle jeans and tight t-shirt with his red hair shining and his freckles scattered across his pale skin. Just like Neville had remembered.

“I've been lonely too. It got so bad that my mum tried setting me up with Astoria and Millicent. Those were the two worst dates of my life.” Ron shuddered in remembrance. “ Seamus and Pansy are living together?”

“Seamus always had a thing for the Slytherin girls.” Neville couldn't imagine Ron being lonely. How could someone with so many siblings get the chance to be lonely? Let alone someone as popular as Ron.

The two men continued to talk as they moved to the couch to eat the soup and sandwiches Ron had prepared. They soon fell into the relaxed posture and habits that are only found when you have spent most of your childhood around someone you get along with. Ron still gesticulated wildly and talked with his mouth full when excited while Neville basked in the oddity of being the sole focus of Ron's attention. All too soon with Butterbeer's in hand, it was time to start watching the game.

Ron was shocked to see Viktor Krum playing for England as well. “I don't understand how we were so lucky to get Viktor to play on our team. Isn't he a Bulgarian citizen?” Ron's faced exposed his confusion as he looked to Neville for an answer.

“Oliver Wood did it. After they started dating, Viktor applied for and earned his British citizenship. Since Oliver is the captain of the team, he recruited Viktorto play for England.”

Ron turned to Neville with a puzzled look in his eyes. “You mean they are … gay? How can they be gay? They are brilliant Quidditch players.”

Neville felt his skin warm as he started to blush as Ron's gaze settled on him. “Just because your gay doesn't mean you can't play Quidditch.” Neville hoped this didn't turn into an argument about gay rights.

“How do you know all of this?” Ron sounded genuinely interested and not hostile like Neville had feared.

“Oliver and Viktor came to my office in the Ministry to apply for his citizenship. If you would like to see them again, come by my office tomorrow. They are going to be there around five to apply for a proclamation of marriage. They always come at closing time because they value their privacy.” Neville extended the invite to his friend.

Ron enthusiastically replied, “Really? That's bloody brilliant. Thanks, I will.”

“Great, then we can go for dinner afterwards so I can repay you for today.” Neville was rewarded with a nod of the head and a blindingly brilliant smile. Luckily, Ron turned his attention back to the game as Neville's cheeks again blushed crimson.

The duo sat on the edge of the couch watching the game closely. It was tied and looked like the other team had almost caught the snitch. Oliver quickly made an impossible save as the Quaffle came flying at him just as England's Seeker caught the Snitch and won the Cup.

The men were cheering and jumping up and down from all the excitement of a very climatic win. Neville turned his head towards Ron to let him know that he had to leave. Ron, still enthralled with everything, kissed Neville firmly yet tenderly on the lips. Neville just stood there calmly until Ron finished. “T...Thanks, Ron. I had a great time, but I...I have to leave now.” Neville's face was glowing red at this point and struggling to speak, he gave Ron a pathetically weak smile then left Ron's flat a lot faster than he had arrived.





“I just snogged Neville!!!!!! What do I sodding well do now? I just scared off my only single male friend.” Ron worried as he flung himself onto the couch, settling in for a good sulking.

The more Ron lingered on about the kiss, the more he realised he liked it. This caused him to reflect on his past attractions towards his mates. He always got aroused watching Harry play quidditch, but that was from the excitement of the game and not Harry's cute bum. After all he was “in love” with Hermione at the time, or so he thought. Ron remembered another time watching Draco cast a spell on the locker room shower heads just before Crabbe and Goyle stepped in. He hid behind some lockers in the boy's locker room after flying lessons and watched those two idiots jump and scream like girls as the water spurted out ice cold. He laughed loudly at the memory until he remembered he had gotten an erection and suddenly realised that he was aroused again. The memory of Draco showering a few stalls down frightened him as well. He remembered watching Draco slowly slide his hands up and down his milky white skin. It was almost as if Draco was putting on a show in slow motion to entice Ron. Ron had to race back to his dorm room to masturbate just to help his erection go down. He couldn't understand why he was suddenly having all these gay memories. He didn't think about it before. How could an innocent kiss cause Ron to doubt his masculinity?

“Bloody Hell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I think I may be a bleedin' poof.” Ron bawled.

He needed advice, but he couldn't tell his brother for the teasing he would endure would be painful. Harry, Ginny , and Hermione wouldn't understand. He came to the conclusion the only people who would be sympathetic to his feelings were his mum and dad.



Chapter 2


Ron was apprehensive about using the Floo Network because other people would try to listen in on private conversations. He had no other choice, this was an emergency and he needed his mother's advice. Ron sat down in front of the Floo and tried to calm down. As soon as he saw his parents, Ron started sobbing hysterically and babbling.

“Ron dear, you need to calm down. Your father and I can't understand what you are trying to tell us.”

Molly sounded calm despite her concern. She was an old pro at reading Ron's moods.

“I. Was. Snogging.” Ron managed to sob out. Before he could say anymore, he heard his parents cheering and clapping.

“That's lovely dear. You found someone, so why are you so upset? Oh my. Please tell me you didn't try to kiss Millicent or Astoria, they are lesbians.” Molly responded

“No I snogged Neville, who was my only single friend. I think I scared him off. He left right after I kissed him without saying a word. What's worse is I liked it.” Ron thought for a second “ Didn't you set me up with Millicent and Astoria mum? Why would you set me up with lesbians?”

Arthur told Ron that Molly had fixed him up with those two on purpose. She was hoping that if he saw how comfortable they were with their sexuality that it may help him come out.

Molly reassuringly said, “Ron dear, your whole family and friends know that you are gay. Even Hermione, that's why she married Draco. She knew that you loved her, but weren't in love with her. We were trying to make it less stressful for you by joking around. I know this is new to you. I know how confused you must be, so I am going to give you the same advice my mother gave to me. Never close your heart to love. You will miss out on so many wonderful experiences. It may not come in the form or gender that you want. If you walk around with an open heart, you will be rewarded with loves greatest riches. Everyone is here for you. Family and friends. We will love you no matter what.”

“I don't see what's so funny. I think I might be gay. I just screwed up my friendship with Neville. To top it all off I am supposed to meet him tomorrow. What do I do? I can't face him now.” Ron cried. His voice was hoarse and his face was streaked with tears. Realising he had snot about to run over his lips, he wiped his nose on the bottom of his t-shirt.

Molly told Ron that it would be fine. She suggested that Ron go and meet up with Neville as planned. “Wear your green shirt. It brings out your eyes. Make sure to get a fancy new haircut as well. You will want to look your best.”

Ron stared at his mum, he was sure she'd lost it this time. He was having an identity crisis and she was telling him to get his hair cut?

Molly recognised Ron's blank look for what it was and decided her youngest son needed a none to gentle shove in the right direction. “Arthur, Ron isn't dealing well with everything. Let's help him open up and talk about it.” Molly turned back to Ron. “ Here are some phrases that might help you out. That outfit is to die for. Your eyes just sparkle. And my favorite You hair is absolutely fabulous. By the way, Neville is so cute. Have you checked out his package? Does he have a nice arse?”

Arthur chimed in “Are you a chaser or a seeker?”

Ron was getting more embarrassed by his parent's new phrases. Where did they learn how to talk like this? Surely there was some law or something that prevented your parents from speaking like this?

“Mum! Dad! PLEASE!!!!!” Ron shouted.

Ron's tears had dried up, and he was no longer sniveling. Molly and Arthur felt quite accomplished at the handling of their son's long awaited breakdown.

Molly told Ron to talk about the kiss and his feelings with Neville. After all, Neville was an understanding person. He dealt with Oliver and Viktor so he was fine with gay men. Even if Neville had hated the kiss, Ron could explain that he was sorry but had just felt comfortable with him and his body reacted in the heat of the moment. Ron thanked his mother and said goodnight. It was late and Ron was tired. He had a lot to think over before meeting up with Neville tomorrow.

As Ron slipped into his bed, he took his mother's advice to heart, though he did have a hard time falling asleep. The thought of his dad asking if he was a chaser or seeker, combined with his mother asking about Neville's package and arse, grossed him out. He just knew he was going to have nightmares and need several years of therapy.


Chapter 3


Ron's nerves raced through him like a restless dragon. His brain played through several scenarios all day about how he was going to handle everything with Neville. He decided that the best thing to do was to show up early and be honest about what had happened. Ron kept glancing at the clock hoping that it would move faster. He was as clean and tidy as he was ever going to get. He had even used some of the fancy cologne Hermione had given him for Christmas, teamed with the shirt Ginny had bought for him. He finally left work an hour before he was supposed to meet Neville just to give himself enough time to get to the Ministry,

Neville was sitting at his neatly organised desk when he heard a knock on the door. He got up to open it and was shocked to see Ron standing on the other side.

“H....hi Ron. I...I was afraid you weren't going to show up after last night.” Neville swallowed loudly as he felt his face starting to blush again.

“Are you bonkers? Why would I pass up on the chance to see Oliver and Viktor again? I did come early though because I need to explain about what happened last night.” Ron desperately wanted Neville to know that he wasn't there just to see Oliver and Viktor, he just didn't want to frighten him away in his eagerness. He knew he was always putting his foot in his mouth and often the best course of action was to keep his gob firmly shut. This time he knew he'd have to talk Merlin, he hoped Neville wouldn't notice he was sweating with nerves already.

They stood in the doorway for several minutes,neither of them eager to start the conversation before Nevile realized what they were doing and invited Ron to sit down.

“I'm done for the day except for Oliver and Viktor's meeting. The Ministry likes for us to handle high profile clients after hours for their privacy. In order for me to get you in, I had to tell the Ministry that you are my partner. Is that OK?” Neville bit his bottom lip, hating the way his hands were shaking and knowing that Ron must be getting quite hot with the heat all this blushing must be giving out.

Ron stood there with a blank expression on his face. He looked around Neville's office, noticing all the plants and things that were just obviously typically Neville. Neville, the shy kid he'd watch become a man capable of wielding a mystical sword few could even touch. Neville the quiet kid who always stood by them, who had always tried to do what was right. Ron focused his attention on Neville's strong, capable hands and sighed softly. He finally mustered up the courage to speak. “S...Sure that's fine. Look about last night, I'm sorry. I never should have kissed you. I got caught up in the game and was so happy that England won. One more thing.... boy this is harder than I thought it was going to be.” Mustering his bravery, Ron looked up into Neville's eyes. “ I enjoyed the kiss. I completely understand if you don't want to see or speak to me after the meeting.”

“Wow, I guess it's time for my confession. I thought that you had heard the rumours that I was gay and wanted to find out if they were true. That's why I let you snog me for so long. I also enjoyed the kiss. Who knew Ron Weasley was such a great kisser?” Neville gave Ron his patented shy smile, which was returned with Ron's blindingly brilliant one. They both laughed out loud and began talking at the same time.

They talked for so long that they completely lost track of time. They jumped up as soon as Oliver and Viktor knocked at the door.

“Viktor, look how cute Neville and Ron look together. It reminds me of when we first started to date.” Oliver gushed.

Neville confided that Ron was only a friend, and that he had to lie to the Ministry so Ron could come in to meet them. They went on to explain to Oliver and Viktor all the events that had taken place over the last day. Oliver and Viktor shared knowing smiles as they watched Ron and Neville giggle at themselves

“Your save last night was wicked.” Ron complimented Oliver. “And Viktor. How you managed to catch the golden snitch just at the same time. It's Bloody Brilliant.”

While Ron was admiring the two athletes, Neville found the proclamation of marriage for two wizards.

“Here you go guys. You need to sign here and initial there. And you're done. Your copy will be mailed within the week.”

Ron asked if the happy couple could tell him how they met.

“Well Viktor had come to my first professional game right after I joined the team. Afterwards, he came into my dressing room to meet me. As soon as I opened the door, he kissed me and that was it. I fell in love with him shortly after that.”

They enjoyed listening to Oliver and Viktor take turns telling different stories of their dates, they lost track of time again.

“Would you look at how late it is?” Oliver said. “We need to get going.”

Ron was getting ready to walk out with the athletes, when Neville asked him if he still wanted to go for dinner. “Yeah, I'm starving. Do you have any place in mind?”

Neville suggested a restaurant, and they were off on their unofficial first date.



Chapter 4


Ron and Neville grabbed their cloaks and broomsticks then proceeded to leave the Ministry. They had no sooner stepped outside when a huge thunderstorm rolled in and soaked them completely. They looked at each other and agreed that it was necessary to go by Floo. The rain washed away all the soot and dust as they stepped out of the Floo and walked to the restaurant. Since there was a long wait for a table, they decided to go to the bar area and have a Butterbeer. The house elf that served them was a prankster and gave Ron a mug with a broken handle. The second Ron picked up his mug, the handle separated and the mug flew down, spilling the Butterbeer all over Neville.

“I am so sorry Neville.” Ron apologized. As he jumped up to help clean off Neville, he hit a levitating tray full of food. This caused the tray to tip over and pour its contents on his head. Neville just sat there and laughed at Ron, who was now sitting in what used to be several dinners.

“I don't know what's wrong with me today. I feel like I've been hexed,” Ron exclaimed. Neville couldn't tell by Ron's tone whether he was going to cry or laugh. When Neville saw the smile on Ron's face, he started to laugh again.

“Something like this could only happen to us,” Neville joked “It's like we are back at Hogwarts.” He wrinkled his nose because Ron had smelt a lot nicer before being covered in food. “You stink,” he told Ron with a grin as he then cast a cleansing spell so there wouldn't be any more accidents.

They were enjoying the evening until Ron mentioned the Floo conversation he had with his parents. Neville found it quite amusing that Mrs. Weasley was joking about his package and bum. Ron, on the other hand, was shocked by Neville's reaction. He couldn't understand why he wasn't sympathetic towards his embarrassment. “Come on Ron, if it was anyone else you would be laughing about it.”

The more Ron thought about it, the more he it found it funny. “ I guess you're right. I'm still going to need some kind of potion or spell to help me forget about it though.”

They agreed that even though the evening got off to a rocky start, they had had a great time and enjoyed themselves. “Ron, w....would you like to attend Oliver and Viktor's wedding with me? It's next weekend.”

“Sure, just send an owl with the info.” Ron felt as if a great weight had lifted off his chest. Neville was still his friend and even wanted to spend more time with him.

As they got up to leave, Neville gave Ron a gentle kiss on the lips. Ron had a silly grin stuck firmly on his face all the way home. It was still there when he fell asleep much later.

The next week seemed to move more slowly than normal for Ron. He was excited to see Oliver and Viktor again but the thought of seeing Neville again sent his heart racing. This had to be the feeling that his friends described when they started to fall in love.

The big day had arrived and Ron was thrilled that he was going to see Neville in a hour. He grabbed his broom and started to fly over to Neville's flat. Once there they would use the portkey to go to the ceremony. Unfortunately Ron misjudged the landing and fell into one of Neville's plants. The plant threw Ron onto the ground hard causing his pants to rip. He got up, dusted himself off, and knocked on the door.

“Seems like your plant doesn't like me.” Ron joked

“I'll mend your trousers.” Neville said then he cast a sewing spell. In a flash, Ron's trousers were like brand new. They both grinned at each other, doing their best not to giggle. They grabbed a hold of the wedding invitation, which was the portkey, and were instantly transported to the wedding. While they looked around, they saw a few familiar faces from school and several players from their Quidditch team. Ron was walking around with a look of amazement on his face. He couldn't believe that two men could put together such a beautiful gathering. He was even more shocked when he saw that the Minister of Magic was presiding over the whole ceremony. Ron got a look of love in his eyes as he watched Oliver and Viktor recite their vows.

“Hopefully one day that will be me up there.” Ron confessed..

“We will have that one day. It will be everything we want and then some.” Neville whispered hoping that Ron didn't hear. Ron did hear him, but all he did was move closer and rest his head on Neville's shoulder. Neville hastily looked around. No one was paying them any attention so he rested his head against Ron's and shyly took hold of Ron's hand.

Ron kept thanking him for the invitation when everything ended. They had had a wonderful time, and no more accidents happened. They had even both managed to dance together without a mishap. Neville had liked the way Ron had let him lead in the dancing. He'd explain that's how Ginny and Hermione had made him dance too. By the time they got back to Neville's flat, it was really late. “Ron, w...would you like to spend the night?”

“O...OK but I should tell you that I...I've never been with anyone.” Ron's cheeks turned crimson. As he tried to smile, his lips trembled so he bit down on them before his body could betray his nervousness further.

Neville's heart skipped a beat as he gave Ron a shy smile. “Don't be embarrassed. I... I haven't been with anyone either. It will be something new for the both of us.” Ron looked at Neville with surprise and hope. He could do this, no they could do this together. “Come here.” Ron whispered, draping his arms around Neville's neck as they both took a step closer to each other. Both men locked lips and kissed all the way into the bedroom.


Chapter 5


Their kiss was broken briefly now and then so they could remove their clothes. They helped each other undress, not focusing on anything but the kisses. It wasn't until they stood finally naked pressed against one another that they stopped kissing to breathe. As they stood there naked, Ron took the opportunity to tell Neville that his mum wanted to invite him for dinner tomorrow night. Neville laughed “I would love to go, although you need to work on your timing.” Ron blushed and looked down to hide his smile; it would be appropriate to start giggling now.

Oh sweet Merlin, Neville's hard cock had lined up with Ron's. It finally hit the two of them: their cocks were touching! This was nothing like being naked together in the shower room at school. Ron gulped, his eyes going wide as he looked back up into Neville's eyes. “Nev,” he managed to gasp out around his frantically beating heart. Neville smiled, a smile nothing like Ron had ever seen his friends face before. Ron suddenly felt like prey.

“Shh.” Neville whispered as he leaned in and started to kiss Ron again. They glided over to the bed where Neville helped Ron on to it. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to let Neville climb on top of him.

Ron was suddenly enjoying the new dominant Neville, and Neville was having fun with a very eager and submissive Ron. Neville's lips left Ron's and found their way to Ron's neck. He slowly started kissing his way down the side of Ron's body. When he reached the nipples, Ron started giggling like a little boy. “That tickles” he confessed. Neville took that as a compliment and continued working his way down Ron's body. The lower he went caused Ron to giggle harder and louder. Ron also started to squirm in time with the giggling under Neville, causing his leg to get caught up under Neville's arm. As Neville started licking Ron's erect dick, Ron's laughing and squirming became uncontrollable. Ron's body twisted accidentally throwing Neville off the bed.

Neville landed with an “oof”

“I am so sorry. Are you alright Neville?” Ron rolled over on the bed to peer down at his lover.

“Ouch! That hurt, but I'll be alright.” Neville grinned up at Ron, not in the least put off by this turn of events.

“Let me make it up to you. I'll go down on you.” The words had flown out of Ron's mouth before he'd had time to think. He'd never done this before. What if he tried and failed? The look of joy that passed over Neville's face erased all of his fears. He would do anything to make Neville look at him like that again.

To say Neville was enthusiastic was an understatement. He got back up on the bed and lay back against the pillows. Ron positioned himself directly over Neville's body. He opened his mouth and went down on Neville. Ron had expected not to like the taste, but quickly found out that he didn't mind at all. He was surprised by how wide he had to stretch his mouth. Keeping his teeth out of the way seemed like a good idea, but difficult to manage at first. What Ron lacked in skill he made up for in enthusiasm.

He tried moving his tongue and his head in different combinations, and discovered that Neville really didn't mind being slobbered all over.

It didn't take long for Neville to start moaning “Oh, Yeah!!!! That's it.” He leaned forward and started massaging Ron's head with his hands. As Neville grunted with pleasure, Ron lifted his head to see if he was OK. As Ron's head lifted, it hit Neville's chin causing Neville to bite down on his tongue. Neville jerked his body from the pain and flipped Ron off the bed.

“Looks like we are having a problem with the bed,” Neville laughed, “Why don't we take this to the floor before we hurt ourselves.” The sight of Ron sprawled naked on the floor was the hottest thing Neville had ever laid eyes on.

Ron grinned and held out a hand to Neville, licking his lips as he watched Neville move towards him. He was so relieved that Neville was so understanding and not cursing him for being such a clumsy oaf, Neville scrambled onto the floor with Ron.

Between heated kisses and roaming hands, they quietly talked. They both agreed that the blowjobs were great, except for their minor setbacks, but they were ready to move things along. Ron asked nervously “ Are you going to fuck me?” Ron gave a nervous giggle. “ I wouldn't mind trying it, I just don't know what to do.” He giggled again, “ I can't be ticklish therecan I?”

Neville resisted the urge to laugh out loud and flashed Ron with another one of his famous smiles.“Since it the first time for both of us, I thought we could take turns to see if we like it.”

As he was talking, his hands were gently stroking over Ron's arse. Ron hadn't noticed that he'd opened his legs wide, nor that his ticklish giggling fit had changed into a loud panting, body grinding against Neville's hand.

Ron agreed that would be best and offered to bottom first. He thought that going first would help calm him down before he fucked Neville. He honestly felt he would shoot his load if he tried to get Neville right now. He was so turned on. It was taking all of his self control not to beg for more, faster, and now.

Neville cast a lubricating spell on Ron's hole and his own dick. He then cast what Ron definitely knew was a stretching spell. It was the oddest sensation he had ever felt anywhere but odd in a good way. Neville continued with what seemed like another spell but Ron wasn't really sure. Neville proceeded to slowly enter Ron. He was amazed at how careful Neville was. He knew that Neville was going to be a very tender and responsive lover. Every time Ron would flinch, Neville stopped to make sure he wasn't hurting him. He would only continue when Ron gave to go ahead. Ron was pleasantly surprised at how much he liked feeling Neville inside of him. Thanks to the lubricating and stretching spells nothing actually hurt, it was just really weird to have something inside like that. He enjoyed it even more when Neville's cock massaged his prostate while thrusting in and out of him slowly. It sent a tingling, pulsating sensation throughout Ron's body, causing him to have a moment of euphoric bliss. Several more thrusts to Ron's prostate brought him close to coming too soon.

“Oh Merlin, Neville! Stop, stop now please. You're gonna make this end way too bloody fast.” Neville had stopped as soon as Ron had spoken: worried that he had hurt his lover. “Is it really that good?” He asked, unable to believe anything he had done could be that good.

“Hell yeah.” Ron told him as he eagerly nodded, leaning up to kiss Neville softly.“ I don't know who taught you how to do this but I really need to buy him a present.” Ron moaned.

“Well I... I was really nervous about tonight so I asked Oliver what to do. He gave me some really good suggestions.”

Ron laughed with relief, happy to discover that Neville was just as new to this as he was. “Can I try doing it to you now, Nev?” Just the look of lust in Ron's eyes had Neville eagerly nodding and swapping places with Ron. Neville was excited to bottom for Ron this go around. He laid back and spread his legs open for Ron, casting the lubricating and stretching charms on himself like he had on Ron. A strong, intense rush of lust overcame Ron. He didn't know if he was just overly eager or hadn't rested enough, but as soon as his dick reached Neville's hungry hole, he shot the biggest load he had ever shot. Neville just laid there covered in Ron's spunk with an amazed look on his face.

Ron apologized and blushed with embarrassment. “ I am so sorry. I though all these years of beating off would have taught me some control.” Ron felt so bad that he had come so soon and hadn't have a chance to pleasure Neville, so he reached over and took hold of Neville's beautiful cock. He began to stroke it firmly, smiling as Neville squirmed and bucked up into his hand. “You are so beautiful like this Nev, so beautiful.” He whispered as he leaned in to cover Neville's face with kisses. He hungrily kissed his mouth as Neville arched and came, gasping frantically into the kiss as he covered them both in splashes of warm sticky fluid. Ron was delighted with this outcome, nuzzling and kissing Neville as he waited the ability to speak to return to his lover.

“I....I have a confession. Oliver's suggestions …. well it was more of a charm. He calls it the ultimate orgasm. I was afraid that I wouldn't be any good so I cast it right before we did it. I am surprised that you lasted this long.” Neville admitted with another shy smile as he gently led his hands wander over the pale freckled flesh.

Ron admitted that the orgasm was intense and asked Neville to teach him the charm.” Lets shower and clean up before we try anything else first.” Neville suggested.

After the shower, they realized how late it was and decided that they should go to bed. “Prepare yourself. Tomorrow night you will be experiencing the ultimate orgasm,” Ron joked.

“Well, that sounds exciting, but aren't we having dinner with your family tomorrow? I don't think they want to see you giving me the ultimate orgasm. Though, considering the conversations you've been having with your mum, I could be wrong.” They both shuddered and giggled again.

“How about after dinner? No witnesses?”

“No witnesses; just us.” Ron agreed.

Neville watched Ron curl himself into the fetal position then slid up behind him and spooned him. Neville wrapped his arm around Ron and hugged him, causing Ron to giggle again. This proved to Neville that Ron was ticklish no matter how he was touched. Ron fell asleep with a smile thinking how wonderful this moment was, while Neville had a devilish smile on his face, thinking of how he could find new ways to tickle Ron.



Chapter 6


Ron woke,startled, and was shocked that Neville wasn't in the bed with him. He thought last night was too good to be true, so it had to have been a dream. As he started to look around the room, he realised that he wasn't in his bed. Ron smiled and thought “Last night really did happen.”

Just then the scents of breakfast foods filled the air, causing Ron's stomach to emit a ravenous growl. Neville walked into the bedroom, at the same time as Ron's growl, with a tray holding a variety of breakfast foods. “Good morning, sleepy,” Neville teased. “I wasn't sure what you like to eat so I cooked everything I knew how to, hoping that there is something on here you like.”

“Good morning. Everything smells so good. “Ron complimented Neville as he was eying the tray. Surely he couldn't be hungry again, he ate so much last night. His stomach growled again, telling him differently. He grabbed a fork and started to devour everything he could. Ron's appetite was far greater that of anyone he knew.

Neville hopped into the bed next to Ron and suggested that Ron leave some food for him. After all he was hungry, too. The same thought ran through their minds “Who knew sex would cause them to have such an insatiable appetite.” They ate every last bit of food, then moaned because they ate too much.

“I never asked you what you do for a living, Ron.” Neville nervously questioned hoping to avoid the morning after sex talk.

“I am the first years flying teacher and Gryffindor Quidditch coach at Hogwarts.” Ron announced proudly that he was back at his alma matter.

“What time does your mum want us to come for dinner?” Neville inquired.

“My mum..... BLOODY HELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! She is going to be pissed big time. I promised her I would Floo her when I got in last night. She has probably got the Aurors out looking for me.“ The only thing Ron feared more than spiders was his mum when she was upset and angry.

Neville was sympathetic towards Ron's fears because his Gran would scream at him whenever he was late. He suggested that they shower, and clean up before chatting with Mrs. Weasley.

As Ron got ready to go into the shower, Neville brought the dirty dishes to the kitchen and cast the washing spell. He went back to the bathroom and waited for a minute or two then joined Ron in the shower. Ron's eyes were closed to prevent the shampoo from getting into them so he didn't know Neville had joined him. Ron jumped from shock as Neville started to caress his arm and kiss the nape of his neck. “I was wondering if you were going to join me, but next time there's no need to sneak up on me. You are always welcome to join me in the shower. “ Ron spoke with a spark of excitement in his voice. Neville's hand skimmed across Ron's toned, hairless body as he reached for the soap. In doing so, Neville found a few more very well hidden places that tickled Ron when touched.

“Are you trying to get me all excited again?” Ron teased knowing that there wouldn't be enough time to have a second round. Even though they were running late, Ron still made time to glide his hands over Neville's boyish body. He wanted to learn everything he could about his new lover. He wanted to know where Neville responded to his touch the most, so when they got back home he could please Neville just as he had been pleased.

“No, I just wanted to make sure you are clean. “ Neville teased back. “We need to hurry up so we can Floo your mum.”

As soon as they were finished getting dressed they sat in front of Neville's floo. Ron was twitching anxiously waiting for his mum to start yelling at any moment.

“Ronald Weasley!” Molly shouted sternly then smiled, “did you have a good time love? Hello, Neville dear.”

Ron couldn't get over how calm she was. Normally she would have carried on until she lost her voice. There had to be something seriously wrong. He thought about calling a Healer. but then decided to wait until he saw her in person. “You're not mad that I was out all night long?”

“Of course not. Neville sent an owl yesterday afternoon stating that you may stay the night because the reception would run late into the evening. “ Molly assured Ron “ I will have dinner ready at six.” Right before she said goodbye she quietly added that Harry, Ginny, George, and Luna would be joining them for dinner as well. After he said goodbye, Ron turned to Neville who had a huge smile on his face. ”You had this planned all along didn't you?” This caused both men to start laughing.

Ron thought for a moment about Molly inviting their friends to dinner as well. Suddenly his smiling face turned to serious, “This can't be good. Mum invited our friends to dinner as well. She's probably planning an intervention. She's going to send me to some crazy gay-no-more clinics.”

Neville couldn't understand why Ron always looked at things negatively when his parents were concerned. He looked Ron right in the eyes and said, “That's one way you could look at it. Maybe she is planning on throwing us a coming out party. If that's the case then it's going to be a gay old time at the Weasley's home tonight.” Neville's joke got Ron laughing again. They enjoyed the rest of their day together and before they knew it, it was time to get ready for dinner.



Chapter 7


Ron was nervous and anxious about dinner. Neville did his best to calm him down. A neck and shoulder massage made Ron twitch, a kiss ended up with Ron pulling away, upset and a simple hug almost made Ron fall apart completely. Nothing Neville did worked. Neville finally suggested that they just go and see what awaited them there. Ron asked if they could stop by his place first so he could change his clothes. After all he didn't want his mum to see him wearing the same clothes he had on last night. As soon as Ron found an acceptable outfit, which took quite some time, they were off to his parents for dinner. The trip seemed to go much faster than normal, someone surely put a speed spell on his broom. Before Ron knew it, Neville and he were standing outside his parents' front door. As Ron proceeded to knock, Molly was standing at the door ready to greet her son and his “special” friend.

“I've missed you Ronald. You need to come and visit more often.” Molly said trying to use her maternal guilt on Ron while hugging him so tightly that he couldn't breathe. “Hello, Neville dear. Give me a hug.”

Neville stepped in and gave her a tight squeeze. “Th...Thank you for inviting me, Mrs. Weasley.” Hugging women wasn't something Neville normally did. As much as he'd loved his Gran, she had never been the 'hugging' type.

Molly stepped out of the way so the two men could enter. The aroma of cooking food scented the entire house, causing Ron's and Neville's stomachs to start growling. Molly smiled when she heard them. After all that she had cooked she wanted to make sure that the men would eat it all. She told Ron to take Neville to the dining room while she finished up with dinner.

Ron kept twitching from nerves because he wasn't sure if his siblings really knew about him or if they just suspected it. If they did know would they accept him or push him away. Neville had worries of his own. It was one thing seeing old friends, but once they found out he was Ron's boyfriend, would they consider him good enough?

“Everyone's here already. Stop worrying, Ron, they don't know about Neville and you.” Molly said to them hoping it would help Ron calm down.

No sooner had they sooner entered the dining room when they were bombarded with “hellos” from everyone.

“When mum said you were bringing someone, I thought you were brining Lavender Brown,” George questioned “Luna said that Lavender is single again and was trying to reconnect with you.”

A look of horror swept across Ron's face, causing Neville to jump to Ron's defense. “Ron invited me because he knew that I was alone. Since Gran passed, it's just been me and I was getting really lonely. Ron felt bad so he invited me to dinner.”

While Molly walked into the dining room saying dinner was ready, the food appeared with a flick of Molly's wand onto the table, and the conversation quickly changed. The men discussed their holiday trip with Arthur while the ladies discussed it with Molly as everyone filled their plates with food. Ron and Neville looked at each other and smiled, finally the focus wasn't on them anymore. The moment didn't last long at all, because Harry asked Ron and Neville what they had been up to. Ron's nerves started in again and he began stuttering his words. He wasn't ready to open up about Neville and him together. Neville chimed in and told them about the past few weeks they had, being careful to omit certain events that would incriminate them. Ron gave Neville a thankful glance and opened up about the mishaps that he had endured over the past few weeks again being careful not to mention Neville. Everyone put Ron's nerves and stuttering down to him being embarrassed about telling them about all his latest mishaps. He was probably worried about the teasing he would get, or so they wrongly thought.

“Bloody Hell! It actually worked.” George enthusiastically exclaimed. Everyone turned around and gave George a confused look, so George decided to come clean about Ron's mishaps.

“Fred and I came across a Murphy's Law spell for people in love. Basically the spell causes slightly funny mishaps to people who are in love. We thought it would be funny to cast it on Ron when he started to date Lavender.” Ron's face was glowing scarlet from his anger towards Georges confession. “The only way to break the spell is to admit your true feelings to the one you love. All you have to do is tell the lucky lady in your life how you feel.”

Ron was furious now. He just knew that George was trying to “out” him at the table. Neville didn't help either. Neville, who had been talking to Ginny and Luna, heard just the last part of George's speech mentioned that all the misfortunes happened when Ron was with him and not out on a date with the lucky lady. A surprised look swept across everyone's face, telling Ron that his family really didn't know about him. Ron saw the shocked look on their faces and finally decided that now was a good time to come out to his family.

“There never was and never will be a lucky lady in my life. I'm gay,” Ron exploded with a hint of enthusiasm in his voice. “I've been seeing Neville, but it's too early for me to say that I love him. I do care deeply for him, but this stupid hex is interfering with everything we do.” Ron nervously met each and every look his family and friends gave him, expecting to see disgust and revulsion, he realised it was just shock at his outburst he finally gave Neville a sheepish smile, tinged with the relief of finally being 'out' to his family. His eyes, though, held Neville's in a careful gaze. He'd just loudly declared he was all but falling in love. What if Neville just wanted to be friends with benefits?

Neville sighed with relief “I care deeply for you too, but I was afraid to say anything. I didn't want to hurt your feelings or push you away if you were 'in love' with me.” Neville only had eyes for Ron now, he was completely unaware of the astonished looks he was getting, or that they were turning into huge Weasley grins.

Immediately following Neville's confession, Ron felt like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He too ignored everyone else in the room. He'd have climbed over the table if he'd needed to, but seeing as Neville was sitting right next to him he dragged Neville up out of his chair and wrapped him in a hug.

This of course caused a huge wave of movement and sound. Everyone else was making congratulatory noises or whistling and clapping as they all stood as one to move and hug Ron and Neville. Neville was sure there would be bruises from all the backslapping, but they were worth it, just to see the smile and relief on Ron's face now.

It was hard to keep track of the well wishes, dinner invites and probing questions for more details. George, of course, wanted pictures then began discussing the salable probability of the spell until he was dragged back by Molly muttering about 'time and place'.

Dinner continued with a change in conversation. Neville was now an honorary Weasley, although it was Ron who was threatened he'd best look after Neville.

Molly chimed in, “No more secrets in our family please.”

Harry, Ginny, George, and Luna all smiled and said in unison “We have two more secrets. You and dad are going to be grandparents.” Molly and Arthur got excited and congratulated them with hugs and well wishes but no backslapping this time for Ginny and Luna.

Ron looked at Neville, smiled, and then told him, “Don't even think about it.” Neville's slow smile could only be described as devious.



The End



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ronbigbang: (Default)
Title: The Resolution of All the Fruitless Searches
Author: [personal profile] slantedknitting
Pairing: Ron/Dean
Rating: NC-17
Genre: angst and romance, minimal action, maximal drama
Warnings: mentions of Harry/Ginny, past Ron/Hermione, Lee/Angelina, Ron/OMCs, and past Dean/OMC; consumption of tobacco (via cigarettes) and marijuana (via brownies), angst angst and more angst; spoiler warnings: explicit past Ron/Harry, non-explicit George/Lee
Word Count: 50,300
Summary: Dean has finally returned to England after spending the post-war years at an art school in America. Harry and Ron are currently Aurors, but have a complicated history with each other that is brought to the forefront of Ron's mind as his friendship with Dean is rebuilt, things go wrong at work, and George becomes a dramatic hypocrite.
Author’s Note: Endless thanks to my wonderful betas, [personal profile] eruditefics and [personal profile] triomakesmehot. They've looked over more than 110,000 words for me this year and I could not be more grateful. Also, the title is taken from Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes."


Titles: "Untitled" & "Untitled#2"
Artist: Beanyneko ([profile] prince_ozora)
Pairing: Ron/Dean
Rating: all ages
Media: watercolors
Artist’s Notes: n/a


Ron inched opened the door to his and Harry's flat and stuck his head inside before pulling it all the way open. He gestured for another man to go in before him, then followed and closed the door behind them, muttering a spell as the other man looked around the dark flat.

"Your flatmate home?" the other man asked, pressing Ron against the door and reaching for Ron's belt.

"Yes," Ron said firmly, grabbing the man's hand and winking. "We just have to go to my room."

"But I like your sofa," the man said, grabbing Ron's hips and pulling him further into the room. "And I like being heard."

Ron stumbled and tried to guide his guest in the direction of his bedroom. "That's hot, but it's a bit rude to him, don't you think?" he asked, starting to unbutton the other man's shirt.

"No, I don't." The man grinned wickedly and shoved Ron down onto the sofa before sitting on top of him. "You're the perfect kind of ginger, did you know that?"

Ron gaped up at the man as he quickly undid Ron's trousers. "What?"

"You're so fucking tall," the man said roughly as he began stroking Ron's stiffening cock. "And fit as hell. Not fat and sweaty like most gingers." He leaned down to lick across Ron's bottom lip. "Does your flatmate like listening to you shag?"

Ron blinked, his mind a bit hazy from the desire and the alcohol coursing through him. "Er – no. No, he really doesn't. He's straight. Listen–"

"Straight, huh? I bet a night of listening to two men shag each other senseless on his sofa would set him right."

Ron shifted and tried to sit up, but the other man had him pinned down. "Look, my room's right there – er – fuck, what's your name, again?"

The other man's face went blank as he sat back on his heels, hovering over Ron. "Excuse me?"

"What? Your name, I forgot... Jim, was it?" Ron watched in confusion as the man stood and began to button his shirt. "Jim?"

"My name isn't Jim, you drunken idiot. It's Tom, and fuck you." Tom gestured rudely at Ron and headed back toward the door.

"Tom," Ron called after him, sitting up. "Tom, sorry, it was – it was loud in the – the place–"

Ron sighed as Tom slammed the door behind him. Cursing himself and his bad luck, Ron lay back down and looked at his half-hard cock.

"Bollocks."





Ron woke up the next day when he heard a loud bang. He sat up quickly and looked around in a panic, only to see Harry setting down heavy bags of groceries on the kitchen table.

"Sorry," Harry said, seeing Ron staring at him over the back of the sofa. "Didn't mean to wake you."

"It's fine," Ron grumbled, rubbing his hands over his face. "What time is it?"

"Just after noon. Did you have a good sleep?"

"I guess." Ron watched Harry unpacking groceries for a few seconds, then frowned. "Why am I sleeping out here?"

Harry glanced up. "What, don't you remember?"

"Er." Ron thought back to the previous night and his head gave an unpleasant throb. "Not really. I remember coming back... with someone. Blimey, he isn't still here, is he?"

Harry bit back a smile. "No. He, er... he left last night."

Ron stared hard at the back of Harry's head as he put food away in the cupboards. "Did I do something stupid last night?"

Harry contemplated a box of noodles and spoke without looking up. "Well, you forgot his name and... er, he was a bit put out."

"Oh, right," Ron muttered, blushing and looking down at his lap. "Bugger – what the – Harry!"

Harry looked over in surprise. "What? That can't be the first time you've forgotten a bloke's name."

"No," Ron growled, quickly putting himself back in his trousers and zipping them back up. "You could have mentioned my bits have been hanging out all morning."

Harry laughed and went back to putting away the groceries. "I thought you might have noticed when you first woke up. It's a bit chilly in here."

"Oh, fuck off." Ron stood and stretched. "Well, sorry you had to hear all that, anyway."

Harry shrugged and pretended to be reading the label on a can of soup. "Can I ask you something sort of personal?"

"About last night?" Ron asked, moving over to the table to see what food Harry had bought.

"No. Well, sort of..."

"Just ask it," Ron said, eying a box of biscuits.

Harry turned back toward the cupboards and Ron saw the tips of his ears glowing red. "Do you... when was the last time you were tested?"

Ron picked up the biscuits. "What, like an exam?"

"No," Harry said quietly, turning back around to face Ron. "Like for STIs."

Ron raised his eyebrows. "You mean STDs?"

"Infections," Harry mumbled. "Sexually transmitted infections..."

"Are – are those different from the diseases?"

"No, that's just... what they're called now, I think."

"Oh." Ron looked carefully at Harry, trying hard not to laugh. "Are you worried I've got herpes, Harry?"

Harry scowled and grabbed the biscuits to put them away. "No. I'm just trying to be a good friend. You – you bring home a lot of blokes, Ron, and I just – I want to make sure you're not doing anything stupid or – or putting yourself at risk for... you know. AIDS and... well, herpes, too."

Ron sniggered. "I get tested, mate. And I use Muggle condoms and everything."

Harry blushed again. "Well – well, good."

"At least I know you care about me," Ron teased, pulling the biscuits back out and eating one. "How was your night, then?"

"The usual." Harry shrugged and took a biscuits for himself. "Dean's back, though."

Ron coughed, his eyes wide, and struggled to swallow. "What?"

"Yeah. I ran into him in a Muggle shop this morning. Seamus didn't say anything about it last night, though."

Ron frowned and sat down at the table as Harry cleared the empty bags off of it. "That's odd. Maybe Seamus doesn't know Dean's back?"

Harry snorted and filled a kettle with water. He tapped it with his wand and then sat down with Ron to wait for it to boil. "There's no way Dean would come back without telling Seamus."

"That's probably true. Well, did you ask Dean about it? About Seamus, I mean?"

Harry shook his head. "I figured if Seamus didn't say anything, then something must be wrong between them. Maybe they had a falling out. Who knows? Seamus hardly ever talks about Dean anymore, anyway. Maybe they just... grew apart after all these years."

"Five years isn't that long," Ron reasoned. "And Seamus went to visit him in America, didn't he?"

"Thought so. A couple of times, at least." Harry shrugged again. "Anyway, Dean says hello. I said we'd owl him about meeting up for lunch or something next weekend."

Ron nodded. "Speaking of owls–"

"It's on my bed. You can grab it if you want," Harry said as he stood to make the tea.

Ron watched Harry for a moment, then went to get the newspaper from Harry's room.





A few hours later, Ron was at the kitchen table again, this time joined by George and Lee.

"It's a bit disgusting, don't you think?" George asked, nodding toward Harry's bedroom door.

Ron blinked across the table at his brother. "What, the fact that Harry isn't here?"

"No, the fact that he's out with Gin."

Ron snorted and finished off his second beer of the evening, setting it down loudly. "I think it's bit late to take issue with their relationship."

"I'm not taking issue with it. I just think it's disgusting how they're together all the time. Literally, all the time. I'm surprised either of them ever makes it to work. It's disgusting."

Ron rolled his eyes and opened another beer bottle. "He wasn't with her last night or this morning."

George shrugged. "How many beers are you going to have?"

"However many it takes."

"What the hell does that mean?" Lee asked. Both Weasleys glared at him.

"You're not allowed to talk yet," George reminded him darkly.

"You're being childish," Lee said plainly.

"And you're being a wanker." George turned his attention back to Ron. "The wanker's got a point, though. It's barely dinner time. How many are you going to have?"

"I told you, as many as it takes." Ron winked and took a large gulp of beer.

"Are you still doing that, then?"

"What, drinking beer?"

"No. Getting pissed before you go out to pull."

Ron rolled his eyes again. "So what if I am?"

"It's not exactly healthy, is it? You've been doing this for over four years. Don't you ever go out sober?"

"Don't you ever mind your own business?"

"No," George and Lee said together. George glared at his friend again.

"I'm talking whether you like it or not," Lee said, reaching across the table to take his second beer. "Angie is allowed to date whomever she wants."

"As long as it's not you," George said.

Lee ignored this and resumed drinking.

"Out of curiosity," Ron began carefully, "how did you end up scoring a date with her, anyway?"

"I asked her out," Lee said, shrugging.

George pushed his chair back with a loud scrape. "You bastard," he said lowly, staring disbelievingly at Lee.

"George," Lee warned, "you're drunk. Calm down."

"I'm not drunk, I've only had one beer. You asked out Angelina!"

"I've fancied her for over a decade, George," Lee said through clenched teeth. "It's my turn."

"She's. Fred's," George practically growled.

Ron cleared his throat in a halfhearted attempt to get their attentions.

"It's been over five years, George. I am sick of having this conversation with you. I swear, if you bothered to get your own girlfriend, my love life wouldn't interest you half as much."

"Fuck you," George spat, standing and storming out of the flat before either Ron or Lee could stop him.

"He took the news quite well, I think," Lee said dully, turning back to Ron.

Ron stared at the door George had slammed, a sinking feeling washing over him. "I don't think that last bit's true."

"I was being sarcastic."

"I meant the bit about your love life. I think he'd care, anyway."

Lee shrugged and looked sadly into his beer bottle. "That's his problem."

"If you say so," Ron muttered.

"I should get home," Lee said, standing up awkwardly.

"You might want to give him a few minutes to cool off," Ron suggested, looking up at Lee's wary expression.

"It's my flat, too. If I avoided it every time George was in a bad mood, I'd be sleeping on the streets." He set his bottle down on the table and eyed Ron carefully. "You really should think about going out when you're sober. You might even find something lasting."

"What if that's not what I'm looking for?" Ron asked, one eyebrow raised.

"That's a fair point. Anyway, I'll see you."

Ron watched as Lee followed after George, wondering how long it would take George to warm up to the idea of Fred's ex-girlfriend dating his best friend and flatmate. Deciding not to dwell on it, Ron turned back to his beer.





Ron was uninspired by that night's turn out at the club. There weren't many new faces and he had no desire to shag any of the men he had already been with. He spent most of the night getting progressively drunker and dancing with some Muggle men that he knew and might, on a lonely day, consider to be friends.

Finally deciding that he could go for one Saturday night without having sex, Ron left the club and started walking down the street to find somewhere to Disapparate. He got distracted near the corner by an extremely fit-looking bloke who was smoking outside a cafe. The man's jeans were tight and fitted, almost ridiculously so; his bottom and thighs were outlined in detail. Slowing down, Ron approached the cafe cautiously, staring at the man's arse and silently willing him to turn around so Ron could see his face.

The man turned to toss the cigarette butt into the street and Ron stopped in his tracks. The man looked up, paused, and then waved, frowning in a confused sort of way.

"Ron."

"Dean," Ron choked out, forcing himself to move again and walk toward his old friend. "How – what are you doing here?"

Dean shook Ron's hand and offered him a cigarette. Ron took one and borrowed Dean's lighter. When Ron couldn't get it to light, Dean stepped forward and wrapped his hand around Ron's, pressed down on the thumb wheel, and lit Ron's cigarette.





"Didn't Harry tell you I saw him this morning? He said he would." Still holding Ron's hand, and thus the lighter, with one of his hands, Dean pulled out another cigarette with his other hand, set it between his lips, and lit it before finally letting go of Ron's hand.

Ron handed the lighter back, momentarily speechless. Dean raised his eyebrows and Ron took a long drag off his cigarette.

"He told me. I meant, what are you doing here on this corner? It's almost 2 in the morning."

Dean checked his watched and shrugged. "I went to that club down the street earlier and was on my way home. I got distracted." He gestured at the cafe window and Ron glanced inside the dark room to see two very naked people having sex on the floor near the salad bar.

"Wow. So... you stopped to watch them play hide the wand and stayed long enough to smoke an entire fag?"

"I wanted to see how long it would take them to notice me," Dean explained, looking a bit bored with the situation. "They still haven't yet."

Ron frowned slightly. "Wait, did you say were at the club down the street?"

Dean nodded and continued smoking in silence.

Ron glanced a few times between Dean and the gay club, his cigarette wobbling loosely between his lips. "Are you gay, now?" he finally asked, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and pointing to the club with it. "Because I'm gay, now, too."

Dean raised his eyebrows again. "How pissed are you?"

"Quite pissed. Were you at that club?" Ron persisted.

"I was."

"But I didn't see you there!" Ron protested.

"I didn't see you there, either," Dean said cooly.

"But... you dated Ginny!"

"And you dated Hermione, did you not? And Lavender?"

"Oh, right." Ron looked back at the club once more before turning to focus on Dean. "How long have you been back?"

"A few weeks."

Ron's mouth dropped open. "What? Where have you been, why haven't you said anything to anyone?"

Dean shrugged and finished his cigarette before answering. "I've been around. I unpacked my last box this morning, so I thought I'd go out and see if there was anyone I fancied inviting back, but..." He tossed this butt into the street and scratched the back of his neck. "I've been living almost entirely in the Muggle world for the past five years. It didn't really occur to me to do anything differently now that I'm back in London. I had no idea you and Harry lived here."

"What about Seamus? You've seen him, haven't you?"

Dean made an ambiguous motion with his head. "We're not as close as we used to be."

"Not because you're gay?" Ron asked quickly. "He's never had a problem with me."

Dean shook his head. "No. No, not because I'm gay. Not entirely, anyway. It's not really important. Anyway, I should get home..."

"We should go out for dinner," Ron said quickly, putting his cigarette out on the side of the cafe before dropping it onto the pavement. "Don't be such a stranger. It's good to have you back."

Dean's lips flickered for a moment, as though he were going to smile, before settling back into their natural pout. "Thank you. It – it's good to be back, I think. Dinner would be lovely. I gave Harry my address and he said he'd owl about meeting up this week. You're welcome to come, of course."

"Brilliant." Ron glanced behind him at the club, then stepped around Dean to turn the corner. "Would you mind keeping a lookout while I Disapparate?"

"What, here? Should you really do that when you're this drunk?"

Ron waved off the question. "I've done it a million times, no problem. I'm too tired to walk home."

"Shouldn't that mean you're too tired to Disapparate?"

"Nope," Ron said, pulling out his wand. "All clear?"

"Isn't this illegal?" Dean asked.

Ron held a finger up to his lips. "Shush. I won't tell if you won't. See you soon. Thanks for the fag." He took a deep, steadying breath, thought longingly of his bedroom, and spun.





The next morning, when Ron finally emerged from his bedroom, he was greeted by the sight of Harry snogging his sister quite enthusiastically on the sofa. Ron cleared his throat and they broke apart guiltily, Harry tugging slightly on the bottom of his shirt. Ron glared pointedly at them before heading for the kitchen to make himself an omelette. He heard Harry and Ginny retreating into Harry's bedroom as he pulled out ingredients and he tried not to think about the flush on his sister's face or the obvious bulge in Harry's jeans. He didn't like to think about either of them being aroused, Ginny because she was his sibling, and Harry because it was better to just not think about Harry in any sexual context. Ron only managed to survive living with Harry by pretending Harry was a eunuch most of the time. Any time spent thinking about Harry's cock or Harry having sex with anyone was dangerous.

They had been down that road once before and Ron was determined to keep it from happening again at all costs. The problem wasn't Harry being openly sexual in their flat. The problem was Ron's complete inability to dismiss it, as he would have been able to do with any other straight man and even some gay men if he wasn't interested in them. But Ron was very interested in Harry. He always had been and his greatest fear was that he always would be.

Ron switched on the Wireless in an effort not to continue thinking about Harry and his erection, and to block out the noises that would soon be coming from Harry's room.

He began chopping up a green pepper as the news came on.





"It's not as if he hasn't been talking about asking her out since you were eleven years old."

"Talking is one thing. Actually doing is another."

Ron rubbed his eyes tiredly. He had been trying to have a rational conversation about Lee and Angelina with his brother for the past hour, but George was being extremely stubborn.

"Fred's not here to date her," he said a bit rudely. "She was bound to move on at some point. I don't see why it's a problem that she's decided to move on with Lee."

"You wouldn't."

"Actually, if anything," Ron continued, ignoring George's muttering, "you should be happy for them. They're your friends and they make each other happy. Frankly, you're being selfish."

"Get out," George said tiredly. "Go home. Don't you have better things to do than pester me about Lee?"

"Not really."

"Maybe you should get a girlfriend."

"Because that would make a lot of sense." Ron rolled his eyes and got up from the sofa.

George lifted his legs onto Ron's vacated cushion and spread out lazily. "Are you leaving yet?"

"Yeah, I'm sick of talking to you." There was no trace of a joke in Ron's voice. He glanced down at his brother, frowning slightly. "Are you just going to lie there until Lee comes back from the date?"

George shrugged. "It's possible."

"You really need to get a new hobby."

"Waiting around for Lee isn't my hobby," George said bitterly.

"Are you sure?"

The brothers glared at each for a long minute until Ron cleared his throat and turned toward the door. "I'll see you around."

"I hope not," George called after him as he left.





Ron went into work the next morning feeling especially moody. Harry and Ginny had kept him up far too late the night before with their disgusting sounds and he didn't have anywhere near the amount of energy he usually wanted in order to work on his incredibly boring case. This was his first year as a fully qualified Auror, and as such, had so far been assigned to doing a lot of office paperwork for more important Aurors. The case he had been working on since September, about some Welsh wizards trying to seduce the giants of Europe to do their evil deeds, had been stalled for two weeks. No new information was coming in from the experienced Aurors who were out trying to track down the wizards or the giants. He felt utterly worthless at the Ministry, and a night of listening to his best mate and his sister go at it for hours didn't make the morning any more enjoyable.

When he reached his cubicle, Ron sat down heavily and stared at the note sitting on his desk.

Case ID: 94582543
Aurors Stefan Kelley and Michael J. Edwards found and dueled with Welsh wizards Bryce Davies and Andrew Griffiths. Davies and Griffiths died of injuries received during the duel. Giants founds nearby. Giants had no interest and little memory of Davies and Griffiths.
Dictated to Overnight/Weekend Emergency Auror Secretary, Julian Freeman
Read by turkey Patronus of Auror Stefan Kelley


Ron's mouth hung open slightly as he read through the note again. When he was done, he lifted the note off his desk and found another, sloppily handwritten one underneath it.

Please write final case report.


"You've got to be kidding me," Ron muttered, glancing back at the first note. There wasn't nearly enough information to write a final case report. Why hadn't Kelley and Edwards returned to work if they'd closed their case? Why had they sent the news via Patronus? (Why was Kelley's Patronus a turkey, of all animals?) Why had they dueled with the Welsh wizards? Who had started the duel? Had Kelley and Edwards been injured as well? How had they found the giants? How did they know that the giants had no memory of the Welsh wizards? Had the giants been properly interrogated? Had the Welsh wizards been asked any questions before they died? When the hell were Kelley and Edwards coming back?

Ron felt overwhelmed and under-prepared. What sort of Aurors would send such a flimsy report? Were they just doing it to make Ron look bad?

Grabbing the two notes, Ron stood and walked over to Robard's office.

"Weasley," Robards grunted when Ron reached the open door. "Did you get my note?"

"Yes, sir," Ron said, holding it up. "Only... did you see the report they sent?"

"Yes," Robards said shortly, returning his attention to the papers on his desk.

"Um." Ron shifted uncertainly. "Sir, it's not... it's not enough information to close the case. Should I wait until they return or at least until they send more than a few lines of news?"

Robards looked up and Ron smiled uneasily. He really disliked Robards.

"No. Just do what you can. If the case is closed, it really doesn't matter. Just write something. Anything."

Ron nodded his thanks and went back to his cubicle without saying anything. Robards was a terrible boss; he was inconsistent, far too aggressive, and usually downright unfriendly.

Deciding he was too lazy and apathetic to do anything else, Ron copied down the Patronus' words onto an official case report and stuffed it, along with the original notes, into the case file.

When he was done, he went in search of Harry and some coffee.





"Robards is a cocksucker," Harry said seriously when Ron had finished telling him about the morning's notes. "He's the laziest Head in the Ministry. I wish he'd just retire, already."

Ron grunted and took another bite of his sandwich. They were sitting in Arthur Weasley's office, their usual lunch spot. Arthur was at his daily meeting with the Head of his own department.

"I just don't understand why they sent that Patronus in the first place."

Harry nodded vaguely and yawned. "I'm exhausted today for some reason."

"For some reason?" Ron stared incredulously across the small room at his friend. "You know exactly why you're exhausted. So do I, and so do half the people in our building, I suspect, and anyone who happened under the window last night."

Harry chuckled. "Sorry about that. It got–"

Ron held up a hand. "Please do not explain why it was so loud last night. I really don't care to know."

Harry winked jovially and continued eating his lunch.

Ron finished off his sandwich and checked his watch, wishing time would go slower. He really didn't want to go back to organizing the massively untidy filing cabinets that lined the walls of the Auror Headquarters. Even with magic, the task was a pain.

"Here's a weird question. Did Dean smile when you ran into him?"

Harry looked as though Ron had just spoken to him in a foreign language. "What the hell kind of question is that?"

"I said it was a weird one. He didn't smile once the entire time I talked to him on Saturday."

"Wait, what?"

Ron blinked. "What?"

"You saw Dean on Saturday?"

"What, didn't I tell you?"

"No!"

Ron paused and tried to think over what he'd done during the past two days. "Huh. I guess I didn't. I saw him on Saturday, on my way home."

"Where?" Harry asked, sounding very suspicious.

"A few streets away from the club. He... he said he'd been there."

"Been where?"

"The club."

"The gay club?" Harry asked, barely suppressing a laugh.

"The gay club," Ron confirmed. "He's gay now, too... apparently."

"Huh." Harry thought this over while he finished his sandwich. "Interesting."

"I guess. Anyway, like I said, he didn't smile once. He just stood there pouting with his big pouty lips. Did he–"

"I'm sorry," Harry interrupted, choking slightly on his last bite as he laughed hysterically. "What did you just say?"

"What?" Ron asked, annoyed that Harry was taking so long to answer his simple question.

"'His big pouty lips,'" Harry repeated, still laughing. "Merlin's beard!"

Ron glared at Harry as he calmed himself down.

"What's so funny about that?" Ron finally asked when Harry was silently wiping tears out of his eyes.

"That might be the gayest thing I've ever heard you say."

Ron pulled a face. "What, do you keep a list in your head of all the gay things I've said?"

Harry nodded, grinning. "Until now, my favorite was, 'his danglers were the size of my feet.' But I think, 'his big pouty lips,' is the new winner."

"I – wow." Ron goggled at Harry. "You really need to find something better to do with your spare time. And please never speak of that man's hideous balls ever again. I only just managed to get that image out of my head and now it's back in there again."

"Always glad to help," Harry said proudly.

"How is the thing about Dean's lips gayer than the thing about that bloke's danglers? That doesn't make any sense."

"Sure it does. I could see some random man's tackle and talk about it if it was that crazy or gross. But I would never, ever talk about another man's lips. I wouldn't ever even notice another man's lips. That was gay as hell, Ron. Do you fancy him?"

"I – Dean?"

"Yeah!"

"No! I just... noticed he never smiled. Merlin. Remind me never to talk to you about this again."

"Please don't deprive me of that," Harry said as he stood up. "I have to get back to work, but if you think of anything else really gay that you want to share, you know where to find me."

"Fuck off," Ron called out as Harry left and closed the door. He sat back in his father's chair and sighed heavily. He loved his lunches with Harry; they were always so good-natured and amusing. They had easy, comfortable conversations, even when bantering with each other. However, he was always conflicted when the banter revolved around his sexuality. He liked to hear Harry talk openly about him being gay; it made him feel completely accepted, even embraced. Harry's jokes were assurance that he had no problem with his best mate and flat mate being an openly gay man. On the other hand, it still felt awkward to talk about Ron being gay without mentioning that Harry, too, had once tried to sleep with a man. Ron knew, somewhere inside of him, he knew Harry had moved on from that incident. They had both. (Hadn't they?) But it was weird to hear Harry harp on Ron for being gay when he never talked about what they had once done. It was almost like a tease... like foreplay. He always kept Ron's sexual orientation at the forefront of their friendship, forcing Ron to think about it and admit to it every day. Yet, he never talked about his own orientation. And Ron couldn't hear Harry talk about him being gay without remembering that Harry had tried to be gay, to be gay with him, once upon a time. It seemed to Ron that Harry was always thinking about it, too; otherwise, he wouldn't comment on Ron's gayness nearly as much as he did.

"You're still here," Arthur said, opening the door and startling Ron out of his thoughts.

"Yeah," Ron said vaguely, standing up and letting his father sit. "I lost track of time."

"How's your day going?"

"It's pretty boring. My case was closed and now I'm just filing."

"Hm." Arthur frowned. "Robards doesn't have anything else for you to do?"

"You know he doesn't."

Arthur nodded. "Well... just, you know, keep working on it. We all have to pay our dues."

Ron shrugged. "I guess. Anyway, I have to get back to it." He waved and left his father's office without another word.





"You were right," Ron said when he entered his flat that night and found Harry on the sofa, holding a beer.

"I'm always right."

Ron ignored this and took off his work robes, leaving on his trousers and a white tee-shirt. He pulled a beer out of the six-pack on the kitchen table and sat down next to Harry with a sigh.

"What was I right about?" Harry prompted.

"About Robards being a cocksucker. Do you know what he had me doing after lunch?"

"More filing?"

Ron opened the beer and took a long, refreshing gulp. "He had me design a new template for case reports. I mean, Merlin's nuts, I am not his bloody secretary! I am an Auror!"

Harry shook his head. "He really is a cocksucker."

"Did he have you doing this shit last year?"

"Well – no, but I think... I mean, you know how pigheaded he is."

"Harry Potter doesn't file," Ron muttered before taking another sip of his beer. "Cocksucker."

"Do you... I can try to see if I can get you transferred to the case I'm working on, if you want."

Ron paused to think about this as he continued drinking. "I wouldn't risk it. It's not worth it."

Harry shrugged. He would have loved to work with Ron, but Robards had been clear from the beginning that they were to remain separate at work. They were never assigned to the same case, never partnered in Ministry trainings or meetings, never consulted together. Robards viewed their friendship as a weak point for both of them, for reasons best known only to himself. Harry and Ron had learned to deal with it, Harry grumpily and Ron slightly less so; he was secretly glad for Robards' intervention. While it would be fun to work with Harry on occasion, Ron definitely didn't want it to become common place. They lived together, after all. Some space was needed for both their sanities.

"I'm sorry I can't help more, then."

"It's not your fault," Ron said tiredly. "Robards is just a cocksucker. And I still don't understand why the hell Kelley and Edwards aren't back, or why they sent their report through a fucking turkey."

Harry snorted. "Some of these Aurors..." He paused to finish off his beer. "They're quite lazy."

"That's the understatement of my life."





"Seamus. Seamus, Seamus, Seamus."

"Dildo."

Ron stopped in his tracks and did his best to ignore the disgusted looks of the shocked passers-by. "Did... did you just call me–"

"A dildo. Don't say my name like that."

"Like what?" Ron gestured for Seamus to keep walking. He followed closely, not wanting to lose his friend on the crowded pavement.

"Like I'm five years old. How was work?"

"Stupid," Ron said. He had spent another day filing and writing templates while waiting for a new case assignment. Robards wanted to keep him working with Kelley and Edwards, but they still hadn't returned yet. "How was yours?"

"Stupid." Seamus worked for the Daily Prophet and generally hated the job. Ron had run into Seamus leaving the Prophet headquarters on his way home from work.

"I have a question for you," he said a bit menacingly.

"Come and have a drink." Seamus stopped abruptly and turned into a pub without waiting for Ron's response.

Ron followed Seamus inside and only ordered a beer, though Seamus ordered nearly half the food on the menu and a large mug of ale.

"I ran into someone the other day," Ron said casually, tracing the rim of his beer glass with a fingertip.

"Fascinating, really."

"An old friend of ours."

"Sounds dangerous," Seamus said in a bored voice. Ron could see straight through the unaffected facade; Seamus knew what was coming.

"Why didn't you tell us Dean was back?"

Seamus paused for a moment, then heaved a great sigh. "I don't know," he finally admitted. "It didn't occur to me."

"Bullshit. He's been your best mate since you were eleven. You knew he was back and you kept it a secret."

Seamus shrugged, clearly uncomfortable with Ron's line of questioning. "I don't know," he said again. "Things are different now. We're different now... he's different now. People change, Ron... it's been more than five years since he left. He's not... he's not the same. He doesn't do magic, he doesn't – he's just different."

"So you keep saying," Ron said, watching Seamus squirm with curiosity. "I know he's gay, if that's what you're referring to."

Seamus shrugged again. "Not really. It's not like I – look, what was I supposed to say? 'Hey, guys, Dean is back, but he's not interested in us or magic anymore, so let's invite him out for a drink.' Honestly."

Ron frowned. "Are you really – you really don't talk to him at all?"

"We talk. I guess. Not often."

"Have you seen him since he got back?"

Seamus gave a short nod. "Once, yeah. Only briefly, though. You know, it's really not that big of a deal. People change, they grow apart. It's what happens when we grow up. There's no mystery here, Weasley. It's a simple story."

Ron shook his head. "You went to visit him in America. More than once. That's not something you do with casual friends you grow apart from as soon as they're on the same continent as you."

"I'm done talking about this," Seamus said suddenly. His food arrived and he stopped for a moment, suddenly conscious of the waiter and all the other people who could hear him. "I told you, there's no mystery, there's no story. So he's back, so what? If you want to see him, see him. This conversation's over."

Ron drank his beer in silence as Seamus ate dinner, and then excused himself to go back home.





The next night, Ron sent an owl to Dean asking him to dinner that weekend. Harry had already made plans with Ginny, but Ron didn't care. He wanted more time with Dean; he wanted to crack the mystery of Dean and Seamus' broken friendship.

Pig came back an hour later with a short note. Ron read it several times, trying to name the emotion he felt at seeing Dean's handwriting for the first time in so many years. He wasn't generally a nostalgic person, but that feeling in his stomach, or was it in his spine, was so odd, and so strong.

Ron,
Dinner on Friday would be great. Let me know when and where you want to meet.
Can't wait to see you again,
Dean


Ron put the note on his nightstand and sat down on his bed. He had too much nervous energy, he decided; he needed to get laid. In two nights, he would be having dinner with Dean, the boy who dated his sister, the boy who almost died in hiding during the war, the boy who fought like crazy to help defeat Voldemort, the boy who shipped off to America as soon as the war was over, the boy who became a gay man and moved back home with his big pouty lips.

Harry opened Ron's bedroom door. "Have you eaten dinner?"

Ron looked up blankly. "What?"

"Have you eaten dinner?"

"Oh. What? No." Ron stood up and closed his window. "Not yet. What do we have?"





"My, my, my. Don't we look nice."

Ron turned to find George standing behind him in his room. He had been looking at himself in the mirror for several minutes, trying to figure out if he was overdressed for his dinner with Dean.

"Do you think it's too much?" he asked.

"Too much for what?"

"For dinner."

George lay down on Ron's bed. "Is it a dinner date?"

"No. It's just dinner." Ron sighed and pulled off the argyle jumper he was wearing. "What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see your transformation myself."

"Transformation?" Ron asked distractedly as he went back to his closet for the twentieth time that evening. He pulled out a solid blue jumper and considered it for a moment.

"Your transformation into a woman."

Ron looked up, saw the smirk on George's face, and tossed the blue jumper at his brother. "You're such a prick."

"And you're such a poofter. You're debating what to wear. And it's not even a date."

"Shut up," Ron growled, grabbing the blue jumper out of George's hands before he could do any damage to it. "It's a – a difficult time of year to dress for. The weather and all." He could feel himself blushing at this horribly lame excuse, so he turned away and pulled the jumper over his head. "Anyway, you have to go. I'm leaving in five minutes."

"Who's your date with?"

"It's not a date," Ron said firmly, checking his messy hair in the mirror. "Get out of my flat."

"Who's your not-a-date with?"

"Get out and find your own damn date."

"So it is a date!"

Ron ignored this and did his best to tame his shaggy mane. There was no luck to be had.

"Seriously." George stood up and followed Ron out of the bedroom. "Who're you going out with?"

"Angelina," Ron said flatly.

George hit Ron hard in the chest. "It's not fucking funny."

"Shit, George!" Ron held a hand up to his aching chest, panting slightly. "What the hell was that for?"

"I told you, it's not fucking funny."

Ron shoved George roughly, angry with his brother for always ruining his good moods. "If you're in love with her – or him – just admit it, George. Moping is getting you nowhere and I'm tired of dealing with it. Just grow a pair and bloody talk to them about it, all right?"

George shook his head, apparently too furious for words. He glared mutinously at Ron, then left without another word.

"Good riddance," Ron muttered, grabbing his coat and his wallet before following his brother out.

Outside, he saw George one street away, heading in the direction of Diagon Alley. He watched his brother's retreating back for a moment before turning and walking in the opposite direction. He was meeting Dean for Indian food a few streets away, and he didn't want to be late. As far as Ron was concerned, George had moped enough in the last five years to last a life time, and for all Ron cared in that moment, he could keep on moping for the rest of his life.

Years ago, when Ron had been living with George and helping out with the shop, George had been the one who helped Ron realize who he was and what he wanted. George had been the one who confronted Ron about his intimate friendship with Harry, the one who supported Ron in his decision to visit gay bars and leave Hermione, the one who accepted a gay brother with open arms and no questions.

However, ever since Ron had moved out for more privacy for sex with men, ever since Lee had moved into the empty room in George's apartment to keep him company, ever since Ron had applied to the Auror department and left George to work in the shop by himself, George had been moping. Of course, he had moped before then, too; he had moped about Fred for years and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. No one was going to begrudge him that. This type of moping, though, this moping about Lee and Angelina, was superfluous. Ron wanted nothing to do with it, especially if George had the gall to advise his brothers on matters of the heart without taking his own advice.





By the time he got to the Indian restaurant, Ron was ready for a drink, preferably wine. George's problems always put him in the mood for alcohol.

Dean was already inside, loitering awkwardly by the front door, when Ron arrived. He was wearing tight jeans that showed off his arse in a way Ron was not prepared for.

"Find the place okay?" Ron asked, shedding his coat.

Dean nodded. "Your directions were good. Very detailed."

Ron detected a trace of humour in Dean's tone, though there was no smile on his face. "It's a bad habit, I know. I write directions that could get an illiterate five-year-old from France to China and back again."

"It was a two page note," Dean said, frowning slightly as the host walked up to them. "You know I've lived in a city before, don't you? I'm not completely hopeless when it comes to getting myself from one place to another."

Ron smiled apologetically as they were led to a table and seated with some menus. "I told you, it's a bad habit. It turns out that Ginny is actually completely hopeless when it comes to getting herself from one place to another. Sometimes I forget that not everyone is as incompetent as she is."

Dean glanced up from the menu he had started inspecting. "Is she really that bad?"

Ron nodded. "I know you wouldn't think so, but she is. She can't tell a street corner from the Burrow's garden. Honestly, she's a smart girl, but blimey does she manage to get herself lost."

"Hm."

Ron wondered if that was as close as Dean got to laughing. They ordered, Ron getting his usual Chicken tikka masala and Dean asking for a mixed vegetable curry.

"Their chicken's really good," Ron said as the waiter took the menus away and they were left to wait for their food in peace. It was a large restaurant and the only other patrons were on the other side of the room. "You should try it next time."

"Oh, I don't eat meat anymore," Dean explained, unrolling his silverware from his napkin. "I'm a vegetarian." He placed the white cloth napkin in his lap and looked up at Ron's surprised face. "How is Ginny, by the way? Other than perpetually lost?"

Ron remembered suddenly that Dean had dated Ginny. He wondered why this was a fact so easily forgotten. "She's good. She and Harry are together at the moment, so she's pretty content."

"At the moment?"

Ron shrugged and fingered his own napkin nervously, feeling for the silverware tucked inside it. "Maybe I shouldn't have said that. They've been together for about a year this time, I think. Well, really, they've been more or less together the entire time. It's just that they... take a lot of breaks, and... break up pretty frequently. Or, I guess they used to. Like I said, it's been about a year this time, so maybe it'll last. They seem a lot calmer now, so..."

"Why'd they break up so often? They seemed like a perfect match at school, as much as I hated to admit it back then."

Ron unrolled his napkin and put it in his lap as the waiter came by to give them water. "There were a lot of reasons," he explained. "Harry was really stressed out for a few years after the war. And he, I mean, don't spread this around, not that it isn't obvious, but still. He's got a lot of, you know, emotional baggage. I mean, he's a really put-together bloke, considering everything he's been through. But when it comes to being that close and intimate with someone... well, it's difficult for everyone, but especially for him. He tries, though. Godric knows, he does try. They longest they were ever broken up was barely two months. They... I mean, they love each other. I think they'll probably get married, but don't mention that to either of them. It stresses them out."

Dean nodded. "I'll try to remember that."

Ron bit back a smile. "So... you don't eat meat? Is that a new thing?"

"Fairly new," Dean admitted. "I've only been doing it for the past two years."

"What made you decide to do it? I mean... that seems pretty drastic."

"It's not, really. It's simple as long as you know what you're doing. I had this friend, in school, and he was a vegetarian. He was always trying to persuade me to do it and I always refused. Then he graduated, he's a year older than me, and for some reason I decided to try it out. Maybe I missed him, I don't know. But then I did some research and it just seemed like something that was worth sticking with."

Ron contemplated this as their food and wine arrived.

"That's kind of weird, isn't it?" he asked after taking a long sip of his drink. "Not eating meat? I mean, you love eating meat."

Dean cleared his throat as he mixed together some vegetable curry and rice.

"You don't laugh a lot, do you?" Ron asked, deciding that, after his terrible joke, there was no way around the obvious question.

"Um... no." Dean furrowed his brow slightly as he stared down at his food.

"Is there any reason, or..." Ron trailed off as he realized that he had no right to be asking such a question. He and Dean had never been that close; he shouldn't be prying. If Dean didn't want to smile, then he didn't have to smile. It was that simple. Ron was about to apologize for sticking his nose where it didn't belong when Dean finally responded.

"Just, you know... emotional baggage."

Ron's eyes widened in surprise at Dean's answer. He looked closely at the man across the table, at Dean's sad and almost shameful eyes, at his big pouty lips, at his serious and concerned-looking brow. This was not the Dean he went to school with. This was not the Dean he had fought with against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. He didn't know this man at all. Seamus was right; Dean had changed.

"Yeah," he said quietly, glancing down at his own food and thinking of Harry's emotional baggage, and of his own. "I do know."

Dean cleared his throat again and started eating. "I'm curious," he said after a few minutes of thick silence. "If I may ask, when did you... I thought, at the end of the war, that you had just started dating Hermione."

Ron took another long sip of his wine, wondering how much information he wanted to, or should, reveal. "Yeah, we... we didn't last that long. About a year, I guess. I didn't really realize... um, anything, really. Not until George pointed it out to me. And, actually, I guess it's sort of funny. I went to visit Hermione at Hogwarts after the winter holiday, during a Hogsmeade weekend. You know, we met up in the village and walked around and had tea and everything. And there was this couple, this gay couple, that we kept seeing." He paused for another drink.

"What, students?" Dean asked, looking dumbfounded.

Ron nodded. "Yeah. I was surprised, too. I'd never heard, you know, about anyone being gay at Hogwarts. Hermione hadn't either. She said they were the first openly gay couple she'd ever known about at the school, or that anyone else had ever known about at the school. It was..." Ron shook his head. "It was distracting and a bit alarming. By that point, I was already really confused. George had said all these weird things to me about my friendship with Harry and my relationship with Hermione and I really just felt like I had no idea who I was at all, you know?"

"I do know," Dean affirmed with a meaningful look.

"Yeah. Well. So, there was that. Then... I guess I came back to London and tried going out to a few gay bars. I was basically trying to convince myself that I wasn't gay, but obviously all I did was the exact opposite. So, when Hermione finished school and came back for the summer, I broke up with her. It was bloody awful. Everyone was upset and I didn't want to come out or anything, but I pretty much had to at that point. It was either that or be fed to the wolves."

"Wolves," Dean repeated quietly. "I guess people didn't respond too well to your coming out."

"Some people did. George, obviously, and Harry. A lot of other people just needed more time. There aren't many gay wizards, as you probably know. I mean, most witches and wizards don't even know what homosexuality is. At least, they didn't then. It's been about four years and things have changed a bit... probably because I've been so rude about it the whole time. But, you know, someone has to do it."

"Someone has to do what? Be rude?"

"No, fight to be accepted. Professionally, personally... I did a lot of stupid things, but if the next gay wizard who comes along doesn't have to go through the same bullshit I did with his family or the Ministry, then it was worth it, you know? No one at the Ministry knows what they're doing when it comes to this stuff. They're all a bunch of ignorant tossers and I had to teach them that I'm fucking normal and still deserve to be treated like a human being. I mean, it was ridiculous, but someone had to do it."

Dean was staring hard at Ron, taking in every word. "Wow," he said after a long moment. "That's a lot more than what I had to do."

"What did you have to do?" Ron prompted, pushing food around on his plate with his fork. He wasn't hungry anymore. He didn't like to think about the earlier days of his budding and open sexuality. George had been a different person back then; he had been kind and supportive. He and Ron had been best friends for a while, most especially when Ron had been having difficulties with the rest of the family, or the Ministry, or Harry.

"All I had to do was tell a few friends at uni and suddenly everyone knew. My school was a bit of a rumour mill, I guess. And I had to tell my sister, but she didn't really care at all. She wasn't even surprised. I sort of was, but she keeps saying that she's known since we were young."

"I've heard that a few times, too," Ron said, thinking of Bill and his infuriating insinuations. "But what else are siblings for, if not driving us mad? George was above and beyond supportive when everything started happening, and now he acts like I'm a bad person when I go out to a club. He's the worst kind of hypocrite, too."

"How's that?"

"He's–" Ron stopped himself, knowing he shouldn't voice his suspicions, especially to someone he barely knew anymore, without at least talking to George first. "Just, you know, emotional baggage. Anyway, at least your sister took it well. What about your mum? Mine went a bit ballistic at first. Said she hadn't done right by me and all sorts of rubbish like that. She's fine with it now, but it definitely took her a while to really come around to it."

Dean nodded. "Yeah. Mums are like that."

"Was yours?"

Dean shook his head, staring at his full glass of wine. "My mum passed away before I could tell her. Before I knew, really. The summer after the war, just before I went off to school," he added, seeing Ron's questioning face.

"I'm sorry," Ron said quietly. "I had no idea."

Dean shrugged. "Yeah. Thanks." He paused, staring at Ron's shoulder, and then continued, unconvincingly, "I'm sure she would have been fine with it, though. She had a few gay friends I met when I was younger."

Ron nodded, unsure what else to say.

Dean checked his watch. "I want to thank you for asking me out to dinner," he said in a tone that struck Ron as far too businesslike. "I haven't been that social with anyone except my sister and her kids since I moved back here. It's nice to see someone I actually know, instead of just random strangers. And you... you're a lot easier to talk to than I remember. I mean, I didn't hate you or anything, but even when we were living together at Bill's, we weren't that close, were we?"

"Well, no," Ron admitted awkwardly. "But, circumstances... we couldn't risk you and Luna..."

"I know," Dean said quickly and apologetically. "I know. I wasn't trying to say anything mean. All I meant was, we were never that close. But it doesn't feel that way now. This was a really nice dinner. We should do it again soon, and try to get Harry to come along next time."

Ron nodded, realizing that Dean was ending the night and getting ready to leave. He still hadn't quite figured out what had happened with Dean and Seamus, though.

"Yeah, definitely. You know, most Fridays, Harry goes out drinking with Seamus and Neville. I don't usually go, but we should definitely have a Gryffindor Tower reunion. What do you say? We could set it up for next week."

Dean shook his head. "No," he said quickly, not quite meeting Ron's gaze. "I'd rather just go out to dinner with you and Harry. I'll see the others at some point, I'm sure. You know... small steps."

Ron smiled sympathetically and watched as Dean called and paid for the check.

"Wait," he said, realizing too late what was going on. "I can pay for my own dinner."

"It's on me," Dean insisted, handing off the money to the waiter before Ron could protest. "It's my treat. I haven't seen you in five years. It's a welcome back present."

"To yourself?" Ron asked. "If it's a welcome back present, technically, I should have paid."

"Details." Dean waved his hand to dismiss the topic. "Anyway, I'd love to do this again next week, if you and Harry have time."

"I'll tell him tomorrow," Ron said, standing and putting on his coat. "I'll make sure he has time."

"Great. Sounds like a plan, then." Dean followed Ron out into the cold November night. "I'll see you next week," he said, holding out his right hand while reaching into his pockets for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter with his left hand.

Ron shook Dean's hand and said goodbye before walking off, checking over his shoulder a few times to watch Dean go off in the opposite direction, the trail marked by puffs of smoke.





Ron decided to end his Friday night with a blowjob. He didn't need sex and he didn't particularly want to give anyone else a blowjob, but it had been an abnormally long time since someone else had gotten him off, and an evening of sitting across from the beautifully sad Dean had pushed him over the edge. He needed a blowjob.

"What are you drinking?" the first man to approach him at the gay bar asked.

Ron sized up the man quickly; he had tuggable blond hair and rather plump lips. "I'm not drinking anything," Ron answered, smiling. He was still lightheaded from the wine he'd had at the Indian restaurant. "But if you want," he lowered his voice slightly and the blond man leaned closer, smirking, "you could meet me in the loo in two minutes."

Without waiting for a response, Ron got up from the bar and went to go relieve himself. Twenty minutes later, he was on his way back to his flat, feeling extremely satisfied. The blond man's lips had felt just as amazing on his cock as he had hoped, Harry was spending the night at Ginny's, George's problems could wait until the next day, Dean had been lovely at dinner, and Ron was ready for sleep.





"What did you say to him?" Lee asked, opening the door to his and George's flat and staring at Ron.

Ron stared back. "What?"

"What did you say to him?" Lee repeated. "He didn't come home until four in the morning. I haven't seen him that shitfaced in years, Ron. Years. What. Did. You. Say."

Ron sighed and pushed his way past Lee and into the flat. "I didn't say anything," he lied. "He's just being dramatic. Where is he?"

"In his room."

Ron looked out the open door of the flat, considering the option of leaving and coming back in a few days. Then Lee closed the door.

"How're things with Angie?" he asked, wanting to avoid going into George's room as long as he could.

Lee shrugged. "Things would be better if our best mate didn't hate us."

"He doesn't hate you," Ron reassured him. "He just... needs some time to get used to it."

"Really?" Lee asked pointedly. "You think time is going to fix this?"

"I don't know what I think," Ron admitted. "I'm an Auror, not a matchmaker."

"What the hell does that mean?" Lee asked, staring confusedly as Ron headed toward the door to George's room.

Ron said nothing and entered George's room without knocking. George was lying on his bed and reading. He looked pale and tired.

"I heard you had a fun night," Ron tried, closing the door behind him and leaning back against it.

George grunted. "I had hot sex in a stranger's bedroom. How was your date?"

"It wasn't a date. I went to dinner with Dean."

George looked up from his book. "Dean's back?"

Ron nodded. "Dean's back. We had Indian food. Where did you go?"

"A club."

"Which club?"

"It doesn't matter," George said, looking back down at his book. "I had sex, you had Indian, Lee had Angelina. Sounds like a pretty good Friday night to me."

"George," Ron said, making up his mind on how to deal with the situation. "You need to talk to Lee. You're not being fair to him. He has no idea what's going on."

"I have no idea what's going on," George said wildly, putting his book down and sitting up slightly. "My best mate is dating my dead brother's girlfriend. They've both moved on. They're normal, healthy, happy people. And now I'm this sad, sick fuck with obvious problems. They didn't used to be obvious! We used to suffer together! Now they're together and I'm over here and I'm fucking alone and miserable and all they want me to do is accept their relationship. I'm not bloody accepting it! They're fucking traitors and they're completely blind to it."

Ron slid down the door and sat heavily on the floor, trying to comprehend this. "You're upset because you think they've moved on?" he asked.

"I'm upset because they shouldn't be together," George said stubbornly.

"But they are together. If you had someone, someone who made you look and feel like less of an outsider, would you be any less upset?"

"I don't know how to answer that question," George practically shouted, surprising Ron. "I mean, who is this person? No, why the fuck are you here, Ron?"

"I'm here because you're my brother. You helped me through all my personal crises and now I'm here to help you. This person is Angelina. If Angelina was with you instead of Lee, would that be better?"

"Don't even joke," George said darkly, glaring across the room at Ron. "I could never – she dated Fred, Ron. Even if she wanted to be with me... I mean, how sick would that be? We look the same. That would... Merlin, that wouldn't be healthy at all. For anyone. Ever." George looked down at his lap and shook his head. "Being with Angelina wouldn't solve anything. I don't even fancy her. What's the point of this conversation?"

"What if the person was Lee?" Ron asked quietly.

George stopped shaking his head, but did not lift his gaze from his lap. "What?"

"What if the person was Lee? What if you were with Lee? What if Lee was with you instead of Angelina? Would that make it better? If Angie was dating someone else, anyone else, and you were dating Lee, would you still feel this way?"

"Get out," George said suddenly, looking fiercely up at Ron.

"I'm not moving," Ron said calmly. "You can't just tell me it's okay to be this way and then refuse to acknowledge who you are. What am I supposed to do with that? Is everything you said to me a lie? Were you just humouring me? Or did you believe it and you're really just that big of a coward?"

"Get out," George repeated, standing and moving over to the door. "Get out of my room," he growled down at Ron. "Get out of my flat. Get out! Get. Out."

Ron stood up very slowly. "It's painfully obvious, George," he said softly, opening the door and stepping out of the room. "All you have to do is tell him. You never know... things might work out in your favor."

George closed the door in his face.

"Any luck?" Lee asked from the kitchen.

Ron shrugged and headed to the front door again. "He needs some more time." With his hand on the doorknob, Ron paused and looked back at George's room. He glanced at Lee, who was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. "Lee?" he asked, unsure if he should really go through with this.

"Yeah."

"You know that... that George is gay, don't you?"

Lee looked up from the paper and stared at Ron for a long, tense moment. "Yeah," he finally said, lowering his gaze back to the paper. "Yeah, I know."

Ron nodded and let himself out of the flat without saying goodbye.





"Fancy meeting you here."

Ron turned to see if the voice was addressing him and found himself staring at Dean.

"Oh," he said stupidly. "I thought – uh, you'd be at the club, so I..."

"So you came here to avoid me?" Dean asked. "I'm not sure if I should be offended or worried about you."

Ron flushed and turned back to the bar to take a drink of his beer. Dean sat on the stool next to him and ordered a martini. When it was placed in front of him, he grabbed the toothpick out of the glass and ate the two olives.

"Did you really come here to avoid seeing me at that club?" he asked, swirling the toothpick idly in the martini.

Ron drummed his fingers on the side of his beer. "Uh. Not... not exactly. I just thought it would be awkward if I saw you there. You know, because... because I saw you last night and when we said goodbye, it sounded like we weren't planning on seeing each other again until next weekend..."

Dean snorted and started drinking his martini. "You thought way too much into that," he said flatly.

"I do that sometimes," Ron admitted. "So, are you more of a gay bar sort of bloke," he asked, gesturing around the establishment they were sitting in, "or a gay club sort of bloke?"

"I'm not really any sort of bloke," Dean said, shrugging. "I don't go to gay bars that often. I don't go to gay clubs that often. I've just been... a bit lonely, I guess, since I've moved here. So I tell myself that I should go out and flirt and maybe go home with someone, but I always lose my nerve once I'm actually out here, you know?"

"No. How could you lose your nerve to flirt with men? You're gorgeous, I bet you had blokes in America lining up for miles to be with you."

To Ron's surprise, Dean blushed. "I'm not... there really weren't that many blokes in America who wanted to be with me," he mumbled. "Or maybe I just didn't want to be with any of them. Either way, I'm... I'm really out of practice when it comes to flirting."

"That's a bit sad," Ron said after finishing his beer and asking the bartender for a refill. "I'm sure it wouldn't take that much effort for you to pull."

Dean turned to eye Ron carefully. "You're quite drunk, aren't you?"

Ron nodded. "I am." He leaned down to sip at the head of his fresh beer. "It doesn't take a lot of effort for me to pull, either, but I like to be good and smashed for it."

"Um. Why?"

Ron shrugged. "I don't know. That's just what I do. None of these blokes actually matter, do they? I'm just out here for a shag, same as you."

"I'm... not out here for a shag," Dean said softly, then turned back to the bar and drank the rest of his martini.

"You're trying to find a boyfriend, then?" Ron asked, surprised.

Dean shook his head. "I don't know what I'm out here for. Like I said, I always lose my nerve, so... it really doesn't matter what I'm here for because it never happens."

"What?" Ron asked, unable to follow Dean's logic in his state of drunkenness.

"It doesn't matter." Dean checked his watch. "I think I'm ready to leave."

"You've only been here ten minutes!"

"I know, but..." Dean glanced around at the other men in the bar. "There's nothing here I want to do... except maybe sit and talk to you, but you're drunk and trying to pull, so I should just get home."

"Do you live around here?" Ron asked curiously.

Dean shrugged. "Not really. All the more reason for me to leave now."

"No," Ron said firmly, standing up and grabbing his beer. "You're lonely and you should be social. I'll introduce you to people. You don't have to sleep with them," he added quickly, seeing Dean about to protest. "Just talk with them. They're nice."

He grabbed Dean's arm with his free hand and led Dean over to a table where three good-looking Muggle men sat with a pretty Muggle woman.

"Ron," a blond man said, looking up as they reached the table. "It's not like you to introduce us to your dates," he teased. His tone was lighthearted, but his eyes were cold and unwelcoming as they looked over Dean.

Ron let go of Dean's arm. "He's not my date, he's an old friend of mine from school. He's just moved to London, so he doesn't know anyone yet. Dean, this is Robert, Sean, that's William in the corner, and Mary, Sean's sister."

Dean nodded rather solemnly at the small crowd. "Hello."

"He's quite fit," William said, leering up at Dean with a mischievous smile.

"Ignore him," Ron said firmly as he pulled two chairs over from another table. "He's going to try to sleep with you, but I'd just say no if I were you."

"Hey!" William pouted, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms. "So rude, Ronnie."

Ron sat down in the chair next to Robert and motioned Dean to sit down in between him and Mary. "Go on, they won't bite."

"Speak for yourself," William snapped. "Ronnie has a way of scaring off all my catches," he told Dean bitterly.

"You mean stealing," Ron said helpfully. "He means stealing," he said to Dean. "I steal all his 'catches' because I don't threaten to bite them."

William bared his teeth at Ron, showing off their rather sharp and pointed tips. "The boys love it when I bite."

"So, what do you do?" Sean asked Dean in an attempt to end the banter between Ron and William.

"Graphic design, mostly," Dean explained, grateful for the change in subject. "Usually I'm freelance, but I just got a part-time job with a small publishing house, so we'll see how that goes."

"I didn't know you did all that," Ron said blankly, staring at Dean as though he'd never seen the man before.

"Some old friend you are," William said.

Ron opened his mouth to retort, but paused when he felt two hands grab his thighs to stop him speaking. He gulped nervously and then tried to glance subtly under the table. Robert had put a hand on his left leg, and Dean a hand on his right. Not knowing what to do, he took a long drink of his beer.

When Mary began asking Dean more about his job, he took his hand off Ron's thigh, apparently satisfied that Ron wouldn't be making a rude comment to William. Robert, however, kept his hand on Ron's thigh and squeezed it slightly when Ron finally put his beer down. Ron leaned back in his chair and sighed in hopes of releasing some of the awkward tension that had just consumed him.

He continued drinking his beer, feeling himself slip farther and farther into the realm of drunkenness as Dean made polite conversation with his friends. Robert kept a firm yet playful grip on Ron's thigh, occasionally rubbing his thumb along the seam of Ron's jeans or sliding his pinky teasingly up the inside of Ron's thigh, always stopping just short of Ron's crotch before sliding back down.

Ron was half-hard and not listening to a word of what Dean was saying, even though he felt bad that he knew nothing about Dean's life now. He knew he should be listening, should be learning about the man he had called an old friend, but he was so warm and so drunk and Robert's hand felt so good.

"Ron. Ron."

Robert's hand gave his leg a hard squeeze and he looked up to see Dean staring at him.

"I'm going to head out," he said, looking slightly concerned at Ron's bleary expression. "Are you okay to get home? Do you want to come with me?"

"I'll get him home safely," Robert said, grinning. "It's a short walk."

Dean looked between Robert and Ron a few times before rising to leave. "It was nice meeting you all. See you next weekend," he added, not quite looking Ron in the eye.

"You're such a prick," Sean said, rolling his eyes at Robert.

Robert winked and turned to watch Dean leave the bar. "He seems nice," he said pointedly.

"He's bloody perfect," William whined longingly. "Tall, dark, handsome, smart, brooding... what more could you ask for?"

"What about me, then?" Sean asked, gesturing at himself. "I'm tall, dark, and handsome."

"Yes, dear, but you're also my best friend. I need new meat."

"You're both hopeless," Mary said.

Ron hiccoughed lazily and found himself being pulled up by Robert. "Come on, Mr. Tall, Pale, and Handsome. I'm taking you home."

Ron waved vaguely at the table of his friends as Robert escorted him out of the bar and began walking him home.





Ron woke up the next morning to the sound of heavy knocking on his door. He let out a low groan and flung an arm over his eyes, willing it to stop. His head was pounding and his stomach felt extremely uneasy.

When the insistent knocking didn't stop, Ron flung the sheets back and got out of his bed. To his surprise, he was naked. He looked back down at his bed and his heart sank.

"Coming!" he said, pulling on a fresh pair of pants and hoping all the noise wouldn't wake Robert. He went over to his door and opened it just enough for him to sneak out of it. Harry was standing outside his room, looking exhausted and apologetic.

"Sorry," he whispered. "I would have just come in to wake you up, but..."

Ron glanced out into the living room and saw his and Robert's clothes lining a trail from the front door to his bedroom. He smiled uneasily. "Er. Yeah."

"You've had an owl." Harry handed Ron a black envelop.

Ron cursed and opened it quickly, knowing it was an emergency message from the Ministry.

Auror Weasley,
Problems with your case.
Report to Auror Department by 9am.
Auror Robards


Ron looked up at Harry. "What time is it?"

"Eight forty-five."

"Shite." Ron ran a hand over his face and rubbed his eyes hard. "Do we have any hangover potion?"

"I'll go get you some. You should..." he looked at Ron's door.

Ron nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll... we'll be out in a minute." He opened his door enough to get back inside, then closed it behind him. Robert was sitting up against the pillows, staring over at him. "There's an emergency at work," Ron explained quickly. "I have to be there at nine."

Robert checked his watch. "I don't think you're going to make it."

"I have to make it," Ron said. "And you have to go. I have to go." Without waiting for a response, Ron began getting ready. He pulled on Muggle clothes and began stuffing his Ministry robes into a backpack, hoping Robert wasn't paying attention. He shoved his wand into his sock and covered it with the leg of his trousers.

Robert dressed as much as he could with the clothes that were in Ron's room, but had no luck in finding his jeans. "Have you seen the rest of my things?" he asked, ruffling through the sheets.

"Out in the living room. I'll go get them for you." Ron dodged out of the room, almost walked right into Harry, grabbed the hangover potion out of his hands, and downed it in one gulp. "Disgusting," he rasped. "Give him his jeans, will you?" he asked as he reached down to pull his wand out of his sock. Before Harry could say anything, Ron spun and Disapparated.





Ron reached Robards' office at 9:01am, his robes barely on straight and his head still aching from the previous night's drinking. He knocked on the door and heard a loud, unintelligible bark from Robards. Deciding not to risk the assumption he was supposed to enter at that noise, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, willing his headache to go away.

Three minutes later, the door opened and Ron straightened up again, feeling slightly more human thanks to Harry's hangover potion.

"Weasley," Robards said, frowning severely at him.

"Yes, sir."

Robards thrust a folder into his hands. "Go over all these case reports."

Ron looked down at the folder, dumbfounded. "Sir?"

"Go over the case reports," Robards repeated, his voice low and rough, "and figure out where the hell Kelley and Edwards are."

Ron opened the folder and was met with a stack of case reports he had written himself. What was he supposed to find there that would answer any questions? How did this assignment qualify as an emergency?

"I... I take it this means they're still not back?" he asked.

Robards glared menacingly at Ron and Ron found himself taking a step back. "Find. Them," he growled.

"Yes, sir," Ron said quickly. He gave a short wave goodbye and then retreated to his cubicle as fast as he could.





"Robards is sending me out to die," Ron said as soon as he walked back into his flat that afternoon.

"He's not out to kill you," Harry said dully from the sofa, "though I might be."

Ron threw off his Ministry robes. "Why?"

"Robert, Ron?" Harry practically shouted, turning to stare incredulously at Ron. "Robert? Again?"

"I – hey! I was drunk and it's none of your business, anyway!"

"It's my business when you make bad decisions that affect your friendships and hurt people we both care about."

Ron's mouth dropped open. "Why on earth would you care about Robert?"

"Because he's a nice person, Ron," Harry exclaimed, standing up and turning to face his flatmate. "He's nice to you, he's nice to me, and you've done nothing but lead him on for years!"

"I don't lead him on," Ron tried to defend himself. "I just... just..."

"Just sleep with him every few months for fun? You know he's in love with you!"

Ron rolled his eyes to dismiss this idea, though his insides were squirming with uneasiness and he could feel himself going red. "He's not in love with me. We're just friends... and he knows that. He knows we're just friends and he... he's perfectly capable of... it's not like I'm forcing him to sleep with me!"

"You swore last time you weren't going to do it again."

"I was drunk!" Ron shouted, throwing up his arms. "I don't even remember leaving the bar last night. I have no idea how I got home, I have no idea what happened with Robert, I'm not even sure we did have sex. Maybe we just got naked and fell asleep, how the fuck should I know?"

"And that doesn't sound like a problem to you? Jesus, Ron." Harry ran a hand through his messy hair and sighed loudly. "You need to stop drinking so much."

"Fuck off," Ron muttered, storming into his bedroom and slamming the door behind him. He felt bad enough about spending the night with Robert; he didn't need shit about it from Harry. So he'd made a mistake. So what? He'd made worse mistakes in the past. Yes, sometimes the lines of his friendship with Robert were a little blurry, and yes, sometimes they slept together and Ron felt guilty afterwards because it always seemed like Robert wanted more than that. But, honestly, Ron could take care of himself and his relationships on his own; he didn't need Harry pouncing on him every time he made a bad move with Robert.

Ron sat down on his bed and covered his face with his hands. He liked Robert a lot. Robert was fun to be around, fun to go drinking and dancing with. Robert was gorgeous and had really beautiful green eyes and high cheekbones and the perfect jawline. But that was all it was to Ron. Robert was a good-looking friend and that was all Ron wanted. Occasionally, when drunk, he let his lust and playful affection for Robert get out of hand and mistakes were made. But it took two people to make those mistakes and Robert had never complained or acted much differently after sex.

And Ron was one hundred percent sure that Robert was not in love with him. (Even though sometimes Robert was a bit rude to other men that Ron flirted with. And sometimes, if Ron was sleeping regularly with one person, Robert would stop talking to both of them until the affair ended. And last night, at the bar, his hand on Ron's thigh had been so possessive, as if he were exerting his claim on Ron in front of Ron's old friend.)

"Bugger," Ron sighed into his palms.





Ron did not know what to do. The last twelve hours had been a frenzied, panicked, emotional blur and now, rather suddenly, he was in the Swiss Alps. The self-heating charm he had cast as soon as his Portkey had landed was taking far too long to warm up, his winter robes were bulky and awkward to climb around in, and he had no real directions in mind.

It was his job to find Kelley and Edwards. They were two of Robards' favourite Aurors, and as far as Robards was concerned, it was Ron's fault they were lost somewhere in mainland Europe. Ron had made a hasty Floo call to Hagrid that morning to see if he had any insights about hunting down giants, but he hadn't been in his hut. The only thing Ron knew to do was go to the last location Kelley and Edwards had specified – the Bernese Highlands in Switzerland.

He knew there were villages somewhat nearby to where he had arrived, but he did not want to involve himself with either the locals or the tourists. He didn't know any of the languages spoken in this country, and had neither passport nor much money. Robards hadn't given him anything to help him on his search – no money for food or shelter, no maps, no extra protection for warmth, no hints about useful spells, and, most preposterously, no partner. Ron felt utterly helpless all the way out here by himself; he felt as though Robards had completely and purposely abandoned him and sent him out to die as punishment for not doing more to help investigate the case sooner.

Ron attempted to take a deep, steadying breath as he felt his heart racing toward a panic attack. He sat on the ground and covered his face with his hands, closing his eyes and trying to convince himself he was all right. He would come up with a plan. He had to; there was no other choice.

Standing, still feeling panicky and not at all calm, he surveyed his surroundings carefully. The view was beautiful, breathtaking even, but he couldn't focus on that. He needed to find his Aurors, or the Welsh wizards, or the giants. He needed to find something, anything related to his case.

He decided to head for higher ground to get a better look at the landscape. Not wanting to risk getting splinched because of his distracted and distraught state, and to give himself time to calm down and think, Ron set off on foot.





Three days later, Ron had no idea where he was or where he was going. There were no signs of his Aurors, no signs of the Welsh wizards, no signs of the giants, no signs of anything. He was pretty certain no human (or half-human, or anything even vaguely humanoid) had ever set foot on this particular mountain before. He was starving, freezing, and extremely sleep deprived. It was hard to camp on this mountain when there was nothing he could do to keep himself warm at night. As soon as he stopped moving to lie down for sleep, he started shivering so hard he thought he might induce a seizure, or at least break a few teeth. He also found it difficult to fall asleep on an empty stomach. He hadn't had much success cooking so far; it was too windy, even inside his tent. The crackers he had packed only did so much to sustain him. All in all, he was quite sure he would die in a few days, and he was even surer that it would be extremely painful.

What scared him most was the fact that these thoughts were only somewhat playful.

He knew he should just go home. There was no sense in staying out here and slowly dying if he was getting nothing accomplished.

As far as Ron was concerned, though, returning to Robards empty-handed was not an option. If he went back with no information, Robards would not only fire him, but would likely take him to court for Kelley's and Edwards' deaths. That was no life for an Auror, a war hero, a Weasley.

So, he would keep at it. He would continue to trek along the mountain, performing useless spells and working himself half to death.





On his fifth day in Switzerland, Ron stopped eating. There were no more crackers, he couldn't stop shaking long enough to try cooking, and he was pretty sure his stomach was somewhere else entirely, anyway.

He couldn't remember ever having been filled with this much hatred. His only options were to die or go home disgraced. He knew he needed to go home; he would refuse to die this way. But he needed a plan, some story to tell the Ministry and some other job to fall back on. He could always go back to working with George, but that wasn't his passion. This wasn't his passion anymore, either.

Ron stumbled as he tried to climb over a boulder. He slipped down several feet, landed on his knees, and retched painfully.

He wasn't convinced he would even survive the journey home.





That night, Ron lay in his tent, all his heating charms failing, and all his blankets doing almost nothing to protect him from the extreme cold.

He thought he might have a fever, but he wasn't really sure his body was capable of reaching a normal temperature, let alone a higher one. His insides were trembling painfully; his stomach was aching and his lungs felt as though they might have been put through a shredder.

By this point, he didn't even want to fall asleep. He was too afraid he would die in the night.

The sound of snow being crunched hit his numb ears. He closed his eyes and gulped, praying that whatever animal it was would pass by his tent.

After a few seconds of silence, Ron felt a shiver run through his whole body. He sat up, suddenly alert. That had not been a shiver from the cold; it was magic. He untangled himself from the blankets and gripped his wand nervously. He didn't even have the strength to stand up.

The flaps of his tent opened and Ron's mouth dropped open.

"You utter FUCKING WANKER!" Harry shouted, slamming his backpack on the tent floor.

"What?" Ron croaked out.

Harry ignored Ron's protest and knelt down to rummage in his bag. He pulled out a tiny and empty glass box, tapped it with his wand several times, then set it on the floor. He flicked his wand twice more and suddenly Ron was staring at a huge flame-filled tank.

The fire in the enlarged glass case was multicoloured and the heat it emitted filled the tent immediately.

Shuddering from the sudden temperature change, Ron scooted awkwardly toward the tank and sat himself directly in front of it, convulsing slightly as his body slowly warmed.

Harry said nothing. He continued sitting by the mouth of the tent, watching Ron with an intense gaze that Ron was steadfastly avoiding.

Ron wasn't sure how much time went by before Harry finally spoke, but he had all but completely stopped shaking when Harry opened his mouth.

"Have you eaten yet?"

Ron was pretty sure Harry was asking about dinner, but he hadn't eaten any proper meal in almost a week. He shook his head and Harry immediately went about trying to make some soup on the stove. When the draught prevented him, he pulled out his wand again and the canvas tent went still. As an extra precaution, Harry made another contained fire in the bottom of the oven and boiled the soup over that.

When he was done, they ate their soup in silence, Ron managing to scarf down an entire bowl, despite having not eaten more than a few bites in days.

"So," Harry said once Ron was done eating and leaning sleepily against the glass tank.

Ron glanced sideways at Harry. "So," he said quietly. "You just saved my life."

"Ron–"

"I'm not exaggerating. Thank you."

Harry shook his head, his jaw clenched. "I'm going to personally murder Robards."

"I'm okay with that."

"I'm filing a report when we get back."

Ron nodded.

"And I'm taking it straight to Kingsley."

"As you should."

"And Ron?"

"Yeah."

"Next time, don't be so fucking stupid."

Ron nodded again. He really had been phenomenally dim-witted for the past few days.

Another few minutes of silence passed and Ron felt himself slipping into sleep for the first time in days.





Ron woke up to the sound of an electric heater humming somewhere nearby. He rolled over in his bed and put the pillow over his face in an attempt to block out the noise.

A second later, he sat up with a jolt and looked around, panicked. He was most definitely in a hotel room.

"Morning, sunshine."

Ron turned to see Harry stepping out of the bathroom, a white towel wrapped around his waist and his wet hair plastered to his forehead.

"Where the fuck are we?"

"In the warmth," Harry answered, rubbing his hair with a towel so that it stuck up in all directions.

Ron sighed and ran a hand over his face. His skin, he noticed, was extremely dry. "How did you get me here?"

"Apparation. I booked the room and then went back for you. You were out cold."

"Thanks," Ron muttered, pushing the covers off and sitting up on the edge of the bed. He faced away from Harry, frustrated that, even in his state of recovery from near-death, the sight of Harry half-naked and wet could turn him on so much.

He took a much needed shower and then joined Harry in the hotel restaurant for several helpings of breakfast.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Harry asked rather suddenly as Ron ate yet another pancake.

Ron swallowed his large bite with difficulty and washed it down with orange juice. "Do you remember what happened just before I left?"

"You slept with Robert."

"I slept with Robert and you shouted at me for it," Ron corrected. "I came home from my 'emergency meeting' with Robards and tried to tell you, but you just argued with me about what I'd done with Robert. I wasn't exactly keen to tell you where I was going." He glanced down at the scrambled eggs still left on his plate. "Actually, how did you find out where I was?"

"It wasn't hard," Harry explained. "All I had to do was look through your files. You're very thorough with your reports, by the way."

"I – thank you?" Ron said, flustered.

"It's good," Harry reassured him. "It's quite useful. If you weren't, I doubt I would have been able to find you as easily as I did."

"Yeah, but how exactly did you?" Ron persisted. "I was nowhere near where I started by the time you found me."

Harry shrugged awkwardly. "I used some... some magic I picked up."

Ron raised an eyebrow. "What kind of magic? Where'd you pick it up?"

"I... I went to visit Bill," Harry admitted. "Just before I came here. He gave me some... some spells and some tips. You know."

Ron frowned across the table. "You've been using illegal magic from my brother."

"It's not illegal!" Harry insisted. "We're not in Britain. It's not illegal here."

"Okay, first off, it's still illegal for us to use that magic because we're still British, even if we're not in Britain. Second, don't act like you know Switzerland's magic laws."

"How do you know I didn't do my research?" Harry asked defensively.

Ron rolled his eyes. "Because you never do your research. I know how thorough you aren't with your reports, Harry. I know how short they are, and it's not because you're lazy. It's because you don't plan ahead and you don't reflect afterwards. You have no idea which spells are legal here and which aren't. Don't pretend otherwise."

Harry blinked. "Having a bad day, Ron?" he asked with mock sympathy.

Ron sighed and finished off his eggs without responding.





"So... I couldn't help but notice... there's only one bed in this room," Ron said as he sat on the floor, rearranging the items in his backpack.

"I told you," Harry said from where he lay on the bed, flipping through a tourist pamphlet, "I booked the room by myself. It would have been weird if I'd asked for two beds."

"It's not that I don't appreciate it," Ron explained, staring down at a pile of mismatched socks. "It's just that... you know, I don't know what your plans are exactly, but if you want to stay here again, we should get a different room."

"Like that wouldn't be awkward."

"It wouldn't," Ron insisted. "We could be friends meeting up. You just came a day early. Now we need a different room."

He set about rolling up pairs of socks that vaguely looked alike, doing his best to ignore the strained silence.

"Ron," Harry began slowly, quietly. "Is it really... after all these years, you honestly... can't even sleep in the same bed with me?"

Against his better judgement, Ron glanced up at Harry. Harry's expression was sad, almost hurt, and Ron quickly looked away. He could feel his ears burning through the long and painful pause.

"Fine," Harry said bitterly, tossing the pamphlet onto the bed and standing up. "We'll get a different room."

Harry walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him, and Ron cursed loudly. He'd let his guard down for one pathetic moment and given himself away. He was supposed to be over all that by now, and he wasn't sure Harry would forgive him for not being so, and worse, for lying about it.





~Flashback~

"I don't know," Harry muttered, rubbing his tired face with his hands. "I think... I think it might be for good this time."

"You've said that before, though," Ron pointed out. "It's only been three weeks. You've been broken up longer than that before."

"True." Harry shrugged. "This time just feels different. I can't explain it. I'm just... I've gotten used to her not being around as much. And – and now you're around instead. And that feels... it just sort of feels normal. I still love her, but... but maybe this is just it."

"Maybe. It does seem kind of unlikely, from an outsider's perspective, just based on how many times you two have managed to get back together in the past, but..."

Harry shrugged again and shifted a little on the sofa to face Ron more easily. "Is it any easier for you? Dating blokes, I mean?"

Ron flushed slightly. "Well, I don't... I don't really date them. But... I don't imagine it would be any easier. I suppose it could be, but... but blokes are complicated, too. They're a lot less likely to know what they want."

"Do you know what you want?" Harry asked quietly.

Ron looked at Harry and opened his mouth, but found there was no answer. Harry was staring at him with those piercing green eyes and Ron was lost in them and their vulnerability, completely unable to lie.

Before he could recover from his loss of concentration, Ron found himself being kissed.

"Harry," he said quickly, pulling back so roughly he almost fell off the sofa. "What..."

Harry blushed magnificently and licked his lips. "Um."

"That's not what I meant!" Ron exclaimed in a panic. "That's not what I meant at all! I don't – I don't want you! I don't want anybody! That's – that's why I don't date. I don't want any of them."

Harry stared disbelievingly at Ron. "Oh. I thought..."

"Maybe I do," Ron continued on, breathlessly. "Maybe you're right. But that – that doesn't mean you should kiss me!"

"Why not?" Harry asked quietly.

"Because you're straight! And you shouldn't – and I can't..." Ron took a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself and stop rambling. He looked imploringly across the sofa at Harry, silently begging his best friend both to stop this right now and to be with him forever. "I can't just be some mistake you make when you're all heartbroken about Ginny," he said, his voice practically a whisper.

"I'm not – you're not a mistake, Ron. You could never be a mistake."

Ron shook his head. "You're straight, Harry."

"Am I?" Harry asked, his voice a high-pitched squeak. "I've been thinking about this since you first came out."

"Thinking about what?" Ron asked cautiously.

"About kissing you," Harry said, staring blatantly at Ron's lips. "All the ways I... all the places... it's not a mistake to kiss the person you're closest to. Even if – even if no other men appeal to me, you do, and it's not... I'm sure I could be with you. If... if you wanted it, that is."

"You have no idea," Ron breathed, staring at Harry and trying to take in his words.

"Show me," Harry whispered, moving closer. "Teach me."

Ron nodded and accepted Harry's lips this time. He was instantly and breathlessly consumed by an urgent need. He'd wanted Harry for so long, so long, and now Harry was kissing him, and it was all Ron could do to keep from stripping Harry naked and devouring him right then and there.

Harry moaned, just barely, somewhere deep inside his throat, but Ron heard it and lost what little self-control he had left. He grabbed at Harry's waist, digging his fingers into the skin there. He maneuvered them on the sofa so Harry was lying beneath him, flush against him, panting slightly as their kiss broke.

Ron ignored the panic in Harry's eyes; he was too far gone to stop now. He'd wanted this for far too long, and every ounce of desire and lust and love he'd ever felt for Harry had come brimming to the surface and there was nothing Ron could do to hold it back.

Harry's hands were lying awkwardly on Ron's back, an unsure, dead weight. Ron moved one of his own hands to Harry's jeans, unbuttoning and unzipping them with a practiced ease. Harry's fingers clenched around Ron's shirt as Ron slid his hand into Harry's pants and gripped Harry's soft cock.

Ron tried not to focus on how hard he was and how soft Harry was. It's his first time, he told himself, he's just nervous. He pulled his hand out of Harry's pants, licked across it, and replaced it quickly, determined to do everything as fast as possible so Harry had no time for second thoughts. As he went about stroking Harry's cock, he focused his lips on Harry's exposed neck. Harry's skin was damp; he was sweating already and Ron pretended that it was because the heat in George's flat was too high and that it wasn't related to the fact that Harry's hands were suddenly shaking slightly against his back.

"Budge up," Ron muttered, lifting his weight for a moment so Harry could scoot back on the sofa. Harry complied, sitting up slightly against the armrest. He looked down at Ron and Ron was surprised to see trust, rather than hatred or confusion, in his eyes. Harry trusted him, and what was Ron doing with that trust?

Ron sat back slightly and pulled Harry's jeans and pants down on his thighs. He was half-hard by then and Ron took in the sight of the short, black, curly hairs nestling at the base of his shy, hesitant cock.

"Ron?" Harry whispered, shifting his hips slightly as Ron continued staring down at him.

Ron dragged his eyes back up to Harry's and gulped. "Are you sure you want this?" he asked against his will.

Harry nodded and swallowed hard, apparently steeling himself for what Ron was about to do.

Ron leaned down, his back an exaggerated arch, and licked from the base of Harry's cock all the way to the tip. To his relief, Harry's cock twitched at this new stimulation, so he repeated the long, slow lick over and over until Harry's cock was straining against his tongue and Harry was breathing heavily above him.

"It's not so bad, right?" Ron asked, teasing slightly as he looked back up at Harry for the first time in minutes. Harry's head had fallen back, unsupported, and his mouth was hanging open. Ron lifted his own head slightly to get a better view of Harry's face as he wrapped a hand back around Harry's cock. He gave it a squeeze and Harry gasped slightly, his eyes clenched tightly. Ron told himself it wasn't because Harry can't look at him. Besides, he thought, unable to stop himself, he could always just pretend I'm Ginny.

Suddenly determined to make sure Harry knew he was definitely not Ginny, Ron surged up on the sofa and kissed Harry hard on the lips.

"I'm so hard for you," he whispered against Harry's cheek, his tongue darting out to dip in Harry's ear.

To his surprise, Harry reached out blindly and found his hard cock, still hidden inside his own uncomfortably tight jeans. Ron groaned uncontrollably as Harry timidly rubbed the bulge, his fingertips dragging along the throbbing underside of Ron's cock.

"Stop," Ron gasped when Harry's hand became more sure, his grip more firm. He didn't want to come in his jeans from light fondling, but he was so turned on by it that he wasn't sure he would be able to stop himself. "Fuck, you're hot," he muttered, staring down at Harry's flushed face.

Harry winked and Ron grinned, relieved. Harry didn't hate him for pushing this so far so fast; Harry was even enjoying himself. Ron returned his attention to Harry's cock, stroking it swiftly and firmly. Harry squirmed and bit his lower lip roughly, a humming noise trapped in his throat. Ron bowed his head down to kiss Harry's vibrating Adam's apple, then bit down on the side of Harry's neck and sucked roughly on the hot skin. He wanted to mark Harry as his own, to show the world (and himself) tangible evidence that they were finally together.

Harry moaned loudly as Ron's fingers tightened around his cock. He thrust his hips up into Ron's hand, silently urging Ron to move faster. Ron broke away from Harry's neck and slid further down, wishing he had time to explore every inch of Harry, but they were both still fully clothed and Ron wanted to get to the point of all this.

And the point of all this was Harry's long, glorious cock pulsing in his mouth as his tongue mercilessly tickled its sensitive head. Harry came almost as soon as Ron's mouth had settled back around him; his back arched off the couch with a shout and he grabbed roughly at Ron's hair as Ron swallowed the head of his cock.

"Ginny – Ginny," Harry gasped shakily as he held on to the redhead between his legs. "Oh – oohh – fucking – AH! – oh God, oh – oh God, Ron, Ron, oh God, fuck!" He babbled senselessly as Ron extended his orgasm to an almost painful ecstasy.

Finally, breaking away just before the point of choking, Ron pulled back and sat up to swallow the last of Harry's come. He chanced a glance at Harry and found the other man all but unconscious from the intense climax. Harry looked extremely sated; his face was relaxed, his eyes were closed peacefully, and there was a hint of a smile on his wet, swollen lips.

Ron took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. Maybe he didn't mean to say it. Maybe he wasn't thinking about her. Maybe it was just out of habit. He had a hard time convincing himself Harry's slip up was completely coincidental.

"Are you still hard for me?" Harry's husky voice broke Ron out of his thoughts.

"Yeah," Ron whispered, trying to figure out if Harry was pretending he didn't remember saying Ginny's name or if he actually didn't remember saying Ginny's name.

"Well..." Harry trailed off uncertainly, staring up at Ron's blank face.

"You don't have to," Ron said quietly. "That was a lot, I think. And you're new at this. You don't have to do anything. We could just stop."

To Ron's disappointment, Harry looked tempted by this offer. Ron started to get up from the sofa but found himself being pulled back down after a second. Harry pushed him against the opposite armrest and started unfastening his jeans.

"Harry," Ron whimpered as Harry pulled down his clothes and exposed his already-leaking cock. "I said you didn't have to. We don't have to do this anymore." It killed him a little on the inside to say this, to admit that it wasn't going to work out despite Harry's reassurances, to admit that he knew it wouldn't work out from the very beginning and yet had gone along with it anyway. His face was burning with self-loathing and the last thing in the world he wanted was a pity blowjob from his best friend.

"I want to," Harry said quietly, wrapping a hand around Ron's cock and pulling on it.

Ron knew it was a lie, but he didn't know what else to do but sit back and let it happen. He closed his eyes and tried to pretend this wasn't the worst mistake he'd ever made.

Harry's hand was warm and soft around his cock; it was exactly how he'd always imagined it would feel, and that fact alone drove him toward the orgasm the rest of him was dreading. Harry kissed him forcefully, apparently determined to prove something to Ron with sheer intensity. When Ron pulled back for air, Harry dropped down and sucked the head of Ron's cock into his mouth. Ron covered his eyes with both hands, unable to stand the sight of all that black hair bobbing along his aching cock. Harry's mouth was wet and wonderful, but his speed was awkward, his hands were limp on Ron's hips, and his intent was obvious: he wanted to get Ron off as quickly as possible so this whole mess could come to an end.

Ron groaned pathetically, grabbed Harry's hair with one hand, and guided the tempo until it was fast enough and sure enough to bring him over the edge. Still keeping his eyes firmly covered with his other hand, Ron let himself picture the start of all his favorite fantasies: Harry spread out on a bed, his limbs flung to the side, maybe even tied down, and his cock standing to attention.

Harry hummed around Ron's cock and Ron jerked painfully as the burning coil of need in his balls finally sprang free and he started coming into Harry's mouth.

Coughing slightly, Harry held Ron's cock against his stomach and continued licking the underside of his head as he finished coming all over his shirt. Harry pressed his tongue to the base of Ron's cock as it pulsed with aftershocks of pleasure that had Ron huffing desperately.

Ron couldn't quite bring himself to uncover his eyes to look at Harry yet, so he spent time catching his breath and waiting for his heart rate to slow down instead. He listened to the sound of Harry rustling on the couch, sitting up and moving away from Ron, and wondered if Harry was just going to leave without saying anything. He knew it was a mistake. And now he knew that Harry had finally admitted it, too. Otherwise, Harry would have be kissing him; otherwise, they would have be nuzzled together on the couch, falling asleep in each other's arms.

"For someone who's never done that before," he said, unable to take another second of silence, "you were pretty decent at it."

Harry waited for Ron to finally reveal his eyes before speaking. "I was just doing what I like," he admitted, staring dazedly at Ron.

"It was good," Ron assured him pointlessly. There was a long pause and Ron could almost feel the regret emanating from Harry.

"Ron–"

"Don't apologize," Ron whispered quickly, closing his eyes again. He couldn't stand to look at Harry; he couldn't even stand to look at himself or the mess he had just made on his shirt. All he wanted to do was sink into the couch and disappear forever.

"I'm so sorry," Harry said anyway. "I didn't know – I thought I could. I thought I wanted to. I was so fucking sure I wanted you." He sounded as though he hated himself almost as much as Ron hated them both. "I'm so sorry, Ron. I – I'm so–"

"Stop apologizing," Ron said, opening his eyes. He turned on the couch and put his feet back on the floor, wanting desperately to clean himself off and change his shirt, but wanting just as much to never move again.

"I don't know what else to say," Harry admitted. "This... I mean, I shouldn't have – we shouldn't–"

"Stop talking," Ron interrupted, staring down at the floor. "Stop talking before I hit you." He ran a hand over his face. I can't believe I just ruined our entire friendship for a blowjob, he thought, feeling more shame and remorse than he had ever thought possible. "Maybe you should leave."

Harry said nothing and Ron knew it was because he agreed. The best thing to do now was probably to pretend the whole incident didn't mean anything and had never happened. Ron wasn't sure he'd ever recover, but he had no other choice.

"Will... are we going to be okay?" Harry asked.

Ron's heart broke just a little bit more and he felt his throat swelling and his eyes stinging with tears he had no intent of shedding in front of Harry. "We'll be fine," he said shortly. "Please, just go."

Harry stood, tucked himself back into his jeans, and left without saying goodbye.

~End Flashback~





"It's not like you ever said anything," Harry said bitterly, gripping his beer bottle tightly.

Ron looked up from where he lay on his bed. Harry was sitting on his own bed in their new room, stuck in a game of Solitaire.

"What?"

"It's not like you ever said anything," Harry repeated. "You just expected me to know."

Ron put down the atlas he had been inspecting and sat up, turning and dropping his legs over the side of the bed. "I didn't expect you to know," he said gently. "I didn't even want you to know."

"What happened to full disclosure, Ron?" Harry snapped, tossing down a card and glaring across the room at Ron. "What happened to honesty and vulnerability and trust? What happened to rebuilding our friendship from the ground up? What happened to leaving that all behind and moving on?"

"Stop it," Ron demanded. "Stop it. You have no idea what I – you don't think I've been trying to move on? You think I want to still feel this way? Well, guess what, I don't. It just – it is what it is, okay? That's just how... that's just who you are to me, okay? There's nothing else I can do about it."

Harry scoffed.

"There's not," Ron insisted. "I ignore it all the time. I sleep with other men, I support your relationship with Ginny, I pretend like there's nothing else going on. Because there's not, okay? It doesn't matter. It's not something I'm pursuing, it's not something I sit around thinking about all day, and it's not something I like about myself. I ignore it, okay? Why don't you just... do the same and drop it."

Harry exhaled angrily and turned back to his card game. He took a long swig of his beer and Ron stood up, not wanting to be around him when he was this upset.

"I'm going for a walk," Ron muttered before grabbing his coat and heading out of the hotel.

It really wasn't his fault he still had feelings for Harry. He had been trying for years to move on past that stage of their friendship. It's just that Harry was so Harry... and he was so sexy and so perfect all the bloody time. Ron couldn't change that, and even if he could, he wouldn't want to.

Ron cast the modified self-heating charm that Harry had learned from Bill as he started off around the small town. He wanted to go back home. He didn't know what help Harry would be in the case; the missing Aurors simply had not been here. There would be traces, magical or otherwise, if they had been. There was nothing left to do but return to Robards and tell him Kelley and Edwards were likely dead somewhere, and Davies and Griffiths were likely still in contact with the giants. That was the only conclusion Ron could come to: the Welshmen had kidnapped the Aurors, forced them to send back false information, and then killed them.

And, to top it all off, maybe Robards was right; maybe Ron was to blame. Ron had known the final update had been off. There wasn't enough information, it had been sent in a bizarre way, and the Aurors had never shown up to confirm it all. Ron should have known straight away that something was wrong, that someone should investigate farther. Sure, Robards had seen the same update and given him the okay to file it away and close the case, but Ron should have listened to his instincts. It was his case, not Robards', and he had failed.

Now, Kelley and Edwards were likely dead, Harry was angry with him for having feelings that he couldn't control, and he would most likely have to go back to work for George.

"Bad day doesn't even begin to cover it."





When Ron woke up the next morning, Harry was on his bed, lying on his stomach, and staring down at Ron's atlas. Ron pushed himself up into a sitting position and rubbed his face tiredly. He had come back to the hotel so late the night before that Harry had already been asleep.

"Morning," Ron croaked as he stood up and started to stretch. "Are you working out how to get back?"

Without looking up from the atlas, Harry motioned for Ron to come over and look at the atlas. Ron walked around to Harry's bed, leaned down, and stared at the spot Harry was pointing to.

"What?" he asked after inspecting the map for several seconds and not seeing anything special.

"Look how low this valley is," Harry said. "Compared to these mountains..."

"Lauterbrunnental," Ron tried to pronounce the name on the atlas.

"I was reading about it earlier," Harry explained, reaching under the atlas and producing the tourism pamphlet he had been looking at the previous day. "Most of it's not even very wide and there are all these steep cliffs... it's the lowest point around."

Ron stared down at Harry. "You... you want to go there?"

"Don't you?" Harry asked, sitting up.

"I – I guess, if you... are you really sure you want to help me with this? We could just go home."

"No," Harry said firmly. "We're proving Robards wrong. You're an excellent Auror, Ron. Or, at least you would be if he gave you half a chance. Maybe this is your chance. We can't just go back empty-handed and totally defeated. That's what he wants."

Ron sat down on the edge of his bed and frowned at Harry. "Does he know you're here?"

"Well, yes. I had to ask him... if he knew where you were, because I had no idea. You should've seen his face... he knows we live together and the fact that you didn't tell me... anyway, it doesn't matter. He said he'd sent you out to look for Kelley and Edwards. I volunteered to help and he tried to stop me, but I wouldn't let him."

"Why not?"

Harry rolled his eyes. "Maybe because I didn't want you to die. Would you like me to go back without you so you can continue freezing and starving to death?"

Ron glared at Harry. "No. I'd rather try going to... to Lautybrauty."

Harry snorted. "Lauterbrunnental?"

"Yeah, whatever. When do you want to go?"

"Right now," Harry said, standing. "We should go during the day to get a good look around. You're all packed, right?"

"Um." Ron glanced over at his stuffed bag. "Yeah."

"All right. Let's go check out."





"This can't be right," Ron muttered, staring down at the villages from where he and Harry stood on the top of an impossibly steep cliff.

Harry said nothing and kept his eyes firmly on the valley below.

"There's roads," Ron continued. "There's houses, Harry. People live here – Muggles live here! There can't be any giants."

Harry pursed his lips.

"Damn," Ron sighed. "I'd really hoped this whole thing would be over by now."

Harry grabbed Ron's arm and spun quickly.

Ron landed on his arse when they Apparated to Harry's destination.

"Little bit of a warning next time?" he asked, getting to his feet and rubbing his sore backside. "Where are we?"

"A bit farther west," Harry explained, looking around. "Just above that lake we saw."

"We saw two lakes," Ron muttered. He watched tiredly as Harry stalked around between the trees. It was obvious that Harry had gone into tracker mode; he wasn't going to stop until he found at least one of the things they were looking for. Ron was a tracking specialist as well, but he had no idea what to do here, and as Harry wasn't sharing any information, all he could do was stand there stupidly until Harry clued him in.

After a few minutes, Harry signaled for Ron to follow him. They headed off together, Harry on a silent mission and Ron trailing behind, wondering just how well their stealth and tracking training would serve them in the Alps.





By sunset, Ron was exhausted. He and Harry had been hiking through snow for hours and had yet to find anything promising. He'd stopped asking questions a while ago; Harry didn't seem to have any answers, only instincts. Ron hated Harry's strategies (or lack thereof), but had no room to complain at the moment, seeing as how Harry had just saved his life two days before.

"I meant to tell you," Harry said suddenly, slowing down to walk beside Ron. "Dean sent an owl on Thursday asking to make plans with us for this weekend."

Ron blinked. "What?"

"Dean," Harry repeated. "Sent an owl. Tried to make plans."

"Oh," Ron said stupidly. "I... did you write him back?"

"I told him you were gone for a work emergency. I don't know if he responded after that."

"Right."

"And Lee stopped by on Wednesday."

"For what?"

"I'm not sure," Harry said, shrugging. "He said something about George being a prude. I don't really know what he meant by that, but I assume he came over for advice."

Ron snorted. "That's a laugh."

"Why? You're close with George."

"I used to be," Ron said bitterly. "He's a complete dolt, lately."

"Well... if Lee and Angie are really together..."

"They are."

"That can't be easy to watch," Harry said sympathetically. "I mean, think about all that history. It's got to be a big adjustment."

"Sure, if that's actually the problem."

"What do you mean?"

Ron slid slightly on a patch of ice and Harry grabbed him around the waist to steady him.

"You all right?" Harry asked, his voice soft in Ron's ear.

"Fine," Ron choked out. He righted himself and squirmed out of Harry's grip. "I'm fine." He walked forward quickly, forcing Harry to jog after him.

"What were you saying about George?" Harry asked when he'd caught up with Ron.

"It's nothing," Ron said quickly. "Nothing more than a guess, really. I shouldn't gossip about it."

"You're not usually one to have deep insights about other people," Harry said slowly. "But when you do, they're usually right."

Ron sighed; this was true. It also wasn't a guess; Lee knew that George was gay, too. But Ron wasn't particularly keen on discussing George's unrequited love for Lee with Harry, not when their recent argument about Ron's own similar feelings was so fresh in their memories.

"It's nothing important," Ron lied. "He just needs more time to get used to it. Like you said, it's a big adjust – oof!"

Ron, who hadn't been looking where he was going, walked straight into Harry. He lost his balance and fell sideways onto the snow.

"What the hell, Harry?" he asked indignantly, trying to stand back up.

"Shush," Harry whispered urgently. He walked up to a large tree and peered cautiously around it.

Curious and excited, Ron scrambled awkwardly to his feet and went over to the tree, looking over Harry's shoulder.

"Holy fuck," he breathed, in awe of the scene below them.

No less than ten giants were dozing in the tiny valley at the bottom of the cliff Harry and Ron were standing on. Some were huddled in pairs for warmth, others were curled up against the mountains. At a somewhat safe distance from the band of giants, a small tent was set up. It was glowing and flickering slightly; there was a fire burning on the inside.

"Holy fuck," Ron repeated, his hand gripping Harry's shoulder tightly. "You fucking found them."

Harry grinned back over his shoulder. "We found them," he corrected. "And now we're going to find out who's in that tent."

"What, now?" Ron asked incredulously as Harry walked around the tree and knelt down near the edge of the cliff.

"Better while they're sleeping," he said, indicating the giants. "If we can do everything without ever having to deal with giants... well, it'd just be easier, wouldn't it?"

"Quite," Ron agreed. "Please don't tell me you want to climb down that," he said hopefully.

"No, that'd be a bit suicidal." Harry stood back up and looked at Ron. "Would you care to do the honors?"

Ron grinned, grabbed hold of Harry's arm, and spun.





"There's four of them," Ron whispered, studying the shadowy figures inside the tent. "Two of them aren't moving."

"Probably Kelley and Edwards, do you think?"

"Probably," Ron agreed. "How should we do this?"

Harry rubbed his cheek with a gloved hand, thinking. "Honestly," he said, "our best bet is probably just to go in there. Wands out, ready to attack. There's not much else to do. There's nowhere to hide, there's no point in disguising ourselves. Best to just... go right for it."

Ron nodded, steeling himself for the chance that a battle between Aurors and Dark Welsh wizards might wake the giants.

"Ready?" Harry asked, and Ron was relieved to hear a hint of nervousness in his voice. It was somehow reassuring that Harry also realized the danger of their mission.

"Ready."

They set off for the tent, breaking into a run after a few seconds and charging in without warning.

Kelley and Edwards were tied back-to-back in some chairs. They looked half-dead, as though they hadn't eaten or slept properly in weeks. Davies and Griffiths were hovering over a table, looking at the mess of papers spread out there. They turned around at the sound of Harry and Ron entering their tent at full speed, but before they could reach for their wands, Ron had stunned them both.

"Good," Harry said, then went to look out the mouth of the tent to make sure the giant's hadn't woken up.

Ron rushed over to Kelley and Edwards and began untying them.

"How did you find us?" Kelley croaked.

"Long story," Ron muttered as he fumbled with the knots. He pulled out his wand and tried a few spells, but nothing worked. "Harry," he whispered sharply.

Harry strapped the unconscious Welsh wizards to each other, then rushed over to help Ron.

"The papers," Edwards said weakly, nodding at the table. "We need them."

Ron left Harry to deal with the ropes and went to gather up what was on the table. He stacked everything in a messy pile and grabbed the four wands that had been under all the papers.

"You Harry Potter?" Kelley asked, slumping to the floor when Harry finally managed to break the charm on the ropes and untie him.

"Yes," Harry said shortly. "Are you two okay to head back now?"

"How're we traveling?" Edwards asked as Harry helped pull him to his feet.

"Portkey," Harry answered, nodding at Ron.

Ron opened his bag, stuffed the papers and the wands inside it, and pulled out Harry's tourist pamphlet. He set it on one of the chairs, tapped it with his own wand, whispered, "Portus," and watched as the pages glowed blue for a moment. "All set."

Suddenly, the ground shook beneath them. Ron glanced at Kelley and Edwards, who had gone white with fear.

"Time to go," he said quickly. "Hurry!" He knelt down by the Welshmen and grabbed the ropes Harry had used to tie them together.

"Our wands," Edwards whispered, looking wildly around the tent.

"They're in the bag," Harry practically shouted as he grabbed hold of Ron's backpack. "Let's go!"

Kelley and Edwards bent down, and, on Ron's count of three, they all placed a finger to the pamphlet.





When they reached the Apparition portal in the Ministry Atrium, Ron and Harry had to drag Kelley, Edwards, and the Welshmen over to a fireplace so they could Floo to Robards' office.

"What the – Weasley! Pot... Potter? Kelley, Edwards... what in the world..." Robards' flustered voice came from a distance after they all fell out of his fireplace. Ron's head was buried beneath the stunned Welsh wizards. He grunted and pushed them away, managing to sit up.

Robards was standing over the pile of people in his office, staring blankly down at them all.

Harry got to his feet first. "These are for you," he said rudely, pulling the stack of papers out of Ron's bag and shoving it at Robards. "Davies and Griffiths are stunned. Do with them what you will. Ron and I are taking Kelley and Edwards to St. Mungo's."

"Not so fast," Robards said as Harry began helping Kelley and Edwards untangle themselves from the heap. "They all need to be questioned! This is highly unusual. Aurors bursting into my office on a Sunday night... how did you even get here? You can't Apparate or Floo from that distance... you didn't use an illegal Portkey, did you?"

"Does it look like we care?" Harry practically shouted at his boss. Ron bit back a grin as he got up off the floor. "If you want Kelley and Edwards to die, by all means, keep them here for questioning. Personally, I'd rather they live, but as you're in charge..." Harry let go of Kelley, who slumped back to the floor, unable to muster enough strength to stand on his own.

Robards looked down at Kelley and gulped. "Perhaps – St. Mungo's is in order," he said, sounding terrified.

"Wise decision," Harry said mockingly as he helped Kelley back up. "Ron?"

"Portus," Ron said again, aiming his wand at the pamphlet. It glowed blue for the second time that night and he looked back up at Harry. "All set."

He steadied Edwards, who was leaning heavily on him, grabbed Edwards' hand and bent down to touch the pamphlet, Harry doing the same with Kelley.

"Another illegal Portkey!" Robards shouted furiously, taking a step toward them. Ron and Harry were too fast for him, however, and a second later they were spinning through space, headed for the hospital.





Kelley and Edwards collapsed as soon as they reached St. Mungo's lobby.

Ron sighed down at them. "Was Portkey really any better than Apparition at that point?" he asked Harry. "I mean... look at them."

"Portkey's always safest," Harry muttered, glancing around. "Where're the bloody Healers?"

"Right behind you," a cool voice said.

Ron spun around to see a short blond woman in green Healers robes.

"Thank Godric," Harry said. "These three men need help."

Ron gaped at Harry. "What – three?"

"You almost died, Ron," Harry snapped, helping pull a half-conscious Kelley to his feet. "You need to examined."

The Healer conjured three stretchers and, after Harry threatened to hex Ron's penis if he didn't get on his, led her new patients upstairs, followed by Harry.

"What's happened to them?" she asked once Kelley, Edwards, and Ron were all situated in some hospital beds.

"We're not sure," Harry explained. "We just got back from an Auror mission. They were being held captive by some Welsh wizards... and there were giants, though I'm not really sure if they had anything to do with it. They might just be exhausted and hungry, I don't know."

"I see," the Healer eyed Kelley and Edwards with interest. "Well, if you'd go back downstairs and fill out some paperwork for them, I'll get started on the examination." She pulled out her wand and stepped up to Kelley's bed.

"Can I go, too?" Ron asked hopefully, sitting up.

"You'll stay where you are," the Healer snapped.

Ron glared menacingly at Harry as he left the room, waving cheerily.





By the time Harry came back, Kelley and Edwards had been sedated and the Healer had given Ron permission to leave.

"Come on," Ron said, stopping Harry before he could even enter the room. "Let's get out of here before she changes her mind."

Harry peered over Ron's shoulder at the Healer, who was waving her wand over Edwards' body. "Are they going to be all right?"

"Of course," she said curtly. "They just need time to rest."

"Oh. Well, good. Thank you very much."

When she said nothing in response, Harry shrugged and turned around, leading the way back downstairs.

"I need to go home," Ron said as soon as they were in the lobby. "I need sleep."

"We've still got their wands," Harry said suddenly, shrugging off Ron's bag, which he had been carrying since they'd left Robards' office.

"We can always bring them back in the morning," Ron managed to say before he yawned.

"I think..." Harry sighed. "I think I should go back to the Ministry. Someone needs to talk to Robards before he sacks us both."

"He has no right to sack us after what we just did."

"I know," Harry agreed. "But he's an idiot, so there's no telling what he thinks he has the right to do. It's no problem." He pulled the four wands out and then handed the bag over to Ron. "You go back and get some rest. I'll go deal with Robards."

"Are you sure?" Ron asked warily. "I don't want you to get in trouble."

"I really don't care," Harry said. "I'd love to see him try to get me in trouble."

Ron rolled his eyes. "Just don't push your luck, all right?"

"No promises," Harry said, winking. "I'll see you at home." He grabbed some Floo powder from a hovering pot near a line of fireplaces, picked a grate, threw in the powder, and was gone in an instant.

Ron took a deep breath, thought longingly of his bed, and spun.





Ron was woken up unreasonably early the next morning by an owl pecking insistently at his window. He checked his watch, saw that it was only six o'clock, and pulled a pillow over his head. When he could still hear the owl, he flung the sheets off his bed, stormed over to the window, and opened it roughly.

"It's too bloody early," he grumbled at the owl as he untied a note from its leg. "I've only been asleep for three hours. How do you feel about that?"

The owl hooted soothingly at Ron, rubbed his beak on the back of Ron's hand, and then took off out the window. Ron rolled his eyes and closed the window before reading the note.

Thank you for finding Kelley and Edwards.
You may have the day off to recover and re-acclimate.
Be in my office at 9am tomorrow.
Robards


Ron sighed heavily and dropped the note to the floor. "Wake me up early to tell me I can sleep in," he muttered, climbing back into his bed and pulling the sheets back over him. "Arse."

When he woke up six more hours later, Ron was surprised by how hungry he felt. Grumbling and wishing he could sleep for even longer, but knowing it would be ridiculous if he slept past noon, he got himself out of bed and went to the kitchen. To his surprise, Harry was there, slumped over the table and snoring loudly.

"Er... mate?" Ron tapped Harry on the shoulder. "Mate."

Harry snorted and sat up quickly, looking around in a confused sort of way. "What?" he asked, staring blearily up at Ron.

Ron bit back a smile. "You fell asleep at the table."

Harry groaned and took off his glasses to rub his eyes. "What time is it?"

"Noon."

Harry groaned again, replaced his glasses, and stood up. "I'm supposed to meet Ginny for lunch."

"You should get some sleep," Ron said. "Were you with Robards all night?"

Harry nodded and stifled a yawn. "I need to go meet Ginny," he insisted. "She's worried sick about us."

"Well... send her my love."

Harry nodded vaguely, grabbed his wand off the table, and spun with a crack.

Ron's gaze lingered for a moment on the spot where Harry had just been standing. Harry was so clearly in love with Ginny. It was sickening sometimes, and not just because of how Ron felt about Harry. Sometimes he worried he would never find anything like that; sometimes he worried his one and only chance at such a romance had already come and gone and he had missed it because Harry was straight.

He blinked and those thoughts faded away as he turned toward the counter and started pulling out ingredients to make himself a giant omelette.





As the afternoon wore on, Ron grew more and more restless. He'd taken a shower, unpacked his bag, tidied up his room, listened to the Wireless, written his mother a long letter about Switzerland, and completed a detailed report about the mission for the Ministry.

He was bored.

Feeling only slightly guilty, he decided to poke around in Harry's room for something to do. Maybe Harry had a set of Muggle cards or something else Ron could use to entertain himself.

Harry's room was messy: the bed was unmade, there were Muggle clothes and Ministry robes on the floor, all the dresser drawers were open with clothes hanging out of them, the closet floor was covered in unsorted folders and books. And his desk, Ron decided, was disgusting. There were three mugs of cold tea, two plates covered with crumbs, and an open bottle of beer. Ron picked it up and sniffed at it, wondering how long it had been there and why Harry hadn't thrown it out; it was long past flat.

Ron was about to put the bottle back on the desk, as he had no intention of cleaning up Harry's obscene mess, when he saw what had been underneath it. He grabbed the slip of paper, set the bottle back down, and left Harry's room with a hastily formed plan already in his head.





Less than an hour later, Ron found himself standing on a tree-lined street filled with terraces and blocks of flats, some nicer-looking than others. He walked up the street for a few minutes, noting all the weird lamps and statues people had placed in their windows, until he reached the address on the scrap of paper he had stolen from Harry's room.

When he found the right building, he stared up at it for a moment, wondering exactly what he was doing. No one had asked him to come here... what if he was unwelcome?

Deciding he might as well do what he came to do, Ron approached the front door of a house on the end of a terrace, then took a sharp right and headed down the stairs that led to the flat on the lower ground floor. There were several potted plants at the bottom of the stairs, and Ron stopped to admire them for a moment, stalling and trying to collect his thoughts.

When he finally felt too awkward to lurk on the patio any longer, he rang the doorbell and waited. Not thirty seconds went by before the door opened and Ron found himself staring at a paint-covered Dean.

"Ron," Dean said, looking utterly bewildered. It was quite an endearing expression on him, Ron though, especially because of the blue and green paint smeared across his cheeks and forehead.

"Dean," Ron said, unsure how to explain his presence. "I, um... I just got back from Switzerland and I... Harry said you sent an owl."

"I did..."

"I suppose I could have just... sent one back." Ron smiled uncertainly. "But then I found your address and I thought... thought I'd come by and apologize in person."

"Apologize for what?" Dean asked, frowning.

"For not being able to see you over the weekend," Ron explained lamely. "Especially after I promised to make sure Harry and I were both free for dinner..."

Dean shrugged and stepped aside so Ron could come into his flat. "It's no problem," he said. "Harry said you had a work emergency. Did you say you were in Switzerland?"

"Yeah," Ron said vaguely, looking around the tiny hallway they were in. "It's a long story."

Dean opened another door and led Ron into the living room. "Well," he said, sounding slightly nervous for some reason, "this is where I live."

The living room had a white, modern-looking sofa in the corner facing the door they had just walked through. In front of the sofa sat a long, fat coffee table covered in books and magazines. Other than that, there was no furniture. The rest of the room was dedicated to Dean's artwork. Several large canvases, each looking more unfinished than the next, were propped up on easels around the room. Most of the floor was covered with a clear tarp decorated with copious paint stains. There was a small side table in front of all the easels where Dean kept all his paint.

"I thought you did graphic design?" Ron said after a long moment.

"Oh. Um, I do," Dean said, scratching his face and getting more paint on it in the process. "I've a computer through there," he said, nodding toward the dining room that was partially visible in the opposite corner. "I just, um... paint sometimes."

Ron glanced at Dean, who was staring at the floor, clearly uncomfortable with Ron seeing him, his flat, and his art in such a messy state.

"It's brilliant," Ron said encouragingly. "I like... the... colours," he said, staring hard at the painting that was the most finished. As far as Ron could tell, it depicted a naked man sitting on some vaguely defined object and smoking a cigarette. There was a small photograph taped to the top of the easel and Ron squinted to see it better; it was the same scene Dean was painting just below it.

"Thanks," Dean muttered. "Do you want to take your coat off? Can I get you something to drink?"

"No, you don't have to," Ron said politely. "I don't have to stay... I see you're in the middle of working. I just came by to apologize, like I said..."

"It's no problem," Dean said quickly. "Please, you can stay. You came all the way out here..."

"It's not that far," Ron said, shrugging. "Only five minutes on the Underground. This is a really nice flat, by the way."

"I can't afford it," Dean admitted. "I'm renting it from the family upstairs. They're old friends of my mum, otherwise... well, they give me quite a discount, but I'm not sure how much longer they'll be willing to do it. It wasn't supposed to be a permanent thing."

"But you haven't been here that long," Ron reasoned.

"I know. I just feel guilty. It's such a nice place..."

"Do you want to show me the rest?" Ron suggested, shrugging off his coat.

"It's not that big," Dean said, taking Ron's coat and tossing it on the sofa. He led Ron across the room. "Here's the dining room, and the kitchen's just off there. My bedroom..."

Ron walked past the dining room table and the computer desk and followed Dean into the bedroom.

"The loo's just there," Dean said, pointing to a door on the right side of the room.

Ron was still impressed; the flat might not have been that big, but it was clean and looked very modern. There was minimal furniture, but all of it was nice. Dean's bed was low to the ground and huge; it took up a good portion of the bedroom. Ron had to resist the urge to plop down on it because the duvet looked enticingly soft and fluffy.

"It's brilliant," Ron said for the second time. "I, uh... I like the way you've decorated it."

"It's not even my furniture," Dean explained. "It's theirs, what they were willing to spare, anyway. Except the desk out there, that's mine. But the rest of it..."

"It's still a nice place," Ron said, smiling. "Can I take you up on that drink?"

"Of course," Dean said, taking Ron back through the dining room to the kitchen. "What would you like? I've got some beer, some juice if you want... tea, coffee... water?"

"Do you want tea?" Ron asked, looking at the drawings on the refrigerator.

"Yeah, I could do with some," Dean said, filling up a teapot with water from the sink and setting it on the stovetop. "Oh, those are just... from some friends. Back in the States."

"I like this one," Ron said, pointing to a caricature of Dean. The exaggerated version of Dean was impossibly buff and toned, frowning ridiculously, and covered head-to-toe in paint of every colour. He was holding a laptop in one hand, and there was a mini-Dean, also covered in paint, doing some sort of jig over the keyboard. In his other hand, there were four paintbrushes, each one tucked at the base between two fingers. Above each paintbrush, as though they had just been painted in the air, were four different coloured penises.

"Yeah, I keep meaning to frame that one," Dean said. "I'm worried it'll get ruined if I just leave it on the fridge like that."

"What's with the rainbow dicks?"

"I sort of paint a lot of naked men," Dean explained hastily. "Christ, look at me, I'm a mess right now. Sorry." He turned back to the sink and began washing the paint off his hands.

"I don't mind," Ron said, grinning at Dean's embarrassment. "I was just thinking, after we have some tea, would you want to go out for dinner? It's almost that time..."

Dean dried his hands on a towel and checked his watch. "That could be nice. Do you want to go back closer to you, or..."

"No, let's stay out here," Ron said, still smiling. "Show me around Camden. I haven't been out here much."

Dean raised his eyebrows. "What, don't you ever leave Soho?"

"Don't really have to," Ron said, shrugging. "The Ministry's right there, isnt it? Half the time, I walk to work. Plus, the Leaky's there... Diagon Alley..."

"Must be nice."

"Not to mention the gay bars," Ron added. "Like I said, I never really have to leave the neighborhood. But, yeah, that's boring, you should show me around here. I'm sure it's all sorts of ridiculous."

Dean snorted and pulled out two mugs and two teabags. "Black tea all right?" he asked as he poured the boiling water into the mugs. "That's all I've got at the moment."

"Black's just fine," Ron said, taking the mug and using it to warm him hands. "Thanks."





After they'd had their tea, and after Dean had taken a quick shower to get the rest of the paint off him, they headed out to an Italian restaurant that Dean favored. Once they were seated and had ordered pasta, Dean's with chickpeas and Ron's with sausage, Ron decided to try his luck at getting Dean to open up.

"So, really, what's with all the naked men you say you paint?"

Dean cleared his throat awkwardly. "Um, it's, you know, it's just my... my subject matter."

"Well, obviously. But why? I'm interested."

"It's... just what I like to paint," Dean said slowly. "I like drawing the human form, and... what better way to do that than with nudes? Sometimes I do them clothed, but I think it's more interesting to have them naked... especially if I can paint them in a normal setting, in a setting where it wouldn't necessarily make sense for them to be naked."

Ron paused to think about this. "The one in your living room, with the bloke sitting down and smoking? What's the setting there?"

"Oh." Dean reached for his glass of water and paused as their waitress brought the wine they had ordered. She filled their glasses, left the bottle for them, and then walked away.

"What were you going to say?" Ron prompted.

"It's... it's a man sitting on some boxes. With – with the rest of the room filled with boxes, too. Like, the room's all packed and he's just... there. Smoking."

"Naked."

"Yes."

"I was looking at the photograph you're using, while you were in the shower," Ron admitted. "Did you take it, or..."

Dean stared moodily into his wine glass. "No, I took it. I set up the scene and everything. It was, um, it was at my old flat in New York, just before I moved back here."

"Did you know that bloke, then?"

Dean shrugged and took a long sip of his wine. "Yeah, we sort of dated a bit."

"Good for you," Ron said seriously. "He looked quite fit."

Dean nodded. "He was. Complete idiot, but definitely nice to look at."

Ron smiled. "So, tell me about America. What you were doing there and all. I mean, I know you were in school for a bit, right?"

"Yeah, for four years," Dean said. "I was in Philadelphia, at an art school. I majored in graphic design, but I took most of my other classes in painting and photography. I sort of... decided a bit too late that I was in the wrong major, but I like graphic design, and it's easier to get a job with that, so whatever."

"Was it weird?" Ron asked. "You know, going from... from Hogwarts to being in hiding to... being an art student at a Muggle university in America?"

"Probably not as weird as it should have been," Dean said quietly. I was pretty desperate to get out of the Wizarding world by that point... and to really do that, I felt like I pretty much had to get out of England. I just dove right into the whole art student thing. It probably wasn't the healthiest way to cope with my mum's death, but it's what I did, so there you have it."

Ron nodded and watched as the waitress came back with their food.

"Can I ask how she passed away?" Ron asked, pushing the food on his plate around with a fork and watching the steam rise.

"She had breast cancer," Dean said, sounding somewhat bitter. "She didn't know for a really long time and then... it was just really bad by the time she found out. I wanted..." Dean sighed and shrugged, leaning back in his chair and staring at his plate with disgust. "I wanted to stay with her, take care of her, you know? Spend time with her before... before it was too late, but she knew I was in trouble and she didn't want anything to happen to me. So, she made me go into hiding. I mean, I probably would have done it eventually, but... and she... she was just dying and I couldn't contact her at all. And she finished all my art school applications for me. I was already hoping to get out of England by that point, and she knew it and she wanted me to go and become some sort of famous artist she could admire. I told her it doesn't work that way anymore, but she wouldn't listen. I thought maybe I should go to New York, but she enrolled me at the school in Philly... it turned out to be fine, I quite liked it there."

"You said... she died right before you left for school?"

Dean nodded. "Yeah. She wasn't supposed to have lived that long. The doctors said six months and she managed twelve, but... they weren't very good months. After the war, when I was finally back home... she was really sick and there wasn't anything I could do, there wasn't anything my sister could do. It was just depressing all the time." Dean sighed and sat up straight again, reaching for his fork. "Then she died and I went off to America and refused to think about it or deal with it in any way for about two years. Like I said, it wasn't really healthy."

"I'm sorry all that happened," Ron said after a moment. "Seems quite unfair."

"There's nothing fair about death."

"This is true." Ron took a few bites of his dinner and thought over Dean's story in his head. "You said you went to school in Philadelphia?" Dean nodded, his mouth too full to respond. "But you said you took the photo of that naked bloke in New York?"

Dean swallowed and took a sip of wine. "Yeah, I moved there for a year after I graduated. I tried to get a job doing graphic design or something, but it didn't really work out. I had a stupid job at a coffee shop that I hated, instead. Eventually, I managed to find some design work here and there, but it was never anything lasting. It never would have paid the bills. Not that I can pay them now, but still."

"What made you move back?"

Dean took another drink of wine before responding. "There just wasn't anything keeping me in the States. I was done with school, I didn't have a job, I didn't have many local friends... the only person I ever cared about there was on the other side of the country by that point. It just didn't make sense anymore... plus, I wanted to be closer to my sister and her kids."

Ron swallowed a mouthful of food a bit too quickly and nearly choked. "You've got nieces and nephews?" he rasped, reaching for his glass of water.

"One of each," Dean said, nodding. "We're pretty close and I came back a few summers to visit with them. Like I said, it just didn't make sense for me to be away anymore."

"And the only person you ever cared about there?" Ron asked, finally able to breathe again. "I take it wasn't the fit-looking idiot bloke from the photo?"

Dean frowned. "No. No, it... it's a long story."

"Fair enough," Ron said, feeling that he had finally crossed a line, but surprised it hadn't happened sooner in the conversation. He smiled at Dean. "Well, I'm glad you're back."

"Thanks," Dean said. "I'm pretty glad to be back as well. My sister's certainly glad for it. She asks me to babysit for her all the time, now."

"Does she live in London, too?"

"She does now, yeah. Just a bit farther north, in Tufnell Park. She lived in our mum's old house for a while, in Cambridge, but she got bored there and decided to move the kids down here." He shrugged and ate a quick bite of his dinner. "They're good kids. Tiring, but good."

"How old are they?"

"Lottie's seven now, and Danny just turned four last month."

"Sounds like a handful," Ron said appreciatively, thinking of his brothers' children. "Is their dad around?"

"No, the women in my family aren't the best at picking men who stick around for very long. Kendra's actually my half-sister, and I've had a fair amount of step-siblings over the years... Mum was married four times."

Ron let out a low whistle. "That's a lot."

"Yeah... hopefully my sister doesn't make the same mistake... at least, not that many times."

Ron smiled. "Do you have any better luck with men?"

Dean shrugged. "I think it's a bit different... I'm not popping out kids that demand a lifelong commitment, but... I've only had one serious relationship and it didn't end with him deciding he preferred someone else, so I guess I've had better luck so far. What about you?"

Ron pulled a face. "I've had no serious relationships and I'm not out looking for any."

"You're not dating that bloke, then?" Dean asked, avoiding meeting Ron's eyes by focusing on his half-empty plate.

"What bloke?" Ron asked blankly.

"Robert."

"Oh, fuck," Ron said, suddenly remembering that he had slept with Robert right before leaving for Switzerland.

Dean raised his eyebrows. "What, is it supposed to be a secret?"

"What, no, it's not – there's nothing to keep secret," Ron said quickly. "We're not dating. He's just a friend. They're all, those three blokes you met, they're all just friends of mine. I drink with them a bit and... maybe we flirt sometimes, but it's nothing serious."

Dean nodded. "It just seemed like... he wanted me to know that you were his."

Ron sighed heavily. "Yeah, he... we've a bit of a history and he can get quite jealous, but... like I said, it's nothing serious. Not on my end, anyway," he added, muttering.

"Does he know that?" Dean asked, a hint of amusement in his voice.

Ron shrugged. "I don't know, probably not. It's... it's definitely something we have to work on. Anyway, I'm sorry if he was unfriendly to you at the pub that time. He can be really rude when he wants to be."

"It's fine, I wasn't bothered by it. I was too distracted by the other two to pay him much attention, anyway."

Ron snorted into his wine glass. "Yeah, Sean and William... they're an odd pair. William definitely fancies you, though."

"Yeah, I noticed."

Ron emptied the rest of the bottle into his glass. "What about it, then? Did you fancy him?"

Dean wrinkled his nose slightly. "I hadn't really thought about it," he said. "He... well, he's certainly fit, but he's a bit mad, isn't he?"

"Quite more than a bit mad," Ron agreed, smiling. "And how about Sean?"

Dean finished off his dinner before answering. "He was most definitely attractive. As was his sister."

Ron smiled knowingly. "Poor girl could probably get herself married in a heartbeat if she stopped hanging around gay blokes for a half a minute. But, yes, Sean is gorgeous. Obscenely so."

Dean nodded. "Have you ever..."

"No. Well, we've snogged a few times, but it's always been interrupted by William. He'd never let us shag, if only out of pure spite. You'd probably have a good chance of it, though."

"Why's that?"

"You're not me," Ron said, shrugging. "I don't think William cares who Sean sleeps with, as long as it's not me."

"And, er... how did Robert feel about you kissing Sean?"

Ron smiled guiltily. "He never saw any of that. And we thought it best not to tell him... lest he try to murder Sean in the middle of the night."

"That would be unfortunate."

"Yeah, because then you'd never be able to have a go at him. Do yo want me to put in a good word for you?"

"Er, no," Dean said quickly. "I don't really... do that."

"What, sleep with blokes?" Ron teased.

Dean shrugged. "Not as... um, often, maybe, as you all probably do..."

"Are you calling me a slut?" Ron asked in mock offense.

"No, I just meant–"

"I know what you meant," Ron assured him. "And Sean's definitely not a slut. It takes quite a lot to get into his pants... and I'd bet you're the same way."

Dean pursed his lips for a moment, then said, "Well, thanks for the offer, anyway, but I don't really think I'm ready for any of that."

"For any of what?" Ron asked, confused.

"Just, you know, dating, relationships... all that."

"But... but you've been out to gay clubs since you moved here, haven't you? And you said you were looking for someone to invite home with you, didn't you? And you went to the gay bar..."

Dean shrugged. "Yeah, I say and do these things, but I don't really ever mean them," he explained, avoiding Ron's gaze again. "I guess I'm a bit of a prude, but I try my best to act like I'm not."

"I'm pretty sure a prude wouldn't constantly paint naked blokes," Ron pointed out.

"Good point," Dean admitted. "I don't really know how to explain it. I just have these urges to go out and meet people, but as soon as I do, I regret it. I'm sort of a guilty hermit..."

Ron chuckled. "You're weird, Dean."

"Yeah, I know. It comes with the territory."

"What territory?"

"The penis-painting artist territory."

Ron laughed and finished off his wine. "All right," he said, checking his watch. "I'd better get home and into bed soon. I have to meet with my boss in the morning. Blech."

Dean stopped a passing waiter to ask for the check, and their waitress turned up a minute later to give it to them.

"I'm paying this time," Ron said, grabbing the check book before Dean could touch it.

"You don't have to," Dean said quickly. "Really, we can split it."

"Nonsense. You paid last time, I'll pay this time. We can split it next time."

"The wine was expensive," Dean protested.

"Yeah, and I drank most of it, so I'm paying for it." Ron reached for his wallet, pulled out his Muggle credit card, and slipped it into the check book.

"You've got a credit card?" Dean asked quietly as the waitress walked back over to take it away. "Do most wizards?"

"Probably not. I only got one to stop awkward questions about why I always paid in cash. I'm usually only ever involved with Muggle men, and I just thought it made sense to get one. I don't have one of those mobile telephones, though, and that usually confuses them. Most of them probably think I'm lying and trying to avoid getting in contact with them again... which, you know, is partially true, or would be if I had a phone, but I don't."

Dean reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone to show Ron. "They're quite handy, but I suppose if you're not trying to contact Muggles you've got no use for one."

"Exactly," Ron said as the waitress came back again. He took his credit card and the receipt and slid them back into his wallet. "Shall we go?"

"Thanks for paying," Dean said as they slipped their coats back on and headed outside. "It was really nice of you."

"And it was nice of you to pay last time," Ron countered. "We're such nice blokes."

Once they were out in the cold night air, Dean pulled out cigarettes and a lighter. "Do you want one?" he asked, offering the pack to Ron.

"Do you mind?" Ron asked.

"No, of course not. Here, I'll light it for you." Dean took out a cigarette, slipped it between his lips, and lit it with the plastic lighter. "There you are," he said, taking it out of his mouth and handing it to Ron. "I promise I'm not sick or anything."

Ron laughed and slipped the cigarette between his own lips. "Thanks. I never did get the hang of those weird Muggle lighters. I prefer matches."

Dean shrugged and lit a cigarette for himself as they headed back toward the Underground station Ron needed to get back home. "It's sort of adorable that you can't work a lighter properly."

Ron snorted, hoping Dean couldn't see him blush in the dark. "Thanks, I guess. How long have you been a smoker?"

"About two years. I should probably quit..."

"Probably," Ron said, shrugging. "Did you start smoking the same time you became a vegetarian?"

"Um, yeah, about that time."

"Was it because of the same person?" Ron asked, only half joking.

Dean took a long drag and exhaled loudly. "You could say that. It's wasn't really because of the same reason, but... the same person sort of influenced both, yeah."

"Am I allowed to ask his name?"

"What makes you think it's a he?"

"You would have said so if it wasn't," Ron reasoned. "And it's probably the same person you said you cared most about over there, right? And, by that logic, probably the same person you had your one serious relationship with."

Dean coughed slightly. "Are you drunk?"

Ron pondered this question as he tapped the ash of the end of his cigarette. "I guess I'm a bit tipsy," he said. "I don't generally talk like this when I'm sober."

"I kind of like it when you're drunk," Dean said. "You're so frank and honest."

"You're avoiding my question."

"Maybe I don't want to tell you his name."

"And why wouldn't you want to do that?"

"Maybe I don't like talking about him. Maybe I don't like thinking about him."

"Merlin, did he break your heart or something?"

"I just told you," Dean said sternly, tossing his cigarette butt into the street, "I don't like talking about it."

"All right," Ron said, holding his hands up in surrender. "I'll stop being a jerk."

"Good luck with that."

Ron grinned and stabbed out his cigarette butt on a lamp post. "I like it when you're punchy."

"Christ, how much wine did you drink?" Dean asked, staring at Ron with wide eyes.

"Not enough," Ron said sadly. "I am not looking forward to tomorrow."

"Because you have to meet with your boss?"

"Because I have to meet with my boss," Ron confirmed. "And then I have to go find my stupid older brother and yell at him for being so goddamn stupid."

Dean raised his eyebrows. "Sounds like fun."

"Blech."

"Right. Well, on that note, the station's right there." He pointed across the street. "Thanks for stopping by. It was nice to have company over for once."

"Thanks for not kicking me out," Ron said, grinning. "You have my address, right?"

"Yeah, Harry gave it to me."

"Good. Well, you're welcome anytime. You don't have to send an owl or anything, the door's always open for you."

"Thanks," Dean said. "Maybe I'll take you up on that sometime."

"You absolutely should." Ron held out his hand and Dean shook it tightly. "I'll send you an owl about plans for this weekend, yeah?"

"That'd be great." Dean dropped Ron's hand and waved as Ron started to cross the street. "Thanks again for dinner," he called out after Ron. Ron reached the other corner, turned around, and gave Dean a salute before disappearing into the Underground station.





"You're not out," Ron said stupidly when he stepped into his flat that night.

Harry looked up from where he was lounging on the sofa. "Am I supposed to be?" he asked.

"I thought you'd still be with Gin," Ron explained as he dropped his coat to the floor. He walked over to the sofa, shoved Harry's legs off, and sat down.

"Rude," Harry complained, readjusting himself into a sitting position. "And where've you been?"

"I just had dinner with Dean, up near his flat. Did you know he paints naked blokes for fun?"

"Excuse me?" Harry asked, laughing.

"You know he's an artist, don't you?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, that's what he does! He paints naked blokes."

"I see."

Ron glared over at Harry. "You're a tosser."

"You're clearly drunk," Harry teased.

"I'm not drunk," Ron protested. "I had... most of a bottle of wine..."

"You know what wine does to you."

"Shut up," Ron said, pouting.

"Fine, but just for that, I'll not be helping in the morning."

"I don't need your help."

"You say that now."

Ron stuck his tongue out at Harry, who laughed.

"So, how is Ginny?" Ron asked in an attempt at normal conversation.

"She's good. I was just too tired to do anything other than sit on my arse. How's Dean? Besides the... naked bloke painting thing."

Ron shrugged. "I think he's a bit lonely. And I still haven't seen him smile."

Harry paused before asking, "You do fancy him, don't you?"

"Godric, it's hard not to," Ron whined, tossing his head back on the sofa cushions. "He's bloody perfect, isn't he? All gorgeous and sad and some sort of secret brilliant kinky artist."

Harry chuckled. "Why's he sad?"

"His mum died," Ron explained, rubbing his eyes tiredly. "Just after the war. Apparently he didn't grieve for two years and I bet it was epic when he did. Shit, why am I so attracted to damaged men?"

"Um."

"I'm not even talking about you. Hell, maybe I am. I don't even know. I'm drunk. I'm drunk and I'm horny and Dean's arse keeps wiggling about in my head!"

Harry laughed again. "You should go to bed, mate," he suggested. "You've got to be up for work tomorrow and we both know that's not going to be a pretty sight."

"Bugger." Ron sighed and turned to look at Harry. "How's Robards?"

"Probably about to be put on suspension," Harry said, biting back a smile. "Don't tell him I said that, though."

Ron's mouth fell open. "How'd you manage that?"

"I had a chat with Kingsley," Harry said simply. "Told him Robards sent you out on a mission alone and without any provisions. Plus, there was that whole bit where you asked him if you should close the case even though there wasn't enough information from whatever their faces are, and he said yes. The whole thing was his fault to begin with. Kingsley's going to have a chat with them, with, uh..."

"Kelley and Edwards?"

"Yeah, them. Kingsley's going to have a chat with them tomorrow at St. Mungo's and see what happened. He already took all the case reports and all those papers from the Welshman. Robards is probably scared out of his wits he's about to get fired."

"Is it bad that I hope he does get fired?" Ron asked.

"Of course not," Harry reassured him. "Especially not after what he just did to you."

"And the Welsh idiots?"

"They're being held at the Ministry until they can be questioned probably by Kingsley. I think it's unusual for the Minster to get so involved with an Auror case, but..."

"But since when has Kingsley been a usual Minster?"

"Exactly."

Ron nodded and closed his eyes, dreading his meeting with Robards in the morning.

"Why don't you just go on to bed," Harry suggested after a few minutes.

"I can't," Ron moaned. "I'm just going to have some stupid sexy dream about Dean and I don't want to deal with that."

Harry snorted and Ron opened one eye to glare at him. "Is there a reason you've resigned yourself to having dreams about him?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ron asked, closing his eye again.

"Why haven't you just... you know, told him you fancy him? Or whatever it is you do to pull blokes."

"I can't just tell him," Ron protested. "He's already told me he's not interested in a relationship right now. He's not even interested in a shag right now. Apparently he doesn't sleep around. He's all... noble and innocent."

"Hm, you're right." Ron opened his eyes at the amusement in Harry's voice. "You definitely don't do noble and innocent. He's all wrong for you."

"Shut up," Ron demanded, smacking Harry across the chest with his arm. "I'm going to bed," he said spitefully, standing up.

"Mind your dreams," Harry called after him as he headed for his bedroom.

Ron made a rude hand gesture at his flatmate before going into his room and collapsing on the bed without removing his clothes.





Ron woke up in the morning with the distinct impression that someone was knocking bricks together behind his eyes. He groaned croakily and tried to fall back asleep, wondering why he'd been so stupid the previous night and hoping he could just die already and get it over with.

"Morning, sunshine."

Ron groaned again and rolled over, much to the dismay of his stomach.

"I brought you something to ease the pain."

Ron opened his eyes and immediately regretted it; the room was far too bright for his poor eyes.

"Stop being so pathetic and sit up a bit."

Ron grumbled as warm hands helped lift him into a sitting position. A vial was placed into one of his hands and he drank it warily, hoping it would stay down long enough to be effective.

"Better?"

Ron opened one eye and looked up to see Harry smiling at him.

"A bit," he managed, still feeling quite queasy even though the pounding in his head was subsiding. "Thanks." He lay back down and rubbed his eyes, wishing he could stay in bed for the rest of the day.

"Next time, don't drink wine on a weeknight," Harry suggested cheerfully before leaving Ron's room.

Ron sighed and stayed in his bed for a few more minutes before forcing himself to get up and get dressed.

By the time he reached the Ministry, he was feeling more or less normal, though he was still unenthusiastic about his meeting with Robards.

"Weasley," Robards barked as Ron approached his office.

Ron gulped and entered the office. "Good morning, sir."

"Sit down." Robards indicated a seat opposite his desk and Ron sat obediently. "You are in good health?"

"Um, yeah," Ron answered, somewhat surprised by the question.

"Good, good," Robards said vaguely. "Now, if you would, I'd like to hear from you exactly what happened while you were in Switzerland."

Ron thought about the case report he had in his bag, but decided not to say anything about it; he wanted to give it directly to Kingsley. "Didn't Harry tell you about it already?"

Robards narrowed his eyes. "Potter told me his side of things, yes. I want to hear from you."

"I'm sure whatever he said was correct," Ron said, holding Robards' angry stare. "Nothing much happened before he showed up, anyway. I was just blindly hunting for a few days."

"Weasley," Robards said slowly, and Ron could hear nervousness mixing with the anger in his voice. "I am your boss. I am asking you what you did on the mission I sent you on, and all you have to say for yourself is that you were 'blindly hunting' until Potter showed up?"

"Yes, sir," Ron said, a bit defiantly. "That's exactly what happened. Not because I'm not a good Auror," he added, thinking he might as well say what he really wanted, "but because you didn't prepare me well enough for it."

Robards' lips thinned dangerously. "For a new Auror, you're not showing much promise in the area of respect."

"For Head of the Auror Department, you've done very little to earn my respect."

Robards' eyes flashed menacingly, but Ron refused to break eye contact, even though his heart was racing with anxiety and he could feel his face burning with nervousness.

"You may go," Robards said suddenly.

Ron blinked. "Sorry?" he asked, too surprised to remember to stay stern.

"Go!" Robards barked.

Ron jolted in his seat, then stood and left quickly before he got into real trouble.

He went by Kingsley's office, found it empty, and left his case report in Kingsley's in-box. With no assignment and no desire to ask Robards or anyone else in the department for one, Ron spent the rest of the day hiding in Hermione's office in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. He gave her a long, detailed account of his time in Switzerland, minus the argument with Harry over his lingering romantic feelings, and she scolded him heavily for his stupidity and stubbornness. Harry joined them for lunch and even though Hermione begged him to take Ron away, Ron stayed with her for the afternoon, distracting her from working and generally being a pain.

By the time Ron and Hermione met up with Harry in the Atrium that evening, Harry had received only one small update from Kinsgley about Ron's case. The note read: Kelley and Edwards are being given the rest of the week off. Court date for Davies and Griffiths set for next week.

Ron wasn't sure what to make of such news. Had Kingsley been able to find out anything useful from either the Aurors or the Welshmen? He supposed Kingsley must have done, otherwise there would be no need for a court date.

"Try not to worry about it, mate," Harry said reassuringly as they headed out of the Ministry after saying goodbye to Hermione. "You'll find out the whole story eventually."

"What am I supposed to do until then?" Ron asked. "I've got nothing else to work on and I certainly can't go ask Robards for another assignment any time soon."

Harry shrugged. "Just hang out with me tomorrow. I'm sure we'll be able to come up with something for you to do. Fuck Robards, he's a cocksucker, remember?"

"Bollocks," Ron said, stopping short on the pavement. "I forgot, I've got to go talk to George."

"See you at home, then?" Harry called over his shoulder, barely slowing down.

"See you," Ron shouted, then turned and headed for the Leaky Cauldron.





Ron knocked on the door to George and Lee's flat, but then tried the doorknob before waiting for a response. He found it unlocked and let himself in. Lee and Angelina were at the kitchen table playing a Muggle card game and listening to music on the wireless.

"Where's George?" Ron asked, not bothering to say hello.

"Hiding in his room," Lee said dully. "As per usual."

Ron nodded and headed for George's room, which he entered without knocking.

"You're going to listen to what I have say whether you like it or not," he said once the door was closed securely behind him. George didn't move from where he was lying on the bed, flipping through a Muggle comic book. "If you're in love with Lee, you need to tell him. You can't just wait around for him to make the first move. He's not going to do it. Not because he's straight, but because you've not given him a reason to do it."

George opened his mouth to speak, but Ron shot him a deadly look. "And, you need to stop pretending you're so bloody straight! If you're gay, just fucking admit it. What am I supposed to think if you spent all that effort trying to make me come out, telling me it was normal and how much happier I'd be if I wasn't keeping it a secret, and then having my back when Mum went ballistic – what am I supposed to think of all that if you can't even admit it yourself? Was all that just bullshit to make me feel better about myself? Or are you really that much of a hypocrite?"

George looked up at Ron for a long moment, then casually turned his attention back to his comic. "Get out."

"Gladly," Ron said, leaving the room with a dramatic flair he usually saved only for annoying George, and slamming the door behind him.

He waved goodbye to Lee and Angelina, ignoring the inquiring looks they were giving him, and headed straight for his and Harry's flat, hoping he could persuade Harry to cook him a decent dinner. When he arrived home, however, Harry was nowhere to be found.

Ron flopped down on the sofa and considered his options. He knew there wasn't much food in their flat; he desperately needed to go shopping but was far too lazy to actually do it, especially when he could just go out for dinner instead. He ran a tired hand from his face down to his thighs, pressing his palm hard against his cock and trying to count the days since he'd (probably) had sex with Robert.

Ron got up from the sofa with a grunt and went into his room to change clothes. He was going to treat himself to dinner, then find a sexy bloke to bring home and shag.





"So," Harry said as he Ron sat in a small cafe the next afternoon, "did you enjoy yourself last night?"

Ron tore his gaze from the suspect they were tracking and turned to Harry. "What?"

"Last night," Harry repeated. "Did you enjoy yourself? Because it sounded like you did."

Ron rolled his eyes and looked back toward their suspect. "Is there a reason you're trying to bring up my sex life? We're supposed to be working."

"Come off it. You know just as well as I do that man's not a dark wizard."

"Then why are we here?" Ron asked, exasperated. He was incredibly bored of sitting in this cafe with nothing more to do than avoid discussing the hot sex he'd had the previous night.

"Because I don't fancy going back to the Ministry empty-handed just yet," Harry answered. "And because you still haven't answered my question."

"Yes, I enjoyed myself," Ron said flatly. "Satisfied?"

Harry shrugged. "Not really. I was hoping for more details, but I suppose that'll have to do."

Ron sighed and traced the rim of his teacup with a fingertip. "How much more time until our meeting with Kingsley?"

Harry checked his watch. "Another hour."

"Oh, good." Ron watched as their suspect got up and left the cafe. "Should we follow him?"

"No point, is there?" Harry asked as he leaned back in his chair. "He's as innocent as Neville."

Ron snorted and drank the rest of his room temperature tea. "I'm bored, Harry."

"I can see that."

Ron propped his elbow on the table and rested his forehead in the palm of his hand, deciding to take a nap until it was time to meet with Kingsley.





"How much do you already know?" Kingsley asked as Harry and Ron settled themselves into chairs in his office.

"The bare minimum," Harry said. "Though, it wasn't my case."

"I can't say I know that much either," Ron added.

Kingsley nodded and tapped the desk with his fingers for a few moments. "Well, it seems Davies and Griffiths, the two Welsh wizards, were trying to teach the giants magic."

Ron's mouth dropped open. "What?"

Kingsley nodded gravely. "Yes. Magic. They were even trying to fashion some wands for the giants. Thank Merlin they never succeeded. Can you imagine? Anyway, Aurors Kelley and Edwards found the giants and the Welshmen about a week before you got that last update from them, Ron. They spent that week trying to wipe the giants' memories of all the dark magic they'd been trying to learn."

"Can you wipe a giant's memory?" Harry asked, sounding awestruck.

"Not very easily," Kingsley admitted. "It took a lot out of them, but they finally managed it. Unfortunately, Davies and Griffiths caught them at it. They were forced to send that update back to you, and then they were tied to some chairs and left to die, basically."

"Left to die?" Ron asked, his insides squirming. "But they were inside the tent! Davies and Griffiths were right there! They weren't just going to watch them die, were they?"

Kingsley cleared his throat. "You two got my note about the court date?"

"When is it, exactly?" Harry asked.

"Next Monday, actually. Ron, you should spend tomorrow and Friday compiling all the evidence against them, all right? They're still being held here, but hopefully they'll be off to Azkaban next week. We've plenty to accuse them of, and there's no excuse for anything they've done."

Ron nodded, glad to finally have something useful to do. "Yes, sir."

"Oh, also, Robards is on suspension as of today. I'm having some personnel start an investigation of his work and all his records. Don't spread any rumours about it, though. We don't want there to be any more attention drawn to him, or to you two, than strictly necessary. If anyone asks, you don't know why he's been put on suspension, all right? John Dawlish is taking over the department until the investigation is over. I trust you two won't give him any trouble."

Harry grinned. "Brilliant! Will he take over permanently if Robards get sacked?"

Kingsley cleared his throat again. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now, I'm afraid I don't have much longer. I've a meeting in five minutes. Do you have any questions about the case?"

"I do," Ron said quickly. "Is anyone else going to go out and make sure the giants aren't doing anything... you know, Dark or magical? I know you said their memories were wiped, but Davies and Griffiths probably had time to re-teach them a few things after that, didn't they?"

Kingsley gave Ron a small smile. "Very good, Weasley. We are going to look into doing that. In fact, you should talk to Dawlish about it. He'll be the one organizing the mission. You two would be perfect for it, seeing as you already know where the giants are."

"Thank you, sir," Ron said appreciatively. It wasn't very often he felt valued at work.

Kingsley checked his watch. "Anything else?"

"No," Harry said, standing up. "Thanks for the update, Kingsley. We'll see you in court on Monday?"

"Of course." Kingsley stood to shake their hands. "I'll see you then."





Can I come over? – Ron

Of course. – Dean






Ron rang the doorbell to Dean's flat and waited impatiently, his face stinging from the cold. He wasn't entirely sure what had made him owl Dean to begin with; all he knew was that he was in a terrible mood thanks to his annoying flatmate. Harry had spent the rest of the afternoon pestering him about the sex he'd had the night before, and it had taken all of Ron's self-control not to strangle Harry for it. He didn't like discussing his sex life with Harry to begin with, but now that Harry knew how Ron still felt, it made him even more uncomfortable; he didn't understand why Harry couldn't take the hint and drop it for good.

Dean opened the door and gave Ron a dopey sort of grin. "Halloo."

Ron quickly burned the image of Dean smiling into his brain. He had somehow forgotten what Dean's smile had looked like in the five years that had passed since they'd last seen each other, so he was surprised to see Dean's dimples and perfectly white teeth. Most of all, Ron was surprised to see how much more evident Dean's cheekbones were when he was smiling; they were already unusually high and prominent, but when he smiled, they were even more striking.

Not wanting to stare, Ron tore his eyes away from Dean's cheeks and looked up at Dean's heavy-lidded, bloodshot eyes.

"Hello," he said awkwardly, completely taken aback by Dean's appearance and attitude. Ron saw now that Dean was wearing nothing but loose cotton pants with a drawstring waist and a thin white tee-shirt. He also looked as though he hadn't shaved since Ron last saw him.

"Come in," Dean said, stepping back so Ron could get past him. He closed the door and led Ron through to the living room. "How are you?"

"Good," Ron said distractedly, his bad mood suddenly forgotten as he saw the progress Dean had made on the painting of the naked man. The packed boxes had been filled into the background and partially colored in, and the man himself had much more realistic shading and muscle definition. The look on the man's face was breathtakingly sad, and Ron was struck with a deep sense of loss and regret. "Wow," he muttered. "That's... coming along nicely," he finished lamely, feeling Dean's eyes on him.

"I was working on it earlier," Dean explained, walking around Ron and moving toward the dining room and kitchen. "Do you want some tea?"

"Sure," Ron said, following him. Something was off with the way Dean was acting, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. "How's your day been?"

"Really good," Dean said, shooting Ron another smile over his shoulder as he filled a kettle with water. "I've been getting a lot of good work done this week. How's Harry?"

"Oh, he's good." Ron said, suddenly remembering his bad mood. "I've spent a bit too much time with him today, though."

"What?" Dean turned around and gave Ron an unfocused look. "Sorry, I'm a bit stoned. I made brownies earlier. They've got weed in them."

Ron grinned. "That would explain it."

"Is it really obvious?" Dean asked, crinkling his nose.

"Just a bit," Ron teased. "This is the first time I've seen you smile since you moved back."

"It's hard not to," Dean said, smiling yet again. "I'm just feeling very happy. I've been watching one of my favorite films on my computer."

"Oh yeah?" Ron glanced out at the computer in the dining room. "What's it like, having a computer?" he asked curiously.

Dean snorted with laughter. "What a weird question."

"Hey, I'm a wizard," Ron defended himself, going out to sit in front of the computer. "Wizards don't generally own computers. How do I use this thing?"

Dean came into the dining room, grabbed Ron's hand, and put it on the mouse. "You use this to click on things," he explained, keeping his hand on Ron's and guiding the cursor around the screen. He leaned down and put his chin on Ron's shoulder as he opened up an internet browser and clicked on a few links to demonstrate.

Ron stared ahead at the computer, not really taking in what Dean was trying to show him, as he was too distracted by Dean's warm hand on his and Dean's face so close to his. He could smell the chocolate on Dean's breath and all he wanted to do was turn and give Dean a kiss.

The kettle started whistling and Dean stood up again. "Just type something in there," he said, pointing to the address bar at the top of the browser. "Anything, really, and it'll search for websites about it."

Ron tried to think of something he needed or wanted to search for as Dean went into the kitchen to make their tea. He ran his fingers over the keyboard and searched for letters, trying to figure out the pattern of the layout. When he finally found all the keys, he started typing.

"G... a... y..." Ron looked up from the keyboard to make sure the letters were being typed into the address bar. They were, and a menu had dropped down below them, offering not only search suggestions, but some of Dean's saved websites as well.

"Oh, God, don't click on those," Dean said as he set down two steaming mugs on the computer desk.

Ron smirked and clicked on the first website listed in the menu. When it finished loading a few seconds later, Ron found himself staring at picture after picture of ridiculously buff naked Muggle men touching their cocks, balls, and arses in a wide array of lewd positions.

"I told you not to click on it," Dean mumbled, sounding both amused and embarrassed.

"This is brilliant," Ron said, clicking on a picture of a particularly gorgeous blond bloke. He grinned when the website reloaded to show him a larger version of the photo. "Is there a lot of Muggle porn on the internet?"

"That's all there is on the internet," Dean said. "That's all the internet's for, really. Just porn... lots and lots of porn."

"Brilliant," Ron said again. "Too bad the pictures don't move, though."

"That's what the videos are for."

"Videos?" Ron asked, his eyes wide. "Shit. How come no one ever told me about this?"

Dean chuckled. "Are you lacking porn in your life?"

"No," Ron said firmly. "Though wizarding porn is quite different... it's all magazines and stuff. But the pictures move and sometimes you can even tell the blokes what to do, if they feel like listening."

"I might have to get my hands on some of that," Dean said. "Oh, do you want a brownie with that?" he asked as Ron reached for a mug.

Ron considered the offer, wondering if it was smart to get high on a weeknight. It'd been years since he'd done any drugs, and he didn't trust his body not to overreact in the morning. "I'd better not," he said apologetically. "I've got work tomorrow."

"Fair enough." Dean pulled a chair away from the dining room table and sat himself next to Ron. "I can save some for the weekend if you're interested."

"That'd be brilliant," Ron said, grinning. "If you don't mind."

"Not at all." Dean reached for the computer mouse and closed out of the porn website. "Anything else you want to look up?" he asked teasingly.

"Not really. Do you want to finish watching your film?"

"Sure," Dean agreed. Ron watched as he moved the cursor around and clicked the mouse a few times until the entire screen was filled with a shot from the movie. "Do you want me to explain the plot?"

"Nah, don't bother. I'm sure I'll figure it out." He pulled out his wand and used it to turn out the lights as Dean started playing the movie.





By Friday afternoon, Ron was very much looking forward to spending that night getting stoned with Dean. He'd spent the past two days working his way through the large stack of papers he and Harry had nicked from the Welsh wizards. The papers included step-by-step plans for how the Welshmen were going to train the giants, as well as more detailed reports about the case written by Kelley and Edwards. Ron had spent endless hours in his cubicle sorting the evidence and trying to decide which papers would be most advantageous in an attempt to put Davies and Griffiths into Azkaban; he was pretty sure he was killing more brain cells by staring at endless rolls of parchment about giants than he would by eating a weed brownie.

When Dean let him into the basement flat that evening, he was slightly disappointed to find that a sober Dean was still an unsmiling one. However, he did enjoy seeing that the stubble on Dean's cheeks from two days ago had grown out even further, the promise of an attractive beard not far behind.

"How've you been since Wednesday?" Dean asked, taking a seat on the living room sofa and indicating that Ron should do the same.

"Bored as hell," Ron answered, plopping down next to Dean. "Only good thing that's happened is I might get to go back to Switzerland next week or the week after, but only if my boss gets sacked and the temp they've got in now stays on for the job."

"What's in Switzerland?"

"Giants," Ron said, not at all wanting to discuss the case he had been buried in for the last thirty hours. "There were some Welsh idiots trying to teach them magic... someone's got to go make sure their memories are wiped. The temp wants me to go, but my actual boss hates me, so... we'll see how it goes, I guess."

"Wow," Dean said slowly. "I do not miss that sort of drama."

Ron laughed. "Yeah, I suppose painting naked blokes is a lot less stressful."

"Truer words you've never said." Dean suddenly reached his arms above his head to stretch, moaning appreciatively. "Do you want to do anything else before we eat the brownies? Or do you just want to dive right in?"

"Let's dive right in," Ron said decisively. "Though, I will have some tea, if you don't mind."

"Excellent." Dean stood and headed for the kitchen with Ron trailing behind him.

"I haven't done this in years," Ron warned, eying the plate of brownies on Dean's counter.

"Don't worry, they're pretty mild," Dean assured him, setting a kettle on the stove. "It'll be about an hour after you eat them before anything happens, anyway. We could watch another movie if you like, or put on music or something."

"A movie would be good," Ron said distractedly as Dean bit into a brownie. Dean handed him one and he took it, sniffed it, and then nibbled off a piece. "It tastes like chocolate," he said stupidly.

"It wouldn't be very good if it tasted like weed," Dean reasoned.

"That's very true," Ron said before taking a larger bite. He saw that Dean had put his brownie down on a napkin to finish later, and Ron did the same, wondering what would happen if he ate the whole thing right then.





Less than two hours later, Dean was turning off the movie before it was finished. He was having trouble concentrating on it, and Ron was having trouble doing anything other than giggling madly at everything the characters did.

"Are you always like this when you're high?" Dean asked, standing to switch on the light.

"I don't even remember," Ron admitted as he got to his feet. He stretched and then laughed at how good stretching felt. "I feel ridiculous."

"As you should," Dean teased, smiling coyly. "Do you want anything to eat?"

"Everything," Ron said quickly. "Do you have a chess set?"

"To eat?" Dean asked, looking confused.

Ron laughed loudly. "To play! I'd be so damn good at chess right now."

Dean snorted and went into the kitchen to find food. "I don't have a chess set," he said when he came back out a minute later, holding a large bag. "But I do have crisps."

"Glorious." Ron followed Dean into the living room and sat next to him on the sofa, waiting impatiently for him to rip open the bag.

"Oh, my God," Dean moaned, tossing his head back and slumping against the cushions.

"What?" Ron asked, reaching for the bag and opening it himself. He reached in for some crisps and shoved them into his mouth, relishing in the salt.

"I just had the best idea for a painting," Dean said, staring up at the ceiling.

"What's that?" Ron asked through a mouthful of crisps.

"You, naked, eating crisps."

Ron coughed as he tried to swallow. "What?" he choked out.

"You, naked, eating crisps!" Dean repeated.

Ron gave Dean an incredulous look, then broke into a fit of laughter. "You're insane," he gasped.

"Am not," Dean said vaguely. "It'd be a fabulous painting. You're just jealous you didn't think of it first."

"You're right," Ron said, handing off the bag to Dean. "I'd love to paint myself naked and eating crisps."

Dean giggled and grabbed one crisp out the bag. He popped it into his mouth and smiled at the satisfying crunch it made as he bit into it.

"Would you let me?" he asked a moment later.

"Hm?"

"Would you let me paint you naked sometime?"

Ron laughed again as he considered the idea. "What, seriously?"

"Yeah." Dean suddenly ran his hands from his knees, up his thighs, over his crotch, and onto his stomach. Ron watched the trail of his hands, mesmerized.

"Um."

"Please?"

"That's not weird?" Ron asked, unsure what else to say. The idea of Dean painting him naked was intriguing, though mostly because it involved nudity. Even in his altered state, Ron could tell that such an event could cause problems. For example, if he got naked and let Dean stare at him for hours on end, chances are he would get aroused. He liked it when blokes admired his body; the only thing he liked more was admiring their bodies.

"It's not weird," Dean confirmed. "I've painted tons of my friends nude before. Here, let me show you."

Ron watched as Dean got up and opened the door to the front hall. Directly across the small foyer was another door Ron had assumed led to a coat closet. Dean opened it now and Ron saw that it, in fact, led to a sizable storage space. Canvases of all sizes were stacked against the walls and Dean ruffled through them carelessly. He grabbed a few of the larger ones and brought them out to show Ron.

"This was my best mate in New York, Matthew," he said, propping one canvas up on the coffee table so Ron could see it. "I painted him at least half a dozen times."

Ron leaned forward slightly to look at the painting better. Matthew was sitting at a table and eating a slice of pizza, but Dean had painted the scene from a low angle so that the view could see Matthew's cock, nestled gently between his legs underneath the table.

"Oh," Ron said when he realized Dean was waiting for a response. "Um. I like it."

"See, it's not weird," Dean said again, propping another canvas up in front of the first one.

This one depicted a naked man standing at a kitchen sink and washing the dishes. Ron was immediately impressed, and a little turned on, by the detail Dean had given the man's back and arse muscles. He was clearly a very fit bloke, and Ron wished to see the front side of him as well.

"I don't look nearly that good with my clothes off," Ron said modestly.

"I'm sure that's not true," Dean said quietly. Ron looked up and saw that Dean was staring wistfully down at his own painting.

"Who's that, then?" Ron prompted. "Another friend?"

"Ex-boyfriend," Dean said without taking his eyes off the canvas. "Allen."

"He's gorgeous," Ron said, still watching Dean's face. "Did you ever paint his front?"

"Um..." Dean glanced at the paintings still in his other hand. "No. Anyway, you get the idea." He picked up the canvases from the table and put them, along with the ones he hadn't shown Ron, back into the storage room. When he came back out, he had what Ron thought was a rather fake smile on his face. "So, will you let me?"

"Let you do what?" Ron asked as Dean sat back down next to him.

"Paint you starkers. Will you let me?"

"Oh. Yeah. Sure." Ron smiled weakly, hoping the weed would make Dean forget that he'd agreed to it.





Ron woke up the next morning with a terrible taste in his mouth and a terrible pain in his neck. He shifted uncomfortably and grunted in annoyance when he couldn't find a better position to lie in. Heaving a great sigh, Ron opened his eyes and sat up.

He blinked and looked around, confused that he didn't immediately recognize where he was.

"Morning."

Ron glanced around to see Dean leaning against the doorway to the dining room.

"Morning," he croaked, frowning slightly as memories from the night before came back to him. "Um..."

"I'm making tea if you want," Dean offered. "And I can try to scrounge up some breakfast."

Ron nodded vaguely and stood up to stretch, trying to wake himself up. His head felt extremely groggy and he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't still a bit stoned. When he finally made his way into the kitchen, Dean was standing in front of the fridge with the door open, frowning.

"I don't have much," he said, looking up as Ron came into the room. "I could try to make omelettes, though I should warn you that last time I tried, I failed miserably."

"How do you fail at making on omelette?" Ron asked.

"It completely fell apart," Dean explained. "It was sort of like scrambled eggs, but... more burnt than usual."

Ron chuckled and crouched down to inspect the contents of Dean's fridge. "Well, I could make omelettes," he offered, seeing that Dean not only had plenty of eggs and cheese, but a crisper drawer completely stocked with vegetables. "I don't mean to brag, but I'm a pretty good omelette chef." He pulled out the carton of eggs and stood up again.

"What's an omelette chef?"

"It means I'm excellent at making omelettes and complete crap at making anything else," Ron explained, smiling. "Chop some vegetables and I'll teach you."

Dean began unloading his crisper drawer as Ron found a cutting board and some suitable knives.

"Sorry about the sofa," Dean said as he placed red and green peppers on the cutting board. "I know it's not the most comfortable."

"It's no problem," Ron said, running the peppers under some tap water. "Thanks for letting me stay the night. I was in no shape to go home."

"I noticed," Dean said, his tone amused. Ron looked out of the corner of his eye to see if Dean was smiling, but was disappointed yet again.

They chopped peppers, onions, tomatoes, and spinach before Ron declared the mix good enough to be an omelette filling. He whisked some eggs together and set about making the omelettes as Dean started putting slices of bread in his toaster.

"This is the fanciest breakfast I've ever had in this flat," Dean said appreciatively as Ron slid an omelette out of the frying pan and onto a plate. "Usually, I just go for cereal. Maybe oatmeal if I'm feeling especially hungry."

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," Ron said as he poured more eggs into the pan for a second omelette. "I eat omelettes every chance I get."

"It's good protein," Dean said, watching over Ron's shoulder.

Ron shrugged and dumped the chopped vegetables into the pan. "It's delicious, is what it is."

He finished up the omelette, slid it onto a plate, and went to sit at the dining room table, where Dean had placed mugs of tea, glasses of orange juice, and a stack of buttered toast.

"Fit for a king," Ron said, raising his glass in Dean's direction before sipping it.

"You are a king, are you not?" Dean teased, cutting off a piece of his omelette with his fork. He ate the bite and hummed in appreciation. "This is delicious. Thank you."

"It's no problem," Ron said, grinning as Dean enjoyed his food. "I could make an omelette in my sleep."

Dean's mobile phone rang from the bedroom and he frowned mopily. "That'll be my sister," he said, getting up from the table.

Ron began eating a slice of toast as Dean went to his room to retrieve his phone.

"Hello?" he answered, sounding bored. "I'm doing all right, how're you? ... Yeah, I figured. ... No, no, it's fine, it's fine. ... Yeah, as long as you don't mind I've got a friend over. ... Ron, from Hogwarts. ... No. I mean, yeah, he was here, but he slept on the couch. ... Shut up. ... Yeah, that's fine. I'll see you then. ... All right, good bye."

Dean reemerged from his room and sat moodily in his chair.

"Was it your sister?" Ron prompted.

"Yeah, she's dropping the kids off in half an hour," Dean said, cutting off a few more pieces of his omelette. "Emergency babysitting, you know."

Ron nodded and finished off his toast. "You sound thrilled."

"I was looking forward to relaxing," Dean explained. "Not that I haven't been relaxing... last night was relaxing... I just don't have the energy to deal with them just now."

"I could stay if you like," Ron offered, hoping it wasn't inappropriate. "I like kids. I could help."

"You can stay as long as you like. I've already told her you're here, so it doesn't matter to me. Don't stay out of obligation, but if you really want to do it..."

"I want to," Ron said firmly. "It's no trouble. I've done plenty of babysitting for my own nieces."

"How many have you got?"

Ron paused to count in his head. "Three at the moment, two more on the way."

"Whose are they?" Dean asked. "Not Ginny or George's, I take it?"

"No, not either of theirs, thank Merlin. Bill's got two kids and Percy's got one. Both their wives are pregnant again, though."

"Do you think either of them will have as many kids as your mum did?"

Ron snorted. "I should hope not. I could never remember that many names."

Dean rolled his eyes and went back to eating his omelette. Ron ate in silence for a few minutes, then decided to bring up something he'd been thinking about before Dean's sister's kids arrived.

"So, do you only smile when you're stoned?"

Dean swallowed a large chunk of omelette and wiped his mouth with his hand. "Um."

"I ask because that's the only time I've seen you do it. You don't smile when you're sober, you don't smile when you're drunk–"

"You've never seen me drunk," Dean corrected.

Ron raised an eyebrow. "Oh... well, do you smile when you're drunk?"

Dean shrugged. "I don't know, probably. I just... you know, I smile a lot when I'm not in a normal state. I get sort of goofy and... sometimes smiling happens."

"And you never do it when you're sober?"

Dean shrugged again. "This is a weird conversation. I smile when I'm sober, I just haven't done it in front of you, yet. It's not that I'm a sad person or anything, it just takes a bit to really make me smile. I'm sure it'll happen someday."

"I look forward to it," Ron said, winking.

Dean finished off his omelette and then went to tidy up the flat and put away his unfinished paintings while Ron kept eating.

"Do your sister's kids know you're gay?" Ron asked when he finally got up from the table to help Dean do the dishes.

"Sort of," Dean explained, turning on the hot water in the sink and pouring dish soap on a sponge. "She's explained it a few times, but I'm not really sure they understand. I don't think they'd care if they did understand, but I think they're too young to know it's... you know, not the usual way."

"And do they... know you can do magic?"

"Ah, no." Dean scrubbed the frying pan thoughtfully. "We're not really sure how to tell them that one... it's a bit more out of the ordinary."

Ron laughed and grabbed the plates Dean had finished washing to dry them off. "That's one way to put it."

"So, yeah, you can be as camp as you want, but no magic allowed."

"I think I can handle that."

Ron dried off the rest of the dishes as Dean went to change into clean clothes. He looked down at himself and his wrinkled outfit, thinking it was stupid of him to have slept that way.

Loud, insistent knocking broke the silence and Ron looked up in time to see Dean running full speed to the front door. He dried his hands and timidly made his way through the living room and toward the tiny entrance hall.

Kendra looked remarkably like Dean, considering they had different fathers. She had the same high cheekbones, though her face was a bit rounder, so they weren't nearly as pronounced. They also had the same narrow nose and, Ron realized as he watched her hug her brother, the same wide smile.

"This is Ron," Dean said once his sister had let go of him. "Ron, this is my sister, Kendra, and her kids. There's... where's Danny?"

"Hiding behind me," Kendra explained, shaking Ron's hand. "He's shy," she whispered.

Ron grinned and peered over Kendra's shoulder to see a small, very dark-skinned boy with his arms wrapped around one of his mother's legs.

"I'm Charlotte!"

Ron looked around to see that Dean's niece had already gone into the flat and was standing behind him.

"I'm Ron," he said, holding out his hand for her to shake. "Very nice to meet you."

She curtsied clumsily. "Are you Uncle Dean's new boyfriend?"

Ron tried not to laugh. "I'm afraid not," he said, glancing at Dean, who was avoiding Kendra's inquisitive gaze. "We're just friends."

"That's too bad," the young girl said innocently. "You're cute!"

This time, Ron did laugh.

"All right, that's enough," Dean said, reaching around Kendra and forcing Danny to let go of her. "Let her go, Danny, she'll be back in a few hours."

Danny looked nervously up at Ron and Ron smiled warmly down at him.

"You'll behave, Lottie?" Kendra asked, giving her daughter a stern look.

"I'll try," Lottie said mischievously.

Kendra rolled her eyes and turned back to Dean. "Thanks so much for doing this."

"It's no problem," Dean insisted, pushing her out the door. "See you later."

"Nice meeting you, Ron," Kendra called just before Dean shut the door in her face.

"Do you want to see a magic trick?" Lottie asked excitedly.

Ron chuckled and let her guide him over to the couch, where he sat down. "I'd love to see a magic trick," he said, his eyes not on her, but on Dean, who had just picked up Danny and was whispering soothingly into the distraught boy's ear.

"Give me a penny," Lottie demanded.

Ron frowned slightly and turned his attention back to her. "Well, what if I don't have a penny?"

"Then I can't show you my magic trick!" Lottie crossed her arms and pouted dramatically.

"I've got pennies," Dean said, putting Danny back on the floor. "I'll be right back," he said to his nephew before walking away.

Danny put his hands in his pockets as Ron got up and went over to him.

"I'm Ron," he said, kneeling down to Danny's level. "I'm your uncle's friend. And you're Danny, right?"

Danny nodded but didn't say anything.

"Do you want to come watch your sister do a magic trick me with?"

Danny pursed his lips, clearly considering Ron's offer with all the effort he could muster. Finally, he nodded his head solemnly. Ron held out his hand, which Danny took, stood back up, and walked over to the couch, Danny trailing behind him. When he had sat back down, Ron reached out, grabbed Danny under the arms, and picked the boy up. He set Danny on his lap and was pleasantly surprised when Danny scooted farther back on his legs in order to lean into Ron's torso.

Dean returned from his room and gave Ron an appraising look when he saw where Danny was sitting. He handed Lottie the coin and then took a seat next on the sofa next to Ron.

"Are you good with Ron or do you want to sit with me?"

Danny shook his head, his eyes focused intently on his older sister. Dean winked at Ron and then turned to focus on Lottie as well.

"I'm making the penny disappear by rubbing it on my elbow, okay?" She held up the penny with her right hand, stuck it on her left elbow, and rubbed vigorously. "It's not working!" she announced, dropping the penny on the coffee table and giving her uncle a fake frown. "This isn't a very good coin. I guess I can try it on my other elbow." She picked the penny back up with her right hand, transferred it to her left hand, and then stuck her left hand on her right elbow. She rubbed her elbow a few times, then pulled her hand away to show that it was empty. "Ta-da!"

Ron, Dean, and Danny all clapped enthusiastically.

"That's amazing," Dean said, pretending to be awestruck. "How did you do it?"

Lottie opened her right hand to reveal the penny. "Magic!"

Ron laughed heartily, Danny bouncing slightly in his lap as his body shook. "Brilliant!" he assured her when she gave him a threatening look. "You really had me going."

Lottie beamed proudly and handed Dean back his penny.





Ron and Dean had fed the kids both lunch and dinner by the time Kendra came back. They had played computer games, card games, board games, and make believe games. They had suffered through several more of Lottie's magic tricks, none of which were as convincing or funny as her first. They had teased and tickled Danny so hard that he almost wet himself.

"Oh, my God," Kendra slumped down onto Dean's couch after he let her in. "That was the longest day I've ever worked."

"Let me get you some tea," Dean offered.

Kendra watch him leave for the kitchen, then turned to Ron, who was sitting on the floor with Danny, trying to help him untie his shoelaces.

"You're still here," she said, sounding surprised.

Ron smiled sheepishly. "Yeah... I've had fun, though."

"Are you going to be here every time Uncle Dean babysits us?" Lottie asked, throwing herself on Ron's back and wrapping her arms around his neck.

"I don't know," Ron said, reaching up to loosen her grip on his throat. "Probably not, but maybe sometimes, yeah."

"What happened to Danny's shoelaces?"

Ron raised his eyebrows and pulled out of Lottie's grip so he could turn around to glare at her. "You tied them together!" he exclaimed, holding up the giant knot she had made. "Or do you not remember?"

Lottie shrugged innocently, so Ron reached out a hand to threaten to tickle her. She shrieked and jumped away, letting him get back to untying her knot. Danny climbed into Ron's lap and placed his warm hands on Ron's knees, watching the knot grow slowly smaller.

"Did you apologise?" Kendra asked Lottie.

"Apologise for what?"

"Apologise for doing that knot and then making Ron undo that knot for you."

"Sorry, Ron," Lottie said in a quiet, sing-song way.

"You should be," Ron said, feigning sternness.

"Here you are," Dean announced, returning from the kitchen with a mug of hot tea. He handed it to his sister and sat down next to her on the sofa. "Did you eat dinner?"

"Yeah, I ate," Kendra said quietly. "Look at Danny."

Ron kept his eyes fixed on the knot, pretending he couldn't overhear Dean and Kendra's whispered conversation.

"I know," Dean said. "It's a miracle. I've never seen him take to anyone so quickly."

"He must be good with children," Kendra reasoned.

"He's got nieces and nephews of his own," Dean explained. "I guess he's just used to it."

"It's lovely to watch."

"Oh, shut up."

"What? He's gorgeous, Dean. You can't tell me you haven't thought about it."

"Shut up," Dean hissed insistently.

Kendra sniggered and started sipping her tea just as Ron finally managed to untangle the last few knots.

"Done!" he announced, placing the shoes on the floor and admiring his work. "Let's get them on your feet, now, shall we?"

Danny nodded, so Ron set about slipping the shoes onto Danny's tiny feet and then tying them up again. Once his shoes were secure, Danny pushed himself out of Ron's lap and ran over to the sofa to finally greet his mother.

Ron remained on the floor as Kendra drank her tea and questioned her children about what they had done that day. He watched as Lottie told her excitedly about the games she had played and the food she had eaten, Danny occasionally offering a quiet, yet excited, "yeah, yeah" to back up her story.

Eventually, when her mug was empty and Danny was half-asleep on the floor, Kendra stood and worked quickly to get herself and Lottie ready to leave.

"Thanks again for taking them at such short notice," she said as she pushed her children toward the door. "I really appreciate it."

"It's no problem, really," Dean said. "You know I'm willing any time."

Ron got tiredly to his feet and followed Dean and his family to the door to say goodbye.

"And thank you, Ron," Kendra said, shaking Ron's hand enthusiastically. "It was wonderful of you to stay and help. I'll see you around, sometime?"

"Yeah, definitely." Ron grinned as Danny hugged his legs in farewell. He patted Danny's head gently, then waved as Danny, Lottie, and Kendra went outside and started up the steps to the street.

"Goodnight!" Dean called up to them before closing the door. He paused for a moment, apparently contemplating the doorknob, then turned to face Ron. "You're fucking brilliant with Danny."

Ron tried to shrug off the compliment. "It's pretty easy... he's a cute kid."

"No, you don't understand. He's horrified of strangers. Kendra can't even hire a proper babysitter because it upsets him too much to be looked after by anyone other than me."

Ron's eyes widened slightly. "Oh, I... that sounds a bit extreme for a four-year-old."

Dean shrugged one shoulder and led Ron back through to the living room. "It probably has a lot to do with his dad, but... it's not worth talking about now. It was just surprising to see him warm up to you so fast. You must send out trustworthy vibes or something."

Ron smirked. "Yeah, that's me. Mr. Wholesome and Trustworthy."

"Thrustworthy, maybe."

Ron raised his eyebrows, momentarily speechless. Dean cleared his throat and turned away, his cheeks distinctly pink underneath their dark tone.

"I don't know where that came from," he admitted, sounding surprised at himself.

"Well, I certainly don't know where it came from," Ron teased.

"Let's pretend it didn't happen."

Ron smirked again, but nodded his agreement. "So... should I head off, then? Let you get some rest after a long day?"

Dean's lips twisted with indecision. "I was thinking about getting a drink, actually. After I take a shower, I mean... maybe shave..."

"Don't shave," Ron said firmly. "Don't even think about it."

Dean blushed again. "What, you like the half-arsed beard?"

"I do," Ron said, feeling his own face heating up quickly. "Anyway, I'd love a drink. And a shower, actually. Do you want to meet up in, say... an hour?"

"Sounds perfect. Same bar I saw you at that one time?"

Ron laughed and grabbed his coat from the back of a dining room chair. "Yeah, that place. I'll see you in an hour, then?"

"An hour," Dean confirmed, following Ron to the door. "And thanks again for staying and helping with Lottie and Danny... you really didn't have to do that."

"I wanted to," Ron insisted. "I enjoyed myself, I promise. I'm not just saying that. I'll see you in a bit." He shook Dean's hand and let himself out into the cold November night.





"Oh, shite," Ron mumbled, reaching up to scratch his head and effectively blocking his face from view of the bar door.

Dean turned around stupidly and Ron frowned, missing the warmth and pressure Dean's arm had made against his own. "What?"

"It's fucking Saturday. Don't look, don't look!"

Dean turned back to Ron, his eyebrows raised. "What's wrong with Saturday?"

"Robert," Ron grumbled. "He just walked in with the rest."

Dean turned around again and found himself face-to-face with William. "Oh."

"Hello, again," William said, grinning.

"Hello," Dean said, reaching out to shake William's hand.

Ron cleared his throat awkwardly as he turned around. "Hey, friends."

Sean laughed and stepped around William to speak with Ron. Robert hovered behind him, staring intently at Ron.

"You weren't here last week," Sean pointed out. "We missed you."

"Yeah, I was away on business," Ron explained. "Sort of a last-minute trip."

"I see." Sean leaned closer to Ron under pretense of inspecting the label on his beer. "Tread lightly. Robert's inches from slicing your head off."

Ron gulped as Sean backed away and went to find a table with his sister. Ron glanced over at Dean, whose personal space was still being invaded by an insistent William. After watching for a few seconds, he forced himself to make eye contact with Robert.

"Hey," he offered.

Robert's eyes narrowed. "Can I have a word?"

"Um."

"I'll be quick."

"All right, then," Ron found himself saying. He downed the rest of his beer, slipped on his coat, and followed Robert outside. He glanced over his shoulder as they reached the door to give Dean a pleading look, but saw that Dean and William had joined Sean and Mary at a table.

"Come on, then," Robert said, holding the door for Ron.

Ron left the gay bar and stood awkwardly by one of the windows, waiting for Robert to say whatever it was he had to say.

"What do you want from me?"

Ron blinked drunkenly at the other man. "What?"

"What do you want from me?" Robert repeated. "I'm sick of playing this stupid game with you and I want you to tell me what you want from me."

Ron sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes. "I don't... I don't want anything from you," he said, trying not to sound as mean as he felt.

A strained silence fell between them. When Robert finally spoke, his voice was loud and harsh against Ron's cold ears.

"Just sex, then?" he asked bitterly.

"I – I guess. Not even that, really. Look, what happened the other week... it was probably a mistake. I was drunk. I was dead fucking drunk, I don't even remember... it doesn't matter. I'm sorry. I apologize. I'm sorry if I've hurt you, I'm sorry if I've been leading you on, but I'm just not... I'm not interested... in that... with you."

Robert laughed, a sharp and angry bark. "That's abundantly clear. We had sex and you disappeared for two weeks. Two weeks, Ron. You've got no mobile, I don't know your email, I don't even know if you have an email, and I didn't want to show up at your flat and scare Harry... I've got no way of getting in contact with you! You're just this fucking enigma who shows up whenever he feels like and fucks whomever he pleases and damns the consequences. It's not fair, Ron. I've done everything but shout the words and you're still completely oblivious as to how I feel about you."

Ron lowered his gaze to the pavement, unable to stand the pathetically heartbroken look on Robert's face.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, feeling worse than he had in a long time. "I know I've made all the wrong decisions when it comes to us, and I know this doesn't mean anything, but I really didn't want to hurt you. I just... you know full-well how stupid I can be when it comes to romance. That's why I never have relationships."

"You could try," Robert suggested, his voice slightly hopeful.

Ron shifted uncomfortably. Until recently, he had had no desire to be in any sort of relationship with anyone. Now, suddenly, he found himself secretly pining for Dean even though Dean also claimed to not be interested in relationships. And here was Robert, practically begging for Ron to consider him, and all Ron could think about was getting back inside to Dean.

"Listen, Robert–"

Robert pushed Ron up against the window with a hard kiss, his hands desperately gripping the back of Ron's head.

Ron pushed Robert away as best he could. "Robert, please–"

Robert stepped back and pushed Ron again, this time out of anger. "It's him, isn't it?"

"What's who?" Ron asked, wincing at the pain in his back from where the windowsill had hit his shoulder blades.

"You're friend, Dean," Robert hissed, practically spitting. "You're fucking him, aren't you?"

"No," Ron said quickly. "I'm not. I'm not fucking anyone, Robert. I'm just not interested. You're... look, you're gorgeous and loads of fun to be around, and I know I should be interested, and maybe... maybe some days I have been interested, but I'm just... you deserve someone who cares instead of someone who's just an arse."

Robert shook his head, his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed mutinously. He opened his mouth to speak, but then shoved Ron back into the windowsill again instead.

"Robert, come on," Ron shouted after him as he stormed off down the pavement. "Robert!"

Ron watched as Robert slowly disappeared into the night, wondering if he had lost a friend forever, and not at all wanting to know how William or Sean would take the news of their fight. He glanced around at the other pedestrians on the pavement, all of whom quickly looked away and pretended they hadn't been watching the scene. Rolling his eyes, Ron went back inside.

He found Dean and the others at their table and put his hands on the back of one of the two empty chairs they had left for him and Robert.

"He's not coming back," Ron said awkwardly when they all stared expectantly up at him.

Sean sighed. "I hope you at least let him down easy."

"I tried," Ron muttered, taking off his coat again and hanging it off the back of the chair. "I'm getting a drink, I'll be right back."

He went to the bar and ordered two glasses of the strongest beer they had. When he sat back at the table, he slid one across to Dean, who was looking distinctly frazzled and uncomfortable sitting between William and Sean.

"Cheers," Dean said gratefully, moving the beer closer and leaning down to sip at the nearly overflowing head.

"What happened?" William prompted. "Ow!"

Sean rolled his eyes. "Is this really an appropriate time to ask that?" Evidently, Sean had stepped on William's foot under the table.

"Of course not, but when would be an appropriate time?"

"How about never?"

Ron glanced across the table at Dean, who was biting his lower lip. It looked as though he were attempting to hold back a smile. Ron took a large drink of beer and silently willed Dean to do the same; he wanted to see Dean drunk.

"Honestly, though," William continued, ignoring the look Sean was giving him. "What happened?"

Ron shrugged, not especially keen to talk about it. "He..." Ron trailed off and Mary smiled sympathetically at him. He cleared his throat and tried again. "He said he'd done everything but shout the words at me, and said I was still oblivious as to how he felt about me. I mean... it's sort of a fair point. I wasn't that oblivious to it, I did – I do know how he feels, but..."

"But you chose to ignore it," Sean offered. Ron was grateful for his non-judgmental tone.

"But I chose to ignore it," Ron confirmed, nodding. "Because I'm really that much of a bastard, apparently."

"We've known that for years, mate," William teased.

Ron sighed and smiled weakly at Mary when she patted him gently on the arm.

"Try not to worry about it," William said, uncharacteristically serious. "He'll forgive you eventually."

"He's got no reason to," Ron muttered before taking another drink. He glanced across the table again and Dean gave him a small, sad sort of smile.





"Holy. Shit." Dean stumbled into his flat after wrestling with the lock. "What the fuck kind of beer was that?"

"I don't remember," Ron said, only just remembering to close the door behind him as he pushed his way past Dean and into the living room. "You should know, you had at least three!"

"Oh, God, was it that many?" Dean struggled to get off his coat. "Why didn't you stop me?"

"I wanted to see you drunk," Ron said as though this should have been obvious.

"I'm going to make tea," Dean decided, walking quickly into the kitchen.

Ron went through Dean's room to find the loo, suddenly painfully aware of his full bladder. He had had another glass of the strong beer as well as another bottle of the first beer he had been drinking before he and Dean decided it was time for them to leave the gay bar. William was having trouble keeping his hands to himself and Ron was seriously considering the idea of snogging Sean before Dean announced that he wanted to go home.

When Ron came back into the dining room, Dean was sitting at the table with two mugs of tea. Ron sat next to him and grabbed the second mug.

"Your friends are ridiculous," Dean commented, staring at the label on the end of his tea bag.

"My friends are fucking cocksuckers," Ron corrected.

"Well... obviously."

Ron frowned for a second, unsure where the obviousness of his statement was. He broke into laughter as it slowly dawned on him. Dean followed suit, and soon they were drunkenly guffawing, Ron slapping his thighs and Dean rocking back and forth, dangerously close to slipping off his chair.

"You're going to fall," Ron gasped, clutching his aching stomach as he continued to laugh.

Dean slid off his chair on purpose, landing on the floor with a thud and laughing even harder as he sat under the table.

Ron crawled after him. "You're on the floor," he pointed out.

Dean snorted with giggles and leaned forward to run his hand through Ron's hair. Ron's eyes widened.

"You really like my beard?" Dean asked after hiccoughing.

Ron swallowed heavily, trying to figure out where this was going. Dean's fingers were rubbing his scalp gently, though, and it felt good enough to prevent him from being able to think about much of anything.

"Yeah, it's – it's sexy."

"Touch it," Dean whispered, moving even closer to Ron.

Ron bit back a whimper and reached out to touch Dean's cheek. He watched dazedly as his pale fingers ran over the short, black hairs along Dean's jaw. He slid his hand down Dean's neck and rested it on Dean's shoulder.

He swallowed again, trying to wrap his intoxicated mind around the thick tension between them. Dean was breathing heavily, his fingers still laced in Ron's hair, and his eyes were dark and heavy-lidded as he stared at Ron.

Ron became overwhelmed with a need to say something of importance, something to explain how he felt about Dean. "I don't like the way Sean looks at you."

Dean's fingers loosened their grip slightly and Ron panicked, thinking his chance was over. He leaned forward and kissed Dean full on the lips, his hands moving to cup Dean's cheeks. Dean hummed appreciatively against Ron's lips, his hand grabbing Ron's hair with a renewed passion.

"That was a pleasant surprise," Dean said when Ron finally let him pull away.

Ron flushed. "Was it okay?" he asked, his fingers brushing against Dean's beard again.

"Yeah."

"Okay," Ron whispered, moving in for another kiss.

They moved slowly, drunkenly, sleepily together; Ron clutched tightly to Dean, relishing the long-awaited moment, and Dean lowered Ron to the floor and moved on top of him. Ron moaned as Dean's lips moved to his neck. He closed his eyes and clutched Dean's shirt, trying not to pass out as his blood started rushing to his cock.

"Ron," Dean said sharply. "Ron."

Ron opened his eyes. "Hm?"

"Wake up."

Ron propped himself up on his elbows and looked over at where Dean was sitting next to him, still under the dining room table. "What?"

"You fell asleep," Dean said quietly, looking embarrassed. "Come on, you can spend the night here."

Ron crawled out from under the table and followed Dean to his room.

"You don't want me to sleep on the sofa?" Ron asked as Dean pulled back the sheets.

Dean shook his head and started undressing. Ron did the same and got into the bed wearing his boxers and tee-shirt. He lay there and watched Dean getting ready, trying to figure out if he had really fallen asleep while they were kissing, and why Dean was suddenly acting strange and distant.

"Goodnight," Dean said shortly, getting into his bed, pulling up the sheets, and rolling onto his side. He faced away from Ron, turned off the light, and settled into silence.





Ron woke up the next morning with a stabbing headache. He moaned pathetically and pressed his face into the warm pillow, wanting nothing more than to die.

When it became clear that his stomach was not going to allow him to get away with that, he forced himself to open his eyes and sit up.

"...the fuck?" he grumbled, not immediately recognizing his surroundings.

He rubbed his eyes and looked around, slowly realizing that he was not only in Dean's flat, but in Dean's bed as well. His stomach lurched in warning as a sinking feeling came over him that had nothing to do with his nausea.

Groaning weakly, Ron pushed himself out of bed and headed for the toilet.

When he emerged a few minutes later, he found Dean sitting on the edge of the bed with a glass of water. Dean offered the glass to Ron, who took it gratefully and sat down next to him.

"Sorry," Ron croaked.

"It's no problem," Dean said quietly. "I wasn't exactly feeling my best when I woke up, either."

Ron nodded and sipped at the water. "Did, um... did we..."

"No," Dean said quickly. "No, you just – we just went to sleep."

Ron nodded again, feeling exceptionally embarrassed. "I should really stop drinking so much."

Dean shrugged. "It was fun, though, right? I had a good night, anyway..."

"It was fun," Ron agreed. "At least, I think it was."

"You don't remember?" Dean asked cautiously.

Ron closed his eyes and tried to run through the events of the previous night. "I remember what happened with Robert, and... and I remember coming back here and drinking tea. I sort of feel like I may have been underneath the dining room table at one point, but I can't imagine what I was doing under there."

"Just laughing," Dean said quickly. "We were pretty drunk."

Ron snorted in agreement. "If... if I did anything stupid last night..."

"You didn't," Dean said quietly. "Mostly we just laughed and went to bed."

Ron drank the rest of his water, hoping with everything he had that Dean wasn't lying to him. "I guess I should go," he said awkwardly. "Harry probably thinks I'm dead by now."

"You didn't see him last night?" Dean asked as Ron stood up to get dressed. "When you went home to shower?"

"No, he was probably off with Ginny," Ron explained as he pulled on his jeans. "They can't get enough of each other."

Dean stood and hovered uncertainly in the doorway between his bedroom and the dining room. "If you want to stay," he began softly, "we could try to make breakfast again. Maybe... maybe I could paint some..."

"You don't still want to paint me starkers and eating crisps, do you?" Ron asked, managing a smile.

"No, I – I had a different idea. You can say no, though. I'm sure you're sick of me by now."

"Sick of you?" Ron asked incredulously. "Aren't you the one who should be sick of me?"

"I'm not sick of you," Dean said, not entirely meeting Ron's gaze. "You can stay as long as you like."

Ron considered this as he put on his shirt. He really didn't want to go back to his flat; it was boring there and Harry would surely spend the day pestering him about his friendship with Dean. The thought of spending yet another day with Dean was tempting; even though he fancied Dean a lot, he never felt the need to be fake or impressive around Dean. He liked feeling comfortable and able to be himself around Dean. It was a nice change from the few Muggles he had ever been interested in.

"I suppose I could stay for some tea," Ron said, trying to sound casual. "I'm not sure if my stomach's up for an actual breakfast."

"I'll go make some, then," Dean said, disappearing quickly.

Ron stared after him, trying to figure out what felt different about today. Dean was acting odd, as though they had slept together, but Ron didn't think Dean would be the sort to lie about something like that. Maybe he just felt awkward that Ron had slept in his bed.





"I got an owl from Seamus the other day," Dean said quietly as he set up a fresh canvas in his living room.

Ron shifted slightly on the stool he was sitting on. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Ron watched as Dean spent an unnecessarily long time centering the canvas on his easel.

"Well... what did he say?"

"Said he wanted to get lunch some time," Dean explained, stepping back to examine the easel. "Try and work things out."

"Well, that's good." When Dean said nothing, Ron asked, "Isn't it?"

Dean shrugged and finally looked over at him. "Is it?"

"Isn't he your best mate?"

"He used to be," Dean said sadly. "I sort of fucked that up, though."

"What–" Ron cut himself off, not wanting to ask yet again what had happened between Dean and Seamus.

"Can I take some pictures?" Dean asked suddenly, picking up one of the cameras he had set out on the coffee table.

"Oh, um, all right." Ron bit his lower lip and watched as Dean played around with the camera for a few seconds before raising it to his eyes.

"Think about Robert." Ron rolled his eyes and Dean snapped a photo. "Just kidding."

"Ha, ha," Ron said flatly. Dean took another picture. "Am I supposed to be doing something?"

"No, just keep talking to me," Dean said, stepping closer, keeping the camera in front of his face. "What did you do at work last week?"

"Well, I – do you want me to look into the camera?"

"Yes. Keep talking." Dean pressed down on the trigger again.

"This makes me uncomfortable," he admitted.

"Just go with it," Dean prompted. "You don't have to pretend to feel anything other than what you do feel. If you feel uncomfortable, show me."

Ron cleared his throat as Dean took yet another photo.

"What did you do at work last week?" Dean asked again.

"Um. I... compiled some case reports against the Welsh wizards who were trying to teach magic to the giants."

"Mhm," Dean said absently, taking one last photo and then going back to the coffee table to get a different camera.

"So, you're painting my face?" Ron asked as Dean moved even closer to him to take another picture. "Instead of my naked arse?"

"Yeah, that'd be why your clothes are still on," Dean said, reaching around the front of the camera to twist the lens. "Tell me about Harry."

Ron paused and Dean snapped a photo. "What do you mean?"

"Tell me about Harry," Dean prompted again. He reached out to fix Ron's fringe, then pulled his hand away and took a few more pictures of Ron's frozen expression.

"Harry's my flatmate," Ron said, trying to think straight as Dean touched his hair again. "And my best mate. And..."

"And he's dating your sister," Dean said, stepping back slightly to take another photo.

"He's dating my sister," Ron confirmed. He didn't want to talk about Harry. Dean took a few pictures in rapid succession, then set his camera down.

"All right, hang on a second." He took his cameras into the dining room and sat down at his computer. Ron followed and watched as Dean plugged the cameras into the computer. The pictures Dean had just taken opened on the screen and Ron was surprised to see that they were mainly of his eyes.

"Where'd you get the idea for this painting?" Ron asked as Dean browsed through the photos, tracing the outline of Ron's eyes with his fingers and smudging the computer screen.

"Last night," Dean said. He reached under the computer desk, hit a button on a machine, and then sat back in his chair, apparently waiting for something.

"Did you spend a particularly long time looking into my eyes last night?" Ron asked, staring under the desk and watching as copies of the photos started coming out of the machine.

Dean said nothing in response. He simply waited for his photos to finish printing, then grabbed the stack of papers and returned to the living room. Ron followed and sat down next to him on the couch, watching as Dean spread the photos out on the coffee table. He looked over the pictures, unable to see much difference between most of them. His eyes looked tired and surprisingly old in most of them.

"Didn't get you smiling," Dean muttered, picking up one photo and examining it closer.

"Were you trying to?"

"No."

"Oh." Ron sat in silence and watched as Dean pored painstakingly over the pictures. It was mesmerizing to see Dean so involved in his work; his concentration was evident on his face, and he kept absentmindedly licking his lips.

"Okay," Dean finally said, grabbing a few of the photos he had printed out. He taped them to the sides of the large canvas he had set up, then stepped back to evaluate.

"Do you need me here if you're just painting from a picture?" Ron asked curiously.

"Yes. Get back on your stool."

Ron smiled and sat on the stool again, brushing the hair out of his eyes and watching as Dean drew a grid over the canvas with pencil. Dean then drew similar grids on all the photos taped onto the canvas.






"Are you going to paint me any time soon?" Ron asked teasingly.

Dean looked up from what he was doing. "Sorry. I... get a bit lost sometimes."

Ron raised his eyebrows, unsure what that actually meant. Dean dropped to his knees by the coffee table and dug around on the bottom shelf until he found a much smaller canvas.

"Okay, so, sit up straight," he instructed as he stood and disappeared into the storage room. He came out a few seconds later with another stool, which he set directly in front of Ron. He dragged the side table with his paints on it over next to the stool, then sat on it. "Ready?"

"Um," Ron said, confused. "I don't know. What are you doing?"

"Smaller practice run," Dean explained, sketching a grid onto the canvas he had propped up on his left arm. "You should start talking again."

"I don't have anything to talk about," Ron said stupidly as Dean gave him a long, hard stare. "Can't you talk?"

"I can try," Dean said quietly, glancing down at his canvas. He grabbed a small paintbrush, dipped it into a paint daub on his palette, and then began sketching the outline of Ron's eyes and eyebrows. "Eyes up here," he said when he looked back up and found Ron watching his hands.

Ron lifted his gaze to Dean's face. "Sorry."

"What would you like me to talk about?"

"Anything," Ron whispered, trying not to watch as Dean began sketching again. He had never seen anyone paint before and found it fascinating, even the way Dean was holding the paintbrush.

"I could tell you about Seamus," Dean offered, looking up at Ron again. "You have to promise to tell me one of your secrets, though."

"Deal," Ron said without thinking, excited to finally hear the truth.

"Okay." Dean put more paint on the brush. "So, the last time he came to visit me, it was... let's see, just after I'd graduated. So, last summer. Well, no, two summers ago. The summer before last."

"Right."

"And I'd just moved to New York," Dean continued, studying Ron's face. "My flat wasn't very big and I didn't have a sofa. I barely had a bed, it was just a mattress, really. And, um..." he trailed off, concentrating on getting the bags under Ron's eyes just right.

"Is it distracting to talk?" Ron asked.

"No," Dean said quickly, looking back up to compare his sketch with Ron's face. "I told you, I just get lost sometimes. Where was I?"

"You didn't have a sofa."

"Right. I didn't have a sofa. So, Seamus came to visit for a week and we slept on my mattress. It wasn't the world's smallest mattress, so it wasn't too bad. Better than sleeping on the floor, at any rate." He wiped his brush in a different color and started making some of his lines darker. "I was sort of heartbroken at the time. Allen had just told me he'd started dating someone else, and I hadn't managed to have any sort of even vaguely successful romance my senior year. Seamus had come to sort of comfort me, but..."

Ron blinked as Dean reached up to brush the hair out of his eyes. "Thanks." Dean gave a small, closed-mouth smile before returning his gaze to the canvas. Ron gulped and tried to ignore the hair that was standing up on the back of his neck, both from Dean's touch on his forehead and from the first sober smile Dean had allowed him to see.

"One night," Dean continued, hunching slightly to look more closely at his canvas as he painted, "we got really drunk. I mean, that's basically what we did every night, but on this particular night, I had a bunch of tequila and... well, tequila makes me go a bit crazy, sometimes." He glanced back at Ron, his paintbrush still. "So, I was drunk and he was – well, he was drunk, but not nearly as drunk as me. This incident almost put me off drinking for life." He turned back to his painting. "To make a long story short, I kissed him."

Ron's eyes widened and Dean looked up at him again. "You can't change your expression like that," he said, pouting slightly.

Ron cleared his throat and tried to control his face. "Sorry. I was just surprised."

"Yeah. Well... he was, too. That's probably obvious." Dean picked up a different paintbrush, dipped it in some very pale paint, and started to fill in Ron's skin color. "Nothing really happened. He went along with it for a bit, then got all upset and ended up sleeping in the bath. He was furious the next morning."

"Why?"

"I don't know," Dean mumbled. "He kept saying he felt betrayed. Like I had... purposely set out to ruin our friendship. He said he didn't trust me anymore, said he couldn't believe I would risk so many years of friendship for a kiss when I knew he was straight. He was overreacting quite a bit, but he's always been slightly homophobic." Dean added some pink to his paintbrush. "Personally, I think he probably is attracted to blokes, at least a little, but doesn't want to admit it, or doesn't know how to. I really don't even care because I'm not interested in him in the slightest. I've never wanted to shag him. I was just drunk... and upset and probably confused." He sighed and looked back up at Ron's eyes. "Anyway, he cut the trip short and left early because he couldn't stand to be around me anymore."

"I'm sorry," Ron said quietly, trying not to change his expression. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

Dean shrugged and continued painting. Ron chanced a glance down to see that Dean was working on shading his skin properly.

"Well, that's the story. I haven't heard much from him since, so... I'm not really sure what to expect from this lunch he wants to set up."

"You should go for it," Ron said encouragingly. "It's worth a shot, at least. You two were so close for so long."

Dean nodded, but said nothing as he concentrated on the canvas.

"Do you want to hear my secret?" Ron asked, suddenly wanting to tell Dean how he had had a somewhat similar experience with Harry.

"Later," Dean whispered, squinting at his work.

Ron nodded and continued to sit in silence for what seemed like well over an hour as Dean put more and more details into the painting.

"Mmmmm," Dean groaned, sounding frustrated as he went over one of Ron's eyebrows one last time. "All right, I'm done," he said, handing the canvas carelessly to Ron. "I'm sick of staring at it."

"You're sick of staring at my face?" Ron asked, looking at the painting and frowning at the odd feeling he had of looking into a mirror. Dean's details were amazing; the lines around his eyes, the placement of his freckles, the precise color of his irises – it was all perfect.

"No, I'm sick of staring at that shoddy painting of your face." Dean stood and stretched dramatically, flinging his arms out in all directions and arching his back. "Do you want lunch?"

"It's not shoddy," Ron insisted, setting the canvas down gently on Dean's stool and following him into the kitchen. "It's bloody good."

"Thanks," Dean muttered, opening his fridge. "I really need to go shopping."

"We could go out for lunch," Ron suggested. "My treat."

"All right," Dean agreed quickly, closing the fridge. "It's not your treat, though. We're splitting the bill this time, remember?"

"Yes," Ron said, smiling. "That sounds fair."





"I could just move in here and sleep on your couch forever," Ron teased as he and Dean entered the basement flat again after their lunch.

"That probably wouldn't be the worst thing that's ever happened."

Ron grinned, then startled when a loud bang came from Dean's room. Dean shot Ron a confused look, then went to investigate, Ron right behind him. The source of the noise was obvious when they came into Dean's room; Harry's owl was beating its wings insistently on the panes of the small window above the bed. Dean had to stand on the bed and stretch to get the window open, as it was almost at the ceiling.

The owl flew straight at Ron and began beating him round the head with its wings, clearly angry at being left outside for so long.

Dean scrambled down from the bed and snatched the owl out of the air, holding it still so Ron could pull the scroll off its foot.

"Bloody menace," Ron mumbled, watching as the owl flew back out of the flat as soon as Dean released it.

"What's it say?" Dean asked, nodding at the note.

Ron unrolled it and read through it quickly.

Ron,
Where the hell are you? Are you dead somewhere? Or are you shacking up with Dean?
Harry
P.S. Tell him how you feel.


Ron could feel himself going red. He tried to roll the note back up, but Dean snatched it out of his hands before he had the chance. Ron watched helplessly as Dean read over Harry's note, damning Harry for writing such a postscript on something that Dean could have read so easily.

"You should write back," Dean said, handing Ron the note and not quite making eye contact. "Tell him you're not dead."

"The owl left," Ron said stupidly, crumpling up the note and shoving it in his pocket. "Wait, how did you send me an owl that time I was in Switzerland?"

"Diagon Alley," Dean explained quietly.

"Oh, right."

"Well... if you can't send an owl, do you want to go home, then?"

Ron shrugged awkwardly. "He knows I'm not actually dead."

"Do you... want to keep painting?"

"Sure," Ron said, relieved there was something to do, but not entirely grateful it involved Dean staring into his eyes for hours on end.

"You can make yourself comfortable," Dean said, gesturing back toward the living room. "I'm going to the loo."

Ron went back to the living room and sat on his stool. He drummed his fingers nervously on his knees, not sure if he should bring up Harry's note or not. He thought it was probably pretty obvious what he felt toward Dean, but he couldn't read how Dean felt about him. Dean hadn't seemed upset by Harry's postscript, but he also hadn't asked about it. Maybe he's shy, Ron rationalized. Or maybe he's not interested. He knew there would be no point in bringing it up if Dean was just going to reject him. Though, he supposed it might be nice to have a bit of closure.

When Dean came out from the loo, he immediately began setting up his side table of paint, ignoring Ron. Dean started sketching on the large canvas without telling Ron, and Ron watched, not caring if his head was tilted the wrong way or if he had the wrong expression on his face. He couldn't decipher Dean's mood at all, but before long, he stopped caring. Dean was beautiful when he was working; his eyes were intense and focused, his long, thin fingers were poised perfectly around the tiny pencil he was using, and his mouth was hanging open slightly, his tongue darting out occasionally to moisten his lips.

Ron wasn't sure how much time had passed before Dean finally stepped away from the canvas to examine his sketch.

"I need to look at your eyes," Dean finally said, sounding guilty.

"All right..."

Dean sighed and sat on the second stool that was still in front of Ron. He leaned forward slightly and stared directly into Ron's eyes, his own expression completely blank.

Ron gulped and tried not to blink. He wished Dean would give him some sort of sign.

"I need you to talk," Dean said suddenly, startling Ron out of his thoughts. "Tell me your secret from earlier."

"Oh, that..." Ron sighed and licked his lips, wanting to look away from Dean's intense stare but knowing he couldn't. "It, um... I used to have a – a thing for Harry. I was... pretty much head over heels madly in love with him."

Dean snatched one of the pictures he had taped to the canvas, turned it over in his lap, and began sketching wildly as Ron talked.

"I wasn't ever going to tell him," Ron continued, trying to remember a time he had ever felt less self-conscious. "But one night it sort of... came out. How I felt about him, I mean. And he – I thought he would be angry, but instead, he... he kissed me."

One of Dean's eyebrows arched and Ron looked down to see what he was working on. There were at least six separate drawings of his eyes on the sheet of paper, each one only slightly different from the last.

"What happened?" Dean prompted, looking up and seeing that Ron was staring down at his sketches. "Eyes up here."

"Right." Ron looked up again and forced himself to make eye contact with Dean. "So, he kissed me and... and said all this stuff about how he wanted me and wanted us to be together. He and Ginny were broken up at the time, so I thought... I don't know what I thought, actually. I thought it was stupid and I thought it would never work out and I thought it would just be a huge mistake. But, I went along with it anyway, and ended up... ended up giving him a blowjob."

Dean set the sketches aside and turned his gaze back on Ron, who blushed.

"You gave Harry a blowjob," Dean said blankly, as if the words had only just hit him.

Ron nodded. "And he gave me a handjob. It was... it was probably the worst mistake I've ever made."

"How's that?" Dean asked, leaning forward again to get a better look at Ron's eyes. Ron fought to stop himself from kissing Dean.

"It was instantly clear we shouldn't have done it," he explained quietly. "It took us a long time to recover from it. Friendship-wise, I mean. We would have stupid fights and we didn't trust each other and we couldn't tell each other anything. It was awful. We were both to blame, but... I kept thinking that if I hadn't fancied him so much, I would have been able to stop it from happening."

"But you're flatmates, now."

"We are, yes. We did get over it, eventually. Sort of. Well... he got over it. I've... spent a long time trying to ignore my feelings for him. That's the other reason it was a mistake. I feel like it would have been a lot easier to get over him if we'd never done anything. Instead, I – I had this idea in my head, this very concrete idea, of what it would be like to be with him. It's been... very difficult to put that behind me and try to find someone else. It's one of the reasons I never date. Partially because I'm still slightly hung up on Harry and partially because I'm terrified to put myself out there again and... partially because I'm totally incapable of acting like a normal human being in front of anyone besides Harry or George... or you, but you're new, so I'm... not quite used to it yet."

Dean looked away, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, and got off the stool.

"Are you ready?" he asked, picking up his palette and a paintbrush.

Ron nodded. "If you're ready."

"I'm ready," Dean said, dabbing his brush in paint and making the first mark on the canvas. "It's wonderful that you're still able to be friends with him," he said quietly.

"Yeah," Ron agreed. "I couldn't ever live without Harry, even if he's only my best friend for the rest of my life. He's too important to me. That's why I think you should make a go of it with Seamus. It's at least worth trying, you know? Worst case scenario, you guys stay the way you are now and know you did your best to fix things. Best case scenario, you get your best mate back."

"You're right," Dean said quietly.

Ron nodded again and sat in silence for a few minutes, letting Dean concentrate on his painting.

"Do you want to tell me about Allen, while we're spilling all our secrets?" Ron asked when Dean took a break to step back and look and what he'd done so far.

"Maybe," Dean said, scratching his nose and smearing paint on his cheek. "Tell me about your history with Robert first."

Ron rolled his eyes. "It's a short, uncomplicated history. We fuck a couple times a year and both pretend it never happeneds. He harbours a secret love for me and I ignore the shit out of him. He finally confronts me about it and I confirm his worst nightmares, telling him I'm not interested and that, yes, I have knowingly been a complete bastard to him for years."

"Hm." Dean stepped back to the canvas and began painting again. "Why?"

Ron sighed, trying to keep his frustration under control so it wouldn't show on his face. "Because I'm an idiot, I guess. The whole thing with Harry really... I have no idea how to interact with blokes in a normal way."

"I think you're underestimating yourself, mate."

"It's probable. Anyway, your turn."

"My turn," Dean agreed, bringing his face closer to the canvas as he painted the shadows under Ron's eyes. "Allen was my boyfriend for two years, my sophomore and junior years. He... well he was just completely perfect in every way, or so I was convinced at the time. I'm still partial to the idea, but... yeah. I couldn't get enough of him. I was a fucking mess on the inside because of my mum and all, and he was the first person I ever really talked about it with. He was also the only person in America I ever told about, you know, magic and whatnot. I shared my entire soul with him, but he was a year older than me, so he graduated at the end of my junior year and went back home to California, which is all the way on the other side of the States from Pennsylvania."

"Did you break up?" Ron asked quietly, taken aback by the raw emotion in Dean's voice.

Dean nodded. "Yeah. I already knew by then I wouldn't be living in the States permanently. And he knew he wanted to live in San Francisco, so... he left and I stayed and finished school. I was fucking miserable, but I didn't really have any choice. He was... he was my best friend and my lover and all I ever cared about in that country. I wanted to just... leave, but I knew I couldn't waste my education like that, so I stayed. I stayed and became a vegetarian because he'd been one and I missed him. I started smoking because I was so stressed out all the time without him around to talk with. I... it was bad, I was completely addicted to him."

"Maybe he was good for you though," Ron suggested. "If he got you to talk about your mum and everything."

Dean nodded and studied one of the quick sketches he had made while Ron had talked about Harry. "He was very good for me. I was basically a shell of a human until we started dating. I was pretty dramatic at times, but... I don't know. I loved him."

"He sounds lovely."

Dean put the sketches down and looked over at Ron. "I don't have any more secrets."

Ron opened his mouth to say, "me neither," but found himself saying something else instead.

"I do."

Dean raised his eyebrows. "You do?"

Ron nodded, feeling totally out of control of his actions. He didn't know why he was doing this. This is not the time, he tried to tell himself.

"Something you want to share?" Dean asked, confused when Ron didn't offer up the secret right away.

"It's nothing," Ron said quickly before anything else popped out of his mouth. "It's not a secret, it's just..."

"Just...?"

"Just, um..." Ron trailed off stupidly and blushed, feeling ridiculous. Why couldn't he ever keep his stupid mouth shut?

"Oh," Dean said slowly, sounding as if he was suddenly realizing something. "Does this... this non-secret... is it something to do with Harry's note?"

"Um," Ron said nervously, trying to read Dean's cautious expression.

"I have a secret, too, then," Dean said suddenly, sitting himself back down on the stool across from Ron and looking determined. "I lied about last night."

Ron blinked. "What?"

"Last night... when I said nothing happened between us."

Ron's eyes widened. "We didn't sleep together," he pleaded.

"No, we – we didn't sleep together. But we kissed... under the table."

Ron sagged on the stool, both relieved and embarrassed. "Oh."

"It was good," Dean assured him gently. "I – I quite liked it, but you... fell asleep."

"Oh, Godric," Ron muttered, covering his face with his hands as the missing memories suddenly fell into place. Hazy images of his hand on Dean's beard flooded his mind and he could feel himself blushing even harder. "I'm so sorry."

"Why are you sorry?" Dean asked harshly, pulling Ron's hands away from his face. "I'm trying to tell you it's okay. I – I feel the same as you do, I think... maybe..." He trailed off uncertainly, giving Ron a pleading sort of look.

"Maybe?" Ron squeaked, not sure how he was supposed to be consoled by that.

"Well, I thought I did," Dean explained, his grip on Ron's wrists tightening slightly. "Now, I'm not... I can't tell how you feel. This isn't the reaction I was expecting."

Ron pulled his hands out of Dean's grasp and sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm – this isn't – I'm not good with this sort of thing. I fancy you like hell, but I've never actually dated a bloke before and you've already said you're not interested in dating right now, so–"

Dean cut him off with a kiss. Ron froze, too startled to react.

"Shut up," Dean whispered against his lips. "I want you. I thought you were the one against dating."

"Usually I am," Ron said quietly, nervously moving his hands to Dean's shoulders. Dean grabbed Ron's waist, then got off his stool and closed the small space separating them. He stood between Ron's thighs and leaned down for another kiss.

Ron looped his arms around Dean's middle, holding the other man closer to him. Dean's lips were hot and wet and perfect against his own, and one of Dean's hands moved to his hair, tipping his head back.

"This is how I got the idea for the painting," Dean whispered, pulling away. Ron slipped his hands into the back pockets of Dean's jeans and squeezed Dean's perfectly round arse. "Last night," Dean continued, smiling broadly. "Under the table, when you were stroking my beard."

Ron nuzzled Dean's beard with his own clean-shaven cheeks, his cock jerking at the delicious feeling of course hair against his smooth skin.

"Am I finally good enough for your sober smiles?" he asked.

Dean snorted and pulled Ron up off the stool. "You've always been good enough. It just took me a while to warm up to the idea."

"I'm glad you did," Ron said, moving in for another kiss. "You're gorgeous when you smile."

Dean pressed his lips to Ron's cheek and sighed. "So... you're not against dating?"

"No, as long as you realize I'll probably be pants at it. You're not against dating?"

"No," Dean echoed, "as long as you're willing to take it slow."

"Slow how?" Ron asked, renewing his grip on Dean's bottom. "Emotionally or physically?"

"Both," Dean whispered, pressing his hands to Ron's chest. "If that's..."

"That's fine," Ron reassured him. "Probably for the best."

They stood there, holding each other close and pressing their noses together, for as long as they dared.

"This is a weirdly sappy moment," Dean finally said, moving his hands around to the small of Ron's back. "We went from sexy snogging to this and now I don't know where else we should be going."

"We could go back to painting," Ron suggested, pulling his hands out of Dean's pockets.

"I'm sick of painting," Dean said. "I'd rather go back to sexy snogging."

"That works, too," Ron said, laughing.

Dean grinned and grabbed the back of Ron's head, pulling him in for a rough kiss.





Ron returned home that evening with a raging erection he'd had a hard time concealing on the Underground. He desperately wanted to lock himself in his room and spend the night wanking, but Harry caught him before he'd even gotten his coat off.

"Hello, lover boy," Harry said, emerging from his own room to greet his flatmate.

Ron rolled his eyes and tossed his coat onto Harry's head.

"That's no way to treat a long lost friend!"

"I don't even know what you're talking about," Ron said, trying to sound innocent. "Can I get by, please? I need sleep before the trial."

"No, I want details," Harry said, blocking Ron's path. "You've got a hard-on and I want to know why."

Ron gaped at his friend. "That might be the creepiest thing you've ever said."

Harry laughed. "Might be. Come on, Ron. You've been out of the flat for two days! Something worth talking about must have happened."

Ron sighed and glared at Harry. "I had a chat with Robert," he said flatly. "He might never speak to me again, but there's zero chance of us ever sleeping together from now on, so that should please you."

Harry frowned. "That is not even what I was talking about, and you know it. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you sorted things out with Robert, but you know damn well I was asking about Dean."

"Dean might be my boyfriend," Ron said casually, wanting to get it over with quickly. "Or he might become my boyfriend. I'm not really sure. We didn't discuss details."

Harry beamed like a schoolgirl. "Too busy shagging?"

Ron rolled his eyes again. "Would I have a hard-on if I'd shagged him?"

"Good point. Too busy snogging?"

Ron winked and stepped around Harry. "Am I free to leave?"

"Yeah," Harry said, chuckling. "Go and get some 'sleep' before the trial."

Ron made a rude hand gesture at Harry before going into his room. He locked the door by hand and by magic, wanting to make absolutely sure Harry couldn't burst in and interrupt him.

Once he was satisfied with his security measures, Ron wasted no time in undressing and sprawling out on his bed. He grabbed his needy cock and stroked it firmly, remembering how Dean's own erection had felt against his thigh as they'd kissed on Dean's sofa earlier that evening. He recalled Dean's hands wandering under his shirt and up his chest, and Dean's long, rough fingers brushing against his nipples. He imagined what it would have been like if he'd gotten Dean naked and been able to explore that body as much as he wanted to; Dean's arse was plump yet firm, his arms strong and muscular, his abs hard and defined, his cock, as far as Ron had been able to tell, deliciously long and thick. He thought about Dean's beautifully pouty lips, how wet and plump they were against his own, and how they would feel elsewhere on his body.

It didn't take very long before Ron was coming all over his flushed and heaving chest.





"What do you say to celebratory drinks?" Ron asked as he and Harry left the Ministry the next evening. "We've had a lot of excellent news today."

"Can I meet you somewhere?" Harry asked, checking his watch. "I promised I'd tell Ginny how the trial went."

"She can come, too," Ron suggested. "I'll invite Dean as well. "We can go where ever it is you go with Neville and Seamus all the time."

Harry gave Ron hasty directions, then went off toward Ginny's flat. Ron went back to their own and scribbled a quick note to Dean.

Dean,
We won the trial and my boss got sacked. Harry and I are getting celebratory drinks with Ginny in an hour. You're invited. Meet me at the Leaky in 45 minutes and we can walk to the pub together.
Ron


Once he had sent Pig out with the note, Ron took a shower, then dressed in Muggle clothes and headed out to meet Dean even though Pig hadn't yet come back.

"Hello," Ron said, smiling warmly when he approached the Leaky and saw Dean loitering just outside the door.

Dean gave a quick, lopsided smile. "Hello."

Ron held back from giving Dean a hello kiss, not sure how Dean felt about public displays of affection. He nodded in the direction of the pub and started to lead the way.

"How was your day, then?" he prompted when several minutes of silence passed.

"Unproductive," Dean said sadly. "I tried to finish that one painting with all the boxes, but... it wasn't working out. Then, I tried to do some graphic design stuff for my actual job, but I was just... really uninspired. So, I went grocery shopping instead."

"Well, that's somewhat productive. You did need more food."

"This is true," Dean conceded. "I take it your day went a lot better?"

"It was wonderful," Ron said, grinning. "The trial was a cinch. We got the Aurors from the case to testify, Harry and I testified... the case was perfect. Those idiots are in Azkaban, now, anyway, so I'm happy."

"Congratulations."

Ron winked. "Here we are," he said, opening the door to the pub and letting Dean inside. "They're over there."

He led Dean over to the table where Harry and Ginny were already sitting with four bottles of beer.

"Welcome," Harry said, reaching out to shake Dean's hand as he and Ron sat down. "Good to see you, again."

"Thanks," Dean said, reaching for the drink closest to him. "Hey, Gin."

Ginny beamed across the table. "Hey. Welcome back. I'm so glad you're here."

Dean smiled nervously and Ron took a sip of his beer to hide his own grin.

"Harry was just telling me Robards got sacked," Ginny explained. "You must be chuffed."

"You've no idea," Ron said. "Dawlish is a fucking genius compared to that old idiot."

Harry and Ron spent the next hour thoroughly bashing Robards as they drank more and more beer.

"Long story short," Ron concluded, finally sensing Dean and Ginny's weariness of the topic, "Robards is a cocksucker we'll never have to deal with again."

"Cheers," Harry said, finishing off another beer. He suddenly looked sharply at Ginny, whose hand, Ron now noticed, was beneath the table. "You want to go?" he asked, laughing.

Ginny raised her eyebrows and Harry squirmed dramatically, squeaking.

"We're leaving," he announced, grabbing his coat from the back of his chair and shrugging it on quickly.

Ron rolled his eyes and waved half-heartedly as Harry and Ginny left the pub holding hands.

"They're disgusting," Ron said apologetically to Dean.

Dean shrugged and slipped one of his own hands under the table. He slid it slowly from Ron's knee to Ron's fly. "They might be on to something, though."

Ron cleared his throat and gripped his empty beer bottle tightly. "That's... not going very slowly," he warned, not sure how much teasing he would be able to handle.

Dean slid his hand back to Ron's knee. "I mean, if you don't want to come back to my flat so I can give you a handjob..."

Ron gulped. "What?"

Dean smiled and moved his hand up a few inches to squeeze Ron's thigh. "This 'slow' thing... it doesn't have to be so bad. We can move in stages, see? First, there's the handjob stage, then there's the blowjob stage... then the fingering stage..."

Ron shifted as his cock jerked with interest at the thought of fingering Dean's arse. "Are you sure?" he asked, not wanting to be disappointed if Dean somehow ended up changing his mind.

Dean answered by putting his hand back over Ron's cock and giving it a firm squeeze.

"All right, then," Ron said, standing quickly and grabbing his coat. "Back to your flat, it is!"





"It's been a week, George! You can't honestly be that angry, can you?" Ron pounded on the door to George and Lee's flat, his knuckles rapping against the painted wood as well as the window panels. "Let me in!"

"You are so impatient!" George shouted when he finally flung the door open a minute later. "Did you think I couldn't hear you knocking? The whole Alley heard you, Ron. Get the fuck inside. What do you want?"

Ron stepped inside and looked around, confused by the pile of clothes on the floor by the sofa, the only blemish in the otherwise tidy living room. "What, can't I stop by to chat with my favourite older brother without wanting something?"

"No. What do you want?"

Ron shrugged. "I just wanted to chat... see how you're doing."

"I'm doing fine," George said shortly, his face going inexplicably red.

"Right," Ron said suspiciously. "Where's Lee?"

"Napping. Where's... Harry?"

"Out with Ginny," Ron said, frowning. "Where else would he be? Why're you acting so weird?"

"I'm not," George said quickly. "I just don't want you here."

Ron rolled his eyes and moved toward the sofa. "What's with the laundry pile? Did you lose your hamper?"

"No, it's... mind your own, Ron."

Ron raised his eyebrows, then looked more closely at the pile. "That's Lee's favourite shirt," he said, toeing the cloth. "And those are definitely your pants."

"Did you really come over to inspect my dirty clothes?" George asked, sounding exasperated.

Ron shrugged and turned back to his brother. "Not really. I told you, I came by to chat. I haven't seen you in a week. How're you doing?"

"I'm fine," George insisted. "Business is booming. Sales are up. It's a pretty standard pre-Christmas season. You're not interested in this at all, why are you asking? How're you, what have you been doing?"

Ron bit back a smile, amused by George's nervousness. "I've been busy at work," he explained. "Robards got sacked, which is pretty fantastic news. Dawlish is the new Head, and he's letting me and Harry go back to Switzerland to close up the case in a few weeks."

George nodded, pretending to be interested. "That's great."

"Okay, I give up. What is going on here?"

"There's nothing," George said quickly.

Ron rolled his eyes again. "When did you become such a terrible liar? You're acting like you've got some dirty little secret!"

George's face went red more quickly than Ron had ever seen before. "It's not a secret," he said defensively. "It's just none of your business."

Ron frowned slightly, then glanced back at the pile of clothes near the couch. "No," he said softly, unwilling to believe what all the evidence was suggesting. "You didn't actually..."

"Didn't actually what?" George snapped defensively.

"You told him, didn't you?" Ron asked in awe. "You told Lee! And he – and you – and you shagged him on the sofa!"

George's neck and one ear went red as well. "We didn't shag on the sofa," he muttered, not meeting Ron's accusatory glare.

"But you told him!"

George nodded, smiling slightly. "Yeah, I told him."

"And?" Ron demanded, waiting impatiently. He didn't understand why George was being so secretive about the whole thing.

"And... you interrupted a – a moment."

Ron paused to decipher George's words, then sniggered. "No! Were you starkers with him on the sofa when I first knocked?"

"No," George muttered.

"Rotten liar," Ron said, grinning. "Did you only tell him just now?"

"Over the weekend," George said, his voice still low and embarrassed. "Angelina cursed his lips together when he broke up with her..."

"Ouch," Ron said sympathetically. "I hope you've been giving them plenty of rest time."

To Ron's amusement, George blushed again. "Shut up."

"No can do," Ron said, clapping George on the back. "This has been a long time coming. I'm going to milk it for all it's worth."

"Would you get out, already?" George pleaded. "Did you not hear when I said you'd interrupted something?"

"Oh, right," Ron said, laughing and heading back toward the door. "We'll talk later, then," he said seriously, pointing a stern finger at George. "And I'll tell you all about my own romantic adventures."

"I don't need to hear how many arses you've been inside this month, thanks," George said, pulling a face.

Ron stuck his tongue out. "Not what I was referring to, but thanks." He opened the door and started to leave.

"Wait," George said suddenly. "What were you referring to?"

Ron glanced over his shoulder, then turned around and leaned against the door frame to study George's curious expression. "Dean," he said vaguely.

George waited for more and frowned when Ron remained silent. "What, that's all I get? No explanation, no details?"

Ron shrugged innocently and began going down the stairs. "Get back to your man."

George made an obscene gesture at his brother before closing the door.





~Three Weeks Later~

"Are you completely sure about this?" Dean asked for the hundredth time. "It feels very weird. The last time I saw your parents–"

"Shut up," Ron commanded as they took the last few steps to reach the Burrow. "Mum invited you, it's fine."

"And it won't be awkward?"

"It won't be awkward."

"Christ, I need a fag."

"You had three on your way here," Ron said calmly. "You'll be fine. There is no need at all to be so nervous. You've met all these people before."

Dean grumbled something in response. Ron grinned, kissed his boyfriend briefly on the lips, then knocked on the door. It opened immediately, leading Ron to suspect that his mother had been eavesdropping from the other side.

"Welcome, welcome," she said merrily, letting them in the house. "Happy Christmas Eve, happy Christmas Eve!" She hugged Ron tightly, then turned to Dean and ignored the hand he was holding out for her to shake. She embraced him warmly, as if he were a long lost son. Dean returned the hug awkwardly, looking over her shoulder at Ron, who was laughing silently.

"I'm so glad you could join us, dear," she said when she finally released Dean from her grip. "You've no idea how thrilled we are that Ron finally has someone to bring home for the holidays."

"Mum!" Ron complained, rolling his eyes.

"Well, it's true. Go on and make yourself at home." She gestured toward the living room before turning back to her cooking. "Dinner should be ready soon."

"Thanks, Mum," Ron said, pulling Dean along with him as he went out of the kitchen.

In the living room, he found Ginny, Harry, George, Charlie, and his father.

"I don't know if you've met Charlie," Ron said, gesturing to his older brother. "Charlie, this is Dean."

Charlie stood up from the sofa and came to shake Dean's hand. "Nice to meet you." He turned to his brother and winked. "Well done."

Ron groaned and kicked the back of Charlie's legs as he retreated to the sofa. "Where're the rest, then?"

"Respective mother-in-law's houses," George explained as he started setting up a chess board. "They'll be coming tomorrow, kids and pregnant wives and all."

Ron chuckled at the thought of how crowded the Burrow would be with the addition of Bill's and Percy's families the next day.

"Come and have a game," George said.

Ron went to sit with George and watched gratefully as Harry and Ginny beckoned Dean over to them. He hoped Dean would loosen up soon; he really saw no reason for Dean to be so nervous in the first place.

"Where's Lee?" Ron asked in a low voice as he watched George make the first move.

"Home with his family," George responded casually.

"I take it you didn't tell Mum, then."

George said nothing, his eyes on Ron's hands as the second move was made.

"You should, you know," Ron suggested, his eyes scanning the board.

"Baby steps, little brother," George said, moving another piece. "Baby steps."

Ron snorted and made his move quickly, now forcibly reminded how terrible George was at chess.

"Is Angelina talking to you yet?" he asked a few minutes later.

"That'd be a no," George answered, taking one of Ron's pieces.

"She'll get over it," Ron said bracingly, taking one of George's pieces in response. "Hermione did just fine."

"We'll see. Blimey, I forgot how bad I am at this game." George moved another piece and then frowned at his choice. "How was Switzerland, by the way? I heard you almost didn't get back in time for Christmas."

Ron rolled his eyes and made another move. "Yeah, that would be Harry's fault. He went above and beyond, as per usual... tried to convince the team we should stay to teach the giants that 'light' magic is better than Dark magic. Personally, I think Hermione got in his ear about some sort of political fairness bullshit, you know how she does, but he won't admit to it."

George snorted and moved another one of his pieces. "Well, at least the case is finally closed, yeah?"

"Yeah, definitely." Ron glanced down at the board, laughed, and made one last move. "Checkmate."





"Ouch," Ron said dully when he lost his balance and fell onto Dean's living room floor.

"Sorry," Dean said, helping him up. "I'm still really out of practice with Apparating."

"Not your fault," Ron said, dusting off the seat of his jeans. "I'm a bit tipsy as well. I'm sure that didn't help the matter."

Dean laughed and reached out to brush the hair out of Ron's eyes. "Thanks for taking me to your parents'," he said quietly, rubbing this thumb over Ron's lips. "It was really lovely."

"Thanks for coming with me," Ron countered, wrapping his arms around Dean's middle and pulling the other man against him. "I hope it wasn't too dreadful."

"It wasn't." Dean slid his cold hands under Ron's shirt and Ron shivered. "How come Lee wasn't there with George?"

Ron moved his own hands to Dean's arse. "George still isn't out, yet. He needs some more time, I think. He'll come around, though."

Dean leaned down slightly to nuzzle Ron's neck. "Do all the gay boys in your family fancy black men?"

Ron stifled a laugh and grabbed Dean's head, pulling him up for a kiss. "I think it's only me and George," he whispered against Dean's lips. "Maybe it's just a coincidence."

"I thought I saw Charlie checking me out a few times," Dean said teasingly.

"He's just a flirt," Ron said. "Though... I can't pretend that wouldn't explain a few things about Charlie... anyway, who could blame him for checking you out? You're gorgeous."

"Am I?" Dean asked, one eyebrow raised. "I'd no idea. You've never said."

Ron snorted and pressed his lips to Dean's Adam's apple. "You're silly when you've had champagne."

"So're you," Dean pointed out.

"Come on," Ron whispered, moving his mouth to Dean's ear. "Let's go celebrate Christmas."

He stepped away to head for Dean's bedroom, but Dean reached out and pulled him back, capturing his lips in a reckless kiss. Ron let himself melt into the kiss, his hands clutching to Dean's face and neck.

"Okay," Dean said breathlessly when Ron began kissing his neck. "Bedroom."

Ron followed him, both undressing along the way. When they reached Dean's room, Ron kicked the door closed behind him, then pushed Dean onto the bed and crawled on top.

"Happy Christmas," Ron said, grinning, as he wrapped his hand around Dean's cock.

Dean sniggered and pulled Ron's head down for another kiss.

"Oh, God," Dean groaned a few minutes later when Ron slithered down his body to suck on his cock instead. He spread his legs wider as Ron settled between them, bending his knees slightly to expose his arse as well.

Ron moved his mouth to nip gently at Dean's thighs as his fingers lightly teased Dean's hole. Dean sighed appreciatively and bent his knees further as Ron lapped at his balls.

"Mmph!" Dean let out a muffled squeak as Ron pressed the tip of one finger into him.

"Lube?" Ron asked, sitting up suddenly and drawing his hand away from Dean's arse.

Dean nodded at the bedside table, breathing heavily. Ron grinned and leaned down to bite Dean's lower lip before scrambling off the bed to get the lube. Dean readjusted himself toward the top of the bed, resting against the pillows. When Ron returned, he kissed Dean briefly, then licked slowly all the way from Dean's neck to Dean's twitching cock as he spread lube on his fingers.

As he pressed his finger back against Dean's arse, Ron moved up again to tease Dean's ear with his tongue. Dean arched against him as he slipped his finger inside.

"You're awfully randy tonight," Ron said, amused, when Dean began begging for more of his fingers.

"It's the champagne," Dean said breathlessly when Ron added a second finger. He rocked his hips back and forth, fucking himself on Ron's long fingers. "God, I want you to fuck me."

Ron gulped and pushed a third finger into Dean's arse, trying to ignore the lewd images that had just popped into his head. "But we're still on the fingering stage," he reminded Dean. "We've only just started it, really."

"I don't care," Dean breathed, reaching for Ron's cock and stroking it quickly. "It's Christmas. I want you to fuck me."

"I'm... not so sure what Christmas has to do with fucking," Ron choked out as Dean squeezed his balls, trying to stay sensible when all he really wanted to do was exactly what Dean was suggesting.

"Do you want to fuck me or not?" Dean asked, leaning up to lick Ron's neck.

"Well... yeah, obviously." Ron sat up and pulled his fingers out of Dean, who pouted. "Look, we're a bit on the drunk side. We shouldn't do this now."

"I don't see why not," Dean said, sitting up to kiss Ron. "I've been planning this for days."

Ron gulped again and concentrated on not coming right then and there as Dean's hand twisted around the head of his cock. "Days?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

Dean nodded, grinning. "Please?"

Ron moaned and kissed Dean roughly, unable and unwilling to control the mad desire that was quickly consuming him. Though he had enjoyed every second of naked time with Dean so far, and though going slow was both incredibly sexy and incredibly worthwhile, it was the world's biggest tease to constantly be in bed with Dean and yet be unable to have sex with him.

"D'you have a condom?" Ron asked, breaking the kiss and dragging his lips across Dean's still-bearded cheek.

"With the lube," Dean whispered, thrusting his cock against Ron's.

Ron swallowed a moan and scooted across the bed to the side table again. When he turned back, condom in hand, he found that Dean was on all fours, facing the wall, and touching himself. Ron growled at the sight and sheathed his cock quickly, wanting to get inside Dean as soon as possible. He moved behind Dean, wrapping his arms around Dean's middle and pulling the other man up to a kneeling position before pressing a kiss to the back of Dean's neck.

Dean leaned his head back on Ron's shoulder. "It was worth the wait, right?" he asked, sounding drunk and paranoid.

Ron chuckled and grabbed his cock, aligning it between Dean's round cheeks. "Definitely."

"Good," Dean said, a bit breathless as Ron pushed forward. "I thought about waiting until you were begging for it, but–" he inhaled sharply as the head of Ron's cock slipped inside him.

"But what?" Ron asked soothingly, reaching around to stroke Dean's cock, as Dean's hands had moved to Ron's hips.

"But I couldn't wait any longer. Shit." Dean let out a low groan as Ron settled himself completely inside Dean. "It's been too long," he said, sounding almost apologetic.

Ron took a few deep breaths and pressed his forehead to the back of Dean's neck, trying to keep his grip on reality. He had been inside plenty of arses before, but Dean's was so tight, and so... so Dean's. He was overwhelmed and his head was spinning with champagne and lust and lack of blood. He was sure his cock had never been harder and Dean's arse was squeezing it wonderfully, perfectly.

"Move, already," Dean complained, wriggling in a way that had Ron grinding his teeth to keep from groaning.

Ron breathed in deeply as he pulled his hips back, then exhaled sharply as he thrust forward again. Dean moaned and tossed his head back farther, his hair brushing against Ron's cheeks. He pushed Ron's hand off his cock and began pulling on it in time with Ron's slow rhythm.

Ron was gripping Dean's hips tightly, trying to hold on to something tangible as he began falling apart, the strange mixture of physical and emotional passion for Dean quickly pushing him toward the edge.

"Oh, fuck, fuck," Dean babbled when Ron shifted his hips and lifted his head to press a kiss to Dean's neck.

Ron continued rocking against Dean at this new angle, delighting in the way Dean was now moaning uncontrollably as Ron hit his prostate over and over again. Focusing on Dean's pleasure was enough to keep Ron's own in check, even though Ron wasn't sure he had ever seen anything sexier than Dean wanking in his arms as he pounded into Dean's arse.

"Ah – ah!" Dean's free hand flew to Ron's hip and gripped it roughly, his fingernails digging into Ron's skin. Ron pressed a kiss to the smooth, hairless skin just behind Dean's ear.

Suddenly, Dean's grip tightened painfully and he was gasping wildly as his body jolted. Ron groaned against Dean's neck as he watched Dean come onto the wall and the pillows, feeling himself moving ever closer to his own orgasm. After a few seconds, Dean sagged in Ron's arms, still clinging to Ron's hip.

Ron stilled his hips to give Dean a chance to recover, but before Dean had even caught his breath, he had his hand back on his still-hard cock.

"Are you going to come again?" Ron asked in awe, watching as Dean resumed stroking himself at full speed.

Dean nodded and let go of Ron's hip only to reach behind his head to grab at Ron's hair. "Soon," he choked out. "Keep going."

Ron moaned and snapped his hips roughly, his hands moving to Dean's chest. "You're so fucking sexy," he growled, picking up speed.

"You're fucking inside me," Dean whispered, "and I can't stop coming."

Ron closed his eyes and cried out as his climax broke over him. He jerked violently, moaning and gasping for breath at each wave of pleasure. Dean clenched impossibly tighter around Ron's cock as he came again, whimpering in ecstasy.

Ron pulled out and sat back on his heels, panting heavily and watching as Dean slumped over to lie across the bed sideways.

Dean covered his eyes with one hand and sighed. "That was ridiculous," he said, sounding thoroughly out of breath.

Ron pulled the condom off carefully and tossed it in the trash bin next to the bed before collapsing next to Dean. "Ridiculous," he repeated, his heart still beating rapidly in his chest.

"I think you killed me."

"I think you killed me," Ron muttered, wiping the sweat off his brow.

Dean rolled over on top of him and kissed him sweetly. "It was good," he whispered.

"It was more than good," Ron corrected. "It was bloody fucking amazing."

Dean smiled sleepily and kissed Ron again. "Would you mind cleaning up? I've never been very good with those spells..."

Ron nipped at Dean's nose before getting up and figuring out where he had discarded his jeans. He found them in the dining room and extracted his wand from a pocket before returning to Dean's room to Scourgify Dean's pillows and the wall behind the bed.

"I wish I could spend Christmas with you," Dean said as he and Ron crawled under his covers, still naked. "Lottie and Danny are going be absolutely hell all day."

Ron snorted in agreement as he pulled the duvet up to his chin, then rolled onto his side to wrap an arm around Dean's waist. He pulled Dean's back against his chest and pressed his nose to Dean's neck, breathing in deeply. "At least you've only got two," he said somewhat bitterly. "I'll be dealing with three. Plus two pregnant women. Plus my mum. Plus all my brothers. Plus Ginny and Harry."

Dean put his hand over Ron's and laced their fingers together. "I like your family."

"I like my family, too," Ron admitted begrudgingly. "They're just a lot to deal with sometimes."

"Understandable," Dean whispered before yawning.

Ron scooted closer to Dean, nuzzling his warm neck. "I'll see you on Boxing Day, though. Did you and Seamus ever pick out a restaurant for us?"

"Yeah, we've got reservations."

"Good."

"Good," Dean repeated, squeezing Ron's hand. "I can't wait to give you your present."

"Why couldn't you have given it to me today?" Ron asked, pouting.

"Because I didn't want to," Dean answered simply.

"Well, go on, then. What is it?"

"It's a surprise."

"I'll tell you what I got for you," Ron offered.

"I already know what you got for me," Dean said.

"How's that?"

"You asked me what I wanted," Dean reminded him, chuckling quietly. "I assume that's what you bought?"

"Well... that's not fair! If you know what you're getting, why can't I know what I'm getting?"

Dean rolled over onto his other side to face Ron. "You really want to know?"

"Yes," Ron said excitedly.

"Even though it'll ruin the surprise?"

"Yes, I don't care."

Dean bit back a smile. "All right. I finished your painting."

Ron's eyes widened. "No! You said you'd given up on it."

"I had done, until last week when you fingered me for the first time. You did the whole thing with your face two inches from mine and your eyes... well, they inspired me."

Ron could feel himself blushing and was grateful for the dark room. "Thank you," he said quietly. "Your present is completely lame in comparison, but I can't wait to see it."

Dean brushed his lips lightly across Ron's. "If I didn't want the charcoal set, I wouldn't have asked for it. I'm sure it's perfect. Maybe I'll even draw you naked with them."

Ron grinned. "I'd be offended if you didn't."

Dean snorted and kissed Ron again. "I'm turning back over now," he warned before doing so.

Ron wrapped his arm back around Dean's waist and snuggled up closely, resting his chin on Dean's shoulder.

"Goodnight," he whispered. "And thanks for the sex."

Dean laughed loudly. "You're ridiculous. Go to sleep."

Ron pressed a kiss to the side of Dean's neck and then closed his eyes, sleep falling upon him quickly.






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ronbigbang: (Default)
Title:With Good Grace
Author/Penname:[personal profile] deathjunke
Main Pairing: Triofic; Harry/Hermione/Ron
Secondary Pairing(s) (if applicable): Mentions of George/Fred twincest
Genre:Angst, Drama and just a dash of Romance
Rating:NC-17
Warnings:I’m hitting every squick button you got… M-Preg, het sex, mentions of twincest, manic and out of Character Arthur.
Word Count:43550. (The most words I've ever written for any story! ^^ its 7K away from being a Nano fic!)
Summary: All the Weasley men are hermaphrodites but it is kept a secret for the safety of the clan. When Ron gets pregnant at school, the secret is exposed. Triofic
Author's Notes:
Well there will be quite a few notes so please bear with me.

To start off I want to give a big warm thank you and lots of hugs to my ♥support team♥ who this fic is dedicated to. You ladies are impossibly wonderful! They betaed, cheered, had coffee with and poked me until this was all done. I have so much love and big hugs for [profile] hull1984, [personal profile] songquake and [personal profile] wwmrsweasleydo that I don’t think that it could all fit I one room.

Thanks to the [profile] ronbigbang_mods who were kind enough to set up, include me in the Ron love and be so totally understanding when I asked for an extention. ♥

Now for notes about this story;
The one spell I made up Percunctor et estus translates to inquire to health”. I used an online latin translator.

The wizarding world is heavily patriarchic in this fic. What ever the head male says goes and even though you are legally an adult by age 17 the elders of society don’t really take you serious until you've reached 40.

In this story the hermaphrodites have both sets of functioning sexual organs. Human hermaphrodites are fictional, snails qualify as hermaphrodites. Many of the pregnant women in my family fainted because of low blood pressure or cried for the slightest provocation. So everything dealing with pregnancy is based on my observations of family members

Weasley most ceriainly and without any doubt is my Kink King.

Titles: "Inevitable", "Expectation", & "Family"
Artist: [personal profile] venturous1
Pairing: Ron/Harry, Hermione/Ron/Harry, Ron/Hermione/Harry
Rating: NC-17, PG,
Media: photoshop.
Artist’s Notes: For "Inevitable"-At last their passion is expressed, and Ron has nothing to hide anymore. For "Expectation"-I had a blast drawing trio, especially considering their interesting family developments! Hugs and kudos to patient mods and lovely author, and especially to Ron. For "Family"- I loved making this loving Trio.




Learn to... be what you are, and learn to resign with a good grace all that you are not. ~Henri Frederic Amiel


Prelude:

When I was a little kid, I remember bathing with my Brothers. Mum would shove three or four of us in the tub at a time until we could all bathe ourselves. Bath time is something I remember fondly.

It was always a grand production. Mum would announce that it was bath time and the insanity began. Percy would whine that he could wash himself just fine and grumble that the twins always peed in the bath water. Fred and George would streak around the house screaming, causing havoc and making Mum chase them down one at a time, which never really worked because as soon as she got one where she wanted, the other was off like a shot. Eventually she had to resort to threats and bribery; no story before bed, early bedtime or an extra topping next time we went to Fortescues’. Me, well I always hung onto her skirts, determined to be the best behaved of all my brothers.

She’d lock the bathroom door once she'd herded us all in and fill up that huge tub with hot water and powdered bubbles. We were all lifted into the tub in age order. I was first and closest to the tap. Then came George – or whichever twin decided to be George that day— and Fred. At the back of the tub was Percy, who complained that the water was always colder at the back of the tub (which it was).

Mum would scrub us all, one after the next, and make us stand in the tub after she pulled the plug, before rinsing us all and wrapping towels around us, one after the next, until the lot of us were done and dry. Brushing teeth and putting on pajamas were all independent acts for us because Mum would get the kitchen sink ready for Ginny, who was too small to get in the tub with us.

After a few years, Percy was allowed to bathe by himself and Ginny joined the twins and me in the tub. I was shifted back a spot; Ginny was now at by the tap and I was behind her. We were washed down like we always were and Mum said stand.

It is with great embarrassment that I admit that I screamed.

“She’s broke! Mum, Ginny Broke! It’s gone!”

Fred and George pushed me out of the way to gawk at our baby sister. We were so frightened by the fact that Ginny’s penis broke off that we started to search the bottom of the tub. Mum laughed at us until Ginny started to cry.

“I don't wanna be broked! Find it Ronnie! Find it!” She wailed and George and I patted down the bottom of the tub frantically, Fred could only stare dumbly.

It was probably a loud commotion because the Dad and Percy came racing down to the bathroom. Dad looked winded and Percy was right behind him. Percy squawked and raced in staring, horrified, at Ginny. “Dad, Should I Floo-call St. Mungo’s while every one else gets dressed?”

Dad let out a huge sigh and shook his head. He wrapped Ginny in a towel and handed her off to Mum, who left the bathroom, attempting to quiet her down. Dad pulled the towels off of the rack and draped the biggest one around the twins' shoulders and another towel around me.

“Percy, come in here.” I caught glimpses of his face from under the towel as he dried me off. For a moment I was scared; his face was different, not smiling or amused like he usually was. He didn’t look mad like he did after that whole spider incident, but pale and drawn. “We need to talk, boys….” He smiled after he said boys, but it wasn’t a real smile but more like the smiles that we force when we would go to see Aunt Muriel.

Percy came fully into the crowded bathroom and closed the door behind him. I looked off to the side and saw Fred and George helping each other to button up their pajama shirts. Dad held my nightshirt up for me, and I shoved my arms through before shrugging it on. All I could hear was the dripping of the water echoing in the room, and I shuddered. It was never quiet in this house. I knew as young as four that a quiet Burrow was a disturbed Burrow.

“Dad what’s wrong with Ginny?” Percy whispered, sounding terrified and unsettled.

“Nothing is wrong with her. That’s what I need to talk to you lot about.” Dad lowered the lid of the toilet and took a seat before he pulled me up into his lap and used his other hand to drag one of the twins over, knowing that the other would follow. “Ginny is a girl. Do you boys know what that means?”

“That’s easy! She wears dresses instead of trousers.”

“Well yes George, that’s part of it, but what it really means is that she is built differently from the rest of us.”

“But I saw! She has the other parts!” I said, not understanding what he could possibly mean. Ginny was just like the rest of us only she kept her hair long and wore dresses and she was broken.

“Yes Ronnie. She does have some parts like us but not the others. She was born with only that part.” Dad looked at every single one of us and bit his lip the same way he always told Percy not to. “We are different from girls and different from other boys too.”

Fred and George looked one another in the eye then shook their heads. “We don't understand,” they chorused. “We’re all boys!”

“I know… I know…Daddy – Daddy didn’t explain it right. Let me try again, okay?” We all nodded and waited for him to continue. “Girls have vaginas, like the parts Ginny has. And boys have penises, the part that you boys all have in front.”

“But Daddy,” Percy spoke up made the point we were all thinking of. “We’ve all got both. I’ve seen Charlie and Bill naked too. They’ve got both just like I do.”

“I know Percy. I’ve got both, too,” he said. His voice was shaking a little and it made me nervous. “We aren’t really boys or girls. We are something different; people like us are called hermaphrodites. We are special because we have both parts.”

“I never heard about that.” Percy whispered, as he picked at his nails.

“I know. It's because we have to keep it a secret.” Dad swallowed and wrapped an arm around my waist and squeezed me in a half hug. “It's just like that important rule I told you about.”

“Do not trust anything if you cannot see where it hides its brain.” We all chorused together. That was the one rule that Dad, who was usually laid back and didn’t care much about rules, had always pushed us to remember.

“Keeping this a secret is more important that even that.” We all stared at him agog and surprised. “When you all go to Hogwarts, you will be shown to the boys' dorm because your boy parts are going to keep you out of the girls' dorms and because there are no dorms for hermaphrodites.”

“Why not?”

“Hermaphrodites are very rare, Fred. And usually we don't get to go to school.”

“Why? Are Hermaphrodites not allowed at Hogwarts?” Fred questioned, already upset and frowning. He couldn’t wait to get his letter, Hogwarts was all Bill and Charlie ever talked about. Well, all he talked about besides Dragons and Quidditch. “I want to go to school, Daddy!”

“You’ll go, you all will.” Dad reassured him, and the rest of us, “but when you go you must be careful. Only shower alone. Never let anyone see you undressed, and when you turn twelve your mum or I will explain more about your girl parts to you.” Dad talked some more, giving tips on how to stay hidden, and answered all of our questions. After Dad was done talking, he herded us downstairs for a glass of water and then to bed.

That night I was restless. I couldn’t help but wonder why we were all so different from other people. Was it something that ran in our family? Was it a curse? Was it a blessing like in the stories of the old magic?

I didn’t think of it again for a few years.

The next time that my gender—genders? I don't really know what to refer to it as – came up, I was ten and Ginny was nine. All of our older brothers were in school or overseas completing one apprenticeship or another, and Mum had chased us out of the house so she could clean in peace.

We didn’t mind being turned out of the house; it had been hot and uncomfortable. It was so hot that the chickens refused to come out of their coop and the gnomes were hiding from the sun under the porch. The grass was beginning to turn brown from the heat of the sun and the air was stale and unmoving.

Catchpole is a safe, strictly-wizarding village, and a small community on top of that. Ten families, maximum, lived there and even we were spaced apart by acres of land. So Mum would let us wander all the way to the boundaries of the woods and down to the creek by ourselves.

Ginny and I were making our way to the stretch of creek that fell on our parent’s property, stripping all the way and hanging our clothes on the branches of trees as we walked. It was a habit we'd learned from Bill. He always said that by the time you walked back to the next piece of clothing you were dry enough to put it on, and he wasn’t wrong on that account.

“Ronnie, when you go to Hogwarts next year will you write me?” Ginny asked as she draped her knickers on a low branch.

“I don't know, maybe…” I couldn’t help but to stare at her privates, they just looked so odd to me. As far as I thought, she was supposed to have more bits. “If you want me to.”

I was down to my briefs when I saw the water. The creek was running gently over the smooth rocks. The banks weren’t sandy, but they weren’t muddy either. It was a strange mix of dirt and wood chips that banked the water. I was just about to strip off my pants when I caught sight of one of the boys who lived across the creek, closer to the bend in the lane that led to the Muggle town not too far from Catchpole, lounging in the water.

“’Lo, Weasleys!” He called coming closer to our bank.

“Hello, Christopher!” Ginny called back and treaded into the water.

I waved and sat on the bank with my feet in the water. I didn’t want to go in and get my pants wet, they were white and already thin. If they got wet then I’d be completely visible. I didn’t want anyone to see. I was strange compared to the rest of the world, and I didn’t like it. That fear of being strange kept me on the bank more than the fear that I would not be able to go to Hogwarts.

I watched Ginny go in with something like envy. She wasn’t supposed to swim naked if there were any boys near, but that was just part of being a proper girl. Like how Mum made her wear skirts half the time and told her to cross her legs and did up her hair with barrettes and stuff before we went to visit family during the holidays.

I’d seen other boys, who weren’t my brothers—sometimes I wonder of we can really be called boys–their bits were similar, but too different to put me at ease. Their bits were settled lower than mine, and they didn’t have a slit that started just behind their bollocks.

I heard Christopher tell Ginny that he had come to the creek just a few minutes ago. I knew he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon and I wouldn’t get to swim. I flopped onto my back and looked at the patches of sun that showed through the thick leaves, my feet still in the water, and dozed off. When Ginny was ready to go home, she’d wake me.

When she did wake me up, the sun was going down and Christopher was walking along the opposite side of the creek, heading home. Everything glowed orange, and it made Ginny’s limp wet hair look like it was on fire.

“Why didn’t you get in the water?”

“I didn’t want Christopher to see me.”

“That’s stupid, you’re both boys!” She threw up her hands in exasperation and rolled her eyes. “You’ve all got the same bits.”

That was when I realize that Ginny didn’t remember how very different l was from other boys. I didn’t correct her; I knew that if she got mad at me she would probably blab about my strangeness just to get back at me. Don’t get me wrong, she’d feel bad afterwards, but that wouldn’t undo the damage. Everyone would know what a freak I was and I wouldn’t be allowed to go to Hogwarts like my brothers.


Part 01

It was more difficult to hide my differences once I got to Hogwarts. During first year I was nervous as all hell about bathing. The Hogwarts bathroom was massive. It was all one large room. There were three toilet stalls and three urinals along one wall, and a line of sinks and mirrors on the other. The showers were towards the back of the room, divided from the rest of the bathroom by a frosted glass wall. There were no shower stalls, but one large red-tiled room with ornate copper showerheads and drains on the floor.

It was much too open for my taste.

I took care to observe when everyone bathed and learn their pattern so that I could slip into the baths when I knew no one else was there. Seamus and Neville washed in the mornings. Dean liked to bathe just before bed. Harry was spontaneous about bathing; he bathed multiple times a day, at no given time. That was unnerving. I never wanted Harry of all people to know what I was.

Bathing wasn’t the only challenge. During the weeks of summer and late spring my dorm mates would want to swim and goof off in the shallows of the lake. They would all troupe down to the edge of the lake, strip down to their skivvies and jump in. I wanted to so badly, but I always made up an excuse not to.

‘Nah, I just ate’, ‘I’m tired, I’ll go have a kip over there on the grass’, and ‘maybe another day’ were my most frequent lines. After a while they just thought I didn’t like water or couldn’t swim. That suited me just fine, except for the fact that I would have loved to go swimming when the weather became unbearably hot.

I had to be careful when I masturbated as well. I couldn’t impregnate myself —thank goodness for small mercies —so I never had to worry much about that. I had to worry about being caught with my pants down, a very likely and common occurrence when you live in a dorm.

If someone were to catch me, it would be awful!

Although I did mess about with my boy bits, the sensations from my snatch were just too good to neglect. It was a difficult and involving process to satisfy both sets of genitalia at the same time but completely worth it. There were so many sensations all at once - pressure, friction, fullness, a slow aching heat and a whole fifty other things I just could never describe.

Masturbation was carefully planned around my roommates’ schedules and detentions. It was a rare thing that I had the dorm to myself and wasn’t with Harry and Hermione. I dealt with the limited time, and appreciated the minutes that I had alone that much more.

It all went well until fourth year.

I had been pissed off with Harry; I thought he hadn't trusted me enough to tell me that he was going to put his name in the Goblet of Fire, and I was so annoyed that I couldn’t get comfortable. I was up fiddling with some thing or another when I felt strange. My stomach began to turn and I just felt off. I got off of the bed, straightening the Gryffindor red cover and headed for the bathroom.

When I walked in I glanced at the mirror and nearly screamed. There was blood on my pajama pants and Dad had mentioned something like this but hell if I could remember just then. I ran to the bathroom door and shoved one of the towel racks against it. I didn’t want anyone seeing this. There was too much of it to be a cut, but I didn’t feel wounded either. I pulled the front of my pants far enough from my skin so that I could look down and see my bits. Everything was in order and there was no pain, but the blood was coming from behind my bollocks.

With a whine, I shoved the towel rack back in place and raced over to my trunk. I fished out my dressing gown and shoved my arms into it. I was half-crazy with worry. I knew I couldn’t go to Madam Pomfrey; Dad had told me to always be wary of anyone seeing what I really was.

Percy had graduated and I had no way of contacting him immediately, the common room Floo was much too public, and I couldn’t think. The twins were mad at me, and I didn’t think they would help me anyway with the mood they were in lately. I was pacing back and forth on the landing for the fourth year boys dorm. I didn't even realize that Lee Jordan was on his way down until he grabbed me by the shoulder.

“Ron, you alright?” he asked, eyeing me suspiciously. I felt like he knew, like he could see, so I wrapped the dressing gown tighter around my body, pulled back and nodded. “Oh, come on!” He snatched my arm and before I could really register what was going on I had been shoved in the sixth-year dorms and the door was shut behind me.

Obviously he wasn’t convinced.

Fred, George and some other guy who I didn’t know were standing there looking at me. I glanced around the room once and then my eyes were glued to my feet. The third guy took one look at me and walked out of the door. The silence was thick and I could feel my brothers communicating, in that wordless way they spoke between themselves.

There was an agitated grunt, and then one of them stalked over to the far side of the room, where I knew the window was.

I felt a brother’s blunt fingers wrap around the back of my neck before he tugged me forward and into his chest. That was when I knew it was George; he was quicker to forgive and a lot more physical and compassionate than Fred.

“What is it, Ron?”

“I can’t tell Madame Pomfrey! I’m bleeding… nothing hurts, but I’m bleeding.” I whispered, ashamed at how my voice quivered and how desperately I wanted him to make every thing better.

George pushed me back a bit and tugged the strap that held my dressing gown together loose. “Oh, Ronnie… No wonder.” He pulled me over to the bathroom and shoved me into the shower, clothes and all.

George stripped down and began to pull my clothes off of me. “We’ve got to wash the blood out before the house elves see. If they see, they’ll know, and if they speak about it and someone else finds out, we’ll all be in a bad way,” he explained while rubbing soap into my pajama bottoms.

By the time George was done explaining everything, from dealing with the blood to spells for clean up, and done shoving potions for everything from pain and bloating to headaches, I was ready to die of humiliation. My face was red and I was wrapped up in George's old T-shirt and boxers and my dressing gown, half sprawled across his bed.

“You got all that, Ronnie?” he asked me for the third time that night. I nodded and sniffed pitifully. “Alright, you’ll sleep with me tonight. I don’t want you having to worry about your sheets in the morning.”

Tears were streaming down my face. I tried to stop them, but I just couldn’t. It was all so humiliating! I liked thinking of myself as male. It made things so much better for me. I hated that I couldn’t swim with my friends and that I was bleeding and was supposed to consider it normal. I buried my face into George’s stomach, wrapped my arms around his waist and held on as tight as I could.

Fred was still in the room, decidedly ignoring George and me.

George, ever the sweet one, ran his finger through my hair, petting me the way he had when I was little and Percy would be a berk and refuse to let me play any of the games he started. I stayed buried in George’s belly for the better part of fifteen minutes, soaking his shirt, before he wrapped his fingers around my chin and pulled my face up so that he could see my face. “What’s wrong, Ronnie? Why all the tears?”

I took a deep breath and let go, slumping into my brother’s arms once again. “I hate this. I want to be a guy, like a real guy with all the right bits. I just hate this.”

“Suck it up, Ron,” Fred snapped at me from across the room.

“Enough,” George barked back just as quickly. He never stopped petting me. I just closed my eyes and let those two have it out. When the twins were bickering, there was nothing and no one that could stop them.

“Stop babying him! We all have to put up with this shit! We deal—he can, too!”

“Yeah, we deal with it, but we all went to someone for comfort too. Do you not remember forcing me to go get Percy for you?”

“Yeah, but there was no pity party then!”

“What pity party!? I asked my brother a question and he answered me. "Get over yourself.”

“Get over myself? That takes some nerve. You’re so afraid of your body that you shut down every offer that comes your way! I have to deal with the fact that I’m stuck with only you for--”

“Then find someone else to get you off!” George snarled. George’s body tensed, his hands stilled and clenched; he was angry and I could feel it. “You’re unstuck with me as of right now.”

There was a minute where neither one of them spoke. I just let my mind wander for a moment. It was an open secret - or suspicion in this case - that the twins were closer than what was normal, but to hear it so blatantly put was a bit shocking.

“I’m sorry.” I think it was Fred who spoke. Fred and George sound exactly the same but Fred is gruffer in the way he speaks. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Whatever, Fred. I don't care.” George nudged me so that I would scoot and closed the curtains. I fell asleep not long after that.

The bleeding was uncomfortable, humiliating and just downright gross, but it wasn’t impossible to deal with, head and backaches non-withstanding. After a while, it got easier to deal with, almost normal, I guess.

But after I fixed that issue another cropped up. This problem was a two-part one; A) Victor Krum and B) Cho Fucking Chang. I wanted to rip their throats out with my teeth. It was the way they began to ruin things that really got to me. Krum, as excellent a Quidditch player as he is, deserved a Bludger to the face the moment he decided to set his sights on Hermione. He made her distant and stupid—well no, nothing could ever make Hermione stupid. But he did make her giggly and secretive. The three of us, Hermione, Harry and me, were honest with each other – or as honest as we could be. But once Krum tried to force his way in, things started to change and Harry and I were left to our own devices.

Harry occupied his time by making cow eyes at Cho Fucking Chang, who blew him off and flirted coyly when Diggory wasn’t looking. She loved Diggory, no doubt about it, but she loved to be desirable, too. After Cedric was murdered, she became a weeping drama queen who was desperate to find someone to fill that place which Cedric’s death had left empty. The stupid girl chose Harry. Poor Harry, who didn’t even bother to wear his heart on his sleeve; he always just gave it away freely. She was wrong for him and I knew it.

While all this was going on, I occupied myself with Lavender Brown. She was not the brightest faerie in the bush (that was Hermione’s place after all). Lavender was sweet, fit, ten kinds of randy and made me feel like a real guy. She was every red-blooded man’s dream.

That was what made everything more than a bit tense. I always had to think of how to deflect her. She would try to worm a hand down my pants more often than not, and I would redirect her with kisses, foreplay and once (or five times), oral sex. I made sure that I was always dressed and that she always got off. Lavender was less likely to bitch and ask questions if she was blissed out. The whole thing got old, redundant and tedious soon enough, and before winter break we were done.

(-)


The holidays were when everything kind of fell into place. The pieces didn’t snap together but I realized that they were all in the same place if that makes any kind of sense?

It was a few days after Dad had been admitted to Saint Mungo’s. Mum, Ginny and the twins were at the hospital, taking advantage of the afternoon visiting hours. Harry, Hermione and I had gone in the morning with Professor Lupin and were now back, helping Sirius decorate the house.

Grimmauld Place was still gloomy and depressing, but it was also a lot more festive. The creepy elf heads weren’t so scary when they had over-sized Father Christmas hats perched on their heads, and the little light fairies were happy and added a warm chatter to the rooms they occupied. It was a lot better than before.

“Does this look even, Ron?” Hermione asked as she squinted across the mantle.

“Yeah.” It didn’t, but I wasn’t going to stay here for another twenty minutes getting it perfect. Hermione and I were stringing up garlands all around the de-doxyed drawing room while Harry, being the only one who understood how exactly the stove worked, was in the kitchen making hot chocolate. Hermione and I had finished with our task and I wanted to get out of this eerie room. “Lets go. Harry’s probably done by now.”

Hermione nodded and took one last look at the garland. She gave me an exasperated half-glare and threw the Spellotape at me. I chuckled as it bounced off of my head, knowing that I had been found out.

“I don't want to fix it, either.”

We left the room in good humor and snickered all the way down the hall. We crossed the threshold of the kitchen at the same time Harry was coming through with a loaded tray. I guess it was coincidence or maybe even fate that all three of us were crossing the threshold at the same time. Whatever it was, none of us could budge an inch from where we stood.

Harry had opened his mouth to speak when he was cut off by a groan.

“Ah, shit!” The three of us turned to see Sirius standing there with an almost rueful smirk. “That wasn’t meant for you guys! Little trouble-makers.”

“We didn’t do this!” Hermione was indignant, probably from being grouped in with the ‘trouble makers’.

“I know you didn’t. I set up the mistletoe.” Sirius pointed. The three of us looked up and groaned in unison, sending the awful prat into full-on laughter. “Sorry, you lot can’t move until there’ve been some kisses.” Sirius just looked at us expectantly leaning against the wall as if he’d expected us to be stubborn and try get out of what was a flawless trap, or maybe he wanted to see what would happen.

We all looked at each other, pink faced and embarrassed. Harry refused to look up from his shoes, Hermione was tugging at the ends of her hair and I swore up and down that my face would catch fire.

Hermione was the first to move. She made that little gesture with her hand that Harry and I knew to mean ‘get on with it’.

So we did. I took a deep breath and leaned over towards Harry, mindful of the tray and pressed my lips softly against his. His eyes still didn’t look up but he opened his mouth to let me maneuver just a bit more. I slid my tongue into his mouth, exploring for a few seconds before I pulled back and let him have a turn. Harry kissed slowly and nipped my lips a few times, but it was pleasant overall. When I pulled back and took a look at his face, it was beyond red and his ears were nearly purple.

I waited for a second, wondering what to do. Should I turn and kiss Hermione? Or would Harry do that? I got my answer not a moment later when Hermione put her hand on my forearm and braced herself against me as she and Harry exchanged a few short soft kisses. It was interesting to watch. I had never thought Hermione would be passive, but she was. Hermione was letting Harry lead her and set the pace of the kisses. There was no tongue there, just tender kisses and deep, slow, pleasant breaths.

When the pair of them pulled apart Hermione turned to me and stood on her toes. I knew what was coming next and I grinned against her lips. It was honestly funny, we fought like Crup and Kneazle, but like this we were perfectly compatible. Her lips were soft and plush, and she let me enter her mouth and do just about anything I wanted, without rushing me or letting her tongue lie there like a dead thing.

We were freed from the spell and took special care not to look at Sirius, who had probably watched the whole thing with that look of intense calculation and sorrow he always wore when he saw the three of us together. What had happened wasn’t personal, or maybe it was. I don't know. All I do know is that Hermione had never moved her hand from my arm and that Harry was smiling softly with pink cheeks and an easy stance.

We made our way to the parlor and settled on “our couch.” The couch was a hideous, and yet cozy, oversized loveseat that fit the three of us comfortably. I sat closest to the window with my legs tangled like a pretzel under me. Harry was pressed against my side with his legs folded neatly beside him. Hermione took up the most space with her back against the armrest, her legs over Harry’s lap, and her toes tucked under my thigh. There we sipped our cocoa and pretended to not see Remus desperately trying to escape the mistletoe before Sirius realized he was trapped (in the end I wondered why he fought so hard if he wasn’t opposed to the indecent groping and making out).

The mistletoe thing niggled in the back of my mind for some time. Even after we went back to school, I found myself thinking of those kisses. I couldn’t help but reflect on how much better it was kissing Harry and Hermione than Lavender. How different Harry and Hermione were from each other. Hermione was so soft and fit into my arms perfectly. All I could think about was how loving and passionate she could be, how clever she was, and how she was spunky enough to contend with just about anything I could throw at her. When my mind turned to Harry I could remember how seamlessly his body slotted against mine. My mind brought up how loving he was, in that quiet unobtrusive way of his, how he was giving and brave and easily hurt.

My thoughts decided to wander as I slipped into the large tub in the Prefect’s bathroom one night. The images were so vivid. Hermione would be naked, sprawled between Harry and me as we moved across her body in sync, touching, tasting, feeling, while she wriggled and bucked. Her hair would fly everywhere and she’d make those half-laughing gasps she made when one of us would rub her shoulders after a big test.

Somehow the focus shifted so it was just Hermione and me. She was gripping my shoulders hard enough to bruise as I pumped my hips hard and frantically enough to push her against the headboard while she thrashed her head and chanted my name into the air. I looked to my left and saw Harry there, his hand around his cock, watching us with those intense green eyes.

Again, I found myself in a new situation; I was on my back with one arm draped over Harry’s shoulder my hand fisting his hair and pulling him closer so we could kiss easily. My other arm was between us, clutching his forearm like a lifeline as he stroked my cock and filled me up. His rhythm was slow and halting. I peered over Harry’s shoulder and saw Hermione watching us with a look that screamed smug accomplishment.

That was when I came; right hand knuckle deep in my cunt and my other hand squeezing my cock. I drained the tub and let it refill for a soak and a proper wash. Half an hour later, I was wandering back to the dorm in my dressing gown. When I slipped through the portrait hole, the first thing I noticed was that most of the guys from my year were sitting by the fire. That in itself wasn’t unusual, but the time was. At two in the morning, I expected the lot of them to be asleep.

“Ron.” Dean looked up first and motioned me over.

“What is it? Was there another fire in the fourth year’s dorm?”

Neville shook his head and dragged over a tin bucket from the fire. “Harry’s had another nightmare,” Neville whispered while he passed each of us a bottle of warmed butterbeer. “I woke up and saw him thrashing around and screaming. We didn’t see you around so Shey rang for Hermione.”

I nodded and opened the bottle. Hermione and I had altered Harry’s silencing charms to extend to my bed. If he was having a nightmare or beating off I’d know. With every sip, I forced down a bit of guilt; because I wasn’t in bed Harry had to suffer a nightmare alone and the guys had to wake Hermione. Though she wouldn’t mind terribly at being woken up – she had charmed the bell herself.

Hermione’s call bell was a little silver service bell. The bell itself didn’t ever ring, but I guess the sound was transferred to her earrings because once you tapped it a few times Hermione was awake and at the door to our dorm room.

“Thanks, you can come up in ten.” I said before tipping the last of the butterbeer into my mouth and heading up the stairs.

I pushed open the heavy oak door and crossed over to my bed. It was the farthest from the door and closest to the window. I drew all but one of the curtains closed and tied them off so they wouldn’t open on their own. Two flicks of my wand had my bed expanded in wizard space (I’m a Weasley, I know how to economize) before I pulled off my robe and made my way to Harry’s bed.

Hermione had Harry sitting up. His glasses were on and he was carefully sipping the water Hermione held to his lips. He was trembling all over, terrified. His scar wasn’t pink, swollen or bleeding, so I knew it was either a dream about whatever happened in that maze or possibly something that had happened at the Dursleys'. Harry’s nightmares were something I was familiar with.

I could tell that this would be one of those nights.

Hermione tittered nervously, afraid to touch Harry because he had probably been fighting her off before I came into the room. Harry loved to be touched —he craved it— but for some reason that he refused to ever admit he thought it was wrong to want to he held, to be needy at times. Tonight he would fight me the entire time if I gave him the slightest opening, so I didn’t.

I shoved the pillows from Harry’s bed into Hermione’s arms and jerked my chin towards my bed. She understood and moved quickly to arrange the pillows, turned down the covers and slid between the sheets. Once she was settled I plucked Harry’s glasses from his face and dragged him forward toward the edge of the bed by his leg. In a move that I admit to be rather caveman-esque, I lifted him up and carried his stubborn wriggling arse over to my bed.

“Ron, stop.” Harry fussed as I gently shoved him towards the middle of the bed. “I’m not eleven any more! I can sleep on my own.”

“I’m sure you can.” I got in bed beside him and pulled the covers up over the three of us before I turned on my side and put my arm around Harry’s waist. He was held in place and unable to move. He didn’t really want to move either. He never did, but still he protested for form's sake and I ignored him. “Goodnight, Hermione.”

“’Night, Ron.” The bed shifted as she came closer. I felt the heat of her body on the back of my hand. “’Night, Harry.”

“Goodnight Harry.” I muttered and relaxed into the comfort of my bed.

“No! No good night! I need to go back to my bed.” But Harry’s body was slack, and pressed between Hermione and my own. Harry was going nowhere and we all knew it.

(-)


The usual morning routine for the Gryffindor boys was what kept us all from being late to class. We counted on Seamus to wake up first and nudge Dean on his way to the shower. Dean, in turn, would shuffle about the room in his morning haze, dropping at least one textbook as he prepared his bag for the day. When the shower echoed through the room, Neville would lurch up from his bed and head for the lav in a stumbling dash. Right about then, Harry would wake up and knock on my bedpost, letting me know that it was time to shake a leg.

That morning none of that happened.

Because the lot of us fell back to sleep at around two-thirty, we were all asleep well into the morning. We had already missed two classes by the time McGonagall yanked the door open and stormed into the room.

“What in Merlin’s name! Out of bed! All of you!” was all I heard before the red velvet curtains were pulled back and the sunlight was blinding me. The others had gotten the same treatment because the moans were simultaneous. I sat up and looked around groggy and not really thinking and nudged the two other bodies in my bed, halfheartedly urging them to sit up.

McGonagall stared, flabbergasted and gaping, her eyes trained on my bed.
“MISS GRANGER!”

“Ah, feck,” Seamus groaned as he stumbled from his bed and looked at us. “You were supposed to send her back to her dorm, Weasley, not keep her in yer bed.”

“Shut up, Seamus,” I mumbled and shoved back the covers as I got up so McGonagall could see that we were all dressed. I was wearing pajama bottoms and Harry wore his oversized jogging shorts and sweatshirt, while Hermione was in her old navy nightgown. None of us looked remotely sexy, or anything other than tired, but that didn’t stop McGonagall from screeching at us in outrage as we stumbled through our morning routines.

Hermione managed to slip out of the door unnoticed and was back, dressed properly with her bag on her shoulder raking a brush through her hair, in ten minutes. I was still fussing with my shoes and Harry had completely given up on finding his missing tie. Dean was dressed and ready, nodding off on his feet as we waited for Neville and Seamus to come out of the bathroom, showered and dressed.

Once Neville and Seamus were ready, McGonagall led us out of the dorm, down the corridors and past the other whispering and snickering students, to the History of Magic classroom. I could barely hold back a laugh: she had pulled us from our beds to take a nap. She left us at the door with the order to report to Filch once classes were over for our detentions.

“Well,” Dean said as he pushed open the classroom door, “at least we missed Potions.”

I knew there was a reason I liked that guy.

(-)


Detention wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Dean, Neville and Seamus were told to go polish everything in the trophy room by hand. While Harry, Hermione and I were assigned the Owlery, which wasn’t all that bad since owls don't shit unlike other birds. It was a short matter of sweeping out the old hay and molted feathers, mopping the floor and putting down new hay. The house elves would fill the water troughs and mouse tanks themselves.

I sat in the corner of the room on a pile of fresh hay and took a deep breath. If I was lucky I could possibly doze off without moving. It didn’t take long for those hopes to be dashed. Pig was on my head bouncing around and making a nuisance of himself. I felt heat to my left and cracked open an eye. Harry was there, sitting with his knees bent and Hedwig perched on his shoulder, trying in vain to sort out his hair.

“God, I can’t believe we slept through two classes.” Hermione was crouched in front of us, shaking her head in disbelief.

“Sorry about that.”

“Oh shut up, Harry,” Hermione grumbled and flopped forward. Her head was resting on Harry’s stomach and her hand was on my leg. “You’ve got to stop blaming yourself for stupid things like this. We wanted to help, so we did.”

“Yeah, but —” Hermione cut him off by pressing her lips against his. I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched Harry turn red and slowly start to kiss back. I watched with mild interest as Harry’s hands found the hem of Hermione’s jumper. He hesitated for just minute before he let his fingers slip under the fabric.

Hermione pulled back and let out a breathy giggle. “It tickles.”

“You! Ticklish, really?” I don’t know why I was so shocked, but I was. I batted Pig away from me, sat back up and leaned forward to press my lips to Hermione’s neck. She squealed and pulled back. I couldn’t help but laugh. I flopped to the side, my head pillowed on Harry’s frighteningly thin legs. “Oi! Four-eyes, don’t just sit there looking pretty!”

Harry jabbed my shoulder and grinned down at me.

I’ve got to say, sometimes I really appreciate how lanky I am. Sure, it makes it hell to find a decent-fitting pair of trousers or, Merlin forbid, a shirt with sleeves, but it was all worth it when I was able to sling my arm up around Harry’s neck and drag him down to my level for a thorough snog.

“Are we supposed to—”

“Cripes! And I thought Hermione talked too much!”

“Well it's not exactly … Normal you know.” Harry muttered, doing his best to not look at either Hermione or myself.

“Belt up, Harry.” Hermione cut him off abruptly. “You’re not normal, and you can’t expect to have normal friends or friendships, either.”

“But— guys…”

“Harry, you’ll let me help you fight off a mass murderer, locate a Dark Lord, and convince you to go into a cave that’s home to a hundred-and-fifty-foot snake, but I’m not allowed to suck your cock?”

Both Harry and I balked at that. I had never heard Hermione speak so plainly or vulgarly before. It was a bit of a turn on. Hermione sighed and pointed her wand toward the Owlery door. I heard it slam shut and the bolt slide into place. The sound was surprisingly erotic.

I sat up to watch the outcome.

Hermione apparently had a lot less worries about normality or consequences – or even personal space. She just reached over, snagged one of Harry’s belt loops, and hauled him forward. Her hand was down his pants before I could blink, catch up or —hell— even breathe.

I scooted behind Harry and rested my chin on his shoulder so I could have a better look at his reactions and Hermione’s jerk off prowess. Harry’s face was truly interesting.

Harry looked… It was an odd expression, as though he was caught somewhere between want, denial, guilt and that uninhibited pleasure that was so rare in him. Harry stood incredibly still for just a minute before his eyelids fluttered and shut. Whatever Hermione was doing must have felt incredible; Harry’s lips had parted and he was blushing. His breathing became shallow and raspy. He tried so hard to be still and quiet, but in the end he failed and turned his face into my neck. He moaned loudly despite the fact that he was biting his lips to stay silent.

He looked so sweet like that, fighting himself and his obvious pleasure as he did his best to be still under Hermione’s touch. I couldn’t help but touch him. My fingers grazed the skin of his belly and chest. I scraped my nails along his skin the way I liked to do before I thumbed and pinched my nipples. Harry yowled like a cat and shuddered against my chest, spent.

I looked at Harry who was lobster red and refusing to move his face from the crook of my neck then turned to Hermione. She grinned at me and came closer, climbing over Harry’s lap and straddling my thigh. While one hand was behind her, propping her up, the other was planted on the placket of my jeans, palming my erection.

I could tell Hermione was just getting started.

I shifted Harry’s body a bit so that he wouldn’t get in my way and I could keep my left arm around his waist while I supported Hermione with my right. She gyrated slowly against my thigh and I was doing my best to undo her buttons with my one free hand. When that failed Harry stepped in and unfastened the buttons. He tugged the belt loops gently, causing them to slip down over her hips and bunch mid thigh.

I was actually surprised to see Hermione in pink lacy underwear. I guess it never dawned on me that she was really a girl. And no, I never thought she was a man, but I just couldn’t picture her in lace knickers. Let alone pink lace knickers. It really was a nice surprise.

I rubbed the back of my knuckles along the fabric, loving the texture and as I got further away from her stomach, the damp press of flesh against my hand. I wriggled my finger into the side of the barely there fabric and pet her fuzzed folds with two of my fingers, eagerly slipping past the outer area and into a moist and slick part of her cunt. My fingers were suddenly inside of her. The heat was insane and the grip on my fingers was absolutely obscene. With a stuttering groan Hermione lifted herself up and shifted until she found a more comfortable spot to sit.

Harry was more into it then I was. He had somehow in this odd exchange managed to lay on his stomach, while still lying across my lap tugging at Hermione’s knickers and kissing her fleshy second lips until she couldn’t make a single sound. She moved her hips with a desperate rhythmic movement. I was painfully hard but I could barely let it register.

Hermione was in her own little world, her own happening and she dragged me there with her.

(-)



Things were good.

Harry, Hermione and I were closer than ever, in more ways than one, but we kept our sexual forays quiet and short. It never went beyond heavy petting and mutual masturbation, finger fucking and oral sex. Well… Oral for the other two, I wanted their faces nowhere near my bits.

It was amazing how quickly you pick up the tricks and understanding it takes to make someone scream. If you scratched the small of Hermione’s back while you kissed she’d just about purr. The outer part of Harry’s ears are desensitized because of his glasses but the lobes are ultra-sensitive: if they’re licked, sucked or blown on, he’s as hard as steel almost instantly. I loved watching their reactions and learning their bodies. Watching them twist and writhe underneath me in satisfaction became my pleasure since I wouldn’t let them get much closer to my bits than a few gropes or kisses over the thin fabric of my pants.

Harry and Hermione did try to get me completely naked or worm their way into my shorts a few times. They didn’t succeed though; I was good at distracting them, and after about a month or so I got so good at turning the tide that I could stop the grabs at the waistband of my boxers before they were more than fluttering touches.

To completely turn Hermione’s attention away from my pants, I had to be three knuckles deep in her cunt with my tongue working overtime. Harry took less convincing to pry away from the subject of my privates. Sucking him off wasn’t enough; to really distract him I had to have a finger in him poking at that little nub that made him gasp and squirm. Not that that was easy to get to, before I could even try to slip in a finger or two in I had to rim him and rub his thighs long enough to make him relax.

It seems like I spent most of our escapades on my knees; whether we were necking in broom cupboards or sneaking out by the lake, it always ended the same: Harry and Hermione stated and naked while I loitered around in my pants, the three of us sprawled out with stupid grins.

It was good for a while.

We were able to put everything behind us when we were together.

Hermione would unwind and became still when she pressed herself against Harry’s side. Content in the knowledge that he was alive and here and next to her, she would prop her head up on his shoulder. Then she would chatter at me, asking all kinds of questions about parts of the Wizarding world that to me seemed like common sense. Harry’s shoulders loosened as the weight of the Wizarding world, the stress of the DA and the cruelty of Umbitch fell away. He lay content between Hermione and me. Sometimes he’d look guilty and ask us if this was normal— if it was right.

Whenever the topic came up, I’d pull him on top of me and kiss him softly so that I could see his brilliant green eyes go huge, the way they always did when we kissed him, like he couldn’t possibly believe someone wanted to touch him, let alone kiss him.

“Ron…” he’d mutter when I started to pull away for a breath.

“Harry, if it makes you happy, it can't be wrong.”

Hermione would somehow worm her way between us after that. No matter if we were standing, sitting or lying down so that she could suck hickies on to our necks before she started in on her lecture. “We are in what’s called an ‘Alternative Relationship,’ Harry.”

“I know Hermione, you told me last time.”

“In some countries it was a norm for a man to have two wives or more! Why shouldn’t we turn the tables, yeah?” She’d smirk and climb on top of Harry as she undid his trousers with whatever hand she had free.

By the end of Fifth Year, after exams and when the fiasco at the Ministry was over and done with, we had come closer than ever before. We'd got intimate not only through sex, but through our support of each other and the fear of losing each other. Hermione’s scars were new, but I had already traced them multiple times. Harry’s scars were soul deep and, though I couldn’t see them, I tried my best to soothe them.

We never slept apart anymore. I never even let Harry make what used to be the obligatory pretense of going to bed alone. I took his hand and led him to my bed when the day was over and bullied him under the covers. There were night terrors, crying jags and even the occasional grief-fueled tantrum, but I didn’t care.

I had seen the dead look in Remus’ eyes when he realized that Sirius was gone. He was in an all too real and common hell that I never want to approach. Remus and Sirius were best friends on the surface, but I could tell ever since the Shack that they were more than that. They touched each other and basked in each other’s presence just like my mum and dad do. I would never be able to handle it if Hermione or Harry were taken away from me like that.

From the day Hermione and I were released from the infirmary, Harry refused to let us get too far. Hermione was kept within reaching distance until she climbed the stairs to the girls' dorms and I was to never move out of his line of sight. We lived in each other’s pockets and kept the DA as close as possible.

Something about the danger drove us together harder and made our touches deeper and desperate. Every spare moment we got we were at it like rabbits. By the time we stepped off of the Express in June, there wasn’t a single part of Harry or Hermione’s body that I wasn’t perfectly intimate with.

Part 2

I was in a mood by the time we got to the Burrow.

I had watched Harry change into those awful parachutes that he tried to call clothes and get growled and shoved off to the car park by his great arse of an uncle. I knew how they treated him. I had told Dad and even the Headmaster, but somehow he always went back there the next summer.

I was constantly worried for Hermione. Her parents, being Muggle and all, can’t ward a house. She couldn’t either, without getting expelled or something. Now that the Death Eaters weren’t even trying to hide, it would be nothing for them to find Hermione’s house and kill everyone in it. Not to mention that if I were You-Know-Who it would seem like the next logical step, attacking Harry where he was vulnerable and throwing him off balance.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in good humor on the way home but I was even less thrilled to get there, only to find out I’d be rooming with the twins so that my bedroom could be given to Bill’s fiancée Fleur. It pissed me off so much that I went to go ask Mum why she couldn’t just stay with Ginny.

I had stormed into the kitchen just to be dumbstruck by Fleur. She was gorgeous and I couldn’t seem to get a single thought across my brain; everything just blanked out completely and I was ready to give her everything and more. I watched her and Mum snipe at each other before Fleur stormed out. It took me a few minutes to get my bearings and un-stick my tongue from the roof of my mouth.

I opened my mouth to complain to Mum when I noticed how irritated she was. Mum’s movements were brisk and short. She slammed the knife down through the potatoes so hard that the table shook. I slid up next to her and took the knife silently and started cutting up the spuds.

“You alright, Mum?”

“Why her, Ronnie?” Mum said tiredly as she hauled the meat for the roast over to the counter. “That girl…She’s not right for Bill.”

“He seems to think she’s just fine.”

I got a half hearted shove and a sigh, “Of course! He’s smitten with the damn girl. But she’s got nothing for him! She can't cook, she’s not going to touch the laundry—I bet she won't want children so that she can keep that little figure of hers.” Mum scoffed. I swore I heard a little resentment in there. “Not to mention she’s too showy.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

My mother stopped rubbing the herb blend into the meat and looked me in the eye. She looked drawn and worried, the little lines on her forehead were deepening and her lips were pressed thin. “Think, Ronald. I need you to focus for a moment.”

Mum spoke in an urgent whisper and I could only nod and give her my full attention.

“Your brother is just like you. All of you, except for Ginny, are the same.”

I frowned a bit, I knew that much but I couldn’t understand her point.

“Hermaphrodites are rare, Ron. You all are sought after like never-fading invisibility cloaks, you are few and far between. Not to mention that generally Hermaphrodites produce magically strong children. If the wrong person finds out about any of you, it is only a matter of time before they find out about the rest of you.

"They will take you all from me, they might hurt you and no one would care a whit because they would all be waiting for their turn. I will not allow that to happen, Ron.”

“But, Ginny’s not--”

“She carries the gene. Just like I do.” Mum briskly rubbed down the meat and layered the chopped veg in the casserole dish. “I told you before that your father and I eloped.”

“Yeah, Mum. I remember.” I would never forget; that had been one of the stories Mum and Dad told us when we were still ankle biters. It was their fairy tale and the epic romance that my siblings and I held on to.

“There was more to it then what I told you. The Weasleys they were going to marry your father off to a very wealthy pureblood man in Sweden. Arthur didn’t want to go, and the man was nearly eighty had had two other wives and children older than we were at the time, but his pockets were deep and his parents were greedy enough to sell their son.

"I was supposed to marry Lucius Malfoy but I didn’t want to. Malfoy women don't get to raise their own children, ‘it's unbecoming and that’s what nannies are for!’” Mum spat out sharply. “Malfoy women also aren’t allowed to pursue careers of their own; they are trophy wives and brood mares. I had my own dreams and desires. So did your father.”

I nearly choked on my tongue. This was nothing like the story of true love, sacrifice and magic that I recalled. Everything made a lot more sense now: Malfoy’s hatred of my father, why my parents have never once taken us to see our grandparents even though they’re alive, and why we are poor purebloods.

“Don't misunderstand, Ron, we love each other. We always have, since we were children. However we were stuck in a bad situation and had to find our own way out. Then we protected ourselves as best we could.” She gave me a grim smile and made her way to the sink to wash her hands. “Why do you think your brother’s name is William?”

I left the kitchen as fast as I could and stole into the den. There was a book there that I remember mum poring over when I was almost too young to remember. I skimmed the shelves until I found the right volume. I pulled it down and left the house, taking refuge from family secrets. I wandered for nearly an hour before I sat against a tree and cracked open the book of baby names and their meanings.

William: German origin. Helmet, protection. Charlie: Derived from Charles. Free man.

I knew the law, all pureblood children did. If you married against your parent’s wishes they could dissolve the marriage. If you had a child then the families would be have to choose who claimed the child and took them on as a part of the family tree. If there was a second child, the married couple was no longer bound to their families unless they chose to be. If what Mum told me in the kitchen was any indication of my great grandparents' personality, neither side had quit trying to claim Bill because he was the offspring of a Hermaphrodite, not to mention being one himself.

The fact that my parents' fairy tale love story wasn’t true was for some reason really disturbing. I don’t know why it bothered me so much. I mean, I’m enough to know fairy tales are never real, but it really did eat at me.

In most pureblood families there is a tendency to treat marriage vows as a contract negotiation. I had thought my family was different, that because we were poor and had nothing to bring to the table but ourselves, marriage would take on a sacredness of its own. But I was wrong, it was just a tool for my mum and dad too.

Sure, they’re happy now, but what about before? Were they awkward and odd with each other or— it made no sense to wonder about it now. With a heavy breath I flipped to a random page and began skimming through the names trying not to think. “ Faith, Faline, Fallon, Faricam, Farrahm, Fatima, Faustine, Fawn, Faye… ”

Two hours and countless names and definitions later, I was ready to head back home and pretend my mother and I had never had that conversation. As I got closer to the house I recognized Fleur sitting on the porch. It wasn’t hard to know it was her; she was the only blonde in a house full of gingers. She sat with her chin propped in her hand as she hexed the little Gnomes as they scurried towards her in adoration. I was too far to make out her face, which was a plus because I didn’t want to be a jabbering fool.

I turned on my heel and walked toward the shed. The brooms were all old but sturdy. I snatched up two, tossed the book behind a paint can and carried them back to the house. Fleur was already gone; Fred was sitting in her place. I threw the broom on the grass in front of him and mounted the one in my hand. The game of air-chase was quick and involving. It blotted out everything from my mind, which was just what I needed.

(-)


As usual, Hermione came to the Burrow before Harry did. Hermione’s father dropped her off, waiting until she entered the house to drive off. Hermione hugged Mum and Ginny first, spoke to Fleur in French, turned down the twins’ offer for a sweet and made me lug her trunk up to Ginny’s room.

“So…. Fleur?”

“Nope.” I said promptly. I didn’t know the question but I did know the answer! Whenever Hermione used that tone I knew that the answer was no. No, nope, nu-uh, absolutely not and No!

She made a half humming half grunting noise and patted the space besides her on the cot that I had put up not even an hour ago.

“Nah, you and I would be too much weight. That thing hasn’t been new since before the rise of Grindelwald and will fall apart at any moment.”

“You had to set this thing up, right?”

“Yeah, so I know how many pieces it's really missing. If Ginny had any sort of heart, she’d share her bed with you.”

“I don’t want to share a bed with Ginny. She may be a red head but she’s not my type.” Hermione bumped me with her hip and I grinned at her and she took my hand and pulled me into the hall. “I’ve been stuck in my dad’s car for the last five hours. Let’s go walk around for a bit.”

“Yeah, alright.” I let her lead the way to the back door and then realized that she had left her shoes by the front door. Before I could say anything, Hermione was already walking off the porch and into the grass. I shrugged and followed. I hadn’t expected Hermione to walk through the woods barefoot, but that was what she did. I was used to the grass and twigs and other random things that covered the loamy soil so I never really worried about shoes unless it was winter or I was leaving my family’s property; none of us really did.

“So what have you been doing for the last few weeks?”

“Nothing, really,” I mumbled, and felt her fingers slide into the gaps between my own. I squeezed her hand gently and relished the way she leaned into my side. “Just the usual stuff: dodging the twins' pranks, any arguments and just staying out of the way.”

“I would think you liked being around your family.”

“I do. Just smaller doses. There’s no privacy here, especially since Fleur took over my room.”

“So who are you bunking with?”

“Fred and George, Who else?”

“You poor thing.”

“Gonna kiss it better?” I inquired, wagging my eyebrows. It was meant to be a stupid joke but Hermione took it as more and guided our intertwined hands to her hip. She stood on her toes to kiss my lips.

The canopy of trees mottled the sun but Hermione still glowed. Her clear brown eyes looked almost gold and her hair was blonde in the choppy rays of the sun

Hermione pressed her free hand against my chest and allowed it to drag down the too-thin fabric of my shirt. I knew she could feel all of the contours of my body; I had never had visibly defined muscles but they could be felt easily under her fingertips. My arm circled Hermione’s waist and pressed her against me. Hermione tipped her face towards me and I lowered my head to press my lips to hers.

When her hand had sipped past my waistband, I gasped. I wasn’t expecting that to happen so quickly but it did and I had no time to recover or pull back before Hermione went deeper and curled her fingers around my cock. I inhaled sharply, taking in the taste of Hermione.

It was so intense. Before that moment I had been the only person to touch my cock, and then half the time it wasn’t anything more than a customary scratch or washing. I had never thought or known how good having another’s hand on you could feel.

Hermione had somehow opened the placket of my trousers and was steadily pumping my cock as she kissed and sucked on my lips while I heaved and panted for air. I could barely breathe and thinking was completely out of the question. I came before I could even register what was happening. My underwear was wet and sticky and uncomfortable but I could barely care.

Hermione drew her hand out of my pants and looked at the jizz on her hand with something close to wonder or maybe astonishment. She brought a glistening finger to her mouth and poked out her tongue like a cautious cat. She dragged her tongue across the pad of her finger and grimaced.

“What’s it like?”

“Dunno, bitter and something else too… wanna try?”

“Not at all.”

Hermione threw back her head and laughed at me. But I couldn't care less. I fit my hands to her hips and tugged her close to me. I wanted to feel her against me before I sank to my knees and worshipped her cunt.

July passed quickly, with a lot of long walks make-out sessions, and a gratuitous amount of tomfoolery. I don’t think there was anything left to do that didn’t involve actual penetration. I got quite good at making her utter those odd little noises, and it was a for vanity’s sake that I never stopped sensation until I was sure that she got off. I know how sensitive female bits are and how long it takes to come anything close to an orgasm.

I believe that is called empathy.

Teaspoon my arse, Hermione. Teaspoon my arse.

(-)


Harry showed up late at night. I heard him come up the steps and sit down on the camp bed like he usually did.

“You have to know that I won't let you sleep on that awful thing,” I rumbled, still half asleep. I shoved the blankets down and rolled to the side. “Bring your pillows and come here.” He put up the obligatory fuss, but in the end he laid beside me and we nodded off together.

The next morning we were all awake around the table, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Hermione badgered Harry into telling her what assignments he had completed and Harry humored her while he rubbed Hedwig’s mantle. Having Hedwig at the table drove Mum mad but she’d never say anything to Harry about it.

Anyone who knows Harry knows that he practically worships his owl. There’s never been a more spoiled bird. Harry was known to send Dobby to Diagon Alley for the white mice Hedwig preferred and sometimes even little rabbits. She had her own perch and nest box in the Owlery and ate breakfast with Harry everyday without fail.

It was sweet, in an odd way.

Breakfast was over, and the three of us were turned out of the house so Mum could clean and do whatever else it was that she did during the day. I led the way out back and grabbed the bucket that hung on the wall.

“You know, I’ve always wondered— why chickens?” Harry asked as I filled the pail with feed.

“Who the hell knows? We never eat them, only their eggs.”

“Yeah, but you’ve a whole flock. Do you guys sell their eggs?”

“Nope.” I gave the pail over to Hermione who seemed eager to toss the grain into the pen. “I reckon Mum just likes them.”

We dawdled in the yard, doing a little of everything but mostly nothing until we decided that it wasn’t too early to slip into the woods. After we disappeared through the trees and were far enough away from the house, we walked more naturally, slowly and with touches between us. I slipped my hand into the back pocket of Hermione’s jeans and Harry shyly laced his fingers through mine.

The trees above us got thick and the light filtered down in uneven and shifting patches. The brook was in earshot, and I didn’t really want to go any farther and risk anyone seeing the three of us together. If there was one thing I'd learned after last year, it was that the media would go to any lengths for the inside scoop on The-Boy-Who-Lived.

Hermione pulled away from us and, as if she were reading my mind, settled herself under a tree. I followed suit, sitting across from her and pulled the Boy Wonder down between Hermione and me.

“You know, it’s been two months since I’ve seen you last, and you’ve not even kissed me, Harry!” Hermione leaned forward, her hands splayed in the grass, hair wild and gleaming in the patchy light. Hermione’s breasts were easily seen; the V of her jumper seemed deeper in this position and I just couldn’t look away.

“Hmm. I should fix that then, huh?” Harry murmured, his eyes hooded and focused on hers, a slow smirk spreading across his face.

“I would think so.”

“Well then, I guess I have to. I’ve not known you to get such important things wrong.”

I almost fucked up and mentioned Scabbers, I was able to keep my mouth shut and watch the pair of them trade kisses. The two of them together was always something special to watch. They were never rushed – it was like all their interactions were made of savory sensual sensations. Nothing like the rushed, half-wrestling tumbles I enjoyed when Harry was fresh off the pitch, or the rare times that Hermione was willing to sneak into an empty classroom and twist my brain and body to new adrenaline-and-dirty-talk-fueled heights. It was closer to those rare nights when the Astronomy Tower was empty and we reveled in all each of us had to offer.

Harry’s hand had moved from his lap to Hermione’s waist and I watched as he fingered the little patches of skin that showed whenever her jumper rode up even the lightest bit. Those hands slowly disappeared under the pale wool, and I just knew that Harry was going to unhook her bra.

Hermione was wriggling obscenely as she shifted up onto her hands and knees. The two separated just enough to draw breath before they started in again. This time it was hotter: they were nipping and biting, turning each other’s lips and necks red with their semi-coordinated nibbles.

I couldn't stand watching a minute more. I moved closer, pressing myself flush against Hermione’s back. I could feel her shallow pants and the tightness of her muscles. I wrapped my arms around her waist and reached toward the placket of Harry’s denims. I didn’t even have to fumble with any stupid buttons for once. I groped him a few times through the fabric, slipped one hand past the cloth of his pants and rubbed and gripped his cock with as much care as I could.

My free hand snaked up the front of Hermione’s shirt, and I kneaded one of her breasts lightly as I lapped at the shell of Hermione’s ear, making her still and moan in a completely indecent way. That long, breathless moan jump-started Harry into action. Suddenly he couldn’t get his clothes off fast enough. He shoved the clothing off his legs as fast as he could, not even pausing to kick off his shoes first.

I stripped Hermione of her top while she pushed back against me. As soon as the jumper was over her head, she turned to me and started on the buttons of my shirt. I laid on my back looking up at her and I couldn’t fight the goofy grin that plastered itself on my face. Her hair was more wild and bushy than ever before. Her face was pinched in a frustrated and focused expression as she tackled the irritatingly small buttons.

‘Mione’s skirt was rucked up to her hips. She wasn’t wearing knickers and the thatch of hair between her legs had been trimmed into an oddly intricate design —figures that she would have to excel at that, too. I was struck dumb when I realized that her breasts were loose and swaying with her every move. Her nipples were perky, and such a lovely brown that I felt the urge to put my mouth on them.

I pressed my hand against her chest and pushed her back. It was amazing to see Hermione arch backward like that. Her legs were still folded as if she were still straddling me, but her back was flat on the ground, Her arms reached up to catch Harry and pull him down over her so she could practically fuck his mouth with her tongue.

I kissed her collarbone and made her skin red with little bites and sucks until I came to those lovely little nipples. Again she moaned, but this time she wasn’t the only one. Harry, despite being occupied with Hermione, had managed to get his hands on the buttons of my jeans. I shoved his hand away, barely thinking anything of it, until he pulled away, completely yanking Hermione from her lusty haze.

“What’s wrong, Harry?” she asked, shifting so that she was propped up on her elbows and moving so her legs were no longer folded underneath her.

“If you aren’t into me like that, you should have just said so.”

“Wait, what? Hermione was into that. Can’t you tell?” I admit, it took me a minute to realize that Harry was talking to me. In my defense, most of my blood had long ago left my brain and was hanging around further south.

“If we're only going to do this because Hermione likes it-”

“Do what? I was into it, you were into it, Hermione was into it. What's the issue?”

“You won't let me touch you, Ron.” Harry jerked a hand towards me, I looked down and suddenly realized I was still for the most part dressed. My pants were done up, my shirt, while pushed back, wasn’t off. “Every single time I try to, you distract me, push my hands away or suddenly have the urge to suck my cock!”

Fuck.

Fuck.

Fuckfuckfuck!

“Look, it’s not like that at all. I’m just— just—” I couldn’t even figure out what to say. I was tripping over words like a gnome over turnips. “Look.”

Hermione looked at me, then Harry, then me again, I could practically hear the wheels in her head turning.

“You too?” Hermione piped in. I couldn’t help but cover my face with my hands and take a deep breath; they were acting like I wasn’t even there. “I just assumed he was body shy or something.”

“Come on Ron, it can't be that small. You’ve showered with…” His voice trailed off, and I felt him come closer to me.

I dragged my hands down my face, praying that this only be a wet dream gone horrendously bad when I opened my eyes. I had no such luck. When I opened my eyes, I had Harry’s face just inches from me, his green eyes studying me as if seeing me for the first time in a long while.

“You’ve never been in the shower at the same time as anyone else… not that I can remember.”

“Sure I have.”

Harry snorted in a way that clearly meant ‘pull the other one – it has bells!’. Disbelief I expected; for him to just reach forward and start in on the buttons of my trousers wasn’t something I'd counted on. I stood there frozen for a moment before I pushed his hands away again.

“Ron, just tell me what’s wrong. Are you shy? Is it freckled? Because to tell you the truth, I kind of expected that.”

“Yes, it's freckled; no, there’s not a problem!” I snapped.

“Is it small?” Both Harry and I turned to Hermione with looks of affront and blatant disbelief that Hermione— Little Miss Tact— would say something like that.

“No, it’s not small!”

“Then show us. It’s nothing that Hermione hasn’t seen or I don’t have.”

I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. It was so stupid! We should have all been shagging like rabbits, or at least those two would go at it like bunnies while I maneuvered from the outside of the pairing. But instead, here I was, trying to keep my best friends from knowing what a complete freak I was.

“For love and misery, Ron, quit it with the suspense!” Hermione wasn’t as patient or willing to wait as Harry. She shoved me backwards with both hands and pulled my clothes off, slapping my hands away when I went to shove hers off. Before I could try again, I felt the cool summer air on my skin and closed my eyes. I crossed my arms over my face and took a deep breath. There was no way out of this now. It was all over. I stayed perfectly still, refusing to move, hoping that I’d turn invisible. I knew it wouldn’t work; my accidental magic just set things ablaze when I was in a bad temper and always at an inopportune time.

The silence was awful. I could feel their eyes on me and I could hear their gasps. But the lack of talking is what scared me the most. Harry and Hermione were probably disgusted with me. I wasn’t normal in any way, shape or form, I was a Halfling in the worst of ways- there was nothing that could possibly change the way I was. On top of that I'd lied and let them believe that I was normal all this time.

“Oh my God.” Hermione’s whisper echoed through the forest as if it were a canyon. “How is this possible?”

“Hermione,” Harry snapped, “We turn mice into tea cups! Stop and think for a second.”

“Is this why, Ron?” Her voice seemed to thunder in my ears even though I knew she was whispering. I just couldn’t move, couldn’t talk… All I could do was breathe, and then I barely managed even that. “Does it all work? Is it all connected— it’s fascinating really. Do you menstruate?”

Fuck! I mean, really, shut up, Hermione.

“Hermione, shut up.” For about half a minute I though Harry could read my mind. That hypothesis was shot to hell once I felt blunt callused fingers on the skin of my inner thigh.

I knew they were Harry’s hands; they were impossibly warm, square, and they scraped my skin lightly even though he was being gentle. They squeezed slightly and trailed up lightly to the source of my shame. I hadn’t expected for either of them to touch me —Harry even less so – but he did. It wasn’t like anything else. I had touched myself, frequently, and always with a certain lust driven carelessness that seemed to appear with masturbation.

Harry’s movements were deliberate and careful. His hands were firm against my skin. I don’t know why, but having him touch me was better than touching myself had ever been. His hands circled the entrance of my cunt and I jerked my hips to the side. I don’t know if I was trying to get away or what, I just had to move. Harry paid the shift no mind and I felt him wiggle one finger in, rubbing and coaxing me open to more.

I was at least ten times as sensitive under Harry’s deft hands. But I was completely incoherent under his tongue.

“What the fuck!” I was spurred into action by the sensation. My thighs slammed together and I was propped up on my forearms, looking down at Harry. I knew I must have been blushing harder than ever before. It was so embarrassing and completely confusing. Harry was looking at me, my cock right next to his face, his fingers deep in my cunt.

“You don’t like that?”

“Do you always go licking strange things!?”

“Ron, it's not all that strange. I’ve done it before, you watched.”

“Yeah but Hermione doesn’t—“

“No she doesn’t have a cock but I’m pretty sure I do.” When he pinned me with those eyes, I knew I wouldn’t be able to turn away; his green eyes trapped me. “Granted, I’ve never seen both on the same person before, but it doesn’t matter to me, Ron. You’re still you.”

Harry leaned forward and kissed me before I could even open my mouth again. I thought vaguely about how gross it should be to taste my own cunt, but I shrugged it off once Harry started fingering me again.

I’m not too clear on how it happened —I blame the sensation overload— but in the end I was balls deep in Hermione, who was seated on my cock and sprawled on my chest with her arms tight around my shoulders. Her face pressed into the nape of my neck, where I was sure I was going to have bruises from her teeth. Harry must have been built for endurance because even though Hermione and I were completely spent and fucked stupid, he was still going strong. My legs were splayed wide and his thighs were kind of propping up my lower half as he angled into my cunt just right on each thrust.

The friction had hurt a bit, but not in a bad way. I knew I’d feel it later when it was time to move, but until then…






When Harry was done, the three of us sprawled on the grass lethargically. Everything was quiet and still when I realized I was still completely naked and not freaking out.

“So.” I turned my head to face Hermione, who had finally pulled her face from my poor mauled neck to speak.

“Do you menstruate or not?” I couldn’t even blame Harry for laughing. I was too.

(-)


I said my good-byes at the platform and waved to my parents as the train pulled off. I had felt muzzy all morning and I was exhausted. I had stayed up late the night before and was dead on my feet, but still I was standing in the front car with the other Prefects and Professor Flitwick, who was the train’s chaperone this trip.

I slouched in my chair as the Head Boy gave his speech; a general recap of last year, the new rules or changes, and who was taking the first shift of the year. I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes against the rocking of the train.

“Ron, are you alright?”

I heard a voice in my ear and turned to see Melody, a Ravenclaw prefect hovering at my shoulder while Hermione sat across from me looking equal parts disapproving and concerned. “Yeah, thanks.” I nodded for a second and then stopped when my head spun. “I’ve got a bit of a head ache. Couldn’t turn off yesterday.”

She gave me a sympathetic smile and continued to ignore Darcy’s speech about the dangers of not steering the firsties away from the fifth floor swamp.

I made a few rounds, barely able to keep my eyes open as I passed from car to car. The first three cars were almost always firsties and they were pretty timid and quiet so I had no problems whatsoever. It didn’t take long for me to find the car I had left Harry in and doze off.

The dream I had was trippy. I was sitting at the head table in the Great Hall next to ferret face Malfoy and eating black rabbits. I woke up feeling more tired than before the nap and hated the train for a few good minutes. Luckily enough my head ache and nausea was gone.

I didn’t see Harry when I left the train but I hadn’t thought much of it. He was probably in a carriage with Neville or Luna or maybe even one of our roommates. So I rode up to the school in one of the last carriages with Hermione and some random 'Puff. It wasn’t until we walked into the Great Hall and went to sit at his sides at our table that we realized that he wasn’t there.

Hermione told McGonagall that Harry was MIA, and she told us to wait, that the train was currently being checked for any sleeping or missed students. It was a tense half-hour before Snape walked in with Harry at his shoulder. There was a little bit of blood on Harry’s face, but I didn’t question it, not where everyone could hear.

He slid into place between Hermione and me and started to pile up his plate.

We followed suit and started in on our now cold food. I grimaced at the metallic taste in my mouth and lost most of my appetite. It didn’t matter much anyway; I just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep.

Things went the same way they usually did; classes were long, essays were tedious, Snape and Harry were at each other’s throats and Quidditch tryouts were coming up. Every time I thought about it, I got nauseous. My mouth would start to water and I could taste bile, which was annoying as all hell because Quidditch was all I thought about.

The day of tryouts I was a wreck. I could barely catch anything, my head was spinning and I felt like I was going to throw up. But I had apparently done better than the others because I made the team and they didn’t complain.

I guess my name finally worked to my advantage there, Weasleys were always on the Gryffindor house team. Quidditch and having babies by the dozen were what we were known for. I expected complaining about nepotism and all that jazz.

The team and the lot that had tried out all hit the showers. I was shocked that the locker room had shower stalls, but I guess if there is a co-ed team, you can't have just dorm-like shower rooms. I washed up and dressed in the same stall; there was too many people here for me risk anything (not that I would).

I left the stall only to run into Harry, who was still pretty much naked with only a towel around his hips. I couldn’t help but to look him over appreciatively. Wet and naked looked good on him. His glasses weren’t on his face; they were useless in the heat of the locker room as the steam fogged them up hopelessly.

“You’ve got to be the most modest person I’ve ever known, Ron.”

“Well of course. I mean, no need to go around telling people how fantastic I am. It would only make them jealous.” Harry pretended not to crack a smile as he rolled his eyes. “Nah, I’m just a bit body-shy… I’m not…I’m freckled everywhere, you know. Not a good look.”

“I don’t mind the freckles, all that much.” I turned and saw Hermione standing in the door way, grinning. “It goes along with the whole ginger thing,” she teased me while she blatantly eyed up Harry.

“Good point.”

“Oi, shut up you two.” I shoved Harry lightly as he fell into step besides me. “Some red heads don’t have any freckles at all.”

“Then they got into the Manic Panic!” Harry quipped, threading his arm through mine as Hermione practically pranced in front of us.

Hermione snickered and I was lost. Apparently it must have been really funny because had she lagged for a moment to laugh and fell into step with us.

It must be one of those Muggle things; they had weird names and even weirder uses. Like the felly-tone, what good was a conversation if you can’t talk face to face? Just write a letter!

We passed the Whomping Willow, and a few second-years when I noticed that something felt off. Hermione had stopped laughing and she looked really pale. Before I could ask if she was all right she pitched forward.

Harry —bless him and his kneazle-like reflexes— snatched the back of her jumper and held her up just long enough for me to get a hold of her.

“’Mione, ‘Mionie… OI!” I couldn’t think of anything to do but shake her. Which apparently didn’t help, she was still out cold. “Fuck, fuck… Harry, what the hell happened?”

Hermione’s body lifted into a horizontal position slowly and she hovered there in front of me. Her face was pale, the areas under her eyes were dark, her hair was glossy and her cheeks, oddly enough, looked fuller.

Mobilicorpus.” The incantation strapped Hermione to an invisible stretcher. “We’ve got to get her to Pomfrey.”

I nodded and rushed to the other side of Hermione. I could protect her from this side while Harry had the other. We took off at a run, unwilling to allow whoever had tried to kill her a second chance.

Harry and I burst into the infirmary out of breath and calling for Madam Pomfrey, who came running out of her office (I had no idea that old battle axe could move so quick) with her wand at the ready.

“Mr. Potter! What’s happened?” She somehow took control of the spell and maneuvered Hermione’s limp body to the far bed that was usually occupied by Harry.

“We don’t know!” Harry spat out; he was starting to look pale too. His eyes were huge and more pupil than anything else. “She just collapsed. We were talking and she just fell!”

Percunctor et estus” The incantation was something I had heard a million times before. Any time something was wrong with one of us, Mum would use that spell to find out what it was.

Pomfrey waved her wand over Hermione moving from toe to head and back. Her eyebrows drew together and her mouth pinched. The matron jerked her wand sharply at the curtains, which slid closed, shutting Harry and me out of Hermione’s immediate area.

Harry took a step forward, but then stopped him self, not wanting to interrupt whatever was going on behind that curtain. I watched him carefully stare blankly at the dividers, looking for all the world like a lost little boy. With a quick check to make sure no one was around to see, I wrapped one long arm around Harry’s thin shoulders and pulled him back to my chest.

I stood straight and firm as he leaned into me and pressed my nose into his hair. It always smelled the same, minty and pleasant like the shampoo Dobby had taken to making for him back in second year.

“She’ll be fine, right?” he whispered into my collarbone.

“She’ll be right as rain in no time.” Harry’s fingers dug painfully into my waist, but I ignored it and rubbed his shoulder. “Pomfrey will fix her up just like she does you. And you’re good as new every time.”

“I don’t want her to die…” My stomach worked itself into a horrid knot and I cringed inwardly. I already knew where that train of thought was headed. “Everyone… they die.”

“No, Harry. Everyone you love doesn’t die.”

“I didn’t say that.” I felt more than heard that mumble.

“I know, I’m just putting that out there. You know, just in case other parties have that assumption.”

“Git.” He snorted as he pulled away from me.

“Oh, hush up, you.”

It wasn’t even a full ten minutes before Madame Pomfrey emerged from the sectioned off area. “Ms. Granger is perfectly fine.” It was easy to see that she was more than a little annoyed and very grim which didn’t make her words all that believable. “Mr. Weasley, Mr. Potter. Please return to your common room and send for your Head of House. Ms Granger will be staying the night.”

“If she’s fine then why does she have to stay?”

“Mr. Potter, there is something called patient confidentiality.”

“Yeah, but,” Harry protested, trying to make his way around Madame Pomfrey, who matched him step for step. “It’s Hermione!”

“Yes. It is Ms. Granger, Mr. Potter. That changes nothing about the circumstances,” she said with an air of finality. She placed a heavy hand on Harry’s shoulder and steered him, and apparently me too, towards the door. “I will alert you when Ms Granger awakens,” she said, with a remarkable amount of compassion for someone who was used to just issuing orders.

(-)


As I’m sure you guessed by now, after Harry and I had told McGonagall we threw the invisibility cloak over our shoulders and hurried after her. It was no easy thing to rush after McGonagall quietly enough not to alert her. Her legs were long, and I would have been able to keep up but Harry was shorter and took longer to cover the same ground. But we managed. The most difficult thing was slipping in behind McGonagall just as the door closed and not bumping into her.

As silently as possible we crept forward towards the curtains, crouching as low as we could to make sure that the cloak would cover us completely, and waited.

Madame Pomfrey looked at McGonagall with a skeptical eye. “I find it hard to believe that those two didn’t follow you down.”

“I didn’t see Mr. Potter or Mr. Weasley at all after I left the tower.”

“They’ll show up.” Pomfrey slid the white curtain to the side with her hand and sighed heavily. “They won't leave one of their own alone for long.”

“Gryffindors are—”

“No, Minerva. I wasn’t talking about your House. I was talking about those boys. When Ms. Granger had that potions mishap with the cat hair, they came and sat on the other side of the screen when she refused to see them. When the girl was practically turned to stone, they still came every day and sat beside her.”

“Yes well, they’re a very tight-knit trio.”

“Which is why I don’t want Mr. Potter or Mr. Weasley to know what’s happened. There would be murder on school grounds, and the way I figure it, those two wouldn’t even care to hide the body.”

I felt my breath catch in my chest and froze. Was Hermione not going to be okay? Was this the work of some junior Death Eater?

“Well Poppy, what could possibly be so very wrong that it calls for all this drama and secrecy?”

“The girl is pregnant, Minerva. She collapsed from a dizzy spell.”

I wanted to laugh. Hermione pregnant! It seemed impossible! I mean, she was the one who was always so hyped up on being safe and responsible and everything else.

“Ms. Granger? Are you sure, Poppy?” McGonagall’s eyes widened and strode closer to the curtain. “That is unlike her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knew at least thirteen different contraception charms.”

“I am very sure, Minerva.” Madame Pomfrey pulled back the curtains and my breath got caught in my throat. There was Hermione, lying on the hospital bed in one of those thin paper gowns. “What I don’t know is if she knows or not.”

“Right then, ennerverate.”

Harry and I scuttled closer but still gave the ladies wide berth. It wouldn’t do to be caught eavesdropping. We watched Hermione wake just like she always did, taking a deep breath before dragging her hands over her face and cracking her eyes open.

“Professor?” She rubbed her face again and looked around. “Where are Harry and Ron?”

I won’t lie, it felt really good to know that we were the first thing Hermione asked about.

“They are in their dorm room Ms Granger.” It was a testament to our knowledge of each other that she looked around the room trying to see any hint of where we might be. A sunken chair cushion, a patch of depressed carpet, a small area where the dust motes didn’t fly, they were all giveaways that Mad Eye Moody had taught us to look for. I don’t think she saw us, but with Hermione you never really know.

“What happened? I was watching the Quidditch try outs and then—”

“You fainted Ms Granger.” Madame Pomfrey shoved a vial toward Hermione who downed it immediately. “Ms Granger… You are in a bit of a delicate situation. Did you know?”

“Am I sick or something? I mean I thought I was a bit off, but I didn’t think it was anything very serious.”

McGonagall sat on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on Hermione’s thigh. “Child, you’re not sick.”

“Then what’s wrong?” McGonagall and Pomfrey were making pitying faces that were making Hermione visibly nervous. She fidgeted, pulling at her fingers and nipping at her lip. “Where the guys? Why aren’t they here?” Harry had apparently thought that a cue because he brushed his fingers over the divider curtains to make them sway a bit.

“I thought I would be best if they stayed in their dorm for this one. After all, it’s a very personal thing.” Madame Pomfrey took the empty vial from Hermione and sighed.

“What is a personal thing? Do I have an infection? What is it?”

“Dear girl, have you been getting these short dizzy spells for a while now?” Hermione nodded. “Nausea? Vomiting? Loss of appetite? Fatigue?”

Thinking back I tried to remember if Hermione hadn’t looked well. But all I could remember was the last time I was throwing up and beat.

“Yes, I just thought I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I’ve been revising all my old notes.” She flushed and looked down ashamed, “I slacked off this summer and haven’t really studied as much as I ought."

McGonagall smiled sadly and I didn’t understand why —so what if there was a baby? It wasn’t like Hermione would have to drop out of school. There are three of us, and Mum would watch a kid during the day; she did it for more than half of our cousins.

“Ms Granger, Hermione. You’re pregnant.”

“No, I’m not,” Hermione blurted. “I can't b—” I felt guilt in the pit of my stomach as realization dawned on her. We hadn’t even bothered with contraception. We never intended to go that far. We hadn’t thought we were ready just yet.

“Really dear, you are.” Madame Pomfrey said and produced a palm sized white ball and little orange vial. “This ball—” She pressed it into Hermione’s small hand, “—will glow green if you are pregnant and stay white if you are not. After that, if you want to know the gender, just shake it and it will turn blue for female and red for male.”

I could feel Harry holding tightly onto my forearm as he leaned forward to see what color the ball was. He turned back toward me with a look of awe and I knew without another hint the ball was green.

“Now, Ms Granger. I understand this is a lot to take in at once…” Madame Pomfrey had taken the visitor’s chair besides the hospital cot and leaned forward so she could face Hermione fully. “But you have some …tough, choices to make. And please remember that these choices are all yours to make, since you are legally an adult.

"There are a few things we can do. If you want, we can contact your parents and ask them to help you sort this all out. We can inform the father, and get him to come and help you decide what you want to do about the pregnancy.”

“Wait, what do you mean, to do about the pregnancy?”

“Please know that no matter what you decide, this won't leave the room unless you want it to, and I certainly won't judge you, either.” Madame Pomfrey sat up, brushed invisible dirt off of her apron, pulled at the hem and then opened her hand to show Hermione the little orange vial. “This is a potion that would abort the pregnancy. It is one option. The others are keeping and raising the child or giving the child up for adoption.”

I don’t know who was more horrified at the idea of giving away or even killing the baby. Hermione looked sick, Harry was shaking like a leaf, and I could barely breathe.

“No, thank you. I won't need the potion,” Hermione whispered, but it echoed through the infirmary, bringing with it relief. “Can I have a minute though? It’s a lot to process….”

“Of course, dear. Give a shout if you need me.” Madame Pomfrey checked Hermione over once more before leading McGonagall into her office.

As soon as the door shut, the cloak was off and we were at Hermione’s bedside. It was quiet for a minute. Hermione was fidgeting when Harry reached over and grabbed her hand. His fingers laced with hers and I put a hand on her shoulder. I had no idea what to say we all just looked at each other for a while.

“Thank you…” Harry’s green eyes were glassy and his lips quivered. He might have seen me watching him because he bowed his head and took a deep shuddering breath. Harry leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Hermione’s. “Thank you so much, Hermione.”

I made my way to the other side of her bed so that I could rub her shoulders and pull the little ball from her clenched hands. Even as I tried to comfort her I kept one eye on the ball. It flared green when it sat in my palm. I put the ball on the side table before anyone else could see and hid my face in the wild mane of brown hair.

I was fucked —no. Actually, I was pregnant.

(-)


“Madame Pomfrey says I collapsed because my blood pressure dropped too quickly. It's been a bit on the low side.” Hermione visited the subject tentatively, as if she weren’t seated between Harry and me on my bed as we looked through magazines, books and medical journals about pregnancy. “I’m two months pregnant, I’ll be three months towards the end of October.”

Harry nodded and pulled a book from behind him. He flipped through the pages and passed it towards Hermione when he got to whatever page it was. “Yeah, they said it might go up and down quickly while you’re in the first few months. It’s a pretty common thing.”

I waved my wand over the article and copied it to a blank piece of parchment. We were keeping all tips or helpful articles in a folder. We would sort through them all later. Hermione accused me of being thoughtful; I blushed because I knew that I was being more than a little selfish. All of the research we did for Hermione would benefit me, too.

“Harry, what do we do about it?” Again, this was my selfishness. Please don’t think I don’t care about the baby Hermione is carrying— I do, really— it's just that things were dangerous. This was a wartime generation, and I was attached to the figurehead of the of the resistance". I would never be able to bring myself to down a little orange vial. I understood why some did, but it wasn’t for me.

“What are we going to do?” Hermione echoed, bewildered with horror etched in her face.

“I thought we already decided to keep the baby.” Harry looked ready to haul off and punch me. I knew he'd always wanted a family, but I never really knew how much. The fury in his face made it very clear.

“Not about that, our living arrangements.” The other two relaxed, and I wondered just for a minute if they really knew me as well as I had thought they did. “We can’t stay with my parents like this! They’ll have a fit, plus that house is much too small. Hermione’s parents aren’t magic, they can't put up wards and things, and the Dursleys are a no-go.”

“The baby will be a target.” Hermione picked up on the point immediately. I expected nothing less from her. I knew I couldn’t say the words myself. I felt just awful for bringing it up once I saw the look of devastation on her face and the way her body seemed to suddenly curl around her stomach. “I’m Muggle born, Ron is a Pureblood whose family is publicly anti-Voldemort, and you too, Harry… We can’t risk this.”

It was strange how, although we had known about the baby for almost a week, I was still detached. I knew Hermione would be a mum soon, and I knew I was going to give birth, too. These were all things I knew but they seemed strange and foreign —almost unreal. Yet, here I was, still worrying about them.

I nibbled at my lip and skimmed through the possibilities. Harry owned Grimmauld Place, but that wasn’t really secure, not when Kreacher could make a mess of things again. Not that I would want to live or raise a kid in such a depressing place; Sirius said that house had driven him mad as a kid, that it was worse than Azkaban in several ways.

“We’ll buy a house of our own, somewhere Muggle, maybe even out of the country if we can manage it. We can ward it and everything else. That way we won't have to worry too much.”

“We can use my trust fund. My parents left me more than enough gold... I’ve got inheritance from…” he let his sentence tape off. We all knew he wanted to say Sirius, but couldn’t bring himself to say the name.

I gagged once or twice on my pride before swallowing it all down. I wouldn’t be able to afford a house straight out of school and having kids in flats seemed fundamentally wrong to me. The Burrow may not have been big, but it never mattered much to my family, we were out side playing and exploring most of the time.

Hermione protested in the way I couldn’t afford to. “Harry, that’s for school, isn’t it? And even if it wasn’t, that’s your money! We can't just—”

“I’ve got more than enough. And it's not like I’m wasting it all on something stupid -- it’s a house.” Harry smiled widely and my heart and stomach plummeted to my shoes, the very same way a Bludger drops out of the sky when the enchantments wear off mid-game. Harry never smiled.

I mean sure, I had seen him grin, smirk and even on the rare occasion that there was something too funny to pass off with an amused quirk of his lips, he snickered. I had see Harry enraged, sad, lonely and even depressed; he was very open with his emotions, all of them except for happiness. I'd always thought Harry was afraid to be happy. He always smothered any signs of joy, like if someone knew he was happy, they would take it away. But here he was, smiling. It was a genuine smile that reached his eyes and made him radiate excitement and joy.

“I finally get to have my own family. Let me be selfish and take care of thing for once, alright?”

There wasn’t much Hermione and I could bring ourselves to say to that. In the end, we just nodded and agreed.

“Great, so what are we looking for in a house? I want a big kitchen.”


Part 03

November rolled around faster than I thought it would.

Harry was caught up in his lessons with Dumbledore, being frustratingly helpless when Hermione wasn’t feeling her best and chose to sharpen her claws on him, fending off Ginny’s advances and Slughorn’s attempts to entangle him in the “Slug Club.” He was, more often than not, dealing with the general crap that came with his name and position in the Wizarding World. and writing letters to Remus and the Goblins who were acting on his behalf when it came to the house business.

Hermione was handling this beautifully, in my opinion. She all but floated and glowed when moved. She was bubbly and cheerful most of the time, but during the early afternoons she was would scream or snap at Harry. Luckily, I was spared her wrath because she liked the way I rubbed her shoulders, and held her hair back when she threw up. At night, she craved chocolate-covered pretzels or pickled pears, and was always cold. Her nighttime chills were so bad that she and Harry switched sleeping spots.

Hermione started to spell her skirts looser and wear my uniform shirts, but mostly she wore oversized sweaters and my old robes around the castle. It was odd, but she looked cute practically swimming in my former clothes.

For me, things were less pleasant. Food had become the enemy; I was always nauseous and couldn’t stomach anything more than fruits, salads and bread. Spotted Dick still looked and smelled as appetizing as mucous-covered flobber worm dung. My new eating habits got me strange looks from some of my housemates, and Harry picked up the habit too. He might have thought that I was trying to sympathize with Hermione.

My nose wouldn’t stop running and I was always burning hot and sweating. My hair wouldn’t stop growing and thickening and after a while I gave up trimming it. I was perpetually tired, suffering from heartburn, and always had to pee.

My stupid shite body was changing on top of that. I managed to get a bit of pudge around my middle, and my hips hurt and ached at night. I guess my body was making room for the baby in residence. I was glad that I had kept the habit of showering alone and at obscure times because the changes were happening further south as well; my balls and even the lips of my cunt were tinted purple (yet another marvelous pregnancy side effect).

And to make matters worse, I was fighting off tears at the drop of a hat, and had and got the insane urge to knit when no one was looking. It was embarrassing, so I shoved the yarn and pair of needles I stole from Hermione under my pillow every time I thought someone was looking my way.

(-)


I was already a complete mess, but Quidditch practice made it worse. I was awful. I wasn’t awake enough to be alert and attentive, I fumbled every time the ball was thrown my way, and I was ready to throw in the towel by the end. Then I got to see Dean and my sister sucking face behind the bleachers.

I could have been more rational about things, yes I know. But have a little courtesy! Tell a guy before you go about snogging his sister behind the pitch! The worst I would have done was punch him once, and even then probably in the arm at that! I actually liked Dean, as opposed to that irritating Corner kid. But I was hurt and irrational, so I was a bit rash.

We shouted at each other a bit, and true to form, Ginny snapped something ugly and personal, then stormed off. I patted myself on the back for having the foresight not to remind her about the family secret when we were younger. That would have definitely been thrown in my face.

I left Harry standing stupidly with Dean and stormed off to the locker room.

It took me until after I'd showered and was on my way to the Gryffindor dorms to realize that I was knackered. Trudging up the tower stairs was excruciating, and climbing to the boys' dorm room was even worse. I flopped down onto my bed, drew the curtains, and pulled out my yarn balls, needles and the mostly-done baby blanket from the nightstand. Everything but the rhythm of needles and a stupid rhyme seemed to melt into the background.

“Under the fence, catch the sheep. Back we come, off we leap.” The whole thing, from yarn to rhyme, reminded me of my mother. For the first time since I was eleven, I was homesick and letting the tears stream freely down my face. It was humiliating, and I was so glad to be alone that I didn’t even hear the door open.

“Ron,” Hermione opened the curtains of the bed, and I shoved the ball of yarn under the pillow. She rolled her eyes and sighed. “It's alright, Ron. I know you knit.”

“Belt up and get in here.”

Hermione grinned and slipped in behind the curtain and climbed over my legs to get to her place beside me. She just lay there watching me work the yarn over the needles quickly. I was grateful for the curtains, they gave everything a reddish glow so she couldn’t see the blush on my face.

“You’re really good at that. Much better than me, everything I make looks horrid. I haven’t even tried to make anything for the baby.”

“Mum taught me when I was little and made me help her do the Christmas jumpers when my brothers were at school.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but don’t worry too much. Ginny’s got no talent for it, can’t cook a whit either, now that I think of it.” I nudge Hermione’s side a bit, trying to get a smile from her.

“How much stuff have you made so far?” she asked me as she ran her hands over the mostly completed blanket; this one I would keep for my baby.

“A few dozen layette sets, six blankets and a thick amount of booties.” I muttered. Knitting at the speed of light isn’t exactly something that I’m proud of. “I’m bored but I don’t want to do anything that includes getting out of bed or revising, so this is it.”

“I know something we can do!” Hermione said cheerfully, her fingers pushed away the yarn and needles and rested on my chest I turned my head to the side and caught her Cheshire cat grin. “We don’t even have to leave the comfort of bed!”

When Hermione crawled on top of me, I realized that this, this was the one side effect of pregnancy that I loved. Hermione had a serious case of nymphomania. Between classes, after classes, during lunch… It was insane and intense because I was matching her, orgasm for orgasm. At night after we turned in, the two of us would start making out and messing around; Harry was relegated to watching. Something about him made Hermione angry and I wasn’t about to lose my daytime shag partner because I let Harry have his way. However, I made up for the times I snubbed Harry during the times that I had free periods with him and Hermione was off in Arithmancy or Astronomy.

(-)


By December 1st I had figured out that bananas stopped the vomiting, going at saltines like a beaver at wood would hold off the worst of the nausea, that if I ate ice cubes and drank cranberry juice, I wouldn’t be running for the bathroom during every class or sweating like Goyle, and somehow had made it to number one on Hermione’s shit-list.

I gave up on trying to follow what was going on with everyone to hole up in the library, learning concealment spells. My stomach was getting large and more obvious by the day, and ‘notice-me-not’ spells weren’t going to hide this forever. Hermione was always suspicious of seeing me in the library. She’d glare at me and refuse to say a word, and I just didn’t get it.

We were sitting across from each other, looking up charms, when suddenly she sprung up from her seat, grabbed my arm and pressed it to the hidden lump of her stomach. I was going to ask her what the hell she was doing when I felt it.

It was barely more than a flutter but I still felt it.

A little thump against my palm was all that I needed to yank Hermione down into my lap and kiss her as best as I could. For the first time since we landed in this situation I had proof. Tangible proof that I wasn’t alone; proof that Hermione was pregnant just like I was, proof that we would all be a family just as soon as I worked up the nerve to tell the truth.

(-)


“You’re not going to come to the Burrow with us?” Harry asked as we settled down on the sofa towards the back of the common room. I looked at Hermione over the handkerchief I was using; it would be odd, after all this time, to not have her icy toes pressed against my thighs.

“No —get down, Crookshanks!” The stupid cat yowled when Hermione shoved him off of her lap again. “This is probably the last Christmas that I’ll spend with just my parents.”

I nodded, understanding, and Harry backed off with minimal pouting.

“So, I meant to ask you guys. Is it alright if I tell them?” She gestured vaguely to her stomach and I blanched.

I hadn’t even told my mother about any of this yet, and telling Dad was not an option. Usually Dad was the one that we could turn to for an understanding and sympathetic ear. He was the go-to if you were afraid to confess to Mum or just couldn’t bear the embarrassment of a situation. But when it came to things like this, where exposure was possible, he was a tyrant.

I remembered when I was six and Charlie had been sent home from school, suspended for indecent behavior behind the greenhouses with some girl a year above him. Ginny and I were in the next room and could hear the shouting.

Nothing had happened; they hadn’t gone very far, but that there was a possibility that she could have seen— would have told —had sent Dad into a frenzy. I don’t honestly know what happened, but I know that when Dad had stormed out of the house, Charlie was in tears. He was wailing and inconsolable. Mum held him and tried to soothe him, but still he cried until he had exhausted himself.

Charlie hadn’t been himself for a few days afterward. He steered clear of Dad and seemed to be on pins and needles like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. He barely ate, and had carried me into his room when I was asleep more than once. Every day of the week that Charlie had been suspended I woke up in his bed. Whatever Dad had said, shown or had done to Charlie was so terrifying that he was afraid to sleep alone.

And I, for one, didn't want to know what it was.

I sighed and tipped my head back against the sofa cushions. "Hermione, tell them if you want to. It's not like they have to know all of the gritty details." My fingers itched for those stupid knitting needles just to get rid of the nervous energy that cropped up out of nowhere.

“Will they make you…” Harry licked his lips nervously and threaded his fingers between Hermione’s, gripping hard and desperately. “Will they make you go to a clinic?”

“Honestly, I don’t see what the problem with that is. Don’t Muggles have those machines that let you actually see the baby? I think that would be pretty cool.”

“Not that kind of clinic, Ron.” Hermione looked at my twitching fingers and waved her wand about a bit. “No Harry, they won't make me. If I don’t want to, they’ll respect that. But if you want me to, Harry, I’ll tell them I’m six months in.”

My hand drifted towards my own stomach at the thought of killing the little thing that fluttered and squirmed inside of me but I caught myself just in time and stilled my hand. Just then I saw my knitting drift down the stairs and into my lap. I gave Hermione a token glare for exposing my shameful secret, but took up the needles anyway; my hands were itching something awful.

“You knit?” Harry ran his fingers over the finished portion of the baby sack. This one was for me to keep; I loved the mix of gray and teal.

“Yeah. You’ve met my mum, right?”

“Well yeah, but I didn’t know she'd taught you how to knit. Aunt Petunia showed me how to crochet when I was little.” He got that look on his face that I knew meant he was thinking of something that he would never tell us. “I don’t have the patience for it, anymore.” I just nodded and continued with the hood of the sack.

We sat there tangled with each other on the sofa until the clock in the corner read one-thirty. I shoved the knitting into my bag and shuffled through the contents to make sure I had my Potions text. Slughorn liked Harry and Hermione, he even liked Ginny enough to overlook them not being prepared, but I wasn’t a beneficiary of his nepotism.

Hermione pulled her legs from under my thighs and stood up to stretch. “I’ve got to go to the infirmary. Madame Pomfrey is calling in that Pediatrics Healer to meet with me.”

“During a class? Potions, nonetheless?”

“This is the only time the woman can make it, so I need to go. I’m grateful that she’s even meeting with me at all.” Hermione shrugged. “Besides, it's not like Slughorn will care, or deviate from the text any. Snape may have been an unfair berk, but he was a better Potions teacher.”

Harry sighed, put away the sheaf of papers he was reading, and got up too. “I’ll walk you; I’ve got to send an owl off to Remus anyway. We’ll have a house of our own when everything goes through.”

I felt the little flutter of the baby in me and bit down sharply on my lip. I wanted to tell them, but it was a bad time. We couldn’t really talk about it now. Harry and I had class and Hermione was going to the hospital wing. Not that I really wanted to talk about it, but pregnancies are one of those things that require talking …I guess.

Ugh, this was so annoying!

I mean yeah, they knew I wasn’t completely male. Hermione had fingered and licked me just moments before Harry had been inside of me. They handled it well and never brought it up unless we were fucking. That had to be torture for Hermione. She had given me questioning looks for weeks after she knew, and barely held back a million questions, starting with ‘why didn’t you tell us?’.

I shouldered my bag, promising myself to work up the nerve and tell them before the day was over, and held open the door of the portrait hole for Hermione, who climbed through it awkwardly. We parted at the grand staircase, and I headed toward the Hogwarts kitchens. If I wanted to get through the next two hours of stirring and mixing and chopping repulsive things, I was going to need a peanut butter, banana and honey sandwich with a massive cup of hot of milk.

The house-elves had fawned over me like they never had before, and I looked down hesitantly. Elf magic was different. It was more basic and truthful than the magic of wizards, they could probably see through my glamour without even trying to. Either that, or I was getting to be as paranoid Mad-Eye Moody. I took my sandwich and bolted it down on the way to class.

I managed to walk in a minute or so before Harry did, so Slughorn wasn’t going to take points from me or else he’d have to deduct from Harry as well. Everything was normal for the most part; we read over the recipe, the distillation formulas and then finally were released to gather our supplies from the cupboards. Harry was fending off Slughorn’s attempt to get him to come to the Christmas party he was throwing, so I tromped off to get our supplies.

Most of the rush was over by the time I made it to the closet; Parkinson was trying to jump up and reach the last jar of hellebore powder on the high shelf. Figuring myself taller and a bit of an arse, I reached up over her to grab the jar. I had it in my hand when Parkinson, in all her spiteful pug-faced glory, smacked it out of my hand.

When the jar hit the ground, it shattered, and thick plumes of white dust covered everything. I couldn’t stop myself from breathing in and started coughing. Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. My chest heaved and I crouched and hacked so hard that my eyes filled with water and my head spun. My throat felt tight and I couldn’t stop gagging. It could have been a Portkey, for all I knew. My head was pounding and there were white blots in my vision. I coughed once more, and bile coated my mouth before I fell forward.

(-)


There are very few places that are as distinctive as the Hogwarts infirmary. I didn’t even open my eyes, but I already knew where I was. The smell of disinfectant burned my nose, and the sheets felt all wrong. They weren’t the same worn, comfortable sheets that were on the dorm beds. I could even hear Madame Pomfrey arguing with someone about leaving the infirmary.

I cracked my eyes open just enough to glance around the room, wary of the excess of sunlight that I knew was behind me. I was actually surprised, for some strange reason, when I saw Harry in the chair next to my bed, arms crossed and a deep frown on his face.

“Er. Hey?” It hurt to speak and my voice sounded awful and coarse.

There was no hello or how are you, just an angry snort and a terse, “When were you going to tell me?”

I glanced down at my abdomen and grimaced. Pomfrey had removed the glamour I was using to stay hidden. Harry had already seen everything; it made no sense to try and hide it any longer. I looked around, making sure the curtains were all pulled closed, and turned my face into the pillows with a groan.

“Well?”

I hated this conversation. Right away, I hated it.

“Look, I wasn’t even sure for a while…”

“When were you sure?”

“Does it matter?” I still didn’t pull my head away from the pillows. My face was burning red and I could barely stand to talk to Harry, let alone look at him. “I was going to tell you tonight either way.”

“Pomfrey says you're five months on, same as Hermione. Makes sense though, that was the only time I…” Harry touched my bump and I felt the baby press out against the heat of his palm. “Oh, wow.” He felt it too.

I stayed perfectly still while my sprog decided to drum on my insides for its father’s pleasure. Fuck that was weird, thinking of Harry as a father. Hell, I was going to be a father too, twice if Hermione’s kid was mine in the technical sense.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Ron?”

I wish he would have been angry, sounded at least a little upset instead of hurt. Upset I could handle, we’d shout at each other and everything would be better in an hour. Hurt made me feel just awful, like a huge walking dragon turd.

“You trusted me with your secret. Why not with this too?”

I couldn’t just not answer.

I rolled over so that I was on my side, sleeping on my back was uncomfortable no matter how many pillows were stacked under me. Looking at Harry, I would have never guessed that this was the same kid who had come back from summer hols. His eyes were sharp and focused on me, his whole body tense —on guard. Something about his bearing had changed, and I knew that it was a certain kind of maturity he’d grown into.

“I trust you, Harry. Honestly I do.” I took a deep breath to try and force out the words. “Please understand, I’m a man! Or at least I’ve always thought of myself that way! But you have to understand, it’s scary and humiliating.”

It felt not exactly good—but lighter, if you will— to get it all out, to stop hiding from my best friend. He was more than that if I was honest. He was my lover. It felt good to be honest with my lover— with my lovers, when Hermione came back from the kitchens.

I heard my father’s voice in the back of my head, urging me to keep my mouth shut, but once the words started they wouldn’t stop.

“It was strange enough to find out I wasn’t the same as everyone else. To find out I wasn’t really a boy. I had finally come to terms with it and then I started bleeding! I thought I was going to die! I never got used to it— I don’t want to get used to it! I just do the spells, wear the stuff, and don’t think about it until it’s all over.

"I didn’t know what the hell was going on the first time. Turns out it’s like a natural thing with girls. Harry, I don’t want to be a girl! I don’t even want to be a little like them at all!

"I can’t goof off in the lake with the rest of the guys, I have to time my showers so that everyone is asleep or gone, I was terrified to have actual sex with you and Hermione for months! Being pregnant… That’s a whole new broom game. I didn’t want to acknowledge it before but I— I— I’m a freak, Harry! An honest to goodness freak of nature.”

Of all the things I was expecting, Harry wrapping his arms around me was the last thing I expected. That’s what he did, though. He grabbed me and held on for dear life. The baby went wild, kicking and punching because it could feel the heat of another body. “Don’t say that, Ron. Never say that.”

“Why the hell not? It's true!” I tried to throw Harry off of me by wriggling and squirming, but he still managed to hang on. “My whole family! From Dad right down to me! We’re all freaks. Not male— not female either. Fucking Hermaphrodites, the lot of us.”

“I don’t care. If you had three arms and Fang’s face, I’d still love you just the same.”

“I would, too.”

I started, not expecting to hear Hermione’s voice come from my other side, her stomach rounded and stretching out one of my old shirts.

I pulled my hands up and covered my face as best as I could. There was no way Hermione was going to see me cry. I wasn't a man, but I had my pride.


Part 04

“You didn’t go Flooing Hermione’s parents!”

“Ms. Granger is a legal adult.” She was stressing the adult part and trying to tug her wrist from my hand, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t let her get to the fireplace and to my parents. It would be suicide if Dad thought someone else knew.

“Look, Can’t you give me a few days? That’s all I am asking, give me a few days and I’ll tell Mum myself.” I was begging now, and yes it was pathetic, but it was what needed to be done. “Please. I just need a little more time. I’ll tell them myself.”

Madame Pomfrey blew her dark brown hair out of her face and tried to wrench her arm free again. “Ms. Weasley, will you please let go of my arms.”

I did let go then. I knew my facial expression must have been caught somewhere between hurt, fury and embarrassment. “I’m not a bloody girl, you stupid cow!”

Not the best negotiation practice —yes, I do know that – but I couldn’t even give a damn. I just shoved the blankets off and struggled to bend over and lace up my shoes. I was half out of breath before I could tie off the second shoe and stormed out of the infirmary.

I didn’t really know where I was going but I didn’t particularly care, either. I just started walking and didn’t stop until I was somewhere on the seventh floor. I was tired already and hungry for a snack, maybe something with grapes?

It only took me a second to realize I was in front of the Room of Requirement. I opened the door and found a large hearth with a rolling fire built up, a low plush chaise lounge and a bowl of mixed fruit. I walked in and threw myself down on the chaise.

I was just so damn sick of this pregnancy business. I felt like I was going through another growth spurt; always hungry with sore joints and a skewed sense of balance, with the added effect of having to piss every hour on the hour because this brat thought my bladder was a hacky-sack. I shoved a few grapes in my mouth and looked into the fire. I wanted to Floo someone, anyone…I thought of calling Fred or George, but I didn’t want to take the chance that Mum or Dad would overhear. Bill was staying with Mum and Dad too, so that was out. Percy was being a dick, and would probably rat me out to Dad, so I didn’t really want to talk to him. Charlie was…

Charlie was safely in Romania and knew that Dad couldn’t be told about this. Charlie was safe to tell, but he was the type to ask questions. I didn’t really want to explain this situation to anyone but at this rate I would need someone in my corner for when the shit storm hit.

I must have stood there for ten minutes just threading my fingers through the pot of Floo Powder that had appeared by the fruit bowl. I was procrastinating, trying to think of what exactly to say and what I’d get as a reaction. But in the end I had nothing and tossed a large handful past the andirons and into the flames.

“The Basarab Romanian Dragon Reserve! West Building seven, Charlie Weasley.”

I knew this would take a while, so I stripped out of my robes and school tie. I manage to also kick off my slippers and settle on the floor in front of the fire. By the time I had summoned the fruit to my side Charlie had appeared in the fireplace.

“Ron?” he leaned forward and squinted, as if the connection on his end was blurry. “Hold on, let me add some more wood.”

“Hey Charlie.” When I saw my brother’s face again I tried to smile, but I don’t think it worked out all that well for me.

“Hey, yourself. What’s going on?” Charlie looked me up and down and I fought hard not to fidget. “You look awful, Ron.”

“I feel awful!”

“Why? You and Harry fighting again?” he asked.

I loved Charlie. I love all my brothers —even Percy -- but none of them were as easy to talk to as Charlie. He’s a good listener, really open–minded, and even better at giving advice.

“No, not that. We’ve been alright. A little more than alright, actually.” God I hated being ginger, red hair made blushing way too obvious.

“Ah, really now.” His deep throaty chuckle echoed through the room. I wasn’t even offended, Charlie was just naturally happy. He had never been the type to laugh at your worries. “That, I have to admit, I didn’t see coming. But it’s no big deal, yeah? It's not an uncommon thing.”

“That doesn’t bother me, no, but that’s not the point.”

“This is a social call then? Not to say I’m not happy to hear from you and everything but international fire calling is expensive.”

“I’m pregnant, Charlie.” I couldn’t have been more tactless if I tried, but I didn’t really care. I just needed to say it. I was afraid to look up into the Floo, so I focused on rolling the little black grape between my fingers. The crackling of the fire was all I heard for the next two minutes.

“Ah.” I still didn’t look up. “What are you doing, Ron? Are you keeping it or …”

“I can’t just kill it… It moves.”

“I see. Have you told Dad?” Charlie’s gruff voice softened as he brought up our parents. He had to have some kind of clue to the reaction that Dad would have.

“No. Pomfrey’s going to tell them.”

“Shit, Ron,” he breathed, and I felt just about two inches tall.

“I was keeping it a secret, but a jar of hellebore powder broke and I inhaled enough to make me pass out. She did a scan, and thinks I’m a girl.” Charlie shrugged and I dragged a hand across my face. “Her scans don’t ever show gender, just where the injury or whatever is. I tried to talk her into letting me tell Mum and Dad but she wouldn’t.”

“Either way, it’ll be alright.” Charlie’s optimism was nice, even if a tad unrealistic. “Harry’s the…er…?”

“Yeah… yeah he is.”

“That’s…” He let his answer hang in the air and I knew what he meant. Having Harry as a father was going to be this kid’s saving grace or his death sentence. I tried not to think too much about that and steered the conversation away from the topic of my personal life altogether. I listened to Charlie talk about Norbert and some of his other Dragons for almost twenty minutes before we cut the connection.

I took my time to go back down to the infirmary. I wasn’t looking forward to Madame Pomfrey’s questioning looks and constant calls of ‘Ms. Weasley’. Though I can't really blame her all that much on this front; people like me are so rare that it made more sense that I would be a female in disguise.

I crossed the threshold of the ward, setting off the chimes. Immediately Madame Pomfrey hurried over waving her wand about like a madwoman and maneuvering me across the hall. She scolded me, but I barely listened as I climbed into bed. There were other things to worry about.

I flopped back against the pillows and listen to Pomfrey fuss at the person on the other side of the curtain. And closed my eyes hoping to get some sleep.

(-)


I was released from the Infirmary the next morning.

Harry and Hermione were waiting at the side of my bed, chatting about what kind of refrigerator they wanted for the kitchen of the house while I flicked my wand at the laces of my shoes. Bending wasn’t something I did anymore.

Hermione was wearing my robes, the glamour not yet covering her belly, which was (surprisingly) larger than my own. Hermione’s hands were propped on the small of her back and I laid a hand against her stomach. The baby squirmed and kicked my hand twice.

I jolted when I felt Hermione’s small hand rest against the bulge of my stomach. It was an odd sensation. I wasn't used to having my stomach touched after all this time. My baby moved away from the warmth of Hermione’s hand and curled in an uncomfortable knot close to my spine.






“Did Pomfrey tell you what it will be?”

“No. Hell, I wasn’t even awake to know how she found out I was pregnant.”

“It was the hellebore.” Harry chimed as he reached over to get my bag. I shoved his hand away, I’d be damned if he started treating me like some helpless girl.

“I thought that stuff was poisonous anyway-”

“Yeah but it only starts closing your throat up if you’re a pregnant wo— if you’re pregnant.” He’s damn lucky he caught himself.

“You shouldn’t have been brewing that, anyway.” Hermione’s wand did a few complicated motions and then I felt the cool tingle that meant the glamour had been put into place. “Inhaling the fumes from certain potions is harmful to the fetus.”

Honestly, I hadn’t thought of that. Guilt twanged in my chest, but I pushed it down and grabbed my bag. “Well the baby’s alright, and I know for next time. Let’s go, I’m starved.”

Hermione led the way out of the infirmary; Harry and I fell into position, flanking her on either side. Harry seemed to be doubly on alert; his wand was in his hand and his eyes flickered across the corridor, and checking our rear view on the gleaming suits of armor we passed.

Hermione slipped her hand into the crook of my elbow and squeezed. She could barely keep the smile off of her face. She was radiant. “I’m excited about this. It’s lonely being an only child,” she chimed quietly.

I nodded, taking in that information. “Only a few kids, though