Kicking up Embers
Pairing: Draco Malfoy/Ron Weasley
Word Count: 21,180
Genre(s): Romance, Drama
Canon: Epilogue Compliant
Summary: When they are putting their children on the Hogwarts Express Draco sees Ron again - opening up old wounds, reviving memories of their secret shared past and re-igniting smouldering emotions.
Author's Notes: Thanks to tania_sings for her patient beta, despite her feelings about Draco, to daiseechain and songquake for very helpful beta-ing of the second draft, to emansil_08 for all of the advice, encouragement and suggestions, also to deathjunke, and stuckinsea for reading and encouraging and to littleenglolita who read every word out loud to me and snickered and suggested and made it all work much better.
I adore deathjunke's illustration for this. It is so much more beautiful than anything I had ever imagined. I sit and stare at it sighing. I am hugely grateful to her.
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Scorpius looked up anxiously at his father as they hurried through the wide glass doors into King's Cross station. The poor boy had never been anywhere Muggle before. He didn't understand these people with their tight-fitting clothing, grimy little shops and huge electronic notice boards. Draco longed to hold the boy's hand, not just to reassure him but to keep him close and safe, too. He was eleven years old, though: much too old to be seen touching his father in public.
Draco went for an encouraging smile instead. He would have winked, but that would have been so out of character that it would have alarmed the child. Astoria said nothing and her face betrayed no emotion. Draco suspected that his wife was holding her breath, scared of inhaling some air which a Muggle had exhaled.
Silently, in determined strides, they made it to Platform 10. Draco nodded sharply to Astoria to go first and Scorpius watched her intently as she walked through the magic barrier.
"Ready?" Draco asked.
Scorpius nodded, his mouth set in a firm line, although his eyes were still wide and wet. Draco wondered how he had produced a son who was as scared and as repressed as he had been all his life.
The House Elves waited on Platform 9 and 3/4 with all the trunks. How had an eleven year-old managed to acquire so much? The Express was waiting, blowing scented steam over all the families. Scorpius and his mother eyed the other Wizards warily and Draco understood that their expressions would be read as disdainful. He worried for his son. He would be thrown among these children in whose homes the name 'Malfoy' was infamous. He recognised some of them, of course. He chose not to acknowledge them.
A whistle blew and, with a quick nod which would have to stand for all the kisses and hugs, sobbing and declarations which none of them would ever display, Scorpius stepped onto the train. They did not linger to wave him on his way. In a choked whisper Astoria told Draco she had "things to do" and Apparated away for a long cry in a locked room.
Draco understood that she needed to be allowed some privacy. Merlin knew he needed to take some for himself. This was all too much. He hadn't imagined how hard it would be to give up his son for several months. He hoped Scorpius hated school less than Draco had for most of the time. Draco strode back through the barrier with a posture which he knew would be misread as arrogant.
Now he was stuck in the Muggle part of the station and he needed to piss. He would just have to be brave and find one of their public conveniences. It stank, of course, and to get in he had to queue up at a turnstile and waste one of his Muggle coins. He watched the yellow arc of liquid hit the porcelain urinal and wondered whether this was a sign of ageing. Had he got so desperate because there was a problem with his prostate?
No! He was too young for that. The only thing wrong with his prostate was that it had been years since anyone had slammed into it repeatedly. He couldn't afford to remember that. The other families on Platform 9 ¾ , that was what had started him thinking about it. He had to block it out.
So he thought at first that he was imagining things when a certain wizard walked in. The colour rose up his face and he looked down. He hurriedly tucked himself away and turned to the wash basins. But he really was there. He was standing by the mirrors and staring at Draco. He was real and flesh: not Draco's imagination at all.
Draco moved to the end basin, the one furthest away from where Weasley stood watching him. He washed his hands.
"I saw you come in here," Weasley said. He moved a little closer.
Draco looked round warily but the Muggles were not taking any notice.
"It's been a while. Just wondered how you were." His voice was soft enough: unthreatening.
"Fine." Draco nodded crisply. "Doing very well. And you?" he added politely.
"Oh, you know," Ron replied, with a shrug of one shoulder.
Draco looked around frantically for a towel.
"I think about you sometimes," Ron added, his tone so flat that it must have been hiding something.
Draco snorted. He started to shake the water from his hands.
"Oh, it's this." Ron moved closer to an irregular metal box on the wall and gestured towards it. Immediately a rattling roar came from it. "You put your hands underneath."
He stepped out of the way so that Draco could move warily closer to the hand drier. If they had been more relaxed around each other then their shoulders might have brushed, but they held themselves carefully. Warm air was blasting out and Draco placed his hands into its stream. He was aware that Weasley was looking at him; he wanted him to go away.
"It was you who dumped me, you know!" Weasley hissed angrily.
"Didn't take you long to replace me," Draco snapped back. He checked the room again, but still the other occupants ignored them.
With an almost invisible flash of his wand, Ron cast a Muffliato. Then he said, at a normal volume, "You made it perfectly clear you didn't want me. What did you expect me to do?"
"I went looking for you. Years ago. But you were already married to your Mudb --"
"Don't call her that!"
There was a pause, both of them breathing too heavily, but neither of them leaving.
"I guess she was always your fall-back plan."
"When I knew I couldn't be with the one I ... with who I really ... oh, you know. I told you enough times how I felt about you. It didn't change. I still --"
"For Merlin's sake don't say that. It's too late." Draco stared at his own reflection in the shiny metal, unaware that the machine had stopped blowing at him and that his hands were nearly dry.
"I thought I might as well do what everyone expected. She's my best friend. It's been ok."
"I'm glad." Draco could see the insincerity in the face looking back at him. "I'm married too, you know."
"I know. I saw your son. He looks like you."
"I allowed my mother to arrange something. Once I knew you were ... taken care of." He looked at his shoes, anywhere that wasn't Ron's frowning, freckled face. It was too late. They shouldn't be talking about the past.
"But you didn't care about me. You told me that. It was over. Final. You moved on. You make it sound like I --"
"I had to make you think that, you stupid man!" Draco looked up at him; their noses almost touched. "I thought you would have worked it out by now." He sighed. "The Dark Lord's death left a power vacuum on our side. They were dangerous times. They would have used you to get to me."
"What are you saying?"
"You had to believe it was all over in order between us to be safe! But once things had settled I came looking for you to get you back. You already had her - so I went away again."
"Why didn't you just tell me?"
Draco sneered. "What's your Occlumency like, love?" He saw the shiver created by that last word and regretted using it.
"No, it's shit!" Draco paused and took one last look at Ron before starting to walk away, saying, "You're too honest. That's one of the things that makes you so special."
He had hoped that would be his parting shot, but there was a turnstile to negotiate to get out and it slowed him down enough for Ron to catch up with him.
"It's too late, isn't it?" Ron asked. Draco tried to filter out that hopeful waver in his voice.
"Yes. Too late," Draco snapped back, looking over to where Ron's wife and son waited patiently for him.
There was a crowd of Slytherins huddled around the top of the stairs down to the dungeons. That couldn't be a good sign. Ron watched from the doorway of The Great Hall.
"Come on!" Hermione snapped sharply, "or we'll be late for Charms."
"What are you looking at?" Harry asked.
Ron jerked his head forward. For a moment the two boys stood frozen in silent assessment with their heads cocked. There were the light sounds of harsh whispers and scuffling. More Slytherins were joining the group, Slytherins of all ages. Their bodies moved in one, co-ordinated ripple towards the centre.
Hermione huffed loudly. When that failed to get her friends' attention she said, "Drop it, boys. You need to learn to relax. War's over. Whatever's going on won't have anything to do with us."
Something sparkled at the heart of the nest of snakes. It might have been greenish, but that might have been Ron's imagination. He'd seen too many hexes thrown in this past year.
"However, Flitwick is taking us through diagnostic charms this lesson and I don't intend to miss any of it."
Ron felt Harry's body soften beside him. He sighed. "You're right, 'Mione. It's probably just an in-House thing."
"You don't need to keep saving everybody." Hermione chuckled lightly as she said it. She moved towards the stairs, confident that her boys would follow her.
"Ron?" Harry asked.
Ron kept his focus on the crowd in silver and green, kept his muscles at full alert. "I don't trust Slytherins," he said.
He slunk back into the doorway, out of sight, as the Entrance Hall cleared. Soon it was just him and them and then it was possible to hear a low noise like a suppressed sob or gasp. It came from their epicentre, from the point around which they circled. Ron was taller than any of them, but he couldn't see through them to work out what was happening.
Then it happened again and this time he was sure - that flash of green light had been real. A muffled human noise followed it and Ron began to march across the marble floor, pulling his wand from his sleeve as he went. Some of the younger ones at the perimeter broke away and scampered off. A lean, dark figure turned to face him.
"Can I help you, Weasley?"
"What's going on?"
"We're all completely saved already, thanks. You don't need to worry about anything here."
Ron raised his wand. It shook slightly with the effort to reign in his temper. "Just answer me, Zabini!" he hissed.
Several others were turning their attention to Ron now. Millicent Bulstrode looked about with an exaggerated head movement before saying, "Only one of you, Weasley."
She was right, of course - he was heavily outnumbered. He was going to have to catch them off-guard. Maybe he could use some kind of surprise attack. He wasn't going to back away now, because he was absolutely certain that they were up to something evil. Why else would they be hiding it?
He decided to go for an unprovoked and disproportionate attack. He hadn't wanted to come back to school anyway; he didn't care if he got expelled.
He thrust his wand out in front of him and yelled, "Confringo!"
The noise and the blast of hot air threw him backwards a few steps. That was nothing to what it did to them. There were flames and showers of falling rubble, crying, screaming and enough of them running out of the way for Ron to finally glimpse what they had been up to. There was a person, cowering on the floor, hiding under a cloak, shaking. An exposed leg was bleeding.
Ron didn't think too hard, he pointed his wand and called out "Accio!" He grabbed a handful of cloak as soon as it was within reach and then ran like hell. The other person ran with him, keeping pace and, pretty soon, snatching the fabric from Ron's grasp. They charged down the steps together and out of the building. It wasn't until they had rounded the corner that Ron turned his head to see who he had rescued.
"Malfoy? What the fuck?"
Malfoy didn't answer, just kept his head down and rocketed forwards, towards the greenhouses. His face was bruised, his left eyelid bled copiously and something gory was happening on his neck. Ron looked over his shoulder. A handful of figures watched them from the front door but none of them were chasing. Ron ran with Malfoy.
There was a Herbology lesson in progress. The pupils were little ones: first years or second years. Madame Sprout was moving among them. None of them seemed to have noticed the two Year Eight boys sprinting across the grass in their direction, hoping to get close enough to a teacher to be protected.
Malfoy slowed down a couple of feet short of the glass walls. He loped to a halt and bent forward, resting his hands on his knees and panting heavily. Ron stilled too. Then Malfoy's knees gave out and he sprawled on the lawn.
"I asked you a question," Ron said. He was barely wheezing. His own fitness impressed him. He must have got a lot of exercise saving the world.
"Get lost, Weasel," Malfoy gasped.
"A simple 'Thank you', would be fine." Ron slid down to a squat. "So, what was that all about?"
"I need your wand."
"I'm not handing you my fucking wand!"
"I want to close up my neck before I die of blood loss."
"You should go to Pomfrey."
"Nosy old bag."
He had a point. Ron pulled his wand out and aimed it. Grey eyes watched him warily. Ron smirked.
"Don't trust me?" he asked.
He ran his wand-tip along the broken skin, his lips moving silently, watching the flesh knit together where he passed it.
"Worried I might attack?" He siphoned off the blood.
"More scared you'll cock it up."
"Mind you don't choke on any slugs." Malfoy pulled a small glass vial from a pocket in his robes. Ron recognised it as dittany.
"Your leg's bleeding too."
Malfoy sighed, dabbing the liquid onto his face. "Go on then."
Ron lifted the hem of the Slytherin robes until he found the source of the blood: a long gash across one soft-skinned, light-haired inner thigh.
"So, what happened to your wand?" he asked as he healed.
"They took it."
Ron nodded at the dittany, which the other boy was now splashing onto his arms. "You come prepared," he observed. "This happened before?"
"You don't fully grasp the concept of 'somebody else's business', do you Weasley? Was it growing up in that overcrowded shack? Is privacy entirely alien to you?"
"Next time I'll let them kill you."
"You wouldn't have been so keen to be the hero if you'd known it was me they were persecuting."
Ron stood to consider that. He shrugged. "Maybe," he conceded. He stared out over the grounds, towards the grey clouds gathering on the horizon, vaguely aware that on the ground below him Malfoy was straightening his robes, restoring his dignity.
"What have they got against you, ferret?" he persisted. "I thought you were their prince."
Malfoy snorted. "Apparently my presence in their House is no longer desirable. It is not compatible with the image they now wish to project. My family connections and previous affiliations are redolent of an out-moded incarnation of the Slytherin ideal." His lip was curled, eyes flashing angrily. "They hope to convince me to leave the school."
"Why don't you?"
"Why should I?" Malfoy rose to standing. He smoothed down his robes and patted his hair flat. "How do I look?" he asked.
"Like a git."
Malfoy's nostrils flared as though he were about to make an insulting retort. He took a deep breath instead and slightly shrugged one shoulder. His face cleared of all expression and he said evenly, "No change there then."
Ron grinned at him. "No comeback? Passing up an opportunity to insult? I think that might be Malfoy for 'Thank you for rescuing me'."
"You? Thinking? Don't hurt yourself." With a raised eyebrow, he turned round and headed back towards the castle.
"Watch your back!" Ron yelled after him. Then he did - he watched that slim, graceful back all the way back to the castle steps; it was as ramrod straight as a ballet dancer's.
Draco was examining the roses. They wouldn't last much longer this year. He should dead head them, snip off those flowers with the texture of tissue and the colour of parcel paper. Or he could issue orders to the House Elves for it to be done. There didn't seem much point. There didn't seem much point in anything without Scorpius around.
He should be at work; that would be better. He couldn't be bothered with these weekends now: two empty, pointless, meaningless days. At least when he worked, he was occupied. Of course, he was only busy investing and moving gold so that he could maintain this ridiculously large house. It did have to be kept up, though; the repairs had to be done, the staff of House Elves fed, the plumbing charms overhauled regularly, the crystal cleaning and polishing rotated. It was the Malfoy way. It wouldn't be fair to pass it on to Scorpius with a leaking roof and doxies in the tapestries.
Was it fair to pass it on at all? He would just be enslaving his son with the same obligations and responsibilities which tainted his own life. He sighed, but decided not to question the traditional order of things. He Accioed his secateurs. This was the Malfoy way.
He grasped a flower head. "Noblesse Oblige," he muttered. Snip. "The family line." Snip. "Two hundred year-old wallpaper." Snip. "Hand painted by Marsh Sprites." Snip, snip. "The portrait collection." Snip. "Albino bloody peacocks." He placed the curved silver blade against the dark green stem and began to squeeze the handles closed again. He stopped suddenly. He could feel the nape-warming sensation of being watched.
He spun sharply towards the windows of the Manor. But why would Astoria spy on him? She had never done so before. In fact, she had never shown very much interest in him at all, nor he in her. Their son had been their point of contact. With him at school, subjects for conversation had become scarce.
He located no sign of life at any window. Draco completed his beheading of the roses. Then he straightened up again and surveyed the grounds. There was nobody in the garden, nor beyond the gate.
He waited patiently, frozen, only his eyes roaming his property. After a few minutes he caught a movement: a disruption of the shadows on the lattice-work of the gate. Stealthily, he moved towards it. As he did so, Ron Weasley shifted into view.
Sweat erupted across every inch of Draco's skin. It was a ridiculous reaction. That had all been a very long time ago. Draco considered returning to the house.
"Er. Hi," the redhead said quietly.
Draco's feet maintained a dignified speed as he approached him. "How delightful to see you again so soon, Mr Weasley." He smothered his response in the ice of formality. "To what do I owe this unexpected visit?"
"Don't be like that."
Eye contact was made and, face to face through the iron-work, they silently dared each other to allow an emotion to cross their expressions. Ron's hands were shoved into his pockets; Draco still cradled his secateurs.
"I've been thinking about what you said."
"Thinking Weasel? Mind you don't hurt yourself. You know that's not your forte."
Malfoy had used that line so often in the past to decorate their interactions that Ron let a grin spread across his features. That had been the repeated refrain to their boyhood rivalry, their youthful enmity and eventually, had woven itself into the banter of their love affair.
When Ron's lips stretched across his straight, white teeth and the little lines around his eyes crinkled, Draco couldn't master his own mouth enough to prevent a twitching at its edges. The teeth were wrong, though, not as he remembered them, too clean and even: the product of having Muggle Tooth Healers for parents-in-law. Amusement lit up their faces as they faced each other once more in silence.
Then Ron's expression clouded. "I should have believed in you, shouldn't I? Should have waited for you. Shouldn't I?"
"Nonsense!" Draco responded crisply. "Had you doubted my sincerity at all, it would have been entirely counter-productive."
"I could have waited until it was safe."
"You would have been dead."
Ron looked down at the earth round his feet and mumbled, "I was just so lonely; I didn't really know what I was doing." He spoke hesitantly. "It's all blurred, that time. Like I couldn't remember how to feel any more."
"I don't know why you're telling me this."
"Because I want to!" Ron flashed back.
"This is why you're here?"
Breathing heavily, with his face flushed, Ron gripped the metal curves of the gate and glared. "When you said it was too late --"
"Of course it's too late!" Draco said over him. "We have responsibilities. Regardless of the events of our past --"
"Events? Oh, for fuck's sake, ferret! Events?"
"You know full well what I mean by that and it is all an irrelevance now. I am going inside my home now, to be with my wife. I recommend that you do not visit here again." He marched towards the house.
"I just want to talk to you!"
Draco was glad that he had his back to the gate, because he felt an expression close to despair crumple his features for a moment.
"Don't be such a prick, Draco! You can't live just for duty!"
Then the shouting stopped; Draco hoped that Ron had gone. It was only a pause though.
Ron shouted again: "I know you're not this cold, Draco! I know how passionate --"
"We are no longer adolescents, Mr Weasley. The events to which you refer no longer have relevance."
Draco was so desperate to escape that he Apparated the remaining few yards to his study.
"Ron! Are you playing or what?"
Ron looked over from his window seat to his House-mates, to the cards laid out on the floor, to Dean, who was asking the question. Then he looked back out of the window. The full moon made the snow glitter far below.
"No, sorry. Changed my mind," he muttered.
To accommodate the unprecedented addition of an Eighth Year, dormitories had been added at the top of Gryffindor Tower. The view was spectacular. Ron saw the grounds laid out like a carpet below him: the lake, the paths, the trees, the boy standing alone at the edge of the forest on the coldest night of the year.
Ron knew who he was and he guessed why he was there. He hadn't imagined that the Slytherins would have given up tormenting Malfoy; they were just being more careful where they did it. What did surprise him, was that he cared enough to spy on Malfoy like this, and that his thoughts kept returning to the pale, soft skin of his thighs.
"I'm going for a walk," he announced and headed for the stairs.
Grabbing a cloak, he made his way down the stone steps, his pace increasing the further he went. He crossed the Common Room without really seeing it, drawn to the cold air and the night, not allowing himself to focus on what it was out there that interested him, letting his thoughts float.
Out there, Draco was poking at the crisp snow with the toe of his boot. He had cast a Warming Charm, but he still didn't know how long he could last out here tonight. He didn't know how long he could last at Hogwarts. He really needed to sleep; he needed somewhere safe to sleep. Maybe Durmstrang would be better. He could change his name before he went. If he could only sleep then he could think things through.
He didn't want people to say that he had given in. There were enough bad things that people could say about the Malfoys. It wasn't that staying here and putting up with all this would clear their name. It wouldn't make any difference.
He couldn't make decisions like this - wading through this sludge of exhaustion, spending all of his concentration on avoiding solitary corridors and gatherings of green-edged robes.
He would have liked to have hidden himself away among the students of the other Houses, but they gave him a wide berth. There was no point in his being here: he couldn't absorb any lessons in this state.
The sound of a step startled him; he had been drifting off. He turned.
"Cold enough for you, Weasel?" he drawled. He wondered if his face would be forever frozen into this superior snarl.
"You look awful."
"Judge not lest ye be judged. Do you not possess a mirror?"
Ron grinned. "It's the luckiest mirror in the world. It gets to see me every morning."
The familiar verbal feud was warming and comforting, like nursery food or a bubble bath.
Ron added, "Hope you haven't used yours for a while. That face'll cause you seven years bad luck."
"Yours is probably a tatty hand-me-down so you won't realise, but that's not all tarnish, you really do have those ugly blemishes all over your skin."
"You don't give up, do you?"
They stood stock still in the freezing air, breath rising from them like smoke. It met, blended and dissipated. Draco fought against the droop of his eyelids and the roar of impending sleep in his ears.
"Why don't you give up?" Ron asked.
"Can't remember," Draco muttered.
"I wouldn't stick it out. I don't know why you're still here, putting up with it. I don't know why any of us came back."
Draco tried to focus. "You're the king of the school, Weasley. Well, you're Potter's princess. Why wouldn't you be here, lapping up the glory?"
"Can't see the point of learning out of books."
"Go home, then. Get a job." He could have got a dig in there about money, about poverty, but somehow it didn't make it as far as his lips. "Why not leave?"
Ron had been wondering the same himself. He couldn't, though, could he? "I don't know. It seems like ..." he sighed. "They don't do it in front of me any more. So at least there are some places, some times when you're safer." He shrugged.
Draco's brow wrinkled. "You stayed to protect me?"
"I think they'll kill you. It's not safe." Ron looked down to somewhere near Draco's boot caps. "It's supposed to be all safe now for everyone. That's why I haven't told Harry. He thinks he's solved everything. He died."
"I know. Who doesn't bloody know that?" Draco was sick of hearing how brave and good and noble and self-sacrificing Potter had been.
"I can't let him know it's not over. Not after that."
"It is over. He did away with all the nastiness. All is well."
Ron looked up at the grey-skinned figure swaying in front of him and wondered how he could still dredge up the energy to be bitter. Maybe it was what gave him the strength to go on. "It's not over for you," he said simply. "I'm the only one who knows that you need protection so I have to be here. That's all."
After a tired sigh, Draco asked, "Why do you care, Weasel? One less Death Eater in the world: isn't that what you all want? I thought it was your mission to destroy every last one of us."
"You look like you could do with a good night's sleep." Ron wasn't going to rise to that one. "Why don't you use the Room of Requirement?"
Draco blinked slowly twice. "Why the fuck don't I?" He'd spent the best part of a year hanging out in the 'Come and Go' room fixing up the Vanishing Cabinet. How sleep-deprived was he, to have he'd forgotten all about it?
Ron started to march back to the castle. "You coming?"
"I don't need an escort, Gingernut! I can find it for myself." He trudged through the snow after him nonetheless.
"The state you're in, you couldn't find your arse with two hands. If you like, you can put your dainty little feet in my big, manly footprints to stop them getting any wetter."
"It's not enough that you're a superhero's sidekick, but you have to be Good King Wenceslas now as well?"
"We can't have your pretty shoes getting ruined now, can we?"
They lowered their voices when they got indoors, neither of them keen to draw attention to the fact that they were together. When they got up to the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy, Draco's pride stiffened again. He was perfectly capable of making this door appear; he'd done it enough times. He had to work on concentrating, though, as he walked up and down the corridor, acutely aware of Weasley watching him from the corner.
When the door appeared and he staggered into the room, it was the bed he was fixated on; he barely noticed that Weasley was following him in. There were mattresses and pillows and eiderdowns heaped onto it, although he was tired enough to sleep on corrugated iron.
"The Room seems to think you need all sorts of potions and balms," the Gryffindor observed. He took a couple of bottles over to where Malfoy had collapsed face-down on the bed.
"Check the door for me?"
"No need. It blocks up if there's anyone already using the Room." Ron put the potions on the bedside table when it was clear that they weren't going to be taken from him.
His voice muffled by the pillows into which he had sunk, the blond muttered, "Good. You can leave me in peace, then, bodyguard. Off duty." The scarlet dark was starting to overtake his consciousness. This really was the most comfortable place he had ever laid down. He heard footsteps and a door opening.
There was just one more thing: "Why are you helping me?"
The door closed.
Ron dawdled through the corridors of the Ministry of Magic. He was expecting to get fired any day now. He just hadn't been able to concentrate, not since he'd put Rose on the train at King's Cross. Well, to be honest, as much as he missed his bright, funny daughter, it was the conversation with Draco in the gents' afterwards which had knocked him off-kilter.
He wasted as much time as he could these days, just walking around the huge Ministry building. He didn't even use the time to think things through, he wasn't capable of thinking at all.
Scuffing his feet along the tiled floor like a five year-old, he meandered into the fourth floor corridor where his office was. Then he pulled himself still. He focussed for the first time in weeks: because there he was. He had his back to Ron, and a long cloak on, but that silver hair was unmistakable.
Ron stood still and silent, the way he'd learnt to do as a lad when on adventures with Harry. Every nerve and muscle felt awake and alive. His heart pounded.
Malfoy was walking slowly down a corridor in one of the quietest Departments in the whole Ministry. He stopped to peer at a door. He took a quick look around him and Ron ducked out of sight. Then Malfoy surreptitiously pulled a pair of spectacles out of his inside breast pocket. The vain git! Clearly he didn't want anyone to catch sight of him wearing those.
Ron liked them, though. They were unframed semicircles which perched a little way down that familiar pointy nose. Ron thought they suited Draco. Ron was such a sap, though - he reminded himself - that he thought everything looked good on Draco.
Draco walked along a little faster now, able to check the name-plates on the doors on both sides from the centre of the corridor. He got to Ron's door; he stopped. Ron hadn't really doubted that that was the office he was looking for. He smiled to himself anyway. He wished he could see Draco's face. He waited as a fist in a grey glove was lifted, brought to the wood of the door, but then did not knock. Draco shook his head and stepped back, put his hand down and began to walk off.
"Were you looking for me?" Ron asked.
The reaction was comical. Draco was startled, spinning round, trying to regain his composure, remove and hide his eyeglasses and speak all at the same time: "I was - erm ... no! I just, it was ..." He swallowed and took a deep breath, then slipped on the formal face he usually wore. Ron preferred him flustered. "I happened to be passing. I have business with the Ministry, as I'm sure you are aware."
"Was it Floo registration or maintenance you wanted?" Ron smirked. "Because the Manor's licensing is up to date."
"Not this actual Department," he muttered, trying to sound aloof.
"As you're here," said Ron, moving past him to get to the door of his office, "you might as well stay for a cup tea."
When he entered the room, he suddenly saw it with a stranger's eyes and it was a mess. There was paper everywhere, old tea-bags, even a couple of odd socks. He waved his wand hurriedly and cleared an armchair for his guest to sit in.
Malfoy was the one smirking now.
"Yeah, yeah. We don't all have House Elves to clear up after us, you know."
"I hope this isn't anything important," Draco replied, stepping on an open file full of reports.
Ron realised that he didn't actually know whether it was or not.
Draco sat imperiously like a Malfoy; the way his hand fell, he could have been holding a cane like his father's. His legs crossed languidly. Ron perched awkwardly on the edge of his untidy desk. They looked at each other.
Then Draco suddenly coughed and looked into his own lap, all ruffled and gauche. He started to stand. "I shouldn't have come." His forehead was creased and he worked his lower lip between his teeth.
"One cup of tea," Ron said softly. "No-one can divorce you for that."
Draco threw himself tetchily back into the chair. "Where is it then?" he asked.
Ron moved round the desk to where his little ceramic kettle stood. He filled it with an Aguamenti and then lit a blue flame under it. He cast a hasty Scourgify on two of the mugs while he was there. When he turned back, he saw that Draco was watching him - had probably been watching him the whole time - with an expression of pained longing on his face.
"I thought you were going to be an Auror. Like Potter," he said.
Ron shrugged. "I didn't get any N.E.W.T.s. But they let me in anyway, like you always said they would. Blatant favouritism."
They shared a smile - a sad, amused, nostalgic smile.
Then Ron sighed; he turned to fiddle with the tea tin. "I just didn't have the concentration at that point. The training. I wasn't with it enough. I quit before they had the embarrassment of having to kick the Chosen Sidekick off the course."
There was a heavy silence. Ron made the tea and he was just about to hand over Draco's cup (no milk, one spoonful of sugar, ridiculous to have remembered) with a breezy change of subject, when Draco said, "I'm sorry."
They both knew when Auror training had been, it had been during Ron's lost years, the ones eaten up by blank heartache, the period when he had married Hermione. For a long time Ron had blamed Draco for the depression which had lead to him to his current job of processing licence renewals day after tedious day. He didn't know what to think now.
"How's your boy finding Hogwarts, then?" Ron asked with a broad smile as he handed over the cup of tea. "Rose says they've had a lot of rain up there."
Draco was dreaming of elves. Not House Elves, these ones were free like the ones that made the wine. They wore pointy green hats with holes in them to let their pointy pink ears through. They cut huge, shimmering bolts of silk and then stitched it with tiny stitches. Next they stretched it over slipper-shaped moulds and hammered leather soles to the bottom. Their nails were microscopic shafts of silver which they held in their mouths. They would pull one out and place it carefully before picking up their hammers and going 'tap, tap, tap'.
Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. His eyelids slid apart. The first thing he noticed was sunlight. The second was that the hammer-taps of the elves had somehow made it out of his dream and into his cosy 'Come and Go' bedroom.
He looked over to the window with which the room had magically provided him. Too much sun was slipping between the curtains; he had overslept. Tap, tap, tap. His head cleared. The sound wasn't leaking from his subconscious into the world - it must have been the other way around. Someone was knocking on the door.
A chilling wave of panic caught him. Then he realised who it must be. Only someone who knew he was here in the Room of Requirement could have knocked on his door, and only one person knew that.
He struggled out of bed and tried to wake up his sneer. He opened the door with a fairly convincing, "What do you want now, Weasel?"
"I haven't spoken to you for nearly a week."
"I'm sure you could manage to go longer than that. Do try harder."
Ron smiled and shook his head. "I really enjoy all this sweet talk, ponce-face, but I've got lessons to go to." He pulled a miniature, steaming teapot from his sleeve. As he tapped it twice with his wand he added, "Just noticed you weren't at breakfast."
The teapot was nearly at its true size when they heard footsteps. Draco pulled Ron through the door by his sleeve, before quickly shutting it. They stood frozen and silent for a moment.
Gently, Ron pulled his robe from Draco's grip. He walked to the bedside table and put down the teapot, then emptied his pockets of a selection of doll's house crockery, cutlery, food and drink.
"I'll never eat all of that." Draco tried to sound ungrateful.
"I might manage to help you out." Ron waved his wand over the set table.
Draco perched on the side of his bed and poured tea into two mugs.
"They found a way to get to you at mealtimes now as well?" Ron asked, with a searching look.
"I just overslept. There's no drama."
Ron sighed. Draco watched his skin relaxing. The tension which Draco hadn't noticed before was lifting off him.
"What did you think had happened?" Draco asked before he could stop himself.
"Nothing!" Ron snapped back defensively. He snatched up a danish pastry and stuffed half of it into his mouth.
"Well, there's no need to fuss. Your self-appointed position as my bodyguard isn't a complete failure yet. I'm still in one piece."
"They haven't manage to smash your gob in hard enough to shut it up, then?"
Instead of rising to the bait, Draco chewed his bacon slowly, letting the hot grease warm him from the inside. It was comforting like a hot water bottle. He selected a sausage next, then scanned the table.
"There's no mustard," he whined.
Ron coloured and his eyes flashed with anger. Then he laughed. "You really are amazing!"
"Well, I know that."
"I meant you're an amazingly rude, ignorant, stuck up, ugly cunt." Ron grinned.
"I thought you had a lesson to go to?"
"Well, so do you, but we've missed it now." Casually, Ron started poking through the breakfast things. "Shit! Forgot the milk as well as the mustard."
"That's ok, I don't take milk."
"Not ok. I do."
They ate in companionable silence and when they were done, Ron sent the washing up to the kitchen and left Draco in peace.
Draco made it to lunch. Ron checked with a surreptitious glance across the Hall. They had Transfiguration together in the afternoon. At supper, though, Draco's seat was once again empty. Ron filled two napkins with chicken and chips.
"Can't keep away?" But this time Draco let him in immediately.
After they had eaten, Ron wandered round, examining the contents of the room. Again, the little shelf of creams and potions arrested him.
"You used any of these?" he asked. Draco shook his head.
"They wouldn't be here if you didn't need them," Ron insisted. "Essence of mossweed and bisonberry. What's that do?"
"Cleanses deep lacerations. Haven't got any of those. Yet. Do you think the Room's doing predictions?"
"Bruises. But the dittany sorts them out."
"Balm of lividblossom, rosemary and dragon oil."
"Deep muscle relaxation, non-clinical applications." Draco revised properly for Potions exams.
"You can't tell me you don't need that! You're wound up to snapping point." Ron was thinking of the clockwork Muggles the twins had sold before the war. If you turned the key and put them on a flat surface they would move across it, jiggling from one side to the other and waving their arms around. The longer you wound the key, the longer they would keep going. You had to get it right, though, because there came a point when they were over-wound and if that happened then they never moved again.
Draco rolled his eyes dismissively. "I can't reach my own back, can I?"
Ron picked up the little glass pot full of pale, blue cream and stared into it as he turned it over in his palm. Then he sighed. He had made a decision. "Go on, then."
He marched back to where the blond sat on the edge of the bed.
"No you don't!"
"Oh, for Godric's sake!" Ron placed his big left hand on Draco's shoulder and pushed him backwards.
"Well, I'm not taking my clothes off," Draco insisted.
"Too bloody right you're not." Ron unscrewed the lid and scooped out some cream with one hand. He kept Malfoy pinned down with the other; he didn't trust him. He concentrated on the thick, green cotton at Draco's neck and tried not to think about the ivory skin which he was actually touching. He got his fingers under the collar and then closed his eyes to push underneath.
The muscles of Draco's shoulders were as stiff as sheet iron; Ron pushed round and over them, shoving roughly. He stuck his fingers back in the cream and smeared it over the other shoulder.
He stood back, barking, "Turn over!"
Grey eyes watched him warily. For a moment he stared back, hooked by them.
"Is it doing anything?" Ron asked.
Draco closed his eyes and the spell was broken. Ron read the label on the lid of the pot because it was something to look at.
"Yeah." Draco's voice was croaky. "Actually. Yes. Doesn't feel as bad as it did."
"Then fucking roll over, you prat."
Draco turned onto his belly and sank his face into the soft pillow. Ron looked at him for a second or two, but no longer than that. With a sigh, he pushed the blond hair up the scrawny neck to dump a handful of the balm on it. He lifted the edge of the robes and stuffed cream down as though he were trying to fill out a sock with newspaper.
Taking three long strides back, he exhaled. It was safe. He hadn't allowed his fingertips enough time to experience the texture of the ferret's skin. It was fine.
Something was mumbled into the pillow.
"Huh?" Ron asked.
"Lower back. Middle of it. Bit tense there."
As Ron hesitated, the other boy twisted his head round. He was blushing and his eyes darted quickly on and off Ron's face. "I am wearing trousers!" he snapped. "I'll pull the robe up myself." His pointy chin went back into the pillow. "But that stuff's working. Hadn't realised how bad I was. Can't reach that part of my back myself."
"I said you should have done it earlier." Ron could hear the childish petulance in his own voice.
Still face-down in the pillow, Malfoy grabbed at the bottom hem of his robes and gave them a bad-tempered yank upwards. When he got to the top of his thighs, he wriggled to get it over his hips. Ron couldn't bear to watch that little arse squirming about any longer, so he snatched the fabric himself and got it up.
He dumped a handful of cream onto the luminescently white, lightly scarred, skin. He didn't look at it, at the finger-width groove of Malfoy's spine, nor the smooth planes of muscle curving slightly to either side of it. He slammed down his palms and swept over the whole area in one brisk movement. Then he leapt swiftly back.
Draco mumbled something which might have been his thanks. Ron left the room with a sharp, "Get some of it on your arms and you'll be able to do it yourself next time."
They drank their tea in Ron's office to the accompaniment of meaningless small talk, but the glances they gave each other became increasingly overt. Eventually, mugs empty, Mr Malfoy stood and gave a formal nod of farewell to Mr Weasley, as he blushed and his breathing hitched.
"Thank you for the tea. It has been pleasant to see you again."
"Yes. It has."
They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment.
"I have to go," Draco insisted. At least another minute passed, though, before he was able to make his body move the few shuffling steps towards the door. Before he got there he was halted by a light grip to his forearm.
"You'll come again? I mean, please, drop in. Just when you're at the Ministry? Doing other things?" Ron's voice faded out. He was watching Draco, who was staring down at the freckled back of his hand, face frozen into an expressionless mask.
As though he had no control over them, his long pale fingers floated up and gently stroked Ron's knuckles. Bemusement crept onto his face. He said, softly, "I don't think I should. Should I?"
"Yes." Ron didn't know how he had found that firm authority in his voice, when his stomach was fluttering so erratically. "You should. You have to."
Their eyes connected again. Wistfully, Draco removed his fingers from Ron's hand and brought them up to Ron's nose. Lightly touching with just his finger-pads, he whispered, "Can't. Not strong enough."
In one swift movement, he escaped Ron's grip, brushed a light kiss to his cheek, and slipped out of the door.
Ron slammed it behind him, casting locking and silencing charms onto it, then spent the afternoon breaking things and sobbing.
By the time he left that evening, he was calm. He had repaired his possessions and made a decision.
"I don't know why you're still here," Hermione admonished one breakfast time in the Great Hall. "You don't do any of your homework. You don't even seem to take notes in lessons."
Ron wasn't really listening. He was staring at the reflections of the clouds on the prongs of his fork.
"Frankly, you're coasting on past achievements," she continued. "You know the teachers won't give you detentions because everyone's too grateful for what we did last year. I can say it, because they're the same with me. But I'm not taking advantage of that." She waited for a reaction. "There's dishonesty in what you're doing, Ron. Your marks don't reflect the merits of the work."
Ron put down the fork without looking at her. "I don't get marks. I don't do homework."
"You're wasting everyone's time! It's disrespectful!"
He tipped his head back to check out the same clouds in the charmed ceiling.
"Harry! Tell him!" Hermione snapped.
"Look, mate. You don't have to stay here if you don't want to. It's not like we even get to hang out together that much any more. Not since you gave up Quidditch." Harry paused. "I know I've been spending a lot of time with Ginny. I should make more time for you --"
"It's fine." Ron made eye contact with his best friend so he'd know he was serious. "I'm really ok with that. It's great. Actually. I'm just not into the lessons."
"You could go home, you know. We'd see you at Easter."
Ron didn't get a chance to answer Harry - not that he would have told him the truth anyway - because just then Justin Finch-Fletchley came over to their table.
"Um, Hermione," he began. "I was, um...". He swallowed.
Hermione gave him a gracious, encouraging smile. By now he had most of the Gryffindors watching him. He carried on bravely, feigning nonchalance:
"Just wondering whether you had Hogsmeade plans."
"Oh, I see." Hermione looked at Ron. "I don't know. Have I?"
"What?" Ron looked back blankly into her expectant face.
"Hogsmeade weekend," she patiently explained. "Next month."
"Is it?" He had lost touch with everything which didn't happen in the Room of Requirement.
Hermione sighed. "Yes it is. I don't know whether I have any plans. For that weekend."
There was a long silence. Ron and Hermione looked at each other; Justin looked at Hermione; everyone else looked at the three of them.
Eventually, his forehead puckered in confusion, Ron spoke. "Well, if you can't remember then I don't know how you expect me to."
Anger flared inexplicably in Hermione's brown eyes. Then she snapped her head round to look up at Finch-Fletchley. "It would appear that I am quite free, Justin. What did you have in mind?"
The Hufflepuff smiled a bright smile full of shiny teeth, happiness and relief. Unaware of what he had just been involved in, Ron picked up his fork again, angling it to watch the reflected light, while his mind returned, trance-like, as it often did, to visions of soft, white skin decorated with blue bruises, and to memories of grey eyes full of fear.
Draco decided to risk going to Charms. Flitwick was one of the few teachers he trusted to actually know what was going on between students in his lessons, and to have magic powerful enough to protect them. McGonagall was another, but her new duties as Head meant that most of her classes were being covered by a substitute.
He would probably have been alright if he'd made it as far as the classroom.
He thought he knew the castle pretty well. It was riddled with secret passageways, one of which ended in the Charms corridor. When he climbed through the painting of the bowl of dancing fruit at the end of it though, he fell straight onto Bulstrode. He tried to slip back the way he had come, but she was faster and stronger than he was; she took hold of his upper arms and yelled for Zabini. Draco was still trying to wrench out of her grip when the Slytherin pack descended.
They parted to let Zabini through to the front of the crowd.
"You're still here," he said smoothly. "Nobody had seen you for a while, so we were beginning to wonder whether you'd run away." There was a diamond glint of iciness in his eye. "We'd better postpone those celebrations for a while."
Bulstrode's spittle landed on Draco's eyebrow as she chuckled.
"You're working as his bouncer under false pretences," Draco panted up at her. "Don't you know he'd never fuck a fat troll like you?"
Bulstrode slammed his back against the wall. Other hands held him still as she grabbed his hair and wrenched his head back and forth. His skull rang with pain as it hit stone. Nausea and dizziness rolled through him in waves.
Vaguely, as though it were a sound only, unconnected to language, he heard Zabini ask, "Now, who didn't get a turn at hexing him last time?"
For one peaceful moment, Zabini held Draco's head and looked into his eyes. "Now remember," he said clearly, "when you go away, we won't hurt you any more."
Then he stepped back and the real pain began.
As Ron meandered towards Transfiguration later that day, a perky brunette in a short skirt approached him. He didn't notice until she touched his arm. Startled, he searched her face, wondering whether she was somebody he knew.
"I heard Granger has a date for Hogsmeade." She pouted. "I'm so sorry."
"Maybe it would cheer you up if we went in together."
"What? Sorry, do I know you?"
She tossed her head and gave a tinkly little laugh. "I wouldn't expect someone as important as you to remember me. I'm Romilda Vane."
She paused expectantly, her eyelashes fluttering madly. They seemed to be too long to be real; she must have charmed them or something. They were too dark, too. Ron's mind overlaid them with shorter, paler lashes.
"So?" she asked. "Hogsmeade? Yes?" She stood unevenly, chest and hip sticking out.
"Oh, that." He swallowed. "I'm really behind on my homework. Won't be able to. Library. Staying in school. Sorry."
She shrugged, but the brightness had fallen out of her face. "Another time."
Ron couldn't be bothered with Transfiguration after that. He let his consciousness slip and his feet took him up to Barnabas the Barmy. He paced three times, then knocked on the door that appeared. There was no answer, though, and when he tried the handle it opened too easily. The Room was as empty as his thoughts. With purpose now, he headed up to his empty dorm, where he dug around in Harry's trunk until he found the map.
"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."
As he scanned the annotated dots, he wasn't quite sure why panic was rising through him. He remembered Harry in Fifth year doing just this: searching for hours for the words Draco Malfoy. Did this mean that Ron was obsessed now?
He leaped up when he located him. He didn't exactly know why he was rushing so hard, but he dearly wished he could have just Apparated to the Charms corridor.
There was just a delicate, bony mound under a green and black cloak. He wasn't moving and Ron couldn't tell whether he was breathing or not. He shot across the floor with his heart lodged in his throat, skidding the last couple of feet on his knees. Then he got his hand onto Draco's back.
Simultaneously, he felt the rise-and-fall of the injured boy's ribcage, and saw the blood mangling his hair; panic and relief pulsed into him in roughly equal measure. Gently, he levitated the unresponsive body, until he was hovering, still horizontal, safely, at about shoulder height.
Then Ron broke: "Oh Draco, please. Don't leave me. Be all right." He shivered as he sobbed out his whispered plea. "I need you. Don't go."
He sniffed deeply and stepped away, composed again. It had only lasted a moment. At some point during that moment, however, Draco must have returned to consciousness, because when Ron turned him face-up to transport him, those grey eyes were open, and they were full of wonder and warmth.
Astoria Malfoy came into the breakfast room a little earlier than usual and found her husband standing at the window. He was staring out, but she didn't think he was really looking at anything; the odd thing was, that he was smiling. It was a tiny smile - just tweaking the edges of his mouth - but it was a soft one and it seemed to reach deep within him, to a place she had never visited.
She would not have disturbed him, but a House Elf popped into the room and with a "Good morning, Mistress," began busying about with cutlery and fruit. Draco turned back into the room.
"What are you so happy about this morning?" She couldn't help but ask, though she hardly expected an honest answer.
"The wisteria," he replied. "It's progressing nicely. I tried some of the grapefruit marmalade earlier. I don't think it's as good as last year's." He sat opposite her and poured out her tea. "Let me know what you think."
She thought that he cared less for gardening and preserves than he pretended.
"Quiet without Scorpius, isn't it?" she commented.
Draco just nodded. He added a slice of lemon from a blue china saucer to her cup of tea.
"I know you miss him," she pushed, lightly buttering her toast.
"Of course." He allowed no emotion into his voice.
"But since he's been gone, you have been ..." she couldn't think how to phrase it, and knew she was trespassing on areas they never discussed: emotional matters. "Just occasionally. Like now. I catch you and you look ..."
She had his full attention now, and he quirked an eyebrow at her.
"You look. Well. Happy, I suppose."
"Why would I look like that when I am missing our son dreadfully?" He became engrossed in adjusting the position of his wand in his sleeve.
She decided to try a different approach. "My darling, our parents arranged our marriage and --"
"I do hope this is not your overture to a suggestion that we begin looking out for suitable brides for our son."
"Good Godric, no!" She sipped her tea to give herself time to compose herself. "I was merely going to remark how well things have turned out. I think we have been quite friendly companions."
"Yes. But our lives together have also been somewhat ... languid?"
"My dear, I'm not sure that you should have risen so early. Perhaps you are not yet fully awake."
"We have a son, a fine, good boy and we have raised him to an age where he can be sent away for his education. That is all that was ever asked of us."
"As a couple, as a married couple," she clarified. She continued hurriedly, before Draco could attempt to steer her off course again. "I for one find life nowadays to be a little empty. I wonder whether you feel the same way."
"I have the garden. And the investments to oversee. I am kept rather busy in fact."
Astoria sighed. She wasn't entirely sure what she had been trying to discuss, but she knew that this was not it. She gave up. "I was thinking of looking for some crystal to replace the missing drops in the back hall chandelier. Perhaps I will do that today."
"That sounds like a very good idea, my dear. You could take tea with Daphne if you were in town. It would be fairly convenient."
"I was thinking of going directly to Austria actually."
The rest of breakfast continued with the discussion of domestic minutiae.
Ron held his breath until Draco's eyelids slid closed again, his chest rose and fell heavily and Ron was convinced that he had slipped back out of consciousness. He could have taken Draco straight to Madame Pomfrey then, he didn't know why he didn't; it was the perfect opportunity because Draco couldn't stop him.
Instead he did what Malfoy would have wanted.
He was a little worried that he wouldn't be able to summon the Room the way Malfoy had left it in the morning. Of course, he didn't know how that was. The door appeared, though, let him in and it all looked about right. Except that the bed was wider.
"Stupid Room," Ron muttered to himself as he manoeuvred Malfoy's prone body over to it. "That's not what I want."
He laid the injured boy on top of the covers and gently lifted his head to get the pillow in the right place underneath. He wasn't about to start undressing him or anything. He wouldn't even hang around; there was all that homework to do.
How could he leave, though? He didn't know where Draco was hurt, nor by how much. What if he threw up or something in his sleep? He could choke. He might stop breathing. If he did then what could Ron do, even if he was here?
He sat in the soft armchair the Room had placed by the head of the bed, on the other side from the little table where they had eaten together. He didn't like the look of that big bottle of Mossweed and Bisonberry Essence perched on its arm. What had Malfoy said that was for? For a while he watched the fluttering of white eyelashes and the light movements on the pale throat. All the creases of Draco's face had smoothed out.
Then, with a sigh, Ron got his wand out and ran it over Malfoy, trying to remember the diagnostic spells he had been supposed to learn for that test he'd skipped a couple of weeks ago.
He was concentrating on an unusual lilac glow he was reading around the left ankle, when a thick voice mumbled, "I need you, too." When he looked up, Draco's eyes were closed again.
"Is it happening again?" Hermione Weasley asked her husband, as he stared into space at breakfast time.
He looked startled, then glanced round to where Hugo had been sitting, shovelling cocopops into his mouth. There was no nine year-old at the table.
"I sent him to get dressed ten minutes ago," Hermione explained.
She was probably exaggerating a bit, but it was still worrying.
"Tell me, Ron. Is it happening again?" She looked so serious.
He thought he knew what she meant, but he asked anyway, "Is what happening?"
"You were like this: distant, absent. Before. Last time. At school. Are you going down again? I don't know how I'll cope if you go down like that again. I mean, all the way. Not just the little depressions you get from time to time. I'm worried that this is going to be another big one."
He looked at his plate rather than answer her. He was surprised to see a whole uneaten sausage there, with half an egg and most of a piece of toast. He thought he'd finished eating. "Um. I was just thinking about something." He had been trying to figure out how to tell her. For days he had been trying to work up a strategy and enough courage to put it into practice. "What are we doing today?"
"It's Sunday. Hugo's got Quidditch training this afternoon, but I can stick him in front of a DVD now if you need to talk."
Perhaps he should have resented her assumption that he didn't know what day of the week it was. He wasn't that far gone. But he was close, so he just nodded. While Hermione went to get out the old Doctor Who box set her parents had got their son hooked on ("Come on, Dad, you have to watch this bit where the twelfth doctor regenerates into the thirteenth doctor ...") Ron wondered whether he was going to be able to talk. He idly finished up his breakfast.
Then he made them a cup of tea each. Casting the spell to heat the kettle reminded him so forcefully of making tea for Draco, of all the feelings stirred up by that little meeting, that he knew that he did, after all, want to have this talk. There were things that Hermione had never known about. He needed to talk to her. And after the talking there were actions which he needed to take. No amount of cunning was going to make this easy for her, and anyway, he'd never had a subtle mind. It just had to be stated. Deep breath then Truth.
His wife sat down across from him at their clean, beige-topped kitchen table and he began:
"Hermione, there are things which I probably should have told you a long time ago. I wasn't myself, as you know, for a long time. I've been trying to forget. For a long time I didn't think that I ought to tell you about this. I've changed my mind." He took in that deep breath; she stared into his face anxiously. "In that last year at school - that half-year I spent not getting any N.E.W.T.s - something happened."
Hermione interrupted to ask, "Is the same thing happening now?"
"Kind of. I don't know. Listen."
She didn't listen, of course. She hardly ever did. "I knew you weren't all there. For weeks before you fell apart completely, you wandered around in a daze. You never went to lessons, we hardly saw you and when we did you didn't join in with conversations; it was like your mind was somewhere else. And then there was the big depression, which lasted years." She looked very scared. "I've never been sure that you would have married me if you'd been, as they say, of sound mind." Hermione didn't often look scared.
Ron wasn't sure whether to answer the question which she had almost asked. He didn't know exactly what the true answer was, so he continued. "Listen. Before I went down, before the big one, something happened. Someone happened."
"Oh." Hermione let out a tiny, sad noise.
"When I was in that phase that you just called 'absent', it wasn't the start of the depression. I let you think that. Well, I didn't stop you from thinking that, but it's not true."
"You were preoccupied? With someone else?"
"Were you in love?"
Ron nodded again. He looked into his teacup, at the spoon circling round and round in it. Pointlessly. He'd given up having sugar in his tea more than a decade before.
"Was your heart broken?"
"Yes. Badly. Completely."
"That was what made you so low? Not the war, not anything I could have helped you to cope with?" Hermione sighed. "It destroyed you. You retreated. I took advantage of that and I pushed you into marriage."
"I needed somebody. You've been brilliant, 'Mione."
"Have I? I wonder." She paused. They both drowned in their own thoughts for a little while, not looking at each other. "But I've never been 'the one', have I? For you? I sort of knew it. I was never the other half that completed you."
"I guess. Though I don't think I'd describe him that way, either. It wasn't just passion. We were the whole world, the everything, to each other. For a short while. I wanted forever, but he finished things, threw me out of his life so completely - what?" He had just noticed the way his wife was staring at him: incredulously, as though she didn't know who she was looking at.
"A man?" she asked with hardly any breath.
"Oh. Yes." Had he said that? Did it matter? That wasn't the point was it?
"Gay? No. I suppose, if we have to put names to things then bisexual. Is this important?"
She sat back in her chair, her face composing, her features beginning to harden into a self-protective mask. "Go on."
"Now you've started you'd better give me the whole story, though I don't know why you're suddenly telling me now. So what if some man screwed you and dumped you a long time ago?" She shrugged petulantly.
"I met him again. Recently. And it turns out that, well, when he said then that he didn't love me, he was lying. To protect me."
"You're having an affair with him?" Her eyes were filling up and her lip wobbled.
"Then why are you telling me?" She stood and snatched up their teacups, although his was still half full, and took them to the sink.
It made it easier that she wasn't looking at him when he replied, "Because I gave up too easily last time. I'm not going to let him out of my life again. I can't be happy without him and I've made up my mind to do my utmost to get him to leave his wife--"
"-- Wife? It gets worse! --"
"- and live with me and love me. I'm sorry, Hermione."
She spun round, her bushy brown hair all over the place. "Did you ever fancy me at all, Ron Weasley?"
"Of course I did! I do! You're an attractive woman and you're one of my best friends. I thought it would work out. It's been all right. Hasn't it?"
"Did you love me?" She turned back to stare into the sink. "Ever?"
"I do love you. It's different. I want us to stay friends, 'Mione."
She snorted. The room froze over with silence.
Finally Hermione asked. "He was someone from school? Someone I know?" She looked round to watch him answer her.
"Oh, yeah." Ron swallowed. He took a deep breath. "Draco Malfoy."
Hermione's expression fell into one of disgust and disdain, but before she could speak, Hugo was opening the kitchen door, saying, "Dad, Dad, you have to come and see this! It's the regeneration. You keep missing it. I've paused it. You have to come and see the Doctor regenerating!"
Ron did what he could with dittany, sleep spells, Mossweed and Bisonberry Essence, a wet flannel, some bandages, bone-mending charms and a lot of hard hoping. He tried to fix Malfoy without touching him or undressing him, without seeing his body; that was impossible. After several hours, during which the blond boy stayed asleep, Ron finally allowed himself to rest. He pulled the bedcovers up to his patient's chin and sat back in the armchair. Almost instantly, he was asleep.
He woke to grey eyes looking at him.
"Good morning, ferret. You're alive then, you stupid sod," he mumbled with a dry mouth.
"You look like shit," was his answer.
Ron rubbed his hands over his face. "Didn't get much sleep. Bit busy putting you back together."
"Not done a bad job."
"For a brainless wanker?"
"Does this Room do coffee?"
"You need to sleep." Draco watched Ron roll his shoulders and wince. "And not in that chair. Doesn't look very comfortable."
"It's not. It's crap. But I thought I'd let you have the bed on account of the 'nearly being dead' thing."
Draco paused. Briefly. Then, wincing, he scooted sideways, and lifted the duvet. He laid his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes. Waited. He pretended to go back to sleep, hoping that would encourage Ron. Such was his exhaustion, though, that it took very little time for his breathing to genuinely even out and for the fog of sleep to crowd in on him. He was vaguely aware of the mattress dipping beside him, but only for a moment, then they were both asleep.
They moved closer together, somehow, as they slept. Draco was woken by a shoulder nudging into his upper arm. He turned his head, blinking. The Room was full of bright sunlight. It had been late morning when he'd tried to go to Charms, then dark when he'd invited Ron into the bed. An awful lot of time had been lost to unconsciousness.
Draco looked at the mess of ginger hair on the pillow next to him. Since when did this bed have room for two pillows side by side? The Room must have widened it. He was watching Ron sleep and remembering what he had said when he'd found Draco in the Charms corridor - when he had saved him yet again - when Ron woke up, too.
He rolled his head to the side; the first thing he wanted to do when he woke up was to look at Draco. Their eyes made contact. They lay, frozen, like that for what felt like a long time.
Finally Draco said, "You're the Gryffindor, you're supposed to be the brave one. Go on."
Ron leaned towards him and their lips met.
Astoria Malfoy ate dinner alone for the third time in a week. This time Draco was pretending that he had a late meeting with an Arithmantant. He had ended up in the Leaky Cauldron, having a meeting with a bottle of firewhiskey. He was asking its advice about whether he should go visiting the next morning, while perfectly well aware that the only thing he was likely to get from his companion was a hangover, which would ensure that tomorrow would be yet another of the days when he did not casually drop into the Ministry.
"Hi." The voice was soft, low, unmistakable and right beside him. Shakily, Draco filled his shot glass and knocked back the contents before responding, "Evening, Weasley," without looking round.
"I heard you were here."
"You're stalking me now?"
"Not exactly. The owner mentioned that you'd been in a few times and I just asked him to let me know the next time it happened."
Draco sat upright. "The owner?" he asked.
He looked around the smoky bar. In an open doorway stood a stocky, middle-aged ginger-haired man with a blackened scar where one ear should have been. He nodded over to the bar, then stopped watching the two of them and went inside the room, closing the door behind him.
"Bloody hell. Is there anything on Diagon Alley your brother hasn't bought up?"
Draco poured himself another drink. Ron was silent for a few minutes. Finally, with his glass at his mouth, Draco turned and faced him. He wished he hadn't. He looked just perfect: his skin was clear and his eyes bright, his hair just messy enough and these days his height was more impressive without that gangle he had once had. He leaned back with one elbow on the bar, sitting squarely, comfortably on the bar stool, with his long legs stretched out in front of him. The look on his face was one of unabashed admiration. Draco opened his mouth and filled it with alcohol.
"I've been wanting to talk to you," Ron said.
"What did you want to say?" Draco asked, knowing that he shouldn't, that he was about to be asked something to which he did not know the answer.
He reached for the bottle again, but broad, freckle-backed hands beat him to it. Ron put the neck of it straight into his own mouth and tipped back his head as he drank. The glass made a hissing sound as he released it from his lips. Then he put it firmly onto the bar and said, "This."
He held Draco's face in both hands and kissed him. It all happened so quickly that at first Draco didn't react at all. Then he kissed back. Then he remembered. He pulled himself away.
"What the hell do you think you're playing at?" he hissed. He looked around, nervously. "People will see!"
"I want them to. I want everybody to know."
Draco tried to get off the stool to leave the pub. He was held in place by a strong grip on his forearms. Blue eyes looked directly into his.
"I love you, Draco Malfoy," Ron said. "That never went away. And I've made a decision."
"Weasley, it's too late. We agreed!"
"I've told Hermione. Everything. About then. About how I feel now."
Draco was so incredulous that he stopped struggling. "And how did that go down?" he spluttered.
"Not as well as her promotion to Head of Department."
"I can imagine!"
"She's getting used to the idea, though. This is not going to kill her." Ron paused. He loosened his grip. "But, you know what? I sometimes think that living without you might just kill me." He blinked a couple of times. Then he gazed steadily at Draco. He waited quietly.
"What do you want me to say?" Draco whispered.
They were both caught inside the gaze of the other for long minutes. Thoughts raced around Draco's mind, but none settled long enough for him to analyse them; the only clear knowledge he had was of blue irises and warm hands.
Finally, Ron said, "Just tell me the truth. About whether you ever loved me, and how you feel now. Can we be together?"
"Of course I loved you." Draco paused. He needed some kind of subtle plan, but none was forming. Instead he just went with the truth: "I don't know how I feel now." He closed his eyes and a tiny half-sob escaped him. "I want to do the right thing."
Ron let go. Draco was relieved and disappointed in almost equal parts. He could hear the other man sighing. Then his stool scraped on the floor and there were footsteps.
"Don't go!" He hadn't intended to say that. The wayward call had escaped Draco against his wishes. He looked up.
Ron was walking out of the pub. His shoulders were slumped forward. "Come and find me when you've made up your mind. Just let me know," he muttered.
"I can't decide on my own!" Draco barely recognised that he was whining. "You have to help me!" His leg jerked and it was only the height of the stool which prevented him from stamping on the floor like a spoilt child .
That first kiss was brief. Almost as soon as they had touched, Ron pulled back to see Draco's reaction, which was a slight smile.
"Was that too unbearably horrible?" Draco asked.
"No. No, it was nice. I thought it was nice. Did you think --?"
"Nice? I think we can do better than that." Draco licked his lips and held Ron's face still.
Ron copied him, with rapid, nervous darts of his tongue. Their mouths met again and Draco made soft, nibbling movements. Ron watched him - what he could see of him, a glint of eyeball, some pale hairs. His heart was pounding; wasn't this just exactly what he'd been dreaming about? Wasn't this what he'd been afraid of? What he had desired? Why was he so tense, then?
The problem, Ron decided, was that he wanted it too much. Draco felt so warm, though, and the little noises he was making shot physical responses along Ron's nerves. It did relax him; he closed his eyes and his hands started to move. Would it really be ok now to do that thing which he had been restraining himself from doing? To touch that skin?
His lips pushed back and returned the kiss. Draco pushed back more. Everything sped up.
Ron grabbed at Draco's robes, pushing them up, getting his hands under them, searching out bare flesh. It was as soft as he had thought it would be, but much warmer. The heat made him moan. At the moan, Draco moved faster, he wrapped his limbs around and between Ron's and they rolled their bodies together.
Elsewhere in the castle, first year Muggle-borns were learning that vampires were real, and Professor Binns was listing the causes of the second Goblin War; in the grounds, Hagrid was harvesting pumpkins; in the Astronomy Tower, Professor Sinistra was polishing lenses; House Elves happily prepared lunch and four Hufflepuffs gloomily waited for Madam Pomfrey to apply paste to their burns while listening to a lecture from Slughorn on cauldron safety. Sealed off from school life in the Room of Requirement, two boys fell in love with each other.
Was that when it happened? Was it on that morning when they first kissed and hugged and frotted and admitted to each other what they really felt? Or had it already happened? How do you mark the moment when love starts? Was it something that grew gradually over the next few weeks, most of which they spent together, tucked into that bed, exploring what their bodies could do and blurring the boundaries between what was Ron and what was Draco? Or was it something as sudden as thunder? The first warm softening in the chest when they saw each other, or the chill pain when one of them left the room?
They got hungry in the afternoon so Ron went down to supper. He still felt sticky in spite of all the cleaning charms. He wanted to believe that his body was carrying something of Draco.
"You're doing it again!" Hermione snapped as dessert appeared.
Ron looked over at her, sleepy and confused.
"Humming!" she explained. "You've got a goofy look on your face."
"Sorry." He didn't stop grinning, though, because he couldn't.
"And the food thing! What did I tell you, Harry? He's doing it again!"
"What's he doing?" Ron asked.
"You've hardly eaten anything, but you're filling your pockets with food." Her voice was shrill.
"Not that hungry now. Might be later."
She glared at him and started to throw text books into the little beaded bag which she was using as a satchel these days. A day before, Ron might have cared that yet another important part of their struggle the previous year had been reduced to the mundane. She looked as though she would have liked to have put Ron in there, too, to keep him close and watch him all the time.
"No sign of you in lessons again today," she remarked. "No chance you'll manage any tomorrow, I suppose?"
"I wouldn't have thought so," Ron replied. Sorbet this evening. Draco liked sorbet. Ron smiled to himself.
"Oh for goodness sake!" Hermione stormed out of the Great Hall.
Harry leaned conspiratorially towards Ron. "That's without knowing that your bed wasn't slept in last night."
Ron's smile widened; Harry smirked back.
Then Harry gave his friend a more sober look. "You will let us meet her sometime, won't you? When things are more settled?"
Ron's gut twisted with a guilty feeling. This might have been easier if Harry hadn't been so nice about it.
"Maybe," he answered.
"Go on, sing it," Ron demanded, a couple of weeks later.
Ron stroked up. "Weasley is your king."
Draco chuckled, but it disintegrated into a groan as Ron's hand kept moving. "You remember my little ditty? How flattering."
"Sing it," Ron hissed.
"Weasley was born in a bin, he always lets the Quaffle in ..." Then Draco huffed with frustration as Ron removed his hand.
"I need a new verse," he teased.
"You're not my king."
Ron kissed the side of his neck.
"Weasley is a handsome brute --"
"Better." Ron put his hand back, but kept it still.
"You bastard. Weasley wants my come to shoot!"
Ron chuckled and resumed his deft strokes.
"Weasley can suck on my flute! Weasley is my king!" Draco finished breathlessly.
Ron's hand sped up until Draco came, calling his name.
"My turn," he whispered in Draco's ear.
"You can't sing."
"You're not in tune when you're distracted, either." Ron rolled on top of Draco and nuzzled his shoulder. "Though you know that's not what I meant." He rolled his hips to emphasise what he had meant.
"Silly boy. Now we're both covered in my come. Where's your wand?"
"I don't want to be all sticky. You are a revolting Weasley. Dirty little boy!"
"I'll show you just how dirty --"
Ron reluctantly dragged himself away from Draco's heat to pick his wand up from the floor where he'd dropped it along with his robes earlier.
"You need to get a new wand," he grumbled.
"I can't leave this room, let alone the castle. Remember? Now hurry up and get back into bed. I've thought of somewhere you can put that." He eyed Ron's groin.
"Why don't you owl your mummy? Get her to send you one?"
"Bit busy just now ..."
A few days later, when Ron returned to the Room with breakfast, he found Draco, naked, looking out of the window. He was bouncing excitedly. At first Ron didn't look out at the view himself, distracted by the sight of so much of the white, soft skin he couldn't get enough of. He pressed his body to his lover's back and kissed along his shoulders.
"Is it Hogsmeade weekend?" Draco asked.
"Erm... yes." Ron stood up and looked past Draco's ear. The path from the castle to the front gates was full of groups and couples of happy students walking away from them. "So?"
"Fantastic! I'd lost track, didn't realise it was today."
"Draco!" Ron said sternly, twisting him round so he could look into his eyes. "You're not safe inside the school, where there is at least a slim chance a teacher might be around to save your life. I don't think it would be a good idea to go out there."
"I'm not a moron. You're not going are you?"
"How did you explain that to the rest of your heroic trio?"
"Hermione's always on at me to spend more time in the library, so when I said that's what I was doing --"
"She believed you?" He was incredulous.
"'Course not. But she couldn't argue, could she? Anyway Finch-Fletchley asked her out, so she's going with him."
Draco tried to damp down his huge smile at that news.
"And Harry's with my sister so he wouldn't know which way up was Easter, let alone where I was. What difference does it make to us which weekend it is, though?"
"Obviously I'm not suggesting that we should be down in the village where we could be left for dead in a doorway, but they will be there." He looked significantly into Ron's face. No light of understanding dawned. Draco sighed. "Sometimes I wonder how your lot ever managed to defeat us. The Slytherin Common Room will be empty, so will my dormitory. I can collect up what's left of my possessions, go up to the Owlery and send that letter to Mother about the wand. In short: I can get out of this bloody Room!"
"First and Second Years are still around," Ron objected.
Draco sneered. "I think we can manage a couple of twelve year-olds between us."
"All right. Look. You stay here, get dressed, and I'll just go up and get a couple of things from Harry's trunk. Just to be on the safe side."
"There's a magic map and an Invisibility Cloak."
"There's what? Shit! That explains so much! I knew he was cheating, the little bastard."
Ron left Draco muttering darkly and sprinted up to Gryffindor Tower. He was back a few minutes later, though, looking crushed.
"They're not there. I don't know what he needs them for."
"This map, what exactly --?" Draco asked.
"It's of Hogwarts. There's these little moving names and it shows where everyone is. It's how I found you in the Charms Corridor. It would be really handy to know who was in the Common Room before we got there."
"Maybe he's using it to try to find out where his best friend keeps disappearing off to?"
"Nah!" Ron smiled dismissively. "He's gone into Hogsmeade with her. Come on, then, we'll just have to be careful."
They made it down to the dungeons without encountering any Slytherins. The only people they passed were a small gang of Hufflepuffs, who were too overtaken by their hero worship of Ron to notice who he was with. Outside the Slytherin Common Room, Ron warily drew his wand.
"You're not coming in," Draco said.
"You're not going in there on your own!"
"It'll be fine. I'm going to be in a lot more danger if I'm seen smuggling a Gryffindor into the snake pit --"
"How can you possibly --?"
"I'll be a couple of minutes. You wait here, guard the entrance."
"If they're already in there --"
"Ok! Ok!" Draco raised his hands in surrender. "I'll open up, let you look in. If it looks safe, though, you stay here and make sure nobody comes back early. Ok?"
Ron sighed. "Go on then." He stood back, with his arms folded while Draco whispered the password.
The low-ceilinged room was greenish and musty-smelling, just as Ron remembered it from second year. The furniture all looked smaller, though. There was only one occupant: a tiny girl with short, spiky brown hair who was squatting on the sofa, pinning live butterflies onto a velvet-covered board. She didn't look up.
"Safe enough, oh big, strong bodyguard of mine?"
Ron just nodded, utterly disgusted by the morbid concentration on the first year's face. Draco climbed into the Common Room and the entrance sealed itself behind him.
He waited in the corridor for ten minutes, chewing his nails nervously, trying to reassure himself that Draco was just doing something poncey like collecting up his hand creams, or that he had some precious object carefully hidden and he had to follow a complicated series of procedures in order to retrieve it. Probably his teddy bear.
Then the entrance opened and Ron sighed with relief and stepped forward. It wasn't Draco who emerged, though, it was a smug-looking Kevin Harper. He shot Ron a brief, suspicious glare, before being pushed out of the way as Ron sped into the Common Room.
Draco was face down on the rug, blood pouring from him, and the horrid little girl on the sofa was laughing herself stupid, the struggling Red Admiral in her grip temporarily forgotten. Ron flung a Petrificus Totalus at her on the way past as he dived for his lover. He lifted his head and saw that blood was streaming from his nose, mouth and ears.
He tried to keep a cool head, to concentrate on the job in hand and not the desperate terror that was clawing at his brain. He staunched the worst of it and levitated Draco out of that awful Room and up to the third floor, where he cannoned through the double doors of the hospital wing and sank into his shaking fear as soon as Madame Pomfrey had taken charge.
After almost an hour of her best work, Draco was tucked into a bed and ordered to rest. She hadn't asked any questions yet, but doubtless she would do soon. Draco would have to decide what, if anything, to tell her.
"He was in the bathroom," Draco mumbled through swollen lips.
"You should have taken my wand in."
Draco sighed with resignation and looked up at the ceiling. "I'll write a letter to Mother: ask her to get me a new one. You can post it. Didn't want to worry her."
Ron reached over from the hard visitor's chair beside the bed, to gently pat Draco's white hand - which was once again covered in bruises. "It's too late for that. They're going to kill you if you stay." He leaned close to Draco's cheek, brushing it as lightly as he could with his lips. He tried not to choke up as he said, "I don't want them to kill you, Draco. I love you too much." He was not successful.
"Won't you miss me?" Draco asked, not bothering to pretend that he didn't know that Ron was telling him to go back to the Manor.
"I'm not going to stay here without you," Ron replied. "We can meet up in London or whatever. Get our own place eventually. I'll talk to Mum about you staying at ours. She'll probably be cool about it."
"But they will have defeated me."
"No they won't! You'll be happy and that's the last thing they want."
"I'll make sure of it."
Draco sighed again. Then he looked up into Ron's damp eyes. "Get me some parchment, then. I'll write to Mother about taking me out of school."
Ron smiled a weak smile of relief. "I will miss you." He picked a relatively undamaged place on Draco's bare shoulder and kissed it.
There was a tapping noise at the window just then. Startled they sprang apart.
"Abanazar!" Draco croaked out.
"It's a bloody owl!"
"Yes. It's Mother's. There's a message strapped to its leg. Let it in, you prat!"
"You have to help me to decide," Draco said again and he found that he was propelling himself across the slightly sticky pub floor.
Ron continued to walk away from him and, in that frozen second which lasted for hours, he knew that he wouldn't be able to breathe again until Ron turned back. He could feel the eyes of every other person in the room, as they watched him stumble forwards with his arm outstretched. The intrusion, the burning, searing pain of their seeing him, exposing him, was the worst feeling in the world. But it did not matter. It was insignificant compared to the need to stop Ron from walking out of his life again.
Ron's legs stilled and he turned; Draco inhaled.
"Don't give up on me," Draco whimpered.
"I won't give up on you. This time. But I can't make this decision for you! I need you so I can be happy. I don't know where my life is going, who and what and --"
"There are things I need to know," Draco said. They were standing so close now that he couldn't think. All he had to do was move his hand and they would be touching. "I'm supposed to look after my family. Do I deserve happiness?"
Draco looked around them. There were so many people, all pretending that they weren't interested in the two men whispering desperately in the middle of the room. "We need to talk in private."
"Next week. Come to the office. You're drunk now, it's not a good time," Ron insisted. "I shouldn't have come here."
"I might lose my nerve. Now."
So they got a private room. George Weasley eyed Draco with suspicion as he handed over the key.
He asked his brother solemnly, "You will tell me what's going on at some point, won't you?"
"Don't I always tell you everything in the end big bro?"
George narrowed his eyes. "How would I know?"
The room he'd allocated them didn't have a bed, Draco noticed. There was an armchair by the small, unlit fire, and a writing desk in the opposite corner. It was a room for one person and Draco knew that he wasn't the one person who was welcome in it.
He asked Ron, "Does he know about us then? Did you tell him what happened at school?"
"Of course not." Ron laughed.
The spartan chill of the room had calmed their passion and it seemed possible to ignore their feelings now. There were so many conversations they had managed to not have. They stood, casually, with a normal, social distance between them.
"I heard the rumour that your melancholy was caused by the death of his twin," Draco said.
"You listen to gossips, Mr Malfoy?"
Draco shrugged. "Who doesn't?"
He sat himself on the armchair. He still had his bottle of Old Ogden's with him, and he thought about drinking some more of it.
"I don't suppose Fred's death helped my peace of mind. It killed us all a bit," Ron admitted.
Draco put the bottle down on the floor beside the chair.
"At the time, though, I blamed it all on you." Ron crossed his arms and looked down at Draco. "How do you need me to help now?"
Kiss me again Draco wanted to beg, but he couldn't say it. His limbs wouldn't move him either, he couldn't stand and walk over and put his arms round Ron. He managed to reach down for the bottle, though.
"That really going to help?" Ron asked softly.
With a fierce surge of emotion (the kind which hadn't overtaken him for years), Draco threw the bottle across the small room so that it smashed on the wall opposite. There was a resounding noise and acrid-smelling amber liquid sprayed out.
"I want to do the right thing, Ron," he whispered into the shattered silence which followed.
That was when Ron kissed him. He crossed the space and planted his hands on the arms of the chair, leant down and brought their mouths together, pressing lightly, then harder, moving his lips. It was Draco whose tongue pushed into Ron's mouth. Their hands moved over each other's faces, remembering shapes and finding out changes.
Ron broke away for a moment to ask, "Does that feel right?"
When Draco nodded, Ron dropped to his knees in between Draco's thighs and they took up their kissing again. Lust was breaking Draco down into elements; he was sure that there was more to this relationship than just remembered adolescent sex. Ron's fingers ran through his hair and he realised that there would be much less of that now than Ron had known before. He wondered how Ron's body would have changed. Was he really going to let himself find that out now - with his son at school and his wife at home?
Ron pulled him backwards and they landed on the floor and Draco could feel how aroused Ron was and he knew he was achingly hard too and it seemed that they really were going to do this here and now and despite everything and everyone. It wouldn't help him to make his decision, though. He'd never doubted that he wanted to have sex with Ron again. It was the rest of it - the so much more - that he didn't know.
Ron moaned as he pushed Draco's robes from his shoulders and caressed his skin. Draco's hips jerked unbidden and the friction cut him off from everything that wasn't Ron's body. They tore each other's clothes off; they rubbed and frotted like the schoolboys they had been when this had all begun.
Afterwards, they lay together, almost naked, panting. Ron kissed Draco on the cheek. It was a soft, exhausted kiss, and still Draco didn't know what he needed to know.
"I've wanted to have you like that every night for nearly twenty years," Ron mumbled.
"Was it what you hoped for?"
"Oh, yes." Ron rolled himself onto his side so he could look at Draco's face. "What about you?"
Draco didn't answer; he stared up at the ceiling.
"I love you, Ferret."
"I know, Weasel." Draco paused. Then he said, as brusquely as he could, "I love you too. That's not the issue. It's so late now. So much has happened."
"I'm going to leave Hermione anyway. She'll know what it's really about, but if you stay married, nobody else will ever know. I'll stay single."
Draco closed his eyes and snuggled his head into Ron's neck. The scent was still there; he had remembered that.
Ron continued, "I want to live with you. We'd be together every night and ... you know ... we can belong together. It's how it always should have been. We're right. Draco! Please answer me! I need to know. Will we? Are you going to --?" Ron stopped talking because Draco had stood up. He was getting dressed.
"I don't know, Ron. I can't answer you. I don't know."
They parted with a quick kiss in Honeydukes' cellar. Draco Apparated from there to the alley behind the Hog's Head. The pub was busy that night, but only one patron sat alone. The hood of her dark green cloak was worn far forward, obscuring her face, but Draco recognised his mother by her posture. Her back and shoulders were utterly straight, but that way her head was dipping always meant that she was anxious. Her long nails tapped at the glass in front of her.
He sat noiselessly in the stool opposite hers.
"The barman here spies on all of his customers," Narcissa hissed.
"Rosmerta hasn't allowed me into The Broomsticks since the Imperius incident," Draco whispered back.
"Then we walk." She stood briskly and dropped a couple of coins onto the chipped varnish of the table top.
In the street she walked close beside him and said softly, "It is good to see you, my darling boy. I wish I could embrace you, but there is too much at risk. You are well, I hope?"
Draco paused. "Actually, I have been ...". He didn't want to worry her. "Not entirely well."
"I am sorry to hear that. Really I am. I wish I hadn't needed to call you out of school."
"It's fine. Good, in fact. Truthfully, Mother, I needed to talk to you anyway. I have to come home. I can't stay there."
Narcissa stopped abruptly. She was clearly horrified. "You have to stay at school. You must. It is the only place where you can possibly be safe."
"Safe?" He chuckled without mirth.
"Whatever you are facing within those walls is nothing compared to the dangers outside. No matter how lovely it would be to have you at home with me, that is not possible."
She pulled him into a narrow passageway between two cottages and looked round nervously before explaining: "The Dark Lord is no longer a threat. Thank goodness. However, his going has left what some of our kind are viewing as a vacancy. There are many who seek to control some of the influence which he had. Your father no longer has the importance he once did, and the Ministry Aurors are still holding him, apparently for questioning. At least he is safe in their custody."
Her hand was fluttering around and occasionally patting at Draco's elbow. She looked at it rather than at her son's face. "Our two families - his and mine - we have some powerful Old Magic inheritances. There are objects, and I have put them beyond use for the time being, but there are ancient abilities which are carried in the blood, ways of calling on certain forces. Several ancient powers meet in you."
Draco had known about these things, vaguely, since he came of age. He had not investigated closely, because most required gruesome arcane rituals to activate them, and so he had no intention of ever making use of them.
"Such things are known about in the Old Families. Certain unscrupulous individuals desire control over such powers. They seek to have that through control over you."
Draco looked down at his feet. His gut was clenching. He tried not to remember the dreadful feeling of being at the mercy of someone strong and evil.
"They will use whatever they can as a lever, Draco. Nobody you care about is safe. I am going away, into Europe. I will leave no trace and you will not be able to contact or find me. I will know when it is safe to return. If there is anyone, or anything else, that could be used by these dangerous people --"
"I understand, Mother." He looked into her face, but she did not look at him. He ducked his head to kiss her briefly. "I am too exposed here, aren't I?"
She nodded. "Stay safe," she whispered.
"You too." He Apparated back to the secret passageway under Honeydukes.
"You tried to talk to me, a week or so back, about something important, I think, Astoria."
She looked up from the fabric samples she had been examining. One look at her husband was enough to make her dismiss the House Elf who had been assisting her. He looked paler than usual, but with a reddish flush to his neck, and his jaw was set with more determination than she had seen since Scorpius' birth.
"Sit down?" She indicated the chair beside her at the occasional table.
"I don't know." There was a devastation in his voice.
"You don't know?"
"Whether to sit down or not," he clarified pitifully.
"I think that, perhaps, if you are wanting to say something to me, it might be a good idea."
Meekly, he sat. He said nothing, though, for a while, only picked at his fingernails. She tried to remember what she might have said to him.
"I tried to talk to you?" she prompted.
"About happiness and languidness and - oh! - I don't remember. Duty? Marriage? I don't know."
It scared Astoria a little to see her husband like this. He had always been so very sure about everything. She was beginning to recollect the conversation he seemed to be referring to.
"You were looking out of the window, I think. I saw you smile in such a way... You looked happier than I had ever seen you. That was why I talked about such things." She paused to allow him to respond, but he kept his eyes cast down and his mouth closed, so she added, "Was I right? Were you happy at that moment?"
"I was thinking about somebody."
"Ah," she said softly, almost to herself. "I had wondered."
There was a silence between them again. She picked up some cinnamon-coloured curtain material, but she couldn't seem to differentiate it from the terracotta all of a sudden.
"Did you say then that we had done our duty?" Draco's voice cracked.
"Scorpius? I think I was talking about Scorpius." She kept lifting and dropping the thick swatches. "Our duty by the family. The arrangement. I think I said that it had worked well."
"It has worked well. Satisfactory."
"As far as our duty goes. We've been friendly, too. Great friends. But not - It's languid. Isn't that what I said? Empty. Flat with him at school. There's never been any passion in --"
"For fuck's sake, woman! Will you stop fiddling with the fucking material!" He slapped her hand down.
She stared at him, open-mouthed. He had never hurt her or shouted at her ever before.
Then he began to sob. Paroxysms wracked his chest and he laid his wet cheeks down on his arms. She had no idea how to react. She reached over tentatively and patted at his shoulder, but it seemed thoroughly inadequate.
"Tell me, my darling. Tell me who you were thinking of, tell me all about it. Please."
"I want to do what's best," he choked out. "I only ever wanted to do the right thing."
"Are you going to leave me?" Astoria asked.
Ron was just inside the passageway. He cast a Lumos and Draco fell over backwards with the shock. He was shaky enough already. He didn't need their next encounter, the one he was dreading, to take him by surprise like that. Ron laughed which helped; if he had shown concern then Draco might just have been completely destroyed.
"What are you doing here, Weasel?" he managed to snap.
"Well, waiting for you of course, stupid. How did it go?"
Ron offered Draco a hand and - though he knew that he should have refused it, that he should have taken this opportunity to start working on making Ron safe - Draco desired the touch of his skin so much that he took hold of it. With one strong movement, Ron pulled him to standing and into an embrace. Draco felt so safe and warm and loved inside those arms that he nearly started crying. If he had really been as selfish and as cowardly as everyone thought him, then he could have stayed like this with Ron for ever.
"I'm so tired," he said instead. "I need to get back."
Then Draco pulled himself away, over-ruling his body, every nerve of which was screaming that it was happy and home. He marched ahead briskly. Ron's footsteps were behind him, hurrying to catch up.
"So, what happened? Are you going home? When?" Ron waited for a reply. When he didn't get one he said, "So I can owl home, tell them I'm quitting school, too. Then we can meet up, can't we? Regularly? I've been thinking about it and there's lots of places."
"Change of plan." Draco kept walking along the passageway, ducking his head where the ceiling dipped, clambering over rockfalls from time to time. He saw the end, the trapdoor. Then he said, "I think you should sleep in Gryffindor Tower tonight. I really am completely exhausted."
"Oh. Ok." He sounded disappointed. And confused - but of course he was, they both knew that Draco slept better when they were lying together. "I'll bring you some breakfast in the morning then?"
He should have said 'no', Draco knew he should have said 'no', but he did want the promise of that one last time. He didn't say anything.
He spent the whole night fretting, but by dawn he had dozed off enough to have a dream about Ron. He woke up with an erection when the knocking started on the door. Ron didn't look like he'd slept much better. The door was closing as he took Draco into his arms and peppered little kisses all over his cheek. Draco's treacherous pelvis tilted into that firm thigh.
"Been thinking about me?" Ron asked when he felt Draco's arousal.
Then Draco could have lied, he could have broken things off painfully. Afterwards, he thought up this brilliant answer where he claimed he'd been fantasising about somebody - probably Harry Potter, that would hurt the most, or Snape which would sicken Ron, or (more usefully vile, but difficult to make convincing) his own father - and that he'd been imagining that other person every time they had made love. At the time, though, he was too sleepy, too turned on and - frankly - too much in love to lie.
"Yeah, missed you," he murmured before he could stop himself.
It was only after the croissants had been thoroughly squashed in their haste to get naked, and their mouths and hands had brought them to an explosive simultaneous climax, that Draco remembered what he had to do.
"Gets boring, doesn't it?" he drawled into their cosy room. The words seemed to echo off the walls. He was doing it now, he had slipped down that first inch at the top of the slide and at the bottom, far below him, the landing would be painful.
"What does?" The cute little confused frown was in his voice, Draco didn't need to see it, it would only make things more difficult.
"Doing the same sex stuff with the same person all the time. You must be about ready to find some new defenceless sap." He kept talking over Ron's interruption, never heard it, didn't want to. "I know I'm about ready to find a new protector. You can't be the only one who'll accept payment this way."
"Draco, you're talking shit!" Ron was sitting up all red-faced and angry and it was so helpful that he had lost his temper already, because he wouldn't be so analytical, would accept what Draco told him more easily.
"Oh come on, this is what you wanted, isn't it? You keep me from being beaten up and in return I let you slobber all over my beautiful body?"
"No. Draco. I love you."
"I sincerely hope for your sake that's not true." Draco felt the old sneer curling his lip. He was building up that superior feeling, packing the snow tight back around his heart. He could do this.
Pushing himself over and leaning forward on his arms, Ron said "I do love you! You know that!" Then he pushed his face threateningly close to Draco's. "You said you loved me, too."
He needed to be dressed for this, otherwise his body was going to physically reveal what a liar he was. Draco ducked out and away from Ron, sneering, "I don't suppose we were having sex at the time, were we? You should know better than to listen to man who's about to come."
"What are you playing at, Draco? Why are you saying this?"
Draco looked back for a moment. Ron looked flushed and naked and magnificent. His eyes flashed. Draco concentrated on picking out clean clothes.
"I'm not playing any more, Weasley. That's the point, that's what I'm saying. You know, thanks for everything you've done for me, but I think you're all paid off now. You've got a nice enough cock, but I can't stomach spending time with the rest of you."
"I thought we had something special."
"That's exactly the sort of brain-dead stupidity which makes you so boring to be around. It's no wonder N.E.W.T.s are beyond you. I don't know why you're still here. Education's a waste of time for an imbecile like you." He risked another look at the man in his bed, but he was too still and he looked like his eyelashes were wet, so Draco looked away. "Don't come back to this room will you? I won't let you in."
And he didn't. Ron only tried twice, but each "Fuck off," was more withering than the one before and Draco watched the life in his lover's lovely eyes crumbling away each time. Eventually Draco discovered that he had dropped out of school and gone back to his family.
"You're going to drive a car?" Draco asked, very slowly and with both eyebrows raised. "Do I not recall something about you crashing a car into a tree?"
"Shut up and get in." Ron was holding open the passenger door.
"Why not just Apparate like a normal wizard?"
Ron gave up on etiquette and stomped round to the driver's side. "We haven't got time for a row. Sweetheart." The emphasis he gave that word was not one of endearment. "London traffic's murder at this time of day. Have a little faith in me. Is that too much to ask?" He sat down and put his seat-belt on.
Draco peered in through the open door. "What if we get stopped by Muggle Aurors? Aren't you supposed to do some kind of test or something?"
Ron laughed. "You really don't trust me, do you? Yes, there's a test and I passed it and I've got a licence." He patted the seat next to him. "Oh, and they're called police officers. If we do meet one, then shut up and let me do the talking."
Draco eased himself in gingerly. He gathered up his long coat tails ("It's not a cloak! I look perfectly Muggle!") and pulled the door shut. "You did crash into the Whomping Willow."
"I was twelve. Seat belt."
Draco didn't even look at him. His face became expressionless.
Ron grinned fondly. "I'm sorry, love. I didn't realise you'd never been in a car before."
"Why would any sensible wizard ever go --?"
Ron cut off his grumble with a kiss on the end of his nose. "It's ok to be scared. Just trust me."
"Scared?" Draco spluttered indignantly.
Ron reached over him and pulled down the seat belt, dropping another kiss on his nose on the way past, before securing it. "Just trust me."
Then Ron set the Supersensory Charm and pulled out, ostentatiously checking the mirrors anyway, for Draco's benefit.
After a couple of minutes of silence, Ron asked, "See?"
Draco smiled. He couldn't help himself. He hoped Ron was watching the road so intently that he couldn't see quite how affectionately broad the smile was.
"Well, we haven't run over anyone yet," he allowed, trying to sound snipey, but not quite making it. He sighed happily. "I can't wait to see Scorpius."
Ron managed to pat his lover's knee and change gear at the same time. He was quietly impressed with himself for that. "You think he really is ok? About me, I mean?"
"I don't know." Draco thought briefly. "He is in Slytherin; that last owl might have been all lies. I think so." He thought again. "He did ask to come to us first, then stay with his mother afterwards. So, I think he must be reconciled to the new arrangements." He paused again. "Or he's planning on murdering you as quickly as possible, of course."
"That's a lovely thought."
"What about your two?"
Ron hummed thoughtfully. Then he had to do a right turn at a busy junction which occupied him for a while. Finally he said, "Well, Hugo's had longer to get used to it. I don't know. He's his mother's boy. It might take a while."
"She's said all the right things to him. I was ... surprised. Impressed. I thought ... well I had assumed that both of our wives would have been ..."
"They could have made things more difficult, I suppose. Though this is the lull before the storm, or whatever the saying is. When things get legal - with the divorces - who knows?"
"You avoiding talking about Rose?"
"Just need to concentrate on a bit of tricky parking."
Draco knew Ron was changing the subject but he let him. When the car stopped, Draco lifted Ron's big, freckle-backed hand briefly and dipped his lips down to it. He wasn't sure how well Muggle Londoners would take to public displays of affection between two men. Best not to take any risks.
They were quiet as they walked through King's Cross station, then onto Platform 9 ¾. The train wasn't in yet, but most of the other parents were already waiting. They couldn't be sure how many of them knew about their relationship, couldn't predict how any of them would react. The physical space between them grew wider as they walked down the platform. Ron was looking for Harry and Ginny; Draco hoped he wouldn't find them, he didn't really want to stand near them.
A whistle blew, and the first wisps of smoke travelled down the line towards them. This was it: the Hogwarts Express was coming into the station. Their children would get off it and, for the first time, would see their fathers together.
Draco could see that Ron was getting even more agitated. His own stomach was fluttering with nerves which he hoped he was hiding better than his lover was. It wouldn't do for all of these people to see how vulnerable he felt. It was bad enough that most of them knew. Any who didn't know yet would now be asking acquaintances and friends who stood near to them, why Ron Weasley had just walked onto the platform with Draco Malfoy of all people.
The gossip which had been circulating for the past week and a half would be brought out again, displayed, admired, examined. The war hero and the son of Voldemort's leading supporter had both left their wives (ooh!) and moved in together (gosh!) and who could say what unspeakable things they got up to in the bedroom (just imagine!), of course it was the children everyone said they felt sorry for.
Draco didn't want their stares; he would have liked to have lived in a bubble where no-one knew anything about him. He looked at Ron, anxiously wringing his own hands. He looked too lonely. The distance between them was too wide. There were worse things than being talked about.
Draco patted Ron's tense shoulder. Then he reached up and, just briefly, pecked a little kiss onto his cheek. Ron smiled back fondly and it was all worthwhile.
There was a metallic screech; the black body of the train pulled up beside them. All of the parents on the platform became animated: peering through windows, straining to wave, trying to pick out their own offspring from the figures emerging through the steam.
A small, pale boy stood for a few seconds in the doorway of a carriage about half-way down the train. Draco would have known him from his posture even if he hadn't seen the silver-blond hair. Everything else disappeared and Draco heard only his own leather soles tapping down the platform. He wanted to cry out to his son, but didn't know if that would have embarrassed him.
Scorpius spotted him. His face split into a grin and his arm shot up, then he seemed to recollect himself and looked round to see if any of his classmates had caught him being so uncool.
He turned to concentrate on his trunk which he bumped down the steps. It was just the one, just the smallest of all of his trunks, because he was leaving most of his possessions at school. It seemed so much bigger than he did that it gave Draco the urge to pick up his son and carry him against his shoulder as he had done when Scorpius had been a baby with colic.
They met, looked at each other, nodded.
"Are you well, Scorpius?"
"Well enough, Father. Better for being home, actually."
Draco's heart skipped a beat or two. "Do you not like it at school? In your owls, you never said --"
Scorpius laughed lightly and smiled. "It's fine. That's not it. I'm just tired now."
"There's a lot to get used to."
"And I, well, sort of thought about, about home ..." he trailed off.
"I missed you, too." It would not do to linger on emotional subjects, not in public. Draco might just start to cry again. "Shall we get going? I'll take that trunk, shall I? There's someone I'd like you to meet."
Scorpius nodded solemnly. "Rose Weasley's father?"
"She says he's nice. Funny."
"Of course. In the circumstances it seemed wise."
Draco nodded. There was a pause. "And how does she feel about... recent changes?"
"It was a shock."
"Of course. For you as well."
"Everyone's been talking about it."
"I'm so sorry that I put you through that." He was. He stopped and held his head for a moment. He still wasn't sure whether he had done the right thing.
"We faced them down together, hexed a few people, shut them up."
"Really?" He knew he should have been showing some disapproval, but in all honesty he was impressed. "Together?"
"Yes. She's funny. Clever, too." Scorpius looked up at his father. "Is she some sort of sister to me now?"
"That's up to you. I suppose. I mean, I don't know."
Ron and Rose were standing with her trunk between them on the station platform. They seemed to be talking quietly. Ron still looked agitated. Draco wasn't sure whether to keep going towards them, or to stand still for a while.
"How does Rose feel about things now?" he asked his son.
"She doesn't want to be disloyal to her mother."
"Very commendable," Draco muttered insincerely.
Scorpius actually laughed. "We'll all have to get used to things. I think we will, though. I think that things are going to be fine once we have adjusted."
Just then Rose leaped on top of her trunk and flung her arms round her father. He hugged her back, and Draco watched all the stiff lines in his back dissolve. He only realised he'd been holding his own breath when he released a deep sigh.
"Don't worry so much about everyone else," Scorpius said. "Everything will be fine."
When Rose pulled back and started fussing with her pet rat, Ron turned round and saw them.
He came over and softly said to Scorpius, "Hi, I'm Ron."
"I know," Scorpius replied with a smile. "Same hair as Rose."
"Very beautiful hair it is, too," Draco replied, with a nod to the girl.
"Smarmy, isn't he?" she commented to her father. "Mum said he was smarmy."
For a moment Draco's guts squeezed and twisted. But then she smiled. She smiled the way that Fred had long ago smiled when he'd been pranking, but she would never know that.
Draco smiled back. "Hello Rose. Yes, I'm Draco Malfoy, the smarmy git."
She laughed delightedly and, after a short, shocked, pause, Scorpius joined in.
"Let's get you to the car, young lady!" Ron snarled. There was a twinkle in his eye, but he was serious when he added, "And be polite to Draco please."
She rolled her eyes. "Godric, Dad! Not the car. Why can't we Floo like normal people?" she whined.
Draco and Ron levitated the trunks onto a trolley.
"I've parked in the usual place!" Ron called after his daughter as she and Scorpius walked off ahead of their fathers, deep in conversation.
Rose was doing most of the talking: "So bloody embarrassing, I can't believe he'd make you go in that. Some Muggle cars are quite cool, but Dad's is crap. He only drives it to show off that he can ..." They disappeared into the Muggle world.
Before they pushed the trolley through the barrier to join them, Draco said, "I didn't mean it."
Ron gave him a questioning look.
"About your hair. It is ridiculous."
"You're just jealous of my hairline, slap-head," Ron replied with a laugh.
"Jealous? Of a Weasley?" Draco snorted. "Why would anyone be jealous of you?"
"Because," Ron whispered, "I get fantastic sex with the man I love every night, and I get to do it for the rest of my life."
Then he followed their children into the busy station. Draco took a moment to master his grin and his blush before he joined them.