Title: Hope and Panic
Author:
Recipient: trubbleclef
Pairing: Harry/Ron, Harry/Ginny, Hermione/Ron, various
Rating: NC-17
Word Count: 53,891
Warnings: excessively long, somewhat adulterous, plenty of alcohol, (mostly) canon-compliant (including the epilogue), graphic sex, overuse of adverbs, excessive use of gingers, sports talk.
Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: Three days after the end, and Harry has to start his life again, not quite where he left off. A tale of champagne, brotherhood, expensive brooms, the colour red, hope and panic.
Author's Notes: Trubbleclef, you asked for a slow build-up to a romance, and... er, I think maybe I got a wee bit carried away. I really hope you like it, as I'm actually kind of a fan of yours, and I tried to include as many as your listed ingredients as possible. Enjoy! (Hopefully!) A million thanks go to my Dylan Thomas, as usual keeping me happy and sane, and beta-ing what is essentially a novel about a pairing she hates. Another huge thanks to Lia for not beheading me thought I'm sure she thought about it several times... And lastly, to W.A.S., more than a little inspiring, frustrating, loving, fun, this was kind of for you.



"Harry?"


Harry mumbled in half-sleep, pressing his face into the hard down of his pillow.


"Harry. C'mon, Harry."


Harry groaned and turned, curling into the warmth of Ginny's shoulder.


"C'mon, get up."


Harry opened his eyes, slowly. The pale light of pre-dawn barely lit the room, but the air was already sticky-hot with a late spring morning. Ginny smiled at him from across the pillow, freckles stark on her pale face. Harry checked his watch, the thin hands of Fabian's watch marking ten past five. "Yeah," he breathed, yawning and blinking.


Ginny touched his sweaty hair lightly, pushing it from his forehead. "You have to go back, before Ron gets up."


Harry knew, and nodded, but didn't move. He closed his eyes again and settled closer under the cotton sheet. He nestled into the damp of sweat where his legs linked with Ginny's, shifting slightly, where their bare hips pressed close together, where her hand cupped lazily against him.


"Harry, I'm serious, he'll have a fit. And then tell mum." She ghosted a kiss over his lips. "Come on, please, get up."


Harry groaned and pawed at the bedside table, fumbling for his glasses. Reluctantly, he lifted himself up and sat on the edge of the bed and stretched, skin ghostly white in the scarce light, muscle and bone flexing like clockwork. Turning a self-conscious back on Ginny, Harry searched for his boxers in the dark ("I think I saw them land in the closet," Ginny whispered.) He found them, and tugged them on, and pulled on one of Ron's worn out old T-shirts before leaning down to kiss Ginny, pressing shortly against the corner of her mouth. "See you," he whispered, rubbing at tired eyes.


"Good night," she said, reaching to grab the back of his neck and kiss him properly. "Or, good morning." She turned over, and the thin sheet conformed to the curves of her naked body.


Harry smiled slightly, and kissed her hand, her fingertips. His cloak was pooled by the door and he slung it over his head, disappearing instantly in the morning light.


Ron's room, in the tallest tower, was always the warmest in the house, and so when Harry slipped in, he let the cloak slither from his shoulders and onto a chair by the door, tugged off his sweaty T-shirt and tossed it into the overflowing hamper by the end of Ron's four-poster bed. Ron was sleeping facedown, red hair tangled in a halo, his snores muffled by his pillow, murmuring nothings. His orange sheet was twisted askew, and Harry could count the freckles on his back in the swelling dawn light, could see the small café-au-lait birthmark on the side of his right hip, the dark elastic band of his sleep-tangled red-gold boxer shorts.


Harry's camping bed was under the room's only window; the mattress squeaked as he crawled in. Tangling his feet in the thin sheet, Harry squirmed about, twisting and turning in the morning heat. Warm wind and early bird songs fell from the open window, and croaking frogs in chorus. Restless, Harry stared at the ceiling, at the wooden beams spangled with posters and pennants, busty witches sticky-tacked above Ron's bed, twitching their hips lazily, pouting slowly and winking in the dark. The walls moved restlessly as the Chudley Cannons flew silent circles around the room from poster to poster, their repeated actions turning into a mesmerizing pattern like a video loop on the television.


Harry leaned back on his elbows and watched the sun rise over the Devon countryside and the distant village of Ottery St. Catchpole. Blue, white, yellow, sun. East-facing, the room was soon filled with a glorious golden morning light, the orange walls and orange posters and Ron's near-naked body glowing like a lit fire. The sun gave slow life, and soon a rooster crowed, and then another, and everything began to churn: the black marks of birds fluttering from the woods, cars moving like ants along the crest of a distant hill, the flow of chickens and lambs outside the Burrow, grazing in the short grass and blinking black eyes into the sun.


Ron stretched and rolled heavily in bed. He spoke with his eyes closed: "You'wake?"


"Yeah," Harry said, lying flat back against his bed.


Ron leaned up, scratching his ribs and squinting. "Mm, 'morning." He looked down at Harry for a moment, blinking him into focus. "Couldn't sleep?" Harry shrugged, and so Ron flopped back into bed, running his hands through his hair and rubbing his eyes. "What day is it?"


"Thursday."


"Oh." Ron scratched his ribs again, and his hip. He tugged his sheet off and let it drop on the floor. "It's today." Ron yawned, and then grimaced. "Fuck. It's today."


Harry stared at the floor. "Yeah."


"Brilliant," Ron said quietly. "Really brilliant." He twisted and sat on the edge of his bed, running his hands through his hair and making it stand greasy and at odd angles. "I guess I'll shower first."


Harry nodded, glancing away.


Ron stood and pulled a towel from his closet, the only clean one left. He slung it around his wide, freckled shoulders and stood with his hands on his hips, giving a tight stretch. "You're coming tonight, aren't you?"


"I don't really have a choice," Harry replied.


Ron shrugged.


The bathroom was across the narrow hall, shared with Hermione and Ginny who slept one floor down. Glancing at the bathroom mirror from an oblique angle, Harry watched as Ron stripped naked, splashing his face with water. Ron stretched again, freckles shining stark all along his back, a sheen of sweat licking the line of his spine. The door closed. T


wenty minutes later and Ron was back, towel tied around his waist, dark red hair plastered flat and divided into fins against his forehead. "Mum's making sausages," he said, a cup of tea in each hand. "Everyone's awake." He sat beside Harry on the camping bed, offering him a mug. "You okay?" he asked, nudging him gently shoulder-to-shoulder.


Harry nodded, sipping at the hot, sugarless tea, blinking rapidly as his glasses steamed.


The tea and shower made Ron's face and chest flush with red. The towel at his waist was loose, and the shadowed gap between cloth and skin forced Harry's eyes away, to the poster-covered walls, to the open bedroom door, or to the clothes hamper. A short bristle of ginger hair clung below his bellybutton, and lower even, into the shadows.


Ron, in turn, glanced once or twice at the round burn in the middle of Harry's bare chest, the raised pink scar he wore like a locket. "Does it hurt?"


Harry drained the rest of his tea and stood up and stretched, wiping sweat from his forehead. "Not any more."


Ginny leaned in the doorway before Ron could reply: "Good morning."


"Privacy much?" Ron shot back quickly, narrowing his eyes slightly.


"Shove it," Ginny said, and nodded at Harry, who gave her a quick hug, angular and bony. "Long time no see," she said under her breath, kissing the corner of Harry's mouth, and then more audibly: "Breakfast?"


"We were going," Ron said, draining the rest of his tea and setting the mug on the windowsill next to Harry's. He got up and tied the knot of his towel defensively. "And would you mind, I have to change."


"Harry?" she asked.


"Need to brush my teeth first."


"Yeah, get out," Ron added, fumbling through his laundry for something relatively clean to wear.


Ginny stuck out her tongue and left the room. However, before Ron could close the door, Hermione stuck her head in as well, laughing as Ginny squeezed past her in the narrow hall. Hermione's bushy hair was pulled back into a haphazard pony-tail and she was dressed in one of Ginny's pink T-shirts and a pair of jeans that only reached her calves. Her bare feet made sticking noises against the hardwood floors. "Morning," she said, smiling, sliding her hands into her back pockets.


Ron froze, hands fidgeting at the knot of his towel, his ears going beet-red. "Hi."


"Sorry, bad time?" she said, her lips curling into the gentlest smirk. She leaned away from Ron and said: "Morning, Harry."


"Hey," Harry said, pulling on another of Ron's T-shirts.


"Coming, then?" she asked.


Harry paused. "All right," he said, taking her offered hand.


"What happened to brushing your teeth?" Ron asked sharply. Harry shrugged. "Well, I've got to change," Ron added, wetting his lips and tugging absently on the knot of his towel.


"Okay, we'll see you downstairs," Hermione replied, leading Harry gently away.


Ron sneered. "Cheers, guys."


"Come on, Harry," and Hermione led him out onto the landing and down the stairs; Ron's door closed with a slam behind them. She laughed: "You'd think I was his."


Harry raised his eyebrows. "Aren't you?"


The kitchen was already filled with morning; sausages, and tea and coffee, the windows open to something like lilac, cut grass and hay, the sour smell of farm animals. And the table too was filled: at the head, Mr. Weasley reading the Daily Prophet with a mug of coffee at his elbow; Bill and Charlie at the far end, heads bowed together over a copy of The Times crossword; Percy beside his father with a stack of toast, already dressed for work and scribbling quickly with a long eagle-feather quill. Fleur and Mrs. Weasley were at the range, working quite silently, the radio tuned to the drone of the news.


"Take a seat, dears," Mrs. Weasley said, gesturing quickly with her spatula. "Only a minute now."


Harry and Hermione sat opposite Bill and Charlie and watched them work: red heads close, talking quietly together, shoulders knocking; when Bill didn't know an answer, Charlie always did, and Bill picked up Charlie's slack in turn, teasing endearingly, mocking and scribbling with the same quill.


"Where is Ronald?" Fleur asked, sweeping towards the table with a plate piled high with small brown sausages, which she placed between Harry and Bill. "'Ee will miss 'is -- uh, petit déjeuner."


"Breakfast, darling," Bill corrected without looking up.


"What a snob you are," she said warmly, leaning down to kiss him on the ear. "Now, put zat away and eat, it will be cold."


Everyone but Percy and Hermione dug into the sausages, spearing them on forks and eating like cavemen, dipping them into a bowl of brown sauce Fleur had set out beside them. Not halfway through breakfast, Percy excused himself: he had a meeting with Minister Kingsley and couldn't be late.


"You'll be back tonight, won't you, Percy?" Mrs. Weasley asked tightly. "For the --"


"Of course, mother," Percy said, cutting her off. He kissed her on the cheek and Mrs. Weasley smiled sadly, patting the back of his neck warmly. "Morning," Percy said to the rest, capping his Trilby and Disapparating on the spot with a sharp snap.


Ron and George emerged from the staircase as Percy vanished; Ron held one possessive arm around George's waist, as if helping an invalid down the stairs. George looked worse than ever: dark purple circles under his eyes, his skin pale almost to translucency. His freckles stood out like a spray of black ink, and he seemed unsteady on his feet. Even so, his face was calm, blank, almost serene; like a vestal virgin or ascetic monk. George sat down next to Charlie, as Ron sat next to Hermione.


Fleur swept by with another plate of sausages, giving both Ron and George a kiss on the cheek. Molly followed her with a big family plate of toast and a glass bottle of ketchup.


"Sit, Molly," Mr. Weasley said, conjuring a chair easily. Flushed with the heat of baking, Mrs. Weasley finally sat at the table, trying in vain to settle her flyaway hair. Ginny arrived last of all, dressed in shorts and T-shirt with her long hair wet and drawn into a thick ponytail. She sat next to Harry, leaning in to his shoulder and grasping his hand briefly under the table.


Hands clashed over plates, laughter, and with a simple incantation, the copper kettle whistled to a boil and cups were poured with tea or instant coffee mix, sugar and milk whizzing from one end of the table to the other. Drinking deeply, freckled faces flush with hot drinks and family, they ate. Ginny and Hermione picked at their buttered toast, talking enthusiastically of the day's plans: down to Diagon Alley for the great re-opening, dragging Harry and Ron with them of course; the comfort of colour and T-shirts and nothing on the horizon but a shopping trip or two.


Bill added: "I'll join you; I'm going to go to Gringott's with Fleur, see if we've actually got jobs anymore after the stunt you pulled," slapping Ron on the back. "They won't be pleased, that's for sure."


Charlie pitched in: "And you should get a new pet, Harry -- hell, I could probably get you a dragon pup, if you wanted," - laughter, and even Harry smiled - "or at least get you a discount at Eeylops."


"George, why don't you go with them?" Mrs. Weasley asked tentatively.


George shrugged. "No, I don't really --"


"You're welcome to come," Ginny said, touching his arm, like they all did.


"I -- don't want to," George said bluntly. "Not yet, okay?"


Errol, Pig, and Hermes arrived simultaneously with the post; copies of The Daily Prophet (the headlines, for the third day in a row, celebrating Voldemort's defeat, subtitled with "exclusive" biographies on Harry, Ron, and Hermione), an enormous stack of thank you letters and notes and proposals, invitations to functions from every conceivable society in Wizarding Britain, requests for interviews from newspapers all over the world. Most went in the bin, though Ron kept a few of the notes to read on his own, blushing as he stuffed them in his jeans pocket.


They flattened the newspapers on the table, used to soak up sausage grease and spilled tea, and talk erupted of every kind; Ron and Bill trying to find people to set Charlie up with, Fleur talking animatedly with Hermione about Madam Malkin's opening sale and promising her a visit to the Paris location, Mrs. and Mr. Weasley discussing holiday plans for the Canary Islands.


"Want some real coffee?" Ginny whispered, leaning in to half-kiss Harry's ear as he flicked absently through one copy of the Prophet, happy just to listen. "None of this instant rubbish."


"Sure," he murmured, kissing her back, the two of them generally ignored as the Weasleys continued to talk loudly amongst themselves.


"And maybe something more?" she added, biting his earlobe, her hand suddenly on his thigh. Harry felt a great warmth rise in his chest, and his heart fluttered desperately against his ribs, like a great alcoholic rush. Ginny's breath was hot in his ear, and her hand was creeping slowly towards his waist.


"Ginny," Harry said, maybe trying to ward her off.


"Harry," she countered in a raw half-growl.


And Harry murmured, and smiled, shied away before guiltily leaning in to press a kiss to her lips, leaning in to her hand and half-closing his eyes with pleasure, like a pup.


Ginny slid out from the table, leaving a cold vacuum where her hands had been, and Harry blinked awake -- and found himself staring across at Ron's sharp glare, thin lips curled in a sudden half-snarl -- shock, a quick jolt, furious -- and then suddenly smooth and away, Ron turning easily to talk with Hermione as if nothing had happened. No one had seen the sudden anger, the shift between them, and for a second Harry thought maybe he had imagined it -- the idea was foreign to Ron's easy smile, how he leaned in to touch Hermione's hair, to tickle behind her ear -- but Harry, in blinking away his shock, noticed Ron's knuckles white around the handle of his fork, the furious tension bristling in his shoulders as he forced a laugh, head turned sharply, deliberately away from Harry.


Ginny returned with two steaming mugs of black coffee, furiously strong and delicious. Her leg pressed close to Harry's as she sat back down; her hand slid up to his inner thigh, coiling and resting there; her lips wet, biting them playfully as Harry squirmed under her touch.


"Not here," Harry whispered, still uncomfortably aware of Ron's proximity, disconcerted. Ginny tilted her head slightly, her hand fidgeting against the inside hem of his shorts. Harry touched Ginny's wrist under the table, could feel the soft pulse through her skin, and slid her hand comfortably to his knee. "Just -- not here." Ginny shrugged and withdrew.


After breakfast, the table emptied haphazardly; Mrs. Weasley doing the washing-up and chatting with Mr. Weasley, Bill off to feed the chickens, Charlie and Fleur checking the horse-racing results on the back porch, Ginny upstairs getting changed. At half past nine, Hermione, Ron, and Harry sat together at the table alone, finishing their drinks together.


"So," Hermione said, smiling between her boys. "We should get ready if we don't want the crowds."


Ron shrugged. "Sure."


"Harry?"


Harry glanced from Ron to Hermione, at their linked hands and shoulder-to-shoulder enthusiasm. "I'm going to have a shower." Harry drained the rest of his tea and set it down on the table, padding up the stairs with sticky bare feet on hardwood panels.


"That went well," Hermione said, deflated. She rested her head on Ron's shoulder. "You have to talk to him, you know."


"Why me?" Ron said sharply.


"Because -- well, I don't know. I don't know what I would say," Hermione said quietly.


"And I do?" Ron snorted.


"You're his best mate," Hermione said, tilting her head and giving him a firm look, "and you're -- boys, and I'm not sure how this really works, you and me."


"It's not about us," Ron said firmly. "He's fine with us."


"Is he?"


Ron shrugged. "He should be."


"Can you talk to him anyway?" Hermione asked.


Ron thought on this for a moment. "Okay, but you have to kiss me first."


Hermione smiled, laughed. "If you insist." And she kissed him lightly on the lips, lingering and tasting the sweet tea on his mouth.


Ron walked up the stairs slowly, languidly, dragging his feet across wood and carpet, steeling himself for another awkward conversation among many. Bright light flooded through the windows, making hot squares on the ground, stirring the dust and the smell of varnished wood, dried flowers, and the faintly acid tang of ghoul. The door to his room was slightly ajar, and the bathroom across from the landing was open and empty, the water in the shower running long and hot, steam billowing in clouds. Cautiously, Ron nudged the bedroom door open with his toe.


Ginny had her back to the door, topless, bra hanging in the crook of one arm, and straddling Harry's hips; Ron saw Ginny sling his T-shirt (my T-shirt, Ron noticed grimly) over her shoulder, laugh and lean down over Harry, kissing him loudly and pinning his hands over his head.


"Wanna help me?" Ginny said, laughing, fiddling with what Ron could only assume was Harry's zipper. Harry's thin, pale hands slid over Ginny's back, running up under her shoulder blades and down to the curve of her hips, fingers pressing gently into her skin to imprint fading white circles. The movement of his hands, rubbing and teasing, fidgeting with the hem of her jeans and dipping shyly under the waistband drew Ron's eyes, made him hold his breath and watch until he began to sweat.


"I wish we could just stay here," Ginny said, tossing her hair back. "Just, not go out, ignore everyone and fool around all day -"


"Don't let me stop you," Ron spat.


Ginny froze. Icily, she turned, arms crossed over her small freckled breasts, her face brilliantly red with anger. "Excuse me?"


Ron matched her anger easily, almost eagerly, and he spoke with renewed venom: "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing you - you -- slag. You're sixteen -"


Ginny climbed deftly from Harry's prone body, grabbed her shirt and pulled it back on. She rounded on Ron furiously, a note of hysteria in her voice, going red right down to the top of her chest: "Don't you dare, Ron! Don't you dare!" She punctuated each with a finger to Ron's chest. "I -- I have just as much right to be with Harry as you do with Hermione --"


"He's my best mate!" Ron said, giving the tired argument. "And you're my sister."


"Why can't you get over that?" Ginny seethed between gritted teeth. "Haven't you already given us your permission?"


Ron's lip curled in a shallow snarl. "This is different, yeah? This isn't -- this is -- because that was school and you weren't -- shagging my best mate. Things are different now."


Ginny spat a laugh. "And what about Harry and Hermione?"


"What about them?" Ron asked, whipping around at Harry. "What about her? You don't like her, do you?"


"No - no," Harry said, turning to stare blankly at the ceiling. "I don't."


"You know, I thought you'd have more respect," Ron said, narrowing his eyes. "My sister, in my room --"


"Don't you dare try and make us feel guilty," Ginny shot back, pulling Ron's attention from Harry. "I'm not your tagalong little sister anymore, I've got my own decisions to make. And," she continued, pressing her finger sharply in the middle of Ron's chest, "I'm choosing to be with Harry and I'm choosing to do what I want --"


"Ginny, please, just drop it," Harry interceded quietly. "Can we not have the same argument for once? Please?" He stood quickly, did up his jeans and pulled on his T-shirt. "I'm having a shower." Without so much as another word, Harry walked quickly past Ron and Ginny and into the bathroom, locking the door with a sharp click.


Ron was waiting, sitting on the edge of his bed when Harry emerged in a gust of steam. In a reversal of the morning, Harry was naked save for the towel gripped tightly around his waist, and Ron sat fully-dressed and somber on his bed. Reluctantly, Harry sat next to him; his towel unknotted and fell open over the side of his leg.


"If there's something wrong," Ron began, his words cold and his jaw tight, not quite meeting Harry's eyes, "with me and Hermione -- well, just --" he cleared his throat sharply, "- you can talk to me about it." He made it sound very clear that were was nothing to talk about.


Harry stared straight ahead, out the window, watching the fizz of cirrus clouds swirl high in the sky and far away. "Okay."


Ron made to get up and go, but he couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut: "It's just -- you and Ginny, mate. For Merlin's sake. I said it was okay to -- but I didn't mean -"


"Who're you trying to protect?" Harry interrupted.


Ron's eyes narrowed. "What?"


"Me, or Ginny?"


"I -- it's not that," Ron said, licking his lips nervously. "It's just the two of you --"


Harry caught Ron's gaze and shook his head sharply. "We're not, okay?"


"You're not what?"


Harry opened his mouth, but though better of it. He shrugged.


Ron narrowed his eyes. "So what I saw was?"


"Nothing."


"Oh." Heat and filtered slowly into Ron's speech. "So if I hadn't walked in just then, nothing would have happened, would it?"


Harry said nothing, just gathered his towel tighter around his waist, enough to cut a red line into the pale skin of his stomach.


"Look, I know things are hard for you," Ron said stonily. "I know something's wrong. I know the war -- well, bloody fucked us up. But you can't just -- shag my sister, and lead me on and --"


"I didn't sleep with her."


Ron glared at him, not sure if he could say the words anymore. "You're using her."


Harry's fidgeting hands froze. "I'm not," Harry said dimly. "How could you think I'd do that --"


"Do you love her?" Ron's face was grim, as if he already knew the answer.


Harry turned to him at last, wincing slightly with shifted pain and reluctance. His voice had a pleading note: "Ron -- it's not like I don't -"


"Say it," Ron insisted.


Harry turned away sharply, taking a quick breath.


The bitterness in Ron's voice was real. "I know you don't. Like you don't love Hermione, or me, after all the -- after Vol -- after Voldemort. I knew it would happen." The colour in Ron's face drained, and his body seemed to sag; he looked at Harry with something like exhaustion. Harry shrugged again, with finality, and they both looked away, holding back whatever else was left to say.


"Can I get dressed now?" Harry asked quietly.


"Can't you just say it? For my sake?" Ron blurted out, almost despite himself.


Harry paused, glanced at his nails, and shrugged. "I'm getting cold."


Ron, still pale, turned with military sharpness. "We're leaving in ten minutes." He closed the door behind him.


*


Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione stood under the cloth awning of Florean Fortescue's, soaking wet and watching the pounding thunderstorm outside. Their arms were loaded with bags and parcels of all colours and kinds. Ginny and Hermione talked quietly together ("I'm going to go to Australia in a couple days, I think, to bring my parents back home"), their hair damp and sprung into humid ringlets, clothes dark and clinging; Ron and Harry were stiff and silent behind them, occasionally shaking wet hair or wiping water from their eyes, just waiting.


Rolling thunder, rather than great claps, roared through Diagon Alley like an enormous train, loud enough to rattle glass. The rain poured down, making the cobble-stoned alleys into rushing streams. A fine mist of wet soaked the shoppers under the awnings, packed in like sardines to avoid the sudden storm, giggling and marveling in a hubbub of noise.


"Merlin, look at it go," Ginny said, pushing her wet hair back, making it stick up in tufts. "It's great, isn't it?" She was grinning like a child.


"What time is it?" Ron asked impatiently, unloading the shopping from his arms.


"Ten to six," Hermione said, glancing at her wristwatch. "I guess we should probably get back."


Ron raised his wand, but Ginny slapped his arm down. "Where's the fun in that?"


"The fun in what?" Ron said sharply. "Getting soaked? I'm just going to impervious --"


"Don't be daft," Ginny said, gathering the shopping over one arm. With the other, she took Hermione's hand and they ran out under the downpour. Harry and Ron watched them go: kicking up spray from their heels, shrieking and laughing as the water poured down, slipping occasionally on cobbles but keeping their balance until they reached the awning of the Leaky Cauldron, grinning and waving, completely soaked.


"Bugger this," Ron said, gathering the shopping again. "They're mental."


But Harry, ignoring him, suddenly ran after the girls, bags huddled close to his chest as he charged through the rain. He smiled, and in seconds it looked as if he had jumped in a lake, his clothes clinging to him all shear and skin-tight. Grinning, panting, he slid to a stop under the eaves with Ginny and Hermione, pushing back his hair and whipping it back and forth like a dog.


Ginny laughed, and dropped her bags on the ground, took Harry by the hand and pulled him back out into the rain. "I've always wanted to do this," she yelled, over the roar of another peal of thunder. "Like Breakfast at Tiffany's."


And she stood up on tiptoes and kissed him viciously, like a movie, threading her fingers in the wet tangle of his hair. Ginny smelled of the damp, woody smell of rain, metallic ozone and wet hair, like Harry did. She tasted of the cappuccinos they had drunk, and the sugar-mint of gum. She was hot and wet and lively under his hands, body twisting to pull him closer, the water pouring down their faces, gluing hair to skin, each others' skin, clinging to eyelashes and tips of noses.


Ron's heavy, wet footsteps sounded behind them. He was holding his wand aloft, and the rain seemed to avoid him as if under an invisible umbrella. Unflagging, Ron shoved hard shoulders with Harry, cold and deliberate, shrugging his sarcastic half-sorry.


"Fuck off, Ron," Ginny spat, scowling, whipping at his back as he walked away.


Harry pulled away slightly, cradling Ginny in a hug but daring not touch her lips. He pushed his hair back as the rain poured about his shoulders, streaming down his face. "I'm sorry."


"What's wrong?" Ginny asked.


" I'm - cold," Harry said. He wiped his face with his wet shirt, mud and bits of leaf stuck in dark patches on his pale face, pale stomach. Ginny followed him reluctantly into the pub, shooting Ron a very dark look, knocking shoulders in the doorframe.


"Is something wrong?" Hermione asked Ron in an undertone as they walked through the damp barroom of the Leaky Cauldron.


"No," Ron said, taking a step away as Ginny shook her hair, spraying them all with rain. "I'm just cold." Hermione stepped close to thread an arm around Ron's waist, but he shied away quickly: "C'mon, you're wet."


Outside of the Leaky Cauldron, and back into rainy Muggle London, the four friends extended umbrellas, visible this time, from the ends of their wands, blooming like black polyester flowers. They slipped into a nearby park, deserted in the storm, and Disapparated with a loud four-fold crack, twisting on the spot and appearing suddenly to the hills outside Ottery St. Catchpole.


In spectacular contrast, the Devon day was dry and hot, a warm wind kicking up pollen and dust, rattling silvery leaves and pushing smoky white clouds quickly across the sharp blue sky.


Ginny shook her hair and raised her face to the hot yellow sun; she smiled indulgently and pulled off her wet T-shirt, stripping down to her black tank top. She kicked off her shoes to walk barefoot on the dusty, grassy trail home, making sweet little yelps as she trod on sharp stones. Easily, she strung her arm around Harry, tucking a hand under the wet of his T-shirt and along the slick contour of his hip.


The Burrow was deserted; the chickens and lambs were put away and silent, the front doors closed, and the windows shuttered to the days heat. Harry had never seen the house so dead, so lonely here in the hills of Devon, locked away in a crab apple orchard and away from prying eyes. Bags in hand, they stepped into the kitchen.


"You're late."


George was alone at the table, looking up at them over his copy of The Daily Prophet. He was dressed in a crisp black suit, black shirt and black tie beneath, silver cufflinks gleaming as they caught the sun. His hair, normally flaming red, was darkened with hair product and parted carefully. Despite the warm afternoon light, George's calm face seemed deathly pale, a sharp contrast to his dark clothes and freckles that stood out like ink. His eyes were shadowed so darkly it seemed almost cosmetic.


Ginny leaned down and kissed George on the temple. "How are you feeling?"


"All right," he said.


"You look nice," she said.


George looked up, dropping the newspaper and placing his hands flat on the table. It was only then that they noticed the silver stitching on his lapel: "F.J.W." in delicate script. Ginny ran her ringers over it, sliding along the embossed thread.


"His?" she asked quietly. "I never saw him in this."


George touched the lapel self-consciously. "You should get ready, they're waiting and we're being picked up soon." Abruptly, George stood up and left the kitchen, the screen door swinging closed behind him. They heard the sharp pop of his Disapparition.


"Picked up?" Hermione asked, turning to Ginny.


"Ministry cars," Ginny explained, pulling her attention back to Hermione, "since we're -- uh, very important people, I guess."


Hermione nodded, and turned to Ron. He had been very quiet, hands fisted in his pockets, still looking disconsolate. "Let's get changed," she said, taking Ron's hand in her own, kissing the back of it lightly. Ron shrugged, then nodded.


The silence was heavy and hot, sticking about them like a sheen of sweat. Ron stripped off his clothes until he stood plainly in his boxer shorts, scratching hard ribs slowly. Crawling into bed, he lay back on top of his comforter, the sun pooling over his skin, and closed his eyes to the world. Harry stole a glance or two, watched the even gaps of his breathing, the rise and fall of his flat, pale stomach, as white as a fishbelly, a line of sweat sparkling like precious metal in a line from bellybutton to pelvis.


Harry undressed methodically: taking off his shirt and folding it, placing it in the clothes hamper, pulling off his jeans and folding them over his arm, placing them in the clothes hamper, peeling off his socks and laying them flat on top, tugging off his boxer shorts, folding them and dropping them on top of his socks. Naked, he turned away from Ron, and fumbled about in the closet, not quite sure what to do. He settled on black trousers, a white shirt, and a charcoal grey corduroy blazer; most were once Percy's, who was about the same size as Harry.


"That's what you're wearing?" Ron asked quietly. Harry turned; Ron was sat at the end of his bed, still in his boxer shorts, resting his head in his hands, elbows on his knees, watching the spectacle dolefully.


Harry tugged experimentally at the cuffs of his jacket. "Yeah. I guess."


"Okay." Ron stood up, shouldered past Harry and began rummaging through the closet. Harry stepped away, sat on the edge of Ron's bed and began lacing his uncomfortable dress shoes. Harry glanced up once or twice; Ron tugged off his boxers and pushed through his clothes, he scratched his pale arse, he cupped his cock loosely in one hand. Bored, Harry fell back on the bed, hands behind his head.


"You're wearing my shirt," Ron said suddenly.


"What?" Harry murmured, eyes closed.


"That white shirt, it's mine."


"Oh."


"Take it off."


Harry opened his eyes and sat up. "Sorry?"


"I need it, take it off."


Harry gave him a look of irritation. "Choose another one, Ron."


Ron crossed his arms over his freckled chest, shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He was wearing a pair of black boxers and a determined frown. "I need it, take it off."


Harry gave him a weary look. "Ron, don't be an arse."


Frown became a snarl. "I need that fuckin'' shirt --" Ron was across the room fast. He fisted his hands in Harry's lapels, pulled him fiercely to standing. They stood there frozen, Harry's startled expression caught in Ron's sudden rage, faces impossibly close, Ron's hands pinching fabric and skin as he gripped the buttoned placket at Harry's throat, shifting grip, breathing heavily with their mingled gasps, a rush of adrenaline coursing in twin ventricles, atriums, arteries. The moment was short, and brutal, startling to them both: Ron flushing furiously red in his overreaction, Harry pale and taken completely by surprise.


Just as suddenly, Harry wrested out of Ron's grip, smashing his hand away and taking defensive steps apart, coughing shortly. They stared but dared not speak, still reeling, still pumping with fading adrenaline. Harry's breath was short. Ron's hands trembled.


At once, Ron turned away, and Harry left.


Walking down the stairs in a daze, Harry touched a careful hand to his throat, sore from Ron's fist, massaging the red skin, not quite sure what the hell just happened. The first button of his shirt was missing. He flattened the collar self-consciously, trying to catch his breath, his racing heart.


Ginny was alone in the kitchen. She was sitting on the counter in a simple long black dress, presently pulled up to her knees, a bowl of blueberries in her lap. She ate them with purpled fingers.


"Hey," she said, popping another few blueberries in her mouth. "Want some?"


Harry shook his head. He sat heavily in one of the kitchen chairs, trying to catch calm that wouldn't come. Ginny looked at him with sudden concern: "What's wrong?"


"Nothing," Harry managed, reflexively bringing a hand to this throat again.


Setting the blueberries aside, she jumped off the counter, rounded on Harry and slid her hands to his shoulders. "What's wrong?" Her long red hair tickled his nose, and when she leaned down to kiss the top of his head, completely veiled his face, smelling of sweet shampoo and rough soap.


Harry's shoulders tensed.


She let go, and sat beside him instead. "Come on, I know something's wrong," she said again. "I can tell."


Slowly, his breath returned, and Harry felt his heart slow, and the dizziness receding at last. "Nothing, just a little anxious," he said with hitched breath.


Ginny leaned in to kiss him on the mouth, with soft lips dark red -- Harry jerked away, viciously, nearly toppling his chair over, and Ginny looked at him with total alarm. "What the hell is wrong, Harry?"


"Please," he said, nearly panting, flinching and looking away, "just -- don't."


"Don't what?" she asked, genuinely surprised.


"Kiss." Harry winced, looking at the hurt in Ginny's face. "Touch."


Ginny looked like she had been slapped. "What -- you don't want us to -- touch, even?"


"Not while Ron's around," Harry said.


"Ron?" Ginny's voice turned quickly bitter.


"Just, not now. I think it's really upsetting him," Harry said, quiet again. "It's really - Just, until I figure this out."


"But I'm your --" Ginny froze, something like comprehension blooming over her red lips. "I'm not, am I?"


"Just don't," Harry said defensively. "I don't know what we are."


"You can't let him rule your life," she said, a familiar defiance in her voice.


"It's not like that," Harry replied coldly. "It's not as easy for me. You weren't there."


Ginny shook her head in disbelief. "You're unbelievable - after all those months, waiting, fighting for you, I wasn't there? -- and now you just -- I waited for you." She looked at Harry as she had never looked at him before. "I waited and you're just going to cut me off -- for what?"


Harry glanced away. "I know."


"Don't say you're sorry," Ginny seethed. "I don't want to hear it --"


Ron and Hermione interrupted, the squeak of the stairs announcing their arrival, hands linked and somber. Ron unsmiling in black trousers and a black dress shirt rolled up to the elbows, loose wine-red tie knotted in lumpy Windsor, hair wet and hastily parted; Hermione in a long black empire-waistlined dress that brushed the floor, her bushy hair pulled back neatly, a short string of pearls circling her neck. Calm and sober.


"We should go," Hermione said, touching the necklace absently. "Where is everyone?"


"Waiting for us, in Hogsmeade," Ginny said briskly, turning away from Harry. "Let's go."


The four of them walked outside, a good twenty feet from the house, and at once turned, snapped, and appeared on the outskirts of Hogsmeade village. The sun was setting gold and red, and it was much colder this far north, with a sharp breeze that smelled of sea air. Goosepimples prickled along the girls' arms, and Harry offered Ginny his blazer, but she refused coldly, locking hands with Hermione instead.


The trees were full and green, and they shadowed over the houses, littered the streets with fallen leaves and swirling petals, arching over the roads beautifully. They walked as if through a trellised garden, under white willows and yew trees, flowering crab apple and bird cherry. Ginny and Hermione took off their heels, walking barefoot on the sunwarmed asphalt, treading carefully around gravel and stone.


The crowd was gathered in the town center, on the terrace of the Three Broomsticks, loud with quiet voices and the clinking of ice in drinks. Some were dressed in suits and dresses like Muggles, but most were clothed in full dress robes, velvety and dark, gleaming here and there with subdued silver stars and moons. They shook hands with Harry, those sad-eyed well-wishers, and Harry accepted it quietly, trying in vain to pick his way through the crowd.


Mrs. Weasley saw them first, and swept Ginny easily into her arms. "You all look so beautiful," she said, crying openly. "Oh, Ginny, darling," and cried into her hair, hugging her daughter tightly. Harry and Ron stuffed their hands awkwardly in their pockets, staring at their shiny shoes, avoiding eye contact and the anxiety of talk. George was nursing a tumbler of scotch, and accepted Ron's arm around his waist, leaning in to his brother's shoulder gently; Ron shifted and pressed a blunt kiss into George's temple, as was their way. Across the circle, Harry caught Fleur's eye; she was in a beautiful cream silk dress, gathered modestly around her neck, a thick black velvet cloth tied around her upper arm, a bracelet of jet around her wrist. Her hair fell to her shoulders in thick waves, and she held Bill's hand in a vice grip. She gave Harry a sad smile, gesturing something warm with a nod of her head.


"Harry," Mr. Weasley offered, his voice thick and awkward, "would you like a drink?"


"No, thank you," Harry said quietly, slipping in next to Fleur, blissfully far from the confusion of Ron.


"Hermione?"


Hermione looked up, and bit her lip. "Sherry, I guess," she said, to the surprise of many. Ron asked for one as well. The drinks arrived quickly, ruby red and sickly sweet. Alongside, Fleur took her glass of milky pastis, Bill and Charlie their red wine, and George another tumbler of scotch. They drank in silence.


The ice melted, and the drinks were emptied, and finally Madam Rosmerta tapped Mr. Weasley on the shoulder: "The cars are here, love."


The procession was a line of fifteen black Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows, magically enhanced (of course) to accommodate a dozen per car in seats like benches. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were made to sit alone in the lead car, an open-topped Silver Cloud, despite Harry's protests.


"You're their hero," acting-Minister Kingsley told him, putting his large hand on Harry's shoulder and speaking to him firmly. "They want to see you."


Harry stared at him steadily, then: "I won't wave."


"Good," Kingsley replied, "you're not the Queen."


Harry sighed, and sat in the back of the car, sandwiched between Ron and Hermione. The leather squeaked under them, and the car was uncomfortably small, obviously unaltered. The sunset blazed at their backs as the procession moved slowly through Hogsmeade and up the Hogwarts drive. The hill was newly lined with dark, sharp fir trees, tall enough to block their view of the castle and throw long shadows up ahead. The wind whipped at them, cool in their open-topped car, and Hermione linked an arm around Harry's waist, resting her head on his shoulder. Ron tried to keep his distance, but the car was so tight he was forced to sling his arm around Harry's shoulder merely to get comfortable.


At last, after a lingering twenty minutes, Hogwarts peaked over the hill, beautiful and tragic, still awfully damaged but magnificent none-the-less. Lights bloomed from every window, and the fallen towers were marked by tall bonfires that burned like lighthouse beacons. The crowd milling on the front lawn was immense, several thousand strong. Strange copper globes floated over their heads, glowing faintly in the bright sunset, bobbing up and down like brass corks in champagne.


The cars slowed as they drove up the front lawn. Harry wanted to ask Hermione how the machinery worked if Hogwarts was protected, but the answer seemed obvious enough: it wasn't. A chill settled over him, greater than before.


The ceremony, so large, was set up on the great sweep of the front lawn. The doors of the Entrance Hall were opened wide, light flooding from inside, the ghosts milling about the Hall nervously. Enormously long rows of chairs were arranged in a layered semi-circle facing the Great Lake, pinioned around an enormous marble altar and an ordered line of fifty dark-polished coffins.


The cars slowed to a stop some dozen yards from the shifting crowd, most of whom had turned to watch the procession approach. Harry, Hermione, and Ron stepped out of their car first, to a loud burst of applause. Harry blushed angrily, but Hermione wrapped an arm around his waist, and an arm around Ron, and they walked together, accepted into the crowd respectfully, a berth surrounding them as they made their way to the front.


This was different from Dumbledore's funeral. His was panicked and cold, desperate at the beginning of a war. The sadness then was unbelievable, untouchable, almost cursory, furious and short. This ceremony, however, came with the mixed weight of mourning and celebration, victory and defeat. Chilled champagne and dark clothes. There was no protocol, no way to comprehend the volatile mix of emotions, and there was nothing for Harry to feel but the blindest, coldest apathy. He accepted the "I'm so sorry" as he did the "Congratulations" -- without emotion, a limp handshake, a nod as they touched his shoulder or slapped his back. It was so awful, the cloying black velvet robes, the flood of orange light, a thousand milling bodies.


The other cars arrived, unloaded their passengers; the mourners, the Order, those who had lost and loved, the ones who had been in the thick of it.


Harry took his place in the front row, as did Ron and Hermione, still flanking him on either side. The Weasleys lined in next to them, and then the rest of the Order. Harry saw Dennis Creevey and, undoubtedly, his Muggle father and mother sit on the opposite side of the semi-circle. Mrs. Creevey had a wispy black veil covering her thin face, and she was crying into her hands. A little girl sat on her lap. Dennis waved enthusiastically on catching Harry's eye, but when he pointed Harry out to his parents, they seemed intent on avoiding him.


Seamus and Dean, looking smart in matching black suits, shook Harry's hand solemnly. Seamus opened his mouth to say something, but was stuck for words. He bit his lip, freckles shining through his flushing cheeks, and quickly turned around and walked away. Dean shrugged, slapped Ron on the shoulder and followed Seamus away. This went on for a long while, friends and classmates, parents and teachers coming by to say something; words sticking in their throats, touching Harry on the shoulder, or thanking him quietly. Several times Harry made to leave, but Hermione held his hand firmly and kept him seated.


"I can't do this," Harry said, struggling with the words.


"You have to," Hermione said, and he knew she was right.


More cars arrived, and Ministers from other Wizarding countries emerged; Madam Maxine and the French Minister of Magic were first, followed by the delegates from Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Germany. It was a parade of countries as Ministers from all over the globe (Australia, Japan, even Mongolia) took their seats in the rows behind the Order of the Phoenix. The Ministers of Portugal, Egypt, Cuba, and Korea were talking in rapid Latin behind Harry, and he caught certain words: Albus, Voldemort, hallows, and, most prominently, Harry Potter.


"And where were they?" Harry hissed angrily, suddenly unable to contain himself.


"What?" Hermione asked.


"Those Ministers. Where were they when we were fighting?"


"They were --" and Hermione faltered. "They supported us."


"Sure, after the war." Harry had never quite realized how expansive the Wizarding world was. Delegates from places as remote as Siberia had shown up. Peru and Mexico were sharing notes in the aisle. An American Wizard and a Canadian Wizard were even comparing accents, laughing. "If they're on our side, why didn't they help us? We needed them! We were dying and they were off doing -- whatever."


Hermione seemed to know what he was thinking: "Harry, Voldemort was a world-wide threat. What you did was amazing. These Wizards were just too -- too weak to fight him. You saved them all. Why do you think they all know who you are? Why do you think they're all here?" Harry tried to shrug it off. "Harry, what we did was important. Don't forget that. Ever."


Just as the sun disappeared behind the horizon, Professor McGonagall stood behind the altar. She was dressed in a dark tartan, forest green and claret, and was struggling to compose herself, fiddling with a stack of papers nervously.


"That's her son," Hermione whispered to Harry. She pointed out a young man, no older than twenty-five, flanking McGonagall. He was dressed in a kilt and plain white shirt. He was handsome, and looked a lot like his mother; sharp features, strong eyes, thick black hair. A set of Great Highland bagpipes were slung at his side. "He's the older, I think."


"Where's the younger."


"Being buried," Hermione said stiffly.


Harry paused, swallowed hard. "What's his name?"


"Caelus, I think."


"And he died -- for me."


"For us," Hermione corrected.


The copper globes that drifted above their heads began to glow brighter as the natural light receded. Their path was random and haphazard, like soap bubbles, casting people in and out of shadow as they drifted in a lazy circle around the mourners. Their light was peaceful and warm as darkness fell. People began to take their seats under this light; rows and rows of people, so many so that a few hundred had to stand -- in the aisles, behind the chairs, branching off towards the castle.


Kingsley put a hand on Harry's shoulder, and his face was grim. "They want you to make a speech."


"No," Harry said bluntly.


"Just a short speech, to thank them," Kingsley said, wearily.


"You make it."


"I will make one, but they're here to see you."


"I thought they were here to pay their respects," Harry replied coldly.


"We all have responsibilities." The wind kicked Kingsley robes, twisted them around his legs and body, made him seem suddenly powerful. The weight in his eyes spoke differently though; since Voldemort's fall, how long had he slept? His dark skin betrayed his exhaustion, but there was something in the wet glance of his eyes.


Harry stared at him blankly, and then: "Okay."


"Good." Kingsley turned and walked away, dipping into shadow as a copper globe passed them by.


Harry stared straight ahead for a moment, grinding his teeth absently. And then he turned to Hermione: "I'm going."


"Harry, stay," Hermione said pleadingly, touching his arm. "Please."


Harry spoke with disdain: "This isn't right. I don't want to be their -- I just don't."


Hermione gave him a wounded look. "Just for now, okay?"


"I just want things to be normal."


"But things won't be normal," Hermione reasoned, gripping his hand tightly. "Not for a little bit at least."


*


George stood silent by his brother's coffin, one pale hand on the lacquered lid, unmoving. The rest of the Weasleys, solemn and grim, stood stiffly behind him like stone guardians.


"'Arry," Fleur said quietly, reaching with a trembling hand. Harry took it, and she held on to him tightly, pale knuckles gleaming through her skin, tossing her hair back nervously, biting her pale lips raw.


Hermione, hiding her face behind cupped hands, shook silently under Ron's arm. Ron himself looked sick, alarmingly pale, his upper lip beaded with sweat. He held on to her with the desperation of a drowning man.


Furthest were Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, half-concealed in the shadows like noir heroes, Ginny wrapped tightly in her mother's arms.


Charlie stood closest to George; from time to time he would reach one uncertain hand in comfort, only to reluctantly pull it back. Bill, behind him, had his arm around Percy, both gazing stolidly ahead.


George acted strangest of all; his half-smile, his unanswered whispered words, the way he would often touch the scar where his ear had been, delicately, almost with affection. Occasionally he would run trembling fingers over the copper embossed nameplate: Frederick Jonathan Weasley.


"George," Mr. Weasley said into the night. "It's getting late."


George stirred, as if he had just noticed he wasn't alone. "What?"


"It's late, George. We should get home."


"Oh." Gently, George leaned down and placed a long, dry kiss on the lid of the casket. When he turned, his eyes were dry and his face calm and expressionless again. "Okay."


It was dark, near midnight, as they walked back towards Hogsmeade. The glowing copper bulbs reorganized themselves to lead, in a line, back to the school and then, as small as golf balls, the road back to Hogsmeade village. Harry, Hermione, and Ron walked at the head of the clan, silent and cold. The warmth of the day was gone, and a cool wind swept off the lake chilling them in their formal dress.


"Jonathan," Hermione spoke softly, almost to herself. "And George's middle name is --"


"David," Ron replied quickly.


Hermione nodded, and bit her lip.


Seamus and Dean, jackets over their arms, stood waiting on the hearth of the Entrance Hall.


"Harry, mate," Seamus mumbled, pushing his sandy hair back nervously. Quickly, he took Harry in a strong hug, leaving a sharp, perfunctory kiss on his cheek, a kiss that smelled of whiskey. He stood away, blushing, as Dean hugged Harry as well. From the dark, most of Dumbledore's Army materialized; Luna and Neville hand in hand; Lavender and Hannah; Cho Chang, face covered with a dark veil; the Patil twins in matching white saris, without their usual bindis; Angelina and Alicia and Katie and Lee and Oliver; even Justin, Anthony, and the pompous Zacharias emerged in matching grey waistcoats and black shirts.


Harry made the rounds; accepted kisses on the cheek, shook hands, embraced his friends with the same dispassion as a stranger.


Last of all, Cho hugged him, kissed Harry hesitantly on the lips. "Harry," she said quietly. "I -- I just wanted to -- you're the -" and she cut herself short, shaking her head gently. "Er, I just wanted to say thank you," she finished lamely, shaking her head again and stepping away.


"The Three Broomsticks is having a reception," Seamus told Ron gruffly. "Free drinks for veterans, we're all going down."


"We're veterans?" Ron asked, frowning. "Really?"


"We are now," Neville said.


"You should come, Harry," Oliver said, clapping him on the shoulder. Harry shrugged. "C'mon, mate. This isn't a big do, it's just for us." Jocular and friendly, like Quidditch mates going to pub after a win and nothing more.


"C'mon, Harry."


"Just a drink, mate."


"Like old times, eh."


"Harry, it's just friends."


Harry reluctantly let himself get swept down the wide road towards Hogsmeade village, ferried by the arms of Oliver to his left and Katie to his right, the two of them chatting incessantly about the upcoming Quidditch season:


"Tornadoes' have got a new Keeper, eh?" Oliver said, turning to Harry. "I met him. Delacroix his name is. Good bloke. Know anything about him?" Harry shrugged, so Oliver ploughed on: "Nineteen and two record when he played for the Cambridge Coronas, first pick this year, and he's only sixteen at that."


"Turned seventeen," Katie corrected. "Just graduated from Beauxbâtons, hm?"


"Well, he was picked at sixteen," Oliver replied. "You given any thought to Quidditch mate? Anyone in the Championship league would love to have you -- hell, even the Premiership would probably have you. I mean, I'd take you for Puddlemere if we didn't have Shapiro."


"Dunno," Harry murmured.


"You're a good talent. Tell you what, I'll put in some owls," Oliver continued undaunted. "Get you at least on a Championship league team, if not a Premiership. St. Juliot Jaguars are looking for a Seeker, I think. I mean, what're you doing next year, mate?"


"Nothing, I guess."


"It's settled then," Oliver said broadly. "I'll get my agent to represent you too. A couple years and you'll be up in the Premiership with me, eh. Always looking for good Seekers." Again, Harry shrugged.


"Christ, it's so bloody cold," Angelina interrupted loudly, crossing her arms over her chest. "George, c'mere." Pulling him by the arm, she slid his arm around his waist. George had that same quiet, absent look on his face, no matter the affections Angelina poured on him; kissing his cheek coyly, leaning her head on his shoulder. "I haven't seen you in so long," she said. "I missed you." George mumbled something like an agreement.


"Merlin, I need a drink," Anthony said, rubbing his hands together. "I haven't been properly pissed for ages."


"And on the house," Zacharias added. "Where are you all staying tonight anyway?"


The walk was loud and long, ramping downhill towards the glowing spread of Hogsmeade village. The thick lake air stayed with them down through the grove of firs (bangled presently with those same copper globes, like a Christmas tree), but the mood was light; Lavender held Hannah's hand, laughing loudly at some joke; Lee and Oliver were arguing Quidditch plays, punching each other stoutly in the shoulder; Seamus slung his suit jacket over Lavender's shoulders and she kissed him, to his blushing embarrassment and the raucous laughter of the boys. It was the absent fun of teenagers, mindless and booze-fuelled, drifting with the lightness of high school and first kisses.


"It's strange isn't it?" Luna said, falling in to step next to Harry. "It's as if everything is beautiful again." He shrugged, fisting his hands in his pockets. "You don't talk much anymore, do you?" she said with her usual perspicacity. "That's too bad, you have a lovely voice."


The Three Broomsticks was overcrowded and loud, patrons already pouring out onto the terrace with the smokers. Chinese lanterns were strung in lines around the eaves, bathing the grounds in rippled light, shadowed moons and stars cast up along the walls and stretched along the ground. Lime trees surrounded the building, ripe with hard green fruit.


"Now, Ginny," Mrs. Weasley said warningly, taking her daughter aside as the rest of the Army filed through. "You're coming home with us."


Ginny gritted her teeth, looking strangely like her mother. "Mum, just tonight, please. That's all I'm asking."


"You're underaged," Mrs. Weasley replied, with little conviction.


"We'll take care of her, mum," Bill said, cupping his hands on Ginny's shoulders. "She'll be fine." Fleur nodded, tossing back her thick blonde hair.


"Let her go, dear," Mr. Weasley said wearily, taking his wife by the arm.


Mrs. Weasley pursed her lips. "You take care of George."


"Yes, mum," Ginny replied.


"Be careful. And don't let anyone Apparate drunk."


"Yes, mum," Ginny and Bill replied dutifully.


The bar was hot and smoky and loud and filled entirely with Hogwarts students. The clothes racks in the antechamber were piled with suit jackets and blazers, silky shawls and heavy black cloaks, dozens of polished dress shoes and high heels piled underneath. Through the bar, boys walked around with dress-shirts unbuttoned to the navel, girls with long skirts pinned at the thigh; teenagers after a Leavers' ball. Loud music -- "The Magi!" Angelina shouted happily, kicking off her shoes, "I love them!" -- shook the walls, rattled glasses; booze flowed like water; sweaty and hot and cramped.


"What do you want?" Seamus asked Harry over the music. "It's on me." His eyes gleamed, a trickster god.


"Whatever," Harry said, shucking his blazer and tucking it under the mass of cloaks.


They squeezed their way to the bar, pushing between twisting bodies, dancing friends. Harry endured more hugs, more congratulations before emerging in the small circle of mates: Seamus ordering something at the bar; Dean, Ron, Neville, Bill, and Charlie talking loudly together.


"What do you make of her?" Neville asked over the music.


"Who?"


"Luna!"


"You're going with her?" Dean roared, laughing. "You're kidding!"


Neville blushed, took the congratulatory punches easily. "Ever since the -- you know. A few days now."


"Who're you on with, then?" Ron asked, nudging Dean.


Dean paused, his mouth half-open. "No one, really," he said evasively.


"Out with it," Neville said happily, round cheeks prickly red, eyes gleaming wet.


Dean shrugged.


"Shame," Ron said, accepting a pint of bitter from Bill. "Cheers." He drank deeply. "Er, I guess me and Hermione have been pretty close, you know?"


"You don't say," Charlie said, slinging an arm over his brother's shoulders, taking a long draught of his beer. "No one noticed, I'm sure."


The laughter, joking, was interrupted by the arrival of the drinks. Seamus distributed them, tall champagne flutes with liquor layered black and pale.


"What is it?" Ron asked, sniffing his experimentally.


"Black Velvet," Seamus said, raising his glass. "Dumbledore's Army!"


"Cheers!" They clashed glasses and down the drinks in one.


"Merlin," Dean said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "It's been a while since you've forced that one on me."


"What was it?" Neville asked, licking his lips with satisfaction.


"Guinness and champagne," Seamus said, grinning. "Another?"


"Harry," Neville said, nudging him with an elbow as Seamus ordered more drinks, "you're being quiet, mate."


Harry nodded, fiddling with the stem of his empty glass, sliding it back on the varnished bar. "I'm not really - in the mood, for this." But even as he said it, he was reclaiming the infinite warmth of alcohol, the same flutter he had felt after his first taste of firewhiskey.


"What's wrong?" Neville's face fell beautifully into complete concern; and for some reason Harry couldn't help but smile for him, flushing as the booze struck home. "See, that's better. You'll feel good after a few more. And," he added in an undertone, "Ginny's been staring at you for the last ten minutes."


Harry didn't dare glance over his shoulder, but his hearted soared with mixed pleasure and shame. "Really," he murmured.


Neville grinned, slightly crooked teeth. "Go on, mate, have another."


Seamus passed around whiskey shots, and Harry took one under Neville's coercion.


"To Harry!" Neville yelled out next, and it seemed everyone in earshot echoed the toast; glasses were raised high in the air -- beer, wine, shooters, water even -- and downed with a collective gasp.


More whiskey, double shots passed out among the dormitory boys; Seamus, Dean, Ron, Harry, and Neville held the tall shooters together. "Sláinte," Seamus bellowed


"Slawn-cha?"


"Cheers," Seamus grinned, and they shrugged and shot, downing the whiskey in one.


"Oh, Merlin, too much, too fast," Ron mumbled, grasping Harry's shoulder and leaning into him for stability chuckling softly. They caught eyes, half-smiling -- it lingered, curious and happy in a liquored daze -- and then shot apart. "Sorry, didn't mean --" Ron said indistinctly, pushing Harry away with vague gestures, trading places quickly with Dean, fumbling away for another drink.


"Ron," Harry said angrily, but Seamus started handing out more shots, shifting them apart once more.


"Irish firewhiskey," he said, handing one to Harry (the glass was hot to the touch), smiling broadly. "Better than the fruity English stuff you pass off as firewhiskey." Maybe it was the stereotype in him, but Seamus seemed at ease in the barroom; shirt unbuttoned to the sternum, freckles gleaming out of flushed skin, blond hair tousled, clothes in disarray. Harry watched him move, easy and warm, with a kind of relish; jealous of the assuredness, the openness and normalcy, the ability he had to make this some kind of party, like before. "Cheer up, mate," Seamus said in a boozey whisper, pressing a sweaty cheek to Harry's in a heartening way, "we've got drinks to go yet."


The firewhiskey burned like hot water, searing Harry's throat furiously and sizzling in his belly. In its wake was left a delicious smoky taste, woody and rich, and the burn soon gave way to a prickly, anesthetized glow. Harry sighed, and to his surprise, exhaled a cloud of smoke.


"Whoa," Ron said, smoke pouring from his nostrils, like a bull in cartoons. "Bloody hell."


"Brilliant, Ron, you drunkard," Charlie said, slapping Ronmon the shoulder and taking Bill's hand, "but we've just been signaled -" Fleur was waving from across the floor, "- so don't do anything we wouldn't do, and we'll see you in the morning." Ron shrugged them off, taking another drink of Seamus and downing it easily.


The crowd slowly broke: Neville was next, grasping Luna's hand (Harry noticed, smiling, that she was barefoot and radishes once again dangled from her ears) and sliding out onto the dance floor. Lavender soon had Dean by the hand, dragging him away as well.


They were replaced easily by other Weasleys -- and then Anthony and Zacharias, tongue tied with laughter, drunk on Jamaican rum, shirts unbuttoned and chests slick with sweat and lipstick - and then Hermione and Ginny, the two of them ordering blue alcopops sunk with port wine.


"Cheeky Vimtos," Hermione explained, cheeks flushed bright red. "Ginny's got me hooked."


Harry laughed, and touched her shoulder fleetingly. "You're drunk."


"I'm not," Hermione replied, straightening her posture defensively, head swaying to and fro. "Are you?"


"Getting there," Harry mumbled.


Hermione laughed and hugged him. There was something incongruous about seeing Hermione drunk; Harry had become so used to her composure and calm that seeing her anything but felt strange, like she was a new person, a person capable of flirting, and exquisite beauty, and sweaty sex, which Harry found suddenly strangely appealing. His cheeks flushed.


"I love you," he said, and knew then that he had had one too many. Hermione hugged him, and laughed, and left a sugary-sweet kiss on his cheek. So they had a drink together.


"Come with me to Australia," Hermione suddenly said. "It will be fun. We won't be long, just to get my parents, but we can have a little vacation"


"I -- Australia?"


Hermione nodded eagerly, her cheeks flushing with excitement. "We can take a plane and everything."


"I -- I don't know." Harry grinned. "That would be great."


Spinning wasn't quite right, rather the world was shifting: colours changed and moved, glitter and glitz in the lights four-fold splinter like a lens flare, familiar faces brushing in and out, hugging and sweaty hands, offering drinks and pounding backs with happy punches and congratulations. Shifting too: behaviours, altered, fixed smiles becoming warm and inviting, reluctance becoming easy acceptance -- there were even a few Slytherins, boys Harry knew were a few years younger, who bought him beers and tumblers of ouzo and vermouth, who thanked him like Gryffindors.


The next time Seamus was around, Harry bought him a shot and they did it together, Irish whiskey raging down their throats, shared smoky breaths inhaled, like fiancés sipping wine from twisted arms.


"Have you seen -- whatsit - Dean?" Seamus asked, red-cheeked and roaringly drunk. He unbuttoned the last of his shirt, shrugging it off erratically.


Harry pointed further along the bar, where Dean was chatting with Lavender, rocking dynamically back and forth on a stool.


("Dean," Harry heard Seamus say with a strange kind of solemnity, the gravity of the very drunk. "Fancy a dance?"


At once, Dean said a hasty goodbye to Lavender and let Seamus take him out on the crowded floor; even though it was a raucous, bustling salsa song, they slid together like a hand in a glove, spun slowly in circles and circles. Harry watched them with a strange kind of attachment, sweetly turned in his lips and smile.)


"Oh, Merlin, Harry," Katie interrupted, leaning in to kiss him suddenly on the corner of his mouth, tasting of wine and cigarettes. She was absolutely beautiful (everyone was), flushed from the wine, but somehow gorgeous because of it. Her brown hair was drawn hastily in a ponytail, just to get it out of the way, and her hazel eyes shone brightly. "Want to dance? I really want to dance."


Harry let her drag him out onto the floor, where they settled near Seamus and Dean. Katie clapped a hand on Harry's waist, his shoulder, and they shifted about haphazardly to the rapid beat of the salsa music, twisting it into a rough tango.


"Have you seen Seamus?" Harry asked, a bit absent-mindedly, glancing over her shoulder to watch Seamus and Dean's tight-linked formation.


"That Fenian? Is he going with that black boy?" she asked, twisting around to get a look at them. Katie's lips were furiously red -- Harry wanted to touch them, but thought better of it.


"I dunno," Harry said smiling broadly. "Just look at them."


On the next spin around, they maybe saw Seamus sneak Dean a quick kiss on the lips or something. Somehow this was great, absolutely bloody fantastic, and Harry laughed, laughed and let Katie spin him around; let her lean in close and kiss him softly on the cheek; her hair smelled of some tropical shampoo, mango and pineapple, and cigarette smoke too.


"Harry," Katie said brightly, rambling, "you know, you're like a little brother to me, you know? I was just talking to -- to Alicia about this, and you're like our little brother," and she kissed Harry on the ear, "and, oh Christ, Harry, I miss you, I miss our team. Those were the days, eh?"


"Before -- this, yeah," Harry said, warm with memory.


Katie smiled and leaned close and Harry kissed her wetly on the lips, his glasses pressing awkwardly into her cheek. She threw her head back and laughed: "Oh, Merlin, you're great Harry."


The song changed to an equally upbeat Bollywood track, the bass notes rampaging and clattering, the dance floor erupting into a flurry of thrown hands and laughter. Katie switched partners with Alicia, and Harry found himself dancing with a hugely drunk Oliver Wood.


"Harry!" he shouted, pulling him in for a bear hug. "Howsit, mate?" Like Katie, he smelled of cigarettes and beer. "God I miss you."


They danced stupidly through the song, hands on hip and shoulder like a couple, leaning into each other to bust into peals of laughter, hugging into shoulders and remembering old Quidditch memories, plays and mistakes, jokes.


"Youngest player in a century," Oliver said proudly, his gaze drifting drunkenly. "You were a godsend, mate."


Katie and Alicia both leaned in to kiss Oliver on the cheek, and Harry too.


"We're a team again," Alicia crowed, throwing an arm over Oliver's shoulder so the four of them could sway drunkenly together. Harry was too caught up in their fantasy to think of anything else, too pleased in the company of old friends to remember -- funeral, George, Ron, Ginny, pain, anger, and the hurt of, oh, what was it? -- and Harry leaned in happily to kiss Oliver on the cheek, laughing at his own stupidity, laughing with his third year friends, with his old, antebellum friends.


"Where's Angelina?" Katie asked. "We need Angie!"


"With George," Alicia said.


"Ah." Katie paused, tilting her head and biting her lip. "All right then," and leaned down to kiss Oliver on the mouth.


Harry was delirious, delirious with whiskey and school, and he leaned in and strangely caught Oliver's mouth with his own, kissing him with a bit of passion, lips shifting and opening, slick tongues flicking suddenly, and he pulled away laughing, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The girls roared together, and soon again were they a clutter of limbs and sweat.


"I need some air," Harry said, gasping with stupid laughter, swatting the team away, struggling out of their love. Harry pushed his way through dancers sweaty and happy with liquor, friends too loose with hands and lips. What was this? - kisses without a care, absent affection caught in the web of just being happy for the moment -- Harry, full of whiskey, was at a loss.


The terrace was lit, poorly, by a number of overhead lamps, tinny speakers pushing out the flamenco that pounded within. A couple dozen smokers stood at the railings, exhaling their blue clouds into the cool night air. A girl Harry knew as a fifth year Hufflepuff was throwing up at the far end, her pigtailed friends holding back her hair. Harry glanced around nervously before catching sight of a familiar ginger head and stumbled his way over.


George, alone, was smoking a cigarette absently, staring into the thick dark, puffing out clouds of cloying smoke and playing absently with his lighter. A near-empty tumbler of scotch and ice was perched on the railing next to him.


"Hey," Harry said, leaning on the railing beside him.


"Wotcher," George said. "Ron's looking for you."


"Oh."


"Seemed important."


"Okay." Harry paused, motioned for the cigarette. He managed a coughing lungful. Turning to George (dark eyes, pale skin, the usual) Harry winced: "Are you all right?"


"First person to ask me that tonight," George said coolly, draining the rest of his scotch and rattling the ice around in the glass.


"Really?"


"Nope."


"Sorry," Harry covered quickly. "Anything I can do?"


"You could get me another scotch."


Harry plied a third year Gryffindor girl, sister to Anthony Goldstein apparently, to bring the drink, and five minutes later George was drinking deeply from a new tumbler.


"Cheers," George said, offering Harry the glass. Harry took a sip, coughing on the woody smoke. He offered it back, and George drained the rest. "Right, then. Yes, I miss Fred." Harry didn't say anything, just bowed his head to the ground. "No, I'm not going to kill myself," he continued smartly. "And yes," he said, pausing to suck in a piece of ice, chewing it loudly, "I'll miss him. Forever, really." He caught Harry's eyes. "That enough?"


"George, I didn't mean --"


"You shouldn't be smoking," Ron said darkly, throwing an arm over George's shoulder. "Mum would have a -- a fit." He pressed his sweaty forehead to George's temple. "How you doing?"


"Okay," George said, flicking the newly lit fag over the railing. "Was talking to Harry, didn't you need to speak to him?"


It was only then that Ron seemed aware of Harry; his eyes opened wide and he was shot suddenly pale. "Oh, no, I was just --"


George shrugged, tucked his lighter into his pocket and stumbled back into the crowded bar. Ron and Harry stood across from each other, staring and swaying and silent. They hadn't talked since the incident with the shirt, and both, even drunk, were obviously unwilling to bridge the gap.


And then, quite suddenly, Ron bent over the edge of the railing and threw up.


"Oh, god," Harry said, grappling with the back of Ron's shirt, trying to keep him from flipping right over the railing. "Ron, bloody -- Ron, you okay?"


Ron threw up again, coughed, and threw up again. "Oh fuck," Ron murmured, swaying back upright, a froth of sick at the corner of his mouth. Harry wiped it away with his sleeve, swaying in time with Ron, wiped the sweat from Ron's forehead with the back of his hand, slapped him sharply as Ron's eyes half-closed in a drunken daze. "Bloody -- Harry stop it, fuck --" and then, twisting back over the railing, dry heaved in a choked gasp.


"Ron, Ron," Harry said dumbly, rubbing his back as Ron dry heaved again, stomach empty but his body still convulsing. "Ron?"


"Leave me 'lone," Ron mumbled, coughing and twisting lamely away from Harry's touch.


"For Merlin's -- Ron, don't be so --"


Ron suddenly twisted back upright, his eyes sharp alight, his face sickly pale and beaming with freckles. "Don't touch me," he said bitterly, smelling of sick.


Harry winced and pulled away. "Go home, Ron."


Out of the bar, like some kind of Earth-bound angel, Fleur emerged. She was as beautiful and pale as she was that afternoon, hair rippled in beautiful curls, and Harry was overwhelmed by her, just as Ron had been on meeting a Veela for the first time.


"Are you okay, my boys?" she said, smiling. There was a slight flush on the points of her cheekbones, the only remnant of the wine she had imbibed.


"Ron's been sick," Harry mumbled, staggering away from his prone friend. "We're fighting," he finished, stupidly.


Fleur shrugged. "Go inside, 'Arry, I will take care of Ronald."


Harry nodded, and hugged her, held her slim body for maybe longer than was needed -- their faces were inches apart, and Harry was looking at her lips, pale and pink, wet - and Fleur smiled, gave the ghost of a wink and slid away from him. "Go inside and find Ginny, 'Arry, she will be expecting you, I think."


Harry nodded, turned away, glanced over his shoulder to see Fleur conjure a glass of water for Ron, who was bent double over the railing once more.


Inside, the party had thinned; Harry glanced at his watch and was surprised to find it was already four in the morning. There were still a few dozen Hogwarts students left: the truly drunkest still on the dance floor, a few blokes along the bar, among them Seamus and Dean wrapped in close conversation, somehow still drinking.


"Night Harry," Angelina said, somehow manhandling both Oliver and Katie into standing positions. "Had a good night?"


"Yeah," Harry nodded, touching her shoulder fleetingly. "They're drunk aren't they?"


"Very. I'll get them home safe, though."


"Night 'Arry," Oliver mumbled distantly, reaching out to touch Harry fleetingly on the cheek. "You're a ver' sexy boy." Angelina burst into laughter, while Katie said: "Night Harry, g'night eh, little brother." Angelina gave one last smile and then pulled Oliver and Katie outside and away from the party.


Harry slid in next to Bill and Charlie, who were sipping pints of bitter at one end of the bar.


"Morning," Charlie said, clapping Harry on the back. "How are we feeling?" he asked, giving a sly grin.


"Drunk," Harry said bluntly, leaning in on Bill's shoulder. "How're -- what's with you?"


Bill laughed, strung his arm over Harry's shoulder. "Ginny's looking for you, I think."


"Ev'one's looking for me," Harry replied sullenly. "I don't think she wants me. Wants to see me."


"You wouldn't think it," Charlie said, draining the last of his beer. "She's quite stubborn, mate."


"You're not drunk are you?" Harry asked, turning to Charlie.


"Someone has to drag your sorry arses home," he said, shrugging. "Besides, I have to get up early to go back."


"Go back?"


"To Romania."


"But -- why?"


"The world keeps turning," Charlie said. "Thank Merlin for that."


"The world keeps turning," Harry echoed. "Doesn't seem like it."


"It's tough now," Bill said, squeezing Harry's shoulder. "But you're young. You'll move on, eventually. Listen," he said, cutting off Harry's retort. "If you ever need a bit of space from -- well, from my family, you can always come stay with Fleur and me, you know?"


Harry's eyes widened sweetly. "Really?"


"Any time, mate. It'd be nice to have company. Fleur'd like it too, I reckon."


Harry hugged Bill tightly, which made the two brothers laugh brightly. "I think I might have to now."


"Oh?"


Harry grimaced. "Ron's -- me and Ron -- we've had a -- he's a bastard." Charlie and Bill laughed again. "Not really," Harry added, closing his eyes dumbly. "But he's been sick, outside. Fleur's there." Harry looked up suddenly, his eyes wide and bright and young. "She's really pretty."


"Oo-kay," Charlie said, standing up and clapping Harry stoutly on the shoulder. "I think it's time we went home. I'll get our dearest baby brother, can you find George and Ginny?" Bill nodded. "Outside in five, then."


Bill, lacing shoulders with Harry, waded into the rowdy dance floor. Ginny and Hermione were still at it, barefoot and swaying with a knot of Hogwarts girls -- Luna, Lavender, Padma and Pavarti. They left with reluctance; hugging their friends, laughing happily, promising another night out. Ginny and Hermione, flushed with alcohol, took an arm each around Harry's midriff; he was still awake, but barely so.


"Hermione," Harry said in an urgent whisper. "Something's wrong."


"I know, I know," she said, rubbing the back of his neck softly. "Let's just go home, yeah?"


"I haven't said goodbye or anything," Harry murmured.


"It's okay, Harry. You'll see them again."


"It's good like that, isn't it?" he mumbled again.


"What is?" Hermione asked, humouring him.


"Seeing people again."


"Yes, it is," she said, stifling a laugh. "Oh Harry, you're really far gone, aren't you?"


"I dunno what you're talking about. We gonna go to Australia?"


Hermione laughed, pressing her lips into his cheek. "Of course, of course."


Fleur, Charlie, George, and Ron were gathered on the patio. George was stumbling alongside Charlie while Fleur was supporting Ron, somehow still beautiful despite the drunkard on her shoulder.


"All present and accounted for?" Bill asked, smirking as he saw Ron's pale face, sick-fronted clothes. "Side-along then, I think." Divided as they were into pairs of sober and drunk, they Disapparated together with a series of rapid-fire pops; the world of lime trees and Chinese lanterns disappearing in a shattered blur.


Outside Ottery St. Catchpole, the sun was already rising pearly white over the distant hills. In only a moment, the field outside the Burrow was suddenly filled with flailing bodies as the Weasleys suddenly appeared; Harry and Ron collapsed on arrival, laughing drunkenly on the ground, but the squeeze of the Apparation was too much for George who, with an unsteady tug on Charlie's arm, fell to his knees and vomited.


"Oh, wonderful," Charlie said, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. "You all go on, I'll fix George up."


"No, no," Bill said, pulling Harry up from the ground and dusting off his back. "We'll go together."


Fleur and Charlie, with clever wandwork, cleaned George up as much as possible and got him standing, propped up between their shoulders. "It's funny," George said, wearily looking from Charlie to Fleur and back. "It's like everyone's just okay again."


Bill winced. "What do you mean?"


"Fred's dead." George paused, then started laughing into the stiff silence. "Fred's dead. Fred's dead, baby." He laughed, wiped his cheeks for tears. "But you're all fine with coming -- for breakfast and not talking about -- and pretending everything's okay and going to parties and back to everything's normal." He hiccupped, turned to Charlie. "S'funny. Fred's dead. It rhymes. Get it?"


Charlie nodded, his face shock-pale. "I think we should go home now."


They walked back awkwardly, clinging to each other like a blood clot, stumbling slowly over the dusty uneven ground in the chill, pale morning.


"Ginny," Harry said, leaning away from Bill and trying to grab her attention. "Ginny, I wanna talk."


"No you don't," she said swiftly, though not without warmth. "You really don't want to talk now, Harry."


"But -- I do --"


"Nothing you say now will do any good," Ginny continued sharply, looking away from him. "Trust me, we don't want to talk right now."


"Ginny --"


"Harry, let's drop it, okay?" Hermione interrupted, though Ron remained strangely silent. "We'll figure this out in the morning, okay?"


Bill stopped the group outside the Burrow's front door. "Now, everyone, straight to bed, and absolute silence. Mum will be on high alert, so you have to be absolutely ghost-like. I'm not kidding, Ron, or we'll all get killed. Mostly me and Charlie, though. So shut up, yes?"


The drunkest of them nodded, which seemed to satisfy Bill. "Okay, Ron and Harry, you first. Absolute silence."


Having hugged their sloppy goodnights, Bill opened the front door and nudged them in. Ron and Harry stumbled through haphazardly, though mostly silent -- at one point, Ron had to stifle a laugh: the kitchen clock had Ron, Ginny, and George's names pointed directly at DRUNK. They made it up the stairs with surprising skill, including the fateful passage past Mr. and Mrs. Weasley's second-floor bedroom door, and up to the stiflingly warm attic bedroom.


Successfully, Ron closed the door behind Harry and flopped cheerfully back onto his bed, the awkwardness of the evening having given away to drunken bliss. "I'm a ninja." He leaned up and grinned. "Was a good night warn't it," Ron added, falling back into his pillows.


"Ron," Harry said with a new gravity, stood awkwardly by the end of Ron's bed. "Ron, what's up."


Distracted, Ron turned and sat on the edge of his bed, looking up at Harry. "Nothing's up." Ron's tie slid from his shoulders as he pulled off his shirt, and threw it at Harry, laughing as it struck him in the face. Standing up, Ron unbuttoned his trousers and let them fall, belt buckle clanking loudly on the hardwood floor. "I'm gonna sleep, okay?"


Harry stood stiffly in front of him. "Ron, come on."


"Harry." Ron said, smiling stupidly. "Let's sleep. Nothing wrong. Everything good. Bloody hell."


"I -- I'm going to -- teeth, okay?" Harry slipped into the bathroom across the hall, and brushed his teeth with Ron's brush and Ron's toothpaste. Panting heavily in front of the bathroom mirror, Harry rubbed his red-rimmed eyes and wiped the sweat from his forehead, feeling all hot and confused. He splashed his face with water, which did nothing but make him wet and confused.


Ron was still awake when Harry came back, still sat at the end of his bed and staring out at the growing dawn. "S'fuck it, you know?"


Harry murmured in agreement, then unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall, along with his trousers. When he turned back, Ron was standing, bare arms crossed over bare chest. They were silent for a long moment, trying to gather the measure. "Ron, what is it."


Ron shrugged. "You're a fuck, you know?"


"I'm -- not."


Ron shrugged again. He moved forward a bit. "You're a stupid bloody hero fuck."


Harry narrowed his glance, swaying uneasily where he stood. "Why?"


Ron scratched the back of his neck, stretching near-naked pale and white. "I - I can't stop grinding my teeth."


Harry stumbled, slammed shoulders with Ron, drew close and dropped his head into the hard bone of Ron's collar. "Think about something else."


"C'mon, let's get out of here," Ron said, touching a hand to the back of Harry's neck, stroking dumbly the soft hair threaded above his spine.


"Where?" Harry mumbled into his skin.


"My jaw hurts," Ron said, twisted and knocked his chin against Harry's temple.


Heavy breathing, the uncertain twitch of a muscle.


Ron's hands were surprisingly soft as they cupped either side of Harry's waist. Ron's eyes were red, and his chest was freckled, a dusty line from shoulder across collar bones to shoulder. Ron bit Harry's lips, a sharp pain. Their lips crushed. Wet on the tongue, and there was a mingled taste of toothpaste and booze.


"What?"


"Don't."


Ron's hands were still surprisingly soft as they held Harry's face, pressing into each of his cheeks to draw him closer. Ron's cock grew hard as it pressed, through the cotton, into Harry's hip.


"I think we - there's a bed somewhere."


The blankets tangled around Ron's legs as he pulled off his boxers. The line of his cock shadowed, fascinating. Ron's hands were frantic and near-painful, stripping Harry's boxers fiercely.


"I'm -- it's so drunk."


"Mmph, yeah, okay."


The curl of dark hair was rough, but Harry's cock was warm. Harry's stomach glowed white in the dawn as he arched back, the sharp wings of his shoulder blades digging into the metal coils of the mattress. Harry tasted of salt, sweet. Ron liked to use his teeth, grunting, licking.


"Oh, hell, Ron, I'm going to --"


"Shh, just -- now, now -"


"Ron."


"Harry, you're so --"


"Ron, I can't -- I can't even think straight, I'm so pissed --"


"I -- know, Harry, it's, fuck it --"


Blackness.


*


Headache.


Cold sweat. Slowly awake: headache, tongue furry and mouth painfully dry, hard to swallow. Harry blinked, wincing at the hot light flooding cheerfully through the curtains, ignorant of hangovers and mistakes. For a stuttered moment, Harry stared meaninglessly at the blotted puddles of sun on the floor, the stirring dust, unthinking.


Slowly, it came back, piecemeal; skins and flesh and crushing his shoulder on the headboard and the stiff heat of the summer night and double whiskeys and hoppy beer on Oliver's lips and holding Bill's shoulder and collapsing into Hermione's grip. Dizzy, Harry twisted to sit on the edge of the bed. He held his head in his hands for a moment, trying to focus on something, anything; he put on his glasses which seemed to make it worse. Pulling on a pair of boxers, Harry staggered to stand upright.


Ron spoke with a dead kind of monotone. "I would have left first, but I live here." His back was turned to Harry, a thin sheet drawn to his waist, and he spoke to the wall,


"Okay --" Harry said. "Listen, I slept in my bed, okay? I'm just going to go sleep in my bed."


"I seem to remember --"


"No, just -- don't say anything. Not - now." Harry coughed, his stomach churning horribly. "Really, Ron, drop it."


"It makes sense," Ron said in that same monotone. "I'm just -- I'm not, okay?"


"Okay." Harry stumbled and collapsed into the camping bed, coiling the sheet around his body, wiping his sweaty face on a crisp white corner. "What time is it?"


"Eight," Ron mumbled.


Harry pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "What happened? I -- you threw up and then what? How'd we get home?"


"Yeah." Ron shifted his position, drawing the twisted blanket over his prone body. "That's - I don't know."


"Okay." Harry buried his face in his pillow. "So we just?"


"Bill helped us," Ron said flatly.


"Okay."


Half-sleep, drifting in and out, black and white as Harry twisted back and forth. Up to be sick in the bathroom, piss, fall back asleep, sprawled on the camping bed. Indistinct noises, Ron walking around naked, having a shower, falling back asleep.


Dream-like, except he still wanted to be sick.


A knock at the door and Harry opened bleary eyes. Noon, and Bill poked his head in. "You better come down soon, mum's starting to wonder." Harry winced at the light; Ron didn't move at all. "How are you feeling?" he asked with a grin.


"Fugoff," Ron mumbled.


"I'll cover for you right now. But you better be down soon." Bill closed the door softly.


Sleep.


"Harry? Ron?" Hermione stood in their room, cotton bathrobe tied loosely about her waist, honeyed skin right down to the breastbone. "Oh, Bill wasn't kidding." She gave a wan smile as Harry wearily lifted himself from the camping bed. He had the red-lined prints of his pillowcase webbed over one cheek, the cotton pattern of his sheet tattooed along his ribs and down to his hip. "I've got a pepper-up," Hermione said, offering him a fizzing, steaming mug. "It won't cure you, but it'll make life bearable." Harry drank it in a spluttering breath. She touched his shoulder gently. "Go have a shower, you'll feel better." He did.


Beautiful, cold water pounded on Harry's shoulders. No soap, just fifteen minutes with his head pressed against the cold tile, barely moving, nearly asleep under the arctic fall. Slapping the faucet away, Harry pulled a rough towel around his waist and walked back into his bedroom. Hermione and Ron were asleep on the bed, Hermione pressing her lips into a bony knot in Ron's spine, her thin hands wrapped around his sides and laced against the flat plane of his belly. Harry, mostly unthinking, crawled in behind Hermione, sliding his hand over her waist to rest loosely on the naked skin of Ron's hip, his knees tucking neatly into the hollows of her own.


Sleep.


"It's two o'clock, for Merlin's sake," Ginny said, leaning against the doorframe.


Harry opened his eyes, wincing again at the light. He was overly warm, and surprisingly alone, feeling only marginally better. Rolling off the side of Ron's bed, he stumbled to his feet, pulling on one of Ron's T-shirts, a ratty old thing emblazoned with a Gryffindor crest. "Is everyone up?"


"Everyone except you." Harry moved towards her; a hug, or kiss, or something, but Ginny shied away, planting a soft hand to his chest. "I haven't forgotten our promise, you know," she said calmly. "I just came here to wake you up."


"Ginny --"


"You're hungover, we'll talk about this later," she said, though with some warmth. "I'm not angry," she added, avoiding the question. "We'll talk later."


Sliding easily out of his half-embrace, Ginny led the way downstairs.


"Rise, Lazarus," Bill said, smirking from the head of the table. "So nice to see you alive, Harry."


Harry sat heavily at the table, across from where Ron and Hermione were reading The Daily Prophet together; only Hermione said hello.


Fleur stepped in from the garden; she was barefoot and dressed in tattered work clothes, her white hands caked with dirt, her face smeared with mud and soil. She pulled off her gardening gloves. "Ah, good morning, 'Arry," she said, matching Bill's smirk easily. "You have slept well?"


Harry shrugged, crossing his arms over the table and resting his head. "Yeah."


"Can I get you breakfast perhaps?"


Harry closed his eyes and spoke: "Soup, or something, please."


"Oh, my poor baby," Fleur teased lightly. "Bill 'as made some minestrone, you will like it, I promise."


"How's George?" Harry asked sluggishly.


"He's -- actually, I think he's doing okay," Bill said, using his wand to reheat the soup. "He's seeing Charlie off with mum and dad right now."


Harry glanced from one end of the table to the next: Hermione and Ron, studying the WORLD EVENTS section, a write-up on the previous night's funeral; Ginny bent over her book, a yellowed J.D. Salinger paperback.


"Ron?" Harry asked tentatively into the silence.


"Yeah?" came the same monotonous reply, not even looking up from his paper.


"Uh. Did the post come?"


Ron waved vaguely at the kitchen counter. A thin stack of letters sat at the edge, tied with an elastic band.


"Er, thanks." Harry leafed through them with more than usual care. An invitation to speak at the Magical Creature Owner's Society of Britain, an invitation to open a boutique in Diagon Alley, an invitation to dinner with the Ambassador of the United States of America, an invitation to open a fountain in Paris. In a lime green envelope, a formal request for an interview with -- "your old friend" -- Rita Skeeter. Harry tossed them all aside.


Bill served him the soup in a bone china bowl, while Fleur prepared him a strong cup of coffee. Harry thanked them, and ate in silence. He couldn't finish the soup, and apologized, but he did drain the coffee.


"It is good?" Fleur asked him coyly.


"Yeah, I actually feel a bit better," Harry replied.


"Secret recipe," she said, tapping the side of her nose. "Strong coffee with honey-rum. An old French cure, you know."


Slowly, Harry recovered some of his colour, could make a convincing go of being in full health, though his stomach was still rolling uncomfortably.


The afternoon passed slowly. Hermione and Ginny changed into their bathing suits and lounged on a blanket in the nearby orchard, dark sunglasses and paperback novels and silence. Ron played solitaire in the shade near them, fighting against the light breeze that swept his cards away. Harry, feeling rather uncertain, sat near Ron and read the paper absently, running through quotes he had apparently said, battles he had apparently fought.


In the dry, hot grass they lounged quietly in the sun. Ron peeled off his shirt, his chest and ribs marked here and there by thin purple bruises. Harry half-slept. When Ginny finished her novel, she played bored games of Gin Rummy with Ron. She won. The sun began to set, blazing copper. They walked back home.


Harry hung back with Hermione as Ron and Ginny walked ahead. "Something's wrong," Harry said quietly.


"It seems so," Hermione said, giving him a sympathetic look. "Ginny seems -- well, what happened?"


Harry shrugged shallowly, searching for the words. "I asked her to -- uh, hold off."


"Hold off?"


Harry shifted uncomfortably. "You know."


"Oh." She glanced away. "Why?"


"Hermione," Harry said in an undertone. "Just -- because. I mean think about -- it's mostly, I mean, her family is here."


"Who are you trying to protect?" Hermione asked, wetting her lips. "Her, or Ron?"


Harry gave a derisive snort. "Yeah, that."


"She waited for you," Hermione said reasonably. "How do you think she feels now that you're here?"


Harry shrugged. "I thought things were supposed to get better now that we've saved the world."


Hermione gave a slight, sardonic smile. "Yes, but now we can go back to being teenagers again."


Harry shook his head tightly and stuffed his hands in his pockets.


"You know," Hermione spoke into the silence, "back at the -- ceremony. When you talked about those foreign wizards?"


"Yeah."


"You should do that more often."


"Sorry?" Harry asked, turning to her and cocking an eyebrow. "You want me to slag off some more world leaders?"


"No." Hermione paused, touched his shoulder gently. "But it was nice -- you know, hearing you again."


"Oh."


The tall grass whipped at their legs and prickly burrs scratched thin lines into pale white calves and freckled knees. In time, Harry and Hermione caught up with Ron and Ginny, and the four of them cut through the orchard, the towering Burrow rising slowly over the flowering apple trees.


"How're you feeling?" Hermione asked Harry gently.


"Still kind of sick," Harry said, shrugging.


"Poor darling Harry," Ron added in a stage whisper.


Harry glared. "What?"


"We all feel poorly," Ron replied starkly. "But we don't complain."


"Is that all you've got to say to me?" Harry shot back, ignoring Hermione's warning glance.


"Yeah, you know, I think it is."


"So what the hell is wrong with you now, Ron?" Harry snarled.


"Now?" Ron replied sarcastically. "Right now? You," Ron growled, obviously looking for a fight. "You, you selfish golden-fucking-boy."


Silence, as everyone stood stock still. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Hermione discreetly slide her wand from the waist of her bathing suit, trying to hide it in a backhand grip. It was unneeded, for as soon as it had burst, Ron's anger seemed to seep away; merely a sneer and eyes that spoke of reluctance.


Harry took a step forward and Ron flinched, but only once before he slowly drew his wand, pointing it ruthlessly in the middle of Harry's chest.


"Do it, then," Harry said, neglecting his own wand. "If you want to, do it. I'm not going to stop you." His voice was oddly level. "I don't mind."


Ron's energy seemed to escape him, and he dropped his arm, and his tone: "Why've you got to be such an arse. All the fucking time."


"Where's your Horcrux now?" Harry breathed. "Where's your convenient excuse?"


"I knew you'd bring that up," Ron shot back bitterly, his voice close to breaking. "I knew you wouldn't forgive me."


Harry shrugged him away and walked to the Burrow alone, trying to put as much distance from Ron as possible. "Just go home, Ron, go back to mum, you're good at that," he said over his shoulder.


"Harry, come back --" but Ron was stopped by Hermione, her halting hand and whispered words keeping him silent as Harry soldiered away.


When Harry elbowed the screen door open and stormed into the kitchen, Bill was standing by the range, a ridiculous flowered apron tied around his waist. He was prodding what looked like a whole chicken with a red plastic turkey baster. "Heya, Harry."


"Hi," Harry said stiffly, making to walk past him, stopped as Bill caught him deftly by the arm.


"Wait, hold it, what's wrong, eh?"


"Nothing," Harry said, shrugging him off. "Just tired." He turned his head quickly away, trying to hide the wet of his eyes, struggling to keep his voice even.


"Is it Ron?" Bill asked, raising his eyebrows knowingly.


"Uh." Harry glanced shortly over his shoulder. "It's nothing, honestly."


"Oh." He gave Harry a hard stare, obviously skeptical. "Well, you got an owl, when you were out."


"You don't have any advice for me?" Harry shot.


Bill shrugged. "I don't know what's wrong. I only know my brother, and I know he loves you."


Harry watched Bill with surprise, struck suddenly dumb. Struggling for a moment with the words, Harry said: "Er, I got -- you said I got a letter?"


Bill picked it off the top of the refrigerator. It was a heavy cream envelope with a red wax seal Harry couldn't identify. There was no return address.


"Looks official," Bill said, clapping a hand on Harry's shoulder. "You sure you're all right, Harry?"


"Yeah, sound," Harry mumbled, sitting at the kitchen table and peeling off the shining red seal. The letter was written on stark white parchment and two pages long. Harry scanned it once, quickly, and then a second time more slowly. Bill watched him curiously from across the room.


"What does it say?" Bill asked, tossing his turkey baster in the sink.


Before Harry could reply, Ron, opened the kitchen door, followed in closely by Ginny and Hermione. All three froze, staring at Harry and the letter.


"What's the letter?" Ron asked dumbly, somehow forgetting his anger.


"It's nothing," Harry replied sharply. "Just another invitation."


"To what," Ron said, narrowing his gaze.


"Nothing important." Harry tucked the letter into his back pocket.


"What is it?" Ron demanded again.


"From the Minister -- Kingsley," Harry said quickly. "That's all."


Bill seemed unconvinced, but this seemed to suit Ron's anger: "Of course, should have guessed. Golden boy duties again."


"Ron," Hermione interrupted coldly. "Don't start this here."


"Start what?" Bill said, untying his apron and tossing it onto the kitchen table. "You're not still hungover are you? Mum and dad'll be back soon, you know."


"Shut up," Ron shot back. "Leave it out, Bill."


"Oi, watch it Ron," Bill replied smoothly. "You might be some kind of hero but you're still my little brother, and I'll take you out if I need to."


"I'm going to bed," Harry interrupted, turning heel.


"What -- again?" Bill asked. "I'm making dinner, should someone wake you? Are you hungry?"


"Yeah - sure," Harry replied quietly, looking around the kitchen as if he were seeing it for the first time. Harry fingered his pocket absently, dragging his thumb across the rough edge of the letter. "I -- yeah, okay."


"Are you okay, Harry?" Hermione asked, glancing shiftily at Ron.


"Fine," Harry replied shortly.


Surprisingly, Ron said nothing. Just glanced once at Harry, shaking his head slightly, and left the kitchen for the back garden, slamming the screen door in his wake.


Ron's room was still unbearably hot when Harry entered. The bedclothes were all in disarray from this morning, so Harry just peeled off his shirt and rolled on top of his camping bed, dropping his glasses on the windowsill. His pillow smelled of sour sweat and tea, but Harry pressed his face into it and easily fell asleep.


*


"Harry."


Harry mumbled in half-sleep, pressing his face into the hard down of his pillow.


"Harry, get up."


Twisting in place, Harry opened his eyes. Ginny was standing in the doorframe, shifting her weight nervously from one bare foot to the other. The room was dark, and Harry glanced at his watch: eleven o'clock.


"I'm assuming this isn't for dinner," he mumbled, drawing himself up and running his hands through his greasy hair.


"No, we thought maybe you should sleep more."


Harry shrugged, yawning.


"Listen," Ginny said quickly. "You and Ron. I mean, is that -- is that because of us?"


Harry shrugged again.


"I didn't mean to -- I mean, I thought you were just being -- you know."


"It's not that," Harry said quietly. "Listen, I wanted to apologize."


"Apologize?"


"I know you - waited." Ginny shrugged, said nothing. "The thing is --" and Harry swallowed deeply, steeling himself. "Things are -- different, now."


Ginny nodded, stifling bitter laughter. "Somehow I knew this was coming."


"What was coming?"


Ginny looked up, and Harry winced at her red-rimmed eyes. "I knew things would change between us."


Harry glanced at the floor. "I'm not saying this is permanent."


"You just don't know what you want, right?" she added quietly.


"Er, something like that."


"Was it something I did?" she asked, even quieter.


"No," Harry said, standing up from the camping bed. He walked towards her, took her reluctant hand. "It's just - me. You've been -- more than I ought to have."


"What happened? What was so awful that you --" she coughed, and withdrew her hand. "Harry, I'm tired of waiting for you."


"I would be too," Harry replied honestly


"How long do you think I'll wait this time?" Ginny's lips were set in a firm line, and she crossed her arms defensively over her chest, guarding against some kind of chill.


"I hope long enough -- long enough for me to sort this out."


"You're leaving home, aren't you?" Ginny's eyes had that familiar flash of defiance, and Harry found that he couldn't match her eyes.


"It's not that simple."


"It's something stupid to do with Ron, isn't it?" She gritted her teeth, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "I'm not going to ask you to choose, you know."


Harry turned away from her. "I dunno."


"Because I know you'll choose him," she continued.


"He's different, this is different," Harry tried to reason, feeling a dark knot of emotion stick in his chest.


"So I'll just step away," Ginny said, wiping her cheeks again, pushing back her hair with a shaky hand. "I don't know what else to do right now."


"I still love you," Harry said helplessly.


Ginny shrugged. "Just not the way I do." She paused, waited for Harry to say something. Only silence. "Well, goodnight, Harry." She hugged him tightly, just momentarily, and walked out of the room and down the stairs.


Harry sat on the edge of his camping bed, hunched over with his head in his hands, waiting to hear Ron trudge up the stairs, bracing himself for another argument. The minutes passed in silence and Harry was almost ready to give up and go to sleep when he heard a murmur from just downstairs:


"What am I supposed to do, then?" It was Hermione, obviously quite upset.


"I'm your boyfriend," Ron replied.


Harry got off the camping bed and stepped out on to the landing, making sure not to tread over the squeaky floorboards. He sat on the top step, just out of sight from the girls' bedroom on the fourth floor landing.


"I love you both," Hermione said, close to tears.


"You think I don't?" Ron said angrily. "But this is different."


"How?"


"You've seen the way he acts -- how he treats my sister, how he treats me --"


"He loves you, Ron," Hermione pleaded. "He loves Ginny. He's not doing anything --"


"Always on his side," Ron growled. "You know he doesn't love anybody properly."


"Right now," Hermione continued in Harry's favour.


"I get it, you know?" Ron continued. "The war was hard. I mean, I left," Ron choked at those words, and he paused for a moment, "but that doesn't mean he gets to act like he does."


"Look at the way you act!" Hermione said. "You're just looking for a fight. You've barely been with Harry as it is, you fight him about Ginny, you've just treated him like a -- like damaged goods."


"Isn't he?"


"And how have you tried to help him cope?" Hermione said, calm despite her obvious anger. "You've prodded and demanded and given him nothing but grief."


"Whose side are you on, then?" Ron seethed.


"No one's!" she yelled. "No one's, I told you!"


There was a long period of silence before Ron spoke again: "You're wrong."


"Wrong about what?" Hermione asked coldly.


"I - love him more than anybody." It was Ron's turn to break, and the words came through quivering and cold: "I can't stand to see him like this."


"Then help him."


Another period of silence. "I can't."


"You can try, Ron."


The argument grew quiet, and Harry strained to listen but could make nothing of the rest. When he heard Hermione's bedroom door open with a squeak, he retreated back into the bedroom, crawling back into his camping bed and drawing the blankets around his legs.


The staircase creaked as Ron climbed to the landing. Stepping into the room, Ron flicked on the light with his silver Deluminator and the orange room glowed like a fire.


"Harry?"


Harry feigned waking, stretching and wincing at the light. "What?"


"You didn't -- were you asleep?" Ron's voice was strained, though less angry.


"Yeah."


"Oh." He clicked the Delumintator again. "Fine. Good night."


"Ron?"


Ron paused halfway through pulling off his shirt. "Yeah?"


Harry took a deep breath. "I'm going."


"What? Where?" Ron dropped his shirt on the pile of laundry; even in the moonlight Harry could see the shock on his face.


Harry stood up and pulled the letter from his pocket, handing it to Ron.


Clicking his Deluminator once more, Ron read the letter, and then a second time. "The Woodstock Wolves."


"They're a Championship team," Harry explained, "they're a level under the Premier league, a level under the Tornadoes and stuff."


"I know who they are," Ron said harshly, scanning the letter again. "You're not even going for a try-out?"


"Oliver said he'd put in a good word for me," Harry said, shrugging. "I guess he put in a really good word. I didn't know it would be this soon, but."


"Where is it?" Ron asked, his voice oddly hollow.


"Oxfordshire."


Ron glanced at the letter again. "So you're going to move there."


"I sent Kreacher to look for a flat," Harry said, sitting down on his camping bed again.


Ron handed the letter back. "Why?"


"Why what?"


Ron sat on his own bed, dropping his head into his hands. Harry thought he heard him sniff, thought he saw Ron wipe discreetly at his cheeks before looking up again. "I mean, you're really going."


"I thought you'd be happy," Harry said, maybe too aggressively.


"Why would I be happy that you're leaving?" Ron replied sullenly.


"You seem to hate me enough."


Ron dropped his head back into his hands, scarcely moving. "You're wrong."


Harry narrowed his glance, watching Ron curiously. "Well, it's done, I accepted the offer."


"When?"


"When I came up to sleep," Harry replied.


"Have you told mum?" Ron continued blindly, stumbling on his words.


Harry sighed. "Not yet."


Ron shook his head in his hands, covering his face like he was protecting himself against something. "I don't know if I should -- fuck, if I should punch you or --"


"Or what?"


"Or -- fuck. Punch you."


"Go for it," Harry said darkly.


Ron twitched but stayed still. "I didn't want you to leave."


"Could have fooled me," Harry said.


"Bloody hell, how shallow do you think I am?" Ron choked out, turning up to glare at Harry with wet eyes and cheeks. "You really think I'm that stupid? That I'd let you go because of some -- some bloody stupid thing happened? You really think I'm that big a twat?"


"I never said that," Harry countered.


"Are you trying to get me back?" Ron asked, wiping at his face again with irritation. "For leaving you?"


"That's over, Ron."


"Then why're we always fighting?" Ron asked, less of a question.


Harry shrugged. "You tell me."


"I don't know what's going on with you," Ron replied, a hint of desperation in his voice. "I don't know what to do. You keep -- you keep fucking things up -- I wanna help, but --"


"I thought you didn't care," Harry replied briskly.


"That was before the war."


"And that changed things?"


"Everything," Ron said. "You should know that, most of all. I mean -- my sister -- Hermione -- you and me --" Ron gathered his thoughts, shaking his head like he was trying to clear it. "Years of it, Harry. How could it not?" Ron glanced quickly away, angry for the trembling in his voice. "And it doesn't help that you haven't forgiven me," he added resentfully.


"I don't know what you want," Harry said, suddenly subdued. "I'm really -- I'm lost. One minute you're trying to fight me -- and the next you're -"


Ron was across the room quickly, fell to his knees in front of the camping bed, grabbing Harry's bare shoulders in a tight grip, staring up at him viciously. "You're a fucking bastard, I've said it before, haven't I?" He was close enough that Harry could smell the beer on his breath. "I want to fucking punch you."


"Yeah, I remember."


"You're my fucking bastard," Ron growled, suddenly burying his head in Harry's shoulder, warm tears salty on his skin. "Don't leave me here, okay?"


Tentatively, more out of habit than anything, Harry laced a hand into the sweaty hair at the nape of Ron's neck. "You hated me an hour ago," Harry said. "What's wrong with you?"


"You are," Ron mumbled.


"So you said."


"I wasn't angry."


Harry snorted derisively. "Sure you weren't."


"Okay, I was," Ron continued, rocking back on his heels, his hands still rooted firmly about Harry's shoulders. "But not at you."


"At who, then?"


They were quiet for a long time, and Ron quickly wiped his eyes on his sleeve, giving Harry a nervous, shifting glance. "Listen, I was serious about - this."


"I know," Harry said.


"Can we?" Ron said, stuttering again. "You'd -- er, take me?"


Harry gave a reluctant half-shrug. "We can try."


Ron nearly smiled, slid his hand behind Harry's neck and drew him in for another sharp hug, sweaty arms locking and pressing wet lips into the warm nook of his shoulder. Harry pressed his face into the sweet, sour web of Ron's red hair and spoke: "Okay, okay, already."


Silently, Ron got up and stood tall in the dark, stretching and scratching his ribs. "When are we going?"


"In a couple days."


Ron nodded, slipped into his own bed. "We won't fight."


Harry rolled back into bed. "Yeah."


*


Harry was alone in Ron's room the next evening, packing his school trunk with mostly Ron's clothes, lacking his own proper wardrobe. Ginny watched him in silence for a while, leaning a familiar hand against the whitewashed doorframe. Her long red hair was loose about her shoulders and wild, a mane, a tangle. Her jeans were faded and rolled to the calves, her shirt loose and draped over one shoulder; more beautiful than by rights a goodbye should be.


"So I was right."


Harry whipped around. "Oh -- er, hi."


"I said you were going, didn't I."


"It's not because of you," Harry said quickly. "Er, that."


"Funny, I thought it was because of Ron."


"It -- was. Kind of."


Ginny gave him a weary glance. "It's hard to run from your problems when you bring them along for the ride."


"What?"


"Mum told me you were moving out together."


"Oh, yeah."


"So it wasn't Ron, then, was it?"


"Listen," Harry said, standing up from his trunk, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. "I got an offer to go play Quidditch, Ron asked me if he could come too. That's it. He's still my best mate, despite -" his voice faded out.


"So, you're not running?"


Harry turned back to his packing. "No, I'm not."


"Good," she said quietly. "Cause I wouldn't want you to mess your life up on behalf of someone else."


Harry began folding Ron's clothes, tossing them into the case with little care. "I'm not running from you."


"I came to say goodbye myself," Ginny said, shaking her head of the subject.


"Where are you going?" Harry asked, finally turning to her.


"I'm going to with Hermione to Australia, to find her parents."


"Oh, yeah," Harry said. "When?"


"We're going in a couple hours," Ginny explained, twirling her wand absently between her fingers. "I thought you knew."


"Short notice," Harry murmured.


"I'm surprised Ron's not going, to be honest," Ginny replied, raising an eyebrow. "I guess he's pretty busy with the sudden move."


"Ginny, I don't know what you want me to say," Harry said, dropping another knit sweater in the trunk.


"Nothing, it's fine, I already told you."


"Told me what?"


"That you'd choose Ron over me." Ginny shrugged. "That's okay. I was prepared."


"I didn't choose anyone."


Ginny nodded. "It started during the final battle, didn't it?"


"What started?" Harry asked, turning back to the clothes in an attempt to control his emotions.


"This. Distance," she said, shrugging again. "What did you think of me after you saw me for the first time?" Ginny drew nearer, took a handful of Ron's shirts and began folding them with Harry.


"I thought you -- I thought you looked more beautiful than ever." Harry shifted slightly, so that he was never truly facing Ginny. "I hated you for it, for being there and ready to die."


"And when you killed Voldemort?"


Harry sighed, tossing the sweater he was folding onto the bed, turning to Ginny so he might properly speak to her. "Honestly? I thought that I should leave you alone."


She winced, self-consciously brushing her hair away from her face. "Why?"


"Because I didn't want to talk to you."


Again, just the ghost of a flinch. "Why?"


"Because -- I don't know. Because I -- because I wanted to talk to Hermione."


"And Ron," she added for him.


"And Ron," he agreed. "I didn't know how to talk to you."


"See, that's just it." Ginny dropped the last shirt on to the trunk and helped Harry close the lid, sitting next to him on the black lacquered top as he snapped the small lock shut. "I'm not going to compete with Ron for you, Harry."


"You -- you're completely different," Harry protested softly, leaning slightly so that his back pressed warmly against Ginny's. "I feel differently."


"Do you?"


"Of course."


"Would you come with me, to Australia?" she asked, twisting to get a look at him in profile.


Harry sighed. "I can't."


"Who do you love, then?" she asked, standing, grabbing Harry's shoulders and forcing him to finally meet her eye to eye. "Which of us do you love?"


"I love you both."


"And how do you think that makes me feel?" she asked sharply.


"What?"


"Getting between you and Ron -- like I've been." Ginny sighed sharply, pushing her thick red hair back with both hands. "I feel like a -- like a slag. I feel like I'm making him choose between family and -- you. That I'm making you choose."


"You're not," Harry said, rounding back on her.


"There's always been trouble between us," Ginny said, speaking almost to herself. "I love Ron, but he couldn't ever get past us. Because he couldn't take it. Someone had to lose, and he couldn't lose, not when you meant so much. I can't do that to Ron. I won't."


"But you're ready to give me up?"


At this, Ginny managed a half-smirk. "When have I ever been able to give you up?"


"You were the one who told me to sacrifice his feelings for -- us," Harry said, growing resentful. "Now you're blaming me?"


"I'm not blaming anyone," Ginny said, stepping to touch Harry's neck gently. "It's just the way it has to be." Sudden tears leapt to her eyes. "It's just the way this stupid mess has to be. You were right. We just couldn't touch, not with Ron between us."


"So you're -- doing this for Ron?"


"For -- yeah, for the sake of family," she replied simply.


"What if I went with you, to Australia?" Harry asked softly.


"Don't be daft," Ginny said, actually managing a laugh. "You know what you have to do." Ginny shrugged, and offered Harry her hands. "Maybe when things untangle, we can go kidnap some kangaroos."


Then, as one, they moved forward and kissed. So slightly, just a wet peck, and then Ginny was unfurling from his arms, their fingers unlinking as she left the bedroom and Harry behind.


The sun was setting when he saw her off. The Weasleys were gathered on the front porch, exchanging hugs; Ron exchanged whispered words with Hermione, while Ginny only touched Harry's hand fleetingly, once, maybe an apology. Mrs. Weasley's voice was tight as she told the girls to be careful, clearly baffled by the speed of their departure, fretting nervously with Ginny's hair. All at once, Ginny and Hermione Disapparated for London, for Heathrow and the plane that would take them too far away, too far away from this brittle love and this unforgiven balance and these endless arguments like thunder.


"Arthur," Mrs. Weasley said, rounding on her husband as they walked back inside. "I really don't think she should be going -- it's so soon, much too soon. They haven't had time to -- to plan, or prepare. I mean, Australia, really!"


"Dear, they've gone, it'll be perfectly all right," Mr. Weasley replied, sliding his hand about her waist. "It won't be for long."


"I still don't like the short notice," Mrs. Weasley said, bristling.


"Er, mum?" Ron interceded. "I guess -- well, now would be a -- er, well, me and Harry are moving out."


"You're doing what?!"


"Moving out." Ron gave a sheepish smile. "Uh, tomorrow, actually."


*


Harry was unlacing his forearm pads when he stepped out onto the stone terrace and into the dying light. Ron was asleep in a plastic chaise longue, four empty beer bottles scattered under the chair's legs, snoring under the orange light of sunset.


Harry dropped the tan leather pad on his stomach, and Ron woke with a snort.


"You're back," Ron mumbled. "I thought you'd be late." He wiped his mouth self-consciously and spun so he was sitting on the edge of the chair.


Harry unlaced the second pad and dropped it onto the wooden patio table. "It was just the first day. I met the players, saw some plays, not much," Harry said, slipping off his fingerless gloves. Setting on one knee he began unlacing his shin pads. "The new season starts in a month, so we're in training 'til then."


"They start in June?"


"Yeah, they have two seasons a year, June to August and February to April."


"Are they good, then?"


"They're second in the league."


"Not bad. I mean, for the Championship league."


Harry glanced up. "They've got a better win-loss than the Cannons, mate."


"Is that the uniform then?" Ron asked, dutifully avoiding the subject. He fingered slightly the hem of Harry's robes, rubbing the fabric between his fingers. Forest green with thick cream-coloured bars along the sleeves and at the hem. "I thought it'd be white. Or grey."


"What?" Harry said, standing up as he shed the sweaty leather pads, ripping off the thick woolen socks beneath and standing barefoot on the sun-warmed patio.


"The Woodstock Wolves. Doesn't make sense, you're green."


Harry pulled his thick robes over his head and dropped them unceremoniously on the table, sitting on one of the plastic chairs and taking a deep breath. His tan undershirt was unlaced to the navel and drawn with an elastic cuff around each elbow, and his Quidditch shorts were unknotted and cut at the knee. The fabric had the look of canvas, sweat-stained and uncomfortable.


"Looks tougher than Hogwarts," Ron said, lining up his beer bottles in a neat row.


"It's the jockstrap," Harry said, squirming in his seat.


"You have to wear a cup?" Ron asked, suppressing a laugh.


"It's really uncomfortable," Harry said, standing up. "Especially against the broom handle." The strings of his shirt and trousers dangled against his clothes, and he flicked them away like a horse's tail. "I'm going to get changed." His walk was distinctly bow-legged.


The Oxfordshire grey-stone country-home Harry had purchased with his not-insignificant fortune was quite large, and with only two boys to use the five bedroom flat, quite empty. Harry, under Ron's insistence, was in the master bedroom, a Spartan affair with a King sized bed and a desk and little else. The large oriel window opened west out onto the twelve-acre property, all but a half-acre of which was overgrown with beech trees and crab apple, thick fields of hawthorne and tangled Queen Anne's lace. The patio stretched below Harry's bedroom window and into a short plane of green grass that constituted their back garden, the ever-encroaching wilderness framing it on every side.


Harry unlaced his Quidditch underclothes and tossed them into the hamper. He pulled on a T-shirt and cotton boxer shorts, cleaning his glasses on the fabric as he walked down the wide staircase.


Ron was in their overly-outfitted kitchen, flicking the top off a stout beugel of Grolsch. "Want one?" he asked, taking a slug.


Harry shrugged and took the one on offer, using the edge of the granite counter to flip off the metal cage. "What's for dinner."


"Mum brought some chicken over," Ron said.


"She came over?"


"Yeah, brought us some towels and plates too. She doesn't seem to think we know how to -- er -- live, without her help. She brought some treacle, too. Didn't seem too impressed we were using plastic cups and take out." Ron opened the fridge (filled almost exclusively with beer) and took out another Grolsch. "She's sad she missed you." He took a long drink from his open bottle. "Let's go outside."


Harry and Ron sat drinking their beer in silence on the back patio, watching as the sun dipped beyond the horizon and the sky grew dark with gloaming. The chill of the evening swept over them, and Ron pulled on a sweater, red and gold with a sitting lion stitched on the sleeve.


"We should get a dog," Ron said, draining his first Grolsch and dropping the bottle next to the other fallen soldiers. "He'd like the yard."


Harry nodded, suckling absently on the lip of his bottle. "If you want."


Ron flicked the top of the next beugel with his thumb. "You don't mind?"


"I like dogs," Harry said shrugging. "You'd be here to take care of him, eh?"


"Yeah, sure," Ron said, sliding back to recline in his deck chair. "What kind should we get?"


"Whatever you want," Harry said.


Ron scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. "Er -- I don't really have any money --"


"It's fine Ron, I don't mind."


"I mean, seriously, I could probably pay some of the rent --"


"We don't have a rent, Ron, we have a mortgage - and it's fine, I've got lots of money." Harry swallowed another mouthful of beer and stood up. "I'm hungry."


"There's chicken," Ron said, waving back towards the kitchen. "And get me another beer, eh?"


Harry glanced shortly at the growing line of bottles, and shrugged. "Sure."


Ron had finished his second Grolsch by the time Harry came out with the plate of roast chicken and two new beers. He handed one off to Ron, who cracked it open immediately, and they ate the chicken with their fingers, the night falling about cold about them.


"So what're you flying with the Wolves, then?"


Harry shrugged. "I'm only on a Comet 290 right now, but I'm going to buy a new one."


"What were you thinking of?"


"I don't know, I haven't got the new Which Broomstick yet."


"You can use my Cleansweep if you want," Ron offered nobly.


"Cheers, but Cleansweeps aren't really considered a Quidditch broom." Harry shrugged at Ron's frown. "Just what I heard, I don't really know much about it."


"Hermione and Ginny are back in a few days," Ron said, pulling the meat off a drumstick and tossing it into his mouth. "They wanna see our place."


"You've talked to them?"


"Hermione sent an owl. I forgot what the town was called though."


"Combe," Harry said, ghosting a smile. "We live in Combe, Ron."


"Right, right, I knew it was something like that. I think I called it Womble."


"Well, we've got room for them," Harry said, picking the chicken bones clean and sucking down his beer. "Lots of room."


"About that," Ron began. "It's just -- mum wants to help us spruce the place up."


"Brilliant," Harry said, wiping his greasy hands on the T-shirt.


"Really?"


"Neither of us can do it," Harry said.


"Yeah -- but -- that means she has to, like, be here. A lot."


Harry suppressed a grin. "Yeah?"


"It's hardly like moving out, then," Ron said sullenly.


"We need the help, Ron. Maybe if you left the house once and a while you wouldn't see her all the time."


Ron narrowed he gaze. "I was gonna go out tonight."


"Yeah?"


"Seamus, Dean, and Neville invited me to go out to a pub."


"Yeah? Where?"


"Oh. Er. London, actually."


"Okay." Harry swallowed the rest of his beer. "Go for it, mate."


"You can come too," Ron said, emptying his third bottle of Grolsch.


"I'm tired. I've been up all day," Harry said reasonably. "But go ahead, just don't Apparate drunk."


"I never understood why," Ron said thoughtfully.


"Splinching," Harry said. "They told us when we took the classes. "There's a good chance of it when you're drunk."


Ron shrugged. "And I somehow splinch myself sober."


Harry laughed. "When're you going?"


Ron glanced at his watch, heavy-eyed. "Now, I guess."


"All right, mate." Harry stood and stretched, taking up his bottle and plate. "Just don't be loud when you come home."


"You sure you don't wanna come?"


"I'm sure," Harry said, yawning as if for effect. "Next time. Give them my best."


Ron followed Harry inside. As Harry tossed the plate into the sink with the rest of their dirty dishes, Ron left to go get changed. Busying himself bringing the empty bottles in from outside, Harry turned on the television; immediately BBC blared in the background with its familiar overdramatic theme tune, leading up to the Muggle news. Harry opened another beer and sat on the couch, watching with little interest.


Ron came down in a black and red rugby shirt and heavy blue jeans. He ran a hand through his shaggy red hair and rolled his shoulders, cracking his neck easily. "I'm off, then."


Harry turned from the telly. Ron already looked pretty drunk, but Harry shrugged it off. "See you tomorrow. Say hi for me."


"Yeah, okay." Ron stepped under the large stone fireplace in the living room. Giving Harry a little wave, he dropped a handful of Floo powder and spoke "The Leaky Cauldron," before being washed away by a torrent of green flame.


*


Harry was jerked awake by the phone. The bedside clock spoke 3:55 in block red numbers. The phone rang again, Harry pawing for it in the dark, dragging it off the cradle and murmuring "hello?"


"Harry? -- fuck, shut up, Seamus -- it's Ron."


"Yeah?" Harry mumbled.


"It's --" there was a great deal of laughter on the other end, and Harry could hear Dean's deep voice indistinctly as he held the receiver away from his ear, "I dunno how to get home."


"Floo, you idiot," Harry replied, groaning as he turned his bedside lamp on. "What the hell do you think."


"No powder. Shops are closed too. Can't -- can't get out," Ron replied, laughing.


Harry groaned, swung his legs over the side of his bed while keeping the phone to his ear. "Are you drunk?"


"Erm -- yes, I think so," Ron replied, raising his voice over Seamus' wild laughter. "So drunk I am."


"Where?"


"Muggle London. Somewhere. Where are we?" Neville said something indistinct. "Soho, mate."


"Ron, it's four in the morning."


"Izzit?" Ron laughed again. "Oi, sorry, can you come get me?"


"What are Seamus and Dean doing?"


"Seamus' brother is coming to get them," he said, breathing heavily into the phone. "We're on some bloke's mobile. Izzit called a mobile?" indistinct muttering again, and laughter, "yeah, a mobile, s'cool."


"Can't he bring you home too?" Harry muttered, pulling on his jeans.


"They're in Ireland, Harry," Ron said, more urgently this time. "Can you come'n get me?"


"Where in Soho?" Harry asked, sighing.


Ron was silent for a moment. "Uh, you know where Taboo is?"


"No. C'mon, Ron, I want to sleep."


"Meet us at the Tot'nham Court Road thingie."


"Tube station?"


"Tha's the one," Ron replied. "I'll meet you there."


Harry hung up the phone and sat back on his bed, running his hands through the dark tangle of his hair. Irritably, he pulled one of Ron's sweaters over his bare body and did up his belt, kicking his bare feet into a pair of shoes. Sliding his wand into the stitched front pocket, Harry visualized the road, twisted on the spot and Apparated three feet from where Ron was vomiting in the street.


"Bloody hell," Harry muttered, glancing about nervously. The street was empty, save for the flashing lights of a police car some ways down the road. Harry grabbed the scruff of Ron's rugby shirt and pulled him to standing. "Ron. I'm here, let's go."


Ron heaved once more before turning to look at Harry, trying to stand again, crashing into Harry's shoulder miserably. "I feel bad."


"Let's go, then," Harry said, glancing nervously about again. A half-dozen young men in black hoods rounded the far corner, reminding Harry too strongly of Death Eaters. "C'mon, just nip in here." He half-dragged Ron round the corner and into the tube station, helping Ron down the ugly brown stairs. The ticket booth was empty and the station closed, but the lights were still on, fluorescent and bright. Grabbing a hold of Ron's shirt, Harry glanced about and said: "All right, we're Apparating."


"Good," Ron murmured, pressing his face into the warm cotton of Harry's shoulder. "Cheers."


Harry twisted and squinted his eyes against the pressure of the squeeze. They landed in a bare field across from the empty pub, amusingly named the Cock Inn.


"Where're we?" Ron asked, picking himself off the ground, swaying unsteadily as he took in his surroundings.


"I've messed it up," Harry said, "we're in the village green."


"S'all right," Ron said, waving him off, "I wanna walk home."


Harry shrugged and led the way, Ron stumbling slowly after him.


Combe was good for this kind of thing. A small town with affluent residents; quiet and contained and out of the way, windows darkened by ten-thirty with no interest in anything outside the ordinary. It was so quiet and reserved that Harry had no qualms about flying by broomstick over it or, in this case, dragging his drunk mate home through the village center at four in the morning.


"Harry, wait up," Ron said, staggering towards him. "I can't go that fast, got short legs."


"You haven't," Harry retorted, stringing an arm over Ron's shoulders. "And if you fall, I won't hesitate to use a Levicorpus."


Ron snorted, walking steadily now that he was supported by Harry. "You think'bout the dog?"


"I already said we could," Harry said, stopping Ron stumbling over a gravel path. There were no streetlights beyond the Inn, so Harry had his wand gripped in his free hand, constantly checking back and forth for signs of anyone else. "Get what you want mate, so long as you're here for it. Are you going to go back to Hogwarts or not?"


"I -- what're you doing?" he mumbled, stopping suddenly in the path.


"I'm not going back," Harry replied wearily. "I'm with a team now. Hermione's going back. Ginny's going back," he recalled with a sharp sting. "So it's up to you."


Ron thought on it for a second. "Think I can be with a Quidditch team?" he asked quietly.


"I dunno, Ron, I can see," Harry said, just aching for sleep.


"You're not going back?" Ron asked again.


"No, Ron. Now come on."


Ron grabbed Harry's arm, looked at him with ridiculous sincerity. "Then I'm not."


"You're not going back?" Harry asked, trying to tug Ron along.


"If you're not, I'm not."


Harry sighed. "Maybe think about it when you're sober. Can we go now?"


Ron nodded, and let Harry walk him along. It was twenty minutes up a narrow gravel road before they reached their stone house. The plaque on the gate read Little King, the house's given name, through which they walked and down the hedge-lined drive towards the front façade of their cottage. It was plain on the outside; flat and two-storied, an empty set of stables tacked on to one side, small square windows pressed haphazardly into the upper level while the bottom was rounded by two large bay windows. Trees arched over either end, giving a sheltered appearance to the lush front yard. Harry kicked the front door open, unlocking it with a flick of his wand, and led Ron inside.


The hardwood hallway led them past unused rooms, some filled with boxes, others with their empty school trunks and broomsticks and things the previous owner had left behind; tables and deck chairs and broken lamps. Old pictures lined the walls, some of formal class photos and other candids, some taken from the old photo album Hagrid had given Harry all those years ago. Exhausted, Harry dropped Ron in the sitting room -- just about the only furnished room in the house -- sprawling him over the long dark-patterned couch.


"I can't drag you upstairs," Harry said, rolling his sweater's sleeves up to the elbow and wiping his forehead. "Ron, it's nearly five, if you want to come up, do."


Harry turned heel, leaving the sitting room for the staircase and warm, waiting bed. Softly, Harry heard Ron's shuffled steps follow him.


Turning, Harry was abruptly greeted by Ron's hands, hands that slid along his cheek and pulled him in against -- Harry dodged Ron easily, deftly shrugging Ron's hands away with a roll of his shoulders to sling an easy arm around Ron's waist to diffuse the situation. "Yeah, okay, time for bed."


"I'm tired," Ron said thickly. "I'm drunk."


"Yeah, okay."


Ron's room was at the top of the staircase. Though only a week old, it was decorated already with the burning orange Chudley Cannons posters and those of scantily clad witches, a mess of movement and colour as soon as Harry flipped on the lights. With a sudden smile, Harry saw a Woodstock Wolves pennant pinned up over Ron's bedside table, the wolf-head mascot yawning and silently gnashing its slavering mouth.


Harry dropped Ron unceremoniously into his bed. "Go to sleep."


"Harry, I feel like crap," Ron said sullenly. He turned over in bed and struggled to pull off his thick rugby shirt. Wearily, Harry sat on the edge of Ron's bed and helped him untangle the shirt, dropping it on the floor. Under the thin blankets, Ron kicked off his jeans, twisting in bed until they dropped to the ground, the belt buckle clanking loudly on the wood.


"You okay now?" Harry asked, leaning in slightly to touch Ron's hand momentarily. "Are you going to be sick?"


"'m good."


"Fine. Good night."


But Harry didn't move, because Ron had fallen to sleep (or passed out), and the light of the moon and the dawn on the sweat of his face -- Harry leaned forward and touched a trembling hand to Ron's forehead, sweeping the sweaty fringe from his face, hands lingering against the warm flush of his cheeks. He softly pressed the pad of his thumb to the sweat on Ron's lips, shifting up to touch the indent of Ron's pronounced philtrum. Feeling foolish, Harry withdrew his tentative hand, considered the sleeping boy for a moment, and stepped away.


Before he left, Harry closed the blinds to the growing morning light.


"Cheers," Ron mumbled, turning over in bed.


Harry froze. "Ron?" No answer. Harry stepped towards Ron's bed. "Ron?" Again, silence.


He turned to leave, but quietly Ron spoke: "Harry?"


Turning on his heel, Harry froze reluctantly. "Yeah?"


"C'mere."


Slowly, Harry walked barefoot over the hardwood floor, setting on one knee by Ron's bedside. "What is it?"


Ron leaned up from bed, rolling to lie on one arm, the blanket falling from his thin, freckled chest. "We're not getting along," he said quietly. "But you came to get me."


Harry rolled his eyes. "Go to sleep."


Ron leaned forward and pressed a dry kiss to Harry's lips, fragile and tentative, and then slowly deeper, a slight parting of the lips, free hand moving to thread into Harry's messy hair.


Harry rolled back on his heels, and Ron stumbled forward, drunkenly catching the edge of the mattress in recoil.


"You're not being fair," Harry stammered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.


"I'm not being fair?" Ron asked, his face paling significantly.


"It's too easy to say you're drunk." Harry stood up and left the room, closing Ron's bedroom door and walking the hollow, pale-lit hallway into his own too-big, too-empty Master bedroom. There he closed the white French doors, stripped to nothing and slipped into bed, kicking off the heavy down comforter and tangling the starchy sheets around his bare legs, falling asleep with his face caught in a pool of dawn light and the smell of sweat and beer on his lips, his cheek.


*


Harry was already gone when Ron woke the next day, past noon. Stripping naked, Ron walked the hot halls of the manor and washed his face in Harry's ensuite, pressing his face into the scratchy towels that Harry hung on a hook behind the door. Tossing on a pair of thin boxers, Ron trudged downstairs, scratching absently at his ribs as he padded across the cold tiles of the kitchen floor.


He cracked open a beer and downed it easily, sitting at the kitchen table to watch a flock of buntings fill a nearby crab apple tree, sitting about the branches like little yellow fruit. He tossed the bottle into the bin, where it crashed with the others.


Flopping down on the couch, Ron put a hand over his face, pinching the bridge of his nose as the familiar wave of nausea washed over him, the harsh beer cutting into his miserable hangover.


And then there was a sound, a sound surprisingly like the clearing of a throat.


Ron opened his eyes. In the fire, twisting about in thin ruby flames was George's head, orange hair and orange fire burning a halo.


"Oi, put some clothes on, I'm coming over," George said.


"Harry's not here," Ron explained numbly.


"So? I wanna speak with you, if you can keep your genitals hidden."


Ron nodded, and George's head disappeared with a fizz as the red fire died away. In its place, emerald flames leapt to life, six-foot-high and oddly cool. George stepped out of them easily, barely touched by the chimney's ash. He was dressed in a red-and-white striped shirt and black trousers, black shoes shining and smart.


Ron hugged him eagerly, pressing dry lips into George's warm, freckled neck. "What, are you playing a real-life game of Where's Wally?"


"Geroff," George chimed in, patting Ron's bare sides smartly and pushing him away. "At least I'm wearing clothes."


"I've got boxers," Ron murmured, falling back onto the couch.


"I thought it was more French Riviera," George said, tugging at the hem of his top. "Picasso in a sailor shirt, you know?"


Ron rolled his eyes. "Wanna see the place?"


"You're looking worse for wear," George said, raising an eyebrow. "Partying hardy now that mummy's away?"


"Something like that," Ron said, standing up and crossing red arms over his thin chest. "I'll give you the tour. You want a beer?"


"Who am I to turn down fermented starches?" George said quietly, taking Ron's offered bottle of Duvel.


Quickly, Ron led him from room to empty room, up the stairs to the empty bedrooms, the hollow hallways and white-washed walls, the bare timber beams that stretched along the roof and the cold tile of the bathrooms. They ended on the gloriously bright and hot stone patio, staring out at the vast expanse of their overgrown backyard, drinking their beer slowly.


"That's it, really," Ron said, stretching his arms like royalty. "Everything you see is ours."


"Not a lot to see," George said, taking a seat in the shade of the retractable cloth awning.


"We've only been here a week," Ron said reasonably. "We'll get it fixed up."


"You plan on being here long?" George asked, raising an eyebrow.


"Yeah, sure, why not? Harry's here for the first season so far, so we'll see where we go." Ron stepped out into the sunlight, stretching easily as the heat flushed his bare skin. "I want to get a dog."


"I've come to ask you -- well, it's not quite a favour," George said, stepping in easily next to Ron. "I'm going back, and, well, I need a partner."


"Going back?"


"I'm moving back to the shop," George said. "I'm starting Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes again. I mean, not immediately. Not for a few months. It's just, well, I figured, hey, Weasley is pluralized so I might as well find a new brother to do it with me rather than change the sign." Though his tone was light, there was a strange gravity to his words. "I thought we could do it together, brothers like."


"You asking me to move in with you?"


"And run the business, yeah," George said, finishing the last of his beer and setting it on the patio table. "Listen, you don't have to. 'Cause, I mean, I wouldn't let you touch anything." He gave Ron a grin. "You'll just man the register."


Ron sighed, giving a half-shrug. "George -- it's just, I'm here now," he offered apologetically.


"I was kidding, mate," George said, his tone becoming more serious. "You'd be a proper partner, the cash register bit was a joke. It'd be great having you there, I mean."


"George, I was serious," Ron said, offering him a helpless shrug. "I'm with Harry now. I can't just up and leave after he bought such a -- I mean, he's paying for me, and I want to be here with him."


George seemed taken aback. "And what're you doing here?"


"Harry's got Quidditch in the next town over. He plays for the Woodstock Wolves, you knew that."


George coughed shortly. "Okay, but what are you doing here?"


"I'm -- I mean, I'm here, with him. Isn't that enough?"


George shrugged. "It's just, you're not going back to school, you're not really working. Harry's paying for the house --"


"What're you saying?" Ron asked sharply.


"Nothing," George said, quickly backing down. "I was just wondering. If you don't want to do it, that's fine, I don't mind."


"Sorry," Ron said defensively, crossing his arms over his bare chest again. "It's just how it is right now."


"Suit yourself, mate," George said, giving up with a shrug. "All I'm saying, if I can start to get over Fred, you can get over Harry."


"You what?"


"Just think about it." George patted Ron's shoulders, face to face, and gave him a short, sharp hug. "Take care of yourself. And come back home for dinner or something, mum's having a fit with the empty house."


Ron followed George into the living room; George picked a fistful of Floo powder from the bowl on the bare mantle. "Listen, I'll send some things over, for the house. From the shop," he said, offering a smile. "Just, think about what I said."


Ron gave a helpless shrug, raising his hands. "See you later, mate."


"You know it," George said, dropping the Floo powder and stepping into the roaring emerald fire. "The Leaky Cauldron," was the last thing he said before being whisked away, the flames dying as soon as he was whipped out of sight.


*


Ron was still in his boxers when Harry came back home, prodding two-night-old chicken tikka with his wand, trying to reheat a soggy batch of naan with some limp wandwork. "I've got some dinner," Ron said, halving the portions onto two plates. "You want a beer?"


Harry was carrying a large, long package, a cardboard box circled with layers of packing tape. He set it down on the kitchen table. "Sure," Harry said, slipping his wand into the waistband of his jeans.


"What've you got?" Ron said, handing a bottle off to Harry and returning with the twin plates of steaming Indian food.


"Got my new broom," Harry said, patting the cardboard case lovingly.


"What've you got? Did you get the new mark II Firebolt?"


"No, it's a," Harry pulled the receipt from his pocket, "an Enzo Stratos."


Ron went slack-jawed, blinking rapidly in disbelief. "You -- you're having a laugh."


"No," Harry said, shrugging. "They said it was the best Quidditch broom you could get."


"You've gotta be joking," Ron said, setting the plates down on the counter to make sure he wouldn't drop them. "It's the best anything you can get. C'mon, open it, open it."


Harry used the tip of his wand to slice through the thick layers of packing tape. Peeling open the cardboard box and splitting the packing charms within, the broom rolled onto the kitchen table. It was a very pretty thing; African bloodwood polished to a ruby sheen, copper stirrups and hoops, a tail made from specially selected and honed fruiting spurs of an Indian Banyan, delicate and woven into a dense braid. The handle was arched and balanced with uniquely developed weighting charms to keep the broom level in nearly any circumstance.


Ron touched the handle with reverence, sliding his fingers down to grasp the gleaming metal of the thick stirrups. He dared not touch the woven tail, but slid his palm along the cold brass hoop that divided the stave from the bristles.


"Naught to sixty in five point four seconds, naught to one hundred in eleven," Harry said, reading the brochure that came with it. "Can reach a top speed of one hundred and forty on a good tailwind, one hundred and fifty on a strong tailwind. Oh, made in Italy, I didn't know that." He continued reading as Ron admired the broomstick. "They say the balancing charms are so sophisticated that you could ride it standing on one foot. I reckon no one would want to prove them wrong," Harry muttered, flipping through the manual. "Wind-noise reduction, specially designed charm for reducing wind resistance -- I didn't even know brooms took this much work. It's the fastest legal broomstick on the market right now, three seconds faster up to sixty than the Firebolt mark II. No wonder it was so expensive."


"A real Enzo. Charlie's going to go mental," Ron said, unable to take his eyes from the gleaming stave, the honed tail. "Can I have a go? Please? I won't hurt it, I promise."


"Sure," Harry said, tossing the manual on the table. "Strictly speaking, it's a one-person broom, but let's have a go."


The broom responded immediately, floating three feet off the ground, rock steady as Harry mounted the back, Ron taking the forward driving position. With only one set of stirrups, it was tricky getting them both on, but eventually Ron, still in bare feet, merely stood on Harry's laced trainers, leaning forward to grip the front handle, Harry sprawled behind him, his hands knotted around Ron's bare stomach. With the merest of thoughts, a twitch on the bloodwood handle, and the Enzo Stratos leapt into the air.


Reading about the speed was one thing, living it was entirely different. The broom sliced through the air like a rocket; unprotected as Ron was, boxers not being the usual attire, the wind tore at him like knives. But the screams he gave were not of pain, but sheer bliss, the same bliss Harry remembered from his first time on a broom. Ron roared with pleasure as the broom whipped them about, taking corners on the turn of a penny, barely losing any speed no matter how Ron pushed it; up, down, even backwards. More than intuitive, the broom seemed to have a degree of foresight, preparing for turns Ron hadn't even considered yet, cushioning against ridiculous G-force and realigning the balance for the new change of direction.


"It's brilliant!" he screamed as they soared over a lake at a hundred miles an hour, the cushioning charm that surrounded them searing a line through the glassy surface of the water.


"Make her rise," Harry said, gripping Ron's stomach tightly and nestling his head on Ron's shoulder. "I wanna see how high we can get."


With the merest of twitches, the Stratos leapt into the air, chiseling through the blue sky at an absurd speed. "Bloody hell, it climbs like a homesick angel," Ron screamed, cresting the Stratos level and diving once more. "This is amazing!"


Even reversed the ride was as comfortable as ever. Flying upside down and staring at the sky Harry clung tighter to Ron's stomach, gripping the flat plane of muscle like a safety belt, pressing his grinning face into the freezing skin of Ron's shoulder. Immediately Ron inverted the broom and shot them skywards, corkscrewing as they cut through the air and up to the low-hanging clouds, suddenly changing his mind and sending them backwards in a series of wide loops, dropping just low enough to skim the tops of the trees and startle the rooks from their roosts.


After a glorious, painful, exhilarating half hour, they set back down at the cottage. Ron was clearly marked; his shoulders and chest where wind-whipped red and raw, scattered with scratches from the bugs and grit that had seared into his skin at a hundred and ten miles an hour. His eyes were red and watery from being forced into the open wind, and he shivered from cold, but the look on his face was nothing but sheer joy, six-years-old again.


"Fuck -- that was -- fuck." Filled with the rush of adrenaline, Ron hugged Harry starkly, grinning like mad into the cold skin of Harry's neck, pushing a hand into the mess of his hair and laughing brightly. "It's amazing, mate," Ron said as the adrenaline faded from his veins. "Seriously, amazing."


"Worth the money?" Harry asked, unable to stop grinning himself."


"So worth the money," Ron said, swinging an arm over Harry's shoulder. "That's the happiest I've seen you in a while."


Buoyed, Harry and Ron reheated their Indian food and ate it outside in the evening light, admiring the Stratos as it drifted gently in a small circle, three feet in the air and waiting to be abused once more, gleaming ruby red and bright. Finishing up their tea and another couple beers, Ron stood and stretched, touching the handle of the broom again.


"I'm gonna get changed," he said, scratching his ribs lazily. "And then can we have another go?"


"Course," Harry replied, piling the plates and carrying them inside.


It was already dark when they set off; Ron once again at the front of the broom, Harry clinging on like he was riding a motorcycle. In the dark, Ron took more care setting off; though the broom came with an incredibly powerful Lumos spell, Ron said he didn't want to spoil the peace of the evening.


Safely flying towards Oxford at a steady sixty miles an hour, Ron relaxed against the controls and turned back to talk to Harry: "So, George came by today."


"Yeah?" Harry asked, his messy hair whipped about by the slipstream. "Why?"


"It was funny actually, he came asking me to move out with him."


Harry's eyes narrowed, though Ron couldn't tell in the dark. "Why? Just 'cause?"


"He wanted me to go work at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes with him." Ron laughed a bit, but then added quickly: "I said no, of course."


"What? Why?"


Ron sounded surprised: "Cause, I mean, I said I was here with you. I already moved here with you. I thought -- you know, it's done."


"Yeah, but Ron, he's your brother," Harry replied. "He was trying to get your help."


"You're my brother too," Ron shot back, sounding stung. "I mean, I'm here with you. I want to be."


"Ron, he's your real brother, that's not something you give up for this," Harry replied, almost sounding kind of angry. "Not for me."


"What, are you saying I should go on with him?"


"I'm saying George is more important than me," Harry replied, now definitely angry. "I mean, how could you just say no? He's trying to move on and you just -- he needs you, Ron."


"And what about what I need?" Ron replied, feeling the blood rush to his face. "What if I didn't want to go?"


"What if I needed you?" Harry said. "What if I needed your help, what would you do?"


"I -- I'd help you, of course I would," Ron said, stumbling over his words. "I'm always there for you, you know that!"


"Then how is this different from George?" Harry countered starkly.


"Because you're -- different," Ron said, fury filtered through desperation. "Cause I --"


Harry interrupted sharply: "He's your family, Ron, you don't break that."


"You don't know anything about him!" Ron shot back angrily. "What do you know about family, anyway?"


Harry didn't reply, and Ron immediately regretted saying what he did, but some stubborn part of him refused to apologize. The silence was deafening, filled only by the whip of the wind and the soft hush of the cushion charm cutting through the slipstream. To fill the gap, Ron nudged the Enzo Stratos faster, pushing it up to ninety, fast enough for the wind to drown most of what was said:


"This is my family," Ron said, trying to calm his voice. "I know what to do."


"I'm not going to make you choose," Harry replied, voice oddly stiff and numb. "That's for you to live with."


"I'm not choosing," Ron replied, kicking the broom even faster. "I want to be here."


In silence, they skimmed the ancient roofs of Oxford, all of them glowing orange and yellow, the rubies of brakelights and the diamonds of headlights, the floodlights that lit ancient stone Colleges and arching bridges. Aimlessly they drifted, hovering a hundred meters from the slowly milling traffic and jewel-studded roads, watching the city swirl like some kind of slow-motion firework.


"I can't do anything right these days," Ron said into the silence. "You can just tell me if you want me to leave, you know."


"I don't want you to leave," Harry said, sighing. "I just think George is more important right now. He's your family. That's important." Quite awkwardly, Ron twisted about on the broom. The balance charm held strong, and Ron


was able to turn around completely, face to face with Harry and locking their legs together awkwardly. The Stratos kept Ron upright despite the strange position, and the knit of Ron's hands on Harry's neck.


"I want to stay," Ron said, gritting his teeth. Almost as if steeling himself against an unpleasant task, Ron glanced nervously around and then leaned forward, grabbing Harry in a furious, sharp kiss of teeth and lip. "Fuckin' get it? I wanna stay," and he leaned forward and gave another brutal kiss. "This is why I hate you so much, get it?" And Ron kissed him again, filled the shallow bites and crushed lips with curse words and hexes. "This is why I want to punch you." Ron fisted his hands in the front of Harry's shirt, again crashing reluctant mouths. "Cause I don't know why we've changed so much," he continued, punctuating the sentence again with another harsh kiss. "Cause you're a wanker," he spoke, getting quieter, finishing with another lip-brushing strike. "Cause I don't know what's wrong."


Harry was ready for the next kiss, and he caught his hands behind Ron's neck, smashing their faces together, painfully at first but then opening his mouth, letting slide his small pink tongue to meet the sharp line of Ron's teeth, and then the wet slip Ron's own tongue. Ron's hands were still fisted in Harry's shirt, and almost unthinkingly he pulled them sharply together, deeper, enough that he could taste Harry's mouth, closing his eyes and kissing with a teeth-knocking anger, stretching the fabric of Harry's collar loose, half-strangling a red line into the smooth skin of Harry's neck.


It was freezing cold in the evening air, and boy-muscled arms wrapped one around the other, drawing close their mouths and gasping breaths that fogged between them. The soft, wet smack of their lips parting and closing, opening and parting; Ron scattered these sharp strikes down to Harry's jaw, teeth scratching the line of his stubble and then back to his lips.


They fell apart gasping; Ron, unthinkingly, leaned back -- the stumble was momentary, but even the Stratos couldn't accommodate a body at such an angle, and Ron fell from the broom. Harry scrambled forward desperately - fell forward to catch Ron's hand; their legs were still tangled from the kiss - and Harry's grip was strong, grappling Ron's wrist and halting the fall. In compensation, the broom seemed to scoop Ron out of the air, fitting him back in a proper position on the handle, the untouchable cushion charm keeping them fitted to the broom once more.


Harry fell back against the broom panting, staring at Ron with a wild expression of confusion and shock. They were silent for a long time, just drifting over glittering Oxford, twinned breaths in and out fogging in the cold air, silence weighed down by the gravity of the kiss and the fall. Ron leaned forward and twitched the broom into action, swinging them around back home.


"You know," Harry said slowly, stringing his arms carefully around the flat plane of Ron's stomach, and lacing there. "Am I so bad at kissing that you needed to kill yourself?"


Ron snorted, a snort that turned into proper laughter, laughter so hard that he held his sides, held his sides and was in danger again of falling from the broom. "Let's go home."


They landed easily, the broom lowering to let them off like a kneeling horse. Harry took the handle of the broom and hooked it over his shoulder and they walked inside. Ron opened a new beer and offered it to Harry, who took it and drank deeply, clashing bottoms with Ron as they sat around the kitchen counter, the Stratos propped up in the corner of the kitchen, just an ordinary broom once more.


"So," Ron said, quickly draining his beer and setting it on the counter.


"So what?" Harry said, still sipping his. "I should go to bed, I've got practice tomorrow morning."


Ron looked confused. "I mean, we're not going to talk about -- I mean, I don't want to talk about it," he gave a nervous laugh, "but, I mean -- do you want to -- Harry?"


"Talk about what?" Harry said, swilling his beer around aimlessly, drinking from it again.


Ron was baffled. "The -- what? What are you -- Harry?"


Finishing his beer and setting it beside Ron's, Harry shrugged. "I'm going to go to bed. If you're not coming up, don't be too loud." He left the kitchen and walked slowly down the hall.


"Harry?" Ron asked with a croak.


But Harry didn't turn; instead, he pulled off his T-shirt and dropped it on the hardwood floor. Taking a few more steps, the black leather belt slithered from Harry's belt loops and fell with a clank on the ground as well. Ron grinned slightly and followed slowly behind, pulling off his own shirt and dropping it in the hall. Halfway up the stairs and Harry, his bare back still to Ron, unbuttoned the four notches at his jeans; he stumbled the next few steps as they slid down his legs, kicking them off unceremoniously, scattering out the Wizarding and Muggle change he had stored in his pockets. At the top of the landing, in two easy motions Harry flicked off his socks, little black cannonballs flung back down the staircase. Ron followed him slowly, peeling off his own socks, flicking open the buckle of his belt, all the while keeping an anxious fifteen feet behind Harry. At last, at the double doors of the master bedroom, Harry quickly tugged down his black boxer shorts, stepping out of them easily and vanishing into the dark bedroom.


Taking a deep breath, fiddling absently at the flies of his jeans, Ron followed him inside. Harry was standing in the middle of the room, bare arms over bare chest, dark tangle of hair around his cock, half-shadowed like some Coppola hero.


"Were you trying to be sexy?" Ron asked, cocking his head slyly.


"Something like that," Harry said darkly.


"You tripped over your jeans."


Harry waved him off. "It worked better in my head."


Ron gave a knowing shrug. "It always does."


Like a shot, Harry kissed him, nearly leapt on him, knocking Ron off balance to slam painfully against the closed bedroom door. Ron grunted behind Harry's lips, but soon hooked into the rhythm; biting and kissing, pressing his clothed hips into Harry's naked skin, running his hands and sharp nails down to press into the smooth skin of Harry's arse, hard enough to force their hips together, naked gasping chests slick with sweat.


Harry's hand slid easily down the front of Ron's chest, slipping under the weak elastic of his boxer shorts, wrapping gently around Ron's half-hard cock. Ron gasped, again behind Harry's lips, and kissed him with renewed strength, his hands playing teasingly along the cleft of Harry's arse. Biting Ron's lower lip, Harry sucked, drew the blood and made Ron's mouth plum-red and flushed his cheeks, warm cock fully hard in Harry's fist.


"Finally, finally," Ron murmured indistinctly.


Harry dropped to his knees with a hollow bang, and Ron winced for him, a wince that turned into open-mouth shock as Harry took Ron's cock in his mouth. Soft suckling at first, tentative and shy about the head, twisting his tongue enough to make Ron melt. And then -- "Fuck, Harry, fuck, ow" - sharp teeth scraped the sensitive underside. Though Ron shied away from the half-pain, Harry didn't relent, sucking sweetly around the head to slide painfully, deliberately down Ron's shaft, scraping small white teeth against the warm skin, deep enough to reach the thin red hair that spread in a corona around Ron's cock. Ron grunted in pain, bucking forwards instinctively. At the next suck, the dragging incisors and blindingly painful pleasure of Harry's mouth, Ron grabbed two handfuls of his hair, threading them fitfully and easing Harry forward.


Ron screwed his eyes closed. "That -- ow, fuck -- is brilliant."


The teeth scraped again, but Ron controlled the speed; slow enough that every prickling, twisting, aching moment could be savoured: the warm wetness of Harry's tongue flitting about, the white-hot sear of his teeth as they drew down his shaft. Deeper each time, Harry taking it all as Ron pulled sharply at his hair, as bristling pleasure like burning cherry bombs greeted every touch of tongue to skin, of teeth to skin.


"Harry," Ron grunted, gripping tightly his messy hair, bucking deeper into Harry's mouth. "Please -- I'm -"


The cold was shocking as Harry pulled away, the breeze through the open windows like ice on Ron's cock; instead Harry took him in one grip, working slowly with one hand to curl easily along his shaft and roll around the head while Harry's mouth slid down to suck, biting shyly lower and lower.


"It -- hurts," Ron gasped.


Harry sucked harder, playing his tongue against the underside of Ron's cock, against the soft swell of his bollocks. Scraping his teeth over the sensitive skin, Ron flinched, flinched under Harry's twisting hand and mocking mouth, the building heat in his stomach like a growing star, pulling the strings of muscles and tendons tight until the inevitable collapse.


"Oh, God, I'm -"


Harry's second hand played gently along the cleft of Ron's arse, shy fingers pressing softly against skin, and in. "Ron," Harry murmured, slicking his small pink tongue from base to tip of Ron's cock, and back down, little sharp incisors teasing and catching on delicate skin, conjuring breathy moans and grunts of half-pain.


"Harry --" and Ron's hands twitched against Harry's head, tugging the thick of his hair. "No, I --"


And that white light building in Ron's head burst, the searing fire and honey in his veins resolving themselves in a tingling, body-trembling ends. Harry's hands. And lips. And teeth. And body. And laugh. And seven years in the dormitory. And Hermione. And waiting forever. And now. Slamming back against the door, enough to bruise his shoulder blades, enough to bring stars to his eyes, Ron came over Harry's lips, over the slight-parted mouth and white teeth and pink-flushed cheeks and closed eyes.


Ron fell panting against the door, his eyes closed, his face and chest flushed red. Sweat prickled at his temples, and his upper lip, drops of sweat clinging from dark eyelashes like poison curling from a snake's fang. He hurt in the best way possible, and slid one hand down the plane of his stomach, cupping lightly his half-hard cock. Harry was standing before him, wiping his eyes gently, cleaning his come-wet hand on his thigh.


Ron didn't know what else to do. He kissed Harry, and tasted his own come, the salty and bitter, the sting of chlorine. "Not something I've ever done," he murmured, licking shyly the wet against Harry's cheek. "Tastes weird."


"Tastes like you," Harry said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Gross."


"I taste like bleach?" Ron asked, running a trembling hand through his hair.


"And salt," Harry added, grinning slyly.


Ron stepped out of his jeans, now just a tangle around of his ankles, and pushed Harry towards his hard-sprung bed. Harry fell on it easily, crawling back slightly to rest against the headrest, his legs closed for shyness. Ron crawled on next, flat on his belly, drawing himself to Harry's prone body, landing two warm hands on Harry's knobbly knees and plying them slowly apart.


"Listen," Harry said quietly. "I --"


"It's too late to work your way out of this," Ron replied with a kind of steely stoicism. "The job's been done, the war's been won."


Harry's cock was already hard, cupped half-protectively in one hand, his body twitching slightly as Ron lowered his pink lips to the warm tip.


"Harry," Ron coerced softly. "It's okay, mate."


Harry shifted away, and his cock rose prominently from his lean body, hard and pale in the light. Ron, all ginger and shaggy-haired, bent over it, tentative lips parting just enough so they might take the head. Ron's mouth was dry, hesitant against the warm skin of Harry's cock.


"S'weird," Ron remarked softly, running his hand over the smooth skin of Harry's pelvis, fingers threading into the dense hair and into the brilliant warmth of his cock. "I thought it would be different."


"What?" Harry mumbled, his head back against the pillows and eyes dreamily closed.


"I thought I'd be -- more shy."


Harry shifted slightly as Ron took a tentative lick, tongue sliding easily around the ridged head of Harry's cock, flicking lightly against the underside like a snake. This was followed by a more daring experiment, slim tongue drawn up along the shaft, wetting the already warm skin. Harry's gasp goaded him, and at last Ron took Harry into his mouth, down, down as far as he could without gagging.


The line of Ron's body as he sucked was elegant; lying flat against the bed, the rounded line of his arse curving up with his spine, up to feathered ribs and hunched shoulders and muscled arms, elbows kneading the mattress brutally, red hair splayed at the back his neck, the notches of his spine laminated by the scarce light. Ron's toes curled as Harry twitched, his laddered spine twisting as Ron sought new angles, his thin hands and veined arms resting against the insides of Harry's thighs.


The fringe of Ron's hair tickled the clean stretch of Harry's stomach between pelvis and navel, and his short-bitten fingernails pressed white circles into the soft flesh of Harry's thighs. Harry bucked slightly, nudging into Ron's ready mouth. Ron was much more gentle than Harry had been, all lips and smooth warmth, testing fingers and a confident, comforting blowjob, less gut-wrenching and blindingly beautiful than it was slow-burning and wonderful; while Ron's orgasm collapsed like a dying star, the growing pleasure in Harry's chest had the feel of cinders and coal, gathering a quiet warmth with every slip of the tongue, every kiss and touch.


"Ron --" Harry half-moaned, his mind buzzing wonderfully.


"Are you close?" Ron asked, pulling away to look at Harry properly, wiping his wet lips with the back of his hand.


Harry was blushing fiercely, and nodded.


Ron drew himself up carefully. On hands on toes he crawled over Harry's prone body and parted legs, crawled so he might place a hot, wet kiss on Harry's mouth, bare hip pressing into Harry's hard cock, the weight of Ron's embrace grinding them together, coarse and bright. Ron snaked a hand between their flush, sweaty bodies, struggling between bone and skin to grip firmly around Harry's cock, jerking him haphazardly in tune to their kiss, in tune to their frantic rocking.


Harry bit, nipped fitfully at Ron's red-swollen lips and near-stubbled skin, frantic little kisses that came with gasps and grunts as Ron's hand worked furiously between them. The flush in Harry's cheeks was drawn by Ron's sharp kisses, the shock of his wet lips and white teeth that suckled on his skin, visible marks drawn in circles against the bristling tendons of Harry's neck.


And Harry closed his eyes, screwed them shut; the nerves in his body, those hundreds of miles of conduit and electricity seemed knotted and tight, pulled like a puppet's strings; the muscles in his stomach, and legs, and arse, and everything that mattered were bunched furiously, almost painfully; the tension, fractured and bright in his body and brain; Ron's hand twisting; and then --


Ron bit Harry's lip, the bottom, enough to make him bleed, and with Harry's drawn, throaty gasp Ron felt the heat and warmth of his orgasm spit between their bodies, making slick the skin between their bodies, a slickness that faded as Harry fell, collapsed, melted back into the comforters, blinded by anything but the lingering, sun-warmed afterglow that informed his every cell.


Ron relaxed on him, trailing stupid little kissed from sore-bitten lips along Harry's jaw, and finally rolled off him, collapsing into the cold, unused bedspace beside Harry's reclined form.


It was a couple minutes before either of them spoke.


"What time is it?" Harry asked, still with a bit of a daze.


Ron glanced at his watch. "Quarter to two."


Harry gave a little groan. "I need to be up in four hours."


"Should sleep," Ron murmured, playing a finger absently in the sticky come spread over his pale stomach.


Harry slipped out of bed and padded to his wardrobe, a dark wood Georgian tallboy. He pulled out a towel, wiped down his stomach, turned and tossed it to Ron. Ron got up, only now shamed of his nudity, and similarly cleaned himself. He dropped the towel on the floor when he was done.


"Well," Ron said, scratching the back of his neck for something to do. "Good night, then."


"You're not sleeping here?" Harry's question was simple enough, delivered almost with a shrug, but Ron could feel a greater gravity behind the pull of those words.


"Er, I snore," Ron said bluntly, glancing away, now cupping his crotch shiftily.


Harry shrugged. "Never bothered me before."


Harry crawled into bed, dropped his head to the pillow and fell almost immediately asleep. Slowly, Ron pulled back the covers and turned in behind Harry, not quite hugging him, but close enough to slide one tentative hand over the ridge of his hip, the other to rest half-heartedly against the warm curve of his spine. Sleep came surprisingly easy.


*


At half six, Ron stepped into the bathroom. Harry was brushing his teeth in front of the wide mirror, dressed only in his cream-canvas Quidditch shorts, unlaced and falling open, the white-and-red elastic of his jockstrap just visible beneath the tangle of string. Half-naked and stark in the bathroom light, he looked surprisingly thin, even by Harry's standards: ribs and muscles feathered along his side, the notch of breast bone traceable beneath the taut brown skin of his chest.


"I wanna come with you," Ron said, running his hands through his hair, making a mess of his red tangle.


"We're only practicing," Harry said after spitting out his toothpaste. "It'll be boring."


Ron shrugged. "I don't mind."


Harry looked at him through the reflection, thin shoulders shrugging shortly. "Please yourself." And then, with a slight smile. "You'll have to put on some clothes, though."


Ron deliberately stretched wide. "If you insist."


Ron sat naked on Harry's bed, rifling through the morning's letters as Harry dressed with deliberate care. When it came to lacing his forearm pads, Ron volunteered his hands, knotting them tightly.


"Could you -- er, see, I could never do my boots up right," Harry said, the points of his cheekbones flushing slightly.


"After seven years, you still can't do up your boots?" Ron asked, raising a mocking eyebrow.


"I can never get it as tight as I want," Harry shrugged helplessly.


"Go on then," Ron said, looking rather smug.


Harry sat on the edge of his bed, extending his right foot. Ron, on his knees and bent down with concentration, slowly laced the boots, link by link, pulling them taut enough to cut circulation, working his way loop by loop before finishing the boot with a stiff double-knot.


"Good?" Ron asked, tugging at the laces, looking for loose give.


"Perfect, yeah."


Ron did the next boot with the same kind of skill, working slowly through the eyelets, cross-lacing each pair tightly. Satisfied, he rocked back on his heels and stood up, brushing off his knees shortly.


"Cheers," Harry said, kicking his boots against the bed experimentally. "Listen, I'm going to be late, just show up when you want, I'll tell them to let you in. You know where to Apparate, yeah?"


Ron nodded. "Think so."


"All right." Harry leaned forward shortly, face inches from Ron, but immediately thought better of it and pulled back mechanically. "Er, yeah, see you." He clapped Ron on the shoulder instead, palm echoing on bare skin.


Ron watched him leave, on his Enzo Stratos, from the bedroom window, scratching his naked sides distractedly before crawling back into Harry's side of the bed and going back to sleep.


*


Harry hadn't noticed Ron until he was sitting in the stands, alone along the bench and reclining easily, scanning the sky from behind black Wayfarer sunglasses. Harry smiled; Ron was dressed in a green-and-cream rugby shirt -- Wolves' colours. He flew closer to the stands, pushing his goggles up to his hair, grinning shortly and giving a wave. The Wolves' Blind Side Beater, a stocky blonde girl named Esther Bloom, flew in next to Harry, giving him a stout punch in the shoulder.


"Izzat Ron Weasley, then?"


Harry nodded. "That's him."


"He's a looker. Better than the pictures in the paper make him look," she said, considering the boy for a moment. "He's nearly big a celebrity as you now, eh?"


"Something like that," Harry murmured, distracted by Ron's sudden grin, his cheeky wave.


"Loyal mate you got there," she continued, "if he wants to watch you run slalom for hours."


Harry groaned. "We're doing more slaloms?"


"Weave in, weave out," Esther intoned, mimicking their Keeper and Captain Atticus Goldwater quite convincingly. "And off we go."


Surprisingly, Ron did stay for the afternoon. He'd sometimes lie down on the bench and watch their in-air maneuvers, shielding his eyes from the midday sun, or else he'd tread down to the thick green pitch and watch them run their laps, giving Harry a half-smile each time he came around.


"Is that Ron Weasley?" an excitable Outside Chaser understudy (name suddenly forgotten) asked Harry during a water break.


"Yeah," Harry said, dumping his cup of water over his head, rubbing his sweaty hair around quickly. "The one and only."


"Can I meet him?"


"If you want," Harry said, shrugging.


But they were called back to practice. Professional Quidditch teams differed from the Hogwarts teams in that they were composed of twenty-one players rather than seven; in addition to the starting line of seven there were two further lines of understudies, used mid-game for substitutions or in case of injuries. With so many players, the team could stage mock Quidditch matches, or in this case a ground-level training game called Welsh Quidditch - something Harry discovered was essentially Muggle rugby, save for the hard-foam bludgeons that chased players down the field. It was called Welsh, Esther later explained, because one didn't need brooms or goals or a snitch, so any old farmer could play it.


Harry, only having played rugby in those last few years before Hogwarts, was by no means a superstar. He was competent when it came to strategy and tackling, but hopeless at reaching any goal-scoring opportunities, easily stumbling over holes in the dense field or taken down by the deceptively silent foam bludgers.


It didn't help that Ron, with his stupid plastic sunglasses and mocking laugh distracted him at every turn. Harry missed easy passes and brilliant opportunities because he was too busy sneering at Ron and flipping him off discreetly, grinning indulgently.


"Harry," Atticus boomed from across the field in his ripe Scottish accent, "keep your head in the game, if you please!"


"Sorry," Harry said, picking himself up after yet another collision with a bludger, this one because Ron had done that thing he can do, rolling his tongue into a tube and making an irritating whistling noise through it.


"I swear, Ron," Harry said under his breath, grinning maliciously, "if you trip me up one more time --"


"What, me?" Ron said with mock innocence. "I'm just here, minding my own business. If you can't stand on your own two feet, that's not my -- Harry! watch out for the -" but Harry was floored once again by one of the foam bludgers, whizzing its silent path back around the field. "Gotta watch out for those, mate," Ron said knowingly as Harry picked himself up, eyes narrowed bitterly. "They hurt. Or so I'm told."


In the late afternoon, the Wolves staged a proper mock Quidditch game, and Harry obviously proved his worth; Ron could hear the excited chatter of the understudies and ground crew from the nearby benches, the lot of them leaning out over the railings to get a proper look at Harry's performance. On the Firebolt Harry was brilliant, on the Enzo Stratos he was unstoppable. He could finish matches in minutes, honing down a single game to forty-five seconds, following the snitch in a shear vertical line and trapping it dizzyingly high in the air. He dove like a falcon, only to level out close enough to mow the grass, wrapped around his streamlined broom as if he too were part of the magic and woodwork. It wasn't just the speed or the performance of his racing besom that he showed off, he had a degree of talent as well; daring lunges and suicidal inversions, hanging from the broom to grasp at fluttering silver wings, even at one point fulfilling the brochure's proclamation by standing on one foot while flying in a wide circle, trailing the Snitch higher and higher into the air, a little green and tan speck whipping about against the sun.


The excitement was palpable when the team landed at the end of practice. Harry was obviously well-loved by his new team, having his back slapped and hair ruffled by nearly everyone, including his beaming Captain and Coach. They all seemed to be thinking the same thing: front-line, starting seven. Clearly this upset the other two Seekers, who kept their distance from the crowd, muttering quietly among themselves, but the mood remained buoyant as the players left for home.


"In a first season," Esther said, one of the last Wovles to clear off after practice, sitting with Harry and Ron at the top of the warm metal stands and chattering endlessly in her broad Geordie accent, "I don't think anyone's been put on the first line in the first season."


"I haven't yet," Harry said, fiddling with his arm pad aimlessly.


"You will," Ron said, lying back on one of the steel benches, hands tucked behind his head. "You were brilliant. And that broom, mate. Miles ahead of anyone else."


"It were more than just the broom," Esther said, "he's a proper star, he is."


"Antonio didn't seem too pleased," Harry said, unlacing his shin pads.


"Don't matter," Esther countered. "If he wanted to be front-line, he'd have played harder. You're a better Seeker by miles."


"It's his place though, isn't it?" Harry said, shoving his pads into his rucksack. "He should inherit it, coming from Second Seeker."


"Doesn't matter," Ron said, "best Seeker gets front-line, nothing to do with inheritance. And you, mate, are the better Seeker."


"Still though," Esther said, "front-line in your first season. Last person to do that was Krum, back when he was with Vultures. Mind you, that was Premiership."


"How many points are you away from the Premiership?" Ron asked, leaning up now, ruffling his already-messy hair.


"Thirty, I reckon," Esther said. "So, a perfect Summer season, and then at least a third place finish in the Winter."


"Why're the Cannons in the Premiership, then?" Harry asked.


Ron shrugged. "Sponsorship. They've been given a permanent place because they've been in the league for three-hundred years."


"No matter how badly they do," Esther said bitterly.


"Hey, lay off," Ron said abruptly.


"Cool yourself, mate," Esther said, waving him off, "I love the Cannons. Don't bloody know well why, but I do."


Ron shrugged. "Let's hope you don't play like them," he offered.


"Aye, to not playing like the Cannons," Esther said, raising an invisible glass. "And with that, I'm off chaps. Harry, you're coming tonight, yeah?"


"What?"


"Drinks, man, we're raising hell in Woodstock proper."


Harry glanced once at Ron, who gave the ghost of a shrug. "I'm kind of tired," Harry said.


"Go on, now," Esther said, patting his shoulder heavily, "you can bring your mate, I'm sure they'd all like another hero in their midst."


Ron blushed and glanced away, but Harry was reluctant. "Another time, all right?"


Esther shrugged. "Please yourself, darling. Where're you living in any case?"


"Combe," Harry said.


"Ooh, very posh and upmarket," she said, grinning. "Well, be off with you, but you damn well come to the pub sometime or we'll have a serious problem here, mate." She ruffled his hair affectionately, picked up her rucksack, and vanished with a thin pop.


"Well," Ron said, standing up and brushing himself off. "She's certainly energetic."


"You don't like her?"


"Naw, she's all right," Ron said, red hair enflamed by the setting sun, stretching and grinning. "A change from our Hermione at least. That Antonio bloke didn't seem too cheerful, though."


"I kind of stole Atonio's place," Harry said, swinging his bag over his shoulder. "Well, maybe."


"And he's Italian," Ron said, smirking. "Known for their cool tempers, I thought." Ron helped Harry with his bags, swinging the small canvas tool kit over his shoulder as Harry plucked the Enzo Stratos from the air, swinging it over his shoulder. "Listen," Ron said shiftily, "you can go to the pub if you want, I don't mind."


"I actually am tired," Harry said defensively. "And don't mess up this time, we can't be Apparating in the village green anymore."


"We what?" Ron said, frowning.


Harry smiled. "Never mind, let's just go."


*


The night was surprisingly warm, tired and breezy, so Harry sat drinking a beer on the deck, legs curled up in his patio chair. The wireless was tuned to PotterWatch, the underground news show having since been made the official program of Ministry reconstruction and Wizarding information, tonight's evening slot being filled by Lee Jordan.


"- I dunno if you've heard," Lee said, talking to Katie Bell, a recurring guest on his show, "but Harry's taken up the position of Seeker for the Woodstock Wolves for their summer season."


"I did know, actually," Katie said, "Oliver told me when he set it up."


"Oliver Wood she's talking about," Lee Jordan said proudly, "up with Puddlemere as reserve Keeper for the new season." Katie sniggered. "Now, the Wolves are just a Championship team, aren't they?"


"Well, yes, but most of the stars we know now started in Championship. He'll work his way up quickly, if I believe what I've read so far."


"He was brilliant at Hogwarts, I guess we'll see how he deals with the big leagues."


Katie laughed. "Can't be much compared to the pressure of beating You-Know-Who."


"Yes, but he didn't need to kill Voldemort at a hundred-miles an hour on the back of a broom, did he?"


"See, it's easy to joke about it," Katie said stoutly, "but do you think maybe it's a little soon for Harry to be -- well, playing at Quidditch? He's barely had a week and now he's back in the limelight again."


"I think it's brilliant," Lee said, "the boy's a genius, and he's getting everyone back in the feel of normal life, you know? What's better than a game of Quidditch to keep the ol' morale up."


"I'm just worried he's gonna be -- you know, used by everyone. Harry's had a hard enough time and now he's going to be shown about like some show dog. I'm just worried he feels like he has to do it."


"I mean, it was his choice, wasn't it?" Lee retorted. "Surely he wants things to get back to normal."


"We all do, I just hope he actually gets to have a break sometime."


"Well, we can all agree to that," Lee said warmly. "But if he performs like I know he will..."


"In any case," Katie replied, "even if he doesn't, those stadiums are going to be filled to the brim, I can guarantee you that."


"Boy wonder turned Quidditch superstar?"


"I've heard the Wolves have sold out their season tickets," Katie replied, "and the last stadium seats are going quickly too."


"Might be the first year that the Championship league outshows the Premiership."


Katie laughed. "Having a national hero in the game is bound to draw a crowd."


"Don't get caught up in the talk," Ron's said, his voice suddenly clear and loud compared to the tinny speakers of the radio. He stepped up behind Harry, planting warm hands on his shoulders. "It's just gossip."


"I didn't think it would be such a big deal," Harry said, suckling on the end of his beer bottle. "I just wanted to play some Quidditch."


"Well, everything you do is going to attract some attention, mate." Ron sat on the arm of Harry's chair, nicking his beer and taking a swig. "I'd say you're quite well known right now."


"I guess so," Harry replied, snatching the bottle back. "Are you going to come to tomorrow's practice as well?"


Ron nodded. "I'm picking Hermione up from the airport tomorrow morning. I'm sure she'll want to come see you too."


"The girls are back tomorrow?" Harry asked, placing the now-empty bottle on the ground.


"In the morning, yeah," Ron said, ruffling his hair and giving his usual stretch. "I invited them over." He paused, watching Harry's blank expression for a moment. "That's okay, isn't it?"


"Of course," Harry murmured, leaning against Ron's side and closing his eyes. "I miss them."


"Me too," Ron said, sliding a tentative hand over Harry's shoulders, squeezing his deltoid tentatively. "Did you want to go to bed? You said you were tired --"


"Nah, I'm okay," Harry replied, curling closer into the hard muscle of Ron's stomach. "I just wasn't in the mood to go out."


"What did you want to do?" Ron asked, his voice going all husky and stupid. "I mean, we have to get up early."


"Not that early," Harry murmured, hands already playing at the buttons of Ron's jeans, parting the thick metal buckle and splaying the popped buttons to show the black boxer shorts beneath. "Wanna take them off?"


Ron stood up, letting his jeans fall to the ground and stepping out of them, hopping from foot to foot peeling off his socks. He was quite red, but smiling, running twin hands through his hair to push the mess away from his face. Harry leaned up in his deck chair, pressed his lips to the hardening silhouette in Ron's boxer shorts, kissing it and mouthing dryly against the fabric, his hands taking a tight grip of the elastic hem.


"We're not very good at foreplay," Ron said, coughing a laugh. "Not that I mind."


Harry shrugged. "Do you want foreplay?"


"No, no, I like this part best."


Harry, with a slight tug jerked off Ron's boxers. His cock was already hard, watery precome slick around the pink head. Harry wrapped a comfortable hand around him and pulled slowly, smirking at the twisted faces Ron made, eyes closed and facing sky-ward.


"Good?" Harry asked, near conversationally, twisting his closed hand around the sensitive ridge of Ron's cock.


"Brilliant," Ron breathed. "Did -- you want something in return?"


"No, it's all right, I'm sorted."


"You sure?" Ron asked throatily. "I don't mind, honest."


"Later," Harry said, leaning forward to lick experimentally the head of Ron's cock. "Listen, do you want to sit down? Probably more comfortable."


Ron's eyes opened as if woken from a dream. Harry held him with warm hands, looking at him curiously, and Ron shrugged. "All right, if you don't mind."


They switched places, Harry standing and kissing Ron shortly on the lips. "Take off your shirt, though."


Ron pulled off his rugby shirt and dropped it on his trousers, sitting awkwardly in the hard wooden deck chair. Relaxing back into it, arms splayed over the side and legs parted, hard cock standing out from his body, he smiled. "I like it better out here."


"Nicer than inside," Harry said, sitting cross-legged on the floor between Ron's legs. "We really need to do something about it. I've lived for too long between white walls."


Ron nodded, that drugged-dreamy haze still in his face. "We'll fix it up. Er, I will, at least."


"I swear to God, if you make everything orange --" and then Harry bent over Ron's cock, slicking the head between his parted lips, small pink tongue sliding slowly around the head. Harry's hands slid a short line up Ron's thighs to press softly into the skin of his stomach, steepling into a kind of diamond shape around Ron's navel, fingers scratching into the thin line of red hair. Withdrawing, Harry licked gently along the underside, little sharp flicks that stretched from bollocks to head. Ron laughed, grinned and laughed.


Harry rocked back, his glance narrowed. "What?"


Still laughing, Ron touched a hand to Harry's cheek. "It's good, mate, honest. It's just -- you're like a kitten licking a popsicle."


Harry blushed, wrapping a hand around Ron's cock and pumping slowly. "Well, I have no idea what I'm doing, do I?"


"It's okay, I'm not complaining," Ron said, raising his hands in innocence. "It's just -- sweet, is all."


"Well, what do you want, then?" Harry asked shortly.


"Like you did it before," Ron said, sliding his hand from Harry's cheek to the tangle of his black hair, messing it up affectionately. "All angry and passionate."


"But I'm not really angry or passionate right now," Harry said, shrugging. "I'm just lazy and relaxed."


Ron raised his eyebrows. "Just use your teeth, mate."


Harry bent once more over Ron's cock; his teeth scraped gently down and up, ringing around the head of his cock, and then once more, slow and deliberate and slick, sharp and wet.


"More teeth," Ron gasped.


Harry pressed harder, scraped more, played the sharp line of his incisors over Ron's cock while his hands touched, rolled, massaged the soft skin of his bollocks.


"Just -- a little rougher," Ron said, arching slightly in the chair, all to move closer, to push further into Harry's mouth.


Harry was rougher, his teeth scraped harder, the nails of his fingers gripped and pinched into the sensitive skin of Ron's thigh; Ron arched in the chair, all the hard flat angles of the wood aching against his skin and bones, all for that driving force, that white-hot glow raised from Harry's mouth.


"Harder - please," Ron gasped, his eyes screwed up tight.


Harry pulled away with a soft pop, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Merlin, Ron, any harder and I'll circumcise you."


Ron grinned and opened his eyes, face flush and red, sweat glowing from his forehead and upper lip. "Just finish me off, you wanker."


"You close?" Harry asked, holding his cock experimentally.


"So close," Ron replied, wriggling closer and further into Harry's hot grip. "Please?"


Harry smirked. "Rougher?"


"Just -- anything, please --"


Harry kissed the tip of Ron's cock, flicked his tongue out along the underside and lower, lower. Harry planted his hands on Ron's warm, pale thighs, tugging them further apart. Ron flinched and pushed forward, gripped the hard wood of the chair's arms to raise his hips, his spit-slick cock into the warmth Harry's gripped hands. Carefully, almost delicately, Harry flicked his tongue out against --


"Fucking hell, man," Ron gasped, eyes shot open. "What're you doing?"


"Just shut up," Harry said quietly, sliding his hand to the flat of Ron's stomach to push him against the hard back of the chair.


Slick tongue flicked out against the cleft of Ron's arse, against the sweaty, raw smell of him and the soft skin and the thin hair. Ron gasped brutally, more of a grunt, shifted his hips toward Harry's mouth, his body nothing more than a knot of muscle and tension. Harry's hands worked in tandem, rolling and squeezing, rough around his head and enough to make Ron squirm.


"Good?" Harry asked quietly. Ron could only gasp, moan appreciatively.


Harry pressed his tongue tentatively against Ron's arse, a flip and a lick, a sharp kiss with wet lips, and Ron shuddered under him, the muscles in his calves twitching against Harry's shoulder, and the -- "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" -- Ron came, warm and wet into Harry's hands, his whole body trembling with the force of it, gasping short for breath and groaning through to afterglow.


Harry slowly released, stepped away, wiping his mouth with the palm of his hand. Ron was sprawled limply in the chair, his eyes half-open, his breath slowly becoming even. Harry's hands were sticky with Ron's come, thick on his thumb and around to his index.


It was several moments before Ron seemed to emerge from his daze. "What time is it?"


"Half twelve," Harry replied. He leaned forward and caught Ron in an unenthusiastic kiss, wiping the come from his hand onto Ron's bony chest.


"Euh, cheers," Ron said, fumbling through his discarded trousers for his wand, cleaning himself off quickly.


"We should sleep," Harry said, standing with his hands on his hips. "What time do you have to pick up the girls?"


"Nine," Ron said, standing up naked and stretching, scratching. Pulling on his boxers, he swung the rest of his clothes over his arm. "My back really hurts," he said, turning around to show Harry.


Indeed, the hard wood of the chair had cut into the pale skin of Ron's back, etching red lines along his shoulders and ribs, down in a regular pattern over his spine to stretch long against the shallow curve at the small of his back. Harry touched a hand to the cut, smearing the thin line of blood. "Does it hurt?"


"Sort of." Ron shrugged off his hand and turned around. "Worth it, though."


"I don't know healing spells," Harry said, shrugging.


"Doesn't matter," Ron said, kissing Harry sharply on the lips.


They brushed their teeth in front of the mirror together, Ron trying to make Harry laugh, making faces and showing off his body until Harry spat foamy toothpaste all over the mirror, spluttering with laughter as Ron struck a bodybuilder pose.


"You're cleaning that up," Ron said, spitting his toothpaste into the sink.


"You're a bastard," Harry said, taking out his wand to clean the mirror, casting a simple scourgify -- immediately the mirror shattered under the spell, falling to the counter in a silver rain. Ron burst out laughing as Harry cursed and repaired the shattered mirror with another spell, the shards falling back into place, sealing themselves into a whole, albeit slightly warped surface.


"Brilliant," Ron said, grinning. "Hero breaks mirror, story at eleven."


"I'll say it again," Harry said, wiping his mouth with a hand towel. "You're a fucking bastard."


"I love you," Ron said quickly, glancing away and blushing red, gritting his teeth to Harry's reaction.


Harry watched Ron through his reflection, and then ghosted a smile. "Ditto," he replied softly.


"Can we go to bed now?" Ron asked, turning back to Harry, though averting his eyes to the floor.


Harry led Ron back into the bedroom. At the foot of the bed he undressed quickly, pulling off his shirt and trousers and boxer shorts, crawling into the cold bed naked. Ron peeled off his pants and crawled in next to Harry. With slightly more confidence, he wrapped in next to him, one hand over his thigh, the other pushed loosely into the soft hair at the nape of his neck, cheek resting against the soft, sweaty skin of his shoulder, pressing a lazy kiss there, murmuring some kind of goodnight.


*


Harry was halfway through an aerial obstacle course when he saw Ron, Ginny, and Hermione sitting in the bleachers, staring up at him. Grinning, he turned back to the course -- just in time to get hit in the face with one of the revolving foam spheres that drifted like soap bubbles in the air. His nose started bleeding, and Harry veered away from the course to let the next player go through, swearing and pinching the bridge of his nose to stem the flow.


"Harry, you idiot," Esther said, flying in next to him, "what're you, blind?"


"Distracted," Harry said, still grinning despite the blood pouring from his nostrils. "My friends just got back from Australia."


Esther smiled, fixing Harry's nose with an easy charm. "Go say hi, I'll tell Atticus you need a couple minutes to fix your nose."


Harry wiped the blood from his lip with his sleeve, and with an easy dive swooped in to the upper bleachers, jumping off his broom to catch Ginny in a bear hug, kissing her wetly on the mouth.


"I missed you," Ginny said, laughing into the thick of Harry's robes.


"I missed you too," he said, kissing her cheek, her ear, her nose. "How was Australia?"


"Amazing, actually, really beautiful and warm and tropical and winter."


"Oh yeah," Harry said, pulling away from her and grinning widely. "Southern hemisphere, right." He touched a hand to her hair, and down to her cheek as if not quite believing she was real. "God, it's good to see you."


Harry hugged Hermione next, laughing into her sweet-smelling hair and holding her slim body tight. "Your parents are all right?"


"They're fine, everything's back to normal, they're back home," Hermione said, touching a hand to the back of Harry's neck, taking a proper look at him. "And you're good?"


"Yeah, sound," Harry said, still grinning, turning to glance at Ginny and then back to Hermione. "You going to stay for the practice? I'll try and get off early -- you guys can come round for dinner, can see our place."


"Course," Ginny said, pulling Harry back into a tight hug. "Get back out there though, I wanna see you play."


Harry re-mounted his broom and shot back off into the sky, hovering about with the rest of the team as one of the understudy Chasers laced his way through the foam bauble obstacle course. Through the rest of practice, Harry could barely concentrate; Ron grinning up at the sky with his black Wayfarers on, Ginny shouting her support between cupped hands, Hermione leaning in to Ron's shoulder and waving every chance she got. During the mock games, Harry took every opportunity to swing around next to the stands, to grin and wink at Ginny before cruising out into the thick of the match, losing track of the Snitch and the score and all the formations. Atticus lost his temper, but Harry didn't much mind, all he could think about was Hermione's grin and Ron's look of amusement, of Ginny's whoops and cheers at Harry's childish acrobatics.


At half-time, Harry swung once more around to the benches. Dismounting, he sat in next to Ginny, leaning his head against her shoulder, listened as Ron told Hermione and Ginny about his drunken night with Seamus, Dean, and Neville. "- so went past this Marks & Spencers, and there was this shopping cart right out front --"



"You're all sweaty," Ginny said quietly, touching a hand to Harry's sweaty mop. "We're going to need a shower."


Harry suppressed a grin. "You better not show up to any of my games. I can't fly with you here distracting me all the time."


"You can't fly anyway," Ginny said warmly, swatting his head.


"You should have seen him yesterday," Ron interrupted. "He was brilliant."


Harry shrugged the compliment away. "It was the broom."


"You were here yesterday?" Hermione asked, raising her eyebrows.


"Yeah, it's good fun," Ron said, shrugging. "I like to see him play."


"Get out there and win, tiger," Ginny said, laughing and kissing Harry shortly on the cheek as Atticus blew his whistle to restart play. "Win it for me."


"No pressure," Harry murmured, kissing her at the corner of his mouth. He mounted his broom as set off again, the Snitch flitting about the far goal posts, his broom trembling slightly as he brought it up to speed.


*


Harry took the fourth bottle of champagne out of the fridge, uncorking it with a loud pop as he walked into the living room. The overstuffed couches were pushed up near the coffee table, and Ginny, Hermione, and Ron were sat around it, dividing the last of the third bottle between their glasses.


"I've got more," Harry said, cheeks flushed with alcohol and cheer, stumbling into the living room.


"What is it?" Ron slurred, draining his glass.


Harry squinted at the label. "Pol Roger."


"Where are you getting all this champagne?" Hermione asked, hiccupping slightly and covering her mouth, blushing.


"Presents," Harry said, falling into place next to Ginny, kissing her shoulder loosely. "From -- people, fans. Celebration. I've got more'n I want to do with."


"We've got about a million letters from people saying they'll buy us a pint," Ron said, filling his glass with the new bottle of champagne. "I don't think we'll ever have to buy a drink again."


Harry filled both girls' glasses and then his own, raising the champagne flute in toast. "To us."


"To us," Ron agreed, and all four of them clashed glasses and drank, Ron rather deeply while Hermione only took sips.


"S'good this," Ron said, burping.


"Churchill liked it," Hermione said, reading the bottle's label.


"If he liked it, can't be bad," Ron agreed, flopping back into the cushions. "S'good this."


"It's expensive," Ginny said, drinking almost as deeply as Ron.


"It's free," Harry said, clinking glasses with Ginny and taking a drink. "Which is really all that matters, eh."


"C'mon Harry," Ron said, "how much money do you really have?"


"Ron!" Hermione gasped, though laughing a bit, touching a hand to his knee.


"Go on," Ron pursued. "You've got a lot, eh?"


"You don't need to tell him," Ginny said sharply, smirking.


"It's all right," Harry said, swaying a bit, taking a drink to steady himself. "Well. I got a letter from Gringott's."


"I saw it," Ron said, resting his head on Hermione's shoulder.


"Did you read it?"


"Naw," Ron replied.


"Well, they said I had -- well, a lot," Harry said, flushing red.


"How much?"


"You gotta understand -- my dad's line goes way back, and he was an only child." Harry shrugged. "And then Sirius left me everything he had."


"Go on," Ron nudged.


Harry glanced at Ron, and then away, somehow embarrassed by the sum. "Six-hundred and fifty."


"Thousand?"


"Yeah, thousand."


There was a moment of silence.


"Galleons?" Ron asked in a small voice. "Yeah."


"Bloody hell, mate, and you need other people to buy you champagne?"


The four of them laughed, laughed and topped up their glasses and proposed another toast, linking arms like newlyweds and sipping their champagne in their Oxford country home and toasting the sum of six-hundred and fifty thousand galleons.


"So why are you working, then?" Ginny asked, leaning in to Harry and mirroring Ron's position on Hermione's shoulder.


"Love of the game," Harry said simply. "I didn't ask for much pay at the Wolves."


"What'd they offer?" Ron asked.


"A lot. I talked them down."


"Oi, we could do with that," Ron said, narrowing his gaze. "What's wrong with more money?"


"I'm not bothered," Harry replied. "I've got enough for -- a long time. As long as we don't keep living like landed gentry," he said, gesturing to the four empty champagne bottles.


"Baron Ronald Weasley," Ron said experimentally. "It doesn't sound too bad."


"It's not your money," Hermione said, slapping Ron's arm playfully. "Why don't you do something useful?"


"I'm useful," Ron said, wounded. "I'm here, aren't I?"


"But what're you doing here?" Hermione continued.


"Merlin, you sound like George," Ron said defensively.


"What?" Ginny interjected. "What did George say?"


"Nothing," Ron mumbled, draining his glass of champagne. "He just wanted me to move in with him. In the shop."


"Why didn't you go?" Hermione asked, looking puzzled.


"Cause I didn't want to," Ron said, growing more resentful of the conversation.


"Ron," Ginny said sharply. "He's our brother."


"So?" Ron shot back. "I didn't want to, is that a fuckin' crime?"


"Ron, calm down, we didn't mean anything by it," Hermione said. "I was just wondering." She put her empty champagne flute on the table and wrapped her free arm around Ron's waist. "I was just thinking -- you can't live with Harry forever, if you thought about doing anything --"


"Why not?"


"Why not what?"


"Why can't me and Harry live together," Ron asked, frowning.


"I didn't mean now -- I meant, in the future."


"Why not?" Ron repeated.


"You don't want to live with him forever, do you?" Hermione asked, sounding slightly more strained.


"I like it here. I like it with Harry."


Hermione abruptly closed her mouth, shrugged the conversation off to Harry and Ginny, who had sat and watched the exchange quietly.


"I don't mind living with Ron," Harry said softly. "I wouldn't mind living with all of us, actually. I'd pay -- obviously," he added with a chuckle. "Honest. I'd really like it, actually."


"I'm going back to Hogwarts," Hermione said, pouring herself another glass of champagne. "I'd see you during holidays, though."


"Mum'd kill me if I didn't finish," Ginny added, taking a long draught from her glass. "But I'd like it. A lot. Even if it does mean living with smelly boys all the time."


Harry laughed and kissed her cheek, ignoring Ron's rolled eyes and half-sneer. "You can stay here for the rest of the hols if you want."


"I thought about it," Ginny replied. "But I can't do that to mum, all her kids suddenly moving out at once." She kissed Harry smartly on the nose. "But I appreciate it."


"You can too," Ron said, touching a hand to Hermione's shoulder, pushing her hair past her ear. "Me and Harry'd like it."


"I just got my parents back," Hermione replied, looking slightly more relaxed. She kissed Ron fleetingly on the lips. "But I'll come visit you a lot. We both will," she added, glancing at Ginny, who nodded her support.


Harry divided the rest of the champagne between their four flutes. Hermione made to refuse -- "I'm really feeling it, I can't have any more" -- but gave in under Ginny and Ron's insistence. Harry popped open a large bottle of Dom Pérignon and poured them all fresh, foamy glasses, glasses they clinked to a successful Quidditch year, a successful year at Hogwarts, and (to Ron's dismay) Ron actually getting a bloody job.


The clock struck two o'clock, and Ginny started to nod off, comfortable and warm in Harry's lose grip, his slow stroking of her hair. Ron and Harry exchanged quips about Quidditch tactics, arguing the effectiveness of a turtle formation with the current range of high-speed brooms, their discussion growing more and more quiet as the alcohol took its toll. The warm evening night, the hush of frogs and wind outside lulled them into warmth and sleep, comfortable arms and couches and hugs and camaraderie as good as tranquilizers.


By the time the clock struck three, all four were in a dreamy, drunken daze, leaning in couples on opposite couches, exchanging limp kisses and barely holding on to consciousness.


"You staying over?" Harry whispered to Ginny, kissing the top of her head.


"Have to go home," she said, "mum doesn't like me staying out."


"You sure?"


Ginny shifted slightly out of his grip and yawned. "I'd love to," she said, kissing him on the mouth, "but I've got to get home."


"Ron?" Harry called loudly.


Ron mumbled, his eyes closed.


"Ron? Get up," Harry called, getting up from the couch and shuffling over to Ron, slapping him lightly about the cheeks. "Get up, tosser."


Ron slowly opened his eyes, and Hermione seemed to be struggling from sleep as well. "Wasit?" Ron mumbled.


"We have to sleep," Harry said, struggling against another yawn. "Hermione, you want to stay over?"


"I should go home," Hermione replied, pushing her bushy hair back away from her face, all messed up from her short sleep against Ron's shoulder.


"Really?" Ron asked, shoulders sagging.


"I'm sorry," she said, kissing him. "I'll be back soon, I promise."


"They won't notice if you come back tomorrow," Ron insisted, holding her soft hand in his own rough palm. "Please?"


"Ron, I'll be back," she said with finality, sating him with a kiss. "I just want to see my parents."


Ron seemed mutinous, but remained quiet, walking both her and Ginny to their large, empty fireplace, reluctant to let go of her hand, to let go of her.


"You'll come see me soon?" Harry mumbled, kissing Ginny long and wet on the mouth. "You can always come here, always."


"Cheers," Ginny said, kissing Harry on the corner of the mouth once, twice. "I will. You'll get sick of me soon," she added, ghosting a tired smile.


"Doubtful," Harry added, kissing her once more, a lingering affair that parted only as she stepped away and into the fireplace. Dropping a handful of Floo powder into the grate, green flames bursting around her, whipping her red hair about in a warm breeze. She gave a quick wave and said "The Burrow," disappearing with a harsh breath of wind.


Hermione gave Harry a hug, and then left Ron with a long kiss, long enough that Harry could see their tongues flick in unison, a wet smack as they pulled apart, the both of them flushing pink and awkward. She stepped into the grate and, with a similar short wave, dropped a handful of Floo powder to be immersed in a rush of green fire. She spoke clearly: "Number one, Tite Street, London," and vanished with a soft breath of air, the green flames vanishing behind her.


Ron fell back into the couch and grinned at Harry. "It's good this."


"What?" Harry asked sleepily.


"Champagne, girls, country living."


Harry laughed. "It's not bad, no."


Ron suddenly seemed to struggle on something. "You -- don't actually mind -- er, paying and -- me just --"


Harry sat on the couch next to Ron, relaxed his head easily into the nook of Ron's shoulder, closing his eyes. "I don't care at all."


"Honest?"


"Honest," Harry said, leaning over to kiss Ron's neck. "We should go to bed."


"It's a mess," Ron said, gesturing at the table overflowing with pizza crusts, empty champagnes bottles, newspapers and paper towels, a broken glass, half-full flutes, bowls and plates and cutlery.


"It's okay," Harry murmured, "Kreacher's coming here tomorrow."


"I thought he couldn't leave Grimmauld place," Ron said, sounding pleased. "Oh, Hermione won't be happy."


"He's not pleased, but he's coming," Harry said. "So you'll have some company," he added slyly.


"Shut up," Ron slurred, though he was smiling. "At least I don't have to get bloody take out every night."


"S'true," Harry said. "Though, I rather liked your cooking. Can make a mean curry."


"Shut up," Ron said, swatting the back of Harry's head lightly before sliding that same hand over his shoulders, squeezing Harry's arm slightly. "Sleep?"


"Sleep," Harry agreed, extricating himself from Ron's grip and standing up, pulling off his T-shirt and slinging it over his shoulder. His tan skin was taut and darkly freckled, and Ron watched him move, the muscles and bones of his back flexing like clockwork.


Ron stood and followed Harry slowly, shuffling down the hall and flicking his Deluminator lazily, extinguishing the lights behind them, the little golden spheres collecting in the silver lighter like diamonds. Harry stumbled at the bottom of the stairs, and Ron caught him, bare hands sliding over the cool skin of his back, slipping around the push under the waistband of his jeans.


"I could -- if you like," Ron stuttered, holding Harry unsteadily, his head light with champagne and sleep.


"Wouldn't mind," Harry mumbled, sliding out of Ron's grip to walk heavily up the stairs, leading Ron to his bedroom.


In the doorway, Harry tugged at Ron's shirt, helping him pull it off and drop it to the floor, fiddling at his flies next so Ron's jeans and belt buckle smacked against the floor. Ron, falling loudly to his knees, undid Harry's jeans in turn and pulled them from his hips, half-dragging down his boxer shorts as he did. Harry, eyes closed and swaying like a metronome, let Ron fully undress him, let Ron slide one warm hand over his cock, fumbling it to hardness.


"Bed," Harry murmured, stepping out of his clothes and staggering towards the four-poster. He collapsed into the covers, crawling into the pillows and lying flat on his back over the blankets, naked and hard, lazily protecting his cock with a hand wrapped around the shaft.


Ron, still in his ratty boxer shorts, fell in to bed next to Harry, curling in to him to kiss languidly at his check, jaw line, neck, collar.


"Take 'em off," Harry said sleepily, tapping uselessly at the hard ridge of Ron's hips, flicking the elastic waistband of his boxers.


Ron dutifully pulled them off, arching his hips off the bed and sliding the shorts from his legs, kicking them so they landed on the seat of Harry's oriel window. Ron's cock was hard and standing out from his body, shadowed in the darkness and thin moonlight. Unabashedly, Harry spat in his hand and fisted it around Ron's cock, jerking him slightly, and then harder, building up a steady rhythm.


Ron, closed-eyed and smiling, moaning slightly, reached over to take Harry in his own hand, burning warmth in his palm, jerking him haphazardly at first before easing into a shared rhythm of palm and fingers, sliding and rolling, squeezing tightly around the base of mutual cocks before rolling roughly about the head.


Their bodies arched together in mirrored actions, curling towards each other with their crossed arms acting as a pivot point. Their eyes were screwed shut, the only noise the rustling and squelching of their frantic hands, the soft groans and grunts Ron breathed, the hitched gasps caught in Harry's throat. As the tension in their groins, their stomachs grew, the speed of their hands increased, the flutter of their fingers and roll of palms growing raw and rough and ready.


In no time at all, they came together, twinned grunts spilling twinned orgasms over shared hands and bodies, pooling thick on their stomachs and chests. Both Harry and Ron went slack in the aftermath, holding each other's cocks until soft, and then withdrawing cautiously, resting come-slick hands on their own stomachs.


Their breathing was heavy and deep, grew shorter and calm as they rested, as the come pooled on their stomachs grew watery and then sticky and dry.


"Harry?"


"Mm," Harry mumbled, half-asleep.


"Do you feel -- er, bad?"


"What?"


"Guilty?"


"About what?" Harry murmured.


"About -- the girls."


Harry opened his eyes, turned lazily and pressed his forehead against Ron's shoulder, resting his hands over the plane of Ron's stomach. "Should I?"


"I don't know," Ron replied, sounding slightly helpless. "I don't know what to think."


"Do you love her?"


"Course," Ron said. "I miss her. I love her."


"And -- er, me?"


"Course," Ron said, very quiet. "Yeah."


"I guess that's all that matters," Harry sighed, rolling back to his side of the mattress.


"Should we tell them?"


"About what?" Harry asked.


"Us."


"What about us?"


"This," Ron said.


"It's just us," Harry said simply. "What is there to tell?"


"The -- you know."


"Why?" Harry said, drifting off again. "We've always done this. Just not, this."


"Sure," Ron said, gripping Harry's hand roughly. "It's good, us."


"Contra mundum," Harry murmured.


"Is that a spell?" Ron asked, feeling his eyelids grow heavy with sleep, Harry's touch less distinct as the edges of his vision peeled away, body weighted with champagne and sex.


Harry sighed into sleep. "Sorta."


*


The last few weeks of May passed in a rush, a whirlwind odyssey of wine, beer, and champagne, of Quidditch and black plastic Wayfarer sunglasses, Ginny and Hermione and hangovers, twinned-hands and wet mouths, wet orgasms and beaded sweat. Bill came over, and George; even Charlie stopped by once, admiring the new place and open air, going mad over the Enzo Stratos before crashing it into the tree (a complex cushioning charm keeping both passenger and broom safe.)


There was no daily routine beyond beer and practice, kissing wetly in bed in the morning, finishing the night with frantic hands, wet tongues. Often there would be days when Harry and Ron would only meet crossing paths in bed at six in the morning, Ron returning from a night at the pub, Harry leaving for an early morning practice. Kreacher was welcome addition to the house; cleaning, cooking, and not asking questions when he saw Harry and Ron lying naked on the patio, sleeping together in the afternoon side-by-side, their clasped hands bridging the gap between twinned deck chairs.


As May came to a close, the opening of the Championship league Quidditch season drew more urgent, now frequently talked about in The Daily Prophet and on PotterWatch, Harry's professional debut easily dominating the gossip of the Wizarding world.


"He won't be any good," Marcus Flint, now sports commentator for The Diatribe newspaper, spoke on the Wizarding Wireless. "His talent was rooted in other students' incompetency, now that he's in the big leagues, he won't stand a chance."


"I have no comment," Professor McGonagall was reported as saying to Lee Jordan during a PotterWatch interview. After a pause, she added: "However, for the history books, I was the one who discovered him in the first place."


Even Ron was talked about, described by Rita Skeeter in her column as: "an attractive boy - for a ginger. This charming fifteen-year-old member of the famed Weasley clan is often seen hanging about the stadium during the Woodstock Wolves' (wizarding hero Harry Potter's Quidditch team) practice sessions, recognizable for his signature black sunglasses and haughty pureblood expression. Ronald Weasley is best known for his role in the killing of You-Know-Who, accompanying Harry Potter during the war and playing a pivotal role in the Battle of Hogwarts. Like Harry Potter, he refuses to answer this reporter's questions, but a source near the boy describes him as 'dutiful, always there for Harry, always happy to meet up with the team.' Surely those familiar black sunglasses will flash from the box seats this coming Monday, when Harry Potter engages the Cambridge Coronas in his first professional Quidditch match."


Three days before the first match, Atticus Goldwater, Keeper and Captain of the Woodstock Wolves, answered some questions for The Daily Prophet:


"He's been testing superbly. He's been promoted to first line after only two weeks of practice. I have great faith that he shall bring the Woodstock Wolves to their first highly deserved Championship league cup."


"Do you think Potter will bring the Wolves to the Premiership?" the reporter asked.


Atticus was reported as saying: "It remains to be seen. While it is within reach, the demands are extreme. We are taking our goals one at a time, and the Championship league cup is a good first step."


"And why have you only signed him for one season?" the reporter continued.


"It was under his request," Atticus replied, sounding slightly sore. "I wanted him permanently, but Harry just joined on a willingly trial basis, and I was clearly in no position to demand more of him. I only hope he will stay with us for a long while. He brings a much needed boost to our underrepresented league and this fabulous team."


"How do you respond to calls that his position was purely for commercial interests, considering his continued fame?"


Atticus cleared his throat and spoke very deliberately: "Wait 'till you see him fly."


*


It was late evening before Harry got home from practice. With only two days before the first match, the practice hours were stretching later and later into the day, growing so intense that Harry often came home simply to pass out on the couch, fully dressed, until Ron half-dragged him up the stairs and into bed, unlacing those heavy Quidditch pads and tugging off the thick underclothes, sliding in next to his bruised body for proper sleep.


Exhausted and hungry, Harry Apparated into the front foyer, messing it up and collapsing on a pile of unpacked boxes. Wearily pulling himself up, Harry propped his still-pristine broom against the wall and wandered slowly into the kitchen, unlacing his pads as he went.


Ron and Hermione were having sex outside, lit palely by the light flooding out from the kitchen windows. Harry winced, and then laughed, turning away to pour himself a glass of water. He could see them from the window above the sink: Ron naked and splayed out on the deck chair, Hermione straddling his hips, bra loose on the shoulders, her fingernails digging roughly into his chest, Ron's head thrown back in a silent groan.


Pulling off his heavy Quidditch robes and dropping them on the kitchen counter, Harry took an apple out of the fridge (now fully stocked with actual, edible food since Ginny and Hermione had been coming around) and sat on the couch in the living room, eating it thoughtfully, flicking through a Quidditch magazine Ron had left on the coffee table.


Harry heard the hitched gasps that meant Ron had finished, the lingering groans and the laughter that followed, the wet smack of their lips. Harry walked back into the kitchen, dropping the core into the garbage, busying himself with undoing the laces at the neck of his undershirt when Ron, naked and flushed with sex, opened the sliding screen door and stepped inside.


"All right, Harry?" Ron said, grinning, pouring himself a glass of water. "Hermione's over."


"I could tell," Harry mumbled, still trying to undo the knot at his chest.


Ron planted a perfunctory kiss at the corner of Harry's mouth, and stood before him all lean and gangly and boyish and naked. "Help with that?"


"If you could," Harry said, shrugging.


Ron fiddled absently at the knot for a few minutes, tongue bitten between his teeth. "Where's your wand then?"


In my robes, Harry gestured over to the green-and-cream pile of cloth piled on the counter. Ron, turning pale arse and muscled back, fumbled through the robes before emerging with Harry's slender wand.


"What're you going to use?" Harry said, raising an eyebrow.


"Diffindo, why?"


"I don't want to cut the laces, Ron," Harry said, taking his wand back, nudging him gently with an elbow. "This stuff's expensive."


"There's an untying spell," Hermione said, closing the glass sliding door behind her and locking it with a click. She was as flushed as Ron was, pink high in her cheeks and her hair a tangle, dressed in a simple tank top and black underwear.


"It's a big knot," Ron said, turning back to Harry and trying to pinch it through with his nails.


Hermione, with an easy flick of her wand, made the two laces shoot apart, two little white snakes about Harry's neck as they easily unlaced, opening the canvas undershirt up to his navel. "Ron, put some clothes on," she said, kissing the back of his neck shortly.


"C'mon, Harry doesn't mind," Ron countered, stepping away to fill his glass again, leaning back against the counter with an almost cocky tilt in his bare hips.


"Ron, put some clothes on," Harry said, giving Hermione a slight wink.


"Bastard," Ron muttered, making sure to slam shoulders with him before trudging up the stairs.


In Ron's absence, Hermione made to hug Harry, but he shrugged away, smiling apologetically. "I'm sweaty."


She gave a short grin. "I am too." They hugged anyway, Hermione planting an airy kiss on his cheek. Almost immediately her expression fell, and she regarded Harry quite seriously, her tone suddenly important: "Listen, before Ron comes back -- Ginny and I went to see George today."


At this, Harry seemed somehow embarrassed, flushing slightly and glancing away. "How is he, then?"


"Well -- Ginny doesn't think he's doing well. I mean, he seemed cheerful enough, but you know how he is -- since."


Harry shrugged his assent. "Yeah."


"Could you -- I mean, I really think Ron should go and see him at least. I think George really needs him. Charlie and Bill and Percy are all at work, Ginny and I are back at Hogwarts, he needs someone."


Harry shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."


"You agree with me though, don't you?" she asked, slightly wary.


"Well, yeah." Harry turned and drank from Ron's glass of water.


"You don't sound it."


Harry turned back around, shrugging helplessly. "I like having him around."


"But --"


"I'd be -- he's been a good friend this last month. An idiot, of course, but I like having him here."


"But you were the one who wanted him to leave in the first place," Hermione said, looking even more taken aback. "Harry, it's George, our George --"


"I know, I know," Harry said shortly. "I want him to help George, I really do. I just don't want to force him or anything. I'll talk to him though," Harry added on seeing Hermione's frown. "I just -- we all need to kind of figure out what's going on right now."


"You'll see George at least though, won't you?" she said, seeming at least somewhat satisfied


"He's coming up to see my game," Harry said. "I'll talk to Ron before then."


"Talk to Ron about what?" Ron said, walking into the kitchen. He was wearing one of Harry's torn up old T-shirts and a pair of ratty jeans ripped at the knees. His freckled feet stuck out from beneath the cuffs, flinching as he walked on the cold tiles.


"Nothing," Hermione said, distracting him with a sweeping kiss at the lips, her thin arms around his neck. "What are you doing tonight, then?"


"My teammates are going out to a pub," Harry said, tucking his hands into the waistband of his Quidditch shorts. "I thought we could go."


Ron nodded. "Come with us?"


Hermione groaned slightly. "I have to get home, we're seeing my Auntie Barbara tomorrow."


"You'll be back for the game though, won't you?" Ron asked, slinging his arm around her waist and bumping her close. "You have to come to that -- at the very least."


"I will," she said, giving Harry a lingering glance. "You two have fun, though." She kissed Ron, lingering on his lips, and then gave Harry a hug. Politely, she stepped out of the room before Disapparating, her disappearance noted with a thin pop.


"What was that about?" Ron immediately asked, turning on Harry.


"Er, Ginny," Harry invented.


"What about her?" Ron asked with a slight note of panic. "She doesn't know, does she? Hermione doesn't know, right?"


"No, no, nothing like that," Harry said, momentarily gripping Ron's shoulder in a show of solidarity. "Just -- you know, girl things."


"What're you supposed to ask me, then?" Ron asked, cocking his head with a suddenly mischievous smile.


"Nothing," Harry said shortly. "I'm going to get changed."


"All right," Ron said, that sly smile painted to his lips. "Have it your way."


Ron followed Harry up the steps, prodding him playfully with questions ("It's knickers, isn't it? You want to buy her knickers"), Harry brushing him off easily ("Shut up or I'll push you down the stairs.")


Harry's bedroom, to accommodate Ron's frequent visits, had over the weeks become more and more decorated; that is, more and more orange. Chudley Cannons posters covered the walls alongside banners and decals dedicated to the Woodstock Wolves. Luna and Neville, on their first visit, had painted a frieze that stretched around the top room, a long stretch of green-and-gold vine that laced together the names of Dumbledore's Army, interspersed here and there with fanciful runes and Quidditch paraphernalia (including a golden Snitch that flapped its wings, glinting rapidly on clear, sunny mornings.)


Harry pulled off his shirt and tossed it in the overflowing hamper in the corner of the room. He fumbled lazily in the closed, hip cocked and pants sagging at his hips, while Ron flopped back on their downy, soft-sprung mattress.


"I like that photo," Ron said thoughtfully.


Ron was turned around on the bed, cross-legged and facing the small headboard. The wall above the bed was dedicated to pictures of friends and family, the largest of which was the group photo of Hogwarts' sixth form, Harry's last proper year, the students waving cheerfully from before the war.


"What, the Hogwarts photo?"


"Yeah." Ron tugged off his T-shirt and dropped it on the bed. He crawled forward along the bed to sit kneeling on their pillows, observing the picture from close up. "We look good, you, me, and Hermione." He pointed at the three small figures in the photo, grinning with arms slung around shoulders, laughing sometimes as they rocked back and forth. Harry was turned back to the closet, but Ron continued to single out particularly funny looking blokes, or else pointing out various members of Dumbledore's Army. "You seen Seamus recently?"


"No," Harry said.


"You should come with us sometime," Ron said. "It's good fun."


"I've picked you up enough times to know better," Harry murmured.


As Harry pulled on one of his last clean Oxford cotton shirts, he heard the clank as Ron's belt hit the floor. "Ron, we have to go soon," Harry mumbled, making a mess of trying to button up the shirt.


"I know, I know," Ron said, the springs creaking as he crawled back to the foot of the bed. "Just c'mere."


Wearily, though smiling slightly, Harry turned from the closet. Ron was kneeling at the end of the bed, his knees pressing deep craters into the soft mattress, sitting back on his feet. He was completely naked, and freckled, and tan, his body a flat perpendicular plane to the mattress, all muscled and lean he was. The divot that stretched from his sternum to the break of his navel seemed more pronounced that usual; he was not large by any means, just never particularly toned. He was fumbling lazily at his cock with one hand, no real drive or lust, just absently playing, while he beckoned to Harry with the other.


Reluctantly, Harry let Ron pull him down to the bed. With a clever wrestling move, he set Harry off balance and rolled him easily on his back, Ron using the momentum of the fall to crawl over top of Harry's prone body. With a sly grin, Ron loomed over him, palms rooted over Harry's shoulders, knees on either side of his hip, barely a brush of skin contact between them.


"We've got time," Ron said, his grin going wolfish. He leaned down to kiss playfully the line of Harry's jaw, and neck. Harry seemed dispassionate, leaning apart from Ron's lips, facing away from the kisses that paved the clean knots and tendons of his throat, maybe even displeased.


"We're already late," Harry said, reluctantly half-moaning as Ron sucked at one small piece of skin, his naked body working against Harry's clothed.


"They can wait," Ron breathed before trapping Harry in a long, shifting kiss, a kiss that begged Harry to open his mouth, a kiss that made their noses mash together as they switched the angle of their heads back and forth.


"We have to go," Harry said breathlessly, breaking from the kiss but maybe leaning up a bit to follow Ron's retreating lips.


"Don't be a killjoy," Ron said, shifting his position slightly to hunker down over Harry, so their chests could touch, their legs could intertwine. Ron, pressing his lips once more against Harry's, trailed them down to nip carefully at the thin stubble that roughed up Harry's jaw. He followed the hollow his neck down to the bony knot of Harry's Adam's apple, kissing it before sucking on it momentarily, dragging hungrily towards the shadowed divots of Harry's collarbones.


"Ron?" Harry mumbled, his eyes closed as Ron sent goosepimples rocketing with ever bite, ever lick.


"Yeah?" Ron said absently, slipping his small tongue along the warm curve of Harry's collar.


"George -- have you thought about what we talked --"


Ron groaned, going annoying limp in Harry's arms, dropping his head to the bony plane of his chest. "No, I haven't. Is now really the time?"


"Ron, it's important," Harry said hesitantly. "He's important."


Ron pulled himself back up, looming properly over Harry's body again and frowning critically at him. "I know he is."


"I don't wanna fight," Harry said quickly. "I just wanted to make sure -- uh, that you were sure."


"I'm sure," Ron said firmly. "Are you sure?"


"Me?" Harry bit his lip. "Uh -- no."


Ron flinched slightly. "Are you gonna be sure?"


Harry averted his eyes despite Ron's dominant glare. "Not really."


Ron sighed, deflated, just fell over to Harry's left side, no longer reigning over him but rather now curled up, all naked and gangly, against his warm side. "Well, I'm sure."


"That's all that matters," Harry mumbled.


The silence was neither uncomfortable nor comfortable; they were both nearing sleeping, and their huffed breaths came in opposition, Harry's deep inhalation matching rhythmically with Ron's exhalation, and vice versa. Ron stirred occasionally, lacing his hand around Harry's hard stomach, accepting Harry's arm as it slide along his back.


"You know that pictures?" Ron said quite suddenly.


"What picture?" Harry asked, his eyes still calmly closed.


"John Lennon and Yoko."


"Which one?"


Ron's brow furrowed. "That picture where he's naked and cuddling with her."


"Oh." Harry made a deliberate pause. "Yeah?"


"Like us," Ron said, laughing softly against his side. "Yoko."


"Okay, time to go," Harry said, laughing, pushing Ron away from him.


"Oi, fuckin' arse, I was comfortable," Ron complained, peeling away from Harry, stretching languidly like a cat. "Do we have to go out?"


"I told them we would," Harry said, standing up and stretching too. He glanced at himself in the mirror; his hair was flat in one place, where he was lying on it, and sticking up where Ron had laced his hands in it, played with it in his tired boredom. He fussed with it for a few moments before giving up, turning back on Ron, who had rolled back into bed. "Get up, wanker."


"Bastard," Ron said, sitting up to sit on the edge of the bed, deliberately messing up his thick shag of red hair. "Who's going to be there, then?"


"The team," Harry said, shrugging.


"Is Antonio going to be there?" Ron said, pulling his clothes back on.


"Yeah," Harry replied, twitching his shoulders. "I guess."


"I hate that bastard," Ron said venomously.


"He's not too fond of us either," Harry murmured, watching as Ron pulled on his boxers, did up the button of his jeans.


"He's just sore that you got starting position," Ron replied, bending over to lace up his trainers. "It's nothing we did."


"Well, you did call him a bloody Voldie-loving bastard," Harry remarked pointedly.


"He is," Ron said defensively. "He deserved it, trying to start a fight with you."


"Please don't do anything like that tonight," Harry said, a slight tone of resignation in his voice. "I don't want anyone kicked off the team because you're a ginger."


"Oi, no ginger jokes," Ron said, batting Harry gently. It was mutual when they wrapped arms around each other and hugged, pressing a short kiss to the lips. "Besides, you wish you were a ginger," Ron added with grinning malice.


"I don't," Harry responded sharply, "cause then I'd be an insufferable git."


"Oh, I'm gonna tell Ginny that one," Ron said, smiling as he bit at Harry's lips, more pain than pleasure.


"You do, and she finds out what happened to her hairbrush," Harry said, responding with his own vicious peck.


"Stop flirting with me, you poof," Ron finished, touching a hand to the middle of Harry's chest and pushing him away. "Now c'mon, let's go start a fight."


*


"I've got the next round," Ron slurred, patting the two nearest Wolves, both of them young Chasers, on the back. "We still on beer, then?"


"Firewhiskey!" one of the Beaters, McAvoy his name was, called out.


"No, no, black vodka!" one of the younger waterboys added.


"Oi, we're in a Muggle establishment," Esther yelled over the din, drawing some strange looks from the tables around their noisy group. "Just get us some bloody tequila and have done with it."


"Tequila, right." Ron pushed his chair away from the table and stumbled towards the bar, fiddling at his wallet to pull out a few notes, leaning into the dark wood and ordering some twenty shots of spirits and lemon.


"He's doing well," Esther said, draining the rest of her beer and burping loudly. "Team seem to like him."


Harry grinned. "He's like that."


"They like the stories," Esther said.


"And the free booze," Harry added, tipping back his pint of bitter. "It's a good way to make friends."


"Them stories he's telling though," Esther said, raising her eyebrows. "Did all that really happen? The snake and the dragon and all? And the basilisk?"


"Yeah," Harry said, going red and apologetic. "But he's making it sound -- he makes it sound cooler than it was, you know? I just -- it was just kind of what happened."


"But really -- a Horntail? And you raced it on an original Firebolt?"


"Well, not raced," Harry said, taking a long draught from his pint of beer. "Just kind of. Circled."


"Blood fucking hell."


"Something like that," Harry mumbled, laughing. "Ron's just having a go though. I mean, it wasn't all -- dragons and duels. There was a lot of camping in the snow and eating mushrooms, too."


Esther grinned, patting Harry's shoulder stoutly. "Sure, you've done in You-Know-Who, but your biggest challenge is coming up."


"What, winning the game?" Harry said, smiling sarcastically.


Esther laughed. "No, mate, I told Ron to get us a double."


Ron took his place amidst the crowd of Wolves, followed by a bar maid with a tray loaded with shots of clear, sickly tequila, each topped with a grinning lemon wedge. The shots were distributed, laughing and spilling, until each member of the table was holding one aloft (Harry regarding his double shot with extreme trepidation.)


"To the Wolves," O'Sullivan, one of the rowdy understudy Keepers toasted, raising the poison. "Long life!"


"Long life!" came the riotous echo, clinking glasses with neighbours, holding their lemons in the air -- and they shot, spluttered, sucked on their lemons and made ridiculous faces, laughing as they slammed the glasses like scattered gunshots on the table.


The second round of drinks -- amber shots of Johnnie Walker -- arrived shortly after, spread through the crowd until the Wolves were joined in toast once more.


"To Harry," Esther called out, shouldering Harry gently. Ron laughed, all grinning and sweaty, holding his Scotch in the air proudly, echoing: "To Harry!"


"To Harry!" the team agreed, raising their glasses.


"The wanker."


There was hesitation; the glasses hovered in the air as the half-drunk team glanced around curiously. Ron was suddenly red and livid, pushing back his shot to get it over with, rising from his chair and swaying on the spot: "Who said that?"


Silence. A few other players drank their Scotch for lack of something to do, glancing around nervously at the suddenly mute crowd.


Esther stood next. "Who fuckin' said that then, eh?"


"He's a fookin' wanker and y'know it." Antonio, short and dark-haired, an Italian with a preposterous Mancunian lilt, was lording over the end of the table, sipping at his Scotch and grinning maliciously. "Comes in here like he does, steals the team for 'imself, just lookin' for some more fame now that he's all done with the Dark Lord. Y'know, I'm fookin' sick of it and I reckon I'm not the only one."


"You are the only one, I promise you that," Esther said, getting grunts of support from a few other players. "Harry's a brilliant player and you damn well know you're not good enough, not even close."


Antonio drained the rest of his Scotch and stood up, giving a deliberate stretch, toying with the empty glass from hand to hand. He was backed up by two other boys, one Harry identified as the third understudy Seeker, a London lad called Quinn, the other a broom-handler, a black-haired brute of a man Harry could not remember ever talking to. "I was good enough for this team before. I was good enough for this league or else I wouldn'ta been taken on. I was good enough to be put in First Seeker position before he came around." Antonio pointed at Harry menacingly; concealed in the hand was his wand, down in a backhand grip, flush against his wrist -- the players nearest to him saw the betrayal and immediately went to draw their own.


Ron moved to argue but Harry stood abruptly, halting everyone in place. Even the pub, with its Muggle tourists and locals, was silent, watching the confrontation nervously. "Listen, Antonio, I didn't come here to take your job. I was offered it, I didn't have anything else to do, so I came. I came because I like the game I didn't want to push anyone out."


"Well ya did, man," Antonio said, now properly gripping his wand in an offensive capacity. "Ya bloody well did."


This set Ron off: "Leave him alone you fuckin' --"


"Ron, shut it," Harry interrupted, swaying in drunken silence, trying to get a hold of the situation, feeling that this was maybe way above what he was willing to deal with after so much beer and spirits. "Can we talk about this -- when Atticus is here, I'm sure we can work out -- some kind of system -"


The blow came out of nowhere; with a lightning flick, Antonio hurled his empty tumbler at Harry, striking him soundly in the chest, a hollow thump as it smashed into his breastbone, a crash as it broke on the ground. Harry doubled over, grabbing his chest and grunting -- in the chaos, the Wolves moved to draw their wands -- Esther, toppled her chair to grab Harry, stopping his fall -- the nearby patrons screamed, stepping away from the breaking fight - but first of any, Ron leapt from his chair with a roar, threw himself over the tabletop to grab Antonio by the collar, smashing him face first into the table and with the same grip rolled him over, back flat on the wood, a shocked and glazed expression on Antonio's face as blood poured from his broken nose. Like flash, Ron grabbed a nearby bottle by the neck and smashed it against the side of the table, suddenly pressing the broken edge against Antonio's throat -


"TOUCH HIM AGAIN, AND I WILL SCALP YOU! I WILL FUCKING CUT YOUR FUCKING FACE OFF!" Ron screamed over the madness. "I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU --" hands grabbed his shoulders, his arms, trying to pull him away from Antonio's prone form. Ron struggled against them, swiping blindly with the broken bottle and missing by feet.


In the ensuing struggle, the burly, nameless crew member punched Ron hard in the face, striking once in the temple and then landing a glancing blow against his eyes; he was taken down by a couple of the young Chasers, blond and loving the fight, landing furious fists into his back and neck until they too were pulled down by more responsible members of the team -- police sirens sounded outside -- while Antonio was restrained by one of the Keepers and a Muggle bystander.


"Fuckin' -- fuck, the Rozzers!" Esther yelled, slinging an arm over Harry's shoulder. "Scarper!"


There was the unmistakable rapid-fire pop as people started Disapparating; the Muggles had all fled following the fight, and even some of the Wolves were escaping on foot, disappearing out the back exit or else climbing from the large open windows that fronted the building. Ron, free of his bondage, launched himself at Harry and Esther, hobbling over with them into the pub's empty backroom, away from the truncheon-wielding police officers and flashing lights, the hasty wandwork that emptied the pub of Wizards. With a quick glance around, he squinted tightly -- that familiar squeeze, that sensation of air pressure changing, bubbles in his ears -- and they appeared in the Combe village square, drunk, bleeding, sitting in the tall grass and trying to catch their breath.


"Harry?" Ron gasped, hand covering his right eye, swollen and bloody as it was.


"Yeah?" came Harry's weak reply.


"We got in a fight."


"I know," Harry said, coughing, staring up at the stars, wet grass tickling his ears. "Esther?"


"Aye?" the girl replied roughly.


"You okay?"


"Aye."


"Atticus won't be pleased."


"No."


"What'll happen to them?" Harry asked.


"Oh, not much," Esther said. "The worst of 'em will get a few suspensions. Antonio and them Chasers. We'll just get a long lecture on responsibility and teamwork like we do every time."


"And that's it?"


"Until the next time," Esther said, chuckling.


Harry coughed again. "Ron?"


"Yeah?"


"You okay?"


"Bleeding a bit."


"Ah." Harry struggled to sit up, taking deep breaths. "Where?"


"Got punched," Ron mumbled. "In the eye."


Harry crawled over to him in the grass to where Ron was lying back dazedly, right eye covered and left eye blinking slowly. "Let me see."


Ron withdrew his hand; sticky blood coated his cheek and under eyes, oozing from cuts at his brow and high on his cheek. His right eye was swollen shut and shining with dark blood. Almost unrealistically red, it coursed down his cheek and dripped from his chin, staining the collar of his white shirt crimson. The other half of his face was pristine and untouched, freckled and sickly pale in the moonlight.


"Oh fucking hell," Harry said, touching a hand to Ron's cheek in shock, staring at the blood that coated his fingers.


"M'all right," Ron said, trying to sit up. Harry immediately pulled off his shirt, tearing the buttons in his haste, and balled it up, dabbing cautiously at Ron's cheek, around his eye.


"Wet it," Esther said quietly, crawling closer.


Harry fumbled at his belt before finding his wand, rather overdoing it and shooting a jet of water from the tip. With the wet shirt, he wiped at the blood, carefully cleaned a rather dazed Ron, who seemed to be taking it all in stride. The blood spread until it was a pink stain on Ron's cheek and Harry's hands; the cuts, revealed, were long but shallow, stretching almost the entire length of Ron's right eyebrow, and another along the line of his cheekbone. Satisfied that he wouldn't bleed out, Esther suggested sleep.


"Was anyone caught?" Harry mumbled, helping Ron stand up, the both of them swaying from drink and pain.


"Wouldn't think so," Esther said. "This isn't the first time we've had to do a runner."


Harry frowned "Really?"


"Hard living, hard drinking," Esther intoned. "Antonio's been picking fights for years. It's just our way of venting. He's taken a swing at almost everyone on that team, I reckon. And they've done the same. You'll see, he'll come around."


Harry looked slightly overwhelmed, but mostly sick. "That happens a lot?"


"We'll make a fighter out of you yet," Esther said, smiling. "Though, your mate seems pretty competent. I'll fuckin' scalp you? Genius, mate." Ron nodded dizzily, mumbling some kind of thanks. "Just wait 'till we hit the pubs in the finals," Esther added. "Then we get to fight other teams instead." She lifted her wand hand suddenly. "You boys can make it home?"


"We're fine now," Harry said, Ron just nodding.


The Knight Bus appeared with a bang, as purple and shining and ridiculous as it had been before the war. Esther said her goodbyes, solid slaps on each of their shoulders, and then stepped aboard, vanishing as the bus set off with another cannon-fire explosion.


"I'd use magic, but I'd end up scooping your eye out," Harry mumbled, slinging an arm over Ron's shoulders, trying to guide them home.


"I'll live," Ron said.


They stumbled home together, all drunk and uneven, tripping over potholes and ditches, thick tufts of grass and stumps, fences, anything they could possibly trip over they did. So too did they trip over the end of Harry's bed, falling in together, still sticky with blood and liquor, hesitant kisses that tasted of blood. The blankets were tangled so they did without, just fell heavily about the pillows and crammed together, still in their lumpy, sweaty, bloody clothes, still drunk as fuck and kissing slowly.


"You're insane, you know that?" Harry mumbled, toying with Ron's sweaty hair absently.


"I'd kill'm," Ron said, nuzzling closer to Harry's warmth, laughing softly. "Fuckin' -- fuck. Kill 'im with a bottle."


"It was pretty crazy," Harry said, hand sliding from Ron's head to his cheek, to rest along his neck, cupping it and drawing him close.


"Like in the movies," Ron said, teetering on the edge of sleep. "But -- it was a particularly manic moment, weren't it?"


Harry laughed, scritching at the warm skin of Ron's neck, pressing in to him lazily. "You're mental," Harry said, laughing slightly. "Didn't even see you act that way with Death Eaters."


"S'cause they weren't as fuckin' annoying as Antonio were," Ron said.


"Mental," Harry murmured, kissing his forehead. "Hermione'll never believe this."


"Hey Joe," Ron murmured distantly, his eyes properly closed now, "where you goin' with'at gun in your hand?"


"Bottle," Harry corrected, lazily kissing the copper of Ron's skin, cheek, lips.


Ron snuffled, tangling his legs with Harry's, linking their arms so they were drawn uncomfortable and close. "Where you goin' with that bottle'n your hand?"


*


"Let me have a look then," Ron said, putting down his beer can to take the little ball from Harry. The winning Snitch flapped its thin silver wings in Ron's palm before going still. The gold ball reflected his grinning face comically, convexly stretching his already big nose. "You'll have a collection of 'em by the end of the season, I reckon."


"Beginner's luck," Harry muttered, draining the last of his wine and curling closer into Ginny, into the deck chair they shared together, she sitting on his lap, watching as the sun set blandly over the distant trees.


"You were superb," Ginny said, kissing his cheek proudly. "Would have liked a longer game, but I'm not complaining." She kissed his nose.


"Twenty minutes of action's better than hours of waiting," Ron said, tossing the slowly-flapping Snitch from hand to hand before giving it over to Hermione.


"It's kind of cute," Hermione remarked, turning the ball over in her hands before returning it to Harry. "Like a little bug."


At Harry's touch, the Snitch seemed to revive, taking flight once more, fluttering about their heads like an excitable owl.


"Merlin, you should have heard the crowd," Ginny said. "I mean, everyone was there. Pretty much all of our year. I saw Seamus and Dean at the beer pavilion.


"There were some Professors too," Hermione added. "McGonagall even had her face painted green and white."


"It was standing room only," Ron said. "Cheers for the box, by the way."


Harry grinned. "There are some benefits to being First Seeker."


The Snitch, seemingly bored, took a dive at Harry's head, knocking him impatiently in the temple. Ginny and Harry toyed with it together, reaching out to grab the Snitch from their tangled position in their chair, laughing as they mashed elbows into chests, missing faces by inches in their enthusiastic lunges for the fluttering orb.


"Ron," Hermione said gently, touching a hand to his cheek again. "I can clean that cut up really quick, please, just -"


"No, no, it's all right," Ron said, waving her off. "I don't mind."


"Ron, you know I can heal cuts really easily --"


"It's not that," Ron interrupted, holding her hand to keep from reaching at him.


"I know we haven't been together a lot recently," she said, her voice growing dim. "But you can trust me --"


"Merlin, Hermione, it's not that," Ron said, laughing, touching the hand to her cheek and kissing her lightly on the mouth. "I like the cut. I think it looks kinda cool. Macho, like."


Hermione halted. "You like the cut?" Ron nodded, smiling slightly. Hermione scanned his face, as if not believing he could be so stupid. "Boys. Honestly."


"Just ignore him," Ginny said, swatting Harry's hands away from the low-flying Snitch. "They're mental, especially that one." She leaned in to kiss Harry wetly on the mouth.


"I can't believe you'd get into a fight in the first place," Hermione said, taking a sip from her glass of wine. "But actually wanting to keep the cuts -- I mean, honestly."


"It's cause he's a ginger," Harry added, parting lips from Ginny to plant the dig.


"Oi, I said no ginger jokes --"


Ginny flipped about so she was straddling Harry's hips, pushing his shoulders back into the wood of the chair. "Watch who you're talking to," she said, grinning. "We gingers are all muscle." She leaned back from him, flexing showily. "See? All muscle. I could leave you with some cuts to be proud of."


"Help," Harry said sarcastically, struggling under Ginny's pin. "I'm being attacked by a crazy ginger."


"That's what you get for marrying into Weasleys," Ron said bluntly.


Harry laughed. "I'm not married to anyone --"


"Oh yes you are," Ron countered. "You're way too tangled with us to get away now. You too," he added, taking Hermione's hand and kissing the palm. "Hermione Weasley."


"God, that sounds awful," she said, laughing, letting Ron bite the ends of her fingers, playfully pulling them quickly from his snapping jaws, turning it into a kind of game.


"Harry Weasley," Ginny tried experimentally, leaning down to kiss him brightly on the mouth. "Kind of has a ring to it."


"I'll wear it with pride," Harry said, grinning, leaning up to catch Ginny's lips again. They kissed deeply, wetly, their smacks going unacknowledged as Ron drew Hermione into his own embrace, their arms all bent and drawn together as lips met lips.


Ginny, reluctantly, pulled away. She glanced at her watch and frowned. "Bugger."


"You've got to go, don't you?" Harry asked, his shoulders sagging.


"I'm sorry," she whispered, giving him an apologetic kiss on the cheek.


"You can stay," Harry said quickly. "I don't mind. For the night, even."


"Mum's orders," she said, sounding slightly resentful.


"This is getting suspicious," Harry said, jokingly. "We don't have to -- I mean, you can just stay over, we don't have to -- it."


"I want to -- stay over. And stay over," she said, smiling momentarily. "It's just -- mum."


"She doesn't trust me?" Harry asked, frowning.


"She doesn't trust me," Ginny corrected, grinning devilishly. "She thinks you're a saint."


Ginny crawled off of Harry and stretched in the evening light, her red tank top riding high, showing her lean stomach and the slight line of her hips. Harry dragged himself up and hugged her tightly, spinning her about and trapping their mouths once again.


"Hermione?" Ginny beckoned, stepping out of Harry's arms.


"What, you're not going too," Ron said bluntly. "Are you?"


"I've got a mum too," Hermione said, smiling with a hint of tease. "However, she doesn't trust you."


"I wouldn't trust him either," Harry added, accepting Hermione's open arms and hugged her. "Thanks for coming."


"Oh, Harry, don't be an idiot, you don't have to thank me," she said, touching the back of his head warmly. "Of course I'll come to see your games."


"You don't have to go," Ron whined, taking her hand and swinging it limply. "I miss you."


Hermione gave an indulgent, embarrassed smile. "You miss me."


Ron shrugged. "I guess."


"God, Ron," she said, touching a hand to his cheek. "That was almost sweet."


"I'm an almost sweet kind of guy," Ron replied, giving a half-grin. "When'll you come again?" He slid his hand from her waist to below her breast, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.


"Oh, Ron, sod off," she said, kissing him once and then pulling away. "I'll give you a Floo."


"You better," Ron said, letting Hermione drag him back inside, Ginny and Harry following.


With parting hugs and small kisses, Ginny and Hermione left in a burst of green flame and rush of cool air, ash and soot settling gently in their wake.


"So, champagne?" Ron asked, padding over to the kitchen, pulling out one of their gifted bottles of Pol Roger.


"Why not," Harry mumbled, taking a cold slice of pizza from the box left in the middle of the kitchen table. He watched as Ron unscrewed the metal cage, slowly pulled the cork out with a hollow pop.


"C'mon then," Ron said, taking a swig out of the bottle proper. "And bring the pizza."


They pushed their deck chairs together, balancing the pizza box between them. They passed the magnum of champagne back and forth, fizzy and sweat and sticky on their lips, eating their cold pizza in silence. Ron, bored, shot fireworks from the end of his wand, coloured orbs that broke apart in the air, raining sparks over the wet grass.


Harry took a deep draught from the bottle and came up empty. "We're finished," he said, placing the bottle on the ground.


"I'll get another one," Ron said, pushing himself out of the chair.


"We have more?"


"We got another case today," Ron said, shrugging. "From the French Minister for Magic."


"What is it?"


"Forget what it's called." In moments Ron was back, cradling a fat green magnum of Grand Siècle. "Um, Grand Sickle. I dunno, s'French."


With a bit more ceremony, Ron opened it, flicking the cork open with his thumbs, the frothy head of the champagne pouring from the mouth. Ron laughed and drank, pouring it down his chin and soaking his shirt with the sweet wine, laughing and passing it to Harry, wiping his face with the hem of his shirt.


Harry drank deeply, closing his eyes, throat tickled as the bubbly liquor filled his mouth and he drank.


Ron pulled off his shirt, champagne-soaked as it was, and approached Harry, grinning with the slightly dazed way he had with alcohol. Straddling Harry's hips (Harry laughed, gave an oomph as Ron sat with his weight on Harry's thighs) Ron took the bottle and drank again, spilling it clumsily down his chin, his chest, Harry's trousers.


"Great, I look like I've wet myself," Harry said, taking the bottle back for another drink.


"Take 'em off then."


"You're sitting on me," Harry said, taking another drink. "Berk."


"Idiot," Ron said, snatching the bottle back, drinking deeply again, tipping it high in the air and chugging it down like cheap beer.


"Supposed to savour it," Harry said, watching him in amusement.


"Am," Ron replied, wiping his mouth and giving a satisfied burp. "S'good." He put the bottle on the group and kissed Harry; they both tasted of the sickly sweet champagne, their lips sticky with the sugar and laughed against the other's lips, their lips melding and shifting as Ron leaned deeper into Harry.


"More champagne," Harry said, fumbling for the bottle, catching the neck in a hand and downing it quickly. "More champagne?"


"More champagne," Ron agreed, taking the bottle from Harry and drinking it down. As he did, Harry struggled to pull off his shirt, stuck under Ron's weight and awkward in the wooden chair. Ron laughed behind the bottle as Harry wriggled out of the flimsy T-shirt, tossing it away and lying relaxed back against the wood. "We should get cushions if we're gonna do this a lot," Ron said, handing the bottle back to Harry.


"Do what a lot?" Harry said, half-stubborn half-teasing.


Ron regarded him steadily for a moment. "Oh, nothing," he finally said, giving a knowing shrug.


When he leaned down, Harry was already there, hands up to link behind Ron's neck and pull them roughly together, hungry lips and teeth, sticky chests flush and wet with champagne and glory and sweat. Harry's glasses pressed sharply into Ron's cheeks, so Ron pulled them off and tossed them aside, giving a short snarl as he wrapped himself stronger around Harry's waist, angling their heads for a deeper kiss, his hands scratching Harry's chests, wrapping around to crawl between the back of the chair and Harry's shoulder blades, digging into the skin and ever-forcing them together.


"I'm serious," Harry hissed as Ron bent down to kiss Harry's jaw. "Take 'em off."


Ron gave a slight groan. "I'm comfortable," he whispered, leaning up to nip at Harry's ear.


"You'll feel more comfortable," Harry remarked, dragging his hands down to tug at the exposed elastic of Ron's boxers.


"Fine, fine," Ron said, reluctantly pulling away from Harry and the hot of their skin and the tension of their link. He stood up and undid his belt, shrugged off his jeans and boxer shorts with little ceremony. Naked, he helped Harry wriggle out of his jeans, pulling from the cuffs until the slid from his legs, Ron dropping them to the ground. Harry tugged off his boxers quickly, sort of embarrassed, his already-hard cock springing back against his stomach.


Ron carefully straddled his hips again, stopping just short of Harry's waist, their cocks hard in parallel as Ron bent down to bite at Harry's lips, his hand wrapping around the both of them, their warm cocks pressed together as he jerked them lazily, playing his tongue over Harry's teeth, flicking at the sharp point of his canines, laughing at Harry's hitched moans, at his trying to bite Ron's tongue playfully.


"What do you want, then?" Harry said, pulling away from their sharp kiss, wrapping his hand around Ron's cock and stroking him absently. "I think it's my turn."


"Something different," Ron said, angling his head slightly, twitching his eyebrows.


Harry was suspicious. "What different?"


Ron flushed at the words: "We can try -- you know."


Harry swallowed deeply. "Yeah?"


Ron gave an apologetic smile. "You wanna try it?"


"If you want," Harry shrugged slightly, his thin frame twisting slightly under Ron's grip. "It's just kind of weird -- talking about -- er, it."


Ron barked a laugh. "Fuck, I know. Let's just not talk."


"Okay."


Ron leaned down to kiss Harry's lips, his cheek, his jaw, his throat. And then he shifted slightly, sat up in the chair and shuffled awkwardly closer, so that he hovered over Harry's waist, Ron's cock pressed against the flat of Harry's stomach. He swallowed nervously. "So I just?"


"Aren't there -- things you do first?" Harry said, unable to look Ron in the face.


"I dunno," Ron said. "Isn't it just." Ron gave a nervous laugh. "Do we need, like, vaseline?"


"Don't have any," Harry said, running a finger over the length of Ron's cock, pressing into the short red hair behind it.


"There's, um, that lubricus spell," Ron said, steadying his hands behind Harry's neck.


"Eugh, that's like motor oil, Ron," Harry said, wincing. "For door hinges and stuff."


"Okay. So we just -- without?"


"I dunno," Harry said, going red even to his pale chest. "I've never done it."


"Er, we've got champagne?" Ron said, raising his eyebrows suggestively.


"You're disgusting," Harry said, laughing.


"Okay, how about --" and Ron spat heavily into his hand, and Harry made a sour face. "What? What else do we have?" he said, reaching back to grip Harry's cock, stroking him slightly.


"Fine, fine, just hurry up, you're cutting off circulation to my leg."


Ron spat in his hand again, wrapped it around Harry's cock. "Okay, ready?"


"If you are," Harry said, wrapping a hand around Ron's neck. "God, this is weird."


Slowly, Ron holding Harry's cock, he angled his hips and slid slowly down on it; his face was a shock of emotions, a teeth-grinding wince that gave way to hitched breaths and surprised, a flush flooding his cheeks as he leaned slowly into Harry.


Harry gasped with the heat and tightness of it, the undiluted pleasure that rushed through his veins, and he screwed his eyes closed, blind to Ron's winces and flinches, numb to anything but the furious glow that filled him.


"Ow -- fuck, ow," Ron said, gasping as he lowered himself ever slightly more. "Fucking -- fuck."


Harry half-opened his eyes. "You okay?" he mumbled, thrown back into another moan.


"Fucking hurts," Ron said. "Fucking -- bloody fuck."


"Want to stop?" Harry said, gasping as another spike of pleasure rushed through him.


"I -- fuck, just," and Ron moved slightly, rising and falling minutely on Harry's cock -- Harry groaned, writhing slightly under him, trying to get more of that addictive chemistry, more of that fire.


"Okay, fuck," Ron grunted, "I wanna stop."


"Stop, then," Harry said, a final groan as Ron pulled away, wincing as the cold caught him absent from Ron. Ron stepped away, wincing slightly, stretching for something to do. "Well, that went well," Harry said, protecting his cock with a hand around it.


"Not as fun as I thought," Ron said, smiling slightly.


"What was it like?"


"Like being - in pain," Ron said, crawling back over Harry to straddle his thighs, taking over for his hand and jerking Harry's cock slowly, regarding him thoughtfully. "You?"


"Pretty -- good, actually. Kinda like -- the real kind."


Ron nodded, and then leaned in to kiss Harry, this time a bit more gently. "Kind of a buzzkill," he said against his lips, shifting slightly to kiss him deeper.


"I guess," Harry said. "Wanna go inside and finish?"


Ron kissed him smartly. "Sure."


They gathered the empty bottles of champagne and the pizza box, dropping them on the kitchen counter. Harry dumped their clothes over one of the chairs and made for the stairs.


"Wait, more champagne," Ron said, pulling another magnum out of the fridge. "Hungry?"


"Just bring up some crisps," Harry said, crossing his arms impatiently.


"Always in a such a rush," Ron said, laughing, tossing the bag to Harry. "You gotta savour it."


Harry grimaced, laughing. "You're such a bastard."


Ron opened the champagne, peeling off the foil and tossing the metal cage into the sink. The cork ricocheted off the ceiling and struck the ground, bouncing and rolling to Harry's feet. "Okay, let's go," Ron said, taking a drink from the bottle.


They fell on Harry's bed, side by side, Ron still drinking from the bottle, leaning up against the head board, drinking and watching Harry slowly stroke his cock, taking off his glasses and place them on the bedside table.


"So," Harry said, turning slightly to Ron.


"So," Ron echoed, passing the bottle to Harry.


Harry took a drink and then passed it back. "Do you just want a -- y'know."


Ron chugged a significant portion of the champagne and put it on the bedside table. "I kinda wanted -- you know that thing you did? Could you -- er, do it again?"


Harry rolled on top of Ron, holding them inches apart, looking down at Ron's face. "Do what again?"


"Uh -- with -- your tongue."


Recognition dawned on Harry's face, and then a sly grin. "Oh?"


Ron writhed with embarrassment. "I mean, if you don't want to --"


"Go for it," Harry said, rolling off him again.


Ron, awkward and blushing, rolled on to his back, twisting around to try and get a proper look at Harry. "I mean, we don't need to --"


"Shut up, eh," Harry said, swatting the back of his head. Experimentally, Harry ran a hand along Ron's back, from the hair at the base of his neck, over his spine and smooth skin between his shoulder blades, down the curve of the small of his back and over him, resting just at the crease between his thigh and arse. "Relax," Harry said, feeling the tension of his muscles slowly unwind.


Suddenly grinning, Harry grabbed the bottle of champagne from the bedside table and, unseen by Ron, tipped it over his back; a thin stream of liquor poured over his shoulders, splashing the bedspread and pooling in the dimple at the small of his back.


"Fuck --" Ron said, squirming slightly, "s'cold."


"Hold still," Harry said, leaning down and slurping the champagne that collected on his skin.


"Tickles," Ron said, squirming a bit more.


Harry poured the champagne again, resting the lip of the bottle at the top of Ron's spine to watch the sparkling wine pour down his arched spine like a river rapids, kissing the alcohol and drinking what he could, the rest of it pouring into the blankets, sticky and wet against their skin.


"You're mental," Ron said, laughing.


Harry took a drink from the bottle and then set it on back on the table. "And sticky." He leaned down to kiss the top of Ron's arse. "Merlin, would you relax, Ron?"


"M'relaxing," Ron mumbled into the down of the pillow. "M'cold, though."


Harry slid further down the bed, his hands crawling down Ron's back to grip his thighs, pushing them apart slightly. "Okay?"


"Okay," Ron mumbled.


The first flick of his tongue sent Ron whimpering. Harry's kissed, and licked, curious as each movement made Ron react differently; a twitch, a whimper, a moan, a slight shift of the hips. Harry played to each action, drawing from him a string of whimpers, the slick of his tongue making Ron twist like an oyster with lime. Harry, almost experimentally, slid one finger into Ron, slick with spit, rolling it gently as Ron's moans grew louder.


"Better?" Harry whispered, biting the skin at the small of Ron's back, twisting his finger deeper.


"Yeah," Ron breathed, relaxing into Harry's touch.


Harry slipped his tongue back along the cleft of Ron's arse, a short lick that turned into a long press, deeper, flicking lightly against the sensitive skin. Harry could feel Ron shudder under his hands, the sharp shiver that became a groan; he could feel Ron grind slowly into the mattress, panting heavily as Harry's tongue played circles around him, flitting about and sending splinters of pleasure through his skin, through his blood.


"Harry," Ron murmured. Harry leaned up, and Ron turned on to his back. Ron's cheeks were in full flush, prickled red and hot, and he had a lulled, blissful expression on his face. "Merlin." His cock was hard, and Ron stroked it slowly, watched as Harry fumbled at his own erection, sliding his thin hands until it was hard in his grasp.


Harry to a swig of champagne, leaned down and kissed Ron shortly on the lips. His other hand curled around Ron's cock, now jerking in a more constant rhythm. Ron arched his back, pinioned by Harry's grip, and closed his eyes to the pleasure. Harry, smiling devilishly, tipped the champagne over Ron's chest; it fell on his breastbone, rolled from his smooth skin down to his navel, over his chest to his neck, down into his armpits and on the mattress. Ron gasped with the cold, and just arched more into Harry's hand, jerked into his rhythm. Harry poured the liquor into Ron's bellybutton, the drink rolling down his stomach, along the ridge of his hips, into the curl of his pubic hair and the warm shaft of his cock. Ron grunted again, twisted and forced himself faster into Harry's hand.


He didn't say anything, but the subtle rolls in his breath, the quick shifts and hitches told Harry that Ron was close. Harry gripped harder, moved faster, faster until Ron bucked one last time and came, fast and wet over his stomach, over Harry's hand and forearm. Harry slowed him down easily, rhythmic squeeze and roll of his hand slowing as Ron panted himself dry.


"Fuck," Ron said, eyes closed and smiling. "So good." He took Harry by the neck with one hand and drew him close in a kiss. "I'm all sticky, you wanker," he said, chewing Harry's lower lip gently.


"You wanted me to savour it," Harry breathed, leaning down to lick Ron's throat, where the champagne had flowed.


Ron extricated himself from Harry, sitting up in bed. They switched places easily, Harry lying back against the headboard, Ron crawling down to lie between his legs. Immediately Ron took Harry's cock in his mouth; truth be told, Harry felt close enough as it was, and the warm roll of tongue and teeth was enough to force Harry to buck, push more into Ron's mouth, looking for those last bursts of pleasure, enough to knock him off the edge.


Ron was fast and talented with his hands, his tongue, and Harry could already feel every muscle start to tighten in anticipation, that fission glowing in his chest.


"Ron," Harry murmured, grinding his head back into the headboard, bucking again into Ron's mouth. "I'm gonna --"


It was more than he could take, that trembling tension in his body, and finally Harry, giving one long groan, came. Ron's shaggy head was still bent over in him, licking and tempting; Ron pulled away slightly so the orgasm fell over his lips, stroking Harry to completion, lingering in their shared afterglow.


Ron rocked back on his heels; his lips were sealed tight, thin pearl of come spread over mouth and chin. He looked somewhere between laughing and slightly put off. Harry laughed and wiped it away with his hand, wiping Ron's mouth clean and then bite-kissing him shortly.


"Kinda gross," Ron said, wiping his mouth again with the back of his hand.


"Sorry," Harry said, pushing himself back up against the headboard. "Drink?"


Ron leaned forward to kiss Harry again, smashing their bodies together, all flush and sticky with champagne, pressing a grinning kiss into Harry's lips, angling slightly to catch him deeper, longer -- and then, in mid-kiss, Harry dumped the champagne over their heads. So cold, and the bubbles tickled skin where they clung and popped. Ron pulled away but still caught most of the shower, his red hair plastered to his skin, laughing and spraying Harry with booze, dripping over them and the pillows, the blankets.


Ron leaned back on his knees, standing straight and pushing his hair back. "Fucking tosser," he said, shaking his head like a dog and smiling.


Harry poured the rest of the liquor over his own head and chest, watched as it pooled in the small divot in his breastbone, soaking their sheets and blankets with expensive taste. "This was really stupid," he said, laughing. Leaning up too, he kissed Ron with champagne-wet lips, threading his hands through Ron's wet hair.


"Fun though," Ron added, standing up and shaking his head again, trying to get champagne out of his ear. "Bloody good fun."


Harry yawned. "C'mon, let's sleep in your bed, this one's all sticky."


Ron nipped into Harry's ensuite and threw him a towel, and they wiped themselves down, dripping champagne onto the carpet.


"Are we gonna do this every time you win a game?" Ron asked, tousling his hair with the towel, making the wet shag stand up in every direction.


"Only if we have enough champagne," Harry said, shrugging.


Ron nodded approvingly. "I'll drink to that."


Ron's bed, mostly disused except for the rare times when Hermione spent the night, was comfortable and dry, smelled wonderfully of Ron and a little of beer. The mattress, being a twin, was much smaller than Harry's, and so they were pressed closer together, not really a problem. Harry's lost Snitch, his winning Snitch, was fluttering up in the corners of Ron's room, flitting about like a trapped bird; Harry caught it deftly, kissed it, and released back into the hall where he heard it strike the wall gently in its random flight. Crawling into bed, Ron yawned into Harry's shoulder, nuzzled closer into the smooth skin of his arm. "I miss her," he said, drifting to sleep.


"Her?"


"Hermione," Ron said, slipping and arm over Harry's chest, holding him just under the arm pit.


"You love her, don't you?" Harry asked quietly.


"Course," Ron said, sounding pleased. "You too," he added quickly. "I mean, you love Ginny, don't you?"


"A lot," Harry replied, his voice sounding oddly wounded. "It doesn't -- bother you --"


"No," Ron said quickly. "Well, not as much. Not really anymore."


"Why?" Harry asked, all frowning and quiet. "Is it cause --"


"Sorta," Ron interrupted again. "Well, no. I mean, it's different though, ain't it?" Ron said, lazily kissing Harry's side, the slats of his ribs. "You're my best mate, and Hermione is --"


"Different, I know," Harry replied, playing a wet lock of Ron's hair around his finger.


"You know, right? I mean, we're us, and they're -- them."


"I know," Harry said.


"Being with you is like -- a big fuckin' firework," Ron mumbled, half-drunk and half-asleep. "But Hermione -- she's not all explosive and brilliant like us. She's cinders and coal, she's the slow burn, she goes on forever while we're --"


"Burning out?"


"Naw," Ron shrugged. "We're just stupid and dangerous." Harry laughed. "I mean, s'just us, isn't it?" Ron asked, leaning up slightly to look Harry in the eye. "All of -- this. Just us."


"It'll go back to normal," Harry said, quietly, "but this is good."


Ron mumbled, "I know."


"But it's just us being -- us," Harry spoke, almost to himself. "Just us with -- er, extras."


"Benefits," Ron replied.


"Just us with benefits," Harry said, liking the taste of it in his mouth.


"S'just, I always wanted -" Ron said indistinctly. "Ever since -- the locket. Always wanted us."


"Mates, yeah?" Harry asked, trying to settle his churning mind.


"Just us," Ron confirmed, sounding mostly asleep


"Contra mundum," Harry murmured, not for the first time.


"Wassat mean?" Ron mumbled, settling firmer against Harry's side.


"Against the world. Just us against the world."


"Conta mundo?"


"Mundum."


"Contra mundum," Ron repeated distantly. "I like it."


*


One celebratory Snitch became two, and then four. Each win and another little gold orb flitted about their cottage like a lost budgerigar, dodging around Ron and Harry's head at breakfast, interrupting deep kisses and laughing handjobs, getting stuck in Hermione's thick hair when she came over for dinner. Ginny liked the look of them, and Harry gave her a couple for her room at home, almost as if they were new-born kittens to be given away.


June passed in Quidditch wins and headlines, mandatory interviews with newspapers and tributes sent by the owl-load. Unsurprisingly, they were soon accompanied by Howlers and death threats; teams who had been flattened by Harry's prodigious performance soon grew to loathe the Wolves and the attention they were getting in the international press. The fans far outweighed the detractors, however, and the champagne continued to flow like water.


"Fifth win, Quidditch boy," Ron said, taking off his sunglasses and tucking his hands in his back pockets.


Harry grinned and waved goodbye as the rest of the Wolves, shower-fresh and glowing from their fifth straight victory Disapparated to celebrations beyond, taking their backslaps and congratulations in stride. "Was a fluke," Harry said, finally alone and giving Ron an indulgent hug, despite his sweaty Quidditch robes. "Sorry I was late, idiot from the Prophet wouldn't let me by without answering some more stupid questions."


"Well, it was your fifth bloody fluke," Ron said, still beaming like a child. "Ginny wanted to say hi, but she's gone home to go pick up Charlie from the train station."


"Charlie's back?"


"For the weekend, yeah yeah" Ron rushed, as if trying to push the subject along, his grin fading into a kind of luxuriant smile. "Now, er, the changerooms," Ron said, nodding deliberately at the closed door. "They're kinda empty now, huh?"


Harry snorted. "I guess so."


"Those Quidditch robes must be really hard to unlace," Ron continued, frowning with concentration, fiddling at the toggles of Harry's shorts. "And I know you're a clumsy twit, making me lace your boots up every time you need to go out --"


Harry laughed, smirked, turned back to the changerooms. "C'mon then, I'd like to get some dinner soon, I'm starving."


Five wins became seven, became nine, and July faded with each one. Though Harry and Ron tried to keep a low profile as the attention grew to an increasingly mad apex, Ron's familiar Wayfarer sunglasses flashing from the Friends box became something of a sensation in The Daily Prophet, subject of parody and pastiche. Surrounded by his family, Ron never lived it down: "Our own little trendsetter," Bill said, tousling his hair affectionately, "So when's your spread in Vogue, Twiggy?"


The summer days were dry and searing hot, and Combe was as quiet as ever; Harry would often get lost in long walks along rivers, to come back to Ron getting drunk on the patio, to join him for card games and dinner, to lie in the long grass beside him, threading a small hand under the elastic of his boxers, biting the tender lobe of Ron's ear. Days without practice would stretch long and sleepy in sun-warmed fields, stripped naked by Ron's confident hands, lazily exchanging favours as the shadows grew long, content to drink beer and sleep and wake up and orgasm, and sleep again.


"Did I come last or you?" Ron asked, stretching in this radiant midday sun, scratching the side of his thigh.


"You, I think," Harry said, downing the last of his beer, lying back in the warm grass. "You ready for another go?"


"I was gonna get some lunch and some more beer. We've got Chinese from last night, don't we?"


"Think so," Harry said, his head buzzing wonderfully. "And bring out that beer the Dutch Minister sent us, I wanna try it. The West Velvet stuff."


Ron laughed. "Westvleteren. It's Belgian, mate."


"That's it," Harry said, shielding his eyes from the sun to watch Ron's naked form retreat into the kitchen, to return with a couple dark bottles of Trappist beer and the square Styrofoam container of Chinese food. Ron placed them in the grass, grinned and crawled over Harry's naked body, kissed his stomach, his ribs, his nipple, his neck. He took an open bottle of Trappist beer and drank from it, Ron's boozey breath all sweet with ale. Ron laughed and poured some beer into Harry's open mouth, kissing his wet lips and drinking again from the bottle.


"Food first," Harry groaned, nudging Ron away, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "We've got all day, mate."


Harry's eighteenth birthday passed with a lot of fanfare in the papers and a quiet evening at the Burrow. Private and warm, surrounded by red-heads and old friends, a home-cooked meal and Ginny's hand trapping his under the table, squeezing it slightly, her soft smile and hair that smelled of fruit shampoo. A set of fireworks from George, a book about high-performance brooms from Ron, dragon-hide Seeker gloves from Hermione, and, from the Weasleys, Sirius' repaired motorcycle, all blood-red and pristine. Ginny's present came later that night.


August gave way to more Quidditch, the run up to the end-of-season tournaments; practice became more intense, the games more ruthless. No longer was Harry winning by a wide margin, he had to fight for every opportunity, race for every dive, every win. First heat became round of sixteen, became quarter-finals, became semi-finals, became finals. Close calls inspired longer training sessions, late in the night, and Harry would often come home to find an empty house, short note pinned to the fridge (At pub with mates -- R.) only to be woken up at three in the morning as Ron, smelling of booze and cigarettes, crawled into bed, his marble-cold skin shocking against Harry's back.


"Ron, you stink," Harry said sleepily, shrugging away from his grasping arms.


"Weed," Ron murmured, kissing the back of Harry's neck, his hands stringing around his naked waist. "Seamus' idea. You were brilliant today," he added, licking slightly a knot of Harry's spine.


"I've got to get up early," Harry said, sliding out of bed, pulling on a discarded pair of boxer shorts. "I'll take your bed, I don't want to wake you."


"S'fine," Ron said, turning slowly on his back, fingering his cock lazily. "I wanna."


"Ron, I've got finals," Harry said shortly. "I'm gonna go."


"S'finals tomorrow?" Ron slurred.


"You knew that," Harry said, turning impatiently.


"Yeah," Ron murmured, nodding his head from side to side languidly. "Course."


Harry watched him for a moment, Ron's spread-eagled legs and fucked up mind, smooth-sweet body and bleary eyes. "It starts at ten," Harry said, stretching and extinguishing the bedroom light. "I'll send Hermione to get you."


"I'll wake up," Ron mumbled.


"Kinda fucked up," Harry said, raising an eyebrow.


"I wanna see you win," Ron mumbled, turning into the pillow and snuffling deeply. "Everyone's coming," he mumbled. "Wanna see you. Wanna mess you up," he said, his eyes closed, his grin wide.


"I'm seeing Ginny tomorrow," Harry said, shrugging.


"Tell 'er to fuck off," Ron said bluntly. "I want you to m'self."


"Night," Harry finished quickly.


"Love you," Ron mumbled indistinctly.


"Yeah," Harry said, closing the door behind him.


*


Harry's hands were trembling; he was holding Ron's Warfarer sunglasses and he was trembling with nerves. Ron was kneeling at his feet, tying the laces of his leather Paddock boots as tight as possible, grunting as he crossed the laces and pulled them taut. Other players were scattered about the room, going through their normal rituals: Esther pulled on her lucky knee-high socks; Antonio crossed himself, fingering slightly the crucifix that hung in his locker; Atticus naked and hanging his head over a bowl of hot water, inhaling the steam deeply.


Finished, Ron stood up and grinned, his arms akimbo. He was bare-chested, dressed only in knee-length black shorts, but his bare skin slashed up with green and white paint, diagonal lines like a rugby shirt crossed over his broad chest and around to his back; his face was green and white in a model of St. George's cross, the crosshatch over the tip of his long nose. "You ready, then?"


"Nervous," Harry whispered, handing back the cheap sunglasses.


"Harry, you've nineteen and oh record," Ron said, gripping his neck slightly. "You'll do fine."


"I know, I know," Harry said, rolling his shoulders and nodding his head from side to side, trying to get the cricks out of his neck. "It's just. It's not that -- it's something else," he said, his breath hitching slightly. "Fuck, I'm nervous."


"It's just one more," Ron said reasonably, starting to lace Harry's forearm pads. "And then a few months off. We should go somewhere," he said, biting his tongue as he pulled tight the leather laces.


"Ten minutes, Harry," Atticus called out.


"Cheers," Harry said, swallowing a rather large lump in his throat, his hands twitching visibly.


"You'll do all right," Ron soothed. "It's just cause it's your first season. You'll be fine in February."


"I haven't signed on for another season," Harry said, watching Ron work.


"Yeah, but signing doesn't start 'til after the finals," Ron said, motioning for Harry's other arm, starting to thread the laces there.


"About that --" Harry paused. "I don't know if it's that easy."


"Course it is," Ron said, nodding. "You're top of the leaderboard. Hell, you'd probably be offered a Premiership position if they weren't just ending their season. January, mate, and they'll all be vying for you."


Harry smiled for a fraction of a second. "I dunno." Ron finished the second pad; Harry struck them together experimentally. "Cheers," he said, tucking the ends of the laces under the pad, and then added: "Fuck I'm nervous."


Ron laughed, rolled his hand to Harry's cheek, his thumb over Harry's lips. "You'll do fine." Glancing quickly from side to side, he leaned forward and caught Harry's mouth in a tight kiss. "Ginny and Hermione want me to paint their faces," he finished, sliding his hand from Harry's face to punch him stoutly in the shoulder. "You're okay here?"


"Fine, thanks," Harry said, flushing slightly. "Who else is coming?"


"Just mum and dad in our box," Ron said, shrugging. "Ginny and Hermione, of course. And probably the entire school," he added, grinning. "You'll do fine, just relax."


Harry breathed out deeply. "Just relax," he intoned.


"You'll do fine," Ron said, watching him like an older brother.


"I'll do fine," Harry echoed.


"And if worse comes to worse -- er, this is where my advice runs out." Ron grinned. "But seriously mate, you lose and I'm never talking to you again."


"Cheers," Harry said sharply, but ghosting a smile.


"Harry Potter?"


The name jerked Harry away from Ron's grin; one of the security guards had stepped into the changeroom, a burly man though his expression was concerned. "I've got someone who needs to see you, seems urgent."


"Who is it?"


"Dunno. Ginger girl."


"Let her in," Harry said, trading confused glances with Ron.


Ginny ran into the changerooms, a blur of green and white and red; tears were streaming from her terrified face. "Harry -- Ron!" she gasped, running to hug her brother tightly.


"What's wrong?"


"George," she gasped, crying openly into Ron's shoulder the attention of the change room turned to her, "he's just been brought to hospital." She peeled away from Ron and grabbed his hand, sounding more and more hysterical. "Come on, we've got to go! For fuck's sake, come on!"


"Harry --" Ron choked out, his eyes flashing terrified, "we --"


Harry froze for a second, his mind racing. Harry met eyes with Ron, his breath tight, and nodded; he tore off his robes and pads, dropped them on the bench, tore the laces out of his undershirt and pulled that off as well. Bare-chested, Harry grabbed a loose T-shirt and slung it over his shoulder: "Let's go."


"Harry!" Atticus bellowed. "What the fuck are you doing?"


"Emergency," Harry bit off. "I'm going."


"THE FUCKING FINALS IN TEN MINUTES," Atticus roared. "YOU CAN'T FUCKING LEAVE!"


"Antonio needs some practice," Harry called back, jogging out of the changing room. "Put him on."


Atticus' screams were drowned out as Harry followed Ron and Ginny outside the stadium and into a crowd of paparazzi; cameras flashed with clouds of purple smoke, reporters jabbed foam-headed wands into Harry's face, acid-green quills sketched furiously over parchment. Ron and Ginny barreled through the crowd, Harry following them with little concern, shoving cameramen and journalists out of his way in pursuit, even landing a hard rugby tackle on Rita Skeeter as they ran outside the magic field cast by the stadium, far enough to grasp Ginny's hand and Disapparate --


- to land suddenly outside a castle-like building Harry could only assume was the real St. Mungo's, not the magic-fronted façade they had used to visit Mr. Weasley a few years before. It was an excessively beautiful structure for a hospital; a former Cistercian abbey, long and tall, vaulted with innumerable doors and archways, the largest of which labeled as the trauma department, the archway's keystone flashing a constant red siren. A mess of people were Apparating and Disapparating in a small field in front of the building; people on stretchers, levitated behind blue-jacketed dispatch healers, worried-looking families, white-clothed healers carrying parcels and coolers, all of them hurrying quickly inside.


Ron, Ginny, and Harry ran through the open double-doors and into the waiting room, a sterile white chamber with walls made of reflective glass, so much different to the chaotic reception area Harry had expected. There were no cheerful portraits of famous healers here, no soap-bubbles filled with candles lighting the room, only cold and clean synthesis, barely a breath of comfort. Hermione was standing anxiously at the secretary's counter, gave a cry of relief as Ron came through the door, wrapping her in a tight hug, smearing his body paint on her clean shirt.


"What's going on?" Ron asked urgently, his face stark white.


"They won't t-tell me," Hermione stuttered, crying. "Mr. and Mrs. Weasley have g-gone inside, but they won't let me in," she gasped, holding Ron tighter.


"What happened to George?" Harry asked, shock-still, his voice oddly hollow.


"I don't know, I just got -- dad sent me a Patronus, just said George was in hospital, told me to c-come quick, and then I came to get you," Ginny spoke rapidly, tears spilling down her cheeks. She held Harry's hand with a vice-grip, looking close to breaking. He hugged her tight, for lack of something to do.


"I need to see him --" Ron told the secretary. "Weasley, I'm his brother."


"I'm sorry," the ruddy faced witch behind the counter said. "The room is full, the healers need their space and your parents have gone in --"


"I NEED TO SEE HIM!" Ron bellowed, tears ignored as they fell from his eyes, cutting a clean line through the green and white face paint.


Harry grabbed Ron's shoulders, tugged him away from the shocked secretary. "Please," he said in Ron's place, "they're his siblings."


"I'm sorry," the secretary said, sounding close to tears herself. "It simply can't be done."


"Can you tell us what's going on at least?" Harry choked out, still holding tightly to Ron's shoulder, his hand green with paint.


The secretary paused for a moment. "Weasley?" Harry nodded, and the secretary flicked her wand at a clipboard hidden behind her desk. "He's in intensive care. I'm -- I'm sorry," she struggled to say, "I'll try and give you updates. For now -- please, just, wait here, there's nothing else you can do."


Ron lost the last of his colour and, dizzy, fell into a waiting room chair, next to where Hermione was clutching a sobbing Ginny. Harry stood in front of Ron awkwardly, reaching forward only to think better of it, withdrawing his nervous hand to rest it by his side. He glanced around the busy room; an anxious-looking wizard in the far corner, his knee bouncing rapidly, a family stood against the wall spoke in hushed tones, a woman was feeding her baby with a small plastic spoon, and in the middle of the room were three old witches huddled around a wireless as it played the shipping forecast in a ritualistic monotone ("- Fisher German Bight northerly five, occasionally six at first; moderate, fair, good.") Harry tried in vain to keep his mind on the forecast instead of the wretched guilt, the terror that gnawed at his heart.


"Harry?" Ron choked, barely able to look up. "Can you help me clean off?" He gestured lamely at the paint smeared on his face, his chest, as if for the first time realizing how ridiculous he looked.


"Course," Harry said. He followed Ron to bathrooms in silence, down a sterile white corridor into a clean, empty men's washroom. Harry opened the faucets to full and unhooked a fresh roll of paper towels from the dispensers. Ron stood in front of him like a dichromatic clown, his face dead slack and empty of emotion.


Harry wet a wad of paper towel and began to clean Ron's shoulders; the water dripped coloured down his torso, running through the paint and staining the waistband of his shorts. Ron's pale skin shone through the paint, freckles emerging from the smear of green like stars in a twilit sky. Ron stayed frozen as Harry removed the paint from his chest, his arms, his back; a mound of paint-stained paper towels grew at their feet. Harry tugged the hem of Ron's shorts down to clean up the paint left on his waist; maybe it was the intimacy, but Ron finally spoke, excessively quiet: "What do you think?"


"What do I think?"


"What's wrong with George."


The calm, quiet, brightly-lit bathroom was almost a haven to the chaos of the waiting room, and it took Harry a moment to clue in to what Ron was saying: "I don't know -- I'm sure he'll -- I'm sure it's gonna be fine, though." Wetting another folded square of towel, Harry hooked a finger under Ron's chin and gently tipped his face up to meet Harry's. Behind the paint, Ron's eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, his lips as red as blood, the tracks of his tears frighteningly pale.


Harry wiped at his cheek with the folded paper towels; the paint easily came off, and Harry bit his lip as he worked.


"It's my fault," Ron said, a daring whisper.


"It isn't," Harry said automatically, wiping the facepaint from Ron's temples.


"It is." Ron's voice built in momentum with every word he spoke, reciting it like a trance, like the shipping forecast: "I was the one who said no. I wanted -- I wanted to be with you -- he asked me to help him --"


"It's not your fault," Harry said firmly, though his chest stung all the same.


"- I told him I didn't want to help -- he needed my help, he turned to me --"


"Ron, we did what we could," Harry said, swiping the stain from Ron's forehead, delicately down into the wells beside his eyes, beside his long nose and over his red lips.


"- after -- after Fred, he needed a brother, and I was gone --"


"And so were Charlie, and Bill, and Percy," Harry countered, sounding slightly desperate.


"- but I was here, here doing fuck all --"


"Ron, it wasn't anything you did, you couldn't have known --"


"Couldn't have know what!?" Ron suddenly roared. "Couldn't have know that he'd try to kill himself?!"


Harry winced. "We don't know --"


"He's here because of me!" Ron finally broke, his incandescent roar becoming nothing more than a croak, a desperate plea in the back of his throat. "I wasn't there."


Ron collapsed and Harry was ready to catch him; they sank to their knees, Ron balling his fists in the front of Harry's T-shirt, crashing his face against Harry's shoulder to sob uncontrollably, a raw wail searing his throat. Ron held him like he was drowning, clinging to Harry like the last anchor at hand, like the final tether before he was lost at sea. Harry's hands were strong around Ron, right threading into his hair and pressing Ron's head closer, left curling over Ron's shoulder, squeezing the muscle there tightly. Ron let loose another roar of pan, his throat breaking like a child, his pain was terrifying, and all Harry could do was hold him tighter, there in the bathroom, surrounded by paint-stained paper towels, there in his rough-canvas Quidditch shorts and annoyingly tight-laced boots, there with his best mate of seven years.


Ron's sobs gave way to gasps and sniffs, to relaxing in Harry's arms, quiet and calming but still holding him for dear life. "You tried to tell me." Ron hiccoughed slightly. "You wanted me to move out. You were right."


"Shut up," Harry said fiercely. "Fuck, Ron, it's not your fault." He stroked the back of Ron's hair slowly, flattening it along his smooth neck. "I know how you feel," Harry continued. "Sirius, Dumbledore, Fred... my parents -- it was all my fault. They died to protect me. It would have killed me inside, but you have to realize," and Harry swallowed deeply, his breath suddenly hitching, "it's not your fault. Everyone has a choice. People do what they want to do, and it's no one's fault."


Ron was silent for a long time. Slowly, he fell away from Harry, wiped his face with his hands, angrily pushing away the tears. Paint still lined the tiny creases of his face; the crook of his nose, the small lines at the corner of his eyes. Ron stood, hand still bunched up at Harry's collar, the neck of his shirt now stretched out wide. He looked Harry in the face once, contemplating Harry's worried expression, the concern liquid in his eyes. Simultaneously, they walked forwards and hugged, Harry gripping the wet skin of Ron's back.


Ron turned to the sink, cupping his hands under the rushing water to splash it over his face. Though his eyes were still puffy and red, and his skin sallow with worry, the paint washed away to leave him fresh and young and impossibly Ron. Harry touched a hand to his cheek, sliding into the thick of Ron's hair, teasing a lock gently. "Let's go back."


"I can't wait in there."


Harry pulled off his T-shirt, tossed it to Ron. "Wear this. I'll go and find something else." He landed his lips on the corner of Ron's mouth. "It's not your fault."


"I need to help him," Ron said distantly. "I need to be there for him."


"You do," Harry agreed, picking an invisible piece of lint from Ron's shoulder. "Go wait for him."


Ron gave a tight nod and left.


Harry found a hooded sweatshirt in the gift shop; red with St. Mungo's coat of arms stitched on the breast pocket (a crossed wand and bone.) Stonily silent and pale faced, Hermione, Ginny, and Ron were still sitting in the waiting room when Harry returned.


"He's still in intensive care," Ginny said quietly as Harry sat beside her, taking her hand in his. "He's been there for almost an hour."


"He'll be fine," Harry assured her, but feeling the knot in his stomach twist anyway.


"What if he --"


"He didn't," Harry said. "He told me before, he was okay."


"It's just - he misses Fred so much," Ginny said, her voice breaking again. "They were --"


"Ginny, he'll be all right, I promise." Harry paused for a moment. "I love you."


"I know," Ginny said swiftly (her lips twitching slightly), "but we can talk about that later."


"I love you, though." Somehow, the panic in Harry's chest seemed to melt somewhat, replaced by a warm glow, the pleased growl of a monster in his chest.


The afternoon stretched on forever; minutes like hours, hours like years. The three witches who had been listening to the shipping forecast eventually left, the wireless sitting quiet and unused. Harry dialed it quietly over to sports: "- the Wolves are really pulling out all the stops. Being down their star player has got to hurt, but they're clawing back the lead slowly as we enter the fourth hour of this epic match. Essex United are leading 380 to 330 as play resumes --" Harry switched it off.


"What are they going to do?" Ginny whispered.


"Chuck me out, I suppose," Harry said thoughtfully.


"But it was -- is an emergency."


"It's all right," Harry said, touching a hand to her hair. "I just want to be here."


She ghosted a smile before falling back into familiar stoniness.


Ron began checking at the help desk every ten minutes for updates; the secretary wore the same sympathetic expression each time as she told him that George was still in intensive care.


"It's been four hours," Ron choked out, feeling that familiar wash of guilt sweep over him. "Can't we just --"


The secretary shook her head ruefully. "I'm sorry, my hands are tied..."


"Does anyone want anything to eat?" Harry spoke, his voice uneven in the silence. "There are some pasties in the shop."


Ginny and Ron nodded, and Hermione said: "I'll come with you."


They walked the empty white hallways together. Hermione snaked her fingers into Harry's palm, and so they held hands, tightly, through the hospital until they reached the small gift shop. The place was filled with mugs and flags and shirts all bearing St. Mungo's coat of arms, pens and pencils and notebooks, wandholders and keychains too. In the far corner was a small refrigeration unit filled with sandwiches in cellophane and mixed salads in plastic containers.


"Marks & Spencer," Hermione said, giving a slight smile as she picked up a packaged sandwich. "Even wizards can't get away."


They bought a few pasties, a few sandwiches, a few bottles of coke and lemonade. With their plastic bags in their hands, Hermione and Harry walked back together, through the portrait-lined hallways of the fifth floor, back down to the hellish waiting room.


"Hermione," Harry said, lingering on the word, halting before the lifts.


"Yeah?"


Harry took a deep breath. "Me and Ron -- we've --" he stumbled on the words, struggled to think of something to say. "We've been --"


"I know," Hermione said quietly. "I know about -- you. I mean, I've always known."


"You knew?" Harry asked, paling.


"It's okay," she said tightly. "I know he needs you."


"It's not like that," Harry said quietly, nervously swinging his plastic bag around. "It's not that -- easy."


"No, I know it isn't," Hermione said, her cheeks going pink, her lip trembling slightly. "It's just, you two --"


"We're not."


"You aren't?" she asked, sounding somewhat skeptical.


"It's -- we aren't actually... he loves you," Harry struggled to speak, trying to find a version of the story she could properly understand. "He really loves you."


"I know he does," Hermione replied easily, "and I know he needs you too. He always has. I knew that. I know that."


"Whatever it was, I think it's over," Harry said quietly.


"You've ended it?" Hermione asked, lips tilted curiously.


"Not exactly," Harry said, giving a shrug. "It's just at an end."


"It's never going to end," Hermione murmured, smiling slightly. "We're all going to be together. The four of us, I mean. And you and Ron." She touched Harry's cheek, a goddess forgiving all. "And me and Ron." She leant forward and kissed his cheek sweetly. "And you and me."


"You're not angry?"


"Maybe once," she said. "Over the years. But you and Ron are just something I came to accept." She tossed back her frizzy hair, curled it over one ear. "Sometimes I'm just not part of that boys club. I know that now."


"I'm sorry," Harry offered.


"Sorry for what?" Hermione said with finality, tucking her free hand with his. "Harry, I love you. As much as I love Ron."


"I love you too," Harry said firmly.


They hugged, tightly, and Harry could feel the wet of Hermione's tears cool on his bare neck. The moment held, warm and together, and almost despite himself Harry began to cry silently into Hermione's neck, rocking shortly with quiet sobs that Hermione held him close, her hand at his neck.


Harry sniffed sharply and pulled away, wiping the wet from his cheeks quickly, clearing his throat like nothing had happened. "Let's go back."


Hermione nodded. They linked hands.


They ate. They threw out their rubbish. They linked hands in silent prayer, in hope and panic. Ron rested his head on Harry's shoulder, his hands linked with Hermione; Ginny balanced her elbows on her knees, resting her chin in her hands, jiggling her legs anxiously, Harry's hand rubbing her back slowly.


Five o'clock slipped through their fingers. The wait was no longer excruciating, but long and numb, chilling them every time Ron got up to search for an update, only to be rebuffed with a familiar answer. Six o'clock followed, and Ron held Harry's hand tightly, sharing him with Ginny's firm grip, the four of them huddled so tightly they might have well been braving a typhoon.


And then Harry looked up. And Ron looked up. Ginny and Hermione blinked awake. The trauma room door swung open, the clear glass panels leading to the emergency rooms parted, and George walked through, pale and weary but smiling a little.


"Well, he's all right now," George said.


He was swept in a sobbing hug, Ginny and Ron and Harry and Hermione, a flurry of arms of shouts of disbelief, cries of fear and pain dispelled by George's hearty laugh and long, freckled arms.


"What the hell, I'm okay, I'm okay," George said, trying to peel them off. "Bloody hell, gerroff, I said he was fine."


"What the fuck are you saying," Ron yelled from behind tears, wiping them away viciously. "Are you okay -- what have you -- what did you do?"


"Calm down, Ron," George said, and then turned to Ginny, touching her shoulder firmly, "calm down. Merlin, I said he was all right, didn't I?"


"Who?" Ginny gasped. "Who's all right? What are you --"


"Bill," George said, now looking truly alarmed. "Hell, that's why you're here, right?"


"But you're -- you're not -- we're here because you were in hospital," Ron said, trying to catch what breath he had, not willing to let go of George's sleeve, his arm. "We thought you were --"


"Me?" George said, dumb-founded. "Bill's here -- Bill collapsed, I thought -- you came here cause dad said --"


"- you were in hospital," Ginny said, her voice calming somewhat, though she too held tightly to the hem of George's shirt, as if he might disappear at any instant. "We thought you were --"


"No," George said, still quite shocked, "I found Bill at his house, having a seizure. I brought him here. I told dad to get you," he said. "I -- I'm fine, it's Bill --"


Ron and Ginny hugged George again, tight enough to hitch his breath, their mouths digging into the bare skin of his neck, their desperation sublimating into exhaustion and relief.


"Is he okay?" Ron gasped, finally relaxing his grip on George's person. "Is Bill okay?"


"He's okay," George said, touching Ginny's shoulder, grasping Ron's hand shortly. "It was something to do with the half-werewolf thing. They think he might have had a bad dose of Wolfsbane -- he's been taking it as a precaution," George said, shrugging. "Prepared badly, it can be like a poison."


"So he's okay?" Ginny asked, the last of her tears drying, the trembling of her hands leveling. "You're okay?"


"Yeah," George said, obviously still reeling. "You can go see him if you want."


Harry, Hermione, and Ginny walked away slowly, hugging George again before pushing through the double doors, that shining-clear glass to the rooms beyond. Ron lingered behind, drew George in for a powerfully tight hug, gripping the back of his shirt, planting a kiss full on his lips.


"I'm sorry," Ron offered shortly, murmuring something else, inaudible and warm.


"Don't be sorry," George said, swatting his brother away easily. "Just go see Bill."


"It's just --" Ron steadied himself, rocking slightly on his feet. "I thought -- we thought you -- killed yourself," he finished quietly.


"Killed myself?" George asked, sounding more amused than anything. "Really?"


"I -- left you," Ron choked out, turning away sharply, shoving his hands in his pockets.


"You think highly of yourself," George remarked, smiling. Ron looked up with a fractured, wounded expression and George immediately backtracked: "Only kidding, Ron. You didn't leave me. I was - selfish asking you to leave."


"I should have --"


"There's no shame," George said quietly, "in loving someone more than they love you."


Ron nodded shortly, his voice failing him. He squeezed George's hand shortly, then sighed. "God, when I thought you were -- y'know. I just, I saw everything better."


George shrugged. "It happens."


"I miss --" Ron said, sniffling slightly. "I miss being brothers."


"It's okay," George said, as quiet as he was awkward. "We've got time."


"I'm sorry I can't be Fred," Ron said, even more quietly.


"You just be Ron," George said firmly. "That's who I want."


Ron nodded again, sniffing sharply. "God, I thought I lost you --"


"You didn't," George said, frowning in concentration. "You never will."


Ron held George tightly again, wrapped in the warmth of his arms, the comfort of his smell (gunpowder, fabric softener, maybe the unknowing crackle of magic.) "I'm sorry."


"Can we stop talking about our feelings now?" George said, though not letting go of Ron. "I feel like a girl."


"I'm sorry," Ron said again, his lips pressed into George's neck.


"No worries," George said, rubbing the back of Ron's neck roughly, tousling his shaggy red hair. "It's okay, Ron. Really. It's okay." He kissed Ron's forehead. "Let's go see Bill."


*


Ron fell next to Harry, bouncing slightly on the couch, a beer in each hand. He passed one off and said: "You won."


"I know," Harry said, taking the bottle and drinking deeply, bitter and sweet fragrant on his lips. "710 to 550. Antonio came through in the clutch."


"Bastard," Ron said softly.


"Somewhat," Harry agreed, taking another draught. "But getting better."


"That's a full season, undefeated," Ron said, tucking a hand behind his head. "You did it." Ron sounded more satisfied than celebratory. He flicked his wand and the closed windows flew open, cool night air rushing through their house, ruffling slightly their hair. "You're on your way to the Premiership now, eh?"


"Not quite," Harry said. "I quit."


"You what?"


"I quit," Harry said again, his voice as firm and confident as anything. "Atticus wasn't pleased. But I quit." He slid slowly down the couch to rest his head on Ron's shoulder. "Atticus wasn't -- pleased. But I quit." He slid slowly down the couch and rested his head on Ron's shoulders. I've joined up with the Ministry. Auror," he clarified, raising his beer in silent toast. "I join the boys in black in September."


Ron turned to look at his friend, shock turning to slow comprehension. "Really?" He could feel Harry shrug beside him. "Auror, huh?"


"I talked with Kingsley, he wants me to head the new fledgling force of Aurors. People of our generation," Harry explained, shrugging. "So I said yes."


"So, that's it, then? Our house? Oxford?"


Harry shrugged, swallowing another mouthful of beer. "I'm moving to London." He touched Ron's knee fleetingly with the bottom of his beer bottle. "You can come too."


Ron was silent for a moment, drinking his own beer, and then he said, calmly, almost confidently: "Cheers. But no."


"No?"


"I mean, I'm going to London too," Ron said, twitching noncommittally. "Just not -- with you."


Harry gave a curious smile. "Where?"


"George," Ron offered simply. "I'm moving in with George. We're going to work together." Ron slid his free arm around Harry's shoulder, resting loosely against his bicep. "Don't say I told you so."


"I wouldn't," Harry said, still smiling. "That's good."


"We'll still see each other though," Ron added quickly. "And Hermione, and Ginny."


"Always," Harry said. "And there's always a spot open for you."


Ron kissed Harry's neck lazily. "So what happens to us, then?"


"Us?" Harry asked thoughtfully, staring blankly at the ceiling. "We just -- go."


"But that's it? We're done now?"


Harry shook his head shortly, confidently. "No."


Ron quirked an eyebrow. "No?"


"We just go on," Harry said simply. "We just change again. We're just us, no matter where we go."


Ron shrugged. The air was cool and goose pimples roared up his arms, along his neck and back. His free hand caught Harry's haphazardly, and they linked fingers. "Just us, best mates?"


"Course," Harry said, choosing his words with fierce care. "I love you."


"Took you long enough," Ron said acidly, though smiling all the same.


"Shut up," Harry said, elbowing Ron sharply. "It just means more if I don't say it every thirty seconds."


Ron sighed. "I'm never going to get rid of you, am I?"


"The famous Harry Potter?" Harry said with mock bravado. "Never."


They sat together in silence, linked all with arms and hands, bodies and boys, and from time to time they'd press tired kisses into warm skin along necks and collars, palms and wrists. Two beers became four, and they nestled sleepily into the couch, murmuring plans and promises, until Ron suggested sleep.


"I guess," Harry said. "What time is it?"


"Nearly two," Ron said, glancing quickly at his watch. "What are you doing tomorrow?"


"Looking for a flat, I guess. And selling this place."


"God I hate packing," Ron cursed.


"We'll get Ginny and Hermione to help," Harry suggested, sliding his last empty bottle next to Ron's on the coffee table. "Before they go back."


"Well, you've got to come see mum tomorrow," Ron said, yawning. "She wants a family dinner now that Bill's out of hospital."


Harry shrugged. "All right." He twisted slightly in Ron's grip. "And just, one thing, while we're here."


"Yeah?"


"The glasses." Harry gestured with his foot to the folded pair of Wayfarer sunglasses sat on the coffee table. "Get rid of the glasses, they make you look retarded."


Harry's bed was hard, and clean, and the windows were open to the sound of August crickets and the whip of the wind through the trees. Harry collapsed to the bed, pulling off his shirt, dressed only in his dark boxer shorts as he crawled under the blankets. Ron slid in after him, unbuttoning his shirt and throwing it on the floor, his shorts falling with a clank, the blankets drawn under his armpits and cutting a soft line through his chest.


"Goodnight," Harry said, turning to plant a faint kiss on Ron's shoulder.


"'See you tomorrow," Ron said, curling loosely against Harry and kissing his hand as a pact, the both of them pressed all together and warm, too warm, like some kind of closeness.







Don't forget to go back to the community to comment!