"Thank Merlin that meeting's over," Terry Boot said, putting a hand on the back of his neck and trying to stretch the kinks out of his shoulders. "This is not what I signed up for when I became an Auror."
"You think it's any better for me?" Harry said wryly. "No wonder Kingsley's talking about standing down again at the next election - he's probably afraid he'll end up doing something he'll have to send himself to Azkaban for if he doesn't get out."
"Still - it's Friday. Got any plans for the weekend?"
"I'm supposed to be going to the Magpies' match with Ron tomorrow," Harry said absently. "If I can get free of the paperwork tonight, that is."
"Looks like he's come to make sure you do," Terry replied, peering over the railing down into the Atrium.
"Eh?" Harry looked over the railing too and saw a familiar, rather scruffy figure lounging around near the fountain below.
"There's another bloke who probably never imagined where he was going to end up," Terry commented.
"What do you mean?"
"Weasley. He's not exactly an advert for success, is he?"
"What do you call success?" Harry asked, trying not to bristle.
"Come off it," Terry said, jerking his chin in Ron's direction. "He hasn't held a steady job since he left school, only a load of short-term bartending and waiting jobs. I'm not knocking him for that! At least he's working. But the poor sod must be well pissed off. I heard he gave up trying to pass the Auror entrance exam, is that true?"
"How should I know?" Harry asked irritably, although he happened to know that it was quite true - although not for the reasons Terry imagined. And he had to admit that anyone looking at Ron now, with his worn robes, uncombed hair and a couple of days' worth of stubble on his chin, would quite reasonably assume that his life was far from a success.
Not for the first time, Harry wondered how much of Ron's off-duty appearance was a clever act. He also wondered if anyone else would classify Ron's life as a success if they knew the truth about what he did. His current appearance was the complete opposite of the reality; the slouching shoulders and dishevelled grooming gave no hint that, far from being the minimum wage bar worker Terry believed him to be, Ron was in fact an extremely successful and sought-after dominant whose professional appearance involved sleek leather and a finicky level of personal care that Harry might have found comical … If, of course, he wasn't completely in thrall to this aspect of Ron's character himself.
Ron probably earned far better money than Harry himself, although no one would have known that from his appearance and lifestyle either. He did in fact do occasional bartending jobs and help out his brother George in his joke shop once in a while, mostly to maintain appearances and keep friends and family from asking too many questions. Harry might never have found out what he did had it not been for a quirk of fate that had led to him accidentally coming across Ron in his professional capacity one night.
"He has one advantage," Terry remarked amiably. "On his income, he probably doesn't have to pay tax!" He gave Harry a wry smile and clapped him on the shoulder. "Have a good weekend, Harry! See you next week." He walked off.
Harry swallowed his annoyance and headed for the staircase to the Atrium floor.
Ron was still standing by the fountain, looking as though he was trying to fade into the background, when Harry approached him.
"Looking for me, mate?" he called cheerfully, and Ron turned to him with a smile nicely calculated to communicate his discomfort at his surroundings.
"Actually, I was waiting for Dad," he said. "I thought I ought to go home for tea tonight, so Mum can check I haven't died in the past fortnight. Want to come?"
"I'd love to, but I have paperwork a foot high on every corner of my desk," Harry replied easily. "I'm going to have to work late - if we're still on for the game tomorrow, that is?"
"Looking forward to it."
"I should wait and say hello to your dad," Harry said, dawdling. "I can't remember the last time I saw him other than heading into the lift when I was heading out."
"This place is like a bloody ants' nest," Ron said, with a grimace. "I don't know how you can work here."
"Between you and me, neither do I."
They lingered for a few minutes, watching the end-of-day bustle as those staff who could escaped the building via the Floo points.
"Can I ask you something?" Harry asked abruptly. Terry's parting comment had stuck in his mind for some reason. He turned to face Ron and added softly, "Keeper."
One red eyebrow went up, and although nothing about his expression or attitude would have changed to the casual observer, Harry saw something spark in Ron's blue eyes that completely belied his uncomfortable slouch.
"Go on then - Seeker," he said, and the corner of his mouth twitched up just once.
Keeper and Seeker were two of their personal code-words for each other. They weren't the all-important safe-words, but they were verbal signals for when they wanted to say something about their private lives in a public place.
"Do you pay tax?" Harry asked, and he was genuinely curious. It had never occurred to him to wonder before.
The second eyebrow joined the first, as though Ron was surprised Harry had used a code-word for such a mundane question. "Of course."
"Really?" Harry said, before he could stop himself. "I mean … um, sorry. I'm just … well, that surprises me."
Wicked amusement flashed into Ron's eyes. "You thought I cheated the taxman? 'Scuse me, mate, but my mum raised me honest!"
Harry grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, okay, I didn't really think you were on the take! I just, well … what do you put for an occupation on the form?"
Ron was beginning to grin. "What do you think?"
"Honestly?" Harry rubbed the side of his nose nervously. "I have no idea."
"Private entertainer," Ron said casually.
Harry was attacked by a sudden coughing fit. "You - what?"
"George does too," Ron added, eyeing him with amusement.
"He does? No, he doesn't - he's in sales!"
"Well yeah, for about seventy percent of his income, but he has to declare for the product development and manufacturing side too, and sometimes he does fireworks displays for events and private parties. When he does that he puts 'private entertainer'." Ron gave him a sidelong look. "I always help him out when he does those, you know."
"Who else comes under 'private entertainer'?" Harry asked suspiciously.
"All sorts of people. That girl who runs the novelty toffee animals stand at the bottom of the Alley, probably, and the Glee Singers in Hogsmeade." Ron's eyelids dropped to half mast just for a second. "The strippers at the Flamingo Club, most likely."
"The Flamingo Club has strippers?" Harry asked innocently.
"You're asking me?" Ron said dryly. "A bit out of my league, Mister Ministry Man, though from what I've heard, it's really something to be seen. If that's your kind of thing."
"It's not my kind of thing," Harry said.
Ron gave him another raised brow as though he'd like to dispute that statement, but at that moment the elevator doors opposite them opened and Arthur Weasley emerged.
For a monent Ron tensed and he turned to Harry with an odd look on his face. "Look, mate - I can't say much now, but we need to have a chat sometime soon. Maybe after the game tomorrow, yeah?"
"Okay," Harry agreed, but Ron's expression gave him a twinge of anxiety in his gut. "I can pop around after work if you like - "
"No - no, I'm working later. We'll talk when I see you, right?"
"But - "
Ron turned away, the tension magically disappearing and a broad smile of greeting on his face as his father approached, and Harry let it go.
"You'd better have a bloody good reason for this," Harry told Terry Boot, as he staggered out of the Floo in the early hours of the morning. He was bleary eyed and dishevelled, having only had a couple of hours of sleep. "I didn't leave here until after ten and - "
"My apologies, Potter, but it's rather important," the Minister said.
Harry bit off the rest of what he was going to say. He hadn't expected Kingsley to be there as well. "Not at all, Minister."
"Oh, don't give me that!" Shacklebolt said wryly. "If you want to swear at me for dragging you out of bed at this hour, then go ahead. In fact, I'll join you - I wasn't impressed myself, but it turns out it genuinely can't wait until morning."
"If it's a Dark Lord rising, give him my Floo number and tell him to call me in the morning," Harry grumbled, trying and failing to straighten the collar of his robe. At this hour, everything seemed to have a painful clarity, which at the same time somehow seemed faintly removed from reality. He pulled his glasses off and rubbed his face with one hand, and took a deep breath. Then he put his glasses back on. "Okay, I'm awake. What's happening?"
"I think we'd better show you," Terry said, after an awkward pause. "Interview Room 6 ..."
"All right - no, wait - I thought you weren't working this weekend?"
"I got called in by Finnigan's team," Terry said. Between them, he and Kingsley were unobtrusively herding Harry towards the lift. "They had a tip-off and staged a raid tonight - why, I don't know, because we had it all scheduled for next week, but I'll get to the bottom of that later."
"What sort of raid?" Harry asked, bewildered. "What does it have to do with me?"
"The raid itself has nothing to do with you, I hope," Kingsley said rather grimly.
"It's a club in Knockturn Alley," Terry said, and Harry was even more bewildered by the way he said this. "It - ah - offers specialist services to discerning customers, if you get my meaning."
"Specialist - ? Oh, I see. It's a sex club. Why couldn't you just say that? I'm not a shrinking virgin, you know."
"All right," Terry said, giving him an odd look compounded of bemusement and something else Harry couldn't identify. "Well, we got a tip-off that some of the workers there were using illegal Dark charms. Like I said, we were going to raid it next week, when we'd got more intel, but - "
"I still don't see what this has to do with me," Harry interrupted.
"Level 2, Interrogation," the lift said blandly, and it disgorged them into a room packed with MLEs, Aurors, and a startling number of people in varying states of dress, undress and bizarre costume. Most of them were wearing handcuffs and arguing with their captors noisily.
A typical Friday night crowd for the Magical Law Enforcement squad, really, albeit a little busier than usual.
"I'll explain in a minute," Terry said, and he began to elbow a path through the crowd for them, exchanging some fairly terse and salty comments with those who didn't seem inclined to get out of his way.
They emerged into a small corridor on the other side of the room and Kingsley flicked his wand at a pair of double doors as they passed into it, causing them to snap shut behind them and providing blessed relief from the cacophony.
"Through here, Harry ..."
They took a left through another door and Harry suddenly found himself in a tiny dark room lit only by the lights glaring through a huge window that took up nearly all of one wall. Harry had been in one of these rooms before; the window was a two-way mirror into the next room and it looked straight into what was little more than a dusty cupboard containing nothing but the lamp hanging from the ceiling, a plain wooden table with two chairs, and Ron Weasley.
Had he not seen Ron like this on a number of occasions before, he might not have immediately recognised him. Unlike his scruffy appearance of the previous afternoon, he was clean-shaven with his coppery hair slicked up into short spikes, and clad in nothing but glossy black leather - fitted leather trousers, silver studded leather boots and belt, and a kind of brief leather harness around his torso. A small black leather mask lay on the table; he never worked unmasked.
He was leaning casually against the back wall of the room, arms folded across his chest and legs crossed at the ankle, apparently quite cool and unconcerned about his predicament. Whether this was actually the case, Harry couldn't tell. He knew that Ron was quite capable of hiding his true feelings.
"I take it you weren't aware that he worked as a male prostitute," Kingsley said neutrally.
The first thought that flitted through Harry's mind was that Ron wasn't a male prostitute; he was a professional dominant, which was something very different. But not only would Kingsley undoubtedly disagree with this assessment, he also didn't need to know that Harry already knew about Ron's activities.
"Bit of a shocker all round," Terry said, relieving Harry of the need to say something. "I suppose it explains a few things, but he's the last person I expected to find in that place."
Harry found his voice at last. "I hope you're not trying to tell me that Ron of all people was using Dark magic, no matter where you found him!"
"Quite the contrary," Kingsley replied.
"Then why am I here?"
"We need you to bail him out," was the unexpected reply.
"If he wasn't doing anything illegal, why are you even holding him?" Harry demanded. "Even if he is a prostitute - and I don't believe it! - it's not against the law and you can't hold him!"
"I'm aware of that, but we need to maintain the pretence. We don't need the other sex workers from the club becoming suspicious if he's released immediately without the usual formalities."
"He's the one who tipped us off," Terry explained.
It took a few moments before Harry could think of something to say. "You said you didn't know about him!" he said accusingly.
"I didn't. He's Finnigan's informant, although I don't think even he knew the person he was dealing with was Weasley. The initial tip-off was anonymous."
"Merlin." Harry wished there was a chair in the observation room; he badly needed to sit down while he processed this. It didn't really surprise him that Ron had gone to the Aurors over the use of Dark magic - like Harry, he would never tolerate that sort of thing after their shared history with Voldemort - but he was having a hard time dealing with the fact that people like Kingsley, Terry and Seamus Finnigan now knew Ron's biggest secret.
Well ... in some ways, from Harry's point of view, it was really his second biggest secret, but he didn't dare touch on that right now, even in the privacy of his own mind.
"We need to take a full statement from him," Kingsley said, "but we don't have the staff available while we're processing all the other detainees. However, if you bail him out now, it'll look like Weasley's powerful best friend has pulled strings to get him released early, and then we can do the rest tomorrow. Obviously this plan relies on you being willing to help, and while I can fully understand that you might feel a bit put off by finding out about him this way, Potter, I'd consider it a personal favour if you'd do this."
Harry squinted at Kingsley, wondering abruptly why the Minister of all people was making such a fuss about this. "Who else did you pick up?" he asked, interested. "It must be someone good if you're this desperate to hide the fact that Ron's a material witness."
"Not at all," Kingsley said blandly. "Do you want to face his mother if she finds out what he's been up to from the Prophet?"
"Bollocks," Harry said politely, and Terry snorted.
Kingsley cracked a small grin. "Manners, Mr. Potter!"
"Come off it. The Dark magic alone should be enough to hold most people. Who do you need a witness for?"
"It would appear that Weasley is not alone among your Hogwarts year-mates in turning to prostitution to make ends meet," the Minister admitted.
"Really?" Harry passed his year under rapid mental review for a moment. "I can think of a couple of candidates – oh no, you have to be kidding me – not Malfoy?"
"Not unless his old man's gambled the family silver away on the hippogriff races," Terry said, grinning. "Nice mental image though, thanks for that."
"Come on – who are we talking about?"
"Without Weasley's statement we have no concrete evidence," Kingsley warned, "but Pansy Parkinson is among the detainees and her family included several Death Eaters during the war."
Harry thought about the girl he remembered from school and grimaced.
"Yeah, given a choice I'd rather shag Weasley than Parkinson any day," Terry agreed. "And just for the record, he's the wrong sex for me."
"Yeah, right." Harry sighed. "Okay, what do I have to do to get him released?"
"Arrange bail for him and, if possible, let him stay with you tonight," Kingsley said. "That reduces the chances of someone getting at him, even if it's just a reporter. I'll owl you in the morning with the arrangements for his statement. And just as a precaution, it might be worth finding him a good lawyer - I'm perfectly sensible of the fact that he's put his neck on the line for us here, so he doesn't need one of the many jobsworths infesting this building deciding we might as well charge him with a little something while we're at it."
There were a lot of things Harry wanted to say at this point, but none of them were safe. "I need to nip home and sort out some gold," he said instead.
He decided that they didn't need to know that he also needed some space to settle his mind before he faced Ron.
It was over half an hour before he returned, but Ron was still in the same position against the interview room wall when Terry led Harry in there. Harry fancied he saw Ron's shoulders stiffen when he saw him, but that was as far as the pose slipped; he was, as always, utterly in control of himself and that control - interestingly - seemed to exercise an effect upon Terry, who was not quite as nonchalant as he no doubt hoped he appeared.
"Right, Weasley, you're being bounced out of here," he said in a hearty voice. "Lucky is the man who has friends in high places, and all that guff. Potter here has kindly bailed you out, so try to be a good boy and stay put at his place until your hearing, all right?"
Harry winced inwardly. This was not a good line to feed Ron in his present guise. Until now his attention had all been on Harry, and he could guess that Ron wasn't pleased to see him, but at Terry's reckless statement the simmering blue eyes suddenly shifted to him and his head tilted to one side in a considering look that made something curl up inside Harry's stomach.
"Be a good boy?" Ron said softly. "Is that what you think I am, Boot? Or is that just the kind of bloke you think you prefer - good boys?"
Terry made a valiant attempt to look amused at this, standing casually on the opposite side of the table to Ron with his thumbs hooked into his belt loops, but Harry could see his fingers tapping nervously on his belt.
"Nice try, Weasley, but I'm not into blokes!" he joked.
"Yeah?" Ron raised an eyebrow and the corner of his mouth curled up. "I hear that a lot, Boot. And you know what it makes me think?"
"No, but - "
"It makes me wonder what other dirty little secrets they're hiding from themselves," Ron said, cutting him off quite ruthlessly. "I know a lot about dirty little secrets, you know." And his eyes flicked over Terry in a way that made even Harry turn red.
All the humour drained out of Terry's face. "Time to go," he said in a strangled voice. "You're in Potter's custody until you see the Magistrates. I'd find a good lawyer if I were you."
Ron gave a low laugh, his eyes never leaving Terry's face. "Really! I'm trembling."
Terry turned to Harry, his face and neck the colour of a boiled lobster. "He's all yours," he said. Harry thought he was trying to say it snappily, but unfortunately his voice cracked slightly midway and instead of sounding like a cool, self-controlled Auror, he sounded like a teenaged boy whose voice was still breaking. Gathering up what little dignity he had left, Terry stalked out of the room.
It was very quiet in his wake, and Harry was unpleasantly aware of the great wide mirror on the wall to his left. He had no idea who, if anyone, was standing on the other side of it, watching them.
Then Ron sighed and relaxed slightly, shedding some of his night-time persona. He rubbed his hands over his face for a moment, then gave Harry a weary look. "They had to drag you into this, didn't they," he said in a resigned tone.
"Well, under the circumstances who else would you call?" Harry asked.
"Nobody. I was expecting to spend the night in the cells here." Ron sighed again and pushed himself off the wall. He grabbed his mask from the table, but having nowhere to put it - his outfit certainly didn't sport any pockets - he ended up rolling it up and holding it. "I'm not about to jump bail on you," he said, after a moment, "so I'm okay to go home if you'd prefer."
"Don't be stupid. We can stop off there to get you a change of clothes though." Harry saw the look on his face. "Seriously, Ron. Kingsley's worried someone will try to get at you, so you're probably safer at my place."
"I love how everyone assumes that because I'm poor I must have crap warding skills," Ron remarked.
"I think you've driven a coach and thestrals through a lot of assumptions tonight," Harry replied.
Ron's face was briefly lit up by a wicked grin. "It was almost worth it just to see the look on Seamus's face."
The thought was not without amusement for Harry too, but he knew that Ron was likely to pay heavily for that small pleasure. If he had to give evidence in court, the fact that he was technically a sex worker himself would be brought out in the open along with all its - to the mainstream mind - deviant particulars. It wasn't currently possible to give evidence anonymously in wizard courts, something which Harry and the Minister were working hard to change, not least because the lack of protection for witnesses had led to a number of Death Eaters escaping justice in the past. Ron was going to get hammered for this, first and foremost in the court of public opinion. The likely results were something Harry felt utterly unequal to considering in the small hours of the morning.
"Come on," he said to Ron. "Let's get you released. I dunno about you, but I'm dog tired."
For a moment he thought Ron was going to say something, but then he seemed to change his mind and he shrugged, nodding. "All right."
By the time they walked back through the main office, things had quietened down out there. Harry had already completed most of the formalities; Ron signed a wad of papers, retrieved his wand, robe and a leather roll of personal effects, and they took the elevator to one of the upper levels, where they could Apparate out of the Ministry building.
Ron's flat was neat and tidy, but also very humble and offered no hint of its owner's profession or income. Harry had often wondered if Ron made a conscious decision to keep it this way, or whether he simply preferred to live in such basic surroundings. Perhaps he didn't even notice, although lately Harry found this last hard to believe; Ron was aware of very much more than most people realised. What he had never done was ask him about it, at one time out of sensitivity to his friend's impoverished circumstances, but now because to ask a question usually required permission and Harry preferred to save such permissions for more important and interesting subjects.
Tonight, however, he was more aware of its shabbiness than usual, and also of questions it hadn't occurred to him to ask before now. He'd never seen Ron wearing his professional gear inside his own flat before, and for the first time Harry wondered where he kept all his clothes and equipment when he wasn't working or at Harry's flat. He'd recognised the equipment roll Ron carried certain 'tools' in - he was very familiar with that - but it hadn't occurred to him to wonder where it was all stored. As far as he was aware none of it was illegal, but equally it was not for public display.
"You'd better bring enough gear for a few days," Harry suggested, dawdling in the doorway of Ron's bedroom.
"Yeah, okay." Ron glanced over his shoulder as he went to his wardrobe. "You can come in, you know."
Strange as it might seem, he'd never been inside Ron's bedroom before. Like the rest of the flat, it was very neat but also very plain and a little shabby, and there was nothing there to hint at Ron's professional life. There was very little hint at him even being a wizard; a couple of robes hanging from a hook behind the door, a broomstick in the corner, a copy of Quidditch Today lying on the chair beside the simple pine bedstead with its hand-knitted blanket that Harry recognised as the one Mrs. Weasley had made for him when they were at school. A couple of photos in a frame on the dresser, opposite a chipped crystal ball rescued from the wreckage of the battle of Hogwarts.
And all the candles, standing in dishes and miss-matched sticks on every surface and hanging in the air, which had flared into life when Ron walked into the room. Contrary to what Harry imagined must be some people's expectations, Ron liked a lot of candlelight, both at home and when he worked. Not for him the shadows that so many people on the scene seemed to prefer. He had other ways of creating an atmosphere.
In many ways this was a very Muggle-ish sort of flat; it even had built-in cupboards along the wall instead of the heavy wardrobes sold by most wizard carpenters. Harry watched idly as Ron slid one of the doors open to reveal his usual clothes – check shirts, striped Quidditch polos, jeans etc. – all hanging up neatly. He pushed these aside, took out his wand and ran the tip of it down the side of the cupboard wall.
With a soft sigh of air, the built-in cupboard slid to one side wholesale, to reveal another room hidden behind it.
"Lumos," Ron said casually and he walked inside. "Why don't you come in?" he added over his shoulder, almost as an afterthought.
And here was the answer to Harry's unspoken question; this was where Ron kept all his other clothes, his equipment, and even – which Harry hadn't even thought about until now – the exercise equipment he used to maintain his superb level of physical fitness.
"I can't believe that you of all people have a walk-in wardrobe," he said before he could stop himself, but Ron only grinned.
"You don't think I leave this stuff lying around where anyone could see it, do you? You have no idea how nosy my family can be – Mum's always poking around when she comes over, for a start. If my laundry's not folded properly, she takes it as a sign I'm not looking after myself."
Harry stared at the racks of clothes. For some reason, the word 'laundry' seemed remarkably incongruous at that moment.
Ron liked leather. Harry already knew that, but he didn't see it much himself because their relationship was based more on dominance and obedience than the heavier end of bondage. Which wasn't to say that they didn't indulge in fantasy when the opportunity presented itself; it just hadn't presented itself very often so far, and if he was honest with himself (something he was much better at these days) Harry liked it that way. It had to be planned for around their respective schedules, and that meant there was always plenty of time for anticipation. Ron was very good at building the anticipation.
Hanging along one wall of the hidden room was costume after costume, many of them in leather and not all of them in the stark black that Harry knew Ron looked so good in. There was one in a kind of steel grey … one in a very dark, wine red … and another in dark bottle-green that had an odd, dull sheen to it. When Harry brushed his fingers curiously over that one he discovered, with a start of surprise, that it wasn't leather at all but rubber.
Ron was watching him. "That one's a bugger to put on," he said casually. "You have to powder it inside or it sticks, and then you have to slick it up with a gel on the outside to get the full effect. If you do it right it looks brilliant. Get it wrong and you're wandering around with sticky fingerprints on your knees and arse. That can ruin the effect a bit."
"I'll bet. Isn't it uncomfortable though?" The question popped out before Harry could censor it – not that he wasn't curious. The thought had crossed his mind a number of times before in connection with the leather … when his mind wasn't occupied by other things.
"Not once it's on." The corner of Ron's mouth twitched. "Have to watch my weight a bit, though, it shows every spare inch."
"But – "
"I've always wondered if the stuff you wear's hot."
Ron gave him a hooded-eyed look. "You tell me."
Harry flushed. "You know what I mean."
Ron shrugged. "Hard to tell, really. Most of the places I work in are overheated anyway. That's why I don't wear too much on top." He watched Harry examining a studded mask for a moment or two, then said suddenly, "Something I've been meaning to ask you – I know we don't usually have time for it, but how do you feel about wearing different gear?"
Harry's eyes flew to his face, wide and startled behind his glasses. "I – ah – what?"
Ron grinned at his expression. "Dress up and pretend, Harry – ditch the Ministry robes and your jeans and try something a little bit more …" he seemed to make a big play of looking for the right word, "stimulating. To the old imagination."
Harry's brain stuttered to a halt. "You mean like …" He flapped a hand at the racks of leather outfits.
"Maybe. With a few necessary modifications, of course."
Harry felt his mouth go dry at the way Ron was studying him, as though he was mentally measuring him up for … something. "You – you want me to do that?"
Ron seemed to consider his expression for a moment, then one eyebrow went up. "Yeah, I think so. There's this place in Belgium – I had an intro from someone I know, so I made a point of nipping in when I went over there with George a couple of months ago. They do some very interesting stuff I reckon you'd get a kick out of. And they're dead discreet. Should be safe to take you there, not like the shops in this country where everyone's got a mate who works for the Prophet. We should go over there – " His face clouded over suddenly. "When all this shit is over, maybe," he finished in a different tone.
And just like that, the mood was killed. Harry watched silently as his friend stripped off the outfit he was wearing and hung it up, then changed into ordinary jeans and a t-shirt. A quick wash and a comb through his hair, flattening the spikes, and suddenly he was Ron Weasley again, the bloke who failed the Auror entrance exam and had trouble holding down bartending jobs.
"I'll just grab a change of clothes …" he muttered.
"This is what you were going to tell me about, isn't it?" Harry said, following him into his small bathroom and watching as he threw a shaving kit together. "When you said there was something we needed to have a chat about?"
"They weren't supposed to raid the club this weekend," Ron said, stuffing his toothbrush and razor into a zip-up bag.
"I know. Terry said they were waiting for better intel, but he didn't say why Seamus's team raided the place early."
"Did they tell you who they were after?"
"Pansy Parkinson, according to Kingsley."
"Her, and a couple of others. I sent the alarm out early because I had an idea someone at the club was tipped off. I was booked for next week too, but the manager told me they might have to switch venues for me at short notice."
Ron threw his kit into a duffel bag and went back into the main room, where he began to open drawers and pull out underwear and socks.
"She was jittery – the manager, I mean. Normally she's got nerves of steel, you have to when you're running a dungeon, but something was off tonight. And I'd seen a few things before tonight that made me think she was having the screws put on her. I'm not saying it was Parkinson who was doing it, but it had all the marks of a racket in operation and I'd heard stuff … well, never mind that. It wasn't that that made me drop the word to Seamus, it was some of the stuff I guessed Parkinson was doing with her clients. I saw what they looked like when she was finished with them, and I just …"
He stopped and looked at Harry, his expression conflicted. "Look, you know me by now, Harry. I've seen a lot – a lot – of stuff since I started doing this gig, and there's not much surprises me about people's kinks anymore. I'm not remotely surprised people were asking for this shit to be done to them. It's the way it's done that bothers me, 'cause there's certain potions and hexes and charms, and … they aren't legal, even when the client wants it. When I flog someone, it's legal. Some people like it really rough, you know? But I've never gone beyond the line, and there are ways to do it that make it seem more intense than it really is, if they demand to have it rougher. Well, the stuff Parkinson's been dishing out isn't like that, and I managed to get some evidence together, not much, but it seemed like it was worth a try tipping the Aurors off, because if that's the stuff I saw then you can bet your favourite broomstick there was more, and worse, stuff I didn't see."
His tone relaxed a little as he added, "I mean, aside from anything else, it's bad for the rest of us if she's pulling crap like that. People treat us like a bunch of dangerous perverts anyway when it gets in the press, and that's just the legal stuff. If it comes out that someone like Pansy is dishing out Dark magic for someone's jollies, and maybe even getting a bit something extra out of it that her clients didn't sign up for, then we're all down the crapper together, never mind that most clients just want to be tied up and spanked a bit. I mean, most people are up for a spanking occasionally, right? Okay, they don't want to admit it, but if you're going to make criminals of everyone who likes to wear a spiked jockstrap at the weekend, then we're all going to end up in Azkaban one way or another."
There was a pause.
"You're blithering a bit," Harry told him kindly, "and you're preaching to the converted anyway. Who am I to look sideways at the people in spiked jockstraps? I'm one of the ones who likes to get spanked!" He took Ron's bag firmly out of his hands. "Come on, let's head over to my place. We both need to get a bit of sleep or we'll both be no good to anyone tomorrow."
"That's the problem," Ron said. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Because if I'm going to have to testify – and knowing my luck I probably will – then I don't want Mum and Dad to find out about this stuff from the Daily Prophet. So I'm going to have to tell them about it myself. Soon. And probably the rest of my family, for that matter."
They went to the Magpies' match anyway.
As Ron pointed out, they had the tickets already and it wasn't as though there was much else they could do in the meantime. Harry escorted him to the Ministry in the morning to give his statement, which took a couple of hours, then that business was over until formal proceedings started, and that could be weeks or possibly even months away. A tiny paragraph appeared on page 4 of the Daily Prophet that morning, talking vaguely about an MLE raid on "a notorious establishment" in Knockturn Alley ("So notorious they can't even name it," Ron snorted), but there were no hacks besieging his flat when he nipped back there to get a spare robe, and no photographers hiding behind Harry's dustbin when they set off for the abandoned quarry in Kent where the game was being held later that day.
Harry was almost beginning to wonder if he'd imagined all the fuss the night before. If he hadn't been so short of sleep, he would have been sure of it.
They hadn't talked about it when they got back to his flat in the early hours of the morning. In fact, they hadn't done anything but roll into bed to sleep, and this was such an unusual situation that Harry at least had slept very badly. He didn't know if the same was true of Ron, though, because they didn't talk about that either. Breakfast had been a very subdued meal.
It had been there between them, though, as tangible as Harry's ugly earthenware teapot on the kitchen table. Not the raid, not Ron's potential public exposure, but the knowledge of the conversation he was going to have to have with the rest of the Weasleys at Sunday lunch the next day.
They just weren't talking about it.
Even a really excellent Quidditch match couldn't paper over the issue forever though. As they were filing out of the makeshift stadium with all the other supporters that evening, Harry finally caved in.
"About tomorrow …" Ron grunted in a really discouraging way, but Harry refused to be deterred. "Are you going to tell them about me?"
Ron sighed. "I dunno, Harry. Do you want me to tell them about us?"
Which was a fair point to make, Harry acknowledged guiltily, although he didn't think it was an entirely unreasonable question. Over the many months that they'd been engaged in their relationship, Ron had in fact been far more insistent about maintaining Harry's secrecy than Harry himself had been. He had always foreseen the possibility that they would be outed as lovers, after all. That bothered him less than the more intimate details of their relationship becoming public; certainly he had never anticipated them becoming public in quite this way, and concealing it once the details of Ron's profession became known would be nigh on impossible. They could have the most vanilla relationship in the history of homosexuality, and it wouldn't matter. People would always assume there was something kinkier to it.
And how would the Weasleys react? Harry thought about each of them, and sucked in a nervous breath. Mr. Weasley would be understanding; Mrs. Weasley most definitely would not. George would probably find it utterly hilarious, and perhaps so would Bill and Charlie. Percy would be horrified, and Ginny … well, Merlin only knew how Ginny would take it.
"I'm going too," Harry told Ron firmly, and he had the satisfaction of seeing his friend completely wrong-footed. "Tell them whatever you have to tell them, but you're not going to deal with it all on your own."
"No, don't argue, I've made my mind up." Hardly the words of a good submissive to his master, but Harry decided that if a scrubby old quarry full of Quidditch fans didn't count as an exception to the rules, then he didn't want to know what did. "Besides, if I'm there I might be able to deflect some of the flak."
"Well, there's going to be plenty of it to deflect, that's for sure," Ron said gloomily, but the look he shot Harry was full of gratitude.
And if it was suppressed tension or anxiety that made him unexpectedly punish Harry – at length and with considerable creativity - for his insolence when they got home, Harry wasn't complaining about it. On the contrary, they both slept a lot better for it afterwards.
"I didn't expect to see you here today!" Hermione remarked, joining Harry in the little parlour window seat at the Burrow.
"Likewise!" Harry grinned at her. "How's work going then?"
Hermione worked for the International Confederation of Wizards these days, on the bluntly-named Board of Emancipation; a job which could almost have been created for her, and some days Harry wasn't entirely sure it hadn't been. In fact, it was entirely possible that Hermione herself had created it. She had swept through the Ministry of Magic in the years after Voldemort, found it too small and limiting for her interests, and moved on through a wide-ranging selection of positions elsewhere before fetching up on the shores of international magical government. Then, having got there, she discovered that it wasn't fit for purpose and had set about sorting it out, one department and committee at a time. For Harry, who had previously seen the British Ministry of Magic as a vast, frustrating monolith of obstructive governmental controls, Hermione's international profile was instructive. It had helped to put the Ministry into perspective for him, and in fact these days he tended to see his job as being not greatly dissimilar to that of a village constable forced to sit on the local parish council.
"Progressively," Hermione said in response to his question, and there was a twinkle of mischievous good humour in her eyes. "Some of the American delegates are being difficult, of course – "
"Of course," Harry said gravely. He knew the American wizard delegations well; unlike their Muggle counterparts, they weren't a unified collection of states under one president, but instead a vast gaggle of different magical councils and collectives who fought incessantly or furiously ignored each other by turns. Most of them were convinced that they were in charge of all the others, which was the source of most of their infighting.
" – But I'd worry if they weren't, because that would probably mean someone had been treating their water supply with Serenity Solution. And at least while they're arguing with each other, they aren't upsetting the French." The corner of her mouth twitched. "I like to leave that to the Germans."
"Or us," Harry suggested blandly.
"Well yes, but at least with Kingsley I know that it's his solid common sense that's annoying them. They do hate that in a British Minister."
They grinned at each other.
"So," Hermione continued, "what did bring you here today? I happened to be visiting my parents and got an owl from Mrs. Weasley about the family all having dinner together today – although I see Ginny hasn't made it."
Harry was secretly glad about this. He got along quite well with Ginny, all things considered, but she and Ron tended to rub each other up the wrong way, and given how stressed Ron already was Harry could only be grateful that Ginny wasn't there to make things worse. Despite his cool appearance, Ron had already fallen out with his mother, Percy and George.
"I'm being the moral support," he admitted, and Hermione gave him a knowing look.
"Yes, I noticed he's got something on his mind," she said, and she glanced out of the window to where Ron was pacing around outside, making the chickens nervous. "Anything I can help with?"
"Not really," Harry said. "This one he's got to deal with himself. But brace yourself. I'm pretty sure there's going to be shouting."
"Really? Oh dear." She gave him a concerned look. "Should I know in advance, so I can at least look unsurprised?"
It was tempting, so very tempting, to tell her. Harry had never entirely got over a tendency to lean on Hermione emotionally; she was so strong, so certain, so unprejudiced. Surely she could be relied upon to absorb the knowledge of Ron's secret life and guide everyone else past the shock of finding out about it. But this wasn't his story to tell, and Harry knew Ron would feel horribly betrayed if he pre-empted things by telling Hermione. This was Ron's story and only he could explain the full history of it.
So he shook his head and got a grip on his nerves, grateful at least for Hermione's gentle squeeze of his hand. Out in the kitchen he could hear Mrs. Weasley and Percy's wife, Audrey, chatting brightly together as they rattled plates and saucepans. Harry had reason to believe that the two of them heartily disliked each other, but neither wanted to admit to the animosity and since Bill's wife Fleur and George's wife Angelina had sensibly removed themselves from kitchen as soon as Audrey swept in to 'help', the two women had no recourse but to kill each other with affability.
This was going to be pretty dreadful, Harry knew, but if it was bad for him anticipating it, he knew it had to be a lot worse for Ron. Ron's feelings of inadequacy within his family were one of the reasons he'd become a dominant in the first place.
In the event, dinner itself passed by without too much fuss. It was a tight fit around the table, what with Harry, Hermione, Angelina, Audrey, Fleur, and the three children, Victoire, Dominique and Fred, but fitting extra people in was what the Weasleys did without a second thought. Afterwards, Harry helped to clear up and wished the afternoon wouldn't drag so much, but eventually the children were packed off upstairs for a half-hour nap while the rest of the family settled into the sitting room to drink tea and catch up with each other. Harry dawdled in the kitchen for as long as he could, then found himself a perch on a battered old wooden stool not far from Ron's elbow, and waited for the inevitable.
Which came a lot quicker than he had expected.
"Are the kids asleep?" George asked, as he leaned forward to refill his mug. Then he pulled out his wand and put up a silencing charm on the door. "Just in case … Dad, did you hear about that raid the other night? On a club in Knockturn Alley?"
Harry didn't need to see Ron's face to know how tense he had suddenly become.
"Aren't raids in the Alley practically a regular thing these days?" Bill asked, sounding amused. "Kingsley's never been one for cutting them any slack after all."
"Yeah, but I don't think this place had ever been turned over before," George said. "The Black Chrysanthemum, it's called. I've heard it's not really a club as such – they hire out space to, um, private contractors, so to speak."
"Eet is un bordel?" Fleur put in casually, before anyone else could react. "'Ow do you say it – a brothel?"
"I don't think that's quite the same thing, Fleur," Mr. Weasley said quietly. "I heard about it, and frankly I was surprised they were allowed to operate for as long as they did."
"Perhaps they weren't doing anything illegal," Hermione put in rather dryly. "Or not that could be proven illegal, anyway."
"That's hardly the point," Percy said to her, sounding rather indignant. "What does it say about us that we allow places like that to trade in the first place?"
"It says that we allow our citizens to determine their own morals within the limits of the law," Hermione retorted. "It's not the place of the Ministry to police people's private lives! Which is probably just as well," she added, with a tiny curl of her lip. "Everyone has their dirty little secrets."
"Yeah, but some of them are a bit bigger and dirtier than others, Hermione," George said, grinning at her. "By all accounts, that place was dishing out hardcore bondage. Not exactly your average citizen's kink."
"How would you know?" she shot back, and he tilted his mug at her in salute.
"And define an 'average' kink," Harry added, and then wondered what had possessed him to say that.
George opened his mouth to reply to this, found his mother's forbidding eye fixed upon him, and decided against it after all.
"I don't think we need to pursue this topic any further," Mrs. Weasley said briskly, before anyone else could add to it. "It's not very nice. Anyone for more – "
"Sorry, Mum, but I think we do," Ron interrupted her, with quiet resolution.
There was a startled pause, and everyone's eyes – apart from Harry's – swivelled to look at him.
"If you're that desperate to find out what hardcore bondage is, Ronniekins, I can get Lee Jordan to lend you some of his magazines," George said rather impatiently. "Later, okay? Let's talk about the Magpies' game now."
Ron fixed him with a steady, cool gaze, and Harry began to feel that familiar internal flinching sensation he got whenever an unavoidable confrontation was in the offing.
"This can't wait till later," Ron said.
His mother bristled. "Really, Ronald, whatever's got into you?"
"There's something you all need to know now," he said. "Honestly, Mum, I wouldn't be saying anything at all if I had a choice. So could everyone just shut up for a minute and listen? Please?"
Harry decided that his safest bet was to fix his eyes on the coffee table a few feet away and keep his mouth shut. That way he didn't have to look at Hermione's sudden look of startled comprehension, or see the way Bill's face paled as he began to guess what was coming. He didn't have to deal with whatever reaction Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were going to have to Ron's revelations.
"Friday night, I was arrested."
There was immediate uproar, and Harry risked a glance sideways to see Ron wearily pinching his nose. He looked thoroughly fed up and exasperated.
"Everyone, will you please be quiet!" That was Mr. Weasley, and it was so unusual for him to raise his voice that complete silence was restored almost immediately. "Thank you," he said more quietly, but sounding no less annoyed. "Now please do Ron the courtesy of allowing him to explain before you all start condemning him."
"Arthur - !"
"Molly, dear, please. At least give him a chance to tell us exactly what he's done before you start shouting at him for it!"
"Hmph!" Mrs. Weasley was not amused, but she did back down.
"Cheers, Dad," Ron said quietly, then more loudly: "Friday night I got arrested by the Aurors, and yes, I was at the Black Chrysanthemum."
"Damn," George said, amused. "How could you even afford that? - Ow!"
Angelina had given him a painful shove in the ribs with her elbow. "Shut up, idiot!"
Ron gave him a really world-weary look. "I wasn't a customer, you pillock. I work there."
Keeping his eyes on the coffee table wasn't working; Harry glanced around reflexively and saw the looks of blank disbelief on most of their faces. All except Bill and Hermione, who looked as though they had just been given the final clue in a puzzle, and Charlie, who wore an expression of mild interest.
"Really? Does it pay well?" he asked, sounding genuinely curious, and Harry surprised himself by having to swallow a laugh. Trust Charlie to have an off-beat reaction.
"Er ... it can," Ron said, sounding bemused, "if you have a busy night - "
"If you have a busy night?" That was Mrs. Weasley, suddenly shouting at decibels close to a Boeing 737 taking off. Everyone jumped a little. "Is that all you have to say for yourself? You work in a - in a - a den of iniquity - and all you can say is it pays well?"
"What do you want me to say, Mum?" Ron snapped back. "That the leather chafes a bit sometimes, or I've got to be careful not to pull a muscle when I'm flogging a customer?"
Angelina let out a little muffled snork of laughter, and Audrey stood up rather abruptly. "Percy and I need to go now," she said, in a tone astringent enough to strip the paintwork. The look on her face reminded Harry of his Aunt Petunia when she saw a garish plastic gnome in a neighbour's garden.
"You both need to stay," Hermione corrected her coolly.
Audrey bristled. "I don't think we need to hear the sordid details. Come along, Percy!"
"And how are you going to limit the damage you think this does to Percy's career if you run off without hearing Ron out?" Hermione's tone was just barely on the right side of bitchy; Harry wanted to hug her for being the smart political operator that she was.
"Er ..." For a moment Percy looked indecisive, then he rounded on Ron, wrong-footed and furious. "How could you do this to us! Don't you care that the things you do hurt the rest of the family?"
"Yeah, that's right, Perce," Ron said in a surly voice. "I did it all to fuck up your career! Getting turned down by the Aurors ... not being able to get another job ... getting arrested for solicitation ... It was all a big plan to get at you!"
"Ron, that's enough," his father said quietly, and Ron shut up.
Harry decided, reluctantly, that it was his turn to intervene. "Perhaps you should listen to the rest of the story before you hurry to judge him," he suggested mildly. "Do you honestly think he'd be here, trying to explain, if he'd just been arrested like that? At least give him a fair hearing!"
"How are you involved in this, Harry?" Bill asked unexpectedly.
"He bailed me out," Ron said, before Harry could answer.
"Personal request of the Minister," Harry added.
More shock and exclamations.
"How on earth did Kingsley get involved in this?" Mr. Weasley demanded.
"Give me a couple of minutes and I'll tell you!" Ron said.
Fleur's voice cut through the babble, calm and decisive. "I do not understand much of zis," she announced, "but I think eet is very clever of Ronald to find a way to make money for 'imself. And I would like to hear more about what 'e 'as to say. But 'e must do it tout de suite because soon the children will be awake again."
Angelina seized on this opportunity. "Absolutely! Look, let's all just ... calm down, sit down, and have another cup of tea. And Ron can explain everything properly."
"It's a long story and you're not going to like it," Ron warned, but he passed his mug to his sister-in-law with a grateful look.
"What I don't like," Hermione told him sternly, "is the idea that you might have been forced to do this because you were so short of money."
"You should have come to your father and me!" Mrs. Weasley scolded him, but her voice was quivering with distress. "You shouldn't have become a prostitute - "
"Mum ..." Ron sighed. "Stop right there. Let's clear up two important points, okay? Firstly, I wasn't forced to do it. I wanted to, and I enjoy my job. And secondly, I'm not a prostitute. I don't have sex with my customers - I'm a professional dominant, I tie people up and whip them, basically. It's a different thing. And it's perfectly legal."
George made a strange noise in his throat. "I'm having a problem with that mental image ..."
"Maybe it'll help if I tell you that I made nearly five hundred Galleons in the four hours before the raid on the club," Ron shot back. "And that's after I paid my overheads."
Bill let out a soft, impressed whistle and even Hermione blinked at this. Mrs. Weasley seemed to be rendered utterly speechless.
Percy was spluttering with astonishment and outrage. "If you're making that kind of money, why are you always dressed like a vagrant? It's embarrassing to have to admit you're my brother!"
Harry wondered how it could be that Percy's fatuousness still had the power to surprise him.
"I'll tell you what's embarrassing - it's having such a bloody prat as you in the family!" Ron exploded. "Come on, Percy, you're supposed to be the clever one! Don't you think someone might be a bit curious about where I got the money, if I was wandering around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade in thousand Galleon robes and a load of bling?"
"So you're making a small fortune," Bill put in hastily. "How long have you been doing this?"
"I started about three years after we left school - the second time, that is," Ron said, referring to how he, Harry and Hermione, along with many others, had taken their final year and NEWTs after the war. "So, about five years ago. It wasn't always as lucrative," he added idly, "but for the amount of work I actually do, it hasn't been bad at all really."
There didn't seem to be much to say to that.
"And have you been arrested before?" Mr. Weasley asked, after a significant pause. His tone was rather dry.
"No." Ron shot him a quick look. "Honestly, Dad, what I do is legal and I don't go looking for trouble."
"And he wasn't arrested this time for anything he did," Harry felt compelled to put in.
"Explain that, please." Mr. Weasley took his spectacles off and began to clean them, not looking at anyone.
"It was a cover," Ron said. "They had to arrest me, or people would have been suspicious. About the Aurors turning the club over, I mean. There was dodgy business going on and I laid information."
"Oh, I can't wait for you to define 'dodgy business' in this context," George said, but he was looking rather stunned despite his best efforts to hang onto his usual flippancy.
"Do you seriously think flogging people is as dodgy as it gets?" Ron demanded. "The stuff I do is considered pretty vanilla by some people's standards."
"Vanilla?" Mrs. Weasley said helplessly.
"Bland or unadventurous," Hermione clarified.
Audrey made a pained sound. Harry wondered if they had successfully put her off vanilla ice-cream forever.
Angelina clearly decided that taking a hearty, cheerful approach was the way to go. "I'm finding it hard to believe there are enough witches with that kind of money who like being whipped!" she joked, pouring yet more tea for her mother-in-law. Mrs. Weasley was knocking it back as though it was laced with a nice malt whisky.
Ron sighed. "Who said anything about witches?"
It was Percy's turn to make a pained noise.
"This just keeps getting better," Charlie remarked, but he still looked utterly unfazed. Presumably working with dragons did that to you.
"I'd say it'd be hard to find enough rich wizards for that matter," Hermione said, looking amused, "but perhaps you don't limit yourself to a British clientele?"
Ron cocked an eyebrow at her. "And why would you think that?"
"I have sources, Ron," she said smugly. "I knew you were travelling to certain countries occasionally, I just didn't know how you afforded it or why. And perhaps you don't limit yourself to wizards? I know there's a much bigger Muggle market for BDSM."
"That's trickier," he said, but he didn't elaborate.
"I don't understand," Mrs. Weasley said, and her voice was getting more quavery by the moment. Apparently she was beginning to grasp at straws to try and escape the idea that her son was ministering to other men's kinks for a living. "If they arrested you to keep it a secret - are you really working for the Aurors, then? This was an undercover thing ..."
Harry saw the distressed look that flashed across Ron's face, but he wasn't sure if anyone else did.
"No, Mum." His voice was very gentle and, for the first time, apologetic. "This really is my job. I'm good at it. I was arrested because I saw something happening that I thought was really wrong and I couldn't just stand by and say nothing. You wouldn't want me to do that, would you? This was someone doing Dark magic, and there was a lot of other pretty bad stuff mixed up in it. I didn't help Harry bring down Voldemort just to let this kind of thing happen when I could stop it."
Miraculously, this was the right way to put it.
"Of course not," Mr. Weasley said quietly, and although Mrs. Weasley was twisting her hands in her apron distressfully, she nodded a little shakily.
"No, no ... you're right. You have to speak up. It's just ..." She drew a breath, then said rather incredulously, "I can't believe men pay you lots of money to whip them!"
Her indignant tone made Harry and several of the others grin, and Ron huffed a little rueful laugh.
"Mum ...! Honestly, it's not what you think. It's a fantasy - would you believe me if I said I don't usually have to whip people all that much? They get off on the threat of it. A good atmosphere, the right tone of voice ..."
Which wasn't anywhere near the whole truth, of course, but Harry could understand why Ron was describing it this way - gently editing out the unnerving part of it, so that his family could see it as something that was just a little kinky, instead of something more hardcore and alarming.
"If you're making that kind of money, then I'm in the wrong job!" George said and he laughed, shaking his head. "Pity Fred isn't here - there's got to be a business angle in this stuff somewhere."
Ron gave him a crooked smile, but made no comment.
"Getting back to the arrest ..." Mr. Weasley said firmly. "How much can you tell us about that? Harry, you work with the Justice Committee."
"Better if Ron doesn't say too much about that side of things," Harry warned. "I have to be careful what I say too, but since the Minister knows about it you can assume it's serious. The problem is going to be the evidence, and if the Aurors can't find enough at the club to support a prosecution, then it's going to be Ron's word alone."
"If that's the case, then it'll fail," Percy said sourly. "You can't tell me any jury will take his word for it when they find out he was doing ... that!"
"Yeah, that's the long and the short of it," Ron admitted, seeming to decide that it was better to let Percy's insulting tone of voice slide for the time being. "I didn't want them to raid the club when they did for exactly that reason, but there was a chance it was all going to get shut down before the Aurors could come in, so I had to call them in early. If I'd waited ... well, I don't know." He ran a hand raspingly over the stubble on his chin. "Chances are it would only have moved on to somewhere else, but there were no guarantees I'd see it happening again in that case. They'd have got more cautious, most likely."
"So the question becomes: How badly is this going to hurt you when it all comes out?" Bill asked. "You can't be anonymous when you testify, after all.
Everyone looked at Ron, and Harry felt an overwhelming affection for the family at that moment, for even Percy looked concerned despite his irritation.
"No idea," Ron said, after a noticeable pause, and Harry had the oddest notion that he'd been considering saying something quite different. From the look on Hermione's face, she had noticed too.
"What about your clients?" she asked though.
"I don't reveal the identities of my clients," Ron said. "My silence is part of the price."
"I don't think Kingsley's going to go for that," Harry felt obliged to point out.
"Yeah, well Kingsley can kiss my arse," Ron retorted, then he grinned wickedly. "For a suitable fee, of course."
"Odd, isn't it?" Hermione mused, in the peace and quiet of Harry's living room a couple of hours later. "Having to explain bondage to your mother somehow makes it completely unsexy. Like the way explaining a joke takes all the humour out of it." She took a sip of the stiff drink Harry had decided they all needed.
"Odd's one word for it," Ron said irritably. "Excruciating is another. Bloody Percy and Audrey! We don't need to hear the sordid details!" he said, in an exaggerated falsetto. "They wouldn't know a sordid detail if it spanked them with latex glove. And Charlie - " Suddenly he laughed. "I love Charlie! If he accidentally wandered into the club one evening and saw me in full gear, with a paddle in my hands, he'd probably just say Evening, Ron - where's the gents?"
The bell on Harry's Floo chimed and he got up to take a look. He'd deliberately put a block on the Floo when they had all retreated to his flat, knowing that if he didn't the whole Weasley family would simply turn up to carry on the conversation. And frankly, he'd had enough of them for one day.
"Who is it?" Ron demanded, when Harry went back to his chair without acknowledging the frustrated would-be visitor.
"Yeah, I don't reckon we need her input."
Hermione grimaced, but didn't disagree; and Harry winced. Ginny had turned up just as everyone was getting over the shock of Ron's story, but unfortunately the necessary retelling of the whole business for her benefit had generated a predictably sharp and unhelpful response from her. The fragile positive atmosphere was broken; Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Percy and Audrey had all been whipped into a state of feverish arguments and recriminations again, and eventually Ron had given up and told Harry bluntly that he was going home.
Harry hoped they would all at least exercise some common sense and not talk about the matter outside of the family. Things were going to be bad enough at this rate, without loose talk reaching the press before Kingsley was ready to deal with it.
The Floo chimed insistently. He took a quick look - Ginny again.
"I'm going to go over there in a minute and tell her a few things she'll never forget," Ron growled.
"No, you're not," Hermione told him sternly, and he looked annoyed.
"You're not even bothered by all this, are you?" Harry said to Hermione quickly, hoping to fend off a quarrel.
Thankfully she was diverted. She shrugged lightly, giving Ron an amused look. "I'm not shocked, if that's what you mean. I think most people have some sort of kink if they're honest. Just not ... well, not as hardcore as this, perhaps. Not that I know what it is you really do," she added. "I notice you were very careful not to go into any detail."
"Mum and Dad don't need the detail," Ron said coolly. "None of 'em do. You're not stupid, Hermione, you've got to know that pain is just a small part of it. Some of the stuff they'd never understand in a million years. Probably you wouldn't."
"Do you?" Hermione asked Harry directly, and he wondered if he was imagining the pointed note in her voice. Fortunately the answer he had for her was an honest one: "No, but then I don't know everything he does."
He didn't ask those sort of questions. All he knew was that what he and Ron did together was mostly different to the things Ron did to his clients.
He couldn't help adding, "Just the vanilla stuff."
Ron laughed reluctantly. "Vanilla! Did you see Audrey's face when you told Mum it meant 'bland'?" he said to Hermione.
"I'm curious though," she said. "Do you really not have any female clients? Is that by preference?"
Ron raised his eyebrows at her. "I'm not about to give you tips on how to break into the business, Hermione! Or are you looking for hints on how to spice up your love life?"
She giggled. "Thanks, but spanking isn't my thing!"
Ron gave Harry a sly grin. "Have you noticed how people keep telling me that?"
Terry Boot's lobster-red face popped into Harry's head, and he grinned.
"I worked with a couple of female clients a while back," Ron said, leaning back in his chair and stretching his long legs out. "It's okay, but women have different expectations, different requirements - and, to be honest, different tolerances. I'm pretty strong ... it takes some of the fun out of it to have to keep watching what I'm doing in case I really hurt the client. Besides, it's a bit of a risk. Like I said, different expectations - the male clients all know where they stand with me and they're not looking for a relationship. I don't want women getting the wrong idea. I've seen it happen with other dominants, it becomes more than just a business gig for one of them and then it gets messy. This is a job for me. A really brilliant, satisfying job, but still a job. At the end of the night I walk away and they still don't know my real name or what my face looks like."
Harry could see Hermione digesting this, her brain revolving at a hundred miles an hour with all the new information.
"You know," she mused, "I'm wondering if I know one of your female clients."
"Confidential," Ron reminded her, a little sharply.
"I'm not asking. I'm only wondering because I had a frank conversation with a colleague over drinks a couple of years ago, and she offered to put me in contact with someone who - well - sounded an awful lot like you, to be honest, although I only noted the coincidence at the time."
"Did she put you in contact?" Harry asked curiously, thinking it would be beyond weird if it turned out that Hermione had been one of Ron's customers.
But she was shaking her head, laughing. "Merlin, no! Not my scene at all! It was a fascinating conversation though."
"You'll have to tell Audrey about it sometime," Ron said, but he was giving Hermione an amused look of appraisal that Harry was very familiar with. "So, when your friend finished telling you all about it, did she let you tie her up and whip her with a pair of wet silk stockings?"
Taken by surprise, Hermione spat out her drink in a satisfyingly messy way, and Harry laughed until the tears ran down his face.
"I could get to enjoy this," Ron said, clearly very pleased with the result.
Ever quick to recover, Hermione retorted, "I think you and Harry already are!"
"Uh …" Harry said. His brain had suddenly seized up.
Ron snorted. "Didn't think we could keep it from you!" he said to Hermione. "What gave us away?"
She shrugged. "Nothing I can put a finger on, other than that Harry seemed far too calm about the whole thing for it to be something he'd only just found out about." She saw Harry's face and smiled apologetically. "Well, you did ask George to define an average kink!" she pointed out. "It was a bit of an odd question, from you."
"Er …" Harry said helplessly, and Ron chuckled.
"Here, have another drink, mate! I think we're safe with Hermione."
"I'm certainly not about to discuss it with anyone," she said firmly. "It's really nobody's business."
"Wash your mouth out. Don't you know that the Daily Prophet owns the rights to Harry's personal life?"
"Feels like it sometimes," Harry managed to say at last. "Just lately they seem to have been laying off my love-life, though. Well – apart from constantly referring to Ginny as my ex whenever she's mentioned in the sports section."
As if summoned, the Floo chimed again. They ignored it.
"It does rather beg the question of what happens when this business hits the press, though," Hermione said, her brow furrowing in concern. "Which it will, if Ron has to testify." She looked at him. "I should think you'll be out of a job. Surely your customers won't want to risk the exposure?"
"Yeah, well …" Ron stared into his glass for a moment, then looked sideways at Harry. "I've been thinking about that, even before all this happened if I'm honest. I never expected to carry on with this job forever."
There was a long pause, and Harry was waiting for the punch line, but Ron didn't elaborate. Then Hermione abruptly put her empty glass down on the coffee table with a sharp click and got to her feet briskly.
"I lost track of the time!" she said. "I'm supposed to be staying with Mum and Dad tonight and they'll be wondering where I am."
Harry blinked, surprised. One moment she had seemed settled in for the whole evening, and now she was taking off ... "Hermione?"
She bent to kiss his cheek and squeezed his hand. "I'll be around for a few days, if you two want to meet up and have lunch or something. But I think you and Ron need to have a quiet chat right now."
"But – "
Hermione picked up her cloak, gave Ron a meaningful look, and Apparated away.
Ron picked up the empty glasses and half-empty bottle of brandy. "Tell you what, I'll put the kettle on, shall I?"
"Don't you start walking away from me too," Harry said indignantly.
"I'm not walking away, mate, I'm putting the kettle on," Ron said, walking away.
The Floo chimed yet again, grating on Harry's nerves. For two pins, he told himself, he would let Ginny through and let her do her worst. That way he would have an opportunity to tell her a few things. And then Ron could tell her a few things too, and he and Ron at least would probably feel a lot better.
He didn't let her through. Instead, he followed Ron into the kitchen.
"What was all that about you never expecting to carry on with the job forever?" Harry demanded.
"Well, think about it," Ron said reasonably. "I s'pose it's possible I'd look good in tight leather when I'm as old as Nicholas Flamel, but personally I'm doubting it a bit."
"Don't take the piss, Ron!"
Ron set the kettle on the light, then leaned back against the kitchen counter, smiling wryly. "Harry, we had this conversation right at the beginning! I got into this job as a favour to someone – it was never a career plan."
Harry eyed him uncertainly. "You've done pretty well out of it though, right? You must have done if you're making the kind of money you told George today."
"Oh yeah! And I've been saving it up, plus I invested a bit in Nimbus a while back – remember when the Mistral racing broom came out? I did pretty well out of that. Well, anyone who really knows their brooms could tell that one would run and run – not the prototype, of course, but the second and third models, with the tweaks, they did brilliantly."
"Yeah, I know," Harry said, beginning to feel a tickle of amusement. "I invested in Nimbus, too."
Ron made a there you go! gesture with one hand. "So I've got a bit of gold stashed away. To be honest, that's the real reason why I don't dress fancy – I've been hoarding my gold – but pissing off Percy is a nice little side effect too. I've got plans for my cash and I can manage without a new pair of jeans every week."
"But if you're not going to work as a dominant anymore …" Harry stopped and squinted at Ron. "How long have you been thinking about giving up?"
Ron shrugged. "A while."
"And how long's that?"
"Longer than when I first realised something dodgy was going on at the Black Chrysanthemum."
Which didn't tell Harry much. He stared at Ron until Ron sighed and gave in.
"Look, I've been thinking about what I'm going to do in the long term for … well, probably ever since I got into this game and realised I could make a mint at it. It just wasn't a pressing issue, you know? I enjoyed the work and it made up for other stuff being a bit lacking in my life, so I drifted for a while. Then …" He stopped and picked up the teapot, warming it and measuring out the tea with practised movements.
"And then?" Harry prompted.
"And then one night you turned up at the club and things took a bit of an unexpected twist." Ron filled the pot and slapped the crocheted cosy onto it. He stared at it for a moment. "I started to see the end destination, so to speak."
Then he shook himself slightly and took two mugs down off the shelf. There was silence as he poured the tea, apart from another faint, petulant chime from the Floo.
"So if you're planning to quit your job," Harry said slowly, his voice sounding stiff and unnatural in his own ears, "then does that mean … you want to end our relationship too?"
For a moment Ron stiffened. Then he relaxed and let out a breath of a laugh, turning to look at Harry with unexpected affection. "Bloody hell, Harry. I swear I've never met anyone like you for reading completely the wrong message into anything a bloke says. How the hell do you survive at the Ministry?"
"Well – I just …" Harry blinked. "You said … not a career?"
"Oh, for – were you even listening the first time we talked about this? Yes, I got into this for the money. But I like being a dominant, Harry, you know I do, and the opportunity to make money from it would never have been there if I wasn't into the lifestyle already. You don't think the clubs advertise for skilled masters in the Prophet's jobs section, do you?" He began to laugh. "I can just see how that would look – Wanted: Muscular person with experience in whips and restraints. Chains, ropes and handcuffs provided. Must have own leather jock-strap and nipple clamps."
Harry sniggered before he could stop himself.
Ron grinned, but continued in a gentler tone: "I was into the lifestyle, Harry. The only thing really missing was having a boyfriend. After I broke up with Hermione I had a couple of relationships with blokes who were really great people but not into this sort of thing, and when I started exploring this side of my personality most of the blokes I met were like me, too dominant. The work - it was never just about the money. I've never, ever had sex with a customer but that doesn't mean I didn't get something out of it. By the time you came along I hadn't actually had sex in six or eight months. Luckily I get a lot of satisfaction out of my work."
Harry didn't know what to say to this. "Are you saying you don't get that anymore?"
"No. I'm saying I don't need it. I've got something better waiting for me when I'm off duty."
Ron rolled his eyes. "Oh he says! Come on, have a cup of tea. Why are we standing around in the kitchen anyway? Why do we always have these conversations in the bloody kitchen?"
"It's closer to the teapot," Harry pointed out.
"We're too bloody British, you and me, that's our trouble. I had a customer tell me that once, you know. South African bloke, complained that I flogged like a typical Englishman. I mean, what the hell does that even mean? That I whipped him with a bacon buttie with one hand and raised the Union Jack with the other? He didn't last long," he added darkly. "If there's any justice in the world, he's still stuck in that gates-of-hell cockring."
"You have a gates-of-hell cockring?" Harry asked uneasily.
"Not since I left a South African bloke trussed up in it, I don't." Ron nudged him into the living room. "I don't think you're ready for the gates-of-hell yet anyway. Lots of fun things to try before we go down that route."
Harry managed not to be diverted by this, although it took an effort. "We're getting off the point. What are you planning to do if you give up being a dominant?"
"You really want to know?"
Harry gave him an exasperated look. "Yes, I really want to know!"
"I mean, you're not going to laugh, right?" Ron saw Harry's incredulous expression. "Yeah, okay … maybe not." He sighed, put his mug down on the coffee table, and leaned forward a little, resting his elbows on his knees. "Look, I've been thinking and doing a bit of research, and I reckon I could …"
Eighteen months later …
The kettle was sitting on the draining board with its lid off when Harry arrived. He dumped his briefcase and cloak on one of the tall stools by the little table, and peeked inside the kettle; it was half-full of water, its owner having clearly been called away before he could finish filling it. Likewise the teapot was abandoned next to the tea-caddy, a long spoon balanced precariously on the latter's rim.
Harry rolled his eyes, finished filling the kettle and set it on the hob to boil. Then he finished spooning tea into the teapot as well, and got the milk out of the fridge.
There was a doorway on the opposite side of the little kitchenette, hung with a heavy beaded curtain, which led into the main shop. He eyed it speculatively for a moment, then sidled up to the side of the door and listened.
" … and you don't want to be putting your whole arm into it like that," Ron's voice was saying, from somewhere on the other side of the curtain. "You're not trying to break his collarbone. You want a short strike like this – " there was a sharp slapping noise " – it's all noise and sting, see? That's what you're going for – the effect, not full-on assault." Another short, pistol-like report. "Yeah, that's right. That fits pretty well in your hand too, doesn't it? The nice thing about that crop is you can change the head on it for different impacts …"
Ten minutes later, Ron pushed through the curtain. He was dressed in an outfit that was now his everyday 'business' wear and similar in substantial parts to his old professional gear, except for the black silk shirt he wore instead of his harness. He grinned to see Harry sitting at the little table, drinking tea.
"I thought I heard the kettle whistle," he said cheerfully. "There a cup for me?"
"Of course." Harry poured it. "So what was that, a lesson?"
"Just a bit of guidance for a new customer." Ron pulled up a stool. "Someone like that doesn't need to be starting out too heavy. Doesn't do to go putting your sub off, eh?" He winked.
"Absolutely. Was that one of those crops Charlie sent you?"
"Yeah. I'm going to owl him and see if he can set up a proper supply. They're pricey, but they've been selling like nobody's business. No surprises there – the leather's nice and thin and supple, but tougher than a Beater's bat. I tested one on the saddle-block the other evening, gave it a really good workout at full strength, and it didn't even mark the surface of the head."
The 'saddle-block' was an actual leather saddle mounted on a sturdy frame that could be adjusted in height, and there were a number of restraints attached to different parts of it. Ron kept one in the shop as a sample, and for demonstration purposes. There was another one in their bedroom.
"I wondered what you were doing out there." Harry shifted on his stool slightly. He wasn't overly keen on being whipped, but he knew (and more importantly, Ron knew) that he found the sound of leather striking leather oddly erotic. Besides, you didn't have to be whipped with a crop. There were other things you could do with it.
"Just working up a sweat," Ron said, but his eyes were full of mischievous amusement. He stretched a little. "So, how's the Ministry doing today?"
"There's some good news for once," Harry said. Then he made a face. "Well … from one perspective it's too little too late, but hopefully it'll do some good in the future. We finally managed to get that amendment to the Code of Justice passed by the Wizengamot. Witnesses in future can be granted full anonymity in sensitive cases."
"Good stuff," Ron said sincerely, and he touched his mug to Harry's in a solemn toast. "Don't look like that, mate. It did me a favour in the end. Gave me the push I needed to set up this place – and believe me, I'm happier than Larry running the shop."
"I suppose it's something that your name never got into the press, but I'm still pissed off that they had to let Parkinson go on a technicality."
Ron made a rude noise. "Technicality, my arse! She bought her way out of it – come on, Harry, you know she did! If I know a few things about one or two of the old stiffs who sit in the Wizengamot, you can bet she knew a lot more! And she was always more likely to trade on it than I was. No, it was a stitch-up, but I can live with that. I still hear a lot of stuff from this end of the business, and she'll slip up again one day, don't worry. Her sort always do."
"Yeah, I suppose so." Harry made an effort and put it aside. "Anyway, that was the sort-of good news. The really good news is that I've got that week off in June that we were talking about."
"Brilliant." Ron grinned. "I can close this place for the weekend for a change, and we'll hop across the Channel for a bit of fun."
Harry felt a little frisson of anticipation. They had, of course, already visited a certain emporium in Brussels where Ron had made a number of purchases on his behalf (Harry quite happily hadn't had any say in the matter), but having worked with those for a while, they were now making a return journey to … upgrade … a few things. Ron had also promised that they would visit a couple of select clubs he knew about, in addition to doing normal touristy stuff, so Harry was looking forward to a full and enriching programme for their holiday.
Then Ron set his empty mug down on the table and got up. "Until then," he said casually, "I've got a private client coming in for tuition later, and I reckon a demonstration's going to be needed. So how about you get your gear on – don't forget your hood – and be a good little model for me, eh?"
"And if I don't?" Harry said archly.
Ron regarded him for a long moment, from under lowered eyelids. And he smiled.
Harry ducked his head, squirming.
~ finis ~