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A Sad State of Affairs

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A Sad State of Affairs

Ron sat in the basement kitchen of number twelve, Grimmauld Place, his head propped against one fist, and stared gloomily into his rapidly cooling cup of coffee. It was well past noon and he was still in his pyjamas, but he didn't see any particular reason to get dressed. No one but Kreacher had set foot in the house in days.

Voldemort had been defeated once and for all a little less than two months ago. His duty done, the Chosen One had promptly collected the girl and the contents of his Gringott's vault, and buggered off to parts unknown. In truth, Harry and Ginny were celebrating the end of the war by traveling across Europe together and had no intention of returning until the post-war frenzy died down and Rita Skeeter stopped foaming at the mouth for an interview. Hermione was spending much of her time feverishly preparing to take her N.E.W.T.s, stating that she had no desire to spend another year at Hogwarts but instead wanted to get out into the 'real world' where she could 'make a difference'. All of this left Ron to spend his days brooding alone in good old number twelve.

Oh, Ron didn't have to stay at Grimmauld Place. His family, in fact, had repeatedly attempted to get him to move back into the Burrow. The close quarters felt oppressive there, however, and Ron couldn't tolerate the air of forced gaiety that everyone kept up as they tried to recover from the war and get on with things. Ron didn't feel up to pretending, so he retreated to the old Order Headquarters. At least the dreariness of the place suited his mood, and Kreacher seemed happy to do the cooking.

The sad fact was, now that the war was over, Ron felt directionless and adrift. Although he had been jealous of Harry's fame from time to time over the years, fighting alongside his best mate had given Ron a sense of purpose. He had never stopped to consider what he would do once Voldemort was gone, and 'life after You-Know-Who' was turning out to be rather anti-climactic, really.

Ron's thoughts were interrupted by a muffled crack, followed by voices coming from upstairs. Half-heartedly, Ron rose from the table to investigate. There were only a limited number of people who it could be. The remaining Order members had reestablished the Fidelius on the house so that they could continue to use it as a secure place to communicate and so that Harry could stay there undisturbed if he wished. Although Voldemort was gone, the Aurors and he Order had their hands full rounding up his remaining supporters -- a process made more difficult by the fact that many of them could claim they had been acting under Imperius. Still, traffic through the house was far less than what it had been at the height of the war.

Ron trudged up the stairs leading out of the kitchen and pushed open the door at the top, then stopped dead in his tracks. He couldn't have been more surprised by the sight that greeted him if a conga line of Death Eaters had been frolicking though the entrance hall. There stood Kingsley Shacklebolt, having what appeared to be a rather serious discussion with an extremely sour-looking Draco Malfoy.

"What the hell is he doing here?!" Ron blurted out without preamble.

"Nice pyjamas, Weasel," Malfoy shot back upon recognizing the source of the exclamation.

Ron glanced down at his just-too-short, Snitch-adorned pyjama bottoms and flushed. Before he could retort, Kingsley spoke in his most authoritative tone, "He's here because it's the safest place for him at this point. There are still a number of Voldemort's supporters on the loose, and they'd love to get their hands on Draco, especially now that his parents have agreed to cooperate with the Ministry in identifying and locating the most dangerous of the lot."

Snorting indignantly, Ron said, "They're trying to save face and stay out of Azkaban, you mean!" Malfoy's expression darkened, but he didn't seem to have a response.

"Call it what you want, but I'm sure you can see why their son needs protection," Kingsley replied.

"Their son is a Death Eater too," Ron said. "Lock him up in the Ministry if you want to 'protect' him."

"What makes you think the Ministry is safe these days?" Kingsley asked, arching one eyebrow. "He's staying here. It's a big house. I'm sure you can manage to stay out of each others' way." Turning his attention to Malfoy, he added sternly, "Remember what we discussed. Do not leave." With that, Kingsley drew his wand and Disapparated, leaving Ron and Malfoy to glare at each other across the entrance hall.

Malfoy broke the tense silence first. "This wasn't my idea, Weasley. I like this arrangement even less than you do." To emphasize his point, he glanced around the dim and tattered room in distaste.

"I wouldn't bet on that, Malfoy," Ron snarled.

"You heard what Shacklebolt said," Malfoy snapped back. "You stay out of my way, and I'll stay out of yours." Turning his back to Ron abruptly, he crossed the room and stomped up the staircase as though he owned the place.

Ron glared daggers at Malfoy's back until he was out of sight, then spent the rest of the afternoon cursing himself for not having been able to come up with an adequately sarcastic retort.

* * * * *

Much to Ron's surprise, he and Malfoy did manage to largely avoid each other over the next week. Malfoy had chosen the third floor bedroom in which Fred and George had once stayed to be 'his' for the duration of his visit and seemed to be spending the bulk of his time shut up in it. The few times that he and Ron did cross paths, their encounters merely consisted of a perfunctory sneer, a two-fingered salute, and the rapid exiting of the room by the intruding party. They'd not spoken two words to each other since the day Malfoy arrived.

Ron was bored. Incredibly bored. Bored stiff. It was the middle of the afternoon, but Ron hadn't drudged up the motivation to venture farther out of his room than to the toilet and back. Lying flat on his back in the middle of his bed, he stared up at the high ceiling and wondered whether Malfoy was doing the same in his own room directly above. Now that he thought about it, Ron didn't think he'd even seen or heard Malfoy in the past two days.

A small wave of trepidation ran through Ron. What if Malfoy had decided to leave? Ron didn't care what Malfoy did, of course. If the little tosser was stupid enough to get himself captured by Death Eaters, then he deserved whatever he got. Still, Ron wondered if Kingsley would blame him for not keeping a better eye on the git. Maybe he should check on Malfoy, just to make sure he was still here, and hadn't accidentally hexed himself inside out or something…

With a sigh, Ron rolled off his bed and ambled out into the hall. Once he had climbed the stairs and arrived at the door to Malfoy's room, he paused to listen for any sign of movement within. Hearing nothing, he reached up and banged sharply on the door, hoping that if Malfoy was inside, Ron had just scared the pants off him. "Malfoy? Malfoy!"

Only silence answered Ron. Suspecting that Malfoy was simply ignoring him, Ron tried the doorknob, and found the room unlocked and empty. Ron frowned to himself, then turned and began searching the other likely places in the house for Malfoy. The sitting room and the kitchen, however, turned up nothing, and Ron was livid by the time he burst into the library and shouted, "Malfoy?!"

Clearly startled by Ron's entrance, Malfoy leapt from his seat, dropping the book he'd been reading in the process. "What?!" he asked, eyes round as plates.

Upon discovering his quarry at last, Ron pulled up short, oddly relieved that Malfoy hadn't left Grimmauld Place after all, and irrationally cross that he'd made himself so difficult to find. "Oh, there you are," he said irritably. "What the hell are you doing in here?"

"Merlin, Weasley, you nearly gave me a heart attack," Malfoy said, clutching his chest for emphasis. "What's your problem??"

"I couldn't find you, and I thought you'd gone barmy and left the house!" Ron answered.

"Since when do you care what I do?"

"I don't care! But Kingsley might blame me if you went off and got yourself killed and I didn't try to stop you."

Malfoy's expression turned dark. "Oh, I see. It doesn't matter what happens to the evil offspring of Death Eaters as long as you get to look like a hero. So this is Gryffindor chivalry."

"We saved your life more than once!" Ron protested hotly, fists clenched at his sides.

"You nearly broke my fucking jaw!" Malfoy shot back.

"Only nearly? I'll be sure to try harder next time."

There was silence for one moment, then Malfoy sighed and rolled his eyes. "Did you actually want something, Weasley? Or was your day just not complete without an opportunity to act like an arse?"

"No. Believe me, Malfoy, there's not anything that I want from you." Ron turned on his heel and stalked out of the library, shooting over his shoulder, "Enjoy your book, you pathetic wanker."

Ron retreated to his room and slammed the door behind him. He paced back and forth a few times before collapsing on his bed. The confrontation with Malfoy had left him feeling frustrated and guilty, and he wasn't certain why. Briefly he wondered whether Malfoy might have been right when he said Ron was only concerned with maintaining the appearance of goodness but quickly realized that wasn't the case. He genuinely didn't want Malfoy to die. Although he wasn't entirely certain why that was, either.

For better or for worse, Malfoy had been a presence in their lives for the past seven years, Ron reasoned. He didn't want to lose any more familiar faces, no matter how unfriendly. Besides, as much as he loathed Malfoy, Ron had always felt that he was too cowardly and clueless to be willfully evil. He didn't really deserve a horrible death-by-masked lunatics. However, Ron suspected he was going to have to remind himself of that fact repeatedly if Malfoy was going to stay at Grimmauld Place for long.

* * * * *

It took Ron three days to decide that he should make some effort to extend the olive branch to Malfoy. After all, Malfoy actually hadn't done anything to start their last squabble, Ron was grudgingly forced to admit. Malfoy's presence in the house combined with Ron's discontent were simply leaving him tetchier than usual. Malfoy had always been able to get under his skin, but Ron was tired of being so easily provoked.

When he went searching for Malfoy a second time, Ron once again found him in the library. Malfoy's back was turned as he reached up for a book on a high shelf. Standing in the doorway, Ron cleared his throat to announce his presence.

Malfoy spun around at the unexpected sound, abandoning the book. His eyes narrowed upon spotting Ron, and his tone was suspicious as he asked, "What is it this time?"

Striding boldly into the room, Ron announced, "I'm here to propose a truce."

"I thought we already had one. You stay out of my way and I'll stay out of yours, remember?"

Biting back a surge of annoyance, Ron said, "Yeah, I remember. I'm not thick, despite what you might think. I just thought, if we're going to have to live in the same house together for much longer, we should try to get along. Or at least not try to kill each other on a regular basis."

Malfoy took two steps forward, crossed his arms, and leaned against the mahogany reading desk. "We'd be 'getting along' just fine if you didn't keep getting bored and coming to bother me every couple of days. Now that I think about it, why are you here? Did your family kick you out or something, Weasel?"

"My family is none of your business, Ferret," Ron snarled.

"Ooh, did I hit a sore spot?" Malfoy asked. "I bet that's it. You pitiful house isn't big enough for all of you Weasels, so they threw out the most useless of the lot."

"One more word about my family," Ron said between clenched teeth, "and we'll find out exactly how long it takes the Death Eaters to find you after I've thrown you out."

"So that's why you keep coming to me and trying to start arguments. You're looking for an excuse to get rid of me guilt-free."

"I was trying to apologize, you sanctimonious son of a--!"

"Ron?"

The familiar voice carried into the library from nearby in the house, and Ron's eyes flew open wide with recognition. "Hermione! Shit!" he swore just before shoving Malfoy aside and diving gracelessly beneath the desk.

"Weasley, what the--" Malfoy began, sounding halfway between peeved and confused.

"Shh!" Ron hissed, cutting Malfoy off.

"Ron?" came Hermione's voice from within the room. "Oh… Draco. I'd heard you were staying here for a while."

From his vantage point, Ron watched as Malfoy quickly regained his poise. The former Slytherin crossed his arms, curled his lip up into a sneer, and replied, "Unfortunately."

"Erm, have you seen Ron around?"

Ron silently prayed that Malfoy wouldn't give him away. If he did, this would look bad and would be incredibly difficult to explain.

"Not as long as I've been able to help it," Draco said.

"Uh. Right. I thought I heard voices coming from in here." Hermione sounded as though she had been caught off guard by Malfoy's presence but was obviously trying to be nice to him. She'd probably heard about Malfoy's situation and felt sorry for him, Ron thought, rolling his eyes to himself.

"What, and you thought it was Weasley? When has he ever set foot in a library if he could possibly avoid it? That imbecile wouldn't have made it past his O.W.L.s if you hadn't done all his work for him, Granger." Ron was torn between wanting to hex Malfoy and being immensely thankful that he was throwing Hermione off his trail.

"Look, if you see him, could you just tell him that I really need to talk to him about something?" Judging from her tone, Hermione's desire to be polite to Malfoy had nearly reached its limit.

Malfoy sighed in a put-upon fashion. "Yeah, fine. I'll make sure he knows."

"Thank you," Hermione replied a bit tersely, then Ron heard her retreating footsteps as she left the room.

Once he was sure Hermione was out of ear shot, Ron crawled out from beneath the desk. "Erm. Thanks," he said abashedly, avoiding eye contact with Malfoy as he straightened his robes.

"Well? What was that all about?" Malfoy demanded.

"Mind your own business," Ron muttered.

"Oh, no. I just covered for your miserable arse. You owe it to me to tell me why."

As much as he hated to admit it, Ron supposed Malfoy had a point. Still, he wasn't about to spill his guts to Draco bloody Malfoy. Sighing, he said, "I just… don't want to talk to Hermione right now. Not until I sort some things."

Malfoy snorted. "So much for Gryffindor courage."

"Yeah, maybe so," Ron said, feeling too defeated to object.

A silence stretched out while Ron stared blankly at one corner of the desk. At last Malfoy spoke again. "Look, I think I saw a bottle of Ogden's in the kitchen. It's positively wretched stuff, but I wouldn't turn down a drink right now. You want to go get it?"

Unable to think of a good reason to refuse, Ron shrugged. "Yeah, all right."

Five minutes later, Ron and Malfoy were sitting on the floor of the drawing room, a bottle of firewhisky between them and tumblers of the potent liquid in their hands. Lifting his glass into the air, Malfoy announced in his most haughty tone, "Normally I wouldn't advocate quaffing good liquor like it's butterbeer, but as this doesn't constitute 'good liquor', and I aim to get pissed, so -- bottoms up." With that, he brought the tumbler to his lips, tipped it back, and swallowed the firewhisky down in one smooth motion.

Not to be outdone by his adversary, Ron quickly followed suit. He clenched his teeth and pulled a face as the burning liquid hit his throat and slid down, but he refused to cough or complain on principle. Blinking slightly watery eyes, he saw that Malfoy was pouring them each a second glass.

"It's a sad state of affairs when you're the only person I have to drink with, Weasley," Malfoy remarked disdainfully. Before Ron could reply, a contemplative look passed over Malfoy's features, and he amended, "No, it's a sad state of affairs when you're one of the only people I would trust not to poison my drink when I wasn't looking. Merlin!" Malfoy appeared horrified by that notion, and he quickly threw back his second glass of firewhisky as though he needed it to dull the shock.

"Gee, Malfoy, I believe that's what they call a 'backhanded compliment'," Ron said dryly, then swallowed his own drink. Again Malfoy immediately refilled their glasses.

"The firewhisky must be going to my head already," Malfoy sniffed. "I didn't intend for it to be a compliment of any sort."

"Well, if it makes you more tolerable in the slightest, I say we keep drinking. Cheers." This time Ron didn't wait for Malfoy to drink first before tipping back his own glass, and Malfoy was forced to follow his example.

The tumblers were refilled once more, but neither Ron nor Malfoy seemed inclined to race to the bottom a fourth time. Ron noticed that the room had started to spin if he turned his head too fast, and he wondered vaguely whether Malfoy was also having difficulty feeling his feet. They sipped at their drinks in silence for some while before Malfoy abruptly asked, "Right, so what's the real reason you're avoiding the Mudb-- Granger? Shouldn't you two be settling down and planning to have a house full of appallingly red-haired offspring or something?"

"Uh, well. I seem to have decided that the whole 'married with a crop of sprogs' routine doesn't carry the appeal that everyone seems to think it should," Ron said, privately surprised that he had managed to get the words out without slurring any of them beyond recognition. Shrugging slightly, he added, "I dunno. Hermione and I dated for a little while. It just… didn't work out. I mean, once all the excitement of the war wore off, it… didn't feel right."

"Yeah," Malfoy said, giving a comically exaggerated nod. "That's the way it was with Pansy, pretty much. She kept talking about getting married and 'uniting our two families', but I was never that into her."

"So how'd she take it when you told her?"

"It took three weeks for the pustules to clear up and my face to quit sprouting tentacles."

"Ah."

"Yeah."

With that, the glasses were refilled again. Ron found that he no longer needed to turn his head in order for the room to spin.

"You made a terrible Death Eater, y'know," Ron said.

"Yeah, tha's why I wasn't a Death Eater," Malfoy replied.

"Whadoyoomean you weren't a Death Eater?" Ron asked incredulously. "You fought against us! You tried to catch Harry and turn him over to You-Know-Who!"

"I never took the Mark," Malfoy said, suddenly sounding quite sober. "Only the Dark Lord's inner circle got the Mark. He never trusted me that much."

"Merlin, Malfoy!" Ron said, fixing the not-quite-Death-Eater with a disbelieving and rather glassy-eyed gaze. "You almost sound like you're sorry you weren't better at killing people!"

"No, I didn't mean…!" Malfoy tipped up his glass and drained it, spilling some of the firewhiskey in the process. "It'd just be nice not to be a failure at something for once."

"So what do you want to do now?" Ron asked.

"I don't know. You?"

"I don't know."

* * * * *

The morning following the firewhisky incident, Ron couldn't quite seem to recall how he'd got to his bedroom the night before, and when he stumbled downstairs, he discovered that Draco had never made it to his at all. Entering the drawing room, Ron found Draco lying in an indignant sprawl half on and half off the faded settee. "Malfoy," Ron said, wincing as his head throbbed at the sound of his own voice.

Draco opened his eyes, then quickly shut them again. "Oh, fuck," he said hoarsely. Swallowing once, he added, "That's strange; I don't remember being run down by the Knight Bus."

"Ha bloody ha," said Ron as he gingerly settled into the chair opposite Draco. "I'd just like the record to show that the firewhisky was your idea."

"No one Imperioed you and made you drink it." Slowly, Draco hoisted himself upright, then sat there looking decidedly green.

The two sat in numb silence for several minutes before Ron remarked half-heartedly, "I suppose we should do something eventually. Shower… Get dressed… Make breakfast…"

"Ugh, don't talk about food," Draco groaned, putting his head in his hands.

Seeing the opportunity before him, Ron simply couldn't resist. "Hmm, yeah, breakfast," he said. "Maybe a big helping of bangers and mash, with so much gravy it's dripping off the edge of the plate. Or some rashers of nice, fatty bacon. And eggs, with the yolks really runny, so that when you cut into them, they pop open and ooze all over--"

Draco's hand flew to his mouth. "Oh, god," he said thickly, then hurtled from the room.

Deciding it was worth the added pain, Ron rose and trailed after Draco. He found him hunched over the toilet, hurling the previous night's firewhisky into the bowl, as expected. Smirking wickedly, Ron said, "So, remember back in second year when my spell backfired, and I vomited slugs, and you laughed at me? Consider this payback."

"Fuck you!" Draco moaned before succumbing to another round of violent sicking up.

Ron snickered at the response, but ultimately, Draco's situation was so pathetic that Ron couldn't help feeling sorry for the prat. "Oh, for crying out loud. Here," he finally said in a resigned tone, moving up behind Draco. "Let me get your hair."

The next several hours were spent alternately nursing and heckling each other through the remainder of their shared hangover, and thus something like a tentative friendship began. Unsurprisingly, the pair spent nearly as much time bickering and threatening to hex each other as they did engaged in civil conversation. Still, when he was being honest with himself, Ron couldn't deny that he found an odd sort of comfort in Draco's company. Despite their past -- and sometimes present -- animosity, Draco was one of the few people who was in the position to understand and relate to Ron's sense of purposelessness after the war, and Ron grew increasingly reliant upon his presence in the house.

It was early afternoon roughly three weeks after her last visit when Hermione came looking for Ron again. Ron and Draco had been talking over tea in the kitchen, and paused in their conversation upon hearing the muffled crack of Apparation from above. Hermione's voice reached them a moment later as she called out in search of Ron.

"Quick, get in the larder and I'll tell her you're not here," Draco said.

"No, no," Ron sighed, setting his tea cup down. "I have to face this some time. Might as well be now."

Draco flashed Ron a skeptical look, but didn't argue. He rose to leave just as Hermione entered the kitchen.

"Oh! There you are, Ron," she said, looking from Ron to Draco and back again as though she were surprised to find them coexisting in the same room. "Draco," she greeted somewhat hesitantly. "I wasn't certain if you were still here."

"I was just leaving," Draco said in his most disdainful tone, and gave Hermione a withering look before brushing past her and exiting the kitchen.

Her expression puzzled, Hermione watched Draco leave, then turned her attention back to Ron. "Were you and Draco just having tea? Together?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "Never mind him. You were looking for me..?" he prompted.

"Yes." Hermione looked around the room uncertainly before taking a seat next to Ron at the long table. "Ron, I need to talk to you."

Here it was, then. The conversation that Ron had been avoiding for weeks. The conversation in which he was going to have to explain to Hermione that he wasn't in love with her. That, after all the effort he put forth to be the sort of boyfriend she wanted and to get her to fall for him, he didn't really want her after all. Ron was fairly certain he would be a contender for the World's Greatest Pillock award by the time that afternoon was over.

When Ron didn't comment, Hermione pressed on, "I have to tell you some things."

"Oh, no, you really don't," Ron said, afraid she was about to confess her feelings for him, which would only make matters worse. Right, so he was a pillock and a coward.

"Yes, I do," Hermione insisted. "It's just that, well, we've barely seen each other in the last couple of months. I know that's mostly my fault because I've been busy studying to take my N.E.W.T.s, and I haven't made as much of an effort to come here as I should."

"Aw, Hermione, it's not your fault. I've done a lousy job of keeping in touch, and it's not like I can't leave this house if I want," Ron said. A pillock and a coward he might be, but he couldn't let Hermione take the blame for their not having seen each other when he was the one who'd been hiding under the desk the last time she'd come looking for him. "I understand about studying for N.E.W.T.s. I'm the one that should have tried harder…"

Hermione shook her head emphatically. "No, but see, I haven't just been studying. I've also been spending quite a bit of time with Viktor."

"Krum?" Ron asked, puzzled by the change in topic. "He's still in the country? What have you been hanging around with him for?" Hermione's expression told Ron everything he needed to know. "Oh. You… and Viktor." He was so stunned by the unexpected turn of events that he couldn't find anything else to say.

"It's not like you showed any interest once the war ended," Hermione said defensively. "Viktor said he always cared for me and hoped we might get together one day. You can't blame me for at least being flattered by that!"

"No. I. That's. But Krum? He doesn't really seem like your type. Not exactly much with the brains, is he?"

"Ron!"

"What??"

"Viktor is actually very intelligent. English just isn't his first language and he doesn't talk a lot, and anyway, that's not the point!" Hermione took a deep breath, then went on more calmly, "I'm not an idiot, Ron. I know things weren't going very well between us, and you started avoiding me. I need to know what happened and if… if I should be waiting for you or not."

Ron sighed heavily. "I guess once all the excitement died down, I had some time to think. And I sort of realized that getting a boring Ministry job and settling down with a girl and starting a family just wasn't what I wanted. I didn't know how to tell you."

"You don't want me," Hermione said, a bit sadly.

Quietly, Ron replied, "Not in the way you want me to."

"Ron, what do you want?" Hermione asked, sounding concerned.

Annoyed that Hermione was going into mother hen mode despite the fact that he had just effectively dumped her, Ron grumbled, "I just want things to be like they used to be."

"Well, they can't be," Hermione said. "We're grown ups now. We can't stay at Hogwarts playing Quidditch and studying for exams forever. Harry wants a family, I want a career… Things change," she concluded gently.

"That doesn't mean I have to like it!"

"Ronald," Hermione began in a scolding tone.

"I know, Hermione," Ron said, stopping her lecture before it could begin. "Look, I'll work it out on my own. I'll be fine. I just need some time. And I'm sorry I couldn't be the person you wanted me to be. I really did try."

"Oh, Ron," Hermione said, her eyes growing watery. "I just want us all to be happy. Voldemort's finally gone, and we're all still alive. We should be happy."

"So are we still friends?" Ron asked hesitantly.

"Of course we are!" Hermione replied firmly. "We've been friends since we were eleven years old!"

"All right then. As long as that hasn't changed, then I can deal with everything else. Harry can run off with my baby sister, and you can snog Viktor Krum, and Draco can act like a decent human being, and I can cope with it all as long as you and me and Harry are still mates."

Hermione arched one eyebrow and gave Ron a shrewd look. "Draco?"

"Yeah, well, he can actually be almost tolerable once you get enough firewhisky in him," Ron said, shrugging. "He's still an arrogant prat, but at least he's better company than the portrait of Mrs. Black. Shrieks less."

"I'll take your word for it," Hermione said, smiling in a vague way that told Ron she was thinking more than she was saying. "I've got to get going," she said, rising from the table. "I really do have to catch up on studying."

Ron stood as well. "Come back soon, all right?" he said, surprised that he meant the words. "And write to Harry and tell him to get his arse back here, at least for a couple of days."

"Write to him yourself!" Hermione said, swatting Ron on the arm. Growing serious again, she added, "Ron, I really am glad we finally talked."

"Yeah, me too."

Abruptly, Hermione stood on her toes and flung her arms around Ron, catching him up in a tight hug. "All right, I have to go. But you and Harry and I will see each other soon, I promise." With that, she pulled back from Ron, turned, and left Grimmauld Place.

Draco must have been watching for Hermione to leave, because Ron had barely had time to sit down again before he reentered the kitchen. "So how did it go?" he asked nonchalantly, flopping back down into the chair he had previously occupied and pulling a face at his now-cold cup of tea.

Despite his detached demeanor, Ron got the distinct sense that Draco was more interested in the subject than he was letting on. Ron shrugged. "A lot better than I expected, actually."

"You did tell her you weren't interested in dating her, right?" Draco asked, giving Ron a dubious look.

Ron vanished the cold tea from the cups and began reheating the pot. "Yeah, yeah, I told her."

"How'd she take it, then?" Draco pressed.

"Disturbingly well, actually," Ron said, then added, "She's dating Viktor Krum."

"Already?" Draco said, sounding more indignant about the matter than Ron felt. "Awfully fast, isn't it? Aren't you livid?"

"I probably would be if I weren't so busy being relieved," Ron replied.

Giving Ron an appraising look, Draco concluded, "Well, you got off lucky, I'd say. No pustules or tentacles."

"And no canaries," Ron agreed.

"Canaries?"

"Never mind," Ron said, grinning lopsidedly. "Maybe I'll tell you about it one of these days. Maybe when I'm drunk."

"Oh, do you want to drown your sorrows in firewhisky again?" Draco suggested, smirking.

Realizing he hadn't given Draco any obscene hand gestures in several days, Ron rectified the situation immediately. "Sod off, Malfoy."

* * * * *

After his conversation with Hermione, Ron felt as though a considerable weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Granted, he still didn't know what to do with the rest of his life or even where to begin, but at least the guilt and worry about disappointing Hermione was past. Especially since she hadn't been terribly disappointed. Ron thought he should probably be offended by that but chose not to examine the matter too closely.

Draco seemed to be in better spirits as well, evinced by the fact that he and Ron had managed three entire days since Hermione's visit without arguing. He did complain repeatedly, however, that he was painfully bored with the dreary interior of twelve Grimmauld Place, which led Ron to idly wonder whether they might be able to disguise and Disillusion Draco well enough to sneak him out of the house for a few hours. Eventually, Ron grew restless enough himself to put the idea to Draco and went to find him for this purpose. After glances into the kitchen, drawing room, and library failed to produce him, Ron swiftly went to Draco's room. He turned the knob, pushed the door open, and got as far as, "Hey, Draco, I was th--" before he stopped dead in his tracks.

Ron wasn't entirely certain whether it was Draco or himself who screamed like a girl. It might have been both of them. All he knew for sure was that there was screaming and that the situation most decidedly warranted it. Even growing up with five older brothers and sleeping in the Gryffindor boys' dormitory for six years hadn't prepared Ron for the sight of Draco Malfoy laying on his bed, naked as the day he was born, legs akimbo, head thrown back, and prick in hand.

"Oh my god! What the fuck, Malfoy?!" Ron shouted in a disturbingly high-pitched tone as soon as he was able to get his jaw working again.

Blushing scarlet, Draco frantically attempted to cover himself with his discarded robes, the duvet, and anything else within reach. "Haven't you ever heard of knocking?!"

"Haven't you ever heard of locking the door?!" Ron retorted, utterly horrified yet somehow unable to look away.

"So get the hell out of here already!" Draco shouted, looking up at Ron and clutching at the mass of fabric bundled haphazardly about his waist.

"All right!" Ron said, still unmoving.

"All right! So go!"

"Okay! Oh my god!" Finally getting his feet to work, Ron backed out of the room posthaste and slammed the door shut. He stood in stunned disbelief for a moment, said, "Oh my god!" one final time for good measure, then bolted down the stairs and into his own room. When Kreacher came to tell Ron that dinner was ready later that evening, Ron explained that he would be eating in his bedroom since he had no intention of coming out again, ever.

* * * * *

Once he got over the initial shock, of course Ron knew that he couldn't hide from Draco indefinitely. Therefore, he decided that the best course of action was to go about business as usual and pretend as though nothing even remotely out of the ordinary had taken place. Denial had its uses, despite what Hermione might think. Strangely enough, it was Draco who seemed to have the most difficulty behaving casually. All of his usual poise was replaced by frequent flushing and failure to meet Ron's gaze. Still, Ron told himself things would return to normal soon enough.

As it happened, he and Draco were back to their usual talking, bantering, and occasional sniping within a few days' time, but things had most decidedly not returned to normal. Ever since he had inadvertently seen Draco in solo flagrante, Ron couldn't seem to stop picturing it. It wasn't so bad when he had other things to occupy his mind, but when he was alone and the house was quiet, his thoughts insisted upon slipping back to Draco's smooth, pale skin; the flush of arousal that traveled down his chest; the rhythmic flex of his thigh muscles; his fist sliding over his cock…

And that was the problem right there. Ron should not have been thinking about anyone's cock, least of all Draco Malfoy's! Yet Draco's cock -- and many other parts of him, in fact -- had been featuring quite prominently in Ron's nighttime imaginings. Initially Draco came to him in vague dreams that left Ron sticky and panting. It grew increasingly difficult to prevent himself from revisiting those dreams in waking hours, and at last Ron had surrendered to the lure and taken himself in hand to thoughts of platinum hair and a lithe, masculine body. Afterward, Ron couldn't deny that, although it had resulted in a fair amount of anxiety, it had also resulted in one of the best orgasms of his life.

So Ron was attracted to Draco. There was really no denying it, try as he might. Once he had admitted the sad truth to himself, Ron's first irrational thought was that Draco must have slipped some kind of a lust philter into his tea. The obvious problem with that notion, however, was that, had Draco done such a thing, he would have taken advantage and acted upon it by now. No, Draco hadn't orchestrated it, and Ron was forced to accept that, somewhere along the way, his desires had taken an unexpected turn. There was absolutely no way Ron was going to let Draco know about it, though, and so he resigned himself to keeping his fantasies private.

In the mean time, Ron had managed to convince Draco that getting out of the house was a good idea, and the pair had begun slipping away for brief interludes. After their third such excursion, they returned to Grimmauld Place to find an incredibly displeased Kingsley Shacklebolt awaiting them in the entrance hall. Upon spotting Kingsley leaning against the wall, arms crossed, mouth turned down into a deep frown, Ron stopped so suddenly that Draco nearly ran into him.

Looking over Ron's shoulder, Kingsley asked by way of greeting, "What part of 'don't leave the house' did you fail to comprehend, Mr. Malfoy?"

Draco brushed past Ron to stand before Kingsley, his stance dignified and defiant. Ron tried very hard not to find it sexy. "Last I checked, Interim Minister Shacklebolt, I was not under arrest, and could come and go at will if I so chose."

"Oh, it's entirely your choice, but I thought you had a greater sense of self-preservation than this," replied Kingsley.

Ron had never seen the usually laid back Kingsley so livid, and he stepped forward in an attempt to defuse the situation. "Look Kingsley, we disguised ourselves and used a tonne of Disillusionment spells. No one recognized either one of us, and we were careful not to stay out too long."

"There are ways of getting around Disillusionment Charms," Kingsley said. "They didn't help Draco's parents today."

"What?" Draco asked, the aloof demeanor abruptly gone. "What about my parents?"

"Draco, there was an attempt on your parents' lives earlier today." Kingsley raised one hand and shook his head, staving off Draco's questions for the moment. "Your father is fine. Your mother was injured, but she's been taken to St. Mungo's. We have her under heavy guard, and she's expected to make a full recovery."

"So take me to her, then," Draco demanded.

Kingsley shook his head again. "I can't. It's not safe."

"You just said she was under guard!"

"She is, but getting you in and out of the building would be too risky right now," Kingsley said. "Anyone who wants to hurt you or your family will be watching, waiting for you to show up."

Realizing that Kingsley had a point, Ron laid a restraining hand on Draco's shoulder. "He's right, Draco. You should stay here. Kingsley'll let you know right away if anything changes. Right, Kingsley?"

"Of course," Kingsley agreed. Seeing that he was outnumbered, Draco nodded in defeat.

"I've got to get back to the Ministry," Kingsley went on. "I'll be in touch, although the Healers assure me Mrs. Malfoy's injuries aren't anything they can't handle. Oh, and Ron?" he added shrewdly, pausing with his hand on the front doorknob. "If you can't manage to avoid Draco, at least try not to be such a bad influence on him. Clearly this house isn't as big as I thought."

Ron gaped like a landed carp as Kingsley left the house and Disapparated. Shaking his head to gather his wits, he turned to Draco. "Right," he announced. "Firewhisky?"

"Good plan," Draco said.

After a stop in the kitchen, Ron once again found himself and Draco in the drawing room with a bottle of potent spirits, although neither of them seemed to be in quite as much of a rush to over imbibe. They sat on the floor with their backs against the settee and drank in silence for several minutes. At last the tension grew to be too much for Ron, and he said suddenly, "I'm sorry about your mum."

With a half-hearted snort, Draco said, "She's a former Death Eater. You think she should be in Azkaban."

"Yeah, maybe," Ron said noncommittally. "But I know what it's like to have one of your parents end up in hospital unexpectedly because of something like this."

"Your dad was in St. Mungos during fifth year," Draco said as though he had just recalled the event. "I remember hearing something about that."

"He was bitten by Voldemort's snake in the Ministry," Ron said.

Draco flinched slightly at the mention of the Dark Lord's name. "But he's fine now, right?"

"Yeah…" Ron wasn't certain that anyone in his family was really 'fine' just now, but they were doing their best to be.

There was another short silence, then Draco said hesitantly, "You. Uhm. I heard that one of your brothers… In the battle at Hogwarts…"

"Fred," Ron answered.

Draco looked up at Ron sharply, his expression stunned. "One of the twins?!"

Ron nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment.

"Fuck…" Draco said.

"Yeah," Ron agreed.

"I… don't know what that's like," Draco admitted quietly. "I mean, I lost family, but no one that I… My mother's upset that Aunt Bellatrix was killed, but I'm just glad she's gone. She was barking mad. She…" He swallowed once before continuing. "She made me torture people. I had no choice. If I didn't do it, she'd Cruciate me instead. She said-- said it would make me stronger for him. I'm glad she's gone."

Ron stared at the rug and tactfully pretended not to notice while Draco hastily wiped the excess moisture from his eyes with the back of his hand. Much to his dismay, he was overcome with a peculiar desire to put his arm around Draco or comfort him in some way, but he resisted the impulse. That would likely go over about as well as a poltergeist in a punch bowl, he thought. Unless… Recalling something from a previous conversation, Ron was struck with a sudden suspicion.

"Draco," Ron said slowly, setting his glass down and turning to face his companion. "Remember the last time we got drunk and you asked me why I wasn't dating Hermione? And I said it just didn't seem right? And you said the same thing had happened with Pansy?"

"Yeah," Draco replied, looking at Ron through narrowed eyes.

"Well, erm. I'm kind of wondering if maybe Pansy didn't seem right to you for the same reason that Hermione didn't seem right to me."

With a guarded air, Draco asked, "And what reason would that be?"

"Er, I dunno. Maybe she wasn't really your type," Ron prompted.

"What, exactly, are you suggesting my type might be, Weasley?" Draco demanded, his tone affronted and his hand tightening visibly around his glass.

"Hell, I don't know, Malfoy!" Ron said, throwing one hand up in frustration. "I was only wondering--"

"Well, don't! Just mind your own business for once!"

"What the hell is wrong with you?!" Ron shouted, but as he looked at Draco's unusually pale face and wide eyes, he realized the answer to his own question. He's afraid. He looks afraid. Abruptly, Ron recalled several things at once. The way Draco had glared at Hermione during her last visit. Draco's indignation on Ron's behalf when they learned that Hermione was already seeing someone else. Draco's improved mood after Ron and Hermione's final split. They were small things, and yet…

Ron never knew what possessed him to respond in the way that he did. No doubt the firewhisky had something to do with it. Sheer Gryffindor audacity was also likely to blame. Ron certainly didn't stop to analyze it. Without thinking, he simply leaned forward and kissed Draco.

Fully expecting to be hexed blind, Ron was beyond surprised when Draco responded with a startled gasp followed by a faint moan. Draco's lips quickly became pliant beneath Ron's, and the kiss was tentatively returned. Encouraged, Ron brought one hand up to rest lightly at the back of Draco's neck, and gently traced the outline of Draco's lips with his tongue. Draco's mouth opened willingly to him, and Ron gradually deepened the kiss, tasting, exploring.

Ron was slow, careful, afraid that a sudden move would alarm Draco and cause him to pull away. He didn't know exactly how things had come to this, but now that it has started, he didn't want it to stop. Snogging Draco was unfamiliar and unexpected, but it was also exhilarating and good. The feel of Draco's fine hair beneath his fingers was unbelievably sensual, as were the tiny sounds Draco was making, and the taste and the scent and his lips and his tongue and…

All at once, Draco pulled back, shaking his head emphatically. "Oh no. No way."

"Huh?" said Ron intelligently.

Draco wiped his damp lips with the sleeve of his robes. "Don't you dare," he said in a hoarse whisper.

Oh, hell. Ron's first thought was that he'd guessed wrong about Draco and had therefore made a complete arse of himself by coming onto a bloke who wasn't into other blokes. But no. By all indications, Draco had been enjoying it. "Wait. What?"

"You can't just… do this," Draco said, waving one arm to indicate their recent activities, "and then decide you were drunk and it was an accident tomorrow. I'm not a girl!"

"Yeah, I'd kind of noticed that!"

"Well, don't forget it again!" Draco said crossly, then turned and stormed out of the room. A few seconds later, Ron heard Draco's bedroom door slam. Thoroughly confused and vaguely mortified, Ron thumped his forehead against the edge of the settee and reached for the firewhisky.

* * * * *

The following day found Ron equally confused and mortified on top of extremely frustrated and a good many other things that he had yet to define. He lay in bed well into the afternoon, staring up at the ceiling and attempting to sort out exactly what had happened the night before. Aside from the blatantly obvious, of course. The only conclusion he could draw with absolute certainty was that all of his poring over Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches last year had been bloody useless.

Draco's outburst simply didn't make sense. The more he thought about it, the more Ron was sure Draco was attracted to him, or at the very least, had been enjoying the snog. So why had he stopped it? They'd been drinking, but they weren't drunk, so his accusation that Ron would declare it a firewhisky-induced accident didn't make any more sense than his assertion that he wasn't a girl. What was he afraid of?

As he turned these thoughts over in his head, Ron realized that the house had been completely silent and he hadn't heard a single sound to indicate Draco's presence all day. Most likely Draco was doing the same thing Ron was: hiding in his room. Of course, it was also possible that he'd left Grimmauld Place entirely. Rather than relieved, the notion only left Ron more miserable than before and worried to boot. He'd never forgive himself if the idiot was captured by Death Eaters while running away from him. Besides that, Ron just plain didn't want Draco to leave. It was only then that Ron began to realize just how much he had come to expect and depend upon Draco's companionship and genuinely like the git, for all his faults.

Growing increasingly agitated, Ron at last ventured from him room. Perhaps in the process of going about his daily ablutions, he and Draco would cross paths, or he would at least receive some evidence that Draco was still in the house. After having a shower, making tea, and poking at breakfast without seeing any sign of Draco, Ron actively went to find him. If Draco was still in the house, Ron was damn well going to make him stay, and if he had left… well, Ron would decide how to deal with that when it came to it.

Although he didn't truly expect to find Draco there, Ron checked all the usual places before going to Draco's room and knocking on the door. "Draco?" When his inquiry received no response, Ron banged harder. "Malfoy! I know you're in there, and if you don't open the door, I'm coming in anyway, if it takes a Blasting Charm!"

The door opened, and Draco scowled out at Ron. "A Blasting Charm?" he said disparagingly. "Have you ever thought of an Alohomora? Or perhaps simply trying the knob? Leave it to you to use the most inelegant approach available."

Ignoring the barb, Ron said, "I need to talk to you about last night."

Draco rolled his eyes. "It's not necessary. You'd been drinking, and apparently Gryffindor idiocy and cheap firewhisky don't mix well."

"What? No, wait a minute…"

"Luckily, I stopped you before you could do anything too dreadful, so there's really nothing to discuss."

"I wasn't bloody pissed!" Ron said, losing his patience with Draco's dodging. "I'm not here to apologize, or take it back, or make excuses!"

Irritably, Draco asked, "Then why are you here?"

Looking at Draco's petulant and wary expression, Ron knew precisely why he was there. Without preamble, he took two steps forward, grabbed Draco by the robes, and slammed their lips together. Draco yelped in protest but quickly relented as he had the night before. This kiss, however, was nothing like the previous one. It was fierce and demanding, all hot breath and bruised lips and dueling tongues. This time Ron wasn't careful, he wasn't gentle, and he wasn't letting Draco get away.

When Ron finally pulled back, Draco appeared dazed. "Are you really sure about this? Last time… you were hesitant… you didn't seem… If you're not serious about this, then I'm not interested," he concluded, attempting to sound firm, but not entirely succeeding.

So that was the reason Draco had flounced out the night before. He had mistaken Ron's caution for uncertainty. There were other, more complicated things suggested in Draco's remarks as well, but Ron didn't want to stop to consider all the implications just then. Instead, he moved forward again, pressing himself against Draco and making his erection obvious. "Does this feel like I'm not serious?

Draco gasped, and Ron took the opportunity to shove his tongue back into Draco's mouth. As they struggled against each other, Ron was gratified to feel Draco's burgeoning erection pressing back through his robes. Draco gave every bit as good as he got, and this time when they broke apart, Draco smirked. "Well, it's about time you came around. What took you so long, Weasley?"

Caught off guard by the question and Draco's abrupt change in demeanor, Ron asked, "What?"

"I've been waiting ages for you to notice how irresistible I am and make some kind of a move," Draco explained in his too-arrogant-to-be-real tone. Ron gave him an incredulous look, to which Draco responded, "You remember the time you walked in on me..?"

Ron snorted. "A little hard to forget!"

Draco leaned forward slowly until he was near enough that Ron could feel hot breath on his cheek. "I was thinking about you, you know," he whispered into Ron's ear. Ron was too stunned to reply, so Draco went on, "That's why I was so embarrassed the next day. I thought you'd heard me saying your name."

"Oh god," Ron groaned. The thought of Draco naked, flushed, cock in hand, stroking himself with Ron's name on his lips was simply too much. He lunged forward, capturing Draco's mouth a third time, and pushed Draco towards the bed.

Ron had never really done this sort of thing before, so he wasn't quite certain what was supposed to happen. However, he knew that he wanted to see Draco undressed again, so be began tugging roughly at the fastenings of Draco's robes. Draco responded in kind, and that was perfectly all right with Ron. They kissed awkwardly, breaking away long enough to peel off robes or strip away pants and then resuming. Once their clothing was carelessly discarded on the floor, they climbed onto the bed eagerly.

Now that he was stretched out on his back, Ron was abruptly hit with the realization that he was naked, with another wizard, and he didn't know what he was doing, and how did he get himself into these situations, anyway? Fighting back a wave of panic, he glanced up at Draco sitting beside him. He saw that Draco looked every bit as nervous as Ron felt, and somehow that laid Ron's fears to rest. Without another thought, he reached out and tugged Draco down on top of him, catching him up in another deep kiss. Limbs tangled, flesh met flesh, cocks aligned, and Ron and Draco groaned in unison.

Moving instinctively, Ron slid his hands down to grip Draco's arse, then pulled Draco to him as he rolled his own hips up. Draco arched his back and gasped at the maneuver, and Ron, deciding he liked that reaction, did it again, and again. Draco keened and buried his face in the crook of Ron's neck as Ron fell into a rhythm, moving Draco above him in a steady pull-thrust-grind-release. Draco's cock rubbed against Ron's skin and slid in the gathering pool of sweat and precome, while Ron's length slipped and pressed into Draco's hip. Ron found his whole world narrowed down to a sweating, panting, primal dance, and it was so good, so intense he didn't think he could stop if the whole bleeding house were on fire, and why hadn't they done this sooner??

"Ron…" Draco moaned, so Ron sucked on Draco's shoulder, neck, tasting salt, and pulled Draco to him harder. A moment later, Draco choked out, "Ron!" once more, and then Ron felt hot fluid spurting, spreading across his stomach as Draco shuddered above him. Draco had just come shouting Ron's name, his given name, and it was more than Ron could stand. With a desperate sound, he thrust one hand between them and took hold of his own cock. Draco's hand closed around his an instant later, and together they wrenched Ron's climax from him, not letting go until he was utterly spent.

As soon as it was over, Draco rolled to the side and flopped onto his back beside Ron. They lay still, not quite touching, gradually catching their breath. The silence went on a bit too long, and Ron thought he should say something to stave off the tension that threatened to rise up between them. Unfortunately, he seemed to be incapable of anything more than, "Wow."

Draco sniffed disparagingly. "Eloquent as always, Weasley."

"Oh, so we're back to 'Weasley' now? A couple of minutes ago I was 'Ron'."

Turning his head away, Draco mumbled, "Yes, well, there were extenuating circumstances."

Ron resisted the urge to laugh at what he thought was probably the greatest understatement of all time. If the circumstances had been 'extenuating', they had also been absolutely brilliant, and he sincerely hoped they'd be repeated. He thought that Draco might feel the same way, despite his current reticence, so he tentatively asked, "So, er, Draco. Earlier, you said you didn't want to do this if I wasn't serious about it. What'd you mean by 'serious'?"

"Oh, now is a fine time to be asking!" Draco said. "What do you think I meant?"

"I don't know, obviously, or I wouldn't be asking, now would I?" Realizing that Draco tended to use belligerence as a defense, Ron fought down his irritation. "Look, I just mean… Did you only want this to be a one-off? Or could we… keep doing this for as long as you're staying here?"

Draco's voice held a note of relief as he replied, "I'd hoped we might. Keep doing this, that is. This place is boring! I mean, can you think of a better way to pass the time?"

"Well, there's always firewhisky," Ron teased. Draco's response was a pointed glare, which only made Ron break into a wicked grin. In truth, though, he honestly couldn't think of a single thing he'd rather be doing just at the moment. He also suspected that it might be a bit more than a way to pass the time to Draco, not that the Slytherin prat would ever admit it outright. When it appeared that Draco wouldn't speak again, Ron ventured quietly, "So what about after you leave? What happens then?"

Draco was silent for a moment before he answered in a nonchalant tone, "Boredom's reach extends beyond the walls of this house. It's possible I'll still need to fend it off, wherever I end up. Maybe."

'Maybe' was good enough for Ron at present. Smirking, he said, "You once told me it was a sad state of affairs when I was the only person you had to drink with."

"Did I?" Draco asked airily.

"You did. If that was a sad state of affairs, then what do you call this?"

"An utterly depressing turn of events!" Draco lamented.

"Git."

"Idiot."

"Tosser."

"Twit."

"C'mere, you pillock!" On impulse, Ron reached over and hauled Draco half on top of him again. There was some muttered protest on Draco's part, but it was undermined by the fact that Ron could feel him grinning against his shoulder. Draco could be contrary and a right pain in the arse, but really, Ron was beginning to think that Slytherins were easier to figure out than girls.

Laying comfortably with Draco's lean body pressed up against him, Ron was, at that moment, and perhaps for the first time since the war had ended, content. He still had decisions to make and difficulties to face, but he'd deal with things in his own time. As he absently ran his fingers over Draco's arm, Ron considered the peculiar course of events that had brought him here, and for once, he thought that perhaps change wasn't always such a bad thing after all.