Ronald Weasley absently pulled at the fraying cuff of his sweater. In his mind, he was going over and over excuses to get out of going to the Burrow the next day. He didn't want to have to pretend everything was ok, and he didn't want to break up the monotony of his life. It would force him to think, to feel. Besides, Christmas just didn't mean anything to him anymore.
When the doorbell rang suddenly, Ron jumped. He stared at the front door of his small flat and wavered between answering it and ignoring it - after all, it was quite late and very cold out, what idiot would be out there now? After a minute of debating, Ron went to answer it.
Ron pulled the door open and saw a man's back, walking away. He must have given up on anyone answering. Ron's eyes darted from the shabby backpack to the dirty coat -- probably homeless, looking for some Christmas handouts. "Well, what do you want in the middle of the bloody night?" Ron grumbled.
The man turned. He was younger than Ron had first thought, with a boyish face under the stubble and overgrown auburn hair. He was biting his lip, and he looked a little familiar... The young man raised his eyes - his shining, green eyes - to Ron's.
No. It couldn't be. It couldn't. It didn't make sense. But... those eyes...
"Ron," the man said simply, and broke into a huge smile.
Ron just stared.
The young man blinked, then tugged at a lock of his own dark red hair. "It's dyed," he said self-consciously. "Sort of a disguise. I reckon I was thinking of you when I picked the color..." he grinned, then added, "my mum too..."
As if in a trance, Ron left the door yawning open and stepped forward. The shorter man looked at him a little uncertainly as Ron came right up next to him and roughly pushed back the hair from his forehead. There, zigzagging from hairline to eyebrow, was a dull red scar.
Ron's hand trembled. "Harry..."
Harry smiled again, almost shyly.
Ron enveloped him in a hug then, right around the arms and backpack and all. Harry's feet swung off the ground and he laughed.
"Where were you?!" Ron demanded, setting him back down. "I was so worried, and nobody would tell me anything! All I ever heard were rumors!"
"I'm sorry," Harry replied.
"Harry, what do you want for Christmas?"
Harry looked up at Ron over a pile of books, eyes bright and thoughtful. They were seventh years, lean and tall, nearly men.
"Don't you know, Ron?" Harry asked softly.
Ron knew. Of course he knew. But he shook his head, because they never talked about it.
Harry set down his quill and looked at the table, as if searching for words, then just shook his head.
Ron stared at Harry. He knew what he - Ron - wanted for Christmas. The affections of Harry Potter, and nothing more. Their mutual attraction had hung there between them for a long time now, unspoken, unacknowledged, and they were both aware of it. They moved around it and each other like a dance, weaving forward and back but at all times very observant of the line between them, and very careful not to cross it. They laughed at each other's jokes, helped each other with schoolwork, spent time together with Hermione - they did everything like normal best friends. But Ron didn't feel like a best friend anymore.
He felt like more.
He wanted more, and somehow he knew Harry did too. They never quite met each others' eyes anymore, tried to avoid being alone together, and blushed and looked away if they accidentally touched the others' hand. They knew it was there, but they were afraid to say anything. It was gnawing away at both of them, so slowly but persistently, from the inside out.
Ron's tried to sound casual, but his voice quavered. "Well, when you do figure out what you want, tell me won't you? 'Cause... I want to get you something good this year."
Harry picked up the quill and toyed with it, absentmindedly scratching at the corner of his notebook with it. Suddenly, he put it down forcefully. "I know what I want. There's something I want more than anything else... and I'm pretty sure you do too, Ron."
Ron's heart rate seemed to double.
"I'm tired of trying to ignore how I feel," Harry continued, his eyes stormy.
"M-me too," Ron whispered.
Suddenly there was a commotion behind them and they both turned to look. Dumbledore was standing just inside the open portrait hole, looking massive and noble with his flowing robes and hair. The expression on his face was very grave. He was looking right at Harry.
"Harry, would you come with me to my office?"
Ron woke up the next morning to find Harry's bed untouched and his things gone. Harry never returned to Hogwarts.
Looking around Ron's flat, Harry dropped his backpack and unzipped his jacket. He was thin underneath. Too thin.
"I need to ask you a favor," Harry said seriously. "I need a place to stay tonight --"
"Er, well... you know that it might be a threat to your safety, having me here. I want to make sure you know that. Death Eaters are always following me. I just never know how far behind they are..."
Ron nodded. "I understand. Of course you can stay here... but..." There were so many questions Ron wanted to ask Harry. Where had he been? What kind of life had he been living? Had he been protected, among friends, or had he been on the streets, running? Why was he here now? Ron didn't know what to ask first. "What happened to you?"
Harry rubbed his eyes. "Um, it's complicated. Really complicated. I'm still trying to figure all of it out for myself. I'll tell you someday, I promise. Just as soon as I can get myself to the point where I don't have to run and hide all the time. I'm getting closer... I'm sorry to bring you into it, thank you."
Ron shook his head amazed. "Harry, I'm not doing you any favors."
Harry looked puzzled.
"It's more like you're doing me a favor. God, I've missed you Harry."
Harry's face softened. "I'm sorry I had to go so suddenly. It was right before Christmas then too, wasn't it?" Harry nodded to the scrawny Christmas tree in the corner, the one Ginny had insisted on delivering the week before.
"Yeah, two years ago almost exactly."
"Well, we'll have this Christmas together at least..."
Ron stared up at the red and yellow leaves, his hands deep in his pockets, shoulders shrugged for warmth. Voldemort was dead... Voldemort was dead. It rang over and over in his head. Finally, Voldemort was dead. Ron kicked at some leaves on the ground.
Since he had graduated, he'd had a hard time adjusting to life away from Hogwarts. He had felt empty and oddly lopsided without Harry at school. Now he just felt utterly lost. He recognized nothing, didn't know where to go, what to do. But Hermione was there, feeling the same confusion to a lesser degree, and Ron clung to her. They pulled together. Perhaps that was the reason that Hermione, blushing charmingly, had finally told Ron she loved him. Or part of the reason, anyway. Hermione wouldn't have done that if Harry had been there. She had held back her feelings for years, Ron knew, because she didn't want to threaten the bond between the three of them. She had refused to compete with Harry for Ron's attention. The fact that she had confessed could only mean that she believed Harry was truly out of their lives now.
Maybe it would be best if Ron could believe that too.
Ron had no where else to go. Nothing else to do but try to return her feelings as best he could. Because she deserved that.
The two of them had woken up in Hermione's bed that morning to the news that Voldemort was dead. How, no one seemed to know. But Hermione and Ron rejoiced, knowing that that one death meant life for many others. And there was finally a glimmer of hope that it meant that Harry was still alive... the Boy Who Lived had to have been the one to kill Voldemort.
The gray sky blurred slightly. Warm arms wrapped around Ron from behind, gentle curves pressed against his back.
"Things will be ok now..." Hermione whispered. "He's ok. I know it..."
Ron closed his eyes and didn't say anything.
Ron set about making Harry comfortable. Harry's requests were; bath, food and sleep, in that order. Harry was back... he was exhausted and dirty and hungry, but Ron could help him with those problems, at least. He wanted to give Harry a nice evening, a nice Christmas, something normal, for once.
Harry emerged from the bathroom, clean shaven and smelling like soap, warm and sleepy, wearing a clean pair of Ron's pajamas. Ron's heart swelled at the sight of him. He made Harry comfortable on the couch with blankets, pillows and a tray for his dinner. While Harry shoveled away his food, Ron filled him in on what had happened at Hogwarts and in Ron's life, including the short relationship with Hermione that had ended with them agreeing that they worked better as friends. Ron couldn't get used to Harry's red hair, and finally told him so.
"I don't know how much good it really does as a disguise," Harry said. "It's not like I can ever get rid of this," he jabbed his finger at his scar which peeked between his bangs. "But at least it's something I can do," he finished with a huge yawn.
Ron smiled. "I bet you'd like to get some sleep." Harry nodded. Ron took his tray.
Ron came back into the room a few minutes later, in his pajamas and dragging his bedding behind him.
"What are you doing?"
"Sleeping in here."
"You don't have to..."
"I want to!" Ron grinned widely. "Somebody has to keep an eye on you."
Harry grinned sleepily. Ron turned out the light and settled onto his makeshift bed.
"Just like Hogwarts..."
"Yeah," Harry agreed. "Just like old times."
The room went quiet, aside from an occasional car passing. Ron knew he wouldn't be able to sleep that night, not with Harry so near. Everything that had happened since the doorbell had rung that evening was swirling around in Ron's mind. It was just like old times. It was just like the nights Ron had ached with longing for the black haired boy who was so near...
Madame Pomfrey was wasting her breath, Ron thought, giving her an obstinate look. No, he would not be going back to Gryffindor Tower that night, he would not be leaving Harry's side. Really, they had gone through this before, and two nights of watching over Harry in the hospital wing hadn't changed Ron's mind. Finally Madame Pomfrey threw her hands up and left.
Harry had succumbed to the influenza so easily. Ron wasn't really surprised. Stress had been gradually weighting Harry down for months now. Ron had listened to him mumble in his sleep, had seen him go through his classes in a daze. The Death Eaters were lurking nearby, letting Harry know they were there, stalking but not attacking, as if they were playing with their prey. And here was the result; Harry lying pale and thin, alternating between shivering in a light sleep or staring feverishly into space.
Ron had just lost his battle to keep himself from dozing off in his chair, when Harry shrieked. Ron jerked awake to see the thin boy twisting and trying to climb out of bed, frantic but weak and clumsy.
"Harry!" Ron grabbed Harry's shoulders. Harry pulled away, hissing in Parseltongue, his eyes wild. As Ron stared, both frightened and shocked, Harry slumped forward, head dropping toward his knees, letting tears fall freely onto the rumpled blankets.
"Make it stop," Harry sobbed.
Ron starred in horror. Gingerly, expecting Harry to snap at him, he reached out a shaking hand to rest it on Harry's heaving back.
Harry turned, looking feverish and confused. "Ron, you're here?"
"I'm here. You're safe, Harry..."
Harry seemed to be processing what Ron had said. Then without warning, he clawed at Ron's hand and twisted away, drunkenly grabbing the nightstand to keep himself from falling out of bed. "Ron... Ron..."
Ron's mouth had gone very dry. Part of him wanted to back away from Harry's insanity. "What...?"
"Ron, why don't you..." Harry's eyes gazed blankly at a spot above Ron's head. "Why... why don't you understand?"
"Understand what? I'm trying to understand, Harry."
"Why don't you notice? Why don't you know how I feel?! Why do you have to put on that act! Why do I have to put on that act?! Why can't we just... tell me Ron! --" Suddenly, Harry's head jerked toward an empty corner of the room. His eyes narrowed, and he began to hiss in Parselmouth again, spit flying.
Ron had called for Madame Pomfrey then. Later, when Harry was finally sleeping quietly again, a very tired and dazed Ron mulled over Harry's crazy words, gazing at Harry's pale skin, dark fringe of eyelashes, and full, slightly parted lips. "Harry... what did you mean?" Ron whispered.
But they never spoke of it again.
"Ron?" Harry ventured after a long silence.
Ron looked at the illuminated clock. 12:01.
"Happy Christmas, Harry."
"So, are you doing anything for Christmas this year?"
"Um... I'm supposed to go visit my family... but I wasn't really in the mood."
"Yeah... Christmas just felt... kind of flat. Fake."
"I'm not even sure where I was last Christmas... lost track of the date for a while." Harry paused. "Um, you know, I kept thinking about that one Christmas. I had... really hoped to make that a special Christmas..."
"...I've thought about that one a lot too... how things were before you had to go... how things might have been if you'd stayed..."
In a small voice, Harry asked. "Did you want it to be?"
"Yes..." Ron whispered. "Very much..."
"I was planning... hoping to give you what you wanted that Christmas. So, um..." Harry sat up with a soft rustle of covers. "You know... I really don't know when I can come back, or even if I can. But we have this Christmas. We have tonight. If you want to find out... how things could have been..."
Ron's heart had been beating very oddly. At that, it skipped a beat.
"God, Harry, yes. Of course, I want that more than anything..."
"Me too..." Harry whispered back, and he swung his bare feet out and padded across the floor to Ron then knelt down, timidly folding the covers back. Ron moved over to make room for him, in disbelief - and Harry crawled in next to him.
Almost automatically Ron enveloped Harry and pulled him close. He was shivering slightly, either from the cold or from nerves. Either way, Ron wanted to soothe it away, and snuggled against Harry. He felt so warm and good. Ron stroked his hair.
"Harry," Ron whispered, and Harry pulled back slightly to watch him in the dimness with curious, somber eyes. "I know you can't, but... I want you to stay with me. I want to take care of you." Ron sighed. "I don't know how I could protect you. I'm a mediocre wizard at best, not like you. But I want to, somehow..." Ron traced Harry's cheek with a fingertip. "I hate the thought of you being on your own out there. Promise me, even if it's a promise you can't keep, promise me that you'll come back to me someday..."
"I will, somehow, I will," Harry said immediately. "How could I stay away?" He paused. "My life has just gotten so weird... I-i've killed people..." he confessed, spreading his hands and staring at them. "I've killed lots of people. I've seen people die... people have died for me. It's so messed up, this screwed up kind of war, with me at the middle."
"It's ok," Ron whispered, stroking Harry's hair. "Don't think about it right now."
"Doesn't it bother you?"
Ron paused. He wanted to say no, but that would be a lie. "It doesn't change how I feel for you, Harry. Except for making me wish you could have had a normal life... and making me mad that it happened to you..."
"Ron, help me forget."
Ron looked into Harry's eyes; haunted, pleading, full of desire. Ron lowered his mouth to Harry's and savored the feeling of hot breath against his face for a few seconds. Then Harry closed his eyes and Ron pressed his lips against Harry's. Thank you... thank you. Even if it's just for tonight. Even if I never see him again... Harry opened his mouth and allowed Ron to stroke his tongue softly with his own.
"I love you. I love you," Dizzy with desire, Ron breathed the words into Harry's mouth. "I always have..."