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The Years Between

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Ron remembers a time when he could barely fit in the room. He remembers tripping over reporters in the doorway, pushing cameras out of his face, trying to part the sea of visitors crammed in like sardines, and wading through bouquets and flower arrangements taller than he was. Since he'd outgrown Bill three years ago, that was saying something.

He also remembers the day he realised he hadn't had to use a Glamour to walk through the door, since there was no one to hide from in the hallway. And the day he banished the last of the dying flowers; no new bouquets had come in for a long time beyond the annual bouquet from the Minister of Magic on the anniversary of the end of the War. He remembers having to ask that someone have the floors cleaned, since muddy footprints he'd left three weeks earlier after he'd Apparated in from a rainstorm in Cumbria were still drying. And he remembers the day Hermione tearfully assured him that just because she was moving to Australia for good didn't mean she couldn't come back often to visit.

She does visit often; she comes about once a week, and Ron is always glad to see her. He moved from active Auror duty to administration almost immediately after the attack so that he could keep regular hours and be with Harry as much as possible. The hospital staff have long since stopped trying to enforce regular visitor's hours for him, and Ron is often allowed to spend the night on the special chair he's had installed in the room. It gets a bit lonely, since he has no one to talk to when he's there nowadays. Sometimes he can set out a chess board on the bed tray and pretend Harry is better at chess than he ever was when he was awake. There's a wireless on the table next to Harry's bed, and Ron hasn't been to a live Quidditch match since before That Day, but he always has the wireless on when the Cannons play so that Harry won't miss the big win Ron knows is coming. And sometimes he just drinks a cup of tea and stares very hard at the leaves afterward, having acquired a new faith in Divination when he realised he might be able to use it to find out when ("Not if," he had growled at Ginny) Harry would wake up.

And sometimes Ron just watches the even, regular rise and fall of Harry's chest as he breathes. There are all kinds of medical spells on Harry, of course, monitoring spells and intravenous nourishment spells and about a hundred others that Ron doesn't understand but is grateful for just the same, since they're keeping Harry alive. There are particularly complicated spells that have isolated the damage that is causing the coma but ensure that Harry doesn't suffer further brain damage. The healers assure Ron that if Harry ever does wake, it will be just like waking up in the morning after a good rest, with only accident-specific amnesia, if any. There are even spells that keep Harry's body the same way it was on the day he was hit by the curse and went down. His hair doesn't grow and his muscles don't atrophy. He looks exactly the same, except he doesn't have his glasses on. Ron has made sure that the glasses are on the bedside table and will be ready when Harry needs them.

When Hermione comes to visit, she and Ron sit on opposite sides of Harry, and Ron reflects every time that Harry has always been the only thing between them that really holds them together. Ron always asks after Simon politely, and Hermione is very prim with her answers, but he can tell by the way one side of her mouth quirks upward and the way she turns her head slightly to the side that she is very happy with him. As she leaves, he always makes a vague promise to visit her in Australia sometime. They both know that he will come with Harry or not at all. Hermione always looks a little tense and a little sad when she turns in front of the elevator to wave to him one last time.

They used to fight a lot because of Harry. At first it was little things, like whose turn it was to sort through Harry's Owl post (before he stopped getting any), or unanswerable questions like whether or not a comatose person could hear everything being said in his presence. Soon, however, it escalated to bigger things, like when Ron used a stupid excuse (Hermione said) to cancel their engagement, saying he couldn't get married without Harry attending. "How can I get married without my best man?" he would say angrily, appalled that she could even think of taking such a big step when their best friend was in a coma. Hermione stopped mentioning the wedding. Ron was relieved. He didn't know how to tell her that he didn't want to get married at all.

One day, however, Hermione had come into Harry's hospital room looking sad and determined, and Ron could tell that he was going to have to Talk About It.

"It's been almost two years," Hermione had said tightly, looking down at her clasped hands. She was gripping so hard her knuckles were white, Ron noted. "You—I love Harry, you know I do, and I want nothing more than for him to come back to us. But—at a certain point—we have to move on."

"What are you saying?" Ron said.

"It's not healthy, the way you spend all your time here just watching him. If he doesn't wake up—"

"Don't," Ron cuts in.

"Someone has to think of that possibility, Ron, since you seem determined not to! There is a very real possibility that Harry will never wake up, and you're going to wake up fifty years later and realise that you've wasted your life watching over something that died long ago."

Ron had been so angry for a moment that he couldn't bring himself to answer.

"Harry would want you to move on," Hermione said gently, mistaking his silence for capitulation. "He would want—"

Finally Ron found his voice. "You don't know what Harry would have wanted. Don't pretend like you do. I hate it when everyone talks about what Harry would want when all they're really doing is justifying their own desire to forget, move on, pretend it never happened. Well, Harry is my best friend, and I'm never going to pretend like he never happened. I'm going to sit here and wait and when Harry wakes up he'll know that—that he was important enough to me that I didn't want to just move on like everyone else."

Hermione looked as if she'd been slapped. "That's not fair, Ron," she whispered. "No one wants to forget Harry ever happened, least of all me. But there's nothing we can do. We can come visit him regularly, we can make sure he's being taken care of, and when he wakes up we'll be here for him to help him. In the meantime, though, we have to get on with our lives. If we don't, it will be three lives wasted instead of just one."

Ron began to feel like everything was slipping away from him. "This isn't a waste," he said, his own voice sounding hoarse and desperate even to his own ears. "It can't be."

"Ron," she said quietly. "I'm not going to wait for him or you to get on with my life."

Ron looked up at her, standing before him looking determined despite the slight trembling of her lower lip. It had been over between them for months, he knew, but now it was out in the open.

"Don't you have anything to say?" Hermione said, looking anguished.

There was a still silence in the room, and Ron knew he had to tell her, to convince her that he wasn't crazy and that no amount of time spent here would mean he was wasting his life. He leaned forward, burying his hands in his hair.

"It was my fault, Hermione," he whispered.

He heard her get up and felt her hand at his shoulder. "I read the report, Ron," she said. "You weren't even there. It wasn't anybody's fault."

"No," he said. "You don't know. I haven't told anyone because I'm so ashamed. I wasn't there because—because we'd fought, and I lost my temper like I always do and—and I'd just asked to be reassigned. I told him I didn't want to be his partner anymore."

"Oh, Ron." Hermione's hand tightened on his shoulder.

"It was so stupid, too," he continued, hating himself all over again. "I'd just found out he was gay."

Hermione's hand slipped away. "Ron—" she began, her voice considerably less sympathetic.

"No, it's not what you think. It's not because of—bugger," Ron said, raising his face to look at her. "It's because I found out from that wanker Zacharias. Of all people. I was so angry that Harry hadn't told me. I thought we were best mates and that he would have told me anything. Everyone knew but me, Hermione. You knew, didn't you?"

She nodded, watching him keenly.

"Ginny knew, obviously, and Dean and Seamus and Bill and Fleur and Charlie and George—even Neville knew! I told Harry that we obviously weren't friends if he couldn't tell me something like that, and if he was keeping secrets from me I didn't think we could be partners anymore because partners have to be able to trust each other completely. And I asked for a transfer." Ron looked down again. He didn't mention that part of the jealousy had been due to something else entirely, something he hadn't been able to admit even to himself, something that had fed his anger and feelings of betrayal.

"I don't think I meant it," he continued. "It's no excuse, but I didn't think he'd be reassigned that afternoon and sent out on a mission. Usually things like that take weeks, and I probably would have calmed down and apologised." He didn't tell her that he was pretty sure Harry must have been so angry with Ron's irrational jealousy that he'd probably taken care of the reassignment himself. "But I didn't apologise, and he got a new partner within hours and went out that afternoon without me because I'm a shit friend and I was so busy being angry and offended that I wasn't there when he really needed me.

"Now you know," he said, avoiding her eyes, "why I can't leave him. I have to prove to him and to myself that I can be a better friend than that. I have to be here when he wakes up and I have to make it right. I can't let him lie here alone in this depressing hospital room. If I hadn't left him alone that day, he wouldn't be here now."

Hermione knelt before him. "No one could have known it would happen this way. I'm not saying you couldn't have been a bit more mature...well, a lot more mature about finding out, but we have no way of knowing whether things would have gone any differently than they did if you hadn't fallen out with Harry."

"But I could have been there, at least. I could have known that I did my best to help him. Or maybe it could have been me who took the curse. I know him, Hermione. The way he moves and thinks in an attack, which spells he uses and what he anticipates." He paused. "I think I know now why he didn't tell me. About being gay. He was afraid of what I would think of him, that I'd call him a poof and refuse to shower in the changing room if he was in there. It—it's killing me, knowing that he didn't know me, didn't trust me enough to tell me, because I have this terrible temper and get so jealous that he never knew—that I—"

Ron broke off. He'd only cried once since he'd found out, and that was because he'd been drunk. He didn't want to start now, so he swallowed it down. "He should have been able to trust me not to be a wanker about it. And I should have been there when he was under attack."

"Ron," Hermione whispered, reaching out to brush back his fringe. "There's no reason why you can't prove that to Harry if he wakes up. We're not leaving him. But you have to live your life. We have to live our life."

Ron pulled away. "You don't understand," he said bluntly. "I should have said it before. I'm sorry I didn't."

The change in Hermione's face told Ron that she did understand after all, but perhaps she'd been trying not to. She stood up, looking down at him.

For a moment Ron remembered what it had been like before, when he'd tried to love them both. It was tempting, thinking he could go back to trying, believing that he wouldn't be stretched too thin. But there was Harry on the bed beside them, still and silent and helpless.

Ron dropped his gaze to the floor. "I need a second chance. With him."

Hermione was silent for a long time. But she hugged him before she left, and four days later she announced her intention of moving to Australia for good.

::

It's been another year and a half since then, and Harry has been in a coma for almost three and a half years. As an Unspeakable posted to Sydney, Hermione has International Apparition clearance and can visit from Australia as often as she likes. She is Harry's only other visitor now, and she comes once a week. Ginny and Dean were married two years ago and have a daughter and another baby on the way. Ron's mum and dad gave up trying to convince Ron to move on after the first year; they visit Harry on holidays. And Harry still gets the token bouquet of flowers from the Minister of Magic on the anniversaries of the end of the War. Ron is always the only one around to receive them and chuck them out when the stay-fresh charms fade. But mostly it's just Ron sitting, watching, and waiting for Harry to wake up.

He almost doesn't realise what's going on when it finally happens. He's doing a crossword puzzle, getting frustrated as usual that he knows hardly any of the answers, when he sees a slight movement from the bed out of the corner of his eye.

Harry is still lying there, unmoving, and for a moment Ron thinks he's so tired that his vision is going and he's seeing phantom floaters or hallucinating. Then it happens again, and he realises it's Harry's hand, fingers curling slightly.

Heart beating furiously, Ron tells himself over and over that it doesn't mean anything. It's happened before, some slight movement that, in the early days, everyone thought presaged Harry's Awakening, but that turned out to be nothing more than a muscle or nerve spasm. But thoughts of what he will say to Harry when he wakes up jumble in his head just the same, just like they always do when this happens. It can't be, he thinks, but he knows he's hoping it is.

There's a rushing sound in his ears and he has sat bolt upright in his chair, crossword and quill dropped to the floor, just watching.

When Harry's eyelids move, Ron feels like the world is overturning, like he's going to throw up. He's frozen, turned to stone, can't move a muscle.

Harry's eyes blink open and Ron can only watch helplessly as he stares up at the ceiling.

It isn't until Harry turns his head, slowly, as if he thinks he might break his neck, that Ron comes out of his stupor. He stumbles forward and kneels by the bed, resting his hands next to Harry's because he's afraid to touch him. Harry blinks at him, his eyes hazy and unfocused, and his forehead crinkles as if he's trying very hard to remember how to speak.

Ron's own voice seems to have left him completely. He wants to say a thousand things, to whoop with joy or cry or laugh or even just say something completely mental like "Welcome back, Harry," but he can't do anything except stare.

Then Harry's eyes clear up, his lips part, and he mouths, "Ron," looking puzzled when no sound comes out. And he tries again. "Ron," he says, his voice rough with disuse, and Ron has never heard anything so wonderful in his life.

"I'm here," Ron says inanely, his chest feeling tight.

Harry's mouth begins to curve into a smile, and Ron reaches forward to clasp his hand.

But before he can reach Harry, people start pouring into the room. The entire St Mungo's staff must have been alerted, and before he knows it he's shoved out of the way, pushed out the door, and Harry's room is filled with people once more. Ron presses his face and hands to the window, frantic and upset, and then someone barks an order to an assistant and the window goes dark.

::

Ron is almost glad of all the people who have suddenly shown up. Almost, but not quite. He hasn't had a single moment alone with Harry since Harry woke up.

Three and a half years should have been enough time to come up with a good way to say everything he wants to say to Harry: that he's sorry, that he wants Harry to be able to forgive him and trust him, that he wants Harry to know that Ron will never again do something as stupid and childish as trying to punish Harry by abandoning him. That he loves Harry and wants to know if Harry could love him back.

But there are people everywhere. Ron can't believe that no one else seems to think Harry should be left alone. The hospital staff do not help; they are just as bad as everyone else. Ron witnessed a tearful and very public scene when Ginny arrived, without Dean, and sobbed all over Harry's hospital gown about how sorry she was to have been absent when he woke up. Harry patted her hair and said vaguely, "It's all right, I understand." Someone named Alistair, whom Ron has never even seen before, shows up and pushes his way to the front of the crow, saying, "Harry, I came as soon as I heard. I never gave up hope." What a wanker, Ron thinks sourly. Harry smiles up at him, looking happy and grateful, and Ron nearly bites through his tongue. But he doesn't try to stop Alistair from holding Harry's hand and bestowing dazzling smiles on assembled photographers. St Mungo's staff, journalists, people from the Ministry and the Auror Department, people who want the rights to Harry's story for yet another biography, supposed "friends" who had long since forgotten that Harry existed, they form an impenetrable circle around him, and Ron can't get through - doesn't even know if he wants to. All the people who had been sure that Harry would never wake up crowd around him, and Ron can only watch.

What could he say that wouldn't make him look like an arse and just make Harry feel bad? None of these tossers give a fuck about you, they all left you for dead years ago and they're all lying to you about how much they care. No, he can't say that. He can't be that bitter, jealous person who got Harry into this situation in the first place. He'll just be patient and wait until he can take Harry home. And then maybe they can have a few moments, at least, when the whole world isn't pushing and demanding and intruding.

Just as the healers promised, Harry hasn't sustained any brain damage or memory loss except for the circumstances of his attack, for which everyone is grateful. (Ron is afraid to ask exactly which circumstances Harry doesn't remember. So he doesn't.) Harry looked confused when he was told what the date was, and most of the time he looks blank and lost when people speak to him, though he has no trouble answering lucidly. Ron doesn't understand why Alistair was the one to bring a smile to Harry's face. Or perhaps he does, all too well.

Two days after Harry wakes up, Hermione arrives.

"I came as soon as I could," she says, breezing in, and Ron is so grateful that he hugs her.

They turn to Harry and Ron sees Harry's eyes look away from them, as if he had witnessed something he shouldn't have.

"I'm glad you're here," Ron says in an undertone, squeezing Hermione's hand. "It's a madhouse. I seem to be the only person who thinks that it's not good for Harry to be surrounded by all these people so soon after he's woken up. You'd think the medical staff would agree, but they're some of the worst of the lot."

"I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner," Hermione replies. "I've been unreachable for two weeks because of work." She pauses, smiling and tearing up. "You were right, Ron. I'm so glad." She lets go of his hand.

"Harry!" she says brightly, striding forward and pushing everyone out of her way.

"Hello," Harry says, and he has a smile for her, too.

Ron feels cheated. The smile Harry would have given him was snatched away in those moments after he first woke up.

Ron thinks he could have said anything then, before the rest of the world intruded, but now things are different, and all he feels is the cold awkwardness of things unsaid.

But Ron is determined to be the kind of friend that Harry deserves, the kind who doesn't get jealous of people on whom Harry bestows favours. He watches as Hermione bends to whisper something in Harry's ear, and doesn't allow himself to be upset that something happened in the years between that have made it difficult for Ron to feel like he has the right to just go up to Harry, to be familiar as if nothing has changed. He even envies his old self, the old self that could ruffle Harry's hair or punch him in the shoulder or find other ways to touch him that didn't mean something. Ron wants to get close but he can't.

Hermione straightens, beaming at Harry, and Harry opens his mouth to speak. The whole room holds its breath; these will be the first words he's spoken other than "hello," "yes," "no," and Ron's name (though no one heard that but Ron).

"I think I'd like to be alone now," he says, still looking like a lost boy in a pile of bed sheets.

Everyone grumbles in disappointment, but they all clear out. All except this Alistair person.

Ron wants to loom over him intimidatingly and say, "Didn't you hear him?" but he doesn't. It's Hermione who, after glancing at Ron significantly, turns to Alistair and says firmly, "Harry will Owl you later."

Alistair looks offended and turns to Harry for support. Harry just smiles and nods.

"Okay," he says sourly, but reaches for Harry's hand just the same. "You know where to reach me."

There's a short silence after he leaves.

"Who the fuck is that?" Ron says roughly. Internally, he winces, thinking of all the things he could have said that would have been better than that.

"That's Alistair Duckworth," Hermione says.

"Alistair Duckworth? Are you serious?"

"He was Harry's—"

"No," Harry says. "He's no one."

"You seemed happy to see him," Ron can't help saying, trying not to make it sound like an accusation.

Harry looks down at his hands. "Well, he's the only one of you who hasn't changed."

That makes Ron feel like an arse. He wants Harry to know that he hasn't changed either. But drawing a direct comparison between himself and a man who was obviously Harry's boyfriend at one point seems too obvious, too premature. So he continues to stand awkwardly near the doorway, though he wants more than anything to get closer, to sit in his chair next to Harry's bed like he did before Harry woke up. Hermione is still sitting on the bed next to Harry, occasionally stroking his hair as if she were Harry's mother.

"We're so happy that you're awake, Harry," she says.

"So am I," he replies dryly.

"I hate to think of you going back to Grimmauld Place all by yourself. You shouldn't live alone, at least not at first."

"I don't have anywhere else to go, do I? Ginny told me you're living in Australia now."

It's a bit eerie, how calm Harry seems about everything. But perhaps he's still befuddled.

"Yes," Hermione says. "But there's no reason you couldn't come stay with me if you wanted to, though that might mean even more to adjust to than just...the passing of time."

She looks at Ron out of the corner of her eye, a glance so quick that he doubts it even happened the moment afterward. "I'm sure you would be welcome at the Burrow. Molly needs someone to look after, now that all her children have flown the nest. Or, I know, why don't you go home with Ron?"

Ron wants that more than anything, to take care of Harry and watch over him, and he's been wondering how to bring it up, cursing his sudden shyness and inability to say anything. He waits for Harry's verdict with anxiety.

Harry turns to regard him, large eyes blinking behind his glasses. "I...I don't think I need looking after," he begins, but Hermione cuts him off.

"Oh, Harry, of course you do! It may not seem like it now, but it will be a big adjustment, and you need some time before you go back to work—"

"I know it's a big adjustment, Hermione," Harry says, and there's a hint of resentment in his voice.

"Wouldn't you rather have someone around?"

"I've got Kreacher. Unless he died."

"No, he's still alive, as far as I know." She looks faintly disapproving like she always does at the mention of a house elf. "But I mean someone close to you. Ron would be perfect. You know what it's like to live with him because of school, and he can help get you ready to go to work again since he knows everything that's been going on at the Ministry since your—accident."

Harry looks uncomfortable. Ron searches for a friendly, jocular way to tell Harry he wants nothing more than for Harry to come live with him. Forever.

"Ron has his own life," Harry says, plucking at the blanket and avoiding both Hermione's and Ron's eyes. Even looking unhappy and unsure of himself, Ron can't believe how good Harry looks. He takes a moment to wonder whether it's the stasis spells Harry has been on or just being awake and animated again that has given Harry a kind of brightness, as if life is emanating from him with particular strength and vibrancy. He feels an irrational, possessive urge to keep Harry all to himself, to shut him up away from the dangerous world that has taken so much from him, so that Harry can live and thrive and glow in peace, kept safe.

Ron frowns at himself. Being in love with Harry has obviously turned him into a complete sap.

"I don't want to be in his way," Harry is saying. "And I doubt I'll be going back to work. They probably don't need me anymore."

"You wouldn't be in my way, Harry," Ron says earnestly.

Harry peeps up at him uncertainly and Ron wants to kiss Harry right at the corner of his mouth where it is currently turning down slightly.

"Ron is the best person to take care of you," Hermione pipes up helpfully. "He's already given up ev—"

"It wouldn't be any trouble," Ron says loudly, embarrassed by the inevitable direction of her sentence. She might as well say Ron has no life apart from you, Harry. Now that Harry is awake and on the mend, it seems sad and pathetic, rather than loyal and faithful, that he spent all his time here and didn't make something of his life in the meantime. He should have used the time to become someone Harry would be proud to be with, not some obsessive sad sack with a dead-end career.

"What I mean is," Hermione continues, ignoring Ron, "Ron has been here every d—"

"You shouldn't be rattling around all alone in that gloomy old house anyway," Ron says, determined not to let her disclose the full extent of his sad, empty life. "I always thought it was mental that we didn't get a flat together after school. But," Ron continues, trying to communicate his understanding of why Harry kept his secret from Ron, "I guess you wanted your privacy."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Harry says, looking hurt.

Why does everything Ron say sound as if he's accusing Harry of something? He's trying to be better and everything is coming out wrong.

"Nothing! That is, er, even best mates can't be around each other all the time, can they?"

"I suppose not," Harry says, and he's looking back down at the blanket.

"But it's different now," Hermione says, having watched this exchange closely. "Harry, you do need someone to look after you, at least for now. You may not think so, but you do. And Ron is willing and able. It will only be for a bit."

"I still live in that tiny flat," Ron offers. "You remember. It will be close quarters but you won't be alone. I—" He swallows, taking the plunge. "I'd like it if you were there."

"I don't want to be a burden," Harry says unhappily.

Ron melts, and suddenly nothing is easier than leaning forward and taking Harry's hand. "You're my best friend, Harry," he says softly, looking into Harry's eyes. "Not a burden. Trust me."

Hermione stands up briskly. "Well, that's settled. I'm going to do some damage control with the papers—Alistair certainly made a spectacle of himself, didn't he?—and talk to the healers in charge of your case. I'm not at all convinced they are doing their jobs properly. You look so thin and weak."

No he doesn't, Ron thinks. He looks wonderful.

"I have been in a coma for three years," Harry reminds her.

"And this isn't a Muggle hospital. It's quite shocking; they're too busy giving interviews to make sure you're being fed. And that's something for you to think about too, Ron. You can't feed Harry fish and chips every day."

"I wouldn't do that," Ron says, hurt at Hermione's lack of faith. "I'm sure Mum will cook lots of nice things for us both. And I can learn."

"See that you do." She breezes out.

Harry moves his hands restlessly on the coverlet after she leaves.

"You all right?" Ron asks.

"Yeah," Harry says. "I mean. You're sure? About me coming to stay? Because really, I think Kreacher will be just fine to look after me—"

"I'm sure. Listen, Harry—" Ron is about to launch into the speech he prepared and fine-tuned and practiced over and over again, the apology and the declaration of undying devotion, but Harry looks at him, his eyes tired and a little frightened, and Ron doesn't want to overwhelm him. It seems odd that Harry isn't resentful or angry with Ron. And then Ron has a flash of insight. Perhaps Harry doesn't remember why they fought at all. Perhaps Harry doesn't remember why Ron wasn't with him that day. Perhaps Harry doesn't remember that Ron was such a colossal idiot. If that is the case, Ron doesn't want to remind him.

Harry is still watching him, waiting for Ron to finish his sentence.

"I'm just glad to have you back," Ron says. He'll have to confess eventually. But not before Harry is truly better. They both need more time.

::

Ron's flat is empty and sterile. He doesn't really live there, after all; he's basically been living in Harry's hospital room for the past few years.

How can he make it more comfortable? He solicits Hermione's help, but she tells him she's no good at decorating, and that Harry won't care.

Ron changes the sheets on his bed and takes down the yellowed Cannons posters, which seem embarrassingly adolescent. He buys a fluffy new duvet, a few potted plants and a rug, and spells the curtains to a lighter colour.

Harry has been told that though there is no degenerative change in his body because of the stasis spells, he still has to re-accustom himself to physical movement and to build up his strength again so that he can be weaned from the spells. Ron was there when Harry first tried to walk. It seemed easy, and he walked perfectly normally to the end of the hall, where he abruptly collapsed. Fortunately, Ron was there to catch him. A healer came running and Harry was levitated back to his room, where he received a stern lecture on not overtaxing himself. "If Mr Potter is to go home with you," she said, looking at Ron over the rim of her glasses, "you need to make sure he is not overextended. Everything must be gradual."

Right. Gradual. Ron decides there will be no bursts of confession about his feelings. He'll let Harry know gradually.

Harry is released two weeks after he wakes up. Ginny and Hermione both offer to help install Harry in Ron's flat but Ron refuses their help, wanting it to be just the two of them.

There is a crowd of photographers waiting in the Apparition lobby. Ron has to Apparate Harry side-along, since Harry is supposed to practice Apparating much shorter distances before he attempts channelling the magic it takes to achieve longer ones.

"Apparate us to the pavement in front of your building," Harry says. "I want to try walking up the stairs."

"But I'm on the seventh floor," Ron protests.

"We'll see how far I can get," Harry says determinedly. "When I can get up all the stairs on my own, we'll know I won't need to be looked after anymore."

Ron thinks about telling Harry that he wants to look after Harry forever, whether he needs it or not, but Harry is already putting his hand on Ron's arm, gripping lightly just above his elbow. There's something oddly trusting in the casualness of the gesture, the way Harry holds onto Ron without thinking twice. Ron never noticed things like this before, but now he is overwhelmed with a sense of protectiveness. He's wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, and he hopes Harry doesn't notice the gooseflesh that pops up on his arms.

"Ready?" he asks.

Harry nods, looking like he's bracing himself. His fingers grip just a bit tighter. Impulsively, Ron takes Harry's hand and draws it close so that their arms are linked, and then says "Apparate."

They land on the pavement and Ron leads Harry to the door to the stairs.

"Everything seems louder," Harry says. Someone is playing music through an open window, and someone else is shouting.

"You haven't been outside St Mungo's in a long time," Ron reminds him. He holds the door open and gestures for Harry to proceed up the stairs before him. "So I can catch you before you tumble down the stairs."

"I won't tumble down the stairs," Harry says defiantly.

They start their ascent. Harry is forced to stop sooner than either of them expect: on the landing between the first and second floors.

"I'd better not try to go any higher," he says, looking ashen and leaning against the wall.

"Right," Ron says, and steps up to Harry, bending over and catching him under the knees with one arm and around the shoulders with the other. He hoists Harry up in his arms. Harry is slight, lighter even than he looks. His trousers bunch up under the knee and Ron gets a glimpse of Harry's ankles, pale and bony.

"Hey," Harry protests weakly. "You're not carrying me up six more flights." He looks uncomfortable, but sags a bit just the same, letting his head rest on Ron's shoulder.

"No, I'm not." He Apparates them into his bedroom.

Harry blinks in surprise and lifts his head. "I don't remember it looking like this before."

"I made a few changes. I hope you like it," Ron says gruffly.

Harry looks straight at him. "Your posters, Ron. They're gone."

"I'd like to think I've grown up a bit since you last saw it," Ron says.

Harry looks away. "I liked the posters."

Ron feels rather hollow. "I can put them back up if you want." He'll have to buy new ones; he threw the others out.

"It's your room, your flat," Harry says, still not looking at him. "You should do you what you like."

Ron sets Harry down on the bed. "No, it's your room. I'll be sleeping on the couch."

"What?"

Ron turns away, feeling extremely silly for being hurt by the fact that Harry doesn't like the room anymore.

"Do you need anything? Hermione and Ginny put your stuff in the wardrobe. I'll go get us something for lunch. You can turn on the telly if you like. I get Muggle channels and the new Wizarding Network." He leaves the room and makes for the front door.

"I can't take your bedroom! Ron, don't be an idiot. I'll sleep on the sofa! RON!"

"Back in ten minutes," Ron says.

::

When he gets back, Harry is asleep on top of the coverlet, curled up on his side, his cheeks slightly flushed.

Ron resists the urge to wake him. He's spent enough time watching Harry sleep for a lifetime.

Instead, he puts the hot soup he bought in a bowl, slices an apple, and pours a glass of juice (child's food! Ron thinks, but the instructions from the healer were very specific), and puts it all on a tray next to the bed with a stay-fresh charm on it. Then he puts a silencing spell around the bedroom and goes out to sit on the couch and watch television.

It's a Saturday afternoon and there isn't much on. Ron doesn't know what to do with himself. Normally he would be sitting next to Harry at the hospital and waiting for Hermione to drop in, since she always came on weekends. He doesn't even get the Daily Prophet delivered here, since the Welcome Witch at St Mungo's would always give him hers. She liked him. If Ron hadn't been there every day because he could never look at anyone except Harry ever again, he thinks they could have had fun together.

Maybe he could dig out his old broom and go flying, now. Or buy a new one. Maybe Harry would like to do that with him after he got some of his strength back. Maybe he could finally take a vacation and actually go somewhere instead of using it as an excuse to spend more time at the hospital. Maybe Harry would like to go with him. Maybe he could start going to the pub again. He'd had to stop after Hermione had told him he was becoming an alcoholic a few months after the attack on Harry and he'd made a few dreadful scenes at the hospital when he tried to disperse the crowds of visitors in Harry's room. Would Harry go with him? Did Harry secretly enjoy gay clubs more than the local pub but had never had the courage to admit it to Ron before? Would Ron like gay clubs?

He hadn't really thought about what it meant to be in love with Harry beyond, well, being in love with Harry. There hadn't been room to consider anything else when Harry was in the coma. Ron had envisioned all sorts of ways in which he miraculously and wordlessly communicated his love epiphany to Harry immediately when Harry woke up, and they lived happily ever after. Things have turned out very differently from what he had imagined, and loving Harry means something a lot more complicated than a simple happy ending. He supposes it makes him gay. Does he feel gay? He certainly doesn't feel different.

A few hours later the Floo chimes and Hermione asks if she can come through from Ginny and Dean's house, where she is staying. "I have to get back to Sydney tonight; Simon is getting lonely." Ron nods and soon she is stepping out of the fireplace.

"Where's Harry?"

"He's sleeping in my room."

Hermione raises her eyebrows.

"I'm sleeping out here," Ron says. "On this sofa."

"Ron—"

"It's a nice sofa. That's why I bought it."

"It is a nice sofa," Hermione affirms.

There's a long silence, and Ron counts the number of times the clock ticks. 17. 18. 19—

"Have you told him?" Hermione says abruptly.

"Told him what?"

"Honestly, Ron," she says impatiently.

Ron keeps his eyes on the television. He feels silly even saying it out loud to Hermione; how on earth is he supposed to tell Harry? "It...wasn't the right moment."

"When will it be 'the right moment'?" Hermione presses.

"He's only just woken up. He's got to have time to accustom himself to...the way things are." Ron needs time to accustom himself to the way things are, to the fact that a Harry who is awake and alert is much harder to talk to about, er, feelings and stuff. "I don't want to spring it on him. The healer said everything had to be gradual. And I don't want to make it awkward here for him. It was hard enough getting him to agree to stay with me in the first place. Besides—"

"I'm impressed, Ron. That is a lot of excuses," Hermione says, cutting him off. "Are you afraid to tell him?"

"What? No! I just...don't think now is a good time."

"You've waited so long already. Remember when we talked about moving on with our lives? About not moving forward?

"Yeah. I also remember that you were wrong. Harry did wake up, and I'm glad I didn't just move on," Ron says.

"No, I wasn't wrong. We just got lucky, that's all, and Harry woke up. But he won't get those years back, and neither will you. You can't always be waiting for him to catch up, because then he never will. Let yourself move on. It will help Harry, too, no matter what his answer is."

Ron scuffs his shoe against the edge of the coffee table. "I don't know, Hermione."

She gazes at him inscrutably for a few moments, then sits down beside him on the sofa.

"Are you sure that you're really in love with him?"

Ron doesn't know how to take that. Should he be angry that she doesn't seem to recognise the depth of his feelings? But then, she has reason to be confused about how he feels, since he didn't recognise his feelings for her for so long, which led to a lot of unnecessary confusion and pain. Should he feel shame that he has misrepresented himself so badly that she could honestly interpret his feelings as some kind of self-delusion?

"Why would you ask that?" he says, raising his eyes to her face.

"I'm just afraid that you're...Ron, don't take this the wrong way. I'm happy with Simon, you know that, don't you? And I have no reason not to want you and Harry together, if that's what both of you want."

Ron nods. This is a strange way to preface whatever she's going to say.

"It's easy, sometimes, to—to mistake guilt for love," she says hurriedly. "I know you feel horribly guilty about the fact that you weren't with Harry that day. But you won't be doing Harry or yourself any favours if you stay with him just to atone."

It is impossible to know how to even being to set her straight. How could he ever hope to find the words to tell her that his feelings toward Harry encompass guilt and love, and every other emotion anyone can ever imagine feeling toward another person? There have been times throughout his life when he thought he hated Harry, when he stood in awe of him, when he felt pity for him and envied him and wanted to cuddle him like a stuffed bear. He'd been afraid of Harry before, and afraid for him. He'd been both embarrassed by him and proud of him. He'd felt betrayed by him. And now...now he feels infinite desire for him. Harry is everything, has burrowed a place for himself deep in Ron's very soul, and it took an attack and a three-year coma to wake Ron up and make him realise that he can't and won't ever willingly separate himself from Harry again. Even if Harry will never love Ron the way Ron loves Harry, Ron doesn't think he can ever be a whole person again without Harry.

"Hermione," he says finally, his voice sounding odd and rough, "I can't ever leave Harry. I don't know how else to say it. I—I need him and I think he needs me and—and I won't ever leave him. Ever." There really is no other way to say it.

She moves toward him, putting her hand on his arm. "So tell Harry that. He needs to know. Especially now, when he's feeling so lost."

"It's going to be too much too soon," Ron mutters. "He doesn't even remember that we fought, and what we fought about. I don't think he even knows that I know about him being—you know."

"Even better," Hermione says. "Then he won't have doubts about your sincerity, because he won't think you're trying to make up for something. Knowing Harry, that would be the first thing he'd think if he knew."

"I think I need to tell him about it before I try to—to say something."

"Believe it or not, there are some things that people are better off not knowing."

Ron cracks a grin. "Did you really just say that there are some things people don't need to know?"

She smiles back and swats him lightly on the arm. It's a moment of familiarity. Everything has been so different. Ron has a moment of wishing she didn't live quite so far away. He puts his arm around her, squeezing her shoulders.

They pull apart abruptly when they hear a throat clearing.

"Sorry to interrupt," Harry says, his hair sticking up in angry little points. The air around him crackles like static.

"Harry!" Hermione says brightly. "I'm glad you woke up before I had to leave. I'm going home—I suppose I have mountains of work to catch up on after these two weeks—but I'll be back next weekend for a short visit."

"Right," Harry says. "Why Australia, Hermione?"

Hermione's smile fades. "It's hard to explain. I'll tell you someday." She gets up. "Make sure you let Ginny or Molly know if Ron isn't feeding you properly." She pulls Harry into her arms and whispers something in his ear that makes him flush.

"Hermione!" he says, like an embarrassed child.

She laughs. "Goodbye, Ron."

"Bye."

She throws some powder into the fire and is gone in a moment.

Ron and Harry are left alone.

"Thanks for the lunch you left for me," Harry says. "I didn't mean to sleep so long. I s'pose the stairs tired me out more than I thought they would."

"That's all right."

Harry fidgets a little, shifting from one foot to the other.

"D'you want to watch telly with me?" Ron asks, patting the cushion next to him.

"Yes," Harry says, and quickly drops onto the sofa beside Ron.

They stare at the flickering light of the television and sit in a silence that may grow comfortable.

::

Harry has a list of spells and potions that he is not allowed to use on himself until he has been completely weaned off of the medical spells. Most don't matter because Harry doesn't use them anyway — vision correction charms, cosmetic Glamours, slimming Glamours, Polyjuice Potion, any Animagus or Metamorphmagus transformations, anything that will magically alter his physical appearance. Unfortunately, the depilo charm is also one of them. Harry's hair, when it begins to grow again, will grow in little fits and spurts as the stasis spells wear off and the potency is decreased. Ron is going through the list with Harry when he discovers that this will be one of the spells that is off limits.

Ron remembers the summer before fourth year when Harry had cleared his throat unhappily and asked, sounding embarrassed, whether Ron had learned how to shave yet or not.

"I can't ask my Uncle Vernon," he'd said. "And Sirius can't show me, obviously."

"We'll ask Bill," Ron replied decisively.

Bill had laughed and told them they'd get a lesson on using the depilo charm at school, but he'd shown them anyway. "It works anywhere on your body," he said, and then when Ron was showering later that day he discovered, with great indignation, that he had no hair below his neckline. The chafing when it started to grow back was painful. Harry had escaped that fate. Because Harry didn't have brothers who were complete tits.

Depilo is quick and painless, as Ron has cause to know, since Bill had sneakily given him such a practical demonstration. Shaving the Muggle way, however, does not sound quick and painless. In fact, the likelihood for ghastly accidents seems far too great for Ron's liking. Imagine getting near your own neck with a sharp razorblade! But there is nothing for it, since Harry declares a staunch aversion to the idea of growing a patchy, unsightly beard at age 25. Ron has seen the advertisements on the telly for Muggle razors, mostly of the electric variety. But they have no idea where to get those, and anyway there's no magic-electricity adapter in the flat. It will have to be the kind of shaving where you basically drag a knife over your skin.

Harry wants to go to the chemist's with Ron but Ron won't let him. "You know as much about any of this as I do," Ron says. "And if you collapse in the middle of the aisle it's going to look silly if I carry you out. We can't just Apparate out of a Muggle store."

Harry grinds his teeth a little but counts out the Muggle money and adjures Ron not to get carried away.

Ron comes home two hours later with four different kinds of razors and six tubes and cans of various shaving gels and creams and aftershaves.

"They all smell a bit dodgy," he informs Harry, dumping everything on the counter in his tiny bathroom.

"Wow," Harry says, picking each item up and studying it closely. "I've seen people do it before but—" He turns to Ron. "Will you help me?"

Ron blinks. "What, help you shave?"

"Yes."

"I don't know if I want to be responsible for accidentally slashing your throat, mate."

Harry just keeps staring at him, and it looks to Ron as if his eyes get bigger, more helpless, more beseeching. "Please. I trust you."

"Right," Ron says, unable to refuse. He picks up one of the bottles—Shave Gel, the label says—and reads the directions aloud. "'Leave skin wet. Put gel on fingertips. Gently rub over skin to lather and shave.' That doesn't sound too hard."

A few moments later Harry is sitting on the counter, face covered in foaming white froth, and Ron is ripping open the plastic packaging for one of the razors. "Anti-Friction Blades (tm)!" it shouts. "Removes more of each hair with less irritation!"

"What's a lubricating strip?" Ron asks Harry.

"I have no idea. But it sounds stupid."

Finally the razor is out and ready to be used.

"So I just—drag it over your face?"

"Yeah. But don't, like, dig in or anything. I think these blades are supposed to be really sharp."

Ron moves toward Harry and Harry automatically parts his knees so that Ron can step right up between his thighs. This suddenly feels far more intimate than Ron had envisioned it would be, and his breath catches a bit.

"Okay," he says, and he's automatically adjusted his voice so that it's softer, lower, space-appropriate. The kind of voice you use when there's no space between you and another person. Harry is staring at him.

Ron reaches out with one hand and gently takes Harry's jaw between his fingertips and turns Harry's head to the side. "I'll start on this side," he murmurs.

"Mm," Harry rumbles, and looks away.

It's easy, and Ron is impressed at the way the blade glides smoothly over the side of Harry's cheek. He dips the razor in water to rinse it after a few strokes, then taps it on the side of the basin to shake it off. The splashing water and clinking of the razor against the porcelain reverberates loudly against the tile and glass in the small bathroom. Otherwise, the only other sound is the sound of their breathing and the faint scrape of the razor as it pulls, close and sharp, across Harry's skin.

"Other side," he says, the mundane words feeling hot and important between them. Everything is cramped and close, a bit of steam rising from the warm water in the basin, Harry close enough that Ron can feel his body heat.

"Now above your lip."

Harry lengthens it a bit, stretching the skin out, and Ron completes that in a few short strokes. "Tilt your head up, I'm going to do your neck."

He is extra careful here, pulling slowly and deliberately upward, and he's watching very closely, following the contours of Harry's jaw line, adam's apple, chin. At one point, he realises that he's leaning forward quite far, and to keep his balance Harry has stretched one hand out behind him to rest on the counter and is clutching at Ron's shoulder with the other.

"I think I like it the Muggle way," Harry says, not looking at Ron. Ron feels himself flushing. What is going on?

All too soon, Ron is done. There are just a few thin streaks of white here and there, and not a single cut. Harry smells fresh and clean, just a faint essence of the scent of the shaving cream mingling in the air between them. Ron wants to follow the line of Harry's jaw with his nose, to nudge into the soft, smooth skin he's just achieved for Harry, to lick Harry's neck and feel Harry's arms around him.

Instead, he steps back. Harry's hand slides down the short sleeve of his faded t-shirt and onto his bicep, where it rests briefly before falling away.

Ron's heart is beating wildly. Did Harry want—?

"Ta," Harry says. "I can do the rest myself."

"Right," Ron says. He leaves the bathroom, trying not to feel frustrated.

::

In the next few weeks a lot of the same odd moments of charged intimacy occur, and Ron is going mad trying to decide whether he's imagining the strange tension between them and whether Harry even notices. Many times, Ron is about to say something, to take that irrevocable step and damn the consequences, but then Harry shies away or dismisses him abruptly. The easy camaraderie they had before the attack has somehow evaporated, and Ron feels as if he's having to figure out what they are to each other, and both are groping in the dark. Suddenly there are lines that can be crossed that did not exist before, a kind of new awareness that is both thrilling and terrifying. Sometimes Ron wishes he could go back to before, when he didn't realise, when he wasn't conscious. But now it's as if he's woken up from a good dream, cold and exposed and scared and alone, and his best friend is far away, on the other side of a chasm of unreachable possibilities.

Harry has begun to heal, however. He doesn't ask Ron for help shaving again, and though he still has to take lots of naps he seems to be adjusting quite well. At least, he never says anything, or evinces the kind of frustration that the healers had told Ron would be inevitable in this situation. He starts to take walks, to exercise, and soon he announces proudly that he can make it all the way up the stairs to Ron's flat in one go, with no breaks.

"What?" Ron says, immediately upset. "You've been using the stairs? What if you hadn't been able to? What if you had collapsed on the stairs? Do I need to put a tracking spell on you while I'm at work?"

"I just sit down on the steps if I need a rest. It took me almost four hours to get up the stairs the first day. But now I can do it all at once."

Ron feels what must be some sort of primitive cave man urge to carry Harry over his shoulder wherever he needs to go.

"I can't be a burden on you for the rest of my life," Harry says faintly. "I need to be independent again."

Ron realises that he'd been scowling at Harry, and purposely neutralises his face. "You're not a burden," he says automatically. I want to take care of you. "I just wish I didn't have to leave you alone all day."

"I don't mind," Harry says, heading for the kitchen.

Maybe Harry doesn't like Ron hovering about. Maybe Harry has sensed Ron's admittedly probably quite obvious desire for more than just friendship and is unhappy about it. Maybe Harry is eager to get away from him and move back to his own place. Maybe he wants to be able to spend time alone with Alistair Duckworth, the wanker with the ridiculous name.

Ron considers telling Harry that he can have dates over if he wants, even though the very thought makes his blood boil. At least this way he could keep an eye on them and hopefully scare them off. But then he remembers that Harry doesn't remember that Ron knows he's gay and that they fought about it. It would probably be better, Ron thinks, not to bring it up. Harry seems determined not to confide in him, though. About anything.

Several times Ron has tried to get him to talk about it, about how he feels. But conversations about feelings have never been Ron's strong suit. They go something like this:

"You all right, Harry?"

"Er. Yeah."

"Anything you wanna...you know. Talk about?"

Harry looks at him strangely. "I don't think so."

"Ok. Good. I'm here if you, er, if you need to talk. Or, you know, Hermione is. Here, I mean. For you. Well, she's in Australia but she told me to tell you that you can Floo her any time and anyway she'll be here on Saturday again—"

"It's fine, Ron, I know," and Harry smiles briefly. "There's nothing I need to talk about. I'm just trying to get used to...the way things are. Now."

Once, Ron gets brave enough to ask Harry what he remembers of the day he was attacked.

"I don't remember anything about that day," Harry says briefly. And that's that.

::

Things are becoming too strange between them. At first, there had been several things Ron could fault for it. Perhaps the long silences and awkward, careful interaction they had were a result of the feelings he hadn't known he'd had for Harry before. Maybe being in love with Harry had made Ron a different person, and now they couldn't be friends like they had been. But that hadn't been the case with Hermione. Love didn't change a person, Ron thought. It shouldn't. He'd done everything he could to keep from changing while Harry was in his coma. Perhaps, then, it was the fact of having been essentially parted for more than three years. That was bound to produce awkwardness. But Ron watches Harry hug Hermione, even joke with her, and they have had several whispered conversations on the sofa that Ron always comes upon by accident when he walks in after doing the washing up after Sunday dinner.

They never laugh together anymore, and Harry seems determined not to ask for Ron's help with anything, after the shaving incident. Harry's taken to going running in the mornings before Ron goes to work, but he never wants to go flying with Ron in the evenings. The best Ron can hope for now is an evening when they can sit next to each other on the sofa in silence and watch telly. Harry doesn't ever want to watch the Wizarding Network, not even any of the televised Quidditch matches.

What changed? What's made Harry pull away from him this way? It can't be the fight they had, because Harry has told Ron repeatedly that he doesn't remember what happened that day.

Ron doesn't want to push Harry. He doesn't want to make Harry talk, or bring it out in the open, he doesn't want to actually say that anything is wrong, because if Harry agrees, then that will make it real. He convinces himself that he just has to give Harry time. More time. Harry has to catch up, that's all. He's three and a half years behind.

There was one night that was different from all the others, and Ron holds on to that when he's feeling most sad and frustrated by the growing distance between them. They had been watching television together very late one night, and Harry had fallen asleep on the sofa, slumped over. Ron had put a blanket over Harry, but when Harry felt the weight of the blanket on him he had blinked sleepily up at Ron and reached out, mumbling, "Not yet. Don't go yet." Ron had sat down again next to him, and Harry had put his head in Ron's lap, one hand resting on Ron's thigh, and fallen asleep again. Ron hadn't moved for nearly four hours after that, the television on mute and one leg asleep, the other cramping from staying still for so long. Ron always thinks of that when he is most convinced that he and Harry have lost each other. He's afraid of overusing the memory, as if thinking of it too much will make it disintegrate and fade away. So he tries to think of it only when he really needs to. He remembers the weight of Harry's head, the way he had clutched at him even in sleep, the familiarity of it. It is really the only indication that Harry has made that he does need Ron.

One night, Ron comes home after work to find the flat dark and cold, meaning the warming charm that activates only when people are present in it had been off for some time.

He tells himself not to panic. Harry could be out with Ginny. Hadn't she mentioned wanting to take him shopping? Or maybe he's gone for a run. He's been doing more and more of that lately, saying that he needs to get back in shape now that he's almost completely off the stasis spells.

Ron paces around the flat and debates calling Hermione and demanding that she use her Unspeakable skills to track him down. If Harry isn't back by midnight, Ron promises himself, he'll call Hermione.

It's almost midnight when Ron hears laughter and voices outside the door, and then the jingling of keys, which is odd, since Harry doesn't need a key to get into the flat.

Ron gets up to open the door.

Harry looks up in surprise, holding a key to the lock. Behind him is a man. Ron takes one look at him and can tell he's a Muggle. No wonder Harry is doing the act with the keys.

"Ron! Hi. I—this is Tim," Harry says, gesturing at the man. Ron and Tim nod at each other. Tim is very tall, though not as tall as Ron, and a lot more gangly, Ron observes uncharitably.

"I thought you would be asleep," Harry is saying. Ron feels a wave of magic wash over him, and when he shuts the door and turns around, all the photographs and pictures on the wall are still. Harry has just de-magicked the entire flat without even drawing his wand.

"Was wondering where you were," Ron says shortly.

"Ron is my...roommate," Harry says to Tim.

"That right?" Tim says, smiling.

"Yeah. That's right," Ron grunts. It's too much of an effort to smile back, so Ron doesn't. He can't believe Harry has just introduced him as a roommate.

"Sit down," Harry is saying, looking flushed and nervous and excited all at once. "You want a drink or something? Ron, do we have anything?"

Tim sits down, eyeing Ron warily. Ron doesn't answer and doesn't move from where he's standing by the door with his arms crossed.

"Um, I'm fine, Harry. Your roomie's a big bloke, isn't he?" Tim says, laughing nervously.

Harry doesn't even look at Ron. "He hasn't always been so big," he says. "Late bloomer, I guess."

An awkward silence descends. Ron hopes he's making Tim uncomfortable. At this point, he hopes he's making Harry uncomfortable.

"Look, I should get going," Tim says, standing up hastily. "It's late, and I guess we all have work in the morning."

 

"Yeah," Ron says. "See you around."

"Wait, it's not even midnight," Harry says, sounding upset.

"I'll call you or something," Tim says.

Ron feels the air crackling weirdly. One look at Harry tells him why. He looks like he's trying to reign in a fit of temper that would likely shatter all the glass in the building.

"Right. I'll walk down with you," Harry says, his jaw clenching. They leave.

Ron has quite a while to calm down, since Harry doesn't come back for another half hour. He keeps reminding himself that he wasn't going to be the selfish, jealous best friend anymore, that he's going to support Harry in whatever Harry wants. If Harry wants Tim, Ron can't be unhappy about that. He repeats this to himself over and over, sitting on the sofa and waiting for Harry to come back.

Harry, it appears, hasn't calmed down. "What the fuck was that?" he shouts, slamming the door behind him, looking ready for a fight. He hasn't lost that nervous, excited look, and his cheeks are still flushed, almost blotchy, his hair sticking up in front.

"I'm sorry," Ron says humbly. "I—I don't know what got into me. I was so worried that you weren't here when I got home, and I just—"

Harry deflates quickly, looking like the wind has been taken out of his sails.

"Well—well, he was my friend," he persists. "The only friend I've made since—and you were horrid to him. Probably scared him off for good."

"Yeah, I mean. I shouldn't have. I was rude. I know. You—you can bring home anyone you want. I'll be better. In fact, I can leave, if you want me to. If you let me know in advance, I can stay at the office, or go visit George, or mum and dad."

"What? No, that's not what I want," Harry says, looking angry again. "I just—God, Ron."

"I’m sorry," Ron says again. "I know it's been a bit boring here, with just me."

Harry flops down on the other end of the sofa. "I'm so tired of this," he says. "I hate this. I'm not—it's too different. I've been doing—Muggle things, lately. I think it's good for me. Things are too strange, even with you, you're so different, you've changed, and—"

"What?" Ron croaks, a roaring sound in his ears. "Me?"

Harry looks over at him. "I—that's not what I mean." He looks uncomfortable. Maybe a little forlorn. His shoulders are hunched and he has pulled his knees up to his chest, picking at the toes of his shoes.

"Maybe it would be—better for both of us if I moved back to Grimmauld Place. I said I would once I could do the stairs."

Ron can't believe what he's hearing.

"Harry," he says, a little desperately. "I said I was sorry. I swear it won't happen again. I—I didn't mean for that to—don't move out because of that."

"I think it'd be for the best," Harry mumbles.

"You're not ready yet. You've only just come off the spells, I mean what if you—someone has to go with you to your medical appointments. I'm the only one who can get time off work at a moment's notice, I mean, that's the only reason I'm working this boring job—" He cuts off.

"Ron, we both need to...get on with things," Harry says.

Hermione had warned him, hadn't she? Ron feels empty. Hollow. "I don't even know what you mean by that," he says.

"Thanks for having me, Ron," Harry says. "I'll pack up tomorrow. Let's go for a drink or something on Friday, yeah?"

He gets up and goes to Ron's bedroom and shuts the door.

It would be stupid, Ron thinks, to call Hermione and tell her that he thinks his heart is broken. Who says that, anyway?

::

Three weeks later Ron finds himself at The Leaky Cauldron for a Christmas party hosted by Seamus Finnigan.

He hasn't been drunk since shortly after Harry first went into a coma. Back then, he got drunk almost every night out of guilt and remorse and sadness. He'd had many vivid dreams about Harry, always very strange and intense, and waking up after those was like having to hear the bad news all over again. Drinking had got rid of the dreams. After a few weeks of it, Hermione stopped speaking to him because he was drinking instead of "talking through his grief" as she had wanted him to do. When he woke up on the floor of his flat in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon in a pile of his own vomit, however, having missed work for the third day in a row, he'd realised that he was being pathetic and stupid. He saw a picture on the wall of himself with Harry on the day they completed Auror training, and he'd cried like a girl over it for almost four hours. Harry's life wasn't the only one that would be in limbo until he woke up. He and Harry had done everything together since they were eleven. Ron knew he couldn't be passed out in a drunken stupor when Harry woke up. He had to be there.

Things hadn't turned out as planned, though, and now there are proverbial oceans separating Ron from Harry. He hasn't seen Harry since Harry left his flat that horrible day three weeks ago, though Hermione has urged him repeatedly to visit Grimmauld Place.

"I can't, Hermione," he'd said. "I don't know how to fix whatever it is that's wrong. It was wrong almost from the moment after he woke up. I don't know how, but I made it worse and worse and he left."

Hermione brings Simon to the party, and once again Ron is vaguely surprised that they ended up together: Simon is very blond, one of those sun-kissed Australian surfing gods with a dazzling smile and not much in the way of brains. But he adores Hermione, lets her boss him around and treats her like a Queen, and she takes very good care of him.

Maybe he will visit Hermione, now. He'd always thought he and Harry could go together; Harry used to love travelling and seeing new places. They'd done it after Hogwarts, the three of them, backpacking all over Europe. It now seems unlikely that he and Harry will be doing much of anything together.

Harry is there, of course, and Ron watches him, watches his animated conversation with Dean and Ginny and Ernie MacMillan, sees the way he smiles easily and openly at everyone who approaches him. Ron feels himself getting more and more resentful and upset and utterly miserable. Why wasn't it so easy for him?

So he spends most of the evening letting himself drink as much as he wants and listening to Simon's inane pleasantries.

"I can't wait to get back. England is dismal in the winter. It's summer in Sydney right now, you know," he says, smiling at Ron. His teeth are blindingly white in the dim light.

"Er, yeah, I know," Ron says.

"But I just hate not being with Hermione every minute I can. We try to do everything together. Of course I can't come every weekend like she does but I didn't want to miss this party. She loves seeing her old friends. It's been great getting to know all of you. And coming here is sort of like using a time-turner. Everything is so old-fashioned. It's great, man."

After several hours of this kind of slightly nauseating conversation, Ron is ready to go home. He's feeling drunk enough that he shouldn't Apparate, but reckless enough that he half-hopes he will splinch himself and die. He already feels like his heart has been left behind somewhere in a hospital room at St Mungo's.

Hermione pulls Simon up out of his chair. "Come and meet Harry," she says.

"He hasn't met Harry yet?" Ron asks.

"No. I haven't even told him about Simon."

She drags Simon over to Harry, and Ron watches as Hermione puts her hand on Simon's arm and gestures at Harry. Harry, for some inexplicable reason, turns his head briefly to stare straight at Ron. Simon and Hermione likewise both turn their heads to see what Harry is looking at. They look puzzled when they see it's Ron. Harry quickly turns back to them and smiles, shaking Simon's hand. They start talking, and again, Ron is jealous of the way Harry is laughing at what whatever Simon is saying. Probably something about kangaroos.

He needs more firewhiskey.

Two hours later, Ron is well and truly shit-faced. Everything is loud and blurry and hot and crowded. He stumbles toward the loo to splash some cold water on his face, but when he turns the corner, he sees something that makes him stop in his tracks, swaying unsteadily.

Harry is there, standing right in the hallway in front the fucking loo, and some wanker – Alistair Fuckworth, was that his name? Duckworth, Fuckworth, no fucking difference, Ron thinks in a blind rage – is bent over him, leaning down, his intentions all too clear. And Harry, Harry is just—standing there, his hands on the man's chest. Letting it happen.

Suddenly, as if sensing Ron's presence, Harry turns his head to look straight at him.

Ron feels like he's been punched in the stomach. He can't control his own face, doesn't know how to make it look like he doesn't care, or to say "Excuse me," and politely walk past them. He just stares and stares.

"Ron," Harry says, sounding panicky, pushing Alistair away.

"You all right?" Alistair says, peering over at Ron.

Ron finally remembers how to work his mouth. "Fuckin'—fuckin' hell, Harry," he says, and storms away, hoping he doesn't trip and fall flat on his face.

"Ron, wait. Ron!" Harry calls after him, but Ron won't stop. He doesn't think he ever wants to see Harry again.

It's raining outside, of course, but Ron barely notices. He fumbles for his wand and Apparates back to his flat, stumbling when he lands. He's dripping all over the rug, too drunk and angry and upset to even notice if he's splinched himself. There's no blood, at least.

A loud crack makes him jump, and Harry is standing there, in his flat.

"You shouldn't have seen that," he says, sounding anguished.

"I can't b'lieve—" Ron breaks off, trying not to slur his words.

"I thought you knew, Ron," Harry blurts.

"Knew wha'?" Ron says angrily, his body shaking even though he doesn't feel cold.

"That day, before the attack, we fought about it. And then just now, you looked so surprised, like I'd lied to you all over again—"

Ron's head is pounding. He can't believe what he's hearing. "You remember," he says. "You—you said you didn', you made me think—why woul' you pr'tend—You remember! And all thish time—what the fuck." The anger and confusion and alcohol are swirling together in the pit of his stomach, making him feel sick.

Harry is just watching him, face unreadable and fists clenching at his sides. He's flushed again, that perfect mouth stained dark pink from another man's stubble, Ron thinks crazily.

"I fuckin'...I did everything for you," Ron slurs, and there's no stopping it now, it's all going to come pouring out of him. "I gave up m' life. You said everything ha' changed too much, but I didn' change. I purposely didn' change for three fuckin' years because I wanted us to be together, to be the same. I stopped ever'thing, I sat with you in tha' room, watchin' you breathe and waiting—for you to wake up when everyone else tol' me there was no poin', tha' you'd never wake up and I jus—" Ron's voice catches on something in his throat, a sob or a cough or something, god, he's going to cry, he's feeing so sorry for himself. "And then you wake up and it's all wrong, I tried to be better, I wanted you t'know tha' I wouldn't be a bad frien' anymore, I wouldn't ever leave you, I'd be good, but it wasn' right. Hermione was righ', I wasted my life, I should've never waited because I'm not the one you wanted. You wan'—Fuckworth, Suckworth, whashishname, but you should know he was never there, Harry. He never came to see you. I would know b'cause I was there every day. He doesn't deserve you—"

Harry has gone white as a sheet. "Ron," he says faintly. "What are you saying?"

"I was trying—I'm shorry, Harry, I shouldn'a left you tha' day, I know it was my fault. I was angry because I wanted—I wanted to be the one. I couldn' shtand—stand the thought of you with some other bloke. I'm shorry. I don't ever want you to leave. I would'a waited m' whole life in that hoshpital room if I had to. I would've."

Harry has taken a step closer. "Ron," he says quietly. "I don't want Alistair."

Ron growls, and before his brain catches up with his body, he lunges forward and shoves Harry against the wall. "Good," he breathes, looking down at Harry.

Harry is flushed again, blinking up at Ron. Ron is suddenly aware of Harry's breathing, harsh and panting, like he's run a long distance.

"Ron," he says again, and there's that voice that Ron remembers dimly, the Between Voice, the one that makes words come alive in the space between them, hot and flushed and intimate.

"Who do you want?" he asks, holding onto the front of Harry's shirt, unable to let go.

Harry makes a little noise, and in a flash his arms are around Ron's neck and he's clutching tightly, desperately, as if Ron is all that is keeping him from slipping back into oblivion. Ron slides his arms around Harry's middle and he pulls Harry right up against him, pressing him into the wall to get closer, as close as possible.

"I've been scared, Ron," Harry says, his voice muffled in Ron's neck. "I pretended I didn't remember because I was afraid, I thought that if you thought I didn't remember it wouldn't be weird, but you were different anyway. You were polite and careful and I didn't know how to get you back. I've been so confused and lonely and I didn't know how to tell you—I didn't tell you before because—because it is you, I want you. I want you."

Ron hopes he's hearing Harry right, because there's a warm feeling building up in him, like all the empty space where his heart was supposed to be filling up again, beating and warm and alive. He wants more than anything to see Harry's face, but Harry won't look up at him.

"H'rry," Ron mumbles happily, "your hair is ticklin' my neck."

Harry laughs, his body shivering slightly in Ron's arms, and he raises his head.

"Harry," Ron breathes, so close to something he thinks he may have wanted all his life, though he hadn't known it. "Please," is the only word he can think of to say to convey to Harry just how much he wants him.

Harry's eyes are sparkling, and the tip of his tongue moves out to moisten his lower lip.

Ron can't hold back any longer, and he stoops down quickly to catch Harry's lower lip in his own mouth. Harry opens his mouth immediately and Ron pushes in, wanting more, wanting everything, wanting to get impossibly closer. He can't stop moving his hands, smoothing them up Harry's chest, touching Harry's neck, stroking the side of his head, holding him close. Harry's hands are clutching at Ron's back and Ron feels like he might pass out from how good it feels.

There's something both slow and urgent, gentle and rough, about the way they move together, and it's the most intense feeling Ron has ever felt in his life. Ron can feel that Harry is hard, knows that he is too. He pushes his thigh between Harry's legs and Harry gasps into his mouth, breath stuttering and back arching. He squirms and bucks against Ron's leg, and Ron somehow finds it delightful, the way Harry is moving. He strokes Harry's stomach and undoes Harry's trousers with fumbling hands.

"Ron," Harry breathes, his eyes hazy and dark, lips swollen. "I—I'm almost—"

"It's okay," Ron murmurs. He reaches back with one hand to hold onto the curve of Harry's arse, pulling him in close and tight, and with the other, he cups Harry's cock through his shorts.

Harry hisses, eyes closing and head falling back against the wall, and Ron strokes him, leaning forward to kiss his neck and follow the line of his jaw. Harry smells so good, and Ron closes his eyes too, stroking and feeling Harry tighten like a bow. He comes soon after with a stuttering little cry, going limp and pliant in Ron's arms.

"Love you," Ron says reverently, kissing the spot below Harry's ear.

Harry laughs, and it's the most beautiful sound in the world. "You're still hard," he says.

"'m too drunk to come," Ron says, still obsessing over that spot and the way it makes Harry shiver with little aftershocks.

Harry stills. "Will you remember this in the morning?" he asks, his voice low.

Ron stops and pulls back. "Harry," he says quietly, stroking the side of his face and looking into his eyes. "This is the best night of my life. I'll remember it forever."

Just to be sure, Harry makes him take a double dose of hangover potion before they collapse in the bed together, Ron curled protectively around Harry.

::

When Ron wakes up the next morning with black hair tickling the underside of his chin, he smiles hugely for what feels like the first time in a long while, even though they're both still in last night's clothes and the hangover potion didn't quite eradicate his headache completely. He pulls back a little, and Harry makes a little noise in his sleep, scooting closer. Ron can't resist smoothing back Harry's fringe a little, stroking the side of his face.

It's amazing, Ron thinks, how different it is, watching Harry sleep now.

 

-end-