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Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he realized you couldn't continue to see a person the way you saw them when they were 14. Or you could, but that was utterly ridiculous.

One day he caught himself laughing with Draco Malfoy in the lift at the Ministry. Zena Sinkbottom, a secretary in Ludicrous Patents, swooped out of the lift as though she were the Minister of Magic herself, and he and Malfoy reflexively exchanged a look that said so many things without the words actually being spoken. Then Malfoy snorted and Ron dropped his head into a giggle as the doors closed and they continued on to the lobby.

Ron had been working in the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes with Malfoy for five years, had been sharing the same sprawling but cluttered office space with him for three, and had been eating lunch in the same back room with him for the last few months. But there was a way of regarding your fellow human beings the same way you did a selection of wizard cards: looking at them instead of into them, no matter how much they moved to get your attention. Of course, Malfoy didn't move; Ron wouldn't have thought to look, anyway. 

But when the door slid open again that morning, Draco nodded at him, a smile of camaraderie still on his lips, and Ron was suddenly a little disoriented, as though he were stepping into a new world instead of simply the lobby.

It turned out Draco Malfoy was a human being. He hadn't quite expected that.

*

Malfoy ate peanut butter. Every day. He slathered it on rye bread in combination with any given thing (commonly cucumbers or chicken salad or bean sprouts), but he always ate peanut butter. Even apart from his strange taste for bland food, he didn't eat at all like he had in the great hall at Hogwarts—boasting, with a crowd gathered around him—and Ron was startled to find that he had been expecting him to, even after all these years.

Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he realized people sometimes vanish into themselves and re-emerge anew but unnoticed. Ron wasn't sure what Malfoy had become—he was too quiet most days to attract notice among all those who had become grudgingly accustomed to his presence in the Ministry building—but he was decidedly not the sneering attention whore he had been when they were younger. 

Malfoy ate slowly, methodically. As he did, the sleeve of his robe rode up his arm and revealed the bottom of a tattoo grown grey-blue with age. Ron wondered how a person could live with such a thing on his arm.

Instead of asking that, Ron said, "So what's with the peanut butter?"

Malfoy's head snapped up, but he did not glare. He merely shrugged. "I like the texture."

When his head bowed again, Ron thought about the texture of Malfoy's hair, which was as fine as it always had been but was now coursed through with some kind of styling product. He dressed like a Muggle underneath his robes: in modern blue jeans and t-shirts. One morning in the lift a few days later Ron watched him remove a shiny silver bar from his eyebrow before he walked out onto their floor. There were also days where he was quite sure Malfoy was wearing an almost imperceptible trace of…eyeliner?

Draco Malfoy was apparently a fascinating creature. That realization made Ron vaguely ill.

*

Ron wanted to get him talking. He needed to. 

He thought at first his goading him was meant to produce proof—that people don't change as much as Malfoy had. They can't. He found that he was desperate to see him react the way he always had. 

"Do you still play Quidditch?" Ron asked him suddenly one afternoon. 

Malfoy had adapted to fielding random questions from Ron by then (even if he still didn't initiate conversation on his own), so he didn't flinch. "No."

"Not even with your friends?"

"No."

"Not surprising that you'd let it go. You never were very good at it."

Draco's eyebrow went up (the one that usually held the piercing, Ron noted), and he said, "And you always were transparent when you chose to pick a fight."

"I didn't need to, most of the time. You usually started it."

This was the first time in years that Ron had spoken a word to him to draw both of their minds back to that past that now seemed so distant, as if it couldn't be real. Ron practically held his breath, wondering what the response would be.

Draco just smiled, then he got up from his desk to go send out a package by owl. As he got to the doorway, he paused, leaning himself into the frame. 

Calmly but pointedly, he said, "If you've something to ask me, Weasley, the civilized thing to do is simply come out with it." Then he disappeared through the door.

Ron really had no idea what it was he wanted to say to Malfoy, but the fact that there was something to say that didn't have to do with work and couldn't be spoken in muttered curses or lashed out insults was surprising to say the least. 

Ron had been closer to twenty than thirty when he realized you couldn't look in the mirror and keep on regarding yourself the same way you did when you were 14 or else you'd behave as though you were. He understood, nearer thirty now, that his pestering Malfoy was as much about setting his own world right as it was anything. He had to see that same deviant spark in the man's eyes—something, anything reminiscent of Gryffindor versus Slytherin, ugly looks traded over potions, being young and ready for the world. 

But that wasn't at all what he got.

*

Ron's father had unbeknownst to him put in his name for a promotion, and a few days after that promotion came down, he began to go out to do field work, managing the relationship between the magical world and the Muggles who weren't supposed to know it existed. It was a good job as Ministry jobs went—comfortable, challenging enough but not too dangerous—so he supposed he was happy. At any rate, he wouldn't have to be cooped up in the office all day.

He didn't miss that large room with its perfectly blue walls until he stepped back into it at the end of the day to file his first batch of reports. It was quiet in his office, not a calm but a focus, and coming in after being gone made him realize why immediately: all the energy in the room swirled down around a head of purposefully messy white-blonde hair, over a smooth face, improbably dark lashes, gray eyes.

"How did it go, Weasley?" Malfoy said, and it startled him, having the conversation initiated by Malfoy for once.

"Fine, I 'spose."

With a nod, he replied, "I suspect you'll do well, then. It's only the nervous cases that can't cut it. You got over being nervous a long time ago, didn't you?" His eyes sparkled before his attention fell back on his papers.

It was like Malfoy had just thrown all that quiet energy in the room around him, pulled it tight. Had it always been that way? He didn't think so. But there had been something growing there, and Ron couldn't get used to it, not even after a couple of weeks of making awkward but purportedly casual conversation with the man. He thought he should want him to be drawn up inside himself, still smarting over having been a defeated junior Death Eater; but Ron didn't, and Malfoy wasn't. He just wasn't. 

He suddenly wondered why this poised person had never moved beyond desk work.

"Malfoy?" 

"Hmm?" Gray eyes snapped up and captured his again.

"You haven't ever thought about…" Feeling a sinking in his stomach, he said, "Nevermind."

A light but bitter peal of laughter rose from Malfoy's chest. Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he realized that people make sacrifices for maturity, or at least that's what they tell themselves in order to endure. 

"It wasn't that I can't do it, Weasley. They offered. I didn't want to."

"Why?"

A hint of weariness, but a wave of his hand attempted to divert attention; it looked like the old Malfoy's dismissive gestures, except the dismissal was directed back at himself. 

"It's too complicated with me."

Ron had the urge to grab him and shake him. He settled for a mature nod before he walked out the door.

*

Ron lived alone. His flat in the less pricey magical part of London was tiny, and no one in his family came to see him there but his parents and Bill, sometimes Percy. It was what he wanted, to be on his own. He couldn't be like George, still living at the Burrow with his family underfoot all the time. 

He had a quiet life, especially when compared to his old friends and their exciting jobs. Harry and Ginny were Aurors, and Hermione was off doing Merlin knew what to keep one disgruntled species or another cooperating with the rest of the magical world. Neville and Luna were in Russia, dealing with dangerous plants; Charlie was still in Romania with his dragons. 

At times, he almost felt like a squib—not because he couldn't do magic, but because he felt like he was just skirting the edges of the magical world, like he somehow didn't belong. For one, he'd never cultivated any great talents for wild and dangerous work. He sometimes felt as if working a normal job and going home to a normal wizard's life wasn't enough. He supposed it would always seem that way after a childhood lived as Harry Potter's best friend.

He hadn't known then that it would be the most exciting time of his life. He took for granted that it was a beginning, not a temporary thing, bright but brief like a bloom on a flower. No one ever told him that getting older meant loneliness could settle down into his bones like this, that the world could seem so remote and silent sometimes. On all those afternoons walking the Muggle city, imagining he saw him in every head of bleached blonde hair, he thought that Malfoy understood it perfectly, back there behind his desk, living a life that must have shook his family tree for all its lack of ambition.

Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he realized he might, in some respects, have more in common with Draco Malfoy than Harry Potter.

*

Most afternoons, Ron fell into his chair in the office with a sigh and waited to hear what he had missed in being out of the building all day. He waited to hear because he'd come to realize that Malfoy was quite happy to talk to a person who was willing to truly listen. 

Whether Malfoy was in a quiet mood, going on about something esoteric and only half-intelligible, or whether he was in the rare and at first startling mood to rattle off quick and sharp conversation at him, Ron found himself rather mesmerized by the man. Malfoy would often start innocently enough, with a complaint about something or someone, as if he were just making random conversation, but then he would always veer off into self-deprecation and long and winding stories, complete with vehement hand gestures. 

He told him about things that likely no one else would find amusing enough to repeat, but in Malfoy's mischievously sardonic tone they were absorbing. He told him all about the new batch of Aurors and reported on all of Percy's misfortunes, as well as the gossip from the continuing love quadrangle in the Underage Magic office. And he kept him updated with the scores from the Quidditch day games. 

After most everyone else had promptly exited the office at quitting time, the two of them took their time packing up their day, and no matter what else they discussed, somehow the conversation always devolved into them trading between them oddities they'd uncovered about Muggle London. He quickly found that Malfoy knew at least twice as much as he did, even if he sat behind a desk all day. In fact, once or twice, Ron got out of sticky situations in the field because of something Malfoy had told him that he had regarded with incredulity only a few days before.

He didn't bother to think of why he should be so incredulous until he realized it wasn't about the kind of information he got but about the particular source. It really made no sense that someone who once wanted to rid the world of Muggles altogether or use them as slaves would know so much about them—and share it with no distortion or propaganda. The only conclusion Ron could come to made even less sense.

"You live on the outside, don't you?" Ron asked him one afternoon.

Malfoy paused, then he nodded. It wasn't like it was forbidden to live in the non-magical parts of the city, but it made a wizard's life much harder, given all the regulations. Most people who chose that life didn't make a point of talking about it, especially in the Ministry. 

"Why?"

"Why the bloody hell not?" Malfoy's voice was defensive and brittle but carefully modulated with self-assurance and control. Ron couldn't in the slightest make sense of why he should be living on the outside. Of course, by then, he'd found himself puzzling over most aspects of Malfoy's life and habits—almost obsessively, if he was honest with himself. He couldn't get something about the man's face or his voice out of his head.

Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he remembered how nice it could be to get to know someone, learn them from the inside out so you could talk to them easier, maybe even get under their skin. Bewildering, but nice. Maybe even the tiniest bit exhilarating, that first spark, that first real pull of chemistry with a person. It only felt like flirting when he thought about it like that, so he mostly tried to tell himself this was just Malfoy. He already knew Malfoy.

But, of course, he really, really wasn't Malfoy anymore.

One afternoon during their conversation, Ron handed him a jar of special Muggle peanut butter he'd found in the field, a kind striated with some sort of hazelnut spread. He hadn't been able to help picking it up, even if he didn't know if Malfoy would use it. He hadn't expected anyone would eat hazelnut and peanut butter with something like eggplant, but of course Malfoy did. Ron knew; he took a peek at his lunch before he left the next day.

As he'd handed over the jar, Ron made a decision.

He said, "It's weird out there, doing this job without you, you know…Draco."

Malfoy gave him an odd, indescribable smile. "Well, I suspect it's weird anywhere that you are, Weasley." 

*

Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he learned first-hand that Muggle beer is truly awful, but at least it gets a person properly drunk.

Draco's finger swirled around the edge of the pint glass, and his eyes drifted all over the pub. Ron had guessed correctly that he'd wear his eyebrow piercing. But somehow, despite what he knew, until he saw it with his own two eyes, he hadn't guessed Draco would seem so at home there, that he would know everyone in the pub well enough that Ron couldn't quite get in a conversation with him. 

He also hadn't guessed that Draco would lay his hand on so many blokes' arms so easily when they drifted over to the table to talk to him. That development was so flabbergasting he frankly stopped worrying about not being able to talk to him because he didn't know what he would say. 

Finally, Draco nodded at the far back corner, where it was quieter. They sat on two stools at the wall, facing out over the rest of the room.

Ron said, "Why are you still in the wizarding world, then?" No preamble. The last two hours had been the preamble.

Draco laughed, in sharp hollow tones that he had begun to recognize as self-effacement. "Because I'm a wizard."

"I'm serious."

"So am I."

"Then bloody well act like it."

"Who says I'm not?" Draco's eyes searched over his, genuinely confused. Perhaps a little irritated, but he was hiding it remarkably well.

"You live in Muggle London, for Mer—" He glanced around him, then he hissed, "For God's sakes. And you act…"

"Oh." His head dropped into a nod. "You want me to still be him."

Head swimming, Ron could only lean forward on his stool and let absolutely unaccountable words fall from his lips: "Was he so bad?"

Draco's eyes narrowed as he paused, then he snorted, shook his head, and slid down off the stool. "Either you're quite pissed or you're not nearly pissed enough." He shuffled loose and lanky limbs to the bar. 

When he came back, hands full, they talked about work. Ron almost wished he hadn't come.

When he got home that night and stripped off for bed, lying down above the blankets, the window open to let in the night air, he felt too warm and more than a little drunk. And cracked, somewhere about the sternum, even if it wasn't precisely a physical pain he felt. 

*

The lift in the ministry was enchanted for all sorts of things, Ron knew, although it was an automatic sort of magic, probably set in motion before he was even born. Therefore, he hadn't thought about how it could surely be controlled manually if one knew the proper spell. 

Late one evening, he and Draco walked out of the office in silence. Draco had been more reticent than normal that afternoon, withdrawn and monosyllabic when spoken to. But Ron had determined to just let him be. A man was entitled to bad days and to secrets. 

The doors whirred shut on the lift and they were halfway to the lobby when Draco pulled out his wand and brought the thing to a stop. He sat down on the floor like this was perfectly ordinary behavior.

Ron had no choice but to sit down, too. Their backs were against the same wall.

Draco said, "I don't know who else to tell. I mean, it'll be in the Prophet soon, but… Lucius is being released from Azkaban."

Ron just stared.

Draco snorted. "What's the matter? I thought you'd be livid."

"Are you?"

"Yes," he said. "But"—his voice took on a dark and weary tone of mocking—"as both reformed anarchist and poor, wounded son, I am not permitted to have any sort of reaction, especially not publicly. Especially not here. You, on the other hand… I would have expected more from you."

"What do you want me to say? That I can't believe they let that murderous lunatic go free? That I wish we'd bloody well killed him during the battle?"

Draco's face revealed nothing. He simply sat there, so quietly for so long that Ron worried that something had suddenly shifted between them, that whatever this tenuous thing they had between them was, it had just unraveled.

Then Draco said, "Did you wish Potter had killed me, too?"

It felt like being slung through space by a portkey. Without thinking, he replied, "No." 

Ron was quite young when he realized that lies were sometimes necessary. But he was closer to thirty than twenty when he decided they were sometimes also justified. He wouldn't reach back into the past and change what they'd done that day, at least to Draco, so he felt it somehow wasn't really a lie.

Draco said, "You punched me in the face."

"Well," he said with a cock of his head, "I was just a little crazed right then."

"I thought you would say I deserved it."

"You did."

Draco chuckled softly and let one of his thick boots sway over and tap against Ron's shoe.

Ron said, "What are you going to do when he gets back?"

"Nothing." After a pause, he said, "Do you know why I live on the outside?" 

"No." 

"They don't know me."

He tore his eyes away from Ron and stood up, flicking out his wand hand to set the lift going again.

"They don't know you here, either," Ron said as he stood, too. 

Draco didn't say a word. He didn't have to.

*

One night a couple of weeks later, Ron showed up at the Muggle pub unannounced, but he had Draco's undivided attention almost instantly. Draco had never seen his "uniform," the work clothes his team wore that they charmed themselves out of as soon as they re-entered the Ministry, as though there were something strange and sordid about looking like a non-magical human. 

Ron's "uniform" today was a pair of faded blue jeans and, as it was autumn, a long-sleeved t-shirt, black with the name of some local Muggle band embossed in silver. He wore black combat boots that felt too heavy on his feet. He instantly looked five years younger.

Draco laughed at him, appreciatively rather than mockingly, as he walked a circle around him. "It's amazing, Weasley. It turns out you do actually have an arse."

"What are you doing looking at my bum?"

"If you think I'll be the only one, you're sadly mistaken."

Then Draco simply raised his eyebrows and whirled around, sauntering toward the back room where the pool tables were, narrow hips swishing. 

Ron's cheeks burned. Some kind of emotion was catching up with him, all at once. Of course he'd grown to enjoy Draco's company. And of course he'd been starting to feel something more physical, a slight but delicious tension every time he got close to the man. But like matching up the hot-headed boy he'd known with the more balanced man he'd become, the idea of wanting him—wanting Draco Malfoy—hadn't been something his synapses were equipped to process, even when he found himself being…flirted with? 

Not that he had a problem with a man flirting with him. Ron couldn't remember exactly when he decided he was possibly just as homosexual as heterosexual, but he knew he had been precisely a quarter of century old the first time he let a man shag him. 

However, he was closer to thirty than twenty when he admitted to himself something perhaps just as bloody confusing: that it was distinctly possible that Draco was a distinct possibility.

Ron had never played pool before, and with his abysmal coordination, he was spectacularly bad at even attempting a few shots in practice. So Draco set up the balls and let Ron watch him put them all in, one by one, from the lowest number to the highest. 

It took quite a while; that was probably because Ron continued to talk to him. Draco kept up the conversation as he rounded the table, at first jovially, casually; but when he began missing shots, he got flustered, and the talking only made him react the more strongly. His face turned pink and he spent just as much time gesturing with his hands as he did playing pool. 

When the last ball sank into the pocket, he leaned back against the table and said, "Bleeding hell, Weasley. I've never in my life played that badly."

Ron considered teasing him about the effect he was having on him, but as that would mean owning up to what was happening, something he wasn't quite ready to do, he instead simply grinned and said, "Then this would be the time to try and beat you, eh?"

Ron discovered that night that playing pool badly is actually quite an effective strategy against an average player, at least in terms of the insurmountable obstacles your clumsiness causes to a person not always equipped to cleverly deal with them. He was about to take a shot he thought maybe even he could manage when Draco slid up behind him and took hold of the end of the stick.

"Here," he said. "Like this. Or you'll fuck up my leave again." He pressed a hot hand into Ron's lower back and forced him closer to the table. 

It was a clearer line of sight, but then it was suddenly a lot less clear as Draco leaned in over him, all clean male smells, maybe even something pleasantly chemical, like Muggle aftershave, and warm soft cotton. Draco looked down that line of sight, wiggling the end of the stick so as to resituate it in Ron's grip. 

"Now pay attention to what you're doing for once, Weasley," he said as he pulled away from him gracefully, carefully, so much more carefully than Ron would've imagined.

The blood pounded up into Ron's ears. He shot. He missed, but only just.

He thought he saw a hint of a smile ghost over Draco's face, but pretty soon they were ordering more beer and agreeing to set about wiping the floor with each other. Now it was trash talking and smirking, and although Ron did indeed lose, it was entirely worth it to see Draco grin at him, gloating.

As they stumbled out of the pub into the cool night and slipped into the alley out of habit, to disapparate ethically in this part of town, Draco said, "You're really pretty hopeless, you know?"

"I wouldn't be if I'd been able to use my wand."

Draco just snorted. Then he smiled and said, "Not as pissed as you are. Lord knows what kind of damage you could do." He paused. "And since you're so… I can get you to my house. You can sleep there. If you want. Might be safer traveling, you know."

Ron was too drunk to argue but not so drunk that he forgot himself and did anything stupid. Draco, despite all the smiling and subtle touching he'd done all night, didn't touch him anymore—except as he gripped his arm tight and disapparated them home. 

*

The next morning, Ron woke up feeling like he'd had too much beer (he had) and like the world was a noisy place (it was indeed). Between the rattle of the garbage collectors and the screaming chatter of children preparing to enter the school next door, he didn't see how a person was expected to sleep in a house that was apparently not charmed for noise.

However, the house itself, for all the racket around it, was still. The place seemed warm and lived in. He wondered who decorated it—maybe Narcissa, if she ever came to visit. She loved her son enough to deal with just about anything for his sake, including joining the ranks of the reformed after the war. 

He also wondered if Lucius would attempt to visit him there, if Draco would want to see him, maybe just once. But he couldn't picture Draco's father in the same room with him anymore. When he tried very hard, when he squeezed those images together in his mind, it made a great well of fear spring up inside him. 

As he climbed the staircase in search of his host, he was relieved to see typical evidences of the wizarding world, even if the house was well outside the more magical neighborhoods of London. He resisted the urge to roam and snoop, especially because he was quite sure he'd already seen several violations and would likely find more; but that didn't stop him from wondering why the man lived alone in such a large house. Ron's flat was depressing enough, and he had so much less empty space. 

Draco's bedroom was just at the top of the stairs, and Ron stopped in the doorway, not wishing to wake him. Draco lay on his back over the blankets, long thin limbs akimbo, wearing nothing but his navy undershorts. The skin on his stomach was just as smooth as his face, but he had a scar on his shoulder that Ron had never seen, deep and red, that cut across his collarbone and went halfway down his pectoral. 

Ron was half as old as he is now when he understood what scars could do to a person, how they make you afraid but determined. They could brand a person for the rest of his or her life, create enduring monsters or heroes. He was closer to thirty than twenty when he thought to equate scars not with their permanence but with the changes that caused them, that they caused in return. 

Draco stirred with a cranky groan, but when he opened one eye and found Ron standing in the doorway, the grousing about the morning turned to amusement.

"You'll be late," Draco said, smiling lazily.

"I know. So will you."

"I don't suppose we could play hooky," he said, stretching like a cat.

Draco looked so warm and pliable, so vulnerable but secure, that Ron would have liked nothing more than to slide into that bed with him. Maybe it was that he'd had time to process the idea, but all he knew was something about waking up there that morning made him suddenly lose the desire to shut out such thoughts. "Depends," he said.

"On what?"

"Why you asked me to come home with you."

There was no mistaking his tone; and there was no mistaking how Draco's face let everything out, just for a moment. But it was long enough for him to learn what he needed to know before Draco reeled it all back in.

"You were pretty pissed," he said with a shrug, hauling himself up into a sitting position with a faked yawn. "I didn't want you splinching yourself or something."

Ron held his gaze, questioning. He stared over his body, too, unable to stop himself. Draco didn't seem exactly bothered by the attention, but he finally sighed and pushed himself up out of bed and began to dig through his enormous closet. 

"I'll see you at work in a little while," he said, pitching clothes behind him.

So Ron popped home, and he didn't even see him at work before he commenced to roaming the streets, while Draco was back in the office, keeping the bureaucracy running smoothly.

*

Draco didn't talk about it, and he didn't not talk about it. But he still openly flirted with him, with his tone and with his eyes, with his hip and shoulder against his in the lift or his hand on his back at the pool table.

Ron didn't think about it, and he didn't not think about it. He tried—and quite frankly failed—to behave as though nothing had changed. He didn't talk about it, either, but apparently that didn't mean he could keep from talking about him entirely.

"Malfoy?" Harry said as they pulled another of his mother's linens off the clothesline, bringing it together and turning it, over and over, until it was a manageable square pressed between their hands.

"What?" He'd just been chattering on about work, nothing out of the ordinary.

"I thought you didn't have to deal with him anymore at work."

"I don't have to deal with him."

"Okay," he said, like it was a question, and turned his face away. He recognized this as Harry trying to back off, and he was rather grateful for that. Harry sometimes still acted like he knew everything, and although Ron had come to appreciate both his self-assurance and his instincts, Harry had also made an effort to learn how to let people run their own lives. It didn't, however, mean that Harry was all that good at it.

Three bed skirts later, as they stood again face to face, Harry said evenly, like he was testing the water: "You talk about him a lot, you know."

"Who?"

"Malfoy. He's your…friend now?"

He might've said he was a coworker or an acquaintance, but he just cocked his head to the side. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Either he is or he isn't. I don't see how a person could have an ambivalent opinion about Draco Malfoy."

"No, you don't see how anyone could have a good opinion of him."

"I didn't say that."

"No? Well, you were thinking it."

Harry raised his eyebrows, but Ron simply ignored him and took up Harry's end in his hands and smoothed over the neat square with his palm. He dropped the bundle in the basket, determined not to start an argument, but when he turned around and Harry was still looking at him like that, he couldn't help it.

"Eight years," Ron said. "Eight years he's been paying for it."

"For what?"

"For being just as young and stupid as we ever were."

"You were never—"

"Of course I was. You don't think you were, too?"

Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he realized the consequences of growing up as he had. Life in the company of Harry Potter had taught him to be a little too like him sometimes, in good ways, he hoped: he had learned to be sure enough of what he knew to be brave enough to say it and do it.

Harry was quiet for some time. Then he said, "Do you trust him?"

"He hasn't given me a reason not to."

Harry just nodded, sighing. "Okay then."

*

Draco and Ron often stayed out late drinking. Ron was glad for that, because it spared him of having to go home alone. Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he had to admit that he was really, really tired of being alone.

He slept on Draco's couch, but some nights Draco fell asleep on the chair beside it. He talked more when he drank. The notes of his voice were sometimes the same notes as the old Malfoy, but they spoke of topics the old Malfoy (dimly recalled, like some villain in picture books) wouldn't have deigned to consider much less examine.

Ron was usually awake first, even if he was twice as hung over—because Draco was a cranky son of a bitch in the mornings. Ron steered clear of him until he'd been in the shower and come downstairs of his own accord. Eventually, Ron learned to have the coffee done for him by then. He'd come to the conclusion on his own that Draco had never quite gotten over being a bit spoiled, but he found it rather more charming than irritating.

One morning, after a night when Draco had for no discernible reason purposely gotten drunk enough that he woke up miserable, he was still sluggish as Ron handed off the cup of coffee, preparing to go home to change before work as he always did. Instead of doing that, though, Ron simply poured himself a cup and went upstairs, digging through the man's closet until he could find a t-shirt he could live with. When he came downstairs, unfamiliar but comfortable old cotton stretched across his back, he slung his arm over Draco's shoulders and disapparated them both at the same time. 

After they materialized just outside the employee door, Draco let his arm fall down around his waist and squeezed him close, just for a second. "Thanks, Ron."

That thanks didn't seem to have anything whatsoever to do with taking him side-along.

*

They happened to be in the lift a few days later, crammed in behind several others in the morning rush, elbows resting together, when Draco suddenly said quite casually, "I've asked to be considered for a position in the Department of Mysteries."

Several necks snapped up, but the heads didn't turn. Ron often forgot just how carefully some people still treated Malfoy, the ones who weren't ignoring his presence the way Ron had before he'd gotten to know him. Ron wondered what motive Draco had for airing such a thing in public.

"Yeah?"

"It's where I've always wanted to be," he replied, and Ron could think of nothing coherent to say in reply.

The day was a lot longer than it should have been. It was normally enough to have Draco waiting for him, for their afternoon ritual. But now, he regretted for the first time in a long time that Draco wasn't out there with him. He knew it was likely because it was suddenly possible to lose his company in that dull, dreary office, maybe lose his company altogether.

That night, as they rode the lift back down, alone this time, silent in a way they hadn't been silent together in weeks, Ron suddenly said, "I thought you were content in the Muggle office."

"I thought I was, too. But that was when I thought it was the best I could do." Then he rolled his eyes at himself. "No offense, mate."

Ron laughed, "Oh, I know quite well what I'm capable and not capable of."

"I'm not sure that you do," he replied vaguely.

After a long, awkward pause, Ron said, "It's just going to be…weird. If you get on in Mysteries."

"If I do. And Unspeakables can still speak lots of things, just not the job."

"I know."

Draco went home alone that night, and so did Ron.

But in the middle of the night, Ron was awakened by an owl. He recognized Draco's handwriting immediately, from all the reports he'd signed off on.

Ron~

It's not because I particularly want to leave you behind.~I hope you know that.~I know you think it's crazy, and they very well might not let me do it, but I'm tired of waiting for things I want anymore.~Your fault, I suspect.

~Malfoy

Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he apparated onto a London street at a quarter of three in the morning without a cloaking charm. He remembered how terrifying and exhilarating breaking the rules could be, especially when it was for something important.

And, anyway, he never could get that charm right when he was so rattled.

*

Ron found him at the kitchen table in a t-shirt and undershorts, drinking tea and eating biscuits and reading a book, hair even more unkempt than usual, eyeliner smudged around his bleary eyes. He'd obviously been out. Without him. That made him oddly…jealous. 

Draco's face turned scarlet when Ron knocked on the doorframe.

Ron hadn't known what he would say until he saw him, and then it just came out. "What did you used to think of me?"

"What?"

"When we were at Hogwarts."

"Please don't make me—"

"It's important."

"Why?" 

"I really did hate you."

"I know."

"I thought you were the worst person I'd ever met."

Drolly, he replied, "And then you met my father."

"I'm serious."

His face was still wrenched into a slightly self-mocking sneer. "So am I. I don't know why you want to rehash all that. I'm perfectly well aware that us being…friends is weird and impossible. I shouldn't have sent that owl. I don't know what I was thinking." With a flustered smile, he added, "Certainly not that you'd pop out of bed in the middle of the night."

"Do you want me to leave?"

"No."

"Good. And it's not weird."

"What?"

"It would have been when we were seventeen, but we're not seventeen anymore."

Draco sat silently for a moment, staring at him, then he got up and went to the sink and poured the dregs of his tea down the drain. Quietly, without looking back at him, he said, "You were different."

"What?"

Ron took in his profile, how he'd closed his eyes. 

"When I saw the three of you…in that house…that night… You had changed. I thought I had, too, but I hadn't. I was just, I don't know, desperately clutching at being evil. But I wasn't very good at it. I mean, after the business with Dumbledore…" He sighed, but he refused to let his shoulders fall. Ron got the distinct impression it was because he felt like he didn't have the right. He added, "I think it's because it wasn't what I wanted."

"I thought—"

"Yeah," he said with a sardonic smile, "so did I." He turned to face him again. "Do you…? Nevermind."

"If you've something to ask me, Malfoy, the civilized thing to do is simply come out with it "

A smile fluttered over Draco's face before he looked serious again. "Are you in the Reversal office, out among the Muggles, because you want to be, or because your father has always been in the Muggle department?"

"I don't know. I like the work. I like doing something where I can see the results. I felt so…useless sitting in that office all day. No offense."

Draco waved his hand at him, then his expression focused again. "But if you could do what you wanted…?"

Ron shrugged. "I'd be an Auror."

Draco smiled. "You'd be a dreadful Auror."

"I know. I don't have the concentration or the patience or the whatever it is that makes Harry Harry. But this Muggle-management stuff, I can do."

"And you're happy?"

"Yeah." He realized that he was, mostly. And it had to be because of Draco. He suddenly felt warm, flushed, like Draco could see it written as plain as day on his face. Then he wondered if, really, that would be so bad.

Draco stood there, leaned up against the sink, for a long time, just looking at him. Then he said, "I lied." 

"About…?"

"They never offered me a promotion. I could do the job, but some of them are still afraid that…" He closed his eyes.

"Blimey. That's ridiculous."

Those clear, light eyes snapped open. "No. It's not. Or I didn't think it was. I just accepted it. I thought if I just kept my head down, they'd figure it out, sooner or later, that I'm not a threat. If I were going to cause mayhem and destruction, I'd've done it by now. That's not what I want."

"What do you want?"

"To do something I'm good at. I know you don't believe it, but I know I'm a wizard. I feel it in my fingers, behind my eyes. I always did. I'm strong. I don’t say that to brag, you understand. If I wasn't powerful, Voldemort would have never… I didn't know what the bloody hell to do with the kind of power I felt back then, but I knew I wanted to use it. I still do. For something good. They need me in the Department of Mysteries. They need me because I'd be perfect for it, despite this mark on my arm." He slung his arm out, snapping the elbow out straight so he could glare coldly at his forearm. 

Then he said, "No, they need me precisely because I have this mark on my arm. I actually understand things in shades of gray. Some of them…" He sighed. "But the only person in this whole messed-up world who was capable of trusting a former Death Eater with anything important was the same man I was once actually stupid enough to think I could destroy. And even before…he was gone, I watched the price Snape paid every day for being trusted when nobody on either side thought he should be, and I… I couldn't bear it."

"So why now?"

His knuckles were white where his palms dug back into the edge of the counter. "Do you know why I really live on the outside?"

"Why?"

"To prove it to myself every fucking day of my life. I am not my father." He shook his head then, snorting softly in amusement. "If I was, I would've throttled you months ago for trying to recreate the career of Arthur Weasley. I'm not saying your father's not a good man, but you don't have to be him!" He pushed himself off the sink and leaned over the table, shooting a hard look at Ron, the kind he almost felt along his nerves. "You didn't flinch at a room full of Death Eaters. I thought I knew who you were, then. But then I've watched you just keep slipping away for…years."

"Years?" 

Something heavy settled in his stomach, making him nervous at first, but soon it didn't seem so unnerving, at least not in a bad way, especially as Draco's face softened, his eyes sliding shut again.

"Yeah," he replied, and Ron could see a faint blush creep over his cheeks. 

Draco's reaction was almost enough to distract him from his words. Almost. But he wasn't insensible to what Draco meant about him slipping away. He'd been facing up to that more and more lately. He just didn't know what to do about it yet. He was only sure of one thing:

"I'm not who I was when I was seventeen. I've grown. That's a good thing."

"Maybe. In some ways." Draco's face lit into a mischievous smile. "You really were insufferable. And you made every girl you came into contact with nervous."

"Well, I think you understand why by now."

"Yes."

Ron smiled, too. "You know what's funny?"

"What?"

"Here I've been thinking you could stand to be a bit more like you were back then."

His eyes got wide, skeptical. 

"Don’t get me wrong, I'm glad you're not…cruel like you used to be. But you somehow lost track of the bloke who used to wipe the floor with Gryffindor in Quidditch."

"The bloke who was snarly and obnoxious?"

"Yeah," Ron said with a grin. "But also determined. And clever. You made it a little too easy for people to miss how smart you are."

"Says the king of downplaying his intelligence."

Ron laughed.

Draco said, "I'm serious. I've been told that you're practically unbeatable at wizard chess."

"Oh?"

Draco looked as if he was about to continue the banter, then all at once his face changed. 

"Ron?"

"Yeah?"

"How long do you Weasleys typically flap about a person before you make a move?"

The easy smile he'd given him made Ron's heart start hammering in his chest. But he rather liked the feeling. "I don't know. Certainly not years."

His eyes narrowed. "I said I'd been watching you, not that I'd-- Oh, bloody hell," he muttered, sighing. In mock annoyance, with a sparkle in his eyes, he said, "You have this way of making a person half mad. You do realize that?"

"Yeah."

Draco shook his head with a laugh, then he reached out toward him and pulled him close by a hand on the back of his neck. "Come here," he mumbled as his lips hovered close to Ron's for a second before their mouths slid together.

Everything was so warm as their bodies sank into each other and Draco's tongue slipped quick and hot into his mouth. Ron's hand found the back of his head, and he pressed him harder into the kiss, even as Draco tilted their heads together at a better angle, so he could kiss Ron deeper, so Ron could kiss him back the way he really wanted to, lips sliding wet and sucking. But, somehow, it was still a shock to feel Draco harden against his thigh and have him shove his own thigh up between Ron's legs and grind into him as their tongues thrust together, deep and slow, Draco's hand still on the back of his neck, now digging into the muscles there. 

Draco tore his mouth away, but only to take a gulping breath and give him a hazy smile and push him until his back connected with a wall; then he kissed him again, just as insistently, now with better leverage, more friction between their bodies. Ron's hands slid down around Draco's waist and onto his ass so he could pull him even closer, and he wasn't at all sorry to let Draco hear the low moans that came out of him, because it made Draco bring his hands up to cup his face suddenly, angle and hold his jaw so he could lick his tongue up over it, scrape at the stubble there. 

Draco continued to bite and suck at his neck as Ron worked his hand between them, grasping his cock through that thin cotton, and Draco's mouth went slack for a moment right under his ear.

"God," Draco groaned. "Yeah."

As he bucked his hips into Ron's hand, urging Ron to grip him harder, he bit at his neck again, now less like he was teasing him and more like he wanted to devour him. When Draco finally began to fumble at his fly, he could only writhe against the wall, his head smacking back against it.

"Fuck," he muttered. He thought he saw a grin come over Draco's face. 

Draco pulled out his cock, thumb already tracing a path along the underside then swirling over the head. He pumped him once, twice, before Ron could make his hands move again. He yanked Draco's shorts down over his hips and forced their bodies back together, their erections now side by side, slipping along each other, sweat-slick.

As Draco wiggled against him, he bit down on Ron's earlobe. Ron shuddered, but he was sure Draco had shuddered harder as he rocked into him, trapping him tight against the wall again.

Draco's hips moved with his words: "I want-- I need--"

Ron covered his mouth with his own for a moment, tasting him on his tongue and feeling wet, full lips pulling his in, kissing him back like this meant something. Not that he had any doubt, not anymore.

Ron wrenched out of the kiss and panted, "Are you going to fuck me, or what?"

Draco's eyes went wide. "You want me to…?"

"Yeah," Ron said with a nervous laugh. Then he nodded. 

Draco groaned and squirmed against him, then he gripped him by both sides of the neck, one thumb stroking along his jaw as he let their foreheads rest together. They stood there, suspended in that embrace, hips rolling and sharing the same breath for what seemed like forever. 

Finally, Draco whispered, "Have you…?"

"Enough."

Draco started to pull away from him, probably to lead him upstairs, to that big comfortable bed, one Ron had fantasized about being in entirely too much in the last few weeks. But Ron had been waiting too long for this, and he didn't want to do anything to slow them down. He was also more than a little afraid if they took too much time and thought too much, they'd get spooked and it would never happen, even if that idea seemed almost ludicrous by now. So he grabbed Draco by the hips instead and turned him, pressed his back against the wall and kissed him quickly as he pushed his undershorts to the floor and took hold of his cock again, fisting it slow and hard.

"Fuck," Draco murmured.

In his ear, Ron said, "Looks like you have a good sturdy table right here." 

When Draco just exhaled an affirmative moan, Ron let him go, backing up and stepping out of his shoes, hoping like hell that if his hands were shaking like he thought they were as he pulled off his shirt and pants, Draco wouldn't notice. Ron didn't dare look at him or he'd be touching him again instead of getting naked like he needed to be. Once he was, it was Draco's turn to slip his t-shirt over his head before he stepped into the space between Ron's feet, to slide hard between his thighs as he started kissing him on the neck again.

Draco's breath was warm against his skin as he mumble, "You can't imagine how much I want to already be inside you." 

Ron snapped his hips into Draco's. "Then what are you waiting for?" 

Draco moaned, but then he giggled to himself, his head falling against Ron's shoulder. 

Ron said, "Yeah, if our younger selves could see us…"

"No. No, no. I was thinking…" He rolled his eyes at himself. "Okay, so I might as well admit I have no idea how to use lubricating charms."

"What?" Slowly, his mind turned it over, trying to make sense of it, then he came to a shocking conclusion: "Wait, you've only been shagging Muggles?"

He grimaced, once again giving him a self-deprecating eye roll. "I used to take up with witches now and again, but, no, I've never fucked anyone I could use those particular spells on."

He tried not to look too amused. Instead, he said, "I'm sure whatever you're used to is fine."

"Yeah?"

Ron shrugged. "Sure."

Draco grabbed his wand from the counter nearby and accio-ed a bottle of lube from somewhere else in the house. 

Ron was rather glad to find that they could keep the same comfortable rapport they always had, that there was no great awkwardness to this, even the first time; but it made him vaguely nervous, like they had somehow taken the charge out of the situation with all their fumbling around. Therefore, he was relieved when Draco laid his hand on his back to make him bend over, and that hot hand seemed to burn into his skin as every bit of that arousal and franticness came back to him. 

His arms shook as he leaned over the table, but Draco was perfectly steadying; he stood so close his thighs rested against the backs of Ron's.

When Draco's finger breached his hole, pressing in smoothly, he said, "God, you're so tight."

"Been a long time."

"Relax," he purred. "I'm going to make this so good for you. I promise. Fuck, you just have no idea how much I want this."

Ron let his shoulders fall, his arms taking all his weight as he breathed deep and made himself release all that tension. He couldn't think of anything else in the world he needed more right now than to be filled and to hear the sounds Draco would make as he thrust into him, finally.

Draco said, "That's good. You are so bloody hot, you know? Two?"

"Yeah."

By that point, they'd built up to a rhythm, and Draco's fingers slid in and out of him easily, even with the addition of the second. Draco was barely pressing at his prostate, just incidentally, but it was enough to be maddening, not to mention his cock hanging there so fucking ready; he could already imagine Draco's hand spreading the slickness over the head and jerking him hard, bringing him off probably too fast, but Ron didn't think it would be a bad thing, given how insistently Draco's own cock was nudging against the inside of his thigh.

"Come on, then," Ron said. "Do it."

"Yeah?"

"Now."

He felt the head of his cock rubbing warm and slick against him.

Then Draco muttered, "Fuck. Wait. Fuck." Ron felt him fumbling for his wand, then he heard a familiar spell being cast. Apparently, Draco really had had sex with witches before, because he did indeed know how to use a protection spell. 

When he dropped the wand, he squeezed his body even closer to Ron's as he lined himself up and pushed in part way, just the head of his cock breaching that ring of muscle. Ron forced those muscles to give, and even as he did, he felt Draco take hold of his hips and pull him back and onto his cock as his torso came down over Ron's back, covering him. For a blinding second, everything was too much, too hard and hot and so much pressure, but the feeling subsided to a wonderful fullness and the urge to move.

Draco's arms were clutched around his waist, fingernails digging into his stomach. "Fuck," he mumbled. "Merlin, Ron, you're tight."

"That a complaint?"

"No," he said, squirming closer, pushing deeper. 

"Then move."

Draco stayed buried deep inside him, but he did begin to move, hard and shallow thrusts that kept him plastered to Ron's back, their hips never breaking contact. At first he was slow, thrusting then seeming to wait for Ron to adjust or react. But as Ron began to push back against him, he started moving faster, still thrusting just as hard but pulling out more and more until he was drawing almost all the way back and then shoving himself deep again, pushing Ron's hips away with both his strong hands before he snapped them back to meet his, so his stomach and thighs could connect again and Ron could feel all those muscles beneath that warm skin trembling.

Ron grunted each time Draco slid home, and Draco moaned and muttered curses, a good many of which Ron even wouldn't have been inventive enough to come up. It was too much, the slick slide of his cock and the warm slap of skin on skin and his litany of words, especially Ron's name, so loud in his ears because Draco was finally fucking him with abandon. Ron was lost in the rhythm of it, elbows scraping against the table, feeling how strong and wild but somehow still focused Draco was, when suddenly Draco moaned and thrust into him and held there. Ron could feel him throbbing inside him then the shudder as warmth filled him, making it so wet and dirty when Draco started fucking him again, with nothing more than incoherent groans passing through his lips as he rode out his orgasm.

For a second after he pulled out, he lay prostrate over Ron's back, but then he pulled Ron up with him so he could turn him. Ron had been so close he might've easily come if Draco had simply laid his hand on his cock, but he hadn't, and now Ron was glad, because Draco dropped to his knees and grasped his cock in his hand and closed his mouth over the head of it, already sucking even as his tongue pushed over his slit and joined his lips in teasing the ring around his crown.

"Fuck," Ron moaned, his voice so shaky it was almost comical. Draco looked up at him with his eyes unusually warm and dark as he took his hand off his cock and let him slide all the way in. When he swallowed against his head, Ron came with a gasp, feeling himself pumping hard down Draco's throat.

As the world came back into focus, he found that his hands were tangled in Draco's hair and Draco was kissing the inside of his thigh. 

"Blimey," Ron muttered. "Get up here."

He pulled Draco up and into a kiss, and he tasted himself on Draco's tongue, which was frankly the hottest thing he could remember in a long time. Draco gave him a long, wet, swirling kiss before he drew back, grinning. 

Eyes glazed and speech slow, Draco said, "We are going to be useless at work tomorrow."

"So useless," Ron whispered, nipping at his neck.

Draco squirmed and wiggled out of his grasp, but he held his hand fast and tugged him toward the staircase.

"You can't imagine how many sick days I have saved up."

"Saving them for something in particular, were you?" Ron said, smacking him on the ass. 

Draco abruptly stopped and paused there on the bottom step, glaring back at him in mock annoyance and genuine incredulity. "If you think I ever had any idea of bending you over my kitchen table, you're absolutely barmy."

He started climbing again, and Ron found himself paused there for a moment, watching his lanky body mounting to the top.

"Shows what appalling lack of imagination you have." Draco just snorted. So Ron added, "Seriously, what did you have an idea about?"

Draco turned around at the top of the stairs and got this wicked smile on his face. Eyebrows raised, he said, "You pinning me down in my enormous bed and fucking my brains out."

"You want…?"

"I wouldn't suppose me wanting you would be much of a secret by now." Ron saw his expression searching then calculating, and suddenly he rolled his eyes in response. "Oh, don’t tell me you're the sort that always bottoms?"

With a shrug, he said, "I always have been."

"I would venture a guess that you just don't know what you like yet." Draco's eyes took on a distinct sharpness: challenge. He added, "So you're not interested in trying something new? You have no desire to see what it would be like to make me beg and plead and scream?"

Ron smiled. "Well, I do have a few sick days saved up myself."

Draco grinned in response and said, "Well, then get your ass up here, Weasley."

"Anybody ever tell you you're a bossy git, Malfoy?"

"Not in years."

"Well, lucky for you, I rather go for the bossy type."

Ron was closer to thirty than twenty when he realized you couldn't continue to see a person the way you saw them when they were 14. Or you could, but only if you were looking for something you both still needed to see.