"I have to be leaving but I won't let that come between us, ok?"
Rocked into sleep, surrounded by the smell of stale urine and fresh tobacco, the sound became soothing rather than distracting.
Ron Weasley's head lolled heavily and the back of his legs burned from the heater under his seat. The rocking slowed and then stopped, there was a short hiss and then cold air caressed his face and helped him shake himself awake once again.
He mustn't fall asleep, he would miss his stop and then he'd miss his train and then he'd be stuck. The doors slid closed again and the cold draft was gone. The neon lights threw an ethereal light over everything and as the rocking started up again he glanced around the carriage of the tube.
He was on the Hammersmith and City line of the London Underground and riding the last westbound tube of the night towards Kings Cross station. He had a sleeper ticket for the Hogwarts Express so he could go and visit Hagrid and light a candle for Fred at the memorial.
He wasn't allowed to Apparate anymore, he was never any good at it and his last splinching had left his kneecap in Devon while the rest of him appeared in London. The splinching had been fixed to the best of the Healer's abilities but his knee was going to be weak for the rest of his life and he had his licence to Apparate revoked by the Ministry due to his high number of accidents and unstable knee joint.
He could always floo but it was so late now that he was bound to piss off whoever he staggered in on. And he never felt confident in the floo when he was tired, his limp became pronounced in the same way it would when he was drunk – the Healers said he was overcompensating subconsciously, and he was unsteady on exit on most occasions.
He sighed heavily and sat up in his seat in an attempt to keep himself from dropping off to sleep again. Looking around the empty carriage he noted that most of the occupants were homeless people just riding the tube to keep out of the cold, drunks who had slept through their stop, and one or two others like him, desperately hoping to make it to Kings Cross to catch their connecting train.
He saw a pair of long, denim-clad legs in the seat beside him and let his eyes follow them up, past the knee and to the thigh, and stopping at the hand that rested there. It was a work-worn hand, skin rough and fingernails stubby, and it had four letters across the back in blue ink.
Ron smiled to himself and began to ponder how much he needed to remember and if he had enough skin to write it all down on. He doubted it.
The dozing man at his side was very rough around the edges. His hair was collar length and unwashed, though not in a greasy way, and dark stubble shadowed his chin and his sharp cheekbones. He had thick black eyelashes, long and up curling, and eyebrows that looked spiky. One eyebrow had a scar, or maybe there had just been an accident shaving and a chunk was diagonally removed from it. Ron watched as the rocking of the tube caused a thin lock of the shabby fringe to fall forwards and brush against the man's cheekbone.
'Please stand clear of the closing doors'
Ron flinched as he suddenly became aware that the tube had stopped, let passengers on and off and was now about to pull away again. The doors closed and he looked out of the window. His heart dropped with a dull plop into his stomach as he read the signs for Kings Cross St Pancras.
Jumping out of his seat he slammed his large palms against the flat of the door and tried to slide it back open again. There was a hissing sound as the doors secured and then the tube jerked and slowly pulled out of the station.
"No, no, no, no, no!" Ron panicked as he watched his stop slip away from view as he was sent deep into the blackness of another underground tunnel, "Shit!"
"I take it that was your stop?" the dark, dishevelled stranger with the word milk written on his hand smiled up at him with resignation, "If it makes you feel any better, this isn't even my line, I got a bit confused and thought it was a circle line goin' in the other direction."
Ron sighed deeply and dropped himself down into a seat opposite the man.
"It doesn't," he muttered, rubbing his tired eyes with the heel of his palms, "I don't live here and I don't know the city very well."
"Well you're here, y'must have been here for a reason," the man offered.
"I was seeing someone off and then catching the sleeper to...the Highlands."
"Shit, you are out of your way!" the man exclaimed as the light returned outside the windows and the tube pulled into the next stop.
"No I...I'll..." Ron fumbled for a new plan.
"You have nowhere to go and this is the last tube," the man said, knowingly.
"I know a place I can get a room for the night but I don't know my way around Mu-most of London. Shit!" Ron hissed and then gasped as the 'milk' man grabbed him about the wrist and pulled him off the tube and along the platform before the doors closed.
"C'mon, I know a doss house we can kip in for the night."
"Yeah but," Ron groped for a way of saying that he didn't go off with strange Muggle men he met in the middle of the night.
"Oh what, I'm fine to stare at when you think I'm asleep but I can't be trusted to help you out when you get stranded because my sex appeal mesmerised you into missing your stop?"
Ron's eyes bulged and his mouth went dry. The man's grip around his wrist tightened and he pulled the limping redhead along behind him without any further protest.
With a grunt and a cracking of joints Ron lifted his Great Auntie Muriel off the toilet and cast a cleansing charm on her backside before lowering her nightie.
"Wash your hands boy," the mirror said, snootily.
"I swear Muriel, I'll smash it. One of these days I'll smash it!"
"Well you should wash them after going to the lavatory Ronald, it's good hygiene."
"I'll do it when I've got you back to your bed," Ron said, sounding strained under Muriel's weight.
"And I need my potions, it's past time for my potions!"
"Hands full right now Muriel!" Ron grunted, "I'll set you down, clean up and then sort out your dosage ok?"
"You missed the correct time Ronald! This really won't do." Muriel fussed before hitting him on the back with her fist, "and don't be so rough with me, I'm not a sack of potatoes!"
"No Muriel," Ron said as he paused to compose his balance his knee beginning to ache painfully.
"I need to have my potions on a full stomach, when did I eat last?"
"Breakfast," Ron said, taking a deep breath and manoeuvring her through the narrow doorway into the living room, where her bed had been ever since she had become too frail to get up and down the stairs. "I'll sort it all out Muriel, I'll promise. I'm running late today."
"Your mother should be doing this, or your sister, this is not dignified for a woman of my age...being man-handled when the man in question is as young as you."
"Mum can't lift you and you won't let people use levitation charms or anything on you."
"I am not a trunk Ronald!" Muriel said before cuffing Ron about the head, "I am a lady."
"And Ginny's a pregnant lady in no fit state to carry you."
"That little madam uses her pregnancy as an excuse not to do anything!" Muriel spat as Ron lowered her rather heavily onto the bed and staggered into a sitting position on the edge of the mattress as his knee gave a jolt of pain and wouldn't hold him up any longer.
Muriel made several murmurs of disapproval while Ron flexed and bent his leg to keep the joint from seizing up and hoped he wouldn't need to strap up his leg for stability.
"Giving you trouble dear?" Muriel asked as she leaned to look at his face.
"Just a twinge, it's fine."
"Maybe you should wear a brace dear? I know a Healer, struck off now of course, but he can make a wire frame to fit your leg and pin your knee together."
Ron cringed and heaved himself up from the bed.
"I'm not having a builder knocking nails into my leg, Muriel!"
"Pins, magical pins boy! Oh you can be as obstinate as your mother sometimes. After those twins would she listen to me and get fixed so she couldn't have any more children? Would she balls!"
Ron stared at Muriel and waited for the inevitable. The woman puffed out her chest and looked away before mumbling.
"Not to say you and your sister aren't blessings on the family of course. You especially, you're the only one with time for your poor auntie in her old age."
"You were born old aged," Ron murmured as he hobbled to the kitchen to wash his hands and make Muriel a sandwich.
"Oh do put my slippers on my feet Ronald," Muriel said as she made a show of shivering, "and Ronald..." Ron paused to hear his next order, "...Ronald do bring me my shawl won't you?"
"Just a shawl, Muriel? Sure you don't want a golden fleece?"
Muriel scowled at him and muttered something about being too much trouble to the family before Ron set off to do her bidding and not join in the game. The game of course being that he was supposed to assure Muriel that she wasn't a burden and the family worshipped her and would never think of putting her into a home.
The truth was that the family had all put their heads and their money together to get her into a magical nursing home, Harry not being allowed to contribute of course, but had come up well short. Somebody had to become her carer and Ron was the only one with no job. Molly, Arthur, and strangely enough – George, had all been against Ron getting lumbered with the tiring job of full-time carer and had offered to pay a House Elf to help with the physical stuff but no elf would take payment and Hermione had pulled all sorts of scornful faces when an unpaid elf had been suggested.
George then declared he was going to spend his savings on Muriel's care at St Mungo's but his parents wouldn't hear of it. Harry, knowing his money was out of bounds as far as the Weasleys were concerned, had offered Kreacher but Muriel didn't get along with him and insisted on being lifted and not floated like an 'inflatable aunt'.
This ended up amusing everyone but Muriel.
Harry had still insisted that Kreacher come immediately when Ron called for him. It was always a worry that Ron would hurt himself running around after Muriel and it made them all feel better to know help would always come if he called for it.
Sometimes being in the company of such a demanding person who constantly told him he wasn't good enough became too much for Ron and a member of the family would come over for an afternoon or evening to give Ron a break.
He'd visit Neville or Luna, go to have a drink with Hagrid at the Hog's Head, or just go back to his old room at the Burrow and sleep, uninterrupted.
Harry and Hermione's busy lives kept them, well...busy, and out of the country for long periods of time. Harry was tracking down Dark Wizards and Hermione was usually in another hemisphere prosecuting them.
"Oh not sandwiches again Ronald," Muriel groaned from the bed, "you never give me any variety in my meals, that's your problem."
"Yes," Ron said through gritted teeth, "that is my problem!"
"I got an owl from the Archer family and they treat their grandmother like a queen."
"Bully for the Archers."
"They had a-la-carte," Muriel said, ignoring Ron's weary mutterings completely, "Ronald, Ronald, what is a-la-carte?"
"Some kind of fish I think." Ron shrugged.
"Oh I do like fish, why do you never make me fish dishes Ronald?"
"Because I'm still trying to bottle bloody rainbows and weave you a crown made from four leaf clovers," Ron snapped as he banged the knife down on the counter, "but as soon as I've done all that I'll find the lost city of Atlantis and fetch you a smoked haddock!"
Muriel stared at him for a moment and blinked, looking stunned, before clearing her throat and lifting her chin with dignity.
"I don't want it dyed Ronald, smoked haddock shouldn't be bright yellow, make sure to get a proper one."
Ron took a deep breath in and out before turning back to the sandwich and buttering the bread.
"I'll put sardine and tomato fish paste in your sandwich for you, how's that?"
Muriel didn't say a word and Ron finished preparing their lunch in silence.
After a weighty silence and a tense mouthful of fish paste sandwich, Ron began pouring his great aunt's potions into small glasses and handing them to her one by one. Muriel downed them obediently and Ron handed her a glass of pumpkin juice to wash away the aftertaste.
"Thank you dear," Muriel said, quite humbly for her, and patted him on the leg.
Ron smiled at her briefly before setting about clearing the glasses and plates away. He rose from the edge of the bed, where he'd been perching, and Muriel grabbed his t-shirt and pulled him back down.
"Don't go Ronald; sit with me for a while won't you?"
Ron set the things down again and settled beside Muriel. She took his hand with both her frail, bony ones. Her skin sagged loosely, making them look a little claw-like, but they were surprisingly soft.
"They all went out for dinner, the Archers," Muriel said with a distant smile on her face.
"Yeah?" Ron asked, indulging her in this rare moment of peace.
"The whole family, all together, and they had a proper meal. Starter, main course and a sweet, doesn't that sound lovely Ronald?"
"Very posh," Ron nodded.
"The letter said they had soup of the day for a starter, is that nice Ronald?"
"Depends, what was it?"
"Um..." Muriel thought for a moment before answering with confidence, "Friday."
Ron was about to open his mouth and point out to Muriel that he hadn't meant that when he thought better of it.
"Oh yeah, Friday's a good one."
Muriel beamed at him before squeezing his hand and leaning in close.
Ron leaned closer.
"My slippers and my shawl?"
"Oh right, yeah." Ron sprang up from the bed and began scrambling around on the floor for her slippers
The air smelled stale and the light was orange tinted. He lifted his head and squinted around the musty room. He saw that the reason for the strange light was the burnt orange coloured curtains the sunlight was filtering through.
He sat up and a sheet fell away from him to reveal that he was still wearing the previous night's clothing.
"Morning," a muzzy sounding voice said from the floor beside the bed.
Ron jumped and almost fell out of the other side of the bed.
"Shit, sorry mate, I didn't mean to freak you out!"
"What the hell where am we? Who are we...you...who? Why?" Ron babbled, wide eyed.
"I slept on the floor I promise. You told me no and I slept on the floor and I'm sorry!" the man said, hands up defensively.
Ron's throat was dry and he croaked wordlessly before noticing the word 'milk' smudged on the back of the man's hand. He remembered the night before, the tube and missing the Hogwarts Express sleeper. He remembered the Muggle man taking him to the nearby digs for the night and...and...
"You tried to kiss me," Ron said as he took a step backwards and stared at the Muggle, cautiously.
"Yeah, I did, and you said no and I backed off and slept on the floor and I'm sorry ok? You...you've got somebody and you aren't into me or whatever. I just thought, y'know?"
"No I don't know!" Ron choked on his own exclamation.
"You were watching me sleep!"
"You were pretending to sleep!" Ron threw back, realising that was no defence at all.
"Look, you're not gay, I get it, I'm convinced," the Muggle man rolled his eyes, "but don't get all wound up over sleeping in the same room as me. I helped you out when you were stranded."
"I had a place I could have gone," Ron protested.
"You were lost and you have a gammy leg, you couldn't hav-"
"My leg is not gammy!" Ron stood up straight and his knee supported him perfectly.
"Last night you were tired and it was giving your trouble and you limped all the way here, don't give me that. Why the hell are you so defensive? You gay and ashamed or curious and worried about your girlfriend?"
Ron couldn't believe this Muggle was so brazenly trying to have a conversation about sexuality with him. He looked around for his trainers and grabbed them up from the floor before perching on the very corner of the mattress to pull them on and lace them up.
"I'm neither if you must know; which I don't see quite why you feel you must!" Ron hissed, "but I have somebody and it's not about sex or gay or straight or...or..."
"You're in love?" the Muggle man, the strange 'Milk' man, asked him in a gentler tone.
Ron swallowed and nodded.
"But you're lonely right?"
Ron nodded with a much heavier head.
"Blimey," the Milk man said as he puffed out his cheeks and exhaled deeply, "that's something when it surpasses sexual orientation, man or woman – it doesn't matter to you because you only want that one person who doesn't have to be either." The man snorted and shook his head, "Shit, it can even be both these days."
"What are you talking about?" Ron frowned as he got up again and walked around the bed, towards the door to the grubby looking room.
"Look, Ron, I'm sorry if I freaked you out but you didn't do anything that your other half could be hurt by, you didn't do anything at all I s-"
"How do you know my name?" Ron said, frozen on the spot at the door.
"You told me when I was helping you up the stairs."
"Oh, right," Ron's hand paused on the door handle.
"So you're in love but you're lonely? Where are they?"
Ron looked down at his feet, bit his lip and then mumbled his answer into his chest.
"They have important things they have to do and it takes them away a lot."
"What about you? Don't you have important things to do?" Milk man asked.
Ron's eyes finally met the Muggle's.
"I'm a cripple who takes care of his frail great aunt," Ron said bitterly, "the only people I want to be with every day I can't. Instead I help an old woman, who enjoys nothing more than telling me how shit my life is, on and off the toilet."
The Milk man looked genuinely sad and took a step toward him. Ron turned the door handle and stepped out.
"I have to get to Scotland, people were expecting me, they'll be worried."
"Oh you're just going to 'pop over to Scotland'?" Milk man laughed.
"Yeah," Ron nodded, utterly humourless, "thanks for helping me out and sorry I...wasn't what you expected."
A/N The 'I have to be leaving...' line is reportedly what Bill Murray whispers to Scarlet Johanson at the end of Lost in Translation.