PART 1: So Far From Me

Hermione checked her watch for the fifth time in half an hour. Ron and Harry were supposed to be at her flat at 8 pm sharp to escort her to Hannah's Leaky Cauldron New Year's Eve party. It was a big deal. They were starting a new century, Hannah had just taken over ownership of the pub, and all of their old friends were finally coming together after spending the years after the war in the wind. Even Ginny was going to make an appearance, if she could get her training schedule cleared with the Harpies.

However, she was never going to make it there if she had to go to Grimmauld Place and grab the boys by the ear. After the war, she had gone back to school, Ron helped George out at the shop, and Harry went straight to the Aurors. Now, Ron and Harry were an unstoppable team of law enforcement, while Hermione had herself firmly entrenched in magical legislation. Things were looking up and she didn't want tonight's celebration to fizzle out. They all needed a break. Hermione huffed and apparated from her flat to Grimmauld Place.

Her black pumps clicked loudly on the ancient wooden floors of the house as she searched for her friends. She made her way up the stairs and found Ron in his room, looking forlorn in front of the mirror. He had on his sharp black trousers and dress shirt, but his bowtie hung limply from his collar. He cast a spell, and it tied, but looked crooked. He groaned and untied it by hand, trying again.

"Tying spells are never accurate," Hermione said gently, walking over to him in front of the mirror. Ron looked up at her and smiled, looking back down at his tie ruefully. "Here, let me tie it."

She reached up and expertly fashioned the perfect bow around Ron's neck. She straightened his collar, fastened his cufflinks, and even wrapped his cummerbund around his waist. She looked up at him and smiled, and he rolled his eyes.

"I can dress myself you know," he said quietly.

"I know, I just miss helping you sometimes," Hermione said wistfully. For a good year after the war, she and Ron had been inseparable. They loved each other, shared a bed, and they held each other when the nightmares got to be too much. But when the clouds of war and pain had lifted, Ron and Hermione found that they relied more on their friendship than their romance. While it hurt to sever the ties, they were happier now. Everything felt as close to right as it ever was.

"I miss it too, 'Mione," Ron said, kissing her forehead. Since their breakup, Ron had been experimenting with dating. He was seeing various girls, but it never got very far. He even tried his hand with a few men, and to Hermione's surprise, he was just as happy to be dating them. However, Ron still hadn't found anything that stuck.

"Where's Harry?" Hermione asked, handing him his jacket.

"He hasn't come back from work yet. He stayed behind to finish the paperwork and said I could go on home. I was bloody hungry and the growling was driving him barmy," Ron said, rubbing his stomach.

"Oh, for Christ sake. We're going to be so late!" Hermione threw her hands up.

"You know, we've got some wine downstairs. We can get started early," Ron said, waggling his eyebrows. Hermione couldn't help but smile as they made their way down to the kitchen. "Why isn't Larry coming anyway?"

"His name is Lawrence," Hermione murmured. "And this was the only night he could get that international portkey to Russia.

Lawrence was Hermione's boyfriend. They had been dating for a few months. He threw himself into his work a lot, and that suited her just fine. They enjoyed some evenings out and some nights together. Hermione felt content. She and Lawrence were a very appropriate match. She sighed as she thought of him on the way to the kitchen.

There was a beautifully constructed and frankly delicious looking sandwich sitting in the center of the table. "I thought you came home to eat," Hermione, her mouth watering involuntarily. She really needed to remember to eat dinner before going out.

"Oh I did, that's Harry's." Ron said, popping the cork on the wine. Hermione couldn't help but raise her eyebrows at Ron's little gesture of tenderness. She was interrupted from her train of thought by the front door slamming open.

"Harry," Ron whispered, his face lighting up. Hermione felt her heart speed up a little at Ron's expression.

She had always had her suspicions, always wondered if Harry and Ron's relationship was a little too close for best mates. But she would often find herself running to the conclusion that they just had a deeper friendship. However, during moments where Ron would get that look on his face, Hermione couldn't help but wonder if maybe her boys should be with each other, instead of searching for their souls elsewhere.

Her heart only began to beat faster when Harry walked through the door, his eyes never leaving Ron's face. She had to clear her throat to remind them that she was there, and they had plans. Harry shook his head, as if trying to shake off his thoughts like water, grabbed the sandwich, and ran upstairs to change.

Harry was ready in the blink of an eye, much to Ron's chagrin, and the trio apparated arm in arm to The Leaky Cauldron. They were greeted by an elegantly decorated pub, the raucous shouting and loud music created a pleasing dichotomy with the décor. The three were surrounded by a throng of old friends and roommates, embracing them and patting them on the back. Hermione reveled in the warmth and the happiness, holding onto her friends tightly. When Luna pulled her off into a corner, she happily went, and was convinced into a cocktail or three almost immediately.

Hermione made her rounds after starting things off with Luna. She hugged Neville and Hannah, danced in the middle of a Dean and Seamus sandwich, and even enjoyed some polite conversation with Lavender. She found Ron and Harry throughout the night, laughing, drinking, and having a good time, but never leaving each other's sides. It was shaping up to be a perfect celebration.

As midnight approached, the music slowed down, and everyone seemed to be paired off. Hermione tried not to feel lonely, eternally grateful for Luna's lone wolf approach to life. Even Dean and Seamus were wrapped in a tight embrace on the dance floor. Ron and Harry came over to join her and Luna, and they watched in silence as the rest of their friends danced. Dean and Seamus shuffled near them, and Ron got such an odd look on his face that Hermione thought he might turn bright red and explode. The shifty glances he was shooting at Harry were obvious…but apparently only to her.

"Ms. Granger, would you do me the honor?" Someone's hand came down on her shoulder. For a split second, she thought Lawrence had managed to get away from work, but she was surprised to see Percy Weasley standing near her. His eyes flicked to Ron for a split second, Ron smiled warmly, and he held out his hand to her.

Hermione gladly took the distraction Percy had offered. In the past year, she had worked with him very closely. He was the undersecretary to the Minister and she was a magical law reviewer, so they spent a lot of time together. On occasion they took lunches together, and had developed an easy and stimulating friendship. They had even met for coffee a few times outside of work.

He guided her out onto the dance floor, with remarkable grace, and moved her in circles around the other dancers. She was impressed, and enjoying the buzz of alcohol as she danced with him through the pub. She reluctantly slowed when Neville and Hannah stood on top of the bar and began the countdown to the New Millennium. She kept close to Percy, but swiveled her head around at all of the couples.

Ron and Harry were standing next to each other near her and Percy, counting down the time. Ron had a huge smile on his face as his booming voice belted out the decreasing numbers. Harry was mumbling, looking up at Ron and blushing. He looked like he was about to run screaming out the door. Hermione moved away from Percy to make sure everything was okay with Harry when someone yelled zero.

Harry grabbed Ron's face and kissed him firmly.

Percy gripped Hermione's elbow, and she let out a loud gasp. No one else was paying attention, as they were focused on someone else's lips. But Hermione saw her two best friends kiss. She was prepared for it to change everything. Instead, Harry pulled back, horrified, and ran swiftly out of the pub. Ron stood there looking confused, and then hurt, and then forlornly walked over to the floo and disappeared.

Percy and Hermione met eyes, and she knew they were on the same wavelength: "We are all screwed."

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Crows ravaging a field of wheat

Stars jealous of the moon

Scarecrows know their own defeat

Envy and the heart that it consumes

Harry Potter found it amazing that someone could live with another person, and still completely avoid them. Ever since that awful, brash, ill-conceived stunt Harry pulled on New Year's Eve, he had been avoiding Ron like the plague. He was afraid to meet his eyes, terrified that he would find confusion…or worse disgust…in them. He couldn't lose Ron just because he couldn't keep his own feelings in check.

Harry woke up an hour earlier than Ron did, and made sure he was to the office by the time Ron even thought about coming into work. He kept himself busy, mostly in the records room, filing old cases and paperwork. He hoped they wouldn't get an assignment any time soon. He slowly summoned another dusty box of files, finding solace in the dark, hidden space of the Auror department. If Ron had wanted to be with Harry, it would have happened already.

"Potter, there you are!" head Auror Robards exclaimed. Harry jumped, and then turned around and attempted to face his supervisor nonchalantly. His heart dropped to his stomach when he saw Ron peeking at him sheepishly through his fringe. "I've got a mission for you two. I know it's been slow lately, so I hope you haven't gone rusty."

"I'm doing great, sir," Harry said. He looked over at Ron and saw him looking even more hurt than he had the night Harry walked away.

"Excellent…Excellent. We've got a string of leftover Death Eaters trying to build up another following. We were tipped off by a pub owner where they were holding their meetings. Said they were making recruitment plans and had mentioned something about prisoners," Robards started.

"Bloody hell. Have you cross referenced with missing persons?" Ron asked, shoving his hands in his pockets and turning his head away from Harry.

Robards nodded and silently passed Ron the file. Ron scanned them and his eyes widened. Harry couldn't help it, he moved closely to Ron to read the list for himself. Twenty names were listed; all young men and women, and all disappeared around the same time. Harry gasped, the gravity of the situation sinking in. He couldn't help but instinctively move closer to Ron, instantly drawn in by the warmth he projected.

"We have to check…" Harry started.

"Yeah, check their backgrounds. There's a chance some of this was just straight up recruiting," Ron interrupted. Harry couldn't figure out whether to feel frustrated or embarrassed, so he just blushed.

"Sounds like as good a place to start as any! And when you get it narrowed down, maybe we can calibrate a possible location by looking at the recruits and finding some commonality," Robards said, handing them a few more files and walking away.

They stood there in silence for a moment, pretending to look at the files in Ron's hand. Harry could hear his deep breathing, and new that if he concentrated hard enough, he could probably hear Ron's heart racing over his own. It ripped him apart inside, the awkwardness between them, but Harry knew it was for the best. Their friendship could survive a literal slip of the tongue, but it could not survive Harry being overtly in love with Ron…who may never love him back in that way. The chances were too great, there was too much at stake. "Ron, I…"

"Come on, we need to read through these and get a map set up before the end of the day. I'd like a location to start in on tomorrow," Ron interrupted, turning on his heel and heading back toward their office. Harry's heart broke just a little more.

True to their plan, by the end of the day, they had managed to draw nearly a perfect circle of missing wizards around one point, about 20 square miles around, just north of London. There was a wizarding village there, one that had fallen under notice of the Ministry for some time, and it was pretty clear whomever these new Death Eaters were, they were operating from somewhere in that area. They had a plan mapped out, and a course of action based around the most popular points in that area. Robards was impressed by their efficiency, and Harry's subconscious couldn't help but point out that it was because they had worked in relative silence all day.

By the next day, a team was assembled to accompany Harry and Ron to the pinpointed area near Waltham Abbey. They had selected various locations where men frequented, and each Auror was stationed with instructions just to look inconspicuous and keep their eyes and ears open. They all had on nondescript disguises to make them look elderly, haggard, or just relatively unobtrusive. They also decided to only wear disguises as men, because for some reason, this cell seemed to only want to recruit men.

Harry and Ron stationed themselves on either side of a crowded pub. They weathered their appearances, changed their hair and skin tone, and put on some tattered robes. They looked like dirty, angry individuals. Harry put on a menacing glare in the hopes that he would attract the right sort of people. He and Ron had extendable ears disillusioned to hear what was going on with the other person. Then they sat down, and drank carefully measured glasses full of warm mead.

Not an hour later, someone sat next to Ron at the counter, and Harry tensed as he heard the stool creak and draw a sharp breath. Harry tried carefully to not be too obvious as he eyed the man next to his best mate. The man seated next to him was medium build, but that was all Harry could discern through the thick, dark, and consuming robes the newcomer wore. Harry got up slowly and moved to a closer vantage point, his wand drawn beneath his sleeve and his hand clenching around the thick glass mug.

"Pint, if you please," the stranger said, in an all too familiar voice. Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath to keep from running after him. Scabior, the man whose actions led to the torture of Hermione and the death of Dobby, one of the most wanted wizards in Europe, was seated right there at that pub. It was no coincidence, and the situation just got markedly more dangerous. Harry hoped Ron would be able to gain his trust enough to get some information.

After a few minutes of painful silence, in which only the sound of the amber liquid flowing down Ron's throat echoed in Harry's ears, Ron finally spoke. "Tastes like piss."

"Then why the fuck you drinkin' it?" Scabior asked, not looking up from his alcohol.

"People leave yeh alone at this pub, don' wan no do gooders breathin'down me neck," Ron said, in a garbled accent that sounded both Irish and Hagrid in the same breath. Harry hoped it wasn't as obvious to Scabior.

"Know what you mean, mate. Been trying to avoid the do-gooders for nearly three years now," Scabior said. Harry bit his lip. That was the bait. That was the way Scabior would verify if Ron was on his side or not.

"Tell me about it, everywhere I look there's another muggle humpin abomination in official robes," Ron took a long swig of his drink. "Fuckin mudbloods."

"Why haven't I seen you here before?" Scabior asked, though Harry could see his shoulders and back were already less tense. Ron had started to open the door, now he just had to keep his foot there.

"I'm on the run. Got into a bit of it a few years ago…they call it Muggle Baiting now or some tripe… now I'm a wanted man," Ron said, his voice sounding like gravel and completely foreign to Harry. "Me an' my associate have been all over England sleepin' it out in pubs and caves."

Harry's heart sank. What was Ron doing? Surely his story would seem flimsy if he brought Harry into the mix. He saw Scabior looking around and tried to avoid his eyes without looking like he was avoiding anything.

"You don't look familiar to me, and I know all likeminded gentlemen in the country," Scabior said, and Harry flinched as he reached for his wand.

"Names Jack Skelton, me mate is Rick Harper," Ron said gesturing toward Harry. Harry suddenly felt a rush of adrenaline and appreciation for Ron. Jack and Rick were known associates, wanted men, and last seen in Scotland. No one had a good picture of them, but they were wanted for…among other things…assaulting Muggle women. Ron had been playing at that angle the whole time. By Scabior's look of recognition, he was familiar with the story as well.

"You know, Jack, I might have just the thing to scratch that itch. You and your associate wouldn't have to run anymore either," Scabior smirked.

"Who the hell are you t'offer a thing like that?" Ron answered gruffly. The paranoid air he gave off was palpable.

"You like Mudblood women? Muggle women? I can get you those," Scabior said, like he was offering Ron gold. This was the final test and Harry knew it. Rick and Jack were known for their taste for these women, and they were notorious for being unable to resist a vulnerable one. If they were who they said they were, then Scabior's offer should have them leaping.

"Lemme get Rick."

Ron stood up and waved his hand dismissively in the air toward Harry. Harry longed to meet Ron's eyes, but he knew any deviations from their characters could cost them their lives. Harry got up slowly and walked over toward Ron as if he had just interrupted a nap. He scowled at Scabior and looked at Ron questioningly.

"He says he's got some of what we like, how we like it," Ron said deeply and cryptically.

"Mmmmm. How much?" Harry asked, licking his lips and hating himself.

"Tell you what, I'll give you a taste of some lovelies, and we'll see if you guys won't want a more permanent position in my organization." Scabior sneered.

"Hey! We're not bloody whoremongers," Ron suddenly shouted, causing the bar to go silent. Scabior looked alarmed and slightly fearful. Harry was impressed.

"I understand that, Jack. Might we discuss this at my chateau?" Scabior asked. Ron nodded, and he and Harry followed the Death Eater out of the pub and into the frigid evening.

The word Chateau was an overstatement…a gross overstatement. Scabior led them to a rundown old house in the middle of the woods. There were no roads and no trails leading to the structure, and Harry and Ron felt the shudder of every ward they could think of pass through them when they neared the premises. Harry couldn't help but feel sick with apprehension. He had to shove his hands in his pockets to keep from reaching out to Ron.

They walked into a smoky room, and Harry gripped his wand tightly inside of his robes. He tried to look menacing and suspicious instead of primed for a fight. There were men in dark robes all over the room, some he recognized as wanted Death Eaters, others as the missing men, and some he had never seen before in his life. He had counted for three of the missing wizards before he and Ron were lead into a dank, fecund back room. He made a mental note to acknowledge all of the names and faces later and file them away.

With a flick of his wand, Scabior cast a dull, yellow light around the room, and Harry found it surprisingly large. As he looked around, the bile rose so high in his throat that he could hardly swallow. There were men and women of all ages locked in cages along the walls. They were crying and wailing, some were shaking, and some even looked dead. Harry couldn't help himself, he accidently ran into Ron's back…desperate for the reassurance of his body.

"Watch it, Rick!" Ron growled, and grabbed Harry's wrist. He ran the pad of his thumb over the back of Harry's hand slightly, and it soothed him.

As they trailed along the rows of cages (Harry counted twenty prisoners), Ron was flicking his wand. An almost imperceptible line of light was connecting each cage and following after them. Ron was binding each cage he could get to with magic, to try to transport as many away as quickly as possible. Harry immediately went over to the other end of the room, feigning disgusting interest in the victims over there but echoing Ron's movements. Harry bent down to pick up a large twig from the ground. He pretended to poke one of the victims with it, but really he was making a portkey. He drew the lines of light toward the portkey, and saw Ron doing the same behind his back as he leered at the women and laughed with Scabior.

They had managed to attach over half of the cages to their portkeys when the door slammed open. Harry couldn't help but squint at the sudden burst of light, and the victims all cowered in their cages from the rush of cold hair. Standing in the doorway were four armed Deatheaters, threatening looks on their faces, and wild paranoia in their eyes.

"Oi! Scabey! Whatchu doin? Got word that Ministry's been snoopin around pubs in the village. Tryin to track us down. We need to relocate. Bleedin Harry Potter is even lurkin about!" One Death Eater exclaimed, pointing his wand at the nearest cage. Scabior immediately drew his wand, but Harry was too quick.

Harry disarmed Scabior, knocking him to the ground in the process. He heard the familiar 'pop' of disapparation and saw that Ron's portkey had gone. He was battling the Death Eaters in the doorway. As Harry activated his portkey, Ron took a hit and went flying backwards into the wall. Harry ran, screaming in rage, directly for the three Deatheaters. He managed to slash evil gashes across his chest before taking a stunner in his own. He laid momentarily frozen on the ground as Ron leapt over him and continued the battle with the remaining two Deatheaters.

Only the cages right by the door were left, and Harry turned his head to find one person left. She was a small girl, and couldn't be older than 12. Harry saw the flying curse and knew he had to act to get her out of the way. He stayed low to the ground, moving quickly in a squat position on the balls of his feet. He reached her cage and blasted the door open. He glanced back once more to make sure Ron was okay.

When he looked back at Ron, he saw the spell cut into his side. Ron's warm blood splashed on to Harry's face and he cried out along with Ron's yell of pain. White hot rage flooded through Harry, and as Ron's shaky wand finally disarmed one of the Death Eaters, the energy exploded from the tip of Harry's wand and blasted the other man clear out the door. The force caused Harry to hit the opposite wall. His vision faded to black as Ron lay pale and shaking on the dirty floor of the run down barn.

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Today I walked without you
Like an empty bottle drifting out to sea
I would change it I knew how to
But it don't come that easily

"I'm only a Second Year! I have no idea what to do!" Someone was shrieking and crying to Harry's right. He struggled to open his eyes and see what all the fuss was about, but he couldn't find the ability to move. Suddenly, it all came flooding back and he willed himself to roll onto his side. Once his blood was flowing and the room stopped spinning, reality slammed back into Harry and he struggled to get up.

"Ennervate…H…H…Harry," Ron's gurgling voice shook and sputtered. The young girl drew Ron's wand and pointed it at Harry only to gasp. Harry crawled over to Ron, grabbing his bloody hand with both of his.

"I'm here. We'll get backup. I'll seal you up," Harry said, a sob escaping his throat.

"Tie them…" Ron whispered. Harry shot his wand in the direction of the three disabled men, ignoring the obviously dead one on the other side of the room. Then, he leaned back over to Ron and began to rip at his shirt. He tried to drown out the panicked cries of the young girl beside him.

"It's okay mate. We'll get this bleeding taken care of until backup arrives," Harry said, leaning over Ron and clutching desperately at his shoulders. He sealed up the wounds with shaking, weak arms.

After stopping the blood flow, Harry cast his patronus to call for help. He pictured Ron in his mind, dripping wet, holding the destroyed horcrux, and smiling triumphantly. He felt the way Ron's embrace enfolded him that night, and his patronus shot forth.

The energy it took to summon the Aurors with his patronus had drained Harry, and his vision blacked as he collapsed onto the floor.

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The image played in Harry's fevered mind over and over again: Ron rushing into the line of fire, Ron's blood splashing across his face, and Ron's body shaking violently as he struggled to stay awake. Harry kept reaching out for Ron, kept running at his lifeless form, only to be flung back against the wall. After a few attempts, he screamed Ron's name in desperation. Air and electricity filled his lungs, and he shot up in bed.

"Mate?"

Harry was blinded by nothing but bright white. He began to sweat as he frantically searched for his glasses. His heart was racing. He needed to get out of the room and get to Ron. He began fighting with the blankets surrounding him, trying to escape. A pair of delicate hands placed his glasses on his face and everything became clear.

Harry looked directly into the deep blue eyes of the mousy young girl he and Ron had found in the Death Eater hideout. He grabbed her shoulders, and she got an anxious, frightened look on her face. He was desperate to ask her what happened, but he couldn't manage to form the words. He just kept gripping her shoulders more tightly until she cried out and he heard a shuffle next to the bed.

"Harry," a perfect, whispered, gruff voice lingered around his ear and penetrated his tortured mind. He looked at Ron, standing with a gentle hand on his shoulder. He was even more pale than normal, but he looked…he looked alive. Harry had to swallow back a cry of relief as he wrapped his arms firmly around Ron's torso.

Ron made soothing noises and ran his hands up and down Harry's back. Harry's breathing slowed and his panic dissipated. All he was left with was relief and gratitude…and of course love and want threatening to break down his carefully constructed walls. He gripped Ron's white robes tightly and took a deep breath, committing his scent to memory again. Eventually Ron cleared his throat.

"We have company," he whispered. Harry jumped back.

"Oh hello!" Harry said awkwardly. The girl smiled shyly through her eyelashes. "What's your name?

"Maureen," she whispered, and Harry's stomach sunk at the image of the small, shaky girl he found in the cage.

"Her parents said she isn't sleeping well, and she insisted on coming back until we both woke up," Ron explained, patting her on the shoulder.

"How long was I out?"

"'Bout two days. I woke up after one day. You got a bad hit on the head," Ron said, gesturing to his own head. Harry sat down heavily on the bed.

"Blimey, I didn't know," Harry said, amazed. He hadn't even felt like he had an injury until everything went dark.

"From what Maureen tells me, it was a might scary. You came a bit unhinged. She said you lit up like bright silver light," Ron blushed slightly. "Kinda wish I could have seen it."

"I'm glad you're okay," she said softly, disappearing on the other side of the curtain.

"That girl is like Luna without the talking. Bloody creepy. Good to see she's not going to go 'round the twist after all that happened though," Ron said, his face darkening.

"What did they do with all of those people?" Harry asked, afraid to really hear the answer.

"They experimented on her. Made her cast spells that burned her hands. Drew her blood while she was doing magic. They wanted to prove that Muggleborns are unnatural. I'm just glad they didn't…well…some of the older women…you heard what they offered," Ron whispered, turning his head away.

"They all safe now?"

"Everyone in the barn was accounted for, but Scabior must have woken up while we were out cold. They can't find most of the Death Eaters," Ron whispered, his jaw clenched tightly.

"Hey," Harry said, walking back over to him. He didn't dare attempt another consuming embrace, and just settled for sitting closer. "It'll be okay. We'll figure this out."

"It just never ends," Ron groaned, his head in his hands.

He leaned forward and Harry let his hand fall to Ron's back. He reached up and ran his fingers over the warm, bare skin on Ron's neck. Ron sat up and looked at Harry with puzzlement. Harry couldn't help himself, and he reached up to touch the side of Ron's face.

"We're okay, Harry," Ron said softly, reaching up and covering Harry's hand with his own.

"It was too close this time," Harry whispered.

He couldn't fight it, not with Ron walking slowly away from the edge of death. Every single nerve, tendon, muscle and sense in Harry's body was keyed toward his want for Ron. He loved him too much to risk losing him and be unable to bask in his life. He grabbed Ron's face firmly and kissed him with all the emotion kept hidden behind those walls in his chest. When Ron's hand came up and his long fingers wrapped around the back of Harry's neck, he groaned and pressed his body against Ron's.

Harry didn't pause to pull away and gage Ron's expression. Ron was too easy to read, and he feared what he would see there. He just wanted…he needed anything from Ron in that moment, and couldn't handle his rejection. Ron kissed him back, ran his hands over any place on Harry's body he could reach, and even groaned in pleasure when Harry thrust his hips against his. Even if it was just for that day, Harry was going to take it.

Ron didn't say a word when he laid Harry back on the high hospital cot. He didn't make a sound when he flicked his wand toward the door and made sure they weren't disturbed. He didn't utter a single word as he slid Harry's robe off of his shoulders. Harry sighed in relief, pressing his skin against the warmth Ron emanated even through his robes.

He braved a look into Ron's eyes, and hope rose in Harry's chest. Ron was looking at him with equal lust, and Harry was sure love sparked in that reverent gaze. He wanted to make every promise and pledge he could think of, but settled for flipping them over and slamming Ron on his back. He flicked his own wand and his robes completely vanished. They both immediately cried out at the contact.

When Harry felt Ron's hand wrap around his erection, he knew it wasn't the head trauma that was making him dizzy. He whispered Ron's name, reached up to kiss him before he began to lose all grasp of time. Ron's tongue ran along his teeth and Harry welcomed Ron's messy, frantic kiss as he thrust up into his hand.

"Ron…please. I want…can I touch you?" Harry asked, tentatively reaching down.

"Fuck yes," Ron groaned.

Harry gripped Ron's long, thick cock and Ron cried out Harry's name, burying his nose in Harry's neck. They laid still, catching their breath until Ron began to kiss up along Harry's jaw and he rocked into Ron's hand. They built up a rhythm, and Harry was so happy to be in Ron's arms he didn't even feel embarrassed that he was about to come woefully quickly.

"Harry, I…"

"It was so close this time," Harry whispered. Their erections brushed against one another and they both cried out in unison. After a few more quick thrusts, Harry's entire body tensed and relaxed, and he could feel his own seed mix with Ron's along their bare abdomens.

Harry kept his eyes closed, basking in the hazy feeling, only to open them when he felt something warm and wet near his navel. He looked down to see Ron carefully washing their mess away with a warm flannel. Ron smiled sheepishly at Harry, then crawled into the hospital cot next to him and held him tightly until Harry was lulled into a calm sleep.

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If my heart wasn't such a jungle
Maybe you wouldn't feel so alone
If your heart wasn't such and ocean
I wouldn't sink like a stone

Harry's eyes cracked open at the sound of soft footsteps on the tiled floor of the hospital room. He got his glasses on just in time to see a smiling mediwitch saunter out of the room. Harry looked down at Ron, arm draped over his naked chest, and body covered by a thin sheet, still sleeping soundly. His heart clenched and bile rose up in his throat. He needed to leave.

Harry did not want to leave Ron. He wanted to stay right there in that bed with him until they both faded away. But after a lifetime of running, of fighting, of betrayal and darkness, Harry knew that the old poem was right: "nothing gold can stay." He'd had evil living in his soul for a majority of his life. He had flashbacks of the cold breath of death on his back. He didn't want to hold onto happiness only to lose it.

Ron would do anything for him; time and time again he proved that. But Harry couldn't risk losing his best friend. He knew that if they became lovers, eventually Harry would be too cold, too distant, and too damaged for Ron. Ron would leave him in frustration, and they would never be the same. The night before was a mistake he was intent on not repeating at any costs.

The answer came just as Harry put his trousers back on and Kingsley Shackelbolt walked regally through their door.

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After Ron woke up and stretched out his arms, it only took a few moments for him to remember what happened last night, and a few more on top of that to realize Harry wasn't anywhere to be seen. He sat up and saw Hermione sitting in a seat by the window. She smiled happily and rushed over to hug him, jumping back like she'd been burned.

"Ron, are you naked?" She asked in a panicked tone.

"Yup," Ron said, scratching his head and looking around for Harry. "Harry in the loo?"

"No, Ron. He didn't tell you?" Hermione said, looking puzzled. Ron shook his head. His heart began to race and he wasn't really sure why.

"Harry was sent on a mission. He floo'd over to my house, decked out in his uniform, and said he couldn't say any more. He asked me to come and sit with you," Hermione said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. Ron's face paled and his hands began to sweat. "Ron? Are you feeling okay?"

Ron could only hear static in his ears as his mind screamed a bevy of questions his way:

Did you scare him off?

What were you thinking?

Was he disgusted?

Did he just do that out of pity?

Is he that desperate to get away from you that he couldn't even say goodbye?

"He'll be gone for at least two weeks," Hermione said, taking Ron's hands. "What happened in there? You look like you just had the life drained out of you."

Ron had never heard a more apt metaphor.

(((()()()()()()()()()()()()

One week after Harry had vanished to do unknown Auror work, Ron found himself putting in some moonlighting hours stocking shelves at George's shop. The work was very physical, as some of the stock was too volatile to be handled with basic domestic spells, and he found it cathartic. He was less apt to kick walls in frustration if he was doing something active. If he kept himself busy enough, his failure with Harry and the potential loss of his best mate wouldn't eat at his mind.

George tried to get him to talk. He tried jokes, he tried more jokes, and he even tried joking. When that didn't work, George did the unthinkable and became serious. However, Ron just shrugged him off and said he was fine. He was sure George didn't believe him, but the last thing he needed to do was tell his older brother about sexual feelings for his best mate.

The bell to the shop jingled, and Ron was about to yell that they were closing when he saw Percy's curly red head bobbing through the entryway. George and Percy sat at a table set up by the window and began to talk in low whispers. Ron was still shocked at how close Percy and George had grown, considering how different they remained, but found their friendship hopeful in the face of their family's tragedy. When his two brothers started shooting glances Ron's way, he ducked back into the back room to avoid them.

The next morning, Ron woke up early and resolved to spend another Sunday at the shop. He paused outside of Harry's room, smiling to himself at the still unmade bed. His heart sank as he realized it looked like Harry had never left. But he had left, and Ron didn't know what things would be like when he got back. He may never have his Harry back again, not even the way things were.

By the middle of the day, Ron was drenched in sweat and thoroughly distracted. When the back door creaked open, he barely registered it until Hermione was standing in front of him. Her hands were on her hips, and she wore a mocking smirk, but he could see the concern behind her warm stare. He turned his head away for fear that she could see right through him.

"Go upstairs and get cleaned up. You're taking me to lunch," Hermione commanded. When Ron didn't move, she lifted her eyebrows and folded her arms. That did it.

They walked down the crowded street at the heart of Diagon until they found their way to The Leaky Cauldron. Ron looked for a table, but Hermione shook her head and lead him out into Muggle London. They found a quaint café a few blocks away and she ordered them some tea. Ron just sat there, ready for whatever barrage of questions and comments she had prepared for him.

"George owled me, Ron," Hermione said, placing a hand over his on the table. Ron sighed inwardly and met her eyes. "What's going on?"

"It's nothing. I just…it's just…"

"Listen, Ron. You went through a lot. You were sliced open!" Hermione started.

"I've been sliced open before," Ron commented. Hermione paled and looked away.

"Yes and it was awful," she whispered. Ron squeezed her hand, feeling bad for the glib statement.

"It wasn't about the fight," Ron mumbled, taking a bite of the sandwich that was placed in front of him in hopes that he didn't have to talk. He looked up at her, and met her deep brown eyes. She looked so worried about him, so caring, that his heart hurt a little. He couldn't deny that he trusted her with his life, and in that moment, he just wanted to pour out his heart to someone. The entirety of what happened between he and Harry was threatening to make him explode.

"Ron?" Hermione said, taking his other hand. "Please tell me what happened. You know you can't let things fester inside. You have a tendency to explode."

"It was…well, after Harry woke up, we kind of…we sort of…there was touching and kissing and it felt amazing and then he disappeared!" Ron let it out in one breath and waited for Hermione's shocked gasps and protestations. He heard only silence. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to look at Hermione even as his face burned. She had an unreadable expression on her face.

"Oh, Ron," she whispered, moving to the other side of the table and sitting next to him. "You and Harry have always been inching toward something like this."

"What are you talking about?" Ron asked, shocked that she wasn't more shocked.

"He's devoted to you, just as much as you're devoted to him," she said softly.

"Obviously you're wrong, Hermione," he answered sadly. "He left without saying goodbye. He probably got all freaked out and never wants to look at me again." The prospect sunk Ron so low that he just wanted to give up on getting through the rest of the day.

"Don't think the worst, Ron, as hard as that is for you," Hermione smiled gently. "You know how Harry is. He's probably brooding, and doubting. He just needs more time. He'll be sorted out when he comes back."

Ron was doubtful, but he took her embrace and her words as comfort. The rest of the week was much less painless, despite going slowly. When the day came for Harry to return, Ron nearly couldn't contain his excitement.

((())

If you weren't so far from me
I could hold you while you're sleeping

And hear you breathing softly
And be there when you're waking

Ron, Hermione, George and Percy were waiting in the sitting room of Grimmauld Place for Harry to return. The door slammed open and Ron leapt to his feet, instantly embarrassed by his excitement. As his face burned, Hermione smiled joyously at him and eased his tension a bit. When Harry crossed the threshold of the room and everyone greeted him, Ron rushed forward to hug him.

Harry dodged his arms, clapping him on the shoulder and grinning. "Alright, mate?"

Ron felt his stomach tie in knots, he swallowed back and lump and smiled to Harry. He moved away to let the others greet him. Harry had made his decision; Ron could see it in his stare. Harry wanted to avoid that anything ever happened between them, and if Ron was going to keep his best friend, he resolved to go along with it.

After everyone had left, and Ron tried to quell Hermione's concerned looks with his own nonchalant gaze that probably wasn't fooling her, he and Harry sat down to a dinner Kreacher was so gracious to prepare. The food barely registered on Ron's palette, but he ate like it was the greatest thing he had ever tasted. He didn't say a word. He couldn't say a word.

"I haven't had a hot meal in two weeks!" Harry said. "Wish I could say more about what was going on, but there's a binding spell."

"S'alright," Ron grumbled. Harry ignored his strange behavior.

They sat in the living room after dinner, Harry catching up on the Prophet and Ron listening to the Wasps vs. Harpies match on the wireless. There was some polite conversation about the headlines, but nothing else. Ron knew if he didn't act soon, even his friendship would be lost. He started ranting to Harry about the game.

They got into a rousing discussion of Quidditch plays, and when the night was drawing to a close and they began yawning, Ron said a casual goodnight. He scratched his belly, stretched his arms, and told Harry in a very platonic way that he was glad to see him back. Then, he walked up the stairs to his bed.

Ron cast silencing charms around his room, an imperturbable charm on his door, and a locking ward for good measure. Then, Ron yelled until he couldn't feel his throat anymore. He hit the wall until his knuckles bled and fought with the punching bag he kept in the corner of his room. He only collapsed on the bed when he was exhausted, and willed the tears to keep away from his eyes as he drifted off to sleep.

( ((()))))))))

If my heart wasn't such a jungle
Maybe you wouldn't feel so alone
If your heart wasn't such and ocean
I wouldn't sink like a stone

"I've got to send you back to Holland, Harry," Kingsley said as soon as Harry shut the door to his office.

"I figured as much," Harry answered, trying to disguise the bitterness in his voice.

"I know nothing happened last time, but the tip we are working on now has a much more definite location. You'll be running surveillance under cover again, but this time I'll be bringing in some of our unspeakable operatives," The Minister explained.

"Unspeakables?" Harry asked, dumbfounded. He hadn't handled a case with the Unspeakable department yet, and had only heard wild eyed fairytales about them from the more seasoned Aurors.

"Yes. It turns out the blood experiments they were doing on the muggles was a method recognized by the Department of Mysteries. They had apparently been doing work on the origin of magic in organic matter, and the process young Maureen had described was astoundingly similar to one they had used to strip magic from some plants and animals. We are beginning to think that is where they are headed with their intentions. It's not just another dark rising and another purist movement. This has just gotten infinitely more dangerous," he finished gravely, handing Harry a file.

After reviewing the file, Harry felt completely sick. It was the belief of the Auror department and the Department of Mysteries that this new movement of Death Eaters intended to develop a way to strip the 'undeserving' of their magic. Harry thought of Hermione, burning brilliantly and fighting by his side, and he steeled his resolve. He'd spend the rest of his life in Holland if it meant she'd never have to lose her magic.

He was given his travel instructions, bonded by a new spell, and sent on his way. He was to leave in 1 hour. He had only enough time to pack the essentials and settle his affairs. He thought of Ron and hated himself for being relieved that he didn't have to face his best mate after the huge mess he made of their relationship. It was obvious Ron was just as relieved. Harry hated himself for trying, for being weak enough to put Ron in that situation. A few weeks away on a mission would do him good.

Harry walked quickly through the halls, trying to make it to the floo so he could grab his things and meet his portkey. He sighed inwardly when he heard Hermione's familiar walk fall into step beside him. He knew she'd be angry he was leaving again.

"I've been sent on another secret mission," Harry said, hoping she would back away and let him get his stuff together.

"Of course you have. It helps to avoid what's going on, doesn't it?" She said coldly. Harry froze in his tracks.

"He told you?"

"Of course he did! You don't think…" Hermione began.

"Stop right there, Hermione. I can't do this. I just can't. Not right now," Harry said, lifting his hand up.

"You'll never do it Harry. You'll never face what happened. You just…" She started again, but Harry interrupted.

"I can't lose him, Hermione. He's my…he's my Ron," Harry said, defeated. Hermione shook her head vigorously, but Harry went on. "I'll only hurt him. All of this anger, this bitterness, the getting caught in my own head…he doesn't need that. He'll get frustrated and leave me one day."

With that, Harry backed into the floo to fetch his things and go back to Holland. He couldn't bear to look Ron in the eye long enough to say goodbye, so he left without a word.

(((()))))

Harry got to his designated post and dropped his pack heavily. It was another run down cottage. But at least this one had a muggle heater and some electricity. A fire may draw attention, but an appliance wouldn't make any wizard turn his head. He immediately began playing with the dials. When he heard footsteps, he drew his wand despite expecting two Unpeakables to walk through the door.

"Oi Harry!" Seamus Finnegan said, grinning and running toward him. Harry closed his mouth long enough to hug his former roommate and stare at him gobsmacked.

"I didn't know you were an unspeakable," he said dumbly.

"Do I have to point out that certainly we can't speak about it?" Seamus said, lifting a light blonde eyebrow. "This is my partner, Edwin Giles."

Harry shook the partner's hand, suddenly warmer and looking forward to his mission a slight bit more. They settled into some quiet, took out their rations, and discussed their plans for the mission. They were to track the movements of the detected Death Eater cell, and when they pinpointed a location, they had to report for backup, and begin setting up a perimeter to get the dangerous criminals apprehended. The problem was, they had no idea where the headquarters were, and their search was spinning in many directions around their post.

When they had settled a focus on the eastern side of the little Dutch village to begin with, they resolved to get some rest and then enter the village under heavy disguises to begin asking questions. Giles was snoring immediately. Harry set up his sleeping pad, but Seamus was still up composing a letter at the table.

"Why don't you get some rest?" Harry asked.

"Sure sure. I just need to write Dean a note so he knows I'm alright. He worries."

"How can you communicate?"

"I can't speak of it."

Harry threw a pillow at Seamus' head. "Why does Dean get so worried?"

"He always gets antsy when I'm not there to warm his bed," Seamus said casually.

"Wait, what?" Harry felt immediately ridiculous for sounding so surprised after what he saw on New Year's Eve.

"Like you didn't know we'd eventually be buggerin' each other…well…he buggers me mostly," Seamus said, winking.

Harry just shook his head, too shocked to speak. Here it was: evidence that he was a fool for turning Ron away and for avoiding his own feelings. Seamus and Dean were together and obviously happy. Their lives were no picnic in the final legs of the war either, but they managed to stay together…to stay friends and become lovers. Harry tried to tell himself that he and Ron were different, that Ron was just going through a phase and could never want him as a permanent lover, but the little voice in the back of his head began to grow more loudly. It only ever said one word: Ron.

The beginning of the mission was a silent one. Harry was lost in his own head, fighting with himself over the success of Dean and Seamus' relationship, and his own doubts about being in love with his best mate. Obviously there was something there, otherwise what happened in the hospital would have never happened. He, Seamus, and Giles logged everything they saw in the village without speaking much, but soon, they managed to draw some conclusions.

"Well, we've seen three known Death Eaters coming from the East over and over again, and unless they are actively trying to divert us, that's the direction we need to go in," Harry said authoritatively. They immediately began to map out the county, looking up all registered and unregistered buildings from the smallest Muggle outbuilding, to the stately wizarding residence 25 miles outside of town.

They didn't separate and search the destinations they had pinpointed. Given the brutal nature of previous crimes and the intentions of the criminals, it was much safer to stay in a collected group and monitor each site. A few locations went by with no information, and then at a old Muggle crofter cottage one mile from the village, Seamus suddenly tensed. Harry grabbed his arm.

"I can feel it, the spell, it crackles in your veins," He whispered, shuddering. "They're trying to strip someone right now."

"We've got to go in there," Giles said, drawing his wand and leaping forward. Harry saw a vision of Ron's blood soaked robes and grabbed his arm.

"We can't do that, mate. There are too many. Last time I tried, I nearly died. Let's send patronuses to our departments for backup," Harry commanded quietly.

He and Giles did just that. They turned to Seamus to see him standing completely frozen, muttering under his breath, his wand drawn against his wrist on the inside of his sleeve. Harry couldn't see any spells emanating from his wand, but the air seemed to wave and falter around them, like heat was rising from Seamus' hand. Harry stood, puzzled, wanting to help but not wanting to speak up for fear that he would break whatever Seamus was trying to do.

"He's delivering the counter curse in a more liquefied way, trying to penetrate the wards. He hasn't succeeded yet. We're running out of time," Gile's voice was reeking with desperation, and Harry wondered if there was an even more personal stake for him than there was for the rest of them.

Suddenly, Seamus' entire body went rigid. His eyes opened and they shone white. Just as he was falling backwards, the backup Aurors and unspeakables showed up. Giles charged toward the cottage, and Harry caught Seamus and laid him gently on the ground. He lay in the snow with his eyes wide and unfocused for a moment before his body spasmed and jumped. Harry pulled him up into his arms to try to ease the shaking.

The Aurors and Unspeakables were in and out in a matter of minutes. Calling for backup had been a wise choice. The ring was rounded up, and everyone was taken away before any real damage had been done. Robards came up to Harry while he was still calming Seamus to tell him they captured everyone but Scabior. Harry swore loudly.

"I'm going to fucking kill him with my bare hands when we finally get a hold of him," Harry said, anger seething through his teeth as he was once again barraged with subconscious images of Ron lying bleeding on a dirty wooden floor.

"You need to go home and rest for a while, Harry. We'll discuss Scabior on Monday. Four days off will do you well," Robards said, smiling. Harry began to rub Seamus' back to rouse him. He cracked open his eyes.

"Blimey, Harry. Didn't know you swung that way," Seamus said in a rough, sore voice.

"You'd be surprised," Harry said lowly. Seamus just lifted his eyebrows.

"I think I might have broken it in time," Seamus said, struggling to get up. Harry held out a steady arm for Seamus before pulling himself up out of the snow. He cast a drying charm on them both. At that moment Giles came out with a young woman in his arms. Seamus looked at him questioningly, and his partner gave him back a hopeful look and a slight nod. Seamus nearly sagged back to the snow in relief.

"You have got to show me how to liquefy your curses like that," Harry said, amazed and not a little jealous.

"Actually, we just started the research. I'm going to get in a load of trouble when the bosses find out I used an improperly developed new method. But of course we'll share once it's worked out," Seamus smiled.

"C'mon. Let's get you back to Dean," Harry clapped him on the shoulder.

"Wanna join us at the pub? I need a bloody strong pint after all that. Dean can meet us there," Seamus asked, still looking pale and drawn.

Harry nodded vigorously, desperate for any reason to avoid the silent and awkward home he had to look forward to. Getting good and pissed would be one way to ensure no horribly painful encounter when he finally made it back to Grimmauld. Seamus gave him the coordinates to a place near where he and Dean lived, and Harry apparated there shortly after Seamus vanished.

Seamus plopped down heavily next to Harry instead of across from him and took a large swig from his ale. Harry joined him, glancing back at Seamus cautiously to make sure he was steady enough to be left to his own devices. Harry had just begun to take another drink of his tangy, bubbly ale when he felt Seamus' hand on his thigh. Harry enjoyed a novel touch there for a moment before he realized what was going on. He pulled away.

"Bloody hell, Seamus! What about Dean?" Harry yelled, pressing back into the corner of the booth as Seamus switched sides.

"Dean and me are in love, we're best mates, and we're randy. We like to play…" Seamus said matter-of-factly. "I just wanted to see if it was true."

"What?" Harry asked dumbly, suddenly too distracted by the subtle quirk of Seamus' lips and his smooth skin.

"That ye're a flamin poof of course!" Seamus said, lifting his glass as if to toast. His hand still shook slightly.

"I'm…I don't…what?" Harry stuttered, finally tipping back the rest of his own drink to ease the tension.

"Well ye weren't disgusted when I touched yer leg, and you didn't even pull back until it occurred to you I had a man. I think that is leaning toward gay, Harry," Seamus said, looking quizzical. "After yer comment in the snow, I assumed you were a bit more self aware than that."

"I don't…no one…"

"I'm not going to tell anyone, Harry. That's yer business," Seamus said gently, his body perked up as he spied something over Harry's shoulder.

Harry turned around to see Dean frantically making his way through the crowd. In a blur Dean had flown across the room toward Seamus, wrapping his arms around him so tightly Harry was sure Seamus' head would pop off. Seamus just smiled a relieved smile and gripped Dean with equal fervor. Dean pulled back and ran a long, dark hand over Seamus' pale face.

"What happened?" He whispered, looking Seamus over.

"Just overdid it a bit, no one hurt me," Seamus answered, leaning slightly into the touch. He cleared his throat and moved his head in Harry's direction.

"Hey Harry! I didn't see you there! Were you on the 'I can't speak about it' mission with Shay?" Dean said, clapping Harry on the shoulder and blushing slightly. To Dean's credit, he didn't make excuses for the soppy show of affection and kept a hand on Seamus' shoulder.

"Yeah, we were assigned to each other. Got em though…almost all of them," Harry explained happily. He clenched his jaw to hide his frustration about Scabior.

Dean flagged down the waitress, ordered three drinks, and sat down with Seamus across from Harry. They sat close together, but after the initial greeting, kept the affection to a minimum. Harry wondered if they felt awkward around him. He couldn't help but picture their bodies intertwined, writhing against each other, the defined muscles under their skin rippling with exertion. He shook his head. He really had to start getting out more.

"So…." Seamus said, staring back at Harry like he was something delicious to eat. "Guess who's queer?"

"Oh who!' Dean asked excitedly. Seamus just looked at Harry.

"You said you weren't going to tell anyone!" Harry said, though he wasn't very upset about the concept of Dean knowing. He couldn't help but lick his lips as he pictured himself sandwiched in between them.

"Blimey, Harry. You?" Dean said, staring at Harry with undisguised curiosity. Harry suddenly felt very exposed. .

"Bloody win for our team if I do say so myself," Seamus practically growled as he took another swig of his drink.

"What?" Harry asked, completely lost, and embarrassed.

"You're gorgeous, Harry. A regular work of art. That hair…those eyes…and your arse!" Dean said, gaining a dreaming expression that unsettled Harry.

"Needless to say it's come up in bedroom conversation," Seamus winked and smiled.

Suddenly, it was coming up inside of Harry's head as well. Dean's strong, long body pressed up against Harry's, his dark and smooth skin sliding against Harry's own. He could picture Seamus' short, cut body on the other side, his lips running up and down Harry's neck and hitting that spot where his shoulder and neck meets that drives him wild. It had been so long since Harry had been with anyone else; he was instantly pulsing at the thought. He needed to try to shake the notion.

"So how did you two end up together?" Harry asked as casually as possible, taking a long drink of something flavorful and strong that was placed in front of him.

"We were always kind of together," Dean said, smiling shyly.

"It takes facing extermination to really get the love flowin' I guess," Seamus answered wryly. When Harry looked at him questioningly, Seamus elaborated. "Dean's a Muggleborn. He had to hide for a whole year. He could have been caught and killed at anytime. I didn't know. I had no way to know." Seamus shuddered and Dean gripped his hand tightly.

"You had your own trials," Dean said, running his hand over the side of Seamus' face. Harry remembered seeing Seamus for the first time in the Room of Requirement after so long away and noticing the awful bruise that took up such a vast area on his face. He shuddered as well.

"Anyway, when faced with that kind of year, shit really gets put in perspective," Seamus said, finishing off what had to be his sixth pint.

"You're so charming," Dean quipped.

Harry smiled wide. It put a glimmer of hope in the back of his mind to see two best mates make the leap to lovers so naturally. But he realized that he and Ron had gone through their own hell that year, and Ron fell into Hermione's arms, not his. Harry knew that if something were meant to happen, it would have happened then. Trying anything now would just hurt them both and Harry would lose Ron forever.

"So d'you wanna come home with us?" Seamus suddenly said. Dean gasped and bit his lip. Harry looked at Dean's full mouth and Seamus' playful smirk and couldn't say no.

They walked out of the pub and Harry jumped when he felt Seamus' arms wrap around his waist. Seamus was the same height as him, and his breath was warm against Harry's neck. He closed his eyes and felt the familiar pull of apparation. Before he could get too uncomfortable, he landed on a soft rug.

Their flat looked like any other flat where two blokes lived. They had nice modern furniture that looked a little messy with throw pillows and clothes strewn about. The walls were clean and white, but dotted with some of the most beautiful artwork Harry had ever seen. The paintings ranged from magical landscapes that moved with the weather, to splashes of color and wild shapes on stark canvas. He couldn't help but swivel his head around and stare.

"Dean may be a clerk at Gringotts, but he's an artist at heart," Seamus whispered proudly in Harry's ear. Dean blushed next to him.

"They are amazing," Harry said in awe.

Seamus went to get some wine from the adjoining kitchen while Harry walked up to a particular red and abstract painting full of slashes and splashes of dark, bloody paint. He turned and looked at Dean, ready to ask what the painting meant when Dean held up his hand and shook his head. Harry furrowed his brow, worried he had offended his hosts.

"You don't want to know, Harry." Dean explained, a haunted look in his eyes.

"Before my homecoming takes a decidedly dark turn, who wants wine?" Seamus said, handing Harry and Dean their glasses. The wine was warm and spiced and perfect for a cold winter night.

"Mmmm" Seamus moaned as he swallowed. Dean turned his head and dribbled some of the claret liquid down his chin. Seamus reached up and licked away the stray drop. Harry felt his stomach clench in anticipation. Sensing Harry's emotion, Seamus met his eyes and pushed him backwards until his knees hit the couch.

Harry's heart was racing as Seamus began to kiss him tentatively, with remarkable gentleness for the situation. Harry's arms were heavy with nerves, but the unease left his body the moment he felt Dean's hands slide over his shoulders from the back of the couch. He leaned his head back and arched into Dean's touch, enjoying the feeling of both men's lips on his searing skin

Harry never really discussed his sexuality with anyone, not even Ron or Hermione. It was hard enough trying to explain how he and Ginny fell apart than to explain that he thought he might be attracted to men. After he and decided they were better off as friends, Harry had gone out to a couple of nondescript Muggle clubs looking for someone who felt right, but finding nothing. Ginny was the only woman he'd been with, but he had taken home a couple of blokes. It had never gone beyond blowjobs, but Harry was sure he wanted to be with a man. The problem was, he had a specific man in mind.

He knew he could never be with Ron, and the smell and feel and taste of Dean and Seamus was so welcoming that as someone's hands raked up and down his chest, pushing up his tee shirt, Harry let it come. He was ready to let go and find an embrace wherever he could. He leaned up and kissed Dean firmly on the lips, reveling in the appreciative groan from the taller wizard at his actions.

Harry lifted his arms and allowed his shirt to be pulled over his head. He heard Seamus mutter something appreciative under his breath and let out a loud cry as the other wizard ran his tongue up Harry's chest in one swift motion. His body was alight with tension and overwhelmed with sensitivity as he felt Dean carefully caress his face and Seamus brush his teeth over one nipple.

"Fuck you two look so perfect right now," Dean whispered. Seamus looked up and Dean and smiled in such an intense way that Harry thought for a moment that he should leave.

"Um, I, well…"

"Let's go in the bedroom," Dean whispered in Harry's ear, causing Harry to shudder and almost leap up in compliance.

Seamus led the way, and feeling bold, Harry caught up with him and pressed against Seamus' ass as he walked. Seamus paused in the doorway and thrust back into Harry, causing Harry to gasp. When he felt Dean's erection press against the back of his jeans, Harry leaned back again. Seamus moved into the room and quickly shed his clothing; He stood naked and smiling next to a large, white bed.

Harry felt Dean's hands come around his waist and undo the clasp on his jeans. They fell to the floor with a quiet whoosh. He watched as Seamus shed his clothes slowly, to murmurs of appreciation and encouragement from Dean. Seamus sauntered toward Harry, a mischievous grin on his face. As Harry was distracted by the prospect of going farther sexually than he ever had with a man before, he felt warmth engulf his swollen cock.

He looked down to see Dean's head bobbing up and down, and he cried out in shock. He had been so distracted by Seamus' approaching that he didn't realize Dean had maneuvered below him. Seamus kissed Harry passionately, pausing every now and then to grip Dean's head firmly and press him into Harry. Harry was shocked at the rough treatment, but Dean seemed so into it that he kept rubbing the generous bulge in his jeans.

It was all incredibly overwhelming for Harry. He couldn't focus on one thing, and his heart raced with apprehension. But despite the nerves that raked across his body in waves, the promise of more touching, or feeling, and more desire had him plunging in. He grabbed the back of Seamus' head and kissed him hard, reaching down to brush his hand lightly up and down the shorter wizard's shaft.

()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()

Harry opened his eyes and was surprised to find there was no pounding in his head. Considering how much he'd drank, he knew he was getting off lucky. He rolled over, remembering the previous night, and his heart clenched at the sight that greeted him.

Dean and Seamus were on the other side of the bed. Dean's head rested on Seamus' chest as they breathed deeply in unison. Their right hands were clasped and there was a slight smile on both of their faces. Despite how much he had done last night, Harry suddenly felt more alone than he had felt since he lived on Privet Drive. The empty ache in his chest was getting larger and weighing heavily on him and he sat up and rubbed his eyes. He tried desperately not to picture himself curled up like that with Ron.

Harry lay there contemplating how to best get out of that flat without disturbing his friends when Dean lifted his head and met Harry's eyes. Harry smiled and put his arms behind his head, trying his best to look casual. After all, he wasn't going to turn down more of what happened last night if the offer was made.

"Who's haunting those eyes?" Dean asked softly. Seamus groaned beneath him. Harry froze in place, as though moving would give away his secret.

"Uhhh, do you have to be so damn artistic this early in the morning?" Seamus said, pulling the covers back up over his legs.

"Yes, we do," Dean said, and silently summoned his painting supplies. He stood up; his dark, naked body lit by the rising sun, and placed himself in front of the canvas. "Seamus, stop posing. I'm painting Harry." Harry blushed and looked away, trying to avoid Dean's scrutiny.

"Harry, just think about who you were thinking about a few moments ago. I want to capture that look on your face," Dean said gently.

Harry felt exposed, and hung out to dry, but he couldn't resist more free thoughts of Ron. Dean and Seamus knew his secret, at least partially, and Harry wanted to revel in the thoughts. He trusted that Dean would keep the painting to himself, and it somehow gave Harry security to know that somewhere in the world his feelings were captured…a record of something he could never say out loud.

I have yet to meet another
Who burns bright as you
I'm not looking for any other
I only want you

When the sun was higher in the sky, Harry slipped away from Dean and Seamus. He ate a perfect breakfast of eggs Benedict that made his mouth water, and then he made his way back home. His heart raced as he thought of Ron, possibly still in bed as it was Sunday, with his hair messed up and his face warm and blushing under the heat of the covers. Harry seriously debated crawling in between the sheets with him before he realized he was being delirious. He settled for popping his head inside of Ron's bedroom door.

After the floo shot him in across the living room, Harry looked around to see if anyone had seen that, and when he saw that he wasn't in any of the downstairs rooms, he rushed upstairs to tell Ron he was back. When he got to Ron's door, there was a hastily-written note stuck to the door:

Mate,

If you're reading this, you're home! George bought Zonko's and we're having a celebratory brunch in Hogsmeade. Come on over!

-Ron

Harry was shocked that George had moved so quickly. He had only heard the notion of purchasing Zonko's mentioned once, in passing, as something that would be good to do. He didn't know that George had something in the works already. He smiled and stepped back toward the floo, grabbing some powder and shouting out 'The Hog's Head' before spinning back into the fireplace.

He came out to the smell of even more breakfast and the sounds of cheerful conversation. George shouted his name and flung an arm around his shoulders. Harry was relieved that George obviously didn't know a lot about what happened between him and Ron and gave him a congratulatory pat on the back. He made his way through various Weasley family members, embracing and sharing a good laugh, all the while searching for Ron.

He finally spotted Ron sitting on a bench next to a stocky, attractive man. He had sandy blonde hair and freckles, not like Ron's, but more like a dusting on his face. He had a wide smile and warm eyes that were focused solely on Ron as though he were the only person in the room. Harry felt his heart drop into his stomach when this mystery man grabbed Ron's forearm gently, and as Ron turned away and blushed, he ran circles over Ron's' pale skin with his thumb. Harry suddenly felt sick and made his way to the floo.

"Harry!" Hermione called out, blocking his route to the fireplace as she appeared in front of him. "I'm so glad you're home. Are you okay?"

"'M fine, Hermione," Harry murmured. He tried not to look over at Ron and the mystery man, but he couldn't help himself.

"His name's Clark. He's about to start at Hogwarts as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor. I filed his paperwork last week for certification," Hermione smiled broadly. "He met Ron the other day at The Ministry and was immediately taken. Couldn't stop asking questions about him. I'm about to go tell Ron he's interested as subtly as possible. Unless…" Hermione's pause and lifted eyebrows were unmistakable.

"Unless what, Hermione?" Harry asked, turning his head to move away from her piercing gaze.

"Nothing at all," Hermione snapped, walking away. "Oh, and you might want to check yourself in the mirror. It seems that whomever you were with last night left signs of their conquest."

Harry instinctively grabbed for his neck and ran to the bathroom. Sure enough, a massive hickey was showing just below his ear. He quickly healed it and went back into the party to try to explain to Hermione. When he came out she was snuggled up in a corner with her tall, dark, and handsome Lawrence. He looked over to see Ron leaving the pub with Clark, the man's hand hovering around Ron's lower back.

Harry went to Aberforth and ordered a stiff drink, not bothering to make small talk with his old friend. He sunk heavily onto a stool and put his head in his hands. All of his reasons for not being with Ron made no sense in the harsh light of reality, and Harry was beginning to drown in self-loathing. He knew Ron would be better off without him, with someone more stable, but Harry didn't know if he could live without Ron. The best he could hope for is that their friendship would still be going strong despite everything that lay under the surface.

He had to be happy for Ron, but Harry vowed that he could never love anyone the way he loved Ron. He'd rather be alone, living out his life with his two best friends and never having a lover. Ron and Hermione deserved to be happy, and though Harry didn't feel like he deserved them, he would be happy with them and for them no matter what storm clouds ravaged his mind.

((((()))))))((((())))))

Ron Weasley arched his neck as Clark's lips crawled along his jaw line. His fingertips were lingering under the band of Ron's jeans, and he was breathing heavily in Ron's ear. Ron shook as he lifted his hands to the clasps of Clark's robes, trying to focus on the task at hand to mask his nervousness.

He had been seeing the Professor for nearly two months now, and things were finally progressing to the physical. Clark was great. He listened to Ron, laughed at his jokes, and was always mindful of Ron's inexperience with men. Ron basked in the way Clark looked at him, so full of desire and adoration. It was good that Clark loved Quidditch as much as he did, and was just as good at defensive spells. It meant a lot of training in the off time and a lot of listening to matches on the wireless.

Before he realized it, Ron found himself shirtless on Clark's bed at Hogwarts as Clark's chiseled body hovered over his. He felt a bit self conscious, thoroughly aware of his own thin body and slightly visible ribcage. His partner put that notion to rest immediately with the hungry look in his eyes. Ron found it both arousing and unsettling. When Clark slipped his jeans and pants off of his body, Ron was nervous and excited in equal measure.

As Clark slowly shook out of the rest of his clothing, a grin spreading across his face, Ron tried to ignore the nagging thoughts in the back of his head screaming "He's too tall, his hair is too neat, he's too blonde, and where are his glasses?" Harry made it very clear what he wanted, and it wasn't Ron. Clark wanted him, and Ron wanted to feel important to someone in that way. He moaned loudly when Clark's mouth engulfed his erection.

It all moved too quickly after that and Ron's head was spinning. Clark was sucking him one second, and licking behind his balls the next. A dexterous finger was probing around Ron's entrance and he became incredibly nervous. When Clark's finger penetrated him, he tensed up and gripped his lover's shoulder tightly.

"Just relax, love. I'm not going to hurt you," Clark whispered, pressing kisses to the inside of Ron's thigh.

"I just…I've never…"

"I know, Ron." Clark said, his big eyes staring up at Ron's with tenderness and that feral hunger. "We don't have to do everything tonight. I just want to see you come. Your face is so beautiful, I'd love to see it twisted up with pleasure," He smiled, still kissing up and down Ron's leg.

Ron was a little put off by his words. Something just didn't feel right, and Clark had a way of speaking that made him uneasy. However, Ron chalked it up to his nerves and placed his hand on Clark's messy blonde hair…anything to feel wanted. He'd worry about the rest later.