Art by raitala

Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction, written purely for fun.

Author's Notes: I had lots of help from the lovely participants of hp10k_showcase, plus special thanks to eynhashofet, marguerite_26, rickey_a, and snegurochka_lee for their very helpful comments, and, as always, much, much thanks to the incomparable regan_v. And, of course, I thank raitala for her gorgeous depiction of Ron and Pansy.

What in the fuck was he doing here? Had Hermione gone spare? The bloke next to him was on his fourth cigarette—and he'd only been here ten minutes—while the woman on the other side smelled like dead cat. Make that cats. Christ, she reeked, plus she kept sneezing in his direction and if he didn't get pneumonia from this it would be an effing miracle. He needed a drink.

"Welcome, my friends. Why don't we introduce ourselves? My name is David, and I'm an alcoholic…"

Ron jerked as if someone had hexed him. Not that he… Just to lay it out there, right in front of all these strangers…

"My name is Hortense, and I'm an alcoholic…"

When they were halfway around the circle, Ron began to panic. For one thing it wasn't true. Yeah, he liked the odd pint now and then, maybe a lot of nows and thens, but it wasn't like he couldn't control it if he wanted to. Dead right. Okay, maybe it was time to cut down a little. He'd talked about it for a while…

"My name is Edmund, and I'm an alcoholic…

Sometimes work got to him; being an Auror wasn't exactly a picnic. Then there was the never-ending minutia. Doctors' check-ups or dental appointments or Hugo going through a pair of trainers every five weeks or Rose needing this book or Hermione out of town the exact same week he had a mandatory work retreat. It was easier now that the kids were at Hogwarts, but still.

Plus, every now and then the nightmares would own him. There would be a funeral or another frigging memorial or commemoration or charity ball or, you know, whatever, and as soon as he dropped off to sleep he was back in the Department of Mysteries. Except in his dreams they didn't survive. First Harry would be killed, then Hermione, with him immobilized by some Stupefy curse, and all he could do was lie there and watch them being tortured and killed, listening to their screams. Like hearing Hermione through the floorboards at Malfoy Manor. These dreams had various permutations, but there was always a fundamental core: whatever happened was his fault. He wasn't fast enough or smart enough or anything enough.

Nothing like waking up in the morning and feeling worthless. A why-bother-to-even-brush-your-teeth sort of feeling. Not that this was a viable excuse, as Hermione pointed out—repeatedly. Harry had suffered more than all of them put together, and he wasn't down at the pub every night, now was he? Then she'd follow that up by reminding him that she also had nightmares on occasion and you didn't see her drinking.

Of course not.

"My name is Geoff, and I'm an alcoholic…"

She denied it, but Ron was convinced that Hermione had put a bug in his mother's ear, because she'd begun nagging him about his drinking too. They'd go to his parents' house for the obligatory Sunday meat and veg, sit down, start passing the food, he'd request the wine, his mother would scrunch up her forehead, and then hesitate for a fraction before handing it to him. Like it might be poisonous or something. Hermione would count his drinks—she'd internally flinch every time he raised his glass to his mouth—and Harry would push the pumpkin juice on him. Christ, would they just leave him alone?

"My name is Sarah, and I'm an alcoholic…"

To make matters worse, Harry and Hermione were now ganging up on him. Last week, right after they'd turned out the lights, Hermione had begged him to get some "help" for his drinking. Help? What in the fuck did that mean? Not in the mood for an argument, he said, "Yeah. I will." At work the next morning, no sooner had he sat down than Harry had knocked on his door, perched his arse on the edge of Ron's desk, carded his hair for a couple of minutes, shoved an advert into Ron's hand, and then mumbled, "Ron, you know how much… You need to… Your drinking, it's… You going to the meeting? We, I mean Hermione and I…" At Ron's gob-smacked face, Harry stuck out his hand. When Ron shook it, more like he should than anything else, Harry gave him a hearty, "Good man!" and fled the room.

Sure, there'd been a few mornings in the past six months, okay, maybe a year—two?—when he'd been late to work because he'd been boozing it up the night before; a few too many rounds at the pub. But he'd definitely paid his frigging dues, hadn't he? Christ, couldn't he have a late morning every now and then?

Ron hadn't noticed that it was his turn. He opened his mouth to speak, to protest, maybe even to tell them to stuff themselves. He snapped his mouth closed, got up, and left without saying a word.

"Look, Ron. You want to bugger this one off?"

"No, I don't want to bugger this one off. I'm fine," he snapped. Just your standard raid. It shouldn't be a problem. Christ, his head hurt. Two swigs of the Hangover Potion had gotten him out of bed, as in getting him to the point where he could stand upright and move his feet, but had done little else. Even his eyelashes were killing him. That last black and tan had been a bad idea.

Harry studied him for a few seconds and then nodded. "Right. Latest rumor says there's a new, diabolical variation of a Stupefy curse being used that freezes the lungs of the person hit. The usual countercurse works fine, but you need to cast it immediately or the person will suffocate."

Ron followed his feet as he walked into the room. Refusing to look up or acknowledge anyone, he took the first chair that didn't have shoes underneath it. Sitting through what he now knew was the usual litany of introductions, the roll call kept getting closer and closer, until finally it was his turn. He could wave a hand, indicating that, no, he wasn't ready, but really? It was beyond that point.

With his eyes shut and in the smallest voice possible, he said, "My name is Ron, and I'm an alcoholic. I've been telling myself that my drinking is my business and no one else's, but I, um, I fucked up and nearly killed my boss and my best friend because I had a hangover. My magic froze, and I couldn't cast the spell I needed. So yeah. Guess I've been fooling myself."

Terrified didn't even begin to describe it. Ron Weasley had faced Voldemort, had dueled Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange, had told his mother that Fred hadn't survived the siege, and had spent the last twenty years as an Auror. It all paled in comparison to raising up his head and opening his eyes to face the group in that room. Who knew that he was an Auror; who knew that his "boss" and "best friend" was Harry Potter. The wizarding world was small, and he'd gotten his fair share of notoriety out of the war business. Not a smidgen of what Harry got, but his picture had been on the front of the Prophet often enough over the years. He looked up. Pansy Parkinson was watching him. She took a drag off of her cigarette.

"How many of those do you go through in day?"

"Enough. It's modeled after the Muggle version of Alcoholic's Anonymous, but since wizards don't believe in God or that higher power shit, we tweaked it so that it's more community oriented. We don't have twelve steps, just eight. It's more about all of us watching each other's back and dealing with why we drink. Facing our demons bullshit. Forgiving ourselves."

"I've got an Order of Merlin. First class," he added for emphasis. "I don't need to forgive myself for anything."

She rolled her eyes. "Pull the other one. Here's the deal. I've volunteered to be your sponsor." She glared at him. "Do you have a problem with that?" she demanded.

He shrugged because fuck all mattered anymore. While his best friend nearly suffocated to death, all he could do was shout for help because his magic was bollocksed up so badly that he couldn't have Accioed a bloody teaspoon if he'd wanted. Then, to add insult to injury, that plonker Smith saved Harry, whipping around the corner in answer to Ron's screams and cast the countercurse. Once they got back to the Ministry, Ron sent Harry a memo requesting desk duty, which he hated, but given that most mornings these days his first act upon waking up was to reach for the Hangover Potion, he couldn't in good conscience keep going out on raids if he were unable to cast even simple spells.

She continued to glare at him until he gave a second shrug and followed it with, "S'okay." God, what a bitch.

"Okay," she repeated with a snort. "Remember the—"

"Do you have a sponsor?"

"Kingsley Shacklebolt. As I was saying," she glared at him again. "Remember the community thing. You call me at seven every morning. It's called checking in." She handed him a cell phone. "You don't call me, and I'm Apparating to your house and shoving this phone down your fucking throat. Get it?"

"Why do I need a phone? Pretty Muggle, if you ask me. What about owls?" he grumbled.

She huffed, accompanied by a sharp rise and fall of her shoulders that most definitely implied he was dead from the neck up. "So it's Muggle, just like the step concept. Alcoholism is an equal opportunity motherfucker, Weasley. We use them because they work. Because sometimes you can hold on for another minute, whereas in the time it takes for an owl to reach me? You could down two beers." She eyed him. He had something of a beer gut. "You? Maybe three. I don't care what the hell is going on in your life. You call me. After three months, if I think—"

"If you think?"

"You're in no position to make judgment calls. If I think you're making progress, then we cut it down to every other day. Plus you attend meetings. Every day. Every single frigging day. You sit there and listen to everyone else saying, I've made it one more day without a drink. You share in that victory by having a victory of your own."

"Every day? Christ!" He couldn't do this. It was like some sort of sobriety prison.

"You drank every day, didn't you?"

"Not every day," he protested.

"Some people don't. They go on binges. Good for two weeks and then shit-faced for three days. Then the cycle starts up again. What sort of drunk are you, Weasley?"

He stiffened at that. At the present tense. Because he wasn't a drunk. He just liked to drink. And, yeah, lately he'd been hitting the pub a little too frequently, maybe most nights, but he liked playing darts and talking Quidditch…

In response to her eyebrows raised in question, he mumbled, "Every day."

"Right. Think of it as payback. Now it's time to undrink every day. I hit the bottle every day."

Then she put her hand on his. Her palm barely covered his knuckles. She'd been short and tiny as an eleven year old, and she had stayed short and relatively tiny. The fall after their fifth year summer hols, she returned no taller, but now had hips, a nipped-in waist, and knockers out to there. Ron had to admit that if he hadn't known her, he would have been physically attracted to her—but not even the world's most perfect tits made up for that personality. Age had added a bit of weight, but he liked women with some meat on them. When she was at Hogwarts, Parkinson had always pranced around with half of her buttons undone on her shirts, flaunting her cleavage like there was no tomorrow. Now she was as conservative as Hermione in her wool jumper and tweedy-ish skirt. Even at that, all the tweed in the world couldn't hide a solid, adult sexiness about her. If she didn't hold back on the bread and butter, in ten years she'd be plump and even curvier. Sort of like his mum. But her hands were still small and delicate. She wrapped her fingers around his hands and squeezed tight. What the…? He looked down and the back of her hand was one gigantic scar. It traveled up the entire length of her hand, disappearing under the sleeve of her jumper. How had he missed that? His mouth dropped open in surprise and then he snapped it shut.

"I know. You're not a drunk. You just enjoy the odd drink. People don't understand. It's about going to the pub and having a few with the lads. This scar goes all the way up my arm and across most of my back. I hit rock bottom five years ago. Passed out in front of the telly with a cigarette in my hand, my ten-year old came tearing into the lounge when she heard my screams and saw me on fire. No, Weasley, I wasn't a drunk. I just enjoyed the odd drink. Like every night. People didn't understand. I liked to have a bottle—or three—with my dinner. My kid was smart enough to smack me with a pillow to douse the flames, but by that point the fire had spread to the furniture and nearly destroyed half the house. I got all three of us out, but it was a near thing. I couldn't Apparate because the booze had screwed up my magic. I got lucky; I didn't lose my kids. You got lucky; Potter didn't die. Some wake-up calls are more brutal than others."

Ron couldn't do anything but nod. She let go of his hand, signaled the waiter for more coffee, and lit up.

"Wish I could give these up." She took a huge drag and let the smoke out in a satisfied rush. He made a determined effort not to look at the back of her hand as she brought it up again to take another puff. "One vice at a time. Sobriety takes all my energy."

It didn't get easier? It didn't just go away? You did your time, you went to meetings, you drank pumpkin juice, and, apparently, coffee until you were fucking drowning in every liquid but the one you wanted? Forever?

His despair must have shown on his face because she gave him a weak smile. "You will always be an alcoholic, Weasley, but you can stop being a drunk. Now, you feel like you can't go another second without having a drink, you call me. I will stop whatever I'm doing and Apparate to wherever you are. You will not take another drink if I have anything to say about it." She pointed her cigarette at him. "If I have to, I'll Stupefy you."

The one thing that he was grateful for was that he didn't have to pretend with Parkinson. Which made him realize that he hadn't been honest with Hermione for a very long time.

He said what he felt; he didn't care about hurting her feelings. No, it wasn't like that exactly. He didn't try to hurt her feelings, it was that he could just say things and not worry that he was saying the wrong things. Like that morning a couple of weeks ago when he was late phoning her. She rang up and started tearing him a new one, really going to town, until finally he bellowed back, "You bloody cow, will you shut it? I'm five minutes late because I cut myself shaving. I'm not drinking my breakfast. I'm trying to cast a Healing Charm and I'm shit at Healing Charms and it looks like I've done the opposite and now I'm bleeding all over my fucking bathroom. Okay?" And instead of getting all shirty with him, she started laughing. "God, to be a fly on that wall," and then hung up on him.

She'd meet him every day after work for their meetings. When Hermione was out of town, they'd have dinner at some Muggle cafe and sit drinking decaf coffee until he was so exhausted that all he wanted to do was Apparate home and fall asleep. For the first time, he began to be honest with himself about his drinking because he'd say something to her and she'd always have a similar story or at least understood. She wasn't disgusted or horrified or call him "Ronald" in that tone.

He told her how when he drank he didn't feel at the bottom of the pecking order. He knew his parents loved him, but he couldn't help but wonder if his mother would have mourned him as much as she had mourned, was still mourning, Fred. How he loved Harry; who didn't love Harry? He was a great friend, a fair boss, and a super husband to Ginny. But when Harry was in a room, Harry was the only person in the room as far as that went. And if Harry wasn't in the room, Hermione was in the room. He was either Harry Potter's best friend or Hermione Granger's husband. When he drank, he felt like Ron Weasley. He found himself saying things to her he'd never even admitted to himself. Six months ago if someone had said that he and Pansy Parkinson would become friends, he would have laughed himself sick.

Friend or not, she never cut him any slack. Ever.

Three weeks into this sobriety thing they were sitting in their cafe, finishing up a mediocre pizza, and she said to him, "Fuck off, Weasley. Stop trying to charm me. I'm your sponsor and I intend to stay your sponsor. You're not seducing me into becoming your drinking buddy."

Which is exactly what he had been doing because he was going berserk. Counting the seconds until he finished work. Counting the seconds until Parkinson met him outside the Ministry. Counting the seconds until the meeting ended and he could either Apparate home or go to the cafe for a bite. Life had become lurching from one chunk of time to another, focusing solely on what he had to do, because if he didn't obsess about finishing that memo, put one foot in front of the other, or prune that hedge down to the fucking nubs, he'd be drinking.

He wanted a drink so badly his lips were chapped from running his tongue over them repeatedly, knowing it was beyond stupid, but thinking, hoping like hell, that with the next swipe he'd get a tiny taste of booze.

Ron had a rough charm and had been working it for a few days. Parkinson was a bitch, no question about it, but she had a biting wit about her that he appreciated, and he bet that she would be a frigging riot when lit. There was a nice-looking pub near the meeting room. Maybe they could have just one? What would one do?

"Fuck us up like you wouldn't believe. I know you're in a bad way. The first few months are really hard." He winced at the sympathy in her voice. She pulled up the sleeve of her jumper. "Ironic, isn't it? I never got the mark, and yet now I have a mark. Every time I hear the pop of someone opening a bottle of wine my lips twitch. Then I shove up my sleeve. Look at it, Weasley. That's why. One would become two, two would become three, and before you know it, we'd be so trolleyed we'd be wetting our britches because we're too pissed to make it to the loo."

He nodded and gulped down a bunch of coffee, because he had to drink somethingor go nuts.

"Why did you send your kids to Beauxbatons?" Not that he had any prejudices against the French, because Fleur had been not just a little all right with Bill after he'd been attacked by Fenrir. But he remembered that those Beauxbaton girls had been pretty snotty.

"Hogwarts never sent me the letters."

Once he got over his shock, he insisted, "You're joking, right?"

"God, you Gryffindors. Did you lot invent naive or what? Like my children were going to get an invitation letter. Willing to sacrifice your Potter to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named pretty much put the kibosh on that idea. If I were on fire, McGonagall would probably add an Incendio to make the flames all the hotter. Why do you think I work in that shit shop? Most people cut me dead, Weasley. My ex is French and is thrilled that they're at Beauxbaton. They like it and it seems okay; but what do I know? You were in school with me. I barely passed my O.W.L.s."

She had a way of stating things. She wasn't asking for pity or concern, just laid it out there. He wondered if that was a Slytherin thing or a Parkinson thing.

With both kids off at Hogwarts, it was down to him and Hermione at the dinner table. In some ways it was easier. The thought of trying to explain to the kids about the meetings and phone calls and the occasional surprise arrival of Pansy Parkinson in their lounge made him sick to his stomach. But there were no distractions. Most nights he and Hermione scrambled like hell to find something to talk about. He brought this up at a meeting. Serena the Cat Lady said to him, "This is what getting sober is all about, Ron. Living life with no distractions. There is no greater distraction than drink."

Initially, Hermione had arranged a whirlwind of social engagements under the misunderstanding that being with his friends would help. Except that you didn't go out with Seamus without going to a pub, and Dean had become something of a wine snob, so dinner with him meant parking your arse at some hoity-toity restaurant while Dean ordered some ridiculously expensive wine that Ron had to pretend he liked. A few dinners at home with Harry and Ginny would be good, and there was always Sunday dinner with his parents, but he couldn't handle anything more than that right now.

He had to give Hermione credit. Whatever time he spent at meetings, she was completely behind. But she didn't trust him. Not that Ron blamed her, because he had to admit he might not be drinking, but he wasn't sober. He didn't trust himself when it came down to it. She continued to smell him when he came home at night, and insisted on him Firecalling her when she went out of town to check up on him. When he talked about his drinking, trying to articulate why he drank—because the closer he got to sober, the closer he got to accepting that he drank for a reason—she would ask questions and make comments that told him she just didn't understand. Hermione had her demons like everyone else. But she managed them by working four times harder than anyone else. The idea of anesthetizing herself to find herself was completely foreign.

Slowly, he realized that she might never understand what drove him to drink—that maybe she was too close to it or part of it. Someone brought this up in the meeting one night and he had to leave the room. Generally very compassionate—who could forget that S.P.E.W. business—she seemed to think that with the exception of her husband, all alcoholics were drunks propped up against light poles, a grimy hand holding a dirty hat, begging for spare change to fund their next binge.

That was never more obvious than when he finally told her that Parkinson was his sponsor. She muttered under her breath, "Surprise, surprise."

"What do you mean by that, Hermione?"

By this point in their marriage they knew each other a little too well. She flinched; clearly she knew she'd crossed a line. Refusing to back down, she sneered, "She's despicable. If I were her, I'd drink too."

Ron lost it completely. "You think that I'm the only nice person in the room? That except for me, it's all Death Eaters and bums? I know you never liked her in school; I didn't either. But let me tell you something. She's fighting like hell for me. She sits right next to me and on the other side of her is—" He stopped because it wasn't his right to name names. "Try Healers, lawyers, people you work with. Fucking professors." His eyes nearly hit the wall when Professor Sprout had walked in last week. "I'm in damn good company, Hermione!"

She didn't speak to him for three days.

As usual, they spent Christmas Eve at the Grangers and Christmas Day at the Burrow. The entire lot were there this year: Fleur and Bill had Portkeyed in from France, as had Charlie and his bloke from Romania; George, Angelina, and their hellions, plus Harry, Ginny, and their kids had Flooed in; even Percy and his wife had showed up. It was non-stop talking, laughing, and joking. After four hours of it, it took everything he had not to have a complete mental breakdown.

Although to an outsider it would seem like the usual Weasley clan ho ho ho, the elephant in the room was Ron's alcoholism. His mother made a point of noting that the eggnog was booze free and no hot toddies this year. Not even Fleur complained about the lack of wine at the Christmas meal. If you can't count on the French to bitch about the lack of wine… He knew it was their way of showing their support, but it made him feel like the family fuck-up as opposed to the family no one, and from where he was sitting, there wasn't a whole lot of distance between the two.

Despite being so wound up that he could barely breathe, he'd made his phone call Boxing Day morning. Parkinson sounded positively chirpy; she even called him Ron. Her kids were home for Christmas break, and she'd been bending his ear for two weeks on her plans for the hols. He should have asked her to Apparate right there and then. He should have told her that his fists were clenched so tightly that his nails were carving half-moon indents into his palms.

He wished her a nice holiday, hung up, and knew that he'd be drunk by dusk.

Naturally, they'd emptied the house of liquor when he'd started going to AA. He managed to get through a late breakfast and even tea before he hit the bathroom, emptying out the medicine cabinet. There was still that alcohol-based cough syrup left over from when Hugo had caught croup, and another alcohol-based medicine from when Hermione's mother had stayed with them and had caught the flu. He downed it all. He tried to ignore Hermione's concerned calls of his name from behind the door until it became too much. He Apparated to the local pub.

And proceeded to get truly trashed.

The combination of the medicine and the liquor—he ordered Firewhiskey straight—sent him into a psychotic drunken tailspin. Usually a happy drunk, a trading jokes and Quidditch scores sort of drunk, this night the anger—why couldn't he just have a few drinks, why did he have to get so completely stinkered when he drank—and the frustration—why did he feel so shitty and alone in his life when he had great friends, a wonderful wife, and fantastic kids—overwhelmed him.

Even blind drunk he knew enough not to Apparate. He walked home, a good two miles, and once in the door made a beeline for the lounge. He smashed the mirrors, the lamps, pounded his fists into the walls, upended the Christmas tree and hurled the ornaments to the ground, yelling the whole time, Merlin knows what. Screaming and sobbing and hating everything, most of all himself.

He was in middle of ripping the curtains off their rods when the Stupefy hit him in the back.

He woke up in his old room at the Burrow. Pansy Parkinson was sitting on the edge of his bed, painting her toenails a bright pink. He waited for the recriminations, the guilt trip, the scorn.

"Hermione called me."

He couldn't even nod his head. She put the cap on the nail polish and placed it next to four vials of Hangover Potion.

"That was quite a lethal cocktail, Weasley. Cough syrup, Muggle cold meds, and a fifth of Firewhiskey. Lucky you didn't kill yourself. Come on. I bet you're hurting."

She stood up and curled an arm under his shoulders. With the other hand she brought the potion up to his lips and kept up a steady stream into his mouth.


"No," he croaked. His stomach roiled from even that one lot of potion. "I gotta piss."

"You're not walking on those feet for a bit. You'll have to piss in a bottle."

With a superhuman effort he raised his head and looked down at his feet. Encased in bandages, it was a measure of how shitty he felt that it didn't even register that the soles of the feet were destroyed. But now that he realized it, they hurt like holy fuck.

"You lost your shoes somewhere between the pub and your house. So drunk that you didn't notice, you kept walking, tearing up your feet on the tarmac. I don't know how much you remember, but the condensed version is you got blind drunk, went berserk, and destroyed your lounge. Molly and I spent three hours pulling fragments of mirror, lamp, and Christmas ornament out of your feet. She'll be up to cast a Healing Charm when you're feeling up to it. I'm shit at them. Too," she added with a little smile.

He put his arm up to his eyes and began to sob.

Hermione kicked him out. He couldn't blame her. Later that afternoon a reduced trunk filled with his clothes and a two-foot long Howler arrived, detailing everything he had done in his drunken rage. She ended it by telling him that she hadn't repaired the lounge so the kids could see what he'd done, down to his bloody footprints all over the rugs. He stayed at the Burrow. Moving back in with his parents at the ripe age of thirty-nine was bloody pathetic, but his mother offered and he really didn't want to ask anyone else—like Harry or George—because they would feel obligated to say yes, which would make him feel even more pathetic.

Harry asked him if he wanted a leave of absence, but he said no, because if he didn't have somewhere to go during the day, he'd go crazy.

He visited the kids at Hogwarts to apologize. Gave them the boilerplate about how alcoholism is a disease and that his drinking wasn't their failure, it was something that was part of him. He had good friends and support and he'd beat this. That it wasn't an overnight thing, probably a lifelong thing. Every other sentence he told them he loved them and this wasn't about them; it was about him. Rose cried during the entire apology. Hugo remained dry-eyed. Ron didn't mention Hermione once. At the end, he said he had to go but that he'd write them. Hugo screamed, "You total fucking bastard. I never want to see you again." His rock bottom wasn't nearly killing Harry.

If Ron thought the first four months of sobriety were torture, he was sadly mistaken. At that point he still had the respect of most people, and people still believed in him. Now, Hermione was afraid of him, didn't respect him, and quite possibly hated him. His children were afraid of him, didn't respect him, and Hugo hated him. Harry and Ginny didn't respect him, but he clung onto the certainty that they still loved him. Ditto for his parents. Yeah, they might love him, but they didn't believe in him anymore. No one did except his friends at AA. And Parkinson.

He started going to two meetings a day.

"Are you going to be an Auror your whole life? Working side by side with Potter. Maybe it's time to do something different. Get out from under his shadow." She gave him a pointed look.

"Right, because employers are clamoring to hire men like me who fail at their jobs and terrify their families by erupting into psychotic rages fueled by cough medicine."

"When I fell off the wagon, the first time," she paused to let that sink in, "I ended up in a drainage ditch and nearly died of hypothermia. Draco owns the Canons. He keeps it a secret because he doesn't want attendance to suffer because the team's owner is a former Death Eater. Anyway, the team's security manager is retiring in a few months. I mentioned you might be interested. You love the team, and when you lay off the cough suppressant, you're good at what you do."

"Not bloody likely. Malfoy was responsible for Bill nearly getting his face ripped off." He trusted that would be the end of it.

She didn't even wait a beat before countering in a tight voice, "Yes, he was. And if you don't think that didn't haunt him, doesn't still haunt him, then you're a bloody fool. This sobriety business isn't just about forgiving ourselves; it's also about forgiving others. I'm going to the loo."

He doubted that. She'd just been, but she probably wanted a couple of minutes to herself to calm down.

They'd taken to spending evenings out in the garden—his mother wouldn't let Parkinson smoke in the house—and she pretty much chain-smoked from seven o'clock onward. He'd put in a fire pit and short of it pissing with rain, they'd wrap themselves up in blankets and toast their feet on the edge. Inexplicably, his mother had taken a shine to Parkinson after he'd gone berserk. They traded recipes and gardening tips and more often than not, Parkinson was invited to dinner. One night when they'd been sitting out in the garden, Ron regaling her with some stupid Ministry cock-up, in between gales of laughter she'd said, "Sometimes I think you work in a comedy club," and he'd replied, "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're actually nice." With just a touch of sarcasm, she replied, "Thanks, Weasley, but we both know I'm not nice, and I have a filthy temper that I'm trying to work on. What I do have is a good sense of humor."

While he waited for her to come back, he gave it some thought. Leave Harry?

She sat down and then knocked his foot with one of hers.


"I… I… Maybe. You think I'd be good?"

It had gotten to the point where he could see her roll her eyes without even being able to see her roll her eyes.

"Yes. I think you'd be brilliant at it, frankly. Even more important, I think you'd be happy. Owl him."

"We, I mean me and Malfoy, never got on. You know. In school. Aside from the Bill business."

She punched him in the shoulder.

"You are a bleeding idiot. I was there.Remember? The only one person he hated more than Potter was you. Having said that, it was a long time ago. The current manager is a former Auror. He says you blokes are well trained. Draco didn't bat an eyelash when I mentioned your name."

She rarely talked about Malfoy, even though he had the feeling that she saw him fairly frequently.

"Why do you drink, Parkinson?"

That was out of the blue and he wasn't surprised that it was a few minutes before she responded.

"Hated being in the shadows. You and I could write a book, boyo, about hungering for recognition and watching the limelight fall on everyone but you. Be careful what you wish for. I got my fame. Willing to hand Potter over to the Dark Lord certainly made me famous—or infamous rather. My strawberry and rhubarb tart is fame worthy, but not many people know that. Better than sex, actually. Why do you think I was so bitchy at Hogwarts?"

He coughed.

"Fuck you, Weasley," she said good-naturedly. "Not that I don't come by it honestly. I was trying to compete on some level, jump myself up somehow. Parkinsons are a lot like your family. Not a lot of money but still pure-blood. Compared to the Malfoys, the Crabbes, and the Goyles, however, we're nothing more than pedigreed peasants. The difference is that your parents are perfectly happy with being middleclass and my parents despise it. They tried to cultivate friendships with people like the Malfoys, who suffered their presence at the odd party. I arrived at Hogwarts already half in love with Draco. Lucius and Narcissa seemed to be everything my parents were not: cultivated, elegant, rich. My dream was to marry Draco."

"Because of his parents?" Ron couldn't keep the horror out of his voice, because if Lucius Malfoy had been his father-in-law, he would have hung himself.

"No, not just because of his parents. Berk. You don't know him. You think he's nothing more than a spoiled arrogant prat, born with a magical silver spoon in his mouth. He's all that, true, but he's also incredibly brilliant, funny, and loyal. Generally, he wouldn't hand you a glass of water if you were on fire, but once you pass muster, he'd do anything for you."

"Nice to know he's not a total waste of space. Ow! That was my foot. Well, we all thought you two were going to get married. What happened?" Just as Ginny and Harry and he and Hermione seemed destined to marry, his shock was on par with everyone else's when the Prophet announced the wedding of Draco Malfoy and Astoria Greengrass.

She took a couple of drags and then grimaced; he could see its outlines in the distorted shadows from the fire.

"Draco was sold off to restore both the Malfoy coffers and their name. We weren't grand enough or wealthy enough for the Malfoys. My parents aren't rich, and it didn't help that I dressed like a tart and got barely passing marks in school. The only thing to recommend me was that I was a pure-blood and I loved him, which wasn't enough in Draco's world. Funny, Narcissa was downright nasty to me when we were kids, but now that I'm no longer a threat, we get on quite well."

Nutters, they were nutters.

"He seems okay with Astoria. I mean, Scorpius is a nice kid. Al really likes him."

She didn't respond right away, puffed the cigarette down to the butt, and then chucked it into the fire.

"I'm telling you this in confidence and if you tell anyone—your sister, Potter, even your mother—I will have your guts for garters. I'm amazed he got it up. Okay? He's been in love with Blaise Zabini since he was fourteen years old. He's a raging poofter. Not that he could ever admit that to his parents. I walked in on the two of them going at it our seventh year. Even at that, I still hoped that maybe… When he married that Greengrass cow, I married the first man who asked me. Who happened to be a two-timing French bastard who needed a British work permit. His idea of fidelity was to wait until after our honeymoon to proposition the caterer."

He opened his mouth to respond, but she cut him off. "Can we call each other by our first names? I've helped you piss into a milk bottle. I think that rates being on a first-name basis."

He laughed for the first time in six weeks.

"Why so glum? You've been smoking like an effing chimney all night and have barely said a word."

Sitting under a crude canopy Ron had Transfigured from a picnic table, it gave them some protection from the storm raging around them. He kept the fire ablaze with constant zaps with his wand. She'd been silent during dinner, not even perking up when his mother mentioned a new recipe for fairycakes that she must try. Pansy nodded and tried to smile, but it was as if the corners of her mouth weren't working. Despite occasional spates of Galleon-sized hail, she'd hightailed it to the porch after helping with the dishes, lighting one after another.

"Got sacked. That ex-husband of mine only needs an excuse like this to keep the kids from visiting me during spring break. Not that he wants them, but he doesn't want me to have them."

One of his greatest fears had been that he'd lose his job.

"I told the owner that if he pinched my arse again, I'd tell his wife, and he fired me on the spot."

"George, you need help in the shop?"

After Fred's death, George operated at half-mast, perking up only slightly when he married Angelina. Ron was convinced that he and Angelina would never have children; it seemed like a marriage of three but without the third. Then Hermione had the brilliant idea of having Fred's portrait painted. Once the portrait was finished, George and Angelina began popping out children like mad. Fred was a fount of truly filthy pregnancy/sex jokes.

"Need a liaison between the suppliers and the business because if I keep on doing it, I'm going to kill someone. Last week, that buggering sod Dreger cut his shipment of asphodel with mint."

"Should have hexed his balls off, Georgie. Getting soft in your old age, you are," Fred piped up.

"Would you shut it?" George glared in the direction of Fred's portrait. "Christ, he's been needling my arse all fucking day," he said under his breath. "You want the job, Ronniekins?"

"No, Ronniekins doesn't, but he knows someone who needs a job. Pansy's been sacked. That pervert she worked for practically gave her a rectal. When she told him to shove off and keep his grabby paws to himself or she'd tell his wife, he canned her."

George looked around. "Do you see Angelina anywhere?" Ron and Fred did a quick look see and both shook their heads at the same time. "Not that I condone that sort of behavior—" Fred snorted, "but I have to admit that Parkinson's got a hell of a bum on her. Would have a job keeping my hands to myself."

"Angelina will hex your weenie to the size of a gherkin, mate. Which might be a step up—"

"At least I have one that works, oh bro of mine." George gave a hefty tug on his crotch.

"Low blow, George. Even for you."

"When you've got it—"

They could keep this up for hours.

Ron said loudly, "Pansy?"

"I think it'd be a great idea, Georgie Porgie. I can hear her ripping Dreger a new one." In a frighteningly credible imitation of Pansy at her bitchiest, Fred shrieked, "Dreger, you pull a stunt like that again and I'll hunt you down, rip off your dick, and make you eat it."

George's eyes lit up. "Have her send me an owl."

"How come you've never invited me over to your place?"

She blushed. That got him, because he didn't even think she was capable of blushing.

"I haven't been able to fix it from the fire. I don't have the dosh or the skills to set it right."

"How bad can it be?"

Okay, bad. He was amazed they got out alive. At least half of the house's windows were boarded up; smoke stains covered the entire facade. Although much larger than the Burrow, it had a similar rabbit warren feel to it, with a plethora of tiny windows topped by a confection of turrets.

"The nice half was the half that burned up; fortunately, the kitchen's in the ratty part of the house. We make do, even if the bedrooms on this side are small and pokey. Tea will be up in a minute. Here." She plonked a plate down in front of him mile high with biscuits.

"Brill house, even half charred. I thought Parkinsons didn't have any lolly. These biscuits are good." He'd stop at two. Being sober meant losing his gut. He didn't want to gain any of that back by stuffing his face at Pansy's kitchen table.

"Great-Aunt Tabitha did or at least enough to own this place. And she liked me. Father had a canary when she left it to me, but then he treated her like shit because she was a Squib. Mum and dad would dump me here on the weekends and we'd bake cookies and make mud pies. Sweet old trout."

"You have house-elves? I mean that garden is really nice. Must be something in the spring and summer," he mumbled around a munch of biscuit; this one was even better than the previous two.

"No." She pointed a finger at herself. "Keeps me sober. I'm not much for housekeeping. I keep up with the dust bunnies, but the kitchen and the garden are my thing. Tea?"

They sat there in comfortable silence, until Ron got a very wicked idea. Good wicked. And possibly wicked wicked.

"Pansy, what if I move in here? I'm pretty skint right now, but I could spiff this place up in lieu of rent. I got a shitload of brothers who could me help out. Despite outward appearances, Percy's fucking brilliant at construction charms."

While he'd cleared the table, she'd lit up and parked herself at an open window, blowing the cigarette smoke out into the yard.

"You want to move in?" She said it slowly, as if her teeth hurt.

"My parents are great, just super, but it's like being fifteen again. Mum asked me yesterday if I'd changed my socks. Not like you don't have the room. Okay?"

Stubbing out her cigarette, she eyed him for a few seconds. He braced himself for the rejection, for the excuses: she liked living alone, her kids, what a bad idea it was for two alkies to live together. Any number of reasons.

"I'll give you the grand tour. Then you decide if the offer's still good. I'm having Draco and Blaise over for dinner on Sunday. You live here, you put up with my friends. And you'll need to get another sponsor."

It turned out Malfoy was funny, and between him and Pansy trading quips, Ron hadn't laughed so hard in ages. Or at least he hadn't laughed this much while sober in ages. Zabini remained as much of a mystery as he had been at Hogwarts. He said little, but when he did it was both brilliant and served to cut Pansy and/or Draco down to size. They tended to egg each other on, and Zabini would let it get to a point and then he'd cut them both off at the knees before it started to get ugly.

He got up to clear the dishes, and was surprised to find Malfoy right behind him. Malfoy shut the kitchen door behind him.

"I'm sorry. About your brother." Malfoy held out his hand.

Ron was so shocked he dropped all the plates balanced on his arm.

"Ron?" he heard Pansy shriek.

"S'okay. Just dropped a few plates," he bellowed back.

Right. Forgive yourself. Forgive others.

He held out his hand and they shook. Malfoy cast a Reparo, winged the dishes into the sink, and then cast a Silencing charm.

"Weasley. Pansy is like a sister to me. I know curses that will make you wish you'd died at the battle of Hogwarts. You hurt her, and you'll regret it."

If Ron had still had the plates in hand, he would have dropped them again.

"What the fuck, Malfoy?"

"She's had enough men who just wanted a warm place to put their dick. Do that to her and plan on watching your back for the rest of your fucking life." Malfoy lifted the Silencing Charm. "Now that's out of the way, I want to talk to you about the job with the Canons. I think you'd be perfect."

Their weekends took on a routine. They'd get up early, attend a meeting, while he repaired the damage from the fire, Pansy would work most of the day in the greenhouse or the garden and then got the dinner on. Sometimes Harry would help him, sometimes Percy (who wasn't keen on Pansy, but had his own sins to atone for). His father helped out every Saturday and insisted on doing everything with Muggle tools. By the end of a month, Ron was something of a god with a nail gun.

It wasn't all sweetness and light. Pansy did have a rotten temper, but fortunately she wasn't the type to pout. She'd blow-up and then it was over. Plus, he still had days when he was on the mobile to his new sponsor for hours at a stretch. But he was staying sober, taking one day at a time, and he began to understand, for the first time, that he'd always be an alcoholic but that he didn't have to be a drunk.

They didn't go out, except for meetings and the occasional meal at his parents'. Because Pansy's great-aunt had been a Squib, the house had a telly. They spent most evenings watching movies, rented from a shop in a nearby Muggle village. The first time they went DVD hunting, Ron anticipated suffering through a crappy movie of Pansy's choosing before he'd get the chance to watch two hours of American violence at its finest. Hermione had insisted on watching Swedish existentialist garbage where everyone wanted to kill themselves by the end—or at the very least Ron wanted to kill them and put them out of his misery—or French romantic comedies populated with actresses that Ron never found even remotely attractive and couldn't understand because, effing hell, they were speaking French, and if he'd wanted to read a movie he'd have rented a book. Ron met Pansy at the counter; in one hand she was carrying "Pulp Fiction" and in the other she had "Kill Bill."

By the time spring break rolled around, he was back down to one meeting a day. He painted Pansy's kids' rooms while Pansy ran up some new curtains, so that when they came home for spring break their rooms would be fresh. He re-papered the staircase with a floral design that was too feminine for him, but Pansy liked it and it was her house. Hugo still wasn't speaking to him. True to his word, he wrote the children every week. Rose wrote chatty letters back; Hugo never replied. He didn't have the nerve to ask Rose if Hugo read them or just chucked them into the fireplace.

He took Rose on holiday to New York. She was her mother's daughter. With good grace, he shuffled through the Met, the Cloisters, even some horrible place called the Guggenheim with the ugliest paintings he'd ever seen, listening to her ooh and ahh, and sounding so much like a teenage Hermione that he was on the verge of tears the entire trip.

He returned from New York to find the grounds covered in crocuses, tulips, and daffodils.

One afternoon in late spring, with the foxgloves waving in the light breeze and the roses threatening to bloom any second, he came out of the house to tell Pansy tea was ready and stopped short at the sight of her. Wearing her frumpy garden clothes—her tee-shirt stained with sweat under the armpits and in the valley between her breasts, no bra so those enormous tits of hers were hanging around her waist, a natty kerchief kept her hair back, and a streak of dirt stained one cheek—she looked like the dog's dinner. And absolutely wonderful. Ron brought a hand to himself, to staunch the heat, the want, the desire, the tenderness that grabbed him all at once.

Christ, he was falling in love with Pansy Parkinson.

"Pansy, I need to… Hermione." He flailed a hand. Just before he Apparated he caught a glimpse of utter despair on her face.

Hermione was home, having her own cup of tea. They hadn't communicated with each other since that night. From time to time he'd ask Harry if she was doing okay, and Harry would always nod in the affirmative. Ron never pursued it beyond that.

She didn't look particularly surprised to see him.

"Tea? I've just brewed a pot." From the curt way she said it, he realized he should have contacted her at some point when he'd dried out.

"No. Well, maybe." He needed to do something with his hands. "I should have come sooner. Sorry."

She got him a cup, made his tea just the way he liked it, and put it in front of him with a tad too much force; some slopped over the side. She stared for a moment at the little puddle on the table, but didn't move to get a napkin or anything. She sat down and in a hard voice said, "Yes, you should have. Putting me in the position of asking Rose or Harry what you're up to is not on."

It was a rebuke and he deserved it.

"I am sorry," he reiterated, really meaning it. "Didn't think you wanted to talk to me. Like maybe never. That Howler."

"Oh for God's sake, Ron—"

"And maybe I was too ashamed—you know, after that night—to talk to you. I'm doing okay. Been sober since, you know, that night. Worse four months of my life, but yeah. Doing okay. I'm living with Pansy."

"Harry told me," she replied in that same hard voice, barely moving her lips.

Everything that was going to come out of his mouth was going to hurt her, but he hadn't been honest for years and look where it got him.

"Pansy got drunk one night and since she smokes like a fucking train, she lit herself on fire and nearly burnt her house down. I'm helping her fix it up instead of paying rent."

She didn't say anything.

"I see a future there."

He had expected her to protest, maybe even hex him. When she said in a flat voice, "I want a future with the Ron I know. Knew. Not that Ron," gesturing with a tired hand in the direction of the lounge, something eased and something broke in him.

Hermione had been his youth, his history for so long. He'd warmed bottles for his babies in this kitchen and carved roast beef and lit birthday candles. Hermione was the only person in his life to whom he could say, "Remember when Hugo had that ratty blanket that he wouldn't part with? He even took it in to the loo with him." She was the only person who knew the color of that blanket and how much Hugo had loved it. That Rose's first word was "book" and second word was "dada." Who knew, even if he couldn't articulate it, what it meant to lose Fred.

"I can't guarantee that if I stay. Part of the drinking thing is that I'm in your shadow and Harry's shadow and—"

"That's not my fault!" she shouted.

"No it's not, but it's still killing me!" he shouted back and then counted to ten. With a shock, he noticed a long grey streak in her hair. Had he been so wrapped up in his own problems that he just hadn't noticed, or was this recent; a manifestation of how horrible this last year had been for her?

He grabbed her hands and said in a gentle voice, "When I drink I find Ron Weasley, which I know is fucked up beyond belief, but there you are. So I need to find Ron Weasley without getting hammered to do it. I've loved you most of my life, and I still love you, but if I stay in this marriage I'll never get there."

In a tired, defeated voice, she said, "Ron, when you did that to the lounge, it… it broke something. Maybe permanently. Some of the things you said…"

"I don't remember," he admitted. "But I'm sober now and whatever I said that night was the booze talking. I'm not blaming you. I bloody well wish I didn't feel this way—third-rate at best—but I do." He gestured with his chin in the direction of the lounge. "That's not who I want you to be married to. He's a selfish wanker with a really bad drinking problem."

She'd been resisting him, trying to free herself from his grasp, but when he said "wanker," she gave him a weak smile, relaxed, and squeezed his hands in return. "I don't want to be married to him either," she whispered.

For one small second, he slipped back into the bog of self-disgust and hatred that had fueled his drinking, as if the very walls of this house were some sort of emotional quicksand. Not surprising then that he had attacked them with his fists. No, he wasn't going back there. Not even for Hermione. He interlaced their fingers, a gesture he'd done hundreds of times.

"I'm thirty-nine years old, and bugger if I know who Ron Weasley is. I feel like the son who doesn't measure up by half to Fred or Charlie or Bill or George, like Harry Potter's sidekick, and,"—this hurt the most to say—"like the husband of Hermione Granger."

"You're not to me," she protested.

"I know. The only time it doesn't bother me is when I'm downing a black and tan. We had a good run, Hermione, but now it's time for you to find someone who loves opera and thinks a holiday spent visiting museums in Italy is super. Someone who doesn't sneer every time you mention Hogwarts: A History." He raised his voice to make himself heard over the sound of her sobbing. "Someone who will actually read the book you recommend to him instead of skimming the last chapter. Who buys you season tickets to the ballet for your birthday and then doesn't ruin the gift by complaining how boring it is. Because you deserve that person, Hermione. Find someone who doesn't have a chip on his shoulder the size of Wales. Who loves you because you're the most brilliant, beautiful woman he's ever met and will ever meet; not the bloke who can't help but resent you for it because he's not as brilliant by half and can't forgive himself."

He Apparated into the lounge, and there was Malfoy holding Pansy. The two of them were sitting on the couch, the faint moan of her crying muffled as she sobbed onto his shoulder. She looked up at the sound of his pop as he entered the room. Christ, she looked horrible. Eyes all red and splotchy, her face pale and wan.

Ron hiked his thumb backward. "I got it, mate."

Willfully ignoring Malfoy's glare, Ron sat opposite him in the space on the other side of Pansy. He pulled her to him. There were a million reasons why this was a shit idea, and only a couple of reasons why it might work. She turned to him and hugged him, neither of them acknowledging the whoosh of the Floo as Malfoy left. You would think with his height—all arms and legs—and her tight little compact body, they wouldn't fit very well, but she'd eased into his angles as if she'd been doing it for years. She smelled of cigarette smoke and roses.

Maybe it's not who you're with that matters. Maybe it's who you are with the person you're with.