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Title: The Hat Trick
Author name: Icarus
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sub Category: General
Keywords: Ron Harry Hermione Trio Quidditch
Summary: Quidditch. Corruption. Ex-Cannons coach Ron Weasley knows far too much. Two years ago he was caught between his career and his girlfriend. Now he has another hard choice to make. The definition of a 'hat trick' in gambling: a risky, high-stakes bet.
DISCLAIMER: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Copyright © 2004 by Icarus Ancalion. All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced in whole or part without the author's explicit permission. Ask, guys. I'm easy to reach and usually quite generous.
Author notes: Your help was invaluable on a very tough challenge - non-slash (wazzat?), Gen (plot?), Het (do people do that?). Whoa. This story was written for Madhuri and Ron's birthday in the Ron Ficathon.
Ron gently tugged the Daily Prophet out of Hedwig's claw, rubbing his eyes. He yanked his dressing gown tighter -- it had somehow gotten small about the waist -- and scratched as he staggered into the too-bright kitchen. Bright lights, white walls, white counters, and chrome chairs. Ouch. Good morning.
He slumped into a chair and stared stupidly at a stray pea and some crumbs on the checked linoleum as he tried to wake up. His coffee cup steamed on the table in front of him, and Hermione bustled about, starting breakfast. She was clearly not human. She had far too much energy in the mornings.
He ran a hand through the stubble on his face and remembered. Paper. Right.
He discarded the unimportant news to Hermione's chair, tossed the boring financial to Harry's (the man with the cash, though who could believe he'd trusted Malfoy with it?) and went right for the Quidditch section, as usual. He moved the paper aside while a plate of bacon and eggs levitated in front of him, and he scanned the headlines - then dropped his fork in shock.
Hermione gave a little yip and glared at him. "Ron, don't shout --"
"No… no way…." Ron shook his head as he absorbed the article, breakfast forgotten.
"-- Harry has 'company,'" she continued, ignoring his 'Quidditch noises,' as she called them. "Though I certainly hope this one doesn't plan to stay for breakfast. This is the last of the eggs." She incinerated the egg carton in midair.
"Mmmhmm," Ron said absently, still reading. He knew better than to touch the subject of Harry's girlfriends. His eyes devoured the paper, until he caught a glimpse of Hermione about to sit down. "Oh!" He quickly drained his cup and held it out. "While you're up --" he tried to look innocent and pleading, "-- more coffee?"
"I'm ten feet away. You're two feet. What do you think?"
"C'mon, you're already up…" he sighed, "oh, all right." He stood and bumped up alongside her, and she wrapped her arms around his waist, all curves and sweet-smelling hair to his chin. He smiled.
"Good morning, by the way," she said, kissing him. He hummed into the kiss, one of the many good reasons to have a girl. Suddenly, cold little hands pinched his waist.
"Oi! Hey -! Sneak attack!" He ducked away. Girlfriends had no business poking him there. It was far too soft for comfort, for one thing -- and it wasn't nice!
"Ron. You have to stop snacking. You're not coaching Quidditch anymore."
"You lured me under false pretenses," he accused, narrowing his eyes and backing away.
"You're going on a diet."
Ron huffed. "Is this my anniversary present? A diet?" He tried another approach and pulled her in to his chest, snuggling into the back of her neck in front of the sink. He felt her smile as he nibbled an ear.
She turned in his arms with her 'sharp' look. "Engagements don't have anniversaries."
"Sure they do!" he grinned. "Let's see…" He leaned back, arms locked around her waist as he gazed at her. The little button nose, the searching intelligent gaze. "… the first year is paper, the second is, um…"
"A wedding ring?" Her brown eyes snapped.
"Don't start." He winced backwards a step and dropped his hands.
"It's been two years, Ron."
Ron groaned inwardly. She was impossible.
Fortunately, he was saved from the rest of 'The Conversation' by the click of Harry's bedroom door opening. Ron's eyebrows rose as he peered around through the living room at the morning's entertainment.
Harry appeared wearing just a pair of green boxers, his arm curved around a girl in a dinky rumpled dress, one strap sliding off her shoulder. She was taller than him -- they all were -- even with her strappy shoes dangling in one hand; a tumble of brown hair spilled down her back. They smooched and nuzzled all the way along the hall, where Harry pulled open the front door. Ron could almost feel Hermione glowering behind him.
"Bye…" the girl breathed.
"See you," Harry murmured.
"You've got my Floo…"
"Uhmhmm," he said, his hand sliding across the curve of her bottom.
When the door shut with a puff of cool air, Harry finally noticed he had an audience with a chagrined smile. His hair was even messier than usual. Ron glanced quickly at Hermione though he mouthed to Harry, 'Wow.'
Harry nodded emphatically as he crossed to the kitchen and sank into a chair. Never mind that he was in his underwear.
"Who was that?" Hermione asked oh-so-politely.
"Um. Lavonne… or Lenora… something…." he said in an abstracted tone, rubbing his face. He picked up Ron's orange juice.
"You should at least get their names, Harry," she said.
Harry glanced at Ron, who mouthed 'Bad morning' with a careless gesture. Ron picked up the Quidditch section and stuffed it under Harry's nose. "Look at this shit. They're blaming Marshfield for the Cannons' loss in the Nationals."
Hermione had her hands on her hips. "It's disgusting."
Ron couldn't agree more. "It's outrageous. He's a great player."
"Hermione," Harry groaned, "I did get her name!" He blinked up at her. "I'm just not sure which one she was."
"They were twins! Anyway, I'll ask Fred." He took a sip of Ron's orange juice and picked up the financial section, scanning it with quick eyes.
"What does Fred have to do with this?" A plate of eggs landed with an ominous clunk in front of Harry. Hermione pulled up a chair to her own breakfast.
"He got the other one." Harry winked at Ron across the table. "But she's going to be really mad when she finds out he's not the 'Boy-Who-Lived', polyjuiced."
Hermione's mouth fell open. "That's horrible!"
"There are two girls like that?" Ron whistled. "What are the odds?" He shot Hermione a guilty glance as she stabbed into her eggs. He quickly tapped the paper in front of Harry. "Read it. They're blaming the Cannons' loss on Marshfield."
Harry picked it up and held it two inches from his face, squinting to read. "Aren't the Cannons out of people to blame yet?" He grinned.
"Shut up, Harry. This is serious. They're saying he threw the Nationals!"
Harry gazed over the paper as he folded it. "I hate to break it to you, Ron, but the Cannons aren't in the Nationals."
"Two years ago," Ron said in a disgusted voice. No one listened to him around here anymore.
"They're just getting to it now?" Harry's brow furrowed and he looked at the paper with more interest.
Ron mumbled, "Maybe someone complained or something, I dunno…." He stirred his eggs, glared at his plate, and then said with his mouth full, "Anyway, he didn't do it."
Harry frowned at him, eyes unfocused without his glasses. "Well, it's not like they don't record every game from a million different angles. The Games Commission will straighten it out."
Ron snorted. "I wish it worked that way."
"I'll have to read it later." Harry stood, stuffing the paper under his arm as he carried his eggs to the sink, untouched. Ron's head snapped up.
"Nonono, I need that!"
"Harry," Hermione broke in, "you didn't eat."
"I'm not hungry -- running late. I took too long in the, er, shower."
"Yes." Hermione picked up Ron's plate and followed Harry to the sink. Sparkly suds flew from her wand, and there was a clatter as she tossed in her teaspoon. Some suds caught on violets above the sink. "We heard your 'shower' all the way upstairs."
Harry put his hands on the edge of the sink as if holding onto his patience and shut his eyes.
"Sorry, " he sighed, and glanced at Ron, who simply shrugged, as puzzled as ever. There was no telling why it bothered Hermione. It wasn't as if he was going anywhere. He had what he wanted, and he certainly couldn't bring home girls like that. Come to think of it, neither could Fred, without hanging on Harry's shoulder.
"And Ron, are you planning to go to work in your underwear? You have twenty minutes before you have to leave!"
Ron slumped in his chair rebelliously. "It doesn't matter. It's just Floo repair, and everybody's always late anyway. The work'll still be there."
"You hate that place," Harry observed quietly.
"It's all right." Ron bit into his toast, looking away. He hoped this was the end of the conversation.
Harry and Hermione exchanged a meaningful glance over the top of his head; Ron didn't need to see it to know that they'd been plotting. Hermione hesitated with a breath, and then said in her most deliberately light voice:
"You got another owl last night."
Ron looked up. "Are you opening my mail again?"
"Our mail. Ron," Hermione raised her eyebrows, though she looked nervous as she broached the subject. "You have another offer to coach for the Piltdown Porcupines. They're - that's an important team, right?"
Harry snorted and rolled his eyes. "You might say that."
"But they're in the shitter now," Ron said defensively, "fifty to one odds, and that's generous."
Hermione bit her lip. "So you could help them." She squared her shoulders, the way she did when she had a prepared speech. Ron stiffened. "I - I realise that I used to say you thought Quidditch was more important than me -- than us. But you loved coaching. I really think you ought to talk to them."
Harry folded his arms and sat on the edge of the sink. "She's right, Ron."
"Whose side are you on?" Ron turned to his best friend, the traitor. The two of them had talked about this, he could tell.
"Yours," Harry said calmly. And didn't move. "You were a great coach."
"Assistant Coach," Ron growled into his empty coffee cup.
"C'mon. Hardwick was a drunk. Then you showed up and suddenly the Cannons had their first winning season in, well, probably ever." Harry leaned against the cabinet. "It doesn't take a genius to figure it out -- and the Porcupines know it."
"Yeah, well, we lost the Nationals didn't we?" Ron waved the paper at him. "And now Mansfield's getting the blame for it." He slapped the paper in front of Harry. "In case you didn't notice."
"That was two years ago," Harry said and sighed. His face was exasperated and pitying. "You can't just give up."
Ron lurched out of his chair, which squeaked a protest. "I gotta go to work."
The bell jangled at Frank's Floo Repair & Service, and the wooden door shut behind Ron with a bang.
The place smelled like oil, acid, and the magical powders that made you sneeze if you stood too close to the stockroom. Shelves cluttered with strange magical parts reached to the ceiling, and odd-shaped pieces of various types of Floos spanning the last century blinked in and out of existence in iridescent flashes. It was never well lit in there, and the shifting bluish light cast weird shadows.
Archibald's lined face glanced up from behind the counter. He returned to his magazine with a reproving shake of his head. Ron hunched and made his way to the back, privately wishing he didn't have to walk through the entire store every time he was late.
"Hello Weasley, nice of you to come in today!" Farnsworth called out from the break room as Ron hung up his cloak and slunk into his cubby. They were joking about it; that was a good sign. He tore his coveralls off the hook.
"Fuck you. What do we have?" Ron shouted back.
"The usual. Someone tried to fit an entire house through a fireplace."
"Hell." Didn't people know how shrinking charms react with Floo powder? "Tell me it's private. Please." Ron hopped into the coveralls, jumping in place.
Farnsworth poked his head around the corner, and his grinning silence answered that one.
Ron swore. At least a private home only affected one family; a blocked public Floo would cause more problems as it backed up and people tried to go through it. It was going to be a hellish day. "Why do I get the worst ones? No, don't answer that."
Zanders poked his grizzled head around the corner. Floo repairmen almost always had singed hair. "So, eh, Weasley… what odds can you give me on the Harpies this weekend?"
Ron snorted as he buttoned the coveralls. "Depends on your point spread, but you're out until you pay up."
"Oh, come on now, you can spot me a little."
"Nope. No exceptions, sorry." Ron settled down to a cluttered desk filled with work orders and a stack of greasy records at least two feet high.
Zanders licked his lips. "I'll lighten your load a little today."
Ron squirmed and fidgeted with some papers. He wasn't really looking at them, though he hoped he looked busy.
"It's an ugly mess you drew there," he continued. "One stuck house, fourteen people backed up so far… extraction, maybe even some fairies mucking up the Floo -"
Ron winced, then sighed. "I'll think about it."
Zanders’s gap-toothed grin spread, and he slapped Ron on the back. "Great, that's great. Put me down for eighty Galleons."
"Thirty," Ron said firmly, with a cutting gesture. "That's it."
"Awww, c'mon…" Ron gave him a quelling look. "All right. So… whatcha give me on Marshfield being booted out of the league, eh?"
Ron blanched, and his face heated. "What? - zero. He didn't do it!"
Farnsworth peered lazily over the edge of Ron's cubby and leaned his chin on it. "He was one of yours, wasn't he?" He nodded at Ron. "Back when you were coach."
"Assistant Coach. Yeah. Yeah, I knew him," Ron said distantly, as he shuffled more random papers, not looking at them. "Good Chaser."
Zanders took the house blockage, and an hour later Ron and Farnsworth were on site on an old-style fireplace that refused to connect to the main Floo network. Bloody bounce-back.
Ron used a Sticking Charm to climb the tiles of the roof. His thin harness was really for the peace of mind of passing Muggles. He fired a Cleansing Charm down the chimney while Farnsworth watched the patterns it carved and shook his head.
"I'm guessing two potions, three charms -- the bloody cheap bastards. They tried to fix it themselves."
Ron nodded. "That would explain all the hexes and scorch marks."
"Lost their heads, they did."
Ron snorted in disgust. "I hate it when they lie: 'Oh no, we didn't touch it,'" he added in falsetto.
"Well, I'm in no hurry now. Let's charge 'em double." Farnsworth stretched back along the roof with a grunt.
The joys of working with Farnsworth. Ron poked around and began unraveling the first hex. It was a complicated mess of Incendio combined with… a Hair-Growth Charm? They were desperate when they tried that one.
"Mind if I turn on the wireless?" Farnsworth asked. A rustling of tissue indicated he was already starting in on lunch. Ron grunted assent.
"… that's the weather report, so keep your warming charms handy!"
"Or a pretty little witch, heh-heh -"
"- it can be either cold or comfy, depending on how you play your cards tonight, boys."
"That's right. Now, in Quidditch today, the Cannons' star Chaser Aaron Marshfield has been officially charged with losing the Nationals on purpose -"
"A new excuse for the Cannons -"
"Well, you'd hate to think it was a mistake all these years, ha-ha -"
"Turn it off!" Ron snapped.
"The Commissioner of Games is to review the case today..."
Farnsworth startled from his nap, his felt hat slipping from his face. "Wha -?"
"Maybe he should look at the Cannons other games while they're at it. Ha-ha!"
"Damn it, turn that off! Right now!" Ron snarled, but didn't wait and dove, shutting it off himself. Farnsworth sat up sleepily.
"What's wrong? I just need a little nite-nite music, what's your problem?"
"Never mind. I - I have to take an early lunch, all right?" Ron ran his hand through his hair as he stood, feeling slightly dizzy, and not from the heights. "Cover for me, will you?"
Farnsworth blinked at him. Ron was already walking down the roof line, his sticky boots landing in heavy thumps. "Sure thing, Weasley. It'll still be here when you get back."
But Ron was already gone by the time he pulled his hat back onto his face.
The Department of Magical Games And Sports was on the seventh floor of the Ministry of Magic, the first stop off the elevator. Ron pushed his way through the crowd from the back, just managing to shove a shoulder in the doors before they closed.
As they bumped back open, he stepped into a familiar cluttered hall lined with brightly coloured Quidditch posters and tattered, cheerful team banners. There were a few token gestures to other sports, but Quidditch was really the only sport at the Ministry and everyone knew it. It was a breath of fresh air after the repair shop, but it hurt, too, somehow, to see it all again.
Ron just stood and looked for a minute. Nothing had changed. Mini-Quidditch goalposts stuck over the edges of offices, memos flying through them in loop-de-loops. The dent was even still there from when someone turned a Bludger loose after the World Cup. They'd never bothered to fix it. He took a deep breath and tugged nervously at his dusty coveralls, wishing he'd taken them off.
Dorothea looked up blankly from the front desk, and Ron wondered for a minute if they'd recognise him when he wasn't in his Cannons uniform --
"Ron!" she beamed. Her hair looked different, set in tight, platinum blonde curls, but then she'd always changed her hairstyle every week. She called out, "Alfred, Louis -- everyone. Ron Weasley's here!"
A bald head poked out of the nearest office, with crinkled eyes and a huge smile. "No kidding? Hey, Stranger!"
Ron was already blushing, and soon found his hand being shaken, his back thumped, and completely surrounded. Many of the faces were familiar, though he had forgotten some of their names. Newcomers to the offices, cheerful but confused, were told just who he was -- "Took the Cannons to their first win in seventeen seasons" -- "It was eighteen, you dumb shit!" -- "All right then, Ron?"
He found himself crushed in a bear hug. "All the way up to the Nationals, tragic business that, I'll tell you about it sometime" -- "Man, I can't believe it of Marshfield, it's just not his style" -- "Ron, what odds will you give me on the Zulus?" -- "Heh-heh, that's our man, he knows everyone's standings. The Harpies, the Harpies will take it this weekend, I tell you."
Ron grinned. "Fifteen to one odds on the Harpies, and no better."
"You're joking -- they're having a great season." There was laughter all around.
"Yeah, but Durrick is injured, and they've got that 'Slovakian Wonder' in her place --" Even the newcomers chuckled at that. "-- and she grandstands, doesn't fit into the team yet."
They all laughed and broke out into arguments over this. The group started moving off, going back to work with a cheery wave here and there, thrashing this out as they filtered back to their offices. Ron was flushed and beaming. "So what do you say Marshfield did it?" -- "Well, we all pay the price…" -- "They won't need to throw him out of the league, the Cannons fans will crucify him first!"
"He's a good player," Ron broke in, but they weren't listening. He was off-balance, though it felt good that they remembered him. He hadn't thought anyone would. He waved back to a few stragglers then turned to Dorothea and asked quietly, "Could I talk to Dennis?"
"Sure thing, Ron," she said. "I'll buzz his office." She cast a Ventriloquist Charm on her throat: "Olivia, I have Ron Weasley here to see the Commissioner!" She removed it with a flick of her wand and smiled at him in that motherly way of hers, looking him up and down. "Someone's feeding you well. You know where Dennis is."
On the way down the long hall, Ron's head buzzed with images from the past, from the last time the Commissioner -- Dennis -- had sent for him. He'd been star-struck back then. It was rare enough for an Assistant Coach to even get a nod from the Commissioner, but Ron had been invited to his office and even taken out for drinks. He was in a cold sweat, but Dennis would be reasonable he was sure.
Well. Almost sure.
The cushy outer waiting room was filled with the same overstuffed green sofas and chairs. Olivia was behind her desk, paging through a magazine. She waved him through to the Commissioner's office with hardly a glance. Ron rapped on the heavy oak lightly at first, then harder. He heard a sound that could have been 'come in' and pushed the door open.
Dennis greeted him with a big smile that didn't reach his cold blue eyes, but then, nothing ever did. He was a huge man with a thick mustache and broad shoulders, and he rose from behind his oak desk like a small mountain to shake Ron's hand.
Over drinks two years ago, Ron had nervously guessed him to be a former Beater, but he'd guessed wrong. Dennis actually had been a champion in some obscure sport that involved dice, circles drawn in the sand, and edged weapons, the rules of which Ron still didn’t understand, even after all those sketches on cocktail napkins. Ron struggled with the name of it in case he needed small talk to break the ice, and cursed the fact his mind had somehow stopped working the moment he stepped into this office. But it seemed small talk wasn't needed.
Dennis nodded to him, pursed his lips as he sat. "I know why you're here."
"You do?" Ron settled uncomfortably into a chair across from his desk, certain he was going to leave a big black Floo smear when he stood up. His office was airy, neat, and well-lit, furnished in oak and off-white, very different from the Quidditch chaos of the rest of the department.
Dennis nodded again. "There's nothing to worry about."
Ron blinked in confusion. "There isn't?"
"I have all the details worked out." He stood and gestured for Ron to follow him to a table in the back corner.
The bright window at the back of his office looked out on a Quidditch game in play, though not a real one, of course. Ron noted absently that the uniforms were all out of date, didn't even have knee guards, so the image had to be at least sixty years old. The table Dennis brought him to had a smaller rendition of the two teams, also with old-fashioned uniforms and gear, buzzing around and dodging Bludgers. A tiny Seeker, no bigger than a walnut, dove after a speck of gold.
Dennis waved his wand: "Repititio!"
The little Seeker stopped in midair. Backed up.
The models were instantly clothed in more modern uniforms with the Cannons in bright orange with the old logo from two years before. The Magpies were wearing their out-of-town colours so the Cannons here had the home field advantage. But even as the Magpies' captain soared to his position as Keeper doing that characteristic flip of his, Ron recognised the game.
The nightmare of the Nationals game played out in front of him in miniature -- not that Ron couldn't see every detail of it, every time he closed his eyes.
"There!" Dennis said halfway through, pointing with his wand. The tiny players froze.
"That's the moment the game turned. There was no reason for Marshfield to drop the Quaffle there. No professional would."
Ron blinked. "Where's Quigley?" There was no sign of the Magpies player.
"The Magpies Beater, Quigley. Where is he? He slammed into Marshfield there."
"He's not important to this demonstration."
Dennis waved his wand and the uniforms melted away. The players returned to their old-fashioned game, tossing the Quaffle back and forth.
"The point is, you're covered. There's nothing to worry about."
"But --" That wasn't what happened….
"We took care of that detail. I spoke with Quigley. He's not going to be a problem -- trust me on this." Dennis patted his shoulder heavily as Ron simply stared at the little buzzing figures.
Dennis smiled. He had huge teeth. "How's that pretty little witch of yours? Last I heard you were buying her an engagement ring."
Ron cringed at the reminder. "She's fine."
Dennis sat jovially on the edge of the windowsill, eyes sharp as spears, and gestured for Ron to sit next to him. "So. Are you two married yet?"
"Well, don't let that girl get away! I realise that this is blasphemy around here," he glanced around jokingly, "but Quidditch is not the most important thing in the world. It's just a game. Like your girlfriend always said. Isn't that right?"
"Yeah. That's what she said." Ron stared at the floor. Then he met Dennis' eyes. "He won't be able to play any more."
"Oh. He's had good long career, Ron, and I'll tell you this, just between you and me: he was due to be traded, in any case," Dennis said, then laughed. "He's made more money than either of us will ever see! He'll land on his feet, I'm sure."
Ron's shoulders sank and he was quiet a long moment. A clock in the corner of the room ticked.
"Do you still have that little side venture going, Ron?" Dennis had folded his arms. There was a slight smirk playing at the corner of his mouth.
Ron's jaw hardened.
"I don't gamble."
Dennis made a dismissive gesture. "We don't mind a few hobbyists, of course, but technically it is against the rules." He cupped his knee with his laced fingers and leaned back against the window. "Especially if you're a coach, wholesome Quidditch traditions and so forth, all that rot. But I took care of you, didn't I?"
"They'll hate him," Ron said in a toneless voice. It was an understatement; he'd be eviscerated by every Cannons fan alive. And some might crawl out of their graves to do it, too.
Dennis had been so understanding over good scotch. Such a good listener. He hadn't blinked an eye about what he jokingly called Ron's 'side venture' which was as much a part of Quidditch as breathing. Took care of that 'little problem' of Ron's, the ethics investigation. Just let the real coach lead the Nationals game, Dennis had said as he picked up the tab. He's a friend of mine, and he deserves that much. That's all I ask.
Clever fucker. Dennis didn't have any friends; Ron knew that now. He'd had two years to think about it. But he'd known what it would mean even then, no matter how he tried to justify it.
Dennis gave a world-weary sigh and folded his hands. The fake Quidditch game outside the window circled, silently.
"I know you don't understand," he began. "In my position I have to think about the good of the sport overall. The Cannons are doing fine, Ron. They have a franchise in being the underdog. But a team like the Magpies now, they don't have the loyalty of the Cannons. If they're not winning, they lose ticket sales, concessions, all of the people that depend on them suffer."
Dennis stood and led Ron to the door.
"Kurt, the owner of the Magpies, can tell you: predictability equals profits. He likes you Ron, he really does. He said you'd do a great job -- on the right team." He winked. "It's just that no one ever expected an Assistant Coach fresh out of Hogwarts to take over the Cannons. It was a unique situation."
He had his hand on the doorknob and added, "Take my word for it: marry that girl. Put all this behind you…
"Unless you want to come back and coach. We could always use good men like you. You did a great job; surprised us all." He shrugged then opened the door. Olivia started and quickly pretended to be working. "And now you're experienced, know how the game works. Not many do."
Ron gave him a rueful look. "No. Thanks."
"It doesn't have to be the Cannons; there are dozens of other teams that would have you."
Ron shook his head. Dennis spread his beefy hands. "I just want you to know the door is always open."
"I'm afraid it doesn't pay enough," Ron answered him with a tight smile.
It was with a sense of unreality that Ron walked back down those halls lined with cheerful Quidditch posters that had once meant so much to him. And still did, just in a different, bittersweet way. He was hailed by -- who was it? Alfonse?
"Oi! Ron -- I've got the Manticores in two weeks. What do you think?"
Ron forced himself to give him a thumbs up as he made his way to Dorothea's desk.
Why did he come here today? His vague plans to 'straighten it out' with Dennis had somehow evaporated in the face of Dennis' certainty, and the shock that they already had their lie all set, with a Quidditch board and everything.
And if they had their lie ready today…
Ron swallowed. What about two years ago? Dennis could have started that ethics investigation, couldn't he?
Ron had a sudden nervous feeling about this. A really bad feeling, like it had always been bigger than just a favour he should never have done. He wished he could talk to Harry, though Bill would really be the person to…
He paused at Dorothea's desk, caught by a sudden idea. He turned. "Um… can you tell me what floor Percy is on?"
"Percy?" She tipped her head at him, confused. Little curls bobbed. "Is he a player?"
Ron shook himself. "No, no, sorry. Percy Weasley. He's my brother."
"And you don't know what floor he's on?" she chided.
"We're not close."
"I'd say not." She tore off a piece of red tape, and licked her quill. "Deobscundo." The quill wrote the floor and office number on the tape, which animated and wriggled as she handed it to him. "Careful, don't let that tape get out of hand. The Ministry is crawling with the stuff." She glanced at him briefly, impressed. "Well, you certainly know people in high places."
Ron nodded absently as he trotted out the door, and wondered if he was paranoid to worry about her telling Dennis that.
Percy's office was gleamingly clean, with dark wood paneling, high ceilings and arched windows. There were polished brass fixtures everywhere. Ron walked in on him shouting at his assistants and busily pulling on his jacket.
"Someone catch those memos, please! I don't have time for this!" He picked up his briefcase and snapped it shut.
Several memos hovered near the ceiling, obviously charmed to flutter out of reach. Percy must have annoyed somebody. Percy's secretary appeared, armed with a butterfly net and a bored expression.
Percy launched himself at the door, almost running Ron down. He pulled up short, blinking as he recognised him.
"Ron…" he glanced about helplessly. "Um, now's not a really good time."
"It's alright, I won't take long."
"I have a meeting --" Percy glanced at his watch frantically. "-- eight seconds ago. I need a little more warning for 'family visits,' Ron. Talk to my secretary and maybe we can have lunch sometime…"
"I don't need an appointment. Look, I just need your help --"
Percy edged past Ron with anxious look down the hall. "Good, good, whatever. Just send me an owl."
Ron stepped in front of him. "No, I need your help now. Do you still talk to Penelope Clearwater?"
That grabbed his attention. "Penny?" Percy stopped halfway through the doorway, briefcase dangling in his hand. "Sure. Of course I do. I mean just Christmas cards, that sort of thing."
"Do you have her private Floo?"
"Yes." Percy looked at him blankly. "It's on my desk." His brow furrowed in worry. "Why do you need Penny? Ron, are you in some sort of trouble?" He shifted from one foot to another. "Look, I… I'm sorry, I'm late," he made a helpless gesture as he backed out the door, "We'll have dinner, all right?"
Ron watched his brother hurry down the marble hallway, skipping a little to catch the elevator.
"Thank you, Percy." Ron turned Penelope's card over in his hand: Clearwater & Clearwater, Attorneys at Law.
The house was a black outline against a twilight blue sky, and it was far later than he usually came home. The living room was dark, but the kitchen and upstairs lights were on, and he heard the bath running as he wiped his feet. Hermione must have got off early from work. There was no sign of Harry's coat or broom. Damn. He needed to talk to him.
Ron poked his head in the kitchen before he'd even taken his cloak off. "Where's Harry?"
Hermione looked up from her reading at the kitchen table. A cup of tea steamed in front of her, and the teapot hovered conveniently within her reach over the table. "Where have you been? I've been worried sick."
"I dunno. Walking. Where's Harry?"
"He's probably out with those twins, Laura and Loretta or whoever."
Ron snorted, and his mood lightened. "Harry? With the same girl two nights in a row?" He yanked off his cloak and dropped it on a chair. "I doubt that. I think he's going for a record." He pulled open the cooling cupboard, his hair ruffling from the breeze as he grabbed the milk and forced the cupboard shut with an elbow. "The first man to sleep with every woman in the Wizarding world."
"Well," Hermione sniffed, "he's going to be one short."
"Good," Ron smiled. He drank directly from the carton, spluttered and spat it out. "Ugh -- what's this?"
"Skim milk. You're on a diet as of today," she said primly, setting down her book.
"No, damn it!" He flung a spell and it popped out of existence.
Hermione flicked her wand and brought it back. It landed with a heavy clunk on the floor between them. Frozen solid.
"Where on earth did you send it?" she stared.
"Siberia," Ron growled.
Hermione looked aghast. "You hate skim milk that much?"
"I do now," Ron said. "Where's Harry?"
Hermione sighed. "Yes well, I've been meaning to talk to you about Harry. About a few things actually."
Ron's shoulders slumped. "Do we have to do this now?"
"Ron. It's been two years," she said, "and you've been avoiding the subject." She barreled ahead. "Honestly, I love Harry, you know I do, but I just don't think it's working out."
Sensing inevitability, Ron sank to the chair across from her.
"Hermione, honey, it's really not the time," he said, elbows on the table, his head in his hands.
"Then when? You can't avoid this forever you know. Harry can afford a place of his own --"
"We've been through this before. We can't," Ron said firmly.
"Yes, we can, Ron. If we can afford this, we can certainly afford a smaller place of our own. I don't understand why you're avoiding it. I feel like we're treading water, going nowhere. With Harry and all his girlfriends…" she threw up her hands, "we can't be a couple. It's like a dorm."
Ron squirmed in his chair. "Honey. I've only been with the Floo Service for a few months. After I've been there a little long--"
"And you skipped work today."
"--er." Ron's mouth hung open as she produced his lunch box from the floor.
"They were worried and contacted me," she explained. "You left at noon and didn't come back. Someone named Farmboy --"
"Farnsworth…." Ron moaned. Dammit.
"Whomever; he dropped this off. He said that he 'Ate your lunch since you owed him for the Hair-Growth Hex'?"
"Then he owes me a hundred lunches," Ron said. "Though he might be up to a million as of tonight."
Hermione dropped her evidence on the table with a clunk and glared.
Ron wondered how he was going to dig himself out of this hole, and spared a moment of sympathy for his long-suffering dad. "Hon. I don't leave early every day."
"You're just late every day." She raised an eyebrow.
Ron looked at the grain of the wood on the table. It was really quite fascinating, all the swoops and swirls and different colours. Calming. Amazing he’d never bothered to look before.
"Well?" She tapped her foot. Sometimes that was cute, but at the moment…
"Sweetie…" Ron took a breath, held it. And sighed. "It's fine."
"No. It's not." She swept the hair off her face. It was brown, like the wood. All different colours of brown. "Harry's right. You hate the Floo Service."
"No, no I don't," Ron said quickly, cornered.
"You've had a new job every six months," Hermione went on, ignoring his lie. "I know I was hard on you while you were with the Cannons." She smiled wanly at him. "It's just that I never had a chance to see you, you were always at practice, every weekend, every night. But you were so enthusiastic! You loved it so much." She touched his hand, and added brightly, "If you would at least contact these Porcupine people, everything would be ever so much better."
"At least give them a chance."
"No!" Ron slammed both hands on the table as he stood. The teacup spilled, and the teapot hovered slightly higher.
Her voice was exasperated. "I don't understand. Why not?"
"There are just things about it that I don't like," he growled, which Harry knew was the point to stop talking. But Hermione never seemed to learn.
"Ron," she snapped, crossing her arms in full lecture mode. "Every job has drawbacks. It's not all fun and games. Quidditch might be the closest thing you can get to playing for a living, but if you can't be mature enough --"
It was more than he could stand.
"Ron Weasley, I'm talking to you -!"
He slammed the door behind him, and didn't care that it was cold and he'd left his cloak.
The house was dark when he returned, and Harry still wasn't home, which was rotten luck. He just wanted to explain without fighting about it. Harry would understand. Well, no. He wouldn't. No one could.
Ron didn't even understand it, not really. It was just one decision, one minute, when he was on top of the world and everyone had wanted so much from him, pulled him in so many different directions at once -- it all went so fast. Then at the end of the game, head in his hands, he knew.
Ron stood at the bottom of the stairs, one hand on the banister, and shut his eyes. No, he couldn't make Harry understand. It was probably better he wasn't there.
So Ron crept upstairs, wincing at a squeaky floorboard. He undressed in their bedroom as quietly as he could, folding his trousers and pulling off his socks. He slipped into bed next to Hermione. Her hair pillowed out around her, and her face always looked so pretty in such soft, blue moonlight when she was asleep. Angelic. He leaned up on an elbow, covers sliding down his chest as he couldn't resist stroking her cheek. Her eyelashes fluttered open.
"Shh… go back to sleep," he whispered, his voice hoarse from the cold, among other things.
"Hmm..." She turned towards him in a gentle rustle of covers, her eyes blinked slightly more aware. "I didn't mean to push you…." Her voice was soft, too.
"S'okay," he said.
His shoulders were getting cold, so he snuggled deep under the blankets, and then stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep.
"Ron…" she whimpered next to him. She was staring at the ceiling, too. "You don't have to do that diet if you don't want."
Ron started snickering. It all seemed so desperately funny. "That's just great, honey. Everything's solved now."
Hermione woke early with a strange sense that something was wrong. The bed beside her was slept on, the pillow dented, but the covers were thrown back and Ron was gone. Usually she was the first one up in the morning. She heard some clattering downstairs in the kitchen. She threw on a nightdress and padded downstairs.
Ron was up. He'd shaved already, and he was dressed. Although there were circles under his eyes as deep as caverns, so he'd clearly been up all night.
"G'morning," he said in a sad voice. Or perhaps he was just tired.
Why was he dressed? Not that that was a bad thing, necessarily, but had she nagged him too much?
The front door rattled and keys jangled in the lock, and then Harry walked in with a startled owl-like look, glasses covered in fingerprints and slightly askew. His shirt was untucked and buttoned up the wrong way.
He stood in the door and glanced between the two of them. "It's seven-thirty… What's everyone doing up?"
"I don't know," said Hermione faintly.
"This works out well," Ron said in a dry voice. They both turned to him in confusion.
He stood heavily, and then told Hermione in an emphatic tone, "If you want to return the ring, I'll understand. Completely." He sighed, and stood in front of Harry for a long moment, and chewed his lip.
"I'm sorry, Harry," he said at last as he turned away. He ducked his head, brushed past Harry, and stepped outside. He stopped and looked back at their little house, longingly, as if he couldn't bear to leave. Then he squared his shoulders, and said, "Clearwater."
His fiance and best friend stared at each other, completely mystified.
Harry broke the silence first. "What was all that about?" He shut the door.
Hermione dropped her head to her hands and clawed at her hair like she wanted to tear it out. "We had a fight yesterday."
Harry laughed. "So? And this is new?" He reached into the cooling cabinet, turning his head away from the fierce wind as he pulled out a beer. "I still think we should get a refrigerator; they're much better." He cracked the beer open.
"I couldn't agree more, but you need ekeltric -- I mean electricity, for them. Augh. I've been around Ron too long. And don't drink beer for breakfast!"
"Why? Do you think it'll kill me?" Harry grinned, pointing to the lightning bolt scar.
Hermione said something unprintable, then turned the subject back to Ron with a little sigh. "Ron doesn't want to go on a diet, and… I - I suspect his job isn't working out."
Harry turned a chair around and straddled it. "You mean Ron's not working out."
He took a sip of his beer, and leaned an elbow on the back of the chair. "Is he fired yet?"
"Probably." She shook her head sadly. "He loved coaching. Ever since he left the Cannons he can't seem to stick to anything."
"That's…" Harry counted. "Three jobs a year now?"
Hermione sighed heavily. "Maybe it's me. Maybe it's just that he doesn't want us to be together."
"Oh sure, Hermione. That explains the ring, the proposal, and your living together for two years," Harry snorted. "Glad we have that mystery sorted."
"I mean subconsciously, Harry," she said. "We got engaged and then just a few weeks later -- he dropped everything. Now he insists that we don't earn enough for us to rent our own place."
Harry shrugged. "Well you can't blame him, Hermione. Floo repair only pays, what? Two hundred Galleons a month? You can't live off of that."
"Two hundred?" Hermione blinked. Her hand froze midway in reaching for the teapot, and she turned to him. "He brings home at least that much a week, sometimes more."
"That's impossible," Harry gestured with the beer. "Fred told me how much he makes. Ron complained about the pay cut he took when he left the Cannons. Why do you think I stay?"
"I've never seen a pay stub of his. He always insists on doing his own banking…" She looked off in the distance, eyes unfocused as she counted on her fingers. Her lips moved.
She suddenly asked, "Harry? I shouldn't ask but… how much did he pay for my ring?"
Harry's eyebrows rose, and he shrugged. "He never told me. Why?"
"He said he borrowed it from you."
Harry shook his head, wide-eyed. The beer was forgotten. "Nope. I would have, but I doubt he'd ever ask."
"Yes, why didn't I see it before… of course he wouldn't borrow anything…" Hermione said, staring straight ahead as if not hearing him, her hand to her mouth.
"What are you saying?"
"I don't know." Hermione shook her head vaguely. "Harry, I think he might be in some kind of trouble."
There was a pecking noise at the window, and they exchanged puzzled glances. Harry opened it, and an unfamiliar greasy owl flew in. Harry managed to get the note from its clutches and gave the bird a sip of beer for lack of anything else.
Then his eyes widened as he read.
"Who's it from?"
Harry scratched his head. "Well. It looks like Ron's not fired. At least not yet." Harry looked up. "But he didn't show up for work today."
"What? We saw him leave!"
Hermione watched him quickly write, Ron's sick, sorry, I was supposed to tell you. - Harry Potter, and send the owl on its way. It teetered a little in the sky.
"You check George and Fred's." Harry quickly pulled on a coat and kicked the door open. Hermione nodded and pulled on a pair of boots and a long cloak over her nightgown. "I'll check the pubs."
Hours later, Harry stepped into the Witches' Brew. Hermione brightened when she saw him, but Harry simply shook his head. There was still no sign of Ron.
Fred and George had closed their shop to join the search, so she held out hope that they had found him. They were very late. In the meantime, Hermione ordered hot drinks at the Witches' Brew to warm up while they waited.
The Wizarding Wireless Network blared throughout the pub, and the few daytime customers perched on barstools and glanced at her curiously. The lacy flowered hem of her nightdress still peered out from under her cloak. She held her head high as she carried their drinks back to their table, and Harry took his without a word.
They sat silently, dispirited. Weird bagpipe jazz floated over the pub, mercifully interrupted with a special report.
"And now for the news. In a sudden turnabout, Aaron Marshfield, star Chaser for the Cannons, has been cleared of all charges!" Someone cheered at the bar, obviously a Cannons fan.
Harry snorted. "Well. Ron would be happy about that."
"…former Assistant Coach Ron Weasley turned himself in today --"
"WHAT?!" Hermione stood.
"Hush, lady!" someone yelled from the bar.
"…details not been released. Mr Weasley's attorney, Ms Penelope Clearwater says, 'Mr Weasley has not been charged with any wrong doing, and is cooperating fully with the authorities.' The Commissioner has been charged with racketeering and corruption, as well as 'fixing' the famous Cannons' match…"
Someone cheered, and there was clapping from the riveted patrons.
"Can-nons!" someone bellowed, though he was quickly shushed as everyone leaned towards the news report.
"…has not been available for comment. It has not yet been determined how widespread the corruption is, but one thing's for certain: the Quidditch world has been shaken to its core."
Harry and Hermione stared at each other in amazement, with dawning shock and understanding.
"Mr Weasley has this to say on his own behalf:
Is this live, will everyone hear this?
Yes, sir, Mr Weasley.
Then I just want to say, to my girl, um, my fiance…
I'm sorry, honey."
I relented and posted the epilogue here.
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