Earlier, Hermione told the rest of her response team to leave; partly because there was nothing for them to do until Draco arrived, and partly because Ron kept muttering about their clumsiness in taking apart the charred remains of the dragon. They'd managed to disassemble most of it, though. All that remained was the buried skull, and the upper part of the spine.
A sudden wind had disolved most of the smoke and all of the smell, and so Hermione and Ron had decided to squat in the crater's pit to wait for Draco. Sitting amongst the rubble, they exchanged non sequiturs.
"If any Muggles find this skeleton here, we won't really have to worry," said Hermione. "They'll think they're dinosaur bones."
"Dinosaur?" Ron raised an eyebrow.
"Didn't you learn anything in Muggle studies?" Hermione asked. "Dinosaurs are what Muggles call dragons – they believe they used to live on the earth millions of years ago. Of course, that's only because their dating systems are flawed, and because – well, dragons did live on the earth millions of years ago, and some of those dragons are still alive today."
Ron shrugged, and leant his chin on his palms. "Right."
"Maybe we should leave these dragon remains here," said Hermione thoughtfully. "It would give those Muggle scientists something interesting to find."
"You aren't listening to a word I'm saying, are you?"
"Right." Something in her voice told Ron he should look up, however. "What?"
Hermione stared at him, crossly. She wasn't sure whether he was being inattentive on purpose, or if he was just concerned about the situation – but either way it was frustrating.
"I said, you aren't listening to a word I'm saying," she said.
"Oh, that. Of course I am. Just – thinking about other things, too."
He was blaise, infuriatingly so – not that he was conscious of the effect he was having on Hermione's ever-fraying nerves. Rolling up the sleeves of his shirt, he patted his pocket for his pack of cigarettes. It was a Muggle habit – the twins had got him started on it – and despite the ugly taste of them he couldn't stop. He tapped one pale cylinder into his hand, set it to his lips, and lit it on a flame he conjured from the tip of his wand.
It was strange how it all turned out – while the twins were the michevious ones in the extensive Weasley family, Ron had claim to the role of 'black sheep'. During his last years of Hogwarts he'd begun to feel almost dislocated from his friends; he supposed Draco and Harry's relationship hadn't helped matters. Once he'd left, picking up his current job at the Ministry, he'd grown even more solitary – he was bachelor material, after all.
He smoked, he forgot to shave, and he turned up to work looking scruffy and half-hearted. One of the young witches he breifly dated called him rugged, another a rogue – he liked the way that sounded, Ron the Rogue. He'd gotten into a few fights too; he'd always prefered to settle matters with his fists, anyway. He knew what was bothering him now, why Hermione kept giving him those awful glares of hers. He felt out of place in her company – he wasn't sure how to act with someone who'd known him for so long. Should he be the old carefree and loyal Ron of yesteryear? Or should he stay true to what he'd become, the new, tough and warworn Ron experience had taught him to be?
Not that he'd ever had a real war to fight in, not like Harry. But perhaps that was part of it. He'd seen wars, always from the outside, always from the sidelines, and they'd changed him. It was different when you weren't the focal point, when you lived your life just outside the centre of the storm. It made you hollow, in a way – because in the end you realised that you couldn't help everyone, and what was worse – you found out that they didn't really need you at all.
He wasn't bitter, but sometimes – usually when he was drunk – he knew he sounded it. Harry was his friend, and it wasn't Harry's fault he'd always been in the limelight. It just – rankled, that was the word for it. It made Ron feel useless, and he'd promised himself, on the day he'd accepted the job at the Ministry of Magic, that he'd never feel useless again.
He flicked ash onto the ground and scratched a hand through his red hair. Draco was late again – but Draco was always late. Sighing, he stared up at the sky, aware that Hermione had also turned her eyes heavenwards – but in despair or annoyance, or some mixture of the two, he didn't know.
It wasn't hard to pick out the crater from above. Draco swerved down to view the site, circling it once from above. It was worse that he'd expected. Groaning internally, he landed on the edge of the crater, and peered over to see if anyone was around. Two figures sat near the centre – he recognised them from afar, Ron by his red hair and Hermione by the bun and the severe lines of her suit.
There was a thump from behind him; Harry had descended gracelessly, though safely, onto a small hill of upthrust earth. Draco carved another little notch on his mental Harry-annoyance belt. The more pissed off Harry was, the worse he flew. One time, when Draco refused Harry sex ( Oh, the horror of it! Draco snickered ) Harry had walked out, got on his broom, and flown directly into the manor gate.
Harry was prone to performing small kamikaze acts like that. Not to get Draco's attention – Draco would ignore him for days after such ridiculous stunts – it was more like Harry was trying to punish himself. Little masochist, Draco thought, casting a look behind him. Harry was struggling over the lip of the hill, clutching his broom – cutting quite the pathetic figure.
"Thanks for waiting," Harry muttered. "Not all of us have state of the art brooms like you, Draco."
"I offered to buy you one. You said you'd save up for it yourself. Don't complain to me."
Draco strode off down the edge of the crater, deceptively light footed over the difficult terrain. Harry threw up his hands in exasperation – but Draco wasn't looking. Gritting his teeth, Harry followed, stumbling on the loose earth. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to follow Draco to work, after all. The problem was that if he backed out now, he knew Draco would jeer at him for weeks.
"Finally," Ron said, looking up as the duo approached. Hermione, caught in the act of rearranging the frizz of her hair into a tighter bun, glanced up, grunted a greeting – and then froze.
It had been at least two months since the two had managed to meet up, and she ran over, flinging her arms about her school friend. They embraced; she kissed his cheek and fell away from him, grinning as if she was fourteen years old again.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Followed Draco," said Harry, returning her smile. "He never told me you would be here."
Ron and Draco exchanged bemused looks, and Ron tapped the side of his head with a forefinger. Draco smirked back, his hands resting on his hips.
"Now that we've got the reunions out of the way," he said, snappily, "perhaps we could get down to business? For a start – why on earth do you need me? It seems you've got the place cleaned up; all you really need is to find someone to fill in the hole."
"There's a cave," said Ron and Hermione, in unison. They blinked at each other, and Hermione continued alone: "We thought it might be important."
"Does this involve buried treasure?" Draco asked, rolling his eyes. "I have better things to do with my time, you know, than go exploring with you two."
"Yeah," said Harry, sotto voce – loud enough for only Hermione to hear. "Like having a bath." He nudged her in the waist, lightly, and she giggled. All of a sudden Harry was glad he'd come – it was nice to have a friend, an ally in what he was beginning to recognise was a war: Potter versus Malfoy, in love, in hate, and in jealousy.
She linked her arm into his, automatically, and Harry's smile broadened. In the meeting of their eyes something passed between them – an unspoken agreement. "I'll take Harry up to the camp, okay?" she said.
"Oh, whatever," said Draco, waving a hand at them dismissively.
They left, still arm in arm, wandering up the side of the crater. By the time they'd reached the edge, they'd begun to chatter happily to each other – and Hermione was leaning up, now, to whisper something into Harry's ear.
"Sickening," said Draco, and Ron nodded his agreement, exhaling through his teeth. Harry hadn't even offered Ron a nod of greeting – and that stung.
"We should get to business," he told Draco.
Draco grunted. "Yes. Right. Go on – tell me why I'm here."
"Well, from the way the dragon was gliding in," said Ron, throwing a final pertrubed look toward the departing couple, "it looked like was trying to burrow itself into the earth. We figured that there might be something underground – something these dragons have been trying to get at. There have been others, you know – in the area."
"So it is buried treasure!" said Draco, grinning despite himself. "Well, don't keep us waiting, Weasley. Do lead the way."
"You're the boss," said Ron, rising, and flicking away the dog end of his cigarette. "You're supposed to take the lead."
"I just did. And I gave you an order, underling."
Draco tapped his nails against his elbows, and tapped his foot on the ground, one eyebrow raised expectantly in a condescending manner. Ron suppressed his immediate urge to knock out a few of the man's perfect teeth. He rolled his shoulders lazily.
"Yeah, right. You're the boss. I guess you wouldn't want to dirty up that pretty shirt of yours, anyway."
"Exactly. That's why I didn't greet you with a big hug, like our melodramatic counterparts."
Draco blinked. Ron kicked up a cloud of dirt, pivoted on his heel, and made off in the direction of the cave. There'd been no anger in Ron's voice, though – just a resigned acceptance, perhaps a touch of impatience. Draco bared his teeth at Ron's back. He was used to getting a better reaction to his taunts.
At the rim of the cave's mouth Ron squatted on his haunches and peered down into the blackness below. It was too dark to make out what lay directly beneath him, but that was a problem soon rectified.
"Lumos," he whispered, drawing his wand. A stream of light beamed down into the cavern, illuminating the solid edges of the rock. The split of the opening descended to a hollow tunnel – Ron squinted – an artery running beneath the earth's crust. The ground was flat, the walls straight; Ron was certain that the cave had been man-made, carved into the black granite like a smugglers escape route.
"A six foot drop, wouldn't you say?" Draco said, behind him, gauging the distance over Ron's shoulder.
Ron didn't look up. Swinging his legs over the sill of the rock, his wand grasped in one hand, he began to lower himself by degrees. When he'd inched his body half-way in, he let go with his hands, dropping to a crouch on the smooth tunnel floor. His eyes darted left, darted right – attempting to discern any sudden danger within the area. There was no movement, only the solid black rock panning out before and behind him, worming its way deeper into the ground.
He looked up. Draco's face was an inverted silhouette against the night sky, whiteness against the dark.
"Coming down, fearless leader?" Ron quipped.
"How far is it?" Draco sounded tentative.
"Not far. It's easy. Jump and I'll catch you." Ron stuck his wand into his back pocket, and lifted his arms up – the gesture performed with more generosity than he felt.
Draco's nervousness was plain on his pale features. He chewed his lip worriedly, then hung one leg over the edge.
"Are you sure?"
"Sure of what?"
Draco said, meekly, "Sure that it's safe."
"Safe?" Ron glanced about again. "Oh, I don't know about that. Right now I'm standing on live coals in a snake infested pit with you-know-who poking his wand at me. Of course it's bloody safe – I wouldn't be here to help you if it wasn't."
"Fine," Draco snapped. "Make fun of me."
He jumped before he'd finished speaking, catching Ron by surprise. Ron only just managed to grab Draco before he hit the ground, and the man's weight unbalanced him. He managed to hold Draco upright for perhaps a second or two before they both fell – Draco on top, Ron underneath, his shoulders and backside smacking painfully onto the hard stone.
Draco yelped a little – a high pitched, canine sound. Ron merely grunted, all the wind gasped from his lungs. His head hurt, suddenly, and he wondered if he had hit it, too. He raised a hand to his forehead, but it came away unbloodied.
Trying to raise himself from the ground, he discovered that Draco was clinging to his chest, the man's fingers clawed into Ron's shirt.
"You said you'd catch me." Draco was almost stammering.
"I broke your fall," said Ron, dryly. "Be thankful for that, atleast."
He pried Draco's hands from his lapels – and then had to bodily lift Draco when the man made no sign he intended to climb off. The firm touch snapped Draco out of whatever spell he was in – he whined, slapped Ron's hands away, and then shot to his feet as if he'd been bitten by something. He jittered there unsteadily, frazzled with shock and adrenalin, before subsiding to a more relaxed posture.
"Well," he said – rather too loudly. "That was an adventure."
Ron didn't know what to reply. He'd never seen Draco so neurotic before – at least not visibly so. It embarrassed him, to an extent, and he busied himself by pretending to check the walls of the tunnel to make sure they were solid. But from the way he could feel Draco's grey eyes boring into the back of his head, he didn't think he was fooling either his boss or himself.
Draco wanted to head East, and Ron wanted to head West. In the end they flipped a coin, which landed in Draco's favour. They went East, with Draco bringing up the rear. Draco whistled as he walked, trailing his fingers absently along the walls, occasionally kicking a rock ahead of him – seeming quite oblivious to the fact that there might be ahead of them a very real and present danger.
Ron chose not to comment – he was getting very good at keeping his mouth shut, these days, and he had to admit it made his life a lot easier. He ambled along at an easy gait, concentrating on the job at hand – he was wondering if he shouldn't have owled Charlie before they left. If there was anyone who knew why dragons decided to suddenly plummet from the sky, it would be Charlie.
Behind him, Draco was struggling very hard not to burst into childish giggles. It hadn't been the fall itself that had shocked Draco into his state of breif, nervous distress – he wasn't afraid of hieghts, by any means. Draco had had his own share of broomstick mishaps, and he'd crawled away from most of them without a wince or a whimper.
Draco's shirt-clinging surprise had been caused by something far more – voyeuristic. When he'd fallen onto Ron's body, Draco had discovered the flat of his stomach pressed up against something it wasn't supposed to be. And there, in the clawing and dimly lit aftermath of his ungainly descent, Draco learnt a little too much about that certain something, information that he certainly didn't need to know.
Ron Weasley was hung like a centaur.
Really, Draco thought with a smirk, it was enough to make anyone want to hang on.
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