Ron had noticed pretty early on that Harry's home life wasn't all that great. Even as a mostly-clueless eleven-year-old, the fact that Harry was so short and skinny had registered as a problem. Also, Harry had never gone home for the holidays, which had encouraged Ron to stick around Hogwarts instead of spending it at the Burrow with his mum and whichever brothers were in the country at the time.
There wasn't an awful lot Ron could do to help fix any of that, though. His mum had seemed to brush off his concerns in first year, and while she'd taken Fred and George's warnings more seriously in second year she still hadn't done what Ron really wanted her to do—like invite Harry to come live with them, or adopt him or something. Living with his best mate would have been wicked.
So he did what he could with what he had. He made sure to drag Harry to breakfast every morning, and had figured out pretty quick that if he stuffed his plate with lots and lots of food Harry was more likely to do more than just nibble on things. It had given him a bit of a stomachache for a few months before he'd gotten used to the huge portions, but it had been worth it in order to make sure Harry ate at least one real meal a day.
He'd also noticed that Harry tended to stress out whenever Hermione nagged him about classwork or studying, and it wasn't like it was a hardship to drag him away to play chess or exploding snap or something. He'd make sure to keep Harry distracted until he calmed down enough to respond to Hermione in some way other than unthinking compliance, which is what tended to happen if Ron let her unintentionally walk all over him.
For the famous Boy-Who-Lived, Harry could be a bloody doormat sometimes.
Ron had had some awful big rows with Hermione about that—about how you couldn't just order Harry to do things because he'd do them. Of course, his mouth didn't always say what his brain was thinking and Ron wasn't sure he'd ever really gotten the point across how he wanted it.
He knew he wasn't the greatest friend out there. He got jealous a lot, because he was so used to having to scrape and claw his way towards the slightest hint of recognition and having his best mate just have things handed to him without having to work at it burned. Ron had grown up in the shadows of a dragon tamer, a curse-breaker, a model student, and the twins who—while huge menaces—were bloody brilliant inventors and potioneers. And then there was Ginny, who as the first female Weasley child in generations was practically perfect in every way.
The whole Tri-wizard Tournament thing still made him burn with shame whenever he thought about it. He'd been a right prat about that whole thing, and he was amazed that Harry had forgiven him so easily about it. Ron had vowed he'd be a better friend after that, and take better care of Harry in the meantime because—honest to Merlin—Ron couldn't leave Harry alone for two bloody minutes before he was in some new life-threatening situation.
So when Harry's letter had arrived at the Burrow with barely-hidden concerns about some sort of 'ritual' Dumbledore was going to be doing, Ron hadn't brushed it off like he might have a few years ago. He'd confronted his dad about it (because while his mum was a veritable fortress at keeping secrets, his dad tended to fold like a house of cards when pushed), and been reassured that the ritual wasn't going to drain Harry of his lifeforce or magic (that concern had earned him a bemused sort of grin).
But how was Ron supposed to know? He wasn't book-smart like Hermione, and didn't have an almost instinctual grasp on his own magic like Harry seemed to have. Things never went right whenever Harry was involved, and this time he wouldn't even be there to make sure he'd be all right.
He had been almost vibrating in impatience as his dad began bustling them towards the floo, desperately hoping that Hermione (who, with her parents off in Australia not knowing they had a kid at all, could do whatever she wanted) had been enough to keep Harry safe on her own.
When they finally got to Grimmauld Place, Ron had peeled off from the gaggle of Weasleys and went in search of his mate. He ignored Ginny's excited babbling—he'd learned to tune out her 'future Mrs. Potter' speeches a while ago because it was getting creepy—and the twin cracks of Fred and George blatantly defying mum's orders not to apparate in the house. He was on a mission, by Merlin.
Now, unless Ron was mistaken, Harry was probably holed up in Sirius's old room where no one would bother him. Hopefully staying in there wasn't wigging him out too much. If it had been Ron, he certainly wouldn't be staying in the childhood room of his deceased godfather. But Harry was made of sterner stuff than Ron most days. He'd probably be fine.
Ron knocked on Sirius's door, having learned his lesson about barging in when he'd accidentally caught Hermione changing clothes once and got a hex to the face as a reward.
"Harry, mate? You in there?" Ron called through the door.
The door opened under his knuckles and Ron felt his thoughts come to a screeching halt.
There was a… person at the door that was not Harry, but… was Harry? Ron squinted. The Not-Harry was really, really super pale. Like, dead-body levels of pale. Almost grey. Also, that was a lot of very sharp teeth in that grin. And, was Not-Harry's hair moving? Was it on fire?
Ron leaves Harry alone for less than a month and he goes and transforms into some sort of really tall creepy skeleton bloke. Ron took a bracing breath. Well. He'd just have to learn to live with Harry's new… everything, he guessed. He'd have to double up on his meals though, because it looked like Harry had managed to lose every single bit of fat he'd ever had in his entire life.
"Ron?" came Harry's voice from behind the super tall Harry in the doorway. Ron squinted again. What? What?
"What?" Ron said aloud, confused. "Harry?"
"In here, Ron," came Harry's voice again, from definitely within the room and not from the Creepy Harry in the doorway. Ron peered at Creepy Harry dubiously, frowning. Creepy Harry's creepy grin widened unnaturally, baring a lot of really creepy fangs.
"…Harry?" Ron asked the Creepy Harry in the doorway, feeling oddly certain that this was Harry, but that there might also be another Harry inside the room that he couldn't see.
"In the flesh," said Creepy Harry in a voice that by bloody Merlin was creepier than any voice had any right to be. It was all rasping and hoarse and amused and echoed oddly. It was super weird, is what he was trying to say.
"You're hilarious," came Maybe-Harry's deadpan voice from inside the room. "Let him in already."
Creepy Harry grinned creepily and stepped back and aside, leaving the doorway unobstructed. Ron kept squinting dubiously at Creepy Harry, trying to work out what in the world that ritual had done to his best mate even as he cautiously headed inside.
Ron turned to look and spotted Harry sitting at a desk with a weird silver bowl on it, looking ordinary and not-creepified. With another glance at Creepy Harry, Ron trotted over to the Harry he recognized.
"Mate," Ron started, staring into the weird silver bowl and its weird swirling white things, "what did that ritual bloody do to you?"
Harry blinked owlishly at him. "What are you talking about?"
Ron stared at his best mate, unimpressed. "Harry, there are two of you."
Harry's eyes widened dramatically, and his gaze whipped over to Creepy Harry as if he hadn't noticed him before. "You recognized him?"
"You're my best mate," Ron pointed out, nonplussed. Did Harry think he wouldn't have recognized him, even in creepy form?
Harry's expressions were doing something very unusual. Creepy Harry strolled around the desk and draped himself over Harry's shoulders where he sat in his chair, baring his teeth at Ron in what he felt was more of a dare than a smile. Ron's head hurt.
"This one is more perceptive than the Red Mortal I was once acquainted with," Creepy Harry told Harry, seeming to find everything hilarious.
Ron, making a leap of logic that usually found him wanting to plant fists into Malfoy's face, decided 'red mortal' was him. Eh. It wasn't the worst thing he'd ever been called, and beat Weasel by a bloody mile.
"Sure," Ron agreed absently, wanting to move the conversation along to how in the bloody buggering hell Harry had managed to split himself in two without anyone else in the Order being at all concerned. "Does Hermione know about… this?" He waved a hand at where Creepy Harry was apparently turning into liquid and melting all over poor Harry.
Ron squinted again. No… no, Creepy Harry really was turning into liquid, dripping a bit at the edges. Neither of them seemed to be bothered about that, though, so Ron didn't mention it. Maybe it was one of those things you knew but weren't supposed to talk about, like how girls got barmy a few days a month. Ron had tried to bring it up once with Ginny and gotten kicked in the bludgers for his trouble.
Lesson learned, Gin-Gin.
"…she's aware," came Harry's awkward response. Ron squinted harder. It wasn't a Harry-lie, but it was bloody close to one which meant Harry was hiding things again. When Harry hid things, they were generally Big Deals, like dementors or basilisks or Dark Lords reborn.
"Mate, you've got yourself melting all over you. If 'Mione knew about it she'd be here."
Hopefully, as a bloke, Harry wouldn't go right for the bollocks like some people he knew.
He might be just a bit sore about that, still.
Harry frowned irritably and rolled his shoulder a bit, and Creepy Harry seemed to sigh resignedly (it sounded like the sort of noise a crup might make if stepped on and deflated) before he was abruptly not-liquid again and standing upright several feet away without having to actually move there. Ron considered this and then decided to ignore it. Creepy Harry was Not His Business. Harry was Ron's business, and Ron was going to make sure he was fine and then he was going to walk away like he should have done every time his mate stumbled headfirst into a dangerous situation.
Oh Ron would stick around if things were really dangerous, but Harry had killed basilisks and faced off against a hundred dementors and stared V-Voldemort in the bloody face. He was, at this point, way more equipped to deal with Creepy Harry than Ron was.
"You aren't gonna kick it, are ya mate?" Ron asked with typical Weasley bluntness. He could be subtle if he really tried, but he just didn't see the point of walking circles around things when you could just say it instead. It took so much less effort and was a lot less prone to creating unfortunate misunderstandings.
Creepy Harry's head swung on some sort of axis to face Ron (he was pretty sure heads and necks weren't supposed to be able to do that) and grinned that bloody creepy grin again, this time with a thousand percent more teeth.
"Fear not, Red Mortal. The only Death that shall touch upon my shell is me." And then Creepy-Harry laughed as if he'd just told a really great joke, except his laugh sounded kinda like a screaming woman being strangled, crossed with the crunching of rat bones underfoot.
It was pretty weird, is what he's saying. Harry seemed to be ignoring the laugh altogether, so Ron tried to follow suit. If Harry wasn't concerned that his double was absolutely barmy, Ron would try not to worry about it either. Worrying about things tended to lead to fights, and the last thing Ron wanted to do was fight with Harry about Creepy Harry while Creepy Harry was literally standing two feet away.
He had tact, Gred, Forge, thank-you-very-much.
"So what's with the bowl?" Ron threw out there, feeling uncomfortable in the silence after Creepy Harry had laughed and Harry hadn't reacted visibly.
Harry scowled, looking genuinely angry, which gave Ron quite a shock. He could count on one hand the times Harry had been legitimately angry at something, and have fingers left over. Sure, Harry got upset a lot, and moody sometimes, but he didn't really get angry at things. But when he did… bloody hell. Ron braced for the worst. Maybe the bowl was cursed? Maybe the bowl was the reason Harry had a creepy double? Maybe the bowl had split Harry in half!
Ron was about ready to fire a reducto at the bowl, consequences be damned, when Harry spoke up in a voice Ron had never heard his mate use before.
"Do you trust me, Ron?" Harry, his best mate, asked. He was staring straight at Ron, with an expression that was graver than anything Ron had seen outside his dad talking about the last war.
And then the question registered. Did he… did he trust Harry? What kind of bloody stupid question was that?! Of course he trusted Harry! Bollocks, he'd learned the hard way what not trusting Harry led to and had no desire to make that particular mistake again. Ron opened his mouth to tell Harry how ridiculous he was being when he caught sight of Creepy Harry's face.
There was something… wrong about the expression Creepy Harry was wearing. It actually took Ron a second to realize it was because Creepy Harry wasn't grinning. He wasn't even smiling. Oh, and his eyes were black now. And not like how Snape's eyes were black, but how the night sky above the Burrow was black when the stars were hidden by clouds.
Creepy Harry tilted his head, birdlike, and one of his eyelids ticked. He looked… really pissed off, actually. Like the sort of pissed off that led to someone kicking him in the bollocks, only multiplied by about a million.
So Ron thought about Harry's question seriously. Did he trust Harry? He tried to think of something Harry could have to say that Ron wouldn't trust him about. Maybe… maybe Harry had decided to join V-Voldemort? He paled starkly, freckles standing out in sharp relief, but swallowed past the lump in his throat. Well… Harry was—Harry had been through an awful lot, yeah? And… he'd surely have a good reason? Or, or maybe Harry had decided to marry Snape? Which was almost worse than joining V-Voldemort, but Ron could… Ron could deal. It'd be bloody difficult, and he'd probably never be friends with the git, but he could deal. He could.
So he took a steadying breath and nodded once, firmly. Ron trusted Harry. That was that.
Harry peered searchingly at him for a long moment, before tension just seemed to bleed off of him. He smiled tiredly, looking bloody exhausted, before he pulled the silver bowl into his lap and stared at the white things in it for a second.
"This is a pensieve," Harry began haltingly. He flicked his eyes up to Ron, back to the bowl, and back to Ron a few times. "It shows people's memories."
"Wicked," Ron breathed. Cor, that sounded pretty awesome. But that wasn't really something that would make Harry question Ron's loyalty, so he bit back on some Hermione-grade questions and waited impatiently.
"This one has memories from… from my parents."
…oh. Ron grimaced. That was… not quite as awesome. Still amazing, but also awful.
"In one of them, Dumbledore admits to knowing Sirius was innocent."
Ron furrowed his brows. That was… well. That was not good. He was getting a sinking feeling that he knew where this was going, and suddenly Harry's earlier question made a hell of a lot more sense.
"And… earlier, Dumbledore told me he knew how the—the Dursleys treated me, but that I was just exaggerating how bad things were."
Ron scowled outright at that. Harry did not bloody exaggerate things! It was a bit of a thing to try and swallow that Professor Dumbledore was… was implicit in the way Harry had been so bloody small in first year.
Do you trust me, Ron?
Ron took a deep breath and nodded jerkily for Harry to go on. He had the feeling it was only going to get worse.
"…there was a piece of Voldemort's soul in my scar, and Dumbledore knew about it."
He blanched. V-Voldemort's soul? Ron didn't know an awful lot about magic theory (that was Hermione's thing), but he knew about Black Magic. Soul Magic. It was a horrible, horrible perversion of all that was natural. In retrospect, it wasn't that much of a stretch to imagine V-Voldemort messing around with it. But… in Harry's scar? Ron glanced up at his mate's forehead, and saw the scar was a thin silver line instead of the angry red gash it usually was. Ron prayed to bloody Merlin that meant the… the soul was gone.
"As long as the soul in my scar existed, Voldemort was immortal. And the only way to destroy a horcrux—that's what the soul bits are called—is to destroy the container it's in." And then Harry sat back and waited.
Ron blinked, trying to parse out why Harry had stopped so suddenly. Horcrux in scar, Dumbledore knows, destroy the container—
He could literally feel his thought process grind to a screeching halt. If Harry had a, a horcrux in his scar that the headmaster knew about, then presumably the headmaster also knew that the only way to destroy one was to get rid of the container. But, if Harry had been the container, and the only way to kill Voldemort was to destroy the container… did that mean Dumbledore was going to kill Harry?
Ron didn't know how Dumbledore had planned to accomplish that, exactly, but it didn't bloody matter. If Harry was telling the truth, that meant Dumbledore had either actively planned to murder Harry at some point, or he was going to try and get him killed some other wa—
The philosopher's stone in first year, Ron realized with dawning horror. The basilisk in second. The bloody dementors! The Tri-Wizard Tournament! Bloody buggering hell Dumbledore had been trying to do Harry in since he was eleven!
Ron lurched forward and shoved the bowl back onto the desk, ignoring the way it splashed about, and hauled Harry up out of his chair. He ignored Harry's yelp of shock, and began patting him down immediately, fretful. What if Harry was hurt? What if Harry was being all cagey because Dumbledore had tried again and Harry didn't know if he could trust Ron to take his side? Bugger it all, what if Harry was trying to be all noble and self-sacrificing again and trying to protect Ron from the truth? That Dumbledore was a bloody murderer who was just waiting for Harry to let his bloody guard down?!
"Are you all right?" Ron bellowed at Harry from a distance of approximately two inches. "He hasn't hurt you has he?! I'll kill him! Well, well I'll! I'll hex him into next week at least!" Ron knew he wasn't actually going to be able to kill Dumbledore—he wasn't an idiot—but he could probably get one or two good licks in before the shock wore off and he got creamed. Ron began shaking Harry at the shoulders. "Do I need to—I'll get the twins. They can—they'll help! Surely! And, and Hermione! She'll know what to do! We need to—!"
"Ron!" Harry shouted over his increasingly frantic yelling, grabbing onto his wrists and forcibly pulling his white-knuckled hands off his shoulders to stop the shaking. "Ron, I'm fine," he continued more calmly when Ron quieted down a bit to listen. "The horcrux is gone. Death took care of it. We have a plan. Calm down."
Ron took several deep breaths to try and steady his racing heart. Bloody hell, that had been intense. He hadn't been this wound up since the twins had put a fake acromantula in his bed that one time. Harry was smiling oddly at him, and Ron had just enough brainpower left to recognize that smile. It was the one Harry wore when something surprised him, pleasantly so. Like when a housemate congratulated him for something not Boy-Who-Lived related, or when Ron or 'Mione got him a birthday present or something for Christmas.
Then Ron frowned. "Wait. 'Death' took care of it? Harry… Harry did you…" he lowered his voice to a shrill whisper, "die?"
Harry grinned sheepishly even as Creepy Harry (who had been watching with that creepy grin as Ron freaked out) cackled loudly at his back. "You might want to sit down, Ron," Harry said pleasantly, seeming far less serious or anxious now that he knew Ron believed him. "It's… it's a bit of a story."
"It's to die for, mortal. Truly," Creepy Harry added with a laugh that sounded like rocks grinding together in a large echoing room.
Ron looked between them, the weird copy of his best mate and Harry, the boy he'd fought a troll with when he was eleven.
Do you trust me, Ron?
Bloody hell, but he did. He did. So Ron squinted, took a deep breath, and sat down to listen.
A/N: Your Friendly Neighborhood Hyliian is now gainfully employed and therefore has almost zero free time, but fear not! She is determined to drag this thing out until the End of Days! Or, at least until the Marvel-verse fully absorbs me into its clutches and drags me, kicking and screaming, away from the Potterverse.
I have way, WAY too many little stories about the Winter Soldier now. It's becoming a bit of a problem.