The high security cell block was empty of visitors at this time of night. Harry nodded curtly at the night guards, who both saluted respectfully and ushered him in. He strode through the corridors, looking neither left nor right at the cells he passed.
The quiet was eerie. Most of the prisoners were asleep, but Harry would swear he could feel their burning hatred as a tangible presence, pressing in around him. Then he shook himself mentally. It wasn't like him to be spooked by shadowed cells and the silence of the night. He was a wizard and an Auror, for God's sake. He did most of his work in the dark.
The prisoner he had come here tonight to speak to was just around the corner, and he found his steps slowing in reluctance. He made himself speed up, irritated at his own melodrama. He was an Auror, the leader of the Order of the Phoenix. He did not flinch from hard tasks.
He stopped in front of the cell and looked in. Most of it was shadowed, the only light coming from the lantern hanging on the corridor corner. Harry couldn't see the prisoner, but he knew he was awake and there.
Neither of them moved. After a moment, Harry smiled humourlessly and sank to the ground, leaning on the cell bars.
The silence stretched on. Finally the prisoner emerged from the shadows and also sank down to lean on the other side of the bars. He was still taller and broader than Harry, and his dark red hair fell across a strong boned face. A man, where the last time they had met he had still been a boy.
"Hello, Ron," Harry said, and his voice rang oddly in the oppressive silence. Ron watched him in silence, his gaze unreadable. Harry waited.
Eventually Ron leant his head back on the stone cell wall and said, his voice a little croaky from disuse, "I thought you would come tonight."
Harry inclined his head. "I take it you've been told."
"Oh yes," Ron said. His fists clenched. "You treat your prisoners well. Food, water, advance notice of their death… What more could a man want?"
Harry ignored the sarcasm. "Have you heard how?" he asked, looking straight at him, and saw the honest puzzlement on Ron's face.
"What do you mean, how? I thought you lot used the Veil? Unless you've changed policy and decided to torture me to death…" his voice turned low and mocking at the end, and once again Harry felt a sharp pang of sorrow that it had come to this.
"You're to be hung publicly," he said quietly, and saw the blood drain from Ron's face. "A spectacle, to impress on the populace the consequences of treachery." His lip curled despite himself.
"Did you approve?" Ron asked suddenly, fiercely, lunging forward to grab the bars. Harry didn't flinch.
"I approve of the principle," he evaded, and knew that Ron would understand the implication. Treachery be damned, he and Ron had lived in each other's pockets for eight years, and Harry still knew him better than he knew himself.
Ron released the bars and slumped backwards, laughing hollowly, a bitter sound that did make Harry flinch.
The silence was once more absolute.
Finally Ron lifted his eyes in a mocking tone that belied the dull despair in his eyes, "Come to gloat, then? Or perhaps to help me escape?"
Harry dropped his eyes. They both knew that wasn't an option. They had chosen their sides. As the war span headlong to what Harry was beginning to think would be a catastrophic conclusion, no matter who won, there was no room for second thoughts.
Instead, he reached into his robes, and removed a small glass vial, filled with a pale blue liquid. He set it down on the floor by the bars.
Ron stared at it, then looked up at Harry sharply. "Don't toy with me, Potter," he said harshly, and was gathering himself to rise when Harry reached out and grabbed his hand.
"Grace," Harry said, rough and bitter. "I offer you grace. That is all I can do, and more than I should."
Ron bit his lip hard, still torn between sitting and standing, then slowly sat back down. Harry released his hand sharply, suddenly conscious of its warm life beneath his palm.
"It's quick and painless," he said, though he knew Ron already knew from his days with the Order. It was the potion they carried for if ever they were captured. It was the potion they used to give grace to mortally injured comrades.
"In return for what?" Ron asked, and his voice trembled minutely. "I assure you, I have told your interrogators everything I've ever known. I have nothing more to offer."
"For nothing," Harry said. Ron gave him a cool, disbelieving look.
"Nothing comes for nothing," he said harshly, and in the arrogant tilt of his head Harry saw for the first time tonight the man who had killed and tortured in cold blood. Anger lit within him, a pale reflection of the murderous rage he had felt three years ago when Ron had first turned traitor, but still enough to warm him against the cold air.
"Then, you bastard," he said slowly and deliberately, "for the sake of the eight years of friendship that you sold for a bag of gold."
Ron stared down at the harmless-looking liquid. "Not for gold," he said, his defiance abruptly collapsing. "Not for gold. For power greater than I could imagine. Gold is only worth that which it buys, but power is an end in itself."
"A quote? Who said that?" Harry asked with disgust, and Ron grimaced.
"Don't ask. You won't like the answer."
Harry considered it, and decided Ron was right. He heaved himself to his feet and stood looking down at him. He hesitated, then asked, "Would you have done the same for me? If the tables had been turned?"
Ron didn't look up, but didn't hesitate either. "You know I would."
Harry stared at down at the bent head, the Weasley hair, and after a moment turned away. He had started to walk when Ron called out,
"I did love you, you know." Harry stopped but didn't turn, and Ron continued, his voice sounding old and sad. "That wasn't a lie. I loved you better than any of my brothers, better even than I loved Hermione." Harry bowed his head, and Ron said, his voice very quiet, "Just, in the end, not well enough."
They stayed there in silence as the minutes stretched on. Eventually Harry heard the sound of glass clinking, the sound of a vial being opened.
"I know," he whispered, and raised his head and walked away.