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Ron was able to negotiate a truce with the wand once he discovered the wand didn't like falling into tea. After that, the wand was docile enough for him to get a positive identification on it. If it wasn't Pansy's wand, it was a brilliant copy. The question was what to do with it. Her statement had arrived while he was at Malfoy's, so the case was officially closed. But he still had a grouchy old wand and a feeling of profound dissatisfaction.

His gut told him that Pansy had come to the Aurors because she had nowhere else to turn. Her father's intervention suggested that he knew what she'd done and was trying to protect her. The only clue he had to her motives was the transparent attempt to implicate Malfoy. Given their history, was she trying to set him up? If so, she was a piss-poor criminal mastermind. Malfoy's eagerness to get rid of the thing hadn't been feigned, and in a he-said-she-said case, she wouldn't have a chance against him.

But the timing of the attack, not three hours after the elder Parkinson had tried to close the case, was suspicious, even more so considering Malfoy's collection of wands had been targeted. Ron was willing to bet that nothing had been taken because the thief was looking for Pansy's wand.

He needed to talk to her. Though getting anything resembling the truth out of Pansy was a long shot, it was possible that the assailant would eventually follow the wand back to her.

He pulled out a blank sheet of parchment and began to write.

Chiquita-

As grand as it is not to have to see your ugly mug on official business, successfully closing your case has made my head swell. Since you're the best person I know for deflating egos, meet me in the back of the sandwich shop across the street from Mable's at one-thirty. Since you're always telling me how poor I am, you can buy me lunch.

-W

Her reply came twenty minutes later.

Sod off, Weasel. And make it two.

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Ron expected Pansy to show up late, but he arrived fifteen minutes early anyway. The shop was clean and cosy, but its lighting was low, and its windows always appeared slightly dingy, which is why he'd chosen the place. Even if anybody spotted her coming in, they wouldn't be able to watch her without being inside the shop, and Ron would see him or her first.

She was late, but only by about five minutes, and the moment she stepped through the door, Ron forgot all about the time. She wasn't wearing her usual light wool and stupid little hat. Today's robes were ruby red and made of something that glided like liquid over her hips and pooled around her slim ankles. The robes had a dramatic collar that stood up around the neckline, which emphasised her perfect collarbones before drawing the eye downward in a dramatic plunge between small, firm breasts. Her carriage was so regal she might have been stepping into a ballroom on the arm of a king. For the first time in his life, he began to see what Draco Malfoy might have seen in Pansy Parkinson all those years ago.

What the hell was she playing at?

She caught his eye, and she must have seen part of his reaction, because she gave him a snotty smirk. She'd clearly made an effort to look like a million Galleons, and she knew that she'd succeeded.

"Hot date?" asked Ron as she glided to the table and slid gracefully into the seat opposite his.

She gave him an appraising look. "Not remotely. It's my new robe from Mable's. It turned out so well that I told her I'd wear it home. Isn't it darling?"

Darling wasn't the word Ron would have used. "It's a bit fancy for lunch, isn't it?" he said, casting a nonverbal Muffliato.

"We're not here for lunch, are we, Weasel?" she asked, propping her elbows on the table and leaning forward in a conspiratorial manner that also created a tantalising bit of cleavage.

Ron fought to keep his eyes focused on hers. She had pretty eyebrows. It was really too bad about the rest of her face. "We're here to talk about your habit of lying to me."

"That sounds utterly dull," she said, gazing at him from beneath lowered eyelashes. "I can think of much more fun things to talk about."

Ron was dismayed to find that even though he was aware of her flirtatious machinations, they were still working. "All right then," he said, his voice far huskier than he intended it to be. "Let's talk about wands."

"Is that all you men think about?" she asked with mock indignation.

"Your wand was never stolen," he said. "You gave it to Draco Malfoy four days before reporting it missing. Why?"

She took a sip from her water glass. "Because he's studying wands. Surely you know knew that already."

Ron scowled at her. "I mean, why did you report it missing? At first I thought it was to get Malfoy in trouble with the law, but even you wouldn't be that thick."

"Did you find anything interesting at Malfoy's?" she asked, in the sort of voice one might use to inquire about the weather.

"Yeah, he'd been left unconscious and his research partner left for dead. Whatever it is you're involved with, Parkinson, it hasn't turned out well for those who've got mixed up in it. I'd just as soon know what it's all about before I find myself on the wrong end of a super-powerful wand."

"Research partner, is that what they're calling it nowadays? You say she's in hospital? I didn't think Granger would like it rough like that. It's not for everyone, you know," she said lightly, but with an artful, smouldering sideways glance at Ron.

Ron's blood was thundering in his ears. "You cold-blooded bitch. If I find out you had anything to do with that-"

"You'll wring my scrawny neck?" she asked, eyes lit with amusement. "Or just simply kill me? Spare me the hard-nosed Enforcer with a heart of gold routine. It's boring," said Parkinson crisply. "I've been under house arrest for the past few days. This is the first time I've been allowed out, so can we skip the death threats and get back to the dangerous flirtation?"

Ron had no idea how to respond to this. "You're disgusting, Parkinson."

"It's lucky for me that you're accustomed to living in squalor then," she said. "Now, did you bring it with you?"

Ron had been waiting for her to deny that she'd given the wand to Malfoy or reiterate the claim that the wand had been in her handbag the whole time. He'd planned to withdraw the wand casually from his pocket and say something suave and witty like, "Oh, you mean this isn't your wand? I suppose I'll have to keep it, then." However, all he could bring himself to say was, "Whuh?"

"Good," she said, with a nod of satisfaction. "I'd hate to do this without a motive."

Ron's hand tightened around his own wand, which had been aimed at her beneath the table from the moment she'd sat down. "Do what?"

"For Circe's sake, Weasel, you don't solve cases often, do you?"

With that, she rose to her feet, slid into the seat next to him, and proceeded to lean in so close that he could smell her. Her face was inches from his. He could feel her dark brown eyes scrutinising his face, and her hand rose to stroke the side of his face.

Ron shuddered and backed as far away from her as he could, which wasn't far. She had literally backed him into a corner. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Parkinson?" he asked. He was dismayed that his voice cracked on the first syllable of her name.

"What the hell do you think I'm doing, Weasel?" she asked sliding forward until her face was close to his. A wicked smile lifted the edges of her lips, and her eyes were sparkling. She looked dangerously in control of the situation, and Ron's heart was racing.

"Forget it, Parkinson," he said. "It won't work."

"Won't it?" she asked. She punctuated her question by darting her tongue between her lips to wet them. The gesture was redundant. Ron couldn't have wanted to devour her mouth any more than he already did.

"Oh, part of it will work," said Ron, with more bravado than he felt. "You'll get the wand back, but I wouldn't have brought it if I wasn't planning to give it back."

She hummed in satisfaction, and lowered her head to his neck. Gooseflesh rippled across his arms and chest as her warm breath hit the edge of his collar.

"But no matter what you do, my loyalty will always be to the law. I won't protect you if you had anything to do with the attack on Malfoy and Hermione."

"Don't be an idiot, Weasel," she said, nipping his neck impatiently, making him jump. "I'm not doing this to get any special favours from you. I'm doing it for three reasons. One," she said, laving her hot tongue over the tender bit of flesh she'd just bitten, "I want to. You're not much to look at and hopeless at polite conversation, but you get my blood up, and I've had to frig myself senseless after every meeting I've had with you."

"Fuck, Parkinson," gasped Ron, imagining her nude and writhing with his name on her lips. His arousal, which had made itself plain from the moment he saw her in the red robe, was becoming painful.

"Two," she said loosening his tie, "You did the job, and you did it discreetly, and I'm glad. I thought you'd like this better than a tin of biscuits."

She attached her mouth to his neck, and he shoved his fists into the hard leather of the bench, his hips thrusting upwards of their own accord. His mind was screaming at him that she couldn't be trusted, and finally the words made it all the way to his lips.

"Of course I'm not to be trusted," she said, meeting his scowl with one of her own. "But I'm not asking you to trust me, I'm asking you to tie me up, spank my arse, and shag me in every orifice that interests you until neither of us has any voice left to scream."

It wasn't until later that Ron realised she'd never told him her third reason.

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Ron awoke several hours later to nature's call, and Parkinson was gone. He groaned and stumbled to his feet. His bad leg was throbbing, as were numerous muscle groups that hadn't been exercised so strenuously in, well, ever. He relieved himself in the dingy toilet of their rented room and gingerly bent to retrieve his clothes, which made a surprisingly neat trail between the door and the bed.

On one hand, he was alive, his wand and wallet were both in his robe where he'd left them, and he'd just had the most incredible shag, or shags, of his life. For all that his head told him that it was bizarre that any woman would want to be thrown around and taken with all appearance of force, his exhausted little mate still twitched his interest at the thought of doing it again.

On the other hand, it occurred to him that he ought to be feeling something about what had just occurred. But he felt nothing. Well, perhaps not nothing, he thought as he adjusted his still-interested cock. And he was certainly more than a bit confused.

He pulled on his pants and trousers and searched for the rest of his belongings. His watch had rolled underneath the nightstand and was nestled in an impressive layer of dust. His Auror badge was wedged between the headboard and the mattress, and he buffed it against his trousers leg to rid it of the worst of the smudging it had acquired during their interlude. Ron wondered if he'd ever be able to look at it again the same way. He hoped not.

He was digging around under the bed for a missing sock when he heard Harry's voice saying his name. He jerked upright, banging his head on the frame of the bed. He cursed and turned around to find Harry's silver stag standing before him.

"Hermione's awake," it said. "She's asking for you. Come as soon as you can."

Ron stared at the Patronus as it faded into nothingness. The weight of reality, which he had managed to throw off for a few hours, came crashing back down on his shoulders. He grabbed his wand and Accioed the missing sock, which had fallen behind the dressing table, and was about to slip on his shoes when he discovered that Parkinson's wand had fallen into one of them.

Stupid bint, he thought, pulling on his robes and shoving her wand into his pocket. She was never going to get the damned thing back at this rate.

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There was a group of junior Aurors guarding the hallway that led to Hermione's private room, and they nodded at him as he passed. She was lying on the bed with her eyes closed, and Harry was clasping her hand, his head bowed. He looked up when the door opened, his eyes filled with emotion, and he leaped on Ron, holding him tightly.

Harry wasn't normally a physically demonstrative person, even with those he was closest to. Ron wrapped his arms around the smaller man and held him until Harry emitted a shuddering sigh. There was a familiar tutting sound from the bed.

"Boys," said Hermione, her eyes open and lips curved in a tiny smile. Her voice was scratchy, but there was a smile in her eyes.

"All right, Hermione?" asked Ron, walking Harry to the chair next to her bed. It was a sign of his exhaustion that Harry allowed him to do so.

"Getting there," she said, shifting slightly in her bed. "I was out for the worst of it. Harry says things were touch-and-go for a while."

"The head wound looked worse than it was," said Harry. "It was the curse to the back that we didn't see that nearly got her."

"Fucking coward," said Ron, disgusted. "Did you see who it was?"

She closed her eyes. "I don't remember. I was probably Obliviated."

"Malfoy was Confunded," said Harry. "But he wasn't hurt nearly as badly as you were."

"Well, that's one thing we know about the attacker," said Hermione. "He or she knew things that nobody was supposed to know."

Harry blinked at her in confusion. "I don't follow."

Hermione cleared he throat, and Ron poured her a glass of water from the jug on the sideboard. She smiled gratefully at him and drank. "The attacker knew that I was the one with the knowledge, not Draco."

"Well, it's only common sense, isn't it?" said Ron. "Malfoy hasn't a fifth of your brains."

"Draco's not stupid," said Harry. "I wouldn't have suggested Hermione work with him, otherwise."

"What? YOU told Hermione to get friendly with the Ferret?"

"He didn't tell me to get friendly with Draco," said Hermione, with an annoyed look. "If you'd read the note I sent you, you'd know that."

"Oh, so you started boffing him of your own accord due to his natural charm and good looks," said Ron angrily.

Harry and Hermione exchanged a confused look that would have struck Ron as very funny if not for the subject at hand. However, Hermione's befuddlement quickly turned into red-faced fury.

"You utter, utter prat!" she shouted. "I don't know what's more insulting, that you thought I'd sleep with Draco under orders from someone else or that you thought Harry would ask something like that of me. I am an academic researcher, you gormless muppet, not some scrubby excuse for a paperback-novel female spy!"

Harry laid a hand on Hermione's shoulder. "Hang on, Hermione," said Harry, meeting Ron's eyes. "Hermione isn't sleeping with Draco," he said firmly. "I am. That's how I found out Draco was researching wand lore, and I suggested he take Hermione on as a research partner."

Ron's bad leg wobbled, and this time there was nothing to prevent him from crashing to the floor. He barely felt it. "Are you taking the piss?" he asked, not bothering to try to stand up.

Harry looked torn between amusement and concern. "No, Ron. It's been me and Draco for a while now."

"You might have told me to sit down first," complained Ron, pulling himself stiffly to his feet. Harry conjured another chair for Ron to sit in, and he gestured for them to move closer to Hermione's bed, where he cast Muffliato.

"Right," said Harry, "so it's like this. Draco's been working on wand lore for years. He hasn't told me much about it, but I've suspected for some time that he's not just studying wands. I think he's searching for a specific wand."

"It shouldn't have come as a surprise that he was interested in it," said Hermione, "given that he was there in the Great Hall when Harry revealed that Draco was the Wand of Destiny's true master at one point. But there were some things he couldn't work out about the wand's historical record. He has an unparalleled collection of ancient and unique books in the family library that other wand scholars haven't had access to, and he wanted a second opinion on what he'd concluded. He asked Harry if he knew any good researchers, and Harry suggested me."

"The only thing I do feel a bit bad about is that I did ask Hermione to report to me," said Harry, "but I suspect he knows that."

"Hang on," said Ron. "You mean to say that your boyfriend knows you asked one of your best friends to spy on his research, and he's all right with that?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "It's a trust thing. Draco gets two things out of it: lots of laughs with yours truly, and a first-rate researcher, even if he doesn't trust her entirely. And I get lots of laughs with Draco and expert assurances that he's not trying to take over the world, which means that I can sleep with both eyes shut."

"And I'm getting access to books that the Ollivanders and the Gregorovitches would give their entire inventories to read," said Hermione. "It's safe to say that Draco and I now know more about the Elder Wand's history than anybody else, even Harry. It's fascinating; it's the Holy Grail of the Wizarding World."

"The holey what?" asked Ron.

Hermione made an exasperated noise. "Never mind. The point is that I think I've been able to steer Draco away from the question of where the Elder Wand is today. That's where Hallows madmen like Xenophilius Lovegood have come in handy. Draco isn't looking at the known historical record any longer, he's chasing after some secret society devoted to keeping the Elder Wand hidden by covering it with different woods or some such nonsense."

Ron froze. "What?"

Hermione glanced at his stricken expression and laughed. "It sounds like a grand idea, doesn't it?" She asked. "But it's all nonsense. For one, it's completely incompatible with the historical record. Gregorovitch the wandmaker had it, Grindewald took it from Gregorovitch, Dumbledore got it when he defeated Grindewald, and so on. Besides, you've seen the Elder Wand. There's only one, and it's sleeping with Albus Dumbledore."

Ron swallowed hard. He hated to talk to Hermione about anything remotely academic, but there were too many coincidences, and Ron didn't really believe in coincidences to begin with.

"Did you come across anything saying how Gregorovitch became master of the Elder Wand?" asked Ron.

"That's one of the questions Draco is very interested in," said Hermione. "If I believed there was a conspiracy to hide the Elder Wand, that's exactly where I'd start, too."

Ron swallowed and did his best to keep his voice light. "So Malfoy reckons Gregorovitch just borrowed it to study for a bit and wasn't really its true master?"

Harry was smiling. "Well, Gregorovitch was trying to duplicate the Elder Wand. Ollivander told us that much. A good number of the wands Draco's collected are Gregorovitch creations from around the time that Grindewald supposedly stole the Elder Wand from him, and they're really powerful. I knocked the dining room chandelier down doing a simple Wingardium Leviosa once."

Hermione was starting to look less amused. "There is no way that any true master of the Elder Wand would lend it out to a wandmaker to copy. Having multiple Elder Wands out there would fundamentally diminish its intrinsic value as the most powerful wand in existence."

"Unless one of the members had plans for all the Elder Wands," said Ron, imagining Geoffrey Parkinson arming all his Aurors with unbeatable wands. "Or maybe Gregorovitch was part of the secret society and was trying to draw attention away from them by-"

"Just stop it," snapped Hermione, irritably. "I have to listen to this doggerel every day from Draco. The last thing I need is you getting caught up in Elder Wand lore, too. It's bad enough that somebody out there believes in it enough to attack us. The fact is that unless Gregorovitch managed to create a copy of the Elder Wand powerful enough to fool three of the most powerful wizards of all time into believing it to be genuine, it's simply not possible."

Ron's eyes widened. He thrust his hand into his pocket where his wand and Pansy's wand were lying side by side. His fingers closed around the cherry wand and up his arm rolled warmth so sweet and so seductive that it was as if she were there next to him, whispering into his ear. He felt strong. Powerful. Unbeatable.

"Oh God," he whispered. Harry and Hermione were looking at him with concerned looks on their faces. "I need to go," he said.

Harry seemed to sense something was wrong. "Do you need anything, mate?"

"No," said Ron, absently. "I just need to – toilet. I need the toilet. And then, home. Thanks for calling, Harry. Glad you're all right, Hermione."

Harry didn't look convinced. "I can call the Mediwizard if you're not feeling well," he said. "Is it your leg?"

"No, no. M'fine," said Ron, stumbling out of the room. "See you."

He could see Harry standing in the doorway of Hermione's room and made a beeline for the nearest gents' room. He locked the exterior door and pulled the wand from his robe pocket. It didn't appear any different than it had when Draco had pulled it from underneath the urn, but it practically vibrated with untapped potential now. He suspected he now understood Pansy Parkinson's third reason for wanting a rough shag.

There had to be a way to know for certain if this was the wand. Harry had used the Elder Wand to repair his own wand when nothing else could do it. If it had been a copy and Pansy's was the real Elder Wand, then he should test it on something even more complex, and what could be more complex than an unknown curse on a human being? Ron dropped his trousers and aimed Pansy's wand at the livid mark on his leg that was only just starting to turn black again after his recent treatment. He whispered the most powerful healing spell he knew.

There was a white-hot knife of pain, and Ron collapsed onto the toilet behind him, hissing in agony. He forced himself to watch, and to his amazement, the blackened skin turned red, and the red skin around it returned to the colour of healthy flesh. The pain had not lessened, and to his horror, the skin of his leg opened up, and a miasma of black steam was released into the air, where it dissipated almost immediately. After that came the familiar feeling of knitting skin, and Ron stared as the wound closed, leaving an unblemished area of skin that gave no sign it had been the site of a mystery curse that had left him unable to do his job for over a year.

He rose to his feet, keenly aware that he didn't need to push himself up using the walls of the stall. He balanced experimentally on the leg, bent his knee, and lowered himself as far as balance allowed. There was no pain. He was completely healed.

He gave a loud sniffle and wiped away the tears that had suddenly appeared in his eyes. It was over. He could play one-on-one Quidditch with Rosie again. He could return to active duty. He could fuck Parkinson up against the wall for getting him involved in this mess until she begged for his forgiveness.

But all that would have to wait. He had to find out what it was all about. Why had she given him this gift, and what did she expect in return?

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To his surprise, the Parkinsons had a human butler. Or at least, Ron assumed he was the butler, since he answered the door and showed Ron into a well-appointed parlour. However, the man's enormous size and array of scars spoke of another profession entirely. Ron kept his hand in his pocket the whole time. There were paintings of various historical Parkinsons, though sadly not Geoffrey. He would have enjoyed asking the portrait a few questions.

He was squinting at one of the female portraits whose subject's collarbone Pansy seemed to have inherited when the door behind him opened. He spun around suddenly and was surprised to find not Pansy, but her father, whose brow was covered with a large white bandage. When Ron saw the bandage a cold feeling settled in his stomach, and he gripped the wand in his pocket tightly.

"Weasley," he said, in the same tone of voice with which someone might say "Spattergroit." "What are you doing in my house?"

"Mr. Parkinson," he said politely, "I'm sorry to bother you at home, but I wanted to speak to your daughter."

"Pansy is indisposed. You can deliver any messages to me and I will see that she gets them."

"That's nice of you, sir," said Ron. "Especially when you're clearly not feeling so well yourself. What happened to your head?"

"The message, Weasley," said Reginald, ignoring the question. "I haven't got all day."

Ron's patience was beginning to wear thin. "That forehead of yours looks awfully serious," he said. "I don't know many curses that leave long-lasting traces. Aurors know a few healing tricks. Mind if I have a look?" he asked, stepping closer to Reginald..

Reginald's wand was in his hand in a flash. Ron reflexively drew his wand as well. A strangled gasp from Reginald told Ron that his instincts had betrayed him. Parkinson's eyes were fixed on the pale cherry wand Ron held in his grasp.

"You-" he began, but paused to collect himself. "That wand does not belong to you," he said simply. "I think you know very well that it belongs to my daughter."

"Really? Last I heard, your daughter had found her wand in a handbag," said Ron, pleased that his prepared taunting wouldn't have to go to waste after all.

"Don't play games with me, Weasley," said Reginald. "You have no idea what you are dealing with."

Ron snapped the wand at him, and thick snakes of black rope burst from the tip, binding Reginald from head to foot.

"I think I have a pretty good idea," said Ron. He walked over to Reginald, whose face was turning purple with fury. Ron reached down to the bandage, but before he could detach it there was a loud crash from the hallway and the sound of raised voices.

Leaving Reginald trussed tight as a turkey, Ron ran out of the parlour and found Pansy and the butler shooting curses at one another.

Ron had to admit that Pansy was acquitting herself well, neatly blocking the bald man's curses. "About time you got here, Weasel," shouted Pansy, who knocked a particularly nasty curse aside with a wave of her wand. It went sizzling into a painting, whose subject fled shouting into the next frame. "You want to make yourself useful?"

Ron aimed Pansy's wand at the bald man and disarmed him without a word. It was as if the wand knew what curse to send out even before he did.

Pansy wasted no time in Stunning him, and Ron tied him up for good measure. They stood there panting with exertion for a moment before Pansy turned a crooked smile on him. "You like the wand, then?"

Ron glared at her. "You might have warned me."

"I couldn't," she said. "They don't let you become its master without taking an Unbreakable Vow of obedience and silence on the subject of the Elder Wand for as long as you're master. That's why I had to go about it in such a roundabout way. I needed someone to discover the true wand, but my vow prevented me from revealing it directly. I hoped Draco would recognise it for what it was, but in case he didn't, I hoped that Potter would. It didn't matter, as long as the wand passed to someone who wouldn't abuse it. You were nearly as good, and, in retrospect, much more fun."

There was a loud thump from the parlour. "You took care of Daddy, right?"

"He's all tied up at the moment," said Ron nonchalantly, grateful to Pansy for providing him with such a perfect straight line.

She looked down her nose at him. "This is serious, Weasel," she said, pushing open the parlour door slowly.

To Ron's dismay, Reginald Parkinson was no longer tied up on the floor. Instead, he was standing behind a shield of shimmering magic with a wand in each hand. Ron and Pansy shot curses at him, but even Ron's supercharged Stunner bounced harmlessly off the shield.

"Pansy," said Reginald. "This is no place for you. Return to your room at once."

"No," said Pansy with fierce triumph. "Not this time."

Reginald stared at his daughter in disbelief. "Did you fail to hear me?" he asked shrilly. "By the force of your vow, by my right as previous wielder, I order you to leave this room!"

"The vow isn't in effect any longer, Dad. I've had enough of this. It's time to end it, once and for all. Weasel, break the wand in half."

"What?" shouted Reginald, his eyes blazing.

"What?" echoed Ron, who felt an unexpected surge of anger at her words.

She stared at him in disbelief. "It's rotten to the core, Weasel," she said. "It'll take over your life. You'll never be safe if you keep it. He'll never let you rest," she jerked her head at her father, who was still hiding behind the magical shield.

Ron glared at her. How dare she give him the means to distinguish himself, the means to come out from under Harry Potter's shadow, and then expect him to give it up?

He heard a loud laugh. "You've failed," exclaimed Reginald to his daughter. "You knew you must. The wand does not give up its chosen so easily."

"The wand didn't choose him," retorted Pansy furiously. "I did. Come on, Weasel," she urged. "You know the stories. Do you want to end up with a knife in your back?"

"Do you want to toil forever in obscurity?" countered Reginald. "I can help you. We can protect you from those who would take it from you. We'll keep you safe and make you the most powerful wizard of your age."

Visions of glory swam in his mind's eye. An enormous house, a beautiful new wife and half a dozen young children cavorting at his feet, a case full of awards and honours, the fastest broomstick, dozens of people crowded around him and laughing at a joke he'd told, and respect in the eyes of those around him. It nearly took his breath away in its perfection. And that's how he knew it was all a lie.

He tossed the wand at Reginald, who kept his shield intact long enough for the wand to bounce off it and go rolling across the floor. Pansy shrieked in frustration and rage. "What the hell are you doing, Weasel?" she yelled, running after it. "Don't you know he's going to-"

But before she could finish her sentence, Reginald had dispelled his shield and cast Accio. The cherry wand went sailing across the room into his outstretched hand. With a roar of triumph, he silenced his daughter with a quick slash of his wand, and she crumpled to the floor with a cry of pain.

"You simple-minded fool," said Reginald, almost conversationally. "You don't have any idea what you've just given up, do you?"

"The Elder Wand? The Deathstick? The Wand of Destiny?" said Ron, pulling his unicorn hair wand from his pocket. "Yeah, I know what it is. That's why I don't want anything to do with it. I'm not particularly keen to hire a bodyguard for the rest of my life and still die a violent death."

"Sorry to disappoint you," said Reginald, aiming the wand at him, "but it's not a choice you'll have to make."

"Don't be an idiot," said Ron. "You know who the master is now. You know the wand won't work against me. You know how Voldemort copped it in the end."

"It's been in my family for centuries," whispered Reginald, stroking the length of the wand as if it were a pet snake. "Riddle was a fluke, an upstart who had no right to wield even the finest replica made of this wand. The true wand is ours by right of birth. It could no more turn on me than-"

"Than your daughter could?" interrupted Pansy. Ron was horrified to see blood running freely from a wound in her side. Despite this, she had pulled herself to her feet and propped herself against a sofa. "Go ahead and do it," she said, tauntingly.

"Every tree has branches that need pruning," said Reginald coldly. "And I've had quite enough of this." He aimed his wand at Ron, who felt an extraordinary sense of déjà vu. He knew what came next.

It was as if he was moving through water. The cherry wand slashed the air and a green beam came shooting out of it just as Ron sent a bright red Expelliarmus at Reginald. Reginald died with a look of utter confusion on his face.

Ron didn't bother to check to see if Reginald was really dead. He ran to Pansy, who had slid down against the side of the sofa, leaving bloody streaks behind.

"Merlin on a unicycle, Parkinson," he exclaimed, pointing the wand at her and casting a wordless healing spell. "You couldn't just stay down, could you?"

She gasped as her wounds healed, and disbelieving, she undid the lower buttons of her shirt. The skin had closed completely, leaving no trace of the gaping wound other than the blood that stained her clothing. She looked up at him with fury and frustration.

"You feeble-minded, clay-brained, half-witted blockhead!" she cried, heaving herself to her feet. "I got you the first shot, and you wasted it! Some people don't deserve fair-mindedness. Have you any idea how many people he's killed to protect that wand?"

"Did you know before you agreed to be its master?"

"I became its master the same year Draco Malfoy joined the Dark Lord," she said coldly. "Suffice to say, neither of us had any idea what we were getting into. We were children, Weasel. Stupid, naïve, clueless children. I've been looking for a way out ever since."

Ron didn't say anything but turned to where Reginald lay. He bent and grasped the edge of the bandage with his fingertips. The bandage was sticky but came up easily enough. Beneath it he found what he suspected he would: Reginald's forehead was covered in purple pustules that spelled out the word "MURDERER."

He sank to his knees and held the cherry wand out over the body. Despite its thickness, it wasn't terribly difficult to snap. He looked at the splintered cross section and could make out the pale layer of elder wood. To his surprise, there didn't appear to be any core, simply an empty place where something had once resided. He was vaguely aware that Pansy had joined him at her father's side. She traced her finger over the purple lines of the M.

"I'm sorry about your dad, Parkinson," he said at last. He was surprised the words came out almost in a normal way.

She took one of the broken halves from him and broke it in half again for good measure. "Me too."

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The trouble with having the Department of Mysteries involved was that yet again, Ron's wasn't the face plastered all over the front page of the Prophet. Ron understood why. Harry's was the most recognisable face on the force, and even power-mad secret societies would think twice before attacking him. Still, it was bloody annoying to go to lunch with his best friend and constantly be interrupted by well-wishers thanking him for dealing with Reginald Parkinson, whom nobody seemed to have liked.

Hermione and Draco, of course, had been told the uncensored truth, and Hermione, who was nearly well enough to be discharged from St. Mungo's, beamed at him. Ron was pleased, but he was surprised that her regard didn't make him burn with pride the way he expected it to. Draco's disappointment was bitter, despite the fact that he'd been right and Hermione had been wrong, because yet again he'd had the Elder Wand in his grasp and let it slip through his fingers. Harry assured Draco that he wasn't particularly keen to date the master of the Elder Wand, since it would likely preclude their spending many happy years together. Ron only gagged a little.

Reginald Parkinson's funeral was a private affair, and for all that Pansy kept up appearances admirably, Ron knew she wouldn't want to be alone afterwards. She seemed genuinely grateful for the invitation to spend the night at Ron's flat, and made the bare minimum of snotty comments about the state of the place before falling asleep on his sofa for a few hours.

After a dinner of take-away and a few traded insults that led to kissing, Ron gently disentangled himself from Pansy's embrace.

"Parkinson, we can't just keep doing this," he said sadly.

"Don't be stupid, Weasel. Of course we can," she said, seizing his hands and placing them firmly on her breasts.

"I'm being serious," he said, pulling his hands away and doing his best to ignore the way his body was responding.

"So am I," she said, pulling off her shirt huffily and reaching to unclasp her claret-coloured bra. He seized her hand.

"Will you just stop for a minute?" he said, raising his voice. "I need to work some things out, all right?"

"It's very simple, Weasel," she said, doing something extraordinary with her shoulders that allowed her to wriggle out of her bra. It made her breasts bobble in a very distracting way. "For the first time since the Dark Lord's fall, our lives aren't awful. Can't we leave it at that and take that healed leg for a test run?"

"You don't understand," he said shortly. "It's not supposed to be like this."

"Like what?" she exclaimed. "Taking the piss out of one another and fucking like rabbits afterwards? Circe, Weasel, isn't this better than anything else you thought you wanted?"

"Of course it is!" exclaimed Ron, whose face was getting red. "But is it all a big joke for you, Parkinson?"

"Hang on, Weasel, slow down," she said, placing a soft hand on the side of his face. "Sure, it's a bit of a laugh, but Merlin, aren't we of all people entitled to some laughs? I haven't a clue if this is for keeps because it's way too early to say. I might wake up one day and freak from finding ginger pubes in my sheets. Maybe it'll turn out that regularly defusing the sexual tension between us is going to keep it from building up in a satisfactory way. Hell, you might decide tomorrow that you've had enough of me and find someone with huge tits who wants to have your babies. All I can say for certain is that I want very much to be with you, so if you're done, I'd really like to have your cock in me right now."

If there was one thing that his years of marriage to Hermione had been good for, it was the ability to follow orders in bed. Not for nothing did Pansy send her a Christmas card every year from that day forwards.

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THE END

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Author's Note: Enormous thanks to Mr. 42, my beloved beta-reader, whose excellent work helps me sleep better at night, and to Lifeasanamazon, whose extraordinary eyes and Britpicking skills made this story stronger and funnier, as well as more British-sounding. Love and a twenty-one gun salute to the exchange moderators for making this fest and this story possible!

Title Note: The title "Thin Purple Line" is a combination of the Thin Blue Line, which refers to the brotherhood of police (used by some synonymously with police corruption), and the Thin Red Line, which was a famous military action by the 93rd Highland Regiment during the Crimean War's Battle of Balaclava, from which the former term derives. Since the Aurors perform the role of both military and police in the Magical world, I felt it fitting that they should have a line of their own halfway between pejorative, as Pansy uses it and admiring, as Ron does.