Title: Liar's Mask
Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.
Pairings: Harry/Draco, Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione, Draco/Astoria
Warnings: Infidelity, angst, violence. Epilogue-compliant.
Summary: Ron is the one who goes through Harry's private possessions after his death, because that's what a best friend should do. And what he finds shakes his belief in Harry to the foundations.
Author's Notes: Some parts of this fic are in letter form, and it is highly angsty, with deliberate infidelity.
Ron stepped, at last, into Harry's study.
The walls were painted a dusky red that would have reminded Ron of the Gryffindor common room a few weeks ago and now only reminded him of Harry's exposed heart in the center of his chest. Who would have thought a Blasting Curse could be used that way, to tear open someone's flesh and—
Ron didn't have to finish the thought, it had worn itself so deeply into his mind. Hermione said that the more often you thought and did certain things, the more attached you became to them, and they literally carved pathways in your brain, so that it was easier to think and do them again. Ron had never more than half-believed her until this month since Harry's murder.
He stood in the doorway, hands braced against the frame, and looked around slowly. There were shelves everywhere, books on tracking and stealth and disguises and famous cases that Harry had bought during Auror training and never got rid of. Ron shook his head with a smile that wouldn't come. That was Harry, all right, stolid all the way through and not much interested in anything outside his family and his friends and his career.
His desk sat in the center of things, pointed right at a large window, so Harry could look out and watch his children playing in the garden. The lattice on the window still shimmered softly with wards and charms. Ron nodded. That made sense. After all that assassination attempts—
And the one that got through—
Again, Ron let the thought trail off, because it was so busy carving a pathway for itself that it might as well spill along it, and then he turned and reached for the desk. The top was still scattered with paper, but not as much as it had been all the times that Ron had come to visit Harry here. By now, a month after his death, all the files for cases he'd been working on had been turned over to others, and Ginny had taken the photographs of the children, the madly waving one of his parents with baby Harry, their wedding picture.
Ron stacked up the inscrutable notes on cases Harry had left, and the doodles of people who all looked like Umbridge. There were a few half-written letters, too, and some old Daily Prophets. Ron shook his head when he noticed that Harry had cut out Rita Skeeter's name from the articles she'd written, but not the articles themselves. Apparently he'd been keeping these for clues on the criminals he was hunting or just for information purposes.
Ron waved his wand to put the piles of notes off to the sides and then hesitated, looking at the drawers. He could go through them much faster with charms. Just a few whisks and a few chants, and they would all be done and neat, near the door, and he could leave. For that matter, he could have cleared the desk that way, too.
But he had gone through the papers on the desk slowly, with his hands, for a reason, and he wanted to do the same with the drawers. He put his wand on the newly-cleaned and shining cherry surface, and opened the top drawer.
It turned out to be filled with sweets. Ron stared, then snickered. Ginny had told Harry not to keep those in the kitchen because they would tempt the children, but there was no reason to stop Harry from hiding them in his private sanctum.
Off to the right was a package of sherbet lemons. Ron reached down, wanting one in celebration of Harry and Dumbledore and because the sting of sour candy on his lips would give him something else to think about.
His hand rebounded. Ron blinked, then tried to reach them again. He was imagining things. Not surprising, with all the sleepless nights since Harry's death.
No. There was a ward around the packet of sherbet lemons, one that kept stinging Ron as he touched it. He leaned back on the chair, Harry's old seat with its Muggle swivel and thick, dusty red cushion, and shook his head. Were the ants or the sneaking little hands that might reach into the drawer that persistent?
However, it ought to be a simple matter to disperse the ward. Ron didn't really have to, but damn it, he wanted a sherbet lemon. It was a new thought in the middle of all the clustering old ones, a new path.
"Finite Incantatem," he said, and tapped his wand towards the ward without touching it.
The ward spat, and shimmered, and grew. Now an iron bowl enclosed the sherbet lemons from sight, and Ron could feel stronger magic behind the sleek metal surface. He shivered. Harry had used some common Auror spells in here, too, it seemed; the sensation of watching eyes pried at the back of Ron's neck.
"Seeing things," Ron said, and cast the Finite again.
The iron bowl firmed, the sheen of the metal growing to the point that Ron had to shield his eyes and look away. And the glow on the bowl was echoed, he noticed now, from several other points in the room, as though shimmering flakes of dust clung to the books and the shelves, and grew brighter in sympathy with the ward he was disturbing.
Ron took a deep breath. You shouldn't disturb the secrets of the dead, went one old pathway through his mind. It was one reason he had never pressed Harry to tell him everything about Dumbledore's past and motives.
But there were things missing from the documents and Harry's personal possessions, said the thought that was a month old, and it would soothe Ginny and the children to have them. Ron took a step back and closed his eyes for a second.
He could call up more magical strength, when he wanted to. It was just that it took time, so it wasn't much use in the cut-and-take of battle, and as he grew older and out of some of the more dangerous Auror fieldwork, there was less need for it than ever before. Hermione knew, because she knew everything, but she mostly liked watching him cast complex spells she'd told him about from old books.
Ron breathed steadily now, feeling the magic that would ordinarily power three or four spells rise up in him, like a heat shimmer from pavement. Then he aimed his wand at the iron bowl and hissed, "Finite Incantatem, fucker."
The ward blew apart, making Ron stagger and have to slap out a minor fire on the drawer's rim. Other wards chattered now, from the direction of the shelves. Ron smiled as he murmured the incantation for Muffliato and dimmed the sounds by the hissing in his own ears. At least Harry had made sure that no one could sneak in here and sneak out again undetected even if they managed to break the ward.
All his caution hadn't been enough to save him, in the end.
Ron swallowed back the queasy feeling rising up his throat and reached down to scoop up the packet of sherbet lemons that the cracking of the ward had revealed. Except that his fingers met paper, and he stared as the last shreds of magic fell from his eyes and he realized that some of them had maintained an illusion.
There was a small, thick pile of letters behind the ward, wrapped with a pale green ribbon that Ron thought had faded from some richer color. He picked them up and turned them around. No names were visible, but Ron could make out some of the letters through the paper. Someone had pressed the ink into the parchment with vicious scratches.
He sat down on the chair, wondering as he went if he should look at them. These might be love letters from Harry to Ginny, or the other way around. It made sense that Harry would keep them, sentimental old thing that he was.
But the ribbon and the scratches of ink he could see made Ron's fingers twitch. It didn't seem like a great idea to him to show these letters to Ginny until he was sure what they were. He slid the top one out from under the ribbon and unfolded it. The writing, firm and dark though it was, was easy enough to read.
You can't possibly think that I'm going to consent to anything like that? We've talked and talked about this, if you remember. Your "plan" for me to abandon my family and join you is as stupid as any other that you've ever come up with.
Think with your big head and not your little one. When I used to propose that kind of thing, you would laugh at me and point out, rightly, that I was stupid to even be thinking of it. What changed your mind?
Ron sat there with the letter for a long time after he finished reading it. His fingers rested on the parchment below the second paragraph, and all he could do was read the sentences over and over again, while indignation rose like scalding water inside him.
Harry had written to a bloke.
And it sounded as though it was a bloke he had been prepared to abandon Ginny and the kids for, at one point in time.
Ron closed his eyes and sat there while new thoughts cut through the old ones. It wasn't as much of a relief as he had hoped it would be a little while ago, when he would have given a lot for something to distract him from his grief. These new thoughts made him rethink the past, but not the old memories that had comforted him so much during the last month, the thoughts of Hogwarts and the way he and Harry had been Aurors together, and the times when he had watched Harry play with Lily and run with Al on his shoulders and talk snakes with Jamie, the only one of his children who had inherited his Parseltongue.
That past was false. That past was a lie.
No, it's not, Ron thought stubbornly a moment later, when he became aware of how his mind was tending. No, it's not, just because Harry wrote to someone else. These letters look really old. And how did he get all of them, if he sent them to someone else? He must have asked for them back, and that means he got angry and embarrassed at himself and took them back and rededicated himself to Ginny and their marriage.
That thought lay in Ron's mind, glittering and bright as a silver knife, for only a few moments before it tarnished. So, if Harry had got the letters back so his unknown correspondent wouldn't use them against him, and he regretted their existence, why hadn't he destroyed them? Why keep them under a powerful ward?
Why not confess everything to Ginny, make a clean breast of it? The man Ron thought he knew would have.
Maybe he did. Maybe these letters would be old news to her.
Ron opened his eyes, and shivered. The flecks of light on the bookshelves had died, and Ron didn't think he could find them again. Besides, maybe they were only meant as part of the ward, and didn't signify anything more than that.
Hoping harder than he had since the end of the war, Ron stood up and left the study, tucking the letters under his cloak. He was going to show them to Hermione, and then she would study them and give him a wise answer that would explain everything that was troubling him, and everything would be all right again.
Ron waited until he heard Hermione's breathing go soft and quiet beside him, and then he stood up, cast a Lumos that he shielded with his hand cupped around the end of his wand, and made his stealthy way out of their bedroom and into his own study, where he had put the letters.
Ron had never thought he'd want an office outside the Ministry, but the library in their house was Hermione's place, dominated by books bristling with folded sheets of paper and notes pinned to the covers with abbreviations such as Check H. C.! and What about dragons' eyes? Ron couldn't work there. And they no longer had Rose and Hugo with them and running shrieking up and down the stairs all the time. It was possible to find quiet in the house. Ron had chosen to take over a room that Hermione had used as storage for extra books.
His chair was more comfortable than Harry's, his desk smaller, his bookshelves less expensive. Ron sat down and picked up the upside-down bowl on his desktop. The nice thing about marrying someone who was so much less interested in cooking than his mum was that she didn't notice when the dishes were carried out of the kitchen, either. And of course they didn't have house-elves to do it for them.
Ron played with the bowl for a second, and wondered why he hadn't chosen a ward like Harry's. But that was a new thought that died under the claws of an old one. Because he couldn't bear to keep anything from Hermione after fifteen years of marriage, not really, and if she had come into the room, noticed the bowl, and turned it over, then the secret would be out and the decision made—the one he couldn't make after all.
"I haven't made it yet," Ron whispered, and undid the ribbon, letting the letters fall apart. Even then, the creases and the folds were crisp enough that they mostly stayed together. Ron wondered if there was any significance to the order, and unfolded two of them to peer at their tops. They weren't dated. Maybe Harry had just put them in the order he'd received them.
And then Ron sat there some more, because he wasn't twelve anymore and wouldn't jump down the entrance to the legendary Chamber of Secrets if it opened in front of him. And this silent pile of letters scared him more than the Chamber ever had.
It doesn't destroy him. It doesn't make him evil. It just means there's a shadow to the face he showed me and his family and Hermione and all the rest of them. Another side.
That, he had to admit, reassured him only a little. Harry had always seemed so sharp and clear-cut, in full sunshine, without shadows. Since the war, he didn't even lie to the press. He just refused to talk about things that he didn't want to talk about, and they were the ones who spun the rumors out of fine air.
Ron wondered, now, why he'd never thought it was weird that Harry didn't cast shadows. Everyone had them. Him and his jealousy of his brothers and the way he had left Harry and Hermione during the war, which they never talked about, even though he knew Hermione had forgiven him for it long ago. The way Hermione had Memory Charmed her parents; their relationship with her was never right again after that, even though she had managed to find them and give their memories back.
But not Harry. He always shone.
But the brightest light cast the deepest shadows.
Ron spent several minutes trying to remember which of Hermione's books he'd read that in, and then gave up and unfolded the second letter in the pile, the one right beneath Harry's that talked about how stupid the other person was.
And he found confirmation right away, confirmation that shattered the neat mirror of Harry's life into a thousand shivering pieces.
Dearest, stupidest Potter,
You can't imagine that I'd ask you to abandon. The very word has a tinge of the musty about it, a tinge of that mad old house with my mad old ancestors that you spend so much time complaining about.
There is no reason and no right to abandon them. But I have the reason and the right to ask for more than you are giving me. You know what I agreed to, and you know how you and not I changed the agreement. I do demand that you pay back what you have taken from me.
Or does a Gryffindor not pay his debts?
Ron sat there, and only shock, he knew, had prevented him from closing his fingers so that they crumpled and tore the letter he held.
What? What? What?
The words echoed down the corridors of his mind, and found no answer. This was a completely new thought, yes. So new it made Ron sick, as he sat there and tried to contemplate how Harry could have been—fucking, or at least writing like he was fucking, Draco Malfoy.
I'm jumping to conclusions, though. Maybe it was some negotiation to try and get Malfoy back to the light, gone wrong.
That made little sense when Ron thought about it, though, because for the last twenty-two years, Malfoy had been boringly respectable. Ron had to use the memories of the blood feud and how poorly Malfoy's ancestors had treated his to keep his old hatred alive and warn his kids away from Malfoy's. It didn't help that apparently Scorpius and Rose had a friendly rivalry over marks and Scorpius had helped Lily through her first year, the past year.
So why was he writing to him?
Ron decided, slowly, that it still couldn't be what he thought. Harry had his shadows, sure, and maybe he was better at keeping them out of sight than Ron had thought, but what he wasn't was a good liar. If he was cheating on Ginny, then the truth would have come out eventually.
And Ginny would have left him, and his children might have felt betrayed enough never to see him again. They would have been bitter and angry beyond words. I don't even want to think what it would have done to our family.
Ron shook his head and turned the first letter over to look at it again. Was that one of the things Harry had meant? He couldn't abandon his family by telling them the truth? So he was going to keep it secret no matter what Malfoy wanted him to do?
But that only led back to the question of how he had managed to keep it secret. Ron just didn't think it was in Harry.
Maybe Malfoy had threatened him. The reference to debts in his letter made Ron wonder if Malfoy had started the correspondence in the first place by asking for it as payment. Harry owed him a life-debt from the war, and owed Mrs. Malfoy one. Malfoy could have encroached on Harry's life in that way, and made more and more of a place for himself.
But that ran into another objection, another carved mask of Harry that Ron had hanging up in the corridors of his mind. Harry didn't lie down for anyone, after the war. He could smile and bend if he had to, the way he did to senior Ministry officials, and smile as he refused someone a favor, but he didn't yield to stupid people the way that Ron was imagining him doing to Malfoy. Most of the time, he found something else that the person asking the favor was happy to accept in trade, and they went on their way not even knowing what Harry had gained in return.
Why would he give in to Malfoy, of all people? Ron had asked him once if he thought they could be friends with Malfoy, and Harry had rolled his eyes.
"Someone like him wouldn't accept something like friendship," Harry had said, looking over his shoulder to make sure that their instructors wouldn't hear them. They weren't supposed to be talking about anything but Auror work during this phase of their training. "He would want something more. All or nothing. Probably for us to grovel at his feet."
All or nothing.
Ron looked at the letters, and swallowed.
Then he reached for the next one, the third one, beneath the letter that Malfoy had sent to Harry.
You pitiless wanker,
Don't you think this is the best compromise I can make? If I were really paying my debts, I would have fobbed you off with that promotion you wanted me to get for you once, and fobbed your mother off with a necklace or a pardon for your dad. And you would have done something to pay me back for pulling you from a fire, which, please notice, you have never actually done. And you change the subject whenever I want to discuss it, too.
But the arrangement we have has worked well for years. If you want something more than that, you know what I've invited you to do more than once.
"An arrangement of cheating?" Ron said aloud. "Is that what you thought about it, Harry?"
"Ron? What are you talking about?"
Ron started and turned around. Hermione didn't usually miss him during the night if he left the bed—which he sometimes did, just because the old thoughts were best soothed by Auror training exercises—but now she clung to the doorframe of the library and rubbed sleep from and into her eyes. She was yawning. Ron shoved the letters back together under the bowl and stood up, shielding them from sight.
Well, there's my decision about whether or not to tell Hermione right now made, he thought, and had to shake his head.
"There are some things that I'm discovering about the way Harry gambled with those blokes down at the pub that are disturbing to me," Ron said, surprised by how easily the lie came to him. He wondered if Harry had been better than Ron thought at lies of omission, just not mentioning the subject or turning away from it when someone's conversation could lead there. Ron had to do the opposite, because someone always seemed to overhear him. "I don't—I thought I could handle it better. It's been a month."
Hermione's face softened, and she opened her arms to him. "It's never enough time," she whispered into Ron's ear, as their heads came to rest together and Ron tasted her breath, more familiar to him than his own. "And I'm sure it's nothing too bad. Harry could never do anything too bad."
Ron shut his eyes, and held her, and wished that he still agreed.
The letters went with Ron to work the next day, burning against his side like guilt. He had cast a glamour on the packet so that no one looking at his robe from the outside could notice the square shape, and then had felt stupid enough to keep his wand hovering near the glamour all the way through the Floo trip and the ride up the lift.
But not stupid enough to actually remove it.
Ron sat down at his desk and locked the door with a quick charm. He still didn't have another partner now that Harry was—gone, and anyone who tried to come in and found the door locked would be understanding.
Ron paused as he thought about that. It triggered something else in him, another old thought that fell like an apple from a tree, and he had to wait before he understood what the memory was.
Times the office door was locked when he came back from lunch. He always took a longer lunch than Harry because he would usually meet Hermione and, when they were still at home, Rosie and Hugo, and they'd talk. So when he came back and the door was locked, Ron had assumed Harry was absorbed in a case, or a talk with one of the higher-level Ministry functionaries who only wanted to chat to the Boy-Who-Lived, and go for a walk.
Maybe it wasn't that. Harry had never explained, just nodded when Ron said something about it and murmured that he was grateful to Ron for staying out.
What had been happening there?
Ron glared at the letters. Stupid things. He ought to have burned them the minute he found them, or at least when he realized they weren't from Harry to Ginny. Now he had to go back over his best friend's whole life and wonder what else he had missed, what shadows were hiding there under the grinning mask.
And still he ran into trouble believing it, despite the evidence in parchment and ink. Harry wasn't a good liar. He wasn't someone who would cheat on his wife. He didn't hate his kids. Ron was sure, utterly sure, from the way he had seen Harry watching Ginny when they were at family gatherings, that Harry hadn't been in love with someone else and using Ginny as a convenient substitute.
Which left a whole lot of questions about who they had really buried a month ago.
Ron sighed, and pulled out the letter that, by its position in the pack, should be one from Malfoy. They were obviously in the middle of a conversation, but he was a trained Auror. He should be able to pick up things like what their little references to different events meant.
What's going to give me more trouble than anything else is accepting those clues, not spotting them.
I'm not going to divorce Astoria.
You don't understand. The problems in my marriage aren't the same as the ones in yours. Your wife knows part of you, but not the whole, and would feel betrayed to know you were concealing the rest. My wife simply doesn't care.
We work very well together. We're sexually compatible, we care about some of the same things—enough to have interesting dinner table conversations—and we both adore Scorpius and money. That doesn't mean we have to be passionate lovers. I find it unreasonable that you say I should leave my wife, and then you'll leave yours.
We both know that won't happen. There's only one reason you would leave her, and that would be because you wanted to.
We're edging nearer to that, aren't we? I know the look I saw in your eyes at Closecopse.
Ron sat back. "Closecopse," he whispered. He remembered the name of the tiny wizarding village that was somewhere in Wales, near the Welsh border, he thought, but he knew he and Harry had never investigated a case there. Every village or town or city where they had was marked in his mind with a red stain.
The biggest red stain of all was on the London street off Diagon Alley where Harry had died.
"Why would Harry and Malfoy go to Closecopse?" Ron asked aloud, since he thought better that way, and Hermione wasn't around to overhear him. "It would be easier to stay behind their wards, probably at Malfoy Manor."
Which means I've accepted that Harry was fucking Malfoy.
Ron sighed slowly, in and out, and then shook his head. Maybe he had, but that didn't answer the question. And the letter only confirmed that, yes, it was divorcing Astoria that Harry had hinted Malfoy should do, and that Malfoy was an utter wanker.
Not if Harry was with him.
Ron scrubbed briskly at his face. It was bad enough when Hermione put horrible images of house-elf sex in his head—she was currently fighting for their right to "choose their own mates"—or when Rosie talked cheerfully at the dinner table about the animal dissections she was interested in. Now he was doing it to himself.
But it gave him a tangible term, and Ron found that he couldn't face the other letters right now, not now that he had a clue. Of course he could have gone and asked Malfoy, but that wasn't right. What was he going to say? "How dare you bang my best friend and encourage him to cheat on his wife?"
Because it might have started with repaying a life-debt—but Ron didn't really think so anymore—but Malfoy could never have bound Harry to something like this against Harry's own free will. Ron had that much trust in Harry's strength and the way Harry knew his own mind since the war.
Even if I don't have much trust in anything else, anymore.
Ron appeared with a pop on Closecopse's Apparition point and took a moment to look around. The village was a cluster of ten or twenty houses, all of them built of brick and stone, all of them with sharply-peaked roofs with wards gleaming around them that Ron would have expected to see in the more sensitive areas of Gringotts.
First mystery, then. Ron wandered towards the outskirts of the village as though out to sightsee or admire the scrubby groups of oaks, trying to recall what Malfoy did. Worked in finance or something, he thought. There could have been a mystery near here, an Auror case that prompted everyone to guard their houses, but that was still no reason for Malfoy to come along.
He listened quietly, but could hear only a few conversations, and a sound like sheep bleating. Maybe it really was sheep, for all he knew. Ron had to admit he knew very little about life in wizarding villages this isolated. Ottery St. Catchpole was a lot bigger, and there was no way that you could compare it to something like Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade.
He paused when someone came around the corner of a house and stopped dead at seeing him. The person was a witch with straggling blonde hair that looked as if it had fallen out of a much more elaborate hairstyle and a basket over her arm. She aimed her wand at him as Ron watched.
Ron took a step back and raised a Shield Charm in front of himself. The woman didn't seem to have recognized his Auror robes, which was more confirmation that something had happened here. Or maybe someone dressed in Auror robes had committed a crime.
It had better not have been Harry.
How strange, now, that he had leaped automatically to assuming Harry could, when for so long he would have assumed the opposite.
"Who are you?" the woman asked. She had gone a little more relaxed at the sight of Ron's Shield Charm, maybe just because it was defensive instead of offensive.
"My name is Ron Weasley," Ron said. "Auror," he added after a moment. "My partner was Harry Potter, and—"
He stopped, because the woman had started and stepped back from him, even though her eyes had also lit up. Ron swallowed. "What?" he asked. "Did—did someone come here and hurt you under that name?"
The woman surveyed him for a moment more. Two children peered out of the house behind her, but didn't run towards her, and didn't seem afraid. Ron had already decided that the situation in Closecopse was a lot more complex than he had thought it was.
And then it became more complex still, a tangle of knots that writhed all around Ron and bound him.
"No," the witch said. "But Harry Potter was here, and you weren't his partner."
"It was the blond one. The one who called himself Draco. I never heard Auror Potter call him anything else."
Ron sat over the steaming cup of tea that Margaret Dovecote had been kind enough to make for him, and shook his head. Dovecote sniffed and took the chair across from him, moving carefully. Her whole house was crowded with toys, clothes, sewing baskets, and knickknacks, including some Muggle objects that Ron knew his dad would have loved to get his hands on.
"You don't have to believe me," Dovecote told Ron in a steely voice. "But I know what I saw, and nothing is going to make me lie."
"It's not that I don't believe you," Ron said quietly, and sipped some more tea. It was good, hot, with a taste of oranges. "It's that I didn't know about this. I didn't know anything about this. I was Harry's Auror partner."
Dovecote looked at him, a look that seemed familiar from somewhere in the gallery of masks that Ron had hanging in his mind. A moment later, he did know it. It was the kind of look he could imagine giving Ginny if she had said that she didn't know Harry was cheating on her.
Ron sat up. "No, really," he said. "For years, ever since we started training together. We were best friends. We were never split up, not even when the Ministry wanted us to pair with other people because it would mean we got more experience."
He stopped, suddenly, face flushing as he realized what kinds of things he was babbling to Dovecote. But she had smiled and nodded. "I can believe that," she said. "You should see your face when you mention Auror Potter."
Ron looked away, more than a little embarrassed. "All right," he said. "But—do you know why Malfoy was with him?"
"Draco," Dovecote corrected fussily. "I never heard Auror Potter call him anything but Draco. I don't know he was this Malfoy."
Ron had to smile. Who knew he'd find someone as logical as Hermione in this little place? "All right. Why were they here?" Probably right to begin there, he told himself, in the best tradition of Auror investigative techniques. Just because he wanted most of all to know why Harry and Malfoy were in Closecopse together didn't mean that Dovecote knew, or that he would get all the information he needed if he stuck to those questions.
Dovecote nodded, her face tightening. "We'd had a series of murders around here. The bodies were ravaged as though a werewolf had attacked them, but the attacks kept happening during the new moon, not the full one. And Auror Potter said that even a werewolf who had a lot of animalistic traits, like Fenrir Greyback, wouldn't be able to savage them this badly."
Ron blinked. "You've heard of Fenrir Greyback?" was all he could come up with.
"We do get the wireless, you know," said Dovecote, and looked at him sideways. "We're even connected to the Floo network." She waved one hand at the large stone fireplace that Ron would have said dominated the room, except it was dominated itself by all the wooden carvings of dogs frolicking around the mantle.
Ron muttered an apology and drank his tea.
"So Auror Potter and this Draco came to investigate," Dovecote said. "It happened no more than an hour or two after we alerted the Ministry. They spent most of the time arguing about what kind of creature it could be. Auror Potter was saying that there was no reason it couldn't be a new werewolf—and no, I don't know what he meant by that—and this Draco kept saying that he thought it was something else."
Ron smiled wanly. At least "this Draco" sounded sufficiently disapproving, even if Dovecote wouldn't agree that it was Malfoy.
"They argued for a day and spent a lot of time sleeping outside." Dovecote shuddered a little. "I know, the thing could open doors, but that doesn't mean that it was safe to sleep outside."
Ron, who had seen Harry on several night hunts of more human predators, grunted in response, and thought sleeping hadn't been what he was doing.
"On the third night," Dovecote said, lowering her voice, "it wasn't the new moon, but it was a lot darker than it had been, because there was a big storm that afternoon and the clouds were still around. And I heard Auror Potter scream."
Ron sat up. There hadn't been much that could make Harry scream, not after the war, except that time Al had been hit and injured by a Muggle car. "Could you make out what he was saying?" he asked.
"Not saying anything," Dovecote said firmly. "Just screaming. The kind of scream that a baby does when it's being burned." Her face darkened.
Ron decided not to ask how she knew that. "But how do you know it was Harry who was screaming?" he insisted. "Why not Mal—Draco?"
"Because the screaming was still going on when I heard this Draco's voice rising," Dovecote said simply. "He was chanting a spell I don't know. Then something else started screaming, and the first scream stopped, and I heard them both casting at once. And then all the screams stopped."
Ron exhaled slowly, hard. "Did you see what it was they'd killed?" he asked.
"Something like a wolf, but shorter and uglier than any wolf I ever saw a picture of," Dovecote said promptly. "With this flat, pushed-in muzzle, and long black legs all as long as each other, and—but why should I try to describe it?" she added, and jumped up, pushing some photographs around. She turned at last, just one in her hand, and offered it to Ron.
Ron took it and stared at it in silence. Yes, there was Harry, leaning back with a grin on his face and his arm around Malfoy's shoulders. Ron avoided looking at the Slytherin's smirk and instead focused on the way that Harry looked.
He looked tense, but happy. The way that Ron didn't usually see him look around Ginny and the kids, where he was relaxed. And he looked continually sideways at Malfoy, as if that was an excuse. Ron had to swallow back indignation. Harry could look at Malfoy however he wanted to look, really, especially if Malfoy had saved his life.
But that didn't give him an excuse to cheat on Ginny.
The beast hanging between them looked like the kind of wolf Ron would have assumed was a Halloween costume. The face was flat, like Dovecote said, and the legs so long that they looked ridiculous. It had a ropy tail, too, more like a lion's than a wolf's. Ron touched the photo, and shook his head. He had no idea what it was.
Hermione might know. But asking her would mean that Ron had to admit the existence of the letters to her, and he wasn't ready to do that yet.
"Thank you," he said, handing the picture back to Dovecote. "I suppose you wouldn't lend me…?"
Dovecote just smiled at him, and pointed to the back of the photograph. When Ron turned it over, he saw two signatures. One was Harry's—Harry's darting, sprawling signature, from someone who never gave autographs.
And the other was the same soft, spiky writing that Ron had seen on half the letters that he had read so far.
Draco Malfoy had been hunting Dark beasts with Harry, yes. And he had done it in a way that made Harry happy—when no one else had noticed the intense happiness, or the wound that Harry must have taken, or even that he'd been missing for three days.
And Ron still didn't know why. But this was almost harder to take than anything else. That Harry had been someone else's partner, and someone else's lover, and someone else's friend.
What else were you that we didn't know about, Harry? And why did you feel that you had to keep so much hidden?
Ron barely waited until Hermione snored this time to slip out of bed and make his way to the library. There he sat and stared at the unread letters, while his fingers flexed and tapped behind him, and the quiet clock on the wall whispered the time.
He didn't want to go any further. He didn't want to find out what Harry was hiding from him. Honestly, he didn't.
"But it wasn't just me he was hiding it from," he whispered aloud now, and wondered if that would make a difference to anyone but Ron himself. Well, Hermione would want to know because she wanted to know everything, and Ginny deserved to know—
Does she? Does she, if it's just going to hurt her?
Ron shook his head, frowning. He honestly didn't know.
But he reached for the packet of letters, pushed aside the unbraided ribbon, and began to read the fifth one in the pile. Because he had come this far, and the memories that pulsed inside his head—two sets of memories of Harry, so different that they seemed like memories of two different people—talked in clashing voices over each other.
If no one else ever knew the real Harry, it seemed like Ron would be the one to do so.
What happened at Closecopse is separate from all this. Ginny and I love each other. But I made the bargain with you in good faith. What I won't do is give up everything for you and then find out that you won't do the same for me. It's ridiculous.
You're a fine one to accuse anyone of dithering, when you've built a whole separate life from your friends and family and then never told them about any of it.
You told me first that you were keeping it secret because they would disapprove of you associating with someone they didn't like, and they would also disapprove of what we do. Why, I don't know. Isn't it similar enough to what you did when you were young and reckless, the exploits that Granger and Weasley joined you in? Why would they object?
...Because they aren't joining you in these. I think I may have answered my own question. I would strike out the lines in the letter, but I don't change what I've written once I've written it, and that means I'll simply ask you to disregard it. You'll do almost anything I ask, won't you? I remember you down on your knees that evening at Closecopse, and that evening at Dunkirk, and that bloodstained morning in Venice.
In the end, you're the only one who can make your own decisions, and leave your wife, or not. You'll accuse me of dithering to the end, but that's to cover your own nervousness, your desire to let someone else make the choice. Pick, Harry. I don't know the peril of a divided life myself, since I don't lead one and I wouldn't torment myself the way you do if I did, but I can see some of it in your eyes.
Choose. You'll be the better for it.
Ron closed his eyes and spent a lot of time massaging his forehead before he just gave up and Summoned a Headache Potion from the bathroom. Hermione wouldn't fuss when she found it missing. She knew that Ron sometimes needed it simply to deal with his memories of what he had seen during his cases, so he could sleep. It was another of those hidden little things in their marriage that they didn't need to discuss.
Ron was wishing now that they had dragged everything out into the sunlight, though, because that might have meant they would do the same to Harry, and they would have known.
They would have known that he was lovers with Draco Malfoy. That last letter made it clear. They would have known that he was hunting dangerous beasts with Malfoy, for some reason, and that Malfoy was pushing him towards abandoning his family.
Ron tried to consider Harry's death in light of a suicide, for the first time. Could he have suffered too much from being stretched between Malfoy and his family, and just killed himself to escape it all?
But that made the presence of the murderer, bloodied knife still in hand beside Harry's corpse, and the way his heart was exposed, make no sense at all. Ron reckoned there must be a spell that would make someone's heart show through the blood like that. The murderer, though?
Unless he was a glamour.
Ron stood up and walked over to the hearth that graced the far side of the library, kneeling down and flinging in Floo powder without hesitation. "Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Prisoners' Responsibilities Division," he called out.
A witch's face formed in the flames, looking tired and harassed. Ron disregarded that. People who worked in the processing of paperwork and confirming arrests always looked that way, especially when half the criminals were insisting that they didn't need to be there or that they could bribe their way free with information, if only the Aurors would listen.
"Prisoners' Responsibilities Division," said the witch. "Oh. Auror Weasley." She relaxed a little. She was used to Aurors firecalling her in the middle of the night. "What do you need?"
"I'd like you to look in on a prisoner for me if you could, Hazel," Ron said as casually as he could, while his heart pounded. "Thompson."
Although there might have been multiple people named Thompson in the holding cells at any one time, he knew Hazel wouldn't need to ask who he meant. By now, everyone in the wizarding world must know that Eugene Thompson—long suspected in use of Dark magic but never quite pinned down—had killed Harry Potter.
Hazel gave him a long look, and then reached over and pulled a file from the nearest stack. "The wards on his cells are Type C," she read in a flat voice. "He has guards day and night, inside and outside, just in case he tries to kill himself. He's been asked every kind of question the guards can devise. Yes, he's still here."
Ron nodded, unwillingly. He could have pushed it further, could have asked Hazel to go and look in on Thompson and make sure he still existed, but that would have required higher authority than he had at the moment. It wasn't as though he was attached to Harry's case. He had been a witness, not a working Auror. And surely the guards would have come running in a moment if their prisoner had died or disappeared. "All right. Thanks."
"We'll let you know the minute something changes," Hazel said, more gently. "You know that. The instant we figure out why he wanted to kill Auror Potter, then we'll let you know."
Ron thought he would hear it from the Prophet even faster than he would hear it from Hazel, but he managed to murmur a good-night and then shut down the Floo. That left him alone with the dimmed light of the ashes and the letters smoldering on the desk.
Ron stepped towards them, then hesitated. Maybe it would be better if he went to bed. Maybe everything would be clearer in the morning.
No. He wouldn't be able to sleep now, anyway. It was too late. And he would think about the letters all night, the way he used to think about cases, and wake up with his sleep still ruined.
He sat down and picked up the next letter.
You do make a convincing case when you want to, Draco.
But it's not even the tearing in two that makes me wish you would make the choice. You're wrong if you think it is. I made the decision to live this way, and it would be weak for me to complain about it now.
It's because I love being with both of you. I know you don't want me to talk about Ginny, so I won't. But I will say that she offers me more passion and happiness than I knew I could have, and so do my children. When I get an owl from Hogwarts, I want to sit around with it all day and read it over and over again. When we've spent an evening with the Weasleys, I can't stop smiling.
What I have with you is…different.
I want to have both of those things, all at once. The problem is that one of them can't coexist with the other. If you and Ginny both knew and neither minded, I could continue forever and it would be all right. But Ginny doesn't know. And it would hurt her forever if she found out. Hell, it would hurt Ron and Hermione, too. I would lose everything I have with them, and I can't face that.
But you make it sound damn tempting to throw one of them away and be with you all the time. Pity I can't do that.
And that's where you're wrong, Harry.
I've seen again and again what you can do, at Closecopse and other places, the way that you burn through the barriers raised against you, the way that you make people regret what they've tried to put in your way, the way that you pick yourself up when you're bleeding on the ground and continue walking the path. I've seen you turn me away, even when I invited you to the Manor for a weekend, because your youngest child was sick. And I've seen how you spurned your wife's insistence that you rest from a wound on one of your Auror cases because you wanted to go hunting with me.
Weariness doesn't stop you. Wounds don't stop you. Fear of death doesn't stop you. Love doesn't stop you.
You're a being of pure will, or at least the closest to one I've ever seen. If you make the decision to keep going, then you will. If you make the decision to choose one or the other of us, then I know you can do it and stick to it, no matter how much you might miss the other part of your life.
The point is that you have to choose. Someone else trying to force you into it wouldn't work at all.
Ron shook his head and tucked the letters back into the pile. He wanted to make sense of it, but the more letters he read, the less sense it seemed to make. If Malfoy was begging Harry to abandon Ginny and his children in order to join him, then he honestly had the worst way of begging that Ron had ever seen.
Ron paused, his fingers still on the letters.
Unless he knew that he could never convince Harry to leave them through trying to bully him into it. Unless he laid the path open and made it seem tempting that way, and then left the choice up to Harry.
Which Ron could classify as a kind of manipulation, though not manipulation the way that most people who had tried to use Harry understood the term.
Ron took a deep breath and pressed himself back from the table. He'd decided it wasn't too late to get some sleep after all, especially because he thought he would need rest for what he planned tomorrow.
He would go see Malfoy tomorrow. And make a determination.
Malfoy looked exactly as he had done every time Ron had seen him at King's Cross when they came to drop off or pick up their children for the Hogwarts Express. Pale-faced, pointy, with a receding hairline. He gave no indication that Ron's existence bothered or pleased him. He simply stood at the door of the Manor and looked at him.
Ron licked his lips. This was the man Harry had been interested in, the man he had considered abandoning Ginny for? The man he had perhaps died for? Ron hadn't ruled out Malfoy as a suspect in Harry's murder yet, especially since they hadn't managed to get Thompson to tell them why he'd done it.
"I have some letters that belong to you," he said, and took out two of the ones Malfoy had written from the inner pocket of his robe. He was keeping the rest in reserve, as bargaining chips or to shake Malfoy up if he could.
Malfoy reached for them without showing any signs of distress. Well, maybe he didn't recognize them without the ribbon around them. Ron had to admit the parchment wasn't very distinctive from the outside, just the common kind that you could buy at a dozen shops, including Flourish and Blotts.
Although it was the same kind of parchment for both letters, Harry's and Malfoy's. Ron wondered if that held any significance, and then banished the thought in favor of watching Malfoy's face intently as he examined the letters.
Malfoy smiled, a half-crooked line that didn't change his face at all. "This isn't the first time that something like this has happened," he said gently to Ron, and then turned the nearest letter over and wrote on the back of it.
Ron blinked. The handwriting that slashed across the parchment now wasn't like the hand that he had stared at for hours yesterday, at all. The spikes of that hand melted into fluidity here; the softness that Ron had imagined he saw was gone.
Of course, how much of that came from Malfoy writing random sentences, on a piece of parchment not held against a firm surface? Ron looked up with a quiet smile of his own and said, "Can I come in?"
Malfoy shrugged and stood back out of the way. Ron stepped into a front corridor decorated with so many portraits that he couldn't see the space on the walls between them. The portraits turned to frown at him, but didn't jeer. Maybe Malfoy had them all under a Silencing Charm, Ron thought. That made the most sense. He knew that if they'd had any Weasley ancestors on their walls, they would all have jeered at any Malfoy who visited.
That made him think of the old regret that they hadn't had a portrait of Fred made before he died. Ron shook his head and traded the old thought in for new ones. "I want you to sit down and tell me where the letters came from, then," he said.
Malfoy didn't move. "I can tell you that without sitting down. Surely you must have heard of Julia Ernwich?"
Ron blinked. The name was vaguely familiar, as were the names of famous Muggles his dad talked about. "Sort of," he said. "Who's she?"
"Someone who was convinced that she would rival Rita Skeeter by writing about imaginary scandals." Malfoy's smile was the old, hard one, and Ron discovered he still hated it enough to make up for all the jeering from the portraits that he hadn't received. "She wrote dozens of these letters, from various people, to Potter. She tried to pretend that he was lovers with me, Terry Boot, your brother George, your mother, Headmistress McGonagall, and Pansy Parkinson. And that was only at last count."
Ron shook his head. "I would have heard of something like that."
Malfoy shrugged again. "The matter was hushed up. And I reckon that your mother and your brother might have told you about it, except that they might never have seen a letter. I only knew about them because Potter showed me a letter Ernwich had sent him. Purporting to be from me, you understand. And the letter he'd supposedly written in return."
Ron hesitated. Then he said, "No, that doesn't make sense. Why would she write letters back?"
"What's juicier than a pretended love affair?" Malfoy asked, and sighed when Ron stood there obstinately in front of him. "A consummated love affair, Weasley. One where the lonely little Savior is rescued by someone who only wants to take care of him."
Ron twitched his wand. "Don't talk about Harry that way."
"I'm talking about the way that Ernwich saw it," Malfoy said. "The correspondence that she created between me and Potter was one of the more extensive, and she might even have convinced someone with it, if she had gone through with her original plan and pretended to 'discover' and then publish the letters. But she decided that she'd had a better idea. She sent the letters to Potter instead and told him that she had more, copies of all of them, and that she would publish them unless he granted her an exclusive interview about his real love life."
Ron wanted to clap a hand over his face, but it was the kind of thing he could see someone who fancied herself as a successor to Skeeter doing. "And what did Harry do?"
"Pretended to agree," Malfoy said. "Talked his way into her house. Saw all the letters, and confiscated them. Brought this one to me so that I would be warned if Ernwich tried to start the game again from the opposite direction, by sending one of his supposed love letters to me. I think he warned the others as well. Because you weren't a victim, there was no need for him to bother you."
Ron opened his mouth to say that Harry would have told him about this no matter what, if only so they could have a good laugh, and then closed it again. He had already learned in the last few days that Harry was better at keeping secrets than he'd imagined.
But there remained one bit of evidence that wasn't a letter. Ron clung stubbornly to it. "What about Closecopse?" he asked.
Malfoy didn't blink. "What? I think it's a wizarding village somewhere near the Welsh border. Did Ernwich mention it in her letters?"
Ron stared at Malfoy, hard, and saw nothing in his face that had changed. No (fading) hair turned, no finger lifted as if to tap a wand or cast a Memory Charm.
But he was sure he had hit a nerve anyway. Perhaps some instinct, deeper than the Auror instincts that he had on the surface, had warned him, or perhaps he knew something about the Malfoy of old that was informing his reaction to the present one. Either way, his instincts spoke directly to him now, and told him to keep some of his material in reserve. He wanted a copy of the photograph before he confronted Malfoy with it. He wanted to know how much of this was real, and how much someone trying to embarrass Harry, and how much a plausible tissue of lies.
He distrusted most of the truths he had thought he knew about Harry's life now, but it wouldn't do to start distrusting everything.
"Nothing," he said shortly, and took the letters back from Malfoy. "It's good that you explained this to me, though. Going through Harry's…things after his death…" The words still made the breath catch in his throat, though at least Ron could say them now, which was more than he had been able to do a week after the murder. He cleared the clogged breath away with a cough. "You can see why I wanted answers."
"I can." Malfoy's eyes suddenly cleared, and he bowed his head, slowly and stately in manner, to Ron. "Weasley. As much as we've never been friends, this I can say sincerely. I am sorry for your loss."
Ron blinked at him. Something about the words, the way they rang, touched off the same instincts that had made him sure Malfoy was lying about Closecopse. But once again, he had no concrete flicker of an eyebrow or shading in the words to hang his suspicion on.
"Thank you," he said, and then turned and left the Manor. No house-elves, he noticed. That was something Hermione could be happy about, if he told her.
Except that he would have to explain what he had gone to Malfoy Manor for, and he wasn't sure he was ready to face that conversation yet.
In the meantime, though, he had things he could do: check with independent sources of information. He would write to Margaret Dovecote and try to persuade her to give him the photograph or at least make a copy again. And he would go to his mother and George and see if what Malfoy had told him about Ernwich's letters was true.
Six hours later, Ron was sitting in front of a hot dinner—one he'd made for and by himself, since Hermione was working late at the office again—and shuddered. There were experiences that he would have been happy to have a Memory Charm scrub out of his head. Some of the stupid things they'd done during the Horcrux Hunt. Confronting Aragog in the Forbidden Forest. The awkward way that he'd tried to arrange the perfect proposal for Hermione and then it had all gone wrong, starting with the way that the roses had caught on fire.
The conversations with George and his mum about the letters Ernwich had supposedly written, talking about how they were lovers with Harry.
George had tried to joke about it, but the way his ears flamed had made Ron certain that the letters were convincing and a lot more salacious than the ones he had found in Malfoy's pile. Or else that George had once harbored feelings Ron didn't really want to ask about.
As for his mum, she would only talk around the subject and flush and serve Ron more and more biscuits until his stomach was bulging and he had to excuse himself from his seat before he exploded.
Ron ate slowly, because of the biscuits, and stared at the wall. He had to write a letter to Dovecote and see if she would surrender that photograph of Harry and Malfoy, but he found himself reluctant. What if she wasn't any more persuaded by a letter than she was when he spoke to her in person? In fact, she probably wouldn't be. Hermione had told him once that he was best with people when he could look them in the eye, which was another reason beyond the obvious that his attempts to write her love poetry had been disastrous.
Did he want to do this? Did he want to know anymore? The letters story had checked out, at least in the way that George and his mum had reacted. He could ask other people that Malfoy had named, and they might tell him differently.
And learning more about what Harry had done or not done with Malfoy was bound to be distressing. Ron was starting to think that, no, he didn't want to know anymore. He would be glad to give up and mourn the memory of the friend he'd always known, not the stranger he was discovering after his death.
Maybe it was best to let it go.
He glanced over at the letters, still sitting beside him on the table. There were some he hadn't read, but why should he keep going? If Malfoy was right, and they were all part of the joke that Ernwich had come up with in an attempt to get some publicity…
No. Not if Malfoy was right. If Malfoy was telling the truth.
Ron reached out and gingerly picked up the nearest letters. They didn't feel or weigh any differently than the ones that he had read so far, but he still found himself handling them as if they were the tangle of snakes he and Harry had discovered on the Dover case last year.
He spent several more minutes thinking, or sitting there in that racing chaos of his brain and not-thinking, before he turned to the first letter he hadn't yet read.
This is Slytherin psychology at its finest, Draco. "Oh, I can't make you do something! I admire you for your ability to do things! But I can't possibly force you! You're the one who has to make up your mind!"
And before you know it, you've agreed to whatever mad thing it was that they wanted you to agree to.
You can't trick me that way. I know you too well. You do hope that I'll give up my family for you, no matter how many times I've told you that they matter to me. And you hope that I'll go on hunting with you, no matter how many times I've told you that my Auror career matters to me, too, and being partners with Ron.
It'll have to stay the same, not because I never find it wearying or don't wish to make a decision, but because I like both halves of my life too much. That's the way it is.
It does get lonely to be accused of being Slytherin when I'm trying to act like a lover, you know. The differences in our attitudes can be explained by the fact that you're ashamed of who you are and can't possibly explain it to the people in your life, and I'm not and can. Astoria approves perfectly of a career that takes me away from her sometimes, and makes the upper echelons of the Ministry grateful to me. Scorpius likes the tales I tell him, and the secrecy. And Astoria and I didn't expect faithfulness of each other. So tiresome that your bride does.
What would you tell them, if you decided to tell them? How long this has been going on? That you were partners with me before you were full partners with Weasley? That you fucked me for the first time before you fucked your wife?
Honestly, Harry. That's the problem with you. Honesty. You chose two things, and you lack the honesty to reconcile them. I know, not because you love me more but because you think it doesn't matter what I think. I would never make it public the way that your Weasley immediately would if you told her. Or should I say them?
But that's because I would find the scenes tiresome. Not because I have no preference in the matter.
Not because I don't care.
I don't really know what to make of you. Sometimes I think I know, and then you turn around and it turns out that there's something else and another layer behind your mask.
Not that I don't have a mask myself. And you're right, the way that I talk to Ginny and the way I talk to you are completely different, and I have been part of your life in the ways you mention for longer than I've been an Auror, or married.
But even if I thought Ginny was going to keep it secret, I still couldn't tell her. It would shatter her peace. The kids would know something was wrong if she never told them. I would lose the connection with them, and I can't bear that. There's not something in the other life with you to compensate for how much I love them, no matter how much I like Scorpius.
I'm the Gryffindor and the family man as much as I am the Slytherin (and why did I ever tell you that I was almost Sorted there, anyway? It just made you worse) and the lover of the Ministry's most dangerous operative.
Yeah, I don't know how I got here, either. I don't know what the fuck is going to happen next and what I should hope will happen next.
But until something else changes my mind, I'll keep on keeping on.
Do you want to imagine me sighing dramatically and clapping a hand over my eyes? Because you should feel free to imagine that if you wish, even though what happened when I received your letter was more emphatic.
You're the one who brought up changing your mind, and asked me to make a plan for that eventuality. I came up with one. And you're the one who chose to reject that and then say that you can't choose, all the time whinging about how unhappy you are.
I've offered you a way out of that unhappiness. Not making the choice for you, as I think you secretly wish. I told you why. No decision anyone else makes can hold you unless you decide to go along with it.
I came up with a plan. And I think the reason you're fighting so hard against it is the temptation. It offers you everything you want. A way to be with me. A way to watch over your children from a distance without having alienated them. A way to be parted from your wife without causing her opinion of you to sink forever.
If you don't want to do it, you don't have to. But let us talk of something else now, rather than your martyred posturing.
Ron shook his head, sitting slowly back. He didn't have any idea what plan Malfoy might have come up with, but he nearly didn't want to read the last two letters. If Harry agreed, then it would mean that Ron would have to think of him differently forever after. If he hadn't agreed, then it might mean…
Ron didn't know. His first thought was that Malfoy had arranged to have Harry murdered, but if they had been lovers for years and Harry had refused to act, then that would have been foolish. Malfoy could still get everything from Harry that he was used to.
And, frankly, Ron didn't think the man he had seen that afternoon was the sort to take any risks unless he knew they were going to work.
Of course, Harry could have been right about Slytherin psychology. Malfoy's admiration of Harry, so carefully and earnestly expressed, might have been meant to make him jump into the plan, and by refusing the implications on the surface, Harry had talked himself into following the plan for different reasons.
Maybe Malfoy did have him murdered. It's at least something to look into, rather than assuming that Thompson was just mad.
Ron turned the letters he'd just read back over with delicate fingertips. There was also that bit about "the Ministry's most dangerous operative," which he could approach from still another direction. There were some people in the hierarchy of the Auror Department who owed him favors. Not many, since Ron and Harry's cases tended to get most of the credit going to Harry and Ron wasn't diplomatic, but there were times that circumstances fell out just right and he could get someone feeling obliged to him.
This "case" might take out all of those favors, Ron thought as he stood.
He found that he didn't care. He had made the decision when he picked up the rest of those letters. He wanted to know, no matter how many masks it turned out Harry had been wearing. He wanted to pluck the last one away and find the truth beneath.
And that was an old thought, comfortable in his mind. It was just that for most of his life, he had wanted to hunt down the reality of other people, like Death Eaters and spies, not his best friend.
Ron started and turned around. He had written the most cryptic owl he could come up with to Florence Cassian, the highest-ranking person in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement who owed him favors. He had expected a few days' delay before the response, though, and especially to have to go through a few more owls, the dance of delicacy and plausible deniability.
But Cassian stood in the middle of his office now, and Ron hadn't heard her come. He stood up and bowed to her, trying to conceal the way that his heart leaped around madly inside him.
"You wanted to see me." Cassian took the seat in front of his desk and watched him with eyes so remote that Ron began to regret calling on her. It didn't help that she usually wore grey and had grey eyes and hair, too, so that it was like looking into the face of a granite statue unexpectedly come to life.
"Yes, Madam Cassian." Ron sat up and took a deep breath. "I've discovered something disturbing about my late friend Auror Potter." Always good to be as formal as possible when discussing Harry with someone like Cassian. "And I hoped that—well, that someone who has access to more knowledge than I do could help me."
Cassian might have smiled, although her lips were as inflexible as the rest of her face. "Quite right. What did you want to know?"
"There were references in some of Auror Potter's papers to hunts," Ron said. He watched Cassian, but no reaction. He decided that he would have to play out another tightly-clutched piece of precious information. "To hunts made in the company of the man he called the Ministry's most dangerous operative, Draco Malfoy."
There. Cassian twitched and sat up, hands reaching out to take the edges of the chair arms before she seemed to realize that Ron had phrased it as a statement and not an accusation. She sat back, but Ron could make out the slight pulsing vein in the corner of her temple and the way the last two fingers on her right hand bent. He thought she wouldn't ever seem as inscrutable to him again.
"Mr. Malfoy has a career in finance, I believe," Cassian said. She sounded as though she was reading from a scroll she had once memorized out of boredom on a rainy afternoon. "He has lent money to several prominent politicians on occasion, who might have helped him bury his secrets. But he has never applied for Auror training, or Unspeakable training. I am unable to guess what Auror Potter might have meant by those references."
Ron flushed. He would have liked to have a copy of Dovecote's photograph right now, to whip out and confront Cassian with.
But if she was choosing to do this rather than pay back the favor she owed him, there must be some substance to it, and it could be dangerous to press too far and too fast. Ron leaned back instead and sighed. "Well, but he could have done something in some other Ministry department. Can you investigate for me, and see who he might have worked for? I'm not asking for the names of his employers," he added hastily, because he could see why Cassian might interpret it that way. "Just give me the name of someone else I can talk to, someone who might know more."
Cassian continued to watch him, her hands as immovable as they had been when she first walked in. Then she reached down, picked up a piece of parchment from his desk, and conjured a quill and a full inkstand with a wave of her wand. Ron blinked, impressed in spite of himself.
Cassian wrote what looked like three words down on the paper, and then handed it back to Ron, Vanishing the quill and inkstand before Ron could touch them. She never took her gaze from Ron's face.
"You should ask," she said. "And then be still." She bowed her head. "This cancels the favor that I owe you." She swept out of the office without a rustle.
Ron spent a moment trying to fix the memory of her behavior in his mind, so that he could know how dangerous it might be to continue asking these questions. Then he took a deep breath, and looked down at what she had written.
Minister Kingsley Shacklebolt.
"Thank you for seeing me, Ministser." Ron leaned forwards and rubbed his hands together. Kingsley would probably think he was cold. That was all right. Ron needed a few minutes to make up his mind on how to approach Kingsley, even though he had been up all night thinking and deciding and planning.
Somehow, it was easier to value truth when he was sitting alone in his library with Harry and Malfoy's letters than when he was sitting in front of the most powerful man in the wizarding world, even if that man was his friend.
Not "somehow," Ron thought, and it was his own old thought, even if it was in Hermione's voice. You know exactly how you got to this point. This is the end point of starting the search in the first place.
"No need to be so formal, Ron." Kingsley didn't smile at him, but his voice was warmer than a smile. He had aged since Harry's death, Ron thought. They all had. Kingsley showed it in the grey tone to his skin and the way his mouth seemed slower to bend. He folded his hands on his desk and studied Ron. "Did you find some more case files that needed to be returned to me?"
Ron managed to smile, because Kingsley couldn't. It was a running joke, the number of old files that Harry had stored in his office and study and closets and cupboards. He tended to keep them and brood on them if he hadn't managed to save someone, and he wanted to keep them for reference if he had solved them and they could resemble another case in the future. The Ministry Archives had finally had to compromise: they got the original, Harry could make a copy. "No, Minister. Or, well, in a way, yes." He realized that he was fidgeting in his chair and tried to let out a deep breath and slump against the back. It would look strange if someone glanced through the door, but Kingsley had already let him know that this wouldn't be a meeting of strangers.
Kingsley's eyebrows crept up towards his hairline. "It's not like you to be so uncertain," he said. "What's happened?"
Ron hesitated one more time, and found himself thinking, oddly, of the words that Malfoy—that Ernwich, if he believed Malfoy—had written to Harry. I don't lack the courage for this. I only lack the will.
"Sir," Ron said, because he couldn't not use the title when he was asking about something like this, "did Harry partner with Malfoy sometimes, and—and hunt down other beasts on cases I wasn't invited along on?"
Kingsley went still. Ron recognized that posture. It was the one that Kingsley used at boring meetings and press interviews when the public already believed one version of the story that he couldn't contradict. He smiled now, but his will and his willingness were gone from behind his face, leaving the political, polite man with empty words.
Ron had never expected to see it used against him. But Kingsley's use of it told him more than the words would have.
It was real, Ron thought, his heartbeat blinding and deafening him for a moment. All of it. Or at least the part about Harry and Malfoy hunting monsters together.
"There are things that the whole wizarding world doesn't need to know about," Kingsley was saying, exquisitely careful, and words that Ron recognized from an interview two months ago, when he was talking about Obliviators. "Things that people are happier about when they don't realize exist."
"I know, sir," Ron said, and Kingsley didn't correct him for the title. Yes, things had shifted back. "But so much of Auror work is like that. What was the difference between the work Harry and I did, and the work Harry and Malfoy did?"
"There are things our community doesn't need to know about," Kingsley said, slow and loud and careful, the kind of voice he would use if someone was listening from the corridor. Maybe they were, Ron thought, fascinated eyes fastened on him. Maybe the Unspeakables kept the Minister under observation at all times. It was less unbelievable to Ron than it would have been an hour ago. "That includes some of the—varieties of Dark creatures, and Dark wizards, out there. Do I have to explain myself further?"
"Yes," Ron said. "Because I'm wondering now if Harry died in the middle of one of those strange cases, and if Hermione and I will never get to hear why he actually died, because Thompson is the wrong murderer and you're only using him as an excuse."
Kingsley stood up. "Auror Weasley," he said, firmly but kindly, in the way that he could say so many things, "I think that your grief for your partner is disorienting you. I'm going to give a week's holiday. Go home and get some rest." He wrote out an official note while Ron stood watching him, and handed it over.
Ron read the message from the way that Kingsley's fingers dug into his wrist as much as from the silent narrowing of his eyes. Drop it. You have to drop it.
Ron took the note, and bowed his head a little, and left the office. He was aware of two Auror trainees who had stopped having a conversation and were looking at him. Spies, maybe. Unspeakable trainees. Ron had always assumed that most Unspeakables were visible and just kept silent about their jobs, but there could be other kinds, too. The kind that had one life on the surface and another life underneath.
The ones doing things the wizarding world would be uncomfortable with if they knew about them.
Ron walked back to his office and prepared for his holiday with his head held high. One way or another, he was going to have answers by the end of this week.
"Auror Weasley." Hazel smiled a little when she saw him, and not the weary smile she gave most people coming into the Prisoners' Responsibilities Division, either. Probably because she could see that he was alone. "Come to talk to Thompson?"
"The way I firecalled you earlier, yeah." Ron smiled at her and tapped the side of his nose, because otherwise his nervous hand would probably have touched the vial in his pocket and revealed its existence to her. "Do you mind? I know that it's not official, but I have a week of holiday now, and the Minister himself was the one who gave it to me. I think he'll look elsewhere for a while."
Hazel smiled still, but dubiously. "I'll have to check," she said, turning around to the hearth behind her. "Technically, not even the guards in Thompson's cell are supposed to talk to him. They reserve that for the official interrogators."
Ron kept his bland smile, but his heartbeat increased again. Most of the interrogators came from among the Unspeakables. They probably knew everything already, or they might, or they might not know exactly why Thompson had killed Harry but they would want to keep anyone else from finding out.
No wonder they haven't made progress in getting the secrets from him.
Hazel talked to someone Ron couldn't see for several seconds, while sweat trickled down Ron's back under the cloak. Then Hazel turned around and smiled. "Yeah, it'll be okay. That was Gilda Jones. She's given up on getting sense out of Thompson, and she thinks that maybe seeing someone who was close to Auror Potter might guilt him into speaking."
A fragile tactic, Ron thought, but a good excuse right now. He flipped Hazel a little salute and turned down the plain corridor that ran away behind her desk, to Thompson's cell.
The stone was grey here, grey all over, and Ron was shivering in reaction long before he got to the door of the cell. The two guards on duty outside had heard his conversation with Hazel, and stepped away from the door. Ron kept himself from touching the vial in his pocket again, and knocked.
The door, a sheet of warded steel, opened, and an Auror Ron didn't know peered out. She had blonde hair and green eyes, and struck him for a moment as a mingling of Malfoy and Harry. Which was ridiculous, of course. Ron shook his head to clear it, and realized she was asking him a question.
"I'm here to interview Thompson," he said. "Auror Ron Weasley."
The woman stared for a second, then looked over her shoulder and murmured a conversation with other guard in the cell. Finally, she stepped out and looked at him with a slow tilt of her head. "You really think that you'll get more sense out of him than anyone has so far?" she asked.
"Auror Jones thinks that perhaps the sight of someone who knew Harry personally might make him confess," Ron said, trying to convey at one and the same time that he didn't think it would work and that he was willing to try.
The blonde Auror smiled a little. Ron looked at the door to watch the other Auror come out, because right now he was seeing Malfoy in her, and that couldn't be good.
"All right," she said. "Just as well that we have some time outside the bastard's presence, anyway. Nothing he says makes sense." She turned away, asking the other Auror about someone named Jemmy.
Ron stepped into the cell, and shut the door behind him, hearing the hum of more wards that would only engage when it was closed. Two layers of wards prevented most people from being sure which ones were there temporarily and which ones were permanent, and helped foil escape attempts.
Eugene Thompson sat on a bench in the corner of the cell, his hands dangling between his knees, his head bowed and his eyes fastened on his knuckles as if they could tell him anything. He looked up and shook his head when he saw Ron.
"She died on a full moon night," he said dreamily. "She died and then got up and danced with the fairies that came to her."
Ron sat down and observed him. He had read the reports on Thompson, who had never acted like this prior to the night of Harry's murder. He rambled like Luna Lovegood, said one Auror who knew her. And he sometimes acted as though he was answering your questions about the murder, but there was always some detail that didn't match the—scene.
Ron realized that his breath and heartbeat were quickening the way they had when he confronted Kingsley. He tried his best to bate both of them. He would get nowhere if he was too caught up in memories to ask the right questions of Thompson.
"I came to ask you questions," he said, and took the vial of Veritaserum out of his pocket. No one had used it so far because someone had to legally consent, and Thompson was too confused to do that.
Ron, frankly, didn't care. If Malfoy had manipulated this man into killing Harry, then Ron wanted to know, so that he could pin the blame on the real criminal and let Thompson go free, or at least see him receive a lesser sentence than he would. Only the Ministry's determination to get all the answers about Harry's death had kept Thompson out of Azkaban this long.
Or something other than that. Because a sufficiently determined Ministry would have found some pretext for forcing the Veritaserum on Thompson, consent be damned. Ron thought he should have known that long before now.
But he had trusted the Ministry, and he had trusted his best friend. It had taken more than finding the letters to bring him this far.
Thompson looked at him, and at the Veritaserum, without a sign of recognition. "There are other ways," he said, and looked at the wall, with a mysterious, profound expression that had probably made some of the Aurors handling him before now think that he had important information they just had to wait for him to express.
Ron got up and plucked a teacup from the table where it had been sitting. It still had about a half-cup of tea in it. He tapped three drops of Veritaserum from the vial into it, and held out the cup to Thompson.
Thompson took it and simply swallowed it. His eyes were faraway, glazed, long before the Veritaserum took hold. Ron blinked. He thought he recognized some of the signs, but other Aurors would have before now, too, if it was what he thought he was, and not all of them could have been warned into silence by Kingsley or the Unspeakables.
"Why did you kill Harry Potter?" Ron asked.
Thompson opened his mouth, shut it, and then giggled. "There was—there wasn't one," he said. "I didn't do it, because there wasn't one!" He got up and skipped around the cell in glee, ignoring the way that Ron pulled his wand.
Ron stood up, slowly. Yes, he'd seen this kind of behavior before, notably when they had cases of Dark wizards who had tried to cover up their trails in front of other people they didn't want to kill.
Thompson had been Confounded.
But the normal charm never reached this deeply or affected behavior for such a long time, which was probably why the other Aurors had dismissed that conclusion if they'd come to it. No one could Confound someone for a month, so he wasn't Confounded. And they had watched him for long enough, around the clock, that they would have noticed if his behavior had changed as he came out of the charm. Ron reckoned they had probably discussed and dismissed the possibility within the first day.
But they didn't know what Ron did.
That Harry had perfected a version of the Confundus Charm that he used on people who used human shields against Stunners and more dangerous hexes. They would become more mental than simply confused, and wander around in oblivion of their surroundings until Ron and Harry could rescue the hostages and arrest them.
Ron had asked Harry once, when Harry was in hospital wounded two days later and the witch he'd Confounded still hadn't come out of it, how long it would take to wear off. Harry flushed, looked away, and mumbled, "I overdid it when I improved the spell. They won't come out, not if I don't take the charm off."
Ron knew the truth, and he even knew the incantation that Harry had used to take off the charm, but it had never worked for him. It needed Harry's power behind it.
And maybe even something else. Ron remembered the way that Harry had made spells work in unexpected ways by saying part of the incantation nonverbally and following it up with one or more words aloud. It made it harder for their enemies to anticipate his spells. Ron had admired him for it without thinking to ask how he learned it.
Now he thought he might know.
And he thought this special charm might have had a nonverbal component, one which Harry hadn't taught him, and which might mean Thompson was Confounded forever.
Ron closed his eyes, and listened to Thompson giggling and whispering to himself. Even with the Veritaserum, the answers weren't clear. The Confounding meant he didn't narrate the connections between cause and effect, or say what his words referred to. Ron would learn nothing from him.
Luckily, the behavior was enough like his normal behavior that no one should realize Ron had used Veritaserum.
He knocked on the door and slipped out, shaking his head at the Aurors who stood guard outside. "No change," he said, and walked away up the corridor, while the thoughts settled in his head like mountains crumbling. No distinction between old and new ones, this time; they were all new, and all terrible.
He had examined Harry's wand, and cast Priori Incatatem on it himself. So he knew that the last spell Harry had cast was not the Confundus—which would make sense, if he had tried to Confound Thompson but had been too late, and Thompson had killed him anyway—but the spell for Apparition. Everyone had assumed the Savior was trying to escape, that he hadn't managed it, and the press and even Ginny were filled with mourning, murmuring mentions of what could have been if Harry had only got that last spell off in time.
When did Harry ever fail to get a spell off in time, one that he really wanted to succeed?
Ron had to wonder, now. And what he wondered about, he felt fill him with thick, choking nausea.
Ron went back into Harry's study, and stood there, looking around at the ordinary books on the shelves, at the Gryffindor color on the walls, at the thick desk he'd found the letters in and the drawer full of sweets.
He wondered now how much of this was deliberately assumed coloration, that Harry had wanted others to think he was just the normal grown-up Gryffindor, the devoted family man, the man of boring reading tastes.
Ron had thought about going to confront Malfoy again, or writing to Dovecote, but he recognized the dangerous mood boiling in himself. He had to do something more active than talking or writing a letter. If he went near Malfoy in this mood, he would probably end up doing a lot more than talking.
Not good. Not good for Ron, or for the reputation of the Ministry, and if Kingsley found out that Ron had continued his investigation into Harry's death, then he might—
He might do lots of things that Ron wasn't prepared to face, not yet.
He went to the books on the shelves, and began methodically to cast spells that would reveal hexes, charms, wards, even Dark curses, meant to protect the books or keep them from being moved or strike out at intruders. Ordinary spells immediately glowed to life, the kind that prevented books from being lost or children from chewing on them.
Ron reached the end of the lowest shelf nearest the window before he found what he was looking for. A Finite melted a glamour on what had looked like a standard Auror training manual in the use of disguise.
The Power of Simulacra.
Ron was smiling as he took the book and sat down in front of Harry's desk, but he knew that it wasn't a pleasant smile. That was all right. It didn't have to be.
He opened the book and skimmed the table of contents. Materials, Checking Your Progress, Spells Needed, Potions Needed. For a moment, Ron paused over that last title; Harry had never mastered more than the most basic Potions skills, and the ones listed here were all more powerful than that level.
But, on the other hand, he'd had Malfoy working with him. And who was Ron to say what skills Harry had possessed? Harry had kept a lot of things from him, more than Ron might ever be comfortable figuring out.
He kept reading.
When creating a simulacrum, one must decide, first, what the replica of oneself is to do. To keep house, a simulacrum will need the dexterity in its arms to wield mop, broom, and brush. To fight, a simulacrum will need the memories of a fighter implanted in its skull, still liquid. To die, a simulacrum may only need to bleed.
The last sentence of the passage was underlined.
"I still miss him. But not so much that I'm willing to countenance this."
Ron winced. He shouldn't have approached Ginny this way, he knew now. He hadn't wanted to explain why he wanted it, because that would have meant explaining everything, and he didn't think that Ginny was ready to know her husband had been unfaithful. He had thought he could go to her, reminisce about Harry for a little while, and then make his request when she was still in the middle of soft grief and good family feeling, and have it granted without questions.
"Why?" Ginny asked, leaning back in the middle of her large chair and looking at Ron evenly. "What possible reason could there be for digging my husband up?"
Ron's tongue tangled around his teeth when he tried to answer. Now he wished he'd brought Hermione in after all. Ron was good at investigating and figuring out possible solutions to the mystery. But he wasn't good at coming up with answers to questions like this. Hermione would have been.
That was another convoluted explanation, though, another one he'd have to spend days on. And he might, in the end. Right now, though, he didn't think he would be able to do it, any more than he could tell the truth to Ginny.
"I—don't know," Ron said at last. "It's just that I found something unexpected when I went to talk to Thompson, and I thought perhaps it could be explained if we could look more closely at Harry again."
Ginny shuddered once, and drew herself up like a queen. Ron had to look at her in admiration—something he once never would have been able to imagine doing with his little sister. The years had changed her, but into someone who was more woman than girl, and she hadn't collapsed under the burden of her grief for Harry, either. She had supported her children, wept on Hermione's shoulder, taken a week after the funeral to be by herself, and got up the next day to go on with her life.
Ron had to admire that, even if she was blocking his way right now. He didn't think he would have been able to bear up so well under the pressure of Hermione's death.
"That isn't Harry," Ginny said. "Harry was my husband who laughed with me and fought Dark wizards and held Lily when she was born as if he thought he would die. That's who he was, and that's who I want to remember him as. Not a corpse. No. You aren't digging him up."
Ron held her gaze for a long time before he nodded. Not because he was reluctant to agree, the way that Ginny probably thought, but because he knew the answer, now, to another one of his questions, about whether he should ever tell Ginny the truth.
No. She wouldn't want to know. She had chosen how she wanted to remember Harry, and this would only damage that image.
Besides, Ron thought as he stepped out into the star-shrouded dusk, that didn't mean the Harry she had loved didn't exist. Ron was sure he had. Harry could lie, obviously, was much better at it than Ron had thought he was, but that didn't make the other half of him, the one shared with Ginny and his children, nonexistent. It made him double.
A new thought, that two wildly contradictory things could exist without damaging each other. Ron carried it slowly away with him into the distance.
Of course, that didn't mean he gave up.
Ron stepped quietly into the cemetery at Godric's Hollow and waited for a moment until he was sure no Muggles had seen him. Then he walked towards Harry's grave.
He had wanted to be buried beside his parents, and Ginny had granted that wish, only making sure that she marked another grave for herself beside Harry's. Ron had to stop at a short distance from the gravestone, though, because of all the flowers heaped there, and the tied notes, and the wreathes, and the candles.
Ron imagined what it would be like as years passed and people—all but the ones who had known him best—forgot about Harry. There would be fewer flowers, but the ones left would be more perfumed. Candles might only be lit once a year, but his family would stand with them until they burned down.
That answer had changed so many times in the last fortnight that Ron thought he had nothing left, right now, but his driving compulsion to know the truth. He wasn't going to dig up Harry's body without Ginny's permission, but he did have a variation that he could do, which would leave no trace.
He closed his eyes and fixed his mind on the day of his wedding, the way that Hermione had smiled and blushed beside him and Harry had conjured a whole horde of canaries that swooped singing over the ceremony and made Hermione blush the more. He concentrated until it glowed in his head like diamond, and it was no effort to aim his wand and whisper, "Expecto Patronum."
When he opened his eyes, the glowing silvery dog stood before him. It had looked around, seen no Dementors, and had already turned around and awaited orders.
Ron nodded at the grave. "Go look," he whispered. "Go under the ground and come back and tell me what you see."
This was something he had discovered that his Patronus could do, by accident, a few months ago, when he was wishing intensely that he could see through the walls of one Dark wizard's secret Potions lab, and he'd never had the chance to tell Harry about it. He hoped that meant Harry wouldn't have introduced any safeguards against it.
The dog rose, scraped a paw on the ground, pricked its ears, and trotted forwards. The wards on the grave to ensure that no one disturbed the body didn't even blink at the Patronus's presence; technically, it didn't have a body or a mind that they could fasten on.
It vanished beneath the dirt, marching straight down as if on steps. Ron held his breath as he waited.
He had to let it out again before the Patronus came bounding back. It came straight to him and reared up with its paws on his knee, like a real dog that wanted petting. Ron knelt down and began to stroke its head, his hand sinking through the silvery light. He shut his eyes, and what the Patronus had seen reeled into his mind.
A large coffin. A lid that grew nearer and nearer as the dog marched into it, until Ron could see the traceries of gold that made up the wards that would supposedly preserve the body.
Inside the coffin. A large, roomy expanse; Ginny had spared no expense when it came to the funeral, although she had refused all the donations that people tried to give. She hadn't wanted anyone else to feel as though they owned part of Harry, she had explained when Hermione asked her why.
An empty, roomy expanse, except for a trace or two of blood and skin.
Ron opened his eyes, nodding slowly. He didn't know how he would have felt if he had seen his friend's decaying corpse instead.
But he hadn't, and that meant he could now turn his back and walk away into the maze of his new thoughts. Tomorrow, he would go and see Malfoy, and take the book he had discovered with him—after he had fetched the letters from his office. That ought to be enough to explain the situation, whether or not he had a copy of Dovecote's photograph.
Ron woke late the next morning; he'd forgotten to cast his Tempus Charm, because he'd thought he would lie awake all night with his brain buzzing, and then fallen asleep after all. He staggered late into the Ministry, yawning and rubbing his eyes. But he did manage to notice that something was wrong when two Aurors came to a stop in front of him.
"What?" he demanded, eyeing them. He thought he knew them, at least by last names, but they weren't going to offer him any clues. They took his arms, and escorted him firmly through the corridors to the Minister's office.
Ron lifted his head as he walked with them. He wondered if they knew he had been poking around Harry's grave, if Harry had disappeared with the Minister's blessing. Well, the worst they could do was Obliviate him, and he had made copies of all his memories in a private Pensieve that only Hermione was even seventy-five percent likely to know he had.
Kingsley was waiting for him, but he had a different expression on his face than the one he had worn when he'd warned Ron to stop poking into Harry and Malfoy's activities as secret agents. He looked at Ron as the two Aurors with him put Ron in his chair, and then said, "Mindon, Halls, out."
The two Aurors would have protested, but Kingsley raised one hand. "Whatever grudges Auror Weasley bears, I'm sure that none of them are against me."
Mindon and Halls exchanged a glance Ron could feel behind his head, but in the end, turned and left. Ron heard the door shut and lock, anti-eavesdropping wards rising at the same time. He sat still without taking his eyes off Kingsley, and Kingsley stared back until he seemed to have decided no one was lingering outside the door.
"We know you visited Malfoy Manor a few days ago," Kingsley said. "And you were late this morning."
Ron stared at him. "So?"
Kingsley relaxed a little. "I believe you really don't know," he said. "Malfoy has vanished. Gone clean out of his house. His wife says she has no idea where he went."
"Have you asked his son?" The words came out before Ron could stop them, with the sharpness of Auror instinct that meant he was sure they were right.
Kingsley gave him a long, careful look. "Ask a thirteen-year-old boy whether he knows anything about his father's disappearance?" He shook his head. "No. He can't have anything to do with it. He was under observation at Hogwarts—direct professorial observation, in this case, because he was serving a detention at the time that Malfoy's wife discovered him missing. But you had been there, and we know that you have an old grudge against Malfoy. Do you know anything?"
Ron met Kingsley's eyes, and thought of all the different answers he could give to that question. Three days ago, he wouldn't have hesitated to tell Kingsley everything he knew and guessed. But that was before he had been told to leave the secret of the way that Harry had cooperated with Malfoy alone, and before he had been marched in here.
"No, sir," he said quietly. "I only went there and asked him about some letters that I found in Harry's study, addressed to him." No need to tell Kingsley about the other side of the correspondence, especially when Kingsley would assume that the letters concerned the work Harry and Malfoy had done together, and that that was how Ron had learned about it.
Kingsley relaxed some more. "Would you be willing to say so under Veritaserum?"
Ron nodded at once. Unlike the interrogation he had planned for Thompson, he knew the Ministry would only ask a few questions about his name and family to establish that the potion was working, and then move directly to questions about Malfoy. He didn't fear it.
Later that morning, Ron was licking the fuzzy taste that Veritaserum always left behind from his teeth, and settling in behind his desk, having been cleared conclusively of the suspicion that he'd made Malfoy disappear. He worked on his real cases for a solid hour, in case anyone looked in, and then he locked the door and cast a Silencing Charm inside that would make it seem to anyone who listened that he was out getting lunch.
And he sat there, and let his mind work through all the evidence.
Harry hadn't wanted to tell Ginny the truth and make her furious. He had wanted to be able to watch over his children without alienating them. He had wanted to be with Malfoy.
What better plan, in that case, then to pretend to die, but leave a simulacrum to bleed for him, a body that Ginny and the children could bury, and Ron and Hermione mourn over? He could go to Malfoy—as large as the Manor was, Ron thought, Malfoy could make Harry disappear into the corridors for a while—and then Malfoy would vanish and they would go somewhere together.
Somewhere that Harry could watch his friends and family and maybe even still be part of their lives.
Ron was thinking about the birthday present that had arrived for Lily two days after Harry's death, from an unknown source. The owl had flown away immediately after the package was removed. It had been wrapped in red and gold paper, and had been a practice Snitch, since Lily was the one who had inherited her father's Quidditch skills.
Everyone had comforted Lily when she burst into tears and assumed it must be from someone wealthy who'd admired Harry and was upset about his death.
Maybe it was.
Maybe it wasn't.
Ron opened and closed his fists. He had already decided that trying to explain things to Ginny would only fuck everything up. He wondered if he should come to a similar conclusion about Ginny's children, his niece and nephews. Among other things, it would be hard, and horrible, to ask them to keep a secret from their mother.
And what about his other nieces and nephews, and his own children? Did they have a right to know, or not? Would it be better to let them keep the image of their heroic uncle and not tarnish it? Because Ron knew it wasn't a case of tearing the truth wide open and letting it shine, anymore. The Ministry had known about some of this, but not all of it—how they'd reacted to Malfoy's disappearance proved that—and they had been content to let things stay the way they were.
Ron opened and closed his eyes. Then he nodded. He had made the decision. He was going to tell Hermione, because she was like him, mourning not for a member of her family but for her best friend. And they had always gone after Harry, through every danger. If they couldn't go with him all the way, they had been there for part of it. They had insisted that he tell them about the Horcruxes, a secret in its way more dangerous than the ones that Harry had been keeping by collusion with Malfoy and the Ministry.
She deserved to know.
Ron, finally, reached out and picked up the last two letters from the pile, the ones he hadn't read yet, the ones he had almost decided not to read when he found the book and when he saw the empty grave through the eyes of his Patronus. He didn't think they were fake. Not anymore. Malfoy had come up with a convincing reason for them being so, but Malfoy, unlike Harry, was a good liar.
No. Unlike the Harry I knew, the one side of the mask.
Ron settled back, and read.
You're right. I'm sorry. I was fighting the temptation, and failing to fight because of the temptation. By now, though, I should bloody well have made up my mind. You told me what you came up with, and you don't have the same reasons to have my loyalty to Ginny and the children.
I love Ginny because she makes me happy. I love you because you make me laugh.
I love my children because they're my children, and I can't imagine not loving them. I love you because I can't imagine turning away.
I love Ginny because we went through the trials of becoming husband and wife together, and taught each other how to be married. I love you because you taught me that I had more power and more will than I knew, and we taught each other how to channel them.
This started from a craving for excitement. And I thought it would never get this far. Then, when it did, I didn't know how to end either side of my life, because I thought doing it for either would prove that I hated the other person.
Now I know it doesn't. I couldn't expect anyone else ever to understand that. Ron and Hermione would hate me for cheating on Ginny, and I know it's not fair to expect them to feel otherwise.
But this is private, and you and I are the only ones who will ever know. I make the decision. I'll come to you.
I love you.
Ron took a deep breath, and nodded. Yes, he had been right, and that meant his decision to tell Hermione held.
It might not be fair for Harry to expect Ron and Hermione to offer him a second chance. But that was what they were going to do. And he didn't have the right to forbid them to learn the whole truth or confront him, either. He had made his decision in privacy, and he had been wrong about no one else ever finding out.
Then Ron paused. A moment later, he felt a reluctant smile tug at his mouth.
He had learned many things about Harry in the past fortnight. How good a liar he was, how ruthless he was, how magically powerful, what his other life had been like. How intelligent he was.
And he didn't think someone intelligent, someone who wanted to believe himself beyond being found by anyone ever again, would have left these letters and the underlined book behind, even under a ward. It had been a reference in the letters that had led Ron to Closecopse, and everything unraveled from there.
Ron stood up and gathered all the letters. Then he went to unlock the door and tell the Head Auror he was taking the rest of the day off after all, returning to his holiday. After the questioning earlier, they would think that he had every right.
And he would go home and firecall Hermione and lay these letters in front of her, and they would make the decision together. But Ron was sure that hers would be the same as his.
Harry wasn't done with them. They weren't done with him. He had deceived them, terribly, by feigning his own death and by carrying on with Malfoy all these years. But he had also left the means for them to track him down, and find out what he had been like, and decide from there whether they wanted to accept his "death" as a severing or not.
And Ron didn't.
I want to know the whole Harry. The whole layers of masks, not just the top one.
His strides lengthened, and he left the Ministry with a soft glow of pleasure in his being. Pleasure in being able to show Hermione the letters, and explain what had been worrying him for the last weeks. Pleasure in having someone else who would help him decide how far it was permissible to explain to the rest of the family.
Pleasure in the thought of seeing his best friend again, and shaking, or punching, the truth out of him.
These thoughts were neither old nor new, but resurrected.