Harry rushed outside and down the front walk, arms waving. He spun in place as he searched the eaves and gutters of the surrounding buildings. Praying to catch a flash of tawny feathers, his heart sank as he realized the owl was well and truly gone.
The frantic young man ran back inside, skidding to a halt in the parlor. "Do you think we can catch it?!"
Ginny blinked hard, lips parted, and then caught his meaning. The witch eagerly dug into her jacket, nodding. "You're right! We can! It couldn't have gone far, either."
She threw down her doll-sized chest and enlarged it as it fell. The chest blew up and landed with a trembling slam. Ginny spelled it open and clambered inside, hurrying down its built-in set of stairs. As she talked, the top of her head disappeared past the chest's edge. "I'll go after the owl! You get the memory to the Ministry!"
"No, you've got to get to camp," Harry protested, running up and speaking down into the wizard space. A flight below him, a lamp came on, illuminating his girlfriend hopping around on one foot, shoving the other in flying tights.
"Ginny, wait! I'll do both. I'll catch the letter and, and then I'll go to Ron and the Aurors! But you can't be late."
"I won't, I swear! Accio Cloud Cleaver!"
There sounded a smart pat of lacquered wood hitting dragonhide gloves. Gusts of charged air blew back Harry's fringe, sending adrenaline coursing through him. He wheeled away from the chest at her warning shout.
As he fell back, Ginny burst from the chest in an enchanted flurry and a rib-rattling whoomf! She sat astride her playing broom, booted feet planted in the bronze stirrups. Its gleaming, forest green handle narrowed to a backwards slanted edge and flowed into coiled, bronze bristles. It was last year's Nimbus Racing team model, in Holyhead emerald: the '01 WX Cloud Cleaver.
Harry loved that broom. He'd seen Ginny hang from it, practicing her sloth grip in the yard. Or whizz by at her scrimmages, ponytail snapping. Or done up spectacularly in matching greens and golds, flying past and dive bombing a Quaffle like a true harpy, half-woman half-hawk.
The Cloud Cleaver had proved itself as the fastest broom on the market. Even the manufacturers failed to outdo themselves. No newer broom could beat it.
Its Chaser offset the glorious piece in understated flying gear. Inspired by Muggle under armour, Ginny had commissioned her own grey bodysuit, worn under padding and a hooded cloak. Compression bands ringed the limbs for circulation. The thin insulation regulated piercing cold and beating heat.
Those shades of dun, charcoal and hazel grey disguised the technology put into that suit. If Ginny ever leaked that George dabbled in athletic wear, her brother would stay buried in commissions.
Harry burned with envy, even though, if he asked, George would make him one, too. Knowing the inventor, he probably had one ready, made to Harry's measurements. But since turning indoors, Harry only thought to ask and never did.
God, I miss flying, he yearned, already feeling the remembered wind take him while taking in Ginny as a whole,
She looked stealthy. With some arrangement, the suit and cloak camouflaged her bright orange hair and the flashy equipment beneath her. Harry had to admit that between them, she looked better suited to catch the owl swiftly and secretly. But he also knew from experience that he was still the faster flyer.
Harry summoned the Potter register. He gave the book both his arms to pop into and thought of the map. The book's responsive spine directed the pages to turn.
Maybe I spend too much time with this thing, he wondered. The register answered his wishes like a broom, rising into his hand. A mirror image of the map wavered off of the paper like heat lines, soaking through a blank sheet of parchment conjured over top.
Harry closed the book and held it underarm, a photographic copy of the map floating before him.
"You look great," Harry said, leaning on every word. "But, and no offense, really, I'm still faster than you."
"Are you?," his girlfriend pushed, reseating her feet in the stirrups. The map stayed unmoved between them. "I don't doubt it, honestly, since you're kind of a prodigy. But you haven't flown in months—."
"Hey, I can catch an owl!"
"And," she continued, "no offense back, but I'm a stronger duelist. Which," she smiled ruefully, "is brilliant to say to the guy who defeated Voldemort. But I have more stopping power. So, if I stop the owl and you warn the Aurors—."
"Wait, you're going to duel the owl? I thought you were just gonna take the letter from it?"
Ginny shook her head as she drew up her hood. It shadowed her face, leaving her pink lips talking while her other particular features—brown eyes, fair lashes, freckles—were hidden from view.
"It's best to be prepared, is all. Plus, any Death Eater lashing out at the Malfoys is going to hate Harry Potter on principle. You'd be safer going on foot into a hub of Aurors, than up on a broom going Godric-knows-where by yourself.
"Next plus, you've got the Ministry sway, not me," she shrugged. Ginny hovered over to Harry and came down to eye level. He inched back some of the hood, underneath which she stared at him solemnly.
"I'm sports, Harry, not law and politics. Without you, no Auror will take this seriously. Because if the Ministry's convinced all the surviving Death Eaters are caught, they'll call this some hoax. Meaning this guy could get away."
"So, we both agree it's real," he clarified, relieved at her quick nod. "Good, because I wasn't sure if you…"
"I don't like the Malfoys, so what," she shrugged again. "I absolutely don't trust them. Most of me thinks this could be a stunt to make them look persecuted, since I know they've done it before.
"But if we waste time trying to convince each other, and there's really a rogue Death Eater out there, people are in danger. Worst case scenario is we get had, and the Prophet coddles the Malfoys again. And if this is all just a bid for sympathy, I trust we can handle it."
Harry gripped the handle of the broom. Then finger-by-finger, he let it go. As she drifted away, she tapped herself on the head, casting a thick Disillusionment. She dipped in while the parlor scenery melted over her, and Ginny kissed him with cold, slick lips, before zipping toward the still open front door.
"I'll hurry back!," she called. "Accio map!"
He gave his blessing as the map fluttered over to the Chaser. However, as the witch took off from the stoop, Harry realized something she'd implied. If a Death Eater was tracking the owl to find Snape, then Ginny might run into them. Depending on a letter to reveal Snape's whereabouts, of course they would attack whoever stopped it.
Pulse racing, he sped out after her, but to her advantage and his despair, she invisibly rode the fastest broom made to date. Harry only managed to see a funny warping of the roof across the way. Then even that vanished, leaving behind a frazzled roost of pigeons in a puff of dust.
"Can't catch her," Harry hummed, both proud and worried, with head sore from spinning. "It's okay. She'll be fine…"
He did the only thing he felt he could then, checked himself for the vial, and Apparated to the Ministry.
The Department of Magical Law Enforcement beheld a woefully familiar sight. Goings on had yet to die down for the Aurors, given the recent bookings of Rodolphus Lestrange and the Carrow twins. The headlines over the last week had a general theme.
What had taken so long to put the last of Voldemort under Azkaban?
"It's lackadaisical justice!," or so espoused the Daily Prophet.
"It took how long it took," defended the lead Aurors, giving the news their backs.
Since the war, a reckoning had come for law enforcement. The department had leagues still until it bleached the stain left by Snatchers. And once the golden hero, Harry Potter, declined to join the Academy, Aurors became even tighter lipped under the call for transparency.
Harry's friends understood he needed the break. To the DMLE, however, this was a major embarrassment, from which they'd yet to recover. The rejection fueled the effigy pyre of public opinion.
Of course, it was nobody's job to trust the Auror Corps, with its mixed past and questionable methods. And as such, each officer did their part to survive the media frenzy at all of their feet. None did so more than Ronald Bilius Weasley.
"No comment," said Ron, sidling through a wall of voracious reporters.
The vultures flooded Level Two, hollering and hoping to get a quote. Woefully, a few glory hounds amid this year's trainees gave up a morsel of time every so often. So now the papers cropped up every day like carrion birds to pick at all their bones. Aurors, backs straight and eyes forward, struggled in single file through the swarm.
"Auror Weasley! A word! Are the rumors true regarding the illicit affair between Miss Granger and her werewolf assistant?"
Ron kept apace with the more senior Aurors ahead of him. He shocked himself by no longer counting himself among the greenhorn gossips. But how could he? He wasn't a smudgy teen anymore, clamoring for recognition. In fact, he wished largely to be left to his work.
A pinch of fame in restaurants and a public mention on most holidays was all Ron needed. It took predictably little time in the limelight to figure that out.
"Mister Weasley! Mister Weasley! Do you support Miss Granger's creature haven in the people's Ministry? What about the innocent families attacked by creatures during the war? Do they not deserve justice?"
Merlin, they're out here today, he boggled.
The papers were absolutely rabid. The war made Hogwarts' '98 and '99 classes permanent celebrities. They all now lived the life Harry had since eleven, and Hermione since fourteen. The Daily Prophet alone had turned his best friend and little sister into recluses. Tabloids had driven his girlfriend spare. Shameless she-devil Rita Skeeter had gone so rank for readership, and had it out for one Hermione Granger, that paired with the heed his mother paid rumors, Skeeter kept a wedge in Ron's family to this day.
The redhead hoped to return to a scandal-free life soon. Luckily, the last Death Eater capture was already two weeks old. The trials would pass quickly, and after that, Level Two at the least would return to normal.
A quill-toting hand knocked the wind out of him. A camera flashed in his eyes, stunning him mid-thought.
"Ronald Weasley! What says Harry Potter regarding his lack of contribution to the Death Eater round up?! Does he feel no responsibility for letting evil men escape the Battle of Hogwarts?! Any words about your friend abandoning you to clean up his mess?"
That one rankled. The speck of Ron that resented Harry for his solitude, the one nib usually ignored at the bottom of the Auror's mind—it scratched him. Ron shoved the quill away, shouting, "No bloody comment! Now move outta my way!"
This incited such a rush that Ron didn't notice the curly mop pushing toward him in the crowd. A swell of "Ron Weasley! Auror Weasley!" overpowered this one person desperately calling his name. Ron, who by consensus, was made to tail the other Aurors into the office, felt something brush his back before he was jerked to a stop.
He turned and grew hot, about to make the evening special. A foot pinned the hem of his robes, as a man who'd slipped well into his personal space crushed into his back in the mob. Lights flashed with acrid pops, no doubt capturing Ron's pissed grimace for the next front page: "Weasley Wrecks Reporter: A Loose Cannon With A Short Fuse?"
"Oi! Who d'you think—!" He was nearly nose-to-nose with the guy, so it only took a second to recognize his hard set green eyes. "Harry!?"
An uproar ensued. The cameras exploded in pops and clatters amid a deafening swell. Some reporters threw rapid-fire questions barely intelligible as speech, while the rest only shouted, "Look here! No, here! HARRY POTTER!" The crowd went mad. Even Ron was dumbfounded, as the first publicly known sighting of Harry Potter, Man-Who-Conquered, happened on his uniform trim.
And as the journalists all clawed for a bit of the Chosen One's time, or even a peek at him for their articles, it escaped none of their notice that said vanquishing hermit hero came hefting a golden book, with aggressively dirty hair, dressed in a housecoat and slippers.
It looked every bit like a nervous breakdown, a rich boy's fall, affirming years of rumors that the man had gone mad. The public would eat it up.
"Ron! I need your help!," Harry panted over the racket. The Auror threw back his head, resigned to the chaos. And if a genuine laugh picked up the corners of his mouth, the owner of said mouth didn't notice.
"Yeah, sure, and of course now. Let's get you inside."
"Mister Potter! Please, Mister Potter, where have you been hiding for the last few years?! Are you avoiding the public eye out of guilt?!"
"What?," questioned the dark-headed hero, startled. Ron, knowing and dreading the coming onslaught, started corralling Harry toward escape.
"C'mon, mate, ignore 'em. They're barmy."
"But!" Ron pushed him toward the Auror Office entrance, leading with his arm. The crowd resisted, but gave and parted, lest they be trampled by the persistent men.
"That's it, all you, enough. Move, move."
They made grudging progress to Proudfoot, who held the door open with grisly determination. Harry preceded Ron into the office, lit up by conjured sunlight, until with a harsh bark from Proudfoot, the office door snapped close, muffling the frenzy outside.
Through the warped glass of the door, they could still see the roiling blob of bodies perforated by flashing lights. Ron felt for anyone who arrived late, as the hall would likely stay packed until evening. Were it on the crowd that latecomers were mauled.
The closest officers hovered around Ron and Harry, dumbstruck. They stood ogling the mess behind them, as well as the startlingly present hero himself. Some moved from surprise to resentment fairly quickly. Others lingered by irritation and concern.
"Well, that's that for the rest of the day. They'll never leave," grumbled an officer working intake. She was broad and bovine, with big sleepy eyes peering at them from beneath bleached, choppy bangs.
"Any proper journalist to hear Harry Potter is down by us might get fired if anything's missed. Man, and I got a cousin at the Prophet, too? Bet he's prolly setting up camp by the toilets."
"Preposterous," opined a silver-haired Auror with square wire-rimmed spectacles. This old man toted an accordion folder bulging with files and tended to a pocket watch on a chain. He eyed Harry with poorly concealed disdain.
"It's a hazard and a nuisance! Now, young man, we're all well appreciative of your work with You-Know-Who, but likely it's best you'd gone home. This is a place of public duties, not some two-bit stage for stunt-pulling!"
"Leave off, Whicket, you stuffed shirt," quelled Proudfoot then, holding out a gloved hand for quiet. "Weasley's tasked on DEs, so this's under me. Doubt he's only here to shoot the shite."
The group of grumbling Aurors settled down. Contrarily, the rumpled savior perked up at "DEs" and stepped forward in earnest. Ron became one of a dozen scarlet-robbed figures by Harry, but the only by his side. He gave his mate a warning squeeze on the bicep and reeled him in.
Ron mumbled an apology for Harry's eccentricity. His supervisor twitched a heavy brow at them and glowered. Then, grunting, Proudfoot jerked a thumb at the briefing rooms down by Interrogation.
"Whatever it is, you got an hour, then he's gone and you're back to your desk. Outta sight, Weasley."
Ron gave a shallow bow and towed his best friend off by his elbow.
"Wait! Sir, this may concern you, too!" Harry broke free, tuning out Ron's exasperated sigh. "There's been a Death Eater attack, sometime this week or maybe earlier. I've come to report it!"
"Have you now?" The Auror dripped with stinking sarcasm. "And in these auspicious times, what a shame. Weasley, kindly take Mister Potter's statement and send him on his pissing way."
"Brilliant! Do you guys have a Pensieve?"
The redhead hedged and looked to his supervisor, suffering Proudfoot's squinting glare. Ron assumed that anything went, so long as he made themselves scarce. He retook his friend's arm, shushing any more objections.
"S'over here, mate." Bearings looks of scalding displeasure until the two turned a corner, Ron then sighed. He sagged, rubbing his straining neck while throwing an arm over Harry's shoulders.
"Bloody hell, Harry...I respect you wanna stay low, I mean it, really. I get it! But I've gotta tell you: staying cooped up's made you a tad bit dense to regular people.
"I have to work here, you know!"
He glanced down at his friend and knew he'd missed the point. Ron clapped the shorter man's back, and led him through to processing. Officers and academy twerps poked out their heads at the pair's passing. Whispers and groans followed them till they dipped into the first available room.
Papered walls and a stone table awaited them. Sparing his friend the bulldogging, since it was a talk not an interview, Ron dimmed the lighting from searing white to a more comfortable glow. He cast a counter to the perpetual draft and, transfiguring a chair not bolted to the ground, he sat them both on the same side of the table.
With a murmured spell, he unsealed the basin set into the table's surface. A Pensieve rose, revealing its inscribed bowl and its carved base. It glided over to Ron, and settled between the two young men. Interrogation had only a few rooms, but each came equipped with a Pensieve for taking confessions. They worked opposite to the Obliviators—Interrogators hoarded what clean-up wipes away.
Ron spent a second watching Harry fidget in his seat. Luckily he'd seen his friend just yesterday, when he was less agitated and more like himself. In the context of his day job, Harry looked like twitchy, like a suspect brought it for questioning.
He even seemed sick, having gone grey when the Pensieve ghosted toward them. One would think Ron had gone and raised the dead, for how ill he seemed.
"Uh, yeah, erm, here," stammered Harry, eyes not leaving the bowl. He unfurled his fist and showed a tiny vial of silver memories. It was barely full, telling Ron it likely held a couple memories at most.
He took the vial, uncorked it and dumped it unceremoniously into the medium. The memory flowed as it developed. Meanwhile, Ron asked Harry if he was okay.
His friend seemed shakier than even a minute before, when he boldly pushed through the crowd. Now, the briefing rooms were built for interviewing criminals. So, the young Auror could admit that being in one gave one the creeps. However, so much unease as what poured off his friend seemed unwarranted.
And hermit or not, nothing about his baggy eyes or worn house clothes denoted a steady mind.
The Pensieve swirled mistily. "Whose memory's this, mate?" Ron then felt a trill of alarm and grabbed Harry's robe. "Is it yours?! Or Ginny's?! Was Grimmauld Place attacked?!"
"No, no! Ginny's, um—Grimmauld Place is fine! I got this from the Malfoys. They were attacked."
"Oh, oka—what?! Who the hell's attacking the Malfoys? And why'd they come to you? Er, like no offense, you're swell, but the Malfoys should hardly think so."
Ron hopped up dive into the memory. He stopped when he found Harry still seated. The other wizard looked blindsided. "...Look, are you sure you're okay? I know you've had a rough week and eh, I can't tell if you're burning to do this or absolutely shiteing."
"Both? I just, need a second? Sorry." Harry glances up at him but returned to the bowl. "The last time I was in a Pensieve, I came out having to die. It wasn't a warm fuzzy experience, to be quite honest. And every time before that was miserable as well. I haven't...done this since."
Ron watched awkwardly while Harry sucked in a lungful of courage. He seemed to be convincing his body to move.
"Okay, okay, I'm good. Can't happen twice, right? Probably fine."
Harry scraped back his chair and stood ramrod straight. His housecoat parted to reveal a hideous, oversized sweater full of snags and a spot of crusted egg yolk. Below that were sweatpants, thrown on backwards, with an ember burn in one pocket. The hole exposed a patch of hairy thigh underneath. The man looked homeless.
Mum's gonna have a fit seeing this! I'll have to tell Dad to hide the paper.
Harry leaned into the basin. Ron silently debated siccing his mother on him. Molly Weasley would get the boy cleaned up and fed faster than a Floo. His empty nester folks could use someone to coddle, and Harry clearly needed coddling.
His friend's slippers disappeared into the Pensieve. Ron followed.
They arrived in a wide glass solarium furnished in pale woods and delicately blooms in pots and vases. A polished silver serving tray rested upended on the marble tiles. A tea service of squished desserts, shattered pots and cups littered the otherwise gleaming floor. The room was over-warm and reeked of charred plants.
The two wizards were on either side of a cold-eyed Narcissa Malfoy sheathed in white. After taking in the upset space, they followed her gaze out the glass.
"Bloody rich bastards! This garden is huge! Oh."
Ron hawed at the sprawling gardens laid out before them. Rainbows of every flower and dozens of fine trees decorated the grounds. And burning black in view from above was "TRAITORS," scribed in torched flora, stretching toward the manor house.
"One second." Ron pressed his nose to the window as much as he could without phasing through the memory.
Below them, Draco Malfoy ran into the gardens, arms waving. A meager crew of house elves rushed to douse the flames, and they all went into a tizzy at Malfoy heir's appearance.
Faded shouts passed through the glass to the spectators. Reflected in it was Mrs. Malfoy's face twisted in fury.
"This looks staged," snapped Ron, pointing at the woman, the spilled meal, and the garden.
"That message is in perfect line of sight. How did some intruder know exactly where Mrs. Malfoy would be this time of day? Even a Death Eater who's been here before, they'd have to know her habits and where she'd be sitting, or else the letters'd be off.
"And we see this prat Malfoy running up, but no suspect running away? This is a straight out view for at least an acre! And burning in the message this takes time. Ditching Apparition, since we know Malfoy Manor doesn't allow it, we should see someone legging it for the treeline.
“But we dont, not that either."
"So it's fake?" Harry took in Mrs. Malfoy's profile with visible disappointment.
"I'm just saying this owl won't hunt. It's a holey story at best."
"She," Ron gestured to the woman, now blinking away crystalline tears, "takes tea looking over her garden. She sees fire or smells smoke, whichever, so she jumps up," he waved at the mess, "runs over and reads the threat. She gets upset, saves the memory and goes to...well, you, mate, which is still a little weird.
"It's too tame. No attempt on her life, even though this person had access and opportunity, knew her exact location and that she'd be there alone. If this is some vengeful ex-associate, a Voldemort sympathizer itching to attack, why isn't she at least hurt? Look at her, Harry, she's perfect! It's just some spooky letters."
"So, she tricked me. Dammit!" Harry turned to smoke and disappeared.
Ron loitered an extra moment, nodding at his own assessment. Thinking he'd done well—he had felt rather sharp, and Harry could no longer be had—he witnessed the last minute of the memory.
Mrs. Malfoy dabbed the welling moisture from her eyes. She pulled away from the window, as below her son noticed her and hurried their way. As she retreated, the woman fixed the tuck of her hair and brushed crumbs from her vestments. Wrapped in chilling calm, she spelled away the destroyed tea and strode to the entrance, long sleeves floating beside her.
She met Malfoy with open arms. Ron, now stumped, moved around to find her face rigid and blank, chin perched on her son's shoulder. Her voice, on the other hand, phoned in affected shock.
"Draco, how did you know to come? Please, something terrible has happened. You must check on the house in Riga. Warn Severus that he may have been discovered."
Of course they know Snape's alive, he reasoned. They're hiding him somewhere. He wished he brought a notepad. He settled for remembering the place, Riga, and returned to the scene.
"R-right." Malfoy spun out of his mother's arms, the woman turning her face to seem distraught.
As such Ron couldn't miss the blond boy's hunched shoulders and guilty expression. While he left the scene, his mother brought her head up, face transformed by rage, glaring at his back as he fled.
The exchange threw the Auror with its pathetically weak pretense. Without saying so, it was obvious that Draco Malfoy had a part in this "attack." And without accusing him, it was obvious Mrs. Malfoy knew.
The redhead squinted. "Then why report it?"
The memory dissolved around him, depositing Ron in the briefing room beside his quiet friend. Harry had resumed sitting, glaring at the empty vial on the table. Ron scratched his head, unexcited by the prospect of having to question him. He took some time to return the memory to the vial and place it back in front of Harry.
"Not to pry," he started hesitantly, "but why'd she come to you with this?"
Harry furrowed his brow and eventually looked up from the vial. "I dunno, Ron, because I'm gullible? Geez, what, am I a suspect?"
"Nah, but you sure answer like one," Ron cringed. He realized he may have been looming out of habit, as Harry began to radiate hurt defiance. He retook his seat by him, tamping down on his nerves and aiming for honesty. "You missed some things in that memory, is all."
"Like what? Was it real after all?"
"Kinda...seems complicated. See, Malfoy looks good for this 'attacker,' mostly 'cause his face can't lie. He had access, opportunity, the knowledge of her habits, and likely is why she wasn't hurt. I admit I don't know his motive, but he's part of it. And his mum figured it out right in front of us.
"So knowing that Mrs. Malfoy has never flipped on her son, it's wild to think of why she'd report him to us. Why bring it to the Aurors? Except she didn't! She brought it to you. And I gotta ask why, mate, I just have to.
"What's this thing you have with this lot? First Snape being alive, now a Malfoy trusting you? When you helped put her husband in jail twice? Hermione thinks you know more than you tell us. And I thought we were done with—."
"We are! I don't know why the Malfoys trusts me! I don't know that much more than you, clearly!"
"But there's something?"
His friend sat silent for several beats. Ron could hear murmuring office life through the walls. Someone outside mentioned coffee, like another complained about the weather. A memo whistled by the door.
His mind started supplying nebulous worst case scenarios. He imagined a cloud of Dark magic engulfing his friend. He imagined seedy dealings down Knockturn Alley. Paranoia rose to the surface like flotsam. What might Harry say?
Then Harry sighed and Ron tensed, fearing a blow out—either from Harry or himself, he couldn't predict.
His friend leaned over to pull his wand from his robe. The length of warm wood flowed silver as he put it to his temple. The disheveled wizard winced, drawing the wand away and into the Pensieve. A vaporous memory streamed after it and wafted into the bowl.
"This is the Malfoys asking for help a little while ago. Please don't show it to anyone else," Harry explained, oddly subdued. Ron peeked into the swirl and frowned, concerned.
"It's nothing bad. They just mention Snape like he's alive and I really don't need that spreading around. Ginny was there, too, so...but I figure you can use it to look into.
"I'll leave Mrs. Malfoy's memory here for the formal report. If you don't push it too hard, it just looks like a regular attack."
Ron shook his head, stalling Harry as the other man meant to leave. "We can't investigate with only half the evidence. If it's gonna be like this, just keep the memory and submit whatever."
"Alright. I'll do that."
Ron leveled his friend with a worried look and, only pausing slightly, he gripped the man's arms to steady them both. "You won't answer my questions, Harry. For real. And you look bloody awful."
"Oh, ta, thanks. I always look like this—stop—okay, well I didn't sleep much last night. It's nothing."
"All the family stuff getting to you?"
"I mean, it can't not get to me, but I'm handling it. I've done all I can about that for now, I won't obsess over it, y'know?"
"...Then why'd you bring the book with you? Did you even notice?"
Ron didn't miss Harry's flinch, or his mouth thinning till it nearly disappeared. "If you need a, a break, even from your own head, you can always go to the Burrow. My mum would love to have you, and—and if you can't talk to me, or Hermione, if you're afraid of us knowing something, y'know Dad won't push.
"Just leave off all this sneaky shite and rest! You're kinda freaking me out here."
"I don't…," Harry trailed off, scowling. The wizard was frustrated, Ron could tell. His look of anger bred with loss told Ron that much, and putting his worries aside, he shook his best friend with tried affection.
Harry continued, eyes downcast, "It's not that I don't want to tell you. God, I've said that before, and this week just—it's hard, since I never thought I'd have to think about it again, and you know how I, um, how I get sometimes."
Ron nodded, relieved he understood. Once, back when he could lure Harry into a night out, the hero had gotten tipsy on Ogden's best and butterbeer. He went on to tell the bar that he'd almost been a Slytherin. The bar's patrons all gasped and cajoled while Harry insisted that the Sorting Hat—"a rubbish fuckin', erp! Sorry, Hermione!"—had wanted him to be a "slippery snake."
He had then started to hiss, giving everyone drink-heavy chills.
Having freshly fought a war together, Ron couldn't believe it. But now, he knew Harry differently. Harry was a bit of a shut-in who could expect one letter from his aunt on his twenty-first birthday. In it was always five quid and a picture of his cousin's baby. Both things Harry would keep in a box in his bedroom. It'd stay buried under half-written thank you notes Hermione couldn't make him send.
This was who he was.
It was the same Harry from school, who balked at his first proper Christmas. The short kid with the bars on his window. The trouble magnet, no parents to keep him in check.
After the fighting and the funerals, he had told Ron about before Hogwarts, about the cupboard. To this day, Ron thought it his wet-eyed apology for what followed, the growing up bit and the closing off, the building of a bigger cupboard and Harry's climbing back inside.
Ron knew how his friend was. Not a snake, so much, but just as tightly coiled, thin and armored, living in the dark.
"Just tell me why I can't help," he bargained. The redhead answered his friend's startled hiss with a snort. "Hey, I know my limits. I just wanna know why I can't help you, what's keeping it all in."
"It's—okay." Harry looked around, flushing, dropping the vial in his pocket and gathering his gilded family tree. He took a deep breath and Ron, trying for patient listening, nodded encouragement as he started to speak.
"It's like this—why're you bobbing your, okay—let's say you have a partner, right? Another Auror your age and they're given all the same tasks you are, you have the same duties, you're working real close together, but they...er, but they have the lead Auror's ear. They have access to them. Would you be totally comfortable with that person?"
"What, like they're gonna rat me out to my supervisor?"
"No, it's! Like, they could be your supervisor, but they're playing along at your level. So at any second, they could go in a room with, let's say Proudfoot, and close the door and then walk out like nothing happened. But something did, happen.
“Would you trust them as a partner? Could you work with them and tell them everything? Knowing they have power and pretend they don't."
"N—are we talking about you? Are you me in this?"
Harry shrunk in, folding his arms and frowning at his slippers. "No, I'm, uh. I'm the other guy. The faker."
"You're too worried to talk to me because then I might see you as…'the other guy.' And not trust you?"
"Yeah, basically. I mean, I, uh. I did some stuff to, um. To help Snape, because I kind of owed him, but also he kinda owed me for being such a dick, so. I didn't want any fuss, I wanted to let well enough alone, so I guess you could say I 'pulled a few strings.' Eurgh, that feels horrid just to say."
Ron let some of his bewilderment show as he tried to make sense of things. "So, you pulled some strings with Proudfoot—."
"Er, the head of...?"
"...Higher. And higher than that."
Ron tried to imagine who Harry could've met with, knowing the structure of the DMLE. Then he realized who Harry was and who Harry knew, and had his answer.
If someone asked the Ron Weasley of four years ago, he'd have accepted a friendly ask between Harry and Kingsley. They were both Order members, and what as a favor between them, really? However now, as part of the ministry hive, Ron knew the dizzying heights from a civilian on the street to the Minister of Magic's ear. It called for a ridiculously tall bloke.
Even Hermione, a ministry head, and a personal friend to the man, only wrote to him or spoke through his assistant. Through the massive gains of her projects, she earned a right to request with favorable outcome. But even she, even members of the Wizengamot, other department heads, diplomats, they all had a process, with limits and rules and wait times and widespread publicity.
"Kingsley?," Ron asked, aghast. Harry shrugged. The Auror looked around as if they'd be overheard. "He knows about—."
"I asked how much he needed to know and he said less was best," Harry detailed. "So, no, he didn't know. He doesn't. I just, asked for something and he made it happen. He said he'd trust me that it wasn't bad."
"What'd you ask for?" Harry blew a gusty sigh and mussed his hair. "Relax, Harry, I'm just curious."
"It was nothing big! I mean it was, but I wasn't—just asked that, uh. That some Aurors not search a room, mostly. Give some, stuff if stuff was needed, some. It was nothing!"
"Harry!" The boy looked hunted. Ron, who had definitely begun to loom at this point, stepped back and apologized. The other wizard loosed an audible sigh of relief.
He told professional lookers not to look. He made Aurors look away, Ron thought dizzily. The Minister of Bloody Magic! For Snape! Just Harry!
The Auror didn't ask if the unsearched room was in Malfoy Manor. He had heard enough to piece that the Malfoys hid Snape, and that Harry helped them. Of course with that kind of influence, Mrs. Malfoy would seek Harry out for her troubles.
Ron couldn't help looking at him as a league of his own. He always had been, of course, but in adult life, not school or war, with bills and relationships, Ron forgot. However, an insane feat had been managed. Any string plucked for Snape would hum loudly. And to pull on the Minister, well—it'd prove a mighty long string not to notice.
But the public knew nothing. Harry's friends knew nothing.
To move like that with the Minister evoked Lucius Malfoy and Fudge. But Harry and Shacklebolt were such disparate figures to those two that Ron shook off the thought. Still, as the wizard had said, he'd walked into a closed room and left like nothing happened.
But something did. Snape had survived. Nobody knew. The spy played dead and vanished. Harry retreated, and life went on, fundamentally changed.
Ron knew better than Harry that Snape was the most wanted man in Britain. He was more than some morally grey martyr. He was twenty years of secrets cloaked in black. Every time a Death Eater evaded them, the Aurors cursed his death. To have a single notebook of the man's notes, the government by itself would pay millions.
When their world honored Snape, it mourned questions it couldn't even know to ask, much less answer.
"Can we drop it, Ron, please? I'm pretty much dead on my feet."
This little shite's part of a major fuckin' cover-up. Ron moved aside as he processed this. His best friend eyed him nervously and moved again to leave.
Shuffling away in his housecoat, he resembled the type to rant about "Snape's Great Escape" on a corner outside the Prophet. The irony of that made Ron shout, "Oi! This weekend, we're going out, yeah?"
Harry stared at him, off centered, head already shaking. "I don't think that's smart. I'm pretty sure I caused a scene coming here, so we won't get hardly any peace."
Ron grinned with what he hoped was confidence. "We'll find some nowhere place, a real hole where they don't wash the cups. Sticky floors, nobody knows anybody. You'll love it."
"No, I don't wanna—."
"Don't worry about it. I'll pay! Wait, naw, you're loaded. You'll still pay, but I'll be designated for speedy getaway. It's been a while! Let's do it!"
Harry watched him suspiciously, to which he grinned wider. It was a patented Weasley tactic, never failed. As expected, Harry huffed and rolled his eyes, swallowing a smile. "Fine. Don't whine when we've got to leave out the bathrooms."
"I absolutely will, but promise not to blame you. Here, lemme walk you out. You'll want to avoid the halls. And mate, throw out those sweatpants. I can see your boxers."