The last thing he had expected when he'd entered the Room of Requirement was a duel, with a Death Eater look-alike no less, but now that he was in it, he was finding himself oddly satisfied. With each blast he shot at the dummy, emotion burst out of him; it was exhausting but fulfilling, and it was, indeed, just what he needed.

For once he didn't have to think about Zabini, or Kenny, or that freak show in the hospital wing. The suspense he felt reminded him of being back with Harry and Hermione when they had just barely escaped the Ministry. With the usual pang of guilt, Ron became distracted for a second and one of the dummy's spells got through, throwing him back into a cushioned wall, his wand flown out of his hand.

The dummy leaned back and lowered its wand arm, then glided back to the center of the room and just hovered there, as if to declare its victory. But Ron wasn't ready to acquiesce; he felt incensed, inspired: he retrieved his wand and scrambled up to face the dummy again.

"Hey! We're not finished!" he yelled. Perfect, now you're talking to things. The dummy raised its wand and Ron sent a stunning spell right back at its chest. It leaned back a second, its head moving back and forth slowly, creepily, until Ron blasted it again. But just as Ron allowed himself to consider that he might be winning the duel, the dummy shot a fast spell at Ron's right arm. His wand shot out of his hand and across the room and his entire arm went numb, and this time, the dummy didn't pretend it had won, but sent an Impedimenta at him, forcing him backward onto the ground. He stood quickly though and ran out of the way of the next spell.

He summoned one of his backup wands into his left hand like he had against Zabini the night before. It felt awkward in his non-dominant hand, and it struck him how debilitating it would be to lose the ability to use his right arm in a real duel; he hadn't had enough experience in the past to really grasp the implications of certain spells and curses.

"Rictusempra!" he yelled, and a weak beam of red light left his wand and made it halfway to the dummy, who disappeared suddenly into thin air. Ron spun around, came face to face with it, and ducked to avoid its next spell, then rifled off four more himself, all in quick succession and all barely having any effect at all. His right arm hung heavy and useless at his side as he realized he was going to lose this round. He brought up a weak shield and the dummy's next spell was slowed but not dissipated, and Ron fell hard onto the ground. He didn't rise to continue. The dummy lowered its wand once again and reset in the center of the room, but not before giving Ron a slight, mocking bow. He just glared at it in return.

He brought himself up into a sitting position and summoned his primary wand. It rolled slowly over to him from across the room. He swore and held up his right arm with his left hand; he couldn't feel it at al. Well, this was the Room of Requirement, wasn't it? If he needed to be healed, all he had to do was ask, and surely, the Room would provide?

As soon as he thought this, a slip of parchment appeared in front of him, with a single word written on it in giant, loopy letters: Redeo.

"Redeo," he muttered under his breath. It sounded like a spell. He raised his wand and pointed it at his right arm. "Redeo," he said again, and feeling started spreading from the tips of his fingers.

He grinned in relief and leaned back to lie on his back on the floor. He felt content. All the stress and worry that had built up throughout the day had been washed out with the duel, however terrible Ron had performed. He thought he might like to come back to the Room and practice every once in awhile. He could learn a lot by practicing with the dummy–not just dueling strategies, but healing as well, since the Room provided him with whatever he needed, whatever he asked.

If you know, you need only ask.

A chill ran down his back and he leapt to his feet. The riddle. The stupid riddle. He should have realized it before! If you have to ask, you'll never know –you couldn't enter the Room of Requirement by chance, so no one who didn't know it was there would be able to find it. If you know, you need only ask–it was that easy. He just had to ask.

And then suddenly, the Room was changing all around him, and his heart was beating fast not in dread as it had been nearly constantly for the past two weeks, but in the excitement and anticipation that only came with getting one step closer in solving a mystery. The Death Eater dummy disappeared, the cushioned walls vanished and were replaced with long, winding alleys, but instead of buildings there were shelves, and there was not an inch of space anywhere that was bare; even the floors were works of art, tiled and gilded walkways that reminded him of art he had seen in Egypt. The quality of objects ranged; a mountain of broken furniture was placed precariously next to a display of ancient and expensive looking jewelry boxes. He had to hop aside a few times as objects sprang up under him, until the Room quieted and he stood gazing into its seemingly endless depths.

He wondered if the Room was really endless as it seemed, and looked back at the door into the castle, but he could not see it. He stood there staring at the place it should have been, but he just saw another alley of hidden things.

I'm going to get bloody lost in here, he thought, but he was beaming: the Horcrux was here! I'm going to find the Horcrux!

It was at this moment that he remembered he didn't know what a diadem was. He had meant to ask Professor Flitwick, but he had been so excited to get the suggestion to talk to Helena that he had forgotten. He still thought it must be a piece of jewelry, though. It could be anywhere. He inspected the table full of bangles and necklaces, picking up each piece at random, but none of them felt like the locket had when he had worn it. He remembered the tiny heartbeat he always thought he had half imagined when he'd been holding or worse, wearing the Horcrux. He didn't feel it now.

He began walking slowly through the Room, his eyes raking the shelves and pulling objects off at random.

"Accio Horcrux," he muttered sarcastically, after he'd gone through at least ten alleys with no luck, then rolled his eyes at himself. You couldn't just Accio a piece of someone's soul–Voldemort would have put spells on it to protect it. Come to think of it, he probably shouldn't be able to pick it up like he had these other objects, either.

But then he heard a whirring noise coming from a few alleys down, and his eye caught movement ahead of him. Something was speeding toward him–an object, glinting silver, and then it stopped right in front of him, hovering in midair.

It was a crown, a tiara. He reached out and grasped it, taking it in his hands carefully, tentatively, and he gasped as he felt the pull of Voldemort's soul on his own, the feeling of dread and the feeling of guilt as he recalled vividly all that had happened to him when he had worn the locket.

But at the same time he felt elation–he had found the Horcrux! Or rather, the Horcrux had found him. Why had it been so easy? Dumbledore had nearly died trying to undo the protection around the fake locket. Why could Ron just walk into the Room of Requirement and Summon it?

Because he didn't expect anyone to get this far, Ron realized. He didn't expect anyone to figure out where the Horcrux was, let alone what it was, and that it was connected to Ravenclaw. But Dubmledore had, and now Ron held it in his hands.

Find the Horcrux and get out.

He could leave Hogwarts now. He could leave, return to Harry and Hermione–no, he couldn't, he told himself, because he didn't know where they were; he would be kidding himself if he thought he would be able to find them now if he couldn't a few weeks ago. And there was no way to tell them he had the Horcrux, either. And none of them had a way to destroy it.

They needed the sword, that would be the easiest way. But Ron, Harry and Hermione had heard the goblins laughing about it the night Ron had left–Snape had put the fake sword in Gringotts, and the location of the real one was unknown. Now he was faced with the same problem he was sure Harry and Hermione were trying to solve: where was the real sword? Harry and Hermione had thought Dumbledore had left it somewhere for Harry so he could destroy Horcruxes with it. But what if he hadn't? Maybe it was just hidden deeper in his office?

Either way, if Ron could get into the office to talk to Dumbledore himself….

He took a deep breath and stared down at the Horcrux. One thing at a time. Right now he needed to return to the dormitory and lock the Horcrux deep in his trunk for safekeeping, then go about his days like normal until he figured out what to do about the sword. Okay, he could do that. He felt much calmer than he had at the beginning of the day. Kenny would be alright, and Ron would be more careful not to anger Zabini. You've got the Horcrux, he reminded himself again. That's what you came here for, so give yourself a little break.

The Room began changing again. Ron stood where he was until it had morphed back into the dueling room from before. He turned around and sure enough, the door was right there. He left and headed back down to the dungeons.

Kenny was back the next morning, and Ron felt him trying to catch his eye at breakfast, but he ignored him. He ignored him at lunch, too, and dinner, and then in the common room later while he sat with the other seventh years and Kenny sat on the floor in the corner, diligently working on his homework. The next day during his Slytherin-free free period, he burrowed himself into the furthest corner of the library behind stacks of random books. But Kenny found him anyway.

"Hi, Rob."

Ron jumped and pushed some of the books aside; he hadn't seen Kenny walk up.

"What the–you need to stay away from me!" Ron hissed. He craned his neck over Kenny's head, trying to see if anyone was around.

"You didn't check the couch last night, so I wanted to give you this," Kenny whispered, and shoved a roll of parchment into Ron's hands. "Bye!"

He scurried away, leaving Ron staring after him open-mouthed. He'd thought Kenny would have stayed a little longer to try to talk more with Ron. He slid the scroll open.

Dear Rob,

Thank you for doing my essays last night, it really saved me. I hope you keep helping me. Only if you have time! I hope you will not stop because of what Zabini did to me. I know he did it because you helped Ginny Weasley. I heard Crabbe and Goyle telling him in the common room. I'm trying to understand what you told me, that I'm an example. I think I get it now. It's because Margaret's my sister, isn't it? Is that why she always cries when she talks to me now? I don't want her to feel guilty! I don't want you to feel guilty, either. Please don't stop meeting my sister at night or doing my essays.

From Kenny

Ron let out a shaking sigh and let his head fall into his hands. How could Kenny still want any contact at all with him after this? Didn't he get that Ron had heard him getting tortured? That the whole of Slytherin house had, and the only one to actually od anything about it had been his own sister? Why was Kenny still looking up to him, in this almost brotherly way?

Ron didn't care what Kenny thought. He couldn't let himself get attached to him like this. It had already led him to stun Madam Pomfrey and destroy the door to the hospital wing. He couldn't risk getting into a situation like that again, especially now that he had the diadem. His only priority now was to get the sword. Then he could get out.

He seized his chance a few days later. He didn't know where Snape spent his time during the day, but he was less likely to be in his quarters during the day than at night, so Ron headed there right after Care of Magical Creatures. He got lost a few times in his haste to find it; he had only been there twice and in both instances he had been preoccupied with other matters, whether they be his sister and a dead basilisk or his father and a venomous snake.

Damn snakes, he thought. Damn Slytherin and damn snakes.

Finally he stood in front of the great gargoyle. It stepped aside and the wall behind it moved away to reveal a circular stone staircase. He climbed on and waited for it to move, but it didn't. He frowned as the wall moved back, leaving him standing in a shadowy tower staircase. He was sure the staircase had moved when he had been brought up to the office before, he was sure he hadn't even had to take a step. Maybe Snape already knew someone was trying to intrude? Was he trapped in this staircase?

But then he heard soft voices coming from above, and he tiptoed cautiously up the steps.

"How long do you have?"

Ron frowned and went up a few more steps; he was sure it was McGonagall's voice. He felt a flurry of anger and confusion shoot through his stomach; why would McGonagall be in Snape's office?

"Months," Snape's low voice said; Ron could barely hear it. "It is acting faster than it did for Albus. I will be lucky to last to June."

Ron froze, holding his breath.

"But Severus, without you here–"

"I know," Snape said harshly. "We have discussed this day in and day out, Minerva, and I ask you again, what do you suggest? I have come to accept that there is nothing that can be done for Hogwarts. You must accept it, Minerva, or he will surely kill you."

"I refuse to hand this school over to his forces," McGonagall seethed, and Ron braced himself against the wall, trying to understand–McGonagall and Snape were talking as peers, not enemies, not like they hated each other, and it sounded as if Snape was dying. He remembered how he had seen Snape looking tired and stressed out at mealtimes in the Great Hall. He hardly ever saw Snape apart from those times. A sickness wouldn't be hard to conceal from the students. He tried to reason it out as McGonagall continued. "You know me, perhaps, better than anyone, Severus. What does it matter what becomes of me? It is the students I care about!"

"If he kills you, the students fall directly after!" Snape said, raising his voice. "You will lose my power over the Carrows, and you will lose your spy. I have never been an optimistic person, Minerva, and I see no reason to start now."


There was a heavy silence during which Ron realized he was leaning on the wall for support; his legs were shaking. Snape had killed Dumbledore, but he was still spying for the Order?

"There is no suitable replacement for me," Snape went on, his voice cool, possibly angry. "None of the Death Eaters can be trusted in the least. Things will get worse. The Order will not be able to prevent any raids–any. Pray that Potter stays in hiding, because I will not be there to send the Dark Lord in the wrong direction anymore."

There was silence again from the office. Ron looked up and down the staircase. He was still alone, and it was still not moving, and they obviously didn't know he was there. McGonagall trusted Snape and she had been one of the ones most shocked and hurt when he had killed Dumbledore. There must be something bigger going on. Snape was dying, and whatever was killing him was "acting faster than it did for Albus."

Had Dumbledore been due to die anyway…?

He leapt up the last few steps and wrenched open the door.

"I'll take your place."

Snape and McGonagall turned quickly, shocked. Snape looked mutinous. He raised his wand, and the door shut loudly behind Ron, who gulped and walked a little further into the room.

"How did you know the password?" Snape demanded.

"I didn't have to give one," Ron said, frowning. "The gargoyle just moved aside."

"How intriguing."

They all looked up at Dumbledore's portrait. He was smiling serenely as he surveyed the three of them, tense below.

"Albus, did you–?"

"Of course not," Dumbledore said at once. "I do not have such power, Severus. I am merely commenting on the, shall we say, omniscience of the castle."

For some reason, Ron shivered. Snape and McGonagall returned their attention to him and he steeled himself. Could he really do this? In the heat of the moment it had made perfect sense. He had found the diadem. He hadn't destroyed it, but once he did that, there would be nothing else for him to do. He couldn't return to Harry and returning home or continuing in school would be a waste of time. But Snape was going to die and Ron was perfectly placed to take over, being in his Robert Brown disguise.

"What makes you think you are suitable for this job?" Snape asked, his tone icy and challenging.


"Exactly," Snape said, drawing closer, and now, more than ever, the lines stood out on his face. "Why did you come to this office?"

"I–I needed to speak to Professor Dumbledore," Ron said. He quickly scanned the office for the sword. It was not in visible sight and his heart sank a little, though he hadn't been expecting it to be so easy.

"About what?"

"That's between me and Professor Dumbledore, sir."

Snape narrowed his eyes and turned to look at Dumbledore's portrait; the old man looked amused.

"How much did you hear?"

"Enough. I'm volunteering to take your place as spy for the Order. You going to take me up on it, or what? Because you sounded pretty desperate."

"What interest do you have in our affairs?" Snape said. "You'll be returning to the states after the term."

"No, I won't," Ron said. He stared right at Snape, trying to appear confident. "I'm very interested in the war, sir, and I'd like to see it over. Won. Soon."

"You spend all your time with Blaise Zabini and his cronies," Snape growled.

"Yeah, spying for the good Slytherins, Willis, Greengrass, them. Did you really think Zabini converted me in one night?"

Snape was still glaring at him.

"This is no job for a child," McGonagall said, speaking at last. She sounded horrified.

"I'm not a child," Ron said quickly.

"You are still in school," she protested.

"Look," Ron said, becoming impatient, "I haven't been completely honest with you."

He saw them begin to pull out their wands, and he put up his hands.

"Go on, disarm me, please!"

All four of his wands shot out of his robes. McGonagall raised her eyebrows at the number, but Snape's face wore a different expression that Ron couldn't quite place.


"I'm not a transfer student, I've been coming here since I was eleven," Ron said quickly."I'm under Glamour charms. I'd appreciate if you didn't remove them, though–took a long time to put on. Maybe you should…" he paused, feeling sick at what he was going to say next, "use Legillimency. So you know you can trust me."

"P-Potter?" McGonagall said. Ron shook his head.


Snape and McGonagall shared a quick glance, and then Snape raisd his wand.



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