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Chapter 6: Apparitions
A/N: So, um, this hasn't been updated in a while. And in all honesty, I wasn't planning on coming back to it, until I stumbled upon the file (and the few more written but unposted chapters) and thought "Hey, there were some good ideas in this!" I can't guarantee anything, but I'm going to have a shot at finishing it anyway.
Chapter 6: Apparitions
The Office of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement was abuzz with activity as Ron made his way through the corridors. Officials were everywhere, from trained Aurors themselves to the rank and file members of the Magical Constabulary, presenting a veritable maze of paperwork, cubicles, and aggravated witches and wizards for him to negotiate.
But this was nothing new, nothing unusual. Until recently, he’d done it every day; always made sure he would stick his head in the office, always make sure there was nothing going on of too high a severity. Sometimes even on days off, because dark wizards sure as hell wouldn’t respect his schedule and only cause havoc when he was on duty.
His time at Hogwarts had kept him distracted for most of this week, though it looked, from the gossip, that little had changed. The same faces leered down at him from the wanted posters on the wall, the same people were complaining about the same things, and the same smell of Muggle take-away suggested that the cantine food was as awful as ever.
So it was with little anticipation that he finally made his way through to his team’s room, slipping in between a pair of older Aurors to make it there, and plodded towards his desk.
A few of his teammates were there, along with several Aurors from other teams chatting casually. The business of the day seemed relaxed, and from the normal schedule it would be a few hours before any briefings.
“Afternoon, all,” he greeted the assembled casually, poring over the papers on his desk to see if there was anything interesting to be found. His low expectations weren’t even met.
The responses were mostly warm and relaxed, with a few people asking after Harry, and some good-natured ribbing of their absent team member’s holiday was thrown in. A little mockery cropped up of the time he’d been spending at Hogwarts – or going back to school, as they put it – but overall, he was still in the company of good friends. Nothing had changed.
“By the way, Weasley, Vaughn’s looking for you,” one of his teammates added calmly, leaning against her desk.
“Hmm?” Ron looked up from a mind-numbing report on suspected dark wizard activity which had actually been a Muggle teenaged band playing bad music all hours of the night.
“Vaughn. He’s looking for you.”
“What did he want?”
An aggravated snort. “I don’t know, Weasley, I’m not your bloody secretary.”
Ron smiled humourlessly at his fellow Auror, straightening up. “Just thought you might have been paying attention to what was going on around you for once, Savage.”
So maybe he wasn’t good friends with all of his team.
Savage rolled his eyes, hardly looking up from where he, too, was shuffling through the reports which appeared to have made it to every Auror’s desk, in case of previously unnoticed relevance to any ongoing cases. “Maybe if you actually came into work, you wouldn’t need to rely on me.”
It was probably just as well that the aging, burly frame of Cassius Vaughn strode into the room at that point before petty bickering could reach critical mass. The head of the Auror Office was a tall man, vital despite his advanced years, with a deep voice and rather magnificent whiskers. He was also fortuitously possessing of a talent for sending an entire room into silence upon his arrival.
“Weasley! Didn’t expect to see you here after traipsing around haggis-land for so long!”
This was all the extent of a greeting that Ron could expect, and he scurried towards the front. “I just thought I’d stick my oar in, chief, see what was going on.”
“At last.” Vaughn snorted as he reached his desk at the front of the room, sitting down. Ron had to stand, waiting for his superior to rifle through his own paperwork before finally deciding to continue. “We usually expect people to show up every day.”
“I don’t have any cases, chief,” Ron pointed out. “Not with Harry still on extended leave. You’ve just had me bouncing between projects for wherever I’m needed.” He managed to keep the long-suffering tone out of his voice, managed to avoid sounding quite as resentful as he actually was of the fate that had been assigned to him with Harry away. “I’ve been available for contact if there’s actually been anything for me.”
“So in the meantime you thought you’d have a holiday?” Vaughn looked up, smiling humourlessly at him.
“I’ve got… projects, chief. Important stuff.” Ron shrugged, knowing how weak it sounded.
Indeed, Vaughn snorted, finally putting the paperwork in front of him down. “Very nice, Weasley, but it ends today. I’ve got to get you on active service again, or you’re just going to sit around and make the place messy.”
Ron frowned a little. If Vaughn had said this a week ago he’d have been overjoyed, but the fact remained that he wasn’t done with his work at Hogwarts – however close he might have felt to telling McGonagall he just didn’t have a clue and was giving up. “But Harry’s still on leave, chief.”
“I know that.” Vaughn gave him a prickly glare. “Potter’s not the only bugger in the whole business you can work with, though, is he now.”
Ron pushed his hands into his pockets. “Some of the stuff I’m doing is, um… fairly important. I could talk to you about it in private…” He glanced about the room; McGonagall had been quite clear about keeping the Sorting Hat’s theft a secret, and he knew a lot of the people in this room would understand the significance of the crime.
“Bollocks to that. I don’t care what personal projects you’ve got going on; you don’t do them on the payroll.” Vaughn stood up, gesturing vaguely at the body of Aurors. “So we’ll be shaking things up until Potter’s back. Weasley, you’re now working with Savage.”
Ron scowled. “What?”
“What?” Savage, who had been sitting further back and mostly ignoring Ron’s dressing down, was at the front like a shot. “I’ve got a partner, chief. Proudfoot. Remember?” He said this with an implication of suspected senility on Vaughn’s part.
“Proudfoot’s still on assignment with the Muggle Liaison Office, though, and so of no bloody use to man nor beast up here in Auror land,” Vaughn pointed out dismissively. “So instead I have to listen to you clamouring and whining up here. There’s work to be done.” He rifled through more papers, eventually finding a file. “Here. I need the two of you to look in to this. We reckon Tapperman’s been getting dark artefacts into the country along with Muggle shipments. Stop him.”
Great. Not only was he expected to work with the most obnoxious member of his team, but he was expected to do so on a case which was, quite frankly, more suited to the Constabulary than a trained Auror.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, sir. This is child’s play.” At least Savage seemed as opposed to the situation as he was, and Vaughn wilted at the prospect of a united front from the two Aurors before him. “Tapperman wouldn’t know what a Muggle ship looked like if it landed on him; it’s rather unlikely he’s using them for smuggling.”
Vaughn stroked his whiskers grumpily. “Regardless, that’s your assignment.”
Savage glared at their boss, and it was probably just as well the spark of an idea set off in Ron’s brain before he ended up guilty of murder.
“Chief… I can’t do this job. I’ve got some honestly important business I need to see to.” As Vaughn’s gaze swivelled over towards him, aggravated by his words but pleased to not have to be facing off against Savage, he straightened up. “I have an awful lot of leave time allocated. I know you tried to convince me to take it when Harry left, and I know that I didn’t, but perhaps it would be easiest if I took a holiday until he’s back.”
Well, maybe not that long. The wedding is three months away, after all. But, perhaps, until this Sorting Hat debacle is over. And until Proudfoot back so I don’t have to work with the dick.
Savage’s expression brightened at this, and he put the case file back down on Vaughn’s desk. “Proudfoot’s got a lot of work still to be done with the Muggle Liaison Office, yes, chief, but it would go a lot quicker if I helped him out.”
“I thought you said you’d rather stab yourself in the eye with a basilisk fang than go work with those bureaucrats?” Vaughn seemed actually amused at this sudden turn of events, and it occurred to Ron that he might have just been trying to get rid of them in the first place.
Savage gave a humourless smile. “Considering the alternatives, chief, I’ve re-evaluated.”
Vaughn snorted, glancing between the two of them. “Alright. Down to Muggle Liaisons with you, Savage, for filing work. I’m sure you’ll find it stimulating. And you, Weasley… take a holiday. You look bloody awful. But I’ll probably need you back before Potter is, there’s at least the intake of trainees in July.”
That was a slightly more cheerful prospect, and Ron nodded enthusiastically. “It’s a deal, chief.”
Despite their animosity, he and Savage shared a sigh of relief as they hurried away from Vaughn, returning to their desks and gathering whatever bits and pieces might be useful for their respective destinations.
“Just… make sure you stay away until this case at Muggle Liaisons is over, okay, Weasley?” Savage said, frowning at his notes. “Just keep yourself busy until then. Or I’ll…” His voice trailed off weakly as he failed to come up with some suitably ominous threat.
“Have to work with me. Don’t worry, Savage, that’s punishment enough for both of us,” Ron said firmly. He thought he saw a flicker of a smile hovering about his lips before he marched out of the office, but promptly dismissed that as a hallucination.
So. A month and a half of holiday. That was a fairly ominous prospect.
He hoped whatever was going on with the Sorting Hat was worth it. If it had just convinced some passing hippogriff to cart it away to a tropical island because it fancied a holiday, then when Ron found it, he was going to burn it. And this time, he’d make sure there weren’t any remnants so it could be remade.
The thought of remaking the Sorting Hat sent his thoughts back to Hermione, and whether or not he’d have to talk to her about its reconstruction in case there were any clues to be found there, put him in enough of a foul mood that he was scowling all the way out of the offices and right up until he’d apparated in front of Hogwarts’ front gates.
One more try. He had one more idea, one more lead, and if that proved itself to be a dead end… well, then, he’d have to suck it up.
At this time of year, the students were enjoying the sunshine that had graciously decided to grace British shores, such an unusual state of affairs that it was greeted with great enthusiasm. And it was with no small hint of nostalgia that Ron made his way through the crowd of pupils out by the lake, lounging in the sun, chatting amiably, or playing games during the lunch break.
How long ago had it been since he’d done that? Since before Dumbledore’s death; and despite all that had hung over them even then, it seemed positively carefree in comparison to what had come after.
And in comparison, oddly, to now. How very strange that he felt more oppressed, that times felt even darker, than they had when Voldemort had still been alive, still been rampaging about Britain fulfilling his dark plans? Ron hoped that was more of a reflection of his own cynicism and perhaps growing up rather than the state of the world – then decided this wasn’t particularly comforting either.
The corridors were pleasantly cool as he entered the castle at last, but this time he didn’t make his way, as he had every time previously, towards the headmaster’s office. Instead, he pulled the Marauder’s Map, on loan from Harry, out of a pocket and opened it up, muttering the activation phrase with a further surge of nostalgia.
It took him a few minutes of scouring the pages to locate his target, and when he did he kept the map open, kept it for reference as he hurried down the corridor. Students looked at him oddly, some recognising him and wondering why a so-called war hero was wandering around in Hogwarts, some aware of his regular presence here and wondering why he wasn’t with the Headmaster – some even less aware just wondering who this strange grown-up who wasn’t a teacher was.
It was in a corridor near Gryffindor Tower that Ron eventually found his target hovering between suits of armour in an absent fashion, and with a grin he returned the map to his pocket.
“Sir Nicholas!” His greeting was intentionally formal, an intentional stroking if the ghost’s ego in the hopes that it might make him more cooperative, for the issue ahead of them had the chance of being long and fairly arduous.
Nearly-Headless Nick glanced up absently at the address, but his ethereal visage broke into an open smile as he recognised Ron, hovering over towards him.
“Mister Weasley! Fancy seeing you here. I heard you were back in the castle, but it seems you’ve been flitting in and out so swiftly I haven’t been able to catch you.” He stopped before him, giving a small bow upon his arrival.
Ron nodded deeply, not quite willing to meet the ghost bow for bow, but at least acknowledging the gesture. “I’ve been rather busy, I admit. However, it’s all for important business. And I need your help with it.”
He’d considered engaging the ghost in small talk first, but knew Nick was more likely to respond to the idea of some disaster requiring his attention rather than being outright buttered up and coaxed.
“Oh, really? My aid with the missing Sorting Hat?” Nick waved a hand dismissively as Ron’s jaw dropped, giving an enigmatic smile. “Oh, don’t look so astonished, Mister Weasley. We ghosts will talk amongst ourselves about whatever the business of the day might be; it staves off boredom. The Bloody Baron found out a few days ago. Don’t worry, though, even Peeves knows better than to upset the Headmistress and tell anyone.”
“That makes sense,” Ron said, still a little off-balance from this unexpected development, and concluding that the only way to deal with it was to press forwards firmly. “That saves me the trouble of explaining the situation, at least.”
“Indeed. So how can I be of service in solving this dastardly crime?” Nick puffed up, looking fairly haughty as he stood as straight and tall as he could.
“You know the school better than most. If not better than anyone,” Ron began. “You’re also the most aware of what ghost is where, who’s doing what… the state of affairs within Hogwarts.” It wasn’t a lie – Sir Nick was definitely the most competently sociable of all of the Hogwarts ghosts, able to appear on the one hand unthreatening, and on the other good company depending on who it was he needed to talk to. “I’ve also read up recently on the inherent connection ghosts apparently have with places that they’re… haunting.”
Nick looked a little suspicious at this. “I am aware of the ghosts within Hogwarts, yes. Socially, as well as, ah… more… innately.”
Ron nodded, grinning as the ideas began to fall into place before him. When a mystery got going, when the ball finally started to roll, he could enjoy it. When he could see all the little bits and pieces coming together to form one complete shape… then it got the blood running. “Then in that case… what were the ghosts doing the night the Sorting Hat was stolen?”
He’d expected Nick to look a little confused. Maybe dismissive, maybe instantly shoot the idea down. Maybe even excited, maybe with some insight which would move the case forwards.
He hadn’t expected Nick to look embarrassed.
Nearly-Headless Nick played with his collar, almost separating head from shoulders with the nervous gesture. “Ah. That.”
Ron straightened up with confusion. “‘That’? There’s a ‘that’?”
“I should have told the headmistress about this, I know…” Nick scrubbed his face with his hands. “It’s just… well… the business of the dead should stay with the dead. You understand?”
Ron nodded. He didn’t.
“Only certain individuals can haunt certain places. Every single ghost at Hogwarts has some significant tie to the place. Something deeply important binding their soul here. It’s not just any old busy-body who fancies being a nuisance that can come here. Even Peeves has… history.” Nick looked like he was chewing on his lip by now.
“That makes sense,” Ron agreed.
“So when a new ghost arrives, we usually know about it. We usually know them. And we can sense their presence. It’s an occasion of great significance.” Nick still hadn’t stopped looking uncomfortable. “So when, on the night the Sorting Hat was stolen, we felt a new ghost arrive within Hogwarts… we thought this was a most important time.”
Ron frowned. “There’s a new ghost? Who?”
“That’s the thing.” Nick grimaced. “We don’t know who they were. None of us saw them. We all felt them arrive, manifest somewhere within the castle grounds. And then, within a matter of minutes… we felt them leave. And they didn’t come back.”
His frown deepened even further. “Are you trying to tell me that a ghost stole the Sorting Hat?”
Nick shrugged. “I have no idea what it means, Mister Weasley. But I can tell you this much – that’s not supposed to happen. I’m not even sure if it’s possible. We’re not meant to be able to leave. Arriving in the first place is significant enough.”
Ron sighed. He didn’t know what he’d expected from Nick, wasn’t sure what he could be told. Perhaps that Peeves had taken the Sorting Hat on a merry jaunt through the Hogwarts cellars. Something harmless, like that. He most certainly hadn’t thought that the plot would thicken.
And in a manner he didn’t understand. Ghosts manifesting and then disappearing? He had no concept of what this could mean, or how it could happen. And he had no idea of whether a ghost, being incorporeal, could even make contact with the Sorting Hat, let alone steal it.
With most things in life, Ron trusted his gut. He knew he wasn’t the smartest wizard out there, or the most powerful. But his instincts had never let him down before, and he’d got by long enough on wits alone. So when his gut told him something, he usually listened, and gladly.
It was a damn shame, then, that his gut was telling him what it always did whenever he was confronted with some intellectual puzzle, some mystery that demanded logic and knowledge. Because now Ron was going to have to do something he’d known all along would be required, but which he’d been trying to hold off.
He was going to have to talk to Hermione.