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Chapter 12: Consultations
Chapter 12: Consultations
“Do you actually want to be Headmaster of Hogwarts?” Ron asked as Stubbs sat in the back room of his forge and rifled through papers.
Stubbs stopped, parchment in hand. “Did you think of asking me that before you made me go publicly apply for the job?”
“Well, it’s just a ruse.” Ron stuck his thumbs into his belt. “It’s not like you’re committed. And it’s not like Professor McGonagall’s even planning on going anywhere for a few years. I was just wondering.”
“It never occurred to me. Like you said, this is a ruse.”
“But now that it has, I mean? I heard your press conference. You were pretty good. Got to say I liked listening to you more than I liked listening to Sprague, or Konstantin, or that dickhead Barlowe.”
Stubbs gave a snort. “I’m no Albus Dumbledore.”
“Only Albus Dumbledore was Albus Dumbledore.” Ron grinned despite himself. “Look at me, that was downright philosophical. I mean, I know we’re only doing this to lure out Barlowe or whoever, we’re only doing this to be a threat to their agenda so they do something we can catch them out on. But somebody’s got to take over from McGonagall.”
Stubbs sighed, setting the papers down. “I meant what I said. About Hogwarts. About how we should be more worried about keeping it being great, instead of all this horse shit about turning it into something”
“Why did you stop being a teacher?”
The blacksmith’s gaze dropped to his affairs on the desk. “Believe it or not, I didn’t get on very well with Albus Dumbledore.”
Ron blinked. “What, really?”
“Come on.” Stubbs rolled his shoulders. “The man was the Headmaster. And yet, he wasn’t there. He was fighting wars. Poking the vast corners of the world. Did he care about the kids, and the school? Absolutely. But his place was at the school. Not using his influence as Headmaster to manipulate and interfere with the business of the big picture.”
“Without Dumbledore, we’d have probably lost the war. Maybe even both of them.”
“I know,” said Stubbs mildly. “I just think he could have been a great man saving Britain and not been the Headmaster. I think the kids have to come first, teaching them, guiding them. Doing what he did? He couldn’t put the kids first.” He straightened up and leant back in his chair. “I don’t mean to make him sound like these politicians and hobbyists after the job. But if you want to be a great man, go be a great man. I wanted to focus on the job in front of me.”
Ron frowned. “I get that,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean why you left.”
Stubbs grinned darkly. “You think I kept my opinions to myself?”
“He fired you?”
“Of course he didn’t fire me. He was reasonable, wasn’t he? All nice and pleasant and listened to me telling him that he needed to not fuss about wars, he needed to keep the kids safe, and he did that best by being at Hogwarts. Listened to me shouting at him that he needed to be at Hogwarts. Listened, and listened, and then still did his own thing. Because Albus Dumbledore always did his own thing.”
They fell silent, and Stubbs turned papers over. “But it don’t matter what I’d have done differently if I were Dumbledore. Because I’m not Dumbledore.”
“But you’re after his job.”
“Because I’m the only person you know who could be remotely convincing bait.” Stubbs looked up at him. “And this is only a ruse.”
Ron scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah,” he said. “Only a ruse.”
“Speaking of which, you better go down to the MLE and give me a protection bloody detail. I am not dying over this stupid job. And they might not take me seriously if I say I want Enforcers watching me, but they will take you seriously.” Stubbs jerked his head at the desk. “Besides, I’ve got to go through my contacts and see who the hell out there can get me some Goblin Iron.”
“I’ve been trying everything else I got to hand. The metal just isn’t compatible. I can’t magically fuse anything else to it; it’s like it’s lesser. So we get to Goblin Iron. How else am I supposed to fix the bloody sword?” Stubbs looked at him. “Are you sure you want to be lugging it around?”
Ron shifted the makeshift strap and scabbard that Stubbs had made for him, the leather baldric which kept the broken sword of Gryffindor on his back. “It’s more of a target than a rival headmaster candidate would be. Do you want it?”
“Just so long as you know you’re painting a bull’s eye on yourself, running around wearing it, lad.”
“That’s actually the plan.”
Stubbs smirked darkly. “Now I can see why Potter’s the hero and you’re the sidekick.”
It should have stung as a comment, but Stubbs had backed him this far, and Ron had to conclude the older man at least believed in his idea enough to risk his own neck. So he just grinned. “Let’s see how sidekick plans pan out.”
He left for the Ministry, as an Auror still able to Floo in directly rather than go through irritating security procedures. Vaughn looked rather long-suffering to see him (“I put you on holiday and you go stir up the biggest shit-pot in Britain, Weasley?”) but did promise to put his personal recommendation behind the request to the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol for a protection detail on Stubbs. Even if Ron couldn’t explain why he suspected it might be dangerous to be a prospective headmaster, any public figure could run foul of nut-jobs.
And he didn’t want to tell them the truth. Not when the Department of Mysteries were involved.
It was peculiar, being back in the Ministry. Even if he’d only been there a couple of days ago, it was already different. Already he was getting odd, curious looks. Of course, sometimes he got attention, sometimes people decided to be fussy about his second-rate fame, but he knew those looks.
These were different. He’d just stuck his oar into, as Vaughn had put it, the biggest shit-pot in Britain, the most important current event, that which occupied all aspects of the modern political climate. And anyone who’d so much as read a paper by now knew this.
Oh, and he was walking around with the broken Sword of Gryffindor strapped to his back.
Getting attention is the point.
He was still a bit startled when he was wandering the corridors back out to hear someone call his name, a voice he didn’t immediately recognise - and then he did, and he turned, and he realised that he did recognise Gideon Barlowe after all.
He was in his fifties, tall and willowy, extremely well-presented in superbly-tailored, expensive clothes. In fact, everything about him was expensive, right up to the bright, shining smile and the attendants buzzing around him.
“Mister Weasley.” Barlowe abandoned his swarm of attachés. He approached to shake his hand as if they were in an important meeting, not standing outside the lift in the Ministry of Magic. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”
“We’ve met,” said Ron mildly. “Office of Magical Beings fundraiser last November. You were speaking with my girlfriend Hermione Granger, and her boss, Julius Crawford.”
And you completely ignored me, you toff git.
He and Hermione had argued after that fundraiser, which he hadn’t even wanted to go to in the first place and had ended up with nobody to talk to as she got more tangled up in business than in having a good time. He’d been dragged from boring conversation to boring conversation, and had resented every minute of it, as he’d been ignored and dismissed and even she had barely bothered to give him the time of day.
Of course, back then they hadn’t been quite so consistently angry with one another that they couldn’t make up. The making up had always been the best part of the arguing.
Over the months, it had happened less and less, and ended more and more with storming out through slammed doors.
“Of course; my mistake. I should have remembered.” Barlowe’s smile didn’t falter. “I was surprised to see your name in association with Thaddeus Stubbs.”
“He’s helped me out a few times in my duties as an Auror. I’m on some leave right now. I thought I’d repay the favour.”
“It’s just curious,” said Barlowe. “Mister Potter’s been rather determined, when asked by the press, to not throw his weight behind any single candidate for the job. Most discreet of him.”
Ron smiled a smile he didn’t feel. “I’m not Harry.”
“No.” Barlowe managed to make this sound supremely dismissive. His gaze landed on the hilt of the sword, visible over Ron’s shoulder. “What happened to break the sword?”
“You’d have to speak to Professor McGonagall about that.” She’d be able to see him off in polite conversation better than Ron could. “But we’re consulting with Mister Stubbs in getting it fixed. I’m just... hanging on to it for the time being. Making sure it’s safe.”
“Is there some reason it wouldn’t be safe?”
“I don’t know.” Ron shrugged and looked Barlowe in the eye. “People can take these rumours about the relics being important curiously seriously. I’d hate for something silly to happen.”
Barlowe gave a stiff nod. “That would be most unfortunate. It’s good, then, that the sword’s in the hands of an Auror - that’s our heritage there. It should be protected.”
Ron looked at him levelly. “Yep.” He was damned if he wasn’t going to make Barlowe do all the work in this conversation, especially since it was Barlowe who’d started it.
“And it’s good to see Mister Stubbs has the backing of an Auror, and a war hero. Perhaps this sort of interest can raise the level of debate in this search for a new master of Hogwarts.”
“Perhaps,” said Ron, “but this is all a bit of a fuss until Professor McGonagall actually retires.”
Barlowe glanced around, glanced at the passers-by in the Ministry who still gave them curious glances, who would likely rush off to tell the press that they’d seen them talking, and gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I believe these decisions,” he said, his voice dropping a few decibels, “lie in the hands of the School Governors.”
Ron met his gaze and smiled far too brightly. “You’d know best,” he said. “So many of them are your buddies.”
“Yes, Mister Weasley. They are.” Barlowe extended a hand. “I just thought it would be polite for us to talk, since you’re working with Mister Stubbs. May the best man win. And I hope you have a quiet time safeguarding our history.”
“Oh, I’m sure we’re just being overly cautious. Good day, Mister Barlowe.”
Then Barlowe carried on his way, and Ron was left with the sense of needing to go and have a shower. How can people tolerate that man and his supercilious manner?
Where did I learn the word ‘supercilious’?
But he knew the answer. He always knew the answer.
And then the lift doors slid open and the answer was right in front of him.
Ron jumped as he saw Hermione. “Bloody hell. Were you just waiting there?”
But she looked just as surprised as him - and then her gaze settled on the sword, and her eyes narrowed. “Get in here, Ron,” she hissed, grabbing him by the strap, and pulling him into the lift. She smacked a button at random, and then hit the ‘hold’ button once the lift doors had closed.
Then she seemed to realise she had him at less than arms’ length, tilting him down towards her by his baldric, and let go a little roughly. “What are you doing here?”
“Getting MLE protection for Thaddeus Stubbs so nobody hurts him, and being oozed on by Gideon Barlowe. What’re you doing here?”
“I work here!” she said indignantly. “You know this! And where the hell did you get that? Is that the fake?” She stabbed a finger at the sword.
“No,” he said, and felt a bit silly, “though that would have been a perfectly good idea. I found it. Abner didn’t dismiss it, he broke it and teleported it about ten metres away, and you’d have found it too if you hadn’t been so intent on ditching me in the middle of nowhere!”
Hermione’s eyes flashed. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“You left,” Ron repeated. “Besides, the Department of Mysteries have clearly been all over you. It wouldn’t have been safe to run and tell you -”
“I know how to keep things secret, especially once I knew they were following me.”
“I didn’t mean I wanted to keep the secrets safe,” Ron snapped. “I wanted to keep you safe!”
His words sounded unnecessarily loud in the confined space, and the two of them stared at each other for long seconds. Then Hermione drew a deep breath. “The Department of Mysteries aren’t after us, anyway.”
“Then what the hell was that attack squad in Dartmoor?”
“A misunderstanding.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “They’ve been recovering the relics for study. They have the remains of the diadem and they used to have the cup. But someone broke into the Department, killed two researchers, and stole the cup.”
Ron looked at the lift doors. “All signs point to Gideon Barlowe, the man who now has the bloody cup?” She nodded, and his expression screwed up. “They still attacked us.”
“And I’m dealing with that,” she said coldly, “but we’re on the same side. And they stole the Sorting Hat. They were trying to use it to get to the Sword of Gryffindor.”
His eyes widened. “When were you going to tell me?”
“When were you going to tell me about the Sword?”
Ron scowled. “What, so they’re all right, now?”
“I can’t say I’m jumping for joy at this trusting new relationship,” said Hermione tartly, “but they’re after whoever killed their people and stole the cup, they’re after whoever stole the locket, and they are after justice.”
“Justice, and stealing Sorting Hats.”
Hermione sighed, rubbing her temples. “I know it sounds suspicious,” she said, “but if it is Gideon Barlowe, they can’t go after him without proof, real proof, and if it is Gideon Barlowe, then he is using every single bit of influence and power that he has to keep the Ministry in line, to stop the Department of Mysteries and Magical Law Enforcement from investigating or going after him. How many times did we have to break the rules and sometimes hurt people who didn’t deserve it because we had to act secretly? Because we needed to get things done?”
Ron watched her, expression screwing up. “So what does this mean? You’re going to work with them to go after Barlowe?”
She drew a deep breath. “I think we should work with them to go after Barlowe.”
His lip curled. “Does that include working with your friend Malcolm?”
“Oh, Ron, a dinner date has hardly been at the top of my list of things to do, let alone discuss, at a time like this!” she snapped. “And even if I trust him that he’s genuinely trying to do the right thing, I happen to take having been spied on quite badly!”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Yes. He is the Project Leader on this operation, not Burke, and he has assured me that Burke is going to be kept on a tighter leash.” She squinted at him. “Besides, what do you think you’re doing, working with Thaddeus Stubbs?”
“Thaddeus Stubbs hasn’t punched anyone in the face recently - I think - so let’s not consider him on a par with your Unspeakable friends,” Ron pointed out. “And this was my plan. Provide Barlowe with a rival he has to take seriously. Dangle the Sword of Gryffindor in front of him. And collar him when he takes action, prove he did it, prove he attacked Harry and stole the Cup and, it turns out, killed these Unspeakables too. Job’s a good one.”
“Collar him,” Hermione repeated mildly.
“Collar the most wealthy and influential man in Britain?” She sounded sceptical. “That’s not to be done lightly.”
“Then I’ll use a heavy collar -”
“I mean that if you don’t do it right, then he can bribe and manipulate his way out of trouble. Not to mention that Barlowe’s killed people, Ron, and he put Harry in hospital. You don’t want to go face to face with him on your own!”
“Then fine! You and your Unspeakable friends can help me out!”
She stared at his insufferable smirk. “We can help you -”
“Yes,” said Ron, feeling a bit giddy at this particular latest pettiness. “I have something that you don’t have - bait. If Barlowe’s going to come for someone, he’s going to come for me, he’s going to come for the Sword, or he’s going to come for Stubbs. So if you want to fix all of this, how about you help me out so that I can properly set a trap for him, and properly condemn him when it’s all over?”
He knew he was right, and under the circumstances he saw no reason to not trap her into going along with him in the most obnoxious manner possible. That way, he’d get his own way, and he’d score some points to boot.
Her eyes narrowed. “I didn’t think you wanted to work with the Department of Mysteries?”
“I’m not thrilled, considering the stalking you and the fact that we both walked away from Dartmoor with some bruises. A man punches me in the face and I’m going to hold a grudge; call me old-fashioned.” Ron scowled. “But you’re right. And I’m right. So that means, for once, neither one of us has to be wrong and we can cooperate on this. To stop Barlowe. To get the guy who got Harry.”
Hermione’s expression was a little like she’d been sucking on a lemon, but she eventually gave a small nod. “Malcolm isn’t unreasonable,” she said, “and this has got more serious, with the likelihood that it was Barlowe who went for the Cup, and the attack on Harry. Malcolm doesn’t know who he can trust who isn’t going to be manipulated by Barlowe, as he apparently has influence in the DoM.”
“I have chosen to trust him, for now,” she said delicately, “and he’s chosen to trust me, to bring me in on this. So I’m going to tell him to trust you, and he’s not going to have much of a choice.”
“Do you think we should tell Harry?”
“Harry’s in Saint Mungo’s still,” said Hermione, “and he’s not in danger from Barlowe now Barlowe has the locket. Let’s not worry him until we have to.”
“So.” Ron shoved his hands in his pockets. “We’re going to work together on this.”
Hermione’s expression flickered. “It looks like it.”
“How’re we going to handle this?”
“I should take you down to the Department of Mysteries,” she said, “so you can meet with Malcolm properly.”
“I can hardly wait,” said Ron tensely, and Hermione didn’t answer as she reached out to hit the appropriate button on the lift. Silence surrounded them as the lift hummed back to life, taking them deeper into the belly of the Ministry, into its dark heart.
“How’d they steal the Sorting Hat?” he asked at last.
Her eyes lit up. “It’s incredible,” she said, jerked from her sulk at the prospect of something amazing to explain to him.
And explain it she did, all the way along the lift journey, and all the way down the corridor, and while Ron found himself hardly believing it, he ultimately did believe it - but only because she was the one telling it. And only because she did it with that fire in her eyes, that spark in her voice, of utter fascination and enthusiasm where it didn’t matter what she was talking about, he just loved to her hear talk about it.
Working with her was already proving to be a terrible idea.