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Chapter 17: Affirmations
"You have my thanks for managing to return the Sorting Hat, Miss Granger," said McGonagall a day later, sat behind her desk in her office and giving the Sorting Hat, returned to its proper place on her shelves, a thin smile.
Hermione nodded, pushing back a lock of hair. "You should really be thanking Ron," she said carefully. "He did most of the legwork in retrieving it. I just... sort of stumbled into it."
"I shall do so." McGonagall inclined her head. "How is he doing? The last I heard he was out of danger."
"The Healers say he'll be fine. They've patched up the worst, they just want to make sure he doesn't move around too much to rip any of the wounds back open," said Hermione, the words themselves reassuring the lingering worry in her gut. Though, once, that lingering worry had been blinding panic, so this was still an improvement. "They should be releasing him tomorrow. About enough time to get his flat back in order."
"Good. I am glad this... ridiculous and troubling affair is coming to an end. The papers today seemed to indicate that the Office of Legal Affairs was going to move forward on prosecuting Gideon Barlowe for the entire business."
Hermione nodded. "With Harry taking on the case and pushing the charges an awful lot of the people who stood behind Barlowe are suddenly withdrawing their support, or looking the other way, or in some cases, resigning. The Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol has quit over this, likely to avoid too much of a scandal when they probably find out he was aiding and abetting Barlowe's business..."
McGonagall's nose wrinkled. "I never did like Trage anyway," she said calmly. "It is good that Harry can see justice is going to be done over this."
"And it gives people something to focus on other than the headmaster's job, which I suppose takes some weight off you," said Hermione. "Are the governors even making an issue about it any more?"
"No; now there's actual business to be getting on with, and since a lot of them were also friends of Gideon Barlowe, I think they're going to let the matter drop for the time being." McGonagall sounded supremely unconcerned; Hermione had to wonder if, at the end of the day, she ever would have been displaced without wanting to leave. But even now she didn't know how much of Barlowe's assumptions about his own influence had been accurate, and how much had been arrogance.
"I suppose that means Mister Stubbs has gone and removed his bid."
There was a knock on the door, and McGonagall gave another smile as she waved a hand to let the door swing open. "I imagine he can explain that to you himself."
Hermione hadn't really known Stubbs well, but she'd known him by sight, known of him from Ron, and known him well enough to be surprised to see him in tidy, well-fitting robes, his fierce beard finally properly trimmed. He looked rather irritable about the whole affair as he walked into the office, a long, leather-bound case under one arm, but he gave her a crooked smile.
"Miss Granger. Good to see you. How's our boy?"
"He'll be fine, Mister Stubbs," she assured him. "Thanks, in no small part, to your help. It was good of you to come with us."
Stubbs waved a hand dismissively. "The boy had a plan, and the guts to carry it through. I couldn't have turned my back on such an idealist." He paused. "Oh, and it shouldn't be Mister Stubbs. I suppose it's Professor Stubbs, again."
Hermione quirked an eyebrow at McGonagall, whose lips twitched. "Thaddeus has agreed to come back to the Hogwarts staff."
"Is Professor Vector leaving?"
"No, but Professor Halvard would rather like to return to the Hit Wizards; that I kept him for four years was something of an achievement. For now, Thaddeus will take the Defence Against the Dark Arts post."
Hermione hesitated at the tone in her voice. "For now?"
"Mmph." That was Stubbs, who pulled up the chair next to McGonagall. "Minerva here has this mad-cap idea about grooming me, which I think has nothing to do with my personal hygiene."
"I am sure, Thaddeus, your suddenly improved standards will drop once you are comfortable at Hogwarts again, and then there is no power I could command which could compel you to do my bidding." McGonagall turned her smile onto Hermione. "It is only a scheme for now, not a commitment. But I need fresh blood at Hogwarts, I need to look to a successor, and Thaddeus has agreed to come back to teaching. I think he may find Hogwarts under my management more palatable than it was for him under Albus'."
Stubbs looked a bit sheepish. "We'll see how it goes, hey, Minerva? I'll be happy to take on the Deputy post if Filius is retiring next year, but you've probably got a few years left in you."
"And plenty of time to uproot you and find someone better if I don't think you'll be up to replacing me. But you never know, Thaddeus. You may take to it better than you know, and then I might even have the option of retiring early." McGonagall gave a wry chuckle, then nodded at the case he held. "What do you have for me?"
"It's the damndest thing." Stubbs put the case on the desk and unclipped the clasps. "I took the Sword back to my workshop after the other night. I wanted to keep it safe, but... I couldn't sleep. So I took it down to the forge and tried again with some of the metals I'd tried to have the bloody thing take on before. It rejected them, lesser metals like that." He took a deep breath. "Only this time, it worked. Common magic iron joined with the Goblin Iron and I could reforge it. And now, I do whatever spells I like on it - the whole thing reads as Goblin Iron."
McGonagall crinkled her nose as Stubbs opened the case and turned it around to show, gleaming inside, the perfect, pristine, whole Sword of Gryffindor. "It absorbed the metal?"
"Magical smithing is a little bit special," said Stubbs with a smirk. "And I've never seen the like of the Sword. How and why it works is one hell of a mystery I'll never begin to understand. But it didn't work before, reforging it. It worked now. I'm not entirely sure why, I'm not sure what changed."
But his gaze flickered over to Hermione's, and her throat constricted as she saw what he was thinking.
She tried to not consider that too deeply. "I'm glad to see it's repaired," she said. "The Cup is being returned to the Department of Mysteries so they can continue their work; Harry's donated the Locket, too. Perhaps, some day, all four of the Founders' relics can be whole again, recovered from what Voldemort did to them."
"Perhaps," said McGonagall with a nod, "and it is important our heritage is preserved. But if I never have to hear about how special all four of them are, or how special it is for someone to have all four of them, ever again, I think I will be quite content."
"As will I." Hermione got to her feet and picked up her coat. "Thank you for seeing me, anyway, Professor. I won't keep you, as I'm sure you're busy, though I don't suppose I could impose on you to use your Floo? I'm just going to Saint Mungo's."
"Of course, Hermione. Do give Ron our best," said McGonagall, and Stubbs gave his assent as she went to the fireplace and took up the Floo powder.
Saint Mungo's had plenty of Floo access points, being such a notable public location, and so within seconds she was away from the Headmaster's office and in the lobby, in and about the swell of people with injuries or off to visit relatives. This time she didn't have trouble getting past the front desk, and hurried up the stairs, knowing which ward she was looking for.
But Ron hadn't been conscious when she'd come there last night, and the Healers had been keen for her to let him have rest. They'd assured her he'd be better, then sent her home, and the rest of the day had been spent tidying up after the week or more of catastrophes that had been befalling her.
Or had it been less? Had it just been days since Harry had been attacked? Time had become tangled, confusing, just as her life had become complicated yet again.
Perhaps, now, there'd be a time for simplicity.
She stopped as she entered the corridor outside of Ron's room, seeing a tall figure sat on one of the benches, and hesitated as she padded down towards them. But they saw her, stood, and approached.
"Don't worry," said Malcolm Trevelyan, the side of his face still rather bruised but tidy and presentable in his Unspeakable uniform. "I was just here to visit Burke, who managed to bust a whole bunch of his wounds back open running around last night - the Healers have gone absolutely spare -" He stopped, and nudged his glasses self-consciously. "I was just stopping by to see if you were around."
Hermione hesitated, and nodded. "I was just going in to see Ron."
"I think Mister Potter's in there right now; I won't keep you." Trevelyan inclined his head politely.
"It's all right." She wrung her hands together a little anxiously. "I heard Harry's giving the Locket to the DoM, and now you've got the Cup back..."
He gave an awkward smile. "Now we can really get the project going. The DoM's going to be a bit of a mess after what happened with Barlowe; they know the Minister's going to be trying to uproot this corruption. Since my project's one of the only ones in the clear, I think we're going to be able to get whatever we want. The Head even offered me the Internal Affairs job, but..." Trevelyan sighed, shaking his head. "I'm a researcher. I've had quite enough of politics and field work."
"They are easy to live without," Hermione agreed.
"I look forward to just getting back to the job. It's good work, I enjoy it." He rolled his shoulder. "You'd enjoy it too, you know. And you'd make a good Unspeakable. I know you're dedicated to the whole House Elf issue, but you know more about rebuilding magical items than almost any candidate in all of Britain. We could make good use of you."
Briefly, she had to admit that she was tempted. Getting to focus on something as quiet and calm as research and development, down in the Department of Mysteries, not just without anyone trying to kill her but without the frustrations and highs and lows of politics and lawmaking which she found herself entangled in even when her life wasn't going crazy.
And then she remembered Abner, and even poor Brucie, and shook her head with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry," she said. "I think I need a bit too much balance in my life right now to go somewhere like the Department of Mysteries. I think it'd eat up all of my time. And... the Beings Office is where I belong, for now."
Trevelyan chuckled. "I thought you'd say that," he said - and then hesitated, and she, too, tensed. There was a moment where they looked at each other, then he shook his head. "Don't worry. Really. I'm - I'm certainly not going to try asking you out for dinner again. I might enjoy your company, but I am not a fool."
She relaxed a little, and her next smile was considerably more sincere. "Thank you. I - thank you." She inclined her head to him. "Do stay in touch. Let me know how the work in the DoM goes - if you can. I'd love to keep abreast of that."
Trevelyan's smile broadened, relieved. "I'll do that." The door behind him swung open to show Harry emerging into the corridor, and he took a step back. "And I'll get out of your hair. I'll see you around, Hermione. Mister Potter."
Then he was gone, walking down the corridor towards the exit, leaving a slightly confused-looking Harry in his wake. He jerked a finger after Trevelyan. "I kept on meaning to ask," he said. "Who the hell is that guy?"
Hermione tore her gaze away from the disappearing shape of Malcolm Trevelyan to look at Harry, and her smile softened. "Just a friend." She looked to the door behind Harry. "How is he?"
"He's okay. Conscious. In a much better condition than he was this morning; the potions are doing their work. The Healers still think he can probably go home tomorrow, and you know how they like to be overly-cautious."
Harry moved to one side to let her go in, but she hesitated, stopping before him. "It seems silly," said Hermione, looking at him. "Thanking you."
Harry frowned. "Of course it's silly. What was I going to do, let you two ride off into an adventure without me? Into trouble without me?" He grinned.
"I'm sorry I didn't listen to you," she said. "I was... I don't think I'd quite realised how out-classed I probably was by Barlowe."
"He's a strange man who likes keeping cards up his sleeve," Harry agreed. "But those cards are coming out. I don't think he'll be able to wriggle out of this one."
"I should have thought about that before. Fighting fire with fire. Using your influence against his. But you were in hospital and..."
"Hermione." Harry's hand came to her elbow. "It's okay. You're okay. Ron's going to be okay. You didn't get anyone killed by over-thinking, or by not thinking enough. Everything's going to be okay." His gaze flickered over to the door. "Isn't it?"
She looked towards the room where she knew Ron lay, and drew a deep breath. "I guess we'll find out."
The room was, mercifully, clear of visitors or Healers. The Weasleys had swarmed en masse the previous evening, when Ron had been first brought in, and for the first time Hermione had actually felt awkward around the family. How much had Ron told them? How much did they resent her, just as he clearly resented her?
Then Mrs Weasley had hugged her like nothing had changed, and a new concern had arisen: had Ron, in fact, told them anything at all?
Maybe that had been a step too far, a step he didn't want to take, one final bastion of denial...
"Getting stabbed by the Sword of Gryffindor." He was conscious, lying back in bed, bandages wrapped around his stomach and pale, but otherwise not much the worse for wear. Harry had looked worse, with the heavy beating he'd taken at the hands of Barlowe's men, even if his injuries had overall been less severe.
"Is that ironic?" Ron continued weakly, watching her through only the one open eye. "You tell me off for misusing the word."
Her breath caught in her throat, and she padded over to the side of the bed. For a moment she wondered what to do with her hands, and in the end settled with straightening bedsheets that didn't need straightening. "If we consider the Sword to have been your weapon... then yes."
"I guess it's not ironic," said Ron with a frown, both eyes opening for him to look ponderously at the ceiling. "Harry killed the Basilisk with it. Neville killed Nagini. I just killed a locket. I mean, it was a really evil locket, but..."
"How're you feeling?" she blurted out as his voice trailed off, not quite able to meet his gaze, not quite able to look away from the bandages wrapped around him.
"Less like I've been stabbed, more like I've been punched. It was a clean wound, the Healers said. All the more likely to be nasty and deadly, all the easier to patch up with potions and charms. I'm going to take their word for it." He tried for a smile. "I'm okay. Really. I've had worse."
"I got poisoned? I got my leg broken? I got beaten up by a giant statue?" He tilted his head to the side. "Take your pick. Okay, I don't know if they're worse, but they're on par..."
"I thought you were going to die. And that would have been my fault, my lack of forward planning, my arrogance making me think we could take on Barlowe again when he'd bested us before..."
"Hey, as I remember it, you guys were doing pretty well. I was the one who overlooked the fact he was holding a bloody sword." Ron's expression twisted ruefully. "And besides. I'm okay. Harry was there to save the day. We shouldn't feel bad about that - it's what he does. Everything's okay."
"Stubbs managed to fix the Sword," she said awkwardly.
Ron blinked at the news and the change of pace. His brow furrowed. "...huh. I guess I'll talk to him about that."
"And he's going to teach at Hogwarts. McGonagall wants to train him as her successor, but she's not quitting yet."
Now he grinned. "Really? That's... that's great. That's really great."
"Yeah." Hermione nodded, a bit numb. "I suppose that this affair with the relics has helped to find the new headmaster after all. Or, rather, you helped to find the new headmaster."
"I was using him as a trick, really," said Ron with a wince. "But when I got talking to him about it... he's a good guy. Solid. Sensible head on his shoulders. He's not... complicated, and I don't think Hogwarts needs complicated right now. It's one of the few places which doesn't need changing."
On an impulse she reached out to brush hair back from his slightly clammy brow. "No. Some things don't need changes."
She felt him tense, felt him hear the implication in her words, and his gaze flickered to the door. "...so, how's Malcolm?"
He spoke not with bitterness, but apprehension, and she managed a small, reassuring smile. "Gone back to work in the Department of Mysteries. He doesn't need my help any more. I'm sure he'll do just fine without me."
Ron gave his own weak flicker of a smile and struggled to sit up a little more. "You know, we were having a conversation before -"
"I remember, and it was ridiculous," she said. His expression fell, and her smile broadened a hint. "You asking me for another chance?"
He looked bewildered, and she looked around to find a nearby stool, pulling it up to perch next to him. Her hand came to his, and this just served to make his expression all the more confused. "I worked just as many silly late nights as you, did just as much as you to fail to put this relationship as the priority. The difference is, I was the one who kept walking out, walking away... I was the one who gave up. I was the one who really, really failed to communicate.
"It's never black and white in a relationship on who was wrong, but if either one of us was more wrong, it wasn't you. And maybe there's something about one or both of us being in mortal peril that helps clear the mind, that helps remind me what my priorities are, but... I can only look back on my behaviour in the past six months and cringe. About how much I took you for granted, took us for granted, how much I got lost in what I was doing and forgot what was really important."
Ron looked a mixture of relieved and apprehensive, like he wasn't quite convinced something else bad wasn't going to happen. "Your work is important."
"And so's yours," she agreed. "But we managed to juggle both before, remember?" She squeezed his hand. "You're not the one who should be asking me for another chance. I should be asking you. And..." Her breath caught for a moment. "I am."
He watched her for a few seconds, pale blue eyes searching her face - then he looked up and gave a short laugh. "As if you - as if you need to ask, Hermione. As if you couldn't have just walked through my door, said 'hi' and been forgiven in the blink of an eye."
Her heart twisted, and for the first time in a long time not in the tense, unpleasant way - but with that swirl of excitement and anticipation that only he could induce, and on an impulse she leant forwards, turning his face to hers to press her lips against his gently.
The kiss was careful, mindful of his injury, but he pulled her as close as he could for a sweet, lingering embrace, and when she broke the kiss she stayed close, nudging his nose with hers. "I think everyone underestimates how good you are to me."
"Just so long as you don't." He grinned, broadly, toothily. "Besides. You've still got a whole load of stuff at my place."
"I do." She gave a brief frown. "Though a lot of it's like the furniture - still in pieces. I was going to get the place sorted for before you come back, tidied up and fixed so you don't have to worry about it..."
"That'd be great," Ron said, and tightened his grip on her hand briefly. "But there's one thing you could do." She cocked her head, and his smile again turned apprehensive. "You could, you know. Not take your stuff out."
She watched him levelly, for once taking advantage of the serenity of the moment to be the one to yank his chain around a bit, and was rewarded by his awkward smile broadening hopefully as he continued. "And. Maybe. Put some stuff in."
It was such an awkward, typically Ron way of doing this that she couldn't summon a response with words, just kissed him again, the twisting of her heart making her head spin just as much. And when she pulled back, she couldn't stop smiling. "Julius isn't going to need me in the office much while the Abuse Bill's going through. He knows I'll just try to rock the boat. So... I can be around a bit more."
"I'm still off until the trainees come in. Hey, I've got this crazy idea, maybe for once we can actually, you know, plan our time off together." His smirk remained, broad and teasing but eminently pleased.
"That's a good idea," she said with mock-thoughtfulness. "And all it took was a couple of thefts, a couple of break-ins, and a conspiracy which might have had roots deep in Ministerial corruption to make us come up with this astonishingly novel concept."
He sterned, only for an expression of mock-thoughtfulness, and she could see the amusement and satisfaction dancing about his eyes in a way which was almost as infectious as his smiles and his laughs.
"Overall," said Ron mildly, "I think getting stabbed in the gut has proven to be a pretty decent sort of deal."