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Renaissance by Slide

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Format: Novella
Chapters: 17
Word Count: 64,160
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, McGonagall, Ginny, OC
Pairings: Ron/Hermione, Harry/Ginny, Hermione/OC

First Published: 06/13/2008
Last Chapter: 08/26/2012
Last Updated: 08/26/2012

Summary:






Four years after the war, McGonagall stands on the brink of retirement with no obvious successor as Headmaster of Hogwarts. Meanwhile, Ron Weasley attempts to juggle his job as an Auror, the pending nuptials of his best friend and sister, and losing the love of his life. So when McGonagall asks him to investigate the theft of the Sorting Hat, one would think he had bigger issues. Right?


Chapter 1: Understandings
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Chapter 1: Understandings

 

“You have my thanks for managing to fill in for Professor Halvard’s Defence lessons on such short notice, Mister Weasley,” Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, said as she poured the aforementioned respected Auror a cup of tea and passed it across her desk towards him.

 

“It’s fine. The little buggers sat down and behaved themselves well enough. Though I think they were peeved you didn’t get them Harry,” Ron replied with a smirk, part of him relishing in the chance to speak freely in front of McGonagall, the other half quavering out of force of habit and feeling like he’d done something to get himself in trouble.

 

To her credit, McGonagall didn’t flinch at how the pupils of the fine institute of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were referred to as ‘little buggers’, merely leaned back and poured herself some tea. “Well, I would imagine Mister Potter has more important matters on his mind.”

 

The office suited her well. The heart of the master of Hogwarts was always a grand and imposing room, full of weighty tomes and magical devices the likes of which were not seen in many other places. The polished wooden surfaces, of which there were many, still held their glossy shine, and the many portraits of the many past headmasters of Hogwarts still looked down sleepily upon the every day happenings of the school. Ron knew that somewhere above his left shoulder Albus Dumbledore watched them in between nap-times. Idly, he wondered if McGonagall would be joining the portraits soon, or if a headmaster needed to be dead before they could join these hallowed halls.

 

“Well, yeah,” he agreed with the headmistress after taking a large gulp of tea. “I mean, you should hear Ginny go on about the wedding. It’s all fields and flowers and enough food to feed an army. He took leave specifically to be able to keep up with the organising, though I don’t know what she trusts him to manage. Seems like everything’s being done how she likes it.”

 

“That does not surprise me,” McGonagall said with a small sigh and a tight smile. “It is about time, however, that we were given snippets of joy amongst all of the hard work of rebuilding. It is good that Mister Potter is working towards such an event.”

 

“And it means I’m out of a partner, so I don’t really have much better things to do than cover a lesson here at the last minute,” Ron rejoined with a grin. He wasn’t sure what it was; if it was the unerring sensation of being in the head’s office, or the discomfort at being treated as something of an equal by McGonagall that was starting to see words just spilling past his lips. “Saying that, how is Professor Halvard?”

 

McGonagall looked confused briefly, then shook her head. “What? Oh, no, he’s not ill or injured. There was simply… a teaching conference at the Magical Law Enforcement Department that he needed to attend.” She stirred her tea. “Again, I hope it was not too much of an inconvenience to cover his lessons.”

 

“Counter-curses and dark creatures? I might be considered something of an expert in these things,” Ron said, grin broadening. “It’s no trouble. Actually rather nice to pass on the wisdom, so to speak.”

 

In reality, it had been quite disturbing to walk through the corridors of Hogwarts. He hadn’t been back here in two years, since visiting Hermione when she’d been finishing her final year, and between the rebuilding work and the power of nostalgia, everything looked completely different and yet eerily similar at the same time. He felt a little like he had when eleven years old and coming to the school for the first time.

 

Mostly, he was just glad he’d taken a second and fourth-year class, and so hadn’t ended up having to teach anyone he’d remotely known while he’d been at school. That would have been downright unsettling.

 

“I didn’t hear about any teaching conference,” he continued, sipping on the tea. “Something for the Hit Wizards?”

 

“I believe so; that may be why you did not hear of it.” McGonagall gave a slight shrug. “Professor Halvard was not expecting to be needed, but Marcus Allard was needed to assist with security on the latest press conference for my two would-be successors as Head of Hogwarts.”

 

“Oh, that. Yeah, that’s all got us jumping for joy and with bounteous excitement over who’s going to get the job, doesn’t it. Sprague and Konstantin. Right battle of the giants,” Ron said, eyes rolling.

 

McGonagall assumed that expression she had mastered over the years of looking both unimpressed and mildly, discreetly amused at once. “I am not retired yet, Mister Weasley,” she told him firmly, “and so the Ministry may run interviews and selections all they like. There will be a successor when, and only when I have retired. Not a moment before.”

 

And she did look old, Ron had to concede. Throughout his time at school, throughout the war and even immediately after, there had been a vital strength to her despite her age. But she had carried Hogwarts through its hardest times; she had led the school when Dumbledore had been removed in the face of the Chamber of Secrets, she had been the focal point of authority for everyone when under the reigns of both Dolores Umbridge and, later, Severus Snape. And when the job of headmistress had been finally, officially hers, she had formed a new Hogwarts from out of the ashes, restoring that which had been damaged and making the school whole again.

 

Albus Dumbledore might have been the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, and might have commanded the fight against Voldemort before his death. But Minerva McGonagall had been the one to keep Hogwarts itself together, and the trial had clearly taken its toll.

 

She did, without a doubt, deserve her retirement. But they both knew that Hogwarts deserved a strong, capable leader, and it seemed that there were none such available.

 

“So Sprague and Konstantin may just be waiting a long time before their battle of wits sees a victor declared?” Ron asked lightly.

 

“Oh, I don’t know. I think they’re already convinced enough of their own self-importance that they won’t be concerned with anything so menial as an official judgement on who is better. Besides,” McGonagall gave a derisive sniff, “it is like comparing a snail to a slug. Ultimately, there are bigger and better things out there.”

 

“Shame they’re not showing their faces, really,” Ron pointed out unwillingly.

 

“Yes.” McGonagall leaned back in her chair, gaze turning away from him and towards the rest of the room, expression going a little distant. “There have been theories – none I’ve ever explored, so I have no concept of how much weight they hold or if they are just idle speculation – that if no new headmaster can be found, Hogwarts itself chooses the one who shall lead the school. The Founders, after all, were more powerful in their magic than we can really understand, and wound strong enchantments into the walls themselves. Some believe that power has been known to… bend circumstances to the school’s will.”

 

Ron paused at this. He knew Hogwarts had often seemed to have a mind of its own, and that it had often provided that which its students and staff needed in times of strife – from the Room of Requirement to the Sword of Gryffindor. “I guess it doesn’t help that three out of the four Founders’ relics have been destroyed, really, does it,” he said with a slight sigh.

 

“It is just a theory. I am not going to lose sleep over an idea that does not hold any apparent evidence to support it,” McGonagall said, shaking her head. “Though you do bring up an… important point with the relics of the Founders, Mister Weasley.”

 

“I do?” Ron stirred his tea absently.

 

“Look around this room. What is missing?”

 

A test. He hated those. Ron was always a slightly more rough-and-tumble sort of Dark Wizard Hunter than many of his fellow Aurors; always very capable when it came to the chase and the action, but not perhaps quite so strong when it came to investigation. Many had suggested he study to be a Hit Wizard rather than an Auror, but he was still one of the best out there at what he did, and refused to be beaten by, of all people, his former schoolteacher.

 

So he leaned back, setting the tea down, and beginning to scan the room. The big problem with looking for something that was missing, he knew, was that it wasn’t there. Obvious, but it relied more upon memory rather than sheer observation, and his familiarity with the head’s office was nothing more than passing.

 

Ron thus began a small catalogue in his head of what he knew should be here, mentally ticking them off as he saw them. The globe that could reputedly let the owner see anywhere in the world; the bookshelf containing the rarer tomes on Dark Magic that weren’t to ever fall into the wrong hands, Hogwarts considered one of the safest places to put them; the long blade mounted on the wall anyone would recognise as the sword of Godric Gryffindor; the Sor…

 

“Where’s the Sorting Hat?” he asked at last quietly, suspiciously, not wanting to jump to the automatic conclusion that therein lay the problem. But it was May, and the Hat was hardly needed anywhere when it wasn’t September.

 

McGonagall’s tight, humourless smile unhappily confirmed his suspicions. “There is a problem with which I need your most discreet and unofficial aid, Mister Weasley,” she said slowly. “Not three mornings ago, I returned to my office to find that the Sorting Hat was… not here.”

 

Ron scrubbed his face with his hands, taking a deep breath. “The doors and windows?”

 

“Untouched.”

 

“Was the Hat… needed somewhere?” Ron felt rather silly asking that question, but knew of the magical item’s ability to transport itself, via various means, to wherever necessary.

 

Another small, humourless smile. “It tends to return afterwards.”

 

Ron looked at her suspiciously. “You told Conrad Halvard to go to that training conference, didn’t you. Or was there even a conference at all?”

 

“There was a conference. Conrad ultimately asked to go, because I encouraged him to. Hence the late notice of my summons here. I wanted you to come to Hogwarts… discreetly.” McGonagall leaned forwards. “I have not officially reported this because of the high tensions and attention currently focused around the school. The loss of the Sorting Hat would be a significant blow to morale, and the last thing I want is for it to be seized by those bumbling Ministry lapdogs as a weapon for them to employ in their bid for my job. This is more important than that.”

 

“But who would steal the Sorting Hat? It’s… I mean, its use is pretty limited.” Ron frowned with confusion.

 

“It was owned and enchanted by Godric Gryffindor. Although I would imagine it to be impossible to sell on any kind of legitimate basis, a private collector or someone wishing to unravel the magics within it may very likely have an interest.” McGonagall tightened her lips. “I, myself, am also curious as to how the thief managed to get in and out without being either detected or stopped by the significant security measures that we have taken around the school and especially around this office. Considering the nature of some of the items in this room, the Sorting Hat is almost a minor relic to have stolen.”

 

“It’s a very… specific choice.” Ron’s eyes scanned the room again, mind going even more professional, examining for now the obvious physical routes. “If I’m going to look into this, Professor, I’m going to need to spend time here. And if you want this looked into discreetly, then we’re going to need some sort of cover story.”

 

McGonagall gave a small, self-satisfied smile. “That is simple, Mister Weasley. If anyone asks, I am merely getting my affairs in order in anticipation of my pending retirement, and have asked you, as a young former student in good standing with time on your hands, to assist me.”

 

Ron blinked. “People will buy that?” he asked dubiously.

 

“People believe what they wish to believe, as you well know. Those who have reason to suspect me or watch me will be satisfied enough by the notion that I am preparing to retire that they shall not look deeper. Anyone else who does not believe the story shall trust me enough or be disinterested enough to not push the matter.” A slight shrug. “And, ultimately, I remain mistress of Hogwarts, and they can boil their heads if they think I’m going to bow that much to what they want.”

 

Ron snorted. “Do you actually have any plans to find a decent successor? Someone who’s not Sprague or Konstantin, I mean?”

 

McGonagall sighed. “Professor Flitwick provides an admirable Deputy Headmaster, and has served Hogwarts for many a year – as have Professors Sprout and Slughorn as excellent Heads of House. But those are my most trusted members of staff, and there is one thing we all have in common.” Another slight sigh as Ron tilted his head curiously. “We are old, Mister Weasley. And our younger staff are all… academics who teach on a mostly part-time basis, such as Professor Vector and Professor Sinistra. The few exceptions are individuals like Conrad Halvard, who might be the longest-standing Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Hogwarts has seen in years, and might also be an excellent Head of Gryffindor House, but he has never pretended this post to be more than a temporary arrangement before he returns to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.” McGonagall leaned forwards, taking her glasses off for a quick polish and in that moment looking older than Ron could remember her appearing. “Hogwarts needs – most desperately needs – fresh blood. Young enthusiasm.”

 

“And our two front-runners can’t supply that?” Ron wondered aloud, scratching his chin. He hadn’t shaved that morning, relishing the fact that he wouldn’t have to go into the office, and the slight itch of stubble was making him moderately regret the gesture of rebellion.

 

“Alcaeus Sprague is nothing more than a Ministry stool-pigeon. I’m sure he knows exactly how to run a school according to numbers, and Ministry guidelines, and all manner of other factors which have absolutely nothing to do with reality,” McGonagall said curtly. “He would be the darling of the press, spouting whatever quotations they want to hear. He would dress the school up in pretty clothing and with pretty words, and Hogwarts would begin to turn rotten from the inside. I will not again see the school in the hands of an incompetent. As for Konstantin…” McGonagall slipped her glasses back up on her nose, “he does know how to run a school. His experience at Durmstrang speaks volumes of his expertise. But that establishment was responsible for the education in Dark Magic of a whole wealth of Death Eaters, and the sheltering of even more since the war. I do not know how they do things in Eastern Europe, but I’m quite confident that it would not be suitable for Hogwarts.”

 

Ron rubbed his eyes wearily. Despite their conversation turning to more mundane matters, his mind was already ticking over this investigation, already writing up a mental list of what he needed to examine, who he needed to talk to, and a very, very short list of suspects. “Unfortunately, Professor, somebody is going to have to do the job.”

 

“I still have plenty of years left in me,” McGonagall said again with that tight smile. “Whatever the Ministry may think.”

 

He chuckled, as ever appreciating the Headmistress’ iron-tight control of a situation. “Do any of the staff know about the theft? Because I’m going to have to ask them questions, as they’ll be the most informed people about the comings and goings around the castle,” Ron asked, snapping the conversation back to the primary topic in his mind without much consideration.

 

“The Heads of House know. They come up to his office too often for me to hide the matter, and I would trust them all with my life,” McGonagall said firmly.

 

“That makes life easier.” He reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and unhappily pulled out a small, dog-eared notebook with a pencil shoved into the binding. “I’m going to need you, Professor, to do all sorts of annoyingly boring things. Like write down exactly what you saw the night before and the morning after the Hat went missing. Like who’s been in and out of your office over the last, ohh, fortnight. Students, teachers, visitors. Anyone who’s shown any interest at all in anything in your office.”

 

“I keep a strict diary of affairs. I shall hand it over, and add whatever information might be relevant,” McGonagall agreed.

 

“I’m also going to need information on the Sorting Hat. I’ll hit the library here – you may need to get Madam Pince to not chase me out of there out by sheer force of habit – but I’m sure you’ve got notes and writings which they don’t. Or if you know someone who I can talk to so as to get information on the Hat. Like, the magic that powers it, what it does, all of that,” Ron said, by now scribbling away on the notebook. “Also, if you can give me a run-down of the magic protecting this office and Hogwarts in general, I can begin to figure out how our mysterious thief even got to the Hat in the first place.”

 

“The magic protecting the school is extensive and complicated, and I do not think any one person knows it all. But I shall begin to write up a contact list for who is best to ask, and shall inform Madam Pince that you are to have free access to the resources in the library. Also, feel free to use any of the books here.” McGonagall gestured about the room, at the shelves of books in the office that would have made any scholar weep with joy. “As for the Hat, we know a good deal about the magic which surrounds it as it needed to be reconstructed after Voldemort set it alight. We have not one, but two experts on the matter.”

 

“Good. Who?” Ron asked, only half-paying attention as he was listing down the various access points into the office that he knew of.

 

“Professor Vector reconstructed a significant portion of the magical fundamentals and the Founders’ enchantments upon the Hat. Not from scratch, but from a very basic level. She was, however, not alone in this, and while you can go to Professor Vector for most information, her assistant was instrumental in single-handedly fixing some very complex problems where you’d have to go to her to ask about this.”

 

“That’s fine, that’s fine, just get me a name and I’ll…” Ron’s voice trailed off as his brain caught up with what McGonagall was saying. “Oh, no. You’re kidding me.”

 

The headmistress gave a slight shrug. “I’m afraid not, Mister Weasley. Miss Granger took a significant interest in the reconstruction of the Sorting Hat during her final year here. The work on it effectively gave her the NEWT in Arithmancy she attained. I do not know how much you will need to know about the nature of the Hat in the course of your investigations, but…”

 

“…but there are some things that I’ll only be able to find out about from Hermione,” Ron concluded, expression souring considerably. “Well. That’s going on the bottom of the ‘To-Do’ list.”

 


Chapter 2: Explanations
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 Chapter 2: Explanations

 

The moment Ron stepped inside the forge he was assaulted with a wave of dry heat that was enough to dismiss the droplets of a light May shower that had fallen upon him in his walk down Diagon Alley. The wave brought with it the musty scents of metal, sweat, and smoke; the sound of pounding hammers and roaring furnaces, and as his eyes adapted to the comparative gloom, for a short period these were the only senses he knew in the world.

 

It was a large workshop, the front open to the back street of Diagon Alley which led to it; a narrow, but deep room with all of the tools and equipment of the craft laid out. If one wanted to do business in this place, they had to be prepared to witness all of the process, all of the grime and grit and smoke and noise. There were back rooms, he knew, which included an office for dealing with money and paperwork and ostensibly for records to be kept, but he’d hardly ever seen them in all the times he’d come to this smithy.

 

"Mister Stubbs?" he called out, raising his voice over the banging of metal on metal, and saw a figure silhouetted against one of the far furnaces pause after a swing and turn towards him.

 

"Aye?" came a rough, but rich voice, and the large figure turned towards him. Ron stepped carefully through the workshop further into the gloom, and as he squinted he could see the tools laid out on benches, and on shelves and stands, fruits of labour.

 

From shining weapons, to shoes for winged horses, to the most delicate jewellery, Thaddeus Stubbs crafted it all, and none in all of Europe were, to Ron's knowledge, better.

 

"I'm here to -"

 

"What do you want?" the voice asked curtly, moving away from the furnace and close enough that Ron could see it was, in fact, the man himself.

 

He was a tall bull of a man, strong despite the streaks of grey in his dark hair and beard. Bare-chested and gleaming with sweat, he towered over others, most of whom made the mistake of thinking him to just be a thug. Ron had been one of them, until he'd identified the intelligent gleam in the dark eyes, and become familiar with his manner.

 

But as he became visible, so did Ron to him, and the hand gripping a large smith's hammer at waist's height allowed the tool to droop, and the man's apparent tension faded.

 

"Oh, Weasley, it's you. What do you want?" he asked again, and though there was little politeness in his words, there was a much more comfortable familiarity.

 

"Just a situation requiring your expert insight," Ron said cheerfully. He was used to Stubbs' behaviour by now, had learned to take it in stride after the several occasions he'd enlisted his aid and knowledge.

 

"Another?" Stubbs set the hammer to one side, placing it without looking exactly where it belonged in the long row of tools, and turned back to his anvil. Ron moved to follow him, knowing talking and working would often come hand-in-hand.

 

"What's the latest?" Stubbs continued, holding what looked to Ron's eyes like a shapeless lump of metal in tongues and moving it to the slake pit. "More dark artefacts? Cursed weapons?"

 

"Something a little outside of your usual remit," Ron confessed, drawing a deep breath. It was best to just cut to the chase with this man. "But your successor worked closely on it, so if she knows something about it, I'm sure you know tonnes."

 

"Flattery doesn't suit you, Weasley," said Stubbs abruptly with an impatient wave of the hand. "Get on with it."

 

"Sorting Hat," Ron stumbled, then tried to gather his words to sound like less of a fool. "I mean, I want to ask you about the Sorting Hat."

 

Stubbs stopped, straightening up and fixing Ron with a dark, beady look of curiosity. He scratched his beard, thick from natural hairiness but kept short – long hair probably being a little perilous to one in his profession. "What makes you think I know anything about Hogwarts' Sorting Hat?"

 

"I have spoken to Professor Vector," Ron explained falteringly. The heat was beginning to get to his thought process, he was sure, and sweat was breaking out on his forehead. "And she's told me what she can. But you're, well... you're better than her."

 

Stubbs watched him again, as if trying to find any hint of insincerity, but seemed satisfied. From Ron's perspective, it was the truth - Vector was a theoretician, but when it came to the world of enchanted items and magical crafting, Thaddeus Stubbs had few equals. Even goblins respected his talents. And Stubbs had been Hogwarts' Professor of Arithmancy for some fifteen years before resigning a decade ago.

 

"At some things," the smith said at last, a little grudgingly. "But I never studied the Sorting Hat. Never looked into the weave of magic within it. I couldn't tell you more than a decent book or paper could." He rummaged around his array of tools, lifting them up to the light of the forge one at a time, inspecting them for flaws Ron couldn't hope to see in a thousand years.

 

"Oh." Ron's shoulders drooped, a sense of inevitability beginning to creep over him. So much for this effort at avoidance. "So you have... no idea about its nature."

 

"Less than Vector." Stubbs paused, again fixing him with his beady gaze. "Didn't your girl also work on the reconstruction of the thing?"

 

Ron flinched. It had, in fact, been Hermione who'd first sent him to talk to Stubbs. His very first case had been the aforementioned smuggling of cursed magical items, and she'd mentioned Stubbs' reputation. Harry had dismissed him as a crackpot from the beginning, but Ron had been stubborn, and listened to the wisdom in the gruff manner, and it had given him his first arrest. Since then, whenever he'd had a problem with magical items, he'd gone to Stubbs, and was beginning to think the man was growing fond of him. Or tolerating him, at least.

 

"She's not my girl any more," he confessed, not without difficulty.

 

Stubbs looked at him for a long moment, then wiped his sweaty forehead and put down the tool Ron had eventually learned was called a hardy. "I'll go put the kettle on."

 

Instinctively, Ron moved to perch on one of the benches, trying to hide his surprise. Not only was Stubbs abruptly showing more inclination towards hospitality than ever before, but there had been a genuine note of sympathy in his voice. He watched the big man wind his way through the cluttered workshop and disappear through a back door, returning shortly after carrying a gleaming bottle and two tumblers.

 

“I forgot. I’m out of milk,” he said unapologetically, setting down what proved to be Firewhiskey on one of the worktables and pouring Ron a glass. “It’s late afternoon; not too early at all. And you look like you need a drink.”

 

Ron wasn’t sure if he should feel patronised or touched, and shortly after felt burning as he took a gulp of the Firewhiskey. As Stubbs said, it was late afternoon, and lunch was a distant memory as the alcohol hit the bottom of his empty stomach.

 

“Thanks,” he coughed, wrapping his hands around the tumbler and hunching over a little. He could feel the warmth of the drink spreading from his belly in waves which fought the knotted tension in his muscles and in his mind, and brought his internal temperature up to comparable levels with that of the forge.

 

“So what happened?” Stubbs asked, sitting on his anvil and taking a swig of the drink. “Last we spoke you were all smug about Potter moving out because you didn’t have to go to hers if you wanted privacy.”

 

He hadn’t realised he’d told the blacksmith so much, but the conversation did drift back to him distantly. All in all, he’d spent a lot of time here, Ron realised, and it seems like Stubbs listened and cared more than he’d given him credit for.

 

But he didn’t answer the question, instead leaned down to his bag and opened it up. He rifled quickly through some of the books and scribbled parchment that had been his preparation for teaching a class, before emerging triumphantly with a rolled-up newspaper.

 

It was not the Daily Prophet. The Prophet had seen a decline in popularity in post-War years, and increased exposure and increasing distrust of the status quo had spawned greater influence in its rivals. Ron himself stuck to the Prophet, because they still had the best contacts for actual news in his opinion, but Harry had never got around to moving or cancelling his subscription to have the Clarion delivered to their flat.

 

He’d idled through it that morning before the Prophet had arrived, and mostly been bored by its headline story just repeating news about the candidates for Hogwarts Headmaster. There were hardly hordes queuing for the chance to direct Britain’s magical youth, it all seemed to be down between two people: Alcaeus Sprague, and Gregor Konstantin.

 

It wasn’t that Ron didn’t care about the future of Hogwarts, but it was very much the case that he didn’t care about any of the candidates, least of all the two front-runners. Sprague was a product of the Fudge years, when the Ministry had seen fit to interfere with Dumbledore’s methods of teaching and had been the source of an awful lot of Ministry-directed education initiatives the likes of which had been enforced by Dolores Umbridge. Although Sprague himself was far from being quite so objectionable, and was in fact something of a darling of the Ministry and the public with his broad smiles and boyish good looks, he was unfortunately possessing all of the innovation of a damp shrew.

 

Konstantin, on the other hand, held all of the competence and drive that his nearest rival lacked. It was thus unfortunate that he happened to be the current deputy of Durmstrang Academy, whose Dark Magic teachings during the Second War were still under suspicion by the British Ministry, and was therefore not necessarily the most trustworthy individual under the sun.

 

Stubbs was looking at the paper dubiously. “You read that idealistic clap-trap?” he asked, taking another swig of the whiskey. Despite the mocking words, there was an odd note in his voice, a sort of unwilling hint of respect.

 

“Harry’s fault,” Ron mumbled defensively, swirling his drink around in the glass. “He says they like to cut through the lies and don’t spout as much propaganda. Whatever. Everyone lies.”

 

Stubbs snorted gently. “Cynical of you, Weasley. So why the paper?”

 

Ron turned the sheet around so Stubbs could see the front, and pointed at the strip of boxes across the top. One box promised the paper would tell them all about internal funding misappropriations in the Ministry; another invited the reader to turn to the back for the Quidditch scores.

 

Stubbs leaned forwards and squinted at the third. “‘Out of the Shadows – Hermione Granger gives her first interview exclusive to the Clarion. Turn to Page 12 for more.’

 

“Yeah, that was news to me,” Ron said. “But, then again, I haven’t spoken to her in a week, and even that was – an argument.” He flinched at the recollection, and opened the paper. “But Hermione’s notoriously press-shy, so…”

 

Sure enough, on page 12, there was the picture of Hermione, looking like it had been taken at one of the pubs on Diagon Alley, dressed smartly in her work clothes and appearing a little uncharacteristically sheepish. Above it was the tag-line of ‘Friend of the Boy Who Lived, instrumental in the fall of Lord Voldemort, Hermione Granger is most famous for being a loyal sidekick. But as the smartest witch of her generation and a shining light in one of the Ministry of Magic’s most progressive departments, it’s obvious there are far more stories here than just the ones about Harry Potter.’

 

Ron passed the paper to Stubbs. “That’ll be how this interviewer got her. Everyone else wanted more of the life and times of Harry Potter, just from her perspective. They chased me like that, too, but I gave them the answers and they got bored. In being stubborn, she made herself a target.”

 

Stubbs grunted and nodded as he began to read. “Most of this is about the happy-clappy House Elf support. Hardly any mention of Potter.” His eyes narrowed. “Or you.”

 

Ron took a swig of his whiskey. “We’ve… argued a lot more in the last six months,” he admitted with difficulty. “About work. About working instead of spending time together.”

 

“Late nights. Missed dinners. Broken promises. Real world does that, lad, unless you stop it from doing so,” Stubbs muttered, taking a swig of his whiskey and not looking up as he continued to read.

 

“I had a lot of cases, important stuff! I’m an Auror, I can’t just swan off for dinner with my girlfriend when Death Eaters are rampaging about,” Ron said defensively. “Then she’d stay in the office to worry about bloody House Elf rights!”

 

Stubbs just laughed, a quiet, bitter laugh that held an understanding of all of the hypocrisy Ron missed, before sobering quickly and straightening up. “Ah. The ponce finally asks about her relationship with Ron Weasley, Auror and other famous friend of Harry Potter.”

 

“And there comes the kicker,” Ron mumbled, taking another swig of whiskey.

 

Stubbs cleared his throat, incredulously choosing to read out loud the section which had made Ron first throw the paper in the bin that morning before guiltily retrieving it. “‘She shrugs at this question, though her casual air seems a little forced. “Just as the world’s been changing, people change. We aren’t as close as we used to be, but that’s the way things go. He’s still immensely important to me, of course, but… I think it’s the definition that’s changed.” A vague, yet at the same time very pointed answer, so I don’t push the issue, instead moving…’” His voice trailed off, and he made a face. “Arse.”

 

“Bear in mind that was the first I heard about that,” Ron added sharply, bitterness creeping into his voice.

 

Stubbs looked sideways at him. “You got ditched via interview?” he asked gruffly. Though his voice held dark amusement, there was again that hint of sympathy in there.

 

Another swig of whiskey. “Looks like, doesn’t it.”

 

The blacksmith leaned over to top his glass up. “These things happen, lad. Nothing is easy in life. She’s got her career, you have yours, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Either you get through it, you bend space and time because you love her that damn much, or you just drift away.”

 

Ron looked at Stubbs with a hint of accusation. It was better than dwelling on his words. “You sound like you’ve got some experience of this.”

 

There was an enigmatic shrug and another sip of drink. “Doesn’t everyone?”

 

The idea that everything he’d had with Hermione was just one of those chapters in life which everyone goes through was a sour one, and more whiskey didn’t really put it very much to bed. “I don’t know. This isn’t just… I mean… she’s…”

 

“Special? The one you love is always special.” Stubbs finished his drink and stood up. “So I suppose you don’t really want to go and see her to ask her about this Sorting Hat.” He cocked his head slightly to one side. “Why do you want to know in the first place?”

 

Ron drew a deep breath. On the one hand, McGonagall had made it clear she didn’t want the public knowing about the theft. On the other, Stubbs already knew all sorts of incriminating information from the previous times he’d offered his help, and he hadn’t blabbed. After being good enough to listen about the personal problems, to boot, just fobbing him off would be… rude.

 

“It’s been stolen,” he said dispassionately.

 

Stubbs snorted, looking about his mangle of affairs in the forge. “Someone nicked the bloody Sorting Hat?” he asked with humour, before abruptly sobering and straightening up. “That thing’s got in it part of the consciousness of the Founders. That must be incredible magic.”

 

It was an academic’s fascination, at least, rather than a horrified stop for thought, and Ron just shrugged and finished his second glass of whiskey, feeling it sloshing in him a bit. That was definitely enough to drink before dinner. “And it can read your personality, read your nature. That’s major magic, I know. It’s why I want to know exactly what the bloody thing does – there are so few obvious reasons why someone would steal it, but all kinds of germs of ideas of what it could be put to use for.”

 

The blacksmith looked over at him with a wry expression. “So you’re going to go and ask Ms Granger if she’ll help you out with the theft? If she can unravel the hat’s mysteries enough to give you an answer? I’m really sorry I can’t help you more, lad, I don’t envy you that.”

 

“Are you kidding me?” Ron snorted, wiping some sweat from his brow. “I have a whole tonne of avenues of enquiry to look at which might get me some answers first. How the person got in and out, for one. I have no bloody plan of going to talk to Hermione about this unless I absolutely have to.”

 

Stubbs laughed that dark laugh of his. “Not sure I can blame you on that one.” He looked over at the copy of the Clarion now sitting on the anvil, scrunched up almost beyond recognition at this point, and gave another chuckle. “Do you want me to burn that?”

 

Ron gave a smile, his first of the day which had any particular stab of sincerity to it. “Hell yes.”

 


Chapter 3: Arrangements
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Chapter 3: Arrangements


 

“Brucie? Are you in?”

 

The office of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures was not normally this cold in the morning, and considering Hermione had walked to work on this warm May day with just a jacket thrown over her work clothes, the chill was almost biting. She pulled the coat around herself a little bit more tightly and scanned the various desks for sign of her co-worker.

 

Here, in the Office for House-Elf Relocation, she was routinely the second person in every morning, though the arrival of the first was down to shift patterns rather than any keenness of his own. Thus, although she expected the office to be rather quiet, it being absolutely abandoned was new.

 

With a sigh, she deposited her bag onto one of the desks and padded over to the fireplace. It was cold and empty, and so it was with not an insignificant amount of grumbling that she set about making the fire.

 

There were certain advantages to the Ministry of Magic having its offices underground, secrecy being the biggest and space being the second. Warmth was usually not a problem so long as the offices were well-maintained, but that step appeared to have been bypassed by the staff today.

 

When she was finished and the fire was crackling away merrily, chasing the chill inside her, Hermione brushed her hands off and stood to, again, regard the rest of the office. “Brucie, I know you didn’t have today booked off. Are you there?” She hunched down a little to peer between the desks in the administrative pen.

 

But there was nothing, so Hermione retrieved her bag and made her way over to her office. It was a small, cramped affair, but her department had never been highly regarded enough to enjoy particularly comfortable facilities, and considering she herself was right at the very bottom of importance when it came to people who deserved their very own office, it was the most she could hope for.

 

With little ceremony she pulled some of the paperwork she’d finished at home out of her bag and sat down at her desk, keeping her jacket on for a while until the whole office warmed up from the fire. The documents before her were all ordered neatly, well labelled and well prioritised, and so within seconds she was losing herself in the latest drafts of the bill that would hopefully ban physical abuse of House Elves.

 

She must have lost forty-five minutes like this, only dimly registering when the clocks chimed nine and still going on until there was a knock at her half-open door.

 

“Er… Hermione?” Julius Crawford, the director of the office, poked his head around her door with a slightly hesitant air.

 

She was jerked very slightly out of her reverie, blinking and looking up at Crawford and only just then realising that, with the fire having done its work, she was now very warm. “Oh, Julius, good morning.”

 

“Morning.” He took a half-step into the office. “Can’t sit and chat, I’ve got to talk to the boys down in legislation to make sure we’re getting the wording right on the drafts so far for the Elf Abuse Bill. I was just wondering if you’ve seen Brucie?” Crawford was rather young for the head of an office, which was more a reflection on the low important of their department rather than his abilities. In his mid-thirties, he tended to wear robes that looked like he’d owned them since leaving school, with messy light brown hair and a tendency to fidget nervously.

 

Hermione shook her head. “No, he wasn’t here when I got in. I had to set up the fire myself,” she said, shrugging off her jacket. “It’s not his day off, is it?”

 

“No, and the desks are a mess. I don’t think he’s been in all night.” Crawford gave a wry smile. “You’d think if we were paying the House Elves to do the work here at the Ministry they’d have been more productive…”

 

“I’m sure he’s got a very good reason for not being in,” Hermione replied, a little hotly. “He might just be ill. You should try and get in touch.”

 

Crawford blinked at her as what had been intended as a joke fell flat. Most everyone else in the office had a love-hate relationship with House Elves, insulting them amongst themselves but kicking up a stink if anyone else would dare criticise the creatures. But all of the staff had learnt, and usually remembered, that even joking criticism should be avoided in the presence of Hermione Granger, whose usually perfectly adept humour-detecting skills imploded on the subject of House Elves.

 

“I… I will,” Crawford said, sagging a little. “But there’s one other thing, something actually important.” He ignored the slight expression of outrage that crossed Hermione’s face at the implication that House Elves weren’t important. “I got a message yesterday from the Department of Mysteries. They want to talk to you, and as you were out and about in Kent all day, I booked them in for a meeting with you this morning.” He glanced at his watch. “In about ten minutes.”

 

The stack of papers Hermione had been rifling through were placed firmly on the desk. “The Department of Mysteries? What do they want? And couldn’t you have told me earlier?”

 

“Yes, I don’t have the foggiest except they asked for you specifically, and… I forgot.” Crawford shrugged helplessly. “I had asked Brucie to leave you a message, but, well, that did a fat lot of good, didn’t it. I’m sure it’s nothing, they haven’t gone through the main channels to request the office’s assistance. You’ve probably just accidentally poked something irrelevant they’re convinced is a state secret, and will want you to sign non-disclosure papers or something.”

 

“Oh, ‘just’ a debriefing on something from the Unspeakables. You’re very reassuring, Julius.”

 

“I know, it’s my talent.” Crawford gave a nervous grin. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Drop me a message when you’re done, though, and we’ll go over the amendments you wanted to make?”

 

“It’s a bad bill, Julius,” Hermione said with a sigh, looking back at the papers. “Most households instruct an Elf to punish themselves; very few bother to actually dirty their own hands with such menial tasks. This bill isn’t going to change anything.”

 

“It’ll show we’re doing something,” Crawford said, sighing tiredly.

 

“It’ll show we’re toothless.” She frowned, then shook her head and waved a hand at him. “Fine. You go talk to legislation. I’ll see what the DOM want.”

 

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he stated firmly, before disappearing from her office door.

 

“Yeah, right,” Hermione muttered under her breath, then promptly returned her attention to the paperwork. She was sure there was a way to get phrasing into the bill that would stop it from being so pointless; something about a household not being allowed to cause an Elf harm in the course of his duties or as a punishment, rather than inflicting it. Or perhaps a better legal definition of ‘inflict’…

 

She was still lost in these word games, scribbling on a pad of paper, when there was another knock on the door, the visitor this time seeming to wait for a response rather than just barging in, as was customary in this office.

 

“Oh, um… come in!” Hermione called, pushing her paperwork to one side and straightening up, pushing back a stray lock of hair that immediately reassumed its previous location once left unattended.

 

The door swung open slowly, and in stepped two men. Both wore dark robes, but they couldn’t have been more different from one another – one was tall and burly, somewhere in his forties, with short, stubbly dark hair going grey at the temples and craggy features. The other was shorter, more wiry, with well-kept brown hair, boyish features, and didn’t seem to be much older than her.

 

“Miss Hermione Granger?” the burly man asked immediately, straightening up in front of her desk in a posture that was both respectful and potentially intimidating at once.

 

“Yes, that’s me,” she said, wearing a slight frown. “I assume you two gentlemen are from the Department of Mysteries?” She stood, extending a hand for introductions.

 

The burly man grasped hers and shook it firmly, offering the slightest hint of a painful iron grip. “Aye. I’m Tancred Burke, this here is Malcolm Trevelyan. We’re both what you’d call Unspeakables.”

 

“I often wonder – is ‘Unspeakable’ the professional term for those who work in the Department of Mysteries, or is that just an unofficial nickname that’s never been corrected?” Hermione asked, switching handshakes to the younger Trevelyan.

 

“We can’t speak about that,” Trevelyan replied, though not without a small hint of a smile that his partner did not share.

 

“Very well. Have… er, a seat, gentlemen, I’m afraid I’ve only got one chair for the two of you, if you’ll wait a moment I’ll…” Hermione paused, scanning the room for perhaps a spare stool, coming up empty and taking a step towards the door.

 

“Don’t bother, Miss Granger. Trevelyan can stand,” Burke reassured her, claiming the seat on his side of the desk as Trevelyan rolled his eyes slightly before leaning against the doorframe.

 

“Oh, uh… alright.” Hermione gave a slight frown of consternation, then sat herself down and clasped her hands on the desk in front of her. “So what can I do for you gentlemen?”

 

“It’s not about what you can do for us, Miss, but more about what you can do for the Department of Mysteries. We require your assistance in a very particular project,” Burke said, shifting around in an effort to be comfortable as he found his large frame not quite fitting the small chair.

 

Hermione’s sympathy for him was low as she noted Trevelyan still leaning against the doorway. “I’m not sure my areas of expertise are really those that the Department of Mysteries would be interested in,” she said hesitantly and not entirely truthfully, for she was well aware that her magical abilities rather surpassed some of her professional ones.

 

“Considering the Department of Mysteries’ remit is rather broad, under the right circumstances I don’t think there’s a witch or wizard alive whose expertise might not interest us,” Trevelyan observed casually. While Burke was looking right at her, his eyes were scanning the office coolly, attention being paid to every scrap of paper, every picture, and Hermione felt a slight shiver up her spine at how almost invasive his examination felt.

 

“You are the foremost expert in diplomatic negotiations with Magical Beings,” Burke explained. “We have seen how effective your work with the House Elves has been, and know you have also spent some time working with the Goblin Liaison Office.”

 

“…some time. Not a great deal,” Hermione confessed.

 

“However, when it comes to all-round expertise with the widest range of beings, you are considered the best. So we have come to you.” Burke leaned forwards a little. “The Department of Mysteries requires the assistance of other Magical Beings, and so we wish for you to aid us in negotiating that assistance.”

 

Hermione blinked at him with slight confusion. “Assistance? What in?”

 

Burke and Trevelyan exchanged glances, and the older wizard gave a slight sigh as the younger spoke. “We are attempting to reconstruct a magical relic of some not insignificant power. Our own efforts with our own magic have been left somewhat wanting. However, we know the extent of House Elf magic has been only barely quantified, and the skills of goblins when it comes to magical craftsmanship are well-documented.”

 

“What is the relic?” she asked curiously.

 

Burke shook his head very firmly. “I’m afraid you’re not cleared for that information.”

 

“What?” She stared at him for a few seconds. “You want me to help you negotiate the assistance of House Elves and goblins, but you won’t tell me what for?”

 

“It’s for the reconstruction of a magical relic,” Burke said without missing a beat. “And even that much information is very delicate.” He leaned forwards. “Understand, we cannot afford to tell the beings during the negotiations what they are being asked to fix. This is information that cannot reach the ears of anyone but an Unspeakable. We are not expecting you to negotiate without information that would be important to the discussions.”

 

“So you’re going to want their help and you won’t even tell them what for,” Hermione added, rubbing her eyes tiredly.

 

“Unfortunately not,” Trevelyan conceded. “Which is why we have come to you – not only are you experienced at dealing with goblins and elves, but you have a positive relationship with both.”

 

“In so far as one can have a positive relationship with goblins without showering galleons on them,” Hermione pointed out.

 

Burke and Trevelyan again exchanged glances. “If they want payment, then that can be quite capably done. We would, however, prefer to use house elves rather than goblins due to the fact that they are, well, more reliable,” Burke explained.

 

“Though beggars may not necessarily be choosers,” Trevelyan added.

 

There was a pause as Hermione leaned back in her chair, taking a deep breath and eyeing the two Unspeakables dubiously. “This relic,” she began. “You can’t tell me what it is, but… it isn’t a weapon of any kind, is it?”

 

Another exchange of glances, before Burke sighed. “No, it is not, Miss.”

 

“Why is it being reconstructed?” she asked.

 

“I cannot explain that in full, for that would give away its nature. But most simply, Miss Granger, it is being remade because it is broken. Not everything need have an insidious purpose,” Burke said, offering a small smile that almost seemed to split his craggy face in two.

 

“So, will you help us?” Trevelyan said.

 

“I would like to,” Hermione said slowly, “but I do have an awful lot of work here in this office. There’s a bill going through that I need to work on to stop being a waste of…”

 

“The Elf Abuse Bill,” Trevelyan confirmed. “We know. And you know as well as we do that the amendments you wish to add on are never going to be passed this year. So you could, instead, work for us and do something… helpful?” His tone was hesitant enough to take the sting out of the potential implications of his words.

 

It was enough to see her glaring at him for a few seconds, though, until sense overtook ideals and she concurred that Crawford and the others would never let the bill make it through to the Ministry with the amendments that she wanted tacked on.

 

She sighed again as she straightened up. “Very well. I’ll need as much information as you can give me – what sort of magical reconstruction we’re talking about; if it’s physical or purely arcane, for example. And what sort of offers you’re able to make to the goblins and the elves.”

 

“We came prepared,” Trevelyan said with a grin, reaching into his robes and pulling out a roll of papers, which he handed over. “What the Department is prepared to give, and the various skills that we will require for this task. The party that do the job will, of course, have the project explained to them in full once they accept.”

 

“Though we will require a binding contract that will make them unable to back out, and unable to discuss the project with anyone other than their own team or the department,” Burke added briskly.

 

“That,” Hermione said slowly, “is going to make gaining the assistance of the goblins very difficult indeed. They dislike contracts that bind them when they don’t know the full set of circumstances.”

 

“Which is why we would prefer House Elves,” Burke said.

 

There was a small pause as Hermione glanced between the two Unspeakables suspiciously. “If you are expecting me,” she began coolly, “to aid in deceiving or manipulating House Elves to do your bidding due to their naïve natures, then you have not done your research on me, gentlemen, and I shall have no such…”

 

“Absolutely not!” Trevelyan interrupted firmly. “No, miss. The House Elves are just… more honest, more able, and less greedy. They are, however, more difficult to get to commit to something. At least, the liberated ones.”

 

“And we will need liberated House Elves, otherwise our requirements of confidentiality will likely clash with their obligations to their households,” Burke added.

 

Hermione paused, mind already running through several House Elf unions or groups that she knew with whom she could begin to set up some negotiations. “Alright,” she said at last. “I’ll get started on organising some meetings. I assume the two of you will be negotiating on behalf of the Department?”

 

“I will,” Burke said, finally standing up. “Trevelyan will be coordinating with you on the organisation and arrangements of the meetings. He is more well-versed in the legal and practical aspects and requirements than I.”

 

“The flunkey work,” Trevelyan added in a mock-whisper with a conspiratorial tone. Burke ignored him.

 

“We have also already arranged to have your work schedule in the Office of House Elf Relocation cleared for the foreseeable future,” Burke continued seamlessly, straightening his robes. “So you’ll be working on our ticket, and our time. You will, however, continue to use this office, so as to avail yourself of the Being Division’s resources.”

 

“The pay’s better in the Department of Mysteries, too,” Trevelyan said with a small grin. “Who knows, you might want to become as unspeakable as us when it’s over.”

 

“I happen to doubt that, Mister Trevelyan. I enjoy my work here,” Hermione said coolly.

 

“Well. I’ll be in touch, if you two want to get started right away. Trevelyan, you know where to find me.” Burke leaned over to shake Hermione’s hand, then briskly shook Trevelyan’s before heading for the door. “Good day, Miss Granger. Thank you for your aid.”

 

Then he was gone, leaving her in the room with the younger Unspeakable, who had gone back to examining her office with that same cool, evaluating air. There was a short silence before he looked at her, expression polite. “I read your interview in the Clarion. I thought it was classy to dodge the press who just wanted to pump you for information on Potter.”

 

“Um… thank you,” Hermione said, never having been comfortable with taking such compliments. She gestured to the chair Burke had vacated. “Please, Mister Trevelyan, have a seat.”

 

“Malcolm,” Trevelyan said, sitting down.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“It’s Malcolm, please. I get an itch when I’m called ‘Mister Trevelyan’ by people who aren’t ten years my elder or younger.” Trevelyan paused, seeming to realise that this might have been construed as being too forward. “Or, uh, just ‘Trevelyan’. That’s what Burke calls me when we’re not being all official for people.”

 

“No, Malcolm is fine,” Hermione said with a small smile. “And you can call me ‘Hermione’. Miss Granger gets a little stuffy. So, Mister Burke is your… partner?”

 

“So to speak.” Trevelyan nodded. “We’re researchers in the same field, and are about the only two in our division who can be trusted with talking to people in the outside world.” Though his expression was wry, there was a slightly long-suffering air about him that suggested he wasn’t entirely kidding.

 

“I’m not surprised, you hear rumours about the Unspeakables…” Hermione’s voice trailed off, and she looked at him curiously as a thought struck. “You read the Clarion?”

 

“Uh… yes.” Trevelyan looked slightly surprised by this change of tack. “I find it a lot less corporate than the Prophet. Though the Prophet has the inside track on Ministry affairs, so you pretty much have to read both… well, I’m sure you know the problems.”

 

He shrugged and leaned forwards, straightening out the roll of parchments he’d handed over to her minutes before. “So… House Elf negotiations…?”

 

Chapter 4: Investigations
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Chapter 4: Investigations


The map was not perfect but would suit his needs, Ron decided as he looked down at the scrawls on the parchment in front of him. It might not be dimensionally perfect, it might be not even entirely accurate, and somebody else looking at it might not realise that it was meant to be a sketch of the layout of the headmaster’s office, but he could understand it, and that was the important part.

Usually, he left the slightly more routine parts of the job to Harry, who was better at sitting down, evaluating a situation, and then drawing up a plan of action. That was where Ron traditionally came in – enacting said plan. But this time he had no Harry and, unless he did the work, no plan.

So he had claimed McGonagall’s office, dismissing the headmistress – very politely, and only because she agreed – to somewhere else in the school while he set to work.

The map was basically a holding pen for all of his thoughts, from where the Sorting Hat had last been seen, to the security around the Hat itself, to the security around the room. In the margins were the notes of the security measures he knew to be in place around the entire school, with ‘Apparating Into Hogwarts Is Impossible’ written in large block capitals.

Hogwarts, A History told me so,” he muttered to himself in a mocking falsetto tone, making a face as he did so and feeling the familiar surge of resentment that had installed itself in his stomach since reading Hermione’s interview that morning.

On another scrap of paper was a list. Hermione had always been very fond of lists, which meant that under present circumstances he somewhat distrustful of them, but knew they served their purpose. This one was a breakdown of the Sorting Hat; it’s qualities and abilities, its known history, and basically anything that would make anyone even remotely interested in it. There was another column too, with the heading of ‘Suspects. It was presently empty.

“Why would anyone,” he wondered aloud, not for the first time, “want a manky old hat like that?”

Ron stood up and stepped over to the space on the bookshelf where the Sorting Hat had been, lifting his wand up. “Owned by Godric Gryffindor. Enchanted when the Founders realised they wouldn’t be around forever, and wanted their legacies to live on.” He lifted his wand, and muttered an incantation under his breath. “Arcanus Persequor.

A small, dull green light glowed at the end of his wand, casting a few inches in front of it in the same emerald illumination, and he slowly waved it over the space. “It contains the knowledge of what qualities the Founders wished to see in the members of their houses,” he continued muttering to himself, “and is capable of seeing into the heads and hearts of people and seeing which of those qualities they possess the most of. Also, it composes and performs its own songs. Mind-reading? Judging of character? Karaoke?” Those last three questions were said loudly, and in the direction of the quill that hovered over his list. The feather bobbed in the air briefly, before scribbling away on the parchment.

“And… nothing from you.” Ron lowered his wand with a grimace, the green light dying. Magic left a certain mark on the world around it, like a trail which could show where a powerful spell had once been cast – though it was hellish to find out what spell, exactly – or perhaps where a powerful magical item had been. The incantation he’d just used would ideally light up where the magical residue could still be found, and indeed he was getting a very strong green glow from the spot where the Sorting Hat had previously lived. Unfortunately, there was so much background magical residue in this office, possibly the most magically-saturated location in Britain, that he couldn’t find out any more than he already knew: the Hat had once been there. There was too much disturbance to try and figure out if it had been carried in a certain direction or along a certain route.

“Or maybe…” Ron glanced back at his note-taking quill. “‘May not have passed through space – may have been somehow instantly transported or contained’.” He wasn’t sure how, exactly, the Sorting Hat could have been instantly transported, courtesy of the large apparition reminder, but there were other means of travel, like Portkeys…

He paused again, looking at the quill once more. “Oh! Definitely ‘Look into Portkeys’. Find out how the bloody things work.” Could someone have created a Portkey to travel into Hogwarts? Or would the anti-apparition wards protect against that, as well?

But if there was no magical incursion made, then the next real option was the physical. And there, the arena was wide open, from someone breaking in through the window to using any secret passageways…

“Ah-ha! Make another note, ‘Talk to Harry about Marauder’s Map’.” Ron chuckled to himself, rubbing his hands together. It wasn’t bad, this brainstorming lark. It actually felt pretty good to be bringing ideas together, finding ways of figuring this out. It was all early days yet, but that just felt more promising; left him with a wide-open canvas to play with.

Still, back to the physical access points. These were potentially limitless, and so Ron decided to do as he normally did – go for the most obvious. In this case, it was the door.

“Another note, ‘Look into McGonagall’s passwords’,” he called out, even as he strode over to the door and tapped his wand against the handle. “Garrulus Porta.

This took a good deal of concentration, for Transfiguration was not his strongest school of magic, and the spell he was trying to cast actually quite complicated. But it was an incantation he was familiar with and had performed several times before, it being an Auror’s bread and butter when it came to investigations like this, and he knew he could cast it.

Sure enough, within several seconds a knot in the wood of the door shifted and twisted to produce a passable imitation of a mouth, the hint of a nose and a chin bracketing it but not developing fully.

“Huh? What?”

Ron had spoken to inanimate objects before. It was a hit-and-miss tactic, for although one could speak to a door, one could never guarantee they would actually be cooperative. Nor could one guarantee they even had useful information, for one could easily ask the wrong questions or, suffer possible rampant disinterest in anything other than their own function.

Fortunately, the door’s function was letting people in and out, and here it would hopefully shine.

“Good afternoon, Mister Door-to-the-Headmistress-of-Hogwarts’-Office,” he said, as calmly and politely as he could. Sheer exposure had stopped him from giggling unstoppably whenever this trick was performed, as he had during training exercises when he had managed to horribly offend a paperclip. “How are you today?”

Door seemed to consider this for a moment, pursing its lips with obvious relish at their actual existence. “I am passable, Mister Weasley. Today has been quiet, with just yourself and the mistress coming through.”

“Oh, you can hear, good.” Ron grinned – once upon a time he’d seen Harry bellowing questions at a chair, only to find out it hadn’t been uncooperative, it had merely been unable to hear any of his questions. Unfortunately, this meant it had completely missed the conversation the Death Eater who had sat in it had held about a Muggle-baiting attack, and so the entire interrogation had been pointless.

“Of course I can hear. You think the masters of Hogwarts would have their inner sanctum guarded by a door that was not superbly alert?” Door demanded, sounding quite affronted. Although rather uppity, its voice was deep and mellifluous, and the accent most definitely Scottish.

“My apologies,” Ron said hurriedly. “I’m sure you have guarded this door most professionally. In fact, that’s what I’d like to ask you about. Three nights ago, Professor McGonagall left the office at about nine in the evening, is that right?”

Door took another few moments to ponder this. “Twelve minutes past nine,” it corrected at last.

“Wow, you’ve got a watch in there too?” Ron asked, too impressed to stop himself.

“Mister Weasley, there is a clock beside the desk right behind you. I am capable of telling the time, you know.” This time, Door definitely sounded upset.

Ron grimaced, shaking his head slightly so as to try and clear it. He always needed to make sure his attention stayed on the matter at hand, instead of letting himself be distracted by something odd or entertaining. It was a serious flaw of his as an investigator, though Harry always said it meant he noticed things others didn’t.

Which was fine, when there was somebody else on the Quaffle, but right then it was him, just him, and he needed to suck up to this door like he’d never thought he’d have to do to an inanimate object.

“Of course you are,” he said hurriedly, soothingly. “It’s just… well, you’re much smarter than most doors I’ve talked to. Some aren’t even capable of noticing when someone opened them. I’m just pleasantly surprised to talk to a door of your… calibre.”

Door said nothing to this, but the slight pursing of its lips stopped, so Ron assumed he had appeased it enough for now.

“Anyway… Professor McGonagall left the office at twelve minutes past nine. That’s good. And the following morning she came in at about seven thirty?” he pressed on.

“Seven twenty-nine,” Door replied automatically. “And then left again at eighteen minutes to eight.”

“Excellent, excellent. Now, Mister Door-to-the-Headmistress-of-Hogwarts’-Office,” Ron began slowly, making sure he got the title right – he’d known items to be quite particular about such descriptors. “Did anybody come through you in between Professor McGonagall leaving for the night, and her coming back the next morning?”

“No,” Door said instantly.

“You’re sure?”

“Mister Weasley, that is the third time you have cast aspersions as to my competence or my knowledge. I ask you to kindly desist your pestering of me, or find some manners,” came Door’s abrupt and very certain reply.

Ron winced again, nodding firmly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Just one more thing. Did you see anybody inside the office in that time?”

“Excuse me?” Door sounded confused.

“Inside the office. Did you see anyone there?” Ron pressed.

“That would be impossible, because nobody came through me,” Door replied curtly. “Is this another of your ridiculous games?”

“No, not at all!” Ron said quickly. “But it looks like… someone snuck in and stole the Sorting Hat. I’m trying to find out how they got in.”

“By ‘trying to find out’, you mean ‘being rude and pestering honest folk’, don’t you.”

Ron ignored that, trying to put out of his mind the fact that he was being lectured by a door. “I was just wondering if you saw anyone in here. Or near the Hat.”

There was a short silence, in which Door seemed to be almost… uncomfortable? “I… I can’t see as far as the Hat,” it admitted, after a rather terse pause.

Ron stopped himself from saying a multitude of probably foolish things that sprung to mind at this confession. “Really,” he said instead, as neutrally as he could. “But you can see up to the clock?”

“We covered this, yes,” Door responded curtly.

“I know, I know. But can you see… any further than that portrait of Headmaster Dippet?” Ron asked, picking a point just between the desk, that he knew Door could see, and the Sorting Hat’s bookshelf.

“I can see Headmaster Everard,” Door confessed. “So slightly further. But why would I want to see very far? I am a door. I am perfectly able to perform my function, and anything else would be a distraction.”

“Of course it would. It’s very clear that you devote all of your time to guarding the doorway. After all, whoever did this theft knew you to be a, an impenetrable barrier,” Ron reassured Door, just about managing to keep a straight face. “And you saw nobody inside the room as far as you could see?”

Door made a small harrumphing noise that prompted him suppressing another snort before it finally spoke, sounding yet more put out. “There was nobody here. Nobody got past me.”

“Thank you very much, Mister Door-to-the-Headmistress-of-Hogwarts’-Office. I’ll switch you back, now,” Ron said, smiling slightly with both amusement and satisfaction of one avenue of investigation being closed off.

“You are welcome, I suppose, Mister Weasley,” Door replied, closing its lips firmly as Ron tapped his wand against the door handle and ended the transfiguration.

“Quill,” he called out once the spell was done, turning back to his diagram on the desk, “draw me a dotted line in a radius around the door, reaching out as far as Professor Everard’s portrait… so about four metres,” he judged, eyeing the distance between the two points. “Nobody was visible in that area all night.”

Of course, it didn’t mean that nobody had been in that area all night. Invisibility cloaks enough to fool a chunk of wood were easy enough to come by, unless that door had some extra enchantments – on top of being uppity – that he hadn’t anticipated. That information would be coming with Professor McGonagall once the headmistress got to him the complete run-down of the office’s security. But on taking matters at face value for now, that still suggested nobody had used the door to get in.

He moved to position himself next to the portrait of Headmaster Everard, and glanced at what of the rest of the room this gave him. “Two windows. And that’s it.”

“Awfully simplistic attitude, isn’t it?” a voice from his right drawled, and Ron glanced sharply across to look for its source. It was dimly familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite place it, as if he’d only heard it very briefly before, or a long time ago…

“Oh. It’s you,” he said at last without any relish as his eyes landed upon the portrait of Phineas Nigellus, who was sneering at him from behind his picture frame. He had encountered Hogwarts’ least popular headmaster, during the time spent at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, and had mostly avoided the portrait then. “Don’t you have someone to be sardonic at elsewhere?”

“There are too many idiots in this world, unable to recognise my greatness and honour my contributions to wizarding society by placing portraits of me in more interesting places that I might visit. So… no, not really. And I’ve just had a rather pleasant nap and you might be some cause for entertainment.” The wiry little wizard gave an exaggerated yawn and stretch, his tiny form seeming to double in size from the gesture.

“So I can again be pestered by non-sentient objects? It’s just my lucky day, isn’t it,” Ron muttered grumpily, moving over to his map and beginning to make more notes.

“That you can converse with something on your intellectual level? Yes, that must be rather rare, mustn’t it, as I don’t imagine you find many three year-olds to talk to as an Auror,” Phineas said with a slightly wistful sigh.

“You do realise,” Ron said slowly, “that you’re insulting yourself right now.”

“Oh, I know. I just thought I’d take one for the team in knocking you down a peg. With your self-importance and your… lists.” Phineas’ lip curled, as if the word offended him.

“Right. I’m the one who needs knocking down a peg,” Ron snorted, not looking up.

“Well, you are. You’re leaping to all kinds of assumptions here…” Phineas seemed to think about this for a few long moments, stroking his little pointy beard. “Though on consideration, no, you’re right, it’s not self-importance. It’s desperation.”

Curiosity got the better of him at last, and Ron lifted his head slowly. “Desperation?”

“To be important, or valued, or… useful.” Phineas shrugged. “That’s why you’re so desperate for this to be a crime, a theft, something that you can investigate and solve.”

Ron straightened up, fixing Phineas with a suspicious look. “What else is it going to be? The Sorting Hat didn’t just wander off on its own!”

“Didn’t it?” Phineas raised an innocent eyebrow. “What do you think it just happened to do when, say, the famous Harry Potter needed its assistance in the Chamber of Secrets? Or when the oh so courageous Neville Longbottom defeated that snake?”

“Fawkes carried it to Harry in the Chamber of Secrets. Voldemort himself summoned it on the battlefield. I was there,” Ron replied curtly.

“And it’s just coincidence and happenstance that a phoenix transported it, or that the Dark Lord summoned something that, it transpired, actually brought about something of his downfall. Interesting.” Phineas didn’t sound in the least bit interested, still stroking his chin.

“With Voldemort, that was just chance. As for Fawkes… Dumbledore sent him to Harry.” There was a pause as Ron considered his own words, then looked down at his carefully crafted notes and felt his heart begin to sink. “Nobody sent it anywhere this time. It’s not like Professor McGonagall ordered her cat to take the Sorting Hat to help some Gryffindor in need and then just forgot about it.”

“Dumbledore wasn’t in Hogwarts when Potter was in the Chamber of Secrets. Did he send in Fawkes to break into the office and retrieve the Hat? Or did he communicate with Fawkes from a distance? That’s an impressive feat.” Phineas snorted.

“Harry said that it was his loyalty to Dumbledore that summoned Fawkes,” Ron said curtly, trying to cut off this irritating conversation.

“And Fawkes just happened to bring the Sorting Hat along, did he?” Phineas gave a wry chuckle. “Thought he’d take it on a bit of a trip?”

“No, he…” Ron’s voice trailed off as he considered this, then looked forlornly back again at his map. There was a long silence as he took a deep breath, forcing himself to swallow his pride before he looked back up at Phineas and tried to keep his voice as neutral as he could. “How did Fawkes know to do that, then?”

The image of Phineas gave an exaggerated shrug. “How should I know? I’m not Fawkes. Or Dumbledore.” He rolled his eyes as Ron looked around sharply. “And don’t even bother trying to find him here, he seems to spend most of his time in Chocolate Frog Cards or something. I think I saw him poking his long nose in some time last month, so don’t hold your breath.”

Ron sagged at the complete ignorance of his conversation partner, scrubbing his face with his hands. “Did you see anything that night? Did you spot the Sorting Hat moving?”

“I was asleep, like all normal people are at night. And don’t point out that I’m just a portrait, I still have a sleep cycle,” Phineas replied curtly. “And don’t change the subject. Do you honestly think, in a world of this much magic and destiny, that it was just an accident for Voldemort to summon the Hat to him? It’s possible that fate just happens to run amok, but if the Sorting Hat has absolutely no power to manipulate its immediate environment – to make things happen so it can get to where it’s needed – then I’ll eat… it.” He shrugged.

There was another pause as Ron made a few more notes with the quill by hand, before finally giving Phineas a reproachful look. “Why are you bothering me with this? Apart from to amuse you?”

“Apart from that? Because you annoy me. You have a serious situation and opportunity in your hands, and you’re approaching this in the most mundane and dull way possible. Did someone break in? Maybe, though I imagine you’ll find no breaches at the window, and no other signs of physical entry. And the magical is patently impossible. So all that is left is… the other magical.” Phineas gave a broad, toothy and rather unpleasant smile.

“I haven’t finished with the physical. Nor have I finished with the magical. I’ll go talk to Harry about the Marauder’s Map, too, to find out if there’s anything in this office I don’t know about. There are loads of avenues of investigation to pursue and I’m not going to jump ahead of myself just because you, some two-bit portrait of Hogwarts’ least popular headmaster, are bored.” Ron waved a hand irritably and dismissively at the picture.

“That’s fine.” Phineas chuckled wryly to himself. “But you know perfectly well you’re going to have to look into the magical makeup of that Hat soon enough. And this delay is just… well, a delay for its own sake.”

Ron didn’t look up, by now sitting down at the desk and continuing making notes. It was a long few seconds before he spoke again, this time in a rather curt and aggravated voice. “You really did just come here to torment me by telling me to do something I really want to avoid, didn’t you,” he asked Phineas at last, looking back up slowly at the portrait.

But as he looked, the headmaster was gone, the corner of his robes seen disappearing out of the edge of the picture frame, and the only response being his sharp, mocking laughter echoing off into the distance.

Chapter 5: Domestication
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Chapter 5: Domestication

 

The small cottage in Holyhead was remote, homely, and sturdy. Ron couldn’t imagine a place more fitting for his best friend and sister to have retreated to in the aftermath of the war and Hogwarts than this little house just by the coast, where escape from the hustle and bustle of the hectic wizarding world was just a quick apparition away.

 

The sea breeze caressed his hair as he crunched up the gravel of the garden path, and he felt his spirits lift immeasurably. Already he was assailed by memories of the place. Lugging in boxes and furniture when Ginny had first bought the place shortly after securing her contract with the Harpies, a multi-thousand galleon deal offered when an agent had seen her play at Hogwarts. Harry and he fighting with an intractable garden trellis which downright refused to be erected to be claimed by ivy when Harry had moved in, and Ginny had demanded they have a nice garden. Or Harry’s twenty-first birthday the previous July, where wards to keep paparazzi away had been so thick you could almost see them; a determined gathering of friends, family, and loved ones.

 

Ron’s eyes landed on the small, stone bench set in against the wall, intricately carved and worn by decades by the sea and ideally placed to catch the sunlight of a bright summer’s day, a spot where he and Hermione had whiled away more than one afternoon. Sometimes in the company of friends, sometimes when left alone, and…

 

He scowled to dismiss the memories, his good mood fading almost as quickly as it had risen within him, and so he wrapped his cloak around himself a little better to dismiss the faint chill in the seaside wind, and firmly rapped on the heavy wooden door with the knocker.

 

He heard a muffled noise from inside that sounded vaguely like Harry’s voice, then some clattering around until there was finally the noise of a key being fumbled in the lock and the door swung open.

 

His best friend stood in the doorway looking rather dishevelled and relaxed, a far cry from the picture of the war hero the media kept painting and looking exactly how Ron always thought of him. He grinned toothily. “Hey, mate, didn’t know you’d be swinging by this part of the world. Come on in.”

 

Ron trooped inside, by now moving with the confidence of someone in familiar surrounding. He hung up his coat on the stand in the hallway, which by now had a hook that habit had claimed as his, and moved towards the living room without needing prompting. “Thought I’d just check in, it’s been a while since we spoke. And longer since I popped around. Any chance of a cuppa?”

 

“So we’re forgoing the usual pleasantries until I’ve made an offering of tea, hmm?” Harry snorted with amusement, but made his way into the kitchen without objection.

 

“I figured it’d be best to get the ever-important cup of tea dealt with before we start.” Ron grinned to himself as he sat down in one of the overstuffed armchairs of the lounge, a broad, well-lit room with windows well situated for letting in rays of sun. The house was modestly furnished, neither of the occupants particularly inclined towards ostentatious displays of their joint comfortable wealth. In fact, the only things stopping the entire affair from looking like a painfully, stereotypically cosy domestic scene were the many, many, many magazines and catalogues strewn over chairs and the coffee table displaying a wide variety of decorations, locales, clothes, and foods for a wedding.

 

Considering the date seemed right around the corner as August loomed closer and closer, it quite often felt like very little had been actually finalised. Magazines still bore pictures of cakes, it looked like a dress hadn’t been finalised, and if one catalogue could be believed, flowers were still being negotiated. Funny. He could have sworn Ginny and Hermione arranged all of that back in February; had that needed re-evaluating again?

 

Cautiously, Ron poked through the magazine bearing various pictures of rather pompous looking groomsmen, keeping an eye out for any which had been marked out. If he could have any sort of warning on what he was going to be expected to wear, it would be rather useful. And if there were any ruffles to be seen, he was going to have to threaten the wedding with boycott until they were removed.

 

He didn’t think he’d win that war, but if he was lucky, Ginny would kill him for disrupting the proceedings, so he wouldn’t have to wear whatever atrocious item of clothing was being forced upon him.

 

Harry snorted as he ambled back into the room and identified Ron’s source of consternation immediately, holding two mugs and setting one down next to him on the coffee table. “Don’t worry. The girls are going to have it far worse. You’ll be perfectly understated in comparison.”

 

“That doesn’t mean a great deal,” Ron pointed out, easing himself back in the chair with a sigh. “I remember Dean’s wedding. If anyone tries to make me wear a top hat again, I’m going to feed it to them. And we looked like bloody beggars compared to the bridesmaids. They looked like Quality Streets.”

 

Harry peered at him suspiciously. “You know what Quality Street is?”

 

Ron shrugged. “I’ve spent Christmases with Hermione’s parents. I understand a lot more Muggle things than anyone ever should. I understand Mr Blobby.” He suppressed a shudder. “Well. I’ve seen Mr Blobby.”

 

Harry blinked. “Who?”

 

“Ah-ha. See, I’ve got you beaten on some of these Muggle things” Ron smirked victoriously, only for the smile to fade moments later as his mind raced through memories. “It’s all rather perturbing, really. There's a TV show with this pink creature with yellow spots and… well, I couldn’t really say no to John plying me with some of his whiskey when it was all over. And that was Christmas ’99.”

 

“I see.” Harry raised an eyebrow, hiding the rest of his expression behind a gulp of tea.

 

Ron scowled, putting down his mug and folding his arms across his chest as he realised he’d inadvertently allowed the subject of Hermione to crop up a lot sooner than he would have liked. Such as, at all. “Have you spoken to her?”

 

“Not in person since that Clarion interview. But we did chat over Floo the other day,” Harry admitted, looking almost sheepish. “She’s apparently rather busy at work right now. Something big’s come up. It’s probably that bill against House Elf abuse.”

 

“Oh, more pointless legislation for Pure Bloods to ignore.” Ron snorted – then immediately wilted under Harry’s accusing eye. “What?”

 

There was a pause, then his best friend just sighed and rolled his eyes. “Oh, nothing. Just… what’s the matter with you two? Everything was fine, you’d finally got it sorted, I thought you’d be moving in together when I left, then you started fighting like cats and dogs when our Auror training finished and, well, now… this.” Harry stumbled over his words towards the end, allowing the ‘this’ to hang in the air pointedly.

 

“I don’t know,” Ron confessed with a heavy sigh. “She worked late nights. So did I. We never seemed to be able to arrange a night off on the same day. We got… aggravated.”

 

“Late nights weren’t exactly a novelty when we were training. Considering how hands-on it was. You managed to cope; you scrounged every minute, made the most of things, and somehow made it work,” Harry said. “What made this different?”

 

“She seemed to spend more time at the office. More time doing her job, even when she didn’t have to. More time being mad about House Elves than being mad about… anyway. I don’t know,” Ron repeated, shrugging exaggeratedly and reaching for his tea.

 

Harry winced a little. “Have you spoken to her?”

 

“No.” There was a definite sulky tone present in Ron’s voice. “Don’t need to, do I. The Clarion says it all. ‘We aren’t as close as we used to be’. Pretty straightforward. I’ve got some stuff of hers, but I’ll get round to returning it. You know, when she deigns to communicate with me in person rather than by the mass media.”

 

There was a silence at this, Harry clearly having run out of things he was at least willing to say, and a few seconds passed of nothing more than determined tea-drinking. Then Ron lifted his head moodily. “Ginny around?”

 

A small, slightly wistful smile tugged at Harry’s lips. “She’s out. Wedding stuff. Shops. Today is a cake day.” From the stack of catalogues it was rather clear it wasn’t your average bakery product he referred to; from here Ron could see one magazine devoted entirely to types of icing, another to filling, and one to figurines. “Honestly, I had no idea you could get that many tiers on a dessert without it collapsing.”

 

“You should have seen my cousin Juliet’s wedding,” Ron reflected gloomily. “There wasn’t just a bride and groom figurine on the top, there was an entire wedding party. Dancing. They were edible, too, you just had to catch them. That was a challenge after half a bowl of punch, and no mistake. I accidentally elbowed cousin Alfie in the face, almost broke his nose…”

 

Harry laughed, leaning back on the sofa. “Well, I’ve left the matter in Ginny’s hands today. For once I have most cunningly escaped, rather than being expected to be there to nod and smile and agree with everything she says.”

 

“An intrinsic part of the decision-making process,” Ron agreed.

 

“Absolutely. I’ve done my bit on picking out what gazebo we want. I didn’t know there were different types of gazebos, to be honest – colours were enough of a bloody challenge – but you live and learn. This is my compensation. My day off.” Harry looked rather smug about this, taking a victorious sip of tea.

 

Ron nodded slowly, then paused as a thought occurred to him. “Doesn’t that mean she’s going to get to taste the different wedding cakes… you know, try out which is best, that kind of thing… and so you’re missing out on all of that?”

 

Harry gave him a look of utter betrayal, before draining his mug of tea, slamming it with intentional melodrama down on the table, and sitting up. “Alright, Weasley, why are you here?” he demanded, expression mock-indignant, wryly amused beneath it all.

 

“Just seeing how you are with your life of leisure, mate, that’s all.” Ron grinned toothily at him, for once enjoying the game of cat and mouse. It meant less time thinking about more frustrating subjects, from Hats to Hermione. “Wondering how it’s suiting you.”

 

It did indeed seem to be suiting Harry rather well. When the war had ended he’d gone straight into Auror training, and then immediately into active duty, a rather hectic state of affairs which had left its mark. Ginny had taken action when, four years after working incessantly to defeat a Dark Lord, Harry still hadn’t taken a break of any length, and arm-wrestled with his superiors until they’d given him a few months off. Time to help plan the wedding, time for the subsequent honeymoon. Time to relax, for the first time in his life. Time to be happy.

 

It had been some time since Ron had felt particularly jealous of his best friend – not being a target for murder by every madman in the country had helped him consider his own situation to be quite good – but he knew the sensation well, and so his efforts at clamping down on the familiar twist in his stomach were both well-practiced and fuelled by guilt.

 

“I’m doing fine. The garden’s looking good; flowers whose names I have no idea about look like they’re blooming, and I presume this to be positive. I’ve had a chance to keep my hand in with some Quidditch, joined in some kick-abouts with Ginny’s team-mates at the stadium. No Voldemort, no dark wizards, no ending of the world.” Harry leaned back again, smiling a broad and lazy smile. “You should try it some time.”

 

“Maybe when you’re back. Somebody’s got to keep the office in one piece. Not to mention the whole bloody country,” Ron said wryly.

 

“True. So why are you here?” Harry asked again, the question this time slipping out lazily, but making it clear he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “Can’t be stuff at the office, because you know Ginny would have your guts for garters.” There was a slightly conspiratorial look about him at this, and he leaned forwards a little furtively. Ron could tell his best friend almost wanted him to be smuggling in forbidden Auror business.

 

It was just as well the current situation fell into a loophole, then, as it suited everyone’s interests. Also, it avoided evisceration at the hands of Ginny, which was a plus. “I need a look at the Marauder’s Map.”

 

Harry didn’t react to this immediately, just tilted his head. “I heard you’ve been doing some work for McGonagall lately. Helping her sort things out before retirement. Strikes me as a little odd for an Auror.”

 

“Yeah, well, there aren’t many cases which come the way of an Auror who doesn’t have a partner,” Ron pointed out smoothly, then grinned. “So this is more something… freelance.”

 

“Freelance, hm?” Harry returned the smirk. “McGonagall got you hunting down First Years wandering the corridors at night? Looking into prefect corruption? Theft of supplies from the kitchen?”

 

“Actually, something more serious.” Ron rubbed his hands together, expression sobering a little as he leaned forwards. “The Sorting Hat’s been nicked.”

 

The look on Harry’s face must have born quite a similarity to Ron’s own expression when he’d first heard this fact. “What?” The question held mild amusement as well as disbelief.

 

“No kidding. Just disappeared out of McGonagall’s office a few nights ago.” Ron ran a hand through messy hair, dimly surprised when he realised that it had been such a short time ago, and how much more tired he’d become in that period. “Nobody came through the door, nobody came through the windows. I can’t tell where the Hat moved to. So I’m wondering if there are any secret entranceways that even the headmistress doesn’t know about.” Or is helpfully not telling me.

 

Harry scratched his chin thoughtfully, standing up and gesturing vaguely for Ron to wait before he left the room. Ron was all too happy to sit and finish the tea, for he knew without being told where Harry was going. In the kitchen there was a door to the cellars, and although these cellars were still home to the boxes of wine and the Christmas decorations and all manner of domestic items, there was also an old, battered trunk which had seen many trips to Hogwarts and been dragged across the country, tucked into one corner. The trunk was protected with as many charms as the combined efforts of the newest generation of Britain’s Aurors could think of.

 

For inside was anything and everything Harry had picked up over the years that he would no longer use, but which he did not wish to fall into the wrong hands. The Invisibility Cloak was in his closet, useful for a variety of missions – but with Hogwarts long behind him, the Marauder’s Map, amongst other things, was relegated to this dark corner, probably waiting for the next generation of misbehaving Potters to earn such a bequeathing.

 

It took Harry longer than strictly necessary before he came back into the living room, but this was no surprise to Ron. The trunk had so many little odds and ends in there that opening the lid was like opening the door to nostalgia. If Ron himself hadn’t been in the house, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Harry had ended up spending the rest of the afternoon poking over old relics, pictures, odds and ends.

 

The map looked the same as ever, though Ron’s familiarity with it paled in comparison to Harry’s own. His best friend laid it out on the coffee table, unfolding it entirely before leaning in.

 

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

 

Ron actually looked away as the text began to scroll across the parchment. He knew what seeing the names appearing did to Harry, and could do without bearing witness again to the glint of sadness in his friend’s eyes they summoned. Moony, Padfoot, Prongs, and… the other one.

 

“So. The headmaster’s office.” Ron looked back as Harry leaned over the map, ink scrawling across the parchment to show the walls of Hogwarts they both knew so well. Though he’d seen it a thousand times, its magic never failed to amaze him, and not for the first time he wished he’d had more in-depth conversations with Sirius and Lupin about how they’d made it.

 

Of course, back then, he hadn’t really appreciated how much work had to have gone into something like this.

 

The headmaster’s office was empty, and it took Ron a second to locate the small dot of McGonagall, wandering the corridors on some prowling patrol of her extended territory. Across the rest of the school he could see the progress of other names he recognised – though they were fewer and further between these days – as Hogwarts ambled along its everyday business.

 

“That’s the main stairway up,” Harry mumbled, tracing the markings with a finger. “That’s the main door…”

 

“And he’s a right miserable git, I’ll tell you that for nothing.”

 

Harry chuckled wryly, not lifting his gaze. But both of their expressions sobered within a few seconds of surveying the scene before them, until Ron gave a deep sigh, slouching back in the chair.

 

“Nothing. There’s no other bloody way in or out, is there?”

 

There was a pause as Harry continued staring at the map, as if further examination would reveal anything different. Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry, mate.”

 

Ron made a small noise of exasperation, running his hands through his hair. “Then how the bloody hell did the thief get in and out?”


Chapter 6: Apparitions
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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.

Mostly.

“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.”

Thanks.

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.



Chapter 7: Organisations
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Chapter 7: Organisations

"So you're not going to get goblins," Hermione said with a sigh as she slumped into her chair in the pokey office, slinging her jacket over the back and depositing the large stack of papers upon her desk. They contained all manner of scribbles, Post-It notes (a source of perpetual confusion to many wizards), and references which would now, she realised glumly, all need to be binned on the grounds of being useless.

"That was just one goblin organisation," Trevelyan said with mild confusion, taking the seat opposite her. "I know it went badly -"

"It was abysmal. They'll never work not knowing what the job is." Hermione took a deep breath, uncertain of how her next words would be received. "And Burke's manner didn't help."

Trevelyan waved a hand a little dismissively. "It's what he's like."

"Lovely, I'm sure, but if he's going to take part in business arrangements he might want to curb his basic instincts," she said a bit tartly.

All in all, the meeting with the Goblin Guild of Craftsmen had been an unmitigated disaster. The goblins had been suspicious from the start, and that had been made only worse when Burke had brusquely told them they couldn't know what the relic they were to work on would be. He'd been even more tactless when the goblins had balked at this, offering no compromise or even apologies for what they perceived to be a waste of their time.

"He gets results," Trevelyan said, sounding like he wasn't entirely comfortable having to defend his workmate, "and the GGC weren't going to go along with it anyway. Not with the terms we offered, and the key points were unnegotiable."

She had to concede that point, though she did so with a mild scowl and a shove of her papers to the other side of the desk. "House Elves, then," she said, sounding about as brusque as Burke.

The other Unspeakable had gone back to the Department of Mysteries, swanning in at the eleventh hour to read the briefing sheet from Trevelyan at the meeting, bungling it - in her opinion - and then just storming off. Trevelyan insisted he was very busy, but if that was the case, Hermione wasn't sure why he'd been posted to handle the negotiations in the first place, when she was quite confident the two of them could do it.

Still, it meant she didn't have to deal with him after the fact. So Trevelyan got the brunt of her ire.

"There are still other goblin groups," he said with an expression of confusion.

"We weren't even close with the GGC. No other group will go near us. They'll hear what happened and go to ground. Besides, you knew it was a long shot with goblins." She picked up her stack of papers listing the various House Elf Work Unions, which were their best bet for gathering the necessary expertise.

Trevelyan eyed the pile dubiously. "That's an awful lot of papers," he said with suspicion.

"There are an awful lot of House Elf unions," Hermione explained with a sigh. "And they specialise in all sorts of different things, with different goals, and different politics."

He raised an eyebrow. "House Elves have politics?"

"Of course they do!" She passed him a sheet, which he eyed, unconvinced. "The HEWU are in favour of absolutely independent House Elf work, with their own set of rights. The RFE don't want to change the infrastructure, but want better rights and pay - more centrist. The Elven Freedom group don't even want to work for wizards. They're a bit extreme." She scratched behind an ear.

"Didn't you give them the funding to set up?" Trevelyan asked with a ghost of a smile.

She peered at him suspiciously. "How did you know that?"

"We have a file," Trevelyan said casually, turning the page over. Then he paused, and looked up. "Of your career. Professional profile. We needed to know exactly how good you were at talking to Beings," he explained in a hurried, defensive babble.

Despite herself, Hermione had to suppress a smile at his brief panic. "Yes. I helped the EF set up. Then they went a bit over the edge. They still talk to us, which is better than the arch-conservative house elves do. They're so conservative that the idea of organising to oppose change is too radical."

Trevelyan snorted, then threw the paper down on the table and stood. "There's obviously a lot of work to be done on House Elves," he began, pulling his long robe coat over his shoulders.

She stared at him. "So you're... leaving?" She was confused more than outraged; for the last few nights they'd been staying in the office as long as it took to get the preparations for the next day's meeting done. For him to bail would be uncharacteristic, even if they didn't yet have an appointment and thus weren't working to a deadline - and, she realised, she'd much rather be here getting work done than at her flat. Alone.

Then again, the idea of getting work done on her own wasn't too thrilling either.

"I'll be back. Give me ten minutes," he said, apparently unaware of just how mysterious he was being before he walked out.

Hermione stared at the door once it was closed behind him for several long seconds, eyes narrowing. "You," she muttered, barely above her breath, "are a very strange man."

She didn't let herself dwell on that thought for much longer, leaning over the desk and getting back to work. The time before he got back could be used giving a clearer breakdown of the profiles of the different House Elf unions, work which he couldn't really help with at this point anyway. Then together they could begin to consider their angles of attack on each group, and determine which would be best to start with - and best to start with didn't necessarily mean easiest to win over, because talking to one group could affect politics with the other...

She was stuck, thus, in her continuous scribbling, and completely oblivious to the sights and sounds of the outside world until she became dimly aware of a new smell. It was warm, it had hints of spices, and it abruptly made her stomach growl with a hunger she'd lost track of over the day.

She looked up to first see a large white plastic bag on the desk, and then Trevelyan standing before his chair with a smug smirk. Then her attention hungrily turned back to the bag. "Is that Chinese takeout?"

His smirk broadened to a genuinely pleased grin. "You bet. I hope you like chow mein - it's beef, I figured you'd like that. And there's some free prawn crackers, and I got some seaweed -"

He stopped as her hand shot out to snatch at the bag, rummaging around to grab the promised spoils with a hungry light on her eye. She brandished a tub of noodles triumphantly, passed one to him with a disinterested grunt of "Rice," then began to devour the tub of seaweed. She hadn't eaten since lunchtime, a lofty seven hours ago, but nevertheless she would have been horrified had she realised her eating manners at that point were reminiscent of Ron’s.

"You were hungry," Trevelyan said with a chuckle, sitting down and passing across some chopsticks.

Hermione swallowed a mouthful, now feeling heat rise to her face as she realised just how indecorous her behaviour had been in front of someone she barely knew.

But knows you well enough to guess what food you'd like.

"I didn't know there was a takeout near here. I just try to cook at home, normally," she said, as if this was an explanation - then she peered at him suspiciously. "I didn't think many wizards working in the Ministry would know how to go and order a Chinese."

Trevelyan gave an enigmatic smirk, artfully eating rice with his chopsticks - a feat she had never been capable of. "I'm not most wizards."

"Chinese food always reminds me," she continued in an absent ramble fuelled by hunger, surprise, and rising nostalgia, "of Fridays when I was little, before I went to Hogwarts, I mean. My mum always had a book club those nights, so it was just my dad and I, and he'd get takeout, and I'd have to promise to not tell mum. Of course, she knew." She shook her head as if to clear it of the distant memories, then again remembered she was giving someone she barely knew obscure facts about her past.

"It's never quite the same over here," Trevelyan said, sounding nostalgic himself. "In Hong Kong it always tasted that little bit better."

Hermione watched him artfully move the chopsticks, raising an eyebrow. "You lived out there?" Then she paused, her sharp brain picking up the pieces, and she straightened. "Your father wasn't Ambassador Duncan Trevelyan, was he?"

Trevelyan's smile twisted. "Guilty as charged," he said. "I grew up mostly in the east. Private tutors. Then my father worked in Romania for a bit and I studied at Durmstrang for my qualifications before figuring it would be time to come back to merry old England."

The seaweed was gone. Damn. Hermione tried to keep her movements a bit slower as she reached for the noodles. "I thought it was odd I'd never met you at school. I thought I'd remember."

Slight colour rose to her cheeks as the words made implications she hadn't intended, but if Trevelyan noticed, he had the good grace to pretend not to. "No, I was never at Hogwarts," he said with a shake of the head. "Perhaps it's just that which means I don't understand all the fuss about the new Head selection. I mean, it's just someone to run a school, you'd think it would be the Minister of Magic they were going for."

Hermione rolled her eyes, not without agreement. "It's because of Professor Dumbledore," she said with a sigh, digging into her noodles. "Because he was so influential, and because Professor McGonagall played such a pivotal role in the reconstruction after the war, they think that being the Headmaster of Hogwarts will automatically come with prestige. They don't seem to realise both of their predecessors were – are - important because of who they were, not because of their jobs."

Trevelyan gave a small snort. "And out of Sprague and Konstantin? The lesser of two losers?"

Hermione's smile was tight, but not unamused. "Konstantin seems competent," she said, voice suggesting such a concession was made begrudgingly. "But I don't trust him. Not with his history."

"It's very strange," Trevelyan agreed. "He was quite adamantly against the dark arts when I was at Durmstrang. A lynchpin of stopping eastern youths from flocking to Britain, or so it seemed. Now these rumours and reports coming out of having cooperated with them..." He shook his head, but his expression was one hinting at disappointment rather than disagreement. "It's hard to know what to think."

"I think they're jumping the gun a bit," Hermione said. "Professor McGonagall's not gone yet and hasn't even expressed a desire to retire soon. It's the Board of Governors who began shopping around. And they were right to do so, the current candidates just highlight how long and involved the process is going to be to find someone even half-competent, but the press have picked it up and made a joke out of it."

Trevelyan leaned back on his chair, tipping it onto its back legs in a way which almost made her wince. "You know," he began, gesturing with chopsticks and yet still not spilling rice, much to her jealousy, "I don't know why all these bureaucrats came out wanting the job. It's the role of an educator, isn't it?"

"Not according to Sprague in the last press conference," Hermione muttered, stabbing venomously at her noodles. "He just has to be an administrator. Apparently knowing anything about a classroom isn't useful for a headteacher."

He chewed thoughtfully on the rice. "I suppose you have the chance to be massively influential upon the next generation," he said, sounding like he was thinking aloud more than anything else. "After all, working in the Ministry, I've noticed a huge difference between wizards who were taught in the Dumbledore years and in the Dippet years."

Hermione straightened up. "Dippet stopped being headmaster forty years ago," she pointed out. "Age would be a factor, I'd imagine."

"And make a world of difference in the mindset between a sixty year-old and a seventy year-old?" Trevelyan challenged. There was a sudden spark in his eye as he looked at her, and he wore a lopsided smile - like he was going to meet her head-on with this issue, and enjoy it. "Because you see that. And when you look at the people who believed Dumbledore at the beginning of the Second War? They were people who’d been taught by him. People who didn’t? They’d gone to Hogwarts when Dippet was head. Mostly.”

She blinked. "I never thought about that," Hermione confessed. But she was not to be out-done by a statement that sweeping. "I suppose you're going to argue there's a difference with the recent graduates from Hogwarts who were taught primarily under McGonagall."

"Well, there is." Trevelyan made the statement in such a matter-of-fact manner that it took her by surprise. "The recent graduates are all rather more inclined towards pragmatism than those of the more idealistic Dumbledore era."

"It was the people made by the ‘idealistic’ Dumbledore era who defeated Voldemort,” Hermione said a little tartly.

He set his food down and raised his hands in an apologetic manner. "Of course it did. Under no circumstances was I suggesting this to be a bad thing." Trevelyan spoke quietly and met her gaze, his bright blue eyes holding a ring of sincerity. "I just don't think the majority of British wizards realise how much Hogwarts - and consequently, its master - impacts upon your thinking."

Hermione softened a little, and silently reminded herself she wasn't dealing with some anti-House Elf legislator - but a friend in a casual discussion. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a debate which wasn't professional and ended in raised voices, or wasn't personal, and ended in raised voices, and tears, and storming off, and slammed doors...

"'Your thinking'?" she echoed, latching on to that phrase of his so she didn't have to think about where her mind was trying to go next.

Trevelyan smiled lopsidedly. "I was born here. I've worked here for five years. But it's amazing how little I feel like a British wizard, sometimes, for not having gone to Hogwarts. You know how many people my age don't know how to deal with me because they don't know what House I was in? It's insane, the extent to which some decision made when you were eleven still affects people even out of school."

"I suppose that's true," Hermione conceded. "And by that note, any headmaster of Hogwarts who has a chance to be in the job for twenty years can... change the face of the country. It makes you wonder how far that'll mean people will go to get the job." She suppressed a shiver; at this time of night, Brucie was out of the office, and the fire in the main pen would probably be dying into a few embers.

She still needed to talk to Brucie about his absence the other day. The House Elf had slunk in the next morning, sheepish and abashed, and claimed sickness to Julius, who hadn't pressed the matter. Sometimes, those at the Office of House-Elf Relocation could err a little too far on the side of caution for those they championed. But it was unlike Brucie to have not called in that he would be recovering at home.

He'd also been a little skittish in the office ever since, especially around new people. He was adapting to Trevelyan's near-constant presence over the last few days, but had squeaked and hidden under a desk when Burke had tromped in that morning.

Unfortunately, uncovering the source of one little House Elf's discomfort was not as high on her priority list as getting this job done for the Department of Mysteries. Partly because, despite herself, despite Burke... she was enjoying herself.

"We should get back to the meetings," she said with a sigh at last, and only then did she realise that Trevelyan had just been looking at her upon her last comment, eyes quietly evaluating. She looked down sharply, remembering how intensely he had surveyed her small office when she'd first arrived, and not sure she was comfortable with that same assessing gaze turned on her. She wasn't sure what he'd see.

Or what she wanted him to see.

"Yes," Trevelyan said, but spoke quietly, and took a moment before he pulled his chair up to the desk. "House Elf unions, then."

They didn't get any further than that, as the small flap in her door suddenly flipped open to allow in a paper airplane. Usually these just soared casually from office to office, but this had been folded in a design meant for speed, and zipped across the room to land abruptly on her desk.

Hermione started a little, then saved it from landing in Trevelyan's soy sauce and unfolded it. It was still an envelope, looked as if it had come from outside the Ministry by owl, and she knew the handwriting.

But her gut twisted as she saw Ginny's script in a spidery scrawl, rather than the usual practiced hand, and she tore the paper apart quickly to get at the letter.

Trevelyan watched her as she read, and the twist in her gut which increased had to coincide with something showing on her face, because he was on his feet and next to her in seconds.

She, too, sprang upwards, but her head swam at the sudden movement. She could feel the colour draining from her face, and the world swam briefly in front of her eyes, before she felt his firm grip steadying her.

"Woah, take a second, hold on. You look awful; what's wrong?" Concern rang through his voice, but it also sounded like he wasn't going to let her run off - though if he hadn't been in the way, she would have done, even with how sluggish her limbs felt.

"Letter from my friend Ginny," she stumbled, the hand holding the letter shaking. Damn it, why did this have to happen? It was just because she was tired, and had only just got food in her after a long day. She had faced off against Death Eaters, resisted torture at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange. Had she just gone soft over the last three years, or was there some other reason her wits were betraying her?

You thought it was over. You thought the days of terror were over.

Turns out, they're not.

"She was out... she got back to the house, Harry was attacked, looks like it was the Remnant, he's in Saint Mungo's, she's on her way, don't know how bad he is..."

Trevelyan didn't stop to ask questions - it didn't take research papers on her career to know to whom she was referring, even if they'd just met; he'd read her interview at the very least. But he did keep his grip on her arm firm, now supportive rather than stopping her from moving.

"Then you've got to go," he said in a low tone of agreement. "But I'm not letting you apparate or Floo on your own; you'll splinch yourself or end up God knows where." He grabbed her jacket off the back of the chair, slipping it around her shoulders. She'd have probably forgotten that if he hadn't been there.

Then he picked up his own, slipped it on, and opened up the office door. "Let's go, then. Saint Mungo's."



Chapter 8: Admissions
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Chapter 8: Admissions

Saint Mungo's at this time of an evening had a steady buzz of activity, of the mystical injuries gathered at home and down the pub amassed and visitors came to see ailing friends and relatives after work. It was noisy, it was crowded, but above all, it was alive.

This made reality a bit clearer around the edges for Hermione as she hurried up to the front desk. The fresh air, taking a moment for a breather, and the presence of Trevelyan stalking in her wake had calmed her. Her heart rate was steady now, as - more importantly - were her knees.

"I'm here to see Harry Potter; he'd have been admitted in the last hour," she said brusquely to the receptionist, who sat at the front desk in the lobby poring over her papers and not looking up at her approach. Hermione wasn't sure why she clarified when Harry had been brought in; probably everyone working in Saint Mungo's knew about it.

The receptionist looked up warily. She was maybe two years younger than Hermione, hair a little too blonde to not be bleached, and wore an expression of intense boredom, as befitted one whose fate it was to work on a Friday night. "Family?"

"My name is Hermione Granger," Hermione said with growing irritation and indignation. "I'm a friend of his." She knew she shouldn't be too outraged. The downside to avoiding all the public attention was that, when it would actually be useful to be famous, nobody would know who she was.

"Uh-huh. No press." The receptionist bowed her head again, getting back to scribbling something Hermione was sure was absolutely inconsequential, and probably doodling upon an appointment schedule.

"I am not press, you uneducated little -"

Trevelyan stepped up to the desk at this point, placing a soothing hand on her arm which surprised, rather than reassured her into silence. "Excuse me," he said calmly, giving a tight, professional smile to the now rather impatient-looking receptionist. "We're with the Department of Mysteries, and we're here to see Mister Potter."

Hermione had seen the silver badges of the Unspeakables before, simple discs with a pyramid emblazoned upon them, the department's name, and just a service number of the badgeholder. It seemed that even the dull-witted receptionist had, too, for her mouth flapped a little uselessly for a moment.

"Uh, uh, Floor Three," she stumbled. "I'm sorry - but it's Mister Potter, you don't want to just let anyone..."

"Quite understandable," Trevelyan said, smile broadening a little, much to Hermione's remaining aggravation. "Thank you for your cooperation."

And then he guided her along towards the stairs before she could make another noise of protest. "I'll join you as far as the corridor," he said, in an amiable tone which nevertheless left no room for the idea this was a suggestion, "just so you're not waylaid by security en route and don't hex them."

Hermione gritted her teeth. "He's my best friend, his fiancée has asked me to come, and it's not my fault that the staff here don't read reputable newspapers..."

"...or collect Chocolate Frog Cards?" Trevelyan said with a smile, and her irritation, fuelled by worry and the unpleasant memory of even worse worry, began to fade as she unwittingly smiled back.

Fortunately, the door to Floor 3 was guarded by Aurors who recognised her and accepted Trevelyan's badge, and directed her towards the right ward. Trevelyan made some amiable noise about investigating the coffee dispenser, but she was striding down the corridor by now, heading for the doorway of the ward guarded by two tall Aurors in their long uniform robe coats.

She only gave them a curt nod as she stepped through, and a muttering of names in greeting. She'd be damned if John Dawlish was going to waylay her tonight.

The ward could hold a dozen people, but the eleven beds she could see were empty. The last one at the far end had the curtains drawn about it, but pacing back and forth in the middle of the room, red hair flashing in the bright lights of the hospital ward, was Ginny.

She started a little as Hermione stepped in, before relaxing. She was pale and worn, but relief flooded into Hermione as she saw her face - the worst had passed. It wasn't serious. She rushed forwards to hug Ginny, a hug the other woman returned with grateful tension, before drawing back. "How is he?"

Ginny gave a small, unamused but not insincere smile. "Hexed and cursed into unconsciousness, battered and bruised, but none of it serious. It looks like they just... worked him over. The Healers say he'll be fine in a couple of weeks."

Hermione's eyes widened. "Your letter said he was in the house? What happened? Who was it?"

"We think Remnant." Ginny gave a tired sigh, one which Hermione could only begin to sympathise with. The fall of Voldemort had been the end for any of his surviving rational supporters. Unfortunately, plenty of Death Eaters weren't rational, and had banded together under a string of charismatic and insane supporters to form the Remnant. Some believed Voldemort would return. Some wished to carry on after him. Others just wanted to do damage. They were all trouble.

It had been one of the sources of aggravation between her and Ron that he had persisted in his work as an Auror, persisted in throwing himself back in harm's way after seven long years of what had sometimes felt like a constant threat of death. Ron had always won the arguments with the fact that, so long as Voldemort's forces remained, they'd continue to hurt others - and they would unarguably continue to come after Harry for vengeance. Harry had earned a rest far more than they had, he'd pointed out, so how could he just settle down to run a joke shop when their best friend and the saviour of wizarding Britain was under threat? Especially when he could help fight that threat?

Hermione, for her part, had grown comfortable with the idea of not being in danger of being murdered every five seconds. Ron had managed to avoid worse damage than cuts and scrapes, so they'd just found other things to argue about. But it would likely be another decade before Harry - and by consequence, Ginny - could truly consider themselves as safe as anyone else.

"They broke into the house, turned everything upside-down. Harry thinks there were maybe four of them; it's just as well he had the chance to put a call in to Auror HQ, or they'd have probably killed him." Ginny wrapped her arms around herself, shivering despite the warmth of the room. "Mum and Dad are on their way. Ron's in there now with him."

Hermione's expression flickered, though Ginny showed no discomfort; obviously her fiancé's brush with death came before their relationship woes. "Right," she mumbled. "I'll just... wait out here, then."

"No." Ginny spoke firmly, but there was a hint of tired resignation about her as she sat down on the bed. "He asked for you. Both of you. You should go in."

She knew that tone. It was a tone of voice which spoke of years of exclusion, of unhappy acceptance of the fact that, however much Ginny might be the most important person in Harry's life, there were things she would never be able to understand as much as his two best friends did. Hermione knew Ginny didn't resent her for it, but still felt rather uncomfortable whenever it came up.

Though it hadn't for a good two years now, since most of the loose ends of the war had been tied up. Whatever was going on, Harry had to think it... significant.

So she just smiled apologetically at Ginny before padding over to the curtains, rustling them briefly and noisily to declare her impending arrival before slipping between the gap.

Ron stood next to the bed, looking pale and drawn, with bags under his eyes and his hair messier than it had been when she'd seen him last. A week ago? Two weeks? He started when he saw her, but obviously wasn't surprised, and his face was that studied mask she'd always thought was a little surly.

Harry, on the other hand, wore a surprisingly broad smile for someone who had clearly been through the ringer. The left side of his face was mottled with ugly purple bruising, and vast portions of his body swathed in bandages, his right leg raised up.

"Hermione! You took your time," he said, in a tone which was upsettingly jocular for a man who'd just suffered an assassination attempt by Death Eaters.

She stared at him for a moment, jaw dropping, before closing the curtain behind her and gathering her wits. "Harry! What happened?" Perhaps it was best if she ignored the dig on her punctuality.

"Remnant," he said cheerfully, reaching for the glass of water on the bedside table. Ron twitched a little at the tone of his voice; their best friend's laid-back attitude to danger since the war - what would ruffle his feathers after a face-down with Voldemort, after all? - had become something of a point of contention. "I think."

"You think?" Ron grimaced. "Black cloaks. Masks. Don't like you. What else would it be."

"It's all a bit fuzzy, to be honest," Harry said, scratching the back of his head and dislodging a few bandages. Hermione couldn't fight the instinct to tut at him and move forward, carefully putting them back in place and slapping away the hand that would move them. "The bastards broke my favourite mug."

"Your tea mug." Ron rolled his eyes. "Merlin's beard, Harry, a near-death experience, and..."

"Ginny said you wanted to talk to us both," Hermione said abruptly, cutting into Ron's tirade before he could get going. Even if she did happen to agree with him.

"Oh. Yes." Harry put the glass down stiffly. "I think they could have killed me. No, I'm positive they could have. Four of them busting through the front wall - Ginny's going to go spare over that once she stops worrying about me - and taking me by surprise just as I'd sat down with the evening paper. I barely had time to get a couple of spells off before they jumped me."

Despite herself, Hermione's gaze flickered to Ron, to find her looking at him. There was a split second where they were in that familiar moment of joint concern, of worry about how their best friend's life was perpetually dangerous and yet there was nothing they could do about it, and nothing they could say - a concern where they looked to the other to know that they, too, shared it, and were reassured by that knowledge, at least.It was a habit of ten years, this silent point of contact.

But it couldn't last, and Hermione found her gaze dropping guiltily within a moment, and returning to Harry - though she could still feel Ron's eyes burning on her.

"Didn't you have wards?" she asked quietly, for it was the only thing she could think to say.

Harry gave a lopsided grimace. "I think we got a bit sloppy with how quiet it's been for the last year; Ginny and I never got in the same routines at her house as you and I did at the flat." He nodded to Ron, who grimaced.

"You know, I still check under the doormat every day for some pressure-triggered hanging curse," he muttered, but with obvious growing relief that the situation was not fatal.

There was a brief grin from Harry, before he sobered. "I wasn't knocked out immediately," he said, "and so I saw them tearing through the house. They ransacked the place completely, but they were obviously looking for something." He raised a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, looking pale. "And I think they found it. One of you can check if they got it... but they were looking for Slytherin's locket."

Ron's jaw dropped. "Why would they want that?"

Harry shrugged. "Beats me. Unless some crackpot thinks there's a tiny remain of Voldemort in there - which there isn't, it's just an ugly locket - the thing has no value."

Hermione straightened up, frowning. "There's historical and cultural value..."

She was cut off by Ron's snort. "Yeah, I'm sure the Remnant wanted to raid Harry Potter's house so they could get something for their Museum of Evil."

She turned on him sharply, hands on her hips. "I'm not actually suggesting that, Ron - but I don't see you coming up with any answers!"

"Alright, here's one: They're crazy. Next?"

"Stop it!"

Harry's voice was weak from his injuries, but there was still enough genuine frustration - and was that sadness? - in there to break through the familiar haze of frustration which came from an argument with Ron. Guiltily, she turned back, expression dropping. "I'm sorry, Harry. What do you think?"

"I don't know," Harry admitted quietly, gaze flickering between the two of them a little warily. "But it's so odd it needs to be looked in to. And someone who knows anything about the locket is someone I don't want running around while we're in the dark."

Ron scratched the back of his neck, and Hermione watched him cautiously. She knew that look - he was weighing up whether or not to say something. "When I went in to Hogwarts on Monday," he began cautiously, and for some reason was looking at her, rather than Harry. "I spoke to Professor McGonagall. The Sorting Hat's been nicked."

Hermione raised an eyebrow, and noted Harry looked unsurprised. "The Sorting Hat."

"Nicked," Ron repeated helpfully.

"I got that." She drew a deep breath. "Why would anyone steal the Sorting Hat?"

"Dunno. Why would anyone steal Slytherin's locket?" Ron pointed out.

"Do you think the two are linked?" This was Harry, sitting up and looking across at Ron.

"It's not one of the relics," Ron said. "Those are completely different sorts of magic..."

"But they do have a serious connection to Hogwarts, and to the Founders."

Hermione watched them with that dim hint of jealousy which had set in after the war. It wasn't a deep, nagging sensation, wasn't anything to overrule her, but the fact would always be that they were Aurors and partners, and she was not. The press-labelled Golden Trio was over, but the amazing adventures of Harry and Ron would remain while she sat in an office.

Times like this, as they threw ideas quickly back and forth, reminded her of why they worked well together. And that, as they'd grown older and wiser - well, just older, for Ron - they didn't need her common sense quite as extremely as before.

Or they wouldn't blunder into death without her, at least.

Unfortunately, the only thing she could think to contribute at that time was a very important but nevertheless petulant question. Even more unfortunately, she said it, looking at Ron with a hint of accusation. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

He blinked, straightening up, and guilt tugged at his expression. "I was going to," he said evasively.

"When?"

"Tomorrow, to be honest. I had other avenues to pursue first." Ron straightened up with a hint of defensiveness - then sighed and sagged almost immediately. "It's a really weird situation, and I could really do with your help... I mean, you know more about the Hat than most."

It sounded like it had hurt to say that. Good.

Harry spoke quickly, partly with satisfaction of a decision made, partly to interrupt the potential conflict. "The Aurors will be all over the attack; if there are any leads, they'll find them. So if I talk to them and stay abreast of the situation there, and you two look into the Hat to see if it's linked - and if not, it's bloody weird - and we'll figure out where to go next when we know more?"

Ron nodded curtly, gaze still on Hermione. "Bright and early tomorrow at Hogwarts, then, to take a look around McGonagall's office?" He spoke quietly, sounding like he was dreading this. In all honesty, so was she.

Hermione drew a deep breath. "Alright," she said quietly. "I'll dig up my research notes on the Hat. And then you can explain this oddity to me."

"Good." Harry waved a hand at them curtly, with all the imperious decisiveness of a Roman Emperor. Perhaps the painkillers were getting to him. "Now get out of here. I want to talk to my fiancée and sleep."

His voice was one which would brook no opposition, so they just mumbled their best wishes and their goodbyes and slunk back out into the ward, Hermione giving him as big a hug as she dared, Ron slapping him on the shoulder as hard as he dared.

Outside, no more family members had arrived, and the Aurors remained in the doorway - but Ginny stood with a cup of coffee, talking to the tall, lanky form of Malcolm Trevelyan, who held two mugs of his own.

They looked up at the rustle of the curtain, and Ginny smiled a slightly less strained and pale smile. "Hermione! Your friend was being accosted by the Aurors for lurking at the door, so I told him to come in."

"I bribed her with coffee," Trevelyan said with a smirk and a wink. "Milk and two, right?" This was punctuated by the extending of his spare mug towards her.

Despite not thinking she could eat or drink anything right now, Hermione took it with gratitude for the gesture, and the plain warmth of just cupping her hands around the mug. Nevertheless, she felt Ron bristle beside her as he looked the Unspeakable up and down.

"Thank you. Oh, uh, Ron, this is Malcolm Trevelyan, from the Department of Mysteries. We've been working together lately. Malcolm, this is..."

"Ron Weasley. Of course. You need no introduction." Trevelyan's manner was brisk and polite, and he stepped forward for a handshake.

Ron stared at the extended hand for a moment, before grasping it curtly, and giving a short nod. "Pleasure," he grunted, sounding about as insincere as he could get.

Trevelyan's expression didn't flicker, and he glanced across at them. "Mister Potter is well, I hope?"

"He'll be fine," Ron said brusquely, and a brief, awkward pause followed the rather closed statement.

"Good." Trevelyan drained his mug of coffee. "I'll be off, then, I don't want to intrude on a friends and family affair. I just didn't want to disappear without saying goodbye." He looked at Hermione as he said this.

She glanced at the other two. Ginny just looked too worn and tired to care about the tension, but Ron was standing with his arms folded across his chest, wearing that special, territorial glare she had only occasionally found endearing and usually found annoying. He also looked like he had no intention of going anywhere.

Hermione sighed, and suppressed a yawn. "Actually, I'd better be off, too," she said. "It looks like it's going to be a long day tomorrow, and I've not been getting much sleep lately." She threw Ginny an apologetic glance, knowing that staying here with Ron was as much of a motivating factor for leaving as the reasons given, but the other woman just waved a hand dismissively.

"Get some sleep. I'll let you know how he is," Ginny said firmly. They hugged briefly, before Ginny gave Trevelyan a polite nod and headed for Harry's curtained bed.

Hermione turned to Ron a little stiffly. "Well," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow morning."

Ron tried for a smile, which failed and looked more like a grimace. "Tomorrow," he confirmed with a nod, then turned away without giving Trevelyan another glance.

The two of them left the ward silently, Trevelyan's expression not suggesting he was remotely put out by Ron's manner. The Aurors bristled less at them on the way out, and they'd been upstairs so long that this particular pocket of activity about Saint Mungo's was over, leaving them a quieter hospital to escape from.

They didn't speak until they reached the main street, the cool evening air quite a shock against the warmth of the hospital, and Trevelyan turned to her. "So we'll be resuming work on Monday? Like normal people?"

It was a loaded question. There had been the unspoken assumption they would push on with the project through the weekend, but he had to have heard her agreement to meet Ron the next day. It was perhaps the politest way of asking what was going on.

Nevertheless, their project was important - she assumed.

"Ron wants me to help him with something going on at Hogwarts tomorrow," Hermione explained apologetically, and his expression flickered ever so slightly. "Let's make it Sunday, so we can get our game plan ready in time to book meetings and contact the unions on Monday?"

Trevelyan nodded, expression clearing with a hint of relief. He fell silent as a small group of battered and bruised amateur Quidditch players stumbled out of the doorway and ambled down the street towards the alleyway perfect for apparition, then straightened. "Sunday it is. I don't think we get paid overtime."

His smile was forced, but sincere, and she found herself returning it as they hovered about on the pavement. "It's important." There was another beat, and she drew a deep breath. "Right, then. I should be off."

"Oh." Trevelyan nodded. "Of course. So should I." He hesitated, and so did she, until he cleared his throat. "Good night, then."

Hermione gave a nervous smile. "Good night." Then she turned to go.

"Dinner," he said abruptly once she'd taken a couple of steps away, and she paused, looking over her shoulder at him with a hint of confusion.

Trevelyan grimaced, and cleared his throat. "After we've done all the planning, on Sunday, how about dinner? I mean, Chinese takeout is a bit of a poor show, so I'm pretty sure I can do something better..."

His voice trailed off, and he just stood there for a long moment, forlorn in the gloom, suddenly not quite so imposing a figure as he normally cut with his height and his black robes.

She smiled the first genuine smile of the evening, a not-unpleasant lurch in her stomach fighting the twist of worry in the gut, and winning. "That would be nice," she said sincerely. "When we're done."

Trevelyan nodded, expression clearing with obvious relief. "Of course. Job first." He managed a smirk, then sobered a little and nodded again. "Good night, Hermione."

"Good night, Malcolm." Then she turned and headed down the street, a whirling maelstrom of worry for Harry, the complicated excitement of a dinner invitation, and, ever marching in the background, the foreboding presence of those uncertain emotions that surrounded the memory of Ron's face, and the prospect of working with him tomorrow.



Chapter 9: Competitions
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Chapter 9: Competitions

She was there. Already. In McGonagall's office.

Before him.

Ron scowled as he slunk into the room, closing the once-intractable door behind him and lurking around the entrance rather than approaching Hermione. She was sat on the carpet, surrounded by stacks of books and papers which were threatening to cover the whole room if they weren't piled up properly, and barely lifted her head at his arrival.

"You're here," he stated obviously.

Hermione paused in her scribbling upon the piece of parchment in her lap. "Evidently." She didn't look up.

"Early."

"We did say morning, Ron. Some would consider eight to be a perfectly rational time to begin," she said, rather tersely.

"It's a Saturday," he pointed out, padding across the room to lean against McGonagall's desk, and trying to not step on the pieces of paper on the floor. Much as he would even like to antagonise her right now, he valued his life enough not to interfere with her filing.

She stiffened visibly, her gaze meeting his sharply with a flash in her eyes. "I thought crime didn't take the weekends off?"

Her voice was cutting, and Ron couldn't help but flinch under the wave of anger. He didn't even remember exactly when he'd said that, exactly when he'd used it as a reason why they couldn't take a short holiday or be out late the night before or just spend the day together, but the implication was there, as was the memory of the emotion. That mixture of frustration and fear that came with an unavoidable argument with someone he loved.

"What do you have?" he asked instead, nodding quickly at the papers and utterly shameless in his deflection of the situation.

Hermione gave a taut sigh, seeming to accept the evasion. "An overview of all of my records and research on the Hat," she said. "Since I don't know the details of the case, I couldn't exactly put together a profile of the exact information we need, do we?"

Ron wasn't sure he liked the 'we' in that, and with a sinking feeling realised why he had held off getting Hermione involved before now. It would be impossible, should this intrigue her, to get her out again.

"Did you want me giving you a full brief in the middle of the hospital? I think Harry would have needed some sleep," he pointed out, shoving his hands in his pockets.

"Then, perhaps, not directly at Harry's bedside?" Her eyebrows somehow managed to raise accusingly.

There. He had her, and the brief, angry, lopsided smile he gave in return meant she knew it even before he spoke. "Right in front of your good pal Michael?"

"Malcolm," she corrected automatically - then looked down sharply with a hint of colour rising to her cheeks.

Ron's shoulders sagged. Sometimes, just sometimes, he hated being right.

He had spent half the night quietly crafting a series of digs and questions to get under her skin; to both find out the truth, and make her feel damn well guilty for it, too. Being dumped by newspaper interview was one thing - some new beau showing up on the scene five minutes later? That was just a flagrant insult.

But all of the anger, all of the fire, all of that burning wish for retaliation fizzed into nothing with her confirmation, and he just stood there in silence for a long moment as she stared at her papers and pretended to read them.

Then, eventually, he cleared his throat. "The Sorting Hat was stolen eight days ago, at some time between McGonagall's turning in for the night and the next morning - before we go any further, I’m right that when Hogwarts was warded up again after the battle, we put in precautions against House Elf apparition?”

Hermione bit her lip. “In the battle the House Elves demonstrated themselves as able to ignore their Masters’ wishes, able to act for themselves, and as powerful. Even the Ministry recognised they couldn’t be ignored, so yes, when we re-established the defences of Hogwarts -”

“That’s what I thought,” said Ron, taking a petty glee from interrupting her. It wasn’t often he got to be the superior one in a situation like this. But the satisfaction was short-lived, if nothing else from the look of slight hurt on her face, and, flattened, he pressed on.

His voice was hollow and held a calm professionalism he didn't know he possessed as he continued, explaining everything he'd looked into and found. The lack of anyone breaking in or out, the lack of evidence suggesting large amounts of magic had been used in the room in the period, the lack of secret entrances.

And, most important of all, Sir Nick's revelation about the ghost.

Hermione frowned at that part, settled down by the relation of the train of events, tapping her quill on the parchment. "A new ghost arriving and disappearing? That's... odd."

"You're telling me." Ron shrugged. "I don't know if it's relevant, though. I mean, what could a ghost do? Being incorporeal might be handy for getting in, but then how are you going to pick the thing up? Or leave with it?"

She stood abruptly, beginning to pace with that intense and yet somehow absent look on her face suggesting just how much these questions were ticking over in her mind. "Ghosts," she began, "are magical in nature."

"I thought they were souls," Ron said, eyebrow raising.

Hermione waved a hand dismissively. "By definition, anything that breaks the laws of science as the Muggles consider them, is magic."

Ron idly wondered whose definition she was using - once out of Hogwarts and in a world where the magical and non-magical blended more, Hermione had become a little more frustrated on the apparent incompatibility of the two. But he kept his silence on that front, nodding as if he agreed. "Go on."

"It takes magic for a ghost to exist; it binds the imprint of personality and memory upon the world of the living. As such, it is possible for magic to interact with ghosts despite their disembodied nature - you've seen spells hit Peeves before." Hermione waved a hand as she spoke, still pacing.

He couldn't help but smirk. "Happy memories. But what does this have to do with the Hat?"

"The Hat is intensely magical." She made a small noise of irritation. "Come on, Ron, it's not only quasi-sapient, it's a thousand years old. Magic was pretty much the only thing holding it together. Once Professor Vector and I had the physical scraps, all we needed to do was reconstruct the original spell bindings to essentially pin all the magic back in one place; it was seeping power."

Ron took a deep breath, following her with his eyes and trying to will himself to not get as distracted by her as he usually did when she was this passionately rambling about the subject of her choice. "So you're saying that if magic can interact with ghosts, ghosts can interact with magic - and might be able to interact with the Sorting Hat because it's more magic than Hat."

"It's a theory." She nodded sharply. "It explains nearly everything."

"Except for how they got out with the Hat," Ron pointed out patiently.

Hermione stopped. "What?" Her shoulders sagged. "Oh. Yes. Well..."

"Could a ghost disapparate?" he wondered aloud.

"You can't apparate in or out -"

"I know!" he snapped, snatching out of his pocket the folded list of notes and showing it to her, tapping with his thumb the underlined reminder. "I know that. But can a ghost do that sort of magic?"

Hermione stopped and looked at the list, and seemed unable to stop the mild smirk which threatened the corners of her lips. But she did soften in her tirade, even if she then turned away. "...there's no reason why a ghost couldn't if they had a wand," she said slowly. "But that would require a ghost whose personal conception required a wand. And I mean beyond how any normal wizard would view a wand - that's thoughtless, wizards take wands for granted. If a wizard put a wand on their priority list above, say, their limbs... their ghost might have the power of a wand, too. It's very rare, obviously."

Ron scratched his chin, and found stubble there. Since going into the office he'd stopped bothering shaving - the lack of Hermione's presence hadn't helped - and his face was beginning to itch. "If it's that rare, do you think the apparition wards around Hogwarts would protect against a ghost?"

Hermione stopped, her gaze locked on one of the windows, and her expression shifted with the tell-tale conflict that came from someone else having an idea she hadn't thought of, and that idea being tantalisingly intriguing. "It's... possible they wouldn’t," she conceded slowly, thoughtfully.

"Right. So we're looking at a ghost-thief." Ron rubbed his hands together.

"It's not that easy!" Hermione started, turning to face him. "How did a ghost have the will to enter and leave Hogwarts? Why did they focus on the Hat? How did they have a wand in the first place? None of this matches any of the parameters of any common ghost I've heard of."

"Maybe he was a burglar in life." Ron shrugged. "It's a better lead than any I've come up with so far, except that the idea the Hat's buggered off somewhere."

"The only times it's ever done that," Hermione said, with that allegedly patient tone of voice he knew meant she was going to tell him something he already knew, "has been when it's needed to deliver the Sword of Gryffindor to someone."

But there was another edge to her voice, a slight tension he couldn't quite place. Still, Ron knew her well enough to recognise when she was hiding something from him, and with a frown he walked towards the case on the wall where the sword glittered.

"It's still here," he said obviously. "It hasn't been transported away by the Hat."

Hermione was staring at the desk with a frown. "...no. It hasn't."

The door burst open at that moment, making them both jump as McGonagall strode into her office with determination. She nodded to them only briefly before crossing the room and heading for the wizarding wireless towards the corner.

"I think you ought to both listen to this," she said in a rather tense voice, and manipulated the controls quickly.

"What?" Ron blinked and stared, but then the wireless crackled to life.

"...and we've just got Mister Barlowe with us now," the announcer was saying sombrely, "to answer some questions about his candidacy."

Hermione hurried up next to him, brow furrowed. "Barlowe? Gideon Barlowe?"

"Shh." McGonagall folded her arms across her chest, tapping her elbow with an expression of somewhat worried impatience.

Ron grimaced, shoved his hands into his pockets, and listened.

"Thank you," a new voice was saying from the wireless. This voice was smooth, deep, well-educated and rather mellifluous. "As you all know, the effort by the Governors to select a new Head for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has not met yet with any success. This is quite normal; it was anticipated to be a lengthy process which might well take several years.

"That is unacceptable, or so I have been forced to conclude from watching the interviews. The school is set in its ways, locked in an inheritance from the late, great Albus Dumbledore and showing few signs of wishing to move on. Whilst we all respected Professor Dumbledore and his methods, we are moving into a new age, an age where we need new ideas and... youth.

"We need an agenda to push our children forward in the world, to have them better equipped for the jobs and opportunities in this modern wizarding Britain. We need to let go of the old, dated concepts and embrace new and improved methods, for the betterment of all society.

"I had, of course, been in talks with Mister Sprague and we’d discussed what his wishes were. Though I found what he himself has confessed upon his withdrawal from the race - Mister Sprague has ideas, but to enact them, one needs drive and one needs vision.

"It might sound arrogant to presume that I am the one with vision, and it honestly did not occur to me until the leak last night from Mister Konstantin's office. The research his team have been doing into the relics of Hogwarts, and how they would work their way to the person whom the school would believe to be the most suitable candidate, is fascinating. Very old magic, magic that cannot be defied or ignored.

"Or so my wife pointed out to me, when we sat in our living room listening to the news report, and she made the very obvious statement that, sitting on my mantelpiece, is the Cup of Hufflepuff I purchased a matter of months ago. Purchased as a piece of history... but if all of these things are subtle magics, then perhaps there is more to it?

"I would not expect to be selected solely by some trinket; may old magics and my own wiles alone show me to be best for -"

Finally, McGonagall snapped the wireless off with a slightly impatient and disapproving noise, then straightened up and scowled at the device.

Ron drew a breath to speak before the expected explosion. "Who the hell is Gideon Barlowe?"

Hermione started, obviously about to launch into a tirade but distracted by the question. "What? Oh, Barlowe... you know who he is, Ron, he's the philanthropist who throws funding into whatever Ministry initiative catches his interest. Very old money, very influential without ever having worked a day in his life." Despite the words, despite her frown, her voice wasn't as disapproving as might be expected.

Ron scratched the back of his neck. "Didn't he give your department a bucket of galleons once?"

"He... did." Hermione looked like she wasn't sure how to take this. "He's not shown any hints of prejudice; he seems to have an eye for funding projects which are going to make a significant amount of progress."

"Or they make progress because he funded them," Ron countered, then looked at McGonagall. "Did you know about this?"

"I did not," McGonagall said a little tersely, finally looking up. "I had thought someone like Gideon Barlowe would stay out of an honest day's work. But the idea that Alcaeus Sprague has withdrawn is... heartening, even if he's thrown his support behind Barlowe."

"...it's a real coup, he'll have the whole mainstream Ministry behind him, and a load of the more fringe elements like Barlowe..." Hermione wrung her hands together in anxious thought. "But he's always been a strange one, always been very distant; it's odd for him to get involved now..."

"And what's this about the relics? That rumour's finally come to light as something more?" Ron asked, desperately trying to keep the topic on track.

McGonagall nodded. "It broke late last night, and I was going to discuss it with you both. It seems Gregor Konstantin's team have been researching the old records backing up that rumour and tradition I spoke of. It is very old magic, and probably lore mangled through time - the idea that mere items would be sufficient for proving one's suitability as master of Hogwarts is laughable. But it is something that would impress the public, and probably give weight to one candidate over the others."

Ron and Hermione exchanged glances sharply, and he didn't need to ask what she was thinking. Slytherin's locket.

"That also raises the question of the Sorting Hat and whether it was used to retrieve Gryffindor's sword. Since the question of rightful ownership of these items is one which Konstantin's people, at least, have been asking for a while - and I am a dancing bear if I believe Gideon Barlowe didn't know about this before Konstantin's leak, if he's chosen to act on it," McGonagall continued.

Ron looked back at the sword in the case. "Well, it obviously hasn't..." His voice trailed off as he realised Hermione and McGonagall were exchanging rather terse looks, and he recalled the edgy expression of Hermione only minutes before. "What?"

Hermione shifted her feet. "It wasn't... an intentional secret from you, Ron, it's just something Harry chose to do and he needed my help with..."

McGonagall looked like she was resisting the urge to roll her eyes. "After the war, Mister Potter thought it would be best to hide the real Sword of Gryffindor. It had gained too high a profile from the battle, and the goblins for one would certainly be after it. So the fake was put in the case here, for all and sundry to see, and Mister Potter hid the real sword."

"With your help?" Ron rounded on Hermione, who seemed to flinch despite herself. "And you didn't tell me?"

"I... it was Harry's job, Ron! He asked me to help him, and when he quite clearly didn't tell you, I didn't want to question him!" She looked more than a little uncomfortable. "Bring that up with him, not with me!"

Ron folded his arms across his chest, finding it hard to be angry with a friend lying in a bed in Saint Mungo's. "...so where is it?"

"Assuming whoever stole the Hat has not used it to retrieve the blade? Dartmoor," McGonagall said levelly.

"...seemed... suitable... considering Gryffindor's background," Hermione said quietly, staring at the floor. "We warded it up against all sorts of things, it has loads of defences, but I don't know if we could protect it against the sort of old, powerful magic that links it to the Sorting Hat." She drew a deep, uncertain breath and looked up at him. "And if we think people are ready to go to serious extremes to acquire these relics of the Founders, then..."

"...then bugger knows whether they've got it or not." Ron shoved his hands back into his pockets, scowling at nothing in particular. "We're going to have to go and fetch the bloody thing, aren't we?"


Chapter 10: Confrontations
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Chapter 10: Confrontations

The wind howled around Ron’s ears and he took back every time he had stepped out of his front door and cursed the savagery of an English summer. That just meant a jacket in May, a hood or a brolly close to hand even in June, shorts left folded in drawers to come out for maybe one day a year and then banished until the ice age broke.

It was all inconsequential compared to the weather in the moorland of Dartmoor.

At least it wasn’t raining. That was all he could say for the situation as they clambered up the side of one of the more vicious peaks in the middle of nowhere, and he tried to not get blown back down the hill. At least it meant his footing was steady.

And at least he could be granted the petty, petty satisfaction of watching Hermione struggle more than him with the climb. He had to keep his fitness up, after all - she didn’t, and he’d already had to slow his pace so she didn’t get left behind.

Then she slipped and went down on one knee with a muttered curse, and instinctively he turned to her, instinctively he extended a hand to help her back up, and instinctively she took it.

Their eyes met for a heartbeat as she rose, but he pulled back before she could, turning away almost savagely and trudging on.

“So you picked somewhere nice and accessible, then?” he said, bitter words fighting away unpleasant emotions.

“Some of Godric Gryffindor’s most significant deeds from before Hogwarts happened in these hills,” she said, just as snippy. “His slaying of a rampaging Cornish Green, his evasion of the Elven Hunt -”

He looked back at her, incredulous. “The Elven Hunt? What did they do, chase him with desserts until he ate them all and exploded?”

Hermione’s expression pinched. “Elves have changed a lot over the last thousand years, Ron.”

“I’ll bloody say. Clearly you should be teaching them about their savage ancestors if you want to fire them up. Get them some inspiration to be something more than providers of truly excellent scones.” He scowled. “Or might that make them too liberated?”

“This is hardly the time, Ron.”

“Oh? We’re marching through the middle of bloody nowhere with still miles more to go. I think this is the perfect time for a conversation.” He didn’t, not at all, but if they were going to be stuck together out here he was determined to make it as unpleasant an experience for her as it was for him.

Ron wasn’t used to holding the moral high ground, but she was the one who’d broken up with him via newspaper. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do now he had this ground; wasn’t sure if berating her was what one was supposed to do, or if that would lose him his advantage and land him back in the doghouse.

At least that would be familiar.

She gave a humourless laugh. “Oh, now you want a conversation?” He didn’t look at her - he didn’t need to. He could just imagine the tilt of her head, the flash of her eyes. “I thought you were too busy for those? That you had to be somewhere else, or you couldn’t let yourself be distracted by an emotional discussion?”

I didn’t sound that self-absorbed. Did I? He scowled. “So what have you been working on with Malcolm?” He wasn’t above a low blow.

“The Department of Mysteries want to hire some House Elves for a project,” she said, drawing level with him on the climb. “So they wanted me to liaise with the Unions.”

He watched her out of the corner of his eyes. “And that’s all that’s going on with you?” He didn’t even try to not sound incredulous.

“That’s all.”

Ron stopped, whirling to face her. The wind was whipping her hair, making it wilder than ever, and she faltered as his baleful gaze landed upon her. “You’re lying,” he said, jabbing an accusing finger. “If it weren’t, you’d have been indignant at me even asking.”

She hesitated, and his gut did the loop-the-loop thing she’d made it do a hundred times before, for better or worse. “If you must know, he’s asked me out to dinner.”

He opened his mouth, ready for some cutting retort - but none came, and Ron just turned on his heel, returning to clambering up the tor. His arm came up to block the worst of the wind, and to hide his expression from her.

“Ron -”

“So I guess you’re pretty lucky Harry didn’t cancel his Clarion subscription, huh?” He couldn’t fight the bitterness now, but it came this time from his own genuine pain - instead of the petty desire to inflict hurt back upon her. “Otherwise I might have been under the impression we were still together!”

What?”

“We’re ‘not as close’ as we used to be, or something? I don’t know, I didn’t memorise it, it was just a lousy article,” Ron lied. “But it made it clear, didn’t it? Since you couldn’t tell me face to face?”

He could almost hear her jaw drop. “Couldn’t tell you face to face? What do you think the past three months have been about, Ron? Though I guess that’s the point, isn’t it, you don’t listen!”

Ron didn’t stop. The anger made progress easier, became something to burn away in the climb other than energy. “Well, now I got the point! Loud and clear! Along with half of Britain! Happy now?”

“Of course not.” Her voice was treacherously quiet, like it was when she was really upset, upset beyond her own anger, and he had to fight the instinct to look at her - to reach out for her, to comfort her. “You think that this is what I wanted? That after all we’ve been through, I wanted it to end like this?”

He didn’t answer, just kept peering up the hillside, as if through the gloomy skies and whipping wind he could find something to get him out of this situation.

“...but I didn’t mean the article to be a... a surprise,” she said, and to his astonishment he found himself wishing she would stop talking. It wasn’t as if she was going to say anything that would change their circumstances. “I didn’t mean that, I really didn’t. Ron, I’m... sorry.”

That did stop him; usually he was the one in that position, and to hear her giving an apology when he felt he damn well deserved one was enough to make him hesitate.

But he had been right. It didn’t really change anything.

Then he spotted the heavy stone at the top of the next rise. “...I think we’re almost there.”

She was beside him, all words abandoned, for which he could only be grateful. He didn’t want to wonder whether this was her trying to forget it all, or if she really was that distracted. “That looks like it.”

“When did you do this?” He picked up the pace again, a surge of energy found now he was so close to the end. “And why couldn’t we just apparate in?”

“Three months after Voldemort died,” she said. “You were helping George out at the time... we didn’t keep it a secret because we didn’t want you to know, it just seemed like such an inconsequential thing when -”

“Can you do me a favour? Just one?” Ron lifted a finger. “Cut out the justifications and apologies. Just answer my questions.”

She flinched guiltily. “I warded up the immediate area. We couldn’t apparate there directly, and I did what I could to make it tough to apparate in close; I couldn’t guarantee we wouldn’t be splinched. That’s why we had to hike in. I tried to make the place as secure as possible, but don’t worry; I can get through my own protection wards now I’m here.”

They reached the top of the rise, and Ron could see the outcropping of rock wasn’t just slabs of huge, heavy stone - it was a natural archway and, beyond it, he could see the darkness of a cavernous passageway working into the depths of the ridge.

He frowned. “Did you make this?”

“It was here when we found it - or, when we went looking for it. Gryffindor hid out here for two days while evading the hunt. The way the legends recorded the event made me think there might have been some natural magic in the area that he used to hide himself. I think I was right.” Hermione drew her wand. “Let me go first.”

Ron drew his own and took the flanking position he usually assumed for Harry in the field. “Is there anything I should keep an eye out for?”

Hermione pursed her lips as she paused at the entrance to the cave. “Movement.”

Ron scowled. “Should there be something moving out here?”

Lumos.” She lifted her wand instead of talking, to show the cavernous passageway carrying on deeper than the light could show. “I’ll need to deactivate these wards so we can pass.”

He couldn’t see anything, and silently kicked himself for not having checked. He knew why he hadn’t, of course - it was nothing to do with obliviousness or laziness, but rather, an automatic trust of her memory and capabilities which had left him focusing on potential other, more physical threats.

He didn’t like that thoughtless trust so much any more.

After a few seconds she lowered her wand and nodded. “We should be fine now. Come on.”

He followed her deeper in, ears straining. It was times like this that his senses played tricks on him; that the slightest drip of water would sound like a footstep, like the crunch of stone underfoot would sound like someone moving the rocks above them.

But he was as confident as he could be that they were alone down there. Alone, and silent.

The cave wasn’t particularly deep or long, but they didn’t need to go far before it had twisted around enough that he couldn’t see daylight, and the only illumination came from the tips of their wands.

Then they turned the next corner, and the light of his wand met solid rock as the passageway came to an abrupt end. Ron flicked his wand up and down, saw the ledge carved smooth at about waist height, and then his breath caught at the glint of metal.

“You just... left it lying there on the rock?”

Hermione gave him a look of faint amusement. “What else would we do? Lock it in a box? If anyone’s got this far, a box isn’t going to do anything.”

“I mean it seems a bit...” Ron looked down at the hefty, cold steel of the sword of Godric Gryffindor. “Inauspicious.”

“I don’t think I ever heard you use that word before.” She quirked an eyebrow. “Only you would reserve it for a sword. You are such a boy.”

“Nope; I’m all man,” Ron said, smirking at her - then he remembered where he was, and where they were, and he looked back at the sword. “Is it safe to touch?”

She nodded, and he reached down to grasp the hilt. The smooth leather was familiar, and the weight as he hefted the weapon comfortable. Ron hardly knew anything about swords, but even he knew the blade was beyond perfect. Just the slightest swing wasn’t like he was moving a weapon, he was moving a limb.

“Let’s get out of here,” Hermione said. “We’re going to have to put together somewhere else safe for it. The only reason to take it from here is so I can keep an eye on it properly.”

“So you can?” He quirked an eyebrow. “If the people who attacked Harry are after it, then surely it makes more sense for this to be in the hands of the Auror. Not the... what is your job title, anyway?”

“Liaisons Manager,” she said, snippy that he’d forgotten, though he hadn’t. “And Harry’s an Auror too, and that didn’t do him much good.”

“The difference is,” said Ron, finding it difficult to take his eyes off the sword as they turned and trooped back towards the cave entrance, “he wasn’t expecting it. He’s got Ginny to worry about, and a wedding. I can take care of myself.”

“We should take it to Hogwarts.”

“Ah, Hogwarts, that impenetrable fortress - oh, no, wait, didn’t someone rob the place last week? Someone very likely behind all of this? And we still don’t even know how, so we can’t protect against it?”

“Then if they had the resources to break into Hogwarts, I’m quite sure they have the resources to beat one Auror.”

“And the resources to beat one Liaison Manager’s paltry charms.”

Paltry?” The sunlight, gloomy as it was, hit her face as they trooped up the passageway to show her utter indignation. “This is about more than scoring cheap points, Ron, it’s -”

Then a shadow fell across them and Ron whirled around, wand whipping up to the entranceway. A man stood there, tall and burly, his face like it had been etched from the stone itself with a particularly virulent chisel.

“It’s over,” he said, his voice gravelly. “We’ll be taking the sword now, Mister Weasley, Miss Granger. We thank you for your work in recovering it; it’s saved us a lot of time.”

Ron’s lip curled. “Who the hell are -”

Burke!” Hermione’s voice caught. “You - I should have known I couldn’t trust you!”

Ron leant in. “Who is this guy?”

“I apologise for the deception, Miss Granger. It was accidental, I assure you; we had no idea you would actually lead us to the sword. But I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Burke extended a hand.

Still don’t know who you are. But you can go right to hell,” Ron snorted.

“You think I’m actually going to hand the sword over?” Hermione’s eyes flashed dangerously. “To a criminal like you?”

“Does this mean you’re going to tell me who he is, yet?”

“A criminal?” Burke snorted. “You’ve got it all wrong, Miss Granger. Everything I’ve done has been on the authority of the Department of Mysteries. Including coming here and claiming the sword.”

“Oh!” Ron waggled his wand at him. “You’re an Unspeakable. Right. Well, that makes everything different. You can go right to unspeakable hell if you think you can - Stupefy!”

Burke hadn’t seen it coming, had clearly expected more righteous ranting, and Ron’s Stun hit him in the shoulder, sending him reeling back. But it had been a quick flash of magic, so brief that it only staggered him - and then two, three more figures joined him at the mouth of the cave.

“Yeah.” Burke rolled his stiff shoulder. “I didn’t come alone, and I will hurt you if I have to.”

Then their wands flashed, and Ron threw himself sideways, tackling Hermione to the ground as he did so. Holding his wand and the sword meant he couldn’t catch himself well, and his elbows bashed hard on rock, but even while being thrown to one side she was hurling curses at the four Unspeakables. They were holding steady at the mouth of the cave, able to take cover and shoot back.

Whereas the two of them had very little by way of shelter.

Ron flicked his wand to throw up a swift, unsteady Shield Spell. “We’re in trouble.”

“I noticed,” she hissed, rolling to a kneeling position - but instead of lifting her wand, she lifted a hand to cup around her mouth. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”

He stared. “What are you - they’re right there!”

But she didn’t answer, just kept throwing spells, and he pressed himself against the wall of the cave, forced to focus on protecting them both. Normally he liked to take cover so he could concentrate his magic on the purely offensive, but he knew his combat reflexes had to be better than Hermione’s. He still knew the glint in an enemy’s eye, the twitch of their wand, the flicker of their expression which meant he needed to defend himself. His experience was better suited to protecting them than fighting back.

And all of his experience told him they couldn’t just cower in the cave being shot at. They were tactically outmatched and outnumbered. He looked wildly at Hermione. “It’s time for you to have one of your brilliant ideas!”

Then there was a chirping, high pitched sound from the mouth of the cave, beyond the Unspeakables - and one of them gave a panicked yelp, before he was hurled forwards and upwards by an unseen force. He crashed into the roof of the cave, then landed heavily and didn’t move.

Hermione’s smile was bright in the darkness. “I had one five minutes ago.”

“What the -”

The shapes that appeared at the threshold were impossibly small, impossibly shaped - and yet Ron recognised them at once. That was the problem.

They were House Elves.

Four of them, to be precise, and the two subordinates of Burke’s left standing rounded on them with a mixture of determination and confusion - and, Ron fancied, a touch of fear at such a peculiar and yet powerful spectacle. But their wands whipped up, and the Elves waved their hands, and then the air was thick with magic again.

Then Burke whirled around, scowling, and Ron realised he’d let himself be so distracted by the appearance of their reinforcements that he wasn’t ready, not nearly ready enough, and a spell danced at the tip of the Unspeakable’s wand -

- crashing into Hermione’s gut and sending her toppling to the ground.

Fear twisted in Ron’s belly, sick and instinctive. He hadn’t heard Burke utter vocals, hadn’t recognised the flash of light as anything in particular, had no idea what the lunatic had done, how badly he’d hurt her...

He was at her side in seconds, wand coming to where she’d been hit, the words of a healing charm already on the tip of his tongue. But her eyelids were flickering, and she was stirring even as he got there, her voice a low moan.

“I’m okay - just a Disorientation -”

Accio Sword!”

It was a Summoning spell, and a powerful one, and in his distraction Ron fumbled at the hilt - but to no avail, as the sword was yanked from his hands, flying across the distance and landing neatly in Burke’s grasp.

“Oh no - oh, no you don’t -” But Ron’s curse at the Unspeakable went wild, and Burke was running, hurtling for the cave entrance where his two colleagues were at least holding their own against the Elves.

“Abner! Abner, he can’t get away with it!” Hermione was shouting, and as she did, one of the House Elves broke past the fight at the cave entrance and hurled himself bodily at Burke.

He was so small he couldn’t be much of a contest for the man - but he latched onto Burke’s wrist, and the impact staggered him. They stood in the cave entrance, scrambling and fighting, and Ron bolted for them, brandishing his wand and trying to get a clear shot.

Then the two of them fell, and the sword fell with them. Burke landed nearest, hurling Abner as he did so, and the House Elf flew through the air to crash heavily into the cave wall. The Unspeakable rolled, scrabbling forward for the sword, and Ron lunged.

Their hands both landed on it at the same time, and Ron fought to get a firm grip - with the sword he could keep Burke at bay, and then these Elves could help fight them off and then -

Burke’s fist hit him like a jackhammer, knocking him down and knocking the sword from his grasp. The world spun around him, light and dark flashing from the gloom of the cave and the spells - of the House Elves, of the Unspeakables who had been recovering their higher ground and were now keeping Hermione, too, on the defensive, and then a figure rose before him - Burke, tall, burly Burke, holding the Sword of Gryffindor.

But he didn’t attack. Didn’t Stun him, didn’t stab him. Just turned on his heel, and bolted for the cave entrance.

“No!” But Hermione’s curse went wide, and Ron fumbled for his wand to no avail, he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t get the words together -

“You will not defy the Mistress!”

That was Abner, his little form getting to his feet, and he lifted his hand. Ron didn’t see what happened - just saw Burke jerk with surprise, come to a halt, look around wildly.

“The sword -”

“Where is it -”

Stupefy! Stupefy, you stupid -”

“It’s gone! Abort! Get out of here!”

Then the cheering and jeering of House Elves, the sound of retreating footsteps, and then Hermione was looking down at him, her hair drifting down into his face. She smelled, even down here, after all this, crisp and clear and like a summer’s day with a book - as if that made any sense, but she’d never made sense, and that was why he -

“Ron? Ron!”

“I’m okay,” he mumbled, trying to sit up, but that brought their faces uncomfortably close together, and she jerked back. “Merlin, he hits like the Hogwarts Express - what happened?”

“I don’t...” Hermione looked around. The Unspeakables were gone, the four House Elves coming up to them, tiny, hunched over figures of horrendous magical power. “Abner, what did you do?”

“Abner is sorry, Mistress Hermione -”

“You’re free, Abner, you know you don’t have to call me ‘Mistress’; you’re here because you chose to be, because you’ve been paid to be...”

“Can we reassert his individuality when I know what the hell is going on?” Ron rubbed his pounding temples.

“Abner was told to stop him from getting away with the sword,” said Abner. He looked old for an elf, stooped over, but Ron reckoned he struggled to tell a House Elf’s age anyway. “So... Abner did. Without thinking, Mistress - just tried to stop him from having it...”

“He doesn’t know for sure what he did?” Ron squinted.

“House Elf magic is powerful and instinctive.” Hermione was crouched next to Abner, her voice going reassuring. “It works beyond ways wizards can understand, but the House Elves have been oppressed for so long that even they’ve forgotten the full extent of their own power. Sometimes, if they’re truly stressed, and they try to achieve something it can... backfire.”

Ron frowned at the elves. “Where did these little buggers even come from?”

Hermione tilted her head archly. “Harry hired them. To protect the sword. They’re from the Dartmoor Elven Commune, a community of free elves living in these parts. It’s their ancestral homeland; we’ve helped to reconnect them to their roots. All we ask them to do is to keep an eye on the cave; I wasn’t even sure they’d come if I called for them...”

“Mi- Hermione has charged us with a duty!” Abner squawked indignantly. “We will safeguard the sword! We will defend our Valued Employers when they call for us!”

Ron side-eyed her. “They’re still getting to grips with the whole freedom thing, aren’t they? But if they were watching this place, and if there were wards around this place, then why did we need to come here anyway? Now we’ve just lost the damn sword.”

Hermione scowled. “The sword is only protected against incursions I could anticipate. Even I don’t understand for sure how the Sorting Hat’s magic works in summoning the Sword of Gryffindor, but that means I can’t protect against it. If something happened, if it had already gone missing, it’s possible neither I nor the elves would know unless we came down here!”

Ron scoffed. “But in coming here, we’ve lost it. To save it, Abner’s sent the sword... we don’t know where? Isn’t that great.”

“It’s not his fault!” Hermione snapped as Abner cringed. “If it hadn’t been for him, Burke would have it!”

“Yeah. Burke.” Ron got to his feet, straightening his coat. “Burke, one of your buddies from the Department of Mysteries. How do you fancy he found us here, do you think? He followed us!”

Hermione looked away. “...very likely.”

“So, how do you like your new boyfriend now?”

“Ron! Is that all you can think about at a time like this?” Hermione straightened. “We’ve lost the Sword of Gryffindor and you couldn’t be happier that I’ve been proven wrong about Malcolm, could you?”

“Oh, like it’s going to make a bloody bit of difference to my life.” Ron scowled. “If not him, then it’ll be the next speccy git who comes along, isn’t it?”

She harumphed. “Nice to know you think so highly of me to assume I’d just swan off right away -”

“Well, you almost did, didn’t you?”

She tossed her head angrily. “You haven’t changed, have you, Ron? Fine. That’s fine. We don’t need to work together any more on this, do we? I’ve got to find the Sword of Gryffindor, and that’s going to take work and research, and those aren’t exactly your areas of expertise, are they?” Hermione looked over at Abner. “Thank you for your help, gentlemen. Can you get me out of here quicker?”

“I thought you warded -”

“I didn’t ward against house elf magic.” Hermione waved a hand angrily at Ron. “You can leave him. He needs the fresh air.”

Then the air cracked and twisted and they were gone, leaving him on his own in the dark, empty, gloomy cave.

No sword. No lead. No girl.

“McGonagall is going to kill me,” he grumbled, stumbling back out into the daylight. There were still hours before sunset, he still had his wits about him, and aside from the possibility he was going to get mauled by marauding House Elves, he had to concede that there was no reason why he couldn’t make it out of the apparition ward areas and home of his own accord.

He didn’t need her. And she clearly didn’t need him.

Damn it!”

The nearest fist-sized rock suffered his wrath as Ron kicked it hard. It skittered along the ground, down the hill; bounced off a small rise and ricocheted off to the side, behind a bigger rock -

And hit something with a clang.

“What...”

He ran over, scrambling around the rock - and there it was, lying in the long grass. The Sword of Godric Gryffindor. Not lost, not sent to who-knows-where, not turned to ash by unpredictable House Elf magic, just sent a hundred feet away.

Or, at least, half of it had been, the blade only as long as his forearm before it stopped in an ugly, jagged point, the rest of the metal nowhere in sight. Gingerly Ron picked it up, hefting the hilt - and was briefly distracted by how good it felt in his hand even incomplete.

Could one break goblin craftsmanship? Was that even meant to be possible? His instinct was, of course, to get in touch with Hermione, let her know, continue the...

...but no. She’d probably just take it, then go back to hitting the books, then cut him out of the entire investigation, like she’d wanted to all along. His investigation. It wasn’t as if she’d provided anything helpful about the whole Sorting Hat issue anyway.

No. This was his best lead. Ron smiled. He had something they wanted - and she had nothing.

And her new squeeze was evil.


Chapter 11: Revelations
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A/N: Warning: chapter may contain answers.



Chapter 11: Revelations

"Why, exactly, am I here?" McGonagall picked her way delicately through Thaddeus Stubbs' workshop with an expression of supreme disapproval.

"I was wondering the same thing. Good evening, Minerva." Stubbs was stood at the door to the back room, pulling a shirt over his vest and looking bewildered. "You said you were coming around, Weasley, you didn't mention with company."

"Please, Thaddeus." The Headmistress of Hogwarts waved a dismissive hand. "As if you would have tidied the place on my account."

"It's tidy, Minerva. It's a forge. Everything is exactly where it should be."

"Oh, really? A forge is supposed to look as if a bomb hit it, then?"

This seemed like a better idea back in the middle of Dartmoor. Ron raised his hands. "Um. It's great to see you two catch up. Really, it's great."

"There's very little to catch up on, Mister Weasley. Thaddeus was a valued member of the faculty. Thaddeus left Hogwarts to open up a thoroughly inconsequential workshop. And Thaddeus was not heard from again. The story ends."

Ron looked nervously at Stubbs, who to his surprise was grinning. "I missed tea in the staff rooms, Minerva. I bet Vector can't keep pace with you."

"Professor Vector does not so much as step into the ring. I have to try to nudge a whippersnapper like Professor Halvard in, and he keeps eyeing me like I am about to dock him house points. It's no fun working with people you used to teach." Much to Ron's relief, McGonagall was also giving a slow, unusual smile.

"I got over it."

"Yes, well. I was young when I taught you, Thaddeus. I hadn't quite found my stride. Oh, do go put the kettle on, what has happened to your manners?"

The blacksmith's hearty grin remained, and he ducked into the back while McGonagall looked around and cleared a space on the nearest bench to perch on. Ron stood absently in the middle of the workshop, rubbing the back of his neck. "I should have remembered you two would know each other."

"You could have mentioned it, yes, Mister Weasley," said McGonagall. "Then I would have warned you that you were seeking the aid of the most irresponsible man in Britain."

But she spoke with fondness, and Ron relaxed a little. "He helped me on my first case. And I went to him to ask about the Sorting Hat."

"And not Miss Granger?" McGonagall gave a frustrated sigh. "There are times when we have to put aside our personal feelings and -"

"And I've spoken to her. And I've got what help I can get." Ron lifted a hand. "I'll explain everything shortly."

Stubbs came out a few minutes later with a couple of steaming, chipped mugs of tea. Ron looked at one with a thirsty eye - he hadn't drunk anything since leaving for Dartmoor - but Stubbs just gave one to McGonagall and took a sip from the other himself. "So what do you need us both for, Weasley?"

"We found the sword." Ron unslung his bag from his back. "Though Hermione thought we'd lost it. She has a small army of House Elves out there, did you know that?"

Stubbs looked nonplussed. "What swo-" But his eyes widened as he saw Ron draw out the hilt of Gryffindor's Sword - and he swore loudly when he saw the broken tip. Then he actually blushed. "Sorry, Minerva."

"No, by all means, Thaddeus. Hell's teeth, Ron, what happened?"

Ron tried to get over the shock of McGonagall calling him by his first name, and shrugged. "House Elves. We were followed, and attacked - by some of Hermione's friends down at the Department of Mysteries. They tried to take the sword, one of the Elves broke it rather than let them take it."

"Of course." Stubbs walked forward, reaching to gingerly take the sword. "It could only be done by elves, or perhaps goblins themselves. Or a year's worth of rituals and charms. Dragon's fire itself couldn't do it - hasn't done it, if legend tells correctly."

"Where is Miss Granger?" said McGonagall.

"Home, I assume." Ron shrugged. "She doesn't know. She left after she thought it was gone, and I found it."

"Should she not be informed? She played an integral role in its safety -"

"Professor, the Unspeakables followed us there. And she's the one they've been working with. I, on the other hand, pulled every trick I know to shake off a tail before I came here. These people are dangerous, and they are professionals, and I think it's safest if they don't think Hermione has anything that they want." Ron shrugged. "The best way to make them think that is for her to not have anything they want."

"I don't understand," said Stubbs. "Why would they want this?"

"Someone attacked Harry yesterday evening," said Ron. "We assumed it was Remnant, but they stole Salazar Slytherin's locket. Then this morning there's Gideon Barlowe on the wireless talking about his candidacy as Hogwarts' next Headmaster, and invoking that story about the relics. And about how he's the owner of Hufflepuff's Cup somehow; I know Kingsley sold the things for charitable funds, but that was years ago. Ravenclaw's Diadem is gone, destroyed, and that just leaves the Sword of Godric Gryffindor."

"Which is... no longer in your office?" Stubbs looked no more enlightened.

"It has not sat in my office since shortly after Albus Dumbledore's death," sighed McGonagall. "The one in my possession is a fake, the real one hidden away exactly so nobody could acquire it for their own nefarious purpose."

"I don't know why anyone's going to all of this fuss," said Ron, "but I think it's clear that the Department of Mysteries wants all of the relics. Likely for something to do with the Headmaster's job, and I'd be astonished if they're either not working with Gideon Barlowe, or if he's not their next target."

"And Konstantin's the only other one left in the race," said Stubbs. "It was in the news this morning, too, about how he'd been doing all this research into the relics, into the role they've played." He looked dubiously at McGonagall. "Is there anything in this idea? That the relics actually pick the Master of Hogwarts?"

She wrinkled her nose. "There have been stories in the past of the relics presenting themselves to a suitable candidate. But they are stories, and in all of the stories they have only got there through happenstance and coincidence. Not through murder, theft, and assertive action!"

"But, does it matter?" Ron raised an eyebrow. "People are worried about the future of Hogwarts. They want to see someone who's capable of doing the job; everyone in Britain now knows the story about the person with the relics being destined, or whatever."

"You think that public opinion will fall behind whoever had the money to buy some bits of ancient junk?" said Stubbs sceptically, though his grip on the Sword of Gryffindor was possessive. "You think that this is all one big PR stunt?"

"It's possible," said Ron doggedly. "It's the most important job in the country after the Minister of Magic; some people say it's more important because you're less constrained, you don't have the Ministry to worry about."

"I wish that were the case," sighed McGonagall. "But it is an immensely prestigious role. I never thought anyone's life would be threatened over it, though!"

Stubbs scoffed. "People's lives have been threatened and lost over a pint of beer or a job at the deli counter. You're smarter than that, Minerva; if some lunatic's got it into their heads that the relics are the path to the Headmaster's job, and that the Headmaster's job is the path to power, then you can bet all the galleons in your pocket that they will be prepared to endanger and take lives to get them."

She sighed. "So what can we do?"

"For starters, I wanted to know if it's possible to repair that." Ron nodded at the Sword of Gryffindor, still hanging from Stubbs' absent-minded grip. "It's important. It should be whole, it - it matters."

The three alumni of Gryffindor House all looked at the sword. Stubbs' strong features furrowed. "I'll do what I can, lad," he said gruffly. "But it won't be easy. I don't want to go near the goblins with this."

"Yeah, let's not open that can of worms."

"But all of this aside," said McGonagall, "People have attacked Harry over this, have attacked yourself and Miss Granger. They stole the Sorting Hat, presumably to acquire the sword if they realised the one in my office is a fake. They will keep looking, and they have an agenda."

"If this is about the Headmaster's job," said Ron, "then we have to assume the Department of Mysteries is backing one horse or another. The question is which. Konstantin? Barlowe? Someone else entirely? It's just impossible to tell. And the DoM isn't exactly about to tell us. And they're going to keep looking for the sword."

Stubbs looked dubious. "So you want to wait until they come for the sword, and then they show their hand?"

Ron gave a slow, optimistic grin. "Not quite. I want to draw them out until they come for the sword, and then show their hand to the world."

He raised an eyebrow. "How are you going to do that?"

Ron crossed the space between them, reaching to take the broken Sword of Gryffindor back. He took a moment, hefting the hilt in his hand, marvelling at how the weight somehow had resettled itself. There would never be its equal, he contemplated. The goblins would never allow such a weapon to fall into human hands again, if they could help it.

"How long," he said contemplatively to Stubbs, "were you a Hogwarts Professor, Thaddeus?"


* *


Hermione stopped dead on the steps up to her house, and her hand instinctively came down to her wand. "What," she said, voice shaking a little, "on Earth do you think you're doing here?"

She hadn't been able to identify Malcolm Trevelyan until she was close, but now he rose and stepped out into the street lights. He looked worn, and tired, and was holding both hands openly before him. "I wanted to talk. I heard what happened -"

"Of course you did!" she hissed, letting her wand slide into her hand. "Your office just tried to kill me -"

He lifted a finger. "We did not. We most certainly were not going to kill you."

"Oh, so it's a case of what's a little maiming between friends?" She went to go past him, but he sidestepped, blocking her way up the stairs. "Get out of my way."

"No. You'll have to make a scene to get past me, and that's not what you want - and that's why I'm waiting here, outside, because I can't make a scene in public either. I thought it was better than being already inside when you got home." Trevelyan paused. "That was less creepy in my head."

There was something unpleasant about being her size. It didn't matter that she could blast a wizard twice her weight off his feet, that she could probably bounce Trevelyan around the road like a basketball. He was taller than her, and she had to look up to see his face, and that had a certain intimidating effect. Even if she gritted her teeth and didn't let it cow her, the feeling was still there.

And Hermione Granger detested feeling even in the littlest bit cowed.

"Yes," she said, "and it would have been painful, too, because I would have hexed your nose off. Because your people tried to kill me, did I mention that?"

"You did, and you're wrong, and that's why I'm here. I want to talk, so if I'm out here, you know that's all I can do. Please. Give me a minute." Trevelyan's voice dropped, and his expression creased into what looked like genuine anguish. "Please. I'm sorry."

It was so ridiculous, that he was apologising for his people attacking her that day, but she didn't know what else to do but sigh. "All right. What amazing explanation do you have?"

He pressed his hands together. "I didn't know Burke was having you followed by that House Elf in your office -"

"Brucie?" Her eyebrows raised indignantly. "He was forcing poor Brucie -?"

"Paying! Paying! We have House Elves we hire for this kind of thing, because nobody pays attention to a House Elf and they can see so much." Trevelyan paused. "That doesn't sound any better, either! I swear, I genuinely only wanted your help for the negotiations with the House Elves. And I certainly didn't know he went after you with a full field team until I got into the Department and saw they were out on assignment. But it was too late by then." Trevelyan looked around. "I could explain this so much easier if you'd come with me."

"What, so you can kidnap me and make me disappear?" Hermione scoffed. "How stupid do you think I am?"

"How stupid do you think we are? You're Hermione Granger, best friend of Harry Potter. I don't know how powerful you think the Department of Mysteries are, but we don't have the power of arrest, and if we tried to make you disappear I'm pretty sure someone would notice!" There were still people on the street, so Trevelyan spoke in a low hiss.

"You attacked Harry Potter, in his own home -"

"No, we most certainly did not." Trevelyan lifted a finger. "I'm sorry about today, I really am, and Burke is - I'll get to that, but even though it wasn't supposed to go down like that, he wouldn't have hurt you, not really. And we did not put Harry Potter in hospital. That was not us."

She put her hands on her hips. "Then who was it, then?"

"The people we're trying to stop. This entire affair has been highly classified for so many reasons, and there was never a reason before to bring you in, but there's a reason now. And Burke can go right to hell if he doesn't like it." Trevelyan drew a deep breath. "I know you have no reason to trust me right now. But I swear that I do not mean you, or your friends, any harm. And if you come with me I will explain it all, not just because it's fair, but because you can help."

He extended a hand, gaze apprehensive. "And if you want, I will leave you alone and you'll never hear from me again, and I'll still do everything I can to keep this from hurting your friends."

Hermione narrowed her eyes. "I'd hope that if I wanted you to explain everything before I went anywhere with you, you'd do that. Because that would be fair, considering I have no reason to trust you."

Inexplicably he gave a small, pleased smile, and she knew he'd realised that if she was going to say no, she'd have already done it. "But you want to see for yourself, don't you. The Department."

"I've already been in there."

"Okay. You want to see it without breaking in." His smile broadened.

Ridiculously, she found herself returning it, a little, as if it was sweet he knew so much about her from a research file and not horribly invasive. "That would be a pleasant novelty," Hermione said, and reached out to take his extended hand. "But we can't appa-"

Then he grabbed his wand, and the world twisted and cracked and when they appeared, they were standing in a long, dark, stone corridor. Her breath caught. "Or. Or, we can apparate."

Trevelyan let her hand go to pull a rune from his pocket. "Clearance," he said. "This may come as a surprise to you, but I'm actually more important than Burke. This way."

She followed him as he led her down the corridor. "And yet, he went after me without your knowledge? That doesn't really comfort me as to your authority."

"He's a field agent. I, however, am a Project Leader. That puts us in different divisions, but I'm way up on the scale. He's meant to have been loaned out to me, but he's an old hand," said Trevelyan, leading her through a door into another, nearly-identical corridor. "He has trouble taking orders from someone younger than him, from some desk-jockey, and he has friends in his Department. If he asks for a team for him to go on an Op, some people don't look too closely to see if I signed the necessary paperwork."

"That the DoM works like that is also the world's least reassuring prospect," Hermione grumbled.

"Like I said. They wouldn't have hurt you." Trevelyan stopped, and turned to her. His eyes widened. "They didn't, did they?"

"I would normally be irritated that it's taken you about fifteen minutes to get around to asking if I'm all right, considering I just got attacked by thugs in a cave," said Hermione dryly, "but you're lucky my expectations for basic human empathy have been at an all-time low today."

He had the good grace to look bashful. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I saw the report. I knew you were in one piece, I was just fussing over... I wanted you to listen." He hesitated before a door. "And not hex my face off."

"I could do that."

"I know." Trevelyan looked the door up and down. "Let's start here."

It was a small room, a tidy little workshop with a forge in it, an anvil, and an array of tools lining workbenches and hanging off hooks on the wall. The forge was dead, the room was empty, but none of the equipment could draw the eye.

What drew the eye was what sat on a stone plinth in the middle of the room.

Hermione's breath caught. "That's impossible."

"I say it's not," said Trevelyan, "and I am an expert in these things. Though right now, it's just a pretty bauble. It is, however, reconstructed out of the ash recovered from the wreckage in Hogwarts on May 2nd, 1998. It was my first proper job for the Department."

She stepped forward gingerly, then leant forward to peer at the perfect, delicate diadem. "That looks exactly the same."

"That's the idea." Trevelyan scratched his chin. "The trick is to see if we can string its latent magical energy back together into the weave and form that Ravenclaw's Diadem had before it was destroyed - or, rather, before it was corrupted. And that's magic which just isn't possible for wizards to perform any more, or, at least, not without a lifetime of work. And I was happy to spend a lifetime working on it, but..."

Hermione looked at him, but Trevelyan's gaze was locked on Ravenclaw's Diadem, and there was something genuinely fixated in his eyes, adoring and almost hopeful. If an expression matched a feeling, then it felt rather reminiscent of how she felt when tackling a large, daunting, worthwhile intellectual project.

Like remaking the Hat had been.

"That's hard work," she said. "And I was doing it on a far less damaged item, with far more years of study and understanding surrounding it."

"It's why I brought you in," he said frankly, looking over. "Or, rather, why we wanted the help of the Goblins or the Elves. Only they have the kind of raw, unharnessed magic that wizards wielded a thousand years ago. We'd hoped that, since they'd just be reconstructing what was once there from the pieces, instead of making something from scratch, they'd be able to restore the diadem to even a fraction of its old power." Trevelyan shook his head, and sighed. "Whatever that power might be. Wizards are so limited - we're obsessed with finding everything's function, every exact use for every exact bit of magic. We forget the magic that exists in something being beyond our understanding."

"And yet, you're trying to figure it out anyway," Hermione said, quiet and wry as she went to step beside him.

He rolled a shoulder bashfully. "Only so I can restore it. That was the plan." Trevelyan sighed. "But this project hasn't been going as planned in... quite some time."

"You've not explained much," Hermione prompted. "So this was the project you couldn't tell me about. But this doesn't explain Harry, it doesn't explain Burke, and it doesn't explain the Sorting Hat."

Trevelyan ran his fingers through his hair, and jerked his head towards the door. "Come with me."

She followed as he led her down passageways she could only dimly remember; her recollection of being here years ago was hazy at best, and it looked as if the Department had been rearranged in that time. So rather than look down one corridor and get a flash of an unpleasant recollection she'd rather forget, she focused on Trevelyan, and where he was leading her.

"This was the kind of project I thought I could grow old working on," he was saying. "A budget to restore the Relics of the Hogwarts Founders? That's the sort of work I joined the Department for. And we had success, too, some real success. Of course, the Sword of Gryffindor was beyond our reach, and nobody knew where Slytherin's Locket had gone, but we had the ashes of Ravenclaw's Diadem and, our greatest find - the broken Hufflepuff Cup."

"You found that?"

"It was sold to us by the Ministry itself," said Trevelyan. "And that was more or less intact, physically, so it wasn't nearly so difficult to restore it. Two years' work, perhaps, and from it we developed and discovered all sorts of principles which would prove to hold us in good stead when it came to working on the diadem.

"And it was kind of amusing, because everyone began to get caught up with the succession of the Hogwarts Headmaster, and then the story got out months ago about the relics, but I thought it was silly, you know? People looking for meaning when it's not there."

Trevelyan stopped at a door, though seemed to have no intention of going through it, just turned to face her. His expression darkened. "And then someone broke into the Department, killed two of my researchers, and stole the Cup."

Hermione frowned. "What?"

"That made everything, as you can imagine, all the more serious. We started looking into the candidates for the job, as they'd have a vested interest with these stories going around. And this project got bumped way up on the scale of importance, so I got a better budget. Which meant I got Burke, but it also meant I had the funding to go after the Beings to reconstruct the diadem. I was hoping I might find some answers in its reconstruction as to what the hell's going on, as to why the relics matter." Trevelyan sighed. "And I also began looking into the other relics. Slytherin's Locket was unaccounted for - I assumed it was in Mister Potter's possession, if anywhere, but unfortunately I also assumed that meant it was safe. At the least, I couldn't pursue it."

"So you've been after the sword."

"With the level of magical sophistication we have here in the Department, it wasn't so difficult to learn that the Sword of Gryffindor in Minerva McGonagall's office is a fake. Which meant, if someone was out there looking for the relics and was prepared to kill for them, I had to find the real one. And there has only been one recorded method of finding the Sword of Gryffindor when its whereabouts were unknown."

"The Sorting Hat. But how did you get it? We looked at Hogwarts, we learnt about this... this new ghost in the castle..."

Trevelyan beamed. "You figured that out? I should be upset you were so close on my trail, but I'm really too proud of how I pulled it off. Come on." He opened the door and led her in.

"I know this room -" said Hermione with a start - and stopped.

The stone walls and floor.The ominous feeling tugging at her. The faint whispers at the edge of her hearing.

The stone archway in the centre.

When she found her voice, it sounded like it was coming from a long, long way away. "...here?"

Trevelyan was still smiling, but it seemed more sombre, more aware of the importance of this room. "Here. Did you figure out how a ghost, if they decorporealised with a wand as part of their residual self image, could potentially apparate?"

She nodded mutely, and found herself inadvertently drawing closer to Trevelyan as he padded further into the chamber.

"We have studied the Veil for decades to try to decipher the mystery of death. Unspeakables have lost their whole lives to the pursuit of finding a way to bridge the worlds of the living and the dead. It's not something I... as a rule... have ever wanted much to do with. It's usually not been pretty." Trevelyan was speaking in a whisper now, his words almost lost amongst those hissing and wisping around Hermione's hearing.

"But we figured out some time ago how to use the Veil to render a living wizard, temporarily, into the world of the spirits. Not to pass over - but to live in this world as a shadow, a ghost. It can't be done for long or the wizard will lose themselves there permanently, but it's possible.

"It's one of those... amazing, mind-shattering achievements that we have down here which never reaches the public eye because..." Trevelyan sighed. "Because people would fear it. Because it has no obvious use. But we gather knowledge for knowledge's own sake down here, and this was knowledge."

"That's how you did it," said Hermione, and her voice sounded empty, dusty. She cleared her throat. "You transformed someone into a ghost and had them apparate into Hogwarts. That bypassed the wards. They could get what they wanted, apparate out, and then be restored." She looked at him. "And a ghost was magical enough to interact with the magic of the hat, so they could physically touch it?"

Trevelyan looked almost melancholy. "You know what's weaved into the very fabric of the Hat, physically and magically. Anything that remains in our world of the spirits of the Founders is in that Hat. I was gambling it would be enough to give it a presence on the same sphere of existence as the incorporeal spirits, and it was. Our thief could take it back with them."

Hermione's breath caught. "Are they okay? The ghost, I mean."

He nodded quickly. "They're a professional. We don't do this sort of thing lightly, but when we do, we do it properly. Come on." Trevelyan headed for the door, and she followed him gratefully out of the Room of Death, down the corridor and back towards where the Department felt inexplicably warmer. "Let me get you in my office. There's an old friend there."

They stayed silent for the long walk, though the shadow of the Room of Death did slowly fade from hanging over her. Trevelyan's office was along a corridor of many doors, and with far more Unspeakables wandering that part of the Department. It was where paperwork was done, where meetings were held, where life was as mundane as it was in any part of the Ministry, far beyond truly incredible research and discoveries that had occurred in these halls.

When Trevelyan led her at last through one of the doors, what she first noticed was that it was no bigger than hers. What she noticed next was that she wouldn't have even thought this to be the office of an Unspeakable; it looked much the same as any Ministry official's office anywhere.

The last thing she noticed, sat on the tall bookshelf that lined one of the walls, was the Sorting Hat.

"Trevelyan, you scoundrel; you can keep me locked in the dark all you like, I still won't -"

"I've not been keeping you locked in the dark, I left you in the office and didn't turn the lights on," the Unspeakable said indignantly. "I mean, yes, that is locking you in the dark, but I didn't do it on purpose."

"You are a thief and a hat-napper and I think nothing is beneath you, so -"

Hermione cleared her throat as it looked as if Trevelyan and the Hat would get drawn into this if she didn't stop them. "Hello, Sorting Hat. It's good to see you again."

The Hat's 'face' had always been peculiar to her; for some reason she kept on misreading it, misidentifying what contours and creases made the nose, the eyes, the mouth. She'd even thoughtfully tried to leave a particular tear in the fabric when she'd been helping Vector reconstruct it, so there was an obvious point for it to use as its mouth.

She'd never seen it use it. It seemed to like having it as a ridiculous moustache.

Overall, they'd never got on very well. But the Hat's 'mouth' still twisted into a smile as the creases of eyes fixed on her. "Miss Granger, I am surprised to see -" Then the mouth sterned. "If you have played some part in this most outrageous -"

"I assure you, I only knew you were here some minutes ago."

"Then you must have come to release me; if not, I implore you to do so. This brigand, this wastrel, has most discourteously -"

"He has been like this since I brought him here. So, you see," said Trevelyan in a long-suffering voice as he sat down behind his over-stacked desk, "even if I did engineer the theft of the Sorting Hat, justice was keen to seek me out. In its own way."

"My condemnation could not be more than an ounce of the consequences you deserve, but consequences they are! And so I shall be sure to see you suffer -"

"I assure you, you have indeed been seeing me suffer." Trevelyan scrubbed his face with his hands.

Hermione cocked her head at him. "If he's so insufferable, why do you keep him in your office?"

"Because he's not wrong. I did have him stolen. I can at least not put him in a vault. On the other hand, he has been completely uncooperative in any efforts to retrieve the Sword of Gryffindor, so this entire operation has proven to be more of a headache than anything else."

She frowned and pulled up a chair. "I don't understand. You could have gone to Professor McGonagall, you could have..."

"We could have done many things. But the more people I trust, the greater chance there is of treachery."

"Treachery?"

Trevelyan clasped his hands together and leant forwards. "My superiors gave me the funding and resources to pursue this issue when the Cup was stolen and my associates murdered - but they could have done more. They did only what they had to; they remain reluctant. I have not been in the Department of Mysteries as long as some, but I have been here long enough to know the power-plays of these corridors."

"Someone is manipulating them?"

"Certainly. Someone has been proactively trying to keep the DoM out of this issue; that I needed to go to another Department over this damned House Elf business myself was evidence of that. I have trusted the people in my team because I have had no choice. Other than that, I have not wanted to involve who I could."

"Professor McGonagall is trustworthy -"

"I do not know Professor McGonagall. I did not have your Hogwarts education." His expression twisted. "So, yes. I stole the Sorting Hat. I wished to use it to acquire the Sword of Gryffindor so whomsoever wants these relics cannot have them. I regret that I have had to act in the shadows, but I have done what is necessary. Whoever took the Cup murdered two of my friends."

Hermione grimaced. "And now Gideon Barlowe has the Cup of Hufflepuff."

"And is set to make a stand as the Headmaster of Hogwarts, right after Harry Potter was attacked." Trevelyan's eyes narrowed. "Am I wrong to wonder if Gideon Barlowe will, over the next few days, proclaim he has purchased Slytherin's Locket from some trader?"

She scowled. "How on Earth could he think to get away with that? As if it would not be supremely suspicious for a stolen item to -"

"Because Gideon Barlowe is rich and Gideon Barlowe is powerful, and rich and powerful people can very often do whatsoever they like." Trevelyan leant back in his chair, his expression blank despite his thunderous words. "I do not know much about the man. But I do know that he has friends and wealth, and he could most certainly place pressure on the Department of Mysteries, and he can most certainly place pressure on the Department of Magical Law Enforcement to discourage them from including him in any investigation they have into these stolen goods. All he needs to do is ignite public opinion sufficiently on his side, and then when the Board of Governors sees fit to appoint a new Headmaster..."

"It might not be him," she pointed out. "There's still Konstantin; he was doing research -"

"It might not be him," Trevelyan agreed. "Which leaves me even more floundering. My plan has been for nothing more than to continue the work I have been doing and to secure the relics. I had two; now I have only one. Barlowe has the Cup, he probably has the Locket, and God knows where the Sword is."

She shook her head. "I don't know. I went to retrieve it myself so I could make sure it didn't fall into the wrong hands."

Trevelyan leant forward. "Then help me. I don't care who's going to be the next Headmaster of Hogwarts; I don't even care that much about the relics, except that some things are important, some things should be preserved. I only took to theft and lies when I realised I had enemies, enemies who were willing to murder to get what they want. And I want to bring them to justice for those murders."

"And they have attacked my friend." Hermione rubbed her temple. "Then again, your people have attacked me."

"I'm sorry," he said again. "If it had been my decision -"

"But it wasn't. And it sounds like you don't make all the decisions here in the Department of Mysteries. So if I help you, am I just walking into the lion's den?"

"We want the same thing. We want to get to the bottom of this, and we want justice. We are on the same side, we should act on the same side."

His words rang true - and so they summoned up blossoming guilt in her stomach. If that logic could convince her to work with Malcolm Trevelyan, then it should also convince her to work with Ron - Ron who had hunted the Sorting Hat for so long, Ron who would continue to hunt the Sorting Hat and didn't even know it was safe, not being used for evil ends.

Assuming she wasn't being lied to. Any more.

Then there was a sharp rap on Trevelyan's door and it flew open before the Unspeakable could answer. Hermione flinched as she saw Burke but, just as McGonagall had when storming into her office that morning, Burke all but ignored them as he went over to the wireless in the corner of Trevelyan's office.

"Miss Granger; I shouldn't be surprised you're here." Burke had an ugly bruise on the side of his face. "Trevelyan, you're a soft git."

"Burke; what are you doing -?"

"Shut up and listen." Burke switched the wireless on; static greeted them until it finally found a voice. It was deep, mellifluous, rough around the edges but imposing and commanding. Hermione didn't recognise it.

"...I was a Hogwarts professor for many years, which is more than any of my rivals they can say. The school was my home. I studied there. I taught there. And it's been depressing to hear all the fighting over what it could be. Forget 'could'. It's already a good place, where kids learn good principles as well as their magic. It should continue to be that."

Trevelyan looked nonplussed. "Who's this? Someone else throwing their hat into the ring?"

"Thaddeus Stubbs. The blacksmith." Burke placed a particular emphasis on the profession. "He's stood in front of his forge right now telling a bunch of journalists and school governors he's applying for the job. And he's not alone."

"Who's -" But Stubbs' voice continued, and Hermione fell silent.

"I think I can do the job. I think I can keep Hogwarts the decent place it's been under Minerva McGonagall, the decent place I remember it being under Albus Dumbledore. No fuss and frills and destiny or any of that rot; I won't hold with it. I don't know what this rubbish is about the relics of the Founders. If the Founders had a plan, had magic to find the right man for the job, it certainly wasn't about collecting all four bits of tat they had lying around. Mister Barlowe would have us think it matters that he's got the Cup of Hufflepuff? Bully for him. I've got the Sword of Gryffindor, because Minerva McGonagall gave it to me to do some repair work on it. I wonder if that makes me special?"

"He's not alone," Burke said quietly, and looked pointedly, bitterly at Hermione, "because your young Mister Weasley's stood next to him up there. And he's carrying the broken Sword of Gryffindor."



Chapter 12: Consultations
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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.”

“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.

“That’s right.”

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.”

Fantastic.”

“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.



Chapter 13: Accommodations
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Chapter 13: Accommodations

Hermione had envisioned all sorts of horrific consequences of getting Ron and Trevelyan in the same room and trying to make them cooperate. She’d anticipated Ron’s snide smiles, she’d anticipated Trevelyan reacting tensely, and she’d anticipated Ron at least being able to get down to business in between his swiping attacks. She’d expected from there that they’d push on, but Ron would hold his ground and nitpick his way through every proposal Trevelyan made, rightly or wrongly.

She had never anticipated that they might agree.

“I don’t like this plan,” she said at last, her voice sounding small in Malcolm Trevelyan’s tiny office.

“It’ll work,” said Ron calmly, pushing his chair back and putting his boots up on Trevelyan’s desk.

Trevelyan flinched, but didn’t comment. “Mister Weasley’s right. He’s got something that we don’t: bait. A lure.”

People aren’t bait,” said Hermione tensely, and she looked straight at Ron. You’re not bait. Instead, she just said, “Besides, Barlowe’s already attacked Harry to get the locket. Do we really think he’s going to attack someone else?”

“I think he’s exactly that foolhardy. Because he knows he can get away with it.” Trevelyan pulled a parchment off the top of a pile on his desk. “I made some enquiries down at the MLE about the Hufflepuff Cup, as discreetly as I could. I don’t have the clearance to let it become public that we used to have it and that it got stolen.”

“Aw, so my tell-all promises to the Daily Prophet will have to go broken?” said Ron provocatively.

Trevelyan ignored him. “You know what I found out? Officially, Barlowe’s working with an MLE Patrol Team who’re investigating Art Thieves and conducting sting operations. Now, I don’t believe, for a second, that this is legitimate, considering we’re talking an MLE Division Barlowe has donated a sizable amount of money to...”

“But he has a scapegoat,” said Ron, now a bit more serious. “He can pick up the relics and say that he didn’t steal them, he bought them - and if anyone questions that he bought them, he was buying them to help the MLE Department on their investigations.” He sounded grudgingly impressed.

“He doesn’t even need to keep them long,” said Trevelyan. “Just long enough to incite public excitement. Then if the MLE need to take them as evidence, people will still remember he had them.”

“This doesn’t make this plan any less terrible,” said Hermione peevishly, “it just means that Barlowe is all the more likely to be dangerous.”

“It means he’s more likely to try something, which makes the plan all the more sensible.”

“Making yourself a target is not sensible, Ron!”

Trevelyan looked between them, then over at Burke, who was stood in the corner with his arms folded across his chest. The older man rolled his eyes. “We can secure up Weasley’s flat,” said Burke. “Apparition warning runes, listening charms. I can have a whole field team on standby to react the moment someone comes bursting in uninvited through the door.”

“Which is still down to human reaction times and could still take several seconds. You know how many seconds it takes to say ‘Avada Kedavra’?” Hermione glared at Ron.

“They didn’t kill Harry,” he said. “They won’t kill me. And they won’t get the sword, either; we wait for them to come for me and it, we jump them, we interrogate them, thank you, good night.”

“And what if something goes wrong?”

Ron looked at her with a mixture of bewilderment and concern. “I don’t remember you being so worried about that before.”

Hermione hesitated. He was right; she disliked pointless risks, but she’d taken plenty of bigger ones in the past. What made this one different?

Then her eyes landed on Burke, and she knew what it was. It wasn’t her plan they’d be using, it wouldn’t be her magical precautions they’d be using. She would be an observer, a bystander, and she wouldn’t even be responsible for the pieces in play.

Hermione could cope with taking risks. She couldn’t cope with taking risks when she hadn’t put the control mechanisms into place. But she could conjure no valid argument which supported her own spells over the expertise of the Department of Mysteries.

“Then if we’re doing this in your flat,” she said, “if we’ll be setting the trap there, you can’t be on your own. I’m going to be there too.”

Ron started, and she thought she saw Trevelyan’s shoulders square, but she didn’t care, and pushed on. “You can’t be there on your own, and I’m sure I can be in there without making it look suspicious! That way, if they do come for you, there’s someone else in the flat to back you up before Burke’s team gets there!”

“I was going to be on the other end of the listening charms,” said Trevelyan quietly, “monitoring the apparition wardings; I thought we could supervise it to make sure nothing slips through -”

“You’d know better about your own security spells than I would,” Hermione said coolly, and though Ron looked stunned, she thought she saw a flash of triumph in his eyes as Trevelyan slouched slightly.

This is not about the two of you, you overgrown schoolboys. This is about life and death.

“I’m a qualified Auror; you know I can take care of myself,” said Ron, though he wasn’t arguing too strenuously.

“I know no such thing,” Hermione said adamantly. “As a qualified Auror you have a partner. Harry’s not here, Harry’s in Saint Mungo’s, and so no, I don’t know you can take care of yourself.”

Then he grinned, and she almost wanted to slap him. Why couldn’t he understand that just because she didn’t want him to be ambushed and murdered alone in his own flat, it didn’t mean anything had changed?

Trevelyan cleared his throat noisily. “So we’ll charm up Mister Weasley’s flat,” he recounted, voice dangerously level. “I’ll observe him and Hermione. Burke will be standing by with a field team. If Barlowe sends people for you, we’ll react and make an arrest.”

“Or, at worse, place a Tracing Charm on them,” said Burke. “Catch them when they hop back to meet Barlowe. That might even be better, if Barlowe’s going to be a wriggly little git about it.”

“It’s a plan.” Ron smirked the smirk he gave when he was getting his own way, then he nodded up at the Sorting Hat on Trevelyan’s shelf, which appeared to be dozing. “And once this is over, you’ll give the Hat back.”

Trevelyan nodded. “Of course. The only reason I don’t want to give it back yet is that this might raise greater suspicion.”

Ron scratched an ear. “Pretty clever, how you did it,” he conceded. “But you do know it was pointless?”

Trevelyan’s shoulders tensed. “Pray tell.”

“Well, you can try to use it all you like to summon the Sword of Gryffindor,” he said. “But there’s one really important bit of the puzzle you were missing: only a True Gryffindor can pull it from the Hat. And usually only in a time of great need.” Ron shrugged. “I know the nuances of Hogwarts might be missed on a guy who didn’t go there, but really, you didn’t do your research.”

Trevelyan didn’t smile. “I was working to find an alumni of Gryffindor House who could be trusted,” he said coldly.

“Let me guess.” Ron jerked a thumb at Burke. “Slytherin? I’m truly shocked.”

“Ravenclaw.”

Ron stared. “You’re kidding?”

“Good NEWT results are needed to become an Unspeakable. Burke had the highest academic scores in Hogwarts in ten years.”

Tancred Burke squared his muscular shoulders and gave a broad, toothy grin that almost split his craggy face in half as he cracked his knuckles.

“Yes, well,” said Ron. “Your plan still wasn’t working.”

“And now it’s irrelevant,” said Trevelyan, “because you have the sword, and because we have a new plan. Your plan, Mister Weasley, would have probably got you murdered in your bed by Gideon Barlowe’s goons, or at best you’d have woken up with no sword and no leads.”

Hermione stood. “Perhaps we should go see about putting the security measures in place,” she said tersely. “Since we want to get it done before nightfall, especially if Barlowe’s already scoped Ron out.”

Trevelyan frowned, but nodded at Burke, who straightened. “Come on, Weasley,” he said. “I’ll grab my team and we can go to your place and set it all up so Trevelyan can sit pretty at the back and tell us what to do while we risk our necks.”

Ron looked confused, but a desire to score points against Trevelyan clearly won out over lingering distrust of Burke, and he got to his feet happily. “Of course,” he said. “We want to make sure mission control doesn’t miss anything safe at the back.”

Trevelyan watched the two leave his office, and Hermione could see a muscle in the corner of his jaw working away. When the door closed behind them, the Unspeakable set about stacking and putting away papers in an unnecessarily fastidious way she recognised as hiding frustration.

“It’s good he’s coming to work with us,” he said, completely gracelessly.

Hermione felt briefly guilty, and then chided herself for it. They were here to do a job. “Yes,” she said. “We might even be able to get this resolved over the next couple of days in this case.”

“Mmph.” But he just looked forlorn and frustrated and she couldn’t help her own irritation rising in the face of this.

I only agreed to dinner, for Merlin’s sake. “I should go home and pack an overnight bag if I’m going to stay at Ron’s.”

She turned to go, and he stood abruptly, his chair scraping on the floor. “Hold on.”

Hermione did, stopping by the door, tensing with apprehension.

“I’m sorry,” said Trevelyan with a wince. “It was childish of me to get so... worked up about it all. I didn’t want matters to be like this between us. When I asked you to dinner, I genuinely thought that you’d be staying out of this entire mess. But now you’re involved, and now your ex is involved, it’s ridiculous for me to drag anything into the middle of this. We have a job to do.”

She wasn’t accustomed to being apologised to for these kind of displays - or, at least, not before she’d harassed and harangued Ron and pointed out just why they were unhelpful. He usually conceded, but it took a fight to get him to understand. “We do have a job to do,” Hermione said cautiously.

“So, I promise. No more... jealousy. At least not from me. I don’t want you worrying about me and him, or about any issues between us, or about this affecting the job. So that’s all pushed to one side for me. But.” Trevelyan lifted a finger, and she turned to face him. “When this is over, I’m going to try again to ask you out for dinner. When it’s all over.”

Hermione hesitated. “I’m really not thrilled about your Department stalking and attacking me.”

Trevelyan winced, putting his hands in his pockets. “I’m not thrilled, either,” he admitted. “So I’m hoping that our working together can put some of those concerns to rest. And can help us save the day.”

She didn’t know if she should be frustrated or relieved. Much as she’d have liked to just dismiss all emotional conflicts while they worked, that wasn’t going to happen - and deep down, Hermione knew that she’d probably prove to be just as responsible for it as Trevelyan and Ron.

Well, just as responsible as Trevelyan, at least.

It was still going to be there. And this compromise, this expression of remaining interested while accepting that nothing would happen or should happen or need deciding until the situation had gone away, was sensible, was reasonable, and it was even sort of touching that he was being so considerate.

She just wished such gestures weren’t needed in the first place.

“Saving the day isn’t as good a start to a relationship as you might think,” she said, and left.


* *

She loved Ron’s flat. She’d helped him find it, her and Ginny, with the express intention of luring Harry out of Grimmauld Place after the war. The summer had been spent in many places - Australia, the Burrow - with so much to do that so when Auror training had started and she and Ginny had returned to Hogwarts, Grimmauld Place had been the most logical place for Harry and Ron to live. The only place.

And it had been miserable and dark and Ron had hated it, but Harry had been stubborn and anyway, neither one of them had the time to find something better. It had taken weekends away from Hogwarts and a lot of discreet house viewings before they’d found the place.

It was nothing special, in and of itself, but they’d known, all three of them, why Harry hadn’t wanted to leave Grimmauld Place: Sirius. So they’d agreed that not only did they need to find Harry somewhere better, they needed to find him somewhere that could be home. A place where he thought about the future, instead of dwelling on the past.

The little touches had been the thing. Ron had been befuddled when Hermione and Ginny had talked about making the living room feel like the Gryffindor common room without being a replica of it; a couch similar to the kind they’d lounged on for years, similar colours, an impressive, warming fireplace. A kitchen refitted with the same sort of wooden counter-tops as the Burrow, the same little homely touches. The final decision had been to leave the bedroom big and empty, so once he’d seen the whole place and decided it could be home, there was one room where he could do whatever he wanted with it.

Ron had been bewildered, but he’d helped gamely, even if he’d said they were taking it far, far too seriously. But Ginny and Hermione had shushed him, and once they’d rented the place and done it up, they’d finally dragged Harry there as a surprise on a Friday night.

He’d been confused, too, as to why this had needed to be a surprise - of course he was happy to live somewhere other than Grimmauld Place, he just didn’t have the time to find somewhere, and it was great, really great of them to help him out. He’d move in his stuff tomorrow.

And then when they’d first sat down for dinner there he couldn’t stop grinning.

Ron had told her afterwards that she’d gone to more fuss than she’d needed to; Hermione had explained to him how Harry’s subconscious had been successfully convinced to see the flat as home, even if he was on the surface quick to accept it. And then they’d bickered, and then he’d kissed her, and then they’d been a thrilled, helpless pile of limbs on the floor in front of the fireplace, as if they’d never left Hogwarts, as if they’d never wasted so much time...

She’d known Ron had liked the efforts they’d gone to in order to make the place nice. Even if he was too much of a boy to admit it.

They’d talked about moving in together. More or less consistently since she’d left Hogwarts, but she knew Ron was enjoying living with Harry, and peculiarly, she’d enjoyed having her own space. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t spent most nights together anyway, at his flat or hers. When Harry had proposed to Ginny, and they’d started looking at finding their own home, she’d first assumed that Ron wouldn’t be far behind. Not necessarily with a proposal - but at least living together.

Then the fighting had got worse and he’d never asked and then of course she couldn’t suggest it. And she’d spent fewer and fewer nights there, without even realising it, until it was as if they were ghosts...

It had been almost a month now since she’d last been there.

Of course it was a mess.

“When on Earth did you last clean the kitchen?” Hermione demanded, glaring across the flat the moment the door closed behind her and her bag hit the floor.

Ron looked up from the sofa impassively. “Of course this is how it’s happening,” he said, almost to himself. “The first thing you do the moment you’re in the door is clean my kitchen.”

“Correction.” Hermione tossed her hair. “The first thing you do the moment I’m in the door is clean your kitchen.”

He straightened indignantly. “I don’t get why I have to -”

“Because it’s a mess and you know it, Ron. Please don’t go all ‘independent bachelor’ on me and defend your right to live in squalor.”

“When did you become Miss Houseproud?”

She bristled. “I may never give your mother a run for her money, nor do I even want to try, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to live in a flat with a kitchen where the grease could be measured in inches. Is the spare room ready?”

“If by ‘ready’ you mean ‘still completely untouched since Harry left’, sure,” Ron grumbled, getting to his feet.

Because she was right, and he knew it.

She went to make sure there was at least bedding, and not enough dust to make a dust-bunny-army, as he rolled up his sleeves and made for the kitchen.

He’d lied. It hadn’t been untouched. He’d found clean sheets and it looked like he had at least run a few cleaning charms haphazardly around the place - and because she wasn’t normally quite so picky on cleanliness, she couldn’t complain. It was a good effort for Ron.

He’d even left out fresh towels. Hers, ones she’d not got around to retrieving. Cleaned.

She spent as little time in there as she needed to.

When she came out, Ron was emerging from the kitchen. It would still make his mother tut disapprovingly, but Hermione would no longer judge it to be a form of biological warfare in the making.

“I didn’t do the kitchen,” he said a bit stiffly, as if he’d been surprised to see her there, as if everything had briefly flashed to ‘normal’ and he’d not been expecting it, “because I was tidying up the rest of the place.”

Then he pointed at a hefty box on the dining table, next to where he had irreverently left the broken Sword of Gryffindor. “I got your stuff together. Since, you know, you never stopped by to pick it up.”

She looked across at the box, knowing what would be in it without checking. Books, mostly. Hairbrush, toiletries. Not just essentials; creature comforts she’d left here because, why not? She’d be back. It was useful to have them here. It was nice to have them here.

Suddenly her voice was very small when she tried to speak. “Thank you.” She tried to clear her throat. “What now?”

“Now?” Ron shrugged. “Now, we wait.”

In silence.

She ended up curled up on the armchair, reading one of her books, while he grabbed the paper and a few Quidditch magazines and devotedly stayed on the sofa. It was like a mockery of a normal evening together; doing nothing, relaxing, the fireplace crackling as the night drew on - but keeping their distance. Intently, intently aware of the feet between them that might as well have been an impassable chasm.

Hermione glanced up once, broken from her reverie of reading, and for a few seconds it was as if nothing had changed, like everything was as it should be - and then she saw him stiffen as she moved, saw how intently, intently aware he was of her presence and how awkward it made him, and she sighed.

“How come you’ve not been in work?” she said gently, desperate to ease the tension. They’d been friends for so long. Why did this have to be difficult?

She knew it was a stupid question.

He winced, probably anticipating an attack - because now, after so long insisting he couldn’t take time off, even when Harry had taken time off, he wasn’t tied up at the office perpetually. “Vaughn tried to partner me up with Savage,” he said gruffly. “We sort of rebelled. He let me take a few weeks leave; thought I’d be using it to help McGonagall with the Hat.”

“On leave ‘til the wedding?”

He shook his head. “On leave ‘til the new batch of trainees come in. Vaughn wants me to help out with some of the courses.”

“That sounds promising.”

“Yeah, I’ve not done it before. And I don’t need Harry for it. It’s a pretty big display of faith from Vaughn that he thinks I’d be good for it.” He gave a flicker of a rueful smile, then just about managed to look up. “How’s the Elf Abuse Bill been going?”

Hermione managed to not flinch at the revelation that he remembered not just the bill, but what it was called. “Julius doesn’t need me for it. It’s going to be a stupid, empty gesture to make the Wizengamot feel like they’re progressive without actually upsetting the Pureblood lobbies. I have better things to work on.”

“Like negotiating with Unions on behalf of the DoM.” He managed to make it sound unaccusing.

She winced. “Like you, there was a window in my schedule.”

The last thing she’d expected was for him to laugh at that. But he did - not cruelly, not bitterly. Sincerely, honestly laughed, a little wryly at first, but within moments he was putting his magazine down and bending over with incapacitating belly-laughter.

She felt the corners of her mouth twitch despite herself, even though she didn’t get the joke. His laugh had always been infectious. “What’s so funny?”

“Us,” Ron said, wiping his eyes and trying to sober up. “Look at us. Now I get leave? Now you get the free time to work on other projects. Now.”

Her smile turned sad, though he didn’t see it. “That is rather typical.”

“Do you think fate saw your article and went ‘Now. Now I will give them a break’?” He snorted. “Wouldn’t surprise me.”

She looked back down at her book. “At least you can laugh about it.”

She hadn’t meant for it to be a snippy comment, but it did wipe the smile off his face. He seemed worried, though, more than angry, and his shoulders slumped. “Yeah. Well. Gotta laugh at something, really.” He stayed silent, and she stared at her book without reading a single word, and he finally cleared his throat. “Was I really so oblivious?” he asked quietly. “That I didn’t get it until it was literally in black and white?”

Hermione tensed. “It wasn’t like I engineered it,” she said guiltily. “But we’d not spent the night at one of our places in about a month by then, we’d just had lackluster dinners and rows and... and so many rows, and I was asked the question. What was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to lie? It felt like a joke to call us a relationship.”

He did flinch at that, looking down. “Yeah,” he said gruffly. “Yeah. I - I guess.” He rolled his shoulders. “And now there’s Malcolm. Probably not off the menu now he’s not evil.”

“Good grief, Ron, why does everyone seem to think dinner means we’re practically engaged?”

He’s listening, Hermione, the charms are up, he can hear every word -

“No, I just mean that, you know. He seems smart. Cultured. Sort of nice, if you can look past the whole Unspeakable thing.” It sounded like it was doing him physical harm to be game enough to concede that. “You could do worse.”

Hermione hesitated, then made the judgement that she’d hidden enough from Ron, even if Trevelyan was listening. “If you must know, I think I’d be better off spending some time on my own.”

He seemed to perk up at that, even if he was confused. “Yeah?”

“Come on, Ron, it was you. You think I just fall into something else after that?”

Ron looked up, and she fought to meet his gaze, bright and piercing as it was even in his bewilderment. “What do you mean?”

Her mouth was suddenly dry. “We were us. After all that time, after everything, you don’t just... sweep that away, move on from that, in a matter of weeks.” Months. Years?

It seemed like it was the wrong thing to say, because he stood suddenly, like he always did when there was a sudden surge of emotion and he needed to burn off the excess energy. For a moment it looked like he was going to pace - and then, just as quickly as he’d jerked into action, the action faded, and he planted his hands on the mantelpiece, shoulders tensing, gaze fixed on the fire with his expression out of sight in the shadows.

“Yeah,” he said thickly. “Everything. Giant snakes, and the battle, and seeing Harry dead, and... Malfoy Manor, and... everything. Most people get the defining moments in a relationship when someone bought them something nice for their birthday. Ours come when our lives are in danger.”

Hermione stood, suddenly desperate to say something - and she knew, deep down, it was so he would stop looking quite so dejected. It was still her instinct, when he looked like that, to comfort him. “We had normal defining moments, too -”

“I don’t mean that, I mean how the hell did we throw that away?” He rounded on her, frustrated and passionate but not angry - at least, not at her, and for the first time in the last few days, she didn’t flinch from one of his explosions. Because she shared it. “Being brought together by all that, being... how’d Stubbs put it... forged in fire. How’d we throw that away? When I cast a Patronus by thinking of our first kiss, because that was when the world was ending and you were a bright, blinding light in the middle of it -”

He stopped mid-sentence, as if he’d said too much, and looked back at the fire, shaking his head sadly. “How’d we screw that up?”

She swallowed, struggling for long moments to find her voice, and when she spoke she didn’t even know why it was those words she’d found - but they were the only ones which would come out. “I think of Malfoy Manor. Or, after. Lying outside of Shell Cottage, in so much pain, but knowing it would all be all right because you were holding me...”

The best Patronus memories were the most complicated. Because light was brightest when it was shining into darkness.

Had they lost something when there was no darkness for them to shine against?

Then he straightened again, and suddenly they weren’t standing several feet apart, but he was only inches away, right in front of her, eyes blazing. “What if I said -” Ron faltered, and for a moment she thought he was going to lose his nerve, dismiss to the wind any unspoken words. “What if asked. Asked you to give me another chance, give us another chance, what if I asked...”

And she stared at him, without a single word to give him in response.

It was mostly because, not only was she overawed by that he’d thought it, wanted it, she was overawed by that he’d said it. For so long it had been the unspoken rule between them that neither of them gave ground first, neither of them bore their heart first, conceded blame first, showed vulnerability first, and so in their pride that had been the breeding ground of every fight, the birthplace of their destruction.

He’d broken that rule, thrown himself into the fire first, and though by all the unspoken laws they’d abided by for months this meant he’d lost, all she could feel was an overwhelming, sickening guilt as his courage shamed her.

Almost all. Because there was one other feeling that stole her words, one creeping sensation of the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, her gut twirling in apprehension, her instincts telling her something was wrong - and he could feel it, too, because his voice hadn’t trailed off because he was out of words, but because -

Then the window exploded inwards.



Chapter 14: Complications
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Chapter 14: Complications

It was curious, Hermione thought, as she soared through the air. There weren't many spells which could cause that kind of an explosion, at least not conducted with ease. They usually took time, preparation, which meant that whoever had done it had the opportunity to stand outside and cast for a couple of minutes, unimpeded.

And that the six individuals who were doubtless their comrades were clambering in through the window, all dark robes and Death Eater masks, hadn't been hit by the explosion spell meant it was quite an impressive feat of precision.

Then she hit the floor, behind the sofa, and the split-second she'd had to thoroughly analyse the situation ended. She pushed away Ron, who had tackled her to the floor. "I was already ducking, you know."

He didn't answer, of course, was just rolling to a kneeling position with wand in hand - then swore and broke cover.

She was up a heartbeat later, though stayed behind the sofa and hurled a curse at the six dark figures in the living room of the flat. "What are you -?"

Curses flew through the air, missing Ron by inches as he darted across the room. He leapt up to skid across the table, wand-hand snatching the edge, other hand grabbing the sword of Gryffindor. He yanked the table up with him as he fell, flipping it over and sending her box of belongings everywhere - but at least he had the sword, and was still in cover.

She had to admit, he'd got better in fights over the past few years. She wouldn't have thought of that.

Hermione set her jaw and threw another Stun.

They were good, these Death Eaters - not that she assumed they actually were Death Eaters, just as she doubted the people who'd attacked Harry were. But nobody questioned it when a Death Eater mask was spotted; everyone assumed it was the Remnant, and moved on. It was actually quite a good cover story. But the Death Eaters had formed up, two of them focusing only on Shield Charms, the other four splitting in half to focus on their now two targets. It was good that she and Ron had also split, so they couldn't focus their fire -

Her mind was clearly choosing to run a mile a minute in analysis, which wasn't especially helpful. The sofa cushion in front of her exploded into a small spray of feathers, and she ducked.

Then the front door was kicked in, and Hermione had never thought she'd be so happy to see Tancred Burke.

Or happy to any of the dark-suited Unspeakables. They came storming in with military precision, the first one through the door throwing up a Shield Charm to cover his three fellows as they poured in behind him.

But this only evened the numbers.

Burke hurled a flurry of hexes at the 'Death Eaters', before hurling himself across the space between the front door and her sofa. He hit the floor beside her with a grunt and came up kneeling. "There's a lot of them," he cursed.

"And not so many of you!"

"Two more of them outside, and two of my guys wrapped up with them." Burke lifted his wand over the sofa and threw a few curses, blind.

"You can't get reinforcements?"

"Thought we weren't trusting the DoM to not be corrupt?"

Hermione gritted her teeth and blocked a spell aimed for Burke's head. "Since they've found us, it doesn't really matter if they're corrupt, does it?"

Their trap had become less of a trap and more of a kill-zone.

Burke didn't answer, and for a few seconds the two of them were locked in a pattern of defence and offense. Ron was mostly hunkered down behind his table, only throwing out curses so the Death Eaters didn't manoeuvre around him, and the bulk of the firepower was coming between the attackers and the Unspeakables.

If I'd found Harry and Ron a smaller flat, this never would have happened. Half of them wouldn't have even fit in here.

"Where's the sword?" growled Burke. "If they get it, this was all for nothing -"

"Ron's got it."

Burke glanced over there. "He's going to need backup." He hunkered down and made some complicated gestures, hidden from view for the Death Eaters, to his team of Unspeakables.

When they moved it was completely unanticipated. One minute Burke was beside her - the next, he was running, and so was one of the Unspeakables, and the other two let loose with a heavy flurry of covering and distracting fire.

Burke dashed across to where Ron was, furthest from the door, and dove behind the dining table. The other Unspeakable skidded across the living room floor and had taken his place, right by Hermione's side.

"We've got to give them cover," the Unspeakable Field Agent said. "Burke means to have Weasley apparate out with the Sword."

Hermione made a face. "That leaves us one man down."

"Don't worry," the Unspeakable said with a smirk. "We're professionals."

Then a Stun hit him in the face and he fell to the floor with a crack.

Just. Great.

And like that, the finely-oiled plan went straight to hell. And Hermione realised that perhaps, when their resources had been so stretched that they couldn't bring in outside help, it might not have been the world's best plan to begin with.

Perhaps they were a little too used to snatching success from the jaws of failure. Sometimes, the jaws of failure snapped shut.

The Unspeakables by the door were in the open, and with their numbers down to two, were being forced back. Unable to keep up the Shield Charms, they ducked back around behind the door to use it for cover, though this had a higher chance of keeping them pinned down.

Hermione was doing her utmost to remember her most unpredictable and unusual spells, ones which might force the Death Eaters to step twice as fast in a different direction to block, and for a short time, it worked, if she picked her moment, helped give them a breathing room, and with her pinning them down, Burke and his Unspeakables managed to take down two of the Death Eaters.

Numbers were back on their side.

Then she could smell burning.

That's the couch.

They had, indeed, set fire to her cover, and just before the entire thing burst into merry flames she reeled back, leaping to her feet and throwing up a Shield Charm. Their spells thudded off her protections, but they came fast and furious and retaliating was out of the question as she tried to move for fresh cover.

And the smoke and fire didn't help.

Clearly the plan to get someone to apparate away with the sword had been abandoned in the face of a fierce firefight - and Hermione wouldn't have been too surprised if Ron had outright refused to leave. This couldn't have become more obvious when Ron and Burke ducked behind the table for long, arduous seconds.

Then the table was levitated a couple of inches up and began to move forwards - at the Death Eaters. A steady, mobile point of cover, the move clearly took the Death Eaters by surprise as they tried to change formation to protect themselves, and Ron, clearly the one not doing the Levitating, hurled curses at them.

It looked like it might scatter the Death Eaters, force them to move, and Hermione took advantage of the chaos to move for the nearest point of cover - the scant shelter of a bookshelf. The Unspeakables by the door were hitting them harder as uproar occurred, and for a moment, just a moment, she thought they had them.

Until a Death Eater lifted his wand and suddenly the table wasn't the only piece of levitating furniture. So was the burning sofa.

It was hurled across at Ron and Burke, and the table dropped - and rocked over, no longer on its side, no longer providing cover against the Death Eaters. It quickly became apparent why Burke wasn't casting the levitation any more; he was standing up, big form a tall and burly shield in the way of the moving couch, and shoving Ron out of the way.

Then the flaming mass of debris crashed into him.

It was smouldering more than being a fiery inferno, but it was big and heavy to boot, and both man and furniture fell to the ground. Ron swore, casting hexes to break up and scatter the frame of the sofa so it no longer crushed him, no longer burnt him, but Burke didn't rise.

And then the Death Eaters, closer to them since their charge, were on top of them.

One threw a needless hex at Burke, as if he was going to get up - and then Ron swung his fist in the man's gut. The Death Eater doubled over, but then a second was snatching at the arm which held the sword, and Ron fought back and struggled, and then it was a physical wrestling match -

Then one Death Eater, still with his wits about them, twirled their wand. The fallen Death Eaters were tugged like rag-dolls across the floor, the ones wrestling with Ron kept on wrestling, and then with a crack the air they stood in twisted, warped, and was empty.

They were all gone. Even Ron.


* *


"Burke's going to be okay." Trevelyan stepped into his office and handed Hermione a cup of tea. "He's got some broken bones and some burns, but they've slapped some salves on him and are getting the bones re-knitting and he should be out tomorrow."

"Tomorrow might be too late."

It wasn't that she wasn't relieved Burke would be all right. He'd fought bravely, and she had been forced to identify the difference between him holding back when not wanting to hurt them in Dartmoor, and the determination with which he'd thrown himself at the fake Death Eaters.

But she had more to worry about.

"I know." Trevelyan sipped his tea. "I didn't think they'd take prisoners."

"I don't think they had much of a choice. Or, at least, it was easier." Hermione wrapped her hands around the warm drink, as if it would bring greater comfort to her.

It didn't.

"Maybe you should go home." Trevelyan sat down. "I'm working with the field agents, they're doing apparition tracing on the getaway; we did put the wards up in order to do that kind of thing, but it'll take time -"

"I'm not going home," she said stubbornly, looking up. "And do you really think that we have time? Do you really think they'll have done one lone apparition? They'll have bounced, location to location, and every time they move it gets harder for us to trace them. We weren't counting on needing to chase them magically."

He hesitated. "There's nothing you can do here -"

"I can plan." She set the teacup down uncertainly. "I'm not going home. Not while he's out there. Not when anything could be happening."

It was peculiar. She could be face to face with mortal peril, with or without Ron by her side, and she knew she'd be less terrified than she was in this moment. It wasn't just the uncertainty - it was the lack of control. The sky was falling in, and she wasn't in control.

"What plan?" Trevelyan sounded tense.

"I don't know. Something better. We had this whole scheme, and it fell apart."

"Sometimes plans fail."

"You think I don't know that? You think I need telling that?" Her shoulders set. "If your plans failed, someone missed a project deadline. If my plans failed, Voldemort took over the world."

He got to his feet, moving around the desk, brow now furrowing not in frustration, but concern. "You're freaking out."

"I am -" She stopped. "Maybe a little. But I am allowed."

His hand on her shoulder was tentative, but it was enough to jerk her back to reality, jerk her away from the swirling maelstrom of unhelpful, helpless thoughts that had started to bubble up.

But it still wasn't enough to warm her.

"What happened between you two? If you don't mind me asking." Trevelyan gave a hapless shrug. "From the interview, I thought you two were over, but it seems complicated."

"He's always been a friend and he might be dead -"

"And there's nothing we can do right now."

She knew what he was doing. Trying to get her to talk, to focus on some train of thought, so she wouldn't turn to panic. Hermione didn't like panic; she'd tried it a few times and had decided that she wouldn't do it any more. But to not do it, she needed something to work on, a direction, and right then, she was drawing a blank. Right then, she had to wait.

She didn't like waiting, either.

Trevelyan sighed. "Sorry. It's none of my business. I just imagine it's hard, so many of your friends being his family."

Hermione frowned. "You're know, it's not endearing when you reveal you know facts about me I never told you."

"Hey, this was from the open press. Not a file. I -" He lifted his hands in surrender. "Sorry. Old habits die hard. I do research on someone before I meet them for work so I can..."

"Handle them better?"

He winced. "Set them at ease. I don't seem to be doing a good job of it right now."

Hermione managed a humourless smile, and her shoulders sagged. "It's hard, starting a relationship with someone you've known for years, been through hell with, know inside and out. You'd think it would be easy, but it's not."

And he just stayed silent and let her talk.

"Because you know how to relate to them as a friend. But the rules are different in a relationship. The boundaries move. And if you're learning about someone while you're learning about those boundaries, it's fine, but if you have to get used to new boundaries, it's complicated. A comment you meant to be off-hand becomes serious. A serious statement gets taken as a joke. There's a new balancing act. It's not easy.

"But we figured it out. More or less. Even when he was in Auror training and I was finishing off at Hogwarts, and then on to the Ministry. And I thought, that was it. There was a bit of wondering - how many people meet the person they're going to spend the rest of their life with when they're eleven? How many relationships which last a lifetime start when you're eighteen? But we'd helped stop Voldemort. Maybe we'd earnt a bit of luck."

She smiled ruefully as she sipped her tea. Of course the universe didn't last that way. Maybe, just maybe, some people were just fortunate.

She wasn't sure if she was one of them.

"I don't know what started it. I got more responsibilities at the office. He finished his training and took on more cases. It just took projects to overlap, one or the other of us working late nights and long hours and not making time for one another. He'd always have cases, I'd always have more legislature to draft and unions to help. We needed to make time for one another."

Another evasive sip of tea. "We didn't. And you may have noticed that we don't deal with upsets between the two of us quietly. Normal bickering became hurtful arguments became blazing rows and none of it ever changed. I don't know. I guess... I guess we became stubborn. All it would have taken, I think, was a leap, from one of us. For one of us to say 'You're more important than my work. Here, I've put it to one side. For you.' And do it."

Trevelyan drew a deep, slow breath. "And you didn't."

"Neither one of us. Because if he's so stubborn, why should I be the one to compromise my work?" Hermione cracked a humourless smile. "Isn't that so stupid?"

"Relationships can be like that."

"Stupid? Yes." The humourless smile, worn and weary to begin with, faded. "So we stopped talking to each other. We stopped spending time together. Because it always ended the same way. We weren't a relationship; when we were together, we were like ghosts, and we were so rarely together...

"Two weeks before the interview, I walked out on an argument saying something... angry. I don't even remember my exact words. Something about how his commitments could go to hell and how I didn't want to be a part of them any more. Because I was sick of coming last place. He thought it was another row, I thought it was something more final, the interview happened, we didn't see each other again until Harry was attacked..." She looked down. "And now all this. And now he's gone."

Trevelyan's expression had been closing down as she spoke, and he walked around the desk to sit again. "We'll get him back."

She gave a humourless laugh. "We don't even have a plan. They could have taken him anywhere. They could have killed him already and left him in a ditch, and just brought with them the -"

Then her eyes landed on the bookshelf, and she sprang to her feet. "We're really stupid."

He blinked at the abrupt change of mood. "What?"

But she didn't answer, just walked over to where the Sorting Hat sat on the shelf and snatched it up. "Hat. Hat!"

The Hat moved in that disconcerting way which meant it was rearranging itself to have a face, and it looked like its moustache twitched. "Miss Granger, I am allowed my -"

"I don't care about your sleep." She jerked a thumb at Trevelyan. "You didn't help him, because he kidnapped you, but I made you. You can help me."

The Hat seemed to blink. "Just because you reconstructed me, as a service to the school which helped you acquire your Arithmancy NEWT as I recall, it does not mean I owe -"

"No, but I can unmake you," she snapped, not in the least bit meaning it.

Whether the Hat believed her bluff or just realised this was no laughing matter, its 'face' still grew serious. "What do you require?"

"You have an intrinsic link to the Sword of Gryffindor -"

"Which can only be used when a True Gryffindor requires it, at a time when they display real courage. There is not much cause for courage in the middle of an office! Even if you are, indeed, brave for not running away from this odious rogue."

Trevelyan lifted his head. "Hey..."

"I don't want you to deliver me the Sword of Gryffindor. But a link can be used for lots of different things." Hermione lifted the Hat closer. "Tell me where it is."



Chapter 15: Provocations
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Chapter 15: Provocations


“This is crazy,” said Harry.

“It’s what I have to do.”

Harry fought to sit up. Since he still had a good number of bandages swathing his form, even if the nurses were saying they could come off the next day and were only there as a precaution, this was a more difficult move than it might have been.

Hermione went to tug the curtains around his bed shut; despite his frown, Harry flashed her a thin smile of thanks. He wasn’t a vain man, but the press would plaster the front page with anything about him, and even ‘BOY WHO LIVES FAILS TO SIT UP’ would make a story he could live without.

“Let me see if I understand,” he said once he was comfortable. “You used the Sorting Hat to locate the Sword.”

“Yes.”

“And it’s in an old house near Norwich that nobody owns.”

“Actually, it is owned,” Hermione said peevishly. “It’s not in the wizarding registry - but the Muggles have the property listed as being owned by Gideon Barlowe.”

“Okay. So you know where the Sword is. And there’s a high likelihood that this is Barlowe who’s taken the Sword, and who’s taken Ron. And you’re planning to... what, charge in there and kick down the door?”

Hermione’s brow furrowed. “With a full team of field-trained Unspeakables.”

“Not a full team,” Harry said, “because the team leader is in the next ward still.”

She grimaced. “Between myself and Malcolm we can make up for that. I’m sure I more than make up for one Unspeakable.”

“No offence to your brilliance, Hermione, but before forty-eight hours ago, when was the last time you were in a proper fight?”

Hermione sat back down. “That time Jugson and his band went for the Burrow.”

“Two years ago.” Harry looked pleading.

“I don’t care. What am I supposed to do, sit at home while the Unspeakables go in? This is Ron.”

Harry watched her for several long moments, gaze flickering over her expression. He took a deep breath. “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that you have enough to go to the MLE. You have a location, you have evidence -”

“Gideon Barlowe has already been paying off or manipulating members of the MLE to not just look the other way, but to cover up his acquisition of the relics. If we go to the MLE then there’s no guarantee that they won’t warn him of our coming, or outright sabotage it,” Hermione said in a rush. “I don’t want to take any risks, I don’t want to include anyone who doesn’t already know what’s going on.”

“Then go to Vaughn!” Harry said incredulously. “The Auror Office is safe! They know Ron, they won’t do anything to risk his safety!”

Hermione looked down at her hands, tensing. “We’d have thought the Patrol was safe. I’m not going to risk it. This wouldn’t have got as far as it already has if there weren’t leaks, if there wasn’t corruption. We can’t assume anything.”

“How do you know the Department of Mysteries aren’t corrupt? I mean, the specific people you’re working with? Your plan didn’t work.”

“I know.” Her voice shook. “We misjudged Barlowe and his people. We underestimated them. We won’t make that mistake again.”

“I think that’s exactly what you’re doing.” Harry scowled. “Of course you want to see Ron safe. Of course you want to see Barlowe brought to justice. So do I. If you can’t trust the MLE, trust me!”

Hermione took a deep breath. “I don’t know those people,” she said carefully. “And right now, the only people I definitely trust are you and myself. You can’t help me, Harry. And I can’t undo the trust I’ve placed in the DoM. I have to take a risk and rely on them. And I’m going to.”

“You don’t have to do this alone,” said Harry desperately. “This doesn’t - there doesn’t need to be some crazy act of atonement, or something, for what happened between the two of you. It doesn’t suddenly make everything okay if you’re the one to rescue him, all by yourself, or near enough.”

“I don’t know what you’re -”

“No, look at me, Hermione.” She did so, and Harry lifted his head, green eyes blazing. “You haven’t failed him. And even if you did, that doesn’t mean you’re the only person who can save him.”

Hermione drew a deep breath and got to her feet. “I know I haven’t failed him,” she said carefully. “But I will fail him if I do something to warn off Barlowe, because then even if we save Ron, he’ll slip through our fingers. And then the incredible risk he’s taken to lure Barlowe out will have been for nothing.

“But you are wrong,” she continued. “Because so long as Barlowe has his fingers in the MLE, his fingers in the Department of Mysteries, and so long as you are in this hospital bed, I have no choice but to use Trevelyan and his men. And I am the only person I can trust to save him.”

“Ginny - Neville - George -”

“Neville’s on assignment in Europe, and this isn’t the old days of the Order, Harry! You want to talk about how long it’s been since I was in a fight? What about them? And there’s no time. I’m sorry, Harry. We’re leaving in ten minutes, and I have to go.”

She ignored the rest of his protests as she left the ward, his accusations ringing loudly in her ears.

It does have to be me.

She took the lift, headed down to the lobby, and was making for the Floo connection that would whisk her back to the Department of Mysteries, Trevelyan having given her access, before she heard her name being called. Actually, she heard her name and felt a hand on her shoulder, and though she whirled around and went for her wand, she realised this wasn’t the first time they’d called.

She let go of her wand apologetically. “Oh, sorry - it’s Mister Stubbs, isn’t it?”

Thaddeus Stubbs lowered his hand, looking surprised at her reaction. “That’s right,” he said, brow furrowed. “I was - sorry if I’m bothering you. I’m looking for Ron.”

She hesitated, and his frown deepened. “Yeah,” he said. “I went to his flat. Saw the state of it. Came here, but he’s not been checked in. What the hell is going on?”

Again Hermione faltered, and Stubbs took a step closer. “Look, I know there’s a whole world of mess. I know you’re involved. And I know he was looking to throw himself in the line of fire. I just had some ideas about the Sword I wanted to talk to him about, so I went over. And saw the state of things. If something’s happened, then I want to help.”

“He’s...” Her mouth was dry, and she swallowed hard. “They came for the Sword. They got the Sword, and him.” Stubbs’ expression darkened, and she faltered again - but then remembered that Ron had trusted this man. “We think it was Barlowe. We think we know where he is.”

Stubbs straightened. “What’s your plan?”

“Barlowe has bought off people in the Ministry. I can’t trust the MLE.” I’m only trusting you because Ron did. “I don’t know how much I can trust the Unspeakables, but they’re already involved. But we’re going after him. Right now.”

Stubbs looked over his shoulder, then scratched his beard with a thoughtful air. He nodded, and gave her a wink. “Give me two minutes to lose my protection detail,” he said.


* *


Ron shook his head to clear it as he opened his eyes. “This isn’t as new as perhaps it should be,” he murmured, and looked around the dark, empty hall he was sat in. Sat, and tied up in, his hands bound behind him in the stiff-backed chair.

It looked like an old manor house, long fallen out of use, the furniture covered in white dust sheets and pushed up to the walls out of the way. Most of it was covered in shadows, the only light coming from a chandelier which dangled high above him.

And he wasn’t alone.

He could see a few figures up by the tall wooden doors, the windows set into them just showing a dark lawn beyond. They were dressed in the same long, black robes as the intruders to his flat had been, and he could recognise the odd rip or burn in the fabric which suggested they were the same individuals as before. Though now he could only see four. They weren’t wearing masks, but he couldn’t recognise them.

He did recognise the figure stood in front of him. Ron smirked, and spat out a mouthful of what tasted bitter and turned out to be blood. “Oh, Barlowe. So nice of you to invite me here.”

Gideon Barlowe wore neatly-fitting robes and a mildly irritated expression. “What isn’t new, Mister Weasley? I’m sure you haven’t been here before.”

“Don’t think so,” Ron agreed amiably. “But being taken prisoner and tied up in a swanky manor house isn’t quite as avant-garde as you might have hoped. Done this kind of thing before.”

“So I hear. Your adventures are quite well recorded, Mister Weasley. Or, at least, Mister Potter’s are. Yours are simply recorded as a matter of completion.” Barlowe’s expression twisted.

Ron snorted. “Oh, come on. Are you actually trying to bait me by pointing out I’m not as amazingly famous or heroic as Harry? I’m not twelve.” He tilted his head. “Okay, fourteen. I’ll give you fourteen. The point is, that doesn’t bother me any more.”

Barlowe folded his arms across his chest. “Apparently, neither does being abducted in the middle of the night.”

“I can’t say I’m thrilled. I’m a bit confused as to why I’m here, to be honest. You got the Sword. Why do you need me?”

“The Sword is broken,” said Barlowe peevishly.

“Yep.”

How? It was forged by Goblins, tempered in dragon’s fire! It absorbed the venom of a Basilisk -”

“And destroyed another relic, and killed the snake Nagini, and, and - I was there, Barlowe. I know what it did.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Didn’t I?” Ron sniffed. “House elves did it. Sorry.”

House elves -”

“Yeah, they’re powerful little buggers, turns out. Who knew?”

He saw the blow coming even before Barlowe struck, though that did him little good, tied up as he was. The backhand knocked his head to one side and made his ears ring, and with a grunt he worked his jaw around.

But at least he’d successfully wound the man up. It was the little victories that counted.

“You must know how to fix it,” Barlowe hissed.

“If I knew, don’t you think I’d have fixed it? You knew it was broken before you stole it; absolutely no refunds.”

Barlowe straightened. “I don’t think you understand the situation you’re in, Mister Weasley.”

“Come off it, Barlowe. The things I’ve faced? You don’t even rank in the top five. Or even the top ten. I had Professors at Hogwarts who made me quake in my boots more than you.”

Technically, this was a lie. Snape might have scared him stiff when he was a kid, on occasion, but he had been fairly confident Snape wouldn’t actually kill him. He had absolutely no such certainty about Gideon Barlowe.

But if he was doomed anyway, he wasn’t going to go down easily.

Barlowe took a deep, cleansing breath. “You are only still here because there is a chance you know of a means to restore the Sword of Gryffindor to its former state.”

“And what if I don’t?” Ron let a hint of doubt creep into his voice. If nothing else, he was in no rush to drive Barlowe to murder. Every second he won was an extra second for Hermione to do something, for - he hated to admit it - the Department of Mysteries to do something.

Assuming they had even the remotest idea where he was.

Barlowe smiled humorlessly. “We’ll get to that.”

“Why does it matter to you, anyway?” Ron scowled. “The Sword? The relics? It was you who attacked Harry, who robbed the Department of Mysteries, right? Now you have three out of the four?”

Barlowe wrinkled his nose. “More or less.”

“This can’t be about the job.” Ron shook his head. “You know, first I wondered if you were collecting the old Horcruxes, but then you did go for the Sword after all, and that was never corrupted. And nobody made a move for Riddle’s old diary. Which is just as well, because those things are all spent. No more dark magic, so they say.”

He worked his jaw carefully, feeling it pop. “So what is it? Is there some inherent magic in the relics which, combined, or something, grants some power? Is that why you went for the Headmaster job, to cover all of this? What the hell is it about these relics that’s made you murder and steal?”

Barlowe looked bewildered. “What makes you think it’s not about the Headmaster job?”

“Um.” Ron bit his lip. “Because that would be crazy? It’s a job.”

“From that desk Albus Dumbledore dictated a generation.”

“So run for Minister of Magic!”

“Oh, please.” Barlowe waved a hand. “Do you have any idea how much power I’d have to give up?”

Ron tilted his head. “You’re actually serious.”

“You know what this house is?” Barlowe turned to extend his arms to gesture to the entirety of the hall. “It was my father’s. Your friends won’t find it, because they will be looking for you in the magical world. My parents were both Muggleborn. My father’s family were of old money and wealth in the Muggle world, influence which has since faded. I usually have little use for this place, but I inherited it.”

“I really don’t follow; please keep your deranged ramblings more concise.”

Barlowe scowled. “Forty years ago I was a youth at Hogwarts with wizarding parents - but not a single magical grandparent. In Slytherin House. I was belittled and dismissed for the simple issue of my inheritance. Held back, ignored...” He straightened. “I made my first hundred thousand galleons when I was twenty.”

“Well done,” said Ron mildly, nonplussed.

“Understand, I came from nothing. No heritage, no name, no breeding. In the wizarding world, forty years ago. Do you know what an obstacle that was? Every bit of influence and power I have achieved, I have earnt. I designed cauldrons with the best convection, I popularised the Wit-Sharpening Potions. I made a fortune, then I moved into the Ministry, and revolutionised trade legislation. I made money, I made friends, I made contacts.”

“Wait.” Ron paused, gaze serious. “I didn’t know you ever had a job.”

Barlowe glowered. “It has suited me to let people assume I inherited this wealth; if they don’t think so hard, they can pretend I am pureblood, old money, an old family.”

“Then how come I didn’t hear you do a thing during the bloody war, if you’re so pissy about being ignored because your parents were Muggleborn?” Ron said, bewildered.

“It’s not about blood.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t care what the Muggleborns think, I don’t care what the purebloods think. I am telling you this so you understand that everything I have acquired and achieved - my influence, my wealth - has come from my own wits. I can walk into any Department in the Ministry and get them to turn a blind eye to, or destroy, or throw their weight behind, any project of my choosing. I can turn to any company in the wizarding world and make or break them with a bag of galleons and a few Floo calls.”

“For Merlin’s sake, what the hell does this have to do with the Headmaster’s job?”

Barlowe gave a smile, a distant smile that did make Ron recoil a little more sincerely now. “It is, quite simply, what lies at the end of it all. All of my life’s work. All of my achievements. I have gained everything that I want to gain. But Headmaster of Hogwarts? That is the place where my talents and my legacy can make the most impact.”

Ron paused. “Do you even like teaching? Or children?”

Barlowe ignored that. “I have three of the four relics. The diadem is likely beyond my reach, but most people think that utterly destroyed. In a few days, I shall announce that I have acquired the lot of them from a group of thieves, and shall be acclaimed by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement for helping them on the sting operation to track down this band. The public shall know I held all the relics available, whether they urge me to return them or not. And while I have other stories and myths about the importance of the relics released, I shall urge my good friends amongst the school governors to call a meeting to discuss the future of Hogwarts. With public opinion so far behind me, it’ll be impossible for them to not appoint me in McGonagall’s place - offering her a tidy retirement package, of course.”

“For a job.” Ron blinked, still working the concept around in his head. “You did all of this - the murders at the DoM, the attacks on my home and Harry’s, the thefts - for a job.”

“For the most important job in Britain.”

“What made you snap?” Ron sneered. “You couldn’t buy this job like you could buy everything else, so you suddenly decided to get together a brute squad?” He jerked his head at the figures in the shadows of the hallway. “Or did you always have these guys at your beck and call, complete with Death Eater masks so you could blame Voldemort, or Avery, or Tapperman?”

“My associates are well-paid and have long been loyal.”

Ron chewed on his lip. “People know you attacked the DoM, and my flat. You really think you can get away with this?”

“Mister Weasley, if you survive this evening, you won’t be found until this is all over. Your friends have no evidence - the best thing they have is the link between me and the relics, and according to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, it is perfectly legal for me to have all of these items!” Barlowe gave a short laugh, and crossed the hall to one of the tables pushed to one side. He reached under the dust sheet and pulled out the glimmering, broken Sword of Gryffindor.

“All they can do is squawk pathetically while I am exonerated. I have far too many friends, far too many people who owe me favours or owe me their silence, for some have-beens and the lowliest flunkeys amongst the Unspeakables to bring me to my knees.”

Barlowe returned to Ron, tilting the Sword in the glimmering candlelight from above. “Now, the repair of this. It is not necessary, but it would be preferable.”

“I don’t know how to fix this. Do I look like an expert?”

“But you’ve been working with Thaddeus Stubbs. He is an expert. What did he have to say?”

Ron shrugged. “He tried some of the metal he had in his workshop. He said the Sword was rejecting it, like it was lesser or something, I don’t know. I don’t know.” A hint of tension finally worked into his voice. Having not a single bargaining chip was not going to make delaying for time easier.

“What about blood?”

Ron squinted. “What about blood?”

“The Sword has absorptive qualities,” Barlowe said mildly. “Anything it comes into contact with that it can use to strengthen itself, it’ll do so.”

“What, regenerative blood? What would do that?”

“I have studied the relics, and their repair and maintenance, intently.” Barlowe ignored him. “There were some dated accounts of how the Sword could be repaired with lesser substances and materials if the extant metal was infused and strengthened first - so it could share that strength. Magical items are not repaired, maintained, or constructed in the same way as physical, Mister Weasley. It is a far more complicated process than that.”

“All right.” Ron shrugged. “What would strengthen it?”

“I don’t know,” Barlowe confessed. “I was hoping you or Stubbs might have known. Some mighty creature? Dragon’s blood? Though it would have to be fresh, the blood of a newly-slain dragon. And then it might even be easier to find some appropriate Goblin Iron...”

His voice had trailed off, lost in a swirl of thoughts and plans, and everything went silent. Ron tried to steady his breathing, watching the madman before him as he turned the Sword over in his hand, examining it. The footsteps of Barlowe’s goons were quiet, but still echoed across the empty distance of the hallway.

And then stopped.

Barlowe noticed this at the same time as Ron did, his head jerking up to the door. “Where’s -”

For the second time that night, the windows of the room Ron was sat in exploded inwards, just along the front wall, as did the door, to spray the four visible goons with glass and debris - and almost immediately there was a ferocious crack from behind him.

He twisted his neck, even then seeing the windows and doorways filling with dark, recognisable figures - and he recognised the three who had apparated in behind him even better.

Hermione strode forward, wand in hand, flanked by Trevelyan on one side and Thaddeus Stubbs on the other. “Mister Barlowe, by the authority of the Department of Mysteries, you will stand down.”

Ron grinned toothily at her. “I don’t think you have the authority to say that,” he said cheerfully, “but don’t pretend I’m not happy that, for once, someone’s kicking down the door on my behalf.”

Then, unsurprisingly, everyone went for their wands.

Chapter 16: Resolutions
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“I wouldn’t move if I were you.” Hermione advanced slowly, her wand pointed at Barlowe, who still stood in the centre of the hall – who still stood within arm’s reach of the restrained form of Ron.

He did, though, of course – he reached down into his finely-tailored robes and pulled out his wand with a grimace of a smile. For half a heartbeat she thought about Stunning him right there and then – but the figures at the outskirts of the hallway were still moving, all six of his flunkeys eyeing up the Unspeakables who’d broken in and forming up cautiously.

But only six. Hermione didn’t dare take her eyes off Barlowe long enough to try to tell, for sure, if there were any others, but she would let herself hope. They had incapacitated two of the thugs who’d broken into the flat; perhaps, hours later, they were still out of action. On the other hand, the Unspeakables were still down Burke and Ron, and even though the field agent who’d taken a Stun to the face had shaken it off and they’d gained Trevelyan and Stubbs, she didn’t know how useful a Project Leader and a Blacksmith were going to be.

So they were outnumbered and outgunned, riding in with more determination than plan, when poor planning had already made them lose their last encounter with Gideon Barlowe’s forces.

“Ah, Ms Granger.” Barlowe gave a smile that wouldn’t melt butter, though there was a widening of his eyes which did suggest surprise. “You found me.”

“You can put your wand down at any time, Mister Barlowe.”

“I can. But I won’t. What, exactly, are you hoping to achieve here? I don’t believe you have the right to invoke the authority of the Department of Mysteries. And I don’t believe the Department of Mysteries has the authority to tell me to so much as go to the bathroom.”

“No, Barlowe, but we can haul you into the Department of Magical Law Enforcement by your ankles, kicking and screaming,” said Stubbs gruffly.

Barlowe cocked his head. “And then what? Oh, wait, I know.” He clicked his fingers. “Then I have the lot of you arrested for breaking and entering my property, attacking me, and abducting me.”

Hermione’s brow wrinkled. “You are going to have us arrested for all that? Are you actually mad?”

He smiled humourlessly. “No. But there are an awful lot of people in the MLE who are rather reliant upon my bank accounts to maintain the standard and style of living to which they have become accustomed. Who rather enjoy my company. Who might find certain... unsavoury little facts reaching the press if I were no longer around to keep such stories out of the limelight.”

Ron, who was by now trying to wriggle his chair around so he could better see the altercation, snorted. “Do you actually think that you can just buy your way out of this? When we tell everyone how you broke into my flat, attacked us, abducted me? When you’ve coincidentally got three of the sodding relics, all of which have been stolen?”

“We’ve covered the theft,” said Barlowe, bored. “And you can claim all you want about attackers and abductions, but equally, so can I. It’s just so perfect that you’re here, Mister Stubbs – after all, you’re my nearest rival. Breaking into my home in the dead of night and trying to throw around accusations that I’m up to no good? A cynical man could find it rather suspicious that you’re trying to besmirch my good name in such a way.”

“If you think,” said Hermione, her voice shaking a little with tension, “that your influence can make all of this go away, then you are madder than I thought.”

“Really? Really?” Barlowe laughed. “You think the rich and famous don’t have the power to do more or less what they want? I’m sorry to say that it’ll turn into my word against yours, and you, Ms Granger, have allowed all of your social currency to dwindle, unless one really cares about a War people are trying to forget or are especially concerned with the plight of House Elves. Only a tiny minority care what you have to say. As for Mister Weasley...” He waved a dismissive hand. “I don’t think anyone listens to him unless he’s an echo of Harry Potter.”

Hermione’s brow furrowed. The cynical attitude to how the Ministry worked was one which she instinctively rebelled against – but clearly Barlowe did have traction to have got away with as much as he already had. But she shrugged. “We’re not just going to turn around and walk away.”

“Of course you’re not.” Barlowe sighed, and swung the Sword of Gryffindor in his hand casually. “You came here for a reason. That being Mister Weasley, no?” He cocked his head. “I am a businessman. Let us do business. The six of you can take Mister Weasley and walk away. Then you will cease all interference with my operations or my candidacy for the Headmaster’s job.”

Stubbs scoffed. “And I guess I take my hat out of the ring, huh?”

“Oh, please, Stubbs.” Barlowe made a face. “I don’t need to blackmail you out of the competition to beat you. Prove yourself a good candidate. I relish the challenge; Konstantin’s now dead in the water so you’re all I’ve got. And I don’t want to cruise too easily into the job.”

Ron rolled his eyes. “You really are bloody mental, aren’t you?”

Barlowe ignored him and turned to Hermione. “Take him. Take him away, leave me alone. I keep the relics, you get your boyfriend back, everyone’s happy.”

Stubbs looked at Hermione. “What’s to stop us from taking Weasley and still implicating the loon?”

“Because if you think it’ll be hard trying to get charges to stick when you’ve dragged me out of here by my ankles, it’ll be hell when it really is nothing more than your word against mine. But if you try to, hm, take me by force? We will resist. And you may well lose. And then, well, the best thing to happen would be for you to all disappear and for me to blame the whole thing on the Department of Mysteries. This way you’re guaranteed to walk away with my prisoner, and your lives.”

Hermione hesitated. “And you walk away scott free.”

Even if we fight him, can we condemn him? Has Kingsley changed the Ministry enough, has human nature changed enough? Will people
want to believe? It’s just a job, just the Headmaster’s job...

Then a Stun flew from her left across the hall, and Barlowe barely snatched his wand up to raise a Shield Charm in time. Everyone bristled, everyone raised their wands, and in the split second before spells began flying, Trevelyan’s voice echoed across the hall.

“To hell with that!”

Then chaos reigned. Barlowe’s thugs to the left and right broke into spells which Stubbs and Hermione barely blocked, and at the far end, down by the door, the Unspeakable field agents flew into duels. Trevelyan, for his part, advanced on Barlowe himself, wand flashing with magic.

“Justin Kessler. Morcant Delwyn. Do you remember them, Barlowe? Do you remember the people you killed to get to the bottom of this?”

But though his spells were strong, Hermione could see, his wand-work wasn’t quick enough, and his opponent flicked his own up with relative ease to block them, knock them to one side. Barlowe gave a sneer and a lopsided shrug, retaliating with a Stun which clipped Trevelyan on the shoulder and sent him staggering. “Necessary casualties. They wouldn’t get out of my way.”

Trevelyan made a sound of anger, but whatever happened next between them was lost to Hermione as she had to whip up her wand to defend against another hex coming her way. She let Barlowe’s man cast spell after spell, let herself give ground, until she was back to back with Stubbs, the big man holding his own against his opponent.

“Can you Shield me for a few seconds?” she hissed, risking a glance around the hall. Barlowe and Trevelyan were still stuck in a fight, Barlowe clearly the more talented combatant of the two, but held at bay by the array of unusual hexes and curses the Unspeakable had at his disposal. And beyond them, on the far side of the hall, their three field agents took on the remaining four of Barlowe’s men, their tight tactics against superior numbers and changing circumstances.

Their incursion team was out in the open; the defenders knew the hall, knew the passageways and shadows and pillars and were using them to their advantage. Training and precision and luck only went so far.

But Stubbs didn’t even answer, just flicked his wand and the air shimmered in front of her. She had to hope that Ron’s trust in the man extended as far as his combat talents, as she reached out and concentrated.

Magic sparked at the tip of her wand - but slowly, slower than her opponent, and she forced herself to not flinch as a hex flew from him. It crashed into the Shield Charm Stubbs had extended around her, which shimmered, and it took a tremendous sacrifice of will for Hermione to not react to it, to have faith in her ally’s talent.

And it paid off when his Shield Charm held firm, and the magic at the tip of her wand brightened. She let it loose as her opponent cursed at his lack of luck - then cursed again as her spell rocketed at him. He yanked up his own protective spell, certainly in time -

But not strong enough as her time concentrating paid off and the spell crashed through his shield to thud into his chest. He fell solidly.

She could almost hear Stubbs grin. “Good shot, lass.”

“I know,” she said without hubris. “You’d better get to the other side, give the field team backup.”

Stubbs parried a spell away. “What about these two buggers?”

Hermione turned to be beside him, and the expression of the remaining flunky of Barlowe’s on this side of the hall soured as his odds worsened. “Malcolm seems to have Barlowe in hand. I’ve got this guy.”

“It’s fine.” And like that, Stubbs had whipped his wand upwards, casting a spell which flew into the masonry of the pillar next to their opponent - and then showered a spray of rock and brick upon him, which left the man flailing until Hermione could Stun him. “See? Problem shared is a problem halved. Go get the bastard.”

It seemed Stubbs could hold his own in a fight, but Hermione knew the greatest danger here was going to be not Barlowe, but his hirelings, likely all recruited for their talent. Taking down Barlowe would be of little use if his more-talented employees could still defeat them and pick their boss back up again.

Besides, she wanted some of the satisfaction of dealing with the man herself.

But even as she turned, underestimating Barlowe proved to be, if not an error, then a risk she hadn’t considered. Stubbs had ducked behind the pillars to move to the far end of the hall and flank Barlowe’s men the Unspeakables were still scrapping with, dodging away from where the man himself and Trevelyan fought.

So he was already locked in a fight, unable to come and back her up, when she turned to Barlowe just as he waved his wand seemingly carelessly - and then Trevelyan’s was flying through the air.

“They just don’t train Unspeakables like they used to, do they, Mister Trevelyan?” Barlowe smirked - but didn’t stop for long to savour his success, flicking his wand out and sending a Stun thudding into Trevelyan’s chest. The Unspeakable barely had time to look surprised before he keeled over, completely out of action.

Barlowe shrugged to himself, then turned to Hermione. “Really, Miss Granger, are we going to do this? You’ll clap me in chains, drag me back to the Ministry, try to convince the world I’m an evil, murderous man who killed two people even the Department of Mysteries are officially saying died in an accident?”

“You have a remarkably low opinion of the public’s capacity to see through lies,” said Hermione cautiously, gaze flickering over his form. She’d not had an opportunity to see him fight, not had an opportunity to properly assess him, and had for a long time assumed Gideon Barlowe to be a fop. Although Malcolm Trevelyan had not been the greatest opponent, he’d still been dispatched with relative ease, and Hermione was keen to not continue underestimating her enemy.

“And you sound remarkably naive for someone who spent many years witnessing the public believe what they wanted to over the truth.”

But she saw him tense as he spoke, saw the tell-tale sign of a spell forming in his mind if not on his lips, and she deflected his curse away easily, knocking her own back.

Then they were at it, back and forth, and though Hermione found herself quickly at the advantage, gaining ground, approaching him and rarely struggling to defend herself, she couldn’t break through Barlowe’s defences. He kept his Shield Charms strong at the expense of his Stuns, and she knew what his plan was: keep her occupied until his men dealt with her backup. He didn’t need to beat her. He just needed to delay her.

A glance over his shoulder at the far end of the hall, where only Stubbs and one lone Unspeakable field agent fought against three of Barlowe’s men, suggested this wasn’t a bad tactic.

If this had been all she’d had up her sleeve, Hermione considered, then yet again she’d have underestimated the situation and Gideon Barlowe. Fortunately for her, this wasn’t all she had up her sleeve.

Her next spell went wide, and Barlowe came to a halt, glancing at where the green bolts of light had flicked past him. He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Are we getting tired, Miss Granger? Sloppy of you to miss like that.”

Hermione stopped, straightened, and smirked. “I didn’t miss.”

Then Barlowe’s expression sank as he heard footsteps behind him, and turned to find the tall shape of Ron Weasley standing right next to him. All Hermione had been waiting for was the chance to get a clear shot at his bindings, to free him without hurting him.

Barlowe snatched his wand up and around, but Ron was too close. Unarmed, he grabbed at Barlowe’s wrist to stop him, and the hex went wide - then he twisted. There was an unpleasant crunch, and Barlowe gave a gurgle of pain and went rather white as his wand dropped from his limp wrist.

“I don’t think you’ll be needing that wand any more, Barlowe,” said Ron with an expression of pure smugness.

Barlowe gasped, writhing in Ron’s grip, and drew a deep, shaking breath. “No,” he conceded, and Hermione stiffened. “Maybe not.”

Then he lifted his other hand and drove the shattered edge of the Sword of Gryffindor into Ron’s gut.

The outside world rushed away as Ron staggered, letting go of Barlowe. His hands came down to the hilt protruding from his belly, the red rubies glinting along with the red blood that flowed along the metal - then his legs gave way from under him and he collapsed onto the stone floor.

Hermione screamed, and the blast from her wand that crashed into Barlowe was enough to send the unarmed man flying. He whirled through the air, hitting one of the pillars in his hall, and slid to the floor, conscious but dazed, moving sluggishly. At the sound, the impact, the fighting from the far end paused, Stubbs and his Unspeakable ally locking wands with their three opponents, standing off but ceasing fire.

Her feet felt slow, far too slow as Hermione sprang across the gap between them, skidding to her knees next to Ron’s fallen form. He was still conscious, his eyes wide and staring at the ceiling, shocked; his hands now shaking on the hilt. “Ron? Ron! Can you hear me? Can you -”

They were pointless questions, even as her mind ran through her options, the reading she’d done, the healing charms she knew - and she had no potions to hand, only her wand, and there was a sword sticking out of him -

Why didn’t you deal with the sword? You could have disarmed him, you could have Stunned him, instead you just stood there and let Ron get hurt -

Barlowe was struggling to his feet, clutching at his wrist, even as Hermione ran through her self-doubt and her options at the same time. “He’ll die if you don’t do something, Miss Granger. You don’t have the time to keep fighting. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee you’ll win, and then he dies anyway.”

Hermione ran her hand down to the blade, feeling the wound, unsure if she should pull it out and risk the blood loss, or leave it in and not be able to tend to the injury. She didn’t look at Barlowe. “Shut up.”

“I’ll let you walk away. Give me the sword, and take him to Saint Mungo’s. He’ll live.”

And you’ll walk free. By the time Ron’s safe, you’ll have covered all of this up...

Then Ron made a choking, desperate noise in the back of his throat, and Hermione thought her heart had stopped. She jerked her head up at Barlowe, eyes blazing, and drew a shaking breath. “All right,” she heard herself saying. “You win. Just -”

Gideon Barlowe, by the authority of the Auror Office, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and the Ministry of Magic, you are under arrest!”

Everyone froze as the doors to the hall came slamming open, and then all of a sudden they weren’t outnumbered, injured, beaten, without options - all of a sudden figures were striding into the hall. Or, at least, limping into the hall.

Familiar figures, in the uniforms of the Auror Office, maybe even a dozen of them, and at the head of them staggered Harry Potter and Tancred Burke. They were both bruised, Burke on crutches and Harry with his left arm still strapped up, but they were on their feet, and they weren’t alone.

Harry fell silent as his gaze swept over the hall and landed on Ron, and he grimaced. “Oh, hell. Healer!”

One of the Aurors broke the ranks as the others trained their wands on -well, everyone, really, from Stubbs and Barlowe to the Unspeakables and Barlowe’s men alike. As the rest of the MLE officers filed into the hall, he scurried past them towards Hermione and Ron, Harry and Burke slower in his wake, and skidded to a halt at the side of the injured wizard.

“Hermione, get back, let the man do his work,” said Harry, and numbly she found herself pulling away, unable to tear her eyes away from the trained Auror and the only semi-conscious shape of Ron.

Barlowe was barely recovering his poise, and looked dubiously at the wands trained on him while other Aurors set about making sure the fallen figures on the floor were alive, and not a threat. “What, exactly, is the meaning of this, Auror Potter?”

“I think I was clear. Intelligence provided to us by the Department of Mysteries suggested that a kidnapped member of our Office and several stolen relics could be located here. So I put in a call to Cassius Vaughn, head of the Auror Office, and he allowed me to get a team together.” Harry gave an unnecessarily casual shrug, though he winced as it moved his bad shoulder.

Barlowe’s eyes bulged. “I think you’ll find that Abraxas Trange of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol will have something to say about you doing this, as it could easily interfere with a sting operation I -”

“Abraxas Trange might be the Head of the MLE Patrol, and yeah, there would be a lot of paperwork going on over this normally. A whole lot of a mess of Aurors interfering with Enforcers’ operations, and ruining their stings, and really, it should have taken me hours on end to get together a team of this size on intelligence this flimsy...” Harry scratched his chin with mock-thoughtfulness. “Did you know that it’s amazing what can be achieved when people know your name?”

Barlowe faltered. “You -”

“You might have been able to buy Trange. And people in the Department of Mysteries. You might have been able to keep the MLE off your back and the public stupid.” Harry jerked a finger at him. “And normally, that might have worked. The name and wealth of Gideon Barlowe is usually enough to make anyone do whatever you want.

“Funnily enough, my name is usually enough to make people do whatever I want. Normally, I don’t do that. Normally, I play it fair. But if you intend to try to weasel out of this situation with every dirty trick, every favour, every manipulation of the system, I will hit you right back.” Harry smiled humorlessly. “How do you think it’ll play out in the Wizengamot if I’m saying, as a public figure and as an Auror, that you’re guilty as sin? You might be rather powerful, and rather rich. But, you see, I’m rather rich, too. And I don’t know what influence you’ve got, but last I checked, people still haven’t forgotten I killed Voldemort.”

It was probably the only time Hermione had ever heard Harry saying anything that came close to bragging - and it was perhaps worth it for the way Barlowe’s expression sank and faded to a tense, hunted sort of look. But she was barely paying attention, barely noticing as the Auror by Ron’s side carefully pulled the sword from him - eliciting a gasp of pain which made her gut clench - and quickly began running through charms and spells she’d either long forgotten or never mastered to stem the sudden flow of blood.

The Auror glanced up in between incantations. “I want to get him to Saint Mungo’s.”

Harry nodded at him, then waved a hand at his fellow Aurors. “Take Mister Barlowe and his associates away. We’ll secure the hall and turn the place over for evidence. Get in the Portkey to Saint Mungo’s; we’ll take Ron and anyone else who’s incapacitated.”

Stubbs was waving a hand a little anxiously. “If the boy’s going to be all right, I - I know you’ll want to take the Sword for evidence, but I’ve handled evidence for the Auror Department before and I’d really want to get to work on it.”

Harry gave Hermione a glance, though she just looked blankly at him - the Sword, at that point, was the least of her concerns - and he sighed and nodded. “All right, Mister Stubbs. Only for your good record with the Office.”

Then there was a flurry of activity as Stubbs went for the Sword, as the Portkey for Saint Mungo’s was brought in, as the Aurors began to bind Barlowe and his employees and the Unspeakables flashed their handy little badges to make it clear they were not going to be arrested tonight, thank you very much, and the next time Hermione blinked, Harry was by her side.

“Arkwright’s good,” he said, gesturing at the Auror who was by Ron, before they winked out of existence along with the other fallen members of their team. “He’s a proper combat medic from the war; Ron’ll be fine...”

With Ron gone, knowing he was now back at Saint Mungo’s, knowing he was as safe as he was going to be, she let out a deep, shaky breath. “How... how did you find us?”

Harry jerked a thumb over his shoulder. He looked worn, still, and like he was probably supposed to stay in a hospital bed, his uniform hanging awkwardly off him, but he was upright, and he looked determined. “Burke. I went to see him after you left, and we agreed we couldn’t let you go off on your own. I put together the team from the Auror Office, he found exactly where you’d gone.” He hesitated, his expression tensing. “You should have listened to me when I told you to go to the Aurors -”

“Harry, they wouldn’t necessarily listen to me,” said Hermione falteringly, though she knew he was right. If she’d been prepared to wait, perhaps, she could have let Harry do all of this and come in with more numbers, more authority, and a plan.

On the other hand, would Ron have stayed alive in Barlowe’s hands long enough for that to happen?

Harry looked like he might still argue, but he looked her up and down, and, with a slight wince, extended his good hand to squeeze her shoulder gently. “Come on. The Healers threw a fit when I discharged myself; I promised them I’d be back, and we’ll want to hear what happens to Ron. My Aurors can take it from here. Let’s get to Saint Mungo’s.”



Chapter 17: Affirmations
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"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.

Blood.

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."

"When?"

"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."



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