Chapter 2 : Explanations
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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.”
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