Chapter 9: Competitions
She was there. Already. In McGonagall's office.
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.
"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?"