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.”
“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.
“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.