“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.”