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Harry Potter and the Conspiracy of Blood by CambAngst

Format: Novel
Chapters: 41
Word Count: 262,430
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme, Contains Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Mystery, Action/Adventure
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Draco, Scorpius, Albus, Rose, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Ron/Hermione, Rose/Scorpius

First Published: 08/27/2011
Last Chapter: 08/08/2012
Last Updated: 11/18/2015

Summary:
** Winner: 2012 Dobby Award for Best Villain & 2012 Golden Paw Award for Best Trio **

CoB Banner
Banner by the amazing Carnal Spiral @ TDA

Many years after the Battle of Hogwarts, follow Harry, Ron and Hermione as they lead four generations of the Potter and Weasley family in an action-packed battle for survival against a shadowy puppet master who threatens to destroy the world that they worked so hard to build.


Chapter 1: Prologue
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Harry's first clue that something was seriously amiss was the fact that he couldn’t see anything, or rather that all he could see was a uniform, misty whiteness. As he took stock of himself, he realized that he was lying on his back. He sat up and discovered that he could, in fact, see his arms and legs. Instinctively, his hand swept down the front of his robes, searching for his wand, but it seemed to have gone missing. He rose to his feet and turned in a circle, trying to find anything distinctive in the mist. There was something familiar about it all.


Maybe if he started walking, he thought, he would come upon some clue as to where he was. Since every direction looked exactly the same, he simply started walking the way that he was facing. He had no idea how far he had gone or whether he had been walking in circles, but eventually he saw a large shape through the mist, like a building. He started to walk towards it, hoping there would be somebody there who could tell him where he was. The outlines of the structure gradually became more clear. He could make out the walls and some windows and one particular outline that just might be a door. He stopped when he was about ten paces away, peering at the sign next to the entrance. He took a couple of steps before he could finally make out the writing. Then he knew why this place seemed so familiar.


King’s Cross Station.


“Great,” he mumbled to himself, “you’re dead again.”


The last time he visited this place was after Tom Riddle struck him with the killing curse during the Battle of Hogwarts. He thought that perhaps he would get to see Professor Dumbledore again and it brought a smile to his face. Harry thought hard for a moment, but try as he might, he could not recall the circumstances that led to his most recent demise. It didn’t trouble him very much, as he felt reasonably sure that everything would become apparent soon enough.


He entered the station and made his way down the empty platform. His surroundings were much clearer now. He noticed a clock on the wall that unfortunately seemed to be missing its hands. Ahead, he could make out platforms nine and ten.  As he approached, he broke into a trot and flung himself at the barrier between the two platforms. As expected, he passed cleanly through and found himself standing on platform nine and three quarters.


The platform was as empty as the rest of the station, so he walked over to the nearest bench and sat down. Whatever was awaiting him in this place would happen in its own time, he reasoned, so he might as well make himself comfortable.


After what might have been hours or perhaps only a few moments, he heard a voice behind him.


“Hi, Harry.”


He turned to find Ginny smiling at him from across the platform. He leapt from his seat and flung himself towards her as she rushed to embrace him.


Chapter 2: Everything That Ever Mattered
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As always, the characters within belong to J.K. Rowling. I 'm thankful to get to borrow them for a while.







 
Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, The Man Who Defeated The Dark Lord, Former Quidditch Champion, Head Auror, Member of the Order of Merlin, First Class, husband, father, grandfather and godfather sat in his comfortable muggle lawn chair, admiring the sunny autumn day. He took a long sip of ice water before he continued to tell his wife about his day.


“Al’s youngest daughter Lillian joined my class of first years today,” he said. “You should have seen her, Gin, she was so proud. Almost as proud as her grandpa. Another Gryffindor in the family. Al is a little disappointed that she didn’t wind up in Slytherin, but I think she was happy to be in the same house with most of her cousins. Of course, I had to pretend she was just any other student. After the lesson, she waited around until the other students left and she gave me the biggest hug. Almost brought tears to my eyes, seeing her there in her new school robes with that shiny, new wand.”


Harry took a sip of ice water from his bottle and returned it to the cup holder in the arm of the chair. It looked like a normal muggle sports bottle, but it was enchanted to stay cold and full. Harry chuckled at how he must look. A 64-year-old man sitting in an old plastic lawn chair under a shade tree, sipping water out of a sport bottle. “Some muggle supper club is missing its most prominent eccentric,” he mused to himself.


“I saw James’s boy Artie on my way to the main entrance. He and Celeste are both in my advanced class of sixth and seventh years. Neville tells me that he and Luna’s granddaughter Portia are an item. Neville, or should I say ‘Headmaster Longbottom’? Ha. Didn’t see that one coming. He looks so dignified in his headmaster’s robes, sitting there at Dumbledore’s old desk. The portraits all seem to regard him highly, except for Snape of course. Snape’s portrait makes him nervous.”


Harry took another sip of water and ran his hand through his hair as he stretched his arms. His black hair was now liberally mixed with grey, but baldness had spared him. It was still as unmanageable as ever, just thinner. Harry thought that his body had held up remarkably well over the years, considering everything he’d put it through. The fact that he was still alive after being hit twice with the killing curse was nothing to sniff at, he reasoned. Between his high speed crashes in pursuit of a snitch and the multitude of curses, hexes, spells and blunt objects he’d been struck with during his years as an Auror, Harry’s body was a testament to the best work of wizard healers and muggle surgeons alike.


“Cissy Malfoy passed yesterday,” he said somberly. “I know it’s hardly anything that you’ll shed any tears over, but I guess I took more of a liking to her after that death-eating git of a husband of hers died. That and she was always so wonderful to Rose and Scorpius’s children. She was only eighty-nine years old. Awfully young for a witch who led such a calm, sheltered life.”


Harry took another sip from his water and made to rise from his chair. “Beautiful day, don’t you think?”, he asked, enjoying the slight breeze and the warm sun on his face. He looked down the hill at the grassy field leading to the big pond.


Harry had bought the country estate from the Puddifoot family shortly after James was born. From the hilltop, you could just make out the top floors of the Burrow in the distance. It was an ideal place to raise their children and grandchildren, being so close to the Weasley family homeplace. Over the years, Harry had made several additions to amuse himself and his family. There was a half-sized Quidditch pitch near the house where the younger generations of the Potter and Weasley clan played entire seasons of games every summer. Harry and Ron had also carved out a camp site in the middle of the woods where the children -- both biological and “adopted” -- would have spent every summer night if their parents allowed it. The pond had been deepened on one end to allow diving and made shallow on the other so that toddlers could splash and play.


But this spot, overlooking the pond beneath the big willow tree, had always been their favorite. Here they could sit and relax in the shade while they watched the kids play in the pond or eat a picnic lunch or just spend hours talking to each other.


“Gin,” he mused, “do you remember that time that we all thought Lily was drowning? James and Al were thrashing around in the pond, looking for her, and I’m not sure I ever saw you move that fast on a broom.” Harry chuckled out loud. “I still don’t know how she mastered the bubble-head charm in her second year of school. But Lil was always a little ahead of the curve.”


Each of Harry and Ginny’s children had proven to be uniquely talented in their own way. James turned out to possess a mix of charm and charisma that did his namesakes proud. While his professional Quidditch playing career had been short, he had quickly become one of the league’s elite head coaches. Al’s studious demeanor and earnest loyalty were also reminiscent of the men he was named for. Harry had set his heart on seeing his middle child become an Auror, but instead he chose to follow his aunt Hermione into the legal profession. Lily was her mother’s child, filled with the same fiery intensity. She surprised many people by taking a job with her uncle George. She had been instrumental in helping to grow the company into a global empire.


“Ron and Hermione are coming over for dinner tonight. I think they’re bringing Hugo’s daughter Ameile with them. She’s a cutie, that one. Already has Ron twisted around her little finger.”


Harry stared at the sun as it moved slowly towards the horizon. His heart skipped a beat as he recalled how beautiful Ginny looked when she was a young witch and the evening sun lit up her auburn hair and made her deep, brown eyes sparkle. “Gin, you’re the most beautiful woman in the world. You know that, right?” he said, looking back towards her.


It was a mistake. Harry felt his throat tighten. He squeezed his eyes together as hard as he could, trying to hold back the tears. It didn’t work.


Why?


His chest shook involuntarily as the first sob escaped his clenched jaw. He fought to regain control, pounding his fists against his chest.


Why her? Why not me?


The sobs erupted from his lungs, tearing through him.


I’m supposed to protect everybody. Why couldn’t I save her?


His legs give way and he fell to his knees in the soft grass. The tears streamed down his cheeks as he buried his face in the sleeve of his jacket and sobbed uncontrollably.


You’re a failure, Potter. She saved you. She gave you everything that ever mattered and you let her die.


He wasn’t sure how much time passed before the tears subsided and he managed to pull himself to his feet. “I’m so sorry, Gin,” he said quietly. “Every time I come up here, I promise myself I’m not going to break. And the worst part is I don’t know whether it’s getting any better. Some days I just don’t want to do it any more. I know I have to do it for our family. You’d tell me that if you were here. But it’s hard, Gin.”


“I don’t want to keep going without you,” he whispered and the tears threatened to begin anew.


He paused a long moment, collecting himself, gathering his emotions. Finding the strength. He picked up his enchanted water bottle and vanished the chair he had conjured.


“Goodbye, my love. I’ll see you again soon.”


Harry turned and began walking towards the house. The place that the Potter family had called home for four decades. At the moment, it sat empty with all the children off at school and the adults going about their daily lives. Almost as empty as Harry felt.


Behind him, the autumn breeze blew gently across the somber granite monument.


Ginevra Weasley Potter
August 11, 1981
September 27, 2041
Fly fast, chaser girl.

 


Chapter 3: Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology
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Wow. Three chapters in already. I hope this chapter starts to give you a flavor for where the story is heading. Thank you for reading. As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.






“Harry! You home?” Ron’s voice rang out as he entered the Potter house with a large food basket hanging from one arm and a large satchel of baby supplies slung over the other shoulder.


“In the drawing room,” Harry’s voice echoed through the house in response.


Harry’s house elf Hermys appeared in front of Ron with a crack and levitated the basket from his hands. “Let Hermys be taking that from you, Master Ron,” the elf chimed happily.


“Thank you, Hermys,” Ron replied gratefully. “I think she tried to cram our whole bloody kitchen into that basket,” he confided in the elf after taking a careful look behind him.


“Hermys is honored to carry the food that Mistress Hermione has brought for Master Harry, no matter the burden.”


“Hermys, please set up lunch on the patio,” instructed Harry, coming out to meet his friends. “It’s a nice enough day, right?”


“Beautiful out today,” replied Ron, dropping his granddaughter’s travel bag onto the table in the front hallway.


“MIONE!” he called towards the front door, “are you gonna bring my favorite baby girl inside today or just sit in the car, snacking on her toes?”


“Keep your shirt on, Mr. Weasley,” she retorted as she carried the squirming infant into the house. “She doesn’t just pop out of the car seat on her own, you know. And besides, I am definitely hungry for some toes!” Hermione lifted the little girl over her head so that she could nibble at her chubby little toes. The baby squealed with delight and kicked her feet back and forth, finally knocking Hermione’s reading glasses off of her face.


“Here, let me get a good look at this little munchkin,” offered Harry, allowing Hermione to retrieve her glasses. “Hello, there, beautiful! You are a Weasley, aren’t you? Look at those little red curls.”


“Amazing how strong it came through, being, what, one quarter Weasley?” commented Ron, staring intently at Amelie.


Harry was making faces at the little girl, holding her just far enough away to thwart her attempts to seize his glasses. She gurgled and babbled determinedly, flailing her chubby little arms. “She’s got quite a thing for spectacles, no?”


Reparo” Hermione studied her glasses for a moment before sliding them back onto her face. “Mind you don’t let her get yours, Harry. She stole Arthur’s the other day and he didn’t get them back until she went down for her nap.”


"Why don't you two just get your eyes fixed?" asked Ron. "I heard that the muggle doctors can do this manipulation now that makes your eyes as good as new."


"It's called an operation, dear," replied Hermione, rolling her eyes. "And I don't fancy some muggle doctor poking around my eyes while I'm asleep."


Harry nodded in agreement. As much of a pain as his eyesight could be, his glasses had gotten him this far.


"Muggles are getting bloody ridiculous with this technology of theirs," Ron said contemplatively. "Did you know that they're working on some quantum tele something or other that's gonna let them travel anywhere even faster than apparition?"


Hermione snickered at her husband. "You're as hopeless as your dad, you know that? It's called quantum teleportation, and the most they've been able to send through it is a few digital pictures. Seriously, Ron, have you been listening to Xerxes the Seer on Wizarding Wireless again?"


"What of it? He's got sources all over the muggle world. Last week, he said that he has it on very good information that the muggles are gonna use that quantum thing to send people to the moon. And I am not as bad as dad! Best I can remember, I never caused the evacuation of Heathrow Airport."


"Ron, my dad banished you from the kitchen after what you did to the microwave oven!" Hermione retorted. "And these 'sources' that Xerxes quotes are all inside his head. He exaggerates everything the muggles do to boost his ratings. It's all a bunch of nonsense."


“He has a pretty big audience for his nonsense,” observed Harry. “It seems like the Muggle Affairs Department is constantly dealing with some imaginary crisis or other. The Minister can’t be bothered to deal with it, so he orders an investigation every time some doddery old fusspot corners him in public and demands to know what’s being done about the latest imaginary muggle death machine. Your dad definitely picked the right time to retire.”


Arthur Weasley had chosen to retire from the Ministry on his ninety-second birthday. Even for a wizard, it was an exceptionally long career. For Arthur, it had never been so much about the job as it was about doing something he loved. As his one hundredth birthday approached, he still found a childlike glee in studying the muggles and their devices.


“Some retirement,” snorted Ron. “He spends more hours helping George experiment on muggle  contraptions than he ever spent working in the Ministry.”


“Your dad is George’s secret weapon,” chuckled Hermione. “If his genie glass inventions can keep something safe from Arthur then they’re practically indestructible.”


It was funny, but true. Arthur’s love of muggle gadgets was matched only by his propensity for accidentally destroying them with magic.


The effects of magic on muggle electronics had been a vexing problem for generations of wizards before Hermione discovered the shielding effects of magical glass. During one of Ron and Harry’s first cases with the Auror Department, she realized that the enchanted glass used by middle eastern Genii could be used to shield electronics from magical interference. But it was George who saw the true potential of the idea. He developed a process for shaping the glass into all manner of decorative covers and cases for muggle gadgets. Weasley’s Wizarding Wraps were now sold all over the world. Aside from opening up the wizarding world to computers, televisions, and cell phones, it had also led to a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the family. The Weasleys had enjoyed great prosperity while many of the other old wizarding families suffered financial ruin in the aftermath of the Second Wizarding War.


Harry had been one of George’s earliest supporters, providing the galleons he needed to launch and expand the company. As a result, the considerable fortune that Harry had inherited from the Potter and Black families had ballooned. Harry was never completely comfortable with his wealth, and he gave away a great deal of the proceeds. He established the Remus Lupin Center at St. Mungo’s which provided free wolfsbane potion and counseling to werewolves while researching a cure for lycanthropy. He also created a Nymphadora Tonks Fellowship within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement that paid for Aurors to travel abroad and study the magical techniques of other wizarding nations. There were now five students attending Hogwarts on the Fred Weasley Memorial Scholarship that Harry founded with George. Particularly dear to Hermione was the Dobby House, a relocation program which helped freed house elves transition into normal society.


"If wizards spent as much time studying new magic as they do rehashing old family feuds and blood purity rubbish, we probably would have found a way to apparate to the moon by now," Harry added sanguinely.


“Lunch is served on the patio, Masters and Mistress,” Hermys announced with a low, proper house elf bow. Harry observed Hermione’s discomfort from the corner of his eye. Or maybe he just knew it was happening and saw it in his mind’s eye. So hard to tell after all these years. “May I take the young Mistress so my master and his company can have a proper lunch?”


“Thank you, Hermys,” said Hermione, not letting her mixed feelings show through. “She has a bottle in the travel bag if she gets hungry.” She watched the house elf smile and make silly faces at Ameile as he carried her into the sitting room. Hermys had always been terrific with children, more so than Kreacher. Of course, Hermys was at least a hundred years younger than his father.


The three friends took their seats around the patio table and began filling their plates.


“So how is the rest of your clan? ” asked Harry. “Are Rosie and Scorpius getting on these days?”


Harry smirked inwardly at the pained look that appeared on his best friend’s face. It had been forty-five years since they finished school and over fifteen since Scorpius married Rose and Ron still struggled with the concept of a Malfoy infiltrating his family.


“Well, they are either madly in love or they’re about to kill each other. Is it an odd or an even-numbered day?” replied Hermione, sardonically.


“Poor Rosie,” mused Harry. “She got her mother’s temper and her father’s relationship skills.”


“What’s that supposed to mean,” demanded Ron. “We haven’t had a good row in, what is it, dear? At least a week or two.”


“Quiet, Ronald,” Hermione admonished him, much to Harry’s amusement. The three of them had known each other for over fifty years. It was not as though he hadn’t been smack in the middle of many of their infamous arguments. They had calmed considerably over the decades, but they could still make quite a scene from time to time.


They ate in silence for a few minutes before Harry stared meaningfully at the other two and cast a silent muffliato charm around the table. It was a redundant, almost silly act considering the powerful wards and protective spells that surrounded the Potter estate, but old habits die hard.


“What the bloody hell has gotten into Percy?” he asked. “I’m hearing that he and Audrey are separated and he spends all his time listening to university-age muggles read bad poetry in coffee shops.”


“He and Audrey are just taking some time apart while he works through some personal issues,” replied Ron through a half-full mouth. “At least that’s how she explained it to Mum.”


“How do you know what he’s been up to? Do you have him under surveillance or something?” added Hermione.


“No,” replied Harry, somewhat crossly. “It wasn’t necessary. When the Deputy Minister for International Affairs goes off his trolley, leaves his family and goes skirt-chasing among muggles a third of his age, people do tend to talk.”


“It’s not as bad as all that, Harry,” reasoned Ron. “Percy’s been working at a midlife crisis since he was what, seventeen? Stands to reason it would happen sooner or later. Besides, there’s no way he’s actually going to catch any skirts he might happen to chase. This is Percy we’re talking about.”


“We just can’t have him going barmy,” replied Harry. “He hasn’t been right since the trial and it’s getting worse. Maybe the strain is too much for him.”


Hermione set down her fork and regarded Harry calmly, but with sadness touching her features. “Harry, nothing has been right since she died. The trial put a huge strain on all of us. This may just be how Percy copes.”


Harry chewed a bite of his sandwich thoughtfully, staring involuntarily towards the hilltop where Ginny lay. “All I’m saying is that we need to keep an eye on him, for his own sake.”
 





After lunch, Harry, Ron and Hermione enjoyed a bottle of wine on the patio while Ameile napped. The sun was just beginning to dip towards the trees when the little girl awoke and Ron and Hermione began to gather their things.


“We told Hugo and Fiona that we’d have her back before dinner time,” Hermione explained apologetically, “otherwise we’d love to stay for dinner.”


“I understand,” replied Harry. “Another day.”


“Definitely. How about on Saturday?”


“Well, I’m supposed to go to some benefit dinner at the Ministry, but I doubt they’ll miss me. I think I already sent some gold to whatever it was they’re raising money for.”


“Saturday it is, then,” she beamed at him. Her bright smile faded to a look of concern as she noticed Harry’s somber, distracted mood.


“Are you OK, Harry,” she asked. “I mean really OK?”


“I’ll be OK, Hermione,” he replied. “It’s just always hardest when I’m saying goodbye to people. Goodbyes didn’t bother me before she died. Now I always feel like every one could be the last.”


“Harry, why don’t you come back to the house with us? It sounds like you could use the company.”


“Thank you, Hermione. I really appreciate it. But it’s been four years now. I have to figure this out someday.”


She studied him for a long moment. “OK, but if you ever need to get out of the house or just talk to somebody, you know you can always come see us. Day or night doesn’t matter.”


“I know, and I love you both for it. More than you’ll ever know.”


She flung her arms around his neck and drew him into a warm embrace that lasted until they heard Ron’s impatient voice coming from the driveway.


“Bye, Harry,” she said. “See you on Saturday.”
 





Harry spent the rest of the day trying to make himself busy. He read through the stack of field reports and training evaluations that he’d brought home from the office. Then he sorted through the day’s owls, responding to some and setting others aside to deal with later. He even wandered into the kitchen and tried to talk to Hermys. Eventually, though, it became apparent that he was annoying the elf, even though Hermys was far too polite to ever say anything.


Harry collapsed into an arm chair in the sitting room. He was tempted to turn on the muggle television, even though he hated most of the brainless drivel that aired in the evenings. He picked up the Daily Prophet and tried to read the business section, but his eyes kept drifting to the picture on the mantle. Fifty year old Harry and Ginny waved at him from the black sand beach of a Caribbean island as the surf gently rolled in and out in the background. Even at fifty, her auburn hair glistened in the sunlight and she looked stunning in her white bathing suit. They were celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, looking forward to another twenty-five years that would never...


OK, television it would be. Harry clicked past a couple of evening talk shows and a show where some idiotic muggles were trying to win money by seeing who could carry the most croquet balls in their underpants. Being a muggle was harder than it looked sometimes, Harry realized. Not only were they expected to do utterly ridiculous things for money, most of their entertainment came from watching other muggles do the same. He was about to settle for a cooking show when a familiar face appeared in the fireplace.


“Hi, Rosie,” Harry said with a huge grin, “how is my favorite goddaughter today?”


“I’m fine, uncle Harry. How are you,” she replied.


“I’m doing OK. What can I do for you?”


“Is it OK if Octavia and I come over?” she asked.


“Of course it is,” Harry answered gratefully. “Is everything OK?”


“Everything is fine,” Rose replied as she stepped out of the fire with her daughter in tow and an overnight bag on her shoulder. Apparently this was not a spur of the moment decision. “It’s just that Scorpius is in America on business, and he and I had a little argument earlier.”


“Say no more,” Harry said soothingly. “I’ll have Hermys bring us some tea. And what can I get for you, sweetheart?”


“Pumpkin juice?” Octavia asked with a big grin that showed off her missing front tooth.


“How about milk, dear?” replied Rose in the mother voice that clearly was not a question. “It’s late and you don’t need to be bouncing off of uncle Harry’s walls.”


“Octavia, I think Lily’s old dolls are all still in the closet of her bedroom, if you’d like to see them,” Harry offered.


“Dolls are for babies,” Octavia replied with a disparaging look. “Can I play with James and Al’s old video games?”


“They’re in Al’s old bedroom on the second floor, as long as your mum doesn’t mind.”


“That’s fine,” said Rosie, “but not any of the loud, violent ones. How about that one where the nice Italian plumber saves the princess from the gorilla?”


Octavia rolled her eyes at her mother as she headed off up the stairs.


“Well I always liked that one,” said Rose defensively as Harry grinned at her.


“So out with it, Rosie,” Harry asked once they were alone. “What’s going on between you and Scorpius that you can’t discuss with your mum and dad?”


“It’s not really as bad as all that,” she answered, not quite meeting his gaze. “It’s mostly just that they’re having dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Perfect tonight and I didn’t want to mess up their nice evening with my train wreck of a family life.”


The Perfects was Rose’s derogatory term for her brother Hugo and his wife Fiona. Fiona was the daughter of one of Fleur’s cousins, although she lacked Fleur’s obvious Veela bloodline. They had met one summer while the Weasley family was visiting the Delacours in Siene. Harry did have to admit that Hugo and Fiona’s life had gone pretty much by the book: falling in love in Paris, the wedding in Marseille and three beautiful children including the recent addition of Ameile. Pretty much the exact opposite of Scorpius and Rose’s story of premarital pregnancy, delayed matrimony and constant squabbling. But Harry had also seen Rose and Scorpius at their best, and the love that burned between them was a thing to behold. It reminded him of Ron and Hermione in their younger years, only about ten times more volatile.


“Rose, you know your brother loves you dearly. Just as much as your mum and dad. I’m sure they would have been happy to see you.”


“Well, it’s not just that,” she admitted. “Every time I try to talk to Mum and Dad about the rows that Scorp and I get into, she tries to psychoanalyze our whole relationship and dad just starts drinking.” Rose signed and rolled her eyes dramatically. “You and Teddy are the only ones who get it."


“I can’t really say that I always get it, either, Rosie,” Harry admitted. “But I’m always happy to listen while you work things out.”


“Teddy’s the same way!” Rose proclaimed. “You two are like the only men on earth who know how to just shut up and let me talk.”


They both laughed at her unintentional moment of candor.


“Well, I had a lot of practice, thanks to your aunt Ginny,” Harry said before he quite realized what he was saying. They stared at each other for a long, awkward moment, not sure what to say next. Harry and Ginny in the photograph stopped waving and stared at them somberly.


“You still miss her a lot, don’t you, Uncle Harry,” she asked, looking into his sad eyes.


“More than anyone really knows,” he admitted.


“I miss her too,” Rose said in an uncharacteristic whisper. “When I got pregnant with Aiden, she was the only one who never judged me. She never tried to play ‘what if’ or give me any advice I didn’t ask for. She just kept telling me that she loved me and that you and her would always be there to support me, no matter what I decided to do. When I was in labor, I wanted Mum there worse than anything in the world, but that was just because bloody labor hurts so bad that anyone who isn’t on drugs cries for their mummy. As soon as it was over, I wanted to see you and Ginny as much as Scorpius.”


Harry regarded his niece with tears in his eyes. “You won’t tell Scorpius that, right?” she asked, forcing a small smile through her own tears.


“One more secret for the two of us,” Harry replied.


Both of them had to rush to dry their eyes as they heard Octavia coming back down the stairs.


“Uncle Harry, can we play with the boggart?” she asked.


“I don’t know, sweetheart, it’s awfully close to your bedtime. I wouldn’t want you to have bad dreams,” he replied. Silently, he wondered who he was kidding. Octavia was basically fearless, and if anyone was likely to have bad dreams tonight, it was him.


“Please, please, PLEASE!” she wailed. Harry looked helplessly at Rose.


“For a few minutes,” she gave in. “But first you have to go put your pajamas on and brush your teeth.”


Five minutes later, Octavia bounded out of Lilly’s bedroom in her long nightgown. Harry waved his wand at the cabinet in the drawing room where the boggart had taken up residence, unlocking the door. Moments later, an acromantula the size of a German shepherd crawled out of the cabinet. Octavia screamed in mock horror.


Riddikulus” shouted Harry, waving his wand. The spider suddenly burst into a shower of confetti, much to Octavia’s delight.


Harry banished the confetti back into the cabinet and waited. Seconds later, an angry, hissing snake appeared, rearing up and baring its fangs.


Riddikulus” said Rose, and the snake suddenly swelled up and then popped like a balloon, hissing around the room before speeding back into the cabinet.


Harry waited in anticipation. This boggart had never been especially creative. Nothing like the nasty one that was kept in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom at Hogwarts. What happened next stunned them all. A dark-haired muggle man with beady eyes rose out of the cabinet, striding towards them. He suddenly brandished a gun and pointed it directly at Rose. Somewhere in the background, they heard a blood-curdling scream in a voice they knew all too well.


Riddikulus!” Harry waved his wand at the boggart to no avail. Nothing remotely humorous was coming to his mind. “Riddikulus” he shouted again, struggling with all his might to imagine the man in his underpants, but nothing happened.


Harry stole a glance at Rose and found her clutching Octavia with a terrified look on her face. The man with the gun stalked closer. Harry was about to use much stronger magic against the boggart when Octavia reached up and grasped her mother’s wand.


Riddikulus!” the young girl cried, and suddenly the man was wearing Molly’s favorite Sunday dress, brandishing a turkey leg instead of a gun. Harry sighed with relief and cast a spell to force the boggart back into the cabinet. He locked it securely and turned to find Octavia holding Rose, who was holding her face and sobbing.


“Octavia, run off to bed,” Harry said quietly. “I’ll be up in a moment to tuck you in.”


Octavia kissed her mother gently on the head and then skipped away to Lily’s room.


Harry dropped to his knees and pulled Rose close to him. “Shhhh,” he whispered, “everything is OK. It was just a boggart. It must have figured out that it can’t scare Octavia, so it went after us, instead.”


After a few minutes, Rose regained some control. Harry poured two glasses of firewhiskey and offered one to Rose. She downed it in one gulp and handed the glass back to him.


“I’m so sorry, uncle Harry,” she finally managed. “I should have been stronger. But that scream. It was her, wasn’t it?”


“Yes,” he replied. He looked at her with fatherly affection but his voice sounded far away.


“I’ll take care of Octavia. Why don’t you go to bed?” he offered.


She nodded and smiled at him gratefully. “I know it sounds awful, but I don’t think I’m up to answering any of her questions right now.”


Harry smiled at his god-daughter, then his look turned a little more serious. “Rosie, does she know?”
 

“About how Aunt Ginny died? I think so. I know I’ve heard Aiden and her cousins talk about it around her.”
 

“No, I mean does she know where she was when Ginny died?”
 

“Oh, that,” Rosie replied as fresh anguish appeared on her face. “No. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
 

“She’ll have to know someday,” said Harry thoughtfully. “But not now. Not when she’s so young.”
 

Harry kissed Rose on the forehead. “Good night, Rosie. I’ll probably be gone by the time you’re up. I’ll have Hermys keep some breakfast warm for the two of you.”


“Thanks, uncle Harry,” she replied and turned to head up the stairs to Al’s room.


Harry found Octavia reading in bed. He sat down on the bed next to her and peered over her shoulder. It was a Nancy Drew mystery that Hermione had bought for Lily when she was about Octavia’s age.


“Lily loved those books,” Harry said, smiling.


“She’s so smart,” Octavia replied, setting the book down. “Nancy Drew, that is. Lil’s smart, too, but she doesn’t solve any mysteries.”


“You’re really smart, yourself, you know?” Harry told her. “The Riddikulus charm is pretty advanced magic. They don’t teach that at Hogwarts until third year.”


Octavia beamed at him for a moment, then looked concerned. “Papa Harry, I won’t get in trouble with the Ministry for doing underage magic, will I?”


Harry smiled at her. As Head Auror, he was privy to all of the spells that the Ministry used to detect underage magic outside of Hogwarts. Among the many magical protections he had placed on the estate was one that blocked most of the Ministry’s monitoring spells. “I think it will be OK this time,” he replied. “Just make sure that you don’t do it again.”


“Papa Harry, who was that man that the boggart used to scare you and Mum?”


Harry struggled for a long moment to think of what to say.


“He was a very bad man. He hurt a lot of people very badly. But he’s gone now. He won’t ever hurt anybody again.”


“Papa Harry, is he the man who killed Great Aunt Ginny?”


“Yes, sweetheart, he was,” Harry replied softly. “How did you find out about that?”


“Lillian and Billy told me about her. It made me sad that she died when I was so little. I wish I could remember her. Mum says that she was the nicest witch in the whole world.”


“She was,” Harry answered simply. “And she loved you and your brother and all of your cousins more than anything in the world.”


Octavia stared at him for a long moment. She reached under her pillow and pulled out a stuffed unicorn that Harry immediately recognized. Narcissa had given it to her years ago. The unicorn was made of the finest silk with onyx hooves and obsidian eyes. Its horn was made of spun gold fabric, and it was enchanted to gallop about and play with the child that owned it. At the moment, it seemed rather annoyed about being stuffed under Octavia’s pillow, and it snorted and stamped its hooves with displeasure.


“Papa Harry, do you want to sleep with Artemis?” she asked. “Grandma Cissy told me that she would keep nightmares away.”


“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to keep her here with you?” he asked. “That boggart was pretty scary.”


“It was kind of scary,” she admitted, “but I think it scared you and mum worse.”


Harry picked up the unicorn and kissed Octavia on the head. “You’re a brave little girl, and I love you very much. Good night, Octavia.”


The unicorn struggled and kicked as Harry carried it into the drawing room, clearly upset to be leaving its owner. He set it down on the coffee table and picked up his firewhiskey. After downing the glass, he poured himself another. Sleep was not going to come easily tonight.


“Maybe I should take you to bed with me,” he said to the unicorn. It glared at him and turned to face the opposite wall. “Or maybe not.”


Twenty minutes later, he peeked into Lily’s room to find Octavia sleeping peacefully. “Voldemort himself couldn’t scare that one,” he mused. He set the unicorn down on her pillow, where it turned around a couple of times before plopping onto its side. Her arm instinctively wrapped around it.


“Good night, sweetheart,” he whispered.


Harry climbed the stairs to the master bedroom, already dreading the sleepless night that likely lay ahead. As he pulled on his pajamas, his thoughts drifted back to Percy. His brother-in-law had long since acquitted himself of the way he turned his back on the family when Minister Fudge refused to acknowledge Voldemort’s return. In the aftermath of Ginny’s death, he had proven himself beyond a shadow of doubt. But his recent erratic behavior disturbed Harry deeply. Harry lost himself in the memory as the worst days of his life played out in his mind’s eye.






Updated Author's Note, Feb. 14, 2013 -- I have been very remiss in pointing out two very important sources of inspiration for this chapter. The bit about Arthur causing the evacuation of Heathrow Airport as well as the name of Scorpius and Rose's oldest child both came from Padfoot4ever's incredible story Delicate, along with the majority of my Scorpius/Rose head canon. The bit about genie glass and the name of Harry's house elf both come from Mrs_Granger's amazing Harry Potter and the Winters After the War. I would encourage anyone to read these two stories. They really are two of the best you'll ever find.

Chapter 4: Losses
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OK, in this chapter we finally start to get to some of the interesting plot twists. I hope you enjoy it. I have about 3 more chapters complete already and I'll be posting them as quickly as the validation process allows. Thank you for reading. As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.






Four Years Earlier


Harry regarded the stark interior of the Wizengamot chamber as they entered the room. It had always seemed a bit spartan, considering the magnitude of the decisions that were made there. The laws that governed wizarding Britain were debated here. The greatest disputes among witches and wizards were settled in this room. And lives were quite often made or broken.


Harry recalled his first experience before the council, when he was tried for using magic outside the school to save himself and Dudley from the dementors. Only Dumbledore’s influence had prevented him from being cast out of wizarding society by those who would not believe that Voldemort had returned. After he joined the Aurors, he became a frequent visitor. Harry had been a witness in the trial of every Death Eater that was sent to Azkaban for their role in the Second Wizarding War.


He had experienced a lot of success in this room and enjoyed some great moments of personal fulfillment. He only hoped that this day would end so well.


“This session of the Wizengamot shall come to order,” declared Chief Witch Athena Bagginthorpe, banging the gavel in front of her. The witches and wizards assembled before wizarding Britain’s highest court took their seats. All of the members of the Wizengamot were present to render their verdict in perhaps the highest profile trial since the last of the Death Eaters were tried. They regarded the three defendants seated before them gravely as the Chief Witch spoke.


“Will the defendants Harry James Potter, Ronald Bilius Weasley and Hermione Granger Weasley please rise.”


“Before this court hears closing arguments, we will offer the defendants one last chance to alter their pleas or offer any additional information that they might wish to divulge.”


Harry remained impassive, but he smiled ruefully on the inside. They’re practically begging, he mused to himself.


“My clients have no additional information beyond what has already been provided to this court, nor do they wish to change their pleas at this time,” replied Percy.


Percy had taken a leave of absence from the Ministry for the past several months to act as counsel for the trio. In spite of the fact that his specialty was international magical law and treaties, Percy had proven to be an excellent litigator. He had put in countless hours studying case law and learning the intricacies of trying a criminal case before the Wizengamot. Harry could not imagine anyone mounting a better defense.


“Very well,” Bagginthorpe sighed. “The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the intentional murder of one Edwin Michael Stoops, a muggle who was struck by the Killing Curse while in the custody of the muggle authorities in North London. The following facts of the case are not in dispute: First, that the deceased had been arrested by the muggle police for the crime of murdering one Ginevra Weasley Potter. Second, that unbeknownst to the muggle authorities, Mrs. Potter was a witch and the wife of defendant Harry Potter and the sister of defendant Ronald Weasley. Third, that no witness to this proceeding has been able to corroborate the whereabouts of any of the three defendants on the night when the deceased was struck by the Killing Curse. Fourth, that all three defendants were deeply distraught and angered by the death of Mrs. Potter. Fifth, that the magical abilities of all three defendants are known to be highly advanced so as to allow them to have penetrated the wards and protective spells cast around the muggle jail by the Aurors assigned to protect the deceased.”


“Pffft,” Harry let a small laugh escape under his breath. As Percy had clearly shown in his cross-examination of those Aurors, the wards were perfunctory and completely inadequate to protect such a high-profile target. It was embarrassing to think that his Aurors had been so careless. He and Ron definitely had some remedial training to do once this was all over.


“Mr. Potter,” the Chief Witch boomed, “with all due respect to your extensive experience in magical law enforcement, you will keep your opinions to yourself or be removed from this court. Is that clear?”


Harry silently cursed himself for his momentary loss of control. The Wizengamot chamber was charmed so that even the slightest statement by anyone in the room could be heard by the members of the Wizengamot. “Very clear, your honor. I apologize.”


Bagginthorpe paused for a moment before continuing. She looked as though she'd tasted a hint of something bitter. “Sixth, that the Aurors’ analysis of the crime scene demonstrated with certainty that only a single witch or wizard was present when the Killing Curse was cast. And seventh, that no eye-witness accounts or circumstantial evidence exists which can prove the identity of the witch or wizard who cast the curse.”


And there was the fatal flaw in the case. Three defendants, one killer. And not a shred of real evidence to prove that the killer sat among them, let alone which. Harry felt the bitterness rising in his throat. Why are we even sitting here? They can’t convict us on this rubbish and they know it.


“Will the prosecution please deliver its closing statement,” concluded Bagginthorpe, gesturing towards the prosecution table.


Prosecutor Rigel Barsamian rose to address the council, impeccably dressed and bursting with self-assurance. From the moment he was assigned to the case, he had zeroed in on Ron, Hermione and Harry. A more experienced prosecutor might have proceeded more cautiously, letting the Aurors take their time to pursue leads, collect evidence and see where the investigation led. Barsamian charged blindly forward, unshakable in his conviction that a circus trial under the blazing spotlights of the press would somehow shake loose the truth. He was the perfect tool for whoever had orchestrated it all, Harry reasoned. Young, ambitious and stupid.


“Members of the Wizengamot,” Barsamian began, “The heinous nature of this crime is apparent to each of you. You have all seen the images of the crime scene that were captured by the first Aurors to arrive. The Killing Curse that struck Edwin Stoops was so powerful that his body was incinerated. A hole eight inches deep and two feet in diameter was created in the concrete floor and the steel bars holding Mr. Stoops in his cell were partially melted. And make no mistake, Mr. Stoops was confined to a cell. He had no chance to flee. No ability to defend himself.”


Harry was barely paying attention, lost in thought. Whoever was behind the sham trial could have also engineered Ginny’s murder. Over the course of the trial, Harry’s Auror training and experience became a wall, keeping the flood of grief and loss from consuming him. He knew that he couldn’t keep his feelings at bay forever. Sooner or later, he would have to lower the wall and grieve. But that would have to wait until the business at hand was settled.


With Stoops dead, they’d never know for sure whether he was acting on someone else’s orders, either willingly or under the Imperius Curse. Worse still, the trial had kept him, Ron and Hermione away from the investigation while the evidence grew cold. It all felt very well planned, far too well for an idiot like Barsamian. Still, Barsamian seemed like a good place to start working his way back to the person pulling the strings. The tricky part would be finding out who without looking like he was using his position as Head Auror to pursue a vendetta against the arrogant young prosecutor. With patience and some well-placed inquiries, Harry reasoned that he could find out what Barsamian knew.


Harry returned his attention to the trial as Barsamian drew his wand for emphasis. “The witch or wizard who killed Mr. Stoops slaughtered him like an animal in a cage. He or she drew their wand, pointed it squarely at Mr. Stoops’s chest, and fired the Killing Curse with such force that the room was nearly destroyed.”


“This was the act of a powerful witch or wizard, ladies and gentlemen. An angry witch or wizard. A witch or wizard who looked at Mr. Stoops and saw the man who killed their best friend,” he gestured towards Hermione, “or their little sister,” he indicated Ron, “or their beloved wife,” he completed as the focus shifted to Harry.


Maybe if we all promise to buy his book when it comes out, he’ll shut up and we can go home, Harry mused grimly. Home. Harry shuddered to think about what awaited him there. It had been close to eight weeks since the three of them were taken into custody on the day after Ginny died. From what Harry could tell, the whole family had put its grieving on hold, gathering in a united front behind them. The Minister himself had approached Arthur to suggest a quick, quiet funeral for Ginny, but the family wouldn’t hear of it. Not while Ron, Hermione and Harry sat in jail. It warmed Harry’s shattered heart to see his family come together like this in their darkest hour, but he knew how badly all of them were hurting on the inside. There would be many tears to come.


“To convict the defendants in this case, you don’t have to believe that Mr. Stoops did nothing wrong. From all indications, the deceased was a violent, sociopathic man. He had a lengthy criminal record, including larceny, armed robbery and assault. The three defendants are certainly entitled to our deepest sympathy for their heartbreaking loss. But when you take the law into your own hands, you are crossing a line. The prosecution asks this court to find the defendants jointly and severally guilty of the crime of murder based on the evidence presented, based on their own statements, but most importantly based upon the inability, either collectively or individually, to provide this court with any credible accounting of their whereabouts on the night that Mr. Stoops was killed.”


“Thank you, Mr. Barsamian,” said the Chief Witch as the prosecutor returned to his seat. “Mr. Weasley?”


“Thank you, your honor,” replied Percy as he rose. He carefully positioned himself in front of the members. He had practiced for two days to deliver his closing argument, and he took a second to quickly go over the points in his mind. When he spoke, there was a deep conviction in his voice.


“Ladies and gentlemen, the defense is not here to dispute whether Harry, Ron and Hermione had a reason to loathe the deceased or to want to see him suffer for the loss that he inflicted upon their family. Ginny Potter was a wonderful woman, a loving wife and mother, a beloved sister of the Weasley family and a dear friend to all who knew her. The entire wizarding world was saddened by the news of her murder. It was a senseless, vile act.”


“Rather, the defense would simply point out that the law is unambiguous on the proof required to convict a witch or wizard of the crime of murder. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Honorable witches and wizards of the Wizengamot, that simply does not exist in this case. The prosecution has not presented a single witness who was able to place the defendants anywhere near the scene of the crime. Nor have they produced a shred of physical evidence to show that one of the three defendants cast the Killing Curse that ended the life of the deceased.”


“The fact that the defendants cannot corroborate their whereabouts on the night of the crime proves nothing. As the defendants stated while under oath, Mr. Potter was secluded in his home, attempting to mourn the loss of his wife away from the horde of reporters and photographers that have hounded him since her death. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were similarly attempting to hide from these shameless, unscrupulous profiteers as they consoled each other.”


“We are not here today to determine the guilt or innocence of Mr. Potter or Mr. and Mrs. Weasley,” stated Percy as he moved back towards the defense table. “That was obvious to anyone paying attention to the facts.”


“This entire inquisition has been mostly an attempt to advance the careers of certain wizards and witches within the Ministry” - Percy tilted his glance less than subtly towards the prosecution table - “as well as a misguided attempt to redirect the public outrage at the death of Mrs. Potter toward the very people who the wizarding world should be supporting in their darkest hour.”


Percy noted the nods coming from the spectators’ gallery with satisfaction. Time for the kill.


“Forty-three years ago, when the entire wizarding world was consumed by death and chaos at the hands of the Dark Lord, Harry, Ron and Hermione did not shy away from their responsibilities. Given a mission to stop the Dark Lord by Albus Dumbledore himself, they risked life and limb to save us all. We ask the distinguished members of the Wizengamot to fulfill their responsibilities under the law and end this absurd spectacle. The defendants have suffered long enough under these baseless accusations. It’s time to let them go home and properly mourn.”


Harry, Ron and Hermione were led to a secure room to await the verdict of the Wizengamot. Percy joined them as they waited, trying to keep their spirits up. “I really can’t see what they’re talking about,” he said. “Easiest case on its merits that’s ever made it to trial. They’re probably buying time for Barsamian’s office to write their press release decrying the verdict.”


After less than two hours of deliberations, the defendants were summoned back to the council chamber. Once the members were seated, the Chief Witch spoke.


“Will the defendants please rise,” she began.


“Mr. Potter, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, before I hand down the council’s verdict, I must state the following for the record. We are nearly certain that one of you murdered Edwin Stoops. Each of you had motive and opportunity. You are all powerful wizards. Your survival and triumph over the Dark Lord is a testament to your ability to do things that most wizards and witches find impossible.”


“But the law is indeed clear on this matter. The evidence in this case is insufficient to convict any of you beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, reluctantly, we must find you not guilty of the charge of murder. We hereby order the defendants released from custody and their wands returned. This matter is closed and the Wizengamot stands in recess.”


With that, the Chief Witch banged the gavel and the darkest chapter of Harry’s life drew to a close.


The extended Weasley family surrounded them outside the council chamber and they were swept up in a flood of hugs, kisses and tears. The children who were too young to be at Hogwarts were sequestered with Fleur and Victoire, so the adults had no need to put up a brave front. Tears quickly gave way to sobs. Molly fought her way to the three of them and drew them all into a crushing hug.


“Oh, my dears,” she sobbed uncontrollably. “My poor, poor children. I love you all so much.”


Hermione was to first to succumb to her pent-up grief, clutching Rose and Hugo as the tears streamed down her face. Ron pulled an arm free from his mother’s grasp and pulled his family towards him, burying his face in Hermione’s hair. Harry could see Ron’s shoulders shudder as he joined her in sobs of relief and mourning. Arthur was clutching Molly and George, doing his best to maintain a stoic demeanor, but Harry could see the tears welling in his eyes. He hadn’t seen Arthur cry since the family had laid Fred to rest after the battle at Hogwarts. Now Arthur would have to bury another child, his little girl. Harry felt his heart tear again as he watched the man he’d loved like a father break down before his eyes.


Can she really be gone? Harry pondered the question as he embraced his sobbing daughter and youngest son. He felt James’s arms wrap around his neck and felt his eldest son’s tears running down his neck. Somewhere nearby, Teddy’s voice kept repeating, “I’m so sorry, Harry, I’m so sorry she's gone...”


The time they had spent in jail made it all seem unreal. In a way, things were easier in jail. The three of them fell into their well-rehearsed routine of taking on the world. They plotted and theorized and tried to unravel the mystery, setting their grief aside to focus on the trial. It was easy to pretend that someone else’s world had come crashing down instead of his own. Harry realized that part of him expected to find her waiting by the fire when he got home.


But she wasn’t going to be there. The comfortable fantasy they had all been inhabiting was over. Now there was no more hiding from his emotions and building walls around his grief. He pulled his children more tightly to him and began to confront his new reality.


“It’s all over,” he whispered to Al and Lily, putting on his best father voice. “Let it all out.”


“I miss her so much, daddy,” Lily sobbed.


“I know, sweetheart. We all miss her. Now we can take her home and let her rest.”


“Why, dad, why?” James moaned from his shoulder. “Why did it have to be her?” Even as he approached middle age, James was still his mother’s son.


“I don’t know, son,” Harry responded, feeling the tears begin to flow. The answer came unbidden from his conscience. Because you failed, Potter. You weren’t strong enough to protect her and now she’s gone.






The family took a long while to collect themselves. When their lift arrived at Level Eight, Harry noted approvingly that a group of Aurors were keeping the reporters contained on the far end of the Ministry atrium, making up whatever excuse was necessary to limit their movements. Harry led the family to the restricted apparition point that was used by Ministry employees. Strictly speaking it wasn’t available to visitors, but Harry reasoned that the Minister wouldn’t mind if it prevented the mob scene that was sure to ensue when the family tried to get past the crush of photographers surrounding the wall of fireplaces.


One by one, the members of the family disappeared to the Burrow to continue their mourning in the privacy of the Weasley family home. Soon, only Ron, Hermione, Harry and Percy remained.


Harry regarded his two best friends. “You two go on. Tell everyone that Percy and I will be along shortly.”


“Harry, are you sure you want to deal with this right now?” asked Hermione, concern evident on her tear-streaked face.


“I’ll be OK, at least for a little while,” replied Harry. “Go and look after the kids. The youngest ones will be arriving soon and they’re going to need a lot of help to make sense of all this.”


Hermione leaned forward and kissed Harry on the cheek. “Don’t be long, OK? James, Al, Lily, Teddy... they all really need you right now.”


“I know. Believe me, I need them, too.”


Ron and Hermione stepped into the apparition point and she grasped his arm as he prepared to turn.


“You guys know how much you mean to me, right?” Harry asked at the last moment. “I mean, you really, really know, don’t you?”


They both stared at him, caught off guard by his sudden earnestness. “I think so, mate,” replied Ron. “At least I know how much you mean to us and I reckon it’s about the same.”


Ron and Hermione turned and disappeared to the Burrow.


“Come with me,” Harry said to Percy. They stepped into the apparition point and Percy took Harry’s arm. The next thing he knew, they were standing in the middle of a forest without a hint of civilization to be seen.


“Where are we, Harry?”


“The forest of Dean. Ron, Hermione and I hid out here while we were on the run from Voldemort. Very few people know this place.”


“So what do we need to discuss,” Percy asked, discomfort evident on his face.


“You know what we’re here to discuss,” replied Harry, regarding his brother-in-law levelly.


“Well, I’m never, ever going to tell anyone, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”


“Percy, I know you’ll never willingly give up the secret,” said Harry, choosing his words carefully, “but I am concerned about what you are planning to tell people. Inevitably, they’re going to ask what you know. No offense, but you don’t really have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.”


“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Percy admitted. “I guess I’ll just tell them that what happened in the jail doesn’t matter. I knew the three of you were innocent and it was my job to get you acquitted. Simple as that, really.”


“You’re already treading on dangerous ground, Percy,” replied Harry. “How were you supposed to know that we were innocent?”


After a long silence, Percy lifted his gaze from the ground to stare directly into Harry’s eyes. Tears were streaming down his face.


“Yeah, right, what do I really know? I’ll tell you what I know, Harry. I know that when the Minister’s message jarred me out of bed on that godforsaken night, he was scared. So scared that he didn’t even try to let me down easy. He just blurted out that my baby sister was dead and the muggles thought they had the guy who killed her. He was scared because he knew that somebody was going to try to get to the bastard who killed Ginny. If not you or Ron then Bill, or George. Bloody hell, he wasn’t even sure he could count on Dad. But he trusted me. He told me to get to the jail and make sure that I was there to talk whichever of you nutters showed up out of killing him. The Aurors knew I was coming. They let me into the jail and obliviated the guards on the spot.”


Percy sucked in a deep breath, struggling to keep from breaking down. “And there he was. Staring back at me from inside that cell. He wasn’t big, or scary. He was just sitting there, staring into space. I couldn’t help myself. I asked him why...”


“He just laughed, Harry,” Percy whispered, his face twsited with fury. “He killed my baby sister and then he laughed in my face. I don’t remember how, but suddenly my wand was in my hand and it was pointed at his chest. He was still laughing. Oh, look at the red-headed tosser with the pointy stick.


Percy sucked in two more tortured gasps of air.


"Do you know what it's like, Harry? Casting the Killing Curse?"


"I've seen it done," Harry replied, shuddering inwardly as he recalled his nightmarish journeys into Voldemort's mind. "But no, I've never done it myself."


"It feels..." Percy struggled to find the right word before settling on one. "Amazing. It felt bloody amazing, Harry. All of my feelings, all the anger and sadness and grief, all of it just flowed out through my wand. When it was done, when he was dead, it was the strangest thing I've ever felt. I should have felt bad or scared or, I don't know, maybe proud of myself in a sick way. But I didn't feel anything. Just empty."


The revelation surprised Harry. He had never heard a first-hand account of what it felt like to cast the Killing Curse from someone he trusted. He had questioned many dark wizards accused of using it, but their answers were invariably filled with boasting and bravado. It was all rubbish, the terrified ravings of animals in a cage. Percy’s earnest answer made him reconsider Tom Riddle for a moment. Was that the trap he fell into? Did he have to keep killing again and again to alleviate the pain of his shattered soul?


“So what do you feel now?” Harry asked.


“I don’t know,” Percy reflected honestly. “I hardly know who I am any more. I think about what I’ve become and it terrifies me.”


“Harry, I never thought of killing anyone before. During the battle, when I was fighting Thicknesse, the thought of killing him never even crossed my mind. Did you know that I hit Rookwood with a stunning spell at the same time that Aberforth took him down? His back was turned to me. The man who killed Fred turned his back on me and all I could think to do was stun him. How did I become a killer, Harry? How did it happen?”


“I don’t know, Percy,” replied Harry sympathetically. “If we knew what turned good men into killers, I suspect there would be a lot less killing in the world.”


“So you still think I’m a good man?” Percy asked, the look in his eyes almost pleading.


“I do, Percy. And I don’t think I’m the only one. There’s a reason why the Minister called you first. It’s the same reason that Rookwood chose to turn his back on you and face old Ab. You’re not a killer Percy. You’re just a man who lost more than he could stand.”


“Bloody Minister,” Percy snorted. “He sends the Deputy Minister for International Affairs to protect a killer. Well, I guess what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”


Harry regarded Percy for a long time before speaking. “I’m glad we came here, Percy. I think it was important for you to get all that off of your chest.” He closed the gap between them with two quick steps and seized Percy by the collar of his robes. “Now you need to bury it all. You’ve got to bury it deep inside your mind. You can never, ever speak of this to another living soul. Do you understand?”


Percy nodded slowly, trying to meet Harry’s steely gaze.


“Because if you do then believe me, it will destroy you.”


Without another word, Harry released Percy’s robes, took his arm and they disapparated to the Burrow.






Harry sat bolt upright in bed and tried to calm his racing mind. After a fitful night of reliving some of his worst memories, he found it difficult to place himself in time. What was real? What was merely a bad dream? Instinctively, he reached across to the far side of the bed. It was empty and undisturbed. His heart sank as he realized that the worst nightmare of all was not a dream. He fumbled around on the nightstand and found his glasses. The clock read four fifteen A.M. He thought about trying to catch another hour of sleep, but his sheets were soaked with sweat and twisted in knots. He swung his feet to the floor and resigned himself to a long day.


After showering and getting dressed, Harry found Hermys already making breakfast in the kitchen. “Good morning, Master. You is up early,” the elf chirped happily. Harry half suspected that Hermys monitored his sleep somehow, since the elf always had breakfast going, no matter how early Harry awoke. He poured himself a cup of coffee and took two big sips.


“I didn’t sleep very well,” he admitted.


“Master needs his sleep,” Hermys replied, looking concerned. “Does Master wish for Hermys to contact a healer and arrange for some sleeping potions?”


“Thank you, Hermys, but I’ll be OK. Octavia was playing with the boggart last night and it stirred some unpleasant memories, that’s all.”


The elf’s normally happy expression shriveled into a disapproving frown. “Nasty creature, that. Not proper for such a noble house. It is not Hermys’s place to say, but Master should remove it from his house.”


Hermys made to smack himself in the face with the frying pan for his improper suggestion, but Harry quickly grabbed his arm. “It’s alright, Hermys. You’re probably right. But the boggart does have some uses. We just shouldn’t let it out right before bedtime, I think.”


Once he was sure that the elf wasn’t going to try to hurt himself, Harry requested his breakfast in the study. He quietly made his way through the house, sipping his coffee as he walked. He stopped by Lily’s bedroom and peeked in on Octavia. The little girl was sleeping peacefully. Artemis was also asleep, curled up on the pillow beside her head. Harry silently pulled the door up and continued down the hall. “Barely six years old and able to cast the Ridikulus charm,” he mused to himself. “She has a lot of her grandmother in her.”


He pulled the door of the study closed behind him and turned on the lights. The portraits on the wall were all still asleep, although several of the faces turned to avoid the light. Dumbledore’s portrait, as always, appeared serene. Harry had commissioned a painting of his mentor sitting behind his great wooden desk. That was always how Harry had remembered the man most fondly. Fawkes the Phoenix sat on a perch behind the headmaster with his head tucked beneath his wing. Harry was less clear on how the magic worked where Fawkes was concerned, since the bird was still alive. Looking at it a different way, Harry supposed, Fawkes had also died dozens of times. There was much about the magic of phoenixes that was not well understood.


“You look tired, son,” came a voice from behind him. Harry turned to see his mother staring at him from a large portrait across the room from Dumbledore. The portrait’s other three occupants, James, Sirius and Remus, continued snoring quietly.


“I didn’t sleep very well, mum,” Harry replied. The portrait of his parents and their best friends was based on an old photograph that Sirius had given him. Enchanted portraits were like living things in a way, starting off as lifeless as muggle portraits and then gradually developing their personality over time. Talking to them was key, Harry had learned. The day that his mother had finally answered him was one of the happiest days of his life. Harry could discuss anything with her.


“Bad dreams?” she asked knowingly.


“Rosie and I let Octavia play with the boggart last night. After it had a couple of goes at her, it decided to come after us. It took the form of the muggle who killed Ginny. I guess I was thinking about her a lot yesterday. I went up on the hill to see her and...” His voice trailed off.


Harry thought that he could almost see tears in his mother’s eyes as she smiled warmly at him. “Harry, I don’t know what to say. I never had to go on without your father. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you.”


“Mum, what’s it like, dying?” Harry asked. “I know Sirius said it was as easy as falling asleep, but he fell through the Veil. Was it different for you and dad?”


She studied him for a long moment before answering. “It wasn’t especially painful, at least not in a physical sense. But I remember the sense of loss was overwhelming. You were just a baby, Harry. When the Killing Curse hit me, you were five feet away. You were crying, terrified. And the last thing I remember wondering before he killed me was who was going to change your nappy. It seems silly now. Such a stupid little thing. But it was part of a bigger realization. That I was never going to be able to hold you again. That hurt worse than anything I could imagine.”


Two sets of brilliant, green eyes stared into one another, sharing their pain. Just then, Hermys appeared with Harry's breakfast. He shook himself loose from his mother’s gaze and took a deep breath.


“Thank you, Hermys. Please keep some food warm for Rose and Octavia.”


“Yes, Master,” the elf replied and disappeared.


He sat down and forced himself to eat. He wasn’t the least bit hungry, but he knew he had a long day ahead of him. When he had eaten as much as his nervous stomach would allow, he rose and turned out the light. Lily spoke again as he was about to leave.


“Son, I know what you’re thinking about. And I can’t tell you whether you’re right or wrong to think that way. I haven’t been where you are. All I can tell you is that once you turn that corner, there’s no going back. All the gold in Gringotts can’t buy you another minute with those you leave behind.”


Harry paused in the doorway. “Thanks, Mum. I’ll try not to forget that.”


The study fell silent as Harry’s footsteps retreated down the hallway.


“I believe,” Dumbledore’s voice broke the silence, “that this world still needs Harry Potter. Perhaps more than he needs it.”


“Oh, shut up, Albus,” snapped Sirius angrily. “Nobody alive has sacrificed more for this bloody ungrateful world than Harry. If he wants his peace, let him have his peace and don’t interfere.”


“A bit casual about my son’s death, aren’t you, Padfoot?” James replied.


“All I’m saying, James, is that he doesn’t owe anything to anybody. If he chooses to end things on whatever terms he finds acceptable then that’s his choice. He doesn’t need Father Christmas over there gifting him any more Herculean tasks.”


“I do not plan to interfere, Sirius,” Dumbledore replied calmly. “But the secret of Harry’s greatness lies in the fact that he never sought it. Destiny calls upon him and he merely answers. And destiny, I believe, has further plans for Harry Potter.”


Chapter 5: Those Who Don’t Learn From History
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Thank you to everyone who has read Conspiracy of Blood so far. I truly appreciate the reviews.


As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.






The morning mists still blanketed the lake as Harry appeared in front of the gates of Hogwarts Castle. He yawned as he strolled up the path to the massive doors, tired but still looking forward to another lesson with his sixth and seventh year students. This year’s class showed great promise. As long as N.E.W.T.s went well, the Auror Department might get three solid recruits from the class of 2046. To his surprise, the headmaster himself met Harry at the main entrance.


“Neville,” Harry smiled as he clapped his old friend on the shoulder, “you make an old man feel important.”


“Hi, Harry,” Neville replied. “Never too busy to properly greet our favorite guest lecturer. Of course, you could let yourself in if you’d just give in and become a teacher here.”


Harry grinned at his friend, but the question Neville asked had actually weighed on him for a while. Truth be told, he was getting a bit old for the life of an Auror. His magical abilities were almost unequaled, but his stamina and reflexes weren’t what they used to be. The relatively quiet life of a Hogwarts professor did sound appealing at times. But there were still dark wizards in the world. As long as he was able, he felt the need to keep the darkness at bay.


“Sorry, Neville, that sounds much too exciting for an old man like myself,” Harry replied. “How on earth would I keep up with these youngsters? I bet some of them are almost as devious as we were.”


Neville smiled at his friend’s casual deflection. “Well, my door is always open to you, Harry. If you ever change your mind, we’d be honored to have you. In the mean time, I was wondering if you’d have a few minutes to chat after your class today.”


“Certainly. Shall I meet you in your office?”


The headmaster’s office still held a sense of wonder for Harry. He could remember the awe of standing in front of Dumbledore’s desk as a young student while the headmaster regarded him through his half-moon spectacles. He especially liked visiting with the portraits of Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall. He found Dumbledore much more talkative in his old office than in the portrait that he kept in his study.


“Wonderful,” replied Neville. “I’ll see you after class.”


Harry proceeded to a large classroom on the second floor of the castle and found several of his students already warming up with some simple dueling spells. He had originally thought about teaching the class in the Room of Requirement, but it didn’t seem fitting for an adult to show the students into that room. Better that they should be left to discover it on their own. Besides, he was teaching with the full blessing of the school and the Ministry. Secrecy was not a requirement.


“Good morning, Professor,” a sixth-year girl greeted him when she saw him approaching.


“Beatrice,” sighed Harry, feeling somewhat embarrassed, “I’m not really a teacher here. So please just call me Harry.”


“Yes, sir. I mean yes, Harry,” she replied, blushing.


Harry strolled to the front of the room and tossed his cloak over the back of a chair. He shrugged his shoulders in a circle, loosening up his back, and turned his head from side to side. It was early in the school year and he was still sorting out which of the sixth years had real talent and which ones were only here to try to impress their classmates. Today, they would try some faster dueling exercises and begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. He drew his wand and flexed it between his fingers, noting that James’s son Artie and Hugo’s daughter Celeste had entered the room. He gave each of them a slight nod. They could have family time later.


“Alright, ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “let’s divide up into pairs.”


He watched the students pair off. The seventh years quickly split up, while the sixth years fumbled their way through the process.


“Alright, wands at the ready. I want you all to focus on disarming charms and shield charms to begin with. Nothing more elaborate. Give yourselves a chance to warm up.”


He strolled around the room, carefully observing the strategy and technique employed by each student. Occasionally he saw a wand go flying or heard an errant spell crack against the wall, but overall he found the students were defending themselves adequately.


“Arthur,” he took care to address his grandson by the proper name, even though he felt stupid doing it, “be sure to keep your wand arm up. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with a broken nose when we move on to stunning spells.”


“Olivia, it’s ex-pell-ee-arm-us, not ex-pell-ee-ram-us. I doubt you’re going to be able to conjure a bighorn sheep, but let’s not take any chances, right?”


Half of the class laughed at Harry’s bad pun while the other half took advantage in their partner’s lack of concentration to try to disarm them.


“Halt,” he called out after three or four minutes had passed. “Now, we’re going to try something a bit faster. Ulysses and Veratrice, please join me at the front of the room.” He picked two of the promising seventh year students for the demonstration, and they both beamed as they hurried to take their positions.


“Speed and accuracy are crucial things for a duelist to master,” Harry lectured. “A skilled opponent isn’t going to fling curses at you one at a time while you block them. They will use combinations of spells to try to overwhelm your defenses. Therefore, it is essential that you learn to cast your shielding charms rapidly and accurately. Ulysses, you will be on the defensive in this exercise. Try to block all of the spells that Veratrice casts at you. Now, Veratrice, I’d like you to try the following combination.” Harry cast a nonverbal muffliato charm and whispered something into the girl’s ear.


“Wands at the ready. Go!”


Veratrice fired a stunning spell, quickly followed by a disarming charm. Ulysses successfully blocked both, but then she followed with everte statum, stupefy and flipendo in rapid succession, casting each spell with alternating flicks of her wand. Ulysses managed to fend off the first two spells, but the third caught him in the midsection and sent him sprawling to the ground.


“Well done, both of you!” Harry exclaimed as he helped Ulysses back to his feet. “Did everyone see the way that Veratrice used the back and forth motion of her wand to cast spells in rapid succession? That is an important offensive technique, but it can also be used to rapidly cast shield charms. OK, let’s switch roles. Ulysses, here’s what I want you to do.”


Veratrice fared better, managing to block seven separate spells before Ulysses finally got a leg-locking curse past her defenses. She was definitely beginning to look like the strongest student in the class, although it was early in the year.


“Brilliant,” Harry proclaimed as he removed the curse from Veratrice’s legs. “Being able to rapidly cast shield charms and alternate them with offensive spells is vital to winning any duel. This is especially true because dark wizards don’t often fight fair. You might find yourself confronting two or three opponents simultaneously.”


“Prof... I mean, Harry,” Beatrice corrected herself, “how can anybody cast spells fast enough to fight three people at once?”


Harry broke into a small grin while the seventh year students smiled at each other knowingly. One of the sixth years always asked the question eventually.


“Veratrice, Ulysses and Anthony, please come to the front. Beatrice, Arthur, Celeste, why don’t you join them?”


The six students shuffled uneasily into a dueling line opposite Harry. Harry stood calmly, with his arms by his sides. The sixth years looked thoroughly confused, if not frightened. The seventh years held their wands in the ready position, but their stance was clearly defensive.


“Well what are you waiting for?” asked Harry, impassively. “Attack me.”


A long, awkward moment passed as Harry continued to stand calmly, making no effort to defend himself. The students stared at him, uncertain of when or how to act. Veratrice finally broke the stalemate, crying “Stupefy” as she whipped her wand towards him. Before the words could pass her lips, Harry’s wand flew unbidden from his pocket into his hand and he dropped into a defensive stance, turning her spell aside. The students unleashed a barrage of charms and curses in his direction. Harry’s wand became a blur, flicking from side to side as he wordlessly blocked spell after spell. His face was a mask of calm focus while the chaotic onslaught of magic continued.


He observed his students carefully as they attacked. The three seventh years were all showing excellent form. They kept their wand arms held high and their spell casting motions tight. The sixth years were clearly less experienced. They were sometimes using their entire arms to cast spells, letting their wands stray from their center line. There was also a lack of variety in their spells.


Arthur was the first to show a lapse in concentration, letting his wand fall to waist level after firing a disarming charm. Harry rewarded him with a full body-bind curse, dropping him to the floor. Beatrice was the next to lower her guard, and Harry disarmed her and hung her in the air with a levicorpus spell. After another few moments, Anthony over-extended himself on a stunning spell and Harry neatly stunned him in return.


“Celeste is holding her own fairly well,” Harry thought. Seconds later, inexperience finally caught up with the sole remaining sixth year.  It was subtle, but she said Protoga instead of Protego. Harry’s experienced ear immediately picked up on her mistake and he caught her in a body-bind curse as her wand began to spit out yards of white fabric.


He continued to duel Veratrice and Ulysses, waiting for either one to make a mistake. After a while, he noticed that they had begun to alternate their casting of offensive spells, trying to spread Harry’s defenses. It was an impressive adaptation, and he made a mental note to commend them after they were finished. Harry began to speed up his counterattack, firing rapid combinations of offensive spells in between parrying their attacks. Ulysses’s wand soon spun away from his hand and Harry hit him with a blinding curse, causing him to stumble aimlessly about until he tripped over Artie and fell.


With only Veratrice remaining, Harry decided to have a bit of fun. He parried a stunning spell and then quickly turned. Veratrice took the opportunity to hit him with a full body-bind curse, dropping him uselessly to the floor. She eased towards him with her wand still at the ready, but the smile on her face was huge.


“You can’t apparate in Hogwarts,” she proclaimed triumphantly. “Have you forgotten, Harry?”


“Not at all,” came a familiar voice from behind her. It was quickly followed by a disarming charm and a levicorpus spell that left her hanging in the air. The other students howled with laughter as her robes fell over her head, revealing her striped pajama bottoms. Harry had defeated all six of them in less than five minutes. Now came the trickiest part: not letting them see how exhausted he felt.


Harry strode forward from the back of the room. “You can’t apparate into or out of Hogwarts and you can’t apparate between the different wings of the castle, but there is nothing to stop you from apparating across the room.”


One by one, Harry removed the curses from his fallen opponents and revived those that had been stunned. Veratrice regarded Harry with a mix of embarrassment and curiosity as he lowered her gently to the floor.


“What was that spell you used to leave the decoy behind,” she asked, gesturing towards the now empty spot at the front of the room.


“It’s a spell called ‘Projectumbra’,” Harry explained. “It’s very useful for confusing your opponent, but extremely tricky to cast. Most Aurors typically see it for the first time during their training.”


“First of all,” he began, “Veratrice and Ulysses, excellent work. Truly first rate. The way that you were coordinating your offensive and defensive spellwork was very impressive. It’s obvious that the two of you have been practicing a great deal.”


“I saw them practicing in the hallway near the Ravenclaw common room the other day,” one of the other seventh years snickered, causing Veratrice to blush furiously and Ulysses to grin sheepishly. The entire class enjoyed a good laugh at their expense. One of the things Harry liked best about being a guest at the school was the lack of an imperative to observe proper decorum. He was free to joke and laugh with the students and in return they trusted him with certain things that they would never share with the regular faculty.


“OK,” Harry chuckled, “moving right along. Celeste, also very impressive. You need to work on your enunciation, but your wand work is solid.” Ron’s granddaughter beamed and Harry noticed Artie surreptitiously motioning with his wand while whispering softly to himself. Harry flicked his wand and a bolt of blue light incinerated the glowing, green snake that was making its way from Artie’s wand towards Celeste’s back. “You should also be careful who you turn your back on,” Harry grinned.


“Alright, let get back into our dueling pairs and practice that back-and-forth wand technique for casting defensive spells.”


Harry continued to put his students through their paces for another thirty minutes, then they spent ten minutes working on the patronus charm. It was one of the most complicated spells he taught, so Harry worked on it throughout the school year.


When the hour was up, Harry pulled the class together at the front of the room. “Excellent lesson, everyone. I’d like you all to keep working on your rapid spell casting between now and next week. Seventh years, I’m still looking for a few more volunteers to help mentor my first year students. If you’re interested, please see me after class or send me an owl. That’s it for today. I’ll see you all next week.”


“Veratrice,” he motioned for the seventh year girl to join him for a private word. “Sorry if I embarrassed you too much today. I appreciate you being such a good sport about everything.”


“It’s alright, Harry,” she replied with a smile. “If I’m going to be an Auror, I suppose I should get used to it. I heard that the pranks you lot play on the trainees can be brutal.”


They weren’t that bad, Harry reflected. Sure, there was the time that he and Ron had portkeyed the entire trainee class from a summer beach party to the top of the Swiss Alps, but there was an important lesson in that one. Never set your wand aside, even when you’re wearing your bathing suit.


“So you’re interested in becoming an Auror?” Harry asked.


“Yes, I think I am,” she answered. “What do you think?”


“Well, we’ll have to see how your N.E.W.T.s turn out, but I think we’d be lucky to have you,” Harry replied with a smile.


Veratrice was grinning from ear to ear and she ran to catch up with Ulysses outside of the class. Harry retrieved his cloak from the front of the room and started to leave.


“Beatrice,” he called to the sixth year girl as she was on her way out.


“Yes, Harry,” she replied.


“Did that answer your question,” he asked, grinning.


“Honestly, I feel a lot less sure of myself now than before I asked,” she admitted. “I’ve never seen anybody move that fast before. Do you have to be able to fight like that to become an Auror?”


“Nobody expects you to duel like a veteran Auror on the day that you join,” Harry reassured her. “Your sister, for instance, continues to improve her dueling all the time.”


“My sister was also the best potions student to come through Hogwarts in a generation,” Beatrice replied. “I don’t have anything like that to fall back on.”


“Beatrice, this is only your third class of the year. There is a long time between now and your N.E.W.T.s. If you keep at it, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of things that you’re good at.”


“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Harry,” she said. “And I’m sure you hear this all the time, but that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”






Harry strolled through the castle on his way to the headmaster’s office. He always felt at home here. The old stone walls held so many memories for him. As he prepared to round the corner, he heard voices coming from the next hallway.


“You should have seen it,” said a voice that he recognized from his earlier lesson. “Harry Potter dueled six students at once and beat them all. Two of the students were Ulysses Alderman and Veratrice Patenaud, and they’re the best in the whole school.”


“No way,” challenged a voice he didn’t know. “Nobody can duel six people at once.”


“Piss off, Northway,” replied a voice that he immediately recognized as Artie. “Grandpa Harry is the best there ever was. He beat Lord Voldemort one on one. Not even Albus Dumbledore could do that.”


It was a bit of an oversimplification. Tom Riddle had been struck by his own killing curse after his stolen wand rebelled against him, but Harry supposed it was close enough for a schoolyard argument.


The boy named Northway struck Harry speechless with his next comment, however. “Who is Albus Dumbledore?”


“Don’t you know anything?” a girl’s voice joined in the argument. “He was the Headmaster of Hogwarts during the First Wizarding War. He’s the one who taught Harry Potter how to fight Lord Voldemort.”


The Northway boy snorted derisively. “That’s all ancient history. All the stories from back then are made up, anyway. There’s no way one dark wizard could take over the world.”


Harry caught himself just as he was about to storm around the corner and hex the Northway boy. First of all, he wasn’t even sure that he could pick the boy out of the crowd. But more to the point, this wasn’t his fight. Artie was quite capable of putting the Northway boy in his place. It was the boy’s shocking ignorance of the past that made Harry want to hang him upside down from the ceiling of the Great Hall. Tom Riddle came close to succeeding, in great part, because most people refused to admit that it was possible until it was too late.


“Nobody’s making up anything, you idiot,” Artie shot back. “My great uncle Fred died fighting Voldemort right here in the castle, along with a lot of other people. Voldemort killed the Minister of Magic and Headmaster Snape. Your grandmother was a muggle. You wouldn’t even be here right now if Grandpa Harry hadn’t beaten him.”


“Your uncle probably blew himself up in the back of that joke shop in Hogsmeade,” replied Northway. “Lord Voldemort is just a story they tell to scare the first years.”


Harry heard scuffling and the distinctive sound of wands being drawn and decided that it was probably a good time to intervene. He strode around the corner just in time to find Artie and a chubby boy whose robes were adorned with Slytherin green pointing their wands at each other’s throats.


“Gentlemen, if you would kindly put those away.” Harry’s tone made it clear that it was not a request. “Now. Mr. Northway, I believe?”


“Yes, sir,” the boy replied, not meeting Harry’s gaze.


“Charmed to make your acquaintance. Am I to understand that you do not believe that Lord Voldemort existed?”


“I don’t know,” the boy mumbled. “Maybe he did exist, but all this talk of using dark magic to overthrow the Ministry and attack Hogwarts is just rubbish. Nobody could do that.”


Harry considered the young man for a moment. A plan formed in his mind. It was not without some risk, but it might help young Mister Northway understand the error in his thinking.


“Were you on your way to class just now, Mr. Northway?”


“Yes, sir. I have Charms right now and Magical Creatures this afternoon.”


“Splendid,” Harry replied. “Would you care to join me at the entrance to the Great Hall after you’re done with Charms? I have something I’d like to show you.”


“Well I don’t know,” he stumbled. “We have exams coming up and I have a lot of studying to do...”


“It’s September, Northway,” Artie retorted. “If it’s all rubbish, what are you scared of?”


“Well I don’t see you volunteering to go!”


“I’ll go anywhere with Harry. I’m not afraid.”


Northway stared at the growing crowd of students. He was clearly trapped.


“OK, I’ll see you at the front entrance after class,” he snarled. “But this had better not take long.”


“I promise that I won’t waste one second more of your valuable time than is absolutely required,” Harry replied.






Harry walked up to the gargoyle that guarded the entrance to the headmaster’s office.


“The headmaster is expecting you,” the statue said as it moved aside.


Harry rode the spiral stairs to the top and found Neville seated behind the great wooden desk.


“Hello, Neville. Hello, professors,” Harry grinned, feeling suddenly like a young schoolboy.


There was a chorus of greetings from the portraits. McGonnagal and Dumbledore beamed at Harry as they offered their welcomes. Even Snape managed a cordial, “Hello, Mr. Potter.”


“Hi, Harry,” said Neville, setting aside the parchment he’d been working on. “Please have a seat.”


“How are our sixth and seventh year students coming along with their defensive magic?” he asked as Harry sat down.


“Rather well, I think,” Harry replied. “Today we were practicing rapid curse-blocking techniques, then we finished the lesson with patronus charms. Most of the seventh years can at least produce a non-corporeal patronus at this point, and my three best students have all managed to produce at least one corporeal one.”


“That’s splendid, Harry,” said Neville. “I’m always telling the other headmasters what a wonderful teacher you’d make.”


Neville had abandoned subtlety. Harry couldn’t help but notice the wave of nods that rolled across the walls of portraits.


“We’ve discussed this, Neville,” Harry sighed. “I’m not ready to give up my day job just yet.”


“No hurry,” Neville replied. Harry studied Dumbledore’s portrait carefully. He could have sworn that it was avoiding his stare.


“So what would you like to discuss?” Harry asked, pointedly changing the subject.


“I’d like you to read a proposal that I’m drafting for the Board of Governors,” Neville explained as he handed Harry a roll of parchment. “It’s meant to be a sort of compromise between two differing points of view that have been causing some friction within the school.”


Harry skimmed the first six inches or so before meeting Neville’s expectant stare with a disgusted look on his face.


“You can’t be serious,” he exclaimed. “People are still arguing about the role of muggle studies in the curriculum? I remember this nonsense when James and Al were in school.”


“I’m afraid so, Harry,” Neville sighed. “And it’s mostly still the same people you’d expect. The old pure blood families complain that their children are being brainwashed against their own kind while the progressive families complain that their children aren’t learning how to function in a world where wizards have to interact with muggles.”


Harry studied the parchment for a while longer. “So what you’re proposing is to expand and modernize the muggle studies curriculum and make it more practical in nature, correct?”


“Exactly, Harry. The goal is to prepare all of our students to live in a world where muggle technology and muggle culture are an increasingly important part of life, but maintain the magical perspective on the subject matter.”


“Seems like a good idea to me,” Harry replied. “It drives me crazy that we’re still having these absurd arguments.”


“I appreciate it, Harry,” said Neville earnestly. “And I would appreciate it even more if you would perhaps put in a good word at the Ministry for my plan?”


And there was the rub. “I’ll do what I can,” he said, smiling at his old friend, “but I think you’re overestimating my influence.”


“Perhaps, but it never hurts for the Great Harry Potter to throw in a good word,” Neville replied through a big grin.


“Not to change the subject,” Harry said, trying to change the subject, “but what do you think about the way Magical History is being taught at Hogwarts?”


Harry noticed several of the portraits open their eyes. Dumbledore, in particular, seemed suddenly interested in the conversation.


“I suppose I hadn’t, really,” Neville replied. “With the whole muggle argument going on, Magical History doesn’t come up that often. Why do you ask, Harry? I thought you hated that class.”


“I did,” Harry admitted, drawing mutters of displeasure from some of the portraits. “But I overheard a conversation between several students this morning that started me thinking about whether it’s still a good idea to have the subject taught by a six hundred year old ghost.”


“I doubt any living person would know more about the subject than he does,” Neville pointed out.


“Yes, but that’s part of the problem, you see,” Harry replied. “He spends ages droning on about ancient goblin rebellions and wars between the giants. Yet he spends almost no time on our very recent history because, well, he’s been dead for all of it. Neville, this morning I heard a sixth year boy proclaim that Lord Voldemort was a story that adults made up to scare children. That kind of ignorance is dangerous.”


Harry heard muffled gasps from all around the room. All of the portraits were now staring intently at them. Dumbledore stroked his long beard pensively behind Neville.


“That is very serious,” Neville admitted. “Perhaps I need to have a conversation with Professor Binns about his curriculum.”


“With all due respect to the professor,” said Harry, “perhaps it’s time to look for a replacement.”


“I’m afraid that’s easier said than done, Harry,” Neville sighed. “Very few students even bother getting their N.E.W.T.s in Magical History these days. Almost nobody makes a career of it. The pool of candidates is remarkably shallow.”


“So you’ve looked already?” Harry fixed him with a stare.


“Mr. Potter,” Professor’s McGonnagal’s portrait interrupted, “I think it’s fair to say that the school has been aware of the deficiencies in Professor Binns’s teaching for some time. That information should, of course, remain within this room.”


Harry looked at his watch and rose from his seat. “Very well, as long as somebody’s thinking about it. Neville, I’ll be sure to mention your proposal to the Deputy Minister for Magical Culture. His opinion carries a great deal of weight with the Board of Governors and he owes me a favor. Now if you’ll all excuse me, I’m due for an appointment.”


There was a chorus of well wishes from the portraits as Neville rose to shake Harry’s hand.


“Oh, I almost forgot,” Harry said, “Neville, I would like to ask your formal permission to take two of your students outside of the castle for a special lesson in recent magical history.”


Neville looked at Harry in surprise. “Harry, what are you talking about?”


“I just wanted to follow up on the conversation I overheard this morning. The one about Voldemort.”


“Harry, you’re not going to do anything dangerous, are you?” asked Neville, suspiciously.


“Mr. Headmaster,” Harry replied with mock formality, “I hereby solemnly swear that I will expose your students to no more danger than is absolutely necessary to make my point.”


Neville stared at Harry for a long moment. “If you were anyone else in the world, I would definitely say no.”


“But I’m not, I’m the Great Harry Potter,” Harry grinned. He quickly made his way out of the office before the headmaster could change his mind.






Artie was already waiting by the front entrance when Harry arrived. Looking quickly around to make sure nobody was looking, Harry pulled his grandson into a quick hug.


“How are you, Artie? How are your classes?”


“Grandpa,” Artie moaned, trying to pull away with a less than convincing effort. “Northway’s gonna be here any second.”


They waited for another few minutes before Artie spied Northway peering at them from the far end of the Great Hall. He was taking great care to try to blend into a group of students at the far end of the Slytherin table.


Artie drew his wand and cast the sonorus spell. “I say, there, Northway,” his voice boomed across the Great Hall, “you ready to go?”


Northway looked frantically about, but he was once again trapped. Reluctantly, he made his way to the front entrance.


“Alright, then, follow me,” Harry said as he opened the great wooden doors and led the boys outside. They walked to the front gates of the school and stepped past the boundary of the magical wards.


“Each of you take one of my arms,” Harry directed.


“Wait, we’re apparating somewhere?” Northway asked, looking alarmed.


“We’d walk, but I don’t have all week,” Harry snapped. “Now let’s go.”


Both boys grasped Harry’s arms and he turned and they were gone.


The trio appeared at the employee apparition point inside the Ministry of Magic. Northway looked somewhat relieved when he recognized his surroundings. “My uncle works in Magical Records,” he said to nobody in particular.


Harry led them to the lift and then to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. He stopped in front of a large ebony plaque outside of the entrance. They all looked somberly at the list of names.


“Nymphadora Tonks,” Artie read. “That’s uncle Teddy’s mum, right?”


“Yes,” Harry replied, feeling the pangs of guilt that always accompanied his memories of Tonks, Lupin and Fred.


“So these are all the Aurors who died during the Second Wizarding War?” Northway asked quietly as he read the plaque.


“Yes, Mr. Northway. Twenty-seven good men and women who were killed by Lord Voldemort and his followers. At the time, that was over half of the department.”


After a few more moments, Harry turned and strode back towards the lift. Artie took a couple of steps after Harry, then turned back towards his schoolmate. “You coming, Northway.”


“Oh,” the boy acknowledged, tearing his eyes away from the plaque. They both hurried to join Harry in the lift.


When they reached the apparition point, Harry offered his arms to them again. He turned and they found themselves standing outside of St. Mungo’s Hospital. Harry silently led them through the lobby to the Greeting Witch’s podium.


“Good day, Head Auror Potter,” she said cheerfully. “How can we help you today?”


“I haven’t missed visiting hours, have I Charlene?” he asked.


“Oh, no,” she replied. “You have plenty of time.” She scanned her list of patients and frowned slightly. “Is there somebody in particular you’re here to see? I don’t see anyone from your department on the patient list today.”


“No, Charlene, this isn’t work related,” he answered. “We won’t be long.”


He led the boys past the confused witch and boarded the lift. They exited the lift on the fifth floor and walked down the hallway to the door for the permanent care ward.


Harry turned to face the two young men. “Some of the patients here are very disturbed and you may find some of them very disturbing. I hope that I don’t need to remind either of you to be on your best behavior.”


Harry led them through the door, grimacing inwardly at how much he had just sounded like Professor McGonagall. There were several patients sitting in the public area of the ward. The ones that were not deemed dangerous to themselves and others were allowed to socialize here. They passed an elderly man who carefully poured water back and forth between two glasses. Next was a middle-aged witch who was muttering something to herself about crossword puzzles. “All the answers are in there, you know!” she called to Northway as they passed, causing him to subconsciously move closer to Harry.


Harry stopped in front of an elderly couple sitting on an old leather sofa. The old witch had short, grey hair and a welcoming, round face. She held a newspaper in front of her. Although her face was pointed towards it, but her eyes remained unfocused, as though she was trying to remember something from long, long ago. The wizard had wisps of curly, grey hair with a large bald spot in the middle. He sat hunched over a table, making small motions with his arm. He seemed to be trying to cast a spell with a wand he no longer possessed.


“Hello, Frank, Alice,” Harry greeted them. “It’s Harry. Harry Potter.” They both turned their heads slightly in response to their names, but neither looked up to meet Harry’s gaze.


Harry paid their behavior no mind. “I’d like you to meet Arthur and... Mr. Northway, I didn’t catch your first name?”


“Dennis, sir,” he replied quietly.


“Arthur and Dennis,” Harry said, turning back to face the elderly couple. “They’re students at Hogwarts.”


At the mention of Hogwarts, the old witch stared harder at her newspaper. The thing she was struggling to recall was right on the cusp of her mind. Then it faded away and the impassive look returned to her face. The old wizard continued to flick his missing wand.


“Frank, Alice, we have to go now,” Harry told them “I’ll visit again sometime soon.”


If the elderly couple even heard him, they made no sign of it. Harry led the two boys back to the hallway.


“What happened to them,” Dennis blurted out as soon as the door was closed behind them.


“Frank and Alice were Aurors during the First Wizarding War, when Lord Voldemort originally tried to seize power,” Harry explained. “They were captured by a group of Voldemort’s followers. They tried to make Frank and Alice tell them things.”


“One of Voldemort’s followers, a vicious, evil woman by the name of Bellatrix Lestrange, used the Cruciatus curse on them until they both went insane. They have been here at St. Mungo’s for over sixty years.”


Harry stared at Dennis as realization entered his eyes, followed by horror.


“Grandpa Harry,” Artie said slowly, “I think I know who Frank and Alice are. Or at least who they’re related to.”


Harry nodded gravely at his grandson. “Their last name is Longbottom.”


Dennis was at a complete loss for words. His mind reeled as he tried to absorb it all.


“I never knew,” he finally mumbled. “Professor Longbottom never let on to anything like that.”


“Come along, boys. We have one more stop to make before I have to get you back to school,” Harry said.


They exited the hospital and both boys grasped Harry’s arms outside the entrance. He turned and suddenly they were standing on a rocky outcropping on the side of a mountain, near the timber line. Another hundred yards or so up the mountain, they could see the mouth of a cave. In spite of the fact that it was a relatively warm autumn morning, there was frost covering the ground around the cave and an ominous looking fog seeped from its mouth.


Harry took a couple of steps forward with his hand extended in front of him. He stopped about halfway across the outcropping, appearing to feel something that the boys could not see.


He turned and fixed them with a stare. “This is the edge of the protective wards surrounding this place. If anything happens to me, you run - do not walk, run - back to this place. Do not look back. Do you both understand?”


The boys nodded in agreement. Artie asked, “Grandpa, what’s in there that they need to keep people out?”


“Who said anything about keeping anyone out?” Harry asked, stepping past the wards and taking a few steps up the mountainside. His wand was out and he looked warily around. Both boys followed him.


An unnatural chill filled the air inside the wards. The sun didn’t feel as warm on Dennis’s face, even though it continued to shine brightly in the sky.


“Grandpa, what’s that?” Artie cried, pointing towards the mouth of the cave. Several dark shapes were emerging from the mist, rising slowly into the air. Artie counted four of the irregular shapes at first, but several more followed and he quickly lost count. The shapes didn’t cast any shadow that he could see, yet the ground seemed to darken beneath them. A cold wind was blowing in their faces. It became very loud, as though a thunderstorm was rolling over them. Artie felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of dread. They were going to die here, he was sure of it. Grandpa had brought them here to die because Dennis didn’t believe in Lord Voldemort. What a prat.


“Get behind me!” Harry ordered, snapping both boys out of their paralyzing depression. The dark shapes were rapidly closing the distance between them. As they drifted closer, Dennis could make out skeletal fingers dangling from the tattered sleeves of their black robes.


When the creatures were close enough that Dennis could almost make out their ghoulish, skeletal faces, Harry shouted “Expecto Patronum!” Artie recognized the patronus charm they had worked on in class, but nothing from class came close to what he was seeing. A bright, silvery mist erupted from the end of Harry’s wand, driving back the darkness. The mist coalesced into a brilliant, silver stag that stamped its hooves on the ground and charged the dark creatures, driving them back.


“Back up, outside of the wards!” Harry called out to the boys and the three of them carefully made their way back to the rocky outcropping. Once they were safely back to the point where they initially arrived, Harry tucked his wand back into his robes.


“What the bloody hell were those things?” shouted Dennis, shaking as he tried to catch his breath.


“Those are dementors,” Harry replied calmly. “I’m surprised you made it to your sixth year without learning about them. But I’m starting to realize there are a lot of things that you aren’t being taught at Hogwarts.”


“What happened to us?” Artie asked. “When they were coming after us, I’ve never felt so hopeless and sad.”


“Dementors feed on the happiness of any person they get close to, muggle or wizard. They are among the most terrible creatures in the magical world. The Ministry once used them to guard the prisoners at Azkaban. When Voldemort revealed himself during the Second Wizarding War, they defected to his side and allowed his followers to escape. Once the war was over, we rounded up all of them that we could find and imprisoned them here where they can’t hurt anybody.”


“Wait,” Dennis interjected, “you’re telling me that those... things fought in the war?”


“That’s right,” Harry replied. “We don’t know how much they really understood about the war. Their minds are very limited. But we believe that they understood that Voldemort would offer them more victims.”


“Come,” Harry said, offering his arms. “Let’s get you two back to school.”


They appeared outside the front gates of Hogwarts and Harry pulled his grandson into a hug. This time Artie did not pull away.


“Thanks, Grandpa,” he whispered into Harry’s ear.


“Run along back to class,” Harry said as they separated. “I’d like to talk to Dennis for a minute.”


Artie ran through the front gate and disappeared into the school.


“Mr. Potter, I had no idea,” Dennis began, but Harry cut him off.


“My name isn’t Mr. Potter, Dennis. It’s Harry. And I think I’m beginning to understand why you didn’t know about Voldemort. What I want to know from you is whether you understand why it’s important for you know these things?”


“I think so, sir, I mean Harry,” Dennis corrected himself. “An awful lot of people died and got hurt when Voldemort tried to take over. What I don’t understand is what you expect me to do. I’m just one person. I mean, you’re just one person, too, but you’re Harry Potter. What is someone like me is supposed to do to stop something like that from happening again?”


“Nobody is expecting you to duel a dark wizard or fight a dementor all by yourself, Dennis,” Harry responded. “The problem last time wasn’t that nobody was willing to fight. The problem was that so many people tried to pretend that nothing was wrong. The Minister, himself, denied that Voldemort was back until he saw him standing in the lobby of the bloody Ministry.”


“So what you can do, Mr. Northway,” Harry fixed him with a stare, “is be aware. Educate yourself. Learn about dark magic so you know it when you see it. And never, ever believe that something isn’t possible just because you haven’t seen it with your own eyes.”


“You’d better be getting along to class,” Harry said, taking a look at his watch. “Give my regards to the headmaster when you see him.” And I suspect you will very soon, Harry thought.


Dennis started to walk back to the castle, then stopped and turned back towards Harry. “Harry, why don’t they teach us all of this at school? I never would have learned any of this from Professor Binns.”


“I don’t know, Dennis,” Harry replied simply. “I’ll see you around.”


And Harry turned and was gone.


Chapter 6: A Friend Indeed
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First of all, my sincere thanks to everyone who has taken the time to write reviews. Your comments and observations are already helping to make this a better story. I will continue trying to respond to them all. If you can find it in your heart to do a review, even a short one, I thank you in advance.

For all you Draco Malfoy fans, I hope you enjoy this chapter.

As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.
 





Draco Malfoy was extremely annoyed. He read the parchment for a third time, hoping that perhaps he had missed something. The answer was still the same. On the windowsill of his study, the great grey owl from Gringott’s ruffled its wings and stared at him, impatient for his reply.


“Shoo! Get out of here!” Draco shouted at the owl, waving his walking stick at it. The owl hopped back from the window frame and took off, hooting its displeasure. The goblins could wait for his reply.


“Is something wrong, dear?” Astoria Malfoy appeared in the doorway to the study. Her long, dark hair showed streaks of grey, but Draco still found her as enchanting as the young girl that he fell in love with after the war.


“Nothing, my dear,” Draco replied, tossing the parchment into a wastebasket. “Just some paperwork from Gringotts related to mother’s passing.”


She crossed the room and rested her hands on his shoulders. “How are you holding up, Draco? You’ve seemed exhausted since the funeral.”


Bloody right he was exhausted. The old wizarding tradition of digging a family member’s grave by hand would have been bad enough if he’d had more help. Naturally, the family’s old “friends” were happy to come rub elbows and sponge free drinks at the memorial service, but they were nowhere to be found when it came time to lay his mother to rest. The task had fallen to Scorpius, Aiden and himself. After they dug the first couple of feet, they had made sure that nobody was looking and finished the hole with magic.


“Her passing was just sudden, that’s all,” Draco lied. It wasn’t a complete lie, he supposed. Narcissa was relatively young for a witch. But the years since father’s passing had been a mixed blessing for her. Although she no longer had to deal with father’s Death Eater friends and the drama that tended to accompany them, she did have to try to manage the family’s financial affairs. As a daughter of the ancient and wealthy Black family, she knew how to do one thing with money: spend it. As he sifted through the disorganized remains of the family’s finances, he was certain that his mother had been taken advantage of by all manner of con artists, flimflammers and scoundrels, not least among them those miserable goblins. He would be giving them a piece of his mind.


“Your mother was a dear, sweet woman,” his wife persisted. “It’s OK for you to mourn her death, you know?”


Draco smiled wanly. When he was a boy, the words “dear” and “sweet” were never spoken in the same breath as his mother’s name. Domineering, arrogant and spiteful, on the other hand, were heard quite commonly. The war had changed her drastically. The killing and betrayal and watching Aunt Bella descend into madness gave her a new outlook on life. After the Dark Lord’s fall, she mended the fences with her sister Andromeda and formed a deeper bond with his father. She loved her grandson and great grandchildren dearly, and doted on them as though gold were no object. Which, he supposed, was part of his problem with the goblins.


“I am, in my own way.” Draco smiled at her and took her hands in his as he rose from his chair. “Let’s go out for dinner. How about that seafood place near Diagon Alley?”


She smiled back at him. “That would be lovely, dear. I’ll tell the elf not to make dinner and get dressed.” She kissed him gently on the cheek and left the study.


Draco dropped back into his chair and summoned the parchment from the wastebasket. He tried to review the numbers again, but his mind kept drifting back to his mother and the war.


The war had changed him, as well. The first change he noticed was that he was suddenly drunk most of the time. Draco, Flint, Zabini, Nott, Gamp and the other Slytherin boys who managed to avoid Azkaban spent most of the next few months perched on barstools. They were all angry and disillusioned after the Dark Lord’s defeat. Many of their friends and relatives were dead or in prison. They were shunned from “polite” wizarding society as the pureblood families who had not been implicated piled onto Shacklebolt’s muggle loving bandwagon.


Draco quickly realized that the particulars of his personal hell were different from those of his mates. They wallowed in disappointment and self-pity after the Dark Lord’s defeat ended their dream of a Pure Blood-dominated world where they were treated like gods. His disaffection ran deeper. He was the only one of his friends who had taken the dark mark and joined the Dark Lord’s inner circle. He knew the truth. There was only one god in Voldemort’s world. Being a Pure Blood or even a fanatical Death Eater like Aunt Bella just made you a higher class of slave. You were still meant to grovel for the Dark Lord’s favor and die at his whim. It made Draco physically ill to think of how much of his life he wasted in servitude.


Inevitably, the others began to plot and scheme anew. They brewed up absurd, alcohol-fueled plans to achieve the glory that Potter and his blood traitor friends had denied them. Draco had seen enough. He had no use for any of it. Flint and Nott eventually ended up in Azkaban for killing a pair of muggle police officers. Zabini was indicted as an accomplice and his mother had spirited him out of the country. Gamp got caught trying to stage a prison break when the Aurors infiltrated his band of conspirators.


Fortunately for Draco, he started courting Astoria around the same time. She was unlike any of the other Slytherin girls he had dated. The Greengrass family had plenty of money and her father had not supported the Dark Lord so they were in no danger of losing it. When she looked at him, she didn’t see a pile of gold or an ancient bloodline. She saw a fragile young man who had been forced to grow up too fast. She saw him the way his mother did.


He and Astoria also saw eye to eye on the issue of blood purity. They agreed that it was an important thing, but not worth fighting a war over. The most stressful period in their marriage occurred when their son came clean with them about impregnating Weasley’s mudblood daughter. Draco and his father had been furious, committed to disowning Scorpius and blasting his name off of the family tree forever. Astoria was deeply saddened by their son’s choice, but she stood by him. The final word on the matter had actually came down from his mother.


“Our family has lost enough over this blood purity nonsense,” she proclaimed. “I refuse to lose my grandson to it. That is final.”


He remembered the steel in her voice, and the completely uncharacteristic way that she had stared down his father. At the time, he had sworn to find a way to undermine the whole thing, even going so far as to try to bribe Rose into having an abortion. That one had earned him a punch in the face from his son and nearly a divorce from his wife.


It had all worked out for the best. His grandchildren were the light of his life. Aiden and Octavia brought joy to him that he was completely unprepared for. It was very different from when Scorpius was young. He had always tried to maintain a certain distance from his son, to harden the boy and prepare him for manhood the same way that old Lucius had done with him. Drying tears and kissing scrapes and bruises were tasks for his wife. With his grandchildren, he found that he could barely stand the sight of their tears. Every cry or whimper sent him into a panic, scrambling to find something - a toy or a sweet or a hug or a handfull of knuts - anything that would bring back the smiles that he held so dear.


A rap at the window stirred him from his pleasant reverie. “Probably another owl from the bloody goblins,” he thought to himself, reaching for his wand. When it returned to the bank with singed feathers, they’d know that he meant business. But the face he saw outside of his window did not belong to an owl.


“Astoria, dear, I’m going to the veranda to get a bit of fresh air,” he called, loud enough to be heard outside the window. “I’ll come fetch you in five minutes and we’ll leave for dinner.” He made sure that the second part was audible through the window as well. Best to make the interloper aware that he would not be devoting much time to their conversation.


Marcus Flint was already lounging in Draco’s favorite chair when he closed the veranda door behind him. “I thought you were in Azkaban,” he stated bluntly.


“Great to see you, too, Malfoy,” Flint replied sarcastically. “What have you got to drink?”


“Seriously, Flint, you’re supposed to be in prison. What the bloody hell are you doing here?”


“Afraid I’ll sully your pristine reputation, Draco?” Flint mocked him. “Well, you needn’t worry. We have a new friend within the Ministry who arranged for me to be released early due to my excellent behavior.”


“Come off it, Flint, there’s no such thing as early release for people serving two life sentences,” Draco exclaimed. “And what do you mean, ‘we’? As I recall, you and Nott called me a blood traitor at your sentencing and threatened to kill my entire family.”


“So we did,” Flint reminisced. “Well, I’ve had plenty of time to reconsider, Draco. And I’m ready to forgive you, provided you do me a favor.”


“I don’t need your forgiveness,” Draco sneered, “and whatever scheme you and your ‘friend’ are part of, leave me and my family out of it. Now Astoria and I are going to dinner. I assume you know the way back to the front gate.”


Flint didn’t move as Draco stood and walked towards the veranda door. “Things are about to change, Draco. We’re going to drive the muggle lovers out of power and restore the Pure Bloods to our rightful place. Don’t find yourself on the wrong side of history.”


Draco snorted derisively. “Flint, the last time you tried to sell me that nonsense, you wound up in Azkaban. Why don’t you take advantage of your second chance? Maybe you could look up Zabini. The rumors say that he’s living in New Zealand.”


“I’m not going anywhere, Malfoy,” Flint replied menacingly. “And neither are you unless you agree to help me.”


“Are you threatening me?” Draco snarled.


“Do I need to?”


“My wife is going to be out here looking for me any minute now,” sighed Draco. “What the hell do you want?”


“That’s more like it,” Flint smiled. “Do you remember the time that the Dark Lord spent here at Malfoy Manor during the war?”


Draco shuddered. He wasn’t bloody likely to ever forget those days. “Of course I do,” he replied evenly.


“I have it on good information that the Dark Lord left several objects in your father’s care before he led his army to Hogwarts. Among them was a book in which he recorded certain information regarding his plans. Are you familiar with it?”


“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Draco said simply. And it was the truth. In all the time he spent in the Dark Lord’s company, he could not recall seeing him so much as pick up a book, let alone write in one.


Flint frowned at him in surprise, then his look hardened. “Don’t lie to me, Malfoy. My source was quite specific. The Dark Lord’s journal is hidden somewhere inside Malfoy Manor. If you don’t give it to me, we will take it by force.”


“Flint,” Draco replied in exasperation, “if there was anything of the Dark Lord’s in my home, I would happily give it to you. After father died, mother purged the house thoroughly of dark objects. She didn’t want them anywhere around her grandchildren. If the Dark Lord kept a journal, I can assure you that it’s somewhere else.”


Flint first looked confused, then angry. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Malfoy. What would your father say if he were still alive?”


Draco paused, putting more thought into the question than Flint had probably intended. “If father were alive right now, he would do what was best for the family. That’s what he always did. And at this point I don’t see any good coming of what you’re doing. For my family or anybody else.”


Flint stared back at Draco with blood in his eyes. “We will have the Dark Lord’s journal, whether you help us or not.” He rose, turned and disappeared.


Draco turned towards the veranda door, already concocting the lie he would tell his wife to explain his lengthy absence. She was standing in the doorway.


“Draco, what was that about?” she asked, clearly upset.


“Oh, that?” he tried to keep his voice calm. “He was from Gringotts. They’re very eager to get that paperwork resolved.”


“Don’t you lie to me, Draco Malfoy,” she snapped. “That was Marcus Flint. What is this book he was looking for?”


“I don’t know,” Draco replied, not quite able to meet her gaze. “Honest!” he added when he noticed her glare. “Somebody told him that the Dark Lord left some book here, but we both know that mother threw out all of father’s dark artifacts after he died.”


“Kriffin!” The house elf appeared and bowed deeply in front of Astoria. “We’ve changed our plans. Please prepare a light supper and serve it to us in my husband’s study.”


“Yes, mistress. Right away!” the elf snapped to attention and disappeared.


“What about the restaurant?” Draco asked.


“Marcus Flint is a convicted murderer,” she replied. “We’re not going out in public at night with him on the loose. In the mean time, you and I are going to tear this house apart until we either find this book or make absolutely sure that it’s not here.”


Draco pretended to be upset about his quashed dinner plans, but he knew that it was the right thing to do. As they snacked on sandwiches and rifled through the bookshelves of his study, he couldn’t help stealing glances at her. This was the woman he had fallen in love with. Astoria’s soft-spoken exterior concealed an iron will and a deeply practical mind. He would never admit it to anyone, but in a situation like this he preferred to have her tell him what to do.


They searched the house for three hours before giving up. Their search turned up four half empty bottles of fire whiskey, two boggarts and roughly 35 galleons worth of spare change, but no dark artifacts. The cleaning witches his mother hired had been very thorough. As he prepared to retire for the night, Draco already knew what she was going to say. He decided to try to make her see reason before she went too far down that road.


“I’m not going to the Aurors about this,” he said to her as he climbed into bed. “They already think I’m a criminal. That’s why they follow me everywhere. If they find out that Flint was here, it will be all the reason they’ll need to toss me into Azkaban and throw away the key.”


“Draco, dear,” she sighed, “if the Aurors are really watching you then they already know that Flint was here. And if they don’t then we need to tell them. He’s a murderer. He’s a fugitive. He threatened you. He implied that there is something of Voldemort’s inside our house and that he’s coming back to get it. For once in your life, you need to do the smart thing and go to the authorities.”


“He’s already broken out of Azkaban once,” Draco countered. “If I turn him in, he’ll just break out again and then he’ll really want to kill me. Astoria, dear, you are far smarter than I am but you are very naive when it comes to men like Marcus Flint. Please, just let me handle this.”


“Very well,” she replied, “I’ll let you handle it.”


The tone in her voice left Draco with no doubt that she was already planning to take the matter out of his hands. He scooted across the bed to snuggle up against her back.


“I love you, you know that, right?” he asked.


“I love you, too, Draco. Which is why I take care of you in spite of your best efforts to the contrary.”
 





His suspicions were confirmed over breakfast the next morning. “Draco, I’m going shopping in London today.”


He stared at her incredulously. “Are you serious? Last night you were so worried about Flint that you wouldn’t go out to dinner and this morning you’re going into London all by yourself?”


“Well you could go with me and protect me,” she smiled sweetly.


She knew very well that Draco loathed shopping with a passion. She suppressed a smirk at his pained expression.


The discomfort Draco was feeling actually had little to do with Flint. If he was really wanted, Draco reasoned, there was no way he would risk showing his face in broad daylight. The bigger concern was what sort of inquiries those meddling goblins had been making with the local merchants. If Astoria decided to put anything on the family tab...


“Of course, I can just go with Daphne. She’s always wanting to go shopping.”


Draco’s main anxiety was addressed. Daphne had moved back in with her parents after her husband Jeremy Gamp had wound up in Azkaban with Flint and Nott. If the merchants had any doubt about his credit, they’d just send the bill to old man Greengrass.


“You have fun with your sister, dear. I’m going to search the attic again, just in case we missed anything.”


It was a transparent lie. He hated setting foot in the attic and had complained bitterly the entire hour they had spent there the night before. But it seemed to satisfy her, so he didn’t bring it up again. If she found a couple of new outfits, she might just forget all about it.


Draco was finishing his coffee and perusing the society pages of the Daily Prophet when she returned to the dining room wearing her traveling cloak. “I’m off to London,” she told him.


He stood and pulled her into a warm embrace. “Enjoy yourself and say hello to your sister for me.” Draco hated Daphne, but it didn’t hurt to stay in his father-in-law’s good graces.


As she turned to leave, he added, “Love? If you really do see Flint anywhere, promise me you’ll come home immediately?”


She stepped back to him and gave him a long kiss. “I promise. And I love you.”


She stepped onto the front porch and closed the door behind her. Then she turned and was gone.






Hermione sat at her desk, staring intently at the parchment in front of her. The revised Treaty of International Cooperation with the Egyptians was now on its fifth revision and she was still not satisfied with the section that dealt with the rights of muggle-born British witches and wizards to access their relatives through the consulate. Since the end of the war, the British Ministry had been very successful in eradicating the old laws that codified blood purity and marginalized the muggle-born. Convincing the rest of the magical world to join them had proven much trickier. Treaties were a rare opportunity to impose the liberated attitude of the British Ministry on at least a small aspect of the laws of other wizarding nations.


“Mrs. Weasley,” came the voice of her secretary from the door, “there’s a woman here to see you.”


Hermione looked at her day planner even though she knew that she had no appointments scheduled. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, Patrice. Did she give her name?”


The question fell unanswered as Astoria Malfoy appeared over Patrice’s shoulder. “Hi, Hermione. Do you have a moment?”


Hermione’s expression dropped a bit at the sight of Mrs. Malfoy in her doorway. She didn’t exactly dislike Astoria, but given her druthers she would have kept working on the treaty. The two of them had a cordial, even productive relationship where Aiden and Octavia were concerned, and Hermione preferred to leave it at that. Astoria’s aristocratic air rubbed her the wrong way and her politics when it came to blood purity were odious.


“Astoria, dear.” Hermione put on her best fake laugh and smile, the ones she used whenever the Minister’s wife came around. “So nice to see you. Unfortunately, the Egyptians are quite eager to get this treaty back. Do you think we could have tea later?”


“It’s a rather pressing family matter, Hermione,” Astoria replied as the secretary turned to show her out. “Do you think you could spare a moment?”


Hermione stared hard at Astoria. There was a hint of an expression slipping through her mask of aloof indifference. Was it concern? Fear?


“Of course, dear,” said Hermione, setting the treaty aside. “Please, have a seat.”


The secretary closed the door behind them and Astoria settled into the chair across from Hermione.


“Now,” Hermione began, “what can I do for you?”


“Hermione,” Astoria said, looking as though she was not quite sure what to say, “you understand that I love Aiden and Octavia more than anything in the whole world, right?”


“Of course I understand,” Hermione answered quietly. “Is something wrong?”


“I don’t know,” Astoria replied carefully. “One of Draco’s old friends paid us a visit last night. One of his friends from before the war. They were talking on the veranda for a long time. Whatever they were discussing, it made Draco nervous. He didn’t want to discuss it afterwards.”


“Do you know who it was?”


“I think it was one of the Slytherin boys he knew from school, but I can’t be sure. It was dark outside and I didn’t want to intrude.”


“And you think that he and Draco might have been discussing something dangerous?” Hermione pressed. “Something that could put Aiden and Octavia at risk?”


“I don’t know,” Astoria replied, looking slightly testy. “As I said, they were outside and I was inside. All I know is that it made my husband uncomfortable.”


Hermione stared at her for a long time. “Why are you telling me this, Astoria? Your husband could talk to the Aurors directly if he’s really concerned. Are you hoping that I’ll relay some sort of message to Ron and Harry?”


“My husband,” Astoria replied slowly, choosing her words with care, “is a very proud man. He doesn’t like the idea that he might need help to protect his family. And while he owes nothing to the man who called on us last night, there are many who would take a very dim view of my husband providing any information to the current head of the Aurors.”


Hermione parsed the statement in her head for a moment, then rubbed her eyes in exasperation.


“Look, I appreciate the line you’re trying to walk. But this game we’re playing is not productive. If the two of you are in some sort of danger, and especially if that danger might extend to our grandchildren, then your husband needs to swallow his pride and talk to Harry.”


Astoria nodded slowly. “It won’t be easy to convince him,” she sighed. “He believes that he can deal with things himself.”


“And what do you think, Astoria?”


“I think that there are still dangerous wizards in the world,” she replied. “Not as dangerous as the Dark Lord or the Lestranges, but dangerous nonetheless. My husband’s problem is that he spent so much time in the Dark Lord’s company that everyone else seems benign by comparison.”


Hermione smiled at her with understanding. “You need to make him see reason. The last time the world underestimated the danger of dark wizards, my family lost a brother and more dear friends than I care to think about. The rest of us barely escaped with our lives. I don’t know whether there’s anything to this ‘friend’ of Draco’s that’s bothering you. But if you think there’s any chance that they’re involved in something dangerous, please talk to Harry. I don’t want to lose any part of our family.”


Astoria smiled back and rose from her chair. “Thank you, Hermione. I think I understand what I need to do now.”


“You’re welcome, dear,” Hermione replied. “I know you’ll do the right thing.”


Because you’re not putting my grandchildren in danger to spare Draco Malfoy's pride, she thought as she watched the other woman leave her office.






Hermione spend the next two hours trying to finish her revisions to the Egyptian treaty, but her mind kept drifting off. Twice, she stood up and started to walk to Harry’s office, but she talked herself out of it both times. She knew Harry as well as anyone alive, and she was certain that if she told him about the conversation with Astoria he would not take it well. Then again, maybe she didn’t want him to take it well. This was her grandchildren’s safety and well being they were talking about. In the end, she decided to try to honor the confidence that Astoria had placed in her and give the Malfoys a chance to do the right thing. If neither of them had approached Harry within a day or two, it would be time to escalate matters.


She sighed and set down the treaty. Maybe a change of scenery would take her mind off of the Malfoys and help her focus. She rolled up the treaty and collected her research notes. There were a number of issues relating to both Egyptian magical law and prior treaties that she needed to research.


“I’ll be in Magical Records if anybody needs me,” she said to her secretary on the way out of the office.


She entered the lift and selected the floor for magical records. It was nearly lunchtime, so several witches and wizards entered and exited the lift before it arrived at the correct floor. When Hermione stepped out, she noticed a wizard around her own age approaching everyone who passed. He was holding a roll of parchment and a quill and wearing the worst toupee she'd ever seen. She realized that the parchment was some sort of petition and deftly made her way around him as he cornered a young witch from Magical Transportation. Ordinarily she would have made the time to try to understand his cause, but today she wasn’t in the mood.


Ernie MacMillan was helping a young couple apply for a marriage license when she walked through the door of Magical Records. “Hermione,” he called to her, “give me just a moment here and I’ll be right with you.”


She waited as he reviewed the application and produced a marriage license for the happy couple. Across the room, she noticed a middle-aged witch and wizard talking to one of the records clerks. They seemed upset that the clerk wasn’t able to find what they were after.


“We were told that those records were kept here,” the wizard insisted to the clerk. He was tall with bushy eyebrows a pointed black beard. His cheeks were slightly gaunt looking and his dark eyes were slightly recessed, as though he had suffered from malnutrition at some point not too long ago.


“I do apologize for the misunderstanding,” the clerk replied, “but the only publicly available records relating to the war are the fatalities and the verdicts from the trials. All other records were sealed by order of the Wizengamot. If there are specific items that you would like to file a claim to...”


“Hi, Hermione.” She jumped as Ernie startled her, her hand instinctively moving towards her wand.


“Hey, hey,” he smiled, raising his empty palms towards her. “Why so jumpy?”


“Ernie,” she said quietly, tilting her head slightly. “Do you know the two people Elvert is helping over there?”


He stole a glance towards the witch and wizard, trying to look casual about it. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before,” he replied. “But we get new faces in here all the time. Is there anything wrong?”


Hermione’s eyes stared back at him, unfocused. Using the supersensory charm, she watched the pair continue peppering the clerk with questions. The witch had greyish blond hair and a prominent mole on her left cheek. She was also on the thin side, but not as emaciated as her companion. At the moment, the witch was also stealing nervous glances in their direction.


“It was a journal kept by one of the Death Eaters,” the wizard was saying. “My, uh, friend is writing a book on the war and he told me that he reviewed the journal here.”


Hermione turned and walked to a research carrel near the entrance, beckoning with her eyes for Ernie to follow. He sat down next to her and whispered, “Hermione, you’re starting to make me nervous here. What’s wrong?”


She cast a silent muffliato charm around the carrel and began to unroll the parchment of the treaty. “I don’t know,” she answered, “but those two are asking Elvert about sealed records from the war and they’re acting very strangely.”


“Don’t look!” she hissed as he started to turn his head. “Is there any way you can call the Auror office from here without raising their suspicions?”


“I can send Harry and Ron an inter-Ministry memo,” he replied, forcing himself to look forward.


“Please do,” she asked. “Keep it short. Tell him that there are two suspicious people asking about sealed records from the war. Got it?”


“Right away,” he whispered as he rose. “Let me get that treaty for you,” he said loudly enough to be heard across the room as he walked away.


Hermione reapplied the supersensory charm and continued to watch the two strangers. They were becoming increasingly agitated with the clerk’s inability to help. “I don’t see why you can’t let us see those documents,” the witch demanded. “We’re looking for important family records.”


“Ma’am, as I told you, the documents you’re looking for probably aren’t even here,” Elvert replied sternly. “Anything related to a criminal case is kept in the Auror files. I can give you a manifest of the documents stored in the restricted vault and if any of them...”


Elvert nodded towards a heavy, iron gate behind the counter as he spoke. What happened next was almost a blur. The wizard drew his wand and sent Elvert flying across the room with a curse. Hermionie managed to duck just in time to avoid a blast of red light from the witch’s wand. She rolled to the side and landed on her knees beside the carrel as another curse blew a hole in the wooden divider, showering her with smoldering splinters. She drew her wand from inside her robes and fired two stunning spells around the side of the carrel before she risked a peek.


The witch had taken cover behind an overturned table and was firing spells at the far end of the counter to keep Ernie and the other two clerks pinned down. The wizard had made his way behind the counter and was heading for the iron gate. The witch turned her attention back to Hermione and fired two more curses at her. Hermione deflected them as she searched for a better strategic position. She noticed that Ernie had taken the opportunity to move to a covered spot behind a trolley full of old books and was now exchanging spells with the unknown wizard.


Hermione spotted a metal trolley full of old tax documents by the door and summoned it towards her. She positioned it near the entrance, a few feet from her current position. She had no idea whether Ernie had sent the memo off to Ron and Harry before the fighting started, so she needed to keep her opponents contained in the room until help arrived. She cast three quick stunning spells towards the witch and then launched herself across the open space separating the ruined carrel from the trolley. Curses sizzled past her as she ran and several struck the trolley as she dropped into a crouch behind it.


“There’s nothing here,” she heard the wizard shout from behind the counter.


“Cover me,” came the witch’s voice in reply, and a hail of curses struck the trolley from the direction of the counter. Hermione paid them no mind. The metal trolley was holding up to the barrage, and as long as she held her position nobody would be able to get past her to the door.


Over the din of the firefight, she heard a commotion from outside the door. The Aurors must have arrived, she thought. She huddled behind the trolley as another curse caromed off of the top of it and struck the wall by the door. The door opened, but instead of Ron or Harry, the wizard with the petition and the bad toupee was standing there with his wand drawn.


“Get away!” she shouted to him “It’s not safe!”

 
He scowled and pointed his wand at her. In an instant, she felt as though an inferno had been unleashed inside her arms and legs and then the world tuned black.






Draco figured that with his wife indisposed, it would be as good a day as any to deal with the goblins. He pulled on his best traveling cloak and gathered up the various statements and threatening letters he’d been receiving. Perhaps the best way to begin the conversation was to incinerate the whole pile in front of them. It would set the right tone.


He stepped onto the front porch and disapparated to Diagon Alley. As he made his way towards the bank, he overheard bits and pieces of conversations from passers by. There was a disturbing commonality running through many of them.


“...seven people were taken to St. Mungo’s...”


“...Magical Records was totally destroyed...”


“...and they’re supposed to be still at large...”


Finally he grabbed a short, fat wizard by the robes and demanded, “What happened? What is everyone talking about?”


“What do you want?” the fat wizard stammered. “Take your hands off of me!”


The fat wizard’s walking companion, a taller wizard with a grey beard, stared at him and asked, “You haven’t heard about the attack on the Ministry?”


Draco shoved the fat wizard away. “No. Tell me what happened.”


“The Ministry of Magic was attacked this morning,” replied the bearded wizard, giving Draco a wide berth. “Word is that somebody from the Magical Records office was killed and several people were hurt. The Minister announced that the attackers are still at large.”


“Sounds like old ‘you know who’ might be back to his old tricks again,” observed the fat wizard as he straightened his robes.


“Who?” asked the wizard with the beard. “What are you talking about?”


Draco was no longer listening. He stormed away, trying to clear his head. If Flint and his friends were already moving against the Ministry, he needed to find Astoria right away. He would get her to safety, wherever that was, and figure out what to do next. Now would be an excellent time to send one of those patronus charms that Potter and his sycophants were always using. Unfortunately, he had never learned how to perform the spell.


He stood on a street corner and desperately looked up and down the busy sidewalks. The world seemed to be moving faster than normal. He suppressed an urge to scream her name.


Chapter 7: Strange Bedfellows
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Thanks again for reading and reviewing. I will continue trying to respond to them all. If you can find it in your heart to do a review, even a short one, I thank you in advance.

As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.






Astoria watched her sister flounce around Sorcière Parisienne, rifling through the clothing racks and ordering the employees around like she owned the place. Ordinarily she would have been a more active participant, but her heart wasn’t in it today. She wasn’t sure exactly what she had expected Hermione to do. Maybe it wasn’t jumping right up from her desk and charging off to the Auror Office, but couldn’t she at least have smiled reassuringly and said, “don’t worry, dear. I’ll take care of it”? Wasn’t that what Potter and his friends did, take care of other people’s dark wizard problems?


Her contemplation was interrupted when a sheer silk evening dress landed across her head. “Astoria, dear, you must try that on. It would look simply darling on you!” Since Daphne’s husband had been thrown into Azkaban, she’d developed a renewed interest in dressing Astoria. It reminded her of the way Daphne used to pick out clothes for her when they were little girls. She pulled the dress from her head and studied it for a moment. It would probably fit her. Her sister, on the other hand, appeared to be enjoying the house elf’s cooking a little too much lately. It seemed that Daphne was experiencing high fashion vicariously through her.


She smiled wanly at her sister, trying to reengage. “Thank you, dear. Where is the fitting room?”


“It’s behind that door,” responded an employee who gestured weakly from beneath an armload of clothes that Daphne continued to add to.


Astoria made her way to the fitting room and closed the door behind her, locking it with her wand. She removed her clothes and shimmied into the dress that her sister had picked out. Turning from side to side, she admired the garment in the mirror. It certainly accentuated all the right curves. Draco would absolutely hate it. He was very possessive and despised the notion of other men leering at her. This dress would come in handy the next time she wanted to make him a little jealous. It brought out some of his best qualities, she mused, both in public and in private.


She was about to change back into her own clothes when she heard a commotion outside the fitting room.


“Astoria! Astoria, dear,” came her sister’s voice from outside the room.


She released the locking charm on the door and stepped into the hallway. Daphne stared at her for a second, admiring the fit of the dress.


“Daphne, what is it?”


“What is what?”


“What was it that you needed to tell me?”


“Oh, that,” Daphne snapped out of her distracted state. “There’s been an attack on the Ministry. People were killed. Father sent an owl telling us to stay here until he sends somebody to come take us home.”


“An attack?” Astoria snapped. “Where?”


“The Ministry, of course,” her sister replied, once again staring at the dress she was wearing.


“Daphne, where in the Ministry?”


“I don’t know. Father didn’t say.”


Astoria reconstructed the timeline in her head. If father had already found out and sent an owl, the attack must have happened at least an hour ago. It had been just over two hours since she left Hermione’s office. If Marcus Flint and his so-called friends had found out about her visit...


“I have to go,” she said to her sister, spinning on her heel. She grabbed her traveling cloak from the fitting room and started towards the front entrance.


“But father told us to wait here. Where are you going?”


“I have to find my husband,” Astoria replied.


“You said Draco was at home.”


Astoria was no longer listening to her. The one thing she was quite sure of was that her husband was not at home searching the bloody attic. She recalled the steady stream of owls that her husband had been receiving from Gringott’s. It seemed to her that there was more going on than simple estate issues. It was possible that he was taking advantage of her shopping trip to pay the goblins a visit.


“Ma’am, will you be purchasing that dress?” cried one of the store’s employees.


“Yes, please send me the bill. And my clothes.” She disappeared through the front entrance and hurried towards Gringotts.






“Hermione, dear? Can you hear me, love?”


Ron’s voice sounded very distant, as though he was talking to her from several rooms away. She must have overslept. Was it a work day? She couldn’t remember. She tried to open her eyes, but she found that it was impossibly bright. He must have opened all the shades when he got up. What was he doing up so early? Maybe Harry had called him in to work on a case.


Harry! There was something important that she needed to tell Harry. She focused hard, trying to remember what it was. She was working on that treaty with the Egyptians, and for some reason Astoria Malfoy had been there, too. She had needed to look up some things about the current treaty. Yes, there was something in Magical Records that she needed to tell Harry about. There was a wizard with a petition...


Hermione let out a choked, groggy yelp as she struggled to sit up in bed. She immediately felt strong arms surrounding her.


“Shhh! It’s OK, love. You’re safe. You’re at St. Mungo’s. Everything is going to be OK.”


The sound of Ron’s voice soothed her. She relaxed and let her body collapse into his embrace. It was all coming back to her. The mysterious witch and wizard. The firefight. The wizard with the bad toupee.


She tried to speak, but her words came out garbled and slurred. “Don’t try to talk,” Ron’s voice sounded closer now, but she still felt like her head was wrapped in a blanket. “The healers say that you were hit with a very dark spell. It will be a while before you’ll be able to talk and move around.”


She felt Ron gently lower her back onto the bed. “There are some people here who want to see you,” he said. “I’ll be back in a second.”


Somewhere in the distance, other voices started to make their way to her.


“So she’s going to be OK?” she recognized her son’s voice.


“Yes,” came Ron’s reply. “But she needs to rest, so please... Rosie, wait!”


An instant later, she felt two slender arms wrap around her shoulders and a mane of bushy hair brushing against her face and neck. “Oh, mom! You’re gonna be OK. We were so scared.”


Instinctively but with tremendous effort, Hermione lifted her arm onto her daughter’s back, managing a weak embrace.


“Mrs. Malfoy,” came a voice that she didn’t recognize, “I’m going to need you to get off of my patient.” It must be one of the healers. As much as she wanted to hold her child closely, she was also finding it hard to breathe. She felt Rose’s weight disappear from her chest. Focusing all her concentration, she was able to open her eyes just a sliver. She could make out four hazy shapes surrounding her bed, two of which had orange hair and one of which was dressed in green robes.


“Rose, Hugo, why don’t you two go send a message to Grandad and Nanna? Let them know that your mum’s starting to come around. They’re going to want to see her.”


She felt the bushy hair tickle her neck again as a kiss landed on her cheek. “I love you, mom. I’ll be back with Aiden and Octavia to see you when you’re feeling up to it.”


Next she heard Hugo’s voice close to her ear. “I’ll see you soon, mum. Fiona and the kids send all their love.” She felt a second kiss on her other cheek before she heard his footsteps leaving the room.


Ron’s voice was once again close to her. “Hermione, I’m going to leave for few minutes and check in with Harry. He’s leading the investigation at the Ministry. The wizards who attacked you managed to escape before the Aurors arrived. We have a security detail here at the hospital to protect you and the other victims. Oh, Ernie’s fine by the way. But the clerk who was closest to them when the fighting started was killed. I’ll be back in a few minutes. I think Healer Gelbard needs to check your injuries and give you some potions anyway.”


She felt his weight rise from the bed and then she felt a very tender kiss on her forehead. “Sweetheart, I am so sorry. I should have been there to protect you,” he whispered. She could hear his voice cracking with emotion. “We are going to find whoever did this and send them to prison for good.”


He lingered a bit longer, holding her hand tightly. She felt one last kiss on her cheek and then his footsteps slowly left the room. Immediately she longed for his comforting presence. She was sure that he had made sure that she was safe, but she still felt safer with him in the room. Through the sliver between her eyelids, she saw the green shape of the healer approach.


“Just relax, Mrs. Weasley, this won’t hurt a bit,” the voice said soothingly. She felt a hand beneath her neck tilt her head back and then a potion was gently emptied down her throat. After a few seconds, darkness overtook her again.






Astoria moved along the sidewalk as quickly as her dignity and the cut of the flimsy dress would allow. After one block, she was beginning to sincerely regret not taking the time to change back into her own clothes. The thin material allowed the cool fall air to chill her skin in spite of her cloak. She increased her pace, sacrificing a measure of dignity in the process.


Ahead, she saw Gringotts looming over the busy street. She scanned the crowd but saw no sign of her husband. If he was inside the bank, she wasn’t sure whether the goblins would tell her. She silently cursed herself for not paying more attention during Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons. One of those patronus charms would certainly come in handy if she knew how. She was almost ready to go back to the dress shop and wait for her father when she felt something poking her in the back.


“Come with me very quietly if you want to see him alive again.”






Harry stalked around the ruined Magical Records office, frustration evident on his face. They had been at it for nearly four hours, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, analyzing the curse damage and cataloging the items in the restricted vault. He had even resorted to muggle techniques, collecting fingerprints and DNA samples from the overturned table where the mysterious witch had taken cover during the battle. So far, nothing about the attack was adding up.


“Susan,” he called to Susan Bones as she cast a series of revealing spells on a scorch mark near the door, “do you think we should interview Ernie again now that he’s had time to calm down?”


“Harry,” she replied in an exasperated tone, “I don’t think anyone has had time to calm down yet. Ernie has already given us some good leads. If you want him any calmer, you need to be able to tell him that Hermione’s going to be OK.”


She was right, of course. Susan was his best on-site investigator. Calm, patient and thorough, the quintessential Hufflepuff. At the moment, Harry found those traits damned annoying. He returned to his pacing, stopping to study a third year Auror who was carefully levitating a burned shred of parchment into an evidence bag. The poor girl seemed to feel the weight of his stare on her back, and she nearly dropped the parchment twice before she got it into the bag.


Suddenly Harry heard Ron’s voice from inside his pocket. He quickly stepped into Ernie’s office and closed the door behind him. He cast a muffliatio charm and pulled out his half of the pair of enchanted mirrors that he shared with Ron.


“Are you alone?” asked Ron.


“Yes, I’m in Ernie’s office,” Harry replied. “Is she going to be OK?”


“The healers say it’s going to be a few days before she’ll be able to talk, but she’ll recover.”


Harry let out a long sigh of relief, feeling his chest unclench for the first time in hours.


“How are things going there?” Ron asked.


“Not good,” Harry admitted. “Ministerial Security was the first on the scene and they did a crap job of preserving it. Susan is having a hard time separating their wand signatures from the attackers.”


Ministerial security was a special branch of the Minster’s office created in the aftermath of the murder trial. The Minister spun it politically as a favor to the Auror Office, relieving them from the responsibility of protecting the Ministry and the Minister so that they could focus on criminal investigations. The message to Harry and Ron was less than subtle. You are no longer trusted.
 

“Bloody wankers,” Ron fumed. “How about the witnesses?”


“Ernie gave us a good description of what happened from just before the fighting started until it was over. He said that Hermione overheard part of a conversation between the attackers and the clerk who was killed. It was what made her nervous about them in the first place. We may not be making a lot of progress on this case until she’s feeling up to talking to us.”


“Like I said,” replied Ron with a slightly defensive tone to his voice, “the healers say she won’t be able to do anything for several days.”


There was obviously no point in pressing the issue. “Do the healers know what she was hit with?” Harry asked.


“They think they do,” Ron replied, reaching into his robes for a scrap of parchment. “I had them write it down because I’d never heard of it. ‘Exussanguis’ Mean anything to you?”


“No idea,” Harry replied. Ordinarily, this was the point where they would have asked Hermione to look it up. “I’ll send somebody up to the Auror library,” Harry said.


“Harry,” Ron asked, “please tell me you aren’t stalking around there, looking over shoulders and generally making everyone nervous as hell?”


Harry stared back at the mirror with a slightly guilty look on his face. “OK, I guess you have a point. I’ll leave Susan in charge here and go look it up, myself.”


“Good idea, boss,” Ron replied with a grin. “I’m going to get back into her room. I expect Mum and Dad will be here soon and they won’t let them in unless I’m there.”


“Give her a hug for me when she wakes up,” Harry said, thinking fondly of Hermione. Ron might have been Harry’s best mate, but deep down, Hermione was his best friend. It pained him not to be by her side, but he had learned many years ago that this was Ron’s place and he needed to give the two of them space. “I’ll stop by and visit tomorrow morning before I come to the office.”


“She’d like that, Harry,” Ron replied and then he disappeared from the mirror.


Harry tucked his mirror away and stepped out of the office. A dozen eyes stole nervous glances in his direction as their owners focused intently on their appointed tasks. Ron was right. Being here wasn’t helping.


“Susan,” Harry called, “I’ll be in the office. You’re in charge here. I’ll expect your report in the morning.”


Harry could feel the tension draining from the room as he made his way through the rubble to the door. He paused in the doorway. “On second thought, I’ll be at Hogwarts. Contact the headmaster if you need me.”






Astoria slowly backed around the corner, feeling the tip of a wand poking through her cloak and the thin fabric of her dress. “Walk,” the mysterious voice said gruffly from behind her. They made their way down a side street away from the center of Diagon Alley. Every fiber of her being wanted to run away screaming at the top of her lungs. It was the middle of the day and there were dozens of people around. If her mysterious abductor killed her here, there was nearly no chance that he would escape. But his warning kept her silent. If there was any chance that they had her husband, she had no choice but to comply.


“Turn here,” the voice ordered. She recognized the dark, grimy street as Knockturn Alley. Her husband had frequented some of the bars here before they were married. It was not a nice area.


“This way.” She realized she was being directed towards a grimy, deserted alleyway that led behind the stores. If she was going to be robbed, raped or murdered, it was going to happen back there. This was her last chance.


“Don’t even think about trying to run,” the voice seemed to read her mind. “We’ll kill him.”


She sighed and turned down the alley. If they hadn’t killed Draco already, it was unlikely that they would kill her, either. At least until they had what they wanted.


The man behind her suddenly grabbed her arm, spun her around and shoved her against the wall in one neat motion. She came face to face with a tall, gaunt looking wizard with a pointy beard and dark eyes. Although she had never seen the man before in her life, there was something immediately familiar about him. It only took her a few seconds to make the connection.


“Hello, Flint,” she said dryly, enjoying the poorly concealed look of surprise on his face.


It took him a few seconds to recover. “It doesn’t matter whether you know who I am. Things have already been set in motion. I’m sure you’ve already heard about our attack on the Ministry today. Soon we will be back in control and all of the blood traitors will be dealt with. Your husband is a fool not to see that. Now he is suffering for his lack of vision. How much he suffers is up to you.”


She stared at him for a long moment. “Is this about that book? Draco told you already, we don’t have it.”


“And you believe him?” Flint asked. “You’re a smart witch, Astoria. You know that old Lucius was part of the Dark Lord’s inner circle. He was entrusted with certain items that are vital to our cause. We can only assume that your husband is keeping them from us to try to bargain his way back into our good graces. We are not to be trifled with. Either you give the book to us or he dies.”


“Marcus,” she replied, feigning exasperation, “who is this ‘we’ you keep referring to?” She needed to buy herself time to find a way out of this. Maybe she could get him talking. Flint had always loved the sound of his own voice.


Flint allowed himself a tiny smile at her small token of familiarity. “We,” he began, his voice dripping with self-importance, “are the saviors of our world. The blood traitors and muggle lovers don’t want to see the truth, but our world is dying. Every day, our culture and our very bloodlines are being polluted with muggle filth. If we don’t restore the natural order of things, it will soon be too late.”


“You mean the muggles are going to take over?” she asked, pretending to be intrigued.


“Did you know that the muggles will soon have a technology that allows them to travel to the moon and back, even faster than apparition?” he asked in a conspiratorial tone, leaning closer to her.


Astoria could not believe what she was hearing. Was he daft? This was the same claptrap from wizarding wireless that Daphne was always prattling on about. “Really?” she managed to keep a straight face. “I had no idea that things had gotten so bad.”


Flint nodded gravely. She noted with satisfaction that his wand was no longer jabbing her in the ribs. “So how does the Dark Lord’s book help you put a stop to this foolishness?” she asked, trying to keep him talking.


Flint stared at her for a second. He seemed to be trying to decide how much he should say. “Let’s just say that the Dark Lord recorded certain information so that his work could go on in the event that he was unable to complete it himself.”


“Astoria,” he moved closer now, looming over her. “Can we count on you to help us make your husband see reason? He is a stubborn fool, but you, you are a very smart, very beautiful woman. A woman with your intelligence, beauty and bloodline could go far in our new world.”


She wanted to retch as Flint lowered his gaze from her eyes to her chest. Moments ago he was abducting her and threatening her husband’s life, now he was trying to seduce her? She felt his hand slipping behind the small of her back, and noted that his wand was no longer in it. Had he pocketed it, or shifted it to his other hand? She couldn’t be sure, but she was sure that she was going to knee him in the unmentionables if his hand continued to move lower.


“TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF OF HER!” The familiar voice thundered from the entrance to the alley. Flint spun away from her and dropped into a crouch, aiming his wand. Without a moment’s hesitation, she lashed out with her foot, kicking his arm just as he launched a nasty curse at her husband. His wand spun backwards over his shoulder. Before she could pull her leg back, he grabbed her ankle, pulling her nearly into a split. She struggled to stay on her feet, but she realized that she was preventing her husband from getting a clear shot at Flint, so she allowed herself to fall forward. As she fell, Flint rolled backwards and retrieved his wand from the ground.


“Consider my offer, Astoria. We won’t extend it again. Nice knickers, by the way.” And Flint turned and disappeared.


It dawned on her that her wide stance had combined with the tight dress to leave her in a most compromised position. She managed to get to her feet and compose herself just as Draco pulled her into a smothering embrace.


After a long time, he held her at arms length and studied her carefully. “Are you hurt? Did he hurt you? And where did you get that atrocious dress?”


“It’s a long story, dear. Too long. You’re going to talk to the Aurors. Now.”






Harry appeared at the front gates of Hogwarts and walked briskly to the main entrance. Since school was in session, the doors were unlocked. He entered and made his way towards the headmaster’s office. He passed several students who pointed and whispered in his wake. Peeves the Poltergeist zipped by overhead, chanting “The Boy Who Lived is Back! The Boy Who Lived is Back! The Dark Lord thought that he was dead, but he was smoking crack!” Harry grinned as he hurried along. Nice to see that Peeves was keeping his shtick current. Within a hundred years of current, anyway. He had developed an appreciation for the meddlesome spirit after the affair with Dolores Umbridge. He understood why Dumbledore had tolerated his presence.


As he approached the gargoyle guarding the headmaster’s office, it turned slightly to face him. “The headmaster is not in.”


“I’m not here to see the headmaster,” Harry replied. “At least not the current one. I need to speak to Professor Dumbledore and possibly some of the other headmasters.”


The gargoyle did not respond. Harry began to suspect that it was going to ignore his request. Suddenly it turned aside and the stairs began to move. “The headmasters will see you now.”


He rode the stairs to the top and entered the headmaster’s office. Dumbledore regarded him with interest. “Twice in the same week, Harry? To what do we owe the pleasure?”


Harry took one of the chairs in front of Neville’s desk. “There was an attack on the Ministry of Magic this morning. Hermione was badly injured.”


Professor McGonagall’s eyes snapped open, concern evident on her weathered face.


“The healers believe that she will make a full recovery,” Harry quickly added, eliciting sighs of relief from several of the portraits. “The spell that she was struck by is apparently very unusual. The healers didn’t have a single recorded case of treating a victim. I was hoping that one of you might know something about it.”


“I am relieved that Miss Granger will be alright,” Dumbledore replied. “We will certainly share anything we know about the curse that injured her. Do you know the incantation?”


“The healers said that the curse was called Exussanguis. Have you ever heard of it, professor?”


“I’m afraid not, Harry,” Dumbledore responded, stroking his long beard.


“Ahem,” came an interjection from above. Harry looked up to see Phineas Nigellus Black’s portrait staring down at him. “I am familiar with that particular curse, but I believe that your healers are mistaken.”


“What makes you say that, professor?” Harry asked.


“Because that curse is always fatal. It causes the blood to rapidly heat up. The victim literally boils to death from the inside. A most terrible way to die.”


“Is there any possibility that you could be mistaken, Phineas?” Professor McGonagall saved Harry the trouble of offending the cantankerous old headmaster.


“Do you question my knowledge of the dark arts, Minerva?” Black’s portrait condescended. “That curse always leads to a horrible death. The caster of the spell would have to be shamefully incompetent for the victim to survive.”


Harry caught himself stroking his own chin. He wondered how many of Dumbledore’s other mannerisms he had developed. “Let’s say that the wizard who cast the spell was incompetent. What sort of effect would it have?” he asked.


“I can only speculate,” Black replied disdainfully. “Dark wizards of my day took more pride in their craft. But I suspect that that the victim would be thoroughly incapacitated. Assuming that the boiling of the blood was incomplete, and that treatment could be administered in time, the damage could probably be reversed.”


“How would somebody learn about this curse?” Harry asked. “It hasn’t been used in so long that nobody alive has ever heard of it, and I don’t believe that it was in any of the dark magic books kept in the restricted section of the Hogwarts library.”


“The section of the library covering the dark arts used to be considerably broader,” Dumbledore answered. “At the same time that I restricted access to those books, I also removed many of them in order to reduce what needed to be protected from the prying eyes of aspiring dark wizards like Tom Riddle.”


“What happened to them?”


“They were placed in the custody of the Ministry,” Dumbledore replied.


Harry rose to his feet. “Thank you very much for your insight, professors. I believe it will help the investigation a great deal.”


“Harry,” Professor McGonagall said as he turned to leave. “Please give our best to Miss Grang... er, Mrs. Weasley.” She was the only portrait who seemed to keep up on current events.


“I will, professor. And thank you.”






When Harry returned to the Auror office, there was an unexpected guest waiting for him.


“Auror Potter is not in right now,” his secretary was explaining, apparently not for the first time. “He will be back later. You can leave a message for him.”


“Where is he?” Draco Malfoy demanded. “I need to speak with him. Isn’t there anyone in this bloody office who knows that patronus charm?”


Harry moved silently behind him. Draco Malfoy avoided the Ministry in general and especially the Aurors to the greatest extent possible. It seemed unlikely that the his appearance on the same day as the attack was a coincidence. Did he know something?


“Come to turn yourself in, Malfoy?” Harry said, startling him.


“Hardly,” replied Draco, quickly recovering. “as you well know, I have done nothing wrong. I assume we can talk in your office?”


Harry led the way into his office and closed the door behind them. Malfoy took a seat as Harry walked around his desk and sat down.


“I’m rather busy right now, Malfoy, so let’s get on with it. What do you want?”


“Not yet, Potter. Do that silencing charm of yours.”


“Malfoy, you’re in the office of the Head Auror. Our conversation will be quite secure. Now tell me why you’re here.”


Malfoy relaxed visibly, his cockiness returning. “Oh, you know, just wanted to catch up. Astoria and I were asking our dear daughter-in-law about you the other day, but the stuck-up little... well, let’s just say she didn’t tell us much.”


“Well done, Malfoy,” Harry replied coldly. “You’ve really come a long way, you know? For a moment there, I thought you were going to call my niece a mudblood, and I was about to remind you how it feels to be a ferret.”


“Really, Potter.” snorted Draco, looking less assured than he sounded. “And how were you going to do that. You haven’t even got your wand...”


Draco fell silent as he realized that his walking stick, which contained his wand, had suddenly appeared in Harry’s hand.


“No need to go showing off,” Draco snorted indignantly as he accepted his walking stick back. “At any rate, I came looking for the world’s most wonderful wizard and I guess this little demonstration proves that I’ve found him.”


“What possible use do you have for me?” Harry asked wryly. He decided to torque Malfoy just a bit. “You need a loan until the fifteenth?”


“What is that supposed to mean?” snapped Malfoy.


“It’s not exactly a secret that your family has fallen on tough times, Malfoy,” Harry replied.


“Look, Potter,” Draco spat, “it’s true that mother didn’t have the knack for managing the family finances that father did, but know this. I will use my last galleon to buy myself a shot of Acromantula venom before I ever accept a knut from the likes of you.”


Harry allowed a look of exasperation to cross his face. “Look, Malfoy, as pleasant as it might be to sit here and keep insulting one another, I’m sure that’s not why you came. What do you want?”


“Like I said,” Draco sneered. “I came here looking for the world’s most wonderful wizard to save my family from the terrible evildoers.”


“You’ve been conspiring with dark wizards again and gotten in over your head?” Harry sighed.


“As I’m sure you know from your endless spying, my dear wife cured me of that wickedness years ago,” Draco replied. It wasn’t exactly correct. The Aurors had quickly lost interest in Draco Malfoy after Lucius died.


“So if I’m doing such a good job spying on you, I suppose I already know why you’re here?” As much as he wanted to know what Draco was after, he couldn’t help himself. He enjoyed poking at Malfoy’s insecurities too much.


“I never said you were good at it,” Malfoy snapped back. He sighed when Harry refused to take the bait. “One of my old friends from before the war paid me a visit. For some reason, he believed that the Dark Lord had left certain items at Malfoy Manor for safekeeping. It’s ridiculous, of course, but I’m in no mood to have any of these people poking around my home. They tend to create all sorts of situations that are less than wholesome for my dear grandchildren.”


Malfoy let the last word hang in the air and silently enjoyed the pained look that crossed Harry’s face.


“So help me, Draco, if you’ve exposed Rose and Scorpius or the kids to any of Tom Riddle’s artifacts, I will kill you myself.” Harry spoke slowly and with a complete lack of ambivalence.


"Temper, temper, my dear Head Auror," Draco chided.  "Since when did you become so protective of my family?"


Harry fixed a withering stare on Draco. "Scorpius is like a son to me. He and Rose mean as much to me as any of my own children. But I'll let you in on a little secret. When he and Al first took up with each other, I couldn't stand him. I looked at him and all I saw was you, Draco. Fortunately, my son is often a better man than I am. He was able to look past his prejudices. You should try it some time."


Draco studied Harry for a long time before he spoke again. “Well, you needn't worry about it. As I said, nothing of the Dark Lord remains at Malfoy Manor. Mother cleared the place out thoroughly after father died. I’m only here to ask that the Aurors help to keep the undesirable elements away from my home. I have no desire to get a first-hand rendition of the little drama that played out under your nose this morning.”


So Malfoy knew about the attack already. Harry supposed it wasn’t surprising, given the Minister’s dire need to have a press conference.


“I’ll assign a security detail to keep watch,” Harry replied. “But it would obviously help if we knew who we were looking for.”


“The man you’re looking for is Marcus Flint,” Draco told him.


Harry stared at him. Flint was in Azkaban, or at least he was supposed to be. He made a mental note to contact the warden as soon as Malfoy left.


“And what was Flint asking for? I assume he was more specific?”


Draco seemed to weigh his options, then shrugged. “He was asking about a book, Potter. He seemed to think that the Dark Lord kept some sort of journal. After he left, Astoria and I tore the house apart, but we found nothing.”


Harry remained expressionless, but his mind was racing. The wizards who attacked the Department of Magical Records had ransacked the restricted vault. Were they looking for the same book? He repressed a cold shiver. Anything that Tom Riddle thought was worth writing down for posterity couldn’t help but be bad.


“Will you allow me to send a team of spell breakers to your home?” Harry pressed. “If there are any secret places or transfigured items, they will find them.”


Draco stared at Harry uncomfortably for a moment, as though he was swallowing something very bitter. “Fine! Whatever. Just make sure that these miscreants have no more reason to bother me. And if they find any family heirlooms hidden in the walls, they’d better not try to make off with them.”


Harry ignored Malfoy’s outburst. “I’ll have the security team in place by this evening and the spell breakers will arrive tomorrow, if that’s acceptable.”


“It doesn’t matter to me,” replied Draco. “Astoria and I will be staying with her family until this is resolved.”


As Draco rose to depart, Harry asked, “Malfoy, in the time you spent with Voldemort, did you ever see him try to teach his followers about the dark magic he used?”


Draco looked away, obviously recalling something very unpleasant. “Never,” he finally replied. “He never told us anything more than what he expected of us. It used to make Aunt Bella mental... well, more mental than she already was. She worshipped him. She hung on his every word and relished every second of his attention. But I never heard him tell her anything about the magic he was trying to perform. She was just another expendable servant to him. We all were.”


“Draco,” Harry interrupted as Malfoy once again made to leave the office. Draco turned to face him. “Thank you. Thank you for doing the right thing and bringing this to me. I promise that we will do everything within our power to protect you and your... our family.”


Malfoy regarded him for a long moment. “Don’t thank me, Potter. Thank Astoria. As I told you, she cured me of the wickedness I used to allow into my life. If I hadn’t come to see you, she would have left me.”


With that, he turned and walked out.


Chapter 8: Fortunes
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

After seven chapters and almost 500 reads, I am thrilled and humbled by the reception that my story has gotten. To those who have offered reviews, I offer my deepest gratitude. You are helping to make the story better. Extra-special thanks to Beeezie for reviewing every chapter so far.

As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.

 



 
The fall breeze drifted through the rafters of the old warehouse, ruffling the feathers of the pigeons who roosted there. The building was long abandoned, a relic of London’s commercial past. Many of the upper windows had been smashed by vandals with rocks and bottles. It had once been a popular layabout for muggle itinerants. Now it was surrounded by powerful muggle-repelling charms and protective wards.


Flint apparated into the center of the warehouse and turned slowly around. She had brought them here after they escaped from the Ministry. Since the journal was not in the Magical Records vault, Malfoy Manor was still their best bet, she had reasoned. Kidnapping Malfoy’s wife would be the most effective lever to assure his compliance. She was not going to be happy that he had failed.


It occurred to him that he would have probably succeeded if he had brought her here straight away instead of trying to charm her into helping them. Sometimes it was hard to stay focused after so many years in prison. Astoria Greengrass was still as shapely as he remembered her. Malfoy’s suggestion about looking up Zabini in New Zealand popped into his head. Just standing next to Zabini gave you an even money chance of getting some action. He shook his head and banished the thoughts from his mind. She would be here soon and he needed to focus if he was going to talk his way out of this. Once they seized power, he would have more women than he knew what to do with.


Flint shifted uncomfortably and gazed around the warehouse again. He didn’t like to be kept waiting, but if he had to then this place sure beat his old cell in Azkaban. Since he seemed to have a few minutes to spare, he started to remove the spells disguising his face.


“Not yet,” came her voice from somewhere he couldn’t pinpoint. She must be using some sort of spell to conceal her location. He wished that he’d paid more attention to old Flitwick.


“I see that you failed.” Her assessment was simple and to the point.


“I had her,” Flint replied as he turned slowly, trying to discover her location. “Her bloody husband showed up just as I was about to disapparate and mucked things up.”


“So why don’t we have both of them?” she hissed from behind him. He spun around to find himself almost face to face with her. She was wearing the black hooded cloak that she favored. It mostly concealed her features, leaving only her red lips and pointed chin visible. He realized that she had taken off her disguise.


“He surprised me, my lady,” Flint stammered. “He nearly stunned me. It was fortunate that I escaped without being revealed.”


“When your clumsy friend Nott botched the curse that should have killed Potter’s mudblood friend, was that also ‘fortunate’?” she spat. “I’m beginning to question how much more ‘fortune’ our cause can withstand.”


Flint glared at her, but said nothing. Because of her, he was no longer rotting in a prison cell and for that he was grateful. But her sharp tongue and overbearing manner were beginning to wear thin with him. Once the Dark Lord’s journal had been recovered and they were operating in the open, he reckoned that he and Nott and the rest of their friends could easily shove her aside or even dispose of her completely. As long as they were restoring the rightful order of things, women would have to relearn their place, as well.


“Very well,” she sighed. “We will have to do this the hard way. We will go to Malfoy Manor and take the Dark Lord’s journal by force. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘you.’”


“Look, lady,” Flint replied, growing tired of the fake courtliness, “I think it’s a safe bet that between the attack on the Ministry and the attempted kidnapping of Malfoy’s wife, that place is going to be crawling with Aurors.”


“Then perhaps you shouldn’t have failed,” she sneered.


Before Flint could think up a retort, she continued. “Nevertheless, you have a point. We will need additional hands for this mission. I want you to begin recruiting wizards that we can count on to rally around our cause. Do you think you can manage that without my help?”


Life on the run with Zabini was starting to look better by the moment. Nevertheless, Flint was happy about the prospect of bringing more of his old friends into the fold. The sooner he reached a quorum of loyal supporters, the sooner they could eliminate this insufferable harpy and lead a proper revolution.


“Some of them are still in Azkaban,” he replied cautiously.


“Then we’ll just have to arrange for their release. You’d better make it quick. I don’t imagine that your absence will escape Potter’s attention forever.”


“Right away, my lady. How should I contact you when I’m ready,” he asked.


“You needn’t worry about that. I will contact you. And when I do, you had better be ready. Do not fail me again, Flint, or you’ll find yourself longing for the comfort of your prison cell.”


She turned and disappeared, leaving him stewing.
 

 



Harry was still sitting at his desk when Susan Bones returned to the Auror office late in the evening.


“You want to hear it now, or wait for the morning?” she asked from his doorway.


Harry sat down an ancient book of dark spells on top of a pile of similar tomes and rubbed his tired eyes. If he lived to be a hundred years old, he would never understand how Hermione could plow through books like these with boundless enthusiasm.


“Why don’t you give me the fifty word version?”


“We only have three wand signatures aside from Ministerial Security. The curses were ordinary, aside from the one that hit Hermione. Witness accounts all match Ernie’s. Nothing was actually taken from the restricted vault. Nobody could ID the wizard with the petition, but he almost certainly cursed Hermione. OK, boss?”


“Cheeky rotter,” he replied with a wry smile.


“What’s with all the musty, old books?” she asked.


“The healers identified the curse that hit Hermione, at least they think they did. But it’s ancient, dark magic. If it wasn’t for the portrait of old Headmaster Black in Neville’s office, I wouldn’t have known where to start.”


“Any luck?”


“Not so far,” he admitted. “There was nothing in the dark magic books in the restricted section at Hogwarts. These books all came from the Minister’s private library. I had no idea they were kept here until Dumbledore mentioned it to me.”


“What use would the Minister have for books on dark magic?” she mused. “That doesn’t sound particularly helpful for getting reelected.”


Harry chuckled softly at her candor. The current Minister of Magic was indeed a political creature, a sharp contrast from Kingsley Shacklebolt’s tenure. He was the first Minister since Cornelius Fudge who had not risen out of the ranks of the Aurors, having spent most of his career in Magical Transportation. Harry found his leadership to be only modestly preferable to Fudge’s.


“Dumbledore said that he transferred them into the Minstry’s care to keep certain infamous Hogwarts students from getting their hands on them. It does seem strange that they wound up in the Minister’s own library rather than Magical Records or the Auror office,” Harry replied.


“You want some help, Harry? That’s quite a stack you have there.”


“As long as I’m not keeping you from anything important,” he answered, grateful for the help. She shook her head and he slid Blackeƒt Magick of Wizardƒ Moƒt Foul across the desk towards her.


“The curse you’re looking for is called Exussanguis. It’s a blood boiling curse.”


Susan looked horrified. “Poor Hermione. How did she survive that?”


“That’s one thing I’m hoping to find out,” Harry shrugged. “Headmaster Black thinks that the wizard who cast it didn’t know what he was doing. Otherwise, it definitely would have been fatal.”


“Thank Merlin for small favors,” Susan muttered as she opened the book and waved away a small cloud of dust.


They read mostly in silence for an hour, pausing occasionally to discuss some especially nasty bit of dark sorcery. Harry was about to crack open Ancient Secrets of the Dark Wizards of Wales when a charmed memo came zipping into his office. He snatched it out of the air and tore it open, happy to have an excuse to take a break.


“What is it?” Susan asked, noticing the scowl on his face.


“Marcus Flint is missing from Azkaban,” he replied.


“What do you mean, ‘missing’?” she asked incredulously. “Marcus Flint is serving two life sentences for murder. It isn’t like he went for a stroll and got lost or something.”


“It might as well be,” said Harry, tossing the memo onto his desk in disgust. “The warden apparently had no idea that he was missing until I asked about him. There was no breakout, no security breach that anybody is aware of. He’s just gone.”


“Ron!” he shouted towards his office door. He looked sheepishly at Susan when he realized his mistake.


“Susan, I am hereby promoting you to Temporary Replacement Weasley,” he grinned. “Get a team over to Azkaban and find out what the hell is going on. I want a full report on the security situation by morning.”


Susan gestured with her wand and summoned the duty roster from the bulletin board outside of Harry’s office. “I can pull the team away from Malfoy Manor. Their shift just started half an hour ago.”


“Who else is available?” Harry asked. “I’d rather keep that team in place.”


She scanned the rest of the parchment. “The next best option is the security team here at the Ministry, but they’ve been on for five hours now. I could call in their relief early, but that throws tomorrow’s rotation all out of whack.”


“OK,” Harry groaned, rubbing his forehead. “Pull half the team off of Malfoy Manor. That gives us, what, three people in each place?”


“Right,” she replied, rearranging the names on the list with her wand. “I heard that ferret face was in here to see you today. Why the sudden interest? I thought we gave up on him years ago.”


Harry weighed his response carefully. On the one hand, he didn’t want his team coming down too hard on Malfoy. But if word got out that Malfoy was talking to him, it could make things more dangerous for Draco and his family. Now that Flint was on the loose, the risk was that much greater. “I rattled his cage a bit to get him in here,” Harry answered. “It was the same bit of info that led me to ask about Flint.”


“That brain-damaged little git,” Susan groaned. “Of all people, you’d think he would know better than to get involved with Death Eaters again.”


“I didn’t say that he was involved. At least not for sure,” Harry hedged. “I just want to keep an eye on him until I know what his role is in all of this.”


“Alright, Harry. I’ll send Richards, Boxely and Tremaine to Azkaban. If there’s anything wrong, they’re the best in a fight. I’ll leave Windsor, Elgin and Singleton at Malfoy Manor. They’re better at concealment, anyway.”


Harry thought it over. He would have preferred to keep at least one of the better duelists on the security detail, but he wasn’t sure how to suggest it without giving away the true nature of the mission. “That sounds fine,” he replied.


Susan tore off a scrap of parchment and tucked it into Horrifying Hexes and Cataclysmic Curses to mark her place before closing the book and heading off towards the apparition point. Patronuses and owls were too noticeable for surveillance missions, so she would deliver the orders personally.


“Susan,” Harry called after her. “When you’re done with this, go home. I’m beat. I’ll finish with these books tomorrow.”


“Thanks, boss,” she replied. “See you at the morning meeting.”


Harry stood up and stretched, realizing how long he had been sitting at his desk. He considered stopping by St. Mungo’s to see Hermione. It was well past the end of visiting hours, but he could always pretend to be on official business. She was very likely still asleep, he reasoned. The last time he had talked to Ron, the healers had placed her under heavy sedation while they worked to repair the damage to her circulatory system. He decided to wait for morning.


Harry threw on his cloak and grabbed Ancient Secrets of the Dark Wizards of Wales in case he was having trouble sleeping later and headed for the apparition point.

 




There were several owls waiting for Harry when he arrived home. He tossed small snacks from the tray by the door to each as they deposited their deliveries onto the hall table. One of the owls continued to stare at him expectantly, and he rifled through the stack as Hermys took his cloak. “Master is going to bed early tonight? Making up his sleep?” the elf asked earnestly.


Harry smiled at the elf’s concern. “Yes, Hermys, I believe I’ll turn in early tonight.”


“Dinner is ready at Master’s convenience,” the elf replied happily.


Harry turned his attention back to the mail. There was an invitation to a fundraiser, a postcard from Ginny’s cousin Sadie who was traveling in Australia, a bank statement from Gringotts and a sales flyer from Madam Malkin’s. The last message was a simple scrap of parchment. He recognized the writing immediately. Molly was requesting the pleasure of his company at a family dinner on Sunday.


Harry read the invitation with a bevvy of mixed feelings. Family get-togethers reminded him of Ginny. As such, they left him feeling uneasy and vaguely empty. He did love seeing his nieces, nephews, grandchildren and grand-nieces and nephews, but not necessarily all at once. Family dinners at the Burrow were pure chaos. Which was how Molly preferred things, he supposed, since she was never happier than when she had dozens of children running about underfoot. He did some quick math in his head: Bill and Fleur had six grandchildren, Percy and Audrey had four, George and Angelina had four, Ron and Hermione had five and he had five of his own. Throw in the adults and possibly a few family friends like the Scamanders and the Longbottoms and you were easily looking at fifty people.


Harry scribbled his affirmation on the back of Molly's message and handed it back to the remaining owl. He watched it fly away and headed to the dining room, sitting down just as Hermys was serving the soup. After a sumptuous dinner, he decided to turn in. When he came out of the bathroom after changing and brushing his teeth, he found a glass of warm milk and a shot of firewhiskey on the night table. Hermys was pulling out all the stops. He downed them both and curled up in bed, ready to make up for the previous night’s lost sleep. He was surprised at how much better he felt, considering that Magical Records was a crime scene and Hermione was in the hospital. But Hermione was going to be OK and they now had a major investigation on their hands. Maybe that was what he needed in his life, he thought as he drifted off to sleep. A reason to feel needed.

 




Flint pulled the collar of his cloak closer as he stole down Knockturn Alley. He felt very self-conscious about being in public without his disguise, but on this night it was absolutely necessary. He stopped at the entrance to Borgin & Burkes, faced the door and took three large steps to his left. When he stepped forward, the entrance to The Ragged Fang appeared. Nobody in the dark, smoky pub turned to look when he entered. The patrons of this establishment appeared to have plenty of their own troubles and weren’t in a hurry to discover anyone else’s. He quietly made his way to a table near the back.


Three rough-looking wizards already sat around the table, drinking cheap firewhiskey and talking quietly among themselves. They were definitely not the type that Flint had in mind to join his glorious, pure blood revolution. The Death Eaters of old were men of means and refinement. This lot looked as though they barely had two sickles to rub together and they smelled like livestock. Still, he was operating on a tight timeline. He nodded towards the men and took the vacant seat at the table.


“So you’re Flint.” said a middle aged wizard with a pronounced scar than ran beneath the patch over his left eye.


“Depends on who’s asking,” Flint replied, even though it hadn’t been a question. Suddenly he felt something sharp poking him in the ribs. Something that definitely was not a wand. He looked down as much as he dared and caught a slight glint of worn steel.


“I’m asking,” said the one-eyed wizard. “And I’d best like your answer.”


“Yeah,” Flint stammered. “I’m Flint. My friend Ellis Brown told me that I could meet some wizards here that would be interested in helping to reverse the so-called ‘progress’ at the Ministry since the war.”


The one-eyed wizard chuckled mirthlessly, slapping his comrade on the shoulder. Flint felt the knife point dig a little deeper into his ribs. “Well aren’t you a fancy one? Listen, you lace curtain ponce, Brown don’t have friends. N’er do we. E’ry time one of you society types climbs off your high horse and comes round ‘ere, it’s the same story. Glory and gold and fetchin’ muggle women linin’ up to spit shine your boots. Well it ain’t happen’d yet. Men like us wind up dead or in prison when we listen to men like you.”


This wasn’t going well. Flint figured he had one chance to connect with them, and a slim chance at that. He hoped that she was having more luck springing his remaining friends from Azkaban.


“Look, you have me all wrong. I just got out of Azkaban, myself. I spent forty years in there because I got on the wrong side of Shacklebolt and the muggle lovers he brought into the Ministry with him. They’re all a bunch of rich numpties and they’re in league with the muggles and their technology. I think they’re trying to turn us all into slaves. Pretty soon, being a wizard won’t mean a bit more than being a muggle dustman unless you have millions of galleons in your vault.”


The one-eyed wizard nodded slightly, but the knife point continued to dig into his side.


“So what would you have us do about it? Maybe ya haven’t noticed, but we’re not what you’d call electable.”


“We’re not running for office,” Flint retorted. “The time for politics is over. The whole bloody system is too corrupt. We have to take a more... direct approach. People are starting to wake up to what the muggle lovers at the Ministry are about. When the common witches and wizards see somebody stand up to the fusspots and dandies, things are gonna change. Do any of you men listen to Xerxes the Seer?”


“He’s that fellow on the wireless who tells ‘bout how the muggles are takin’ over outer space and all,” blurted the third wizard.


Flint felt the knife point ease back and let out a proper breath for what felt like the first time in hours.


“Did ya know,” asked the wizard with the knife, “that the muggles are workin’ on some contraption that can take you to the moon and back even faster than apparatin?”


Flint smiled ruefully at the other men. Maybe this lot would work out after all.


“Look, this isn’t going to be easy. But I’m not asking you men to take any risks that I won’t take myself. We’re about to make our first move. I’m personally leading a team into the home of a rich, old pure blood family. A family that sold us all out after the war and took up with the muggle lovers at the Ministry to keep themselves out of Azkaban. They’ve squirreled away some things that we need to help our cause. Some things that...” Flint looked conspiratorially at the men and lowered his voice to a whisper, “that belonged to the Dark Lord, himself. And you know how he felt about the muggles and their friends at the Ministry.”


“You make an interestin’ case for yourself, Flint,” said the one-eyed wizard as he rubbed his chin stubble. “But I’m not sold on ya. You’re sure you can’t sweeten the deal for us, considerin’ the risk we’re takin?”


Flint thought fast. He knew that she had gold at her disposal, but she hadn’t given him leave to spend any of it.


“This is a very old, wealthy family we’re talking about. I’m sure they keep plenty of gold lying around the house. In consideration of the risk you’re taking, you’re of course welcome to pocket any that you happen to come upon.”


Looting. Somehow, Flint was fairly sure that the Dark Lord wouldn’t have approved. But these were different times and since he couldn’t rely on history’s most powerful dark wizard to rally the faithful, he had to work with the tools at his disposal.


“The gold had better be there,” the one-eyed wizard replied threateningly. “How do we get in touch with ya?”


“Meet me here on Saturday night at midnight,” Flint replied. “I’ll have further directions then.”


Flint rose to leave, then leaned back over the table. “I didn’t catch your names, by the way.”


“No, you din’t.” the wizard with the knife snorted. The conversation was plainly over.


Flint left the pub and stepped into Knockturn Alley, checking both directions before tightening his cloak around him and walking quickly away. If he managed to survive two more meetings like this one, he would have the men he needed for the raid on Malfoy Manor.


“Bloody Zabini,” he thought, picturing his old schoolmate charming a beautiful woman over a glass of wine in New Zealand.

 




Harry awoke early the next morning.


“Friday,” he thought to himself. “Everyone should be in a good mood today.”


He showered and made his way to the kitchen, where he found his breakfast already sitting on the table. Hermys was facing the stove, stirring a large pot.


“Good morning, Master,” the elf said without turning around. “You slept much better last night?”


“Yes, Hermys, much better,” Harry replied between sausages.


Harry finished his breakfast and apparated to the Ministry, ready to tackle his day. He was surprised to find Ron sitting in his normal seat in the conference room when he arrived for the Aurors’ morning staff meeting.


“Morning, mate,” Harry greeted his friend. “How is she?”


“The healers had her under sedation all night,” Ron replied, looking exhausted. “They said there’s still a lot of damage to be repaired, but they’re hoping to let her wake up for a while today. Audrey and Angelina are with her right now.”


“After the meeting, why don’t you go home and catch some rest? You look like hell,” Harry said frankly.


“And miss all the fun?” Ron replied. “Not likely. I want to catch up on the investigation.”


Harry took a quick headcount and got the meeting underway. First Susan went over her team’s findings from Magical Records, which raised nearly as many questions as answers. The three assailants had left behind no clues as to their identities. The petition that the wizard in the bad toupee had been circulating was in support of a non-existent piece of legislation to create a holiday recognizing the four founders of Hogwarts. Two of the wand signatures matched wands that had been reported stolen in recent weeks, while the third matched nothing they had on record. They had collected some fingerprints and DNA samples that were being processed at a muggle crime lab, but those results would only be helpful if they matched suspects known to the muggle authorities.


“The strangest thing is that it appears that the whole attack was for nothing,” Susan concluded her report. “The contents of the restricted vault were thoroughly catalogued before and after. Nothing was missing. Either they couldn’t find what they were looking for or it was never there in the first place.”


Following Susan was a thoroughly depressing report on the state of affairs at Azkaban. Richards reported that there were now nine prisoners unaccounted for, including convicted murderers Marcus Flint and Theodore Nott and would-be Death Eaters Jeremy Gamp and Gregory Goyle. Three of the guards had also disappeared, suggesting that they were involved somehow with the escape.


“We are currently conducting a room by room search of the entire prison, looking for weapons, contraband, enchanted items and possible escape routes. We’re also scheduling interviews with all of the remaining guards and the kitchen and custodial workers.”


“How long do you expect it to take?” Harry asked. “I spoke to the Minister this morning and he was planning to sack the warden. I asked him to hold off until we were done with our investigation, but he’s itching to make a show of it.”


“If we stay on schedule, we should be done in about four days. Unless, of course, the department can spare some more bodies,” Richards replied, nodding meaningfully towards Harry and Ron.


Harry sighed. Since the end of the war, he and Ron had rebuilt the department almost from scratch. From a low of only fourteen Aurors on the day after Tom Riddle died, their numbers had grown to a solid force of fifty-six field Aurors, investigators, potioneers and trainees. At times, he fielded less than subtle questions from the Minister about why he needed so many people. Now, with two major criminal investigations added to their normal duties, they were stretched quite thin.


He looked at Ron, who shrugged. “We could pull maybe two people off of the Ministry security detail and send along a couple of trainees,” he suggested.


“Do it,” Harry replied.


“Something wrong, Richards?” he asked, noticing the uncomfortable look on the man’s face.


“Sending trainees into Azkaban, sir? If there’s any sort of trouble, it will be hard enough to maintain order without having to look out for a couple of greenies.”


“You needed bodies, you have bodies,” Harry replied. “Pair them off with senior Aurors and do make sure that they come back in one piece.”


The rest of the meeting went quickly. Team leaders gave updates on the more routine cases they were working and Ron handed out patrol and security assignments for the weekend. When the meeting broke, Harry pulled Ron into his office.


“I mean it, mate, you look dead on your feet,” Harry told him. “I don’t think you’re doing anybody much good here. If you want to go over the case files then make copies and do it at home with your feet up.”


Ron started to argue, but Harry silenced him with a raised finger and a grin. “Don’t make me pull rank on you. Or worse still, tell your mum.”


“Oi, alright,” Ron replied. “You didn’t have to go there.”


“If we get any breaks in the case, I’ll let you know right away. Now get on with you,” Harry admonished.


After Ron left, Harry quickly scanned the list of messages and owls waiting on his desk. Finding nothing urgent, he grabbed his cloak and headed out.


“I’ll be at St. Mungo’s if anyone is looking for me,” he told his secretary and then headed for the Ministry Atrium.

 




Hermione’s door was open when Harry arrived and he heard familiar voices coming from inside.


“Still, I don’t see why George couldn’t add school supplies at the Hogsmeade store,” Audrey was saying as he walked in. “Flourish and Blotts have gotten so expensive recently. It would be good to have an alternative.”


“Audrey, it’s a joke shop,” Angelina explained slowly. “If we put in quills and cauldrons, it will bore the customers right out the door.”


Hermione was laying in bed with several of the healers’ magical instruments affixed to her body. Her eyes were closed and she was very pale. He noticed the slow rising and falling of her chest, but otherwise she lay still.


“Ahem,” Harry made a small sound to get the attention of his sisters-in-law.


“Oh, hi, Harry,” Audrey gushed towards him. “So nice of you to come. Hermione was asking about you earlier. Poor thing.”


“How is the patient?” Harry asked.


“She still can’t really talk, but the healers say that she’s doing really well,” replied Angelina, beaming towards Hermione. “They hope that she’ll be out of here in a week or two.”


“Would you ladies mind if we had a few moments alone?” Harry asked.


“Of course not, Harry. I’m sure you have important Auror questions to ask,” Audrey replied. “Just be sure not to push her too hard. The healers say she needs her rest.”


Harry watched the two women close the door behind themselves. He took Hermione’s pale hand and kissed her gently on the forehead.


“How are you feeling?” he asked.


“A little better, but still really fuzzy,” she replied, her voice barely a whisper.


“I thought you couldn’t talk?” Harry asked.


“As far as Audrey knows,” she said with a weak smile.


Harry chuckled at his old friend. “You really are amazing, you know that?”


Hermione smiled again, but then her face turned serious.


“Harry, there are some things I need to tell you. I feel really tired and I don’t want to forget.”


“Only if you feel up to it,” Harry replied. “You need to save your strength.”


“The witch and the wizard who attacked us... they were asking Elvert about sealed records... from the war. They were asking for a journal... kept by one of the Death Eaters.”


Harry nodded slowly. It had to be the same book that Flint was demanding from Malfoy. The pieces were coming together. He squeezed her hand more tightly.


“The wizard... who cursed me... had a petition by the lifts.”


“Hermione, the curse that you were hit with is called Exussanguis. It’s an ancient dark curse that boils your blood. The wizard who cursed you messed it up, otherwise you would have been killed. Do you know anything about it?”


She moved her head very slightly from side to side. Her eyes were closed now and her breathing was slower. The exertion was too much for her. He was surprised to see her lips moving, and he had to lean very close to hear her voice.


“Harry... something is very... very bad... protect our babies... keep them safe.”


Harry stood up and smoothed a stray hair away from her face. He kissed her again on the forehead and quietly left the room.


“She’s asleep,” he said to Audrey and Angelina when he found them sipping tea near the nurse’s station.


“Poor thing,” Audrey cooed. “I hope you catch whoever did this to her and lock them up and throw away the key.”


“We’re trying,” Harry replied. “When she’s feeling better, I’m sure she’ll be able to help us out a lot.”


Harry smiled at Audrey, trying to think of the right way to ask what was happening between her and Percy. He noticed one of the healers staring at him from further down the hall. The man nodded in his direction. “Excuse me, ladies,” Harry said.


The badge on the healer’s robes identified him as Gelbard. “You’re Harry Potter, correct?” the man asked.


“Yes,” Harry answered. “And I take it you’re Healer Gelbard?”


“I believe I treated you after the accident at that warehouse full of counterfeit whizz poppers,” the Healer replied.


“Well, it wasn’t really an accident, but thank you nevertheless. How can I help you?”


“Would you join me in the healer’s lounge for a moment?” the healer asked, gesturing towards a small room with a couch and several chairs.


Once they were seated, Healer Gelbard rested his elbows on his knees and spoke quietly. “You are very close to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, are you not?”


“We’ve all been best friends since school,” Harry replied. “Is something wrong?”


“We’re not sure yet,” the Healer admitted. “I need to take you into my confidence. I would never share news like this with a patient in Mrs. Weasley’s condition and, frankly, I’m not sure how Mr. Weasley would take it.”


Harry felt impatience and anger welling up inside and suppressed them as best he could. “What's wrong with her? Tell me, please.”


“It's still early in her treatment, but so far we haven’t seen any movement in her legs. Now you need to understand that this is a very unusual curse and we really don’t know what to expect. She might regain the use of them with time and treatment. But right now, the damage looks very severe and the potions aren’t working the way they should. I’m afraid that she may never walk again.”


Harry sat back in his chair, stunned. His mind was reeling. How was he going to explain this to Ron? To Hermione? To Rose and Hugo and the grandchildren?


“How soon will you know for sure?” he asked, staring at the floor.


The Healer shrugged wearily. “Days? Maybe a few weeks? Nobody has seen this curse used in our lifetimes. It’s fortunate that she’s going to live. Beyond that, everything is a guessing game.”


After a long time, Harry looked the healer in the eyes. “You definitely shouldn’t tell Ron yet. I can’t predict how he’ll react.”


“Thank you, Mr. Potter,” replied the Healer. “I will certainly take your advice. Perhaps if we’re very fortunate, I won’t need it.”


He stood and left Harry sitting in the lounge. If there was one thing that Harry was not feeling at the moment, it was fortunate.


Chapter 9: The Tangled Web We Weave
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Once again, I'd like to thank everyone for reading and especially those who have taken the time to offer their critiques. Every review means a lot to me, and I will try to continue to respond to each and every one.


Extra-special thanks to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. If you haven't read her story Evolution (M), I highly recommend it!


As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.
 






Harry spent the rest of the day studiously avoiding his family. As he expected, Ron showed up at work later in the afternoon. He claimed to have taken a power nap, but Harry didn’t buy it. Exhaustion and worry were etched deep in the lines of Ron’s face. Harry was barely able to make eye contract with him, knowing that things were going to get much worse before they got better. He set Ron about rearranging the duty roster to improve the coverage on their various assignments while freeing up more bodies to complete the inspection of Azkaban. Susan had already assured him that this was a mathematical impossibility, but Ron was too tired to notice. Harry surreptitiously contacted Hugo to make sure that he took his father home when visiting hours ended. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to take the next step of involving Molly.
 

By the time Harry crawled into bed, all traces of his good mood were gone. He slowly replayed the day’s events in his head. Eleven hardened criminals are back on the street, we have no idea who staged an attack three floors away from our office in broad daylight and my best friend is probably going to be a paraplegic. Brilliant.


Harry spent a long night tossing and turning as his mind grappled with the various problems facing him. He finally fell asleep some time after midnight, only to wake up in a cold sweat at three o’clock in the morning after watching masked Death Eaters murder a wheelchair-bound Hermione in his dreams. At five o’clock, he finally gave up and rolled out of bed.
 

Harry had just finished his breakfast when an owl arrived from the Burrow with his assignments for the day. No proper Weasley family dinner could occur without the requisite preparations. Harry’s first job was to see to it that Teddy, James, Al and Lily all arrived at the Burrow at the proper time. To Molly, this meant that she should have plenty of time to fawn over her grandchildren and great-grandchildren before they sat down for dinner. Anyone who was not present by three in the afternoon was usually deemed to be late.
 

His second task was contacting Neville and making sure that the children at Hogwarts would be able to floo to the Burrow. Ordinarily, Hogwarts required the permission of a parent or guardian for any child to leave the school grounds. For the Weasley clan, that meant twelve separate sets of parents had to contact the school. After the second family dinner under his tenure, Neville had conceded that it was easier for one family member to provide him with a combined list.
 

Harry sat down in the drawing room, grabbed a roll of parchment, and started scribbling notes. He wrote friendly reminders for his children and godson, indicating when they needed to arrive at the Burrow and pointing out that punctuality was non-negotiable unless they wanted to hear about it from their grandmother. Next he started composing his letter to Neville. He chewed on the end of the quill and thought hard, trying to remember which of his grand-nieces and nephews were currently attending Hogwarts and which had graduated or were not old enough to start. Finally, he gave up and walked to the enchanted tapestry in the hallway that showed his ever-growing family tree. Ginny had always been good about remembering names and birth dates. He was awful at it.
 

When he completed the letter to Neville, he bundled up all the messages and threw on his cloak. His family had accumulated a small army of owls over the years, and he finally set up an owlery in the barn. He distributed the messages and sent the owls on their way.
 

At seven o’clock, an owl arrived with the latest update from Azkaban. Two more guards and a kitchen worker had been taken into custody due to unexplained absences and additions to their bank vaults that they could not explain. It appeared that a sizable black market had been operating beneath the warden’s nose. Still, there was nothing to suggest a conspiracy large enough to allow nine prisoners to walk out the gate unnoticed. The three missing guards were still at large, and they were working several promising leads to track them down.
 

Harry scribbled out his acknowledgment, along with instructions to circulate wanted posters for the missing guards. He sent the owl on its way and sat down to reread Richards’s report. Things were not looking good for the warden. By Monday, Harry felt sure that the Minister would be past requesting his resignation. If the Minister was feeling generous, the warden be quietly fired and sent on his way. If not, he would be publicly pilloried. Political damage control always began with assigning blame.
 

He grabbed another piece of parchment and began to compose a carefully worded message. He had agreed to keep the Minister informed on their progress, but he didn’t want the warden fired just yet. As soon as the axe fell, it would send a chill through the prison. The guards and kitchen workers were certain to be less forthcoming when it became clear that the Minister’s outrage could cost them their jobs. There was also the matter of what else the warden might know, although Harry suspected it wasn’t much. The Aurors needed a little more time to gather information before the heads started to roll.
 

Harry had just completed the pleasantries and was weighing which details to include when Terry Boot’s silvery hedgehog patronus bounded into the room. “Harry,” it said in Terry’s voice, “we have a tip on one of the guards. Setting up anti-apparition jinxes on Church Lane in Little Driffield.”
 

Harry was grateful for a reason to put off writing the Minister. He set the note aside and headed for the door, grabbing his traveling cloak and stepping into his boots. “Hermys, I’m going to Little Driffield to help apprehend a fugitive,” he shouted towards the kitchen as he walked out the door. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”







Hermione lay in bed, listening to her husband and son argue.
 

“Dad, you were supposed to get some rest last night. I’m here and Mum is fine. Why don’t you go home and sleep?”
 

“I did get some sleep last night. I feel fine,” Ron shot back. “Have you been talking to Harry?” he added suspiciously.
 

“You did not!” Hugo replied incredulously while side-stepping the question about his uncle. “You kept me up until midnight talking about the bloody Cannons and their roster problems and when I finally went to bed, you played chess against yourself until three in the morning. Fiona was not happy about finding you on the sofa in your underpants this morning, you know?”
 

Hermione would have found them both very amusing, but she was too absorbed in her own situation. She had no recollection of what it was like to be petrified, but that was the only other thing that had kept her off of her feet for this long. The healers kept telling her that she was progressing well, but she didn’t feel like she was making progress. It hurt to move and she couldn’t manage more than a whisper without her voice turning into a garbled, gurgly mess. Even breathing was uncomfortable. She still couldn’t stand to open her eyes more than a sliver and short conversations left her exhausted.
 

“Your injuries are very extensive and you’re going to have to be patient,” Healer Gelbard had told her. It was an easy thing for him to say. He didn’t have a husband coming apart at the seams or a best friend who needed help finding a trio of killers. She sighed to herself. This was not the best time to be taking on other people’s problems. Where Ron and Harry were concerned, however, it was a hard habit to break.
 

She thought back to her conversation with Astoria. There was no way to know whether the visit from Draco’s “old friend” was related to the attack on the Ministry, but it seemed like an awfully large coincidence. So it appeared that somebody was trying to recruit former Death Eaters and locate some of the Dark Lord’s personal effects. It wasn’t the first time, but it hadn't happened in well over twenty years. She struggled to remember which of Draco’s school friends were not dead or in prison. There was Zabini, but he was supposed to be somewhere in the South Pacific, sipping wine, seducing women and spending the gold his mother had accumulated from her collection of dead husbands.
 

After a few moments lost in thought, she noticed an awkward silence in the room. “Mum, don’t you think?” Hugo asked.
 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “what was the question?”
 

“See, you’re wearing her out,” Ron said defensively.
 

“Mum,” Hugo continued, undaunted, “I was asking whether you agree that dad should get some potions from a healer to help him sleep. You probably can’t see, but he looks like hell.”
 

“Hugo, watch your language,” she admonished, although she was sure that Ron did actually look like hell based on their earlier conversation. “Ronald, he has a point. It’s very sweet of you to take care of me and I love you for it, but you need more rest. Otherwise, you’re going to wind up in the bed next to me.”
 

“Brilliant!” Ron exclaimed. She felt him kiss her on the forehead. “You’re a genius. If we scoot your bed over a couple feet, we could fit a cot right over here. There’d still be room for the chairs and the healers could get around...”
 

“Dad!”







Harry slumped through his front door later that morning, tired, dirty and frustrated. The guard they had cornered in Little Driffield had led them on quite a chase, ducking through alleyways, scrambling over walls and crawling through hedges and gardens. Harry had to admire the man’s stamina and elusiveness, if not his intellect. He almost made it outside the anti-apparition jinxes when Terry shouted, “look out for the blibbering humdinger!” It had given the guard just enough pause for one of the Aurors to stun him. Harry and Terry both agreed that the older they became, the more uses they found for Luna’s peculiar beliefs.
 

The interrogation of the guard had not been especially enlightening, however. The man was frightened out of his wits and not at all reluctant to answer their questions. His payments and instructions had come from one of the two guards still at large, the apparent ringleader of the group. His role in the escape had been relatively minor, leaving a door to a storage room unlocked and volunteering to trade shifts with another guard who had been scheduled to walk the cell blocks. He did give the Aurors enough information to pin down the date of Flint’s escape. He had been on the street for only six days.
 

Hermys appeared with Harry’s lunch just as he sat down to finish his update to the Minister. He decided to emphasize the arrests they had made and gloss over the appearance of a broader conspiracy. If he could keep the warden employed for another seventy-two hours, his team could complete their interviews and not have to deal with employees that were maneuvering to keep their jobs.
 

Harry sent an owl off to the Minister and settled gingerly into his favorite chair in the drawing room. His body was not happy about the morning’s activities, especially the part where he tried to hurdle a fence and landed unceremoniously on his backside. Maybe he really was getting too old for his job. He thought about Neville’s offer of a teaching position at Hogwarts. As appealing as it sounded to his old bones, something didn’t feel quite right about it.
 

He picked up the Daily Prophet and perused the coverage of the attack on the Ministry. There was plenty of speculation and innuendo since nobody outside of the Minister’s office was officially commenting. “Anonymous sources” within the Ministry were saying that the attack was being blamed on a fringe group demanding lower taxes and less Ministry spending. Harry was pleased to see that the false rumors he had seeded were taking hold. The last thing they needed was the press speculating about a rekindled Death Eater movement.
 

Harry set the paper aside when another owl appeared in the window. He winced in pain as he leaned over the table and decided to open the window with his wand rather than struggling to his feet. He summoned a treat for the owl and unrolled the message it dropped in his lap. This one contained the spell breakers’ report from Malfoy Manor.
 

He furrowed his brow as he scanned the report and realized that they had found almost nothing. There were a few transfigured items, but none that suggested any connection to Voldemort. He smirked at the mention of certain leather garments and equestrian gear found in a charmed cubby in the master bedroom. He tried to imagine Narcissa and old Lucius all dolled up and... no, on second thought, he didn’t want to imagine that at all.
 

The last two items located by the spell breakers immediately snapped Harry out of his mental mockery of Lucius and Narcissa.

 
Two wands found in the back of a drawer in the basement. One fourteen inches, willow, unicorn hair core. One ten and three quarters inches, vine wood, dragon heartstring core.

 
They had found Ron and Hermione’s wands. The ones confiscated by the Snatchers when they were captured and taken to Malfoy Manor. Harry reread the descriptions twice more before he could believe it. Narcissa had made her peace with Hermione after Aiden was born, and Harry felt fairly sure that she would have given the wands back if she’d known about them. One of the Death Eaters must have tucked them away and forgotten about them. Now they were sitting in an evidence bin in the Auror office. What a wonderful “get well” present they would make.
 

He added the report to the growing stack on the coffee table. Ron and Hermione’s wands aside, Malfoy Manor was looking more and more like a dead end. Where was Flint getting his information? Or was the whole thing a ruse to gauge Malfoy’s sympathy to the pure blood cause? There were too many possibilities and not enough facts to narrow them down.
 

Harry groaned under his breath as he shifted uncomfortably. He needed to do something to take his mind off of his aching muscles. As much as he wanted to visit Hermione in the hospital, his conversation with Healer Gelbard still haunted him. How on earth was he going to break the news to Ron and Hermione? In his mind, he kept remembering her as a schoolgirl, running down the hill to Hagrid’s hut or scurrying off to class. The memories were fresh and the details sharp in spite of the years. How would Hermione, who was so full of life and energy, deal with being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life? How would Ron, who was notoriously bad at handling change, manage?
 

He felt himself starting to spiral into a morass of anxiety and doubt. He slowly, painfully stood up and shook his head. He couldn’t allow himself to give in to dread. His friends needed him, whether or not they knew it. A good first step would be to force his discomfort to the back of his mind and visit them in the hospital. He had barely gotten to talk to Hermione the day before. Hopefully she was feeling better.
 

First, he decided to pick up a few things for her. St Mungo’s could be an exceedingly drab, boring place. Perhaps he could improve her mood a bit. He performed a quick scourgify on his clothes, grabbed his cloak and headed for the door.
 

“Hermys,” he shouted down the hall, “I’m off to see Hermione at St. Mungo’s. I probably won’t be home until dinner.”
 

“Please let Mistress know that Hermys is very worried for her,” the elf chirped, popping into existence between Harry and the door. “If she needs anything, she can call on Hermys any time. With Master’s permission, of course.”
 

“Hermys,” Harry replied, kneeling so he could speak to him at eye level, “if Hermione or Ron ever need anything, you always have my permission to help.”
 

The elf smiled and disappeared with a soft pop. Harry walked outside and enjoyed the afternoon sun for a moment. He made a quick mental list of things he would bring for Hermione, then turned and disappeared.







Hermione struggled to keep her mind busy while Hugo continued to badger his father.
 

“Dad, what is the big deal? Just go home and get a few hours of sleep. Mum’s fine here. Rosie is coming to visit later.”
 

“I’m not tired,” Ron insisted. “If I’m going to be awake anyway, I might as well be here with your mother.”
 

Why did her husband have to be so difficult? She could hear the fatigue in his voice and in her mind’s eye she could see the exhaustion in his eyes. She found that she had gotten quite good at visualizing people’s expressions when they spoke. It helped her to feel more connected.
 

“Hello, Uncle Harry,” Hugo interrupted her silent contemplation. She remembered Harry coming to visit her the day before, though it seemed very hazy due to the pain potions. Maybe he could send Ron home to bed and solve at least one of her problems.
 

“Hello, Hugo, Ron,” she heard Harry say, imagining the smile on his face. “Ron, you look like death,” he added bluntly. “Have you slept at all?”


Ron answered “yes” and Hugo “no” at the same instant.
 

“Look, mate,” Harry said. “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but in thirty hours or so you’re gonna have to face your Mum. If you still look like this, she’ll go mental on you. She’ll lock you in your old room in the attic.”
 

“He’s right, Dad,” Hugo added as Ron started to protest. “I’m not gonna lie to Nanna. Not for you or anybody else. I like living too much.”
 

In her mind, she visualized her husband giving them both his best pout, followed by a look of resignation. She felt his weight on the edge of her bed.
 

“Hi, love,” he said softly. “The bloody family inquisition has decided that I have to go sleep. I’ll be back in a few hours, OK?”
 

“Ronald,” she replied in a whisper, “they’re right. You need rest. It sounds like I’m going to have plenty of company. If I don’t, I’ll just relax. Go home and sleep. I promise I won’t go anywhere.”
 

She let a small smile cross her lips and felt him kiss her cheek softly. “I love you.”
 

“I love you, too. Now go.”
 

She listened to Ron say his goodbyes and make his way out of the room. She heard a soft sigh of relief from her son and a chuckle from Harry.
 

“Is he in the lift yet,” Harry asked in a low voice?
 

“He’s passing the nurse’s station... he’s pressing the button... he’s aboard!” Hugo replied happily.
 

“You look a little peaked, yourself. I was planning to stay for a while. Do you want to go home and catch a nap?”
 

“Thanks, Uncle Harry,” she heard her son yawn, “That sounds great.”
 

“Good lad.”
 

“Bye, Mum,” she felt Hugo lean over and kiss her on the cheek. “We’ll try to stop by tomorrow before dinner.”
 

Her son’s footsteps disappeared from the room. She heard a chair slide up beside her bed. “You look a little better today.”
 

“I wish I felt better,” she whispered.
 

“Still feeling groggy?” he asked.
 

She nodded slightly and felt pinpricks of pain in her neck. “Everything still hurts,” she whispered.
 

“I brought you some things,” he said over a rustling of bags and parcels.
 

“First, the fun stuff. Here’s a big box of your favorite sweets from George’s shop in the alley. You probably don’t feel up to it yet, but the sweets from the commissary here are bloody awful. Next, we have toothpaste, a toothbrush and some deodorant. You still buy that brand that you used in the tent, right? Anyway, the last time I was in here, it was the little things that made me feel human again.”
 

She was touched by the thoughtfulness. There was no need to mention that she had stolen that deodorant from her mother’s medicine cabinet after shipping her parents off to Australia and it gave her a rash.
 

“What’s so funny?” he asked. She realized that she must be smiling.
 

“Just appreciating the thought,” she whispered. “It was sweet of you to...”
 

Hermione tried to stifle the cough, but her throat was too dry. Waves of agony shot through her chest as she weakly tried to turn her head to the side. She felt Harry’s arm slip beneath her shoulders and a straw pressed against her lips. She gratefully took a small sip of water before another cough could set in.
 

“Are you OK?” Harry asked, smoothing her hair. “Do you need more to drink?”
 

“No, thanks.” Her voice sounded even raspier than before. “The healers don't want me to drink too much. It dilutes the potions.”
 

She felt Harry staring at her for a long moment before he eased her back down onto the bed. “George asked me to bring this to you. It’s the latest muggle digital wireless, fitted with magical shielding. Before I left, he tuned it to that station out of London that you like, the one that plays symphony music all day. Here, I’ll set it on the table.”
 

“That was nice of him. Please tell him thanks for me, Harry. Now tell me more about the case,” she asked. “Did you find anything in magical records?”
 

Harry took a deep breath and dove into the details. She could hear his voice relaxing as he talked. Something about explaining the gritty details of the case to her was therapeutic to him. She found that she was feeling a little better, as well. Her mind had new problems to digest and new pieces to try to fit into the puzzle. She stopped him with an occasional question, but mostly she just listened, soaking up the information.
 

“So that’s where we are,” he concluded. “Plenty of questions but not a lot of answers. I just hope that bloke from Azkaban can tell us where his orders were coming from when we catch him.”
 

Hermione lay quietly for a moment, absorbing all that he had told her. As much as she wanted to help, there was another topic pushing its way to the forefront of her mind. It made her feel a little selfish, considering all the problems Harry was dealing with, but she had to ask. “Did you find out anything else about this blood curse?”
 

“I’m sorry,” he answered, “not yet. Susan and I have been poring over dark magic spell books, but we haven’t learned anything else about it.” She could hear the guilt and remorse in his voice. It was so like Harry. No matter the problems he was dealing with, he could always stop to feel badly about not doing more for her.
 

She felt him move to the edge of the bed. “Hermione, we will figure this out. Susan, Ernie and I, we’re not going to stop digging until we get some answers.”
 

“I know you will, Harry,” she whispered. “And I appreciate it. I just feel so terrible. Ron’s a mess and I can’t help you at all. Everything hurts and I’m stuck here and I don’t think I’m getting any better.”
 

She felt fresh pain in her chest as small sobs escaped her dry lips. Harry’s arm was back around her in an instant and she felt the warmth of his cheek against her forehead.
 

“Shhhh,” he soothed, holding her close. “it’s OK. Ron and I can take care of ourselves. Just get better. That’s all you have to do for us.”
 

Her tears abated, but she couldn’t shake the feelings of dread. “Harry, I’m scared. What if I don't get better? What if I have to spend the rest of my life like this?”
 

It was almost imperceptible. She felt his arms stiffen for a fraction of a second. If she didn’t know him so well, she never would have noticed. “Hermione, you’re going to get better,” he was saying, “it just takes time. You have to believe me, you’re going to be alright.” But her mind was already racing. He knew something. Something he could not or did not want to tell her. What could be so bad that he couldn’t talk to her about it?
 

“Harry,” she said, “what’s wrong? Tell me, please.”
 

“Oh, that,” he mumbled. “It’s just this case. It’s really starting to worry me. So many similarities to Tom Riddle and his Death Eaters. People getting hurt and all. I don’t want to go through that again.”
 

She wished that should could see his eyes, because she felt fairly sure that he wasn’t telling the truth. This was nothing like the war. She was about to press the issue when an excited squeal broke the moment. “Grandma! Uncle Harry!”
 

She felt Harry slide off of the bed and heard a shuffling of bodies and a bout of giggles before Rose’s voice called out from the doorway. “Octavia Astoria Malfoy, what did I tell you about jumping into bed with Grandma?” Hermione realized that Harry must have caught the little girl just before something truly unfortunate happened.
 

“I’m sorry, Mum,” Octavia replied, not especially sincerely. Hard to tell whether she got the cheekiness from her mother or father. “Grandma, how are you feeling?”


“A little better, now that you’re here,” Hermione answered softly. “Can I have a very gentle kiss?”
 

She felt Harry lower Octavia over her and received a very soft kiss on her cheek.
 

“Thanks for playing keeper, Uncle Harry,” Rose said. Opening her eyes just a fraction, she saw Harry passing Octavia to her mother.
 

“Not a problem,” Harry replied. “Listen, I need to run a few errands before Molly’s dinner tomorrow. You two are coming, right?”
 

“Yes,” cried Octavia happily. “I get to see Nanna and Papa Arthur and Lillian and Billy and Jean and Calliope and...”
 

The credits continued to roll as she felt Harry lean close to her. “I’ll stop by again soon, OK?”
 

“Thanks for coming, Harry. Thanks for the radio and the sweets. Tell Ernie and Susan that I appreciate everything.”
 

“Don’t mention it,” Harry replied giving her hand a warm squeeze. “You’d do the same for us.”
 

She felt him kiss her forehead and longed for him to stay. Whatever he was keeping from her, it had to be bad. She heard Octavia plant a loud kiss on his face and he said his goodbye to Rose and he was gone.







Twice on his way to the lifts, Harry almost turned around and went back to her room. The anguish of not being able to share with her was killing him. She deserved to know, but she just wasn’t well enough. He remembered the agony on her face when she was crying. As much as it hurt him to keep the secret from her, he couldn’t risk what it might do to her. Hermione was strong, but now was not the time to test that strength.
 

She definitely knew that something wasn’t right. He was sure of that much, and the realization was like a knife in his gut. There was no way she had believed his excuse about Riddle and the Death Eaters. Not even Octavia would have bought that rubbish. He imagined himself lying in the hospital while his best friends traded whispers and stares about his condition. The sense of betrayal was overwhelming.
 

As he stepped out of the lift, he stopped for a third time, took a deep breath, and started to turn around.
 

“Hi, Harry.” The voice startled him and he turned to find Dennis Northway looking at him oddly. “Are you OK?”
 

“Hi, Dennis. I’m fine. I was just visiting a friend. What brings you here?”
 

“My Uncle Leland was working in Magical Records when it was attacked,” Dennis replied uneasily. “We came to see him.”
 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Harry said. “I hope he’s going to be OK.” It occurred to Harry that he hadn’t checked on any of the other victims. He had been too wrapped up in Hermione’s condition.
 

“The healers say he’ll get better,” Dennis responded, staring at his feet as he stubbed his toes against the marble floor. Harry knew the body language all too well.
 

“Dennis, is anything else wrong?” he asked. “I have a few minutes if you’d like to talk.”
 

Dennis met Harry’s gaze, looking anxious and uncertain. “Harry, is this what it was like when Voldemort tried to take over?”
 

Harry forced a smile that he hoped was believable. “This isn’t nearly as bad as things were back then. I think it’s just an isolated incident.” The guilt gnawed at his insides as he recalled the lie he had told Hermione moments earlier.
 

“Yeah, but is this how it started? Before people started dying all over the place, it must have started with one attack. One death.”
 

Harry looked into Dennis’s eyes and he could see the fear and realization. There was no point in trying to deny it.
 

“Yes, Dennis. I’m sure it started that way. But I’ll tell you what’s different this time. There are people who know what to look for. People who won’t ignore the truth and who will speak out if bad things start to happen. People like me. And, I hope, people like you. No matter who’s behind this, it won’t be like it was with Voldemort.”
 

Dennis nodded his head slowly as the fear faded from his face. “Harry, I want to help. I want to do my part to stop anyone else from getting hurt. I don’t want more people to end up like Uncle Leland. What can I do?”
 

Harry put his hand on Dennis’s shoulder. “You’ve already taken the most important step. Your eyes are open. You’re asking the right questions.”
 

“Isn’t there more? I asked Arthur what you taught in your lessons. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve never learned in school. If a dark wizard attacks me, I want to be able to fight back.”
 

“Then how about this?” Harry replied. “Talk to your Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Tell him that you want to learn more. Find out what he can teach you. If you reach the limits of what you can learn from him, and if you’re willing to put in the work to catch up, I’m sure I can find a spot for you in my advanced lesson.”
 

“I’ll do that, Harry,” Dennis answered. Just then his father rounded the corner and saw the two of them talking.
 

“Dennis, what’s going on,” the man asked, eyeing Harry’s Auror robes nervously. “My son isn’t making trouble, is he?”
 

“No, not at all,” Harry replied. “In fact, I’d say he’s doing rather well. I’ll see you around, Dennis.”
 

Harry left Dennis to explain to his confused father and headed out of the hospital. He would let Hermione continue to heal, but he resolved to tell her as soon as she was well enough.







In groups of two and three, the ragtag band of men apparated into the center of the abandoned warehouse. By this point, Flint had determined that the anti-apparition jinxes allowed a gap roughly ten paces wide. He beamed at Gamp and Goyle when they appeared. She had been as good as her word, liberating his former Slytherin housemates and five of their familiars from Azkaban before the Aurors had put the place under lockdown. Together with himself and Nott, he reckoned that they would have no problems disposing of their shrewish benefactor when the time came.
 

“Gentlemen,” her voice boomed around the warehouse. Several of the men drew their wands as they searched frantically for the source of her voice.
 

“Put your wands away, my friends,” Flint directed. “Lady Tenebra is here to explain our objective for tomorrow night.”
 

“You din’t say nothin’ about workin’ for no woman,” the wizard with the knife muttered under his breath.
 

“If my gender troubles you, Mr. Pelfry, you are free to crawl back into the comfort of your gutter,” she retorted, appearing just outside of the apparition boundary. She was once again dressed in her black hooded cloak, with only her lips and chin visible beneath its dark cowl.
 

“How do ya know my name?” Pelfry snarled. His arm hovered halfway between stowing his wand in his pocket and aiming it at her.
 

“If you’re going to join the New Blood Order, it is my business to know,” she replied icily. “I suggest you heed Mr. Flint’s advice and stow that wand before there are any misunderstandings.”
 

Pelfry stared at her for a long moment before sliding his wand into his pocket. A number of the other wizards followed suit.
 

“Our objective for tomorrow night is to retrieve a book from Malfoy Manor. This book contains the Dark Lord’s secret designs for eliminating the muggle-born scum and blood traitors from our midst and restoring the rightful order of things. Once we have the Dark Lord’s journal, the Ministry will be powerless to stop us.”
 

There was a general murmur of agreement among the men, with the newly liberated convicts lending the strongest support.
 

“Goyle and Gamp will lead a team of ten men to attack the Aurors protecting the Manor and keep them from interfering,” said Flint, trying to take over. “Nott will be in charge of securing the inside of the house.”
 

Flint nodded subtly at the wizard with the eye patch. He would assign the three of them to accompany Nott.
 

“Mr. Flint,” she continued as though he had not spoken, “is tasked with retrieving the Dark Lord’s journal. He, alone, will be provided with the spells necessary to locate the book and remove the enchantments that secure it.”
 

“We’ll all meet up in Knockturn Alley and apparate to the Manor,” Flint interjected, trying to appear equal to her. “The rest of you will be assigned to your tasks then.”
 

“What about the Aurors?” asked the one-eyed wizard. “They aren’ jus gonna sit there. They’ll be callin’ for backup, fightin’ back.”
 

“Aurors do not concern me, Mr. Burloch,” she replied.
 

“Naturally. With all due respect,” he filled the word with mocking deference, “it’s not you that’ll have to fight ‘em.”
 

“Any man who cowers before the Aurors and their half-blood leader has no place in our future,” she retorted. “He didn’t seem so powerful when we killed his blood traitor wife.”
 

The men stared at her in varying degrees of shock. Flint found his voice first. “There’s nothing to fear. Gamp and Goyle’s team will keep the Aurors occupied and we’ll be in and out with the journal before they have time to call for help. Any questions?”
 

“You imperiused the muggle who killed Potter’s wife? Seriously?” Nott couldn’t help himself. She offered a slight nod from beneath her hood.
 

“Bloody brilliant.”







From her concealed vantage point in the rafters, Tenabra watched the men disappear in the same small groups. In her mind, she replayed the conversation and weighed the information she had divulged to them. An important die had been cast. Now she would see where it landed. After the last man left, she climbed through the hidden opening onto the roof. The moonlight reflected off of the old sheet metal, momentarily illuminating her slender face and pale, blond hair. Then she turned and disappeared.

 


Chapter 10: The Greater Fool
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Thanks once more to everyone who has read and reviewed Conspiracy of Blood. I appreciate it more than I can say. Ongoing special thanks to my beta reader, sophie_hatter.


As always, the characters herein belong solely to JK Rowling.






Harry appeared in front of the Burrow shortly before three o’clock on Sunday. He took a deep breath, opened the door and waded into the chaos. In the living room, he found half a dozen children chatting, giggling and playing exploding snap. He spotted Charlie talking to Freddie in the doorway to the kitchen and made his way over.


“Hello, mate. How are your dragons?” Harry asked.


“Sweet and lovable as ever,” Charlie replied. “I was just telling Freddie about a nice little burn I have on my back.”


“So you’re not thinking about retiring or maybe taking up something safer?” Harry asked.


“Not on your life,” Charlie answered with a smile. “I’m having more fun than ever.”


“Blimey,” Freddie mused. “Why didn’t somebody tell me that growing up was optional before I went and did it?”


“It hasn’t slowed your dad down any,” observed Charlie, nodding towards the far corner of the living room. George was whispering something to Roxie’s younger son Michael and his cousin Charles. They shot George a look across the room, getting a slight shrug of “who, me?” in return. George was doubtless up to something. Harry just hoped that he wasn’t the intended victim.


“How is the law enforcement business, Harry?” Charlie asked. “Bill says you and Ron have a live one on your hands.”


“That’s one way to put it,” Harry replied. He didn’t really feel like talking about the case. It made him think about Hermione and how badly he felt for her. The way he left things the day before was still eating at him. He had been making up excuses not to go see her all day.


After listening to Charlie talk lovingly for ten minutes about a Romanian Longhorn that he was raising, Harry made his way into the kitchen. He found Molly doting over a pair of toddlers while the potatoes mashed themselves on the stove and a large ham slowly rotated inside the oven.


“Harry, dear,” she called out to him. As soon as he got within range, she wrapped him in a rib-crushing hug. “So wonderful to see you. Have you been to see Hermione today?”


“Not today, Molly,” he replied, tickling baby Amelie from behind. “I was with her yesterday, though. She still wasn’t feeling very well. She couldn’t talk very loud or open her eyes too much.”


“Ohh, the poor dear,” Molly fussed. “Such nasty, awful magic. Are you and Ron having any luck finding out who attacked the Ministry?”


“We’re trying,” Harry replied. “They didn’t leave us a lot to work with.” He decided to leave out the part about the prison break. No sense making everyone nervous.


“‘Ugo eez still at zee ‘ospital with ‘is father,” Fiona chimed in as she tied a bib around Amelie’s neck. “Zey were supposed to be ‘ere by now.”


Harry grimaced. Molly was not going to be pleased if Ron didn’t at least make an appearance. At the same time, he could understand Ron’s feelings. Eating and socializing with his family would be very awkward when his wife was lying in the hospital. There wasn’t anybody to keep her company in his place. Like Harry, all the family that Hermione had left in the world was part of the Weasley clan.


Molly seemed to have reached the same conclusion. “If Ron needs to stay with Hermione, there will always be another time,” she said with a touch of sadness.


Harry nodded in agreement. He felt a hand clap him on the shoulder and turned to find Arthur standing behind him. Age had taken a toll on his father-in-law, leaving him a little shorter and with less hair, but his eyes still sparkled and his smile was irrepressible.


“Hello, Harry. How have you been?”


“Busy,” Harry replied with a tired smile. No matter how he felt, he always found Arthur’s smile to be infectious. He just couldn’t hold onto a frown around the man.


“Could you spare a moment to help me look at something out in the shed?” Arthur asked.


Harry stared at him while Fiona harrumphed under her breath. Molly said nothing, which Harry took as his cue that Arthur’s request had her tacit approval. “Sure, Arthur. Lead the way.”


They waded through the crowd of children coming in and out of the back door and made their way to Arthur’s dilapidated old shed. Harry couldn’t suppress a grin as they entered. It smelled faintly of old grease and burning electronics and was filled with fond memories of helping his father-in-law dissect, repair and often demolish muggle gadgets. Harry also liked the fact that the shed didn’t make him think of Ginny, owing to her general disinterest in her father’s hobbies. The back of the shed, where two young lovers couldn’t be seen from the kitchen window... that was a different story.


“What can I help you with?” Harry asked.


“Well, for starters, you could, ah, make sure that we’re not overheard,” Arthur replied.


Harry cast a muffliato charm over the shed, mumbling the incantation just loudly enough to be heard. “Alright, what’s on your mind?”


“Harry, I’ve been hearing bits and pieces of what happened at the Ministry and at Azkaban and Molly and I are a little worried,” he began. Harry stared at him impassively, but he was impressed by the apparent reach of Arthur’s sources. The Minister had yet to officially acknowledge the prison break. Harry guessed that no more than a dozen people outside of the Auror office were even aware of it.


“I know this isn’t the first time that some dodgy bunch of nutters has come along trying to claim Tom Riddle’s mantle,” he continued, “but there’s something different about this. Attacking the Ministry in broad daylight is way out of the ordinary. There aren’t many of us still living from the old Order, but we wanted you to know that we’re all still ready to help if you need us.”


Harry wasn’t sure what to say. At times, he felt a little old to be doing what he was doing. Arthur and Molly were in their nineties. He was sure that they still had many good years ahead of them, but the rigors of battling dark wizards were best suited to witches and wizards in their primes.


“I think the Aurors have the situation pretty well under control, at least as far as the investigation goes,” Harry replied, trying not to sound dismissive. “You and Molly have already fought two wars. Are you sure you want to keep volunteering?”


Arthur gave him a fatherly smile. “Harry, if it were up to me, nobody would ever lift a wand in anger again. But if anything is threatening the family, we’ll be the first in line to volunteer. For now, let’s just say that we wanted to remind you that we’re available.”


“I appreciate it,” Harry said, returning his smile.


Just then the door flew open and they saw Octavia staring at them, looking excited and slightly confused. Harry removed the muffliato charm so she could hear them.


“Uncle Harry! Papa Arthur! They’re gonna play Quidditch in the orchard before dinner! Come on! Come on!”


Harry and Arthur let the little girl take their hands and lead them to the orchard, where a four on four match had already broken out between the school-age children. Naturally, Harry’s sons were in the thick of things. James was calling out plays to the majority Gryffindors while Al rallied on the Slytherins, Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs of the family. They were both shouting like madmen, waving their arms and pacing the sidelines. Harry shook his head and chuckled. The rivalry between James and Al went back as long as he could remember. When Al became the Slytherin seeker, it had risen to a whole new level. Now another generation of the Weasley family had become players in their never-ending game of one-upmanship.


He noticed that Hugo had arrived and was standing next to Fiona along the sidelines. Harry watched him try to discuss the game with her, but she simply stared off towards the trees with a cross expression on her face. He was clearly in trouble. Ron was nowhere to be seen and Harry felt fresh pangs of guilt. He promised himself that he would make amends to Ron and Hermione somehow.


Above the orchard, children on brooms whizzed to and fro, dodging and weaving among the trees while narrowly avoiding collisions. The quaffle moved from hand to hand in a dizzying display of speed and finesse as the sides alternated between advancing, shooting and falling back to defend. Neither side seemed able to seize the advantage for very long and the lead changed frequently. Players on both teams worked together with a familiarity built over many summer days of carefree play.


Harry was lost in the magic of it all when Al bumped his side. “Hey, Dad. James and I flooed to your house and grabbed a bunch of brooms from the shed,” he said, never taking his eyes off of the game. “I hope you don’t mind -- ALBERT! STAY TIGHT! -- Nanna and Grandpa’s brooms are shite. Not fit to sweep the --- ANGIE, WATCH OUT FOR ARTIE ON THE WING! -- sorry, Dad, gotta go...” Al hustled back up the sideline to accuse James of orchestrating a Hard Left Pick Line, which was considered bad form in four-on-four play.


After half an hour of hard, physical play, both teams stopped to take a break. Much to James and Al’s dismay, Molly and Roxy commandeered a couple of brooms to take the small children on rides around the orchard. Octavia and Calliope seized the opportunity to swipe two more brooms and cruise low to the ground under the watchful eyes of Rose and Dominique. Soon the game was forgotten by everyone except James and Al. With their grudge match prematurely ended, they sulked and bickered until dinner.


It was just past seven when everyone finally sat down to eat. The family gathered around long tables in the back yard while enchanted lanterns floated and flickered overhead. Molly sent tray after tray gliding forth from the kitchen and Fleur and Bill helped to guide them to the tables. The family rolled up their sleeves and feasted. When Molly emerged from the kitchen, everyone expressed their appreciation with roaring applause.


Throughout dinner, Harry noticed a quiet undercurrent of activity among the youngest generation. It was subtle, but very little escaped his notice after years of surveillance missions. Every so often, he caught a glimpse of something small and blue being passed from hand to hand. Once again he fixed his gaze on George, who was innocently devouring a plate of chicken and potatoes. A little too innocently, by Harry’s estimation.


Desserts followed on the heels of the entrees and Harry crammed himself with treacle tart. In between bites, he swiped at a bowl of fig pudding with his spoon as it went floating by, managing to capture a healthy dollop. Pretty soon, he was envying the young children sleeping in the upstairs bedrooms. By the time Dominique and Victoire began passing around glasses of brandy to the adults, he was thinking wistfully of his own bed. A sudden clinking of glassware caught Harry’s attention and his mind went on full alert when he realized it was coming from George’s glass.


“Good evening,” George announced over the low rumble of questioning whispers. “While we’re all gathered together over this wonderful feast, I wanted to take a moment to say a few words in honor of my brother Fred. It’s been almost fifty years since Fred gave his life defending Hogwarts castle from Voldemort and the Death Eaters. He was a brave lad, but all that needs to be said about his courage has long since been said. Aside from his bravery and his dashing good looks, Fred was a man who loved a good joke. So on this evening when we gather to celebrate family and friends, I could think of no better way to honor his memory. Kids, NOW!”


All around the tables, the children pulled mysterious blue cylinders from their pockets and sleeves and aimed them at the nearest adult. Harry turned to find Octavia grinning devilishly as she pointed hers towards his face. He was almost able to raise his arms before nineteen small hands yanked the pull cords attached to the cylinders in unison. Loud cracks echoed off of the nearby hills as puffs of white smoke filled the back yard. Harry looked at his shirt and felt his face, surprised to find nothing burned, discolored or transfigured.


It didn’t make sense until he realized that Octavia’s face was covered with black soot and her hair, which was blown straight back from her face, had turned a blaring shade of neon green. All around the tables, the children were wiping their eyes and staring in horror at their cousins. Howls of laughter went up from the adults as the true nature of the prank became clear. In the middle of it all, George sat back, calmly staring into his glass as he swirled his brandy. “That was a good one, Freddie,” he murmured to himself. “Not our best work, but a good one.”


Everyone took a few minutes to appreciate the subtle brilliance of George’s prank. The children were far less appreciative when the hair color jinx turned out to be surprisingly resistant to their attempts to reverse it. Aside from Fiona and Audrey, few of the adults seemed to be feeling sympathetic.


A second clinking of glassware brought everyone’s attention to a different table. Teddy was standing in front of his chair, his eyes looking a bit glazed from the combined effects of too much food and drink. Harry noticed that he had changed his hair to a familiar shade of purple. It was his mother’s favorite hue.


“As long as we’re remembering those we lost in the war, I’d like to ask everyone to raise a glass to my mum and dad. Like Fred, there really isn’t any more to say about their bravery. They were a pair of outcasts, a metamorph and a werewolf, who became part of the greatest group of friends in the world and then found each other. They died when I was only a baby, but thanks to the people around these tables I have had a chance to know them. Mum, Dad, thanks for giving me the best family that an orphan could ever have.”


Teddy downed his brandy to a chorus of agreement and clinking glasses. As soon as his glass was drained, Al began to look around for his father. Following George and Teddy’s tributes, it seemed appropriate that somebody should offer a toast to their mother.


“Lil,” he managed to catch her attention as she, too, appeared to be searching the area. “Where’s Dad?”


“He was right over there by Rose and Dom,” she replied, still searching. “I don’t know where he went.”


James walked up and propped his elbow on Lily’s head. “You guys know where he went?”


“No,” she replied irritably, elbowing him in the thigh. “Should we go look for him?”


“I’d say not,” Al replied, pondering his last bite of tart. “If he wanted to talk about it, he’d still be here.”
 





The Malfoys returned home late on Sunday evening. Two days under the same roof had turned out to be too much for Draco and his sister-in-law. Their simmering animosity had boiled over during dinner, eventually leading him to storm out of the house. They hung up their cloaks while the house elf disappeared with their bags. Astoria strolled down the hallway lighting lamps with her wand while Draco continued to grumble.


“Stupid, insufferable, obdurate, recidivist cow!” he vented to nobody in particular as he poured himself a rather large glass of firewhiskey.


“Draco, dear,” Astoria replied, rolling her eyes at him, “I think you’re reading too much into it. She didn’t mean to insult your mother directly. I think the insult was meant to call your parentage into question more generally. And I don’t see how you can feel so put out after some of the awful things you were saying about Daphne’s husband.”


“That's nowhere close to the same,” he shot back. “My mother was a charming, respectable lady. Gamp is a bloody donkey who tried to break into Azkaban with two undercover Aurors and the village twit at his back.”


She followed him into the study where they found a box sitting on his desk with “transfigured items” written on the side. They both almost jumped out of their skins when they heard a voice coming from inside.


“Who goes there? I say, somebody take me out of this bloody thing!”


Draco cautiously opened the top of the box while Astoria peered over his shoulder. They discovered a small, golden bust of Phineas Nigellus Black staring back at them.


“Ah, finally. A proper son of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, come to restore me to my rightful place,” the bust said in a slightly squeaky rendition of the Headmaster’s high, reedy voice.


“Did the spell breakers find you somewhere in here?” Draco asked suspiciously.


“Not the brightest, I suppose, but you’ll do,” the old headmaster replied dismissively. “Now, before I was confined to this wretched box, I saw a nice spot on the mantle that would be an appropriately reverential location for my likeness.”


“Draco,” Astoria said, ignoring the headmaster’s rambling, “you still haven’t told me what we’re doing about Flint. He’s out there somewhere, you know.”


“Potter assured me that he has a team of Aurors guarding the house around the clock,” Draco replied, glancing around the room. An old, golden chalice that his father had used as a bookend was missing from the shelf. The chatty bust of Headmaster Black was approximately the same size. “Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”


“I’d still feel safer at father’s house,” she pouted. “You need to make up with Daphne. Mother hates it when the two of you bicker.”


“I will not apologize to that miserable old trout!” Draco snapped, daring his wife to suggest otherwise.


“Here, here!” cheered the bust. “Take no guff from that trifling woman. If I had arms, I’d have a good mind to teach her the price of her insolence. Lad, there may be hope for you yet.”


“Shut up!” Draco shouted. “Before I turn you into a chamber pot!”


Astoria stormed out of the study with Draco close behind, half arguing and half pleading with her to see his point of view.


“I say, dear boy, don’t trip on the hem of your dress,” Black taunted him.






Harry sat on the dark hill, feeling the cool Autumn breeze in his face and the cold granite of Ginny’s monument against his back. He raised the bottle of firewhiskey to his lips and took another drink, feeling the burn in his throat. The pain was therapeutic in a way, distracting him from the ache in his chest as surely as the alcohol dulled his senses.


Far down the hill, he saw the light of a wand bobbing towards him. He thought for a moment to disillusion himself. It would do no good, though. He was pretty sure they knew where he was. He wondered which one had been appointed to collect him and deliver his inebriated carcass into bed. He hoped for Al, since his younger son seemed to best understand his need for solitude. The possibility that it might be Lily filled him with dread. His daughter would give him the what for that he deserved. She was so like her mother.


When a voice finally joined the bobbing light, the identity of his visitor surprised him.


“Hi, Uncle Harry,” Rose said, plopping to the ground in front of him.


“Hi, Rose,” he responded listlessly. “Fancy a drink?”


“I have to be at work early tomorrow,” she replied. “So only one or two.” She grabbed the bottle from him and took a long pull off of it.


“Now what’s this disappearing act about?” she asked, repressing a cough.


“Don’t wanna talk about it,” Harry replied, reaching for the bottle.


She pulled it away from his reach. “Nuh uh. No more until you tell me what we’re commiserating about.”


“Just give me the damned bottle, Rose,” he snarled, reaching for his wand.


If she was frightened in the slightest, she didn’t show it. She hugged the bottle tightly to her chest, wrapping her arms around it. “Go ahead. Hex me into oblivion if you think it will make you feel better. Because that’s the only way you’re getting this back.”


Harry scowled at her for a long moment, then he looked away and let out a long sigh.


“There’s nothing to tell. I’m just an old fool who can’t let go of the past.”


“Try me,” she replied.


Harry continued to stare off into the distance. "I'm not sure you're ready for this one, Rosie. Unless you want to watch your brave uncle cry like a little girl."


"You used to wipe my bum. I’d say we have a long way to go before we’re even."


“OK,” he replied. “just remember, you asked. You know when Teddy was offering his toast to his parents?”


“Yeah, that was sweet of him.”


“Well right in the middle of it, it dawned on me that everyone was gonna expect me to do the same for Ginny.”


She stared at his silhouette in the darkness for a moment. “So what’s the problem?”


“Rose! I can’t talk about Ginny. Not in front of people,” Harry answered as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I just can’t do it. If I try, I’ll come unhinged.”


“So in the years since Aunt Ginny died, you’ve never talked about her to anyone except me?” Rose asked in disbelief.


“Well, of course I have. A little,” he replied. “To your mum and dad, of course. And to Teddy and the kids. I come up here a lot and just talk to her. I feel close to her here. But that often ends... badly.”


“Well do you reckon that’s part of the problem?” she asked. “You never really talk about her. Instead you come up here and have make-believe conversations with her and bawl your eyes out. Not judging, mind you. I’d be doing the same thing if we were talking about Scorpius. But what would you do if you caught me pining over his grave? I mean, assuming that it wasn’t me who killed him?”


Harry thought about it. “I reckon I’d drag you into the house for some tea and sweets,” he replied, sounding mildly ashamed.


“And?” she persisted.


“And I suppose I’d keep you there until you talked it out of your system.”


“Exactly. But you won’t let anybody do that for you, Uncle Harry. You remember when Aunt Ginny used to say things like, ‘Potter, why do you have to be so bloody noble?’ That wasn’t meant as a complement, you know.”


“But, Rosie,” he protested, “I can’t just break down in front of everyone. We’re talking about my children. My grandchildren. I have to be strong for them. What are they gonna think if I crumble into a heap in front of them?”


“That you’re human?” Rose shrugged. “Uncle Harry, nobody can understand the connection you had with Aunt Ginny. You fought a war for each other. You died for her and then you came back for her. You two were meant to grow old and, I don’t know, die hand in hand while saving the world or something. Nobody in the history of love got screwed worse than you two.


“So you’re gonna crumple into a blubbering heap?” she continued. “So what? Every one of us would crumple into a heap if we were in your place. We all love you, Harry. And not because you’re the Famous Harry Potter who defeated Voldemort. No offense, but that happened before any of us were born. You’re Uncle Harry who taught us how to fly on a broom and took us camping. Any one of us would feed you tea and sweets until you puked if we thought we could help you.”


Somewhere, he could imagine Ginny crossing her arms and nodding at him. The feelings of dread still haunted him, but the ache in his chest had subsided somewhat.


“You have to get past this, Uncle Harry,” she said, leaning to the side to meet his gaze. “Aunt Ginny deserves better than this. You deserve better than this.”


They sat quietly for a long moment while Harry turned things over in his mind. “I made a right show of myself tonight, didn’t I?” he asked, handing her a cork that had been sitting on the base of the monument.


“Yep,” she replied, stoppering the firewhiskey bottle and handing it back to him.


“I better tell the kids I’m OK,” he mumbled as he tried to stand up. He made it halfway to his feet before losing his balance and tumbling forward, landing in a heap on the ground next to Rose.


“Harry, why don’t we just get you to bed?” she asked, suppressing a giggle. “If you really want, I’ll get a message to Al letting him know you’re alright. He can tell the others.”


“Um, yeah,” he replied, straightening his glasses and picking the grass off of the side of his face. “That would be good.”


She helped him to his feet and they started to walk down the hill towards the house. “Is Octavia at home with Scorpius?” Harry asked.


“No, he’s still in the States on a business trip,” she answered. “Octavia should be in bed by now, but I bet she’s still playing cards with Hermys. Oh, by the way, we’re staying at your house tonight. What’s for breakfast?”






Bernard Singleton shifted his weight, trying to find a more comfortable position atop the wall overlooking the Malfoys’ garden. A grey squirrel started to run down the top of wall towards him, then stopped halfway as it seemed to sense that something was blocking its way. From beneath his disillusionment charm, Singleton let out a small hiss, scaring the creature away.


This was his third straight overnight shift at Malfoy Manor and he was tired of the place. The Malfoys hadn’t even been home for the first two nights and on this night they had arrived shortly after dark, argued for an hour or so and then went to bed. His Auror team didn’t have clearance to eavesdrop on the inside of the house, so Singleton amused himself by imagining what they had been arguing about. It was possible that Mrs. Malfoy was upset about the spell breakers finding those leather unmentionables inside her bedroom. That certainly would have brassed his wife off.


His thoughts were interrupted by several loud grunts and a tell-tale shimmering of the air at the far end of the section of wall he was perched on.


“Windsor, is that you?” he whispered.


“Who else would it be?” came the reply. “Like there’s anyone else in the world who gives two hoots about the Malfoys.”


“You’re supposed to be at the east gate,” Singleton objected. As the senior Auror on the team, he felt an obligation to keep people on task, even if they were all bored out of their minds.


“Elgin can see both gates from her corner,” Windsor replied. “Why not give the rookie some more practice?” Eileen Elgin was a first-year Auror who had just completed the training program. In spite of her high marks, Singleton wasn’t prepared to put two-thirds of the surveillance mission on her shoulders.


“Just go back to your post, Windsor,” he sighed. “It’s going to be another long night. Don’t make me have to start if off by yelling at you.”


“Come on, Bernard,” Windsor whined. “You know as well as I do that nothing is going to happen. The view is better from over here. Maybe we’ll catch a peek of Malfoy’s wife in that leather getup the spell breakers found. She’s quite the looker for a witch my mum’s age.”


The sound of a twig snapping in the woods nearby caught both men’s attention. “Elgin, is that you?” Singleton whispered. “We can’t all be here on this bloody wall.”


An instant later, a jet of green light pierced his disillusionment charm, striking him in the side. His lifeless body tumbled from the wall and landed with a thud. Windsor rolled off of the wall as a curse flew over his head and landed in a defensive stance on the inside of the Manor grounds. He heard yelling coming from the other side of the wall. There were multiple attackers and they were splitting up and moving towards the gates on either side. Suddenly his location was looking extremely vulnerable. He turned to apparate to a better strategic position near the house. Nothing happened.


“Bloody anti-apparition jinxes!” he cursed, and sprinted towards the house. Several curses struck the ground around his feet. One of the attackers must have come over the wall. He heard more yelling and curses coming from Elgin’s direction and realized that she was also under attack. A curse struck him in the calf as he ran, sending him crashing to the ground. He desperately crawled towards a planter as curses tore up the turf around him. His only hope to save himself and Elgin was to find cover and send a patronus for help.


He made it just as a curse struck his ankle, sending new pain shooting up his injured leg. He didn’t even dare to look at how bad the injury was. He needed a happy thought. He tried to recall his first kiss at Hogwarts. She was a blond, green-eyed Ravenclaw third-year with a funny last name and a pumpkin-shaped birth mark just behind her left ear. They had just commenced a proper snogging session when Peeves yanked away the tapestry they were hiding behind and burst into a bawdy song. He raised his wand and the silvery myst began to emerge. Suddenly, a fat wizard in a dark, hooded robe was looking down at him over the planter. He saw a jet of red light emerge from the wizard’s wand and then he felt nothing.






The Malfoys were jarred awake when a curse shattered their bedroom window and ricocheted off of the wall. Draco leapt out of bed and grabbed his wand from the nightstand. He cast a powerful shield charm over the ruined window which was immediately struck by two more curses from somewhere in the courtyard. He looked over his shoulder and saw Astoria pulling on her bathrobe, wand already in hand. He loved her for her bravery, but there was no way he was going to allow her to risk herself.


“Kriffin!” he shouted over the loud cracks. The elf appeared by his side and bowed, seemingly oblivious to the firefight going on outside. “Take her to her father’s house, now!”


“Draco, no! Wait!” she shouted, but it was too late. The elf apparated across the room, grabbed her arm and they both disappeared with a loud pop.


Draco slowly backed towards the door, focusing his defenses on the window. He opened it just a crack and peered into the hallway. He could hear voices coming from the direction of the front door. He slipped into the hallway and slid along the wall, trying to stay out of sight. A skinny, scruffy-looking wizard appeared in the middle of the living room carrying the box of formerly transfigured items from his desk. They locked eyes for a second and the intruder tried to turn so he could aim his wand from underneath the box. Draco stunned him and heard Headmaster Black protesting loudly as the box crashed to the floor.


There were more shouts coming from the living room and Draco realized that he had given away his position. He took cover inside the doorway to his mother’s old room as curses began to fly down the hallway. He cast two curses back, including the nasty Sectumsempra spell that old Snape had taught him. He felt a small measure of satisfaction when he heard a yelp of pain coming from the other end of the hall. A furious hail of curses came flying back at him, causing showers of plaster to erupt from the walls while two of the lamps exploded into balls of flame above him.


Draco was forced to duck back into the bedroom. He couldn’t apparate inside the house and this bedroom had no fireplace. He ran to the window and saw several dark shapes stalking around the yard. It appeared that he was surrounded. The intruders’ angry voices were moving into the hallway and he ran back to the door and fired several more curses towards the living room. It was only a matter of time before they cornered him. Just as he was about to make a desperate bid to reach the kitchen at the far end of the hall, Kriffin reappeared beside him.


“Mistress requests the pleasure of your company,” the elf stated with a deep bow.


“Get me the hell out of here,” Draco replied, holding out his arm. Kriffin grabbed his arm and Malfoy Manor spun out of view.






As soon as Goyle and Gamp’s teams had the Aurors pinned down, Flint led Nott and the three wizards from the Ragged Fang to the front doors of the Manor. When an unlocking charm failed to gain them entrance, Nott blasted the doors off of their hinges.


“They’re in the bedroom,” Flint directed, “down the hall. Keep them pinned down while I retrieve the journal from the study.”


Nott followed his orders precisely, taking up a position just to the side of the hallway where he had a clear shot down the length of it. The other three wizards all but ignored Flint, beginning to dump out drawers and rifle through cabinets in search of loot. Pelfry actually beat him into the study, seizing a box from the desk that contained a very talkative gold statue among its other contents.


“The hallway, Mr. Pelfry!” Flint boomed, attempting to restore some semblance of discipline. Pelfry made a rude gesture towards him and carried the box of loot out of the room.


Flint cleared his mind for a second and raised his wand. He began to recite the incantations that she had taught him, trying to remember the wand movements that accompanied them. It all seemed rather long and tedious, but eventually a copy of Gilderoy Lockhart’s “Magical Me” came flying off of a shelf into his waiting hand. Flint stared at the book in disbelief. This was what he had been sent to retrieve? Then realization dawned upon him. The Dark Lord was wise, indeed. He had transfigured his secret journal into the one book that prying eyes were guaranteed to ignore.


Flint exited the study and found a full-fledged firefight going on between the living room and the hallway. Pelfry lay stunned on the floor, his box of loot scattered around him. Burloch’s other companion was trying to staunch the bleeding from a deep cut on the side of his face while he swore and traded curses with their unseen opponent. Suddenly, they heard a pair of loud cracks coming from the hallway and the spells flying in their direction ceased.


“I have the Dark Lord’s journal,” Flint announced triumphantly. “It’s time to leave.”


Burlock and his friend revived Pelfry as Flint strode through the door with Nott close behind. The fight outside the house was over. The Aurors were all defeated.


“Victory is ours,” he shouted. “Now out of here, all of you. We will rendezvous in two hours.” He then turned and disapparated.






Lady Tenabra was waiting for him in the alleyway when he appeared. He held the book triumphantly over his head.


“Well done, Flint,” she said. “Give me the Dark Lord’s journal and meet me at the rendezvous point along with the others.”


“Now you wait just a bloody minute,” Flint replied. “I don’t even know what you look like. If I hand the journal to you and you up and disappear then the next thing I know I’m gonna be on the outside of this revolution looking in. I’m not a bloody fool, you know. Whatever secrets the Dark Lord wrote in this book, we’re gonna see them right here, together.” He gestured menacingly with his wand to emphasize his point.


“Very well,” she sighed. “If you must see the Dark Lord’s journal to find your faith in our cause then so be it. Hold the book out in front of you.”


Flint continued to grip his wand but did as he was told, holding the book at arms length in front of himself. She drew her wand, keeping it in a non-threatening position. Slowly, she began to recite cryptic incantations while waving her wand over the book. After a moment, the book began to glow slightly. Flint stared at it with greedy eyes. His dreams of power and glory were finally within reach. As soon as he took his eyes off of her, she pointed her wand over the book at the center of his chest.


Avada Kedavra


Magical Me tumbled to the ground next to Flint’s lifeless body.


She calmly levitated him into a nearby garbage bin and cast muggle-repelling charms on it. When she was done, she turned and picked up the book from the ground. She looked at the picture of Gilderoy Lockhart smiling smugly at her from the cover, snorted and tossed the book into the bin with Flint. Then she turned and disappeared with a soft pop.


Chapter 11: No More Secrets
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First of all, a big thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed Conspiracy of Blood. As I've mentioned, your reviews make the story better. If you can, please take a minute to offer your thoughts. They mean more than you realize.


As always, the characters herein belong solely to JK Rowling.


 



 
The message from the Auror office reached Ron a little before one o’clock on Monday morning. Visiting hours at St. Mungo’s had ended at eight o’clock the prior evening and the nurses had finally convinced him to leave at around half past. He spent another ten minutes fluffing Hermione’s pillows, organizing her room and generally fussing over her before she more or less ordered him out of her room. He thought about visiting the Burrow to see whether there was food left over from the family dinner, but the idea of being badgered to go to bed didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he decided to go home and indulge his insomnia. Ron was about five moves away from checkmating himself for the second time when he learned about the attack on Malfoy Manor.


Susan Bones greeted him as he walked through the front gate. “Morning, Ron. Sorry to drag you out here, but we haven’t been able to get in touch with Harry.”


“It’s OK. I, uh, hadn’t been asleep for very long,” he replied. “What have you found so far?”


“The attack happened just after midnight,” she replied. “Singleton and Windsor were on that wall and Elgin was on the far corner. Windsor and Elgin are at St. Mungo’s and Singleton... well, he didn’t make it.”


Ron winced as he saw the Mediwizards carry away a body covered by a white sheet on a stretcher. To him, Singleton had been a hidden gem, an experienced Auror who had no problem volunteering for assignments that his peers thought were beneath them. Ron spent too much of his time managing type A personalities with big egos and six or seven N.E.W.T.s to their credit. Singleton’s workmanlike approach made him a valuable asset. He had also left behind a wife and two young children. Somebody would have to pay an awful visit to his family in the morning.


“Do we know how Windsor and Elgin are doing?” Ron asked.


“We found Windsor over there,” she answered, gesturing towards the side of the Manor house. “He was hurt really badly. The Mediwizards gave him a little better than a fifty-fifty chance of pulling through. Elgin did brilliantly for a first year. She fought her way past the attackers and made it past the anti-apparition jinxes they cast. She made the first call for help. She lost two fingers and had some really nasty burns, but she wouldn’t let them take her to St. Mungo’s without Windsor. She’s earning her scars early.”


“Anti-apparition jinxes?” Ron replied, looking surprised. “So this wasn’t just a random robbery. They knew we were here.”


“It looks that way,” she replied.


Susan took Ron on a quick tour of the scene, showing him the damage to the inside of the house and the grounds. Ron’s pulse quickened as they surveyed the carnage. Everything about it reminded him of the attack on the Ministry. He found himself wishing that they could prove that the same people were involved. Each clue would bring him one step closer to the wizard who hurt Hermione. One step closer to redeeming himself for the way he had failed to protect her.


“Do we know whether anything was taken?” he asked.


“Not yet. Malfoy and his wife are at her parents’ house. Her father made a floo call to the office about the same time that Elgin raised the alert. I sent Pernicia over to take statements from them, but they refused to talk to her.”


“Refused to talk?” Ron replied incredulously. “They’re material witnesses to a bloody war fought inside their own home. Just drag ‘em in.”


“Ron, maybe we should just give them a little time to calm down,” Susan reasoned. “Knowing Malfoy, he’s probably still storming around and talking rubbish. If we wait ‘til morning, he may be a lot more helpful.”


They heard a crack outside the Manor gates and moments later Harry walked unsteadily through them. His hair was even more unkempt than normal and he looked as though he might vomit at any moment. “Sorry I’m late,” he apologized, “what happened here?”


“What happened to you?” Ron blurted out, unaccustomed to seeing Harry in such a disheveled state. “I thought the house looked bad...”


“I, uh, had a bit of a late night with the dinner and all,” Harry replied, sounding very shaky. “I’ll tell you about it later. Can you please fill me in?”


Susan gave him the rundown on what they knew about the attack. Harry turned and almost retched when she told him about Singleton. Only Ron’s glares kept the other Aurors focused on their tasks instead of how dreadful their boss looked. Once Susan made it through the rest of her synopsis, Ron set her about analyzing the curse damage.


“Seriously, Harry, are you OK?” he asked.


“I’ll live,” Harry replied with a weak smile. At the moment, Ron had his doubts. Before he could express them, Harry changed the subject. “How is Hermione? I felt bad not getting in to see her yesterday.”


“She’s doing a little better,” Ron replied. “They’re letting her elevate the head of her bed just a bit and her vision has improved. Still a long way to go, they’re telling us.”


“I’m glad to hear it,” Harry replied. There was a note of anxiety in his voice that Ron found a little odd, considering the progress Hermione was making. He remembered hearing something similar in Hermione’s voice when she told him about Harry’s visit. He reckoned that there was probably a connection he was failing to make.


“So what do you make of all this?” Harry asked.


“Whoever did it wasn’t subtle,” Ron answered, gesturing around the crime scene. “The doors were blasted open. The hallway looks like a bomb went off. The ground is all torn up around the spot where they found Windsor. Once it started, it was all-out war. To me, it looks a lot like the attack on Magical Records. I’ve been wondering whether it’s the same bunch.”


“I have to agree,” Harry replied. “Listen, Ron, let’s go for a walk around the grounds. There are a couple of things you need to know.”


As they circled the house, Harry went over his conversation with Malfoy. Ron felt his bile rising as Harry reached the end of the story. “You mean to tell me that cowardly little git knew that Flint was on the loose the night before Hermione was almost killed and he didn’t say anything?”


“Yes, he did,” Harry replied. “I’ve been keeping this information to myself. I thought it would be safer for everyone if nobody knew that he came to talk to me. It looks like I was wrong.”


Harry was starting to hang his head in the way that he often did when somebody mentioned Fred, Remus or Tonks. If anything, it made Ron angrier. “Mate, don’t you dare take this one on your head. If that bloody little weasel had come clean about all this right away, we probably would have caught them by now.”


“Ron, calm down,” Harry cut him off. “Nobody made Malfoy come talk to me. He was there because he’s scared for his grandchildren. Your grandchildren. If he really wanted to help Flint, he would have just kept his mouth shut.”


Ron supposed that Harry had a point, although he still felt angry at Malfoy. He stifled the feeling for a moment and asked, “So what do you want to do about him? He’s holed up with his wife at old man Greengrass’s house, refusing to talk to us.”


“I’m going to go talk to him,” Harry replied.


“You?” Ron asked in disbelief. “Malfoy hates your guts, right?”


“Maybe not as much as he used to,” Harry replied. “What time are you planning to go see Hermione in the morning?”


“Probably right after breakfast.”


“Good, I’ll meet you at the Ministry cafe at half past seven, then we’ll floo over. There’s something I need to discuss with the two of you. If you find anything else important here, contact me with the mirrors.”


Before Ron could find his voice, Harry turned and disapparated. Ron decided that he might as well stay and help with the investigation, since there was no way he was going to be able to sleep after Harry’s last comment.






The members of the New Blood Order gathered in the abandoned warehouse. They had all been baptized in the same fire, but there remained a deep division between the men who were enjoying a fresh taste of freedom and the ones who had now put theirs at risk. Nott and the other Azkaban escapees were taking great joy in celebrating their exploits at the Manor. Burloch, Pelfry and the other men that Flint had recruited from the outside were far less enthused.


“Did you see me curse that little Auror wench?” Gamp blustered. “Hit her square in the arse. And a fine arse it was, but she won’t be sitting on it for a while.”


Nott and Goyle roared with laughter, clapping Gamp on the back.


“Well look at you lot,” Burloch sneered when the mirth died down. “Assaultin’ a woman and killin’ a couple Aurors. I hope that makes ye a big man in the showers in Azkaban, ‘cause that’d be all that come o’ tonight.”


“Didn’t you hear Flint, you old goat?” Goyle replied, taking a threatening step towards Burloch and the others. “We got the Dark Lord’s journal. Pretty soon, it’ll be the blood traitors taking cold showers in Azkaban. If we let them live.”


“Big words from a second-rate nancy boy that’s mostly just sat in prison half his life,” snarled Pelfrey, moving to Burloch’s side.


The war of words continued to escalate until the men were chest to chest with Gamp’s wand a fraction away from Burloch’s good eye and Pelfry’s knife at Nott’s throat. They barely noticed the emerald serpent that slithered between their feet until it reared into the air with an angry hiss. Both sides jumped back, swearing and firing curses that seemed to deflect harmlessly off of the snake.


“Gentlemen,” Tenabra’s voice boomed through the warehouse, “Please control your tempers.”


She stepped out of the shadows and gestured with her wand. The snake disappeared in a puff of smoke. She held an old, leather-bound book in her arm. The leather was blackened and worn, with ancient runes burned into the cover. “That was but a small sample of the secrets contained within the Dark Lord’s journal.


“Oh, yeah?” Pelfrey shot back, “Well tell me, missy, is there a spell in that book ta turn horse manure into gold? ‘Cause Flint provided us with none o’ tha latter and a shedload o’ tha former.”


“Gold, Mr. Pelfrey?” she sneered. “Might I remind you that one Auror died tonight and another was grievously injured. Gold will be little comfort to you if our cause is not successful.”


She allowed a long moment of silence for her point to sink in. “We are now in this together, come success or failure. I suggest you do what you can to make sure we don’t fail.”


“What happened to Flint?” Nott asked.


“Mr. Flint chose not to heed my warning about the curses protecting the journal,” she replied. “He tried to steal the Dark Lord’s secrets for himself, and he paid the price for his foolish ambition.”


Burloch and his friends chuckled cruelly. Gamp snickered and mumbled, “stupid git.” Only Nott appeared upset at the loss of his friend and ally.


“From now on, we will be following the Dark Lord’s designs. Using his plans to overthrow the leaders that betray us and to assure that wizards, not muggles, control the destiny of our world. The first step is to rally the wizarding world to our cause. To awaken the great, silent majority that abhors the muggle filth that contaminates our culture as surely as it dilutes our very blood. It is time to reveal the New Blood Order to the world, and let the Ministry tremble.”


With that, she conjured a lectern, sat the book upon it, and began to read.

 




Harry appeared in front of the gates of the Greengrass estate, turned towards the hedges and promptly vomited up the small amount of water he’d managed to drink before he left home. Talking to Malfoy was difficult enough when he was well and at the moment he felt truly awful. But he also knew Draco wasn’t going to trust anyone else. He had to make the first move.


As he approached the gates, he was greeted by one of the cherubs cast into the ironwork. It spoke with a cheerful lilt that stood in sharp contrast to the grim-looking, pitted iron of the old gate.


“Please state your business with the noble house of Greengrass.”


“Head Auror Potter here to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy,” he replied as crisply as his throbbing head would allow.


The cherub went silent for a couple of minutes. When it spoke again, its voice was decidedly less cheerful.


“I regret to inform you that Mr. Malfoy does not wish to speak with you at this time. Perhaps you could come back later?”


“Please tell Mr. Malfoy that if he would prefer to speak with me at the Ministry, I’ll be happy to return with a warrant.”


After another long pause in which Harry could imagine Draco pacing and fuming, the gates swung open. He walked up the path and found Draco standing on the front porch.


“Make it quick, Potter. I’m not going to stand out here all night.”


“Then perhaps we should go inside,” Harry replied calmly.


“Don’t you get it?” Draco snapped. “I talked to you once already and look what it got me. My home is destroyed and my wife and I were nearly killed. I don’t want any more of your help.”


“I’m not here offering help, Draco,” Harry replied. “I’m here asking for it. I’m going to share something with you that’s not widely known outside of the Ministry. It’s not just Flint. Nott, Goyle, Gamp and half a dozen of their friends have also escaped from Azkaban. One of the Aurors who was guarding your house was killed in the attack and another was critically injured. I need you to tell me everything you know before more people die.”


Malfoy stared at him for a long moment. “I’m sorry to hear about the Auror that died. Please relay our condolences to the family. But I have nothing to add to what I already told you. Flint was looking for a book, one that he believed was left at Malfoy Manor by the Dark Lord. When I told him that it wasn’t there, he got angry and left.”


“Are you sure there’s nothing else?” Harry pressed. “Did he mention anything about how he managed to escape?”


“He said that ‘we’ had a new friend inside the Ministry who had arranged his release,” Draco recalled. “He didn’t offer any more than that.”


Harry rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Malfoy, why didn’t you tell me this before? Is there anything else you omitted?”


“We didn’t have all day, Potter,” Draco shot back. “You know Flint. The bloody wanker never shuts up. He was going on about how the pure bloods were going to take over and chase the muggle lovers and mudbloods out of the Ministry. It’s the same old claptrap that landed him in prison in the first place.”


“We’re going to need you to come back to the house tomorrow and help us figure out whether anything is missing.”


“If they found the Dark Lord’s journal, then I'm happy to be rid of it,” Draco replied.


“If they found it, then they found something that your mother, you and your wife and a team of spell breakers all missed. And they found it in under an hour after surviving a firefight. It’s not impossible, but I’d say it’s unlikely,” Harry reasoned. “If they did take anything, we need to know what.”


Draco thought for a moment, then called out, “Kriffin!” The elf appeared next to him and bowed deeply. “If anything was taken from the house during the attack, would you be able to spot it?”


“Kriffin knows everything in Master’s house,” the elf replied quietly.


“Kriffin, please take Auror Potter back to the house and help him identify anything that is missing,” Draco instructed. Harry didn’t miss the subtle message inherent Malfoy’s orders to the elf.


“We’re still going to need to get statements from you and Astoria,” Harry said quickly, pulling his arm away just before the elf was able to grab it. “But that can wait until morning.”


“Make it early,” Draco replied with a cross look on his face. “The old man has decided that the family is relocating to his ski lodge in the Alps until your lot is able to catch Flint and his friends.”


“We’ll need a way to get in touch with you in case we have more questions,” Harry added as the elf made another grab for his arm.


“Scorpius will know how to find us,” Draco replied. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t make use of that information casually.”


“Of course not,” Harry assured him. “Do you think we should tell Daphne that her husband is on the loose?”


“There’s no point in it,” Draco mused. “Now that she’s as big a cow on the outside as she is on the inside, Gamp wouldn’t have anything to do with her.”


Harry chuckled out loud and realized this was probably the closest he’d ever come to connecting with Malfoy on any level. He saw a cheeky grin on Malfoy’s face just before the elf grabbed his arm and the Greengrass estate spun out of existence.

 




After a miserably short few hours of sleep, Harry dragged himself into the Ministry cafe on Monday morning. As he crossed the atrium, he reflected on how he was once again coming to work with more questions on his mind than answers. Kriffin had proved difficult to work with, struggling with an overwhelming need to put the contents of the house back in order as he reviewed them. House elves didn’t understand anything about preserving a crime scene. In the end, he was able to identify only one item missing. There was a single, empty spot in the middle of a bookshelf in Malfoy’s study. Harry doubted that anyone else would have noticed it, but the elf zeroed in on it instantly.


“Master is very particular about his books,” Kriffin explained. “Master demands that they are lined up and dusted. Kriffin dusted this shelf many times. Never a gap.”


Unfortunately, that’s where Kriffin’s helpfulness ended. As it turned out, the elf was illiterate. He had no idea about the title of the missing book. Harry hoped that one of the Malfoys would be able to remember something about it. Their departure for the Alps would have to wait.


“Harry, over here, mate,” he heard Ron call from across the cafe. Hermione’s condition was affecting Ron’s sleep, but nothing seemed to be able to touch his appetite. One empty plate sat in the middle of the table while Ron was working on another with gusto. Harry grabbed a coffee and some toast and sat down across from him.


“Did they find anything else after we finished with the elf?” Harry asked. As soon as Kriffin was done, Harry had gone home and collapsed into bed. He was more or less sure that Ron hadn’t slept.


“Susan got preliminary identification on two of the wands used in the attack,” Ron answered. “Our blokes from Magical Records were definitely involved, including the one who cursed Hermione.” Harry noticed Ron tense up. The case had become very personal.


“We’re going to catch them, mate,” Harry offered. “They’ll make a mistake eventually. They always do.”


Ron relaxed just a bit as he chewed a piece of bacon. “The missing book doesn’t make any sense. The spell breakers went over that study with a fine tooth comb. They didn’t find anything aside from that arsehole statue of Headmaster Black.”


Harry nodded in agreement. Ron hadn’t mentioned anything about his and Hermione’s old wands, so Harry was hoping that he’d missed that part of spell breakers’ report in his sleep-deprived state. He just needed to find the right occasion to spring the gift on them. He considered Ron’s point for a few seconds. “Tom Riddle probably forgot more about dark magic than the spell breakers will ever know. It’s possible that he used concealment spells that even they couldn’t get past. But how, then, does a nobhead like Flint manage to find it in half an hour?”


“We know he had help getting out of Azkaban,” Ron reasoned. “Whoever set that up might have told him how to find the journal.”


Before Harry could say anything else, a memo zipped into the cafe and began to circle his head. He snatched it and tore it open, then scanned the contents.


“The Minister’s called a meeting of the department heads today. I’m on the agenda to give an update on the investigation and...” Harry’s voice trailed off and he grimaced. “And the situation at Azkaban.”


“Bloody hell,” Ron moaned. “He’s gonna sack the warden, isn’t he?”


“Probably,” Harry replied. “Well, we knew it might happen. Let’s run up to the office before we floo to the hospital. I’ll send a quick note to the Minister and you contact Richards and let him know what’s coming.”


They rose and made their way out of the cafe. While they were in the lift, Harry went over his plan for when they arrived at St. Mungo’s. Now that the alcohol was out of his system, he felt less sure of himself. But he was sure that he couldn’t go on keeping the truth from his best friends. As long as Hermione was well enough, there would be no more secrets.

 




Hermione had just finished her morning potions when Ron and Harry arrived. She was finally starting to feel more like herself. Her vision was almost back to normal and she was able to move her arms and head slowly without pain. The healers had allowed her some toast and juice for breakfast, and although she still needed help to eat, it felt good to have an appetite again. They both broke into huge smiles when they saw her reclining against the elevated head of her bed, so she assumed that she must look a bit better, too.


“Hello, love,” Ron beamed, moving to kiss her on the cheek. At the last moment, she turned and caught his lips with hers. He looked at her with surprise, then pleasure as he returned her kiss.


“They finally stopped giving me that potion with nightshade in it,” she explained with a coy smile. “So I can kiss you properly again.”


“Works for me,” Ron replied with a goofy little smirk before planting another kiss on her lips.


“Hey, how about you give somebody else a chance?” Harry asked with a grin. He walked to the other side of her bed and leaned forward to pull her into a gentle hug. She enjoyed Harry’s warm embrace, and the way that her husband looked awkwardly around the room as he tried to avoid staring. There was a part of Ron that couldn’t stop being possessive, even where his best friend was concerned.


“You look much better,” Harry said.


“I feel better,” she replied. “They finally let me eat. I was even thinking of nibbling on one of the sweets you brought.”


“A good appetite is a good sign,” Ron said, nodding approvingly. ”Mum always said that.”


“Ronald, if you ever lost your appetite, I would start by checking your pulse,” she replied with a big smile.


“See, her sense of humor is coming back, too,” Ron beamed. She hadn’t seen him this happy in days. Something was still not right with Harry, though. There was an unmistakable tension beneath his smile.


“I keep hoping I’ll be able to get out of bed soon,” she said, probing for a reaction from Harry. “I just wish the feeling would come back in my feet.”


There was nothing subtle about the change in Harry’s demeanor this time. The look on his face turned from happiness to dread. She stared into his eyes and she thought she could see traces of guilt. They were quickly replaced by another expression she was used to seeing. Resolve.


“They still haven’t told you, have they?” he asked.


Ron’s smile disappeared instantly. “Told her what, Harry?” They both stared at him as he seemed to come to a conclusion.


“Wait here,” Harry said. “I’ll be right back.”


He strode out of the room, turning towards away from the lifts as he entered the hallway. Hermione and Ron mostly just stared at each other as the longest two minutes of her life ticked by. Harry reappeared with Healer Gelbard in his wake. The man was visibly nervous, fidgeting with a clipboard as he entered the room.


“Go ahead,” Harry said in a quiet voice, “tell them.”


Gelbard regarded Harry for a long moment, then took a deep breath and began to explain her condition. She gripped Ron’s hand tightly as he spoke, feeling the tension. The healer seemed to be offering a carefully blended mix of optimism and reality, but the worst case was clearly spelled out. He talked about the treatments they still wanted to try and how they were reaching out to healers in Eastern Europe and the Middle East who treated more dark magical injuries. When he finished speaking, there was a long moment of silence. Everyone seemed to be looking at her and she found that her mind was oddly blank. Ordinarily, she would have been filled with questions after such a lengthy and technical explanation of any topic. Ron asked the only question that was coming to her mind.


“So you’re saying that she may never walk again?”


“I’m afraid that’s correct,” Gelbard replied grimly. He looked at the three of them and started to back towards the door. “This is obviously a lot for you to think about. Take your time and please call for me if you have any other questions.” Then he left the room and closed the door behind him. The sound of the door closing echoed softly in the silent room.


I might never walk again.


Her rational mind kicked into high gear. It’s alright, she told herself. Lots of people in wheelchairs lead very productive lives. That muggle who figured out how the universe was born couldn’t move his arms or his legs. Muggles were doing all sort of amazing things for disabled people these days, and she could always levitate her chair if she had to. Yes, she decided, everything was going to be just fine. So why was she sobbing uncontrollably?


Ron’s arms surrounded her, rocking her slightly from side to side as he tried to whisper reassuring words into her ear. She wasn’t listening to anything that he was saying. The words didn’t matter, only his presence. The dampness of his tears reached the side of her face and she realized that he was also crying. The pain in her chest returned with a vengeance as her feelings shifted from sadness to panic. She tried to tell Ron that they needed to leave, that he needed to take her home, but the words weren’t coming out right. Memories of being trapped in Malfoy Manor invaded her mind. She could almost hear Bellatrix Lestrange's howling cackle.


"Please, Ronald, please take me home!" she tried to yell, but all that came out were garbled sobs.


She was vaguely aware of Harry screaming for help while Ron clutched her as though his life depended on it. The sounds were becoming distant again. Somewhere, a healer shouted something about her blood pressure.


Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley, we need you out of the room!


Hermione! No! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry...


Mr. Weasley, please! Let go!


No! I won’t leave her!


Ron, she needs help! Let go!


After several violent lurches, she felt Ron’s arms release her. Her body fell limply to the bed and she wanted to cry out for him, but all of her strength was gone. She felt a potion slide down her throat. Just before the darkness consumed her, she heard the piercing shriek of a little girl. Cripple!

 




When he finally finished fielding questions, Harry slumped into his chair and wished he could disappear. His mental state was already in shambles when he left St. Mungo’s and the Minister’s meeting had done nothing to improve it. When Kingsley was Minister of Magic, petty rivalries among the deputy ministers and department heads were never allowed to fester. As soon as he sniffed one out, he would summon the feuding parties into his office and seal the door until a peace was brokered. The current Minister preferred to pit his subordinates against one another, providing covert support to whichever side played to his political advantage. It was a brutal way to run a government.


Harry caught a reassuring smile from Percy, who sat in his customary spot three seats to the Minister’s left. In spite of his recent odd behavior outside of work, Percy continued to have a great deal of influence inside the Ministry. He was one of the longest-tenured deputy ministers and the only one with the Battle of Hogwarts on his CV. In a peculiar twist of fate, the trial that had cost Ron and Harry so much had made Percy something of a legend within the Ministry: the administrator-turned-barrister who had saved the heroes of the Second Wizarding War from a life behind bars. His name often came up when people discussed possible candidates for Minister, which Harry supposed was a big part of why the current Minister preferred to keep him close at hand.


Percy caught up to Harry as he rushed away from the meeting, trying to avoid any follow-up conversations.


“Hello, Harry. Tough meeting, but I think you made out OK.”


“I’m glad one of us feels that way,” Harry replied, maintaining his rapid stride toward the lifts.


“Harry,” Percy caught him by the shoulder, slowing his pace, “there’s nobody following us. Do you want to take a moment and talk about whatever has you so out of sorts?”


Harry looked back and realized that Percy was right. The hallway behind them was empty. He took a deep breath and smiled at his brother-in-law apologetically. “I don’t know if there are enough hours left in the day. For one thing, the Minister’s decision to publicly accuse the warden of corruption while firing him is going to wreak havoc on our investigation at Azkaban. For another, I still owe a visit to the family of the Auror who died in last night’s attack at the Malfoy estate. And to top it all off, Hermione almost had a heart attack this morning because of something that I decided she should know.”


Percy’s expression went from collegial sympathy to a much deeper concern. “I hadn’t heard. Is she alright?”


“The healers were there almost immediately. Once we pried Ron away from her, they gave her sleeping potions and managed to get her blood pressure back to normal.”


“Thank Merlin,” Percy replied. “Listen, I’m due to meet Ms. Dynt for lunch, but I believe I ought to stop by St. Mungo’s later today and see her. If you think that would be alright.”


Harry stared at Percy with raised eyebrows. “You mean Ms. Dynt, the Minister’s personal secretary? Percy, are you sure that’s... wise?”


“Arabela and I have been friends for a long time,” Percy explained. “It’s strictly platonic.”


“I’m sure it is,” Harry replied evenly. “But given your current -- uh, is estrangement the right word? -- from Audrey, I’d think you would want to be extra careful around attractive, widowed witches like Ms. Dynt.”


“Audrey and I have a good understanding right now,” Percy replied, seemingly unconcerned. “She knows that I need some space and she’s been a real dear about indulging me. Like I said, Arabela is a friend. The Minister is well aware that we have lunch together from time to time.”


As they made their way towards the Atrium, Percy filled Harry in on recent events that he couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to otherwise. The stories of political intrigue were somehow more interesting when Percy told them, probably due to his enthusiasm. He was good at political games, unlike Harry.


They were approaching the lifts when a young Auror named Callisto came running up to them.


“Harry! We didn’t send a patronus because we didn’t know whether you were still in the Minister’s meeting. These have been popping up all over the place.”


She handed him a sheet of parchment. It made him cringe before he even began to read the block printed words.


Wizarding people of the world, this is your call to action. For too long we have stood silently by while the muggles pollute our blood and steal our magic. Your government wants you to believe that muggles are like us, that their technology is no threat to our world. We know better. Their lies reveal their true nature. They would enslave us to the muggle world rather than fighting to maintain our culture.


The New Blood Order has arisen to speak for the silent majority. We have struck a blow at the heart of the beast, but there is much to be done. We will not rest until the muggle collaborators are driven from power and wizards, not muggles, control the future of our world. Shall we go quietly into the night, or do we fight to save our very civilization? We shall fight, and we shall prevail!


Beneath the words was the Dark Mark. The serpent writhed menacingly on the page, sending chills up Harry’s spine.


“Harry, it can’t be,” Percy mumbled. “He’s dead. He’s been dead for almost fifty years.”


Harry realized they were both staring at him and quickly regained his composure. “He is dead. This,” he said, touching the scar on his forehead, “would tell me if he wasn’t. But I suppose the feelings that he represents are still very much alive.


“Callisto,” he said, turning to the junior Auror, “get messages out to all the field offices warning them. I have to go speak to the Minister.”


Harry folded the parchment and turned back towards the Minister’s office.

 




Visiting hours were nearly over by the time Harry made his way back to St. Mungo’s. He found Hermione’s door open and he was stunned to hear laughter coming from inside the room. Hermione’s laughter.


“Hello?” he called cautiously, poking his head through the door.


“Harry!” Hermione croaked loudly. “Harry James Potter! Why I haven’t seen you since... well since I almost died this morning!”


She broke into another fit of giggles as Ron cringed next to her bed. Harry tossed his cloak over the spare seat and stared at her in disbelief. “Hermione, are you... drunk?”


“Ha! Don’t I wish. You can’t get so much as a butterbeer in this place. Did I ever tell you how much I like butterbeer?”


“They gave her some sort of muggle concoction,” Ron explained as she continued to ramble on about butterbeer. “Dizzypam or something like that...”


“That would be diazepam,” Healer Gelbard corrected Ron as he walked into the room. “It’s a muggle anti-anxiety drug. We find that it actually works better than any potion yet discovered. Although in this case I think we might have gotten the dosage a little high.”


“So you’re saying that she had an anxiety attack this morning?” Harry asked.


“We’ve been able to rule out nearly everything else,” Gelbard replied, using a magical silver and glass talisman to check Hermione’s pulse.


“What happens when this dazzypam stuff wears off?” Ron asked.


Gelbard tucked his instruments back into his robe. “I’m planning to keep her on a low dose of it until the healing of her circulatory system is more complete. We were fortunate that help reached her quickly this morning. I don’t want to take any chances until she’s stronger.”


“So, wait, wait, wait,” Hermione interrupted, holding hand to her forehead. “You mean I get to keep taking this dizzyfizzy stuff?”


“That’s right,” Gelbard replied.


“Awesome!”

 



 
Hermione’s physical condition improved over the next few days, but the panic attacks continued to plague her. Once she was no longer loopy on diazepam, she quickly became frustrated. The idea of being dependent on a medication for her sanity was appalling to her. She tore through three books on treating anxiety disorders and tried several leading desensitization techniques, but the mere sight of a wheelchair still made her break out in a cold sweat. No matter how hard she tried to calm her mind, she could not sit in one without hyperventilating.


As her discharge from St. Mungo’s drew near, getting her home became a serious dilemma. On Friday morning, the healers finally declared her well enough to leave. Ron picked her up and eased her into a wing-backed chair that Rose had conjured. Then Rose and Hugo carefully levitated the chair to the lifts while Ron fretted about her falling out and Hermione wanted to die from sheer embarrassment. As soon as the car pulled away from the hospital, she burst into tears and cried for the entire trip.


That evening, Ron and Hermione’s home was filled with activity. Molly and Arthur flooed over with a celebratory feast she had prepared. Hugo and Fiona arrived shortly after five o’clock with baby Amelie and Harry, Al and Lily arrived soon after. Just as they were about to sit down for dinner, Rose, Scorpius and Octavia stepped out of the fireplace.


“Too late, sis, we ate it all already,” Hugo joked as Rose pulled off Octavia’s jumper.


“I’m sorry we’re late,” Rose fretted as she pulled off her own cloak.


“They were snogging!” Octavia announced to the entire room, sparking a chorus of laughter.


Rose’s face turned the customary Weasley shade of red while Scorpius shrugged nonchalantly. “I’ve been gone for a week. She was desperate,” he said with a grin after collecting a brotherly hug from Al. He pulled Al’s wife Jenny into a playful embrace and lifted her off of her feet to shield himself from the hex that Rose was preparing to hit him with.


“Hermione, dear, you must be so happy to be home again,” Molly said as Ron was sliding her chair up to the table.


“Hmmn?” she replied, distracted by the effort of pulling her feet into a proper position under the table. “Oh, yes, very.”


Hugo and Rose exchanged glances across the table. The lack of enthusiasm in her response did not go unnoticed. When dinner ended, Ron carried her to a chair in the living room while the rest of the family cleared the table and tended to the dishes. Behind the smiling facade she put on, he could see the anguish in her eyes. Harry hadn’t missed it either, and he lingered as the other guests began to say their good nights.


“Dear, I can’t imagine how hard this has been on you,” Molly said to Hermione as Ron helped her with her cloak. “You know that Arthur and I love you and we think of you as one of our own. If you ever need anything, please call us straight away.”


“Thank you,” Hermione replied as a single tear ran down her cheek. “That means a lot.” Molly hugged her and kissed her cheek, then followed her husband into the fire.


Harry looked at her with a sad smile. “Tonight was hard, wasn’t it?”


“You have no idea,” she replied, her eyes brimming. He sat on the arm of the chair next to her and pulled her head onto his lap.


Ron returned to the room with beers for himself and Harry and promptly dropped them when he saw her crying. He rushed to kneel in front of her, looking helplessly at Harry as he caressed her shoulder. After a moment, she lifted her upper body off of Harry’s leg and buried her face in Ron’s shoulder.


Harry rose from the chair and retrieved a black felt bag from the pocket of his cloak. “I have something for you two,” he told them. “I found them the other day. I was hoping it might make you feel a bit better.”


Hermione lifted her tear-stained face from Ron’s shoulder and looked at him through damp eyes. Ron was also staring at the bag. “Mate, this had better not be like the last surprise you had for us,” he managed to say, half joking.


“No, this is much better,” Harry replied. He loosened the cord holding the bag closed and held it out to them. “Don’t look. Just reach inside.”


Hermione quickly wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and reached into the bag. She let out a small gasp as her hand made contact with its contents. The connection was immediate. She didn’t need to look.


“Harry, where did you find these?” she asked in wonder. She looked like she was afraid to pull her hand out, as though the miracle might disappear in the light of day.


“In a drawer in the basement of Malfor Manor. The spell breakers found them.”


“And Ron’s is in there, too?”


“My what?” Ron interrupted. “Would you two mind terribly telling me what’s in the bloody bag?”


“Put your hand in,” Hermione replied, her sadness momentarily forgotten.


Harry stretched the opening as wide as it would go to accommodate Ron’s hand alongside Hermione’s. He reached inside and a broad smile crossed his face as he felt the same sense of familiarity.


“Go ahead, take them out!” Harry said impatiently. Slowly, they withdrew the wands from the bag, studying every inch as they emerged. Ron waved his willow wand in a broad circle, creating a ring of blue flames in the air as he went. Hermione twirled the old vine wood between her fingers before conjuring a delicate rose on the arm of the chair.


“Harry, it’s... it’s amazing!” she exclaimed. “I like the wand I got after the war, but it was never quite the same.”


“The wand chooses the wizard,” Harry repeated old Olivander’s words. “Nothing is ever quite like your first real wand.” He absentmindedly touched his holly wand through the fabric of his robes.


Ron cast a patronus and sent it racing around the room. He stared at the shining silver terrier as it barked and yipped happily. “The first time I ever managed to cast this spell was in the Room of Requirement,” he reminisced. “The dog never looked quite right with any other wand.”


Harry felt overjoyed as he watched them cast spells and conjure silly things like a pair of starry-eyed first years. To him, magic had always been about joy and amazement and escaping from the dull realities of life. Watching his best friends forget about their troubles made him feel like a kid again.


Their reverie was interrupted when Susan’s head appeared in the flames of the fireplace. “Ron, Harry, mind if I pop in?”


“Of course not, Susan,” Ron replied, tucking his wand carefully into his pocket. “Please, join us.”


A moment later Susan emerged from the flames and dusted the soot from her robes.


“Hermione, how are you?” Susan cried. She hurried across the room and knelt to pull Hermione into a hug. “Have you been crying?”


“A little,” Hermione admitted with a weak smile. “It’s better now.”


“I’m so glad you’re feeling better,” Susan said, rising to her feet. “I’m sorry we haven’t found a cure for that awful curse yet, but we’re not giving up.”


“Thank you so much for trying,” Hermione replied. “I really appreciate it.”


“It’s the least we can do,” Susan responded. “If I had a galleon for every time you helped us figure something out, I’d be retired already.


“Harry,” Susan said, turning towards him as she pulled a manila envelope from her robes, “this just came back from the muggle crime lab. As soon as I read it, I knew you’d want to see it right away.”


“Susan, I’m really not good with these reports,” he replied. “Maybe you can just tell me what it says?”


“They found a match on the DNA of the witch from the attack on Magical Records,” Susan explained, looking a bit uneasy.


“So do they know who she is?” Ron asked eagerly.


“No, they don’t. But they do know something about her. She...” Susan’s voice trailed off as she struggled for her next words. “I think we’d all better sit down.”


Ron dropped into the armchair next to Hermione while Susan moved to the couch. Hermione conjured an additional chair for Harry, relishing the feeling of her old wand and the way it effortlessly responded to her unspoken spells.


“The witch’s DNA matched a strand of hair that was collected during a murder investigation,” Susan continued. “It was found on the clothes of the man who committed that murder.”


Hermione made the connection before the others. Her face went pale. “Susan, you can’t mean...”


Susan stared into the fire, avoiding Harry’s gaze. “That man was Edwin Michael Stoops.”


Chapter 12: Searching for Answers
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I'd like to offer another big thank you to my readers and reviewers. Your input continues to make this story better. Ongoing special thanks to my beta reader, sophie_hatter. If you're not reading her story Evolution (M), you're missing out!


As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.






Harry strolled into the Ministry atrium shortly before eight o’clock on Saturday morning. The Ministerial Security guards barely noticed him as he passed their checkpoint. It was commonplace for Aurors to come and go at odd hours. The Atrium felt strange to him when it was quiet and empty. He preferred the low buzz of hundreds of anonymous voices to the echoes of his own footsteps off the marble walls. He passed the spot where Voldemort and Dumbledore had dueled to a draw at the end of the battle in the Department of Mysteries. Fifty years later, it still set his nerves on edge recalling how many people barely survived that day, as well as one man who did not.


There were only two Aurors in the office, both quietly doing paperwork at their desks. They greeted him as he passed, but otherwise paid little attention. He stepped into his office and took off his cloak, hanging it behind the door. He pulled a pair of baggy, green coveralls out of the inside pocket and quickly pulled them on over his weathered jeans and jumper. Harry opened the door just a crack and peeked into the hallway, making sure that the coast was clear. He turned on the lights and the wireless in his office and then disillusioned himself before stepping outside and closing the door behind him. From there, he moved quickly and quietly out of the Auror office, taking care to avoid the vicinity of his subordinates.


Harry entered the nearest stairwell, eschewing the lifts. Moments later, Bixby Alstrom emerged from the stairwell four floors below, opposite the Minister’s offices. Bixby had been employed by Magical Maintenance for the past eleven years, gradually working his way up to a supervisory position in the plumbing shop. He was a quiet man who tended to avoid the main hallways of the Ministry in favor of service corridors and crawl-ways. Most of the regular staffers found it difficult to get more than two words out of him.


Bixby also had a secret. He used his position in Maintenance to spy on the Deputy Minister of Magical Games and Sports and her staff. He would enter their offices under the guise of looking for a noisy pipe or a leak that always seemed to affect the floors above or below. Then he would eavesdrop or peek over shoulders to learn about signings and trades among the leading professional Quidditch squads in Britain and abroad. On this very morning, Bixby was delivering a hot tip on a pending trade between Falmouth and Puddlemore to his patron, a wealthy pub owner in Devonshire who also ran an illicit gambling ring. Ron had volunteered to take the surveillance shift of a very surprised and happy young Auror who had been assigned to shadow Bixby for the day, just to make sure that he remained far from the Ministry.


Using polyjuice potion to assume Bixby’s appearance, Harry started to unlock the outer doors of the Minister’s office suite with a key that Reg Cattermole had conveniently forgotten to turn in on the day of his retirement. The door turned out to be unlocked, however. He wandered into the office, acting very interested in the edge of the ceiling that ran along the wall on the left hand side of the hallway.


“May I help you?”


Harry pretended to be startled by the voice of the Minister’s personal secretary. She sat at a large oak desk in a workspace just outside of the Minister’s cavernous office. She was reviewing the morning editions of the Daily Prophet, the Quibbler and several other periodicals, jotting down notes on the day’s major stories. Harry had always wondered where the Minister found time to stay so well informed.


“Um, no,” Harry mumbled, staying in character. He looked at her for just a moment before looking back up at the ceiling.


“Are you looking for something in particular?” she persisted.


“Noisy pipe,” Harry muttered. “Magical Transportation complained.”


“Well, we haven’t heard anything,” she replied. “You’re Bixby, right?”


“Yes, madam,” he replied, still shuffling along without meeting her gaze. “What’s down there?” he asked, gesturing towards the Minister’s file room.


“The file room,” she answered testily. “You can’t go in there. It’s a secure area.”


“We think there’s gaddocks in the pipes. Could cause a rupture if we don’t get ‘em out.”


“Gaddocks? What’s a gaddock?” she asked, growing increasingly irate.


“Old Hagrid always taught they were related to doxies,” Harry replied, starting to enjoy himself. In his opinion, Ms. Dynt took a little too much pleaure in watching the Minister frustrate and undermine his subordinates. She had a habit of asking people to repeat their least flattering statements for the minutes she recorded in meetings. Torquing her was fun.


“Doxies? What do doxies have to do with pipes?”


“Nothing. They’re just related. I need to get into that room. Get the little buggers out before the pipes burst,” Harry warned.


“Oh, alright,” she replied in exasperation. “But I must accompany you.”


“That’s OK,” Harry mumbled. “If a gaddock gets out, you can help me grab it.” He reached into the back pocket of his coveralls and pulled out a grimy pair of leather work gloves. She recoiled as he offered them to her.


“That’s quite alright. The Minister needs this report before his morning press conference. If I just let you in there, do you think you can be quick about it?”


“Shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes. Less if the gaddocks aren’t in their mating season. They bite something fierce when they’re in heat. Leave a red welt about so big,” Harry made a circle with his fingers the size of a tea saucer.


“Well whatever you do, don’t let them get out!” she huffed. “This is the Minister’s office. We can’t have gaddocks zipping about, biting people.”


Harry shuffled down the hall, still staring at the ceiling. Ms. Dynt followed a short distance behind, trying and failing to see for herself what he was looking for. She pulled a tiny set of keys from somewhere inside her prim, tight-fitting trouser suit and pointed her wand at one, enlarging it. She unlocked the door to the file room and peered warily around the corner as Harry shuffled in and began pulling random spanners and screwdrivers out of his pockets. “Let me know as soon as you’re finished,” she said, pulling the door closed behind him.


Harry quickly went to work. He selected two of the spanners and enchanted them, setting them lightly tapping an exposed sprinkler pipe that ran along the edge of the ceiling. He placed a Sneakoscope on a counter near the door. The device glowed dimly, but did not spin or whistle. Harry interpreted that to mean that Ms. Dynt was listening from her desk, not paying particularly close attention.


He lit his wand and began searching the labels on the file cabinet drawers. Four years ago, after the trial, the Minister had ordered the case files on the murder of Edwin Stoops to be sealed and removed from the Auror office. By virtue of the connection, much of the file on Ginny’s murder had also been taken. Like most things the Minister did to undermine Harry’s authority, he had called it a “favor” to the Auror office. It would prevent any accusation of retaliation against the prosecutors and investigators involved in the trial.


He found what appeared to be the correct cabinet and pulled gently one one of the drawers. As he expected, it was locked. A quick revealing charm also confirmed his suspicion that the cabinet was enchanted to raise an alert if anyone tried to use an unlocking charm on it. Harry reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of spring steel picks. Even though Mundungus Fletcher had been a sniveling, cowardly little git, Harry had learned one or two useful things from him. The lock was of a common, older design and it took him less than a minute to jimmy it open. Sometimes the muggle approach to problems delivered better results than anything he could do with his wand. He rifled through the files and found the one he was looking for. It was several inches thick and crammed full of photographs and documents. He set it on the top of the file cabinet.
 

Geminio. Harry silently created a duplicate of the file, then placed the original back in the drawer. He shrunk the duplicate so that it fit in the palm of his hand and wrapped it in a handkerchief before slipping it into his pocket. It took a bit longer to relock the drawer with the picks and by the time he was done, he noticed that the Sneakoscope was glowing more brightly. Ms. Dynt was probably wondering what was taking him so long. It was time to put on a small show for her benefit.
 

Harry pulled a leather bag out of a different pocket. The bag squirmed and wiggled, courtesy of a pair of very upset doxies it contained. Harry formed a loose image of a cod in his mind and transfigured the contents of the bag. Gesturing with his wand, he made the spanners apply three particularly loud smacks to the pipe, then he let out a loud yelp as the spanners fell to the floor. He fired some stunning spells around the room, letting them ricochet off of the walls and ceiling. The Sneakoscope was shining brightly and spinning like a top. Only the silencing charm was keeping it from whistling like a tea kettle. He pocketed the device, let out a few choice words of profanity, and fired two stunning spells at the leather bag.
 

As he expected, Ms. Dynt was waiting outside the door when he opened it. “Did you get them?” she asked.
 

Harry held up the leather bag and dumped the two stunned doxies into the palm of his hand. His hasty transfiguration had made them just barely recognizable, turning their fur into scales and adding webbed flippers to their arms and legs. Fortunately, she didn’t look very closely before turning away in disgust. Harry shrugged and put the doxies back in the bag. “I’ll need a second to grab my tools.” He picked up the spanners and screwdrivers and slid them back into his pockets, then he shuffled out of the room.
 

“Be sure to call us if you hear any more noises,” he mumbled as she locked the door behind him. “Sometimes the little ones hide while the adults come out to fight.”
 

She didn’t dignify him with any sort of response as he exited the Minister’s suite. He made his way back to the staircase and closed the door behind him. Moments later, Harry emerged near the Auror office, sputtering softly. The antidote for polyjuice potion was considered to be one of the more significant discoveries that potioneers had made in the past twenty years, but the stuff tasted even worse than the actual potion. He disillusioned himself and slipped back inside, listening intently for any hint of movement. After taking a circuitous route back to his door, he quietly entered and breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was undisturbed. He pulled the enchanted mirror from his pocket and called Ron’s name. A few seconds later, Ron’s eyes appeared in the mirror.
 

“Got it,” was all he said. Ron nodded in acknowledgement and the mirror went blank.
 





Hermione listened to the sounds of water falling over the edge of the small fountain on the table beside her. Her pulse slowed as she took long, deep breaths. She tried to clear her mind of thoughts, focusing solely on the gently lapping noises. Recalling the teachings of an ancient Zen philosopher, she endeavored to put her mind at peace. Peace led to serenity. Serenity led to acceptance. Acceptance led to growth.


She opened her eyes and looked at the chair sitting on the floor in front of her, trying to see it for what it was. A simple object composed of wood and leather, held together with nails and thread. It had no significance beyond that. It was merely a thing, without deeper meaning. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


“Go ahead,” she said.


Rose pointed her wand at the chair and began the transfiguration. The back became thinner and straighter as the bottom receded upwards towards the seat. The wooden frame of the chair turned to steel and handles extended from the back. Large, spoked wheels sprouted from the sides and descended towards the floor as they grew. They were followed by smaller wheels that turned on pivots near the front. After a few moments, the simple wheelchair sat in front of Hermione. She stared at it, trying to maintain the separation between object and symbol, form and feeling.


“Are you ready?” Hugo asked.


“Yes,” Hermione responded, closing her eyes and drawing another deep breath. Her son and daughter moved to either side of the chair she was sitting in. She felt their hands slide behind her back and her hips shift as their their opposite hands slid beneath her unfeeling thighs. The first notes of anxiety began to invade her mind, and she fought to drive them back. They lifted her into the air and slowly rotated so that her back faced the transfigured chair. Slowly, gently, they lowered her into it.


As their arms slipped from behind her, she felt the leather back of the chair against her shoulders and her skin began to crawl. The arms of the chair seemed to close in on her, like the bony fingers of a monstrous hand. Her breaths began to come shorter and faster as she struggled to maintain control. Her face screwed up in a mask of anxiety and effort. The muscles in her back tensed and she involuntarily leaned forward.


“Mum. Mum! Are you OK?” Hugo was calling to her, but his voice sounded flat and lifeless, as though it was coming from the wireless. The walls of the room were closing in. Her field of view narrowed to the comfortable leather chair in front of her. Safety was so close, yet impossibly far away.


Cripple! the little girl’s voice shrieked inside her head again.


“Mum!”


She realized that she was on the floor. Rose’s arms were wrapped around her shoulders. Every inch of her body felt damp and clammy. The wheelchair lay overturned on the floor beside them, a horrible reminder of the peace that she could not find. She pressed her face into the crook of her daughter’s neck and cried.






Scorpius hurried down the path away from Dominique’s London townhouse. He had just dropped Octavia off to spend the day with her cousin Calliope, and he was running late as usual. As soon as he reached the pavement he took a quick look around for muggles and disapparated on the spot. He appeared in front of the gates of the Greengrass estate, which immediately swung open.


“You’ve very nearly late,” the cherub said without the slightest hint of decorum.


“I know, I know,” he muttered as he trotted towards the front door. The leather buggy whip hanging on the wall was already glowing with a faint blue light when he entered the house. The instant he touched it, he felt the unpleasant sensation of having his body pulled through his belly button into a whirling, twisting tunnel of confusion and nausea. The next instant he tumbled into a snowbank in the Swiss Alps. His father was waiting for him as he stood up and tried to dust the snow off of his cloak.


“You’re late,” Draco said bluntly.


“Yeah, that’s what Grandfather’s gate was saying,” Scorpius retorted. “It’s not easy getting a six-year-old girl ready to go out for the day, you know. We auditioned at least five outfits and it took her twenty minutes to decide what books and toys to bring. You’d swear her cousin didn’t own anything.”


“Cousin?” Draco replied. “Where’s her mother?”


“She and Hugo are helping their mum out. She can’t move her legs since the attack on the Ministry.”


Draco stared at his son for a second. His expression was unreadable. “I hadn’t heard that.”


“The healers are still hoping that they can make her better, but Rose says it doesn’t look good,” Scorpius explained. “The curse she was hit with is some kind of ancient dark magic. Not even Dumbledore’s protrait had heard of it.”


Draco shifted his gaze ever so slightly. The former headmaster was still an uncomfortable topic. “I think that’s all the more reason that you should bring Rose and Octavia here until Potter and the Aurors catch whoever’s responsible for this madness.”


Scorpius rolled his eyes. “Father, we discussed this before you left. With Rose’s mum in the shape she’s in, there’s no way she’d be willing to leave home right now.”


“Then you should at least send Octavia,” his father pressed. “With you always traveling for that wretched job of yours, I never know who’s keeping an eye on my granddaughter. She would be safe here.”


“Wretched?” Scorpius replied, deliberately dodging the question. “Father, I’m the head of merchandising for the top-ranked team in the British professional Quidditch league.”


“Yes, yes, your ancestors are doubtless spinning in their graves,” Draco sighed, “but that’s not my point and you know it.”


Scorpius fixed his father with a withering gaze which was returned in kind. Neither spoke for a long moment. Scorpius was surprised that his father finally broke the impasse. He had spent most of his life losing staring contests to the old man.


“Scorpius, listen to me,” Draco said in an uncharacteristically quiet voice. “Your mother and I, we’ve seen this happen once already. Before you were born, before the war. This is how it all started. I know you can’t possibly understand what it was like, but you need to realize that witches and wizards died by the hundreds, especially those that opposed the Dark Lord. It doesn’t matter whether they were right or wrong to do so, the point is that they’re dead. I can’t let that happen to you and your family. Knowing what I know, I couldn’t live with myself.”


Two generations of grey eyes met. “Please, son. Don’t let pride or your faith in Potter blind you to the truth. He can’t protect everyone, everywhere, all the time. Send her here to us, where she’s out of harm’s way.”


Scorpius considered his father’s plea. There was wisdom in his words, to be sure. But he couldn’t help thinking about his nieces and nephew, as well as all of their cousins. Al’s family had taken him in at a time in his life when he barely knew who he was, when his father’s talk of pure-blood superiority began to ring hollow and everything that he thought he knew began to come apart before his eyes. Then he met Rose and fell in love with her. And then she dumped him. And then they fell in love again and he cheated on her. And then they fell in love again and...


He shook his head slightly, trying to remember where his whole train of thought had been heading. Regardless, spiriting Octavia away to Switzerland while the rest of the family stayed behind to look out for one another felt like a cop-out. In fairness, he decided that he should at least pose the question to his wife so that she could shout at him and bury the idea once and for all. Being in love was complicated.


“I’ll talk about it with Rose,” he said, studying his father’s reaction. The old man wasn’t stupid. He knew what that meant.


“Very well. Lunch should be ready by now and your grandparents are eager to see you. Let’s go inside.”


Scorpius brushed the last of the snow from his cloak and prepared himself to be badgered by the entire family until his portkey back to London left in two hours.






Hermione spent Sunday morning buried in her work, trying to keep her mind off of her paralysis. She had fallen behind on all of her projects, not that anyone could blame her under the circumstances. The fact that she could not get her brain to agree to let her body sit in a wheelchair meant that whatever work she was going to do would be done from home, so she decided to throw herself into it right away. She diligently worked her way through a towering stack of manila file folders that her secretary had dropped off the previous day.


As she reviewed more and more of the case files, she began to notice a disturbing trend. It started with the Egyptian treaty she had been revising on the day of the attack. The British Ministry had simply conceded to the Egyptian negotiators and gutted the entire section on the rights of muggle-born witches and wizards. The notes attached to the revision glossed over the reasoning, but a quick review of the other changes made it obvious. Somebody had wanted the treaty done quickly and traded away her negotiating points to make it happen.


After completing a scathing memo on the new treaty, she began looking through her various legislative initiatives to grant new legal protections to the muggle-born. She wasn’t surprised to see that no progress had been made in her absence, but she was shocked to discover that the hearings she had scheduled before the Wizengamot had been removed from the docket. By the time she reached the bottom of the stack of files, her sense of righteous indignation was completely back to normal.


“Ronald?” she called to her husband. He appeared in the doorway to her study carrying a stack of parchment in a manila folder. “Do you know what they’ve been doing in the office while I was out?”


“Not a clue,” he mumbled, bracing himself. With Hermione back at home, he had now enjoyed two consecutive nights of restful sleep. He was feeling almost like himself again. That was good because the way her eyes flashed with anger made it clear that he was about to get an earful.


“I’ll tell you what,” she continued as her voice rose with emotion. “They’ve been pushing all of our work on improving the rights of muggle-born witches and wizards straight to the back of the queue. They’ve canceled every hearing before the Wizengamot and reassigned every last staffer to other cases. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was being done on purpose!”


“Who’s they?” he asked, flipping to the next page.


Hermione paused to consider the question. “I really don’t know,” she replied, momentarily losing her momentum. She recovered quickly, however. “I mean to find out, though, as soon as I can get back into the office. I think I should try the chair again before lunch.”


Her last statement caused Ron to immediately lose interest in what he was reading. “Are you sure you want to try again so soon?” he asked. “Hugo said that yesterday you tried dissociation therapy, zen meditation, accupressure and... I forget what he called the other thing, but did you really dress the chair up like a tricycle?”


“Well I needed it to be non-threatening,” she explained a bit sheepishly.


“From what he said, none of that worked,” Ron replied. “Do you really want to keep torturing yourself like this?”


“Ron, I have to get past this. I can’t spend the rest of my life having someone carry me from chair to chair.”


“I kind of like carrying you around,” Ron responded with a sly grin. “This way, I always know where to find you.” The look in her eyes took the cheekiness off of his face as surely as if she’d slapped him. “Um, did you try levitating your chair again?” he mumbled, trying to recover.


“Several times,” she sighed. “As soon as the chair shakes or wobbles a bit, I get nervous and start to lose control. I’m not sure how you and Harry do it.”


Ron decided that it would be a bad time to remind her that part of their Auror training had involved balancing on a hubcap and levitating it across a muggle motorway while maintaining a disillusionment charm. “With some practice, I think you’d get the hang of it. It’s a bit like riding a broom.”


“Which I’m also not good at,” she reminded him. “I just have an awful sense of balance.”


Ron knelt next to her chair and kissed her forehead. “You’re pushing yourself awfully hard, love. You only left St. Mungo’s two days ago. If you ease up a little bit and take some pressure off of yourself, maybe it’ll help you figure things out.”


She smiled lovingly at her husband. “Ronald, when have you ever known me to ease up when I have a problem to solve?”


“Never,” he admitted.


“And I can’t do it now. Everybody needs me. You, Harry, the kids, my work... everyone is suffering because of my mental block. I’ve got to beat this.”


In his mind, Ron thought of a hundred responses. But the need in her eyes silenced them all.


“Well, if you really want to help Harry and me,” he began tentatively, “then there’s something here you can help me read.”


She looked at him with a mix of eagerness and suspicion. “Harry gave it to me after I finished my surveillance shift yesterday,” Ron went on. “I know he’d like to have your help with it, but he was worried about pushing you too hard.”


“I’m touched, but I’m sitting here losing my mind. Please, push me.”


“OK,” Ron said, “but I have to warn you that he didn’t exactly come into these files in a way that would reflect positively on an officer of the Department of Magical Law.”


His warning seemed to confirm her suspicions. “What are you reading, Ronald?”


“The case files from the Stoops murder investigation,” he replied, his expression somewhere between ashamed and defiant.


“The ones that the Minister ordered sealed after our trial?”


Ron nodded.


“You’re right, I do not want to know how he got his hands on these. Now please help me over to the sofa and let’s get started.”






Harry met Al at the front gates to Hogwarts and strolled up the path to the castle with his son. Al’s son Oliver had finally landed a starting spot on the Slytherin Quidditch team and he had begged them both to come see his first match against Ravenclaw.


As they made their way towards the pitch, Al seemed preoccupied. Finally, he asked, “So Dad, what have you found out about this New Blood Order? I’ve heard some of the rumors and they’re troubling.”


“Like what, for instance?” Harry replied, meeting the question with one of his own.


“Like that they’re well-organized and growing. And that a lot of the old, pure blood families who were ruined by the war are privately expressing support for their cause.” Al fixed his father with a meaningful look. “Also, that the Minister is paying very close attention and he’s starting to hedge his bets a little.”


Harry didn’t directly return his son’s stare. “That’s interesting. He hasn’t mentioned anything publicly.”


Al came to a stop in the middle of the path with an exasperated look on his face. “Dad, come off it.” Harry took another few steps, but realized that his son was drawing a line of sorts. He walked back and motioned for Al to follow him towards the lake.


“Will you please tell me what’s going on?” Al asked when they were out of earshot of the castle. “All our lives, we’ve heard the stories about how Lord Voldemort took control of the Ministry. You’ve gotta admit, there are similarities. We’re starting to get worried.”


“I’m still putting the pieces together,” Harry admitted, “but I don’t think this is like the war. There’s no powerful dark wizard pulling the strings this time as far as I can tell. And who’s ‘we’?”


“Well, I talked to Scorpius last night and his parents are putting huge pressure on him to move Rose and Octavia to Switzerland,” Al began. “Naturally Rose is having none of that, but she still thinks that there’s more going on than the Ministry is admitting. James is too oblivious to be worried, but Lil, Teddy, Vic, Dom, Louis, Hugo... everyone is starting to get concerned. We’d all feel a lot better if you and Uncle Ron would just tell us what’s really happening.”


Harry weighed his response carefully. “Son, I appreciate that you’re all paying attention. The sad truth is not many people are. I don’t think there’s any need for Rose and Scorpius to move to Switzerland, but Ron and I are keeping a close eye on things. If we see anything bad starting to happen, I promise we’ll act quickly.”


“Do you need help?” Al pressed. “Hugo and I both work at the Ministry and Lil has a lot of connections in the business world. Scorpius’s family still has friends among the pure bloods, at least his mother’s family does. You and Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione don’t have to do this all by yourself if things get tough.”


Harry studied his son, admiring the determination in his eyes. “Albus, I’m thrilled to see all of you pulling together and taking responsibility for keeping the family safe. Your mother would be very proud. But I also promised her that I would always do whatever I could to keep all of you safe. There’s a reason that your mother and I and all of your aunts and uncles risked our lives to stop Tom Riddle. It was so our children and grandchildren would never have to go through the horrible things that we did. So if we’re not in a huge hurry to involve the lot of you in a mess like this, please try to understand.”


“I know I would feel the same way about my kids,” Al replied. “But I’ve also heard Grandpa and Nanna let on to how incorrigible you all were in spite of their best efforts to protect you. So if our lot decides that we have to do whatever we can to keep everyone safe, including you, well, please try to understand.”


Father and son locked green eyes for a long moment. Even Harry was surprised when he found himself turning away first. “We better get moving and find seats before the match starts.”


They made their way back to the path and hurried to the entrance to the pitch. The stands were already filling up as the students filed in.


“You’ll be sitting in the Slytherin section, I presume?” Harry raised an eyebrow at his son.


“Naturally,” Al replied with a grin. “Care to join me? I promise we won’t bite.”


“Sorry, but I have to decline,” Harry returned the grin. “I might burst into flames.”


“I’ll see you after we win, then,” Al said matter-of-factly and then headed off towards the sea of green and silver to the left.


Harry started making his way towards the red and gold Gryffindor section on the opposite side. He was pleased to see that his old house still turned out in force to support whichever team was competing against the Slytherins. He noticed a shimmering, silvery hawk swooping towards him. Justin Finch-Fletchley’s patronus alighted on his shoulder and waited patiently. It had been charmed to deliver a private message for Harry’s ears only. Harry walked away from the crowd, finding a private spot on a walkway connecting two sections of the stands. He cast a muffliato charm and nodded towards the hawk.


“The muggles found Marcus Flint’s body in a rubbish bin in a London alley,” the hawk said in Justin’s voice. “He was killed by dark magic.”


The hawk dissipated into a silvery mist as Harry reversed the muffliato charm. Regrettably, he was going to have to miss the match. He needed to get his apologies to Al and Oliver before leaving the pitch, but old habits died hard and Merlin would shave from head to toe before he was going to set foot in the Slytherin section of the stands. A thought popped into his head and immediately brought a wicked little smile to his lips. Hermione would say that what he was about to do was very immature, but that only made him more convinced it was a good idea. He drew his wand and the silvery mist began to form in front of him. Moments later the silver stag bounded off and he hurried back towards the path to the front gates.


As he was walking away from the pitch, he heard the announcer’s voice booming throughout the stands.


I have just been handed a special message for Oliver Potter.Your grandfather has been called away on urgent business and sends his sincere regrets. He also sends his best wishes to the Gryffindor team for a brilliant season.


As the Slytherin section roared with boos and hisses, Al shook his head and grinned ruefully. He had to admit, the old man had style.


Chapter 13: The Silliest Thing I’ve Ever Heard
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As always, the characters herein belong solely to JK Rowling.

 




Harry nodded to the pair of Obliviators waiting by the entrance to the muggle morgue as he entered. They had been selectively modifying the memories of the muggle police and medical examiners. None of the muggles would recall the steady stream of people in odd clothes who came and went throughout the day. In a case where there was already a police record of an apparent murder, the Ministry preferred to leave the body in the custody of the muggle authorities if possible. It allowed the Obliviators to operate with a lighter touch, altering fewer records and memories and reducing the likelihood of mistakes.


Justin was waiting for him inside the doors and turned to escort Harry to the back. He flicked his wand slightly at the guard working the front desk, causing the man’s eyes to momentarily glaze over as they passed. Harry silently cast a protective charm over his face to prevent the smell from reaching him. He hated the smell of morgues. It reminded him of the Great Hall on the day of the battle.


They entered an autopsy room where Marcus Flint’s body lay on a cold, metal table, covered by a white sheet. A medical examiner sat at a table in the corner of the room filling out paperwork, totally oblivious to the three wizards. Justin nodded to the Auror investigator standing by the body.


“He was struck by the killing curse, center of his chest,” the investigator explained. “We couldn’t find any other injuries, magical or otherwise. We have the wand profile already and we’re checking to see whether it matches anything from the recent attacks. The muggles estimated the time of death as Wednesday, but it’s a good bet he’s been dead for longer. Dark magic tends to interfere with the decomposition of a body.”


“They found him in a rubbish bin in an alley in the bad part of London,” Justin added. “There were traces of muggle-repelling charms around it, but they were faint. Around a week old, I’d guess. The muggle garbage man who normally empties that bin decided to skip it on Tuesday, so the details fit. The only magical item in the bin with him was this.” He handed a slightly damp book to Harry. Gilderoy Lockhart’s normally happy visage seemed more than a little upset about the condition of the book around him. Harry would have found his plight amusing if the whole situation weren’t so grim.


“Any traces of magic on it?” Harry asked.


“Yes,” Justin responded, “but nothing out of the ordinary. It looks like somebody cast a series of revealing and illuminating charms. No dark magic that we could find.”


“How about fingerprints?”


Justin smiled at him. “We thought of that, too. The only prints we could identify belonged to Flint. There were others, but unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of wizards with prints in the muggle computer system.”


“Keep copies of them just in case,” Harry said as he started to hand the book back to Justin. At the last second, he reconsidered. “There’s somebody I want to show this to. Did Flint have any next of kin?”


“His father died in Azkaban after the war and his mother passed away about twenty years ago,” Justin replied. “He has some cousins from his mother’s side of the family, but that’s as close as it gets.”


Harry shrugged. “Notify the cousins. If they don’t want to claim him then let the Muggle Liason Office know that they’ll need to come get the body after the muggles close their investigation.”


“Are we going with the standard cover story for the muggle authorities?”


Harry nodded. “He fell into the rubbish bin and had a heart attack. Case closed.”


Harry left Justin to complete their work and hurried back outside. As soon as he exited the building he took a deep breath, enjoying the cool autumn air. After taking a few moments to shake off the grimness of the morgue, he studied the book in his hand. It appeared to be about the correct width, but he needed to be sure. He summoned a mental image of the front gate of Malfoy Manor, turned and disapparated.
 





Percy slipped quietly through the front door of the comfortable London townhouse that he shared with his wife. The word “shared” seemed especially appropriate of late, since they rarely saw each other there. Percy had spent the previous night in the flat over George’s Hogsmeade store after staying out late to see a local wizarding band perform at the Three Broomsticks. He had been the only wizard over the age of forty at the show; the only one over twenty-five, if he was being completely forthright with himself. But something about the energy of the young crowd was exhilarating to him, and by the time the second encore ended he thought that it was far too late to come home. George had decided years ago that it was too much of a bother to take a tenant for the apartment over the store. This was a godsend for Percy, sparing him the trouble and potential embarrassment of renting out a room.


He hoped that he had timed his arrival correctly. Audrey usually went to brunch with her sister on Sunday mornings. If she stuck to form, he would be able to shower, change into fresh robes and be out the door to meet Arabela for lunch before she returned. As he made his way up the stairs, he pondered why he kept avoiding his wife. He didn’t dislike her. In fact, he still loved her dearly. There were certain conversations that he simply didn’t want to have at this exact moment in his life. Audrey always wanted to talk about the period of introspection that he was going through. More to the point, she wanted to talk about how much longer it was going to take and when their life would return to what she considered normal. In his heart, Percy wasn’t sure that he could go back to that version of normality. But that was going to be a long and difficult conversation and at the moment, as the young people would say, Percy couldn’t deal.


He turned the corner into their bedroom and found himself face to face with his wife. There was a moment of awkward silence where neither one spoke.


“Hello, Percy,” Audrey said. Her face betrayed no emotion, but he could hear longing in her voice. “I didn’t hear you come in.”


“Oh, well, I was just feeling quiet this morning, I suppose,” he mumbled. He didn’t want to look into her eyes. He was worried about the feelings he might find there.


“You didn’t come home last night.”


“No, I didn’t,” he replied, feeling more and more uncomfortable. “The show ended so late, I didn’t want to risk waking you. I stayed in George’s loft in Hogsmeade.”


She stared back at him, her unbelieving eyes piercing his chest. He noticed a slight quiver in her lower lip. This was a very bad sign. Audrey wasn’t given to showing her emotions unless she had something very serious on her mind.


“Percy, we need to talk,” she said quietly.


He gave her his best charming smile. “Yes, dear, we certainly do. But I have an appointment to keep at lunchtime. Could we talk in the afternoon? Perhaps over tea?”


“It’s Sunday,” she said incredulously. “Percy, I’m your wife. I think you can postpone a lunch meeting if it helps to start sorting things out between us.”


“Oh. I wasn’t aware that there was anything to be sorted out,” he replied, feeling his body tense. He wasn’t sure where the conversation was heading, but he didn’t like the sound of it. He started to feel overwhelmed. Trapped.


“Percival, you know very well that we have a great deal to sort out.” Her voice was starting to rise. The quiver in her lower lip was no longer subtle. Her eyes were pleading. “You never sleep in our bed any more. Your grandchildren tell me that they miss their Poppy. I miss you, Percy! What do I have to do to get you to come home?”


The conflict was tearing him apart inside. Part of him needed to rush across the room, to pull her into a warm embrace. He wanted to beg for her forgiveness and promise that things would be good again. But another part needed to flee, to get away from this terrible, confining situation that threatened to smother him. In the end, he did neither.


“Dear, I promised the Minister’s secretary that I would meet her for lunch. I promise you that I will come home this afternoon and we will talk for as long as you like.”


“So this is what it’s come to?” she asked as tears welled in her eyes. “You can’t spare an afternoon away from Arabela Dynt to try to salvage our marriage?”


This time, Percy did take two steps closer to her. “Audrey, dear, please don’t talk like that. I’ve told you many times, Arabela is just a friend. And I don’t think our marriage needs to be salvaged. I love you dearly for how understanding you’ve been while I try to sort myself out. I know it’s been very hard on you and the rest of the family, and I promise that I will make it all up to you as soon as I figure things out. There’s a conference on international magical law in Australia in January. Why don’t we see whether Molly and Lucy can pull the younger children out of school for a few days and we’ll all go together?”


She just stared at him, with tears running down her cheeks. “That’s your answer? Drag the whole family halfway around the world on a so-called holiday where you’ll spend all your time working? I don’t know what to say, Percy. Ponder this while you’re lunching with your ‘dear friend’ Arabela: is this marriage something you still want? When you’re ready to talk, you know where to find me.”


She stormed out of the room, wiping the tears away. Percy stood in the same spot for a long moment, stunned, as he listened to her footsteps recede down the stairs. His heart desired nothing more than to chase her down as fast as his legs could carry him. To confess all his feelings to her. To make her love him again. But the part of him that couldn’t bear to be suffocated by her sadness and need kept his feet still as surely as though they were nailed to the floor. And his heart hated the rest of him for being so weak.

 




Harry knocked on the hastily repaired front doors of the Malfoy house, noticing that the curse burns around the door frame were still prominent. He waited for several minutes, surveying the gardens in front of the house. The damage looked worse in the light of day than he remembered, but he didn’t think his memory from that night was completely reliable. Harry turned and knocked on the doors again.


“Kriffin? It’s me, Harry Potter. I need to ask you some more questions about the attack on your master’s home.”


After another long pause, the door opened just a crack. The elf peered out at Harry, looking miserable and ashamed. “Kriffin will answer Harry Potter’s questions.”


“May I come in?” Harry asked. There was nothing odd about house elves behaving oddly. Still, Kriffin’s reluctance made Harry uneasy.


The elf stared back at him, looking as though he couldn’t decide what to do. Finally, he opened the door for Harry and flung himself on the floor, pounding his face against the marble tiles.


“Kriffin is a terrible, terrible elf!” he wailed. “Shameful! Shameful to show Master’s house to Harry Potter in such a state!”


Harry dropped to a crouch and caught the elf’s head just as he was about to deliver another blow to the floor. The inside of the house looked considerably better than the last time he’d been there. Everything had been restored to its proper place and all of the dust and debris had been cleared, but there were scorch marks all over the walls and ceiling and dark craters marked the spots along the hallway where the lamps were once located.


“Kriffin, it’s alright,” Harry soothed. “I’m not offended. I am a bit curious as to why the damage hasn’t been repaired.”


The elf looked at him mournfully, then attempted to launch himself backwards towards a vacant section of floor. Harry managed to catch his ankle, preventing him from unleashing a new torrent of abuse on his head. Realizing he was trapped, the elf broke into sobs. “Kriffin cannot repair it,” he cried. “Elfin magic cannot mend what dark magic has destroyed.”


Harry reckoned that me might live to be older than Dumbledore and not learn all there was to know about house elves. He slowly set the blubbering elf back on his feet and tried to calm him. “Kriffin, let me give you the name of a witch I know. She specializes in purging dark magic. The Auror Department has used her for years to help clean up crime scenes.”


Tears continued to stream from Kriffin’s bulbous eyes as he stared miserably at Harry. “Harry Potter is too kind. Kriffin does not deserve such kindness. But Kriffin cannot use Harry Potter’s help. Master no longer has...” The elf stopped in mid-sentence and began to sob again. He opened his mouth wide and grabbed his tongue, then began to pull as if he were trying to tear it out of his head. Harry grabbed his arms and forced him back against a wall so that he couldn’t stretch his tongue any farther.


As he wrestled to keep Kriffin from hurting himself, Harry tried to parse the elf’s last statement. What was it that Malfoy no longer had? The answer dawned on him as he managed to get Kriffin to release his tongue.


“Kriffin,” Harry began, pondering how to word the question. He knew from Kreacher and Hermys that a house elf, once bonded to a house, could not reveal its master’s secrets. “Would it help your master if I were to pay for the cleaning witch to purge the dark magic from his home?”


The elf nodded slightly, looking guilty.


“Then consider it done. You don’t need to mention this to your master. It will be our secret.”


The elf looked relieved. “Kriffin was always told that Harry Potter was the kindest wizard in all the world,” he said quietly. “That he was the best friend of the house elves. Kriffin now believes this.”


Harry smiled at the elf earnestly. “Kriffin, my kindness to the elves has been repaid a hundred times over. Now, I came here to ask a favor. Can you tell whether this is the book that was taken from your master’s study?”


Harry pulled the weather-damaged copy of Magical Me from his robes. Kriffin’s eyes widened as soon as he saw it.


“Master’s book! Harry Potter has returned Master’s book! Harry Potter is truly the kindest wizard of all. Oh, happy day! Master will be so pleased that his book has been returned.”


“Um, yes,” Harry managed. “I’m sure your master will be, uh, thrilled to have this back. You’re absolutely sure that it’s the same book?”


“Yes,” Kriffin replied with complete certainty. “There is no doubt.”


Harry stared at the elf, weighing a number of emotions. He finally settled on rage. A good man with a family had died and another clung to life by a thread, all so that somebody could steal a worthless copy of Gilderoy Lockhart’s pompous, gasbag autobiography and then toss it into the rubbish.


“Thank you, Kriffin,” Harry said abruptly, rising to his feet. “I appreciate your help. We’ll need to keep this book a little while longer for evidence, but I’ll be sure that it is returned to your master as soon as our investigation is complete. I’ll send the cleaning witch straight away.”


Harry turned and left the house without another word. He grew angrier and angrier as he stalked towards the gates. It was all so senseless, so unnecessary. So much destruction and killing over a journal that might not even exist. He looked at Gilderoy Lockhart, who was fruitlessly trying to cleanse the mildew from his picture. Harry tossed the book into the air in disgust.


CONFRINGO. He poured is anger and frustration into the curse and the book went off like a bomb. Smoldering shreds of parchment rained onto the fallen leaves as the explosion echoed off of the nearby hills. Harry took a deep breath and regained control of his emotions. It occurred to him that he’d be purchasing a new copy of Magical Me.


“Dammit.”


Then he turned and disapparated.

 




“Audrey, there’s no point in beating around the bush,” Percy began, donning the most earnest look he could muster. “I’ve been acting like a fool and you and the kids deserve better than this. It’s time I grew up and acted my age. Let’s talk about what we need to do to make everything right again.”


Percy’s reflection stared back at him from the mirror over the sink and he decided that he was happy with the way he had delivered the words. After finishing his lunch with Arabela, he felt completely clear on what he needed to do. He had nearly broken down when he told her about Audrey’s ultimatum. Far from being sympathetic, Arabela had given him the royal what for that he knew he deserved. That was part of what he liked about Arabela. She was always completely forthright with him, no matter the topic. Percy wished he could remember more of the things she had said to him. He was sure he was forgetting some gems that he could work into his conversation with Audrey.


He took a deep breath and walked out of the men’s room, heading for the front door of the little cafe. Arabela had some urgent bit of business to tend to for the Minister, so she had bid him farewell as soon as he settled the check. The late afternoon sun helped to ease the chill of the autumn breeze as he made his way towards a nearby alley. He heard voices coming from a pub across the street and felt a sudden yearning to see what was happening inside. The muggles were probably watching a football match, which always fascinated Percy. He forced himself to ignore the pub and went over the words once more in his mind. They suddenly sounded a lot less sincere. He wished that Arabela was there to give him one more pep talk, but he would have to make do with the encouragement she’d already given him. He ducked into the alley and disapparated home.

 




Ron stood at the door to Hermione’s study, marvelling at the spectacle of organization and efficiency laid out before his eyes. She had catalogued all the documents from the Stoops murder file, sorted them by topic, cross-referenced them by author and constructed a timeline. She had also enchanted a miniature diorama of the muggle jail based on the crime scene photos and witness accounts. At the moment, miniature Percy was paused outside of the last cell on the row, pointing his wand at miniature Edwin Stoops. Ron was very impressed. The Aurors had a similar setup for reconstructing crime scenes, but it was the product of decades of carefully applied enchantments. She had made hers in less than a day. In spite of his awe, he had to suppress a strong urge to squash miniature Edwin Stoops under his thumb.


“This is bloody brilliant,” he said softly, moving to sit on the arm of her chair as she magically sorted and reorganized the catalog of documents to suit her. “If the investigators had this four years ago, they probably would have solved the case in a day.”


Hermione snorted at him. “Not with this file, they wouldn’t.”


Ron gave her a puzzled look. “Why not? ‘Mione, this is amazing. What else could they want?”


“Well, for starters, how about the pieces that are...”


“...missing?” Harry completed her sentence an instant before he appeared in the doorway, causing both of the Weasleys to start and reach for their wands.


“Sorry,” he said, raising his empty palms. “Didn’t mean to startle you, but your floo was open and nobody was in the living room so I decided to drop in.”


“Blimey, Harry! You’re gonna give somebody a coronary,” Ron complained, lowering himself back onto the arm of Hermione’s chair. “What have you been at today?”


“I started out at a Quidditch match and ended up at the morgue,” Harry replied glumly. In response to their alarmed looks, he went on. “Flint’s dead. Somebody hit him with the killing curse and dumped him into a rubbish bin. The book he stole from Malfoy was in there, too. It’s nothing, just more rubbish.”


“Then the whole attack was what, for show?” Ron asked irritably.


Harry shrugged his shoulders. “Unless somebody just has it in for Malfoy, that’s how it looks.”


“So Harry,” Hermione said, turning the subject back to the documents on her desk, “you knew this file was incomplete?”


“I suspected,” Harry admitted. “But I wanted you to look at it with fresh eyes and make sure that I hadn’t missed anything.”


“If you missed anything, then I missed it as well,” she replied.


“And that isn’t bloody likely,” Ron added, gesturing at the meticulously organized files in front of her.


Harry whistled softly as he took in Hermione’s work. “Hermione, this is amazing.” She beamed at the two of them, revelling in her renewed feelings of usefulness. “So tell me, what do you think is missing?”


She surveyed the neat piles of documents spread across her desk and summoned a sheet of parchment to her hand. “First and most important, I’d say, is the report from the Auror who did the assessment of the jail cell. I see references to it all over the place but the report itself is missing. I also can’t find the notes from the muggle detectives who interrogated Stoops after they caught him or the witness statements from the muggles who heard the shots and found...” Hermione paused and her eyes softened as she looked at Harry. “The ones who found Ginny and Octavia.”


Harry turned slightly away from her. A long moment of silence followed. Harry found himself staring venomously at miniature Edwin Stoops. He fought back an impulsive need to blast the diorama into bits.


“I don’t get it,” Ron said, trying to change the subject. “Why would somebody remove part of a file that was going to be locked up in the Minister’s office anyway?”


A fourth voice came from the doorway, causing all three of them to jump. “Maybe they didn’t want the Minister to see what they were removing?”


Luna appeared in the doorway at the same instant that Harry’s wand snapped into his hand. Without thinking, he pointed it at the center of her chest. He quickly caught himself and lowered his arm, looking embarrassed. “Sorry, Luna. You just startled us.”


Luna regarded them from the doorway, seeming unconcerned. Her long, blond hair was mixed with streaks of grey, a look that Harry found flattering for witches her age. Her large eyes retained the childlike wonder that made her at once endearing and frustrating. She was wearing a pair of large hoop earrings with a hand-painted toucan perched in each one. Her husband Rolf had sent them to her while on an expedition in the Brazilian Amazon. Sadly, he never returned from that expedition.


“Are we still having tea, Hermione?” Luna asked. “I tried calling out through the floo, but there was no answer, so I just came in.”


Realization dawned on Hermione and she scrambled to organize the documents covering her desk. “Luna, I am so sorry. I got caught up in what we were doing and I completely forgot. Please help yourself to a seat in the living room. I’ll be there in just a moment.”


As soon as Luna disappeared from the doorway, Hermione looked at Ron and hissed “Will you please close the bloody floo?” In a more cordial voice, she said, “Harry, would you be a dear and make tea while Ron helps me to the living room?”


“Sure,” he chuckled, turning to head towards the kitchen.


“Harry, wait,” Ron whispered. “Do you think it’s OK if she knows?”


Harry considered the question for a moment. “It’s Luna,” he replied quietly. “She would never intentionally betray us. And if she were to let something slip, would it really matter? I love her dearly and all, but she could walk around shouting the incantation to turn lead into gold and most people wouldn’t pay her any mind.”


Several minutes later, Harry carried a tray of tea and biscuits into the living room where the others sat enjoying the low fire.


“So that’s where things sit,” Hermione was saying. “I feel much better physically but I just can’t get over this mental block about the wheelchair.”


“I understand,” Luna replied, accepting a cup of tea. “Once, when I was young, father developed a paralyzing fear of Imperceptible Dragon Mites. First he refused to walk on carpet or come into contact with any upholstry. Then he took to changing and laundering his clothes every few hours. Sleeping eventually became very difficult for him. Finally the hallucinations got so bad that he had to crawl into his bed and hide, which put the whole imperceptible mite phobia into perspective, I think.”


Ron, Harry and Hermione all sipped their tea in silence, unable to come up with any sort of worthy response.


“So Harry,” Luna said without acknowledging the awkward pause, “I hear that you’re investigating a new Death Eater movement?”


“What makes you say that?” Harry asked. He tried to respond casually, but the effect was ruined when he absentmindedly set his tea on top of a biscuit instead of the saucer.


“Well, there are people attacking the Ministry, killing Aurors, breaking out of Azkaban and posting flyers with the dark mark on them. Aren’t those the kind of things that Death Eaters do?”


Harry found himself speechless. Leave it to Luna to make something that seemed impossible sound flawlessly logical.


Hermione found her voice first. “Well, there’s one important difference, I think. Whoever is doing this isn’t following Voldemort.”


“Well of course not. Harry would obviously know about that,” Luna said matter of factly, touching her finger to her forehead. “But it seems they think that they are.”


They think that they are. Something clicked in Harry’s mind. A connection that he had not made before. He chose his words very carefully when he spoke. “They’ve been looking for a journal that they think belonged to Tom Riddle. That’s why they attacked Malfoy Manor.” Ron shot him a concerned look, but Harry ignored him and continued. “They must think that there were secrets in the journal that will help them to take over the Ministry. What do you think of that, Luna?”

 
Luna pondered Harry’s question for a brief moment, then replied, “Why, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”


“Luna, how can you be sure of that?” Ron asked, looking dumbstruck by the casual certainty of her answer.


“Tom Riddle intended to live forever,” she replied. “That’s why he made all the horcruxes. Why would he write down his secret plans if he never meant to die?”


Harry and Ron stared at each other, open-mouthed.


If the journal was just a ruse,” Ron began.


“Then the whole pure blood revolution could be a ruse, too,” Harry continued.


“So what are they really playing at?” Hermione voiced the question that they were all pondering.


“Well, I suppose you’d have to find them and ask them,” Luna replied, taking another sip of her tea. “It doesn’t seem very logical, does it?”


Harry took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. Nothing seemed very logical any more. The one solid thing they had to go on was the DNA linking the New Blood Order to Ginny’s murder. They needed to find copies of the missing documents and begin to fill in the blanks.

 




Lady Tenabra was pleased. Quietly, the old pure blood families who had been disenfranchised by the war were coming around. A couple were even speaking out publicly, in spite of the Ministry’s efforts to assuage their grievances. Those efforts were complicated by a staunch cadre of progressives who held seats on the Wizengamot. They vehemently opposed any proposals to mollify the pure bloods. The Minister was caught squarely in the middle, unsure of how to proceed. It made him appear weak and indecisive. It was perfect.


Her sources within the Ministry were also giving her bits of insight into the Aurors’ investigation. So far, they were proceeding at a desirably slow pace, frustrated by the many dead ends and contradictions she had engineered. It troubled her to hear that the muggle-born Weasley witch was out of the hospital and once again helping Potter and her husband. Nott’s failure had introduced an important variable that she found hard to account for. She smiled cruelly, pondering some dangerous new assignments she would give to him. Sooner or later, his incompetence would relieve her of the burden of his company.


The ragtag “army” that Flint had assembled was working out better than she expected. They performed reasonably well at the simple tasks she gave them. Between assignments, the hatred that simmered between the Azkaban escapees and the common criminals kept their minds occupied so they didn’t ask her many questions. They all had a limited future anyway. When the time was right, she would dispose of the lot of them.


Noting the time, she stood up and pulled the hood of her cloak over her long blonde hair. She checked her appearance, making sure that the hood concealed most of her face, and added a couple of quick enchantments to darken the shadows that masked her features. She picked up the ancient book as she made ready to apparate to the ground floor and felt the dark energy that seemed to course through it. The book helped to remind her followers who was in charge, and she could also drum up a quick motivational speech in the Dark Lord’s words whenever their faith started to waver. There were many drawbacks to working with idiots, but one distinct advantage was that none of them could read runes.


She appeared in an unlit corner behind some old crates and disillusioned herself. Soon, Nott, Gamp and Goyle appeared in the center of the warehouse along with two of their fellows from Azkaban. For this particular assignment, she decided to prevent any conflict with Burloch and his men. They milled about, waiting for her to make an appearance. It still amused her that none of the men had ever dared to step outside of the gap in the anti-apparition jinxes, as though she had dragons hidden in the shadows. Perhaps decades of imprisonment conditioned the mind with an excessive respect for boundaries. She filed the idea away for future consideration.


“Gentlemen,” she said, employing a mild dose of the sonorous charm. She enjoyed the way that they jumped in spite of their best efforts. It was like toying with rats.


She stepped out of the shadows and moved quietly towards them. Thanks to the poor lighting, the shimmering of her disillusionment charm would not give her away. She moved to a position behind them and revealed herself. They jumped again as she spoke, spinning on their heels to face her.


“I have your next assignment,” she said calmly. “The Aurors have already captured one of the guards who assisted in your liberation. I believe they may be getting close to the others. This poses an unacceptable risk to our cause. We must eliminate that risk.”


She stood and listened as their reactions played out with tiresome predictability. Nott was uncomfortable killing the men who had helped to set him free. He had been uncomfortable in general since Flint’s death, one more reason that she hoped to eliminate him sooner rather than later. Goyle found the whole thing amusing. Life was apparently one long comedy when you were fat and thick. Gamp seemed eager to kill the men. He had been craving blood ever since the female Auror managed to escape from him at Malfoy Manor. Something inside his head was seriously broken, perhaps as a consequence of his long imprisonment, but she supposed that his sadism and casual brutality could prove useful.


She provided them with a few leads to the guards’ whereabouts and sent them on their way. The information was mostly speculation based on the lead guard’s last futile attempt to contact her, but she reckoned that it would get them close enough to find and eliminate their targets.


When they were gone, she apparated back to her hideaway in the rafters and conjured a chair. She sat down and opened the book on her lap, beginning to translate the ancient runes in her mind. She intently reread the section describing a dark spell that she had been using earlier in the day, a powerful variant of the imperius curse. Like many books written in runes, the words were both poetic and cryptic. She found that each reading brought new subtleties to light. A nearby clock tower struck eleven and she roused herself from her contemplation. After vanishing the chair, she climbed to the roof and disappeared in the moonlight.

 




 Somebody told me that readers pay more attention to author's notes when they're at the end of the chapter, so let's see whether they were right. First off, thank you all for continuing to read. I hope that you're enjoying the story. If you are, please take a moment to leave a review. They mean a great deal.

Chapter 14: Dark and Angry Souls
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I'd like to say thank you once again to everyone who has read and reviewed Conspiracy of Blood, and especially to my fantastic beta reader, sophie_hatter.


If the title of this chapter sounds a bit darker, well, that's no coincidence.


As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.

 






Ron was always the first to admit that he wasn’t very good at pretending to be a muggle. Having grown up in a wizarding family, and a pure-blooded one at that, he found their social norms very strange. Their technology also baffled him, and unlike his father he had no great desire to understand it better. Forty years of marriage to a muggle born witch had improved his skills, but mostly in areas he found enjoyable, like driving a car. His wife and children all considered him hopeless, and he had long since made his peace with that.

 
With a sense of trepidation, Ron donned a jacket and tie and made his way into the headquarters of the muggle police in London. The place was a cacophony of flashing indicators, beeping signals and muggles hurrying to and fro as they chattered on their mobile phones. Three times he was almost bowled over as he slowly made his way to the records office, carefully following the directions on the placards that adorned the walls wherever he found a stairwell or a lift or an intersection of two long hallways. He silently wondered whether any of the muggles who seemed so irritated by his ambling pace would fare any better in the labyrinthine corridors of the Ministry of Magic.

 
He both pitied and envied his best friend. Harry had planned to be the one sneaking into the police offices, but the Minister had summoned him to a meeting. Ron guessed that it was another dog and pony show, allowing the Minister to announce to the press that he was working closely with Magical Law Enforcement to solve the mystery of the New Blood Order. In light of the tension between the progressives and the old pure blood families, the Minister was eager to create the perception that he was doing something. In reality, he was wasting the Aurors’ most valuable resource.

 
Ron arrived at the records office and waited to be helped by one of the clerks who stood behind the counter. When he reached the front of the queue, he smiled and flashed the false credentials that the Auror office used for impersonating muggle law enforcement.

 
“Detective Inspector Hollandsworth,” Ron introduced himself. “I need to review two case files from murders that occurred around four years ago. The victims’ names were Ginevra Potter and Edwin Stoops.”

 
The lady across the counter stared at him for a second, then answered huffily, “If the cases have been closed then those records are in the digital archives. There are workstations along that wall where you can search for them.”

 
Ron stared nervously at a row of computer terminals sitting on a long table. He counted muggle computers among his greatest nemeses. The bloody things never seemed to understand what he was trying to do, and his attempts to operate them were humbling under the best of circumstances. To make matters worse, these definitely weren’t magically shielded. He could almost smell Rose’s first laptop computer smoldering in the kitchen sink while his wife and daughter took turns slapping him with pot holders. It was too depressing to think about.


“Um, Vanessa,” he began, noting the staffer’s ID badge, “I’m a bit of an old codger when it comes to these newfangled computers. Too many years working in the field. Do you think that you could help me look these up?” He gave her his best pleading smile.

 
The clerk’s annoyance seemed to go up another notch. “It’s really quite simple,” she said, her voice dripping with condescension. “You just log on with your badge number, enter the name in the search screen, and the file comes up.”

 
Ron’s nerves rose to match her pique. He wasn’t even sure he had a badge number. He hadn’t paid any more attention to the forged credentials than was required to memorize the name and make his picture stop grinning and waving.

 
“Vanessa,” he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking, “I am in the middle of an urgent investigation and I don’t really have the time to fiddle with these bloody computers. Now could you please help me?”

 
“You and everybody else,” she replied blithely. “Now I’m afraid I’ll need you to move along, you’re holding up the queue.”

 
Confundo. Ron flicked his wand inside his pocket and Vanessa’s eyes suddenly lost their focus. “If you’ll please join me at the terminal over here,” he said pleasantly and loudly enough to be heard by the people lined up behind him, “I’m sure this will only take a minute.”

 
Vanessa placed a “Next Window, Please” sign on the counter in front of her stool and slowly made her way around to the computer terminal where Ron was waiting.

 
“Sorry about this,” he said quietly, “but I really am in a hurry. Now, we’re looking for two murders. The names of the victims are Ginevra Potter and Edwin Stoops.”

 
Vanessa obediently typed the names into the computer terminal. Each brought up a manifest of documents.

 
“Send them to that beige box in the corner that spits out paper,” Ron directed, and a nearby printer came to life. He looked over her shoulder, scanning the list of documents in the Stoops file. Several of them had little red crosses on the screen next to the name. “What do those red marks mean?” he asked.

 
“Those documents weren’t found in the database,” she replied mechanically, sounding dazed.

 
“Weren’t found? What happened to them?”

 
“Sometimes the originals don’t get scanned, or something happens to the images.”

 
Ron sighed. “Alright, then. Do the originals still exist?”

 
“Originals are destroyed after the files are digitized.”

 
“Bloody hell,” Ron cursed under his breath. This didn’t seem at all like a coincidence. Somebody had beaten them to the mark again.

 
A few minutes later, he gathered a stack of paper from the printer and walked back to where Vanessa sat in front of the computer terminal with a vacant look on her face. “You’ve been a huge help. Now remember, you had a very nice coffee break,” he whispered to her. “Return to your place at the counter.” He turned and left the office while Vanessa shook her head and struggled to recall why she was sitting at a terminal while irritated visitors queued up in front of her station.
 







Hermione took another handful of popcorn out of the bowl next to her and turned the page of the thick spell book in her lap. The old parchment crackled slightly as it settled into place. She thought that the book smelled vaguely of death and decay, although it could have been her imagination reacting to the hideous spells it contained. She quietly munched on the popcorn while reading about a technique to distill a lethal poison from the blood of an Inferius. Sometimes it amazed her that she could read such things and eat at the same time.

 
Across the room, Terry Boot screwed up his face and pushed the book on his lap farther away. “Merlin’s bloody hat! I just read about a curse that pulls your liver out through your belly button. Who the hell dreams up stuff like this?”

 
“That’s Horrifying Hexes and Cataclysmic Curses, right?” Susan asked from Harry’s writing desk. “Wait until you find out what you’re supposed to brew with the bile.”

 
Terry made an even worse face, but continued to read in morbid fascination. Hermione, Susan, Terry and Ernie had gathered in Harry’s study to spend an evening poring over the dark magic spell books that Harry had borrowed from the Minister’s library plus a few others that Neville had loaned them from Hogwarts. Hermione would have preferred to convene at her own home, avoiding the touchy subject of moving from place to place, but it seemed inappropriate enough that Harry had taken the books out of the Ministry. Rather than drag them around from house to house, she had agreed to have Susan levitate her armchair through the floo to Harry’s house.

 
Hermys added to the awkwardness by fussing over her to an embarrassing extent. It seemed that every time she looked up from her reading he was standing there, asking whether she needed anything. She was surrounded by comfortable pillows and her glass never seemed to get less than three quarters full before it magically refilled. Far from helping, Terry and Ernie kept cracking bad puns involving the word “spew”. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing remotely funny about watching a sentient creature labor in servitude, no matter how much he professed to enjoy it.

 
Their reading continued, interrupted by an occasional discussion of some ghastly bit of dark magic or Hermys appearing with another tray of snacks. After a couple of hours, Terry snapped Ancient Secrets of the Dark Wizards of Wales closed and rubbed his weary eyes. “Another one down and no mention of this blood curse,” he said wryly. “Who knew there were so many dark spells?”

 
“Dark magic is just a manifestation of the darkness of the human soul,” Susan said without looking up. “I attended a lecture at Durmstrang where the presenter explained that the only limit on the terrible things that magic can do is the evil in the heart of the person casting the spell. It’s scary to imagine the evil that came up with some of this stuff.”

 
“Coming from a muggle family, it’s still hard for me to understand,” Hermione observed. “I mean, you receive this amazing gift, this incredible power, and for some people it’s still not enough. They have to keep pushing the boundaries, beyond all the limits of reason and decency. I don’t know what possesses them.”

 
“I suppose it is easier to take it all for granted when you come from a wizarding family,” Susan agreed. “Although muggles certainly aren’t immune to bloodlust. First it was gunpowder, then atomic bombs, then chemical weapons, biological weapons, death rays... it never ends.”

 
Hermione smirked at the mention of death rays. Apparently even intelligent, rational Hufflepuffs weren’t immune to falling for a small measure of Xerxes the Seer’s routine. She let it go, and said, “It’s ironic, though, that the darkest wizard of all time grew up among muggles. Tom Riddle never knew what he was until his letter from Hogwarts came. He received the same gift as Harry and I and he still turned out evil. I don’t think I’ll ever understand.”

 
“He was a bloody lunatic,” Terry replied. “Isn’t that enough of an explanation?”

 
Everyone seemed to agree that Terry’s explanation would suffice, and went back to their reading. After another half hour, Ernie finished Evil Spells of the Dark Ages and returned it to the pile on Harry’s desk. As he prepared to pick up another book, he noticed the small roll of parchment next to the pile. Opening it, he realized that it was the catalog of dark magic spell books from the Minister’s library.

 
“I still don’t get why these were in the Minister’s office,” he mused. “The restricted section of our office or the Auror office would have made a lot more sense.”

 
“My thoughts exactly,” Susan replied. “It seems like a lot of things wind up under lock and key in there since the new Minister took office.”

 
Ernie frowned slightly and held the parchment in front of Susan. “What do you make of this?” he asked, gesturing with his finger. The names of the spell books were neatly spaced on the page except for a single gap about two thirds of the way down.

 
Susan furrowed her brow and took the list from Ernie. “It’s like there’s one missing,” she agreed. Taking out her wand, she pointed it at the gap. “Specialis Revelio.” For a fraction of a second, a faint pattern appeared on the parchment before disappearing again. She looked at Ernie, who returned her look with urgent inquisitiveness.

 
“I think it’s a strong, self-reapplying concealment charm,” Susan said as Terry rose to join them and Hermione looked intently from her chair. Susan waved her wand over the page, trying to unravel the magical protections concealing the hidden writing. Several times, the symbols started to appear only to fade away again.

 
“Runes,” Terry observed. “I can tell that much but I can’t get a good look at them before they disappear.”

 
Susan carried the paper to Hermione’s chair and set it on the spell book in her lap. “Want to see what you can do with it?” she asked.

 
Hermione tried a variety of revealing charms, reversal spells and curse breaking enchantments. Each time, the symbols appeared for a fraction of a second before the stubborn concealment charm reapplied itself.

 
“We could get Ron’s brother Bill to take a look at it,” Hermione sighed. “After fifty years, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen. But he’s traveling in the Middle East and he’s not due back for several days.”

 
“If we could just slow it down,” Susan thought out loud. “Stop the charm from recasting itself just long enough to pick out some of the runes.”

 
Hermione stared hard at the sheet of parchment. Each time they made the writing visible, the spell made it invisible again. Was there a way they could make that work for them?

 
“I have an idea,” Hermione said. She held the parchment in front of her. “Geminio. Just in case this doesn’t work.”

 
She handed Ernie the original document and unrolled the copy on the book in front of her. “Terry, can you bring me an inkpot and quill from Harry’s desk?” She took the quill and dipped it in ink, then made a pattern of closely spaced, cross-hatched lines over the blank section containing the concealed runes.

 
“Cross your fingers,” she said, then pointed her wand at the parchment. “Specialis Revelio.” Once again, the runes briefly appeared behind her pattern. But when they disappeared, the ink Hermione had added to the page disappeared along with them, leaving a distinct negative image of the writing.

 
“Blimey,” Terry mumbled, “genius.”

 
“What does it say?” Susan asked. “I’m sure Professor Babbling would be disappointed, but I don’t remember a thing about runes.”

 
Hernione furrowed her brow and stared at the symbols. Some of them were familiar to her, but several were completely alien. “Well, this one means ‘journey’ I believe,” she said, pointing the the first symbol. “This one has something to do with water, or perhaps the ocean. This one usually connotes nighttime. And this last one represents the spirit of a person, I think.”

 
“Or the soul.” The four of them turned in surprise to see Dumbledore’s portrait staring at them. Hermione could not recall the portrait ever speaking to anyone other than Harry.

 
“Excuse me, professor?” she replied.

 
“I believe the book in question is called Journey into the Depths of a Dark and Angry Soul,” Dumbledore replied, looking troubled.

 
“Do you know it?” Hermione asked.

 
“I know of it,” Dumbledore answered. “It was among the books I removed from Hogwarts and placed in the care of the Ministry. It’s not so much a spell book as a memoir. It was written by a dark wizard known as Herodonthus the Imperious. It is said that he placed an entire legion of muggle soldiers under a curse that allowed him to control them like puppets while making them all but invulnerable. As the story goes, he marched his army towards London in the year thirteen hundred and forty-eight, intending to overthrow the Wizard’s Council and install himself as supreme ruler of the British Isles.

 
“The council dispatched two dozen of the most powerful wizards at its disposal to defeat him,” Dumbledore continued. “The ensuing battle lasted a fortnight and led to the deaths of all but two of the wizard champions and nearly sixteen hundred muggle soldiers. Herodonthus was confined to a cavern beneath the Isle of Man, surrounded by deadly wards and deprived of all contact with the outside world. In spite of the conditions of his imprisonment, he was able to write the volume in question. It was found near his remains when the cavern was unsealed after his death.”

 
“Is the Imperius curse is named after him?” Susan inquired.

 
“Whether the wizard came before the curse or the other way around has been the subject of some debate,” Dumbledore replied. “I don’t know that it matters. The book in question is quite cryptic. Most scholars who are familiar with it have written it off as the ravings of a madman. It’s also possible that many dark secrets are contained within its pages, if someone were patient and clever enough to understand them.”

 
“And we’re sure that Harry didn’t just leave the book in the Minister’s office because it wasn’t on the list or because it was written in runes?” Ernie asked.

 
“He said that he took every book that was on the dark magic shelf,” Hermione replied. Her mind was racing. For the first time since she learned about her paralysis, there was a hope that she might understand how she had been injured. And how she might heal herself.

 
“I think the next step is to check in with Harry and Ron,” Susan said. “They’ll probably have some ideas on how to go about finding out what happened to this book.”

 
“Very well,” replied Hermione, closing the spell book in her lap. “They’re due home any time now. Um, Susan, would you be kind enough to help me to the loo? Hermys kept sneaking in here and refilling my water glass. I think I’m about to burst.”
 






Scorpius interrupted his silent contemplation of the Quidditch World Cup rankings to sample a few moments of the diatribe his wife was still directing towards him. He had mostly perfected his technique for looking like he was following her every word while his mind wandered, but it was important to tune back in at the first sign that she was losing steam. Failing to make the switch from good listener to apologetic husband at the right moment could easily precipitate a whole new tirade. Sometimes he marveled at his ability to stay married to the mystifying creature shouting at him from across the kitchen.

 
“So if your father thinks that we’re going to leave my mum behind and go sneaking off on a ski trip then his bloody head is so far up his arse that he ought to feel his heart beating on his bald spot,” Rose yelled before pausing to catch her breath.

 
Seeing his opportunity, Scorpius quickly moved to pull her into an embrace. “You’re right, of course,” he said soothingly. “I told father that we couldn’t leave with your mum in the shape that she’s in. But I wanted you to have the opportunity to consider his offer, even if it just meant sending Octavia for a few days.”

 
Mentioning their daughter seemed like a good move. It wouldn’t sound like he was giving up too easily, but it also didn’t imply that Rose should consider leaving her mother. With a bit of luck, it would rile her up just enough to work out the last of her animosity. He felt pleased with himself. Once the matter was amicably resolved, he felt quite sure that there was some high quality make-up sex in his future.

 
“I don’t know. Should we?” she replied quietly.

 
The reassuring smile disappeared from Scorpius’s face. Of all the things he had guessed she might say, this wasn’t anywhere on the list. It didn’t even include profanity. “Are you messing with me?” he blurted out, unable to come up with anything more sensible to say.

 
“Of course I’m not messing with you,” she snorted, pulling away from him and punching him in the arm. After glaring at him for a few moments, she found her way back into his arms. “I’m just worried. Lil and Dom and I were talking the other night and something just isn’t right. Mum was almost killed. Dad is about to lose the plot. Uncle Harry is a mess. And now even your dad’s acting barmy.”

 
She snuggled a little closer into his warm embrace. This was a side of Rose that very few people ever got to see. “Honey, I’m scared,” she whispered. “I worry about Aiden, but he’s safe at Hogwarts and he’s practically an adult. Octavia’s our baby. I don’t know what to do.”

 
“We’ll protect her,” he replied, a little surprised by the resolve in his own voice. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to keep her safe. But right now, I don’t know whether Switzerland is the place to do that. It’s not like Father to go running off like this. It makes me wonder...”

 
He paused, searching for the right words. “You don’t think your father is involved in this, do you?” Rose gasped softly.

 
“No,” he replied. “At least not directly. Father says that those days are behind him and he means it. Mother would never tolerate it. But that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t trying to drag him back in. Those men who escaped from Azkaban, most of them are schoolmates of his. They attacked the manor and tried to kill him, probably because they’re angry with him for turning his back on them.”

 
He looked into her eyes, willing the fear and anxiety away. “As far as your mum and dad and Harry are concerned, they are going through a rough spell. But they’ve been through much worse. And they’ve never let us down when it matters. Given a choice, I’ll put my faith in them. If Harry says to send Octavia to safety then I’ll do it without hesitation, but Al talked to him on Sunday and he said that it isn’t necessary. That will do for me.”

 
“You really mean that, don’t you?”

 
“Yes, I do,” he replied into the warmth of her hair. “I know that Harry is human. He can’t protect everyone, everywhere, all the time. But I also know that he’ll never stop trying. If I have to put Octavia’s safety in anyone else’s hands, I can’t think of someone I trust more.”

 
“Alright,” she answered quietly, still looking for reassurance in his steely grey eyes. A small smile crossed her lips. “But you’d better not be wrong about this. I’ll hex your arse into next week.”

 
“What is it with you Weasley women and hexing everybody?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her back and lifting her off of her feet so that they were face to face.

 
“It just comes easier to us than talking,” she grinned. “Besides, a good hex is worth a thousand words.”

 
“And you can’t say most of those words in polite company anyway,” he snickered.

 
“Polite company is overrated,” she answered, closing her eyes and brushing her lips against his. “Company in general. Let’s skive off to the bedroom and see if we can’t avoid it entirely for a while.”

 
“Sounds good to me,” he replied gamely as she began to kiss his neck. She wrapped her legs around his waist and he maneuvered them towards the hallway. As his capacity for reason gradually slipped away, he reckoned that he must be doing something right, although Merlin only knew what it was.
 






Jeremy Gamp sat on a bar stool in a quiet muggle pub in the Welsh town of Denbigh, nursing a vodka and tonic and occasionally glancing towards a boarding house across the way. He’d barely gotten up for the past two days, rising only when he needed to visit the head or when the barman announced that it was closing time. The monotony didn’t bother him much. He’d gotten used to it during the years in Azkaban. Knowing that he could stand up and leave whenever he wished was all the comfort he needed.

 
He pondered his drink for a moment before downing the last of it. Muggle spirits were new to him, but he liked them. The heavily alcoholic drinks helped to slow down the thoughts that popped erratically in and out of his mind like sparks. He settled on a particularly enjoyable image of the young female Auror running away from Malfoy’s house as his burning curse struck her in the backside. He recalled how her robes burst into flames and savored the memory of her cry of pain. His time with her had been far too short, but if this Tenabra lady was to be believed, he would probably have another chance once they were in control of the Ministry.

 
He motioned to the barman for another drink. The man regarded him uneasily as he made his way down the bar. Something was clearly troubling him, but he seemed unable to put his finger on what. Gamp smirked at the pathetic muggle. It was like watching a rodent struggle to comprehend a maze.

 
“I hate to turn away business, mate, but you’ve had three of those already and it isn’t even noon. Can I get you some coffee, instead?”

 
Underneath the bar, Gamp drew his wand. Confundo. The barman’s eyes glazed over and his jaw went slack. Gamp pointed his wand at the tab laying next to the register and the slip of paper disappeared in a puff of white smoke. “You’ve never seen me before,” he hissed. “Now take my order.”

 
A few seconds later, the barman shook his head and gave Gamp a surprised look, as though he hadn’t noticed him sitting there. “Good morning, sir. Welcome to The Kings Arms. What can I get for you?”

 
“I’ll have a vodka and...” Gamp began, then he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. “No, make that a double scotch, neat.”

 
Across the street, a man wearing ill-fitting muggle clothes covered by a distinctive, long cloak had appeared in front of the boarding house. He looked nervously around before slipping into the building.

 
“A bit early for something that strong, my friend,” the bartender replied cautiously. “What’s the occasion?”

 
Stupefy. Gamp sent the barkeep flying into the wall of bottles behind the bar, enjoying the crash of shattering glass. No more need to be subtle. He wouldn’t be in this dumpy little town for much longer. He summoned an unbroken bottle of whiskey from behind the bar and slipped it into the pocket of his overcoat, then made his way across the street.

 
Goyle had noticed the man as well, and he was leaving the muggle cafe where he’d been sitting. He wiped his mouth and brushed crumbs from the front of his coat as he walked. Gamp sneered as he watched the fat fool head for the back of the rooming house. He was nothing without somebody to tell him what to do. Sooner or later, he’d become more of a liability than an asset, just as he had been in school. Until then, Gamp hoped that he could at least prevent the man from sneaking out the back.

 
Once he reached the door, Gamp quietly entered the building. A large staircase led to the second floor units, and he carefully made his way up. The muggle boarder they’d placed under the Imperius curse had told them that the fugitive guard was living in flat 2D. Gamp pointed his wand at the doorknob and unlocked it. He turned the knob very slowly and eased the door open. Peering inside, he saw no signs of life in the small sitting room. He crept in, listening carefully.

 
A flicker of a shadow in the small kitchenette caught his eye. He aimed his wand and inched his way towards it. He heard a man’s voice humming softly, followed by a metallic popping sound. His body tensed in spite of the alcohol coursing through his veins. Next came a soft scraping sound, followed by the padding of stocking feet on cheap linoleum.

 
The guard rounded the corner and came face to face with Gamp, leering at him cruelly. He dropped the plate of toast and jam and fell to his side, desperately reaching for his wand. But Gamp already had him dead to rights. “Petrificus Totalus.” The guard hit the floor like a sack.

 
Gamp quickly set about casting silencing charms on the room as the man struggled against his invisible binds. Moments later, Goyle entered the room and locked the door behind him.

 
Gamp released his hold on the guard’s head, and the man immediately began to plead with them. “Are you two Aurors or something? I haven’t done anything wrong, I swear it!”

 
“Who said anything about Aurors?” Gamp demanded. “Have you been talking to the Aurors? What have you told them?”

 
“I haven’t talked to any Aurors,” the guard answered. “I’m just an ordinary wizard, trying to live in peace.”

 
Liar!” Gamp thundered. “What have you told them about the prison break?”

 
Realization dawned on the guard’s face, along with a glimmer of hope. “I know you. You’re two of the lot that snuck out of Azkaban. It’s me, Fishwick. The lady in the cloak, she paid me to let you escape.”

 
“So you know who we are,” Gamp replied darkly. The look on the guard’s face changed from optimism to terror as Gamp aimed his wand.

 
Crucio.” The guard’s screams filled the room as Gamp prodded and twisted his wand, applying the curse with fearsome intensity. Gamp’s face twisted into a cruel smile as the color drained completely from Goyle’s fat cheeks. Several seconds crawled by and finally Gamp relented. The guard writhed and moaned, trying to catch his breath.

 
“What have you told the Aurors?” Gamp demanded. “What do they know about our escape?”

 
“Nothing,” the guard whined pitifully. “I’ve spoken to no Aurors.”

 
Fresh screams filled the room as Gamp unleashed another round of agony on the guard. Goyle’s knees shook. Sweat poured down his face and he looked as though he might vomit at any moment. Finally, he grabbed Gamp’s arm, unable to stand it any longer.

 
“Gamp,” Goyle shouted, “he doesn’t know anything. He’s on the run just like us.”

 
Gamp turned slowly towards the fat wizard with a sinister look in his eyes. With one swift motion, he knocked Goyle onto his bottom. “Don’t ever interrupt me again,” he snarled, gesturing threateningly with his wand.

 
Turning back to the guard, he knelt so that he could look the man in the eyes. “I’m growing tired of asking, Fishwick, so this will be the last time. What have you told the Aurors?”

 
“Nothing!” the man cried. “I haven’t seen any Aurors. Please, have mercy!”

 
From his vantage point on the floor, Goyle couldn’t see Gamp’s face, but he was sure that the bastard was grinning from ear to ear. He bit his lip and stared at his shoes, trying to block out the screams.







Harry checked the address on the modest stone-clad house once more to be sure, then strolled up the path with Ron close behind. They were both dressed in muggle attire to blend into the neighborhood. Two children robe by on bicycles and Harry thought that they appeared to be around the same age as his youngest grandchildren. Whether on bikes or brooms, kids that age valued the measure of independence that came with having their own transportation.

 
He knocked on the door, waiting patiently for an answer. Shortly, a stocky man with greying hair opened the door.

 
“Constable Oakworth?” Harry asked.

 
“Yes,” the man replied. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

 
“I hope so,” Harry said. “I’m Detective Chief Inspector James and this is my colleague, Inspector Bilius. We’re from Scotland Yard. If you have a moment, we need to ask you some questions about a murder case you worked four years ago.”

 
Constable Oakworth inspected Harry’s credentials and seemed to find them convincing. “Please, come inside,” he offered, holding the door for them.

 
“I never reckoned I’d work on a case that you Scotland Yard boys would take an interest in,” Oakworth said as he showed them to his living room. “I pretty much just walk a beat and carry a nightstick.”

 
“That’s the thing about police work, isn’t it?” Ron replied. “You never know how big a case might turn out to be.”

 
The three of them took their seats. “Now, Constable,” Harry began, “do you recall investigating the murder of a woman named Ginevra Potter?”

 
“Oh, yes, definitely. Tough to forget that one. And please, call me Jarvis.”

 
“What were some of the things that made it so memorable, Jarvis?” Ron continued.

 
“Well, firstly that poor little girl that was found at the crime scene,” Oakworth answered. “I believe it was Mrs. Potter’s great niece, if my memory serves. She was crying something horrible, clutching a stuffed animal in one hand and this funny black stick in the other. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince her to let go of either one.”

 
Harry noticed Ron clenching his fists and staring at his shoes. “The other thing I’ll never forget was the way the killer was acting,” the Constable continued. “There was something way off about that bloke. He just stood there, like a statue, with nary an expression on his face. Creepy, I tell you. I can’t say that I was all that upset when I heard that they found him dead in his cell the next morning. Even the animals have a way of regulating themselves.”

 
Harry and Ron exchanged a meaningful look. “You were the first officer on the scene, correct?” Harry asked. Oakworth nodded. “And you also interviewed the eyewitnesses?”

 
“Well, there were no eyewitnesses, as such. Nobody actually saw the shooting. But there were several people who heard the shots and ran to see what was going on. I remember there was a lady who came from around the corner and a man who heard the shots from inside a store across the street. The names and statements are in my report, but I’m sure you’ve already seen that.”

 
“Actually, Jarvis, we haven’t,” Ron replied. “Your report seems to have gone missing from the records office. That’s why we wanted to talk to you.”

 
“Really?” Oakford asked, frowning. “I guess it’s those bloody computers. Ever since we went to digital records, I can’t find a thing when I need it.”

 
“What do you remember about the witness statements?” Harry pressed.

 
“Bloody hell, you’re really gonna tax my brain here,” Oakford replied with a wry smile. “Well, as I recall, both witnesses heard one shot and a pause followed by two more quick shots. The woman who came around the corner said that he was pointing the gun into the alley like he was going to fire again at, sweet heaven forbid, the little girl. Then she said his arm dropped to his side and he just stood there, pretty much like I found him. Maybe his conscience got the best of him, I don’t know. The bloke who came from across the street came up behind him and knocked the gun out of his hand, and he just stood there until I arrived on the scene. Neither witness ever heard him say a word.”

 
Harry wanted more than anything to stand, thank Jarvis Oakford for his time, and leave. But he couldn’t. He had to know. “Mrs. Potter,” he asked slowly, walling off his emotions and willing his breathing to stay slow and steady, “when you found her, was she...”

 
“Oh, yes,” Oakford replied somberly. “I believe she died the instant the second shot struck her. Poor dear never had a chance.”

 
Neither Auror was able to make eye contact for a long time. Harry wasn’t sure what Constable Oakford made of them and he honestly didn’t care.

 
“Jarvis,” Ron mumbled, “thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. Is there anything else you remember from the scene or the witness statements?”

 
Oakford thought for a long moment, then replied, “Well, there was this mysterious third witness, but we never found out anything about her.”

 
Harry immediately snapped out of his funk. In all of the muggle and Auror case files, there was no mention of a third witness. “Please explain,” he asked.

 
“Well, the bloke who came from across the street told me that he bumped into a lady when he came out of the store. I mean, literally bumped into her. He said he didn’t notice her standing there until he almost knocked her down. I think he said that she had blond hair and she was wearing some sort of long, black coat with a hood on it. He didn’t pay her much mind because he was way more focused on the guy across the street who’d just committed a murder, you know?

 
“We never did locate her,” Oakford said, scratching his chin, “which was a shame because she might have seen the whole thing. Seeing as how the case was cut and dried and our shooter didn’t last twenty-four hours anyway, we never bothered to try to track her down.”

 
Harry rose from his seat. “Thank you so much, Jarvis. This is all very helpful. Let me give you my card, in case you think of anything else.” He reached into his coat pocket and flicked his wand, silently obliviating the constable. Ron helped the dazed man to his sofa and the two wizards quickly made their way out the front door.

 
As soon as they reached the sidewalk, Ron cast a muffliato charm. “So Stoops was confunded.”

 
“Or imperiused,” Harry replied grimly. “But this certainly wasn’t a random act. How do you figure the odds that this third witness is our mystery witch from Magical Records?”

 
“The descriptions don’t match exactly, but she could have been disguised in either place,” Ron reasoned. “Or both.”

 
“What was Octavia doing with Ginny’s wand?” Harry asked. It was an important detail as it answered one of the biggest questions that had plagued Harry ever since that terrible night. Ginny was a talented, powerful witch and a hardened war veteran. With her wand in hand, Harry had little doubt that she would have survived.

 
“I don’t know mate,” Ron replied softly, laying a reassuring hand on Harry’s shoulder. He could almost feel the pain radiating from his friend. “Seems like every answer we find leads to two more questions. Let’s get home and see ‘Mione. Maybe she can make sense of it all.”







Thank you for taking the time to read Conspiracy of Blood. If you could also take a minute to offer your thoughts below, I'd appreciate it.

 


Chapter 15: The Injuries We Can’t See
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First off, a huge thank you to my beta reader, sophie_hatter, for her extensive tutorials on the Scottish dialect, the English Premier League and the relative condition of mens versus womens facilities in British pubs. This chapter wouldn't make nearly as much sense without her tireless editing and advice. If you haven't read her story, Evolution (M), then treat yourself to a good read!


As always, the characters herein below to JK Rowling.






Lady Tenabra couldn’t suppress a smile as she stared down from the fire escape clinging to the back of an abandoned muggle tenement. In the alley below, fourteen wizards milled about, waiting for her to make an appearance. Through several intermediaries, she had allowed them to contact her and express their desire to join the New Blood Order. Since two of those intermediaries were now dead, she had no concerns even if an Auror or two had slipped into the group. They would never find their way back to her.
 

Among this lot she counted the family names of some of the Dark Lord’s most prominent and fanatical supporters: Avery, McNair and Rosier, to name a few. Their forebearers had followed Voldemort to his defeat at the hands of Harry Potter. Most of them had died in Azkaban, regretting that decision. Perhaps lack of vision was a hereditary trait.
 

Checking her watch, she saw that the appointed time for their meeting had arrived. She calmly sat back and watched her guests become more and more agitated as the minutes ticked away. One thing she had discovered about these aristocratic pure blood types was that punctuality was not a virtue in their eyes. The best way to command their respect was to treat them the same way that they treated their underlings, with an utter lack of regard for their time and dignity. Affording them even the slightest bit of deference was a sign of weakness.
 

She absentmindedly stroked the face of the signet ring she wore on her left middle finger. It was also a portkey that she could activate with a simple touch. If there did turn out to be Aurors among the wizards gathered in the alley, she would be gone in a flash. Everything had been planned down to the last detail.
 

After letting them all stew for a good ten minutes, she apparated to a shadowy spot across from the alley and disillusioned herself. She made her way quickly and quietly across the street and took up a position near the entrance to the alley. At the same instant, she revealed herself and spoke. “Good evening, gentlemen.”
 

All of the men started at her appearance. Several drew their wands. The game was becoming tiresome to her, but it was necessary. Keeping her followers off balance was key to maintaining her psychological edge. And she was going to need more followers. Flint had already met his end and she felt sure that it was only a matter of time before his friends Nott and Goyle followed. Gamp was starting to stare at both of them with an unmistakable malice in his eyes. He would soon take matters into his own hands if their own clumsiness didn’t kill them first.
 

“I understand that you are interested in joining us as we wipe away the muggle filth that corrodes our civilization and build a new future for the wizarding world,” she continued. “I am Lady Tenabra. I speak for the silent majority. We believe that witches and wizards need to reclaim our destiny from the muggle lovers and blood traitors of the Ministry. If you are willing to take personal responsibility for restoring our birthright then I welcome you to the New Blood Order.”
 

“Our society needs a good cleansing,” observed a middle-aged wizard that she recognized as Kendrick Avery, “but this sounds like the same bollocks that landed my grandfather in Azkaban. How do we know that you can deliver on all this big talk?”
 

“If our achievements thus far have not convinced you, then leave,” she replied coldly. “There is no place in our future for men of such limited vision.”
 

Avery didn’t look convinced, but he kept his peace. She launched into her well-rehearsed tirade against muggles, muggle-born witches and wizards and the progressives within the Ministry who championed their cause. As she spoke, she surveyed their responses from beneath the cowl of her cloak, paying close attention to which points resonated strongly. Refining and targeting her message would be key to drawing more of the pure blood families into the fold. When she finished, she stood quietly and let her message sink in.
 

Several other wizards asked questions, but they were the sort that a man asked about a broom that had already taken flight in his mind. She noticed one particular wizard who was unfamiliar to her. He remained near the back of the crowd, keeping to himself. His eyes studied the other wizards in attendance, glancing at her only occasionally. She gave no outward sign, but inwardly she was pleased. It appeared that their meeting had been infiltrated. The only question was whether he was alone.
 

She launched into a new volley of rhetoric and began to circle the group, ostensibly studying each man and making eye contact. She noticed a nervous look on the unknown wizard’s face and he began to maneuver away from her, so that the group of men remained between them. She spotted a clear line through the crowd and continued to circle, moving towards it. She timed her speech so that her condemnation of the Ministry reached a crescendo just as she lined up her shot.
 

“Auror!” she shouted, firing a stunning spell through the crowd. The interloper easily parried her spell, but it had the desired effect. Pandemonium erupted, and the crush of bodies prevented the Auror from getting any sort of clean shot at her. Pops and cracks filled the air as the pure blood wizards rushed to disapparate to safety. The Auror cursed loudly and began to fire stunning spells at random, trying to take at least one or two prisoners. She laughed loudly as her portkey activated and the alley disappeared in a crushing swirl of motion.
 

Three apparitions later, she appeared on the roof of the New Blood Order’s warehouse and lowered herself through the trapdoor into her enclave. The evening had exceeded her expectations. The Auror’s clumsy attempt to infiltrate her group would add to the New Blood Order’s credibility with both the pure blood recruits and the Ministry. She poured herself a glass of brandy and toasted to her success.






Hermione sipped her tea as she listened intently to her oldest and dearest friend from Magical Law. Hassie Mulholland had been practicing law in front of the Wizengamot since before Hermione was born, the first witch to ever try a case before wizarding Britain’s highest court. She now worked as a volunteer advocate for indigent and disadvantaged magical beings, a sort of semi-retirement that still consumed the lion’s share of her waking hours. Hermione admired Hassie like few witches she had ever known, and counted herself fortunate to call the elderly barrister a friend. The admiration was mutual, for, as Hassie was given to saying, “without you and your friends, Lord Voldemort would have undone my life’s work in a day.”
 

Hermione was not entirely surprised by what she was hearing, but the concern in her friend’s voice took her by surprise. Hassie was well known throughout Magical Law for the patient, deliberate approach to problems that only came with age and experience. Now she was suggesting that the Minister was prepared to reverse course on several key policies ensuring the rights of muggle-born wizards in order to keep more of the pure blood families from voicing their support for the aims of the New Blood Order. “Hassie, do you really believe that the Minister is so frightened that he would go to such lengths just to appease a few pure blood dissidents?”
 

“Dear, I’ve seen a lot of Ministers come and go. This one lacks even the minimal backbone of Cornelius Fudge. If he thinks that rolling back our hardest-won achievements will bring the old families back into the fold, I believe that is a trade-off he’s willing to make.”
 

Hermione rubbed her eyes and tried to take it all in. She knew from talking to her colleagues that most of the work on purging discriminatory laws from the books had ground to a halt. She had thought, perhaps a bit self-importantly, that her extended absence was the major cause. Maybe there was more to it.
 

“He still needs the support of the progressives on the Wizengamot,” she replied, trying to remain optimistic. “If they find out that he’s appeasing the pure bloods, the entire government could collapse.”
 

“That’s why he’s going about things very quietly,” Hassie responded. “Shifting resources here, delaying hearings there, withholding Ministry support for certain inquiries. He’s a cunning politician, if not a brave one. On the surface he’s giving nothing to the pure bloods, as the progressives have demanded. But behind closed doors it’s a very different story.”
 

“I have to get back to work,” Hermione sighed. “I don’t like where things are heading.”
 

“Hermione,” Hassie replied, fixing her with a stern gaze, “we need you back, but not until you’re ready. If you push yourself too hard, you could relapse and be away even longer. That really wouldn’t help anyone.”
 

“I know, I know,” Hermione said, raising her palms. “But it’s not my body that’s stopping me. I’ve healed as much as I’m ever going to. Somehow my mind just can’t make peace with that.”

 
“The wounds we can’t see always take the longest to heal,” Hassie said with a sympathetic smile. “Sometimes it’s hard to even know where the injury lies. But I know you, dear. You’ll figure it out and find a way to overcome this.”

 
Hermione smiled in spite of herself. She wished she felt as confident in herself as her mentor seemed to.

 
“Oh, my, look at the time,” Hassie sighed, rising from her chair. “I’m due at the Ministry to help a young man with lycanthropy who’s being threatened with eviction from his flat.” She stepped over and laid her hands on Hermione’s shoulders. “Believe in yourself, Hermione. You’re a brilliant, resourceful witch and given time, you will beat this.”

 
Hermione beamed at her friend. “Thank you, Hassie. Your faith means a lot to me.”

 
“It’s not faith, dear,” the elderly witch replied. “Faith is believing in something you cannot see. I’ve watched you for a long time. I know exactly what you’re capable of.”

 
As she watched her friend disappear into the floo, Hermione replayed parts of their conversation in her mind. Sometimes it’s hard to even know where the injury lies. She thought back to her last attempt at using a wheelchair. Was there more going on than she had realized?

 
Slowing down the sequence of events as best she could, she tried to analyze each moment. There was the general anxiety. Then came the feelings of being trapped and confined, followed by the overwhelming need to escape. Her failures always ended with somebody screaming the word cripple. She struggled to remember the sound. It was familiar, yet she couldn’t put a name to the voice. It seemed to belong to a young girl.


An idea began to form in her mind. It was a long shot, but the odds seemed no worse than anything else she had tried. Drawing her wand, she summoned her laptop computer and an album of old photographs. Selecting the class photo from her first year of primary school, she removed it from the album and was pleased to find a listing in her mother’s handwriting on the back. She opened the laptop and began to search for the names.






Harry appeared outside the front gates of Hogwarts and made his way to the main entrance. He looked forward to Wednesday mornings and his lessons with the first year students. Performing magic was still exciting and new to them, and he relished the wonder in their eyes. Since most of the students were nowhere near ready for dueling practice so early in the school year, his lessons revolved around simple spells and story-telling and he reserved a large block of time for simply answering questions. Like their sixth and seventh year schoolmates, they seemed to find him more accessible than their actual professors, so the discussions could wander anywhere from the theory of defensive magic to apprehending dark wizards to tales of what Hogwarts was like before computers and cell phones were allowed in the castle.


As he walked into the entrance hall, a voice called out to him over the low rumble of the students making their way to and from breakfast. “Harry! Harry Potter, how have ye been?” He saw Professor Tennant striding down the stairs towards him and inwardly grimaced. The Defense Against the Dark Arts professor was a former Auror, one that Harry and Ron had “managed out” of the department after Gawain Robards retired. The beefy Scot was, as Ron elegantly put it, “all mouth and no trousers.” In spite of the rather ignominious end to his Auror career, Tennant still insisted on greeting Harry like an old, dear friend.


“Doing well, Professor,” Harry replied, trying to keep a modicum of professional distance. “And yourself?”

 
“I cannae complain,” Tennant replied with his pronounced lilt. “I hear you’re workin’ a monster of a case with this Blood Order business. If ye need any help, ye know who to call.”


Several students paused to gawk at the conversation, and Harry wondered what they made of their professor’s offer. Based on the frank critiques from his sixth and seventh year students, he knew that many of them wouldn’t mind if he took Tennant up on it. They thought that he spent far too much time droning on about theory and telling stories from his Auror days. As one student observed, “If you could defeat a dark wizard with twelve inches of parchment on the difference between protego maxima and protego totalum, he’d turn out a dozen Aurors a year.”

 
“Thanks,” Harry replied noncommittally. “It’s nice to know you’re available.”

 
Harry made a move towards the stairs, but Tennant followed by his side. “Mind if I have a word with ye, Harry?”


“Sure, Rory,” Harry replied, “as long as we can walk and talk at the same time. Wouldn’t want to keep the first years waiting, you know.”
 

Once they reached the second floor hallway, Rory gave Harry a serious look. “It’s about the Northway lad, Harry. He came to talk to me the other day, wantin’ to study more advanced material.”
 

“Is that a problem?” Harry asked.
 

“Well Mr. Northway, hasnae exactly been what you’d call a star pupil up to now.”
 

“Maybe he wants to change that.” Harry replied quietly, measuring Tennant’s reaction.
 

“Now Harry, I know yev made this lad some sorta special project, but I cannae take time away from my other teachin’ duties jus ‘cause he met the Great Harry Potter and got stars in his eyes.”
 

“So you’re saying you won’t help him,” Harry replied plainly.
 

“I’m sayin’ that I cannae make a special exception for him,” Tennant shrugged. “It’s unfair to the other students.”
 

“Very well,” Harry replied, and resumed his walk towards the classroom.

 
Tennant stood in the hallway, watching Harry’s back and looking flummoxed. “So what are you gonnae do?” he asked.

 
Harry stopped and turned to face him. “I’m going to make a spot for him in my advanced class of sixth and seventh years. It will take a lot of work for him to catch up, but he says he’s willing to put in the hours. I’ll take him at his word unless he proves otherwise.”

 
“Look, Harry,” Tennant replied, “I know you’re not one for followin’ rules and such, but I dinnae think it appropriate for you to be decidin’ who gets special help around here.”

 
Harry regarded him almost wistfully. “A very wise man once told me that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.”** His look hardened. “Dennis wants to change his life for the better. I’m not asking for your help, Rory. Just don’t get in my way.”

 
Tennant frowned but held his tongue as he watched Harry turn and walk away.






An hour later, Harry made his way back to the Great Hall, reflecting on an excellent lesson with his first year students. With a bit of coaching, most of them had been able to cast a rudimentary shield charm and disarm a dueling dummy. They spent the second half of the hour talking about dragons. The muggle-born students had been especially wide-eyed as Harry told them about outmaneuvering a Hungarian Horntail on his broom to steal an egg from her nest. The discussion made him appreciate what Hagrid’s love of dangerous creatures had added to his education. Most of the current students would never see a Norwegian Ridgeback or a Blast-Ended Skrewt unless their parents took them to a zoo in Eastern Europe.

 
Harry had one more errand to complete before leaving the school, and he scanned the students gathered in the Great Hall until he spotted James’s younger son Victor leaning over the Hufflepuff table, chatting with two attractive female schoolmates who seemed quite taken with him. Victor had inherited more of his father’s roguish good looks and charm than his brother Artie, who took after his Uncle Al in many ways. Harry felt a little bad about interrupting, but he doubted it would slow his grandson down very much.

 
“Victor,” he called out, strolling up the aisle that separated the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables.

 
His grandson looked up and seemed momentarily inconvenienced before a sly smile crossed his lips. “Hi, Grandpa,” he replied cheerfully. “Sonia, Hemithea, this is my grandfather, Harry Potter.” He put a little extra emphasis on Harry’s name, leaving the girls wide-eyed and Harry more than a little annoyed.

 
“Charmed,” Harry said to the girls, who seemed unable to find words. “Victor, do you know where I might find your brother?”

 
“He has Transfiguration right now,” Victor replied, “but I think that’s over soon. Should I let him know you’re looking for him?”

 
“That’s alright,” Harry replied. “I’ll just walk that way and I’m sure I’ll run across him. Take care.” Harry patted his grandson on the back and headed for the stairs. As he walked away, he heard whispers and giggles coming from the two girls who now seemed to hang on Victor’s every word.

 
He only had to wait outside of the Transfiguration classroom for a few minutes before lessons ended and the sixth year students came streaming out. Artie was among the last to exit, holding the hand of a young witch who definitely had Luna’s eyes.

 
“Hi, Grandpa,” Artie greeted him, smiling but looking a little confused. “Dueling lessons aren’t until tomorrow, right?”

 
“That’s right,” Harry replied. “I need to borrow something.”

 
“From me?” Now his grandson looked thoroughly confused.

 
“Yes, you recall that bit of your inheritance that your father passed on to you?” Harry asked with a nod.

 
“Oh, that,” Artie replied, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “Portia, can you excuse us for a moment? I’ll catch up with you at lunch.” He gave her a quick kiss goodbye and turned to find his grandfather already walking towards Gryffindor Tower.

 
“Uh, Grandpa, do you really need that right now?” Artie asked awkwardly as he hurried to catch up. “You see, Portia and I had plans for tonight, umm, after curfew. Not to... you know... we weren’t planning to... I mean, she’s not that kind of girl. But you see, it’s so hard to get time alone here and we were...”

 
“Artie,” Harry cut him off with a smile. “So long as you don’t make me a great-grandparent before you graduate, whatever you and Portia get about is between the two of you. But I’m afraid I do need the cloak back for a while.”

 
Artie looked disappointed, but continued to follow Harry towards the Gryffindor common room. When they arrived, Artie pulled a little ahead and approached the Fat Lady with a grin.

 
“Do you think it’s alright if he finds out the password?” he asked cheekily.

 
“Watch your tongue, child,” she snapped. “Your grandfather saved us all from He Who Must Not Be Named. He will always be welcome through any door that I guard.”

 
“Thank you,” Harry replied earnestly. “But it wouldn’t really be appropriate for a Ministry official to socialize with students in a common room. I’ll wait outside if you don’t mind my company.”

 
“Of course not, my dear,” the Fat Lady answered, growing slightly red in the cheeks. “Arthur, get inside,” she ordered, swinging inward. Artie rolled his eyes and crawled through the portrait hole. “Now, Harry, how are your little friends, Ronald and Hermione?”

 
Harry chuckled. “Well, they’re not so little any more, but they’re doing well.”

 
After several minutes of pleasant if empty conversation, Artie reemerged with the invisibility cloak. He stared after it mournfully as Harry tucked it away in his robes.

 
“Artie, it’s not forever,” Harry sighed, rolling his eyes.

 
“I know, Grandpa,” Artie said, looking slightly sheepish. “It’s just that you get used to having something whenever you need it.”

 
“Exactly how I’ve felt ever since I passed it along to your father,” Harry replied with a grin. “I have to get on my way, but I’ll see you soon. No later than the holidays, anyway.” He pulled his grandson into a hug and then they headed back down the stairs together.

 
He had nearly reached the main entrance when another voice called his name. He turned to find Ulysses Alderman jogging towards him. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

 
“Sure,” Harry replied, glancing at his watch. “Walk with me to the front gates.”

 
Once they were outside, Ulysses said, “Harry, I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to become an Auror after I graduate and I wanted to ask whether you had any advice.”

 
Harry smiled inwardly, but tried to maintain an even demeanor. Ulysses was headstrong and self-confident. He probably didn’t need the same sort of encouragement as Veratrice. “I think you should work really hard on earning your N.E.W.T.s and keep up your dueling work,” he answered. “You definitely have a shot at making it, as long as your scores are good.”

 
Ulysses smiled nervously. “Which of my N.E.W.T.s do you think I should focus most on?” he persisted.

 
“Well, I don’t think you’re going to have any problems with Defense Against the Dark Arts,” Harry replied. “So between Transfiguration, Charms and Potions, which would you say is your weakest subject?”

 
“Ugh. Potions,” Ulysses replied with a grimace. “Sometimes I think my cauldron is cursed.”

 
“Well, there’s your answer, I reckon. Talk to Professor Astor. Tell her that you’d like some extra help to make sure that you do well.”

 
Ulysses continued to ask Harry questions as they walked. They passed the front gates and Harry stood near the edge of the protective wards and started to say goodbye. A shimmer against the colorful autumn foliage caught his eye. Without thinking, he grabbed Ulysses and hurled him to the ground just as a jet of red light seared the air.

 
Harry dropped to his knees, wincing in pain. The shoulder of his robes was charred and bloodied and his left arm hung uselessly by his side. His wand snapped into his right hand and he cast a shield charm just in time to block a hail of curses that seemed to come from every direction at the same time.

 
“Get back inside the gates!” Harry shouted, trying to crawl backwards as he rapidly parried curses. A flash of green light sailed over their heads, making it abundantly clear that the assailants meant business. A curse struck the ground at his knees, sending dirt flying into his face. Blinded, he started to randomly cast shield charms, hoping for a major stroke of luck.

 
“Crawl backwards!” called a familiar female voice from behind him. Harry dragged himself in the direction of the voice, trying to clear the dirt from his eyes with his one good arm while crawling on his chest and knees. The rapid cracking of spells being fired and deflected filled the air around him, echoing softly off of the distant walls of the castle. He managed to clear his vision just enough to make out Veratrice and Ulysses on either side of him, whipping and slashing their wands as they repelled a barrage of curses.

 
“What are you doing here?” he shouted at Veratrice in spite of himself.

 
“Eavesdropping,” she replied. “I think maybe I’ll learn my lesson this time.”

 
With great effort, Harry stumbled to his feet and performed a quick scourgify on his face and glasses. He was able to distinguish four separate attackers operating from concealed positions surrounding the front gates. In spite of the commendable defense being mounted by his students, he knew that it was only a matter of time until they were worn down. Seizing the initiative, Harry destroyed several trees with reductor curses, forcing their opponents to find new cover.

 
“Keep moving back,” he shouted over the din of the fight. The relative safety of the perimeter wall was fewer than ten paces away. Harry heard a yelp of pain from his right side as he was blocking another curse and he realized that Ulysses had been hit. He and Veratrice quickly took up protective positions in front of their wounded comrade, who was bleeding profusely from a large slash across his shoulder and upper arm. The three of them continued to retreat towards the gate. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry noticed a wizard in a black robe and mask scrambling towards a position near the wall, trying to outflank them. He cast several spells, forcing the wizard to fall back, but the effort further stretched their defenses.

 
Veratrice had just knocked one of the assailants backwards when she was struck with a stunning spell. She fell to the ground several paces short of reaching the gate. Ulysses threw his wounded body on top of her, trying to shield her from the onslaught. Harry was struggling valiantly to defend their position, but the attackers were once again moving to surround them and there was no way he could drive them back. Just as a curse from Harry’s left side narrowly missed his students, he heard shouts coming from the direction of the castle. He chanced a look behind him and saw Neville and two other professors running down the path, wands drawn.

 
Harry fought back with renewed intensity. He managed to hit the attacker on his right with a knockback jinx, reducing the angle he was forced to defend. Moments later, Neville was by his side, and they began to drive their opponents back as the other professors levitated the injured students inside the perimeter wall.

 
“We have to take them, Neville!” Harry shouted. “We can’t let them get away.” But he was already beginning to feel the effects of exhaustion and blood loss. The attackers also seemed to realize that their moment had passed. With loud pops, the two wizards dueling Neville and Harry disapparated. Harry turned towards the stand of trees where Veratrice had struck one of the assailants with a spell, but his knees buckled as he tried to move.

 
Professor Astor and the school caretaker were rushing down from the castle by that point, and Neville directed them to begin securing the area around the gates. Then he crouched by Harry, peering at his injured shoulder. “I’m taking you to the hospital wing,” he said bluntly.

 
“We have to find them,” Harry insisted through gritted teeth, trying to crawl towards the trees.

 
“Harry, listen to me!” Neville shouted. “You’re going to bleed to death if you don’t get medical attention. I’ll stun you if I have to, but you’re coming with me. Now.”

 
Harry knew that his old friend was right. He struggled to fight the encroaching darkness as he tried to think of any way to keep pursing the attackers. In the end, his body overruled him. “Alright, let’s go,” he mumbled weakly as he slumped to the ground. He felt Neville’s hand on his shoulder, followed by the sickening crush of side-along apparition. Neville caught him just before he fell to the stone floor of the Hogwarts infirmary and eased him into a bed.

 
As the school nurse began to cut the scorched robes away from his injured shoulder, Harry gazed at Neville, who appeared to be at the far end of a long, dark tunnel. “Howdja do that?” he mumbled softly.

 
Neville smiled at him. “Being Headmaster has certain advantages,” he replied just before the walls of the tunnel collapsed into blackness.






Ron was feeling the strangest combination of pride and stress as he exited the phone booth leading to the Ministry of Magic. He had just assumed the role of Acting Head of the Auror Department for the first time in nearly two decades, but the circumstances leading to his battlefield promotion were nothing to celebrate. After the attempt on Harry’s life, the school nurse had stabilized his condition and promptly transferred him to St. Mungo’s. In addition to substantial blood loss, his left shoulder had been badly cursed. Extensive treatment would be needed to purge the dark magic so that the underlying injuries could be healed. He was currently under heavy sedation while the healers worked to repair the damage.

 
Naturally, Ron hadn’t been able to so much as sit in Harry’s chair before the Minister was demanding an update. He had quickly dispatched a team led by Susan to secure Hogwarts and a second team led by Terry to begin canvassing the residents and merchants of Hogsmeade Village for leads. Then he made his way to the Minister’s office, keeping Harry’s long-standing orders in mind. Each time Ron prepared to open his mouth, he tried to imagine every word as part of a press release. For a plainspoken man like Ron, the effort involved was painful. When the meeting finally ended, he was proud of having said nothing foolish, but his head was splitting.

 
Ron hurried along towards an Indian restaurant several blocks from the Ministry. He had made plans to have lunch with Percy and he hoped that his brother would be understanding now that he was running over half an hour late. When he finally entered the restaurant, he found Percy sitting at a table near the back, picking at a plate of chicken pakora. “Oi, Ron, what kept you?”

 
“It’s Harry. Somebody tried to kill him outside the gates of Hogwarts this morning. He’s in surgery at St. Mungo’s,” Ron replied breathlessly as he plopped into the chair opposite Percy and crammed three of the fried dumplings into his mouth.

 
“What?” Percy cried, dropping his fork. “Have you been to see him?”

 
“No,” replied Ron crossly. “The bloody Minister had a very important press conference to prepare for. I came here as soon as he finished with me.”

 
“Well let’s sack off lunch and head over,” Percy said, starting to stand.

 
Ron reached out and caught his brother’s sleeve. “Actually, Perce, let’s sit for a while. Al and Lily are already there and from what they said, the healers won’t be done with him for at least another hour. Also, I’m just about ready to eat my own shoe.”

 
Percy sat back down, looking fidgety and uncomfortable. To Ron, this was nothing new, so he casually waved the waiter over and ordered two curries and a pot of tea. When the waiter left, Ron silently cast a muffliato charm over their table.

 
“We need to ask a favor, Perce,” he said quietly.

 
“And you drew the short straw?” Percy replied cautiously.

 
“Yeah, something like that,” Ron answered through another bite of chicken. He carefully worded his next sentence, trying not to say too much or too little. “We think that the attack on the Ministry may be related to Ginny’s murder, but all of the files were sealed after the trial. Harry and I were hoping you could give us your memory from... well, from that night.”

 
Percy stared back for a long moment with his mouth hanging open. Obvious signs of stress and discomfort appeared on his face. “You mean my memory from the jail? From the night that I...”

 
“Yeah, that one,” Ron replied quickly before Percy could say any more. “We need to know everything you saw and heard. Any detail could be crucial.”

 
Percy’s mouth opened and closed several times before he finally spoke. “Ron, I can’t.”

 
“You’re a wizard, Perce. Of course you can,” Ron replied, looking confused.

 
“I can’t,” Percy repeated. “I won’t. It’s too much. I can’t relive that again.”

 
“We’re not asking you to go through it with us,” Ron countered. “We just need the memory. From what I learned in memory training, I think it’ll grow even less distinct in your mind after you’ve extracted it.”

 
“You’re not listening, Ron,” Percy snapped. “I have spent years trying to forget everything that happened that night. I’m not going to dredge it all up just because you and Harry have some half-baked theory about the New Blood Order killing Ginny.”

 
“It’s not just some crazy hunch, Percy,” Ron retorted, feeling his temper rise. “We have evidence linking the two. But we need more to go on. For Merlin’s sake, we could be talking about finding out who killed Ginny and who almost killed Hermione.”

 
Percy abruptly stood up, knocking over his chair. His face was a mask of stress and anger. “I know who killed our sister, Ron. And I know that he’s never going to hurt anyone again. The answer is no and that’s final. Now leave me alone!”

 
Ron watched as Percy stormed past the startled waiter and out of the restaurant. He started to follow, but the other diners were now staring at him. Although they hadn’t seen any magic, Ron didn’t care for the idea of a restaurant full of muggles recalling the family drama they had just witnessed. He reached into his pocket, grasping his wand and beginning to adjust their memories. By the time his lunch arrived, he realized that his appetite was gone.





 
Harry opened his eyes just a sliver, trying to recall where he was. He felt very groggy. He had a vague recollection of talking to Neville in the hospital wing, so he reasoned that he must have gotten hurt somehow. Madam Pomfrey was going to be upset with him. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to miss any Quidditch practices on account of whatever had happened.

 
He felt slender fingers running through his hair, and shifted his gaze slightly to the side. He could make out a blurry image of bright auburn hair. He sighed contentedly, feeling as though some terrible thing that he couldn’t quite recall had turned out to be all in his head.

 
“Daddy, are you awake?” Lily’s voice sounded slightly muffled, as though his head was inside a barrel. As soon as he realized who she wasn’t, the terrible thing was back, like a great weight on his aching chest. He must have let a frown cross his face.

 
“What’s wrong?” his daughter asked. “Does something hurt? Should I call the healer?”

 
Harry shook his head slightly. The truth was that everything hurt, but no one thing hurt especially worse than any other. It was all coming back to him. The conversation with Neville in the Hogwarts infirmary, the firefight, the conversation with Ulysses...

 
“Students,” he managed to say in a raspy whisper, “alright?”

 
“Neville says they’re going to be fine, Dad. The girl just needed to be revived, and the school nurse was able to treat the boy in the hospital wing.” She giggled softly. “Neville said they would be the first thing you asked about.”

 
“Need to talk to Ron,” Harry whispered.

 
“He said he would be here before visiting hours are over,” Lily replied. “I think the Minister made him come to a briefing. He also said something about getting lunch with Uncle Percy. I’m not sure why that couldn’t wait,” she added with a hint of disapproval.

 
Harry sighed. So many things that needed to be done and now he was stuck here. “How long?” he whispered.

 
“You were in surgery for close to two hours and unconscious for another hour after that. Optimistically, the healers think you could be out of here in two days.” He grimaced and immediately felt the weight of what he was sure was a withering glare. “Dad, you’re not twenty years old any more! You need to take it easy and let yourself heal.”

 
“No time,” Harry whispered. “Everyone in danger.”

 
“Including you!” she snapped. Harry couldn’t see his daughter’s eyes, but he was sure that they were flashing with anger exactly like her mother’s. After several seconds, he felt the weight of her shoulders and head on his chest. He stroked her hair with his uninjured hand and felt her body shudder slightly. “Daddy,” she whispered, “we’ve already lost Mum. I don’t want to lose you, too.”

 
Her plea pierced his heart. He lay there for a long moment, considering the unbalanced mess his life had become. As he comforted his baby daughter, he silently cursed the part of himself that wanted nothing more than to let it all go and be with Ginny again. It was only too easy to foresee a moment of weakness when that part would lead him to the exact decision she feared.

 
“I’ll try, pumpkin,” he whispered. “I’ll try.”

 




After what seemed like hours of stalking around muggle London in an angry daze, Percy found himself in front of a sports pub. A football match was being shown on the televisions inside and the music was playing just above the level of polite conversation. It was perfect for the type of mood Percy was in and he quickly made his way to the bar.

 
He marveled at the nerve of Ron and Harry, asking him to relive the worst night of his life just so they could keep chasing wild geese. Why did it seem like he was the only one in the family who’d been able to come to terms with Ginny’s death? Why was he the only one who could let her go?

 
Well, the fact that you murdered her killer in cold blood did afford you a certain type of closure. Percy winced and flagged the barman down to order a drink. Somewhere along the way, his subconscious mind had become a huge wiseacre. He took a long draw off of his ale and let his mind drift along with the music coming from the speakers hidden throughout the bar.

 
A muggle man dropped onto the stool beside him, apparently having just returned from the loo. He wore a large white and blue football jersey adorned with a cockerel. Percy took a moment to study the match being shown on the televisions behind the bar and identified the jersey as belonging to a team from Tottenham. The man noticed Percy watching the match and asked, “Who do you favor?”

 
“Oh, neither side,” Percy replied amicably, “I don’t really follow football. I take it you’re a fan of the, uh, is it Hotspurs?”

 
“Hotspur,” the man replied, puffing his chest out. “And I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember. I never miss a game, even if it’s only on the telly.”

 
Percy studied the game a bit more and realized that the numbers at the bottom of the screen indicated that the Tottenham side was losing rather badly.

 
“They’re, um, not having a very good match, are they?” Percy asked.

 
“They’re not having a very good season,” the man replied somberly. “I’d say there’s a good chance we’ll be dropped to the Championship next season if they don’t get their bloody act together.”

 
“But you still watch every game?” Percy asked, suddenly fascinated. “Even though they’re playing poorly?”

 
“Too bloody right,” the man answered.

 
“And you even wear their colors in public?”

 
“Look, mate,” the man said, suddenly rounding on Percy with a very serious look on his face. “I told you I been following the Spurs since I was a boy. It don’t matter to me whether they’re top of the table or getting a thrashing, they’re my bloody team. It’s called loyalty, and it’s the only real measure of a man.”

 
Percy shrank back as the man glared at him for a long moment before returning his attention to the game. I’d say he has a point. There his subconscious went again. Honestly, a big part of the appeal of hanging out at bars and concerts was the odd conversations that he seemed to have with himself in the solitude of an unfamiliar crowd. Was he being disloyal to Ron and Harry by refusing to honor their request? No, you’re being disloyal to Ginny by not doing everything you can to help solve her murder. Ouch. Now his subconscious was hitting below the belt.

 
He downed his ale and ordered another, still turning the situation over in his mind. The music soothed him, and he found it easy to think clearly. As much as it pained him to recall the night of Ginny’s death, it wasn’t as though he never thought about it. In fact, it still haunted his dreams from time to time. Why did he feel so reluctant to help Ron and Harry? Could it be the same reason that you spend all your free time in bars and you’ve barely spoken to your wife in two months?

 
An uneasy realization dawned on Percy. He had been acting like a complete git to everyone. He wondered why it hadn’t occurred to him before. What was happening to his mind? As quickly as it had come to him, the moment of clarity was beginning to fade. Percy stood up from his barstool abruptly, almost knocking it over. The Spurs fan next to him looked alarmed, as though he expected Percy to slug him, but Percy merely smiled at him and hurried toward the toilets.

 
After locking the door behind him and applying a colloportus spell, he conjured a small glass vial. He knew that the process wasn’t going to be pleasant, and he leaned against the wall for support. Touching his wand to his temple, he mentally returned to the muggle jail on the night after his baby sister had died.

 
Being a diplomat, Percy was not a novice when it came to extracting memories. It was the most reliable way to make sure that the essence of a negotiation was captured for posterity. But this was unlike anything he had ever experienced. As he relived each agonizing moment and drew the silvery strands from his temple, it felt like the roots of a deep and pervasive cancer were being ripped from his mind. He struggled to capture every visual, every sound and every smell with perfect clarity. When his mind finally exited the muggle jail after killing Edwin Stoops, he collapsed to the tile floor. With what felt like the last of his strength, he placed the memory into the vial and sealed it.

 
Percy was beginning to feel very confused. The sense of purpose that had gripped him in the bar was long gone, replaced by a deep ambivalence. His subconscious mind gave him one last kick to complete his task. She listened to you when everybody else in the family had written you off. Don’t let her down.

 
It occurred to him that he had no idea how to get the memory into Ron and Harry’s hands. At the rate his determination was failing him, he knew that he had very little time. “Hermys,” Percy cried out in a flash of inspiration, “I have something very important for Harry!” He had no idea whether the elf would answer his call, but he had observed that house elves had an uncanny sense for things that were important to their masters.

 
He breathed a sigh of relief when the elf appeared in front of him with a crack. “Is Master Percy feeling unwell?” the elf asked with a concerned look.

 
“Hermys, don’t worry about me,” Percy stammered. “All that matters is you must get this to Harry. Do you understand?”

 
“Hermys understands,” the elf replied, taking the vial. “Please, Master Percy, may Hermys take you to see a healer?”

 
“No,” Percy replied, drawing a deep breath. He could barely recall why he had just handed his most dangerous memory to the elf, but something deep inside told him that he was doing the right thing. “I just need a moment. I’ll be fine. Just make sure that Harry gets that vial as soon as possible.”

 
“Master Harry will have it as soon as he’s able,” the elf replied obediently. Then he disappeared with another crack, leaving Percy to ponder his life on the floor of the loo.





** paraphrasing Dumbledore in Chamber of Secrets, pp. 266

Another chapter come and gone. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that lack of reviewing karma is the leading cause of fan fiction readers being reincarnated as squirrels. And as you may know, squirrels can't read. So if you enjoy reading fan fiction, take care to leave your thoughts below. There are plenty of squirrels already.


Chapter 16: Remembrance of Things Past
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Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed Conspiracy of Blood. Your kind words and constructive criticism mean a lot to me. And an extra-special thank you to my beta reader, sophie_hatter. She saved me from making some tragic missteps with this chapter. If you enjoy it, why not go read her fantastic story Evolution (M)?


As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling.






The screams of Feates Rosier filled the abandoned warehouse as he writhed on the concrete floor, trying in vain to escape the agony. Lying next to him, Clinton McNair and Strafford Rowle gasped for breath, knowing that their turn would come again all too soon. Rosier arched his back, catching a glimpse of the demented face of Jeremy Gamp through swollen eyes. Lady Tenabra’s sadistic underling had been pouring it on for what seemed like hours, although it could have only been seconds.
 

The three wizards were battered and bruised and their expensive robes were torn and filthy. In a perverse sense, they were the lucky ones. McNair’s cousin Alford had been seriously wounded by shrapnel from the Auror’s reductor curses. Gamp had simply killed him as soon as he learned of their failure. With the tone established, he had laid into the rest of them without mercy.
 

“Jeremy, explain yourself.” A familiar voice reached them from somewhere nearby. Gamp released Rosier from the curse and shifted his wand warily between McNair and Rowle.
 

“We were just discussing their failure to kill Harry Potter, my lady,” Gamp replied menacingly.
 

“I believe you’ve discussed it sufficiently. Rennervate.”
 

The men groaned as the revitalizing energy pulsed through their bodies, amplifying the residual pain that still hummed in their nerve endings like hornets. Rowle managed to pull himself to his knees and glared at both of them with hate-filled eyes. “Is this how our ‘new world’ is gonna be? I have to say I preferred the old one.”
 

“Let’s be honest, Mr. Rowle,” Tenabra replied coldly. “You’re now wanted for the attempted murder of the Head Auror. Your prospects in the old world have become quite limited.”
 

“And our alternative is working for some bitch holding the leash of a bloody psychopath?” Rosier snarled. “Brilliant choice we have here.”
 

Crucio!” Fresh screams filled the room as Rosier crumpled back to the floor.
 

After a few seconds, Tenabra intervened. “I said that’s enough, Mr. Gamp.”
 

Glaring at her out of the corner of his eye, Gamp reluctantly ended Rosier’s agony. Rowle and McNair watched Rosier’s chest heave for several tortured breaths before turning their attention back to Tenabra.
 

“So sorry,” she said sarcastically. “My leash must have slipped.”
 

“What do you want from us?” Rowle snarled. In spite of his angry tone, she could see the fear in his eyes.
 

“The same thing that you claim to want, Mr. Rowle. The overthrow of the Ministry and the restoration of the natural order of our society. If we’re to achieve these goals, we have very little margin for error. In your clumsy attempt to kill the Head Auror, there’s little doubt that you left clues that could jeopardize everything we have accomplished. Worse, your failure emboldens our enemies. I believe that Mr. Gamp is taking this all a bit personally.”
 

The three pure blood wizards flinched involuntarily as Gamp made a menacing sweep of his wand.
 

“The three of you have an appointment with a Healer named Ervin at a wizarding clinic in Cokeworth in half an hour. He is sympathetic to our cause, and he will not ask for any information that you do not volunteer. The apparition point is directly outside of the clinic, but I suggest you take steps to protect your identities. When your injuries are healed, return to your homes and await further instructions. That will be all.”
 

McNair, Rosier and Rowle climbed unsteadily to their feet and disapparated one by one. Tenabra hoped that they didn’t splinch themselves in their weakened condition, but if they did then at least they were going to see a healer. As soon as they were gone, she let out a gasp. At the same instant, Gamp’s hands rose to his temples and he shook his head in confusion.
 

Stupefy.” With the last of her strength, she stunned Gamp and then fell to her knees, breathing heavily. Controlling him had turned out to be far more taxing than she expected. His mental illness turned his mind into a churning sea of violent impulses and disconnected thoughts. She felt like she was piloting a dinghy through the center of the storm, desperately trying not to capsize.
 

She frowned as she gathered herself. According to the book, controlling another person should not be this difficult. Herodonthus had taken control of thousands of men simultaneously. Surely there were a few nutters in a crowd that large? She struggled unsteadily to her feet and conjured ropes, binding Gamp securely. Then she levitated him into an empty crate in one of the dark corners of the warehouse. By the time she was done applying the spells that would keep him comatose until he was needed again, she felt strong enough to apparate to her hideout in the rafters.
 

She set a pot of water on top of the small stove and sank into her armchair with the ancient book. Turning to a section she knew well, she toyed with the ancient runes in her mind. Runes were a metaphorical, almost poetic language and she found that Herodonthus sometimes took a great deal of artistic license as his faltering mind wandered through the pages. Comprehending his message was an exercise in patience, concentration and trying to think like a lunatic.
 

She focused on on particular passage about the state of oneness. It wasn’t an unusual reference and Herodonthus rambled on about the concept in relation to any number of topics. This one followed a passage about changing the flows of rivers in order to conquer the land of an enemy. He often used that metaphor to describe the process of modifying or controlling the thoughts of another person.
 

Bend the rivers so their waters flow to your own ends

It is the surest way to conquer the lands of your adversary

As the streams align to your own designs

He will be unable to move his armies against you

When his lands have been reshaped

So their paths lay bare his heart to your assault

Channel the waters of your homeland into his rivers

Beseech the oneness that unites you in purpose

To join the destinies of your lands come drought or plenty

 

Her attention narrowed the the particular rune that she’d been translating as “beseech.” It seemed rather out of place, and the more she stared at it, the less confident she felt in her translation. She struggled to recall other runes that were similar in appearance. Patronize. Boil. Fondle. Submerge. No, none of those seemed to make any more sense.
 

Impose. Now there was an interesting possibility. What if “the oneness” wasn’t some ethereal state of being, but rather something that was forced on the target of the curse? She read the passage again. Impose the oneness that unites you in purpose. To join the destinies of your lands. Taken in context, it implied that minds were somehow merged.
 

She conjured a sheet of parchment and began to rapidly scribble notes. If she was correct, this was the breakthrough that she needed to make the final phase of her plan a reality. She momentarily considered reviving Gamp to test her theory, but the idea of creating such an intimate bond with his twisted mind repulsed her. Better to obliviate him and let him continue to terrorize her other followers.
 

She thought of another wizard she could attempt the bonding with, one whose mind she already knew quite well, but she decided it would be premature. He was the centerpiece of her end game, and she hadn’t gotten this far by being impulsive. She made up her mind to carefully test the technique on her pawns inside the Minister’s office. If one or two of them suffered permanent damage, the cost to her would be minimal. If her theory was correct, her work was about to get a lot easier.
 





Harry’s insides flinched painfully as Ron pushed his wheelchair over the gap where St. Mungo’s service lift met the ground floor loading dock, but he refused to let a grimace cross his face. For the past twenty hours, ever since Al and Lily had left the previous evening, he had been carping and cajoling his way out of the hospital. The nurses could barely stand to look at him by the time morning rolled around. When the healer made her morning rounds, Harry met her at the door of his room, supporting his surgically repaired shoulder in a sling he’d fashioned from bed sheets. Instead of earning him the immediate discharge he’d hoped for, she nearly transferred him to the mental ward.
 

In the end, he had managed to wangle his way out on security grounds. It was safer for all involved, he argued, to leave the hospital a day early with a long list of restrictions and a visiting nurse than to depart at a time that could be easily guessed by potential assassins. Naturally, Ron had still insisted on additional precautions. Harry had not been happy about donating hairs for polyjuice potion, but he gave in after Ron threatened to leave him in the hospital. Twenty minutes before his actual departure, three Ministry cars had pulled away from the hospital with Terry Boot disguised as Harry.
 

The first restriction on Harry’s list was no apparition or portkeys. Brooms were out of the question for obvious reasons, so the next best option was Ron’s old BMW parked by the hospital’s service entrance. Harry admired the aging four-door car as Ron wheeled him down the ramp to ground level. In spite of its high mileage, Ron kept it in great condition. He had been angling for a new car for nearly ten years, but Hermione consistently vetoed it on the grounds that he hardly ever drove. Harry smirked as he recalled the row that ensued when Ron had first brought the BMW home. “I deserve this,” Ron had been repeating to himself for weeks. He certainly got what he deserved from his wife.
 

The game plan was to drive Harry to Grimmauld Place and then use the floo to travel back to Harry’s home in Ottery St. Catchpole. “Anyone who figures out you’re not in the Ministry car will expect you to floo from the hospital,” Ron reasoned. “If they’re going to try to intercept you in the floo network, that’s where they’ll do it. The wards around your house are too strong.”
 

Harry couldn’t help groaning as Ron helped him stand up from the wheelchair. In spite of the pain potions, his injured shoulder throbbed. Each halting step sent sharp jolts of agony shooting down his arm, which was even more frustrating because most of the feeling below his elbow had yet to come back. By the time he gingerly lowered himself into the passenger seat, he was exhausted.
 

“Hey, boss,” came a cheerful voice from behind him that made him jump and then gasp in pain.
 

“Justin, I am going to get back at you for that,” Harry groaned, “if it’s the last thing I do.”
 

Justin chuckled beneath his disillusionment charm. From the other side of the back seat, Susan’s disembodied voice added, “Well, let’s make sure your final act doesn’t happen any time soon, alright?”
 

“OK, Harry, time to cover up,” Ron said, dropping into the driver’s seat. He pulled the invisibility cloak out of the center console and began to pull it over Harry. “Lean forward a bit, right? It wouldn’t do to drive around with half the passenger seat missing.”
 

“Where did you get this?” Harry asked, realizing that he had lost track of the cloak after blacking out in the Hogwarts infirmary.
 

“Neville snagged it out of your robes before they shipped you off to St. Mungo’s,” Ron replied. “He was surprised to find it on you. Based on the relative lack of detentions, he was pretty sure one of your grandchildren had it.”
 

Harry smiled, but said nothing. He watched as Ron expertly adjusted the heater, the rear-view mirror and the radio while backing out of the loading dock towards the hospital exit. “Ron, why is it that can you operate this car effortlessly when you’re bloody hopeless with every other muggle contraption on earth?”
 

“The car just makes sense,” Ron replied. “Everything is where I expect it to be and does what it’s supposed to. These German blokes should make computers.”
 

The drive through London proceeded without incident, although Ron insisted on taking side streets and multiple unadvertised shortcuts. As they drove, he began to fill Harry in on the meeting that one of their Aurors had infiltrated.
 

“So Philbrick didn’t even have time to call for backup?” Harry asked.
 

“No. He decided to start working Strafford Rowle after we heard that the Blood Order was recruiting. Rowle is one of the biggest pure blood nutters left on the street, so it made sense, and Philbrick had dealings with him in the past posing as a distant Yaxley cousin who smuggled contraband wands from Bulgaria. They’d just sat down to catch up over drinks when Feates Rosier tapped Rowle on the shoulder and told him about the meeting. Philbrick saw his chance and he took it.”
 

“Tenabra,” Harry repeated the name, scratching his chin. “It sounds made-up.”
 

“We’ve already run it through Magical Records and the muggle birth records database,” Susan chimed in from the back seat. “No matches that would make any sense at all.”
 

“Philbrick managed to stun two of the wizards attending the meeting,” Ron added, “but they didn’t know anything that he hadn’t already found out. Invited by friends of friends.”
 

As they waited at a traffic light, Harry heard an electronic tinkling sound from the back seat. “Sorry,” came Susan’s voice, “my mobile.” She answered the call and her voice immediately became concerned. “Ron, the decoy motorcade is under attack!”
 

“What?” Harry snapped before Ron could respond. “Where are they?”
 

“They took the motorway,” Ron answered, sounding shocked. “Somebody’s attacking them in broad daylight, surrounded by thousands of muggles!”
 

“How fast can we get there?” Harry demanded. “Did your dad ever enchant this thing to fly?”
 

“Harry, no. We can’t. I have my orders from the Minister himself,” Ron answered, sounding rather ashamed. “Our priority is to get you safely home.”
 

“The Minister can sod off!” Harry retorted angrily. “You haven’t seen these people fight, Ron. They’re killers. Terry and his team need our help.”
 

“Mate, you’re in no condition to help anybody,” Ron insisted. “You can barely walk. You’d be a liability in a fight and you know it.”
 

“Harry,” Susan said quietly but firmly, “do you trust their training?”
 

“That’s not the point, Susan!”
 

“Yes, Harry, it is. If you trust them, then let them do their job. And while you’re at it, let us do ours, which is to deliver you home in one piece.”
 

The car was silent for several minutes. Finally, Harry asked, “How soon will we know what happened?”
 

“Backup had already been called in,” Susan answered. “I’m sure Terry will contact me as soon as he’s able.”
 

They were still waiting anxiously when Harry felt the familiar tingling as they passed through the wards surrounding Grimmauld Place. The Fidelius Charm that once protected the house was long gone, but Harry had replaced it with a wide array of defensive spells. In spite of their safe arrival, everyone’s nerves were still on edge. Ron pulled to a stop in the driveway and Justin and Susan hopped out of the car and began to cast shield charms and revealing spells.
 

“Ron, I’m sure it’s OK. The wards are still up,” Harry said, pulling the invisibility cloak off of his head.
 

“I forgot you can feel those,” was all Ron said as he waited for a signal from Justin and Susan. Once they declared the all clear, Ron hopped out of the car and made his way around to Harry’s side. As he and Susan were helping Harry to his feet, her mobile rang again.
 

“Hello?” she answered it, apprehension covering her features. “Oh, thank Merlin.”
 

“No casualties,” she relayed to Ron and Harry. “Just a couple of minor injuries.”
 

Susan listened intently to the person on the other end of the call. “They were attacked by four masked, hooded wizards on brooms. They managed to stun one of them, but he fell into traffic and was struck and killed by a muggle lorry. That turned out to be Kendrick Avery. The other three escaped. The Minister has issued an all-hands alert. Anyone certified to do muggle memory modification is being called in to help the Obliviators undo the damage.”
 

Ron sighed. “Get the word out. Double shifts for everybody until this bloody mess is cleaned up. You two are here with me on security detail, though. Terry’s in charge in the office.”
 

Susan passed Ron’s orders along while Justin continued to check the integrity of the wards. Ron helped Harry up the steps and into the house. They made their way to the floo and Ron threw a handful of powder into the low fire. “The Potter Estate.”
 

Ron stepped through first and Harry followed gingerly behind him. When he emerged in his sitting room, Harry found his friend sweeping the room with revealing spells.
 

“Will you come off it, Ron? There’s nobody here but us!” Harry snapped in frustration.
 

He was immediately proved wrong as Hermys appeared in front of them, looking overjoyed.
 

“Master is home! Master is home!” the elf cried happily as he reached for Harry’s cloak.
 

“Thank you, Hermys,” Harry replied. “It’s good to see you, too.”
 

Ron had finished his survey of the room and he pocketed his wand and turned back to Harry. He started to say, “Harry, I need to tell you about...” at the same instant that Hermys chirped, “Hermys has something important for Master...”
 

“Hermys was not meaning to interrupt Master Ron,” the elf said quickly with a nervous bow.
 

“It’s alright, Hermys,” Ron replied reassuringly. “Please, go ahead.”
 

“Oh, no, no, Hermys could not possibly speak before Master’s guest. Master Ron must go first.”
 

“Really, it’s fine, Hermys. If you have something important for Harry...”
 

“Come on!” Harry cut them off. “Ron, you go first.”
 

“Oi, no reason to get hostile,” Ron began, looking slightly hurt. “I was gonna tell you that my lunch with Percy didn’t end well. He got really upset, refused to give us the memory and stormed out of the restaurant leaving me with a twenty quid tab. The git makes almost twice what I do.”
 

Harry shook his head, looking slightly amused.
 

“Perhaps,” Hermys said cautiously, “Master Ron’s lunch went better than he realized.” The elf held up a vial filled with a silvery liquid.
 

“Hermys, is this what I think it is?” Harry asked, taking the vial.
 

The elf nodded solemnly. “Master Percy summoned Hermys to a filthy muggle tavern in much need of a good cleaning. Master Percy did not look well, but he would not permit Hermys to take him to a healer. Master Percy said that it was important to deliver this to Master as soon as possible.”
 

Harry took the vial and swirled the contents gently. “Sounds like he had a moment of clarity or something,” Harry mused, looking from the vial to Ron.
 

“No,” Hermys mumbled quietly. “Not clear.”
 

“What was that?” Harry asked, noticing the elf’s odd reaction. “Was something wrong with him?”
 

Hermys stared at his feet for a long moment before meeting Harry’s gaze. “There is a word in the elvish language. It is not easy to explain. Master Percy was... not alone.”
 

Harry stared at the elf, confused. “You mean there was somebody else there?”
 

“No, Master,” Hermys replied. “It was only Hermys and Master Percy in the wretched place.” He seemed to be thinking very hard. Then he touched the side of his head. “Master Percy was not alone... here.”
 

“You mean somebody was inside his head?” Ron asked.
 

“Not inside,” the elf answered. “Present, but not there. Hermys is ashamed that he cannot explain clearly.”
 

“It’s alright, Hermys,” Harry replied. “If you think of another way to explain it, let me know. Ron, Susan and Justin will be joining us for dinner.”
 

The elf nodded obediently. After taking Harry and Ron’s cloaks, he disappeared with a crack.
 

Ron stared at Harry. “What do you make of that?”
 

“I’m not sure,” Harry said. “Elves can sense a lot of things, but they aren’t good with words. I think maybe we should have another chat with Percy. In the meantime, do you think Hermione could join us for dinner? The three of us should have a good look at this.” Harry held up the vial, swirling the silvery liquid that he hoped would answer a lot of questions.

 




 
As Percy prepared to turn the page of the magical secrecy treaty on the desk in front of him, it dawned on him that his mind had been drifting. He silently cursed and began to backtrack, trying to find the last paragraph that he could actually remember reading. Checking his watch, he realized that it was past dinnertime. He knew that he should probably contact Audrey and let her know that he would be missing the joint counseling session they had scheduled for that evening, but he couldn’t handle the disappointment he was sure to hear in her voice. He hoped that she had heard about the attack. Then she might understand.
 

He looked through his office door and saw most of his staff still sitting at their desks. Official notifications needed to go out to all of the wizarding nations that were signatories to the International Treaty of Secrecy, alerting them to the severe breach that had occurred along the muggle motorway earlier that day and explaining the steps the Ministry was taking to deal with the incident. Percy thought about the teams of Obliviators, Aurors and Magical Law Enforcement Patrol that were sweeping the M4 corridor, following up on any muggles who reported seeing anything unusual. Their smug self-importance annoyed him. They weren’t the only ones who had to work long hours when the muggles saw something they weren’t supposed to.
 

Percy’s day had been a complete disaster. He had barely slept the night before. His dreams were plagued by visions of Ginny and Edwin Stoops and, for some strange reason, Harry’s elf. It was the worst night he’d had in a very long time, and he reckoned that the stress of his attempted reconciliation with Audrey must be getting to him. Even now, he longed to skive off to a dark, crowded muggle pub where he could lose himself for a few hours.
 

As soon as he arrived at work, he had tried to schedule lunch with Arabela. Talking to her always seemed to help him sort out his thoughts. He could hardly believe that a woman as smart and decisive as Arabela tolerated a crumbling wreck of a wizard like himself. But on this day, she could only offer him her sincere regrets. The Minister’s entire staff was working sixteen hour days, helping him stay on top of the situation with the New Blood Order while trying to keep the progressive and pure blood factions of the Wizengamot from tearing the government apart.
 

He started to read the treaty again, but his mind drifted almost immediately. An idea struck him, and he rolled up the treaty and grabbed his cloak, feeling at ease for the first time all day. There was a muggle coffee shop three streets from the Ministry that featured a jazz quartet on Thursday nights. If he was lucky, he could snag a quiet table and finish his work there. He felt the weight of a dozen pairs of eyes as he closed his office door behind him, so he made a point of carrying the rolls of parchment conspicuously as he strode out towards the lifts.




 

Justin and Susan left Harry’s house shortly after their relief arrived. They both volunteered to stay the night, but Ron had sent them home, knowing that everyone in the department had long days ahead of them. Once the night security detail settled into the drawing room and Hermys began to accost them with trays of food and drinks, Harry, Ron and Hermione adjourned to the study.
 

Ron took Harry’s pensieve down from its shelf and set it on the coffee table. It had been a gift from Kingsley to celebrate his promotion to Head Auror, and based on the well-worn stone and the intricate carvings around its rim, Harry guessed that it was both old and expensive. Hermione conjured a thick layer of pillows on the floor around the table as Ron moved the furniture back towards the walls. They couldn’t be too careful, she reckoned, since a paraplegic and an invalid would soon be popping out of the pensieve. When she was satisfied with their landing zone, Harry poured the memory into the stone basin and swirled it with his wand.
 

“Alright, I’ll go first and you two drop in one at a time,” Ron directed. “Give me a few seconds in between so I can catch both of you.” Then he leaned forward and disappeared into the swirling, silvery memory.
 

With his one good arm, Harry helped Hermione slide awkwardly forward on her seat until she more or less tumbled into the pensieve headfirst. Harry counted to five, took a deep breath, and leaned forward. He felt the familiar sensation of free-fall, and suddenly a concrete floor was rushing towards him. Both of his arms reflexively reached out, and he felt pain shoot through his injured shoulder. Just before he hit the floor, he was surprised to feel two sets of hands break his fall.
 

Harry stared at Hermione open-mouthed. She was standing on her own two feet, smiling from ear to ear. “Hermione, you’re...”
 

“I know!” she replied giddily. “I thought I’d never get to feel this again.”
 

“What do you reckon it means?” Ron asked. He sounded almost scared to accept what he was seeing, as though the mere act of believing his eyes would send his wife crashing to the floor.
 

“The French call your presence inside a memory ‘perceived self image’,” Harry said, recalling his advanced memory magic training. “Essentially, you appear the way that you envision yourself in your own mind. If I had to take a guess, I’d say that you’ve never given up on thinking of yourself as able to walk.”
 

There was a long, awkward moment as they all realized that Harry’s guess was probably the truth. Feeling like he’d been rather insensitive, he lamely added, “I guess I’ve come to terms with my busted shoulder, huh?”
 

“Let’s get on with this, right?” Ron said, taking Hermione’s hand. He waved his wand and set the memory in motion. Percy appeared at the entrance to the muggle jail. He exchanged a brief greeting with the Obliviator keeping watch, then headed for the doorway that led to the prisoner cells.
 

The memory moved into the cell block, following Percy’s footsteps. “Pay close attention,” Harry directed. “Any detail could be important.” They studied their surroundings carefully as they walked towards the far end of the room. The walls were made of cinder block and painted a drab, institutional green. Behind the dull steel bars, the paint had been scratched and dirtied by the fingers of countless inmates. Harsh fluorescent lights covered with filthy plastic diffusers bathed the room in a sickly yellow hue. Percy shuddered as he passed cell after cell of muggle criminals who mocked his black cloak and blue robes.
 

When he reached the end of the row, Percy was confronted with Edwin Stoops, alone in his cell. Stoops sat on the cot against the wall, staring at his shoes. There was an absent look on his face, as though his mind was somewhere else. The tap on the cell’s tiny metal sink dripped intermittently. Percy stood quietly outside the cell, staring. His expression vacillated between despair and rage. Finally, he spoke a single word. “Why?”
 

Stoops looked up, noticing Percy for the first time. He appeared confused, then amused. He pointed at Percy and started to laugh, first a soft chuckle and then a full belly laugh, rocking back and forth on the cot. Percy’s face twisted with hatred as Stoops slapped his knee and rose to his feet. As Stoops approached the bars separating them, Percy’s arm raised towards the cell and his wand leapt into his hand. “I’ve never seen him do nonverbal magic,” Ron whispered, forgetting that the people in the memory couldn’t hear him.
 

Stoops pointed at Percy’s wand and laughed as though he’d never seen anything so funny. Hermione shuddered and gripped Ron’s hand tighter, knowing what was coming.
 

AVADA KEDAVRA” The words rang out like a clap of thunder. The curse erupted from Percy’s wand like a bolt of emerald lightning. A brilliant green glow shone from the center of Edwin Stoops’s chest for a fraction of a second before he disappeared in a blinding explosion.
 

As the dust settled around the demolished cell, Percy slowly backed away and pocketed his wand. He turned and began to walk back towards the entrance. The memory had taken on a hazy quality, and the details around the periphery of Percy’s field of vision were indistinct. The muggle criminals who had taunted him before now looked at him with fearful eyes, unsure of what had just happened. Their surroundings began to fade as Percy reached the end of the cell block. Ron waved his wand and halted the memory.
 

“Something’s not right,” Harry murmered, studying their hazy surroundings. “It’s like everything went fuzzy after he killed Stoops.”
 

“Ron,” Hermione said, thinking carefully, “take us back to the moment just before he cast the killing curse.”
 

Ron waved his wand and their surroundings shifted. They were once again standing next to Percy as he pointed his wand towards the center of Stoops’s chest. Hermione walked around Percy and stood near the cell bars. She studied the worn chrome fixtures of the cell’s sink. She could make out a hazy reflection of Percy’s red hair. “Move us forward, slowly,” she said.
 

Stoops’s final moments played out in slow motion. Hermione carefully watched the reflection. Just as the explosion lit up the room, she called out “Stop!”
 

Ron paused the memory and made a face as he stared at the green light tearing Edwin Stoops apart from within. He and Harry both moved around and followed Hermione’s outstretched finger with their eyes. In the sink fixtures, they could just make out the reflection of a pale female face surrounded by long blond hair and a dark hood.
 

“It’s gotta be her,” Harry said quietly. “The one from Magical Records, the one who was standing across the street when Ginny died.”
 

Hermione frowned. “So that means this memory...”
 

“Is a fake,” Ron said breathlessly. “A bloody fake.”
 

“Not just a fake,” Harry replied, looking around. “A brilliant fake. I’ve seen forged memories before, but nothing like this. Whoever altered it did a masterful job.”
 

“Anybody come to mind?” Ron asked. They had sent dark wizards to Azkaban for tampering with the memories of unwitting victims, but the alterations were always crude and easy to spot.
 

“Nobody,” Harry answered. “The only time I’ve ever seen memories altered this perfectly was during my advanced memory training in France. The French Aurors are the best in the world at it.”
 

Ron shuddered as he looked at Percy’s hate-filled eyes. “OK, then. Let’s get out of here. This place creeps me out.”
 

Moments later, they all tumbled out of the pensieve and landed on the mountain of conjured pillows surrounding the table. Ron caught Hermione in a bear hug as she rolled off the table while Harry landed squarely on his injured shoulder and cursed out loud in spite of the softened landing. Ron lifted his wife into a chair and then quickly moved to help Harry to his feet.
 

“So what do we do?” Hermione asked. “Is there somebody you can show this to who could tell us how it was done and who might have done it?”
 

Harry stared at Dumbledore’s sleeping portrait uncomfortably. “There is,” he said slowly, “but it’s... awkward.”
 

Hermione looked confused. “What do you mean, awkward?”
 

“I mean that she and I have a certain history,” Harry explained. “She’s an Auror in the French Ministry. We did our advanced memory training together, then we spent a lot of time working on a case. This was before Ginny and I were married. In the end, I knew that Ginny was the only one for me, but I think she was hoping for a different outcome.”
 

“That is awkward,” Hermione agreed.
 

“So are you gonna send her an owl or something?” asked Ron, earning an immediate glare from his wife. He realized his mistake and mumbled, “I mean, you know, that was a long time ago, right?”
 

“Yes, I’m sure she’ll help us,” Harry finally replied. “She kind of owes me one.”
 

Ron yawned and looked at his watch. “It’s been a long day, love. Why don’t we floo home and let Harry get some rest?”
 

Ron stood up, but Hermione didn’t move. She looked uncertainly from Ron back to Harry, drawing inquisitive stares from both of them. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, “Before we go, there’s one more memory I need to look at. You two are welcome to join me if you like.”
 

“What is it?” Ron asked.
 

“Something I discovered while I was trying to understand my problem with the wheelchair,” she replied uneasily. “It’s rather personal, but I think I need some support while I view it.”
 

“Of course,” Harry said, “anything you need. You know that.” He siphoned Percy’s memory out of the pensive with his wand and returned it to the vial.
 

While Ron rearranged the pillows on the floor, Hermione touched her wand to her temple. “It was hard to remember this,” she explained. “It happened a long time ago and it isn’t very pleasant, but I think it’s important.” She drew a long, silvery strand with her wand and placed it into the pensieve, where it swirled and expanded to fill the stone basin.
 

“Ready, love?” Ron asked, embracing her shoulders.
 

“Yes,” she replied nervously. “Harry, give us a few seconds and we’ll catch you.”
 

Harry watched his friends disappear into the pensieve and joined them a few seconds later. They caught him as he tumbled precariously towards a floor covered with cheap, institutional carpet. As the memory began to play out, a group of girls in muggle school uniforms came into view. They all appeared by be five or six years old. The memory seemed to focus on three girls who surrounded a fragile-looking youngster with familiar, bushy brown hair.
 

“Come on, Hermione,” a spindly blond girl was saying. “Are you chicken?” The girl was tall for her age, and towered over young Hermione.
 

“I’m not chicken,” young Hermione shot back, “it’s just not nice.”
 

“Nice, shmice,” another girl taunted. “You’re just chicken.”
 

“I am not chicken!” young Hermione insisted.
 

“Then prove it,” the blond demanded. “He’s right over there. Just say it and walk away.”
 

“But, he’s just a nice old man,” young Hermione pleaded. “He hasn’t done anything to us.”
 

“Chicken, chicken, chicken!” the girls taunted, poking her in the face and chest as they bounced around her. Harry could see the emotion rising in young Hermione’s face. She looked like she might cry at any moment. Finally, she stormed away from the other girls. An elderly man in a wheelchair appeared in the memory, talking to a separate group of girls from the class.
 

Young Hermione marched right up to him. “Cripple!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. Ron and Harry stared at the scene with their mouths agape, along with most of the children in the memory. Suddenly a teacher charged into view and yanked young Hermione away by the collar of her uniform. There were tears in her eyes as she stared back at the elderly man. Harry though he saw her mouth the words “I’m sorry.”
 

The classroom dissolved around them and the memory shifted to a muggle bedroom that obviously belonged to a little girl. Harry thought that he recognized the wallpaper from a picture Hermione had shown him. Loud shouts echoed from outside the room. A male and a female voice seemed to be taking turns venting their anger. After a solid five minutes, young Hermione ran into the room and threw herself on the bed, sobbing.
 

Harry turned to face adult Hermione and found her buried in Ron’s embrace. Her shoulders gently shook as she cried. Ron’s cheek leaned on the top of her head and he was whispering reassuring words to her. After a long few minutes, she pulled her tear-stained face back from Ron’s chest.
 

“You told me that you never got in trouble when you were little,” Ron said quietly.
 

“I never did, before that,” she replied. “And afterwards, I couldn’t bear the thought.”
 

“Who was the man in the wheelchair?” Harry asked.
 

“He was a World War II veteran who visited my class on Remembrance Day. I never knew his name. My dad’s favorite uncle lost a leg in the war. I should have known better. But they kept teasing me and teasing me. I just wanted them to stop.” Her eyes were shining with tears again. “I had to do something to make them stop! Why couldn’t they just LEAVE ME ALONE?
 

Ron pulled her into another hug as she started to sob again. Harry stared at her and tears welled in his own eyes. If there was one thing he clearly remembered from his own childhood, it was being bullied.
 

Hermione cried herself out for a second time and looked up at Ron as though his forgiveness was all that mattered in the world. “I was young and afraid and I didn’t have many friends. So I let them bully me into hurting that poor old man. I was so stupid.”
 

“Love, you were five,” Ron said matter-of-factly. His eyes were filled with reassurance as he stared down at her. “You know what you did was wrong, and I think it made you a stronger person.”
 

She stared back at him and seemed to find her resolve. “Let’s find out.” She waved her wand and their surroundings dissolved. Moments later, they all tumbled back into Harry’s study. Harry was relieved when he landed on his good side.
 

Ron lifted Hermione back into her chair as Harry struggled to his feet. “Do you mind?” Hermione asked Harry, pointing to the chair with her wand.
 

“Go ahead,” Harry replied.
 

Hermione closed her eyes and gestured with her wand. The chair began to sprout wheels and handles as the arms narrowed and the bottom rose. When she opened her eyes a few moments later, she was sitting in a simple wheelchair.
 

“Love, are you OK?” Ron asked nervously.
 

Hermione took a long time to reply. Her hands were shaking and her breath came in short gasps. Finally, she forced herself to take a steadying breath and look Ron and Harry in the eyes.
 

“No,” she replied, “but I will be. Let’s let Harry get some rest. I’m going to have a busy day in the office tomorrow.”

 


Chapter 17: The Setup
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As always, the people and places herein belong to JK Rowling

 



 
Hermione’s first day back to work was not going well. She was able to get around in the wheelchair, but it still made her feel anxious, restless and uncomfortable. After an almost comical attempt to relocate to her desk chair, she realized that her upper body strength needed a great deal of improvement. She decided to reorganize her calendar to allow for an hour in the Ministry gym on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which led to the next sobering revelation; With all of her hearings and most of her regular meetings canceled, her calendar was nearly empty.
 

Aside from the discouraging lack of projects to tackle, it became abundantly clear to her that something had changed in Magical Law. She had expected a warm if not exuberant welcome from her colleagues, and the smattering of manufactured smiles and mechanically delivered well-wishes that she received caught her by surprise. It felt like being at a political fundraiser, except nobody was asking for her support. Several people glanced nervously over their shoulders before greeting her, and whenever she rolled through any of the office’s public areas, they became improbably vacant.
 

As lunchtime drew near, Hermioine made up her mind to try to get to the bottom of whatever was happening around her. She pulled on her short winter coat and covered her legs with her cloak, then she rolled towards the Office for the Promulgation of Magical Rules and Regulations. After entering the office, she navigated the rows of neatly kept desks where paralegals processed judgments, rulings and orders issued by the Wizengamot and the Ministry’s other regulatory departments. She came to a stop in front of a slightly-built, red-headed woman who was perusing the new issue of Witch Weekly, which lay on top of a ruling on the allowable percentage of synthetic materials in brooms certified for flying.
 

“Hello, Lucy,” Hermione said, smiling warmly. The nervous smile on her niece’s face helped to reinforce her suspicions. Lucy had her father’s nose for office politics, and at the moment her career instincts appeared to be on high alert.
 

“Hi, Aunt Hermione,” Lucy chirped as her eyes shifted subtly from side to side. Many of her coworkers were already at lunch, and she seemed to be making careful note of who was still around to overhear the conversation. “I hadn’t heard that you were back at work. Are you feeling better?”
 

There were familiar notes of Audrey in her voice, Hermione thought, and it made her cringe on the inside. One of those in the family was enough. “Yes, I’m doing better,” Hermione replied. “I’m still trying to regain my strength, but I wanted to get back into the swing of things here. Has anything interesting happened while I was away?” She asked the question pointedly.
 

“Oh, no, things have been rather quiet, aside from all the chatter and speculation about this Blood Order business,” Lucy replied. She took another nervous look around. “Listen, I’d love to catch up, but I’m afraid I have a lot of rulings to process today. Are you and Uncle Ron planning to be at Nanna’s for Christmas Dinner?”
 

Hermione stared at her niece with a mix of amusement and disbelief. “Lucy, Christmas is over two months away. I hope we’ll find the time to catch up before then. Do you have any plans for lunch?”
 

Lucy was starting to look uncomfortable. She lowered her voice and said, “Aunt Hermione, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want it to look like I’m spending all my time socializing with family when I should be working. Perceptions are important in our department. You understand, right?”
 

Hermione turned her head slowly, surveying the large share of empty desks whose occupants were off at lunch. Then she turned back to face her niece, nodding her head slightly towards the magazine still lying open on the desk. She smiled cordially and lowered her voice to a hiss. “No, I do not understand. Now you listen to me. I helped you get this job. You can either take the time to explain why everyone in the whole bloody department is suddenly acting like I have Dragon Pox, or I will stop by every day at ten o’clock sharp to discuss the day’s events with you at length. Do I make myself clear?”
 

Lucy stared back in thinly veiled horror. “Now, dear,” Hermione continued, raising her voice back to a pleasant, conversational level, “how do you feel about that little French cafe near the Ministry entrance?”
 

Five minutes later, the two witches made their way down the sidewalk, turning slightly to avoid the edge of the chilly autumn breeze. “I can’t believe you did that!” Lucy was complaining loudly under the protective cover of her aunt’s muffliato charm. “There was no need to come into my personal workspace and threaten me like that. I really do have a lot to do today, you know?”
 

“And that’s the only reason you were so reluctant?” Hermione replied icily. “I doubt it. Somewhere along the way, I’ve become about as welcome as a mountain troll in the ladies’ loo. I wouldn’t have expected this from you.”
 

Lucy glared at her aunt, but Hermione returned the look with withering intensity. Lucy’s angry frown quickly melted away. “Please don’t be upset with me, Aunt Hermione. You know I appreciate everything that you’ve done for me. It’s just that things have gotten really tense in the office. It’s hard to explain.”
 

“Try me,” Hermione replied bluntly.
 

Lucy sighed and thought for a moment. “It all started after this Blood Order came along and started to attack people. At first, the talk was about how we should all be careful about identifying ourselves as Ministry employees, you know? Not draw attention to yourself. Then we started hearing that the Minister was losing the support of the pure bloods, and that everyone needed to be careful to avoid doing things that would antagonize them.
 

“The message kept changing, though,” she continued, looking somber. “Soon, it wasn’t just about not making the pure bloods upset, it was about how we could help the Minister win their support back. Some people started to say that anyone who was working on anything the pure bloods didn’t like was undermining the stability of the government. That they needed to be reassigned or even fired.”
 

Hermione’s mind was spinning in high gear. What she was hearing explained the reactions she’d been getting, but it didn’t make sense politically. “Lucy, why do you think the Minister is so worried? The pure bloods are such a small fraction of the population, and they get smaller with every generation.”
 

“But they’re loud,” Lucy replied. “And they’re well-connected. They stand up and speak their minds while most of the half-blood and muggle-born witches and wizards just assume that the Minister will do what’s best.”
 

“Well perhaps it’s time for us muggle-borns to speak more loudly,” Hermione said, feeling her righteous anger swell. If the pure bloods wanted a fight, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d obliged them.
 

Lucy stopped and turned to face her aunt. “Please, Aunt Hermione, don’t. It’s already a scary time to be a Weasley at the Ministry. Al, Hugo and I have all felt it. I mean, I think we’re all safe because of my dad and Uncle Harry, but it’s not like it used to be. Please don’t make this any more difficult.”
 

“You haven’t seen difficult yet,” Hermione replied with a grin. Lucy couldn’t help herself, and returned the smile. “Come on. As long as I’m ruining your career with my toxic influence, the least I can do is buy you lunch.”
 





Harry winced uncomfortably as the visiting nurse prodded his injured shoulder. She was an older witch, with a stern, uncompromising manner about her. She reminded Harry of Professor McGonagall when he was right on the cusp of receiving detention. He groaned as she scribbled down some measurements and retrieved yet another diagnostic instrument from the seemingly endless collection in her brown leather bag.
 

“My compliments to whoever put the Undetectable Extension Charm on that,” Harry said, trying to lighten the mood. “If you’ve got another nurse in there somewhere, maybe they could poke and prod while you keep the minutes?”
 

“If I had the room, I’d be stuffing you in there and dragging you right back to St. Mungo’s,” she retorted sharply. “Tell me, Mr. Potter, is there a single item on the list of restrictions given to you by the healer that you have followed?”
 

“Well, I haven’t apparated anywhere or ridden a broom,” Harry answered defensively.
 

“Oh, this should be good,” she replied, resting her chin on the heel of her hand and peering at him over the top of her horn-rim glasses. “How did you manage to dislodge three of the suturing spells holding your shoulder together without taking part in any high-speed broomstick crashes?”
 

Harry recalled tumbling out of the pensieve and landing squarely on his injured shoulder, but it wouldn’t do to tell the nurse about that. “It must have happened while I was fluffing my pillows,” he responded, trying to match the bite of her sarcasm. The way she rolled her eyes suggested that he’d come up short.
 

“Mr. Potter, I would readmit you on the spot if it weren’t for the fact that I’d be inviting back a whole contingent of your lot.”
 

“My lot?” Harry bristled.
 

“Yes, your lot.” she shot back. “Bloody Aurors! You all seem to fancy yourselves indestructible. Do you think we just sit around all day, waiting for one of you to be wheeled in?”
 

“I’ll be sure to let the next group of dark wizards who try to kill me know how much of your time they’ve been wasting,” Harry muttered. He sucked in a sharp breath through clenched teeth as she lifted his elbow with a little less care than he would have liked. She waved her wand around his shoulder, whispering incantations to herself. Then she made several more loops around the injury with her instruments.
 

“I’ve repaired the suturing spells,” she said, gently lowering his elbow back to his side. “But I’m warning you, Mr. Potter, if you don’t stop whatever it is you’ve been doing and rest this shoulder, you will find yourself right back in St. Mungo’s. Do I make myself clear?”
 

“Yes,” Harry sighed. Since she was due back the next morning, there seemed to be no point in antagonizing her further.
 

She administered three potions and left five more with Hermys, giving the elf lengthy instructions on how and when they were to be taken, as well as some choice suggestions for what to do if Harry didn’t cooperate fully.
 

When she finally disappeared into the fireplace, Harry let out a long sigh of relief. He noticed Hermys staring at him nervously from the drawing room doorway.
 

“It’s alright, Hermys,” Harry said. “I’m not going to be difficult. Just let me know what to take and when.”
 

“And Master will rest?” the elf pressed gently.
 

“Yes, Hermys, I will,” Harry replied with a smile. “It doesn’t seem like I have any choice.”
 

That part was certainly true. After several futile attempts to get an update on the investigation of the attack over the M4, he learned that Ron had threatened anyone who allowed him to work with a month of overnight shifts walking the perimeter of Azkaban. He was frustrated, but impressed with Ron’s determination. And in spite of his desire to stay on top of the case, he found that the couch was calling out to him. As he gingerly eased himself into a reclining position, he wondered whether the visiting nurse had slipped some sleeping draught into his potions.
 

The next thing Harry knew, Hermys was calling softly from the doorway.
 

“Master?”
 

He opened his eyes slightly and was greeted by a dark, blurry world.
 

“Master is sleeping,” he heard the elf whisper. “Perhaps you could return at another time?”
 

“It’s OK, Hermys, I’m awake,” Harry said. He started to sit up and realized that there was a blanket on top of him. He silently summoned his glasses to his hand and slipped them onto his face. As the room came into focus, he found that the curtains had been drawn and a low fire was burning on the hearth. Strains of soft music emanated from somewhere in the room. Hermys had gone all out to promote his nap.
 

“Harry, I’m sorry to wake you,” came Neville’s voice from the doorway. “I can come back later if you’re resting.”
 

“No, that’s alright,” Harry yawned, suppressing a grimace as he pulled himself to a sitting position. “Just trying to follow the healer’s orders for a change.” He gestured towards the window and the curtains parted to reveal the early afternoon sun. Hermys muttered crossly under his breath as he stalked back towards the kitchen, reminding Harry of Kreacher.
 

“That’s a new one on you,” Neville smirked, lowering himself into an armchair across from Harry. “You aren’t going soft, are you?”
 

“No,” Harry replied with a grin, “just trying to live long enough to retire to this cushy teaching position I keep hearing about.”
 

They both enjoyed a chuckle, but the look on Neville’s face was troubled. Harry studied him for a moment. “It’s a school day, so I doubt this is just a social call.”
 

“No, it isn’t,” Neville admitted. “I’ve just come from a very disturbing meeting with the Board of Governors. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. If you don’t mind, I was hoping we might discuss it in your study.”
 

Harry was puzzled for a moment, then he thought of Dumbledore’s portrait. He nodded and very slowly made his way to a standing position, taking great care to keep his injured shoulder still. They walked silently down the hall to the study and Harry closed the door behind them.
 

“Harry, the Board of Governors voted down my proposal on the revised Muggle Studies curriculum,” Neville began. “Then they started asking a lot of very pointed questions about what’s currently being taught and about the number of muggle-born students attending Hogwarts. After a while, the whole thing became rather confrontational.”
 

Harry was not at all surprised that Dumbledore’s eyes were open and he was listening intently. “Neville, I don’t understand,” Harry began. “I spoke to the Deputy Minister just last week and he thought that your proposal would sail right through. He wasn’t even sure that you needed the Governors’ approval.”
 

Neville shook his head grimly. “Ordinarily, somebody would have warned me if the Governors were upset about something. You know, provided me at least a little time to prepare. Today I was caught completely by surprise.”
 

“Mr. Longbottom,” Dumbledore’s portrait chimed in, “am I correct in assuming there’s a reason that we are not discussing this in the pleasant confines of your office?”
 

Neville nodded somberly. “Yes, Professor. It has come to my attention that several monitoring spells have been woven into the castle’s protective enchantments, without my knowledge or approval. I’m pretty sure that the headmaster’s office hasn’t been compromised, but I didn’t want to take a chance until I had a better idea what’s going on.”
 

“The Aurors certainly weren’t involved,” Harry said, looking alarmed. He began to pace. “Something isn’t right. I can understand why the Minister wouldn’t want any controversial changes to the Muggle Studies curriculum right now. I’ve heard that he’s quietly making all sorts of small compromises to try to keep the pure blood faction of the Wizengamot from revolting. But spying on the school? Questioning the place of muggle-borns in the student body? It’s... unheard of.”
 

“Oh, I daresay I’ve heard of it once or twice,” Dumbledore replied with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
 

Harry looked slightly embarrassed. “Well it’s unheard of since the end of the war, anyway.”
 

“So what do we do?” Neville asked. “I can deal with leaving the Muggle Studies curriculum as it is for a while, but we can’t have people spying on the students. Their futures are at stake.”
 

“I think Bill is back from the Middle East tomorrow,” Harry replied. “I’m sure he can remove the monitoring spells, and do it much more discreetly than anyone from our department.”
 

Harry paused for a moment. “While we’re on the subject of pulling in outside help, there’s something else I’ve been mulling over that I’d like your opinion on. Both of your opinions,” he added, nodding purposefully towards Dumbledore.
 

“A few weeks ago, Arthur Weasley pulled me aside and suggested that we reconvene the Order,” Harry began, carefully observing the portrait’s reaction. “I didn’t think much of it at the time because the attack on the Ministry and the breakout at Azkaban seemed like isolated incidents, even if they were related. Now the waters are getting really murky and I’m not so sure. I’d like to think we can count on every single Auror, but the truth is that outside of the core group from the D.A., I can’t predict how each individual will react if things take a turn for the worse. It would be good, I think, to have some extra eyes and ears that we trust in key places like Hogwarts and the Ministry.”
 

There was a long moment of silence as they all pondered what Harry was proposing. “Harry, you almost sound like you’re worried about another war,” Neville said slowly.
 

“I really, really hope not,” Harry answered grimly, still looking at Dumbledore, “but I refuse to be caught off guard if it comes to that.”
 

“I believe,” Dumbledore began, stroking his beard and staring into space, “that a great many lives could have been spared if wizards in positions of authority had taken such precautions fifty years ago. But we must exercise the utmost care that we do not provoke a war where none need occur.”
 

Harry stared at him thoughtfully for a moment. “Agreed. On both accounts. Neville?”
 

“Doing nothing doesn’t seem like an option, does it?” Neville replied. “How should we organize this?”
 

Harry walked to his desk and tapped the top of it with his wand. A small cabinet with a locked door rose smoothly out of the seamless surface. He opened the cabinet with his wand and pulled out an ordinary-looking galleon. “Shall we say Friday night upstairs at the Hog’s Head?”






There was an extra spring in Percy’s step as he strolled back towards the Ministry of Magic. After several days of exasperating schedule conflicts, he had finally managed to arrange lunch with Arabela. Granted, she had shown up late because the Minister’s weekly security briefing ran long and she had to rush off before dessert arrived to pick up the Minister’s official dress robes from the cleaner, but the brief time they spent together did wonders for his spirit. She had been thrilled to hear about the counseling he and Audrey were receiving, although she scolded him about the two sessions he had missed.
 

“Your work may seem important now, but if you neglect your home life, everything will suffer in the end!” she admonished. It was so true. He made a mental note to apologize to Audrey for the lapse in his commitment, perhaps in the form of flowers.
 

Percy found that his lunches with Arabela were always a sort of pleasant blur in his mind. Their conversations seemed to touch on a wide range of topics. Whether or not he could recall the specifics, he always walked away feeling better informed and reassured and just all-around happier. Arabela was very devoted to her work in the Minister’s office, but Percy often told her that she should have her own talk show. He was certain it would be a hit.
 

As he turned the corner onto Whitehall, he was struck by a peculiar feeling. At first, it was as though he’d forgotten something, something important that he very much needed to remember. He strained to think of what it might be. His calendar was actually relatively clear, now that all of the notifications had gone out to the other wizarding nations about the secrecy breach over the M4.
 

He took another couple of steps and the sensation began to change from preoccupation into panic. What was he forgetting, and why did it trouble him so? A plethora of possibilities rolled through his mind.
 

Had he promised to do something for the Minister? Was he missing a healer’s appointment? Had he just betrayed an important trust placed in him by those that he cared about most?
 

The last question popped into his mind unbidden from Merlin only knew where and it sent his anxiety skyrocketing. Percy came to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk, causing an irritable muggle businessman to bump into him and hurl a few choice curse words in Percy’s direction. He paid the man no mind. For some reason that he could not explain, he had to turn around. Whatever he had done wrong, the answer wasn’t inside the Ministry.
 

He started to march back up High Road. His heart was pounding in his ears and he stumbled slightly as he struggled to clear his racing mind. A muggle constable looked him up and down as he passed. Even though the charms on his robes made them look like a suit to the muggles, he was pretty sure they did nothing to hide his tottering swagger. Not only had he apparently ruined something vital with his forgetfulness, now he was going to end up getting arrested for looking drunk and disorderly.
 

He spied the Bell & Hare ahead and made a beeline for it. As he drew closer and heard the music coming from inside, salvation felt like it was within his reach. He ripped the door open and walked rapidly to the bar, taking a seat off to one side. After ordering a drink, he paused to enjoy the calming effect that the music had on his nerves. Slowly, his pulse returned to normal and the frenetic energy in his mind began to dissipate.
 

Percy tried to replay the events of the past five minutes in his head, hoping to finally figure out what had upset him so. You’ve done a terrible thing, Percy. They’re all in danger now. He started and sat bolt upright on his stool. His subconscious mind had offered him advice, made witty observations and occasionally even openly mocked him, but this was the first time it had ever issued a warning. What could he have done? He’d gotten up, gone to work, had a cordial meeting with the Greek ambassador and gone to lunch with Arabela. How could he possibly have endangered anyone?
 

Percy closed his eyes and focused on the music, imploring his subconscious mind to speak to him again, but it remained silent. He sighed and took a sip of his ale, completely at a loss for what to do next. He would have to go back to work soon. There were reports to be read, communiques to be reviewed and visa applications to accept or reject. Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen.






Cepheus Black tried to concentrate on the script he was writing, but his eyes kept darting towards the window of his office. From the plushly appointed space on the eleventh floor of the offices of the Wizarding Wireless Network, he had a lovely view of the River Thames as it flowed past Waterloo Bridge. It still boggled his mind that some members of the staff got nostalgic about the network’s old offices in Hogsmeade Village. In the world of entertainment, London was the place to be.
 

But it wasn’t the view that was distracting him from his writing on this particular day. The latest communique from his secretive source inside the Ministry was several days overdue. It wasn’t the first time, but it always made him nervous. His job became a lot more difficult without the tips that his source provided, a point that was underscored by the blank sheet of parchment sitting on the desk in front of him.
 

There was a knock at his office door and he sat down his quill and waved his wand absentmindedly. The door opened to reveal his personal assistant, who was wearing her traveling cloak over a tight-fitting black dress that was one of his favorites. He stared shamelessly at her cleavage as she spoke. “Xerxes, I’m going out to grab lunch. Can I bring you something?”
 

“Livia, we’re not on the air,” he replied. “Just call me Ceph. And you can bring that body of yours right over to my desk if you please.”
 

Her chest quivered as she giggled coyly, and he wondered what sort of enchantments she used to achieve such lift and separation. “Ceph, honey, I’m starving. And I try not to end up bent over your desk more than three times a week.”
 

“There’s always the sofa,” he snickered, not ready to give up.
 

“You’re incorrigible,” she laughed airily. “But seriously, I have to eat or I’m gonna pass out. Do you want anything?”
 

“Yeah, just bring me a sandwich or something,” he answered. She blew him a kiss and turned to leave. “And Livia,” he said, catching her just before she closed the door, “don’t be long.”
 

He leaned over his desk, trying to catch one last glimpse of her backside as the door closed. Her visit hadn’t helped his writer’s block at all. In addition to feeling uninspired, he was now hungry and aroused. He thought about skiving off to the eighth floor and crashing the casting call for a new daytime drama the network was developing. There were sure to be some comely young witches vying for a part who were eager to get a leg up on the competition. All he had to do was introduce himself and drop the executive producer’s name once or twice and he was sure to find one gullible enough to believe that he had any say in the matter. Even if the talent wasn’t up to scratch, he could still raid the catering table.
 

At times, Ceph marveled that the secret life he’d managed to carve out for himself. He was the great-great-great-grandson of Phineas Nigellus Black, heir to a long line of pure blood ancestors and a modest family fortune. Like most of the old pure blood families, his parents had fallen on difficult times after the war. But unlike most of his cousins, he found a very lucrative career.
 

The contrast between pure-blooded, aristocratic Cepheus Black and the ranting, low-brow wireless personality Xerxes the Seer could hardly have been more stark. His parents probably would have disowned him if they’d known about his alter ego. He worked under a pseudonym and affected a cockney accent, but the truth was that his parents had little use for the wireless, anyway. As far as they knew, he was a diplomat, one of the few gainful occupations they considered worthy of his pedigree. It made it easy to explain the long stretches he went without speaking to them, and as long as he paid the bills for their villa on the French Riviera, they really didn’t ask many questions about his work.
 

Just as he was about to head to the lifts, there was a pecking noise at his window. His heart rose when he saw the familiar, nondescript brown owl waiting outside. After dismissing the bird, he unrolled the parchment and waved his wand over the Ministry of Magic seal at the top of the page. All messages from the Minister’s office carried an enciphering enchantment that proved their authenticity. Being able to validate his source was critical. As long as he could show that his information came from inside the Ministry -- and his ratings stayed high -- all of the complaints from his jealous, trifling colleagues about “standards” and “ethics” fell on deaf ears in the network’s senior management.
 

He began to read the message and his lips curled into a devilish smile. His source had come through in spades. According to what he was reading, even as the Minister was trying to soothe and mollify the angry pure bloods, he had tasked the Unspeakables with developing a potion that would give magical powers to the unborn child of a muggle. It was part of the Ministry’s secret plan to forge an alliance with the muggle government while breeding the pure bloods out of existence. When the potion was ready, it would be infused into muggle pre-natal vitamins and marketed through high-end health food stores around the world. He sat back down and began to jot notes in the margins of the page.
 

The question of whether the information was even remotely credible crossed his mind briefly. In the past, his source had been hit or miss with the accuracy of their hot tips. He hadn’t noticed any affect on his ratings, though, so he set his doubts aside. The script for his next show was all but complete. Over the years, he had developed a nose for the stories that played well with his audience, and this one smelled like a hit. He leaned back in his chair and smirked to himself as he thought about Livia’s dress and how pleasant it was going to look on the floor next to the sofa.






Lady Tenabra grimaced with frustration. What she had just learned would require a major revision to her timetable. Everything was in jeopardy now and she was going to need to move quickly in order to reclaim the advantage. She unrolled a long sheet of parchment on the table in front of her and began to rearrange the course of events with her wand.
 

The Head Auror was now in possession of information that could undermine everything she had put in place. She had confirmed that much. There was no way to know what else he might have learned, but given his reputation and the company he kept, she had to plan around the worst case. She would not underestimate his resourcefulness again.
 

It was clear that she needed him out of the way, but attempting to kill him had proven ineffective. None of her followers were up to the task, and another failed assassination attempt would be disastrous. Along with Potter, Ron and Hermione Weasley also had to go. It was a safe bet that whatever he knew, they knew. She felt pleased with herself for having had the foresight to try to frame them for the murder of Edwin Stoops. It was the one connection between the three that she could use to eliminate the lot of them.
 

She opened the cabinet door beneath the table and retrieved a thick manila folder from a pile that sat on the top shelf. Laying it on the tabletop, she began flipping through the documents until she found the one she was looking for, a wand signature analysis from the scene of a murder. She duplicated it and returned the original to the folder before setting it aside. Scanning the duplicated document, she mentally noted the items that would need to be altered. She reasoned that she could make the changes herself, since the forgery wouldn’t need to stand up to scrutiny for very long. As soon as she had seized control, the document would conveniently disappear, along with Potter and his meddling friends.
 

After she finished with the document, she took another look at her timetable. To avoid drawing any suspicion, she would need to plant the document with a lower level Ministry functionary and allow it time to percolate to the top. She slid the entire timeline back by twenty-four hours to compensate. Feeling satisfied with her revisions, she rolled the forged report up inside her timetable and slipped both documents into an inner pocket of her cloak.
 

Tenabra checked her watch and realized that a raiding party was due back at the warehouse soon. She had sent Nott, Gamp and several new recruits to pay a visit to the author of the popular book “How to Marry a Muggle: Twelve Foolproof Steps to Managing a Mixed-Magical Family”. The raid would help to spread fear among the progressives and stoke the anti-muggle fervor currently gripping the pure bloods. She was also eager to see whether Gamp finally snapped and killed Nott, eliminating one more loose end that she might otherwise have to deal with.
 

She pulled up her hood and checked her concealing enchantments in the mirror. Soon, she told herself, the games would be over and she would no longer need to lurk in the shadows. But there was much left to be done. Getting the Head Auror out of the way was going to be a major step forward. She placed the thick file back into the cabinet and secured the door and then apparated to the lower level of the warehouse.





 
Thank you for continuing to read Conspiracy of Blood. I appreciate any and all reviews, so please share your thoughts on the story so far. As always, a great deal of credit is due my beta reader, sophie_hatter. Please check out her story Evolution(M) if you haven't already.

Chapter 18: The Fall
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As always, the characters herein belong to JK Rowling






“An inside job?”
 

The question hung in the air as Harry stared back at the two familiar faces rendered in greenish flames that floated in the fireplace of Auror Conference Room Two. It sounded impossible. Inconceivable.
 

“Bill, you’re absolutely sure?” Neville’s voice replied, sounding both skeptical and shaken.
 

“I’ve spent fifty years working with protective enchantments,” Bill answered gravely, “and the spells that protect the castle still amaze me. After so many centuries, every stone and timber is saturated with magic. They have an incredible ability to adapt to new threats and heal when they’re damaged, like after the battle. There’s not a doubt in my mind. These monitoring spells were not cast hastily and definitely not from outside the castle walls.”
 

“It seems you have a bit of a security problem, Headmaster,” Harry observed. *
 

Neville’s face stared toward his absent feet. “I’m afraid it’s quite extensive.” *
 

“I didn’t remove any of the monitoring spells,” Bill continued. “That would have alerted whoever is watching straight away. Instead, I redirected them away from sensitive areas like the staff room and the dormitories. I think what I did was subtle enough that it could be mistaken for adaptations by the castle’s own magical protections. I also placed some monitoring enchantments of my own on various objects around the castle, banners and doorknobs and suits of armor and such. If anyone tries to recast the foreign monitoring spells, we should find out immediately.”
 

“How many people know that you were at Hogwarts?” Harry asked.
 

Bill thought for a moment. “I was there after curfew, so unless any of your progeny was sneaking around under that cloak, none of the students. Aside from Neville, Professor Astor was the only adult I saw.”
 

“I trust her,” Neville interjected, anticipating Harry’s next question. “She was a student here when I first started teaching. Honest and upstanding, and besides, she’s a half-blood.”
 

“Alright, then,” Harry replied. “So it seems like we sit tight and wait for the spy to make his or her next move.”
 

Bill and Neville nodded and their heads disappeared from the fireplace. As the fire changed back to its usual low, blue-orange flicker, Harry turned away and walked slowly towards the conference room door. He was back at work on restricted duty, with his arm resting in a sling and Ron constantly hovering in the vicinity to make sure that he didn’t exert himself in any way. While his friend’s excessive zeal grated on his nerves, it still paled in comparison to the one-two combination of the visiting nurse and Hermys, so he forced a smile and made the best of things.


“Are you ready to head to International Cooperation, mate?” Ron asked, meeting him at the conference room door.
 

Harry took a quick look at his watch and winced. The moment he’d been dreading for two days was fast approaching. Forty-five years of carefully avoiding one of the biggest unresolved predicaments of his life was about to come to a head, and he found that he had no idea what to do or say. Harry merely followed Ron to the lifts, grimly marching towards his fate. Whether or not he was ready, he would soon be face to face with Esme Osinalde.
 

As the lift doors closed, Ron turned to him. “So, since you have this history with her, are there any subjects I should avoid? You know, sore spots?”
 

Harry pondered the question for a moment. “All of them.” It seemed like the only adequate answer. If he was being completely honest with himself, she had more than a few legitimate reasons to be angry with him. Ron made a face, prompting Harry to go on. “Anything that happened prior to the moment her portkey arrives today is going to be a sore spot, Ron. There isn’t time to scratch the surface. Just follow my lead and get clear if the hexes start to fly. She’s good.”
 

Minutes later, Ron and Harry shared an uncomfortable silence as they waited. Next to them, the Customs Wizard from International Magical Cooperation clucked disapprovingly as he glanced towards his watch. “The French,” he muttered softly, tapping the point of his quill against a clipboard containing a list of arrival times. “They’re oh, so casual about their punctuality. One wonders how their society functions.”
 

Harry briefly contemplated what it must be like to work in an entire department full of witches and wizards who shared Percy’s obsessive sense of protocol, but his thoughts quickly snapped back to the dilemma that was probably hurtling across the English Channel. He still had no idea what to say. “Hello” was probably the best place to start, but it was inadequate as throwing a cup of water into a dragon’s mouth. He began to regret inviting Ron along to greet their guest, even though it had seemed like such a good idea an hour earlier. He could probably count on Ron to take his side if he got into a duel, particularly with his injured shoulder, but he wasn’t sure that he deserved the support.
 

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud whoosh as an empty wine bottle burst into existence with a petite, blond witch clinging to it. As the witch righted herself, the Customs Wizard granted Harry a brief reprieve from his decision.
 

“On behalf of the British Ministry of Magic, welcome to London, madam. May I check your travel documents?”
 

The witch took in her surroundings for a moment, then cut right past the Customs Wizard. “‘ello, ‘arry. Two chaperones? My goodness! Do I still frighten you so much? Or perhaps it is your own self control that you are worried about?”
 

Harry chose not to take the bait. “Hello, Esme. Thank you for coming at such short notice.”
 

“Oh, do not mention it,” she said with a strong note of bitter sarcasm. “It is clearly an emergency. To contact me after, what is it? Forty-four years? You must be desperate.”
 

Harry weathered her glare for a few seconds. “This is the Deputy Head of our Department, Ron Weasley. Ron, Esme Osinalde.”
 

“Ah, one of the Weasleys I ‘ave ‘eard so much about,” she replied, looking Ron up and down. “Tell me, Mr. Weasley, is he still an impossibly stubborn fool?”
 

“Well, stubborn, yes...” Ron mumbled awkwardly.
 

“Thank you, Ron,” Harry interjected. “Now that we all know each other, can we...”
 

“Oh, no,” Esme cut him off. “It is so wonderful to finally meet the people you went to such pains to keep me away from. I must ask, Mr. Weasley, are you part of the wonderful clan of red-headed saints who took poor ‘arry in as a boy?”
 

“That’s right,” Ron replied. His ears were beginning to show the shades of scarlet that indicated he was either very embarrassed or very angry.
 

“Look, Esme, let’s keep this professional,” Harry interjected. “There’s no need to go on insulting everyone.”
 

Insulting? I ‘ave not begun to insult you, ‘arry Potter. There will be plenty of time for that later. So, Mr. Weasley,” she persisted, “you must be related to the fiery little witch who stole away ‘arry’s ‘eart?”
 

Harry was sure he could feel the air being sucked out of the room. Ron stared at her for a long moment and Harry knew that he was seething on the inside. “She was my sister,” Ron finally said as his blue eyes locked with her hazel ones, “but she died.”
 

Nobody said anything for an excruciatingly long time. Harry took a small measure of satisfaction at seeing the sarcastic sneer wiped from Esme’s face, but it was quickly replaced by an aching emptiness. The Customs Wizard finally broke the silence, clearly hoping to extract himself from the awkward confrontation as quickly as possible. “Madam, your papers all seem to be in order, so if you won’t be needing anything else, have a great stay in London!”
 

A few minutes later, the three Aurors walked to the lifts in silence and pressed the call button. Harry had hoped to find a crowd when the doors opened, but as luck would have it, the car was empty. After the doors closed behind them, Esme finally spoke. “‘arry, Mr. Weasley, I am so sorry. Please accept my ‘umble apology. That was terrible of me. Please believe that I ‘ad no idea.”
 

“I’d say that’s bloody obvious,” Ron replied flatly, not looking away from the doors.
 

Harry finally turned to face her. “There’s no way you could have known,” he said quietly, but with finality. “She was murdered four years ago. The memory we need your help with is related to the case.”
 

“Anything I can do to ‘elp,” she answered, still looking shaken. “Do not ‘esitate to ask.”
 

“Let’s wait until we’re back in the office,” Harry replied. “And thank you for coming. We do appreciate it.”
 

Harry flicked his wand inside his pocket and Ron twitched suddenly. “Um, yeah, thanks for your help,” he added, trying to rub his side nonchalantly.
 

The doors opened and they made their way into the Auror office. After some quick introductions to Susan, Justin and several of the other senior Aurors, Harry sequestered the three of them in the conference room and drew the blinds.
 

“Nobody in the Auror office has seen this memory aside from Ron and I,” Harry began. It was the truth, omitting the small fact that Hermione had seen it as well. “I need to ask you to keep what you see in here completely confidential.”
 

“Of course,” she replied while shedding her traveling cloak and laying it on top of her bag. “Is there something in particular I should be looking for?”
 

“We think the memory might be a fake,” Ron answered, leaving his suspicions vague. “We’re hoping you can confirm that.”
 

“Altering memories is very tricky,” she said, sounding slightly dismissive. “If it is a fake, I should think you would know.”
 

“This isn’t the kind of fake we’re used to seeing,” Harry replied. “It reminds me of the very precise alterations we saw the instructors perform in Advanced Memory Training, only on a much larger scale.” He saw the skeptical look on her face and gestured towards the pensieve on the table. “You might as well see for yourself.”
 

Harry reached into his robes and pulled out the glass vial, then poured the memory into the stone basin. When the swirling settled, the three Aurors leaned into the memory one by one. Harry tumbled downward, struggling as best he could to land on his feet. Ron managed to catch him just before he fell. Esme landed gracefully next to them, and Harry realized that she must spend a lot more time working with memories than any British Auror.
 

Esme looked around at the entrance to the muggle jail. “May I take the lead?” she asked, waving her wand.
 

“Be my guest,” Harry replied.
 

For the next half hour, Esme expertly steered them through the memory multiple times, stopping, starting, back-tracking and jumping around the timeline. She carefully studied the small details, following shadows and reflections and comparing lighting patterns. Ron and Harry were left feeling like a pair of rank amateurs. When they finally emerged from the pensieve, they both stared at her expectantly. She ignored them and began to furiously scribble notes on a sheet of parchment.
 

“Well?” Ron blurted out, completely forgetting his animosity towards the French Auror.
 

“It ‘as been altered, this is true,” she said without looking up. “But it is more than that. The technique, it is very advanced. The forger did not just alter the memory of this man, the memory of another was superimposed onto it. The ability required to do this is extraordinary.”
 

“Do you have any idea who might have done it?” Harry asked.
 

“Outside of the Aurors, I can think of only a ‘andful of witches and wizards who are capable of such a thing,” she replied, tapping the point of her quill thoughtfully before scribbling some additional notes.
 

“Do any of them do freelance work?” Harry pressed. He felt tantalizingly close to the mysterious blond witch.
 

“One of them teaches at Beauxbâtons,” Esme answered. “She is elderly and does not travel. Another ‘olds a seat on the Minister’s Council. ‘e is a wealthy and powerful man who would ‘ave little to gain by ‘elping a murderer.
 

“As for the less desirable element,” she continued, “I know of three. Two of them, a witch and a wizard, ‘ave both been locked away at Chateau d’If for over a decade.” Harry shuddered. The prison beneath the ancient fortress was the French Ministry’s answer to Azkaban. The wizarding prisoners were held in caverns and unlike the British, the French had not dismissed its contingent of dementors. “The third is a younger witch. Brilliant, ambitious, she was at the top of ‘er class at Beauxbâtons and was in training to join the Aurors. But the pace of the program was not to ‘er liking. About six years ago, she resigned and simply vanished.”
 

Harry could hardly contain his excitement. This was the break they had been looking for. His contemplation was interrupted by a knock and he quickly tossed his cloak over the pensieve. Ron opened the door and found Justin waiting outside. “Sorry to interrupt, but Surveillance Team Five just reported in. Clinton McNair snuck into his house a few minutes ago. They’re setting up the anti-apparition jinxes now.”
 

Harry started to reach for his cloak, but Ron shot him a withering look. “Restricted duty, mate. You’re staying right here.”
 

A dozen arguments popped into Harry’s head, all of them weak and ineffective. He watched Ron grab his cloak and walk out the door, closing it behind him. Esme didn’t immediately look up from her notes, so Harry tried to keep the work-related conversation going. “So, what else can you tell me about this missing witch?”
 

She didn’t respond right away. When she finally met his gaze, she looked hurt. “Alone at last, and still you can speak of nothing but work. What ‘appened to the ‘arry Potter I knew as a young man?”
 

Harry stared into the swirling, silver contents of the pensieve. “He grew up. Got older, maybe a little wiser.” He turned to face her. “He realized that some risks are just too big to take.”
 

“That does not sound like the wizard who took it upon ‘isself to defeat ‘istory’s darkest wizard at the tender age of seventeen,” she countered.
 

“When I was seventeen, I had nothing to lose,” Harry replied quietly. “Everyone who had ever cared about me was dead or in mortal danger. My only family in the world consisted of a trio of muggles who hated me. All that mattered was stopping Tom Riddle before he could hurt anyone else I cared about.”
 

“Always the ‘ero,” she said, smiling in spite of herself. “Before I leave this dreary, godforsaken island of yours, I am going to get some answers from you, ‘arry Potter.”
 

“I’m not sure what else I can tell you,” Harry replied honestly. The whole topic was making him edgy.
 

“Listen, I ‘ave a great deal of work to do with this,” she said, gesturing towards the pensieve. “With the proper observations and measurements, there is a small chance that I can separate the superimposed memory from the original, at least in some places. When I am done, I believe I will ‘ave come to forgive you enough to allow you the ‘onor of taking me to dinner.”
 

Harry couldn’t help himself. He returned her smile weakly. “Why don’t we have dinner at my house? I’m not going to insult you by offering you French food, but my elf does make a brilliant Wellington.”
 

She looked at him quizzically. “Mushrooms? I thought you swore you’d never eat another one after we left the mountains?”
 

“I did,” he replied, “But my wife made me eat them again so we could get the children to try them. After a while, I actually started to like them.”
 

“Anything with a steak inside of it is fine with me,” she said. Esme lowered her voice and stared into Harry’s eyes. “I am truly sorry about what ‘appened to your wife. She must ‘ave been a remarkable woman.”
 

“Thank you,” Harry said. “She was.”
 

They sat in silence for a while. Finally, Harry stood. “I’ll leave you to your work. The conference room is all yours, I booked it for today and tomorrow.”
 

“‘arry,” she said, catching his as he opened the door. “It is kind of you to ‘ave me into your ‘ome for dinner. If I were in your position, considering our past, I am not sure I would find the risk worth taking, as you say.”
 

He smiled at her and left, closing the door behind him. As he made the short walk back to his office, her parting words sunk in. Closing the door behind him, he took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “Oh, crap.”






Once again, Scorpius found himself running behind as he hustled up the path towards his grandfather’s house. This time, he was dragging his daughter along, and she was moaning and complaining with every step.
 

“Dad, slow down. You’re going too fast!”
 

“Octavia, the portkey is leaving in less than a minute. We have to hurry.” He stopped and scooped her up, then set off towards the door at an even faster pace. Rose had grudgingly consented to have their daughter spend the rest of the week in Switzerland with his family. Her reluctance was a bit surprising, considering the fact that it solved a very immediate and pressing problem. Octavia had been suspended for two days from the muggle primary school she attended after an unpleasant confrontation with a muggle boy who was left with a severe case of “acute, mucous-like discharge from his upper respiratory tract”, or, as it was more commonly known in the magical world, spitting up slugs.
 

They barged into the entryway and Scorpius made a desperate grab for the old buggy whip. It was only after he had it in his hand that he noticed the small roll of parchment around its handle. He dropped to one knee, still holding Octavia and the whip close as he unrolled the message.
 

As always, I’m sure this message finds you at least fifteen minutes behind schedule. The portkey will depart at twenty past the hour.

Love,
Mum

 

Scorpius collapsed onto the floor, breathing hard, while Octavia straightened her wrinkled dress. When he finally caught his breath, he looked into her impish face. “OK, sweetie, looks like we have some time to spare. I think we need to talk about what happened at your school.”
 

“Dad!” she cried, drawing it out for effect. He winced as she made an exasperated face. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Rose had given him so much grief about taking their daughter to the Alps, she had also exacted a promise that he would deal with her behavioral problems at school. As he listened to Octavia carp and complain, he imagined his wife having the next three evenings free to go out with her cousins and he began to get the distinct impression that he had been played for a fool.
 

“Octavia Astoria!” he snapped, trying to regain the upper hand. His daughter crossed her arms and made a face, but she stopped talking. “Sweetie, Grandad Ron and Uncle Harry can’t keep calling in favors at the Ministry every time a muggle child upsets you! You have to learn to control your magic.”
 

“Calliope doesn’t have to go to school,” Octavia countered. “Muggle school is stupid. Why do I have to learn Arithmetic when I’ll just learn Arithmancy at Hogwarts anyway?”
 

Scorpius thought hard before he responded. He was pretty sure that the two subjects weren’t the same, but since he had never taken either one, he didn’t want to step out on any limbs. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure why his wife had always insisted on sending their children to muggle primary school. He knew that his mother-in-law felt very strongly about it. She had started out at a muggle school herself, and sent both Rose and Hugo until they were old enough to attend Hogwarts. But Octavia was a very bright child, perhaps a little too bright for the muggle children in her class. At any rate, he was sure that Rose would kill him if he let his opinion slip, so he decided to go with a safer approach.
 

“If Calliope transfigured her head into a melon, would you do it, too?” he asked, feeling a rush of pride in his parenting skills. His mother must have said that to him a thousand times when he was growing up. Octavia rolled her eyes and snorted, but he reckoned that she saw the logic in his argument.
 

Her defiant expression suddenly changed to sadness. “Daddy, the muggle kids don’t like me. They know I’m different.” Her bottom lip began to curl and her eyes glistened. “They’re so mean to me when the teacher isn’t around.”
 

Scorpius suddenly felt very distressed. “What do you mean, sweetie?”
 

“They won’t play with me at recess and they knock my books off of my desk and they try to put gum on my seat.” Tears were falling from Octavia’s eyes. “And they call me horrible names!”
 

A dark and forbidding look came over Scorpius’s face. He could feel his blood pressure rising. “What sort of names?”
 

“They call me freak, and weirdo, and spaz, and... and... Octageek.”
 

Scorpius could hardly contain the rage boiling up inside his chest. Anyone who could treat his little girl this way... maybe his grandfather Lucius was right when he used to get drunk and call the muggles filthy animals. Suddenly he yelped in pain and leapt to his feet. He had been so angry that his wand was emitting sparks. Inside his pocket. He stuck his hand into his smouldering trousers and shouted “Aguamenti!
 

When his pants were finally extinguished, he saw Octavia giggling at him through damp eyes. “Daddy, you have to learn to control your magic.”
 

He tried to be upset, but seeing her smiling again, he just couldn’t bring himself to be. He scooped her into a huge hug, reaching around her sides to tickle her as he lifted her into the air. He noticed the buggy whip starting to glow, and he tightened his grip on Octavia before grabbing hold. Moments later, they landed on the snowy walk outside Horatio Greengrass’s ski lodge in the Alps.
 

“Grandma! Grandaddy!” Octavia squealed, wriggling away from her father. She ran to where they were waiting by the doorway. Draco surrounded her with a hug and planted a big kiss on her cheek while his wife watched lovingly from behind.
 

“Hello, my darling,” he said, holding her tightly as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’ve missed you.”
 

“I missed you, too,” the little girl replied, smiling from ear to ear. “Do you have any candy?”
 

Draco smiled wryly. Astoria knelt down to face her granddaughter at eye level. “If you ask nicely, I think your Auntie Daphne has some chocolates.”
 

“Yay!” Octavia cheered, throwing her arms around Astoria’s neck. When her grandmother released her, she rushed into the house.
 

“You know, I really don’t like her spending too much time around Aunt Daphne,” Scorpius said. “She fills Octavia’s head with all kinds of rubbish.”
 

“Don’t worry,” Draco replied. “As soon as she figures out that Octavia is after her sweets, she’ll sneak off and hide.”
 

Scorpius chuckled as his mother elbowed his father in the ribs. He noticed that she didn’t disagree, however. When the moment passed, Scorpius regarded his parents seriously. “Any news from Grandfather’s friends back home?”
 

Draco’s expression turned somber. “Only bad, I’m afraid. More and more of the old families are getting involved with the New Blood Order.”
 

“I’ve heard the same,” Scorpius said. “Their leader is a witch named Tenabra?”
 

“So they say. But the name is clearly a pseudonym,” Draco answered. “Whoever she is, she seems to have an uncanny knack for influencing the Minister. Old Man Bulstrode sent two of his grandsons to join the cause, and all of his brother’s lands that were confiscated after the war were quietly restored to the family. If Father were still alive, I daresay he would have volunteered both of us already.”
 

Astoria looked horrified at the prospect, but Scorpius just nodded grimly. “This is really bad, isn’t it?”
 

Astoria nodded sadly. “Please tell us that you’ve been trying to make your wife see the wisdom of our offer.”
 

“Well, we’re here,” Scorpius said, trying to leave it at that.
 

As always, his father cut right through his attempt to emphasize the positive. “But she’s not staying, is she?”
 

Scorpius took his time answering. “No. She’ll be returning to London with me on Saturday.”
 

“That’s unfortunate,” Astoria replied quietly. Suddenly, Daphne burst through the door, cackling so hard that it seemed she might hurt herself.
 

“Astoria! Come quickly!” she panted, dabbing her eyes with a napkin. “Octavia is doing an impression of a muggle boy that she hexed. She chewed up sweets and now she’s spitting them out like slugs. They’re running all down her face! It’s just darling. You have to see this!”


Scorpius lowered his face into his palm and shook his head as Daphne disappeared back into the house. “I’d better get in there before it gets any worse,” he sighed. He kissed his mother on the forehead, took a deep breath, and went to look for Octavia.
 

Draco took Astoria’s hand as they both stared at the snow-covered hills surrounding the lodge. “If we can’t convince them to come here, there’s only one thing to do,” she said quietly.
 

Imperius curse?” Draco mused. He was a little put out when his wife failed to appreciate the humor in his remark.
 

“No,” she replied simply. “We have to go back. I’ll break the news to Father after dinner.”
 

It was plain to him that there was nothing more to say. He began to think about what he would say to the goblins, who were sure to come searching for him when they learned of his return.






Hermione sat in her study, working her way through History’s Greatest Magical Wars. Shortly before lunch, she had left her office, borrowed a stack of history books from the rebuilt Magical Records office and then flooed home. Nobody in Magical Law was likely to care, which left her feeling bitter. As long as she was going to going to be marginalized and ignored, she decided to do something productive.
 

Harry and Ron had not been able to track down the missing dark magic book from the Minister’s office, so she decided to read anything she could find about Herodonthus and his attempt to overthrow the Wizard’s Council. She reckoned that if he was a noted user of the Exussanguis curse, there might be some mention of it that could lead her to other sources. She had already found a wealth of information about the muggle army Herodonthus had raised and the wizard champions who defeated him. A great deal had been written about a wizard named Benforth, who seemed to be the epic hero of the story. He read like a cross between Odysseus and the muggle secret agent James Bond: brave, noble and always coming up with a clever spell to work his way out of a bind.
 

She was frustrated to find that descriptions of the spells used by Herodonthus in his campaign were conspicuously absent. It occurred to her that others might someday feel the same frustration when they tried to understand Voldemort’s reign of terror. After almost fifty years, they had never revealed the existence of the horcruxes or the Elder Wand beyond a tight-knit circle of confidants. It seemed that even in the Middle Ages, certain information was deemed too dangerous for posterity.
 

She finished the relevant chapter and set the book aside, then took a sip of her tea. The next book on the stack was written in runes. She mentally translated the title, then frowned. Minstrel’s Rhymes of the Middle Ages. It certainly didn’t sound like a history book. She had simply requested everything that was indexed under the topic of Herodonthus the Imperious, and she wondered whether the clerk might have made a mistake.
 

Hermione began to flip through the book and realized that it was indeed a book of poems. She was about to give up and move on when the runic representation of Benforth’s name caught her attention. Backing up to the start of the poem, she began to read.
 

Mighty Benforth westward did ride
Wisdom of Merlin by his side

His wand before him to oppose
The wicked darkness that arose

A thief who stole the souls of men
And bent their will toward his ends

A battle joined that shook the sky
Above their heads the curses fly

Flames unleashed by the dark one’s spells
Filled Benforth’s blood with fiery hells

Sacrifice of that which chose him
Restored Benforth to health and on then

Back to the evil one he turned
Anew the battle pitched and churned

Until Benforth stood strong and brave
And cast his foe to hidden caves
**
 

Hermione reread the passage, making sure her translation was correct. The mention of blood filled with fiery hell certainly sounded like the blood boiling curse. She wondered whether this was anything more than an old bard’s tale, but the details all fit so well. What was it he had sacrificed to restore himself?
 

She was still turning the passage over in her head when Ron’s silver terrier patronus bounded into the room. “Harry’s invited us to dinner with the French Auror. I’ll be home to get you at half five.” She checked the clock as the shimmering dog dissipated. Getting ready for anything took much longer than it used to, so she wheeled herself into their bedroom and started to change her clothes.






Shortly before six o’clock, Ron checked his appearance one last time in the mirror and stepped into the hallway. He was still a bit surprised by Harry’s impromptu dinner invitation. First and foremost, he couldn’t understand why Harry would even want to have dinner with the bitchy French Auror. From the moment her portkey arrived, she had done little besides insult him. Then she completely stuck her foot in her mouth about Ginny. She might be an expert on memory manipulation, but she struck Ron as a royal pain in the arse.
 

Hermione was waiting for him in the living room, dressed for dinner. “OK, love,” he began, “before we go, there are a few things you should know about this French witch.”
 

“As I understand it, she and Harry had some sort of romantic mishap, correct?” Hermione asked.
 

“Based on how she ripped into him as soon as she popped into the Ministry, I think that’s putting it mildly,” Ron replied. “Seems that she thinks he’s a first class prat.”
 

“Well, Harry was always pretty thick where women were concerned,” Hermione said. The way she smiled at him gave Ron the distinct impression that Harry might not have been the only one she found to be a bit thick.


“Whatever he did, she wasn’t giving up an inch until...” Ron’s words caught in his throat for a moment. “Until she went and asked about Ginny. Then it just got awkward.”
 

“I can see how,” Hermione replied quietly. “And how did Harry take that?”
 

“Better than expected,” Ron replied thoughtfully. “Better than I did, at least.” He saw the sympathetic look on his wife’s face and found it both comforting and a little embarrassing. She was the only person in the world who knew how much guilt he still carried over Ginny’s death. He always tried to keep it to himself; his loss seemed small compared to what Harry and his children had suffered. But Hermione knew. She always knew when he was hurting.
 

“Alright then,” Ron said, snapping back into the moment. He pushed Hermione’s chair towards the living room and she grabbed some floo powder from the pot by the fireplace. She called out “The Potter Estate” as she tossed the powder into the fire and then Ron pushed her chair into the green flames.
 

When they emerged into Harry’s drawing room, they found him sitting on the couch, watching television. He quickly turned off the set and stood to greet them. “Oh, thank Merlin. I’m so glad you could make it. I... well... she asked me about dinner and I think I panicked. She’ll be here any minute.”
 

“Harry,” Hermione replied, “does she think that the two of you are dining alone?”
 

“Well, we didn’t properly discuss it, but yes, I think she does,” Harry answered sheepishly.
 

Hermione shook her head and laughed at him, causing Harry to chuckle nervously. Ron thought that they were both being maddeningly casual about the whole thing. Even he wasn’t that thick when it came to witches. This French hussy clearly had some sort of designs on his best mate, who also happened to be his beloved sister’s widower. He set his mind at that moment that whatever she was playing at, he was going to put a stop to it.
 

Hermys appeared with a tray of drinks and Ron apparently snatched his with a bit too much enthusiasm because he noticed the reproachful look on his Hermione’s face. Steady, Ron, old boy, he thought to himself. If he acted too quickly, his wife would shut him down. He needed to let the situation develop. Then she would realize what kind of woman they were dealing with and come around to his side.
 

There was a knock at Harry’s door. They heard Hermys apparate to the entryway and show Harry’s guest in. Esme was wearing a simple, dark blue dress that Ron had to admit was quite flattering on her. Her blond hair fell to her shoulders, accentuating her slender build. She appeared to be pulling out all the stops, and Ron took another big sip of his drink to steel himself. Things might not end well, but he knew that this was for Harry’s own good.
 

As soon as she saw Ron and Hermione, Esme stiffened noticeably. “‘arry,” she said, “you did not tell me that we would be dining with company.”
 

“Ah, yes. I’m sorry, with all that happened today, it must have slipped my mind,” Harry replied. “You’ve met Ron already. This is Ron’s wife, Hermione.”
 

“Lovely to meet you,” Hermione said cheerfully. Esme accepted her outstretched hand, forcing a pleasant smile.
 

For the next thirty minutes, they all tried to ignore the awkward tension that permeated the drawing room. Esme seemed polite and almost gracious as they enjoyed cocktails, but Ron still kept a close eye on her. He listened suspiciously as the French Auror asked his wife about her injury and her eyes widened in horror when Hermione described the blood boiling curse. She seemed genuinely sympathetic and the two women appeared to be hitting it off rather well. It was a clever tactic, Ron mused while nursing his third martini. Getting in good with Hermione would help her to set her claws in Harry.
 

Hermys soon summoned them to the table and the small talk continued over appetizers. “So Esme, Harry told us that the two of you first met when you were training, then you worked on a case together?” Hermione asked.
 

Although the room had taken on a rather soft focus after three mixed drinks, Ron was pretty sure that he noticed a look of alarm pass quickly over Harry’s face. Esme also seemed to pause for a moment before beginning her explanation. “We were assigned to the task force working to capture the Death Eater, Rodolphus Lestrange,” she began. “‘e was taking refuge in a cave in the Pyrenees. ‘arry and I spent quite a lot of time together keeping watch in the mountains.”
 

“It was really quite miserable,” Harry piped in. “It was brutally cold and whenever it wasn’t snowing the wind almost cut you in half. Certainly nothing pleasant or romantic.”
 

“I see...” Hermione said slowly. Ron could tell that she was thinking the same thing he was. She was probably thinking it faster and more articulately, but he was pretty sure it was the same thing. Harry was desperately trying to fight off her advances. He needed their support, and Ron was going to be there for him.
 

Before Hermione could say anything else, Esme jumped back into the conversation. “Oh, well there were certainly some mornings where the sunrise was quite lovely. I think some people must ‘ave found it romantic.”
 

“Alright, then,” Ron started to say, but Harry cut him off.
 

“Well, some people always think they see romance blossoming all over the place. Personally, I thought the sunrises were just a reprieve from the bitter cold.”
 

Ron noticed Hermione taking a large sip of her drink, looking much more purposeful than usual.
 

There was obvious agitation in Esme’s usually measured voice as she shot back, “That is probably because some people are too foolish to recognize a nice sunrise when it is right in front of their face.”
 

“Hold on a moment,” Ron interjected. “We’re not just talking about the sun any more, are we?”
 

“Not the time, Ron,” Hermione shushed under her breath. He decided that she was probably right. Whatever they were talking about, it no longer seemed like he’d need to stop the little harlot from snogging Harry at the dinner table. They seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was in the room.
 

“Let’s just cut to it, Esme.” The abruptness of Harry’s reply surprised Ron, even seeing how angry he was. “I never felt that way about you. At least not the way you thought I did.”
 

Out of the corner of his eye, Ron saw Hermione down the rest of her drink. On the inside, he felt at peace. It’s alright, Gin, he’s out of danger.
 

“Then explain to me what you did feel,” she shot back, “because something is clearly clouding my memory of these events. Per’aps it was the feel of your tongue in my mouth.”
 

“You kissed her?” Hermione squeaked. Ron’s face turned scarlet and his fork fell to the table. My best mate was snogging some French floozy while he was dating my baby sister?
 

Harry ignored them. “Esme, we sat on that bloody mountaintop for three weeks. We had to transfigure lichen into mushrooms to eat. We were cold, hungry, exhausted... neither one of us was thinking clearly.”
 

Oh, please,” she replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Yes, we were cold. So that explains ‘ow your ‘and kept finding its way to my behind? You were per’aps trying to keep the frostbite at bay?”
 

Hermione’s jaw dropped and she covered her mouth with her napkin. Ron stood bolt upright, knocking over his chair. He had no idea what to do, but he had to do something and the casual disregard he had shown for the chair seemed like a good first step.
 

“Yeah, well your fingers must have been bloody frozen as well, considering where they kept ending up!” Harry shot back. “Same with your mouth!”
 

Hermione seemed to be in danger of inhaling her napkin. “That’s it,” Ron thundered, pointing at Harry. “Stand up! I’m kicking your skinny arse, right now!”
 

“Wait your turn!” Esme snapped. Her wand was suddenly in her hand, and it was trained on Ron’s throat. “Where did a charming woman like yourself find this drunken simpleton?” she shouted at Hermione.
 

“Well he doesn’t normally drink like this!” Hermione shot back angrily. Ron noticed that his wife was now gripping her wand as well and it was pointed at the French Auror’s head. His anger was still squarely focused on Harry. If he heard about Harry’s hand being in one more place it shouldn’t have been, he was pretty sure he was going to go mental.
 

“Typical,” Harry snorted from the other side of the table. Ron felt a bit naked when he realized that he was the only person in the room not brandishing a wand. “You get a little upset and out come the hexes. And you still wonder why I never said goodbye?”
 

You arrogant swine!” Esme roared, bringing her wand to bear on Harry. Ron was alarmed. It appeared that she might hex Harry before he had a chance to throttle him. He took the opportunity to draw his own wand and point it at the French Auror’s back. Something felt very wrong about cursing a woman from behind, but if it kept Harry in one piece long enough for Ron to thrash him, that was the important thing.
 

A crack suddenly rang out and three wands went flying through the air. They all turned to find Hermys, standing by the kitchen door, holding the wands in his clenched fists. Very slowly, the elf tutted, “It is not proper for guests of a noble house to brandish arms in anger.” The wands levitated across the room and landed on the table in front of Harry. “Master will return them to you at his leisure.” Then the elf turned and ambled back to the kitchen.
 

They all looked rather embarrassed for a long, silent moment. Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the front door.
 

“Expecting somebody else, mate?” Ron asked. Harry shook his head. He gestured at the wands and sent them flying back to their owners.
 

There was a muffled crack as Hermys appeared at the front door. They heard some tense words being exchanged. Hermione wheeled around the side of the table next to Ron and all four of them made their way towards the drawing room.
 

They could hear the conversation more clearly as they drew closer. “Hermys will tell Master right away, but guests must wait here to be greeted,” the elf chirped insistently.
 

“I’m warning you, elf, your master is in very serious trouble,” came a gruff, male voice. “If we find out that you’re stalling us to protect him, you will suffer the consequences.”
 

“Here I am,” Harry said from the entrance hallway. “There’s no need to threaten my elf. Now what can I do for you gentlemen?”
 

Standing in the doorway, they found Berwyn Kline, the head of Ministerial Security, surrounded by two security officers and a foursome of Hit Wizards. The security forces had already leveled their wands in Harry’s direction while the Hit Wizards were acting a bit more reserved. Hermys bowed and disappeared.
 

“Mr. Potter, I’m here to take you and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley into custody for the murder of Edwin Stoops,” Kline sneered.
 

“We’ve already been tried for that crime,” Hermione cried indignantly from behind Harry. “You can’t bring us up on it again.”
 

“I’m not here to debate the law with you,” Kline shot back. “Based on new and compelling evidence, the Minister himself has signed a warrant for your arrest. If you don’t come peacefully, we’ll take you by force.”
 

“You and whose army?” Ron muttered. His voice was dripping with contempt.
 

Kline chose to ignore Ron. “Who is this?” he asked, noticing Esme for the first time.
 

“Auror Esme Osinalde, on assignment from the French Ministry of Magic,” she replied. “You ‘ave no cause to arrest me, so if you don’t mind, I will be apparating to the French consulate to await further instructions.”
 

“You’re not going anywhere,” Kline snarled. “Not until your story checks out. Now, if you’d all be so kind as to surrender your wands.”
 

“It’s alright, we’ll come peacefully,” Harry responded. “Hermys?” The elf appeared next to him with a crack. “Please retrieve my guests’ traveling cloaks as well as my dress cloak. You know, the grey one?”
 

The elf made a low bow, touching his nose to the floor. Harry subtly moved to grasp Esme’s hand and Ron’s arm. Behind Harry, Hermione grabbed the arm of her chair with one hand and Ron’s hand with the other. As soon as the elf rose, he disappeared with a crack and a ring of fire sprang from the spot where he had stood, surrounding and seeming to consume the foursome. The security officers managed to get off a couple of stunning spells, but they rebounded off of the wall of flames, striking two of the Hit Wizards and knocking them out.
 

It took several minutes for the remaining security forces to fight their way past the initial wave of spells. Just as they set foot in the hallway, the lock on a particular cabinet in the drawing room slid open. Kline screamed in terror as a huge Acromantula emerged from the cabinet and began to stride towards them, hissing and baring its fangs.
 

Reducto! Incendio! Impedimenta!” Kline and the others launched a hail of curses at the giant spider that seemed to bounce harmlessly off of it. The beast kept coming, raring up on its back legs. Suddenly, it swirled into a smoky mist and transformed into a giant, hissing snake. One of the Ministerial Security officers turned and ran screaming from the house.
 

“It’s a boggart,” Kline shouted, realizing what was happening. He cast the Riddikulus charm, turning the creature into an old lady, who promptly tripped and fell, then he pushed her aside. As they advanced warily, the light fixtures suddenly launched a new barrage of hexes in the direction of the door. Kline managed to deflect two of them and duck, but one of the Hit Wizards was struck and began to sneeze violently before a cloud of angry, snotty bats began to attack his head. The man rushed out of the house, waving his arms wildly and firing curses that came dangerously close to singing his own hair.
 

When the hexes ceased, Kline gestured to the remnants of his team. He sent the remaining Hit Wizard ahead down the hallway while he and the other security officer stepped into the drawing room, looking cautiously around. They crept across the room, heading towards the entrance to the dining room. When they were about halfway across, the floor suddenly turned to ice. Both men slipped and fell unceremoniously on their backsides. Kline cursed loudly as he lost his grip on his wand and it went skittering away into the corner of the room.
 

Out in the hallway, they heard a yelp and several loud cracks. Moments later, the remaining Hit Wizard went floating past the doorway, securely wrapped in brightly colored ribbons and hanging upside down. As Kline and the security officer struggled to try to stand, the floor of the drawing room suddenly pitched violently to one side, sending the two men and all of the furniture sliding into a corner. Kline found himself wedged between a sofa and an end table, struggling in vain to gain enough traction on the icy floor to shove his way out.
 

Several minutes passed before both men managed to extricate themselves from the pile. As they tried to work their way back up the sloped floor to the doorway, green slime began to rain from the ceiling, covering them from head to toe. The slime only made the floor more slippery, and it took them a good ten minutes to reach the doorway. The security officer finally managed to hook his elbow over the corner of the door frame and pull himself and Kline back out of the room.


When they reached the hallway and scrambled to their feet, they heard a great, rushing noise. A swirling tempest was racing towards them, filled with dust and feathers. The wind-driven mess clung to the green slime, leaving both men looking like giant chickens as they ran from the house towards the boundary of the wards.






At the same instant that it disappeared from the entryway, the ring of fire appeared in the study. Harry, Ron, Hermione and Esme emerged from the flames and found Hermys already waiting for them. “Activate defense plan Chinese Fireball,” Harry instructed. The elf bowed quickly and disapparated again.
 

“What’s going on, Harry?” Ron asked. The cocktails were still coursing through his veins and frustration sounded in his voice. “Let’s just go back in there and put those tossers out on the street.”
 

“And then what?” Harry asked, taking a rucksack from a cabinet behind his desk. He stopped to stare Ron in the face. “The whole Ministry will come down on us, Ron. We can’t fight them all.”
 

“But Harry, we’re innocent.” Hermione’s voice was unusually quiet, almost pleading.
 

“We were innocent last time, Hermione!” Harry snapped. He saw the fear in her eyes and softened his tone. “How long would we sit in jail this time? While the Blood Order grows stronger and the Minister gives everything we’ve fought for back to the pure bloods in the name of security?” Harry’s voice grew very grave. “This has been coming for a long time. You must have felt it? The attacks, the killings... all the way back to Ginny’s murder. They were bound to come after us eventually.”
 

They all watched in silence as Harry began to gather various items from his desk and stuff them into the rucksack. “Harry, this isn’t like the war,” Hermione replied softly.
 

“You’re right,” Harry said as he turned out a desk drawer. “This time, we’ll be ready.”
 

The others continued to watch him for another few seconds, not knowing what to say.
 

“We need to leave, now.” Harry said more urgently. “Ron, grab the pensieve from the shelf. Esme, can you hand that stack of books to Hermione?”
 

Ron stumbled into motion, following Harry’s instructions by force of habit. Hermione also shook off her misgivings and began to ready herself to leave. The fourth member of their party remained unconvinced. “Wait just a minute,” the French Auror exclaimed. “I ‘ave not agreed to go anywhere with you.”
 

“Fine,” Harry replied calmly. Loud cracks and bangs echoed from the front of the house. “Stay here then, and have fun sorting this mess out with Kline. He should be in a great mood by the time he fights his way through all my defenses and makes it to you.”
 

“Watch out for that one when they go to search you,” Ron added. “The word around the Ministry is that he can get a bit grabby, if you take my meaning.”
 

Harry opened the secret cabinet enchanted into his desk and removed the two items it contained: the charmed fake galleon from Dumbledore’s Army and a black, ten inch Hawthorn wand with a unicorn hair core. He shrank the portrait of Dumbledore and packed it away while the old headmaster continued to sleep serenely. Then he crossed the room to the portrait of his parents, Sirius and Remus. “I’ll see you lot soon,” he said and they smiled and waved at him enthusiastically as they disappeared into the rucksack. Harry moved to stand beside Ron, who was gripping the handle of Hermione’s wheelchair with one hand and holding the pensieve in the other. Esme suddenly stepped over to join them.
 

“You’re coming with us?” Harry asked, looking surprised.
 

“I ‘ave diplomatic immunity,” she shrugged. “What do I care? Might as well go where all the fun is ‘appening.”
 

Harry gave a quick look around and extended his arms. When he felt them all securely take hold, he turned slightly and they disapparated away.






From the upstairs window, Hermys watched in amusement. One by one, the uninvited guests fled his master’s house in increasing degrees of distress. He reflected on what a wise and powerful wizard his master truly was. Kind, as well. He had a few errands to take care of and then, on his master’s orders, he’d be taking a vacation to visit his cousins who worked in the kitchens of Hogwarts. He smiled to himself as he thought about surprising his master’s grandchildren with snacks and treats and clean laundry. Then he dissaparated with a crack.






* - Paraphrased from the film version of Deathly Hallows, Part 2.
** - My own original work, composed for this chapter.
 

Wow. 100,000 words. Not so long ago, this story was just a few scattered ideas in an email to myself.


Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and review Conspiracy of Blood. Your ideas and suggestions have gone a long way towards making this story into the incredible experience it's been for me so far. Thanks especially to my wonderful beta reader, sophie_hatter. Without her, the story wouldn't be nearly as good. Or intelligible. Or true to canon.


If you enjoy this chapter, please take a moment to review it. I appreciate and respond to all reviews, even those left anonymously.


Chapter 19: Out of Sight
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As always, that which you recognize belongs solely to JK Rowling.

 



 
It was a calm night in the village of Little Hangleton. The surrounding hills sheltered the small hamlet from the chilly winds rolling in off of the North Sea, allowing for a pleasant late Autumn evening. A few muggles scurried about, running errands and visiting, but the streets were mostly quiet.
 

The calm was disrupted by a loud crack from an alleyway behind a dimly lit tavern near the town’s center square. The crack was followed by a shuffling of bodies and voices griping in discomfort. After several minutes of muffled argument, four dark forms emerged from the alley.
 

“I think I ‘ave broken ribs,” Esme complained bitterly, rubbing her side. “That chair was crushing me the entire trip.”
 

“Well you should have tried being in it,” Hermione countered, studying a growing bruise on her left arm. “Just when I was getting over the feeling that the bloody thing was always closing in on me, we go and make it happen for real. And by ‘we’”, she said, nodding in Harry's direction, "I mean 'you', Potter!"
 

Harry nodded at the mention of his name, but he wasn’t really paying attention. No matter how many times he visited the sleepy little town, it always put him on edge. So many awful things had happened in this place, of which its non-magical residents were blissfully unaware. He spotted a muggle hurrying along the opposite side of the street with an armful of parcels, and wondered what the man would have thought if he’d seen Tom Riddle rising thin and snake-like out of a cauldron in the graveyard where the elder Tom Riddle lay.
 

“Yes, Potter,” Esme went on, interrupting Harry’s contemplation. “I thought per’aps you were going to use that clever fire spell again. Little did I know that I was about to be side-along apparated with three people and a wheelchair.”
 

“I suppose that back home, you have flash-floo spells set up for any place you want to go?” Ron shot back. He was clearly still very annoyed with the French Auror, and the mention of his wife’s chair didn’t improve his feelings towards her.
 

"In France, we ‘ave the basic common sense not to apparate with furniture,” Esme snarled, refusing to cede an inch.
 

“Are all of you completely finished untwisting your knickers?” Harry asked, looking cautiously around as they walked.
 

“I think mine are wrapped around the rear axle,” Hermione deadpanned. Ron looked down at the back of the chair in spite of himself, causing Hermione to giggle. Harry realized what had happened and started to chuckle. Eventually Ron and even Esme got caught up in the joke and started to laugh. For a short while, they could have been mistaken for muggles enjoying a pleasant night on the town with old friends. But the moment was soon past, and the reality of their situation once again confronted them.
 

“We have to get off the street,” Harry said quietly. “This way.”
 

“Where are we, mate?” Ron asked.
 

“Little Hangleton,” Harry replied, turning down a side street leading away from the square.
 

Hermione gasped softly. “Harry, this is where he came back, right? Where Cedric died?”
 

Harry studied the street signs before turning to the left. “That’s right. The graveyard is up ahead.”
 

“May I ask why we are going to ‘ide out in a graveyard?” Esme snipped. “True, I am a witch, but why be cliche?”
 

“We’re not,” Harry replied. “It’s just close by.”
 

Ron looked off for a second, then said, “Harry, is this where he hid the...”
 

“Ron, not now!” Harry cut him off. There was no way Harry was going to trust Esme with any information about the horcruxes. And in spite of the quiet Autumn night and sparsely populated streets, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to relax until they reached their destination.
 

They walked in silence for a few more minutes until the street lights became less frequent and the houses more spread out. The sound of the breeze through the tree branches and hedges took on an ominous quality, as though the wind itself was whispering as it followed them. Hermione shivered and pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Finally they arrived at an overgrown thicket of trees and brambles separating two older cottages on a grim-looking row that dead-ended into a marshy field.
 

“Do you see it?” Harry asked, staring into the thicket.
 

“See what?” Ron asked. The two witches shook their heads in confusion.
 

“Good,” Harry replied. He took a step ahead and looked carefully from side to side. He drew his wand and swept an arc around them with the Homenum Revelio spell, making absolutely sure they were alone. He finally turned to face his three companions. “You’re standing in front of the Gaunt family home.”
 

As Ron, Hermione and Esme watched in surprise, the thicket widened and eventually parted. A path emerged, carved out of the brambles. The ancient paving stones were cracked and weathered, and grass and weeds poked up through the gaps between them. At the end of the path, they could just make out the hulking shape of a dilapidated building surrounded by overgrown bushes and trees.
 

“Come on, let’s hurry,” Harry said, lighting his wand and starting up the path. Ron began to maneuver Hermione’s chair over the uneven stonework while Esme instinctively took up a position guarding their rear. After a few yards, Ron gave up and simply levitated Hermione’s chair above the unkempt path. The briers and weeds snagged and pulled at the hems of their cloaks as they passed, further slowing their progress. Everything about the place seemed hostile and uninviting.
 

When Harry got close enough, he could see that the front door was hanging ajar by its lower hinge. The snake that Morfin Gaunt once nailed to the door had long since turned to dust and only the rusty nail remained. He led the group towards a spot where the overgrowth of weeds and vines seemed oddly held at bay. “I’ll go first,” he said to the others. “Follow me one at a time.” Then Harry stepped into the small clearing and vanished in a puff of smoke.
 

“After you,” Esme said as she continued to stare back towards the street with her wand at the ready. Hermione rolled her chair the last couple of feet and she also disappeared. Ron followed a few seconds later. Finally Esme tucked her wand away and stepped into the spot of trampled vegetation. An instant later, she appeared in a large, dimly lit room. The floorboards were rough and cracked and the furnishings were spartan, but the ceiling was intact and the windows kept out the chilly breeze. Harry was walking around, lighting lamps with his wand while Ron helped Hermione remove her coat.
 

“We are inside of that disaster we were standing next to?” Esme asked, sounding surprised.
 

“Yes, we’re in the attic,” Harry replied. He conjured a fire inside a pot-bellied iron stove next to a plain, wooden desk. “You can go back out again by stepping into that corner,” he added, gesturing towards the point where they had all appeared. “Obviously you can’t disapparate from inside the protective enchantments, so make sure that nobody’s around before you step out into the street.”
 

“This is the house where he grew up, isn’t it?” Ron asked, tossing his cloak and Hermione’s coat onto a lumpy-looking couch near the stove.
 

“No,” Harry replied. “Tom Riddle grew up in a muggle orphanage. This is the house where his mother lived with her father and brother before he was born. Riddle inherited the house when his uncle died in Azkaban, but he only came here twice after that. Once to hide his grandfather’s ring and once to confirm that it was missing.”
 

“Who owns the house now?” Hermione asked, looking through the filthy window.
 

“I do,” Harry answered. “Under old wizarding law, since Tom Riddle had no heirs, I became the owner by defeating him in a duel to the death. Kingsley and I decided to keep it a secret in case the Order ever needed another safe house. He arranged to have it removed from the Ministry’s records and to make it unplottable. Then we put the Fidelius Charm on it.”
 

Hermione looked suitably impressed. “So Kingsley was the only other Secret Keeper?”
 

Harry nodded. “Bill can find the house, but he’s not a Secret Keeper. He helped me reinforce the structure and clean out all the dark magic. The Gaunts were serious about the idea of being Slytherin’s heirs. They used lots of nasty curses in the house, plus Riddle hid the hor-, uh, ring here. After we took care of that, Bill helped me apply the Undetectable Extension Charm to the attic and charm the portal we used to get in.” He noticed that Ron looked a little put out. “Seriously, Ron, it’s nothing personal. There’s a reason that the goblins think your brother is the bee’s knees, you know?”
 

“Well, I suppose it’s better than the tent we lived in the last time we were on the run,” Hermione observed.
 

“And a great deal warmer than the tops of the Pyrenees,” Esme added, nodding approvingly. “So what is our plan?”
 

There was a loud crack and suddenly a large pile of luggage and clothing appeared in the middle of the room and began to wander about. Ron, Hermione and Esme all drew their wands in alarm, but Harry just chuckled. “Set it all down on the bed if you please, Hermys.” The pile teetered precariously as it changed direction, then steadied itself and made its way haltingly to the old mattress resting on a pile of shipping pallets in the corner. The pile rose in the air and sorted itself, with clothes coming to rest on the mattress and luggage landing on the floor. When everything was settled, Hermys stood in the middle, looking quite pleased with himself.
 

“Hermys has brought everything Master asked for,” the elf chirped proudly.
 

“Did you encounter any trouble along the way?” Harry asked.
 

“Hermys found Master Ron’s house surrounded by unfriendly witches and wizards, but they were not inside,” the elf replied. “Hermys thinks they were frightened after hearing about Master’s house.”
 

“Whatever works,” Ron mumbled appreciatively.
 

“Thank you for everything, Hermys,” Harry said earnestly to the elf. “Now, I think you’re late for your holiday. Have fun. I’ll call for you when things have sorted themselves out.”
 

The elf didn’t immediately disapparate. “Master will take all of his potions?”
 

“Yes, Hermys,” Harry replied, looking a little embarrassed.
 

“And Master will take care of his shoulder?”
 

“Hermys,” Harry smiled, rolling his eyes, “I promise to take care of myself. Now please, off with you.”
 

The elf bowed and disappeared with a crack.
 

“Alright then,” Ron said, rubbing his hands together as Hermione began to sort through the pile of clothes on the bed. “First order of business. In all the excitement, we didn’t really make it past the appetizers. What have we got to eat?”
 

“Oh, yeah” Harry replied, handing Esme her travel bag from the pile on the floor. “Ron, can you pop over to the muggle grocery near the square? There’s a counter in the back where they sell sandwiches and snacks. It’s a little seedy, but everybody minds their own business. I have muggle money in the second desk drawer.”
 

With Ron in charge of food, the others started to settle in. Hermione transfigured one of the suitcases into a bureau and Esme charmed her traveling cloak to screen a corner of the room while she changed out of her evening dress. Ron pulled his traveling cloak back on and crossed the room to the desk. Harry was adjusting the portrait of his parents on the wall by the stove when Ron suddenly let out a yelp.
 

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked. Hermione looked up from her work, and Esme’s head poked out from behind her cloak.
 

“Harry, there’s gotta be two hundred thousand pounds in this drawer! And that’s not counting the galleons!”
 

Harry looked concerned as he nudged the portrait a bit the the left while James and Sirius grinned like idiots and gestured wildly to the right. “Do you think it’s enough?”
 

“Well, if we’re going to drive custom Bentleys while we fight the Blood Order, it might be a little tight,” Ron observed wryly, “but otherwise I’d say we’re flush.”
 

“Harry, how long have you been planning all this?” Hermione asked.
 

Harry felt uncomfortable, and focused on hanging Dumbledore’s portrait while he weighed his response. “About four years,” he finally answered. “Since a couple of weeks after Ginny’s funeral. I know it probably sounds like I’ve gone spare, but I just... Have you ever had a feeling that something was wrong, and you just couldn’t shake it, no matter how hard you tried?”
 

Hermione looked at him sympathetically. “Harry, you don’t have to explain how you felt after Ginny’s death. I don’t think things have felt quite right since.”
 

“But Hermione, it was more than that,” he replied. He needed her to understand, even if he couldn’t explain it to anyone else. “It was the trial. Try to think back before the verdict, back before we all let our walls down to mourn. We all knew that something was wrong. Do you remember?”
 

Hermione nodded slowly, but she didn’t look convinced. “I remember thinking that, yes. But Harry, we were under so much stress. We were holding back so much pain. Believing that it was something bigger, that Ginny didn’t just die for no reason... it made it easier to keep fighting. Are you completely sure that you aren’t still holding back some of that pain? That you aren’t still trying to make it all make sense?”
 

Harry shook his head slowly. To he honest, he wasn’t sure. It still hurt so much to think of Ginny and how she died. The pain made him even more desperate to convince Hermione that he was right. “I know what you’re thinking,” he replied slowly. “But this isn’t just in my head. We never did find out who was pulling the strings behind the prosecution. We know that the blond witch was there when Ginny died. We know that she’s the one who killed Stoops. This isn’t all just a coincidence.”
 

Hermione was staring at him intently. She seemed to be on the verge of replying when Esme’s cloak floated down to rest on her outstretched arm, revealing her street clothes. “Just because one is paranoid does not mean that nobody is out to get them,” she observed. “It would seem that ‘arry’s suspicions turned out to be well founded, no?”
 

“Maybe,” Ron said contemplatively. “But there’s a lot we don’t know. Nobody’s even spoken to the Minister. Maybe Kline just went barmy or something?”
 

“Unlikely,” Harry replied. “Kline is a lemming. He doesn’t blow his nose without permission. If he showed up at my house with a squad of Hit Wizards, it’s because somebody told him to.”
 

“So what are we going to do next, Harry?” Hermione asked. Her expression was somewhere between acceptance and despair. They had all spent nearly half a century living on the right side of the law, and going back to life as a fugitive seemed to be hardest on her.
 

“First, I think we need to let everyone know that we’re alright,” Harry said. “Then, we need to get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. Esme, if you wouldn’t mind doing us one last favor, I was thinking that you and I could travel to France and try to find out what happened to this witch who dropped out of Auror training and vanished. That way, you’ll be safely back home. There’s no need for you to put yourself at any more risk for us.”
 

The petite French Auror pondered Harry’s offer for a moment. “I will speak with my superiors. If there is a chance that the British Ministry ‘as fallen under the control of dark wizards, I believe that they would want to keep a close eye on the situation. Besides, Potter, you still owe me some answers,” she added with a sardonic grin.
 

Harry nodded and turned to Ron and Hermione. “I was thinking that you two could infiltrate the Ministry and figure out what this trumped up new evidence is all about.”
 

Ron looked incredulous. “Wait a second! Infiltrate the Ministry? Harry, we’re wanted for murder!”
 

“It can’t be anywhere near as difficult as the last time we did it,” Harry shrugged. “You’re an Auror. Improvise.”
 

Ron started to protest further but Harry merely turned towards the window and drew his wand. A silvery mist began to form as he moved his lips silently, forming the message his patronus would carry. When it was complete, the mist coalesced into a ball. Harry added a couple of quick enchantments to ensure that his words remained private and then he slashed his wand through the ball in an M-shaped pattern, slicing it into five parts. Each part grew and morphed into a glowing, silver stag. At Harry’s unspoken command, the ethereal creatures bounded away, passing through the wall before disappearing into the night sky. He turned to face the others and said, “That takes care of Neville, Teddy, James, Al and Lily.”
 

Hermione turned her chair to face the window. She mouthed the words “Expecto Patronum.” The silvery otter emerged fully formed from the tip of her wand and scampered around her shoulders while she whispered to it. Then she whipped her wand in a figure eight and the spectral creature divided into four identical copies and sped away into the night. “I sent them to Rose, Hugo, Susan and Luna.”
 

Ron waved his wand and cast a litter of silver terriers onto the floor that yipped enthusiastically and pawed at his knees, jumping on top of each other and rolling around his ankles. He whispered a message to them and waved his wand over them again. Their behavior turned from playful to vigilant and they all sat at attention. With a final gesture, he sent them racing away through the wall. “They’re off to Mum, Bill, George and Terry,” he explained.
 

“Alright, then,” Harry said, looking around the room. “Ron, there’s polyjuice potion in that cabinet by the stove. Let’s get some dinner and settle in for the night. We have a big day tomorrow.”
 

While Ron went off in search of food, Harry and Esme conjured additional beds. Hermione continued to sort out the pile of clothes Hermys had delivered. She suddenly paused, looking surprised at something she felt in the pile. Reaching under a pair of Ron’s trousers, she found a black felt bag. “Harry, look what was in the pile,” she said, lifting the bag up. She reached into it and retrieved her old vine wood wand.
 

“I thought you’d already taken to carrying it again?” Harry asked.
 

“Well, Ron did, but mine... I don’t know. I felt like I should keep it somewhere safe, so I put it in my bureau. I don’t know quite how to explain. It’s not like a family heirloom or anything. At any rate, I’m glad it’s here. I’ll have to remember to thank Hermys.”
 

Harry looked at his watch, wondering how long Ron would be with dinner. Noticing the time, he walked back to the desk and turned on the small wireless that sat on top of a pile of books. “Let’s see what they’re saying on the news. Maybe we’re famous,” he added with a wry smirk.
 

After a commercial for Witch Weekly, the announcer returned. He sounded excited as he began to speak. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be interrupting our usual evening broadcast for a news conference with the Minister of Magic. He’s asked that all wizarding people in Great Britain tune in for this special announcement, and we’re bringing it to you live!”
 

Harry, Hermione and Esme looked at each other quizzically. Harry pulled out the desk chair for Esme while Hermioine wheeled over, then he sat on the corner of the desk. After a few minutes, the Minister began to speak.
 





Lady Tenabra stood calmly among the witches and wizards assembled for the Minister’s press conference. She had assumed her alternate identity, the one under which she operated in the light of day. Inwardly, she was pleased by the make-up of the crowd. There was a large contingent of “respectable” pure bloods alongside the usual Ministry career-climbers and assorted hangers-on. The various department heads and deputy ministers were lined up behind the podium with one notable absence.
 

She was still furious about Kline’s inability to capture Potter and the Weasleys. Since Kline wasn’t part of the Blood Order she couldn’t turn Gamp loose on him, but she had arranged for a suspension without pay. It was the height of arrogance and incompetence to think that he would have been able to take Potter inside his own home with such a paltry complement of wands. She sighed quietly and pushed the topic out of her mind. It would only serve to make her frustrated at a moment when she needed to concentrate. Once the matter at hand was dealt with, she would see to it that Kline suffered an unfortunate accident and find a more suitable replacement.
 

The Minister strode into the room with a small entourage in tow, and Tenabra turned her full concentration to the press conference. The next few minutes were pivotal to her plans. To maximize the strife between the pure bloods and the progressives, the Minister’s message needed to strike the right balance. She summoned the speech she had crafted to the forefront of her mind, even though it was already written out on the magical banners that hung over the crowd and were visible only to the speaker. Everything had to be perfect.
 

“Friends, colleagues, honorable witches and wizards of the Wizengamot and magical people everywhere, I begin by reassuring you that in spite of the scandalous rumors and innuendo to the contrary, your government has never been stronger. It is true that we live in tumultuous times. After so many decades of peace and prosperity, the violence and bloodshed that rocked our world in recent weeks has shaken us all. I am here today to announce several new initiatives to restore tranquility and order to our society and security to all of our people.
 

“I am certain that everyone has been following the events related to the group known as the New Blood Order. I will start by saying that violence, no matter the merits of its motivations, can never to tolerated in a free and civil society. Lasting peace and stability begins with a mutual agreement by all parties to settle our differences with words instead of curses. On this principle, I will not compromise.” The Minister thumped his fist on the podium and a smattering of polite applause arose from the crowd.
 

“I am pleased to say that in light of recent events, a number of our oldest pure blood families have come forward offering solutions to the impasse we currently face. I have listened carefully to all sides, and I have arrived at the conclusion that many of their ideas have merit. Wizarding civilization has existed in Great Britain for millenia and that longevity is due in great part to the gradual and deliberate pace at which we have always made changes to our customs and institutions.
 

“In the aftermath of the last wizarding war, I believe that our great tradition of gradualism and moderation was allowed to lapse. We became infatuated with the idea of progress and we changed many things simply because they could be changed, without consideration of how those changes were affecting our world. The historical contributions and wise counsel of many of our most prominent families were swept aside in a rush to embrace untested new ideals. To put it simply, we lost our way.
 

“Today, I am announcing the formation of a special committee of the Wizengamot, composed of many of its longest serving and most respected members, to systematically review all of the legislative and regulatory changes enacted over the past fifty years. Those that are deemed to have merit will continue to stand. Those that are found to be in conflict with our great traditions, or that were passed in haste, will be suspended while they are referred to the full Wizengamot for consideration of repeal.
 

“Lastly, I extend the following offer to the members of the so-called New Blood Order. If you agree to lay down your arms and confess your crimes, I offer amnesty to all those who have not engaged in the use of the Unforgiveable Curses. This offer is not made lightly, and its terms are not indefinite. Any new crimes committed after today will not be forgiven. But in the spirit of peace, reconciliation and security, I make this offer to all magical people who have been led astray by anger and disillusionment. Return to the fold of decent, civil society and we shall welcome you with open arms.
 

“I thank you all for your time and attention this evening. Together, we will keep our world strong and ensure its future.”
 

The Minister swept away from the podium as his press secretary quickly stepped forward to take questions from the assembled press. Lady Tenabra slowly let out a deep breath. It had worked, flawlessly. Days of carefully practising on low-ranking functionaries within the Minister’s office had refined her technique and sharpened her control. Every word had been delivered precisely as she intended. The Minister of Magic was now hers.

 




Shortly after the Minster’s speech ended, Percy excused himself from a pointless conversation with the Head of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes and hurried back to his office, feeling deeply disturbed. While he was also a big believer in gradualism, the initiatives the Minister had just described were anything but. Instead, it sounded like fifty years of slow, painstaking work to improve the wizarding world was about to be wiped away in an orgy of unrestrained, pure blood supremacist rubbish. Fred didn’t die for this bollocks, he thought.
 

Percy closed his office door behind him and sat down. He pulled out a sheet of parchment and tapped the point of his quill against it as he thought. Where to begin? He always felt best when he attacked any problem with a proper list of tasks to be completed, but at the moment he was at a loss for what to put on it. It wasn’t the first time he had been in this situation, but when Pius Thicknesse was Minister, it hadn’t been hard to figure out what to do. He had just waited for Harry to eliminate Lord Voldemort and everything else pretty much fell into place. How on earth should he go about stopping the duly elected Minister of Magic from tearing down everything his family had fought to build?
 

He decided to floo to the Burrow and consult with his father. After nearly seventy years of working under multiple Ministers, good and bad, Percy was sure that Arthur would have some ideas on how to approach the problem. He had just stood up and grabbed his cloak when there was a soft knock at his door.
 

“Come in,” Percy called out. The door opened and Arabela stepped through it.
 

“Hello,” Percy said warmly, extending his hand. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
 

“You looked rather upset when you left the press conference,” she replied, closing his door behind her. “I wanted to make sure that you were alright.”
 

Percy gestured towards one of the chairs in front of his desk. “To be honest, I’m pretty far from ‘alright’. These new initiatives of the Minister’s... they don’t sit well with me.”
 

“I thought perhaps they wouldn’t,” she replied, studying his face as she sat down. “I’m curious as to just how poorly they’re sitting with you.”
 

Percy smiled at her. “You’re curious, or the Minister’s curious?”
 

Arabela smiled back at him, assuming a look of mock offense. “I’m curious, of course. But I’m sure the Minister would like to know, as well.”
 

Percy’s expression turned serious. “Arabela, you know all about my family’s involvement in the war,” he replied. “My brother died fighting against the same kind of hateful pure blood fanatics that the Minister is now courting to try to save his job. That’s hard for me to accept.”
 

“So what are you planning to do about it?” she pressed, matching the gravity of his answer.
 

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “I’ve spent the past fifty years loyally working for the Ministry. The only time I’ve ever felt more conflicted was when the Death Eaters were in charge. I almost feel like I need to resign in protest.”
 

Arabela watched closely as Percy chewed on his thumbnail. “There is another alternative. You’ve had a long and successful career here, Percy. You’re respected throughout the Ministry, and by most of the Wizengamot. If you can’t follow the Minister’s leadership, perhaps you should seek to replace him.”
 

Percy stared at her blankly, trying to process what she was telling him. When it finally sank in, his voice dropped to a whisper. “Arabela, that’s... that’s mutinous!”
 

“Sometimes mutiny is the only honorable option, when the captain is unfit to lead,” she replied quietly. Her words hung in the air and Percy found that his internal conflict had reached greater depths than he thought possible.
 

“Well, it appears that you were on your way out,” she said, rising from her seat. “Think about it, Percy.”
 

As she opened the door, Percy blurted out, “Are you free for lunch tomorrow?”
 

“I’ll have to check with the Minister,” she replied primly. Then she let a small smile escape. “I’ll let you know.” And with that, she was gone.

 




Harry stared at a sliver of reflected moonlight on the ceiling as he lay awake, struggling to find some peace of mind. The day’s events played over and over in his mind, from the news of the infiltration of Hogwarts to the angry confrontation with Esme to the revelations about Percy’s memory to the bungled attempt to take them into custody and finally to the Minister’s disturbing press conference. On the large mattress in the corner, Ron snored contentedly while Hermione curled up underneath his arm. After pronouncing it undrinkable swill, Esme had downed most of the bottle of wine that Ron brought back from the muggle grocery, and she slept peacefully on the far side of the room. Harry envied them all.
 

The more he thought about it, it was Hermione’s reluctance to see things his way that bothered him the most. She was the smartest, most rational person he’d ever known. If he couldn’t get her to accept the idea that Ginny’s death was an integral part of the conspiracy they were facing, maybe he really was imagining the whole thing. The possibility that all of their efforts might not bring him any closer to finding closure filled him with despair.
 

As he rolled over for what felt like the tenth time, a ball of light streaking across the sky caught his attention. It hurtled towards them, growing brighter as it neared. Finally it penetrated the wall of the shack and landed gracefully on the floor. Gradually, it morphed into the shape of a lioness, the only response to their earlier messages that Harry had really expected. The silvery creature looked around the room and seemed to notice that only Harry was awake. As its eyes met his, he could feel the unmistakable warmth of a mother’s unconditional love.
 

“Sleep well, my children,” it whispered in Molly’s voice, “and be safe.”
 

As the lioness faded away, Harry closed his eyes and tried to do just that.

 




Breakfast at the Ministry cafe seemed unusually quiet on the morning after the Minister’s speech. As Al Potter made his way to the table where his cousin Hugo sat, he heard whispered conversations coming from every direction. People were understandably concerned about what the Minister’s new initiatives meant for their lives and their careers. The obvious undertones of appeasement left many muggle-born and half-blood witches and wizards feeling ill at ease.
 

Al had no problem understanding their anxiety. There he stood, a son of the Dark Lord’s mortal enemy and the biggest blood traitor family of them all, about to sit down for breakfast with his cousin, the son of blood traitors and mudbloods. And his father’s godson, the half-half-blood, half-werewolf was due any minute, for good measure. Their table might as well have a giant “Hex Me!” banner hanging over it.
 

“Today sucks,” Hugo greeted him without looking up from his eggs. “As if it wasn’t bad enough that they’re trying to send Mum and Dad to prison, I’ve got a half dozen pure blood nutters trying to make appointments to set up international portkeys for their pure blood nutter relatives who fled the country after the bloody war. Just kill me now.”
 

“The war?” Al asked. “I thought the Minister was just offering amnesty to those Blood Order tossers?”
 

Hugo looked up from his breakfast with a bitter expression. “Apparently the word is out that as long as you show up at the Ministry chanting ‘Long Live the Minister!’, all will be forgiven.”
 

“This is bad, isn’t it?” Al asked somberly.
 

“Uncle Percy thinks so,” Hugo replied. “Thaddeus Brook saw him wander back into his office last night after the press conference. Said he looked like hell, all stressed out and moping. Of course Arabela Dynt soon arrived to cheer him up.”
 

Al chewed a bite of toast thoughtfully. “Is he doing her?”
 

Hugo smirked in spite of himself. “That’s what everybody says. I don’t know, though. It’s Uncle Percy. He’s probably doing her taxes and helping her with night school. If it wasn’t for Aunt Audrey, he’d be a seventy-year-old virgin, trying to pick up witches with that old story about how he stunned Voldemort’s puppet Minister in the Great Hall.”
 

They both jumped as a third tray dropped onto their table. Teddy plopped into a chair behind it and crammed a piece of bacon into his mouth. “Sorry I’m late,” he mumbled while chewing. He appeared to be half-asleep as he scanned his tray with a confused expression, then reached for Al’s pumpkin juice.
 

“Sod off,” Al said, trying to sound grumpy but letting a cheeky grin slip through. He snatched his drink away before Teddy could get his beefy hand around it.
 

“Come on,” Teddy moaned, “I forgot to get one.”
 

“Then march your goofy-looking arse back over there and fix your mistake,” Al replied. He took a huge sip to emphasize the point.
 

Teddy turned his hair jet back and his eyes green in retaliation. “Ooh, look at me, ickle Albus Potter,” Teddy squeaked in a grating falsetto. “I forget who used to keep my brother from beating my skinny arse up, but I never forget my pumpkin juice!”
 

Al rolled his eyes while Hugo shook with laughter, then handed the rest of his pumpkin juice to Teddy. “You owe me, prat.”
 

“So what’s the topic of the morning?” Teddy asked after downing the rest of Al’s drink in a single gulp.
 

“Last night’s speech, of course,” Hugo replied. “Unless you’d rather talk about whether Uncle Percy is shagging the Minister’s secretary.”
 

Teddy screwed up his face. “Eww. That’s just wrong. So what are people saying about the speech?”
 

“I think most people think that it’s bollocks,” Hugo said, “but what are we supposed to do? They’ve already chased Mum and Dad and Uncle Harry into hiding. If even they’re not safe, who is?”
 

“I assume that you two... you know... got your messages?” Al asked quietly. Hugo and Teddy nodded. “At least we know they’re safe.”
 

“For now,” Teddy replied. “I hope it stays that way.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially, “Do either of you know where they are?”
 

Al and Hugo both shook their heads. “Uncle Harry always seemed to know plenty of places to go if he needed to get away for a while,” Hugo observed. “Al, did he ever show you that lake where he jumped off of the dra...”
 

Suddenly, mid-sentence, Hugo’s face went blank and he stood up. “Hugo, you alright, mate?” Al asked, looking concerned. Hugo completely ignored him and walked out of the cafe towards the lifts. Al and Teddy looked at each other in alarm and stood up to follow him. As Al broke into a light jog, trying to catch up to his cousin, Hugo increased his pace. Teddy was following close behind. Hugo bypassed the lifts and headed for a doorway that Al was pretty sure led to a service corridor. He and Teddy both caught up to Hugo as he pulled to door open.
 

“Hugo, what the hell?” Al asked, but suddenly all three of them were swept into the corridor by an unseen force. They stumbled into the poorly lit space and the door slammed behind them. Al had just managed to draw his wand when the air in front of them shimmered and Susan Bones appeared. At the same moment, Hugo shook his head, looking confused.
 

“What is wrong with you three?” Susan snapped, gesturing with her wand.
 

“What are you talking about?” Teddy replied, his voice rising to match. “We were eating breakfast.”
 

“What you were doing was blabbing in the middle of the god-damned Ministry cafe,” she retorted. “Do you really think that nobody around you could hear what you were saying?”
 

“Susan,” Hugo said, trying to lower the tension, “it’s alright. We don’t know anything to accidentally blab. By the way, where are we and how did I get here?”
 

“I used the Imperius curse on you. Sorry. And that’s not the point, Hugo,” Susan replied, also lowering her voice. “It’s going to be hard enough on the lot of you even if they don’t think you know a thing. But anything you say or do that makes them think you might know where your parents are... Trust me, none of you want that kind of attention.”
 

Al stared at the senior Auror as she chided them. There were obvious signs of fatigue and strain on her face. He had known Susan for as long as he could remember and he had never seen her look quite so old.
 

“Susan, what’s happened?” Al asked softly. “Are we in some kind of danger?”
 

She stared at the three of them for a moment before answering. “Justin and I and all the other senior Aurors got called in last night after your dad pulled his disappearing act. They interviewed each of us separately, trying to figure out whether we knew anything. It went on for hours. Then they told us that the Auror Department has been temporarily placed under Ministerial Security and we’ve all been restricted to desk duty until further notice. All of our floo calls are being monitored and our owl post is being searched. I think it’s reasonable to assume that all of you will get the same treatment before the day is over.
 

“So to answer your question, I hope you’re not in any danger, but all of you need to be careful,” Susan implored. “Justin and I will do whatever we can to keep the heat off of you, but you have to be smart. Try not to be seen together and never, ever discuss any of your parents’ old stomping grounds unless you know you’re someplace where nobody can eavesdrop.”
 

Susan looked at her watch and grimaced. “I’m due at my desk. Be sure to walk out that door one by one, and leave a little time in between. And be careful, all of you. I don’t want to have to explain to Harry or Ron why something happened to you.”
 

Hugo looked slightly confused. “Dad and Uncle Harry wouldn’t blame you if something happened to us, would they?”
 

Susan stared back at him without a trace of humor. “No. If anything happened to any of you, Harry would blame himself. And I’ve been through that enough already.”

 



 
Wow. Once again, I find myself surprised and humbled by how far Conspiracy of Blood has come. With the last chapter, the story went over 100,000 words. Even more amazing, however, is the 4,500 chapter-reads and 205 reviews. Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to read and review my story. It's been a surreal ride. In response to one partcular reader, yes, I probably will do a Meet the Author thread soon. Right now, things are just a bit too busy. But definitely before I'm through!

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Chapter 20: Deceptive Appearances
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As always, anything you recognize belongs to JK Rowling






Harry came to a stop in front of Dumbledore’s portrait and glared at the serene-looking old headmaster. At the moment, he couldn’t imagine how anyone could feel so calm. Being dead was probably a big help, he reckoned. He had been pacing for most of the past hour, feeling completely useless. After only half a day holed up inside the Gaunt Shack, he was already going stir-crazy. Unable to stomach his mentor’s peaceful countenance any longer, he spun on his heel and continued to pace.


Across the room, Ron and Hermione were planning their incursion into the Ministry. They had already considered and dismissed several plans, and the tension between them appeared to be rising. In spite of his own boredom and frustration, Harry knew better than to try to insert himself into their deliberations. His friends might disagree, argue or even get into a full-on row, but eventually they would settle their differences and be better off for it. It was a dynamic they had been perfecting for nearly half a century.


Harry turned back to the stone pensieve where Esme continued to work on disentangling Percy’s memory. She had been inside for over an hour, and Harry could only imagine the intricate magic she was performing. He had asked to join her, but she blew him off with a snort. “I cannot ‘ave any distractions while I do this.” He wondered exactly what sort distraction he presented to the feisty French Auror.


In slightly more than twenty-four hours, the two of them had taken a roller coaster ride of old memories. Harry knew that he was physically attracted to the petite blonde, perhaps more so than he wanted to admit, but it bothered him just how much she reminded him of Ginny. Her sharp wit and fiery temper were complemented by a fierce determination to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost. With the benefit of hindsight, it was fairly obvious why they had been so drawn to each other during the miserable weeks they spent in the Pyrenees.


Ginny. The mere thought of her made his insides clench. He realized that it had been nearly three weeks since the last time he visited her grave. And now there was no telling how long it would be before he was able to return. If Ministerial Security knew the slightest thing about him, it was already surrounded with Caterwauling Charms and anti-apparition jinxes. Unless they could find a way to clear their names and break the Blood Order’s grip on the Ministry, it dawned on him that he might never see her again.


His spiral into overwhelming depression was interrupted when Esme suddenly emerged from the pensieve. She seemed quite pleased with herself, and quickly jotted a few additional notes on a roll of parchment which had grown quite long.


“Well?” Harry asked. Ron and Hermione also interrupted their argument over sneaking into the Ministry through the Magical Maintenance entrance to hear what Esme had to say.


“I ‘ave managed to separate the key part of the two memories,” she explained. “It is tedious work, and it will eventually destroy the memory, like tugging at a loose thread. We will not be able to view it many times.”


“Good thing we made a copy,” Harry said, nodding towards a second vial of silvery liquid sitting next to the pensieve.


“Yes, but the copy will never be the quality of the original,” she replied. “I would not even attempt this procedure on a copy.”


“Let’s have a look, then, right?” Ron said, standing up.


“I would recommend that only ‘arry and myself enter the pensive,” Esme cautioned. “I ‘ave already pulled on the loose threads. The more feet that tread on the rug, the faster it will unravel completely.”


Harry thought about Esme’s suggestion for a moment. “Take Hermione, instead. She’s the most observant. If we’re going to learn anything else, she’s our best bet.”


Hermione nodded at Harry and rolled across the room. Esme looked at her and asked, “Are you able to stand inside of the pensieve?”


“Yes,” Hermione replied.


Esme regarded her thoughtfully. “I see. It is good that you ‘ave not given up ‘ope. So long as you ‘ave it, there is always a chance you will walk again, yes?”


Before Hermione could respond, Esme turned and leaned into the pensieve. Hermione gave Ron and Harry a meek look, and then Ron picked her up and eased her into the swirling, silvery surface of the memory. Moments later, Hermione landed next to Esme inside the muggle jail.


“This way,” the French Auror directed, waving her wand to set the events in motion.


Once again, they followed Percy as he walked through the cell block. “This is all your brother-in-law’s original memory,” Esme explained. Percy came to a halt in front of Edwin Stoops’s cell and his face once again displayed the varying emotions that gripped him. He spoke the single word that Hermione recalled from the original memory, “Why?”. Esme paused the memory just as Stoops looked up. “This is where ‘is memory comes to an end. Now we see part of the memory that was superimposed onto it.”


Esme waved her wand and the figure of Percy suddenly dissolved into a hooded, female figure who was several inches shorter. Hermione turned slowly, and gasped when she discovered Percy’s unconscious body lying on the floor next to the wall. “‘e appears to ‘ave been stunned,” Esme said.


Hermione nodded in agreement. Percy’s robes were crumpled, but there were no other signs of trauma. She knelt down and took a close look. “His wand is still in his pocket,” she observed. “He never saw it coming.”


Hermione rose and moved to stand in front of the mysterious blond witch. She leaned over and tried to see beneath the cowl of the robe’s hood. “Why can’t I see her face?”


“This is ‘er memory we are seeing,” Esme replied. “She would not ‘ave seen ‘er own face except in the reflection you found in the faucet.” She looked pointedly at Hermione. “It was you who found that, no? With all due respect to ‘arry, that level of attention to detail is well beyond ‘im.”


Hermione supposed that there was no point in denying it. “Yes, that was me.”


“You are a very perceptive witch, Mrs. Weasley,” the French Auror said approvingly. “‘arry is fortunate to ‘ave a friend like you.”


“To be honest, I’ve always felt like the fortunate one,” Hermione replied. She absentmindedly touched her wedding ring with her thumb. “If it wasn’t for him, a lot of the most important things in my life never would have happened.”


Esme stared at her for a moment, then waved her wand and the memory began to move forward again. Stoops stood up from the cot in his cell and began to laugh, but unlike Percy’s recollection, he was looking downward, towards Percy’s prone form.


“Bloody nob. You zap him with a stun gun or something?” Stoops looked back toward the blond woman and laughed some more. “I reckoned you’d come back for me. I remember it all, you know? Whatever drug it was you slipped me, I still remember it. And I remember you. Now get me out of here, before I decide to tell the cops about you.”


The remainder of the memory was horrifyingly familiar. The blond witch raised her wand and fired the killing curse into the middle of Edwin Stoops’s chest with devastating force. The memory shifted subtly again, and it was Percy who stood in front of the ruined cell. “From this point, the memories are still merged,” Esme said, “but I think we’ve seen the most important part.”


Hermione nodded in agreement. “This is all brilliant work, Esme.” The French Auror smiled and bowed her head slightly. “Listen,” Hermione went on, “I wanted to apologise to you. Whatever difficulties you and Harry have had in the past, I shouldn’t have allowed them to sway my opinion of you. It was unfair of me. I just hope that you understand that Ron, Harry and I have always been very protective of each other, even more so since Harry’s wife died.”


Esme nodded appreciatively. “I understand your misgivings. ‘arry must have loved ‘is wife very much. If you don’t mind my asking, do you think ‘e will ever recover from ‘er death?”


Hermione paused for a long time before responding. “Harry is still hurting very badly,” she began. “Ginny was his whole world, and he hasn’t begun to fill the void she left behind. He has good days, but at other times he’s just going through the motions. He has a lot of healing to do.”


Esme listened intently to Hermione’s answer, then stared away thoughtfully. “Once upon a time, I cared about ‘arry very much. Seeing ‘im again... it ‘as stirred up a lot of old feelings. I am upset, of course, that he chose to be with another. But I am also reminded of why I found ‘im so captivating. It is all very confusing. ‘aving your ‘eart broken by ‘arry Potter once in a lifetime is quite enough.”


Hermione looked at Esme sympathetically. “It’s hard for me to give you advice, because I also have a lot of healing to do. Harry is like my brother, but Ginny was my best friend. It’s hard... very hard for me to imagine him with anyone besides her. But maybe that’s part of the problem. His problem and mine.”


Esme nodded slowly, then she raised her wand to exit the memory. “Esme,” Hermione said, catching her attention. “I hope that helped instead of confusing you more.”


“It did, actually,” the French Auror replied. “It is clear that I need a lot of questions answered before I let myself ‘ave feelings for ‘im again.”


Ron was waiting to catch Hermione when she emerged from the pensieve, and he wrapped his arms tightly around her. “Miss me?” he asked, nuzzling her ear softly.


“Will you two get a room?” Harry said. His general frustration with the pace of their day was doubtless spilling over onto them, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care. He would apologize when the crisis was past.


Hermione ignored Harry’s outburst and began to explain what Esme had found. “The blond witch must have been waiting on Percy when he arrived at the jail. She stunned him, then killed Stoops. He never even drew his wand.”


“So she knew Percy was coming...” Ron mumbled. Harry could almost see the gears turning inside his head. “Percy said that the Minister woke him up and he went straight to the jail. There can’t have been very many people who knew.”


“Once again, the trail leads back to the Minister’s office,” Harry replied pointedly. “This is becoming a pattern.”


“Why would the Minister want Percy to think that he’d killed a muggle?” Hermione asked, thinking out loud.


“Political blackmail?” Ron suggested. “People are always asking me why Percy doesn’t stand for Minister. It’s a bit unnerving, to be honest. It was bad enough being his brother when he was just a Prefect at school.”


“Maybe it’s not the Minister,” Harry offered. “We still have no idea who this blond witch is, or whether she’s the same person as this Lady Tenabra from the New Blood Order. Philbrick said that Tenabra had blond hair and hid her face under a dark hood. Maybe she has a spy in the Minister’s office?”


“So what do we do now?” Esme asked, siphoning the separated memory gently out of the pensieve and placing it in a glass vial. Harry noticed that the liquid appeared clouded and unstable, like salad dressing beginning to separate.


“I think it’s more important than ever for you two to get inside the Ministry and find out whatever we can,” Harry replied, gesturing towards Ron and Hermione. “Meanwhile, the two of us,” he nodded towards Esme, “need to hunt down the witch you mentioned, the one who’s an expert on modifying memories. She’s the best lead we have right now to work our way back to the blond witch from the jail.”


“I have an idea of how to get in,” Ron said, “but she thinks I’m crazy.”


“You are crazy,” Hermione insisted. “Where do we even find what we’d need to pull that off?”


“Harry,” Ron asked, ignoring his wife, “who exactly do you have in this polyjuice cabinet?”

 




Lady Tenabra waited silently in the dimly-lit doorway behind Gladrags Wizardwear. The intelligence she received from inside Hogwarts had suddenly become a lot less informative, so she had summoned her operative to express her displeasure. As always, he came sneaking around the corner under a poorly cast disillusionment charm. The air shimmered noticeably as he moved and the dry leaves crunched and scattered around his clumsy feet. His mediocre attempt at concealment made it abundantly clear why he was no longer an Auror.


“Professor Tennant,” she barked, startling the man, “I assure you that we are alone.”


The disillusionment charm faded and Rory Tennant approached her cautiously. Like most people, he subconsciously leaned forward just a bit, trying to make out her face beneath the cowl of her hood. It did no good, of course. The spells that she cast over her face made it impossible to see. But she still found it amusing to watch people lower themselves before her, trying to glean a hint of her true identity.


“What do ye need?” Tennant asked nervously, stealing glances from side to side.


“Something has happened to the monitoring spells,” she replied. “The Ministry is no longer able to see into some areas of Hogwarts. You need to fix that.”


“Probably the bloody castle,” Tennant grumbled. “The magical protections are so fluid. No spell lasts for very long in there.”


“So why have you not been reinforcing them?” she asked coldly, letting her disappointment show.


“Listen, lass,” Tennant snapped back, “It isnae so easy as ye make it sound. The castle... it fights back. The spells have to be cast from precisely the right place, and that place changes as the magic ebbs and flows. If the Minister is so bloody interested in what’s goin’ on inside the school, I dinnae know why he disnae just ask.”


Tenabra fought back her frustration. For the past two years, she had carefully cultivated a relationship with the disgruntled former Auror, leading him to believe that she was a covert operative inside Ministerial Security. Apparently his poor understanding of the term “covert” extended well beyond his inability to conceal himself effectively.


“Professor Tennant,” she hissed, “if the Minister of Magic could simply waltz through the doors of Hogwarts Castle and demand to know whether the faculty and students are plotting against him then we would have no need for you. Now do you intend to hold up your end of our bargain or not?”


“Ah, yes, our bargain,” Tennant retorted. “I understand that the Minister has finally got around tae sackin’ Potter as Head Auror. I’m still waitin’ fer my owl.”


“The job will be yours, as we agreed,” she answered impatiently, “but only when your work at Hogwarts is complete.”


“And when would that be, exactly?” Tennant asked with a strong note of sarcasm. “Fer two years now, yev been watchin’ the teachers and students, ta little avail, I daresay. I’ll make this simple fer ye. Ye got one month ta get me outta this bloody nuthouse and make me Head Auror, or I’m goin’ to the Headmaster and blowin’ the whistle on yer whole scheme. Are we clear?”


Tenabra studied him for a long moment. “Fix the monitoring spells,” she finally replied. “I will make the Minister aware of your demands. You will have your answer within the week.”


“Bloody right,” Tennant said, then he turned and stalked away.


She watched him go, mentally adjusting her timeline to accommodate his outburst. Rory Tennant didn’t know it, but he had just set an upper limit on his own life expectancy. Once he was gone, she turned and disapparated.






Hermione twitched uncomfortably as Ron rolled her chair towards the security checkpoint leading into the Ministry atrium. Being a paraplegic was hard enough; being an infirm nonagenarian was nearly unbearable.


“Stop fidgeting,” Ron whispered from behind her. “You’re a wealthy, old pure blood matriarch. Act like it.”


“Yeah, well you’re a spoiled rotten, misogynistic blight on the arse of society. So I guess you’re doing just fine,” she retorted, sitting up straighter and stiffening her upper lip. Insulting her husband was a small and petty thing to do, but it did help her feel more in character. The high neck gown she was wearing chafed at her chin and the corseted sides pinched her in all the wrong places, especially in a sitting position. It wasn’t going to be very difficult to come off as irritable and unpleasant.


They reached the security checkpoint and Ron selected a podium manned by a young-looking witch that Hermione didn’t recognize. The Daily Prophet had reported that Ministerial Security was bringing in a lot of new people, and the smattering of unfamiliar faces wearing blue robes certainly seemed to corroborate those stories. The witch in front of them seemed very nervous, shuffling her feet and biting the inside of her cheek.


Ron didn’t wait to be addressed. “My name is Blaise Zabini and this is my mother,” he announced with a flourish. “We would like to speak to the Minister about affirming our loyalty to the Ministry and clearing our family’s good name.”


Hermione thought it was a nice touch, asking to speak to the Minister directly. Zabini had always been just deluded enough to believe such a thing was possible.


“Erm, well, I’m sure that the Minister is quite busy,” the young witch replied, continuing to sway nervously from side to side. “But we’ve set up a special office that will be happy to go through the particulars of your situation.”


“You listen to me, child!” Hermione thundered, throwing herself into the part, “I have spent the last forty-five years listening to the Ministry’s filthy lies sully my son’s reputation. If the Minister is serious about making peace with my family, or the MacDougals, for that matter, he’ll need to make time for us.”


The society pages of the Daily Prophet had recently linked Mrs. Zabini romantically to Ewan MacDougal, the elderly patriarch of the old, pure blood family. Hermione reckoned that she might as well use that information before he mysteriously turned up dead.


The security witch looked positively terrified. “Well aren’t you gonna do something then?” Ron asked, trying to affect Zabini’s typical disinterested impatience.


“Look,” the witch said quietly, stealing a nervous glance towards the elevated podium where her supervisor was beginning to stare in their direction, “this is my first day on the job. I don’t know anything about the Minister’s schedule. I haven’t even finished reading my training manual. If you take the lifts to Level One, they’ve set up an office for families with grievances from the war. I’m sure they’ll be able to help you.”


Hermione stared back at the frightened young witch. What would Mrs. Zabini say in this situation? She finally settled on something modestly positive in a thoroughly demeaning way. “Listen to me, my dear. This job clearly does not suit you. You have wide hips and sturdy calves and your face is not unattractive. You clearly have magical blood running through your veins. Why don’t you find a respectable wizard with a few galleons to his name and make some babies, hmn?”


The security witch looked utterly bewildered, but she nodded politely. “Come, Blaise, let’s find this bloody commission and set them straight,” Hermione directed, and they set off towards the lifts.


Ron and Hermione passed on a couple of lift cars that were occupied, pretending to turn up their noses at the other passengers. When an empty one finally arrived, they boarded and waited for the doors to close behind them.


“Time to top up,” Ron said, pulling a flask from his shirt pocket. Hermione retrieved a similar flask from her purse and they both took a reinforcing swig of polyjuice potion. Ron screwed up Zabini’s face as he choked down the thick, greenish-grey liquid. “He tastes like old cigar ashes and castor oil.”


“Well his mother tastes like sloe gin and arsenic,” Hermione replied, capping her flask and returning it to her purse. “Why did Harry have hair clippings from these two, anyway?”


“I think he raided the stockpile we keep in the Auror office. Years ago, Zabini and his mother were great cover when we needed to lure some ex-Death Eater out of hiding. Nobody really knew where he was, and most of them either wanted to buy him a drink or kill him for fooling around with their wives. And a lot of the older ones fancied taking a tilt at his mum.”


The lift came to a stop at Level Nine, and both Ron and Hermione shared a momentary pause as they stood at the entrance to the Department of Mysteries. “Bloody shame, that day,” Ron mumbled, setting his hand on Hermione’s shoulder. She laid her own hand over his. “Come on, we have to hurry.”


The Ministry’s lifts still didn’t descend all the way to Level Ten, but one concession to modern sensibilities that Hermione had managed to push through the bureaucracy was an accessibility ramp near the stairs. She never thought that she would be the personal beneficiary, but she had argued vehemently in favor of sparing disabled witches and wizards from the indignity of having to be levitated down from Level Nine. When they reached the bottom of the ramp, Hermione took a careful look around. She selected a spot just outside of one of the courtrooms to park her chair and Ron stepped beside her and cast a disillusionment charm over both of them.


“The concealment won’t last for very long,” he whispered. “There are too many wards in place here.”


“It shouldn’t take very long,” she replied. “He had a hearing this morning in Courtroom Six. It should be over any minute now.”


They waited in silence for another few minutes and suddenly the doors of the courtroom to their left burst open and a stream of witches and wizards in formal robes began to exit the room. They watched closely, waiting for their target to emerge. Finally, Rigel Barsamian appeared at the entrance, carrying a briefcase and chatting cordially with another barrister about the hearing. Hermione thought that he had aged a bit since their murder trial, but he still retained the essential cockiness of youth and inexperience. As he finished his conversation and turned to walk to the stairs, Hermione chose her moment. Confundo.


Barsamian’s eyes went unfocused and he ambled to a stop in front of Hermione and Ron. “Walk to Courtroom Eight,” she hissed, just loudly enough to be heard. She and Ron carefully followed him, sticking near the wall and trying to avoid the sporadic overhead lights. When the door to the empty chamber was closed behind them, Ron allowed the disillusionment charm to fade. “Sit down,” he directed, and the prosecutor obeyed.


“Have they tapped you to lead the prosecution of the new murder case against Harry Potter and the Weasleys?” Hermione asked.


“Yes,” Barsamian replied softly. He appeared to be struggling to pull his thoughts together. Hermione gestured with her wand and intensified the Confundus Charm.


“What is the new evidence against them?”


“A wand signature analysis,” he mumbled. “Somebody found it in a drawer in Magical Law Enforcement. It shows that all three of them were in the jail.”


Ron shot Hermione a bitter look. “Do you have it with you?” she persisted.


“No. In my office.”


“Where in your office?” Hermione demanded. The strain of maintaining the strong charm was starting to show on Mrs. Zabini’s face.


“File cabinet. Second drawer. In the case file.”


Hermione looked satisfied, but Ron held his hand up. “Who assigned this case to you?” he asked.


“The order came from the Minister’s office,” Barsamian replied, once again looking like he was starting to come around. “It’s bollocks, though.”


Ron and Hermione looked at each other in surprise. She mustered all her effort to reign Barsamian’s mind back in. “What do you mean, it’s bollocks?” she asked.


Barsamian’s eyes focused momentarily, like somebody waking up from a dream. Hermione was no longer sure whether he was truly confunded. “They weren’t guilty the first time and they’re not guilty now,” he mumbled. “The whole thing is bollocks.”


Barsamian started to shake his head, trying to clear his mind. Ron had seen enough. “Stupefy.” He applied the spell gently but firmly, and Barsamian slumped over in his seat.


“Start erasing his memory,” Ron directed as he plucked a pair of hairs from the unconscious man’s head. He reached into his robes and pulled out a fresh vial of polyjuice potion, then dropped the hairs in.


“Wait, where are you going?” Hermione asked, looking alarmed.


“To get the file, of course,” he replied, downing the potion. “I’ll meet you back in the Atrium in half an hour. Remember to take some more of Mrs. Zabini.” Ron suddenly began to change from Blaise Zabini into Rigel Barsamian. The latter turned out to be a bit smaller in stature, and Ron cinched up his belt before tucking the loose fabric of his shirt into his pants.


“Somebody needs to fatten Rigel up,” Hermione smirked.


“Or Zabini needs to ease up on the wine and cheese,” Ron grimaced. He gestured with his wand and summoned Barsamian’s formal robes. They seemed to conceal his loose-fitting clothes well enough.


“You be careful!” Hermione admonished.


“Of course, love,” he replied. “I’d kiss you, but, you know, that’s just weird.”


“Agreed,” Hermione said, laughing in spite of herself. “Hurry. I’ll see you soon.”


Ron conjured a briefcase identical to Barsamian’s and slipped out the door as Hermione carefully applied the memory charm, removing all traces of their encounter. When she finished, she levitated his limp body to the back corner of the room, stunned him once more for good measure, and cast a concealment charm around him. Then she wheeled herself to the door and used the Homenum Revelio spell to check for anyone lurking in the hallway. Finding it empty, she left the room and hurried back towards the ramp to Level Nine.


As she rolled along, she pondered Barsamian’s final words in the empty courtroom. Everybody knew it. The whole thing is bollocks. He had sounded annoyed, almost frustrated. Harry had always been convinced that some higher authority was directing the case against them, and she had always agreed that by himself, Barsamian was incapable of orchestrating such a grand production. But this was the first inkling she’d ever gotten that the young prosecutor had not been pleased to be involved.


She arrived back at the lifts and pushed the button for Level Eight. Hermione really didn’t want to arrive at the Atrium before Ron, since she was worried about the possibility that one of Mrs. Zabini’s old friends might see her and try to strike up a conversation, but she really wasn’t sure where else to go. She took the flask from her purse and gulped down another gut-wrenching slug of polyjuice potion as the lift car rose. When the doors opened, she wheeled herself out and found a quiet spot near the fountain where she tried to blend in and not make eye contact with anyone.


Her privacy proved short-lived, however. “Mrs. Zabini, what a wonderful surprise,” came the deep, raspy voice from behind her. Hermione spun around to find Edmund Cornfoot approaching her with a large smile on his wrinkled, pock-marked face. His son Stephen had been one year ahead of her at Hogwarts, and she had seen him at any number of political events since the war. The elderly pure blood wizard had always seemed pleasant enough, and she couldn’t imagine what interest he would have in Mrs. Zabini.


“Hello, Cornfoot,” she replied tersely, without returning his smile. Hermione hoped that a bit of incivility could convince him to simply go away.


If he noticed at all, he gave no sign of it. “Agostina, is that any way to treat an old friend? Please, call me Edmund,” he replied, still smiling broadly. He extended his hand, but Hermione merely stared at him. She struggled not to retreat from the sight of his thick, sausage-like fingers.


“Well, then,” he said, withdrawing his hand but otherwise undaunted, “what brings you to the Ministry of Magic today?”


“If you must know,” she huffed, “my son has returned from his long exile. We are in the process of clearing his name of the slanderous lies that the Aurors have heaped upon it.”


“Oh, splendid,” Cornfoot answered, once again moving dangerously close to the edge of Hermione’s comfort zone. “Your boy was in the same year as my son Stephen, was he not?”


Hermioine paused for a second, unsure of whether Mrs. Zabini would have had any idea that Stephen Cornfoot was a year ahead of her son. She decided to go with a noncommittal answer. “They were close in age, I believe. What of it?”


Cornfoot stared at her for a moment, then dropped his false smile and lowered his voice. “Agostina, you wound me. That night we spent together in Paris all those years ago, did it really mean nothing to you?”


Hermione was dumbstruck, completely at a loss for how to respond. Stephen Cornfoot’s father had slept with Zabini’s mother? And lived? It was simply too much to process. She started to stammer out an answer when Rigel Barsamian suddenly appeared behind Cornfoot. For a terrifying moment, she had no idea whether it was the real one or his polyjuice copy.


“I do hope I’m not interrupting,” Barsamian said in his olive oil voice. Cornfoot turned around with a start, looking surprised. “Mrs. Zabini, we’re due in Magical Law to discuss the circumstances of your last husband’s death, if you please.”


Cornfoot suddenly looked like somebody had punched him in the chest. “Erm, I’ll be seeing you, Agostina. Take care,” he said as he backed away.


“Took you long enough,” Hermione hissed as Ron began to push her chair towards the main exit. “I thought he was about to declare his undying love for me. Did you get it?”


“The entire file,” Ron replied, looking nervously around. “I think you’re going to be busy for a while.”


“Right,” Hermione replied. As they drew near the security checkpoint, she noticed that the supervisor who had observed the commotion they created on the way in. He left his station and moved to block their path to the exit.


“Mrs. Zabini,” he said as they approached. “May I ask what has happened to your son?”


“Your liaison office must be keeping him with their endless questions,” Hermione replied haughtily. Her heart was pounding inside of her chest. “I am far too busy to be detained. Mr. Barsamian has kindly offered to see me out.”


“Well that’s interesting,” the supervisor sneered. “We were expecting your son in the Pure Blood Family Liaison Office. He never arrived.”


Hermione summoned all the pique and arrogance she could muster. “Are you calling me a liar?” she asked quietly, giving him a frigid stare.


“Officer,” Ron interjected, putting on Barsamian’s best diplomatic voice, “Mrs. Zabini has kindly offered her time to help resolve the lingering misunderstandings between her family and the Ministry. Now she really must be on her way. If you’ll excuse us...”


“Mr. Barsamian,” the supervisor replied tersely, “you of all people should be aware that one of the three most wanted fugitives in all of Britain also happens to be a witch in a wheelchair. No offense to Mrs. Zabini, but we need to clear up the questions surrounding her son. Then she is free to go.”


Hermione considered their options. There were too many other security officers around to try to confund the supervisor. Faking a heart attack would throw them off balance, but they were likely to insist on escorting her to St. Mungo’s. No matter what, it was starting to look like they were going to have to fight their way out of the situation. Suddenly, the security officer manning the podium called to his supervisor.


“Sir, I have a message from the Pure Blood Family Liaison Office. Mrs. Zabini’s son is there. Apparently he ran into some woman he used to, uh, know. They’re working on his statement of affirmation now.”


The supervisor looked confused and disappointed. Hermione’s pulse continued to race. She had no idea what had happened, but she wasn’t going to waste their one chance to escape without a confrontation. She fixed a self-righteous sneer on Mrs. Zabini’s face and took a deep breath. “May I have your name, young man? I would like to personally extend my grievances to the Minister regarding the shabby way that I’ve been treated.”


The supervisor’s expression hardened, but she could see the concern in his eyes. After letting him dangle for a moment, Ron jumped back into the conversation. “Um, Mrs. Zabini, let’s get you on your way. I promise that I’ll raise your concerns to the Minister as soon as I see him.” Ron winked subtly at the supervisor, who seemed to weigh his options for a brief moment.


“Mrs. Zabini, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience,” the supervisor mumbled, apparently hoping that none of his subordinates would hear. “You must understand, these are dangerous times. We can’t be too careful.”


Hermione harrumphed dismissively as Ron pushed her chair past the checkpoint, turning her nose up. As she rolled towards the Ministry entrance, she saw the young witch they had passed on the way in and said, “Remember, my dear. Babies. Today wouldn’t be too soon to begin.”


A short while later, Ron had nearly broken into a jog as he pushed Hermione’s wheelchair away from the red phone booth on Whitehall. For once, she felt no desire for him to slow down, in spite of the way the muggles were staring at the two of them. “What the bloody hell happened back there?” she hissed. “I thought we were going to have to stun them all.”


“Wait, you didn’t do that?” Ron asked in disbelief. “So who the hell actually showed up pretending to be Zabini?”


They turned the corner into the familiar nearby alley and Ron lifted Hermione into his arms. She quickly shrank her wheelchair and summoned it into her hands. Without another word, Ron turned and they disapparated to the street in Little Hangleton where the Gaunt Shack was hidden. Once Hermione restored her chair and Ron sat her gently back into it, they both took a moment to catch their breath.


As they started to stroll back to the concealed path, a ball of blue-white light streaked towards them out of the sky and morphed into a falcon before alighting on the pavement. It spoke with Susan Bones’s familiar voice. “I thought you two could use a hand. For future reference, Mrs. Zabini has a mild French accent.” Then the bird faded away in a silvery mist.

 



 
Thank you all for continuing to read Conspiracy of Blood. As always, a very special thanks to my wonderful beta reader, sophie_hatter. If you haven't read her story Evolution (M), you're in for a treat!


Did you like this chapter? Please take a moment and let me know in the box below. Short or long, anonymous or not, I love them all!


Coming very soon: my first one-shot story: The Price of Redemption. Check out my author page...


Chapter 21: All Too Familiar
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to JK Rowling






Harry peered carefully over the top of his newspaper, studying the crowd in the muggle train station. He was sure that they were somewhere around. They had to be. Next to him, Esme nudged him lightly in the ribs. “There,” she whispered.


He waited for a moment before letting his gaze drift to the left where he spotted two men standing near a drinking fountain, trying to appear nonchalant as they scanned the crowd. Their clothes were just slightly off from the muggles who hurried past: The styles a bit dated, the colors not quite matched. One man wore a brown felt bowler on his head. The other kept stealing glances into a bakery take-out box that almost certainly contained a Sneakoscope.


“What is the plan?” Esme hissed.


“I’m working on it,” Harry replied. They had arrived at the train station disguised as a muggle couple from Little Hangleton who had unwittingly donated a few hairs that morning. Harry was hoping that they’d be able to stroll right past the Ministerial Security officers who were certain to be guarding the station. The Sneakoscope presented a tricky problem, however. If the Ministry realized that they had traveled to France, it would be far more difficult for them to get back into the country. Harry decided that the only sure way was to confund and obliviate the security officers, but he and Esme would have to work quickly before one of them could raise the alarm.


Harry scanned the crowd entering the station, and suddenly spotted what he was looking for. An older muggle man, approximately his height and weight, wearing glasses. “Be ready to wipe their memories,” Harry whispered. He noticed the wizard with the Sneakoscope stiffen. The device was clearly picking up on his devious intentions.


When the muggle man got close enough, Harry began to rapidly cast spells from inside his coat sleeve. He lightly confunded the man, then he transfigured the man’s hair to the same messy, graying-black mop that typically adorned his own head. Finally, he transfigured the man’s spectacles to the round, black-rimmed variety that he favored. He tugged gently at Esme’s elbow, and the two of them fell into step several paces behind the muggle. Harry focused intently on his plan to deceive.


Predictably, the security officers picked Harry’s decoy out of the crowd and moved to surround him. As soon as they fell into step, Harry swiped his wand inside his sleeve. Confundo. The muggle man and the security officers stumbled to a halt in front of them. Esme flicked her wand rapidly inside her overcoat, deftly removing all traces of the encounter from the minds of all three men. While she worked, Harry transfigured the muggle man back to his original appearance. When Esme was finished, she sent the muggle on his way. She and Harry hurried past the dazed officers and made their way through customs. A few minutes later, they found their seats on the passenger train to France.


“That wasn’t too bad,” Harry mumbled, pulling a book out of his travel bag.


“I always wondered ‘ow it would be to make the trip in the muggle fashion,” Esme replied, looking around the inside of the train car. “It seems so slow and cumbersome.”


“True, but it’s a really long way to try to apparate. And it’s a breeze compared to taking a plane or a boat,” Harry observed. He chuckled softly to himself as he recalled the disastrous air travel adventure the family had endured en route to Teddy and Victoire’s wedding. His father-in-law had insisted on taking James, Al, Lily and their cousins on a muggle flight from London to Paris, terming the trip “a once in a lifetime cultural experience.” Everyone involved agreed that it would never be repeated in their lifetimes. After the evacuation of an entire terminal at Heathrow Airport, the Obliviators spent nearly a week sorting things out.


“What is so funny?” Esme asked as the train lurched slightly beneath them and began to pull out of the station.


“Oh, nothing,” Harry replied. “Just remembering my family’s troubles with muggle transportation.”


Harry noticed her stiffen slightly in response to the words, ‘my family.’ He reluctantly came to the conclusion that if he was going to be spending the next few days in her company, it was probably time to start undoing the damage. Only he wasn’t sure where to begin. He tried to replay their angry confrontation over dinner in his mind, but it still didn’t make much sense to him. Perhaps it was best to simply get her talking.


“Do you go back and visit Beauxbâtons often?” Harry asked.


“Occasionally. Mostly when we are recruiting new trainees.”


“Recruiting, yes,” Harry replied a bit stiffly. “That’s usually what takes me back to Hogwarts. Well, that and I teach dueling lessons there. Two different sets of lessons, actually. So, um, yes, I guess I’m there twice a week. But I also do recruiting.” Smooth, Potter. Very smooth.


Esme looked mildly confused, but she seemed to let it go and went back to staring out the window. Harry struggled to think of a way to keep the conversation going. “So how does your recruiting work? What sort of marks do the students need?”


Esme turned and looked at him with a mix of amusement and frustration. “‘arry, do you intend to spend our entire trip making painful small talk, or shall we discuss what is obviously on both of our minds?”


Esme still wasn’t much on idle chatter. Harry drew a deep breath, mostly to buy time. His mind raced as he tried to figure out what to say next. He recalled her saying that she was unsure how he felt about the time they spent together in the Pyrenees. Maybe that would be a good place to start.


“Alright, then. Well, the first thing I want you to know that I don’t regret the things that happened between us,” he said cautiously. “I know it probably seemed like I couldn’t forget about those days fast enough, but it really helped me figure out a lot of things. Made me realize what was really important, what I really cared about.”


“Obviously I was not all that important to you, since you cast me aside and ran ‘ome to England as soon as our work together was over,” she replied bluntly. “But I suppose that was part of what I helped you to figure out, no?”


Harry felt a familiar sense of panic, one that he could recall from as far back as his first, disastrous relationship with Cho. “Esme, you were important to me. I cared about you a lot. I just don’t want you to think that I regret my feelings toward you because of how things ended.”


Esme turned to face him, looking hurt. “So what, you think that I regret the time we spent together?” she said, the tone of her voice conveying a clear warning that he was on very dangerous ground.


“No, no!” Harry replied. “That isn’t what I meant at all. I mean, I guess I could understand if you did. Now that I think about it, I’m sure that it would have upset Ginny a great deal... you know, if I’d mentioned it to her. But I don’t regret it.”


For reasons that completely eluded Harry, the hurt in Esme’s eyes twisted into anger. “Listen to me, you pompous ass, the only thing I regret is that I did not see you for what you were: a lying pig looking for a quick roll in the ‘ay to tide ‘im over until ‘e could return triumphantly ‘ome, marry ‘is school sweet’eart and live ‘appily ever after.”


Harry sighed. This wasn’t going well at all. “Esme, I was very young and confused. I never meant to take advantage of you.”


“Take advantage of me?” Her face had become a mask of barely-contained rage. “I was not some starry-eyed little schoolgirl. I was a grown woman and I knew that I was taking a risk, but that is what I thought it was, a risk. I did not know that you were practically married already!”


“Esme, it wasn’t like that,” he said softly, trying to soothe her anger. “I wasn’t even engaged back then...”


“Oh, it was not like that?” she replied incredulously. “Well ‘ow was it, then? Let us consider the facts, shall we? True or false: you ‘ad a serious girlfriend from the first day we met?”


“True.”


“True or false: you never ‘ad any intention of leaving ‘er at any point?”


“Well, I suppose that’s true.”


“True or false: you were perfectly aware of these facts as you watched me fall in love with you?”


“Esme, I never had any idea that you were falling in love,” Harry answered quietly.


“Liar!” she shot back, fuming. “Even you are not so dense.” She glared at him for a long moment. When he didn’t answer, she turned away from him in a huff.


The British countryside disappeared as the train entered the Channel Tunnel. They sat in silence under the artificial lights, neither willing to reach across the wall of animosity separating them. Harry was surprised when Esme finally spoke. “‘arry, do you ever intend to explain what you were really thinking?”


Harry stared at the seat back in front of him, then snorted. “Do you really want to know what I was thinking?”


She turned to face him. “I ‘ave wanted to know for forty-four years.”


Harry stared out the window, watching the fluorescent lights on the tunnel walls pass. “Before I found out I was a wizard, I couldn’t remember anyone ever caring about me. My aunt and uncle and cousin hated me. All the kids at school made fun of me and bullied me. I had these hazy memories of my Mum and Dad, and the way I felt when she used to hold me. That was all that kept me going.


“And when I came to Hogwarts, suddenly everybody seemed interested in me. There were a few people who tried to look out for me, like Ron and Hermione and a couple of the teachers, but most of them just wanted to see The Boy Who Lived. I was just a curiosity, someone that let people send an owl home and say, ‘I met Harry Potter in Potions today and he’s shorter than I thought.’


“Then I met Ginny. She was the first person who had ever really been in love with me. I mean, there were plenty of stupid girls who had crushes on me because of what happened when I was a baby, but she wasn’t like that. She was strong and smart and beautiful and good at Quidditch. She could have had any guy she wanted, but she loved me. She loved me for who I really was, not because I was the Boy Who Lived.”


Harry took a moment to collect himself. He felt Esme staring at him, willing him to go on. “When I met you, you were also strong and talented and beautiful and exotic. And when it turned out that you were interested in me... the first time you kissed me... it was too good to be true, you know? The idea that not one but two amazing women could fall in love with me. I was nineteen years old and I felt like two different people living in the same body. There was the Chosen One who beat the Dark Lord and there was the lonely little boy who used to sleep in a cupboard and wear worn out, hand-me-down clothes and get beaten up at school.


“I knew what we were doing was wrong, Esme. I knew that what I was doing to you was wrong. But that little boy who used to sleep in a cupboard... he wasn’t strong enough to say no.” Harry turned and looked directly into her eyes. “For that, I’ll always be sorry. You deserved so much better.”


They rode in silence for a long time, until the daylight suddenly exploded from the mouth of the tunnel ahead of them. As the train made its way into Calais, Esme finally said, “Thank you, ‘arry.”


He looked at her in surprise. “For what?”


“I may never forgive you, but now I think I understand.”







George Weasley strolled calmly down a quiet residential street in Honiton. The stiff breeze momentarily lifted his hat off of his head, ruffling his thinning, red hair. Of all the consequences of his advancing age, he reckoned that losing his hair bothered him the most. True, he wasn’t quite as tall as he used to be, and his joints ached when the damp winter winds blew in off of the ocean, but it was his full head of thick, red hair that he missed each morning when he looked in the mirror. Age had changed him in a lot of ways, he mused. But it hadn’t made him blind.


And he would have needed to be completely blind to not notice the pair of awkward, stiff-looking wizards who were following him. They walked mostly in silence in spite of the fact that they were obviously together, and they constantly changed their pace to match his. It became rather amusing after a while. George walked in a complete circle around the neighborhood, just to see whether it tipped them off that he was onto them. Apparently, it had not.


He glanced quickly at his watch, and realized that it was time for the game of cat and mouse to end. He picked up his pace, looking nervously around. Predictably, his pursuers drew closer, feigning a conversation about the early onset of the winter chill. George pulled an envelope from his inner pocket and pretended to study the contents for a moment. Then, giving one last purposeful look around, he dropped the envelope into an open rubbish bin as he passed.


Sure enough, the two wizards almost fell over each other trying to get to the bin. George continued to walk, grinning devilishly to himself. Just as he reached the next corner, he heard a loud pop behind him, followed by cries for help. He stole a quick look backwards and found the two wizards clothed in frilly, pink ball gowns as the wings that had magically sprouted from their backs lifted them into the air. George felt positive that Instant Faerie Birthday Party Powder was going to be a hit when he rolled it out at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes in the spring. Of course, he’d have to remember to include the flying instructions in the actual product. Otherwise, the party guests would probably all drift away like the two wankers who had tried to tail him.


He turned the corner and quickly spun on his heel, apparating to a different side street he had passed two blocks earlier. He could still hear the distant cries from his pursuers, and was satisfied that they would be occupied for quite a while. He found a manhole cover in the middle of the street that contained several unusual markings discretely imprinted around its rim, and stood in the middle of it.


“I don’t see how Chudley can fail to win the cup this year,” he said to nobody in particular, and suddenly he dropped through the manhole cover. A spell caught him as he fell, and he quickly rebounded upwards. An instant later, he popped up through a different manhole set in the middle of a street where the houses had a distinctly magical appearance. He smiled to himself as he walked up the path to the house formerly owned by his Aunt Muriel. It was really too bad that Ron wouldn’t be joining them. George could almost picture the pain on his younger brother’s face as he forced himself to say the pass-phrase George had selected in spite of the fact that the Cannons had gone winless the prior season.


George found Bill, Fleur, Charlie and Neville already waiting inside the house. He exchanged vigorous hugs with his brothers and warm greetings with the other two.


“No word from Percy?” George asked.


“Afraid not,” Bill replied. They had all hoped that Percy might join them, but the last anyone had heard, he hadn’t responded to the invitation.


George then noticed that the five of them were the only ones who had arrived. “Mum and Dad aren’t here yet? Mum said they were leaving the Burrow forty-five minutes ago.”


“They probably ‘ad unwanted company,” Fleur replied with a grimace. “We certainly did. ‘ow about you?”


“Well, there are a couple of blokes floating over King Street in pink princess dresses, but I wouldn’t know anything about that,” George responded with an innocent look.


They heard voices coming from outside and turned to face the door. Without thinking about it, George reached inside his pocket for his wand. He was surprised how quickly the instincts from the war were coming back to him. In a whirlwind of greying orange hair, their mother swept through the front door and pulled him into a hug before moving on to Charlie. Arthur followed close behind, peering cautiously out the door before closing it behind him.


“Are you all alright?” Molly asked, looking Charlie up and down before turning to Bill and Fleur.


“Yes, Mum, we’re fine,” Charlie answered. “What kept you?”


“We had to take a detour through the muggle hospital to shake the two witches who were following us,” Arthur explained. “Your mother was brilliant, as always. She led them into the psychiatric ward, then disarmed and confunded them. I suspect it will take them a while to convince the muggles in charge of the place that they aren’t patients.”


“Who are we missing?” Bill asked. He immediately seemed to think better of the question when he noticed the pained expression on Molly’s face. George thought about how hard it had been on their parents the last time Percy turned his back on the family. If the prat thought that he was going to do it again, George had every intention of setting him right.


“Well, Hestia and Dedalus were going to join us,” Arthur replied, trying to fill the awkwardness of the moment.


“Luna and Ernie are on their way,” Neville added. “Susan and Justin send their regrets. Apparently all of the senior Aurors are being watched too closely to even risk it. We’ll let the others know about anything we decide tonight.”


Suddenly the door opened again and Percy walked in. There was a brief moment where nobody seemed to know quite what to say, then Molly rushed to pull him into a smothering hug. Even after she was done fussing over him, George still felt a bit uneasy. It wasn’t that he wanted Percy to act like a git, but he had to admit that he expected it.


“Are you sure you weren’t followed, Percy?” Arthur asked. His father hid it well, but George knew that nobody had a lot of confidence in his older brother’s sense of stealth.


“Of course not,” Percy replied confidently. “I was careful to make several extra turns along the way.”


“Did anyone try to follow you?” Bill asked skeptically.


Percy shook his head dismissively. “I don’t think so. Why would anybody bother, anyway?”


The door opened again and Dedalus Diggle marched into the room. George was pretty sure that the diminutive old wizard had shrunk another inch or so since the last time they’d run into each other, but he hadn’t lost any of his fiery personality. Dedalus appeared very agitated as he stepped directly in front of Percy. “Why don’t you ask those two wizards who were watching when you dropped into the manhole?” he asked cantankerously. Hestia Jones had also appeared in the doorway, and she watched the standoff uneasily.


“Do we need to leave?” Arthur asked quietly.


“It’s alright,” replied Hestia. She pulled her hand out of her pocket, revealing a pair of wands. “We stunned and obliviated them before they could contact anyone. Then we left them on park benches in Tiverton. If we’re lucky, maybe the muggle police will arrest them for vagrancy.”


Charlie closed the space between himself and Percy with two long strides. “You have to be more careful!” he admonished. “This isn’t a game, Percy. Ron and Harry are depending on us.”


“Now, Charlie,” Molly interjected, laying her hand on her son’s arm, “your brother doesn’t have as much experience as the rest of us. He’ll do better next time.”


Charlie didn’t look at all convinced and from what George could tell, nearly everyone seemed to share his doubts. But nobody wanted to spark a confrontation with Molly, so they all held their tongues.


“Let’s adjourn to the sitting room, shall we?” Arthur asked, attempting to defuse the lingering tension between Molly and Dedalus, who was still glaring mutinously in Percy’s general direction. “I think we have a lot to talk about.”


As soon as Luna and Ernie arrived, everyone began to relate their experiences since the night that Harry, Ron and Hermione went into hiding. There was no longer any doubt that the trio’s family and close friends were being followed. Even Percy had to admit that. There were also signs of owl post being intercepted and floo calls being monitored. Bill’s superiors at Gringott’s had been quietly contacted by the Ministry with questions about his recent assignments, although the goblins held true to form in their refusal to cooperate.


“Old Ragnok was bragging about how he told off some bloke from the Goblin Liason Office,” Bill mused. “I guess this all makes sense if Magical Law Enforcement thinks that we know where the three of them are hiding out. But it really seems like whoever’s in charge either has no idea what they’re doing or just doesn’t care. I got the same feeling about the monitoring spells on the floo and even the ones I found at Hogwarts. It’s all really amateurish.”


“What happened at Hogwarts?” George asked. He immediately felt unsettled. He and Angelina had three grandchildren currently attending the school, plus all their cousins. Looking around the table, George surmised that he wasn’t the only one caught unaware.


Neville quickly jumped in and explained the monitoring spells they had found. “It’s obviously bad that we have a spy inside the castle,” he surmised grimly, “but we’ve contained them.”


“The spells were so easy to spot,” Bill added. “Somebody was bound to notice, and I wonder whether the spy even cares.”


“They’re not being very subtle at all,” George agreed. “Ministerial Security tried to recruit my secretary to spy on me and Lily. They weren’t even offering her gold, not that I don’t pay her well in the first place. Just some rubbish about ‘helping to preserve the security and stability of the wizarding world.’ She was laughing when she told me about it.”


“Has anyone from Ministerial Security tried to drag Lily in for an interview?” Bill asked. “Victoire told us that Teddy, Al and Hugo all got the third degree.”


“No. Not yet, anyway,” George replied. The mention of Harry and Ron’s children had added an uncomfortable new element to the conversation. Molly looked aghast at the notion of her grandchildren being treated like criminals by the Minister’s personal police force.


“So what about the younger generation?” Bill asked, studying the reactions around the table. “Some of them are bound to want to help. What should we tell them?”


“No, obviously!” Molly replied. Her stern voice and disapproving look made it clear that she didn’t even approve of the question. “They have no business getting involved in all of this.”


“That’s what you said about all of us when Voldemort first resurfaced,” Charlie countered. At times, George envied his brother for spending most of his life in the company of scaly, fire-breathing behemoths. It obviously made their mother seem less threatening.


“That was not the same at all, Charles Weasley,” she shot back. George could see the color rising in his mother’s neck. Anyone who dared to disagree with her was stepping onto dangerous ground. But George had never been one to back down from a challenge.


“How did you work that one out, Mum?” he asked. “Family’s family. If Ron, Harry and Hermione are in trouble then we all have an obligation to help. They’d be the first to step in if it was anyone else.”


There was a general nod of agreement among the members of Dumbledore’s Army, but Molly was unswayed. “Ronald, Harry and Hermione fought a war, along with everyone in this room,” she replied, her voice rising and her eyes flashing dangerously. “And we fought that war so that your children and their children wouldn’t have to suffer the hardships that we did. What do you think the three of them would say if they knew that their children were putting themselves at risk?”


“Look,” George said, lowering his voice and raising his palms, “I don’t want Freddie and Roxie in the middle of this, either. My point is that they’re all adults and no matter what we want, they’re going to make their own decisions. If we accept that, then not sharing what we know isn’t going to make them any safer.”


“If hostilities break out, we’re going to need all the wands we can get,” Dedalus added. “Face it, Molly, we’re getting too old for this.”


“There’s not going to be another war, Dedalus,” Molly roared. “Voldemort is dead. He’s never coming back. We’ll get to the bottom of this Blood Order business soon enough and then things can go back to normal.”


“Molly, people have already died,” Hestia replied quietly. “Dissent is being suppressed, muggle-borns are being terrorized, and it appears that the Minister is complicit in it all. You could say that a conflict has already started, Voldemort or no Voldemort.”


Molly was plainly ready to continue arguing, but Arthur laid his hand on her arm. “Let’s not lose sight of why we’re here. We’re not trying to plan a war. We need to decide how best to help Harry, Ron and Hermione while keeping everyone as safe as possible. Neville, what’s the plan if you manage to uncover this spy?”


“It was to notify Harry,” Neville replied, shaking his head. “I guess that one’s shot.”


“Is there any way to get some extra support inside the castle?” Arthur asked. “Somebody who wouldn’t look terribly out of place?”


“Well,” Neville answered thoughtfully, “we do need somebody to take over Harry’s advanced Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons. I could ask for Susan or Justin.”


“I doubt that will work,” Percy chipped in. “The Minister has all of the Senior Aurors, which is to say all of them that are close to Ron and Harry, on involuntary desk duty.”


George noticed that everyone was suddenly staring intently at Percy. “Is there anything else going on inside the Ministry that we should know about, Perce?” asked Charlie.


“I heard that the Minister is planning to vet each of the senior Aurors one by one, to assure their loyalty,” Percy replied, drawing looks of strong disbelief from around the room. “I also heard that Ministerial Security is bringing on a lot of new hands, since they’ve taken over most of the Aurors’ cases.”


There was an obvious question hanging in the air, and George decided to take one for the team. “No offense, Perce, but I’m surprised they’re not taking more interest in you. Any theories?”


Percy looked thoughtful for a moment. “Some of it is perception, I suppose. Rumor has it that the Minister thinks of me as a potential rival for his job. If he were to come after me, people might assume it was politically motivated.”


“Well, my next question was going to be how we keep track of what’s happening inside the Ministry,” Arthur said thoughtfully. “It seems that we have that one covered.”







Harry and Esme appeared at the front gates of Beauxbâtons with a crack. Harry admired the glittering palace as they strolled along the white stone walkway towards the main entrance. The contrast with Hogwarts, Durmstrang and most other institutions of magical learning could hardly have been more stark. Everything about Beauxbâtons Palace was light and airy and open and artistic. Even the youngest-looking students carried themselves with an air of grace and refinement. The idea of a prankster setting off a dungbomb or a poltergeist showering the students with water balloons and epithets seemed impossibly foreign.


“Professor Turgeon ‘as grown ‘ard of ‘earing, but she compensates by being an extremely gifted Legilimens,” Esme explained as they walked past a marble fountain where water faeries danced and sang. “Be careful what you think.”


Harry began to raise barriers around his innermost thoughts. Occlumency was still not his greatest strength, but he had mastered the basics over the years. He pursued it partly because it was required for his Auror training and partly out of a sense of obligation and gratitude to Professor Snape. Memories of the angry, greasy-haired teacher ruthlessly invading his mind had always helped to motivate him when he needed to shield his thoughts.


They arrived at a classroom on the second floor of the palace and Esme knocked loudly but politely on the polished wooden door. When there was no response, she cautiously opened the door and entered the room. Brilliant sunlight streamed through the high windows, illuminating the rows of neat student desks. Shelves filled with carved stone pensieves lined the wall nearest to the entrance while the back wall was filled with books. Harry stared at the spotless marble floor and the meticulously erased blackboard and thought that no classroom at Hogwarts had ever appeared so clean and orderly.


“‘ello, Miss Osinalde,” came a gravelly, halting voice from the office at the back of the room. “It ‘as been a long time.”


An elderly witch with long, silver hair slowly made her way out of the office, leaning heavily on a polished wooden cane. Her face was deeply wrinked, obscuring her coal-colored eyes, and her hands showed a liberal smattering of age spots. She wore a silver amulet around her neck that had the strong appearance of goblin craft, with its intricate designs and precious gemstones. Harry could not remember ever seeing someone look so old.


“When you reach your one ‘undred and thirty-sixth year, I doubt you will look so good, Mr. Potter,” she replied, surprising him.


She chuckled softly to herself as she walked. “Don’t feel too ashamed. Your occlumency is better than most. It is always ‘ardest to conceal our first reactions to the people we meet.”


She finally reached the front of the room and leaned against the great wooden desk that faced outwards towards the class. “What brings you here today, my dears?”


“We ‘ave a memory I would like to show you,” Esme replied, speaking more loudly than normal. “It ‘as been modified extensively, and the technique is very unusual. I believe that one of your former students did the modifications, which I ‘ope you can confirm.”


The elderly professor stared at Esme. Harry thought he could almost feel the exchange of ideas and information taking place. “What you are describing is quite remarkable,” the professor finally said, closing her eyes in thought. “To do such a thing in a classroom is one matter. To do it under pressure of time and gold, quite another. Are you confident in your analysis?”


“You know that I am, Professor,” Esme said simply.


Professor Turgeon finally opened her eyes. “May I see this memory?”


“Of course,” Esme replied. She drew the glass vial from her coat pocket while the professor gestured towards the wall of pensieves. One of the stone basins glided smoothly through the air and settled on the desk in front of her. Esme poured the memory into the pensieve and Harry noted that its surface looked cloudy and uneven. “It is already quite unstable,” Esme explained. “You may only be able to view it once.”


“That will be sufficient,” the professor responded. She drew her wand from inside her robes and stirred the memory gently. It occurred to Harry to wonder how such a frail person would manage to enter and exit the pensieve without injuring herself. She turned towards him and smiled, appearing to have once again read his thoughts. Then she raised her arms, showing a good deal more strength and dexterity that Harry had given her credit for, and the memory rose out of the pensive and spread into a silvery disc floating in the air. The disc began to spin and widen as it moved above her head. Gradually, she lowered her arms and vanished into the memory as it lowered itself over her ancient frame.


“That... was amazing,” Harry whispered as the memory continued to hover inches above the floor in front of them.


“She is a remarkable witch,” Esme replied. “If anyone can tell us who created this memory, it is ‘er.” She sat down at one of the desks in the front row of the classroom and stared at the blackboard, lost in thought. “‘er class was always my favorite. We worked ‘arder for ‘er than any other teacher, but it never felt like work because the rewards were so great. Learning to walk, my first words, my first birthday... I got to see them all thanks to ‘er.”


Harry sat down at the desk next to her. “You were able to extract memories of all that?”


“Oh, yes,” Esme replied, shaking off her reverie. “Magical children are able to create memories from a very young age. Summoning those memories to the conscious mind, that is the difficult part.”


Harry stared wistfully out the window. “I have these very hazy memories of my parents, from before they died. They’re mostly sensations, feelings, blurry images...”


“Open your mind to me and concentrate on one of them,” Esme replied, drawing her wand. Harry closed his eyes and focused on a particular memory. He could feel the tip of Esme’s wand pressing against his temple and the subtle sensation of her probing his thoughts. In his mind, he could feel his mother’s lips press against his forehead. The smell of her hair filled his nostrils and voices were singing in the background. A single source of light flickered somewhere in the room, illuminating a pair of shining circles that seemed to float in the air in front of him. He vaguely recalled reaching for the circles, trying to catch them and figure out what they were.


Harry started as he opened his eyes. He had dwelled on that particular memory many times, in his spare moments and in his dreams, but the details had never been quite so crisp. Next to him, Esme was slowly twisting her wand, studying a silvery droplet that clung to the end. “Get me a pensieve,” she directed without taking her eyes off of the memory. Harry summoned one of the stone basins and set it on the desk in front of her. Esme allowed the memory to drip into the pensieve, then stirred it with her wand as she continued to mumble incantations under her breath. Finally, she looked up at him.


“I was able to draw out more details and clarify things somewhat,” she said, smiling at him. “I think you will like ‘ow it turned out.”


Harry slowly stood up and took off his coat. “So what I’m going to see in there is...”


“... is your memory,” Esme explained. “You just can’t remember it all. Not without ‘elp.”


Harry looked at the pensieve, then back to Esme. She gave him an encouraging nod, and he carefully leaned into the memory.


He landed on a tile floor in a cozy kitchen that he instantly recognized from the ruined house in Godric’s Hollow. The first thing he noticed was the smell of disinfecting cleaner. There was an immediate familiarity to the smell. It made him think of cold tile floors and woolen pajamas; why, he couldn’t exactly say. The next thing that struck him was how clean and orderly everything was. The countertops were spotless and the dishes were neat and organized in their cabinets. It was a far cry from the dusty, messy wreck he remembered from his visits in later life.


Harry slowly turned, and felt a series of bludgers strike him in the chest as he recognized each of the room’s occupants. First was his father, carefully inserting a single candle into a small, round cake covered with mint green icing. A cat with glowing green eyes was piped onto the top of the cake in jet black icing that matched his father’s unruly hair. Next was Sirius, leaning nonchalantly against the counter as he alternated between sipping a beer and making silly faces. His long, curly hair hung around a bright, smiling face that showed none of the grave-looking lines earned during his imprisonment. Lupin stood next to Sirius, smiling warmly. He chuckled at his friend’s goofy antics, but even then he looked older than the others.


Finally, Harry faced the vision that he was least prepared for. Lily stood at the center of the room, holding a chubby, smiling little boy with black hair and sparkling, green eyes. For a moment, Harry was struck by the feeling that something wasn’t right. Then he realized that the boy’s forehead was perfectly smooth, unblemished by the scar that he had seen in the mirror every day of his life. That realization drove home another, equally painful. In just over three months time, his mother and father would be dead, his godfather imprisoned in Azkaban and the happy little boy would begin his joyless life of torment and isolation with the Dursleys. Harry stumbled back, leaning against the wall to steady himself.


The lights in the room suddenly dimmed, and his father turned to face the others. He held the cake in front of him, the single candle illuminating the round lenses of his glasses. Lily began to softly sing Happy Birthday, and Sirius and Remus joined in with gusto. The little boy gurgled happily as he reached for his father with his chubby hands. Lily kissed him on the forehead as he struggled in her arms.


Harry forced himself to stand, and circled the scene so he could peer into his mother’s face. Joy and love filled her brilliant green eyes as she sang. Laughter mixed into the song as she struggled to hold onto her squirming child, who leaned dangerously close to the candle flame that danced in front of him. When the song came to an end, Remus and Sirius clapped loudly. Little Harry laughed and clapped his hands in response as the memory began to fade.


Moments later, Harry emerged from the pensieve and fell to his knees. He closed his eyes tightly, trying not to lose the image of his mother’s face and the sound of her voice. There were no words to describe the feeling, standing among his parents and their best friends while they celebrated a joyous moment, young, carefree and happy. He didn’t even realize that he was crying until he felt Esme gently pull his head onto her shoulder.


“‘arry,” she said softly, “are you alright?”


Harry sucked down a sharp breath and tried to calm down. “Before today,” he whispered, “I had only ever seen them this way in pictures. I’d never heard them laugh. I’d never seen myself without this scar...” He paused for a moment, unable to find words. “Thank you,” he finally said, throwing his arms around Esme’s shoulders. She stiffened at first, but gradually warmed to his embrace.


When he released her, she held up a stoppered glass vial. “Here,” she smiled, handing it to him, “you can see it again whenever you like.” Harry took the vial with both hands and tucked it carefully into his coat. Its contents were more precious than gold.


Professor Turgeon’s voice interrupted Harry’s expression of gratitude. “I ‘ope that I am not interrupting anything of a personal nature.”


“No, of course not, Professor,” Esme replied, rising to her feet. Harry pulled himself to a standing position beside her.


“I presume you already know whose work we are looking at?” the professor stated, staring at Esme.


“I ‘ave my suspicions, yes,” Esme replied.


“Well, then, they are confirmed. I recognized the technique immediately. It saddens me that Katerina would become involved in such unsavory things.”


“May I ask who Katerina is?” Harry interjected. “And why does her involvement make you sad?”


“Katerina Porcher was one of the most talented pupils to ever pass through Beauxbâtons,” the professor replied with just a hint of a smile on her weathered face. “She was brilliant and driven, adored by ‘er teachers. But she was also a very troubled young woman.” The professor looked pointedly at Esme. “I tried to warn you before you took ‘er into the Aurors, did I not?”


Esme’s usually perfect posture seemed to droop just a bit as the elderly woman stared at her. “I did not ignore your concerns, but there was little I could do,” she protested. “She would ‘ave been accepted into the program on the merits of ‘er test scores alone.”


“Test scores do not tell the whole story, Miss Osinalde,” Turgeon chided. “You of all people must know that. Katerina was in many ways still a child. She was not ready to make the commitment you were asking of ‘er.”


“At the time, she believed that she was,” Esme said plainly. “And the committee agreed with ‘er. With the benefit of ‘indsight, it is obvious that you were right.”


“You will recall that I also predicted if she could not find fulfillment in the Aurors, she would turn ‘er talents to less constructive pursuits,” the professor replied. “I pray that I was not right about that, as well.”


“Professor Turgeon, I understand that you have a duty of confidentiality to your students, and I wouldn’t ask you to violate that,” Harry said carefully, “but if there is anything you could tell us that would help us find Katerina, it would be most helpful. We believe that the blond witch in the memory is tied to a violent group of criminals who have already killed several people in Britain.”


“Katerina ‘as a sister; ‘er name is Elena. She lives in a wizarding village near Rouen, with her parents. I must warn you that she is a non-magical person, one you would call a squib.” The professor sounded as though it pained her to say the word. It reminded Harry of the way the Weasleys were loathe to say the word ‘mudblood.’ “It is a very sensitive matter for ‘er father. ‘e might not allow you to speak to ‘er.”


“‘e will if we get a warrant,” Esme replied sharply. For reasons Harry could only guess, she suddenly seemed very angry.


“If you must,” the professor said quietly. “But I would counsel a less confrontational approach if you want to find out anything about ‘er sister.”


Esme nodded slowly, still looking upset.


“Now, if you will excuse me, I must prepare for my afternoon lecture,” Turgeon said. She moved away from her desk and leaned heavily on her cane. “Esme, my dear, it is good to see you. Please stop by more often.” She chuckled softly to herself. “You cannot know how much longer you will be able to.”


“Thank you for your ‘elp, Professor. It is good to see you, as well,” Esme replied warmly, laying her hand on the elderly woman’s shoulder.


“Yes,” Harry added, “thank you for everything.”


“Mr. Potter?” the professor said as they started to leave. Harry turned back to face her. “I am glad you were able to find your mother. She seems like a wonderful woman.”


With a final smile, she turned away and began to hobble toward her office. Harry watched her for a few moments, then followed Esme out the door.







Thanks so much to all of you who have taken the time to read and review Conspiracy of Blood. If you can spare a few minutes to leave a review, I would appreciate it greatly!


 


Chapter 22: Friends and Allies
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

As always, that which you recognize belongs to JK Rowling.






Ron sat back on the makeshift bed in the attic of the Gaunt Shack and marveled at his wife’s work. It had taken her less than ten minutes to determine how the wand analysis was faked to revive the case against them. “It’s not even a particularly good fake,” she snorted as her spells exposed the hasty modifications made to the document. Once that was settled, she moved on to the rest of the case file, attacking it with gusto. She had systematically torn it apart and rebuilt it into a masterpiece of organization. If anything, it was more impressive than the version she had created at home because she had far less space to work with. He supposed that she also had fewer distractions, since they were all alone. Harry and Esme had left for France the previous morning, leaving Ron and Hermione as the sole occupants of the hideout.


As he watched her work, it occurred to him that they could probably be taking greater advantage of their time alone. The biggest drawback to being on the run with Harry was that, well, they spent nearly all of their time with Harry. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy Harry’s company, but he still felt odd about giving his wife a proper snogging when his best mate was around. He closed the copy of Quidditch Weekly’s 2045 Broomstick Guide that he had swiped from the reception area of the Magical Law Office and slipped off the bed. He quietly moved behind Hermione and peered over her shoulder.


“You’re so bloody amazing,” he purred, laying his hands gently on her shoulders. He began to rub slow circles and planted a kiss on the top of her head.


As usual, she seemed to read his mind. “Not right now, Ronald. I’m cross-referencing Barsamian’s trial exhibits against his notes on the Auror crime scene reports.”


“Sounds like difficult stuff,” Ron replied, not giving up so easily. He broadened the circles he was making, applying a gentle massage to her upper back, the sides of her neck and just below her collarbones. In spite of her reluctance, he felt her shiver. “Maybe you should take a break and clear your head a little.”


“What you have in mind won’t clear my head, it will empty it,” she retorted. “Seriously, love, just give me another twenty minutes to finish this while I’ve got it all straight in my brain.”


Ron relented, bringing his hands to a stop on her shoulders. “So this file actually has Barsamian’s notes in it?”


“All over the place,” she replied, gesturing toward a stack of papers in the center of the desk. “They’re actually the most useful part of the whole thing. This file is definitely missing some things, just like the one from the Minister’s office. But he’s made notes on the related documents. It’s almost as if he knew that some stuff was going to get taken out of the file...”


“Or maybe it wasn’t part of his file in the first place,” Ron added thoughtfully. “Maybe he got to look at them but he wasn’t allowed to keep them.”


“Does that happen?”


“Occasionally.” Ron stared off into space and subconsciously started rubbing her shoulders again. “Sometimes we don’t let Magical Law make copies of things. If we’re trying to protect an informant or a witness who’s in danger, for instance.”


Hermione laid her hands on top of his to still them. “But how would you justify it in a case like this? There weren’t any mystery witnesses and we definitely didn’t squeal on one another. What could they have been trying to protect?”


Ron slipped one hand off of her shoulder and snapped his fingers. “The Minister claimed that he sealed the case files because he wanted to protect the prosecutors and the crime scene investigators from retaliation.”


“He must have limited what Rigel could keep,” Hermione said, finishing Ron’s thought. She turned her attention back to a pile of papers and flipped through it until she found a particular page of the trial notes. “I think this is the name of the Auror who did the crime scene report. Can you read it?” she asked, pointing towards something scrawled in the margin.


Ron leaned farther over her shoulder, squinting at the messy writing. He mentally went through the list of all the Aurors in the department, trying to come up with a match. When it finally dawned on him, he mumbled, “Well I’ll be damned.”


“What?” Hermione asked. “Do you know who it is?”


“Yeah,” Ron replied. “That’s Agnar Cheshire.”


“Cheshire? Wasn’t he one of the ones you and Harry tried to get rid of?”


“Yeah. He was a holdover from Robards, but he would never take the hint like Tennant did.” Ron shook his head slowly. “It makes sense now. I remember he laid really low for about a year after the trial, then he came in one morning and told Harry that he was retiring. Cleaned out his desk the same day. Didn’t even stick around for his retirement party, which actually made the party quite a bit more fun if you ask me.”


Hermione made the next mental jump a fraction of a second ahead of Ron. “So what do you think the chances are that he’s still alive?”


Ron grimaced. “Well it would certainly buck the trend if he were, but I don’t remember hearing anything about him dying, either. He always had a knack for finding a place to hide when there was trouble. Maybe he got wind of something and decided to make himself scarce.”


Hermione made a notation next to Barsamian’s note in red ink, then sat back in her chair and surveyed her work. “I think we have enough here to go and talk to somebody. I know several members of the Wizengamot. They’ll listen to us, and take up our cause. We can clear our names and get back to our lives.”


Ron moved next to her chair and lowered himself onto one knee so he could look her in the eyes. He knew what he was about to say wasn’t going to make her happy and he wanted to deliver the blow as softly as possible. “Love, we can’t do that yet. There are still too many unanswered questions. We don’t know who’s really on our side and who’s against us.”


“But, Ron, these are good people I’m talking about. They’ll help us.”


“And people who are in a position to help us have been turning up dead left, right and center,” he reminded her, gently but firmly. “If we come out of hiding, we’re putting anyone who tries to help us at risk. We have to find out how the Blood Order is controlling the Ministry and expose them. Until then, Harry’s right. We can’t fight them all.”


Hermione’s shoulders drooped and she sighed in resignation. “This isn’t going to get any easier, is it?”


“It will,” Ron replied soothingly, taking her hand in his. “We just have to be patient. These Death Eater types always make a mistake sooner or later.”


She rubbed her eyes and stretched her arms. “I think maybe I’m ready for that break.”


“Are you now?” Ron asked with a grin. He nuzzled his face into her hair, brushing her ear with his lips.


“Yes,” she replied softly, tilting her head slightly to offer him easier access. “What did you have in mind?”


“Well,” he mumbled in between planting soft kisses on her ear and neck, “as long as we have the place all to ourselves, we could play ‘strict healer and naughty patient’.”


“Mmmnnn. We haven’t tried that since I got hurt. How am I supposed to punish you if you don’t cooperate?”


“You’ll just have to be extra creative,” Ron replied in a low voice. He leaned farther forward, moving his kisses towards the nape of her neck. He paused as she started to giggle. “What’s so funny?”


“Can you imagine the look on Harry’s face if he walked in on us? I mean, there was that one time he caught us in the pantry when we were living at Grimmauld Place, but that was before we were even engaged. What on earth would he say?”


Ron paused and thought for a second. “If I know Harry, he’d turn around, leave, come back in twenty minutes and try like hell to pretend that nothing happened. He’s a decent bloke like that.”


“Very decent,” Hermione replied. “Now you’d better get in bed. It’s almost time for that mean healer to check your vital signs.”






For the first time in a long time, Gregory Goyle could honestly say that he was having fun with his work. He listened to the pathetic witch whine and plead for another few seconds before flicking his wand again, sending her crashing into the far wall. Her name... well, he couldn’t really remember her name, but it wasn’t all that important. He and Nott checked the address carefully before entering her office in Gerrard’s Cross. Then they had secured the place with locking and silencing charms and began their “chat”.


The witch ran a program that helped wizarding families find muggle primary schools for their children who weren’t old enough to start at Hogwarts. Goyle found the whole idea of subjecting magical children to that sort of indoctrination offensive. The far wall was adorned with a framed poster that depicted paper cutouts of young witches and wizards joined hand in hand with muggle children in alternating colors. Goyle laughed as Nott hurled the witch into it, shattering the glass and bringing the whole mess crashing to the floor. When she managed to pull herself to her hands and knees, her face was covered with blood.


“What do you want from me?” she cried, trying futilely to clear her eyes with equally bloodied hands. “This is an educational program. I don’t have any gold. Why are you doing this to me?”


“We aren’t here for gold,” Nott snorted dismissively. “We’re here to put an end to the pollution of our children’s minds with your muggle filth.”


The witch tried to scramble to her feet and make a run for the door, but Nott hit her with another curse that crumpled her to her knees. She clutched the bleeding wound on her side and looked up at them in terror. “Please don’t kill me. All I do is help people find schools.”


“Not any more,” Nott replied coldly. “Watch this,” he said to Goyle with an ugly smirk. “Exussanguis!”


Goyle watched in morbid fascination as the witch began to convulse in agony. Large blotches of red appeared on the surface of her skin and they quickly grew to cover her entire body. She let out a horrifying, gurgling scream just before her skin burst in numerous places, sending a fine spray of steaming blood into the air. Nott looked at his boots in disgust and scourgified them to remove the stains.


“That was wicked,” Goyle said, nodding slowly. “She taught you that?”


“Yeah,” Nott replied, studying his handiwork with satisfaction. “After I messed it up when we attacked the Ministry, she said I was too much of an idiot to get it right. I bet the muggle-lover here would disagree.”


“Alright,” Goyle sighed, turning around. “I guess we have a crime scene to process.”


The two wizards shed their full-length cloaks, revelaing their navy blue Ministerial Security robes. Goyle had been dumbfounded when Lady Tenabra instructed everyone except Gamp, who she apparently thought was too unstable, to apply for a job at the Ministry. He half expected to be arrested on sight and sent back to Azkaban, but instead his application was accepted and he was hired on the spot. There was no more doubt about her influence on the Ministry. Goyle reckoned that if she told him to stand on the Minister’s desk and drop trou, he would barely hesitate.


“We have some curse burns over here,” Nott said mockingly. He cast several clumsy revealing charms on the dead witch’s smoldering body, ensuring that a wand identification analysis would turn up nothing useful.


“Looks like forced entry,” Goyle snickered, shattering the door frame with his boot. He quickly scourgified away the bootprint, then masked it with more pointless spells and charms.


“No witnesses,” Nott added, spinning on his heel to peer around the inside of the otherwise empty office.


“Looks like she was working on something related to muggle schools,” Goyle chuckled. He picked up a stack of papers from the desk and began to scatter them across the floor. Suddenly a name on one of the forms caught his eye.


Octavia Malfoy,” he read from the application. “Isn’t that Draco’s granddaughter.”


“You know any other Malfoys?” Nott replied sarcastically. “Don’t tell me she’s in a muggle school. Old Lucius must be spinning in his grave.”


Goyle smirked as he read farther down the page. “Looks like she’s looking for a new muggle school. Got booted out of the last one for hexing a muggle boy. I guess she does have some pure blood after all.”


“It’s a bloody waste,” Nott muttered. “Malfoy’s son married the mudblood’s daughter, right?”


Goyle nodded, but didn’t say anything right away. “I’ve been thinking maybe I should go talk to Malfoy. See if I can get him to come around. There aren’t many of us left, you know? Feels wrong not to have him on our side.”


“Flint tried,” Nott responded as he kicked over a chair. “He wasn’t interested.”


“Yeah, but Flint’s a prick. Was a prick, anyway. I just think maybe I could convince him. We were close, you know?”


“I say we’d be better off if Crabbe made it out of the battle alive instead of him,” Nott replied coldly.


Goyle decided to ignore Nott’s last remark. “We’re supposed to have this weekend off, right? Maybe I can track him down.”


Nott took a break from turning out the desk drawers and looked very annoyed. “Didn’t you hear? She wants us around all weekend. She told Rowle that she has a special assignment planned.”


“Bugger,” Goyle replied. “I guess I’ll try some other time.”


“He’s not worth it,” Nott said bluntly. “The Malfoys cast their lot with the muggle lovers and blood traitors a long time ago. There’s no turning back from that.”


Goyle went back to cataloguing the “evidence” they had found, but the idea of contacting Draco Malfoy remained very appealing to him. In spite of their differences, Draco was the closest thing to a friend that he had left in the world. If he could only get Draco to see the nobility of their cause and realize that their success was inevitable. It would be nice to have somebody that he felt like he could trust, as opposed to Nott who was every bit the arrogant tosser that Flint had been, or Gamp who was dangerously insane. Goyle decided to send Draco an owl and invite him out for a drink. Perhaps he’d be different without his wife around to fill his head full of nonsense.






“We ‘ave been here for hours,” Esme complained softly into Harry’s ear. “She is either bedridden or away on ‘oliday.”


“We’ve only been here for forty-five minutes,” Harry replied irritably. “And being invisible isn’t much good if you don’t stay quiet.”


They were sitting in the fork between two large branches of a tree across the street from a well-kept house in a wizarding village near Rouen. Concealed beneath Harry’s invisibility cloak, they waited for Katerina Porcher’s sister Elena to make an appearance. They had seen her father and mother pass by the front windows of the house, but she had remained elusive. Harry wondered whether squibs were as much a source of embarrassment to their families in France as they sometimes were in Britain. In spite of the Ministry’s best efforts to educate the populace on the inevitability of non-magical children occasionally being born into magical families, there were still instances of squib children turning up in muggle orphanages with their memories erased. Those cases always left Harry feeling sad and more than a little bit angry.


“I think this cloak was nothing but an excuse to get me onto your lap,” Esme hissed, snapping him out of his thoughts. “We should ‘ave just walked to the door and knocked.”


“The Professor said that her father hates Aurors,” Harry retorted, trying to keep his voice from rising, “and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m wanted for murder and you’re supposed to be on the other side of the English Channel. And if you want to take your bony arse off of my lap, be my guest.”


Harry winced as a punch landed on his side. He probably deserved it, but he still felt annoyed, not least about the fact that she remained on his lap. He’d been having some difficulty sorting out his feelings after the emotional reconnection with his parents in the memory that Esme had extracted for him. She had given him something worth more than all the gold in Gringotts and he was beyond grateful, but the experience also left him feeling vulnerable. The ease with which she read his thoughts and the way she rushed to provide comfort made him uneasy, as though a door had been opened which might prove difficult to close.


He felt her sharp elbow in his ribs as she twisted slightly on his lap. “There she is!” He looked across the street and saw a young woman in a pale yellow smock walking around the side of the house they had been watching. She was pulling a wagon that bristled with gardening tools, and her dark hair was partially covered by an orange scarf that kept it away from her face. She took a gardening trowel and a hand rake from the wagon and began to weed a bed of flowers that ran along the front side of the house.


“Looks like she’s alone. Let’s hurry,” Harry replied. He took a quick look around and slid out of the tree. Esme caught both of them with a cushioning charm just before they landed. Harry pulled the invisibility cloak off and tucked it away in his coat. They made their way across the street and Esme cleared her throat as she approached the low wall surrounding the yard.


Bonjour, est-ce que je peut vous aider? *” the young woman asked in a pleasant voice.


“I ‘ope so,” Esme replied. Harry thought she struck a good balance between sounding overly formal and fake cheerful. “Do you mind if I speak English for the benefit of my colleague? Your sister Katerina was also a colleague of mine. I was wondering if you might know ‘ow I can get in touch with ‘er?”


The young woman looked at them nervously, then stole a glance back towards the house. “You are Aurors, yes?”


“That is correct,” Esme replied. “I supervised your sister’s training for a time.” Esme had never mentioned having any personal responsibility for Katerina. Harry clamped down on his irritation, maintaining an impassive expression. He hoped that Elena wouldn’t hold it against them.


“Father says that the Aurors were the reason why Katerina left us.”


“Katerina ‘ad many reasons for leaving the program,” Esme responded calmly. “If I was one of those reasons, she never shared that with me.”


The young woman seemed to consider Esme’s response. She looked back towards the house again, as though she expected something very frightening to emerge at any moment. “What can you tell me about my sister? Is she in some sort of trouble?” she asked in a hushed voice.


“We honestly do not know,” Esme answered quietly. “I ‘ave not spoken to your sister since she left the Aurors. We are worried that she ‘as become involved with some very dangerous people in Britain. We need to find ‘er as quickly as possible.”


Elena looked torn. She twisted the pair of gardening gloves in her slender hands while she chewed on her lower lip. Her next words were barely a whisper. “If you find ‘er, will you let me know what ‘as ‘appened to ‘er?”


“Elena,” Emse asked softly, “do you know something about ‘er?”


“I do not know anything,” Elena replied. “At least nothing for certain.”


The conversation was interrupted by a loud bang as the front door of the house slammed closed. Elena’s father, a balding wizard with a short beard and a fearsome-looking disposition, was rapidly advancing on them. “Who are you? What do you want with my daughter?”


Elena quickly shrank away from them, retreating towards her flower bed. “Elena, go inside!” her father ordered, and Elena disappeared into the house.


“Well, what is it then?” he demanded from the other side of the gate.


“We are trying to find your daughter, Katerina,” Esme replied evenly. Porcher was so close that Harry could smell the remnants of his last meal on his breath, but neither he nor Esme ceded an inch.


“She is not ‘ere,” he shouted into their faces. “I do not know where she has gone. Now leave us alone.”


“Monsieur Porcher,” Esme went on, undaunted, “we fear that your daughter ‘as become involved with some very dangerous people. Many lives are at risk, including ‘ers.”


Porcher snorted derisively. “More dangerous than the Aurors? I think not.” As he spoke, Harry caught a flash of pale yellow out of the corner of his eye, disappearing into the orchard behind the house. He was careful to keep his stare focused on the angry wizard in front of them.


“I do not think you understand ‘ow much trouble your daughter might be in,” Esme persisted. “These people are killers. Elena is obviously worried for ‘er sister. Why will you not ‘elp us.”


Porcher’s voice lowered to a growl. His eyes were feral-looking. “You leave Elena out of this. I ‘ave already lost one daughter to you people. I will not lose another. Now leave us in peace.” With that, he turned and stormed away, slamming the door to the house behind him.


Esme sighed in frustration, but Harry was already moving. “Come on. If I’m right, we won’t have much time,” he said, dragging the French Auror by her elbow.


“What is it?” she asked, struggling to keep up without falling down. They reached the nearest corner and Harry looked down the lane. He could see the side of the Porchers’ orchard behind a low stone wall in the distance, and he turned on the spot, apparating both of them to what appeared to be the farthest corner from the house. He steadied her with a hand around her waist when they reappeared. “A gentleman would ‘ave warned me,” she grumbled, but Harry silenced her with a look and peered into the trees.


“Elena!” he called quietly. “Elena, are you there?”


Hesitantly, a figure clad in yellow emerged from the trees. Elena looked almost as pale as her smock, and she peered nervously around before stepping closer to the stone wall. “Father will be very angry if he sees me here.”


“I know,” Harry replied soothingly. “Just tell us what you want us to know and we’ll be on our way.”


The young woman stared at the clouds drifting overhead. Her eyes were damp. “Father blames you for what ‘appened to Katerina, but I know it was not your fault.” Elena paused, then looked directly at them. “Ironic, isn’t it? I was born without magic and she was born with more than she was ever able to use. I think father expected that she would take me with ‘er when we grew up, like we were pieces to a puzzle. But Katerina... she was far too impatient. Me? I ‘ave always been patient.”


Harry exchanged a quick glance with Esme. “Elena, why do you think that something ‘appened to your sister?” she asked softly.


Elena seemed to hesitate again, then she took a steadying breath and reached into the pocket of her smock. She pulled out a small locket on a thin, silver chain. Harry recognized the shape as half of the Taoist symbol for yin and yang. She reached out and handed it to him.


“Katerina has the other half, doesn’t she?” Harry asked.


“She bought them in a muggle store before she left for Auror training. She put a charm on them,” Elena explained wistfully. “She said that no matter where she traveled, we would always be connected. Whenever she would ‘old ‘ers tightly and think of me, mine would glow. I could feel her affection, her warmth.” Elena’s eyes fell to the ground and she choked back a sob. Her voice was barely a whisper. “It ‘as not glowed in over four years.”


“Thank you, Elena,” Harry replied. He held the locket tightly in his hand. “When we find her, we’ll be sure to let her know how much you miss her.”


Elena smiled sadly at him. “That is kind of you to say, but my sister is gone. To be honest, I accepted this a long time ago. All I ask is that you let me know what you find out. I just want to stop wondering.”


“Of course we will. You ‘ave my word,” Esme said. They heard yelling coming from the direction of the house. Elena’s father was calling her name. She nodded towards Harry and Esme and disappeared into the trees.


“Charming family,” Esme snorted as they walked back towards the main street. “Little wonder Katerina turned out so strange.”


“Don’t be too hard on them,” Harry replied softly. “We can’t know what they’ve been through. The fact that he still cares for Elena makes him a far better man than some I’ve seen in his situation.”


Esme continued to fume. “She is a grown woman, not a china doll! So what if she does not ‘ave magic? Billions of muggles get by without it every day.”


Harry considered arguing, but he didn’t feel like upsetting her further. Esme continued to berate Monsieur Porcher under her breath as they walked. They had almost reached the main street when the wizard that Harry least wanted to run into appeared on the corner. He was tall and swarthy-looking and his hair and mustache were liberally sprinkled with grey. His dark eyes fixed them with a stare but his hands remained in his pockets.


“‘ello, Ricard,” Esme greeted the Head of the French Aurors nervously. Harry nodded politely to his counterpart, but part of him wanted to disapparate on the spot. If the British Ministry had issued an international arrest warrant, the French were bound by treaty to honor it. Then again, if that was the case, it seemed unlikely that Head Auror Dauzat would have come alone. Harry forced himself to remain calm and hear what Dauzat had to say.

“Esme, Mr. Potter,” Dauzat inclined his head slightly without taking his eyes off of them. “I had not heard that you were back in the country, Esme.” He spoke as though he were stating a simple fact, but the implied breach of protocol was obvious.


“I ‘ave only been back for a short while,” she explained. “Head Auror Potter and I ‘ave been following up on the altered memory I traveled to London to study. We now ‘ave reason to believe that a former French Auror was involved in ‘elping a murderer.” Harry kept his composure, but her explanation made him very uneasy. She was absurdly overplaying their hand, letting her nerves affect her judgment.


Dauzat raised his eyebrow slightly at Esme’s revelation, but otherwise maintained his stoic demeanor. “Regardless of what you are working on, I expect to know when you enter and leave the country. Is that clear, Esme?”


“Very clear, yes,” Esme replied, looking slightly embarrassed.


“Mr. Potter, I understand that you are having some legal difficulties back in Britain,” Dauzat continued.


“That’s right,” Harry replied. There was no point in denying it. At this point, he was more interested in seeing where the Frenchman was going with this line of discussion.


“I expect that you’re wondering whether I have come to arrest and deport you. It is intriguing that your government has not issued a warrant. Any theories as to why?”


“I suppose they don’t think that I would leave the country,” Harry answered, keeping his tone neutral. If Dauzat was digging for information on what was happening inside the British Ministry, Harry wasn’t going to give it away without getting something in return.


To Harry’s profound irritation, Esme jumped back into the conversation. “Ricard, we ‘ave reason to believe that the British Ministry ‘as been infiltrated by dark wizards. A criminal conspiracy known as the New Blood Order ‘as been operating in the country for some time. The British Minister ‘as suddenly offered a far-reaching amnesty program to all manner of pure blood extremist criminals. It flies in the face of reason.”


“Thank you Esme,” Dauzat replied dismissively, “but I think most would consider that to be an internal British matter.”


Esme looked at him incredulously. “You cannot be serious, Ricard! You of all people remember what ‘appened the last time the British Ministry fell under the control of dark wizards. It took years to root out all the Death Eaters who took refuge in France after the war.”


“I have not forgotten that, Miss Osinalde,” Dauzat snapped, silencing her. He stared at both of them gravely, then pulled a small roll of parchment from his pocket. “You are not the only one who is concerned. Councilor Delacour has asked for our assessment of the recent events surrounding the British Ministry.” The revelation caught Harry by surprise. He knew that Fleur’s cousin held a seat on the French Wizards Council, but he was surprised to see things happening so quickly. Fleur must have made a very persuasive argument.


Dauzat handed the parchment to Esme. “I want to know what is going on in London. Quickly. But you are not to risk an international incident. Your mission is to determine the extent to which the British Ministry had been subverted, nothing more. You have my authorization to obtain untraceable portkeys, polyjuice potion and anything else you need. If there is any chance of being discovered, you are to return to France immediately. Do you understand?”


“I understand,” Esme replied, looking relieved.


“Return to the office and obtain your supplies. I would like a word with Mr. Potter,” Dauzat said, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. Esme exchanged a quick glance with Harry before turning and disapparating.


“I appreciate the help,” Harry offered politely, but Dauzat’s stony expression didn’t change. Finally, Harry asked, “Is there something else?”


“Do you remember when we met, Mr. Potter?”


“Of course,” Harry answered. “In the field office in Toulouse, when Rabastan Lestrange was first spotted near the Pyrenees. As I recall, you were the one who finally brought him down after we found him.”


“Not before he killed three Aurors and over a dozen civilians,” Dauzat replied grimly. “I want us to be very clear, Mr. Potter. Miss Osinalde is returning to Britain with you to investigate and to report back, not to fight. But if you can bring me hard evidence of dark wizards controlling your Ministry, wizards like Lestrange, I will go to the Council and volunteer to fight them myself.”


Harry nodded slowly in response. “If any fighting does break out, I’ll make sure that she remembers to follow orders.”


“See that you do,” Dauzat replied. Then he turned and disapparated.


Harry found a small park nearby and took a seat on a bench facing a statue of a muggle soldier. The soldier held a bayonet aloft in front of him, challenging an unseen enemy. “You wouldn’t shy away from a fight,” he mumbled to the statue. “And I’m afraid she won’t either.” He thought about how well they complemented each other. If they did wind up fighting a war, he had to admit that there were only a handful of people he would rather have by his side.


Enjoying the warm autumn sun, he took out Elena’s locket and studied it carefully. His revealing spell exposed a powerful protean charm. He had used them once or twice, but Hermione was an expert. He hoped that she would be able to help them find Katerina’s locket. After an hour or so, Esme reappeared with a soft pop. She had changed clothes, and she was carrying a leather satchel over one shoulder. Once she found her bearings, she located Harry and walked over to take a seat beside him on the bench.


“What did ‘e say to you?” she asked.


“He pretty much just reiterated your orders,” Harry answered. “Investigate and report back. No fighting.”


Esme snorted dismissively. “Let ‘im believe that if ‘e likes. If this witch ‘as ‘urt Katerina, she will ‘ave more of a fight than she ever bargained for.”


“Esme, this is serious,” Harry admonished. “If things are as bad as we think they are, we might really need Dauzat’s help. You’re an Auror, not a vigilante. You need to follow orders.”


Esme regarded Harry with a mix of amusement and defiance. “Since when are you in a position to give orders to anybody, Mister ‘Wanted for Murder’?”


Harry sighed. She had a point, and there wasn’t much to gain by arguing with her. “Just be smart about this, alright?”


“Of course, ‘arry. I ‘ave already made the smartest decision of the day for us.”


“And what is that?” Harry replied suspiciously.


She held up a dented pewter soup tureen. “This portkey will take us back to the Island of Misfit Cuisine **. But before we go, we are going to ‘ave dinner at the best cafe in Paris.”


Before Harry could protest, she grabbed his arm and they disappeared with a crack.






Percy laid down a diplomatic communique that he was barely reading anyway and rubbed his eyes. The Australians were expressing their displeasure with the Minister’s new policy restricting travel visas for muggle-born witches and wizards. It was the fifth such letter he’d received in the past two days. He had dutifully composed a cover memo summarizing each protest and forwarded them along to the Minister’s office, but so far he had received no response. The pattern was growing disturbingly familiar.


The Minister had become reclusive, a far cry from the man who had never seen a situation that didn’t merit a press conference. All of his regular meetings with the deputy ministers and department heads had been canceled. If the Minister wanted to speak with somebody, they were summoned to his office and dismissed as soon as he lost interest in the conversation. Press releases were still issued on a daily basis, but they were kept general and vague, filled with glowing appraisals of the Ministry’s efforts to stabilize and unify the wizarding community. Percy found that those appraisals were more and more at odds with reality.


He heard a soft knock and looked up to find Arabela Dynt standing at his door. “Do you have a moment?” she asked nervously, seemingly trying to conceal her slender form in the door frame.


Percy stood up quickly, moving to greet her. “Please, come in.” He pulled out a chair for her as she closed the door behind herself. Taking in her appearance as he rounded his desk and sat down, he thought that she looked exhausted. Her makeup didn’t quite conceal the dark circles under her eyes and her hair was simply pulled into a clip.


“What can I do for you?” he asked.


Arabela lowered her voice to barely more than a whisper. “I was wondering whether you had thought any more about our last conversation?”


Percy stared at the picture of his family, waving at him from his desk. “I’ve thought about it, yes. To be honest, I’ve thought about it a lot. Every day it seems that the Ministry is drifting further away from what it ought to be. I’m just not sure where to start.”


“At the beginning, of course,” she replied. “Approach people. Make some inquiries. Find out who your supporters are likely to be.”


“You make it sound so simple,” he said, smiling at her weakly. “What if word gets back to the pure blood extremists? Or the Minister himself? What then?”


“Then they will try to stop you. And the longer you allow them to continue to consolidate their power, the easier that will be for them.”


Percy found it hard to refute the wisdom of her argument. Still, he felt his doubts getting the best of him. “This is hard for me, Arabela,” he said. He felt himself wilting before her expectant smile. “I don’t come from money or power. Every day when I was growing up, my father flooed to the Ministry and spent his days taking enchantments off of muggle nick-knacks. All of my clothes came from my older brothers and as soon as I outgrew them they went to the twins. I just don’t know whether I’m cut out to be in charge.”


“You’re a humble man, Percy,” Arabela replied. “We could use a Minister like that.”


Percy smiled back at her in spite of himself. “Why are you suddenly so keen on seeing your boss out of a job? You’ve been by his side for most of his career.”


“Do you want the short answer or the long one?” she asked.


“My calendar is clear,” Percy replied, settling back into his chair.


Arabela paused for a moment, pondering her next words. “What do you know about my family?”


“Well, let’s see. You grew up in Shropshire. You’re not a pure blood. You have an older brother and a younger sister. Your father, I believe, worked in construction and your mother raised owls?”


“Very good, Percy. I’m impressed,” she said, bowing her head slightly. Then the smile faded from her lips. “But it’s not entirely true.”


Percy felt very confused. He had known Arabela for years, and she had told him a great deal about her childhood. He nodded, imploring her to go on.


“My parents... my real parents were killed in the war. My father was a half-blood wizard and my mother was muggle-born. I was five years old when the news reached Shropshire that the Ministry had fallen. My parents left me with my father’s best friends from school, my adoptive parents, and went into hiding. They thought I would be safer that way. Early on the morning of my sixth birthday, they tried to sneak into the village to celebrate with me. They were caught by snatchers as soon as they apparated.”


Tears began to slide down her cheeks and Percy rushed to her side with his handkerchief. After taking a moment to compose herself, she went on. “They turned them both in to the Ministry for a few galleons. The Death Eaters killed my mother for sport. They put her in a room full of muggle-borns and then they used them for target practice. My father was thrown into Azkaban for trying to hide her. He died there the day before Voldemort fell.”


Percy slipped into the other chair in front of his desk and just stared at Arabela. He didn’t know what to say. As much as it had hurt to lose Fred, he went down fighting, with a wand in his hand. “Arabela, I’m so sorry.”


“Don’t be,” she replied, pulling herself back together. “My parents accomplished what they set out to. I’m still alive. I need to honor their sacrifice. I don’t want any more families torn apart, any more children left as orphans. And I won’t let the pure blood fanatics have the satisfaction of winning in the end. You can stop them, Percy. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”


Percy felt the weight of the world sitting on his shoulders, but to his great surprise, it actually felt good. He wondered whether this was how Harry felt while he was circling Voldemort in the Great Hall, all eyes focused on the two of them. He reached out and put a steadying hand on her shoulder.

“I’ll start talking to the members of the Wizengamot I know,” he said. “You’re right, Arabela. We can do this.”






* “Hello, can I help you?”

** With apologies to the producers of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.







I continue to be humbled by the reception that Conspiracy of Blood has received. If you'd like to humble me some more, please let me know what you think in the grey box below.

As always, thanks go to my magnificent beta reader, sophie_hatter. If you haven't checked out her story Evolution (M), or her new story, The Grapevine (15+), do yourself a favor!


Chapter 23: The Needs of the Many
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to JK Rowling.






Susan purchased a large cup of coffee from the cafe across the street from her flat and steeled herself for another thoroughly miserable day at the office. Since Harry, Ron and Hermione had fought their way out of Harry’s house and disappeared, her work life had become a mind-numbing ordeal of drudgery and boredom, punctuated by occasional “interviews” with her new boss from Ministerial Security. It seemed that the imbeciles in blue robes still hadn’t accepted the reality that none of the Aurors had any idea where the fugitives were holed up. To help pass the time, Susan had started to make a game of it. She would slip tantalizing bits of false information into her answers only to subtly contradict that information minutes later. As she added cream and sugar to her coffee, she thought ruefully, seven N.E.W.T.s and forty-five years of experience have culminated in this.


It wasn’t for nothing, however. She and Justin had been carefully keeping tabs on the comings and goings around the Ministry. Kline, the old head of Ministerial Security, was out. Nobody had actually heard from him in several days. He had been replaced by Strafford Rowle, which was shocking on many levels, not least because Rowle had been hired mere hours before assuming the position. The rumor was that the Minister, himself, had made the appointment. Rowle was a pure blood and he wasn’t shy about it. He fit nicely into the Minister’s broader strategy of appeasement.


She placed a lid and a cardboard sleeve on her coffee and made her way out of the cafe. There was another good reason to continue showing up for work. The junior Aurors and trainees needed help navigating the treacherous waters of a Ministry that was drawing ever closer to open conflict. None of them had seen anything remotely like this in their lifetimes. A half-century of peace and prosperity had begotten two entire generations of witches and wizards who tended to speak without thinking and lacked the instinct to be mindful of who might be standing behind them. They seemed like children, although at her age, many people did.


The wind was terribly brisk as she made her way around the corner towards the alley that she normally ducked into to disapparate. She pulled her cloak tigher around her neck and took a reinforcing sip of coffee. Taking a quick look from side to side, she stepped into the alley and started to turn when a voice hissed, “Susan!”


She whipped around, wand already in hand, scanning the alley. “Who’s there?”


“Sorry, it’s me,” Terry Boot’s voice called back in a slightly louder whisper. “Over here.”


Susan made her way further into the alley as she scourgified spilled coffee from the side of her cloak. A rubbish bin sat along the back side of a muggle bakery and she expected that Terry was on the other side of it. She was surprised to find nobody there, and she practically jumped out of her skin when she heard two loud cracks behind her. She spun around to find two bodies slumping to the ground beneath rapidly fading disillusionment charms and Terry standing at the entrance to the alley.


“You’re determined to see me spill every last drop of this, aren’t you?”


“Sorry,” he replied with a grin. “You had company. I think you’re starting to lose your edge from all this desk work.”


“Don’t go there,” she said with a frown. She knelt down and began to obliviate the first interloper. “Is this mission of yours going to be over any time soon?”


“Why?” Terry chuckled. “You and Justin miss me?”


“You?” She pinched her nose in mock displeasure. “The office has never smelled better. It’s just that Rowle keeps asking me about you and it would be nice to have some actual secrets to hide from him for a change.”


“Under the circumstances, I think it’s best if I stay where I am,” Terry replied. He raised his arms to shield himself as she threatened to throw her coffee at him. “Hey, I’m being serious here!” His expression turned more serious. “Something big is about to happen. I’m not sure what, but it’s causing a lot of buzz.”


Susan looked concerned. “Is this ‘big’ as in ‘dangerous’? Do we need to warn the Order?”


“I wouldn’t know what to tell them yet,” Terry answered. “As soon as I have something, I’ll get word to Ron. He was very explicit. Don’t break cover until he decides to pull me out.”


“But we don’t even know where Ron’s hiding,” Susan replied, letting her frustration show. “I hate this.”


Terry laid his hand on her shoulder, offering her a reassuring and sympathetic smile. “Harry and Ron have never let us down and I don’t think they’re about to start. We have to do our jobs and trust them.”


“I know,” she sighed. “I just wish they would come out of hiding and challenge all of this bollocks properly, in the open. We need a leader, somebody to rally around and fix whatever it is that’s broken at the Ministry. And right now that leader is skulking around, acting like he really has done something wrong.”


“We all know they’re innocent, Susan. And soon enough they’ll prove it to everybody. Right now we just need to keep buying them time until they figure this mess out.”


She managed to return just a bit of his smile, and he pulled her into a reassuring hug. “We’re going to make it through this,” he said quietly.


“I know we will,” she replied. “It’s just hard.”


Terry released her and took a step back. He looked at his watch and frowned. “I’m due for a meeting. You take care and watch your back, alright?”


“You, too,” Susan replied.


They exchanged one last smile, then both disappeared with a crack.






Draco sipped a glass of firewhiskey in his study and watched Kriffin pass by the door with his wife’s luggage floating in the air behind him. For the third time since returning home to Malfoy Manor, he nearly stood up and demanded to know how the elf had repaired the house. He vaguely remembered skimming a pamphlet from the Magical Creatures Department years ago and he could have sworn that it said that elves were not able to repair curse damage, but it wasn’t like he really paid attention to any of the Granger-Weasel’s moral crusades. Maybe he had elves mixed up with fairies or something.


A sharp peck at the window alerted him to the fact that the post owls were aware of their return. Two of them were sitting on the windowsill. The first was no surprise at all, a great, grey owl that clearly came from Gringott’s. There was little doubt what its message contained. The smaller owl was far more interesting. It looked very much like the owls used by the Ministry. Draco couldn’t think of a single reason why anyone in the Ministry would want to contact him. Setting aside Potter and the Weasleys, there probably wasn’t a wizard in all of Britain less popular with the current leadership. He retrieved both messages and shooed the owls away.


The letter from Gringott’s was exactly as he expected. He had forty-eight hours to come up with a five thousand galleon payment against the family’s debts or the bank was going before the Wizengamot to seize the manor. Even though he knew it was coming, seeing the words in print felt like a knife through his chest. Seventeen generations of his family had lived here, going back to his ancestor Brutus Malfoy who, if the stories his grandfather told him were to be believed, had confunded a muggle nobleman and bought the estate for twenty-five sickles. For seventeen generations, the family had been strong and prosperous, powerful and respected. Now he was about to preside over the end of it all. Their fortune was lost, his grandchildren were half-bloods and he was an outcast among pure blood society.


To make matters worse, he still hadn’t come clean with his wife about their money problems. The thought of explaining the situation filled him with dread. When she found out that he was a pauper, and worse that he’d been lying to her about it, she was certain to move back to Switzerland with her parents. He was sure of it. And that would be the cruelest blow of all. Losing his friends, losing his money, losing the house... none of it compared to the prospect of losing Astoria. It was almost too terrible to contemplate.


He set the letter from the goblins aside and turned to the small roll of parchment delivered by the Ministry owl. The message it contained was hastily scrawled and barely legible. He had to read it several times before he could get past the atrocious spelling and grammar and piece it all together.


Malfoy,

Hop this letter finds you well. As youv probly heard, we ar in control of the Ministry. Things ar going well. I know you told Flint that you dont want to join us, but a lot has changed. I thout we coud meet for a drink and talk. You can find me at the Ragged Fang most nights if Im not at work.

Your friend,
Goyle

P.S. - They mad me an officer in Minstral Security. If you hav any legal problems, I can fix them for you.



Draco took another long sip of his drink. Things were clearly as bad as he’d feared. The Blood Order was so firmly entrenched that a bumbling halfwit like Goyle with a criminal record could get a job in law enforcement. What was the world coming to? Calling Goyle a halfwit was probably giving him three eighths of a wit too much credit. Maybe he should have argued more adamantly in favor of remaining in Switzerland.


“What came in the post, darling?” He found Astoria staring at him from the doorway. She had developed a remarkable talent for sneaking up on him while he was lost in thought. He mentally weighed the two letters lying on the desk in front of him, trying to decide which would upset her least.


“More paperwork from the bloody goblins,” he muttered, settling on the letter from Gringott’s. “You’d think nobody had ever died before, they make it such a hassle.”


He tried to sweep the papers into a drawer but she was too quick for him. She snatched the letter from Gringott’s just before it slipped off of the desk. Draco felt a flash of abject panic followed by cold resignation. At least the letter from Goyle had dropped into the drawer unseen.


Astoria scanned the letter quickly. He found her expression impossible to read. “So you’re broke,” she said simply.


“If you want to sound common about it, yes.”


“Penniless? Destitute? Beggared? Impecunious?”


“Alright, alright!” Draco replied irritably. “So now you know. I suppose you’ll be wanting to return to Switzerland with your family?”


“Draco Malfoy! How dare you say such a thing?” The anger that flashed in her eyes took his breath away.


“Well... I just assumed that...”


“Then you assumed wrong. I didn’t marry you for your money, Draco. And this isn’t really news to me. The way you’ve been acting? The non-stop parade of owls from Gringotts? I loved your mother dearly, but she didn’t have the financial sense that Merlin gave a drunken mountain troll. She lost it all, didn’t she?”


Draco nodded dumbly as he tried to absorb everything he was hearing. She wasn’t going to leave him. In fact, the only thing she seemed angry about was the fact that he thought that she might. He felt slightly emboldened. “So what do you think we should do?”


“We came back to England to protect our family and that’s what we’re going to do.”


“I meant, what are we going to do about the goblins?”


“Oh, that,” she replied. He could see a glint of mischief in her eyes. “I said you’re broke. I didn’t say that we’re broke.”


“There’s a difference?”


“Father set up vaults for Daphne and I when we were born. In the aftermath of the war and Daphne’s disastrous marriage, I think he forgot all about them. But I didn’t.”


“So we have five thousand galleons to appease the goblins?”


“Yes, but I’m certainly not giving them five thousand galleons. This place?” she waved her hand around. “It’s been attacked by the New Blood Order and it has a legacy of dark magic. It would cost them two hundred galleons a week just to hire security and they still have to try to sell it. Malfoy Manor comes with a lot of baggage. If I start at two thousand, I’m sure I can talk them down to not a sickle over three.”


Draco stared at her in amazement. “You’re brilliant,” he mumbled. “Absolutely brilliant.”


“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, dear. If we only owed Gringott’s five thousand galleons, I’m sure we wouldn’t be having this conversation?”


Draco’s shoulders slumped again. “At last count, the total was around one hundred thousand.”


Astoria nodded slowly, chewing on her lower lip. “We may still have to sell the manor.” The sympathy in her voice was completely genuine. Draco wasn’t sure whether it made him feel better or worse. “But we won’t do it in a panic.” She slipped her fingers under his chin and made him meet her gaze. “And dear, we aren’t going to freeze to death or starve. We are going to be just fine.”


She kissed him on the forehead and walked out of the room, poring over the demand letter from the goblins. At some level, he knew she was right. What amazed him the most was that two people who came from almost identical backgrounds could react so differently to a situation. The prospect of losing the aegis of his wealth and prestige -- no matter how tarnished the latter might be -- left him utterly terrified, yet she was being completely calm and rational about the whole thing. He found it incomprehensible and emasculating and a little bit inspiring that she could face their situation with such grace and determination.


Then again, she was completely single-minded about their ultimate goal. There was no harm in giving that a try, he supposed. He opened the drawer and took out Goyle’s letter. After rereading it and committing it to memory, he incinerated it in a puff of smoke. If things got really difficult, it wouldn’t hurt to have allies to call on. Or at least simpletons whose opinions and loyalties could be easily manipulated.






Susan’s day didn’t improve after she arrived at the Auror office. Waiting on her desk was a large pile of old case files. The senior Aurors who had yet to be “vetted” by the Minister’s new leadership team -- basically all of them -- had been assigned to dig through mountains of old files from the years immediately following the war. The objective was to identify pure blood families whose involvement might have been “overstated” in the Ministry’s zeal to capture and punish Death Eaters and other collaborators. The task made her physically ill, so she moved through the files in the slowest, most inefficient manner possible.


As she dusted off a folder filled with field reports on the whereabouts of the Yaxley family, she took at least small comfort in the fact that it was Friday. In slightly less than eight hours, she would be free of the drudgery and suspicion until it all began anew on Monday morning. She was planning to visit her cousin’s family at their house near Norwich. Getting out of London made it less likely that the Ministry’s spies would follow her. While she wasn’t planning anything especially seditious, the constant game of cat and mouse had grown very old to her.


Tired. That was a good word for how she felt in general. As the day wore on, she pondered the complete lack of energy and motivation that threatened to overtake her. She had never felt like this. Throughout her life, she had always been so focused and disciplined. Now she just wanted to crawl under her desk and take a nap. Whatever Ron and Harry were playing at, she hoped it happened soon or she was going to go crazy.


Several desks over, she heard Justin humming softly to himself. In spite of the grim environment in the office, he remained as cheerful as ever. She found him perplexing. As a muggle-born, he had far more at stake than her, but he acted as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Perhaps surviving a year on the run from Snatchers had given him a different perspective on what was truly a bad situation.


Morning dragged into afternoon and she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was almost half four when Rowle and Rosier suddenly stormed into the office and made a beeline for the Head Auror’s office. She involuntarily ducked lower over her desk. Such an entry often meant that they had stumbled upon some trace, real or imagined, of Harry, Ron or Hermione and they wanted to interrogate her about it. Fortunately, they seemed completely uninterested in her or anybody else. The office was nearly deserted due to the late hour of the week, and she suddenly realized that she could hear Rosier’s nasal voice. They had neglected to completely close the door.


She stood up from her desk and inched closer to Harry’s office. Rowle’s office. She silently corrected herself. A junior Auror had made that mistake already and it sent her new boss into a violent tirade. She pressed herself against the wall just around the corner from the door and listened.


“So it’s to be this weekend?” Rowle asked.


“That’s right,” Rosier replied. “She told me that the Minister is signing out a warrant for all three of Potter’s children, both of Weasley’s plus Potter’s godson. They’re all being charged with aiding and abetting known fugitives.”


Rowle laughed coldly. “She doesn’t mess around, does she? If this doesn’t flush ‘em out of hiding, I don’t know what will.”


“That’s not all,” Rosier continued. “She said to use only Blood Order members and familiars to make the arrests. We’re not to bring any of them back to the Ministry. Just keep them out of sight until we hear from her.”


“She must have something real special planned,” Rowle replied. “She’ll probably give ‘em to Gamp to play with. They’re gonna wish they hadn’t grown up famous.”


There was a brief silence before Rosier spoke again. His voice sounded slightly shaky. “Yeah, Gamp. You know she’s gonna go spare if we mess this up, right? I still got bruises from what happened after we tried to kill Potter.”


Susan heard Rowle’s fist strike the desk. “We’re not gonna mess this up! This isn’t the Head Auror we’re taking about. They’re just a bunch of lace curtain, middle-aged rich kids. If the Minister gets the warrants out soon enough, we can probably pinch ‘em before they’re even outta bed tomorrow morning.”


“Three of them work here at the Ministry. Why don’t we grab them before they leave for the day?”


“Good idea,” Rowle replied approvingly. “Get a message down to the Atrium and have Nott organize a team to get them out of here after we take them into custody.”


Susan had heard enough. She turned to sneak back to her desk and collect her things and immediately found herself face to face with Theodore Nott. “What are you doing, Bones?” he snapped arrogantly. “Shouldn’t you be at your desk?”


Susan heard the voices go silent inside Rowle’s office. She stopped thinking and just reacted. Two seconds later, Nott was lying in a heap against the wall on the other side of the room and she was diving behind her desk after snagging her cloak off of her chair. Her Auror career, it appeared, was coming to an end for the time being. She could hear Rowle and Rosier shouting orders as she disillusioned herself and crawled across the floor towards the entrance.


Justin stood up from his desk, caught sight of her concealed movements, and headed in the opposite direction. “I saw something over here,” he shouted, pointing towards the conference rooms. It was an effective ploy, drawing most of the office’s remaining occupants away from her escape route. Rowle wasn’t so easily misled, however.


“I’ll cover the door,” he yelled. “Sweep the aisles with revealing charms!”


Susan rose to a crouch and hurried to the end of the row nearest the entrance. She found Rowle standing by the door, sweeping his wand in a wide arc. Just before he zeroed in on her position, she popped up and blasted him off of his feet. His momentum carried him straight through the door and she followed closely behind as curses struck the door frame on either side of her.


She hustled to the nearest service corridor and ducked inside. It wouldn’t take them long to figure out where she’d gone. She needed to send a patronus to Harry, but she was feeling anything but happy. Summoning what felt like her last cheerful thought, she conjured the silvery falcon and dispatched it with a simple message. The Ministry’s coming after your kids and Ron’s. Get them to safety. As soon as it was gone, she turned and bounded down the hallway. She knew there was a service lift around the corner that would get her as far as Level Five. From there, things would get a lot more interesting. There would certainly be a huge reception waiting for her in the Atrium. She needed to locate Al, Teddy and Hugo and find another way out of the Ministry.


She stepped out of the lift on Level Five and disillusioned herself, then quickly moved down the service corridor. When she was nearly to the doorway, it burst open and two Ministerial Security officers stormed in with their wands at the ready. The wizard farthest from her began to sweep the hallway with a Homenum Revelio spell. She quickly confunded both of them and slipped past. Dropping the disillusionment charm, she stepped into the main hallway on Level Five, reckoning that the shimmering air would attract more attention than a lone witch strolling along, trying to look inconspicuous. She found a throng of witches and wizards making their way towards the lifts to go home for the day and eased into the flow of bodies.


Ahead, she could see three more security officers scanning the crowd approaching the lifts. She cursed to herself and slowed her pace. A disillusionment charm might get her past them, but the people surrounding her would think it very odd if she just disappeared. She began to move quietly to the side of the hallway when she felt a hand clap her shoulder.


“Hey, Susan, what’s up?” Al Potter’s cheerful greeting nearly earned him a stunning spell in the gut, and Susan grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the entrance to International Magical Trading Standards.


“What are you doing on Level Five?” she hissed, trying to place as much of the crowd between the two of them and the security officers as possible.


“I’m making sure Hugo leaves work on time for a change,” he replied, lowering his voice. “What are you doing here?”


“Resigning,” she replied with a grim smile. She saw Al’s confused expression and added, “We’re all in big trouble. I’m going to disillusion myself and walk directly behind you. Lead us to your cousin’s office.”


Al still looked very confused, but he did as she asked. Before they reached the security officers guarding the lifts, he turned and led them down a corridor towards the Customs and Transit bureau of International Magical Cooperation. Susan sighed in relief as they entered. The office was nearly deserted. They found Hugo sitting at his desk, mindlessly stamping “APPROVED” onto a pile of international portkey requisitions.


“Do you even read those?” Al asked.


“I used to,” Hugo replied without looking up. “Then I was told that reading upsets the pure bloods. Now I just stamp them.”


Susan momentarily enjoyed the sight of Hugo’s mouth falling open as she let her disillusionment charm fade and stepped out from behind Al. “Hello, Hugo. How’s work?”


“Um, it sucks. What are you doing here?”


“Yeah, Susan, what’s wrong?” Al interjected.


Susan stared at the two inquisitive faces in front of her. For some reason, she was gripped by memories of holding them as infants. She shook it off and focused. They were all in danger, and the longer they stayed in one place the worse it became.


“I overheard Rowle and Rosier talking in the Auror office. The Minister is going to issue arrest warrants for both of you, as well as Teddy, James, Lily and Rose. They caught me eavesdropping on them and I had to fight my way out. We have to get out of the Ministry and get everyone into hiding before something bad happens.”


If Hugo looked surprised before, he was now positively ashen. “But we haven’t done anything wrong,” he mumbled, trying to shake off the shock.


“That doesn’t matter, Hugo,” Susan said sympathetically. “They’re going to try to use you to get to your parents. Is Teddy here today?”


“I don’t think so,” Al replied. “The Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee has him infiltrating the Transport Police, cleaning up the remaining problems from when the Blood Order tried to kill dad on the M4.”


Susan nodded. “Thank Merlin for small favors. But we still have a big problem. We have to get out of here and I’m sure the Atrium and the employee apparition point are crawling with Ministerial Security by now. We have to find another way out.”


The three of them sat in silent contemplation for a few moments. “What about a portkey?” Al asked.


“If we had one, we could get out through the Customs and Transits Arrival and Departure Point,” Hugo replied thoughtfully. “They might not think to guard that too closely.”


“Do you have any laying around?” Susan asked.


“No,” Hugo grumbled. “We just do the paperwork here. The actual portkeys come from Magical Transportation. Unless...”


Hugo stood up and peered over the top of his cubicle wall. Seeing nobody, he led them to another cubicle several spots away. “This is Brook’s desk. People say that he’s the guy to see if you want a portkey ‘off the record’ to visit places Britain isn’t too friendly with, like China.”


“Who wants to go to China?” Al asked while Hugo started rifling through the desk drawers.


“Are you kidding?” Susan replied. “China has some of the oldest dragon reserves in the magical world. Your Uncle Charlie would smack you for asking that.”


“This one’s locked,” Hugo said, pointing towards the bottom, right drawer. He drew his wand and waved it over the drawer. “Alohomora.” Nothing happened.


“Back up,” Susan said, drawing her wand. She mumbled an incantation and a white-hot stream of sparks erupted from the end. With one quick motion, she cut a round opening in the side of the desk.


“Brilliant,” Hugo mumbled as the severed circle of metal fell to the floor. He tightened his sleeve around his arm as best he could and reached through the smoldering hole. After fumbling around inside the desk for a few seconds, occasionally wincing when his arm came too close to the hot edge, he pulled his arm out and raised a rusty horseshoe in triumph. “Sneaky little git, I knew it!”


“Turn him in later,” Susan replied. She crouched and headed towards the entrance to the office with both men in tow. Opening the door a crack, she could make out two security officers standing guard at the entrance to the corridor.


“The Arrival and Departure Point is on the far side of the lifts,” Hugo whispered, trying to be helpful. Susan was already painfully aware of how much distance they would need to cover.


“You two put up shields and stay close,” she hissed. “Let me do the fighting.”


“Fighting?” Hugo asked. She could hear the apprehension in his voice.


“Well they’re not just going to step aside and hold the door for us,” Al snapped, saving Susan the trouble.


She continued to watch the guards through the crack in the door. Both of them suddenly stood straighter. Nott strolled into view, looking very angry. She noted with satisfaction that there was a huge bruise on the side of his head. After exchanging some terse words with the guards, Nott moved on and headed towards the lifts.


Susan raised her wand. Confundo. The guard on the left slouched his shoulders and gave a dazed look around. She repeated the spell for the guard on the right, then placed her wand under her chin. “They’re at the far end of the corridor,” she amplified the whisper. Both guards turned in alarm and began stumbling down the corridor, looking very unbalanced on their feet. As soon as the passed the doorway, Susan pushed it open. “Remember, shield charms as soon as we see anybody!”


The three of them slipped out the door and moved rapidly towards the intersection of the corridor and the main hallway. As soon as they turned the corner, they were confronted by a cadre of wizards in blue robes with Nott at the center. Al raised his wand and shouted, “Protego Maxima!” a fraction of a second before curses started to slam into the walls and floor around them. Hugo added his own spell to their protection as Susan stood tall and fierce between them. She whipped her wand in a circle above her head and conjured a ring of blue-white energy that erupted in all directions. The shockwave struck Nott and his team, knocking them off of their feet.


“Move!” she shouted, and the three of them began to rapidly shuffle towards the lifts, maintaining a tight formation. The Ministerial Security officers were pelting their shields with curses, and Al and Hugo had to constantly reinforce their defenses. Susan fired a volley of stunners at their attackers, forcing some of them into a defensive posture and knocking one out of the fight. Her priority became keeping Nott’s team confined to the hallway to prevent their path to the lifts from being cut off. Nott was probably thinking the same thing, she realized, as he urged his men in that direction.


Incendio Obsaepsi!” Susan conjured a wall of flames between the security officers and the lifts. The nearest officers stumbled backwards with their hair singed while their comrades had to cast shield charms to keep the flames at bay. But the spell also weakened Hugo’s shield. An errant curse made it past their defenses, striking Susan in the left side. She clutched the wound and swore out loud as Hugo redoubled his efforts.


“Go, Hugo, go!” Al shouted. Susan felt his arm wrap around her waist and he nearly lifted her off of her feet as they rushed towards the lifts. Her side throbbed and she could feel blood trickling down to her waist. Her wall of flames was dissipating, but she didn’t dare cast another for fear of leaving them exposed.


Next to her, Al chanced a brief lapse in his shields to launch a pair of hexes towards the security officers. One of them was suddenly being attacked by a swarm of angry bats and she nodded approvingly. “Your mum would be really proud,” she shouted. Susan winced in pain as she fired a pair of reductor curses over his shield towards their attackers. Both missed to the high side, but they struck the wall overhead, bringing a shower of broken stone down onto the heads of the men below.


They soon reached the lifts and Susan cleared out the last remaining attackers separating them from the Arrival and Departure Point. “On the count of three, be ready to run,” she yelled over the din of the fight. “One... two...” She whipped her wand in a circle over her head again, feigning the stunning ring spell that she had used before. Their opponents mostly dropped into crouching positions and conjured shield charms. She was pretty sure she could feel something tearing in her injured side. “Three!” Instead of a blue ring appearing, everything went dark.


“Oi! Who turned out the lights?” Hugo shouted, but she was already pushing both of them past the lifts. She stumbled over a stunned security officer and clung to Al’s shoulder for support as they charged blindly forward. Her side was screaming in pain, but she fought through it. Suddenly they emerged on the other side. Al and Hugo looked back at the cloud of darkness filling the space behind them.


“It’s the same kind of spell that makes Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder work,” she explained breathlessly, continuing to urge them on. “But it doesn’t shield you from anything, so keep moving!”


Just ahead, she could see the Arrival and Departure Point. One frightened-looking wizard was crouched behind a chair near the entrance. Although his robes appeared to be foreign, Al knocked him out with a stunning spell. “Just to be on the safe side!” he explained, noticing Hugo’s reproachful glare.


All three of them started as a curse ricocheted off of the ceiling above them. “They’re coming through, hurry!” Susan gasped. She cast a shield charm behind them and suddenly realized that most of her energy was gone. She chanced a look at her robes and found that they were soaked with blood. A trail of bright red splotches followed them across the marble floor. Al had apparently noticed the same thing, and he wrapped his arm more tightly around her. “Come on, Hugo, get us out of here!” he shouted, adding his own more powerful shield charm to hers.


“I’ve gotta fix this thing,” Hugo replied. “Right now it’s charmed to take somebody to the Forbidden City. Where do we want to go?”





“I don’t give a shit, Hugo! Just out of the bloody Ministry,” Al yelled. Susan felt her extremities tingling. The edges of her vision were turning dark. She cast the best vulnera sanentur spell she could manage on her wound, but the blood loss was already severe.


Al was pouring all of his effort into maintaining their defenses. She could hear angry shouts coming from the darkness. Soon they would find their way through. She fired some completely ineffective stunning spells into the cloud before her arm dropped uselessly to her side. The most she could do was cling to her wand and try not to pass out.


“It’s ready,” Hugo shouted. Her world lurched as Al launched himself backwards towards his cousin, pulling her along. A fraction of a second later, she felt an agonizing pain in her gut as the pulling sensation behind her navel threatened to disembowel her. The world spun and twisted and contorted and suddenly she landed with a thud on cold, rocky ground. She immediately felt Al’s hands on her shoulders, easing her onto her back. The pain in her side was beginning to fade into numbness, which couldn’t be a good thing.


“Hugo, get over here!” Al’s voice rang with barely contained panic. More bad news. At the rate things were going, Hugo was probably digging a hole nearby.


“Oh, Merlin.” Hugo sounded like he might be sick. “Hang on, Susan. We’ve gotta get her to St. Mungo’s.”


“Are you nuts? There was blood all over the floor. That’s the first place they’ll look for us.”


“Well we can’t just let her die!”


Nobody’s gonna die!” Al shrieked.


It occurred to Susan that the cousins were hopelessly out of their depth. “Call your dad.” Her voice was so weak she could barely hear herself. She could taste blood in the back of her throat. “He’ll know what to do.”


“Do it,” Al yelled, even though his cousin was mere inches away. She felt him cradle her head and shoulders and heard Hugo rise to his feet.


Expecto Patronum.” Susan knew without opening her eyes that nothing was going to happen. Hugo’s voice was shaking and he sounded like he was presiding over a funeral.


“Dammit, Hugo, concentrate!” Al castigated him.


“You’re not making it any easier to think happy thoughts, you know!” Hugo snapped back.


“You want a happy thought? OK, picture this,” Al replied. “You and Fiona. On the kitchen floor. You’re sweating, she’s moaning.”


Susan felt a chuckle stir deep in her chest and it hurt worse than anything she’d ever felt. She resolved to kill Al if she managed to survive. Hugo didn’t seem to find it nearly as funny.


“Oh, this isn’t cool, Al. This isn’t cool at all.”


“She’s begging you, ‘More! More! MORE!’ in that sexy French accent of hers.”


“Knock it off, Al. I’m serious.”


“You’ve got scratches all down your back and your hands are all over those...”


“Dammit, Al, shut up! I’ve got it, alright. Expecto Patronum!” Susan could hear the characteristic hum as Hugo cast the spell. It all sounded so very far away. She was vaguely aware of Al casting healing spell after healing spell on her injured side. “Dad! We’re with Susan at the lake where you fell off the dragon. She’s hurt really bad. Come quick. Please!” His pleading words were the last thing he heard before the darkness claimed her.
 





Because I can never thank her enough, major thanks go to my illustrious beta reader, sophie_hatter. Please check out her author's page and give her stories some love. As long as you're here, why don't you let me know what you think in the grey box below?


Chapter 24: The Needs of the One
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to the inimitable JK Rowling.






Harry furrowed his brow in concentration. His wand whipped back and forth as he struggled to maintain control. Across from him, his opponent matched his every move in an unrelenting attempt to wear him down and corner him. They dueled on, feint, attack, defend, feint, attack, defend. Harry made an aggressive move to his left and his opponent faltered a bit, falling back into a more defensive posture. As Harry tried to press his advantage, he suddenly realized that he had been tricked. His opponent was outflanking him from the right, trying to seal him in. Harry desperately made a move inwards, trying to reclaim the center line by attacking his opponent’s soft rear quarter. His opponent countered and in a moment their wands met.


BANG! the center Exploding Snap card went off, starting a cascade across the rickety table that quickly left both Harry and Ron covered with soot and grinning like idiots.


“Will you two please keep it down over there?” Hermione snapped at them. Across the room, she and Esme were carefully studying the protean charm on Elena Porcher’s locket. It was delicate work, trying to reverse engineer the spell that Katerina had used without accidentally breaking the enchantment. Harry supposed that the juvenile game he and Ron were playing wasn’t helping.


“Sorry, love,” Ron said quickly. A bit too quickly, Harry thought. It felt out of character, especially since the game had been Ron’s idea in the first place. Ron and Hermione had been acting strangely since Harry and Esme returned from France the previous evening. Neither one of them seemed to be able to meet his gaze for very long, and they were constantly stealing glances at each other, blushing and snickering under their breaths. He made a mental note to find a hideout with separate bedrooms the next time they became fugitives.


“Are you making progress?” Harry asked, vanishing the smoldering remains of the cards from the table. The game had been a good distraction, but he could feel restlessness creeping back into his nerves. The mysterious and enigmatic Lady Tenabra had a knack for slamming doors in their faces whenever they were getting close. If they could find Katerina Porcher, it offered a tantalizing opportunity to catch her with her guard down.


“In spite of our ‘ostile and foul smelling work environment, I believe we might be,” Esme replied without taking her eyes off of the thin tendrils of magical energy that spanned the short distance between the tip of her wand and the locket.


Beside her, Hermione waved her wand through a complicated series of revealing charms. “It’s a very intricate spell, but fortunately it’s also very robust. She spent a lot of time on this. I’d say she really cared about keeping in touch with her sister.”


Harry noticed a pained expression pass briefly over Esme’s face. He hadn’t pushed too hard for details about Esme’s relationship with Katerina, but he suspected that Esme felt a lot more responsibility for the young woman’s disappearance than she had initially let on. There was something very intense about the way she was approaching their investigation, something personal.


Harry felt a momentary pang of guilt about the time that Esme was spending on the locket. In the strictest sense, she was not following Dauzat’s orders to investigate the infiltration of the Ministry. And they certainly owed Dauzat a debt of gratitude. Not only had he given her leave to pursue the investigation, he allowed her a great deal of discretion in planning the operation. Esme had taken full advantage, requisitioning a half dozen untraceable portkeys, a fresh supply of polyjuice potion and an array of enchanted monitoring and tracking talismans that would have left Bill envious.


Harry’s contemplation was interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him. He turned to find Dumbledore awake and staring at him purposefully.


“Can I help you, Professor?” Harry asked uneasily. Hermione and Ron also noticed Dumbledore and the room fell silent.


“The Headmaster asked me to make you aware that somebody has been casting monitoring spells inside the castle again,” Dumbledore said, staring at them through his half-moon spectacles. “He is still trying to identify the culprit, but he was able to eliminate several members of the faculty as suspects. He will contact you when he knows more.”


Harry exchanged a glance with Ron and Hermione, then turned back towards Dumbledore’s portrait. “Thank you very much, Professor. Please let the Headmaster know that if there’s anything we can do to help, he shouldn’t hesitate to ask.”


Dumbledore nodded towards Harry, then closed his eyes and resumed his usual, serene expression.


“Even your school is being watched?” Esme asked in disbelief. “It appears that our adversaries are very well organized.”


“Well, yes and no,” Harry replied. “They’re doing a lot of things, but none of them particularly well. Take this spy inside Hogwarts, for instance. It’s only a matter of time before they’re caught, yet they’re still casting monitoring spells in broad daylight. Either they’re very cocky or bloody stupid.”


Ron looked thoughtful for a moment. “Or both. Sound like anybody we know?”


Harry was about to respond when a silvery hawk passed through the window and alighted on the floor in front of them. “The Ministry’s coming after your kids and Ron’s. Get them to safety,” the bird said in Susan’s voice before fading away.


Nobody said anything for a moment. “Bloody hell,” Ron whispered quietly. The next instant, the room erupted into a frenzy.


“Do we know where they all are?” Hermione asked.


“James is out of the country, touring North America with the British National Quidditch Team,” Harry replied as he checked his watch. “Teddy and Albus should be leaving work any minute now. They’ll need to collect Victoire, Jenny and the younger children. I’ll send a patronus to George and tell him to get Lily and her family under cover until we can get to them.”


“Hugo should be leaving work, too,” Ron added. “He’ll need to grab Fiona and Amelie. Rosie doesn’t work on Fridays, so she’s probably out somewhere with Octavia. If James is traveling then it’s a good bet that Scorpius is, too.”


Hermione nodded in agreement, but she looked almost sick with worry. “Alright, where do we take them? I don’t think we’re all going to fit in here and I’m sure the Burrow is under surveillance.”


Harry was quiet for a second. He stole a glance towards Esme, wondering whether he should test her goodwill by asking her to stretch her already tenuous interpretation of Dauzat’s orders even further. Fortunately, she seemed to read his mind and she spared him the discomfort. “We ‘ave portkeys that can take them to France,” she interjected. “They will be able to stay with the Delacour family, no?”


Everyone nodded in agreement and set about making their preparations. It was agreed that Harry would disguise himself and attempt to intercept Teddy, Al and Hugo as they left the Ministry. Ron would track down Rose and Octavia. After Harry gathered Lily and her family, they would meet up in the park near the center of Little Hangleton, minimizing the number of portkeys they would need.


Harry and Ron left the attic and they had just started to walk down the decrepit path away from the Gaunt Shack when Hugo’s Patronus reached them with his desperate plea for help. “Merlin,” Harry muttered, breaking into a trot. The knot in the pit of his stomach felt as though it had just doubled in size.


“This sounds really bad, mate,” Ron replied, matching Harry’s pace. As soon as they emerged from the protective wards, they both disapparated. Seconds later, they appeared on the bank of the lake and ran to where Al and Hugo were crouched next to Susan’s severely injured body.


“Oh-shit-Dad-she’s-dying-please-do-something-oh-shit-please-don’t-let-her-die!” Hugo babbled as Harry and Ron dove to to ground next to Susan. Ron slipped his fingers against the side of her neck.


“Pulse is faint,” Ron announced through clenched teeth. He crammed his hand under the hem of her blouse, feeling for the source of the bleeding. “Somebody give me a handkerchief or something, we’ve got to get some pressure on this wound!”


Al and Hugo both handed their handkerchiefs over to Ron while Harry waved his wand over Susan’s body.


“She’s going into shock,” Harry yelled. He rose to his feet and pointed his wand towards Susan. “Hiberna Latebra.” Susan’s breathing slowed and her face grew even more pale.


Al ran his hand over his forehead and through his messy, black hair. Harry hadn’t seen his younger son look so frightened since he was a schoolboy. “Dad, what did you do? She looks even worse.”


“It’s a stasis spell,” Harry replied. “It slows down your breathing and heartbeat. Buys us more time.” He gave Al and Hugo a quick once-over while Ron gathered Susan’s blood-soaked cloak more tightly around her. “Are you two alright?” he asked while scourgifying the blood from the side of Al’s trousers.


“Yeah,” Hugo mumbled, unable to take his eyes off of Susan. “She saved us. Without her, we’d be captured or dead.”


“Hugo!” Ron snapped his son out of out the daze. “Get your head together. This isn’t over yet.”


“Your dad’s right,” Harry said quietly. “Do you two know where Teddy and Rosie are?”


“I think Teddy’s working for Muggle-Worthy Excuses, infiltrating the Transport Police,” Al replied. “I’m sure Vic knows where he is. It’s Friday, so Rosie is probably out somewhere with Octavia.”


Harry nodded. “Alright, both of you, listen carefully because there’s no time to repeat this.” He handed Al a brass candle snuffer and Hugo an old snow globe from a muggle resort in the Alps. “These are portkeys. They’ll take you to Paris. From there, you can apparate to the Delacours’ summer house in Seine. Al, you need to round up Jenny, Vic, Teddy, and the kids that aren’t at school. Hugo, you’re responsible for Fiona, Amelie, Rose and Octavia. Understood?”


Al and Hugo nodded dumbly in response. They both still looked numb, but the gravity of the situation had obviously dawned on them.


“What about the kids at Hogwarts?” Al asked. “Are they going to be safe?”


“Neville will protect them,” Harry said confidently. “The Ministry wouldn’t dare try to take them from the castle.”


Al and Hugo nodded and got ready to leave. Ron looked at both of them gravely. “We’re counting on you two. Stay out of sight and hurry.”


“We will, Dad,” Hugo replied. “And thanks. Thanks for coming so fast.”


“She’s going to be alright,” Harry said, forcing a smile. “We’ll take care of her. Now get going.”


Al and Hugo turned and disapparated.


The instant they disappeared, Ron’s stern expression gave way to a nervous frown. “What now? We can’t take her to St. Mungo’s.”


“Maybe, maybe not,” Harry replied as his mind raced. Their options were certainly limited, but there was a slim chance of finding help at the hospital. “Hermys!”


A few seconds later, the elf appeared with a crack and immediately shielded his bulging eyes from the evening sun. “Master has called for Hermys?” The elf noticed Susan laying on the ground and gasped. “Mistress Susan requires a healer!”


“Yes, Hermys, but it’s too dangerous to take her to St. Mungo’s, at least the wizarding part of it. Would the healers in the elf ward be willing to help us?”


Hermys fingered the hem of his ratty, old pillowcase, carefully avoiding Harry’s gaze. “Elf healers will not be wanting to get involved. This is a wizard fight.”


“I know that,” Harry replied slowly. “I was hoping that together, we might convince them. We don’t have much time.”


The elf finally looked back at Harry. His body language was all nerves, but Harry could see a spark of determination in his eyes. “Hermys will do his best, Master.”


“I know you will,” Harry replied.


“We better hurry!” Ron interjected from his spot by Susan’s side. “The bleeding isn’t stopping. Whatever curse she was hit with, healing spells don’t do anything for it.”


“Alright,” Harry nodded. “Hermys, take us to the elf ward.”


Hermys walked over and gently laid his bony fingers on Susan’s shoulder. With his other hand, he held Harry’s arm while Ron grasped the elf’s tattered pillowcase. The world collapsed into a spinning vortex and a second later they appeared in a cramped, stuffy attic with low ceilings. Harry looked around and realized that the elf ward at St. Mungo’s had barely changed in the thirty years since poor, old Kreacher had taken his last breath. The room was illuminated by a few lamps that floated near the exposed rafters. Several elves laid in makeshift beds around the room, being tended to by their free counterparts.


“Is this the elf ward?” Ron asked. He looked slightly embarrassed as Harry and Hermys both turned to give him bemused looks.


“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. Your wife would smack you.”


An older elf spotted them from across the room and stomped in their direction. She appeared very upset, but when she reached them she was careful to direct her outrage only at Hermys. “Why has you brought them here? It is not proper.”


“Master asked Hermys to bring his friend here. She is badly hurt and needing much medical attention.”


“They are wizards,” the elf healer replied angrily. “They are belonging downstairs, among their own kind.”


“We are not welcome among our own kind,” Harry interjected, careful to keep his tone neutral and respectful. “It was our own kind who did this to her, and given the chance they will finish what they started. We need your help.”


The elf healer regarded Harry skeptically. “How is elves to help her if even a powerful wizard cannot protect her?”


“She doesn’t need a powerful wizard,” Harry replied. “She needs a healer. She was struck by a dark curse and she’s lost a lot of blood. She’ll die soon if her injuries aren’t treated.”


“Riminy is sorry for your friend, but it is not our place to be helping her.” She gestured towards the beds behind her. “All this exists at the whim of wizards. If the dark ones is finding you here, it will be destroyed.”


“Dark wizards are enemies to wizards and elves,” Hermys insisted. “Master can help to keep you safe. He has conquered dark magic before.”


The old healer glared dismissively at Hermys. “What do you know of dark magic? You are too young to remember the Dark Lord. Too young to remember how the elves was suffering. Too young to remember how their kind was treating the elves. Take them and go.”


Harry turned to look at Hermys and saw something wholly unexpected in the elf’s bulbous eyes. Something that he had never seen before. Anger.


“You will not speak of Master like that! Master and his friends has done more for elves than any wizards alive. Hermys’s noble sire led the elves against the forces of darkness on the night that Master triumphed over the Dark Lord. You? You is just a bitter free elf with no house and no honor!”


A tense silence permeated the room. Harry turned back to Hermys and gave the elf a reproachful glance. “I appreciate your loyalty, Hermys, but there’s no shame in being a free elf.”


Hermys shrank away from Harry’s gaze. Without really thinking about it, Harry reached out and caught his head just before he slammed it into the floor. The elf healer watched with interest as Harry righted Hermys and made it clear that he was not to hurt himself. “Riminy has always been hearing that you buried the elf Dobby with your own hands. Tell me, Harry Potter,” she asked, “is it true?”


Harry was unprepared for the question. The words caught in his throat for a moment when he tried to answer. “Yes. Dobby saved my life several times. I was proud to call him my friend. He deserved better, but it was the best I could do for him in the middle of the war.”


The elf healer stared at him inquisitively. “Riminy was here on the night that old Kreacher died. You and your family, you was weeping for him. Why?”


Harry felt slightly self-conscious about the elf bringing up a very private family moment, but he pushed the feeling aside. “Kreacher was part of our family. We all loved him dearly.”


“And you buried him as well?”


“Yes,” Harry answered. “He wanted his head mounted on the wall like his ancestors. But we never could have done that to him. I hope that he would have understood.”


The elf healer continued to stare at Harry. Ron tapped him softly on the shoulder. “She’s dying, mate. If they’re not going to help her, we need to take her downstairs and figure something else out.”


“Wait.” The elf healer raised her hand and stared at the floor. “We will help her. We is doing this only because you is Harry Potter, friend of the elves. As soon as your friend is out of danger, you must go. We cannot risk the dark ones finding you here.”


“I understand,” Harry replied. “You have my word. As soon as she’s able, we’ll leave you in peace.”


The elf healer gestured with her hand and Susan rose gracefully into the air and floated towards a group of elves that were gathering around a long table. “Wait here,” she said. Then she turned around and a curtain magically slid into place between Harry and the surgical area.


Ron looked at Harry and Hermys, who was still cowering nearby. “I’ll take the first watch,” he said, and headed towards the rickety ladder that led from the attic down to the top floor of the hospital. Harry wrapped his cloak around his body and found a spot on the floor next to the wall where he could sit. Hermys was staring at his feet, avoiding Harry’s glance.


“Thank you, Hermys,” Harry said quietly.


The elf looked at him in disbelief. “Why is Master thanking Hermys? Hermys is a terrible, terrible elf. He has spoken out of turn and nearly caused Mistress Susan to d...” He couldn’t bring himself to speak the word.


“On the contrary,” Harry replied, “I think that without realizing it, you just saved her life.”


The elf looked completely bewildered, so Harry continued. “Hermys, if you ever decided that you wanted to be a free elf, I would free you in a heartbeat. I know that you don’t want that. But the healer, she’s made a different choice. She values her freedom and she is committed to helping other elves. With your help, I was able to show her that I honor her choice just as much as I honor yours. Does that make sense?”


Hermys nodded slowly, then looked concerned. “But Master isn’t going to free Hermys, right?”


“No, Hermys. Not unless you decide you want that.”


The elf looked relieved. Harry smiled at him. A thought occurred to Harry and a frown passed over his face. “Ron and I have things under control here. I want you to return to Hogwarts. Find Neville and let him know what’s happened to Susan and where we are.” He took a look towards the ladder to make sure that Ron was out of earshot, then lowered his voice. “And keep an eye on things there. If there’s any sign of trouble, come find me right away.”


“Yes, Master.” Then the elf disappeared with a pop.


Harry decided that there really wasn’t much more that he could do. He leaned his head against the wall, closed his eyes, and tried his best to rest.






Dennis Northway slipped behind a suit of armor in the third floor corridor of Hogwarts Castle and fumbled through the pitch black secret passage that led to the first floor near the Muggle Studies classroom. When he was younger, he would have lit his wand, but as a sixth year, he fancied himself too savvy for such conveniences. The passage suddenly sloped sharply downward and he stumbled twice and banged his face into a loose stone protruding from the wall. Cursing, he drew his wand and lit it, revealing a smudge of blood on his fingertips from the oozing scrape on his cheek. Maybe by the time his seventh year came around, he would learn not to be so bloody full of himself.


He redoubled his pace, trying to make up for lost time. Potions was starting soon and he still needed to stop by his dorm room and grab his textbook. His life had become a lot more hectic over the past couple of weeks. Just as he was about to start advanced dueling lessons with Harry Potter, the outside world had been turned on its head. Potter and his friends were in hiding now, and the Ministry was issuing all sorts of bizarre proclamations favoring pure blood witches and wizards. He tried as best he could not to think about it. His Uncle Leland had only recently been allowed to leave St. Mungo’s, and the terrible things that Harry had shown him on their field trip were still very fresh in his mind.


He found himself spending more and more time with Artie and Oliver Potter and their cousins. The Ministry’s pro-pure blood initiatives had driven a wedge into Slytherin House. The pure blood students who came from old families were openly celebrating the changes, making half-bloods like himself and Oliver feel uncomfortable. Fortunately for Oliver, he had his family to fall back on and fortunately for Dennis, Oliver and Artie had sort of pulled him along with them. As recently as the beginning of the school year, if somebody had tried to tell him that he would ever know what the inside of the Gryffindor common room looked like, he would have called them daft.


He could see the back of the tapestry that concealed the first floor entrance to the hidden passage ahead. He extinguished his wand-light and slipped carefully towards it. The area around the Muggle Studies classroom was usually deserted now that the Ministry had suspended the teaching of the subject, but he still wasn’t keen on being seen by a teacher. Any student who was known to frequent the hidden passages became an immediate suspect in all manner of hi-jinks that took place around the school.


As he inched towards the tapestry, he heard a low, murmuring voice coming from the hallway. He pressed his body tightly against the wall and listened more closely. He held his breath and strained his hearing and he was just able to make out Professor Tennant’s thick Scottish accent. The professor was whispering something that Dennis couldn’t understand. He was able to make out a couple of words as the sound of Tennant’s voice moved slowly past the passageway, enough to realize that they were incantations, but he didn’t recognize the spells. In his mind, he timed out Tennant’s pace towards the corner of the hallway. As soon as Tennant’s voice was out of earshot, he peeked out from behind the tapestry.


Dennis hurried toward the corner and peered around it. Tennant was still walking slowly along, whispering to himself and gesturing with his wand. Every so often, a misty pulse of magical energy shot from the end of Tennant’s wand and faded into the surrounding air. He continued to walk, eventually disappearing around the next corner, towards the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.


Dennis leaned against the wall and tried to think. He knew that the teachers assisted in maintaining the spells that protected the castle, but he could have sworn that those were cast from outside. It seemed like a fairly small thing; people used magic constantly at Hogwarts. But the way that Tennant was sneaking around and whispering strange spells bothered him. He debated whether or not to talk to a teacher. Since he didn’t like Professor Tennant and Tennant didn’t seem to like him, either, he was worried about how it might sound.


He took a deep breath and resumed his rapid walk towards the main staircase and on to the dungeons. It was too late at this point to make it to his dorm room and back. He’d just share a text with somebody or else borrow one from Professor Astor. The Slytherins had Potions with the Gryffindors, so he decided to talk to Artie and Celeste Weasley about Tennant’s odd behavior after the lesson. Perhaps they would know what to do.


Potions seemed to drag by. The fact that he was preoccupied didn’t make the time pass any faster, but it did cause him to make several clumsy and foul-smelling mistakes, infuriating his benchmate.  “Mess up one more time and I’ll have my father toss your filthy, half-blood arse into Azkaban,” Denzil Rowle hissed after Dennis accidentally dropped Hellebore petals into their cauldron before lowering the heat and stirring the potion. Northway had never been especially friendly with Rowle, but since Rowle’s father had been appointed to lead Ministerial Security he had become nearly unbearable. Arrogant and aggressive, he made a habit of nailing the Daily Prophet article to the common room door each time the Minister issued a new proclamation that favored blood purity.


When the bell rang, Dennis leapt up from his seat and hurried to catch Artie and Celeste. He had just made it out the classroom door when his path was blocked by two large Slytherin boys. “Minsch, Bulstrode,” Dennis greeted them nervously. “What’s happening, guys?”


“You pissed me off in there, Northway.” Dennis turned around to find Denzil Rowle glaring at him from the doorway. Rowle took a step forward, getting right in Dennis’s face, and growled, “You made us look like idiots, and I don’t like looking stupid. You’re a disgrace to Slytherin House, you know that, you filthy half-blood?”


“Leave him alone, Rowle.” Dennis heard Artie Potter’s voice coming from behind him. Rowle roughly shoved him aside and stepped in between the two larger boys. Artie was standing in the hallway next to Celeste. They both appeared calm in spite of the unfavorable numbers.


“You don’t talk to me like that, Potter,” Rowle snarled. “Your sainted grandfather isn’t around to protect you any more. You’d better learn your place or you’re going to wind up in Azkaban right beside him.”


“Last time I checked, my grandfather wasn’t in Azkaban,” Artie replied coolly. “And if you got your brains from your father, I doubt that will be happening any time soon.”


Rowle whipped out his wand with a howl of anger. He fired a hex at Artie, but Celeste was much too fast for him, blocking it with ease. Artie responded with a jinx of his own that knocked all three Slytherin boys back a couple of steps. Professor Astor had apparently overhead the commotion and emerged from the Potions classroom with her wand in hand.


“Is there some problem here?” she asked forcefully.


There was a momentary silence as Rowle and Artie glared at one another. “No problem, Professor,” Rowle replied. “They were just on their way out of the dungeons.” He turned and stalked off towards the Slytherin common room, followed by his two lackeys. Astor gave the two Gryffindors a stern look, then returned to her classroom.


“Thanks, guys,” Dennis mumbled, following Artie and Celeste to the stairs. “I guess I can’t really go back to my dorm now.”


“Come with us,” Artie sighed. “You can hang out in our common room until they go to sleep or curl up in a ball or whatever it is they do at night.”


As they walked, Artie peered around to make sure that nobody was listening and whispered, “We’re going to start dueling lessons again, in secret. We’re working on finding a good place to practice.”


“Who’s going to teach us?” Dennis whispered back. “Your grandfather’s still on the run, right?”


“Veratrice and Ulysses are going to run the lessons,” Celeste replied. “I think they feel bad about not being able to do more to help when Harry got attacked by the Blood Order. One of the Ravenclaws found a textbook on advanced dueling spells in the library. The strange thing is that she swears it wasn’t there until just the other day. And the Ravenclaws know the library inside-out.”


“Why is it a secret?” Dennis asked. “Do you think anybody would mind?”


“Partly because of all the pure blood Slytherin nutters like your chum Rowle,” Artie answered, giving Dennis a good-natured elbow in the ribs. “They act like they own the school now. There’s also Professor Tennant. He never took kindly to Grandpa Harry teaching us, and he probably wouldn’t be too happy if he knew we were doing this outside of class.”


“Tennant,” Dennis blurted out, stopping suddenly on the stairs. Artie and Celeste were staring at him, but so were several of the portraits on the walls. “I need to ask you guys something, but let’s wait until we get to your common room.”


Once they were through the portrait hole, the three of them found chairs in a quiet corner of the room. “I saw Tennant outside of the Muggle Studies classroom this morning,” Dennis whispered. “He was sneaking around, casting funny spells into the air. I think he’s up to something.”


“Dennis, his classroom is right around there,” Celeste replied calmly. “Maybe he was setting up a demonstration or something.”


“When was the last time Tennant actually taught us something practical in his class?” Dennis asked in a mocking tone. “I don’t trust him. He was up to something.”


“So why don’t you talk to one of the other professors?” Artie asked. “They’ll either listen to you or tell you you’re barmy.”


Dennis sighed. “I’m sure Tennant has told all of them that I’m rubbish at Defense. It’s no secret to anyone who’s been in his lessons with me. They’ll all just think I’ve got it out for him.”


“Look, Dennis,” Artie whispered. “Let’s go talk to Professor Longbottom together. He’s like family to us. Maybe he’ll believe you and maybe he won’t, but at least he’ll listen.” The whole idea made Dennis nervous, but Artie was already on his feet, pulling on his arm.


“I think Artie’s right, Dennis,” Celeste said. “You should talk to Longbottom. My grandmother always told me to go talk to him if I ever had any sort of problem at school. I have an essay to write. I’ll see you two at dinner.” Then she turned and headed up the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.


Dennis reluctantly followed Artie through the portrait hole and down the stairs towards the second floor of the castle. “You’re sure he’s not going to mind? I mean, he’s probably really busy.”


“He’ll make time for us, Dennis. Stop fidgeting and hurry up. I don’t want to be late for dinner.”


They had just arrived on the second floor and started to walk towards the gargoyle when they caught a glimpse of the Headmaster hurrying towards the Entrance Hall at a very rapid pace. The look on his face was grim, and he was pulling his traveling cloak around his shoulders as he walked.


“Come on,” Artie said, breaking into a jog.


Dennis reluctantly tried to keep up. “Are you sure we should bother him? He’s obviously in a hurry.”


“Merlin, Northway, do you want to tell him or not?” Artie shot back in irritation. Both boys rounded the corner and bounded down the stairs towards the Entrance Hall. When they reached the ground floor, the Headmaster was removing a pair of school brooms from the broom closet. He enchanted one to follow him and carried the second towards the great, wooden doors of the castle.


“Professor!” Artie shouted. “Professor, do you have a minute to talk to us?”


The Headmaster turned to see who was calling to him and did a double-take when he saw Artie and Dennis skidding to a stop in front of him. “Mr. Potter. Mr. Northway. I’m in a bit of a hurry. Is this something that can wait until tomorrow?”


“It won’t take long, Professor,” Artie replied. “There’s something that Dennis needs to tell you. In private, if possible.”


The Headmaster regarded both of them seriously for a moment. “Walk with me.”


Artie and Dennis followed him out into the courtyard. They struggled to keep up as the taller man strode rapidly towards the front gates. When they reached the school boundary, he turned and looked at both of them. “I have to visit a friend who’s fallen ill, so please make this as quick as possible.”


Dennis did his best to meet the Headmaster’s piercing stare. “It may be nothing, sir, but I saw Professor Tennant casting strange spells in the hallway outside the Muggle Studies classroom today. I didn’t recognize the incantations, and he was just casting them into the air.”


For a moment, Dennis felt that he might collapse under the weight of the Headmaster’s gaze. “That is near his classroom,” the professor replied. “It’s probably nothing you need to worry about.” Dennis felt his shoulders droop. Exactly the response he had expected. The Headmaster of Hogwarts now thought that he was panicking for no reason or worse still, pursuing a vendetta against a teacher. “But thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll be sure to follow up with Professor Tennant.” Dennis looked up and met the professor’s eyes. He couldn’t quite read the expression. Intrigued? Anxious?


“Professor,” Artie interjected, “we were planning to start up our dueling lessons again. On our own time, without Grand... I mean Harr... I mean Prof...” He grinned sheepishly. “I don’t know what to call him, but even if he’s not here, we want to keep practicing. We just need to find a room that’s, well, out of the way. We’re not sure that Professor Tennant would approve of what we’re doing.” Dennis couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Artie was admitting to the Headmaster of the bloody school that they were about to go sneaking around, avoiding the attention of their teachers.


Professor Longbottom nodded slowly. Dennis could almost swear that he saw a twinkle of amusement in the old man’s eyes. “Tell the Ravenclaws to talk to the Grey Lady. She might be able to point you towards a suitable room, if you ask her nicely.”


“Now,” the professor said, turning back towards the gates, “if there’s nothing else, I really need to be going.”


Dennis almost held his tongue, but he couldn’t help himself. “Professor, if you’re in a hurry, why are you taking a broom? Why not just apparate?”


The Headmaster turned back towards them. The amusement in his eyes was gone. “It’s rather complicated, I’m afraid. Flying is definitely not my preferred means of transportation. Ask me again someday.” The professor uneasily mounted the broom and kicked off into the sky. He seemed to wobble a bit as he gained altitude. Dennis and Artie watched until he finally disappeared over the horizon.






Another chapter down. Thank you for taking the time to read Conspiracy of Blood. Please take a moment and let me know what you think! Your reviews help to make this story better. And they always make my day. As always, a big thank you to my beta reader, sophie_hatter!

I finally set up a Meet the Author thread in the Forums. You can find the link on my Author page. Stop by and check it out!


Chapter 25: Flight of the Angels
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As always, that which you recognize belongs to the inimitable JK Rowling.

 




 

Hugo Weasley checked his watch and drummed his fingers nervously. “Fiona, come on, we have to go, now.”


“I am ‘urrying,” she shot back from the nursery. “Traveling with a baby is not like planning some stag party. You ‘ave to pack, darling.”


His wife was extremely upset about having to flee their home. Upset about the short notice, upset that they were leaving the two older children at Hogwarts, upset about being dragged into the middle of somebody else’s legal troubles... Fiona was just generally upset. And try as he might, Hugo had not been able to really convey the urgency of the situation.


He supposed that he could understand where she was coming from. He was having a hard time coming to grips with it himself. Less than two hours earlier, he had been running through the Ministry with Al and Susan while Ministerial Security officers hurled lethal curses at them. And even more recently, he and Al had desperately struggled to keep Susan alive until his father and uncle had arrived to take control of the situation. It all felt like one of those frightening muggle movies that James and Rosie used to put on the television when Aunt Ginny wasn’t paying attention, except that he was living it. And the only way out was the portkey in his pocket.


Hugo ran over the plan one more time in his head. When Fiona was finally ready to leave, they would apparate to a muggle shopping mall where she would be able to keep Amelie fed and entertained. Hugo would then travel to London and find Rose and Octavia. Once he collected his sister and niece, they would all meet up and use the portkey to travel to France. It seemed straightforward enough, provided he could locate Rose quickly. He looked at his watch again. Two more minutes had passed.


“Fiona, I’m not kidding. Ministerial Security could show up here at any moment. We have to leave!”


“And what if zey do show up?” she shouted back. “We ‘ave done nothing wrong. Why must we go sneaking around like criminals?”


“Well when you put it like that,” Hugo replied sarcastically. “I sure wish you’d been there to explain it to the security officers who tried to kill us in the halls of the Ministry earlier today.”


Fiona poked her head out of the nursery. She looked like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing, but Hugo could also see concern in her eyes. “Hugo, are you certain that zey were trying to ‘arm you? These are tense times. Your father ‘as been declared a fugitive. Per’aps zey simply wished to talk to you.”


Ever fiber of Hugo’s being wanted to blow up at her. To let her know how ridiculous her question sounded. To hex some sense into her. But she was his wife and she was also holding his child, so he forced himself to remain calm. “Love, they nearly killed Susan. Al was covered in blood from the waist down. Her blood. They didn’t want to talk. They wanted us dead.”


She stared at him for another long moment. “So if this situation is so dangerous, explain to me again ‘ow it is safe to leave Celeste and Robert at ‘ogwarts?”


Hugo bit his lip until he could taste blood. “Love, we’ve been over this twice already. The headmaster is a school friend of Dad’s and Uncle Harry’s. He’ll keep the kids safe.”


“But I thought that zee Ministry was specifically targeting friends of your father?”


Hugo couldn’t help himself. He banged his head against the wall. Then he did it again, for emphasis. Just as he was giving his wife the worst evil eye he could muster, there was a loud knock at the front door of their cottage.


In spite of her doubts, Fiona’s eyes suddenly got wide. Hugo placed his finger against his lips and gestured for her to be silent. He slid his hand over the front of his cloak, making sure that he could still feel the snow globe in his pocket. Then he slipped carefully along the wall until he was next to the front door. He was able to peek through a small gap in the curtains and his heart jumped into his throat. Two wizards in blue robes were standing outside the door.


One of the wizards pounded on the door again. “Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, this is Ministerial Security,” a voice announced. “We have a warrant to take you into custody on suspicion of aiding and abetting known fugitives. You have thirty seconds to come out or we’re coming in.”


Hugo hurried back to Fiona, who was clutching baby Amelie, trying to make sure she stayed quiet. He wrapped his arm around them and grasped the suitcase Fiona had packed and started to turn. Nothing. They were surrounded by anti-apparition jinxes.


“‘ugo, what are we going to do?” Fiona whispered.


Hugo drew his wand and pointed it towards the door. He had to think. There had to be some way for them to get out of the house. Unfortunately, all he could think of was the portkey, which would leave Rose stranded in Britain. His thinking time abruptly ran out when a curse blew the handle off of the door.


“Zat was not thirty seconds, you sons of bitches!” Fiona shrieked beside him. Amelie started to wail. Hugo cast the most powerful shield charm he could manage and then jammed his wand into his pocket. “Portus.”


The security officers kicked in the shattered door and rushed into the room. One of them fired a stunner at them, but Hugo’s shield deflected it.


I’m sorry, sis, he thought to himself as he clutched Fiona and Amelie tighter and thrust his hand into his pocket, grasping the portkey. As the inside of the cottage spun out of existence, Hugo had never felt like such a failure.

 







Harry felt a nudge at his shoulder and opened his eyes. The old elf healer was inches away from his face. “Your friend is out of danger, for now. Her injuries was very extensive. She is needing much time to rest and heal.”


“Thank you,” Harry replied earnestly.


She handed him a tattered sheet of parchment. “These are the potions she is needing to be taking. She must rest completely for at least three days, and no apparition or portkeys for a week.”


Harry stared at the list. Either he or Ron was going to need to visit an apothecary.


Two more elves approached from the surgical area. Susan floated along between them on a makeshift stretcher they had conjured. She was wrapped from the neck down in perhaps the only clean linens in the entire attic.


“She is ready to travel. You must leave now,” the elf healer said bluntly.


“Yes, of course,” Harry replied, feeling panicked. He hadn’t expected the healers to finish with Susan so quickly. “Let me just retrieve my colleague and we’ll be on our way.”


Harry stood up slowly, rubbing his back. The combination of stress and sitting on the hard floor had left him stiff and sore. He hurried over to the ladder and hissed, “Ron!” He heard bumping and clicking noises at the bottom, like several locks being opened.


“Right here, mate. You want to switch?”


“No, she’s ready to leave.”


“Already? Those elves are bloody quick.” Ron scrambled back up the ladder. He winced slightly at the sight of Susan’s unconscious form on the stretcher.


“Any idea how we’re going to get her out of here?” Harry asked. “The healer said no apparition and no portkeys.”


Ron nodded. “I reckoned it would be that after what happened to you. Wait here just a minute.”


Harry watched Ron disappear back down the ladder. He could feel the elf healer’s stare boring into his back. She would be tossing them off of the top of the building soon if they didn’t leave.


Ron reappeared moments later with two sets of green healer’s robes. “I nicked them from a lounge down the hall. I found a trolley, too. It’s parked out in the hallway.”


Harry quickly processed where Ron was heading with the idea, and nodded in agreement. He turned back to the old elf healer, who was glaring at them from the surgical area. “Thank you again. She wouldn’t be alive without your help.”


Riminy’s expression softened. “You is welcome, Harry Potter. Riminy hopes that when her time comes, she has a friend like Harry Potter to bury her.”


Harry smiled at the elf and then took a set of healer’s robes from Ron. He bundled his traveling cloak up and slipped it under Susan’s head, then put the green robes on. He and Ron cast rudimentary disguise spells on each other and then they carefully levitated Susan down to the top floor of the hospital. Once she was situated on the trolley, they made their way quietly toward the lifts.


“What happens if we run into Ministerial Security?” Ron asked as they rode down to ground level.


“I think we have an edge,” Harry replied. “They’re expecting somebody to be sneaking in, not out.”


They reached the lobby and as soon as the doors opened Harry felt like hitting the button to take them back up. Guarding the entrance were four Ministerial Security officers. He and Ron walked Susan quietly out of the lift and eased her trolley to a quiet corner of the lobby.


“Do you think they’ll stop us if we just try to wheel her past?” Ron whispered.


“Probably. People don’t usually leave St. Mungo’s until they’re able to walk for themselves. And we still have to work out how to get her back to Little Hangleton.”


They both started at the sound of somebody clearing her throat near them. Harry turned to find Charlene the Welcome Witch staring at them with her arms crossed. “Are you two taking this poor woman somewhere, or are you just going to stand here and chat all day?”


“Well, we’re just waiting for somebody...” Harry began.


“You know, to meet her. Her family...” Ron fumbled.


“She’s unconscious on a trolley and her family is coming to pick her up?” the witch replied, looking amused.


“Well, not exactly,” Harry said. His mind was racing. Of all the stupid ways to get caught. “You see, we’re...”


The witch broke into a nervous smile and drew closer to them. “I know who you are,” she said quietly. “As soon as they told us who they were trying to catch, I said to myself, ‘Charlene, this is Harry Potter we’re talking about. He won’t let some bunch of tossers from the Ministry stop him from helping poor Susan.’ This is Susan, right?”


“Uh, yes,” Harry replied, stealing a nervous glance towards the Ministerial Security officers manning the exit. They still appeared to be completely focused on guarding it.


“Oh, poor dear,” Charlene said, looking sympathetically at Susan’s unconscious face. “How did you manage to get her past them to get her treated? No, wait! Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know. It’s safer if I don’t know, right? I mean, they outlawed Veritaserum years ago, but with this new Ministry, you never know, am I right? So now you need to get her out of here, I suppose?”


“Yeah, we do,” Ron answered, looking amused and anxious all at once.


“Ooh, this is so exciting! A real, live escape!” Charlene bubbled. “I can’t stand the new Minister, you know? I’m a half-blood and my dear, departed grandmother would turn pale if she heard some of the horrible things the Ministry is saying about the muggles these days. When I was a little girl, she always used to say, ‘Charlene, don’t you believe any of the horrible things that the pure bloods say about the muggles, because you have muggle blood in you and muggles put their trousers on one leg at a time just like...”


“Charlene,” Harry interjected, cutting off her reminiscing. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but we’re in a bit of a hurry. Do you know of some way that we could get past the security officers?”


“Oh, that,” she replied. “Well, they’ve closed the floo and I think they’re guarding the loading dock, as well.” She paused and tapped her painted nails against her chin. “I know! I could distract them for you. They seem really bored, actually. It shouldn’t be that hard to distract them, right?”


Harry pondered her offer. It seemed fairly unlikely to work, but if it didn’t they’d just have to fight their way out, which is what they were going to have to do anyway. He reckoned that there was no harm in letting her try. “We have one other problem. She’s not well enough to travel by apparition or portkey. Is there somewhere nearby that we could find transport?”


Charlene looked thoughtful for a second, then gave them a sly grin. “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there was this witch who got hit by a muggle lorry this morning, right? Silly old bat tried to cross the street against traffic because the the little green man on the street sign confused her when he didn’t move. So she was on her way to St. Bartholomew’s when Magical Accidents and Catastrophes intercepted the ambulance and redirected it here. I believe,” she drew the word out and combined it was a fake look of innocence that would have driven George spare with its sheer lack of polish, “that it’s still sitting outside in front of Purge and Dowse, waiting for somebody from the Ministry to come and return it to the muggles.”


Ron and Harry exchanged a glance. It was certainly complicated, but at the moment it sounded like their best option. “Alright,” Harry replied, “we’ll take it. Are you ready to try to distract them?”


“Of course, let’s not wait another minute. You need to get the poor dear out of here before there’s trouble,” Charlene gushed, giving Susan another sympathetic glance. “Ooh, but they might decide to question me! I could accidentally let something slip.” Charlene tossed her head back dramatically. “You’d better confund me first. That way I can’t give anything away, right? You know, I think I’m pretty good at this. Maybe I should get into law enforcement?”


“Um, yeah, sure,” Harry replied. “Well, why don’t you go ahead and get started. Oh, here.” He pointed his wand at her face. “Confundo.”


Charlene twitched as though somebody had physically slapped her, then smiled at Harry and walked back to her podium.


“You didn’t cast the spell, did you?” Ron asked quietly.


“Nope. I reckon she’s confused enough as it is.”


When Charlene reached the podium, she pretended to study the visitor’s list carefully. Suddenly, she erupted into a tizzy. “Excuse me! Officers? Excuse me, please! There’s something here I think you should see!”


Two of the Ministerial Security officers walked over to the podium with annoyed looks on their faces.


“These are the sign-ins from this morning,” she began, gesturing towards the hand-written list of names. “See this one here? It says Horace Terwilliger. And this one two rows down is Mathilda Effington. Now, if you re-arrange the letters in ‘Horace Terwilliger’, replacing the L’s with T’s and changing the lone descender from a ‘g’ to a ‘y’, then reorganize the letters, it spells ‘Harry Potter.’ And ‘Mathilda Effington’, if you offset each letter by one position in the alphabet and reorganize, then drop the trailing eight letters, you clearly get ‘Susan Bones.’ I think it’s plainly obvious that they’ve already snuck past you into the hospital.”


“Wait, what?” the lead officer mumbled, scratching his head.


“Watch closely, my dear,” Charlene replied, drawing a quill from the podium. “I saw this trick in the puzzles page of Witch Weekly once. It’s very clever, indeed. No wonder you’re so keen to catch these two. Do you read Witch Weekly? Or does your wife? Are you married?”


As Ron and Harry watched from the corner, a third security officer walked over to the podium to see what all the ruckus was about. Charlene was gesticulating wildly with her quill, prattling on about letter substitution. They began to calmly roll Susan’s trolley towards the exit.


“So you swap all of the F’s with G’s,” Charlene rambled, scribbling rapidly in the margin of the registry. “But you have to remember to rotate your alphabet by two letters, in accordance with the position of Ursa Major. Do you follow astrology? I would think it would be very useful in your line of work, trying to stay one step ahead of criminals and all. Right now, Orion is at its apex, which is supposed to be very lucky for anyone who’s hunting something. I would be out looking for these two if I were you.”


“Wait, hold on...” the ranking security officer replied, screwing up his face in frustration. “Now what were you saying about spelling ‘Harry Potter’ again?”


“Oh, it’s right here, dear,” Charlene answered, gesturing towards the registry. “We were just about to start rearranging the letters, but first we need to do substitution based on the Roman alphabet. Hold on while I write the key out in the top margin here...”


The fourth security officer stole a glance towards his comrades as he moved to intercept Ron and Harry. It was all the time Ron needed. Confundo. The man’s eyes went unfocused and Ron and Harry quickly rolled the trolley past him and out through the exit. Harry breathed a quick sigh of relief as they suddenly found themselves standing on the street in front of the abandoned department store. The cool autumn air felt especially good on his face. The ambulance was parked in front of the store, and he waved his wand over the back doors to unlock them. Harry and Ron slid the trolley inside and secured it in place.


“You drive,” Harry said, causing Ron to give him an incredulous look, as though he couldn’t imagine that Harry had seriously considered any other possibility.


Leaving Harry in the back with Susan, Ron walked around the side of the ambulance and opened the driver’s side door, then his jaw dropped in surprise. Sitting in the driver’s seat was a muggle dressed in a paramedic’s uniform. The woman’s eyes were glassy and her mouth was slightly open. “Harry, we have a problem.”


Harry poked his head through the window that connected the rear compartment of the vehicle to the front. Without pausing, he drew his wand and pointed it at the muggle woman. “Confundo. Get out and stand over there on the pavement.”


The woman obeyed, stepping out of the ambulance and walking uneasily around the front. Just as Ron was climbing in, a pair of Obliviators appeared in front of the hospital with a crack.


“What are you doing?” one of them asked, eyeing Ron suspiciously. “This is a muggle vehicle. We have to get it and the driver back to their proper location before they’re missed.”


“We’re just moving it over there,” Ron replied, gesturing towards the far side of the street. “The hospital wants it out of the way.”


“You are in the middle of a Level Three Secrecy Management situation,” the Obliviator scoffed. “You’re not authorized to operate this equipment. What’s your name, anyway?”


The conversation ended abruptly as Harry poked his wand past Ron’s head and stunned both of the Obliviators.


“O’Malley and Bender are good blokes,” Ron mumbled. “We’ll have to apologize later for that.”


“Drive,” Harry ordered. “Just get as far away from St. Mungo’s as you can.”


Harry felt the engine of the ambulance start and it lurched forward underneath him. He barely avoided landing on Susan and crashed to the floor. “Sorry, mate,” Ron called from the front. “Just not used to the way she handles.”


“Well figure it out!” Harry shouted, pulling himself to his knees. He looked out the back window of the ambulance just in time to see two of the Ministerial Security officers emerge from the front window of Purge and Dowse, shouting and waving their arms. One of them leveled his wand at the back of the ambulance and Harry managed to duck just before a curse blew out the rear window. He scrambled back to his knees and cast a shield charm through the empty frame just in time to block a pair of curses.


Harry was once again thrown into the side of the ambulance as Ron took a hard left turn. “Merlin, Ron, it’s not a bloody broomstick!” he shouted, pulling himself back into a crouch.


“They were firing curses at us!” Ron yelled as Harry watched the officers disappeared into the distance. “Find something to hold onto!”


“There isn’t anything!”


“I don’t know, improvise or something!”


Harry scanned the back of the ambulance. There was a metal chair attached to the wall across from the bay where Susan’s trolley was anchored. Harry seized it with one hand and blasted it loose from the wall with his wand. Then he set it on the floor in front of the back doors and attached it with a sticking charm. He had just sat down when Ron made a hard turn to the right.


“I’m heading for the motorway,” Ron yelled. “We’ll be able to go faster once we’re on there.”


“Sounds good,” Harry replied. “And there are no bloody sharp turns,” he muttered to himself. As Ron drove, Harry checked the restraints holding Susan in place. The trolley was secured to the floor of the ambulance and she had three safety straps across her body. He checked her pulse and felt her face and neck. Already, she was starting to look a little better. Now they just needed to get her into hiding so she could recover.


Harry kept a careful watch out the window as Ron raced through the back streets of London. It took longer to reach the motorway, but it mostly kept them out of sight. Finally, Harry felt the ambulance accelerate again. He saw that they were merging onto the motorway and breathed a sign of relief. “How long will it take us to get there?” he asked.


“Should be about three and a half hours on the motorway,” Ron called back. “Then another half an hour to get to Little Hangleton.”


Harry settled back into his chair. He hoped that the difficult part of their journey was over. That hope was dashed when a loud bang caused the ambulance to jolt violently. “Harry! We have company!”


Harry looked out the rear window, scanning the road behind them. He couldn’t see their attackers anywhere. Come on Potter, you’re going blind. Where are they?


Another curse struck the rear bumper, spraying the back of the ambulance with a shower of red-hot sparks. Harry shielded his face with his hand, and it suddenly dawned on him where the attack was coming from. He crouched down so that he could look up through the broken window and spotted three wizards on brooms closing in on them from above. He managed to cast a shield charm just in time to block a curse that probably would have torn a hole in the top of the vehicle.


“Ron, they’re on brooms!” he shouted over his shoulder. “What are those idiots doing? They’ll be seen by hundred of muggles. Thousands!”


“I think they’ve already proven that they don’t care about that,” Ron yelled back. “Hang on tight. I’m going to make us a tougher target.”


Harry felt the ambulance swerve back and forth as Ron accelerated and began to weave through the surrounding traffic. He blocked three more curses while others blasted holes in the road on either side of them. The muggles sharing the road with them had begun to notice that something was happening, and several pulled off to the side of the road. “How’s traffic?” Harry yelled.


“Not bad for a Friday evening,” Ron replied. “If we weren’t being attacked, it would be a pleasant drive.”


Harry fired a curse at one of their pursuers, forcing the man to pull up on his broom. “If they get over top of us, I can’t see them,” Harry shouted. “We’re sitting ducks.” He parried two more curses aimed for the back of the ambulance, but one streaked over the top of his shield charm. It grazed the front of the hood and then struck the road in front of them. Ron yelped as pebbles of shattered asphalt struck the windshield.


“We need to slow them down,” Ron called back. “Hey, I have an idea!” Ahead of the ambulance, high tension electric wires hung above the motorway. As Harry fired more curses towards their attackers, Ron leaned out the window and cast an invisibility charm on the wires. Harry increased the intensity of his barrage, trying to distract their opponents. Two of the wizards pulled up to avoid Ron’s trap, but the third never saw it coming. One of the electric lines clotheslined the man and he fell to the asphalt with a thud as his broom shot off into the air.


“One down,” Harry yelled. The two remaining pursuers maintained a higher altitude and split out to the sides of the roadway, spreading Harry’s defense. Forcing them higher did help, inasmuch as the extra distance weakened the curses that made it past Harry’s shield charms. They left scorch marks on the ambulance instead of blowing holes in the sides. It occurred to Harry that he needed a better vantage point to fight back.


He stole a moment to peek through the front window and spotted an overpass ahead. “Ron, slow down when we pass underneath it,” he called out. He launched a furious volley of curses at their attackers, driving them higher into the sky. As soon as they drove underneath the overpass, Ron hit the brakes and pulled into the breakdown lane. Harry conjured a stream of white-hot sparks from his wand and used it to cut a hole in the top of the ambulance. He caught the circular piece of the roof and set it aside, then applied a cooling charm to the smoldering edges of the hole. Taking his wand between his teeth, Harry pulled himself up through the hole and on top of the ambulance. “Alright, hit it!” he yelled down to Ron. He felt the ambulance lurch forward again as Ron stepped on the accelerator.


Looking up, he saw that the two wizards on brooms had shot past them. Both had started to veer inwards, circling back to resume their attack when the ambulance emerged from the cover of the overpass. Harry took full advantage of the element of surprise, firing a volley of hexes at the wizard looping around from the right. He managed to block the first two, but the next caught his squarely in the chest, knocking him off of his broom. As Harry turned his attention to the second attacker, he heard Ron shout “Arresto Momentum!” from the driver’s seat.


“You big softie!” Harry yelled, feeling amused in spite of the danger.


“I’m sure he’s not a bad guy when he’s off duty,” Ron shouted back defensively.


With only one pursuer remaining, and a full field of vision, Harry had little trouble protecting the ambulance from further damage. The remaining security officer was plainly aware of his situation, so he simply chose to fall back and follow them from a distance, throwing an occasional curse in their direction just to try to keep them on their guard.


“We have to shake him somehow,” Ron yelled. “We can’t lead him all the way back with us.”


“He’s too far away,” Harry replied in frustration. “Even if I could hit him, the curse probably wouldn’t be strong enough to knock him off of his broom. Maybe I could apparate behind him.”


“Are you crazy?” Ron shouted. “No! No bloody way! We’ll pull over to the side and wait him out if we have to.”


“If we do that, we’ll have the whole Ministry coming down on our heads in minutes,” Harry shot back. “I can do this. Just apparate above him, blast him, then apparate back here before I hit the ground.” It was possible in theory, but even Harry had to admit that the idea was incredibly dangerous. Apparating to a point in mid-air based on visual sighting flew in the face of the First D: Destination.


“Harry, so help me, I’ll kill you,” Ron yelled frantically. “You are not gonna die today trying to pull off some stupid stunt!”


“Well we can’t just keep driving, Ron!” Harry shouted back. “How much petrol does this thing have left, anyway?”


Ron didn’t respond. Harry was pretty sure that he was getting the silent treatment. He stared out at the wizard pursuing them on the broom, trying to gauge the height and distance. Suddenly, he noticed two more black specks approaching in the distance. “Ron, I think there are two more coming!” he yelled. Straining his eyes, Harry tried to make out the approaching shapes. They were definitely moving faster than the lone remaining pursuer, gaining ground at a rapid pace. He steeled himself and prepared to duel the new arrivals. A jet of red light erupted from one of the rapidly growing pair of dark shapes, but to Harry’s surprise, it flew past the last security officer, narrowly missing him.


“Ron, slow down,” Harry shouted. “Whoever they are, I think they’re attacking the bloke from Ministerial Security.”


Ron eased up on the throttle and moved into the slow lane. Harry watched as the two new arrivals split up and soared higher, enclosing the remaining attacker in a triangle with Harry at the point. The security officer tried to evade them by diving, but they dipped behind him to maintain the trap. Harry carefully zeroed in on the security officer with his wand, waiting for an opportunity. The wizard provided it moments later when he tried to veer to the left, exposing his side to Harry. Stupefy! The jet of red light from Harry’s wand struck the officer in the hip, knocking him off of his broom. Arresto Momentum. Harry guided the stunned wizard’s body away from the motorway and brought him to rest in the tall grass alongside the road.


Harry lowered himself back into the ambulance. “We’re clear,” he said to Ron. “Pull off at the next exit. Let’s see who we have to thank.”


Ron turned off of the motorway after another few minutes of driving and made his way into the car park of a boarded-up muggle petrol station. Harry opened the back doors of the ambulance and stepped out, gripping his wand tightly in case the day had more surprises in store for them. He raised his arm skyward and began casting a perimeter of protective enchantments around the ambulance. Within a few moments, it had disappeared from the view of the outside world.


In the dim light of the evening, Harry could just make out the mysterious pair of broom-mounted wizards as they circled overhead and descended. He lost sight of them as they passed over a street lamp, but not before he noticed that one of them appeared to be rather shaky on the broom. Ron stepped up beside him, holding his wand out in front of him. Seconds later, their unexpected allies alighted on the ground in front of them.


“Justin, Neville!” Harry shouted, pocketing his wand and rushing forward to greet them. Justin seemed as nonplussed as ever, but Neville was still clenching his broomstick with white knuckles, looking like he couldn’t decide whether to kiss the ground or hyperventilate. As Ron slapped him on the back, he suddenly tossed the broom away as though he had just realized that he was holding a live snake.


“You’re all crazy, you hear me?” he gasped, rubbing his hands together and blowing on them. “Stark raving mad! Who in their right mind climbs onto one of those bloody things for fun? I have spent the last half hour staring death in the face.” He noticed the amused looks that surrounded him. “It’s not bloody funny!”


“There, there, Neville,” Ron chuckled. “You were brilliant up there, but we’ll wait ‘til next year to sign you up for the Quidditch Masters League.”


“How is she?” Justin asked, peering into the back of the ambulance.


“Bloody hell, Susan!” Harry replied with a start, pocketing his wand. “I haven’t checked on her since we left London.”


Harry climbed back into the ambulance and knelt by Susan’s side. Aside from her hair being a little tousled, she looked none the worse for wear. He slipped his fingers against her neck and checked her pulse, then smoothed her hair. She took a sudden, sharp breath and her eyes opened just a sliver. She turned her head slowly until her gaze fell on him. “Harry?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.


“Yes, Susan. I’m here,” Harry replied quietly. Around the back of the ambulance, Ron, Justin and Neville crowded closer to try to hear her voice.


“I had the strangest dream,” she whispered, sounding very distant. “I was at work, and suddenly everyone was fighting, and Al and Hugo were there and...” Terror suddenly spread across her face as the memories came back to her. “No!” she moaned, trying to sit up. She groaned in pain from her injured side and Harry quickly eased her back down.


“Susan, it’s alright,” he said soothingly. “Everything is alright. You got them out. You saved them.”


Susan stopped struggling to move, looking relieved. But an instant later, she started to cry. “Oh, Harry,” she moaned softly. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have let them fight. I should have found another way.”


“Susan, don’t be ridiculous,” Ron replied. His words were genuine if a bit insensitive. “I’m sure you did everything you could. Hugo told us that they would have been captured or killed if you hadn’t been there.”


Susan seemed surprised to hear Ron’s voice, but the tears continued to well in her eyes. “Hugo’s just a kid,” she whispered. “Doesn’t know any better. I put them both in terrible danger. I’m so sorry.”


Harry smiled sadly at his friend, and brushed the tears from her face with his thumbs. “Look, Susan. I know I’m the last person in the world who should be giving people advice on when to feel guilty, but you should not feel guilty. You did your job today and because of that everybody made it out alive. I’m proud of you, and I can never thank you enough for saving them.”


“That goes double for me,” Ron added. “We owe you a big one.”


Through her tears, a small smile crept across Susan’s lips. “So no more overnight surveillance shifts?”


“When we’re all back at work, I promise, nothing but desk work until the day you retire,” Harry teased.


“If I wasn’t strapped down, I would hit you,” she retorted, the grin on her lips growing slightly larger.


“Um, speaking of work,” Justin chirped in, “I guess Susan and I more or less put our Auror careers on hold today.”


“Wait,” Susan interjected, struggling to move her head and focus her eyes. “How many of you gits are there?”


“Just Ron, Justin and myself, plus the flying ace over here,” Harry replied, gesturing towards Neville.


“Not bloody funny,” Neville mumbled, still wringing his hands together. “Not funny at all.”


Ron turned back to Justin. “What are you going to do?”


“Well, first I have to get my family into hiding,” Justin replied. “After what happened today, I don’t think that I can take their safety for granted.” He saw the pained look on Harry’s face and quickly added, “Don’t worry, boss. I got pretty good at this during the war. They can just blend in with my muggle relatives for a while. Everything will be fine. But once they’re safe, I think we need to start fighting back. This has gone too far.”


“We have to do something” Neville agreed. He seemed to have finally calmed down from his airborne adventure. “Harry, this can’t go on. The bloody Minister is tearing our world apart. Somebody has to put a stop to it.”


Harry noticed that the attention of the group was uncomfortably focused on him. “Guys, I can’t exactly stand for office right now. I’m wanted for murder.”


“That’s an excuse.” Susan’s voice was soft and raspy, but there was a hard edge to it.


“Excuse me?” Harry replied incredulously. “Since when is being on the lam not a perfectly good reason to stay out of politics?”


“You’re innocent and everyone knows it,” Susan answered sternly. “But the longer you continue to sneak around, avoiding your responsibilities, the more people are going to start to doubt that. And people don’t need to doubt right now, Harry. They need to believe.”


Harry felt himself getting angry. Who was Susan to judge his actions? She hadn’t lost most of the people she ever cared about. She had never been forced to watch other people die in her place. She didn’t understand the burden that came with allowing other people to believe that you were something more than you really were. “What exactly are these ‘responsibilities’ I’m avoiding?” He managed to keep the question halfway civil.


To his surprise, it was Neville who answered him. “The same one you’re always trying to avoid, Harry. People want you to take charge. They want to follow you. We want to follow you.”


Harry stared at his friends for a long moment. “I don’t think I should be leading anyone anywhere. The last time I tried to lead an army, too many people wound up dead.”


“People die, Harry,” Susan replied softly. “With your help, at least they have a fighting chance to live.”


There was a long silence. Ron finally said, “It’s getting late and we still have another couple of hours to drive so we can get Susan to safety. No offense to you two gallant fellows, but it’s probably safer for all involved if you don’t know where that is.”


Justin and Neville nodded in agreement. “Would the broom be any use to you lot?” Neville asked. “There’s no bloody way that I’m flying back to Hogwarts.”


“Can’t hurt,” Harry shrugged. He hopped out of the ambulance while Ron summoned the broomstick from where Neville had discarded it. “Justin, take care, mate. We’ll be in touch soon.” The two men shook hands.


“Think about it, Harry,” Justin said quietly. “You can fix this. People will listen to you.” He bid his farewell to Ron, mounted his broom and kicked off into the sky.


“Take care of the kids, Neville,” Harry said, smiling fondly at his old housemate. “If there’s any sort of trouble at the castle, send us a patronus.”


“Most of the trouble at the castle is caused by your grandchildren,” Neville replied with a grin. “But I’ll be sure to let you know if anything strange happens.” He shook hands with Harry and Ron and then turned and disapparated.


“What do you think, Ms. Bones?” Harry asked, climbing into the back of the ambulance and closing the doors behind him. “Shall we get you to your all expense paid holiday resort?”


“Are there strapping, young pool boys to look at?” she asked with a weak grin. “I forgot to bring a book.”


“Don’t worry about that,” Ron replied, climbing back into the driver’s seat. “Hermione has plenty.”


He put the ambulance into gear and they resumed their trip to Little Hangleton. The drone of the tires and the engine soon put Susan back to sleep. Once he was convinced that nobody else was following them, Harry unstuck the chair from the back of the ambulance and moved it closer to the window joining the rear compartment to the front.


“You were really gonna do it, weren’t you, mate?” Ron asked quietly without taking his eyes off of the road.


Harry didn’t answer. He honestly didn’t know what to say.

 




 

So this concludes my three chapter "Susan Arc", focusing on the lady who has become my favorite supporting character in the story. You will see Susan again before the story ends, but not for a while.

As always, huge thanks to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. I also wanted to thank everyone who voted for Conspiracy of Blood in the February 2012 Gryffindor Story of the Month competition.

If you enjoyed this chapter, please leave a review below and let me know. Your feedback helps to keep the creative juices flowing.

 


Chapter 26: Acts of Faith
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As always, the characters, places and things you recognize belong to the inimitable JK Rowling.





 
“You just wait until your father gets home, young lady!” Rose yelled as she hustled her daughter into their London flat. “He is not going to be amused one bit!”


“Daddy thinks everything I do is funny,” Octavia retorted, rolling her eyes for effect.


Rose clinched her fists and slowly counted to five. At some level, Octavia had a point. Her idiotic husband did tend to laugh at nearly everything their daughter did, no matter how inappropriate. But that was completely beside the point.


On the second day at her new muggle primary school, Octavia had been sent to the head teacher’s office. A muggle boy in her class had apparently made fun of her during history lessons for not knowing who Guy Fawkes was. During break, the same boy suffered a nasty fall when the seat of his swing suddenly came unfastened from its chains. Naturally, the teacher couldn’t blame Octavia for the mishap, but she did take exception to the way Octavia celebrated while the boy cried and picked grass out of his teeth. There was no mystery from Rose’s point of view.


Octavia’s behavior seemed to be spiraling out of control and Rose was at a loss for what to do about it. She tried to imagine what her own mother would have done in her place, but she came up empty. Rose had been a very well-behaved child... at least until she met Scorpius. Hugo’s rebellious phase didn’t really begin until after he started at Hogwarts, and Professor McGonagall had snapped him out of it faster than you could say bowtruckle’s thumb knuckle. Rose was pretty sure that the stern Scottish headmistress’s methods wouldn’t work for her. She possessed neither a withering stare nor a room full of ancient trophies that needed to be polished.


“Octavia, sweetheart, come here,” Rose sighed, sinking into the armchair closest to the fireplace. Her daughter gave her a rebellious glare, but then mirrored her sigh and squeezed into the chair next to her. “Your father and I have been over and over this with you. It’s very important to us that you can fit into both the muggle world and the magical world. So you need to go to muggle primary school like your brother did. Your grandmother, your uncle and I... even your Great Uncle Harry went to muggle school.”


“But muggle school is stupid! I’ll never need any of the things we learn in muggle school when I can do magic.”


“Octavia, that’s just not true. You’re going to need to know how to read and write and add and subtract, and they don’t teach any of that at Hogwarts. You’re supposed to learn it before you start.”


Octavia plainly wasn’t giving up without a fight. “But Calliope and Billy and Ellie don’t have to go to muggle school!”


Rose stifled a groan. They had been over this point again and again. She ran through the explanation once more, trying to speak calmly. “Sweetheart, Calliope’s mum and Billy’s mum stay home to teach them and Ellie’s mum and dad hired a tutor for her. Your father and I both work and we really can’t afford to hire a full-time tutor.”


“Granddaddy Malfoy would pay for it,” Octavia replied dismissively.


“Octavia, money isn’t the only reason we want you to go to muggle school. You have to learn to function around all kinds of people. Not every person you’ll ever have to deal with is a witch or a wizard. Learning to control your magic is good practice for when you’re a grownup and you’re expected to obey the Statute of Secrecy.” The explanation was basically true, and it avoided a touchy subject for Rose. She would go to work as a test subject for her Uncle George’s gag gifts before she’d stoop to asking her father-in-law for money. She did feel a little guilty that perhaps her Weasley pride was hurting Octavia, but not enough to let Draco Malfoy pay for a tutor for her daughter.


“Mum, I can control my magic.”


She fixed her daughter with a disbelieving look. “Oh, so you’re telling me that you deliberately tried to hurt that muggle boy and then laughed and danced about it?”


“I didn’t want to hurt him,” Octavia pouted, “but he made fun of me!”


“Witches and wizards make fun of each other, too, Octavia. That won’t change just because you leave muggle school and go to Hogwarts. But that’s not a reason to use magic to hurt other people. Do you know how upset your Grandmother would be if she found out what you did? How disappointed your Great Uncle Harry would be?”


Rose’s lecture was interrupted by a glowing, silver ball that streaked through the window and morphed into a fox as it landed on the floor in front of her. “Rosie, you’re in terrible danger. Take Octavia and hide,” it said in Hugo’s voice, then faded away.


They stared at the spot where the fox had stood for a long moment. It wasn’t like Hugo to send a patronus. He could barely perform the spell to begin with, and their parents had always told them that it should only be used in emergencies.


“Mum,” Octavia said, breaking the silence, “has Uncle Hugo been drinking?”


“No, darling,” Rose responded. “Your uncle can barely tie his shoes when he drinks, let alone cast a corporeal patronus.” She checked the clock. It was twenty minutes ‘til eight. Scorpius wasn’t due back from the States for another two days. She thought about calling on Dom or Lily, but she wasn’t sure that they’d have any more of an idea what was going on than she did. One place stuck out in her mind, a place where she had always felt safe no matter the circumstances.


“Grab your coat and your overnight bag. Let’s go visit Nana Molly and Grandpa Arthur.”


“Yay!” Octavia shrieked, bounding towards her bedroom. Rose never had to ask twice about visiting the Burrow. She felt a bit guilty, like she was rewarding Octavia after her earlier behavior, but she needed to know what was wrong and she felt certain that her grandparents would know. And there might also be some leftovers from dinner.


Rose went to the bedroom she shared with her husband and threw a pair of pyjamas and a change of clothes into one of Scorpius’s gym bags. Then she swept the contents of her vanity into the bag, catching her toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss and birth control potion. The four things that always kept me in mum’s good graces, she chuckled to herself. Until she had forgotten to take the birth control potion that one time, but she could hardly blame the potion for that.


Octavia was already bouncing up and down in the sitting room by the time Rose emerged with her traveling cloak. “Do you have everything, sweetheart?”


Octavia nodded enthusiastically. Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door. Rose instantly felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. They weren’t expecting company. Octavia had picked up on her tension and stood motionless by her side, looking frightened. Rose tip-toed across the floor and looked out through the peephole in the door. Two wizards stood in the hallway, dressed in the blue robes of Ministerial Security. She took a step back from the door and wordlessly cast a trio of powerful locking charms on it. You didn’t date a guy that most of your male relatives detested without getting good at locking doors.


She grabbed Octavia’s hand and hurried towards her bedroom. She looked out the window that led to the fire escape, but there were two more security officers lurking at the bottom of the metal stairs. She noted with satisfaction that the wards were still up because they didn’t seem to be able to see the window. How long that would last was a question she didn’t care to know the answer to.


“We have to find another way out,” she whispered. More loud knocks echoed through the flat, followed by the sharp crack of a curse rebounding off of her locking charms.


Octavia chewed on her lip nervously for a moment, then mumbled, “I know a way out, Mum. But you’re going to be mad.”


Rose stared at her daughter in disbelief. She was seven. Another curse slammed into the door, and it sounded much more powerful than the one before. The door wasn’t going to stand up to that kind of abuse for very long. “We’ll discuss it later. How do we get out?”


Octavia led her mother into her bedroom, then pushed the window open. She deftly pulled herself through the window frame and swung her feet downward, then almost disappeared. Rose gasped and lurched towards the window, her mind filled with the image of Octavia tumbling to the pavement four stories below. Instead, she found the little girl standing on a narrow ledge below her window, clinging to a lip in the stonework on the side of the building. “This way, mum,” she whispered, and started to slide sideways.


Rose took a deep breath and started to slide her feet through the open window. For all the time she had spent soaring through the air on a broom, and all of the times she had plummeted to earth after being knocked off, she found that she couldn’t look down for fear of fainting. Everything about their escape route, from the thin ledge beneath her toes to the indentation that her white-knuckled fingers clung to, was much better suited to a person Octavia’s size. Overhead, she heard a loud bang followed by the crash of splintering wood as her locking charms finally gave way. Mustering all of her courage and concentration, she pried one hand loose and used her wand to close the window.


Up ahead, Octavia had made her way to a spot just above the balcony belonging to the corner flat on the floor below theirs. As casually as if gravity didn’t exist, she slid her feet off of the ledge and hung by her fingers for a moment before dropping onto the balcony. Rose slid sideways as fast as her frayed nerves and tense, aching muscles would permit, then allowed herself to drop onto the balcony where her daughter was waiting.


“It’s empty,” Octavia explained, gesturing towards the flat on the other side of the glass slider. “The muggles who moved out left some cool stuff behind. You wanna see?” She looked hopeful, as though the small treasures she’d discovered might distract her mother from the combination of anger, terror, relief and annoyance that Rose was feeling.


Rose dropped to one knee and pulled her daughter into a tight embrace. When she finally let go, she held Octavia at arm’s length. “Octavia Astoria, you and I have a lot to discuss. But first, let’s get out of here before they figure out what happened to us.”


Rose stood up and gestured with her wand. “Expecto Patronum.” The silvery serpent took shape in the air in front of her. “Mum, wizards from the Ministry tried to arrest Octavia and I. We’re going to the Burrow.” She waved her wand and the ethereal creature shot off into the air. Rose took Octavia’s hand and turned tentatively. She was pleased to find that the anti-apparition jinxes that protected their flat didn’t extend to the floor below, and an instant later the two of them appeared on the side of the lane that ran past the front yard of her grandparents’ home.


It was immediately apparent that something was different. The uneven, old structure appeared blurry and distant and the warm light that usually emanated from the ground floor windows seemed dull and subdued. “Nana and Grandpa must have set up more wards,” she mumbled.


She was about to wonder why when several loud pops sounded around them. Faster than she could draw her wand, they were surrounded by two witches and a wizard wearing the silver badges of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol, all leveling their wands at her chest. “Mrs. Malfoy, you’re under arrest for suspicion of aiding known fugitives,” the wizard stated matter-of-factly. “Please come with us.”


“But, we’re just here to see my grandparents,” Rose blurted. “I haven’t done anything wrong! I don’t even know where my parents are!”


“Mrs. Malfoy, please calm down,” one of the witches replied slowly, tilting her wand to a more neutral position. Rose was certain that she knew the woman from somewhere. She had long, dark hair that feathered outwards on either side of her face and brown, almond-shaped eyes. As Rose stared at her, it suddenly clicked.


“You’re Jade Corner. You were in my brother’s year, in Ravenclaw.”


“That’s right,” the witch replied, smiling in spite of the tense situation they found themselves in. “Hugo and I used to have History of Magic together.”


“Jade, can you tell me what’s going on?” Rose asked, nervously eying the two wands still trained on her.


Corner looked sympathetic and somewhat embarrassed. “The warrant is for aiding your parents. If you really don’t know where they are, I’m sure everything will be fine. Just come with us and we’ll get it all sorted out.”


Rose stared back at them. The edge of the wards protecting the Burrow was so close. In all likelihood, the officers wouldn’t be able to follow her through them. But even if she made it past them without being stunned, she’d be asking her grandparents to harbor a fugitive. She couldn’t bring herself to put them through that, because she knew that her grandmother would never give her up without a fight. She looked at Jade gravely. “There are a lot of scary things going on right now. Do I have your word that we’ll be safe?”


“Of course,” Jade replied, giving her a reassuring look. “We are the law. You have my word.”


“Is she in trouble, too?” Rose asked, nodding towards Octavia. “Can she run on to my grandparents’ house?”


“She needs to come with us for right now, but as soon as we’ve cataloged everything you’re both carrying, your grandparents are free to come pick her up,” the male officer replied.


“I don’t wanna go, mum! I’m scared,” Octavia wailed. She dropped her travel bag and clung to Rose’s waist.


“Sweetheart, it’s alright,” Rose said soothingly, smoothing her daughter’s hair. “We just have to go with the officers for now, but Nana and Grandpa will come and get you as soon as they can.”


Octavia looked very unhappy, but she nodded bravely in response. Rose handed her wand to the male officer and reached down to scoop up her daughter’s travel bag. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”


Jade and the other witch pocketed their wands while the wizard kept his trained on Rose. The witch Rose didn’t know took her by the arm while Jade knelt down in front of Octavia. “If you come with me, we have pumpkin juice in the cooler at the station!” Octavia continued to cling to Rose, avoiding eye contact. “I’ll tell you some funny stories about your uncle,” Jade persisted. “He once took polyjuice potion to change into your mum’s cousin Molly and danced on a desk while Professor Binns was lecturing to the blackboard about some goblin rebellion or other.”


In spite of herself, Octavia broke into a smile. “Really?”


“Well, his cousin Louis did pay him ten sickles to do it. And his cousin Roxie brewed the potion. But he certainly did the dancing.” Octavia let go of her mother’s waist and took hold of the arm that Jade offered to her. All five of them disappeared with a crack.


Moments later, the front door of the Burrow opened, spilling light into the front yard. Arthur and Molly Weasley slowly walked down the path leading to the front gate, with Molly’s hand resting on her husband’s arm. “Arthur, are you certain? I mean, with your hearing, it could have been anything.”


“There was some sort of commotion out here,” Arthur replied. “I’m sure of it.”


When they reached the edge of the wards, Arthur lit his wand and stepped gingerly past the boundaries. He looked carefully from side to side, scanning the area for anything unusual. The lane was deserted in both directions, and the only sound they could hear was the River Otter burbling in the distance. Suddenly, Molly gasped and made her way to a spot several feet away.


“What is it, love?” Arthur asked, following her.


Molly picked something up from the ground and turned to him with a look of horror in her eyes. In her hand, Octavia’s stuffed unicorn whinnied and snorted with displeasure.


“Oh, no,” he mumbled softly. Then they both turned and hurried back up the path as fast as their old legs could carry them.






Strafford Rowle pushed his shoulders up from the floor on arms crippled from writhing in agony. His face was screwed into a mask of unimaginable pain and anguish. Blood ran from the corners of his mouth and his empty eyes were no longer able to see the end as it approached. Standing over him, Jeremy Gamp trained his wand on the pitiful shell of a human being one final time. “Avada Kedavra!” Rowle’s suffering ended as his lifeless body collapsed with a dull thud.


Lady Tenaba stepped slowly past Gamp and stared at Rowle’s corpse for a moment. “Apology accepted, Mr. Rowle.” *


Standing in a loose semicircle in the center of the warehouse, even the most jaded and fanatical foot soldiers of the New Blood Order were on edge. Nott seemed to be having trouble breathing and Goyle looked as though he was about to vomit. While neither of them had been fond of Rowle, there was nothing to celebrate in his horrible death. Every time Gamp’s maniacal stare passed over them, they flinched involuntarily. Goyle recalled Draco Malfoy’s stories about his Aunt Bellatrix. Lady Tenabra might not have the raw magical power, but her ability to create monsters seemed to rival even that of Lord Voldemort.


“Do I have any volunteers to replace Mr. Rowle as head of Ministerial Security?” she asked rhetorically. Nobody in their right mind was going to step forward after watching Rowle die. She slowly turned, regarding each man in turn from beneath the dark cowl of her black hood. “Pathetic. Did your fathers and grandfathers cower in fear when the Dark Lord summoned them to his side? Is there a man among you who has the courage to face Potter and his family of mudbloods and blood traitors?”


She waited another long moment. For once, even Burloch didn’t have a snide comment to offer. “Mr. Rosier, you were Rowle’s second in command, were you not?”


“Y-yes, my lady,” Rosier mumbled. His hands were shaking as he struggled to meet her stare.


“The job is yours, until you die or I find somebody better. Your first and only priority is to locate Potter, the Weasleys and their families and bring them to me. Is that clear?”


“Yes. Very clear, my lady,” Rosier replied, forcing himself to stand straighter. “We’ll have them before the sun sets tomorrow.”


“See that you do.”


She turned and slowly walked the perimeter created by her followers, as if daring one of them to strike her down. “Many of you are doubtless questioning the brutality of my methods. I can’t say that I blame you. There was a time in my life when I would have done the same. But that was before I realized the urgency of our cause. Before I realized what was truly at stake.”


Tenabra paused in front of Clinton McNair. “We are fighting for the very survival of our world. If we fail, the blood traitors and muggle lovers will settle for nothing less than the complete annihilation of life as we know it. The prejudice faced by respectable pure blood families after the last war will seem like a polite round of applause compared to what awaits. Your children,” she gestured at the center of McNair’s chest with a single, slender finger, “will be taken from your homes and brainwashed to hate their own kind.” she took another step and gestured toward the wizard next to him. “What will you do when your son brings a muggle girl home for dinner? When your daughter gives birth to a filthy half-blood?” In spite of their fear, the men shared a general nod of consensus.


“I want each of you to know that I do not make exceptions. I hold myself to no less of a standard than what I demand from each of you.” She completed her walk around the circle and returned to her position next to Gamp. “Since we began our work, I have evaluated each of you based on one, simple criteria: results. Allow me to present the results of my efforts. Minister, will you join us?”


A lone figure stepped out from the shadowy corner of the warehouse and came to a stop behind Tenabra. Surprised whispers arose from the men when they realized that the Minister of Magic himself stood before them. The Minister’s face was expressionless, but his eyes were clear and focused. If he were not standing next to the shadowy head of a terrorist organization, he could have been posing for a photograph.


“How do you feel about muggle-born rights, Minister?” she asked with obvious distaste.


“Criminals who steal magic from others and dilute our noble bloodlines have no rights in our world,” the Minister replied. His words sounded earnest, if somewhat mechanical. “If they want rights, let them give up magic and go back to their own kind.”


“Minister, stand on one foot,” Tenabra ordered, and the Minister raised his left foot uneasily into the air and wobbled precariously on his right.


“Stun that man,” she continued, gesturing towards the wizard standing to McNair’s right. Before the man could even protest, the Minister drew his wand and knocked the hapless wizard off of his feet. McNair somehow forced himself not to look, but all of the color drained from his face.


This is what results look like, gentlemen. This is the kind of victory that marks the difference between success and failure for a cause as ambitious as ours.” She began to pace again, raising both her volume and tempo. “Who among you is proud to be a wizard?” she asked. The men looked confused. A couple of hands rose tentatively and a few ayes were heard around the circle. “You,” she demanded, pausing in front of Goyle. “Are you proud to be a wizard?”


“Yes, my lady,” he replied, mostly succeeding in keeping the panic out of his voice.


“Then act like it. Stop thinking small.” Tenabra resumed her pacing. “Oh, no, my house!” she cried mockingly, setting her sights on McNair. Still reeling from the assault on the man standing next to him, he simply averted his eyes towards the floor. She moved along to Pelfry. “My gold!” she taunted. “My freedom!” she directed the last insult towards Nott. “These are not the concerns of wizards who are prepared to change the world.”


She rounded the circle and turned towards Gamp. “Do you know why the Dark Lord failed, Mr. Gamp?” Gamp stared back at her dumbly. She paused for two beats, then continued. “The most powerful dark wizard in history, having already defeated Albus Dumbledore, leading an army of devout followers, was defeated by a mere boy. A boy whose magical ability was only slightly above average, and whose army consisted of blood traitors and children.” She came to a stop in front of Burloch. “Why?”


Burloch flinched involuntarily under the weight of her stare, but said nothing. “Because that boy pursued his cause as though he had nothing to lose,” she continued. “Harry Potter didn’t care about riches or power. He watched his friends die, he allowed Hogwarts to be reduced to rubble, and in the end he was even willing to sacrifice his own life. Because that’s what it took to succeed.”


“The Dark Lord,” she continued, making her way back around the circle, “was defeated because he was obsessed with his own mortality. Intent on living forever and gripped by a paralyzing fear of death.” She came to a stop next to Gamp. “He had something that he was not willing to lose. And in the end, in spite of all his power, it cost him everything.”


“So I ask each of you, what do you have that you are not willing to lose? What sacrifices are you not willing to make for our cause to prevail? Think about it carefully, because those things will be our undoing.” She allowed the silence to hang in the air for a long moment. “You know what needs to be done. Everyone who opposes us is now an enemy of the state,” she declared, gesturing towards the Minister. “Root them out. Capture them. And bring them to me.” She walked to the Minister’s side, laid her hand on his arm and they both disappeared with a crack.


Silence filled the warehouse for a long moment as the Blood Order members stared at one another, shell-shocked. Eventually, Burloch and his men disapparated away. Gamp announced to nobody in particular that he was going to get drunk and disappeared with a crack. Goyle, Nott and Rosier all made their excuses and departed. Soon, only McNair remained, standing quietly off to the side. After the last of his comrades disapparated, he took a careful look around and drew his wand.






Clinton McNair appeared on the metal roof of the New Blood Order’s warehouse with a pop and immediately disillusioned himself. By sheer trial and error, he had managed to find a corner that was not protected by anti-apparition jinxes. It struck him as odd, considering the powerful wards and spells that protected the rest of the building. Aside from this small patch of sheet metal, the only other unprotected area was the square space in the middle of the warehouse floor where Lady Tenabra’s minions arrived and departed.


McNair looked around carefully, studying the expanse in front of him. Three paces away, he could make out a thin sliver of light emanating from a gap in the metal roofing. As he allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness, he realized that the gap appeared to be part of a hatch of some sort. He slowly lowered himself into a sitting position and waited to see whether anyone would emerge. Reaching into his cloak, he pulled out a small flask. His face screwed up in anticipation before it even touched his lips. The polyjuice potion inside was foul, tasting of black tar and worms.


The hatch in front of him suddenly opened. He could just make out the shape of Lady Tenabra’s black, hooded cloak rising through the opening. Her grace and agility stood in stark contrast to the brutal methods she used to run the New Blood Order. She took a careful look around the rooftop before she climbed the rest of the way up. He wasn’t especially concerned about her seeing through his disillusionment charm in the hazy moonlight, but there was a possibility that she might accidentally step on him in the small gap in the anti-apparition jinxes. He carefully slid his wand out of his pocket.


It dawned on him that he could stun her with almost no risk of missing. It seemed so simple and so appealing. He could end the entire ordeal with a single flick of his wand. But doubts also filled his mind. What if Tenabra was only a figurehead? What if the real power behind the Blood Order lurked elsewhere in the shadows? What if the corruption of the Ministry extended even deeper than they realized? He held his wand tensely in in front of his chest and waited. This mission was going to be the death of him, he was sure of it.


For the past two weeks, Terry Boot had been living on the inside. It began hours before Harry and Ron had been driven into hiding. When the Aurors trapped Clinton McNair in his home, he had put up a fierce fight. McNair wound up severely injured and was taken immediately to St. Mungo’s where he slipped into a coma. It was a situation that many would have seen as yet another frustrating setback. Ron saw it as an opportunity. Taking everything that they were able to learn from McNair’s personal effects, Terry had assumed his identity and managed to infiltrate the New Blood Order. He knew from day one that he was on his own. Ron made it clear that until he was ready to break cover, nobody else was to know about his mission. And then Ron was gone, and he had nobody.


Tenabra stepped onto the roof and waited impatiently for the Minister to join her. Terry noted that his movements appeared mechanical as he climbed through the hatch, as though he wasn’t completely in command of his own limbs. It made some sense if she was using the Imperius Curse to control him. Some of the other details just didn’t fit, however, such as his wobbly attempt to stand on one foot. People placed under the Imperius Curse were capable of super-human feats of strength and agility. He also lacked the telltale blank facial expression and his speech was much too fluid. Even Susan, who was a master at using the forbidden curse as part of the Auror training program, couldn’t control her subjects to that extent.


As he watched the Minister struggle, Terry thought back to his early morning encounter with Susan and smiled. He had come to relish his infrequent contact with his fellow Aurors. Since going undercover, Terry had lost seven pounds and he found that he couldn’t rest without sleeping potions. Continuous use of polyjuice potion left him nauseous most of the time, and he could only tolerate bland foods without feeling sick. Every encounter with McNair’s fellow Blood Order members was quite literally a life-and-death struggle to remain in character. The stress of living among the violent pure blood fanatics threatened to drive him mad.


Tenabra closed the hatch and walked towards him, stopping mere inches from where he sat. Looking up, he could see into her nostrils, but her eyes remained maddeningly concealed. She started to turn. The hem of her cloak fluttered directly past his fingers. His wand was already drawn. All he would need to do was take hold and then stun her the instant they arrived. He made a snap decision. A fraction of a second later, Tenabra and the Minister were gone.


Terry sighed and rose to his feet. He might never know whether he had chosen correctly, but no matter what, he was going to make the most of it. He swept the cover of the hatch with revealing spells and was surprised to find that it was unprotected. Tenabra was either overconfident or she felt there was nothing of value in the warehouse. He carefully raised the hatch and lowered himself inside.


Lighting his wand, he found himself standing in a small room hidden in the rafters. It was sparsely furnished and mostly empty. An armchair sat next to a small end table on one side. Across the room was a squat, wooden cabinet. A pot-bellied iron stove sat along a third wall. The last embers of a fire were dying on the inside and a polished metal tea kettle sat on top.


Terry made another sweep of the room for booby traps and alarm spells, but it revealed nothing. Her self-confidence was impressive if not very practical. He turned his attention first to the cabinet. On the inside, he found a stack of old manilla file folders bulging with documents. He opened the first and realized that it was the case file on the murder of Edwin Stoops. The next folder contained police reports on the murder of Ginny Potter. Terry stopped reading and carefully placed the folders back into a stack. He realized that he was going to have to make a very big decision. Even though he hadn’t figured out who Tenabra was or how she was controlling the Minister, it might be worth risking his cover just to get these documents into Ron and Harry’s hands.


He turned and surveyed the rest of the room. Sitting on the table next to the chair was an old, leather-bound book. He recognized it immediately. Tenabra carried it with her whenever she preached the Dark Lord’s message to the men. He walked over and studied it in his wandlight. The ancient runes on the cover were instantly recognizable from the enchanted list that Hermione had figured out in Harry’s study. Journey into the Depths of a Dark and Angry Soul. He reached out and picked up the blackened leather tome.


The instant his fingers touched the cover, he knew that it was no ordinary spell book. It hummed with dark energy. Just holding it in his hands made him feel tense and unsettled. His difficult decision suddenly became a lot easier. He carried the book across the room to the cabinet and shrank the pile of files. He carefully wrapped them in his handkerchief and slipped them into the pocket of his cloak. As he made his way back to the roof, he took one last look around the room, but there was nothing else of interest.


Terry softly closed the hatch and arose to his full height in the pale moonlight. The weight of the world felt as though it was lifting from his shoulders. He raised his wand skyward and cast his silver lynx patronus. “Ron, you’re going to want to see what I’ve found. Meet me upstairs at the Three Broomsticks as soon as you can.” He watched the glowing cat disappear into the night sky and then he turned and disapparated with a pop.






Harry and Ron breathed a combined sigh of relief as their purloined ambulance pulled onto the dead end street in Little Hangleton where the Gaunt Shack was hidden. Ron killed the lights and rolled to a stop in front of the overgrown path that led to the crumbling house. Harry immediately jumped out and began casting protective spells around the vehicle. Within moments, it had disappeared from view. Powerful muggle-repelling charms made the spot it occupied appear to be undergoing street repair.


Ron opened the back doors and they levitated Susan’s trolley out of the vehicle and up the path to the old shack. “Is the portal safe for her to use?” Ron asked.


“Dunno,” Harry replied honestly. “Wait here. I’ll run up and widen one of the windows. We can bring her in that way.”


Harry stepped into the enchanted spot, reflecting on how the day had ended much better than they had any right to expect. The pleasant illusion was torn away the instant he appeared inside the attic.


“Harry, thank Merlin you’re back,” Hermione cried frantically, rolling towards him. “Where’s Ron?” Esme shot him a tense look, one that made it clear that something very bad had happened in his absence.


“He’s outside with Susan,” Harry replied. “What’s wrong?”


“I think Rosie’s in trouble,” Hermione fretted, wringing her hands together. “First I got a patronus from Hugo, saying that he was in France and Rosie was in danger. Then I got one from Rosie, saying that the Ministry had tried to arrest her and she was going to the Burrow.”


Harry felt a cold lump forming in the pit of his stomach as he hurried across the room to open the window. “Let’s get Susan inside,” he said, “then we’ll figure out what to do.” Something had obviously gone wrong with their plan. Harry remembered the overwhelmed look in his nephew’s eyes on the shores of the lake and silently cursed himself for placing such a heavy responsibility on Hugo’s shoulders.


Hermione gasped when she saw Susan float through the magically enlarged window wrapped in white linens and lying on a trolley. “Is she alright?”


“Never better,” Susan whispered weakly. “It’s like a day at the spa. The pain potions aren’t bad, either.” She coughed softly and her face suddenly screwed up with discomfort. “Um, Harry, about those potions...”


“Right, right,” Harry answered, running his hand through his unkempt hair. His to-do list was getting rather long. He pulled the elf healer’s potion list from inside his cloak. “Hermione, can you take a look through this and figure out what we need?”


Hermione seized the list and began to scan through it. “Harry, there are a lot of potions on here,” she sighed. “She’s probably due for several of them already. Didn’t the healer give you anything before you left St. Mungo’s?”


“Err, no,” Harry replied. “We weren’t really in the main part of the hospital. Ministerial Security was guarding all of the entrances, so I had Hermys take us to the elf ward in the attic.”


For a long moment, Hermione seemed to be trying to decide what to say. Harry watched her face, assuming that disapproval, gratitude to the elves and perhaps even grudging respect for his ingenuity were all competing to be the reaction that came out on top. She finally settled on, “Oh. Well in that case, we’re going to need to visit an apothecary right away.”


“We have to get rid of the muggle ambulance we ‘borrowed’, so we’ll do that while we’re out,” Harry added, bracing himself for a stronger reaction.


“You what?” Hermione asked incredulously. “No, wait, I really don’t care to know.”


Harry turned to Esme as Hermione began to scribble notes next to the elf healer’s instructions. “I’m sorry this has turned into such a colossal mess,” he said quietly. “You have your orders from Dauzat and we’re not really doing much to help you investigate what’s going on inside the Ministry.”


“‘arry,” she replied, holding up her palm with a sympathetic smile, “you must take care of your family first. We will get to your Ministry as soon as you are able. I was planning to go out tonight to look for Katerina. ‘ermione and I ‘ave been studying the charm on Elena’s locket, and I believe that I can use the connection between the lockets to find ‘er.”


Harry raised an eyebrow. “You still think that you’re going to find her alive?”


Esme shrugged her shoulders. “I ‘ope so. We shall see.”


At that moment, Ron appeared in the corner of the room. “Harry,” he said urgently, “I just got a message from Terry. He’s broken cover. Said that he’s found something important. He wants to meet upstairs at the Three Broomsticks right away.”


Harry mentally added one more thing to his checklist. Before he could even respond, another silvery orb passed through the roof of the shack and morphed into a weasel in front of them. “Ron, we think something’s happened to Rose and Octavia,” it said in Arthur’s voice. “We found Artemis on the ground outside the wards.”


As the patronus faded away, Hermione let out an anguished cry. Ron stumbled to his knees next to her chair, pulling her towards him. Her face was twisted into a mask of impotent despair.


“We’ll find them,” Ron whispered urgently. “It’s going to be alright.”


NOTHING IS ALRIGHT!” Hermione shrieked, pushing him away. “Our daughter is missing and we’re stuck in this god-damned attic and the whole world has gone to hell!” The rage in her eyes shocked everyone into silence. Ron looked as though he’d been struck on the head.


“Now you listen to me, both of you,” she shouted, fixing Ron and Harry with a look. “We’ve tried this your way, sneaking around like common criminals. Enough is enough.” A tense silence filled the room. It was broken a moment later by soft clapping. Susan had managed to free her arms from the safety straps on the trolley and she slowly and gently applauded Hermione’s outburst.


Harry struggled to remain calm, although he had a hard time deciding whether the anger rising in his chest was directed at Hermione or at himself. “It’s not that simple, Hermione. If we go tearing out of here half-cocked, with no idea who the real enemy is or how to stop them then people are going to get killed.”


“People are dying already, Harry!” Hermione shot back, her voice dripping with bitter irony. “And my granddaughter is not going to be one of them. If you don’t have the...” the next word caught in her throat, but she forced herself to spit it out, “the courage to face up to what’s happening, then I’m going to roll right out of here and get her back, myself.”


Harry felt stunned, like somebody had slapped him. Her stinging words had knocked the anger right out of him. For that one agonizing moment she had allowed her disappointment to show, and he found that it hurt worse than any curse he’d ever been hit with. His mind was suddenly overcome by the memory of Ginny confronting him a week or so after the end of the war. He had been wallowing in grief and remorse, walling himself off from everyone. In a fit of anger, she had slapped him several times before storming off. Aside from rattling his teeth, it had finally snapped him out of his self-pity and made him realize how much he was hurting the people around him. It was the moment that his healing from the war had begun in earnest.


“Alright,” he said quietly, staring out the window. “What do we do first?”


“You,” Hermione began, staring at her husband, “go to the Burrow. I don’t care who’s watching. Deal with them. Find out what happened to my babies!” Ron nodded gravely.


“You,” Hermione turned to Harry. “Get rid of that bloody ambulance, and then go find out what Terry’s has to say. And while you’re out,” she handed him the elf healer’s list with her own notes written beneath it, “pick up everything on this list.”


“Hermione, there aren’t any apothecaries open at this hour,” Harry replied. A small part of him felt pleased to be able to point out the minor flaw in her plan, but he was mostly apprehensive about sparking another outburst.


“Break a window and leave a stack of galleons on the counter,” Hermione countered without skipping a beat. “Do I have to think of everything?”


Finally, she turned to Esme. “I can’t tell you what to do, but if it’s not too much trouble, could you accompany Harry and make sure that he isn’t overcome by any crippling bouts of nobility?”


Esme couldn’t hide the smirk that spread across her lips. “It would be my pleasure to keep the noble ‘arry away from the straight and narrow path.”


“Then it’s settled,” Hermione said with finality.


Ron placed a timid kiss on his wife’s cheek before exiting the attic while Harry waited for Esme to gather her traveling cloak. Harry watched him go, then walked over to where Hermione was checking the dressings on Susan’s wounded side. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I feel like I’ve let you down.”


She surprised him with a sad and apologetic look. “Harry, you haven’t let anybody down. I know you’re trying to do what you think is best. And I’m sorry, too. I push you too hard sometimes. It’s just that you... well, since we were eleven years old, I’ve always believed that there was nothing that you couldn’t do as long as Ron and I were there to help you. To be honest, it scares me to think that there’s anything so terrible that you can’t make it right.”


Harry wasn’t quite sure how to react, so he dropped to one knee and pulled her into a warm hug. “We’ll find them, Hermione. I promise,” he whispered into her bushy hair.


“I know you will, Harry,” she replied.


He rose to his feet and found Esme politely waiting for him near the portal. “We’ll be back as soon as we can,” he said. Nodding towards Susan, he added, “Don’t let this one go anywhere. She’s nothing but trouble.”


He missed the rude gesture Susan leveled at him as he and Esme disappeared in a puff of smoke.






* Paraphrasing Darth Vader’s epic line from the Empire Strikes Back.





 
Another chapter down. As always, huge credit goes to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. This chapter marks a number of milestones for Conspiracy of Blood. The story now weighs in at over 150,000 words, and has racked up over 9,000 chapter-reads. But to me, the most meaningful one of all is that readers have taken the time to leave over 300 reviews. I really appreciate all of the thoughts, reactions and opinions. If you haven't reviewed, please consider taking a moment to leave some feedback below. And thanks for reading!


Chapter 27: Calculated Risks
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As always, the characters, places and events that you recognize from the books belong to the amazing JK Rowling.





 
Ron apparated alongside the lane running past the front of the Burrow with a pop. He stared at the ground and began to count slowly backwards as he drew his wand and raised it above his head. Four, three, two, one... Three members of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol appeared with a pop, surrounding him. Their wands were all pointed directly at his head.


“Mr. Weasley, we have a warrant for your arrest. Drop your wand and place your hands above your head.”


Without hesitation, Ron spun into a crouch and whipped his arm downward. The spell he cast formed a ring on the cold ground, surrounding him. Before the patrol officers could fix their aim on him, a shock wave exploded outward, bucking the ground like a heavy stone dropped into a still pond. The officers shouted and cursed as they were knocked off of their feet.


Ron picked the ranking officer out based on the silver badge on his lapel. Expelliarmus. The wizard’s wand flew into Ron’s left hand. He spun around, crossing his arms in front of him as he turned. Stupefy. The stunners struck the other two simultaneously as they were struggling to right themselves and they both crumpled quietly back to the ground. The hem of Ron’s cloak whipped through the air around him as he completed his turn. He brought his wand to bear on the patrol supervisor. Incarcerous. Ropes sprang from the end of Ron’s wand like angry serpents, quickly binding the hapless wizard from head to toe. The fight was over in seconds.


He looked up the path that led to the Burrow and felt a sense of longing. Between work and Hermione’s injury, he had barely seen his parents in the weeks before he was forced into hiding. His heart wanted nothing more than to jog up the path and give his mother a hug. To make sure that his parents knew that the three of them were safe. But his mind knew otherwise. Every moment that he loitered decreased his chances of finding Rose and Octavia and increased the risk to the rest of the family.


The front door suddenly opened and his father stepped outside. Ron was sure that his parents had been in their sitting room, worrying and sipping tea. Again, he felt the urge to run up the path and be pulled into his mother’s crushing embrace. But he fought it back and simply waved towards his father. Arthur craned his neck in Ron’s direction and then slowly returned the gesture. Even through the wards and the distance, Ron thought that he could see a hint of a smile. He stooped down and took hold of the ropes binding the patrol supervisor and they both disappeared with a crack.






With the benefit of some time to take it all in, the evening’s events were gradually becoming clearer in Ron’s head. The initial shock of finding out that his daughter and granddaughter were in danger had passed, allowing him to think. He had never possessed Hermione’s ability to rapidly analyze the details of a situation or Harry’s ability to make snap decisions based on instinct, but he liked to believe that given enough time to ponder things, he could come up with alternatives that they had overlooked. At the moment, his thoughts mostly revolved around how to turn back the tide that seemed to be rising against them.


Harry did have a point. They weren’t going to win this fight by ignoring the Ministry and its laws as they did during the war. Although most of the wizarding world found the Minister’s new policies distasteful, they looked at them as merely a passing political fancy, likely to change as soon as a new Minister was elected. The Ministry’s pronouncements still carried weight, even if the institution itself was tarnished. Ron reasoned that as long as they were technically enemies of the state, the worst thing they could do was act like enemies of the state.


But Hermione was spot on that they could no longer battle the Blood Order from the shadows. It made them appear weak and allowed their adversaries to set the rules of engagement. Lady Tenabra had completely redefined the game by bringing their families into the mix, putting them instantly on the defensive. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rose and Octavia. Were they safe? Warm? Frightened out of their wits? Had somebody tucked Octavia in and read her a story before bed? The ease with which the Blood Order had turned their family into pawns illustrated the flaw in Harry’s strategy.


Now they needed a new strategy, and Ron had already worked it out in broad terms. It was time to go public with their opposition to the Minister’s carefully cultivated message of peace through appeasement and security through paranoia. Before they could begin, however, they needed to remove any leverage that the Blood Order might be able to use against them and that meant finding Rose and Octavia. It was fortunate that the need to save his daughter and granddaughter fit well with his broader strategy, because the truth of the matter was that Ron was going to get them back, no matter the cost. And he was going to see to it that Lady Tenabra paid a dear price for threatening the ones he loved.


Ron watched the man lying in front of him twitch nervously. A cold wind was blowing through his hair, and his cheeks had started to turn red from the chill. Every so often, the man would quietly say, “Hello?” or “Anybody there?” Ron stayed silent, watching him twist and strain against his bindings, waiting for the moment when he seemed most vulnerable. Finally, Ron spoke.


“Where have they taken Rose Malfoy and her daughter?”


The man jerked his head from side to side, realizing that the voice of his captor was coming from behind him. He looked panicked and began to rock back and forth, trying in vain to loosen the ropes that bound him.


“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Ron said calmly. He gestured with his wand, removing the man’s blindfold. The patrol supervisor yelped in terror when he realized that he lay mere inches from a precipice. The lights of London spread out before them, looking like tiny specks in the darkness from their vantage point hundreds of yards above the ground.


“Where have they taken Rose Malfoy and her daughter?”


“I.. I can’t tell you that,” the man stuttered, transfixed by the dizzying spectacle in front of him. “That’s classified information.”


Levicorpus.” The patrol officer’s body floated into the air and over the edge of the rooftop. He took a look towards the ground and promptly vomited from the combination of vertigo and terror. Ron gave him a few moments to try to compose himself. “I’m going to ask you one more time. Where have they taken them?”


“I can’t... tell you!” the man shouted between dry heaves. “Ministerial Security... wants them. Do you have any idea what’ll happen to me if I tell you?”


Liberacorpus.


Ron listened impassively as the man’s scream became quieter and lower pitched. Hermione had once told him why that happened while they were listening to the Hogwarts Express as it roared into King’s Cross. Dobble-something? He tried to recall as he turned and disapparated with a crack. An instant later, he appeared on the pavement of Canary Wharf, which was long since deserted on the cold Friday night. The screaming sounded higher pitched, and it was growing louder by the second. He decided that he really needed to learn more about muggle physics. It might prove useful.


Arresto momentum.” The patrol supervisor’s rapid descent came to a halt mere inches above the concrete. Ron listened to the man gasp for breath as he struggled not to hyperventilate, then he reached out and grasped the ropes and they both disappeared again, only to reappear at the top of One Canada Square an instant later.


Levicorpus.” The patrol supervisor once again floated over the edge of the skyscraper. “Do you want to see how close to the pavement we can get? Where are they?” Ron demanded.


“Please...” the man pleaded. “They’ll kill me!”


“Will they, now?” Ron replied coldly. “Liberacorpus.


The patrol supervisor hurtled towards the ground again. Ron listened to his rapidly fading screams until they were barely audible. He turned and disapparated, reappearing at the base of the building and catching the officer just as his nose pressed against the concrete.


WHERE?


“They took them to the field office in Exeter!” the man shouted, twisting and contorting wildly against his bonds. “That’s where they are, I swear. Please don’t kill me! They’re in Exeter!”


Ron seized the ropes that bound the patrol supervisor and disapparated. When they reappeared, Ron was standing along a darkened side of a country lane in Devon. He vanished the other man’s bindings with a wave of his wand and allowed his body to drop to the ground.


The man scrambled to a sitting position, holding his empty palms towards Ron and looking terrified. “I have no quarrel with you,” he pleaded. “Please...”


“Put your hands down, I’m not gonna kill you,” Ron replied in exasperation. “You are on the wrong side, though. Remember that part. Obliviate.”


Moments later, Ron disappeared with a crack, leaving the confused wizard standing beside the road, wondering what had happened to his patrol.






Rose did her best to look completely nonplused as she shifted her weight in the uncomfortable, old wooden chair. As annoying as her interrogation was, she found that she was almost equally annoyed with her brother. Being arrested was frightening, humiliating and more than a little inconvenient, but her situation hardly seemed like “terrible danger.” If she had simply answered the door when Ministerial Security showed up at her flat, there was at least a chance that they would have let her call Dom to take Octavia. Instead, she had been caught trying to make her way to the Burrow, which apparently made her look enough like a criminal that the officer charged with questioning her felt the need to play “bad cop.” Rose didn’t really mind that part. The game was entertaining, at least.


“So you expect me to believe that your mother and father just disappeared from the face of the earth without giving their own children so much as a hint of where they were going or what they were planning to do?” the grumpy officer demanded.


“Well I’m sure they’re still on the face of the earth somewhere,” Rose answered airily, studying her fingernails. She did her best impression of the earnest face that Lorcan and Lysander’s mother always made just before she said something utterly preposterous. “Have you checked the whole thing?” The interrogator fixed her with an exasperated glare. “Oh, wait,” Rose added, unable to resist pushing her luck further, “maybe they used that muggle quantum tele-thingy that Xerxes the Seer was talking about. Maybe they’re on the moon!”


“Mrs. Malfoy, I’m getting really tired of asking,” he declared, leaning partway across the creaky, coffee-stained table, “so this will be the last time. Where are your parents and your uncle hiding?”


Rose did her best to stare right through him, as though she was studying her own reflection in the two-way mirror that dominated the opposite wall. “Just keep staring at my tits,” she replied blithely. “The answer must be on them somewhere.”


So far, the experience of being arrested had been a lot less awful than Rose had feared. Granted, the investigator from the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol had been grilling her for what felt like hours, although there was no way to gauge the passage of time in the cramped, windowless room. But the questions were mundane and the threats he leveled against her were too vague to inspire much fear. Over and over again, he demanded information about her family. Since she really didn’t know anything beyond what was already widely known, she wasn’t overly concerned with his questions. She reasoned that sooner or later, they would get tired of her relentless snark and let her go.


The officer rose from his chair and stormed towards the door. “Go ahead, Mrs. Malfoy. Keep treating this like it’s all a big joke. We’ll see how funny you find it when they show up with the Veritaserum.”



“Veritaserum is illegal, shithead!” she shouted at the door as it slammed shut behind him.


Rose was almost certain about Veritaserum. She seemed to recall her father grumbling to her mother about not being able to use it on several occasions. It really wouldn’t matter, anyway. All they would find out was the truth. Her parents and her uncle had disappeared without sharing so much as in inkling of their destination with her. Although she understood exactly why, it still hurt a little. It made her feel like they didn’t trust her to keep her mouth shut. Don’t be stupid, Rose. They did it for your own good.


There was a soft knock at the door, and a moment later Jade Corner slipped into the room. “Hi, Rose,” she said quietly, sitting down. “I hope Jameson wasn’t too hard on you. It’s just that we’re getting a lot of heat from London and we’re trying really hard to show them that you’re cooperating with us.”


Rose stared at the younger woman with a mix of amusement and disbelief. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Jade, but you really need to work on this good cop/bad cop routine.”


Jade let an embarrassed grin cross her face. “It couldn’t hurt to try, I suppose. Would you like some tea? Maybe a snack?”


“What I really want,” Rose replied, stretching and trying to suppress a yawn, “is to know where my daughter is. It’s way past her bedtime. Did they let my grandparents come and pick her up yet?”


“Not yet,” Jade answered with a sympathetic frown. “We’re waiting to get permission from London. Octavia is asleep on a couch in the briefing room. I was telling her about the time that your cousin Lily turned all of the laundry in the school red and gold on the night before the Gryffindor-Slytherin Quidditch match and she fell asleep listening.”


Rose grinned conspiratorially at the memory. Lily was the one who had gotten caught for that prank, but she was far from the only one involved. The house elves had been apoplectic. The momentary reverie quickly passed and her mood darkened again.


“Jade,” she asked quietly. “Is my brother in some sort of trouble?” She paused for a moment and stared at the floor. “I just want to know that he’s alright.”


“I don’t know,” Jade replied honestly. “We don’t hear much out here in the field. Especially since the Minister started making all of these changes. Most of the time, we find out what’s going on inside the Ministry the same way you do, in the Prophet.”


Rose fretted to herself. Hugo’s message didn’t say where he was or whether he was safe. For all she knew, he was also in custody. Or worse.


Suddenly the two witches heard a loud bang coming from outside the interrogation room. Jade looked alarmed, and drew her wand as she stood and moved toward the door. “Stay here.”


“Jade, what’s going on?” Rose asked as a sick feeling settled into her empty stomach. “Octavia is out there!”


“I don’t know,” Jade whispered. Two more loud bangs sounded from outside. Jade opened the door just a crack and peered out. She barely had time to let out a yelp before the entire side of the door exploded in her face. Jade’s limp, bloody body crashed into the table, driving it into Rose’s midsection and knocking the breath out of her. Jade’s wand went spinning past Rose and she made a weak grab at it before it fell off of the edge of the table and onto the floor.


Rose looked up just in time to see a heavy-set wizard in a black, hooded cloak and a skull-shaped mask stomp into the room. She raised her arms to protect herself, but a spell caught her squarely in the chest and the world went black.






It occurred to Hermione that perhaps frustration, isolation and cabin fever were getting to her. The instant that Harry reappeared in the corner of the attic, her wand reflexively snapped into her hand and she leveled it at him over top of Susan’s sleeping body.


“Hey, hey,” Harry said nervously, raising his empty palm towards her. “Fidelius charm, remember? Nothing to worry about.”


Hermione lowered her wand with a sigh as Harry stepped further into the room. He was carrying a large, leather satchel that tinkled with the muffled sound of dozens of glass vials clinking against one another every time he moved. A second later, Esme reappeared and joined Harry. “You would ‘ave been proud of ‘im,” she declared. “The closest ‘e came to acting noble was when ‘e tried to repair the window before we left the apothecary.”


“I could have covered up the wand traces, you know,” Harry replied, causing Esme to roll her eyes.


Hermione’s wand arm involuntarily jerked again as a third person suddenly appeared. She stared hard at the vaguely familiar-looking man in the corner. “Terry, is that you?”


“Yeah,” he answered with a sigh. “I’ve been using polyjuice non-stop for a couple of weeks. I hope I didn’t do anything permanent.”


Hermione took the leather satchel from Harry and began to sort through its contents. She recognized several potions that Susan would need as soon as she woke up. “Who have you been?” she asked absently.


“Clinton McNair.”


Hermione screwed up her face. “My condolences. So Ron and Harry tell me that you found something important?”


“Several things, actually,” Terry replied. He slipped a rucksack off of his shoulder and shed McNair’s cloak, then conjured a chair for himself near Susan’s trolley. “First, I have some bad news. The Blood Order has control of the Minister. Tenabra was parading him around their meeting place tonight. It almost seemed like he was imperiused, but something was off. He was too lucid and he couldn’t stand on one foot very well when she ordered him to.”


Harry and Hermione frowned, but Esme’s face lit up in response to Terry’s revelation. “Do you ‘ave a memory of these events that I may borrow? The French Aurors will be in your debt.”


“As far as I’m concerned, you can take every memory I have from the past two weeks,” Terry responded grimly. “I’d sleep better.”


Esme quickly conjured a glass vial and took a step towards Terry, but Harry caught her by the elbow. “Before we go looting Terry’s head, is there anything else in there that we should know?”


“Let’s see,” Terry replied. “Tenabra killed Rowle for letting Susan, Al and Hugo get away. Or rather she had her pet lunatic Gamp do it. He’s her main enforcer and he’s completely lost the plot. Feates Rosier is the new head of Ministerial Security, at least until he messes up and she decides to kill him, too. And their headquarters is in an abandoned muggle warehouse in a bad part of London. She has a secret room in the rafters that her minions don’t know about. That’s where I found these.”


Terry reached into the rucksack and pulled out something wrapped in a handkerchief. He sat the bundle on Hermione’s lap and waved his wand over it, unable to conceal a grin. The contents suddenly erupted into a pile of musty file folders, eliciting a startled yelp from Hermione.


Terry almost doubled over with laughter. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he gasped, struggling for breath as she glared at him. “It’s just that you’re the first person I’ve been able to laugh at in two weeks without getting killed.”


“Don’t assume too much,” Hermione replied crossly. Her frown quickly melted away as she opened the top folder and immediately recognized the contents. “Terry, are these...”


“Yeah, they look like the originals. They were in a cabinet in her secret room.”


“These can probably fill in a lot of gaps for us,” Hermione said to Harry, rolling across the room to set the pile on the small desk near the stove.


Esme was once again setting her sights on Terry’s temple with her wand drawn. “There’s one more thing before this lovely lady starts to drain my brain,” Terry said, tilting his head slightly away from her. He reached into the depths of the rucksack and Hermione noticed him flinch slightly. He pulled out a blackened leather tome and handed it to her. As soon as it touched her fingers, she could feel the darkness lurking within.


Hermione mentally translated the runes on the cover and her heart caught in her throat. “This is the book,” she said softly.


Terry nodded slowly, giving her a weak smile. “I don’t know whether Ron will agree, but to me, that was worth blowing my cover for.”


“This is the one that was missing from the Minister’s library?” Harry asked. Terry and Hermione both nodded. “Alright, then,” Harry replied, swallowing noticeably.


Hermione could instantly tell that something was bothering him. She and Ron had known for a long time that Harry could sense things that most witches and wizards weren’t able to feel, like the boundaries of wards. She studied the lines of his face, searching for hints, but Esme interrupted her contemplation with an impatient huff. “Now, Mr. Boot, without further ado,” she said, grabbing Terry by his collar.


Hermione ran her fingers over the runes burned into the book’s cover while Esme expertly extracted Terry’s memories of the Blood Order gathering. It felt perverse to be so hopeful about something that seemed to exude evil. She was certain that the book contained unimaginable horrors, yet it might also hold the secret to restoring her body. With great effort, she forced herself to set it on the desk and go back to sorting Susan’s potions.


Esme drained a silvery memory from the tip of her wand into the vial and corked it. “When Dauzat sees this,” she pronounced confidently, “we will have the French Aurors solidly on our side.”


Esme’s use of the words “we” and “our” did not escape Hermione’s notice. Based on the subtle change in his body language, she guessed that Harry hadn’t missed it, either. Hermione had become fond of the fiery French Auror, and she felt sure that Esme wanted to see the Blood Order stopped before more people got hurt, but Esme’s attitude towards Harry had changed since they came back from France. The little flashes of annoyance in her eyes were far less common, and a couple of times Hermione had caught her staring at Harry in a way that suggested more than just a collegial interest.


A silvery streak passed through the window and reformed into Ron’s terrier patronus at Harry’s feet. “Harry, come to the Exeter MLE field office right away. Rose and Octavia were here, but they’re gone now. Something really bad has happened.”


Hermione felt her breath catch in her throat. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes and she tried to fight them back with a quick, deep breath. She realized that Harry was staring at her. “Just go,” she said, clenching her jaw. “All of you,” she added, answering Esme’s question before she could ask it. “Go help Ron. I’ll be fine here with Susan.”


Harry dropped a kiss on top of Hermione’s head and then he, Esme and Terry all hustled to the portal, disappearing one by one. Hermione roughly pulled a vial of thick, green liquid from Harry’s satchel and rolled to the side of Susan’s trolley, willing herself to focus on the task at hand. She lifted the edge of the linens covering Susan and carefully eased the dressing away from the wound. Conjuring a clean cloth, she began to gently dab the green potion all around Susan’s curse-blackened skin. The delicacy and precision required to apply it correctly helped to calm her swirling thoughts and emotions. When she was done, she applied a new dressing and vanished the old one before gently covering Susan and tucking the linens in.


Hermione rolled back across the room to the desk and picked up the top folder. It contained the Auror crime scene report from the jail cell where Edwin Stoops died, and she quickly found a couple of documents that were missing from the copy she’d been working on. As hard as she tried to continue parsing through the file, her heart just wasn’t in it. She couldn’t shake the image of Rosie and Octavia huddling in terror, wondering why she hadn’t come to save them. Her injured body had become her personal prison, trapping her with a certainty that walls and bars could never achieve.


Next to the pile of folders, Journey into the Depths of a Dark and Angry Soul seemed to call out, tantalizing her with the secrets it might contain. She sighed and stuffed the Auror field reports back into their folder. Taking the ancient book onto her lap, she had the strangest sensation, as though she could sense its power even through the unfeeling nerves of her paralyzed legs. She rolled across the room and settled in beside the trolley, where she could quickly administer more potions as soon as Susan woke. Then Hermione opened the blackened leather cover and began to translate the ancient runes in her head.






As the sun rose over the village of Seine on Saturday morning, Hugo sat on the white marble steps leading down from the patio of the Delacours’ summer home and picked at a loose thread on the knee of his pajama bottoms. Fiona and Amelie were still sleeping. His baby daughter had been restless for most of the night after their frantic escape from Britain, and he expected that neither of them would wake for a long time. Staring down the hill towards the river, he wanted nothing more than to climb into bed beside them and hide from the world, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Not until he knew that Rose and Octavia were safe.


He started as somebody reached over his shoulder with a steaming cup of coffee. He turned around to find Al holding it. “Morning,” Hugo said glumly, taking the cup from his cousin.


Al let out a long yawn. “I couldn’t sleep, either. Still too wound up from yesterday.”


“Yeah, well at least everyone you were responsible for made it here safely,” Hugo replied bitterly. He took a long sip of his coffee and resumed his brooding.


Al let the silence linger for a minute or so before responding. “It doesn’t sound like there was anything you could have done. They had you trapped with anti-apparition jinxes and they broke down your door. What else were you supposed to do?”


“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Hugo snorted, not turning around to face his cousin.


“Merlin, Hugo, stop beating yourself up. If you hadn’t nicked that portkey, they would have got us before we even made it out of the Ministry and nobody would have escaped.”


Hugo turned and gave his cousin a surly glare. “Sod off, Al. Unless I’m mistaken, Lily is safe somewhere with Uncle George.”


Al couldn’t keep the hostility out of his voice. “You think I’m any less worried because it’s Rose and not Lily? News flash, you git, Rose and I grew up together, we went through school together and she’s married to my best mate. So don’t sit there and act like you have some monopoly on worrying about her.”


“She’s not your sister.”


“Well she might as well be!”


Al and Hugo continued to stare murderously at one another until Al finally turned and stormed back into the house. It was just as well, from Hugo’s point of view. Al’s presence was the ultimate reminder of how badly he had cocked things up back home. The events of the previous evening played over and over in his head. If only he’d been able to make Fiona understand how much danger they were really in. If only he’d been able to get her to move faster. If only they’d had another way to get out of the house. The what-if’s were endless.


Hugo’s silent torment was interrupted by a loud pop as Scorpius apparated in the yard next to the patio. “Hugo! What’s going on? Where’s Rose?”


“We don’t know,” Hugo growled from the steps, refusing to look up from his coffee.


“What the hell do you mean you don’t know?” Scorpius snapped, staring at his brother-in-law in disbelief.


“I mean We. Don’t. Know,” Hugo retorted angrily. “She didn’t make it out of Britain with the rest of us. I sent mum a patronus and I haven’t heard anything back. I’m sure everyone is going barmy looking for her.” And we’ll be the last ones to hear about it when they find her, he thought bitterly.


They both heard the soft creak of the patio door as Al came back outside. Before Al could say a word, Scorpius had bounded up the patio steps past Hugo. “Al, I’m freaking out here. What the hell is going on?”


“The Minister issued warrants for our arrest. He apparently thought it would be a good way to get to our parents. Hugo, Fiona, Teddy, Victoire, Jenny and I all made it here, but Rose is still in Britain somewhere.” Al paused for a moment, letting the explanation sink in. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in the States?”


“I got a message from Rose’s mum a few hours ago,” Scorpius replied, looking somewhere between confused and distraught. “It was around ten o’clock at night in Phoenix. James talked to the owner of the San Antonio Firebrands and he called in a favor at the American Ministry and got me a portkey to Paris.” Scorpius’s expression had changed to one of irritation. “But why did she tell me to come me here if Rose is still in Britain?”


“Probably because they don’t want to have to worry about anyone else being in danger,” Al answered, trying to put the best spin on the situation.


“Translation: they don’t trust you, either,” Hugo added with a mirthless chuckle.


Scorpius looked back towards Al. His voice became very soft. “Octavia?”


Al closed the short distance between himself and Scorpius, holding out another cup of coffee. He shook his head gravely.


Scorpius accepted the cup, but stared at the contents as though he didn’t recognize them. The surface of the coffee rippled and splashed as his hands shook. “I have to find them,” he mumbled. He gave Al a desperate look. “We have to get back to Britain, right now.”


“We can’t!” Hugo bit out, looking up through eyes filled with bitter rage. “We’re wanted by the bloody Ministry. They’re guarding all the international arrival points. They’re not allowing international portkeys without...”


“I don’t care, Hugo!” Scorpius shot back, cutting him off. “I’ll bloody swim if I have to, but I’m not just going to sit here on my arse while my wife and daughter are Merlin knows where.”


Scorpius turned and faced away from the patio. He ran his hand through his platinum hair, a mannerism that he had picked up from Al somewhere along the way. All three men jumped as another loud pop echoed off of the windows lining the back of the stately house. Fleur Weasley stood in the grass near where Scorpius had appeared. Her long, silvery hair tumbled down over her shoulders as she placed her hands on her knees and took several deep breaths. She seemed to be struggling a bit to find her bearings.


“Aunt Fleur, are you alright?” Al called from the patio.


She gradually righted herself and gave the three of them her signature, glowing smile. “Yes, my dear. Thank you for asking.” She started to walk towards them.


“Where did you come from?” Scorpius asked, not able to muster any pleasantries. “Did they chase you out of Britain, too?”


“Oh, no,” Fleur replied, coming to a stop next to Scorpius and reaching out to straighten the collar of his shirt. “At least not yet. I ‘eard from Molly that your parents had sent you ‘ere, so I thought I would check and make sure that you ‘ave found everything that you need.”


Hugo studied her hands, forgetting his surly mood for a moment. “How did you get a portkey with the Ministry all bollocksed up?”


“I do not ‘ave a portkey,” she replied casually.


“You apparated from England?” Al asked, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice?


“Yes,” Fleur replied, smoothing several errant strands of her silvery-white hair.


“How?” Hugo blurted out. “I read that even Voldemort didn’t apparate from Britain to the continent.”


Fleur gave them a knowing smile and summoned a chair from the garden shed to the patio. “During the war, your Uncle Bill was sent on many missions for the Order. Sometimes, ‘e would be gone for days at a time. Although I love Molly and Arthur, their company can be a bit much at times, especially when Molly is worried for ‘er children. A girl can only eat so much,” she chuckled softly, running her hand over her stomach.


“So one day, I decided that I ‘ad to get away for a while. I stood in the orchard, thought very ‘ard about Cherbourg, and soon I was back on my native soil,” she explained matter-of-factly. “As I am sure you remember from your lessons, the first ‘D’ stands for determination. And I was determined not to gain another ounce from your grandmother’s cooking.”


Al grinned at his aunt’s story, but Scorpius and Hugo continued to look exceedingly grim. “I take it all is not well with the two of you?” Fleur asked bluntly.


Hugo didn’t look up. “Aunt Fleur, before you left, did you hear anything about Rose?”


Fleur looked at him sympathetically. “Molly told me that she and Octavia are missing. I am sure that your father and uncle are searching day and night, but Bill and I ‘ave not spoken to either of them. I am sorry.”


Scorpius gradually raised his chin until he was staring directly into her eyes. Hugo had never seen the particular look on his face before. Scratch that, there was one time. The time when Scorpius showed up at their house and dueled with their father in the front yard while shouting a heartfelt marriage proposal to Rose. Somehow, the skinny, spoiled rich kid who had barely eked out an Acceptable in Defense managed to hold his own with a fully trained Auror until Rose had come running out of the house and flung herself into his arms. For his part, their father had tried to figure out a way to keep dueling. Fortunately, Hugo’s mum had put him in a bodybind curse until he came to his senses.


“Teach me how to apparate to England,” Scorpius said quietly. “Please.”


Fleur shrugged her shoulders slightly and smiled. “You ‘ave already passed your test. There is nothing I need to teach you. It is simply a matter of whether you are determined.”


Scorpius nodded gravely, but Al looked unconvinced. “Wait a minute, guys. Let’s think about this for a minute. Even if we could do this without splinching ourselves, Dad and the others sent us here for a reason. If we go back and get caught, they’ll be furious.” He paused, and his eyes grew slightly larger as another thought dawned on him. “Nanna will go spare...”


Fleur gave them an amused look. “Did I ever tell any of you about the ‘appiest day of my marriage to your Uncle Bill?” Al and Hugo shook their heads while Scorpius continued to stare at her.


“Obviously there was the day we were married, and the births of our children,” she answered as her face practically glowed. “But the day that really made me the ‘appiest in the long run was the day that I learned to listen to your grandmother, nod my ‘ead and smile sweetly, and then do what I damn well pleased.”


Fleur took a moment to let her point sink in, then she looked at the dainty watch draped on her slender wrist. “Well, I am due for breakfast with my sister in Marseille. I apologize for interrupting your conversation.” She turned and strolled back out into the grass. “Oh,” she added, looking back over her shoulder, “there is dittany in the medicine cabinet. Take it with you, just in case.” Then she turned and disapparated.


“Well that was suggestive,” Al mumbled, looking back and forth between Hugo and Scorpius.


Scorpius rolled his shoulders. For the first time since he arrived in France, Hugo could see just a bit of his usual cockiness sneak back into his eyes. “Let’s do this.”


“Where do you think we should go?” Al asked. “I’m sure all of our houses are being watched, and we have no idea where Dad and Uncle Ron are hiding.”


“I know where to go,” Scorpius replied. “Mum and Dad’s house. It’s the last place in Britain they’d ever think to look for Potters or Weasleys.”


Al nodded approvingly. To his surprise, Hugo discovered that he was standing and his legs were carrying him towards the patio door.


“Where are you going, Hugo?” Al asked pointedly.


Hugo sighed. “To tell Fiona where we’re going. And to get the dittany, of course.”

 




 
As always, a heart-felt thank you to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. Please do yourself a favor and read her amazing story, Evolution (M). You'll thank me.

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Chapter 28: Embracing the Darkness
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As always, anything that you recognize from the books belongs the the inestimable JK Rowling.




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