Two tall young men—the long-limbed redhead slightly lankier than the other—and a young woman with curly brown hair sat in the very back corner of the Hog’s Head pub. A sign hung in the pub’s dingy window: Closed. Despite the Disillusioning spells and various complicated wards that Kingsley had placed around the building before they arrived, Aberforth Dumbledore had insisted on locking up the entire building while they consulted with each other. The last thing the Order needed, he said, was for Harry Potter to be discovered.
“I don’t think I’m quite cottoning on, mate,” Ron told Harry, his normally pale face as white as a sheet. “You want to go into Malfoy Manor—inside the house—and attack You-Know-Who in his own lair?”
“Yes,” Harry replied patiently. “We’ve taken care of all the Horcruxes, haven’t we? Now he’s only living through his physical body. There’s nothing more to do but blow that to pieces, and then—”
“Well, you say that like it’s so easy!” Ron exclaimed. He tapped the sheaf of paper that Harry had brought with him. “But there’s so much here that can go wrong. It’s all nice and safe on paper, but how are we actually going to do it?”
Harry ran a hand over the top of his head agitatedly, trying to smooth down the wild strands of hair. “I don’t know, mate. I was hoping you all could help me. Hermione?”
He turned to the girl on his right, who was silently studying his map of the Manor. “How do you know this blueprint is accurate?” she asked.
Harry grinned. “I got it out of a book you gave me for Christmas a few years back.” The corner of Hermione’s mouth curled up into a wry smile, so Harry took it as a good sign and pushed further on. “Besides, not much of the plan actually involves the layout of the manor. We just need to know where the entrances are, and where Voldemort holds his meetings, so we can navigate easily and set up safe rendezvous spots.”
“That’s true,” Hermione conceded, “and the plan itself really isn’t half bad.” When Ron began to protest, she put a hand on his arm to quiet him. A noticeable flush spread across his cheeks, but he clamped his mouth shut.
“We’ll just have to choose our decoys very wisely,” Hermione continued. “Remember, he’s one of the greatest Legilimens in history, and if he suspects anything, or feels even the slightest trickle of treachery from one of their minds, they’re all finished. And one thing we’ll have to find out from Snape—actually, one of many things, but this is something you haven’t considered in your notes—is whether or not the Death Eaters have some sort of magical bond to him. If they do, no amount of preparation or stealth will be able to fool it. So the question is, is a loyalty oath enough for him? Or has he installed something more in them? And if so, where is the connection and how can we disable it? Could the Dark Mark perhaps serve as a summoning device and an identification tag?”
Hermione pulled a quill out of her purse and began to jot down notes onto a clean piece of parchment, talking continuously all the while. Harry snuck a stealthy glance at Ron and found that the redhead’s eyes were glazing over. A small, perplexed frown graced the bridge of his nose between his eyebrows. Still, Hermione rattled on.
“…So, we’d have to find a way to circumvent that, if true. Oh! I’ve just remembered something else. The perimeter of Malfoy Manor, aside from the main doors, of course, must be guarded with wards and protection spells. Even if side doors and windows could be opened from the inside to admit our people into the house, the wards would detect their presences while they waited outside—maybe even stop them from getting that far. And of course, using main entrances would be foolish…unless they seem like they are supposed to enter there. If you can get one bloke in as an Inside Man, why not bring in a few more while we’re at it? We’ll have to ask Snape where he usually orders his potions ingredients from. Does the Order have contacts there? And meanwhile, we’ll need a distraction. Not on the main road—that’s where we can ambush the Death Eaters as they come, right? That way, they’ll already be fully robed and masked, and we’ll know who is expected and who is not…”
Ron rubbed vigorously at his temples with a look of sufferance until his elbow nearly upset his glass of firewhiskey. Harry’s hand shot out almost immediately to catch it and keep it from spilling out over the plans, and Hermione finally looked up to see what the commotion was about.
“Mione,” Ron began weakly, “we have to remember not to get too ahead of ourselves, here. We should talk to Remus before we begin to plan, and Kingsley—”
“Of course we’ll show this to everyone, Ron!” Hermione sighed, sounding impatient. “I’m simply trying to clog up all the holes in this plan first, so we don’t waste any of the Order’s time with half-baked strategies that they’ll only have to fix up entirely differently later.”
“Oi,” Harry protested, “I spent days on this!”
Hermione rolled her eyes at the bespectacled man. “I know you did, dear,” she said with a patronizing air, “but you came to share your ideas with us because sometimes an outside perspective can spot errors in something that the creator of it cannot. Don’t you want this to be as close to perfect as possible before we try it out?”
“‘Try it out,’ she says,” Ron grumbled, sounding strained. “I dunno about you two, but I still don’t like the idea of having to ask help from that greasy-haired git of a Potions master. How can we even trust that he’s telling us the right information? Isn’t there some other way we can do this?”
“Nope,” Harry said firmly. “Snape’s the best chance we’ve got, greasy git or not. Dumbledore meant for us to use him.”
Ron frowned at him in concern. “I honestly hope you’re not losing it, mate. I’d hardly blame you for going mad after being trapped in a teeny house with the Minister for so many days, but you’ve got to stop this. First this wonky plan, then all of a sudden putting trust in Snape. What’s next, striking up a friendship with Malfoy?”
“Stop it, Ron! I do think Harry’s plan could work,” Hermione admonished. “And anyways, the rest of the Order is too busy trying to control the damage that the Death Eaters are doing. Like I said, they don’t have much time to be figuring this out. Let’s just do what we can to it today—work out the details—and then if Remus or somebody still sees something wrong with it, they can fix it.” She fixed the two boys across from her with a steely glare. “Okay?”
“Yes, Mum,” Harry murmured, smirking.
“I’ll eat my peas and carrots, Mum, I will. And scrub behind my ears.” Ron took a drink from his firewhiskey.
Hermione rolled her eyes and began to shuffle through the sheaf of notes before her. “It’s nice to see the two of you enjoying each other’s company,” she said dryly. “After a fortnight without you both poking fun at me at all hours of the day, I hardly know what to do with myself. I’ve almost come to miss it. Now, shall we start at the top?”
Ron nodded and said, “Well, I don’t like the idea of hiding behind hedgerows. It’s painful, inefficient, and not stealthy at all. What if you snag something on a bramble?”
“Really, Ron?” Hermione huffed, shaking her head. “Our first rendezvous spot will be nowhere near the Malfoy Manor! With the wards around the grounds, the nearest Apparation zone should be at least a kilometer away from the house. There will most likely be a path that leads up to the building, and where there’s a path, there are bound to be hedgerows. In the dark, they’ll be impossible to see through, like giant rocks—the perfect hiding spot. Now, about the credentials of the Inside Men…”
Harry groaned inwardly and beckoned to Aberforth to bring over the whole bottle of firewhiskey. He knew that Hermione’s logical, methodical mind was the best for this job, and that she only had the Order’s best interests at heart, but it was still going to be a long, long afternoon.
“I assume we all know why we’re here today,” Lyle Peterson declared.
Standing on a table in the front of the room, he looked around the crowded room, which was gradually filling in with yawning, cross-looking managers. Nearly all of them each held tightly onto a steaming cup of coffee, taking sips in between complaining loudly about how early it was. Peterson swallowed uneasily. This was not the best way to begin.
“I apologize for the timing, but the Board is out of the building today and we must take advantage of the opportunity to exercise our right to assemble without interference from the Minister.” He smiled wryly. “Unfortunately, the Board usually denies us that fundamental right.”
Blocked by the crowd of wizards and witches packed into the room, Peterson did not see a thoroughly-disguised stranger enter the room covertly to stand at the back wall. If he had, he would’ve noticed that the portly, middle-aged man did not work at the Ministry of Magic. Kingsley did not have enough time to gather hair samples from one of his coworkers, so he had to settle for using a Muggle man’s likeness. He took a swig of Polyjuice Potion from his bottle, and everyone around him assumed it was only coffee.
“Yes, we are here, finally in an open forum for discussion. For too long, I have heard murmurs of discontent among you all, yet nothing is done to address them because of your fear and the Board’s corruption!” Peterson continued. The complaining had begun to subside, and many of the coffee-drinkers listened to him with rapt interest.
“Now that we can speak freely and fear no persecution, it is time to hold the Board and the Minister accountable for their wrongs. First and foremost, I was against the partial repealing of the Statute of Secrecy from the beginning—especially the arbitrary new order that was created without consulting any of you. This is a prime example of the over-extension of power that the Board has exercised for years under the negligence of Cornelius Fudge. Rufus Scrimgeour has only allowed it to worsen, and has in fact allied himself with this corruption to further his own means! If we do not take action now, soon the Ministry’s long history of unwavering civil service and apt leadership will be forever compromised.”
Kingsley could barely conceal his distaste as Peterson rambled on. Did the young lawyer really think his demagoguery could fool anyone into revolting against the Ministry? He was only blowing himself full of hot air with flowery words like “arbitrary” and “persecution.”
Everyone in the room knew that the Board of Advisors included those people who paid for everything. Without them, the Ministry would crumble.
“However, as Executive Counselor, my first instinct towards justice was suppressed by the will of the Board and the Minister,” Peterson pressed on. “Though the Renegade Minister has not shown his face here at the Ministry for some weeks, he continues to exert his influence through select members of the Board who are loyal to his crooked ways. In order to stop this, we must identify those members and sever their connections to the Ministry immediately.”
Kingsley couldn’t suppress a snort at that, and had to quickly bury his face in his bottle of Polyjuice Potion to quiet himself. Strangely enough, though, the people standing around him seemed to be warming to the idea.
“How would we find out who it is?” someone near the front asked.
Peterson smiled mysteriously. “Rest assured that a plan is in action. The less who know about it, the less of a burden the task places on you all.”
Kingsley realized that the plan that Peterson was referring to would more likely than not involve Veritaserum. Though not strictly legal, the use of the truth potion had become an increasingly popular tactic in the Ministry since torture had been outlawed in the 19th century. With it came the realization that Kingsley—high-ranking and ambiguous as his job description was—would himself be ranked extremely high on Peterson’s list of suspects. If he was questioned with the truth potion, the Minister’s secret location would be revealed. Kingsley had to move the Minister, now.
“Now, I ask you to put aside your problems with the current administration for the moment and reflect on the responsibilities that the Ministry of Magic has upheld for centuries since its birth.”
Peterson gave up his angry tone in favor of a more soothing one, and the mood of the crowd began to shift accordingly. Kingsley tried to keep his gag reflex in check and his breakfast bagel in his stomach. Peterson had them all—mostly intelligent men and women—eating out of the palm of his hand.
“Although we cannot continue to hold our current Minister to these standards,” he continued, “there is hope yet for the Ministry of Magic. Look around, and you will see dozens of people who work faithfully towards these goals every day. Managers, counselors, and Heads alike perform the gritty labor needed to keep the Wizarding world afloat. Am I right?”
Calls of assent drifted about here and there through the room, but most of the people were engaging their neighbors in hushed, contemplative talk. Kingsley spotted Linda, who standing across the room between Charlie from Legal Counsel and Willy Something-or-Other, neither man looking very happy at the other’s presence. He almost caught her eye before he realized that she would not recognize his appearance.
“Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, it is only fitting that a Department Head—a leader of the workers—assume the role of the next Minister of Magic, should Rufus Scrimgeour be deemed unfit for the position.”
A man standing a few meters over to Kingsley’s right scoffed outright at this remark. Kingsley found himself feeling relieved that not everyone was buying into the young attorney’s load of hippogriff dung.
“I suppose you’ll want us to nominate you for the job, then, is that right?” he asked Peterson.
The lawyer smiled back, taking no notice of his animosity. “My only goal today is for each and every one of you to leave this discussion forum with a new way of considering things, and hopefully a thirst for change. Frankly speaking, I do not hope to ever be nominated for Minister of Magic. I believe my abilities are best used to serve the Wizarding world through the Ministry’s Legal Counsel.”
“Who does he think he is, Mother Theresa?” a young Muggleborn witch standing right in front of Kingsley grumbled. A few purebloods around her looked confused at her comment, but Kingsley was familiar with the expression and found himself grinning. That was exactly how he felt.
“Well, then, who would you promote as the new Minister, Lyle?” Linda called out, a sly quirk at the corner of her lips. “Who do you think can bring the Ministry back onto the correct path?”
Peterson lowered his voice as if he and the crowd were all in on a massive conspiratorial secret—and in a way, they were. “That is not important at the moment. Right now we are only beginning to consider the options.” He smiled winningly at everyone again, as if showing white teeth would somehow distract the crowd from his somewhat short stature and his poisonous words, Kingsley thought with disgust. “You are all entitled to your own opinions, of course. That is what makes this open discussion different from a usual day here.”
Kingsley had heard enough. The meeting was likely ending soon, anyway. The managers were milling about again now, eager to get some more coffee or to exit the crowded room. He pushed his way out to the door, pocketing his bottle of Polyjuice Potion in his robes. Kingsley had to get to the Minister before Peterson could get to Kingsley.
Harry did his best to appear bored day after day as he sat in a corner of the Minister’s study and flipped through the dusty old books that Hermione had given him for his “course of study”. Instead, his mind was racing again and again over their plans for invasion, rehashing the changes that Hermione had made and looking for more loopholes that she and Ron might have missed.
Every once in a while he caught himself wondering whether Remus, Tonks, Kingsley, and the others had approved it yet. Sometimes, the plan seemed absolutely foolproof, bastioned from every angle with safety measures and backup plans. Other times, Harry hoped against hope that the Order would outright refuse to consider it—so much was riding on their one chance and what if Voldemort could just see right through them? It had happened before.
Luckily, the Minister paid his anxiety and preoccupation no attention. Scrimgeour continued to sit at his desk from dawn until dusk, wracking his own brains for a solution to his many problems. Harry knew he couldn’t depend on any help from him for the invasion on Malfoy Manor.
Then, one morning, he heard the door to the safe house slam open. Curious, Harry got up and stuck his head through the doorway. He gasped and shoved his hand into his pocket, scrabbling for his wand.
“What? What is it?” Scrimgeour was on his feet immediately, a crazed look in his eyes. He drew his wand with a steady hand and hurried over to Harry.
A heavyset stranger was huffing and puffing his way down the hallway towards the Minister’s study. He seemed to have let himself into the safe house—that was the source of the noise Harry had heard—and although he moved with noticeable difficulty, he carried no cane or walking aide. He seemed harmless, unable to breathe never mind duel, but nevertheless, Scrimgeour stepped in front of Harry and faced the fat stranger with his wand held in ready position.
“Hey, put that wand down, Minister!” the stranger protested loudly, clutching his side.
“I will not! You are an intruder in my house,” the Minister called. “How did you find this place?”
Harry had to admire that Scrimgeour neither broke eye contact with the other man, nor showed any sign of a tremor in his wand arm. His voice was firm and commanding, and Harry admitted reluctantly to himself that Scrimgeour could appear relatively intimidating when he chose to be so. For the first time, Harry could see how he might’ve gotten to become the Minister of Magic.
“Minister, it’s me,” the stranger panted, drawing closer without hesitance despite the wand pointed at his chest. “It’s Kingsley. I’m—I’m just fat.”
“Bollocks!” Scrimgeour exclaimed, frowning. He wondered how this man could’ve known who Kingsley was—he didn’t work at the Ministry, as far as Scrimgeour remembered. “I’ve never met you in my life.”
The stranger was now almost upon them, still gasping for breath. “Polyjuice Potion, Minister,” he said. “I—I had to take Polyjuice Potion and I used the hairs from a Muggle because there was no time…”
“If you’re Kingsley, cast your Patronus,” Scrimgeour ordered. He watched carefully as the stranger leaned against the wall of the hallway for support, reached into his robes, and drew out his wand.
Harry noted that Scrimgeour kept his own wand poised to shield himself in case of a sudden attack. He imitated his position and stood solidly behind the Minister.
“Expecto Patronum!” the stranger shouted, and a silver blur bounded from the end of his wand towards the doorway. An iridescent lynx padded to a stop at Scrimgeour’s feet and said, in Kingsley’s normal slow, calm voice, “Your caution may one day save you, Minister. But it really is me, and we must move you immediately.”
Scrimgeour lowered his wand and squinted at the stranger/Kingsley, and sure enough, patches of his true complexion were beginning to return. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me why you were using Polyjuice Potion.”
The stranger/Kingsley breathed deeply before explaining, “The Board of Advisors was out at a fundraiser today, so Lyle Peterson took the opportunity to host a rabble-rousing meeting to try and convince the managers to overthrow you. I got tipped beforehand, so I made an excuse not to go to the fundraiser and Polyjuiced myself to sit in on the meeting incognito and see how bad things are.”
Scrimgeour raised his eyebrows at the stranger/Kingsley, who was now patched motley with different colors. His hair was receding back into Kingsley’s true baldness, and his too-large robes were beginning to sag. Quickly Kingsley waved his wand and shrunk the robes back to their original size before they could fall off of him completely. He reached into the pockets of his robes and pulled out his favorite hat, which he then placed on his now-normal head.
“Oh,” Scrimgeour sighed. “It is you.” He backed out of the doorway and gestured for Kingsley to enter. “Sit down, Kingsley. I’m sorry about all that, but you have to understand that I cannot take any chances.”
“Understood, Minister.” Kingsley strode into the room, conjured a sack, and threw it to Harry. “Shrink and pack everything,” he said. “Quickly, now.”
“It’s that bad, is it?” the Minister asked quietly.
Kingsley grimaced, bustling around the room and helping Harry to shrink furniture as he spoke. “It’s pretty bad. Peterson says he isn’t plugging himself for the next Minister, but he could easily go back on that claim. Whether he does or not, he must be working for somebody, and that’s not good news. He’s already conducting Veritaserum questionings. He knows that someone is keeping you connected to the Ministry and is continuing to dole out your orders. He wants to find out who it is so he can”—Kingsley drew his finger across his throat—“eradicate them. And you, along with them.”
“He can’t know it’s you,” the Minister argued.
“I cannot refuse to submit to questioning—that will make me look even more suspicious. No, your best chance and mine lies with him.” Kingsley motioned towards Harry.
Scrimgeour blanched. “Him?”
Kingsley nodded, a twinkle of amusement glittering in his otherwise stolid eyes. “Yes. I am going to hand him a slip of paper—that is your new secure address. Once he has read and memorized it, he’ll burn the paper and modify my memory. Carefully, mind you, boy,” he warned Harry.
Harry nodded quickly. Kingsley knew that Hermione had insisted on teaching him and Ron the Oblivate spell before they had set out to find the Horcruxes the previous year. Still, the fact that Kingsley trusted Harry with his mind was gratifying.
“Knowledge of your new location is the most important to erase,” Kingsley continued, “but also take out the memories of this address as cleanly as you can. I hope to retain Peterson’s trust for as long as possible, and I don’t want to be identified as the rat, even if they don’t find you.” Kingsley gave Harry a meaningful look. “And Harry, I don’t want him to know that you’re back.”
“Why do we have to move if he’s going to modify your memory anyway?” Scrimgeour complained. “It’s unnecessary.”
“Your new safe house is not part of the Ministry network.” Kingsley shot Harry another glance that told him exactly whose network this new location was on. “The Ministry can no longer be trusted. If they get on my trail, they’ll be investigating my every move on the Apparation record. You have to get out of here, now.”
Kingsley aimed his wand at the ceiling and muttered a spell. There was a burst of fire, and then a small piece of parchment fluttered to the ground at Harry’s feet. As Harry bent to pick it up, Kingsley did a quick sweep around the office. It was barren—there was absolutely nothing left in the room but Scrimgeour’s desk and briefcase.
Before the Minister could ask any more bothersome questions, Kingsley continued, “Harry will Side-Along Apparate you there as soon as I activate the Portkey that will get me back to the Ministry after he Oblivates me. Please go pack the rest of your things. Do not leave a single scrap here.”
“But—” Scrimgeour began to protest once more.
“There is no other choice,” Kingsley insisted. “Godspeed, Minister.”
“Merlin help us,” Scrimgeour muttered before hurrying to arrange his papers and books into his briefcase.
A/N: This was written quickly, so all comments are welcome and appreciated!
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Two Shots In the Dark: Rendezvous