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Chapter 18 : The Fall
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“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.
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.
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