Chapter 19 : Out of Sight
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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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