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Chapter 20 : Deceptive Appearances
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Harry came to a stop in front of Dumbledore’s portrait and glared at the serene-looking old headmaster. At the moment, he couldn’t imagine how anyone could feel so calm. Being dead was probably a big help, he reckoned. He had been pacing for most of the past hour, feeling completely useless. After only half a day holed up inside the Gaunt Shack, he was already going stir-crazy. Unable to stomach his mentor’s peaceful countenance any longer, he spun on his heel and continued to pace.
Across the room, Ron and Hermione were planning their incursion into the Ministry. They had already considered and dismissed several plans, and the tension between them appeared to be rising. In spite of his own boredom and frustration, Harry knew better than to try to insert himself into their deliberations. His friends might disagree, argue or even get into a full-on row, but eventually they would settle their differences and be better off for it. It was a dynamic they had been perfecting for nearly half a century.
Harry turned back to the stone pensieve where Esme continued to work on disentangling Percy’s memory. She had been inside for over an hour, and Harry could only imagine the intricate magic she was performing. He had asked to join her, but she blew him off with a snort. “I cannot ‘ave any distractions while I do this.” He wondered exactly what sort distraction he presented to the feisty French Auror.
In slightly more than twenty-four hours, the two of them had taken a roller coaster ride of old memories. Harry knew that he was physically attracted to the petite blonde, perhaps more so than he wanted to admit, but it bothered him just how much she reminded him of Ginny. Her sharp wit and fiery temper were complemented by a fierce determination to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost. With the benefit of hindsight, it was fairly obvious why they had been so drawn to each other during the miserable weeks they spent in the Pyrenees.
Ginny. The mere thought of her made his insides clench. He realized that it had been nearly three weeks since the last time he visited her grave. And now there was no telling how long it would be before he was able to return. If Ministerial Security knew the slightest thing about him, it was already surrounded with Caterwauling Charms and anti-apparition jinxes. Unless they could find a way to clear their names and break the Blood Order’s grip on the Ministry, it dawned on him that he might never see her again.
His spiral into overwhelming depression was interrupted when Esme suddenly emerged from the pensieve. She seemed quite pleased with herself, and quickly jotted a few additional notes on a roll of parchment which had grown quite long.
“Well?” Harry asked. Ron and Hermione also interrupted their argument over sneaking into the Ministry through the Magical Maintenance entrance to hear what Esme had to say.
“I ‘ave managed to separate the key part of the two memories,” she explained. “It is tedious work, and it will eventually destroy the memory, like tugging at a loose thread. We will not be able to view it many times.”
“Good thing we made a copy,” Harry said, nodding towards a second vial of silvery liquid sitting next to the pensieve.
“Yes, but the copy will never be the quality of the original,” she replied. “I would not even attempt this procedure on a copy.”
“Let’s have a look, then, right?” Ron said, standing up.
“I would recommend that only ‘arry and myself enter the pensive,” Esme cautioned. “I ‘ave already pulled on the loose threads. The more feet that tread on the rug, the faster it will unravel completely.”
Harry thought about Esme’s suggestion for a moment. “Take Hermione, instead. She’s the most observant. If we’re going to learn anything else, she’s our best bet.”
Hermione nodded at Harry and rolled across the room. Esme looked at her and asked, “Are you able to stand inside of the pensieve?”
“Yes,” Hermione replied.
Esme regarded her thoughtfully. “I see. It is good that you ‘ave not given up ‘ope. So long as you ‘ave it, there is always a chance you will walk again, yes?”
Before Hermione could respond, Esme turned and leaned into the pensieve. Hermione gave Ron and Harry a meek look, and then Ron picked her up and eased her into the swirling, silvery surface of the memory. Moments later, Hermione landed next to Esme inside the muggle jail.
“This way,” the French Auror directed, waving her wand to set the events in motion.
Once again, they followed Percy as he walked through the cell block. “This is all your brother-in-law’s original memory,” Esme explained. Percy came to a halt in front of Edwin Stoops’s cell and his face once again displayed the varying emotions that gripped him. He spoke the single word that Hermione recalled from the original memory, “Why?”. Esme paused the memory just as Stoops looked up. “This is where ‘is memory comes to an end. Now we see part of the memory that was superimposed onto it.”
Esme waved her wand and the figure of Percy suddenly dissolved into a hooded, female figure who was several inches shorter. Hermione turned slowly, and gasped when she discovered Percy’s unconscious body lying on the floor next to the wall. “‘e appears to ‘ave been stunned,” Esme said.
Hermione nodded in agreement. Percy’s robes were crumpled, but there were no other signs of trauma. She knelt down and took a close look. “His wand is still in his pocket,” she observed. “He never saw it coming.”
Hermione rose and moved to stand in front of the mysterious blond witch. She leaned over and tried to see beneath the cowl of the robe’s hood. “Why can’t I see her face?”
“This is ‘er memory we are seeing,” Esme replied. “She would not ‘ave seen ‘er own face except in the reflection you found in the faucet.” She looked pointedly at Hermione. “It was you who found that, no? With all due respect to ‘arry, that level of attention to detail is well beyond ‘im.”
Hermione supposed that there was no point in denying it. “Yes, that was me.”
“You are a very perceptive witch, Mrs. Weasley,” the French Auror said approvingly. “‘arry is fortunate to ‘ave a friend like you.”
“To be honest, I’ve always felt like the fortunate one,” Hermione replied. She absentmindedly touched her wedding ring with her thumb. “If it wasn’t for him, a lot of the most important things in my life never would have happened.”
Esme stared at her for a moment, then waved her wand and the memory began to move forward again. Stoops stood up from the cot in his cell and began to laugh, but unlike Percy’s recollection, he was looking downward, towards Percy’s prone form.
“Bloody nob. You zap him with a stun gun or something?” Stoops looked back toward the blond woman and laughed some more. “I reckoned you’d come back for me. I remember it all, you know? Whatever drug it was you slipped me, I still remember it. And I remember you. Now get me out of here, before I decide to tell the cops about you.”
The remainder of the memory was horrifyingly familiar. The blond witch raised her wand and fired the killing curse into the middle of Edwin Stoops’s chest with devastating force. The memory shifted subtly again, and it was Percy who stood in front of the ruined cell. “From this point, the memories are still merged,” Esme said, “but I think we’ve seen the most important part.”
Hermione nodded in agreement. “This is all brilliant work, Esme.” The French Auror smiled and bowed her head slightly. “Listen,” Hermione went on, “I wanted to apologise to you. Whatever difficulties you and Harry have had in the past, I shouldn’t have allowed them to sway my opinion of you. It was unfair of me. I just hope that you understand that Ron, Harry and I have always been very protective of each other, even more so since Harry’s wife died.”
Esme nodded appreciatively. “I understand your misgivings. ‘arry must have loved ‘is wife very much. If you don’t mind my asking, do you think ‘e will ever recover from ‘er death?”
Hermione paused for a long time before responding. “Harry is still hurting very badly,” she began. “Ginny was his whole world, and he hasn’t begun to fill the void she left behind. He has good days, but at other times he’s just going through the motions. He has a lot of healing to do.”
Esme listened intently to Hermione’s answer, then stared away thoughtfully. “Once upon a time, I cared about ‘arry very much. Seeing ‘im again... it ‘as stirred up a lot of old feelings. I am upset, of course, that he chose to be with another. But I am also reminded of why I found ‘im so captivating. It is all very confusing. ‘aving your ‘eart broken by ‘arry Potter once in a lifetime is quite enough.”
Hermione looked at Esme sympathetically. “It’s hard for me to give you advice, because I also have a lot of healing to do. Harry is like my brother, but Ginny was my best friend. It’s hard... very hard for me to imagine him with anyone besides her. But maybe that’s part of the problem. His problem and mine.”
Esme nodded slowly, then she raised her wand to exit the memory. “Esme,” Hermione said, catching her attention. “I hope that helped instead of confusing you more.”
“It did, actually,” the French Auror replied. “It is clear that I need a lot of questions answered before I let myself ‘ave feelings for ‘im again.”
Ron was waiting to catch Hermione when she emerged from the pensieve, and he wrapped his arms tightly around her. “Miss me?” he asked, nuzzling her ear softly.
“Will you two get a room?” Harry said. His general frustration with the pace of their day was doubtless spilling over onto them, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care. He would apologize when the crisis was past.
Hermione ignored Harry’s outburst and began to explain what Esme had found. “The blond witch must have been waiting on Percy when he arrived at the jail. She stunned him, then killed Stoops. He never even drew his wand.”
“So she knew Percy was coming...” Ron mumbled. Harry could almost see the gears turning inside his head. “Percy said that the Minister woke him up and he went straight to the jail. There can’t have been very many people who knew.”
“Once again, the trail leads back to the Minister’s office,” Harry replied pointedly. “This is becoming a pattern.”
“Why would the Minister want Percy to think that he’d killed a muggle?” Hermione asked, thinking out loud.
“Political blackmail?” Ron suggested. “People are always asking me why Percy doesn’t stand for Minister. It’s a bit unnerving, to be honest. It was bad enough being his brother when he was just a Prefect at school.”
“Maybe it’s not the Minister,” Harry offered. “We still have no idea who this blond witch is, or whether she’s the same person as this Lady Tenabra from the New Blood Order. Philbrick said that Tenabra had blond hair and hid her face under a dark hood. Maybe she has a spy in the Minister’s office?”
“So what do we do now?” Esme asked, siphoning the separated memory gently out of the pensieve and placing it in a glass vial. Harry noticed that the liquid appeared clouded and unstable, like salad dressing beginning to separate.
“I think it’s more important than ever for you two to get inside the Ministry and find out whatever we can,” Harry replied, gesturing towards Ron and Hermione. “Meanwhile, the two of us,” he nodded towards Esme, “need to hunt down the witch you mentioned, the one who’s an expert on modifying memories. She’s the best lead we have right now to work our way back to the blond witch from the jail.”
“I have an idea of how to get in,” Ron said, “but she thinks I’m crazy.”
“You are crazy,” Hermione insisted. “Where do we even find what we’d need to pull that off?”
“Harry,” Ron asked, ignoring his wife, “who exactly do you have in this polyjuice cabinet?”
Lady Tenabra waited silently in the dimly-lit doorway behind Gladrags Wizardwear. The intelligence she received from inside Hogwarts had suddenly become a lot less informative, so she had summoned her operative to express her displeasure. As always, he came sneaking around the corner under a poorly cast disillusionment charm. The air shimmered noticeably as he moved and the dry leaves crunched and scattered around his clumsy feet. His mediocre attempt at concealment made it abundantly clear why he was no longer an Auror.
“Professor Tennant,” she barked, startling the man, “I assure you that we are alone.”
The disillusionment charm faded and Rory Tennant approached her cautiously. Like most people, he subconsciously leaned forward just a bit, trying to make out her face beneath the cowl of her hood. It did no good, of course. The spells that she cast over her face made it impossible to see. But she still found it amusing to watch people lower themselves before her, trying to glean a hint of her true identity.
“What do ye need?” Tennant asked nervously, stealing glances from side to side.
“Something has happened to the monitoring spells,” she replied. “The Ministry is no longer able to see into some areas of Hogwarts. You need to fix that.”
“Probably the bloody castle,” Tennant grumbled. “The magical protections are so fluid. No spell lasts for very long in there.”
“So why have you not been reinforcing them?” she asked coldly, letting her disappointment show.
“Listen, lass,” Tennant snapped back, “It isnae so easy as ye make it sound. The castle... it fights back. The spells have to be cast from precisely the right place, and that place changes as the magic ebbs and flows. If the Minister is so bloody interested in what’s goin’ on inside the school, I dinnae know why he disnae just ask.”
Tenabra fought back her frustration. For the past two years, she had carefully cultivated a relationship with the disgruntled former Auror, leading him to believe that she was a covert operative inside Ministerial Security. Apparently his poor understanding of the term “covert” extended well beyond his inability to conceal himself effectively.
“Professor Tennant,” she hissed, “if the Minister of Magic could simply waltz through the doors of Hogwarts Castle and demand to know whether the faculty and students are plotting against him then we would have no need for you. Now do you intend to hold up your end of our bargain or not?”
“Ah, yes, our bargain,” Tennant retorted. “I understand that the Minister has finally got around tae sackin’ Potter as Head Auror. I’m still waitin’ fer my owl.”
“The job will be yours, as we agreed,” she answered impatiently, “but only when your work at Hogwarts is complete.”
“And when would that be, exactly?” Tennant asked with a strong note of sarcasm. “Fer two years now, yev been watchin’ the teachers and students, ta little avail, I daresay. I’ll make this simple fer ye. Ye got one month ta get me outta this bloody nuthouse and make me Head Auror, or I’m goin’ to the Headmaster and blowin’ the whistle on yer whole scheme. Are we clear?”
Tenabra studied him for a long moment. “Fix the monitoring spells,” she finally replied. “I will make the Minister aware of your demands. You will have your answer within the week.”
“Bloody right,” Tennant said, then he turned and stalked away.
She watched him go, mentally adjusting her timeline to accommodate his outburst. Rory Tennant didn’t know it, but he had just set an upper limit on his own life expectancy. Once he was gone, she turned and disapparated.
Hermione twitched uncomfortably as Ron rolled her chair towards the security checkpoint leading into the Ministry atrium. Being a paraplegic was hard enough; being an infirm nonagenarian was nearly unbearable.
“Stop fidgeting,” Ron whispered from behind her. “You’re a wealthy, old pure blood matriarch. Act like it.”
“Yeah, well you’re a spoiled rotten, misogynistic blight on the arse of society. So I guess you’re doing just fine,” she retorted, sitting up straighter and stiffening her upper lip. Insulting her husband was a small and petty thing to do, but it did help her feel more in character. The high neck gown she was wearing chafed at her chin and the corseted sides pinched her in all the wrong places, especially in a sitting position. It wasn’t going to be very difficult to come off as irritable and unpleasant.
They reached the security checkpoint and Ron selected a podium manned by a young-looking witch that Hermione didn’t recognize. The Daily Prophet had reported that Ministerial Security was bringing in a lot of new people, and the smattering of unfamiliar faces wearing blue robes certainly seemed to corroborate those stories. The witch in front of them seemed very nervous, shuffling her feet and biting the inside of her cheek.
Ron didn’t wait to be addressed. “My name is Blaise Zabini and this is my mother,” he announced with a flourish. “We would like to speak to the Minister about affirming our loyalty to the Ministry and clearing our family’s good name.”
Hermione thought it was a nice touch, asking to speak to the Minister directly. Zabini had always been just deluded enough to believe such a thing was possible.
“Erm, well, I’m sure that the Minister is quite busy,” the young witch replied, continuing to sway nervously from side to side. “But we’ve set up a special office that will be happy to go through the particulars of your situation.”
“You listen to me, child!” Hermione thundered, throwing herself into the part, “I have spent the last forty-five years listening to the Ministry’s filthy lies sully my son’s reputation. If the Minister is serious about making peace with my family, or the MacDougals, for that matter, he’ll need to make time for us.”
The society pages of the Daily Prophet had recently linked Mrs. Zabini romantically to Ewan MacDougal, the elderly patriarch of the old, pure blood family. Hermione reckoned that she might as well use that information before he mysteriously turned up dead.
The security witch looked positively terrified. “Well aren’t you gonna do something then?” Ron asked, trying to affect Zabini’s typical disinterested impatience.
“Look,” the witch said quietly, stealing a nervous glance towards the elevated podium where her supervisor was beginning to stare in their direction, “this is my first day on the job. I don’t know anything about the Minister’s schedule. I haven’t even finished reading my training manual. If you take the lifts to Level One, they’ve set up an office for families with grievances from the war. I’m sure they’ll be able to help you.”
Hermione stared back at the frightened young witch. What would Mrs. Zabini say in this situation? She finally settled on something modestly positive in a thoroughly demeaning way. “Listen to me, my dear. This job clearly does not suit you. You have wide hips and sturdy calves and your face is not unattractive. You clearly have magical blood running through your veins. Why don’t you find a respectable wizard with a few galleons to his name and make some babies, hmn?”
The security witch looked utterly bewildered, but she nodded politely. “Come, Blaise, let’s find this bloody commission and set them straight,” Hermione directed, and they set off towards the lifts.
Ron and Hermione passed on a couple of lift cars that were occupied, pretending to turn up their noses at the other passengers. When an empty one finally arrived, they boarded and waited for the doors to close behind them.
“Time to top up,” Ron said, pulling a flask from his shirt pocket. Hermione retrieved a similar flask from her purse and they both took a reinforcing swig of polyjuice potion. Ron screwed up Zabini’s face as he choked down the thick, greenish-grey liquid. “He tastes like old cigar ashes and castor oil.”
“Well his mother tastes like sloe gin and arsenic,” Hermione replied, capping her flask and returning it to her purse. “Why did Harry have hair clippings from these two, anyway?”
“I think he raided the stockpile we keep in the Auror office. Years ago, Zabini and his mother were great cover when we needed to lure some ex-Death Eater out of hiding. Nobody really knew where he was, and most of them either wanted to buy him a drink or kill him for fooling around with their wives. And a lot of the older ones fancied taking a tilt at his mum.”
The lift came to a stop at Level Nine, and both Ron and Hermione shared a momentary pause as they stood at the entrance to the Department of Mysteries. “Bloody shame, that day,” Ron mumbled, setting his hand on Hermione’s shoulder. She laid her own hand over his. “Come on, we have to hurry.”
The Ministry’s lifts still didn’t descend all the way to Level Ten, but one concession to modern sensibilities that Hermione had managed to push through the bureaucracy was an accessibility ramp near the stairs. She never thought that she would be the personal beneficiary, but she had argued vehemently in favor of sparing disabled witches and wizards from the indignity of having to be levitated down from Level Nine. When they reached the bottom of the ramp, Hermione took a careful look around. She selected a spot just outside of one of the courtrooms to park her chair and Ron stepped beside her and cast a disillusionment charm over both of them.
“The concealment won’t last for very long,” he whispered. “There are too many wards in place here.”
“It shouldn’t take very long,” she replied. “He had a hearing this morning in Courtroom Six. It should be over any minute now.”
They waited in silence for another few minutes and suddenly the doors of the courtroom to their left burst open and a stream of witches and wizards in formal robes began to exit the room. They watched closely, waiting for their target to emerge. Finally, Rigel Barsamian appeared at the entrance, carrying a briefcase and chatting cordially with another barrister about the hearing. Hermione thought that he had aged a bit since their murder trial, but he still retained the essential cockiness of youth and inexperience. As he finished his conversation and turned to walk to the stairs, Hermione chose her moment. Confundo.
Barsamian’s eyes went unfocused and he ambled to a stop in front of Hermione and Ron. “Walk to Courtroom Eight,” she hissed, just loudly enough to be heard. She and Ron carefully followed him, sticking near the wall and trying to avoid the sporadic overhead lights. When the door to the empty chamber was closed behind them, Ron allowed the disillusionment charm to fade. “Sit down,” he directed, and the prosecutor obeyed.
“Have they tapped you to lead the prosecution of the new murder case against Harry Potter and the Weasleys?” Hermione asked.
“Yes,” Barsamian replied softly. He appeared to be struggling to pull his thoughts together. Hermione gestured with her wand and intensified the Confundus Charm.
“What is the new evidence against them?”
“A wand signature analysis,” he mumbled. “Somebody found it in a drawer in Magical Law Enforcement. It shows that all three of them were in the jail.”
Ron shot Hermione a bitter look. “Do you have it with you?” she persisted.
“No. In my office.”
“Where in your office?” Hermione demanded. The strain of maintaining the strong charm was starting to show on Mrs. Zabini’s face.
“File cabinet. Second drawer. In the case file.”
Hermione looked satisfied, but Ron held his hand up. “Who assigned this case to you?” he asked.
“The order came from the Minister’s office,” Barsamian replied, once again looking like he was starting to come around. “It’s bollocks, though.”
Ron and Hermione looked at each other in surprise. She mustered all her effort to reign Barsamian’s mind back in. “What do you mean, it’s bollocks?” she asked.
Barsamian’s eyes focused momentarily, like somebody waking up from a dream. Hermione was no longer sure whether he was truly confunded. “They weren’t guilty the first time and they’re not guilty now,” he mumbled. “The whole thing is bollocks.”
Barsamian started to shake his head, trying to clear his mind. Ron had seen enough. “Stupefy.” He applied the spell gently but firmly, and Barsamian slumped over in his seat.
“Start erasing his memory,” Ron directed as he plucked a pair of hairs from the unconscious man’s head. He reached into his robes and pulled out a fresh vial of polyjuice potion, then dropped the hairs in.
“Wait, where are you going?” Hermione asked, looking alarmed.
“To get the file, of course,” he replied, downing the potion. “I’ll meet you back in the Atrium in half an hour. Remember to take some more of Mrs. Zabini.” Ron suddenly began to change from Blaise Zabini into Rigel Barsamian. The latter turned out to be a bit smaller in stature, and Ron cinched up his belt before tucking the loose fabric of his shirt into his pants.
“Somebody needs to fatten Rigel up,” Hermione smirked.
“Or Zabini needs to ease up on the wine and cheese,” Ron grimaced. He gestured with his wand and summoned Barsamian’s formal robes. They seemed to conceal his loose-fitting clothes well enough.
“You be careful!” Hermione admonished.
“Of course, love,” he replied. “I’d kiss you, but, you know, that’s just weird.”
“Agreed,” Hermione said, laughing in spite of herself. “Hurry. I’ll see you soon.”
Ron conjured a briefcase identical to Barsamian’s and slipped out the door as Hermione carefully applied the memory charm, removing all traces of their encounter. When she finished, she levitated his limp body to the back corner of the room, stunned him once more for good measure, and cast a concealment charm around him. Then she wheeled herself to the door and used the Homenum Revelio spell to check for anyone lurking in the hallway. Finding it empty, she left the room and hurried back towards the ramp to Level Nine.
As she rolled along, she pondered Barsamian’s final words in the empty courtroom. Everybody knew it. The whole thing is bollocks. He had sounded annoyed, almost frustrated. Harry had always been convinced that some higher authority was directing the case against them, and she had always agreed that by himself, Barsamian was incapable of orchestrating such a grand production. But this was the first inkling she’d ever gotten that the young prosecutor had not been pleased to be involved.
She arrived back at the lifts and pushed the button for Level Eight. Hermione really didn’t want to arrive at the Atrium before Ron, since she was worried about the possibility that one of Mrs. Zabini’s old friends might see her and try to strike up a conversation, but she really wasn’t sure where else to go. She took the flask from her purse and gulped down another gut-wrenching slug of polyjuice potion as the lift car rose. When the doors opened, she wheeled herself out and found a quiet spot near the fountain where she tried to blend in and not make eye contact with anyone.
Her privacy proved short-lived, however. “Mrs. Zabini, what a wonderful surprise,” came the deep, raspy voice from behind her. Hermione spun around to find Edmund Cornfoot approaching her with a large smile on his wrinkled, pock-marked face. His son Stephen had been one year ahead of her at Hogwarts, and she had seen him at any number of political events since the war. The elderly pure blood wizard had always seemed pleasant enough, and she couldn’t imagine what interest he would have in Mrs. Zabini.
“Hello, Cornfoot,” she replied tersely, without returning his smile. Hermione hoped that a bit of incivility could convince him to simply go away.
If he noticed at all, he gave no sign of it. “Agostina, is that any way to treat an old friend? Please, call me Edmund,” he replied, still smiling broadly. He extended his hand, but Hermione merely stared at him. She struggled not to retreat from the sight of his thick, sausage-like fingers.
“Well, then,” he said, withdrawing his hand but otherwise undaunted, “what brings you to the Ministry of Magic today?”
“If you must know,” she huffed, “my son has returned from his long exile. We are in the process of clearing his name of the slanderous lies that the Aurors have heaped upon it.”
“Oh, splendid,” Cornfoot answered, once again moving dangerously close to the edge of Hermione’s comfort zone. “Your boy was in the same year as my son Stephen, was he not?”
Hermioine paused for a second, unsure of whether Mrs. Zabini would have had any idea that Stephen Cornfoot was a year ahead of her son. She decided to go with a noncommittal answer. “They were close in age, I believe. What of it?”
Cornfoot stared at her for a moment, then dropped his false smile and lowered his voice. “Agostina, you wound me. That night we spent together in Paris all those years ago, did it really mean nothing to you?”
Hermione was dumbstruck, completely at a loss for how to respond. Stephen Cornfoot’s father had slept with Zabini’s mother? And lived? It was simply too much to process. She started to stammer out an answer when Rigel Barsamian suddenly appeared behind Cornfoot. For a terrifying moment, she had no idea whether it was the real one or his polyjuice copy.
“I do hope I’m not interrupting,” Barsamian said in his olive oil voice. Cornfoot turned around with a start, looking surprised. “Mrs. Zabini, we’re due in Magical Law to discuss the circumstances of your last husband’s death, if you please.”
Cornfoot suddenly looked like somebody had punched him in the chest. “Erm, I’ll be seeing you, Agostina. Take care,” he said as he backed away.
“Took you long enough,” Hermione hissed as Ron began to push her chair towards the main exit. “I thought he was about to declare his undying love for me. Did you get it?”
“The entire file,” Ron replied, looking nervously around. “I think you’re going to be busy for a while.”
“Right,” Hermione replied. As they drew near the security checkpoint, she noticed that the supervisor who had observed the commotion they created on the way in. He left his station and moved to block their path to the exit.
“Mrs. Zabini,” he said as they approached. “May I ask what has happened to your son?”
“Your liaison office must be keeping him with their endless questions,” Hermione replied haughtily. Her heart was pounding inside of her chest. “I am far too busy to be detained. Mr. Barsamian has kindly offered to see me out.”
“Well that’s interesting,” the supervisor sneered. “We were expecting your son in the Pure Blood Family Liaison Office. He never arrived.”
Hermione summoned all the pique and arrogance she could muster. “Are you calling me a liar?” she asked quietly, giving him a frigid stare.
“Officer,” Ron interjected, putting on Barsamian’s best diplomatic voice, “Mrs. Zabini has kindly offered her time to help resolve the lingering misunderstandings between her family and the Ministry. Now she really must be on her way. If you’ll excuse us...”
“Mr. Barsamian,” the supervisor replied tersely, “you of all people should be aware that one of the three most wanted fugitives in all of Britain also happens to be a witch in a wheelchair. No offense to Mrs. Zabini, but we need to clear up the questions surrounding her son. Then she is free to go.”
Hermione considered their options. There were too many other security officers around to try to confund the supervisor. Faking a heart attack would throw them off balance, but they were likely to insist on escorting her to St. Mungo’s. No matter what, it was starting to look like they were going to have to fight their way out of the situation. Suddenly, the security officer manning the podium called to his supervisor.
“Sir, I have a message from the Pure Blood Family Liaison Office. Mrs. Zabini’s son is there. Apparently he ran into some woman he used to, uh, know. They’re working on his statement of affirmation now.”
The supervisor looked confused and disappointed. Hermione’s pulse continued to race. She had no idea what had happened, but she wasn’t going to waste their one chance to escape without a confrontation. She fixed a self-righteous sneer on Mrs. Zabini’s face and took a deep breath. “May I have your name, young man? I would like to personally extend my grievances to the Minister regarding the shabby way that I’ve been treated.”
The supervisor’s expression hardened, but she could see the concern in his eyes. After letting him dangle for a moment, Ron jumped back into the conversation. “Um, Mrs. Zabini, let’s get you on your way. I promise that I’ll raise your concerns to the Minister as soon as I see him.” Ron winked subtly at the supervisor, who seemed to weigh his options for a brief moment.
“Mrs. Zabini, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience,” the supervisor mumbled, apparently hoping that none of his subordinates would hear. “You must understand, these are dangerous times. We can’t be too careful.”
Hermione harrumphed dismissively as Ron pushed her chair past the checkpoint, turning her nose up. As she rolled towards the Ministry entrance, she saw the young witch they had passed on the way in and said, “Remember, my dear. Babies. Today wouldn’t be too soon to begin.”
A short while later, Ron had nearly broken into a jog as he pushed Hermione’s wheelchair away from the red phone booth on Whitehall. For once, she felt no desire for him to slow down, in spite of the way the muggles were staring at the two of them. “What the bloody hell happened back there?” she hissed. “I thought we were going to have to stun them all.”
“Wait, you didn’t do that?” Ron asked in disbelief. “So who the hell actually showed up pretending to be Zabini?”
They turned the corner into the familiar nearby alley and Ron lifted Hermione into his arms. She quickly shrank her wheelchair and summoned it into her hands. Without another word, Ron turned and they disapparated to the street in Little Hangleton where the Gaunt Shack was hidden. Once Hermione restored her chair and Ron sat her gently back into it, they both took a moment to catch their breath.
As they started to stroll back to the concealed path, a ball of blue-white light streaked towards them out of the sky and morphed into a falcon before alighting on the pavement. It spoke with Susan Bones’s familiar voice. “I thought you two could use a hand. For future reference, Mrs. Zabini has a mild French accent.” Then the bird faded away in a silvery mist.
Thank you all for continuing to read Conspiracy of Blood. As always, a very special thanks to my wonderful beta reader, sophie_hatter. If you haven't read her story Evolution (M), you're in for a treat!
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Coming very soon: my first one-shot story: The Price of Redemption. Check out my author page...
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