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Harry Potter and the Conspiracy of Blood by CambAngst
Chapter 22 : Friends and Allies
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 19

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As always, that which you recognize belongs to JK Rowling.

Ron sat back on the makeshift bed in the attic of the Gaunt Shack and marveled at his wife’s work. It had taken her less than ten minutes to determine how the wand analysis was faked to revive the case against them. “It’s not even a particularly good fake,” she snorted as her spells exposed the hasty modifications made to the document. Once that was settled, she moved on to the rest of the case file, attacking it with gusto. She had systematically torn it apart and rebuilt it into a masterpiece of organization. If anything, it was more impressive than the version she had created at home because she had far less space to work with. He supposed that she also had fewer distractions, since they were all alone. Harry and Esme had left for France the previous morning, leaving Ron and Hermione as the sole occupants of the hideout.

As he watched her work, it occurred to him that they could probably be taking greater advantage of their time alone. The biggest drawback to being on the run with Harry was that, well, they spent nearly all of their time with Harry. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy Harry’s company, but he still felt odd about giving his wife a proper snogging when his best mate was around. He closed the copy of Quidditch Weekly’s 2045 Broomstick Guide that he had swiped from the reception area of the Magical Law Office and slipped off the bed. He quietly moved behind Hermione and peered over her shoulder.

“You’re so bloody amazing,” he purred, laying his hands gently on her shoulders. He began to rub slow circles and planted a kiss on the top of her head.

As usual, she seemed to read his mind. “Not right now, Ronald. I’m cross-referencing Barsamian’s trial exhibits against his notes on the Auror crime scene reports.”

“Sounds like difficult stuff,” Ron replied, not giving up so easily. He broadened the circles he was making, applying a gentle massage to her upper back, the sides of her neck and just below her collarbones. In spite of her reluctance, he felt her shiver. “Maybe you should take a break and clear your head a little.”

“What you have in mind won’t clear my head, it will empty it,” she retorted. “Seriously, love, just give me another twenty minutes to finish this while I’ve got it all straight in my brain.”

Ron relented, bringing his hands to a stop on her shoulders. “So this file actually has Barsamian’s notes in it?”

“All over the place,” she replied, gesturing toward a stack of papers in the center of the desk. “They’re actually the most useful part of the whole thing. This file is definitely missing some things, just like the one from the Minister’s office. But he’s made notes on the related documents. It’s almost as if he knew that some stuff was going to get taken out of the file...”

“Or maybe it wasn’t part of his file in the first place,” Ron added thoughtfully. “Maybe he got to look at them but he wasn’t allowed to keep them.”

“Does that happen?”

“Occasionally.” Ron stared off into space and subconsciously started rubbing her shoulders again. “Sometimes we don’t let Magical Law make copies of things. If we’re trying to protect an informant or a witness who’s in danger, for instance.”

Hermione laid her hands on top of his to still them. “But how would you justify it in a case like this? There weren’t any mystery witnesses and we definitely didn’t squeal on one another. What could they have been trying to protect?”

Ron slipped one hand off of her shoulder and snapped his fingers. “The Minister claimed that he sealed the case files because he wanted to protect the prosecutors and the crime scene investigators from retaliation.”

“He must have limited what Rigel could keep,” Hermione said, finishing Ron’s thought. She turned her attention back to a pile of papers and flipped through it until she found a particular page of the trial notes. “I think this is the name of the Auror who did the crime scene report. Can you read it?” she asked, pointing towards something scrawled in the margin.

Ron leaned farther over her shoulder, squinting at the messy writing. He mentally went through the list of all the Aurors in the department, trying to come up with a match. When it finally dawned on him, he mumbled, “Well I’ll be damned.”

“What?” Hermione asked. “Do you know who it is?”

“Yeah,” Ron replied. “That’s Agnar Cheshire.”

“Cheshire? Wasn’t he one of the ones you and Harry tried to get rid of?”

“Yeah. He was a holdover from Robards, but he would never take the hint like Tennant did.” Ron shook his head slowly. “It makes sense now. I remember he laid really low for about a year after the trial, then he came in one morning and told Harry that he was retiring. Cleaned out his desk the same day. Didn’t even stick around for his retirement party, which actually made the party quite a bit more fun if you ask me.”

Hermione made the next mental jump a fraction of a second ahead of Ron. “So what do you think the chances are that he’s still alive?”

Ron grimaced. “Well it would certainly buck the trend if he were, but I don’t remember hearing anything about him dying, either. He always had a knack for finding a place to hide when there was trouble. Maybe he got wind of something and decided to make himself scarce.”

Hermione made a notation next to Barsamian’s note in red ink, then sat back in her chair and surveyed her work. “I think we have enough here to go and talk to somebody. I know several members of the Wizengamot. They’ll listen to us, and take up our cause. We can clear our names and get back to our lives.”

Ron moved next to her chair and lowered himself onto one knee so he could look her in the eyes. He knew what he was about to say wasn’t going to make her happy and he wanted to deliver the blow as softly as possible. “Love, we can’t do that yet. There are still too many unanswered questions. We don’t know who’s really on our side and who’s against us.”

“But, Ron, these are good people I’m talking about. They’ll help us.”

“And people who are in a position to help us have been turning up dead left, right and center,” he reminded her, gently but firmly. “If we come out of hiding, we’re putting anyone who tries to help us at risk. We have to find out how the Blood Order is controlling the Ministry and expose them. Until then, Harry’s right. We can’t fight them all.”

Hermione’s shoulders drooped and she sighed in resignation. “This isn’t going to get any easier, is it?”

“It will,” Ron replied soothingly, taking her hand in his. “We just have to be patient. These Death Eater types always make a mistake sooner or later.”

She rubbed her eyes and stretched her arms. “I think maybe I’m ready for that break.”

“Are you now?” Ron asked with a grin. He nuzzled his face into her hair, brushing her ear with his lips.

“Yes,” she replied softly, tilting her head slightly to offer him easier access. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well,” he mumbled in between planting soft kisses on her ear and neck, “as long as we have the place all to ourselves, we could play ‘strict healer and naughty patient’.”

“Mmmnnn. We haven’t tried that since I got hurt. How am I supposed to punish you if you don’t cooperate?”

“You’ll just have to be extra creative,” Ron replied in a low voice. He leaned farther forward, moving his kisses towards the nape of her neck. He paused as she started to giggle. “What’s so funny?”

“Can you imagine the look on Harry’s face if he walked in on us? I mean, there was that one time he caught us in the pantry when we were living at Grimmauld Place, but that was before we were even engaged. What on earth would he say?”

Ron paused and thought for a second. “If I know Harry, he’d turn around, leave, come back in twenty minutes and try like hell to pretend that nothing happened. He’s a decent bloke like that.”

“Very decent,” Hermione replied. “Now you’d better get in bed. It’s almost time for that mean healer to check your vital signs.”

For the first time in a long time, Gregory Goyle could honestly say that he was having fun with his work. He listened to the pathetic witch whine and plead for another few seconds before flicking his wand again, sending her crashing into the far wall. Her name... well, he couldn’t really remember her name, but it wasn’t all that important. He and Nott checked the address carefully before entering her office in Gerrard’s Cross. Then they had secured the place with locking and silencing charms and began their “chat”.

The witch ran a program that helped wizarding families find muggle primary schools for their children who weren’t old enough to start at Hogwarts. Goyle found the whole idea of subjecting magical children to that sort of indoctrination offensive. The far wall was adorned with a framed poster that depicted paper cutouts of young witches and wizards joined hand in hand with muggle children in alternating colors. Goyle laughed as Nott hurled the witch into it, shattering the glass and bringing the whole mess crashing to the floor. When she managed to pull herself to her hands and knees, her face was covered with blood.

“What do you want from me?” she cried, trying futilely to clear her eyes with equally bloodied hands. “This is an educational program. I don’t have any gold. Why are you doing this to me?”

“We aren’t here for gold,” Nott snorted dismissively. “We’re here to put an end to the pollution of our children’s minds with your muggle filth.”

The witch tried to scramble to her feet and make a run for the door, but Nott hit her with another curse that crumpled her to her knees. She clutched the bleeding wound on her side and looked up at them in terror. “Please don’t kill me. All I do is help people find schools.”

“Not any more,” Nott replied coldly. “Watch this,” he said to Goyle with an ugly smirk. “Exussanguis!”

Goyle watched in morbid fascination as the witch began to convulse in agony. Large blotches of red appeared on the surface of her skin and they quickly grew to cover her entire body. She let out a horrifying, gurgling scream just before her skin burst in numerous places, sending a fine spray of steaming blood into the air. Nott looked at his boots in disgust and scourgified them to remove the stains.

“That was wicked,” Goyle said, nodding slowly. “She taught you that?”

“Yeah,” Nott replied, studying his handiwork with satisfaction. “After I messed it up when we attacked the Ministry, she said I was too much of an idiot to get it right. I bet the muggle-lover here would disagree.”

“Alright,” Goyle sighed, turning around. “I guess we have a crime scene to process.”

The two wizards shed their full-length cloaks, revelaing their navy blue Ministerial Security robes. Goyle had been dumbfounded when Lady Tenabra instructed everyone except Gamp, who she apparently thought was too unstable, to apply for a job at the Ministry. He half expected to be arrested on sight and sent back to Azkaban, but instead his application was accepted and he was hired on the spot. There was no more doubt about her influence on the Ministry. Goyle reckoned that if she told him to stand on the Minister’s desk and drop trou, he would barely hesitate.

“We have some curse burns over here,” Nott said mockingly. He cast several clumsy revealing charms on the dead witch’s smoldering body, ensuring that a wand identification analysis would turn up nothing useful.

“Looks like forced entry,” Goyle snickered, shattering the door frame with his boot. He quickly scourgified away the bootprint, then masked it with more pointless spells and charms.

“No witnesses,” Nott added, spinning on his heel to peer around the inside of the otherwise empty office.

“Looks like she was working on something related to muggle schools,” Goyle chuckled. He picked up a stack of papers from the desk and began to scatter them across the floor. Suddenly a name on one of the forms caught his eye.

Octavia Malfoy,” he read from the application. “Isn’t that Draco’s granddaughter.”

“You know any other Malfoys?” Nott replied sarcastically. “Don’t tell me she’s in a muggle school. Old Lucius must be spinning in his grave.”

Goyle smirked as he read farther down the page. “Looks like she’s looking for a new muggle school. Got booted out of the last one for hexing a muggle boy. I guess she does have some pure blood after all.”

“It’s a bloody waste,” Nott muttered. “Malfoy’s son married the mudblood’s daughter, right?”

Goyle nodded, but didn’t say anything right away. “I’ve been thinking maybe I should go talk to Malfoy. See if I can get him to come around. There aren’t many of us left, you know? Feels wrong not to have him on our side.”

“Flint tried,” Nott responded as he kicked over a chair. “He wasn’t interested.”

“Yeah, but Flint’s a prick. Was a prick, anyway. I just think maybe I could convince him. We were close, you know?”

“I say we’d be better off if Crabbe made it out of the battle alive instead of him,” Nott replied coldly.

Goyle decided to ignore Nott’s last remark. “We’re supposed to have this weekend off, right? Maybe I can track him down.”

Nott took a break from turning out the desk drawers and looked very annoyed. “Didn’t you hear? She wants us around all weekend. She told Rowle that she has a special assignment planned.”

“Bugger,” Goyle replied. “I guess I’ll try some other time.”

“He’s not worth it,” Nott said bluntly. “The Malfoys cast their lot with the muggle lovers and blood traitors a long time ago. There’s no turning back from that.”

Goyle went back to cataloguing the “evidence” they had found, but the idea of contacting Draco Malfoy remained very appealing to him. In spite of their differences, Draco was the closest thing to a friend that he had left in the world. If he could only get Draco to see the nobility of their cause and realize that their success was inevitable. It would be nice to have somebody that he felt like he could trust, as opposed to Nott who was every bit the arrogant tosser that Flint had been, or Gamp who was dangerously insane. Goyle decided to send Draco an owl and invite him out for a drink. Perhaps he’d be different without his wife around to fill his head full of nonsense.

“We ‘ave been here for hours,” Esme complained softly into Harry’s ear. “She is either bedridden or away on ‘oliday.”

“We’ve only been here for forty-five minutes,” Harry replied irritably. “And being invisible isn’t much good if you don’t stay quiet.”

They were sitting in the fork between two large branches of a tree across the street from a well-kept house in a wizarding village near Rouen. Concealed beneath Harry’s invisibility cloak, they waited for Katerina Porcher’s sister Elena to make an appearance. They had seen her father and mother pass by the front windows of the house, but she had remained elusive. Harry wondered whether squibs were as much a source of embarrassment to their families in France as they sometimes were in Britain. In spite of the Ministry’s best efforts to educate the populace on the inevitability of non-magical children occasionally being born into magical families, there were still instances of squib children turning up in muggle orphanages with their memories erased. Those cases always left Harry feeling sad and more than a little bit angry.

“I think this cloak was nothing but an excuse to get me onto your lap,” Esme hissed, snapping him out of his thoughts. “We should ‘ave just walked to the door and knocked.”

“The Professor said that her father hates Aurors,” Harry retorted, trying to keep his voice from rising, “and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m wanted for murder and you’re supposed to be on the other side of the English Channel. And if you want to take your bony arse off of my lap, be my guest.”

Harry winced as a punch landed on his side. He probably deserved it, but he still felt annoyed, not least about the fact that she remained on his lap. He’d been having some difficulty sorting out his feelings after the emotional reconnection with his parents in the memory that Esme had extracted for him. She had given him something worth more than all the gold in Gringotts and he was beyond grateful, but the experience also left him feeling vulnerable. The ease with which she read his thoughts and the way she rushed to provide comfort made him uneasy, as though a door had been opened which might prove difficult to close.

He felt her sharp elbow in his ribs as she twisted slightly on his lap. “There she is!” He looked across the street and saw a young woman in a pale yellow smock walking around the side of the house they had been watching. She was pulling a wagon that bristled with gardening tools, and her dark hair was partially covered by an orange scarf that kept it away from her face. She took a gardening trowel and a hand rake from the wagon and began to weed a bed of flowers that ran along the front side of the house.

“Looks like she’s alone. Let’s hurry,” Harry replied. He took a quick look around and slid out of the tree. Esme caught both of them with a cushioning charm just before they landed. Harry pulled the invisibility cloak off and tucked it away in his coat. They made their way across the street and Esme cleared her throat as she approached the low wall surrounding the yard.

Bonjour, est-ce que je peut vous aider? *” the young woman asked in a pleasant voice.

“I ‘ope so,” Esme replied. Harry thought she struck a good balance between sounding overly formal and fake cheerful. “Do you mind if I speak English for the benefit of my colleague? Your sister Katerina was also a colleague of mine. I was wondering if you might know ‘ow I can get in touch with ‘er?”

The young woman looked at them nervously, then stole a glance back towards the house. “You are Aurors, yes?”

“That is correct,” Esme replied. “I supervised your sister’s training for a time.” Esme had never mentioned having any personal responsibility for Katerina. Harry clamped down on his irritation, maintaining an impassive expression. He hoped that Elena wouldn’t hold it against them.

“Father says that the Aurors were the reason why Katerina left us.”

“Katerina ‘ad many reasons for leaving the program,” Esme responded calmly. “If I was one of those reasons, she never shared that with me.”

The young woman seemed to consider Esme’s response. She looked back towards the house again, as though she expected something very frightening to emerge at any moment. “What can you tell me about my sister? Is she in some sort of trouble?” she asked in a hushed voice.

“We honestly do not know,” Esme answered quietly. “I ‘ave not spoken to your sister since she left the Aurors. We are worried that she ‘as become involved with some very dangerous people in Britain. We need to find ‘er as quickly as possible.”

Elena looked torn. She twisted the pair of gardening gloves in her slender hands while she chewed on her lower lip. Her next words were barely a whisper. “If you find ‘er, will you let me know what ‘as ‘appened to ‘er?”

“Elena,” Emse asked softly, “do you know something about ‘er?”

“I do not know anything,” Elena replied. “At least nothing for certain.”

The conversation was interrupted by a loud bang as the front door of the house slammed closed. Elena’s father, a balding wizard with a short beard and a fearsome-looking disposition, was rapidly advancing on them. “Who are you? What do you want with my daughter?”

Elena quickly shrank away from them, retreating towards her flower bed. “Elena, go inside!” her father ordered, and Elena disappeared into the house.

“Well, what is it then?” he demanded from the other side of the gate.

“We are trying to find your daughter, Katerina,” Esme replied evenly. Porcher was so close that Harry could smell the remnants of his last meal on his breath, but neither he nor Esme ceded an inch.

“She is not ‘ere,” he shouted into their faces. “I do not know where she has gone. Now leave us alone.”

“Monsieur Porcher,” Esme went on, undaunted, “we fear that your daughter ‘as become involved with some very dangerous people. Many lives are at risk, including ‘ers.”

Porcher snorted derisively. “More dangerous than the Aurors? I think not.” As he spoke, Harry caught a flash of pale yellow out of the corner of his eye, disappearing into the orchard behind the house. He was careful to keep his stare focused on the angry wizard in front of them.

“I do not think you understand ‘ow much trouble your daughter might be in,” Esme persisted. “These people are killers. Elena is obviously worried for ‘er sister. Why will you not ‘elp us.”

Porcher’s voice lowered to a growl. His eyes were feral-looking. “You leave Elena out of this. I ‘ave already lost one daughter to you people. I will not lose another. Now leave us in peace.” With that, he turned and stormed away, slamming the door to the house behind him.

Esme sighed in frustration, but Harry was already moving. “Come on. If I’m right, we won’t have much time,” he said, dragging the French Auror by her elbow.

“What is it?” she asked, struggling to keep up without falling down. They reached the nearest corner and Harry looked down the lane. He could see the side of the Porchers’ orchard behind a low stone wall in the distance, and he turned on the spot, apparating both of them to what appeared to be the farthest corner from the house. He steadied her with a hand around her waist when they reappeared. “A gentleman would ‘ave warned me,” she grumbled, but Harry silenced her with a look and peered into the trees.

“Elena!” he called quietly. “Elena, are you there?”

Hesitantly, a figure clad in yellow emerged from the trees. Elena looked almost as pale as her smock, and she peered nervously around before stepping closer to the stone wall. “Father will be very angry if he sees me here.”

“I know,” Harry replied soothingly. “Just tell us what you want us to know and we’ll be on our way.”

The young woman stared at the clouds drifting overhead. Her eyes were damp. “Father blames you for what ‘appened to Katerina, but I know it was not your fault.” Elena paused, then looked directly at them. “Ironic, isn’t it? I was born without magic and she was born with more than she was ever able to use. I think father expected that she would take me with ‘er when we grew up, like we were pieces to a puzzle. But Katerina... she was far too impatient. Me? I ‘ave always been patient.”

Harry exchanged a quick glance with Esme. “Elena, why do you think that something ‘appened to your sister?” she asked softly.

Elena seemed to hesitate again, then she took a steadying breath and reached into the pocket of her smock. She pulled out a small locket on a thin, silver chain. Harry recognized the shape as half of the Taoist symbol for yin and yang. She reached out and handed it to him.

“Katerina has the other half, doesn’t she?” Harry asked.

“She bought them in a muggle store before she left for Auror training. She put a charm on them,” Elena explained wistfully. “She said that no matter where she traveled, we would always be connected. Whenever she would ‘old ‘ers tightly and think of me, mine would glow. I could feel her affection, her warmth.” Elena’s eyes fell to the ground and she choked back a sob. Her voice was barely a whisper. “It ‘as not glowed in over four years.”

“Thank you, Elena,” Harry replied. He held the locket tightly in his hand. “When we find her, we’ll be sure to let her know how much you miss her.”

Elena smiled sadly at him. “That is kind of you to say, but my sister is gone. To be honest, I accepted this a long time ago. All I ask is that you let me know what you find out. I just want to stop wondering.”

“Of course we will. You ‘ave my word,” Esme said. They heard yelling coming from the direction of the house. Elena’s father was calling her name. She nodded towards Harry and Esme and disappeared into the trees.

“Charming family,” Esme snorted as they walked back towards the main street. “Little wonder Katerina turned out so strange.”

“Don’t be too hard on them,” Harry replied softly. “We can’t know what they’ve been through. The fact that he still cares for Elena makes him a far better man than some I’ve seen in his situation.”

Esme continued to fume. “She is a grown woman, not a china doll! So what if she does not ‘ave magic? Billions of muggles get by without it every day.”

Harry considered arguing, but he didn’t feel like upsetting her further. Esme continued to berate Monsieur Porcher under her breath as they walked. They had almost reached the main street when the wizard that Harry least wanted to run into appeared on the corner. He was tall and swarthy-looking and his hair and mustache were liberally sprinkled with grey. His dark eyes fixed them with a stare but his hands remained in his pockets.

“‘ello, Ricard,” Esme greeted the Head of the French Aurors nervously. Harry nodded politely to his counterpart, but part of him wanted to disapparate on the spot. If the British Ministry had issued an international arrest warrant, the French were bound by treaty to honor it. Then again, if that was the case, it seemed unlikely that Head Auror Dauzat would have come alone. Harry forced himself to remain calm and hear what Dauzat had to say.

“Esme, Mr. Potter,” Dauzat inclined his head slightly without taking his eyes off of them. “I had not heard that you were back in the country, Esme.” He spoke as though he were stating a simple fact, but the implied breach of protocol was obvious.

“I ‘ave only been back for a short while,” she explained. “Head Auror Potter and I ‘ave been following up on the altered memory I traveled to London to study. We now ‘ave reason to believe that a former French Auror was involved in ‘elping a murderer.” Harry kept his composure, but her explanation made him very uneasy. She was absurdly overplaying their hand, letting her nerves affect her judgment.

Dauzat raised his eyebrow slightly at Esme’s revelation, but otherwise maintained his stoic demeanor. “Regardless of what you are working on, I expect to know when you enter and leave the country. Is that clear, Esme?”

“Very clear, yes,” Esme replied, looking slightly embarrassed.

“Mr. Potter, I understand that you are having some legal difficulties back in Britain,” Dauzat continued.

“That’s right,” Harry replied. There was no point in denying it. At this point, he was more interested in seeing where the Frenchman was going with this line of discussion.

“I expect that you’re wondering whether I have come to arrest and deport you. It is intriguing that your government has not issued a warrant. Any theories as to why?”

“I suppose they don’t think that I would leave the country,” Harry answered, keeping his tone neutral. If Dauzat was digging for information on what was happening inside the British Ministry, Harry wasn’t going to give it away without getting something in return.

To Harry’s profound irritation, Esme jumped back into the conversation. “Ricard, we ‘ave reason to believe that the British Ministry ‘as been infiltrated by dark wizards. A criminal conspiracy known as the New Blood Order ‘as been operating in the country for some time. The British Minister ‘as suddenly offered a far-reaching amnesty program to all manner of pure blood extremist criminals. It flies in the face of reason.”

“Thank you Esme,” Dauzat replied dismissively, “but I think most would consider that to be an internal British matter.”

Esme looked at him incredulously. “You cannot be serious, Ricard! You of all people remember what ‘appened the last time the British Ministry fell under the control of dark wizards. It took years to root out all the Death Eaters who took refuge in France after the war.”

“I have not forgotten that, Miss Osinalde,” Dauzat snapped, silencing her. He stared at both of them gravely, then pulled a small roll of parchment from his pocket. “You are not the only one who is concerned. Councilor Delacour has asked for our assessment of the recent events surrounding the British Ministry.” The revelation caught Harry by surprise. He knew that Fleur’s cousin held a seat on the French Wizards Council, but he was surprised to see things happening so quickly. Fleur must have made a very persuasive argument.

Dauzat handed the parchment to Esme. “I want to know what is going on in London. Quickly. But you are not to risk an international incident. Your mission is to determine the extent to which the British Ministry had been subverted, nothing more. You have my authorization to obtain untraceable portkeys, polyjuice potion and anything else you need. If there is any chance of being discovered, you are to return to France immediately. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” Esme replied, looking relieved.

“Return to the office and obtain your supplies. I would like a word with Mr. Potter,” Dauzat said, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. Esme exchanged a quick glance with Harry before turning and disapparating.

“I appreciate the help,” Harry offered politely, but Dauzat’s stony expression didn’t change. Finally, Harry asked, “Is there something else?”

“Do you remember when we met, Mr. Potter?”

“Of course,” Harry answered. “In the field office in Toulouse, when Rabastan Lestrange was first spotted near the Pyrenees. As I recall, you were the one who finally brought him down after we found him.”

“Not before he killed three Aurors and over a dozen civilians,” Dauzat replied grimly. “I want us to be very clear, Mr. Potter. Miss Osinalde is returning to Britain with you to investigate and to report back, not to fight. But if you can bring me hard evidence of dark wizards controlling your Ministry, wizards like Lestrange, I will go to the Council and volunteer to fight them myself.”

Harry nodded slowly in response. “If any fighting does break out, I’ll make sure that she remembers to follow orders.”

“See that you do,” Dauzat replied. Then he turned and disapparated.

Harry found a small park nearby and took a seat on a bench facing a statue of a muggle soldier. The soldier held a bayonet aloft in front of him, challenging an unseen enemy. “You wouldn’t shy away from a fight,” he mumbled to the statue. “And I’m afraid she won’t either.” He thought about how well they complemented each other. If they did wind up fighting a war, he had to admit that there were only a handful of people he would rather have by his side.

Enjoying the warm autumn sun, he took out Elena’s locket and studied it carefully. His revealing spell exposed a powerful protean charm. He had used them once or twice, but Hermione was an expert. He hoped that she would be able to help them find Katerina’s locket. After an hour or so, Esme reappeared with a soft pop. She had changed clothes, and she was carrying a leather satchel over one shoulder. Once she found her bearings, she located Harry and walked over to take a seat beside him on the bench.

“What did ‘e say to you?” she asked.

“He pretty much just reiterated your orders,” Harry answered. “Investigate and report back. No fighting.”

Esme snorted dismissively. “Let ‘im believe that if ‘e likes. If this witch ‘as ‘urt Katerina, she will ‘ave more of a fight than she ever bargained for.”

“Esme, this is serious,” Harry admonished. “If things are as bad as we think they are, we might really need Dauzat’s help. You’re an Auror, not a vigilante. You need to follow orders.”

Esme regarded Harry with a mix of amusement and defiance. “Since when are you in a position to give orders to anybody, Mister ‘Wanted for Murder’?”

Harry sighed. She had a point, and there wasn’t much to gain by arguing with her. “Just be smart about this, alright?”

“Of course, ‘arry. I ‘ave already made the smartest decision of the day for us.”

“And what is that?” Harry replied suspiciously.

She held up a dented pewter soup tureen. “This portkey will take us back to the Island of Misfit Cuisine **. But before we go, we are going to ‘ave dinner at the best cafe in Paris.”

Before Harry could protest, she grabbed his arm and they disappeared with a crack.

Percy laid down a diplomatic communique that he was barely reading anyway and rubbed his eyes. The Australians were expressing their displeasure with the Minister’s new policy restricting travel visas for muggle-born witches and wizards. It was the fifth such letter he’d received in the past two days. He had dutifully composed a cover memo summarizing each protest and forwarded them along to the Minister’s office, but so far he had received no response. The pattern was growing disturbingly familiar.

The Minister had become reclusive, a far cry from the man who had never seen a situation that didn’t merit a press conference. All of his regular meetings with the deputy ministers and department heads had been canceled. If the Minister wanted to speak with somebody, they were summoned to his office and dismissed as soon as he lost interest in the conversation. Press releases were still issued on a daily basis, but they were kept general and vague, filled with glowing appraisals of the Ministry’s efforts to stabilize and unify the wizarding community. Percy found that those appraisals were more and more at odds with reality.

He heard a soft knock and looked up to find Arabela Dynt standing at his door. “Do you have a moment?” she asked nervously, seemingly trying to conceal her slender form in the door frame.

Percy stood up quickly, moving to greet her. “Please, come in.” He pulled out a chair for her as she closed the door behind herself. Taking in her appearance as he rounded his desk and sat down, he thought that she looked exhausted. Her makeup didn’t quite conceal the dark circles under her eyes and her hair was simply pulled into a clip.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

Arabela lowered her voice to barely more than a whisper. “I was wondering whether you had thought any more about our last conversation?”

Percy stared at the picture of his family, waving at him from his desk. “I’ve thought about it, yes. To be honest, I’ve thought about it a lot. Every day it seems that the Ministry is drifting further away from what it ought to be. I’m just not sure where to start.”

“At the beginning, of course,” she replied. “Approach people. Make some inquiries. Find out who your supporters are likely to be.”

“You make it sound so simple,” he said, smiling at her weakly. “What if word gets back to the pure blood extremists? Or the Minister himself? What then?”

“Then they will try to stop you. And the longer you allow them to continue to consolidate their power, the easier that will be for them.”

Percy found it hard to refute the wisdom of her argument. Still, he felt his doubts getting the best of him. “This is hard for me, Arabela,” he said. He felt himself wilting before her expectant smile. “I don’t come from money or power. Every day when I was growing up, my father flooed to the Ministry and spent his days taking enchantments off of muggle nick-knacks. All of my clothes came from my older brothers and as soon as I outgrew them they went to the twins. I just don’t know whether I’m cut out to be in charge.”

“You’re a humble man, Percy,” Arabela replied. “We could use a Minister like that.”

Percy smiled back at her in spite of himself. “Why are you suddenly so keen on seeing your boss out of a job? You’ve been by his side for most of his career.”

“Do you want the short answer or the long one?” she asked.

“My calendar is clear,” Percy replied, settling back into his chair.

Arabela paused for a moment, pondering her next words. “What do you know about my family?”

“Well, let’s see. You grew up in Shropshire. You’re not a pure blood. You have an older brother and a younger sister. Your father, I believe, worked in construction and your mother raised owls?”

“Very good, Percy. I’m impressed,” she said, bowing her head slightly. Then the smile faded from her lips. “But it’s not entirely true.”

Percy felt very confused. He had known Arabela for years, and she had told him a great deal about her childhood. He nodded, imploring her to go on.

“My parents... my real parents were killed in the war. My father was a half-blood wizard and my mother was muggle-born. I was five years old when the news reached Shropshire that the Ministry had fallen. My parents left me with my father’s best friends from school, my adoptive parents, and went into hiding. They thought I would be safer that way. Early on the morning of my sixth birthday, they tried to sneak into the village to celebrate with me. They were caught by snatchers as soon as they apparated.”

Tears began to slide down her cheeks and Percy rushed to her side with his handkerchief. After taking a moment to compose herself, she went on. “They turned them both in to the Ministry for a few galleons. The Death Eaters killed my mother for sport. They put her in a room full of muggle-borns and then they used them for target practice. My father was thrown into Azkaban for trying to hide her. He died there the day before Voldemort fell.”

Percy slipped into the other chair in front of his desk and just stared at Arabela. He didn’t know what to say. As much as it had hurt to lose Fred, he went down fighting, with a wand in his hand. “Arabela, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she replied, pulling herself back together. “My parents accomplished what they set out to. I’m still alive. I need to honor their sacrifice. I don’t want any more families torn apart, any more children left as orphans. And I won’t let the pure blood fanatics have the satisfaction of winning in the end. You can stop them, Percy. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

Percy felt the weight of the world sitting on his shoulders, but to his great surprise, it actually felt good. He wondered whether this was how Harry felt while he was circling Voldemort in the Great Hall, all eyes focused on the two of them. He reached out and put a steadying hand on her shoulder.

“I’ll start talking to the members of the Wizengamot I know,” he said. “You’re right, Arabela. We can do this.”

* “Hello, can I help you?”

** With apologies to the producers of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I continue to be humbled by the reception that Conspiracy of Blood has received. If you'd like to humble me some more, please let me know what you think in the grey box below.

As always, thanks go to my magnificent beta reader, sophie_hatter. If you haven't checked out her story Evolution (M), or her new story, The Grapevine (15+), do yourself a favor!

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