July 7, 1998
As on Ginny's previous visit, lunch at Nott Court was served in the dining room. There was a new addition to the decor: a painting of Narcissa, looking regal in a blue gown and elaborate diamond and sapphire jewelry, hung over the fireplace mantel in an ornate gilt frame.
"It's a lovely portrait," Ginny complimented her hostess.
"Thank you. It was quite fatiguing to sit for, but I do believe it turned out nicely," Narcissa responded gracefully. She was just as thin as when Ginny had seen her last, making her gaunt rather than slender, but there was some color in her cheeks and her face was no longer pinched with pain.
"It's an excellent likeness," Rabastan agreed, without even a hint of a leer.
Ginny shot him a sharp glance, adding another tick mark to her running tally of his odd behavior since the night before. In truth, it was less that Rabastan was acting odd, and more that he was acting like a normal person rather than a wizard driven more than half-mad by use of Dark magic and his time in Azkaban.
After trying to come into her bedroom last night, he had accepted her rebuff with startling meekness. Instead of sleeping off his hangover until the last possible minute, he had been awake early and had drunk tea rather than Firewhisky for breakfast - though he was still taking periodic gulps from his hip flask. Rabastan had neither groped nor insulted her, and had even courteously handed her the bowl of Floo powder so that she could precede him on the trip to Nott Manor. And while his conversation over lunch with Charlus Nott in particular seemed strained, it had been polite.
"To your continued good health, Rabastan." Nott interrupted Ginny's thoughts, raising his glass in a toast that may or may not have been ironic. "You enjoyed a very fortunate escape from a Dementor's Kiss."
"Fortune sometimes favors fools," Madam Zabini chimed in. "Your tactics at Shell Cottage were execrable." The dark witch glared at Rabastan before knocking back most of the wine in her glass.
Her husband and Rabastan each took identical, measured sips of their wine. Ginny's eyes narrowed at Rabastan's unusual restraint, both in his alcohol consumption and in not lashing out at Madam Zabini.
"Your Blaise is far from a fool. He, too, was fortunate to survive." Narcissa said in a placating way before taking a generous sip from her own glass.
Rather than sipping at her tea to join the toast, Ginny set her cup down in its saucer with a defiant clink. From across the table, Blaise Zabini saluted her with his own glass of wine. Ginny ignored the arrogant Slytherin, who had been staring at her since she arrived.
His mother glared at their byplay as she set her own wine glass back onto the polished tabletop. One of the Nott house-elves discreetly refilled it. "Survive?" Magda echoed, sounding strangely angry. "I suppose Blaise survived."
Ginny was surprised at the anger. For all the rumors about how casually Madam Zabini disposed of her husbands, she was known to dote upon her only child.
"Are you not drinking?" The dark witch asked Ginny curiously. She certainly was, taking another gulp from her glass.
"No, I'm expecting," Ginny gritted out, surprised that Rabastan wasn't crowing like a cock about his heir. She was fed up with the inevitable simpering good wishes on her pregnancy, let alone the unsolicited advice and horror stories of childbirth inevitably offered by older witches.
Magda offered none of those, but merely gave Ginny an appraising look over the rim of her wine glass. "Indeed," she said in icy acknowledgment.
Blaise choked on his own wine. "What?" he sputtered, with an inelegance that was at odds with his typically smooth behavior.
"Madam Lestrange is expecting," his mother reiterated, a warning note in her voice.
"I'm pregnant, not mute," Ginny snapped, annoyed enough not to care if Rabastan exacted consequences later for her outspokenness. And Blaise still was staring at her, now looking like a kicked puppy rather than the arrogant berk she had known at school.
"Er, when is the baby due?" he asked after an awkward pause.
"March," Ginny lied. February was more accurate, if the baby had been conceived with Harry right before the battle at Hogwarts, but she was fudging the due date so Rabastan would never entertain the possibility that the baby was not a Lestrange.
"Oh." Just a single word, but Blaise seemed devastated. "I need to go," he muttered, shoving his chair back from the table. Moments later, they heard the whoosh of the Floo from the foyer, signaling his departure.
"Blaise has not been himself these past couple days," his mother apologized. "I blame the Dementors," she said, giving Rabastan another murderous glare. "If you will be so kind as to excuse me, I shall see to him."
"Of course," their host agreed with cordiality. "I do hope Blaise is feeling like himself again soon."
Ginny by no means liked Charlus Nott, but the venomous look that Madam Zabini gave him in response to that pleasantry as she swept from the room seemed unwarranted.
"What about you, Rabastan?" Charlus asked with a much less sincere geniality. "Did your exposure to the Dementors make you feel not quite yourself?"
Rabastan blanched at the innocuous statement. "I suppose it did," he managed, after a long pause.
"How did you manage not to be Kissed?" Charlus wondered out loud, steepling his fingers. "I understand from Magda that her son used Occlumency to dull his emotions and deflect the Dementors' interest, but you never learned to Occlude. It seems improbable - I daresay even miraculous."
Rabastan deliberately chewed and swallowed a morsel of lunch before answering. "I don't understand it, myself. Perhaps the Dementors took enough of my emotional energy at Azkaban that I was no longer of interest to them."
"Perhaps. Although Brutus Flint was Kissed, and he had previously been an inmate at Azkaban."
"Then perhaps it was because I was near Percy Weasley when he conjured a Patronus. It drove away all the Dementors from his vicinity."
"Weasley was near you on the battlefield when he conjured a Patronus? I shall have to speak with him about that," Charlus said.
Ginny hid a smirk. She would pay quite a few Galleons witness that terribly civilized interrogation. Percy still was in her bad books.
"Are you certain you are quite recovered, Rabastan?" Narcissa asked.
"No, perhaps not," he agreed, snapping out of his distraction.
"As much as we enjoy your company, Charlus and I would not be offended if you cut our luncheon short," she offered.
"I appreciate that, Narcissa," Rabastan said. "But I don't wish to deprive Ginny of your company."
Once again, he had called her Ginny rather than Ginevra. Ginny knew that Dementors made people relive their most harrowing memories, and drove the prisoners of Azkaban mad through prolonged exposure. However, Dementors would not cause Rabastan to switch from using her loathed given name, which the Lestranges considered suitable for their pureblood wife, to her preferred nickname. It was a puzzle, indeed.
"Oh, Ginevra can stay and visit with me. I'll send her home by Floo later this afternoon," Narcissa promised.
Ginny was certain Rabastan would refuse. While slightly less paranoid than Rodolphus had been, he still had never allowed her to leave the grounds of the Lestrange estate without him. So she was shocked when he agreed and took his leave with reasonable politeness, despite an obvious wariness of Charlus.
After a pleasant afternoon with Narcissa, Ginny Floo'd back to the Lestrange Manor and went straight to her bedroom, wanting to consult with Trixie about the mystery of Rabastan's behavior.
The mirror heard her out with patience, then delivered her verdict. "Do you think he might some other wizard, using Polyjuice?"
"That would explain the flask. And the personality change." Ginny agreed.
"Well, there's one way to find out. Just try to kill him," suggested Trixie. "The blood wards on your wedding band won't protect an imposter."
"That's a bit drastic," Ginny told the bloodthirsty mirror. "And Percy's warned me that if Rabastan dies, I'll just be married off to another Death Eater."
"Maybe some other curse?" Trixie coaxed. "I know a few that aren't fatal."
"I think I'll stick with a hex," Ginny said. "You know, just in case he's one of the good guys."
"Fine." Trixie sounded like she was pouting. "But could you at least bring him in here, please, so I can watch? And make it a good one!"
Ginny agreed, seeing no harm in either request. Given the hell that Rabastan had put her through, she would thoroughly enjoy hitting him - or someone who looked exactly like him - with a painful hex. She also was confident she could avoid any situation where Rabastan - or whoever he was - attempted to Avada the mirror like Rodolphus had.
The fact that Rabastan seemed to find nothing unusual when she sent a house-elf to fetch him was further proof to Ginny that she was dealing with a Polyjuiced imposter.
"Ginny? Did you need something?" he asked, hovering by the entrance to her bedroom. He looked uncomfortable to be there, nervously scratching at his beard.
"Just this," she said, whipping out her oaken wand and hissing the incantation to her favorite hex.
"Ow! Salazar's bollocks!" the wizard swore, careening into her bed frame as black bats began crawling out of his nostrils and flapping around the room. "That is vile!" he gagged.
Ginny followed up her Bat-Bogey hex with an Incarcerous, tying the false Rabastan to the spindles at the foot of her four-poster bed as Trixie cheered her on. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"I'm your husband. Have you gone mental?"
"Perhaps," Ginny admitted. "But you're not Rabastan Lestrange. If you were, I wouldn't have been able to hex you."
The false Rabastan compressed his lips in a thin line, making it clear he would not answer.
"Tighten the ropes," Trixie suggested. "The Polyjuice will wear off soon enough. Or you could try to loosen his tongue. He's in your bedroom, posing as your husband. The Wizengamot would forgive just about anything you do to him, short of an Unforgivable."
"Who's that?" the wizard asked, eyes rolling towards Ginny's en suite bathroom in alarm.
"A friend," she replied, curtly. "And she's right. Who knows what you're planning? Rape, murder, perhaps a bit of rebellion?"
His eyes widened at the last possibility she listed. "Please, I wasn't going to do anything to hurt you. Your brothers wouldn't stand for it."
"Are you with the Order?" Ginny asked sharply. She had no idea where Percy's true loyalties lay, but the imposter had quite deliberately used a plural. That meant Bill, Charlie, George, and Ron, who all were still alive and fighting, so far as she knew.
"I'm the only one they could get past the Lestrange wards on such short notice," he advised.
"He didn't answer your question!" Trixie trilled. "Is he with the Order or not? And who is he?"
The imposter shot her a crooked grin, even as his features began to shift as the Polyjuice Potion wore off.
"I'm Nott," he said, cheekily. "Theo Nott."
A/N: Thanks to everyone (anyone?) who is sticking with this story despite the slow pace of my updates. I appreciate the concern expressed by Clever-Lady and others, but there's nothing wrong - just a lack of free time in which to write. Props to the guest and bibliovortex for pointing out my blooper with Neville's middle name, which I've since fixed. I won't subject a beta to my erratic schedule with this story, so I truly appreciate reviews or PMs pointing out any errors. Speaking of beta readers, the fantastic I_was_BOTWP was kind enough to edit my submissions to D/Hr Advent and the Dramione remix, both of which I'm going to cross-post on this site starting tonight. My Advent story (entitled The Secret of Christmas) was butting right up against the word limit, so this site's version will be slightly expanded, while Tout le Mensonge (a Les Mis remix) is going to be substantially revised. Please check them both out and let me know what you think, if you're so inclined. And since I tend to update TLLH every few months instead of every few days, I'll take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year in 2018!