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The Granger Principle (Harry Potter AU)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Jun 15, 2019.

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  1. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    It'll be a little longer - there's some loose ends to be tied up, so to speak.
     
    Prince Charon likes this.
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 11: The Dinner
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 11: The Dinner

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 16th, 2005

    “Oh, Ron…”

    He felt arms wrap around him from behind. A nude body pressed against his back. A chin on his shoulder, hair tickling his ear. Taking a deep breath, he smelt her scent. “Yes, love,” he whispered, slowly turning around.

    Then they were on the bed, him on top of her. Kissing. Her bushy hair covering the pillow...

    Ron woke up, alone and feeling disoriented. Had he had that sort of dream, featuring Granger? Bloody hell, he must have had a pint too many last night. No, he’d only had the one pint Luna had liberated from the kitchen. Had it been tampered with, perhaps? Luna was smart, but she wasn’t exactly a master thief, so, odds were, the kitchen staff were aware of her ‘pilfering’.

    He blinked. His room looked the same. No trouble with his eyes. His sense of balance was fine, too.

    He sighed. Well, it had been a while since his last relationship. Or one-night stand. His work made having a relationship a little difficult. And Granger was about the only woman with whom he’d been spending time lately. Apart from Luna, of course. And Luna was his ex.

    Totally normal. Probably.

    A shave and a shower later, he went to the lounge, which served as their ‘private’ dining room as well. Harry was already buttering a scone at the table.

    “Morning,” Ron said, sitting down and grabbing the teapot.

    “Morning,” Harry replied. He didn’t look or sound too chipper, Ron noticed.

    “Did you have trouble sleeping?” he asked.

    His friend shook his head. “No.”

    That didn’t sound convincing. But before Ron could think of a way to dig a little without making Harry mad, Luna arrived, Granger in tow. Literally - she was holding her hand and dragging her along, from the looks of it.

    “Good morning!” Luna announced. “Oh, scones!”

    “We had scones yesterday as well,” Granger said, frowning. “Morning.”

    “That’s no reason not to enjoy them!” Luna replied, grabbing two before she had taken a seat.

    Granger snorted and looked around. Ron handed her the teapot - he knew what she wanted first thing in the morning.

    She didn’t look like she had in his dream, he noted. And not just because she was dressed. Her hair wasn’t free, but up in her usual messy ponytail. And she was grumpy and growling, not moaning. But the way she stood fit. And the proportions seemed to match, as far as he could tell with her wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

    “Is something wrong?”

    Ron blinked. He had been staring at her! He quickly shook his head. “Oh, no. Just wondering if Luna dragged you out of bed to here.”

    Her eyes widened, then narrowed, and he saw her baring her teeth when she frowned at him.

    “Oh, no, I would never do that!” Luna said. “Unless it was an emergency, of course. But I dragged her out of her room.”

    Fortunately, the news started on the TV in the lounge before Granger had enough tea to tell him off.

    *****​

    “... and the Metropolitan Police have just confirmed that the main suspect in the murder and missing person case that culminated in a shoot-out leaving half a dozen dead in the middle of London a week ago is Chief Superintendent Corban Yaxley, a subordinate of Deputy Commissioner Rufus Scrimgeour and Commissioner Amelia Bones, the two murdered police officers. Officer Yaxley’s current whereabouts are unknown, and he is considered armed and dangerous. Should you recognise him, do not confront him. Remove yourself to a safe place and inform the police at once.”

    Ron snorted at the picture that illustrated the news report. Someone had found the most unflattering shot of Yaxley for the press release. “Finally!” he exclaimed. “It was about time…”

    “Shhh!” Luna interrupted him, pressing a finger against her lips. “It’s not finished yet!”

    And, indeed, Granger’s picture - quite a bit more flattering - appeared on the screen. “There has been no news regarding the fate of missing scientist Dr Hermione Granger, though usually informed sources claim that she, like her parents, was in protective custody and that the police officers guarding her haven’t yet come forward because Commissioner Bones warned them about possible moles in the force before her death. The Metropolitan Police have declined to comment.”

    “Anyone want to bet Dumbledore had a hand in how quickly they changed their tunes about us?” Harry asked. “We’ve gone from ‘suspicious police officers with a troublesome past’ to ‘diligent bodyguards’.”

    “That’s a fool’s bet,” Luna replied. “The question should be: Who arranged for you to come under suspicion in the first place?”

    Ron shrugged. “Wouldn’t take much. We’ve made our share of enemies. Both in the police and outside.” And they had some - minor - incidents on their files which someone could blow out of proportion.

    “The Skeeter I knew,” Granger said, “thrived on this sort of scandal-mongering. And she’d do it just to sell more newspapers. Completely amoral.”

    “Our version is a little more careful,” Ron pointed out. “And her name didn’t appear to be connected to the news reports.”

    “That doesn’t have to mean anything. She could already be writing a new book, and any scandal centred on you would help with advertising,” Luna said.

    Ron could imagine that. On the other hand, Dumbledore probably had a lot more influence - and Ron couldn’t tell what the old man might think would serve his goals best: them being fully cleared or them remaining under suspicion. Both situations had their advantages and drawbacks.

    He’d have to gather more intel about Dumbledore - and about Grindelwald.

    But first, he had to talk to Harry. His friend was… looking happy now? Ron suppressed a frown. Talking to Harry without anyone listening would be a little tricky. “Better eat a light meal,” he told Granger and the others, “we have our morning run to do.”

    Granger groaning he had expected. Luna’s lack of enthusiasm he hadn’t. “But it’s raining!” she protested.

    “Fitness doesn’t care about the weather,” he replied.

    “Fitness does care about getting a cold!” Luna retorted. “And it’s raining.”

    “There’s no bad weather, only unsuitable clothing,” Ron told her.

    “That was Percy’s line when he chased us out of your home to play,” Harry said. “And you know he only did that so we wouldn’t bother him when he had Penny over.”

    Ron hadn’t known it back then, of course. “That doesn’t make it wrong,” he pointed out. He wasn’t about to wink; Harry already knew why he wanted to go on a run. “Besides, since we don’t know what we’ll face once Dr Granger finishes her portal, it only makes sense to be physically fit. Just in case.”

    That convinced her; he could see her pressing her lips together as she inclined her head. She didn’t like it, but she saw sense. But then she suddenly frowned. “You plan on coming with me?”

    Of course. “Yes. We’re your bodyguards, aren’t we?” he added, to sound less pushy.

    “And I’ll come because I’m your friend!” Luna piped up. “And because I want to meet my counterpart! It’ll be fascinating! Like having a twin sister! And a second Daddy! We’ll be a whole family!”

    Ron suppressed a wince - the loss of her mum was still hurting her and her dad. He was almost glad her counterpart had lost her mum as well - if there was a Pandora Lovegood in Granger’s world, Luna might not want to come back.

    Like Granger, he thought, pressing his lips together. Her family and friends were waiting for her. Or so she hoped. And her world, in more than one sense.

    “Let’s meet outside in five minutes,” he said, finishing his tea. A fast run was just the thing to clear his mind of these depressing thoughts.

    *****​

    “So… what was so important that you had to run them into the ground?” Harry asked in a low voice behind Ron as they stretched.

    Ron felt a little guilty - and dirty - as he glanced at Luna and Granger. They had collapsed and lain down on the grass in the small clearing where they had taken their first break, uncaring of the drizzle hitting their faces as they struggled to recover their breath. “Technically, they did that to themselves, trying to keep up,” he defended himself. The pace Ron had set had been challenging, indeed - for him and Harry.

    “Yeah, right. As if we’d let them run at their own pace by themselves,” Harry replied.

    Ron cleared his throat. “What are you going to do now that we’re about to be cleared?” he asked, changing the subject.

    Harry shrugged. “What we agreed on: staying with Granger. And Luna, now.”

    “I didn’t mean that,” Ron said. Though it was nice to have confirmation that there hadn’t been a change of plans. “Will you be meeting Ginny?”

    “That wouldn’t be smart,” Harry replied.

    Ron snorted. He knew an evasive answer when he heard one.

    Harry glared at him. “I want to, but it would endanger our cover.”

    “Well, she’s pretty famous,” Ron remarked. Which was a slight understatement. And which was, in hindsight, a little odd. “I wonder why the newspapers didn’t bother her about the affair.”

    “She’s probably gone to ground,” Harry said. “But they should have mentioned her, you’re right.”

    Ron muttered a curse under his breath. “Do you think Dad got Dumbledore to pull some strings?”

    “We’d have to ask him.”

    “You’re training in dodging today, I see,” Ron remarked. He ignored Harry glaring at him again.

    “I want to see Ginny. Happy now?” his friend spat.

    “Well, we should be able to arrange that, once we’re fully cleared and Yaxley’s caught.”

    Harry scoffed. “That would be putting her in danger. Whoever’s behind Yaxley will follow her. And even if Dumbledore manages to protect her, it would mean that he’s got more leverage on us.”

    That was true, Ron knew. But he also knew that it didn’t really matter. “He already has Dad in his pocket. And do you think he wouldn’t offer to arrange for Ginny to visit us if he thinks it’ll make us feel indebted to him?”

    Harry’s curse would have even gotten Mum, who adored the bloke and still saw the poor orphan boy Harry hadn’t really been, to scold him.

    “So, might as well meet her anyway - she’ll be furious if she thinks you didn’t want to meet her,” Ron told him.

    Harry scoffed again, but Ron caught a faint smile on his face as they went to get Granger and Luna so they could continue their run.

    At the second break, near the shore - not planned, but necessitated by the pace Ron had set at the start - Granger approached him. “Did you have to run us into exhaustion just so you could talk privately with Harry?”

    He didn’t try to deny it. She wouldn’t buy it. “When did you figure it out?” he asked, instead.

    “Just now,” she admitted. She looked a little embarrassed, but after running three-fourths of the route, she was red-faced from the exertion, so he couldn’t tell if she was also blushing.

    “Ah.”

    “Couldn’t you have just told us that you wanted to have a private talk?”

    That made him feel embarrassed. “Now that you mention it, yes. I could have.”

    “And why didn’t you?”

    He shrugged. “Habit. I grew up with six nosy siblings. Fred and George were especially bad - still are, actually, just in case you ever meet them - so if I’d told them I wanted to have a private talk with Harry, they’d have gone to even greater lengths to listen in. And you and Luna would behave more naturally if you didn’t know the reason for the run.”

    “More naturally out here, where we weren’t under surveillance?”

    He grinned at her. “Would you believe me if I told you that I was taught to pay attention to the smallest detail when creating a cover story?”

    “Yes.”

    Right, she knew Moody’s counterpart. “Let’s blame my instructor, then.”

    “As long as you don’t repeat this stunt,” she replied.

    “Alright.”

    The looked at each other for a moment. Just long enough for the sudden silence to become awkward. “You should stretch,” he told her. “You pushed yourself hard today.”

    “You pushed me,” she retorted.

    “As I recall, it was more like leading. I ran, and you followed. No pushing was involved - on my side.”

    She glared at him, then sniffed. “You told us to keep up.”

    “And you always do what you’re told?”

    “You are in charge of our training,” she retorted.

    “And now I’m telling you to stretch.”

    He could almost hear her jaw snap together and feel the heat from her glare. But she was stretching.

    His smile slipped a little when he remembered what she had told him about ‘accidental magic’. Perhaps he really shouldn’t push her too much. Or lead her, in this case.

    “I’ll hold you responsible if I don’t make as much progress in my work today as planned!”

    A little late, but she had retorted, he noted. Well, he already knew that she was passionate and stubborn.

    *****​

    Too stubborn for her own good, Ron thought hours later, when he looked into her room and saw that Granger had fallen asleep at her desk, not on the bed right next to her. Shaking his head, he went in.

    Once again, he noted how she looked softer when asleep. Usually, she was always pushing. Herself, or others. Driven. But when she was sleeping… He snorted. She wasn’t drooling on her notes, but she had an ink smudge on her cheek.

    He could tuck her in - she wasn’t as slender as Luna was, but he wouldn’t have any trouble lifting her, and the bed was right next to the desk. And she certainly needed the rest.

    But it was dinner time, and she needed food as well. So he reached out and gently shook her shoulder. “Wake up!”

    She didn’t shoot awake but slowly opened her eyes, blinking and looking confused as she saw him. “Ron?”

    He felt a small pang of guilt. And jealousy. “That’s Officer Ron,” he joked.

    “Oh. Sorry. I was… Dear Lord, I fell asleep at the desk!” She started to check her notes, ignoring his reassurances that she hadn’t ruined them.

    He knew better than to stop her and waited until she had stashed the notes in her beaded bag. “It’s time for dinner.”

    “What? Already?”

    “A few minutes past dinner time, actually,” he told her with a smirk.

    “Why didn’t…” She bit her lower lip, trailing off. “Let’s go, then.”

    “After you, Dr Granger.” He held the door open with an exaggerated flourish.

    “Officer Weasley.” She walked past with a curt nod and toss of her head that could have fit into a number of fantasy novels he had read.

    Which reminded him. “Say, Dr Ganger…” he said as he followed her out of her room, “did you read a lot of fantasy when you were younger?”

    She narrowed her eyes at him for a moment. He grinned - he wasn’t talking about magic, even if he was skirting the line a little.

    “I haven’t read a fantasy book since I was eleven.”

    “Ah.” He forced himself to look embarrassed and add: “Sorry” - Dumbledore would assume they were talking about her kidnapping, not her entering magic school.

    “It’s OK. It’s in the past.”

    “Ever tried picking up the habit again? A lot has changed in the last ten years.”

    “I’m too busy for such diversions,” she replied as they entered the lounge.

    “Hi, Hermione! Ron, what took you so long?” Luna asked.

    “I had to wake her up.” That earned him another glare from Granger and a giggle from Luna, but it was worth it to shut down any off-colour jokes about needing a chaperone from Harry before his friend could make them.

    It wasn’t like that, anyway. A wet dream didn’t mean anything. Certainly not at his age.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 17th, 2005

    Ron groaned after waking up. A second wet dream involving Granger didn’t mean anything, either. Other than that he was probably going stir-crazy. Which a good run would help with. Should. The shower wouldn’t help, though. Too close to the dream. Perhaps a cold shower… Yes.

    He nicked himself while shaving, his concentration broken when he had a disturbing thought: Was this perhaps some ‘bleed over’ from her Ron? Some connection across the dimensions? A psychic or magical link? Granger had mentioned something about Harry - her Harry - being tied to the Dark Lord, hadn’t she?

    He’d have to ask her for more details. Without letting her know the reason. After breakfast. Well, the light breakfast they took before the run.

    *****​

    His chance came an hour later, at their break. He hadn’t set a punishing pace this time, but he hadn’t gone easy on her, either. So she wasn’t exhausted but still needed a short break. He watched her stretch - correctly, as he had shown her - then glanced around. Harry and Luna were a little too close. “Did anyone spot a bug? The electronic kind,” he clarified.

    “Oh! You think they started hiding them in the forest?” Luna perked up. “That would be just like a corporation built on blood! Spying on people and harming the environment at the same time!” She got up from where she had made a ‘grass snow angel’ and started to look around for listening devices.

    Harry sent him a look, and Ron nodded at Luna, then at Granger. His friend shook his head at him but turned to follow Luna, as Ron had known he would. Which left Ron to talk to Granger in peace.

    “I thought you said you wouldn’t try such stunts any more.” She wasn’t amused.

    “I didn’t. You didn’t have any trouble keeping up, did you?”

    She scoffed. “You would make a good lawyer, weaselling your way through loopholes.”

    He ignored the barb at his name - after seven years in the same school as Malfoy, there weren’t many insults that he hadn’t heard often enough to grow bored of them. “Knowing how to bend the rules is essential to be an effective police officer.”

    “I notice that you didn’t say ‘a good police officer’.”

    He shrugged with a grin. “We get results.”

    “And your colleagues don’t, I guess. Yaxley is still at large, after all.” Her smile wasn’t that friendly.

    “He might be already dead, the body dissolved in acid. Or dropped into wet cement.”

    “Do you think so?” She changed positions, hands on the trunk and bending her knee while stretching her other leg.

    He shook his head. “No. He’s too smart for that. If he were that dumb, he wouldn’t have been in CI5 for this long. If he’s really smart, he’ll be on some tropical island by now, with a fake ID and some dirty money he’s laundered.”

    “His counterpart wasn’t very smart.”

    “Which is why I don’t think he left Britain,” Ron said. “Anyway, I wanted to ask you something.”

    “Something you don’t want anyone to overhear.” She nodded. “Go ahead.”

    “You said Harry’s counterpart was tied to Voldemort through his scar.”

    She pursed her lips and stopped stretching. “I didn’t exactly say that.”

    “Cursed scar, ties to the Dark Lord, fated to face him…” He smiled at her glare.

    “Yes.”

    “Did that happen to others?” he asked.

    “I’ve never heard of another case - but few would have made such an event public.” She shrugged a little, then rubbed her shoulders. “Why do you want to know?”

    “I was wondering if someone could have a tie to their counterpart. It would be a huge security risk if one of our enemies had such a source of information.”

    “Oh.” She nodded. “That would be a problem. Although most of the people who could do us much harm were dead when I left - or are dead here.”

    “That didn’t stop the Dark Lord, did it?”

    “He was a special case. And he had a link to Harry through his cursed scar.” She smiled thinly. “In order to duplicate that feat, a dark wizard would have to curse someone from this world. And if they could do that, they would be here - and would have used magic against us already.”

    “Ah.” That was comforting. In a morbid way. “Are prophetic dreams real in your world?”

    She frowned at that. “No. Divination is nonsense. Real prophecies are very, very rare.”

    She sounded quite invested in this, he noticed. “Speaking from experience?”

    “No,” she spat. “Or, yes, sort of - I took Divination until I realised it was nonsense. Harry and Ron - my friends - took it as well, and they made up all their dreams and visions, and the teacher never noticed.”

    “Ah.” Ron smiled. It was reassuring to hear that he wasn’t being influenced by the soul or spirit or psychic echo of Granger’s lover.

    But that meant that he dreamed of her because he was attracted to her or because he was so randy, his subconscious was fixating on the closest woman.

    Neither was a very reassuring thought.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 18th, 2005

    Ron had to hand it to Dumbledore: The man had kept his word. At least to Granger - she was currently ordering a dozen men and women around in order to get her new lab set up just as she wanted it. Like a queen ruling her realm.

    “No, no - that terminal needs to be all the way back at the wall. Move it!”

    “Hey! Stop that - that needs to be in the exact centre of the room. And you! Don’t drill a hole there!”

    “What did I say about the computers? You need to run their power lines around the room, not through the centre! The magnetic field they could produce might ruin an experiment otherwise!”

    A queen that might be inciting a revolution among her subjects - Granger wasn’t the most diplomatic woman on a good day, and this wasn’t a good day. Too much stress. Ron shook his head as he leaned against the wall next to the entrance to the lab. Perhaps he’d have to act as a bodyguard and protect her from angry workers. Workers, he reminded himself, who Dumbledore trusted to keep a secret - they weren’t just the hired help. And they weren’t used to being micromanaged, either.

    Granger glowered at the last worker she had addressed, then walked over to Ron, sighing. “This will take longer than planned,” she said. “I didn’t expect that I would need to explain everything twice. Dumbledore should have sent people who can follow directions!”

    Ron glanced around, but they were far enough away that, with the noise from the drills and other power tools, no one seemed close enough to overhear her. “They are experienced employees,” he told her, “and they’re probably used to just getting told what they have to do, not how to do it.”

    “Hmph. That only works if they know what they need to do. And they don’t! I’m the physicist here!”

    He shrugged. “It’s not their fault - you are breaking new ground, aren’t you? I doubt that most physicists would know what you need.” And she was planning to use magic as well.

    She frowned, but then bit her lower lip. “I guess I might have been a little too harsh.”

    “A little bit.” He didn’t quite grin at her, but judging by her scowl, his tone had given his thoughts away.

    She huffed and turned to look at the workers in the centre of the room.

    “Not going to apologise?” he asked.

    “No.”

    “Ah.” He shouldn’t have taken such a condescending tone. But he couldn’t resist.

    She glanced at him with her lips pressed together. After a moment, she sighed again. “I might have been a little rude, but it wouldn’t have happened if they had been following my instructions to the letter.”

    “And you don’t want to admit that you were also in the wrong,” he replied.

    She huffed and went to her temporary desk without another word.

    Watching her go and shuffle paper, he felt both satisfied and disappointed. And a little bit guilty.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 19th, 2005

    “Someone important is coming to visit,” Harry said as they approached the building on their morning run.

    “Either Dumbledore or Grindelwald - or both,” Ron agreed. They were running at a quite comfortable pace; Granger would be insufferable if he ran her into the ground right when she was about to finish her new lab. More insufferable.

    “What?” Granger asked.

    “There are more guards than usual, and Filch was up already, inspecting his crew,” Ron explained. “And weren’t the workers in your lab making more of an effort yesterday evening?”

    She didn’t answer that. He hadn’t expected her to, either - she hadn’t talked to him much since yesterday. The woman could hold grudges. “Ah,” she said after a moment.

    “Oh, the spymaster returns!” Luna cut in, blurting out a sentence per breath while she ran. “Will he arrive in a submarine? Did you have magical submarines, Hermione?”

    “No, we didn’t. There were spells which let you breathe underwater. We had a giant squid, though.”

    “A giant squid?” Ron blurted out. He hadn’t heard about that. Was she taking the mickey?

    “Really?”

    “Don’t squids need salt water?” Harry asked.

    “Normally, yes,” Granger replied. “This was an exception. He served as a lifeguard when the first-years used the boats.”

    “What?” Ron shuddered. To be dragged out of the water by a giant tentacle with suction cups...

    “Oh!” Luna exclaimed. “Was he sapient or just well-trained?”

    “I don’t know,” Granger replied. “It’s sometimes hard to tell with magical creatures. Or with some wizards and witches,” she added and Ron could hear her smirk.

    “Your school was crazy,” he told her.

    “Yes, it was,” she agreed.

    And she was missing it anyway. Ron felt guilty again. But they reached the building, and there was no more time to talk about magic.

    *****​

    Ron frowned at the mirror as he adjusted his tie. Unlike the suit he was wearing, which fit him well, the tie was proving a little difficult to handle. His first attempt had resulted in the tie being too short, the next had left it too long.

    He snorted. Why did he care about the length of his tie? They were in a secret lab, not at a gala. And it wasn’t as if he were wearing a tailor-made suit, either.

    But he wanted to look good. With the effort being spent on this dinner - suits had been provided for Harry and himself, dresses for Granger and Luna - he didn’t want to look like he shouldn’t be there. Mum and Dad had raised him better than that. It wasn’t the money, but the manners - something Malfoy had never wanted to accept.

    And Ron didn’t want to look bad next to Harry, who cut a dashing figure in a suit, as he knew from experience. And from Ginny’s pictures and stories.

    His tie finally adjusted, he brushed a piece of lint from his shoulder, checked if his guns were showing - they weren’t - and left his room.

    Harry was already waiting in the lounge, looking sharp, as Ron had expected. And grumpy, too. “What a load of… whatever,” his friend complained. “We look like we’re going to a ball. We’re even waiting for the girls. It’s just a dinner invitation.”

    “Did you ever tell Ginny what you think about balls?” Ron asked with a faint smirk.

    “Do I look like I’m a fool?” Harry shot back.

    Ron chuckled. “Well…”

    His friend rolled his eyes. “She loves them.”

    Indeed, Ron’s sister liked being the centre of attention. As the youngest of his siblings, and the only girl, she was used to being treated like a princess. And becoming a - minor - celebrity in her own right hadn’t exactly helped there.

    Harry, though, loathed balls. Ron’s friend was frowning at him, he noticed. “We don’t go to many balls,” he said.

    “Unless you count fancy parties as well,” Ron pointed out.

    “Those are different.”

    “Just because there are no formal dances?”

    “Yes.”

    Ron was about to point out that those dances were what little princess Ginny loved the most at balls, but then Luna and Granger finally appeared in the hallway.

    He blinked and almost whistled. Granger cleaned up really well. Luna, too, of course, but he already knew that. But Granger almost seemed like a different person in her little black number instead of her usual clothes. Sensible shoes, he noted - not flats, but the high heels weren’t too high. And nice legs. Even her hair looked nice, framing her face in soft waves instead of being tied back in a bushy ponytail.

    “You two look nice!” Luna announced. “Don’t they, Hermione?”

    Granger nodded, a little stiffly, Ron thought, as she said: “Yes, one could say that.” She did seem a little too self-conscious for the occasion. “I guess Dumbledore wants us to make a good impression.”

    “Well, you’ll certainly succeed at that,” Ron told her. “Both of you,” he quickly added, ignoring Harry’s snort.

    “Indeed,” his friend remarked.

    “I would prefer to impress people with my mind,” Granger replied.

    “You can be pretty and smart,” Luna said. “Don’t let old men - and some young ones - tell you otherwise! That false dichotomy is just another tool of the conspiracy to divide us!”

    Ron cleared his throat before Luna could go into details - her unhappy experiences at school hadn’t been solely because of blonde stereotypes, but they had certainly contributed. “So, shall we?” He offered Granger his arm without thinking, and, for a moment, both of them seemed to freeze.

    Then she took his arm. “Let’s go, then.”

    As they walked down the hallway towards the lift, he kept an eye out - and one on her. “Say…”

    “Yes?”

    “Did you adjust the dress?” She’d know that he meant ‘with magic’.

    “No, I didn’t,” she replied. “I don’t have the necessary tools, even if I wanted to alter a dress.”

    Ah. “It fits you perfectly,” he pointed out. And it looked nice on her, which didn’t matter, of course.

    “Thank you.” She flashed him a smile - a pleased smile. She didn’t understand.

    “As if it had been tailor-made for you,” he went on.

    “Oh.” Now she got it.

    He nodded. How had Dumbledore’s men managed to get her sizes without her - or him - noticing?

    “I guess my tailor’s computer security is poor,” she said.

    “You had dresses tailored for you?” Ron asked before he could help himself.

    She frowned at him. “Once. At my... family’s request. For a celebration.”

    “Ah.”

    “I don’t see the need to spend more money on tailor-made clothes,” she continued.

    “I didn’t think you would.”

    And there was the glare he was so familiar with - until she suddenly laughed.

    He blinked. Oh. “What did my counterpart do?” he asked.

    “You don’t want to know,” she said, with a slightly sad-looking smile.

    But Ron did want to know. Very much, actually. Even though he didn’t know why.

    *****​

    “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” Dumbledore greeted them as they entered what Ron had overheard the staff call ‘the Presidential Suite’. “May I introduce you to my dear friend Gellert Grindelwald?”

    “Good evening.” The other man in the room, which was quite a bit bigger than their lounge, nodded at them as he stepped closer.

    Ron looked him over. Dumbledore had a slight paunch, but Grindelwald made him look almost fat; the former German spy was rail-thin. And looked tough as leather - a far cry from his jovial partner.

    “Mr Potter. Mr Weasley.” The man met Ron’s eyes but seemed to dismiss him at once, focusing on Granger. “Dr Granger. I’ve been looking forward to making your acquaintance.” He had a slight German accent. Probably put-on, Ron thought - a spy turned CEO would have learnt perfect English, especially if living with Dumbledore.

    “Good evening, Mr Grindelwald.” Granger looked and sounded composed and polite, Ron noticed.

    “Gellert’s been badgering me to arrange this visit,” Dumbledore cut in with his usual smile.

    “It’s a fascinating tale. And a priceless opportunity,” Grindelwald said, nodding. His lips twisted slightly, subtly signalling some doubt.

    For all her occasional lack of social graces, Granger, of course, had to pick up on that. She was probably used to people at Imperial doubting her. Ron saw her raise her chin and frown at the German. “I will deliver what I promised.”

    “Don’t you trust your partner’s judgement, Mr Grindelwald?” Luna spoke up. She was frowning as well, and much more noticeably, with an added pout.

    “Trust but verify, Miss Lovegood,” Grindelwald replied with a slight sneer.

    “Words to live by,” Dumbledore cut in. “Shall we sit down? I’ve found that most meetings run more smoothly if people are more comfortable. And I have it on good authority that our meal deserves to be eaten at a proper table.” He smiled, seemingly unfazed by the latent hostility, and gestured towards the table in the back.

    As soon as they had taken their seats, a waitress started serving the hors d’oeuvres - bite-sized meat pies. Quite delicious, as Ron discovered.

    “One of the few pieces of English cuisine of which Gellert ever grew fond,” Dumbledore commented.

    His friend snorted. Once. Ron wasn’t sure whether that was affected as much as the man’s accent - Ron knew the stereotypes about Germans - or if it was genuine.

    “My compliments to the chef,” Granger said. Luna signalled her agreement with an appreciative noise.

    Ron nodded. “It’s very tasty.”

    Dumbledore beamed at them, though Grindelwald soon did his best to ruin the mood again: “While Albus, as usual, deduced a great deal, I do think it all sounds a little fantastic. Another dimension? A parallel world? Counterparts so close to us, even the DNA matched, so you could pass for a kidnapping victim?”

    “If you remove the impossible, what remains is the truth,” Dumbledore said.

    Grindelwald scoffed in reply. “Or the impossible. I haven’t seen any proof so far.”

    “If I could prove it easily, I wouldn’t be here,” Granger retorted.

    “Really?” Grindelwald scoffed. “What about the device you used to save Mr Weasley?”

    “What?” Granger froze for a moment, and Ron barely kept himself from wincing.

    “You claim you have no proof, yet you cling to the same ugly, ratty bag you were found with after your arrival - you even take it with you on your runs,” the German said before picking up and eating another pie.

    “You searched my room!” Granger shot back.

    “The staff uses your absences to clean it and do the laundry,” Dumbledore cut in. “Like in a hotel.”

    And then reported to him. Which had been obvious - at least to Ron. That was part of the reason they only talked about magic on their runs. And once more, Granger was spilling information.

    “I analysed the reports and records from the shoot-out in the park. There’s no known method to achieve the ‘cloud of darkness’ that covered Mr Weasley,” Grindelwald said.

    “There you have your proof, then,” Granger retorted.

    “A deduction. Not quite proof.” The old man’s smile was a far cry from Dumbledore’s. Hard and triumphant.

    “What I used was a limited resource,” Granger told him.

    “And I’m very grateful she used it, despite it being irreplaceable,” Ron cut in. “I was in a sticky situation.”

    “Sticky indeed,” Dumbledore said. “There was a lot of blood on the ground - I would have assumed that you were gravely wounded, if not for seeing you here, hale and healthy.”

    Ron forced himself to keep smiling and nodded. “Yes.” He wouldn’t show any reaction. Even though the two old men were already aware that he had been hurt.

    “Another irreplaceable resource, I assume,” Grindelwald said with obviously fake sincerity.

    For a change, Granger didn’t reply.

    But it wasn’t because she had managed to bite her tongue, Ron realised with a glance.

    *****​

    “Episkey! Episkey! Episkey!”

    It wasn’t working. The wounds weren’t closing. It was a dark curse.

    “Vulnera Sanentur!”

    She all but yelled the incantation, then sighed with relief as she saw the wounds close. But he had lost a lot of blood. She reached into her bag and pulled out a Blood-Replenishing Potion.

    “What are you doing?”

    She froze at the acerbic tone. Snape.

    “Saving Neville,” Harry spat.

    “You’re wasting time.” The professor - she would never call him ‘Headmaster’ - sneered. “Time your friends are buying for you with their lives. What use is it to waste a valuable potion on him if he’ll pointlessly die anyway so long as you don’t accomplish your task?”

    “You bloody git! He’s our friend!” Ron roared.

    “He’s not going to bleed out any more.” Snape sneered and flicked his wand. A moment later, Neville opened his eyes and groaned. “There. Healthy, if not hale. Now go and destroy the last Horcrux before the last of your allies falls to the Dark Lord!”

    “What?” Neville asked, blinking. Then he focused on Harry. “Go! We’ll hold them.”

    She bit her lower lip. But Harry nodded - with clenched teeth. “He’s right. Let’s go!”

    And she stashed the potion in her bag again as she followed her friends to the Room of Requirement.

    *****​
     
    Lockir, Yla, dylanredefined and 10 others like this.
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: The Cover Story
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 12: The Cover Story

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 19th, 2005

    Granger recovered quickly, but not quickly enough for the two old men to miss what had happened. Ron saw Dumbledore smile in apparent sympathy - which was probably faked - and Grindelwald’s lips twitch a little as Granger took a deep breath.

    “Sorry,” she said. “Memories.”

    “I see how you managed to convince people that you were a kidnapping victim.”

    Granger glared at him. “I was a kidnapping victim.”

    Ron kept himself from reaching over to touch her hand or shoulder. She wouldn’t appreciate it.

    “Not for long, though, according to your story,” Grindelwald said in a very clinical tone. Had he sounded like that when he had interrogated people for the Abwehr?

    “Long enough to be tortured extensively,” she spat.

    Luna gasped, and Ron winced. He hadn’t known that, though he had suspected. Some of the nightmares had been a little too specific.

    “Gellert.” Dumbledore inclined his head, and Grindelwald leaned back. Was the old man pouting? Was that a hint at who called the shots in that relationship?

    Ron focused on Granger. She was trembling and tenser than a bowstring. But she kept staring at Grindelwald, her jaw clenched and her teeth bared. Too stubborn for her own good.

    And too gullible to keep such information secret. Ron cleared his throat. “Do you really want to waste an irreplaceable, possibly life-saving resource on satisfying your curiosity?”

    Grindelwald’s expression told Ron that he did - but it was Dumbledore who replied. “Perish the thought! Although if you have access to any renewable resources, we’d be delighted if you were able to provide a demonstration. Or if you could manufacture a small device.”

    Granger pressed her lips together. They really should have thought of a good cover story for magic. Well, there was always Clarke - but technology was replicable. Generally. Perhaps... “The resources needed for her advanced technology aren’t available in our world.”

    Granger shot him a look he couldn’t read, then nodded. “Yes. I’m focusing on opening a portal to my world since I know how to do that with the resources available. But to recreate most of my world’s advanced technology, I would have to know how, first of all, and then have access to resources unique to my home world.” She hadn’t stumbled over ‘advanced technology’. “And, seeing as I barely managed to save Ron’s life, I’d be loathe to waste what devices I have left on demonstrations. That I packed for a fight doesn’t help, of course - most of what I have left is meant for emergency use in combat.”

    And there she went and said too much, again. Ron suppressed a sigh.

    “And your healing technology?” Grindelwald asked.

    “Limited to wounds,” she replied.

    “Ah.” He slowly nodded.

    Was the man sick? Ron wondered.

    “All we - all of us - need is a portal to your home world, I think,” Dumbledore said.

    “And hope that your doctors accept what we can offer,” Grindelwald added.

    “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Granger said. “If my friends are still fighting, they should be able to grant you access to advanced healing in exchange for material support. And if they won, I’ll get you access myself.”

    “And if they lost?” Grindelwald asked.

    She clenched her teeth again. “Then we’ll see if the French have a taste for what you can offer. But someone will want this world’s luxuries.”

    “Luxury goods are a quite common start for trade relations, if I remember my history lessons correctly,” Dumbledore said.

    Was the old man planning to open a trade route through the portal? How would that play with the ‘Statute of Secrecy’ Granger had mentioned? Probably not too well, Ron thought. Something they couldn’t let the two men know or there would be problems.

    “I would be interested in hearing more about your home world, Dr Granger,” Grindelwald said after the main course - excellent ‘schnitzel’ with pommes frites - was served. “Nothing that would trigger traumatic memories. Just a basic overview - how advanced is your world? I would prefer not to emulate the Indians selling their land for glass beads.”

    “It’s ‘Native Americans’,” Granger told him. “And I can assure you that I wouldn’t let you be tricked like that.”

    “That’s laudable of you, and your help is appreciated,” Grindelwald replied - though he didn’t sound particularly grateful, at least in Ron’s opinion. “But surely you understand that we’d prefer to make our own informed decisions? As you would in our place, I think.”

    “Yes, I understand.” Granger sounded reluctant. But Ron knew this had been well-played by the old man. “Now, in my home world, it’s mainly the elite who have access to such advantages. Unless born into the right family, you have to be extraordinarily talented to join the club, so to speak.”

    “Like yourself, Dr Granger?” Dumbledore said.

    “Yes. My parents were, like the Grangers in this world, dentists.”

    “I presume that you faced a lot of resentment and jealousy,” the old man went on.

    “Yes,” Granger confirmed in a flat voice.

    “Up to a war against you and your peers?”

    “Yes. And against everyone who’d stand with us.”

    “Such as Albus’s counterpart,” Grindelwald commented, finishing his schnitzel.

    “He was our leader,” Granger confirmed what Grindelwald would already know.

    “And defeated my counterpart in a duel when he was poised to conquer Europe in the 1940s.” The old man snorted. “A tall tale, if ever I heard one.”

    “That’s the official story,” Ron cut in before Granger could reveal more clues about magic. “Shooting his lover from behind probably wouldn’t have made for a good story.”

    Dumbledore chuckled at that, then sent a wry glance at Grindelwald. “While I like the thought of my counterpart saving his country single-handedly, killing his beloved seems a little too pragmatic.”

    “I like the thought that my counterpart only lost because of love,” Grindelwald replied.

    The smile they shared was creepy, in Ron’s opinion, though it was also clear that there was more behind the exchange.

    “Your counterpart didn’t kill Grindelwald. My Grindelwald. He imprisoned him in a prison Grindelwald had built,” Granger said.

    “Ah.” Dumbledore nodded. “That changes things, I believe.”

    Grindelwald snorted. “My counterpart was kept in his own private prison? That’s certainly a better fate than what awaited the leaders of the Reich.”

    “You make it sound as if there was no trial, Dr Granger,” Dumbledore commented.

    “I don’t know. But I think that if there had been a trial, it would have been both public and would have revealed their personal relationship,” Granger replied.

    “So much for due process,” the old German commented.

    “Quite,” Dumbledore agreed. Once more, it sounded like hinting at a shared event. “Though I presume that such revelations would have put a crimp in my counterpart’s political ambitions.”

    Ah. That might explain why Dumbledore hadn’t been knighted after his service as ‘C’ twenty years ago. Ron nodded.

    “It was revealed after his death to attack him posthumously,” Granger said.

    “Ah.” Dumbledore’s smile turned wry again, and he glanced at Grindelwald with another unreadable expression.

    “Err.” Granger bit her lower lip. “The attack wasn’t aimed at the homosexual nature of the relationship, should that be your assumption. It was the fact that the famous Albus Dumbledore had been the lover of one of the most infamous people in the world that was meant to wreck his reputation and demoralise our side.”

    “Ah.” Dumbledore nodded again. “And that only happened after my counterpart’s demise, not before. So it didn’t impact his political career.”

    “No, it didn’t. For decades, your counterpart was an internationally-famous politician and the headmaster of our most important boarding school. At the same time,” Granger said.

    Dumbledore looked surprised for a moment, and Grindelwald cackled. “I was a headmaster?”

    “And a teacher before that.”

    The old man slowly inclined his head. “Shaping the future leaders of the country, I presume. And recruiting operatives - like yourself.”

    “Yes,” Granger confirmed.

    “I have to admit that I never contemplated that course of action. Although I probably wouldn’t have been a very good teacher.” But probably a good recruiter, Ron thought.

    “I believe I mentioned before that we cannot trust my knowledge about someone’s counterpart in order to draw conclusions about them,” Granger pointed out with a smug smile.

    “Ah, but the temptation to do so remains as strong as ever!” Dumbledore replied. “The ultimate game of ‘what if?’, so to speak.”

    “Well, I, for one, am glad I wasn’t sentenced to life in Spandau,” Grindelwald said. “Hess would have been a very boring cellmate, I think.”

    “Quite,” Dumbledore agreed.

    “Were you ever tried?” Luna asked.

    “No. Not by the Reich nor by the Allies after the capitulation.” Grindelwald smiled with a cold expression. “I was a mere junior officer doing my duty in the Abwehr during the war.”

    Luna frowned, but before she could push the old spy, Dumbledore stepped in. “And when he was forced to choose between his duty and his love, he couldn’t decide.”

    “I might have managed to make a decision if someone hadn’t pushed me out of a window.”

    “On the first floor.”

    “Yes.”

    Both chuckled. Ron glanced at Harry, who hadn’t said anything in quite a while. His friend was staring at the two old men with a very guarded expression.

    As expected, Harry hadn’t been fooled by the ‘harmless old men’ act the two were putting on for them.

    *****​

    “And did you never use your influence or your access to privileged information to help your business interests?” Luna asked with a frown.

    “My dear, that would have been unethical,” Dumbledore replied, finishing his dessert - a rather conventional mix of various flavours of ice cream; apparently, Grindelwald wasn’t fond of ‘fancy desserts’.

    “I doubt that you ran the Secret Service with ethics in mind,” she retorted.

    “Oh, but that was in the interest of our country; ethics are a little more flexible in that case.” Dumbledore nodded with a very patronising expression. He found this as amusing as Grindelwald, Ron realised, but was a little less blatant about it.

    “And yet you haven’t actually denied it,” Harry pointed out.

    “Habit, Mr Potter,” Dumbledore told him. “I have had to neither confirm nor deny any speculation in the press for a long time.”

    “I’m not the press,” Luna said. “I’m just a concerned citizen.”

    “A very concerned citizen, I’d say,” Grindelwald commented.

    “Are my questions making you uncomfortable?” She frowned at him.

    “I’ve dealt with such questions for decades - as a weapons manufacturer in Germany, the press is a regular concern.”

    “It’s only fair to answer questions of yours after asking so many ourselves,” Dumbledore said - as if they had actually answered any questions, instead of deflecting them.

    Then again, they would have realised that Granger was giving evasive answers as well. Which, Ron realised, was probably the reason they were treating Luna like this. A subtle hint.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 20th, 2005

    “We need to think of a cover story for magic,” Harry said during the first break of their morning run. “Otherwise, they’ll figure it out. Quickly.”

    Granger was still catching her breath, as was Luna - they had stepped up the pace, to explain the longer breaks they would be taking. Not that Ron expected to fool Dumbledore, but getting sloppy was a bad habit to develop. But Granger managed to reply, if a little choppily: “Easier… said… than… done.”

    Ron watched her rest while he stretched. Truth to be told, he could use a break as well, if only to be fully ready should someone attack.

    “Difficult or not, we have to do it,” Harry retorted. “If they realise that it’s magic, and not technology that could be copied and controlled, they won’t be pleased.”

    “They’ll have to be told when I open the portal,” Granger said. “I won’t be able to conceal the ritual’s nature.”

    Granger had made it clear that she didn’t like the ‘Dark Arts’, as black magic was called in her world, but that still sounded a little worrying.

    “You need to keep magic secret until you can return to your world!” Luna cut in. “If they find out that you need to be born with magic, they’ll try to start a breeding program!”

    And that was a very disturbing thought. Though Ron had no doubt that Grindelwald would be all for it, and Dumbledore would at least entertain the idea - and probably try to subtly arrange a relationship with one of his agents. Or try to clone her.

    Granger seemed to turn slightly green. “That’s…”

    “Not too far-fetched,” Ron cut her off. “Do you think a country wouldn’t go to such lengths to secure wizards and witches for themselves?”

    “To such lengths, and more!” Luna told her, nodding repeatedly.

    Granger sighed, then also nodded. “I guess they would.”

    “Which is why we need a cover story that will hold up,” Harry said, rolling his shoulders. “At least so you can make chit-chat without revealing crucial secrets.”

    Granger glared at him, but Harry ignored it. “As I already said,” she replied through clenched teeth, “it’s not easy to cover up magic. It’s not the same as advanced technology, no matter what certain fantasy authors claim. You can’t just replace a spell with some machine when telling a story.”

    Ron nodded despite the dig at Clarke. “Using spells instead of machines causes distinct differences in the entire society. Like a war being decided by a duel between the two most powerful wizards.”

    Granger blinked, then nodded. “Exactly! Most of what I could tell them about Wizarding Britain wouldn’t make any sense if magic were a form of technology. And they would realise that very quickly if they haven’t already,” she added with a gloomy expression.

    “No thanks to you telling them too much. You don’t have to answer every question,” Harry told her.

    Granger scowled at him. “If I don’t say anything, it’s even more obvious!”

    “Old men are stuck in their ways,” Luna said. “They will have trouble accepting the existence of magic, especially without a demonstration.”

    Ron glanced at Harry. They certainly had taken some time to accept magic despite a demonstration. His friend shook his head. “Don’t count on that. They’re former spies, and they’ve already accepted dimensional travel.”

    Ron grinned. “We’ll make a sci-fi fan out of you yet, Harry.”

    Harry rolled his eyes as he continued. “But we need to have a cover story.” He looked at Ron. “One that will at least seem plausible.”

    Ron realised that all three were looking at him.

    “You’re the one most experienced with fantasy and sci-fi books, Ron,” Luna told him.

    “I’m not a wizard, though. You’re a witch,” he addressed Granger, “You know how actual magic works.”

    “Which won’t help overly much with hiding it. Without memory-wiping spells, at least,” she retorted. “You probably know more about creating a convincing society that uses advanced technology than I do.”

    “Probably, yes,” he admitted. Certainly, actually - but it was probably already hard enough for her to admit relative ignorance on any subject.

    “So it’s up to you!” Luna declared. “Our fate, the fate of Hermione’s world, depends on you!”

    “No pressure,” Harry commented with a smirk.

    Ron glared at him, but his friend’s smirk only grew more pronounced. Git.

    *****​

    By the time they were starting their evening run - or late afternoon run: there was another dinner with the two old men scheduled - Ron hadn’t yet found a good cover story. Any kind of technological explanation he could think of that would explain magic without revealing that it was magic wouldn’t explain the sort of society Granger had already laid out. Or why there hadn’t been a revolution or a large-scale civil war.

    “An aristocracy?” Granger sounded incredulous.

    “Well, not officially. More like a hyper-capitalist society with a very steep class divide between the rich and the poor, where the rich have access to advanced technology and the poor live in squalid slums. And where the best and brightest of the poor get a chance to join the rich, which serves as a pressure valve to keep them from starting a revolution,” Ron explained. “And any conflict between the rich is kept ‘in the family’, so to speak.”

    “So… like our society? Just without the magic technology?” Luna asked.

    “More like every cyberpunk novel, ever,” Harry commented.

    “Those are basically our world, just with the blinders removed. Cyberpunk is classic social criticism disguised as a fantasy story to make it more palatable to both the masses and the shadow conspiracy,” Luna retorted.

    Granger looked a little lost. Ron smiled at her. “I can tell you which are the best novels to read from the genre. So you know what you should be talking about.”

    The way she seemed torn between surprise and annoyance at the fact that she might have to read ‘such diversions’, as she had called them, made her look very cute.

    *****​

    “...so, your civil war was not an open war, but fought in the shadows?” Dumbledore rubbed his beard. “A struggle for dominance amongst the country’s leadership, with all means short of the military being used?” He probably was very familiar with that sort of conflict.

    “More or less,” Granger replied. “It was mostly covert actions on both sides. Death squads and strike teams. You had to hide since if you were discovered, you were usually dead.”

    “That should have kept the overall death toll low, though.” The old man nodded. “If all conflicts I had to meddle with had been so contained… I almost envy my counterpart. A lot of conflicts were… messy.”

    Granger frowned, but, fortunately, didn’t reveal too much as she replied: “There was still some collateral damage, and some of the hired guns had some disgusting habits more suited to the era of the Landsknechte.”

    Her dessert was slowly melting, Ron noticed - between answering the two old men’s questions, she had barely eaten half of her ice cream. But at least she hadn’t let slip more crucial information, and it seemed as if their cover story was holding up so far.

    “Ah.” Grindelwald nodded. “That’s quite typical for mercenaries. No discipline. Remember the Congo?” he asked Dumbledore, who chuckled at the question.

    “Were you involved in the coup?” Luna asked.

    “I couldn’t possibly comment,” Dumbledore replied.

    “Ah.” It was clear that Luna saw that as confirmation. “And is that your opinion of your own mercenaries?”

    “We do not employ mercenaries,” Dumbledore told her. “Though you might have a mistaken impression that we do due to the fact that many former soldiers tend to work as security guards or bodyguards.”

    “They have a rather proactive view of ‘guarding’, if I recall correctly,” Luna retorted.

    “If you’re facing terrorists and pirates, you won’t be able to do your job with a club and a taser,” Grindelwald said. “And we prefer employees who take the initiative if needed.”

    Luna wrinkled her nose. “That’s scant consolation to the ‘collateral damage’ they cause.”

    “Sometimes, such tragic incidents happen despite the best precautions,” Dumbledore replied. “I don’t doubt that Dr Granger has had similar experiences.”

    The old man was getting better at changing the subject back to Granger’s world, but Ron knew Luna was too stubborn to stop and would continue her ‘interrogation’ at the next opportunity - as she had done for the entire meal.

    “I wasn’t part of the teams that went out and attacked our enemies,” Granger said.

    “But you did fight. Several times.”

    “Yes. But I didn’t attack civilians,” she retorted.

    “Not intentionally, at least.”

    Granger glared at him with her lips pressed together but didn’t deny the implied accusation.

    “Besides,” Grindelwald spoke up again, “unless you plan to abandon Dr Granger and Miss Lovegood, you’ll be quitting the police and entering the private security sector as well, won’t you?”

    “I think after surviving those shootings, we could easily get a few months of leave to recover from our ordeal,” Harry said.

    “Faking combat shock?” Grindelwald didn’t bother to hide his sneer. “You expect your superiors to fall for such a transparent ploy?”

    Bones and Scrimgeour would have seen through it, but both of them were dead. Who knew who’d be put in charge of CI5 now? None of the remaining superintendents would have made a good impression.

    “And what would Officer Moody think about that?” Dumbledore asked. “Not to mention the effect it would have on your future prospects. And people suffering from PTSD are rarely allowed to carry weapons.”

    Ron clenched his teeth. The old man was correct. Using such a loophole wouldn’t work out well for them. He forced himself to shrug. “We’re still hiding with our charge, so that’s not an immediate concern.”

    “I don’t expect that situation to last much longer,” Dumbledore said. “As the investigation uncovers more of Mr Yaxley’s past, it will soon reach a point where you’ll have to be officially cleared - although you will have to testify to settle the matter, I believe. As will you, Dr Granger.”

    Ron wasn’t worried about that himself - he and Harry had had to testify several times in the past. But Granger… if she was as uncooperative as she had been with them, it might result in a problem.

    “I think a good, discreet solicitor would greatly facilitate the process,” Dumbledore suggested - of course, he would be aware of Granger’s past interrogations. He had probably read her entire file already. “I’ll cover their fee, of course.”

    “A lawyer?” Granger seemed surprised. “Could they be trusted?”

    “Oh, you won’t have to tell them the truth.” Dumbledore smiled widely. “And they usually know not to ask too many questions.”

    “Who do you have in mind?”

    “The unfortunately named, but quite skilled, Cornelius Fudge.”

    “What? Him?” Granger gasped, then wildly shook her head.

    *****​

    Near Ipswich, Suffolk, Britain, July 22nd, 2005

    “Well, Fudge can’t be an incompetent lawyer if he can afford this sort of vacation home,” Ron commented, studying the small manor as their driver, one of Dumbledore’s employees, drove the limousine towards the parking area. He couldn’t see any signs of an ambush or trap. Neither did Harry, or Ron’s friend would have said something.

    “He could have inherited the house,” Granger replied.

    “He didn’t. We checked,” Harry said. Fudge wasn’t one of the best solicitors, but certainly one of the most discreet.

    “Or he could be corrupt.” Granger sniffed. “Selling out his clients for the right price.”

    “I don’t think Dumbledore would have referred you to Fudge if he were that corrupt,” Luna said, straightening the summer dress she wore. “He’s an evil corporate tycoon, but he’s not naive or stupid.”

    “Well, it’s just as you said: You can’t judge people based on the actions of their counterparts,” Ron remarked.

    The glare Granger sent him was very impressive. “I agreed to meet Fudge,” she said, “didn’t I?”

    “You did,” Ron agreed. “After a heated argument, though.”

    “I merely voiced my doubts,” she replied.

    Ron suppressed a chuckle at that blatant understatement. Harry wasn’t as successful - or didn’t bother.

    “You voiced them very vigorously and passionately,” Luna said, nodding.

    Granger huffed in response, shook her head, then walked towards the manor’s door a little faster than before, forcing them to catch up. Not that it took Ron much of an effort. Nor did he mind - he was starting to feel a little exposed out in the open, especially as the sun was setting.

    The door opened a few seconds after Granger had rung the bell, revealing a slightly corpulent middle-aged man with a receding hairline. “Good evening, Dr Granger! Officer Potter. Officer Weasley. Miss...” he blinked.

    “Lovegood. Luna Lovegood,” Luna told him.

    “Ah. Good evening, Miss Lovegood. I’m Cornelius Fudge. Pleased to meet you all! Please come in!”

    The entrance hall was decorated with a few too many paintings and a few too many antiques. Trying too hard, Dad would call it. Sirius would make a comment about the ‘nouveau riche’. Still, what it fell short of in style it certainly made up for in impressing upon visitors that Fudge had money. Of course, the kind of people he probably wanted to impress wouldn’t be impressed at all by such a display. But they weren’t here to judge the man’s interior decorator.

    “Please join me in the salon,” Fudge said, gesturing towards the door to the side, next to a landscape painting.

    The ‘salon’ sported too many stuffed animal heads. They sat down on a couch below an elephant and a rhinoceros staring at each other.

    “Please serve yourself,” Fudge told them, pointing at the low table where several bottles and two bowls with crackers stood. “Unfortunately, due to the discretion this meeting requires, I had to send the staff away for the evening.”

    Which meant they would be aware there was something important and secret occurring. Not the safest way to handle this, Ron thought. But Dumbledore was vouching for the man.

    “Thank you,” Granger said - she wasn’t even looking at the refreshments, Ron noticed. Luna, though, was already happily munching on one of everything. Sometimes, she was far too trusting.

    “Do you know why we’re meeting with you?” Granger asked.

    “Well, even if I hadn’t been told by my very good friend Albus, I would have deduced the reason for your visit by now - you’re famous, after all. Most of you.” Fudge flashed pearly-white teeth.

    “Of course. As you’ve deduced, I need a solicitor for my upcoming interview with the police.” Granger managed to say without losing her polite smile.

    “And the gentlemen and Miss Lovegood?” Fudge asked.

    “We’ll be fine,” Harry told him, “and Luna’s not involved.”

    “Well, not in the criminal case,” Luna said. “I’d like to think I’m involved in the lives of my friends.”

    “Quite. If you change your mind, my partner is an excellent solicitor and would be happy to assist you in your interviews.” Fudge widely smiled at them. “Just in case - one can never go wrong with competent help, after all, and any money spent on keeping oneself free of legal entanglement is worth spending, wouldn’t you agree?”

    Ron kept a polite smile on his face even though he’d never let Fudge or one of the man’s partners represent him in an interrogation. A former Chief Superintendent who had switched sides and become a solicitor after a scandal? His colleagues would assume that he was guilty as sin with that sort of solicitor.

    Which, he realised, might also be the case for Granger. Might - she wasn’t under investigation, after all. But to show up all lawyered up with Fudge? That would leave an unfavourable impression. And Dumbledore would have known that.

    “To business then,” Fudge said, putting his glass down. “I’m afraid that I need some privacy for my talk with Dr Granger. Procedure, you understand - it would be unethical to discuss anything pertaining to the case with two persons of interest in the same case present. So, feel free to avail yourself of the rest of the refreshments while my client and I confer in my office.”

    Ron nodded. “Of course. Although one of us will have to wait in front of your office. Procedure, you know.”

    “Albus mentioned something like that,” Fudge replied, apparently unfazed by the dig at his former career. “Please follow me, then.”

    At least the man seemed to be a competent lawyer.

    *****​

    CI5 Headquarters, Westminster, London, July 25th, 2005

    Dawlish was leaning against the wall, glaring at them as they approached the waiting area for their interviews. A number of their colleagues had done the same since they had stepped into the building, but he was one of the few doing it openly, Ron noticed.

    “So you finally stopped hiding.” Dawlish didn’t bother to conceal his sneer, either.

    “Yes,” Harry replied. “We would have resurfaced sooner, but we had to wait until you lot figured out that you had a traitor in your midst - wait, it wasn’t you who figured that out. You had to get help.”

    “No thanks to you,” Dawlish retorted.

    “You had all the clues,” Ron told him. “Bones and Scrimgeour couldn’t have been killed without inside information. And who benefited the most from their deaths?”

    “Really? You want to tell me that Yaxley had them murdered to get promoted? He wasn’t that dumb.” Dawlish shook his head. “And you have a lot of nerve to talk like that - you were present at both murders, and vanished afterwards.”

    “Because we realised that there was a traitor,” Harry said.

    “And we were almost killed,” Ron added.

    Dawlish scoffed. “So you say.” He glanced at Granger, who was talking with Fudge behind them. “You going to hide behind him as well?”

    Dawlish knew as well as they did that Fudge couldn’t represent all of them. This was just another dig. Ron shook his head anyway. “We’ve got nothing to hide,” he lied.

    The other officer shook his head and walked away without another word.

    Perhaps quitting CI5 was a good idea for other reasons as well.

    “Why are we being interviewed here?” Granger asked after catching up to them. “I thought the entire department was under suspicion.”

    “Not officially,” Ron told her. Officially, the various other organisations were only providing assistance to CI5.

    “But anyone in CI5 will be seen with suspicion for some time,” Harry added.

    “Or derision for not spotting the traitor.”

    “Well-deserved derision!”

    Ron whirled around with a sinking feeling in his gut. Moody was standing in the door to one of the interrogation rooms, glaring at them. And he had gotten the drop on them.

    “We fucked up,” their old instructor said. “Rufus, Amelia, you two, myself.”

    “How could you have detected Yaxley’s treachery?” Granger asked.

    Moody narrowed his good eye at her. “Dr Granger.”

    She didn’t flinch - she was even smiling, a little at least. “Yes. And you are…?”

    “Alastor Moody. But you knew that already.” The older man turned to glare at Ron. “Been telling stories, have we?”

    “Not many,” Ron defended himself. Granger knew Moody because she had known his counterpart. Who had, apparently, lost more in the line of duty than an eye.

    “Just enough to recognise you,” Granger added.

    Ron glared at her, and she flinched. Good. This wasn’t her Moody.

    “Did they tell you how I lost my eye?” Moody’s hand rose to touch his eyepatch.

    “No.”

    Ron tensed. The other man wouldn’t… He would. With a practised motion, Moody pulled his patch off, revealing the scars and empty socket beneath.

    But Granger didn’t shriek or gasp. She probably had seen worse in her world. Had definitely seen worse, Ron corrected himself.

    Moody sniffed. “They warned you.”

    Granger tilted her head in response. “Constant vigilance?”

    That earned her a chuckle. “You’re a tough one, aren’t you? Or a cold one.” Moody nodded at the room behind him. “Get in. We’ve got a lot of questions.”

    “As long as you refrain from any attempt to scare or surprise my client,” Fudge spoke up. “Dr Granger didn’t take the risk of revealing herself while the main suspect in the attacks on her is still at large to be abused by the police.”

    “Fudge.” Moody bared his teeth.

    “Moody.” If the solicitor was nervous, then he hid it well, Ron thought.

    After a moment, Moody snorted again and repeated his invitation: “Let’s get started, then.”

    *****​

    “...did you recognise any of the attackers in the park?”

    “No.” Ron refrained from adding ‘as I told you before’ - he knew that wouldn’t help. Quite the contrary, actually - he had been in the place of the detective from the Met himself.

    “Were you wounded during the fight in the park?”

    “I was knocked down and briefly knocked out,” he answered. Lying and claiming he hadn’t been hit would be foolish - they had to have footage showing him and Granger retreating.

    “Knocked down? Were you shot?”

    “I wore a bullet-proof vest, which saved my life.” That was a blatant lie. His first in the interview. “I ditched it afterwards - the trauma plates were broken. Some of the shards cut my skin.”

    “That must have been a large-calibre hit,” the detective commented.

    “It certainly felt like one,” Ron agreed.

    “Was the bullet stuck in the vest?”

    Ah. “I don’t think so - we would have noticed. But it might have fallen out during our retreat - we weren’t exactly paying attention to anything other than the attackers.” He was talking too much. But it was better than to answer with single words. Ron knew how to make a testimony sound plausible. But the detective did as well.

    “How did you escape from the park?”

    “We took our car.”

    “Did you expect an attack in the park?”

    “Yes. We were trained to always expect the worst.”

    “Did you attempt to warn Commissioner Bones?”

    He winced. “We assumed she was aware of the threat herself.”

    “Ah.”

    Ron pressed his lips together. Getting angry at the man was pointless. The detective hadn’t been there. And didn’t understand the situation.

    “When did you become aware that you were under attack?”

    Ron didn’t sigh, even though he felt like it. He should be the one asking the questions, not the one answering. “When Harry warned me about a car approaching us.”

    “What did you do in response to the warning?”

    “Not much. Before I could do anything, the Commissioner got shot and…”

    *****​

    Half an hour later, the interview was finally over, and Ron could leave and return to the waiting room. Harry wasn’t done yet - Ron could see the room Harry had entered was still occupied - but Granger and Fudge were waiting. Both were reading - The Times in Fudge’s case, a thick physics textbook in hers.

    Ron let himself fall into the seat next to Granger’s with a theatrical sigh.

    Granger slowly looked up from her book and glanced at him. “There you are. What took you so long?”

    “Unlike you, I didn’t have a solicitor with me to tell the interviewer to shut up.”

    “By choice, as I recall,” Fudge cut in. “The offer stood.”

    “Where’s Harry?” Granger asked.

    “He’s going to be a while longer,” Ron explained. “They’ll have a lot more questions for him since he shot half a dozen of them - unlike me.”

    He saw her tense. Her jaw muscles slightly twitched. “You were shot,” she said. Ron heard the unsaid ‘and you almost died’.

    “The vest stopped it,” he replied with a smile. “As you know.”

    She sniffed in return. Not quite a huff.

    “Did everything go well?” Fudge asked.

    Ron shrugged. “I’d say so.” He didn’t know Brown, but Ron hadn’t given the other officer any cause to suspect him - and who would even suspect magic?

    “Good, good,” Fudge replied. “Once Mr Potter is done, this whole affair should be settled.”

    “For us,” Granger said. “There’s still the matter of Yaxley being at large.”

    Or dead, Ron thought.

    “That shouldn’t be a source of concern for you,” Fudge told her. “He’s alone and on the run. He’s probably halfway to Brazil by now, though I dare say he’d receive a far different welcome there than a famous train robber.”

    “I certainly hope so,” Granger replied.

    Ron’s money was still on Yaxley having been killed by his backers. But he couldn’t mention that here or he’d run the risk of another interview - or interrogation. “So do I,” he said instead, wishing they had stopped by a bookshop on the way to headquarters - he hadn’t checked for new novels in a while. At least he had a battered copy of ‘A Civil Campaign’ to pass the time. Bujold never failed to entertain.

    After half an hour spent reading in silence, Harry finally showed up. He didn’t look relieved - he looked angry.

    “Those idiots!”

    He also sounded angry.

    “What happened?” Granger asked.

    “Do you need a solicitor?” Fudge added, looking eager.

    “What? No. They didn’t openly accuse me,” Harry snarled. “But the comparisons between my shooting and the shots the sniper took to murder Scrimgeour and Bones…” He shook his head. “Someone at least thinks I could have killed them.”

    Well, technically, Harry could have done it - he was an excellent marksman. But he wouldn’t have done it. And he had an alibi - although it rested on Ron and Granger’s testimony. “You know how investigations by other departments are,” Ron told his friend.

    “Yes. But want to bet some idiots like Dawlish believe it as well?”

    That was a sucker bet. Ron shook his head.

    “I don’t think too many will be sad to see us go,” Harry went on.

    Ron remembered the glances they’d received coming in and nodded. Some would be envious, some would blame them for CI5 getting investigated and humiliated - and some would blame them for Bones and Scrimgeour’s deaths. “Colin will be sad, though,” he said.

    That didn’t do much to console Harry. And Granger… Ron frowned as he glanced at her. She wasn’t looking at anyone or anything.

    *****​

    “You’re being accused of murder? Of Diggory’s murder?” She couldn’t have heard correctly. Harry had tried to save the other boy.

    “They’re ‘investigating’,” Harry told her, shrugging. “Dumbledore said they’re trying to frame me so he’ll have to expend political capital and open himself to accusations of corruption when he intervenes. They’ve been dragging up Sirius’s disappearance from Hogwarts last year.”

    “Percy said the same thing,” Ron added. “Malfoy’s spending gold like crazy to sway the Wizengamot. And he pretty much owns Fudge.”

    “But Diggory?” She couldn’t believe it.

    “As long as they can point at me, they won’t have to explain who killed him,” Harry said.

    “Those…” She pressed her lips together, clenching her teeth to keep from cursing the Ministry. How could they do this to Harry? Her friend was… She blinked. “You’re taking this quite well…” she trailed off, not wanting to insult him by criticising his temper.

    Harry chuckled, but without any humour. “Dumbledore warned me about this. Kept me up to date during the holidays.”

    “Oh. So… it’s being handled?”

    He inclined his head. “He’s got a plan. If all goes well, it’ll put a crimp into Malfoy’s scheming and expose his allies.”

    Ron nodded. “And he’ll get leverage on Fudge.”

    That sounded promising. But Harry was the one under investigation. For murder! “And if it doesn’t go well?”

    He grimaced. “Well… then Dumbledore will have to step in and prove their accusations about him right.”

    “Probably end up in an open war,” Ron added, looking grim.

    So that was why they were in Grimmauld Place instead of The Burrow. “What can we do?” she asked.

    “Nothing,” Harry told her. “It’s out of our hands until the DMLE decides to put me on trial or drop the investigation.”

    She really didn’t like hearing that. She hated being unable to do anything. “I’ll study wizarding law, then,” she announced. “Just in case.”

    Her friends knew her too well to point out that she wouldn’t be allowed to speak in his defence. She knew it as well. But she couldn’t just wait without doing anything.

    *****
     
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  4. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    That's a pretty dark Wizarding World.

    It'd make a pretty good story on it's own, I think.
     
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  5. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    It's actually less dark than canon. More evil murderers die. Fewer of their supporters get away. More innocents survive.

    I've written civil war stories before with similar scenes. It'd need more changes for me to write it.
     
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  6. Beyogi

    Beyogi I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    It also makes more sense. In hindsight I always wondered why they didn't try to pin Cedric's death on Harry. Instead they tried to pretend he died in an accident. Because Avada Kedavra is such an accident.
     
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  7. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    A lot of stuff doesn't make sense apart from "it has to happen so the plot won't get derailed".
     
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  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: The Tank Commander
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 13: The Tank Commander

    CI5 Headquarters, Westminster, London, July 25th, 2005

    Granger shook her head and muttered something Ron didn’t catch despite being sat next to her.

    “Pardon?” Harry frowned at her.

    “Nothing.” After a moment, she added: “I’ll explain later.” Meaning: once they were outside.

    But as they stepped out of the building - into the interior yard, where their car was parked - Ron spotted Moody leaning against the wall near the corner, arms crossed, and watching them. No, waiting for them.

    Granger had spotted him as well - Ron heard her curse. “He wants to talk,” he told her.

    “I’d advise against speaking with any police officers at this stage of the investigation,” Fudge spoke up. “At least without a solicitor present.”

    “It’s not that kind of talk,” Harry told the man.

    “He was our instructor,” Ron added.

    “I’m aware of that,” Fudge said. “I’m also aware that he’s a very obstinate man.”

    There was no point in denying that. Ron glanced at Moody again - the man hadn’t moved, but was staring at them with his good eye. They should talk to him. Not only did he deserve some sort of explanation but he’d probably track them down if they simply quit and vanished. Although he might do that anyway. On the other hand, they couldn’t leave Granger alone.

    “Well, get on with it,” Granger told them. “We can wait in the car.” At Ron’s glance, she sniffed. “I’ve spoken to Officer Moody quite enough for this week.”

    Ron nodded in sympathy as Harry snorted. They checked the car before letting Granger get in, then walked over to Moody.

    He scoffed. “Took you long enough.”

    Harry shrugged. “Had to check for traps and ambushes.”

    Moody grunted in response. “Did you?”

    “Yes,” Ron replied.

    “Really.” Moody pushed off the wall. “Perhaps you did. This time.”

    “Neither Scrimgeour nor Bones was our fault,” Harry spat.

    Moody looked at him. “Yaxley was too eager. Should have noticed that.”

    Ron couldn’t tell if Moody meant them or himself. Probably both.

    “That’s hindsight,” Harry said, frowning.

    Moody shrugged. “And it shouldn’t be hindsight.”

    “We weren’t around much when Yaxley got involved,” Harry retorted. His friend was still wound up by the accusations levelled against him, Ron realised.

    “I’d tell you to do better next time, but you’re not going to stay, are you?”

    How had he…? Ron pressed his lips together - if Moody had been guessing, then their reaction had just given the game away.

    The older man chuckled. Once. “As I thought.”

    So Moody had been guessing. Swell.

    “What would be the point?” Harry said, scoffing. “They blame us for the whole affair.”

    “You’re no quitter, Potter. And neither is Weasley.” Moody grinned. “Matter of fact, you’d stay on to spite everyone, wouldn’t you? Unless you had another reason to quit.” He turned his head to stare at the car.

    Bloody hell! Ron almost felt bad for telling Granger off for spilling information. “Someone has to protect her,” he told Moody.

    “And you want to be the one.”

    “She needs someone she can trust and who can do the job. Not too many of them around, are there?” Ron replied.

    Moody snorted. “It’s more than that, though, isn’t it?” He glanced at Harry, then looked at Ron again. “You wouldn’t have told her to hire Fudge. In fact, you’d have told her not to hire the man. And Fudge isn’t cheap.”

    “Granger’s the most famous kidnapping victim in Britain,” Harry pointed out. “Good publicity.”

    “Fudge isn’t after publicity. There won’t be a trial, anyway. Someone’s paying him, and the Grangers don’t have enough money to cover his fees. Fudge quickly shut that question down when I asked the girl.”

    Well, that mistake wasn’t their fault, but Dumbledore’s. “Can’t tell you,” Ron said, showing his teeth. “Loose lips sink ships.” Moody had taught them that.

    “Good lad.” The older officer nodded. “Looks like you remembered at least one lesson.” He cocked his head. “But you forgot my lesson about women and work.”

    “It’s not like that,” Ron told him. He wasn’t mixing work and his private affairs.

    Moody shook his head with a twisted grin. “And you forgot what I told you about politics.”

    “We’re just protecting a woman,” Harry told him.

    “Against Russian ‘mercenaries’?” Moody shook his head. “And a woman who’s hiding something? You’re fools, lads.”

    Ron clenched his teeth. They were doing the right thing.

    “Unless you already know what she’s hiding.”

    They didn’t react to that probe.

    “Better.” Moody grinned again. “I don’t know who’s paying you - or will be paying you. But I know enough to tell you that they’re bad news. They always are, in this sort of business.”

    Well, Ron couldn’t disagree with Moody there - he didn’t trust Dumbledore and Grindelwald.

    “Keep your wits about you, lads. What’s left of them, in any case.” Moody nodded at them.

    “We will,” Harry replied, nodding firmly.

    “You better. I don’t want to hear that all that time I spent training you was wasted,” the older man said, then turned away.

    *****​

    No 12 Grimmauld Place, London, July 25th, 2005

    “That’s different,” Granger remarked as Harry drove their armoured car - they’d switched cars, with Fudge being driven home in the original car - down the ramp that led to the garage of Sirius and Harry’s home.

    Ron didn’t know how Sirius had managed to get planning permission for it in this neighbourhood, but he was glad for the privacy and security it granted them. If they had had to park in the yard, they would have been too exposed. Too vulnerable - Yaxley still hadn’t been caught, and Ron didn’t think that the man’s sniper was among the people Harry had killed in Clissold Park.

    “Well, you don’t need a garage for brooms, do you?” Harry said as he parked the car.

    Granger snorted. “Wizards don’t use brooms in the middle of London - not many are able to cast the Disillusionment Charms needed to hide them from muggles, and invisibility cloaks are expensive and don’t last long. Most use the Floo Network or the Knight Bus.”

    “The bus?” Ron asked.

    “An enchanted bus that covers all of Britain, providing transportation for wizards and witches who couldn’t use the Floo or apparate for one reason or another,” Granger explained. “Fast, but very uncomfortable.”

    “Ah.” Ron nodded. “Do people enchant cars as well?” he asked as he got out.

    “Your… I mean, my Ron’s father did. A Ford Anglia that could turn invisible and fly.”

    Ron wanted one. No, he wanted his Ford Capri enchanted like that.

    “I can’t do that,” Granger told him as if she had read his thoughts.

    Well, perhaps he could ask the man himself, once Granger managed to open a portal.

    “Harry!”

    Ron jerked, almost going for his gun when he heard the yell. Who would…?

    “Ginny?” he and Harry said in unison just before Ron’s sister tackled her boyfriend. Well, technically, she hugged him, but Harry had to take a step back or he would have fallen down.

    “Ginny…” Ron heard Granger mumble next to him.

    “How did you…?” Harry managed to say before Ginny silenced him with a kiss. A very French kiss.

    The answer, of course, was standing in the door of the lift. Sirius. And Luna.

    “Hi, everyone!” Luna said, waving.

    “I arranged her visit when you contacted me about staying over,” the older man told them as he approached. “Sirius Black. Enchanté!” he announced as he bowed with a flourish to Granger.

    “Good afternoon, Si… sir,” she managed to say. “Thank you for having us over.”

    “It’s Harry’s home,” Sirius replied. “Of course he can bring friends. Ron practically lived here for a time.”

    Until he had managed to get a flat of his own.

    “That was dangerous.” Apparently, Harry had finally managed to tear his face away from Ginny’s.

    “I picked her up in a parking garage in the City,” Sirius said. “Just like Luna.” Whose pickup had been planned by Harry and Ron. “And I’ve got the tickets to prove that I wasn’t followed.” Which meant he had been speeding again.

    “Ah.” Harry nodded - a little reluctantly.

    “Yes, so you can’t complain,” Ginny told him. “Did you really think I wouldn’t visit?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned to Granger and stuck her hand out. “Hello, Dr Granger. I’m Ginny.” Of course, she would assume everyone already knew her. Well, she wasn’t wrong with regard to Granger, but not for the reasons she probably thought.

    “Hello.” Granger nodded. She was quite tense, Ron noticed.

    He cleared his throat. “Shall we head up? I don’t know about you, but I think the living room would be more comfortable.”

    “Oh, of course!” Sirius grinned. “Unless Harry and Ginny would prefer their room.”

    “Sirius!” Harry frowned at his godfather.

    Ron was looking at Granger, though. She didn’t seem surprised by the remark, so she probably had expected something like that. Or she was too tense to react.

    A few minutes later, everyone was settled in the living room and, apparently, the roast for dinner was in the oven. Ginny had claimed Harry’s lap, of course, but that was pretty normal for the couple.

    “So, have you quit CI5 yet?” Sirius asked while he was serving drinks. Apparently, Luna had told him their plans.

    “No. We’re suspended anyway; we’ll quit once the investigation is over or it’ll look as if we’re guilty,” Harry said.

    They’d look guilty anyway, Ron knew. They couldn’t tell the truth, and their soon-to-be-former colleagues would know they were hiding something.

    “But you love your work!” Ginny exclaimed.

    “I might love the next job more,” Harry told her. “We might be going private - that way, I would have more time travelling with you.”

    “You want to become private detectives?” Ginny frowned. “Does that pay well?”

    That was aimed at Ron, of course - between his inheritance and being Sirius’s heir, Harry didn’t need money. And Ginny’s job paid very well. “Private security pays reasonably well,” Ron replied.

    “Really.” Ginny narrowed her eyes at him, then looked at Granger, who had been uncharacteristically silent so far. “Private security for Dr Granger.”

    Ron glanced at Luna, whose smile looked a little guilty. Well, he had only himself - and Harry - to blame for that; they had arranged for Luna to stay with Sirius while they went to CI5. Of course, leaving her alone in the lab would have been out of the question.

    Granger sighed. “Please excuse us for a moment. I need to talk with Luna, Mr Weasley and Mr Potter in private.” She marched into the hallway, leaving Ron and Harry to follow her.

    “I think we need to tell them,” she said as soon as the door had closed behind them.

    Ron saw Luna looking relieved while Granger glanced at him as if she wanted his approval.

    Well, even if they weren’t the Ginny and Sirius she knew, Ron trusted them, of course.

    So he nodded in agreement. They had checked the room for bugs, anyway. Harry nodded as well, though he didn’t look relieved.

    They went back to the living room, where Ginny received them with narrowed eyes, frowning at Ron as if it was his fault, then at Luna. “You knew their secret already!”

    “Yes,” Luna replied. “Well, one of them. The most important one, I think. I’m sure they have more secrets.”

    “Do tell!” Sirius cut in with a wide grin. “Harry is usually so close-lipped about his work. Well, I guess if he’s planning to quit, that will change.”

    Harry rolled his eyes. “There’s also the matter of revealing classified information being illegal.”

    “As long as you don’t get caught, who cares?” Sirius shrugged.

    “This is more important than any police file,” Granger said in a clipped tone. “This cannot be told to anyone, under any circumstances. Lives depend on it. Our lives.”

    To Ron’s surprise, Ginny seemed impressed - for about a second.

    “Our lips are sealed,” Sirius declared, then mimed zipping his mouth shut.

    Granger studied them both for a moment - was she reconsidering her decision? - then slowly nodded and took a deep breath. “I’m not from this world. I’m a witch from a parallel dimension where magic exists and was transported to this world against my will in 1998. People mistook me for the Hermione Granger who had been kidnapped here in 1991.”

    “A witch. From a parallel dimension.” The doubt in Ginny’s voice couldn’t be more obvious.

    “It’s true,” Ron told her. “It’s not a prank.”

    “Magic?” Sirius seemed more amused than impressed, although he didn’t openly doubt their claim. Yet.

    “Magic.” Granger nodded at him. “I lost my wand, so I cannot demonstrate much - witches and wizards need specially-made wands to do most magic. But I can do this.” She held out her hand and yelled: “Accio pen!”

    At once, a silver pen left Sirius’s pocket and started to fly - slowly - towards her.

    “That’s… that’s…”

    Ron really enjoyed Ginny’s expression. “Go on, check for magnets or wires!” he told her.

    She did, glaring at him the whole time. When she didn’t find either, she huffed. “That doesn’t prove the existence of parallel dimensions or magic!” At Harry raising his eyebrows at her, she pouted. “Ron was always watching those series on the telly and telling me about his books.”

    “And you liked them,” Ron reminded her. Until she had grown ‘too old’, in her own words.

    “As impressive as this demonstration is,” Sirius spoke up, “it doesn’t prove her story.”

    “Dr Granger also has magic potions and a magic bag,” Ron told him.

    “And she knows our counterparts,” Harry added.

    “Who aren’t identical to you,” Granger pointed out, pen in hand. “But there are similarities.” She looked at Ginny and Sirius. “I knew both of your counterparts very well.”

    “Not as well as she knew our counterparts, though,” Ron pointed out.

    “We are both witches in Hermione’s world!” Luna exclaimed, beaming at Ginny. “And all of us were fighting an evil fascist regime!”

    “What?”

    Granger explained before Luna could: “Your counterparts in my world are witches like me - we all went to the same boarding school in Scotland - and when I was transported here, we were in the middle of a civil war with a dark wizard and his followers who had taken control of the country - well, the magical parts which formed Wizarding Britain; the United Kingdom wasn’t much affected - and wanted to kill all those they considered ‘impure’. Which included me.”

    “Exactly!” Luna nodded several times as if this were a good thing.

    “What? How old were we?”

    “I arrived here on the same day I left my own world,” Granger told her. With a grim expression, she added: “We had no choice, even as children - they wanted to kill us. Well, me for being born, and my Harry for defeating the Dark Lord when he was a baby. Harry, that is - the Dark Lord was an adult at the time.”

    That made both Ginny and Sirius focus on Harry. Ron’s friend wasn’t happy about it, of course.

    “And the Weasleys are purebloods, but still opposed the dark wizards,” Ron said while Ginny ran a hand over Harry’s back. “Their Ginny is a courier on a flying broom.”

    As it turned out, flying on brooms apparently was a little too clichéd for his sister, and Granger had to demonstrate her bag of holding to convince Ginny that this wasn’t a hoax, psychic powers or not.

    As if Ron would do such a thing. Now, the twins, on the other hand...

    *****​

    “You were shot and would have died without a magic potion?”

    Ron winced - like their mother, his sister had a strong pair of lungs. Perhaps they shouldn’t have told her the full truth. Sirius looked rather taken aback as well.

    Well, what was done was done. Ron shrugged. “I survived. All of us did.”

    “And the enemies didn’t. Well, most of them didn’t,” Harry added.

    “You almost died! If Dr Granger hadn’t been there, you’d have been killed!”

    “Well, you saved me,” he defended himself, looking at Granger.

    “You didn’t know that I could save you,” Granger pointed out.

    “Anyway, it happened. Let’s talk about something more productive, shall we?”

    “How about we eat first?” Sirius asked. “The roast should be done now.”

    Ron agreed at once. A good meal would soothe Ginny’s temper.

    *****​

    “...and we became a couple in my fifth year?” Ginny asked over pudding.

    “Your counterpart’s fifth year.” Granger corrected her for the umpteenth time.

    Ron wondered - privately - if he should tell her that his sister was now probably only doing it out of sheer stubbornness.

    “See, your magical counterpart was smarter than you were,” Ginny said, turning to face Harry with a smirk.

    Sirius laughed at her joke - or at Harry’s slightly forced smile. “Now that we’ve heard everything about our dear celebrity, how about some information about my own counterpart?” Ginny had the grace to blush at the slight admonishment, Ron noticed. If he had said that, or Mum, she would have gotten mad. Or made a scene. “Harry might not have told you, but I’m a retired officer in the British Army,” Sirius told Granger. “A tank commander, to be exact. I gather my counterpart held a similar position?”

    “Ah.” Granger grimaced. “Not exactly. Your counterpart fought in the First Wizarding War and the Second Wizarding War - or the First and Second Blood War, as we called them - but as a private citizen. And in between, he was imprisoned on false charges until he broke out shortly before the Second War started. He died in our seventh year in one of the skirmishes.”

    “Oh.” Sirius lost his smile.

    “Sorry,” Granger belatedly added. She looked more tired than sorry, though - but then, after being interrogated first by Moody and then by Ginny, not many wouldn’t be tired.

    Sirius waved her apology away. “Don’t worry about it. Though are you certain that you want to return? Your world sounds like a nightmare.”

    Ron rolled his eyes. Sirius sometimes was terribly blunt, and Ron had never managed to find out if it was by design or if was merely carelessness.

    “Yes,” Granger stated in a flat voice, “I’m certain. Deadly certain. I’m not going to abandon my friends in the middle of a war.”

    Luna nodded in obvious agreement as Ron refrained from pointing out that Granger had, involuntarily, of course, done exactly that.

    “Very noble,” Sirius said. “Although are you planning to drag Harry and his friends into your war?”

    “What?” Granger shook her head, sending her ponytail whipping about. “Of course not! This isn’t their war. And they couldn’t do much, anyway, without magic.”

    Ron clenched his teeth. He wasn’t useless.

    “You don’t strike me as bulletproof,” Harry commented with a glare. “And I didn’t get the impression that you were a particularly weak witch.”

    “Many places are protected by Muggle-Repelling Charms,” Granger shot back. “You wouldn’t be able to enter those areas, much less fight anyone. And those spells can be cast in combat as well. Imagine suddenly forgetting that you’re fighting and wandering off in the middle of a battle!”

    That was a terrifying prospect, Ron had to admit. And yet, there were more ways to fight than directly attacking the enemy. “That doesn’t make us useless,” he told her. “We just need to pick our fights. And you can protect us against such spells, can’t you?”

    “Not very effectively,” she replied. “It’s easier to cast such spells than dispel them.”

    “You aren’t seriously planning to fight in a magic civil war?” Sirius asked, staring at them.

    “Of course he is,” Ginny replied - rather snidely, in Ron’s opinion. “It’s like one of his books, but he gets to take his guns with him.”

    This wasn’t the time to educate Ginny about fantasy and science fiction novels. Ron shook his head. He turned to Granger. “You don’t have your wand. You were, in your own words, one of Britain’s most wanted witches. How long will you last, alone, if your enemies are still fighting - or have won?”

    She glared at him and raised her chin. “Longer than you would!”

    “And do you really think Dumbledore and Grindelwald would let you enter alone?” Ron pointed out. “We’re not wizards, but you’ll need us.”

    “And me!” Luna piped up. “I’m no witch, but, as you said, most of your world isn’t any different from our own. I know how to fly under the radar.”

    “Unless it’s literally flying under the radar,” Ginny added with a grin. “On a broom.”

    Sirius shook his head. “Jokes aside, this is a very, very dangerous course of action.”

    “Yes, which is why they should stay here,” Granger quickly said. She looked at Ron. “I’m very grateful for your help - I owe you my freedom and possibly my life - but this isn’t your war. You’ve got your family and life here.”

    That was true. But it was his life. And Ron was the one who decided when to risk it. And for what or whom. “So?” he said. “Mum and Dad taught us all to do what’s right, not what’s easy.”

    Contrary to his expectations, that line shut her up.

    It didn’t shut up Sirius, of course - there wasn’t much, if anything, that would shut up the man, in Ron’s experience. “Boys! I’ve been to war. It’s not heroic, it’s not fun - it’s bloody dangerous! And this isn’t even a proper war - it’s a damn civil war. Insurrections. Death squads. Like that mess in Iraq. And with magic! Not even a tank would protect you, I wager!”

    “Hermione’s going back to war,” Luna pointed out.

    “Into a witch war, where we couldn’t do anything. We wouldn’t have dragged civilians into combat in the Falklands,” Sirius replied.

    “We’re not civilians,” Harry shot back.

    “You’re not a soldier, either,” Ginny told him. “You’re a police officer.” Who had killed more people in the line of duty than Sirius, as Ron knew.

    “And we’re probably better prepared for this kind of war,” Ron said. “We’ve fought terrorists before.”

    “You haven’t fought wizards,” Granger told him.

    “The basic principles are the same,” he told her, hoping that he was correct.

    “You don’t know anything about magical combat,” Sirius said. “How can you prepare for a war if you don’t know what the enemy can do?”

    “Dr Granger can tell us,” Harry said.

    “You could probably give us a lecture on magical combat,” Ron added with a grin.

    No one seemed to find that funny, though. Granger glared at him, though he had expected that.

    “I don’t want you to go to war,” Ginny told Harry. “I already worry about you when you are at work.”

    “We don’t know if there’s a war,” Ron said. “It’s been seven years since Dr Granger left.”

    “The First Blood War lasted a decade, depending on what you consider its start” - Granger proved his earlier joke correct - “Most put the start at the first use of the Dark Mark following an attack, but some - correctly, I believe - attribute several killings of key government officials in the months before that to the Death Eaters, and, therefore, consider the war to have started with those murders.”

    “And what if the war’s over and the enemy won? Won’t they detect the portal, gate, whatever you’re building? And what if they invade us?” Sirius changed tack.

    “They haven’t invaded muggle Britain. Why would they go after a whole new world without magic?” Granger retorted. “There’s nothing here that they couldn’t get in my world. There’s precious little that they would want in the first place.”

    “There’s you,” Sirius said.

    Ron saw her purse her lips before she answered: “They wouldn’t know it was my doing. I’d leave the country - go to France, probably. Claim I’d been hiding for seven years.”

    “Would anyone who knew you believe that?” Ron asked her.

    She glared at him, then spat: “I can’t leave my friends to their fates!”

    He didn’t look at her while she wiped her eyes after her outburst.

    “Of course you couldn’t!” Luna said, glaring at the others, including Ron. “And we won’t let you go back alone.”

    “I said that all along, didn’t I?” Ron pointed out.

    “I know why he’s going - he’s stupid,” Ginny snapped. “But why are you going?” she asked Harry.

    “Ron’s my best friend,” Harry said as if that explained it.

    Well, it did. It also made Ron the target of both Sirius and Ginny’s glares.

    He met them with a smile. Sometimes, you had to do what was right, not what was easy. And it didn’t hurt that doing the right thing would let him visit another dimension - a realm of magic.

    “And what about the risk to our world?” Sirius wouldn’t let this go.

    “We’ll minimise it, as I said,” Granger replied. “We’ll sneak in. There are a few caches we had prepared, in case the worst came to pass. I can get a new wand there and other supplies. Then we can gather information - and stay in muggle Britain, where it’s safer.”

    “Yes! We know all about hiding from the authorities!” Luna cheered.

    “If the situation is… worse than anticipated, we’ll return at once and discuss further steps.” She cocked her head at Sirius. “Is that acceptable?”

    “I want to be involved,” he shot back.

    “We can do that,” Harry said at once. “Granger’s calling the shots, after all.”

    “The Phoenix Gruppe is funding you.” Sirius shook his head. “I knew I should have bought a Scorpion for old time’s sake when New Zealand sold theirs.”

    “They were broken,” Harry told him. “They never worked.”

    “They could have been fixed. I’ve got the money.”

    “And you wouldn’t have been allowed to keep the gun functional,” Harry went on.

    “Phoenix Gruppe could replace it.”

    “And you don’t have a crew for it.” Harry glared at him. “And no, we won’t play crew for you.”

    “I could drive!” Luna piped up. “Daddy taught me how to drive tracked vehicles.”

    Ron was suddenly very glad that Sirius didn’t actually have a tank.

    “Well… Some of those Scorpions should still be available, for the right price.” Sirius rubbed his chin. “And it would be a nice vehicle to get around the estate with if it’s too cold or wet for the horses. Fastest tank, ever!”

    “Sirius!” Harry all but hissed. “You just told us that this isn’t a conventional war. It’s an insurrection! A magical civil war! There’s no place for a light tank. Or any tank!”

    “Tanks are very useful in insurrections. They protect you much better than other vehicles,” the older man retorted.

    “A Scorpion’s not a Challenger,” Ron pointed out, ignoring Luna’s frown - presumably at having her tank driving dreams spoiled.

    “Indeed,” Granger cut in, “a tank of any kind would be completely useless in the kind of war we fought. It’s not mobile enough to actually reach a fight before it’s over, and it would be quite easily dealt with by a competent wizard. Even if it were too large to be transfigured into cheese or something similar, a bog could be conjured right underneath it, sinking it in seconds.”

    “You need to see the tank first before you can destroy it,” Sirius replied. “We were very good at hiding and preparing ambushes. And the gun will hit an enemy out to two thousand yards.”

    “And what if the fight is in the middle of a city?” Ron asked.

    “Hermione can turn it invisible!” Luna said. “They’ll never see it coming.”

    “They’ll hear it,” Harry replied.

    “She can silence it as well! Or shrink it and carry it with her!”

    Luna was far too enthusiastic about tank warfare, in Ron’s opinion.

    “That’s an excellent idea, Luna!”

    And so was Sirius.

    “I can’t just wave my wand - if I had one - to turn a tank invisible and silent,” Granger told him. “Well, I could, with serious effort. But that wouldn’t be a proper enchantment. And it might affect the tank’s electronics.”

    “But others could do it?”

    “Yes,” Granger admitted. “But that still leaves the problem of actually transporting a tank - first through a portal, and then to a hiding place - and it still wouldn’t be useful. Not to mention that driving an invisible tank on the road would be a danger to all the other road users.”

    Ron could imagine that. But he could also imagine how enchanting the thing to fly would solve that issue - provided it kept low to the ground to avoid air traffic. And… “How fast could a vehicle fly?” he asked.

    He thought Granger mumbled ‘not you as well’ under her breath, but he wasn’t sure. She certainly glared at him, though.

    *****​

    Two hours later, he licked his lips, took a deep breath, then knocked on the door to her room. “Dr Granger?”

    After a few seconds - which felt much longer - he heard her voice. “Yes?”

    “Are you decent?”

    “That’s a peculiar way of asking if you can enter my room,” came the more than slightly sarcastic reply.

    “Is that a yes?”

    For a moment, he feared he had pushed too far, but then the door opened, and Granger was frowning at him. She was decent - sort of. Her tank top and shorts were a little more revealing than he was used to from her - not counting his dreams. It also made him, still in his slacks and shirt, feel slightly overdressed.

    “Can I come in?”

    She scoffed but stepped to the side. Bare feet - no wonder he hadn’t heard her steps.

    “I’ll take that to mean yes,” he said lightly as he stepped past her, making her snort.

    “So, why did you want to visit?” she asked as she closed the door.

    He sat down on the chair at the desk - which was covered in parchment and smiled, if a little weakly. “I came to apologise. I got a little carried away. Sorry.” But who wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about a flying, invisible tank?

    She sniffed. “You and everyone else but for Harry and Ginny.” She blinked. “Mr Potter and Miss Weasley, I mean.” Who had retired to Harry’s room shortly after dessert, for obvious reasons.

    “You know,” he told her, “we’ve been in three shoot-outs together now. Shouldn’t we start using our first names?”

    She laughed at that - though it sounded a little forced... no, reluctant - as she sat down on the bed. “I guess there are a few things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, hm?”

    That sounded like a comment with a lot of backstory. “You seem to be speaking from experience,” he told her.

    She snorted. “Did I ever tell you how I became best friends with my Harry and my Ron?”

    He shook his head. “Not in detail. You were in the same year at your magical boarding school.”

    “The same house. But that wasn’t the reason we became friends - well, in a way, it was.” She shook her head. “It started with a troll breaking into the school, and me having a cry in the bathroom...”

    *****​

    “You fought a twelve-foot-tall troll?” He couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of his voice.

    “I mostly cowered. Ron - my Ron - and my Harry fought it. And defeated it,” she replied.

    ‘My Ron’ grated on his nerves. It sounded so possessive. Or something. And all that after he made her cry? “And that happened at your school.”

    “It was a diversion for an attempt to steal the Philosopher’s Stone.”

    “That’s real?”

    “Was real. It was destroyed after our first year. At least that’s what we were told.” She shrugged. “It might have been a lie to protect its owner. At the time, we didn’t question it.”

    “Dumbledore told you that?” He raised his eyebrows.

    “My world’s Dumbledore.” She narrowed her eyes at his expression. “He wasn’t like this one’s.”

    “Or was better at hiding it,” Ron retorted.

    She bit her lower lip at that, even as she glared at him. He refrained from smirking - it was obvious that she wanted to contradict him, but couldn’t. Not without lying.

    “Anyway, that was a horrible experience.”

    “Your school years weren’t exactly perfectly safe, either,” she told him.

    Pettigrew. He remembered that she’d read about the incident in that stupid magazine. Shrugging, he said: “We were just facing a man. Not a monster.”

    Her sniff told him that she wasn’t falling for his attempt to downplay the incident. But she wasn’t pushing, either. He nodded. “Well, I can see why you three became best friends.” Events like that forged bonds. Like combat.

    She smiled in return. She looked nostalgic - a little sad as well.

    He stood. “Well, I should head to bed.”

    She slipped off the bed. “It’s getting late.”

    For a moment, they faced each other without saying anything. Ron had the sudden urge to lean forward and embrace her. Instead, he nodded again. “Goodnight, Hermione.”

    “Goodnight, Ron.”

    He kept smiling all the way to his room.

    *****​

    No 12 Grimmauld Place, London, July 26th, 2005

    Between Harry’s odd hours as a police officer, and Ginny’s career leading to her travelling the globe, they were effectively having a long-distance relationship. Ron knew that. He also knew that neither of them liked it, even though they wouldn’t consider changing careers, either. And he was no stranger to seeing both of them tired but very happy at the breakfast table.

    But he couldn’t help envying them. He hadn’t had a steady relationship since Luna - few women could handle his working hours and the danger. Harry was very lucky that Ginny could.

    He sighed as he refilled his cup and grabbed The Times.

    “Is something wrong, Ron?” Ginny asked.

    “Hm?” He raised his head and looked at her, hoping very much that she was wearing something under that robe. Unlike the time she had surprised Harry at home, and Ron had happened to visit as well. She didn’t sound smug, he noted. Which meant this was Ginny trying to help him. Damn. “I’m fine. Just a little tired - I didn’t sleep too well,” he lied.

    “Oh?” She looked at the empty spot at the table.

    He rolled his eyes. “Not like that.” Not like them.

    “So nothing happened?” Harry asked.

    Ron frowned at his friend. Harry had been very much occupied, so how had he noticed Ron’s visit? “Did you bug the hallway?”

    “Luna didn’t want to disturb you two,” Ginny revealed.

    “Where is she, anyway?”

    “Checking the net,” Harry replied. “She wanted to catch a friend of hers before they went to bed.”

    Ron pressed his lips together. Luna didn’t have friends on the net - she had contacts.

    “Don’t try to distract us!” Ginny cut in. “What happened?”

    “Nothing happened,” Ron told her. “I just apologised to Hermione for annoying her with our talk about flying tanks.”

    “Oh! It’s ‘Hermione’ now?” Ginny smirked.

    He rolled his eyes. “There are a few things you can’t share without ending up liking each other...” he started to quote Hermione.

    “Oh, really? It’s not the other way around?”

    Of course she would misunderstand what he meant! And Harry was chuckling.

    Ron shook his head and focused on The Times.

    *****​

    “So, which shop are we hitting first?” Ginny asked an hour later, as they gathered in the entrance hall. “You have to pretty much buy a whole household, right? For your new home? Clothes, furniture, cosmetics, bedsheets, favourite mug and teapot...”

    “Books,” Ron said. He didn’t think A Feast for Crows was out already, but perhaps...

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed, nodding.

    “Seriously?” Ginny shook her head, though she seemed amused rather than annoyed. “Well, I should have expected that. When Ron moved out, he bought shelves for his books before he bothered buying non-essential stuff like pans, pots and dishes…”

    Perhaps she was a little annoyed, Ron corrected himself. “Well, my favourite book shop is on the way to whatever other shops we need to visit.”

    “Only if you’re driving,” Harry said.

    “You’re not driving with Ginny around,” Ron replied with a grin.

    “Hey!” Ginny glared at him.

    “And they have all the magazines I need, too!” Luna chimed in, if a little belatedly. Well, she had visited the shop often enough when they were a couple, Ron reminded himself.

    “Let’s go then,” Sirius said. “We can take the SUV.”

    Which would fit all six of them comfortably and leave enough room in the boot for essential purchases.

    “So, are you a fan of fantasy novels?” Ginny asked as they descended the stairs. “Or do you think they are weird, having real magic?”

    “I prefer non-fiction books, actually,” Hermione told her.

    “That covers a lot since magic has been revealed to be real,” Luna said. “How many fantasy novels could be considered ‘based on a true story’?”

    “Those aren’t exactly non-fiction,” Hermione replied.

    “Certainly not if written by Skeeter,” Harry added.

    And that killed the conversation until they reached the garage. “I’m driving,” Sirius announced. “It’s my car.”

    “His replacement tank,” Ginny stage-whispered to Hermione.

    “It actually has better all-round armour than his tank,” Luna pointed out. “This car’s got B7-level of ballistic protection.”

    “It lacks a gun, though,” Sirius complained. “And it’s not quite as able in rough terrain.”

    “Because it weighs almost as much as a tank,” Harry said.

    “Speed isn’t armour,” Ron told him. The Royal Navy had learned that at the Battle of Jutland.

    “Stop complaining about my car and get in, everyone!” Sirius exclaimed, clapping his hands. “We don’t have all day!”

    Ron ended up in the middle row, next to Hermione, with Harry and Ginny in the back and Luna riding shotgun.

    “At least we’re not behind the lovebirds,” he told Hermione as they stopped at the first crossing.

    She laughed, briefly, and nodded. “Oh, I’ve seen worse.”

    He saw her smile fade a little and her eyes unfocus as she remembered - right before a bullet struck the windshield and Luna screamed.

    *****​

    “What?” Harry all but yelled. She controlled herself better, but she felt the same.

    “I said I’m not going into hiding.” Ginny glared at him, hands on her hips. “You haven’t gone deaf over the summer, have you?”

    “But…”

    Ginny cut him off. “If you can risk your life fighting them, I can do my part, too.”

    “You’re sixteen,” she pointed out to the other witch.

    “I fought Death Eaters when I was fifteen!” Ginny retorted. “You were there, Hermione!”

    She knew that. “But that was before they took over the Ministry. Now they can use the Trace to track you. You’d be a liability.”

    Ginny scoffed. “The Trace? Please! Bill got rid of it.”

    “What?”

    “What did you expect? He’s a Curse-Breaker, and it’s a standard enchantment. Easy to dispel if you know how.” Ginny grinned. “Mum and Dad asked him to do it so I would be able to use magic if I was in danger.”

    “I don’t think they want you to risk yourself,” Harry said.

    “Tough.” Ginny scoffed again. “I’m already in danger as a blood-traitor. And you need all the help you can get.”

    She stiffened. Did Ginny know about their task? How?

    “Oh, relax!” The other witch shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. But I know Harry has an important task - I know him, after all,” she added, smiling at the still scowling Harry. “So, I’ll be joining you.”

    She shook her head. “No, you won’t!”

    “The hell I won’t!”

    “We’ve been training for this for a year. You haven’t,” she told her. “You wouldn’t be risking just yourself, you’d put all of us at risk. And especially Harry.” Without Occlumency, Ginny wouldn’t be able to resist the Horcruxes’ effect. Not after what she went through with the diary.

    “This isn’t about being able to fight,” Harry explained.

    “What?” Ginny exclaimed.

    She glared at Harry. He was coming close to revealing their task. Dumbledore had been quite clear about the need to keep it a secret - from everyone.

    “Please. You can’t come with us.” He embraced her. “I’m sorry.”

    She turned and left them when Ginny started to cry.

    *****​

     
    Lockir, Yla, dylanredefined and 8 others like this.
  9. Beyogi

    Beyogi I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Hm... isn't this quite daring what they're doing? Yaxley may not be a mole anymore, but I would guess whoever was trying to nab Hermione is still around.
     
    Starfox5 likes this.
  10. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Yes, it's a tad daring. They just visited the CI5 headquarters, but as events prove, they calculated wrongly.
     
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  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: The Road Trip
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 14: The Road Trip

    Islington, London, July 26th, 2005

    A spiderweb of cracks covered half the windshield as Sirius pressed the gas pedal and the SUV accelerated across the crossing. Another shot hit the windshield and also failed to penetrate. Luna stopped screaming and ducked down. Hermione grabbed her bag.

    Sniper, Ron thought. Just like with Scrimgeour and Bones. If not for the bulletproof glass, Sirius would’ve been hit - and possibly killed. He drew his gun. “Expect company!” he snapped. They had shot at the driver to immobilise them.

    “Can’t see anyone,” Harry reported. “Looks… there! Three o’clock, Mercedes, speeding.”

    Ron glanced over his shoulder as Sirius turned, driving away from the approaching car. Or trying to - the armoured SUV wasn’t exactly a race car. But if the other car was catching up, that meant it wasn’t armoured very much.

    Harry had come to the same conclusion since he was already climbing over his seat into the boot, where they had placed their bags. “Get down!” he yelled as he rifled through the sports bag, pulling out his carbine.

    Hermione was still rummaging through her bag, so Ron pushed her head down to the bench, ignoring her yelp of protest. “They won’t send just one car after us!” Not after Clissold Park. He looked around. He knew this area. If they wanted to catch the SUV in a pincer attack… “They’ll cut us off at the next crossing!”

    The first shots were hitting the rear of the car, but Harry had the carbine out and yelled: “Get down! I’m opening the rear window!”

    “What?” Hermione yelped.

    “He needs to shoot back,” Ron explained.

    “Hold on!” Sirius screamed. A moment later, the car almost rolled over as he took a too-tight turn on to the pavement, narrowingly avoiding getting rammed by another Mercedes from the side. Screaming pedestrians were jumping to the side as Sirius accelerated next to the Mercedes.

    They would be trying to pass them, to cut them off, Ron knew. Probably got stuck in traffic or they would’ve attacked at the same time as the other car. “Stay down!” he yelled, lunging over Hermione to hit the button to lower the window on her side as the two vehicles drove parallel to one another. And the windows on the Mercedes were being lowered as well!

    Ron was a little faster, however, starting to fire while the bloke opposite him was still moving his SMG around to take aim. Most of Ron’s bullets missed, but one clipped the man’s head, and he fell back, taking his SMG with him.

    But the man’s accomplice had brought his own gun to bear, and Ron had to duck down as a volley of bullets hit the armoured window. He did a tactical reload under cover.

    “Ginny, lower the window!” Harry yelled.

    Ron glanced over - his friend had his carbine ready. A moment later, the window started to open. Harry jammed the muzzle through the gap as soon as it was wide enough and opened fire. A burst went wide when Sirius drove over something - Ron hoped it wasn’t someone - and the car bucked, but the next burst was on target, and the shooter went down. Ron came up again and emptied his magazine through the open window of the passenger seat.

    The car swerved to the side and crashed into a parked limousine. Either Ron had hit the driver, or they had lost control while evading.

    That left the Mercedes behind them. Where at least two people were busy peppering Sirius’s car with SMGs or rifles.

    “Get down! Now I’m opening the rear window!” Harry yelled.

    “I can use Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder!” Granger shouted.

    “No need,” Harry replied.

    “Save it for emergencies!” Ron added, crouching on his seat, stabilising himself with his free hand as he took aim at the driver side of the pursuing car.

    Harry flipped the window - or what was left of it - open and they started firing.

    The other car’s windshield wasn’t armoured to the same degree as Sirius’s, and Harry’s first salvo put several holes into it. Ron didn’t see if his own shots hit anything since the Mercedes abruptly pulled to the right and rolled over. The shooter hanging out of a window on the passenger side wasn’t quick enough to either get out or back inside and was caught between the vehicle and the street as the car rolled over them, while the shooter on the driver side was thrown clear and landed on the pavement, hard.

    “Any others?” Sirius yelled.

    “Don’t see anyone,” Ron called back after looking around.

    “Keep driving!” Harry snapped. “The sniper’s still out there!”

    “I am!” Sirius retorted. “To CI5!”

    “No!” Harry, Ron and Hermione yelled in unison.

    “They’ll expect that,” Ron went on. “We need to ditch the car and disappear.”

    “That sounds familiar,” Hermione mumbled as they took another turn.

    “We can take the Tube,” Harry said.

    “I hope my insurance covers attacks by terrorists,” Sirius complained as he swerved around a slower car. “This car was expensive.”

    “You were planning to buy a tank yesterday,” Harry told him.

    “That’s different! And a tank wouldn’t have been wrecked like this! Hey, Dr Granger - can you repair it with magic?”

    “If I had a wand. But I wouldn’t do it, anyway, since repairing the car would reveal the existence of magic,” Hermione replied.

    “Focus on the street!” Harry yelled. “There might be more of them around, and we’re vulnerable.”

    “We’re also attracting a great deal of attention,” Ron pointed out.

    “Can’t be helped,” Sirius retorted.

    “Which is why we need to ditch the car,” Harry repeated Ron’s argument.

    Five minutes later, as they rushed down into the next Tube station, with their larger weapons stashed in Hermione’s bag, almost trampling some of the slower commuters, Ron couldn’t help thinking that an invisible flying car would have been very handy right now.

    *****​

    Greenwich, London, July 26th, 2005

    An hour and several stations later, they were in Greenwich. Ron didn’t think anyone had managed to tail them - there was a lot of surveillance on the Tube, but few would be able to access it.

    “Where are we going?” Hermione, her distinctive hair hidden under a cap she had pulled out of her bag, asked as soon as they entered a narrow side alley.

    “We’ve got a car parked around here, for emergencies,” Harry told her.

    “Another one?” She shook her head. “How many of them do you have?”

    “Not enough,” Ron replied with a grin.

    She narrowed her eyes at him. “That’s a quote from Moody, right?”

    “Right.”

    “Figures.”

    “Can we all fit into it? Or does Hermione need to shrink some of us? If so, I volunteer,” Luna said after they had crossed another street, perking up for the first time since the attack.

    “We just need the money in the car and some gear, then we’ll buy a used van,” Harry told her. Ron frowned at his friend as Luna’s mood fell again.

    “And what will we do then?” Hermione asked. “That was the third attack. And right after our visit to CI5.”

    “You mean there’s another mole? After the police started checking the entire department?” Sirius sounded incredulous.

    “Or they had you under surveillance,” Harry said. “Or Ginny.”

    “What?” Ron’s sister whirled on Harry. “You mean this was my fault?”

    “No,” Harry was quick to reply. “Most likely, they had Grimmauld Place under surveillance. Yaxley would have been able to get the address.”

    Ron agreed. “We should have expected this. It was our fault.” They had already known that their families were in danger. But they hadn’t expected things to escalate like this. Not after the Secret Service had become involved as well. They should have, of course. Moody would have their hides. Well, if they weren’t going to quit CI5 anyway.

    “You can’t go into hiding for the rest of your life!” Ginny snapped.

    “It’s only until I finish my project,” Hermione said.

    “Really? And they’ll magically stop looking for you?” Sirius shook his head. “Even if you return to your world, they’ll keep searching. And they’ll go after Harry and Ron to find out where you are. Or the Grangers here. Should everyone have to hide forever?”

    Ron saw Hermione pale a little at that. “But…” She trailed off, biting her lower lip.

    “Or to get leverage on you,” Luna added.

    “That means we’ll have to find Yaxley and whoever else is behind this, and stop them,” Ron said. Before the information about Hermione’s origin - and it couldn’t be anything else that would drive anyone to risk so much - spread.

    “But you quit CI5,” Ginny retorted.

    “Technically, we’re still police officers. Just on leave,” Harry told her. “But you’re right - we don’t have access to CI5’s resources. We’ll have to rely on Dumbledore and Grindelwald.”

    “What?” Sirius said. “You don’t trust them.”

    “We don’t,” Harry confirmed. “But we don’t have any alternative. We can’t trust CI5, either.”

    “And the government can’t know about this, or we’ll all get disappeared!” Luna said, nodding several times.

    And she might be correct, Ron knew. But they really didn’t have any other options. “We also need to inform CI5 about the attack. And that we’ll be going into hiding again,” he said as they finally reached the garage they had rented under an assumed name.

    “At least they can’t complain about that,” Sirius muttered.

    “They’ll complain anyway,” Harry told him. “Especially Dawlish.”

    Hermione sniffed at the name.

    “Was his counterpart a Death Eater?” Luna asked.

    “No, just an idiot,” Hermione replied.

    “No different to ours, then,” Ron added with a smirk as he opened the boot and pulled out the bag hidden under the spare tire. “Here are the burner phones. We’ll have to wait on calling CI5 or Dumbledore until we’re moving, though.”

    “I know,” Ginny said with a glare. “I’m not stupid.”

    “We’ll have to take the car and buy a van,” Ron continued, ignoring her outburst. She had just been shot at, after all.

    “You and Harry?” Hermione asked.

    “No. Harry will stay with you.” Ron looked at his friend, then glanced at Ginny.

    “Right.”

    “And you can’t come with us since we don’t have fake IDs prepared for you,” Ron told the others. The Met would be out in force - they had barely managed to leave the area of the attack before it had been locked down.

    “I have a fake ID of my own!” Luna spoke up.

    Of course she’d have one! “You didn’t mention that before.”

    “I didn’t want to force you into a conflict of loyalties,” Luna told him. “Between your duty as a police officer to investigate a crime and your friendship with me.”

    “Will it stand up to a check?” Harry asked. “They won’t just glance at it.” Their own were in the system. Illegal, but effective, as Moody would say.

    “Oh, it will!” Luna nodded with a wide smile. “The government’s computer security isn’t as good as they think it is. Sabotaged by the shadow government so they can manipulate them more easily.”

    “You hacked the government’s databases?” Sirius laughed. “Oh, that’s great.”

    It was also highly illegal, of course.

    “I didn’t say that!” Luna replied - but her smile confirmed it.

    “Well, let’s go then,” Ron said.

    *****​

    East End, London, July 26th, 2005

    Ron’s black beard itched. As did his black wig. But the beard was worse. And while the wig barely reached his shoulders, the beard scratched his chest whenever he looked down. Compared to that, wearing leather biker clothes in summer was only a mild annoyance. If Hermione had her wand, she probably could have conjured a perfectly comfortable disguise. Or a magical disguise - hadn’t she mentioned a potion to change one’s shape?

    But if Hermione had her wand, they wouldn’t need to disguise themselves at all, since she could teleport them around. Until she went back to her world.

    He shook his head. He had to focus on buying a van, not on what-ifs.

    “That’s your best van, mister?”

    At least Luna wasn’t getting distracted by her disguise. The Daisy Dukes and the jeans vest over a hot pink crop top with a matching headband weren’t too far from her usual outfits. And a blonde hippie-esque girlfriend fit a biker.

    “Oh, yes. German quality. You can’t kill a van like this!”

    That was because it looked like it had been killed twice already and then stitched back together with parts from two other vans afterwards.

    “Really?” Luna bent down to study the wheels and the undercarriage.

    Ron caught the middle-aged used car vendor staring at her bottom and growled, which made the lech back off and pale a little. Sometimes, maintaining your cover fit the situation perfectly.

    “It looks like it’ll hold up!” Luna announced, with her head halfway under the car.

    Ron nodded - he trusted her assessment - and turned towards the vendor. “How much?”

    A few minutes of haggling later, they were the proud owners of an old, battered Volkswagen van that could have fit into any seventies road trip movie. And which smelled as if it had served as a marijuana delivery van ever since that decade.

    Well, it only needed to last the trip back to Scotland.

    And, as Ron found out quickly, it did handle decently. “Good choice,” he told Luna as he steered the van out of the vendor’s parking lot.

    “Thanks! It’s perfect! No one will suspect that a few good people taking on a world-wide conspiracy would ever drive such an obviously rebellious van!”

    “They wouldn’t?”

    “Of course not! They’d expect us to try and fit in by driving the most average, boring car!”

    “Hm. Like the Dursleys?” That would fit them like a glove, in Ron’s opinion.

    “Harry’s boring relatives?”

    “Harry’s greedy relatives,” he corrected her. They only ever visited Harry and Sirius to ‘network’, as far as he knew. “But they’re boring, too.”

    She snorted. “Sheep controlled by the state media.”

    Ron nodded in agreement as he slowed down at the next crossing. “Say, did you hack Dumbledore’s systems?”

    “Oh, I wish!” He didn’t have to look at her to know she was pouting. “But his system is frustratingly good. I have to be extra-careful to worm my way into it, and, so far, I haven’t gotten very far, yet.”

    “Well, you knew he was good, didn’t you?”

    “Yes, but I didn’t fully realise just how good he is!” She huffed and crossed her arms, sliding down in her seat. “Old people shouldn’t have such good computer security!”

    “He probably has hired help doing that for him.”

    “No doubt. But people like him are supposed to be so arrogant that they sabotage their own security. He’s not cooperating.”

    Ron suppressed a laugh at that.

    “You know,” Luna went on, “perhaps this attack was a false flag operation by Dumbledore. To scare Hermione into returning to her secret lab as soon as possible.” She sat up straight again and leaned over. “What do you think?”

    “It’s possible,” he said - it certainly wasn’t impossible. Just unlikely. “But I think he wouldn’t have needed to do this, and he knows that. Hermione won’t stay away from her lab for long.”

    Luna snorted. “Everyone has a weakness, and they know hers!”

    He took the next turn, then shrugged again. “Or they think they do.” Hermione wasn’t as easily led along by the nose as Dumbledore might think. But she wasn’t as skilled at subterfuge as she thought she was, either.

    “You like her.”

    He still had wet dreams featuring her. But that wasn’t a subject he would ever talk about with anyone. So he picked the safe answer. “She saved my life.”

    Luna sniffed. “That’s true, and yet not. You know what I mean.”

    He shrugged. “She’s smart and stubborn. And a witch.”

    “And you like her.”

    He tilted his head. Not quite nodding.

    Luna snorted again, looking pleased. “She would probably be good for you. And you for her.”

    “She’s going back to her world,” he pointed out. “Where her Ron is waiting.” Who could work magic and had been her best friend for years. Ron hated him already.

    “Mhh.” Luna was smiling.

    He didn’t ask what she was thinking. She was too optimistic, anyway.

    *****​

    Greenwich, London, July 26th, 2005

    “Please tell me that this is actually a carefully disguised high-end vehicle that only looks like a rust heap.”

    Hermione obviously didn’t know much about cars. “This is a classic,” Ron told her as he got out of the van next to their temporary hideout.

    “And it’s mechanically sound,” Luna added. “None of the important parts are rusting.”

    “So we won’t die to mechanical failure. We will die from blood poisoning after sitting down amidst rusty edges and the accumulated dirt of several decades.” Hermione sniffed the air. “It smells like cannabis.”

    “Olfactory camouflage,” Ron replied. “Better shower before visiting Mum and Dad,” he added, nodding at Ginny.

    “I’m coming with you.”

    “What?”

    She was pushing her chin forward and glaring at him. “It’s the safest course of action.”

    “We’re being hunted,” Ron retorted. “We’re certainly not safe.” And more people would now be wondering why someone was using so many resources to get Hermione. They might not realise that she could do magic, but they would soon understand that her research had to be more valuable than everyone had thought.

    “It’s safer than being separated.” She nodded at Harry. “People know about us. They’ll try to get me to get to him no matter where I am. And the usual security on the tour won’t be able to stop them. Not when they’re willing to attack like they did today.”

    She was right about that, of course. The people after Hermione had attacked in the middle of London, on a busy day, twice so far. They might attempt to grab Ginny from the court. And Ron didn’t think that they’d care how many spectators got hurt or killed during an attempt, either. But there were better alternatives to coming with them. “You’d be safer with Mum and Dad.”

    “They’d lock me up in the house. Perhaps the basement,” she shot back.

    “Dad wouldn’t!” Ron shook his head.

    “Mum would.”

    Luna giggled as she nodded in agreement. Ron sighed. Mum was a little overprotective. Still… “There’s also protective custody.”

    “So I can be locked up in a basement without anyone I know?” Ginny sneered. “I’m coming with you. If it’s safe enough for Hermione and Luna, it’s safe enough for me.”

    “It’s not exactly safe,” Hermione pointed out. “We don’t know how far we can trust our ‘hosts’.”

    “So? I couldn’t trust whoever the police sent to guard me, either.”

    Harry hadn’t said anything so far. Ron looked at him, and his friend shrugged. So, he wasn’t going to be any help. Ron ground his teeth. He didn’t like going there, but… “You’d be another person we have to protect, though, making our task harder.” She should get the hint now.

    Ginny’s glare intensified - she knew what he insinuated. “Have you forgotten how many self-defence courses I had to take before Harry stopped being stupid? I can remind you,” she added, taking a step towards him. “And it would count as the regular training Harry also insists I do.”

    Ron scowled at her. He could take her in a straight fight. Usually. But she’d probably manage to hurt him - she was too fit, too trained and too nasty to be easily subdued. He glared at Harry, instead. That was his friend’s fault.

    Sirius laughed. “She’s got you there, Ron.”

    Ron eyed the older man. “Let me guess: You want to come as well.”

    “I am coming with you as well,” Sirius said, grinning. “Everything that applies to Ginny applies to me as well. And I know how to handle a gun.”

    “As long as it’s strapped to a tank,” Harry cut in.

    “I’m a qualified marksman with combat experience,” Sirius shot back. “If Ginny can come, I can come, too.”

    Ron decided to blame Harry for that as well.

    *****​

    Near Hackthorpe, Cumbria, Britain, July 27th, 2005

    “This was a bad idea,” Ron heard Hermione mutter before her head appeared next to him as she squeezed through the gap between his and the front passenger seat.

    “Hm?” he asked, glancing at her before focusing on the road again. Even - or especially - right after midnight, the motorways weren’t free of dangers.

    “Nothing,” she replied in a whisper, leaning back in the passenger seat. “Can’t sleep with the air smelling like a hemp plantation. And the lumpy seats.”

    “The others don’t seem to have problems sleeping,” he commented.

    She sniffed. “Sirius’s claims that the military taught him to be able to sleep anywhere, any time, might not have been bragging. Harry and Ginny are using each other as pillows. And Luna…”

    “I know.” Luna could sleep in any seat as long as it was soft enough.

    “I’m going to smell like a pothead for days. At least I can ditch the clothes afterwards.”

    “You shouldn’t,” he said.

    “Why not? Do you think I’ll need them as a disguise again?”

    “Yes. But also, you look good in that dress,” he said, without thinking.

    He knew without looking at her that she was frowning at him with narrowed eyes before she snorted. “Thank you. But the seventies aren’t me.”

    “Vintage fashion is a thing,” he told her. And the strong colours of the dress did suit her. Just as the short hemline suited her legs.

    “A thing, yes. Not a good thing, mind you,” she said in a hushed voice. “Or would you like to wear polyester suits?”

    He chuckled at that. “Well, they look better than robes, at least.”

    When she didn’t immediately reply, he glanced at her again. She looked pensive. “It would be a change to wear robes again.”

    “Did you have to wear robes?”

    “At Hogwarts, yes. It’s the school uniform. And the unofficial Ministry uniform. Even Mr Weasley wore robes to work, and he loved muggle fashion.”

    “Like a suit and tie.”

    “Yes.”

    He chuckled again. That did sound like Dad, just with different interests. He passed a slower car - with an older driver, as he saw when he overtook it - then returned to the left lane again. “It sounds weird,” he commented.

    But she didn’t answer. When he glanced at her again, he noticed that she had fallen asleep.

    He kept glancing at her for the next two hours, until it was Harry’s turn to drive.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 27th, 2005

    “So that’s the Black Lake. I thought it would be bigger,” Sirius said as they drove along its shore. “What with a giant squid and a village of merpeople located in its counterpart.”

    “The giant squid isn’t actually that big,” Hermione told him. “Nothing like in the movies you’ve probably seen.”

    “Also, no talk of magic once we’ve arrived,” Harry cut in.

    “We could do a double bluff,” Sirius replied. “Make them think we’re using magic as a code for technology.”

    “That won’t work,” Ron said, suppressing a yawn. He hadn’t slept well in the van. And not for long enough, either. At least he had been able to get rid of his wig and beard once they had entered the Highlands. “Dumbledore and Grindelwald are too smart for that. You would probably make them think about magic in the first place. They already know that alternate dimensions exist; assuming that magic exists wouldn’t be a big step.”

    “Or psionics, which is totally different from magic,” Ginny added. Sitting behind her - Harry was driving, so naturally Ginny had commandeered the passenger seat - Ron couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was smirking.

    “Psionics?” Hermione asked. “Is that from Dr Who?”

    “It’s a sort of not-magic magic in Dungeons and Dragons,” Luna explained.

    “Yes. Ron was very insistent that it wasn’t magic,” Ginny said.

    Ron frowned. “I should never have let you play D&D with us when we were kids.”

    “Mum would have made you play with me,” Ginny retorted.

    “And it was fun,” Luna said. “Even though the monsters were very unrealistic.”

    Hermione snorted at that.

    “It’s true,” Luna told her. “Most wouldn’t have been able to sustain themselves where we found them in the game. Some wouldn’t have been able to enter their own lair.”

    “That was a mistake,” Ron defended his eleven-year-old self. “And it only happened once.”

    “Anyway,” Harry cut in again, “no talk of magic once we arrive. And assume we’re always under surveillance inside the building, or near it. The only time we can talk freely is when we’re taking a run along a random route around the lake.”

    “I’m having flashbacks to Sandhurst,” Sirius groaned. “Tell me we’re not doing the morning run routine.”

    “We’re doing the morning and evening run routine,” Harry told him. “You were the one who insisted on coming along.”

    “Ginny did as well!”

    “I’m not the one complaining about a little running.” Ginny chuckled. “In fact, I’m glad that I will be able to keep in shape. Somewhat, at least.”

    Ron rolled his eyes behind her back. Yes, everyone knew who was the fittest among them. He changed the subject. “Also, be on your best behaviour. We didn’t announce your arrival.”

    “They’ll have anticipated it,” Harry said, “after hearing about the attack in London. And Ginny’s statement about having to recover from yesterday’s attack, and not wanting to deal with anyone outside her family, should have been released to the press by now.”

    “They’ll still try to force a concession out of us,” Ron retorted.

    “That’s their capitalist nature,” Luna agreed. “They can’t let any opportunity to amass more wealth and influence go by.”

    “Well, they’ll be disappointed,” Hermione declared. “They need me, and I don’t see how housing six instead of four could be a significant drain on their resources.”

    “Oh, but we have expensive tastes,” Sirius said. “Ginny is a celebrity, and I’m used to a style of living befitting my station.”

    “I’m certain that they can afford a daily order of fish and chips and pizza,” Harry replied in a dry tone.

    “Don’t forget the curry!” Sirius told him, chuckling. “More seriously, I don’t think they’ll object. The more people who know about this who are here, the fewer they have to hunt down should they decide to stab us in the back.”

    Now that was a sobering thought.

    *****​

    Filch was already waiting for them in the underground garage, standing at parade rest with two guards at his back and a scowl on his face like a drill sergeant in a movie. A show of force.

    Ron was the first out of the van. Standard procedure. “Mr Filch.” He nodded at the man. “You should be aware that we’ve brought two friends with us after we were attacked in London. I trust quarters have been prepared for them.”

    Filch’s scowl deepened. Probably at some petty ploy being foiled, Ron thought. “I heard.”

    “Good.” Ron looked around, not bothering to be subtle about it as he checked the garage before he nodded at the van. “Clear.”

    “Of course it’s clear,” Filch spat, adding something under his breath that Ron didn’t catch.

    “Trust but verify,” Ron replied with a grin.

    “Constant vigilance,” Harry added.

    Ron saw Hermione roll her eyes as she stepped forward. “Ginny Weasley, Sirius Black - Mr Filch. Head of security of this facility.”

    “Charmed, I’m certain,” Sirius said with a wide grin. “Lovely resort you have here. More than meets the eye, right? Good discipline among the staff, too. I like that. Don’t see that as often as one should, these days.” He nodded with a condescending expression. “Don’t bother taking our luggage; we’re travelling light.”

    Filch gritted his teeth as he stepped to the side, letting them go past and into the lift.

    “Was that necessary?” Harry asked as soon as the doors closed. His tone left no doubt that it was a rhetorical question.

    “Yes,” Sirius answered anyway. “I know his sort; he needed a reminder that he’s the help.”

    “I don’t think this was the right time to play officer,” Harry replied.

    “On the contrary! I know a former soldier when I see one.” Sirius grinned. “He was probably drummed out of the service.”

    And probably had a chip on his shoulder about officers, especially the upper-class ones. Ron shook his head. Between Hermione’s demanding nature when working and Sirius’s attitude, the facility’s staff wouldn’t warm up to their group any time soon.

    Well, that would make it easier to remain on their guard.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 28th, 2005

    What goes around comes around, Ron thought as he struggled to keep pace with Ginny on their first morning run. His little sister had found a way to push herself without running Hermione, Luna and Sirius into the ground - she was literally running circles around those three as their group ran along the shore. As were Ron and Harry, of course.

    It was just a little more difficult than Ron liked. Ginny had always been athletic, and since she was only one year younger than him, she’d been his near-equal, physically - until he had entered puberty. He still remembered the tantrum she had thrown the first time he had easily bested her in arm wrestling after a few months at school.

    And, judging by the nasty grin his sister was sporting as she glanced over her shoulder before stepping up her own pace, so did she. Well, he hadn’t let her forget it for quite a while, back then.

    At least he wasn’t suffering alone.

    He still had to struggle not to let himself fall to the ground at their first break while Ginny kept bouncing on her feet. “Any bugs?” he asked.

    Harry shook his head. “None that I can detect with this,” he answered, holding up his scanner.

    “Is that really necessary?” Sirius asked from the ground. “They couldn’t have bugged the entire area, could they?”

    “You never know,” Ron told him. “All it takes is getting sloppy once.”

    “Moody,” Hermione mumbled.

    “Yes,” Ron said. “Words to live by.”

    She snorted. As did Ginny. At least Ron’s sister wasn’t rubbing in her athletic superiority.

    “You’d never make it on the tour. And I’m talking about the WTA Tour.”

    Not overly much, at least.

    “Not everyone can be a professional athlete,” Hermione retorted. “Some of us have other strengths.”

    Ron smirked as Ginny frowned. His little sister didn’t like insinuations - imagined or not - that she was all brawn and no brains.

    “And united, we’re much more than our individual strengths!” Luna spoke up.

    “As long as we work on our weaknesses,” Ginny replied.

    “I can’t teach anyone physics,” Hermione said. “I’m busy doing research. And for magic, you need an inborn talent.”

    Ron snorted. Perhaps the insinuation hadn’t been imagined. Hermione did strike him as rather competitive. Even in areas where she wasn’t particularly gifted.

    “Physics won’t help you defend yourself.”

    But so was Ginny.

    “Only if you lack the imagination to apply your knowledge.”

    There were entirely too many teeth being bared around here, in Ron’s opinion. He cleared his throat. “Unless anyone has anything important to report, Hermione and I will need to go over the cover story again.”

    They had another dinner with Dumbledore, and possibly Grindelwald, this evening, after all.

    *****​

    “Fascinating. So a massively stratified society emerged as a result of a much more intense arms race during the Cold War?” Dumbledore asked as he finished his dessert - chocolate cake with ice cream and whipped cream. A delight, Ron had to admit - Dumbledore obviously loved sweets, and his staff knew it.

    “I didn’t study history or sociology,” Hermione replied. “I can only tell you how things are. And possible reasons why my world is more advanced, technologically, than this one. In my world, the military spent huge sums on research since to fall behind would have meant defeat. No matter the cost to society.”

    “Like Pakistan’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Or North Korea’s.” Dumbledore nodded. “Ironically, while the quote of ‘being ready to eat grass to get the bomb’ is attributed to the former, it’s the latter’s population who is currently suffering that fate, as far as we can tell.”

    “I think those are good examples,” Hermione replied. “How far would either country have come, had they not wasted so much money on weapons development? And in both countries, the ruling class lives extremely well.”

    “As long as they’re not being assassinated or executed,” Harry pointed out.

    “Quite.” Dumbledore nodded. “However, neither country might have had a choice - their neighbours might have exploited any weakness.”

    “I’m no expert on politics,” Hermione told him. “I focused on physics.”

    “A fortunate choice. However, given such a huge gap between our technology levels, what kind of weapons did your world develop?”

    Ron tensed. They had expected that question - Phoenix Gruppe was an arms producer, after all. At least Grindelwald wasn’t present.

    “Most of the advanced weapons weren’t revealed to the public, but kept secret,” Hermione said. “Presumably so the enemy wouldn’t be able to develop countermeasures or copy them. However, there were the civilian derivatives - primarily medical advancements - and there were rumours that simply couldn’t be quashed. I wasn’t privy to classified research in my field, but I know there was research on personal transporters and a sort of force field.”

    “Really? Teleportation, as seen in some science fiction series?” Dumbledore rubbed his beard, obviously interested. “Such devices would revolutionise warfare - and, of course, intelligence.”

    “They’d also revolutionise our lives,” Luna pointed out.

    “Something to be kept in mind when discussing trade.” The old man nodded as if he cared more about raising the standard of living than lining his pockets.

    “Hermione’s world might not be willing to part with their advanced technology,” Ron said. “If it becomes wide-spread in our world, the lower classes in Hermione’s world might demand it for themselves.”

    “If they haven’t done so already, I doubt they’ll start any time soon,” Dumbledore retorted. “Your world’s major societies seem remarkably stable, Dr Granger.”

    “From what we could tell, there were special units who dealt with incidents that might upset the population,” Hermione said. “I don’t think that the majority of such incidents ever made it into the media.”

    “That would require tight control over all media and news services.”

    She snorted. “The most popular newspaper in Britain answered to the government. And its biggest competition was a magazine widely regarded as satirical in nature, with a delusional editor-in-chief. And the less said about the wireless media, the better.”

    “And yet, you decided to fight for this society?” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows.

    “The alternative was far, far worse. No social mobility at all. A person’s worth entirely defined by their birth.”

    “And the best and brightest of the lower classes eliminated instead of elevated.” Dumbledore nodded. “Such a policy tends to lead to large-scale violence as revolutionary sentiments grow.”

    “Yes,” Hermione replied. “I would assume that would happen.”

    Ron suppressed a wince. They had covered the possible questions, and what to reveal, but this was entering an area they hadn’t - couldn’t have - covered in depth. Alternate history, of sorts, for a fictional universe.

    “Provided, of course, advanced technology cannot be used to stop such developments,” the old man went on. “But even so, without an enemy threatening to destroy you, I don’t think your society can be maintained indefinitely.”

    “Reforms can be achieved peacefully, though, as this world’s history shows,” Hermione said. “Even if that didn’t happen in my world’s USSR and China.”

    “But our circumstances were different.”

    “Yet people are people, always yearning for freedom. You cannot suppress everyone forever - sooner or later, any system will be broken!” Luna chimed in.

    “You’ll find, my dear, that the devil is, as always, in the details - or, in this case, in the definition of ‘sooner’ and ‘later’,” Dumbledore told her. “But I think we’ve monopolised the discussion for too long.”

    “Oh, don’t stop on our account,” Sirius said. “It was fascinating.”

    Dumbledore’s smile didn’t slip at all, despite Sirius’s obvious sarcasm. “If you insist.” He turned to Hermione again. “Were there any smaller wars, such as the invasion of the Falklands? Or low-level conflicts like the Troubles?”

    “You mean like a war that wouldn’t have happened at all at all if there hadn’t been a complete intelligence failure with regards to the Argies’ preparations?”

    Sirius glared at the old man, but Ron didn’t really pay attention. Hermione seemed distracted. Which usually meant she was focused on her past.

    *****​

    “Run! Run!”

    As she turned the corner, moments before a crossbow bolt hit it, exploding as if it were a grenade - enchanted bolts? In goblin hands? - she tried to apparate. It didn’t work, of course - as she knew it wouldn’t. But old reflexes were hard to change.

    In front of her, Harry turned, wand raised. A moment later, his spell blew up the tunnel behind her, shards of stone pelting her Shield Charm.

    “This way!” Ron yelled, waving at her from a side tunnel.

    It wasn’t on the map they had acquired - but the map had been wrong, anyway. Faulty information. And they had no choice. If they stuck to the bigger tunnels, the goblins would run them down.

    She followed Ron, Harry bringing up the rear. They were on… well, the vault level. And the goblins would be blockading the stairs. That left the air shafts - if they could find one. Provided they did actually exist, of course - other than Sally Selwyn’s report, no document mentioned air shafts in Gringotts.

    They had to exist, though - goblins wouldn’t want to depend solely on Air-Refreshing Charms. Not when they didn’t have wands.

    They had to exist.

    She glanced at the bag Harry was carrying. They couldn’t die at the hands of the goblin guards. Not when they had found another Horcrux.

    Not when they were closer than ever to finally defeating Voldemort.

    “Bloody hell!”

    That was Ron! She pushed on, turning the corner - and stopped next to Ron.

    And stared at the huge dragon in front of them. Even chained as it was, they couldn’t get past the beast. And the goblins were coming. This was… this was...

    “Bloody hell.” Harry had reached them.

    “We need to go back,” she told him.

    “The goblins are too close,” he replied, looking around. “No time. Get your brooms. And then destroy those chains!”

    *****​
     
    Lockir, Yla, Beyogi and 5 others like this.
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: The Albanian Connection
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 15: The Albanian Connection

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 28th, 2005

    Hermione shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, standing up. “That brought up memories of my own little war. I think I’ll retire for the evening.”

    “Oh, dear me, I wasn’t thinking!” Dumbledore looked appalled at his thoughtlessness. “Please accept my apology for bringing up bad memories.”

    “Apology accepted.”

    Ron didn’t know which of them was lying more right now. But he knew what he had to do. He stood, nodding at the others, then followed Hermione.

    The spymaster wasn’t the sort of man to make such a mistake. So his comment had to have been deliberate. But had he merely wanted to find out what would make Hermione crack or had this been an attempt at getting a specific reaction out of her? Probably both, given the man’s past.

    Hermione glanced over her shoulder at him as he caught up to her. “That was rather thoughtless of Mr Dumbledore,” he said, walking at her side.

    “Yes, indeed,” she replied. Her tone told him that she didn’t believe it had been a mistake, either. “Perhaps he was distracted by Mr Black and Ginny’s presence.”

    A punishment for bringing more people with them? No. Ron shook his head. “I don’t think so. He was probably simply lost in your tales.”

    She frowned at him, then shook her head in turn. “He isn’t getting any younger.”

    Ron shrugged. He didn’t think that this was an attempt by Dumbledore to pressure her into working faster. The old man would know such research couldn’t really be rushed. Although he would have to feel his age constantly - especially after hearing about the latest attack on Hermione. He sighed. He couldn’t get a handle on Dumbledore.

    Hermione flashed him a rueful smile. “He’s quite the enigma, isn’t he?”

    So she was none the wiser, either. Ron nodded as they entered the lift.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 29th, 2005

    Had Hermione had another nightmare? Ron couldn’t tell. She didn’t look well-rested as she prepared for their morning run, but none of them did. Even Ginny looked a little tired, but that was probably due to her sharing a room with Harry.

    Of course, if Ron’s dream had been real, he’d look even worse. And so would… he buried the thought. He couldn’t really compete with a magical Ron. A Ron who had practically grown up with her. But it didn’t seem that his subconscious understood that.

    She was pretty, but certainly not a supermodel. She was also fairly fit, though she didn’t have the curves of a lingerie model. And her hair was usually a mess, barely tamed by the double-strength scrunchies that kept it in a ponytail. She hardly wore makeup - and with Ginny now around, that was even more apparent.

    But she had something…

    He grit his teeth and focused on stretching and warming up, instead of on her doing the same.

    A few minutes later, they were running. So close to the building, there weren’t many different routes, so they had to assume the area was bugged, and thus couldn’t talk. But Ron didn’t mind the silence. Nor the cool morning air. Nor even Ginny pulling ahead again. Though he grinned when she had to backtrack because Harry decided to pick a new route. Teach her to try and do the work of professionals.

    A few minutes later, she, Harry and Ron were circling the other three again. It was quite the challenge, actually. Since they were inside the forest, the only paths were trails - and animals didn’t walk two or three abreast.

    About ten minutes in, Harry called for a break. Hermione had held up a little better, or so it seemed. Or perhaps she had pushed herself a little more with Ginny present. Without planning to, Ron found himself using the same tree as she did to stretch.

    She glanced at him, frowning slightly. “Am I doing it wrong again?”

    He had been staring! He shook his head. “No, no.” He nodded towards her backpack, which contained her beaded bag of holding. “I was just wondering if Dumbledore might suspect that we’re hiding weapons somehow, since we didn’t take any SMGs or rifles into our rooms.”

    She pursed her lips. “Didn’t we leave two rifles in the car?”

    “Yes, we did. But wouldn’t he have expected us to do that as a distraction?” Ron tilted his head as he changed positions and started to stretch his arms.

    “I think you might be overthinking this,” she replied.

    “Maybe.” He pressed his lips together for a moment. “But we can’t underestimate him.”

    “Our interests align,” she said. “He won’t do anything to sabotage my research, and he must have realised that harming my friends would negatively affect my work.”

    Friends. He liked hearing that. But… “He might prefer more control over you. Which he would achieve if you were isolated.”

    She scowled. “Then he doesn’t know me as well as he thinks he does.”

    She was right, of course - but that wouldn’t help anyone if Dumbledore were wrong.

    Ron really hated these spy mind games.

    *****​

    Ginny approached Ron at the second break. She was trying to be subtle about it, doing stretching exercises as she came closer, but, well... she hadn’t been trained in tailing people and spotting tails. So he made a point of looking at her right before she was about to speak and enjoyed seeing her pout.

    Only for a moment, of course, then she ploughed on and smiled at him, though she showed a bit too many teeth for it to be called sweet. “So… what’s between you and Hermione?”

    He managed to keep from spitting ‘none of your business’ at her. “It’s ‘Hermione’ now, is it?”

    She shrugged. “It would have been weird if I called her ‘Dr Granger’ while Luna called her ‘Hermione’.”

    So simple, he thought with some envy.

    “But don’t change the subject,” she went on, frowning at him once more. “What’s up with you and her?”

    “Nothing.” He glanced over his shoulder. Luna was talking to Hermione at the other end of the small clearing. So this had been planned.

    She actually rolled her eyes at his answer. “Sure. That’s why you follow her around like a puppy.”

    What? “I’m her bodyguard.”

    “So’s Harry, and he doesn’t do that.”

    He was about to tell her that they had split the tasks but sighed instead. For all the years since they had moved out from their parents’ home, she still knew him too well. “It’s complicated.”

    “Really?” She changed her stance and did some squats. Show-off. “Because she was in a relationship with your counterpart?”

    “She told you that?” he blurted out, then drew a sharp breath and checked over his shoulder again.

    “She didn’t have to. Just looking at her as she told us about her best friends was enough. Who, I’ll have you know, also included my counterpart.”

    He shook his head. That was so like Ginny - she’d always hated being left out of whatever her brothers did, no matter how young she had been. Well, so had Ron, actually. He shrugged. “As I said, it’s complicated.” He couldn’t compete with a better version of himself, could he?

    She scoffed. “She’s been here for seven years. If she hasn’t moved on, he surely will have.”

    “You don’t know him.”

    “I know you,” she replied with a smirk.

    “Hey!” He glared at her. “I’m not him.”

    “Well, close enough, from what I can tell.”

    What? He blinked.

    She sighed. “I asked Hermione about your counterpart. She told me about him.”

    “Me too. And we’re very different.”

    “Not really. You’re into sci-fi and fantasy, he’s a fan of a wizard sport. And he can do magic.”

    “Yes.” Huge differences.

    “So, practically the same.” She grinned.

    “Even if that were true” - and it wasn’t - “that doesn’t mean you’re right.”

    “So, you’re not attracted to her?”

    “She’s pining for her Ron.”

    “We’ll see about that.”

    She pushed off the tree before he could react, and then she was too far away for him to call out to her without Hermione overhearing everything.

    Damn. He had known letting Ginny come with them would cause trouble.

    *****​

    Two hours later, Ron was guarding Hermione. Or rather, watching her work at her desk. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep staring at her. And she wasn’t even running any experiments at the moment - she was just doing calculations and taking notes. He could really use a good book right now. Or a portable DVD player and a few movies. Bodyguarding someone in an isolated, secure room was boring. Very boring.

    He sighed.

    “You don’t have to be here, you know.”

    He looked at her. “I actually have to. Regulations.”

    “What?”

    He chuckled to show he had been joking and saw her purse her lips, then smile. “Seriously, I’m safe here. You personally checked all possible avenues of entry, didn’t you?”

    She was quoting him. He shrugged. “You can never be sure. And it doesn’t really matter whether I’m waiting here or in my room.” He sighed again. “If only we hadn’t been attacked until after our visit to the bookshop.”

    She laughed at that. “I’d prefer it if we hadn’t been attacked at all. The news is going crazy.” She shook her head. “I think I’ve been kidnapped by every terrorist group in existence, according to the tabloids.”

    He nodded. At least they got the latest newspapers - although usually at noon. “The excitement should die down once news of us having gone to ground again spreads.”

    “No more kidnapping rumours would be nice. Not as nice as stopping whoever is behind this, though.”

    He shrugged. “Everyone’s working on that. Sooner or later, there should be results.”

    She didn’t look as if she expected anything.

    If Ron was honest, neither did he.

    *****​

    “The quality of the food alone would be sufficient reason to stay here,” Sirius announced as he finished the main course in the lounge of their quarters. “Say what you want about Mr Dumbledore, but he knows how to pick his cooks.”

    Harry snorted. “Says the man who could live on takeaway food for months. Did so, in fact.”

    “And that’s exactly why I can appreciate a good meal,” the older man shot back. “Or an excellent meal, like this one.” He raised his fork, with which he had speared the last piece of his veal cordon bleu.

    Ron slightly shook his head at Sirius’s antics. At least, Ginny and, of course, Luna, seemed amused. And, as he saw with a glance, even Hermione was smiling. Although that would change as soon as Sirius mentioned his plans for flying tanks. Plural.

    Ron still couldn’t tell how serious Sirius actually was - Harry’s godfather joked a lot about practically everything. Well, it wasn’t important right now. There were more interesting things to ponder.

    Such as the question of why Hermione had changed into a dress for dinner, even though they were just eating in their quarters. Usually, she’d simply drop off her lab coat before joining them. Today, though, she had spent an hour with Ginny and Luna in her room. Had his sister persuaded her to dress up? And how? Ginny was stubborn, but Hermione had her beat in that area. Perhaps Luna and Ginny had teamed up on her…

    His musings were interrupted when the door opened, and two staff members entered with dessert - followed by Dumbledore.

    “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Would you mind me joining you for dessert?” He raised a slim folder. “I bring important news.”

    “Not at all, please have a seat,” Harry said.

    Ron nodded. Important news? That sounded intriguing, especially coming from the old man. Not to mention that telling your host that you did mind would have been rude and stupid, anyway.

    “Important news?” Luna beamed at Dumbledore. Of course she would, what with getting dessert and possibly secret information at the same time.

    “Indeed. MI5 has identified most of the men you killed in the line of duty,” Dumbledore announced as he opened the folder and spread files out on the table while dessert was being served.

    Ron ignored the slight sting he felt at hearing that MI5 had done this, not CI5. Besides, the documents looked like MI5 files, which Dumbledore couldn’t have gotten legally. He skimmed them. “Quite the variety,” he commented. “Americans, Russians, French, a German…”

    “Oh, yes.” Dumbledore smiled. “Someone took care to muddy the waters, so to speak. The police would have some difficulty pinpointing the origin of this operation.” He shook his head. “However, they didn’t anticipate my own resources.”

    Ron wondered, privately, if Dumbledore was talking about his employees - or about MI6. Out loud, he asked: “What did you find out?”

    “We’ve identified one of the men killed in the most recent attack as Avni Berisha - the younger cousin of Burim Berisha, who controls most of the drug and other contraband routes through Kosovo.” Dumbledore looked at Hermione and handed her a picture.

    She shook her head, answering his unspoken question. “I’ve never seen or heard of that person.”

    “Why would a drug lord want to kidnap Hermione?” Ron asked. Of course, her beaded bag of holding would make smuggling easy - but it wasn’t worth angering the United Kingdom over. The SAS might not, any more, pull off the kind of operations they did during the Troubles - if you trusted certain rumours - but murdering police officers and trying to turn London into a war zone could very well merit the kind of visit that rendered both extradition treaties and trials obsolete.

    “I don’t think that he is behind this,” Dumbledore replied as he started on a bowl of chocolate pudding, “although I could be mistaken. However, I think it’s more likely that someone used him to hire deniable assets.”

    “Mercenaries,” Harry said. “Thugs.”

    “Scum,” Sirius added with a sneer.

    “I wouldn’t argue that those particular men were upstanding representatives of their craft,” Dumbledore told them with his usual smile. “But in my opinion, the key question isn’t the hired help’s moral fibre or lack thereof, but whether or not Berisha was aware that his cousin was deemed expendable. Blood feuds have been started for less.”

    “You think that he’ll sell out his contact,” Ron said.

    The old man inclined his head. “I think that isn’t too far-fetched. Alternatively - if he wasn’t involved in the hiring - he might provide us with information that will lead us to Dr Granger’s mysterious enemy.”

    “You want us to find out,” Harry stated.

    “Actually, since blood feuds are a local tradition in the area, I don’t think the same people who actually killed his cousin should meet with Berisha,” Dumbledore replied. “Although in light of the truth behind Dr Granger’s work, I cannot trust my usual assets to stay loyal if given such a mission.”

    So he was afraid that an ex-spy might suddenly decide to inform their old employer, instead of a private businessman. And that those in his employ without any loyalty to a country might sell out to the highest bidder.

    “You have proved to be quite adept at disguising yourself, though,” Dumbledore went on.

    “And we already know the truth about Hermione’s research,” Ron pointed out. “Unlike most of your employees and assets.”

    “Quite,” Dumbledore confirmed with a thin smile. “Even the fact that we’re involved in Dr Granger’s affairs is being kept secret from everyone, save for a select few of my men.”

    The Phoenix Gruppe’s spies and other ‘assets’ would draw their own conclusions from that information, Ron knew. And some might reevaluate their loyalties.

    “So you need us to get the information so it’s kept as compartmentalised as possible,” Harry said. He looked at Ron. “I think we should do it.”

    And they would finally be able to do something about the attacks instead of waiting for the next attempt to kidnap Hermione. “Yes,” Ron agreed.

    Then Hermione spoke up: “I’m coming with you.”

    “No, you aren’t!” Ron blurted out. “This is police work,” he added, meeting her eyes as she glared at him.

    “No, it’s not,” she retorted. “It’s an intelligence-gathering mission. You’re not going to arrest anyone, and you won’t be concerned about evidence or rights.”

    “It’s an investigation,” he told her. “We’re talking to informants.”

    “Informants who will try to kill you if they recognise you.”

    “An undercover mission, then,” he replied.

    “You’re going after a drug lord in his home base. You need me.” She was still glaring at him.

    “It’s too dangerous for you.” She wasn’t a police officer or a secret agent.

    “The same could be said about you,” she shot back.

    “But I’m not the only one who can open a portal to another dimension,” he pointed out. Chasing criminals and following leads, though? That was something he could do. And he really needed to do something after being attacked so often.

    “So?” She raised her head, pushing her chin out, and huffed. “If it’s not safe enough for me, it’s not safe enough for you.” She shook her head. “You need me, just in case you get shot again, or your disguise fails.”

    His jaw clenched. He didn’t like the reminder of his close brush with death. He didn’t want to remember how he had felt, falling. Bleeding. Dying.

    Dumbledore finally stepped in. “Joining such a mission would also delay your research.”

    “A necessary sacrifice,” she told the old man. “And it’s not as if we’d be away for weeks. Not that my work wouldn’t be affected if I had to worry about them while they’re away. Given that I’ll need at least several more weeks to complete my research, even if everything goes perfectly, any delay would be of minimal consequence.”

    “Your presence might distract Mr Weasley and Mr Potter,” Dumbledore pointed out. He nodded at Ron. “Further, you and Mr Potter are professional investigators.”

    And Hermione wasn’t. Ron nodded.

    “I think we’ll be safer with her nearby,” Harry said.

    What? Ron glared at his friend. Safer? They would have to protect her! Without her wand, she was too vulnerable, and most of her experience on such missions would be useless. Hell, they might as well ask Dumbledore for… Ah. Of course. With Hermione present, Dumbledore wouldn’t double-cross them and arrange a leak or accident. And magic could literally save lives in a pinch. Not to mention the other options Hermione’s potions offered. Still… Ron pressed his lips together. “In that case, we’ll need help.”

    Hermione looked torn between anger and triumph at that. Before she could say anything, Sirius spoke up: “I’m coming with you as well, then.”

    “No, you aren’t,” Harry told him at once. “Someone has to stay with Ginny and Luna.”

    “We’re coming as well!” Luna said.

    “No.” Even Hermione was shaking her head.

    “If it’s safe enough for you, it’s safe enough for us!” Ginny insisted.

    “You’ll need a computer expert. Even drug lords are going digital these days!” Luna nodded several times.

    Ron glanced at Harry. He expected his friend to tell Ginny not to be an idiot, but Harry wasn’t saying anything. Did he really think Ginny would be safer with them than staying here?

    “The more numerous we are, the more likely someone is to see through our disguises,” Hermione said.

    “That’s nothing money can’t solve,” Sirius declared. “Besides, whoever you’re sending as support for us will have to deal with the same issues,” he told Dumbledore.

    “Undoubtedly. But, leaving aside my concerns about using them, my assets are not only trained for such missions but also used to working together,” Dumbledore replied.

    “And we’re not,” Ron agreed.

    “We’ve worked together before,” Hermione told him.

    “And if we aren’t present we can’t help you even though you might need our help,” Luna said.

    “I can protect the girls so you won’t have to worry about them,” Sirius added.

    Ron saw Hermione frown - probably at getting called a ‘girl’. But Sirius was correct - he could keep them safe. And Luna’s skills with computers could be useful as well. Ginny, though…

    “I’m not staying here by myself while everyone else goes off!” his sister declared as if she had read his thoughts.

    “I’m not joining them, either,” Dumbledore said with a smile. “Although I fear I’d be poor company for a young woman.”

    Did the old man want all of them to go on this trip? Even if it meant Hermione would take a break from her research? What was his angle? Was this just a ploy to make them trust him? A demonstration that he wouldn’t take them hostage?

    Ron didn’t know. But he knew that Ginny wouldn’t accept being left behind, no matter how much sense it made. That was Mum and Dad’s fault, for making Ron and his brothers include her all the time when she was a little girl.

    And he knew that Harry wouldn’t be able to make her stay behind either. If Ron’s friend even wanted to. Ginny might be safer with them, anyway. A medical emergency that required Hermione’s ‘limited resources’ to save Ginny would be an easy way to split them up, after all.

    Damn. Mum would kill him for this.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, July 31st, 2005

    As far as birthday parties went, this wasn’t the weirdest Ron had ever attended. That slightly dubious honour still belonged to Luna’s sixteenth birthday. Closely followed by her seventeenth and eighteenth.

    But it was certainly not one of the best, either. The food was excellent, as expected, the cake nearly as good as one of Mum’s, but the fact that tomorrow they’d be flying to the Balkans to meet a warlord threw a damper on the mood. As did the fact that, since the facility’s staff had set up this picnic, the location was probably bugged.

    At least Harry and Ginny had sorted things out between them - they were feeding each other the last slices of cake right now, the picture of a loving couple.

    He took another swallow from his beer. He wasn’t envious. Not really. He shook his head and watched Luna play with the RC helicopter. The thing was hovering above the lake, slowly descending. And Sirius was, apparently, giving her advice based upon his experiences in the army. Which, Ron knew, didn’t include piloting.

    “If she sinks it I’m not going to be the one to recover it,” Hermione commented, taking a seat next to him.

    “Oh?”

    “Did I ever tell you how my Ron and I spent an hour in the depths of that lake, waiting to be rescued?”

    “What?”

    “It was for a school tournament.”

    He blinked. “A school tournament?”

    “Yes. One that had been previously discontinued due to its dangers. Anyway, I was unconscious, but…” She shuddered. “I’d rather not dive down there if I can help it.”

    “Ah.” He almost reached over to pat her shoulder. Or thigh. “I can understand that.”

    “Are you still angry about us coming with you?” she asked after a moment.

    He sipped from his glass before answering. “No.”

    “Really?”

    “I’m not angry.”

    “But you would prefer it if we stayed here.”

    Of course he would. They didn’t have the training for this. Harry had taken Ginny to a shooting range a few times in the past, but that didn’t mean she was trained for combat. And Luna and Hermione barely knew more than how to safely handle a gun. “I wish we had a range here.”

    “A shooting range?”

    “Yes.”

    “For you or for us?” she asked.

    He glanced at her; she was staring at the ruins above the facility. “Both. More training never hurts.”

    “You never had an accident during training?” she asked with a teasing smile.

    “You know what I mean,” he protested. But he was grinning.

    She nodded. “I know. But we could spend weeks on the range and you’d still think it wouldn’t be enough.”

    “Of course it wouldn’t be enough!”

    She laughed, and, after a moment, he joined her.

    *****​

    Tirana International Airport, Albania, August 1st, 2005

    If Ron hadn’t already been aware of how far the influence of the Phoenix Gruppe reached, their arrival in Albania would have made him realise it. They had taken a private jet - rented under a cover name, as far as he was aware - from Scotland to the capital of Albania and seen no custom checks in either location. The plane had taxied straight into a hangar, where two SUVs and two shady-looking men were waiting. No, not SUVs. Proper all-terrain vehicles. Land Rover Defenders, old - or at least old-looking.

    He was first out of the plane, looking around before nodding to the men. And resisting the urge to scratch his face, which itched slightly due to his fake beard. “Good morning, gentlemen.”

    “Morning,” one of them - the one with a moustache - replied. He was wearing a heavier jacket than was appropriate for the temperature, and it was bulging slightly. Oversized handgun or small SMG in a shoulder holster, Ron guessed. The other wore a vest that reached the top of his thighs. No bulges under the shoulders, so probably a holster in the small of his back.

    Ron himself was wearing slacks and a polo shirt, with his pistol hidden in his backpack. He couldn’t spot anyone else inside the hangar, so it looked safe.

    “Oh, nice!” he heard Luna exclaim behind him. “Snatch Land Rovers!” Before he could say anything, she pushed past him, making a beeline for the closest vehicle. The two mercenaries looked surprised as well, and she slipped by them to crouch down in front of the car. “Nice! The upgraded ones! Although they won’t help against explosives, we should be safe from small arms.”

    “The vehicles received additional protections, Miss,” Mr Moustache told her. “They should be proof against heavier weapons as well.”

    “Really?” Luna frowned. “That wasn’t just the usual lie to get a government contract?” She shook her head. “Well, we’ll see. I hope we won’t, but we’ve been having a sort of streak lately, you know.” Without waiting for an answer that wouldn’t come anyway, she crawled under the car, pulling out a small Maglite.

    Ron clenched his teeth at the sight of Luna ruining her dress. He had told her that she didn’t have to prove herself useful, hadn’t he?

    “Ah, those bring back memories! Not good memories, mind you,” Sirius announced as he stepped out of the plane. “I still say we should have gone with a tourist disguise. We could have gotten luxury SUVs!”

    “You just wanted a replacement car,” Harry commented as he joined them. “Good morning.”

    “Not just a replacement car but two!” Sirius retorted with a grin. “So, you’re our guides?” he addressed the mercenaries.

    “Yes,” Moustache said. “I’m Bajram, and he’s Ad.”

    Local names, Ron noted. “Have you been told about our mission?”

    “You want to meet with Burim Berisha,” Bajram replied.

    “And we want to leave again,” Luna added as she reappeared behind the car. Her dress was covered in dirt, as Ron had expected. “This car looks clean. I’ll do the other one now,” she told them, then headed over to the second Land Rover.

    “Ah, finally fresh air!”

    Ron glanced over his shoulder and saw that Ginny and Hermione, both wearing black wigs and colourful dresses like Luna, had left the jet. His sister was stretching - for show, Ron assumed; the jet’s accommodations had been comfortable for him, and Ginny was quite a bit smaller than Ron.

    Hermione refrained from such a display and looked around as she descended the short set of mobile stairs, one hand in her beaded bag of holding. Ready for trouble.

    He pressed his lips together. He still didn’t like bringing the rest of their group with them, but at least Hermione had some idea how to behave in dangerous areas.

    “So… four in each car. We’ll have to split up,” Sirius said. “For the trip to the safe house,” he added.

    Where they’d split up further, of course. And would finally be able - outside, at least - to talk freely. Harry, Ginny and Sirius took the first car with Bajram while Ron, Luna and Hermione followed Ad to the second.

    The car looked newer inside - probably the result of the uparmouring done to the chassis. Ron wondered briefly if Phoenix Gruppe had used their car parts manufacturing subsidiaries for this, then shook his head. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was being able to do this mission safely, and having a pair of armoured Land Rovers went a long way towards achieving that.

    Or would, if Kosovo weren’t riddled with heavier weapons left over from the war against Serbia. Perhaps Sirius had been correct in wanting a tank.

    *****​

    South of Prizren, Kosovo, August 1st, 2005

    They reached the safe house that Dumbledore’s men had prepared in the southern mountains of Kosovo as the sun was setting. It didn’t look like much from the outside - just another small stone building in the mountains. Barely above a converted stone barn, if that.

    But it had an actual barn that hid the Land Rovers, and it was set up in a good defensive position, as Sirius explained as they were getting out of the cars. “Give me a tank, and I’ll block the entire valley from here!” he exclaimed.

    “Until someone blows you up,” Harry retorted. “I’m starting to wonder about your apparent fixation on tanks.”

    “You’re only just starting to wonder?” Hermione said, shaking her head. “It seems like an obsession.”

    Sirius scoffed. “I’m merely practical. A few years ago, a war was fought here. Trust me, the locals will have hidden a lot of weapons in these mountains. Right under NATO’s nose. And Berisha will have had his pick of the hardware.”

    “Whatever tank we could get wouldn’t stand up to a modern RPG anyway,” Ron pointed out as he peered through a gap in the door and studied the area.

    “I’m certain that our friends could get us a main battle tank,” Sirius shot back.

    “And a tanker to keep it fueled?” Harry snorted.

    “It looks safe,” Ron announced.

    “It is safe,” Bajram said. “We know our business.”

    “Trust, but verify,” Ron told the other man with a nod. They certainly had known how to pass a supposedly monitored border without getting stopped, much less searched. Well, that happened when the military was ordered to do police work. “But I don’t like walking to the door in the open.” If there was a sniper, like the one in London...

    Ad chuckled. “We’re too far from any good sniping spots.”

    “That depends on the sniper,” Ron told him. “And the gun.”

    The other man shrugged. “If someone tracked you to this spot, it’s your fault. No one followed us.”

    “Let’s go, then,” Ron said, stepping out of the barn and heading towards the door of the house. He tensed, but no one shot him. Or at him.

    Harry still kept the rest back until Bajram had opened the door, then everyone hustled over.

    The building looked much nicer inside than outside - and bigger, too; Ron could see a hallway leading straight into the mountain slope on which the house had been built. Not a converted barn, but a converted bunker, perhaps. Or an observation post - it did command the valley, after all.

    But whatever it had been, someone had spent quite a large sum to make it liveable by furnishing it. Nothing luxurious, but the furniture was sturdy and well-designed.

    Half an hour later, they had settled into the four rooms at the back of the building and then gathered at the dining table to eat dinner - Harry had thrown together a quick meal of pasta and tomato sauce. Nothing fancy, but certainly better than an MRE.

    “So, when’s Berisha expecting us?” Harry asked.

    “Tomorrow evening,” Bajram replied. “In his home. His clan controls the entire village, so don’t try anything.”

    “We’re just here to talk to him,” Ron told him. “We need some information.” And if Berisha were smart, there wouldn’t be any trouble.

    “No one here like snitches,” Bajram said.

    “It’s not about anyone local,” Harry explained. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”

    Ad snorted, which wasn’t a good sign in Ron’s opinion - the man hadn’t said much at all during the hours long drive up here, but when he had, it had usually been a cynical comment or a joke even Ali G might have found a little too distasteful.

    They would have to scout out the place, from afar. And be ready for anything.

    *****​

    Going for a walk at night felt safer. It wasn’t actually safer - quite the contrary. Anyone who might have managed to find them out here would have night vision gear. But if anyone had found them, they would have attacked already, and the cool air at night made a stroll too tempting to pass up after sitting in an un-air-conditioned car for hours during the day.

    Somewhat unfortunately, Hermione shared his thoughts on the matter and had opted to take a stroll herself - which meant he had been obligated to escort her. Which, in turn, made the stroll far less relaxing than it could have been. More interesting, though, since they could talk without being overheard by Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s minions. Or by the rest of their group, who had chosen to stay behind. That he had to use a flashlight to see the path was a drawback, though - but it was only a few days until the new moon.

    “I should come with you when you go visit Berisha,” she told him.

    “That’s too dangerous,” he retorted. And there was the fact that according to all he had heard, Berisha wasn’t exactly a progressive man with regards to women. Quite the opposite, actually.

    “Hospitality is held in high esteem here,” she replied.

    He scoffed. “Such rules are quickly discarded when it suits people.” You could always find an excuse or pretext to blame the other side for breaking hospitality.

    “That’s quite a cynical view,” she said. “Such systems wouldn’t have endured if people hadn’t respected them sufficiently.”

    He shrugged and walked a little farther along the worn path. “I wouldn’t bet your life on that.”

    “Yet you’d bet your own?”

    He turned to face her when he noticed she had stopped walking. “I don’t think he’ll attack us. Not when he can profit from selling us intel. And I don’t doubt that he’s aware who’s backing us.” One of the biggest arms companies in Europe.

    “Ah.” She cocked her head. “Do you think Dumbledore would leak news of his involvement?”

    “I think his men are a little more obvious than he wants us to think,” Ron replied. “At least to their family.” And Ron would bet that Berisha was distantly related to either Bajram or Ad.

    “Do you think Dumbledore is aware of that?”

    He shrugged. Who could figure out that old spymaster?

    She chuckled. “This feels familiar. His counterpart was the same. Just a little less obviously manipulative.”

    “He was probably better at it,” Ron speculated. “He had more experience, didn’t he?”

    “Yes.” She turned her head for a moment. “Voldemort hid in this region for over a decade, or so we believe. I wonder if that’s related. Though this world’s Tom Riddle is dead.”

    And he had just reminded her of her traumatic past. He ground his teeth in frustration. “Anyway, you can do more to help us, if things do go wrong, if you’re not in the middle of it.”

    “I can’t exactly shoot you with my potions. And my Peruvian Darkness Powder needs to be dropped nearby as well.”

    “You could give it to us. I’m certain that I can manage to drop it,” he said with a grin.

    “But you don’t know what its limits are.”

    “It cloaks the area in magical darkness for a few minutes.” That wasn’t exactly rocket science. “And you can’t heal us if you get shot.”

    “I need to be close enough for that,” she pointed out.

    He didn’t want her there. Not even near Berisha’s village. And he was pretty sure that she was aware of that. And that she didn’t care for it in the slightest.

    Without shining his flashlight at her, possibly blinding her, he couldn’t see her face. He could barely see her limbs in the flashlight’s dimmed glow - it wouldn’t do to announce their presence, after all. But he knew that she would be frowning at him, chin pushed forward, in that stubborn manner of hers.

    He smiled against his will. “Let’s go back.”

    “Yes.”

    *****​

    East of Prizren, Kosovo, August 2nd, 2005

    The village had seen better days, Ron thought as they entered it. A number of houses still sported battle damage - probably from the war, but Berisha might have come under attack from some of his enemies in recent years as well. But overall, the village looked like any other village in the mountains.

    Which meant most men would be armed and suspicious of strangers. Ad was driving, with Bajram riding shotgun - literally - and Ron and Harry were on the backbench. Even with his pistol and half a dozen spare magazines, Ron felt undergunned.

    They stopped in front of a gate in a wall that looked like it had been built by stacking rocks upon each other without mortar, and Ad switched the engine off. “We’ve arrived,” he said as if they didn’t know.

    “Remember: Don’t insult him. He won’t, can’t, stand disrespect,” Bajram told them.

    “We’ve dealt with his type before,” Harry replied. It wasn’t quite true - they had dealt with gangsters, but not with what amounted to a small-time warlord with a fief of his own. But deep down, crims were crims.

    Ron stepped out of the car and rolled his neck as a guard approached, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, and started to talk in Albanian with Bajram.

    Some magical way to speak, or at least understand, a foreign language would be very useful right now, Ron thought, but Hermione hadn’t had anything like that on her. Hadn’t mentioned anything that could do that, either.

    After about a minute, Bajram turned towards Ron and Harry. “Berisha has agreed to see you, Mr Smith.”

    “I thought that had been arranged beforehand,” Harry muttered next to Ron.

    “Might have changed his mind,” Ron replied. Or it was just a demonstration of power, as petty as it appeared. Loudly, he said: “Good.”

    “You’ll have to surrender your weapons,” Bajram went on.

    “They stay in the car,” Ron replied before he carefully took off his shoulder holster and dropped it on the backbench, followed by Harry. They dropped their knives as well. Not that Berisha’s men couldn’t steal them from the car if they wanted to, but Ron wasn’t about to hand his weapons over to them.

    While Ad waited next to the car, the rest of them were led through the gate, then frisked in the garden. Berisha obviously wasn’t taking any chances. And he might even be prepared for suicide bombers, as unlikely as such a threat might seem. Of course, the guards didn’t find anything, nor did they notice the fake beards Harry and Ron were wearing, nor the dyed hair - but their necklaces drew some amusement from them.

    “What are they saying?” Harry asked.

    Bajram hesitated a moment, then replied: “They are making comparisons between the necklace and your size.”

    Ron ran a finger over the inch-long assault rifle dangling from his necklace and chuckled, which seemed to confuse the guards.

    Not for long, though. They made some more comments in Albanian, then one yelled towards the house. Ron didn’t understand what he said, but he saw Bajram tense.

    “They called for Berisha,” their guide whispered. “But he doesn’t meet with people in the yard.”

    Oh. Their contact deviating from standard procedure wasn’t a good sign. But then the door opened, and three more guards armed with assault rifles stepped out and took up positions next to it before a man in his thirties appeared. Berisha - he hadn’t changed much from the pictures taken during the war.

    Unlike his guards, he wore a suit. An expensive one, too, as far as Ron could tell.

    He nodded at them with a smug expression. “Mr Potter. Mr Weasley. Welcome to my humble home.”

    Shit.

    *****​

    She hated waiting while her friends were risking their lives. Almost as much as she hated being helpless. She wasn’t, of course. But she wasn’t as good at Defence as her friends. Never had been. She wasn’t weak - she was quite good, actually. Compared to most others. But Harry was exceptional at Defence, and Ron wasn’t far behind their friend. And if this meeting turned out to be a trap, the two of them would be able to survive where she might not. And she wasn’t useless - she was the reserve. She was the ace up their sleeve.

    She still hated waiting, though. And worrying. Especially with her friends out in the open while she was protected by Harry’s Cloak of Invisibility. The meeting had been arranged through the Order. It should be safe. But they knew that nothing and no one was safe in this war - they had proved it themselves, several times, by unexpectedly striking at the enemy. And the Death Eaters had far fewer scruples.

    But Diggle had been an Order member in the first war - he was experienced. Dumbledore had trusted his cell to protect Harry and his relatives. If he needed to meet them, it had to be important.

    But where was Diggle?

    As if he had heard her thoughts, the man appeared. And as soon as she saw him, she knew things had gone wrong. He was hurt. His robes were singed. And he looked confused.

    Harry stunned him at once, then dropped a Portkey on him. A moment later, Diggle, Harry and Ron vanished.

    Hermione, still watching from a distance, activated her own Portkey, dreading what they would learn.

    After all, Diggle’s cell had been tasked with protecting the families of various muggleborns.

    *****​
     
    Lockir, Yla, inky and 6 others like this.
  13. Beyogi

    Beyogi I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Well shit indeed. Let's hope this guy wasn't behind the hits. Because holy fuck Dumbledore that's a screwup. Unless of course this is a means to improve his negotiation position.
     
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  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: The Flight
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 16: The Flight

    East of Prizren, Kosovo, August 2nd, 2005

    Ron’s first thought, stupid as it was, was that he had worn that bloody, itchy beard for nothing. Had Dumbledore sold them out? That didn’t make much sense. The old man had had ample opportunities to get rid of them, and he would know by now that Hermione wouldn’t let that go. So… a leak in his organisation? But the former spymaster didn’t seem like someone who’d slip up on compartmentalisation. Still, someone high enough in Phoenix Gruppe’s black ops department could have done this.

    “Mr Berisha.” Harry nodded at the man as if he were completely unperturbed by this turn of events.

    Ron copied him. “Good morning. I see our reputation precedes us.” He was quite cool and collected, in his own opinion, for someone facing down five assault rifles.

    Berisha laughed. “Indeed. I’ve been expecting you for a while.” He spoke almost perfect English, Ron noted. Not the kind you pick up in a few years at a local school. “It seems you aren’t quite as good at your job as I was told.”

    Their job? Had he expected them to track him down through his cousin? Who would have known that Harry and Ron would have followed this lead in person? Well, most members of CI5, which included Yaxley.

    “You sacrificed your cousin to lure us into a trap?” Harry asked. Of course, Ron’s friend had to push the man’s buttons.

    Berisha’s smile vanished at once. “No!” he spat. “I didn’t even know that Avni had taken a job that would lead him to Britain.”

    “Good job, Harry. Remind him that we killed his cousin,” Ron whispered.

    His friend ignored him. “Well, he did, and we’re here. I don’t suppose you’ll tell us who warned you?”

    Berisha laughed again. “Very funny, Mr... Potter, I suppose. I was told you were the more obnoxious one.”

    That clinched it - someone at CI5 had warned Berisha. Or someone for whom such a mole worked. Or someone with access to that information. On the other hand, Berisha hadn’t denied knowing the name of his informant. Ron grinned. “You get used to him. Eventually. So… you also know why we’re here.”

    “I know you’re British police officers. Who’re not supposed to operate outside Britain. That raises some doubts about your intentions towards me.”

    “Bajram can vouch for us,” Harry said.

    “Bajram will vouch for anyone who pays him.” Berisha sneered at their guide, who glared at him in turn and muttered something in Albanian.

    Ron pressed his lips together. Great - the two had a history. Or Bajram had a shady reputation. Either way, it wasn’t a good thing. “We’re willing to pay for the information we need. And we can pay a lot - Harry’s godfather is rich.” He didn’t want to mention Phoenix Gruppe even though they had numbers and codes if they needed to - Dumbledore knew how to prepare undercover missions in hostile countries.

    “Oh, I know. But I think you’ll pay for more than just information - after all, someone’s very interested in you. Someone with deep pockets. I think we’ll have a bidding war.” Berisha grinned. One of his men muttered something in Albanian, and he glared at him before retorting in the same language.

    ‘Avni’? Did they just mention the name of the dead mercenary?

    “The guard is another cousin,” Bajram confirmed Ron’s suspicion with a whisper. “He wants revenge.”

    Great. But Berisha was distracted, as were at least two of his guards. If they wanted to get out of this, now was the time. “Take cover,” he whispered.

    “What?” Bajram said.

    Then Ron snapped his belt buckle, spilling the pinch of Peruvian Darkness Powder concealed within, and everything went black. Ron dived to the side, rolled over his shoulder and grabbed the miniature rifle dangling from his necklace. A sharp tug broke it off, and, a moment later, it returned to its original size in his hands.

    Shots rang out as he rolled across the sandy ground and out of the area covered in darkness, his rifle already lined up with the closest guard. He squeezed the trigger and sent a three-round burst into the man, then another into the next guard. “Freeze!” he yelled, aiming at Berisha, who was moving towards the door as Harry dropped the last guard.

    But the warlord didn’t listen, and Ron squeezed off another burst that hit him in the leg. Before he could secure Berisha, though, one of the guards who had been behind them charged out of the darkness - who charged ahead in such a situation? - and ran over Ron, stumbling in the process. Ron rolled on to his side and managed to bring the rifle around before the man regained his balance, dropping him with three rounds to the chest.

    But Berisha had used the distraction to dive into the house, out of Harry and Ron’s line of fire.

    “Bajram! Get the car!” Harry yelled, moving towards the door.

    Ron followed - they needed Berisha. Alive.

    But Bajram didn’t answer. Either he had fled, or he had been shot.

    Damn.

    But they had to get Berisha. And quickly, before he escaped - his house was bound to have an escape route or two.

    Harry was at the door, pressed against the wall. “Let’s go!”

    Ron hurried forward, then crouched down on the other side of the door. “Going low,” he said.

    Then he held his breath and slid around the corner. The room inside was empty, though a chair and a small table had been knocked over. And there were drops of blood on the floor, leading towards the back.

    Harry moved ahead again, gun aimed at the hallway. Ron followed, covering the side door.

    They reached the kitchen. “Blood trail,” Harry whispered and pointed at the bloodstains near the trapdoor. There was also a back door, but it was locked with a deadbolt from the inside.

    Ron nodded at the pantry next to it without saying anything. The trapdoor could be a decoy.

    Harry nodded curtly in return and covered the door and trapdoor while Ron went around him, then ripped open the door.

    He almost shot the shrieking figure inside the pantry before he realised it was a woman - probably a relative. She was screaming in Albanian but didn’t seem to be armed, and there was no room for anyone else inside. He shut the door in her face. That left the trapdoor. Unless the woman had locked the back door behind Berisha, then hid… No. Too convoluted. The trapdoor, then. He moved towards it and wished they had been able to smuggle in stun grenades as well.

    They heard more shots and screams from outside, and Ron hesitated. The villagers were mobilising. The others would need help…

    “Stick to the plan,” Harry muttered.

    Clenching his teeth, Ron did and opened the trapdoor.

    There was more blood on the wooden stairs leading into the cellar. “Escape tunnel,” he muttered. Berisha wouldn’t flee to the basement otherwise. Too easy to kill him there, even with the village coming to help.

    “Yes.”

    Harry took point, rushing down the stairs while Ron covered him from above. There wasn’t any lighting, but the flashlights mounted on the rifles provided enough illumination for them.

    There were lots of old bottles and crates, and more blood on the floor, and one of the shelves lining the walls - modern ones made of metal; IKEA, Ron thought - had been toppled, revealing a tunnel.

    Harry still kicked over those crates that might be hiding someone before approaching the door, staying on one side of it.

    “He can’t move fast with the leg wound,” Ron whispered.

    Harry nodded. “Ambush.” He took his flashlight off the rifle and adjusted the intensity, then signed ‘High’.

    Ron nodded and crouched down, then moved forward to the edge of the tunnel’s entrance. Behind him, Harry moved up until he was close enough to reach the door frame. “3… 2… 1… Go!”

    Harry stuck the flashlight around the corner and flicked it on at maximum illumination. Ron heard a grunt as he slid around the corner himself, leading with his rifle. There was Berisha, on the ground, gun - a rifle, which had to have been grabbed during his flight - aimed at the entrance, jerking as he was suddenly blinded.

    The Albanian fired wildly, but the recoil from the automatic fire made his rifle’s muzzle rise, the shots not even coming close to where Ron was crouching - and aiming. It wasn’t ideal, not with Berisha prone on the ground and facing him, but he wouldn’t get a better opportunity. He squeezed off a shot, and Berisha screamed, hit in the shoulder.

    Harry dashed into the tunnel at once and Ron flicked the safety on as he rose, following his friend. Berisha had dropped his rifle and was trying to draw his pistol, but Harry kicked it out of his hand before he could line it up, then kicked him in the head for good measure.

    No one would complain about this suspect being roughed up a little.

    Harry quickly searched and tied up Berisha while Ron checked the man’s wounds. The shoulder wound was a little more serious than he had intended - the exit wound was in the back - but the lung hadn’t been touched, and the bleeding wasn’t too bad. The same went for the leg wound - the bullet had passed cleanly through his calf. Ron didn’t even bother checking for broken fingers but gripped the man’s good shoulder and pulled him up.

    They moved back to the cellar as quickly as they could manage in the narrow tunnel while dragging their captive, then Harry went up to secure the kitchen while Ron slung Berisha over his shoulder and followed, straining under the weight of the man on the narrow, creaky stairs.

    The pantry door was open, as was the back door - the woman must have fled. And was probably getting more help. Harry locked the door, then they moved back to the living room. Outside, the darkness was already fading. Ron saw Bajram on the ground, in a pool of blood. Poor bastard had caught a full salvo fired blindly into the darkness, or that’s what it looked like.

    But the shooting was still going on, even worse than before - all of the village’s men able to carry a weapon had to be up and about by now. At least it seemed that Ad was still alive and keeping them at bay.

    But escaping with Berisha would still be a challenge.

    Then another sphere of darkness appeared, covering the entire gate. Ron gasped. Hermione would only do that if she saw no other choice! “Watch your fire!” he yelled to Harry. They had to keep track of their bullets anyway - they hadn’t been able to shrink spare magazines. Not without using up more of the irreplaceable solution.

    The fire outside the gate intensified, and, a moment later, Hermione crawled out of the black cloud, pressing herself against the wall.

    Ron moved towards her, dragging Berisha with him. She didn’t look hurt, but that didn’t mean anything. Shock could do a lot to people. Harry rushed forward with him. Shots hit the ground near them, bullets ricocheting around.

    “On the roof!” Harry shouted, then dropped to one knee and fired. Ron, still carrying Berisha, looked up in time to see a man sliding off the roof, leaving a trail of blood before he disappeared behind the wall.

    Where one man went, others would, too. Ron tried to keep his eyes on the other roofs overlooking the yard as he pushed forward. Fortunately, there weren’t many - Berisha must have picked his house carefully. But there were more than enough to make staying inside the yard too dangerous.

    He reached the wall next to Hermione and crouched down next to her, dropping Berisha. “What happened?”

    “I heard the shooting and knew you’d run out of ammunition soon. And they shot out the tires.”

    Ron cursed. She shouldn’t have left the armoured car in which she had been hiding. She would have been safer there. Even with flat tires.

    Another burst of automatic fire struck the ground inside the yard, hitting no one but sending splinters and more ricochets across the yard.

    Harry returned fire. “Pass me a spare magazine!” he shouted.

    Hermione plunged her hand into her beaded bag and pulled out several magazines. “Here!”

    “We can’t stay here!” Harry yelled. “We need to get into the car! Call Sirius and tell him to step on it! We need covering fire!”

    “We can use Berisha as a hostage!” Ron replied. Although the villagers might be too caught up to care even if they noticed and didn’t think he was dead already. Or wanted to use the opportunity to kill him.

    “Ad?” Harry yelled as Hermione yanked out a radio and started calling Sirius.

    They heard the man yell something in Albanian. Then an explosion shook the wall, and everyone dropped to the ground, taking cover, as a cloud of smoke and dust rolled over the wall.

    “Grenades!” Ron yelled. They were using grenades.

    “No! Too much smoke,” Harry retorted, rolling and firing at another roof.

    “They blew up the car!” Hermione told them. “They’ve got RPGs!”

    As Ron had expected and feared. What a damn mess. “We need to get back to the house! They’ll blow holes in the walls any moment now.”

    “Ad?” Harry yelled.

    No answer came. Which meant the villagers would rush the gate in a moment. As soon as…

    The enemy fire grew in volume, tearing up the yard.

    “More on the roof behind us!” Harry yelled as he kept the roofs on the other side, those with a clear line of fire at their position, clear. “If they have grenades…”

    They had to brave the fire. Any moment, the enemy would storm the yard. Ron took a deep breath. If he rushed forward and drew fire, the others would...

    Suddenly, screams rose from the other side of the wall - and from the roof behind them. And yells and curses in Albanian followed.

    Sirius and the others had finally managed to get the second Land Rover into position. And he was using the MG-3 they had mounted on top to great effect.

    If they suppressed the village… No. “To the house!” Ron yelled, picking up Berisha again. “Run!”

    Harry and Hermione followed, Hermione darting past him and into the house, Harry running backwards and firing constantly in short bursts.

    Ron pushed on with clenched teeth, forcing himself to run as fast as he could, despite Berisha weighing him down. Any moment, he’d get hit and fall. Like in London. Any moment. He heard bullets whip past his head, saw them hit the ground in front of him. They wouldn’t keep missing. Not for much longer.

    Something hit him, and he was thrown forward, through the door, then smashed into the ground, rolling to the side, out of the line of fire of the enemy outside.

    It had been Harry, he realised after a second spent feeling around on his back. Crazy bastard had tackled him inside.

    “Ron!” Hermione was there, touching him, holding out a vial.

    He laughed despite the situation. “I’m fine! I wasn’t hit!”

    She stared at him, panting. Then looked him over before nodding curtly.

    Meanwhile, Harry had kicked the door closed and grabbed Hermione’s radio. “Sirius? We’re in the house. How does it look outside?”

    “Half the village is up in arms,” Ron heard Ginny’s voice answer. “What did you do? Sirius says he can’t keep the fire up for much longer, but we can rush the village and get you out.”

    “No!” Harry snapped. “They have RPGs. Keep your distance.”

    “But…”

    “We’re taking the chopper!”

    “What?” Hermione blurted out. “Are they close enough?”

    “Test it,” Harry replied, then fired a few shots through the windows. “We don’t have long - they’ll be coming at us from the back any minute now.”

    Ron nodded and dashed to the other corner so he could cover the hallway leading to the kitchen. The back door was barred, but that wouldn’t stop people from breaking into the house. Not for long. He hoped that Berisha’s presence would prevent them from throwing grenades into the house. Or using RPGs on the walls.

    Hermione pressed her lips together and pulled the RC helicopter out of her bag, then switched it on. “Luna, start the engine!” she yelled.

    “Roger!”

    Luna sounded far too perky for the middle of a firefight, in Ron’s opinion. But the toy’s rotor blades started to turn.

    “Check. Stop again!” Hermione snapped. “Moving it to the window facing you!”

    “Roger!”

    That would let Luna pilot it, in theory. Now all that was left was to board it. Which meant they needed to shrink - something that felt quite a bit more daunting now than when they had made plans.

    But Hermione was already kneeling next to Berisha, checking the man’s bonds, before holding a vial to his lips.

    The warlord wasn’t cooperating, snarling and spitting at her despite his wounds. Ron moved over and held him, then pinched the man’s nose closed until he opened his mouth and Hermione could pour the potion in and then force him to swallow.

    He gasped for air once Ron released him, then shuddered.

    And then Berisha shrunk rapidly until he was about two inches high. And, judging by his reaction, was shocked by the experience. Ron didn’t mind - that made it easier to transport him. He grabbed the man and put him into the toy helicopter, securing him with some string.

    “Hurry!” Harry yelled. “They’re about to rush us! Sirius! Suppress them!”

    “The German piece of shit overheated,” his godfather announced.

    Ron was about to move to the front windows to help Harry - the only reason the villagers hadn’t rushed them yet was the fact that the first rank would die - but Hermione pushed a vial into his hand. “Drink!” she yelled, then turned away. “Harry! Come on!”

    Ron took a deep breath and swallowed the potion. It tasted as vile as he had expected, but only for a moment - then his body shuddered, and, suddenly, the furniture started to grow. No, he was shrinking.

    Moments later, the toy helicopter looked the same size as a real one to him - no, a little larger, actually. He rushed to it and climbed inside, checking on Berisha. The man was unconscious but didn’t seem to be dying. And the smooth compartment they had prepared was actually rough for someone his current size. Very rough.

    “Harry! Come on!” he heard Hermione yell again, as loud as an air raid siren or a plane starting up - the entire helicopter shook.

    He saw the giant form of Hermione move closer to the chopper, then another giant rolled over the floor. Harry. What were they doing? Time was running out!

    “Luna! Take off in fifteen seconds!” Hermione yelled, then she started to shrink, followed by Harry, and both ran towards the helicopter.

    Ron was counting the seconds in his head, but both reached the toy with time to spare. He pulled Hermione inside, then Harry jumped in.

    Five more seconds. Four. Three.

    The door broke, wooden splinters the - relative - size of cars flying through the air, one narrowly missing the helicopter.

    Two. One.

    The helicopter took off just as a giant man rushed into the room, dropping prone and firing at the hallway. He noticed the chopper, but by the time he had swung his rifle round, they had already flown out of the window.

    Then the helicopter started to veer back and forth, flying erratically. Ron barely managed to keep a grip on both Hermione and the support strut in the centre of the fuselage, and Berisha would have been thrown out if he hadn’t been tied down.

    “Luna!” Harry yelled over the engine noise - even though she couldn’t hear them; the radio was back in Hermione’s bag and couldn’t be taken out now.

    “She’s flying evasively,” Ron told him. Although she was flying very evasively.

    “She’s going to kill us if she keeps this up!” Harry retorted.

    Hermione, meanwhile, was busy holding on to him and the strut for dear life.

    He craned his neck and managed to look outside the cockpit. They had already cleared the village. He couldn’t see if anyone was shooting at them, but Sirius was firing again - he could see the muzzle flash when the chopper turned in the direction of the car - and that should keep the villagers’ heads down.

    The helicopter landed behind the car, but the landing gear had barely touched the ground before they were picked up and carried into the Land Rover.

    “I’ve got them!” Luna yelled - far too loud for two-inch-tall people.

    “Floor it!” Sirius replied.

    Then things got bumpy again. Ginny was driving.

    *****​

    “How long does the potion’s effect last again?” Ron asked, ten minutes later. The Land Rover was still going about as fast as it could down the unpaved road. As far as Ron could tell, at least - he couldn’t see out of the windows, not with the helicopter being held on Luna’s lap.

    “The dose I handed out won’t last longer than an hour,” Hermione replied. “I told you that already.”

    She had. But being two inches tall while surrounded by normal-sized people in a speeding car - driven by his little sister! - was unnerving. Even inside the helicopter, he didn’t feel safe. One wrong move, one slip, and Luna’s giant body could accidentally crush them all.

    “How did the potion shrink our clothes and weapons, anyway?” he asked to distract himself. “We drank it; we didn’t coat our weapons and clothes with it.” Unlike the rifle-necklaces.

    “That’s how it works,” she replied. “Like the animagus transformation encompasses your clothes and wand as well. Although Polyjuice Potion works differently.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. Even though it didn’t make sense.

    “That’s also the reason why we can’t use the same method you used to return the rifles to their normal size,” she explained. “That only works on items.”

    “Ah,” he repeated himself. He wasn’t very keen on breaking off parts of himself, anyway.

    “We better get out of the helicopter now, though,” Hermione went on. “If the potion’s effect ends while we’re still inside, the consequences won’t be pretty.”

    Ron winced. He could imagine that. All too well. ‘Bloody mess’ wouldn’t be adequate to describe the result of four people suddenly trying to fit inside a space smaller than a car’s glove compartment.

    “Even the bench won’t be ideal, I think,” she pointed out. “Best we let the potion’s effect run out while we’re outside.”

    “Tell that to Berisha’s men,” Harry said. “They won’t give up the chase any time soon.”

    “We’re outpacing them, though, aren’t we?” she asked.

    Ron winced again. Sirius hadn’t had to fire the machine gun on the roof for some time, but the Albanians knew the terrain and wouldn’t be driven off so easily. “Unless they’re moving to cut us off. Or calling some allies ahead.”

    Hermione drew a hissing breath through clenched teeth in response to that. “How likely is that?”

    “Hard to say,” Ron replied. “Alliances can shift quickly among criminals.”

    “And people can be bought. If they offer enough money, even old feuds might be put on hold - especially if an outsider is the target,” Harry added.

    Hermione opened her mouth, but whatever she was about to say turned into a shriek when the entire car bounced and they were thrown around the helicopter’s interior like rag dolls. Ron managed to keep his grip on the support strut, but Hermione lost hers and crashed into the wall.

    She cried out in pain and Ron was at her side a moment later, despite the still rocking helicopter. “Are you hurt?”

    “Just… bruises,” she said, wincing.

    “Ginny’s driving recklessly,” he replied.

    “She has to,” Harry cut in, “or we’ll be caught.”

    “Caught or crashing… what’s the difference?” Ron muttered. Loudly, he asked: “How’s Berisha?”

    “The straps held,” Harry told him. “But he got banged up a little more.”

    Damn. “We need to leave the helicopter now,” Ron said. “Get to the floor of the car.” And hope that Luna didn’t step on them.

    “We’ll need more space once the potion’s effect ends,” Hermione pointed out.

    “That’s half an hour away,” Harry retorted. “We need to get out now.”

    “Alright.” Ron moved to the door and leaned outside, waving and yelling. “Luna! Luna!”

    He had to repeat himself twice before she noticed him, then had to quickly withdraw inside the helicopter when she bent down, and her long hair fell on the toy with enough force to shake it again.

    “Sorry!” she boomed as she parted her hair. “I can’t hear you. Climb on my hand!”

    Ron flinched, but they had no choice. He climbed out and on to the giant palm outside the door. When the fingers - each of them as thick as his torso - closed around him, then lifted him up, he tensed and held his breath until he was almost pushed into Luna’s ear.

    “We need to get out of the helicopter! It’s too dangerous inside!” he yelled.

    “Oh no! I should’ve realised!” Her reply made his ears ring. “Ginny! Slow down! They’re being thrown around in there.”

    One more, he was moved around, then deposited on the bench, next to Luna. The helicopter followed, and Ron almost lost his balance when Luna shifted on the bench, searching through her bag. “I’ve got it!” she announced, then pulled out a giant cushion.

    “Good thinking, Luna!” Ron heard Hermione yell - though he doubted Luna heard her as she bent down and put the cushion on the floor.

    He had to once more endure being picked up by a giant hand before he was gently put down on the cushion, quickly followed by the others.

    Then he heard Luna yell: “They’re safe now, Ginny! Step on it!”

    Ron was thrown back when the Land Rover seemed to jump forward and spent the next fifteen minutes sliding around on the cushion. Fortunately, the cushion was so large, it also covered part of the walls. Even so, all of them picked up a few more bruises as Ron’s sister put the Land Rover through its paces.

    Then Sirius suddenly yelled: “Trouble ahead!” and started firing the machine gun. And their ride got really bumpy.

    He heard Ginny curse as the Land Rover took a sharp turn and went off-road, then everyone cursed when the car jumped before crashing down on the ground with enough force to throw Luna out of her seat. She narrowly avoided crushing any of them, but her hand punched into the cushion, dislodging it just as Ginny took another tight turn, and Harry, Hermione, Ron and Berisha slid off the pillow and on to the floor. Right between Luna’s various limbs.

    And Luna was moving, so Ron had to jump to the side to avoid her hand as it grasped for purchase on the floor to push herself up.

    “Luna! Watch out!” he yelled - not that she had a chance of hearing him, not with Sirius still firing the machine gun; Harry’s godfather had somehow managed not to get thrown off and was still standing behind the gun. Probably - Ron couldn’t see anything but Luna’s shirt above him.

    He looked around for the rest of them and spotted Harry in a corner, holding on to Berisha. But where was Hermione? She had been right next to him when…

    The car lurched again, and he heard a booming squeal from Luna as he lost his balance and slid over the floor once more, bumping into Luna’s boot. Which was moving. He jumped up, grabbing one of the laces with both hands, to escape getting squished between the heel and the car seat. Unfortunately, Luna then finally managed to regain her balance and sat up again, propping her boot against the back of the bench in front of her, and the movement jerked him around before he slammed into the boot with enough force to rattle his teeth.

    He managed to keep his grip on the laces despite the pain, then let go and gripped the boot’s surface when the next turn of the car ended with him on top of it. The window closest to him was a mess of spider-cracks - someone was shooting at them. And had hit them. The bulletproof glass had held, but it wouldn’t last forever.

    Where was Hermione? She couldn’t have been accidentally crushed! But he couldn’t see her.

    “Hermione?” he yelled, but he could barely hear himself with all the noise.

    He finally spotted her two wild turns later. She was still - or again - on the cushion, holding on to its edge. But she wouldn’t be able to hold on for much longer, not with the way the entire cushion moved around every time the car swerved.

    And Ron was stuck on Luna’s boot, far above the floor. If he jumped - or fell - he’d break bones. Or worse. But he had to do something! The toy helicopter was on the floor as well, sliding back and forth, and it would crush Hermione if she got caught underneath it.

    Then the cushion slid across the floor as well, and he held his breath. If he timed it right… He jumped off the boot and, for a horribly long second, he thought he had miscalculated, then he smashed into the cushion, right at the corner.

    The impact knocked the breath out of him, but, somehow, he held on. “Hermione!”

    She turned her head - had she heard him? Over the infernal racket of the gunshots and wild driving? - and he saw her gasp.

    Gritting his teeth, he held on as the cushion slid back, then quickly scrambled towards her. Just before he reached her, the car hit something again, and he lost his balance, sliding the rest of the way and bumping into her.

    “Ron!”

    This time, he heard her. “Are you OK?” he yelled back.

    “Yes!”

    She didn’t sound hurt. “We’ll have to…”

    He cut himself off when the floor beneath them shifted - tilted. Ginny was driving up a slope. A very steep slope. So steep, the cushion started to slide back, under the back bench. Into the boot.

    “We need to jump!” he yelled.

    But before Hermione got up the nerve to do so, they hit the back door.

    Then something with a large calibre hit the back door from the other side, and it swung open.

    And the cushion slid out of the car.

    Ron heard Hermione scream as they fell, still clinging to the cushion. If it flipped… But it didn’t. They hit the ground on top of the pillow, which cushioned the impact and saved their lives. It still hurt, of course.

    And by the time Ron had recovered enough to move, the Land Rover had crested the slope and vanished from sight.

    A roar made him look back - and he saw the two cars full of armed Albanians which were chasing the Land Rover race straight towards him and Hermione.

    They were in the middle of the dirt road, which, at their current size, was the size of a football field. Too far to run in the time left. He pulled Hermione down and threw himself over her and hoped for the best.

    The first car arrived and drove on, straight over them. The noise was deafening, but they were in the middle between the tires. Then the second car appeared, driving a little off-centre, and they were sprayed with mud and crushed plants as the car struggled on the slope.

    But they hadn’t been crushed flat into the mud. “We need to move!” Ron snapped as he got up. “Into cover.” He helped Hermione up, ignoring her glare, then they rushed to the closest underbrush. At least at their current size, hiding would be easy. But the potion’s effect wouldn’t last all day. They had to find a hiding spot for two normal-sized humans. And fast.

    The slope was covered in thick grass - where cars hadn’t torn it up - and small trees with bushes growing between them. Neither would hide them once they were back to their normal size. “We need to reach a ravine. Or a cave.”

    “I didn’t see either,” Hermione replied as they ducked under a scraggly plant that he didn’t recognise.

    “We’re bound to find one, as long as we keep going,” he told her. But whether or not they’d be quick enough…

    Judging by her expression, visible despite the mud on her face, she knew that as well as he did.

    They hurried as best as they could, but, in the thick grass, what would have been a cross-country run was now more akin to a jungle expedition. The bushes and trees were actually the least of their worries. “You wouldn’t happen to have a machete in your bag?” he asked, half-jokingly, when he had to push through yet another clump of dense grass.

    “I do, actually, but if I pull it out it will return to its proper size,” she replied, climbing over a branch the size of a log on the ground, “since it was inside the expanded space in my bag when we drank the potion, so it hasn’t been shrunk.”

    “Crushed by a giant blade? I’ll pass,” he said.

    They pushed on. After a particularly dense patch of grass, he checked his watch. “We’ve got about fifteen minutes left.”

    “It’s not quite so precise,” she told him. “Unlike Polyjuice Potion.”

    “We still should look for a hiding spot,” he said.

    “Yes.”

    She sounded tired, if not exhausted. And she looked the part as well, covered in drying mud. Just like Ron himself. He held out his hand to help her over a broken mushroom, but she ignored it - only to stumble and almost fall down.

    A rest would be good, but with the potion’s effects ending soon, they couldn’t afford it. The two cars had disappeared over the ridge, chasing the others, but there would be others watching the area. If two people suddenly appeared in the middle of a slope over which their Land Rover had passed, they might take notice.

    “Perhaps we should…” he froze and stared. “Bloody hell!” In front of him was a spider nest. A spider nest the size of a house. That meant there would also be a spider the size of a horse. Or worse.

    He drew his pistol and wished he hadn’t lost the rifle in the Land Rover.

    “Dear Lord!” Hermione whispered.

    He couldn’t see any spiders. And he couldn’t see a web either. “We need to leave. Now!” he hissed.

    She didn’t argue, just nodded, and they started to back off. He wet his lips as he looked around. There had to be a spider around here, didn’t there? Didn’t they protect their nests? He had never studied spiders - they were far too creepy.

    He was panting. In this damned tall grass, a spider could be lurking right next to them, ready to ambush them… they had to retrace their steps. Unless it was hunting them.

    Suddenly, he heard something. Steps. And something was moving over to the side - the grass was parting and… He fired the moment he saw the mandibles. His shots went through the chitin shell but didn’t seem to affect the monster. Then one hit it in the eye, and the spider recoiled.

    “Run!”

    He pushed Hermione to run, then followed her, replacing his empty magazine with a fresh one. Not that it would do anything against the monster behind them. He glanced over his shoulder. Had the thing given up already?

    No! There it was, crawling through the grass, catching up… “Run!” he yelled, shooting at it. Ineffectively. Damn. It would jump any moment… There!

    He threw himself to the side as the monster pounced, narrowly dodging before it crashed on to the ground. He rolled, came up and emptied his magazine into the eyes facing him.

    Once more, the thing recoiled - silent but for the sound of its legs striking the ground. “Run!” He chased after Hermione but… she was running up the slope. “Wrong direction!”

    “Climb!” she yelled.

    “What?”

    “Climb!”

    He climbed.

    The slope was steep here. And the spider was the better climber. There it came!

    “Behind me!” Hermione yelled, chest heaving as she stuck a hand into her beaded back.

    His eyes widened, and he scrambled past her as she leaned forward, facing the spider. It was far too close.

    She pulled her hand out, and a giant book appeared, dropping on the spider.

    For a moment, they remained frozen, the only sound their heavy breathing, staring at the book below them. He blinked. Had the spider managed to evade the book? He couldn’t see it. And there was no way to check underneath the book.

    He felt her shiver in his arms. He didn’t remember embracing her. But he held her as they slowly sat down. “That was close.”

    She nodded. “I forgot about animals.” She turned her head to face him, smiling weakly. “Sorry. I should have expected this.”

    “How?” he asked.

    She chuckled - once - and shook her head.

    *****​

    “Did you know there’s a huge nest of Acromantula in the Forbidden Forest?”

    “It’s generally called a colony, not a nest, Ron,” she corrected him before she realised what he had said. “What? They aren’t native to Britain!”

    “Yes. Hagrid started it. Apparently, the leader was one of his pets.” Ron shivered.

    “He told you?” Setting a creature like that free had to be illegal! They were sapient, but they were man-eaters!

    “No. The monster told us. Aragog.” Ron shook his head.

    “You met them?” She hadn’t meant to yell. But… Ron - and Harry - had faced a monster like that?

    “Yes. Hagrid said to follow the spiders. So we did. And almost got eaten.”

    “What?” What had they gotten up to while she had been petrified? A Basilisk and Acromantula?

    “We got away, but it was a near thing.” He shook his head again, staring at the wall across from her bed. “So many spiders… huge things.” He rubbed his arms. “We ran when they came.”

    She shivered herself just imagining it. Poor Ron. To face giant spiders when he was afraid of normal ones… She scooted over and hugged him. “You were very brave.”

    “Brave?” He scoffed. “I couldn’t even cast a spell! I just ran!”

    “Brave,” she repeated herself. In his place, she would probably have been paralysed with fear.

    He snorted but didn’t contradict her.

    Good.

    *****​
     
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  15. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    A little of both, probably. But yes - they can't underestimate their enemy's reach.
     
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  16. Beyogi

    Beyogi I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Well, I don't think it's just some crimelord. Only a secret service would be willing to make an enemy out of a secret service. Or pull the kind of ops that have been pulled so far.

    Unless of course they're severely delusional about what Hermione can do for them.
     
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  17. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Or someone like Dumbledore.
     
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  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: The Hunt
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 17: The Hunt

    East of Prizren, Kosovo, August 2nd, 2005

    Ron’s heart was still racing, and he was still breathing heavily. Still keyed up from his close brush with death at the hands - fangs - of a monster straight out of his nightmares. But it was dead now. Crushed by a giant… he blinked. “A cookbook?” He turned his head to look at her.

    “It was the heaviest book I had that wasn’t essential,” she said.

    Was she blushing? He couldn’t tell; they were both flushed from running. She was covered in mud and sweat. Just like him. And still trembling and shivering. Just like him. But the monster was dead. And they were alive. Alive!

    Without thinking, he leaned forward and kissed her.

    He blinked. He was kissing Hermione. Had been kissing her for how long? Gasping, he pulled back and released her. “Ah…” He could feel his face heat up. Why had he done that?

    She was staring at him. And blushing - now he could tell. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, though.

    “I’m sorry!” he blurted out.

    For a moment, she glared at him, and he was certain that she’d slap him. But she merely pressed her lips together and nodded. Curtly. After taking a deep breath, she said: “We should go.”

    Focus on the task at hand, yes. Not on his loss of control. “We need to find a hiding spot. The potion will run out any minute, won’t it?” He checked his watch - yes. Any minute.

    “Yes.”

    He looked around. “We won’t make it to the tree over there with the dense undergrowth.” It was about… he couldn’t estimate distances correctly like this. It looked like a few miles to him, so probably a few hundred yards, tops. Too far for them. But… “The bush there!” It would provide at least some cover, and wasn’t too far. Or so he hoped. “Let’s go. And we need to recover the book. It has your fingerprints on it.” Burning it would only attract attention.

    “That will have to wait until we’re back to our normal size.”

    The trip was far more nerve-wracking now that they had realised just how dangerous the area was if you were only two inches tall. A spider or another animal could be hiding behind every patch of grass, in every bush. If there was a snake… he ground his teeth.

    Almost at the bush, he suddenly felt as if his stomach twisted. Then his body shook. The potion! “Down!” he yelled, grabbing Hermione and pulling her to the ground. If they grew to their normal size while standing, someone could easily spot them.

    She yelped in protest, but he was already rolling away from her - if the potion’s effect on her wasn’t also ending, he might crush her. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t a tiny human anymore hiding in a field of grass the size of trees. He was a human on the ground. And so was Hermione. And the grass and bushes around them provided little, if any, cover - barely enough to hide them from view if they were prone.

    They should have worn camouflage, he thought. “We’ll have to crawl the rest of the way to the tree,” he said. About two hundred and fifty yards, he guessed.

    “Did you spot anyone observing us?”

    “No. But they’re bound to have a lookout up,” he replied and started crawling. “Follow my route.”

    That would make it a little easier on her. Only a little, though - it wasn’t as if the grass was hindering them much, if at all. At least they didn’t have to worry about getting killed by spiders or snakes any more, he tried to console himself as he felt the sun starting to burn now that the grass didn’t provide him with ample shade any more.

    By the time they reached the tree and assorted bushes he had picked, he was soaked with sweat and felt exhausted. And Hermione simply collapsed next to him, chest heaving as she gulped down air. “Water…” she gasped, fingers reaching for her bag.

    He waited a moment, then pried it open for her.

    “Thank you.” She stuck her hand inside, then pulled it out again, holding a bottle of mineral water. “Here.”

    He took it without protesting that she should drink first and guzzled it down, splashing half of it over his head. “Yes!” he sighed, closing his eyes. “That bag’s the best thing, ever.”

    “Thank you. I’m quite proud of it,” she replied.

    He glanced at her. She was on her back, with her eyes closed. Her hair was plastered to her head, wet from sweat and water. Her clothes were covered in dirt, part of it having turned to mud.

    He wanted to kiss her again. But he couldn’t. Shouldn’t.

    Damn.

    “Can you get an assault rifle out? And then the radio? We need to call the others,” he said after a moment. Harry and Berisha would also have returned to their normal size by now, and they would have noticed - if they hadn’t before - that Hermione and Ron were missing.

    And if they were still alive, of course. But he didn’t want to dwell on that.

    “Yes.” She turned on to her side and reached into her bag again, pulling out another assault rifle - an M16 this time - and then a radio set. One Sirius had picked; military models with encryption.

    He took it from her - she still looked exhausted - and quickly set it up. Battery looked fine, the display worked, the antenna was extended… He switched to the agreed-upon frequency. “Red One calling Tank. Red One calling Tank.” Sirius had picked the call signs, citing his military experience.

    No answer.

    He repeated himself twice. Still no answer. That didn’t mean anything, of course - the others could be out of reach. In these mountains, radios didn’t have the same range as on flat terrain. Especially not with a simple extendable antenna instead of a five yard one. “Satellite phone?” he asked.

    Looking grim, she nodded and handed him the Iridium 9522A. He turned it on, then waited. “No connection.”

    “What?”

    “There’s no connection,” he repeated.

    “Are you sure you’ve turned it on properly?”

    “Try it yourself,” he replied, handing it back to her.

    She pursed her lips and tried it herself. “It’s not connecting. But everything seems to be working.”

    “We’re being jammed.” He shook his head. “Turn it off!” he snapped.

    “What?”

    “If they can jam it, they might also be able to locate it.”

    She gasped and turned it off. “But… that would mean, the radio…”

    “We need to move. Quickly.” This was worse than they had thought.

    “Why would an Albanian warlord have such a capability?” she asked, stuffing the radio and phone back into her bag.

    “It would come in handy if he wants to take out a competitor. Or wants to hinder NATO surveillance,” Ron said. “I’m no expert. Some criminals have phone jammers, to deal with police surveillance.” And the Iridium phone wasn’t exactly military grade equipment.

    “What if this is the work of his contact?” Hermione asked, taking another swallow from her water bottle.

    “If they were present, I don’t think we would have escaped the village,” Ron said, studying the area around them. “We’ll crawl to the dry creek there,” he said, pointing ahead. “Then we can follow it up the ridge and over it. Perhaps we’ll be able to contact someone from the top of the ridge.” Or from the other side, if they were jamming them from this side of the ridge.

    “I need to summon the book first,” she said.

    “How long will that take?”

    “Not long,” she replied. He could see her jaws clench as she turned without waiting for him to respond and held out her hand. “Accio cookbook!”

    It took the book five minutes to reach them. Five minutes he spent looking for enemies descending upon them. He didn’t spot anyone, though Hermione was panting and sweating even more by the time it dropped into her hand. He should comment on that, he knew. But they didn’t have many alternatives - crawling there would have taken too long.

    “Here’s the spider,” she said, holding up the book and showing him the squashed remains of the little monster.

    He shuddered but nodded. “Let’s go.”

    By the time they reached the creek, Hermione needed another break. They hid under the roots of a tree dangling in the air after half the soil beneath the tree had been washed away in a flood and had some energy bars.

    While Hermione rested, pressed against the cool earth in the shade under the tree, Ron crawled up the side of the creek and peered back towards where they had fallen from the Land Rover. He still couldn’t spot anyone chasing them. If Berisha’s men had spotted them, wouldn’t they have come at them already? They might not even be searching for them - who would have expected two miniature people to have fallen off the Land Rover? But it wasn’t enough to bet their lives on it.

    He slid back down to the tree’s roots. “It looks clear, but we should keep moving anyway. Once you’re rested,” he added when he saw her start to move. She wasn’t ready to climb up the ridge.

    “I can go on,” she insisted, raising her chin to stare at him.

    “What if we get discovered and have to run?” he retorted.

    She didn’t say anything, but the way she pressed her lips together was answer enough.

    He didn’t smile at his small victory. He moved and lay down next to her instead. “It’ll also be easier to move once the sun’s not as high,” he said.

    He heard her snort at that. She knew as well as he did that they couldn’t rest until the evening. They had to move and make contact with the others.

    And find out what had happened to them.

    *****​

    After a short rest, they moved up the creek. They didn’t have to crawl all the way, but it was near enough as made no difference. And the last part up to the top didn’t have any cover. “This will be a little tricky,” he commented as they rested in the last bush of sufficient size to hide beneath - as long as they stuck close together. Close enough to be touching. “We could be spotted from miles away. Perhaps we should pick another route…”

    “What? Go back down, and then up again?” Hermione sounded as if he had proposed tunnelling through the mountain. “We’re already covered in mud; we could add some more and just pass for the ground.”

    “It’s mostly rock up there,” he replied.

    “By the time I’m able to crawl down without dying,” she told him, “it’ll be night anyway.”

    He hoped that was just hyperbole - she didn’t look that exhausted. “Perhaps we should have crawled around the lake,” he said, “as training.”

    That made her laugh, at least.

    “Aren’t there any magical potions to keep you going?” he asked.

    “There’s the Pepper-Up Potion. It’ll deal with the common cold and lack of sleep. But if you’re physically exhausted, it’s not safe to use; you won’t fall asleep, but that’s all. You might kill yourself from exhaustion if you use it to keep going instead of sleeping.” She snorted. “Of course, sometimes a chance of dying from exhaustion is still better than getting caught.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. “We’re not at that point.” Not yet.

    “I know.” She looked around. “We haven’t spotted any pursuit. Nor any patrols.”

    “We have to assume they have lookouts hidden in the valley,” he told her. They couldn’t risk being discovered. “It’s the tail you don’t spot that gets you caught.”

    “Moody.”

    “Yes.” He frowned - he knew what she was implying: That this was paranoia. But it wasn’t. Merely caution and common sense.

    “At the very least, we know they weren’t tracking the radio, or they would have appeared by now,” she pointed out.

    “Or they didn’t manage to locate us before we shut the radio off,” he replied. “We can’t make such assumptions.”

    “Overestimating your enemy can be as deadly as underestimating them.”

    He shrugged. “Not as often, though.” He shook his head. “We need to get on top of the ridge to have any chance of making contact with the radio. And check if the phone’s still being jammed, too.” He thought of Dumbledore sending in a plane armed with anti-radar weapons and laughed.

    As did she, once he explained. “Not even the Phoenix Gruppe could send a warplane over Kosovo without NATO detecting it and taking action. But I bet he has a team ready to intervene near the area. Or two.”

    “But they won’t know anything until told to move in, and they can’t be too close, or they’ll realise it was about Berisha even if they aren’t given orders to intervene,” he pointed out.

    “You’re speculating.”

    “Yes. But my speculation is based on what he told us. And on the fact that he let us go on this mission in the first place,” he retorted.

    “You mean the fact that he let me go on the mission,” she corrected him.

    “Yes.” Ron had no doubt that Dumbledore considered everyone else in their group expendable. Without them, Hermione would have to depend entirely on the support of Phoenix Gruppe. He eyed the ridge again. “Read to move?”

    “Yes.” She sounded confident. She might be overestimating her stamina - but she had been running with them ever since they had arrived at the lab and he had seen what she could do.

    Good enough. “Let’s camouflage ourselves then!”

    “I really wish I had Harry’s Cloak of Invisibility.”

    “We’ll have to make do with a cloak of camouflage,” he replied with a grin.

    “A mud cloak, you mean.”

    “Like in ‘Predator’, yes. Now let’s get out some water bottles so we can improvise some mud.”

    “I’ll ask Dumbledore for camouflage suits once we’re back.”

    “Make it ghillie suits.” Although even camouflage netting would be very helpful right now.

    It didn’t take very long to camouflage themselves - they weren’t up against an alien killer with infrared vision, after all. All they needed was to break up their silhouettes. Which fresh mud, thanks to a few more water bottles, did perfectly well.

    Crawling up to the top of the ridge took another thirty minutes, but mostly because they didn’t want to move too quickly. Ron was first and peered down into the valley on the other side. Forested, good cover.

    Then he saw the smoke at the bottom. A burning vehicle - he knew what that looked like. He clenched his teeth. “I need the binoculars.”

    It couldn’t be the others! They couldn’t be dead!

    “Here!” She gasped as she spotted the burning vehicle as well. “Is… is that...?”

    “No.” He grabbed the binocs and focused on the burning vehicle. It was hard to tell, but… “It’s not a Land Rover.”

    He could hear her relieved sigh next to him.

    “No bodies nearby,” he reported. “None that I can see, in any case.” If there had been bodies - and Ron thought there would be, given that Sirius had been shooting at them - that probably meant they had been recovered. Which meant at least some of Berisha’s men were still alive. Though… had they given up the chase, or had they recovered their own wounded and dead after finishing the others?

    “Shall we try again to raise them on the radio?” Hermione asked.

    He pondered this as he searched the valley below them for any sign of the Albanians or Harry and the others. He couldn’t spot anyone, though. The satellite phone would be harder to track, or so he thought. But using it would involve contacting Dumbledore. And revealing that Ron and Hermione had been separated from the others might endanger them - Dumbledore would certainly prioritise recovering Hermione, even at the cost of the rest of their group. If he didn’t immediately use them as a distraction. “Let’s try the radio,” Ron said.

    She nodded in agreement. She was probably more concerned about the others than about herself. Especially, Ron thought, if they looked like her best friends in her world.

    So they set up the radio, pulled out the antenna and flicked it on. “Red One calling Tank. Red One calling Tank.”

    He heard a squeal. “Ron! Where are you? We were so worried!”

    He had to smile despite the breach of security - Luna never cared much about communication protocols, unless they were computer protocols. But she was alive. “How are the others?”

    “Si…” She was interrupted by a shouted “Call signs, Battleaxe!” So, Sirius was alive as well. Ron could almost see Luna pout and roll her eyes as she continued: “Tank was wounded, but not seriously. Pitch and Red Two are alright. Car’s damaged.”

    He sighed with relief, closing his eyes for a moment, and felt Hermione’s arms wrap around his torso and squeeze.

    “They’re alive!” she whispered.

    “Where are you?”

    “Oh, we’re… hmm…” “Give me the microphone.” “You’re wounded, you need to rest.” “Give me the microphone.”

    “Yes, they’re fine,” he told Hermione. As Mum always said: if you can argue, you don’t need any help.

    “Tank to Red One: We’re at three-seven-double-oh and two-four-double-oh. Approximately. Your position? Over.”

    That meant they were three thousand seven hundred metres north and two thousand four hundred metres east of ‘Point Alpha’. Which was a set of coordinates Sirius had picked, probably randomly, to the southwest of the area.

    Hermione had already pulled the GPS out, and half a minute later, she told Ron their own coordinates relative to Point Alpha.

    They were about ten miles apart - with a damaged car. Well, that’s what you got when Ginny was driving. His sister should have become a sports racing driver instead of a tennis player. He relayed the coordinates to the others.

    “Tank to Red One. Are you in a safe location? Over.”

    “Red One to Tank. No. Over.”

    “Tank to Red One. Copy, unsafe location. Find a safe location and contact us again. We’ll prepare an extraction. Over.”

    “Red One to Tank. Copy, searching for safe hiding spot. How long will it take you? Over.”

    “Tank to Red One. We don’t know yet. Assume at most twenty-four hours. Over.”

    A day? They had to hole up in this area for a day?

    “Red One to Tank: We can exfiltrate on foot. Over,” Ron quoted a military sci-fi novel.

    “Tank to Red One: Negative. Not safe. Over.”

    Great. Had they pissed off the entire region? Ron wouldn’t put it past Sirius to have accidentally machine-gunned some bystander’s favourite car or cousin and started another blood feud. But there was nothing he could do about. “Red One to Tank. Copy, moving now. Over.”

    “Tank to Red One: Copy, you’re moving. Out.”

    Not for the first time, Ron wondered if Sirius’s wordplay was intentional.

    “Where should we hide?” Hermione asked. “We need to keep in range of the others.”

    “And we also need to move from here, in case our radio transmission was detected,” Ron said. He looked around. “Let’s climb down and follow the ridge until we find a hiding spot.” Although finding one that Berisha’s men didn’t know about would be difficult. Ron hoped they weren’t looking in the first place.

    They climbed and slid down the ridge, again taking their time so they wouldn’t draw attention from a lookout, until they reached the cover of a scraggly treeline. Then they followed the treeline along the ridge until they came upon another dry creek - with the cover provided by a few nearby trees, it made a decent hiding spot.

    As long as it didn’t rain. That would turn the hiding spot into a death trap unless they left at once. On the other hand, the locals would be aware of that, and so might not consider it a suitable hiding spot.

    Given how exhausted Hermione looked, they had to rest anyway.

    “Let’s hide here,” he said, nodding towards a spot under a slight overhang.

    She didn’t argue, which told him that she was as exhausted as she looked. “For how long?” she asked as she sat down on the bare ground.

    “A few hours at least,” he replied, joining her after a quick look around, carefully putting the rifle down so the muzzle stayed clear of the ground. “Blanket?”

    “I’ll have to replace half my supplies,” she said, though she was smiling as she did so - and she pulled two blankets out of her bag. Grey-coloured.

    “Home sweet home,” he commented as they spread one blanket on the ground, then covered themselves with the other.

    “If you dragged as much mud around at home as we’re doing here, I think you’d end up in the pond,” she told him.

    He chuckled, even though it was eerie to realise, once more, just how much she knew about his family thanks to knowing their counterparts.

    “What ration would you like?” She didn’t bother hiding her triumphant grin. Of course, they’d end up needing the MREs!

    He sighed, which made her grin widen even more. “Chicken with Thai sauce.”

    “Ah! Here.”

    So she had remembered that they were his favourites - among the MREs in her bag. “Thank you.”

    She hadn’t picked roast beef, though, but spaghetti with meatballs. Or something like it. She handed him a flameless ration heater as well. “Here.”

    That came in handy as well in their current situation. No flame, no smoke. She still looked too smug, in his opinion. But fifteen minutes later, they were eating.

    *****​

    “See how useful MREs are?”

    He rolled his eyes at her as he handed back the plastic bag stuffed with the empty packaging for disposal. Most anything tasted good if you were hungry, after all. “This is quite different from saving time in a lab.” They were whispering, of course; mustn’t give away their position.

    “They’re good for that as well.”

    “That I’ll contest.”

    “I know.”

    He hesitated a moment, then asked: “Because my counterpart did the same?”

    She frowned at him, then shook her head. “You made your views quite clear.” With a sigh, she added: “But my world’s Ron was used to his mum’s cooking, which was extraordinary. Even Hogwarts’ cooking paled in comparison.”

    “Ah.” The git probably complained about the cooking during the war. But as much as Ron would love to hear about his counterpart’s few flaws, that wasn’t a good topic of conversation. “Mum is a good cook as well,” he said. “It was quite a change when I moved out. The twins and Percy regularly visit on Sundays.”

    “And you?”

    “When I can make it. My hours are often a little irregular.”

    “Ah.”

    He smiled at the memories of those family dinners. “Charlie and Bill usually work abroad, so they’re rarely home.”

    “That’s the same in my world. Charlie works with dragons in Romania and Bill works as a Curse-Breaker for Gringotts.” She was looking at the sky - or at the branches and leaves above them - not at him, and she was smiling.

    “Dragons? Aren’t they dangerous?”

    “They are. Mrs Weasley often complains about his burns. Or did,” she added with a sigh.

    Uh oh. Another landmine. “My Charlie studied biology; he’s currently in Africa collecting ape shit.”

    She snorted at his crude joke. “And Bill?”

    “Investment banker in New York. The black sheep of the family.”

    She laughed again - softly. “Really?”

    “It’s a stressful job, and Mum would have liked him to work in London. And he’s living it up, or so he claims. She wants him to settle down and start a family.”

    “Ah. My world’s Bill works in Egypt, or did until the war. Tomb raiding.”

    “Oh.” So Curse-Breaker wasn’t a medical profession. “The two Weasley families sound quite similar, though. The twins are trouble makers, Charlie and Bill abroad, Percy working for the government like Dad...”

    “Yes.” She sounded a little guarded. Best not to push further. And no asking about her family.

    “So, what about your Harry’s family?”

    “They’re vile,” she spat.

    She had mentioned the Dursleys, he remembered. “Do they also try to use him to make connections? Or try to get his money?”

    “No. They loathe him.”

    “Oh.” And with her Sirius having been in jail, they would have been Harry’s closest relatives… best not go there either.

    “Does Sirius have cousins here?”

    “Two. Andromeda, the nice one. And Narcissa, the other one,” he replied. That was how Sirius described them.

    “There’s no third cousin?”

    He pressed his lips together. “There was Bellatrix. She married Ralph Lestrange against her family’s wishes. Ralph and his brother Robert had joined Riddle’s terrorist cell, though that wasn’t known at the time, only that they had extreme left-wing sympathies - and were quite active, too. Anti-war, anti-imperialism, the works. Apparently, they tried to steal her money to support Riddle and when she found out, she ‘had an accident’. Harry’s dad solved the case, shooting the Lestranges in the process and foiling the entire plot, which, presumably, made Riddle go after him and his family.” And which led to Harry becoming an orphan. And having killed a man as a kid. Sirius had never said, but he must blame Bellatrix for that, at least in part, or so Ron assumed.

    “Oh.” She pursed her lips. “That sounds like a very different Bellatrix Lestrange to the one I knew.”

    “Oh?”

    “She joined the Dark Lord. And she was his chief assassin. And torturer,” she replied in a flat voice.

    Damn, he had been an idiot again. Even though he hadn’t known about Lestrange, he should have noticed how tense she was and dropped the subject, not asked for more information. “Sorry.”

    “It’s not your fault.”

    But it was. Sort of. He sighed and stared at the sky as well. What he could see of it through the foliage, at least.

    “Why didn’t it work out between you and Luna?”

    He blinked at the sudden question and glanced at her. She was looking at him, biting her lower lip. Nervous? Why would she be…? He took a deep breath. “It was probably my job.”

    “Oh?”

    “Not like you think,” he corrected her. “We did have some differences of opinion about working for the police, but it wasn’t as if that was the single reason for breaking up. But I was working in London, and we didn’t see each other as often as we used to. Then there were the hours - when Harry and I started out, we got the worst shifts. And, well, we both changed, too. We started dating when we were teenagers.” And the fact that, at the time, he hadn’t wanted his colleagues and superiors to know that he was dating a girl with a rather negative but very vocal opinion of the police hadn’t helped at all, of course. “We drifted apart. We remained friends, though.”

    “That’s obvious,” she said. “And were there any other significant others?”

    He glanced at her again; this time, she wasn’t looking at him. “Nothing serious,” he replied.

    She nodded at that. And she was smiling.

    *****​

    He woke up with his arms around Hermione and his face full of muddy hair. Apparently, her ponytail had come undone. Probably at the same time she had moved into his lap. Which he hadn’t noticed - he must have been more tired than he had thought. A quick check of his watch confirmed that they had slept for a few hours. His headphones had stayed on, fortunately - he hadn’t missed any calls on the radio.

    He knew he should wake her up. Take a look around. Check for enemies. But he didn’t want to. He just wanted to remain like this a little longer. With her. Even if both of them were covered in mud and hiding in a dry creek, he didn’t want this moment to end yet.

    Of course, as soon as he thought that, she woke up. Or rather, she started to - she was shifting around in his lap, stretching slightly. Moaning softly.

    He closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he struggled with the urge to kiss her again.

    Ron felt the moment she woke up. She suddenly tensed, then drew a sharp breath. He was tempted to fake being asleep, see what she would do in his place, but whispered “Good morning” instead.

    She tensed again. “Good afternoon, I believe.”

    “Or evening,” he replied - the sun was about to disappear behind the mountains to the west.

    She hadn’t moved off his lap. He hadn’t taken his arms away, either.

    “What do you think the others will do?” she asked after a moment.

    “They’ll call Dumbledore for help.” It was the only logical option. If it was too dangerous for Ron and Hermione to leave the area on foot, then it was too dangerous for the others - with a wounded Sirius - to come and fetch them. The Land Rover would draw too much attention.

    “And what will he do?”

    That was trickier. A helicopter would be the fastest way to recover them. But it would also be quite obvious. And if anyone in the vicinity had a MANPAD stashed somewhere… Helicopters didn’t do well against missiles, even older missiles. Though the alternative - a convoy, probably armoured - would be even more noticeable. And tell everyone that someone very important was being recovered. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think he’ll send a helicopter or an armoured personal carrier. But I don’t know what forces he has available.”

    “And what forces he’ll trust,” she added.

    “Yes.” Ron was fairly certain that Dumbledore wouldn’t baulk at eliminating people he didn’t trust, should they happen to know too much. “Too bad we don’t have a miniaturised plane we could use to fly away.”

    “Could you pilot it?” She shifted, craning her neck to look at him.

    “Ah, there’s the flaw in my plan,” he said with a faint grin.

    She snorted. “One of the flaws. Constructing a miniaturised plane that can be piloted by shrunken people would also require a lot of technological expertise. And probably a lot of trials before it could be trusted.”

    “Could we take an ordinary RC plane and simply shrink the remote control?” he asked.

    She blinked. “That… I think it would work.” She frowned. “But none of the planes and helicopters in my bag have the range to leave the area.”

    He nodded. They hadn’t really considered endurance when they had planned their escape by RC helicopter. Range of the remote control had been too short anyway. “My fault.”

    “What? No. You thought of it in the first place.” She shifted around to face him, frowning.

    “Too late to do us any good, though,” he replied. “And how much Shrinking Solution do you have left?”

    “Enough for at least two such trips,” she replied. “So we might be able to do that in the future.”

    She didn’t have to say that that might be their trump card, should they have to flee from Dumbledore. “We’ll need some anti-spider weapons, though,” he added with a shudder.

    “Yes,” she agreed. “And perhaps…”

    He shushed her with a gesture. The birds in the trees to their left had stopped singing.

    “Something’s disturbing the wildlife,” he whispered as he pushed her off his lap and grabbed the rifle. She gasped and grabbed her bag, then the blankets. While she stuffed them back into her bag, Ron crawled to the left and climbed the bank of the dry creek where the grass was particularly dense on top, his rifle on his back.

    He reached the top and slid into the closest bush, where he unslung his rifle. The muzzle was clear of mud and dirt, he noted with relief - he hadn’t been certain he would manage it. He slowly brought it up, taking care not to disturb the branches hiding him, and inched forward until he could peer out of the bush, into the woods.

    The undergrowth wasn’t as dense as it would be elsewhere, but his field of vision was still limited in the rough terrain. This was the direction from which they had come. If anyone was tracking them…

    “Shit!”

    He jerked at hearing the sudden curse. English? Who would...

    But the expletive was followed by a string of Albanian words. Probably more curses - the voice sounded angry. He heard another voice, but couldn’t make out any words, and then the first man cursed some more. So two men - at least two, Ron corrected himself.

    He gripped his rifle and pressed the shaft against his shoulder. He couldn’t see them, but they were close. Too close. What were the odds that someone would just happen to stumble on them? Slim to none. On the other hand, anyone tracking them should know better than to alert everyone and everything to their presence by yelling. Could they be trekkers or hunters?

    He pressed his lips together. He couldn’t shoot civilians who didn’t mean him any harm. That would be murder. He was a police officer, not some secret agent who eliminated witnesses! And if he shot anyone, the noise would alert any others anyway.

    But Berisha’s men would then have to search for him and Hermione. Dead hunters couldn’t tell everyone where they were, and what they looked like. And they would have to find the bodies, first, before they would know to search for them.

    So… but it would be murder. Killing someone just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though if Hermione got captured by Berisha’s men…

    Movement! Something was moving through the bushes in front of him! He held his breath and aimed his rifle at the centre of the undergrowth. The men had stopped talking. Did they suspect something?

    A man appeared, moving slowly, carefully, through the foliage. He was wearing civilian clothes and carrying a hunting rifle. Not camouflage and a Kalashnikov. Damn. A hunter, probably. That didn’t rule out him being one of Berisha’s men. But Ron couldn’t shoot him just to be on the safe side. Even if the man had his rifle ready, not slung on his back.

    Ron licked his lips, tasting his own sweat as he tracked the man with his assault rifle. The Albanian was looking around. Hunting. But was he hunting Ron and Hermione, or game? He looked like a normal hunter, not a mercenary or thug.

    The second man to emerge from the undergrowth behind the first didn’t look like a hunter at all, though. He was in a camouflage suit - surplus Bundeswehr, Ron thought - with one leg covered in mud up to the man’s hip, and he carried an assault rifle.

    Although some people hunted like that. Americans, for example. Ron couldn’t just gun them down from ambush. But if they were working for Berisha, then he couldn’t let them find Hermione and himself, either.

    He cursed silently as the hunter in the lead moved even closer to his position. Ron would be spotted at any moment. What could he do? Take them prisoner? Ron was alone, and there were two of them with their rifles at the ready. Would they even understand him if he demanded their surrender? Well, with their country covered with NATO troops, they should understand English well enough...

    The hunter crouched down, checking the ground. Looking for their tracks? Or for animal tracks?

    Ron clenched his teeth. He couldn’t wait any longer. “Kosovo Force! Drop your weapons!” he yelled.

    Instead of complying, the two men dropped to the ground. Ron fired a burst at the hunter and rolled to the side as automatic fire tore through the bush, taking cover behind a tree trunk. He heard the hunter scream - he had hit him, then, but not fatally. That left the other man.

    Ron slid back a little, then rolled to the side and crawled forward. Where was the other man? The hunter was moaning but didn’t call out for help. Was he already too far gone for that?

    Movement! Ron swung his rifle around, firing several rounds at the foliage, then pushed himself back. Bullets tore up the earth in front of him. Where was the bastard? He changed position. To the other side of the trunk.

    He couldn’t see any smoke from a shot… too slow to catch it. The longer he took here, the worse their chances to escape any reinforcements would be. He had to finish this fight, quickly.

    Movement! Ron aimed but didn’t fire. Damn camouflage suit… there! He aimed carefully, tracking the man through the woods. A little more… He fired. The man fell. Ron hesitated a moment, then put another round into the body on the ground. No screaming, no moving. Dead.

    He closed his eyes, grit his teeth, then slid down the slope to Hermione. They had to leave now!

    “We need to go!” he snapped. “There were two people hunting us.”

    “Hunting us?” she asked as she moved towards him. She had a vial in her hand that she stashed in her bag. It didn’t look like a healing potion.

    “They were tracking us,” he explained.

    “And you tried to pose as a member of KFOR,” she replied.

    “Yes. It didn’t work, though.” And now they were dead. Or dead and dying, in one case. He suppressed the guilt he felt at leaving the hunter to die - he couldn’t afford to try to save an enemy.

    She nodded. “Do we go on or change course?”

    If Berisha’s men were smart, they would have split up and were now converging on them from multiple directions. “Let’s go back over the ridge.”

    “We’ll lose contact with the others.”

    “Can’t be helped,” he replied, already moving up the creek. That way, they’d have cover for most of the distance. “We’ll return to this side in a few hours.”

    He heard her draw a sharp breath at that, and when he glanced over, he saw she was frowning. He didn’t look forward to walking for hours, either. But it couldn’t be helped.

    They reached the end of the creek, below the ridge, without spotting anyone else. But to go further, they would have to expose themselves. And someone would be watching the ridge. After Ron had shot two men, that was certain.

    “I don’t like this,” he muttered.

    “It’s not exactly my favourite pastime, either,” Hermione replied, her tone apparently barely affected by the exertion of climbing the ridge so far.

    “They’re bound to be watching the ridge. If we move out of cover, we might draw fire.” He looked at her.

    “I can’t disillusion us,” she replied to his unasked question. “I could cover the area in smoke, but…” She shrugged.

    That would tell their enemies exactly where they were. “We could shrink, but…” That would turn the distance to the top of the ridge from two hundred yards to four miles. Up a steep slope. And they wouldn’t be able to contact the others until the potion’s effect ended if they merely wanted to hide for a few hours in a mouse hole. Not to mention they would have to watch for spiders and other monsters.

    “We can’t stay here,” he said. “The man I shot won’t have been the only hunter able to track people.”

    “You mean we’ll have to cover ourselves in mud and crawl. Again.”

    She didn’t look happy. He grinned. “We’re still covered in mud. We just need a few touch-ups.”

    That earned him a glare and a huff.

    He wanted to kiss her. But they had to move.

    Five minutes later, they were covered in mud and crawling - slowly - towards the top of the ridge. He kept glancing over his shoulder regularly; Hermione was slow, so he had to wait on her anyway.

    Halfway to their goal, he spotted them. Several men were moving up the creek, about five hundred yards down. They were advancing slowly and carefully - they must have found the two dead men and feared another ambush. But even so, they would catch up before Ron and Hermione reached the top and disappeared over the ridge.

    Damn. He pressed his lips together. They couldn’t run. The steep slope would slow them down. Enough for a good shooter to hit them. And he couldn’t take on half a dozen men. Experienced men, too - not some idiots imitating action movies. They couldn’t hide, either - their improvised camouflage wouldn’t hold up once the distance shrank.

    “Let’s hide behind the rock and call the others,” he said. If that failed, they could take the shrinking solution and hide. And hope the enemy would leave after losing them. Before the potion’s effect ended.

    It took them a few minutes to crawl into cover, but as soon as she was behind the rock, Hermione pulled out the radio while Ron kept an eye on the approaching enemies.

    “Brown to Tank. Brown to Tank. Over.”

    “Tank to Brown. What’s your status?” That was Sirius.

    “We need help. Urgently. We’re about to be discovered,” Ron heard her say.

    “Tank to Brown. Where are you? Over.”

    She told them.

    “Tank to Brown. We’ll be there in ten minutes. Mark your position with red smoke in five. Over.”

    Ten minutes? That meant a helicopter. He saw that Hermione was looking at him and nodded. They could hold out for ten minutes. After a few shots, he doubted that Berisha’s men would be willing to charge up the slope.

    “OK,” Hermione replied. “Hurry.”

    “Tank to Brown. Copy. Out.”

    Ron flashed a smile at her, to reassure her. They could do this. He could do this.

    He took aim at the one in front, then squeezed the trigger. The man dropped, and Ron sent a few more shots down the slope, almost randomly. All he had to do was to keep Berisha’s men scrambling for cover.

    He slid down the rock to reload just as they started to return fire, then changed position, coming up behind another rock. He couldn’t spot them - they were under cover. Which meant they weren’t moving towards him. Good.

    He changed position again while several shots from the enemy passed overhead. “Hand me some smoke grenades. Not the red ones.”

    “Of course not,” she snapped. But she did pass him the grenades.

    He threw two of them down the slope, as far as he could. That would block line of sight - and, therefore, line of fire. Somewhat, at least. If they had some tear gas, and if the wind were blowing in the right direction… But they didn’t. And it wasn’t.

    He returned to his first spot, almost climbing over Hermione, and surveilled the area. Nothing in the smoke. But… there! He fired a few shots at a man trying to flank them. Then he rushed over to the other side - there had to be someone trying that there as well. He couldn’t see them, though. Damn.

    “Setting red smoke,” Hermione said.

    “Do it on this side,” he told her. That would block them. A little.

    The shots were coming closer now. He could hear the impacts against the rocks nearby. And the angles were widening - they were flanking them.

    Where was the damn helicopter? Time was running out.

    Through the noise from the shots, he suddenly heard another noise. The helicopter!

    Berisha’s men must have heard it as well, since their fire quickly tapered off.

    “There!” Hermione yelled, pointing up.

    Yes! A helicopter was flying alongside the ridge. A military model - with KFOR markings. Were the NATO forces getting involved? No! “They’re posing as KFOR forces!” he said as the helicopter came to a stop, hovering twenty yards behind them. There was Harry, waving at them as the door opened. Next to him was a soldier with a machine gun.

    Hermione dropped more smoke down the slope, then they rushed towards the helicopter.

    Ron ran behind her - some idiot might still be firing blindly at the smoke or the helicopter.

    But if someone was, their shots went wide. Harry pulled Hermione into the helicopter, Ron climbed inside and, a moment later, they were flying away.

    They were safe.

    *****​

    She was safe. Free. Her friends had come for her. Had sprung her from her cell. Unless, she thought with sudden anxiety, this is just a cruel joke. To make her think she were safe, only to crush her hope.

    But that was Lestrange’s body on the ground. And she was holding Lestrange’s wand. The dark witch wouldn’t go that far. And she wasn’t the type to be so subtle, anyway. No - she shivered - that witch had only ever used the Torture Curse.

    “Hermione?”

    She turned. Ron. He held out his hand. “We need to leave.”

    She blinked. Yes, they had to. Ron and Harry and the others had broken into the manor, but the Death Eaters might send reinforcements at any moment.

    She took his hand, and he led her out. Out of the dungeons. “How… How did…?” She broke off. Her throat hurt. Too much screaming.

    He understood her anyway. “Dobby knows a secret passage.”

    Ah. Of course. She smiled. How fitting - tonight, the Malfoys were reaping what they had sowed. “B-burn.”

    “Once we’re all clear,” he told her.

    Harry rejoined them, with Dobby and Fred and George - had they brought their cell? - and they entered the secret passage.

    Ten minutes later, Ron and she were kissing in the forest while, behind them, Fiendfyre consumed Malfoy Manor. And the Malfoys.

    *****​
     
    Lockir, Beyogi, inky and 8 others like this.
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: The Kiss
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 18: The Kiss

    East of Prizren, Kosovo, August 2nd, 2005

    As the helicopter tore through the sky, Ron held Hermione. Kissed her, heedless of the mud and dirt covering both of them. They were safe. She was safe. They had made it.

    She was in his lap, arms round him, hands pressing against his back. He could feel her heartbeat. Feel her warmth. Feel her lips. Her tongue.

    They broke the kiss, panting. And not just from that last sprint to the helicopter. He smiled at her. “We’re safe,” he said.

    She blinked. She couldn’t hear him, he realised. Not with the infernal noise of the chopper’s engines drowning out every word. He had to laugh at that. It was just too silly - he hadn’t even noticed the noise until now.

    She laughed as well, still in his arms. They started kissing again.

    And then Harry, the git, pushed headsets with ear protectors - earphones - towards them. Granted, Ron’s friend was grinning from ear to ear, but still - the moment was lost. Hermione let go of him to pull on the headset, and he followed suit.

    “Testing, testing,” he said after adjusting the throat mike.

    “Loud and clear,” Harry replied.

    “Yes,” Hermione added, still fiddling with hers.

    “Where are the others?” Ron asked.

    “Back at the base,” Harry replied.

    Not the safehouse, then. “Base?” Were these people actually KFOR soldiers?

    “Our employer set up a helicopter with ground support,” his friend explained.

    “I assume the NATO forces don’t know about them,” Hermione said.

    “That’s right,” Harry confirmed. “Officially, it’s a medevac flight for a British citizen. Which is kind of true, actually, seeing as Sirius was hurt.”

    “How’s he doing?” Ron asked.

    “He’s fine. He was complaining that he wasn’t allowed on the chopper, of course.”

    “Ah.” Ron glanced around. There were two soldiers in the helicopter, both manning machine guns by the doors.

    “They don’t know our names,” Harry answered before Ron could ask. “Hence the code names we used on the radio.”

    “Ah.” So it hadn’t just been Sirius being an officer.

    “This channel is secure?” Hermione asked.

    “Luna checked it.”

    That was good enough for Ron, even though the constant secrecy was a pain. Being able to talk freely any time he wanted to had almost been worth being shot at and hunted. “Is she OK? And Ginny?”

    He saw Harry take a deep breath. That wasn’t a good sign. “This was the second time they were under fire,” he told them after a moment. “And this time, the danger wasn’t over after a few minutes.”

    Damn. Ron closed his eyes. They should never have let the two girls come along. He remembered the shakes he’d had after the first time he’d been in a shooting as a police officer. Not even catching Pettigrew had prepared him for that. He felt a hand on his thigh and looked up. Hermione was smiling at him, though in a sad way. He smiled back. She would know what they were going through right now. “They’ll need help,” he said.

    “Yes,” she agreed.

    “I’ve talked with Ginny about it, but…” Harry shrugged.

    Ron nodded, sighing. His sister was too stubborn for her own good.

    “So…” Harry trailed off, looking back and forth between Ron and Hermione.

    Ron ignored the unspoken question. It wasn’t as if he knew what exactly was between them now, anyway. They hadn’t talked about it. But they would have to. Once they had some privacy.

    *****​

    North of Prizren, Kosovo, August 2nd, 2005

    The flight to the ‘base’ was very short. Ron shook his head when he realised that, as much as it had felt as if they were in the middle of nowhere when they had been running for their lives, they hadn’t actually been very far from help. “We could have walked here in a day or two,” he commented.

    “I think you underestimate the terrain,” Hermione replied as the helicopter touched down and they saw Sirius - his arm in a sling - as well as Ginny and Luna rush towards it, behind a ground crew with a refuelling vehicle and what looked like a replacement cockpit crew. And people carrying… cleaning devices? Oh, to scrub the decals labelling the machine as a NATO vehicle. He also spotted a stretcher with a figure wrapped in bandages - including their head. That would be Berisha.

    “Stay in,” Harry said, unnecessarily.

    “Can’t we take a shower and change our clothes?” Hermione asked.

    “We’d rather not be here once the NATO forces check flight plans and radar contacts,” Ron’s friend replied. “You’ll have to use wipes.” He didn’t quite manage to hide his grin.

    “Arse,” Ron muttered, but Harry ignored that, just as he ignored Hermione’s glare.

    “Oh my god! What did you do, wallow in mud?”

    “Hi, Sis,” Ron said with a wry grin. “It’s camouflage.”

    “You posed as pigs and fooled your pursuers. Well done!” Luna said, getting in on the teasing.

    “It might have worked better than what we actually did,” Hermione replied.

    Ron raised his eyebrows - he wouldn’t have expected her to be a good sport about being teased. Then again, she would know what Luna and Ginny were going through. He nodded, forcing himself to smile. “Yeah. Not our finest hour.”

    “Oh?” Sirius said, stumbling a little as he tried to climb inside with one arm in a sling and the other busy waving off the men moving to assist him. “Do tell! We could do with better in-flight entertainment.”

    Sirius, on the other hand, was a veteran soldier and, therefore, fair game.

    *****​

    North of Tirana, Albania, August 2nd, 2005

    “...and then Hermione dropped a cookbook on the spider,” Ron said.

    “That must have been terrible,” Ginny commented, looking concerned.

    Being shot at really must have shaken her. Ron winced at his own thought - his sister wasn’t the bratty kid who annoyed him whenever she could get away with it any more.

    “It was terrifying,” Hermione replied. “I should have thought of that possible threat when we planned this.”

    “We all should have,” Ron quickly added. In hindsight, it was obvious.

    “We weren’t planning on hiking through the wilderness,” Harry pointed out. “We just planned to board a helicopter and fly to the Land Rover.”

    “Which, I have to point out, worked as planned,” Sirius told them. “Despite a few problems.”

    “It was my fault!” Luna said suddenly. “I should have kept you from getting lost.”

    “No, it wasn’t your fault,” Hermione told her. “None of us thought this through as much as we should have. Least of all me, and I should have known since it was my potion and my plan.”

    “I should have had a box with a cushion for you,” Luna insisted.

    “We probably would have fallen out of it anyway,” Ron pointed out. “And that couldn’t be helped either, not with them shooting at us,” he added before Ginny could feel guilty.

    “Everyone made it out alright,” Sirius said. “We lived, and we’ll learn from this for next time.”

    “Next time?” Harry asked.

    “We’ll have to track down whichever bastard warned Berisha,” Sirius replied. “And I don’t think we can leave that to others. Not when we have to assume there was a leak.”

    Ron glanced over at the Albanian, who was sedated and strapped to a stretcher in the back of the compartment. Bandages covered his face - he would be passing for a burn victim. If anyone looked into the flight, they might connect it to the burned-out vehicle they had left behind. It wasn’t much of a cover story, but it should keep Hermione’s presence a secret. So they hoped, at least - but if there was a leak in the Phoenix Gruppe…

    The pilot’s voice interrupted their secure communications. “We’ll arrive at Tirana International Airport in a few minutes.”

    “He didn’t tell us to fasten our seatbelts and put our seats in the upright position,” Ron muttered. Hermione laughed, and he smiled at her.

    “Do we have to pose as medical professionals for the transfer?” he asked.

    “Not you two,” Harry told him and Hermione.

    “You look more like patients,” Ginny added. “What with all the mud.”

    “Don’t tell me we can’t even take a shower at the airport,” Hermione protested. “If we arrive like this in Scotland, then analysing the mud could tell someone where we were.” She glared at everyone.

    She had a point, in Ron’s opinion. And not just because he really wanted to wash off the dirt, mud and sweat he had accumulated during their ‘detour’. “Yes. It would look really weird if we arrived like this.”

    *****​

    Tirana International Airport, Albania, August 2nd, 2005

    A mobile shower in a corner of the hangar, partitioned off with a few tarps hung from lines, wasn’t exactly a luxury bathroom. But the water was warm, and it felt incredibly good to get clean again. Ron sighed loudly as he ran his hands through his - finally! - clean hair.

    “Ron, hurry up! We need to take off in ten minutes!” Ginny called out from the other side of the tarp.

    He sighed again, annoyed now, and turned off the water.

    “No rest for the wicked,” he mumbled while he grabbed a towel.

    “Don’t forget to take your dirty clothes with you.”

    “Yes, Mum,” he snapped back.

    Her laughter was short-lived but loud, though it felt a little forced. She was definitely affected by her close brush with death. And killing. Luna would be as well, of course, but she was better at hiding her emotions.

    Though all he could do right now was be a good sport about the teasing.

    He dressed himself in the clean clothes on the plastic chair in the corner and slicked his hair back - no time to blow-dry it. Well, it was a warm day. And it wasn’t as if he had a mane like Hermione.

    He tied his shoes and pulled the tarp back to slip out. Ginny was rolling her eyes at him. “Don’t you ever complain again about me taking my time in the bathroom!” she told him.

    “Sure, sure.” It wasn’t as if they lived at home any more.

    His sister narrowed her eyes at him, then shook her head. “Let’s go. Everyone’s waiting for you. Hermione’s waiting for you.”

    He saw her grin as she turned towards the plane and shook his head. Did she think they had sex while running for their lives? On the other hand, they had kissed in the helicopter. Harry would probably have told Ginny about it, the git. “It’s not like that,” he said.

    “What is it like, then?” she asked, halfway to the plane.

    “Complicated.”

    “Really?”

    “Yes. And between her and me.” There were lines he wouldn’t let her cross, shock from being under fire or not.

    She scoffed but didn’t say anything else before they entered the plane, and then she went straight to her seat next to Harry - behind Sirius and Luna’s row. Which left him the seat next to Hermione.

    Hermione’s hair was still wet and tied back in a ponytail, but he could spot where the first strands were about to escape. She had changed into a white T-shirt, black capris and trainers - like a tourist on a trip. And he could see that parts of her neck were sunburned.

    She looked great.

    “Hey,” he said in a low voice.

    “Finally dragged yourself out of the shower?” she asked with a grin.

    He sighed, though he was smiling. “I see you’ve been listening to Ginny.”

    “Yes.” She glanced forward. At Ginny, but also at Luna, Ron assumed.

    Of course she would have realised the same thing he had - their counterparts were her best friends. And she had gone through the same, Ron was certain, when she had fought her first battle. Which, he reminded himself, had come far earlier than theirs. “I feel like a new man,” he said.

    “You look like a new man, too,” she replied. “I almost forgot what you looked like under that ‘camouflage’.”

    “It was necessary,” he told her. “Like the disguises.”

    She snorted in response. “He knew who you were,” she said with a nod towards the stretcher behind them, to which the still sedated Berisha was strapped. “And it won’t be hard to tie me to you.”

    “You were in disguise as well,” he pointed out. “Technically, you still are in disguise.” At least her hair was dyed.

    “Nothing that would fool a decent observer,” she replied. “And our group? Quite distinctive. I wonder whether Dumbledore planned for this to happen.”

    “We can’t assume everything that happens is according to one of his or Gellert’s plans,” Ron said. That would lead to paranoia.

    She made a noncommittal noise. Not convinced, then. Ah, well - it certainly was more prudent to err on the side of caution when it came to those two old men.

    A few moments passed without either of them saying anything. Then the plane started to taxi out of the hangar. A little late by his estimate.

    That was the only delay, though - they went straight on to the runway and then on into the air. A few minutes later, they were almost at their travelling altitude. At least according to their pilot.

    “So…” He trailed off. The middle of a plane wasn’t exactly the best place to talk about whatever the two of them had. If they had anything. But the lab wouldn’t be any better.

    “Yes?”

    What could he say? His prepared speech suddenly felt stilted and stupid. “I’ve been in some sticky situations with Harry, but I never wanted to kiss him,” he blurted out.

    She chuckled, apparently surprised by his comment. “I didn’t think you would have.” And now she was being evasive.

    He wet his lips, then went on: “We kissed.”

    “Yes.” She seemed guarded now. Almost wary.

    “It wasn’t just a reaction to the danger.” He looked at her. Daring her to contradict him.

    “You already said that,” she replied, meeting his eyes.

    “Yes.”

    They stared at each other for a few seconds. He wouldn’t drop this. They had something - and he needed to know what it was. Needed to know what she was thinking. And feeling. Needed to know…

    He jerked at the sudden exclamation.

    “Oh, for the love of God! Just kiss each other, you idiots!”

    Ginny definitely wasn’t helping.

    *****​

    Perth Airport, Scotland, Britain, August 2nd, 2005

    “I’m sorry.”

    “Yes.” Ron rolled his eyes at Ginny’s words as they gathered their luggage from the back of the plane while the others took Berisha to the waiting transport.

    “I’m really sorry. But you were acting like a teenager. Both of you.”

    He took a deep breath and refrained from snapping at her. “We’re not acting like teenagers.” If they were, they probably would have snogged for the whole flight instead of sleeping. “Things are complicated.”

    “Are you still worried that she’s pining for the other Ron? She kissed you!”

    “That doesn’t have to mean anything. We were under a lot of stress.”

    “Oh, you…” She shook her head. “I’ll talk to her.”

    “No!” He reached out and grabbed her shoulder. She whirled and glared at him, and he released her at once. “Sorry.” Ginny huffed. “But, please, don’t meddle. We’re not teenagers any more.”

    “Then don’t act like a stammering boy!” she retorted.

    He clamped down on his temper again. “Ginny, look, we just survived an ambush and a manhunt. We need to… to decompress and rest and recover before we deal with this.”

    “Oh.” She started to nod, then suddenly frowned. “That’s aimed at me, isn’t it? I’m fine.”

    She huffed again and picked up her bags, then left the plane.

    Ron sighed. Ginny wasn’t fine. He could tell. But she wouldn’t listen to him. Too stubborn, too proud.

    He needed to talk to Harry about this. And to the others.

    He sighed as he carried the rest of their luggage out of the plane.

    What a mess.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 3rd, 2005

    Filch was waiting for them in the garage when they returned to the laboratory. Ron had expected that, but it was good to have confirmation. Filch was one of Dumbledore’s most trusted employees if he was not only in charge of guarding Hermione’s lab but also among those who knew about Berisha.

    Though if Filch was a mole, then this would be the perfect opportunity for him to silence Berisha. Not with just two men at his side, though. And Ron would bet that at least one of the men was keeping an eye on Filch for Dumbledore. The old man was an experienced spymaster, after all.

    “Hello, my good man!” Sirius greeted Filch with a wide smile. “The luggage is inside; please don’t drop it - parts of it are fragile.”

    Filch glared but didn’t acknowledge the barb in any other way - was that a sign that Dumbledore was already running a mole hunt and Filch had to be on his best behaviour?

    The two men moved to get Berisha’s stretcher out of the second car while Filch looked on.

    “I think I’ll tag along,” Sirius went on. “I could use some medical attention for my wounds. Did you hire a cute nurse while we were away?”

    Filch slowly turned to face Sirius. “No,” he said.

    “What a pity.”

    “Sirius…” Harry sighed.

    “Hey, I’m wounded - I need all the distractions I can get, due to the pain I’m in!”

    “You are a pain,” Hermione retorted.

    “Oh, shot to the heart!” Sirius put a hand on his chest.

    “No, in the arm,” Harry said.

    Ron glanced at Ginny and Luna; they were smiling at Sirius’s antics, but it seemed a little subdued. He really had to talk to Harry.

    But that could wait until later - it was early morning and while he had slept in the jet and in the car on the drive here, he was still tired. A few hours in a real bed would be great.

    *****​

    Dumbledore arrived hours later, during their late lunch. The old man looked as dapper as always. “Ah, I’m a little early, I see. Please forgive me for disturbing your meal,” he said with his usual smile.

    Ron didn’t believe for a second that Dumbledore hadn’t been aware of the fact that they were currently eating.

    “Would you like some?” Luna replied. “There’s enough, and the filet mignon is delicious.”

    “Don’t mind if I do,” he said. “I only had a sandwich on the way here - I had to deal with a few enquiries from NATO about an incident in Kosovo.”

    “Enquiries to whom?” Harry asked. “Have they tied you to the events?”

    “Oh, no, rest assured that particular secret hasn’t been spilt,” Dumbledore told them. “But I decided to get involved personally. Some things are best solved with a little bribery and diplomacy.”

    “Because you haven’t found the mole who betrayed us yet,” Harry said, looking at him.

    “If, of course, there is a mole.” Dumbledore inclined his head as one of his men set down a plate for him. “I do hope that the guest you brought with you will be able to shed some light on this situation.”

    “And when will that happen?” Ron asked.

    “In the evening, provided our guest recovers from being sedated on schedule. His condition isn’t the best.”

    Ah. “That was the fault of his own men,” Harry was quick to point out.

    “And his betrayal,” Luna added. “He wouldn’t have been thrown around in the car if we hadn’t been forced to capture him.”

    Dumbledore chuckled at that. “A pragmatic view. Though next time you kidnap someone, I would suggest securing them better.” He glanced at Hermione. “And, perhaps, reduce the risk to your friends.”

    Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. “Our plan worked perfectly. It was pure bad luck - a golden bullet, I think, is the term - that caused our unforeseen problems.”

    “Such things can be anticipated.”

    “That’s why you had people in the area,” Ron pointed out.

    “What exactly happened?” Dumbledore asked.

    “A shot hit the rear door just right so it swung open - right when we were climbing a slope. We fell out, and they couldn’t stop,” Ron said. “Fortunately, we fell into some bushes, so our pursuers didn’t spot us as they drove past.” It was the truth - from a certain point of view.

    “Ah.” Dumbledore finished his filet. “Should we be glad that our guest didn’t fall out of the car as well?”

    “More or less,” Ron said, ignoring Harry’s scowl. And Ginny’s glare at the implied criticism of her driving. “In any case, we achieved our objective without losing anyone.”

    “Let’s hope your luck holds. And that our guest will share his information.” Dumbledore rubbed his chin. “He will be aware that, should he betray his partners, he’ll become a liability. I think he will prove to be rather stubborn - and, contrary to the claims of my American colleagues, torture generally isn’t very useful in such a situation. Even if it works, it usually takes quite some time to produce results, which then have to be verified through various means before they can be deemed actionable intelligence.”

    Hermione spoke before Ron could stop her. “There won’t be any torture. I can make him talk easily.”

    “Oh? That is convenient, indeed.”

    Ron was certain that Dumbledore wasn’t in the least surprised.

    *****​

    “Hermione.” He caught her before she went to her lab. Now that he thought of it, it had been a small miracle that she hadn’t gone straight there upon arriving in the morning. Or a sign of how exhausted she was.

    “Yes?” She turned her head, lifting her chin slightly. She probably knew what this was about.

    “About the serum…” He couldn’t talk about magic in here.

    “It’s a truth serum. Non-reproducible with the resources available here,” she replied, narrowing her eyes a little. “It’s the best solution in our situation.”

    She was being a little too defensive, in his opinion. “Very few people can actually keep silent when being interrogated,” he said. “Sooner or later, they start talking.” He had experience in interrogating suspects, after all. And without using torture.

    “And lying,” she replied.

    “It’s harder to keep lies consistent than people think. Especially if statements can be verified with other sources.” And Dumbledore would be aware of that.

    “But Berisha will be aware that as soon as he talks, he becomes a liability to his partner or contact.” She stared directly at him.

    Or to Dumbledore, Ron added to himself.

    “The serum is the easiest way to get information,” she said. “And the most dependable.”

    Did she think Ron was annoyed at not getting to run the interrogation? He shook his head. “He’ll want to analyse it.”

    “He can make an attempt, but duplicating it requires technology that we lack.”

    But it would still provide Dumbledore and Grindelwald with more information. As Ron had just said: It was hard to keep your lies consistent. Especially if there was more information available.

    But they couldn’t do anything about that any more. Not with regards to the Veritaserum, at least.

    *****​

    Even strapped to a metal chair, Berisha looked better than he had while being transported here. That didn’t mean he looked well, of course. His gunshot wounds had been dressed, but without the bandages and wearing only underwear, his numerous bruises were clearly visible.

    “He looks as if someone worked him over,” Harry commented.

    “We’ve got bruises as well,” Ron replied, refraining from rubbing one of his.

    “That argument never worked with Bones,” his friend said.

    Bones had been a little prejudiced, of course. Moody had been their mentor, but that didn’t mean that they had adopted everything he had taught them. Like the ‘old school’ view on interrogating suspects. Not that it was currently very old school, what with the Americans calling torture ‘enhanced interrogation’. And not to mention that the way this interrogation room had been set up also made it seem that this wasn’t the first time Dumbledore’s men had done this.

    “You have the serum?” Dumbledore asked, sounding as if he were asking about the weather.

    “Yes.” Hermione pulled out a small pipette. “It’s administered orally, so someone needs to hold his mouth open.” She seemed entirely unaffected by the whole room.

    Ron reminded himself that Hermione had done this before as well.

    Dumbledore glanced at him and Harry. “If you would be so kind?”

    Ron nodded. It wasn’t as if they had a choice - apart from them, Dumbledore and Berisha, no one else was present. So he stepped up to Berisha, from an angle that wouldn’t let the man spit at him.

    “I won’t talk,” the man hissed instead. “You might as well kill me now.”

    Ron didn’t reply. He merely grabbed Berisha’s head and pulled it back, then forced his mouth open. The warlord tried to struggle, but he was tied up tightly, so nothing came of it.

    Hermione stepped up, pipette in hand. A few seconds later, three drops fell into the man’s mouth.

    And Ron felt the man’s struggles cease. He shivered a little as he let go of Berisha’s head and stepped back. It wasn’t a dark curse, not like the Imperius Curse Hermione had mentioned, but it was still mind-control, as far as he was concerned.

    “It takes effect remarkably quickly,” Dumbledore said.

    “It’s very effective,” Hermione replied.

    “How long does it last?”

    “It varies, but usually about an hour,” she said. “You’ll notice when they start to recover - their eyes begin to focus again.” She turned back to Berisha. “What’s your name?”

    “Burim Berisha,” droned the drugged man.

    “He’s all yours,” she said, nodding at Ron.

    Perhaps she really thought he had been annoyed at not being allowed to interrogate Berisha without Dumbledore.

    Ron forced the thought away. He had a criminal to interrogate. And he’d do it by the book.

    “Do you know who hired your cousin Avni Berisha for the mission during which Avni was killed?”

    “Yes.”

    Ah. Ron should have anticipated that. “Who hired Avni?”

    “Anatole Sokolov.”

    “A Russian ‘businessman’ who works as a middleman for various people,” Dumbledore said. “He often acts as the go-between when families are negotiating with kidnappers. He’s been suspected to be a little too close to the kidnappers, but nothing has ever been proven. Presumably a former KGB member, but not a high-ranking one according to my information.” Which came straight from MI6.

    “Who told you that we might be visiting to ask after Avni’s employer?” Ron asked.

    “Anatole Sokolov.”

    “Do you know where he lives?”

    “No.”

    “Do you know how he can be contacted?”

    “Yes.”

    “How can he be contacted?”

    “Call a phone number.”

    One that might have been abandoned as soon as Sokolov had heard about Berisha’s abduction. Ah, well - Ron hadn’t really expected this to be easy.

    “What business did you have with Sokolov?” He continued the interrogation. Every little bit of information could be crucial, after all. Every little bit except certain details about their escape.

    *****​

    An hour later, the Veritaserum’s effect was starting to fade. Ron watched as Berisha blinked more and more, until his slack jaw suddenly snapped up, and his eyes widened. “You… you…” A tirade of curses - or so Ron assumed - in Albanian followed.

    Of course, realising that you had spilt everything about your criminal enterprise in an interrogation because of a truth drug would have such an effect on anyone.

    “You really shouldn’t have tried to ambush us,” Harry told him.

    More profanity followed. Berisha pulled on his bindings again, but they held.

    “Quite enlightening,” Dumbledore commented. “He recalls the interrogation?”

    “Yes,” Hermione confirmed. “Memory isn’t affected by the serum. If someone has forgotten something, they won’t recall it under the serum’s influence. It’s not a fool-proof method of solving a case, and it cannot be used to treat memory loss, either.”

    “I see.”

    “Dumbledore!” Berisha spat. Of course a warlord would recognise one of the two owners of the Phoenix Gruppe.

    “In the flesh,” the old man replied with a nod that managed to be both polite and mocking, in Ron’s opinion.

    “You’re behind this!”

    “I’m merely lending a hand to a few young people in a sticky situation, Mr Berisha.” That annoying smile appeared. “I’m hardly the mastermind behind your abduction.”

    “We didn’t want to abduct you in the first place,” Hermione added. “But you just had to attempt to betray us. None of this would have happened if you had been honest.”

    “Honest? With the murderers of my cousin?” Berisha spat in their direction.

    “He attacked us. You cannot blame us for defending ourselves!” she retorted.

    Although it was obvious that Berisha could and did. “Hakmarrja.”

    “You’re declaring a blood feud?” Hermione shook her head.

    “You’re familiar with the Kanun?” Dumbledore asked.

    “I had a reason to research Albania,” Hermione replied. “Though there are some differences, the core of the customs and traditions transcribed there are the same.”

    “You’ll pay for this! You and your entire family!” Berisha yelled.

    “I don’t suppose you have a way to wipe his memories, Doctor?”

    Ron felt a chilling sensation at hearing Dumbledore’s casual, pleasant tone. He knew what the man was insinuating. So did Hermione, judging by her expression.

    “No, I do not,” she said.

    “A pity.” Dumbledore sighed. It almost sounded like honest regret. “He’s a security risk.”

    Another way of saying that Berisha knew too much. Ron pressed his lips together. They were talking about murder, even if no one was mentioning it openly.

    “What are you going to do?” Unless Hermione forced the issue, of course.

    Dumbledore raised his eyebrows at her. “You’ve dealt with such a situation before, I think.”

    “The circumstances were different,” she replied - and confirmed the old man’s guess.

    “Were they?” He tilted his head. “You’ve heard his confession. He has committed dozens of terrible crimes. If Britain still had the death penalty, he would have earned it many times over.”

    “You could imprison him. Until there are other options available,” she told him.

    “Other options such as...? Perhaps a way to wipe his memories?” Dumbledore had planned this, Ron was certain.

    “Yes,” Hermione admitted with a frown.

    “Then we shall incarcerate him until such measures are available,” Dumbledore said with a faint smile.

    And the old man would be preparing for such measures being used against him, as well.

    Fantastic. At least they had managed to keep Berisha from detailing his experience with the Shrinking Solution.

    “May I have a small sample of the serum for analysis?” Dumbledore asked.

    “You may,” Hermione told him. “Although I don’t think you’ll be able to duplicate it. We had to acquire it from specialists.”

    “Even a partial analysis might offer us insight into new technology.”

    Since it was a magic potion, Ron doubted that. But he kept quiet and his face impassive. Dumbledore had, once again, managed to find out more than they had wanted to let him know. No need to make matters even worse.

    “I’ll have my men investigate Sokolov,” Dumbledore announced after two guards had dragged the bound Berisha out - presumably to be locked up in a cell somewhere. “It might take a few days to get any results, though. My files aren’t as up to date as I was used to in the SIS.”

    “Ah.” Ron didn’t quite believe Dumbledore - his files on his competition in the weapons market were probably up to date.

    “Unfortunately, we still haven’t found the leak of which Berisha took advantage, so further secrecy is needed, which will also cause delays,” the old man went on.

    “And we can’t really plan anything until we know more,” Harry said.

    “Quite.”

    Ron sighed. He knew, intellectually, that he couldn’t do much - not in Eastern Europe, where he didn’t speak the language. And, after Berisha’s ambush, it would be foolish to go off on his own. But he still wanted to do something. Anything but waiting.

    “Well, I’m going for a short walk to clear my head,” Hermione announced.

    “Me too,” Ron said at once. She needed a bodyguard, after all.

    He ignored Dumbledore’s smile as well as Harry’s grin. But he did notice Hermione’s smile.

    *****​

    The outside air felt nice after spending an hour in an interrogation - and possibly torture - room. He took a deep breath, then turned to Hermione. “Do you have a route in mind?”

    He saw her glance towards the ruins nearby, then shake her head. “Just along the shore.”

    He nodded. That would make it harder to get lost.

    They walked in silence for a few minutes, then cut into the woods. Just in case the shore was bugged. Night had fallen, but it wasn’t too dark. Not yet.

    “Do you think I should have let them kill Berisha?” she asked suddenly, breaking the silence.

    He took a deep breath. He hadn’t expected that question. “No,” he replied, shaking his head.

    “Because it would have been murder?”

    “You wouldn’t have murdered him,” he told her. “But Dumbledore would have tried to make you feel responsible.” It was an old trick to gain leverage on people.

    “He was counting on me intervening.” She sighed. “But I had to do something.” She turned away, looking into the dark forest around them. “We killed prisoners in the war.”

    “I know.”

    She went on as if he hadn’t said anything. “But we didn’t have the resources or manpower to keep them prisoners. And we couldn’t risk the Dark Lord tracking them - and us with them - through their Dark Marks.”

    “As long as we don’t know who’s a traitor in Dumbledore’s organisation, Berisha is a risk;” he pointed out. “He does know too much.”

    She turned back to face him, though it was becoming hard to make out her expression in the fading light. “At least Dumbledore might assume that we don’t have anything to hide in that regard since we didn’t want Berisha killed to silence him.”

    He tilted his head, not quite shrugging. He didn’t think Dumbledore would be so easily fooled.

    “We should have sedated Berisha before shrinking him,” she said after a moment. Clearly, she blamed herself for that oversight.

    “That might have killed him in his condition,” he pointed out. “And then we wouldn’t have gained any information.”

    “Perhaps any claims of being shrunk or carried by giants will be dismissed as hallucinations.”

    He didn’t think so but didn’t say that. It was possible, at least. “I don’t think he’ll believe that there’s a Shrinking Solution.” But folding space hangars? That wasn’t too far-fetched. Not when dimensional travel and bags of holding were on the table. And Ron was certain that Dumbledore at the very least suspected Hermione’s beaded bag of offering such options.

    So did she, it seemed - she didn’t look or sound reassured. “It’s my fault. I should’ve been better prepared.”

    “It’s not your fault. We suffered some bad luck, that’s all.” He shrugged, then pulled out a flashlight. It had become too dark to safely walk through the woods.

    “I should have thought of this,” she went on as if he hadn’t said anything. “And I should have been prepared for Dumbledore’s manipulations.”

    “He’s got a lot more experience, and he’s not the Dumbledore you knew.” He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. She tensed - he could feel it - then seemed to relax.

    “I keep telling myself that.”

    She wasn’t only talking about Dumbledore, he realised. “I’m not him.”

    “No, you aren’t,” she replied in an odd, hesitant voice, staring at him.

    He wanted to ask if she had mixed up him and the other Ron. But what if she confirmed that? He moved a half-step forward, towards her. Close enough to embrace her easily. Close enough to kiss her.

    He leaned forward, and she tilted her head back.

    Their lips touched.

    It wasn’t like their kisses before. He wasn’t reeling from an adrenaline rush. He hadn’t just escaped death and felt so alive that he just had to kiss her. This was a different feeling. A very different feeling.

    She pressed herself against him. He felt the warmth, the heat from her body. Heard her moan softly.

    He wrapped his arms around her. Ran his hands over her back, dug his fingers into her hair.

    Damn.

    Ron drew a shuddering breath after breaking the kiss and pulling back. And pulling his hands out from under Hermione’s sweater. “Oh.”

    “Oh,” she echoed him.

    He couldn’t see her face - the flashlight was on the ground, illuminating a nearby tree, and he could barely see her at all.

    “I’m…” he started, then broke off. “That was different,” he said after a moment.

    She didn’t reply for a second. What was she thinking? Feeling. “Yes,” she finally replied.

    He wanted to kiss her again. Hold her again. But he couldn’t see her expression. He didn’t know what she was thinking. What she wanted. “Uh…”

    She moved, and before he could react, she was kissing him. And her hands were gripping his head.

    He heard her moan. He was moaning, too. Panting. When she pulled back and broke the kiss, he suddenly realised that they were on the ground. And that she was straddling his lap.

    This time, he didn’t pull his hands back.

    Then things started to get hazy.

    *****​

    Ron was staring at her. She knew it. And she also knew that as soon as she turned her head, he’d look away. Or find something to do in the tent.

    And, from behind him, she’d watch him, watch his body, move.

    They had done this dance often enough. It was stupid. Very stupid. Childish, too. And they weren’t children any more. Not even by law. They were fighting a bloody war. They were Wizarding Britain’s most wanted people and risked death every day.

    And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to... talk to him. What if she was seeing things? What if she was misinterpreting his actions? What if she wasn’t, but they ruined it? Whatever it was. And what would Harry think if they started something? He didn’t see Ginny very often.

    She frowned. That was unfair. Harry was in a relationship. They could enter a relationship as well, couldn’t they? Couldn’t she?

    If she dared. If things went wrong, all their plans could be put in jeopardy. If they had a falling out in the middle of the war…

    She glanced at Ron.

    And he looked away.

    *****​
     
    Lockir, Beyogi, Atropa and 8 others like this.
  20. tothepointofview

    tothepointofview Know what you're doing yet?

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    Giving dumbledore some veritaserum is probably one of the worst potions she can give him. Because he may use it against them and it takes very little to have an effect.
    But its not really out of character for hermione to not be thinking of it at the time, to bad she didn't think to offer a different potion beforehand. Or maybe she'll realize when she goes to grab some and will give dumbledore another potion because 'it'll be easier to get some useful info from' or something.

    Shame your not getting many comments on this story, its really good, I hope your also posting this somewhere else aswell.
     
    Starfox5 likes this.
  21. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Well, it's also very memorable. You can't use it without the victim realising it. Dumbledore using it on them would burn bridges - which isn't a price Dumbledore would be willing to pay at this point.

    Thanks! I'm posting it on a few websites including FFNet. Once complete, I'll post it on Ao3.
     
    Prince Charon likes this.
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: The Aftermath
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 19: The Aftermath

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 3rd, 2005

    Ron stared at the night sky. The trees hid most of it, but he could see a slice of it - there were a few stars visible through the branches. His backside hurt a little - he must have ground some small rocks into it. His chest hurt a little as well - he was bound to have some scratches there. And his right side was feeling a little cold, being completely exposed.

    But, damn, he didn’t mind. He felt great. That had been… He sighed and closed his eyes. Not that he could see much, anyway. His flashlight must have been pushed away at some point. But he could feel Hermione’s body pressed against his side, draped half across his chest, and her hair brushing over his skin whenever one of them shifted their weight a little. He could smell her, too. Just like before.

    It hadn’t been like in his dreams. They hadn’t been in a bed, or in the shower. Or on the hood of a car. It had been rushed, not paced. And in near absolute darkness, instead of in dim light. And they had fumbled around a lot.

    But, hell, it had been great. He sighed again, wishing they could just stay like this.

    But they couldn’t. It was getting a little chilly - this was Scotland, after all. Even in summer. And if they didn’t return soon, someone would start a search for them. And Ron didn’t know what would be worse - Dumbledore’s men or their friends stumbling upon them while they were like this.

    “Uh…” he said.

    He heard her sigh. “We should return.”

    He nodded. “Yes.” He looked around. “Ah. Did you notice where my flashlight went?”

    “No,” she replied. “But let me… Accio flashlight!”

    Five seconds later, he saw a cone of light appear out of a bush before the flashlight dropped down next to them and he could feel and hear her taking a few deep breaths.

    “That’s handy,” he commented, picking it up with his free hand.

    “It has its uses,” she replied. “But generally, wandless magic is a parlour trick - something you do to show off and impress your friends.”

    “Ah.” He could think of at least one important use - reacquiring your wand after you lost it - but this wasn’t the time to pry or discuss tactics. He moved the flashlight, illuminating the area around them. He didn’t remember throwing his clothes away, but… he hadn’t actually been paying attention to much of anything apart from her.

    She sighed once more, then rolled off him and got up. He sat up and pointed the flashlight at the ground so she could see what she was doing without being put under a literal spotlight.

    “Thank you.”

    “My pleasure,” he replied, then winced. That was an unintended double entendre, given their situation. Stupid.

    She didn’t seem to mind, though. At least he thought her cursing was aimed at the state of her clothes and not at him.

    “We could claim we stumbled and fell?” he asked, adding a forced laugh.

    “You think being thought clumsy would be less embarrassing than randy?” she replied, and, even without seeing her face, he knew that she was raising her eyebrows in that particular way she had.

    “I prefer ‘passionate’,” he said. “This wasn’t just some urge, some itch that needed scratching,” he added in a more serious tone. As serious as you could be while pulling up your pants and trousers without taking half of the forest’s floor with you.

    “We were - and still are - under a lot of stress,” she pointed out as they both started to stand up.

    He wasn’t going to let her do this. “I’ve been dreaming about you for weeks,” he told her.

    “Oh.”

    “This isn’t just some form of stress relief,” Ron insisted. Not for him. And not for her. Or she wouldn’t have asked about his past lovers.

    “But what if I’m just trying to replace my Ron?”

    He really hated hearing ‘my Ron’ from her. But she hadn’t denied that this was more than some casual fling. “I’m not him,” he said. “I’m no wizard. I was raised differently. I had a different life.”

    “And yet, you’re so much like him.”

    “It’s been seven years,” he replied. The other Ron would have changed. Would have moved on.

    “I haven’t had a relationship since I arrived here.”

    “You were focused on going back. And you didn’t want to develop ties, did you?”

    He was tempted to lift the flashlight. To see her face. This wasn’t a discussion that they should have in the dark.

    “And yet, I did,” she replied, followed by a sound that was as much a sob as it was a sigh.

    “Yes,” he said, reaching out to embrace her again.

    She let him.

    They took their time walking back to the laboratory - even with the flashlight, it was hard to walk through the woods without stumbling over roots or rocks. Claiming they had fallen down in the forest really wouldn’t be too far-fetched, Ron thought. But it wouldn’t fool Harry. Probably not Ginny, either.

    Not that he regretted it. Quite the contrary. Some teasing and snarking won’t change that. He helped Hermione over a fallen log. Had they passed it on the way? He didn’t think so. But all they had to do was to head to the shore, then follow it back to the laboratory. And they couldn’t miss the lake - he remembered that much of the geography, at least. He chuckled at his own thoughts, then blinked.

    “If you can, let Dumbledore believe that memory modification requires a lot of resources. A large device and a great deal of computing capacity, for example,” he said.

    “Oh?” Hermione replied. “Good idea. If he thought that there were nanomachines travelling to the brain through someone’s blood, he’d expect to get samples.” She sighed. “But he’ll find out the truth sooner or later - I need to do a ritual to activate the portal.”

    They should still be far enough away from the laboratory to be safe from being overheard. “How long does that take? The ritual, I mean.”

    “An hour at least,” she told him. “Perhaps longer - I haven’t refined it, yet, and there’s a certain amount of guesswork involved.”

    That didn’t sound too promising. “As long as you don’t connect to the wrong dimension…” he said, only half-jokingly.

    “Oh, that won’t happen. I’ll serve as the link, so to speak.”

    “Ah.” He was both relieved and disappointed. If she couldn’t find her home dimension, she’d stay with him, after all. Though Dumbledore and Grindelwald wouldn’t be happy in that case. “Good,” he added.

    If she’d noticed his hesitation, she didn’t say anything. And she didn’t let go of his hand when they reached the rough path at the shore and took a short break to watch the lake.

    So close to the new moon, it was almost pitch black, with just the stars reflected in the water. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered.

    Hermione made a sound he took as agreement and leaned into him a little.

    “Did you come out here to watch the lake when you were at school?”

    She snorted. “There was a curfew, you know. Like in any boarding school.”

    “Well, there was one at my own school, but that didn’t keep us from going out at night,” he replied. The things he and Harry had gotten up to at school…

    “When we left the dorms at night, it was usually because there was a crisis to deal with,” she said.

    Oh. He had stepped in it again. “Ah.”

    “Don’t get me wrong - I loved my time here. At the school, I mean. But I never really sneaked out after curfew for fun.” She snorted. “Well, I wouldn’t have done that anyway - I wasn’t that sort of girl.”

    “‘That sort of girl’?” What did she mean?

    “The rules-breaking and pranking kind,” she explained. “Well, I broke the rules, but I always had a good reason.”

    “Ah.” He nodded and, after a moment, added: “It was the same for us, but our teachers never agreed.”

    She laughed at that, and he smiled, relieved. “It is beautiful,” she said.

    He knew better than to say ‘so are you’ - far too corny.

    But he thought it as he kissed her again.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 4th, 2005

    He felt her weight, he felt her, on top of him. He heard her moan as he panted, hands touching her, and…

    Ron woke up, blinking as he realised that he’d had another dream. A different dream. More like… well, more real. Or was that realistic? It wasn’t his imagination any more. Well, not just his imagination any more - it had been dark last night, unlike in his dream.

    He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, remembering last night. And his dream. If he hadn’t gone to his room upon returning to the lab… If their good night kiss at the door had happened in her room…

    He sighed. He didn’t regret anything - apart, perhaps, from not asking to spend the night with her - but did Hermione share his feelings? Was she still pining for the other Ron? After seven years? Anyone would have moved on, wouldn’t they? Even wizards.

    But then, Hermione hadn’t had a relationship in this world. Until, or so Ron hoped, him. And the way she had focused - fixated - on returning to her home, moving on probably would have felt like betraying her goals. Like she was losing faith in her work.

    Though if that was true, then did she still think that? Feel like that?

    And, even more importantly: What would she do if she managed to return to her home world? Would she stay?

    And what would he do?

    By the time Ron was ready for breakfast, he still hadn’t found any answers.

    What he did find, though, was a smirking Ginny, Harry and Sirius. And a smiling Luna.

    “You were out pretty late last night,” Harry said.

    “Don’t tell me you spent half the night waiting anxiously for our return,” Ron replied as he took a seat.

    Harry scoffed - of course Ron’s friend would have kept an eye out for him. Just like Ron would have done in his place.

    “We can multitask, duh,” Ginny added.

    “I rigged a sensor to alert me,” Luna said. “I was busy checking the net anyway - some time zones are rather impractical for keeping in contact with others around the world.”

    “I was merely resting so my wounds will heal,” Sirius told him. “But… I don’t suppose you decided to have a night march to work off some ‘nervous energy’, did you?”

    Sirius’s jokes needed work. Ron filled his cup with tea, then grabbed a slice of toast. “We had a private walk and a private talk on the shore.”

    He heard Hermione enter the lounge ad turned to smile at her. “Good morning.”

    “Good morning.” Her own smile faded once she took in the others. “Oh.”

    “Don’t worry, we’re happy for you two,” Ginny said. Luna nodded.

    Ron rolled his eyes. As if Ginny wasn’t itching to hear all the sordid details her imagination craved. Although, in this case, perhaps her imagination wasn’t too far off. “We don’t bug you about your relationship,” he said with a glare. “So I expect you to reciprocate.” He pulled out a chair for Hermione, then sat down again.

    “Of course,” Luna said, Ginny nodding in agreement after a noticeable pause.

    “You can bug me about my relationships whenever you want!” Sirius declared with a wide grin.

    “I’ll remember that next time you bring a date home,” Harry cut in.

    Sirius waved the threat away. “I think Ginny would have words with you if you wasted a free evening bothering one of my dates.”

    “I think we have more important things to discuss than relationships,” Hermione said before taking a sip from her cup. “Like the repercussions of the events in Albania.” Ron caught Ginny’s smile slipping a little as Hermione went on: “Unless I’m mistaken, for you two, this was the first time you were in a real battle, wasn’t it?”

    Ginny frowned but, to Ron’s slight surprise, didn’t bring up the brawl in which she once had been involved. “We managed.”

    “That’s what you think. Trust me, you’d be exceptional if you could shrug off combat like that,” Sirius said. “A number of my friends and acquaintances never got over their experiences in the war.”

    “It was frightening,” Luna admitted in a small voice. “But mostly in hindsight.”

    “That’s normal as well,” Sirius told her. “Even officers sometimes can’t handle their memories.”

    “Yes,” Harry said. “That’s why there are psychologists working with the police.”

    “You’ve always complained about them,” Ginny pointed out.

    “Well… only when they didn’t leave me alone. But they can help,” Harry replied.

    If this weren’t really important, Ron would have been amused at the exchange.

    “We can’t exactly talk to a therapist about what we did,” Ginny said. “My agent would kill me if someone spread the story of me being involved in a shoot-out with a warlord’s army. And Mum would be worse!” Ron blinked and was about to question her priorities when she added: “Not to mention that we can’t have anyone hear about Hermione’s secret and Dumbledore’s involvement.”

    She was grinning, but Ron knew his sister - she wasn’t quite as nonchalant as she tried to appear. He glanced at Harry, who seemed to have noticed it as well. Ginny had good reason to be wary, of course - thanks to his and Harry’s position in CI5, they knew about Operation Motorman and Operation Glade. To think the tabloids would go as far as to hack the phones of celebrities… No, they couldn’t trust a therapist not to betray them, even if unintentionally, and even if they didn’t tell them about magic. Not with several famous people involved and after the assassinations and shoot-outs in the middle of London. “Dumbledore might have a vetted therapist.” he said.

    “You mean he’ll have a spy who’ll try to find out our secrets,” Luna retorted.

    “If we have to lie to the therapist, then that defeats the purpose of talking to them in the first place,” Ginny said.

    “Talking about it does help, though. Even if you’re not entirely honest,” Sirius interjected, with Hermione nodding in agreement. “If you don’t want to talk to a therapist, talk to a friend.”

    Both Ginny and Luna turned to look at Hermione - who blinked, obviously surprised.

    Ron managed not to smile at her reaction.

    Sirius laughed.

    *****​

    “So… Hermione’s going to play therapist,” Harry said as they warmed up outside for their morning run.

    “Well, she didn’t refuse their request,” Ron replied. “And she did go through the same experience,” he added, a little annoyed by his friend’s wording. “Only worse.” Much worse.

    “But will that be enough to help them?”

    Ron shrugged, glancing around to check if the others had already arrived. “What’s the alternative? Sirius?” And even if they found a trustworthy and discreet therapist, they wouldn’t be able to visit regularly.

    Now Harry looked annoyed. “You and me,” he said.

    “You’re Ginny’s boyfriend, not her therapist.” And Ginny wouldn’t want the two roles to mix, Ron knew. She wanted to be Harry’s girlfriend and wife - not his dependent. “And Luna…” He shrugged. Luna liked Harry, but she wasn’t really close to him. And Harry wasn’t close enough to her to be trusted with this, yet he was too close to Ron to be trusted with this.

    Harry grunted.

    “Ginny’ll talk to you anyway,” Ron added. “Once she’s feeling better about it.” Less insecure, at least.

    “We’ll see,” his friend replied. “Here they come.”

    And that ended the conversation.

    *****​

    Of course, as Ron found out in the evening, there was a significant drawback to Ginny and Luna talking to Hermione about their experiences: It meant less time spent with others. Such as Ron. And that just when they needed to talk about their relationship.

    He sighed as he leaned against the wall next to her door. “The things I do for family…”

    “Stop moping, Ron!” Sirius yelled from the lounge. “Come join us here!”

    Well, he didn’t have to stand guard outside Hermione’s room. Not with the door visible from the lounge if he picked the right seat. So he went and joined them.

    “It’ll be like old times!” Sirius exclaimed, pushing a beer bottle towards Ron as soon as he reached the table. “Just us men!”

    “That’s what you usually say when you can’t get a date,” Harry said with a grin.

    “Which almost never happens,” Sirius shot back. “As an officer and gentleman, I’m popular with the fairer sex.”

    “You forgot ‘rich’,” Ron told him as he opened the bottle.

    “Pff!” Sirius shook his head. “I’d say you’re just jealous, but seeing how you spent the night…” He held up his own bottle. “Cheers!”

    “Cheers.” Ron took a sip himself. It wasn’t his favourite brand, but it was decent enough. “Did you get that from the kitchen?” He would have expected Dumbledore to provide a more expensive beer for them.

    “From the guards,” Sirius replied. “We swapped some war stories.”

    “Ah.” Ron nodded. That explained the brand.

    I can’t just stare at my girlfriend all day,” Sirius went on.

    “We’re guarding them,” Harry said with a frown.

    “That’s what people call it these days?” Sirius chuckled. He’s probably had a few beers with said guards already, Ron thought. “Anyway,” the older man went on, “a good time was had. Phoenix Gruppe has hired some quite quality folks. With a few exceptions, of course.”

    “Great.” Harry didn’t sound very impressed, even though befriending the guards could pay off in a number of ways. Provided Sirius hadn’t antagonised them instead - he tended to overestimate his charm at times.

    Sirius seemed to ignore Harry’s reaction, though, as he downed the rest of his beer. “So, how are you two doing?”

    “Fine,” Harry said.

    Ron shrugged.

    “That doesn’t sound very convincing,” Sirius told them. “You know, you can talk to me. Even about more serious problems than unrequited love.”

    Neither Harry nor Ron took the bait. They had been fourteen and dumb at the time. Dumb enough to ask Sirius for advice about asking out girls.

    “I just want to find whoever started all of this and stop them,” Ron said. Permanently, preferably. And sort out his relationship with Hermione.

    “Well, we’ll have to wait for Dumbledore to find another lead,” Sirius said, shrugging. “We can’t run off without actionable intel. Well, we could run off, but it wouldn’t be smart;” he added with a wide grin that vanished at once. “But, seriously, are you alright? The girls aren’t here; you don’t have to act tough.”

    “I’m fine,” Harry said. “It wasn’t our first battle.”

    “Yes,” Ron agreed. If he was going to break from killing people who wanted to kill him, he’d have done so long ago.

    Sirius didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t pry.

    *****​

    It was close to midnight when Ginny and Luna left Hermione’s room. “Harry?” Ginny asked as she entered the lounge.

    “If he hasn’t fallen asleep, he’s waiting for you in your room,” Ron told her, getting up.

    “He better not have!” Ginny said.

    “I’m going to chat with a few friends,” Luna said. “They should be back from work or getting up now.”

    “Goodnight.” Ron nodded at them on the way to Hermione’s room. He knocked, then waited.

    “Come in.”

    She was wearing her usual sleepwear - tank top and shorts - and was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed.

    He closed the door behind him and went to sit down on the bed, which caused her to smile - though a little wryly. “How did the talk go?” he asked.

    “As well as could be realistically expected, in my opinion.” She rolled her neck. “We talked about our experiences.”

    Mostly hers, or so Ron assumed. He nodded.

    “It’s helping, I think. I hope so at least, but I’m no therapist,” Hermione said with a shrug. “I think it hasn’t hit them yet. Not fully, at least. It took some time with me as well, after my first battle.”

    “Was that the attack in the bathroom?” He couldn’t talk about trolls here.

    She nodded slowly. “Yes. I had nightmares for weeks.”

    “It was the same for me, the first time I shot a man,” he said. “And Harry…”

    “He had it worse.” She sighed.

    “Yes.” Ron hadn’t realised that for some time even after they had become friends. He’d been a dumb kid.

    “What did you do while we talked?”

    “Had a few beers with Sirius and Harry,” he replied. “Mostly talked about sports and stuff.” Until Sirius had retired to his room, quite drunk.

    “Ah.”

    A few seconds passed without either of them saying anything. “So…” Ron shifted his weight a little. “About us...”

    The way she winced wasn’t a good sign, was it?

    “I don’t think this is just some casual thing. Or just a reaction to danger,” he went on. They hadn’t fallen in bed with each other after the other attacks, after all.

    “No, it isn’t,” she agreed. “But it’s a complicated issue.”

    “Because of my counterpart.”

    She frowned at that. “It’s not his fault.”

    “I didn’t mean it like that,” he defended himself.

    She pressed her lips together for a moment. “The fact that I’m in another world is at the core of this… issue.”

    “And what is the issue?” he asked, leaning forward a little. “I’m not my counterpart. I’m a different man.” He wasn’t a wizard. He wasn’t a teenager. He hadn’t grown up with her.

    “Yes, you aren’t him.” She shook her head. “But you’re very similar to him.”

    At least she wasn’t calling his counterpart ‘my Ron’. “I don’t think appearances matter that much.”

    She scoffed at that. “Appearances do matter, no matter how much we want to deny it.” She frowned, probably at her own wording. “Subconsciously, at the very least. But it goes deeper than that. Aren’t you concerned that I see you as a replacement for my Ron?”

    He was more concerned that she’d leave him for his counterpart. “I don’t think you’d do that.”

    He could see her bite her lower lip. “Why not? I didn’t break up with Ron, yet I did…” she trailed off.

    “It’s been seven years,” he told her. “Do you think he’s still waiting for you?” He wasn’t going to ask if she thought that Ron’s counterpart was still alive. That would be going too far.

    She flinched. “He might.”

    “You don’t think so, though.”

    “The circumstances of my dimensional travel wouldn’t have left him with much hope,” she said after a few seconds. “But it’s not the same for me. I don’t have that excuse.”

    Was she serious? “I don’t think anyone would expect you to carry a torch for anyone for seven years. Certainly not in these circumstances,” he retorted. “Hell, most relationships don’t last that long.”

    “I’m aware of that,” she snapped.

    “You expect him to have moved on. And yet, you expect yourself to stay faithful?” He couldn’t keep a trace of bitterness out of his voice.

    “I know it’s stupid,” she replied through clenched teeth. “But I can’t help it.”

    “I think you’re being too hard on yourself.” He couldn’t let her stew about this.

    She leaned back, wrapping her arms around herself. He reached out and touched her knee. She didn’t flinch at his touch, but she tensed.

    “Are you concerned about betraying him, or are you afraid that what we have is not real? That it’ll fall apart if you see him again?” The expression on her face when she looked at him told him the answer. “I’m willing to take that risk,” he said. It wasn’t as if he had a choice, anyway - he couldn’t give her up.

    She sniffled. It wasn’t quite a sob. He gathered her in his arms before she started to cry in earnest.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 5th, 2005

    Ron woke up with Hermione in his arms and her hair in his face. He gingerly moved his free arm - the other felt like pins and needles since it was trapped beneath her body - and brushed her mane away until he could check the alarm clock on the sideboard. Five minutes left.

    He sighed and smiled. They hadn’t settled their issues, but they were together. More or less officially. Until Hermione managed to open a gate to her home world, at least, and they found out what had happened to her friends.

    He wasn’t looking forward to that moment, for a number of reasons. A small, selfish and stupid part of him wouldn’t even mind if Hermione never managed to get back to her world. It would mean she would have to stay with him.

    It would also mean that Dumbledore and Grindelwald would demand that she stopped wasting time and money, and started to teach them her ‘technology’. Which she wouldn’t be able to do. And that would cause all sorts of trouble.

    He knew that very well, but sometimes, he thought he’d prefer that. If Hermione returned to her dimension and decided to stay there, with her friends, with him

    He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to imagine that. His counterpart would’ve moved on. Would have found someone else. Or died fighting the Dark Lord.

    That’s what Ron would have done. Probably. And he refused to think that his counterpart would be the better man.

    His gloomy thoughts were interrupted when he felt her stir, then heard her moan in that cute, confused manner of hers as she shifted around with her head on his chest until she stiffened, realising that she was using him as a pillow.

    “Good morning,” he whispered.

    “Good morning,” she replied.

    Then the alarm clock started ringing, and they had to get up.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 7th, 2005

    “Ah! The backup mainframe! Finally! I’ve been waiting for that for ages! Put it down in the other corner, next to the power lines! No, further back!”

    Ron shook his head as Hermione ordered Dumbledore’s men around in her lab. She went from beaming at them to scowling within seconds. And probably didn’t notice the frowns sent her way in return as soon as she turned her back. Or if she did, she didn’t care - she was very, very focused on her work.

    Not that it mattered much; Ron was certain that anyone working on this project was aware of how important it was for Dumbledore and Grindelwald, if not the exact reasons. And how stupid it would be to do anything to hinder Hermione’s research. He doubted that Grindelwald would hesitate to disappear any ‘saboteur’. Dumbledore would probably prefer to arrange an accident - perhaps even a non-fatal one.

    He still kept an eye on the men, of course. Just because something was stupid didn’t mean it wouldn’t be done. If there was one thing you learned quickly as a police officer, it was that people were stupid.

    But he didn’t spot any attempts at sabotage, and Hermione would be checking everything anyway.

    Once they were gone and Hermione started installing her programs on the new mainframe, he relaxed. A little.

    Half an hour later, he saw Hermione push back from her desk and reach for the mini fridge mounted next to it. “Break time?” he asked.

    She froze for a moment, then looked at him. “A short break.”

    He walked over as she grabbed a can for him as well. “So, how’s your research going?”

    “Oh, it’s going well. With the new computing resources, I should be able to cut down the time spent waiting on simulations by a significant amount!” With a frown, she added: “And they almost dropped it within the magnetic fields created by the cage when it’s under power.”

    “Would that have damaged it?” He took the can from her and opened it.

    “Probably destroyed it,” she replied, opening her own can with a scowl. “And anyone handling computers should be aware of that danger!”

    “I don’t think they’re aware of your experiments,” he pointed out, leaning against her desk.

    “Do they think the thick power cables are for show?” She shook her head, scoffing. “And what about the markings on the floor?”

    “Probably not impressive enough,” he replied. “You might want to add skulls.”

    “Then they wouldn’t…” she frowned as she trailed off. “Very funny.”

    He chuckled and drank the rest of his drink.

    She huffed and took another sip from her own. But he caught her smiling, a little. “Did you hear anything from Dumbledore?” she asked.after a moment.

    He shook his head. “Nothing yet.”

    “I would have expected results by now,” she said. “Since we have a name, and contact numbers.”

    “A man in that business won’t be stupid. Or easily arrested,” he pointed out. Not that he expected to arrest the man.

    “Well, I hope he gets results soon,” she said, putting down her can.

    “I’d wager that so does he,” Ron replied.

    But Hermione was already back at the keyboard - not quite lost to the world, but close.

    And Ron went back to standing guard.

    *****​

    “Raise you ten.”

    Ron threw his cards down in response to Sirius’s bid. “Fold.”

    “Harry?”

    “Call.”

    “Three aces! Who’s lucky tonight?”

    Harry’s cards hit the table as well. “Guess who’s not getting lucky tonight.”

    “That’s a low blow!”

    “Lucky at cards, unlucky in love,” Ron said.

    “Luck? That was pure skill!” Sirius replied.

    “Chess is skill. Poker is luck,” Ron told him.

    “Says the man depending on luck!”

    “Well, that’s enough gambling for me,” Harry interrupted them.

    “What? You’re bailing just when I’ve got a good run?” Sirius protested.

    “Yes,” Harry said.

    “I taught you better! Gentlemen don’t leave a card table before giving the others a chance to win their money back!”

    “We were playing with your money,” Harry pointed out.

    “And I told you that if you win, you can keep the money!”

    “Which is exactly what I’m doing,” Harry said.

    Sirius didn’t have an answer to that. Well, not before Harry had left the lounge.

    Ron shrugged with a grin. “Tomorrow’s another day.”

    Sirius sighed. “I guess so. With the girls spending the evenings talking, there’s not much we can do.”

    “Especially since someone broke the controllers for the console, and we haven’t yet gotten replacements,” Ron pointed out.

    “It’s a plot by Dumbledore,” Sirius retorted - without looking at him.

    “I’m sure.”

    “Good.” Sirius nodded. “More DVDs wouldn’t go amiss, either.”

    “We’ll have to wait for the next trip,” Ron said.

    “Well, I don’t see why we can’t go right away,” Sirius replied. “It’s not as if we can’t disguise ourselves.”

    Ron was about to point out that they still hadn’t found the leak when he saw that Hermione’s door was opening. “I think I’m going to bed,” he said, without taking his eyes off the door, and stood up.

    Sirius laughed behind him, but Ron ignored it, just like he ignored Luna’s smile and Ginny’s remarks, as he walked down the hallway and entered Hermione’s room.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 9th, 2005

    “Alright, let’s see some kicks! No, not like that! Watch!” Ginny yelled, then demonstrated a kick that hit a training dummy - if the padded pillar deserved that name - roughly at the height of her head. If that had been someone’s head, teeth would have been smashed out of their mouth, Ron thought. “See? You need to turn so you can raise your leg sideways.”

    “Like a roundhouse kick?” Hermione asked.

    “No. Not exactly. Try it!”

    Hermione tried, but her kick wouldn’t have smashed teeth, in Ron’s opinion. Probably wouldn’t have done much of anything.

    “No, no! You need to kick harder! Watch!” Another demonstration followed. “See? Try again!”

    While Hermione tried again - improving a little, as far as Ron could tell - Ginny went to correct Luna’s stance. “No, no! You need to lower your centre of balance! This is fighting, not dancing!”

    “If you’d teach us Capoeira, it could be both!” Luna retorted.

    “I’m teaching you effective martial arts moves. Not flashy ones! Now try again!”

    “If she ever quits tennis, she’s got a career as a military instructor ahead of her,” Sirius mumbled next to Ron.

    “I’m reconsidering the decision to let Ginny give us some martial arts lessons,” Ron replied in a whisper.

    “It’s mostly to keep her busy, I think,” Sirius told him. “So she won’t go stir-crazy.”

    “Instead, she can drive us crazy,” Ron said.

    “She’s not bothering us, is she?” Sirius grinned and nodded towards Hermione, who was currently sitting on the floor after having lost her balance in her latest attempt. “Of course, seeing Hermione suffer makes you want to step in, doesn’t it?”

    It did, but Ron knew better than to attempt it. Especially with Ginny involved. “It’s for her own good,” he said instead.

    “She won’t be able to defend herself against a competent enemy,” Harry told them, joining them with a towel around his neck.

    “Your standards are a little unreasonable,” Sirius pointed out. “You consider Ginny barely competent,” he added.

    Harry scoffed in return. “I’d prefer it if we could teach them how to shoot. Practical shooting,” he clarified. “Not just the theory of it.”

    “We’d need a shooting range for that. And a specialised training ground,” Ron pointed out, not for the first time. And the laboratory lacked both. They could, in theory, shoot anywhere in the area, but that might draw attention - shots carried quite a distance, and if a hiker heard shooting… Ron didn’t want to find out what Dumbledore would do to keep their location secret.

    “The guards mentioned that as well. Apparently, they used to train more regularly - now it’s down to once a month, and in an isolated spot,” Sirius said.

    Dumbledore didn’t want his men talking to others, not even in the same organisation. Well, he still hadn’t found the mole. If there was a mole in the first place - the leak could’ve been in CI5. Or an analyst had guessed their likely reaction to the Albanian connection. Or simply covered several of the possible leads they might’ve investigated. Although that would have increased the risk of being discovered. “It’d take too long to teach them how to shoot a gun under fire, anyway,” Ron added.

    “We don’t know how long this will take,” Harry replied. “And we don’t know if the war on the other side is still going on.”

    “Well, basic training doesn’t take that long…” Sirius trailed off.

    Ron pressed his lips together. He didn’t want Ginny and Luna to fight in a war. And certainly not on the front lines. Not even their counterparts had done that. On the other hand, he doubted he could keep them from getting involved.

    “Oh, I know! We can get some laser training gear!” Sirius said. “And we can train with them. I’m certain that Dumbledore can get us a few sets.”

    Harry mumbled something about overpriced laser tag, but Ron nodded. It would certainly help. And, at the very least, keep Ginny busy without getting Hermione and Luna bruised.

    He winced at seeing his sister teach the other two how to block a kick. Perhaps he should step in and teach Hermione himself.

    *****​

    “We’re not here to study for the O.W.L.s. We’re here to learn how to fight.” Harry faced the gathered students. “Voldemort has returned, and he’s gathering his forces. Sooner or later, a war will start. And they’ll come for you.”

    She watched the crowd while Harry spoke. She didn’t pay attention to his speech - she had written most of it, anyway. Most of the students nodded in agreement. Some even looked eager - mostly Gryffindors. A number seemed to be having second thoughts - mostly Ravenclaws, as far as she could tell. She hoped that they had avoided recruiting any students who weren’t serious about fighting, but they must have missed or misjudged a few.

    Well, that was what the contract was for. They couldn’t force them to fight Death Eaters when the time came, but they wouldn’t have to worry about traitors.

    “We won’t be learning exotic curses here. We won’t be learning how to duel,” Harry said.

    As if on cue, someone blurted out: “What?”

    Ron stepped up. “We’ll be learning how to fight - not how to compete in a tournament. In combat, you won’t be duelling. You’ll either be trying to get away or to take out the other bastard. And you won’t be fighting fair. You’ll be ganging up on your enemies whenever possible and using every dirty trick you’ve learnt. That’s what we’ll be practising here.”

    Harry nodded. “You won’t be learning how to cast spells as much as you’ll be learning how to use them. You’ll learn how to cast when running, on the ground, on a broom, with one arm disabled, when silenced. A spell you can cast perfectly under any circumstances is far more useful than a dozen spells you can barely cast. The perfect curse for a situation is useless if you can’t hit your target.”

    The assembled students looked a little taken aback. Had they still not realised what was at stake? She pursed her lips and shook her head before she spoke up. “We would be doing this even if our current Defence teacher wasn’t useless. This isn’t about passing the O.W.L.s. This is about fighting a war. You remember the contract you signed?” She smiled as she saw some of the students grow pale. “It’s a magical contract. Don’t try to betray us - to anyone. You won’t like the consequences if you do.”

    If they survived the curses she had placed on the document in the first place, of course. Sirius and Remus hadn’t just taught them how to fight over the summer, after all. Exotic dark curses had their uses, even if they weren’t the best choice for fighting.

    *****​
     
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  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 20: The Swiss Vacation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 20: The Swiss Vacation

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 12th, 2005

    He studied the treeline through the scope of his rifle, slowly moving the barrel back and forth, but couldn’t spot anything or anyone in the woods across the small field.

    “This side’s clear,” Ron said into his radio. “Yours?”

    “Clear,” Harry answered. “They’re taking their time.”

    “Think they’re trying to wait until we’re bored and start to get sloppy?” Ron asked.

    “Sirius would grow bored before we did. Long before we did,” Harry replied.

    “But he’s just advising them,” Ron said. The older man’s wound was still preventing him from taking part in this exercise. Or should - Ron wouldn’t put it past Sirius to throw caution and medical advice to the wind and grab a sniper rifle to help the girls out.

    He quickly scanned the treetops and other likely sniper nests, then adjusted his helmet. Although it was made of Kevlar instead of steel, the bloody thing was still heavy and cumbersome. And the laser sensors strapped to it didn’t help matters any. “If he’s got a sniper rifle, then we’re in trouble,” he added. “We won’t be able to spot it even when he’s firing.” Normally, the laser tag gear - Ausbildungsgerät Duellsimulator, as the Bundeswehr called it - would be used with blank cartridges, but their sets had been modified so they, and the girls, would only need to pull the trigger to fire.

    Which meant Harry and Ron wouldn’t be able to use the noise from shooting, or the flash and smoke, to spot their positions. Neither would the girls, but then they were the attackers, so they had a rough idea where Harry and Ron were hiding already. If he and Harry were allowed to cross the clearing and hide in the woods from where the girls would approach them… but they weren’t.

    “Birds!” Harry hissed.

    Ron saw them as well. Something had disturbed the birds in the woods on Harry’s side. Someone, to be precise. “There they are,” he whispered.

    “Keep covering your side,” Harry whispered back. “This might be a distraction.”

    A distraction? Sirius had been a tank commander. Would he think of such a trick? It was possible, but not too likely. Ginny or Luna? Ron doubted it. His sister was sneaky, but her home was the tennis court, not the outdoors, and Luna was even worse in nature. Hermione, though… well, she might think of it - she knew how Ron had spotted Berisha’s men, after all. He frowned and focused on the tree line across the clearing. As Moody had taught them - always assume the worst. Of course, Moody also had taught them not to be predictable...

    “It’s a distraction,” Harry said as more birds rose into the air, including a few crows who made their displeasure loudly known. “They’re overdoing it.”

    “Probably Luna, then.” That would fit her, in Ron’s opinion. Ginny was too competitive to be a mere distraction - and had been too enthusiastic about their G36s when they had done some ‘familiarisation exercises’ yesterday. More enthusiastic, in fact, than she had been at her birthday party, though that was understandable, given the circumstances. He shook his head and forced himself to focus on the exercise, not yesterday. It wouldn’t be Hermione; she had too much experience to be wasted on such a task.

    “Or Sirius.”

    That would be a way for Sirius to take part without risking his recovery - and being left out of the next mission. Ron nodded. “He’s certainly annoying enough when he tries,” he joked.

    Harry chuckled, then cursed and ducked. “Someone just missed me!”

    Ron hadn’t heard the sound from the system but quickly rolled behind the tree trunk next to his spot. “They know where we are.”

    “Yes. Let’s move,” Harry replied.

    They quickly changed position, using a fallen tree as cover. They couldn’t move the flag they were to guard - the objective of the exercise - but no one had said that they had to stay near it and so they had prepared a nice position further down Harry’s side.

    But how had the girls spotted them? Magic? Ron didn’t think so. Hermione wouldn’t be using magic with Dumbledore undoubtedly watching the exercise - and wanting to debrief them afterwards. So… He blinked. Luna had received a new toy at the same time they had received the laser tag gear, hadn’t she? “Harry, I think Luna’s watching us with a drone,” he whispered.

    “What?”

    “The new RC helicopter she got, it uses an electric engine,” Ron explained.

    “Damn. And it’s small enough so it can hide in the treetops. That must have disturbed the birds!”

    “Yes. And I bet it’s not rigged with a laser receptor.” Which meant they couldn’t shoot it down even if they spotted it. Ron shook his head. It wasn’t quite cheating, but it was certainly bending the rules. They were supposed to train the girls, not actually compete, after all. “That was probably Ginny’s idea,” he muttered. His sister really hated to lose.

    “Yes,” Harry agreed. “But all we have to do is be more careful, and keep the drone’s field of view in mind.”

    “Bushes should be enough to keep us hidden,” Ron said. The small helicopter couldn’t have a thermographic camera installed. And it wouldn’t be able to stay aloft for long, either. All they had to do was wait a little longer.

    Though the girls and Sirius would know that as well. On the other hand, he didn’t think Sirius and Ginny would be patient enough to outwait them. Hermione might, and Luna would be, but they wouldn’t be able to hold back the others. At least Ron didn’t think so.

    He crawled - slowly, so he wouldn’t disturb the foliage and branches of the bush under which he was hiding - a little further. “I’ve got eyes on the flag,” he whispered.

    “I’ve got eyes on the approaches,” Harry replied. “They’ll try the distraction again, I think.”

    This time, Ron could hear the squawking of birds. He tensed, aiming for the flag on the ground.

    Then something fell down next to it, and, a second later, the entire area was covered in thick smoke.

    “Bloody hell!” he muttered. That was even worse cheating than the drone. Smoke wouldn’t stop bullets, but it affected lasers. Not completely, so he started shooting at the flag’s spot, but he’d need to be lucky to score a hit that would register on the sensors.

    He wasn’t. “Yes! We got the flag!” he heard Ginny yell.

    Harry shot her as soon as the smoke started to settle.

    *****​

    “We won!” Ginny said for what felt like the tenth time.

    “By exploiting the rules and mechanics,” Ron retorted. “This would have been useless as a tactic with live weapons.” He grabbed a can from the cooler in their ‘break room’, as they called the small clearing.

    “So? It was within the rules.”

    “This wasn’t about winning or losing,” he told her. “This was about training.”

    “We trained to think outside the box.” She huffed and grabbed a can of her own.

    That was a line straight from Sirius, Ron could tell. “And if you try that in a real fight, you’ll end up shot.”

    She froze for a fraction of a second, then glared at him before taking a big swallow from her drink. “We still beat you.”

    “And Harry shot you,” Ron pointed out.

    “The exercise was over by that point.”

    “You can slack off once you’re... home,” Ron retorted. Moody’s original quote went ‘once you’re dead’, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate.

    “This isn’t home,” she replied, nodding towards the laboratory.

    “Exactly.”

    His sister rolled her eyes at that. “You’re worse than Harry. Shouldn’t you be kissing Hermione instead of lecturing me?”

    “Shouldn’t you be kissing Harry?” he shot back, glancing over his shoulder to check that the others were still working on Luna’s new helicopter at the other end of the clearing.

    “He shot me! I’m not going to snog him until he apologises.”

    “He’ll do that - after talking to you about taking this exercise seriously, I think,” Ron said.

    “He’s such a sore loser!”

    Ron had to cough at that, which earned him another glare before Ginny huffed and went back to the others. He finished his can, grabbed another for Hermione and followed his sister.

    “It can’t stay aloft very long,” he heard Luna explain. “but it’s much quieter than our old helicopter.”

    “It can’t carry us, either,” Harry said.

    “That’s what the old helicopter is for!” Luna replied. “This one’s for scouting!” She was smiling. “Like a drone.”

    “Technically, it is a drone,” Hermione pointed out. “A remote-controlled unmanned craft.”

    Ron smiled - that was such a typical comment for her - and handed her the drink. “Here.”

    “Thank you.” She flashed him a smile and opened the can.

    Harry frowned. “Where’s mine?”

    “That was Ginny’s task,” Ron told him.

    “No, it wasn’t!” His sister glared at him, then looked at Harry, who didn’t say anything in response.

    Ron sighed. They’d work it out soon enough, but until then, it was a little annoying. “So… anything else to add about our exercise?”

    “Other than that we beat you?” Ginny said quickly.

    “We out-thought you,” Luna added with a grin.

    “You abused the rules,” Harry said. “So apart from learning what won’t work in a real fight, there’s nothing to add. So… let’s go back to actual training. You’ve got five minutes to set up in that part of the woods, and then we’ll come for you. No drones, no smoke grenades, nothing but the rifles.”

    “You’ve had your fun,” Ron added, “now it’s time to train again.”

    “And time for me to return to work,” Hermione said.

    Ron nodded. He didn’t like leaving her alone in the lab - even with Sirius around - but he could do more good here.

    “I would love to join, but doctor’s orders forbid it,” Sirius told them.

    That left Luna and Ginny. Ron couldn’t help grinning at their expressions. They’d had their fun. Now Harry and he would have theirs.

    *****​

    “How did the training go?” Hermione asked a few hours later, when Ron, freshly showered, checked up on her before dinner. She was wearing slacks and a T-shirt, but her hair was still up in that messy ponytail she favoured.

    “We made up for the time lost before,” he said. He didn’t glare at her, but he didn’t bother to hide his opinion of what they had done.

    She picked up on that, of course. “They needed it,” she said, narrowing her eyes slightly. After a moment’s hesitation, she added: “They’re still not over the fighting.” Her expression told him that he better not tell anyone.

    He wouldn’t, of course. But he liked her trusting him with this. “I don’t expect them to be fine,” he said. Getting over such an experience would take longer. He knew that himself.

    “It’s not just the trauma,” she replied. “They don’t want to feel helpless and useless.”

    “They aren’t,” he said with a frown. “Ginny drove the Land Rover, and Luna piloted the helicopter. Without either, we would have been in a lot of trouble.”

    “I know. I’ve told them that myself, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they really did feel helpless out there.” She shrugged as she sat down at her desk, then pulled on a sweater over her thin T-shirt.

    “Beating us by abusing loopholes in the rules isn’t going to help them,” he pointed out, leaning against the wall next to the door. He didn’t cross his arms - that would have made him look like he was more annoyed about this than he actually was.

    “Thinking outside of the box is a very useful skill to learn,” she countered. “Creative plans saved my and my friends’ lives a few times.”

    “Unless you learn the wrong lessons,” he replied.

    “That’s what the rest of the training is supposed to prevent, isn’t it?” She shrugged again. “It’s not as if you’re going to turn them into soldiers with a few lessons, anyway.”

    “Every little bit helps.” Not that he wanted Ginny and Luna to kill people anyway. They shouldn’t have to go through that. And Mum and Dad would kill him.

    “Unless it results in overconfidence.” She didn’t copy his stance and tone, but he got the hint.

    “It’s also giving them something to do.” Mostly Ginny - Luna had her contacts on the net.

    “Yes, and that’s helping. At least in my non-professional opinion.”

    “Don’t sell yourself short;” he told her as she walked over to him - and the door.

    “I’m a physicist, not a psychologist.”

    “But you’re also their friend. And a woman. You can help them where we can’t,” Ron said. Which hurt a little to admit - he was Ginny’s brother and Luna’s ex-boyfriend, he had known both of them practically since birth.

    “I’m doing my best,” she said. “And it seems to be helping.”

    “That’s all we can ask.”

    She snorted at that. “Let’s go. We don’t want to hold up dinner, do we?”

    “No, we don’t.” He shook his head, then sneaked a quick - or not so quick - kiss before she opened the door.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 15th, 2005

    As they returned from another training session in the woods, they saw Dumbledore sitting on a folding chair in front of the laboratory and watching the lake. Waiting for them.

    “Ah, there you are! Good evening, gentlemen, ladies.” The old man slowly stood and nodded at them. His suit was both expensive and immaculate - quite the contrast to their own baggy and muddy fatigues.

    “Good evening, Mr Dumbledore,” Harry replied. Ron nodded in greeting, as did Sirius.

    “I hope you had a productive day,” Dumbledore went on.

    Ron shrugged in response. “We have to keep in shape.” He was certain that their progress was being tracked, though they hadn’t seen any overt surveillance.

    “An admirable attitude.” Dumbledore smiled like a teacher praising a favourite student.

    “Did you find Sokolov?” Luna asked before the old man could continue.

    Dumbledore looked taken aback and, for a moment, lost his patronising smile - but it returned at once. “Indeed, I did. Or, more precisely, some of my affiliates managed to discover where he is currently staying.” He inclined his head. “Although I think we should discuss this in a more private setting.”

    Ron wondered if that was a subtle hint that Dumbledore’s men had, by now, bugged the entire forest.

    “By all means,” Sirius agreed. “My shoulder’s still not fully healed, and I’d rather sit down on a proper chair to talk about this. It’ll be dinner time soon, as well.”

    “And we wouldn’t want to exclude Hermione, would we?” Ron added. This was about her, after all.

    “Oh, sorry!” Luna said, nodding several times. “I didn’t think - I wanted to find out if I was right.”

    “Quite understandably, my dear,” Dumbledore told her. “Curiosity gets the better of me at times as well.”

    Another hint? A warning? Ron couldn’t tell.

    “Shall I join you for dinner, then?”

    “We’d love to have you,” Sirius said - without any trace of sarcasm. It was an impressive lie - but then, Ron’d heard how Sirius had been raised. With those sorts of parents, you’d have had to learn how to hide your true feelings.

    *****​

    Dinner was, as usual, excellent. Perhaps even better than usual - delicious entre-côtes Café de Paris with pommes frites. Dumbledore certainly had a taste for French dishes, though it took until the crème brûlée was served for dessert for him to finally stop chatting about the economy, travelling, politics and the weather, and start talking about Sokolov.

    “He has made himself very scarce indeed and avoided his usual stomping grounds - far more than even when Interpol was looking for him,” the old man explained. “I think this means that he isn’t just laying low and hiding from the authorities but also hiding from at least one of his former partners or employers.”

    “Do you know who those people are?” Harry asked.

    “I know a number of them. Alas, Sokolov worked for and with a wide range of people, and even if we narrow the number down to those he would be afraid of, it’s still over a dozen people,” Dumbledore replied as he handed a list to Hermione.

    “Influential people with many contacts, I presume,” Sirius said.

    “Very much so, yes.” Dumbledore looked at Hermione. “Do any of the names seem familiar to you?”

    She shook her head. “I don’t recognise any of them.”

    “That means we have to talk to Sokolov. Or, at least, get access to his files,” Ron said.

    “How would we do that?” Luna leaned forward, her elbows pushing her plate and her glass to the side. “Do you know where his files are stored?”

    “Unfortunately, I don’t,” the old man admitted. “He might have set up a dead man’s switch so his data will be revealed to the public, should he become incapacitated, but the information would spread to everyone, and we don’t know whether it would implicate the people after Dr Ganger.”

    “Not to mention that we don’t murder people for their information,” Harry pointed out.

    “Yes,” Luna agreed.

    “Certainly not when crucial information might die with them,” Hermione not-quite-agreed.

    “Quite.” Dumbledore acknowledged the rebuke with a nod of his head, but Ron was certain that the former spy only cared about the danger of others hearing about Hermione’s secret.

    “So, we need Sokolov. Where is he hiding?” Harry asked.

    Ron leaned forward as well.

    “Mr Sokolov has had an impressive career and has many contacts in Eastern Europe, the former USSR and the Middle East. However, not all of his contacts are as loyal as he thinks they are,” Dumbledore said. “Or as security conscious as they should be, given their profession.”

    Ron kept a rein on his temper. He wanted to know where the bastard was hiding, not listen to some clever reveal, but it was Dumbledore’s show.

    “Of course, he counted on that - he let slip to selected people that he had a private island in the Aegean Sea while he actually went into hiding somewhere quite different.” Dumbledore’s smile grew a little more patronising. “However, he must not have been aware of the fact that, while the reputation of the Swiss banks for discretion and loyal service is well-earned, the Swiss authorities, in response to recent international pressure, do not protect their banks quite as fervently as they used to. Which means several proud and distinguished bankers might find themselves imprisoned, should their past business practices be revealed.”

    “Ah.” So the old man’s people were blackmailing Swiss bankers.

    “So where is he?” Harry asked again.

    “Twenty years ago, he bought a small cottage - a so-called ‘chalet’ - in La Punt Chamues-ch.”

    “Lapoont jamooash?” Luna asked.

    Dumbledore corrected her pronunciation. “La Punt Chamues-ch. A small village in the Swiss Alps.”

    “Oh.” Luna nodded. “And you think he’s hiding there.”

    “I believe so,” he replied. “My contact in Switzerland verified that the house is currently occupied - the water and electricity consumption is up compared to last month.”

    “And you want us to handle him?” Ron asked.

    “You handled Mr Berisha admirably, despite the unexpected complications.”

    ‘Unexpected complications’... Ron had a mind to ask the old man if he had said the same thing whenever he lost a spy to a trap. Or still did.

    “However,” Dumbledore went on, “I don’t have a backup team in place there, and moving one into the country would incur the risk of further leaks. So, although I doubt that Mr Sokolov’s security is in the same league as Mr Berisha’s, you would be operating with less support.”

    “But better secrecy,” Harry pointed out. “Unless you’ve found any moles in your organisation.”

    “The efforts to tighten security are ongoing,” Dumbledore said. Had his smile slipped a little? Ron couldn’t tell. “Although, at this point, I don’t believe that there was a highly-placed informant. I think it’s more likely that someone managed to combine intelligence received through various channels - including sources outside the Phoenix Gruppe.”

    “Such as Yaxley,” Ron said, frowning.

    “If he wasn’t silenced as a loose end, he might be working as an analyst now.” Dumbledore shrugged. “At least as long as he proves his worth.”

    Harry shook his head. “He isn’t that good.”

    “But he knows you - better than anyone else our still unknown enemies have access to, I’d wager.”

    Ron nodded in agreement. “Well, that means that once we find out who is behind this, we might find Yaxley as well.”

    “Indeed.” Dumbledore smiled widely. “Although, first, we need to find out what - and who - Mr Sokolov knows.”

    “I don’t think Sokolov will talk to us,” Ron said. The man would be paranoid.

    “And if he did, I doubt we could trust him to tell the truth,” Harry added. “We’ll have to kidnap him.”

    Hermione nodded in agreement, Ron noticed, but Luna was frowning, and Ginny… she was likely putting on a brave front.

    “That will require a little more extensive planning, I believe,” Sirius said. “The Swiss aren’t as lax as NATO are in Kosovo.”

    “But they also don’t have their military ready to intervene at a moment’s notice,” Dumbledore pointed out.

    “The village is close to St Moritz,” Luna said. “Surely they have competent police forces to protect all the billionaires?”

    “Their numbers are limited,” Dumbledore replied, “and, since it’s summer, the jet-set aren’t present in the area. That will affect the priorities of the local police.”

    Ron couldn’t help noticing that both Luna and Dumbledore seemed to assume that there would be another firefight like in Kosovo. “Their numbers and state of readiness won’t matter if no one notices us,” he said.

    “Or if we divert them to another location,” Hermione suggested. “We could fake an attack on someone else.”

    “We’d have to split up for that,” Sirius pointed out with a frown.

    That wasn’t a bad thing, either, Ron thought. Ginny and Luna could do the diversion - they would be safe.

    Hermione, though, dashed his hopes. “We can set up the diversion in advance and start it remotely. A few recordings of gunfire, a few planted charges… if done at night, it’ll be enough to occupy the police. We could even start two or three diversions.”

    “A fine idea, although such preparations will require a significant effort and increase the risk of discovery,” Dumbledore replied. “Sokolov might have people in place checking for suspicious activity. Which is why flying directly to Samedan Airport near St Moritz is inadvisable in my opinion - it is an obvious location to put under surveillance.”

    “Then we’ll take a detour,” Sirius said, shrugging. “We’ll need to plan our escape in advance, though - if it’s in the Alps, the mountains will hem us in and there’ll be natural choke points, which the police will know.” Sirius frowned. “We’ll need maps of the area.”

    With a smug smile, Dumbledore pulled out a bundle from his jacket. “Here.”

    “Perfect!” Sirius took them and unfolded one, and Harry had to react quickly to keep a wine bottle from toppling over when Sirius pushed his plate away, before joining his godfather in studying the map, followed by Luna and Hermione. Ginny, too, after a moment - probably so she wouldn’t feel left out.

    Everyone seemed to assume that they’d all go together, again. Ron pressed his lips together. Ginny and Luna weren’t ready for a fight - that would take far longer than the few days they had spent training.

    “I think all of you will be pulling your weight,” Dumbledore said as if the old man had read Ron’s mind. “Many crucial tasks on such a mission do not require shooting a gun.”

    Which, Ron knew, didn’t mean someone wouldn’t be taking a shot at you. But there was no way Ginny and Luna would agree to stay behind - and if they did, Ron and the others might end up short a set of hands at a critical moment.

    If only Dumbledore could trust his men; they wouldn’t have to take Ginny and Luna along if they could get a few trained men instead.

    At least Ron would ensure that Luna and Ginny wouldn’t be in danger. Not this time.

    *****​

    Flughafen Kloten, Zürich, Switzerland, August 17th, 2005

    The armoured SUV was waiting at the airport, as ordered. At least that had worked out as planned - their flight from Frankfurt had been delayed by an hour, and it had taken another thirty minutes before they had been able to recover their luggage. At least the fake identities they had been using courtesy of Dumbledore had held up to the customs officers’ scrutiny - Ron had been worried about that, but, obviously, counterfeit passports provided by Dumbledore were far ahead of the usual fake IDs he knew from his work.

    In any case, they were in Switzerland. And all their gear, and then some, was safely stored in Hermione’s beaded bag.

    “You know, Hermione, you could make a fortune smuggling,” Sirius said after Luna had checked for bugs in the car and they had left the airport. Ginny was at the wheel, with Sirius navigating, or so he claimed.

    “What?” Hermione gasped. “Smuggling? Are you mad?”

    “Really? You’re currently smuggling weapons, aren’t you?”

    “Very funny,” Hermione said, in a tone that made it clear she thought it was anything but.

    Sirius chuckled. “Seriously, though, we’ll have to look into using the opportunity to stock up on contraband here. Duty-free takes on a whole new meaning if you’ve got a bag of holding that, thanks to magic, will fool the customs officers.”

    “It’s not a bag of holding,” Hermione replied through clenched teeth.

    Ron carefully didn’t laugh. But he grinned.

    *****​

    St. Moritz, Switzerland, August 17th, 2005

    Three hours later, they were pulling up in front of the Grand Hotel Carlton in St Moritz, one of the oldest luxury hotels in the area. And, as Ron noticed when he got out, perhaps in need of some makeover.

    “Remember, you’re a group of rich students with more money than sense, and I’m your driver and bodyguard, paid by Ginny and Ron’s parents,” Sirius said.

    “I think, by now, we all know our cover story by heart,” Hermione replied.

    “We should,” Ginny said. “You quizzed us during the drive.”

    It wasn’t the most elaborate cover story, and probably not the best, either, but it would do, Ron thought. They certainly didn’t look like a group about to kidnap a wealthy but shady businessman. Provided, of course, their disguises held, and Harry stopped acting like a bodyguard himself. Rich young men didn’t take note of the area around them like that.

    But Ginny was on the job. If anyone knew how to act like a member of the jeunesse dorée, it was Ron’s sister. She might not have grown up rich, but after a few years on the WTA tour, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference compared to any other rich girl. Especially if Harry played his part. He had been raised by Sirius, after all.

    Although if they were mistaken for part of the nouveau-riche, it would only help with their cover. And it would irk Sirius.

    He got out, then waited for Hermione to get out. Like Ginny and Luna, she was wearing a summer dress that, to anyone who knew their fashion, looked as expensive as it actually had been. Not to mention sexy, he added to himself with a smile as he offered her his arm.

    “Shouldn’t you have held the door for me?” she asked as she joined him.

    “We don’t want to be too perfect,” he told her with a grin.

    She snorted. “Good excuse.”

    “As I was taught, what you do and say matters far less than whether or not you have an excuse ready.”

    “Your parents never taught you that!” she exclaimed as they walked towards the entrance while Sirius parked the car.

    “No, they didn’t. But I never said that, did I?” He grinned. “However, I learned quite a lot from my older brothers. And Sirius, of course.”

    She sighed. “I can imagine.”

    Once more, Ron was reminded of the fact that the wizard Weasleys were very similar to his own family. Just with the ability to bend reality to their whims.

    He managed not to sigh as they entered the hotel.

    *****​

    Their room was spacious, but a little old-fashioned for a luxury hotel. Ron would have expected slightly more modern amenities. It still was more modern than Grimmauld Place, though. And far more expensive than Ron would have been able to afford.

    He kicked his shoes off and sat down on the bed. “You can have the first shower,” he told Hermione as she put down her beaded bag of holding on the other side of the bed. “Unless you want to share,” he added with a wink.

    She blushed a little, and he could see that she was tempted. But, after a moment, she shook her head. “We should focus on the reason we’re here.”

    “It would look weird if, right after we arrived, we went out to explore the countryside. We’ve spent hours in a plane and more hours in a car,” he pointed out, grinning. “And we’re currently rich students on vacation - we’ve got leisure time aplenty.”

    “This sounds like another excuse,” she said, frowning at him. But she was still flushed.

    “I’ve thoroughly learned this particular lesson,” he replied, propping up his head with his hand as he laid down on his side.

    “You say that as if that’s something of which you should be proud,” she retorted with another frown.

    “As long as it gets results…” He smiled a little wider at her. She was tempted, very tempted - he could tell. “Besides,” he added, “if we share the shower, we won’t take much longer than if we go one after another.”

    She laughed at that, then shook her head. “Is that false modesty or sudden honesty talking?”

    Hey now! It was his turn to frown, which made her laugh again. “I think you should find out for yourself,” he said, standing up and moving towards her.

    She licked her lips as he came closer and tilted her head to meet his eyes. “It wouldn’t be fair to the others.”

    “You think Ginny and Harry aren’t doing the same thing right now?”

    “Luna and Sirius aren’t,” she retorted.

    Well, Ron certainly hoped they didn’t become a couple. That would be very weird. Out loud, he said: “How’s that different from back at the lab?”

    She scrunched her nose, frowning, as she tried to think of an answer to that. After a few seconds, she huffed, turned around and walked towards the bathroom without answering.

    But she started pulling off her clothes halfway there and glanced at him over her shoulder.

    *****​

    La Punt Chamues-ch, Switzerland, August 18th, 2005

    Sokolov’s house didn’t look like the vacation home of a rich Russian businessman. It was roughly the same size as its neighbours, and Ron couldn’t spot any ostentatious show of wealth, either. In fact, it wasn’t even unique - he had seen an identical building on the way into the village.

    “Did he buy the house off the shelf?” he asked as he stopped walking and pulled out a drinking bottle from his backpack.

    “Standard design,” Hermione said. “It certainly helps with staying under the radar.”

    “Clever!” Luna commented. “But boring as well.”

    “If you go into hiding, you want to appear boring and unremarkable,” Harry said.

    “But wouldn’t that be expected?” Luna replied. “If everyone expects your hideout to be boring, you might want to be flamboyant instead. Your enemies won’t expect that. Or hide in plain sight.”

    Ron hoped Luna didn’t decide to take her own advice. “That doesn’t work very well,” he pointed out. “If you stand out, you’re more likely to be noticed.”

    “Yes,” Ginny agreed. “It’s the same with the press. And it means that even if they spot you, the pictures they take won’t be published because they’re boring.” She stretched.

    “Unless that’s their angle,” Sirius added.

    “That only affects celebrities who actually depend on being glamorous,” Ginny replied. “Besides, you can dress boringly and still look good.” She ran a hand over her front for emphasis.

    Like all of them, she was dressed for hiking, though in Ginny’s place Ron wouldn’t want to leave the trails - her short-shorts and T-shirt left a lot of skin bare, which wouldn’t exactly be ideal if you had to move through a dense forest or field. On the other hand, these hiking trails were quite extensive and well cared for, so it wasn’t exactly an unsuitable outfit. Even though he felt it was a little too close to the outfits that she wore on the tennis court. Though with her hair dyed, and some makeup, she shouldn’t be recognised.

    “We should focus on our objective,” Hermione said. “Not on the vagaries of the press.”

    “There’s not much on which we can focus,” Ron pointed out. Sokolov had an average fence, an average yard and an average house. Even the Dursleys would consider this a little too ordinary, he thought.

    “I bet the security system isn’t average, though,” Luna said. “Though I can’t tell from here. We need to get closer to the house. Much closer.”

    They’d have to leave the trail for that, which would draw attention from any competent bodyguard. “We can do that at night,” Ron said. “And place cameras at the same time.” This trip was mostly to get familiar with the area during the day, after all.

    “The garage is a standard size as well,” Harry remarked. “That means they’ll have a smaller car, or it’ll take them longer to get into a bigger car without having to drive it out first.”

    “We’ll have to sabotage the garage, anyway,” Ron pointed out. “To prevent Sokolov from escaping.”

    “That will require more information,” Hermione said.

    “We’ve got the time,” Ron replied. He really didn’t want to go in blind, like with Berisha.

    “We’ll have to scout out the locations for the distractions as well,” Ginny said.

    “Yes,” Harry agreed. “And we need a good cover. So we’ll hike a lot so we won’t only be seen near the areas of interest.”

    Sirius groaned. “If I wanted to walk around like a bloody farm animal, I’d have joined the infantry!”

    Harry patted his godfather’s back. “Consider it your daily training regime.”

    Sirius expression made everyone chuckle. Even Hermione and Luna, who weren’t much fitter than he was.

    *****​

    St. Moritz, Switzerland, August 19th, 2005

    “They definitely have an advanced security system,” Luna said between taking bites out of a croissant, tapping on a picture they had taken yesterday. “That’s an infrared sensor in the backyard, above the door to the terrace. Calibrated not to react to small animals, I bet, or it’d wake everyone up every time a fox passed through.”

    “Detecting an intrusion so close to the house wouldn’t be enough to stop a dedicated attack. Not the sort they launched at us,” Sirius said. “And the house isn’t big enough for a dozen bodyguards.” He took a sip from his tea, then carefully put his cup down on one of the scarce free spots on the table in Ron and Hermione’s room. “They’ll need active and passive defences.”

    “The glass door looks armoured,” Harry said. “The windows are probably bulletproof as well. And the curtains keep anyone from tracking people inside the house.”

    Ron nodded. Even the thermographic cameras they had installed last night had trouble detecting anything inside - the house had really good insulation.

    “I think Sokolov counts on not being found,” Hermione said. “I don’t think he expects to be able to fend off an attack.”

    “He’ll still have an escape plan,” Luna replied. “Probably an underground tunnel.”

    That sounded a little far-fetched. Ron doubted that Sokolov would have been able to dig a tunnel in secret through half a Swiss village. On the other hand, Berisha had had an escape tunnel.

    “We’d need special equipment to detect a tunnel,” Hermione said. “And that would be hard to hide.”

    “We won’t need to detect a tunnel if we surprise Sokolov and catch him before he can flee.” Ron pointed at the small balcony on the first floor. “What about dropping us - Harry and me - off there with the silent chopper? Shrunk, we could sneak inside and wait until the potion’s effect ends.”

    “I don’t think you’d be able to sneak into the house like that,” Luna said. “They don’t keep the windows open, according to our surveillance.”

    “They open them during the day,” Ron retorted. His plan would keep everyone but Harry and himself safe, and, if they could get inside, they’d achieve complete surprise.

    “We wouldn’t be able to use the RC helicopter during the day,” Luna said. “Too obvious.”

    And sneaking through the yard while shrunk would be dangerous - and take quite some time. And they would have to wait until someone opened the door or a window, then sneak in. That could take hours. They would have to drink quite a lot of Shrinking Solution to have enough time for the worst case. Which meant they would have to hide for hours inside - if things went well.

    Possible but not ideal.

    “Oh, I have an idea!” Luna piped up with a wide smile.

    That was either a very good, or a very bad thing, Ron knew.

    *****​

    Seeing the throngs of people filling the streets, it was hard to imagine that they were fighting a civil war in the same country. The same city, even - the Ministry was in London, after all. Not that any of the muggles around them, going clubbing or drinking, would be aware of that.

    She shook her head. She wouldn’t think of the war. Not now.

    “Is something wrong?” Ron asked. He was tense and looking around.

    “No.” She smiled at him. “I was just considering how peaceful all this is.”

    “Ah.” He nodded, obviously relaxing.

    “I’m not having second thoughts,” she told him.

    “Ah.” He smiled, almost shyly. “Just… it’s OK if you do.”

    That was out of the question. She had planned this thoroughly. Picked the movie, the club and the hotel. “We might be dead tomorrow. Today, I want to live,” she said, facing him. Before he could answer, she reached out and wrapped her arms around him, hands digging into his hair.

    She felt his arms around her as she pulled him closer, and they kissed.

    A group of drunk young men whistled as they passed her and Ron, but she didn’t pay them any mind.

    Today, nothing and no one else but them mattered.

    *****​
     
  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 21: The Middleman
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 21: The Middleman

    La Punt Chamues-ch, Switzerland, August 22nd, 2005

    Ron held his breath as he saw the dark shape of Sokolov’s house - his chalet, as the locals called it - loom out of the darkness in front of them. Well, the almost darkness - the street lights were still on. The electric RC helicopter was very quiet - unless you were two inches tall and inside it. It was hard to imagine that Sokolov’s people wouldn’t notice its approach, even though it was past midnight already.

    And now came the dangerous part. Luna had trained for hours for this during the last two nights, and she had gotten the hang of it. Ron trusted her, and the moon was very bright - the full moon had been on the 19th - but he couldn’t help recalling her first attempts to pilot the helicopter at night with her night vision goggles…

    There came the roof. If the toy hit it, then the guards inside were bound to notice it - at least Ron would if he were in their place. But the helicopter stopped. And Luna’s voice sounded from the small mobile phone they had squished into the helicopter between Ron and Harry. “Waiting for instructions!”

    Ron leaned out of the open door and peered down and ahead. “We’re about…” He mentally calculated the distance relative to his current size. “...one yard out and two yards up.”

    “Alright!” Luna whispered, though her voice was far too loud for Ron’s peace of mind.

    The helicopter started to slowly move ahead.

    “Half a yard… one foot. Stop!” Ron called out. “Start descending.”

    “Alright!”

    He saw the roof grow closer as the helicopter lost altitude. At around one foot, he called out “Stop!”

    “Copy!” Luna replied, and the helicopter stopped its movement, hovering in the air. Ron kicked the string they had spooled up out of the door, then attached his harness to it. “Ready?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at Harry on the other side.

    “Yes,” his friend replied.

    “Going down!” Ron announced, then climbed out and rappelled down, Harry doing the same on his side.

    They hit the roof almost simultaneously, then went to its edge and fastened more string to the roof rail there. By the time they were set for the next step, the helicopter had already left and headed back to Luna. And, after checking for spiders or other dangerous creatures hiding beneath the rail, they started climbing down. Towards the infrared-sensor.

    They had to traverse a little, which was tricky - but for two-inch tall people, the walls of the chalet offered plenty of hand- and footholds. Far easier than the climbing wall at the academy. A few minutes later, they were straddling the sensor.

    Now came the hard part: disabling it with miniaturised tools. Without triggering an alarm. Ron got the muscle-powered drill out and got to work - they needed a hole so they could use the shrunken saws.

    It took them fifteen minutes to cut out and remove a large enough section of the sensor’s casing, and Ron was sweating by the time they could finally access the electronics. Sawing through plastic that thick took a lot of effort.

    “Alright, mate,” Harry said. “Cut the blue or the red wire?”

    Ron chuckled. There wasn’t a red wire at all in the thing. “Let me check the schematics Luna gave us.” If the sensor wasn’t among the types for which Luna had found schematics, they would have to improvise.

    But as it turned out after five more minutes, one of the schematics Ron had carried matched the sensor. “It’s this wire,” he said, tapping the thick cable in question. Plastic, wrapped around three thinner cables filled with wires.

    Harry cursed. “That will be a bitch to cut through.”

    It took them twenty minutes to cut a strip of plastic covering free so they could get started on the actual wire, and fifteen more until they could finally use the wire-cutters on the bundle of copper inside. The Shrinking Solution wouldn’t last much longer.

    Ron cut frantically, sweat soaking his shirt and black fatigues. He couldn’t simply cut away - he had to keep bending the remains away so he could get to the next wire. And without getting electrocuted.

    But they made it - Harry snipped the last wire, and both of them were still miniaturised. “Let’s climb down,” Harry muttered, already gripping the string on his side.

    Ron followed his example after storing the wire cutters in his harness. Rappelling down was easy, but it was a very long drop for their size. And below them waited a lawn hiding spiders and worse.

    As they hit the ground and ran towards the door to the terrace, Ron hoped that the potion’s effect would end soon. He really, really didn’t want to fight any giant spiders today. Or any other animal.

    They reached the door, then took cover behind a planter in the corner - filled with herbs, not flowers. Ron didn’t fancy getting caught by an owl, or another predator.

    “Don’t get too far behind it,” Harry whispered. “Don’t want to topple it once we start growing.”

    “Yes.” Ron rolled his eyes. They’d gone over that during planning. But arguing over it in the middle of the op wouldn’t help anyone. At least they wouldn’t have to wait for long - by his count, and his watch agreed, they only had a few minutes left.

    But even so, waiting and hoping no fox, owl or any other predator would pass by and spot them was nerve-wracking. The rifles they had with them wouldn’t do much to a cat, much less a fox. Not at their current size - Ron knew enough about firearms and hunting to be aware of that. Perhaps they should have taken an elephant rifle instead. Or an RPG…

    When he felt the now familiar rippling sensation, he was very much relieved, even though he almost didn’t manage to get out from behind the planter before he was restored to his normal size.

    Crouching next to the wall, out of view from the inside, he heard Harry whisper into the radio: “Team One, ready.”

    “We’re ready as well,” Luna replied.

    Ron heard Sirius complain about proper protocols as Ginny reported: “Team Three, ready.”

    He looked at Harry, pulled his night-vision goggles down, then drew his silenced pistol and whispered: “Let’s do this!”

    His friend nodded and went back to the door. Ron peered through the window in the door. The living room behind it looked empty. “Don’t see a guard,” he whispered.

    Harry nodded and pulled out his lockpicks. Two minutes later, he pushed the door open, and they entered the chalet.

    They had the blueprints of the chalet - it was a standard design, after all. That meant the main bedroom would be on the first floor - unless he had chosen another room. That might complicate matters a little. He wished they could just flood the house with some magical compound that would knock out everyone inside, but Hermione hadn’t had anything on hand that wasn’t administered orally, and they couldn’t risk the mundane compounds. Not without risking killing everyone inside. The Russians had demonstrated that in the Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis. They had to do this the normal way.

    Harry took point, sneaking through the living room. The kitchen was empty - they could check through the open door - but Ron heard light snoring from a smaller room to the side, and Harry raised his hand, then pointed at it.

    Ron didn’t bother nodding - he passed Harry and checked the room. It was a guest room with a bunk bed. Two men were sleeping there, both almost too tall for the bed - Ron could see feet hanging out. He doubted that either one was Sokolov, but sneaked over to check anyway.

    Bodyguards. He pulled out one of the syringes in his front pocket. Two quick injections later, Ron could be certain that they wouldn’t wake up until tomorrow, not even if there was a shoot-out in the room.

    He returned to the living room and signalled two down to Harry. His friend nodded, then pointed at the stairs. Showtime.

    Ron wet his lips, then went up the stairs, pistol in hand. He didn’t like this - shooting people for getting in his way was wrong even if they were likely hired thugs - but they had no real choice. They needed Sokolov’s information.

    But he reached the upper floor without being spotted. There were three doors here, all closed, with the one leading to the main bedroom straight ahead of him. Ron crouched at the top of the stairs, covering the other two doors as Harry passed him and went ahead.

    The first of the smaller rooms contained another bunk bed - Ron caught a glimpse of it as Harry sneaked inside. A minute later, his friend reappeared, signalling two more men down.

    Four down. That was about as many as they had suspected. But there was one more room to check before the main bedroom. Ron moved ahead, covered by Harry, and pushed the door open. Another bunk bed - but an empty one. The room was occupied, though.

    Damn. Ron gritted his teeth. Sokolov must have someone standing guard inside his bedroom. Or two.

    “One or two missing,” he whispered as he moved back into the hallway.

    Harry nodded, his lips twisting into a frown beneath his goggles. One, potentially two guards awake inside the bedroom was bad news.

    “The door’s locked,” Harry whispered. “And it’s a security door.”

    That was worse. No gap beneath it to slide a camera or mirror through to to check inside. And if they started to pick the lock, a guard inside was bound to notice. They could wait until the shift change - but that could be another hour or two, easily. Perhaps even longer. Although… standard procedure would call for a patrol in irregular intervals. And guards had to pee as well. They could wait.

    But what if the next shift was expected to relieve the guard or guards inside, and didn’t come? That would alert the guard that something had gone wrong. And who knew what they would do in response? Call the police?

    Ron wet his lips again. “We’ll have to break in,” he whispered.

    “They’ll notice,” Harry replied.

    Ron nodded. To be precise, the guards might not notice, if Harry got lucky, but if he wasn’t, then the guards would be ready for them when the door opened. And both Harry and Ron were well aware of what usually happened if you entered through a door and found the other side prepared for your arrival. Or gone through a secret escape route.

    No, the risk was too high. “We’ll have to force it,” he whispered.

    He could see Harry’s lips twist into a frown. They could blow the door. Disorient the guards at the same time. But to disable them without killing? That would be tricky. Very tricky.

    “Blow the door, follow up with flashbangs and tear gas,” Harry said. “Then take them down and secure them.”

    Ron nodded. It was more dangerous than shooting the guards - but they wouldn’t be killing them. And the risk of accidentally killing Sokolov would be greatly reduced as well. But their own risk of getting hurt - or killed - would increase. “Prepare the charge, I’ll inform the others that we’ll need the distractions.”

    “At least we won’t have to recover them,” Harry replied.

    “Team One to Team Three. Fire the distractions,” Ron whispered into his radio.

    “Team Three, gotcha!” Ginny replied. A moment later, she added: “Distractions fired.”

    Harry was already setting up the charges on the door - more of them than usual for a room. But this bedroom had been modified into a panic room. At least it meant they wouldn’t be able to hear them whispering.

    “Will they be enough?” Ron asked once Harry had finished.

    “Yes.” Ron’s friend sounded confident. And he knew his business.

    Ron still looked the setup over, then nodded. He couldn’t think of anything he’d do differently. Good. He checked the time. Five minutes since the distractions had started. They had to wait at least ten more minutes for the police officers on duty to get mobilised and reach the areas in question. But if they waited too long, then any latecomers might be directed towards them as soon as Sokolov’s neighbours alerted the police.

    If this were Britain, Ron would have been able to predict the police response quite precisely. But this was Switzerland - he didn’t know enough about the local police to tell.

    It all came down to a roll of the dice, in the end. Let’s hope it’ll come up a twenty, Ron thought with a snort.

    “Something funny?” Harry asked.

    “Just a stray thought,” Ron told him.

    The minutes passed. If a guard had to go to the toilet, then they could rush the room and would avoid alerting the neighbours. Or scaring them.

    But no one did before the ten minutes were over. “Team One. We’re going in,” Ron said.

    “Team Two. Be careful,” Hermione replied.

    “Always,” he lied as he patted the pouch that held the vial with a healing potion.

    Then he looked at Harry, pulled his gas mask on and grabbed a CS grenade and a flashbang. “Ready,” he said, pressing himself against the wall next to the door.

    “Ready,” Harry replied and detonated the charges.

    The door wasn’t blown fully open - but there was a sizeable gap. More than wide enough for a couple grenades. Harry’s flashbang flew inside, followed by Ron’s CS grenade. As soon as the grenades went off, Ron swung around and threw himself against the door, shoulder-first.

    The door broke under the impact and crashed to the floor. He rolled to the side and came up in a crouch behind a toppled table as Harry charged into the room behind him. One figure was stumbling around in the tear gas cloud, waving a gun. Ron struck the man’s head with his pistol, knocking the man down, then followed up with a kick to the head. “One down,” he snapped, crouching down again.

    “Two down,” Harry answered.

    Something - someone - was moving on the bed. Sokolov! Ron quickly stepped closer to the coughing and crying figure. They just had to…

    Something hit him in the chest, and he stumbled back before he heard the shot. Another shot rang out, and Ron dropped to the floor. Bloody hell, Sokolov was armed! And Ron’s chest hurt, despite his vest stopping the bullet.

    More shots were fired as Ron rolled towards the bed, groaning at the pain that caused. The man had to be near blind from the tear gas, so he couldn’t see what he was shooting at - firing blindly. That meant… The shots stopped, and Ron rose, then came down on the figure on the bed, knocking the gun away.

    A few blows to the head and arms later, the man - Sokolov, Ron recognised the face at this distance - stopped struggling and tried to cover his head with his arms. Ron quickly secured him with cable binders on his wrists and ankles. “Got him!”

    “Got the two others secured,” Harry replied as he came over, using a flashlight to check the man’s face. “That’s him.”

    “Yes. Let’s go!”

    Each of them grabbed one of Sokolov’s arms, and they quickly carried him out of the demolished room. Even with the distractions, the police would be here shortly - but that didn’t mean that they would find anything.

    Ron and Harry dropped Sokolov off in the hallway, then dragged the two secured bodyguards out of the room and into one of the smaller bedrooms. They quickly sedated the two bodyguards before leaving the room again. The tear gas would linger, but it wouldn’t enter the other bedrooms through closed doors - not in significant amounts, at least.

    Harry fed a vial of Shrinking Solution to Sokolov, then put him into a cushioned box that would let him breathe and pocketed him.

    “Team One to Teams Two and Three, status?” Ron asked as they went down to the ground floor,

    “Team Two. No sign of the police, yet,” Hermione answered.

    “Team Three. All clear,” Sirus added.

    “Neighbour’s awake,” Harry said, nodding towards the closest house, where the lights had gone on.

    It wasn’t a problem. The lights would have ruined the residents’ night vision, yet were not bright enough to cover Harry and Ron’s escape route.

    “Team One withdrawing. Got the objective,” Ron announced as they left through the back door. Then they sprinted through the garden, quickly went over the wall, and headed straight back to Team Two.

    It was time to disappear.

    Five minutes later, they were stripping off their fatigues behind a few trees and bushes.

    “Ah, tear gas… the smell of rebellion,” Luna commented, holding up Harry’s top - at arm’s length, of course; she knew better than to actually sniff fabric soaked with tear gas.

    “Stuff it into the plastic bag and seal it,” Hermione told her. “We don’t want all our equipment and supplies to become contaminated.”

    “It might improve the taste of some of the rations,” Ron joked as he slipped his boots off.

    “Very funny,” Hermione replied in a flat tone. “The rations are sealed, so… What happened to you?” She gasped.

    Ron winced. She had noticed his vest. “A lucky shot from Sokolov. The vest stopped it,” he told her. “I’m fine.”

    “I’ll check that as soon as possible,” Hermione said.

    Ron had no doubt that she would already be inspecting his body with a flashlight if they didn’t have to avoid drawing attention by such displays. He tried not to wince when he pulled his top off - that hurt. And he ignored Harry’s snort.

    Five minutes later, dressed appropriately for tourists, and with everything suspicious as well as Sokolov hidden inside Hermione’s bag of holding, they were on the way to Sirius and Ginny - and the fireplace they had built earlier in the evening.

    If the police stopped them on the way back to the hotel, the smell of tear gas lingering in their hair would be suspicious. But the smell of smoke from a fire? Perfectly natural for a group of tourists having a barbecue. Or whatever the Swiss called it.

    Not that there was a high chance of getting stopped by the police, anyway. Odds were, the local police would dismiss any reports of an explosion in La Punt Chamues-ch as a prank or someone using up fireworks left over from the 1st of August. Until the bodyguards woke up and managed to free themselves, of course.

    *****​

    St. Moritz, Switzerland, August 22nd, 2005

    “‘I’m fine’? Really?” Hermione’s voice dripped with scorn as she traced Ron’s bruise with her finger.

    “Well, nothing broken, no blood…” He trailed off in a hiss when her finger pressed down a little. He would have taken a step back, but his back was already leaning against the wall in the hotel room’s bathroom.

    “‘Fine’!” She shook her head, then pulled a small tin out of her bag and opened it. “Hold still, This ointment will deal with it.”

    He didn’t argue about saving the magical salve. The bruise might look suspicious to anyone who knew about getting shot with a vest. And it hurt quite a lot.

    She dipped her finger into it, then put a dollop on his skin and started to rub it in.

    Ron sighed with relief as the pain faded wherever the salve touched his skin. “Thank you.”

    She huffed in response. “You’re worse than my Harry.”

    “Oh?” Her Harry?

    “He would claim he was fine after breaking his arm playing Quidditch. Or worse!”

    “Ah.” He shrugged - that didn’t hurt anymore! - and added: “It didn’t stop me.”

    “You had trouble dressing yourself,” she retorted.

    “Well… only once we were done.” Not during the fight. Adrenaline had carried him through that.

    She sighed. “Some people...” Then her sigh turned into a yawn.

    “Let’s head to bed?” he asked. It was late - or, rather, it was now early; the sun was already rising outside. And both of them were too tired for anything but sleep.

    “Yes. I just need to take out Sokolov, first,” she said. “If the Shrinking Solution’s effect ends while he’s in the bag, and in that transport box…”

    Ron winced at the picture that conjured in his mind. “Yes. We can stash him under the bed. In a sleeping bag.” Just in case someone ignored their ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.

    A few minutes later, they fell asleep in each other’s arms.

    *****​

    “So, how is he?” Ron asked six hours later, between taking bites out of his sandwich. It was too late for a proper breakfast, not quite early enough for lunch.

    “Medicine is not my speciality, but he looks healthy enough, apart from the bruises,” Hermione replied as she stood from where she had been kneeling next to Sokolov.

    “Good.” If they couldn’t keep the man sedated without risking his life, they would have had to adjust their plans. And Ron didn’t really care about the bruises - the man had tried to shoot him, after all. Of course, Ron had been about to kidnap him, but in Sokolov’s business, that was to be expected.

    “He still needs an infusion to keep him from dehydrating,” she went on, stretching.

    “Alright,” he replied. “Can you hand me a bag and some duct tape?” He’d have to fix the bag to the underside of the bed - a stand was out of the question.

    She didn’t question him or made a joke about duct taping criminals as Harry would have done. She simply handed him a roll of duct tape and a bag of saline drip.

    “It still feels weird,” he commented as he got to work. “Hiding him under the bed…”

    “It’s the most practical solution to preserve our resources and keep us safe,” she told him. Their magical resources, of course.

    He grunted in agreement as he set up the drip. The Shrinking Solution was too damn useful to waste on anything non-essential, as last night had proved once more. Still, seeing a bound and sedated man under a bed in a hotel room seemed to fit a comedy more than reality. At least they were pretty safe - Ron doubted that anyone would suspect them. The concierge had seen them enter, after all, and they couldn’t have carried a body with them. It wasn’t the best alibi, but it would do. At least until they left tomorrow morning. “Has the news about the kidnapping broken already?”

    She switched the telly on and flipped through a few channels until she found some news. There was nothing about a kidnapping, though. “Perhaps the radio might be a better choice,” she said, “Local news might not make national television.”

    “If you can understand it, sure,” Ron replied.

    “I’ve been studying German a little, lately,” she said, sitting down on the bed. She froze for a moment with a frown, looking down - Sokolov would be directly beneath where she was sitting. Then she pursed her lips. “I should be able to understand enough to know if the news reports the kidnapping.”

    But the radio didn’t report anything about a kidnapping once the news came on. Though La Punt Chamues-ch was mentioned, Hermione claimed it was just another report of the ‘fireworks’ event. Once more, she pursed her lips. “Would the police keep it secret from the press so as not to endanger the investigation?”

    Ron shook his head. “Impossible. They couldn’t hide the investigation at Sokolov’s house - they would have to check the garden, the area around it, cordon everything off and canvass the neighbourhood… You can’t hide that. Someone would inform the news.” And the police wouldn’t really mind - it would probably stop the jokes about their ‘overreaction’ to ‘fireworks’ which Ron knew would be made.

    Hermione nodded. “Perhaps the bodyguards haven’t woken up yet.”

    “They should’ve,” Ron said. “We were very careful with the dosage.” He shrugged. “Perhaps the bodyguards decided to flee rather than report it. If the police started an investigation, they would have come under scrutiny as well.” And given the sort of people Sokolov did business with, odds were his bodyguards would be persons of interests for a few other investigations as well. “They might even loot whatever cash and valuables Sokolov had with him.”

    “Convenient, if it’s true.”

    “Yes.” Unless, of course, one or more of the bodyguards decided that they didn’t want to share with the others.

    A house full of bodies would certainly make national news. International, even.

    Although someone willing to murder his former comrades would likely have sold out Sokolov at the first opportunity. Still, you could never be sure.

    Ron shook his head. “So, the plan’s still on. We’ll be the happy couple spending the entire day in bed, after a night out with our friends.”

    “Yes.”

    He grinned. “And we should make it believable. Our alibi will look much better if the hotel staff who deliver our meals can confirm that we spent the day in bed.”

    “Yes.” She was grinning as well. “We should do our best to make it as authentic as possible.”

    *****​

    They had given it their best shot, as far as Ron could tell, hours later, as dinner time approached and he took a shower. Their lovemaking had been different, at the start at least. More frantic, or so it had seemed. And it was Sokolov’s fault, in Ron’s opinion. As much as he’d tried to ignore it, Ron had been very much aware that they had been making love in a bed under which a sedated prisoner was stashed away. It coloured the whole act, though he couldn’t decide whether the danger of getting arrested, should they be discovered, or the fact that they were committing a crime was the main reason for the difference.

    He sighed as he turned the water off. They were doing the right thing, even if it was breaking the law. Even Moody had told them that, sometimes, you needed to bend or break a few rules. He sighed again, towelling off. Moody probably hadn’t meant kidnapping. Probably - the man had started in the seventies, after all, when Cowley had been in charge of CI5. That man and his top team, Bodie and Doyle, certainly had played fast and loose with the regulations. Probably with the law as well - but none of Moody’s stories, or anyone’s, had ever been more definite than rumours in that regard.

    Hermione entered as he was about to use the blow-dryer. “Hey.”

    “Hey. Shower’s free,” he told her with a grin.

    “I can see that,” she replied.

    It wasn’t the only thing she was seeing - his towel was draped around his neck, not slung around his hips. But while her eyes certainly dropped down, she only messed his hair as she walked past him.

    “Hey!”

    “You hadn’t combed it yet,” she said with a giggle. Then she let her robe drop, and he swallowed his retort.

    By the time she had finished her shower and dried her hair - which took far longer than his own mop of hair, given the volume of her mane - and stepped out of the bathroom, Ron was sitting in an armchair and studying the room service menu.

    “It’s kind of a waste that we are eating our last dinner here in our room and not in the restaurant,” she commented.

    “Can’t be helped,” he said. They couldn’t leave the room unguarded as long as Sokolov was under the bed, and using a dose of Shrinking Solution to take him with them would be a pointless waste.

    “I know.” She smiled, a little ruefully.

    Ah. He nodded. “I’ll order candles for dinner as well,” he said.

    She looked confused for just a moment, then her eyes lit up, and she smiled.

    *****​

    Unfortunately, they had barely reached dessert during their candlelight dinner - the small table made for a very intimate and romantic set-up, in his opinion - when they were disturbed by someone knocking on the door.

    “Mate, let us in,” Ron heard Harry ask before he could tell them off.

    He looked at Hermione. She frowned but then sighed. “We do need to talk and plan, I think.”

    He agreed, but that didn’t mean he liked it. He still smiled when he opened the door - Ginny would only tease him if he complained about the interruption.

    The others entered, Luna making a beeline for the dessert. “Oh, pudding!”

    Well, skipping dessert wouldn’t kill him, Ron reasoned. Not that Luna didn’t deserve it, anyway. She was the only one of the group not in a couple, after all. Well, together with Sirius, but that was a little different.

    “So, you didn’t break the bed. Good. I half-expected to find our guest crushed under the remains of the frame!”

    Ron rolled his eyes. Very different.

    “Very funny,” Hermione said in a flat tone.

    “And very classy,” Harry added.

    Luna made a noise of agreement - her mouth was stuffed with cake. Ron didn’t know with whom she agreed.

    “I’m always classy,” Sirius replied.

    “Apart from when you’re not,” Ginny added as she pulled Harry towards the armchair in the room - after a glance at the bed.

    Ron could take a hint and sat down on the bed, Hermione joining him. That left her seat to Sirius.

    “So… any change to our plans?” Harry asked.

    “None. At least not from us,” Ron replied.

    “Our guest is doing as well as can be expected, considering their circumstances,” Hermione added. “There should be no problems during tomorrow’s drive.” She leaned a little against Ron. “I have some reservations about the transfer at the airport.”

    “Do you have an alternative solution?” Harry asked.

    Ron didn’t have to look at her to know Hermione was pursing her lips in response. She sounded as if she had to force out her answer. “No.”

    “Then we stick to the plan,” Harry said.

    “Yes!” Sirius said, clapping his hands. “Uncle Alphard would have loved it - he collected all sorts of morbid paraphernalia.”

    “I don’t have any reservations about that part of the plan,” Hermione explained. “But the timing will be very tricky.”

    Sirius shrugged. “I trust your mastery of the mystical arts to deal with such mundane trifles.”

    Hermione’s frown was replaced by a glare aimed at the older man, but Sirius merely grinned in response.

    *****​

    Flughafen Kloten, Zürich, Switzerland, August 23rd, 2005

    “As you can see, it’s a work of art!” Sirius declared. “Have you seen the satin cushions inside? Embroidered! With gold threads! Best souvenir ever! I can’t wait to use it!”

    Ron managed not to grin at the glance the two customs officers exchanged upon hearing Sirius’s claims. The embroidery was extremely garish.

    “Mr Brown,” the apparent leader of the two - Ron couldn’t see a difference in rank between them - said, “this is a coffin.”

    “Why, yes, it is!” Sirius nodded with obvious enthusiasm. “A hand-crafted antique coffin! What a find, eh?”

    “Are you a collector?”

    “Indeed! Although not exclusively of coffins, of course, but anything that fits the Victorian fascination with the occult and morbid,” Sirius replied. “My family was deeply into that sort of thing at the time.”

    Ron cleared his throat. That was getting a little too close to the truth - the Black family had been involved with several occult circles in the nineteenth century, after all. And using a fake name and identity might not be enough to keep a good analyst from making the connection. “So, can we proceed?” he asked. “We do have a flight to catch.”

    “Bah! They will wait - I am paying for the jet, after all!” Sirius chuckled.

    Ron didn’t have to completely fake his long-suffering expression when he looked at the customs officers. Sirius was overdoing it. As Hermione had feared when they had planned this - after a certain point, reverse psychology failed to work.

    Fortunately, the two officers had more luggage to check and waved them on. “No, you can proceed,” the leader said.

    “Thank you! Have a nice day!”

    They strode out of the room, Ron pushing the dolly with the coffin and their other luggage. It was quite heavy - heavy enough, actually, that the addition of a hundred and fifty pounds wouldn’t be obvious.

    Which also made it quite difficult to push and manoeuvre through a crowded airport, though. But he managed without steering it into anyone, and a few minutes later, they reached the lounge where the others were waiting.

    “That went well!” Sirius said as they sat down on free seats and grabbed a drink.

    Ron shook his head. “It could’ve gone better.”

    “What? I completely fooled them! Otherwise, they would have arrested us, wouldn’t they?” Sirius nodded to his own words. “Quod erat demonstrandum.”

    Hermione sighed and checked her watch. “You cut it close.”

    “Someone really got into his role,” Ron explained.

    “Ah.”

    “Hey! That’s called good acting! Method acting!” Sirius protested. “And it’s good timing.”

    Ron didn’t think that Sirius had kept the duration of the dose they had given Sokolov in mind. And he doubted that anyone else believed his claims. But it didn’t matter. Things were still going according to plan.

    “Well, let’s see if they damaged your coffin,” Hermione said, opening it and peering inside. “Did you leave a sock in here?”

    “What? No.”

    Hermione bent forward and stuck her head under the closed part of the coffin’s lid. “Ah, no, just a loose rag.” She held it up and closed the coffin again, then rocked it a little.

    About ten minutes later, she put her hand on the coffin and rocked it. Or tried to. “I think we should board the plane now.”

    That meant that the Shrinking Solution’s effect had run out and Sokolov’s actual size and weight had been restored. Ron nodded. “Yes, let’s go.”

    The business jet Dumbledore had chartered for them lifted off almost on schedule, with their luggage, including the coffin, stored in the back.

    And there was no chance that the plane’s crew, no doubt hand-picked by Dumbledore, could possibly suspect that Hermione could shrink people and equipment.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 24th, 2005

    “That was quite a smooth operation,” Dumbledore told them over lunch. “Kidnapping someone in a foreign country is a challenge even for the best in my former business. I’m impressed - especially by how you managed to smuggle Mr Sokolov out of the country through an airport.”

    Impressed - and curious, Ron was sure. “Thank you,” he said. He didn’t mention that they had been lucky that the bodyguards had bailed rather than called the police.

    “It’s all in the acting,” Sirius added.

    “Interesting,” the old man replied. “How did you deal with the x-ray scanners?”

    “We skipped them,” Harry said.

    “Ah.” Dumbledore nodded. “You didn’t use a technological solution to fool them?”

    “No,” Hermione said. “It was all done with sleight of hand - in a manner of speaking.”

    “I see.” The former spymaster inclined his head again. “In any case, our new guest should be ready to answer a few questions after we finish our meal. He needed a little time to recover after being transported.”

    “That couldn’t be helped,” Ron replied. “We had to keep him sedated.”

    “I wasn’t criticising your actions,” Dumbledore told him.

    Of course not. But Ron nodded as if he believed the old man.

    “Will you be using your truth serum again, Dr Granger?”

    “Yes,” Hermione confirmed. “Sokolov is a crucial source of information, after all.”

    “While we cannot, at this point, exclude the possibility of Sokolov serving as a decoy, I agree.”

    “A decoy? Hidden so well?” Luna shook her head.

    Ron agreed with her. That would’ve been insane. All their work, for nothing?

    “My dear, I know of even more elaborate deceptions than this - which were successful, I’ll have you know.” Dumbledore smiled in his usual slightly condescending manner. “But we shall soon find out the truth, thanks to Dr Granger’s assistance.”

    Ron certainly hoped so.

    *****​

    “Were you aware of the mission for which so many mercenaries were needed?” Harry asked.

    “Yes.”

    “Did you know why someone wanted to kidnap Dr Granger?”

    “No.”

    “And who told you to hire mercenaries to send to Britain?”

    “Igor Kirikov.”

    Ron didn’t recognise the name, and neither did Hermione - she wasn’t a good enough liar to hide that, as he knew. But he noticed that Dumbledore was frowning, and made a note while Harry continued the interrogation.

    “How did you know that we’d go after Berisha?”

    “Kirikov told me.”

    “Did he tell you to warn Berisha?”

    “Yes.”

    “Where does Kirkov live?”

    “Russia.”

    “Do you know his address?”

    “No.”

    “Do you know how to contact him?”

    “Yes.”

    “How do you contact him?”

    “I call him.”

    “What is the number?”

    Sokolov rattled off a phone number.

    “Where do you know him from?”

    “He was my superior at the KGB.”

    Ah. No wonder Dumbledore had recognised the name. “Does he still work for the KGB?” Ron asked.

    “No.”

    “Who does he work for?”

    “Himself.”

    That was good news, in Ron’s opinion. If Russia were after Hermione… On the other hand, he knew just how close certain ‘businessmen’ were to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.

    And, as they quickly found out as Harry and Ron continued to question the drugged Sokolov, Kirikov was one of those businessmen.

    *****​

    An hour later, the Veritaserum stopped working, and Dumbledore’s men carried Sokolov away. Presumably, they’d take him to the same location in which Berisha was currently being kept prisoner. Ron gathered his notes. A lot of the information they had gained wasn’t related to Hermione, but it was still useful - Sokolov had worked with and for a lot of criminals, after all. And they had confirmed that the man hadn’t had a dead man’s switch.

    Harry turned to Dumbledore as soon as the door closed behind Sokolov. “You recognised the name.”

    “Indeed, I did,” the old man answered. “Igor Kirikov. An old… well, I wouldn’t say colleague. We weren’t quite on the same level - my time in the field had already ended when he started working for the KGB.”

    “Like Sokolov,” Ron said.

    “Yes. But Kirikov was higher-ranked. And knew more secrets. I don’t doubt that he still has a lot of friends in the FIS.” Dumbledore rubbed his beard. “Unfortunately, our information on him is a little out of date - something I intend to rectify at once, mind you.” He tapped a few keys on the laptop on the table near him. “This is our most recent picture of him.”

    Hermione gasped.

    “That’s Igor Karkaroff!”

    *****​

    “Is something wrong?” Viktor asked as they took a break from dancing. “You seem distracted.” He was glancing at her friends, she noticed. Who were sitting with their dates, the Patil twins.

    “It’s your headmaster,” she told him. “He’s been glaring at me ever since we opened the ball.”

    “Ah.” Viktor nodded sharply. “He fears you are, how do you say, using your wiles on me to help your school.” He chuckled. “I told him you were not that kind of girl, but… he is suspicious of everyone.”

    The nerve of the man! She hesitated a moment, then said: “With good reason. He was a Death Eater.”

    “Ah.”

    “It’s a matter of public record,” she went on as they walked towards the buffet for a drink. “He was put on trial in Britain after Voldemort had been defeated.” Technically public, of course - the record had been buried in the Ministry archives. If not for Percy’s help, they would never have been able to read it - he had denounced too many ‘innocent victims of the Imperius Curse’. That it hadn’t been sealed was a small miracle.

    “His past is known, but not spoken of, in Bulgaria,” Viktor said. “Although he is not the only former dark wizard present, is he?”

    Since the Dark Arts were still taught at Durmstrang, Hermione wasn’t entirely certain whether Karkaroff was a former dark wizard. “You mean Professor Snape,” she said. “Dumbledore vouched for him.”

    “Yes. And Dumbledore is friendly towards the Headmaster as well, isn’t he?”

    Hermione nodded. “He is, yes.”

    She didn’t tell Viktor that Dumbledore behaved that way towards pretty much everyone - even people she knew he loathed, such as Lucius Malfoy.

    She wanted to enjoy the Yule Ball, after all.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
    inky, Osserumb, Prince Charon and 4 others like this.
  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 22: The Next Step
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 22: The Next Step

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 24th, 2005

    “Igor Karkaroff?” Dumbledore asked.

    “Yes. The name is different, but they look exactly alike,” Hermione replied. She was looking agitated.

    “Malfoy had a different name as well,” Ron pointed out.

    “Malfoy has a different first name; this is a different last name,” Harry retorted. “Are you sure?”

    “Yes.” She nodded sharply. “I remember that man well - he spent a year at my school. He had issues with me dating one of his students.”

    “And he was Russian? And a teacher?” Dumbledore leaned forward. “Or was that a cover?”

    “He had been involved in my Riddle’s terrorist cell in the seventies but turned crown witness when the police arrested him. That earned him a much-reduced sentence,” Hermione explained. “He later became the headmaster of a school in Eastern Europe and visited Britain during a school tournament meant to foster closer ties between the schools.”

    “Oh? Interesting. So he wasn’t a spy, unlike Kirikov.” The old man frowned. “Unless that was a cover.”

    “He wasn’t a good spy, in any case,” Hermione said with a snort. “He tried to cheat in the school tournament. Unsuccessfully. While accusing me of spying on his pupil to help my Harry win the tournament.”

    “Did he win?” Sirius asked with a grin.

    Ron saw Hermione rolling her eyes “Yes, actually, he did win the tournament,” she said while Harry glared at his godfather. “Not that it mattered - no one cared since there was an attack on the tournament which caused the death of a star student. That was the unofficial start of the war.”

    “I see. And do you know what happened to Karkaroff afterwards?” Dumbledore pushed his glasses up with one finger.

    “He was killed. Probably by the men he had betrayed since it happened after they were broken out of prison.” Hermione pursed her lips. “In theory, he could have managed to fake his death, but I doubt it - the men sent after him were not the sort to make such mistakes.”

    Dumbledore nodded in agreement, but Ron couldn’t tell if the man actually believed it. “In any case, the biographies of both men are distinctly different,” the old man said. “Kirikov wasn’t as prominent and never was a teacher as far as we know. Although I can’t exclude the possibility that he was operating in Britain during the Cold War, which would be a parallel to your Karkaroff, he wasn’t arrested, much less tried.”

    “Another parallel is that he has no scruples and will betray his allies if it benefits him,” Ron pointed out. “Sokolov assumed so, at least.”

    “He might’ve been mistaken,” Dumbledore replied. “Although that’s unlikely - he knew Kirikov very well, after all.”

    “And how well do you know Kirikov?” Harry asked. “Sokolov didn’t even know where the man lived.” Which would have made tracking the man down a lot easier.

    “My files’ coverage of his work for the KGB is quite passable, although there are missing periods - nobody is perfect, after all. Although our intelligence on his activities in the last decade is quite spotty. I expect, however, that this will soon be rectified.” Dumbledore’s polite smile turned a little toothy. “While I have no doubt that Kirikov has amassed a fortune following his retirement from the FIS, I can safely say that it won’t even come close to the resources that the Phoenix Gruppe can bring to bear on this task.”

    “He or one of his old comrades could have a mole in your organisation,” Harry replied.

    Ron nodded. Sokolov hadn’t known of a mole - he hadn’t known Yaxley, either - but Kirikov wouldn’t have told him about his spies. Not if he was, as Sokolov had feared, willing to kill his former partners to protect himself.

    “I’m well aware of that possibility and we’ve taken steps to counter that - or exploit it.” The old man smiled again. “Gellert and I have some experience in this sort of game.”

    More than Ron and Harry had - Ron understood the message perfectly. If Luna were here, she’d certainly point out that for all their experience, they still hadn’t found the suspected mole, but Ron didn’t want to push the man’s buttons like that. “So, we wait until you know more,” he summed up.

    “Precisely.” Dumbledore tilted his head. “Although a little technical assistance from Dr Granger wouldn’t go amiss if the situation calls for it.”

    If his men kidnapped a potential source of intelligence, in other words.

    “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Hermione replied.

    And now Dumbledore knew that they had an ample stock of truth serum.

    “It would be best if we had a few doses on hand - unless you prefer to administer it yourself to every suspect we need to interrogate. But it’s far easier to transport a vial across Europe without drawing attention than a famous woman - or a kidnapped thug.” Dumbledore smiled winningly.

    Ron doubted that the old man would limit its use to suspects related to Kirikov. And he’d have a little more to analyse.

    And Hermione knew it as well. She glanced at Ron, and he smiled back with a subtle nod. They didn’t have any choice - unless Hermione wanted to interrupt her work at any time, for days, and travel in disguise, Dumbledore would get his ‘truth serum’. They could only hope that should he use it on Berisha, he would dismiss the claims of having been shrunken as hallucinations from a shocked, drugged and seriously wounded man.

    “Of course,” Hermione agreed with a thin smile.

    “Splendid!”

    *****​

    “What did Sokolov say?” Luna asked as soon as they returned from the interrogation to the lounge in their quarters.

    Ginny made a point of slowly looking up from her magazine, but Ron had no doubt that she was as curious as Luna. His sister merely didn’t like that she had been excluded from the interrogation. But she was a tennis player, not a trained interrogator - or a witch.

    “Turns out the man behind the attacks on us is Igor Kirikov - the counterpart of Igor Karkaroff,” Harry told them.

    “The terrorist turned teacher?” Ginny asked,

    “Headmaster,” Hermione corrected her. “Though I think he was a teacher as well. We don’t know yet whether he changed his name, or if that’s a quirk like Malfoy. But Kirikov is Karkaroff’s counterpart. I’m certain of it.”

    “He’s an ex-KGB agent,” Ron said. “Now he’s a ‘businessman’ with contacts to organised crime and the FIS. The Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation.”

    “I didn’t think a former KGB spy would be working for the International Ski Federation,” Ginny replied with a glare as Luna giggled.

    Ron wouldn’t consider that improbable - the sports business offered a lot of opportunities for corruption, graft and money laundering. But it wasn’t worth arguing the point - it would only rile up Ginny.

    “Oh! So... when will we go and get him?” Luna asked.

    “We don’t know his location,” Harry replied. “Dumbledore’s men are working on it.”

    “And we can only wait and hope they won’t bungle it,” Sirius said.

    “They didn’t with Sokolov,” Luna pointed out.

    “But they did with Berisha,” Sirius retorted. “And I think Kirikov will be more dangerous.”

    “That is a given,” Hermione said. “He’s got more experience, more power and more contacts than Berisha.”

    “And he’ll have the better home-field advantage - if he’s holed up in Russia,” Harry pointed out.

    Which he probably was, Ron knew. “He’ll have the authorities looking out for him. We won’t be able to simply enter as tourists using fake IDs. Not as a group. And we’ll need far better disguises.”

    “Dumbledore must be feeling nostalgic,” Harry said. “Working against the Russians again, just like old times.”

    Ron wasn’t the only one who chuckled at that. “We can only hope that he hasn’t lost his touch,” he said. Although Dumbledore wouldn’t let Hermione go on such a mission if he suspected he had been fooled, it wasn’t impossible that he would be, anyway - the Russians were good at the spy game, as far as Ron knew.

    “So, are there more counterparts with different names?” Luna asked.

    “I checked for different first names after I heard about Malfoy,” Hermione said. “But now I have to look through several files of suspected allies or contacts of Kirikov to check if I recognise their pictures.”

    Well, at least that meant that they’d get more information as well. This exchange wouldn’t be completely one-sided, then.

    Though, Ron felt, that wasn’t much of a consolation.

    *****​

    She was looking at the ruins again, Ron noticed. And she had that wistful expression on her face that he wasn’t certain he liked. It made her look beautiful - but it also made him remember that she wanted, more than anything else, to return to her own world. Where her Ron lived - probably - and everyone was a wizard.

    It was still closer to the full moon than the new moon, so the ruins were visible despite the lateness of their ‘evening stroll’. And they were far enough away from the laboratory that the odds of someone having planted listening devices here were low.

    “You’ll get home,” he told her, forcing himself to smile as she turned to look at him.

    “Thank you,” she whispered.

    “Just being honest,” he said. “Want to check out the ruins?”

    She drew a deep breath, biting her lower lip. “It’s not Hogwarts.” After a moment, she added: “It’s too small. Hogwarts is a huge castle and covers most of this side of the lake.”

    “And there’s no laboratory.”

    She chuckled. “No, there isn’t. But there’s a small pier near that spot, where the first-years arrive by boat.”

    “Ah.” She had mentioned that before. And a giant squid. “Must have been nice to have a lake so close. Our school - mine and Harry’s - didn’t have that. If we wanted to swim, we had to go to the dinky pool in town.”

    “We didn’t often swim, either,” she said.

    Probably because of all the monsters in the lake, Ron thought. And wizards might not need to learn to swim. He stepped closer to her and smiled when he felt her arm wrap around his waist. “Say… is there any chance that Kirikov might be Karkaroff? Transported to this world by accident?” And presumed dead, like Hermione probably was.

    She shook her head. “No. The odds of such a thing happening twice, and linked to the same world… No. And if he were, I doubt that he could have taken over Kirikov’s identity and fooled the Russian intelligence services. Or wanted to. And he would have moved against me long ago. He would have known about me, after all, after my arrival.”

    He nodded. That was good reasoning. “But we still don’t know why he is coming after you.”

    “Dumbledore thinks he knows I’m not the original Hermione. That seems to be the most plausible explanation. As to how he knows...” She shrugged.

    “We’ll find out,” Ron told her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.

    He had some suspicions. And he knew Harry, and probably Hermione, shared them.

    There weren’t many reasons why someone would kidnap a child, after all. And fewer reasons why a former KGB agent would know about it, or be involved in it.

    And all of them were awful.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, August 28th, 2005

    Halfway through ‘The Vor Game’, Ron closed the book and rubbed the bridge of his nose with a sigh. As much as he loved the series, by this point he knew the plot by heart. Which tended to ruin the experience of re-reading the novel.

    “I thought it was supposed to be a great novel. Wasn’t that what you told me?”

    He looked up to see Hermione grinning at him from behind her desk. “It is. I’ve just read it a little too often, so all the details come back easily once I start re-reading it.” He snorted. “Besides, you loved ‘Shards of Honour’ and ‘Barrayar’.”

    “Guilty as charged,” she admitted, her grin growing wider.

    He huffed as he shook his head. “Anyway, you can have it now,” he told her, holding the novel up.

    “Finally!” She stood and walked over towards his ‘guard spot’ - to which they had added a bench and a small shelf of books over the last few days. After Dumbledore’s men had finally started to deliver decent novels. Now if only they’d be able to track down new great novels… or, the holy grail, great fantasy and science fiction movies for the lounge.

    She didn’t quite rip the book out of his hand, but only because he let go at once, or so he thought. “I still wonder how you found the time to read three books in three days,” he said, scooting over a little on the small bench so she’d be able to sit down as well.

    She didn’t sit down, though. She hesitated. But before he could ask what was wrong, she sat down in his lap, almost unbalancing him as he had to quickly adjust to her weight on his thighs. “Most of what I’m doing now is running simulations and then testing them. Which means that I’m often waiting for the computer to finish processing with nothing else to do,” she explained.

    “Really?” He didn’t quite believe her. She was usually good at finding more tasks to keep busy. Driven.

    “Yes, really,” she replied with a frown that turned into a pout. “I’ve done all the note-taking I need for this batch of simulations.”

    “So you could’ve joined us in the woods?” he asked, raising his eyebrows at her.

    She blushed a little but didn’t reply. Instead, she flipped the novel around and read the text on the back of the cover.

    “Aha!” he said, grinning now.

    “I’m still doing the runs,” she defended herself. “But the breaks between experiments aren’t that long. Not long enough that I could take part in your exercises. Long enough to read a few chapters, at most.”

    “Too bad,” he replied. “The exercises are useful.” And could be crucial, he thought.

    She shrugged. “My work here’s more important.” Glancing at him, she added: “And, apparently, the exercises aren’t important enough for you to take part in them instead of reading, either.”

    That was definitely a smirk there. He snorted in response. “Harry’s running them through an obstacle course. He doesn’t need me for that.” And, he left unsaid but understood, the course had taken some time to prepare, long enough that anyone could have placed surveillance around it.

    “Ah.” She nodded. “Well, I appreciate the company.”

    “Even after I surrendered the next book in the series?” he asked, smiling to show that he wasn’t serious.

    “Yes,” she said, rather emphatically. “It does get a little lonely in the lab.”

    Of course it would feel lonely without anyone who knew the truth behind her experiments. Without anyone who knew the truth about her. Who could be trusted. And she had spent years doing that. Living like that.

    He didn’t say anything, though - he just wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her a little closer.

    And wished that he didn’t have to let go of her ever again.

    Of course, not even ten seconds later, her computer beeped.

    “Oh!” She jumped up. “The calculations are done! Time to check them experimentally!”

    Before he could say anything, she was at her desk, typing up a storm.

    He wandered over - she didn’t seem to notice - and peered at the screen, then shook his head - he couldn’t make heads or tails of the data there.

    “...and then reduce the intensity here… yes… and tweak this gauge a little…” he heard her mumble while she took notes for her log. “Battery’s charged, the cage’s ready… Here we go!”

    She pushed a key, and Ron heard the now familiar whine as the generators started up. A moment later, the quantum mirror began to blink as small sparks were produced on its surface - as usual.

    Wait! No, there were no sparks on the cage’s surface - something had appeared in the centre of the cage. In mid-air. Something that shone brightly.

    Bloody hell!

    But the light winked out a moment later, leaving the cage empty and powered down. “Well…” he started to say.

    “Oh my God! A proto-reaction!” Hermione interrupted him with a gasp, her eyes wide open. “And it lasted long enough to be visible!” She started typing like a maniac, windows popping open on her screens only to be closed after a second or two - barely long enough to catch the rows of numbers or graphs on display. “This… Oh, I didn’t expect that. Not so soon. Or so… Oh! Of course!”

    Ron opened his mouth to ask what exactly had happened but refrained from disturbing her and settled for leaning against the wall and simply watching her work. And smiled when she managed to leave a smudge on her cheek when she distractedly scratched herself with a pen.

    After about a quarter of an hour, she took a deep breath and leaned back from the keyboard.

    “Done?” he asked.

    “Done? No, of course not. I just started the next batch of simulations!” she exclaimed, turning towards him. And pouted when she saw him grin at her. “And you knew that.”

    “Guilty as charged,” he replied.

    She snorted at that, then beamed at him. “But this is a breakthrough. A proto-reaction formed! And it was almost stable, too!”

    “A proto-reaction?” He tilted his head.

    “It’s the first step to a dimensional rift. Unguided and uncontrolled - apart from requiring a constant supply of power - but it proves that my theory is accurate!” She jumped up and hugged him. “Now all that’s left is to control the reaction, amplify it by a few orders of magnitude, aim and focus it and synchronise it so it connects to my home dimension!”

    “And that’s all that’s left?” he asked.

    “Well, yes.” She pulled back and nodded at him. “It won’t be easy, of course, and will require a lot of work, but it’s like…” She scrunched her nose. “It’s a breakthrough. Not literally - no dimension was breached - but scientifically.”

    “Ah.” But theoretical breakthroughs usually took years to be turned into workable technologies. “And how long will it take to achieve that?”

    She blinked, then her eyes unfocused while she mumbled something under her breath that he didn’t catch. “Well, still a few months at the earliest. That’s an estimate - this sort of progress cannot be easily predicted, after all.”

    “Unless you have a talent for Divination?”

    She snorted at that.

    He smiled at her, though as happy he was for her success, a part of him didn’t feel like cheering. A few more months, perhaps even less, and she would return to her home world. And to the other Ron.

    *****​

    “...so you can open mini-portals now?” Luna asked as she refilled her plate at dinner.

    “No. I can now build a tool that, with some refinement, will allow me to open a portal,” Hermione replied.

    “Oh.” Luna looked disappointed. “Being able to open portals would have made kidnapping Kirikov an easy task. Just open a portal behind him, grab him and close it before anyone notices anything!”

    “That’s not how it works - the portal opens to another dimension, not to another location.” Hermione shook her head, her messy ponytail swinging. “It needs to be anchored on both ends, too, and that isn’t possible anywhere but at specific locations.”

    “And this is one such location,” Ginny said.

    “Yes. The dimensions are ‘closer’ here, in a way.” She shrugged as if she didn’t have any idea why this was the case. But she had told Ron her hypothesis - that a constant, powerful presence of magic in one location would affect the entire area, even ‘leaking’ towards parallel dimensions. It sounded plausible to him - but he had no idea about magic; he was no wizard, after all. And at the end of the day, all that mattered was that the portal would open.

    “Well, how large will the portal be?” Sirius asked.

    “Not large enough to drive a tank through,” Hermione said in a flat voice.

    “What about a tiny tank?” Sirius beamed at her and moved his hands slowly together as if they were compressing something.

    Ron couldn’t tell if the other man was serious or merely joking. But Hermione was annoyed anyway. And Ron wasn’t happy either - Sirius wasn’t as subtle as he thought he was. Ron doubted that Dumbledore would simply dismiss this as a silly joke.

    “Well, if the portal is too small then we can send my drone through,” Luna proposed. “As a scout.”

    Hermione shook her head. “I fear that it wouldn’t work well on the other side. Too much interference.”

    “Aw.”

    “But we can take it with us when we’re scouting around,” Ron said. That would allow them to take a look at an area before risking themselves.

    “Oh, good! I can’t wait to see the other world!”

    Ah. She was afraid of being left behind, Ron realised.

    “We’ll need to determine whether it’s safe, first, though,” Hermione told her.

    “It’s better to lose a drone than a friend,” Luna replied.

    Well, she was correct, Ron had to admit. But he loathed the idea of Luna or Ginny risking their lives. No matter how hypocritical that was.

    Yet he didn’t think they’d be able to keep the others from going with them. And leaving them with Dumbledore and Grindelwald might not be much safer, anyway.

    Which reminded him that the closer Hermione came to finishing her work, the closer they were to having explain magic to Dumbledore. He really wasn’t looking forward to that.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, September 19th, 2005

    “Where’s the cake?” Ron heard Ginny ask loudly as he entered the lounge.

    “It’s still in the oven. Mum’s recipe calls for sixty-five minutes. It’s still twenty short.”

    “What? Luna, dinner starts in ten minutes!”

    “Yes. But it’ll be at least half an hour after that before we get to eat pudding!”

    “And what if it burns while we eat dinner?”

    “The cooks won’t let that happen. And I set the alarm clock on the oven - and my own alarm clock, in case the one on the oven malfunctions.” Luna nodded several times in that familiar manner of hers. “So don’t fret - everything will be fine.”

    Ginny huffed but didn’t contest the point. Instead, she turned to glare at Ron. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to keep her busy until everything’s ready for our surprise!”

    “She’s taking a shower,” he told her. Well, she’d probably finished by now. “And she’ll be here on time. You know her.” Hermione was never tardy if she could help it.

    “Or she’ll be here too early!” Ginny complained. “Come on! Don’t stand around being useless! Help Harry set the table!”

    Sometimes, it was very obvious that Ginny was Mum’s daughter. Not that Ron would say so - that would only start an argument. As would trying to explain that Hermione wouldn’t be too early, either - it wasn’t as if she wouldn’t guess that they were doing this. Not after Ginny’s birthday party. He was grinning as he joined Harry at the table, which was now covered with a white tablecloth.

    His friend smiled wryly at him and handed him the cutlery. “Just go along with her,” he whispered.

    Ron snorted. As if he needed to be told that - he had grown up with her, after all. He knew how to handle her - usually, at least. Ginny had been going a little stir-crazy lately, what with being practically confined to the laboratory and lake for weeks. She had leapt into organising Hermione’s birthday party with a drive that would have impressed - and pleased - Mum.

    “Sirius! The decorations are crooked!”

    “They’re supposed to be that way!”

    “No, they aren’t!”

    “Yes, they are!”

    And she hadn’t been the only one. Luna hadn’t offered to bake a cake using her mother’s recipe - she had stated that she’d be doing so, and in a tone that brooked no objection.

    And Sirius… Ron sighed as he took a stack of small plates to distribute. Sirius would have probably done worse than Luna and Ginny if he hadn’t had his poker nights with the staff, but he wasn’t exactly doing well.

    “And I still say we should have gotten a miniature tank as a gag gift.”

    Case in point. Ron snorted. Hermione would’ve probably managed to use accidental magic to turn Sirius into a tank if he had done this - everyone was heartily sick of Sirius’s plans for a tank.

    Now, a flying invisible sports car, on the other hand…

    Meanwhile, Ginny had finished fixing the crooked decorations and turned back to inspect the table. She rearranged a few teaspoons, but, apparently, didn’t find anything else that needed fixing.

    And then Ron heard the door opening in the hallway behind him, and Ginny gasped. “Alright, everyone - line up here!”

    “And get ready to sing!” Luna said.

    “No, the singing comes right before the cake!” Ginny snapped.

    Another of Mum’s rules, Ron thought with a smile.

    Luna was pouting but lined up with the rest of them, and she was beaming again when Hermione entered the lounge. “Happy birthday, Hermione!” everyone announced.

    Hermione’s smile wavered between pleased and almost shy before settling on happy. “Thank you, everyone.”

    “I made a cake - well, I’m still making it; it’s in the oven - but we let the cooks cook the meal,” Luna told her. “I hope that’s OK.”

    “We picked the menu, though,” Ginny explained. “Your favourites, according to Ron,” she added with a glance at him.

    “And we got you gifts, of course!” Sirius said, pointing at the small side table in the corner.

    “Thank you!” Hermione repeated herself. She sniffled once, even, before she started hugging everyone.

    Ron wondered, briefly, if she’d have started crying if she hadn’t expected something like this - she had been under a lot of stress herself, mostly self-inflicted in his opinion, as she’d struggled to refine her experiments.

    He snorted as she embraced him. This wasn’t the time to dwell on her work. This was the time to celebrate her birthday and to forget their problems for a while.

    *****​

    “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Hermione, happy birthday to you!”

    Luna sang more loudly than everyone else put together, but Ron had expected that. And since she was carrying the cake into the lounge, it evened out. Sort of.

    “Here! My mum’s secret recipe - Lovegood Cake!” Luna announced as she set the cake down on the table, its candles now the only source of light in the room. “Now make a wish and blow out all the candles!”

    “Alright,” Hermione replied, stepping a little closer to the cake. Ron saw her checking her hair for any stray strands that might have escaped her ponytail before she bent down. After a moment’s hesitation, she inhaled and then blew at the candles. She managed to extinguish the last candle with a slight effort, then straightened and smiled at everyone. “Thank you.”

    “What did you wish for?” Ginny asked.

    Before Hermione could answer, though, Luna piped up: “Cut the cake! It’s time for pudding!”

    Laughing, Hermione grabbed the knife Luna was waving in her direction and started to cut the cake, then blinked at the sight of vanilla and caramel pouring out as soon as she pulled a slice away.

    “My counterpart never made a Lovegood cake for you?” Luna asked, pouting.

    “Actually, no,” Hermione said. “I think they had different family traditions.”

    “Oh.” Luna frowned, then perked up. “So this is new for you! Dig in! I’ll cut the rest!”

    Dividing the cake involved not as much cutting as spooning up the mixed sauces, but, again, Ron had expected that.

    “Mhhh.” Hermione closed her eyes, savouring the taste. “This is excellent!”

    “Yes!” Luna agreed, barely intelligibly since she had stuffed her mouth with cake.

    “And enough calories to keep a soldier fed for a day,” Sirius added with a slightly nasty grin.

    Ginny scoffed at him. “You just want to scare us off from having seconds so there’s more left for you.”

    “What? Perish the thought! I was merely complimenting the cake!”

    No one believed him, of course. Ron shook his head at the transparent excuse. And smiled at the levity it spawned - all of them needed a good laugh.

    “So… what did you wish for?” he asked Hermione as Sirius and Ginny dragged Harry into their silly argument and Luna sneaked another slice for herself.

    “That all of my friends were and stayed safe,” she replied.

    Oh? He cocked his head at her. “Not speedy success in your work?”

    She shook her head. “No. I know I’ll succeed sooner or later.”

    But she didn’t know how her friends in her home dimension were doing. Or how the hunt for Kirikov would end. He nodded. “So… is wishing while blowing out candles on a cake a special tradition in your Britain as well?”

    “Just a custom. Nothing special,” she replied after a moment.

    So her wish wouldn’t magically come true. Too bad - not that he had really expected such a thing. On the other hand, Hermione’s home world, or at least Wizarding Britain, had some really odd parts. If owls delivered letters and snakes had a magical language, why couldn’t cakes be magical as well? He laughed at his own foolish thoughts.

    “What’s so funny?” she asked with a slight frown.

    Mentioning magic wouldn’t be a good idea so he said: “I was thinking about weaponising cakes.”

    She chuckled at that. “Like rock cakes that are as hard as rocks, thrown at the enemy?”

    “Or giant cakes that drop barrels of sticky caramel sauce on the enemy and get them stuck,” he added before he saw that she seemed to be sad. Had he made her remember another tragedy? “Hey! It’s your birthday! No moping around!”

    After a moment, she nodded, smiling - though it felt a little forced, still. “Do you know that this is the largest birthday party I’ve had in years?” she said.

    That was sad to hear, even though he should have expected it - she hadn’t wanted to make friends, after all. Not when she was planning to leave this world. So it had probably been just herself and the Grangers. Her counterpart’s parents. Whom she planned to leave as well, once her work was done. Damn.

    Once more, Luna and Sirius came to the rescue. “And now, the presents!” Sirius announced.

    “Yes!” Luna replied, dashing out of the lounge again, towards her room. Half a minute later, she returned with her arms full of packages. She almost dropped one but managed to catch it between her chin and another package before she dumped the whole lot on the table. Ron saw Ginny pick up a package and wipe some caramel-chocolate mix off the underside, but the rest seemed to have avoided a sticky landing.

    “Open them!” Luna demanded, beaming widely at Hermione.

    Smiling, she stepped up and started unwrapping her presents - methodically and carefully, Ron noted; she didn’t tear the wrapping paper off like Luna would have. Or most members of his family.

    By chance, she opened Ron’s present first. “Oh, Lord of the Rings, box set?”

    “A classic,” he told her.

    She leaned over and kissed him. “Thank you!”

    More books were unpacked - it wasn’t as if anyone who knew her would think of buying anything else for Hermione.

    Even Luna had bought her a book, although it was a wartime rationing recipe book. As Luna explained with a sad expression: “I didn’t manage to find a book that involves cooking with MREs. This was the closest I discovered. Sorry.”

    “Oh, Luna…”

    Hermione hugged her. “Thank you!”

    Ron had just started collecting the wrapping paper that Hermione had dropped to hug Luna when someone knocked on the door. Without thinking, he moved between it and Hermione while Harry moved closer to the door - though not directly in front of it.

    “Yes?” his friend called out, over Ginny’s muttered: “It’s a private party!”

    “May I come in? I have news.”

    Dumbledore. And important news?

    “Of course,” Harry replied.

    “Thank you,” the old man said as he opened the door. “It’s very gracious of you to receive me while you celebrate Dr Granger’s birthday.”

    Ron almost snorted - they were his guests, not the other way around.

    “Since you’re here, would you like some cake?” Luna said.

    “I’d love some,” Dumbledore replied. “Thank you.”

    While Luna scraped together a slice - or something like it; the cake had suffered a little between Sirius’s attempts to get another serving and Ginny’s resolute defence of it - Ron moved the chairs a little to make room for their ‘guest’.

    “Oh… delicious!” Dumbledore beamed at Luna after his first taste. “Just the right amount of sweetness. A family recipe?”

    “Yes.” Luna didn’t preen, of course, but she still looked pleased.

    Hermione, on the other hand, looked impatient. Not that she would be as rude as to press Dumbledore for his news, though. Ron didn’t think so.

    But Ron was tempted to, as they waited while Dumbledore finished his slice of cake. Something the old man was aware of, Ron was sure.

    “Ah…” The former spy beamed at them when he finally pushed the empty plate away. “Thank you for bearing with me, and for sharing this excellent cake. Gellert thinks I should cut back on the sugar, so dessert has become a rare occasion for us.”

    “No pudding?” Luna sounded horrified.

    “Well…” The old man flashed a grin at them. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

    Ron snorted. As if Grindelwald wouldn’t expect that.

    Dumbledore sighed. “But enough wool-gathering, I think. I do have important news to tell you, after all.”

    “You’ve found Kirikov,” Harry said.

    “Acquaintances of mine have discovered a location that is thought to be one of his favourite homes, so to speak.” The old man tilted his head. “And while I trust their work, one cannot, ever, be certain in this sort of business.”

    “But you’re sure enough to tell us, and to send us there.” Ron stared at Dumbledore, and the other man nodded.

    “Indeed.” Dumbledore nodded. “I consider the information actionable. I would have sent out agents based on less during my time in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government.”

    “And where is this possible hideout of Kirikov’s?” Sirius asked.

    “In a small village on the shores of the Black Sea, east of the Crimean Peninsula.”

    “Oh, good. I haven’t been in a landing operation since the Falklands,” Sirius said, “but you never forget the essentials.”

    “I don’t think we’ll invade Russia,” Harry said, which Dumbledore apparently found funny enough to chuckle at.

    “It wouldn’t be an invasion, of course. But I have to admit that insertion by sea might be a valid option in this case.”

    Seriously? Ron stared at the old man. He thought they’d swim to the shore, like commandos?

    “Does that mean you have a submarine for us?” Luna asked.

    “I’m afraid that as a civilian, I can’t call on the Royal Navy any more,” Dumbledore answered, “but I can arrange a yacht and scuba gear.”

    Ron shook his head and was about to comment when he noticed Hermione had grown tense and was staring at the wall. Oh - she didn’t like diving, did she? Not since that wizard tournament, or so she had told him.

    *****​

    She came to in the middle of the lake. No, she realised a moment later, when a harpoon bounced off of a Shield Charm near her, in the middle of a battle. Viktor’s Shield Charm. “What’s going on?” she yelled, drawing her wand. Or trying to - she wasn’t wearing her robes, she realised with a shock. They had changed her clothes after sending her to sleep! She hadn’t agreed to that!

    “The merpeople haff gone crazy!” Viktor yelled back, his wand moving to recast a Shield Charm.

    What? But… the merpeople were supposed to look after the champions and the hostages, to keep them safe! Dumbledore had arranged that! “This…” No. This was sabotage. Another attempt on Harry! And Ron!

    “They’re behind us,” Viktor replied. With one arm around her, he couldn’t swim fast.

    She must have yelled their names out loud. “We need to get out of the water!”

    “I’m trying,” Viktor replied, wand flashing as he sent a curse into the depths below them - where the merpeople were attacking, she realised.

    She needed a wand. How could they have taken her wand?

    A wave suddenly rose in front of them, then crashed down on them. Hermione held on to Viktor’s arm with all the strength she could muster. If she got separated from him, she’d be dead. Drowned or stabbed. She was helpless without her wand!

    They broke the surface again, coughing and sputtering. Viktor cried out - he was hurt. A harpoon had hit his leg! He was bleeding. And more merpeople were coming at them - she could see their bodies moving in the depths.

    No. No.

    Suddenly, the merpeople broke off and disappeared. And she heard a screeching sound. Very similar to the sound from the golden egg Harry had won in the first task. Just… fainter. And from the water...

    Oh. She turned her head and saw that Dumbledore was on a broom, a hundred yards behind them.

    “He must have used sound to drive them away,” she said. The Headmaster spoke Mermish, so he was familiar with them.

    “As long as they stay gone until we are back on land,” Viktor yelled, “I don’t care how he did it.”

    But she wasn’t really listening to him any more. There, near Dumbledore, were Harry and Ron. Safe.

    *****​
     
    inky, RedX, Osserumb and 1 other person like this.
  26. Threadmarks: Chapter 23: The Insertion
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 23: The Insertion

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, September 19th, 2005

    “Scuba gear?” Sirius shook his head. “Who do you think we are, the Special Boat Service? Scuba-diving, at night, from the open sea to an unfamiliar shore? That’s too dangerous.”

    “I wouldn’t expect you to make the dive yourself - you’d only be using the gear while being towed by underwater sledges operated by experts,” Dumbledore replied.

    “I don’t like diving,” Hermione said. She looked very tense, and even Ron reaching out and squeezing her hand didn’t seem to help.

    “Oh?” Dumbledore looked at her.

    “I had a very bad experience during school,” she told him.

    “Does that extend to swimming as well?”

    “No.”

    “But using scuba gear is still too dangerous,” Sirius cut in again. “A friend of mine was in the Special Boat Service, back when it was the Special Boat Squadron. We would need to spend weeks training for this.”

    “I had anticipated about a week of training, but I concede the point.” Dumbledore smiled. “I fear I’ve been a little too optimistic in estimating your capabilities.”

    “We could do it,” Harry said at once. “But it’s not worth the risk of something going wrong.”

    “Of course,” Dumbledore replied. “Although I don’t think that there are many alternatives. The former USSR remains, despite the end of the Cold War, a dangerous territory for clandestine operations. Following their internal troubles with separatists and terrorists, they have increased their domestic security, and I think we have to assume that Kirikov will have contacts among the security services in the area. I do not think a group of British tourists will escape attention. Certainly not should he be aware of Sokolov’s disappearance.”

    “Sokolov was hiding from him,” Hermione pointed out. “And his disappearance hasn’t yet been noticed by the Swiss authorities.”

    “Indeed. But, by now, Sokolov’s former bodyguards will have started looking for new employment - and some of them might even decide that selling their knowledge about their former employer’s disappearance is worth the risk of contacting Kirikov. Short-sighted, but that is a common flaw of many in that business,” Dumbledore explained.

    “And we can’t pass for locals,” Ron said. Perhaps Americans, but they would still stick out.

    “We could split up,” Luna suggested. “Disguise ourselves as couples, for example, and travel separately.”

    “That wouldn’t have fooled my old opponents in the KGB, and I doubt that their successors have lost their touch,” Dumbledore replied. “And I don’t think that Kirikov lacks contacts in the FSB, either - many of his former co-workers in the KGB will have risen through the ranks of that agency.”

    “Swell,” Ron said. “So posing as tourists is too dangerous as well. What does that leave?”

    “Insertion by air?” Luna asked.

    Ron knew that she didn’t mean parachuting out of a plane. He glanced at Hermione. She shook her head. “I don’t think that that would work.”

    “Aw.” Luna pouted. But the distance was too great for an RC helicopter.

    “Even experienced parachutists are prone to accidents under such conditions,” Dumbledore pointed out - not that anyone wanted to drop out of the sky.

    “That leaves boats,” Sirius said. “Zodiacs would be hard to see, nearly invisible under the right conditions - and much safer than scuba diving.”

    “Not entirely safe, though.”

    “Far safer than the alternatives.” Sirius shrugged. “And easier to learn to use, too, in case you don’t have expert boatmen on hand.”

    “Indeed,” the old man conceded the point. “And my preliminary plans will only require slight adjustments.”

    Ron looked at Hermione again - she had been rather uncharacteristically silent during the discussion. And though she seemed to be recovering, she was still tenser than usual, too.

    *****​

    “So… are you alright with the plan?” he asked half an hour later after Dumbledore had left and the party had officially ended, with everyone heading to their rooms. Or Hermione’s room, in Ron’s case.

    She sighed and sat down on her bed. Their bed, probably, by now. “Yes.” He frowned, a little, and she added, sighing: “It’s not the insertion by boat. I’m fine with boats. It’s just… Berisha was bad. We almost died. This is going to be more dangerous. We’re not going to have a support team on hand.”

    “We didn’t have a support team in Switzerland, either.”

    “But we weren’t facing a small army and corrupt authorities there,” she retorted. “In Russia, we’ll be completely on our own.”

    “Dumbledore will have people on a ship out at sea.”

    “They won’t be able to intervene quickly, or in significant force,” she said. “And he’ll be on his guard. Even if he doesn’t know about Sokolov’s disappearance, he knows about Berisha.”

    “You’re right,” he conceded the point. “But we don’t exactly have a choice, do we?”

    “We could stay here until I finish my work,” she said. “And with the resources from my home world, we could get to Kirikov without much danger.”

    Her wand. Possibly allies, too. “And what if your side lost the war?” he asked. They would have to deal with both the ‘Death Eaters’ and Kirikov’s men, in that case. And Dumbledore might demand his reward before he supported them against Kirikov.

    She pressed her lips together and didn’t answer. Which was answer enough.

    *****​

    Off Marina Dinevi, Bulgaria, September 21st, 2005

    Well, Dumbledore certainly hadn’t skimped on this mission, Ron thought as he stepped out on to the deck of the yacht that the old spymaster had provided for them. She was large, fast and sported some of the latest equipment available on the market, as well as some additions that would be best kept hidden from any authorities. If Luna hadn’t found out that this particular type of yacht hadn’t been designed until the middle of the nineties, Ron would have thought that Dumbledore had taken a ship built for MI6 with him when he quit the service.

    Almost as important as the secret gear on the ship was the fact that while she wasn’t quite an ocean-going yacht, she’d handle the Black Sea just fine. Which was a good thing since they’d be making their way across that sea soon enough - once they had established their cover here in Bulgaria and finished their training for the mission.

    Leaning against the railing and watching Bulgaria’s coast in the distance, he sighed. He wasn’t entirely on board with this mission.

    “Something wrong?”

    That was Harry coming towards him. Ron was obviously not paying enough attention to his surroundings since he hadn’t noticed his friend before Harry had spoken up. He looked around.

    “The others are below deck, getting ready for the trip to the port.”

    And his subtlety was lacking as well. Ron sighed again. “I’m just…” He shrugged. “I don’t really like this mission. We’re not ready for this.”

    “That’s why we’re training,” Harry replied, looking around as well. “But I know what you mean.”

    Ron nodded. “Six against a small army, if things are as bad as with Berisha. Or worse.” And two of the six had no business being here at all, in his opinion. “It’s too dangerous.”

    “For us, or for the girls?” Harry asked.

    “Don’t let Ginny catch you calling her a ‘girl’,” Ron said.

    “I won’t.” Harry chuckled. “Though she calls me ‘boy’ often enough.”

    “When she’s mad at you.”

    Harry nodded. His friend hadn’t forgotten about his question, though, Ron knew. Sighing once more, he said: “Ginny and Luna shouldn’t be on this mission.”

    “Luna’s the best amongst us at handling computers and electronics,” Harry pointed out. “And she can pilot the drones.”

    Ron pressed his lips together. He knew that. But Luna was, for all her involvement in illegal activities such as hacking, still innocent in many ways. Especially when it came to violence. “And Ginny’s a decent driver?”

    Now it was Harry’s turn to frown. “You know how she is.”

    “Too stubborn for her own good.” And too stubborn for Harry. They had had this particular talk before.

    “At least if she’s driving, she won’t be shooting,” Harry said.

    Ron nodded, even though that was a small consolation. The girls could still get shot at. “Well…” he began, but Harry cut him off.

    “They’re coming.”

    Ah. Ron nodded and forced himself to smile. It wouldn’t do to start the evening on a low note.

    Luna, unsurprisingly, was the first to step on deck, wearing a blue sundress and a wide smile. “Ah, there you are.” She scrunched her nose as she looked Harry and Ron over. “Well, you look boring, but I guess that’s acceptable. We are undercover, after all.”

    Ginny, following behind Luna, laughed as she went and hugged Harry. “Well, we know they aren’t boring.” She was wearing a tank top and jeans - both black, matching Harry’s shirt and slacks, Ron noticed.

    Hermione, on the other hand, who, together with Sirius, appeared on the top of the stairs behind them, wore capris and a blouse. They fit her well, in Ron’s opinion. Mary Janes, too - sensible shoes in case they had to run. Ginny and Luna’s sandals barely qualified, but at least they weren’t wearing high heels.

    He snorted - some of Ginny’s stiletto heels might have threatened to puncture the zodiac that would be taking them to port.

    “Well, let’s go - I’m a mite hungry,” Sirius said. “And we’ve got reservations at nine.”

    In the best restaurant in the Marina, of course. Even undercover, Sirius preferred to live in style. On the other hand, anyone who had the money to rent a yacht like this one wouldn’t skimp on food during their vacation.

    “Let’s go!” Harry echoed his godfather.

    They moved to the back, where the zodiac was gently swinging from its mount. Harry waved back the two crew members - Jack and Karl - who were about to lower it. “Let us do it,” he told them. “It’ll count as training.”

    “Of course, sir. Does that mean you won’t require a pilot, either?”

    “We’ll pilot the zodiac ourselves, but we’ll need one of you with us anyway, to keep an eye on it in port, Jack,” Ron replied.

    “As you wish.” Jack nodded. He was smiling, and it seemed honest to Ron. The staff probably had been planning to stock up on a few perishables and snacks in port, he imagined, and that plan would have been ruined if the group had disembarked without one of them.

    “Alright, let’s do it like we trained: Slowly and carefully!” Harry ordered.

    They tried. But while none of them fell in the water, it wasn’t exactly a smooth operation. They would have to train some more, all of them. As Sirius was fond of saying, they weren’t the Special Boat Service. Or the Royal Navy. At least for the actual mission, the crew could lower the zodiac for them, so they could focus on piloting the thing.

    Which, currently, Ginny was doing. And not doing a bad job of it, Ron had to admit.

    “Have you ever been to Bulgaria?” Ron asked Hermione a few minutes later, after they had made landfall in the port.

    “Yes. When I was still at school.”

    “Oh?” He hadn’t heard about that.

    “Yes. I visited a friend here.”

    A friend? Bulgarian? “Oh. Your date at that ball? Viktor?” She had mentioned him, hadn’t she?

    “Yes. Viktor Krum.”

    “Viktor Krum? Liverpool’s striker?” She hadn’t mentioned his last name.

    “Well, he’s a striker here. Back home, he’s a famous Seeker,” she replied.

    “Ah.” Swell. She had dated the counterpart of one of the best-paid football players in the Premier League. Who was also a wizard.

    At least this Krum didn’t know her. And was unlikely to be in the Marina.

    *****​

    Off the Bulgarian Coast, Black Sea, September 22nd, 2005

    “I think a landing at Kirikov’s private beach isn’t a good idea,” Luna told them, nodding in a sage manner. “He’s bound to have the entire area under surveillance.” She pointed at a picture on the table. “It’s a pity - it’s the best spot on the coast there.”

    “So…” Sirius leaned forward, putting his drink down next to an enlarged aerial picture of the area. “...that leaves the coast east or west of his compound.”

    “East,” Harry said. “Otherwise, we’ll have to go through or around the village to the west to reach Kirikov’s house.”

    “And the residents and tourists in the village might use the nearby beaches even at night,” Ginny pointed out. “For beach parties or some midnight swimming.”

    “They might use the more secluded beaches to the east as well,” Harry told her.

    “It’s possible, but not as likely. It’s quite a distance from the village, and they’d have to go around Kirikov’s villa,” Ginny retorted.

    The two stared at each other for a moment, then Harry sighed, conceding the point as Ginny grinned. “We’ll have to check for witnesses before landing,” he said.

    “I can do that with a drone!” Luna replied. “Anyone around will show up on the thermographic cameras. Though if there are people on the beach, what do we do?”

    It was a good question, of course. And it was a good planning session, too - Dumbledore had provided them with good intel about their target. Although the fact that they were doing this in the middle of the day, on the deck of the yacht, with everyone dressed for sunbathing and swimming, was more than a bit distracting, in Ron’s opinion. Even Hermione was wearing a bikini - and Ron didn’t completely believe her claims that it was to make them look like harmless tourists.

    He shook his head and focused on the question. “We’ll have to find an alternate landing site in that case.” There was no way to deal with witnesses. Nothing that was both morally acceptable and safe enough, at least. “There are a number of possible locations,” he pointed out. “Though we’ll have to examine them in detail, first.” Which meant having Dumbledore provide them with more intel.

    “And we might have to cover Kirikov’s private beach, too,” Sirius added. “If only to prevent him from escaping in a speedboat or something.”

    That was true. But there weren’t enough of them to both cover the beach and enter the villa. “We’ll need help,” Ron said.

    “The yacht can’t get close enough to the shore to cut off an escape attempt,” Sirius replied. “Not without being detected and revealed as a threat. They’ll have to use a second zodiac.”

    “Those aren’t very fast, though,” Ginny pointed out.

    That wouldn’t really matter, as long as the zodiac was fast enough to get within weapons range before the hypothetical boat managed to leave the area. As long as they didn’t kill Kirikov by mistake, they could do whatever was needed to stop him.

    “I don’t see any boats in the compound,” Hermione said, tapping two pictures showing the entire beach from the air, “but I wouldn’t put it past Kirikov to hide them to surprise an attacker.”

    “Of course he’d do that!” Luna piped up. “We might even plan for that and fake an attack on the villa so he’ll flee over water.”

    Ron shook his head. “I don’t think we can bring enough firepower to bear to convince him that he can’t hold out until the police arrive.”

    “He’s not a normal criminal - he’s got the authorities in his pocket,” Harry added. “But we could search for any hidden boats once we are in the compound before we sneak into his house.”

    “And sabotage them!” Ginny said. “Leave him stranded and defenceless on the open sea!”

    “That seems a little optimistic,” Hermione told her. “I think it’d be best not to make overly complicated plans.”

    “Keep it simple, stupid,” Sirius agreed. “Yes, I think so as well. Disable his escape vehicles, then sneak in and grab him.”

    “We could take one of his boats to get away,” Luna suggested.

    “They’ll probably have a locator beacon installed somewhere,” Ron told her.

    She pouted. “And we won’t have enough time to find and deal with it?”

    “I don’t think so,” Harry said.

    “Plan for the worst,” Hermione added.

    “That would be the Russian military holding a combined arms exercise in the region,” Sirius said. “Do we have torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles? Enough of them to beat the Russians?”

    It was a joke, but Hermione had to answer the question anyway: “I don’t think we can withstand the Russian military no matter how many missiles we might have available. But we don’t have to fight them, anyway - we can simply wait until they’re finished.”

    “Right,” Ron agreed - even though he didn’t think anyone apart from, possibly, Luna, would deal well with having to wait a few weeks without being able to do anything about Kirikov. Or work on Hermione’s project. And posing as tourists for so long without drawing attention might also be difficult.

    “Shall we go for a swim?” Hermione interrupted his thoughts.

    He smiled. “That’s a good idea.”

    Taking a swim with Hermione would be better than making plans without sufficient information. It wasn’t as if he could do anything about the Russian military, anyway.

    *****​

    Off Yalta, Ukraine, Black Sea, September 25th, 2005

    Hands on the railing, Ron stared at the city in front of them as the yacht entered the harbour - and all he could think was that this was just a half-way stopover. They had to refuel and resupply, of course. Also, they had to pretend to be tourists so that they would have the correct electronic and paper trail in case the Ukrainians or Russians decided to investigate, so there were several good reasons to make a stop here. And Yalta was a good spot for sightseeing as well, with quite an interesting history, too - thanks to Hermione, he was very much aware of the city’s past.

    But he didn’t really care about all of that. He wanted to push on and get Kirikov. Catch the man behind the attacks in London so that his and Hermione’s families would be safe again.

    Or, he amended his thoughts with a wince, find out for whom Kirikov was working - although the more he learned about the man, the less likely it seemed that Kirikov was working for someone else. Being a subordinate just didn’t seem to fit the man, not with his background.

    Unless, and this was the real ‘worst case’ scenario, Kirikov was working for Vladimir Putin. The current president of Russia had been a Colonel in the KGB, after all. If anyone knew how to control Kirikov, it would be him.

    Well, Dumbledore must have considered that possibility as well. Probably felt downright nostalgic, too, Ron thought with a snort.

    “Smile, Ron!”

    He turned his head and looked at Luna, who was leaning against the railing on his right side. “We don’t have to play our roles, yet,” he replied.

    She frowned at him. “You shouldn’t smile because it’s a role, but because it’s nice.”

    That made him smile, and she beamed at him. “See?”

    “I don’t, actually,” he told her.

    “I don’t mean it literally.” She shook her head. “Everyone’s too serious.”

    “Well, our situation is serious,” he said. They were going to risk their lives attacking a Russian mobster in his home, after all.

    “That’s a reason to smile and laugh.” She turned around, putting her back to the railing. “Besides, you’ve got good reasons to be happy.”

    He knew what she meant. Or whom. “I know.”

    “Good!” Luna nodded sharply and patted him on the shoulder. “You don’t want her to think you’re not happy when you’re together.”

    That cut a little too close. Ron pressed his lips together and ignored how Luna fell silent for a moment, blinking as she realised what she’d reminded him of - and now herself, too.

    “Yes.” He nodded. If Hermione thought that, she’d surely decide to return to her home world for good.

    “I can’t wait to meet my counterpart,” Luna went on, craning her neck to look up at the sky. “Imagine talking to a different you. With a different life.”

    “Yeah,” Ron lied. He didn’t want to meet his counterpart. Who was a wizard and Hermione’s first love, if you didn’t count Krum, which Ron didn’t. “It’ll be interesting,” he added. But painful, too.

    *****​

    West of Novorossiysk, Black Sea, September 27th, 2005

    “We’ve got the latest pictures of the target area!” Luna announced as she started to clear the table on the afterdeck, interrupting breakfast.

    Ron reacted quickly and managed to save his and Hermione’s cups from being put down on the deck. “Here,” he said, handing Hermione’s cup over to her.

    “Thank you.” She took a sip - no, a swallow, he noticed. He downed his own. It was time to plan.

    “As you can see,” Luna started to explain, “we had a drone do a few flyovers at night, with the engine turned off so the people on the ground wouldn’t hear the noise. Now, the compound is occupied, and judging by the number of guards we see patrolling at night, it’s likely that Kirikov is present.”

    “That’s great,” Ron said with as much sarcasm as he could muster.

    “Indeed!” Luna beamed at him.

    Sirius agreed with her. “It would have been a pity if we had come all this way, just to find an empty house.”

    “I’m more concerned about the actual number of guards,” Ron explained. “That will make sneaking into the area very difficult.” Especially for half-trained people like the girls.

    “We can use the tiny helicopter if we need to,” Luna said.

    “Our ‘special fuel’ is running a little low, though,” Hermione pointed out.

    Ginny shrugged. “Hoarding it won’t help.”

    Ron agreed with a nod. Trying to save potions for ‘an emergency’ usually meant you finished the game with half your inventory full of magic potions you’d never use. “If Kirikov’s the one behind the attacks, then snatching him means stopping the attacks. Hermione, you’ll be able to restock soon enough in that case.”

    She didn’t look convinced, but Ron hadn’t expected her to - not when he knew she carried a huge quantity of supplies around in her beaded bag of holding. Most of which she would probably never use.

    “Well, let’s look for a landing site, first,” Sirius cut in. “If we can’t make it to the coast, it’s all moot anyway. Where’s the tidal chart?”

    Luna handed him the chart, and Sirius started studying it. Ron wasn’t well versed in such nautical matters and focused on the aerial pictures of the compound again.

    And he didn’t like what he saw. Not at all.

    “They’ve cleared the area around the house,” he said.

    “Hm?” Hermione leaned over.

    “The pictures Dumbledore showed us in Britain showed trees and bushes around the house. They’ve been removed,” he explained.

    Harry cocked his head, then nodded. “Yes, you can still see traces in the soil where they pulled the trees out.”

    “Yes. They must’ve wanted clear lines of fire.” Ron frowned. “Probably with motion-detectors linked to floodlights, South African style.”

    “Oh, that could be nasty,” Luna chimed in. “We might have to go in by air, then.”

    “More importantly,” Ron pointed out, “we now know that Kirikov is expecting an attack.”

    “Unless this is a decoy,” Harry said. “He fortifies this compound, but is hiding somewhere else.”

    “That is a possibility,” Ron admitted. “On the other hand, if this is supposed to be a trap, wouldn’t he want it to look less defended?” Of course, the man could be trying for a double bluff, but Ron didn’t think so. On the other hand, a triple bluff…

    “And would he risk hiding somewhere with - presumably - a small number of bodyguards? That’s what Sokolov did, and we got him,” Harry pointed out.

    “He could have a lot of bodyguards in his real hideout as well,” Ginny said.

    “That would make it more difficult to remain inconspicuous,” Ron retorted. “And he doesn’t have unlimited manpower - he had to hire mercenaries for the last attack in Britain. If he had enough men on his payroll to guard two houses, he wouldn’t have had to do that.”

    “But his bodyguards could have pointed directly to him,” Harry pointed out. “So he wouldn’t have wanted to risk them.”

    That was true. “Right.” Ron conceded the point with a nod. “But there’s also the matter of trust. The more guards he hires, the bigger the risk that one of them will betray him. As Sokolov proved, loyalty is hard to come by in this business.”

    “We can’t rule out this being a decoy or a trap, though,” Harry insisted. “If Kirikov is supported by the Russian government, or even just the FIS, all bets are off.”

    “What? Do you honestly think that the Russian government would authorise the attacks in London?” Ginny gasped.

    “If they knew the truth about Hermione’s work, yes,” Ron told her. “But if they knew the truth, and if they were involved, I don’t think that they’d have bungled the whole thing.”

    “The FIS isn’t perfect,” Harry said. “Even Mossad has made mistakes in critical operations.”

    “Yes, but messing up three times?” Ron shook his head. “That doesn’t look like the work of an intelligence agency like the FIS. Either they would have succeeded, or stopped trying earlier.”

    Hermione, who had been uncharacteristically silent, Ron noted, nodded. “No offence to you, but I don’t think you could have protected me against them if they were involved.”

    “And we wouldn’t have heard about their inquiries in advance, either,” Ron pointed out. “They wouldn’t have used local ‘talent’, but their own sources.”

    “Yes,” Luna nodded several times. “If an oppressive police state like Russia had been involved, they wouldn’t have escalated slowly, but brought the full might of their secret service to bear from the start!”

    “So, we probably don’t have to deal with the FIS or the FSB,” Harry summed up. “Just a small private army, mostly veterans of Afghanistan and the Chechen War and former KGB spies.”

    Luna nodded. “Exactly. And I don’t think that he has too many former spies among his guards since he probably can’t trust them not to try to take over.”

    Which was a small consolation, in Ron’s opinion. But it was better than the worst case scenario.

    Marginally.

    He went back to studying the aerial pictures. They had a raid to plan.

    *****​

    West of Novorossiysk, Black Sea, September 28th, 2005

    “Careful, the sea’s not as calm as we’d like,” Jack said as Ron gripped the ladder leading down to the zodiac, where Karl was already waiting.

    Ron nodded, ignoring the slight reproach he heard in the man’s voice. Yes, the sea was rougher than was ideal, but between the weather forecast and the new moon, they only had a limited window of opportunity for the mission. Kind of like D-Day, he thought with a chuckle as he started to climb down.

    Halfway down, the yacht suddenly rolled, and he was swung away from the hull. Gasping, he barely managed to bring his legs up to brace himself before the movement reversed and he was slammed against the ship. He hit his hand, too, but fortunately didn’t lose his grip.

    Might’ve been easier to rappel down, he thought as he continued his descent, a trifle more quickly now - he was secured by a line, after all. But that would have been more embarrassing, too.

    Karl grabbed his legs as soon as he got close and pulled him into the bucking zodiac. “Scheissidee bei diesem Wetter!” the man cursed as he released the safety line from Ron’s harness.

    Ron winced, but there was nothing he could say in their defence. So he sat down and waited for the rest of the group to make their descent. And hoped they didn’t hurt themselves while they were at it.

    Ginny quickly climbed down the ladder and, despite being swung around like he had been, she dropped into the zodiac before Karl could grab her. She didn’t even fall down. Ron didn’t have to look at her to know she was grinning, too.

    Luna and Hermione, though, were lowered into the zodiac hanging from the safety line without letting them use the ladder. Ron carefully didn’t make a comment, just pulled Hermione in next to him - the sea was growing worse, and a particularly tall wave splashed the entire zodiac just as they took their seats.

    Sirius followed, taking the ladder, but bungling it on the bottom half. Karl pulled him in despite his claims that he could finish himself.

    Then came the crate of supplies Dumbledore had provided - at least the stuff they hadn’t sneaked into Hermione’s beaded bag yet - before Harry brought up the rear. Ron’s friend got lucky and didn’t have to deal with the yacht suddenly rolling, so he was mostly dry when he reached the boat.

    That didn’t last long, of course. Karl turned the zodiac away from the yacht and towards the coast, barely visible in the distance, despite the lights from the village, and everyone was drenched within minutes.

    Well, they had dressed for that, mostly - they were wearing neoprene suits under their harnesses. Not the most inconspicuous outfits, but then, if you landed on a foreign shore at night in a black zodiac, odds are even a tourist disguise wouldn’t fool the authorities.

    They took about half an hour to reach the shore - or rather, until they were close enough to signal the yacht to do another flyover with the drone, to check for witnesses at their first choice of landing site.

    Several waves splashed everyone and left about five inches of water inside the boat while they waited, despite the small aft pump working steadily. But as long as Karl didn’t look worried, Ron wasn’t overly worried either - the German was the one who had to return to the yacht with the boat, after all.

    “It’s clear!” Luna announced, taping the radio bud in her ear.

    “Go! Go!” Sirius snapped. “Let’s get on dry land before we start to grow gills!”

    Ron chuckled, and Hermione huffed as Karl steered the zodiac towards the shore, with the engine at a low setting to keep the noise down. A few minutes later, they reached the beach, and Ron jumped out of the boat, then turned to help Hermione and the others through the surf while Harry and Sirius moved ahead.

    “We’re invading Russia in autumn,” he mumbled, then chuckled at the absurd thought before he had to focus on not stumbling and dropping the supply crate Karl shoved at him. “Viel Glück!” the man said, then put the engine into reverse and slowly pulled back from the beach.

    Ron gritted his teeth and carried the crate up the beach. So much effort for a deception!

    Harry helped him halfway to the treeline - no, it was more of a bushline - past the sand, where the others were waiting. “Let’s get out of these wet clothes!” he whispered as they dropped the crate behind the tallest bush.

    Ten minutes later, they were all reasonably dry and wearing camo clothes. Hermione was pushing the last suit into her beaded bag of holding. That left the crate.

    They were supposed to bury it nearby according to the plan Dumbledore’s men were privy to, but it was easier to tear it apart and stuff the pieces into the bag as well. And more satisfying, too, after struggling with the thing from the surf up the beach.

    “I’ve wiped our tracks!” Luna announced as they finished, pointing back at the beach with a broken-off branch in hand.

    Ron checked with a glance - in their limited light, it looked like she had done a thorough job. Certainly good enough that it wouldn’t be obvious come daylight. “Alright,” he said, “let’s move!”

    The night wouldn’t last forever, and, come morning, they needed to be under cover.

    *****​

    West of Novorossiysk, Russia, September 29th, 2005

    MREs for breakfast. Ron glanced at his, then at Hermione. She was smirking at him. “See? They come in handy.”

    He snorted. “These are extraordinary circumstances.”

    “For which I was prepared,” she retorted.

    “Just admit she was right,” Ginny said, leaning over to peer at his meal. “What did you get?”

    Ron pulled his ration away from her. “Ask Hermione for another if you don’t like yours,” he told her.

    “I’m planning to,” she replied with a huff. “I just want to know what they look like when open. I’m not going to steal your breakfast - we’re not six any more.”

    “You were six; I was seven,” Ron corrected her.

    She shook her head and turned away to inspect Luna’s meal. Presumably, she had already checked Harry’s ration and deemed it less appetising than her own.

    Ron snorted as he started to prepare his meal.

    Hermione joined him, her own bag already heating up. She made a point of looking around, then at the mouth of the cave in which they were hiding, where Sirius was serving as a lookout. “I still can’t believe this cave isn’t visited regularly,” she said.

    Ron shrugged. “We didn’t find any trace of people in here.” No debris, no signs of a fire, nothing.

    “A cave like this should attract teenagers,” Ginny said. “It’s an ideal spot to hide from their parents to make out,” she added with a glance towards Harry.

    Of course. Ron shook his head at her antics. She was correct, though. However, they were quite a distance from the village, so it wasn’t really close to a settlement - not counting Kirikov’s compound. “Perhaps Kirikov scared them off?”

    Hermione pressed her lips together before saying: “That would indicate that he regularly has his men patrol this area.”

    “Perhaps the cave is haunted?” Luna speculated.

    “I doubt it,” Hermione retorted. “We should have seen signs of that.”

    “Well, it’s still the best hiding place, but perhaps we should consider moving to an alternative spot,” Ron said.

    “If there are patrols, then that won’t really reduce the risk of being discovered,” Harry pointed out.

    He was correct, of course. Ron still didn’t like it. If something seemed too good to be true, odds were, it was.

    *****​

    They hadn’t seen any patrols in the area, but they left the cave in the early afternoon, anyway - they needed to move to a spot from which they could observe Kirikov’s compound. Preferably during the day, so they didn’t miss anything - even night vision gear only went so far when it came to details. And Ron preferred to move during the day; the guards would be using night vision gear as well, and the group wasn’t properly trained in hiding at night from that. They knew the theory, but they simply hadn’t had enough time to prepare for it in Scotland.

    Trying to escape notice during the day, however, was something for which the girls had trained. Some more than others, of course. He glanced ahead. Ginny and Harry were on point, somewhere.. There! He caught a glimpse of one of them moving, but couldn’t tell who it was - both wore the same camouflage fatigues, after all, and Ginny’s hair was hidden beneath a cap just as Harry’s was.

    “Why did you stop?”

    He glanced over his shoulder. Hermione had stopped a few yards behind him, running a hand over her forehead - it was still quite hot here - accidentally smearing the camouflage face paint on the back of her hand.

    “I wanted to check on Harry and Ginny,” he replied.

    “Ah.”

    Luna appeared behind her. “Are we there yet?” she asked, then giggled.

    Ron snorted. She had been hanging out with Sirius a little too much.

    “No,” Hermione replied.

    “Aw.” Luna pouted, and Hermione pursed her lips.

    “Still no traces of any patrols?” she asked.

    “None,” Ron told her. At least Harry and Ginny hadn’t found anything.

    “That is weird.”

    “It’s not as if Kirikov owns the entire area, and sending out patrols means he would be spreading out his forces and drawing attention,” he pointed out. Kirikov might have the local authorities in his pocket, but even Russia cared enough about keeping up appearances to make running your own patrols unfeasible. Probably.

    Hermione huffed. “That’s sloppy, though. His compound isn’t that big - his guards won’t be able to retreat very far in the face of an attack.”

    “I don’t think he’s preparing to repel an actual invasion,” Ron said with a grin, which quickly faded. “And the smaller area will make it harder to sneak inside.”

    “We’ve got magic on our side, though,” Luna said.

    “And a schedule to keep,” Sirius, who had finally arrived, told them. “Keep moving. You can rest later.”

    Sometimes, Sirius was a little too much the officer.

    But they got moving, Ron leading Luna and Hermione through the worst of the terrain. Between Luna’s training and Hermione’s experience, they managed well enough, but they were the weakest among their group when it came to such things.

    Their other talents made up for it, of course.

    They still took an hour until they had finally made it up the last ridge separating them from Kirikov’s villa. A ridge that reminded Ron a little too much of the one on which they had almost become spider-food in Kosovo. But they made it, and the bushes would provide decent cover to set up an observation post, as Sirius called it. Drones and cameras were fine, but nothing beat direct observation, in Ron’s opinion.

    He crawled the last few yards upwards and carefully avoided disturbing any of the foliage until he could finally study the area through his binoculars.

    And he still didn’t like what he was seeing. Even at first glance, it was obvious that the compound had been fortified. Clear lanes of fire, no cover for attackers, reinforced guard posts - Ron wouldn’t even dismiss the possibility of land mines after looking at the remains of the lawn.

    This was either a bunker or a trap, in his opinion. Perhaps even both.

    *****​

    “Is everyone ready?”

    “Yes,” Ron replied at once.

    She wet her lips with her tongue and tightly gripped her wand before she answered. “Yes.”

    She caught Harry glancing at her, and frowned. She was ready. And she knew that this had to be done. To protect those who couldn’t fight back. Everyone was doing their part, after all, and it wasn’t as if they had anything better to do while they waited for the latest news about the Ministry’s defences.

    “Do it,” she snapped.

    Harry nodded and walked into the small clearing below them. Once he was in the centre, he cleared his throat, then said: “Voldemort.”

    A moment later, he apparated to a spot between her and Ron, forming a triangle - or a half-circle.

    Seconds passed. She clenched her teeth. Shouldn’t the Snatchers have arrived already? Or had the other ambushes and attacks by the Order convinced them to stop?

    Suddenly, markers appeared floating in the air. Ah - Voldemort’s helpers had grown more cautious. Disillusionment Charms, and Silencing Charms as well - she hadn’t heard the typical sound of someone arriving via Apparition.

    But she and her friends had prepared for that - the Human-presence-revealing Charm let them know exactly where their enemies were.

    The clearing blew up, struck by Harry’s Blasting Curse. The markers were thrown away, some of them fading as the still invisible Snatchers died. But some survived.

    Until Ron’s and her curses hit the area.

    “Accio wands!” Harry yelled, summoning the dead Snatcher’s wands - second and third wands were always useful - they could never have enough caches with supplies.

    And Hermione fought to keep her breakfast down and tried very hard not to think about what her curses had just done. Or look at the cratered area.

    But those Snatchers wouldn’t murder anyone ever again.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2019 at 7:41 PM
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