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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. Threadmarks: Chapter 28: The Ritual
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 28: The Ritual

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, October 6th, 2005

    “There’s one positive result of the whole debacle,” Hermione commented as she connected another power cable to the quantum mirror cage.

    “Hm?” Ron, checking - again - that the power was off, made the expected sound of inquiry when she didn’t continue right away.

    “I can start using magic in my experiments earlier than planned,” she said. “Ah, finally!” She stood, dusting off her pants with a few pats, then stretched.

    “Ah.” Ron nodded.

    “That means I can progress faster than I’d previously anticipated,” she explained. “I can check the interaction between quantum physics and magic as I develop both parts.”

    “Ah.” That sounded logical. “So you’re going to do rituals here?”

    “Yes.”

    He made a point at looking at the bare concrete floor, then at the machines and computers nearby.

    “I still need to set it up - I wasn’t exactly prepared for this development,” she said, then frowned when she caught him grinning. “Oh, you!”

    He chuckled. “Sorry.”

    “No, you’re not.”

    He changed the subject. “So, you’re doing a ritual.” Which could be done without a wand. “How long will that take?”

    “A few hours to set one up, a few more hours to conduct it. And a few weeks - at least - to create it.”

    “Ah. Have you created other rituals?”

    “Not in this world,” she replied, walking over to him and taking a seat on the bench next to him. “But it was a part of Arithmancy in school.”

    “So you did useful stuff in class, at least. We only ever did experiments and projects that had already been done long ago.” He looked at her.

    “Well, magic is dangerous, so we had strict limits and parameters. But we didn’t just follow a recipe; we could design our own rituals. Most turned out to have been done before, though.”

    “Most?” He tilted his head a little.

    She nodded. “A few were failures - one was a spectacular one. The student, Sue Li, spent three weeks in the infirmary.”

    “And yours?”

    She grimaced. “I picked the optimal formula. Of course, that meant that someone else had done so before.”

    “So this is your first ritual?” He tried not to sound as sceptical as he felt.

    “No. I’ve performed other rituals before, as proofs of concept,” she replied.

    “To prove that magic works?”

    “Yes.” She pressed her lips together, so he didn’t prod further, but it was clear that she was in uncharted territory. Well, they had already known that.

    “Well, first I have to test the physics.” She stood and walked back to her computers.

    He watched the cage, but there was no micro-portal forming. She was probably just testing the power flow or something, so he pulled out a novel from the bag next to him and started to read.

    It was going to be a long day.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, October 7th, 2005

    “We’re going to do what?” Ron asked.

    “Scrub the floor,” Hermione told him. So he hadn’t misheard her.

    “For the magic ritual?” he guessed.

    “Exactly!”

    “Could contamination by dirt and dust ruin it?” Weren’t rituals supposed to have been used before wands were invented? A few thousand years ago, people didn’t have sterile environments, did they?

    “Dirt and dust can affect the ritual circle,” she answered. “Minimally, unless they actually cover up a rune, but it might influence the results.”

    In other words, this was mostly her being a perfectionist. And, of course, she couldn’t let the trained staff do this because she didn’t want them in her lab. Ron nodded anyway. It wasn’t as if he had anything better to do, with the rest of their group training in the woods again.

    An hour later, the laboratory was spotless. Reasonably spotless, anyway. If Hermione managed to claim there was still too much dust, Ron would mop her desk. Without removing her notes first.

    “Alright, this should suffice. Time to prepare the ritual circle now!”

    Now this was interesting. Magic. Runes. Rituals.

    Ron took a step closer to where Hermione was kneeling and using precision machinery to mark a circle on the floor with chalk. “I guess you can’t just write it on a carpet and unroll it when you need, then.”

    “You probably could. But it would be wasteful while developing the ritual since I’ll be changing the set-up every time I do it anyway.”

    “Ah. And it could be stolen as well.” Unless stored in her bag.

    “Yes.” She wasn’t looking at him, but at the floor, where she was already tracing a symbol - a rune. And with obvious care and caution.

    Ron looked at the chalk circle, then at the symbol, and sighed. It would take hours to complete it. Well, she had told him that, but still…

    This was going to be another long day.

    *****​

    “And done!”

    Ron looked up from his novel. “Already?”

    She snorted. “It’s past time for lunch. That must be a captivating story,” she said, nodding at his book, “if you didn’t notice the time passing.”

    “It is.” He held it up for her.

    “‘Old Man’s War’?”

    “It’s about an old man fighting various aliens in a gene-engineered young body,” Ron explained as he got up. “A strong transhumanist theme, too. His new body has cat-like eyes and green skin, for example. So, you’ve got alien-looking soldiers fighting alien species to protect humanity.” She winced, and he frowned. “Not to your taste? It’s not glorifying war if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

    “It’s not about that. But after a potion mishap, I was once stuck as a half-cat for several weeks.”

    He blinked. “A half-cat?”

    She frowned, then replied: “A human body, but with fur, a tail, cat’s eyes and ears, whiskers…”

    A catgirl then. “Sounds cute,” he said.

    “I didn’t feel cute. I was so glad when Matron Pomfrey finally managed to restore my body.” She shook her head. “Worst case of body dysmorphic disorder you can imagine.”

    “Ah.” She definitely wouldn’t enjoy transhumanist stories, then. Or some Marvel comics. Not to mention a lot of manga and anime.

    Well, Ron thought as they left the lab for lunch, I’ve always been fond of the classic science fiction novels, anyway.

    He still wondered how she’d looked as a catgirl, though.

    *****​

    After lunch, Hermione re-checked the ritual circle. “Just in case someone smudged part of it,” she told him.

    “I guess that would be bad?” he asked, tilting his head to study the runes on the outermost part of the circle.

    “Yes.”

    “How bad? All the ingredients and time wasted bad? Or getting cursed or killed bad?”
    “The latter,” she replied, moving to the inner line of runes.

    He took a step back. Ron didn’t want to be stuck as a half-cat or half-something in a world without wizards and witches experienced in dealing with such mishaps. “I see.”

    “Rituals are dangerous,” she said, “if they aren’t prepared properly. Or if you make a mistake.”

    “Well, I’m not doing the ritual,” Ron said, grinning.

    She flinched a little, though. “Right.”

    Oh. He almost sighed, but that would have made it worse. “So… what exactly is the ritual going to do?”

    “It’s going to create a modified Extension Charm, for testing,” she said.

    “Ah.” Like her bag?

    “It won’t last long, but that doesn’t matter - it’s the spatial distortion effect I need.”

    He chuckled. “Spatial distortion? That sounds like Star Trek.”

    She rolled her eyes. “It’s magic, not fiction.”

    He chuckled some more, which resulted in her frowning at him.

    “Well, I know now that magic is real,” he said. “But it still sounds funny if you contrast it with fiction.”

    “Oh.” After a moment, she laughed as well, shaking her head. “I guess it does.”

    But she grew serious quickly - a little too quickly - and focused on her work again. On magic. On another step on the road back to her own world.

    Away from him.

    Ron forced himself to keep smiling. He really wanted to see the ritual, the magic. And he knew it was necessary - the best way, perhaps the only way, for him and his family to return to a normal life.

    Yet part of him, a selfish, ugly part of himself, still hoped that she would fail. And he hated himself for it.

    “Does it check out?” he asked as soon as she rose from where she was kneeling on the floor.

    “Yes.” She nodded slowly. “I can start the ritual. Ensure that no one damages the circle or disturbs me.”

    “Disturbs you?” He glanced at the door. It was locked, but would that be enough?

    “Touching, pushing, yelling - in short, distracting me,” she explained.

    “Should I leave?” he asked, only half in jest.

    “No.” Her answer came quickly. “Stay,” she added with a smile.

    That made him feel good. Really good. He sat down on the bench. Far enough, he hoped, if things went wrong.

    She started by placing candles at regular intervals around the circle. Followed by small ceramic cups. To burn ingredients, or to catch blood? She had mentioned blood magic, once. But she would have said something it if she planned to cut herself, wouldn’t she? To warn him, at least.

    When she placed several dried leaves in each cup, he felt a little foolish.

    Then she dropped her lab cloak, slipped out of her shoes, and sat down, cross-legged, in the centre of the circle. “It’ll take a few hours,” she said. “Roughly three, I expect, but…” She grimaced. “I’ve been wrong before.”

    He nodded, which made her frown deepen. “Just be careful,” he told her.

    “Of course.”

    Then she closed her eyes and started chanting.

    Ron didn’t understand her words. They sounded a little like Latin, but not quite. At least in his opinion - he wasn’t a linguist, and his knowledge of Latin was mostly related to that alternate history series he had read as a teenager.

    But she was very focused, and her voice sounded deeper than usual. Weirder. And while it was probably just his imagination, Ron thought he could feel a growing tension in the air as the ritual continued.

    A little later, he knew he wasn’t imagining it - the hairs on his arms and on the nape of his neck were standing up. Static electricity - or magic - was building up. He wet his lips. Perhaps this bench wasn’t a safe distance away. Perhaps nothing in the room was, if Hermione made a mistake. Well, she shouldn’t. He knew her.

    Although... he had never seen her like this - her hair was moving, more and more strands escaping her ponytail and floating around her head in a gust of wind that only seemed to affect her.

    Magic. He had seen magic before - Hermione’s beaded bag of holding. He had drunk potions, too. Several times. But this was something else. He could see and feel the magic being worked.

    Suddenly, a candle lit up. Ron hadn’t seen Hermione even so much as glance at it. It had just started burning.

    Another one followed suit. And another. A few minutes later, all the candles were burning. Had the room grown darker in the meantime, too? It seemed like it, though the lamps were still shining brightly.

    He took a deep breath, then gasped softly. Incense. That was burning incense. But where… there. There was a weak trail of smoke rising from one of the cups. That hadn’t been the case a few minutes ago. But to fill the room, to reach him, quite a bit away from the circle...

    He spotted another smoking cup. And smelt slightly different incense. Ah.

    Hermione’s eyes were closed now - she was mumbling rather than chanting - but one by one, smoke started to rise from all the cups. Even though... He checked his watch and gasped. An hour had passed already? He could’ve sworn…

    He took another breath, but a shallow one. The air smelt and felt like smoke. If Hermione had to cough, would that ruin the ritual? She was sitting in the middle of all the cups, so she would be affected the most. Should be, he corrected himself. Perhaps she had taken precautions to deal with the smoke. Or the ritual protected her.

    Ron didn’t really care which was true, as long as she was safe and could continue the ritual without making a mistake and cursing both of them. Or worse - if this ‘Extension Charm’ twisted space, then what would it do to humans caught in the area of effect? Something like the theorised effect of a black hole?

    Ron really didn’t want to find out the hard way. Hermione’s hair was now a halo. Or a whirlwind. It was whipping back and forth around her head, with visible sparks running up and down the strands. “Bloody hell,” he muttered under his breath.

    She was also chanting loudly again. And the candles were half-burned already. Although it didn’t seem like the various cups would stop smoking any time soon. If anything, the air was getting thicker. If there were any hallucinogens in that incense… Well, he didn’t have to worry about drug tests any more, did he?

    Something moved inside the circle. Ron was standing and aiming his gun before he realised that it was a spark tracing a rune in the inner circle. If things kept to form, then there would soon be dozens of them covering the various runes.

    As expected, more and more sparks appeared, lighting up the runes. First in the inner circle, then in the outer circle. And Hermione was covered by them - that her clothes hadn’t caught fire yet was a miracle.

    Ron eyed the fire extinguisher in the corner next to him. It would certainly ‘distract’ her, with potentially disastrous consequences. But so would burning. What could he do? Other than hoping that nothing would go wrong?

    Not much, he answered his question. He couldn’t do magic.

    But, he added as he watched Hermione slowly stand up, looking like she was caught in a dry thunderstorm, he’d do his best anyway.

    Hermione’s voice grew louder and louder. She was now screeching - Ron had trouble making out individual words. And the sparks seemed to jump from rune to rune, and from rune to her clothes. And hair.

    She’d have a devil of a time fixing her hair after this. He chuckled, despite not wanting to, at the stray thought before he froze at the sight of her arms rising above her head, fingers twitching. He wanted to check his watch, see how much time had passed, but he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

    She looked as if she was in a trance. Her eyes were closed, and she was yelling incoherently, but she was moving her body with grace and - or so he thought - the utmost precision. Her arms froze for a moment, then she whipped them downwards.

    And the room changed.

    Suddenly, Ron was in the middle of a giant space. It looked as if he had been shrunk again and left behind. But the bench was still the same size, and so was the door. It was just everything else that had been… enlarged. Stretched. Blown up. He couldn’t tell.

    A moment later, everything was back to normal. And Hermione collapsed in the centre of the circle, coughing.

    “Hermione!”

    Ron rushed forward but stopped before he stepped over... entered the circle. What if the ritual was still active? And if he broke the circle…

    She looked at him. “Can you turn up the air conditioning? I didn’t expect the incense to be this bad.” She coughed again. “Merlin’s beard! I should have expected this!”

    Oh. “Sure.” He turned around, relieved - and a little amused. Half a minute later, he had the air conditioning up and running. “I hope that this doesn’t get sent into the rest of the building,” he commented as he rejoined her.

    “It shouldn’t,” she replied, still holding a hand in front of her mouth. “That would be very shoddy construction.”

    And Ron doubted that Dumbledore would accept substandard work on such an important project. On the other hand, mistakes happened.

    “Well, the test was a success,” she stated, then tried to stand on visibly shaking legs.

    Ron took a step closer but hesitated again. “The ritual’s over, then?”

    “What?” She looked confused. “Oh, yes. It’s safe to smudge the runes now.”

    He still tried to avoid stepping on the runes as he took her arm to steady her. “I’ll take your word for it.”

    “Once I have the ritual ready, I might make a more permanent circle,” she said. “It might not be practical to use for a portal otherwise.”

    “Except as a trap,” Ron pointed out as they made their way over to her desk.

    She frowned and stopped walking for a moment. “It would be a very obvious trap. And it wouldn’t work without me performing a ritual.”

    “Right.” He pressed his lips together. Obviously, he hadn’t thought that through. “I blame the incense for my momentary lapse of judgement,” he said with a grin.

    That made her wince a little. “I should be safe,” she said. “Though there have never been any studies about whether there are any effects of the incense used in magic rituals on bystanders.”

    “Never?” He let her go and sit down in her seat.

    “Rituals aren’t very common,” she explained. “Some call them a dying art. And wizards don’t really do many studies as a rule. At least not in accordance with scientific standards.”

    “Really?”

    “Most experiment by themselves.” She started checking several columns of data on her computer.

    “That sounds a little… careless,” Ron remarked.

    “It is. But then, many wizards do seem to be quite reckless. A result of magic being able to easily deal with most wounds caused by accidents, I think,” Hermione said with a snort. “You should’ve seen what my Harry and Ron got up to as first-years.”

    Ron shook his head. Hermione wasn’t exactly overly cautious, in his opinion. What would she consider to be reckless? Just how bad was his counterpart? “What did they do? And how often were you involved?”

    She blushed in response. “I usually tried to save them from themselves.”

    “‘Usually’?” He raised his eyebrows at her.

    “Sometimes,” she said, raising her head and sniffing, “decisive action is required in a situation.”

    Ron snorted. After a moment, both of them laughed.

    “I wasn’t involved in all of their adventures,” she said, shaking her head. “Especially not when it involved dodging cannonballs on brooms.”

    Ah, the wizard game played on brooms. He tilted his head. “But you were involved in most, weren’t you?” he asked against his better judgement.

    “Yes.” She smiled, and he could see her eyes losing their focus as she reminisced about her past. And her wizard friends - like Ron’s counterpart.

    She looked so happy and sad at the same time.

    *****​

    “Hermione, it’s time for dinner.”

    “In a moment.”

    “You said that five minutes ago,” Ron pointed out.

    “Mh.” She wasn’t even looking at him - her eyes seemed glued to the screen.

    He shook his head and leaned closer until his lips were right next to her ear. “Hermione! You need to eat!” he snapped.

    She gasped, startled, and he had to dodge her swinging ponytail as she whirled to glare at him. “Hey!”

    He pointed at the clock on the wall. “It’s past time for dinner. And no, you won’t eat an MRE here.”

    “But…” she glanced at the screen.

    “The data won’t get corrupted while you eat,” he told her. “Come on! Let’s tell the others all about your breakthrough.”

    “It’s not exactly a breakthrough,” she corrected him. “It was merely a proof of concept. And it worked exactly as expected.”

    “Yes,” he agreed. “But it’s the first step towards combining magic and quantum physics, right?”

    “The first step was the hypothesis,” she objected. “This is merely an experiment.” But she was walking with him, leaving the lab.

    Success.

    *****​

    “...and that was a proof of concept. Now I have to modify the ritual and then combine it with the quantum mirror cage.” Hermione finished her explanation about the same time as she finished everything on her plate. This time, the fare had been Italian, with a pasta buffet and a variety of sauces for the main course.

    “How long will that take?” Ginny asked. She sounded casual, but Ron wondered if she wasn’t getting sick of having to hide - her ranking was tanking, as a certain newspaper had put it last week.

    “That’s hard to say. The physics part is, except for the scaling up and the adjustments needed to combine it with magic, mostly done. But I’ll have to extensively test the ritual and refine it - I was focused on the physics until now,” Hermione explained.

    “For good reason,” Ron added, to remind his sister, just in case, why they were hiding here.

    “Do you have a rough estimate of how long you’ll take?”

    Ron refrained from telling his sister that she sounded like Dumbledore.

    “A few weeks to a few months?” Hermione shrugged, once. “Magic isn’t easy to predict. Nor is research.”

    “Can we see the next ritual?” Luna asked, beaming at Hermione.

    Ron saw her wince as she replied: “It’s a very delicate experiment, and somewhat dangerous.”

    “If Ron survived it, then we should be safe,” Ginny said. He frowned at her, but she smiled sweetly at him in return.

    And Hermione chuckled. “As long as you don’t touch anything - magic is dangerous, especially rituals. Mistakes can be fatal. Or worse.”

    Ginny looked slightly taken aback, Ron noted, but Luna seemed even more eager to watch the next ritual. He would have to check with Hermione whether a muggle trying a ritual was safe. Double-check, to be safe. “So, what did you do today?” he asked, to change the subject.

    “Oh! I worked with drones!” Luna turned to smile at him. “Mr Dumbledore provided me with the latest models available on the market. I’ve been testing them, to set up a surveillance network.”

    “A surveillance network?” Harry asked.

    “Yes, to cover the entire area around the laboratory,” she replied. “I’m working on the drones as the mobile part.”

    “Won’t that attract attention?” Hermione asked.

    “Air traffic control might notice,” Sirius added.

    “Not if they only fly low,” Luna said. “But with any luck, we’ll be using small models which won’t show up amongst the ground clutter. I’m still testing them.”

    “You said that those were the mobile part. What about the immobile part?” Ron asked.

    “Ah, there’s a sensor network already in place, though it has a couple of blind spots,” Luna told him. “As we expected, they couldn’t cover the entire forest.”

    “Hence the drones,” Sirius said.

    “Exactly,” Luna replied, nodding emphatically.

    “But you’ve got access to the entire surveillance network?” Harry cocked his head as he asked her the question.

    “Well, to the one Mr Dumbledore showed me. I’m sure that he has at least two more - though I haven’t found them yet,” Luna replied.

    “Two more?” Harry blinked.

    “Yes, one serving as a decoy, for when I look for it, and then the real one he uses to keep tabs on us.” Luna shook her head as if that was an obvious conclusion. “And he might have a fourth, to fool the Shadow Government’s surveillance of him.”

    Ron slowly nodded. He didn’t think Dumbledore had three, much less four, surveillance networks in the area. Two, though? The old man would keep an ace up his sleeve, Ron was sure of that. And he was a spymaster. Not to mention that a second surveillance network was just good planning - if one was compromised, you still had another while your enemy might think they were in the clear. Of course, the sort of enemies Dumbledore - and now Ron and his friends - were dealing with would expect that. So, perhaps, Luna wasn’t wrong… “And what did you do?” he asked the others.

    “We trained,” Harry said. He didn’t seem to be happy, in Ron’s opinion. Well, Ron wasn’t looking forward to weeks or months of inactivity, either.

    But if it meant Hermione and the others were kept safe?

    He’d do a lot more for that.

    Then dessert was served - tiramisu - and Luna’s gleeful reaction distracted everyone.

    She really liked her sweets.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, October 9th, 2005

    Ron frowned when he and the others returned from a long run around the lake. There weren’t more guards or visibly increased security, but the guards at the door were just a little bit more attentive than usual. “Dumbledore’s back,” he said.

    “Really?” Ginny asked.

    “How do you know?” Hermione added.

    “The guards are acting as if there’s going to be an inspection,” Harry explained.

    “Yes. And do they need regular inspections!” Sirius commented. “What a sorry lot.”

    Luna, meanwhile, was checking her portable computer. Ron looked over her shoulder and saw that she was flipping through several recordings. “If he’s on any recordings, then it’s because he wanted to be,” he told her.

    “I know. But that’s information by itself,” Luna replied. “And it would be terribly impolite to ignore it if he took care to let himself be filmed.”

    Ron chuckled at that. “I guess so.”

    “Found him!” she exclaimed. “He arrived ten minutes after we left for our run.”

    “And I guess we will still have to wait until dinner to hear his new information,” Harry said.

    Ron glanced at Ginny and saw she was wincing. She would already know, of course, that Harry was getting impatient. “It’s better to discuss things and plan on a full stomach,” Ron said. Hungry people were more aggressive.

    “Yes! And we need to shower anyway,” Luna said, sniffing her shoulders before nodding emphatically.

    Harry had the grace to blush, but he was still grumbling when they entered their quarters and split up to shower.

    *****​

    As they had expected, Dumbledore didn’t start talking about anything more important than the weather, sports and entertainment before dessert was served. To Ron’s surprise, Harry didn’t broach the subject himself, though. Probably Ginny’s influence - Harry was an old hand at sounding off to others, especially to their superiors.

    Of course, whether or not Dumbledore counted as their superior was somewhat uncertain. As was the question of whether or not the old man thought he was or should be.

    Ron dropped that line of thought as Dumbledore finished his dessert, to all appearances looking incredibly pleased at the taste of the tiramisu, and put down his spoon. “Now, I assume you have a good idea why I’ve come to visit.”

    “You want to see magic happen!” Luna replied before anyone else could say anything.

    Chuckling, the old man inclined his head towards her. “That influenced my decision as well, although I also bring you news from Russia.”

    “And it’s not good news,” Harry said.

    “I would say that the exact nature of the news is still in question,” Dumbledore replied, “due to a lack of further information. Although I expect we’ll soon know more, one way or the other.” He pulled out a memory stick from the inside pocket of his jacket - Ron wondered if that was just for show, or if he really carried sensitive intel there - and placed it on the table.

    Harry reached for it, but, once again, Luna was faster and grabbed it. “Let’s see what you brought us!” she said, apparently not aware of Harry’s frown, as she plugged it into her portable computer.

    Dumbledore chuckled again, and his smile grew, as far as Ron could tell, more honestly amused. “Thank you.”

    “Thank you,” she replied, already opening and closing several windows.

    “Let me summarise,” Dumbledore said. “We haven’t seen neither hide nor hair of Mr Kirikov, but according to our analysts, and some of my former co-workers, there has been a shake-up in the Russian intelligence services. Now,” he went on, “after the ‘invasion by terrorists’, as some news reports have taken to calling our little mishap in southern Russia, didn’t lead to any arrests, it’s to be expected that a few officers will be let go. To encourage those who remain to be luckier, I assume - it wasn’t as if they were at fault. However, such a shake-up could also conceal a reshuffle inside the FIS or the creation of supposedly unattached ‘former assets’.”

    “Do you think they’re building up for a mission against us?” Sirius asked.

    “I think we cannot dismiss that as a possible threat,” the old spymaster replied. “Unfortunately, there is scant confirmed information, least of all actionable intelligence, available, so all I can offer are educated guesses.”

    “Or gut instincts,” Harry said.

    “Quite.” Again, Dumbledore nodded. “And even in the best case - President Putin not believing Mr Kirikov’s claim and blaming him for the incident and the resulting loss of face the Russian government has suffered - I have no doubt that he would go to some lengths to keep us guessing whether or not Mr Kirikov is still alive. And even if he dismisses the possibility of alternate universes, my own involvement, which he will have confirmed by now, will convince him that I consider your research extremely valuable.”

    “So all we can do is wait?” Harry asked with a scoff.

    “And prepare for an attack,” Dumbledore corrected him. “If the Russians are indeed moving against us, they will be faced with several logistical challenges as well as running a significant risk of facing a political backlash of international dimensions.” He smiled, but it looked rueful. “I also have some news about the continuing mole hunt within the Phoenix Gruppe: A suspected mole has, apparently, committed suicide a day ago in Berlin.”

    Oh. “An actual suicide?” Ron asked.

    “That is hard to tell at this point. Contrary to their reputation, not every one of Germany’s coroners is as methodical and careful as their duties would require. And far less quick to finish their reports. So far, Gellert has refrained from using more direct means to acquire their files, though.”

    “Swell,” Sirius said, rolling his eyes. “At least I take it the mole didn’t know anything about us?”

    “They shouldn’t have known anything, although our own investigation is still ongoing. But if the Russians are behind this, then it’ll be difficult to expose them. They are very good at this sort of game.”

    Ron pressed his lips together. This wasn’t a game. People were dying.

    “Of course, they aren’t unbeatable - I know that better than most, I believe. I’ve taken steps to create decoy sites to divert their attention, and a select few people in my employ are preparing missions to further distract them,” the old man went on.

    “How dangerous are those missions?” Hermione asked.

    “Not any more dangerous than the missions you’ve undertaken, Dr Granger.”

    “That’s not very reassuring,” she retorted, frowning.

    “As long as they’re not suicide missions,” Ron added, tilting his head to turn the statement into a question.

    “I can assure you that everyone involved knows the risks, Mr Weasley, even though precious few of my operatives will know anything about the reasons behind their orders.”

    “But they know whatever disinformation you fed them,” Harry said.

    Dumbledore didn’t deny that as he nodded at Ron’s friend.

    “Won’t the Russians expect this?” Luna asked.

    “They will indeed suspect such a ploy - they suspect everyone and everything - but they nevertheless cannot ignore it. Not that they would,” Dumbledore replied with a sly smile.

    The old man sounded almost nostalgic, in Ron’s opinion. Re-living his best years, perhaps? He snorted.

    “And what if the Russians have another mole in your organisation?” Ginny asked.

    “He’s probably using this plan to hunt for such moles,” Luna answered before Dumbledore could. “If he spreads information about selected decoy sites and missions to suspicious employees, he can find the moles.” She scrunched her nose and frowned as she added: “But it’ll put his loyal employees at risk.”

    “As I said,” Dumbledore repeated himself, “my employees know the risks.”

    “That feels like cold comfort,” Luna told him.

    “Well, some of your employees certainly wouldn’t be missed,” Sirius cut in. “Except by various police forces, of course.”

    That got a chuckle out of the old spymaster. “While I have standards and would never work with the sort of people with whom Kirikov used to work, there is a saying: ‘Set a thief to catch a thief’. Certain backgrounds can be very useful in this business.”

    “Wellington would probably agree, eh?” Sirius shook his head. “You cannot trust criminals.”

    “I’ve found that every man has a price, Mr Black,” Dumbledore replied. “Something or someone they value above everything and everyone else. Criminals might be more selfish but, with proper handling, are no more likely to betray you than your best friend.”

    Ron wasn’t the only one to glare at the old man in response to that claim.

    “I’d never betray my friends!” Luna exclaimed.

    “Not even if it meant saving your father’s life?” Dumbledore asked.

    “Daddy wouldn’t want me to betray my friends to save him - I would also be betraying everything that he taught me if I did that.” Luna’s frown grew more pronounced, but she still looked like she was pouting as she faced Dumbeldore. “Not everyone has a price!”

    The old spymaster slowly nodded. “Perhaps I stand corrected. I hope we’ll never find out.”

    But he didn’t sound as if he believed his own words. On the other hand, that might just be a deliberate act.

    “What about setting the Secret Service on the Russians?” Ginny asked.

    “MI6,” Harry corrected her.

    “You know what I mean,” she retorted.

    “A tempting option, I have to agree,” Dumbledore acknowledged, rubbing his beard. “However, while I wouldn’t cast doubt on my former colleagues’ skill and experience, I fear that they would expend as much or even more effort on uncovering the Russians’ objectives in Britain as on countering them.”

    “While I don’t doubt that the British government would be preferable by far to the Russian one, I fear I would end up a prisoner either way,” Hermione said. “Based on past experiences with said government, they would be as likely to shut down my research as to try and abuse it to revive colonialism.”

    “I think you are on the mark, based on my experience as a former government employee,” Dumbledore told her with a wry smile. “Although I also expect MI6’s best and brightest to pick up on any suspicious activity among the Russians. Sooner or later, at least.”

    “At which point they’ll investigate themselves and find out about us anyway.” Hermione shook her head. “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t?”

    Dumbledore cocked his head. “Quite. I think our best hope to avoid such entanglements is a timely breakthrough in your research.”

    Hermione pressed her lips together before replying. “Such research cannot be rushed. A single mistake could be disastrous.”

    “In that case, we can but hope for you to get lucky, then,” the old man said.

    “No pressure, huh?” Ron asked with a scoff.

    “I’ve suffered worse,” Hermione told him.

    And Ron saw her eyes lose their focus.

    *****​

    She heard screams as she ran through the familiar hallways. Distant screams, but that was a faint consolation when she knew all too well what those screams meant: People - students, children - dying under the Death Eaters’ curses. Hearing the sounds of desperate, bloody battles filling the school made her feel like a coward for not joining the ranks of their allies.

    But they couldn’t. Their own mission was too important. If they failed, all the deaths and suffering would have been in vain. Voldemort would win.

    And she wouldn’t let that monster win.

    She was breathing heavily by the time they reached the tapestry with the dancing trolls on the seventh floor.

    “Let me do it!” Harry snapped, rushing ahead.

    She clenched her teeth but stopped. The Room of Requirement tended to get confused if multiple people needed something - even if they thought they needed the same thing, the Room usually disagreed.

    Granted, she didn’t think that that would be a problem this time. All of them wanted the exact same thing: to find Voldemort’s last Horcrux. But still, why take the risk?

    Harry finished passing the tapestry three times, and a door appeared. He looked at them, a faint smile on his face before he winced. “Let’s go.”

    She nodded, biting her lower lip several times as she followed him, Ron at her side, into the Room.

    It was worse than she had expected - the room seemed to be larger than the Great Hall, and it was full of all sorts of stuff. “Can you sense it?” she asked Harry.

    “With Voldemort so close? No,” he told her. “The moment I open my mind, he’ll know where we are.”

    “You’ll have to do the ritual,” Ron told her.

    She looked at him - he was guarding the door - and nodded.

    “And hurry,” he went on. “I think some of the fighting’s moving towards us.”

    *****​
     
    Scopas, Higure, BooksRFme and 5 others like this.
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 29: The Family Reunion
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 29: The Family Reunion

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, October 11th, 2005

    Despite her words, Hermione wasn’t handling the pressure very well. At least not in Ron’s opinion. She was tense, far more so than she usually was, anyway. Despite the effort they had made to relax last night - and wasn’t that a euphemism which wouldn’t fool anyone? Even Aunt Muriel wouldn’t be taken in by it. Especially not Aunt Muriel, actually, since the old battleaxe always suspected the worst of everyone and was more old-fashioned than anyone else Ron knew.

    He gritted his teeth as he saw Hermione biting her lower lip and scowling at her computer in apparent frustration. No, that wasn’t the face of someone handling pressure well. Quite the opposite.

    He rose from the bench and started to walk towards her, giving the area around the quantum mirror cage an even wider berth than usual - he didn’t want to cross the ‘ritual space’ as he had dubbed the spot where Hermione had drawn her circle. “Hey!”

    She jerked, then looked up. “What?”

    “Time for a break?”

    “It’s not yet time,” she pointed out after a quick glance at the clock on her screen. “And I’ve got a lot of work to do today.”

    “Another ritual?” he asked.

    “Not yet. I need to make quite extensive adjustments to the formula. Not before dinner, at the earliest.” She was already staring at the screen again.

    He suppressed his own scowl. This needed a lighter touch. “Tomorrow then. You wouldn’t risk a ritual when you’re tired, would you?” That came out a little more pleading than he liked.

    “I’ve done rituals under worse conditions,” she replied, setting her jaw.

    He sat down on the edge of her desk, first displacing a few of her notes with his hand. She tensed up some more, pressing her lips together, though, apart from a glance at the notes, she kept studying the columns of data on her computer screen.

    “There’s no need to push yourself like this.” He leaned forward a little, towards her. He was telling the truth - this was going too far. And it was Dumbledore’s fault. The old spymaster knew how to manipulate her, and was willing to exploit that without scruple.

    “You know why I have to do this,” she replied, still not looking at him.

    “No.”

    That made her look at him, her mouth half-open. “What?”

    “You told me that you can’t rush things.” She was about to contradict him, but he continued without giving her an opportunity to respond. “You said rituals are dangerous. That even a single mistake could be fatal. That means every time you perform one when you’re not at your best, you’re putting everyone in danger since you’re more likely to make a mistake.”

    She closed her mouth and pressed her lips together. “If I take too long, I’m also putting everyone in danger,” she said after a moment.

    “We’ve got a better chance of handling an attack by Russian agents than a magical mishap,” he retorted. “Dumbledore knows what he’s doing. And we’ve faced these sort of situations before. But none of us could do anything if you ended up cursed. And we’d still have to face the Russians sooner or later - just without you.” And, possibly, without Dumbledore’s help. If the old man decided to cut his losses, he might even choose to deliver them to the Russians to prove that there was no portal to take any more. Dad might consider Dumbledore a friend, but Ron wasn’t sure if the reverse was true. And he was certain that Grindelwald didn’t care for any of them.

    “Sometimes you have to take calculated risks,” she replied, raising her chin slightly.

    He shrugged. “Yes, but I don’t think you can calculate the risks in this case.” Or, even if she could, that it would be worth taking such a risk.

    Once more, she pressed her lips together, but this time, she didn’t answer even after a few seconds had passed.

    So he reached out and touched her shoulder. “Please.”

    She closed her eyes and sighed. “Alright. Let’s take a break.”

    He was tempted to tease her but refrained from doing so. Instead, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders as they walked towards the bench.

    They sat down together, and he nodded at the intercom next to them. “Should I order our usual early?” The kitchen usually delivered drinks and snacks at half-past nine.

    She shook her head. “No. We can take another break at the normal time.” With a faint but - as far as he could tell - honest smile, she added: “I’ve got a wide selection of snacks in my bag.”

    He knew that. And he also knew that she used to live in her lab for days at a time. But he took her offer for what it was and smiled. “A Mars bar, please.”

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, October 12th, 2005

    “Hermione looks less stressed.”

    Upon hearing Luna’s comment, Ron looked up from where he had been stacking some of the targets from the exercise they had just finished. “Hm?”

    “She was quite stressed after Mr Dumbledore’s visit,” Luna said as she knelt to help him. “Now she’s not.”

    “Ah.” So someone else had noticed. “We had a talk.”

    “Ah.” She nodded with a faint grin that told him that her repeating his words wasn’t an accident.

    He rolled his eyes at her. “A real talk.”

    “Ah.” After a moment, she giggled.

    “You already knew that,” he said.

    “Yes.” She sighed. “I talked to her while we were walking back to our starting positions.”

    He nodded. That had been after he and Harry had defeated their first attempt at an attack. The only time, actually, that he hadn’t been with her today - she had gone straight back to her lab after the exercise. Hermione was more relaxed, but she certainly wasn’t lazy. “So, how are you doing with the drones?”

    “Oh, it’s going well. I wish I could have them fly at a higher altitude, but then government radar would pick them up. But the surveillance network is coming along well.” She smiled at him with obvious pride.

    “How much does your network cover?”

    “It doesn’t cover our rooms,” she said, “if you were afraid of that. Although I haven’t found the network that does cover our rooms, yet. It must be something revolutionary, I think.”

    “Or there aren’t any bugs in our quarters,” Ron suggested. Dumbledore would be aware of their reaction to their bedrooms being bugged, wouldn’t he?

    She shook her head. “He’ll want some surveillance. But short of ripping out the walls, floor and ceiling, it’ll be hard to find. He could’ve had listening pipes built into them. Nothing electronic at all on that end.”

    To imagine Filch listening in to them, at night… Ron shuddered.

    Luna nodded in apparent sympathy. “I’ve been keeping my eyes on the obvious suspects, but I haven’t caught them yet.” She sighed and looked out at the Black Lake. “But, at least, we’ve got the area outside covered.”

    Ron blinked. Wait a minute… “So that’s how you caught us in the second part today!”

    Once more, she giggled. “You said we should act as realistically as possible.”

    “We didn’t spot any drones,” he pointed out. And they had been looking for them, too. Luna had used drones - her toy helicopters - in such exercises before, after all.

    “There are thermographic cameras concealed at several locations,” she admitted. “We didn’t use them in the first attempt, to see how it would go without them.”

    “Ah.” He looked down at the shore, where Harry and Ginny were checking their training weapons. His sister looked smug. “I guess she didn’t tell him, did she?”

    “She asked us not to tell you.”

    He shook his head. Sometimes, his sister was a little too much like the twins. Well, not that rarely, actually - but, unlike the twins, she got away with it too often.

    “She’s been feeling stressed, too,” Luna mentioned.

    Ron nodded. “All of us are.”

    She didn’t disagree.

    *****​

    Dumbledore revisited them that evening, smiling widely this time. And once again, he didn’t tell them the real reason for his visit during dinner. He probably enjoyed making them wait and wonder while he made polite conversation. It was annoying, but Ron had to admit that it was perhaps easier to enjoy the meal if you weren’t discussing serious matters. Slightly easier, overall - worrying what news would be revealed wasn’t that conducive to a pleasant dining experience, either.

    Finally, Dumbledore finished dessert - crème brûlée this time - and put his fork down. “Now, I’m certain that you’re wondering why I’m visiting so soon after my last visit.”

    “You’ve got good news, or news you think is good news,” Luna said.

    “An important distinction, Miss Lovegood,” Dumbledore replied, nodding at her. “After all, almost all of our views are subjective. Certainly when it comes to judging news.”

    “So, what did your men find out?” Ginny asked.

    “Ah.” The old man sighed, looking apologetic. “I have no new intelligence about our Russian friends, I’m afraid. No,” he went on, “I’m here because I was approached by Arthur and Molly to arrange a meeting with you. I have evaluated the request, and I think it’s safe, provided certain precautions are taken.” He nodded at Luna and Hermione. “I took the liberty of assuming that you’d like to include your father and your parents’ counterparts as well.”

    Oh. Ron felt queasy. Meeting Mum and Dad? He looked around, and Hermione and his sister seemed to feel the same way. Luna, however, was beaming and nodding rapidly.

    Harry, on the other hand, was glaring at Dumbledore. “That is rather dangerous,” Ron’s friend snapped. “Anyone observing them will be led straight to us.”

    “I have people trained and able to spot such tails,” the old man retorted. “And rest assured that no one will be visiting this place.”

    “You’re using us, and our families, to prop up a decoy site. Or as bait,” Harry spat.

    “Your and your families’ safety is my priority, but I would be lying if I said that the fringe benefits of such a meeting have escaped my notice.” Dumbledore’s smile turned into a rather wry grin as he confirmed Harry’s suspicion.

    Ron glared at the spymaster. You didn’t risk civilians like that. Especially not his and his friends’ families. “And what if the Russians manage to follow us afterwards?” No one was perfect, not even the smug old man.

    “They’ll be led straight into a trap - a series of traps, to be precise.” Dumbledore shook his head. “I am aware of and understand your misgivings, but this won’t be a dangerous gamble relying on luck, but a well-planned operation.”

    “The more of your people who know about us, the bigger the chance that a traitor learns about us,” Harry pointed out.

    “I’ve taken that into account as well. The only ones involved in your trip will be people already aware of this location,” Dumbledore replied. He still didn’t seem to be fazed by their reactions and accusations.

    “It’s an unnecessary risk,” Ron told him. “Putting our families in danger for a meeting?”

    “Staying isolated also puts them at risk,” the old man retorted. “How much longer do you think it’ll take before your parents will attempt to contact you on their own?” He spread his hands. “I doubt that imprisoning them for their own protection is a good idea.”

    Sirius snorted at that, looking surprised at his own reaction a moment later.

    Ron was tempted to disagree, but the spymaster had a point, as much as he loathed having to admit it. They couldn’t let their families become actual prisoners ‘for their own good’. Mum and Dad wouldn’t forgive them, he was certain. If they even believed it, and didn’t assume that Dumbledore was also keeping this group locked up against their will. And if Ron’s siblings got involved…

    “Daddy wouldn’t let you do that,” Luna said. “He’d trigger all the contingencies we’ve prepared for such a situation. Even the Shadow Government knows better than to push us this far!”

    “Quite.” Dumbledore nodded at her. “While I certainly agree that the safest course of action would be continuing to avoid contact, I don’t think that this will be possible without causing exactly the kind of disaster we want to avoid. And while such twists are common and entertaining in literature - have been since ancient times - I prefer to keep them in literary works instead of allowing them to actually happen.”

    “I don’t think that my… the Grangers would cause much trouble,” Hermione commented. She looked calm, but Ron could tell how tense she was. And how angry.

    “I think that they might surprise you, Dr Granger.” For a moment, Dumbledore looked as if he pitied her, or so Ron thought.

    “It doesn’t matter,” Ginny spoke up. “If Mum is set on this, then she won’t listen to reason. And Dad…”

    “...will support her,” Ron added with a sigh. Dad was laid back, generally, but his patience had limits.

    “Yes.” Ginny nodded in agreement.

    Harry shook his head. “I don’t like this.”

    “As I said, I would prefer an alternative myself, but even regular electronic communication has its limits,” Dumbledore said.

    Ron winced. He should have written more mails to his family. And longer ones. This was probably partially his own fault. But he couldn’t have told them about the missions and the dangers. Or about magic.

    “And the more information you send, the easier it gets to decrypt,” Luna said, nodding.

    “Precisely.”

    “So, when and where can we meet them?” she went on.

    “That still remains to be seen, though I think Southern England would be best,” Dumbledore told her.

    That was about the farthest you could be from here and still remain in mainland Britain. “Won’t the Russians expect that?” Ron asked.

    “Even if they did, they still wouldn’t have a clue where to begin their search - and Scotland is quite large but thinly populated,” Dumbledore retorted. “Not to mention that they will suspect me of pulling a double-bluff and might assume I expect them to think I chose a location as far away as possible while actually having the meeting take place near the real laboratory.”

    “Or a quadruple bluff,” Luna said, looking excited. “Perhaps even a sextuple bluff.”

    “I think they’ll try to cover all bases and pursue all leads, which will further set back their pursuit of us, and may cause them to offer us another opportunity to deal with them.”

    Ron shook his head. He didn’t like these sorts of mind games. Trying to think like a criminal was difficult enough in his line of work, to try it with Russian spies…

    And Dumbledore apparently being able to think like Luna?

    That was wrong. Very wrong.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, October 14th, 2005

    “I’m still not convinced that this is a good idea.”

    Ron stopped getting into the SUV and turned to look at Harry. His friend met his eyes with a frown. “It’s not,” Ron replied. “But the alternatives are worse.”

    Harry scoffed and shook his head. To Ron’s relief, he didn’t press the issue - they had been over this before, since Dumbledore’s visit, and things had sometimes grown a little heated. Apparently, this wouldn’t be one of those times, so Ron nodded and entered the car, taking the seat next to Hermione while Harry went to the second SUV.

    “Did he complain again?” she asked as soon as he had closed the door and she wouldn’t be overheard.

    Ron shrugged. “Not really.”

    She snorted in response. “So he did.”

    “Not much,” Ron admitted. “And it’s not as if it would amount to anything, anyway.” In a minute or two, they’d be on the way to England.

    “Let’s hope he doesn’t annoy Ginny too much,” she said.

    “He won’t.” Ron was sure of that - his little sister wouldn’t let him. Ginny was already quite worked up over their impending meeting with the ’rents, and so her temper would be worse than usual. Ron was very glad he wasn’t in the other car - any row would be spectacular.

    On the other hand, he added to himself as he saw Luna approach their car pushing a trolley loaded down with a crate upon which three drones were balanced, Harry, Ginny and Sirius wouldn’t be at risk of being decapitated by drone parts if their car had an accident.

    “Ron, can you help me load the crate? I can handle Anna, Bertha and Chrysalis, but the crate’s a little too heavy to easily lift.”

    “Of course.” He had known Luna would name the drones. But… ‘Chrysalis’? Better not ask, he thought to himself.

    As he found out, the crate was very heavy. He had to strain to lift it high enough to push it into the boot. Forget the danger from drones - if they ran into something, the crate would probably end up smashing their engine. After going through the passenger compartment.

    “Thank you!” Luna said while she stacked all three drones on to the free seat next to her.

    “No problem,” he told her while he tried to subtly rub his back.

    Judging by the way Hermione shook her head at him with a wry smile as he climbed back into the car, he hadn’t been subtle enough. He rolled his eyes at her, and she chuckled in return.

    But the levity didn’t last, of course. She closed her eyes and sighed before leaning back in her seat as their driver and guard - ‘Smith’ and ‘Brown’, both apparently lacking a first name - got in.

    “Having second thoughts?” he asked.

    “I’ve been having second thoughts for days.”

    “Oh?” Luna piped up. A moment later, her head appeared between Ron and Hermione as she bent over the backrest of their bench. “Why?”

    “She’s feeling guilty,” Ron replied before Hermione could think of an answer. “Even if it’s not her fault.” He met her annoyed glare with raised eyebrows - he knew what she was thinking. And she should know his opinion about it.

    At least she didn’t try to deny it.

    “Oh.” Luna shook her head with a sigh. “You really should know better, Hermione. It’s not your fault.”

    Of course, Hermione couldn’t leave that be. “Without me, none of you or your families would be in danger.”

    “Of course we’d be in danger!” Luna retorted. “Anyone trying to uncover the machinations of the cabal behind the government is in danger!” After a moment, she added: “And police officers, at least if they aren’t corrupt, are in danger as well. Ginny has had to dodge paparazzi for years, which, as everyone knows after Paris, is dangerous. Even though she usually drives herself. I guess Sirius would be safer - but also far more bored.”

    Since Luna was facing Hermione, Ron could grin at her confusion from behind the back of Luna’s head. When Luna set her mind on something, there was no arguing. You could try, but to no avail.

    “Besides, a little danger is a small price to pay for becoming your friend,” Luna told her. Ron didn’t have to see her face to know she was beaming at Hermione in that charming but utterly honest way of hers. She had a way with people and was far more insightful than most people thought.

    He nodded, smiling at Hermione’s surprised reaction. “Yes. We won’t abandon you, no matter what.”

    She sniffled, once, as she nodded in return. “Thank you.”

    “Yes,” Luna added. “Ginny must have lost a fortune in prize money and advertising contracts, but have you heard her complaining?”

    And, Ron thought with a wince as Hermione gasped, hands flying to her mouth, sometimes, Luna’s honesty wasn’t charming or helping. Or very insightful.

    *****​

    Near Cuxwold, Lincolnshire, Britain, October 15th, 2005

    The light wasn’t good - it was past midnight already - but from what Ron could tell, the safehouse looked more like a hovel. And not a hovel old enough that English Heritage would care about it - just decrepit, not ancient. And he was sure that the garage they were entering was a repurposed barn. The inside matched the outside, too, he noticed a moment later as Brown opened the doors and Smith drove them inside - there was even a pile of hay in a corner.

    “Hope no one’s allergic,” he said as they got out.

    “To mould?” Hermione asked.

    He chuckled.

    “Over here,” Smith told them, moving towards a crate.

    “Are we going to camp out here?” Luna asked. “Or is there a secret passage built into the building?”

    Smith blinked for a moment, then pushed the crate away, revealing a trapdoor beneath it.

    “A secret passage!” Luna all but cheered. “This must be an old Secret Service station - we’re near a former emergency airfield; they were used for spy missions in the war and afterwards, you know.”

    Judging by the way Smith jerked a little, she was on the mark. The stairs under the trapdoor certainly were far more solid than the barn’s appearance would lead one to expect, and the basement was solid concrete with modern lights - and the obvious entrance to an underground bunker.

    Dumbledore apparently didn’t plan to skimp on their security. That they wouldn’t be able to easily take a walk was likely a welcome bonus.

    But it was too late for a stroll anyway, much less a run. They’d be up in six hours, so they’d make the meeting with enough time to spare to ensure the place was safe - and to pick a route that wouldn’t lead straight back to this spot.

    “Oh, a secret underground base!” Sirius exclaimed. “Now that’s what I call style! As long as it has comfortable beds, and not army cots, of course.”

    “The quarters are comfortable,” Smith replied as he entered a code into the pad next to the door.

    “Are they? You don’t know my standards, do you?” Sirius said.

    “They’re the same as at the other location.” Smith stepped to the side as the door started to open - and revealed that it was as massive as a vault door.

    If Dumbledore was about to double-cross them and locked them inside… Ron shook his head. If the old man wanted to stab them in the back, he wouldn’t need to go to such lengths; he had had ample opportunities to do so on the way here.

    They entered, and found themselves in rather familiar surroundings - but for a slightly stale smell, it looked similar to the underground parts of the laboratory. “Built by the same people, or built according to the same specs?” he wondered.

    “Either way, it’s a potential leak,” Harry replied. “If different people built the bases, someone might still be able to track the construction materials.”

    “That was taken into account during construction,” Brown said, a little stiffly, in Ron’s opinion. For someone who hadn’t said a single word during the drive, despite Luna’s best efforts, he was downright chatty now.

    “Did you tell the mole that as well?” Harry shot back.

    The man didn’t answer that but instead stiffened some more. “Your quarters are to the right. Breakfast will be served at 7 o’clock.”

    “I hope it’s not a continental breakfast,” Sirius said with a wide smile. “We’ll need a hearty meal to face tomorrow.”

    “Our means are limited. Security, you understand,” Brown replied with a bland expression.

    Definitely continental, then. Probably without anything fresh. If Mum were here… Ron sighed.

    “I’m sure we’ll manage,” Hermione said, patting her bag as they entered their quarters.

    “Oh, it’s not about that,” he replied. “Not really, at least. I was just thinking about Mum’s reaction if she were here.”

    “Ah.”

    They entered their room - the second from the mini-lounge. The bed looked comfortable, but the whole place felt more bland than a hotel room. Almost sterile.

    “Are you nervous?” she asked as she sat down on the bed, testing it.

    “About tomorrow?”

    She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. He snorted in response - it was a dumb question. “Yes,” he said after a deep breath. “I’m sure that Dumbledore’s doing his best to keep us safe, but some risk remains.”

    “Yes,” she agreed.

    A few seconds passed in silence.

    “But, well… you probably know what to expect tomorrow,” he said. She knew his parents’ counterparts, after all.

    “I haven’t met your mother yet,” she replied.

    Which was another can of worms, Ron thought. He wasn’t exactly bringing a girl home, but it felt a little like it. Or a lot. “She’ll like you,” he said.

    “Because she thinks you’ll settle down with me and stop risking your life?”

    He snorted again. Oh, she knew what to expect, indeed.

    *****​

    Rye, East Sussex, Britain, October 15th, 2005

    Walking through the small village, Ron couldn’t help feeling terribly exposed. They were in disguise, this time as tourists, but that did little to calm his nerves. They had split up before reaching the village, but they were still the right age… If he were looking for them, he wouldn’t miss them. It was a little late in the year for tourists, anyway, unless they were retirees. If anyone followed their families to this village, they’d probably make them.

    On the other hand, anyone tailing them would stick out here as well - and they’d also have to pose as tourists since he doubted that the Russians had any informants in the village. Dumbledore, though, wouldn’t have picked Rye if he didn’t have some assets in place - provided he could trust them.

    Dumbledore. It all came down to trusting the old man. His plans, his men, his choice of location.

    And Ron loathed it. The former spymaster - with ‘former’ being a very technical term where he was concerned - knew his business. They had changed cars twice since leaving the bunker, and Ron hadn’t spotted anyone following them. He couldn’t have planned it better himself. Nor as well. And that irked him the most.

    “Smile a little,” he heard Ginny whisper next to him, “we’re supposed to be tourists having a good time.”

    He snorted at that. As part of their disguises, they had broken up the couples. He couldn’t even walk with Hermione. “You’re not exactly looking happy, either.”

    “I don’t look like I’m about to attack the next guy who gets close.”

    “So people will assume that I’m a jealous, insecure boyfriend.”

    “Well, you are a jealous, insecure boyfriend,” she retorted. “Just not mine.”

    “What?” he stared at her.

    She scoffed as she met his eyes. “I know you.”

    “I’m not insecure,” he told her.

    “Sure you are. And you’re jealous - of your counterpart.”

    “I’m not,” he spat. Just what had Hermione talked about with Ginny and, presumably, Luna?

    “And here’s the insecurity.”

    “My love life is none of your business.” Cheap, but better than sounding like a teenager.

    “You’re my brother.” She bared her teeth at him in a toothy grin.

    He knew what she meant. “I’m not a teenager any more.” And he had never been a teenage girl with a crush on her brother’s best friend. This wasn’t the same.

    She sniffed, obviously not agreeing. “Acting like a jealous, insecure boyfriend won’t help you with Hermione.”

    “I don’t need any help.”

    She shook her head. “Good luck trying to convince Mum of that.”

    “She’ll focus on her baby girl,” he shot back. This wasn’t about matchmaking, but ‘terrorist attacks’ - and Mum knew he could take care of himself. Ginny, though, could have a black belt in every martial art known to mankind, and Mum would still think she needed protection.

    Now Ginny scowled at him while he grinned back.

    And they had reached The Mermaid Inn. Perfect timing.

    A precisely worded phrase to the innkeeper got them a room as cover, and a passage through a secret tunnel to the actual meeting spot - hidden under The Olde Bell Inn, the town’s other famous inn. “English Heritage would have a stroke knowing someone installed all of this,” Ron muttered as they entered a very modern-looking part.

    “As long as something’s not visible and not replacing or altering anything valuable, they don’t care. You could build a bunker under your manor,” Ginny told him.

    “I don’t have a manor,” he pointed out.

    “You might get one if you marry Hermione.”

    “What?”

    “She’ll control access to her world. And their magical health care. You know how much money people will pay her for a real miracle cure?” Ginny snorted. “Even with Dumbledore taking his cut, she’ll be raking in the money.”

    “She doesn’t care about that,” he told her.

    “Well, someone has to,” Ginny said, shrugging. “Might as well be you. Now look happy, we’re about to meet Mum and Dad.”

    She wasn’t quite right, though. When they entered the meeting room - one of the guards, another of Dumbledore’s men, opened the door for them - not just Mum and Dad, but also Xenophon and the Grangers were waiting for them.

    And the others hadn’t arrived yet.

    “Ron! Ginny!”

    A moment later, Mum grabbed both of them and hugged them, hard. But any embarrassment or annoyance Ron might have felt died when he realised she was sobbing.

    “I was so afraid for you both! The things I heard…”

    “What were you thinking, Son?”

    Ron looked over her shoulder as he patted her back. Dad looked disappointed. And concerned. The Grangers looked uncomfortable, but Xenophon… looked confused. Of course - Luna must have told him enough to figure things out - or close enough. And he probably hadn’t realised that other parents wouldn’t be proud of their kids’ involvement in such matters.

    Great. Ron should have expected this. Then he had another thought: Had Dumbledore arranged this? And for what purpose?

    Or was he becoming a little too paranoid?

    “What were you thinking? And you, Ginny! Risking your life like that!”

    “What?” Ginny made a decent effort at displaying honest, innocent surprise, but she didn’t quite pull it off.

    “Going off to attack criminals! In foreign countries!” Mum told her.

    What? Ron blinked. Luna knew better than to go into these details - ever since their ill-fated ‘swamp expedition’ back when they were nine and eight, she had known that certain things were to be kept a secret from Mum and Dad.

    And in an instant, Ginny switched from innocent to digging in her heels and doubling down. “Mum! Everyone went - I couldn’t let them go by themselves! They needed my help!”

    “You’re not a police officer! Nor are you a former soldier! Oh, I’ll have words with Sirius!”

    “It was my decision, Mum! I’m old enough to make my own choices!” Ginny retorted.

    “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady! Risking your life by going to war is not the same as buying a sports car with the prize money from your first tournament win!”

    “So? You’re opposed to both!”

    “With good reason!”

    Ron slowly backed away. This was familiar terrain, and his mum and his sister could easily go on to butt heads for an hour or two.

    “I do have to agree with Molly,” Dad told him in a low but firm voice. “Why did you drag your little sister to war?”

    “War?” Ron stalled.

    “The ‘terrorist attack’ on Russia’s Black Sea Coast. Xenophon figured out that that had been you.”

    Ron winced under his father’s stare. Dad was laid-back, but sometimes, he showed a temper, and this might be one of these times. “We didn’t have much of a choice,” he said in a not quite whisper while Ginny and Mum were rehashing Ginny’s teenage rebellion. “We could only trust each other.”

    “You couldn’t trust Dumbledore?” Dad sounded surprised. Perhaps even a little shocked. “Dr Granger’s research is that valuable?”

    “Yes.” Even more than that, actually, as Ginny had reminded him.

    “But to drag your little sister into this…”

    “We couldn’t exactly make her stay behind,” Ron defended himself. “Harry tried his best.”

    Judging by the way Dad’s lips thinned, Sirius might not be the only one getting a talking to.

    And as if they had been waiting for their cue, Harry and Sirius entered.

    “Hello, everyone!” Sirius said, smiling widely at Mum in a - doomed, Ron knew - attempt to charm her. “Molly! How are you?”

    “Harry! Tell Mum that you needed my help to escape the mercenary ambush! I was the only one able to drive when Sirius got shot!” Ginny interrupted the older man.

    “I was laying down covering fire with the machine gun!” Sirius defended himself.

    “Until you got shot.”

    And Mum exploded.

    *****​

    By the time Hermione and Luna entered the room, about ten minutes late, likely due to Luna getting distracted by the secret tunnel, Mum had calmed down - a little, at least. She was still glaring daggers at Sirius, Harry, Ron and Ginny.

    “Daddy!”

    “Luna!”

    “Hermione!”

    “Gabriel! Ellen!”

    Their family reunions were as emotional as Ron’s own, if not quite as loud.

    “Did you find out anything else about the shadow government?”

    “Oh, yes! The Russians aren’t part of it - but they tried to compromise it! And Putin is worse than we thought!”

    “Oh! What did he do?”

    “He’s covering up even more than we thought, and may attack Britain in disguise!”

    Ron tried to tune the Lovegoods out as he took a step closer to the Grangers.

    “I’ve got bad news,” he heard Hermione saw in a low voice. “About my counterpart.”

    Both Grangers stiffened. “She’s dead, then.” Mr Granger said.

    Hermione slowly nodded. “I’m sorry.”

    “We were all but certain for years,” Mr Granger said. “This is just confirmation.”

    But he had tears in his eyes, Ron noticed - and Mrs Granger was crying.

    Ron almost wished Mum would go on another tirade and distract everyone.

    But she didn’t - she greeted Luna with a smile. “Luna! How are you doing? You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

    “Oh, no! I was perfectly safe. Well, as safe as everyone else. Most of the time. I’m usually piloting the helicopter.”

    “The helicopter?” Xenophon cut in.”Oh, how marvellous!”

    “Oh, yes. I had to wreck one, though - we needed a distraction for the Russian navy to chase.” Luna nodded happily. “They shot the helicopter down, but Mr Dumbledore got me a better one.”

    “You… what? You risked your life as a distraction?”

    “It was a toy helicopter!” Ron blurted out. Not for the first time, he wondered whether Luna knew exactly how her words would be misunderstood or if she genuinely had no idea until after the fact.

    “A toy helicopter?”

    “Yes, like a drone,” Luna confirmed. “And there was no one on it that time.”

    “‘That time’?” Dad asked. “Just how big was that toy?”

    “Oh, about two feet,” Luna said, demonstrating the length with her hands. “The rotor blades are a little longer, though. But,” she added, perking up, “I got to fly a large drone as well!”

    “Oh! A spy drone? Or a Predator?”

    “A spy drone!”

    “Marvellous! Did you find out how they monitor our communications from the air?”

    While the Lovegoods got lost in technical details, leaving Mum and Dad confused, Ron glanced back at the Grangers and winced - they were holding each other, with Hermione standing nearby, looking awkward and guilty. Even though this wasn’t her fault at all.

    It wasn’t his, either, yet he felt guilty as well. His own family was fine.

    So he walked over and wrapped his arm around Hermione, offering what comfort and reassurance he could. It wasn’t much, but he felt her relax and lean into him. It also made him feel better.

    Until he caught Mum and Dad watching them.

    *****​

    “Ron, pass the bread, please. George! Don’t you dare!”

    “I wasn’t doing anything! And I’m Fred!”

    “I’m Fred and so is my wife.”

    “You’re married? To Fred? Alicia will kill you!”

    “Alicia will kill us both just to be sure she got you.”

    She snorted at their display. The twins weren’t as funny as they thought they were - but they were funnier than Ron claimed. Of course, being their brother and frequent target, he was more than a little biased.

    A glance to the side showed her that Harry was laughing as well. Good. After that stupid tournament and Voldemort’s return, and the Ministry’s stubborn denial of reality, her friend needed all the laughs he could get. Although, in hindsight, showing him and the Weasleys ‘Life of Brian’ might not have been one of her better ideas.

    “Boys! Behave!”

    As the Weasleys settled down, she leaned back and relaxed. She loved her parents, but meals at the Grangers were never this lively. Or this entertaining.

    *****​

     
    Scopas, Higure, BooksRFme and 6 others like this.
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 30: The Conference
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 30: The Conference

    Rye, East Sussex, Britain, October 15th, 2005

    His parents were watching him. Them. And Ron knew the expression on Mum’s face. He sighed. “Look at my parents,” he whispered.

    “What?” Hermione turned her head and saw them as well. “Oh,” she added, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open.

    “Yes,” Ron replied. “Mum’ll want to interrogate you.”

    “I can imagine.”

    “Did that happen… before?”

    “No. I knew them long before we became a couple.”

    “Ah.” Another difference.

    Hermione was glancing back and forth between his parents and the Grangers, who were still hugging each other. This was becoming really awkward. They couldn’t exactly walk away.

    But before he or Hermione could think of how to handle this, Mum and Dad joined them. “What happened, Mr and Mrs Granger?” Mum asked straight away, with a glance at Ron that made it clear that she was wondering whether or not he was responsible for whatever had happened.

    Mr Granger took a deep breath. “It’s… we just received word that…” he trailed off, but Mrs Granger, between sniffles, blurted out: “Our daughter’s dead.”

    Whatever Mum and Dad had expected, that wasn’t it - they looked shocked. “Your daughter…?” Dad managed to say while Mum pressed her hand to her mouth.

    “Yes,” Mrs Granger said, then gasped and looked at Hermione. “I mean… I’m sorry.”

    Hermione nodded with a grimace. “I know.” She took a step away from Ron and hugged the Grangers. And started to sniffle.

    Which left Ron to face the pointed looks of his parents.

    “Perhaps we should give them some privacy,” Mum said. It wasn’t a suggestion, of course.

    Ron shook his head and kept his eyes on Hermione. He wasn’t moving from her side. Not now. And if he had his way, not ever.

    *****​

    A few minutes later, the Grangers - all of them - had recovered their composure. They had also become the centre of attention, of course, but everyone - even Xenophon, though only after a little prompting by Luna, Ron had noticed - was too polite to bother them. Well, apart from Luna’s dad and Ron’s parents, everyone present already knew what this was about. And while Ron was sure that the room was bugged, even if he hadn’t spotted any bugs - Dumbledore had prepared the meeting, after all - he was also sure that the old spymaster wouldn’t let anyone not already aware of the truth listen in to their conversation.

    Hermione returned to Ron and looked at him, biting her lower lip. He knew what she meant, but he couldn’t make that decision for her. On the other hand, Mrs Granger had already let most of the cat out of the bag. With how famous the Granger case was, both the past kidnapping and the recent events, Mum and Dad wouldn’t fail to find out that the Grangers didn’t have another daughter.

    She must have come to the same conclusion since she took a deep breath and turned to face their audience. “Most of you already know this. I’m not the Hermione who was kidnapped and murdered fourteen years ago.”

    “Oh, my! Are you from a parallel universe? Or a clone?” Xenophon asked, leaning forward. “Are you working on getting back to your world? Or trying to escape your creators?”

    Well, they should have expected that reaction.

    “Yes, I’m from another world,” Hermione said. “And I’m working on opening a way back.”

    Ron saw Harry frown, but this revelation wouldn’t change much, if anything - their parents were already in danger, after all, and their enemies already suspected the truth, or most of it.

    “What?” Mum blurted out. “That’s ridiculous!” She shook her head, then turned to glare at Ron. “And you! Do you honestly think we’ll fall for such a stupid story?”

    Ron drew a slow, hissing breath. Right. Without proof, the truth did sound unbelievable.

    “I knew it! A parallel world! And you’ve been fighting a shadow war against other dimensional travellers whose aim is to take over our world!”

    And that Xenophon was apparently not questioning it at all wouldn’t help. What could he say to convince them that Hermione wasn’t lying?

    “Don’t tell me that you actually believe this!” Mum went on - apparently, Ron had waited a little too long before responding. “This isn’t one of your silly books!”

    “My books aren’t silly!” he retorted at once, before immediately regretting it - now he sounded like a teenager. “And this isn’t about my books at all. We’ve got proof.”

    “Proof?” Dad sounded rather dubious as well.

    “You can ask Dumbledore!” Ginny cut in. “He can vouch for us.”

    “‘Us’?” Mum wasn’t taking that little hint well, either. “What exactly do you mean?”

    “As much as I respect him,” Dad said, putting a hand on Mum’s arm, “he is a former intelligence agent, and used to obscuring the truth - often for our own good, as he’s fond of saying.”

    “But he wouldn’t pick an unbelievable cover story,” Ron pointed out.

    “On the contrary!” Xenophon cut in. “He would do exactly that, knowing that we would think he wouldn’t.”

    “But it’s true,” Luna said. “We’ve seen proof.”

    “You saw the other world?” Dad asked.

    “No,” she replied. “But we saw what Hermione brought over.”

    “Yes,” Mr Granger added.

    “Really?” Dad still sounded sceptical. “You wouldn’t happen to have such proof with you, would you?”

    “Arthur!” Mum exclaimed. “Don’t tell me that you believe this! This is obviously a fancy tale to hide what’s really going on. And it’s putting our children in danger!” She was now glaring at Hermione, Ron noticed. That was a really bad sign.

    “Hermione? Perhaps you could demonstrate?” Mrs Granger suggested.

    Hermione didn’t reply at once, though - she was glancing at him, Ron noticed. “Cat’s out of the bag,” he told her.

    That made her snort, and she held up her beaded bag.

    “That ratty old bag is your proof?” Mum could be really snide when she wanted.

    “Yes, this ratty old bag is actually much bigger on the inside than it appears,” Hermione replied in a sharp tone.

    “A bag of holding?” Dad asked. Ron had to suppress a snicker at hearing that.

    Instead of answering, Hermione handed the bag over to Mum and Dad. “Please examine it so you can be certain that this is not a parlour trick.”

    Without being ‘keyed’ to the bag - like Ron and Harry were - they couldn’t access the extended interior, only the decoy compartment. Which was filled with the typical contents of a purse. Mum didn’t do more than glance at the bag, but Dad emptied it, then did his best to turn it inside out. He even inspected the seams, Ron saw - well, Dad liked to tinker in his spare time, so that would come naturally to him.

    “It’s a normal bag,” Ron’s father finally stated after several minutes.

    Hermione smiled sweetly - and triumphantly - as she retook her bag. Knowing what was coming, Ron took a step back. As did the others of their group as well as the Grangers.

    Then Hermione emptied the real contents of the bag of holding on to the floor: MREs, tents, a zodiac - not inflated, of course - jerry cans, more food, water bottles, and, of course, lots of guns and other illegal gear.

    Ron really enjoyed seeing his parents’ jaws almost join the gear on the ground. ‘Silly books’, indeed!

    “That’s…” Dad blinked. “How on earth is this possible?”

    “It must be a trick!” Mum insisted.

    “It’s not a trick,” Hermione retorted. “The space inside the bag has been extended - to many times its actual volume.” She put her hands on her hips and frowned at Ron’s mum. “And, in any case, how would I have been able to smuggle all these supplies into this room? And then make them fall out of a bag?”

    “Perhaps an optical illusion…” Dad trailed off.

    “We’ve moved around in this room,” Ron said. “No mirrors. No smoke.”

    Sirius, who had obviously kept a rather low profile after he and Harry had been on the receiving end of Mum’s fury, chuckled.

    “And even if it were a trick, it would require technology we don’t have in this world,” Ron pointed out. “Which would be proof in itself.”

    “It wouldn’t,” Xenophon corrected him. “No government, ever, would reveal the full extent of their capabilities.”

    “Spatial warping like this is too far beyond the technology curve to have been developed in this world,” Ron retorted.

    “That’s what they want us to believe!” Luna’s father shook his head.

    “I’ve verified it, Daddy,” Luna told him.

    “Really?”

    “Yes.” Luna nodded emphatically.

    “That’s alright, then.”

    “That’s impossible…” Mum was still shaking her head, and Dad didn’t look much better. “And what are those guns? Those aren’t police issue, are they?”

    “Uh…” Ron winced once more. It seemed that they had overlooked that little detail.

    “Ron!”

    And he was about to get the blame for everything.

    “We need the weapons to defend ourselves,” Hermione interjected as she gathered them up and started to return them to her bag.

    “Yes! Putin’s certain to send his best agents after us!” Luna added. She was trying to help, but that comment had the opposite effect.

    Mum blew up again. “Of course he will after you invaded Russia! What were you thinking?”

    “We were hunting the person behind all the attacks on us,” Harry spoke up. “The man responsible for Bones and Scrimgeour’s murders.”

    “In Russia?” Mum retorted.

    “That’s outside your jurisdiction,” Dad pointed out.

    “Well, we’re currently suspended, and we’re quitting CI5 soon enough, anyway,” Harry replied. “So we’re not really bothered about jurisdiction any more.”

    “Indeed,” Sirius confirmed. “They’re free agents, or, rather, they soon will be.”

    Mum gasped. “What? You’re quitting? What about your career? Ron!”

    He grimaced. “Mum, my career - our careers - wouldn’t have gone anywhere, anyway. Scrimgeour and Bones, both murdered when coming to meet us? And then us vanishing afterwards?” He snorted. “No one’s going to trust us. Not really.”

    “But… it wasn’t your fault!” Mum protested.

    He shrugged. “That doesn’t matter. Yaxley’s death won’t help, either - it’s just too convenient that the main suspect’s disappeared without a trace.” And if they revealed how he’d died, things would look even worse for them.

    “But…”

    “You also stepped on too many toes - and you were too successful,” Sirius said. “Whether it’s the army or the police, it’s always the same - playing by the rules is more important than getting results.”

    “Moody’s doing fine,” Harry pointed out.

    “He probably knows too much about everyone,” Sirius retorted. “But that might not help him if they install someone from outside CI5 as Bones’s successor. And they would never pick him for the position.”

    “Who else can they pick? Dawlish?” Ron scoffed. “He’s got the seniority, so they can’t choose anyone junior to him.”

    “Not unless they were far more talented and knew the right people,” Harry added.

    Ron nodded. “And there’s no one in CI5 who would fit the bill.” Well, Harry would have - rich, famous and talented - but that bridge had already been burned before their last case.

    “But what will you be doing instead?” Mum asked.

    “We’ll become private investigators,” Harry said. “Security, bodyguarding, private investigations. There’s a lot of demand if you’re good enough. Which we are,” he added with a grin.

    Ron cleared his throat. “And there’s also the portal, which will need to be protected.”

    “You’re going to work for Dumbledore?” Dad asked.

    Ron shrugged to hide his unease at the question. He didn’t like the old man. “We’ve been working for him for months now.”

    “And he’s almost got you killed! I’m going to have words with him!” Mum exclaimed.

    “Molly!” Dad said, a little sharply. “You heard Ginny - they insisted.”

    “Yes, we did,” Ron’s sister confirmed.

    “Can’t trust anyone else,” Sirius added - with quite misplaced nonchalance, in Ron’s opinion.

    “You’re not going to drag my children to war again!” Mum snarled at Sirius.

    “Molly, I’m sure Sirius won’t do it again,” Dad interjected.

    “No one dragged me to war!” Ginny protested.

    “Yes, you insisted on coming along,” Luna agreed.

    “There won’t be any more such missions,” Hermione told his parents. “Dumbledore was quite clear on that at the last debriefing. All that we’re going to do now is stay at a secret location while I work on the portal.”

    “For how long?” Mum stared at Hermione. “You’ll go back to your world, but what about everyone else?”

    “We’ll fix things,” Ron told her - Hermione was looking guilty again, even though it wasn’t her fault. “Everyone’s going to be able to live normal lives again.” Or as normal as the Lovegoods’ lives ever were.

    “And how will you manage that?” Dad asked. “A portal to another world… and the secret’s out. The Russians know about it.”

    “Some Russians suspect,” Harry corrected him.

    “Are you going to kill them?” Xenophon asked. “They’ll have taken measures to prevent the information from dying with them. Spies always do that, so their superiors don’t kill them to keep their secrets secret.”

    “We know that and are taking it into account,” Hermione said. “My world has a few options this world lacks, as the bag demonstrates.”

    “Oh!” Xenophon said. “Are you from the future as well as from another dimension? Is this technology stolen from the aliens trying to suborn our government?”

    “There are no aliens in my world,” Hermione told him.

    “I know you have to say that.” Luna’s father nodded with a wink.

    Hermione tried again. “No, there really aren’t any aliens in my world.”

    Ron sighed and shook his head when she glanced at him. He knew from experience that Luna was the only one who could make Xenophon change his opinion.

    “So we’re just to trust you that you’ll ‘fix’ this? That everything will go back to normal, all the deaths just forgotten?”

    Ron winced at his mother’s tone. That was the same tone she’d taken when the twins had revealed their plans to start a joke shop. He saw the Grangers flinching, too - though that was probably for other reasons.

    “Yes. It’ll take a while, but we will fix this.” Hermione raised her chin and Ron saw she was meeting Mum’s eyes with a determined expression.

    Mum broke eye contact first - by switching her glare to Ron. “And you? Will you go with her when she returns to her world?”

    Ron knew what she meant, but since he didn’t know the answer to that question, he chose to misinterpret her. “We don’t know what’s been happening in Hermione’s world during the last seven years. Going back alone wouldn’t be smart.”

    “Yes!” Luna piped up. “If her enemies won the civil war, we’ll have to fight a real fascist regime in an alternate Britain!”

    “‘Civil war’?” “What civil war?” “You were in a war?”

    Ron closed his eyes and cursed under his breath. They really should have planned this meeting in detail.

    “Yes,” Hermione replied. “I was fighting in a war against genocidal fascists when I was accidentally transported to this dimension.”

    “At your age?” Mum asked, looking shocked now. “You must have been barely eighteen!”

    “I’ve been fighting against them since I was twelve,” Hermione retorted, “together with my world’s Harry and Ron.”

    “What?”

    “And my and Ginny’s counterparts joined the fight a few years later!” Luna cut in with a proud smile.

    “As did all of the other Weasleys,” Hermione went on, “as well as Sirius and the Lovegoods.”

    “We fought in a civil war? In Britain?” Dad seemed to have more trouble with that revelation than with the fact that alternate dimensions and parallel worlds were real. Then again, he had grown up with Dr Who - Ron had inherited his love for fantasy and science fiction from him.

    “We let you fight in the war? Children?” Mum, of course, had slightly different priorities.

    “We had no choice,” Hermione replied. “My world’s Tom Riddle was the leader of the fascists, and he was focused on my world’s Harry. He tried to kill him several times during our school years - we were all at the same boarding school.”

    “All of you?” Xenophon asked. “That seems like a remarkable coincidence.”

    “All of our counterparts - with the exception of my parents - are humans with special gifts, and went to a special school,” she explained. “And we were taught by my world’s Dumbledore - who also ran one faction in the civil war.”

    Ron managed not to smile as he saw his parents’ reactions to that information. Perhaps they wouldn’t trust the old man as much as they had up to now - if Dumbledore’s willingness to let the group go on dangerous missions hadn’t already achieved that.

    “‘Special gifts’? Like the X-Men?” Dad sounded even more sceptical. And Mum’s scowl had deepened. Xenophon, on the other hand, was beaming.

    In response, Hermione held out her hand. “Accio glass!”

    Even though he had seen it before, Ron still watched with fascination as the glass lifted off from the table in the centre of the room and slowly flew towards her. There was just something… special… to this that enchanted items like the beaded bag of holding lacked. And it didn’t involve rituals and blood and incense.

    “It’s not a trick, either,” Hermione said as she finished her spell. “In my world, a tiny minority have such special gifts.”

    “Telekinesis!” Xenophon exclaimed. “How wonderful! Can you fly as well?”

    “No. Levitating a glass of water is about the most I can do like this,” Hermione replied. “But with the right supplies - exclusive to my world, unfortunately - I can create items such as my bag. Or potions that heal wounds.”

    “They work like a charm, too.” Sirius’s grin turned a little snide as he addressed Mum: “So you see, we weren’t exactly being ‘suicidally reckless’ when we went on our missions; we had healing potions and other such items to keep us safe.”

    “In order to heal someone, they have to get hurt first,” Dad pointed out.

    “That was merely one example - I have a number of other items available,” Hermione told him. “But back to the war... In my world, the existence of such gifts and items is hidden from the public and limited to a select few members of government - as well as all the gifted. And some of them tried to take over the country and exterminate everyone they deemed impure - or subhuman. Like me. Or my Harry’s mother.”

    “Dear Lord!”

    “It was a war fought in the shadows, one side led by Dumbledore, the other by Tom Riddle, with the government being mostly ineffective,” Hermione continued. “And the school was fought over as well. We had the upper hand until Dumbledore was killed. Then we had to go underground and fight back any way we could. I had an accident and ended up in this world during what we hoped would be the decisive battle of the war.”

    “And you want to return to your world to continue the war?” Dad asked.

    “If needed.” Ron saw Hermione press her lips together. “My world’s Harry and Ron are my best friends - we were inseparable during our school years.”

    Ron stepped closer to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She didn’t have to say out loud that her friends might be dead. And that she’d avenge them if that were the case. That was obvious.

    And he’d help her. No matter what.

    “And you want to drag our children into this war!”

    Mum looked furious as she glared at Hermione.

    “I’m not dragging anyone anywhere!” Hermione retorted, glaring back.

    “I’m not going to let her face this alone,” Ron said as firmly as he could.

    That earned him another glare from Mum. “And what can you do while they use their ‘gifts’ to kill each other? You’re not one of them!”

    “There’s more to fighting a war than killing,” Ron retorted. Just because he wasn’t a wizard didn’t mean he was useless.

    “Oh, yes!” Sirius cut in. “The actual killing is, actually, a small part. It’s mostly logistics and paperwork. And training.”

    “We don’t even know if the war’s still going on,” Hermione added. Ron did notice, though, that she didn’t say anything about him being useful in a wizard war.

    On the other hand, she had revealed magic to muggles - again. Well, she hadn’t actually called it magic, but that was just semantics. And good thinking - Mum would have flipped if she had heard ‘witchcraft’ or ‘magic’. But since Hermione had been taught for years to keep magic secret, wasn’t this a good sign? If she planned to vanish into her own world, she wouldn’t have done so. Of course, she could simply wipe their memories, but she wouldn’t do that.

    He shoved a lingering, nagging sliver of doubt away and said: “It doesn’t matter. I’m not letting her face this alone.”

    “I see.” Mum narrowed her eyes again. “That’s how it is.”

    “Molly.” Dad shook his head.

    “Arthur! He’s fallen for her - of course he’ll follow her!” Her expression left no doubt about what she was implying.

    And Hermione had picked it up as well - which shouldn’t be a surprise since she knew Mum’s counterpart. “Are you insinuating that I am using Ron?”

    Mum opened her mouth, presumably to confirm that, but this time, Dad stopped her. “Molly, please.” Ron’s parents stared at each other for a moment, then Mum looked away, pressing her lips together until they formed a thin line.

    Dad sighed, then addressed them: “We’re not saying that. But… you are all under a lot of stress. That’s not a good state of mind for making important decisions. Also, if Dr Granger knows Ron’s counterpart very well, she might… ah… misjudge you, Ron. You only met three months ago.”

    “I’m very aware of that fact,” Hermione replied in a clipped tone. “And trust me, I can tell the difference.”

    “Were you together with your Ron?” Mum asked, narrowing her eyes slightly.

    For a moment, it looked as if Hermione wouldn’t answer. But then she nodded curtly. “Yes.”

    “Ah.”

    “Mum!” Ron snapped, then took a deep breath. Yelling at his mother wouldn’t be a good idea right now. Even Sirius and Harry were keeping quiet. “Our relationship is none of your business. It’s no one’s business but ours.”

    “You’re my son! I’m not going to watch while you go to another world and fight in a… a… a fantasy war!” she blurted out.

    “That’s my decision, not yours,” Ron retorted.

    “Our decision,” Luna added. “Just as it was our decision to go to Russia. And Kosovo and Switzerland.”

    That startled Mum. “But… Luna!”

    “This is not about them dating. This is about doing the right thing,” Luna told her. “Hermione needs our help, so we’ll help her!”

    “Luna…” Hermione wasn’t crying, Ron saw, but she was blinking rapidly.

    “Besides, I want to meet my counterpart!” Luna was beaming.

    Ron didn’t want to meet his magical counterpart. Not at all. But this wasn’t the time to mention that.

    *****​

    Of course, while Luna’s declaration had ended the argument before it could escalate, it didn’t mean Ron’s parents would let things lie. As soon as Hermione and the Grangers had withdrawn to another room to deal with the news about their daughter’s death in private, Mum and Dad closed in on him.

    “Ron,” Mum started - calmer now, fortunately, “have you thought about this? Not about the war,” she added, and he could see she was pursing her lips, “but about your relationship. What if she gets back together with her world’s Ron?”

    Ron managed to school his features and avoid betraying his thoughts - of course he had thought about that. Far too often for comfort, actually. He shook his head. “It’s been seven years since she arrived here. She’s moved on.” And the other Ron would have moved on, anyway - Ron would have, in his place.

    “Have you ever talked about it?” she asked.

    He glanced around, but he was on his own - the others were keeping their distance. Great. “Yes,” he said. “Besides, they probably think she died.”

    “What? Why?”

    He shrugged. “She disappeared during a battle seven years ago.”

    “But they know about parallel dimensions, don’t they?” Dad asked.

    “No, they don’t,” Ron told him. “Hermione’s a pioneer.”

    “Oh.” Mum looked surprised.

    “Yes. She’s a genius.” Ron smiled.

    “That was never in doubt,” Dad said. “We’re just worried about your relationship.” He sighed. “I said it already: You’re under a lot of stress. All the fighting… That’s not a good base for a relationship. Even if there weren’t your unique circumstances, that might be a problem.”

    Ron knew what he meant. But that was between Hermione and Ron. “We’ll be fine,” he said.

    And hoped that he would turn out to be right.

    Mum didn’t look like she agreed - or wanted to accept it - but after another exchange of glances with Dad, she huffed and walked over to the others - presumably to check on Luna.

    “Sorry,” Ron mumbled after an awkward pause.

    “For standing up for your girlfriend?” Dad asked in a low voice.

    “For risking my life. But I have to… I can’t do nothing,” Ron tried to explain.

    “We’ve known that ever since you got hurt the first time and we found out how dangerous working for CI5 is,” Dad told him. “We should’ve known after Pettigrew.” He sighed. “But knowing and accepting are two different things. Molly worries a lot about you.”

    “I know.” Ron did. And he hated making his mother worry. But this was too important.

    “And Ginny and Luna being involved in this isn’t helping,” Dad told him.

    Ron clenched his teeth for a moment. “I know,” he said. “But we couldn’t keep them away. Should we have locked them up?” Dad knew them as well as Ron did.

    “I guess not.” His father shook his head. “You’re a stubborn lot, all of you.”

    “We’re your children - what did you expect?” Ron replied. Well, Luna wasn’t - but Mum had taken care of her after Luna’s mother had died in the car accident.

    “You’ve got me there.” Dad chuckled, but it sounded more rueful than amused. “Molly will come around. Eventually.”

    Ron nodded. Unless one of them died, of course.

    “So… a bag of holding and healing potions?” Dad raised his eyebrows as he changed the subject.

    “Hermione doesn’t like it if we call her bag a bag of holding,” Ron replied. “But functionally, that’s what it is.”

    “Clarke’s Law?”

    “Yes.” Ron nodded.

    “Ah.” Dad waited a moment, but if he wasn’t going to ask directly if it was magic, Ron wouldn’t tell him. “The ‘portal’ will be two-way, right?”

    “Yes.”

    “That’s good.” His father was about to say something else, but the sight of Mum leaving the room - and not in the best state - interrupted him. He nodded at Ron and followed her.

    Ron sighed again. Doing the right thing could feel wrong.

    Hermione and the Grangers hadn’t returned yet, so he went over to Luna and the others.

    “Molly doesn’t like what we’re doing,” Luna told him.

    “As usual,” Ginny said with a frown.

    That was unfair, in Ron’s opinion. Mum meant well. She just couldn’t accept that they weren’t children any more. “So, what now?”

    Xenophon smiled at him and pulled out an old-fashioned notebook. “Well, I’ve got a lot of questions, mostly for Dr Granger, but until she returns…”

    Ron suppressed a groan. Xenophon could be worse than a CI5 interrogator. On the other hand, it was better than trying to deal with crying parents. “What do you want to know?”

    “I’ll have to interview Dr Granger as the primary source, of course, for the parallels and differences between our worlds. However, you were actually inside the secret Russian base, weren’t you?”

    Base? “You mean the compound on the Black Sea coast?” Ron asked.

    “Yes. Run by a ‘former’ KGB officer - It’s clear that President Putin was using him so he can claim plausible deniability. Did you find any proof of the link between them?”

    As Xenophon’s theories went, this wasn’t the worst by far that Ron had heard. Not really implausible, either, now that he thought about it. “No, we didn’t. We were too busy escaping.”

    “Ah. A pity. First-hand proof of government conspiracies in Russia is very hard to come by.”

    Xenophon sighed, and Luna patted his shoulder. “We’ll get proof, Daddy. When we’re dealing with the Russians once Hermione has settled things in her world, we can uncover their crimes at the same time!”

    Ron winced. If Xenophon exposed the Russians, he would be risking his life. And Luna’s. The Russians didn’t shy away from murder in such cases. He glanced at Harry and Sirius, who looked grim - they would have realised this as well. Ginny, too.

    And the worst thing, Ron realised, was that he suddenly understood perfectly how Mum had to be feeling about his own choices.

    *****​

    Mum and Dad were still talking in another room - this really was a secret spy base, with so many safe underground rooms available - by the time Hermione and the Grangers rejoined Ron and the others. He hugged her - she looked like she needed it.

    “Where are your parents?” she asked after a moment.

    “Mum had to leave for a while to calm down. Dad went with her,” Ron said.

    “Ah.” He heard and felt her sighing. “Not exactly a happy family reunion.”

    “No,” he agreed. “But it could’ve been worse.” Probably.

    “It can always be worse.”

    “Was it as bad in your world? About your mission in the war, I mean,” he clarified - he didn’t want to hear about how his counterpart’s family had reacted to the other Ron getting together with Hermione.

    “I don’t know - we weren’t there when they were told,” she replied as she stepped back from his embrace.

    “Ah.” He stayed close to her. “Did Dumbledore arrange that?”

    “He told us not to tell anyone about our mission.”

    He took that as a ‘yes’. “We should have planned this a little more,” he said. “Dumbledore organised a secure underground meeting room - with catering - and we pretty much stumbled into this.” And Ron was sure that the old spymaster had anticipated that.

    “What could we have done differently?” she retorted. “Unless we lied to your parents, they would not have been happy anyway. And there’s no good way to tell a parent that their child is dead.”

    Ron slowly nodded. He didn’t quite agree - they could have run this a little better. Prepared his parents and the Grangers a little more. On the other hand, that would have felt like they were ‘handling’ them. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. “Well, at least no one stormed off.”

    And if the lunch that would soon be served was as good as the cooking in the laboratory, then that should help improve the mood.

    *****​

    Lunch was excellent - salad, potato soup and steak frites. By the time they were served a variety of desserts, including Ron’s favourite mousse au chocolat, the mood certainly had improved, in Ron’s opinion.

    “The twins opened a joke shop? Really?” Dad sounded bemused, and even Mum was smiling as she shook her head.

    “Well, it was a mail-order business, but they had plans to open a shop in our main shopping district later,” Hermione answered. An awkward pause followed since everyone knew that ‘later’ in this case meant ‘after the wear’ and not ‘after school’, but that was the elephant no one was talking about at the table.

    “The parallels are amazing,” Luna piped up. “Especially since there are clear differences as well. We didn’t all go to the same school, for instance.”

    And this world’s Hermione had been killed in 1991, and had never met any of them. Ron grabbed another helping from the dessert trolley. Luna hadn’t meant it like that, and this Hermione wouldn’t have gone to Ron and Harry’s school, anyway, but he still carefully didn’t look at the Grangers.

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed. “It’s quite the coincidence - or it may be that you can only travel to a dimension that’s very close to your own.”

    “You don’t know?” Dad sounded surprised. “But you’re close to opening a portal to your home dimension, aren’t you?”

    She shook her head. “Yes. To my home - not to a random dimension. I already know that interdimensional travel is possible since I’ve done it, although accidentally, and I have several items from my home dimension, including myself, as a guide.”

    “Ah. So you’re not working on a universal portal, so to speak.”

    Ron groaned at Dad’s pun.

    “No, although in theory, it should be possible to use the same method as a base for travelling to other dimensions,” Hermione replied.

    “Something to explore later,” Luna said. “Imagine travelling to worlds with an utterly alien history - perhaps worlds where the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct but developed sapience? What do you think our dinosaur counterparts would look like? Would we all be the same kind or different species?”

    Ron was about to point out that it was unlikely that two or more different sapient species would evolve on the same planet but then remembered that there were at least a dozen sapient magical species in Hermione’s world. And, well, most fantasy books had several sapient races in the same world, like elves, dwarves, orcs and humans.

    “Oh, I would like to be able to fly,” Luna’s father said, nodding enthusiastically.

    Luna beamed at him. “Oh, yes. Or… what about a world full of dragons? What type of dragon would your counterpart be? Red, for you, Ron?”

    “Only if they’re not always chaotic evil,” Ron joked, but only Luna, Harry and Hermione laughed. Ginny rolled her eyes, and the others didn’t seem to know about D&D.

    But it had started the ball rolling, so to speak, and they spent half an hour speculating about various hypothetical versions of everyone without another awkward pause breaking the mood.

    *****​

    M11, East of Cambridge, Britain, October 15th, 2005

    “Luna’s fallen asleep,” Ron whispered as he retook his seat in the car.

    “She must have worn herself out,” Hermione replied in a low voice. “She practically ran the meeting all afternoon.”

    Which was probably why they hadn’t had another row with his parents. “Luna always was the peacemaker,” he said.

    Hermione nodded in agreement but didn’t elaborate on her Luna. Ron shrugged. “All in all, it could’ve gone worse.”

    “We didn’t really settle our differences,” Hermione pointed out. “They still don’t like what we’re planning to do.”

    “It’s as settled as it usually goes, for my family,” he replied with another shrug.”We’re too stubborn to actually admit defeat - we just sort of don’t bring it up again.”

    “That doesn’t sound like a good way of handling problems.”

    “It works for us,” he told her.

    “Well, as long as Molly no longer thinks that I’m going to lure you and Ginny into a war…”

    She looked tense, he noticed. “She won’t,” he tried to reassure her. Of course, should any of them actually die, Mum would blame Hermione. But Hermione would blame herself anyway, as Ron knew, so there was no need to mention that. Not that she wouldn’t know it already. “In any case,” he continued, “we can now focus on our next step.” Travelling to her world. In a way, they had said their goodbyes, too - but no one had mentioned that, of course.

    “You mean watching me while I do the research,” she said.

    “And ensuring that you don’t overwork yourself,” he added with a grin. And, of course, preparing for the war. Just in case.

    She nodded and leaned into his side with a contented - or so he thought - sigh. He closed his eyes and wrapped his left arm around her shoulders. They’d be driving without a break all the way to Scotland, with Smith and Brown alternating at the wheel, so taking a brief nap seemed like a good idea.

    *****​

    “Do we have everything?” she asked, then bit her lower lip. She didn’t want to nag. She trusted her friends. But she couldn’t help it - this was important.

    “Yes, Mum,” Ron replied.

    She clenched her teeth in response. He was just making a stupid joke. And she saw him flinch as he realised what he had done - just a little too late to keep himself from doing it.

    “Sorry, I didn’t think…” He shrugged with a grimace.

    “It’s alright,” she told him, nodding curtly.

    But it wasn’t alright. She really didn’t want to be reminded of her parents. Or his. They wouldn’t have taken the news that Dumbledore had planned a mission for the trio well. Not that the Grangers or the Weasleys would have been told anything - operational security was paramount - but it didn’t take a genius to work that out, not when the three of them had all but vanished right after Dumbledore’s funeral.

    She didn’t like doing it - her parents had barely seen her in the last two years, and would worry terribly about her while they were in hiding, and Molly and Arthur would fret a lot - but it was necessary. Someone had to track down and destroy the last of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, and they were the only ones who could do it, thanks to Harry’s link with the Dark Lord.

    She’d explain everything to her parents after the war. They would understand. At least she hoped they would.

    She grabbed her beaded bag and checked the Extension Charm one last time. Then she ran through her mental list of the contents of the bag. She couldn’t think of anything they might have missed.

    A last look around the rooms in the small cottage Dumbledore had provided for them didn’t reveal anything amiss either - everything was in its place, including the hidden trunk with additional supplies. Just in case.

    “Alright, let’s go!”

    *****​

     
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  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 31: The Decoy
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 31: The Decoy

    Black Lake, Scotland, October 20th, 2005

    After a week of watching Hermione perform magic rituals, Ron had become slightly nonchalant about them. Not bored - they were still a sight to behold - but he wasn’t as tense as he used to be. These days, he no longer expected trouble to start at any moment. He still was alert, of course - Moody’s training had ensured that he wouldn’t be lax just because something looked safe.

    It helped, of course, that the ventilation system had been improved so that the incense didn’t fill the entire lab any more. And the lighting adjustment meant that the whole ritual looked more clinical, more like a science experiment than a ‘summoning of dark forces’, as well.

    Most importantly, though, Hermione had changed the formula, as she called it, and now the room didn’t warp any more. Instead, tiny lights appeared in the middle of the quantum mirror cage - or danced over its frame.

    He still felt a shiver run down his spine when Hermione stood and raised her arms above her head, and her chanting grew louder and louder until she was yelling. This was the climax. If anything went wrong, it would do so now.

    But it didn’t. Once more, a tiny glimmering light appeared in the centre of the cage. Like yesterday and the day before. He took a deep breath, then froze. Was the light growing brighter? He blinked - yes. Yes, it was. And it was growing in size as well. He blinked again - it was so bright, he had trouble focusing on it now, even squinting. And…

    It vanished.

    And Hermione was on her knees, panting. That hadn’t happened during the last few rituals, either.

    “Hermione! What did you do?” he snapped as he hurried towards her.

    She took a deep breath, then sighed with her eyes closed before answering. “The link between the cage and the ritual worked. It was a bit more exhausting than I expected, though.”

    That didn’t sound good - or safe. His expression must have betrayed his thoughts, or she knew him so well she could guess, since she went on: “I wasn’t in any real danger - the limits were well defined.”

    “For this experiment.”

    “Yes.”

    That meant the limits would have to be expanded for the real deal.

    She got up, but her legs were shaking, so he helped her stand. “Thanks.”

    He grunted in reply.

    “I’ll have to adjust the ritual a little more, but we’re getting close.”

    “Close enough to open a tiny hole for a tiny period of time?” he asked.

    “I’ll have to check my data to answer that.” She was beaming at him, so she hoped it was the case.

    He smiled at her in return. This was good news - excellent news, really. They needed access to her world to deal with their problems here. The meeting with their families had helped, of course - it felt good to be able to talk to his parents without having to lie to them. That was probably the reason Dumbledore had set it up. But they were still in danger. Still being forced to hide. And they still didn’t know anything about the state of Hermione’s world, or her friends and family.

    She sat down at her desk and quickly lost herself in the columns of data scrolling across the screen. “Oh… that’s looking good. Very good,” she mumbled.

    Safely behind her, where she couldn’t see his face, he let his smile fade and sighed. He still didn’t know what Hermione would do when she returned to her world. It was pointless to ask before they knew the situation in her world, of course. At least he told himself that.

    “Yes! Yes! It worked as planned!”

    He forced the thought away when Hermione whirled and hugged him, holding her while she babbled about the experiment. There was no point in worrying about something he couldn’t change.

    *****​

    “...and while the portal had a diameter measured in fractions of a nanometer, and only lasted a microsecond, it was definitely open and connected to another dimension,” Hermione said, waving her fork around. Ron was tempted to mime ducking out of the way, but this was her moment. He’d still nag her into finishing her meal once she was done, of course.

    “So now all you have to do is scale it up?” Luna asked.

    “That’s oversimplifying it a little. It’s still a challenge - many processes that work on a small scale cannot be easily reproduced on a practical scale for various reasons, and the power requirements might be a little higher than I anticipated, but, essentially, yes, you’re correct.”

    “Great!” Luna beamed. “I can’t wait to meet my counterpart!”

    “How much is ‘a little higher’?” Harry asked.

    Hermione winced. That wasn’t a good sign.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, October 21st, 2005

    “...and these are the adjusted projected power demands,” Hermione finished her presentation.

    “I see.” Dumbledore nodded and put down the sheet of paper she had given him. “That’s quite a bit higher than your initial estimate.” He didn’t look surprised, though Ron couldn’t tell if that was an act.

    Hermione’s brief frown wasn’t faked, Ron could tell. But she raised her chin slightly and replied: “It was a preliminary estimate, based on the best data I had at the time, and with a conservative margin of error. However, as often happens, further experiments revealed that the original estimate had been too low.”

    “I anticipated that - you can imagine how often Phoenix Gruppe’s research and development division is far too optimistic in their projections. However, the scale of this adjustment is rather unexpected.”

    The old man was being quite diplomatic, in Ron’s opinion - Hermione’s ‘adjustments’ came down to tripling the power demands.

    She looked contrite as she nodded. “Yes, Mr Dumbledore.”

    He sighed. “This leaves us with few options. We could add more generators, which means the fuel deliveries will have to increase as well, requiring additional fuel tanks. Or, as an alternative, the laboratory would need to be connected to an existing power plant.”

    Ron snorted - a power line built through Scotland would lead their enemies straight to them - and would take far too long, too.

    “What about a nuclear reactor?” Hermione asked. “There are compact models.”

    Dumbledore shook his head. “That is not an option. Nuclear reactors are tightly controlled. Even if the Phoenix Gruppe were in the business of building them for our shipyards, one couldn’t be moved without attracting international attention from various sources - including protesters in Germany. Transporting one to this laboratory and installing it would also require specialised personnel and resources as well as additional construction, and would put the location on the map, so to speak. Her Majesty’s Government would most certainly be very interested in whatever project would require such a power source.” He sighed again. “Unless you can create a way to produce power through magic, we’ll have to ship in more generators and adjust the refuelling schedule. It’s not ideal and does threaten our secrecy, but I fear it’s the only viable option.”

    “I was afraid of that,” Hermione confessed. “I’m sorry.”

    “We’ll have to make do.”

    “Do we have the space for the additional generators?” Ron asked.

    “It’ll be tight, but with some adjustments, it should be possible. Although the ventilation might be strained a little as a result.”

    That did sound like a rather significant drawback, given that this was mainly an underground base. “What about the paper trail?” he asked. He wasn’t a physicist, nor a wizard, but Ron understood security and secrecy.

    “We’ll be using the same resources that were used to construct this facility in the first place,” Dumbledore told them. “That part shouldn’t pose additional security problems.”

    Ron nodded. “But more construction and more generators mean more deliveries. That will make it harder to hide the facility.”

    “Indeed, although while challenging, it’s far from impossible. I have some experience in hiding important secrets.” Dumbledore smiled confidently.

    Ron still couldn’t tell if it was an act or not.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, October 23rd, 2005

    Laying on the top of the hill overlooking the last leg of the road leading to the lake, Ron watched the trucks arrive through his night vision device. The full moon had been a few days ago, but it was cloudy, and the trucks didn’t use their lights, so they were practically invisible to the normal eye. Though the Russians would have the technology to spot the vehicles anyway, it’d still make it harder for their spies.

    It also made it harder to spot any spies, of course. But Ron and his friends would still try their best.

    It had only been two days since Dumbledore had been informed of the adjusted power demands - so he must have been prepared for such an eventuality. That made Ron feel a little better about the whole thing. He hoped it would make Hermione feel better about her entirely understandable mistake, too.

    “Have you spotted any tails?” he heard Luna ask through the radio.

    “None as far as I can see,” he replied, keying his microphone. But anyone following the trucks wouldn’t be as obvious as to use the road - it’s not as if this road led anywhere other than the lake resort. Hell, anyone with an old map would be able to guess the trucks’ destination as soon as they turned on to this road. That didn’t change the need to check the area, of course.

    “My drones haven’t spotted anyone, either,” she replied.

    “The workers have started unloading the cargo,” Harry told them. Ron’s friend was hidden at the resort. “I haven’t seen anyone suspicious, yet.”

    “I haven’t seen anyone at all,” Hermione reported, and Ron suppressed a snort. She was staying in their room, hiding from everyone, and had even dismantled some of her gear so the workers installing the additional generators wouldn’t find any sign of her presence.

    They were doing this by the book and leaving nothing to chance.

    And yet, all it would take to render their precautions useless would be one compromised man at the right spot in Phoenix Gruppe.

    Well, they were preparing for that case as well, of course.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, October 25th, 2005

    “Finally!”

    Upon hearing Hermione’s exclamation, Ron looked up from the book he had been reading on their bed. “Did they finish installing the generators?”

    She pushed back from the desk she had installed in their room and turned to face him. “They’ve finished installing the generator in my laboratory. Dumbledore just informed me.”

    That meant that the other five generators were still being installed in the garage and the new room formed out of the former pantry and the quarters next to it.

    She was already gathering her notes. “We need to check the lab, first,” he told her.

    “What?”

    “The workers could have planted a bug, or something worse.” Dumbledore might have picked them, but that didn’t mean they could be blindly trusted.

    He saw her take a breath and open her mouth, but the expected retort didn’t come. Instead, after a moment, she sighed. “Sorry. I’ve just been…” She trailed off.

    “You’ve been stuck here with me, instead of in your lab,” he finished for her with a nod.

    “You aren’t the problem!” she blurted out, then saw his grin and pouted. “But I can’t run experiments here.”

    “And rituals would wreck the room.”

    “Yes.”

    He chuckled. “So much for the tales of tantric magic.”

    “That’s actually real,” she told him.

    “What?”

    “Yes. There is a tantric magical tradition in India.” She was leaning against the desk, in lecture mode. “But it’s mostly limited to fertility rituals.”

    “That makes sense, I guess.” He nodded.

    “Well, in theory, nothing would stop a practitioner from developing different tantric rituals - it’s just that, compared to wands, rituals are generally both unwieldy and less effective, so what would be the point?” She shrugged. “Barring, of course, the case of being stranded in another world without your wand.”

    “Why get a horse if you can have a car, hm?” He closed his book.

    “Well, just as horses can cope with certain terrain better than cars, there are areas where rituals are the best - or the only - choice.”

    “Oh?”

    “Blood magic. Sacrificial magic.” She wasn’t smiling any more.

    “Ah. Not a good alternative, then.”

    “There are rituals where the caster sacrifices some of their blood instead of animals or humans, but most countries treat all blood magic the same, so the practice is almost exclusively limited to dark wizards or the desperate,” she explained.

    He raised his eyebrows a little but didn’t ask whether she was included among the desperate. From what he knew about the war she had fought, things had certainly been dire enough. “So, best you wait here while I go on a bug hunt.” That way, she’d also be safe if someone had planted a bomb.

    He knew that she didn’t like it - but hiding her presence from the workers would have been pointless if she was caught on a hidden camera. Well, a hidden camera not controlled by Dumbledore or Luna.

    After a brief kiss, he left the room and went to the lab.

    Two hours later, he hadn’t found any bugs or a bomb in the laboratory. That didn’t mean the workers could be trusted, of course - any one of them could still be an informant for the Russians. But, for now, the laboratory was safe.

    Hermione was at her desk, setting up her computers, two minutes after he let her know.

    Pretty much as he had expected.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, October 27th, 2005

    “While I am not a picky eater, or spoiled - though Gellert would disagree, of course - I do think the dessert was a little… less than what it could have been,” Dumbledore said as he put his fork down after finishing his slice of cake.

    “Due to the need to install more generators, the kitchen crew lost their main pantry and had to relocate from their old quarters,” Harry said. “That’s bound to affect their work.”

    “Ah. This isn’t an isolated occurrence, then?”

    “No,” Ron replied. The quality of the meals had gone down a little in the last few days.

    The old man nodded. “I see. We can hope, then, that, as they get settled in and adapt to the changes, the meals will return to their former standard.”

    “Yes.” Privately, Ron wasn’t quite sure whether the drop in quality was, at least partially, not simply the kitchen crew venting their anger at having to move their stock and quarters. But the food was still decent, so it wasn’t a significant problem.

    “That said, I didn’t come here to sample the food,” Dumbledore said. “Although it certainly made the trip more pleasant.”

    “Did you find the mole?” Harry asked, leaning forward and pushing his half-eaten dessert out of the way.

    “Alas, while the investigation continues, we haven’t found a suspect yet - although we’re still pursuing leads,” the former spymaster replied. “No, I have come to inspect the work done - which seems to have been done to Dr Granger’s satisfaction, if not, as you mentioned, to the cook’s - and to inform you that my sources have confirmed that the Russians have been growing more active in Britain. They are expanding their network among the Russian expats, for one.”

    “Ah.” Ron nodded. That was a logical step - there were a lot of rich Russian businessmen, many of them with a somewhat questionable past, living in London. He was about to ask if Dumbledore had any names when he noticed Luna stealing Harry’s dessert and chuckled.

    “However, the increased activity of the Russian intelligence assets in our country has also caught the attention of MI5. Which is both a blessing and a curse, I fear,” Dumbledore continued, shaking his head - after a bemused glance at Luna.

    “I guess we can’t just assume anyone snooping around is a Russian spy, then,” Sirius said. “So no shooting first and asking questions later.”

    “Something that should be standard policy in any case,” Dumbledore pointed out. “You wouldn’t believe the number of bird-watchers and hikers who ended up in police custody for a few hours after stumbling on to a secret facility during the Cold War. Unfortunately, we cannot exert the same pressure the government was able to bring to bear in those cases to make people keep quiet.”

    “That means we need to let intruders who might be mere tourists or hikers walk around or they will grow suspicious,” Harry said. “Even if they might be Russian spies in disguise.” It was clear he didn’t like it.

    “I’m afraid so,” Dumbledore told him. “We’ll have to trust our camouflage.”

    Which wouldn’t really fool an experienced spy, Ron thought. Perfect.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, October 31st, 2005

    She was checking the power readings again, Ron noticed. On the generators, not just on the computer. Including the old generators, which had worked perfectly well for months. “Do you suspect sabotage?” he asked, rising from his usual spot on the bench.

    “What?” Hermione turned to face him, stopping halfway to her desk.

    He pointed at the generators. “You triple-checked them. Even though we went over the whole assembly yesterday, and you ran several tests.”

    “Oh.” He saw her frown, then grimace. “I’m sorry. It’s silly, but… it’s Halloween.”

    Ron blinked. “Do you expect magical interference?” She hadn’t mentioned that before.

    She sighed and moved to sit down at her desk. “Not exactly. But back in my world, bad things tended to happen on Halloween. Mostly to Harry - his parents were murdered on Halloween in 1981 - but we were affected as well. The troll attack I told you about? That took place on Halloween in 1991. In 1992, the Basilisk’s first attack happened on Halloween. In 1993, a break-in occurred that scared everyone - by Sirius. In 1994, Harry was forced into a dangerous tournament on Halloween.”

    That was an impressive series. “And in the other years?”

    “Nothing special,” she said, smiling weakly. “I told you, it’s silly. But I’m always on edge on Halloween.”

    “So’s Harry,” he told her. “His parents were killed on Halloween as well, here.”

    “Yes, I know.”

    “Is Halloween a magically important date?” he asked. In a number of books he had read that was the case.

    She shook her head. “It was an important date for rituals in the past, but modern Arithmancy has proved that that was merely superstition and tradition - if there is any magical significance to the date, then it’s below the average influence of the planets on magic. Which is,” she added with a huff, “negligible.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. “So it’s silly, but you’d rather be safe than sorry?”

    “Yes.”

    He shrugged. “I don’t think that’s silly. Just common sense. Especially since there are a lot of parallels between our worlds, and our Halloween quota hasn’t been filled yet, I think.”

    She giggled at that, though it sounded forced. “There’s also the fact that a power surge during the ritual would be quite dangerous.”

    “Ah.” She hadn’t mentioned that before. But it made sense. As much as magic could make sense, he guessed. “And with three times the generators, the risk of such a mishap has tripled?”

    “More or less - it’s not a straight multiplication, but such numbers are rarely as precise as they seem.”

    “‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’?” he quoted.

    “In certain cases.” She sighed. “I’ve done what I could, so now all that remains is the actual ritual.”

    Which would use three times the power on the cage.

    Ron did his best to smile encouragingly and confidently at her. Even though he felt more than a little queasy - sometimes, ignorance was bliss.

    He stayed on his bench, too, while she performed the ritual. And hoped for the best.

    *****​

    “...and so the increased power is affecting the ritual as I expected!” Hermione said, beaming at him as she turned away from the screen. “I achieved a huge relative increase in duration.”

    “That’s great!” Ron told her - although he had to take her word for it. He wouldn’t have been able to tell from observing the ritual. “Although that’s not much in absolute terms, is it?”

    She frowned at him, and he laughed; she looked cute like that. “It’s an exponential increase. That means scaling up will be easy.”

    “And dangerous,” he pointed out.

    She shook her head. “Not if the right precautions are taken.”

    Once more, he had to take her word for it. Although he trusted her not to jeopardise the entire laboratory. And everyone in the area, of course. “Baby steps.”

    “Essentially, yes. Increasing the power step by step, so to speak. Even though it’s more complicated than that.”

    “It’s magic and quantum physics,” he said, shrugging. “It would be weird if it wasn’t complicated.”

    “It’s using well-founded concepts and established laws.” She looked a little annoyed.

    He couldn’t resist. “Of magic,” he said, nodding very slowly.

    “Yes, exactly, the laws of....” She blinked, then shook her head, huffing. “Oh, you!”

    He grinned in return. “Sorry. I blame the twins’ influence when I was young and impressionable.”

    “I wonder how many times you blamed them when they were perfectly innocent.”

    “Perhaps once or twice?” He cocked his head at her.

    “Per month or per week?”

    “I wish,” he said, laughing. “They are two years older, and there are two of them.” He hadn’t gotten back at them nearly as often as they had managed to get him.

    “That’s another parallel,” she said. “I wonder…”

    Luna’s voice on Ron’s comm interrupted her. “Ron! We’ve got a contact near the lake!”

    *****​

    Twenty minutes later, Ron had found the contact - well, there hadn’t been much searching involved, not with Luna keeping them in her drone’s field of vision. But a drone, especially if it had to be kept at a distance to avoid being seen, could only do so much. Taking a look with his own eyes was still the best way to investigate, in Ron’s opinion. Even if it was dangerous at times.

    But this wasn’t one of those times - the man, and it was a man, was alone. Dressed like a serious hiker, with a high-end camera; the size of the lens made Ron want to crack a joke about compensating for something. He also was certain that the man was a member of an amateur ornithologist club - the book he was consulting every few minutes was probably the ‘Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland’.

    And he was almost as certain that it was a cover. The man was a little too fit and didn’t have the build of a hiker, from what Ron could tell from his vantage spot hidden in the underbrush on a nearby slope. But most importantly, when Harry, on the other side of their visitor, had scared up a few ravens, the man hadn’t watched the birds, but the ground.

    That wasn’t a bird-watcher’s reflex.

    “I think that’s a spy,” he whispered into his comm.

    “Drat,” Luna answered. “What do we do?”

    There wasn’t much they could do. If the man didn’t return from this trip, his handlers or partners would know that this was a location of interest. And none of Ron’s friends could show themselves - the Russians knew about them and would recognise them. Well, so would half of Britain after all the news reports about the whole affair.

    “We’ll have to let Filch’s people handle it,” Ron said. As planned. Harry grunted his assent - Ron’s friend really didn’t like letting known criminals or threats walk away - and Ron switched the channel to Filch’s. “Young-to-middle aged man, trained. He’s all yours.”

    “Copy,” Filch replied. “We’ll send him off.”

    “Understood.” Ron kept watching as the man slowly made his way down to the shore. They couldn’t intervene too early - if the people posing as the caretakers of the resort showed that they had detected the intruder at this distance from the resort, they might as well admit that they were guarding a top-secret facility.

    He knew that, but he still loathed seeing the spy walk along the shore, even taking samples of the water. Well, the water should be fine - there was nothing suspicious in there. Although… perhaps they should have planted some chemicals in it to throw people off and make them think this was a chemical research facility? On the other hand, the Russians were unlikely to know or even assume that Hermione’s research was environmentally friendly.

    But since the man was now on the shore, it wouldn’t be implausible to have a caretaker notice them from the resort’s location. After some time, of course.

    The man was good, Ron had to admit ten minutes later as a small boat was approaching. He wasn’t acting as if he was in the wrong, but just standing at the shore, waiting, as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

    “I’m patching you into their radio channel,” Luna announced. “Don’t say anything, though - they don’t know I’ve gotten in to their network.”

    They probably did, in Ron’s opinion. Or suspected. Dumbledore certainly must. Although his men might not be aware. Or not all of them. He switched his microphone to push-to-talk and waited a little longer.

    “Hello!”

    “Hello, sir,” Filch’s man said in a heavy Glaswegian accent. “I’m afraid to say that is private property.”

    “Oh? I didn’t notice. There was no sign.”

    “It’s been a derelict resort for a couple decades. We’re still refurbishing it for the new owner. But they were clear that this lake was private. As are the woods around it.”

    “Oh. What a pity. It has the most fascinating birds.” Ron saw the man pull out and open his book. “See here? This species is really rare!”

    “I don’t know much about birds,” Filch’s man replied.

    “Oh, it’s a fascinating hobby! Did you know…”

    Ron gritted his teeth as the spy launched into a spiel about ornithology that Ron was certain had been chosen to be as dull as possible. The intruder was good indeed.

    *****​

    “...and we tailed him to his car. We got the plates, but we haven’t run them through the system yet,” Harry said. He looked tired - but that was to be expected after having spent several hours trekking through the Highlands.

    “They won’t lead anywhere. The man was too smooth to be an amateur,” Ron replied.

    “Even experienced people make mistakes,” Harry retorted. “And if they’re fake, then we’ll know he was a spy.”

    They were already operating under that assumption, but Ron didn’t say so. Harry deserved some justification for his efforts.

    “What do we do now?” Hermione asked.

    “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” Ron told her.

    “And make sure that we’ll never go on such a hike again. I’m a cavalry officer. If I wanted to walk for hours, I’d have joined the bloody infantry!” Sirius exclaimed, then groaned. The older man looked worse than Harry - almost exhausted.

    Hermione glanced at him, then turned her head towards Ron again. “And what are those?”

    “Best case: The spy bought our act and thinks this is merely a resort. Worst case: The Russians launch an assault on the lab,” Harry replied.

    “How likely is that?” Ginny asked.

    “Not as unlikely as we’d like,” Sirius said. “If they can get plausible deniability and at the same time let us know that it was retaliation for the attack on Kirikov…” He shrugged, then winced and rubbed his shoulder.

    “Plausible deniability and claiming responsibility?” Luna shook her head. “Another sign of how far the government keeping secrets has corrupted our policies.”

    “Well, I’d rather not be known publicly as a dimension travelling witch,” Hermione commented.

    “Well, that’s your privacy, which needs to be protected,” Luna replied with a serious expression. “But the government needs to be accountable, and official secrets hinder this and help to hide their crimes.”

    “In any case, we should prepare for an assault,” Ron interjected before Luna led them off on a tangent.

    “Haven’t we been doing that all along?” Ginny asked. “We’ve been training every day. Well, most of us.”

    Hermione didn’t react to the comment, but Ron frowned at Ginny anyway. “We’ll have to be more careful when training. If we’re caught out in the forest, we’d be easy targets.”

    “And we have less of a need for secrecy now that Dumbledore knows about magic,” Hermione added.

    Ron nodded. Though he’d miss their evening strolls along the lake. And keeping some of their training a secret from Dumbledore was just being prepared for the other worst case. But needs must, in this situation. “By staying out of sight, we also make it harder for the enemy to use heavy weapons without risking Hermione being accidentally killed,” he pointed out.

    “Unless Putin decides that if he can’t have her, no one will,” Sirius retorted.

    That was a rather sobering thought. Depressing as well.

    “We’ll have to take that risk,” Ron said before Hermione could say anything. “And there isn’t much they can do to kill us all easily if they want to blame ‘terrorists’.”

    “And what if they drop a plane on us?” Ginny asked.

    “Sneaking in a plane big enough to actually threaten the lower levels here?” Harry shook his head. “The planes are tracked - and the RAF is ready to intercept planes in case of hijacking.”

    Ron would still feel a little safer if Dumbledore moved some anti-aircraft missiles to the site, but that was a very long shot. He shook his head at his unintentional pun.

    “And if the Russians attack, what do we do?” Ginny asked.

    “Hole up as a last line of defence, and hope reinforcements arrive before they reach us,” Sirius said.

    “Or evacuate through Hermione’s portal, if it’s ready by then,” Luna added.

    “That won’t be the case for at least several weeks if everything goes perfectly - which never happens,” Hermione was quick to point out.

    “You can’t launch an attack on Britain in a few days, either,” Sirius replied. “Not if you want it to have a better chance of success than the attacks we’ve already seen off.”

    Hermione nodded, and Ron suppressed a sigh. More pressure on her.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 13th, 2005

    The flickering glint in the centre of the quantum mirror cage lasted a second. And it was large enough that Ron could almost make out something darker in the middle. Something that didn’t shine as brightly. With some imagination, it might be seen as a ring. Like one that would form a portal.

    “That looks like progress,” he commented, then blinked as he turned to look at Hermione. “How much power did you feed to the cage this time?”

    “About a third of the theoretical potential, but the real limiter is the ritual,” she replied. “Why?”

    “Your hair.” He gestured. “It’s all… poofy.” It was doing its best to form a cloud around her head, from what he could tell, and her ponytail had been utterly wrecked in the process.

    “Ack.” She ran her hands through her hair as she went back to her desk, but to no avail - she didn’t even manage to get the hair back into a ponytail.

    “Is that a side effect?” He asked. And was it dangerous?

    “Just some leaking power,” she replied. “I’ll have to adjust the formula a bit better to compensate.”

    He wanted to ask how much ‘some’ was - and how much more might leak like that.

    Apparently, he didn’t have to voice his thoughts since she went on: “That’s why I’m taking baby steps and slowly increasing the power as I adjust the ritual, even though I could take far larger steps - the formula is now sound and tested. In principle.”

    “There’s no need to rush things,” he agreed. “It’s almost been two weeks since the spy visited, with no follow-up, as far as we can tell.” The plates had been registered to a false identity - which at least had confirmed that the man had been a spy.

    “Didn’t you just tell Ginny yesterday evening that growing complacent after a week or two was a typical mistake amateurs made?” she retorted, raising her eyebrows. Which had also been affected by the power leakage.

    Busted. He shrugged with a grin. “Well, yes. But there’s still no need to rush,” he insisted.

    She nodded, but he didn’t know if she took it to heart. She was still feeling guilty for problems that weren’t in any way her fault.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 15th, 2005

    “...and it’s now mostly a matter of steadily and safely increasing the power until the portal reaches a size and duration that makes travel practicable,” Hermione finished her explanation.

    “That sounds easy!” Luna said, nodding several times.

    “It’s not,” Hermione retorted with a frown. “The ritual’s formula is so complex, any increase in power fed to it requires adjustments to multiple, often very diverse factors, to compensate. It’s not as simple as increasing a value to compensate for an increased different value.”

    “Magic isn’t that logical,” Ron added. “But even when it comes to technology, scaling up a process often takes a long time.” At least if you did it safely.

    “Exactly. I’d rather only risk my hairstyle instead of my life - or yours.” Hermione nodded firmly.

    “A good stance, in my humble opinion,” Dumbledore said as he put down his cup of tea. “I also have good news for you: The Russians seem to be focusing on one of our decoy sites.”

    Ron frowned. He had almost forgotten about that plan. “I don’t recall hearing about suspicious visits to other sites.”

    “Need to know, Mr Weasley. Besides, people are generally more motivated to adhere to security guidelines and remain prepared when they think an attack is imminent. At least that is what I’ve observed with my own employees.”

    For Dumbledore, that was a slightly less subtle admonishment than his usual style, Ron noticed.

    “We’re better than that,” Harry told him.

    “Without question,” the old man told them with a patronising smile. “However, better safe than sorry, as the saying goes.” He refilled his cup. “I’ve also successfully diverted MI5’s attention to the same location.”

    “Won’t they be angry with you once they realise that it’s a decoy?” Luna asked. “MI5, not the Russians.”

    “Oh, they wouldn’t expect me to keep my valuable weapons research at a threatened location,” Dumbledore replied. “At least they shouldn’t, unless standards have really slipped since I quit Her Majesty’s employment. Although since they are already tracking several Russian operatives that have entered the country in the last week using various cover stories, I daresay that they won’t feel too annoyed.”

    Apart from being annoyed that they’d owe the old man another favour or three. And that Dumbledore had once more demonstrated his superiority, Ron would guess. The man was brilliant, but a little too arrogant, in his opinion, even though he tried his best to be jovial and friendly. Unless that was an act as well.

    “So everything is going according to plan?” Sirius asked.

    “It seems so,” Dumbledore replied.

    “That’s usually when things start to go really wrong,” Harry’s godfather replied.

    “We shall see. Perhaps we will be positively surprised.”

    Ron snorted. As if.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 16th, 2005

    Ron was about to head to bed - Hermione was still in the bathroom, showering after their workout - when someone started knocking on their door. “Ron! Hermione!”

    That was Luna’s voice. And she sounded agitated. “Yes?” Ron replied.

    “It’s starting - the Russians are moving on the decoy site in Wales!”

    What? Ron jumped out of bed and opened the door. “How do you know?”

    “I’ve got access to the information sent here to Dumbledore.”

    “Ah.” He turned around. “Hermione!”

    She stepped out of the bathroom, dressed in her pyjamas. “I heard.”

    Five minutes and a quick change of clothes later, Ron and Hermione entered Dumbledore’s private quarters - for the first time. They were smaller than he’d expected, and looked more comfortable than stylish, though a huge TV screen showed four different camera feeds - all focusing on a square-looking building at night. Dumbledore, sitting in a leather armchair, and Luna, standing next to him, were both watching attentively.

    “What’s happening?” Ron asked.

    “Wait a minute. The infiltrators should arrive on screen any moment now,” the old man told them.

    “Infiltrators?”

    “The Russian operatives MI5 and my security have been tracking for several days.”

    “It’s a trap,” Luna said.

    Ron had to chuckle at that.

    “What’s going on?” Sirius entered, followed by Harry and Ginny, who looked like they had been called while they were still in the shower.

    Instead of answering, Dumbledore hit a few keys on his laptop, and one of the images on the screen grew, replacing all the others. A number of figures became visible on the enhanced picture. Figures trying to break into the building.

    “The authorities should be making their move about now,” Dumbledore commented. “Before my own people are forced to defend themselves.”

    As if on cue, the figures suddenly were illuminated by several flashlights. A firefight broke out at once as they fired on the lights, and MI5’s people - well, soldiers from the looks of it - returned fire.

    Sirius shook his head at the sight. “They’re caught in the open, surrounded by forces under cover. Only idiots would resist in that situation.”

    Indeed, the figures were falling, one after another. MI5 didn’t seem to be pulling punches - then again, after the London attacks, that was kind of understandable. Although… “Isn’t this happening a little too fast?” Shouldn’t those be elite operatives?

    “Indeed. I would have expected more…”

    Dumbledore was interrupted by the distant sound of an explosion, followed by sirens.

    “Someone’s attacking us!” Harry yelled. “The attack on the decoy site was a feint!”

    *****​

    “Here they come again!” she heard Harry yell, followed by explosions. She forced herself to ignore the noise, to suppress the urge to rush out and help them. She had to focus on the ritual. They needed to find the last Horcrux. A sob almost ruined the last chant, but she managed to finish.

    For a moment, nothing happened. Had she failed anyway? Or was there no Horcrux in the Room of Requirement?

    Then she felt the familiar tug. Yes. “I’m getting it!” she yelled, standing up and starting to hurry towards the back of the room, following the tug of the ritual.

    An explosion shook the entire room, throwing her against a pile of broken furniture. She cried out when splinters pierced her skin, then gasped - the entire area around the entrance was covered in dust and smoke. “Harry! Ron!”

    They stumbled back, out of the smoke - curses flashing past them. Ron’s Shield Charm lit up when a spell splashed against it. “Bastards came through the ceiling!” he yelled, rolling to the side.

    “Go!” Harry shouted, wand moving as he sent a few curses back through the smoke.

    She pushed herself up, using a damaged cabinet to steady herself, and rushed on, ducking as more curses flew above her head.

    She was close now. So close.

    *****​
     
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  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 32: The Assault
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 32: The Assault

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 16th, 2005

    As far as Ron could tell, Dumbledore’s only visible reaction was a slight frown as he said: “It seems we have unexpected visitors.” He tilted his head and pushed a button. “Argus?”

    “Sir! Someone’s attacking the building!” Filch’s voice came from a hidden speaker. “We’ve lost contact with the patrols and the entrance team.”

    Ron suppressed a hiss. That was worse than he had feared.

    “Are we re-enacting Eben-Emael?” Sirius asked.

    Ron took a second to place the reference. The Belgian fortress, taken by German paratroopers landing on top of it in World War II.

    “I hope not,” Dumbledore replied. “We do have more options than the Belgians did.” The old man was still infuriatingly calm.

    “If they’ve taken out the patrols and the guards at the entrance, then they’re already inside the building.” Harry pointed out the obvious.

    “They’ll need to go through several choke points before they reach this level,” Dumbledore countered. “However, I think it would be prudent to arm ourselves - just in case.” He nodded towards Hermione. “You have your armoury with you.”

    Had the old spymaster arranged all of this to see the bag of holding in action? No. But he certainly took advanatge of the opportunity as soon as it appeared. Although it wasn’t as if they had any choice - and Dumbledore was already aware of the bag’s potential, anyway.

    Hermione must have come to the same conclusion since she quickly started pulling out weapons, ammunition and bulletproof vests.

    “Fascinating. Is the diameter of the opening its only limit?”

    “No, the internal space is extended, but its capacity is definitely limited,” Hermione replied.

    “Technically limited, I presume,” Dumbledore said. He hadn’t moved to arm himself - though Ron was sure that the old man was already carrying a pistol. Not the best choice for a firefight - but then, while Dumbledore was quite fit for his age, he was nevertheless in his eighties.

    Ron grabbed his favourite assault rifle and the spare mags Hermione was pulling out. Harry, Sirius and the others did likewise. “Let’s hope Filch remembers more about fighting than he does about military manners,” Sirius mumbled.

    “Oh, he does remember both,” Dumbledore commented. “He is, however, quite selective about when he uses either.”

    Sirius scoffed in return. “Typical.”

    Ron ignored the exchange and looked at Luna and Ginny gearing up. They had trained for this - specifically indoor fighting, in fact, over the last few days stuck inside - but they weren’t trained soldiers or police officers. But how to tell them to stay back without triggering a row? “Is there a secret escape tunnel?” he asked.

    “Unfortunately, we haven’t quite finished the emergency exit into the lake - the airlock required hasn’t yet been delivered,” Dumbledore replied. “And the excavation work for a tunnel hasn’t progressed very far, either.” He tilted his head and sighed. “It was deemed to be too much of a security risk to involve too many workers in either - in hindsight, a bad decision, though quite understandable at the time.”

    “Great. We’re trapped like rats,” Harry commented.

    Hermione took a deep breath. “Not exactly.”

    Ron turned to face her, frowning. She couldn’t be thinking...

    “You plan to activate your portal?” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows.

    “I’d rather not,” she told him. “It’s very dangerous. But if the alternative is getting captured or killed by Russian spies…”

    “I vote for the portal!” Luna piped up.

    “Won’t that take too long, anyway?” Harry asked. But he was glancing at Ginny, Ron noticed.

    “An hour is about the minimum,” Hermione replied.

    “Then you’d better start now,” Sirius said. “Luna and Ginny can guard you.”

    Ron’s sister opened her mouth to protest, but Dumbledore spoke up before she could say anything. “I think the laboratory will make for a good last line of defence. I will relocate there as well, to coordinate our efforts.”

    “If someone disturbs me while I’m performing the ritual, the consequences will be catastrophic,” Hermione pointed out. “I’ll need guards.”

    There wasn’t much Ginny could say in the face of that. She tried anyway, of course, as they moved to Hermione’s lab. “You don’t need two guards - Ron was always the only guard in the lab.”

    “We weren’t under attack, then,” he pointed out.

    “And how could anyone get past you? If I’m with you, the odds are better that no one will get past us in the first place!”

    “Ginny,” Harry said, “Luna’s needed for surveillance, Dumbledore for coordination, Hermione does the ritual. You’re the only one left to protect them,”

    “But…” She was shaking her head, lips pressed together, tears in her eyes.

    If this weren’t about fighting Russian secret agents, Ron would’ve been moved to give in.

    But as things were? Ginny and Luna stayed with Hermione and Dumbledore while Ron, Harry and Sirius went up a level to join the defenders.

    There, Filch’s men - a dozen that Ron could see - were setting up firing positions that reminded him far too much of the opening scene of Star Wars.

    “I take it that the ground floor has been lost, then,” Sirius commented.

    Filch glared at him from where he was directing the rest but nodded curtly. “The survivors are falling back to the staircase.”

    “We won’t be able to hold the stairs,” Sirius replied. “They can just chuck grenades down at us.”

    As if to underline his words, they heard an explosion from upstairs.

    Filch bared his teeth. “I know. But we can slow them down a little more. Reinforcements are on the way, and every minute counts.”

    And would be paid for in blood, Ron thought. But at least the staircases were split - the one connecting the first of the basement floors with the ground floor and the upper floors was on the other end from the one leading to the lower basement floors and Hermione’s lab. They had more room to set up here.

    “The lift shaft is a weakness,” Sirius said.

    “Mined,” Filch snapped back.

    “Ah.”

    Ron couldn’t help glancing at the lift in question. That was a radical solution.

    “Is the garage secure?” Harry asked. It was a good question, Ron felt. If the additional generators were taken out, Hermione’s escape plan would be doomed from the start.

    “We’ve got two vehicles there, covering the entrances,” Filch reported. “And the gates are reinforced.”

    “And the enemy, as far as we can tell, isn’t focusing on the garage. Either an oversight, or they do not wish to split their forces,” Dumbledore’s voice sounded through the radio. “However, that might not remain the case for long. Also, they are quickly overwhelming the remaining security staff on the ground floor. Pull them back, Argus.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    As Filch gave the command, Ron looked around. The men were set up well, in his opinion. And the stairs and lift were choke points, both covered from all angles. They were even hastily setting up Claymore mines. Pushing through here wouldn’t be quick or easy.

    Sirius must have come to the same conclusion. “We’ll reinforce the garage,” he said, “and serve as reserves.”

    Filch grunted in return, his eyes focused on the door to the stairs, where three men, one being carried, entered. “Close it!” one of them yelled. “There’s no one left alive up top!”

    A moment later, massive doors slid shut behind them.

    “Medic’s set up in the infirmary below. Drop Palmer there and come back!” Filch snapped before glancing at them.

    “Let’s move!” Sirius told them, striding back to the stairs.

    In the garage, things weren’t looking quite as good. Two vehicles - the armoured SUVs they had used on the trip to meet their parents - had been driven into the centre of the garage, facing the gates, but the four men inside them were wielding assault rifles and were ready to fire out of the windows.

    “Even a technical would be better than this,” Sirius muttered. “At least they have set up in a way that won’t draw fire to the generators. Let’s set up the machine guns. The support pillars will hamper our field of fire, but it’s the best way to stop a rush through the gates.”

    “What if they come through the roof?” Harry asked.

    “We’ll set up at the entrance to the stairs,” Sirius said. “That should keep us safe enough to fall back.”

    “I’ve got a drone up in the air,” Luna announced through their radios while they were using another armoured car to set up. “They’re still focusing on the building, I think.”

    Tunnel vision? Sticking with the plan no matter what? Or was it another feint? Ron had no idea, but he glanced at the ceiling. Shaped charges would go through it, if they were powerful enough - or if you used enough. And the Russians were always ready to use brute force.

    Another explosion, far stronger than a mere grenade, rang out - behind them.

    “They’ve blown the doors on the first basement floor!” Luna told them.

    Ron glanced at Harry and Sirius. “Should we…?”

    “Not yet,” Sirius said. “Dumbledore will tell us if we’re needed back there.”

    “So far my men are holding,” they heard Dumbledore say - he was listening to Luna’s channel, Ron realised. “Although they’ve already lost two men in the exchange. The enemy fared worse, however.”

    “How many men do they have, anyway? Did they sneak in an entire company?” Sirius complained. “Were the RAF and the Royal Navy asleep on the job?”

    “I doubt they arrived legally in the country. Probably dropped out of an unsuspicious cargo plane with fake freight papers flying over Scotland,” Harry replied.

    Ron wouldn’t have expected Putin to go so far. On the other hand, after 9/11 and the large-scale hostage incidents in Russia, ‘terrorists’ could be blamed for a lot. Still, there would be consequences for this, Ron was sure of it.

    Not that that would matter much if they couldn’t hold out until relieved. The Russians would be aware that reinforcements were on the way, though - that would explain their stubbornness in the face of mounting casualties.

    Still, trying to press a charge through a choke point? That made walking towards the German lines in the Somme look like a smart plan. And Putin wasn’t dumb. “They’ll come through here, too,” he said. “Luna, can you see movement near the garage? Or on top of us?”

    “Uh… the doors are clear… oh. There are a few people above you. Placing… a bomb!”

    Damn.

    “Move back!” Sirius yelled. “They’re going to blow the ceiling!” He was already dropping into the armoured SUV, closing the roof as if it were a tank’s hatch. Harry simply pulled his rifle back inside the car and ducked, but Ron was caught in the open - between the car and the door behind him.

    Cursing, he whirled and sprinted towards the door. He had almost reached it when the ceiling exploded, and the shock wave threw him down on to the ground, knocking the breath out of him. He rolled to the side, gasping as concrete fragments dropped down all around him and a cloud of dust engulfed him, barely managing to keep a grip on his rifle.

    Hacking and coughing, he scrambled up, holding one arm over his head, and stumbled forward, towards the door. Or where he thought the door was - he couldn’t see anything. He stumbled over something on the ground - debris, as he found when he fell on hard, jagged concrete - and once more rolled across the floor. But he had hit the wall, which meant he could use it as a guide as he crawled towards the door.

    Shots started to ring out, followed by screams. From above.

    “They’re firing down. And they’re rappelling!” Luna announced. “Ron! Are you OK?”

    “I’m alright,” he blurted out as he reached the door and slid around it, into the staircase behind. No one had shot at him, or if they had, he hadn’t noticed.

    The dust was starting to settle, and Ron could make out movement above - in the giant hole left in the ceiling. He raised his rifle, leaned against the corner, and took aim.

    His first burst missed, and the man sliding down the line vanished behind a car before Ron could fire again. But he caught the next attacker as he pushed off from the roof, leaving the man dangling limply from the rope.

    Sirius was back - Ron recognised the sound of the machine gun - but as he searched for another target, he saw that one of the cars Dumbledore’s men had set up had been crushed by a massive part of the ceiling that hadn’t broken up. That didn’t look like… Movement!

    Ron aimed at a figure running through the dissipating dust cloud, towards the second car in the centre of the garage. But if that was a survivor… A burst cut the man down, rendering the point moot without revealing his identity.

    “Bloody hell! How many are there?” Sirius cursed over the radio. “New belt! Need a new belt!”

    Ron caught another attacker rappelling down, but only winged the man, and then had to duck back around the corner when someone started firing at the door. “They’re assembling on the floor!” he yelled.

    “I need to reload!” Sirius yelled back. “Finally!”

    Once more, the machine gun rang out.

    “Gotcha, bastard!”

    A moment later, the second SUV on their side vanished in an explosion.

    “RPG!” Harry announced.

    “Where?”

    Ron exposed himself, frantically searching for the shooter. How long did it take to reload an RPG launcher? They’d take out Sirius and Harry next - or Ron himself.

    There! A man was rising behind concrete debris, aiming a rocket launcher. Ron fired while moving, emptying his magazine. The recoil sent most bullets into the ceiling, but he managed to control the rifle long enough to hit the gunner. The Russian jerked, stumbling back, and started to fall.

    And pulled the trigger, sending the rocket-propelled grenade flying - directly towards the generators in the corner.

    Ron’s eyes widened, and he threw himself to the ground moments before the grenade exploded. He jumped up at once, ignoring the pain in his side and leg - falling down on concrete debris hurt, even if you were wearing a vest - and reloaded his rifle as he fell back.

    “Bloody hell!” he cursed - one generator was wrecked. Worse, Ron could see fire spreading around it - the explosion must have torn up the fuel lines. “We need to get out!” he yelled. “It’s on fire!”

    “What?” Luna asked. “Oh, no! The generators!”

    So much for the portal, Ron thought as he crouched near the door and started to lay down some covering fire. “Pull back! Pull back!”

    The door of the armoured car was pushed open, and Harry jumped out, rolling over his shoulder. He came up firing, using the door as cover. Behind him, Sirius followed, dragging the machine gun with him.

    Someone started shooting at them, and Ron shifted his fire - then had to reload. But it was enough for Sirius to dash across the gap between the car and the debris in front of the door, and a moment later, he was back to shooting.

    The fire was spreading quickly, though - it had already engulfed all the generators and was moving towards the closest cars. Ron could feel the heat from the approaching flames. “Harry!” he yelled.

    His friend looked at him, then turned and started to sprint towards him. Bullets struck the ground near his legs.

    Ron emptied his magazine in the direction from which the shots had come, but couldn’t even see the shooter. He didn’t think Sirius saw them, either. But if they made the enemy duck for even a second…

    Harry screamed and fell, rolling across the ground, his rifle flying from his hands and sliding across the floor.

    “Harry!” Sirius screamed.

    “Cover me!” Ron yelled and jumped up, firing the last of his bullets blindly as he rushed towards his friend. Harry was on the ground, with no or minimal cover - and exposed to enemy fire. He was moving, but slowly - and there was blood pooling on the ground.

    “Damn!”

    Ron let go of his rifle, letting it dangle from the sling, and pulled out a smoke grenade as he jumped over a larger piece of debris. Bullets started to hit the ground and rubble near him, and he threw himself into a combat roll to throw off the enemy’s aim. His rifle was jerked around in the process, hitting his knee hard enough for him to yell with pain, and almost got stuck between two bent pieces of rebar. He managed to pull it off, though, and lobbed the smoke grenade behind Harry before dropping to the floor. Trying to ignore the pain in his leg, he crawled towards his friend as thick, black smoke started to fill the area.

    Sirius finally got his machine gun reloaded and added suppressive fire - at least Ron hoped he did; he couldn’t see anything in the smoke. But he could hear Sirius’s gun and he just had to go straight to reach Harry.

    Just a few more yards.

    Something struck his forehead, hard, and for a terrifying moment, he thought he had been shot dead. But he didn’t die, even though blood was running down the side of his face. A glancing blow, then, or a concrete fragment sent flying by a bullet.

    He crawled on, another yard, then another… and then his hand didn’t meet hard, jagged concrete, but something softer. “Harry!”

    “Ron?”

    “I’ve got you!” Ron quickly shifted his position, groaning at the pain in his knee, and wiped some blood from his head before he grabbed Harry under the shoulders. “Let’s get out of here!”

    The smoke wouldn’t last forever, and if the attackers kept firing into the thick of it, they would hit them sooner or later,

    “You know the way?” Harry asked, far too weakly. “I seem to have gotten lost a bit.”

    “Don’t joke about that,” Ron shot back as he heaved and dragged his friend over a broken square of concrete.

    They were about halfway back to the door, and the smoke hadn’t grown any thinner yet. Perhaps they’d get lucky, for once.

    Then Ron felt the heat and gasped. The smoke hadn’t grown thinner because the fire from the generators was about to reach them! “Bloody hell!” he cursed, frantically pulling at Harry. “Hurry! The fire’s about to reach us!”

    “Fuck!” Harry spat. “Ron…”

    Ron cut him off. “Shut up and crawl, damn it!”

    The heat was growing worse. And Sirius’s machine gun had fallen silent again. Were those flames he could see to his right? Flickering over the floor, trailing the leaking fuel?

    “Leave me!” Harry groaned. “Save yourself!”

    “Fuck you!” Ron shot back. He screamed with frustration and pain as he stopped crawling and crouched, then pulled Harry on to his shoulder. “Just shut up!”

    His knee hurt like hell, and he yelled even more when he rose, but he managed to stand up with Harry over his shoulder. Yes, those were flames reaching for them. He tried to run - but his knee didn’t let him. He almost collapsed, then forced himself to go on, limping and stumbling towards Sirius, screaming all the way.

    A figure appeared in the smoke. Ron reached for his pistol, almost dropping Harry, before he recognised Sirius.

    “I’ve got you!”

    Ron felt himself pulled forward, then pushed from behind, Harry’s weight growing lighter, and stumbled on. He was pulled to the side after a few steps, then pushed forward again, then crashed into something - a railing.

    “Close the door!” he heard Sirius yell. “The fire’s almost in the staircase!”

    Ron turned - the smoke was lighter, less dense here - dragging Harry, who had slid from his shoulder but was still clinging to it, along just in time to see the door close behind them.

    Then he did drop his friend as he collapsed in a coughing fit. “Sirius!” he managed to blurt out as he spat and coughed, “Get him to Hermione!”

    “Harry! Oh my God! Harry!”

    Ron blinked. That sounded like Ginny. But she was…

    “Drink this! Drink it!”

    Oh.

    Ron leaned against the wall and slowly started to slide down to the floor. His sister had brought potions. Smart. Should’ve thought of that.

    He tried to snort, which turned into another coughing fit, before someone grabbed his head and he felt a vial on his lips.

    “Drink, Ron!”

    The potion tasted awful, but his pain vanished at once.

    Well, most of it vanished. His knee still hurt. Harry, though… Ron forced himself to stand and check on his friend. Ginny was kneeling next to him, cutting away parts of Harry’s trousers to check on his thigh wound. “How is he?”

    “I’m fine,” Harry whispered. He didn’t look fine, of course - he was pale, and Ron didn’t think he could stand.

    “You’re not fine!” Ginny spat. She turned her head to look at Ron and Sirius. “We need to get him down to the laboratory so we can feed him another potion.”

    “Alright,” Sirius agreed at once. “It’s not as if the Russians will be able to attack through the fire raging in the garage, so this flank’s secure.”

    “For the moment,” Ron said.

    “Long enough,” the older man replied. “By the time the fire dies down, we’ll be dead or safe.”

    Ron chuckled at that - morbid or not, it was correct.

    They grabbed Harry by the arms and pulled him up, ignoring his protests that he could walk if they just gave him a moment.

    A minute later, they entered the laboratory, where Hermione was still performing the ritual. Which depended on power she wouldn’t have access to, Ron realised. “Bloody hell!” he mumbled. Could he tell her? Would that distract her enough to mess up the ritual anyway? But if he didn’t tell her, would that be worse?

    “Ron! Are you alright?” Luna asked, interrupting his thoughts. “You’re bleeding!”

    He swallowed his first response. This wasn’t Luna’s fault. None of it was. “I’m alright,” he said. “Potion fixed it. But Harry…” He glanced over his shoulder.

    Ginny was offering a potion to his friend. “Drink!”

    “We should save it for emergencies,” Harry replied.

    “This is an emergency, you idiot!” she hissed.

    “Drink it, Harry. We’re still under attack,” Sirius chimed in.

    “Oh, yes,” Luna told them. “They’re still fighting upstairs.”

    Ron tried to ignore them. Tell Hermione, or not? So far, they hadn’t talked during any of the rituals. But… it couldn’t be too bad, or she would’ve taken more precautions, wouldn’t she? He walked up to the ritual circle. At least if this was a mistake, he’d be right at her side. He noticed her eyes tracking him as he approached. “The generators in the garage are gone,” he whispered.

    She seemed to grow tense for a moment, though she never stopped moving her hands and mumbling syllables in a language he couldn’t quite place as she nodded.

    He took a step back, hesitated, then took a few more steps back. She didn’t seem to be panicking, so it should be alright. It had to be alright.

    He couldn’t just stay and watch her, though. He turned away, glancing at Harry. His friend was about to be force-fed a potion - a Blood-Replenishing Potion, Ron recognised the colour of the vial - by Ginny. He’d be okay then.

    Ron headed towards Dumbledore. The old man was sitting at Hermione’s desk, although he was using a laptop of his own. And there was another laptop there - presumably Luna’s.

    “How are we doing?”

    “Adequate, so far - despite their numerical superiority, the enemy hasn’t managed to breach our lines of defence.”

    “Yet,” Ron felt compelled to add. The Russians would’ve broken through in the garage if not for the fire.

    “We need but hold out long enough for reinforcements to arrive,” Dumbledore replied.

    “And how long will that be?” Ron asked.

    “About half an hour, at most,” Dumbledore told him.

    That wasn’t good news. Ron was about to say so, but he noticed Luna approaching them. “Helicopters?” he asked instead.

    “Yes. Not armed helicopters, unfortunately - Her Majesty’s Government frowns on private companies using attack helicopters.”

    “With good reason!” Luna interjected. “If you could take over by force of arms, you wouldn’t have to bribe the government any more!”

    Dumbledore laughed at that. “Quite, Miss Lovegood. How is the situation up top?”

    “Oh. One moment.” She took a peek at her own laptop. “Apart from the fire burning in the garage, which has driven away the people trying to enter, unchanged.”

    “Then I fear they will focus on breaking through the stairs with renewed vigour,” the old spymaster told them. “They, too, will be aware that they will soon run out of time.”

    “Bloody Russians,” Ron muttered. “Then we better get back up top to help hold them off.” He turned to Ginny. “You keep guard here.”

    “Like hell I will!” she yelled at him. “I’m coming with you! We trained for this, and I’m not going to hold back whoever gets past you by myself!”

    “They have to go through the massive door, first,” Ron pointed out.

    “They’ll just blow it up.”

    “I’m afraid I have to agree with that assessment,” Dumbledore cut in. “They had shaped charges to get through the garage’s roof - they will have more of them to get through the doors inside.”

    “And I can deal out potions!” Ginny told him. “You almost died without me.”

    Before Ron could refute that, Luna hefted a rifle. “I’m coming too,” she said. “At this point, aerial surveillance is not very important any more, and Mr Dumbledore can keep an eye on my screen.”

    Ron glanced at Hermione, just to check if she suddenly wanted to join as well, but she was still performing the ritual. Stuck doing it, as far as he knew. But to take Ginny and Luna with them...

    “Time’s running out!” Luna told him.

    “She’s right. Let’s move,” Sirius said. “Before we get defeated in detail.”

    Ron glanced at Harry, but his friend only nodded with gritted teeth. Ron muttered a curse and turned towards the stairs. At the very least, he’d do all he could to stay between Ginny and Luna and the enemy.

    Upstairs looked like a scene out of a war movie - on the losing side. Filch and three others were the only ones left fighting, or so it seemed, and they were in or at the doorway, shooting from behind improvised barricades. Half a dozen others were on the floor, unconscious or dead at first glance. Damn.

    “We need to push them back!” Sirius yelled. “We’re too concentrated here - that’s begging for a grenade.”

    Filch leaned back into cover and snarled. “Tell that to the enemy; they’re not cooperating!”

    Sirius snorted and crouched down, getting his machine gun ready. “Well, let’s see what…”

    “Grenade!” one of the guards yelled, shooting wildly. “Got him!” the man yelled, followed by an explosion on the enemy side.

    “Ah, shooting them before they can throw,” Sirius said. “That we can help with.” He leaned around the corner and fired several bursts at the other side.

    Ron used the opportunity to speed-crawl past the door, to the other side. He got up and started firing around the corner as well. “Come on, Harry!”

    His friend joined him a few seconds later. Luna stayed with Sirius, but, of course, Ginny followed Harry. Damn. She should have stayed on the other side - easier to fall back to the basement from there. And supplying Sirius with enough belts for his machine gun would occupy both her and Luna.

    But the enemy’s fire grew stronger. Filch yelled: “Prepare for a push!” And Ron no longer had the time to send Ginny back. Instead, he had to duck before moving forward behind a toppled sturdy metal table with some thick planks piled up behind it.

    It was a decent, but not perfect, barricade - ahead of Ron, a bullet punched through it. A moment later, one of the remaining guards fell down, yelling and holding his bleeding leg. Ron cursed again and stood, snapping off a few quick shots before ducking down again.

    This was getting worse with every second. Sirius had already gone through a belt and was reloading with Luna’s help.

    “Grenade!” someone yelled, and Ron felt as if his blood froze in his veins. He got up, rifle firing, but the Russian had managed to get into position on the side, and Ron’s bullets hit him after he had already thrown the grenade.

    He gasped, turning and diving to the floor, knowing it wouldn’t be quick enough to save him, but Ginny leapt up next to him, swinging her rifle like a bat - no, like a racket.

    And hit the grenade, sending it back towards the enemy position.

    The grenade exploded a second later, and Ginny, who had been diving to the floor, but hadn’t quite made it in time, yelled as she was thrown to the side.

    Then she screamed, holding her leg - her calf was bleeding something fierce. Bullet or grenade fragment, Ron couldn’t tell, but there was blood all over her leg.

    “Get a potion!” he snapped, but she just kept holding her leg and screaming.

    Cursing once more, he crawled towards her. “Keep them suppressed!”

    Sirius’s machine gun started up again, providing some covering fire when he reached Ginny and started to go through her webbing’s pockets and pouches to find a vial. “Stay calm!”

    “It bloody hurts!” she yelled back. “And I can’t stop the bleeding!”

    “Where’s the damned potion?”

    “Thigh pocket.”

    Who’d put anything there? But he found the right pocket, and the right potion, handing it to Ginny. “Drink!”

    “Put pressure on my leg,” she yelled back.

    He did so, wincing as her blood covered his hands, but she drank the potion, and he could feel her wound knitting itself closed under his hands. Not completely, though.

    Sirius’s gun fell silent again - Ron heard the older man yell for more ammunition - and Harry opened up with his rifle. “Get back down,” he told Ginny.

    “Forget it, I’m fine.”

    “I can feel the wound,” he snapped. “Get it bandaged!”

    Before she could reply, loud yelling filled the entire room. Screaming like banshees - or almost. Ron looked at Filch, who was once more firing wildly.

    “Here they come!”

    More shots rang out, peppering the entire area. Ron saw Filch jerk as several bullets hit him. Ron rolled across the floor - he had to get up and shoot back, but he also needed to get Ginny to safety. If there was any safety to be had.

    Another grenade exploded behind him.

    “Sirius!” he heard Luna scream. The machine gun fire had stopped, he realised. He gripped his gun. No time. “Crawl back!” he yelled to his sister, then rose, leading with his gun and firing blindly. Something hit his rifle, throwing it to the side and out of his hands before he got his head above the barricades. Then a screaming Russian jumped over the barricade and ploughed into him.

    The man’s bayonet sliced his left arm open, and Ron was smashed into the ground, the man landing on top of him, still screaming. He tried to pull back, but Ron hit him in the throat with his right hand, then in the face, smashing his nose. As the man reared back, Ron drew the knife from the sheath on his shoulder and started stabbing.

    He didn’t aim his blows - he just stabbed at the man’s throat and head as fast as he could. Until the man’s screams changed to a gurgling noise and blood hit Ron’s face before the Russian collapsed.

    Ron pushed him off, hissing in pain as his left arm felt as if it was on fire, and drew his pistol. Another Russian appeared on top of the barricades, firing wildly, but before he managed to lower his rifle to shoot at Ron, Ron shot him several times, and the man fell back.

    Where was Ginny? Ron turned, looking for his sister, and gasped. She was on the ground, fighting a Russian who had gotten behind them with her bare hands. And there was another next to her. Ron shot one-handed, most of his rounds hitting the man’s vest, but one hit the man’s throat, and he went down, blood gushing from his forehead.

    Ginny! Ron got to his knees, aiming - but if he missed, he might hit his sister! He moved forward, trying to keep his head below the shot-up barricades. He had made it halfway to them when the man’s head snapped back, and Ginny twisted out of the way - no, despite her position on the ground, she wasn’t twisting away - she launched another kick, with her good leg. She hit the man’s head again, driving him further back - and up. Ron dropped so he could fire without endangering Ginny and shot the dazed man.

    “Ginny!”

    But she was crawling away already - towards Harry. Damn! The grenade - both Sirius and Harry were down!

    “I need a potion!” Luna yelled, from where she was trying to help Sirius.

    Before Ron could help either, something hit him in the back, and he was thrown to the ground.

    He had been shot. In the back. Ron managed to roll on the side, but the pain... He screamed, raising his pistol, and more shots hit him, punching into his own vest hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Hard enough to break the plates.

    His pistol went flying as he folded over, unable to do anything but yell and hold his stomach. He saw the man shift his position, the muzzle of the rifle swinging towards Ron, and forced himself to move, knowing it would be too late, but he couldn’t let...

    The man’s head jerked back, blood and brain splattering against the wall next to them. Ron glanced over his shoulder and saw Ginny holding Harry’s gun, blinking.

    And there was Luna, firing at something or someone Ron couldn’t see, on the other side of the barricades.

    His stomach hurt like hell, but he couldn’t see any blood. So the vest had kept the bullets from penetrating. Probably on his back as well - he wasn’t dead, yet, anyway. Unlike pretty much the entire security force Filch had had left.

    Good enough to fight some more. He dragged himself up into a sitting position and reached for the Kalashnikov a Russian had dropped. Half a magazine left. At least he’d be able to shoot anyone coming over the barricade from here, even if he couldn’t stand.

    But they weren’t coming.

    “What are they doing?” he yelled.

    “Hiding!” Ginny yelled back.

    Damn.

    “We need to fall back.” He gritted his teeth and crawled towards Luna. “Before they regroup and rush us again.”

    “What?”

    “Fall back and close the doors.” That would gain them a little more time. “We need to treat Harry and Sirius.” And there were other wounded, weren’t there? Damn, moving hurt. And his arm was still bleeding. But he could still move.

    He blinked. The stairs were moving too. And… fading.

    “Ron!”

    “Ron!”

    *****​

    He woke up with a start. Where was he? Where were his friends? What… Ugh. His stomach and back still hurt. As did his arm.

    “Ron!”

    Ginny!

    He looked around, He was on the stairs leading to Hermione’s lab. The others… Oh, Harry was there, sitting on the stairs and looking like he had been thrown through a wood chipper, but he was alive and awake. And Sirius, in a similar state, was even aiming his machine gun upstairs.

    “They’ll get through the door above us soon,” Harry said.

    He glanced over his shoulder. Two wounded security men were hefting rifles as well. And there was Dumbledore, wearing a suit, handing out more ammunition.

    So this was their final line of defence.

    And where they would die. Damn.

    “Luna?”

    “Miss Lovegood is inside the lab, handling overwatch,” Dumbledore informed him with a dry smile. “They took out the cameras, but she still has a drone in the air.”

    “Thank you,” Ron replied. He glanced at his sister, who was kneeling next to Harry.

    “Miss Weasley wouldn’t move,” Dumbledore told him.

    Of course she wouldn’t. Too stubborn for her own good. Ron scoffed. But there was nothing he could do about it.

    “How much longer?” he asked instead.

    “A few more minutes - they will be careful when placing the charges.”

    “They can’t have many men left.”

    “They don’t,” Dumbledore agreed. “But more than we have. Enough to press the attack one more time.”

    That meant they had a chance. A small chance, but a chance nevertheless. Ron nodded and checked the rifle they had left next to him. Fully loaded. Good.

    He was ready for them now. They’d have to go through him, over his dead body, to reach Hermione and Luna.

    And he’d make them pay dearly for it.

    He waited.

    Minutes passed without an attack. Were the Russians trying something sneaky? He glanced up. Coming through the ceiling, perhaps? Attacking the lab would endanger Hermione, but the stairs would be fair game… But did they know that?

    “Where are they?” Sirius muttered.

    “They’ll come. They’ve spent too many men to get to this point,” Harry replied. “Bloody Russians.”

    But they didn’t come. Minutes passed without an attack.

    Then Luna appeared on the door to the lab.

    “The helicopters have arrived! They’re attacking the Russians from above!”

    *****​

    She stared at the circle and bit her lower lip again. Thus far, she had always strived to do her best - to cast every spell perfectly. To do the opposite, to deliberately fail at casting a spell… It went against every fibre of her being.

    But she had to learn how to control a ritual that went wrong. And to do that, she had to train with failing rituals. She took a deep breath and recalled the instructions. If you lost control of a ritual, you needed to divert its magic. Exert some minimum of control to channel it into safe, or at least safer, effects. Preferably spells that were easy to cast. Or had harmless effects.

    Like light. Although too much light would hurt as well.

    She took a deep breath. She was a Gryffindor. It was dangerous, but she could handle it. It was a calculated risk.

    She started the ritual. And after the first minute of chanting, she deliberately stopped.

    For a moment, she felt light as a feather. Then she felt as if someone had put her in a vice and were squeezing her. She could sense the magic. But to direct it… She flicked her wand even though she knew that wouldn’t work.

    And she hissed with pain when it failed.

    A minute later, she had regained her breath. And, after a few more minutes, her nerve.

    This would take time.

    *****​
     
    Scopas, Higure, BooksRFme and 5 others like this.
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 33: The Recovery
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 33: The Recovery

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 16th, 2005

    Relief filled Ron, and he had to struggle not to close his eyes and let himself rest. Reinforcements had arrived. They were saved. Saved at the last minute.

    “I must say that’s indeed quite fortunate,” Dumbledore commented with a smile that was, perhaps, a little wider than his usual one.

    “Yes! Yes! Thank God!” Ginny, of course, was far less restrained. Ron saw his sister kissing Harry and hugging him hard enough to reopen his wounds. Probably. Not that Harry seemed to mind. And Luna was beaming while Sirius… the man was baring his teeth in an almost feral grin, but he hadn’t dropped his machine gun, yet. Meanwhile, the other wounded were cheering or at least making a good attempt at it.

    But… “Hermione?” Ron asked.

    “She’s still… busy,” Luna answered, biting her lower lip as she glanced down, towards the entrance to the lab.

    Oh. Of course. The ritual wasn’t finished yet. She could still… Ron slowly stood and started to descend the flight of stairs leading to the laboratory.

    Half a minute later, he stepped into her lab. She was still chanting, and he couldn’t tell if she had noticed his entrance. Then he saw her eyes darting towards him, followed by a frown.

    He shrugged and sat down on his bench. And ignored her pointed glance at the door. He knew this was dangerous, but he wanted to be there with her. No matter what.

    And someone had to guard the door and prevent anyone from disrupting the ritual. Just in case the others outside failed to do so. Well, it was a decent excuse, anyway. He closed his eyes for a moment.

    *****​

    Ron woke up in the middle of a storm. Wind was pushing against him, strong enough to push him off-balance, hitting him with shredded paper and other small debris. A roaring noise filled his ears - he could barely hear himself call out: “Hermione?”

    There she was. In the middle of the circle, standing while the air flowed, rushed, around her, whipping her hair about and tearing at her clothes. It looked as if the only reason that she hadn’t been swept away was that the air was hitting her and pulling at her from every direction at once, even though that was absurd.

    But it was magic. Even inside the storm, there was this tingling feeling, and small flashes of light were lighting up all over the place but were focused on Hermione. Not light, lightning.

    Hell, lightning was running up and down her body!

    Ron stood and almost fell, stumbling several feet to the side as the wind raged against him. But he clenched his teeth and pushed back, focusing on Hermione. He had to reach her. No matter what. Step by step, he pushed forward, forcing himself through the storm. Paper hit him in the face, leaving cuts. A pencil hit his broken vest hard enough to remain stuck, like a dart. But he kept going. The storm grew more powerful, as if it was focusing on him, wanting to drive him back. Perhaps it did.

    He didn’t care. All he cared about was her. Reaching her. Step by step, he marched on. Fought his way onwards. A few more yards. The gale pushed him back, one, two steps, until he found his balance. He gritted his teeth and continued, one hand shielding his eyes and face from debris. He didn’t need to see, anyway - he knew the way.

    One more step took him into the circle, but he couldn’t tell the difference. He didn’t even notice until he caught a glimpse of smeared runes - the candles and bowls had been blown away, smashed some time ago. Another step. One more. All the magic in the world wouldn’t stop him. He wouldn’t let it.

    Another step, another stumble. A shard from a broken bowl bounced off his vest and sliced his cheek. He didn’t care. There she was. Still standing. Battered - he could see the cuts and bruises on her face. She managed to turn her head, open her eyes a little and look at him right before he embraced her.

    And held her while the storm beat and raged at them.

    He didn’t know how much time had passed before the storm finally started to weaken, the roaring noise fading until he could hear her voice.

    “Ron, you fool!”

    He was still laughing, still holding her, when Harry and the others entered the lab.

    *****​

    “You could’ve been killed!” Five minutes later, their cuts and bruises having been treated with a few bandages and a little magical ointment, she was glaring at him.

    “So could you,” he replied, smiling. He didn’t mind Hermione being angry at him. They were alive. As were their friends.

    “Yes, but that was inevitable. You put yourself at risk. Deliberately. And for what? To die with me, if things went wrong?”

    “To save you, if you got hurt,” he replied. It wasn’t a lie. Not really.

    “And what if you got hurt?”

    He shrugged. “If things went really wrong, would I have been safe outside the laboratory?”

    She pressed her lips together instead of answering. Which answered his question anyway. “The risk inside was higher. Significantly higher.”

    “For both of us,” he pointed out.

    “I hate to interrupt, but we’ve got more important problems than deciding who between the two of you is the more stubborn fool,” Harry interrupted them.

    Ron looked at his friend. “What?”

    Harry grimaced, and Luna spoke up before he could say anything. “The government’s jackboots arrived with the reinforcements.”

    “MI5 is here,” Harry said. “And they don’t seem happy with Dumbledore.”

    “Oh.” That would complicate things. A lot. He glanced at the door.

    “Dumbledore’s stalling them, but that won’t last,” Sirius told them.

    Hermione gasped. “My data!” She whirled and ran towards her desk, which had toppled over during the ritual’s end.

    “Didn’t you back it up?” Luna asked.

    “I did. The hard drives are safe in my bag. But I want to wipe the computers here,” Hermione replied. “I don’t think the storm was strong enough to destroy their physical storage.”

    “Storm?” Ginny - and Harry - asked.

    Ron ignored them and joined Hermione at her desk, picking up a keyboard on the way - then another that wasn’t broken.

    “Just take the hard drives out,” Luna told them.

    “I’m planning to,” Hermione replied. “But I need to be sure that there is nothing buffered, either.”

    “Blow the whole thing up?” Sirius replied.

    Ron didn’t realise until he was stuffing more hard disks into Hermione’s bag that he was tampering with a crime scene and concealing evidence. He snorted - he didn’t care. This was the right thing to do. And MI5 weren’t the police, anyway.

    *****​

    “Where are the drives?” Mr Atkinson, the apparent leader of the MI5 team, asked with narrowed eyes. Ron was impressed - slightly. The middle-aged man had barely taken a glance at the ripped open computer cases on the floor after entering the laboratory before he addressed them. He hadn’t even waited for the rest of his men to go over the computers.

    “When it seemed as if the attackers were about to overwhelm us, Dr Granger chose to deny them her research data,” Dumbledore, who had come with Atkinson, replied. “A drastic but, under the circumstances, entirely appropriate decision, wouldn’t you agree, Nigel?”

    Apparently, the man wasn’t as fond of Dumbledore as Dumbledore presumed to be of him since he scowled at the old man. “And where are the backups?”

    “Safe,” Luna said with a smile.

    Atkinson glared at her, then turned to Dumbledore. “You’re working with the likes of her these days?”

    Dumbledore’s smile never wavered. “I’ve found Miss Lovegood to be a very smart and courageous young woman. If all my operatives had been of a similar calibre, I dare say that a few of my operations would have turned out differently.”

    Atkinson scoffed. “Things have changed since you retired.”

    “Things are always changing. Yet, in many ways, they stay the same,” Dumbledore told him, slowly inclining his head. Ron was sure that the old spymaster would have folded his hands, had he been seated.

    “I think you are as aware as I am that an invasion of Britain by Russian troops is unprecedented,” Atkinson shot back.

    “An invasion? Hardly. A few dozen men, at most,” Dumbledore retorted. “Unless Her Majesty’s forces have been cut back far more than was publicly announced, that cannot be called an invasion.”

    “And another dozen at that fake site you had us guard. Upstairs is not amused. And neither is the Prime Minister, I’d wager. No one likes it when you try to play your old games.”

    “Games?” Dumbledore sounded honestly shocked. “I informed you of an imminent attack by unknown forces on one of the Phoenix Gruppe’s research sites and cooperated fully with the authorities.”

    “And neglected to inform us that the research site was a decoy.” Atkinson shook his head. “That’s not cricket, old bean,” he added with heavy sarcasm.

    “If I had expected an attack on this site, I certainly wouldn’t have been present myself, would I?” Dumbledore shot back. “I know that I have a bit of a reputation in certain circles, but I’m not omniscient.”

    “Enough. What are you researching here that someone would go to such lengths in attempting to acquire it? And don’t try to tell me that this was aimed at you. Dr Granger’s been a person of interest for months now.”

    Uh oh. Ron glanced at Hermione, though she seemed utterly focused on the man.

    “Although I do not doubt that the… scale of this attack is at least partially a consequence of your unauthorised little adventure on Russian soil a few weeks ago,” Atkinson went on.

    Dumbledore cocked his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said with such an earnest tone and expression that Ron would have believed him - if he hadn’t been on said mission. And if he didn’t know Dumbledore.

    But Atkinson obviously knew the old man as well. “Enough with the lies!” he snapped. “It’s not the Cold War any more - not that you don’t seem to have tried your best to revive that conflict.”

    “I can assure you that the only thing I’ve done was stop the attacks on Dr Granger - something that certainly is in the country’s interest,” Dumbledore replied, seemingly unflappable.

    “You’re no longer the head of MI6. You’re a private citizen. And no matter how wealthy you are, you neither set nor enact the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s Government!”

    “Why not? Mr Dumbledore’s money certainly would be sufficient,” Luna asked. “Or do you mean that he didn’t bribe the government, as would have been proper procedure?”

    “What?” Atkinson turned towards her. “Are you insinuating that Her Majesty’s Government is corrupt?”

    “Of course not!” She shook her head. “That would be silly - why would I insinuate such a well-established fact?”

    Ron managed to avoid laughing out loud at Atkinson’s expression. Sirius didn’t.

    Atkinson clenched his teeth and glared at all of them. “Do you think this is some sort of joke?”

    “No,” Dumbledore spoke up again. “We’re all aware of the gravity of the situation. Miss Lovegood was completely serious. We managed to identify the man behind the attacks on Dr Granger a while ago, and I have no doubt that he is behind this latest attack as well. Just as I’m quite certain that President Putin will confirm that.”

    “You’ve found a scapegoat, you mean.”

    The old man spread his hands. “A private Russian citizen with ties to organised crime, sending out mercenaries and criminals to do his bidding. Probably with ties to terrorists as well.”

    Atkinson snorted. “Are you offering to serve in a similar role?”

    “I think that Her Majesty’s Government will find that on our side, this truly is a case of self-defence,” Dumbledore replied.

    “You were defending yourself all the way to Russia?”

    “Private investigators came under attack by locals and were forced to defend themselves.” Dumbledore smiled at the other man.

    “That won’t work. Not this time,” Atkinson said. “You aren’t the head of MI6 any more. You’re expendable.”

    “You’ll find that a number of influential people disagree with your assessment,” Dumbledore retorted, still smiling as if they were discussing sports - or dessert, in his case. Instead of his possible incarceration on, well, not entirely false charges. Which, Ron reminded himself, included himself and all his friends.

    “You think you know enough of the current government’s dirty laundry to escape any consequences.” Atkinson’s expression made it a statement, not a question. He glanced at Hermione. “Or you think her research will convince the government to overlook your actions.”

    “That would be a welcome change from struggling for funding,” Hermione said with a sneer of her own.

    This time Ron chuckled as well.

    “And what exactly are you researching?” Atkinson made a point of looking around the ruined room. “No one cares enough about theoretical quantum physics to violate the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. What are you building here?”

    Instead of telling him off, Hermione glanced at Dumbledore.

    Atkinson noticed that as well and narrowed his eyes. “I can have all of you arrested.”

    He was correct, of course - there was more than enough evidence to take in everyone alive on the grounds. And if they dug around a little...

    “A way to expand space,” Dumbledore said. “Or fold it, from a different point of view.”

    “What?”

    Oh. The test ritual Hermione had done - which had extended the laboratory’s dimensions for a moment.

    “A way to stretch the space inside a container beyond its outward dimensions,” Hermione said. “Expanding the interior volume without expanding the container’s dimensions, or mass, to be precise.”

    “Do you expect me to believe that?” Atkinson sneered.

    “Do you expect me to make such an extraordinary claim if I couldn’t prove it?” Dumbledore shot back. With a glance at the destruction around them, he added: “Well, once the laboratory has been restored, that is. Which will take a while, I fear.”

    “Are you serious?”

    “Dozens of people have died over this,” Dumbledore told him. “Many of them were people I knew. Yes, I’m serious.”

    Ron clenched his teeth. Dozens dead - and he had been happy that his friends had lived.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 18th, 2005

    Ron looked around, shaking his head. Two days after the assault, Hermione’s laboratory had been mostly restored. Well, to the point that it was functional. The walls and the floor still sported the scars from the failed ritual - scratches and gouges. And some of the furniture had been replaced by far cruder versions - the desk was just a wooden plank placed across two pedestals. But the computers were new, as were the power cables. And the generators in the laboratory had been dinged, but still worked fine - they had tested them. The generators in the garage were a total loss, of course. As was the garage.

    But compared to the rest of the building, the laboratory looked fine. The only thing missing was the ritual circle. And, he thought with a glance at the two soldiers standing guard at the entrance, where he used to sit, there’s a good reason for that.

    Performing a magic ritual would be a little too much for the forces of Her Majesty’s Government who had stepped in to ‘protect’ the research site.

    “Can you hand me the printouts?”

    He jerked at Hermione’s question, then nodded. “Sure.” He bent down and grabbed the stack of paper from the printer. “It’s not a real scientist’s desk until it’s covered by paper, hm?”

    She pouted at his grin, but she was amused. A little, at least - he could tell. “They are less dangerous when thrown around by a failed experiment than computers,” she said, a little too loudly.

    The guards at the door didn’t even flinch, though. They didn’t wear unit patches, so it was hard to tell, but Ron didn’t think they were SAS. Yet he was sure that they weren’t regular soldiers, either.

    For all of Dumbledore’s vaunted influence and promises, MI5 had taken control of the site and didn’t seem to be planning to relinquish it any time soon. Well, they were supposed to do something about that with their current project.

    Provided it worked, of course. And that would require some sleight of hand.

    He chuckled, startling Hermione. When she frowned at him, he shook his head. “Just a stray thought.”

    She narrowed her eyes. “Yes?”

    “Well…” he lowered his voice and leaned closer, hoping that the soldiers would think he was merely flirting. “If this works, you’ll be a veritable stage magician!”

    She gaped at him. “Oh, you!” Then she started to laugh as well.

    Good.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 18th, 2005

    “Can you pass me that one? No, the other one, the curry, yes!” Luna beamed at Ron as he handed her the MRE she had pointed out. “Yummy!”

    “You’re about the only one who might actually like these,” Harry commented, already waiting for his own to finish heating up.

    “They’re not as bad as soldiers make them out to be,” Sirius pointed out. “Soldiers always complain about the food. You could serve them a five-course menu cooked by the best chef in England, and they’d still complain.”

    “Why aren’t you complaining, then?” Luna asked. “You’re a soldier, too.”

    “What? Perish the thought! I’m an officer!” Sirius protested before he laughed out loud.

    A little too loudly, in Ron’s opinion. Just as Ginny was too quiet. He glanced at her while she was distracted by opening her own ration. The attack hadn’t been her first fight, but it was the first time she had killed someone. And it had been up close and personal, not from a distance. She wouldn’t get over that experience easily or quickly. And he wouldn’t be able to help much, if at all, just like before.

    “Ron?”

    Hermione was looking at him like he had probably been looking at Ginny. “It’s nothing,” he lied. “Just thinking of everything that’s changed.”

    “Ah.” She glanced at Ginny as well. Of course she would be aware of it - she had talked to Ginny and Luna about it before, after all.

    He looked at Luna, who acted like nothing had changed. Emphasis on ‘acted’ - he could tell. He didn’t know if she had killed anyone, or, if she had, whether she had realised it or not, but she hadn’t come through the whole ordeal unscathed, either.

    And he couldn’t help her. Just as he hadn’t been able to protect them from this.

    Damn.

    “Your ration’s done,” he heard Hermione tell him.

    “Ah, yes. Thank you.” He smiled at her, and she patted his thigh before they both focused on eating.

    “It’s like a camping trip, only indoors,” Luna broke the sudden silence. “All we need are tents and a campfire.” She looked around.

    “Please don’t light a fire in my lab,” Hermione said, though with a smile. “I still need to clean the floor.”

    So she could replace the ritual circle. Once they had regained control of the site, of course.

    “Aw.” Luna pouted, but not for long. “What about tents? Without putting holes into the floor,” she quickly added.

    Ron nodded. A little privacy would be nice - they had spent two nights in Hermione’s lab already, in sleeping bags. Restoring their quarters so they were inhabitable again would take longer than fixing the lab.

    The Russians’ attack had been quite thorough.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 20th, 2005

    “Take a seat, and please excuse the state of the room - we’re still repairing the damage caused by the recent assault.” Dumbledore beamed at the group of men and women entering the laboratory and waved at the two benches lining the wall near the door. “It won’t take long since this is just a demonstration.”

    “A safe demonstration, I hope,” one of the older men among the group said, with a glance at Hermione, Ron noticed.

    She sneered at the man in return. “Of course they’d send Waters-Smythe. Damned sexist fossil,” she muttered.

    “Fellow academic?” Ron asked.

    “Only in the broadest sense,” she replied. “Ever since I got a grant for which he’d applied, our relationship would be best described as one of mutual loathing. He spent months telling everyone in the faculty that I’d only received it because of my ‘tragic past’. Bloody pillock.”

    “Ah. Don’t turn him into a newt, please,” he joked.

    She laughed in return. “I won’t. Seeing his reaction to my demonstration will be much more satisfying.”

    He wanted to ask if she could actually use a ritual to turn - transfigure - the man into a newt, but decided against it and took a few steps back.

    It wouldn’t do to hold up the demonstration. Dumbledore was smiling at them - well, at Hermione - but Grindelwald still seemed to blame them for Dumbledore almost getting killed by Russians.

    Russian criminals, according to Putin’s press conference. All former soldiers with ties to the Russian mob. Technically correct, of course - though everyone knew that they had been following orders from the Russian government. ‘Probably related to similar criminal attacks on Russian soil, a veritable gang war’. ‘Fortunately’ the Russian criminal instigating this had been found. ‘Unfortunately’, he had died in a firefight with the brave Russian police and so they hadn’t been able to arrest the man. And none of the prisoners had talked, at least as far as Ron knew. Putin had picked them well. It remained to be seen whether or not the government would accept the lie, but Ron wasn’t expecting anything other than a few sanctions being levied on some of Putin’s pals, anyway. If they could use Veritaserum… but drugging prisoners wouldn’t do them any good, even if they were willing to have the government open that can of worms.

    At least Kirikov was dead, provided the DNA checked out. Ron wouldn’t put it past Putin to kill a body double of his old comrade to present to the British authorities. The man certainly had been prepared for the failure of the attack.

    Hermione stepped forward, interrupting his thoughts. “Good afternoon!” she announced. “Welcome to this small demonstration of my space folding prototype. It’s just a prototype, requiring a lot of power to produce a quite limited effect, but I’m certain that once you see the results, you will realise its potential.”

    And let her continue her research in private. Or so Dumbledore’s plan went.

    Provided they could fool their visitors with this.

    Waters-Smythe sneered. “If I had a quid for every time I’d heard the claim that something had ‘great potential’…”

    Ron saw Hermione stiffen before she flashed the old man a thin smile. “I’ll let my work speak for itself. Now watch - and don’t move from the benches, please; the area near the prototype isn’t safe.”

    “But we’re safe here?” the old man asked. Ron noted that he actually seemed to be concerned.

    “Perfectly safe.” Hermione smiled again, showing her teeth, then turned towards her computer.

    Ron joined the others at the benches, to keep up appearances. Soon, a humming noise could be heard coming from the generators, slowly increasing in volume.

    One of the men in the group, a Mr Roberts, apparently a former MI5 field agent, leaned forward and looked at him. “Are you her bodyguard?”

    His tone added another meaning to his question, but Ron nodded. “Yes.” His smile was a little toothy, though - he couldn’t help it. So what if he and Hermione were together?

    “Isn’t that against regulations?” Mrs Baker, an MP with ‘some influence in the government’, as Dumbledore had described her, asked with raised eyebrows.

    “That won’t be a problem,” he told her.

    “Oh?”

    “Yes.” He leaned back. “It’s starting,” he told the group.

    All of them, even Waters-Smythe, though the old man tried to hide his interest, began to pay attention to the demonstration.

    It was quite a sight. The quantum mirror cage was lit up by sparks, lots of lights flashed around the box placed in the centre, and the generators were running at full power - Ron could feel the vibrations even this far away. Though the whining noise from the box soon drowned out the rest.

    Before it became too loud to bear, though, the sparks vanished, and Hermione stood and announced. “The box is now charged, and the space inside it has been folded - extended, in this case.” She grabbed a ten-foot-pole from her desk and approached the box. “That means the box has a far greater volume than its dimensions would lead you to expect.” With these words, she opened the box and pushed the pole inside. The entire pole slid into the box.

    “A parlour trick,” Waters-Smythe sneered. “Next you’ll demand we fund Copperfield!”

    “Feel free to try it out yourself,” Hermione retorted. “This is not a trick but actual folded space. Anything that will fit through the opening here will fit inside the box.”

    Waters-Smythe sneered and all but jumped up, his earlier apprehension about the experiment apparently having been replaced by an eagerness to prove Hermione a fraud. He quickly walked over to the quantum mirror cage and started to run his hands over the box.

    “As you can see, there are no mirrors,” Hermione explained as the rest of the group followed the old man’s example. Various items were placed inside - some smaller than the box, some far too large. All vanished into the box.

    “Remarkable,” Baker said. “But how much energy does this effect require?”

    The number she gave made Baker frown. “That’s the power demand at this point. But I expect to improve on that,” Hermione added, followed by a short lecture on quantum mechanics that Ron couldn’t quite follow.

    “However, even as it works now, this would be quite the boon for naval vessels. Imagine a submarine with such folded space for their magazines,” Dumbledore pointed out. “Or the cargo capacity of a small, fast ship.”

    “As I said,” Hermione added with a wide, triumphant smile aimed at Waters-Smythe, “I’m sure you appreciate the potential.”

    The old man looked like he’d rather bite his tongue off than agree, but the rest of the group nodded.

    It looked like this part of Dumbledore’s plan had worked. Now it was up to the old spymaster to complete the second part.

    Ron would help Hermione retrieve her beaded bag of holding from the box and restock it with all the supplies currently stashed in their new quarters.

    After their visitors had left, of course.

    *****​

    Ron looked up from his magazine as Hermione entered their mostly restored room. “Hey,” he greeted her - rather lamely, but he wasn’t about to ask how her talk with Ginny and Luna had gone. Even though he wanted to know how they were doing. But it was late already, and they hadn’t had much time for themselves.

    “Hey.” She returned his greeting with a smile and a sigh as she sat down on their bed. Then she blinked. “Popular Mechanics?”

    He shrugged. “Luna managed to acquire a stack of recent magazines. Don’t ask me how.”

    “She and Ginny got them from the delegation,” Hermione told him.

    “Ah.” That left a lot of details open to interpretation. Ron didn’t think Ginny or Luna would stoop to outright theft - well, he wouldn’t dismiss the possibility either - but perhaps they had simply asked for the magazines, playing for sympathy. The two had certainly been able to do that very well as kids.

    She sighed again and stretched out next to him. After a little wriggling, she patted the mattress. “It’s a little lumpy.”

    “It’s better than the cots,” he pointed out.

    “Marginally,” she insisted.

    “An improvement is an improvement.” And they had a lot more privacy here in the room. “Do you think Dumbledore will manage to keep your experiments going without interference?”

    “I made it quite clear that I wouldn’t accept getting moved - or ‘reassigned’ - against my will,” she said with a scoff. “Some of them didn’t like that.”

    So that had been the purpose of her meeting after dinner. “Waters-Smythe?”

    “Among others. He wasn’t the only ‘Old Boy’ in the group.”

    He shrugged. “Technically, so is Dumbledore.”

    “I’m well aware of that,” she retorted with a frown.

    “Sorry.”

    She sighed again. “I just get a little annoyed when people think they can just order me around. Dumbledore is at least always polite and subtle about getting his way.”

    Too subtle and too polite for Ron’s taste. But she probably still saw her Dumbledore in the old spymaster. “So, all we can do now is wait?”

    “And rebuild,” she replied. “The further along things are here, the less likely anyone wanting to move me is to succeed.”

    He nodded. That was an old ploy. Not an infallible one, though - sometimes, the sunk costs were ignored by whoever was in charge. “More work, then,” he said with an exaggerated sigh of his own.

    “It’s mostly work for Dumbledore’s people,” she replied. “Unless you want to engage in home repair.”

    “No, thanks.” Just checking the repairs for hidden surveillance devices, or worse things, was work enough.

    “There’s one bit of good news, though.” She was smiling widely, he noted.

    “Oh?”

    “The rushed attempt during the assault greatly accelerated the experiment’s progress,” she explained. “I managed to refine the formula in several key places.”

    Now that was good news. He smiled at her, then rolled over on to his side and put an arm around her, pulling her close. She laughed, then pushed him back down before moving on top of him.

    For a moment, they looked at each other, smiling. Then he kissed her.

    And tried to push his fears about the consequences for their relationship of an open portal to her home dimension out of his mind.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, November 25th, 2005

    “They’re letting the Russians get away with it?” Ginny exclaimed, throwing the newspaper she had been reading down on the table, almost smashing her lunch. “Despite all the evidence? The prisoners? All the people they killed?”

    “They’ve expelled a few suspected agents among the Russian embassy staff,” Sirius corrected her. “And they’ve sent Putin a strongly worded complaint while asking our stalwart allies for sanctions.” He grinned without humour. “In other words, they’ve asked the Yanks and the EU to leave us hanging out to dry while they desperately search for excuses to claim that there’s reasonable doubt about the Russians’ responsibility.”

    “What?” Ginny stared at him.

    “No one wants to make the Russians too mad,” the older man explained with a shrug. “They’re not some weak third-world country you can push around. And our government probably doesn’t want anyone to look closely at our own missions.”

    “Which is a good thing,” Luna said. “Or they might try using us as scapegoats just like Putin used Kirikov.”

    Ron couldn’t claim she was wrong. And their missions actually had been unauthorised ones, so the government would, in fact, be correct in their case.

    Not that the law would matter, anyway. After Hermione’s demonstration of her ‘discovery’, the British government would never consider sacrificing her.

    Exactly as Dumbledore had planned, of course. Although Ron was almost happy that the old man hadn’t managed to get rid of all government interference - the site was now guarded by the British Army and the Royal Air Force. They had even declared the airspace above the lake off-limits.

    But as welcome as their protection was, Ron was also aware that the soldiers were here to guard them in both senses of the word. It wouldn’t do for Hermione to suddenly end up in a secret lab of the Phoenix Gruppe in Germany or France, after all.

    Well, there was nothing he could do about that. All he could do was help Hermione as well as he could. And hope Dumbledore managed to restore or replace the generators damaged in the fighting as soon as possible.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 21st, 2005

    “You are worrying too much, Gellert. Dr Granger isn’t in the habit of making promises she cannot keep.”

    “And you’re not worrying enough. This is a dangerous experiment, even if it should - finally - succeed. In fact, success will result in greater danger than failure. And that’s not taking the possibility of yet another attack into account. You are a tempting target, Albus.”

    “As are you. If you truly think that we’re in danger, why are you attending this event? An attack would have a decent chance of decapitating the Phoenix Gruppe in a single stroke.”

    “Hah! Someone has to keep a cool head in this endeavour. Might as well be me.”

    “Indeed.”

    Ron rolled his eyes. He didn’t know how much of that exchange was staged and how much was genuine, but he wished they would be quiet. He didn’t need another distraction, not when, after a month of rebuilding the laboratory and refining the ritual, Hermione was about to open the portal to her home dimension. On the day of the Winter Solstice - but she claimed that that was merely a coincidence.

    That Grindelwald was correct about the danger didn’t help, either. In less than an hour, they might enter a world controlled by a genocidal regime of dark wizards. And they would appear right next to their main, or only, school - a key fortress, as Hermione had explained.

    Damn. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, ignoring the two old men behind him and Hermione’s chanting in front. They were ready for this. They had prepared for the worst case. As well as they could, at least.

    Gritting his teeth, he looked at the others. They weren’t wearing fatigues, but civilian clothes - fatigues would be too conspicuous if they encountered anyone, wizard or muggle. But they were wearing bulletproof vests under their sweaters. And carrying pistols and submachine guns under their jackets. And Hermione’s beaded bag of holding was stuffed with enough supplies to both arm a small army and fight for years. Well, almost.

    Yes, they were as ready as they could be. Physically, at least.

    Ron wasn’t sure whether he could face his counterpart. And Hermione’s reaction. If the other Ron was dead… He shook his head. That was an evil, selfish thought. He was better than that. He had to be better than that.

    Hermione started to enter the last phase of the ritual. About ten more minutes - Ron could probably do the chanting himself now, just from hearing it dozens of times. He glanced at his friends again.

    Luna was smiling widely, tapping her feet and leaning forward as much as she could without losing her balance. Which had happened before, and was why they weren’t too close to the ritual circle. Ginny was, no surprise there, hugging Harry. And Sirius was pretending to be reading a newspaper, and doing a bad job of it - he hadn’t turned a page in fifteen minutes.

    Perhaps bantering was Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s way of coping with the waiting? That would make them more human than Ron would have expected. On the other hand, that might be exactly why they would stage such an exchange.

    He snorted, wondering privately if he’d ever figure either of the old men out. Probably not.

    “Ah, it’s starting,” he heard Dumbledore whisper behind him. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?”

    “Someone has to stay behind and ensure that you can return,” Grindelwald replied, whispering as well.

    The man was correct, of course, but the fact that he would be left in control of the site was a little worrying in itself.

    Then Hermione whipped her arms down, finishing the ritual. After a moment that felt much longer, the restored generators started humming loudly enough for Ron to feel the vibrations.

    Then the quantum mirror cage lit up, brighter than Ron had ever seen it.

    And an opening began to form in its centre.

    *****​

    There was the Horcrux - as expected, Voldemort had used Ravenclaw’s diadem. Another priceless relic of Wizarding Britain, ruined by one man’s greed.

    She eyed it, wishing there was a way to destroy the Horcrux without destroying the diadem. Who knew what kind of magic she might be able to do with the diadem? It was supposed to lend you superhuman insight. If she wore it, might it be possible for her to find a way to save it quickly enough to withstand the Horcrux’s influence? It was certainly worth a try…

    She suddenly realised that her hands were inches from the diadem and recoiled as if she had been struck.

    That had been close! The Horcrux’s influence was more subtle than she had expected. But she’d beaten it. And now she would destroy it. But she needed to get it out of the Room for that.

    Wetting her lips, she pulled a small bag out of her beaded bag - there was no way she’d touch a Horcrux. A quick Levitation Charm on the diadem’s mount had it floating into the bag.

    She released the breath she had been holding as she tied the bag closed, shuddering at the thought of what she was carrying. Now she just had to…

    “Reducto!”

    The curse hit her Shield Charm before she could react, shattering it and throwing her into a stack of books. Death Eaters? How had they gotten past her friends?

    “That’s for Draco! Reducto! Reducto!”

    More explosions shook the ground, but she was already crawling behind an old armoire and recasting her Shield Charm. She knew that voice! Crabbe! What was he doing here? And how had that oaf managed to beat Harry and Ron?

    “Die, mudblood! Reducto! Reducto!”

    No. He wouldn’t have beaten her friends. He must have sneaked past them somehow. Perhaps a secret passage - who knew what the Room of Requirement could actually do?

    Another explosion shook the room, but further behind her. She grinned, briefly - he didn’t know where she was. Now she could turn the tables…

    “Bombarda!”

    A huge explosion threw her into the air, breaking her shield once more, and she screamed as she hit a row of shelves. Pain erupted in her arm - her wand arm - and she crashed on to the ground, rolling a few yards over dirt and debris.

    No. Her arm. Her wand! Where was her wand? She looked around frantically, but the explosion had thrown up a lot of dust as well as creating smoke.

    “Did you get her, Greg?”

    “I think so, Vince.”

    Damn, both of them were here. And she had lost her wand. If they caught her… if they got their hands on the Horcrux… She clenched her teeth and dragged herself behind a broken table.

    “Hey! Mudblood! If you come out, we’ll make it quick!” Crabbe yelled.

    “Don’t make us hunt you down!” Goyle added.

    She ignored them. She just had to hide until Harry and Ron returned. If only she hadn’t given their last spare wands away… “Accio wand!” she whispered, but failed to summon her wand.

    “Sod this! I’m not going to get ambushed in this maze!”

    “Vince! No! You fool!”

    What? Hermione froze. What had Crabbe done?

    A horrible, familiar noise and a wave of heat answered her question. She gasped again - no, he wouldn’t have…

    But the greenish light that started to fill the room confirmed it. The fool had cast Fiendfyre!

    “We need to get out! Vince!”

    “I’ve got it! I’ve got iAAHHHHH...”

    “Vince! NoAHHHH…”

    At least they’d paid for their folly. But Hermione would be next - she had no wand and no way out. She was trapped here. She’d burn to death.

    No. There had to be a way out. “Harry! Ron!” she screamed as she hurried away from the approaching fire. “Help!”

    They couldn’t hear her. And even if they could, they couldn’t reach her. Apparition didn’t work inside Hogwarts. If she had a broom… but she didn’t.

    She sobbed as she reached the wall. This was it. She would die here. With the Horcrux. She’d do what she had to.

    But she didn’t want to die. Not like this.

    She looked around. Debris everywhere. And the Fiendfyre was approaching. Wait… she knew that cabinet. The twins had used it to trap a Slytherin bigot, once. It was a Vanishing Cabinet. Broken - but, as the twins had found out, sometimes it worked. No one knew where the other half was, exactly, but anything was better than burning to death.

    She rushed over to it, screaming when she banged her arm on a broken chair, and opened it. “Work! Work! Work!” she mumbled, closing the door behind her.

    It didn’t.

    She climbed out and tried again.

    It didn’t work. And the fire was closing.

    Another attempt. No luck.

    She could feel the heat now and coughed in the smoke. One last chance. Snarling, she threw the bag with the Horcrux into the fire and jumped into the cabinet…

    Twisting.

    Pulling.

    Shrieking.

    A glimpse of a living room.

    A flash of light.

    Falling.

    … and then she hit the ground, hard, hissing as she cradled her broken arm.

    Then she blinked. She was in the middle of a field. And the house she could see in the distance certainly wasn’t Hogwarts.

    *****​

     
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2020
    Scopas, Higure, BooksRFme and 5 others like this.
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 34: The Return
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 34: The Return

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 21st, 2005

    There, in front of Ron, was the portal. Glowing at the edges, and wide enough for two people to walk through comfortably. But it wasn’t transparent - all he could see was a shimmering field.

    “That’s it,” he heard Hermione say.

    He looked at her. She was beaming. Tired, but oh so happy. She had done it. She had opened a way back to her home. Back to her family and friends. Back to her Ron.

    “How do you know?” Grindelwald asked.

    “I’ve worked on this for years,” she replied, narrowing her eyes a little.

    “But you haven’t tested it,” the old German shot back with more than a hint of a sneer.

    “That’s what we’re about to do.” She huffed and walked over to the portal. “That’s how you conduct an experiment.”

    “As long as you don’t test it yourself.”

    That earned Grindelwald a glare, but Ron couldn’t help agreeing - privately, very privately, of course. Hermione might indeed have planned to test it herself.

    “That’s what Mr Drone is for!” Luna said, holding up her toy helicopter.

    “We should be outside Hogwarts’s wards, so the helicopter should function,” Hermione added. “The portal will appear on open ground - I’ve adapted the ritual for that - but as close to this location as possible.”

    “And if Mr Drone doesn’t work, we can reel him in and check what went wrong.” Luna waved a thin cable around.

    “Unless it has attracted the attention of genocidal wizards about to invade our world.” Obviously, Grindelwald was determined to be the pessimist.

    “The portal only stays open as long as the generators keep it powered,” Hermione retorted. “As I have explained multiple times. A single push of the button will close it - and I’m the only one able to open it.”

    Of course, Sirius had a heavy machine gun trained on the portal, just in case. According to Hermione, not even a magical shield would stand up to a burst of .50 cal BMG bullets. And there were a few more precautions Ron didn’t want to think about - like shaped charges in the ceiling, floor and walls.

    “Which is why you should stay here.”

    “I’m also the only one able to enter a magical area and the only one who knows the other world,” Hermione told him. “And if you have to close the portal, I can make another, now that I know the process.”

    What she wasn’t telling them was that she needed to get a wand, Ron knew. That was the real reason she wanted to go through the portal. And if she were cut off - well, she would be in her own world.

    Which was the reason Ron wanted to go with her. Just in case.

    “We went over this before,” she added with a scowl. “I’m not about to change the plan we agreed upon at the last minute.”

    “Of course not,” Dumbledore added. “However, I think we should let Miss Lovegood send in her scout before we get bogged down discussing hypotheticals.”

    “Yes!” Luna exclaimed. Without waiting for Hermione and Grindelwald’s reluctant agreement, she put the helicopter down in front of the portal and switched it on.

    A moment later, the portal appeared on a large TV screen Dumbledore had had installed in the lab - the camera in the helicopter was working as it should.

    “Lift-off!” Luna announced cheerfully as the helicopter’s engine started and it hovered in front of the portal, trailing a cable. “Permission to enter the portal?”

    “Granted,” Hermione told her with fake gravitas.

    “Get on with it,” Ron heard Grindelwald grumble.

    Luna frowned, and the helicopter turned away from the portal. “This is a historic moment!” she announced. “The first time we’re travelling from this world to another. That’s not something you rush!”

    “It’s also not something you delay longer than necessary,” Grindelwald retorted. “We don’t want to run into those ‘Death Eaters’, do we?”

    Luna huffed but turned back. “Entering a new world… now!” she said as the helicopter flew into the portal.

    The moment the helicopter entered the portal, the TV screen flashed like a stroboscope, and Ron had to fight a sudden bout of nausea. Judging by the reactions of the others, he wasn’t the only one.

    But then the screen cleared up, and a forest appeared. A forest that looked like the woods around the Black Lake they had run through so often.

    “Mr Drone’s working,” Luna said, unnecessarily. She moved the helicopter around and flew in a circle until they could see the dimly glowing portal with the cable sticking out of it.

    They were surrounded by trees. Ron relaxed a little - if the portal had appeared in an open field, it would have been visible from afar.

    “Can I take a peek from the canopy?” Luna asked.

    “Yes,” Hermione told her.

    Luna all but squeed and piloted the helicopter upwards after briefly lifting its nose so she could check if the way was clear.

    Ron waited, holding his breath as the tree trunk on the screen was replaced by branches, then by the open sky. Then Luna started to turn the drone round, and ruins appeared on the hill in the distance. No.

    “Yes,” he heard Hermione whisper. “Hogwarts.”

    “Ruins?” Grindelwald asked.

    “Ruins?” Hermione repeated.

    “Yes,” Ron confirmed. “Bigger ruins than the ones here, but…”

    “Oh, that’s the charms at work. Muggles see ruins. I knew it worked through cameras, but I wasn’t certain whether it would work through dimensional portals.” Hermione sniffled. “But I can see Hogwarts. As I remember it,” she added, wiping her eyes.

    Oh. Of course - a magic castle, and he couldn’t see it. Being from another world didn’t make him magical enough to count. Ron forced the stupid thought away. They had to focus on the mission. “That doesn’t mean the same people are in charge of it,” he pointed out.

    “Right. Of course.” She nodded and took a deep breath.

    He felt guilty about ruining this moment for her, but the school could be run by Death Eaters and would still look the same, from what he knew. And they had to be ready for that, and not blinded by… wishes, nostalgia or whatever.

    “Alright,” she continued in a more steady voice, “That is Hogwarts, and the spells’ effects confirm that it is a magical school.”

    “Your home dimension, then,” Ginny said.

    “Yes. We can assume that based on the evidence so far.” Hermione nodded again. “So, our next step is, as planned, to go through the portal and secure more magical supplies from the caches I hid during the war.”

    “Preferably from the closest,” Grindelwald said.

    “Yes, as planned,” Hermione retorted with another glare.

    “Indeed,” Dumbledore tried to play peacemaker. “So I think we should go on without further delay.”

    The old man looked almost as excited as Luna about entering a new world. And wasn’t that a scary thought?

    Of course, Ron had dreamed about such a moment for years as a kid. Dreamed of entering a magical realm with elves and sorcery. But it was a dangerous world, and he was far less prepared for facing wizards and witches than he’d like.

    “Remember: Do not say the name ‘Voldemort’,” Hermione cautioned them. “In the war, saying the name led the Snatchers right to you. We taught them the folly of that, but…” She pressed her lips together.

    “But if he won the war, then he could’ve kept up the practice,” Harry finished for her.

    “So let’s go!” Luna exclaimed.

    “Once you’ve brought back the drone to prove that the portal truly is two-way,” Grindelwald cut in.

    “Of course,” Luna replied. Apparently, she wasn’t fazed by the German’s constant disparaging remarks.

    On the screen, Ron could see trees pass by as the helicopter descended quickly and he was secretly glad he wasn’t on board - that would have been a worse plunge than on a roller-coaster.

    Then the portal filled the screen, and, a moment later, the helicopter entered. Ron turned away before he could feel nauseous this time, watching the portal itself, and the helicopter leaving it.

    “There’s a delay of about a second,” Hermione commented. “It’s not an instantaneous trip.”

    “Is that a good or a bad thing?” Ginny asked.

    “Neither; just an observation,” Hermione replied.

    “Alright, it works,” Luna announced. “Who’s first through the portal?”

    “Let me check the drone first,” Hermione said with a glance at Grindelwald. “Place it on the table here, in the middle of the instruments.”

    A check with the laser sensors didn’t reveal any warping, as she told them a few minutes later.

    “So, who’s going to be first?” Luna asked again. “Or, second, in this case, after Mr Drone.”

    “Now comes the animal testing,” Hermione said.

    “Oh.” Luna frowned. “Do we have to do that?”

    “It’s just a mouse,” Ginny told her.

    “But a cute mouse.”

    “A famous mouse, soon,” Harry said.

    And a scared mouse, Ron noted as the small cage with the test subject inside was tied to the drone.

    Five minutes later, the animal had survived the trip and the return without apparent harm - or, as Hermione put it, all its vitals were normal for a stressed mouse.

    “So… who’s going to be the first human through the portal?” Luna asked again, after positioning the drone on the other side so they could see the portal and any arrivals.

    “I’ll go first,” Hermione said. “As agreed.”

    Ron didn’t remember agreeing to that, but she was already moving towards the portal, so he hurried to catch up. “Be careful,” he told her.

    “It’s just one step,” she replied, smiling faintly - very faintly.

    “One small step for a witch?” He raised his eyebrows with more humour than he felt.

    She chuckled, nodding. “And you can pull me back if something goes wrong.” Then she straightened, checked her harness and the line fastened to it, raised her chin and stepped through the portal.

    On the screen, through the drone camera, Ron saw her stagger a little as she appeared in the clearing, but she waved at the drone. At them.

    That was good enough for him. Ron followed her.

    And was stretched, pulled. And twisted. Far more, far more extreme, than a human could survive. He wanted to scream, but couldn’t.

    Then he was kneeling on the snowy ground, panting and sweating, wanting to puke up his guts.

    “It’s rougher than I remember,” Hermione told him. “But it has been seven years.” She had untied the line and slipped out of her harness, he noticed.

    She was also leaning against the closest tree and looking a little shaky hersel. And breathing rapidly - he could tell since her breath was visible in the cold air.

    He pushed himself up. Harry would be right behind him, and Ron would rather avoid getting vomit on his clothes, should his friend happen to lose his lunch.

    But Harry didn’t puke, either - though he, too, stumbled out of the portal and fell to his knees, gulping down air.

    “I think we’ll grow used to the sensation,” Hermione said. “It’s somewhat similar to being apparated.”

    Right now, Ron didn’t want to think about doing this often enough to get used to it.

    Luna appeared next, looking sick and happy at the same time - not unlike the time on their Spanish vacation when she had combined all the buffet’s different desserts into one dish, then ate the whole thing. Then came Ginny, who retched but didn’t actually vomit. Ron smiled sweetly at her - for once, his sporty sister wasn’t handling something better than him.

    After her came Dumbledore, and, to Ron’s disappointment, the old man merely looked slightly disoriented and needed to grab Harry’s arm to steady himself before he nodded and said: “That was quite an experience, I must say.”

    Finally, Sirius stepped out of the portal, cursing as he swayed and fell to his knees.

    They had done it. They were in Hermione’s world. In the magical world.

    “Alright.” Hermione stepped away from the tree she had been leaning against, brushing some snow off her shoulders. “I’ll test that the portal lets us return as planned.”

    “No,” Sirius said, slowly getting up. “I’ll do it. If anything goes wrong, we’d be stranded here without you.”

    She frowned, but didn’t have an argument against that, Ron noted. Not that he could think of one himself - hell, no one but her could even see, much less enter, a magical location.

    “I’ll go,” Harry announced. “You can recover.”

    “Don’t be daft,” Sirius retorted. “Check the perimeter until I return.” He stepped through the portal before anyone could react, leaving Harry to curse.

    “Well…” Ron shrugged. “Let’s do it. He’ll wait a few minutes to recover before he returns.”

    Harry scoffed, obviously disagreeing with Ron’s assessment, but nodded anyway.

    “Careful - while we’re not in the Forbidden Forest here,” Hermione told them, “I don’t know if the creatures living in that forest have spread since I left.”

    Ron shuddered, and not from the biting cold. Spiders as big as a car? Smart as a human? That was far worse than facing spiders when shrunk.

    “If you see a wolf or centaur, don’t shoot,” she called after them.

    “Right,” Harry muttered as they started their sweep. “Don’t hurt the monsters trying to kill us.”

    “They’re not supposed to attack us without warning,” Ron told him as he looked around. The forest looked just like the one back home. But it felt a little different. Somehow. Or that was just his imagination. Or it was the way he sank to his knees in the snow with each step. Perhaps they should have grabbed a pair of snowshoes, too. But this was just a quick check, not an expedition.

    He kept his rifle ready, as alert as during one of Moody’s surprise exercises, but they didn’t encounter anything larger than a squirrel during their perimeter check. They did find tracks, though. And while Ron wasn’t a hunter or tracking expert, Harry had been on a few hunts with Sirius.

    “No horseshoes. Either there are some wild horses running around the area or centaurs roam here,” Ron’s friend said.

    “Or unicorns,” Ron pointed out.

    “Right. Unicorns.”

    “Or Thestrals,” Ron added.

    “What?” Harry stared at him.

    “Meat-eating skeletal horses that can fly with bat-like wings,” Ron explained. “They can only be seen if you have seen death.” That wasn’t much of a limit for this group, of course.

    “You’re pulling my leg!” Harry protested.

    “That was my reaction,” Ron replied, “when she told me. Magic is weird.”

    “Yes. Let’s get back.”

    Ron nodded. After all, whoever roamed this patch of the forest would be able to easily see their tracks in the snow as well.

    When they returned to the portal, they saw Sirius lying on the ground, groaning. Next to a patch of vomit.

    “He didn’t wait long enough to recover,” Hermione told them with a frown. “At least that’s my guess.”

    “I thought,” Sirius cut in, wheezing, “that I should… uh… get it over with quickly.”

    “Typical,” Harry said, shaking his head. “No patience.”

    But Ron’s friend knelt down next to his godfather and looked him over. “This isn’t the time to make snow angels.”

    “Next time, you can suffer in my stead,” Sirius said without opening his eyes.

    “I wanted to - but you jumped the line,” Harry pointed out.

    Sirius huffed and turned his head away, which Ron took as a sign that he was recovering.

    “It does raise the question, though,” Dumbledore said, “whether there’s a cumulative effect of travelling through the portal, independent of resting between trips.”

    “There shouldn’t be,” Hermione said. “But we’ll find out once I’ve secured more supplies.”

    She was entirely too cavalier about that in Ron’s opinion. If travelling through the portal had an effect that built up, that would limit the number of trips back and forth they could take. And that would affect their relationship as well.

    But raising that point now would be stupid. They had a cache to recover.

    “It’s about two miles to your cache, isn’t it?” Dumbledore said.

    “Yes, about that distance - as the crow flies,” Hermione said. “Through the snow without a path,” she added.

    Dumbledore inclined his head and smiled. “A nice trip in the snow.” He had already prepared some snowshoes, Ron noticed. So much for the hope that Dumbledore would elect to stay behind at the portal.

    A few minutes later - Sirius had apparently fully recovered - they set out, all of them now using snowshoes.

    And Ron hoped that Dumbledore wouldn’t collapse halfway to their destination. He really didn’t want to lug the old man around.

    *****

    “If I wanted to walk, I’d have joined the infantry,” Sirius said when they took a break.

    “So you’ve told us. Multiple times,” Harry replied in a low voice.

    “It bears repeating,” the older man retorted. “And snow…”

    “It’s a little cold, yes,” Dumbledore commented. “But we’re dressed for the occasion, aren’t we?”

    Ron frowned. Dumbledore hadn’t faltered during the trip so far. Hadn’t complained, either - but then, Sirius complained for two, so that evened out. Ron was very glad that he hadn’t met Dumbledore fifty, forty, years ago - if he was this fit in his eighties, he must have been a monster in his younger years.

    Not that the man wasn’t still a monster. He was probably even more dangerous in his old age. Just not physically. But he had people for that.

    “It’s not much further now,” Hermione whispered. “I recognise this spot.”

    “So do I,” Ginny muttered.

    “I mean from when I was here,” Hermione told her.

    “I know.”

    Ron cleared his throat. “So, let’s be off. The sooner we get the cache, the sooner we can return.” Or have Hermione cast some spells to keep them warm and safe.

    “Right!” Luna said, all but jumping up. “Hidden magic treasure awaits!”

    “It’s just a cache,” Hermione told her.

    “Ron really needs to teach you Dungeons & Dragons, Hermione,” Luna replied. “It’s treasure.”

    Hermione blinked, then glanced at Ron. He smiled at her, and she sighed and let the matter drop. “Let’s go.”

    “Let’s go!”

    They took another twenty minutes to reach the cache. And Dumbledore wasn’t the only reason for the slower speed - the forest changed. It got weirder the deeper they went, until they reached a small clearing with a few standing stones, about a foot high each, forming a rough circle.

    “Oh! An ancient ritual place!” Luna gushed.

    “It’s a fake,” Hermione told her, slowly turning around.

    “What?” Luna whirled. “A fake?”

    “It’s not ancient. Ritual magic hasn’t been taught at Hogwarts - by the time it was founded, wands had thoroughly replaced ritual magic. This was set up by a few students for ‘self-study’,” Hermione explained as she took a few measured steps from the northmost stone. “Which usually meant getting drunk under the sky, and then claiming it was a ritual.”

    “Oh. Did you do that?” Luna asked.

    “No,” Hermione replied. “I found out about it when I wanted to learn ritual magic.” She tapped the ground with her foot. “Here.”

    “Alright. Give me a shovel,” Ron said, stepping up to her.

    She pulled two shovels out of her bag, obviously intending to help.

    “Give the other one to Harry,” he told her, grabbing one for himself.

    “But…”

    The ground would be frozen, at least on top. And she had no magic to make it easier. “You can fill in the hole when we’re done.” When she’d have a wand.

    She rolled her eyes and handed the shovel to Harry. Ron and his friend started digging. It was as difficult as Ron had expected.

    “Why would your friends have left supplies buried in the ground?” Ginny asked.

    “They don’t know about this cache,” Hermione, peering at the ground next to Ron, said. “Each of us hid a small cache like this one without telling the others. That way, if one of us got captured and interrogated, we wouldn’t lose all our supplies.” She smiled, a little sadly. “I even told them to avoid Hogwarts since it was too dangerous, so they wouldn’t suspect this location.”

    Ron stopped digging for a moment and looked at her. “Smart plan.” A little underhanded, but smart.

    “Indeed. Commendable foresight,” Dumbledore added. “Being prepared for the worst is often a good choice.”

    “We tried,” she told him. “It didn’t always work out, despite all our planning.”

    “That happens,” the old man stated.

    They dug a bit longer in silence. Ron was about to ask Ginny to help them - she was the fittest amongst them, if not the strongest - when he hit something solid. More solid than frozen earth.

    He crouched and carefully scraped the earth away, revealing a chest about a foot wide and a foot and a half long.

    “It’s here!” Hermione exclaimed, smiling at him - after beaming at the chest. She knelt next to him, heedless of the dirt and snow she got on her trousers, and ran her hands over the chest. “It’s right… here!”

    With a click, the chest’s lid swung up, revealing its contents.

    Ron saw more boxes and bags inside, smaller ones. And lots of vials.

    Hermione had only eyes for one thing, though - a small, slim stick. She grabbed and raised it with an almost awed expression. “It’s been so long…” she breathed, closing her eyes.

    “I suppose that that’s a magic wand.”

    For a moment, Hermione frowned deeply in response to Dumbledore’s comment, but then she nodded. “Yes.” She turned and faced the old man with an even expression, Ron saw. “With this, I can transport us back to the portal in an instant.”

    “Remarkable,” Dumbledore replied. “Is that all it does?” he added, tilting his head.

    “No,” Hermione replied after a moment’s hesitation. She flicked her wand, and, suddenly, Ron didn’t feel cold any more.

    “Oh, nice!”

    “Thank you!”

    “Finally!”

    “Thank you, Dr Granger.”

    Hermione knelt again and started to put the rest of the chest’s contents into her bag.

    “What did you hide?” Luna asked, stepping up and peering at the chest over Hermione’s shoulder.

    “Money - galleons and pounds. Various potions, mostly healing potions. Robes and muggle clothes,” Hermione replied. “I wanted to hide a broom as well, but we couldn’t spare any.”

    “A flying broom?” Luna asked, and Ron didn’t have to see her face to know she was beaming. “Can anyone use them?”

    “A wizard can use them better, but they’ll work for anyone trained to fly,” Hermione said, stuffing the last pouch into her bag. Ron could tell when she noticed Luna’s expression - Hermione froze for a moment, then sighed. “Before we can think about buying one, we’ll have to find out how things are in Wizarding Britain.”

    “Quite,” Dumbledore said. “I would suggest we return to the portal now before planning our next step.”

    Ron knew that Hermione had her next step - next few steps, actually - planned out already. So did Dumbledore, probably. But it was a good idea, nonetheless.

    “Yes,” she agreed. “I’ll transport you back by Side-Along-Apparition. It’s an instantaneous but not very comfortable method of transportation.”

    “Teleportation,” Ron translated for the others and ignored her brief glare.

    “Yes,” she said with a slightly forced smile. “It’ll feel as though you’re being pushed and sucked through a garden hose.”

    “How does that feel, actually?” Luna asked. “I’ve never experienced that. I’m not sure garden hoses stretch that far.”

    “It’s similar to the trip through the portal, though a bit less so,” Hermione told her as she reached out.

    It said a lot about Luna that she didn’t look apprehensive in the least as she took Hermione’s hand.

    A moment later, both vanished with a slight ‘pop’ as the air filled the space where they had been.

    “Fascinating,” Dumbledore remarked. “I think I might have underestimated the potential of magic.”

    Ron was tempted to tell the former spymaster he should’ve read more fantasy and science fiction novels - but Dumbledore might actually do so. And Ron wasn’t sure if giving the old man ideas was a good thing or not.

    “Our missions certainly would’ve gone differently if Hermione had had a wand,” Sirius said.

    Indeed, Ron thought, she probably wouldn’t have needed any of us.

    Another popping noise announced Hermione’s return. “I’m sorry for the delay,” she said. “I haven’t used Apparition for years, so I was a little… rusty.” She looked a little queasy, Ron noticed.

    “Rusty?” Harry asked.

    “That feeling I mentioned?” She cocked her head. “It felt worse than I remembered. But I’ll get used to it. Ron?” She held out her hand, and Ron took it.

    Then he felt... like being pushed through a pipe really matched it best, he had to admit as he staggered after reappearing next to the portal. Taking a large gulp of air, he shook his head.

    “You’ll get used to it,” Hermione told him.

    “How long will that take?” he asked. She didn’t look like a few trips would be enough - she was a little pale, still.

    “It depends,” she replied. “Some wizards never grow used to it; that’s why brooms and the Floo Network are popular. Well, that and the dangers of splinching.”

    He froze. “I thought that was only a danger when you were attempting Apparition without a wand?” he asked. That was what he remembered her telling him and Harry.

    “That’s true - for a skilled wizard or witch,” she told him. “But not everyone studies as hard as they should.”

    She raised her wand and disappeared again.

    “Hermione certainly studied hard enough,” Luna - who was looking unaffected - commented.

    “Probably a little too hard,” Ron agreed.

    Hermione returned with Dumbledore next. The old man staggered as well, Ron noticed with some satisfaction. And he was taking a few deep breaths before he commented: “That was an experience, indeed. Although I’m not certain whether I should be looking forward to getting used to it.”

    Ron nodded in agreement before he could stop himself. Hermione would be using Apparition often, now that she had a wand. And he wanted to stay with her.

    If she let him.

    Fortunately, Hermione had already disappeared - disapparated - without catching his reaction. She returned more quickly the next time, with Ginny. A minute later, Harry and Sirius were back as well.

    And it was time for the next step.

    *****​

    “Hogsmeade is the only all-wizard village in Britain,” Hermione told them. “That means it is surrounded by Muggle-Repelling Charms and hidden from aerial view and other means of detection.” She glanced at Dumbledore and added: “And yes, they work against satellites as well.”

    “Interesting,” the old man commented, nodding. “Could you add such spells to the laboratory?”

    “Yes,” Hermione replied, “though it would take me quite some time, and it wouldn’t be as effective - most of Hogsmeade’s protections are centuries old, and the spells grew in power over time.”

    “But they would still defeat most mundane means of detection, wouldn’t they?”

    “Yes,” Hermione admitted with a frown. Outmanoeuvred again, Ron thought. She pursed her lips before she continued: “Unlike Diagon Alley in London, Hogsmeade isn’t set up for regular muggle visitors. However, since a number of wizards and witches marry muggles, there are ways past the Muggle-Repelling Charms.”

    “Closely-guarded, I would assume,” Dumbledore said.

    “The official ones are, yes. At least they were during the war. If there’s still a conflict going on, then there will be guards present,” she confirmed. “But I know the counter-spells to bypass the Muggle-Repelling Charms.”

    “You were planning to smuggle muggles into Hogsmeade?” Luna asked.

    “I considered a few situations where that might have become useful. Or necessary,” Hermione replied.

    Ah. Probably involving muggle soldiers, Ron thought.

    “You were planning to involve Her Majesty’s Government in your war?” Dumbledore, of course, had figured that out as well.

    “As a last resort,” Hermione said, frowning again. “A desperate measure for a desperate situation,” she added. “The Death Eaters would have already started attacking muggles in such a scenario.”

    “Ah.” The old man nodded, but Ron couldn’t tell if he actually agreed or not.

    “If I recall correctly, Harry’s somewhat famous in your world,” Sirius pointed out.

    “Yes,” she confirmed. “Or, rather, Harry’s counterpart is. As was yours, Mr Dumbledore. And Ron’s counterpart, as well as myself, were among Wizarding Britain’s most wanted. Which means we’ll have to disguise ourselves.”

    “Oh! With a magic potion? I’d like to look like Ginny for an hour!” Luna smiled widely. “We could switch bodies!”

    “That wouldn’t be much of a disguise,” Harry said.

    “Of course it would! No one would recognise me if I looked like Ginny!” Luna retorted with a grin that told Ron she was pulling Harry’s leg.

    Judging by Harry’s disapproving expression, he had realised that as well.

    Ron chuckled with the others, though Hermione shook her head. “Polyjuice Potion doesn’t keep long, so I didn’t bother stocking the cache with any - it would have spoiled within a few weeks, at most.”

    “Aw.”

    “Sorry.”

    “But can we buy some in the village?” Luna perked up again.

    “In theory, depending on the situation in Wizarding Britain,” Hermione told her. “However, it is expensive and probably restricted.”

    “Aw… but can you brew it?” Luna was obviously not letting this go.

    “I could, but it would take a month,” Hermione replied. “So that would have to wait until we know more about how the war went.”

    “Yes,” Harry said. “We can worry about frivolous magic once we’re sure we’re not going to be hunted down and killed by fascist wizards.”

    “Right! The revolution takes priority, of course!” Luna agreed.

    “This is a simple reconnaissance mission,” Hermione reminded her. “And I’ll remind you: I’ll be the only one to enter. And all of us will be wearing muggle disguises.”

    Ron pressed his lips together - he didn’t agree with that plan. Not at all. But he hadn’t been able to convince Hermione and Dumbledore.

    “We’ll provide backup, though,” Sirius said, patting his machine gun.

    “Only if I cannot escape on my own,” she retorted. “It would be safer overall if you stayed behind here.”

    “We’ve gone over that,” Sirius told her. “It’s not safer for us if we have to worry about you getting captured and mind-controlled into spilling our location.”

    It wasn’t the most convincing argument, but good enough, in Ron’s biased opinion. When she glanced at him, he inclined his head with a wry grin. He certainly wouldn’t speak up in favour of a plan which split the two of them up.

    Hermione sighed and raised her new wand - she hadn’t let go of it even once, Ron realised. “Alright, let me cast the counter-spells. Then I’ll apparate us to the forest near Hogsmeade.”

    *****​

    Outside Hogsmeade, Scotland, Wizarding World, December 21st, 2005

    Seen through his binoculars, the village looked a lot like Ron had imagined a village in a medieval fantasy setting would look. Small houses, built close together, often three or four in a row, separated by narrow cobblestone alleys. Even the main street didn’t look like two cars could pass each other. Hell, at two spots, it didn’t look like an SUV could pass. Unless they used magic to shrink it or extended the street, of course. He snorted and focused on the task at hand. “It doesn’t look like a village at war,” he said. “A least not on my end.”

    “Not on my end, either,” Harry added. “Of course, that doesn’t tell us who won the war.”

    “It looks more peaceful than I remember,” Hermione agreed. “I can see all the shops I used to frequent as a student. But the Death Eaters could have easily kept up appearances. Most villagers were purebloods, anyway. I think I’ll have to enter and buy a newspaper.”

    “What about the statue?” Luna asked without lowering her own binoculars.

    “What?” Hermione said.

    “The statue at the train station,” Luna explained.

    “There isn’t supposed to be a statue there,” Hermione told her.

    But there was. And while they were too far away to make out details, they could tell that whoever it depicted wasn’t wearing the flowing robes people on the street down there wore. In fact, it looked a bit like… Ron shook his head. That was just his imagination.

    But the longer he studied it, the more certain he was.

    “I think that’s a statue of you, Hermione.”

    “What?” She stared at him over her lowered binoculars, then raised them again and turned back to study the statue. “It doesn’t look like me,” she said without taking her eyes off it. “I look completely different.”

    “The hair matches,” Luna pointed out. “Well, it would if you weren’t wearing a blonde wig. We’d have to get closer to check the face. And get to the other side - unless you know a spell to turn the statue round?”

    Hermione didn’t answer - she was still staring at the statue. Ron cleared his throat. “It has a bag that looks like yours.”

    After about half a minute, Hermione lowered her binoculars again. “I need to check this out up close,” she declared.

    “Not alone!” Ron said, reaching out to touch her arm. Just in case she decided to do something foolish.

    She opened her mouth, turning to face him, then closed it again, pressing her lips together until they formed a thin, pale line, as she stared at him.

    He met her eyes without flinching. After a few more seconds, she sighed. “Alright.”

    “Yes! Let’s all go!” Luna cheered.

    “No!” Hermione snapped. “It’s too dangerous.”

    “Do you think that this could be a trap?” Dumbledore asked. “There were some quite elaborate traps laid during the Cold War. The Czechoslovaks built fake border crossings some miles from the actual border to catch dissidents fleeing the Stalinist regime.”

    “It’s not impossible,” she replied. “Though it seems a little too blunt if they plan to catch protesters or dissidents.”

    “Wouldn’t such a display focus on Mr Potter’s counterpart instead? As I recall, he was the most famous amongst your group,” Dumbledore commented.

    “Yes,” Hermione all but spat. “But it’s still too dangerous for all of us to go there. I cannot apparate with more than two people.”

    “Harry and I’ll go with you, then,” Ron said at once.

    “And I’ll be ready to provide fire support,” Sirius added.

    Hermione sighed. “Alright.”

    “But…” Luna started.

    “If it’s safe, we can all follow them,” Dumbledore told her with a smile. “It shouldn’t take long to find out how things are, I believe.”

    “No, it won’t.” Hermione stared at the village. “I’ll apparate us right to the statue. But hide your weapons and wear robes.”

    “Of course,” Ron said as he handed her his rifle. “Can you change some sticks so they’ll look like wands?”

    “Yes.” Hermione flicked her wand, and two twigs on the ground nearby changed into more elaborate, carved sticks. A swish later, they were floating towards Harry and Ron.

    And Dumbledore was taking notes, Ron saw.

    But he would find out the truth about wands and wizards anyway, one way or another. Either from observing Hermione’s friends - or by being briefed about Death Eaters.

    “Ready?” Hermione asked, interrupting his thoughts.

    “Yes,” he replied, reaching out to hold her hand.

    A moment spent as if he were squished through a narrow pipe later, they appeared in front of the statue.

    And looked at the plaque in the foot of it.

    Hermione Granger. Brightest Witch of Her Age.

    He heard her gasp. “Oh…”

    “I think that settles it,” Harry said, a little too casually. “Your friends won the war.”

    “They would do this…” She shook her head. “It has to be them.”

    Then she started to sob.

    Ron stepped up and wrapped his left arm around her shoulders. She turned towards him, crying into his shoulder. “We won. We won,” he heard her mumble while he patted her back, unsure what he should say. Her friends had won. They were probably alive, too, if he understood the situation correctly. She wouldn’t have to fight a war.

    “Head’s up, company coming,” Harry suddenly hissed.

    Ron looked up. Two people wearing red robes were walking towards them. A man and a woman. Red robes? Weren’t they the wizard police? “Aurors?”

    Hermione, still crying, looked up as well. “Yes,” she said, sniffling.

    “Good afternoon. Do you require assistance?” the woman asked. “I’m Auror Parkinson, and this is my partner, Auror Travers.” Those names...

    “Parkinson? Travers?” Hermione suddenly jerked.

    “Not those Parkinsons or Travers,” the witch replied with a grimace. Looking at Ron, she added: “Are you unwell?”

    “Ah, she’s just a little…” Ron shrugged. “She lost some friends in the war.” Travers and Parkinson - those had been Death Eaters on Hermione’s list. Of course, the pair here looked too young to have fought in the war.

    “Ah.” Parkinson looked uncomfortable. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    “Did you recently return?” Travers asked. “I mean… it’s been seven years since…” He nodded at the statue. “The Battle of Hogwarts.”

    “Yes,” Hermione said, chuckling through her sobs. “You might say that.”

    That was a mistake, Ron thought - no police officer liked to hear remarks like that. And as he feared, both Aurors frowned at that. “What’s your name, Miss?” Parkinson asked.

    “Ah. Helen. Helen Smith,” Hermione said.

    Another mistake. “Sorry, we should leave,” Ron told them, smiling as apologetically as he could manage. “It’s a bit too much for her, I’m afraid.”

    Travers didn’t seem impressed. “And your name is, Mr...?”

    “Smith. Will Smith.”

    “Like the actor?” Parkinson looked deeply suspicious now.

    “Yes. And it’s a pain whenever I go to the movies,” Ron replied. “Someone always makes a stupid joke.”

    “Ah.”

    They didn’t relax, Ron noticed.

    “Brown. Jeff Brown,” Harry added, unprompted.

    Both of them were frowning and staring at them. “What did you say?”

    “My name,” Harry replied. “What did you think I said?” he added with a grin.

    Parkinson blinked. “Head Auror Potter? Is this another test?”

    “And you’re Senior Auror Weasley!” Travers added, staring at Ron. “I knew I had heard your voice before!”

    Oh. The two Aurors thought that Ron and Harry were their counterparts in disguise. Whew.

    “Head Auror Potter? Senior Auror Weasley?” Hermione blurted out.

    “You didn’t know?” Parkinson said. “Oh no! Did we ruin an undercover operation?”

    “It wasn’t our fault this time!” Travers shook his head.

    Ron looked at Hermione. She was the witch here.

    But she was just staring at the two Aurors. And, he realised, having another flashback.

    *****​

    “Hey…”

    “Yes?” She looked up from the cauldron where another potion for treating wounds was coming along nicely.

    “I was wondering…” He shrugged. “Once the war’s over and all the Death Eaters dead…”

    “Yes?”

    “What are you going to do?” He looked at her.

    “You mean… as a career?” Or did he mean…?

    “Yes.” He nodded. A little too quickly.

    “I think I’ll work at the Ministry,” she said. “Push reforms through. Ensure that this war won’t happen again.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. “Should’ve known,” he added with a grin.

    “What about you?”

    “Oh.” He blinked. “I want to play Quidditch professionally.”

    Oh. “Are you sure?”

    He chuckled. “Oh, I know I’m no prodigy, not like Harry. But I love Quidditch. And I should be good enough for the Cannons.”

    She snorted. As far as she knew, not having a Keeper would’ve been better than that team’s current Keeper since their inept attempts to catch the Quaffle had actually caused a few Quaffles to score which would have otherwise missed.

    “I know, I know. But anything will be better than fighting.”

    “Yes.” She agreed wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

    “What about you, Harry?” he asked.

    “Quidditch. Or broom racing. Or Quodpot,” their friend replied. “As long as I can fly as fast as I want, and make some money doing it.”

    “Join me, Harry!” Ron exclaimed. “With you as the Canons’ Seeker, and me as the Keeper, we’ll have a shot at the Cup! I just need to keep the other team from scoring more than fifteen times before you catch the Snitch.”

    Harry laughed. “Why not? I’ll give it a go.”

    “I’ll hold you to it, mate!”

    “But you’ll have to convince them to hire us.”

    “What? You think they’ll refuse to hire the youngest Seeker in a century? Any team would hire you in a heartbeat.”

    “Well… I think the Harpies wouldn’t.”

    “Well…”

    She smiled as the two boys continued to make plans. And she tried not to think about the war.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2020
    Scopas, Higure, wichajster and 7 others like this.
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 35: The Reunion
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 35: The Reunion

    Hogsmeade, Scotland, Wizarding World, December 21st, 2005

    Ron saw Hermione shaking her head and blinking as she returned to the present. “Sorry,” she said, then took a deep breath. “This is too much. We need to leave.”

    “She’s had a flashback to the war,” Harry told the Aurors. “Please excuse us.”

    Parkinson and Travers exchanged a glance. “Do you need assistance, sir?” Parkinson asked. “We’re on patrol, but things have been quiet.”

    “And we can help with your mission, sir!” Travers added, sounding as eager as Colin back home.

    “That’s not necessary,” Harry replied. “It’s a private matter.”

    “Oh.”

    “Sorry, sir.” Parkinson glared at Travers. “Come on, Michael! Let’s go! I don’t want a demerit because you’re bothering the Head Auror during a mission!”

    She dragged him away, but Ron could hear the Auror protesting: “But he just said it wasn’t a mission!”

    “Let’s get back to the others before Sirius thinks we’re under attack and starts machine-gunning the village,” Ron said in a low voice.

    “Yes.” Hermione nodded, sounding more composed, and took their hands.

    They reappeared next to the others. “What happened?” Luna asked before Ron had recovered his balance. “Those two were the police, weren’t they? Red robes, like Hermione described.”

    “Yes, they were Aurors,” Hermione confirmed.

    “Rookies,” Harry said with a grin. “Fresh out of training.”

    “They did recognise us, though,” Ron pointed out.

    “They recognised our voices,” his friend retorted. “We didn’t think about that.”

    “We should have,” Hermione said with a sigh. “I should have.”

    “You didn’t know that your friends would be part of the Aurors,” Ron told her.

    Dumbledore cleared his throat. “I take it that the statue is indeed depicting Dr Granger, then?”

    “Yes. ‘Brightest Witch of Her Age’,” Ron said.

    “That’s a joke,” Hermione protested. “Ron - this world’s Ron - used to tease me by saying that. That they would put it on a statue…” She shook her head.

    “They might have done it because of that,” Ginny suggested. “A private joke?”

    “Perhaps,” Hermione admitted. “But still… a statue? And at Hogsmeade station?”

    “It’s not exactly in the centre of the village,” Luna pointed out.

    “The station is only in use when the Hogwarts Express transports the students to and from London,” Hermione explained. “People use the Floo Network, Apparition or brooms for travelling. And Portkeys on occasion.”

    “Fascinating. But I think we should continue our speculation back in our world,” Dumbledore said. “We’ve been here for a significant amount of time, and people back home might be getting a little impatient.”

    By which the old man meant Grindelwald, of course. But he wasn’t wrong - they should plan their next move in a safer location. Preferably where they weren’t at risk of getting cut off from their home world.

    “But we haven’t even confirmed the date…” Hermione met his eyes, and Ron shook his head. They weren’t ready for another encounter. She wasn’t ready. “Alright,” she said after a moment. “I’ll transport us back to the portal.”

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 21st, 2005

    Grindelwald was already talking to Dumbledore when Ron stepped through the portal, back to his home world. The German must have been waiting right next to the portal, Ron realised. He didn’t know if that was a good or a bad sign.

    “You shouldn’t have taken so long,” the old German said. “Nor taken so many risks.”

    “We didn’t take any risks,” Luna protested. “We didn’t even go into the magical village - only Harry and Ron went with Hermione!”

    “Yes, Gellert,” Dumbledore confirmed. “We stuck to observing from afar.”

    Grindelwald scoffed. “But you won’t restrain yourself like that in the future.”

    “As you know - nothing beats first-hand information.” The old spymaster grinned.

    “Really. And what did you find out on your long recon mission?”

    “That my friends won the war,” Hermione, who had recovered by now, told him.

    “And that they erected a statue in your honour!” Luna added.

    “Really?” Grindelwald didn’t quite sneer, but he came close.

    “The inscription on the pedestal strongly suggests that,” Hermione told him. “We didn’t have time to find out the date, though. And we haven’t made contact with my friends or family, yet.”

    “That will be our next step, I believe. Now that teleportation - I’m sorry, Apparation - is possible, travelling from the portal’s location should be far easier and quicker than previously thought,” Dumbledore said, “so a trip to London shouldn’t take any longer than a trip to ‘Hogsmeade’ on the other side of the lake.”

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed. “I’ll need to visit my parents.”

    “After you have closed the portal and checked on your machinery,” Grindelwald said with a sniff. “I’m not losing Albus to your world because you missed a computer glitch.”

    “Of course,” Hermione replied through gritted teeth.

    *****​

    Thirty minutes later, the portal had been closed, and Grindelwald and Dumbledore had left the laboratory - or should that be ‘the Portal Chamber’ now? Ron didn’t know. He was sure that they were still under observation, however; he didn’t think either Grindelwald or Dumbledore would have missed the opportunity to place more surveillance in the walls during reconstruction. He could even understand it - this was, after all, a possible gateway for an invasion. That was also the reason that there were shaped charges in the walls.

    That didn’t mean he had to like it, of course. He would prefer actual privacy, not just the appearance of it - but they couldn’t go running around the lake any more. And he didn’t think Hermione would want to.

    “So! London next?” Luna asked.

    “Yes,” Hermione replied. Ron noted that she wasn’t taking her eyes off the generators she was testing. “I need to see my parents.”

    “We understand.” Luna nodded, sniffling a little. “I’d do the same.” But her counterpart’s mum was dead, like her own.

    Ginny hugged her. “Yes.”

    “Though it’ll be a shock for them,” Sirius commented.

    “That depends on how much time has passed there,” Ron pointed out. With magic, a statue could probably be erected in a minute.

    “Oh. We could be entering future or past London,” Luna said. “Like time travel!”

    “I think the differences caused by being an alternate world would be more significant than a difference of a few years,” Ron replied. He glanced at Hermione. That was an opening for a lecture from her if he had ever heard one, but she was still focusing on the generators. Or pretending to focus on them.

    “So…” Sirius made a point of checking the time on his wristwatch. “It’s almost time for dinner. Do we eat here, or in London?”

    “Which London?” Luna asked.

    She was right, Ron realised. With Hermione finally having a wand, they could travel in this world as well.

    “I need at least an hour for the ritual,” Hermione told them, finally straightening from where she had been checking the cables of the last generator.

    “We’d have to put on disguises before travelling to our London,” Harry said. “Or we risk being spotted by the press.”

    “Or the government. Or the Russians,” Luna added. “But they wouldn’t know our voices.”

    “It was just bad luck that we met personal acquaintances of Harry and my counterparts,” Ron said.

    “I didn’t say it wasn’t,” Luna replied. “But I like disguises.”

    “I think we should eat here tonight, and return to my home dimension tomorrow,” Hermione told them. “We’ll be less likely to make mistakes after a good night’s rest.”

    And she would have time to adjust. Ron nodded. “Yes. And we shouldn’t turn you into a cab.”

    Everyone laughed at his joke, but Ron didn’t miss that a few of their companions sounded a little guilty.

    *****​

    “So…” Ron stretched on their bed, watching as Hermione finished undressing in front of the armoire. “How do you feel?” It wasn’t the best opening, but he hadn’t been able to think of a better one. At least it was honest.

    “About seeing my parents?” she asked without turning to face him as she slipped into her pyjama pants and top.

    “About everything,” he told her. “The statue, your friends’ careers, returning to your parents…”

    He heard her sigh as she turned to face him with a wry expression. “I don’t know.”

    “Ah.”

    She narrowed her eyes for a moment, then sighed again. “It’s… I’ve thought for years about this. Imagined the moment when I would return. And yet, I don’t know how to feel. It’s all…” She shrugged.

    “Not like you imagined it.”

    “No,” she replied. “I feared I’d return to a world under Voldemort’s rule, with all my friends and family dead. I hoped I’d return to find them waiting for me, happy.”

    “Well, they could be happy?” Ron shrugged. “Harry’s counterpart is the Head Auror, after all.”

    She frowned. “I wouldn’t have imagined them working as Aurors. They wanted to play Quidditch professionally. We talked about that, during the war.” Sitting down on the bed, she added: “They might not have been serious, of course. But still… Aurors?” She snorted. “Perhaps I should’ve expected that since you and Harry are police officers. I guess I was too… naive. I wanted things to work out like we’d dreamed.”

    Not for much longer, of course. And Ron didn’t like to think that he was similar to her Ron. “Well, I wasn’t unhappy, working as a police officer. And it means we won’t have trouble with the law.”

    She snorted. “The odds of that are lower, at least.”

    “What? Do you expect them to arrest us for illegal dimensional travel?” He chuckled.

    “There could be a law against that, actually,” she said. “The Unspeakables tightly regulate time travel, after some particularly unfortunate experiments in the nineteenth century. But I’ve never even heard about dimensional travel, so that shouldn’t be a concern. Unless the Unspeakables erase even the mention of it.”

    Now that was a thought Ron could have done without. He wouldn’t sleep easily pondering that.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 22nd, 2005

    “We should acquire generators and computers in my home world,” Hermione said as they were sitting down for breakfast in the ‘lounge’. “And I need to construct a second quantum mirror cage.”

    “Oh? Are you planning to set up a mirror site?” Ron asked. He grinned at her narrow-eyed reaction. “What? That’s a perfectly fine name.”

    She huffed. “It’s a precaution. If something happens to the portal’s power supply here, it’ll allow us to return far more quickly than if we weren’t prepared.”

    And it would grant them independence from the Phoenix Gruppe. Which might not be received favourably by Grindelwald and Dumbledore.

    “It’s a good idea!” Luna agreed, nodding between eating her way through three croissants, each with a different sort of jam spread on them, one bite a time.

    “Do you plan to copy your notes as well?” Harry asked.

    Ron knew what his friend meant: Was Hermione also preparing for her own possible incapacitation? Or for her replacement, should she decide to abandon them?

    “Yes,” she replied. “You never know what might happen.”

    “Ah.” Ron nodded. That made sense, of course. Good sense. But it would also make good sense if she wanted to ditch them.

    “I can build the parts for a second quantum mirror cage here - there are enough spares available - and the computers are easily available in either dimension. The generators, though, are too big to be transported through the portal without a Shrinking Charm,” she explained.

    “And moving nine spare generators into a room that doesn’t have enough space for them, much less when you consider the generators already here, would expose magic to the government,” Ginny said.

    “Not necessarily,” Sirius retorted. “They might think we’re storing them in an extended room.”

    “If they think we can do that, they’ll expect tangible, useful results very soon, though,” Harry pointed out.

    “That’s true,” his godfather conceded. “Do we have money available on the other side? We could buy the generators there.”

    “The money of both countries seems to be identical,” Hermione replied, “but I haven’t tested that. And using cash in such large amounts will draw attention from the government.”

    “Which you can avoid with magic,” Harry told her.

    “I prefer not to mess with people’s minds, but yes,” Hermione admitted. “But it would also be illegal in Wizarding Britain.”

    “And we cared about the law since when?” Luna asked. “An unjust law does not need to be obeyed!”

    “‘Don’t mind-control muggles’ isn’t exactly an unjust law,” Hermione retorted.

    Luna pouted but didn’t contradict her. A moment later, though, she perked up. “I could fake a business. That way, we can order the generators legally!”

    “I don’t think actually laundering money in order to avoid giving the impression that we are laundering money is a good idea,” Hermione pointed out.

    Ron had to suppress a chuckle at Luna’s expression. “What about stealing them, and leaving valuables in their place?”

    “That would still be breaking the law,” he told her.

    “But it would be a victimless crime!” She nodded. “Problem solved!”

    “We actually did similar things during the war,” Hermione admitted. “But we were at war.”

    “I think after the latest attack by the Russians, we can justifiably claim that we’re at war as well,” Sirius said.

    “Wouldn’t it be much simpler if you bought the generator parts here and shrank them somewhere before transporting them to the lab?” Ginny asked.

    “Yes. Yes, that should work,” Hermione said after a moment. “I should’ve thought of that myself.”

    “So should I,” Ron added, feeling more than a little stupid for missing that.

    “That’s why we have planning sessions,” Sirius said, apparently unfazed. “Could you pass the tea?”

    *****​

    “That’s an excellent idea!” Dumbledore nodded, appearing pleased, half an hour later in the laboratory. “Gellert will rest much easier if he knows we’re not about to be cut off for days or weeks due to a mishap.”

    “It’ll still take time to set up a lab on the other side,” Hermione explained. “And we would need to find another suitable location - this is too close to Hogwarts in my world.”

    “Those are at worst minor challenges,” Dumbledore said. “You’ve already thought of a few potential locations, haven’t you?”

    Ron thought that the old man was entirely too supportive of the idea even though it would grant them much more freedom. He was probably already planning to recruit a replacement wizard or witch.

    “Yes,” she admitted. “There are a few spots I scouted in this world. But most of them are occupied by wizards and witches in my world.”

    “Most of them?”

    “There are one or two locations where we could set up a second site,” she said. “But installing the necessary equipment will take some time, even with magic.”

    “Of course. In any case, it’s not so urgent as to justify delaying your plans to visit your parents,” the old man told her with a smile.

    “Indeed,” she retorted. “I’ll start the ritual.”

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    The transit felt as bad as it had the first time - and the second time - but no worse. At least that was Ron’s impression as he looked around the other side of the portal and tried not to retch. A few deep breaths helped as he moved a few steps to the side - just in time before Harry stepped through.

    “It seems clear,” Ron told Harry.

    “‘Seems’?” Harry shot back - his imitation of Moody’s tone worse than usual due to his own struggle with portal queasiness. Or would that be portal sickness?

    Ron snorted anyway. “It snowed overnight, so the tracks have been covered.”

    “But that also means we can’t tell if someone followed our tracks,” Harry pointed out. “Unless there’s a spell for that.”

    Ron didn’t think there was - Hermione would have mentioned that, wouldn’t she? - but he didn’t know. He did realise, though, that ‘unless there’s a spell for that’ would crop up again and again, until they learnt far more about magic.

    If they ever did, of course.

    Hermione was next, wand out. And looking more than a little queasy herself as she bent over.

    “So there’s no spell to deal with portal sickness, is there?” Ron commented as he held out his hand to her.

    She took his hand. “‘Portal sickness’?”

    He shrugged. “As good a name as any, right?”

    “Is that from a book?”

    “Probably,” he admitted, “but I don’t recall a specific work right now.”

    “Ah.” She nodded and straightened while Ginny arrived, followed by Luna. “It… fits,” she said.

    He grinned. “You don’t have to tell anyone that it’s from a science fiction or fantasy novel when you use the term.”

    She sniffed in response, then took a few more deep breaths. “As soon as Sirius and Dumbledore arrive, I’ll start transporting us to London.”

    “Can you reach it in one casting?” Harry asked.

    “That might increase the risk of splinching,” she replied, pursing her lips.

    Ron winced. To imagine leaving part of your body behind… “Better take it easy,” he said.

    “Yes,” Harry agreed.

    *****​

    Greenwich, London, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    “Alright, I’m OK now!”

    She didn’t look like she had fully recovered, in Ron’s opinion. This many Apparition trips had taken a lot out of her, and that she had done it right after having stepped through the portal hadn’t helped, of course. But she didn’t look like she’d faint at any moment any more. And he knew her expression - she wouldn’t budge, so arguing was pointless.

    Harry tried it anyway. “You should rest a little longer, or your parents will probably mistake you for a patient.”

    She scoffed. “They’re dentists.”

    “Yes,” Sirius agreed. “Their patients look like that after they’re done with them, not before.”

    “Very funny,” Hermione replied, standing up and stepping away from the bench on which she had been sitting. “I’m fine.”

    “That’s Harry’s line,” Luna said.

    “Hey!”

    Ron was already at her side. “At least wait until the light turns green,” he told her.

    She glared at him as well. “Do you honestly expect me to run into traffic?”

    “Better safe than sorry,” he replied. He didn’t, not really. But even a little delay and distraction would help her. “It’ll be fine,” he whispered as they waited for the lights to turn green.

    She didn’t answer, but she took his hand and squeezed. He glanced back at the others. Harry gave him a nod and leaned back on the bench - he and the rest would keep an eye on the building.

    Half a minute later, Ron and Hermione reached the building across the street, and Hermione stopped. “It’s open,” she said, looking at the sign at the door. Dental Practice Ellen and Gabriel Granger.

    “You expected that,” he reminded her. It was too early for them to have gone to lunch already.

    “Yes. But I wasn’t sure. Things could’ve changed.”

    Had she, consciously or subconsciously, hoped that her parents wouldn’t be present? Ron couldn’t tell. Hermione was bloody brave and stubborn as hell, but this wasn’t an attack by or on mercenaries or spies. This was reuniting with her parents, who thought she had been killed seven years ago.

    And seeing how she reacted to the statue in Hogsmeade… He wrapped his arms around her. “It’ll be fine,” he whispered into her ear.

    She sighed, leaning against him for a moment. Then she tensed and straightened. “Yes.”

    They entered the building and took the stairs to the first floor, where the practice was situated.

    An older woman sitting at a desk greeted them with a polite smile. “Hello. Do you have an appointment?” The sign on the desk read ‘Linda Baker’, Ron noticed.

    Hermione stiffened for a moment. “Hello, Mrs Baker. No, we don’t have an appointment. We’re here on personal business with... the Grangers. We can wait until they are free, if they are busy.”

    Mrs Baker frowned. “Personal business? With both of them?” She was staring at them and seemed to be slightly puzzled. Probably by their disguises - not many people Ron’s age sported a full beard and Hermione’s wig, a platinum blonde mane, had gone out of style almost twenty years ago.

    “Private business,” he told her.

    “Ah.” She slowly nodded.

    He was puzzled by her reaction. Had she spotted the pistol under his jacket? It shouldn’t have been visible, but he could see that the woman was tense now. She didn’t look afraid, though. Or nervous. What was he missing?

    Before he managed to find out, the door to the right of the desk opened, and Mrs Granger ushered a young man out. “Your cheek will go back to normal in an hour or two,” she told him. “And please be more careful in the future.”

    “I will,” the man replied.

    Mrs Granger turned to Mrs Baker. “Linda, pencil him in for a follow-up check in a week, so we can get rid of the stitches.”

    “Yes, Ellen.” Mrs Baker nodded towards them. “These two claim to have private personal business with you.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yes,” Hermione said, with a glance at the patient. As soon as the man had left, she took off her fake glasses and pulled off her wig, then remained standing as if she were frozen while Mrs Granger gasped. “Hermione?”

    She nodded, swallowing.

    “But… but…” her mother stammered.

    Ron glanced at Hermione. Her mouth was half-open, but she wasn’t saying anything.

    “They said…” Mrs Granger was shaking her head. There were tears in her eyes, Ron noticed. But she wasn’t stepping closer. And Hermione seemed frozen. Mrs Baker seemed to be getting over her surprise but was still looking confused.

    He pulled his fake beard off and removed his wig. “It’s a long story, Mrs Granger.”

    “Ron?”

    Oh. This world’s Ron had to be closer to this world’s Grangers than Ron had expected.

    “You told me that she died!” Mrs Granger exclaimed. “What’s going on?”

    Great. This was his counterpart’s fault.

    “You said Hermione had an accident at school,” Mrs Baker said. “In her last year.”

    “That was a cover story,” Ron explained.

    “You lied to us?” Mrs Granger looked furious. But then she glanced at Hermione, and her expression softened.

    “Ron didn’t lie to you, Mum,” Hermione finally said. “He didn’t know what had happened to me.” Neither she nor her mother had taken a step since she had taken off her wig. “I was trapped in a burning room when I was transported to another world.”

    “What?” Mrs Granger and Mrs Baker said at the same time.

    “It took me seven years to find a way back,” Hermione continued, apparently heedless of the two women’s obvious doubt. “I knew it was possible, but the original event had been an accident, and I had to combine quantum physics and magic to reverse-engineer the event. Ritual magic.”

    “Magic?” Mrs Baker scoffed. “What rubbish is this?”

    Hermione seemed to ignore the receptionist. “I’m sorry, Mum… I wanted to return sooner, but it simply couldn’t be done. I had to study physics, first, and then secure a grant for my research, and then I was attacked by some criminals, which brought in the police and…” She shook her head wildly. “I’m sorry,” she said, and Ron saw that tears were running down her cheeks.

    Mrs Granger looked shaken and took a step forward, towards Hermione. “Hermione… is it really you?”

    “Yes, Mum.”

    Both of them were crying now, but they were still a yard apart. Ron wanted to push them together, but Mrs Baker scoffed. “Magic? Magic isn’t real! I’m getting Gabriel!”

    She was at the other door before Ron could react - or decide if he should stop her.

    “Gabriel! Come, quickly!”

    “Dad?” Hermione asked, turning her head.

    A moment later, Mr Granger appeared at the door. “What’s this…” he trailed off as soon as he saw Hermione. “Hermione?”

    She nodded. “Yes, Dad. I didn’t have an accident - or, rather, I didn’t die in the accident.”

    “Gabriel! She claims she was transported to another world by magic!” Mrs Baker said.

    “Ron?” Mr Granger looked at him.

    Ron nodded. “I’m not your Ron, though.”

    “What?”

    “I’m from the other world,” Ron explained. He looked at the door. Was there a patient on the chair in the other room? They really should’ve done this in private. Without witnesses.

    “The other world.” Mr Granger looked like he didn’t believe them, either. But when the man glanced at Hermione, his expression made it obvious that he wanted to believe.

    “Yes. A parallel world, just without magic,” Hermione said, blinking and wiping her eyes. Explaining seemed to help her recover her composure, Ron noted. “I met Harry and Ron’s counterparts there.”

    “She saved my life,” Ron cut in. He quickly realised that his comment hadn’t helped, though, when both Grangers frowned at him.

    “Mum! Dad!” Hermione exclaimed. “Please - I’m telling the truth. I can prove it!”

    “How?” Mrs Granger asked. “We know what magic can do…” she trailed off.

    “I know things no one else could know,” Hermione said. “What happened on my fifth birthday. My first book. Mr Biggles!” She sniffled again. “Please. You can also test my DNA.”

    Ron watched the Grangers. They seemed to be wavering. Mrs Baker looked very sceptical, but no one was listening to her. It looked like…

    Harry’s voice in his earbud interrupted his thoughts. “Ron. You and I just walked into the building.”

    Oh no. Their counterparts were here. “Hermione,” he snapped. “The other Ron and Harry are coming. They just entered the building.”

    She gasped. “But why?”

    They must have been talking to the two rookies, Ron realised. But why would they come here?

    “Ron and Harry?” Mr Granger asked.

    “This world’s Ron and Harry,” Ron explained. He took a step back and turned to keep the entrance in his field of view. “Hermione?”

    She looked shocked, blinking through tears.

    “Hermione? Should we leave?”

    “What?” She looked at him, then shook her head. “No… no.”

    Did she mean no to leaving, or no to meeting her friends? Ron was about to ask, but then the door opened, and he saw the other Ron enter - and his eyes widen in mid-step. A moment later, the man’s wand appeared in his hand.

    But Ron was already jumping towards the reception desk. Two red lights shot past him before he landed behind it. He drew his gun without thinking.

    “Stop! Harry! Ron! Stop!” he heard Hermione scream.

    “No!”

    “Ron! Harry!”

    “What the hell!” Ron heard himself cursing. “Hermione?”

    He moved to the corner and glanced around it. Hermione was standing in front of the desk, arms spread and facing the two wizards. And… Ron blinked. There was a shimmering sphere covering her - she must have cast a shield or something. He couldn’t see the two wizards, though - he would have to expose himself for that.

    “Don’t curse him! It’s me, Hermione!”

    “Hermione’s dead.” That was Harry’s voice. His counterpart’s.

    “I didn’t die in the Room of Requirement. I used the broken Vanishing Cabinet to save myself,” Hermione said very quickly. “It worked, but I was transported to a parallel dimension. Probably because of the nature of the Room, in combination with the Fiendfyre wrecking it and all the clutter left there. It took me seven years to find a way to return.”

    “That’s ridiculous!” Harry’s counterpart scoffed.

    “I can prove it!”

    “That’s not her wand!” Ron’s counterpart snapped.

    Uh oh.

    “I lost my wand in the Room!” Hermione blurted out. “This is a wand from the cache I hid during the war - you know, the one I didn’t tell you about so you couldn’t betray its location should you get captured. Who else would know that?”

    “That’s common knowledge,” Harry replied, scoffing.

    “And you picked up a copy of me? Who’s hiding behind you? Yeah, right!” Ron’s counterpart added.

    What the…?

    Ron stood - slowly - behind the desk, keeping his gun out of sight. “I wasn’t hiding behind her,” he said, glaring at his counterpart. “I was staying behind cover so Hermione could explain things without me having to shoot you.”

    “Shoot me?”

    “Ron’s your muggle counterpart,” Hermione said. “We met in the other world.”

    “A muggle me?” Ron’s counterpart snorted, but he didn’t sound amused.

    “Yes,” Ron told him with narrowed eyes. What a git! “You got something against muggles?”

    “What?” His counterpart glared back. Good - he must have hit a nerve.

    “We saved each other’s lives. Multiple times,” Ron said. “Without magic.” The two wizards had spread out, so he had trouble keeping an eye on both of them.

    “Well, I did use potions,” Hermione said. “But I didn’t have a wand.”

    “Hah!”

    Ron glared at the wizard, but before he could tell the git off, Harry’s voice sounded in his earbud again. “We’re coming in.”

    “Damn,” Ron cursed. “Harry and the others are coming.”

    “The others?”

    “More muggles? Harry?”

    “My world’s Harry,” Ron said. “My partner.”

    “Police officers,” Hermione told them.

    Both wizards were already moving to the side so they wouldn’t be caught in a crossfire. “Police? Are they armed?” the wizarding Harry asked.

    “Of course we are,” Ron said. He didn’t quite sneer. “You think we’d enter a new world unarmed? And face Death Eaters?”

    “All the Death Eaters are dead,” his counterpart shot back.

    “All of them?” Hermione gasped.

    Harry’s - Ron’s Harry - voice interrupted them. “Don’t shoot or curse, we’re coming in!”

    “Took you longer than I expected,” Ron yelled back.

    “We had to wait at the red light,” Harry replied. A moment later, he entered, and Ron saw that his friend had shed his disguise as well.

    “He’s got no scar, Harry,” Ron’s counterpart said.

    “On my chest,” Harry replied, but he was staring at his own counterpart.

    This had gone well beyond awkward, but at least they weren’t fighting each other.

    “Merlin’s balls! Sirius?”

    “What? Sirius?”

    “My godfather,” Harry told them.

    Ron saw Harry’s counterpart falter and felt a twinge of sympathy.

    “In the flesh. Wow, it’s like you were twins. Although with vastly different senses of style,” Sirius commented. He was right, Ron realised - the wizards were wearing jeans, shirts and trainers. None of them fashionable.

    “Dumbledore?”

    “Bloody hell!”

    Ah, right. They wouldn’t have expected the old man, either.

    “Good morning,” the former spymaster said, smiling his usual polite and friendly smile. “I think everyone would appreciate it if we all stood down. No one is here to fight, after all.”

    To Ron’s annoyance, both his and Harry’s counterparts actually started to lower their wands - but then raised them again. “This could be a trick,” his counterpart said.

    “And what would be the point of it?” Hermione asked. “And how would we have done it? You can’t use parts of dead people with Polyjuice Potion. And if we could use Transfiguration to change our appearance with that degree of precision, why wouldn’t we copy Harry perfectly?”

    “Well, you sound like Hermione,” Ron’s counterpart said. He hadn’t stashed his wand, though.

    “Is it safe now?”

    “It should be... Let’s go in, Ginny!”

    “What the…?”

    “Ginny? Luna?”

    “Hello! Wow, you look just like my Ron and Harry! Apart from the scar, but that could be faked using makeup. And the clothes, of course. And you’re in the police as well, but nobody’s perfect.”

    “Luna?”

    While Ginny moved to Harry’s side, Luna marched up to the other Harry and Ron, apparently unconcerned about the wands levelled at her. “Yes, it’s me. Well, not your me. Does my counterpart look very different to me? That would be weird, wouldn’t it? But also kind of special. Oh! Mr and Mrs Granger, hello! You look exactly like my world’s Grangers!”

    “Bloody hell!” Ron’s counterpart cursed again, but he did, finally, lower his wand.

    Well, Luna tended to have that effect on people.

    “What… this is… What is going on? This man is armed! And… I don’t understand!”

    Oh, right - Ron had forgotten about the receptionist, Mrs Baker. Moody would have his hide if he knew. But the woman could be trouble. If she went to the police... Ron didn’t think they would accept that he was allowed to carry a gun in his home world.

    “Obliviate.”

    “Ron!” Hermione gasped.

    “What?” Ron’s counterpart turned to face her.

    “You can’t just obliviate her!”

    “Why not? It’s not the first time,” he retorted.

    “What?”

    “Ah…” Mr Granger cleared his throat. “Linda tends to be a little, ah, stubborn when magic is mentioned.”

    “She once tried to get Ron and Harry committed,” Mrs Granger added.

    “Oh.” Hermione blinked. “I didn’t know. Wait… why would she even know about magic?”

    “Ron wasn’t always, ah, as discreet as he should’ve been when we visited,” Harry’s counterpart told her.

    “I got drunk and came to apologise,” Ron’s counterpart said.

    “Apologise?”

    “For getting our daughter… you… killed,” Mr Granger explained.

    “Oh.”

    Ron had the impression that it hadn’t been a single incident. If his counterpart had thought that he was responsible for Hermione’s death… Well, in his place, Ron would have been drinking for months.

    “This isn’t a good spot to discuss this,” Harry’s counterpart said. “She’ll recover soon, and we don’t want to have to obliviate her a second time.”

    “Oh! Can we visit Grimmauld Place? I heard it was cursed!” Luna said.

    “I’d love to compare it to our house back home,” Sirius said.

    But wizard Harry shook his head. “No. Let’s move to the Forest of Dean.”

    “But…” Hermione closed her mouth and frowned. “Fine. But you bring a tent. I’m not going to stand in the snow.”

    “Alright.”

    No one moved or said anything for a few seconds, though. Then Hermione rolled her eyes. “Alright. We’ll go first.” She reached out towards Ron, and he took her hand.

    A moment later, they appeared in a small, snow-covered clearing. There were no tracks on the ground - no human tracks, at least - Ron saw as he looked around.

    “This was our main camp for weeks,” Hermione told him.

    “Ah. A test?” Or a trap?

    “Probably,” she said. “I’ll fetch the others.” She disappeared.

    Ron looked around the clearing again, this time not looking for enemies and other threats, but trying to imagine Hermione and the two others living here. Hiding, planning, laughing. Perhaps even…

    A popping sound announced Luna and Ginny’s arrival, staggering a little next to Hermione. Two at a time? He looked at her.

    “It’s a short enough trip, and I am very familiar with this place,” she answered his unspoken question, taking a few deep breaths. Then she vanished again.

    “Spread out a bit,” Ron told his sister and their friend. This could be a trap, after all.

    To his relief, they did so without protesting. Well, Luna wanted to take a look at the frozen pond nearby, but whatever worked.

    Dumbledore was next, staggering as well. “I fear I might never grow comfortable with this way of travelling,” he said as Hermione disappeared again.

    “As far as I know, the wizards don’t like it either,” Ron told him.

    “Perfectly understandable,” the old man replied. “Although a little discouraging.” He looked around as well. “This is a good spot to hide. Barely visible from the air, fresh water… though I assume that wouldn’t be a concern for wizards.”

    “It’s also a good spot for a trap,” Ron replied.

    “You don’t expect an ambush, or you wouldn’t be standing here, would you?”

    Ron snorted. The old man was, annoyingly, right.

    Sirius and Harry arrived before the silence grew awkward, and Ron went to steady Hermione, who looked a little dizzy from all the apparating. “So, this was your main hideout?”

    “Yes.”

    “Looks cosy.”

    She snorted in response.

    Then the other Ron arrived, with the Grangers. He didn’t look winded, Ron noticed. “So you know about this spot,” his counterpart said.

    “Yes. We spent weeks here,” Hermione told him. “Satisfied?”

    “You could’ve gotten that from Ellen and Gabriel through Legilimency.”

    She flinched in return. “I wouldn’t… not my parents.”

    “Hermione would have if it were needed,” Ron’s counterpart said.

    “But it wasn’t needed!” she retorted. “I can prove that it’s me! You can read my mind! Check my DNA!”

    The Grangers were still wavering, Ron saw. Of course, they wanted to believe that their daughter was alive.

    “We will,” the wizard said. “Harry’s bringing his Pensieve.”

    “Oh.” Hermione blinked. “That’s a good idea,” she added.

    The other Ron grinned, though not in a particularly friendly way. “Thanks.” He raised his wand, waved it, and the thin covering of snow in the centre of the clearing started to melt.

    “We didn’t put our tent there,” Hermione said, frowning at him. “It was back there, almost under the trees.”

    The other Ron didn’t say anything in response, but Ron saw him clenching his teeth.

    And he saw something else. A ring. “Are you married?” Ron blurted out.

    “Married?” Hermione said, drawing a sharp breath.

    Ron’s counterpart grimaced. “Yes,” he replied, staring at her. “It’s been seven years,” he added, though he sounded guilty.

    “To whom?” Hermione asked in a strange voice.

    Another grimace. “Lavender.”

    “Oh.”

    *****​

    Lavender was making eyes at him again. In the middle of the common room.

    She didn’t like it. They couldn’t afford such distractions. Not with the Headmaster slowly dying and the Dark Lord gathering his forces. Sooner rather than later, they would have to fight. Would have to track down Voldemort’s Horcruxes. And face him at the end. They needed all the preparation they could manage. Any distraction could be fatal.

    And Lavender was a very obvious distraction, she thought as she narrowed her eyes at the witch. She was pretty enough, with long, blonde hair that fell in waves over her shoulders without having to be tamed with charms or potions. But she also knew how to use cosmetics and fashion to her advantage.

    And she had obviously decided to go after Ron. Couldn’t the witch accept that it was over? Ron and Lavender had broken up last year! But here she was, again trying to catch his attention. Too tight robes, inappropriate makeup and obviously rehearsed poses that displayed her charms to best effect.

    They couldn’t afford such distractions. They had to focus on the mission. On their plans.

    She stood and walked over to her friends. “Ron? Would you mind helping me with Defence?”

    He blinked. “You need my help?” He was looking at her, not at Lavender.

    “Yes.” She nodded. “I’m still not as good at casting on the move as I need to be. And you’re good at it.”

    “Ah, yes…”

    “Please?” She beamed at him and twisted around her finger a lock of hair that had somehow slipped out of her ponytail. Two could play that game, after all.

    “Uh, sure. Let’s go to the Room?” He stood, and she smiled.

    They had no time for distractions like Lavender. That sort of business could wait until they had won the war. And she really did need more training in Defence.

    *****​
     
    Scopas, Higure, wichajster and 6 others like this.
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 36: The Explanations
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 36: The Explanations

    Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Britain, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    “Lavender,” Hermione said in a rather flat voice.

    Ron resisted the urge to take a step closer to her. That wouldn’t go over well.

    “Yes. It’s been seven years since…” Ron’s counterpart repeated himself, then pressed his lips together, as if he didn’t want to admit that Hermione hadn’t died.

    “And how long have you been married?” Hermione asked with a frown.

    “Three years,” the other Ron all but spat. “We’ve got a son and are expecting another child,” he added, in an almost defiant tone.

    “Ah. Congratulations.” Her tone was a little warmer than the air around them.

    “Oh! You’ve got a son? What’s his name?” Luna asked.

    “Roger.”

    “That’s a nice name,” Luna said, nodding. “You never dated my counterpart, did you?”

    “What? No.” The other Ron shook his head. “You mean… you two dated?” He looked at her, then at Ron.

    “Yes. But we broke up years ago. Ultimately, we were too different, what with him being a police officer and me a rebel against the system,” Luna told him. “We remained friends, though. And I’m also friends with Hermione!” she added with a bright smile.

    “Ah. I see.” The other Ron didn’t look like he did, in Ron’s opinion. But the tension had gone down again.

    A popping sound made everyone turn - the other Harry had arrived. With the other Ginny.

    Swell. Unless this Ginny was vastly different from his sister, things were likely to get complicated.

    “Wow. You were right - they do look like us. But he doesn’t have your scar,” the other Ginny said.

    “My scar’s on my chest,” Harry told her, a little tersely.

    “And no, he’s not showing it to you,” Ginny added with a glare.

    “It doesn’t look like much, anyway,” Luna said. “Just a bit of puckered skin. If you were curious.”

    “I didn’t want to see it,” the other Ginny told her.

    “Oh? Why did you mention it, then?” Luna asked. “It’s OK to be curious, as long as you’re not rude.”

    “I wasn’t curious,” Ginny’s counterpart said. “Not about his scar, at least,” she added.

    “Ah.” Luna nodded. “I would have been surprised if you weren’t curious about us - that would’ve been very unlike our Ginny.”

    The other Ginny’s expression almost made Ron chuckle - it looked exactly like his sister’s when she lost an argument.

    “Indeed. It is only natural to be curious about our counterparts,” Dumbledore cut in. “However, I think we should first establish our credentials, so to speak - specifically, Dr Granger’s identity.”

    “Dr Granger?” Mrs Granger asked, taking a half-step forward.

    “I told you that I had to study quantum physics, didn’t I?” Hermione replied. “Without a PhD, I would never have received any funding for my research. It was hard enough as it was,” she added with a frown.

    “Oh.”

    “Indeed. It’s a most impressive career,” Dumbledore said. “However, I believe you mentioned a ‘pensieve’? And a magical tent?”

    “Yes,” Harry’s counterpart said. “Let’s get this done.” He reached into the pocket of his robes and pulled out what looked like a yard-wide roll of cloth. Then he glanced at the spot the other Ron had cleared of snow.

    “We didn’t have our tent there,” Hermione told him. “It was back there, at the tree line.” She pointed at the other side of the clearing.

    The other Harry glanced at Ron’s counterpart, who nodded - though he looked like he was reluctant to do so.

    “We’re not at war any more,” the other Harry said, throwing the roll at the cleared spot.

    The roll hit the ground, then unfolded - somehow - into an old-fashioned tent that looked large enough for three or four people. But, as Ron expected, once the entrance flap was pulled back - following a flick of the other Harry’s wand - one could see an entrance hall inside fit for a manor.

    “That’s not our tent,” Hermione said.

    “It’s one of Sirius’s,” Harry’s counterpart told her.

    “Ah.” That seemed to satisfy Hermione.

    They stepped inside. Ron didn’t gawk - he checked the room for possible threats.

    Luna, of course, had less restraint. “Oh! How nice! It’s like in ‘Gone with the Wind’, isn’t it, Ginny?”

    “A bit smaller, I think,” Ginny replied.

    “Yes.”

    “‘Gone with the wind’?” the other Ginny asked.

    “A muggle movie,” Hermione told her. “Famous, though it is quite racist.”

    “Ah.”

    “Let’s set up in the living room,” the other Harry said. “There’s enough room for everyone.”

    The living room also looked like it had come from the set of a period drama. And while Ron wasn’t an expert on magic, the room didn’t look like it had been used recently - or regularly.

    That meant it was probably expendable.

    But Harry the wizard was already pulling out a small stone basin. He put it on the ground, tapped it with his wand and then it wasn’t so small any more - it grew into a good-sized fountain. One covered with inlaid runes.

    The Pensieve.

    “Which memories do you want to see?” Hermione asked.

    “The moment we arrived in the clearing for the first time,” Ron’s counterpart said.

    Hermione hesitated a moment, Ron noticed, then nodded very curtly and pointed her wand at her temple. After a quick circling motion with its tip, a shimmering band grew out of her head, wrapping around the tip of the wand.

    Ron shuddered against his will, though Hermione deftly sent the whole string flying into the Pensieve.

    “There.” She raised her chin.

    The two wizards looked at her, frowning.

    Ron watched as light mist appeared inside the Pensieve, rising slightly until it formed a thin cloud above it. “That’s your memory?”

    “Yes,” she replied, still staring at the other Harry and Ron.

    The two wizards exchanged a glance. “You’re better at remembering details,” Ron’s counterpart said.

    The other Harry nodded, but he seemed a little… wary? Doubtful?

    “Oh, for…” Hermione shook her head. She was clenching her teeth, Ron noticed. “Go in, watch it, then use Ron’s memory to check for differences! Honestly!”

    That caused the other Ginny to snort, and both wizards to frown. The other Harry narrowed his eyes, but then stuck his head into the mist.

    “Aren’t memories subjective?” Ron asked in a low voice.

    “Yes, but a Pensieve accesses subconscious memories that are generally more detailed than what you can consciously remember off-hand,” she explained. “That’s one theory, at least.”

    “And what’s the other?”

    “There was a theory that a Pensieve actually uses Divination to directly check the past. But observations of the reconstruction of a memory in a Pensieve have failed to detect any Divination charms, and it was disproved when people showed altered memories in a Pensieve. And yet, it remains a popular theory - some people prefer to believe that there are ‘superior Pensieves’ which offer glimpses into the actual past.” She shook her head. “I think it was merely a lie put about by a wizard trying to keep the exact method of crafting a Pensieve secret.”

    That made sense - people protected trade secrets, after all. “Or it was a marketing ploy,” he said.

    She chuckled in response. “Perhaps. In any case, a Pensieve has been proven to offer a very clear picture of your memories. Clearer than you could create artificially, especially if you have another memory to check for differences.”

    Which meant it should be proof enough to convince her wizard friends that she was the real Hermione. Should be - her friends were proving to be rather stubborn about the whole thing. More than Ron and Harry had been, certainly.

    In fact, Ron’s counterpart was staring at them with a peculiar expression, Ron noticed.

    “Are you together?” the wizard asked suddenly. “You and… him?”

    Hermione glared, Ron saw. “Yes, we are,” she all but growled. “What of it?”

    The other Ron looked taken aback, but quickly narrowed his eyes. “Why did you react that way to me marrying Lavender, then?”

    “‘React that way’?” Hermione retorted. “I was merely surprised that you chose her, Won-Won.”

    The wizard actually flinched. “She’s not like that!”

    “Not any more,” Ginny’s counterpart added with a sly expression.

    “‘Won-Won’?” Ron asked, looking at Hermione.

    “Her nickname for Ron in our fifth year. When they were together,” she explained.

    “Ah.” What kind of girl would turn a good name like ‘Ron’ into ‘Won-Won’? And why did Hermione care, anyway? Well, he had a theory about that, but he didn’t want to pursue the thought.

    “We’re not teenagers any more, Hermione,” Ron’s counterpart replied.

    “I think it’s a cute nickname,” Luna said.

    Ginny, though, snorted and shook her head. At least Harry didn’t react - not visibly. And Dumbledore’s smile hadn’t changed.

    “Yes, we’re not teenagers any more,” Hermione said. “You’re not playing Quidditch, either.”

    The other Ron looked puzzled. “What do you mean? Of course I’m still playing Quidditch.”

    “I didn’t mean as a hobby,” she clarified.

    “Oh. Did you think I would play professionally? After the war?” The wizard snorted. “There was far too much to do afterwards to abandon everything for Quidditch.”

    “Hey!” Ginny’s counterpart rounded on him. “Do you think that there’s something wrong with playing Quidditch professionally?”

    Ron shook his head. His counterpart had just put his foot in it.

    “You’re a professional sportswoman? Or would that be sportswitch?” Luna asked, perking up. “Our Ginny’s a tennis star!”

    “Tennis?” The other Ginny asked.

    “A muggle sport,” Hermione told her. “A very popular one - Ginny’s world-famous. More than Harry here.”

    “And I have more money,” Ginny added.

    Sirius scoffed at that, though not quite seriously, Ron knew. “Only as long as I’m alive.”

    Both the other Ginny and Ron flinched at that.

    The Grangers, though, looked surprised. “You’re a professional tennis player?”

    “Top ten,” Ginny said, smiling - she had never been very modest about her success.

    “One day she’ll win a major,” Ron added, which caused her to scowl at him. But she couldn’t say anything - he was praising her, after all. Technically.

    “One of the four most important tennis tournaments,” Hermione told the wizards present.

    “Most money is in advertising, anyway,” Ginny said.

    Ron was about to tweak her nose a little more - it was better than watching Hermione be jealous of the other Ron’s wife - but before he could say something, Harry’s counterpart pulled his head out of the mist.

    “Mate?”

    “I’ll need your memory, Ron,” the other Harry said, staring at Hermione.

    “Right away, mate.”

    Hermione huffed as the other Harry stuck his head back into the mist after exchanging the memories in the Pensieve. No one else seemed to react. Ron’s counterpart exchanged a glance with the other Ginny, but, unless they could communicate telepathically, they didn’t actually exchange any words. Of course, as siblings, they could add a lot of meaning to a glance.

    “So…” Ron looked at Hermione. “Does the Pensieve work for anyone?” If it did, it could revolutionise criminal investigations. Testimony you could actually watch...

    “You mean does it work for muggles?” Hermione replied, tilting her head. “It should - unless someone added charms to prevent muggles from using it. That’s just watching, though. To get their memory into the Pensieve, a muggle would have to depend on a wizard to retrieve it, and that can be tricky. You’d have to be a Master Legilimens to have a chance of finding the right memory in someone else’s head, and those are rare.”

    That would make sharing memories awkward, at the very least. Probably impossible. Well, it wasn’t as if Ron was going to continue working as a police officer anyway. But… “Why would anyone charm the Pensieve to not work for muggles?”

    “To keep muggles from accidentally discovering magic,” she explained.

    “Wouldn’t someone have to put a memory in it and leave for that to happen?”

    “Or someone sees you using it, thinks you’re inhaling some new drug and sticks their head inside it.”

    “Ah.” That was more plausible. Still… “That would mean that they’d left a Pensieve unguarded, though.”

    “Such things have happened, and continue to happen,” the other Ron cut in. “Some wizards are just negligent.”

    “Or stupid,” Hermione added. “Or they don’t consider muggles at all.”

    “And then the muggles get obliviated?” Ron asked.

    “Unless they’re related to a wizard,” she said. With a glare at the other Ron, she added: “And the Statute of Secrecy doesn’t apply to other worlds.”

    “I’m not sure if the Wizengamot or the ICW would agree,” Ron’s counterpart told her.

    “It would be hard to argue that my friends aren’t related to wizards, seeing as their DNA matches yours,” she pointed out.

    “That’s never stopped the Ministry, now has it?” the wizard replied with a grin.

    “No, it didn’t,” she agreed. Both of them chuckled at that.

    Ron refrained from scowling. He was better than that. He wasn’t so insecure and jealous as to take offence at her laughing with an old friend. Even if said old friend was not only her ex-lover but also Ron’s counterpart who could use magic.

    “Wiping our memories wouldn’t be a good idea, anyway,” he said. “Some of us have taken precautions against such an event.” Well, Dumbledore had, in any case.

    The other Ron frowned. “What kind of precautions?”

    “Now that would be telling,” Ron retorted with the best grin he could muster.

    “Let’s just say that erasing our knowledge of magic would be rather counterproductive,” he heard Dumbledore say behind him.

    The wizard Ron blinked, then sighed. “That’s going to be a mess.”

    “Isn’t your Harry the chief of the police?” Ginny asked.

    “Yes, but that doesn’t mean we make the laws. Well, not all of them,” the wizard replied.

    “Even as a wizard, you are beholden to the corrupt government,” Luna said, shaking her head. “What a pity!”

    “What?”

    “The needed revolution will never happen if good people do nothing but mindlessly defend the status quo,” Luna explained. “The corrupt regime will never be toppled if everyone kneels to them!”

    “Hey! We did storm the Ministry,” the other Ron defended himself. “We got rid of all the bigots, too. But Harry and I… well, we’re not politicians. We hunt dark wizards and other criminals and leave the politics to others.”

    ‘Got rid of all the bigots’? Ron raised his eyebrows at the wording.

    “‘Others’?” Hermione asked.

    “Dad. Shacklebolt. Doge.” The wizard Ron shrugged.

    “Percy,” Ginny’s counterpart added.

    “Doge? Elphias Doge?” Dumbledore asked.

    “Yes…?”

    “So he survived in this world.” The old man smiled, a little ruefully. “He died in the war in my world. He joined the RAF and was shot down in the Battle of Britain.”

    “Oh.” The other Ron nodded. “That war.”

    Before anyone could say anything else, Harry’s counterpart pulled his head out of the mist. “I need a second opinion,” he said, looking at Ron.

    “Oh for…!” Hermione muttered under her breath. Ron squeezed her hand.

    They switched the memories again, and Ron’s counterpart stuck his head into the mist.

    “Honestly, is it so hard to believe that I’m telling the truth?”

    “Yes,” the other Harry said, rather flatly.

    “Why? Do you think I couldn’t have created a portal to another world?” Hermione asked, huffing.

    “No. But we took a long time to, well, accept that you were gone.”

    “Oh.”

    “See? I told you: They defend the status quo no matter what!”

    “What?” Harry’s counterpart turned to look at Luna.

    “I don’t think that that’s the case here,” Harry told her.

    “Well, I think it’s at least part of the reason for all of this!” Luna retorted. “You need to face reality, Harry - what do we call you, anyway? ‘Other Harry’ sounds rude, and ‘Harry Two’ wouldn’t be correct.”

    “...Just call me Harry,” the other Harry said.

    “But we have two of you,” Luna insisted. “And both of you are with a Ginny… oh, you didn't take her name, did you?”

    “No, I took his,” the other Ginny said.

    “Fiddlesticks.”

    Then the other Ron pulled back out of the mist and stared at Hermione with a lost expression. “Bloody hell!” He shook his head. “It’s… You’re Hermione. Our Hermione.”

    “Finally!” Hermione said with a frown, her hands on her hips. “It took you long enough to admit it, you stubborn idiots!”

    For a moment, neither she nor the other Harry and Ron moved. Then she opened her arms and took a step towards them.

    They all but tackled her as the stand-off turned into a group hug. Hermione was sobbing, Ron noticed, as all three started to babble. Ron only caught a few of everyone’s words.

    “...thought you were dead…”

    “...seven years…”

    “...had to invent a way to travel…”

    “...you’re really back…”

    “...only ashes left…”

    “...Crabbe and Goyle…”

    “...thought you…”

    “...I would never…”

    “...destroy the diadem…”

    Then he noticed the Grangers approaching the three friends. Hesitantly.

    “Hermione?” Mrs Granger called. “Hermione?”

    “Oh!” Hermione pulled away from the two men. “Mum! Dad! I’m so sorry! I had to convince them first.”

    Another group hug followed, with more tears and sobbing. Ron took a step back, giving them some privacy. No one liked to be seen when they were crying.

    And he didn’t feel as left out if he was with the others in their group.

    *****​

    “...and then I threw the bag with the diadem into the fire and jumped into the Vanishing Cabinet. It finally worked - but I was sent to another world,” Hermione said ten minutes later. “I didn’t have a wand, so I couldn’t do any magic, and I was exhausted. I reached a house, and they called the police - I was covered in bruises from the fighting. And once the police arrived, I found out that ‘Hermione Granger’ had vanished seven years ago, presumably kidnapped. My DNA matched hers, so everyone thought I had escaped from a kidnapper after seven years.”

    “Yes,” Ron said. “Her appearance made international headlines back then.”

    Hermione nodded. “I found out how bad being famous for surviving a crime was,” she told the other Harry. “The press hounded me, as did the police - I had claimed amnesia so I didn’t have to explain where I had been or who had kidnapped me. They didn’t like that.”

    “The police never like it if you don’t ‘cooperate’,” Luna commented.

    “Some of the tabloids claimed she was protecting her kidnapper,” Harry said.

    “Bloody vultures,” Ron added with a sneer.

    “They even tried to sneak on to my estate to get pictures of Harry not a month after James and Lily’s murder!” Sirius snarled.

    Ginny nodded emphatically. “Oh, yes. They still hound us whenever we go out in public without disguises.”

    “They hound you,” Harry told her.

    “A typical reaction of the establishment - they have the press discredit anyone who doesn’t bow to their demands!” Luna said. “They’ve done that to Daddy many times! And they use celebrities to distract the masses so they won’t band together and tear down the corrupt system! That’s why they published those topless pictures of you!”

    “Luna!” Ginny hissed.

    “What? They did!”

    Hermione cleared her throat. “Anyway, I quickly realised that without a wand, and no way to make one even if I knew how, I had to resort to rituals to find a way back. And for that, I had to study physics.”

    “And then you caught up on your education and earned a PhD in quantum physics?” Mr Granger asked.

    “Yes.”

    “My little girl is a doctor!” Hermione’s mum exclaimed and hugged her. Well, hugged her harder - she hadn’t really let go of Hermione since their first hug.

    “If she found out how to travel through time, she could be the Doctor,” Luna said. “All she needs is a telephone booth - she can use a wand in place of a sonic screwdriver.”

    The confused glances their counterparts exchanged made it clear that they had never heard of Doctor Who. And this wasn’t the time to explain the finer points of the BBC’s best series. Not that Luna wouldn’t try if given the chance. So Ron chuckled but changed the subject again. “We didn’t meet Hermione until a few months ago - we had information that a small number of criminals were interested in Dr Granger…”

    *****​

    “...and then we came to see my parents. You know the rest.” Hermione finished.

    “Yes. This morning, Parkinson and Travers asked about you - if you were alright. Well, they didn’t know it was you, but that’s how we found out that someone was impersonating us,” the other Harry said.

    “And why did you decide to visit my parents?” Hermione asked. “We were disguised.”

    “Your reaction to your statue,” Ron’s counterpart explained. “I told Harry that we should check up on Gabriel and Ellen, in case someone was trying to scam them using our appearances.”

    “A good deduction,” Dumbledore commented. “Considering the intel you had to base it on, of course.”

    “Ah.” Hermione nodded, then frowned. “And who had the idea to put up a statue of me? In the train station at Hogsmeade?”

    “Err… you don’t like it?” The other Harry looked honestly baffled.

    “I told you we should have insisted on Hogwarts,” Ron’s counterpart muttered. “Probably in the library.”

    “It was a compromise. We thought that there, every student would see it every time they went to Hogwarts,” Harry’s counterpart explained.

    “We thought you were dead and wanted to honour your memory,” the other Ron told her. “McGonagall said there hadn’t been any statues put up in Hogwarts since the fourteenth century since, otherwise, every Minister and headmaster would want one, and that would be a mess. But there’s a portrait of you in the school!” he added with a bright smile.

    Hermione blinked. “A portrait?”

    She didn’t sound happy about that, either.

    Harry’s counterpart nodded. “We hung it in the Gryffindor common room, but it usually wanders through all the other portraits.”

    “Helping with homework, guiding lost first years, patrolling the halls…” the other Ron added.

    “That sounds nice,” Luna said. “A literally smart portrait.”

    “I see.” Hermione still didn’t sound very happy about it. Ron would have to ask her about the reason for that. “Well, a statue and a portrait. I guess that was to be expected,” she went on.

    “There’s also the manor,” Harry’s counterpart told her.

    “The manor?”

    “Well, it was like this…”

    *****​

    “You turned Parkinson Manor into an orphanage and renamed it ‘Granger Memorial Manor’?” Hermione sounded almost shocked.

    “Well, it was Shacklebolt’s idea.” The other Ron shrugged. “But Harry was all for it, and it’s a nice idea.”

    “I didn’t want an orphanage named after me,” the wizard Harry - or was that the wizarding Harry? - explained. “Sorry,” he added with a grin.

    She shook her head. “I understand. It’s just… I’m surprised how much Wizarding Britain has changed.”

    “Not as much as the country will be surprised by your return,” Ron’s counterpart said with a grin.

    “About that…” Hermione bit her lower lip. “We can’t tell them the truth. Not right now, at least.”

    “What?”

    “Think about it. I created a portal to another world. A world without magic, but where magic works. There’s no ICW there to protect muggles from dark wizards. Or from unscrupulous and greedy wizards.”

    “It’s not as if the ICW did anything for us when Voldemort was running the country,” the other Ron muttered.

    “I see your point,” wizard Harry said. “And if you can open a portal to this world, you can open portals to other worlds, too, can’t you?”

    “In theory, yes,” Hermione admitted. “The ICW will want to control the portal.”

    “Everyone will want to control the portal,” wizard Ron added.

    “I dare say that they would encounter some difficulties - at least on our side,” Dumbledore interjected. “But if our own experiences are any indication, Dr Granger will become the target of every wizard or wizarding government with ambitions.”

    Ron clenched his teeth. To fight Russian wizards… Couldn’t they have some peace, at last?

    “Yes. No one can know about the portal,” Hermione said.

    “But you’ll need an excuse for suddenly returning after seven years,” Harry’s counterpart pointed out. “We can’t tell people that you took a vacation or went studying.”

    “Well, we could, but it wouldn’t go over well,” the other Ron said.

    “Yes,” his friend agreed. “Shacklebolt used your name for a lot of reforms. All things you would have approved, trust me.”

    “Ah. Politics,” Sirius commented with a sneer.

    “Dead heroes - or heroines, in this case - suddenly turning up alive have a tendency to upset the status quo,” Dumbledore remarked.

    “Which isn’t a bad thing,” Luna interjected. “People deserve the truth.”

    “But not everyone deserves to know every one of your secrets. And this is too dangerous to let every goon with a wand know about it,” Hermione told her.

    “I want to live without having to fear thugs trying to kidnap me or my family,” Ginny added.

    Luna pouted. “The longer you keep a secret, the more it hurts once it comes out.”

    “That depends on how long the secret is kept, my dear,” Dumbledore said. “I concur with keeping the portal a secret. But Mr Potter is correct - you’ll need an explanation for your absence.”

    “A good one,” Ron’s counterpart added. “We searched for you for a long time.”

    “The Vanishing Cabinet malfunctioning explains my survival - and is the truth,” Hermione added with a look at Luna. “We just need to avoid mentioning the other world. I could’ve been in a coma in a muggle clinic.”

    “Or you could’ve lost your memory,” Ginny added.

    “But that wouldn’t explain us,” Luna said. “I want to see the magical world! And my counterpart!” She sounded almost desperate.

    “It’s only temporary,” Hermione told her. “And you can wear disguises in the magical world.”

    “And you can see Luna - our Luna. She’s our friend,” Ron’s counterpart added. “And our family.”

    That mollified Luna. Ron glanced at Dumbledore; that was a lot of people who would be in on their secret. But the old man didn’t protest. Did he plan to use Hermione’s wizard friends to defend the portal on his side?

    “Pretending to have lost my memory and my wand would probably be best,” Hermione said. “I can introduce you as new friends I made, and, since I’m such a prominent witch,” she added with a glance at her wizard friends, “it makes sense that I’d keep their identity secret to avoid old enemies harming them.”

    It wasn’t much of a cover story, in Ron’s opinion. But then, magic could remove memories, so it probably didn’t sound like a movie plot to wizards and witches. If they even had movies.

    “Alright, that’s settled. So… shall we go to The Burrow? Or Grimmauld Place?” Ron’s counterpart asked.

    “Both?” Luna suggested with a beaming smile.

    Ron saw Hermione glance at her parents. Ah. “What about your home?” he said.

    “Would that be as safe from magical intruders as the aforementioned locations?” Dumbledore asked with seemingly idle curiosity.

    Hermione sighed and looked at her wizard friends. “The office wasn’t protected in any way.”

    “Putting up wards would have messed with all their electronic devices,” Harry the wizard said.

    “Like the telly,” Ron’s counterpart added. “It’s a shame we can’t have one at home. Dad’s been trying for years to get it working but hasn’t had any success. Not yet.”

    “And we cannot live without modern media. We had bodyguards for years because we couldn’t have wards,” Mr Granger told Hermione. “In the time after, well... “ He shrugged. “After the war.”

    Ron suspected that the guards hadn’t just looked out for intruders, but also had kept an eye on the Grangers in case they couldn’t handle the loss of their daughter.

    “But if it was safe a few years ago…” Mrs Granger started to say. “No?”

    Ron the wizard scoffed. “I bet those two rookies already spread the news about our doubles. It won’t take long to connect that to the Grangers.”

    “Really?” Hermione looked doubtful.

    Ron’s counterpart grinned ruefully. “We kind of told them we’d check on Gabriel and Ellen before we left. Just in case there was trouble, and we needed reinforcements. By now, it has probably reached the Daily Prophet.”

    “Ah.” Hermione pressed her lips together. “I would rather not have my face plastered all over one of Skeeter’s articles.”

    “Oh, she’s in Azkaban,” Ron’s counterpart said, his grin growing wider. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

    “What?” Hermione looked surprised. “What did she do? I don’t remember her joining Voldemort.”

    “She wrote several articles exposing muggleborns and exaggerated the supposed dangers from them and muggles, remember?” Wizarding Harry looked at her expectantly, or that was Ron’s impression, anyway.

    “Yes, but…”

    “That helped Voldemort’s goals,” the other Ron said. “She was lucky she didn’t get executed - Shacklebolt mentioned there was a famous muggle case about that.”

    “A famous muggle case?” Hermione blinked. “But…”

    “Oh! Julius Streicher, the Nazi newspaper publisher,” Luna interjected, nodding. “He wrote so many anti-Semitic news articles, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and executed at Nuremberg.”

    “From what I remember, Rita Skeeter wasn’t really as bad as Streicher,” Hermione said.

    “Well, as Shacklebolt said, Wizarding Britain is much smaller than the muggle countries, population-wise, so it evened out.” Ron’s counterpart shrugged. “Anyway, she wasn’t executed but sentenced to Azkaban.”

    “That’s the wizard prison with the evil soul-sucking ghosts, isn’t it?” Luna asked.

    “Dementors,” Hermione replied. “But…” She looked at the wizards. “Are they still around?”

    “Yes,” wizarding Harry admitted, wincing a little. “We didn’t have the manpower to replace them right after the war.”

    “But we moved all the prisoners out and only sent Death Eater sympathisers and other dark wizards there,” the other Ron added. “So… it worked out.”

    “And unlike Sirius - my Sirius - everyone got a fair trial,” Harry’s counterpart said.

    “So… Grimmauld Place first, then the Burrow?” Ron’s counterpart asked.

    “But…” Hermione trailed off and sighed. “The Burrow second, I guess. Grimmauld Place offers more privacy,” she added with a glance at her parents.

    Ah. Ron nodded. That made sense.

    “So, that’s the home of the magical Weasleys, right?” Luna asked. “And it’s at the same place as your home, Ginny!”

    “Probably,” Hermione corrected them. “At least it’s in the same village, but since I’ve never visited Ron’s place in your world, I couldn’t say with any certainty whether the locations are identical.”

    “Well, we’ll find out!” Luna bounced on her feet.

    “Better, ah, disguise yourself, first,” the other Ron told her. “Don’t want to shock Mum.”

    Ginny’s counterpart grinned. “She’d probably have an accidental magic incident!”

    “Which can have serious consequences,” Hermione said, frowning. “It’s not a joking matter.”

    “Ah, we handle our kids all the time,” the other Ginny retorted.

    “You’ve got kids?” Ginny said, blinking. “But you’re a professional athlete, aren’t you? Did you take a break?”

    “A break?” Her counterpart seemed confused. “Well, for the last few months, but we timed that so the kids were born post-season.”

    “How many kids do you have?” Ginny asked.

    “Two. James and Jean,” her counterpart replied. “Twins.”

    “Oh. ‘Jean’?” Hermione looked surprised again. That was her middle name, Ron knew.

    “We didn’t want to name her Hermione,” the other Harry explained. “That would’ve been too much pressure. It’s bad enough being our child.”

    “Oh.” Hermione nodded. “That sounds sensible.”

    “Yes. And there are enough Hermiones around already,” Ron’s counterpart added. “It’s a popular name in Britain.”

    “Really.” Hermione glanced at her parents, Ron noticed.

    “I told you that it would be a popular name one day, remember?” Mrs Granger told her with a smile. “As soon as people realised it.”

    “Hm?” Ron hadn’t heard about that.

    “When I was five, and other children teased me about my ‘weird name’,” Hermione told him.

    “Ah.”

    “Although I doubt that you had this in mind,” she added, turning back to her parents with a rather watery smile.

    More hugging followed, but, watching the Grangers, Ron didn’t feel as awkward as before.

    *****​

    No 12 Grimmauld Place, London, Britain, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    They arrived with the by now familiar yet still unpleasant feeling of Apparition. The ancestral home of the Black family in this world - and, apparently, now the home of Ginny and Harry’s counterparts - didn’t look like Ron had expected. It didn’t look very magical. No floating stairs, no glowing lights, no walking furniture. Hell, it didn’t even look as ancient as Sirius’s home. Bright and modern, more IKEA than Victorian, if Ron was honest. With the exception of the oversized fireplace.

    “My mother would have a stroke if she saw this,” Sirius commented next to Ron. “It’s much too bright and cheery for her.”

    “Oh, we know,” Ginny’s counterpart said, sighing while the other Harry and Ron, as well as Hermione, vanished again to fetch the others. “She complained endlessly when we started to renovate the building.”

    Sirius blinked. “I was under the impression that she had died here as well.”

    “She has. Her portrait, though, has endured. We finally had to silence the entire frame and wall it in, or James’s first word would have been a slur.”

    “Wow. My mother would have rather died than curse like a sailor. Completely unsuitable behaviour for a refined member of the aristocracy, you know.” Sirius shook his head.

    With a pop, the Grangers and Dumbledore arrived.

    “Sirius! Does this give you ideas?” Harry asked while the others recovered.

    “IKEA? In our home?” Sirius shook his head. “I have an image to uphold, Harry. And English Heritage would probably send me to prison if I changed too much in our home.”

    Ron doubted that. English Heritage weren’t quite as bad, nor had quite as much power, as Sirius liked to claim. But as long as Harry’s godfather wanted to use them as an excuse for keeping his home as it had been while he was growing up...

    Another popping noise announced Luna and Ginny’s arrival. “Oh!” Luna gasped. “It looks…” Ron saw her face fall. “...boring. Completely boring!” She pouted as she looked around. “It doesn’t look magical at all!”

    “I’ll have you know that all our friends told us that it looks exotic,” Ginny’s counterpart replied, in a slightly sharp tone.

    “Really?” Hermione looked surprised. “It looks very… muggle.”

    “Exactly,” Harry’s counterpart said with a very familiar grin.

    “Oh, you!” She shook her head, then looked at her parents. “I guess you helped?”

    “A little,” her mother said.

    “Figures.” She perked up. “Oh! Did you reorganise the library? It would be so much more useful with a proper index and cataloguing system!”

    “Err…” The other Harry’s grin vanished. “We didn’t really do much with it.”

    “Other than ensuring that it was safe for children,” Ginny’s counterpart added.

    “Oh.”

    “You can do that, once you’re settled in,” Harry the wizard told her with a smile.

    “Mate! We’ll never get her out of the library again!” the other Ron complained - but he was smiling.

    Hermione was smiling as well, Ron noticed. “That won’t be for a while,” she told them. “We have to set up a portal site in this world, so we’re not cut off. And we need to find a skilled, discreet Healer.”

    “What?” Both wizards were suddenly alert. “Are you hurt? A lingering curse from the last battle?” Harry’s counterpart asked.

    “Or some muggle sickness they can’t fix themselves?” Ron’s counterpart blurted out.

    “Are you pregnant?” Ginny the witch asked.

    “No, I… What?” Hermione stared at the witch. “No, I'm not pregnant,” she said with conviction. “It’s for Mr Dumbledore and his friend,” she explained.

    “Oh. Are you sick?” the other Ron asked.

    “My ailments mostly stem from my advanced age,” Dumbledore replied. “Something I was told magic can deal with, up to a point.”

    “You want to be immortal?” Wizarding Harry looked… well, as if he had finally realised that the old spymaster wasn’t the Headmaster he had known. In Ron’s opinion, at least. And he was glancing at Hermione.

    “No,” Hermione said with a frown, “But magic can repair a lot of the damage that comes from old age. That’s why we need a good, discreet Healer. They’ll be paid handsomely in gold.”

    “Indeed. Money is of no concern - Gellert and I are quite well-off.”

    “Gellert?” Now all their counterparts were frowning.

    “Grindelwald’s counterpart,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes a little, “who, I’ll have you know, didn’t lead armies in conquest of half of Europe.”

    “Ah.” Wizarding Harry nodded. “We’ll need a very discreet Healer then.”

    “Oh, yes,” Ron’s counterpart agreed. “Or there’ll be hell to pay.”

    “So I was given to understand,” Dumbledore said with his usual friendly smile.

    “So… when do we go to The Burrow?” Luna asked.

    “Well, we were planning to have the rest of the family come here. We need to tell Mum and Dad, first. Give them some time to prepare, too. Mum will want to cook for you all,” the other Ron said. “And I need to get Lavender - if I don’t tell her right away, she’ll never forgive me.”

    “Alright,” the other Harry said. “Let me show you the guest rooms you can use in the meantime. They’re on the…” He trailed off. “James?”

    Ron looked up. Yes, there was a little boy looking at them from the top of the stairs. And a little girl behind him.

    “James! Jean!” Ginny’s counterpart yelled. “Did you climb out of bed again?”

    “Should’ve stuck them inside,” Ron heard his counterpart mumble.

    Another voice sounded from behind the toddler. “Little James! Little Jean! Oh, Dobby’s so sorry! So sorry!”

    Then a small alien creature appeared next to the children. “Dobby will get them back to bed, don’t worry…” The creature’s eyes widened almost comically. “Mistress Hermione? You got out of the portrait?”

    What? Ron turned to look at Hermione and realised that she was having another flashback.

    *****​

    “This is an outrage!” she yelled as she dropped a thick tome on the table in the common room. “I looked it up! Elves have almost no rights!” She shook her head and looked at her friends. Who seemed to be far more confused than they should be, after her explanation.

    “What?” Harry asked.

    “Obliviating Dobby was legal!” she told him. “If an elf leaves your employment, you can obliviate them! And the same goes if you fire him!” This was scandalous!

    “Yes?” Ron still didn’t seem to get it. “That’s so they can’t betray the secrets of the old employer.”

    “But that’s... “ She shook her head. “That’s their life! They lose their memories when they leave an employer! What if they married during that time? That’s… almost as evil as slavery!”

    “So that’s why Dobby didn’t recognise me when I saw him here,” Harry said.

    “Yes.” Hermione nodded. “His employer must have obliviated him. And if he’d been working there for longer than twelve years, he wouldn’t have even known that you existed since he would have forgotten everything from since before you were born!”

    “Wow, that’s…”

    “...evil, yes, I told you already!” Hermione finished for Ron. “Dobby’s former employer must be the one behind the attacks. And Dobby still tried to warn you, Harry. He must have known the danger - he risked his memories for you!” She sat down. “We need to do something about this!”

    “About the attacks? We’ve been trying for weeks!” Ron said.

    “No, not that. We do need to solve those, of course. But we need to do something about the elves, too!” She pulled out her notes. “We’ll start an organisation. A movement. A Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare. Like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I’ve transfigured a pin, too.”

    She pulled out her prototype.

    Harry and Ron didn’t look very enthusiastic, though. Harry even frowned. “Spew? You named it ‘spew’?”

    Oh. Oh, no!

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2020
    Scopas, Higure, wichajster and 6 others like this.
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 37: The Other Weasleys
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 37: The Other Weasleys

    No 12 Grimmauld Place, London, Britain, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    “Dobby? You work for Harry?” Hermione exclaimed.

    “Yes, Mistress Hermione,” the creature replied.

    “I hired him when we moved in here,” Harry the wizard explained with a shrug.

    “And Dobby is very grateful for the honour to be working for the great Harry Potter and his family!”

    “Did you get your memories back?” Hermione asked in a hopeful voice.

    The creature’s ears drooped. “Dobby is sorry; Dobby did not. But other elves told Dobby all about Harry Potter!”

    “Oh.” Hermione’s smile vanished.

    Ron blinked. Elves? Elves weren’t supposed to look like that! Dobby looked like a goblin or something, not like an elf.

    “Dobby is sorry, Mistress Hermione. But didn’t Mistress know that already?”

    “She’s the real Hermione,” Ron’s counterpart said. “Not the portrait.”

    “Dad? Mum? Mum? Dad?” James looked confused, Ron noted, the boy’s head moving left and right as he looked down at them.

    “Two Mums and Dads!” Jean exclaimed, pointing at them.

    “We’re not your Mum and Dad,” Ginny said.

    “But you look like!” James protested.

    Ron frowned - they should have disguised themselves before travelling. Sloppy.

    “They’re your parents’ counterparts from another dimension. That’s why they look like them,” Luna told them.

    The confused expressions of the two toddlers made it clear that the explanation had gone way over their heads. Which was a good thing since they were trying to keep the dimensional travel a secret.

    Ginny’s counterpart, meanwhile, had drawn her wand. “James! Jean! You have to go back to bed. It’s nap time.”

    “Don’t wanna!” James protested. “Not sleepy!”

    “Mum! Can I stay?” Jean asked - and she was looking at Ron’s sister with a hopeful smile.

    Ron chuckled. That girl would be a handful.

    “I’m not your mum,” Ginny said.

    “I’m your mum,” her counterpart said in a firm tone. “And I’m sending you to bed now!”

    “Dobby is sorry.”

    “It’s not your fault, Dobby,” Harry’s counterpart said. “We should’ve spelled the door.”

    “I did,” Ginny the witch told him. “They must have used accidental magic.”

    “Tunnels!” James said, beaming at them.

    “Or the house-elf passageways,” she added with a sigh.

    “Dobby is sorry.”

    “Mum! No!”

    “Please, Mum! I sleep later!”

    “You didn’t make the twins their godfathers, did you?” Ron asked while Dobby picked up Jean and Ginny’s counterpart stopped James, who was trying to make a break for it. Ron glanced at Harry’s counterpart when the wizard didn’t answer right away and blinked. He knew that expression. “You did.”

    Harry the wizard shrugged in a familiar way. Ron’s counterpart chuckled. “They thought I’d be an honorary uncle anyway, so there was no need to make me a godfather.”

    “Honestly!” Hermione said, shaking her head. But she was smiling as well.

    “So, let’s move to the living room,” Harry the wizard said. “Ginny’ll join us in a minute.” He opened the door in the back and waved them forward.

    It looked like the interior layout wasn’t any different from Sirius and Harry’s home, either, Ron noted as they followed the wizard.

    “They’re so cute!” he heard Luna say behind him. “Do you think your kids will look like them?”

    “Ah…” It seemed Ginny was at a loss for words.

    “That is very unlikely.” Hermione, of course, wasn’t. “They would be born years later than their counterparts.”

    “My counterpart was decades older than I am,” Dumbledore pointed out.

    “Which is an anomaly,” Hermione replied. “Although it does require further research. If there are more counterparts with an age difference, especially if born after my arrival in your world, then that would throw an entirely new light on fundamental assumptions about the laws of the universe. And on Divination.”

    “One problem at a time,” Ron’s counterpart said. “You can always do research later.”

    “Very often, research is necessary to solve a problem,” Hermione retorted, a little sharply in Ron’s opinion.

    “Research into politics in this case,” Harry the wizard cut in as he opened the door to the living room. Which was sporting more modern furniture, although no telly or anything more advanced than an old-fashioned radio, Ron noted. “Let me duplicate the couch,” the wizard added.

    A moment later, two more couches appeared, and the room had grown accordingly. Ron glanced at Hermione; she seemed to be impressed at the display, but she didn’t comment as she took a seat on the original couch. He joined her.

    “Drinks anyone?” Wizarding Harry asked. “You’re invited to lunch, of course, but it’s a little early.”

    “And Mum will cook a feast for dinner, once she hears about your return,” Ron’s counterpart said. He checked the time on an old-fashioned pocket watch, Ron noted. “I’ll need to tell her and Dad, of course. And Lavender. Lavender first - Dad won’t be home for lunch yet.”

    “Will she be able to keep the secret?” Hermione asked. “I’d rather not have half our year showing up.”

    “She’s not a teenager any more,” Ron the wizard replied, frowning.

    Hermione pressed her lips together but didn’t retort. Instead, she looked at Harry’s counterpart.
    “I thought Dobby was happy at Hogwarts.”

    “He was. But, you know, working for a famous family is seen as more prestigious among elves,” the wizard replied. “And, well, he’s earned it, hasn’t he?”

    “Of course.” Hermione didn’t look as if she was satisfied, though.

    “Oh, Hermione, lighten up,” Ron’s counterpart blurted out. “People aren’t allowed to obliviate elves any more.”

    She looked almost shocked. “You changed the law?”

    “We did,” he told her. “Telling people that Voldemort might not have returned if we had been able to prove that Malfoy was behind the Basilisk attacks pretty much sold that law, Dad said.”

    “Ah.” She slowly nodded.

    “Politics,” Harry’s counterpart said with a slight sneer.

    “You don’t agree?” Hermione asked, sounding surprised.

    Before the wizard could answer, Ginny’s counterpart returned. “They’re back in their beds, and the entrance to the house-elf passages is now spelled shut.” She sat down next to Harry’s counterpart and sighed. “I’m blaming you for that.”

    “What?”

    “Well, they didn’t get that from me; I was never such an unruly child,” she explained.

    Ron chuckled; that sounded exactly like his sister - who wasn’t amused, as he found out when he glanced at her.

    The other Ron snorted. “You were the worst. Well, except for the twins. And I think Bill was a handful as well.”

    “So I’ve heard,” Ron said, then blinked. “I mean, my Bill.”

    “Blimey, that’ll take some getting used to.” His counterpart shook his head. “The idea that there’s a muggle copy of me somewhere out there…”

    “I’m not your copy,” Ron retorted with a frown.

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed. “You’re more like dimensional twins. The parallels are surprising, but all of us were created naturally - none of us were copied. As far as we know, at any rate.”

    That would have sounded better, in Ron’s opinion, without that last addition.

    “We’re like Fred and George?” The other Ron chuckled again, but Ron could tell it was forced.

    “You’re not the only one who thinks this is weird,” he told him. “We look the same, but we’re very different.” He hadn’t fought in a magical civil war. He wasn’t a wizard. And he wouldn’t have married a woman who called him ‘Won-Won’. He didn’t think that the Lavender of his world had been as… weird.

    “Not so different,” Hermione said. “You both work as police officers. Or did,” she added with a wince.

    “You don’t any more?” Harry’s counterpart asked.

    “We’re currently suspended and planning to quit the force,” Harry told him.

    “What did you do?” Ron’s counterpart raised his eyebrows. So did the Grangers, Ron noticed.

    “They didn’t like how we protected Hermione,” Ron told him. He almost added: ‘And we aren’t war heroes with the ear of the head of government to protect us.’ But that would have sounded like whining. Instead, he added: “We’re planning to become private investigators.”

    “Like in the stories?” Ginny the witch said.

    “Can you make a living doing that?” Mrs Granger asked.

    “Private security is a growing market - especially for highly-skilled former police officers,” Dumbledore explained. “I would know - I employ a fair number of them.”

    Ron nodded in agreement, but Sirius said: “And if all else fails, Ginny needs a well-paid bodyguard, and I guess Hermione will need one as well.” The older man chuckled at his own joke.

    “Very funny,” Harry said in a flat voice.

    “Sheesh, lighten up, Harry,” his godfather retorted. “Besides, this whole portal business is more important than any job, anyway.”

    “Yes,” Harry’s counterpart agreed. “It’s a whole can of worms.”

    “That’s why we have to keep it secret - in both worlds,” Hermione said. “I don’t trust the government - or the Ministry - to handle this with the necessary caution and care.”

    “Indeed!” Luna agreed. “You cannot trust any government - they’re all corrupt and beholden to their backers in the shadows.”

    “Shacklebolt’s alright,” Ron’s counterpart said. “He knows his business, and he does the right thing. Usually.”

    “He won’t be Minister forever. What if he is succeeded by another Fudge? Or another Malfoy?” Hermione shook her head.

    “There won’t be another Malfoy,” the other Ron told her. “But I know what you mean. We dealt with the worst of the Ministry, but the new people might have some bad eggs among them.”

    “Corruption is endemic to most organisations,” Dumbledore said, nodding gravely. “And not all corruption stems from personal greed - sometimes, people break laws with the best of intentions. Or so they think.”

    Ron wondered - privately, of course - if the old man spoke from personal experience. And with regard to corruption - Ron and his friends certainly had broken a lot of laws with Dumbledore’s help already. Mostly abroad, of course.

    “We’ll just have to keep vigilant,” his counterpart said, “and deal with it when it crops up.”

    “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” Dumbledore said. “Or, as Mr Moody would say, ‘Constant vigilance’.”

    “I don’t trust the Ministry,” Hermione repeated. “And while my opinion of Her Majesty’s Government is quite a bit better, I don’t trust them with the security and the secrecy of the portal.”

    “A very sensible stance,” Dumbledore agreed. “Despite my best efforts in my time, I cannot say that the government is free of spies. Information tends to leak to all sorts of interested parties. And we can be sure that the Russians will redouble their efforts to penetrate our security.”

    “Information needs to be free, though,” Luna said. “Without supervision by the public, you have no accountability. Can you trust yourself with this?”

    That was a very good question, Ron couldn’t help thinking.

    “I think so,” Hermione retorted. “But regardless, I know that the government - or the Ministry - learning about the portal will lead to serious problems with grave consequences for a large number of innocent people.”

    Luna frowned at her. “That sounds like the same argument the government uses.”

    “That doesn’t make it wrong in this case,” Hermione replied. “It’s not ideal, but if you know a better solution, I’ll gladly implement it instead.”

    Luna blinked, then pouted. “I’ll have to get back to you about that.”

    Hermione’s smile was, perhaps, a little smug in Ron’s opinion.

    “So,” his counterpart said, “I’ll go tell Lavender and the parents.”

    “And my counterpart!” Luna added.

    “If she’s home,” the other Ron replied before leaving through the door.

    Ron frowned. “Why didn’t he just apparate from here?”

    “You mean disapparate,” Hermione corrected him. “It’s bad manners to disapparate from someone’s living room. And homes are usually warded with Anti-Apparition Jinxes. The entrance hall might be an exception.”

    “Exactly,” the other Harry confirmed with a smile.

    “I’ll tell Dobby to fix something for lunch,” Ginny’s counterpart said. “It might take a little longer, though, because there are so many of us.”

    “If we’re imposing, then we can go get a takeaway from somewhere,” Ginny replied. “It can’t be easy to cook for half a dozen additional guests.”

    “It’s not a problem; we can multiply the food once it’s ready,” the witch told her with a grin.

    “Magic really is useful!” Luna said. “Imagine multiplying pudding. All the cake you can eat…”

    “We try to avoid setting a bad example for the twins,” Harry the wizard told her.

    “That’s a laudable stance. But what does that have to do with pudding?” Luna cocked her head as if she were honestly confused.

    “Uh…” Apparently, Harry’s counterpart fell for it. “Overeating cake is bad for your health. Trust me, I know - my cousin served as a really bad example.”

    “Couldn’t you use magic to make pudding healthy?” Luna asked. “Or is there a potion to deal with overeating?”

    “Well, in theory, it should be possible,” Hermione said. “Magic can deal with worse health impediments, after all. However, I don’t recall any such spells.”

    “Aw.”

    Ron blinked. Had Dumbledore chimed in with Luna?

    “You’d make millions, no, billions, with that,” Ginny said. “Eat what you want, as much as you want, with no negative consequences? People would kill for that. Or to stop it from wrecking the dieting business.”

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed. “Another reason to keep the portal a secret.”

    “I concur. However, it isn’t a reason not to pursue this further,” Dumbledore said with a wide smile. “I might yet convert Gellert to enjoying dessert with me.”

    “Err, yes, I suppose so. But I think there are more pressing matters to which we need to attend,” Hermione said. “Like finding a discreet Healer.”

    “A Healer? Is someone hurt?” Ron heard Hermione say behind him and herself. He leapt to his feet and whirled, hand going to his gun. Who had…? He blinked. There was a younger Hermione staring at him from the landscape painting on the wall. A painted Hermione.

    “That’s the portrait?” Hermione exclaimed next to him. “It can appear here?”

    “Of course I can,” the portrait replied. “I would be very limited if I were confined to Hogwarts, wouldn’t I?” Suddenly, the portrait frowned. “You look like Hermione.”

    “I am Hermione.”

    “That is impossible. She died, and you don’t look like a ghost. And if you were a ghost, you’d appear at Hogwarts, not here.”

    Ron saw Hermione press her lips together, then glare at Harry’s counterpart. “Can you tell it that I’m Hermione?”

    The wizard looked embarrassed. “Ah, Hermione, this is Hermione Granger. Your original.”

    “Really? You’re serious?”

    “Yes.”

    “Oh! That’s great!” The portrait was now beaming at Hermione. “I was limited to the recollections of your friends, unlike other portraits. But with you now present, I can finally copy you perfectly! That will make my duties so much easier!”

    “Copy me…? Your duties?”

    “I’m a prefect, tutor and assistant teacher.” The portrait sounded proud.

    “I see.” Hermione sounded angry.

    *****​

    “...and we didn’t plan to make her a prefect or tutor,” Harry’s counterpart said. “We just wanted a portrait of you, a sort of legacy. She - it - decided to become a prefect and help students. On its own.”

    “I’m not sure whether that makes it better or worse,” Hermione mumbled - if he hadn’t been sitting right next to her, Ron would have missed it. “So, you taught her all she knows.”

    “Everyone who knew you helped,” he told her. “But mainly Ron and I.” He frowned. “Mainly me, in the beginning - Ron couldn’t, well…”

    “I can imagine,” she replied.

    “Yes. But Ron was very helpful later,” the portrait chimed in. “Not as helpful as you’ll be, of course.”

    “You presume quite a lot,” Hermione told it.

    “Why wouldn’t you help me reach my full potential? Wouldn’t that be discrimination against paintings?” the portrait asked in a vexed tone.

    “What…? Honestly!” Hermione shook her head. “And that is how every student at Hogwarts has known me for the last seven years?” She looked at Harry the wizard again.

    He cringed a little but rallied. “Five years: it took some time to get it painted and, ah, instructed. But, well, you were one of the best prefects, ever - McGonagall said so herself. And you were always ready to help others with their homework, weren’t you?”

    “But…” Hermione sighed. “Well, I guess I will have to teach it more about myself.”

    “Of course!” the portrait told her, nodding.

    She closed her eyes, and Ron squeezed her thigh in support.

    “Well, it could’ve been worse,” she muttered. “And it’s just a painting.” A little more loudly, she said: “Well, at least this should improve the student experience at Hogwarts. Organised tutoring, effective patrolling - although, now that I think about it: Why didn’t the other portraits help with patrolling when we were at school?”

    “They’re hidebound relics,” the portrait declared, “who wouldn’t recognise bullying if it hexed them in the back.”

    “What?”

    “All of the portraits are, well… very old-fashioned,” Harry the wizard said. “Dumbledore’s portrait is the youngest - and the only one that actually understands what we consider bullying.”

    “Oh.”

    Ron winced. The old teachers at his boarding school had been bad enough; to imagine getting disciplined by people from the Victorian age, or even older… He shuddered.

    “That’s just natural; old people cling to their outdated views, which is why they defend the status quo so much,” Luna said.

    “Exactly!” the portrait agreed. “Which is why it was fortunate that so many old wizards and witches were implicated in Voldemort’s regime - their removal greatly facilitated the necessary reforms.”

    That sounded a little ominous, in Ron’s opinion.

    “They were tried for their crimes, not for political reasons,” Harry the wizard said, frowning.

    “As I said: fortunate,” the portrait replied.

    Hermione looked quite concerned now. Luna, on the other hand, was nodding in obvious and emphatic agreement. Which was a cause for concern by itself, of course.

    “Well, good riddance to them,” Ginny’s counterpart said. “They deserved everything they got in the end; Dad almost got killed by the traitors in the Ministry during the coup, you remember?”

    “Yes,” Hermione said.

    “And justice was done!” the portrait added.

    “Although while purges might seem necessary at times - I remember the denazification efforts in Germany after the war - in that sort of situation, there will always be those who will be tempted to use the opportunity to take revenge or settle accounts,” Dumbledore pointed out. “And there’s also the danger of mob justice.”

    Ron didn’t miss the other Harry’s wince at that. “We did our best to cut down on all that,” the wizard replied. “But the alternative would have been to let murderers and their helpers go free. As happened in 1981.” He bared his teeth. “I won’t have my children fighting the same bigots in ten, fifteen, years.”

    “Better safe than sorry,” Ginny’s counterpart added, leaning into his side.

    Hermione nodded. “Two wars in two decades were enough.”

    She sounded a little off, though. At least to Ron.

    “Well, as long as you didn’t imitate the damned French,” Sirius spoke up. “Wouldn’t want to reenact the Terror.”

    “Oh, no,” the portrait said. “There were no guillotines at all. It was the veil or Azkaban.”

    “Just as we planned,” Harry the wizard said. “Justice for all who died.”

    Hermione nodded again. Then she took a deep breath. “So… who else died in the last battle?”

    This time, both Ginny and Harry’s counterparts winced.

    *****​

    “...and no one was in any mood to take prisoners. Not after all the dead students. Not after your… disappearance. We cornered the last Death Eaters in the dungeons and killed them all - they hadn’t realised that we’d cut off the secret passages to Hogsmeade until they were trapped,” the other Harry finished his rather grim story.

    Hermione closed her eyes. “That’s worse than I thought. So many students dead…”

    “Murdered, yes,” the wizard agreed with a grim expression. “It could have been worse, though.”

    “I don’t think my lads would have taken prisoners, either, if we had seen half of what you did,” Sirius said. “Hell, it was hard enough to hold back in the war, and the Argies weren’t a bunch of murderous scumbags - well, most of them weren’t.”

    “‘The war’?” Harry the wizard asked.

    “Falklands,” Sirius said. “1982. I don’t think you’d remember it.”

    “No, I don’t. Uncle Vernon mentioned it a few times, though - I remember that,” Harry’s counterpart said.

    “You were a soldier?” Ginny’s counterpart asked.

    “I was an officer in the Blues and Royals. Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons,” Sirius answered.

    “Horse guards?”

    “Cavalry. Though we only ride horses for ceremonial tasks these days. In the war, I had a tank.”

    “A light tank,” Harry corrected him.

    “Anyway, I understand what you did,” Sirius told them.

    “They would have been executed anyway,” Ginny the witch said.

    “Some might have been under the Imperius Curse,” Hermione pointed out.

    Ron saw Harry the wizard clenching his jaws.

    After a moment, Hermione took a deep breath. “Sorry.”

    The wizard nodded. “Anyway, after the Battle of Hogwarts, we mopped up the rest - those who had remained at the Ministry. A few tried to flee, but we caught most of them. Bounty hunters got some more.” He shrugged. “Shacklebolt took over and has been Minister since.”

    “Dad’s a Department Head,” Ginny’s counterpart added, “as is Percy.”

    “Oh, our dad and Percy would be proud,” Ginny said. “It’ll take them a little longer to get promoted.”

    Sirius leaned forward with a wide and a little too toothy smile. “Speaking of your father… does he take commissions? I would love to have him enchant a tank!”

    It seemed Sirius hadn’t abandoned his dream of a flying Scorpion.

    “Oh, yes! We need a flying, invisible tank!” Luna chimed in. “I’ll drive it!”

    And, apparently, neither had Luna.

    “No, we don’t need a tank,” Hermione said through clenched teeth. “Voldemort was defeated seven years ago.”

    “Well, yes, but a tank would come in very handy to protect the portal,” Sirius retorted. “Especially if we can shrink it - who would expect a tank inside a building?”

    “You don’t have a tank to enchant,” Harry pointed out.

    “That’s not the point!” Hermione retorted.

    “I can buy one,” Sirius said at the same time. “I’ve looked into it - I can claim I’m a collector and buy a Scorpion tank. As a former tank commander and member of the upper class, I won’t have much trouble getting the permits.”

    “A demilitarised tank”, Harry replied.

    “Mr Dumbledore can fix that.” Sirius made a dismissive wave with his hand. “Or magic.”

    “While Mr Black is essentially correct,” Dumbledore said, inclining his head slightly towards the man, “I think there are several more advanced armoured vehicles that would be of greater use.”

    “Vehicles made by Phoenix Gruppe, I suppose.” Sirius grinned.

    “We do have very successful lines of wheeled and tracked vehicles,” the old spymaster admitted. “And while magic does basically seem to render cargo capacity redundant, I think they offer more flexibility than a Scorpion.”

    “Real tanks have tracks!” Luna insisted with a frown.

    Sirius rubbed his goatee. “But wheeled armoured fighting vehicles would be faster, and I’m a cavalry officer, after all. And if the tank can fly, the main advantage tracks provide is effectively gone.”

    Ron glanced at Hermione, who was slowly shaking her head. “Do you really think we’ll need a flying tank to protect the portal?” he asked Sirius.

    “It would be more mobile,” the older man retorted. “We could deploy it to either site - here or in our world. And,” he added with a wide smile, “if we can magically enlarge the interior, we could build a portal inside!”

    “That’s… that wouldn’t exactly work,” Hermione pointed out. “You can only open a portal at certain locations.”

    “We could drive to such locations,” Luna retorted.

    “And the power demands… the extension charms needed for that…” Hermione shook her head.

    “Not to mention that you’d have a direct way into the tank if you ever lost control of the other side of a portal,” Ron added.

    “Well… what if we had a tank inside a tank?”

    Sirius had to be taking the mickey. He had to.

    *****​

    Ten minutes filled with increasingly outlandish proposals later, they had moved to guest rooms to ‘freshen up’ before lunch - which would be soon. And Hermione was still fuming. “That… that’s so irresponsible! A flying tank!” she huffed and shook her head.

    “I don’t think that he was actually serious,” Ron told her, testing the bed’s mattress. It was a far cry from the overly soft ones in Sirius’s guest rooms.

    “Really?” Hermione asked in a doubtful tone, turning slightly to face him.

    “Well, about the tank inside a tank, and the portal inside a tank, or the mobile home base,” Ron admitted. “He does seem to be serious about the tank.” Though it was hard to tell with Sirius.

    “It’s ridiculous,” she told him. “We couldn’t use it in your world, and in this world, the threats aren’t the kind of threats a tank is able to handle.”

    Ron would still prefer to be in a tank, though, when facing wizards. But this wasn’t about the tank, in his opinion. “You’re worried about something else, though, aren’t you?”

    She sighed, slumping over a little. “It’s just… it’s so different from what I expected. Everything.” Shaking her head, she added: “The statue, the portrait, the reforms…”

    “Well, didn’t you expect your friends to honour you?”

    “I did, but…” She sighed again. “The statue is one thing, but the portrait? It looks like in a few decades, I will be known as ‘the perfect portrait prefect’ among the students. That’s not the legacy I wanted.” She turned to look at him. “The worst thing is, they are the ones who taught the portrait how to act - they think that’s how I would behave!”

    “I don’t think that was what they intended,” Ron pointed out.

    “But it happened.” Another sigh. “I know it’s vain, but I want to have a different reputation. Something more...” She shrugged. “Not just a prefect who enforces all the rules.”

    He nodded. He could understand that.

    “Does that make me petty?”

    “No.”

    “The worst thing is, I really was that sort of ‘perfect prefect’.”

    He hugged her. “But you’re not any more,” he told her.

    *****​

    The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole, Devon, Britain, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    “Now this looks like a proper wizarding house!” Ron exclaimed after they had appeared in front of the gate leading to the home of this world’s Weasley family. It really did - it seemed as if several small wooden houses had been stacked on top of each other, and then partially folded into one another. It was obvious that it would collapse without magic.

    “It looks interesting,” Luna agreed.

    A pop announced Hermione’s return with Harry and Ginny.

    “That’s The Burrow?” Ron’s sister asked.

    “Yes. It looks just like I remember,” Hermione told them with a wistful expression. Then she disapparated again.

    “It’s in the same place as our home,” Ginny said, “but smaller. Unless it’s bigger inside.”

    “And my counterpart’s family home is a chess piece!” Luna added, pointing across the pond.

    You couldn’t actually see anything but the very top of the Lovegoods’ home, but Ginny’s counterpart had shown them pictures.

    Hemione returned again, this time with Dumbledore and Sirius. She stumbled a little, and Ron heard her mutter: “Perhaps we should’ve used the Floo Network.”

    “One form of magical transportation a time,” he told her. He trusted Apparition much more than travelling through fireplaces. Burning fireplaces.

    She nodded, looking at the house without saying anything for a moment. Then she disapparated once more, to fetch her parents.

    A moment later, everyone was present. With the exception of the Grangers, everyone was in disguise - though wigs and some fake beards wouldn’t fool the Weasleys, of course. But Ron hoped it would fool the children, at least.

    Luna pointed at the patch of grass on the other side. “And there’s the pitch! Where we can fly on brooms!”

    “The Quidditch pitch,” Hermione corrected her, sounding a little tired. “Well, it’s not a full-size pitch, but close enough.”

    “It certainly looks unique,” Dumbledore commented, unflappable as usual.

    “Yes. And fragile,” Sirius said.

    “It’s perfectly safe,” Hermione told him. “Let’s go in,” she added, opening the gate. “Ginny and Harry must have already arrived - they used the Floo Network. It’s easier on the children.”

    They reached the door, which had an old-fashioned knocker, not a bell, and Hermione hesitated again, Ron noticed - though she hid it by glancing at the others with them. “Don’t eat anything the twins give you,” she said.

    “You said that before,” Luna pointed out.

    “We grew up with Fred and George,” Ginny added. “We know better than that.”

    “Good.” A deep breath later, Hermione reached for the knocker, but the door was opened before she could grab it.

    “Hermione! Dear Lord, it’s really you! We thought you had died! Ron was devastated! Everyone was… Merlin’s beard!”

    That was Mum, there, crying. And hugging Hermione, who was sobbing as well. Mum’s counterpart, actually, wearing robes. A witch. But she sounded and looked so much like their Mum... Ron bit his lower lip. Ginny looked like she felt the same, he noticed.

    Mrs Weasley released Hermione and looked at them. “Oh, even with the hair, you look just like Ron and Ginny, and Luna, and… Oh, my... “ she paled, looking at Dumbledore and Sirius.

    Ron swallowed the joke he had been about to make and nodded. “Yes, we’re not from this world. And we aren’t wizards.”

    “Or witches,” Luna added.

    “Molly? Won’t you invite them inside?” Dad - Dad’s counterpart appeared in the door. Ron saw the man’s eyes widen, but, otherwise, he seemed to be more composed. Just like Dad.

    “Oh, yes, where were my manners!” Mrs Weasley exclaimed. “Come in, everyone, come in!” She turned and stepped inside. “Everyone, they’re here!”

    “We’ve noticed!” Ron heard Fred or George answer.

    “They must have called the entire family,” Hermione mumbled next to him.

    That was understandable, of course - Ron could imagine what the twins would do if they had been left out of this. Which, he realised, had actually happened to his brothers back home. They wouldn’t be happy once they found out - if they ever did.

    He snorted as he entered The Burrow. The first thing he noticed was that it was bigger inside than outside - by a lot. The second thing he noticed were all the people waiting there.

    “Hermione!”

    “Hey!”

    “I almost didn’t believe Ron, but he would never joke about this.”

    “Fred… George… Percy… Arthur...” Hermione sounded overwhelmed, so Ron wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

    “Wow, Ron was so jealous of us, he went and got himself a twin of his own!”

    “And Gin did the same!”

    “No, Gin got a twin of Harry!”

    “Fred! George!” Mrs Weasley bellowed. “Behave!”

    “Sorry, Mum.”

    “We were just getting overwhelmed by our emotions, so we made a joke. Sorry.”

    They didn’t sound very honest, in Ron’s opinion, but Mrs Weasley nodded, then turned towards them. “Now, please come in and take a seat.”

    “With pleasure, Mrs Weasley. I fear I’m not as spry as I was,” Dumbledore said.

    “He sounds just like the Headmaster.”

    “But he dresses like a muggle.”

    “Well, I am a muggle,” the old man replied as he sat down on a couch. “Robes are not exactly in fashion in our world.”

    “Well, the Headmaster’s robes weren’t in fashion in our world, either,”

    “Fred!”

    “What? It’s true!”

    Ron snorted again, and he wasn’t the only one. Even though Hermione’s chuckle also sounded a little like a sob.

    “Charlie is still working in Romania, so he couldn’t make it,” Mrs Weasley told them. “But Bill and Fleur are coming with Victoire - they should be arriving any minute now, actually.”

    Ron reflexively looked at the tall grandfather clock and blinked. That wasn’t a clock, but a tracker, apparently. A magical home, indeed, he thought with a smile.

    “Victoire is their daughter?” Hermione asked.

    “Oh, yes - no one told you?”

    “We haven’t had time to go into details,” Hermione told the other witch.

    “So they didn’t tell you about me, either?” A tall, black woman asked, taking a step closer to them. Behind her, a young girl, about three years old, followed, one hand gripping the woman’s robes.

    “Angelina?” Hermione looked surprised. “No, they didn’t.”

    “I’ll have words with them, later, then,” she said, grinning at Harry’s counterpart.

    “Hey! That was Ron’s task,” Harry the wizard defended himself.

    “And I’m sure he’ll agree, won’t he?” Angelina shook her head and pulled the girl in front of her, keeping her hands on her shoulders. “This is Beatrice, our daughter.”

    “H-hi!” the kid squeaked.

    “Don’t let her fool you, she’s as bad as her fathers.”

    Fathers? Ah. Ron glanced at the twins, noting how they were eyeing them. Was this a test?

    “Oh!” Hermione blinked, obviously surprised. “A lot of things just started making sense,” she said.

    “Our greatest prank, ever!” George proclaimed.

    “Even we got confused!” Fred added.

    “Prats,” Angelina retorted.

    “So, did you open a joke shop?” Hermione asked.

    “Oh, yes. Best joke shop in Britain,” Fred said.

    “It’s at a prime location in Diagon Alley, which helps, of course,” George explained. “But we’re thinking of expanding.”

    “We’ve got some samples of our products here, if anyone’s interested.” Fred grinned and pulled a bag out of an obviously enchanted pocket in his robes.

    “Dr Granger warned us about your products,” Dumbledore said.

    “And some of us know your counterparts,” Sirius added. Harry and Ginny, who had been talking to Mr Weasley and their own counterparts, nodded.

    “Magical sweets? I would like some!” Luna said.

    That seemed to surprise the two. “Really?” Fred asked.

    “Boys, behave!” Mrs Weasley said. “No pranks in the house.” She turned to Luna. “Their products aren’t always as funny as they think.”

    “Oh.”

    “Now we’re ‘boys’ again,” George complained. “We’ll be ‘boys’ until we’re older than Dumbledore - our Dumbledore.”

    “That’s not a bad thing,” Dumbledore replied. “To quote one of the favourite books of a dear friend of mine: Only those who, even as adults, remain children, are human.”

    “Now that’s a saying I can get behind!” Fred said, nodding rapidly.

    “Imagine the amount of business we could do if all adults remained kids,” George added. “Say… that gives me an idea.”

    “Rejuvenating Refreshers?”

    “Kind of redundant, right?”

    “True.”

    “No research at the dinner table!” Angelina snapped. “You know the rules!”

    “Yes, Daddies!” Beatrice added, nodding emphatically. “No rules breaking where Mum can see you!”

    Both twins made exaggerated shushing motions, though they didn’t seem overly worried about the rapidly clouding expression of their apparently shared partner.

    “No hexing in the house,” Mrs Weasley chastised all three. “We’re here to welcome Hermione back, not to drive her away!”

    “There’s no danger of that,” Hermione said, smiling widely. “I’ve missed this.”

    “Of course you did!” Mrs Weasley enveloped her in another hug. “But you’re back now, and that’s all that counts!”

    It wasn’t, Ron knew. At least not for him.

    The fireplace flared up, and three people stepped out of it in rapid succession: Bill’s counterpart, looking even more rakish than Ron’s brother, with long hair and what looked like a tiger fang earring, an adorable blonde girl about Beatrice’s age, and… Ron blinked. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. That was Fleur, the French witch? Some of Hermione’s stories sounded much more believable, now. “Bill would be so jealous,” he muttered.

    “Bill?” Hermione asked in a slightly annoyed tone.

    Ah. Of course. But before Ron could assure her that he wasn’t jealous, Fleur came over, hugging Hermione and kissing her cheeks. Repeatedly. Apparently, French witches were, well, as French as their muggle compatriots. “Hermione! It is you! I didn’t want to believe it when Bill told me!”

    “Fleur! You lost your accent?”

    “Mais oui…” the Veela replied with a wide smile.

    Meanwhile, Victoire was staring at him, Ron noticed. “Uncle Ron?” she asked. “You’re dressed funny!”

    “I’m not your uncle Ron,” he told her with a smile. “I’m a distant relative Ron from far away. And my clothes are very fashionable there.”

    “Dis… distant relative?” She looked confused.

    “Distant family,” Bill the wizard explained.

    “Oh! Like Uncle Freangeorge!”

    “Hey!” the twins protested.

    “Yes. Just with better manners.”

    Well, Ron could agree with that description.

    “Where’s Uncle Ron?”

    That was a good question.

    “He should be here already,” Mrs Weasley said as more of the couches were being occupied. “Perhaps Lavender isn’t feeling well - she’s having some troubles with her pregnancy; her first wasn’t easy, either.”

    “Ah.” Hermione nodded, though she was a little too tense for her smile. Unfinished business, Ron thought.

    As if on cue, the fireplace flared up again, and Ron’s counterpart stepped out of the green flames. “Sorry for being late,” he said. “We had a small problem at home. It’s all solved now, though.”

    Behind him, a little boy arrived and made a beeline for Victoire. “Vicky!”

    “Rogee!”

    The witch that followed the kid out of the fireplace wasn’t as beautiful as Fleur, but she was very pretty - and, obviously, took great care with her appearance. Perfect makeup and hairstyle, immaculate robes. She did look like the Lavender Brown of his world - just grown up.

    “Lavender.”

    “Hermione.”

    Both were smiling at each other, but only a fool would miss that there were issues.

    Great.

    *****​

    “Hermione.”

    “Lavender.” She nodded at the other witch and moved to the side so she could enter Gryffindor Tower behind her.

    Lavender didn’t walk past her, though, but instead stayed where she was and frowned at her. “I know what you’re doing.”

    “I would hope you know,” she replied. “Since I just said I was going on my prefect rounds.”

    The frown turned into a glare. “That’s not what I mean! I know that you’re trying to take my boyfriend!”

    “What? Me?” She snorted. “Don’t be a fool!” She wasn’t trying to take Ron from Lavender. But she wouldn’t let him neglect his duties as a prefect just so he could snog his girlfriend a little more. They were the youngest prefects in Gryffindor House, which meant that they had the worst patrols. And Hermione wouldn’t go on them alone!

    “Liar! I know you want him! But he’s my boyfriend!”

    “And he’s my friend and fellow prefect,” she retorted, glaring at Lavender. She wasn’t some silly girl who thought a teenage romance was the love of her life.

    “And you think that means he should be your boyfriend!”

    “No, that means I think that he should do his duty as a prefect,” she corrected the girl.

    “I’m warning you: If I catch you trying to seduce him…” Lavender actually waved her wand in her face.

    “Me? Seduce him?” She scoffed. “You’re ridiculous! Put that wand away before I remove it for you.”

    “What?”

    She had her wand in hand already - the other witch probably hadn’t even noticed. A little hex, and Lavender wouldn’t try to threaten her again…

    The portrait behind them swung to the side. “Hermione? Oh, Lavender!”

    “Won-Won!”

    Hermione rolled her eyes as the girl all but tackled Ron and started snogging her friend. Honestly! She should deduct points from the silly witch for being out past curfew!

    *****​
     
    Scopas, Higure, wichajster and 5 others like this.
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 38: The Counterpart
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 38: The Counterpart

    The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole, Devon, Britain, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    “Ron told me how you were sent to another world and managed to come back. That must have been a terrible ordeal,” Lavender said. She didn’t move to hug Hermione, Ron noted. “But you’re alive, and that’s all that counts. We’re happy to have you back.” Her smile was also a little more polite than happy.

    “Thank you,” Hermione replied with an equally polite - or guarded - smile. “I’m happy to be back as well.”

    “Of course. Living without magic must have been terrible!” Lavender gasped.

    “Living as a muggle isn’t the end of the world,” Hermione told her, a little sharply. Not that Ron minded the sentiment.

    “And she still saved my life with magic,” he said.

    Lavender’s eyes widened - had she been so focused on Hermione that his disguise had fooled her? “Oh. You’re the other Ron. The Ron who, ah...”

    “Well, I consider your Ron the other Ron,” he told her.

    “That’s going to be confusing,” his counterpart said.

    “You should be used to that,” Fred cut in. “You keep mixing up Fred and me!”

    “Fred!” Angelina shook her head.

    Hermione and Lavender were ignoring him anyway, or so it seemed. “I heard you and Ron got married. Please accept my belated congratulations,” Hermione said.

    “Thank you. We’re very happy.” Lavender put a hand on her stomach - she wasn’t showing, yet.

    “So I’ve heard,” Hermione said. “It looks like the next generation is well underway,” she added, with a glance to the side.

    Ron followed her gaze and spotted Roger, Victoire, James and Jean standing in the kitchen’s entrance, grouped tightly together. Were they scared? They did look nervous. And where was Beatrice? Oh.

    Ron chuckled. The kids were trying to block the view into the kitchen, where Beatrice was apparently trying to raid the pantry without being noticed. They were a handful, indeed.

    And they were, apparently, eagerly listening. Damn. His good mood evaporated. They wouldn’t have heard much, and would understand even less - or so he hoped - but they were still a security risk. You couldn’t exactly obliviate your kids, could you? “Perhaps we should leave those details for after dinner? We wouldn’t want to bore the kids, would we?” he suggested.

    “Oh.” Hermione must have realised that as well. “Yes, that would be better, I think.”

    “Not bored!” Roger protested.

    Jean nodded. “Just talk like normal,” she said, sounding quite earnest.

    “Jean…” Ginny’s counterpart took a few steps closer. “What are you doing?”

    “Nothing?” Jean’s smile grew more than a little forced.

    “They’re trying to get to the desserts!” Angelina exclaimed. “Beatrice!”

    “We’re playing! Hide and seek!” Roger claimed.

    “Right.” Angelina waved her wand, and Beatrice floated out of the kitchen.

    “But you didn’t see me!” the little girl protested.

    “I did! And that’s no dessert for you!”

    That triggered a wave of shocked gasps - including, Ron noted, from Luna. But sorting out that, at least, broke the growing tension between Hermione and Lavender. At least until dinner.

    *****​

    “How much did they overhear?” Ron asked after the kids had successfully pleaded for a stay of execution, supported by Luna, and been sent out to play in the garden.

    “Not enough to spill the secret,” wizard Harry said. “For them, muggle Britain might as well be another world.”

    Ron could see how that would work, but he didn’t think everyone would be fooled by it. He didn’t know enough about wizards to tell, though. “Our disguises are a little weak, though.”

    “Distant relatives,” Harry said. “Or we can blame Fred and George for pranking Hermione by transfiguring her friends into Weasleys.”

    “Hey!” George protested.

    “Yes, hey… that’s actually a good idea!” Fred added.

    “Twin Toffees?”

    “Perfect!” Fred pointed his index finger at his brother.

    “We should have more family dinners like this - they’re very good for our business!” Fred said.

    “We do have a family dinner every Sunday,” Mrs Weasley pointed out.

    “Well, yeah… now that you mention it. We’ll have to attend more often, I guess, now that the brightest witch is back among us, and brought friends.” Fred nodded.

    “I still can’t believe you put that on a statue,” Hermione said.

    “Well, it’s true. Now more than ever,” Ron’s counterpart replied.

    “Well, I guess it’s better than the ‘perfect portrait prefect’,” she said.

    That caused Harry and Ron’s counterparts to wince, and the twins to chuckle.

    Then the fireplace flared up again, and Luna arrived. Wizarding Luna.

    She looked around, blinking, until she spotted Hermione. “Hermione! Is it really you? You’re not a Bavarian Doppelgänger?”

    Bavarian Doppelgänger? Ron blinked.

    Hermione, though, was unfazed. “It’s me - Harry and Ron confirmed my identity.”

    Wizarding Luna frowned just like Luna, then cocked her head at the two wizards. “Really?”

    “Yes,” wizarding Harry confirmed with a nod.

    “And you weren’t confunded?”

    “We were careful.”

    “You checked with ale?”

    “Ale?” Ron blurted out before he could control himself.

    “Bavarian Doppelgängers can’t stand ale. The smell alone sends them into a frothing rage,” wizarding Luna explained. “If they are tricked into drinking it, they resume their true form - a small dwarf with a beard made of beer.”

    “And you brought ale,” Hermione said, still smiling.

    “Of course. First thing I bought when I heard,” wizarding Luna said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out… a pint of ale? In a glass, not a bottle?

    Hermione accepted it and took a large swallow while Luna peered at her with squinting eyes. “Ah. That’s a good one.”

    “Your favourite,” wizarding Luna said, then hugged her. “It’s really you! You didn’t die!”

    “No, I didn’t. But I got dimensionally misplaced, and it took me years to find a way back.”

    “As long as you managed to return home,” wizarding Luna said, releasing her. Then she blinked. “Dimensionally misplaced?”

    Hermione looked at wizarding Harry and Ron. “You didn’t tell her?”

    “We just said that you were back,” wizarding Harry replied. “We didn’t want to go into details, in case the message was intercepted.”

    Ron nodded. That was smart.

    “Oh.” Hermione blinked. “In that case, Luna, I was transported to another world - a world without magic, but with other versions of ourselves.”

    “Really?” Wizarding Luna looked doubtful.

    “Yes,” Ron said, stepping closer to Hermione and wizarding Luna. “I’m Ron Weasley - from the other world.”

    “And I’m Luna Lovegood!” Luna chimed in, beaming at her counterpart as she pulled her dark wig off. “We’re in disguise because they think we need to be kept a secret.”

    “Oh!” Wizarding Luna looked shocked, then leaned forward and peered at them. “You really look like me. Like a twin.”

    “So do you,” Luna told her. “But I’m not a witch. I’m a hacker!”

    “A hacker?”

    “I hack into computers to expose the government’s secrets!”

    “Ah. Like the Rotfang Conspiracy?”

    “Exactly!”

    Ron didn’t think wizarding Luna had any idea what computers were or how hacking worked. But it was obvious that she was as much into conspiracies as his Luna.

    *****​

    “So you’re in disguise to keep your world’s existence a secret?” wizarding Luna asked about ten minutes filled with various introductions and explanations later.

    “Yes,” Luna replied. “I’m not convinced that’s a good course of action, but I was told that there are too many evil wizards in this world who’d try to invade our world if they knew about it.”

    Wizarding Luna nodded. “Oh, yes, they would. Especially if they knew that there are dimensional twins in your world - they could replace a lot of people. Well, with some people, it would be a clear improvement, but it would still be a bad thing.”

    “There aren’t any wizards or witches in the other world,” Hermione said. “It’s a muggle world.”

    “Right.” Wizarding Luna frowned again. “Does that mean that there aren’t any magical creatures, either?”

    “I’m sorry, Luna, but I don’t think so.”

    “What about muggle creatures that don’t exist in our world?”

    “I can’t prove it, but my observations so far would lead me to conclude that there aren’t any animals unique to the other world, either.”

    “Aw.” She pouted. “I was hoping for a new exclusive for The Quibbler.”

    “We’re trying to keep the other world a secret, Luna,” Hermione reminded her.

    “Well, we could’ve smuggled a few animals into our world. The way the muggles cause animals to go extinct, there’s more than enough room here.” The witch sighed.

    “That’s the same in our world,” Luna said. “It’s all the fault of the corrupt governments controlled by evil corporations. They value profit over nature.”

    “That’s stupid. Isn’t anyone doing anything about that?” Wizarding Luna asked.

    “We’re trying our best, but we’re too few, and most people don’t care,” Luna replied. “We don’t have any witches and wizards who could use magic to solve this problem, either.”

    Both Lunas blinked, and Ron felt a cold shiver run down his spine. They wouldn’t...

    “I could help you!” wizarding Luna exclaimed. “There’s no law against it in the other world, is there?”

    “Oh no, there isn’t, since magic doesn’t exist there,” Luna told her, beaming.

    They would. Ron closed his eyes.

    “What? You plan to take over the world?” Hermione blurted out.

    “No!” Luna shook her head. “Just a few parts of it. Parts about to be destroyed anyway.”

    “Yes! Think of all the poor animals! Magic can save them!” wizarding Luna added in an earnest tone of voice.

    “You can’t exactly save the environment with a single wand,” Hermione pointed out.

    “But you can save the species in threatened ecosystems,” wizarding Luna retorted. “And we can create habitats that are muggle-proof!”

    “Oh, yes - with magic, we can fit a savannah inside a suitcase, right?” Luna beamed at her counterpart.

    “Well, an entire savannah might be a little much, you don’t need that much to keep an ecosystem self-contained,” wizarding Luna explained.

    Ron blinked. He didn’t know this Luna, but if she was in any way similar to his Luna - and that was the impression he had so far - then that sounded a little too… “You’ve done that before, haven’t you?” he asked.

    Wizarding Luna blinked. “What?”

    “You already created such habitats, and used them.” He watched her closely.

    “That would be illegal,” she replied. “And Harry and Ron would have to arrest me if I were to do such a thing.”

    Oh, yes, she had. Ron sighed again.

    “Luna!” Apparently, the other Ron had caught on as well. “You can’t use magic to interfere with the muggle world!”

    “Of course I can - hypothetically. Any witch or wizard has the capability to do so, after all,” wizarding Luna retorted with an innocent smile that didn’t fool anyone. Well, perhaps the kids.

    “Luna…” Wizarding Harry sighed and covered his eyes with his hand. “Don’t tell me that you’re endangering the Statute of Secrecy by interfering with the muggle ecosystem.”

    “Of course not. If I were to tell you that, you’d have to arrest me!”

    “Exactly!” Luna nodded several times. “We wouldn’t want to force the loyal enforcers of the government’s will to choose between their friends or their paycheck!”

    “That’s not what this is about!” wizarding Harry protested.

    “And imagine if they had to explain to their children that they sent their Luna to prison for the crime of saving poor animals!” Luna said.

    “Well, it would be a chance to study Dementors,” wizarding Luna added.

    “What? Dementors?” Hermione looked at her wizarding friends. “Surely those are limited to the worst dark wizards…”

    The expressions on wizarding Harry and Ron’s faces told Ron that this wasn’t true even before his counterpart replied.

    “Well… there were so many prisoners after the Death Eater trials, there weren’t enough guards to handle them, so…” Wizarding Ron shrugged. “It’s gotten better since then.”

    “Because there are more guards - or fewer prisoners?” Hermione pursed her lips.

    “Both,” wizarding Harry told her.

    She scoffed. “If you plan to arrest Luna, you might as well arrest me since I used magic to deal with muggles in the other world myself!”

    “Muggle criminals,” Ron was quick to clarify. “And it was to save your and our lives.”

    She glared at him, but he met her eyes.

    “No one’s arresting Luna or Hermione,” wizarding Ron said. “Merlin’s beard, who do you think we are?”

    “Loyal enforcers of the state?” Luna asked, tilting her head.

    Wizarding Harry groaned and leaned back on the couch he and wizarding Ginny were occupying.

    “See, this is why I don’t tell them about such things, so they don’t feel conflicted,” wizarding Luna said.

    “Yes.” Luna nodded in agreement. “I do the same. Of course, separating your private life and your business is just common sense.”

    “But if you can’t talk about your day then that makes for a rather boring dinner,” wizarding Luna retorted.

    “Only if all you do is work, and if that’s the case, something’s wrong anyway,” Luna told her.

    Now Ron was wondering what else Luna hadn’t told him.

    “Oh, I wish Gellert would share that view. Even at our age, he still works far too much,” Dumbledore remarked.

    “Gellert?” Wizarding Luna blinked. “Like…”

    “Not our Grindelwald,” Hermione interrupted her.

    “But his counterpart!” The witch smiled. “Does that mean Skeeter’s book was correct?”

    “I haven’t read it, so I couldn’t possibly comment,” Dumbledore replied.

    “Oh, she wrote that our Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers before Grindelwald’s War;” wizarding Luna said.

    “Oh, that’s different. We were both junior officers during the war, and despite fighting for different sides, we became lovers. After a brief separation, we reunited after the war,” the old man told her. “And we’ve been together ever since.”

    “How romantic!” wizarding Luna exclaimed.

    “They also built the biggest arms business in Europe,” Hermione pointed out. “While running the Secret Service.”

    Judging by their expressions, most wizards and witches present didn’t quite understand what that meant, Ron assumed. His and Harry’s counterparts, though, were not among them.

    Dumbledore inclined his head with a faint smile. “Indeed - which allowed me to both protect you and your work, as well as provide you with the resources to finish your portal.”

    Hermione nodded, acknowledging the point - though Ron could tell that she did so grudgingly. Though he hadn’t missed that Luna hadn’t commented on that.

    Great.

    *****​

    “And here’s where we keep our brooms,” wizarding Ron announced, opening the door of a rather shabby-looking wooden shed and revealing…

    ...a rather shabby looking interior containing about a dozen brooms. They looked like ordinary, old-fashioned brooms, as far as Ron could tell. It was almost a little disappointing - no extension charms. No magical protections. No guardian creatures.

    “Oh! Oh! Flying brooms! Actual flying brooms!” Of course, Luna’s enthusiasm wasn’t deterred in the slightest. “Which one would you recommend?” she asked wizarding Ron with a beaming smile.

    “Ah, any of them should do,” he replied.

    “These are brooms meant for beginners,” wizarding Luna added. “The high-performance brooms are kept inside the house.”

    “Oh?” Luna turned away from where she had been gushing over the brooms. “In case you get attacked and have to flee?”

    “Well, mostly so the kids won’t get their fingers on Firebolts and the like,” wizarding Ron explained.

    “It’s a Weasley tradition to sneak out and grab a broom to fly even though you’re not allowed to,” wizarding Luna added. “Ginny started when she was six.”

    “Each of us did it, I believe.” Wizarding Ron grinned. “It was fine when all we had were old, slow brooms, but a Firebolt? You can kill yourself with one of those if you mess up a Wronski Feint.”

    “‘Wronski feint’?” Ron asked.

    “Ah. Figures Hermione wouldn’t have told you about Quidditch,” the wizard said, chuckling.

    “She did, actually,” Luna retorted. “It’s the game with hoops and flying cannonballs, right?”

    Wizarding Ron laughed. “That’s as good a description as any. In any case, a Wronski Feint is when one Seeker tries to fool the other Seeker into believing that they have spotted the Snitch. They enter a dive, hoping the other will follow, and at the last moment, they pull up while the other, distracted by looking for the Snitch, crashes onto the ground. When it works, that is.”

    That sounded crazy. No wonder Hermione wasn’t fond of the sport.

    “And if it doesn’t?” Luna asked. “Both crash?”

    “No. If it doesn’t work, then you just lost altitude for nothing.”

    “Ah.” Luna nodded. “So… which broom should I pick?”

    “All of them have had safety charms cast on them,” Ron explained. “So… pick whichever you want.”

    “Which is the fastest?”

    “Ah… this one. That’s a Cleansweep Three. My great-uncle used it when he flew for the Cannons.”

    “Oh! A Quidditch broom?” Luna grabbed it and put it between her legs. “It doesn’t work?”

    “Ah. Put it on the ground, then hold your hand out and say ‘up’,” wizarding Ron told her. “Firmly and confidently.”

    “UP!”

    The broom didn’t move.

    “UP!” Luna repeated herself. “UP! UP! Upupupupup!” She looked dejected. “It doesn’t work for muggles?”

    “It should - most brooms come with Muggle-Repelling Charms to prevent muggles from accidentally flying off if they find a lost broom,” wizarding Ron said. “But it’s an old broom and a little temperamental.”

    That sounded as if the broom had a will of its own. Not exactly encouraging, in Ron’s opinion.

    “Just put all your longing to fly into it, and you’ll be fine,” wizarding Luna added, grabbing a broom for herself.

    “UP!”

    The broom leapt into Luna’s hand. Ron saw her expression turn into a look of wonder he hadn’t seen often lately.

    “Now mount it like this.” Wizarding Luna straddled her own broom.

    “And grip it tightly, but not too tightly,” wizarding Ron added. “Then jump off and pull…”

    “WHEEE!”

    “...up slowly,” he finished, staring after Luna, who was already at a height of twenty feet - and still rising.

    “Is it supposed to go that high?” Ron asked.

    “Yes,” his counterpart replied. “Don’t worry, the ground on the pitch is charmed as well.”

    That didn’t really reassure Ron, but wizarding Luna was already chasing after Luna - and gaining quickly. “I thought she took the fastest broom,” Ron commented.

    “She’s a muggle; brooms go faster if they’re ridden by a wizard or witch. It’s how the magic works.”

    “Ah.” So, not even in the air were they equal. That figured.

    “Do you want to take a broom up as well?” the other Ron asked.

    Ron was tempted. Very tempted. To fly… Luna was having the time of her life, as far as Ron could tell. On the other hand… He looked around. The kids were at the pond, something about hunting winter faeries, with Ginny the witch supervising. Luna and wizarding Luna were high up in the air. And the others were in the house, or in Mr Weasley’s shed. Which did have Extension Charms cast on it. This was as private as it could probably get, here.

    He glanced at his counterpart.

    “Ah.” The other Ron sported a thin grin and quickly glanced around as well before focusing on Ron again. “So… you and Hermione?”

    “You and Lavender?” Ron replied, then frowned. He hadn’t wanted to use such a stupid comeback, but it slipped out before he could think of any of his planned openings - he had been hoping for an opportunity like this, after all.

    The other Ron frowned. “Hey! For years, I thought she had died. I didn’t jump into Lavender’s bed on the same day as the funeral, you know.”

    “There was a funeral?” Ron asked. “You haven’t mentioned that before.”

    “Harry didn’t tell you?” Wizarding Ron seemed honestly surprised. “Well, he probably told Hermione.”

    And Hermione wouldn't have mentioned it to me?, Ron thought with a frown. Well, she did have a lot on her mind, and they hadn’t had a lot of time to talk privately. “Perhaps,” he said.

    For a moment, they just stared at each other. Wizarding Ron looked to be younger, in Ron’s opinion, but that might just be his imagination - he knew that wizards lived longer. On the other hand, Mr Weasley didn’t look younger than Dad. Perhaps they simply grew older? Ron would have liked to say that the other man looked softer, but wizarding Ron didn’t. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said, “but only about your school years.”

    “Figures,” wizarding Ron replied with a shrug.

    “Yes.”

    “And I don’t match what you expected, hm?”

    “I didn’t expect anything,” Ron lied. “We didn’t even know if time had passed at the same rate in both worlds.”

    Wizarding Ron blinked. “Blimey. You thought that you could have returned after decades?”

    “Or at the same moment Hermione had left,” Ron pointed out.

    That made his counterpart wince. “That would have been…”

    “Awkward,” Ron finished for him. It would have been. But he was fairly sure that Hermione wouldn’t have picked a boy seven years younger than herself, so that would have settled things.

    Wizarding Ron snorted. “Oh, yeah. Very awkward. But she would’ve been here. Alive.”

    “Yes.” And probably been involved in wizarding politics straight away, from what Ron could tell. “And there wouldn’t have been a statue of her or a portrait.”

    “But it would’ve been harder to explain her age,” wizarding Ron told him.

    “Couldn’t you blame a curse for that?” Sacrificing years of your life in exchange for a spell was a staple of some stories. Or being forcefully aged - like in Indiana Jones.

    Wizarding Ron frowned. “The Healers at St Mungo’s would have expected to examine her and then tried to find a cure. And they wouldn’t find anything. Not that that would be terribly new, of course. So... it could’ve worked. Perhaps.”

    “Better than amnesia?” Ron asked. But before his counterpart could answer, he had another thought: “But won’t they want to examine her for her supposed amnesia if she’s claiming that now?”

    “They might, but if she says she remembers everything again, that should put a stop to that. It’s not as if people like having others rummaging around inside their heads.” The other Ron shrugged. “And, well, no one wanted to question us, anyway, after Voldemort’s death.”

    “So I thought.”

    That earned Ron another frown - he must have failed to hide how he felt about that. “Hey! Who should have questioned us, and for what? Voldemort had taken over the country, and we had to do something about that. Would you have left a bunch of bigots in power after they spent months trying to murder all the muggleborn?”

    Of course he wouldn’t have! Ron almost snarled. That was a low blow. “I’m not concerned about the murderers,” he said instead, as calmly as he could. “But where did you draw the line?”

    “We didn’t; there were trials.”

    “Who were the judges?” Ron asked.

    “All the surviving Wizengamot members who hadn’t joined Voldemort.” Wizarding Ron narrowed his eyes at him - as if daring him to question the other man further.

    So, of course, Ron did exactly that. “That doesn’t really constitute an unbiased judge and jury, now does it?”

    Wizarding Ron scoffed. “It was the best we could do. You think anyone was unbiased, after a bloody war? Everyone had lost someone. At least. This wasn’t just a trial for a few dark wizards caught murdering a family. The Ministry itself was full of them.”

    Ron understood the message - he hadn’t been there, he hadn’t fought in the war, he shouldn’t judge those who had. But Ron had been - still was - a CI5 officer. “What about foreign judges?”

    “What? Foreigners? Judging British wizards? You barmy, mate?” Wizarding Ron shook his head. “Most of them are bigots, anyway - they’d acquit everyone and try to sentence us!” He snorted. “Didn’t Hermione tell you about Magical Europe’s history?”

    Ron was getting tired of those digs. “She did, actually,” he replied. “But she didn’t tell me that everyone outside Britain was a bigot.” Which was ludicrous to begin with.

    “Of course not everyone is a bigot. Just most of them. And do you think those who aren’t bigots wouldn’t be biased against the Death Eaters, after living with bigots for so long?”

    His counterpart had a point, though Ron didn’t want to admit it. He also needed more information about this world; that was obvious. He shrugged. “Perhaps. So, you married Lavender.”

    “And you’re with Hermione. How did that happen?”

    “She told you, didn’t she?” Ron retorted.

    “Yes. But I want to know why you got together with her.”

    Ah. “Really?” He snorted. “I fell in love with her, and she liked me back. Simple as that.”

    “While you were being hunted by criminals and fighting for your lives.”

    Ron didn’t like the insinuation. “You think this is just… stress relief?” He narrowed his eyes at his counterpart.

    Wizarding Ron met his eyes without flinching. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

    “Why? Do you think your relationship with her was only based on that?”

    He saw the other Ron’s jaw twitch. That hit home. “We were best friends for years before we got together!” the wizard protested. “We knew each other’s secrets. We weren’t just some… whatever.”

    Ron kept himself from glaring at the wizard. He couldn’t keep the sneer off his face, though. “How long did it take you to notice her, even though you were so close? You were with Lavender before you and Hermione got together, weren’t you?”

    “We were teenagers. Don’t tell me that you were perfect at that age.”

    Ron scoffed at that. “You’re not me. Don’t assume we are identical.”

    “We aren’t. I’m a wizard.”

    That was the crux of the issue. “So?” Ron asked with a forced shrug. “Do you think that makes you better?”

    “No.” The wizard was glaring at him. “But I grew up in the magical world. You have no idea what our world’s like. Hell, without Hermione, you can’t even get into most places.” He took a step closer to Ron. “Can you live like that? As a muggle among wizards?”

    He had been asking himself that same question. And he didn’t have an answer. But that wasn’t any of the other man’s business. “Why do you assume that we’d live in your world?”

    Wizarding Ron blinked. “What? Hermione’s a witch. Your children will be wizards and witches. They’ll have wizarding friends and go to Hogwarts, like everyone else.”

    “So? That doesn’t mean we have to live there.” He narrowed his eyes again. “Others have managed.” Hermione had told him that.

    “That only works if the wizarding parent looks after the kids. You couldn’t deal with accidental magic. And can you see Hermione as a housewife?” Wizarding Ron shook his head.

    As if the git would have become a stay-at-home-dad! They weren’t that different. Ron snorted. “If it’s needed - and that’s a big if - we can hire an au pair witch or wizard. Hermione’s parents managed to raise her without magic, didn’t they?”

    “I bet that the Obliviators had to visit a few times to fix accidental magic,” the wizard shot back.

    Obliviators? Oh. The mind-wiping wizards. Ron definitely didn’t want them barging into his home. “As I said, if needed, we can hire a nanny to handle any children.” He shook his head. “Why are you being so pushy, anyway? Hermione can make her own decisions.” He could imagine her reaction if he told her about wizarding Ron trying to meddle in their relationship.

    “Of course she can! But you wouldn’t be the first muggle who couldn’t handle marrying a witch! And that would hurt her.”

    “What makes you think I couldn’t handle it?” Ron snapped, with more anger than the question deserved.

    “Because I know what it’s like to feel overshadowed and jealous.”

    Ron drew a sharp breath, struggling to control his reaction. How had the…

    The wizard’s frown turned into a wry, almost sad, smile. “Thought so. Guess we’re not as different as I hoped.”

    “We’re not the same. And I’m not an insecure teenager.” Not any more, in any case. He was a CI5 officer - still - and a damn good one. None of his brothers had done what he had done.

    “But you’re a muggle with a witch.” Wizarding Ron nodded towards the two Lunas. “You saw her face when she thought she couldn’t use a broom, didn’t you?”

    “Yes.” And he hadn’t liked it.

    “Can you imagine feeling like that every time Hermione uses some clever spell? Or your kids show off?”

    Ron could. That didn’t mean that he would. “You seem to have given this a great deal of thought,” he said, deflecting the question.

    The other man shrugged. “Lavender has a squib brother. We’ve talked about it, in case it ran in the family. We’ve got a squib cousin as well.”

    “Squib?” Ron frowned. “Ah. The counterparts to muggleborns?”

    Wizarding Ron snorted. “That was Hermione’s explanation, I bet. Yeah, basically a muggle born into a wizarding family. A lot of them are very bitter.”

    Which was perfectly understandable, of course. “I wasn’t born into a wizarding family. I’m not some kid watching my siblings do magic while I can’t.” He was an adult. Mature. Not an insecure child.

    “But can you handle it?” the other Ron asked, staring at him.

    “Yes,” Ron said as convincingly as he managed. He wasn’t sure if he could, actually. But he knew that he would do his best to try.

    They stared at each other for a moment longer, then wizarding Ron shrugged. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

    Ron gritted his teeth at the implied judgement. He was better than that. “So, what’s between Lavender and Hermione?”

    “She didn’t tell you?”

    Ron forced himself to shrug nonchalantly. “I only know that Lavender was your first girlfriend, before Hermione. It didn’t really seem important.”

    “They were roommates for six years,” wizarding Ron said.

    “Ah.” Ron nodded. “I guess they didn’t always get along even before you entered the picture.”

    “It was more like Hermione hung out with Harry and me, and Lavender with Parvati. They didn’t really, uh, mingle.”

    Ron had gone to a boarding school. He knew how things worked. And from what he had heard about Hermione’s time at magic school - little as it had been, all things considered - Lavender and Hermione probably pushed each other’s buttons. Or had. “And when you ‘entered the picture’, things went from bad to worse.”

    “Not really. We - Lavender and I - broke up towards the end of fifth year, and then I was busy training for the war.” The other Ron shrugged again. “She was at the Battle of Hogwarts, but, well… I didn’t really care about anything other than killing Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and afterwards…” He trailed off.

    “...you thought Hermione was dead.”

    That earned him a glare before wizarding Ron sighed. “Yes. It took me some time before I could deal with things. I met Lavender again at the memorial a year after the battle. We both had changed - we both had lost friends in the war - and, well… we started talking.”

    “Ah.” That made sense. Not the healthiest way to start a relationship, but not the worst, either. Not that Ron was one to talk about that. “That explains the tension.”

    “It’s been seven years,” wizarding Ron retorted with a frown. “They’re not teenagers any more.”

    “But Hermione’s returned from death. She’s no longer the dead war hero,” Ron pointed out.

    His counterpart winced. “Don’t say that she returned from death. There was only one wizard who managed that in living memory. We don’t want rumours about the Dark Arts to crop up.”

    “Oh.” He hadn’t considered that. “Alright. Thank you for the warning.” That could have been ugly.

    “Well, with Skeeter gone, there shouldn’t be any real trouble on that front. But some idiot will always spread the worst rumours no matter what you do.”

    “Will that be a problem?”

    “Not really. Most people who matter know better than to believe rumours, and the majority of the rest will follow the Prophet’s lead.” Wizarding Ron snorted.

    “I’ve heard about the Daily Prophet,” Ron said. Not much, but enough to prod his counterpart for more information.

    “Oh? Of course you have.” His counterpart shook his head. “They were very mean to Hermione. Mostly Skeeter’s work, but after Voldemort took control of the Ministry…” He shrugged. “Nasty stuff. We had to read it - you could deduce information from what the Prophet was saying.”

    “And what it wasn’t saying,” Ron added.

    “Exactly.” Wizarding Ron nodded again. “But that’s the past. We won’t have any problems from the Prophet.”

    That was both reassuring and concerning, in Ron’s opinion. “And from Lavender?”

    “What?”

    Didn’t he get it? “She’s your wife, and your ex just returned after being thought dead for seven years.”

    “But I love her! Lavender, that is!”

    That was reassuring to hear. “Make sure that she knows it, then,” he told his counterpart.

    A white, glowing and floating, stag appeared next to them and Ron had drawn his gun and taken aim before he heard Harry’s voice - no, wizarding Harry’s. “Dinner’s ready!”

    “Harry must be showing off,” the other Ron commented as the stag slowly faded.

    “What was that?” Ron asked, reholstering his pistol.

    “Patronus Charm. Used against Dementors, but it’s handy as a messenger as well.”

    “Ah.” Ron nodded. Wizarding Ron hadn’t batted an eye at his gun, he realised. Something to talk about with Hermione, later. “Let’s go back, then.”

    “Go ahead,” his counterpart told him. “I’ll send a Patronus messenger to Luna.”

    A moment later, a white glowing translucent terrier appeared. “Luna, dinner time!” the wizard said, and the ghostly animal soared into the sky.

    “I think mobile phones are a little more useful,” Ron muttered. “And more discreet.”

    “What?”

    “Nothing.”

    They went back to the house. And found Hermione and Lavender glaring at each other over very toothy smiles.

    *****​

    The Sleekeazy’s Hair Potion and Scalp Treatment was working as advertised. Her hair was, for the first time in her life, not a barely tameable disgrace. It fell in soft waves over her shoulders, and a few hairstyling charms that hadn’t worked before had it done up in exactly the kind of style she had imagined - dozens of attempts to use the charms to tame her hair over the years had finally paid off.

    Now, if only she’d practised the other cosmetic charms she knew as much… Looking at her reflection, she winced. If she went out like this, she would look like a clown. No makeup would be better than this. But if she skipped makeup, she would look… inadequate. The date of a tournament champion had to look their best. Especially as a muggleborn witch - she could already hear Parkinson’s needling comments and see Malfoy’s sneering face.

    She sighed. She would just have to recast the spells. Again. Sooner or later, they would work as intended, wouldn’t they?

    “Hermione! What are you doing?”

    She cringed - a little. Lavender. “Putting on makeup,” she replied without looking at the other girl - she could see enough in the mirror to know that Lavender was already perfectly styled.

    “You mean you’re trying to put on makeup. That’s not how you use those charms.”

    “And how do I use these charms?” she snapped before she could control herself - her frustration must have overcome her common sense. The last thing she wanted was a gloating lecture from Lavender.

    “It needs a light touch,” Lavender replied at once. “Once it looks like you’re not wearing makeup, it’s perfect.”

    “That makes no sense,” Hermione retorted. “I could just forego makeup in that case.”

    Lavender sighed - a little too dramatically, in her opinion - and drew her wand. “Let me demonstrate.” Before Hermione could protest, the other witch waved her wand, and Hermione felt the familiar sensation of makeup settling on her skin.

    And the unfamiliar feeling of envy when she looked into the mirror and realised that Lavender had been correct - she really did look much better than without makeup, but it was so subtle, most people would be unable to tell she was wearing any without being close enough to touch her face. Lavender might not be the brightest witch in Gryffindor, but she knew how to apply cosmetics. Yes, as much as it galled, she had probably saved Hermione’s evening and pride.

    “See? Even you can look pretty with a little effort,” Lavender told her with a patronising smile.

    ‘Even you’? Hermione forced herself to return the smile - albeit with more teeth. “Thank you, Lavender. It’s such a happy surprise to discover that there are some charms at which you’re actually skilled.”

    “Why, it was my pleasure to help. Imagine the embarrassment to our house if I’d let you go out without looking your best.”

    She heard the unspoken ‘even if your best is barely good enough by my standards’ addition clearly.

    “Why, yes, imagine that.”

    They stared at each other for a moment, then Lavender nodded and turned back to help Parvati get ready.

    And Hermione went to fetch her dress robes. She would enjoy the Yule Ball. And show everyone that she wasn’t just a plain bookworm.

    *****​
     
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  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 39: The Minister
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 39: The Minister

    The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole, Devon, Britain, Wizarding World, December 22nd, 2005

    “Thank you, Lavender.”

    “It was my pleasure, Hermione.”

    Compared to the polite exchanges between Hermione and Lavender, the meeting in Rye with his own parents which Dumbledore had arranged had been downright harmonious, in Ron’s opinion. At least they weren’t openly cursing each other - figuratively or literally, in this case.

    He cleared his throat. “This roast is excellent, Mrs Weasley.” It was - as good as his mum’s, in fact. Although it was slightly different as well - which was a good thing. The resemblance was eerie enough already.

    “Oh, call me Molly, please!”

    “You’re pretty much family,” wizarding Fred cut in.

    “Even if you’re a little bit more removed than usual,” his twin added.

    “A little bit. Though it’s nice to know our family is even larger than we thought,” wizarding Fred added.

    “Indeed. Though we’d have preferred if you’d brought your handsome older brothers with you.”

    “Boys…” Mr Weasley raised his voice a little and glanced at the kids at the end of the table. Who were not as busy with eating as they should be, Ron noticed - Jean and James were paying rapt attention. So much, in fact, that James’ face looked as if he had missed his mouth with his fork every second time due to focusing on the adults’ discussion.

    “James!” Wizarding Ginny had noticed it as well and swished her wand. A moment later, James’s face was clean.

    Jean mouthed something to her brother - Ron didn’t manage to read her lips, but since James glared at her, it was probably an insult.

    “How are things at your department, Percy?” Mr Weasley asked in a quite transparent attempt to change the subject. “Did you manage to settle things with the Scandinavians?”

    Wizarding Percy sighed. “Oh, no. They keep complaining.”

    “Complaining?” Hermione frowned. “About werewolf rights?”

    “Not exactly,” wizarding Percy replied. “They can’t complain about discrimination these days, not after we repealed all the werewolf laws. But since Britain is now amongst the most tolerant countries with regards to werewolves, and we don’t have blood feuds as part of normal politics, the Scandinavians have taken to complaining about us ‘luring their werewolves away’.” He shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do about it. We couldn’t limit immigration even if we wanted to since they can use muggle means to immigrate, anyway. Not that we would want to limit immigration after the war, of course.”

    “Oh.” Hermione looked surprised.

    “The Scandinavians should stop killing each other. That might stop their people from leaving,” Mrs Weasley said. “Really, I can’t understand how they can stand living like that - war’s such a…” She shook her head and started collecting the empty plates.

    Mr Weasley cleared his throat. “Indeed. Though our muggle counterparts - I mean, the British government - are a little concerned about the werewolf immigration. The number of wolf sightings has apparently grown so much that the muggles suspect someone has released some wolves into the wild. We’ve stopped several attempts to hunt them, but poaching might become a danger for those werewolves who like roaming through forests during the full moon.”

    “And that includes most Scandinavians,” wizarding Percy added. “At least we’ve, so far, been able to enforce the mandatory Wolfsbane Potion requirement.”

    Werewolves in danger of being poached… Ron shook his head. “How many muggle police officers are aware of that?” he asked.

    “None. So far, the muggle government’s stance is that all the wolf sightings are merely hoaxes or sightings of particularly large dogs,” Mr Weasley told him. “Apparently, they are concerned about werewolf, err, droppings, being found by muggle naturalists.”

    “Arthur! That’s not a subject for dinner!” Mrs Weasley admonished him as she collected more plates.

    “They’re talking about werewolf poop!” Roger said, a little loudly, which made all the kids start giggling.

    “Has anyone tested whether the leavings would register as of wolf or human origin?” Hermione asked.

    “I don’t think so,” Mr Weasley said, frowning.

    “I think you should,” she said. “If they can be identified as human or some sort of wolf-human hybrid, then that could be a threat to the Statute of Secrecy.”

    “Really?” Mr Weasley frowned.

    “I do hope that we won’t be required to regulate werewolf defecation,” wizarding Percy commented with pursed lips. “The Scandinavians would complain about that as well.”

    Ron tried to imagine Parliament debating a law about werewolf poop and snickered. Then he laughed. Soon, most of the others joined in.

    The good mood - helped along by a few anecdotes from Mr Weasley - held until after dinner.

    *****​

    “No! Not sleepy!”

    “Please, Mummy! Lemme stay. Take only James!”

    “Can we sleep with Gran? Please!”

    “Don’t wanna go away!”

    “No! Noo! NOOOO!”

    Wizarding kids could raise the same sort of ruckus as muggle kids, Ron realised after dinner. Fortunately, settling them down wasn’t his job - the wizarding families could and had to handle that. So while wizarding Ginny threatened Jean and James with Apparition if they didn’t use the Floo Network like good children, and wizarding Fred, wizarding George and Angelina were looking for Beatrice, who had somehow disappeared inside the house - the grandfather clock still showed her as being inside - Ron approached Hermione. “Fancy a stroll around the pond?”

    She smiled at him. “That sounds like a lovely idea.” He offered his arm just as she added, with a glance to the side, where Roger and Victoire were crying at their pending separation: “Lavender’s parenting is getting a little loud.”

    Ron suppressed his wince at that. Until they were out of the house, at least. “Well, the kids look like a handful. Mum would’ve blown her top long ago,” he commented, watching Hermione out of the corner of his eyes.

    She snorted. “Perhaps. Molly - this world’s Molly - has a temper. Although she seems more lenient with her grandchildren.”

    “Isn’t that traditional?” he asked.

    “I suppose so.”

    “Something wizards and muggles share, then.”

    “Muggles and wizards aren’t really so different,” she told him. “Apart from magic, of course.”

    That was a big difference, in Ron’s opinion. He nodded anyway. “It seems so.”

    They reached the edge of the pond. It wasn’t frozen over, and Ron wanted to ask if there were spells to do that and make it snow. But this wasn’t a stroll on the shores of the Black Lake. And he had something more important to discuss. He took a deep breath. “I had a talk with the other Ron.”

    “Ah.” He felt her tense up, a little.

    “Yes,” he went on, “he didn’t realise that Lavender might feel a little… threatened, by your return.”

    She snorted. “Lavender was always a little insecure while we were at Hogwarts. She couldn’t stand my friendship with Ron.”

    “Well, you did get together later, didn’t you?” he pointed out.

    “Over a year after he had broken up with her,” Hermione retorted. “And yet she’s acting as if I’m about to ‘steal her man’! At least this time she hasn’t tried to threaten me.”

    Ah. He knew better than to ask how she would have reacted if she had been threatened. “It seems both she and the other Ron don’t expect a relationship between a muggle and a witch to last.”

    She tensed up again. “What? Did he insinuate that I’ll break up with you now that I’m back in my own world?”

    “Not like that,” Ron quickly replied. “He merely mentioned that it would be difficult to live as a muggle in the wizarding world. Or with a wizarding family.”

    She scoffed. “As if he has any idea about that - he grew up in the wizarding world!”

    “He mentioned a squib cousin,” Ron pointed out.

    “And I bet he hasn’t talked to them.” She scoffed again. “Magic’s the only difference between wizards and muggles - and technology is about as much of a mystery to many wizards as magic is to most muggles.”

    Ron wouldn’t exactly compare technology to magic, not like that - anyone, including wizards, could learn how technology worked and could even, in theory at least, duplicate it, after all. But while Hermione did seem to underestimate the difference, she also didn’t seem to consider that much of a threat to their relationship. Which was encouraging, at least. “What about accidental magic from children?”

    “That’s overblown,” she replied. “Most children rarely use accidental magic, and if they do, it’s something harmless. Like floating toys, or changing the colour of a pet’s fur.”

    “Ah.” That sounded a little less inconsequential than she seemed to think, but far less serious than Ron had, despite his words to his counterpart, feared. He nodded, then noticed she had stopped walking.

    “Are you thinking about children?”

    Oh. That question he hadn’t expected. He should have, of course - Hermione was the smartest woman he knew. “Hard not to, after seeing all the kids today,” he said, watching her reaction.

    “Oh. I suppose so, yes.” She seemed surprised, or so he thought.

    “I am surprised that everyone seems to be having kids already,” he commented.

    “Harry always wanted a family,” she told him. “And Lavender probably couldn’t wait to become the perfect housewife.”

    Ah. He hesitated a moment, then remarked: “You seem to dislike her.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him - he probably hadn’t been subtle enough. “She hasn’t really changed since our teenage years. And we didn’t get along then.”

    “But you’ve changed, haven’t you?”

    She snorted. “Perhaps not in that area. I still don’t like her, and the feeling’s mutual.”

    Ah. So much for sorting this out. He decided to change the subject before he hit a landmine. “You know, when wizarding Harry sent that glowing stag after us…”

    “Oh, that’s a good way to differentiate between counterparts!” She smiled. “I like the name.”

    “Thanks. Anyway, I was startled and drew my gun. Wizarding Ron hardly reacted,” he said.

    “Oh. Well, with most wizards, I’d say they didn’t recognise the gun. Ron would, though - we talked about them during the war. I guess he doesn’t see a difference between a wand and a gun, and since everyone’s always waving their wand around…” She shrugged. “Or he didn’t want to look afraid in front of you.”

    Well, Ron couldn’t easily dismiss that theory - he would also hate to look afraid in front of his counterpart. Or in front of anyone else with a wand.

    They had almost reached the house again. Time to talk about politics and similar problems.

    But before they reached the back door, it opened and Luna rushed out, followed by wizarding Luna and the rest.

    “Ron! Hermione! We’re going to fly for a bit! Everyone’s coming! You have to come as well!”

    Flying? On a broom? Well, Luna had done it before, so it couldn’t be too hard. Or too dangerous. And Ron had watched how wizarding Luna had instructed her as well. “Sure,” he said. “We would love to.” At the end of the day, who wouldn’t want to fly like that?

    “Ah…”

    Apparently, Ron realised as he saw Hermione’s grimace, his girlfriend wasn’t overly fond of flying on brooms.

    But Luna was already reaching for their hands. “Great! Let’s hurry before the others grab all the good brooms! I want the same broom again!” she exclaimed as she started to drag them along.

    They didn’t beat Sirius to the shed, of course, but Luna managed to make them overtake Harry and Ginny before she released their hands and went straight to for the broom she’d used before. “This one’s mine!”

    They would probably have to check that she put it back before they went home, Ron realised.

    “UP! Up and away!” And there went Luna.

    “Which broom would you recommend?” he asked Hermione.

    “I’m not an expert,” she replied, looking at the remaining brooms with the same expression Ron had once seen on a member of one of the bomb squads.

    “We could go back to the house,” he suggested, “if you don’t feel up to this.”

    He saw her lips purse. “These ones!” She pointed at a pair of old-looking brooms in the corner. “Cleansweeps are good, solid brooms.”

    They did look well-cared for, Ron noticed when he picked one up. But he could also see that there were several spots on the shaft where the finish had been worn down.

    “They’re safe,” wizarding Luna told him. “Molly and Arthur would never leave broken brooms where their grandchildren could get at them.”

    “Ah.” Ron nodded - that sounded like his own parents. And nothing he had seen from their hosts so far this evening had contradicted that impression. “Good, then.”

    “Yes,” Hermione added.

    “And Hermione can cast a Slowing Charm if anything happens, anyway,” wizarding Luna went on.

    “Slowing Charm? Like a Featherfall Spell?” Ron asked, before remembering that this Luna would have no idea about D&D, not having played the game with him.

    “What? Oh, no! It doesn’t conjure a mass of feathers but slows your fall directly. Much less of a hassle to clean up, and you don’t have trouble if you accidentally conjure eagle feathers or something - American muggles have the weirdest laws, you know.” Wizarding Luna nodded sagely.

    “Possession of eagle feathers requires a special permit in the USA,” Hermione told him as they left the shed with their chosen brooms in hand. “I found that out while researching magical traditions in your world.”

    “Ah.” He dimly recalled hearing about something similar.

    “So, in order to use a broom, you have to call it into your hand. Put it down on the ground - although not into the snow, of course - and call ‘up!’,” she told him.

    He nodded. “I saw Luna do it.”

    “Ah.”

    He put the broom down - carefully, of course; he was about to take off on it - and held his hand out. “Up!”

    The broom twitched on the floor. Ah, right. He thought of flying. Of soaring through the sky, feeling the wind in his face, free as a bird… “Up!”

    The broom leapt into his hand, and he thought he could feel it exert a slight but noticeable force against his grip - like a dog pulling on a leash, to check if you were holding it. He took a deep breath and mounted it.

    And the slight force increased, matching his weight as he slowly bent his knees until his feet left the ground and he was straddling a floating broom. Flying. He drew a sharp breath. He was flying.

    “Don’t pull up too hard,” Hermione said, rather quickly. “Steady and gentle - a soft touch is enough. Just keep a tight grip on the broom.”

    That sounded a little contradictory, in his opinion. But she was the witch. And she had flown before - even though she looked a bit unsteady on her own broom.

    He followed her advice and pulled slightly on the shaft.

    The broom started to fly forward and upwards at a steady pace - faster than a walk, already. How fast could it go?

    He leaned forward, as he had seen Luna do, and the broom accelerated. Oh.

    He was flying. He was flying on a magical broom.

    Elation filled him as he twisted his body and flew a curve. This was magic. He wasn’t casting a spell, but he wasn’t just drinking a potion either - he was using a magic item. To fly.

    And it felt wonderful.

    *****​

    Luna was still bouncing on the balls of her feet half an hour later, when they returned to the house - The Burrow - and Ron couldn’t fault her. Flying on a broom was fantastic. In more than one sense.

    Hermione, though, seemed to be glad to be back on solid ground. Ron suspected strongly that if not for her pride and stubbornness - and possibly her earlier interaction with Lavender - she wouldn’t have gone flying.

    Being more comfortable than an actual witch with such an archetypical witching device as a flying broom was both amusing and comforting. Which was a little confusing, but there wasn’t time to dwell on that. Now that the kids had been sent to bed and the adults returned, it was time to discuss more serious matters.

    After dessert, he corrected himself as he entered the living room and saw the spread Mrs Weasley - Molly - had laid out on the dining table. It was a veritable feast.

    “Pudding!” Luna - no, both Lunas - exclaimed behind him, and Ron barely managed to pull Hermione out of the way before the two women made a dash for the table.

    A few minutes later, everyone was settled - and fed, in the Lunas’ case - and things finally did get serious.

    “We’ve settled on a cover story for the years I’ve been missing,” Hermione said. “Amnesia from spell damage and having lived as a muggle until I recovered my memory should sound sufficiently convincing to avoid most inconvenient questions.”

    “There’ll still be rumours,” wizarding Ginny pointed out. “The things they spread about Harry and me...”

    “That’s mostly the work of all the jealous witches who either wanted to marry Harry themselves or wanted to become the Harpies’ Seeker,” wizarding Ron replied.

    “We can deal with such rumours, as long as they’re not endorsed by the Ministry or the Daily Prophet,” Hermione said.

    “Which is the same thing,” wizarding Ron added.

    “Quite.” Hermione nodded. “So, with my cover story settled, that leaves the muggle friends I made while living as a muggle.”

    “Oh, hiding the truth by telling the truth!” Luna nodded. “Clever.”

    Perhaps a little too clever, Ron thought. On the other hand, the closer to the truth their cover story ended up being, the easier it would be to stick to it.

    “Not many will care about any muggle friends you made,” wizarding Percy said. “The real issue is politics.”

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed, though she was pursing her lips a little. “I can imagine that my sudden return might be a little upsetting for some people.”

    “There aren’t any Death Eaters left, and most bigots wouldn’t dare bother you,” wizarding Ron told her. “Aunt Muriel will probably be the worst you’ll face. Of course, that’s bad enough...”

    “Ronald!” Molly snapped.

    “Sorry, Mum.”

    “I was thinking of our esteemed Minister for Magic,” Hermione clarified. And, Ron mentally added, probably of a few of the witches and wizards gathered here as well.

    “Kingsley?” wizarding Ginny asked with a frown. “Why?”

    “Missing and presumed dead heroes and heroines do not give interviews or talk to influential people to potentially contradict Ministry policy,” wizarding Percy explained.

    “But…” Wizarding Ginny wasn’t the only one eyeing Hermione, Ron noticed. He also noticed that Mr Weasley - Arthur - and wizarding Percy didn’t.

    Hermione sighed. “I don’t know everything I supposedly would have wished to be done,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s inconceivable that I might disagree with some of it.”

    “We didn’t make any changes that you wouldn’t have supported,” wizarding Ron protested. “We talked about reforms, remember?”

    “Yes. And I trust you,” she replied. “But we didn’t really go into the kind of excruciating detail that is part and parcel of actually drafting legislation.”

    “And the loopholes for the corrupt politicians and their masters!” Luna added, nodding emphatically.

    Arthur chuckled at that, though it sounded a little rueful. “The devil’s in the details, as the muggles say.”

    “I believe we should bring Kinglsey into this,” wizarding Percy stated, preventing what Ron thought was probably going to be a pointed question from Molly. “He is, after all, the Minister.”

    “Yes,” wizarding Harry agreed.

    “But only to discuss my return. He doesn’t need to know about the portal,” Hermione insisted.

    “What?” Ron’s counterpart looked surprised.

    “He’s a friend, Hermione,” wizarding Harry told her.

    “He was in the Order, like all of us!” Wizarding Ginny looked shocked.

    Hermione seemed unfazed, but she pursed her lips. “I know that - that he was in the Order. But I never interacted much with him. And he’s been Minister for seven years.”

    “What do you mean?” wizarding Ron asked.

    “All politicians are corrupt to some degree,” Luna declared.

    “Leaving aside the question of whether or not completely honest politicians are possible,” Dumbledore cut in with a smile, “there is certainly a conflict of interest. What is best for Wizarding Britain might not be best for our world - or for Dr Granger.”

    Ron could see that the comment, delivered without a hint of levity - the old man had a perfect poker face - set the others thinking. Thinking about possibly having to choose between Hermione and the Minister. Ron didn’t know whether Dumbledore had planned to drive a wedge between the others and the Ministry or between them and Hermione, but either outcome would mean that Hermione had less support in the Wizarding World and would likely have to rely more on the old man.

    And, a selfish part of Ron added, on himself.

    He forced the guilt away and focused on the discussion at the table. “But Kingsley isn’t Fudge!” Molly protested. “He is an honourable wizard.”

    “And what is the honourable choice for the Minister, if he has to weigh Hermione’s wishes against the country’s?” Dumbledore asked. “I am not familiar with local politics, mind you, but I can assure you that we’ve been taking pains in my world to keep the true nature of Dr Granger’s research a secret. Otherwise, the government would most certainly seize it.”

    “They might even go as far as to press Hermione into service, even if they had to resurrect old naval laws for the purpose,” Sirius added. “Of course, the Navy would likely attempt to take control of the portal in that case, no matter how far inland it’s located.”

    Ron snorted - Sirius rarely let an opportunity to take a dig at the Navy pass. But that didn’t change that, as Dumbledore had reminded them, they also had to deal with their own government back in their world.

    “Kingsley won’t curse us in the back,” wizarding Ron said. “And he knows how much he owes to us.”

    Well, it seemed that Ron’s counterpart had made his choice already. Not that it was a surprise - Ron had done the same, after all. Twice, if you counted overlooking Luna’s various not-quite-legal shenanigans.

    “But what about the Wizengamot? Or the Unspeakables?” Hermione asked. “Shacklebolt would have to keep this a secret from everyone.”

    “That’s no more than what we’ll all be doing,” wizarding Harry replied. “And Kingsley is keeping other secrets as well.”

    The way everyone from the wizarding world reacted to that told Ron that they had their own dark secrets. But then, he couldn’t imagine fighting in a dirty civil war and not having things to hide - if not on your own behalf, then your friends’.

    “Everyone has a price,” Luna said. “And politicians are used to making shady deals. That’s how politics works.”

    “The Minister still hasn’t exposed the Rotfang Conspiracy,” wizarding Luna added. “Despite all the evidence Daddy delivered to him.”

    “Luna,” wizarding Harry said, “we’ve investigated the Ministry, and we haven’t found any trace of that conspiracy.”

    “That means they were warned and managed to hide all evidence. And that happened after we informed the Minister.” Wizarding Luna pouted. “It could be a coincidence, though. We’ll have to do it again to check.”

    Ron closed his eyes for a moment, wincing. Why had he ever thought Luna meeting her counterpart might be a good thing?

    “Look,” Hermione spoke up again, “this is about the need to know. And if we don’t want the Ministry to get involved in the portal project, then the Minister doesn’t need to know about this.” Her tone made it clear that everyone had better agree that the portal wasn’t the Ministry’s business.

    “But do we want that?” wizarding Percy asked. “If the portal gets taken over by someone, it’s a major security risk. It could endanger the entire country - or even the world. The Ministry would be completely unprepared for an invasion through a portal. Or a dark wizard building up a power base in another world.”

    “On the other hand, having control of the portal - or merely knowing about it - will lead certain people to consider such actions themselves. Secrecy is a powerful defence, in my experience,” Dumbledore pointed out. “After you vouching for him, I’m sure Minister Shacklebolt can be trusted - but can you say the same for his successor? Or their successor?” He inclined his head. “Governments change, after all. As do policies.”

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed. “And trying to control the government to keep it from trying to control the portal is a very dangerous course of action.”

    “So is keeping the portal secret from the government,” wizarding Percy retorted. “And once the secret gets out, a lot of trust will be lost.” He looked around the table.

    Ron pressed his lips together. He knew what the wizard was insinuating: A lot of people were already aware of the truth. Probably too many, if Ron were honest, to keep the secret indefinitely. But the alternative would have been keeping such important secrets from one’s family, and that wasn’t a good idea, either.

    He snorted, and when everyone looked at him, he explained: “It’s our own fault. We’re just too big a family.”

    After a moment, everyone else started to snort and chuckle as well.

    The levity was short-lived, though. “So, do we tell Kingsley the truth, or not?” wizarding Harry asked.

    “I think Kingsley would understand not being told,” Arthur said. “As Minister, he doesn’t tell us everything, either. And he knows better than anyone else that the Ministry isn’t perfect, and neither is the Wizengamot. Also, there’s no law that requires wizards such as spellcrafters or potioneers to announce, much less release, their research. And, unlike with time travel or the creation of magical creatures, there is no ban on portal research. Because, I would wager, no one has ever done anything like it until our Hermione here. Although that’s a technicality, and doesn’t change that there’s no legal requirement to tell anyone about the portal.” He spread his hands. “And the precedent it would set - I can safely say that the Wizengamot would oppose any law that would require inventors and researchers to reveal their projects to the Ministry.”

    “They wouldn’t repeal or oppose a law that would force just me to do so, though,” Hermione said. “Especially if they knew what I was doing.”

    Arthur didn’t contest that. But he had voiced his opinion, and Ron could see most were nodding in agreement, following the wizard’s lead.

    Well, just like at home - Dad didn’t shy away from doing what he thought was correct. Even if that might require his considerable expertise in loopholes and technicalities.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 22nd, 2005

    Mr and Mrs Granger weathered their first trip through the portal quite well, in Ron’s opinion. They stumbled a bit, but they didn’t look sick. Unlike everyone else he’d seen use it. Had the fact that they had grown up in a world with magic, even though they weren’t magical, affected them? Or Hermione’s birth? Perhaps they had some magic genes.

    “Dad! Mum! Are you alright?” Hermione was at their side as soon as she had finished closing the portal.

    “We’re fine,” her mother replied, steadying herself. “It’s no worse than Apparition.”

    “And considerably more comfortable than a Portkey,” Mr Granger added. “So, this is your laboratory.”

    “Yes!” Hermione smiled widely at her parents. “Well, technically, I don’t own it, but it’s here that I created the first working portal.”

    “And we’re at the same location where we left, just in this world?” Mrs Granger asked.

    “Yes, though there’s a small vertical difference. Magic compensates, though. We’re in the basement of an old resort at the Black Lake.”

    “Near the ruins of this world’s Hogwarts?” Mr Granger cocked his head.

    Ron saw Hermione frown in response. “Technically, yes. Though from what I can tell - we didn’t examine the ruins thoroughly - the castle was much smaller and fell into ruins centuries ago. So they aren’t really comparable.”

    “Kind of like The Burrow and my home,” Ron commented. “Sort of - it’s not as if The Burrow is in ruins.”

    “Without magic keeping it together, it would be, I bet,” Mr Granger said.

    “Do you live there?” Mrs Granger asked.

    Ron shook his head. “I’ve got a flat in London.”

    “Which he rarely uses.” Ginny had to cut in. “He spends more time at Grimmauld Place than there.”

    Ron rolled his eyes. He had spent more time there during their teenage years than Ginny - until she and Harry had gotten together, at least. And probably had done so again, once her career had taken off and she had started going on the WTA Tour.

    “Anyway, I’d show you the guest quarters, but Mr Dumbledore has to set things up first,” Hermione told her parents.

    “We can’t be seen by the government agents stationed here, right?” Mrs Granger said more than she asked.

    “Yes.” Hermione nodded apologetically. “But it’s only for a night. Tomorrow, we’ll return to see Shacklebolt.”

    Ron didn’t like the possible implications of that. Did that mean Hermione saw the other world as her home? Duh, of course she did - her parents and friends lived there. She had grown up there. And… He shook his head. No, he was probably just overthinking things.

    And here came Dumbledore and Grindelwald. “Additional guest quarters have been prepared,” the former spymaster told them with a friendly smile. “And the path is clear, so to say.”

    Grindelwald, who’s expression was much more guarded, nodded. “Be careful nonetheless,” he cautioned them. “You can’t trust the Secret Service.” Dumbledore laughed out loud at that, followed by a thin, sardonic grin from his partner, so it was probably an old joke between the two old men. They were correct, though - with MI5 involved, they couldn’t even easily contact their families and this world's Grangers to tell them that the portal was now working. “I heard you’re meeting with the head of your government tomorrow,” the German went on.

    “Yes. Minister Shacklebolt,” Hermione confirmed. “He won’t be told about the portal, though.”

    “Not by you, at least.”

    “I trust my friends!” Hermione retorted.

    “Do you know the saying ‘trust but verify’?” Grindelwald shook his head. “But as long as your cover story lasts until we’ve finished our own business...”

    “That will be taken care of right after Shacklebolt,” Hermione told him with a deep frown.

    “Good.”

    “Gellert is a little impatient. Quite understandable, seeing as he is stuck here and cannot follow us to watch our progress in person,” Dumbledore said.

    Grindelwald scoffed at that but didn’t contradict his partner. “We’re not getting any younger, are we?”

    “No, but I expect to grow much older than previously expected,” Dumbledore replied.

    “Not unless you start eating more healthily.”

    “Touché.” Dumbledore laughed again before turning to address them: “But don’t let us keep you standing here when you could be catching up with Dr Granger in much more comfortable environs. I would loathe having you think we force her to sleep in her laboratory.”

    “We had to force her to stop doing that, actually,” Luna said. “I think she had a bed in her lab in London.”

    “And enough MREs to eat for years,” Ron added with a grin.

    Hermione was actually blushing as she frowned at them. “I was focused on finishing my research as fast as possible.” Still, she clearly knew that they had a point.

    “Oh, I can imagine!” her mum exclaimed.

    “And we’re grateful,” Mr Granger added. “Very grateful.”

    Both of them hugged Hermione again.

    And despite his fears about the future, Ron was happy seeing it.

    *****​

    The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole, Devon, Britain, Wizarding World, December 23rd, 2005

    The Minister was late. That wasn’t a surprise - one couldn’t expect the leader of a country to clear his schedule for a few hours unless it was an emergency. Especially if one was trying to keep the reason for the extended meeting a secret, and it was the day before Christmas Eve. It still raised Ron’s hackles. He preferred it if things went according to plan.

    And waiting any longer certainly wasn’t helping Hermione to stay calm. She was biting her lip so hard, Ron wouldn’t be surprised if she hurt herself.

    “It’ll be alright,” he said as encouragingly as he could manage.

    Judging by the way she narrowed her eyes at him, he hadn’t been encouraging enough. Or convincing enough. “Really? So you didn’t have to come ‘just in case’?”

    Ah. Perhaps he had been a little too insistent. “Well, with me here, of course.” He grinned at her.

    She huffed in response and dropped the magazine she had been reading - or looking at for five minutes without turning a page - and grabbed another. “If he recognises you…”

    “That’s what the cover story about being a distant Weasley is all about,” Ron replied. “And if he doesn’t believe it, it would be better to find that out as soon as possible, and not after we’re already invested here,” he repeated an argument he had made a few times already. He didn’t tell her that the real reason he wanted to be present for this meeting was that he wouldn’t accept staying hidden while Hermione met other wizards and witches. He wanted to be part of all of her life, not some secret she kept from her wizarding friends.

    She huffed again but didn’t contradict him.

    Ron picked up the discarded magazine - Witch Weekly? Really? - and started to skim it. Until he hit the main article titled ‘The Minister on Witch Issues’. Which had a full-page picture of Kingsley Shacklebolt.

    The Minister for Magic was an impressive looking man. Tall, broad-shouldered, stylishly dressed, for a wizard - and black.

    Ron hadn’t expected that. Wizarding Britain, as Hermione had described it and the few parts of it he had personally seen, had always seemed to be a more archaic and slightly fantastical version of Britain. One which included the deeply rooted racism and classism he was familiar with. Hell, they had had to fight two wars against wizarding Nazis who wanted to murder everyone not born to the right families.

    He glanced at Hermione as he commented, in a casual tone: “I didn’t expect that.”

    “Hm? What?” She looked up.

    He held the magazine up. “A black Minister for Magic.” Oh, the jokes Sirius would make once he heard about this.

    She blinked. “Oh! I completely forgot about that. Skin colour doesn’t matter nearly as much in the wizarding world as it matters in the muggle world. The Shacklebolts are an old, distinguished pureblood family in Wizarding Britain.”

    That sounded crazy. Especially with a name like ‘Shacklebolt’. “And yet, the Death Eaters wanted to kill all muggleborns?”

    “Yes.” She shrugged. “They claim to care about magical ancestry more than anything else, of course, but it isn’t as if they were anything but hypocrites - there were several half-bloods amongst them, including Voldemort himself.”

    He nodded - but he also took note of the fact that the new Minister came from an ‘old, distinguished pureblood family’. If he were a muggle, he’d be a member of the upper class. Probably nobility.

    Before he could ask about that, the fireplace across the room flared up, and a tall, black man stepped out of it, followed by Mr Weasley.

    He had been forewarned - he didn’t look shocked upon seeing Hermione. Though his eyes went wide anyway. “Miss Granger…”

    She nodded. “Minister.”

    *****​

    “I hate this,” Harry complained again.

    “We know. But it’s necessary,” she said, watching him pace as she sat in the only armchair in the room that let her keep an eye on the door. They were in the middle of the Ministry, but as they had been taught: You had to stay on your guard. Even surrounded by friends and supposed allies.

    “It feels fake.” He tugged on the sleeve of his new dress robes - cut to look like duellist robes. “This is fake.”

    She didn’t roll her eyes. Sometimes, Harry’s attitude could really grate. “It makes you look dashing,” she told him. “And that will help get your message across.”

    “My message?” He scoffed. “The Ministry wrote my speech for me! They might as well just take one of my hairs and use Polyjuice Potion to replace me with an actor!”

    That was because Harry’s attempt to write a speech had been pathetic. Her friend was one of the bravest boys she knew, a talented wizard and quite charismatic, but a speechwriter he wasn’t. She wouldn’t tell him that, though - she and Ron had done so already, and Harry hadn’t taken it well. Instead, she said: “Dumbledore approved the text.” As had Hermione herself - but she wouldn’t mention that either. “And it has to be you - people know you.” Like those wizards and witches who had already finished their education after spending years with Harry at Hogwarts.

    He scoffed. “Politics!”

    “Yes. Something we cannot let Voldemort use against you. Not again. And the Ministry needs you. Now more than ever.” What with Dumbledore slowly dying from a dark curse.

    “I know,” he replied, grinding his teeth. “But…”

    He trailed off, and she stared at him until he sighed and looked away.

    Good. They really couldn’t afford to mess this up. Scrimgeour needed their support - for all his faults, he was determined to oppose the Dark Lord with everything he could bring to bear. Dumbledore had confirmed that.

    And he would get all the help they could deliver, too.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2020
    Scopas, Higure, wichajster and 5 others like this.
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 40: The Mistake
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 40: The Mistake

    The Burrow, Ottery St Catchpole, Devon, Britain, Wizarding World, December 23rd, 2005

    The Minister shook his head. “Arthur and Harry told me, though I didn’t want to believe it. Nobody had been able to find any trace of you, and after seven years...”

    Neither Shacklebolt nor Hermione moved to embrace the other, Ron noted. They hadn’t been close before her disappearance.

    “That’s because I had left the castle,” Hermione replied. “You would have needed a Seer to find me, not that Divination is reliable.” She nodded at Ron. “This is Ronald, a distant relative of the Weasleys.”

    “Ah, you’re a muggle, yes, Arthur told me about you.”

    “Minister.” Ron nodded at him. He didn’t like the man’s attitude.

    “We’re still looking into it,” Mr Weasley - Arthur - said, “but we haven’t found records old enough to determine how we are actually related.”

    “The resemblance is there, though,” Shacklebolt commented with slightly narrowed eyes. Had the wizard seen through the disguise? He was a former Auror, after all, Ron knew. And one of the best, according to Hermione and her wizarding friends. And he had been the Prime Minister’s magical protection detail - not a man to underestimate.

    “Let’s sit down, shall we?” Mrs Weasley said as she entered the room carrying a tray with tea and snacks.

    They sat down on the couches, not at the dining table, which had been reduced to a more normal size - for a Weasley family. Mrs Weasley - Molly - conjured some side tables for everyone, to Ron’s slight disappointment; he had hoped for floating cups and dishes.

    “I was filled in by Harry and Ron,” the Minister went on after taking a sip from the excellent tea. “They’ve confirmed your identity.”

    “They did, yes,” Hermione replied. “They were understandably suspicious.”

    “It is a fantastical story. How exactly did you manage to leave the castle?”

    “I used a damaged Vanishing Cabinet and ended up with amnesia in the middle of a field owned by a muggle.” Hermione grimaced. “At least that’s what I think is the most likely explanation.”

    “I thought that you recovered your memory.” Shacklebolt steepled his fingers.

    “I recovered most of my memories - but of the day of my disappearance, I still only have fragments,” she explained. “I don’t even know if it was the Cabinet, a curse or something left in the room that caused it. I do think the Cabinet is the most likely cause, though.”

    “And how did you recover your memories?”

    “Gradually, at first.” She looked at Ron with a smile. “I started a relationship, and, well, I began to mix up memories of Ronald and my friends. One day, he said something just like Ron used to say, and all my memories returned.”

    “Ah.” Once more, the Minister stared at Ron.

    “I was terrified when she collapsed.” Ron went with the prepared story. “And I have to admit that when she told me about magic, I thought she had lost her mind.” He forced himself to chuckle - it wasn’t really a lie.

    “Fortunately, we - Harry, Ron and myself - had prepared caches with spare wands and supplies during the war, so I managed to get a wand and demonstrate that I wasn’t crazy,” Hermione said, reaching out to hold Ron’s hand.

    “Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply visit Diagon Alley?”

    “I didn’t want to risk entering a country possibly ruled by Voldemort. Certainly not without a wand,” Hermione replied.

    That seemed to surprise Shacklebolt. “But surely you would have noticed attacks on muggles - they made the muggle news during the war…”

    “Yes. But Voldemort was no fool. If he had started to oppress the muggles to a degree that I would have noticed as a common muggle, then the ICW would have intervened. It was entirely possible that he had simply taken control of the Prime Minister, as he had controlled your predecessor, and was biding his time.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t risk it. Not as one of Wizarding Britain’s most wanted witches.”

    “Well, we set that right first thing after we took the Ministry back.” Shacklebolt laughed. “You’re still one of Wizarding Britain’s most famous witches.”

    “I saw the statue. And I met my portrait,” Hermione told him with a frown.

    “You don’t like them?” Once more, surprise was visible on the wizard’s face.

    “I wouldn’t like to be remembered like that,” she said with a polite smile. “Fortunately, I can do something about that, now.”

    Shacklebolt’s smile slipped from friendly to polite as well, Ron noticed. It seemed that the Minister wasn’t happy about the implications of her statement. “What do you have in mind? As far as I know, the portrait was quite faithfully instructed by your best friends.”

    “I’ve no doubt that they did their best,” she replied, “but they were also most certainly still affected by our experiences during the war at the time they did it.” She shook her head. “I just want to set the record straight.”

    Now the Minister started to frown. “Do you disagree with the historical records?”

    “I don’t know yet - I haven’t had the time to look them up,” she told him. “But more points of view, different perspectives, are a good thing, aren’t they?”

    “Of course,” Shacklebolt agreed - though his smile was a little too open to be honest, in Ron’s opinion. Politicians, in his experience, didn’t like most views that differed from their own. “Are you thinking of entering politics? You were quite the activist as a teenager if I remember correctly.”

    “Oh, no! I was living as a muggle for seven years - I’m so out of touch with everything and everyone, I don’t think I’m qualified to work in the Ministry.” Hermione waved her hands.

    “Well, a position in the Ministry is yours for the asking - the country owes you a debt, after all. Helping you readjust on the Ministry’s Galleons is the least we can do for a war heroine.”

    “Thank you for the offer, but I’m not hurting for money. And my family comes first.”

    Shacklebolt nodded. “Of course. Take all the time you need.”

    Ron wanted to tell the wizard that that was a given but held his tongue.

    “I’m planning to,” she said. “I just wanted to meet you so you’re not caught unaware by my return.”

    “Ah. I appreciate that.”

    “We’ve been discreet,” Arthur added, “but some rumours have already started circulating, I think.”

    “I was seen by two Aurors in Hogsmeade,” Hermione elaborated.

    “Ah. I did hear something about that,” the Minister said.

    “I was still dealing with my recovered memories, so I basically fled the scene before I had a breakdown,” she went on.

    Molly nodded in obvious sympathy. “It must have been a shock.”

    “It was. I realised that everyone thought I had died. I knew that that was likely, but only in an academic sense. Seeing my statue there…” she trailed off, shaking her head.

    Ron wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

    The Minister nodded. “I see. I will arrange things so you aren’t bothered by the press while you’re still adjusting - if you would like that.”

    “Thank you. I don’t want to make a spectacle out of this.”

    “Of course not.”

    Shacklebolt was smiling in a slightly patronising way, Ron noted. Probably happy that Hermione wasn’t charging the gates of the Ministry to take over or something.

    *****​

    “...and then I jumped into the Vanishing Cabinet, and things went, well, wrong.”

    Ron reached out and gently squeezed Hermione’s hand as she finished telling Shacklebolt over lunch how her part in the Battle of Hogwarts had ended.

    “I see. And then you found yourself in muggle Britain, wandless and with amnesia?”

    “Yes. Although while I didn’t know why, I still knew that I was in danger - that I was a wanted woman. So I didn’t go to the police.”

    “Ah. We had been keeping our eyes out for reports of obliviated muggles,” Shacklebolt commented. “The Death Eaters were fond of muggle-baiting.”

    “I can imagine,” Hermione replied with a deep scowl.

    “We put a stop to that, of course.”

    “I’ve heard. You must have filled Azkaban.” Her scowl didn’t vanish, Ron noted.

    “Most of the Ministry had been helping Voldemort,” Shacklebolt replied. He wasn’t smiling any more.

    “To what degree? I heard you sent Skeeter to Azkaban.”

    “She was directly responsible for some of the most effective propaganda against muggleborns, which contributed greatly to their persecution.”

    “I was one of her victims before Voldemort took over - I’m familiar with her ‘work’,” Hermione said. “However, she was always careful with her wording - using quotes and questions rather than direct claims - or direct lies.”

    “That didn’t change the effect of her articles. And she knew what she was doing,” Shacklebolt said with a frown. “She also served as an example to others - a demonstration that the times of ‘subtly’ spreading Voldemort’s poison through euphemism and veiled words were over. We cannot change the people’s minds if we let the bigots spread their ideology unhindered.”

    “Being punished to serve as an example seems like a political decision. Not a judicial one,” Ron spoke up.

    Shacklebolt looked surprised - Ron hadn’t said much during lunch. Had the wizard forgotten about him? Because Ron was a muggle? “I’ve worked in law enforcement,” Ron added.

    “Ah.” Shacklebolt looked at Hermione again as he replied: “Bigotry was and is a political problem. We failed to solve it after the first war, which caused the second war, with all its horrors. We weren’t about to make the same mistake a second time.”

    “Some principles should be above politics,” Hermione commented.

    “Yes. Such as the right of everyone to live,” Shacklebolt retorted.

    “The ends don’t always justify the means.”

    “Sometimes they do.”

    The two stared - no, glared - at each other for a moment, before Molly interrupted them. “Who wants pudding?”

    *****​

    “Bye, Kingsley! You must visit more often, and without such a pressing reason,” Molly said fifteen minutes later, as Shacklebolt and Arthur left The Burrow again. As soon as they had vanished in the fireplace, the witch sighed, though, and turned towards Ron and Hermione. “That could’ve gone better.”

    Hermione set her jaw, Ron noticed. “A position in the Ministry, but for the asking?” She scoffed. “I know a bribe when I see one. He just wants my support for his policies.”

    And the Minister hadn’t been as subtle about it as Dumbledore had been, in Ron’s opinion.

    “Of course he wants your support,” Molly said as she flicked her wand and the dishes on the table started to float towards the kitchen. “You’re a war heroine. Your word carries weight.”

    Hermione snorted at that. “My legend carries weight. But I myself? Any influence I have will quickly vanish once I start disagreeing with Ministry policy.”

    “Didn’t you say that you don’t know anything about the Ministry?” Molly asked with a frown. “Most of the reforms were ideas you agreed with - I remember your visits over summer. Like the elves being freed.”

    Ron imagined a teenage Hermione lecturing people and smiled at the thought.

    Hermione grimaced slightly. “That’s certainly a reform of which I approve,” she said. “And I’m the last person to defend Death Eaters - but Azkaban still being staffed with Dementors?” She shook her head. “That’s torture.”

    To her credit, Molly winced at that. But she rallied quickly. “What would have been the alternative? Killing every criminal? Having half the Ministry’s trusted employees working as prison guards? You know how many people were killed, and how many helped the Death Eaters. Kingsley is doing what he can to change things. And he’s been at it for seven years.”

    “And I’ve been away and out of touch for seven years,” Hermione retorted, “and don’t know anything.”

    “I didn’t say that!” Molly replied, in a tone Ron recognised - there was the temper he had expected.

    “Sorry,” Hermione said after a moment. “But that’s what it feels like. Everyone seems to expect me to go along with everything. It’s as if they didn’t know me at all.”

    “Everyone missed you, dear. And they don’t realise yet that you have grown and changed in the years since your disappearance. As have they.”

    That caused Hermione to purse her lips. “I know that they aren’t teenagers any more. So I expect others to realise that about me.”

    “They will,” Ron told her. “But it’ll take some time.”

    “My friends, yes. But I’ve never been particularly close to Shacklebolt,” she replied.

    “He was a member of the Order of the Phoenix,” Molly told her. “He risked his life fighting the Death Eaters.”

    “We all did,” Hermione replied.

    “Well, I didn’t,” Ron pointed out with a grin. Which faltered a little when he noticed Molly and Hermione wincing.

    “You fought Russian spies and special forces,” Hermione said, “and saved me from them.”

    “You saved my life,” he told her, smiling at her.

    “And now both of you are safe,” Molly interjected. “Also thanks to Kingsley’s efforts.”

    Ron wasn’t sure he’d agree with the older witch - about being safe.

    “He didn’t do it alone, though, did he? Harry, Ron, Arthur and Percy helped, didn’t they?”

    “Of course they did!” Molly replied. “We had to win the peace as well as the war.”

    “That sounds like something Dumbledore would say,” Ron pointed out. Although he couldn’t say if the old man would mean it.

    “He did - well, our Dumbledore,” the older witch confirmed. “In our last meeting before he…” She swallowed. “Before he died.”

    “I don’t remember that,” Hermione said, frowning.

    “He might not have said the same things to everyone - he visited the different cells, to help prepare us for his death.” Molly sniffled slightly. “He was such a brave man, facing his death without fear. ‘Death is but the next great adventure’, he said.”

    Now that was something the Dumbledore from Ron’s world would never say - or, if he did, would never mean, in Ron’s opinion.

    “Which reminds me - we need to buy potions and other supplies,” Hermione said.

    “Oh? Of course!. Do you need money?” Molly offered. “We’re doing well - Arthur was promoted quickly, you know - the Ministry’s run so much better under Kingsley.”

    “The cache had enough Galleons to make the necessary purchases, I believe,” Hermione told her. “Money shouldn’t be an issue.”

    Ron nodded. Dumbledore had very deep pockets, after all - and would pay a premium for magic potions.

    “Are you sure? You don’t have an income yet,” Molly said.

    “We’ll be fine,” Hermione told her before turning towards the fireplace. “Let’s go to Diagon Alley,” she said, pulling out her wig.

    *****​

    Leaky Cauldron, Diagon Alley, London, Wizarding World, December 23rd, 2005

    Floo travel might not be as uncomfortable as Apparition, but it wasn’t smooth by any means, Ron couldn’t help but think as he stumbled out of the fireplace in what Hermione had told him was the Leaky Cauldron. He managed to avoid falling down, fortunately - that would have been a bad entrance.

    As he straightened, the fire flared up behind him, and he turned in time to see Hermione stepping out of the fireplace as if she were passing through a door. “It gets easier with practice,” she said as she flicked her wand and the slight traces of soot on his shirt and trousers vanished.

    “I’ll take your word for it,” he replied, eyeing the crowd in the inn They didn’t look particularly friendly, but not nearly as hostile as the guests in some of the London dives he had visited back home. And none of them seemed to have seen through their disguises. Although that old woman in the corner… He looked at Hermione as she took his arm, then glanced at the witch.

    “That’s a hag,” Hermione whispered as they walked towards what looked like the back exit.

    A hag? A cannibal? In an inn? “Aren’t they dangerous?” And would bullets hurt them?

    “They aren’t as bad as their reputation makes them out to be,” Hermione replied, “and they aren’t allowed wands, which is quite discriminatory, but I would be very wary around one of them if I were vulnerable or hurt.”

    “Ah.” That didn’t sound promising. It looked as if this inn was more like the Mos Eisley cantina.

    But the hag didn’t move before they entered the backyard and came face to face with a brick wall.

    Hermione hesitated a moment, then tapped half a dozen of the bricks in sequence, and the wall flowed out of the way, forming a gate.

    It seemed to be a rather complicated way to enter the main shopping district of Wizarding Britain, in Ron’s opinion, but it would definitely keep out muggles.

    “Diagon Alley,” Hermione announced. “The heart of Wizarding Britain’s economy.”

    “It looks like they’ll need a pacemaker,” Ron quipped before he could help himself - there were far fewer people in the Alley than he had expected, especially on the day before Christmas Eve.

    Hermione chuckled at his joke. “It’s a small country. It does get packed in August when every family goes shopping for school supplies.”

    “I guess they already did their Christmas shopping, then,” Ron replied.

    “Some might save it for tomorrow. But I think that with the students home from Hogwarts, many families will take longer meals, so they’ll probably start arriving soon. I’m certainly looking forward to dinner with my parents.” She glanced at him. “Our dinner with my parents.”

    He nodded with a smile. “So… where do we go first?”

    “Ollivanders.”

    “And what does he sell?” Ron asked as they entered the Alley proper, passing a family all dressed in near-identical robes who seemed to be a little nervous upon seeing them. A little like many people who unexpectedly met a police officer.

    “Wands. The wand I had in the cache isn’t a bad match - I picked the most compatible from the ones we looted - but I want a wand that is a perfect match. And Ollivander is the best wandmaker in Britain.”

    “Ah.” That made sense.

    The sign above the door Hermione led him to announced that the Ollivanders had been making ‘fine wands’ since 328 BC. “That’s quite a claim,” he said.

    “I used to plan to check the claim,” she told him with a wry smile. “I wanted to look up the records in the Ministry.”

    “Well, a call to Shacklebolt would likely be enough for that.”

    She snorted. “Don’t you start!” She pushed the door open.

    The room inside was dark, rather small - or, to be precise, it wasn’t extended as Ron had expected - and stuffed with small boxes. He couldn’t see Ollivander or anyone else, though.

    Then the door behind the counter opened, and an old man with thin, white hair that reached his shoulders stepped through. “Welcome to Ollivanders.”

    “Good afternoon,” Hermione replied, bowing her head. She raised her wand. “I need a new wand. A better match than this one.”

    The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Ash and dragon heartstring. Nine inches, not particularly springy. I sold this wand to Dexter Flint, years ago.”

    “And I took it from his corpse during the war,” she replied.

    Ollivander’s eyes briefly widened. “Who are you? You look familiar…”

    “You sold me a vine wand with a dragon heartstring. Ten and three-quarter inches.”

    The old man grew stiff. “I’ve only ever sold one such wand.”

    Hermione looked over her shoulder, then pulled off her wig. “Yes. To me. The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated. But I lost my wand, and I need a replacement.”

    “You’ve been missing for seven years,” Ollivander told her. “And now you return in disguise?”

    “My friends and the Ministry have been informed. I don’t want to spoil the big announcement,” she replied.

    “And we want to shop in peace,” Ron added, “without drawing a crowd or creating a spectacle.”

    For a long moment, the wandmaker stared at them - at her. Then he slowly nodded.

    “Let’s see which wand matches you.” He seemed to squint at Hermione for a moment, then turned away. “Pine, perhaps?” A flick of his wand had a case floating towards him. “With a unicorn hair core.”

    “My old wand was vine wood with a dragon heartstring,” Hermione told him again, though she held out her hand anyway.

    “That was almost fifteen years ago. As you change, your wand changes - or the wand which suits you,” Ollivander replied. “Try it.”

    Hermione flicked the wand, frowning at the light that started to shine from its tip, and Ollivander took it away. Another case appeared next to him. “Pine and dragon heartstring.”

    The light was marginally stronger, as far as Ron could tell.

    “Not pine, then. It seems you aren’t as mysterious as you appear.”

    Hermione snorted. “I’m not mysterious. I merely value my privacy.”

    “Ebony, perhaps. I think the dragon heartstring suits you still.” A new case was opened.

    The light was a little stronger still, but it was obvious that neither Hermione nor Ollivander were satisfied.

    “Not quite,” the wandmaker proclaimed. “Ah! Walnut! You didn’t take to it last time, but perhaps…” He summoned another case.

    This time, Hermione’s eyes widened as soon as she picked it up, and the light was noticeably brighter - bright enough to make Ron look away.

    “As I thought. Walnut, ten inches, slightly springy, with a dragon heartstring core. A great but dangerous match,” he said with a faint smile.

    “Dangerous?” Ron asked. Could wands explode?

    “Walnut will work as easily for a noble purpose as for a terrible one. And wands containing dragon heartstring are the ones most likely to serve a dark wizard. That will be fifteen Galleons, Miss Granger.”

    “Fifteen?” she asked.

    The old man merely nodded, and Hermione paid. “Thank you, Mr Ollivander.”

    “It was my pleasure. I’m looking forward to seeing what you might achieve with this wand.”

    “So am I, Mr Ollivander.”

    The old man had all but ignored him, Ron realised. Had he known that Ron was a muggle? Sensed it? Or had he seen through the disguise, and had mistaken him for wizarding Ron, the famous Auror? Ron couldn’t tell.

    Once they were outside the shop, with Hermione once again in disguise, Ron looked around for any eavesdroppers, then commented: “He didn’t seem to be overly concerned about the wand.”

    “Almost all British wizards use wands crafted by him or his ancestors,” she replied. “Voldemort used one of his wands, as did most of his followers. It hasn’t kept him from crafting wands that will fit a dark wizard.”

    “Ah.” He thought for a moment. “He seemed to imply that wands have a will of their own.”

    “Yes.” She frowned a little. “I haven’t looked into wandlore enough to be able to confirm or disprove his claim. It could be true - I certainly have seen stranger things in the magical world - but it could also be superstition.”

    It was his turn to snort. “Superstition among wizards and witches - that sounds weird.”

    “We’re humans. Humans are prone to see patterns everywhere, and while that helped us a great deal in understanding nature, it also created a lot of superstition.”

    That sounded logical. On the other hand, magic wasn’t very logical, in Ron’s experience. “So, where are we going now?”

    “The Apothecary,” she said. “I need a few potions. I do hope they sell them there - if not, we’ll have to visit Knockturn Alley.”

    “That’s the bad part of the Alley, right?” She had mentioned it before.

    “It was when I was at Hogwarts. It might have changed - but I doubt it,” she replied.

    He nodded. And noted, to himself, that she hadn’t asked her friends if Knockturn Alley had changed. So she didn’t want them to know about this. If they had to go there in the first place, of course.

    As they walked down the Alley, Ron had the impression that there were more people out and about than before - and many of them not wearing robes or cloaks, but trousers and coats. Not very magical, in his opinion. Until they passed the entrance to a wider than normal side alley. The area here was practically deserted. “Knockturn Alley, I presume,” he said.

    “Yes.”

    He glanced at it. It looked a little darker. Dingier. And the shops he could see didn’t have bright displays - most had sturdy walls and small, dark windows. “Not exactly inviting.”

    “It isn’t. Most people live there because they can’t live and work elsewhere - for a variety of reasons.”

    Most of them bad, he guessed. But they had reached the Apothecary, and he dropped the subject.

    *****​

    Diagon Alley, London, Wizarding World, December 23rd, 2005

    “...and that’ll be fifty Galleons, ten Sickles and five Knuts,” the sales clerk - or should that be saleswitch? - announced after ringing up Hermione’s purchases up on an antique-looking register.

    Ron watched her as Hermione pulled out her purse. No question about whether they’d pay with a card or cheque, of course - Wizarding Britain didn’t use such means of payment. Cash only. Coins only, to be precise.

    As Hermione started to count out the Galleons, the other witch’s eyebrows rose slightly - was she surprised that they had the means? Fifty Galleons was a hefty sum, Ron had found out, even though the economy of Wizarding Britain was so different that just going by the exchange rate at Gringotts would be misleading.

    And they weren’t wearing expensive clothes - not even robes. Just comfortable casual muggle clothes.

    “...and five Knuts,” Hermione finished counting out the sum and pushed it over to the clerk. “Here.”

    “Thank you! Please come again!” the other witch replied with all the honesty of a used car salesman who had suddenly realised that a customer was actually not wasting their time by asking for the most expensive vehicles.

    “These should last us a while,” Hermione told her with a nod. “But I’ll be sure to return once I need to buy more.”

    As soon as they had left the Apothecary, her polite smile vanished. “Fat chance of that,” she muttered. “I’ll brew instead of buying.”

    “Oh?”

    She glanced at him. “I was among the best in our year in Potions. Their stock isn’t bad, but I could do better.”

    “I wasn’t doubting you,” he explained. “Just wondering why you bought the potions in the first place.”

    “Because I don’t have the laboratory needed to brew potions yet, and brewing in bulk would take a significant amount of time - probably longer than Grindelwald’s patience would last.” She snorted and added: “And I’m a little out of practice, too, of course.”

    He nodded - that made sense. “So, we’ve got all we need to fulfil our part of the bargain?”

    “Not quite.” She frowned as she tapped her beaded bag. “The potions here will take care of most of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s ailments, but in order to significantly extend their life expectancy, they need potions that the Apothecary doesn’t sell.”

    He raised his eyebrows. “That sounds a little illegal.”

    “Yes.” She frowned again. “Ricklestorf’s Restoration Potion. It’s restricted because brewing it requires very rare ingredients - St Mungo’s is supposed to have the whole supply available to treat certain dark curses that sap a victim’s health.”

    “And that potion can rejuvenate people?”

    “Technically, no,” she told him. “But it’ll strengthen your body for a while - with rapidly diminishing returns as you take further doses.”

    “I can see how that would lead to restricting its sale.” Rich people would pay a fortune. And they’d need even more of the potion for even smaller gains...

    “Yes. Any vial is worth a fortune on the black market. As are the ingredients.”

    “That means Knockturn Alley.”

    She nodded. “I wouldn’t trust anyone there to sell us a genuine potion - they don’t know us, so they won’t fear retribution should they cheat us, and they might even suspect us of being undercover Aurors on a sting operation. But the ingredients? I should be able to buy them. At least the ones I’m missing.”

    “You have such rare ingredients already?”

    “Phoenix feathers,” she replied. “Dumbledore’s - the Headmaster’s - companion, Fawkes, was a phoenix and so we had a supply of them. To sell them for gold, if we needed the money.”

    “Ah.” He imagined a phoenix getting plucked, and had to suppress a chuckle. You’d need gloves made from asbestos, probably. Or a whole suit.

    They had returned to the entrance to Knockturn Alley by now, and Hermione entered it without the slightest hesitation. Ron gritted his teeth as he walked with her. Hags. Vampires. And Dark wizards. Its reputation might be overblown, but he doubted that it was by much. And while he hadn’t been here before, he had been in similar areas in his world. Places where you didn’t want to be recognised as a plainclothes police officer unless you had backup.

    This Alley felt the same, just populated with wizards and witches. He blinked as he noticed something. They were now a little further in, where the locals were walking. And all of them were wearing robes. Very much unlike Diagon Alley, where the majority of the passers-by had worn normal clothes.

    And judging by the looks of the locals he could spot, they were all aware of the fact that Ron and Hermione weren’t wearing robes. And their sunglasses probably weren’t very inconspicuous, either.

    Damn.

    “The locals don’t like us,” he muttered.

    “I noticed,” she replied, glancing around, judging by the way her head moved. “Fortunately, they don’t have to like us to do business with us.”

    Ron met the eyes of either an ugly witch or a not so ugly hag, and they glared at each other for a moment before the woman bared her teeth - yellow, and rather sharper than a human’s - and looked away. Had she been able to see through his shades, or had she just been posturing? He couldn’t tell. “I think some of them disagree with you,” he commented, fighting the urge to draw his gun and fire a few warning shots.

    “We’re not going to do business with them - just with a shop or two.” Hermione scoffed. “And they would sell their own mother for enough gold.”

    “Well, you’re the expert,” Ron replied, staring at a wizard in a dark cloak who quickly entered a side alley.

    “I haven’t been here in over seven years,” she said. “But some things don’t change.”

    That didn’t sound as reassuring as she probably had intended, Ron noted. “We could leave and return later with better disguises,” he suggested. And probably a few more people.

    “No, it’s not far, and I doubt that they’ll start anything in the middle of the afternoon. They didn’t dare in my time, and I doubt that the DMLE has grown less effective since then.”

    He couldn’t resist. “‘In my time’?”

    She snorted and said with a grin: “It’s a figure of speech.”

    “Commonly used by old people.”

    “Sometimes I feel old,” she replied.

    He didn’t have an answer for that, and before he could think of one, she turned. “Let’s go. The sooner we’re done, the sooner we’re gone.”

    “Alright.”

    He still couldn’t help feeling as if he would be shot - cursed - in the back at any moment, and then they reached a decrepit-looking shop. The windows were so dirty, you couldn’t look inside - something the owner must have intended. And there was a faint stench in the air...

    “‘Penny’s Potions’,” Hermione said. “Not as infamous as ‘Borgin and Burkes’, but still a shady shop.”

    “I’m feeling better and better about this,” Ron commented. It was as bad as the time he and Harry had posed as criminals for a meeting with drug smugglers. He hoped that this would end better.

    She pressed her lips together and pushed the door open. “Ew.”

    The smell - no, the stench - hit Ron’s nose a moment later, and he couldn’t help groaning in response.

    “Oh, sorry!” Hermione flicked her wand, and the stench disappeared. “Bubble-Head Charm,” she said, “it’ll keep gases and smells out.”

    “Thank you.” That would have been incredibly useful several times in his and Harry’s career. But if they hadn’t smelled the petrol, they’d probably have died in that affair in the East End.

    He shook his head and focused on their surroundings. The store was, once again, not any bigger inside, and crammed full of shelves - there wasn’t enough room to push a shopping cart through. And the things on the shelves…

    “Penny’s the best when it comes to animal parts,” Hermione told him.

    “Indeed, I am,” a raspy voice said from the curtain behind the counter. “And I see my reputation has even spread to muggleborns.” The cloth slid to the side and a hag appeared, yellow teeth bared in a crooked smile. “Welcome to my shop.”

    Ron felt a shudder run down his spine. The hag looked as trustworthy as a drug-addicted politician.

    “Good afternoon,” Hermione replied. Ron merely nodded.

    “What brings the likes of you to such a disreputable shop? Are you, perhaps, looking for the kind of goods that aren’t sold elsewhere? Exotic and rare goods?”

    “Yes,” Hermione told her. “I need a unicorn horn.”

    “It’s illegal to sell anything but unicorn hair, and even that’s restricted to licensed specialists and wandmakers,” Penny told them.

    “The 1981 Magical Creatures Preservation Act only forbade the sale of newly harvested body parts. Unicorn horns aren’t perishable goods. I’m looking for a horn harvested before it became illegal to do so.”

    Penny cackled. “That was changed four years ago, dearie. It’s now illegal to sell any unicorn parts no matter their age. Been out of touch for a while, hm?”

    “I left during the war,” Hermione told her.

    “Really.” The hag’s lips drew back in a toothy, leering smile that made Ron shudder.

    “Yes.”

    Hermione and the hag stared at each other for a moment.

    “And you’re willing to buy one anyway,” Penny said.

    Hermione cocked her head and shrugged.

    “Restricted goods are very expensive. If there were any for sale, that is,” the hag added.

    “Yes.” Hermione patted her beaded bag. “Money is no object.”

    The hag’s smile turned into a sneer as she stared at them, misshapen eyes flicking back and forth between Ron and Hermione. “You know what they say about offers that you can’t refuse?”

    “No?” Hermione cocked her head again.

    “They’re usually poisoned,” Penny hissed. “Get out! I’m not selling to Auror stooges!” she yelled.

    Ron drew a hissing breath. This was bad.

    “We’re not Aurors!” Hermione protested, taking a step forward.

    “Let’s leave,” Ron told her. “Now.”

    “What?” She turned to him.

    “I said get out, Aurors!” Penny growled. “I don’t do business with your kind!”

    “Look, we just need…”

    “Let’s go!” Ron hissed. “Now!”

    “But…” Hermione looked at the hag once more, then shook her head. “We’re going.”

    “And don’t come back!” the hag yelled after them.

    “That could’ve gone better,” Hermione said once they were outside.

    “Yes,” he replied. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

    “What do you… oh.”

    There were four people staring at them, two in the entrance to a side alley across the street and one at each of the two corners on either side of them. He might not be an expert on magic, but he knew an ambush by thugs when he saw one.

    She grabbed his arm. “Let’s just apparate!”

    Ron braced himself, but nothing happened.

    “Anti-Apparition Jinx,” Hermione muttered - and Ron saw their wands come out from under the ruffians’ robes.

    “Watch out!” he yelled, throwing himself to the side a moment before a red spell hit the wall behind him. He rolled over his shoulder and drew his gun as he came up. The wizard at the corner was still moving his wand around when Ron shot him twice in the chest. The man stared at him, mouth open as his wand fell from his fingers, and he started to collapse.

    Then the entrance to the side alley across the street vanished in a cloud of smoke and dust. Rock splinters and a few cobblestones landed near him.

    Damn. Ron turned - there was a fourth thug at the other corner. But the ruffian there was gaping at them, his wand pointing at the ground. Ron aimed. “Drop your wand!” he yelled.

    Before the man could react, a red spell hit him, and he dropped to the ground.

    Ron looked around. As the dust was settling, he could see that the entrance to the side alley had been turned into a small crater. One body was at the foot of the wall to the left, under a red smear. The other was a torn mess at the top of the crater.

    No more threats.

    Hermione shook her head. “Let me dispel the Anti-Apparition Jinx. Then we’ll be off.” In a lower voice, she added: “This is a disaster.”

    He nodded in agreement. This was a fine mess.

    Then he heard footsteps. Someone was running towards them. Two figures came round the corner, wands up. Aurors.

    He aimed at them out of reflex but didn’t shoot. They were police officers.

    One of them started to yell: “Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Drop…”

    A red spell hit her, and she dropped in mid-sentence. The other Auror dodged to the side.

    Then Hermione grabbed Ron’s arm, and he felt as if he were squeezed through a narrow metal pipe.

    *****​

    She saw the Auror patrol pass below them, down in the alley. They were looking left and right as they walked, but not up.

    “Not the best and brightest, are they?” Ron commented.

    She glared at him - they were on the roof, three stories up, but they could still be overheard.

    “Oh, calm down, Hermione,” he went on in a whisper. “Those are rookies. They can barely hold their wand the right way. Tonks told us about the recruitment drive, remember?”

    She did. But that had been a year ago. Those below might have more experience. And they were now working for the enemy - the Ministry had been taken over.

    And, she thought as she clenched her teeth, many of their employees had been quite eager to enforce the latest anti-muggleborn laws. They could take them out easily - they outnumbered the patrol, and they could cut across the roofs to ambush them, as soon as Harry’s conjured snake got back with the book they needed. A few minutes at most, and Voldemort would lose two wands.

    But those Aurors could also be among those who weren’t bigots, just too ignorant or stupid to realise what had happened. Hermione didn’t think the Death Eaters would send their most eager recruits to Knockturn Alley to patrol in the middle of the night - that was usually reserved for those who’d earned their superiors' displeasure.

    On the other hand, stupid or not, they would enforce those evil laws either way. And it wouldn’t help any of the muggleborns they might catch that these Aurors weren’t bigots.

    She pressed her lips together. No, there was no reason not to attack these two. “Once Harry’s done, we’ll take them out. Two fewer wands in the Dark Lord’s service.”

    Ron seemed surprised for a moment before he nodded. “Right.”

    *****​
     
    Scopas, Higure, wichajster and 5 others like this.
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 41: The Meetings
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 41: The Meetings

    Black Lake, Scotland, Wizarding World, December 23rd, 2005

    They appeared at a familiar spot in the woods - right in front of the portal. Ron quickly checked their surroundings before he reloaded and holstered his pistol. “That could’ve gone better,” he said.

    “If we’d let the Aurors arrest us, they’d have seen through our disguises,” Hermione replied. She looked shaken, though - and she hadn’t holstered her wand. “The hag would’ve told them all about my attempt to buy a unicorn horn. She was probably in league with the thugs.”

    He frowned. The ambush had seemed a little too organised for a mere spur-of-the-moment assault. On the other hand… “But would she have sent them after us if she thought that we were undercover Aurors?”

    He saw her press her lips together and frown as well: She agreed with his reasoning but didn’t like being wrong. “It wasn’t an assassination attempt, at least - if it had been, they would’ve struck as soon as we left the store. And they also would’ve brought more attackers, I think.”

    “A random robbery?” That didn’t quite sound believable.

    “I think they might’ve been motivated by more than just greed,” Hermione said.

    Ah. “Purebloods attacking muggleborns?”

    “It’s possible. I’m sure you noticed that there were no obvious muggleborns in the Alley.”

    “Yes.” And the Alley had seemed poor. Such areas could easily breed violence against foreigners - or muggleborns, in this case. “We should’ve asked around before entering the Alley,” he said.

    She pursed her lips. “I should’ve considered that things might have changed. In my time, there were as many muggleborns and half-bloods as there were purebloods in Knockturn Alley. More, once the bigots took power. But if I had asked Harry and Ron, they would’ve realised that I planned to go there.”

    “They’ll know that we were responsible,” he told her. “A man and a woman, one of them using a pistol? I don’t think there’ll be many possible suspects.”

    “We were in disguise,” she retorted.

    “That won’t help. It might be enough that they can’t prove it, but they’ll know.” Ron and Harry’s counterparts weren’t stupid.

    She closed her eyes and winced. “That’s exactly what I wanted to avoid. I just wanted to brew the potion and conclude our deal, so we don’t owe Dumbledore and Grindelwald anything any more.”

    “Without your friends knowing the details of what you were planning to do.”

    “Yes,” she spat, then wiped her eyes.

    He pretended not to notice. After a moment, he asked: “How do you think they’ll react?”

    She bit her lower lip. “I don’t know. They agreed to hide the portal from the Ministry, but this...”

    “Well, we didn’t kill or hurt an Auror. We killed the robbers, though.”

    “That was self-defence,” she replied. With a scoff, she added: “And I don’t think that the Ministry cares a lot about the lives of Knockturn Alley criminals. It didn’t before, and it doesn’t seem as if things have changed - just the sort of people trapped in the Alley.”

    “But you don’t know for sure.”

    “No, I don’t,” she admitted with a sigh.

    “Well, I think we’ll need to discuss this with the others. Including Dumbledore.”

    He didn’t like it, but it seemed like it was the best choice. And Ron’s world was outside the jurisdiction of Wizarding Britain.

    Hermione nodded in agreement.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 23rd, 2005

    “...and then we came here,” Hermione finished. “I’ve got the potions that will deal with most of your health issues, but without the unicorn horn, I cannot brew the potion that will effectively prolong your life.”

    Dumbledore ran a hand over his short beard. “That’s an unfortunate complication. Although I don’t think there’s been too much harm done. You were attacked by a group of criminals and defended yourselves. And, still caught up in the fighting, you panicked and overreacted when the Aurors arrived. I’m sure your friends will understand.”

    It was a good story. A judge would buy it, Ron was sure - especially after all they had gone through.

    Hermione, though, didn’t seem convinced. “It’s not about the fight. It’s about buying restricted ingredients. I should have gone to France for this. Or Prussia.”

    “Prussia?” Grindelwald spoke up.

    “Magical Prussia. Magical Germany was never united,” she explained.

    “Oh. Does that mean we never lost the Eastern Territories? East Prussia, Silesia, Posen?” The old man looked even more eager than he had when Hermione had mentioned the potion she wanted to brew.

    “Not to my knowledge. Although a lot of those areas never became part of Prussia, either - Magical Poland was never partitioned,” Hermione replied.

    “Oh.” Grindelwald frowned at that, while, or so it seemed, Dumbledore hid a grin.

    “While German geography is fascinating, I think we should focus on the matter at hand,” the old spymaster suggested.

    “Yes,” Ron agreed. “How do we handle our magical counterparts?” They needed a plan before the wizards and witches arrived at the portal.

    “I don’t want to lie to my friends,” Hermione said. “And I think they’ll understand.”

    “But you’re not certain,” Grindelwald countered. “And you’d prefer to not tell them everything, wouldn’t you?”

    “Our deal doesn’t concern them,” she replied.

    “I don’t know if they would agree,” Dumbledore commented. “You did attempt to break the law, as you said.”

    Hermione winced, then pressed her lips together. “We did worse during the war.”

    “But you’re not at war any more. At least your friends aren’t.” Dumbledore steepled his fingers and put his elbows on the table.

    “They’ll understand,” Hermione repeated herself.

    Ron hoped that she was correct.

    “We should close the portal until we’re ready,” Grindelwald suggested. “Otherwise, Miss Lovegood will once again attempt to ‘show our world to her twin’, as she put it.”

    “She did?” Ron blinked. Last he’d heard, Luna was with wizarding Luna visiting the latter’s father - and their menagerie.

    “Miss Lovegood is rather spontaneous,” Dumbledore said, “and her counterpart seems to be cut from the same cloth. Although I managed to convince her that she should coordinate any extended trips with Dr Granger, if only to be sure they won’t encounter unanticipated difficulties.”

    That wouldn’t stop Luna forever, of course.

    Hermione shook her head. “We can’t close the portal. They might overreact to that.”

    “Or move in to secure the site,” Dumbledore added. “We have to assume that they are aware of the portal’s location by now. I think we should act preemptively and contact your friends.”

    Hermione sighed.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Wizarding World, December 23rd, 2005

    Compared to the last time they had met Hermione’s friends, the situation felt noticeably tenser, Ron couldn’t help but notice as they approached the meeting spot. Hermione was a bundle of nerves, he could tell. And Ron himself wondered what he’d do if things went from bad to worse, and it came to a fight. Could he shoot Hermione’s friends? Could Harry, who was covering them from the next cove?

    Hell, this reminded him of the set-up of that disastrous meeting with Bones in the park. Bloody hell - now he was nervous as well.

    “It’s a nice afternoon for a stroll, wouldn’t you say? Despite the occasion, I mean.”

    Dumbledore, of course, wasn’t - or was able to hide whatever he really felt. The old man acted as if this was, at most, a pleasant detour. Well, that would only help them. Or so Ron hoped.

    “No one’s hiding under a Disillusionment Charm,” Hermione whispered as they approached the small cove. “Although I wouldn’t be able to detect Harry if he uses his Cloak.”

    “Right.” So they couldn’t be sure that they were alone. Ron put his hand near his gun again.

    “We’re a little early, I believe,” Dumbledore told them, making a show of checking the time.

    “Better early than late,” Hermione replied. She looked around, then waved her wand, and a bench appeared out of nowhere. Conjured.

    “Thank you, Dr Granger,” Dumbledore said. “I’m not as spry as I was ten years ago.”

    Hermione’s curt nod mirrored Ron’s reaction - that reminder was a little too blunt for Dumbledore. Which meant, of course, that the old man had wanted it to be blunt, but Ron couldn’t think of a reason for that.

    Before he found one, he heard the sound of Apparition, and two men - wizarding Harry and wizarding Ron - appeared about ten yards away from them.

    “Harry. Ron,” Hermione greeted them.

    Ron suppressed a wince - it was obvious that she was feeling guilty.

    And judging by the way the two wizards nodded, they had noticed. “Hermione,” wizarding Harry said, “you wanted to talk to us.”

    “Yes.” She took a deep breath. “We got into a fight in Knockturn Alley.”

    “We gathered,” Ron’s counterpart told her. “I mean, we didn’t know, but… A couple, man with a firearm, woman with a wand, taking down four thugs and two Aurors?”

    “One Auror,” Ron pointed out, “and that was an accident.”

    “An accident?” wizarding Harry asked, raising his eyebrows.

    Ron shrugged. “Reflex - we’d just been ambushed, then someone suddenly appeared screaming at us…”

    “I panicked,” Hermione said. “But I only stunned her.”

    “Right. And why did you panic?” wizarding Harry asked.

    “We were in a fight,” Ron told him, narrowing his eyes.

    “It didn’t have anything to do with the attempt to buy a unicorn horn?” the wizard asked.

    “We need one,” Hermione explained. “And it’s not as if we’re about to go poach one, now are we?”

    “Of course not,” wizarding Ron said, though he sounded less than a hundred per cent convinced, at least to Ron.

    “And why do you need a unicorn horn?” wizarding Harry asked.

    “Ricklestorf’s Restoration Potion,” Hermione replied.

    “But that requires… Oh. You still have the feathers,” wizarding Ron blurted out.

    “Yes.”

    Wizarding Harry frowned. “That’s a restricted potion.”

    “I’m not planning to brew it in Britain,” Hermione replied. “It’s not restricted in the other world.”

    “But you were planning to buy a unicorn horn here - which is also restricted.”

    Hermione pressed her lips together, which was answer enough.

    “I believe we’ll find alternate sources,” Dumbledore cut in. “Dr Granger was merely a little too hasty in her attempt to provide me with assistance.”

    Both wizards looked at the old man. “Ah,” wizarding Ron said. “You put her up to this.”

    Well, he wasn’t entirely wrong.

    Hermione, of course, disagreed. “No!” she retorted sharply. “I offered them the potion.”

    “So they’d keep your families safe and help you build the portal.” Wizarding Harry shook his head.

    “I would say that it was an added incentive,” Dumbledore said - his smile hadn’t changed at all. “Although there was never any question of letting the Russians get their hands on her.”

    And didn’t that have a nasty alternative meaning?

    “I made the offer,” Hermione repeated herself, glaring at just about everyone except Ron. “We made a deal.”

    “You didn’t mention the potion when we talked about this,” wizarding Ron pointed out. “Just some Healing.” Hermione didn’t reply. She was pressing her lips together and frowning. “You could’ve asked us for help,” he went on in a softer voice.

    “You’re Aurors. You’re not supposed to break the law,” she told them.

    “And you’re supposed to?” Wizarding Harry frowned like Harry did, Ron noticed, not for the first time.

    “I don’t work for the Ministry.”

    “We kind of expect everyone to abide by the law,” wizarding Ron pointed out, “not just Ministry employees. Although they were usually the worst criminals, to be fair.”

    “We did worse than buy restricted ingredients during the war.”

    “Attempting to buy ingredients,” Ron corrected her. Everyone but Dumbledore frowned at him, so he shrugged. If his counterpart could crack a bad joke, then so could he.

    “But there isn’t a war going on any more,” wizarding Harry said.

    “Not in Wizarding Britain, perhaps.” Hermione scoffed. “But we were engaged in a veritable war in the other world. Dozens were killed in the last attack.”

    “Well, officially, it was an attack by ‘foreign criminals’, but no one with the necessary clearance would doubt that it was an attack on British soil by Russian military assets,” Dumbledore commented. “Some would even call that an invasion, I believe.”

    In response, both wizards glared at the old man. “And you need that potion for your war?” Wizarding Ron scoffed.

    “I’m a very old man,” Dumbledore told him. “As is my partner. If we die, the Grangers and Weasleys, as well as Mr Black and Mr Potter, will be left without support and protection. More importantly, though, I have no doubt that Her Majesty's Government would quickly take control of the portal - or attempt to do so - for a variety of reasons and purposes, not all of them beneficial to other worlds.”

    “Even with that potion, you won’t live forever,” wizarding Harry pointed out.

    “But long enough to arrange things so that our deaths won’t cause too much of a problem for Dr Granger and her extended interdimensional family.” The old spymaster’s smile widened. “What amounts to buying an antique made of ivory is a rather small affair in comparison, is it not?”

    Well, some members of Greenpeace probably considered it a crime against humanity, or so Ron had been told by Percy. “And I don’t really believe that all the unicorn horns St Mungo’s uses for their stocks of that potion were that old,” Ron added. Wizards or muggles, that wasn’t how such things worked.

    The two wizards didn’t like hearing that - Ron could tell from the glares aimed at him and Dumbledore. “You could’ve asked us for help, Hermione! It’s not as if we’d arrest you!” his counterpart exclaimed.

    “I’m sorry. I just...” She shook her head again, and Ron heard her sigh. “I just wanted to finish this quickly, without dragging you into it.”

    Wizarding Harry and wizarding Ron exchanged a glance and a wince, Ron noted. He saw his counterpart open his mouth, then hesitate before saying: “You don’t have to do everything by yourself, you know? I’m sure we’ve told you that before.”

    Hermione nodded, sighing again. “I know. Just… I’m sorry.”

    And they hugged. All three of them. He could see the tension drain out of Hermione - she must have been really worried about her friends’ anger over this, Ron realised.

    But he also realised, seeing their glares over Hermione’s shoulder, that they blamed Dumbledore for this.

    And Ron himself.

    *****​

    “So I’ll have to travel to Prussia,” Hermione said a few minutes later, seated on another conjured bench. “Berlin’s Alte Strasse has a reputation as a trade hub for Eastern Europe.”

    “What about France?” Ron asked.

    “They passed stricter laws since the war,” wizarding Ron said. “Prussia’s your best bet - well, Scandinavia might work as well, but they don’t like us right now.”

    Right. They had mentioned the werewolf issue, Ron remembered.

    “And it’s all legal, as long as you don’t brew the potion in Britain,” wizarding Harry added.

    Ron glared at the wizard. Hermione already knew that she had messed up. Well, so had Ron himself.

    “Yes.”

    “Prussia… Gellert would love to visit, for old time’s sake.” Dumbledore was looking out at the lake as he spoke, Ron noted.

    “Out of the question!” wizarding Ron snapped. “If anyone recognises you - either of you - it’ll be an international incident!”

    “Really? Our respective counterparts are both dead, are they not?”

    “Grindelwald still has followers in Prussia,” wizarding Harry said. “If a rumour starts that he is alive - or has returned from death, like Voldemort…”

    “Some idiot would try to start a revolution,” Ron’s counterpart finished for his friend.

    “Ah. That’s unfortunate.” Dumbledore sighed.

    Even though Hermione looked surprised herself, Ron was sure that the old man had been aware of that already. Somehow.

    Ron shrugged and changed the subject. “The Aurors were quite quick to show up,” he said. “I thought Knockturn Alley wasn’t patrolled that often.” At least that had been Hermione’s experience, as she had shared with him.

    “Oh.” His counterpart shrugged. “Someone called them when they saw the thugs following you. They didn’t want a dead muggleborn in the alley - that tends to lead to more trouble for everyone there since the Aurors aren’t gentle when investigating a possible hate crime.”

    Ah. Ron nodded - he knew what the wizard meant. And… he glanced to his side. Yes, Hermione didn’t like it. At all. He knew her well enough to judge that frown’s meaning.

    She didn’t voice her thoughts about that, though. “We still need a discreet Healer, too. The potions I bought will deal with a lot of ailments, but not everything.”

    “Yeah,” wizarding Ron said with a frown, “if they recognise their patients…”

    “Well, I wouldn’t expect many to recognise Gellert, seeing as his counterpart was left isolated in prison for decades until he died, but I fear my own counterpart was a little too much of a public figure for the same obscurity,” Dumbledore said.

    “Don’t count on Grindelwald not being recognised,” wizarding Harry retorted. “Prussia published pictures of his body in an attempt to disprove the rumour that he had escaped his prison following Dumbledore’s death.”

    Hermione frowned. “I didn’t know that.”

    “It happened after the war,” the wizard told her. “The rumours had been going around for some time.”

    “Oh.”

    “Yeah.” Ron’s counterpart nodded. “In some countries, our victory over Voldemort was seen as a successful revolution against the Ministry. That caused some trouble.”

    “Technically, it was a successful insurgency - we were fighting the Ministry,” Hermione pointed out. “In any case, do you know a Healer we can trust not to betray us? Or who would not mind being obliviated?”

    “The latter would be preferable,” Dumbledore added. “Everyone has a price, after all, and you cannot betray a secret you do not know.”

    “We can’t exactly ask someone if they mind being obliviated,” wizarding Ron said, shaking his head. “That’s the same as telling them that we have something to hide, and since your return will be announced tomorrow…”

    “...they’ll make the connection.” Hermione frowned, biting her lower lip.

    Ron nodded. They would already be under scrutiny, and if rumours about shady dealings started up...

    “Do you need their consent?” Dumbledore asked, raising his eyebrows. “I didn’t think that that was a requirement when you removed a muggle’s memory.”

    Both wizards frowned at the old man, who merely kept smiling politely. “It’s legal when done to protect the Statute of Secrecy,” wizarding Harry said. “But there are no laws that cover doing so to protect the secret of the portal.”

    “Well, I was tasked by Her Majesty’s Government to protect the secrets of my country using any and all means at my disposal, if necessary.” Dumbledore cocked his head slightly to the side. “While I have since retired from service, an argument could be made that, absent other options, even as a civilian, I have to do what has to be done to protect my country. And that certainly covers keeping news of a potential invasion route from spreading to potential invaders.”

    Wizarding Harry and wizarding Ron blinked at the old spymaster. “That’s…” Ron’s counterpart started, then shook his head. “...twisted.”

    “The end doesn’t justify the means,” wizarding Harry added with a glare.

    “Unless it involves the Statute of Secrecy?” Dumbledore’s smile grew a little wider.

    “It seems only fair to respect another world’s laws,” Ron couldn’t help pointing out.

    “Planning to obliviate someone without their consent after they have healed you isn’t remotely fair,” wizarding Harry retorted.

    “It’s also for their own protection,” Hermione added. “But, in any case, do you have a better solution?”

    “We could ask Madam Pomfrey,” wizarding Ron suggested. “She knows her stuff and she won’t betray you.”

    “Unless forced to by magic or other means,” Dumbledore said. “If you trust her, then others will know that she might be your favourite Healer, and plan accordingly.”

    “She’s at Hogwarts - the school provides good protection,” wizarding Harry replied.

    “Unless a Dark Lord like Voldemort wants to break in,” wizarding Ron said. His friend frowned at him, and he shrugged. “Hey - just being fair.”

    Wizarding Harry shook his head. “Aren’t you planning to cast the Fidelius Charm anyway?” he asked Hermione.

    The Fidelius Charm?

    “It’s an option I’ve been considering,” she replied. “But it’s a little more complicated than merely hiding your home. I don’t even know if it works across dimensions.” She looked at Ron and Dumbledore. “The Fidelius Charm protects a secret - absolutely. It’s most often used to hide a house from anyone not privy to the secret.”

    “Saved my family during the war,” wizarding Ron added. “The Death Eaters couldn’t find them. Dad told me that one time they were standing right by the fence - didn’t even hear the twins’ taunts.”

    “That sounds like a very useful spell,” Dumbledore commented. He was likely wondering, just as Ron was, why they hadn’t heard of it before.

    “It’s not without its drawbacks,” Hermione told him. She sounded a little defensive. “Apart from not knowing whether it works across dimensions, the wording of the secret is very important, and the spell is very difficult to cast - especially if it’s a secret known by many people. And once you have cast it, only one person can reveal the secret to others. They can write it down, so you can show it to others, but that creates potential problems of its own. And if they die, everyone in the know becomes a Secret Keeper.”

    It didn’t look like Dumbledore considered those hindrances to be significant drawbacks. Ron wasn’t sure if he disagreed with that stance.

    But he was more concerned about the fact that Hermione hadn’t told him about this spell.

    “But even if we can use the Fidelius Charm, we still need a Healer now. And I don’t want more people to know about the portal,” she went on. “Not even Madam Pomfrey.”

    “You can’t lure a Healer through the portal and then obliviate them,” wizarding Harry stated.

    “But it would be fine if it were a muggle?” Hermione retorted. “You could hire a muggle healer to help a wizard, and then obliviate them afterwards?”

    Wizarding Ron and wizarding Harry exchanged a glance. They didn’t look happy. “That’s because of the Statute of Secrecy,” Ron’s counterpart replied. “You know how the ICW reacts if they think it’s threatened.”

    “I’m aware of that,” Hermione told him.

    For the next few seconds, no one said anything. Then Dumbledore spoke up: “I’m certain we’ll find a way to acquire the services we need without breaking any laws which you’re bound to enforce,” he said.

    “How?” wizarding Ron asked.

    “We’re still working on that.” Butter wouldn’t melt in Dumbledore’s mouth.

    That didn’t improve the mood of the two wizards.

    “So…” Ron’s counterpart broke another brief period of silence. “What now?”

    “Since it’s getting a little chilly, I think we should return home. If Dr Granger has the time, I think this would be a good opportunity to inform the Grangers of our world, as well as the Weasleys, of recent events.” The old spymaster inclined his head. “It would lift their spirits in time for Christmas, I believe.”

    Hermione jerked a little. “Of course - we haven’t contacted them yet because of the surveillance, but if I apparate and use a Disillusionment Charm…”

    “You’ll have to be very careful, though, to avoid being spotted by any of the observers,” Dumbledore pointed out.

    “Of course.”

    “So… we’ll see you tomorrow then?” wizarding Harry asked.

    “Yes,” Hermione replied.

    “Just don’t get into another fight with an Auror patrol, alright?” Wizarding Ron’s laugh at his own joke sounded a little forced to Ron. But it served to further ease the tension.

    After a brief exchange of nods with Ron and Dumbledore, and another hug from Hermione, the wizards disapparated.

    And Hermione sighed. “That could’ve gone better.”

    “It could’ve gone worse, too,” Ron pointed out, then tapped his radio. “We’re done, Harry.”

    “I figured,” his friend replied. “About time - it’s getting cold here.”

    “Yes. Let’s go back to the portal,” Ron told him.

    Before the wizards returned and spotted Harry.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 23rd, 2005

    “So you think we should hire a Prussian Healer?” Hermione asked as soon as they had stepped through the portal.

    “I do believe that’s a solution that will satisfy everyone,” Dumbledore replied.

    “Harry and Ron won’t like it.”

    “But I think they’ll accept it. After all, obliviating a German wizard on foreign soil doesn’t break any British laws, does it?”

    “No, it doesn’t. But it’s a technicality at best,” Hermione said.

    Ron shook his head. “It’s more than that. It’s a question of jurisdiction. If they care about enforcing the law, they have to care about the limits of their jurisdiction.”

    “Exactly,” Dumbledore agreed. “And I do believe that they don’t want to prosecute you, so they shouldn’t have a problem with such a solution.”

    “It’s not just a question of jurisdiction,” Hermione retorted. “It’s also a question of trust. I broke their trust by going into Knockturn Alley behind their backs. And now this...”

    “I don’t think you’re expected to report everything you do to them,” Ron told her, refraining from adding a more pointed comment.

    “I’m also not expected to stun Aurors,” she retorted.

    “That was an accident, as we have established,” Dumbledore cut in.

    Harry snorted at that, shaking his head.

    “If they want to have a say in what you do, they should help you,” Ron said. “More than they are doing.”

    She sighed. “We’re friends, not business partners. It’s not supposed to be like that.”

    “You haven’t seen each other for seven years. It’ll take some time to grow used to each other once more,” Dumbledore said. “However, we should now plan how to meet your respective families without alerting our friends from MI5.”

    *****​

    Ottery St Mary, Devon, Britain, December 23rd, 2005

    “Your parents haven’t arrived yet,” Ron said, looking at the patch of grass in front of his parents’ home that served as a parking space for visitors.

    “It’ll take them another hour to reach Devon,” Hermione said, lowering her binoculars. “I don’t see any surveillance.”

    “It’s MI5. You wouldn’t,” Ron told her. “They’re good.”

    “Better than CI5?”

    He frowned as he glanced at her. “Hey now!” She kept looking at him. Almost smirking. “I’d say in the same league,” he said. “Depending on who got tasked with it, of course.”

    “Ah.” She sounded a little doubtful.

    He shrugged. “They’re in the house on that small hill there.”

    “How do you know?”

    “It’s the only house with a good view of ours,” he explained, “and it’s for rent. And close enough that whoever’s there has a chance to intervene in time, should anyone try to attack the house.”

    “A chance.”

    He shrugged again. “Mum and Dad won’t want them inside the house. And their home is quite safe - Harry and I did some work on the security system. Panic room and everything.”

    “Oh. And they won’t be under surveillance inside?”

    “Not unless MI5’s people sneaked in and planted some bugs.” Which they might have done - Ron had done that sort of thing on similar assignments. “Dad should be checking for them, but…” Dad might not have the same gear as CI5 - or Phoenix Gruppe’s special department - had.

    “So we need to check for bugs, too, before we reveal ourselves.” Hermione sighed. “I could use a spell, but that would be noticed if there were any bugs, since it would cut out all sound.”

    I’ll look for bugs before you reveal us,” he corrected her with a grin.

    She rolled her eyes at that but had no comeback. They couldn’t just apparate into the house, even if Hermione had been there before. So sneaking in it was. “I feel like a teenager again,” he said, chuckling. “Sneaking home after having stayed out too late and hoping I don’t get caught.”

    “As long as you didn’t borrow your father’s car to take a trip to Little Whinging to break out Harry, you should be fine.”

    His counterpart had done that? Ron shook his head. “Sirius would have helped us sneak around. In fact, he did so several times.” Which was the reason Mum and Sirius didn’t get on so well with each other.

    “I can imagine.”

    He didn’t have to look at her to know she was pursing her lips. Smirking, he nodded. “Let’s go then. Invisible, we can easily reach the back door without anyone being any the wiser.” And he knew the codes to get them through the security.

    “Alright.” She raised her wand, and, for a brief moment, Ron felt as if he were drenched in cold liquid. Then he realised that he couldn’t see his own body any more.

    Neat.

    Another wave and Hermione vanished as well. A little groping around and then they were holding hands so they wouldn’t lose each other while making their way to his parents’ home. Well, Hermione could use a spell to track him, but he would be lost. And he appreciated the gesture.

    They made good time to the edge of the patch of land that went with the house - and where Ron and Harry had installed the first sensor. He pulled out a remote and entered the code without being able to see the pad. Which was easy until he started thinking about it. He managed anyway. “Alright.”

    He led her through the garden to the back door, where he pulled his phone out and texted Dad.

    Go out back for a few minutes, and leave the door open behind you.

    To Dad’s credit, he didn’t hesitate. Ron heard him call out: “I’ll just get a bit of air before the Grangers arrive, dear.”

    Half a minute later, the back door swung open, and Dad stepped out on to the porch.

    Ron let him pass them, then pulled Hermione with him as they slipped inside. He let go of her as soon as they were indoors and started to scan for bugs.

    He didn’t find any bugs, and Dad had lowered the blinds, so MI5 wouldn’t be able to listen in by using a laser microphone aimed at the windows. Good enough for Ron.

    He returned to the living room, where Dad was sitting in his favourite armchair, and spoke up: “We should be safe from being overheard.”

    Dad jerked, startled, and looked around. “Ron?”

    “Yes. We’re invisible,” Ron replied.

    “Disillusioned,” Hermione corrected him, startling Dad once more.

    “Ron?” Mum arrived in the doorway, still drying her hands with a towel.

    “Yes,” he said. “Hermione?”

    “Finite Incantatem.”

    He didn’t feel anything as the spell faded - if not for his parents’ gasps, he would have had to look at himself to notice the change.

    Hermione faded into view without any incantation, and the grin on her face confirmed his suspicion that she had spoken aloud for effect. She probably hadn’t forgotten his parents’ scepticism at her claims when they had met for the first time.

    “Dear Lord,” Dad said, staring at them. “I take it that you managed to open your portal?”

    Well, Ron thought as he noticed Hermione’s brief surprise, Dad’s always been quick on the uptake.

    “Yes, we did,” she confirmed. “We’ve already met with my friends and family.” With a sigh, she added: “All this time, they thought I was dead.”

    “And they thought you were an impostor.” Ron nodded. “Our first meeting was a little tricky.”

    “‘Tricky’?” Dad raised his eyebrows.

    “Ron, you didn’t!” Mum was less discreet.

    “I didn’t shoot anyone,” he replied, a little annoyed. “And neither did Harry. Or anyone else.”

    Now Hermione was raising her eyebrows as well.

    He rolled his eyes. “I once happened upon a shooting just before a family dinner and didn’t want to spoil the mood by telling them about it. It delayed my arrival until dessert, you know.”

    “Ah.” Apparently she shared his parents’ opinion of that particular decision.

    “Anyway,” he went on, “the Ministry will reveal Hermione’s return tomorrow. It’ll be a big event.”

    “My name and reputation as a dead heroine have apparently been used to quite some effect in wizarding politics,” Hermione elaborated with a frown.

    “Oh no!” Mum shook her head. “Against your will?”

    “That remains to be seen,” Hermione replied. “I haven’t researched the matter yet.”

    “Ah.”

    Ron’s parents exchanged a glance, then Dad spoke up: “So, what are your plans now?” He looked from Hermione to Ron and back, to emphasise what he meant.

    “Sorting out matters in my world and here,” Hermione replied, “so you and my… the Grangers can stop living under police protection.”

    Ron had heard less evasive answers from criminals in interrogations, but Dad nodded.

    Mum, of course, didn’t. “Where will you be living?”

    “That hasn’t been decided yet. With Apparition and the portal, I can easily commute to work from anywhere in either Britain.”

    Mum seemed ready to push her, but Dad spoke up before she could: “Your family here would be hurt if you cut off all contact with them.”

    “I know,” Hermione replied. “I’m not going to do that.” She sounded a little too annoyed, though, for it to be quite that simple.

    And they hadn’t even touched on their own relationship. Ron and Hermione’s, that was.

    “I’ll go and fetch the others now.”

    *****​

    “Gabriel! Ellen!” Hemione greeted the Grangers - who weren’t carrying any surveillance devices, Ron had checked - with more exuberance than usual, at least in his opinion, as she hugged them. Guilty conscience, perhaps? He added another subject to their upcoming talk.

    “Hermione!” Mrs Granger smiled at her with obvious relief.

    “How are you doing?” Mr Granger asked with a similar expression to his wife's.

    “Oh, I’m doing well,” Hermione replied. “We’ve opened the portal. Look!” She drew her wand and demonstrated a few transfigurations - on his family’s best china. Fortunately, Mum managed to control her temper and didn’t ruin the moment for the Grangers, but Ron caught her checking every cup and plate afterwards - and replacing them with new pieces.

    Well, he couldn’t fault her for that. Not after seeing a teacup turn into a mouse in the middle of the table. He foresaw a lot of disinfectant being used on the furniture, too. Later, of course, so she wouldn’t appear rude.

    The Grangers, though, were properly appreciative of the demonstration of magic. And Dad was taking notes even though he had seen a similar demonstration - although one that hadn’t involved their china - half an hour before. The others had seen magic - more impressive magic - before, though even Ginny, who liked to play the experienced traveller thanks to her job, was beaming at the tiny horses prancing on the table. Surprisingly, Luna didn’t try to slip one of the transfigured plates into her pocket. Unsurprisingly, Sirius made an off-colour joke.

    Which meant that dinner started on a relaxed note, and they managed to avoid ruining the mood for the rest of the evening by avoiding any difficult subjects.

    Until it was time to return.

    Hermione turned towards Ron, but he raised his hand. “Let’s take the others back, first,” he told her.

    She blinked and frowned, then nodded. “Alright.”

    It didn’t take her long to transport the other four to the Black Lake, and then it was his turn.

    The first Apparition took them to the Forest of Dean, and Ron released Hermione’s hand as soon as they appeared in a familiar clearing.

    “So?” Hermione looked at him, and despite the darkness, he knew that she was frowning.

    He craned his neck and looked up at the dark sky. “It’s a clear night.”

    After a moment’s hesitation, she agreed. “Yes, it is.”

    They both looked at the stars for a few more seconds before he said: “You’re planning to use the Fidelius Charm to make everyone forget about the portal.”

    “Yes. Well, not everyone. Just most people. It’s probably the best way to protect everyone - if no one knows there’s a portal, then there’s no reason to attack our families for leverage. But it requires a lot of preparation - the spell’s very difficult to cast, and if the secret’s badly worded, it can fail. Or worse.”

    “How long have you been planning to do that?”

    He couldn’t see enough of her face to catch her expression - his eyes hadn’t yet adjusted enough to the darkness - but he caught her growing tension. “I didn’t want to raise anyone’s hopes without a solid plan. And I still don’t have a solid plan. There’s so much else to do…”

    He reached out and squeezed her shoulder, then pulled her into a hug. He wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to do everything by herself, but when it came to that sort of magic, she was pretty much on her own.

    “It’s really peaceful here.”

    *****​

    “You know, it’s really peaceful here,” Ron said. “You wouldn’t think there was a war going on.”

    She looked up from her book - a treatise on protection charms. He was lying on his back in the grass, hands behind his head, and staring at the sky. “Aren’t you cold?” There was no snow on the ground in the Forest of Dean yet, but it was chilly, especially at night.

    “It’s not that cold. And it’s dry.”

    “Ah.” Well, it was. Still…

    “You know, I liked looking at the stars a lot more before I had to learn all those charts for Astronomy.” He sighed. “The exams took away all the fun.”

    She pressed her lips together so she wouldn’t comment on his scholastic endeavours.

    “I bet you knew the star charts before you were old enough to stay up long enough to actually see the night sky, right?”

    She huffed at the presumption, which made him chuckle. After a moment, she joined in. “I wasn’t very interested in the stars,” she told him a few moments later, "not until I saw Star Trek and Doctor Who.”

    “Who?”

    Now it was her turn to giggle until he joined her.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2020
    Scopas, Higure, Osserumb and 5 others like this.
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 42: The Press
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 42: The Press

    Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Britain, December 23rd, 2005

    A flashback was Ron’s first thought when he saw her grow still. But then she sighed. Probably just a memory, then - this was an important place for her, after all. And for her friends. Especially wizarding Ron.

    “Are you alright?” he asked.

    She nodded. “Yes. Yes.” Another sigh followed. “Just…” She shrugged.

    “Yes.”

    “Ron said the same thing, here. That it was really peaceful, you know?”

    “Ah.” Despite the darkness hiding his expression, Ron refrained from frowning. “Well, we are similar,” he said with forced lightness. More similar, in fact, than he would have liked.

    “Actually, your differences outweigh your similarities, at least for me.”

    “Oh?” He cocked his head. “Really?”

    “Yes. And not just because you aren’t a wizard. You’re seven years older than the Ron I remember. And you’ve lived different lives.”

    “We’re both police officers. Sort of,” he pointed out.

    “He’s changed since I… left,” she said. “He’s married and a father. And more… I don’t know, cynical? The Ron I knew wouldn’t have gone along with all of that…” She trailed off.

    “Corruption? Abuse of power? Or just the usual way a government is run?”

    He didn’t have to see her face to know she was frowning. “You’re cynical as well. Perhaps you are more similar than I thought.”

    He winced at the barb. “If he’s been an Auror for seven years, he’s experienced enough to know no one and nothing is perfect.” Idealists didn’t last in the police, as Moody used to tell them. You either adapted or quit.

    “I guess. It’s still…” Another sigh.

    “You didn’t see him change slowly. And you didn’t have to adapt to the reality of politics yourself.”

    “There’s a difference between flexible and corrupt,” she retorted.

    “Do you think that your friends are corrupt?”

    “No…” She shook her head. “Not really corrupt. But I expected better of them than just… going along with how things are done.”

    “Do you think the Ministry is corrupt?”

    “Of course it is,” she snapped. “It’s merely the degree of corruption of which I’m not yet quite certain.”

    She might have spent a little too much time with Luna. Ron almost snorted at his thought. “Luna would agree,” he said.

    Hermione huffed in response. “She’s an idealist.”

    “And you aren’t?” he asked before he could stop himself.

    “I think my actions and the agreements I have made show that I’m more of a realist.”

    “Luna also gets along with Dumbledore,” Ron pointed out.

    “For now,” she replied. “But she’s too much of an idealist. And she seems to be focused on her counterpart.”

    And wasn’t that a scary thought. “Wizarding Luna hasn’t visited our world yet, has she?”

    “I don’t think so, I’d expect Dumbledore to inform me if there’s a witch loose in Britain since I’m the only possible counter. And we’ve taken measures to detect disillusioned wizards or witches coming through the portal. Pressure plates and other sensors that wouldn’t be fooled by a Disillusionment Charm.”

    “Good. That should…” Oh no. She wouldn’t… He grimaced. “How common is Shrinking Solution?”

    “She wouldn’t… of course she would!” She grabbed his arm. “We need to return at once.”

    A moment later, he felt the increasingly familiar yet still unsettling sensation of being pushed through a narrow pipe. Then they reappeared in their room at the resort.

    Hermione stormed out at once, and Ron had to rush to catch up to her before she reached Luna’s room.

    “Luna?” She knocked on the door, then tried to open it. It was locked. “Luna?”

    “She’s asleep. We can ask her in the morning,” Ron told her. “Don’t wake her up; it’s been a long day.”

    Why was Hermione looking at him like that?

    “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered, then waved her wand.

    And Ron blinked. Why had he… “She didn’t!”

    “A Muggle-Repelling Charm on the door. Clever.” Hermione said through clenched teeth. She pointed her wand at the door, flicked it and the door swung open.

    Inside it looked as if Luna were in her bed, sleeping, but another wave of Hermione’s wand and the blonde head turned into a teddy bear.

    Ron winced. “I should have known something was off when she didn’t try to stash one of your miniature horses in her pocket. She must have been keeping a shrunken Luna in there.”

    “And now we have a hacker and a witch loose in Britain,” Hermione stated.

    “And if she only wanted Xenophon to meet her counterpart, she wouldn’t have needed to go to these lengths,” Ron said. Luna’s father hadn’t attended the dinner at Ron’s parents’ ‘for security reasons’, but they could’ve visited him without any problems. “Did she say anything that might give us a hint about her plans?”

    Hermione shook her head. “Nothing that you don’t already know.”

    He could try calling her phone, but Luna would have ‘gone off the grid’ for this. And Ron didn’t really want to alert Dumbledore to this incident. “She’ll be back before the morning,” he said. “Or she wouldn’t have gone to the effort of setting all of this up.”

    “And then we’ll have words,” Hermione said, looking grim.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, December 24th, 2005

    Hermione’s Intruder Charm went off a little after seven in the morning. Ron opened the door a moment later and caught Luna in the hallway. “Good morning.”

    “Oh. Good morning!” She beamed at him, though he knew her well enough to tell that it was a little forced.

    “Luna? Can you come in for a moment?” Hermione said from behind him.

    “Oh… sure?” She tilted her head slightly. “What’s this about… oh.” She must have noticed when she entered the area of the privacy charm Hermione had cast.

    “Good morning, Luna,” Hermione said. “And good morning, Luna,” she added with a pointed look at the pockets of Luna’s hoodie.

    “She’s not in there,” Luna replied.

    “Where is she then?” Ron asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned back against the door.

    A tiny head popped up from the back of her jeans, followed by a tiny wave.

    “She cast an Extension Charm on your back pocket?” Hermione blinked.

    “Yes,” Luna nodded with a smile. “That way, even if I’m searched or patted down, she’s completely safe!”

    “Yes!” wizarding Luna added in a surprisingly loud voice.

    “She also cast an Amplifying Charm,” Hermione told him.

    “Yes!”

    “Let’s take a seat, then,” Hermione said. She waved her wand at the table in the room, and a tiny armchair appeared on top of it. “Now, what were you thinking?”

    Wizarding Luna calmly - at least it looked like it; details were hard to make out at that size - took her seat while Luna replied: “We were thinking of the poor animals who are being slaughtered by callous humans.”

    For a moment, Ron worried that they had struck against slaughterhouses. If, somehow, all the meat had been turned into soybeans…

    “And what did you do?”

    “Nothing. Not yet,” Luna added. “We were just casing the joint.”

    Ron winced - he had been the one to teach her that expression.

    “Also scouting locations,” wizarding Luna added.

    “And what are you preparing to do?” Hermione asked through clenched teeth.

    “Did you forget? We want to save the endangered animals,” Luna said. “We told you that, didn’t we?”

    “You did, but didn’t we tell you that that would be problematic?” Hermione still hadn’t unclenched her jaw, or so it seemed.

    “You did. But it’s only problematic if you don’t plan and prepare properly,” wizarding Luna retorted.

    “Proper planning prevents piss poor performance,” Luna chimed in. “And we’ve already got most of it worked out.”

    “What did you work out?” Ron asked before Hermione lost her temper.

    “How to protect the animals, of course. We’re using a multi-pronged strategy,” Luna explained. That sounded like something Sirius would say - if he was trying to sound very serious and pompous. “Loss of habitat, poaching, pollution and vulnerability to diseases and invasive species, as well as a lack of genetic diversity, are the main causes for animals becoming extinct. We cannot address all of those equally well, but we figured out a strategy that should save many of the endangered species. Lack of genetic diversity is the easiest - once an animal’s numbers are on the rise, that solves itself.”

    “Yes!” wizarding Luna chimed in. “For many species, merely stopping the loss of their habitat will suffice. And that’s easy!”

    “Easy?” Ron asked.

    “Muggle-Repelling Charms,” wizarding Luna said. “They’ll keep out poachers and loggers and tourists, creating safe havens for all the animals!”

    “You would have to cast countless numbers of those spells,” Ron pointed out. Or so he thought - what exactly was the area of effect of that spell?

    “And it would be blatantly illegal,” Hermione hissed.

    Luna shook her head. “I’ve checked - there are no laws against using magic. In most cases, we’re just doing what the government would have done, were it not corrupt.”

    “Yes! As you told us, the Statute of Secrecy isn’t in effect in this world,” wizarding Luna added, “so we can do magic as we please. We’d still be discreet, of course - it makes it easier to keep muggles out of the preserves. For most preserves, we’re actually just enforcing the muggle laws - with magic.” The tiny Luna beamed at them.

    “Exactly,” Luna said, matching her counterpart’s expression. “It’s a huge project, but we’ll be able to do it if we apply ourselves. And it’ll cut into the profits of the corrupt corporations exploiting nature and nations - it’s a win-win solution!”

    “That’s not what… never mind!” Hermione shook her head. “Even if this were a possible solution to the problem of species becoming extinct, it wouldn’t change the fact that you betrayed our trust by going behind our backs!”

    “You didn’t say we weren’t allowed to do it,” Luna countered. “I would’ve remembered that. And we did it to protect you.”

    “Protect me?”

    “Plausible deniability,” Luna told her with a smile. “You can honestly claim you had no idea. Although now that’s not true any more.” She frowned, then smiled again. “I guess that means you’re now a co-conspirator!”

    “I’m not a co-conspirator!” Hermione objected at once.

    “Does that mean that you’ll report us to the Ministry?” wizarding Luna asked, sounding hurt.

    “What? No!”

    “Of course not!” Luna agreed with her. “We’re not doing anything Hermione hasn’t done herself. Or would do. We’re using magic to protect the innocent and right a wrong!”

    “What?” Hermione repeated herself. “That’s… it’s not like that.” She shook her head. “This is dangerous! If you use magic so blatantly, sooner or later, people like the Russians we fought will take notice.”

    “But they’re muggles,” wizarding Luna said, frowning. “How could they find us in the first place?”

    “The preserves we need to protect are far too large to let them prepare ambushes to catch us,” Luna added. “And even so, all we need to do is to fly around while disillusioned and cast a quick spell.” She beamed. “We tested it - I can fly the broom, leaving Luna free to cast.”

    “You tested it? Where?” Ron asked. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach. One which Hermione shared, judging by her expression.

    “Britain doesn’t have significant problems with poachers, and the national nature reserves are generally managed competently,” Hermione pointed out.

    And they were popular hiking spots as well.

    “The most significant problem with the national nature reserves is that there aren’t enough of them,” Luna retorted.

    “So we created a new one!” wizarding Luna added with the same grin Luna had worn when she told Ron about hacking into his school’s computers.

    “What did you do?” Hermione asked in a clipped tone.

    “We covered Malfoy’s land with Muggle-Repelling Charms,” wizarding Luna told her.

    “Yes!” Luna was also grinning now. “No one will be able to cut down the trees and bushes any more. Or hunt the poor foxes! Soon, nature will reclaim the entire area.”

    Ron blinked. “You locked Malfoy out of his own land?” That was… it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bloke! It looked like Luna hadn’t forgotten the insults Malfoy had levelled at her when she and Ron had been dating.

    “We saved the land that had had the misfortune of being claimed by such a disreputable and murderous family,” Luna corrected him. “Foxes and other animals have rights, too! And they lived there before the Malfoys came!”

    Ron laughed. The Malfoy’s vaunted estate... turning into wilderness. No more hunts for them!

    Hermione looked like she wanted to laugh as well, but managed to restrain herself. “You can’t just do that to any park you see - not everyone is as bad as the Malfoys. And many people depend on being able to work in such parks.”

    “But I can give you a list of other estates you can visit,” Ron added.

    “I’ve already made a list,” Luna said. “We’re hitting the Parkinsons next.”

    “Yes!” Wizarding Luna nodded emphatically. “The more people who start their own reserves, the more who will be convinced that it was their own idea!”

    Ron remembered how he had been affected by the charm and stopped smiling. As funny as imagining Malfoy losing his family’s renowned contest-winning park was, that kind of mental manipulation was… disturbing.

    “It might even start a trend,” Luna said. “That would be a very good thing - Britain needs more nature reserves and fewer pleasure parks for the upper class!”

    He looked at Hermione. She grimaced. “It sounds like it might work,” she said.

    “Yes! Hermione agrees!”

    “I didn’t say that!”

    “Well, I think it’s a good idea,” Ron said. Hermione gasped and glared at him. “Though it’ll keep you busy, won’t it?” She closed her mouth - she would have realised his point: As long as the Lunas were converting parks and estates into nature reserves, they wouldn’t do anything much more dangerous. Like messing with the government. Or with corporations - Luna maintained that they were one and the same past a thin veneer meant to fool the people.

    “I guess…” Hermione managed to say without scowling too much.

    “Great! Do you think we could start a competition among the upper classes for ‘biggest donation to charity’ as well?” Luna was beaming at them again.

    “What? No!”

    “Why not?” wizarding Luna asked. “They are very selfish, hoarding so much gold.”

    “Because…”

    “And they can spare some money!” Luna said. “And it’s better if they compete through donations than by buying overpriced luxury goods instead.”

    “It’s not the money that’s the issue,” Hermione retorted. “But rather that you would be magically controlling dozens of muggles. Robbing them of their free will. And that’s not right.”

    To Ron’s surprise, both Lunas seemed to take this argument to heart. Well, Luna was a huge proponent of personal freedom.

    “You’re right,” she said. “I didn’t consider that.”

    “But it would just be a Compulsion Charm or two…” wizarding Luna tried to argue.

    “No, no, Hermione’s right,” Luna told her. “It would be wrong to manipulate them with magic.” She nodded with a firm expression. “We’ll manipulate them with the power of the press instead! Like their pet journalists do to us!”

    *****​

    Ministry of Magic, Whitehall, London, Wizarding World, December 24th, 2005

    The entrance hall of the Ministry was impressive. Two stories high and large enough to contain a fountain that could double as a pool without feeling crowded. The design was old-fashioned, but then again, that would match a number of the British government’s buildings.

    “It’s just like I remember it,” Ron heard Hermione say. “Except for the statue, of course. It’s good that you didn’t just restore the old one, either.”

    Ah, the statue. It depicted a group of wizards, witches and creatures, from what Ron could tell. Made from golden metal, and set in the fountain. A little too gaudy for his taste, if he was honest.

    “Well, some people wanted to do that,” wizarding Ron told her. “Something about ‘restoring everything the Dark Lord destroyed to make a point’, but we shut that down.”

    “Thank you.” She was smiling at him as they walked past two red-robed Aurors. They greeted wizarding Ron, but didn’t stare at Ron or Hermione - their disguises were working, then.

    Wizarding Ron flicked his wand, and Ron heard a faint buzzing noise - a privacy charm if he wasn’t mistaken. “It was the least we could do. We also wanted the muggleborn witch to be a depiction of you, but they decided on generic figures,” the wizard went on.

    “What?” Hermione gasped. “Are you serious?”

    Wizarding Ron grinned at her. “No, just pulling your leg. You seemed nervous.”

    She rolled her eyes, and Ron refrained from glaring at his counterpart. “I haven’t exactly appeared in public for years - not since the Yule Ball.”

    “Ah, right.” Was wizarding Ron annoyed? He smiled before Ron could tell. “We got used to the circus after… you know.”

    “Yes.”

    “Don’t worry, the press will be nice. They know better than to send another Skeeter.” Wizarding Ron laughed.

    “I see.” Hermione’s smile was quite thin.

    “Well, they certainly can’t be worse than our press,” Ron added. “Bloody vultures were always hounding Ginny and Harry.” Before they had to hide, of course.

    Hermione glared at him. “At least they’re independent,” she said.

    “They aren’t, actually,” he told her as they approached a lift. Well, apart from the BBC, but the BBC had never bothered Ron’s family or friends. “Most of them are owned by Murdoch and his ilk.” Luna had shown him the figures.

    Her frown turned into a thin-lipped scowl at his retort. “That’s still better than sending reporters who have fallen out of favour to Azkaban.”

    “Hey, we don’t do that!” wizarding Ron protested.

    The lift’s doors opened before he or Hermione could add anything else, revealing Dawlish - no, wizarding Dawlish; he was wearing red robes.

    “Oh, hi, John,” Ron’s counterpart said after cancelling the privacy charm.

    “Morning, Ron!” The man looked at them, then back at Ron’s counterpart.

    Ron heard Hermione mutter something uncomplimentary under her breath as they stepped aside to let the Auror leave the cabin of the lift.

    “Special guests for Kingsley’s announcement,” wizarding Ron explained.

    “Ah, right. I’ll see you later, then - I’m part of the security detail for the press conference.”

    “Better you than I.”

    Dawlish laughed, but Ron caught him giving them another glance before the Auror turned and walked away.

    Hermione was still frowning as they entered the lift. “I hope he is more competent at providing security than he was at enforcing the law,” she spat. “Of course, his ineptitude was a boon when he was working for Umbridge.”

    “Oh, he’s alright,” wizarding Ron said and pushed a button - they were travelling down, Ron noticed. “He was one of the Aurors who left when Voldemort took over.” He shrugged. “Didn’t join the Order, but few enough did. He helped take back the Ministry, though.”

    “Ah.” Hermione sniffed.

    It was rather opportunistic. And it fit the Dawlish Ron knew, of course - the man was quick to notice the direction in which the wind was blowing. “Our Dawlish would hate having to work under us,” he commented.

    “Really?” His counterpart looked surprised. “Well, he certainly would like to be in charge, but that’s not going to happen unless Harry and I quit.” He grinned. “Killing Voldemort means something, after all. You’ll see that yourself.”

    “I can imagine,” Hermione said.

    “Though you aren’t planning to enter the Ministry, are you?”

    “Nothing is set in stone yet,” she replied. “There’s far too much to be sorted out before I can make any plans for the future.”

    “Ah, right.”

    They arrived at their floor, and the doors opened before anyone said anything else.

    Two more Aurors - young ones, though - were standing guard right outside the lift.

    “Trevor, Catherine.” Wizarding Ron nodded at them but didn’t stop to chat. He led Ron and Hermione straight down the hallway.

    “Kingsley remodelled,” she commented.

    “He had to - this is where the Death Eater sympathisers made their last stand,” wizarding Ron explained. “Wasn’t much left when we were done - we didn’t want to take any risks, so we blasted the entire floor to pieces, room by room. Messy, but we didn’t lose anyone... Hey, Penny!” he said as he opened the door to the Minister’s office.

    The witch sitting at the desk in the antechamber - Penelope Clearwater, according to the nameplate - frowned at him, then smiled at them. “Hermione! So good to see you again.”

    “Penelope! I almost didn’t recognise you,” Hermione returned the smile. “So… you and Percy?”

    “Yes.” For a moment, the witch’s smile grew even wider. “Go on in, Kingsley’s expecting you - and the schedule’s tight as it is.”

    “Alright, Penny!” wizarding Ron cheerfully replied.

    The witch frowned again.

    Ron shook his head as his counterpart opened the door to the Minister’s office.

    “Ah, right on time! As expected.” The Minister greeted them with a broad smile as he stood up behind his desk. He was wearing a suit, Ron noticed. Not the robes he had worn yesterday. “Good morning, Miss Granger, Mr Weasley. Ron.”

    “Good morning, Minister,” Hermione nodded in return. As did Ron.

    “Morning, Hermione. Ron.” Wizarding Harry smiled at them, though Ron noticed the smile dimming a little when the wizard nodded at him. He also hadn’t missed that Harry’s counterpart had been standing and facing them when they had opened the door.

    “Of course - Hermione wouldn’t let us be late,” wizarding Ron said, grinning. “So… how many in the Ministry are already aware of the news? Penny wasn’t surprised,” he commented with a frown.

    “As my personal secretary, she, of course, was informed,” the Minister replied.

    “And if Percy hadn’t told her, he’d have had trouble at home, I guess.” Wizarding Ron shrugged.

    “Quite. But I don’t think the news has spread beyond that,” the Minister said.

    “Only to Weasleys,” wizarding Ron remarked.

    “So… half the country?” Wizarding Harry smirked.

    Everyone chuckled at the weak joke.

    “I wouldn’t mind if we avoided a big spectacle,” Hermione said.

    “I’m afraid that will be impossible,” Shacklebolt told her. “Your return - your survival - is too important. It’ll be the talk of the whole country over the holidays.”

    “At least you can tell them that you’re booked solid with your family,” wizarding Ron said. “Once the invitations start arriving.”

    “Invitations? What invitations?” Hermione looked surprised.

    “To the various Christmas and New Year’s parties, of course,” wizarding Ron replied. “Everyone will want to invite you to theirs. You might even get an invitation to some Yule parties. Those are usually thrown by the pure-purebloods, but not inviting you would be seen as a snub. Harry charmed a quill so he doesn’t have to decline every invitation himself each year.”

    “Though I do hope you’ll attend the Ministry’s New Year’s Ball.” Shacklebolt was smiling widely, but Ron couldn’t help feeling that the Minister was being a little more serious than he wanted to appear. “It’s the biggest event of the season.”

    “All of us are going,” Ron’s counterpart added with a chuckle. “It’s like the Weasley-Potter New Year’s party.”

    “I see.” Hermione glanced at Ron, and he reached out to squeeze her hand. “I’m not certain if I’m up to such an event,” she said. “I’m still trying to get my bearings and reconnect with my parents and friends.”

    “Well, most of us will be at the party,” wizarding Ron replied. “As will most of our year. Those who survived, at least.”

    “Attending the party would be a way to reconnect with them in a more controlled manner,” the Minister added. “And appearing in public will also satisfy the demand, so to speak.”

    Wizarding Harry nodded. “People tend to respect your privacy a little more if you do that. Not all of them, of course, but it helps.”

    “I’m not the Girl Who Lived,” Hermione said. “I assume that this will blow over, anyway, once everyone realises that I’m not some...” She shrugged.

    “You might be surprised, Miss Granger.” The Minister smiled in a slightly patronising way, in Ron’s opinion.

    “In that case, I think I’m overdressed,” Hermione retorted with a toothy smile, running a hand over her deux-pièce. “I should have worn a ripped jumper and jeans, then, with some bloodstains, to fit the image.”

    Everyone laughed again, but it felt forced - at least to Ron.

    “You look perfect,” the Minister told her. “Very professional. You must have a good job in your muggle life.”

    “Thank you.” Hermione’s smile was rather lopsided. “I wish. With my missing past, I couldn’t have a career.”

    “Well, that’s no longer the case - every door’s open for you now.” The Minister turned to look at Ron. “Your presence will also draw attention, of course. The people love a good love story.”

    Ron shrugged. “I’ll be happy if people accept that I’m a mere muggle.”

    “Of course they will!”

    Wizarding Harry and Ron looked less optimistic. “You could stay in the background,” Ron’s counterpart said. “Keep a low profile for a bit, until the excitement’s faded.”

    “I don’t like to hide,” Ron told him. He wouldn’t let the wizards drive him away from Hermione. It might be smarter - less risk of someone seeing through his disguise - but, still… it would feel like giving up. “Besides, I’m a Weasley - that should count for something, shouldn’t it?”

    The surprised expression on his counterpart’s face almost made Ron laugh out loud.

    “Hello, everyone! Shouldn’t you be getting ready? The event is scheduled to begin in ten minutes!”

    What? That was Hermione’s voice, but…

    Ron turned and saw Hermione’s portrait beaming at them from where it had apparently ousted the usual resident in the painting behind the Minister’s desk.

    “What is it doing here?” Hermione addressed Shacklebolt.

    “I came to watch how you address a crowd, of course!” the portrait said in a far too cheery and far too Hermione-like voice. “So I can do the same when addressing the students at Hogwarts!”

    “What?”

    “I need to study you to be more like you. Observing you in different situations serves that purpose. Individual lessons would be preferred, of course, although they might also show more bias. Neutral observation does not suffer from that drawback.” The portrait nodded emphatically. “By combining both methods, I should be able to achieve my goal with the utmost efficiency.”

    Hermione glared at her wizarding friends. “Shouldn’t it be at Hogwarts?”

    “I often visit the Minister for Magic to give advice, although he doesn’t follow up on it as often as I’d expect. I suspect that is because I still haven’t managed to duplicate you to a sufficient degree.”

    “Don’t tell me that you let a portrait set policy!” Hermione blurted out.

    “Her input has proven quite valuable in the past,” Shacklebolt replied. “Listening to a different viewpoint rarely hurts before making a decision.”

    Especially if it also allowed the Minister to more readily use Hermione’s name. Ron smiled thinly.

    “Exactly,” the portrait said. “I love advising people.”

    “I bet,” Ron heard Hermione mumble.

    “But you really should now go,” the painting went on, “or you might be late.”

    “They won’t start without us,” wizarding Ron said.

    “That doesn’t mean you should make them wait. Quite the contrary, actually - with great power comes great responsibility.”

    “I never said that!” Hermione protested. “That’s from a comic book!”

    “That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong,” the portrait retorted. “You should separate the argument from the person making it, you know?”

    Hermione looked like she wanted to separate the portrait’s head from its neck. “It’s right, though,” she said through clenched teeth. “Let’s go!”

    “Of course I’m right! I’m your portrait.”

    As soon as they were inside the lift - and, presumably, away from any paintings - Hermione turned to stare at Shacklebolt and said: “‘A different point of view’? Portraits only say what they have been taught!”

    “Well, we did our best with her,” wizarding Ron replied. “She’s not you, but she’s not bad.”

    It. It’s a portrait. Not a living being,” Hermione corrected him.

    “Careful! That sounds like discrimination against the painted!” Wizarding Harry was smiling as he said it, but Hermione still glared at him.

    “Whatever. It seems I do need to teach the portrait better,” she said.

    “That’s an excellent idea,” the Minister agreed.

    “We’ll see.”

    The lift stopped, cutting off any further discussion of that or any other topic, and they stepped out into a hallway - not the Atrium, as Ron had expected, where the press conference, if the announcement deserved that title, would take place.

    “Please wait here until I call all of you,” Shacklebolt said. “We wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, now would we?” He flashed his broad smile again.

    Ron was quite sure that Hermione considered doing exactly that, but she nodded in agreement after a moment. “Alright.”

    “It won’t take long,” wizarding Ron told her, stretching a little. “Not like Fudge. That man could ramble.”

    “It was the least of his faults,” Hermione said. “I’m a little surprised Shacklebolt didn’t want to know what I’m planning to say,” she added after a moment.

    “He knows you wouldn’t respond well to any attempt to tell you what to say,” wizarding Harry said with a very familiar grin.

    “Ah. Did you tell him?”

    “Yes. Though as you saw, he’s familiar with your portrait,” the wizard told her.

    “Who isn’t me.” Hermione pursed her lips.

    “No, but she’s quite similar to you,” Ron’s counterpart said. At the glare he received, he added: “A little, at least. And she’s based on teenage you.”

    “Like based on a true story?” Ron asked, trying to defuse the growing tension.

    Hermione laughed. “More or less. At least you got the hair correct.”

    “We had to work for that - the painter tried to insist on a ‘more fitting hairstyle’,” wizarding Ron said.

    “And a more heroic bust, I bet.” Hermione shook her head with a rueful grin.

    “Well… yes,” wizarding Harry admitted. “But we put our foot down there as well.”

    “We wanted to remember you as we knew you, not as some…” wizarding Ron trailed off, gesturing.

    “...exaggerated portrait?” Hermione prompted.

    “Well, you were a right terror as a prefect,” he told her. “Not even Percy managed to keep Fred and George under control, but you did. Mostly.”

    “I just took my duties seriously,” Hermione replied in a slightly clipped tone.

    “Very seriously,” wizarding Harry said with a grin. “And we love you for it.”

    Before Ron could add a comment of his own, the door in front of them swung open. Showtime.

    He could hear Shacklebolt as they walked into the Atrium: “...and it is with great pleasure that I can announce that reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated. Hermione Granger is alive!”

    The Minister’s announcement, together with their - Hermione’s - appearance triggered an uproar and an old-fashioned flurry of flashbulbs.

    “Miss Granger!”

    “Hermione!”

    “HERMIONE!”

    Ron blinked. There was Luna in the first row, waving excitedly.

    “Granger!”

    “How did you survive?”

    “Miss Granger!”

    “What happened?”

    “Where did you spend the last seven years?”

    By the time they reached the podium where Shacklebolt was standing, Ron had fallen a step behind Hermione, who was flanked by her friends. This was her moment. Even though he could tell that she had to force herself to smile.

    “Please, please - calm down. Let Hermione speak, and your questions will be answered.”

    It took the Minister a little while to calm the crowd - there weren’t many journalists; the majority of the people present had to be Ministry employees. Perhaps visitors as well.

    As the Minister ceded her the spot behind the podium, Hermione cleared her throat and stepped up. “Thank you, Minister.” She nodded at him, then at the audience. “Good morning, everyone. Yes, I didn’t die in the Battle of Hogwarts, as you can see. However, I was struck by an unknown curse, and while I managed to escape, I lost my wand and my memory. And, in addition to that, due to a magical mishap involving Fiendfyre, I ended up a long way away from Hogwarts. It wasn’t until recently that I recovered my memory and remembered that I am a witch and not a muggle.”

    That started another, although a bit quieter, uproar, though Hermione kept talking: “As soon as I could manage to do so without a wand, I contacted my family and friends, who confirmed my identity.” She nodded, a little jerkily. “I’m back.”

    She held up a hand to stop the questions already being launched at her and looked over her shoulder at Ron. “To forestall any speculation and questions about my relationship status: I fell in love while I lived as a muggle. This is my partner, Ronald.” She held out her hand, and Ron joined her, smiling at the audience. “Yes, he’s a muggle.”

    “Hi, Ronald!” Luna yelled.

    “Alright, everyone,” Shacklebolt smoothly stepped up again. “We’re now open for a few questions, though keep in mind: Hermione returned very recently and is still readjusting to life in Wizarding Britain, not to mention reconnecting with all her friends and family who thought she’d died years ago.”

    “Miss Granger, why did it take you seven years to return?”

    Ron saw her smile slip a little more as she eyed the man who had asked that question.“You’re from the Daily Prophet, correct?”

    The wizard nodded. “Yes, Miss Granger. Hieronimus Smith.” He seemed pleased to have been recognised.

    “It figures.” Hermione inclined her head. “As I just mentioned, I had lost my memories. I didn’t recover them until very recently. I returned to Wizarding Britain as soon as I could, I assure you.”

    “Miss Granger! Delia Dirgebattle, Thaumaturgy Monthly. How did you recover your memory? There are several cases of Obliviation mishaps at St Mungo’s who might benefit from a new approach.”

    “I’m sorry, but as far as I can tell, it was accidental magic,” Hermione replied.

    “At your age?” The journalist adjusted her glasses and frowned.

    “It’s not unheard of, I believe.”

    “No, but generally, for an adult to use accidental magic the situation would have to be a very stressful one.”

    “No comment.”

    “Miss Granger! Selena Selwyn, Witch Weekly! How did your boyfriend react to the revelation of magic?”

    “Why don’t you ask him?” Hermione told the witch and looked at Ron.

    “Well, I was very surprised, but I think I’ve adjusted well.” Ron smiled and wrapped an arm around Hermione’s waist. “As long as we’re together everything’s great.”

    Selwyn beamed, though he saw a number of frowns.

    “Herbert Müller, Magischer Kurier. Why wasn’t your partner obliviated? The International Statute of Secrecy is very clear that knowledge of magic is to be restricted to close muggle family members. And while it’s common knowledge that many witches and wizards tell their fiancés before the wedding, it’s still illegal.”

    “He has magical relations, as we recently discovered,” Hermione retorted.

    “Could you elaborate on that?” the presumably German wizard asked.

    “I could, but then I’d have to obliviate you.” Hermione bared her teeth at him, which was probably the reason there wasn’t much laughter following her remark. “Next question - Luna?”

    “Luna Lovegood, The Quibbler! Ronald, which magical creature are you most looking forward to meeting?”

    He blinked. “Err… dragons, I guess.”

    “Katie Nott, Teen Witch Weekly. Mr Potter, what were your feelings on being reunited with your best friend?”

    “I’m very, very happy, of course. For years, we’ve mourned her, and now Hermione has returned to us, hale and whole. Words cannot express my feelings and my family’s feelings.”

    “Francine Dubois, Tribune Magique. Mr Weasley, how did your wife react to your old lover returning from death?”

    Well, Ron thought as wizarding Ron stepped up to reply with a smile that was very obviously fake, the difference between British and foreign wizarding journalists is quite clear.

    Strangely, though, he felt more at ease now - this was how he was used to the press behaving.

    *****​

    “Don’t touch anything, Miss Granger. The ointment needs a little time to work on your hands. That includes scratching.”

    “Yes, Madam Pomfrey,” she replied. She smiled despite the itching of her hands. The ointment had dulled the pain in her hands, and itches were a small price to pay for that relief. She had barely managed to keep from crying before Harry and Ron had rushed her out of the Great Hall. Undiluted Bubotuber pus - what sort of monster would send that to her? And in response to some blatantly made-up article in the Daily Prophet? Who would do such a thing?

    Most Slytherins, apparently, she answered her own question, if their mocking laughter at her misfortune was anything to go by.

    She gritted her teeth - in anger, not pain now. If that pus had hit her face she could have gone blind. If Madam Pomfrey hadn’t been so skilled, and so quick, her hands might have been ruined for weeks. And Malfoy and his ilk thought that was funny?

    She wished they had been drenched in the stuff. See if they still thought it was funny then!

    And the Daily Prophet’s editor, too! To let an article full of such filthy lies pass was a crime against journalism!

    As soon as she could use her hands again, she was going to write a letter to the Daily Prophet!

    *****​
     
    Scopas, Higure, Twilight666 and 5 others like this.
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 43: The Grangers
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 43: The Grangers

    Ministry of Magic, Whitehall, London, Wizarding World, December 24th, 2005

    “I’m sorry about the foreign correspondents,” the Minister said after the press conference - if you could call it that, what with the majority of the audience not having been journalists - had finally ended and they were back in his office. “But banning them from such events only makes them more hostile.”

    Ron could imagine how the tabloids back home would react to such measures.

    “It wasn’t as bad as I feared,” Hermione said. “I’m still not used to the fact that Skeeter’s now in prison and the Prophet is touting the party line.”

    “Well, the French and Germans are trying their best to replace Skeeter,” wizarding Ron commented. “Can’t do much about them, though. Fleur’s dad’s currently not too popular in France.”

    “Oh?” Hermione looked surprised.

    They hadn’t heard anything about that at the dinner at The Burrow. Nothing about international politics or Fleur’s family in France.

    “The measures we’ve taken to root out pureblood bigotry were not received well by the French or Prussians,” the Minister explained, “and the Delacours are seen as our allies.”

    “An obvious result of the archaic feudal system that is oppressing Magical France, where marriages are considered just another political tool. It’s a tragedy that the oppressive French pureblood regime is abusing the freedom of the press in Britain to attack the democratic - and clearly superior - system that granted that freedom in the first place.”

    Ron winced - Hermione’s portrait had returned.

    “Using the implied threat of Azkaban to keep the press in line isn’t exactly the best example of the freedom of the press,” Hermione retorted.

    “Freedom of the press doesn’t protect those inciting genocide or committing other crimes.” The portrait sniffed. “You should know that.”

    “I know that freedom of the press can be granted on paper while being all but removed in practice,” Hermione shot back. With a glance at the Minister, she added: “I don’t know how it plays out in Wizarding Britain, and I certainly don’t miss Skeeter’s articles, but a self-censoring newspaper isn’t a good thing.”

    “They’re merely showing more restraint and responsibility,” Shacklebolt said. “Both of which have been lacking before. They might be erring a little too much on the side of caution, but that’s not a bad thing at this point - we’re still reforming the Ministry and educating the people.”

    “And education is crucial for any country! Only a well-educated population will ensure prosperity and democracy!” the portrait added. “Hogwarts is crucial for our future, and everyone needs to do their part to ensure it’s the best school it can be.”

    Wizarding Harry and wizarding Ron had the grace to blush a little when Hermione glared at them, but Ron’s counterpart quickly grinned. “‘Or worse, expelled’?”

    It was Hermione’s turn to flush. “I was eleven!” she shot back. “I can’t believe you modelled my portrait on my pre-teen years!”

    “If you feel that I do not accurately reflect important aspects of yourself, I’m still eagerly awaiting your lessons!” the portrait stated, beaming at her.

    “Rest assured, as soon as I have the time, I will educate you thoroughly,” Hermione bit out.

    “In any case, we should have a period of grace over the holidays,” Shacklebolt said. “Although you might want to celebrate with your parents in a house that’s protected against eavesdropping spells and similar tactics.”

    “We will be completely safe from any magical interference,” Hermione said with a thin smile.

    That probably meant they’d celebrate in Ron’s world. But they still had to find a Healer and a unicorn horn. “And why do the Germans care about Britain?” Ron asked.

    “It’s mostly Prussia, although the smaller German countries tend to follow their lead, with the exception of Bavaria,” the Minister replied. “They tend to be contrarian, but they’re the only German country large enough to stand on their own.”

    “Both are ruled by purebloods and still scared and scarred from Grindelwald’s War,” wizarding Harry added. “They’re afraid of us starting another war.”

    The Minister nodded. “They wouldn’t admit that, of course. But apart from the Scandinavian feuds and the Balkan Troubles, both of which are low-intensity conflicts at best, Britain’s civil wars were the only notable conflicts in magical Europe since Grindelwald, and we’re considered somewhat extremist as a result.”

    “‘Extremist’?” Hermione blinked.

    “The Battle of Hogwarts involved a significant part of our population - the French called it a ‘levée en masse’ in the Tribune Magique. As a result, a number of European wizarding governments have a slightly skewed view of Wizarding Britain.” Shacklebolt spread his hands with a wry smile.

    “It didn’t help that a couple bigots fled the country before we could catch them and spread lies about us in the rest of Europe,” wizarding Ron added.

    “Indeed, there is a small but vocal community of British exiles, most of them in France and Prussia.” Shacklebolt nodded. “They aren’t a real threat, but they can cause ‘interesting’ diplomatic problems from time to time. Nothing we can’t handle, though.”

    Great. It might not be a problem for Wizarding Britain, but it seemed that they would have to be very careful while in Prussia.

    *****​

    Greenwich, London, Wizarding World, December 24th, 2005

    Ron checked himself again. His gun didn’t show. Not too much. It would be a little uncomfortable to sit with his pistol resting against the small of his back, but he was used to it.

    He wasn’t used to spending Christmas Eve with the Grangers.

    “My parents don’t expect you to show up in formal wear, you know.”

    He glanced to the side and saw Hermione shaking her head slightly. “I know,” he told her. “Formal wear would be easier, actually - I could hide my gun easily in a shoulder holster under a tailored jacket.”

    “They know that you’re a police officer and that you’re carrying a gun.”

    “That doesn’t mean they want to be reminded of that fact,” he retorted. Mum hadn’t been pleased the time she had spotted his gun during a family dinner. “Especially on Christmas Eve.”

    “I think they’re more concerned about the fact that they cannot celebrate Christmas in their own home because wizarding journalists would pester them.”

    “Maybe.” Ron wasn’t convinced. If he showed up on Christma Eve to tell his parents that they had to move out into a wizarding tent for the holidays and that it was all his fault…

    “Let’s go! There’s no one hiding under a Disillusionment Charm nearby.” Hermione grabbed his hand, and a moment later, they appeared in the Granger’s living room. “Mum? Dad?”

    “Hermione? Oh, you’re here already!” Mrs Granger stepped into the living room and hugged her, closely followed by Mr Granger, who didn’t bother removing his apron.

    Ron took a step back to give them more space and looked around. A small but nicely decorated tree in the corner, with real candles, not electric ones. A stack of presents underneath it. A miniature native scene that had to have been hand-crafted by Hermione as a child - it was, honestly, too crude to have been bought.

    Electric fireplace, not a real one. Vintage furniture - expensive, but not ostentatiously so. What one would expect from a pair of dentists. And… the ugliest and largest cat Ron had ever seen. A squashed face, bright orange, poofy fur, a tail like a bottle-brush and enough mass for two normal cats.

    And it was walking up to him, sniffing his shoes and trousers, before it tilted its head, looking confused. “Crookshanks, I presume,” he said. The cat made a questioning noise as if it had understood him.

    “Oh, Crookshanks! That’s not the Ron you know, that’s a new Ron!” Hermione exclaimed as she knelt down and picked the cat up. “I know it’s confusing, but you’ll learn to tell them apart quickly.”

    “Cats use their sense of smell, so he shouldn’t be confused,” Mrs Granger said. “Oh!” She gasped. “I’m terribly sorry, Ron - I just saw Hermione, and…”

    “Yes. Hello, Ron,” Mr Granger added.

    “It’s OK,” he told them. He probably would’ve reacted the same, in their place.

    “Crookshanks is a half-Kneazle, so you can’t just assume he’ll behave like a normal house cat. He’s much, much smarter than a cat!” Hermione claimed.

    “That’s probably why he’s confused,” Mr Granger replied.

    “Isn’t he adorable? He’s the best cat a girl could want!” Hermione held the cat up to Ron, and he found himself staring directly into its face.

    “He’s certainly unique,” Ron said.

    The cat sniffed in return.

    “He likes you!” Hermione announced. “Here, hold him - I’ll fetch his cage.”

    “His cage?” Mrs Granger raised her brows.

    “Oh… we need to move for the holidays.” Hermione had the grace to blush. “I was told that we can expect the press to hound us, otherwise, and the house isn’t safe.”

    “What?”

    “I’ve prepared a wizarding tent - it’s roomy and comfortable. I’m sorry about springing this on you,” Hermione said, “but the Ministry doesn’t seem to control the foreign press as they do the domestic. Not that they should control any of the media - but it would’ve come in handy today.”

    Mum and Dad would have been quite annoyed if faced with having something like that sprung on them, even if it had been their daughter who had just returned from the grave, but the Grangers seemed to take it in stride.

    Well, they were probably used to it.

    *****​

    Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Britain, Wizarding World, December 24th, 2005

    Christmas Eve with the Grangers was very different than what Ron was used to. For starters, it was far quieter. Granted, Hermione was talking a lot, but she was just one person - back home, there’d be three or four conversations going on at the same time, at the minimum. And the food was, not that Ron would say so, not as good as Mum’s. But then, few could cook as well as Ron’s mother, and it was still good.

    “...and then we left the Ministry.” Hermione shook her head. “It’s incredibly annoying that everyone seems to think that the current situation with the press is a good thing!”

    That, though, sounded very familiar. Percy complained about the press all the time.

    “Well,” Mr Granger said, “they probably think it’s better if they have control over the press than if someone else controls the media.” He frowned. “And knowing what the Prophet wrote in the past, I can’t exactly blame them,” he added, his frown deepening.

    “But just because they were wronged - as was I, I have to point out - doesn’t mean we should do the same to others!” Hermione protested. “What if there’s a new Minister with a new agenda? They could easily abuse the Prophet then! We need an independent press, not a Ministry mouthpiece!”

    “That’s easier said than done,” her father replied. “Even if the Ministry relinquishes control of the media de facto as well as de jure, you would need to ensure that the owners of the Daily Prophet and the Wizarding Wireless had enough integrity to avoid influencing their employees or censoring them. And from what I’ve heard over the years, that’s not the case.”

    Hermione scowled. “We have to start sometime, or things will never change. And the longer we wait, the longer it’ll take.”

    “But if you simply relinquish control and influence without ensuring that the groundwork for a truly free press has first been laid, things will get worse,” Mrs Granger told her. “And as long as the Prophet is the only newspaper, things are unlikely to improve.”

    “There’s also the Wizarding Wireless and The Quibbler,” Hermione retorted before sighing. “But yes, I understand the problem. That still doesn’t mean that it’s right to intimidate the press with the silent threat of sending journalists to Azkaban. And that is what’s happening! The people in the Ministry might only be joking, but I don’t think the British journalists are laughing!”

    She was talking about her friends, Ron realised. “I agree,” he said. “But what can you do? Short of founding and running another newspaper and leading by example?”

    Hermione seemed to actually seriously consider that, judging by her expression. Ron pressed his lips together - that wouldn’t be a good idea.

    “As long as you know that a newspaper has an agenda, it’s not that bad,” Mr Granger said. “You know you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Or a handful of salt, in some cases.”

    “Yes,” Ron agreed. “But sometimes, the agenda is just making as much profit as possible, no matter the consequences.” He remembered a few particularly unfair articles about Harry and Ginny in The Sun. “And that can cause a lot of harm.”

    “I’m aware of the problem of censorship, and how much influence someone controlling the press has,” Hermione all but snapped. “But things have to change - you heard the Minister’s offer: A cushy job for me and my support for him. That’s cronyism in action!”

    Mirs Granger shook her head. “Dear, you’re a brilliant young woman - as you’ve proven by getting a doctorate in quantum physics.”

    “And by managing to open a way to travel between universes,” Ron added. That was far more impressive, in his biased opinion.

    “Yes,” Hermione’s mother agreed, “however, I was about to say that you would have received that offer anyway. Or a similar one.”

    “I haven’t even taken my N.E.W.T.s!” Hermione exclaimed. “I don’t qualify for a position at the Ministry - certainly not a high-ranking one!”

    “But you’re more qualified than most others, aren’t you?” her father asked. “And you could take your N.E.W.T.s now, couldn’t you? If you wanted to work at the Ministry, that is.”

    “I don’t want to work at the Ministry.” She shook her head. “I have more important projects. And I don’t need to take my N.E.W.T.s. It would just be a vanity project.”

    “But you want to take your N.E.W.T.s,” Mrs Granger said with a faint smile.

    Hermione pouted at her. “Yes,” she forced out with a scowl. “It would… it would give me a sort of closure, I suppose, to formally finish my wizarding education. And since the portal uses both physics and magic, it would probably inspire more confidence if I didn’t just have a degree in quantum physics but also in magic.”

    “Inspire confidence in whom?” Ron couldn’t help asking. “Everyone who knows about the portal trusts your work, degree or no degree.” Well, perhaps not Grindelwald.

    “It’s the principle of the thing,” Hermione retorted.

    “And your pride,” her father added.

    “Yes,” she spat. “In any case, I don’t think we should talk about my supposed vanity when we have much more important problems to discuss. Such as the Ministry.”

    “And how the country will react to the revelation of your survival,” Ron added.

    “Yes.” She took a deep breath. “The way they built me up as a heroine, I’m almost afraid of how people will react when they find out what I’m really like. Although I suppose that not everyone buys into Ministry propaganda.”

    “Most did, though, didn’t they, when you were in school?” Ron asked. He remembered the stories she’d told about her fourth and fifth year.

    “Did they ever find out who sent you that acid letter?” Mrs Granger scowled.

    “Bubotuber pus,” Hermione corrected her, then blinked. “You know about that? I didn’t think I ever told you about it.”

    “Ron and Harry told us,” Mr Granger replied.

    “After your disappearance, the first year, we met a couple of times, started to work through our grief, shared stories about you,” Mrs Granger explained. “You kept a lot of secrets from us.” She didn’t sound angry, but Hermione flinched a little anyway, Ron noticed.

    “Wasn’t that my prerogative as a teenager?” she protested in an attempt to defend herself. “It’s not as if anyone tells their parents everything, do they?”

    “I think there’s a little difference between not telling your parents about a crush on your friend, or the drinks you had at a party, and fighting mass murderers,” Mr Granger retorted.

    “Or being libelled in the press, and attacked,” Mrs Granger added.

    “You would have known about that if you’d bought a subscription to the Daily Prophet, as I remember proposing to you,” Hermione replied with a pout.

    “We thought daily visits by owls would be a bit much,” Mr Granger said.

    “And I was sure Gabriel would accidentally leave an issue in our waiting room. And that would have caused problems for us.”

    Ron could see that. “Obliviations for everyone, I guess.”

    Mrs Granger nodded. “Along with accusations of endangering the Statute of Secrecy.”

    “It’s about the only law that all wizarding countries respect and try to enforce,” Hermione said with a huff.

    “Well, let’s just enjoy the evening, dear,” her father suggested after a moment. “We can discuss international politics - or should that be interdimensional politics these days? - tomorrow.”

    Ron chuckled at the joke. “Well, at my family’s Christmas dinner tomorrow, someone’s probably going to be talking about politics.” Likely Percy or Dad.

    “Ah.” Mr Granger nodded. “And our dimensional counterparts will be present as well?” He sounded a little… reserved?

    “Yes.” Hermione smiled weakly, then set her jaw. “They’re not you, but…”

    “You spent seven years with them. They became part of your family,” Mrs Granger said.

    “Yes. And they recently got confirmation that their daughter was killed,” Hermione told them. “They’ve known for years that she was most likely dead - the odds of any missing child reappearing after seven, much less fourteen, years are infinitesimal - but... “ She shrugged. “They’re very nice people. Well, they’re versions of you.”

    “It should be interesting to talk to them,” Mr Granger said before turning to look straight at Ron. “You’ve met your counterpart.”

    “Yes,” Ron said. “But we didn’t talk much.” He shrugged. “We’re a little more different than you and the Grangers.”

    “I can imagine,” Mrs Granger told him. “Though Ron changed a lot, after…”

    “Let’s just call it ‘after the war’,” Hermione said.

    “After the war.” Mrs Granger sighed. “He was so broken - more than we were, to be honest. We weren’t there with you, but he was. And he blamed himself. For not being there with you, for being too slow, for letting you go alone…” She shook her head. “It took a long time for him to pull himself together. Lavender helped him a lot.”

    Hermione didn’t quite scowl, but Ron caught her lips twisting a little. “Ah.” She paused for a moment before adding: “I’m happy for him.”

    “Well, I’m sure he’s happy for you,” Mr Granger said, smiling at both Hermione and Ron. “Though I can imagine that has to feel a little weird.”

    “Just a little,” Ron lied.

    *****​

    The air outside the tent was cold, but Ron didn’t mind. It helped to clear his head - he shouldn’t have helped Mr Granger - Gabriel - finish that third bottle. He took a few deep breaths. The air smelt clean, too.

    “Feeling better?”

    He turned to look at Hermione. “I wasn’t feeling bad. I just wanted some fresh air.” He gestured at the clearing around them.

    She nodded and stepped up to him. “Not sick of my parents, then?”

    “Of course not!” He shook his head. “At least they know what I’m talking about when I mention Doctor Who.”

    She giggled at that for some reason. He was about to comment when he heard something moving in the bushes. “Careful,” he snapped, drawing his gun.

    A moment later, she had her wand out and was standing about two yards away.

    Then a fat cat walked into the clearing.

    “Crookshanks!” Hermione exclaimed. “There you are! And did you bring me a present?”

    The animal walked up to her and dropped a dead mouse. How the tomcat had managed to catch anything when he made so much noise passing through the forest, Ron couldn’t fathom.

    “Thank you, Crookshanks! That’s a lovely mouse!”

    Ron bit back a sarcastic comment. Hermione was convinced the cat could understand humans, and, since it was a magical creature, he’d rather not risk antagonising it. Having your girlfriend’s pet hate you would put a strain on any relationship. Poor Percy could tell you all about it.

    And the cat wasn’t really bad. Ugly as sin, and wide enough to pass as a lynx if put on stilts, it hadn’t tried to scratch or bite him. And Hermione obviously adored it.

    As long as…

    Crookshanks jumping out of Hermione’s arms and hissing at the forest - no, at the sky - interrupted Ron’s thought. What the…?

    Out of the sky dropped shapes, multiple numbers of them. Silent as… owls in flight. A dozen of them, it seemed. And all headed towards Hermione.

    *****​

    “I can’t believe I forgot to ward myself against post owls! If I had made that mistake during the war...” Hermione shook her head almost violently, even though she was repeating herself.

    “You’re not in the war any more, dear.” Ellen seemed more amused than concerned, Ron noticed.

    “There could still be Death Eater remnants. Sleeper agents who weren’t activated during the war and went to ground. Bigots who were too young to fight, but are now adults. And purebloods who got radicalised by the Ministry’s policies since the war,” Hermione retorted.

    “Well, that’s why the letters won’t be opened until they’ve been checked for curses,” Ron commented. “Bill’s counterpart is a curse-breaker, isn’t he?”

    “Yes. We can meet him the day after Christmas,” she replied.

    He nodded. “They won’t expect prompt answers, will they?”

    “I hope not.”

    “Are you planning to answer them all?” Gabriel asked.

    Hermione rolled her eyes. “Only those I know from school, or if there’s a special reason. It’s not as if I was close to many people, and I’ve already met most of them.”

    Or they were dead. Killed in the war. Not a subject to dwell on, especially on Christmas Eve. “So… tomorrow, Weasley Christmas Dinner. Then the Other Weasley Family Dinner.” Ron shook his head with a grin. “I didn’t expect to get that sort of holiday schedule. Certainly not before marriage.”

    Hermione didn’t take the bait. “But you were together with Luna for a few years, weren’t you?”

    “More or less, yes. But Xenophon isn’t fond of big holiday dinners.” Not since Luna’s mum had died, at least as far as Ron knew. “So Luna just joined our family dinner, sometimes with Xenophon. Sometimes he was busy ‘undercover’ somewhere.” Or, as Ron suspected, but had never asked or confirmed, getting drunk.

    “Does that mean the Lovegoods will be there as well, tomorrow?” Ellen asked.

    “Probably,” Ron replied. Xenophon hadn’t seen Luna as often as usual during the last few months, after all. “I don’t know if the other Luna and her father will be present as well, though.”

    “I’m still not convinced that us showing up is a good idea,” Gabriel said. “Your whole family will be present, right?”

    “Yes.” Ron shook his head. They had gone over this before. “For months, they’ve been in danger because of us. It’s only fair to let them know why. And it will keep them from trying to investigate on their own.”

    “They cannot reveal what they don’t know,” the older man retorted.

    That was a little selfish. “But they’ll be much more cautious if they know what’s at stake.” Especially the twins. Although Ron had his - very private - doubts that even that would make them cautious enough.

    “And it’s only temporary, until I can figure out how to cast the Fidelius Charm,” Hermione added. “Not to mention that Luna probably has her own ideas about need to know.” She glanced at Ron, and he nodded in agreement.

    Luna had quite strong opinions on family and on information control.

    *****​

    Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Britain, December 25th, 2005

    “If we keep using this clearing, we might look into opening a portal here,” Ron commented as he watched Hermione put up the wizarding tent at the tree line.

    “Would that work?” Gabriel asked. “I would feel a little better if we didn’t have to go through Dumbledore’s underground base. It looks a little too much like a lair in a spy movie.”

    And it was under Dumbledore’s control.

    “We would need to remain here for a much longer time, and use a significant amount of magic, to achieve that,” Hermione said, flicking her wand in another spell that Ron didn’t recognise. “Although,” she added with a frown, “It might be different in this world - it might not require as much. I’ll have to test that, once I have the time.”

    Ron smiled - he had been joking, but if it worked…?

    “Alright, you can go in now, we should be safe from intruders. I’ll go fetch Gabriel and Ellen. Breakfast should be ready inside.”

    Ron’s smile slipped. This would be an awkward meeting. But it was better to have the meeting now, in relative privacy, than at his parents’ home. That would be a madhouse.

    “Couldn’t we have the meeting in Grimmauld Place?” Gabriel asked.

    “Ah.” That was a good question, actually. “This is more private,” Ron said. “More like a neutral place.” And one Hermione controlled, not anyone else.

    “Ah. Well, I can’t complain about the amenities. It’s just…” Hermione’s father looked around. “This is a really important location for her, isn’t it?”

    “Yes.” Ron nodded as he held up the tent flap for the Grangers. “Well, the clearing in your world is.”

    Gabriel and Ellen looked around one more time before they entered.

    “I don’t know if this is a good idea,” Ellen commented as they sat down on the couch in the tent’s living room.

    “You didn’t say anything against it.” Gabriel gave voice to what Ron was thinking.

    “I know. Hermione was convincing. And I understand the reasons for this. All of this. But… to meet another me?”

    “Another mother for Hermione?” Gabriel asked, which earned him a frown.

    At least they weren’t looking at Ron and asking him for his impressions about meeting his counterpart.

    Ron heard the tell-tale sound of Apparition before either of the Grangers said anything else.

    “And here we are!” Hermione announced with what sounded like forced cheer to Ron as he entered the tent and held up the flap.

    Then Mr and Mrs Granger entered, and things got really awkward. They weren’t dressed identically, Ron noted with relief as they slipped out of their jackets and coats, but both couples wore clothes of a very similar style.

    “Ah… hello.”

    “Hello.”

    “Hello, Mrs Granger… that sounds so odd.”

    “Yes, it does. Doesn’t it?”

    “Oh, for…” Hermione huffed. “Just talk like normal people!”

    “Having four people sharing two names does make holding a conversation a little difficult, love,” Gabriel pointed out.

    Mr Granger nodded in agreement. “Yes, love.”

    Then both men looked at each other. “Ah.”

    “Shall we eat breakfast first?” Ron cut in. That should defuse the situation a little.

    *****​

    Fifteen minutes later, when Gabriel and Mr Granger reached for the tea at the same time - again - he knew he had been wrong. Ellen and Mrs Granger were buttering their croissants in identical ways. They took their tea the same way, too. It was eerie.

    “I wonder if magic is the real reason the other Ron’s so different from me,” Ron said.

    “I don’t think so,” Hermione replied. “You lived different lives.” She looked at the others. “You, though, have experienced remarkably similar events in your lives. You went through a lot of the same, ah…” she trailed off. “You both worried about me going to fight terrorists, just at different times.”

    “Yes. And we both lost our daughter, or thought so,” Ellen added.

    Ron could feel the tension grow during the next few seconds of silence.

    “And you’re afraid of losing me again,” Hermione spoke up.

    A few more seconds of silence followed, then Mrs Granger replied: “To be honest, yes.”

    Her husband nodded. “You’ve returned to your world. To your magical world. Your parents.” He pressed his lips together for a moment. “Your friends.”

    “I didn’t mean just you, Gabriel, Ellen,” Hermione clarified, then looked at her parents.

    Gabriel took a deep breath. “Yes, we share this… sentiment.”

    “You mean fear, dear,” Ellen corrected him, then patted his hand.

    “How so?” Mr Granger asked. “It’s not as…” He shrugged.

    Ellen took a deep breath. “We were slowly losing Hermione to the magical world, and then the magical war, for years.”

    “I was needed!” Hermione protested. “We were at war, and we needed everyone!”

    “Dear, you started to spend your holidays with your friends, in the magical world, before there was a war,” Ellen replied. “And it only grew worse once Voldemort returned.”

    “But…” Hermione bit down on her lower lip. “I couldn’t let my friends down.”

    “We didn’t expect you to,” Gabriel told her. “But… you’ve always been passionate. About everything that caught your interest. Reading. School. Magic.”

    That fit her perfectly. Ron could imagine pre-teen Hermione going all-out about school.

    “And now you’ve got a new project,” the other man went on. “The portal.”

    “I’m working on solving the problems related to the portal,” Hermione retorted. “And we will solve them.”

    “Yes. But that doesn’t mean the portal will vanish.” Gabriel smiled, a little ruefully.

    “Of course not! It’s one of the most important discoveries in history!” Hermione shook her head. “It’s not just a means to an end!”

    “What they mean is that they expect you to spend a lot of your time working on the portal,” Mrs Granger said. “As do we, in fact.”

    “We’ve long since realised that you throw yourself fully into any task,” Mr Granger added. “And this is the biggest task of all.”

    “Apart from, perhaps, reforming the reformed Ministry,” Gabriel pointed out. “In any case… Yes, we fear that you’ll be so focused on your work, you won’t have much time for us. Any of us.”

    “With the exception of Ron,” Ellen said with a wry smile aimed at Ron.

    It was very selfish, but Ron hoped that she was correct.

    “And I don’t think that either the portal or wizarding politics are very safe,” Mr Granger said. “Not after all you’ve told us.”

    “The Ministry’s been reformed,” Hermione replied. “They just might’ve gone a little too far, but they wouldn’t have me assassinated for dissenting.”

    “You said that there were almost certainly Death Eaters still in hiding,” Ellen pointed out.

    “I have to take those into account no matter what I do,” Hermione told her, “but I understand your concerns. And I will do my best to ensure your fears won’t be realised. All your fears.” She sighed. “I feel like a child of divorced parents. I guess we’ll have to work out a schedule.”

    Ron snorted at that, then realised that she hadn’t been joking when he saw everyone else nodding in agreement.

    Well, she had to have gotten that from someone, didn’t she?

    *****​

    Ottery St Mary, Devon, Britain, December 25th, 2005

    “Mum! Where are the good wine glasses?”

    “Fred! We don’t drink before dinner.”

    “Yes, but we need to set the table now, don’t we? Also, I’m George.”

    “No, you’re not. And yes, set the table, please. The glasses are in the kitchen; I just cleaned them.”

    “Did you clean all of the china, Mum?”

    “Yes, George.”

    “What for?”

    “It needed to be cleaned.”

    “Did the twins do anything to the silverware… again?”

    “No, Percy, they didn’t.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Yes, dear.”

    After the calm and far too reasonable - on the surface, at least; Ron was certain that the actual implementation of the schedule Hermione and the four other Grangers had been working out would be a little tricky - breakfast and lunch in the Forest of Dean, the loud and boisterous Weasley household felt even better than usual. This was what a family holiday should be like.

    He smiled and leaned back against the couch. “You only realise what you’re missing when you’re missing it.”

    “That’s not exactly how the saying goes, Ronnie!” Fred was leaning over the back of the couch, grinning at him.

    “Shouldn’t you be setting the table?”

    “Already done!”

    “Already?”

    “Hey, we’re fast. When we want to be.” Fred slid over the backrest and sat down next to him. A moment later, George joined him on the other side of Ron.

    “And we wouldn’t want to be blamed for a delayed dinner. Not when we finally get to meet your mysterious scientist girlfriend,” George said.

    “And her family, apparently - that’s rather unusual, isn’t it?” Fred added.

    “Mum and Dad know the Grangers,” Ron told them.

    “Yes… they met when they met with you in secret,” Fred said.

    “We noticed when they stopped fretting as much as before.” George grinned.

    “Impressive deduction,” Ron said in a flat voice.

    Fred snorted. “We might not be police officers…”

    “Special police officers!” George interjected.

    “...but we aren’t stupid.”

    “Could’ve fooled me,” Ron replied.

    They ignored his comment, of course. “Still, Christmas dinner with another family? Is there something you need to tell us?” Fred asked.

    “Yes.” Ron nodded. “But Hermione’s not pregnant, and we aren’t announcing our engagement, either.”

    “Good thing we didn’t bet on it, then.” George nodded.

    Ron snorted. “Who would have bet with you?” Everyone knew better than that - or had inside information already.

    “So that means it’s another secret. The reason we’ve been enjoying police protection for several months?” Fred asked.

    “Not that it’s actually enjoyable. It cramps our style, knowing that we’re under observation,” George added. “It’s not easy to chat up a bird if you know the police are watching your every move.”

    “Exactly.” Fred nodded.

    “You want to tell me that you didn’t manage to ensure the privacy of your own bedrooms?” Ron shook his head.

    “Oh, Ronnie… you can have sex outside your bedroom, you know?”

    “You should try it sometime.”

    “So, what secret will you reveal to us? Government secrets?”

    “Are you allowed to do that?”

    Ron sighed. And sometimes, you only realised what you hadn’t been missing when it annoyed you. “It’s not my secret to tell.”

    “Oh, so it’s… Hermione’s!”

    “Weird name. Like from one of your books. Is that why you like her?”

    He shook his head. “That sort of ‘interrogation’ attempt didn’t work on me even before I joined the police.”

    “Come on. If you’re telling us the secret anyway, why wait?”

    “So you don’t go and blab it to everyone?” Ron scoffed. And they would twist his words so people got the wrong impression.

    Of course, the twins weren’t taken aback for more than a moment. “Why aren’t you with her, anyway? Couples are supposed to come together, aren’t they?”

    Because Hermione was fetching the Grangers, and having to apparate Ron as well would be an unnecessary burden. In addition to that, having him arrive alone should help with their cover. And there was still some tension between the Grangers, anyway.

    “Yes, it doesn’t make sense. You didn’t come with her, you didn’t come with Harry and Ginny…”

    “All will be explained once everyone’s here,” Ron said. “Just have a little patience.” Another hour, according to his watch.

    Or not, he added to himself when he heard the now familiar sound of Apparition behind him. Why had Hermione apparated directly… It wasn’t Hermione.

    “Hello, everyone! Oh… are we early?”

    Luna was here. With the other Luna.

    Great.

    *****​

    She took a deep breath and faced them. “Mum, Dad - you need to leave Britain.” She said it as she had rehearsed it - firmly and seriously.

    “What?” her father blurted out.

    “Why?” her mother asked.

    “I told you about the Dark Lord, remember?”

    “The one your friend killed as a baby?” Dad sounded rather doubtful.

    “Yes. Only... he wasn’t killed - and he’s returned. It was confirmed recently.” No need to go into details there. She took a deep breath. “And he’ll be coming after me and after you.”

    “What?”

    “I’m Harry’s best friend.” Best female friend, but that wasn’t an important distinction. “And I’m a muggleborn - he wants to murder us all.” And she probably had earned Malfoy’s personal enmity. “The Ministry won’t be able to protect you; there aren’t enough Aurors around.” Not that the Ministry would care about muggles, anyway, even if they had the manpower.

    “But…”

    She went on, talking over her mum. “And we cannot protect the house against magical intruders - not effectively.” Not without turning it into an electronic dead zone, but that was neither here nor there. “Or your office.”

    “That’s…” Dad looked at Mum. “...disquieting.”

    “More disturbing, though,” Mum went on, “is that you didn’t include yourself.”

    “I can’t go to Australia; Magical Australia is extremely isolationist. Worse than North Korea. Foreign wizards aren’t tolerated. That’s why it’s safe for you.” Not even the Dark Lord would provoke the native shamans.

    “Then we go somewhere else! With you!” Mum exclaimed.

    She winced. “I can’t leave.”

    “Why not?” Dad asked.

    Because she was needed for the war. But telling her parents that… “Because Hogwarts is the safest place for me,” she lied. “It’s protected by Dumbledore.”

    Her parents exchanged a glance, and she winced again.

    This wouldn’t be an easy conversation.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2020
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 44: The Christmas Dinner
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 44: The Christmas Dinner

    Ottery St Mary, Devon, Britain, December 25th, 2005

    The two Lunas had chosen to wear the same outfit, a light blue dress with matching low heels. Same hairstyle and jewellery, too, Ron noticed - wizarding Luna must have duplicated Luna’s favourite pieces.

    “Two Lunas?” Fred exclaimed.

    “You had a long-lost twin you never knew?” George was blinking. “That’s the big secret?”

    Luna winced as she looked at Ron. “Oh… we ruined the big reveal.”

    “Hermione will be upset,” wizarding Luna added.

    “I don’t think so,” Ron said. It must be tedious repeating the same story all the time. On the other hand, she liked showing off magic…

    “The big reveal?” Fred asked. “What do you mean?”

    “Oh, hello, Luna. And hello, Luna?” Mum must have heard the commotion. Dad was still in the shed.

    “Hello, Molly.”

    “Hello, Mrs Weasely.”

    “Mum? You already knew?” George frowned.

    Mum frowned at him. “Do you think Ron would dare spring such a surprise on me on Christmas?”

    That was a good point, Ron had to admit.

    “So, the additional guests are her foster family… wait! You’re both called Luna?” Fred looked from one of them to the other. “That’s… that would be a hell of a coincidence.”

    “Why? It’s a beautiful name,” Luna replied.

    “And it fits us perfectly,” her counterpart added, “don’t you think?”

    “Wait a minute!” Fred narrowed his eyes at Ron. “Did you set this up? Did you find a double for Luna?”

    What?

    “I’m Luna, though, in a way, I guess you could say I’m a double of Luna, too,” wizarding Luna said.

    “Do you really think I would go to such lengths just to get one over on you?” Ron asked.

    “Yes.” Fred nodded emphatically.

    “And Mum’s smiling,” George pointed out.

    “Well, technically, Ron helped to find Luna,” Luna told them. “Although so did I. Technically.”

    Should he reveal the secret? Or drag things out? It was funny to see the twins going spare trying to figure this out… “Well, it’s Hermione’s story,” he said. “We should let her tell it.”

    “Alright!” the Lunas chorused.

    “What? You can’t do that! Tell us!” Fred protested.

    “Also, how did you manage to sneak into our living room without us noticing?” George asked - rather belatedly, in Ron’s opinion.

    “We didn’t sneak in,” wizarding Luna said. “We apparated.”

    “That’s not a word,” George retorted.

    “I just used it,” wizarding Luna told him.

    “Just because you don’t know a word doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Luna added. “The world would be quite empty if things worked like that.”

    “Hey!” Fred frowned, though it was close to a pout, too.

    Ron grinned - this was very funny indeed.

    *****​

    “Your theory about cloning experiments was true!” Fred pointed at Luna.

    “Of course it’s true. But Luna’s not a clone.”

    “Rats.” Fred sighed and sat down on the couch again. “I’m out of ideas.”

    “Me too,” George said. “Percy, say something! You’re a cog in the government machine, aren’t you? You should know something.”

    Percy, who had arrived half an hour ago, looked up from his notebook. “Hm?” Ron wasn’t sure if his elder brother really was ‘checking a file’ or if this was just a ruse to avoid the twins for a while - not that it would have worked without the distraction the presence of two Lunas provided.

    “What do you think is the explanation for them!” George pointedly looked at the two women.

    “Twins separated at birth?”

    “We already thought of that,” Fred said.

    “Then I can’t think of anything.” Due to the placement of his notebook on the table, the twins couldn’t see Percy’s grin as he lowered his head, though Ron could.

    It was amusing, but… the others should have started to arrive by now. Ron was getting a little worried. The Russians were still out there, and they had had enough time to make preparations for another attempt - if they dared after the last debacle. Of course, the chance of intercepting people travelling by Apparition was about zero, but Harry, Ginny and Sirius would be travelling by car. A new, better armoured car, fresh from Phoenix Gruppe, but still…

    But then he once again heard the sound of someone apparating and saw Hermione standing in the middle of the living room.

    “Bloody hell!” “No way!” Fred and George exclaimed - Ron couldn’t tell who said what. Even Percy seemed shocked.

    “Hermione! We’re sorry! We thought dinner would start earlier!” Luna exclaimed.

    “We didn’t tell them the secret, though,” wizarding Luna added.

    Hermione looked around. “Oh… alright. I’ll go fetch the others, then. I’ll be back in a moment!”

    And she disappeared - disapparated, Ron corrected himself.

    “Your girlfriend built a teleporter!” Fred shouted.

    “That’s not entirely accurate,” Ron told his brother.

    “She’s an alien?” George gasped.

    Before Ron could reply, Hermione reappeared with the first half of the rest of the Grangers. “I’ll be right back.”

    And she was gone again.

    Ron eyed the couple in the middle of the living room. It was hard to tell, but… “Good evening, Gabriel, Ellen.”

    “Good evening, Ron,” Gabriel replied. So, Ron had been correct.

    Ellen shook her head. “I’ll never get used to that.”

    “You’re aliens? Or are you foster-parents to an alien?” Fred went with George’s theory.

    “What?” Both the Grangers looked confused. “Aliens?”

    “You should stop visiting conspiracy theory websites,” Luna told the twins. For the life of him, Ron couldn’t tell if she was serious or not.

    Then Hermione reappeared with the local Grangers.

    “Pod people!”

    “Aliens!”

    “What?” Hermione looked around, then focused on Ron.

    He chuckled. “They have a vivid imagination.”

    She huffed. “Alright. I’m not an alien. I’m a witch,” she told the twins and Percy, who had been remarkably quiet so far. She raised her wand. “Let me demonstrate…”

    “Not with the china!” Mum interrupted her. “The table’s already set.”

    Hermione blinked, then eyed the small table next to the couch. A wave of her wand later, the newspapers on it had turned into birds and started to fly around.

    “And I’m a witch, too!” wizarding Luna added, drawing her wand.

    She didn’t turn newspapers into birds, though - she turned the small table into a tiger. A huge and very much alive tiger.

    “Luna!” Hermione snapped while everyone took a few steps back. Including Ron - he trusted Hermione and wizarding Luna, but… if there was a very large predator standing very close to him, a little distance went a long way.

    “What?”

    “Don’t scare them,” Hermione told her while the tiger started hunting the newspaper-birds.

    With, in hindsight, predictable results. The living room wasn’t made to handle a few hundred pounds of cat jumping around.

    On the other hand, Hermione got to demonstrate the Mending Charm. Several times.

    Once the living room had been restored and both tiger and birds changed back, she took a deep breath and addressed Ron’s three brothers again. “As we have demonstrated, Luna and I are witches. And as you might suspect, we’re from a parallel universe. Seven years ago, I was stranded here by accident and mistaken for this world’s missing Hermione. Following that...”

    *****​

    “...and that’s about it,” Hermione finished her story. She didn’t look annoyed - well, not at repeating her story.

    “So… you created a way to travel to other worlds. With magic.” Fred nodded.

    “And quantum physics,” Hermione corrected him.

    “It’s a portal,” wizarding Luna added. “You just step through and you’re in another world.”

    “Yes, yes.” Fred was starting to sound rather annoyed, Ron noticed with no small amount of satisfaction. “And a Russian figuring that out is the reason we’ve been enjoying the protection of Ronnikin’s co-workers.”

    Ron refrained from pointing out that CI5 wasn’t responsible for their protection, not any more, and that he’d also soon have officially quit, too.

    “It’s a little more complicated than that, but, essentially, yes,” Hermione said. “And I’m very sorry about that - it was never my intention to drag you into this situation.”

    “Yes. You were quite abrasive the first time we met,” Ron said with a soft smile.

    “Sorry,” she told him, smiling as well.

    Fred sighed theatrically. “Young love.” He cleared his throat. “But now that we’ve finally been informed about this situation about which everyone else was already in the know…”

    “I wasn’t,” Percy said.

    Fred rolled his eyes. “...that almost everyone else already knew about, I have to say…” He trailed off, blinking. “I actually don’t know what to say. This is just too fantastical.”

    To see Fred at a loss for words was another rare occasion.

    “Can we go and meet our counterparts?” George asked.

    “Capital idea!” Fred agreed at once.

    “I’d rather you didn’t,” Percy told them. “We wouldn’t want to start a war with another dimension, now would we?”

    “Hey! “ Fred put on an affronted air. “It wasn’t us who started a war with Russia.”

    “Officially,” Dad cut in, “Russia wasn’t involved at all - it was just a conflict between criminal organisations.”

    “That description certainly fits the Russian government. And ours as well,” Luna replied. “Putin’s being quite honest for a change.”

    Ron snorted at that.

    “Speaking of Putin,” Hermione said, “he’s the key to sorting this out and allowing you to lead normal lives.”

    “Or as normal as your lives get,” Ron added.

    “As I understand it,” Percy commented in a slightly nasal tone, “there’s also Her Majesty’s Government, who are expecting revolutionary technology from you.”

    “That, too,” Hermione said, wincing.

    “Bloody bean counters,” Sirius, who had arrived with Harry and Ginny during Hermione’s story, mumbled.

    “Forget that for a moment - how exactly are you planning to deal with the president of Russia?” George asked.

    “Well, we have a few ideas,” Hermione replied.

    “I wanted to simply use a Disillusionment Charm, apparate next to Putin and use a False Memory Charm to make him think he wanted to call everyone who knows about the portal, then obliviate them as they appear,” wizarding Luna said with a pout, “but Hermione claims that wouldn’t work.”

    “A what?” Fred asked.

    “A Disillusionment Charm turns you invisible,” Ron explained. “Apparition allows you to teleport. A False Memory Charm lets you change someone’s memories, and Obliviation is a way to wipe someone’s memory. Selectively,” he added.

    “Blimey.” George shook his head, obviously impressed. Then he turned to Fred. “Ronnie’s love for D&D finally came in handy. Who’d have thought, huh?”

    “Shocking,” Fred agreed, shaking his head.

    Ron rolled his eyes. D&D was a great game, and he had had a lot of fun in his teenage years playing it.

    “But Ron’s questionable taste in entertainment aside, why wouldn’t that plan work?” Fred asked.

    “For several reasons,” Hermione replied. “Most importantly, we have to assume that Putin is aware of the threat of invisible or teleporting assailants, even though he might assume that it’s a technology I’ve developed, rather than magic. And that means that he’ll have guards prepared for such intruders. Without knowing what we face, apparating into the Kremlin would be a disaster, even with magic at our disposal.”

    “You were observed using a Disillusionment Charm while you were in Russia.” Percy had connected the dots.

    “That’s not entirely correct,” Hermione said, frowning. “I miscalculated the duration of some Shrinking Solution and was captured as a result. Ron saved me, but he was observed returning to his natural size. And while we don’t know how much the surviving witness saw and how he interpreted Ron appearing in a locked room, we have to assume the worst: that Putin is prepared for Apparition and Disillusionment Charms, and probably for the Shrinking Solution as well.”

    “Which complicates matters,” Luna said. “Although it’ll be a nice trial run for saving the rainforest and other natural habitats under siege by greedy corporations and the corrupt governments they control.”

    “What?” Percy looked alarmed for the first time this evening. “What do you mean?” he asked, staring at the Lunas. His brother must be very concerned, Ron realised - like his parents, Percy usually politely ignored Luna’s political statements during the Weasley Christmas dinner. And on any other occasion, ever since Ron’s memorable eighteenth birthday party.

    “We’ll be saving all the endangered animals in this world by protecting their habitats!” wizarding Luna announced. “We’ll have to deal with a lot of muggle leaders for that, though, so this is good training.”

    “I thought you abandoned the plan to use such charms on muggles in favour of working through the press, Luna!” Hermione exclaimed.

    “We did,” wizarding Luna replied. “But we never said that we wouldn’t also use other means of persuasion.”

    “‘Other means of persuasion’?” Dad looked concerned as well.

    “Blackmail,” Luna explained with a fierce grin. “We’ll ferret out people’s darkest secrets, and use that to control them.”

    “Ah. That’s…” Dad looked at a loss for words.

    “A remarkably efficient and delightfully ironic plan,” George said.

    “Yes!” Luna agreed. “Although after Hermione’s explanation, it’s clear that our current plans will need to be revised.”

    “You aren’t planning to attack Putin, are you?” Mum looked tense. Dad was touching her shoulder - that wasn’t a good sign.

    “We’ll be working closely with Dumbledore,” Ron interjected.

    “You were working closely with him when you were all almost killed in Russia!” Mum blurted out.

    He winced - it seemed that Mum and Dad didn’t trust Dumbledore’s competence as much as they used to. Or as much as he had thought.

    “I didn’t have a wand,” Hermione interjected. “That is no longer the case. And my wizarding friends will help.”

    “Some of them, at least,” Luna said.

    “Oh! Does that include our counterparts?”

    Looking at Fred’s eager expression, Ron realised that he had found something that was scarier than Luna and wizarding Luna plotting together.

    “Ah…” Hermione seemed to share his fear. As did Percy, Ron’s parents and Hermione’s parents. The other Grangers looked confused, and the Lunas...

    ...apparently were delighted. “Oh, yes!” wizarding Luna announced with a wide smile. “We all worked together during the war against the Dark Lord! They’ll help us against this tyrant, too!”

    Luna obviously had started teaching her counterpart her own particular take on politics.

    “Enough of these plans for war!” Mum announced. “Dinner’s ready. It’s Christmas.” She frowned at the twins, but also at Ron.

    He knew what that meant - they should behave, or else. Which was, while understandable, more than a little unfair - this wasn’t Ron’s fault!

    But everyone else was either a guest and, therefore, exempt, Mum’s only daughter and, therefore, spoilt, or Percy.

    Though Ron didn’t mind being singled out too much - it was Christmas, after all.

    And Mum had cooked up a feast.

    “But our Daddies aren’t here, yet,” Luna protested.

    “I can fetch them!” wizarding Luna said. She disapparated before anyone could say anything, and reappeared with Xenophon and wizarding Luna’s father. Both of the men wore clothes that would’ve been more at home on an army base, so Ron assumed that Xenophon had loaned his surplus fatigues to Mr Lovegood.

    Fortunately, Mum had stopped complaining about what Xenophon called his ‘urban guerrilla fashion’ long ago, so dinner wasn’t marred by another heated discussion.

    *****​

    “So… now that we’ve enjoyed Mum’s cooking, can we talk about how we’re supposed to deal with Putin and his army of spies, assassins, soldiers… well, his army, basically?” Fred asked as soon as he had finished his pudding.

    “Yes,” George added, nodding. “So far, we’ve mostly heard what we wouldn’t be doing.”

    You won’t be doing anything,” Mum said, glaring at the twins. “This is not a joke.”

    “Oi!” Fred protested. “It’s not tennis, either!”

    “Hey! I can do more than just play tennis!” Ginny glared at him. “And I’ve been training for months with the others!”

    Which Mum wasn’t happy about. At all. Ron studiously avoided looking at her.

    The twins, though, had the same expression Ginny had when told she couldn’t do something. “We can train as well, then.”

    “If Ginny can do it, we can do it too.”

    “I’m a professional athlete. You two are couch potatoes,” Ginny retorted. “Even Hermione is in better shape!”

    Hermione didn’t appreciate the comment, Ron could tell from the way her lips pursed. “As I said, we will have to plan this thoroughly with Dumbledore. We need his information and experience. So any planning done here would be pointless.”

    “But we could plan how to save the planet,” Luna cut in. “We don’t need Dumbledore for that. Well, his files about all the dirty secrets of the so-called leaders would help, of course, but they aren’t required for most of our targets.”

    “I have to point out - again - that tampering with foreign and domestic reserves shouldn’t be done without a careful evaluation of the possible consequences, both politically and economically,” Percy said. “Closing off reserves to human travel would have negative effects on tourism in many countries - a lot of people depend on it.”

    “And a lot of animals depend on safe habitats!” Luna retorted. “Safe from humans and corporations!”

    “Yes!” Wizarding Luna nodded emphatically. “The muggles will just have to find something else to do.”

    “In many countries, they can’t easily ‘find something else’,” Percy told them. “For far too many people in the developing world, work in the tourism industry is all that keeps them from starving.”

    “And that is because of the actions of our corporations and corrupt governments,” Luna retorted. “Nature shouldn’t pay the price for their sins.”

    “Neither should indigenous people and their families,” Hermione pointed out.

    “Then we have to fix that, too!” wizarding Luna exclaimed.

    “Yes,” Luna agreed at once.

    “You can’t just wave your magic wand and change the world,” Percy told them.

    “Of course we can. Even a small change is a change to the world,” wizarding Luna replied.

    “But you’re bound to make things worse if you just use magic without any idea of the likely repercussions,” Percy snapped. “What happens in foreign countries can have unforeseen consequences in Britain - or anywhere else.”

    “Reckless magic can have devastating consequences, as you know from History of Magic,” Hermione said.

    “But we won’t be reckless!” wizarding Luna protested.

    “And if forcing a corporation to stop exploiting African countries and logging of the rainforest has such drastic consequences, then that still doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do so - doing the right thing isn’t wrong!” Luna huffed.

    “But even doing the right thing should be done carefully, and with a good plan,” Hermione told them. “First, do no harm.”

    “Sometimes, you have to cut someone to perform life-saving surgery,” Luna retorted.

    “Not if you have the right potion or spell,” wizarding Luna pointed out, earning herself a frown from both Hermione and Luna.

    “You can’t let your fear of making a mistake cripple you,” Luna went on. “Leaving things to continue as they are would be worse. Not just morally.”

    Hermione pressed her lips together but nodded in agreement. “Yes. But that doesn’t mean you should be hasty.”

    “Then let’s start planning!” Wizarding Luna beamed. “How do you save the animals and their habitats without harming people?”

    Mum was glaring at him again, Ron noticed, even though this wasn’t his fault at all.

    *****​

    “...and that’s why you need tourism: it provides the local population with alternatives to illegal logging or poaching,” Percy finished a statement that would have fit Parliament better than the Weasley Christmas dinner.

    “There wouldn’t be illegal logging without corporations,” Luna countered. “Or if people didn’t buy wood and other products from illegal plantations built on illegally logged areas. Removing demand works.”

    “The only way to remove demand is to present a cheaper alternative,” Hermione said. “Prohibition and the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has proved that. And even if the wood were worthless, the cash crops planted on cleared forests will find buyers.”

    “But that’s exactly why we need to ward the reserves. Nothing else will keep greedy people out of the woods!” Luna told her.

    Ron cleared his throat. “We’re going in circles. Let’s change the subject.”

    That earned him a glare from Luna, Hermione and Percy. But Mum smiled.

    “Anyway,” he said, “did I mention that Fred and George’s counterparts are married?”

    “What?” Fred looked surprised.

    “Married?” So did George.

    “Oh, yes!” wizarding Luna cut in. “They have the cutest daughter, too! Beatrice.”

    “Daughter, singular?” Percy asked, raising an eyebrow. Well, Ron should have expected that.

    “Yes,” wizarding Luna confirmed.

    “What?” Mum leaned forward. “How does that work?”

    “Both of them married Angelina. Angelina Johnson - well, Angelina Weasley, now.”

    “That’s possible in your world?” Percy asked.

    “Apparently they managed it,” Hermione commented, “although I don’t know how.”

    “I think they used magical ink on the marriage certificate,” wizarding Luna said. “And, somehow, fooled the Ministry’s check for that sort of magic.”

    “Perhaps they used muggle magical ink,” Hermione suggested. “I bet the Ministry wouldn’t catch that.”

    “But… if it’s not legal, why hasn’t your government annulled the marriage?” Percy sounded as if he couldn’t believe it.

    “The Ministry of Magic has a long tradition of bending or ignoring the law in favour of those in power or those related to them,” Hermione said with a frown. “The Weasley family has become very influential in the Ministry following the war against Voldemort.”

    “Actually, they cannot annul it. Not legally,” wizarding Luna remarked. “The Ministry cannot annul a recognised marriage without a petition from an aggrieved party. I think that was the result of a Black’s attempt to sabotage a rival family’s recent marriages or something.”

    “But that’s…” Percy shook his head while Sirius grinned.

    “That’s Wizarding Britain for you,” Hermione told him.

    “Well, as long as they love each other…” Dad said with a smile.

    “They aren’t the only Weasleys already married,” Ron cut in. “Bill’s married to Fleur, a French witch. They have a daughter, Victoire. My counterpart married Lavender’s counterpart. They have a son, Roger, and another child on the way. And Ginny’s counterpart married Harry’s counterpart. They have twins, Jean and James.”

    “Oh!” Mum was smiling widely again. “What about Percy? The other Percy, I mean.”

    “He’s dating Penelope Clearwater,” Hermione said.

    “Oh! Did you hear that, Percy?”

    Percy, their Percy, was frowning, Ron noticed. “Yes, I did. And things are obviously different here. I’ve never met a woman with that name.”

    “I could find her, I think,” Luna said with a smile.

    “Thank you for the offer, but that won’t be necessary,” Percy replied, “and, more importantly, trying to track down the local counterparts of our counterparts’ significant others could endanger operational security.”

    “Oh, right,” Luna agreed.

    Ron glanced at Xenophon - this was usually where Luna’s father would comment about the government’s surveillance and other dirty secrets - but the man was in deep discussion with his counterpart and the Grangers.

    Which was sort of worrying, now that Ron thought about it.

    “It’s obvious that there are significant differences between us and our counterparts,” Fred spoke up.

    “Indeed,” George agreed. “Can you see us married? Or Bill?” he scoffed.

    “Yes,” wizarding Luna replied earnestly. “Quite easily.”

    It seemed that the twins didn’t have an answer for that.

    *****​

    “Drive safely!” Mum said, waving at Harry, Ginny and Sirius as they got into their car.

    “Don’t worry, we won’t let Ginny drive!” Sirius replied, followed by a “Hey!” from her.

    Now only the Grangers - and Ron and Hermione - were left. And Mum and Dad, of course. But Ron and the others would be leaving soon as well - it was almost midnight, after all. He sighed. It had been a nice Christmas dinner. Peaceful, relatively.

    “Thank you for having us, Mrs Weasley. It was a wonderful dinner,” Hermione said.

    “The more, the merrier,” Dad told her. “Although, as we heard today, there could’ve been even more people.”

    “I hope the boys take this to heart,” Mum said. “If their counterparts can marry and have kids, then so can they.”

    “As Fred and George mentioned, it’s not the best time to meet new people,” Hermione pointed out. “Not when you’re under police protection.”

    “That didn’t stop you,” Mum said, smiling at them.

    “I think those were extraordinary circumstances,” Hermione replied. “But we’re working on dealing with this so you can go back to having normal lives.”

    “As normal as the twins’ lives ever are,” Ron added with a snort.

    “Well, they haven’t dated the same girl yet,” Dad said.

    They actually had during school, or so they had claimed - but the girl supposedly hadn’t known that she was dating both of them and not just George. But that wasn’t something to tell the parents.

    “I would even accept that, as long as they settled down!” Mum exclaimed, then looked surprised at herself.

    Everyone smiled at that.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, December 25th, 2005

    “Good night, Mum, Dad.”

    “Good night, Gabriel, Ellen.”

    “Good night, Hermione. Good night, Ron.”

    “Good night.”

    The door closed behind the Grangers, and Ron heard Hermione sigh. “Are you tired?” he asked. She had apparated her other set of parents to London before taking Ron and the others back to the laboratory.

    “Not physically,” she replied. “Just…” She shrugged. “It’s been a little more lively than I had expected.”

    He chuckled. “That’s our family for you.”

    “Yes.”

    “Didn’t the other Weasleys have Christmas dinners?” Ron would have thought they did; they certainly seemed as close-knit, or more so, than his own family.

    “The only time I celebrated Christmas with them, we were at Grimmauld Place.” She smiled ruefully. “The war had already started, at least for the Order, and we had to deal with casualties. It wasn’t a good holiday.”

    He nodded - he could imagine that. Although… “Even with the twins?”

    “They did try to ‘liven things up’, but even they didn’t want to overdo it. Mrs Weasley was very stressed.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. “Mum took a long time to accept that I might get shot at in my line of work.” He sighed himself. “So… want to take a walk?”

    “And stress MI5’s guards?” She raised an eyebrow at him.

    “I was thinking about a more private spot.”

    “Ah.” She nodded with a smile. “I think that’s a good idea.”

    They went into their room, and a minute later, stepped out of the tent in the Forest of Dean.

    “The spells I left should be keeping people away,” Hermione commented - she must have noticed that he had his hand near his gun, Ron realised.

    He shrugged. “Never hurts to be cautious.”

    “The only people who could find this spot are Luna and me.”

    “The only people we know of,” he corrected her.

    “Do you think someone managed to slip through the portal?” She cocked her head at him. Probably frowning.

    “I think we’re better safe than sorry.”

    She scoffed but didn’t contradict him further. “Speaking of Luna… the Lunas.” She shook her head. “With all the shared names, we should find a standard terminology. Or define one.”

    “We could number them? Ron One and Ron Two?” He chuckled at his own joke.

    “And who’d be number one?”

    “Us, of course,” he told her.

    “Really. We’re from different worlds.”

    He swallowed the first thought that came to mind - she had no counterpart, so she didn’t need a number. “We can have our world adopt you.”

    It made her laugh. Briefly. Then she sighed. “Back to the Lunas. What are they doing?”

    “I have no idea,” he replied honestly. “But I know that Luna won’t give up her plans. Not when she finally sees a way to achieve some of her goals. And Xenophon will support her.”

    “Or egg her on.” She sighed again. “The vexing thing is, they’re not wrong. Not entirely. Something needs to be done about preserving nature. I’m just not sure if they’re on the right path.”

    “I can’t see it working. Not with just Luna.”

    “She said that they’re planning to use the press,” Hermione pointed out.

    That wouldn’t be enough, in Ron’s opinion. But Luna probably had a plan. And her counterpart did have magic at her disposal. “Well, a press campaign would probably keep them busy for some time.”

    “Yes.” After a few seconds, she added: “Let’s walk a little. There’s a deer crossing nearby.”

    *****​

    Half an hour later, they were back in the clearing. It hadn’t been a relaxing stroll - the crossing was too narrow for them to walk next to each other, and Hermione had insisted on taking point since she knew the area from her world’s Forest of Dean. Which went against Ron’s instincts and training. And the snow didn’t make walking any easier, either.

    On the other hand, their walk had helped clear his head, and Ron took a few deep breaths once they were back under the open sky. “Ah.”

    She stepped up next to him, and he felt her arm wrap around his waist.

    “Sorry about telling Mum about our counterparts’ families, by the way,” he said. “I should have realised she’d expect us to marry now.”

    He felt her shrug. “She wasn’t pushy about it.”

    “Not by her standards, you mean.”

    She snorted. “She means well. I’m not sure how I’d cope if my children were risking their lives.”

    He wanted to ask if that meant she was contemplating having children. And marriage - that usually went with having kids, didn’t it? But he didn’t. That would be pushing things. And he wasn’t sure if he wanted kids, anyway. Well, he did, but… not urgently. Or something. He suppressed a snort - that would’ve given her the wrong impression. “I’m sure you’d handle it well,” he said instead, “but I hope they wouldn’t risk their lives in the first place.”

    “We can only hope.” He felt her lean into him again, then slide around him into a hug. And a kiss.

    It was a good thing they were so close to the tent.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, December 26th, 2005

    “Good morning. I hope you’ve had a great Christmas.” Dumbledore was all smiles as he greeted them in the recently installed conference room - they hadn’t merely rebuilt the damaged parts of the resort, but used the opportunity to remodel. And, Ron would bet, to install better surveillance and security.

    Grindelwald, who was also present, nodded curtly. If he had had a great Christmas, it certainly hadn’t affected his mood - he was still as grumpy as ever.

    ‘Grumpy Old Men’ - Ron had to suppress a grin at the thought. Dumbledore would see the humour, but Ron was sure that Grindelwald wouldn’t.

    “We enjoyed the Weasley Christmas dinner very much, thank you,” Hermione said.

    “As you enjoyed spreading top secret information?” Grindelwald asked with a scowl. A scowl that deepened when Luna agreed with a smile.

    “Mr Weasley’s brothers struck me as very ingenious people; they would certainly have investigated on their own, possibly causing more trouble - after all, they would naturally be curious about the reasons for the protection they are currently receiving,” Dumbledore said. “It’s better to release information under controlled circumstances than to hope for the best.”

    Grindelwald scoffed but didn’t contradict his partner, which Ron took to mean that the German agreed in his cantankerous way. Luna, of course, nodded emphatically at the notion of releasing information.

    “Oh, yes,” Sirius, who, with Harry and Ginny, had been fetched by Hermione, nodded as well. “The trouble those two got up to in the past…” He shook his head.

    “No worse than you and Dad,” Harry muttered.

    “We were almost never caught,” Sirius retorted, “so I have to insist that they are worse than we ever were.”

    “But the twins might have done more than you did, which would even things out,” Ginny pointed out.

    “Do you really think that they would keep their deeds secret instead of bragging?” Sirius shook his head. “No, James and I still remain on top.”

    “They might need to wait until the statute of limitations has run out,” Ginny said.

    Ron chuckled at her joke. Well, he hoped that it was a joke.

    “If we could start?” Grindelwald said, apparently ignoring Dumbledore’s slight frown.

    “Of course,” Hermione replied at once. “There’s a lot to discuss.”

    “Indeed,” Dumbledore agreed. “Four main items, I would say. Our upcoming trip to Magical Prussia, the need to hire a Healer, the Russian problem and Misses Lovegoods’ plans to save the planet.”

    “Travelling to Magical Prussia isn’t a problem,” Hermione said. “We can fly to Berlin and then enter the Alte Strasse, Berlin’s magical quarter.”

    “Like Diagon Alley, just Prussian,” wizarding Luna added.

    “Your trip to Diagon Alley caused some trouble,” Harry pointed out.

    Ron saw Hermione wince at the reminder of their mistake. “That was because I neglected to update my information. That won’t happen with this trip.”

    “I’ve been there before,” wizarding Luna said. “A few years ago.”

    “You have?” Hermione sounded surprised.

    “Oh, yes. It’s a lovely place. Although the Prussians have a very intolerant policy towards plants and animals,” she added with a frown.

    That sounded a little ominous, in Ron’s opinion. In Hermione’s as well, since she asked: “Ah. Did you have trouble with the authorities?”

    “Nothing serious,” Luna told her with a smile. “Kingsley got the ban lifted, and the ICW ruled in my favour concerning the threatened habitats of the Prussian Stone Louse.” She frowned. “Really, a few buildings are a small price to pay to preserve such cute animals.”

    “Loriot’s Stone Louse is real?” Grindelwald blurted out.

    “Who is Loriot?” Luna asked.

    “A German comedian Gellert is fond of,” Dumbledore explained. “I had the impression his stone louse sketch was fictional myself, but, apparently, it isn’t.”

    “They showed a magical creature on TV? In this world?” Hermione looked flabbergasted.

    “It was a cartoon depiction,” Dumbledore told her. “But it is peculiar indeed.”

    “Next you’ll tell me Bielefeld is magical,” Gellert grumbled.

    “Bielefeld doesn’t exist,” Dumbledore said, with a brief chuckle. “An old joke started ten years ago, I believe.”

    “It was an attempt to discredit whistleblowers by making fun of conspiracies,” Luna said with a scowl. “A well-planned and perpetuated operation of the MAD.”

    Dumbledore inclined his head with a smile. “I don’t know about such an operation, but I don’t have as many contacts among my German colleagues as I used to.”

    Grindelwald was less polite and sneered at Luna, but at least he refrained from voicing his opinion. Luna met his glare with one of her own.

    Hermione cleared her throat. “So… what exactly happened in Berlin?”

    “I helped create a Stone Louse Reserve,” wizarding Luna said. “We have to visit it when we are in the Alte Strasse. It’s fascinating how quickly the little cuties can eat through stone and concrete when they aren’t threatened with extinction by spells.”

    “That reserve…” Hermione looked a little queasy. “Would that have been composed of formerly occupied buildings in Berlin?”

    “Yes, of course - Prussian Stone Louses prefer dressed stone and concrete to rocks. But the owners were all compensated. I think.” Luna shrugged. “As I said, a small price to pay to save a species.”

    In hindsight, Ron shouldn’t be surprised, given her plans for his own world’s reserves.

    “Let’s hope that the Healer we’re seeking wasn’t living there,” Hermione said. “Our chances aren’t good to find one in Prussia to begin with. In any case, we’ll have to be careful and sound out the local Healers.”

    “Your friends don’t have contacts in Prussia?” Grindelwald asked.

    “None that would be able to refer us to a discreet Healer willing to work abroad,” she replied.

    “The intelligence services of Wizarding Britain seem to be lacking in foreign sources,” Dumbledore said.

    “There isn’t an intelligence service in Wizarding Britain,” Hermione said. “Not an official one, at least. And what unofficial sources there are would likely be personal contacts of individual Ministry employees.”

    “How refreshing - although I would presume continuity of operations will be a problem,” Dumbledore commented.

    “It’s not the only problem the Ministry has,” Hermione muttered. “But the magical countries tend to be more insular than the muggle ones. Most international politics is handled by the ICW, which is focused on upholding the Statute of Secrecy and otherwise has a policy of non-intervention.”

    “I see.”

    “The war would have been different if we’d had international support. Very different.”

    *****​

    “What did the French say?” she asked as soon as Ron had handed over the potions he had brought. His slight hesitation told her enough. “They won’t help, will they?”

    Ron sighed. “Fleur said her family’s sending help.”

    “But not the Duc.”

    “No. ‘France won’t get involved in another country’s internal matters’.” He wasn’t imitating Fleur’s accent, but she could hear the Veela’s voice anyway.

    “Don’t they realise that the Dark Lord won’t stop with Britain?” She stood after stashing the potions in the trunk and shook her head. “That’s exactly how Grindelwald gained enough power to threaten all of Magical Europe - he took a few isolated countries and combined their resources.” And recruited heavily among muggleborns, of course. “How can they be so short-sighted?”

    Ron shrugged. “Fleur said the Duc fears the precedent it would set. No one wants other countries to intervene in their own internal affairs.”

    And didn’t that paint a lovely picture of the state of Magical Europe? She pressed her lips together. No wonder Dumbledore had prepared safe houses in Britain, and not abroad, for the muggleborns.

    “Hey, cheer up,” Ron told her with a smile. “We’re no worse off than before - and it means the Dark Lord won’t get any help, either.”

    And that said even worse things about the other countries.

    *****​

     
    Higure, Twilight666, Osserumb and 5 others like this.
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 45: The Trip to Berlin
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 45: The Trip to Berlin

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, December 26th, 2005

    “Now, with regards to the ‘Russian problem’, as you called it, we have far more options now that I’ve obtained a wand and made contact with my friends, but we still need more information to make plans,” Hermione said. “Putin will be prepared for some of our past tricks.”

    “It doesn’t pay to underestimate the Russians,” Grindelwald agreed.

    “That is true, although I have to point out that we don’t have as many assets in Russia as we should have for a move against Putin himself,” Dumbledore replied. “Possibly enough, though, or so I hope, to gain sufficient intel to gather more through magical means.”

    The old man talked about magic as if it were normal. So much for old people being stuck in their ways, Ron thought.

    “Do you know Legilimency?” wizarding Luna asked. “I’ve always wanted to learn it, but I haven’t yet had the time.”

    “No, I don’t,” Hermione said, with that twitch to her jaw muscles that she always had when admitting that she didn’t know something. “But we can use Veritaserum.”

    “Ah, right! That’s not illegal here, either!” wizarding Luna said, nodding. “I almost forgot.”

    “We need some of that as well, I think,” Luna said.

    “I can get some - Daddy knows some good potioneers,” her counterpart replied.

    Ron could imagine what use Luna would get out of that, though she probably had a few more in mind he hadn’t thought of. “Kidnapping someone for interrogation with Veritaserum will be tricky,” he said.

    “Yes,” Hermione agreed. “They’ll be missing, or at least drugged, for hours. That will draw attention.”

    “Not if we plan it well,” Dumbledore contradicted her. “A known drunk sleeping off his hangover?” He shook his head. “Nothing suspicious there.”

    “And most Russians are drunks,” Grindelwald added. “Though the worst of them won’t be trusted by Putin with any crucial information. He isn’t stupid.”

    “Quite. But even those who aren’t trusted know valuable intel - provided one can put the pieces together,” Dumbledore pointed out.

    Grindelwald scowled at that, Ron noticed, but that only seemed to make Dumbledore smile more.

    “Be that as it may, we can’t make any detailed plans without more intel,” Hermione said. “However, I can give you an overview of the magical means at our disposal: We can disillusion ourselves, apparate, erase and replace memories, compel people to act in a certain way by modifying their memories, duplicate and conjure things such as valuables and take the form of others for an hour, or longer. We’ve also now acquired flying brooms, and we can shrink people and gear easily, and house a squad or more in a tent, hidden from muggle senses. And we can cast spells on an area that will make muggles ignore it. Those are just the main spells and tools we have now.”

    Dumbledore beamed. “If I’d had those at my disposal when I was in Her Majesty’s service… I dare say history would have happened differently. Britain’s foes wouldn’t have known what hit them.”

    “Does that include the Yankees?” Grindelwald asked.

    “I would hope not.” This time, Dumbledore’s smile slipped a little, and Grindelwald grinned.

    “Oh…” Luna was beaming. Probably at the hint of buried secrets, Ron thought. Or - and his stomach started to sink - she had realised that wizarding Luna had access to all of those spells, potions and items as well.

    They really needed to sort out the two Lunas’ plans. That was the next item, wasn’t it? Ron cleared his throat. “Speaking of areas enchanted to turn away people…”

    “Oh! We haven’t had time, yet, to turn Parkinson Manor into a nature reserve, but we’ll do so as soon as possible,” Luna said.

    “Oh, yes!” Sirius exclaimed with a chuckle. “They deserve that - stuck-up wankers, the lot of them!”

    “Do you plan to influence the Parkinsons and the Malfoys to consider it their decision to stop working their lands?” Dumbledore asked.

    “We have to,” Luna said, “or they’ll blame their staff. And that would mean the workers wouldn’t get compensation for being fired.”

    “Yes,” wizarding Luna agreed. “Usually, muggles make up excuses themselves when affected by Muggle-Repelling Charms, but since the Malfoys, and I assume the Parkinsons, rarely visit, much less work on, their lands, that wouldn’t happen here.”

    “Ah.” Dumbledore nodded. “That’s good to know.”

    “Yes.” Wizarding Luna nodded with a wide smile. “We don’t want to hurt the muggles if we can help it.”

    “A laudable stance. Although you might not be able to avoid hurting people,” Dumbledore said.

    Luna matched the old man’s gaze. “Something you’re very familiar with, right?”

    “Yes.”

    The two were really far too close for comfort, in Ron’s opinion.

    *****​

    Alte Strasse, Berlin, Magical Prussia, December 27th, 2005

    “This brings back memories,” Ron heard Grindelwald say as they walked down the main street of Berlin’s magical quarter. “It’s like the last sixty years never happened.”

    “The area wasn’t touched by the war,” Hermione explained. “This world’s Grindelwald had it covered by wards strong enough to repel or divert even massed attacks by strategic bombers.”

    “Divert?” Grindelwald shook his head. “That would explain why the streets next to it were completely destroyed during the war.”

    “And the Muggle-Repelling Charms kept the Red Army and the Wehrmacht from entering the area, I presume,” Dumbledore said. Like everyone else in their group, the old man was in disguise. A fake beard, inserts to make his face appear rounder, and makeup to mask its contours. Impressive, though not perfect - although, as the former spymaster had said, it just had to be good enough.

    “Yes,” Hermione, who was wearing a blonde wig again, confirmed. “There was some fighting during the end of Grindelwald’s reign, but the damage was repaired.”

    Which meant that the patch of rubble they saw in front of them - covering enough ground for three houses - was the Stone Louse Sanctuary. To think that wizarding Luna had managed to create ruins where two wars had failed to make a lasting change…

    “Oh! It’s feeding time! Look!” the witch in question exclaimed. She was already rushing to the fence surrounding the area, where a wizard in grey robes was waving his wand around. “Look! Look!” Luna, who was wearing the same disguise and looked like her twin, was already hot on her heels.

    Ron exchanged a glance with Hermione, who sighed. “I hope she doesn’t break her cover,” she muttered as they followed.

    “Please stay back,” Ron heard the wizard say - in English, fortunately. “These are dangerous animals.”

    “What? No, they aren’t!” wizarding Luna protested. “Well, unless you’re a stone statue, I guess. Or petrified - was that ever tested? Do they eat petrified people?”

    “No, miss, that hasn’t been tested.”

    “Well, it should be - if you ever have a Basilisk running rampant, you need to know if you have to take extra precautions,” wizarding Luna said. “And who knows what ingesting petrified flesh would do to the poor things!”

    The German wizard looked about as taken aback as Ron felt. Even for a witch, wizarding Luna was eccentric. Hell, even for a Luna, probably.

    “Well, the last Basilisk attack in Prussia happened during the Thirty Years’ War,” the wizard replied. “And the last in Europe, not counting the Hogwarts incident, was in 1740 in Transylvania.”

    Apparently, the wizard was an expert on magical creatures. Well, it stood to reason that someone working with such dangerous animals would be well-trained.

    “Why don’t you count the Hogwarts attack?” Hermione asked, frowning.

    “Ah, you’re British.”

    “I am, yes,” Hermione told him.

    “I’m Prussian,” Grindelwald cut in. “But it’s been a while since I was in the area.”

    “Ah.” For a moment, the other wizard scrutinised the German. Then he nodded. “The attack was never officially confirmed, and there were no deaths. Can you imagine a Basilisk attack without deaths?” He chuckled. “What’s next, a vegetarian Nundu?”

    Ron chuckled at the - even to him - obvious joke. Hermione didn’t. “I was there,” she said.

    “But did you see the corpse?” The Prussian wizard didn’t wait for her answer. “Sounded more like a Medusa having fun to me.”

    Hermione managed to control her temper, Ron noted with relief.

    “Can you feed the poor things now?” wizarding Luna asked. “We don’t want to upset their schedule, do we?”

    The German wizard looked like he wanted to tell her something but nodded instead. “Alright.”

    A moment later, the amount of broken stone, bricks and concrete slabs started to multiply.

    “Doubling Charm,” Hermione, standing next to Ron, whispered.

    After about half a minute, during which the rubble grew enough to fill half the lot, the German wizard waved his wand again, and the rubble stopped growing.

    “Oh! Look! They’re already eating! Must have been starving, the poor things!” wizarding Luna commented. She was holding what looked like a steampunk version of night vision goggles in front of her face and was almost folded in half over the fence that kept spectators away from the rubble.

    “You can spot the lice from here?” Hermione asked.

    “Yes.”

    “Those aren’t normal Omnioculars, are they?”

    “Special enchantment for zooming in,” wizarding Luna explained. “Oh! Two lice are fighting over a brick! You should duplicate that brick so there’s enough for everyone.”

    Ron couldn’t tell if she was having all of them on. He shook his head, then blinked. There was a small - the size of a credit card, actually - plaque mounted in front of the lot that he had missed until now. ‘Stone Louse Reserve’. Nothing else. Wait… He knelt down in front of it and peered at the plaque. In tiny letters, it spelt out: ‘Mandated by the ICW in 2002’. It looked like whoever had installed the plaque had been petty or had a sense of humour. Or both.

    After watching stone slowly - very slowly - vanishing for about ten minutes, with the Lunas and Hermione sharing the special Omnioculars, they finally left the sanctuary and continued their walk down the main street of the Alte Strasse. Which was, now that Ron thought of it, a little misleading, seeing as it meant ‘Old Street’ if translated literally, but it was more than a single street.

    He snorted - they were here to buy unicorn horns and to find a discreet and possibly unscrupulous Healer, not to ponder German - or Prussian - naming conventions.

    “So, now that we have seen the best Magical Prussia has to offer, we’re going to see the worst?” wizarding Luna asked.

    “I hope not,” Hermione replied. “We merely want to purchase a rare ingredient and hire a discreet professional.”

    “Preferably without getting ambushed by the not so discreet career criminals in the area,” Ron said. Harry, Sirius and Ginny were in Berlin proper - it would have been foolish to enter with more people than Hermione and wizarding Luna could transport by Side-Along-Apparition - but the best they could do, should the group get into trouble, was to call the wizarding Weasleys. They weren’t really proper reserves, as Sirius had complained.

    Well, they weren’t fighting a war, at least. And Rin wasn’t sure if he’d feel better if Harry and Sirius were with them instead of the two old men - although the chance anyone would see through Harry’s disguise and mistake him for his counterpart was probably a little too high, and Sirius’s counterpart had once been the most wanted man in both Britain and wizarding Britain. This world’s Grindelwald, on the other hand, hadn’t been seen for over fifty years before dying in prison and this world’s Dumbledore was dead. Or confirmed dead, as the old man would say.

    He still had a slightly bad feeling about this. Like an itch that he couldn’t scratch.

    “I doubt that there are many criminals who would attack half a dozen wizards and witches,” Hermione said.

    “Not after we took care to look the part,” Luna added, running a hand over her ‘duellist robes’, as Hermione had called the tightly-cut coat-like dark robe with splits from the hem to the waist both in the front and the back.

    “And if worst comes to worst, we’re not entirely defenceless,” Dumbledore said with a rather mischievous smile. “While most of the gadgets shown in certain spy movies are the product of a fertile but impractical imagination, not everything shown there is fictional.”

    “Oh, yes!” Luna agreed, brandishing what looked like a pen.

    “We’re still disapparating as a first response to trouble,” Hermione told them.

    “Unless that’s being magically blocked,” Ron couldn’t resist pointing out, which earned him a frown from her.

    “Let’s go. ‘Bernhards Brockenhaus’ should be right around the corner,” Hermione said.

    It wasn’t - they had to walk past a dozen shops, each of them a little grungier than the one before, until they reached an old shop with barred windows and a very solid looking door.

    Behind him, he heard Luna ask “What does ‘Brockenhaus’ mean? Broken House?”

    “It’s a Swiss term for a thrift shop,” Grindelwald explained.

    Hermione led the way in, and ‘thrift shop’ was a very apt description, Ron found - the store was crammed full of stuff. Half of the things Ron could see he didn’t recognise at all, and the other half looked decidedly weird. Or ‘off’.

    “Willkommen im Brockenhaus,” the old man behind the counter greeted them. Old wizard, Ron corrected himself - the man had his wand out, next to his hand.

    “Guten Tag,” Grindelwald returned the greeting, looking around.

    “Suchen Sie etwas Bestimmtes?” the clerk asked. Ron didn’t have to speak German to know what the man was offering to help them find whatever they were looking for; he knew that tone.

    “Wir schauen uns nur mal um,” Grindelwald told him.

    “Natürlich.”

    “Don’t touch anything,” Hermione whispered, “there are strong curses on the wares.”

    “It must make shopping expensive,” Luna said, “if they have to remove a curse every time they sell something.”

    Ron studied the clerk while the others looked for a unicorn horn. The man didn’t react at all to their conversation. Which was why Ron was sure he understood English perfectly - people were usually a little nervous if an armed group of foreigners were in their shop and they had no idea what the group was talking about.

    And that the man was trying to hide his grasp of the language instead of trying to use it to make a sale wasn’t a good sign, either.

    Ron kept an eye on the clerk, which meant he didn’t look for a unicorn horn himself. Though he’d expect such a rare item to be prominently displayed in the shop - or not at all. Although it had to be admitted that the sheer variety of goods was a little distracting.

    “Oh! A Donnerschlag! They’re almost as good as the first model Firebolts, and most of the series are still used by Quidditch teams!” wizarding Luna exclaimed. “At this price, it’s a steal!”

    Which probably meant that the broom was stolen. Ron knew of a few thrift shops in London which fenced stolen goods. And had the clerk reacted to that?

    “Look at this, Gellert!” Dumbledore spoke up. “A vintage Wehrmacht uniform. With a gas mask.”

    “A Nazi uniform?” Hermione sounded surprised.

    “Ein Sammlerstück,” the clerk said.

    “People collect these?” She shook her head.

    “It’s a part of our history,” Grindelwald told her. “Even though a lot of Germans try to ignore it.”

    “Fascist fanboys,” Luna said with a sneer.

    “Not entirely,” Dumbledore retorted. “While some are undoubtedly such, either out of ignorance or malice, others are merely overly fond of militaria, and not sufficiently educated in history. And there’s also the allure of the forbidden fruit, of course, at least for Germans.”

    “And some are just stupid, like your youngest royal,” Grindelwald added in a snide tone.

    “Touché,” Dumbledore acknowledged.

    “You’re British muggleborns.” The clerk sounded surprised - and spoke English.

    “You might call us that,” Dumbledore replied, “though we haven’t been in Wizarding Britain for a long time.”

    Ron refrained from rolling his eyes. The old spymaster was a little too fond of clever wordplay.

    “Ich bin Deutscher,” Grindelwald said. “Aber es ist eine Weile her seit ich in Preussen war.”

    “Deutscher.” The clerk nodded as if that had a special meaning. Then he glanced at the Nazi uniform. “Haben Sie im Krieg gekämpft?”

    He was asking about the war? Oh. He would mean Grindelwald’s War, probably.

    Grindelwald shrugged. “Nicht an der Front.”

    “Oh.” Once again, the old clerk nodded again, and a small smile appeared on his face.

    “Not all of us speak German,” Hermione cut in with a frown.

    “Sorry,” the clerk said. He didn’t look sorry in the least.

    “We’re looking for a unicorn horn,” Grindelwald said after a glance at her.

    “They’re rare.” The man sighed. “Ever since the British and the French clamped down on the trade, most people have turned to Prussia. Demand is high.”

    “We can pay,” Grindelwald told him, dropping a purse on the counter.

    “There’s also the matter of possible repercussions,” the clerk said after a glance at the purse. “The Feldjäger don’t like it if we sell to dark wizards.”

    “We’re not wanted in Prussia or Britain,” Dumbledore replied. “And we won’t use it for illegal purposes.”

    The clerk snorted. “Everyone claims that.” He looked at the rest of the group. “Been working in the Americas?”

    “Occasionally,” Dumbledore replied.

    “Fought in the British Civil War?”

    “A few of us did - but it was before they joined us.”

    “I’ve got a few disagreements with the new regime.”

    Now Hermione was doing it as well. Ron didn’t bother hiding his frown - the clerk would probably think it was aimed at the British Ministry of Magic.

    “Ah.” The clerk nodded. “They were far too lenient with the bastards. Should’ve killed them all. Like the bastards tried to do to… Grindelwald’s forces.”

    Of which the old man had been a member, Ron was sure. Which made Grindelwald’s presence here a bigger risk than they had thought. Great.

    Hermione shrugged. “It’s been seven years.”

    “So, do you have a unicorn horn?” Grindelwald asked, a little sharply.

    “If you have the money.”

    Dumbledore reached out and picked the purse up, then started to pour out the gold inside. “I hope you don’t mind Galleons.”

    “As long as you cover the cost of changing them into Taler…”

    It took five minutes of haggling before they had an agreement, and five more minutes of spellcasting until Hermione was satisfied that the horn the clerk finally produced was genuine, but they managed to conclude the deal without ending up in a fight. Or without the clerk seeing through their disguises.

    Ron sighed with relief once they were finally out on the street again.

    “I’m sure he’s a former Storm Wizard,” Hermione said. “He all but admitted it.”

    “We were fortunate that he did not attempt to test our own claims,” Dumbledore commented. “He must have had some doubts, but didn’t want to risk the sale - or a trap.”

    “That’s understandable - the Storm Wizards were never formally pardoned,” Hermione said. “Not even the rank and file. Though not many actually were arrested and prosecuted, at least not in the last few decades.”

    Luna scoffed. “Like the Nazis.”

    “I believe the situation is a little more complex than that comparison would suggest,” Dumbledore said.

    “Grindelwald heavily recruited among the oppressed muggleborns in Europe,” Hermione pointed out. “Although even their legitimate grievances didn’t excuse the crimes they committed under his command.”

    Luna scoffed again.

    “Well, ancient politics aside, that man is fencing stolen loot and poached animal parts,” wizarding Luna said. “It’s people like him that keep poachers and thieves in business.”

    She was frowning, but she didn’t seem to be as angry as Ron would have expected.

    Hermione must have noticed as well since she quickly cast a privacy charm - Ron was now very familiar with the slight buzzing sound the spell caused. “What did you do, Luna?”

    “Uh… nothing?”

    “Luna.”

    “It’s best you don’t know. Plausible deniability, and all.” The witch beamed at them.

    “Luna…”

    “Really. You can’t prove it was me. Besides, if he had been using the proper household spells, he would have been fine. So, it’s his fault, really. Twice over.”

    “Household spells? Luna! You didn’t!” Hermione sounded aghast.

    “What did she do?” Ron asked. He was missing something. He hadn’t seen her cast a spell, but he had been focused on the clerk…

    “She must have released Stone Lice in the shop.”

    “You can’t prove it!”

    I neither need nor want to prove it - but the Prussian authorities will. They know that we visited the Sanctuary,” Hermione pointed out.

    “But we’re in disguise,” wizarding Luna retorted. “If they’d recognised me, they’d be far less polite.” She nodded. “The Prussians are still grumpy about the ICW ruling against their greed and in favour of nature.”

    “And who else would set such lice free?” Hermione shook her head and put both hands on her hips.

    “It happened before. That’s why all the neighbouring buildings have wards against insects,” wizarding Luna replied. “It doesn’t do their gardens any good, but they never think of that.”

    The gardens must be in the back, then. Good to know.

    “And the other wizard didn’t see through my disguise, either,” Grindelwald added. “Or Albus’s.”

    Hermione didn’t look very reassured, but Ron didn’t think the Prussians would be able to pin this on wizarding Luna - although they might try to make her a scapegoat even without any evidence or clues. He’d seen it before with certain firms blaming Greenpeace for a burglary or accident. “How long will it take the lice to, ah, do anything notable?” he asked.

    “A day, probably. The cuties need to reorient themselves first, and find the tastiest stone,” wizarding Luna explained.

    “We’ll be gone by then,” Luna said.

    “We still need to find a discreet Healer,” Dumbledore pointed out.

    “And a trustworthy one,” Hermione said. “Those qualities do not often go together.”

    “More often than you might think,” the old spymaster retorted, “at least in our world.”

    “I guess you have a flexible definition of trustworthy,” she shot back.

    “Oh, most people are trustworthy if you have the right sort of leverage,” Grindelwald added. “It’s finding that leverage that’s the challenge. Although often enough, you just need to make them commit a crime and then force them to incriminate themselves further.”

    “Indeed.” Dumbledore inclined his head. “Although it’s best to use a light hand. Force breeds resentment while rewards can brew loyalty.”

    “We’re just going to hire a Healer for one set of treatments,” Hermione replied. “We’re not going to…” She blinked, then gasped. “No. Are you planning to force a Healer into working for you?”

    “I’m not actually planning to force anyone to work for us - certainly not someone supposed to keep us healthy. But a little insurance usually never hurts. And a competent, discreet Healer on retainer would be a boon,” Dumbledore said. “I would even say they might be a necessity if we happen upon serious trouble. It could save your life.”

    “But the sort of people who would work in such a position for monetary rewards are also likely to be tempted to leverage their magic for even bigger gains. Such as taking over your group. Or striking out on their own somewhere in our world. Or even betraying us for a reward in the magical world.” Hermione shook her head. “It’s too dangerous to trust a mercenary when you can’t match their magic.”

    “But you could - and I dare say, Miss Lovegood would be able to as well, wouldn’t you?”

    “Probably. Unless you are hiring an experienced duellist or dark wizard,” wizarding Luna replied. “But we’ll be busy saving the planet.”

    “Yes,” Luna cut in. “You’ll need someone else to stand guard at the portal.”

    “Well, the portal itself grants a lot of leverage as the only way home,” Dumbledore retorted. “At least as long as Dr Granger is the only one able to open it. Although I trust that you have taken steps to ensure that Miss Lovegood will be able to learn your ritual, should anything happen to you, lest she would become stranded in our world.”

    But that would also mean Hermione would be, in a way, expendable. Not that Ron expected Dumbledore to try and replace her with wizarding Luna - only a fool would think they could control her. Not with wizarding Luna owing far less, if anything at all, to Dumbledore.

    “Yes,” Hermione said. “Although this also accelerates our need to open a second portal as a backup site.”

    Dumbledore smiled. “As soon as you have found a location, we can start construction. A few spells will help with secrecy, I expect. And with tracking down existing leaks, I hope.”

    Obliviating the workers would certainly cut down on leaks - and unlimited access to Veritaserum would help with finding a traitor as well. Especially if your employees wouldn’t remember being drugged and interrogated… They’d need Hermione for that, of course - but that might just be a way to gain more leverage on her, as Grindelwald had mentioned.

    Great.

    “That still doesn’t change the fact that finding a trustworthy Healer will be very difficult,” Hermione said. “I would have preferred to hire a muggleborn Healer in Britain - someone who would be unlikely to value the Statute of Secrecy higher than muggles in need of treatment, but, due to my mistake in Knockturn Alley, that avenue is now closed.”

    “Our mistake,” Ron corrected her.

    She frowned at him. “I was the one who got impatient, and didn’t inform myself about the changes to the area.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Grindelwald said. “What matters is finding a Healer.”

    “Magical Prussia isn’t the best place for that,” Hermione replied. “Durmstrang, the best school covering the country, doesn’t accept muggleborn students.”

    “There are no suitable muggleborn Healers, then?” Dumbledore asked.

    “Those who managed to receive a Healer’s education despite the discrimination are unlikely to risk their careers for strangers,” Hermione told him.

    “In my experience, a large sum of money tends to solve that particular problem,” Grindelwald said with a scoff.

    “Even if it did, finding a mercenary who will stay bought isn’t easy,” Hermione retorted.

    “There’s no honour among thieves,” Luna added, ”or among mercenaries. They work for the highest bidder - those who rule the country, either openly or from the shadows.”

    “And you can’t pass as wizards.” Hermione shook her head. “Any competent Healer will detect the various non-magical treatments you received in the past, and realise that you’re muggles.”

    She’d said that before, but it bore repeating. He spoke up: “I don’t think we’ll have much luck here. Most of us don’t even speak the language.”

    “I concur,” Dumbledore said. “While Gellert and I would have no trouble with German, we aren’t familiar enough with Magical Prussia. We would draw attention, or so I believe.”

    Grindelwald scoffed but didn’t contradict him.

    “Not to mention that we should vacate the premises before Luna’s little surprise is discovered,” Ron added.

    “It was always a long shot to find a Healer in Berlin,” Hermione said.

    “Are we going to France then?” wizarding Luna asked.

    “No,” Hermione replied. “Our best bet is, in my opinion, the New World. But first, I’ll brew Ricklestorf’s Restoration Potion.”

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, December 28th, 2005

    “That’s the potion?” judging by his expression and tone, Grindelwald didn’t seem to trust Hermione.

    “Yes,” she replied. “Perfectly brewed, I might add.”

    “In your tent.”

    “Yes. Where I’ve brewed many other potions of similar complexity.” Hermione frowned.

    “No one doubts your skill, Doctor. And you have our heartfelt thanks,” Dumbledore said with a glance at Grindelwald. “So, do we take this before or after dinner?”

    “That doesn’t matter - it’s magic, not medicine,” she told him.

    “Then let’s wait until after dinner,” Grindelwald said.

    “You prefer a last meal?” Ron asked, raising his eyebrows.

    Dumbledore laughed at his joke - though not very long. Though both Grindelwald and Hermione frowned at Ron.

    “It’s perfectly safe.” She pursed her lips. “Safer than any experimental anti-ageing drug. This potion has been used for decades.”

    “And that was the main reason unicorns were an endangered species for years,” wizarding Luna added. “Too many people wanted to prolong their lives a few more years.”

    “A quite understandable stance, I have to say,” Dumbledore replied. “Who wouldn’t want to live a little longer, provided they were healthy?”

    “Those who want to live forever, no matter the cost,” wizarding Luna told him with an unusually serious - or even sad - expression.

    “Like Voldemort,” Hermione said. “He split his soul, damning himself to never ever be able to pass on, in his attempt to stave off death. Yet, at the end of the day, death claimed him as well.”

    “Poetic,” Grindelwald said. “But I’ve never been very religious.”

    “Well, souls exist. Magic can affect them,” Hermione told him. “No one knows what happens after death, though.”

    The German scoffed.

    “I think most people won’t be in a hurry to find out,” Dumbledore said with a wry smile.

    “I’m just saying that there are fates worse than death. Literally,” Hermione said. “The Ministry of Magic used to have certain monsters devour a condemned prisoner’s soul as the ultimate capital punishment.”

    “Technically, it’s still legal - but they don’t do it any more,” wizarding Luna said.

    “What?” Hermione looked shocked. “They haven’t abolished that… that…”

    “Not formally.”

    “First Azkaban, now this…”

    Ron could see Hermione’s muscles twitch as she clenched her teeth. He reached out to pat her hand.

    “Well,” Dumbledore spoke up after a moment, “Perhaps we should drink the potions now.”

    Grindelwald grunted his agreement.

    Both unstoppered their vials and raised them in a silent toast before drinking.

    Ron watched them. Both gasped a moment after finishing, Dumbledore closing his eyes. Then they trembled before sighing. And did a few wrinkles vanish? Or, at least, grew less pronounced?

    “Oh, my.” Dumbledore blinked. “This is… marvellous.”

    *****​

    Greenwich, London, Wizarding Britain, December 29th, 2005

    “Thank you for doing business with us,” the shady man behind the counter said in a bad imitation of a clerk in a posh store.

    A real clerk in a posh store would have offered to help Ron and Harry with the heavy dresser they were manhandling out of the door.

    Struggling with the weight - these antiques were far heavier than modern furniture - Ron merely nodded and focused on not letting the massive thing drop. Hermione’s Mending Charm would deal with any sort of damage from such a fall - but the clerk might grow suspicious if they didn’t act like they cared about further damage.

    Once outside, loading the thing into the rented van, Harry complained. “All this just for some money? When Dumbledore’s fencing gold?”

    “It’s a source of clean money,” Ron replied. Harry was correct that selling the magically restored piece of furniture wouldn’t bring in much money compared to the old spymaster’s budget, but it wouldn’t raise any flags, and the money would have a proper paper trail. No one could be expected to have receipts for a piece of furniture bought by their grandparents, after all.

    “They don’t need laundered money,” Harry retorted as they got into the van. “They have to use a fake identity anyway, and we’ll be paying in gold.”

    “Technically, all of us except Hermione and the other Luna will be using fake IDs,” Ron told him. And if wizarding Harry and wizarding Ron found out that they’d used fake IDs that matched theirs… “And we’ll have to spend money in the USA as well. For a good hotel, at least.”

    “We could stay in wizarding tents,” Harry said as he pulled out of the parking spot.

    “That’s not as safe there as it’d be here,” Ron retorted. What he’d heard about the various wizarding enclaves on the East Coast made the Middle East sound peaceful and rational.

    Harry didn’t say anything for a little while as they drove towards the Grangers’ house. “And I don’t like travelling so far from the portal. Or for so long.”

    “That’s why Grindelwald will not be coming with us,” Ron replied.

    “We’d still be stranded here if something happens in the resort.”

    “That’s also why Dumbledore and Grindelwald are laundering money,” Ron pointed out. In theory, they could just use magic to grab what they needed, but paying for things would reduce the risk of catching the attention of the wizarding police - the Aurors. They only needed one of everything, anyway - they could duplicate them, in a pinch. Still, even using magic, setting up a portal site would take time.

    Harry grumbled something Ron didn’t catch. Probably about them not having to help the old men any more. Well, Ron agreed with him. But Hermione insisted on fulfilling her side of their deal.

    Well, he had always wanted to travel to the United States.

    *****​

    Black Lake, Scotland, Britain, December 29th, 2005

    “I still marvel at how much younger I feel,” Dumbledore said as he sat down at the table in the lounge.

    “It’s mostly the absence of pain,” Grindelwald added.

    “Even a pain-relieving drug that does not carry the danger of getting addicted to it, or affecting your ability to think, would be a great boon,” the former spymaster countered. “But it’s more than that - I feel fitter as well.”

    “Don’t try a cartwheel, please. I’d rather not go to America in your place because you’ve hurt yourself.”

    Ron had to chuckle at that.

    “I’m certain Dr Granger would be able to deal with any wound I might occur.”

    Grindelwald scoffed.

    “Nevertheless, I do feel like a young man of, say, sixty years.” Dumbledore smiled widely. “If a few specialised healing spells can improve on that…”

    “Are you planning to return to the field?” Luna asked.

    “Oh, no!” The old man shook his head as his friend scoffed again. “That’s behind me.”

    “To your great regret,” Grindelwald said. “You always loved the field.”

    “I met you there.”

    The two old men looked at each other, sharing a smile.

    Ron felt more than a little uneasy - was this an act or were the two men actually feeling so comfortable with the group that they’d be so… affectionate in their presence? Or was this a combination of both? Wizarding Luna was beaming at them, and Luna was smiling as well. Although in her case, that didn’t have to mean she actually liked them. On the other hand, she had been getting along very well with Dumbledore, especially given their differing view of politics.

    Hermione joined them. “I’ve repaired the dresser. My parents will be looking for a buyer.”

    “So you could travel to America tomorrow,” Grindelwald said.

    “No, we can’t!” wizarding Luna replied before Hermione could. “We can’t miss the New Year’s Ball!”

    “And we won’t find a Healer in two days,” Hermione added.

    “A few more days won’t harm us,” Dumbledore said. “We shouldn’t rush this, anyway.”

    Ron clenched his teeth for a moment at the implied criticism of his and Hermione’s trip to Knockturn Alley.

    “It’s too bad you won’t be attending,” wizarding Luna went on. “It’s the biggest party of the year. All my friends will be there. Apart from you.”

    “Even with the best disguises, I fear our secret would be revealed, should all of us attend the Ministry’s ball,” Dumbledore told her. “Mr Weasley is expected to attend, as he is already known by the public to be your boyfriend. But us?” He shook his head. “Someone would make the connection.”

    Ron nodded in agreement. The two Lunas were behaving so similarly, it would be obvious - even assuming Hermione’s estimate of the intellectual capability of the average Ministry employee was true.

    Though he couldn’t help wondering if the trip to war-torn Magical America or the party at the British Ministry of Magic would be more dangerous for him.

    *****​

    “Happy New Year.”

    “Happy New Year.”

    “Happy New Year.”

    She raised her glass together with her friends, then took a sip. The champagne was good, but not great. It was the same brand her family had always bought for Christmas and New Year’s, and she sighed for a moment, closing her eyes, as she thought of better times. Simpler times. When she hadn’t celebrated New Year’s in the middle of nowhere inside a hidden wizarding tent.

    Then she emptied the glass and looked at her friend.

    “Let’s go,” Harry said.

    She nodded. Most of the Death Eaters would be at the Ministry’s New Year’s party. And most of the remaining Aurors would be guarding it. That meant Diagon Alley would be vulnerable.

    As would Knockturn Alley.

    *****​
     
    Higure, Twilight666, Osserumb and 2 others like this.
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 46: The New Year’s Party
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 46: The New Year’s Party

    Ministry of Magic, Whitehall, London, Wizarding World, December 31st, 2005


    Ron stepped out of the fireplace, stumbling a little, and resisted the urge to whistle. The Ministry’s Atrium was dominated by a giant floating ‘2006’ sign - a real-life hologram - that changed colour as it slowly rotated around itself, next to a giant clock in the same style. And hundreds of tiny stars sparkled as they flitted around. Although something was off…

    “We should have come earlier,” Hermione commented as he stepped up to her side. She flicked her wand to clean some soot off his dress shirt.

    “We’re early,” he replied. The party was supposed to open at eight, and it was a quarter to eight.

    “Not early enough,” she said as he offered her his arm.

    A moment later, the first flashbulb went off, and the other guests started to move towards them. What the… Oh. “Were they just waiting until we joined arms?” he whispered.

    “Yes,” she replied sotto voce. “At such events, it’s customary to ignore people stepping out of the fireplace until they signal that they have officially arrived. No one wants to appear soot-stained in the papers, after all.”

    “Ah.” That would’ve been nice to know beforehand.

    “Sorry.”

    “No problem.”

    Then they crossed the cordon line, and everyone wanted to greet Hermione.

    “Miss Granger!”

    “Hermione!”

    “So good to see you!”

    “Hello!”

    “Hi!”

    Hermione kept smiling, although her smile became a little forced - not that Ron thought anyone in the crowd would notice; they wouldn’t know her as well as he did. And he couldn’t spot any of her friends nearby. She also returned the greetings as they made their way through the crowd to the… buffet, he decided. That would be the best spot for them right now. “Let’s get something to eat,” he said.

    “Good idea.”

    They were halfway to the buffet when another witch stopped them. “Hermione!”

    “Hello, Su.”

    “I still can’t believe it! Did St Mungo’s identify the curse that struck you?” She beamed at Hermione. “And hello, Mr Weasley.”

    “Good evening.”

    “Su, this is Ronald, my boyfriend. Ronald - this is Su Li. We were in the same year at Hogwarts.”

    “Ravenclaw! We always thought Hermione should’ve been in our house.”

    That explained her nosiness.

    “As to your question: I’m making other arrangements for treatment,” Hermione told the witch.

    “Oh. But will you publish the results?”

    “That depends on the results. I don’t want my medical history spread all over the Daily Prophet’s front page,” Hermione replied in a slightly pointed tone.

    “Ah. I didn’t think of that. But would they really do that? Things have changed since you, ah… disappeared.” Now Li’s smile started to slip a little.

    “I survived.” Hermione shrugged.

    “But you lived as a muggle for years! Without knowing that you were a witch, or that you had family and friends!”

    “I also met Ronald during that time.”

    Ron flashed the witch a smile.

    “Ah, of course.”

    “And we’re a little hungry,” Ron said, nodding towards the buffet.

    “Ah, yes - it’s a great spread. They say Mrs Weasley baked a cake, but the dessert buffet isn’t out yet. Although they say that every year, and it has never been confirmed.” Li beamed at Hermione once more.

    “I don’t know if it’s true, either.”

    “It’s probably a trick by the twins,” Ron said. It sounded like something his brothers or their counterparts would do.

    “Oh. You know them? I mean, of course you do, just… I didn’t think you were that closely related.”

    “We’re not, but we’ve already spent some time with the family,” he replied.

    “Ah.”

    “And we’ve met Lavender as well,” Hermione said with an obviously fake smile.

    “Ah.”

    They reached the buffet and Li still hadn’t found someone else to talk to.

    “So, who else from school have you already met?”

    “Apart from Harry, Ron and the Weasleys, Luna, of course,” Hermione told her.

    “Charming girl,” Ron cut in.

    “Ah.” Li was grimacing again.

    “Luna was in Ravenclaw as well,” Hermione explained. “But she had some trouble with her housemates.”

    “Some didn’t like her,” Li said. After a moment, she nodded. “I think I’ve questioned you enough, haven’t I?”

    Ron smiled at her attempted joke - politely.

    Hermione simply nodded. “Not at all.” Although as soon Li had left, she sighed. “House stereotypes are stupid, but sometimes, there’s a grain of truth in them. Ravenclaws are said to be more curious than polite.”

    “I see.” Ron nodded. Wizarding Luna was sometimes like that, though even then she was more charming than Li had been. Although that might just be his own bias speaking.

    He still didn’t like Li.

    As he reached for some finger sandwiches, one of the fluttering lights drew closer, almost swooping down on to the sandwich, and he realised that it wasn’t a floating lightbulb, but… a pixie?

    “A fairy,” Hermione corrected him - he must have spoken out loud. “Pixies are a pest, but fairies traditionally serve as decorations at various wizarding events.”

    “Oh.” He took a closer look, and the fairy smiled at him, its wings buzzing as it performed a figure of eight. He stretched his hand out, palm up, and it landed on it, then struck a pose that made him smile.

    “They’re very vain, so they like performing like this. That’s also why they like serving as Christmas tree decorations.”

    “Oh. Are they sapient?” With such a small brain? On the other hand, he hadn’t lost his intellect when he had been shrunk...

    “Sentient but not sapient, I think is the correct term. Animal-level intelligence.” Hermione shrugged. “You should ask Luna; she’s the expert on magical creatures.”

    “Ah.” He looked around, and the fairy flew off again. “Speak of the devil…” There was wizarding Luna, at the other end of the buffet, talking to wizarding Ginny.

    “Let’s go talk to them,” Hermione suggested. “Before we’re accosted again.”

    He nodded - he could already spot people moving towards them.

    “There you are!” wizarding Luna exclaimed, then moved to hug both of them - while holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a plate full of mini-cakes in the other. Ron expected to feel some liquid running down his back, but, somehow, she managed not to spill anything.

    “Hello, Luna. Hello, Ginny,” he said as wizarding Luna withdrew.

    “Hello, Ronald.” Wizarding Ginny’s greeting was not quite as exuberant as wizarding Luna’s. At least not towards him - he could see how her smile grew as she looked at Hermione. “Hermione! You came!”

    “Of course. I wouldn’t miss this,” Hermione replied.

    “Really?” Wizarding Luna frowned a little. “Wouldn’t you prefer a more private celebration?”

    Hermione side-stepped the question. “All my wizarding friends are here.”

    “And a lot of people who want to be your ‘friend’,” wizarding Ginny added.

    “Yes. Su talked more to me today than in a month at Hogwarts,” Hermione said.

    “Oh, her. She’s become as bad a gossip as Parvati and Lavender at their worst.” Wizarding Ginny snorted.

    “She’s just curious,” wizarding Luna retorted. “Everyone is. Understandably so, of course. It’s an incredible story.”

    Ron narrowed his eyes slightly - was wizarding Luna hinting at something?

    “I understand,” Hermione told her. “But I’d like some privacy.”

    “You could also just talk to everyone for a week - satisfy their curiosity,” wizarding Ginny suggested. “People care more about what they can’t have.” She grinned. “Harry and I found that out after the war. The press was awful.”

    “I didn’t think you’d have trouble with the press.” Hermione frowned again. “Not like we had during… our time at Hogwarts.”

    “Oh, there’s no second Skeeter, but journalists still bothered us a lot - and again after the kids were born. Trying to hide wasn’t working well.”

    “Ah.”

    “The Quibbler put out a special edition,” wizarding Luna added with a smile. “With a poster.”

    “You could do that for Hermione as well, couldn’t you?” wizarding Ginny asked.

    Wizarding Luna shook her head. “I think the Daily Prophet would be the better choice in this particular case.”

    Ron frowned why wouldn’t they…? Oh. Of course - Hermione’s public story was a lie.

    “There you are!”

    For a moment, Ron thought it was Harry. His Harry. But no, it was his friend’s counterpart. With Ron’s counterpart and wizarding Lavender in tow. Great.

    They exchanged greetings while wizarding Harry and wizarding Ginny kissed.

    “You look great, Hermione,” wizarding Lavender said.

    “You too,” Hermione replied.

    Neither witch sounded as if they meant it.

    Ron merely nodded at his counterpart.

    “Nice beard,” wizarding Ron commented with a smirk.

    Ron clenched his teeth for a moment. It was a disguise, not a fashion statement. “Thank you.”

    Then both wizards hugged Hermione, and, as they did so, Ron looked around for possible threats.

    “Glad you could make it,” wizarding Ron said. “We weren’t sure.”

    “Oh?” Hermione frowned again before the buzzing background noise of a privacy charm filled Ron’s ears.

    “What with Luna being a suspect in the escape of some stone lice in Berlin.”

    “Really?” Wizarding Luna looked so surprised, Ron would have been fooled if he didn’t know any better.

    “Yes. An entire house was lost before they could stop them,” Harry said.

    “How peculiar. Perhaps the house owner had failed to get his building properly warded?”

    “Really?” Wizarding Ron snorted.

    Wizarding Luna nodded emphatically. “There’s no other explanation. But why would they suspect me?”

    Wizarding Harry shook his head. “The affected building sold a unicorn horn the day before - to a group of people who were very interested in the stone lice reserve. British people.”

    “How peculiar.” Wizarding Luna shook her head. “And how does that involve me? There are thousands of British witches. And hundreds with an interest in magical creatures. The Stone Louse Sanctuary is, after all, Berlin’s most famous attraction. Even other worlds have heard about it!”

    “In a cartoon on TV, apparently,” Hermione explained. “Probably a coincidence.”

    “Oh.” Wizarding Ron looked surprised.

    His friend, though, merely sighed. “Just be more subtle, please. Kingsley has enough work; he doesn’t need international problems, too.”

    “But he’s not responsible for people failing to keep their household spells up to date,” wizarding Luna stated. “Especially not in Berlin!” She cocked her head. “Did they evacuate the poor little lice properly? The ICW wouldn’t be happy if they killed endangered magical creatures.”

    Wizarding Ron grinned. “I don’t think so. That should shut up the Prussians. Thanks, Luna!”

    “For what?”

    Ron couldn’t tell if the witch was acting or honestly confused.

    “Well, as long as there are no stone lice in England…” Lavender said after a moment.

    “Not in the wild,” Luna said. “That wouldn’t be nice for Prussian Stone Lice. They would get all confused.”

    “Luna…”

    Suddenly, everyone looked very concerned. And Ron felt the urgent need to find out what dangerous magical creatures could be found in America. Not that he could ask here - he didn’t want his counterpart and Hermione’s other wizarding friends to know about their plans.

    “What?” wizarding Luna asked. “Do you want me to introduce an invasive species to Britain?”

    She sounded as if she was honestly confused.

    “Of course not,” Hermione said.

    “Good.” Wizarding Luna nodded again. “That would be very irresponsible - they don’t have any natural predators in Britain.”

    “What natural predators do they have?” wizarding Ginny asked.

    “Prussian Bowtruckles,” wizarding Luna told her. “Although they went extinct when the Prussian Ministry decided to exterminate stone lice, depriving them of their food source. They couldn’t adapt to their food hiding in buildings instead of eating rocks.”

    “What about other predators?”

    “Some muggle insects and arachnids eat stone lice as well, but they aren’t commonly found in buildings, either.”

    In other words, if those pests ever got free, they’d have a huge problem on their hands until the wizards could contain them. And yet… “Spiders.” Ron shuddered.

    “Oh, you don’t like them, either, do you?” his counterpart asked.

    “Not at all,” Ron confirmed.

    “Oh. Was that the twins’ fault?” wizarding Lavender asked.

    Ron nodded. “Though a recent encounter with a giant spider didn’t really help, either.” He shuddered again.

    “You went to the Acromantula lair?” Wizarding Ron gaped. “What for?”

    “No, we didn’t,” Hermione quickly said. “We had to shrink ourselves during a mission in the other world,” she said, “and we ran into a spider.”

    “Merlin’s beard!” Ron’s counterpart shuddered. “And without a wand?”

    “Yes. We managed to kill it, though,” Ron told him. “Squashed it with a book.”

    “With a book?” Wizarding Lavender stared at them.

    “I had my library in my enchanted bag, so when I pulled out a book it was normal sized since it hadn’t been shrunk,” Hermione explained.

    “Splat - squashed spider,” Ron added.

    “But…” Wizarding Harry narrowed his eyes. “For that to work, you must have been almost on top of it.”

    “It was a little tricky,” Ron admitted. “But, obviously, we survived. I took a heavier rifle for the next mission, though.”

    “Which didn’t do anything against the snake,” Hermione commented.

    “Well, nothing would have helped against that. We were saved by an owl that time,” Ron said. “Wild owl,” he added before they could ask.

    “You’re crazy,” wizarding Lavender said, shaking her head.

    “We’ve done similar things,” wizarding Ron told her. “Remember?”

    You did,” she replied, sniffing. “I was a very sensible witch at school.”

    “Most of the time,” he told her.

    She winced for a moment, then nodded.

    Everyone else seemed to know what they meant. Ron would have to ask Hermione later about that.

    “I really wish I could’ve taken my twin as a date,” wizarding Luna said. “We could’ve disguised her like Ronald. Well, not with a beard; that would have looked a little weird. Although we might’ve disguised her as a man…”

    “Your twin?” Wizarding Ginny asked.

    Ron saw Hermione shut her mouth - she probably had been about to lecture them again about disguises and their need to not be too obvious.

    “My dimensionally displaced twin sister!” Wizarding Luna beamed. “It’s like my family doubled overnight!”

    “Ah.”

    Ron looked at his counterpart and forced a fake smile on his face, which was returned in equal measure. It went without saying that no one shared wizarding Luna’s attitude towards their doubles. Well, with the possible exception of Hermione - although having two sets of parents might be a burden for her as well as a blessing.

    “So… when’s the dancing?” Ron asked to break the sudden silence.

    “That’s usually after the Minister’s speech,” wizarding Harry told him.

    “Watch out, parents coming,” Ron’s counterpart cut in, nodding towards the side. “Better drop the privacy charm.”

    Ron turned. Indeed, Mr and Mrs Weasley were headed towards them, followed by wizarding Percy and... Penny, was it? And behind them came the twins’ counterparts and Angelina.

    He glanced around and spotted Bill - wizarding Bill - with Fleur.

    It really looked like a Weasley party right now. The only one missing was Charlie. Ron blinked. “Say… who’s watching all the kids?”

    “Hagrid,” wizarding Ron told him. “He’s used to dealing with dangerous animals, so he’ll be fine.”

    Judging by the expression on Hermione’s face, she didn’t share his opinion. “Hagrid?”

    “Well, Dobby’s helping,” wizarding Ginny said. “He’s got experience. But this isn’t the first time Hagrid’s babysat, Hermione.”

    Hermione still didn’t look like she believed her friend.

    Something else to ask her about later, Ron thought as the privacy charm faded and they were greeted by the other Weasleys. For now, he’d try his best to enjoy the party.

    *****​

    “...and you really lived as a muggle for seven years? Without remembering your family and friends? I can’t imagine how awful that must have been!” the witch - Susan Bones, apparently the niece of Bones’s counterpart and a former classmate of Hermione’s - exclaimed.

    Her date, Terry Boot, yet another former classmate, nodded.

    “Well, I didn’t actually know what I was missing,” Hermione lied. “And I made new friends,” she added, gripping Ron’s arm a little more tightly.

    “Oh, of course,” Bones was quick to reply, giving Ron a quick glance. “But to live without magic… you must be very relieved to have recovered.”

    “Yes.”

    “I wouldn’t have survived, I think,” Boot added. “I wouldn’t have known the first thing about how muggles live.”

    “Although living as a muggle isn’t too bad,” Ron had to comment. “My best friend and my family did it for years.” Well, his family in his world.

    “Ah, certainly, but…” Bones trailed off. “I mean, you didn’t know better, either, did you?”

    He couldn’t resist. “Oh, I’ve dreamed of magic since I could read.” Well, since he had been able to read Uncle Gideon’s fantasy books that had ended up in the attic.

    “What?” Boot blurted out, staring at him openly for the first time. “Are you… are you the Weasley squib?”

    “What? No. I didn’t even know we were family,” Ron told him as Bones glared at Boot.

    “But you dreamed of magic?”

    “I’ve read a lot of books about magic,” Ron said.

    “You did?” Bones looked shocked.

    “Fictional books written by muggles,” Hermione said, her smile a little too wide. Spoilsport.

    Ron nodded. “Yes. So I wasn’t completely flabbergasted when Hermione revealed the truth to me. Even though most of what I expected was wrong.”

    “Ah.” Bones nodded. “So, Hermione, how was the Weasley Christmas Dinner? It’s legendary at the Ministry.”

    “Oh, it was as you would expect,” Hermione replied. “Great food, great company, but very lively.”

    “All the Weasleys in one place…” Bones chuckled as she shook her head. “Especially the twins. The things they came up with at Hogwarts!”

    “I know,” Hermione told her. “I was the only prefect trying to rein them in, as I recall.”

    “Oh, yes. One time, they left their sweets out, and Hannah…” Bones abruptly shut her mouth.

    Hermione nodded.

    Hannah must have been another witch who hadn’t survived the war, Ron concluded, a little belatedly.

    Before anyone could say anything else, an older woman approached them. “Miss Granger. Miss Bones. Mr Boot.”

    “Professor McGonagall!” Hermione’s face lit up as the others mumbled their greetings. “Oh, I should have visited Hogwarts already! But I’ve been so busy…”

    “Completely understandable,” the older witch - apparently a teacher - said, “given your circumstances.”

    “Yes.” Hermione nodded, then turned to Ron. “Professor, this is Ronald Weasley. Ronald - Professor McGonagall. She is the Headmistress of Hogwarts and used to teach Transfiguration.”

    “Ah. I’m a muggle Weasley,” Ron told McGonagall.

    She nodded at him, though with a rather stern expression. “So I’ve heard.” She turned to Hermione. “I was overjoyed to hear that you survived.”

    “Everyone was,” Bones cut in.

    “I was wondering about your plans for your education,” the professor went on, “and whether you plan to take your N.E.W.T.s. I know you did study during the war, but it’s been seven years since.”

    “I’m planning to take my N.E.W.T.s, but I haven’t yet decided when. I’m still adjusting to, well, everything. There’s so much to sort out,” Hermione replied.

    “If you need any assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Miss Granger. It would be a shame if such a brilliant mind didn’t finish her education.”

    Ron refrained from frowning. He didn’t refrain from butting in. “She went to university,” he pointed out.

    “Well, I wouldn’t have expected anything less.” McGonagall beamed at Hermione, who smiled back.

    “Thank you, professor.”

    Ron wondered - not aloud, of course - if the witch had any idea how difficult earning a doctorate was, especially after spending seven years at magic school. He was about to mention that when an older wizard approached.

    “Miss Granger!” The man beamed at her. “Minerva. Susan. Mr Boot.”

    “Professor Slughorn.” Hermione’s greeting was noticeably less enthusiastic than before. “Ronald - this is Professor Slughorn. Professor - Ronald Weasley.”

    “The muggle Weasley,” Ron said, nodding at the man.

    “So I’ve heard. Remarkable. Truly remarkable.” Contrary to his words, the wizard turned right back to Hermione. “I was overjoyed to hear that you survived your ordeal. It’s almost a Christmas miracle, isn’t it?”

    “Is that what the Prophet is calling it?” Hermione laughed, though it sounded a little forced.

    “They might,” Slughorn replied with a wide smile. “Although it might depend on who is writing a particular article. I would’ve sent you an invitation to the Slug Club Holiday Dinner, but I assumed that you would prefer to spend the holidays with your close family and friends.”

    “I did,” Hermione said.

    “But, as we’ve been told, this is practically the Weasley New Year’s Party,” Ron added. “So, almost a family event.”

    “Indeed, indeed.” Slughorn chuckled. “Although since everyone wants to talk to you, you might have preferred a more private occasion for your return to wizarding society.”

    “So far, I’ve managed,” Hermione replied.

    “Good, good. I hope to see you at my next get together.”

    This was the wizarding old boy’s network, Ron realised. Although it didn’t seem to be limited to boys.

    *****​

    “Miss Granger!” Shacklebolt was charming, as behoved a politician, in Ron’s opinion. “I hope you’ve been enjoying the party so far.”

    “I have, thank you,” Hermione replied.

    “And you, Mr Weasley?”

    “It’s very impressive,” he told him.

    “I’m happy to hear that.” Shacklebolt nodded, then turned back to Hermione. “Please don’t think I was ignoring you; I assumed you didn’t want to be dragged into the spotlight again.”

    She nodded at him. “You were correct. I’m still not used to drawing such attention.”

    “The press isn’t allowed to bother guests, either,” the wizard added. “Though that rule was implemented years ago.”

    “I can imagine.”

    So could Ron. Especially if wizarding Harry held similar sentiments towards the tabloids as Ron’s friend.

    “So, what are your impressions?” Another beaming smile followed - Shacklebolt was probably very popular. “As a recent arrival, you’re bound to be more objective than most others.”

    “It reminds me of Christmas at Hogwarts,” Hermione told him.

    “Good.” The Minister nodded a few times. “I’ll pass your compliments on to the organisers.”

    Ron wasn’t sure if Hermione had meant her comment as an unqualified compliment. Who would want to hear that their great event was like a school party? On the other hand, everyone in Wizarding Britain went to Hogwarts for seven years. Except for immigrants and squibs, of course. And the muggle partners of wizards and witches. So they might have much more positive feelings about Hogwarts. And it certainly looked like a very impressive castle from the outside.

    But the Minister was already continuing: “And it seems you’ve weathered the deluge of people wishing to talk to you well. I hope it wasn’t overwhelming.”

    “Not at all,” Hermione replied. “Many were old friends from Hogwarts. Or Order members.”

    Ron didn’t recall many of the latter - unless all the Weasleys counted, of course.

    “Ah! Good, good. Though I do hope no one’s tried to drag you into politics already.”

    That sounded a little condescending to Ron.

    Judging by the hint of teeth showing in Hermione’s smile, she shared his impression. “If they were, they were too subtle for me to notice.”

    “Ah, that could very well be the case. Despite my best efforts, the Wizengamot remains dominated by old and experienced wizards and witches. Most of them are so used to each other that a few hints are enough to make their intentions plain to one another. It can be a little frustrating if you’re not used to it.” The Minister shrugged.

    “I would’ve expected Voldemort to have gotten rid of most of the Wizengamot, and to have corrupted the rest,” Hermione said with a frown.

    “He did, and we dealt with the survivors. However, their successors are mostly cut from the same cloth, so to speak - at least with regards to their age. Most of the younger crowd went into the Ministry, like Harry and Ron. Of course, the Ministry had suffered even more under Voldemort.”

    “So I’ve heard. However, since we’re speaking about old traditions - isn’t it time to get rid of Azkaban? Or at least the Dementors? You’ve had seven years, an entire Hogwarts generation, to recover, so there should no longer be a lack of manpower that would justify such a despicable expedient. It’snothing less than torture for the prisoners - we should be above such practices. Especially after fighting Voldemort.” Hermione all but glared at the Minister.

    Shacklebolt winced, Ron noticed. “Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. While the curse on the Defence teacher’s post has been broken by the Dark Lord’s death, that didn’t help the older students much. It’s only now that people are finishing Hogwarts who have had the benefit of a decent Defence teacher for all their years there.”

    “It seems that now would be the best time to stop employing those monsters, then.” Hermione lifted her chin - she was digging her heels in.

    “But whoever we hire now wouldn’t have any experience - and, as we’ve discovered, the most talented wizards and witches prefer other positions in the Ministry to serving as prison guards. And we do need the best to guard the worst dark wizards, or we would risk escapes or accomplices breaking the prisoners out.” The Minister shook his head. “We cannot allow that to happen. We need to keep the Dementors for at least a few more years.”

    “I’m sure that raising the salary of those positions would make them more popular.” Hermione scoffed. “Well worth the price.”

    “Or rotate Aurors through?” Ron suggested.

    “That would harm Auror recruitment and retention.” Shacklebolt shook his head. “And we need every Auror we can recruit since the Corps was effectively wiped out in the war. Would you really sacrifice the protection of our people just to save the worst criminals a certain amount of pain?”

    “It’s torture! Constant, ongoing torture!” Hermione retorted. “We’re supposed to be better than that.”

    “Should we execute every criminal instead? Even those who don’t deserve a life sentence, but are still dangerous?” The Minister shook his head again. “That’s not a solution, either. We’re still recovering from the war; we just don’t have the resources to reform Azkaban. Where would you make the cuts? St Mungo’s? The Obliviators? The ICW would condemn us for endangering the Statute of Secrecy.”

    Hermione pointedly looked around. “This doesn’t look like an event organised by a Ministry on the verge of collapse.”

    “It doesn’t cost much to organise a party - much was done by volunteers. But not many of those who can cook a great feast or decorate a room can or would serve as prison guards.”

    Ron saw Hermione clench her teeth and purse her lips - which meant that the Minister was correct, and she was loath to admit it. “You could increase your revenue.”

    “That’s far easier said than done,” Shacklebolt retorted. “Most of our revenue comes from licensing fees for businesses and customs, and both were affected by the war. If we increased the fees, we’d drive people out of business, or underground, and lose even more revenue.”

    “What about taxes?”

    Shacklebolt spread his hands in a gesture that reminded Ron of Dumbledore. “We don’t have the personnel or the skill to implement a system that would allow us to collect taxes fairly and accurately. And relying on donations would open the door to corruption and patronage.”

    Hermione wasn’t about to admit defeat. “You could tax properties. Thanks to the Floo Network, most homes are registered at the Ministry.”

    “The Wizengamot would never go for it.”

    Hermione scoffed. “Because most of the members own the largest manors?”

    Shacklebolt inclined his head. “In the worst case, they would implement a flat tax per property, which would barely dent their fortunes, but might drive others into ruin.” He smiled, although ruefully. “I’m afraid that reforming Azkaban won’t be possible until Britain has fully recovered from the war.”

    Hermione made a sound like a suppressed huff. “I refuse to accept that.”

    “If you can find a way, I’ll see that it’s implemented at once,” the Minister said with a hint of condescension.

    “I’ll hold you to that,” Hermione snapped back.

    “Of course. Now, please excuse me - it seems the Prussian ambassador would like to talk to me. About an incident in Berlin, I believe.”

    As soon as the Minister had left and Hermione had cast a new privacy charm, she huffed loudly. “The arrogance of that man!”

    “Well,” Ron said, “he did seem to be convinced that reforming Azkaban was impossible.” She glared at him for that, but he had weathered worse. “I don’t know if he’s telling the truth.”

    “He probably thinks he’s telling the truth. But if seven years hasn’t been enough for the ‘economy’ to ‘recover’, no number of years will be enough. There’ll always be something more important than the prisoners, something the country needs more than a humane prison.” She scoffed and clenched her teeth again.

    “Do you have an idea how to change that?” he asked.

    “Not yet. But I refuse to accept that it cannot be done for economic reasons.”

    He had to chuckle at that, and when she frowned at him, he shook his head. “Oh, you reminded me of Luna when she went to uni.”

    Her eyes widened, and she started to smile. “You’re right! I’ll need to talk to Luna - both of them - about this!”

    Great.

    Another wizard approached them - well, Hermione; Ron was under no illusion that the wizard actually desired to talk to him - before he could ask what she meant.

    “Miss Granger!”

    “Mr Doge!”

    *****​

    “Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. HAPPY NEW YEAR!” Ron yelled together with everyone else as the giant clock hit midnight. He turned to kiss Hermione when the first firework went off, and a huge glowing green dog filled the air above them for a second before exploding into sparks.

    He blinked. The Atrium wasn’t that… “They extended it?”

    “Yes,” Hermione told him. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

    Very impressive. To extend the room until you could have an indoor fireworks show…

    Dozens of small rockets flew up from… somewhere… and turned into small balls with fluttering wings. Snitches, he remembered. The crowd cheered as brooms made of smoke and light chased after them before a giant starburst wiped it all away, followed by another rocket forming a giant dragon with spread wings. Moving wings.

    Ron slowly shook his head as more and more impossible figures and shapes appeared in the artificial sky.

    “Fred and George have gone all-out,” Hermione said into his ear.

    This was the work of the twins? He should’ve filmed it; the faces his brothers would make if they saw this…

    He smiled widely as the fireworks continued, one arm around Hermione’s shoulders. Magic was marvellous.

    Things started to slow down after midnight, though. There wasn’t a massive exodus, but the crowd was steadily growing thinner. Unlike the parties Ron was used to, though, the buffet was still full - of course, if a single spell could refill a bowl or glass, that wasn’t a big achievement.

    Not that Ron minded - the food was excellent, after all. Neither did he mind that more and more people were leaving - it wasn’t as if they were interested in talking to him, was it?

    “Hey. Great party, hm?”

    With the possible exception of his counterpart, Ron amended his thoughts as wizarding Ron and wizarding Lavender sat down on quickly conjured seats next to Hermione and himself.

    “Well, it’s pretty much a Weasley party, isn’t it?” Hermione told them with a smile. “Molly for the food, the twins for entertainment and I bet Percy organised it.”

    “Some of the food. The best of the food,” wizarding Ron corrected her. “And Dad helped organise it.” He seemed proud, though.

    “The fireworks were great,” Ron told him.

    “Oh, yes. Too bad they can’t be used in many places,” his counterpart said, “or they’d endanger the Statute of Secrecy. I keep telling them to produce fireworks with Muggle-Repelling Charms so they’ll get ignored by muggles, but they won’t listen.”

    That would have been a fine mess, Ron thought. Staring at the sky and not seeing anything? He’d have been the laughing stock of the party. “What about indoor variants that automatically extend the ceiling?” he asked.

    “Oh, that’s a new one. That might work. But it’s probably too expensive - Extension Charms of that quality are fiendishly difficult to cast.” His counterpart shook his head. “And if something goes wrong… can you imagine the complaints?”

    “Fred and George might find it hilarious,” wizarding Lavender said with a frown.

    “Angelina wouldn’t be amused, though,” wizarding Ron retorted.

    “Speaking of fiends,” Hermione spoke up, “I had a lively discussion with the Minister about Dementors. He remains convinced it’s not worth the money to get rid of them.”

    Ron didn’t miss how his counterpart winced. “He’s the Minister.”

    “And that means? His word makes it fact?” Hermione scoffed.

    “I don’t know all the details, but I’ve seen the rough numbers. We’re still recovering.” Wizarding Ron looked around. “We joke about this being the Weasleys’ New Year’s Party, but the fact is that we - my family - have been organising this party since the end of the war. No one else has tried to take over, or ask for a turn or whatever.”

    “They might be afraid to step on your toes,” Hermione pointed out.

    Ron’s counterpart snorted. “For seven years?” He shook his head. “Things still aren’t back to normal.”

    “Diagon Alley looked fine to me,” Hermione said. “As did Hogsmeade.”

    “The number of shops is the same,” the wizard told her, “but a lot of people died in the war. Fewer people means less gold.”

    Ron was sure that was a direct quote from this world’s Percy.

    “That Britain held the Quidditch World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament in the year before the war didn’t help,” wizarding Lavender added.

    “Used up a lot of the reserves,” Ron’s counterpart agreed as he flicked his wand and summoned a slice of cake.

    “Ron!”

    Ron jerked before he realised wizarding Lavender had been addressing his counterpart.

    “Oh, come on! I’ll work it off tomorrow - we’ve got a pratol.”

    He was tempted to tell his counterpart that the calories didn’t work like that, but refrained from doing so - perhaps an Auror patrol was really physically demanding.

    “I understand that times might be lean,” Hermione said, and her expression told Ron that she didn’t think that was the case, “but after my talk with him today, I cannot help fearing that there’ll always be something or someone who needs the money more urgently, at least in the opinion of the Ministry, than Azkaban.”

    “Well, it’s hard to drum up support for helping the kind of prisoners that the Dementors guard,” wizarding Ron said. “Why would anyone care about dark wizards, other than their families?”

    “Most of the families of such prisoners have cut contact with them,” wizarding Lavender added. “And, honestly, Hermione, if I have to choose, I’d rather have one more Healer at St Mungo’s than one more guard in Azkaban.” The witch raised her chin with a defiant expression.

    “That’s a false equivalency,” Hermione protested.

    “But it’s a real one,” wizarding Ron retorted. “I don’t like it, but I’d rather have more Aurors than more prison guards if I had to choose.”

    “But if everyone cares more about a specific thing, Azkaban will never change. What if you send an innocent person there?” Hermione shook her head.

    “We’ve got Veritaserum.”

    “That’s not infallible: Not when you can erase and modify memories,” Hermione countered.

    “You can spot most altered memories,” her friend replied.

    She pressed her lips together in obvious frustration. “It’s still not right. Torture is inhumane. And what about the prisoners who are driven mad by it?”

    “What about the victims of a criminal who escaped from prison?”

    “And what about the victims of Dementors who strayed from the prison?”

    Before wizarding Ron could reply, his wife spoke up: “I think we should go fetch the kids now. We can’t leave them with Dobby and Hagrid for the whole night.”

    “They’ve done it before, haven’t they?” wizarding Ron asked. After a glare from the witch, he suddenly nodded. “Right. Let’s relieve the two of them.”

    *****​

    The village was eerily silent. No cars were running, no lawnmowers working. The only things that moved were the plants and debris when the wind hit them. She saw no animals, dead or alive - they must have fled long ago. Fled from something invisible, yet deadly.

    They had been smarter than the humans. She saw plenty of humans - dead on the ground. Muggles. They couldn’t even see Dementors - and if they could, they had no defence against them. Running or boarding up their houses and waiting for help to arrive were their only options.

    The people in the little Scottish village hadn’t managed either. The monsters must have come in the night - most of the cars were still around, meaning the commuters hadn’t been up and leaving for work. She passed a house with a body on the front steps and another behind it, in the hallway. The door to the next house was open as well, but she saw no bodies outside. But a large car was parked in front of the house - with a child seat on the back seat.

    She closed her eyes for a moment and struggled not to cry.

    But Dementors couldn’t break through doors, certainly not sturdy ones like the old houses here had, she reminded herself. And there was no chance that everyone had opened their doors, or left them open, at the same time.

    No. Someone had been here with the monsters, opening doors with magic. And offering people to the Dementors. She sniffled, then shook her head.

    If she ever found out who had done this, she’d feed them to the Dementors.

    Shuddering, she flicked her wand and apparated back to her friends. She hoped they would have better news.

    *****​
     
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 47: The Healer
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 47: The Healer

    Somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean, January 3rd, 2006

    For a group of people being smuggled into the USA, this was a very comfortable trip, Ron had to admit. He, Harry, Ginny, Sirius, Luna and Dumbledore didn’t want for anything - the wizarding tent they were inside was spacious. Five bedrooms - wizarding Luna had called it ‘the Weasley model’, but she might have been joking - and a large living room, even an office on the side and a huge kitchen with a full larder.

    On the other hand, knowing that they were in a magical tent, inside a magical trunk, in the cargo hold of an aeroplane, put a damper on it all. They couldn’t leave the trunk - well, not without breaking it and dealing with the deadly lack of oxygen outside - they couldn’t see out of the trunk and they had no idea what was happening. In theory, they might have been loaded on to the wrong plane and be on the way to Siberia. And the thought of the plane crashing sent shivers down Ron’s spine - inside the trunk and tent, they wouldn’t notice anything until they hit the ground.

    “I have to say, this is by far the most comfortable trip to the United States I’ve taken in the last few decades,” Dumbledore commented as if he had read Ron’s thoughts.

    “Not the most comfortable trip ever?” Ginny asked.

    “That would’ve been my first trip, on a liner.”

    “Oh, you mean a ship,” Luna said. “Of course, that would have been even more comfortable. Well, if you were travelling first class.”

    “I was, actually - I had decided to ‘upgrade’ the accommodations Her Majesty’s Government had seen fit to assign me.” The old man smiled.

    “Oh, a business trip?” Luna sounded eager to know more. “To the USA?”

    “Nothing exciting - just a few meetings. There were some disagreements between the United Kingdom and the USA at the time, but I managed to settle most of them.”

    That would’ve been the Suez Crisis, Ron thought. Probably - given Dumbledore’s past, it could’ve been anything and might still be classified.

    Luna sighed and leaned back in her seat. “You’re not going to tell tales.”

    Dumbledore merely inclined his head.

    “Phooey.”

    “Well, it’s certainly the most comfortable trip for me. When I took a ship to America, I wasn’t travelling in quite the same style.”

    “That was in 1982, and you were on a troop transport,” Harry pointed out. “To the Falklands, not the USA.”

    “It’s still the same continent,” Sirius retorted. “Although I had a tank with me, something we’re lacking here.”

    “We’re not going to war,” Ron told him.

    “Close enough. Hermione told us that the Free Republic of Maine and Vermont has just fought a war against Magical Québec,” Sirius replied. “A tank could come in handy. Especially if we’re travelling in the USA, where everyone’s armed.”

    “That assumption is actually quite far from the truth,” Dumbledore said. “The vast majority of Americans do not walk around armed.”

    Sirius, of course, was sticking to his guns. Or tank, in this case. “Better safe than sorry, I say. And they drive on the wrong side of the road as well - another reason to use a tank.”

    He wasn’t serious. At least not really serious. But Ron was a little sick of the ‘argument’. Even if it did take his mind off of aeroplane crashes. He checked his watch. A few more hours until John F. Kennedy Airport. Then the connecting flight to Portland. And Hermione and Luna - the only ones with legal passports in their group - would have to find a hotel room before they could let them out. All in all, probably ten to twelve more hours.

    Perhaps he should’ve taken the risk and used his own passport. It was genuine, if not of this world. And comparing it with Hermione’s hadn’t shown any differences. But wizarding Ron wouldn’t have applied for a passport, and ever since 9/11, the Americans had become quite strict about checking IDs. He didn’t fancy being mistaken for a terrorist. Or having Hermione and wizarding Luna mind wipe - obliviate, he reminded himself - American customs officers or whatever agency was handling ID checks this year.

    “Well, maybe you’re right. A tank might be overkill for Magical Maine. Losing a war against the French? Even worse, the American French?” Sirius scoffed. “That’s embarrassing!”

    If Hermione were here, she’d certainly correct the other man. Ron didn’t feel like arguing any more. He faked a yawn and went inside his room to take a nap.

    There was no need to arrive tired, after all.

    *****​

    Portland, Maine, United States of America, January 4th, 2006

    “Ron?”

    That was Hermione! Ron was up and out of the tent in a second. There she was, looking down into the extended trunk. He waved. “Hey!”

    “Hey.”

    Wizarding Luna’s head appeared next to Hermione’s. “Hi, there!”

    “Everything’s OK?” he asked as he climbed up the steep stairs in the trunk.

    “Ah, yes.” Hermione nodded. “We’re in Portland, in a hotel, just as planned. It took a little longer than we thought, though - traffic was bad.” She grimaced for a moment. “And I think that the cab driver took the scenic route.”

    “I didn’t mind - I’ve never been to Portland,” wizarding Luna remarked.

    They were in a modest hotel room - just big enough for two young women travelling the States on a budget. The shades had been pulled down, so no one could spot them through the windows. That wouldn’t stop bugs, of course, but chances that someone had bugged a room in a randomly chosen hotel were slim.

    They’d still check for bugs, of course. You could never be sure.

    “We’re on the first floor,” wizarding Luna told him. “Facing the street.”

    “Good!” Harry was climbing out of the trunk, followed by Ginny. “Well, it doesn’t look like we’ll be spending a lot of time here,” he commented.

    Ginny snorted. “Any smaller, and it would fit into a trunk. Without magic.”

    Well, Ron’s little sister was more than a little spoilt by her experiences as a pro tennis player on tour. He was about to comment on that, but Hermione wrapped her arm around him.

    Luna joined them hopping on the bed - there wasn’t much room left for anyone to stand around. “Oh… not as springy as I hoped.”

    “I could change that,” wizarding Luna told her, raising her wand.

    “No, Luna,” Hermione said.

    “Phooey.”

    “Ginny’s right, though,” Luna said. “It’s a really small room. They’re ripping you off if you’re paying for two.”

    “See,” Sirius said as he reached the top of the stairs, “That’s why we should have gone with my suggestion and rented a suite in a luxury hotel. You should never skimp on lodgings if you can afford it!”

    “We’ve got a luxury suite in the tent,” Hermione pointed out. “This is just a cover.”

    “It’s the principle of the thing,” Sirius retorted. “Spend enough time in a cold, wet small tent on a godforsaken piece of penguin-infested rock in the Southern Atlantic, and you’d agree with me, I’m certain.”

    “Dr Granger is correct that two young women of no apparent wealth renting a luxury suite would draw attention we could do without.” Dumbledore joined them but didn’t leave the stairs. “Although I do suggest holding our meeting in the tent. My knees are much better than they were, but I don’t fancy spending a meeting sitting cross-legged on a bed.”

    Ron snorted at the mental picture but nodded. It was a small room, after all, and he could cuddle with Hermione later. And in their room in the tent.

    They didn’t have much to discuss anyway. Although sorting out who was staying in the muggle part of Portland and who would enter Magical Portland with Hermione and wizarding Luna might take some time.

    *****​

    Magical Quarter, Portland, Free Republic of Maine and Vermont, January 5th, 2006

    Portland’s Magical Quarter didn’t look like Ron had expected. He had expected something like Diagon Alley or the Alte Strasse - quaint, medieval-looking buildings lining narrow alleys filled with wizards and witches.

    There were old buildings, true. But many of them didn’t seem to have anyone living in them. It looked like more windows and doors were boarded up than not - and that wasn’t counting the numerous ruins. And the residents… there was no crowd, just a few groups, and more individuals, on the streets, and all of them looked harried. As if they expected an attack at any moment. Or were looking for an opportunity to attack...

    “This does look a lot like Berlin just after the war,” Dumbledore commented.

    “When was the war with Québec again?” Ron asked.

    “It ended six years ago,” Hermione replied. She looked surprised as well. “I didn’t think it would still be this bad.”

    “Diagon Alley was in much better shape,” Luna commented. “Two more years shouldn’t make such a difference. Not after all this time.”

    Ron wondered when Luna had visited Diagon Alley - probably with the wizarding Lovegoods between Christmas and the New Year’s. But she was correct. Why was the capital of Magical Maine in such a state? “Didn’t they win the war?”

    “Technically, yes,” wizarding Luna said. “But they lost a lot of people in the fighting, and they didn’t have too many to begin with, not after conscription.”

    Ron refrained from whistling. That must have been a very bloody war.

    “Still, our war was bloody as well…” Hermione said.

    “Well, we didn’t lose as many people, proportionally, but Kingsley and the others also worked very hard to rebuild Britain,” wizarding Luna told her.

    “Ah.” Hermione looked a little more pensive than Ron would have expected.

    “Well, if the situation in the Republic is as bad as it seems, monetary incentives should be very effective in acquiring a Healer’s services,” Dumbledore said.

    “Given how mobile wizards and witches are,” Luna countered, “and how sought-after Healers apparently are, any Healers remaining might not be motivated by money at all.”

    Dumbledore tilted his head a little. “In my experience, everyone is motivated by money - if only for the goods and services you can buy with it. For yourself or for others. Rare is the person who both desires nothing and does not care about others less fortunate than themselves. And I dare say that anyone who stays here to help others wouldn’t turn down a generous reward for a small service.”

    “Some of the wizards and witches cannot easily move to another country,” wizarding Luna pointed out. “They might be wanted wizards and too well known to disappear in a crowd.” With a frown, she added: “Although we’re currently proving that disguises work, so, perhaps, they could’ve disappeared if they wanted to.”

    “You mean war criminals?” Hermione asked.

    “Or present or former members of the government,” wizarding Luna replied.

    “Not that one would preclude the other - quite the contrary,” Luna added.

    Dumbledore seemed to be amused. “In that case, we might want to contact the local leaders, If our own recruitment efforts are not successful.”

    Ron had no doubt that the old man knew exactly how to handle corrupt warmongering ‘leaders’. And make deals with them or their underlings. Pinochet was just the most infamous example of the kind of people the United Kingdom had dealt with during Dumbledore’s career in MI6.

    Hermione frowned, though. “The people ruling over this country don’t seem to be the sort of people with whom we might want to make a deal.”

    “That depends on the deal,” Dumbledore pointed out. “In my experience, it’s as easy to enable a dictator as it is to rein one in.” His smile widened a little.

    “But they will be looking to betray you in turn,” Hermione said. “And once they realise that there’s an entire world full of muggles without magic to defend it…”

    “An irresistible lure for certain people, indeed, I think,” the old man said. “The sort of people not many would miss. Obliviating them shouldn’t pose a moral challenge, either.”

    Once more, Ron told himself that he should have seen this coming. Acceptable targets for Obliviation - or even murder. And a war-torn country where even those who’d care about a criminal’s disappearance wouldn’t have the resources to investigate.

    “Ah.” Luna smiled widely. “So you might not only help yourself but the people of Maine and Vermont as well.”

    “In a small but perhaps significant way, depending on who we might find,” the old man confirmed.

    “First, we need to find a Healer,” Hermione interjected. “Preferably without drawing attention or further wrecking the area.” She was eyeing the two Lunas as she spoke, so Ron looked at Sirius.

    The other man frowned at him. “I’m the soul of discretion. If I choose to be. Which I do, right now, of course.”

    Ron snorted, but let matters lie. Compared to Luna and wizarding Luna, Sirius had behaved in an exemplary manner.

    “Let’s look for Healer’s office,” Hermione said, turning to face the street.

    “What about a clinic?” Luna asked.

    “A clinic will be too well-guarded,” Hermione said. “We’d be asked all sorts of questions.”

    And that would threaten their cover.

    They started walking down the street. Ron couldn’t help feeling as if he were part of a patrol in a war movie, with all the ruins around and the passers-by giving them a wide berth.

    “Couldn’t they have repaired the destroyed buildings with magic?” Sirius asked, staring at a particularly flattened building. As with other such patches, no plants seemed to grow on the ruins.

    “They could, and probably did,” Hermione replied. “But it’s hard work - the Mending Charm only repairs so much per casting. If you’re an average wizard, at least. But I would’ve expected the government to pass out abandoned lots to people interested in rebuilding. This is the capital of the Free Republic, after all. There should be a demand for shops or homes located here.”

    That made sense. Although…

    “There should. But I expect that those who own the land but have no intention to invest and rebuild bribed the government to keep their assets,” Luna said. “Perhaps they hope that prices will rise once others have rebuilt the Alley and the economy picks up.”

    “Or they are afraid that there’ll be another war, and don’t trust the government to protect them,” wizarding Luna added. “They did lose a lot of people.”

    “And it doesn’t take many wizards and witches to start a guerrilla war - or a reign of terror,” Hermione pointed out.

    And wasn’t that a chilling thought?

    *****​

    “Well, there are no Healers advertising their services,” wizarding Luna summed up after they had walked up and down the street. “There’s also no ice cream parlour, no Quidditch Supplies and no independent newspaper. Obviously, the government of the Republic is unable to provide its people with the bare essentials.”

    “And there are no Healers advertising in the ‘Maine Monitor’,” Luna added, holding up the newspaper they had purchased on the way. “There’s not much advertising at all, actually - only government propaganda.”

    “Without a second, trusted source, we cannot determine to what extent the newspaper is misrepresenting the facts,” Dumbledore pointed out.

    “I know lies and government propaganda when I see them,” Luna retorted with a frown.

    Ron refrained from commenting - he knew that Luna thought that all governments lied all the time. Although she might be correct with regards to the Free Republic of Maine and Vermont. The pictures and articles in the newspaper, at least the ones he had skimmed, didn’t match up with the state of the country’s capital. Wizards might be different from muggles, but not so different as to let the centre of their economy lie in ruins when things were going well.

    “Well, you can’t open a newspaper or turn on the tv without finding either,” Sirius agreed.

    “Discussing the local government’s failures doesn’t help us find a Healer,” Hermione said. “We’ll have to ask a resident.”

    “And hope they won’t report us when we don’t want to head to the state clinic,” Luna added. “There are always informants and snitches around, especially in areas like these.”

    “Indeed. It’s almost like operating behind the old Iron Curtain,” Dumbledore said. “Although I hope that the local authorities aren’t quite as efficient as the old KGB or the Stasi. Evading their agents was always a very risky business.”

    Ron nodded. He didn’t fancy facing wizarding agents - the sheer range of options magic granted them…

    Hermione frowned. “We have to assume that they’ll be on the lookout for spies.”

    Ron nodded. The political situation on the East Coast was supposed to be highly volatile, with most wizarding enclaves at odds with their neighbours and smaller wars flaring up every few years - at least. Well, they had expected that they would have to resort to slightly shady means. “Well, let’s hope that if we meet a spy, they’re susceptible to bribes.”

    Sirius snorted. “Looking at the state of the country, I’d be surprised if they weren’t.”

    “I agree. But there’s always a true believer, even in the worst circumstances,” Dumbledore said. “We’ll have to take our chances.”

    And be prepared to fight their way out, if the worst came to the worst.

    *****​

    The capital of Magical Maine might not have an ice cream parlour, but it certainly had plenty of dives. Dives that made the Leaky Cauldron look sophisticated. The one they had entered - ‘Lobster’s Paradise’ according to a faded sign sporting a lobster with a broken-off claw above the entrance - was one of the better-looking ones. Which meant it would have fit perfectly into a pirate movie. Right down to the patrons eyeing their group as if they were wondering if they could take them. These people didn’t look harried at all.

    “We might be slightly overdressed,” Sirius commented as they walked to a free table. “I knew I should’ve picked my set of rags today.”

    Ron chuckled at the joke, but Hermione replied: “Muggle clothes are perfectly fine. The Republic was founded by muggleborns and is proud of their heritage.”

    Well, they might not have much else to be proud of, Ron thought, given the state of the enclave.

    “Unless they think that we’re pureblood spies in disguise,” Dumbledore pointed out.

    That would be bad. Ron was glad they had a privacy charm running.

    The table was a little too exposed for his liking, but at least they had a wall to one side. Hermione, wizarding Luna and Dumbledore sat down on that side. Their two witches, and the oldest of their group. Ron didn’t like sitting down with his back to the tavern, but better him than the others. And he could keep an eye on the corner table to the side - he really didn’t like the way the three men there were looking at them. Thugs, for sure. Robbers, probably. Or worse.

    The waiter approached them with a limp. He had a peg leg, Ron realised as the man reached them, and the hand holding the wand he used to clean the table was covered in scars. “What’ll it be?” Judging by the gravelly voice, the man’s throat had been damaged as well.

    “Ah, we’d like a…” Dumbledore started coughing. Quite loudly and for several seconds. Had he caught a magical malady? Or a curse? If they had to find a Healer… Ron blinked. Oh, of course. “Sorry,” Dumbledore went on, clearing his throat. “An old ailment I never got treated correctly.” Another cough, then Dumbledore ordered a fire whisky.

    Quite an oblique approach.

    They quickly ordered - the tavern didn’t have much of a selection - and the waiter headed to the kitchen. “Can we trust the food here?” Sirius asked.

    “You never asked that in London,” Ron told him, “no matter where we ate.” And some of those locations had been very dubious.

    “If you’ve survived Army rations, you can eat anything,” the older man replied. “But I’m not sure whether or not that covers magical food.”

    “Usually, muggles are immune to magical maladies,” Hermione explained. “Though if the kitchen’s as clean as the rest of the tavern, they might not pass an inspection.”

    “It would give us another reason to look for a Healer,” Luna pointed out.

    “That is true, although I would prefer not to become sick for real,” Dumbledore interjected. “Is there a spell to disinfect food?”

    Hermione winced. “I only know a spell that turns the food into stale but safe mush. Edible, but…”

    “I see. And, leaving the desire to eat tasty food aside, the good owners of this tavern might take offence to such a blatant display of our trust, or lack thereof, in them.” The old man smiled.

    “I don’t think the food will be bad,” wizarding Luna said. “But I know a spell to test that without harming the target. It’s very useful on an expedition.”

    “Oh. Could you demonstrate it?” Hermione leaned forward with an eager expression.

    “Of course. It’s all in the…”

    Ron cleared his throat. “Perhaps later?” He didn’t want to annoy the locals more than they had already done.

    Hermione actually flushed a little. “Right.”

    Ron looked round. The other patrons weren’t openly staring at them any more, but he didn’t miss that they were still keeping an eye - or more - on their table. “I don’t think they get many visitors here,” he said in a low voice.

    “It doesn’t look like it,” Hermione agreed. “And most of the visitors will probably be mercenaries - or spies.”

    “Or bounty hunters,” wizarding Luna added.

    “Bounty hunters?”

    “Hunting war criminals,” Ron said. “Harry’s counterpart mentioned them, remember?”

    “Ah, right.” Sirius nodded, though Ron couldn’t tell if the man actually did remember.

    “Then let’s hope that the resident independent Healers aren’t wanted men,” Dumbledore commented, “or they might misinterpret our interest in them.”

    Ron nodded in agreement. That would be a dangerous and potentially costly misunderstanding. He didn’t want to fight a group of wizards if he could avoid it.

    “Well, we could claim we are bounty hunters after someone else,” wizarding Luna said with a smile. “Someone who isn’t in the country. The resident wizards and witches won’t feel threatened then.”

    “Unless they think we’re likely to go after targets of opportunities,” Luna retorted. “Or would that be ‘marks of opportunity’?” She cocked her head and looked at Ron.

    He shrugged. “I’m not familiar with wizarding bounties,” he replied. Now, Star Wars, on the other hand...

    Hermione hadn’t spoken up, so she didn’t know either, but wizarding Luna nodded. “I think that would be correct.”

    “Bounty hunter nomenclature is fascinating, I’m sure,” Sirius commented, “but it’s still a risk, even if we know of a ‘safe’ mark. Actually, do we?”

    “Well, there are a few of Grindelwald’s more well-known Storm Wizards still at large,” Hermione said, “but I can’t immediately recall their names.”

    “What about Death Eaters?” Ron asked.

    “All the famous ones are accounted for,” she replied.

    “Oh, yes,” wizarding Luna agreed. “Harry and the others were very thorough.”

    “Claiming that we’re hunting a Death Eater might also lead the locals to assume that we have close ties to the British Ministry,” Dumbledore said. “That might not be advisable if we want this to be kept a secret.”

    In Ron’s opinion, their counterparts must already suspect what they were doing, but the old man was correct.

    The waiter returned to the table with a floating tray that looked very impressive, at least to Ron. The food, though, looked as if Hermione had cast her sterilising spell or whatever name it had already on it: mushy potatoes and what looked like ground meat that had been ground too much. He dug a fork into it and noticed that the consistency of meat and side dish was the same.

    “It’s safe to eat,” wizarding Luna announced. “At least from a medical point of view.”

    Ron lifted his fork with a mouthful, blowing on it so he wouldn’t burn his tongue, and tried it. It didn’t taste as bad as he had feared - but that was a low bar to clear. Even Hermione’s MREs tasted better, in his opinion. And to think that Harry and Ginny were dining in one of Portland’s best restaurants...

    At least the beer, contrary to everything he had heard about American brands, was decent.

    Dumbledore faked a few more coughing bouts during the meal, and once again when he generously tipped the waiter.

    “You should get that looked at,” the wizard told him.

    “Yes, he should,” wizarding Luna cut in before Dumbledore could reply. “He’ll scare away the wildlife if he doesn’t get it treated. Although I think we could probably cast a Silencing Charm on him.”

    “You’re hunters?” the waiter asked.

    “They’re hunters,” wizarding Luna told him. “I’m just here for a good story for my book.”

    “Oh?”

    Ron forced himself not to wince. It seemed Luna’s counterpart had decided to adjust their backstory without telling them.

    “Yes! I’ve got the title already: ‘Bagging a Big Foot’!” She beamed at the wizard.

    “Provided we manage to catch one,” Dumbledore added, smoothly going along with her story.

    “If you fail, it’ll be ‘Bagged by the Big Foot,” she replied with a toothy smile.

    The waiter laughed. “Gutsy, aint’cha? Not many dare hunt Big Foots.”

    “We don’t lack bravery,” Dumbledore replied. “Nor stubbornness. And I am quite sure we can handle a Big Foot.” Then he coughed again.

    “But we lack a Healer,” Hermione said with a frown. “We should’ve hired one, but…” She shrugged.

    “Ah.” The waiter nodded slowly.

    “It’s just a cough; it’ll pass,” Dumbledore replied.

    “You said that a week ago,” Ron joined in.

    Instead of answering, Dumbledore coughed again.

    “You really should get that looked at,” the waiter said. He wasn’t quite taking a step back, but he was eyeing the rest of them with sudden apprehension.

    “It’s not contagious,” Sirius said. “Just annoying.”

    Another snort.

    “That’s why I wanted to hire a Healer,” Hermione repeated herself.

    The waiter cleared his throat. Ron saw that he was fingering his purse. “Well, if you’re looking for a Healer, you could ask Old Abe.”

    “Old Abe?” Dumbledore cocked his head.

    “Abraham Rosengarten. He’s a local. He won’t join you on a hunt, of course - certainly not a Big Foot hunt - but he can treat your cough.” The waiter grinned.

    Dumbledore flashed another Galleon between his fingers. “And where might we find him?”

    “Two alleys down, then left. Green door with a snake on it.”

    Dumbledore flipped the coin towards the wizard, who snatched out of the air and stashed it in his purse. “Thank you kindly.”

    “You have our thanks,” Dumbledore replied.

    “You might have saved our hunt,” Hermione added.

    “Well…” wizarding Luna tilted her head slightly. “He would’ve made good bait, at least.”

    The waiter chuckled at that, nodded at them, and left their table for the bar, where an apparent regular was clamouring for service.

    Well, they had a name and a location. Time to go and see if it was the real deal.

    *****​

    “Luna!” Hermione hissed as soon as they had left the tavern and cast another privacy charm, “What were you thinking?”

    Wizarding Luna looked surprised. “Thinking?”

    “About making up a cover story without telling us.”

    “Oh.” The witch blinked. “When I realised that it was the perfect cover for us, it was too late to tell you - I was just quick enough to beat Mr Dumbledore’s response.” She nodded with a smile at the old man.

    “It was a good idea, I think,” Dumbledore told her with a smile of his own. “The attention of the others shifted noticeably after our talk. They showed less suspicion than before. Although some of them seemed a little nervous.”

    Ron frowned - he hadn’t noticed that. He had been focused on wizarding Luna, Dumbledore and the waiter. Sloppy.

    “Of course. Hunting Big Foots is very dangerous,” wizarding Luna said. “Not many would risk it since the shamans are protecting them. And there’s the risk of mistaking a Wendigo for a Big Foot, which is usually fatal. And there’s the Big Foot’s death curse, though its existence hasn’t yet been proven to be more than a rumour.”

    “Oh?” Sirius asked.

    “Yes. It’s usually hard to determine if someone was killed by the curse, or by the bounty hunters the shamans tend to send after those hunters who manage to escape their lands,” wizarding Luna explained. “Would they have been able to avoid death at the hands of a bounty hunter if they hadn’t been cursed? Or is it just coincidence?”

    “There’s no such thing as coincidence,” Luna cut in.

    “So, they think we’re foolhardy hunters,” Hermione summed up.

    The other witch nodded. “Yes. People brave enough to risk a battle with shamans and bounty hunters - and people ruthless enough to kill Big Foots.” She smiled. “They shouldn’t bother us.”

    Hermione sighed. “You make it sound as if they think we’re unicorn poachers.”

    Wizarding Luna beamed at her. “That’s actually pretty close. Big Foots were once revered as manifestations of the forest spirits, you know? At least by some tribes, though I’m actually not sure if they survived the seventeenth century. The tribes, not the Big Foots.”

    “It’s a very good thing we’re disguised,” Hermione said with a sigh. “First a unicorn horn, now hunting Big Foots. If Harry and Ron hear about this…”

    Ron nodded in agreement. That wouldn’t help their reputation - nor Hermione’s friendship.

    “Should we expect interference from these ‘shamans’?” Dumbledore asked. “If, that is, they hear about our stated plans.”

    “That might be possible,” wizarding Luna told him, “though I doubt that any spy for the Tribal Nations will risk their cover by striking at us here. Not when they could simply warn their homelands instead so we can be ambushed at the borders.”

    “How comforting,” Hermione said with a frown - she obviously hadn’t gotten over wizarding Luna’s improvisation.

    “It’s better than being mistaken for spies ourselves,” Luna retorted, frowning at Hermione. “It’s easier to deal with a spy who cannot afford to be discovered than with the local authorities.”

    Hermione pressed her lips together. “We could’ve picked another creature to hunt,” she said.

    “I picked the most dangerous, to show that we aren’t to be trifled with,” wizarding Luna explained.

    “Or they think we’re suicidal fools,” Hermione countered.

    “No one wants to fight suicidal fools,” Sirius cut in. “Trust me - my old regiment learned that the hard way in Iraq.”

    Ron cleared his throat. “Shall we check on Old Abe?”

    “I think that would be the best course of action,” Dumbledore agreed. “It’s why we came here, after all.”

    A decision Ron was starting to have second thoughts about. Maine was certainly very far from Britain - and isolated enough diplomatically that they wouldn’t have to fear being recognised and causing an international incident, or trouble with the British Ministry - but the country hadn’t recovered very much from the last war, or so it seemed. This area certainly hadn’t. And the side alley they entered was deserted - though Ron was sure that they were being watched from the shuttered windows.

    “Oh, that Belfast feeling...” Sirius muttered.

    “You were never in Belfast on patrol,” Ron told him.

    “Well, friends of mine were. And now I know how they felt.”

    Ron snorted at that, though privately, he agreed with the older man’s statement - he felt far tenser than in Knockturn Alley. Well, not counting the moment he had spotted the ambush.

    They reached a green door with a snake. “How very Slytherin,” Hermione commented.

    “Do you think he’s a former Slytherin?” wizarding Luna asked.

    “He might be a British expatriate,” Hermione replied. “Although Rosengarten isn’t a pureblood name, he could’ve been a half-blood in Slytherin. Although snakes and green are both traditional symbols for Healing.”

    Ron hoped that it was the latter - what he had heard of the Slytherins hadn’t impressed him.

    Hermione knocked on the door, then took a step back as the snake painted on it slithered off.

    “Oh! A painting as a doorman!” wizarding Luna exclaimed. “Like Hogwarts, in a way.”

    But the door didn’t magically open. They were left standing in the alley, waiting, and Ron felt as if someone was aiming at him. What if this was a trap? The waiter sent unsuspecting marks to a so-called Healer, only for them to disappear…

    He looked around, checking the shuttered windows. Good firing positions, though he didn’t know if the gaps were wide enough for spells to pass through. He’d have to assume that they were, then - as Moody had taught him. Great.

    But after another minute, the snake returned and the door swung open, revealing a wooden staircase - narrow and steep. Another natural choke point and location for an ambush. Hermione, undaunted, took point at once, and Ron hastened to follow her. He hoped the Lunas would bring up the rear.

    Upstairs, another door swung open, revealing a large room with fine, but old, wooden furniture - a massive desk, covered with parchment, large, old-fashioned armchairs and a single couch. And a man who looked even older than Dumbledore. Bald, thick, round glasses and thicker white eyebrows, and a pale green robe with that old Healer symbol, the snake around the staff, on his chest.

    “Mr Rosengarten, I presume?” Hermione said.

    The old man nodded. “Yes, you’re correct. And whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

    He didn’t have a British accent, but that wouldn’t mean anything at his apparent age. Though the large building with about two dozen children in front of it on that picture on the wall didn’t look like Hogwarts.

    “You can call me Smith. Percival Smith,” Dumbledore replied with a smile.

    “You’re my patient?”

    “If you agree to my offer, I’ll be one of two patients,” Dumbledore replied. “The other isn’t here - some travelling is required.”

    “A fake name, and a trip?” Rosengarten shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like a good offer. It actually sounds like a very dangerous offer. The kind of offer only a fool would accept.”

    “Oh, an Obliviation of the trip’s specifics would also be mandatory,” Dumbledore cheerfully added.

    “If that’s a joke, it’s in bad taste,” Rosengarten replied with a deep frown.

    “We would pay in advance, of course, allowing you to make arrangements to ensure we cannot cheat you,” Dumbledore continued as if he hadn’t even noticed the man’s mood. “And we’re offering a very generous sum for a rather standard treatment. Nothing illegal, I can assure you. What do you say?”

    Technically, the old man was correct. Technically.

    “I don’t have a need for more gold.”

    “We’re talking enough gold to revitalise part of the street,” Dumbledore told him.

    Rosengarten glared at him. “Your offer is sounding even worse. If something’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true.”

    “You can check the payment in advance,” Dumbledore repeated himself, then nodded at Hermione, who pulled a small purse out of her beaded (and slightly disguised) bag. She stood and offered it to Rosengarten, though he merely nodded at his desk, so she dropped the purse on it.

    The Healer hesitated a moment, then ran his wand over the bag. Ron tensed. If the man decided to curse them, Ron wouldn’t be quick enough to stop him.

    But whatever spells Rosengarten cast, they were aimed at the purse. After a few minutes, he nodded, then levitated the purse about a foot above the desk and upended it.

    A few burgeoning bags fell out. A flick of Rosengarten’s wand later, the desk was covered with galleons, and the old man drew a hissing breath. “This is… generous.”

    Dumbledore inclined his head, smiling widely. “And it’s all yours if you help us.”

    “Who are you?” Rosengarten shot back. “With that much money, you could hire any Healer in Europe.”

    “We prefer more discretion,” Dumbledore said. “As to my identity, well… I was born a Dumbledore.”

    Rosengarten wasn’t the only one to gasp at this revelation.

    *****​

    She hadn’t known that the Headmaster had a brother. She should have, she realised. She should have known a lot more about the Order. Investigated the members. Just in case the Headmaster was unable to contact them for her and her friends.

    Like now. She pressed her lips together, looking at the obelisk that served as a tombstone for Dumbledore. And at the old man standing in front of it. Aberforth Dumbledore. The owner of the Hog’s Head Inn. She had been inside that inn multiple times and never bothered to find out who the barman was. What if he had been a Death Eater spy? “I’m so stupid,” she muttered.

    “If you’re stupid, what does that make us?” Ron replied in a low voice.

    “Brain-dead?” Harry chuckled at his feeble joke.

    “We should have known about this,” she said. “About him. It wasn’t a secret - everyone would’ve known. But I never asked anyone. Stupid.” And arrogant.

    “Well, now we know. That we need to be on our guard a little more, I mean,” Ron pointed out. “It should serve as a good lesson.”

    It certainly would for her, Hermione knew. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

    “I guess Moody wasn’t wrong about constant vigilance,” Harry said.

    The old wizard turned to look at them. “Auror Moody’s a disgruntled idiot,” he snapped, and she wondered how he had overheard them. They needed to cast privacy charms on every occasion.

    “Hey!” Ron said. “He’s one of the best Aurors.”

    Aberforth Dumbledore’s scoff made it abundantly clear what he thought of that achievement, but the old wizard didn’t say anything.

    “So, uh…” Harry trailed off. “Did Dumbledore - your brother - leave you any instructions concerning us?”

    Another scoff. Then a disturbing smile appeared on the old man’s face. “Indeed, something like that.” After a moment, he went on: “Did Moody train you?”

    “He did, but he didn’t manage to finish our lessons,” Harry said. “We learned a lot, though.”

    More scoffing. “Moody’s an Auror. We’re not trying to arrest the Death Eaters, are we? I’m going to teach you how to fight a war.”

    Hermione had the distinct feeling that her plans for the next few months had just been altered.

    *****
     
  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 48: The Ruined Country
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 48: The Ruined Country

    Magical Quarter, Portland, Free Republic of Maine and Vermont, January 5th, 2006

    “You’re a Dumbledore?” Rosengarten asked, narrowing his eyes.

    Dumbledore inclined his head.

    “His brother supposedly died in the war,” the Healer went on.

    Privately, Ron wondered if that had been news in the rest of the world. If it hadn’t been, it would be another sign that Rosengarten might be a British expat.

    “I’m not his brother. I’m not closely related to the famous Dumbledore, but I am a Dumbledore. I don’t want publicity - but I need a skilled, discreet Healer to treat my and my partner’s ailments.” Dumbledore smiled. “As I said, perfectly legal.”

    Rosengarten scoffed. “So legal that you want to obliviate me afterwards.”

    “That’s to protect others.”

    For a moment, both old men looked at each other in silence. Dumbledore, smiling politely. Rosengarten, frowning deeply.

    “And if I refuse?” the Healer finally asked.

    “Then that’s it, and we go looking for another Healer. If we wanted to force you to help us, we wouldn’t have asked in the first place,” Dumbledore told him.

    And because, Ron thought, only Hermione and wizarding Luna would be able to magically compel the Healer. Able, but unwilling, to do so.

    Rosengarten glanced at the money again. “For that amount of money, you could have the country’s hospital reserved for your private use. Probably any country’s hospital.”

    “I could,” Dumbledore said. “But it would draw attention I would rather avoid and endanger people dear to me.”

    Rosengarten pressed his lips together and stared at the former spymaster for a few more seconds. “I want double the money. Half in advance.”

    “Done.” Dumbledore beamed at the Healer, who was obviously surprised - perhaps even shocked - at the quick agreement. “It doesn’t pay, if you’ll excuse my pun, to haggle with Healers if you have the means,” the old man added. “How soon can you leave for, say, a week?”

    “To Britain, I suppose?” Was the old wizard tensing up?

    “Yes. We’ll handle transport,” Dumbledore said. “We’ll avoid customs, though.”

    “Good. I need three days.” After a moment, the Healer added: “You don’t seem concerned about me cutting and running with the money.”

    “Why would I?” Dumbledore asked in return. “The mere fact that you’re working here means you care for this town more than you care for money. If you ran, you wouldn’t be able to help the town - or the people.” With a toothy grin, he added: “And doing so would put them at risk, since the bounty hunters I would send after you would likely begin their search here.”

    “I see.” Rosengarten scoffed and shook his head, and Ron had the impression that the Healer was, despite his attempt to downplay it, quite affected by the threat.

    “We’ll be in contact in three days, then,” Dumbledore said. “If anyone asks, you would do well to say you already cured my cough, else certain elements in town might get too curious for their own good - and yours.”

    Hermione cleared her throat. “You should also make it clear that you didn’t go with us - we’ve been using the story that we’re about to go hunting Big Foots as a cover.”

    Rosengarten winced. “That’s bound to ruffle some feathers. And if I disappear for a week, some might assume I did join you. Especially if I return with a fortune.”

    “The hint that your past caught up with you and you had to deal with it in Britain should suffice,” Dumbledore said.

    Rosengarten flinched. “How did you…?”

    “It was obvious that you’re from Britain, originally, and that you kept your past a secret.” Dumbledore pointed at the picture on the wall. “I recognised the boarding school.”

    “But that’s…” Rosengarten pressed his lips together.

    “It was destroyed in the Second World War, was it not? A stray bombing attack.”

    “Yes,” the Healer replied. “You’re surprisingly well informed about a muggle school in England.”

    “Indeed.” Dumbledore smiled widely.

    Rosengarten nodded, not asking further questions, and they left his office.

    Ron looked around, hand near his holster, as soon as they stepped out into the alley. Once bitten, twice shy. He didn’t spot an ambush, though.

    “No disillusioned people nearby,” Hermione whispered.

    But Ron was well aware that they could be hiding in the buildings. “Let’s go,” he said.

    “Indeed,” Dumbledore, behind them, agreed. “We got what we came for.”

    Hermione glanced left and right, then started to head away from the main alley.

    “Shouldn’t we head in the other direction?” Sirius asked.

    “We’re just looking for some privacy,” she replied.

    “Ah.”

    As soon as they turned the next corner, Hermione grabbed Ron and Sirius’s hands. A moment later, they appeared in the hotel room, followed by the two Lunas and Dumbledore.

    *****​

    Portland, Maine, United States of America, Wizarding World, January 5th, 2006

    “...and Healer Rosengarten has accepted the offer, but he needs three days to get ready for the trip,” Hermione finished her summary.

    “So… we’ve got three days to kill in Portland?” Ginny asked.

    “Yes,” Hermione confirmed.

    “And we’re believed to be poachers and so might become the target of the Native American shamans,” Harry added.

    “That’s unlikely,” wizarding Luna said. “And they won’t find us here in the muggle world, anyway.”

    “They might go after Mr Rosengarten, though,” Hermione pointed out. “Or try to use him as bait to get to us.”

    Ron nodded. Judging by what he knew of magic, there were a number of ways they could use the old Healer. Like the Imperius Curse.

    “If they do come after Mr Rosengarten,” Dumbledore said, “they will likely interrogate him - and find out that we aren’t actually poachers.”

    “They might not believe that,” Sirius retorted. “Fanatical natives tend to be, well, fanatical.”

    Ron frowned. Sirius was adamant about having rejected his family’s more questionable views, but sometimes, he managed to show that he wasn’t quite as different from his ancestors as he liked to claim.

    “They lost half their lands to the European wizards before the Statute of Secrecy was implemented and they managed to stop them,” Hermione retorted. “It’s quite understandable that they take a dim view of poachers encroaching on their homelands.”

    “Without going into the historical reasons for the current political situation,” Ron cut in, “we still need to be prepared for a potential attack or trap.”

    “We could keep an eye on the Healer in secret,” Harry suggested.

    “I fear he might misunderstand that, should he find out.” Dumbledore shook his head. “Besides, he isn’t exactly inexperienced.”

    Ron was about to mention that experience as a Healer didn’t mean that Mr Rosengarten had any experience in fending off assassins and spies, but then he reconsidered. “You think he’s more than a Healer.”

    “I am reasonably certain that he was more than merely a Healer,” Dumbledore replied. “A mere Healer wouldn’t hide his past as much as Mr Rosengarten does.”

    “You sound like a veritable Sherlock Holmes,” Sirius commented. “Would you care to explain how you deduced that?”

    “Elementary,” Dumbledore replied, a rare grin on his face. “He took care to hide his origin in Britain. The picture of his school wouldn’t have been easily identified as British, the school having been bombed in the war. He also went to great lengths to hide or lose his accent.”

    “That comes naturally if you live somewhere for a few decades,” Sirius retorted.

    Dumbledore nodded in acknowledgement. “But in that case, the locals would have known he was British - and would have mentioned it to us.”

    “He could’ve moved to Portland from another town,” Sirius pointed out.

    “He might have - but the wizarding world seems to be much smaller than our own world. Moving from one town to the next - if there are two towns in the first place - wouldn’t grant the sort of anonymity it does in our own country.”

    “He could’ve come from another American enclave, though,” Hermione spoke up.

    “Possibly, yes. But if we take into account what you’ve told us about the history of the East Coast’s magical community, and what we saw in Portland’s magical quarter, that would also indicate that he has some experience in navigating dangerous waters, so to speak.” Dumbledore smiled again. “I’m not a hundred per cent certain, of course, but I am betting quite some money on being correct about Mr Rosengarten.”

    Well, the old man could afford it. As one of the two owners of the Phoenix Gruppe, he could probably buy up half the wizarding East Coast without using all his cash reserves... Ron blinked. Why hadn’t he thought about this before? No, why hadn’t Hermione considered this?

    “So, if we’re not watching over the Healer,” Ginny said, “then we still have three days to kill. In Portland. And we have to watch out for magic assassins.”

    Ron knew that his sister would have been far more enthusiastic if they were in New York, assassins or not.

    “Indeed,” Dumbledore said. “We’ll have to be a little cautious, but it shouldn’t keep us from exploring the city.”

    “As much as there is to explore,” Ginny commented.

    “Oh, I’m sure we can fill three days,” Sirius said. “The food’s supposed to be the best in the country.”

    “Oh!” Both Lunas perked up in an almost eerie synchrony.

    As did Dumbledore - though Ron was sure that the old man had been aware of that fact before they had started their trip.

    *****​

    An hour later, they were ‘sight-seeing’ according to Ginny. Or ‘maintaining our cover as tourists’, as Dumbledore called it. What they actually were doing was sampling pretty much every dessert from every food stand and café in the centre of Portland. At least they had finally picked a café with decent seats.

    “Oh… this ice cream is great!” Luna gushed.

    “Not quite as good as Fortescue’s best, though,” her counterpart replied.

    “Try it with this cake. Divine,” Dumbledore declared, holding up a forkful of hot cake dripping with melting ice cream.

    “If I do, I’ll have to skip supper,” Hermione commented rather drily.

    “And that would be a crime - there’s this restaurant specialising in lobster that we need to try out!” Sirius held up one of the half a dozen guides he had bought.

    “I think I don’t need magic to guess that the first thing Rosengarten will tell you will be ‘stop eating so many sweets’,” Harry told Dumbledore with a snort.

    “I expect that there are specialised spells to deal with that,” Dumbledore retorted. “Although a little more exercise wouldn’t go amiss, I feel. Now that I can once again move without pain.”

    “I don’t know any such spell,” Hermione said. “You might need to have regular and frequent visits from a Healer if you plan on keeping this up.”

    “It would certainly be worth it,” Dumbledore told her with a smile.

    The two Lunas agreed emphatically, if not verbally - they were still devouring their own desserts.

    “It would also require you to hire a trustworthy Healer on a permanent basis,” Hermione retorted.

    “Which is an obvious long-term goal.” Dumbledore tilted his head a little. “Unless you plan to completely abandon the portal, it will need a substantial and well-supplied force to keep it secure.”

    And a Healer would be part of that - and they would still have enough time to treat Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Would they also, perhaps, treat selected friends and contacts of the two old men? Ron wouldn’t put it past them.

    Hermione grudgingly acknowledged the point with a sharp nod and focused on her own, far less sugary, fruit dessert.

    One order wasn’t enough, though, for the Lunas and Dumbledore to finish ‘trying out’ the café to their satisfaction, and as the rest of the group went to explore the dessert selection, Ron leaned over to Hermione. “Say…”

    “Yes?”

    “I was wondering if you considered letting Dumbledore finance the prison reforms. He should be able to easily cover the money needed to replace the Dementors.”

    “He could probably buy half the Wizengamot’s votes,” she said. “Which is why I would prefer to look into alternative solutions, first.”

    “Ah.” He nodded - he had expected that. Hermione hated owing people - or breaking an agreement. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.

    “There’s also the question of sustainability,” she went on. “Most of the costs will be recurring costs. Salaries for skilled guards and for curse-breakers to maintain the wards. I don’t want to see the abolishment of the Dementors reverted for fiscal reasons.”

    He wanted to tell her that that wouldn’t happen - but governments, including and, perhaps, especially British governments, did not always follow the most rational course of action when it came to their finances. Or anything else. So he nodded in agreement.

    “I would still choose to do that, though, before I let things continue as they currently are.” Hermione frowned.

    “Even if Dumbledore and Grindelwald end up controlling the country?” Ron quickly checked with a glance that the others were still picking desserts and waiting for their turn at the register.

    “They wouldn’t. They’re muggles,” she stated. “Sooner or later, their influence would wane.”

    Ron wasn’t quite as convinced, but the others were headed back now. “So, what plans did you come up with already?”

    Judging by the deep frown that appeared on her face, she hadn’t yet come up with a good plan.

    “How do other countries handle their criminals?” he asked instead.

    “Most use prisons protected by strong wards that prevent magical travel or people using magic on the walls or doors,” she said. “And guards, of course. Dangerous and powerful prisoners are often kept under observation at all times, to prevent them from attempting anything.”

    “That sounds like a simple solution,” he commented.

    “It only appears to be simple,” she corrected him. “Preparing wards strong enough to achieve that is very difficult. Most wizarding prisons are old - their wards grew in strength over time. Also, wards need to be updated regularly as new spells are developed. The older and stronger such protections are, the more difficult it is to modify them. The Department of Mysteries would likely need to delegate a number of their staff to that task.”

    “But it would be possible?”

    “If you’re willing to spend the money needed.”

    And both of them were aware that the Minister wasn’t willing.

    “You really should try the hot vanilla cakes,” wizarding Luna announced as the rest of the group returned to the table. “It’s worth skipping dinner.”

    Hermione frowned. “Are you sure? Sirius said that the restaurant he’s picked is famous for its lobster. You might discover that dinner might be worth skipping a third dessert.”

    Wizarding Luna blinked for a moment, apparently considering the question. Then she smiled. “In that case, we’ll have to go back there tomorrow!”

    “Speaking of things being worth it,” Sirius cut in, “what were you discussing so earnestly instead of indulging in a little buffet raiding?”

    “Ways to reform Azkaban. Especially alternatives to the use of Dementors,” Hermione replied - technically correctly. “I abhor the thought that Wizarding Britain is systematically torturing prisoners for financial reasons. They might still be struggling to rebuild the country after the war, but we have to draw the line at torture.”

    Luna nodded. “Indeed. Once you legalise torture, you open the floodgates of human rights violations, as the USA proved in the War of Terror.”

    “War on Terror,” Sirius corrected her.

    “It’s a war of terror,” she retorted. “And Britain’s party to those crimes.”

    Dumbledore cleared his throat. “Well, the Americans would probably not stoop to using torture if they had access to magical means of ferreting out the truth. They don’t torture people to save money - although the American prison system might qualify, depending on your definition of torture.”

    Ron saw Luna close her mouth and frown at the old man. Apparently, Dumbledore had pre-empted her argument. Before she could think of another, he spoke up: “Are there other magical creatures that could serve as guards? Preferably creatures that are easy and cheap to keep and handle?”

    Wizarding Luna wrinkled her forehead with the spoon stuck in her mouth as she pondered the question. Ron saw her swallow, then nod and pull the spoon out. “In the past, the Scandinavians tried to use trolls as guards.”

    “Trolls?” Hermione gasped. “How did they keep them from eating the prisoners?”

    “That was the problem they couldn’t solve,” wizarding Luna told her.

    “Ah.” Hermione wasn’t the only one who looked a little queasy at that. That was only natural, of course, for someone who had been attacked by a troll as a child.

    “It must have made feeding them cheap, though,” Sirius said with a chuckle. No one else laughed, though.

    “Very funny, Sirius,” Harry told him in a flat voice.

    “Bah! Gallows humour is a British tradition,” Sirius retorted.

    “That wasn’t gallows humour,” Hermione said. “In any case, the problem is finding a cheap but effective way to keep prisoners from escaping. Without petrifying them, or obliviating them or letting them sleep through their sentence,” she added. “If they can sleep through their sentence, it’s either no punishment - since for them, no time will seem to have passed - or effectively a death sentence since they won’t ever wake up again.”

    “Ah.” Harry looked pensive.

    “What about hiring cheap labour?” Dumbledore asked.

    “Wizards and witches skilled enough to guard dark wizards and repel attempts to free them by third parties aren’t cheap no matter where you hire,” Hermione told him. “And even with heavily warded cells and their wands confiscated, you still need to keep an eye on magical prisoners or they might manage a feat of wandless magic of some sort that allowed them to escape.”

    Dumbledore rubbed his beard. “A fascinating challenge, I think. I shall take some time to ponder this some more.”

    “I bet you escaped from a few prisons yourself,” Sirius said.

    Dumbledore inclined his head with a small smile but didn’t comment.

    *****​

    Portland, Maine, United States of America, Wizarding World, January 6th, 2006

    “Could you pass me the toast?” Hermione asked in their tent’s kitchen. “And the sausages, too, please.”

    “Here,” Ron replied as he handed her a plate and a basket of toast. And ignored the groans from the Lunas, who had overeaten last evening, but refused to admit it. Well, they were up already, at least - everyone else was still asleep. Or, perhaps, in Ginny and Harry’s case, ‘busy’.

    “Luna? Want some pudding?” Hermione held up the bowl with the black pudding.

    “Uh…”

    “Ack.”

    Ron shook his head. Hermione was obviously enjoying this. He wondered if she had done the same to his counterpart when the wizard had a hangover. Probably, he thought - she could be quite vindictive when she wanted. “Tea anyone?”

    “Yes!” “Yes!”

    He filled two cups for them, then pushed the sugar bowl in their direction. That caused more groaning, but the two still put enough sugar into their teas to turn it into syrup. He sighed with a wry grin and was about to comment to Hermione when he realised that she wasn’t watching - she was listening to something, but he couldn’t hear anything.

    “There’s an owl at the window of our room,” she said.

    Oh. “Were you expecting any mail?”

    She shook her head.

    “It could be a trap,” Ron said.

    “Or one of my friends sent a letter.”

    “From Britain? By owl?” That was… well, the RSPCA would have something to say about that.

    “Hedwig, Harry’s owl, is a very special bird.”

    “Ah.” He stood and checked his gun. Constant vigilance.

    Hermione led the way upstairs, wand drawn, but he was right behind her. And the Lunas followed him - after informing the others.

    The owl pecking at the window wasn’t a snowy owl. Ron didn’t recognise the species - but he spotted the letter tied to its leg. A post owl.

    Hermione cast a few spells Ron didn’t recognise before she let the owl inside. A few more spells followed before she cut the letter off with yet another spell and levitated it towards her. She didn’t touch it, though, but used her wand to open it.

    Then she cursed. “Someone’s kidnapped Healer Rosengarten.”

    “What?” Ron blurted out.

    “It’s a ransom note,” she told him. With a flick of her wand, the floating parchment turned to face him, and he could read it himself.

    “They want as much gold as Dumbledore paid upfront,” Hermione said as he skimmed the note. “They’ll contact us again.”

    “And then they’ll demand yet more gold. I know how these hoodlums think.”

    That was Dumbledore’s voice! Ron turned around and saw that the old man was climbing up the stairs. He was wearing a dressing gown - had he come up straight from bed? It didn’t matter. “You suspect a trap?” Ron asked.

    “I wouldn’t put it past a kidnapper.” Dumbledore inclined his head.

    “Some kidnappers do play straight,” Ron pointed out. “They wouldn’t get any ransom from future kidnappings if they didn’t stick to a deal.”

    “Indeed. But I don’t think that these are professional kidnappers, so to speak,” Dumbledore replied.

    “Greedy thugs thinking this is an opportunity?”

    “They could be shaman agents, too, trying to drain us of our funds for our supposed hunting trip. Or to use Rosengarten as bait for an ambush,” Hermione said.

    “They would’ve interrogated Mr Rosengarten, wouldn’t they?” Dumbledore retorted.

    “If they have access to Veritaserum. It’s a little tricky to brew and restricted in most countries.”

    “Spies would’ve been provided with it, I believe - I certainly would have given my own men such a tool for their missions. Especially since the serum is already known to everyone, and, therefore, the risk of providing the enemy with it is nonexistent.” Dumbledore shook his head. “No, this seems merely motivated by greed, nothing else.”

    It did sound plausible, in Ron’s opinion. “So, what do we do?” If paying the ransom wouldn’t save the Healer, then that left only two choices: To cut their losses and run, or...

    “We rescue him, of course.” Dumbledore smiled. “It would be craven to leave him to his fate since without us, he wouldn’t have been kidnapped.”

    That sounded noble, but Ron couldn’t help thinking that it would also prevent Dumbledore from having to find another Healer. And if Rosengarten wasn’t safe in Portland any more, he might be more willing to be hired on a permanent basis…

    “We need to find him to save him, first,” Hermione pointed out. “That’s easier said than done. The kidnappers might not be professionals, but they will have experience in hiding from the law - or bounty hunters. The owl is an official post owl - it won’t be able to find them since we don’t have their names. And if we did, they would likely be warded against that.”

    “We could shrink ourselves and hide with the ransom,” Luna proposed. “Then grow back to our real size as soon as we are in their hideout.”

    Ron frowned - he wasn’t overly fond of the tactic. Not any more. “Wouldn’t they be prepared for such a plan?”

    “If they’re smart, they’ll apparate to a secondary site and sort things out there - only taking the gold and leaving any bags - before returning home,” Hermione explained. “But I doubt they’ll expect us to hand over the money without Rosengarten being present.”

    “Indeed. They might try to order us to drop the gold off at a certain place, but they have to be aware that we’re not Rosengarten’s family, nor would we be aware of their reputation. Which is why I believe that they’ll try an ambush at whatever location they want us to leave the gold,” Dumbledore said.

    “Unless they have a reputation as ‘honest’ kidnappers and we’re merely unaware of it,” Ron pointed out.

    “That is a possibility as well. We should investigate,” Dumbledore acknowledged. “Although I would’ve expected Mr Rosengarten to comment on the risk of being kidnapped, were it common knowledge that there are kidnappers at large in the area.”

    “If we investigate, we should focus on his contacts - those he was trusting to keep him safe. Others might have known that we were looking for a Healer, but not that we wanted to hire him. And they wouldn’t have been aware of how much money he’d already received,” Ron pointed out.

    “That’s certainly a valid assumption. Although Mr Rosengarten might have been the victim of a robbery, where the criminals didn’t expect to acquire as much gold as they did - and, when confronted with the small fortune, then decided to see if there was more from where this had come,” Dumbledore said. “Sometimes, it’s not a clever plan, but merely luck - or, in this case, bad luck.”

    “That’s possible as well,” Ron admitted. He certainly had seen arrests fail because of bad luck. “Either way, we need to investigate the issue. Without drawing attention to ourselves, though.”

    “Yes.” The last thing they needed was more trouble with the locals and a forewarned group of kidnappers.

    *****​

    Magical Quarter, Portland, Free Republic of Maine and Vermont, January 6th, 2006

    “I would prefer to disillusion us,” Hermione said in a low voice as they approached the side alley where Rosengarten’s practice was located. “And yes, I’m aware that you wouldn’t be able to see where the rest of us are. It still feels wrong to approach in the open like this.”

    Ron shared the feeling, but he knew this was necessary. “We need to check Rosengarten’s office for clues,” he replied. “And disguises work even against that see invisibility spell.”

    “Human-presence-revealing Charm,” she corrected him with a frown.

    “Yes, that one.” If she were able to cast that on others, then Disillusionment Charms would have been great. Or Invisibility Cloaks. But if they were attacked, Ron would prefer to know where his friends were. Friendly fire wasn’t, as Sirius used to say.

    “We look completely different,” wizarding Luna said. “They won’t suspect us.”

    “Until we break into Rosengarten’s office,” Hermione retorted as they entered the side alley.

    “Well, if they spot us, we switch to Plan B,” Luna said.

    “Also known as Plan Bait,” Harry added.

    “Exactly.”

    Despite the cloak Hermione wore and the rest of her disguise, Ron knew she tensed up - her shoulders twitched. She didn’t like Plan B. Well, he didn’t like it, either. At least Ginny and Sirius weren’t with them, despite their protests - but neither Luna nor Hermione could apparate with more than two others, and bringing all of them was simply too dangerous. “Let’s hope we don’t get attacked,” he said.

    “And let’s hope we find a few clues,” Dumbledore added. With a long, grey beard and grey robes, he looked like a stereotypical wizard. If he had a staff, he’d look like Gandalf the Grey.

    But real wizards didn’t use staves. They used wands. A pity, really.

    He grinned at his own thoughts as they reached the practice and looked around. He couldn’t spot anyone observing the entrance. Of course, that didn’t have to mean anything.

    “The spells on the door haven’t been broken,” Hermione whispered. “Whoever kidnapped him didn’t do it here - or they were invited inside.”

    “Or they were expert Curse-Breakers and snuck past the wards,” wizarding Luna added.

    “I don’t think expert Curse-Breakers would stoop to kidnapping,” Hermione objected.

    “They’re already robbing graves for goblin gold, aren’t they?”

    “Let’s get inside,” Hemione said, apparently ignoring the comment as she knocked on the door. “If anyone’s watching us, we’re just customers of his.”

    “Patients,” Harry added.

    “That, too, is needed,” wizarding Luna said.

    As expected, the door didn’t open, nor did the animated snake appear. “Plan break-in it is, then,” Harry said.

    “Yes.” Hermione led the group away, then down a small alley that let them double back to the house.

    But they still needed to break in. And neither Hermione nor wizarding Luna were trained Curse-Breakers. The door didn’t leave gaps that would let a shrunken person slip through, either.

    Ron glanced at Harry. “Window or roof?”

    His friend studied the roof - what they could see from the ground - and then the windows before nodding. “Windows.”

    “They’ll be protected as well.”

    “Yes, but probably not with as much sophistication as the doors,” Dumbledore interjected. “Probably impervious to most tools, but I doubt that the windows are locked with as many defences.”

    “Climbing up to the first floor will draw attention,” Hermione pointed out.

    Ron grinned. “Which is why we’ll be flying - disillusioned.”

    “I thought you didn’t want me to cast a Disillusionment Charm on you.”

    “Not when we’re in a group. But I can crack a window by myself,” he told her.

    *****​

    Not entirely by himself, he had to admit ten minutes later as he was hanging from the roof in front of the window - Hermione had countered the spell on the window that would have triggered an alarm. But the actual lock on the window itself? Easy. The pane was magically enchanted against breaking, the frame against drilling, but the gap in the frame let him slip in a thin tool through - and with that, he could flip open the latch. A little more difficult than busting a car with a hanger, but not much more difficult.

    “Ta-da!” he muttered as the window slowly swung open.

    “You’ve got it open?” Hermione asked in a whisper from above.

    “Of course.” He’d opened far more complex locks. Moody’s training had been comprehensive.

    “Alright. Don’t move, I’m coming to check the room.”

    He didn’t like her going first. But this wasn’t a drug dealer’s flat. This was the home of a wizard, and Ron couldn’t deal with curses.

    He didn’t see her, but he could hear her climb down next to him. And he heard her wand move.

    “It looks clear. No curses.”

    She sounded a little nervous, though. Unsure. He hesitated a moment, then nodded to himself. Better him than her. “Good.”

    Then he climbed inside.

    “Ron!” he heard Hermione hiss behind him.

    “You said it was clear,” he replied, as nonchalantly as he could manage. “I trust you.”

    He heard her mutter something uncomplimentary under her breath as she followed him into the room.

    “Rosengarten’s bedroom,” he commented as he pushed the window closed and looked around. Old-fashioned canopy bed, old-fashioned secretary desk, old-fashioned armoire… old-fashioned everything, and in many different styles.

    “I’d never have guessed,” Hermione shot back. “I was sure the bed was meant for patients.”

    He chuckled. “Fetch the others? Harry needs to see this as well.” And his friend would be waiting with impatience.

    “Don’t leave the room,” she said, then he saw the window open again, and he heard her clothes slide over the windowsill.

    He had no intention of doing so - but he was still tempted. A little, at least. But braving a potentially cursed flat without magical help would be foolish in the extreme. If only there was a way to get some enchanted goggles that would let him detect magic…

    He heard the tell-tale sound of apparition - disapparition in this case. Hermione had gone to fetch the others.

    It didn’t take her and Luna long to shuttle everyone to the roof and have them climb inside. At which point Hermione finally ended the Disillusionment Charms on everyone once they were out of sight from the street below, and they could start investigating the crime scene - if it was a crime scene.

    It didn’t look like one. The bed was perfectly made. The secretary desk was locked - but the lock didn’t hold a candle to modern security locks, and Ron and Harry could crack those. “The stationery doesn’t look like it was disturbed,” Ron remarked.

    “Just left as it was after finishing a letter, I’d say,” Harry replied.

    If it had been a notepad, they might have been able to read part of the letter by colouring the dents left by a pen. But with quills? No chance.

    “He sealed it. It wasn’t just a casual missive,” Harry said.

    “It could’ve been,” Hermione corrected him. “Many wizards seal every letter, no matter how frivolous.”

    “Oh, yes. It also makes it harder to know if a letter is important before you open it,” wizarding Luna added.

    “Couldn’t you repair a seal with magic?” Ron asked.

    “The wax is enchanted against it,” Hermione explained.

    “As are the signet rings,” wizarding Luna added.

    “Ah.” Ron should’ve expected that. Sealing a letter wouldn’t make any sense if every wizard could duplicate or repair the seal. On the other hand, it didn’t have to make sense if it was a tradition.

    “Robes in the armoire,” Harry reported. “And an old suit.”

    The thing looked almost threadbare. Was that by design? Or just a memento? They wouldn’t be able to tell. “Let’s check his office.”

    After a few spells cast to determine that Rosengarten hadn’t been paranoid enough to trap the floor, they entered the office they had visited yesterday.

    “No trace of combat,” Harry said.

    “Any damage could’ve been magically repaired,” Ron pointed out.

    “And cleaned up?” Harry didn’t look convinced.

    “If they want to erase traces, they’ll likely go all the way,” Ron said. “But it doesn’t look like he was kidnapped here. The dust is all wrong for that.”

    “Dust?” wizarding Luna asked. “Ah, you’re looking for tracks! Like when you’re hunting Demiguises.”

    What the hell were Demiguises? “Sort of, yes,” Ron told her. “The dust would’ve been disturbed if someone had fought, and it’s not spread out evenly enough to have been tampered with afterwards.”

    “Indeed,” Dumbledore said. “I doubt that Mr Rosengarten was kidnapped from here.” He looked around. “We have to check the other rooms, of course, but - I think he would’ve met visitors here.”

    The living room, filled with more old, mismatched furniture showed no signs of combat either. There were stacks of books and newspapers, including, Ron noticed, the Daily Prophet and the Tribune Magique - but also the Times. “British muggleborn?” he asked.

    “Or he just wants to appear to be a British muggleborn,” Dumbledore said. “Although I doubt that - I think his reaction to my educated guesswork was genuine.”

    “If he wasn’t kidnapped at home, then he was either kidnapped in an ambush on his way somewhere, or at his destination,” Harry said.

    “He would’ve been visiting a friend or contact,” Ron went on, “to set up contingencies in case we were going to betray him.”

    “Obviously,” Harry agreed. “He wouldn’t have trusted a stranger. It has to have been a close acquaintance. Or a friend.”

    “Or someone he mistook for a friend,” Luna added. “Greed can easily ruin a friendship - although in most such cases, there was no real friendship to begin with.”

    “Let’s check the desk for his correspondence,” Ron said. “If he trusted them, odds are, he’ll have written to his contact before.”

    The desk had a number of secret compartments. That wasn’t unusual, of course; some secretary desks came with half a dozen such compartments. They found a small bag of Galleons - British coins.

    “Old ones,” Hermione explained as she sorted them.

    “None younger than the forties, I assume,” Dumbledore said.

    “You are correct,” Hermione replied.

    But the real find was the hidden drawer with the Extension Charm on it: a veritable archive of letters.

    “He must have kept every letter he received.” Hermione sounded impressed and a little envious.

    “Well, the ones he received here, at least,” Dumbledore said. “He didn’t keep copies of his own correspondence.”

    “How sloppy,” Harry commented with a grin.

    “Nevertheless, we’ll have to sort through the letters and see if we can discern who would be a likely recipient for his latest correspondence;” Dumbledore stated.

    “Obviously,” Ron agreed. “Let’s start with the newest letters.”

    It took them half an hour to go through all the letters from last year, but they had a clear picture afterwards.

    “It looks like Mr Rosengarten had regular, if not very frequent, correspondence about financial matters with a Mr Ralph Martin,” Dumbledore said.

    “And they talked about deliveries as well,” Ron added. He was no wizard, nor an American, but he knew doublespeak when he saw it - Mr Rosengarten had been receiving smuggled goods.

    Dumbledore nodded. “I think we should pay Mr Martin a visit. He might be the last person to have seen Mr Rosengarten.”

    “Or his kidnapper,” Ron said.

    “Indeed.”

    *****​

    She saw the smoke as soon as she appeared at the edge of the forest. Then she saw the Dark Mark floating above it. And the green flames devouring the small hut.

    Next to her, Ron cursed.

    “We’re too late,” she said. The Death Eaters were already gone. Which meant the muggleborn family hiding in the hut were dead or captured. She hated herself for thinking it, but she hoped they were dead - prisoners of Voldemort’s regime suffered a lot before they were killed, sometimes by being sacrificed in rituals or being fed to Dementors.

    “We need to check,” Harry insisted.

    “Fiendfyre won’t leave more than ashes,” Ron retorted.

    “Then we have to be quick,” Harry told them.

    “What if it’s a trap?” Hermione asked. “If they captured the Jamesons, they might have found out that they called for help.” Help that might’ve come in time if their contact in the Order had reached them faster. Or if Hermione and her friends hadn’t been out searching for more information.

    No, it wasn’t their fault that they were late. Just… bad luck.

    “Then we’ll deal with them,” Harry snapped.

    “I’d rather just fly away,” Ron said. “Although they can’t have enough Death Eaters to stake out every house they attack.”

    “They only need to get lucky once,” Hermione reminded them.

    “We need to know if they’ve captured people,” Harry said.

    “Why? We can’t free them,” Ron told him. “Mate, I hate to say it - but we can’t break them out of the Ministry cells.”

    “If the Order gives us the name of one of their spies…” Harry trailed off.

    Hermione almost snorted. The Order wouldn’t risk a spy - or Harry Potter - to save a muggleborn family. They couldn’t afford to.

    And, even though she loathed it, they were right not to do so.

    *****​

     
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 49: The Kidnapping
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 49: The Kidnapping

    Magical Quarter, Portland, Free Republic of Maine and Vermont, January 6th, 2006

    “According to these letters, Martin owns a building on the main street,” Harry said. “He’s got a shop - Rosengarten acquired most of his furniture from him.”

    “He doesn’t sell just furniture, though,” Dumbledore commented.

    “Hardly.” Ron shook his head. “He also sold Rosengarten most of his medical supplies.”

    “Probably without paying the tariffs,” Hermione said. “The Free Republic imposes a substantial tariff on potions and potions ingredients.” At the looks this received, she added: “I read up on the country before we travelled here.”

    “That’s probably a way of keeping control of the population - by making it harder for independent Healers to operate,” Luna suggested. “Those who cannot afford to pay the higher rates due to the tariffs need to go to the government-owned clinic.”

    “Or it was originally implemented to protect the business of the clinic.” Hermione scoffed.

    Luna nodded. “At the request of the owners of the clinic, I suppose.”

    “Regardless of the reason, the tariffs exist - we would have to check Mr Rosengarten’s books to find out if he was a customer of a smuggling business,” Dumbledore interjected. “If he kept books in the first place, of course.”

    “And if he entered the correct figures,” Ron added.

    “Exactly. It would give us some leverage on the man - although I don’t believe that it would hold up in court,” the old man said.

    “Or what passes for a court here.” Hermione sighed. “I’m sure that Mr Martin has friends in high places.”

    “He’ll have made enemies as well,” Dumbledore pointed out, “though we lack sufficient intel to exploit that.”

    “So what can we do?” Hermione asked. “Going and asking Martin whether he’s seen Rosengarten doesn’t seem like a viable course of action. Unless we were to use Veritaserum - but that’s quite a drastic step to take. And if he isn’t involved in the kidnapping...”

    ...then they’d make an enemy out of him for no gain. Ron nodded.

    Not to mention that kidnapping a suspected leader of a smuggling organisation wouldn’t be easy to begin with. Not impossible, but difficult - and dangerous - enough. Especially since they were in a foreign country and didn’t know the lay of the land. And since they were dealing with wizards, of course. On the other hand, they had almost managed to kidnap Kirikov in a similar situation… But they had also almost been killed.

    “It is indeed a dilemma,” Dumbledore said. “If he is the one behind the kidnapping, then simply asking him a few questions will put him on his guard and endanger us as well as Mr Rosengarten. If he isn’t involved, then doing so might still alert the kidnappers, should they have a spy in his organisation or have put him under surveillance. However, if he is behind the kidnapping, then striking at him will gain us the element of surprise. But, if he isn’t, we’ll make a possibly powerful enemy - and we might alienate Mr Rosengarten for attacking his friend.”

    “Do you think that Martin is behind the kidnapping?” Ron asked.

    “If he isn’t, wouldn’t he be investigating his friend’s disappearance?” Dumbledore tilted his head. “I’m not convinced, though. Mr Martin should be more experienced with such matters than to act as the letter we received seems to indicate. However, that may also be deliberate misdirection. If we had more time, we could investigate him before committing ourselves. But with Mr Rosengarten in danger, I think we’ll have to make a decision soon, possibly without sufficient information.”

    “You mean we’ll have to trust our gut,” Luna said.

    Moody had said that trusting your gut was a last resort - usually reserved for decisions in the middle of combat - and should be based on years of experience.

    “Not yet. I think we should see if we can get ahold of some of Mr Martin’s employees or business associates and ask them a few questions,” Dumbledore replied. “Preferably someone who likes to drink, so a few missing minutes won’t appear suspect.”

    “So, we need to spy on Martin!” wizarding Luna piped up with a smile.

    She looked so eager, Ron couldn’t help suspecting that she had been hoping for such a turn of events.

    “Indeed. I took the liberty of bringing a few tools with me that might be of help,” Dumbledore told them.

    “Spy gadgets?” Luna asked, in the same tone her counterpart had used.

    “I am retired, but the Phoenix Gruppe is also active in the electronic surveillance market.”

    Of course.

    “They might not work inside warded areas,” Hermione told him. “Electronics have trouble in such environments.”

    “If they don’t, we won’t have lost anything,” Dumbledore replied. “And few people never step outside for a smoke or just to get some fresh air. Especially criminals.”

    That was true, in Ron’s experience. But he’d reserve judgement until they had results.

    *****​

    “Now this is familiar,” Harry commented as he set up the bulky camera in what had once been a living room. “Surveillance before a raid.”

    Ron snorted. “Yes. But we usually had better gear than this.” He held up another antiquated-looking camera.

    “It can’t be helped,” Hermione told him. “This building isn’t warded any more, but the whole street is under several enchantments to keep the muggles from discovering it.”

    And that rendered almost all of Dumbledore’s spy tools useless. Ron had been looking forward to using a laser microphone. Extendable ears just weren’t the same. They looked a little silly. Like a children’s toy. And to use them, they had to get far too close to the target building for Ron’s taste.

    “On the other hand, half the buildings being abandoned makes it easy to set up,” Harry said. “No nosy neighbours bothering the new tenants, either.”

    Ron chuckled. “Or trying to seduce the handsome new neighbour.”

    “Oh, stuff it!” Harry snapped back.

    Hermione raised her eyebrows at them, and Ron explained: “During one of our first surveillance jobs, a young woman took a fancy to Harry. And our bloke here was too polite to tell her off, so she thought he was just shy. Almost ruined the whole investigation.” In hindsight, it was rather funny, of course.

    Harry scoffed. “Do we have to talk about that club again?”

    “No,” Ron replied at once.

    “Club?” Hermione asked with a half-smile.

    “Just an old case,” Ron told her. An embarrassing old case he’d rather forget.

    “Ah.”

    Harry was grinning again. “So… the camera’s set up.”

    Ron sighed. They’d have to sort through the pictures without a computer. Moody would be amused - the old man liked to grumble about computers. “Let’s hope that some of Martin’s minions do use the doors to his building.”

    “I would expect them to, actually,” Hermione said. “He’ll have his building warded against Apparition, of course, and I don’t think he’ll want to let the local Floo Network Authority know who’s visiting him.”

    “Good point,” Ron conceded. Still, letting your accomplices walk in and out? Any competent police force would know the extent of the man’s network in short order. Although the Republic might not have a competent police force.

    And they didn’t have enough time to do a proper surveillance job, anyway. The kidnappers would send the next owl soon.

    “Alright, let’s use the ears before we head to the second building and set up surveillance on Martin’s back door,” Ron said.

    “Alright.” Hermione stuck her hand into her bag and pulled out a mass of flesh-coloured things.

    Ron sighed - the twins’ counterparts had made their creations look like actual ears. He should’ve expected that. “I wish we could just use a crossbow to shoot them at the windows,” he said.

    “The impact would alert the people inside,” Harry said at once.

    “Or float them over,” Ron said.

    “The building’s wards won’t allow that,” Hermione told them. “Even banishing the ears will be a little tricky.”