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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.”

    *****​
     
  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.

    *****​

     
  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!”

    *****​

     
  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.

    *****​
     
  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.

    *****​
     
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