"Of course, the [question] I get asked the most relates to that
one designation on the bottom of the [Field Performance Report]
brevium: neutral, influenced. The key word there is 'influenced',
and during the initial stages of [Observation and Reporting]
it tends to come up a lot. What is 'influenced'? How do
you define that on the ground? Even field agents still have
questions about it, even Primarius. How and where do we draw
The simplest definition of 'influenced' falls along the lines of the
obvious, we're talking about mind control now, total loss of freewill.
It's once we move into the less apparent that things start to become
murky. What about blackmail? What about conscription? Now
we're going to have difficulty. That kind of decision becomes too
detailed, too situational. Those people are inevitably going to be
lumped under 'hostile'. If they're shooting at you, it's kind of hard
to think of them as being anything else, right? Many of you have
been in that position.
But the most insidious definition, the one that raises the most–Major Ezekiel Philipps, Praesaedius Training Corps
uncomfortable questions is, I think, the victims of misdirection.
The victims of lies. Not everyone who hinders is aware that
they're doing it. People can be taken advantage of in truly
awful ways, and that's just the worst situation to find yourself
Keynote speech at ICDC¹ DCCCXCVI
1. Imperiarchy Communis Disciplina Congressus
Kylie's parents had been taken from her. The thing was, if she hadn't received the note informing her of that fact, she probably wouldn't have known.
The manor was large, silent and empty, but it was always large, silent and empty. The pristine halls were as quiet and cold as a tomb, the neatly buffed floors and elegant archways lacking any sound save for the hushed flutter of the lamps. Kylie had spent her whole life avoiding those halls with their stone-tiled floors. She traversed the carpet where she could, and tiptoed where she couldn't. Sound could only bring attention to what an ungainly beast she was, as Mother said.
She knew that her parents were not at home and apparently were not coming back, but some habits couldn't be broken. She could no more speak out loud or run freely than she could when Mother and Father were there to note her every misstep and enumerate her failings. So she hid in her room and glanced furtively out the rain-slicked window, trying to ignore her frantic heartbeat and hold on to the faintest hope that help might come.
The note had been pinned to her door when she had opened it in the morning, ready to sneak across the hall to the loo as she did every day. She purposefully woke up early, since her father would descend the nearby staircase on his way to breakfast, and she couldn't look unkempt if he were to spot her. But, that day, instead of a scolding for tousled hair she had received a letter explaining that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had taken her parents, and that she need not look for them (as if she would know where to begin).
She was positive there were still Death Eaters about the garden. She had seen shapes moving near the front walk at night. She'd wanted to take a closer look, but had ended up cowering beneath her sheets instead, trying to summon up the bitter disappointment in herself she should have been feeling. What kind of Gryffindor was she?
The afraid kind, obviously. She had stuffed her house scarf in the bottom of her school bag, terrified that her parents would find it. She didn't have to lie about which house she had been Sorted into, she just had to hide – no one talked to her if they could help it. If she kept quiet (which she always did), then her parents would assume… Well, they would never assume the best, but they might not assume the worst.
A proper Timous belonged in Slytherin; her ancestry proved that well enough. And though the Timous family had been marginalised and ignored for the better part of a century, they were still from the same, pure-blooded stock. Kylie was supposed to have been making connections in Slytherin, reminding them that the House of Timous may have been forgotten, but was not gone. Instead, she made friends (real friends!) in Gryffindor.
If her parents found out, Kylie wasn't sure what would happen. She was already unworthy; she barely existed in the margins. She had a feeling that she couldn't be a Timous and be a Gryffindor. She knew which one she'd choose if she had to.
She dropped the quill she'd been using at her desk and drew her knees up, hugging them to her chest. She breathed hard, fighting down the panic that squeezed tight at the edges of her lungs. Such thoughts were dangerous and difficult. It had been hard enough just to write to Harry Potter and ask for help.
She knew he probably wouldn't come. And, even if he did, what could he do? Everyone was running from the Dark Lord, terrified and overpowered. She had been taught to take comfort in that, to know that she was on the winning team. But she didn't feel like she was. And if the Dark Lord was on her side, why had he taken her parents?
It was what she understood the least. Mother and Father had been ignored by the pure-blood elite just as she was, in turn, ignored by them. Nobody remembered the Timous family, nobody asked for their presence. Their fortune was modest by the standards of the upper class; they were not disgraced, but they were not important. Perhaps they were of some other use? Perhaps… a sacrifice?
Kylie shuddered again, planting her forehead against her knee. If He had needed a sacrifice, why not take her?
Was she so unworthy that she was useless even in death?
Not that she wanted to be killed. Going to Hogwarts had been the greatest change her life had ever seen, an entire new world opened to her; and then the Headmaster had been murdered as her new home was attacked by the people she was supposed to consider allies. Even if she could go back, it wouldn't be the same. Maybe it didn't matter. Everyone had probably forgotten about her, by now.
She picked up the quill again, trying to summon the willpower to finish her letter to Trevor. Even if he didn't reply, at least she had tried. That would be a personal victory. Harry Potter and Scott had never responded, though, and it hurt. She shouldn't let it. She should be used to being ignored, and, with no real experience at making friends, how could she expect to be any good at it? Their kindness had probably been nothing but pity.
Even so, it was still the best thing in her life. She would always have those moments.
The parchment stared up at her, half blank and waiting for the words. She pressed the quill to it and tried to be honest. It didn't come easily. She had been taught to keep herself tightly bound.
In the last year, those knots had started to fray.
The night was wet and dark. Raindrops fell from the sodden skies and ran down the tree trunks, hanging off the leaves and dripping onto rocks and mud. Harry shifted in the wet grass, trying to ignore the way it was soaking his trousers. Their impromptu mission was the first real strike of the war that he had found himself at the centre of. He needed to focus on the task at hand, not how bloody uncomfortable he was.
Besides, it seemed like the sort of thing he should become accustomed to. The enemy wouldn't wait on the weather. The rest of his piecemeal rescue party were all wearing similar expressions of discomfort, save for Scott; he was prone on his stomach, disregarding the mud puddle he was lying in.
No time like the present, Harry thought. Bracing himself, he shuffled forward on his knees, and then fell next to Scott. He instantly regretted his decision to emulate the Kharadjai and set an example for the rest – the shock of the wet and the cold on his stomach was unpleasant, to say the least. He tried not to think about what was soaking through his shirt, and motioned for Scott to pass him the binoculars.
Scott obliged, handing them over. "Turn the wheel on the top to focus," he said softly. Harry had to strain to hear him over the downpour. "Look to the right of the house, past the fountain in the middle of the yard."
Harry did so, looking to the right and peering through the lenses. "Damn," he swore the second he focussed on the spot Scott had indicated. "That's not all of them, is it?"
"No. There's two more behind the split-trunk tree on the left side yard. You see the lit window on the second floor? To the right?"
"Yeah," Harry confirmed. The window in question was just barely lit, but when magnified it was noticeably brighter than the others.
"I think Kylie is in there, I saw her hair for a second."
"I know it seems paranoid–" Harry began.
"Very little at this stage seems paranoid," Scott said.
"…But I think this is a trap."
"Had to be this bloody obvious before you decided that?" Ron said derisively.
"Someone had to say it," Harry muttered. He stared hard at the looming structure ahead, willing a solution to occur to him.
"I think we all have some doubts about this," Hermione said, her nervousness displayed by the rapid tapping of her wand into her palm.
Harry turned to Scott. "Do you think her parents are here somewhere?
I know she said they were taken, but it looks like they've got her hostage, too."
"Possibly. Kylie could only tell us what she knew."
"If it was actually her who wrote that letter," Ginny suggested.
"I think it was, actually. Her handwriting was familiar," Hermione said. "I helped her revise on several occasions."
"Like I said, she could only tell us what she'd been told," Scott reiterated.
Hermione's eyes widened. "Do you think… that her parents went willingly?"
Scott pointed at the house. "You tell me. Does this look like a ransom attempt? Or does this look like bait for a third party?"
After a few seconds, the shock in Hermione's face faded, replaced by a grim sadness. "It does make sense, yes. A house like this would suggest…"
"That Kylie takes tea with the Malfoys," Ron said with disgust.
"Is this the same Kylie I know?" Ginny said with disbelief. "Barely says a word? Was Sorted into Gryffindor?"
"It's not likely that she personally has Death Eater sympathies," Hermione agreed. "No, I think it's rather that she… Well, I do hate to say it, but she is the 'bait' tonight."
"I'm prepared to check this under the assumption that not only is this a trap, but it was planned and implemented by Kylie's parents," Scott stated.
"And I thought I was being paranoid," Harry said, grimacing.
"You think they would use Kylie like that?" Ginny sounded sickened by the thought.
Scott nodded, his face remaining the blank slate it had been for the entire conversation. "Yes."
Harry rolled over onto his side, shivering a bit at the sensation of cold water streaking across the top of his head. It was a bad job all around, no doubt about it. It wasn't the first trap he'd ever walked in to, but that hardly recommended it. "They'll wait for us to go down the garden path, and then…"
"There have to be more," Ginny guessed.
"If there are any, they'll be behind the house," Scott told her. "Once we commit, they'll swing out from the sides. They'll have the high ground and we'll be stuck in the middle with limited cover."
"Waiting isn't getting us anywhere," Ron said gruffly. "C'mon, I'll go first."
Hermione gripped his arm and pulled him back down into the brush. "You will not! Scott will go first!" As soon as the words left her mouth, she blushed in chagrin. "That is, if he… If his plan…"
"Involves taking one for the team?" Scott said dryly. "Not this time. Tell me something: does this look like the kind of force you would leave for the almighty Chosen One?"
Harry really, really hated that appellation, but Scott did have a point. "If Riddle knew I was going to be here, he'd have everything he's got."
"Which means they don't really know if you're going to show or not, so they have a few low-level robed turds standing around to pass it along if you do."
"I'd love to get my hands on the Slytherin that told them about Kylie and us," Ron growled.
"Later. The point is, these guys aren't so much a trap as they are an alarm."
Harry considered that. From his vantage point there didn't appear to be many options. The Timous estate was situated right in the middle of farm country, surrounded on all sides by flat fields. The wards that kept Muggles out also thwarted the progress of rural planning; the manor was an island of trees, no doubt looking exactly the same as it had for centuries, if not longer. He wondered how many farmers had harvested their crops not twenty feet from the property, never having a clue they shared a border with wizards.
The result of all that empty space was a definite lack of alternative routes. While the manor gardens were ringed with trees, the areas around the house proper were barren save for a few low stone walls and the large decorative fountain. There was no way to cross to the door without being seen.
Stealth offered the best possible outcome. Especially as the only other thing Harry could think of was speed. If Scott opened fire, and everyone rushed the front, it was possible that they might rescue Kylie and get back beyond the edge of the wards before more opposition arrived. They would have to be very quick, though. The window of opportunity would be slim; perhaps too slim for that to work.
Harry looked at Ron. "I don't fancy our odds in a fight. How about we go in under the Cloak?"
"We aren't all going to fit under there," Ginny pointed out.
Harry winced. "Er… I was just talking to Ron, actually…"
Ginny fixed him with a hard look. "Oh, is that right?"
"I suggest you rethink that plan, unless you have some way to get past the wards," Hermione said in a frosty tone.
"The front walk should be fine, it's the door that could be a problem," Harry said, trying not to sound defensive. He needed to sell everyone who wasn't Ron on the merits of his plan. "We'll slip under the Cloak and get in and out before anyone notices."
"And what if you're seen?" Hermione questioned. "Never mind how you intend to get past the door…"
"We'll get Kylie to open it for us," Harry asserted.
"How? Are you going to give her a ring?" Hermione said sarcastically.
Harry had to smile at that. His methods were Muggle, but not that advanced. "Close. All we need are a few rocks."
Hermione didn't immediately respond. Her expression remained stiff, which, when combined with her silence, indicated that she knew the plan was workable, but was opposed to it by default.
Ginny had not arrived at the same conclusion. "What a crock of shit! I am not staying here while you march through the Death Eaters and hope for the best!"
"There is an issue," Scott spoke up. He had been distant from the conversation, still staring through the binoculars.
"More than one," Ginny agreed, which was probably some sort of landmark event.
"Ron is too tall to get under that Cloak. You are, too, Harry, but it would just be the bottom of your shoes if you stand up straight. Remember trying to stay quiet with both of us tripping over each other under that thing?" Scott reminded.
Harry did remember, now that it had been mentioned. It had been a right pain in the arse to spy on Malfoy whilst trying to keep their feet from showing. And that had been in the previous year; Harry didn't think he'd grown all that much, but Ron had always been taller.
"Then I'll go," Hermione volunteered.
"Why don't I just go alone?" Harry wondered out loud. He was getting very tired of debating everything with his uncooperative friends. His plans weren't that bad.
Scott gave his unsolicited opinion. "Try not to do that, a two-person team is more effective. And I want Hermione here. I might need her magic brain."
"Then it's up to me," Ginny said smugly.
Harry didn't want her anywhere near the line of fire to begin with, never mind the effing front door. If only he could think of some way to express that without getting slapped. "Um, Gin…"
Even that garnered him an immediate glare. "Don't, Harry. I'm going with you."
Hermione nodded reluctantly. "That's our best course, I think. If anything goes wrong, just run back to us and we'll cover you."
Harry glanced back the way they had come, mentally marking the spot where the trees ended. Scott had been able to get them past the edge of the property, but, according to him, the wards over the entirety of the grounds were old and very powerful. They would have to get back into the fields before they could Disapparate.
It was not a welcome prospect. Harry tried one last time to find another alternative. "Scott, do you think we could pick off the side guards without the rest noticing?"
"Can you cast a spell without yelling it?"
A fair rebuttal. Harry could cast some spells non-verbally, but certainly not his full arsenal. "…Maybe."
"Not good enough. If Riddle shows up, there's no desirable outcomes."
Which could result from more than just the sound of spells being cast. Studying the manor once more, Harry remembered that there could be an indeterminate number of Death Eaters on the other side of it. They might be able to see the forward sentries – or perhaps all of the Death Eaters were in regular contact. Either way, removing even one of them could be disastrous.
"Nothing for it," Harry sighed. "We can't risk an alert until we have Kylie. We have to use the Cloak."
"Agreed," Scott said.
"Yes," Hermione also concurred.
"Then this is how we'll do it," Harry said, his mind working rapidly. "Ginny and I will get down to the door as quick as we can. Hermione, can you hand me some of that gravel by your foot? It's about the right size for this. We just have to get Kylie to look out the window long enough for me to wave to her. I think she'll recognise me."
"She'll know me, I saw her in the dormitory all the time," Ginny added.
"Right. As soon as she gets the front door open, we get her under the Cloak and leave. I don't really care if we have to run or whatever at that point, we just have to be gone. Ron, you and Hermione will – hey!" Harry broke off as Hermione rapped him on the top of the head with her wand. "What are you…" He trailed off as the familiar sensation of the Disillusionment Charm trickled over him.
"It's not as perfect as the Cloak, of course, but it should help if you have to run…" Hermione explained as she did the same to Ginny.
"Now that's damn useful," Scott commented with a look of far greater interest than he usually wore when magic was happening.
Harry glanced down at himself. In the darkness of the woods, he could barely distinguish his own form. The rain dripping through the trees provided the clearest indications of his outline. "I'm
sure you can see me just fine," he said to Scott.
"We're not up against other Kharadjai. And considering how infallible your Cloak has been, I'm going to guess there isn't any spell to view the infrared spectrum."
"I've never come across such a spell," Hermione confirmed.
"Good. Although, if the Death Eaters have any cloaks of their own, maybe it's something you could look into?" Harry suggested as he pulled his own Cloak out of Hermione's handbag.
Hermione was clearly intrigued by the challenge. "I suppose I might, at that…"
"Come on," Harry said, motioning to Ginny. "Let's do this."
She slid under the Cloak with him, her body heat soaking through his damp clothes. "This is really strange… I'm not sure where I am," she said, shifting a bit awkwardly.
"We'll go slow at first, until we get used to it." Harry turned to the others. "Is everyone ready?"
"One last thing," Scott said. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Harry stared at him. "What?"
"This rescue. It's a big risk. You sure about it?"
"As opposed to what?" Harry asked, becoming angry. "Leaving Kylie all by herself, surrounded by Death Eaters that would probably kill her for being a blood-traitor Gryffindor? What kind of question is that?"
"Well, considering her parents set all this up, she might actually be safer here. I mean, we're rescuing her from a trap set for us."
Harry could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "Right, sure, so let's just ignore her, let the Death Eaters do whatever they want with her, and let her think we didn't even care enough to check if she was all right! I can't believe this shite, what are you thinking?! This was your idea in the first place, and now you're–" Harry's mouth snapped shut as he realised exactly what was happening. "Oh, you… You fucking sod. Of all the times to – stop testing me!"
"Really, Scott? You decided to take the piss now?" Ron said.
Ginny made a sound that was equally disbelieving, but Hermione seemed more curious than anything. "Is this sort of scenario part of Kharadjai training?" she wondered.
Harry blew out a furious breath, not particularly caring if that were the case. "So what was this all about, then? Just poking me to see what I'd do?"
"Offering an alternative – logistically desirable, morally bankrupt. The kind of choice that sometimes has to be made… but not this time," Scott said, unperturbed by Harry's hostility.
"We'll talk about this later," Harry said balefully.
"Yeah." Scott had retrieved his rifle and was looking through the scope. "If you hear me fire, fall back immediately. Ron, I have a job for you and your Keeper skills. Grab those grenades."
"Um…" Ron looked at them apprehensively.
"They're smoke grenades, relax. If we go loud, I want you to toss three of them, left, right and centre. Get them as far out as you can. Harry, if you have to retreat, just make the smoke and you'll be all right. Between that and the Cloak, they won't see shit."
"Do be careful," Hermione whispered as they shuffled forward under the Cloak.
Harry pushed his way through the brush for a few feet, fighting the tangles of weeds and low-hanging branches. It was lucky that the darkness and rain would conceal their movements, since the Cloak did nothing to hide all the foliage being pushed aside. Once they were out of the overgrowth, it was less likely anyone would notice the grass flattening beneath their feet.
Ginny didn't have the experience with the Cloak that the others did. Her movements were slow and halting as she tried to match stride with Harry, and it didn't help that he was slightly bent over into her space. The gradual hill that marked the end of the woods was a jumble of mud and soaked grass. Harry put an arm around Ginny's waist and held her tightly, bracing both of them as they slid down the slope.
Making matters more difficult was the pervading darkness. The dark clouds overhead prevented even a sliver of moonlight from shining through, shrouding the entire property in deep, impenetrable shadows. Harry hoped that the grounds were well-kept enough to be free from detritus. A rabbit hole or a misplaced rock could send them sprawling.
Ginny wrapped her arms around herself with a shiver. With the shelter of the trees behind them, what would have been a pleasant summer's night breeze became cold with the rain. "This thing still works when wet, right?" she whispered through chattering teeth.
"It'll be fine," Harry assured her. "Let's go right around the fountain."
The stone slabs of the garden path were easier to navigate, though not without their own hazards. They swerved around the gathered puddles for fear of splashing. The Cloak was becoming uncomfortably heavy in the rain, clinging to Harry's face and arms. The dim light in the window they had presumed to be Kylie's became clearer, a beacon through a downpour that was turning into something near torrential. At the top of the hill, Harry had been able to see the house fairly well. Now past the fountain, he couldn't even see the tree line he had come from.
"At least they'll never hear us!" Ginny said positively, all but pressing her lips to Harry's ear in order to be intelligible.
Harry nodded shortly in reply, not wanting to encourage conversation despite the decreased danger of detection. Ginny was probably right, but the problem was that Kylie might not hear them, either. If the rain fell any heavier, they would have hardly needed the Cloak, never mind Scott's smoke grenades. The wind was picking up as well, cutting through their soggy covering and making Harry fervently wish he had dressed more warmly. Ginny obviously felt the same – she had pressed back into him, seeking warmth.
The front of the manor was a solid edifice of stone and ivy, fronted with stylised columns and even a couple weather-worn statues. Harry could barely make out the details; Kylie's window had become almost the only point of visual reference in the pouring rain. He placed one hand against the cold wall and followed it towards the dim glow.
With the window directly above them, it was time for the hard part. Harry looked to his left and right, trying to determine if any Death Eaters could see the section of the house where he and Ginny stood. The columns at the outside corners would shield them from anyone not actually in the front garden.
"See anyone?" he whispered to Ginny.
"How could I? I can barely see the bloody house right in front of me," she grumbled. "Take this spell off so she can see me."
"Just stay close to the wall. I think you'll have to light your wand." Harry dispelled the Disillusionment Charm from Ginny, and then did the same for himself. If they were discovered, he didn't want her to draw all the attention.
He extracted several rocks from one of his pockets and looked upward. The light from Kylie's window barely penetrated the storm, even when he was so close to it. No doubt Ron and Hermione could no longer see it at all from the hill. Hopefully, Scott would be able to see well enough, though Harry wasn't sure if the infrared spectrum was impeded by rain.
The first pebble he threw yielded no results. He repeated the action, not really knowing if he was hitting the window or not. He couldn't hear anything but the rain, and lost track of the pebbles almost as soon as they left his hand.
Then, a shadow flitted behind the streaked glass. Ginny straightened beneath the Cloak and began pushing the sodden material off of her. Her long red locks were plastered to her neck and back; with the Cloak collecting so much water, she looked as if she had gone for a swim."I think she heard that one! Lumos!"
Ginny sheltered the bright gleam of her wand with her body whilst Harry kept tossing rocks. Kylie would have to open the window to see them, and that meant she needed more incentive than a noise she might have imagined. With a little luck, curiosity might make her brave enough to investigate.
The light shifted, became more obscured. Harry threw his next pebble a bit harder than the others. It shot upwards into the dark, clinking off the glass. He paused anxiously. Kylie had to have heard that one, if that was her shadow blotting out the light. And if it wasn't her, then Harry was about to have quite a problem. He readied himself to run.
The window moved slightly; then, with a creak that was just audible over the storm, it was pushed open. Seconds later, Kylie's head peeked tentatively over the edge, her eyes huge with trepidation.
Ginny jumped up and waved at her frantically. Kylie's already wide gaze somehow widened even further, and the portion of her head which could be seen shook with what must have been a startled gasp.
"Kylie!" Ginny said in a loud whisper. "It's me, Ginny! Open the door!"
Kylie stared downwards, not moving.
Ginny grimaced. "The door!" she repeated, emphasising with gestures towards the front walk. Open the door, she mouthed with exaggerated precision.
The door? Kylie silently repeated, peeking her head out further so her mouth was visible.
"Yes!" Ginny nodded emphatically. "Open the door for us!" She mimed turning a doorknob.
Kylie nodded in reply, and she slid back out of sight.
Harry pulled the Cloak back down over Ginny. "I think she understood," he said, feeling good about their chances for the first time.
By the time they hurried over to the door, it was already partially opened. Kylie's slight form was sketched against the light from the entryway as she leaned out into the rain, as if she were a silhouette painting. Harry glanced towards the hill, but the rain had yet to slack.
looked back just in time to see another shadow on the wall behind Kylie.
He surged forward, leaving Ginny momentarily exposed as he snatched Kylie from the doorstep and clamped a hand over her mouth; she tensed and loosed a muffled scream. He pulled her to himself and fell backwards onto Ginny, leaving all of them sprawled on the ground next to one of the decorative columns. There was frantic moment as he rearranged the Cloak, trying to cover them. He was sitting on the portion Ginny needed, and Kylie was still on the outside. Somehow, he managed to push himself upward, slide Kylie underneath the Cloak and allow Ginny to worm her way in to flop against his side.
Kylie struggled against his grip, still unaware in the dark of who held her. Harry almost lost his hold on her when Ginny fell against him; reaching blindly upward, he caught Kylie again and yanked her back against his chest. Her tiny chin smacked firmly into the deep bruise where Scott had jabbed him earlier. Harry fought back a yelp of pain, biting his cheek so hard he tasted blood.
"It's us, it's us, Kylie, stop! Stop moving!" Ginny hissed, catching Kylie's flailing hands with her own.
Kylie instantly calmed, going limp with relief. Either that, or she had fainted, Harry couldn't tell in the dark. More concerning was the large shadow standing just inside the hallway on the other side of the door.
Harry wrapped a tense arm around Ginny's shoulders, hugging her to him both as a warning to keep quiet and as a precautionary measure. If they were discovered, he was in a good position to shield her. He barely breathed as a Death Eater stepped out into the rain, the drops plunking hollowly against the stiff cloth of his hood.
"No one here?" a voice asked from inside the house.
The man outside descended from the steps and lit his wand, waving it from left to right as he searched around the column. "No… Where's the little Timous bird, still up in her room?"
"Light's still on. Dolohov said we're not to go up there, though."
"Fuckin' Dolohov," the man grumbled, looking up through the rain with a posture of distaste. "I'm about sick of that cunt."
"Orders is orders. You'll earn a Cruciatus with that kind of talk," the other Death Eater warned.
"Hmph. You think this door just blew open, then?" the first Death Eater said. He took another step forward. The tip of his boot was now resting on the edge of the Cloak.
Ginny shuddered slightly. She was stiff at Harry's side, every muscle tensed. Carefully, Harry slid his wand hand out from where it had been trapped beneath Kylie.
There was a rattling sound; the Death Eater inside the house was probably testing the latch. "It's pretty old."
"Like everything else around here. God, I hate this bloody rain. My wife is going to give me hell if I catch a cold."
"Then don't. Hurry up and look about and then get back in here, we have to report in a few minutes. You want them to think we ran off like Preston and Henry?"
"Remember what Lestrange said she'd do if she found them? Christ. All right, just give me a moment. If you come out here you'll get sick, and then your wife will give you hell, too."
"My wife actually loves me, Grebbs."
"Fuck off. I'll be right back."
The next step Grebbs took was right onto Harry's leg.
Grebbs stumbled backwards, confused but not immediately alarmed. "What…?" He kicked out towards Harry.
Harry wasn't going to wait for the inevitable. "GO!" he shouted to Ginny. He caught Grebbs' foot just before it hit him and pulled, sending the Death Eater reeling sideways into the column.
"Expelliarmus!" Ginny disarmed Grebbs, catching the man's wand and hurling it out into the dark towards the fountain. "Come on, Kylie, run!"
Harry desperately fought to get on his feet, hampered by the slick cobblestones. He tugged up on the edge of the Cloak and managed to keep it in place, but Grebbs' leg was still resting on top of him. He pushed furiously against it even as the Death Eater swung a fist at his invisible tormentor. Ginny threw herself against Grebbs' chest as Harry just barely dodged the punch. Her weight knocked Grebbs onto his back, freeing Harry.
Harry grabbed Ginny's shoulders and pulled her up and off Grebbs. For a moment, her wrist was caught in the Death Eater's grip; then there came an unexpected SNAP that cut through the rain with startling clarity, and Grebbs' head lolled backwards. Ginny yanked her arm free.
Harry began to run, Ginny at his side. He looked to his left with the expectation that Kylie would be there, only to find that she was already ahead of them, having apparently taken Ginny's instructions to heart. Her legs were short, though; it didn't take Harry long to catch up to her.
"This way, Kylie, keep going. We just have to make it to the hill!" he said breathlessly, grasping the small girl's hand in his own and pulling her along.
She nodded, her breath emerging in pants that were more like sobs. Her eyes were full of terror and it was clear that she was pushing herself just to keep up, but she still ran gamely along with them. Harry felt a brief flash of something like pride; perhaps Kylie had been more of a fellow Gryffindor than he'd ever given her credit for.
CRACK, CRACK, CRACK. Shots rang out from the hilltop, growing louder with every step. Harry couldn't hear any shouts or footsteps behind him, but that didn't mean much with the storm drowning out everything save the noise of Scott's gunfire.
His heart dropped in his chest when he heard a very different kind of snapping sound coming from multiple directions: the distinct report of Apparition. The Death Eater reinforcements had arrived.
It took Ron about five minutes of inactivity to be bitterly reminded of how much he really, really hated being left behind.
The relief that Hermione wasn't part of Harry's mad plan to march up to the front of the manor was tempered by the fact that Harry was, and he was taking Ginny with him. If Ron had his way, they would all go or not go at all. Splitting up didn't feel right.
It certainly didn't help that a few minutes after Harry and Ginny had exited the woods, their destination could no longer be seen. The rain steadily increased in tempo until it drowned out all sight and sound with a heavy deluge that soaked through Ron's clothes so quickly he might as well have not been wearing any. The smoke grenades Scott had indicated earlier seemed more or less useless once the weather took that kind of turn.
Scott had reached the same conclusion. "Forget about the grenades."
"Gladly," Ron muttered. He had been none too eager to handle Scott's dangerous Muggle weaponry in the first place.
"I can't even see the fountain now," Hermione fretted. She was gnawing on her lower lip with evident worry.
"They're fine," Scott said. He was prone in the mud with his rifle resting on some kind of two-legged stand.
Hermione left her (relatively) dry spot beneath an arching tree and huddled next to Scott. "Tell me what they're doing!"
"Walking. Or, you know, shuffling."
"Ginny's not tripping Harry, is she? She hasn't been under the Cloak like us, I wish we'd had time to let her practice…"
Scott wiped water from his face and pushed his fringe up away from his eyes. "I can't tell at this distance. But they're still upright."
"Just use your binoculars, or the thing on your gun," Ron suggested.
"I would if I could. Glass appears opaque in my optic range, it's surface temperature only." Scott waved a hand at his weapon in an exasperated gesture. "Kharadjai tech has projected optics and integrated imaging to get around that, but I'm stuck with contemporary GEP equipment for the most part. Can't have the locals getting ahead of themselves if I lose something."
"Of course. We have to be kept in our place," Hermione said tartly.
"Says the girl from a hopelessly backward, borderline pre-Copernican society that is the very definition of technologically stagnant. It's not the wizarding folk I'd be concerned about finding a Voight magazine with eight millimetre caseless. The Muggles might reverse engineer that shit; a witch would probably think it was food or something. Try to eat it."
"You are so deliberately offensive at times," Hermione remarked in a tone that was more resigned than angry.
Ron didn't understand even half of what Scott had said, but he knew when he was being insulted. At that moment, however, he barely cared. "Well, however you do it just keep watching Harry and Gin. Be a prick later."
"They're almost to the front wall," Scott reported. "If you want to see, use the scope on the gun, it has a night setting. I just hate that green shit. It hurts my eyes."
Hermione looked at him in surprise. "Your eyes? I've seen you look straight at the sun without blinking…"
"Yeah, the eyes are actually the only part of Kharadjai anatomy with any major physiological differences. They're at the front wall, moving towards Kylie's window," Scott updated before continuing, "There are advantages, but we're all still subject to our little quirks. I used to get migraines working with green screens."
Ron carefully crawled over Scott and settled down next to the rifle. He raised it up and pressed his eye to the scope, but couldn't see anything. "It's not working."
Scott reached over and moved something that clicked. Ron found himself looking at one of the distant columns in front of the house. The world was rendered in a palette of contrasting shades of green, glowing and fuzzy. The rain streaked down in blurred lines that made it even harder to discern details.
not great, huh?" he said, blinking a bit in an attempt to focus better.
"Not in this weather."
There was a flash of white to the right of the column Ron was looking at. He turned that way, rotating the weapon on its stand. The motion was so disorienting through the magnified sight that he had to pull away. "This is harder than I thought. Did you see that light?"
"I think someone lit their wand." Scott had moved up into a sitting position and was leaning forward, staring hard into the darkness.
"They call that being careful?" Hermione gasped.
"Probably didn't have a choice. Ron, I might need that gun back."
Ron removed his eye from the sight and pushed the weapon back towards Scott without protest. It had been nice to be able to see, but he didn't exactly trust himself with the Muggle implement. The only thing he really knew about it was that it shouldn't be played with.
"Where are the guards? Did they see?" Hermione asked anxiously.
"The guys on the right went to the back of the house. The guys on the left are just hanging out on the side yard, they haven't moved yet," Scott answered.
"Thank goodness for that."
The rain was not letting up in the slightest. Deprived of the night vision offered by Scott's firearm, Ron was once again unable to see further than ten feet in any direction. It was more than a bit frustrating. If Harry ran into trouble, Ron would be useless.
A thought occurred to him. He shifted closer to Hermione, putting his mouth at her ear so he wouldn't have to raise his voice. "Do you think you remember where the house ends to the right, if you had to aim there?"
"I believe so," she said.
"Good. If Scott says there's a problem, maybe we could start casting to the right and left and make the Death Eaters look our way."
Hermione hesitated, then nodded her assent. "If we must. We should keep that plan in reserve, though. Our spells will be very visible right now; Scott can fire his rifle without giving away his precise location."
"All right, well, we'll let him go first," Ron said with a grin.
Scott began speaking again. "They're at the door. Looks like it's already – what the fuck…"
"What? What's happening?" Hermione demanded.
"Harry just grabbed Kylie from the steps. There's a Death Eater right inside, they're hiding and he's…" Scott pulled his rifle up to his shoulder and stared through the sight. "If he takes another step then that's it."
"Have they been seen?" Ron said tersely. He readied himself to react, though he wasn't entirely certain what he was going to do. "Scott?"
"…Here we go," Scott said under his breath, and pulled the trigger.
BAM! Ron flinched back and clapped his hands to his head, but it was far too late for that. A familiar sonic splinter once again ripped through his left ear. He clenched his teeth and rode out the pain, waiting for it to subside and the ringing to begin. Next to him, Hermione had also covered her ears, looking dazed.
Ron dropped his hands and pushed himself up on his knees. "Same fucking ear!" he snarled at Scott, drawing his wand. Scott might have said something in reply, but all Ron could hear to his left was a piercing tone and his own heartbeat.
Scott was already shooting again. Two shots, then three more in quick succession. Ron still couldn't see. The rain sheeted downwards with unrelenting regularity and he had no targets.
"Scott, what is happening?!" Hermione shouted.
"They've got Kylie and they're coming right up the middle!" he replied. He swung his weapon to the left and fired. Barely two feet away, the shots broke across Ron's skin like a stinging gust, sharp and disorienting.
A spell came zipping out of the darkness, a blinding streak of light that was dazzling in the wet night. It flew harmlessly over their heads. Ron blinked and stared down towards the manor, trying to discern where it had come from. A second spell sparked to life at the right side – he pinpointed the source to a general area, and raised his wand to return fire.
Hermione seized onto his arm and dragged it back down. "No, Ron! We can't give away our position!"
Ron rounded on her to argue but was interrupted by a sound that sent a shiver down his spine – the distinct crack of Apparition.
"Oh, no," Hermione gasped.
"Multiple hostiles. They're coming in at the front and sides of the house, I see six, eight, ten, too many," Scott said in a dry cadence. "Harry's out in front, almost here… I'll swing left and – no, they're moving. No time. Grab him and we'll fall back, they're at the bottom, just help them up!"
BAM! Out on the lawn something sparked brightly in reaction to Scott's shot, and he muttered inaudibly in response. Ron stood and rushed forward into the brush, skidding down the muddy hillside with Hermione close behind. He didn't get far before he heard the crashing of branches being forced aside.
"Harry, is that you?" he said, raising his wand.
"Yeah!" Harry's welcome reply emerged from a thick tangle of bushes. "The Cloak is caught, give me a second. Kylie, grab Ron's hand!"
A small, pale appendage snaked out of the foliage and Ron took it, yanking Kylie up the embankment. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione doing the same for Ginny. Then came Harry, clawing his way up with furious determination. They all reached the top and slid down the short crest to the other side, gasping, filthy and soaking wet.
Scott had resumed firing. On his third shot a bright flash from the garden below illuminated the night like a bolt of lightning, brief and dazzling. The strobe effect left Ron with a still picture of every drop of rain in that moment, imprinted like a dark photograph.
Everyone scrambled to their feet, bracing off tree trunks to avoid slipping and not always succeeding. Ron helped Kylie get up; the young girl was breathing hard and trembling. Ron just hoped she had the strength to keep running. At least they didn't have far to go.
The storm that had once been a hindrance became more useful, even as it made descending to the field a bit tricky. The Death Eaters were no doubt having just as much trouble with movement and vision as Ron was. He slid from tree to tree, using them like stepping stones, in too much of a hurry to be more careful. Everyone else went down with the same reckless speed. Ron couldn't see Scott, but since he was no longer shooting, he was likely right behind them.
As the trees thinned and the ground became level, Ron reflected that it was the second time he had been running for his life through a darkened wood (and if he went back to his times in the Forbidden Forest, it wasn't even just the second). He thought he might try to get used to it. It seemed like running away was the only thing they could do against the Dark Lord and his growing army, which was not a pleasant realisation.
From somewhere back up the hill came the sound of another short, sharp explosion. Ron spun around, concerned that Scott had been left, but the Kharadjai was only a few feet behind.
Ron opened his mouth to see if Scott had done something with his Muggle weapons or if the Death Eaters had resorted to blowing up the woods in their pursuit, but Scott grabbed his shoulder and propelled him forward again.
"Just run!" Scott barked out. He sprinted ahead and scooped Kylie up into his arms; the slight girl had been slowing, unable to keep the pace with her taller companions. "Hermione, they're working on that area spell!"
"How close?" she shouted back.
"Too far north but they'll figure it out real quick!"
"Everyone group up!" Harry called out. They were at the edge of the fields, stumbling over the unevenly ploughed ground and trampling a farmer's wheat in the process. "This is it!"
Ron reached out and latched onto Hermione's hand, preparing himself for Disapparating. Harry was doing the same with Ginny. Scott rushed over to Hermione and set Kylie back on her feet. He took her limp hand and placed it firmly on Hermione's arm.
"We're good, go," he said, and turned back towards the estate.
Just before they disappeared, Ron looked up to see the shining orbs of lit wands bobbing at the top of the hill like faerie lights. Shadows darted among them in search, hunting for their quarry as they surged down the slope.
Then the world contracted and twisted, pressing inward with discomfiting pressure, followed by the sensation of falling.
The next thing he knew, he was lying on his back on the cold stone floor of Grimmauld Place.
There was a heavy silence interspersed with breathing and a few sighs of a relief. Eventually, Hermione broke it. "I apologise for the rough landing, it wasn't the best job of Side-Along…"
With a groan, Ron pushed himself into a sitting position. "You were brilliant," he assured her. "If I'd done it we'd be Splinched all over the room."
They were downstairs in the kitchen. Ron supposed everyone had spent enough time there that it was a natural enough destination, and it had the added benefit of avoiding Mrs Black's portrait.
Harry was shakily rising to his feet, taking stock of the room. "Is everyone all right? Ginny?"
"Fine," Ginny said from somewhere on the other side of the table.
"Looks like we're all here, except for Scott," Harry said, though he didn't sound all that worried. "He's probably– Ginny!"
"What?" Ginny said in response to Harry's panicked exclamation.
"Are you hit? You've got blood on your clothes, let me see you–"
That gave Ron the motivation he needed to get up. "Gin?"
"I'm fine!" Ginny said, exasperatedly swatting
Harry away from where he had been tugging at her garments. "It's not my blood."
Harry still looked concerned. "You're sure? You can be hit and not feel it."
Ginny just rolled her eyes. "I'm not hit! It's all from the man on the stair, the Death Eater."
"Yeah. I think Scott shot him," Ginny said, more subdued.
Ron had no idea who they were talking about, but as long as Ginny wasn't bleeding he didn't much care. "So nobody got hurt by anything, right? Except the damn trees, I mean," he said, gingerly prodding a long scrape on his forearm.
"Kylie?" Hermione gently inquired. She had helped the younger girl into one of the nearby chairs; Kylie was still trembling violently.
"Okay," Kylie whispered through chattering teeth. "Scott?"
"He's fine, he'll be here any moment," Hermione reassured. "Ron, could you start the fire? She's freezing."
Ron was beginning to feel more than a little cold himself. In the shaky aftermath of the adrenaline rush, his heart rate was slowing and the stone basement was a poor place to be in soaking wet clothes. The chill sank into his skin, settling in his chest and making him want to cough.
"So, where the hell is Kreacher, anyway?" he said to Harry as he ignited the fire. The task had made him think of Grimmauld Place's resident house-elf. "The lights were on when we Apparated in, weren't they?"
"Yeah, none of us lit them. He's around here somewhere, but if he doesn't want to see us then I'm fine with that," Harry said with distaste.
"Just not like him, that's all. I thought he'd have shown up to say something horrible by now."
Harry frowned thoughtfully. "That's true. He hasn't even been over by Mrs. Black's portrait."
"Maybe the little snot learned his lesson," Ginny chimed in.
Harry shook his head. "Not likely. I mean, it'd be great if he'd just go die in the attic or something, but…"
"Whatever. As long as he stays out of our way, I don't care. And, Harry, stop it, this is embarrassing enough already!" Ginny complained.
Ron turned around in bewilderment and saw a blushing Harry looking away from Ginny. Ron didn't get it until he noticed that Ginny's arms were crossed over the source of Harry's sheepish stance; the rain had plastered the fabric of her shirt to her chest, making it extremely evident that she was quite cold.
"Ugh!" Ron groaned in disgust, stepping away from them. "Why don't you get back under the Cloak until you're decent, Gin, however long that's going to take. If we have that kind of time."
"Sod off, Ron. Harry, don't just stand there, be a useful boyfriend and warm me up," Ginny said, wrapping her arms around Harry.
"Um, Gin, you've got blood on you…" Harry said, though he didn't pull away.
Ron could only take so much of that. He left the two of them by the fireplace and went back over to Hermione and Kylie. The small Gryffindor girl was the very picture of misery, shivering in her chair with her wet strawberry-blonde hair hanging in long, limp strings that stuck to her pale face. Her wide eyes were ringed by dark circles and filled with hopelessness. Hermione was rubbing at the girl's arms, trying to warm her.
"Scott will be here very soon, you're safe now, you're all right," Hermione said soothingly.
"W-what about m-my parents?" Kylie stammered.
Hermione met Ron's eyes with a sad expression, worrying at her lower lip. Carefully, Ron very slightly shook his head. Kylie didn't need their theories, not right then.
"We don't know where they are, yet," Hermione said truthfully. "But we got your letter, and we came to get you."
"…T-thank you," Kylie whispered.
"They didn't hurt you at all, did they?"
Kylie shook her head.
"That's good. Let's get you warmed up and then see what we can do for a change of clothes. I'm afraid everything will be a bit big for you, but at least they'll be dry," Hermione said.
Ron grabbed another chair and placed it in front of the fire whilst Hermione led Kylie over to it. Harry and Ginny had also gathered close to the flames, and for a few minutes the group silently huddled together in the warmth.
"Your hair is steaming," Harry said to Ginny. He had his arms around her waist and they were looking very cosy, which Ron was doing his level best to ignore.
"I'm thinking about cutting it," she replied. "It's a bit long for fighting and whatnot."
Harry made a noise of disappointment. "Maybe you could just pin it back?"
The sound of footsteps descending the basement steps interrupted them. Scott jogged down into the room still dripping wet and covered in more mud than the rest of them put together. He set his rifle on the table and ran a hand through his hair, leaving it sticking almost straight up.
"Good, you got the fire. Everybody all right?" he asked.
"Fine. Just a few scrapes is about it," Harry told him.
Hermione was giving Scott a look of concern. "What took you so long? Did you have trouble leaving?"
Scott wasn't listening to her. He held out his hands and went to Kylie in the manner of someone approaching a skittish animal. "Kylie, are you okay? It's me, Scott. I'm just a little different right now."
Kylie was staring at him in wide-eyed wonder, mouth open. In retrospect, Ron appreciated that he'd been given the opportunity to at least consider the possibility that Scott was actually an adult before witnessing it. He was sure it was quite a shock.
"We read your letter and came as quick as we could," Scott continued. "You warming up?"
"But, how?" Kylie said with wonder.
Scott sighed. "Not moving off that topic, huh? Okay, there's a few things about me you don't know… First and foremost, this is my real age. I was pretending to be a teenager so I could go to school with you guys."
"To help Harry, mostly. He needs help with this whole war thing. As it turns out, I guess you needed help, too. So here we are."
Ron didn't think that was much of an answer, all things considered, but Kylie closed her mouth and did not inquire any further. That was understandable; she was sliding lower in her chair, wilting with exhaustion.
Scott noticed that as well. "Tell you what, how about you go with Hermione for now? She'll find a nice room for you and then we'll talk more once you're feeling better. Hermione, if you have any ideas…?"
"She can stay in Mr and Mrs Weasley's room; it's one of the cleanest, from what we saw," Hermione said. "Come on, Kylie, I'll get you a shirt and see you to bed."
Ron watched them go. The thought of sleep was wonderful indeed, but he was very reluctant to leave the fire. He thought about just sleeping in a chair right by the crackling flames, though he changed his mind when he remembered doing something similar after the battle at Hogwarts. His neck still hadn't forgiven him.
"Scott," Harry called, motioning for the Kharadjai to come over.
Scott obliged. "I assume no one here is a casualty?" he said as he approached them.
"Not in the physical sense," Harry said dryly. "Did you make it out okay?"
"I crossed the road and came back after I found a barn at the end of the other field. They had that spell to stop Disapparation up by that point, so ideally they're still wandering out in the wheat," Scott explained.
"I hope they all catch cold," Ginny said spitefully.
"Pneumonia would be even better, and possibly fatal."
"I heard an explosion when we were going down the hill, was that you?" Harry asked.
"Yeah, I was wondering about that, too," Ron said. "I tried to ask you about it, but you were a bit pushy about hurrying, for some reason…"
Scott chuckled darkly. "Someone found my claymore. Hopefully multiple someones."
Harry didn't look ready to laugh about that, but he didn't look all that horrified, either. "All right, um… I think we should talk everything over in the morning. We should try to get some sleep."
"That's fine. Everyone did some good work tonight, I want you all to know that. Get some rest. Oh, that reminds me – did Hermione tell you guys about your room?"
"Our room? What about it?" Harry said, confused.
"You'll have to stay somewhere else this time. She said there's a portrait in there that can't know we're here. She put a spell on the door so you can't get in."
"Phineas," Harry said with disgust. "That wanker. I'd forgotten. She's right, we can't go in there."
"Wonderful," Ron groaned. He had so been looking forward to his old bed. "On the up side, I guess we can have our own rooms."
"Harry can sleep in my room, I don't mind sharing," Ginny casually offered.
Harry blanched and his eyes darted towards Ron. "I, er… I don't know about that…"
Ron was too sodding tired for a row with his sister. "You know what? Do what you like and I'll yell at you for being a slag in the morning, because right now I don't effing care," he said to Ginny.
"Good enough for me; come on, Harry," Ginny said brightly, tugging on Harry's arm.
"…We'll talk about it," Harry said nervously, resisting her pull.
They drifted away, still talking, and Ron prepared himself to leave the seductive warmth of the fireplace. Scott was the only one who didn't look that tired, which wasn't all that unexpected. For a trained soldier, their relatively short outing into the night probably hadn't been all that taxing. Ron wished he could feel the same way. Maybe he would, at some point, if they kept running rescue missions. He tried not to think about that too much. He knew not every mission could end so well.
Scott turned away to go back to the table and Ron noticed that he was limping slightly. Glancing down, the low light
of the fire revealed that the back of Scott's left trouser leg was soaked with blood from a bit below the knee to the very bottom.
"What happened to your leg?" Ron said. "Don't tell me you got hit by your own bomb again."
"Of course not," Scott scoffed, as if such a thing would never happen, even though it had before. "Someone got lucky."
"Ouch. What was it?" In a way, Scott was fortunate he had been struck with some sort of offensive spell. Being stunned or paralysed would have been even worse.
Scott shrugged as he picked his weapon back up from the table. "I have no idea. Took a nice chunk out of the back of my leg, though. Not a huge deal, but it surprised me. Pissed me off enough I almost doubled back, but I was afraid Harry would be an idiot and stay, too."
Ron grimaced. "And then I'd have to, and Hermione and Gin would never stay behind, and we'd all still be there. Because, you know, Harry would be an idiot."
"Yeah. I know. Anyway, go get a change of clothes from Hermione and then get some sleep. I'm going to do a sweep of the building just in case, then do the same."
"Want some company?" Ron offered half-heartedly, not really wanting to walk all over Grimmauld Place.
"No. I've got it."
Ron wearily made his way upstairs, not knowing where he was going to sleep and not particularly caring. Any empty bed would do. No doubt he'd be roused from whatever bed he chose before he was ready by either Hermione or Harry, or possibly both, as they would be eager to discuss the night's events more thoroughly. Ron understood the necessity, but didn't think there was any rush.
Everyone was still alive, which was good enough for the time being.