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Chapter 1: ONE
A who’s-who on my banner, for those who like visual information:
James Potter II – Ian Somerhalder
Alice Longbottom II – Summer Glau
Vladimir Mahailov – Viggo Mortensen
Irina Petrova – Natalia Vodinova
Dmitry Vasin – Gerard Butler
Katya Razina – Nina Dobrev
Mickhail Dezhnyou – Clive Owen
Stenka Ivanov – Daniel Craig
Nadya Mahailova – Naomi Watts
Nikita Razina – Eva Green
It was freezing. According to the locals, this winter was the coldest in recent years. James Potter pulled his coat tighter and adjusted the scarf tangled around his neck. There was nothing he could do to keep his face warm and he had already reconciled himself to the loss of his nose through frostbite. The chime on the enormous clock keeping watch over the town square boomed out the hour and James sighed, his breath a great puff of mist that danced before his eyes before floating away, like a smoke signal advertising his position. It was not that unusual for a man to be lingering on a street corner in the middle of the night, and he hoped no one would ask any questions or remember his face if he’d been noticed.
He wondered absently whether he would see any action tonight, and a small part of him hoped he would. At least, he thought, a race through the dark, icy streets would get the blood pumping and warm him up. It was the third time he’d seen midnight on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg in the last week, but it seemed that the darkest hour of the night was the time of choice for Vladmir Mahailov and his men to conduct business. Nevsky Prospekt was the main thoroughfare for all traffic, both human and machine, and although the busiest street in the city, after dark it was virtually deserted.
James had been deep undercover in Russia for the last two months. Initial reports gathered by Wizard Intelligence in the United Kingdom had suggested that Mahailov was responsible for a covert people smuggling operation. Witches and wizards from all over Russia and her former states had started disappearing and after some hard digging, it was discovered they were being rounded up, tagged like livestock and shipped to the former Soviet’s preferred location for exiled and unwanted members of society: Siberia. It was also rumoured that Mahailov had close ties with For Humanity, a neo-Nazi terrorist organisation operating rather proficiently in Northern Africa and, if rumour was to be believed, on the European mainland. James had read the case file on the leader of For Humanity. The intel on Cass Templeton had come in at the same time as that on Mahailov, and James and Scorpius had drawn straws to see who won the frozen wasteland of Russia and who got the sultry Northern African summer.
James scowled, wishing that he was in possession of a time turner. He hated the cold.
It was part of James’ mission to not only uncover Mahailov’s plans but to infiltrate his organisation and take it apart from the inside out. It was ridiculously dangerous, and he sometimes wondered if he was mad. Alice always said it was their duty to help in any way they could.
“This is what we were trained for, James,” she’d said only a few nights ago, when he’d complained about the cold, the waiting and the mental health issues he was certain he suffered from. He knew she was right, of course, but her words did not help when he was sitting on frozen street corners.
Another blast of chilly air sliced across his face and James shivered violently. A simple heating charm would work a treat, but with the Russians working at perfecting their Magical Detectors, he and Alice had well and truly been forced to go native. They had been warned before accepting the mission that the use of magic would be completely off limits. Even though preliminary reports stated the Magic Detector Device was still in its developing stages it had been decided by the Ministry of Magic that its agents, while in the field in Russia, would not use their wands unless it was absolutely necessary.
In other words, James thought bitterly, fingering the wand concealed in his sleeve, he was authorised to use the thing that came most naturally to him if, and only if, he was facing certain death.
His mobile vibrated. With trembling hands he pulled it out, fumbling with the lid with his gloved fingers. It was Alice.
Nothing: only the cold, he texted back, before deleting both messages. Alice was, no doubt, back at the hotel snuggled down in the covers of the luxurious bed they’d been sharing since their arrival. Wanting to stay alert and focused, James shook Alice from his head and turned his thoughts back to the things he had read in the weeks leading up to the mission.
Although not strictly a communist nation, communist ideals still held firm across all sections of the political, economic and social systems of Russia. The country, James understood, was on the brink of political collapse, with the democrats, communists, liberals and unionists fighting each other in parliament. He remembered learning about communism in Muggle Studies at Hogwarts, in their classes on Muggle Politics. He never thought it was something he should remember, until now. Communism was a system James had at first admired, but he soon understood it to be a perfect ideology, not a perfect realism. A classless and stateless society sounded wonderful, but human beings were by nature greedy, and the hunger for power was something that he had found most could not ignore, regardless of their intentions. Perhaps, James mused, there was something else too – something deeper, a need to consume and conquer; an inherent sort of personal imperialism.
Recently, with the dissolution of the Statute of Secrecy and the fear, suspicion and accusations that followed, politics in Russia had become a very dangerous game. Already there had been several assassination attempts on key members of government, including the President herself. Initial finger pointing was directed at the wizard community in Moscow but with no proof, no charges were officially laid down.
Despite this, and the public declaration that followed, encouraging co operation and promoting peace, the government was unable to keep the people calm. There were riots in Saint Petersburg, public lynching in Novosibirsk and in Ufa, three witches were imprisoned and tortured to death.
James chewed his lip, standing up and stretching his stiff muscles. He checked his watch and decided to call it a night, turning in the direction of his hotel, bed and a stiff drink. His footfall echoed painfully loud as he walked and he cringed with every step. Since the Curfew had been announced, no one ventured out at night, only the mafia, the murderers and those out for a quick ruble. The Curfew was not law per se, but it was considered generally safer to abide by the rules issued by the local militia.
The militia had sprung up only recently, in response to the continued political and social unrest gripping the nation, and it now had branches in all major cities. Controlled largely by the mafia, the militia defied the government and conventional law and rules the cities with iron fists. James and Alice’s target, Vladimir Mahailov, was the unofficial leader of the Saint Petersburg militia and second in command of the local mafia. Reports had suggested that he was also the man responsible for the Magic Detector Device, conceiving the idea and employing a team of scientists to make sure it was up and running. James hated to think how they tested the device’s capabilities.
Saint Petersburg was, he had to admit, a beautiful place, and he found it hard at times to believe the city was harbouring such terror in her streets and in the pockets of shadow that lined the walls. The skyline was low, no skyscrapers dominating the atmosphere, and the architecture of the past had been pristinely preserved. Baroque and neoclassical buildings adorned the wide streets and James and Alice had taken a rare moment on their arrival to simply be tourists and enjoy all Saint Petersburg had to offer.
James crossed the canal and continued on his way down Nevsky Prospekt. He could smell the Neva River, and could hear the distant hum of a car. The city was silent around him, the night closing in on his ankles and he could not help the shiver of premonition that raced up his spine and settled with purpose at the base of his skull.
As he neared his hotel, his skin prickled further. Slowly, he glanced over his shoulder but could see nothing. He had no reason to be so paranoid – they knew no one in the city yet, and James and Alice had spent the days and nights just watching people, listening to barely concealed rumour and wondering when they would be able to sink their teeth into something.
The British Ministry had decided to send Aurors abroad after receiving requests for assistance from several other Ministries and communities around the world. As it was a common threat they fought and shared existence they fought for, the request was met with no opposition, and Aurors were dispatched far and wide almost immediately. Russia was James’ second overseas appointment, the first being a minor assignment in France to gather intel at the beginning of the war. He knew that his superiors back home, his father included, had been keen for first hand knowledge from the conflict zones, and he knew also that there were many foreign witches and wizards on British soil – knowledge that was at first supposed to remain secret. James supposed his father should not have such loud phone conversations at very late hours of the night.
It was common knowledge now though, and as the war went on and the years passed, the support of their foreign counterparts was paramount for Britain. It was part of James’ job while undercover to gather as much information as possible and report back to both the British and the Russian Ministries. The Russians had always been aware of other agents in their country but James had been assured that, due to the commonality of their agendas, he and Alice would not be interfered with unless their operations posed a direct threat to home security. Information was shared between countries and informants, and James and Alice had already met a couple of American wizards on their stop over in Moscow.
Communicating with their Russian contact would be harder, James imagined, as everyone was watching everyone else and now, with the Magic Detector’s in operation, the only way to pass a message was the old-fashioned Muggle way. Computer technology was not to be trusted, the Russian Ministry advised. The militia, the mafia and For Humanity had proficient hackers.
James paused with his hand in his pocket. The Muggle handgun his father had insisted he carry sat warm and heavy in his pocket and his fingers caressed it gently. He hoped beyond everything that he would never have to use it but the realist in him knew that there was a strong possibility the weapon would be fired before he returned home.
The concierge met him at the door, letting him in with a wry smile. James felt a stab of pity for the man, standing in the freezing weather at such a late hour when there were much more pleasant things to be done. He wondered whether the concierge, a tall, thin man in his early thirties, had a wife or lover, and guessed that he would much rather be with her instead of manning the door for breakers of curfew.
Alice was asleep, curled on her side with the blankets tucked around her chin. James stood a moment watching her, debating whether or not to wake her and tell her about his skin-prickling moment and his suspicion he was being followed. She rolled over and he jumped to see her eyes wide open.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” he asked gently.
“Why are you so late?” she retorted.
James grinned, slipping out his coat and unwinding the scarf from his neck. “Did you wait up for me darling? How sweet of you.”
“Bite me,” came the reply. Alice yawned and stretched, her skinny arms sliding out from underneath the blankets to reach above her head.
“I think someone was following me,” James said quietly, sitting down on the edge of the bed to pull his shoes off. He heard her intake of breath and glanced over his shoulder to find her sitting up, eyes wide. “I think I imagined it, I don’t know. It was more of a feeling than anything else.”
She nodded serious. “I had that too, today, when I was in the square: just a feeling, nothing else. I couldn’t see anyone suspicious but then again, in this place, everyone is on edge.”
James sighed, falling back on the bed still clothed. “It was probably nothing; the militia wondering why I was lurking around street corners after Curfew.”
“You really don’t want them following you about though, James,” Alice argued, rolling onto her side so she was facing him. “Tomorrow night, I’m coming with you.”
He looked at her, startled. “Why?”
“We have already established that I am smarter than you, Potter,” Alice grinned. “Besides, maybe another set of eyes would help, but I think we should obey Curfew tomorrow night.”
“What are your suggestions then, o wise one?”
Alice yawned, covering her mouth with her hand. “Dinner, then a club maybe.”
James smiled. “You just want to go dancing.”
“Pick a bar then; we’ll go drinking instead,” she murmured, pushing her face into the pillow. “People talk in bars, you know that.” A moment later, she was asleep. James rolled onto his side facing her and watching her sleep. He liked Alice, he always had, but he wasn’t sure if what was going on between them now was anything serious or not. He liked her spunk and her toughness, but he knew she could be soft and gentle, and that she cared deeply about her friends and family. They were the reason she had joined the Auror ranks, just as they were his reasons. He liked the life he once had and wanted desperately to get it back. He was a good Auror, he knew that, but before the war and the end of the Statute, James had been hoping for a career as a Curse Breaker for Gringotts.
He remembered a conversation with his father, not long after the Muggles became serious in their opposition to the magical community. His father told him that he was not expected to throw himself into the Ministry ranks – he could continue doing what he wanted, stay on the path he had chosen. There was no pressure, he’d been told, but both he and Albus decided in the end that the Ministry was where they would be the most useful.
His last thoughts before drifting into sleep were of his brother, stationed in Northern Africa, and his cousin Rose. He wondered briefly whether she and Malfoy were in Morocco yet, and whether she’d killed his friend already.
Alice was up early – he heard her moving around their hotel suite, picking things up off the floor and muttering to herself. Alice was the biggest neat freak he had ever met; worse than Malfoy and a thousand times worse than his Aunt Hermione. He yawned loudly to let Alice know he was awake and was promptly hit in the face by a pair of his jeans.
“You’re a pig, Potter.”
“Sorry,” he said, smiling. He would never tell her, but he thought she was incredibly hot when she was cross. Her long dark hair stood up in all directions, her cheeks flushed pink and her eyes took on the wildest look he had ever seen.
“Get up and get dressed. We’re going out,” she barked, tossing another armful of clothing at him. A shoe grazed his forehead and he winced. “Breakfast and then we’ll take a look around, maybe retrace your steps from last night.”
He nodded, slipping from the bed and pulling on yesterday’s clothes. “You think whoever was maybe following me is still lurking about? Good plan.”
Outside, the weather was no better than the day before. The snow that had fallen in the early hours of the morning had already turned from pristine white to brown mush, churned up under the tyres of numerous BMW’s and Ladas, as well as the bulky military vehicles the militia paraded about in. James and Alice, both rugged up against the bitter chill of winter, walked at a leisurely pace along Nevsky Prospekt, passing designer outlets selling Muggle clothing, stunning baroque churches, department stores, and grand palaces. The grim looking Kazan cathedral loomed over the street and James could not help a shudder. He was both drawn to and repelled by the building, for reasons he could not describe.
The sun shone weakly above them, doing nothing to warm their bodies. It caught on the snow, reflecting shards of light across the footpath, and in the distance, it glistened from the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Alice smiled, slipping her hand in James’ as they walked. She loved the city and, unlike him, she didn’t mind the cold. Her cheeks were rosy with it and her eyes bright, her dark hair hidden under the fur-lined hood she wore.
There were not many people on the street so early – a glance at his watch told James it was just before eight, and Alice led them to a little cafe tucked between two clothing stores. James had no appetite – he had discovered that being so cold meant he didn’t want to open his mouth to shovel any food in, so he sipped at a coffee while Alice ate and chastised him for not eating.
They walked the streets until ten and without consultation decided to return to the hotel. There was no sign of anyone watching them, and James felt at ease, comfortable and relaxed. By noon a blistering wind had sprung up so they barricaded themselves inside their hotel room and passed the next six hours in an almost silence. James had learnt that Alice was prone to long periods of silence and rather than it being uncomfortable or strange, he found he liked just being in her presence. They didn’t need to talk all the time and he reasoned that after a while, they’d have nothing to say to one another anyway, so he didn’t push conversation.
After showering and changing their clothes, they headed out just on dark, passing the steely-eyed concierge in the foyer. James felt the man’s gaze on his back until they were out of sight and he made a mental note to keep an eye on him, not liking the way he seemed to be watching them of late.
“You’re being paranoid,” Alice said when he voiced his suspicions. “But okay, we’ll keep watch on him, although I don’t think he is any sort of threat to us. We’re tourists as far as he knows.”
“Yeah, but what sort of tourists come to Russia for a holiday at the moment?” James muttered.
The Aurora Cafe had a fantastic dessert menu, which James was more than happy to open his mouth for. The coffee warmed him and the wine list was extensive, and by the time they paid the bill, they were both a little worse for wear. It bothered him, being slightly drunk, and his skin prickled as they continued along the street. He realised suddenly that he was not armed – he’d left his handgun in the hotel.
“Do you have your gun?” he asked Alice, bending his head close to hers as they walked. She nodded, her eyes wide. “It might be nothing but that feeling is back.”
He shook his head. “No. Let’s keep going. How much cash have you got on you?”
“Enough. Are we gambling again?” Alice asked with a roll of her eyes. James grinned, steering her towards the casino with a quick glance over his shoulder. Inside, it was warm. Bodies crowded around tables and music floated through the air, mingling with the sound of roulette wheels, slot card machines and raised voices from the poker tables.
They headed to the bar and ordered drinks, taking a seat in a corner table. James didn’t feel like gambling but the casino was familiar to him – he knew where the exits were, how many security guards worked the building and the general clientele. He sipped at his drink, unable to shake the feeling of being watched.
They played poker and lost, drank more, and won a game of roulette. At ten, Curfew was announced over the loud speakers hanging from the wall and slowly, the casino began to empty. The tables were packed up, the shutters closed on the bar and James and Alice pocketed what was left of their money and joined the small crowd as it moved into the street. Outside, people dispersed quickly, jumping into cars or hailing taxis. James was about to suggest a taxi when a hand closed on his shoulder.
Panicked, he swung around, his fists lifting, his body slipping into a fighting stance. Alice stuck close beside him and from the corner of his eye he watched her hand slip into her coat pocket.
A tall man stood before them, his body wrapped up against the chill in a coat that almost brushed the snow-covered pavement beneath his feet. His blue eyes appraised them, took in James’ stance and Alice’s stony expression and slowly, he laughed.