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The Harder Struggle by Ericfmc
Chapter 27 : Command Decision
 
Rating: 15+Chapter Reviews: 3


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Ch 27 Command Decision

It was a little over a week since Ginny’s birthday and she was snug in bed, deep in sleep. She was shocked into near wakefulness by the piercing wail of a banshee and a bright pulsing light. Ginny cocked open one eye and determined that both crimes against all things decent and good were emanating from a small crystal sphere on the stand beside her bed. She reached for her wand and was about to hex the offending ball into oblivion when an arm reached over her head, tapped the ball and restored peace to the world.

“You better get back to your bed, Ginny,” said Harry, already getting up and changing. “That thing may have pierced the silencing charm we put on the room. Your Mum could be up any minute to investigate.”

“What is that atrocity?” she asked, her dislike plain to see.

“It’s my auror emergency beeper. I’ve got to report to HQ immediately; something must have happened.”

Ginny hated the thing. Her relationship with it would never improve. She would learn in time that when it went off, the best you could hope for was that people you care about would eventually return alive and uninjured. It didn’t always happen. Ginny gave Harry a kiss and scurried back to her own room. Moments later Harry disapparated.

When Harry arrived at the Auror HQ apparition point he was almost knocked over.

“Out of the way, Potter,” yelled Harvey Williamson as he and two other grim faced aurors charged by and quickly disapparated. Harry walked briskly to his unit area.

“Briefing room, now Harry!” ordered Grollo. When he entered the room, Terry Boot, Paul Appleton and Heloise Abbott were already there. Within a minute all the remainder of the new recruits had arrived. Neville was the last.

Gristlewaite bustled into the room accompanied by Savage and Cherry McGruder. He launched straight into a briefing.

“Ok here’s the situation. In the early hours of this morning we received a series of bomb threats. Our assessment is that these threats are genuine. Unless we release all Death Eaters now in Azkaban, a series of large bombs will be detonated in the heart of major population centres. The first bomb is scheduled to go off in London at 7:00 am, followed two hours later in Birmingham and then Leeds. Other unspecified actions are threatened if no rapid progress is apparent.”

Harry looked at his watch. It was 5:30 am.

Gristlewaite continued. “We have already dispatched teams to each of the targeted cities. Any bombs set up by Death Eaters are likely to have magical signatures and we are trying to use that to locate them. I don’t have to tell you it’s a long shot. Muggle authorities have been informed. Magical Law Enforcement has enacted their emergency protocols and will be assisting the muggle authorities.”

“You are being held here in reserve. You will be despatched as needed to any new threat points. In the meantime we want you to go through all the recent intelligence reports. See if you can find anything, however small, that might have been overlooked I can’t tell you what to look for. You are going to have to use your brains. Boot, Patil, Appleton you have experience in intelligence analysis, I’ll ask you to coordinate efforts. You can set up here.” With that, box upon box, each stuffed with thick reports floated into the room.

“Get to it. Savage, McGruder – with me!” The three senior aurors left the room.

 

Nearly two hours later, Harry was having trouble concentrating. Nothing in all the reports he had read seemed relevant and most were filled with mind numbing tables and charts. No one else had spotted anything useful either. Terry Boot had become excited when he thought he saw an anomalous pattern emerging in the apparition traffic reports but it turned out to be a chimera.

Harry picked up another heavy report and was just about to open it when Cherry McGruder returned. She was deathly pale.

“At 7:02 this morning, just fifteen minutes ago, a large bomb exploded near Marylebone station in central London,” she announced. “First reports indicate that 13 muggles have been killed and scores have been injured, many seriously. An MLE officer was killed by a secondary device that detonated when he rushed to the scene. We believe it was triggered by an apparition detector, but that is just speculation at this stage.”

“Do we know the name of the MLE officer,” asked a dismayed Heloise. She, Grollo and Paul had only just transferred from MLE and still had many close friends there.

“I’m sorry Heloise, no we don’t but I will let you know when we do.”

Seamus shoved back his chair angrily, slamming down the report in his hand. “This is rubbish. We should be out there doing something, not here shifting dust.” There were murmurs of support.

“I know how you feel Seamus. I’m guessing we’ll all be out in the field before too long,” said Cherry sympathetically. “I know it seems like a waste, but in the mean time you just might find something in those reports that saves a life.”

Seamus glared at Cherry for a moment then picked up his report and continued reading. His renewed enthusiasm didn’t last long. He and several others, including Harry, were as good as napping when, a little over an hour later, Savage returned and strode briskly to the rostrum.

“We’ll be moving out in 10 minutes,” he informed the rapidly stirring recruits. “We have received additional threats with bombs now also targeting Manchester and Liverpool. Unit A will be coming with me to Manchester, Team B with McGruder to Liverpool.”

Savage launched in a briefing of the procedures they would be following when they reached their assigned cities. “Any questions?” he asked when he finished.

“Could you just go through that detection spell again?” asked Neville. “It seemed sort of tricky.”

“Ok, everyone up and we’ll practice it,” replied Savage, but before anyone could move Gristlewaite’s brusque voice cut across the room. “Hold that, change of plan. Can I have a word, Savage?”

Gristlewaite and Savage spoke in the corridor for several minutes. When they both returned to the briefing room Savage looked afraid. Gristlewaite addressed the young aurors.

“Someone is trying to run us ragged and stretch us thin, and so far they are succeeding. Whoever is behind this has given the list of threatened cities to the muggle media and they have broadcast it. After what happened in London, there is widespread panic in Britain’s top cities. The muggle Prime Minister is livid. This was supposed to be all over. He is demanding action.”

“As if that wasn’t bad enough, in the last few minutes we have received word that a group of wizards and witches, the exact number is unknown, have occupied a primary school in Godric’s Hollow and taken the children and teachers hostage. We don’t know what they want yet, but it has to be related. Normally this would require a response from two full squads, but we don’t have the manpower. McGruder take Patil, Brown and Appleton and proceed to Liverpool as originally planned. Savage will be taking the rest of you to Godric’s Hollow. You’ll have support from MLE and the local muggle police but we can spare no one else. You’re on your own. Bombs are going off and people are dying. That has to be our priority. Stabilise the situation, resolve it if you can. However please remember under no circumstances will we be releasing any prisoners from Azkaban. Good luck.” Gristlewaite walked with purpose out of the room and towards whatever new crisis he had to face.

Cherry McGruder got to her feet and also headed out gesturing for Lavender, Pavarti and Paul to follow her. All remaining eyes swivelled towards Savage who looked close to vomiting. He took several deep breaths before speaking. “We covered the basic procedures for a hostage situation in training camp,” he begun, “but I want to go over them again.” This time, no one groaned. Ten minutes later they headed out.

Peverell Primary School was a tiny two classroom school on the outskirts of Godric’s Hollow. Its two muggle teachers taught twenty 5 to 9 year olds. Unknown to the teachers, close to a third of the students were magical.

The school was set on the edge of a large park. To the left, looking from the street that ran in front of the school, was a rather dilapidated old house with a large garden gone to seed. The park surrounded the school on the other three sides. Part of the park had been expropriated by the school as a playground.

By the time the team of aurors arrived, Magical Law Enforcement, working with the muggle police, had already cordoned off the area and evacuated nearby houses. Savage set up his command centre in a large house across the road from the school. It gave a good view of the school and had a large backyard that was out of sight.

The aurors set up an anti disapparition field covering the school immediately they had arrived. Savage sought a briefing from the MLE officer in charge. Standard protocol was for the lead auror, no matter how junior, to be in overall command of the scene. However one of the children held hostage was the grandson of MLE’s third most senior officer and he had arrived and taken over MLE operations. He was not the sort to be deferential to a ‘snot nosed junior auror’ as he later described Savage to a colleague. He did, however give Savage an update. There were believed to be two teachers and 17 children inside. There was no firm number on the number of hostage takers. Best guess was between 3 and 5. One local swears he saw several ‘aliens beam down like Star Trek’ and walk into the building at about 8:35am. A tardy mother who arrived with her child five minutes later was attacked with what she describes as ‘a rifle firing exploding bullets’. She was told to clear off. No other communication had been received or made.

Savage posted aurors at concealed vantage points around the school with instructions to observe and report only. He eagerly awaited the arrival of the negotiator who was generally a mental specialist from St Mungo’s with training in hostage negotiation. When he arrived, the negotiator introduced himself to Savage.

“Stephen Keyworth, I understand you’re in charge.”

“Yes…Herbert Savage. Pleased to meet you.” Savage gave him a briefing and then Keyworth went straight to work. He stood on the side of the road away from the school. He was flanked by two aurors ready to provide him with a protective shield if he was attacked. One of them was Harry but Keyworth did not acknowledge him.

Sonorus,” he chanted with his wand to his throat. Keyworth then spoke in a normal tone, his now amplified voice easily audible from the school. “My name is Stephen Keyworth. I am a healer form St Mungo’s and I have been asked to be an intermediary. I would like to come and discuss the situation with you if I may. I will leave my wand behind.”

They stood waiting in the open, feeling vulnerable, but there was no response. Keyworth was about to try again when a voice boomed from the school. “You may approach to within 5 metres.”

Keyworth handed his wand to Harry who watched him intently as he walked slowly towards the school. When Keyworth was close, the front door cracked open and a hand beckoned him. Keyworth disappeared inside.

As Harry waited, trying to keep watch on the school, his mind and his eyes were constantly drawn further down the road. There, plain to see, stood Bathilda Bagshot’s still damaged home. Harry tried hard to shut thoughts of that night out of his mind.

It was fifteen minutes before Keyworth emerged.

“They are demanding the release of all Death Eaters in Azkaban,” he reported to Savage, “or else they will start executing the children, one muggle one magical every hour. We have thirty minutes to give them an answer.”

“We can’t give them what they want,” responded Savage, his voice heavy with worry.

“We have to offer them something!” said the MLE commander.

“I don’t have the authorisation,” replied Savage.

“My assessment is that they are not bluffing. The man I spoke to is deadly serious, rational and calm. This group has already killed people in London without any qualms. If it advances their plan they will have no difficulty killing children in cold blood.” Keyworth’s words chilled those who heard them.

“How many of them are there? How are the children?” asked Harry.

It was only then that the MLE commander realised who Harry was. He did a double take.

“I didn’t get beyond the vestibule, unfortunately Harry,” replied Keyworth “I couldn’t see or hear anything in the other rooms. I only saw the one man and he was wearing a Death Mask. He was definitely young, probably in his early twenties. He didn’t have the dark mark. He is calling himself Fabius, though that is clearly not his real name.”

“You have to buy us some time, Keyworth, we haven’t got sufficient forces here yet for a successful assault if that becomes necessary,” pleaded Savage

“You can’t be thinking of an assault, Savage. It’s far too dangerous!” declared the MLE commander angrily. “Half the children could die. I won’t countenance it. I won’t support it.”

“If that becomes necessary, that is exactly what I’ll do and you will support it,” Savage retorted. “It’s my decision!”

“We’ll see about that!” The MLE Commander stormed out of the building.

Just as the sound of the slamming door faded, a bright light appeared in the middle of the room. It quickly took on the shape of a shimmering bull. From its centre growled Gristlewaite’s uncharacteristically strained voice. “A second bomb has now gone off, in Leeds not Birmingham as we were led to believe. Panic is bound to escalate. There were only three deaths this time, mercifully. Imperative you keep a lid on things in Godric’s Hollow. Over.”

“How much time can you buy me, Keyworth?” Savage asked.

“I am confident I can buy you an hour, Savage, but beyond that I need something to offer. You need a plan,” responded Keyworth.

Savage nodded. “Go, get me what you can.” He then turned to Harry. “We need to work out an assault plan as a contingency. Get Longbottom and Grollo Porfey, will you Potter.”

When Harry returned with Neville and Grollo, Savage was intently studying a plan of the school.

“I think we should attack from two sides, each group storming one of the two classrooms. That way, whichever room the children are in we will be able take out their captors in the first strike,” Savage said without looking up.

Grollo was horrified. “We don’t have enough people for that. Each group is too weak to do the job. The defenders are likely to be concentrated in one room. One attacking group will be outnumbered and the other will be in the wrong position to do anything at all. Merlin knows how many kids would get killed in the middle of a prolonged fight.”

“That’s why I don’t want to do it. This is only in case things go bad and they started killing hostages. I want to delay things till we can get reinforcements. I want to borrow people from MLE too.”

“We’re not going to get reinforcements,” said Harry, “and that MLE guy isn’t going to give you any men either.”

“We need to know how many are in there and where they are located in the building before we even think about an assault,” insisted Grollo. “It’s madness otherwise.”

“And how do you propose we get that information,” replied Savage tersely. “They’ve managed to block Homenum Revelio and every other probe we’ve tried. Maybe we should just knock on the front door and ask them.”

“Yeah, maybe we should,” said Neville. “Not literally, but maybe we can send someone in with food or trick them into betraying the information. The longer we can spin this out, the likelier that they’ll make a mistake.”

“Keyworth has said they will start killing people if I don’t give them what they want and that I can’t do.” Savage’s voice was very strained. He slumped down in a chair and supported his head in his hands.

“We can pretend to,” said Harry, “and then just string them along with delays. Merlin, would it even hurt if we gave them someone like Gregory Goyle. The idiot would probably get himself recaptured in a day or two.”

“And what happens if they find out we’re lying?” asked Savage without looking up. “How many kids do they murder to teach us a lesson?”

Keyworth returned just in time to hear these questions. His reply was grim. “I think it likely the man in charge, the one calling himself Fabius, would kill at least one hostage if he caught us in a lie, probably more.”

Savage slumped further in his chair.

Keyworth continued. “I can’t get them to budge. Fabius is threatening to kill the first two hostages in exactly 35 minutes if we don’t agree to his demands.”

The silence stretched into minutes as Savage agonised. He was close to despair and then, suddenly, he straightened in his chair. “We’re going to attack, we have no choice.”

“Of course we have a choice. This is madness!” declared Grollo.

Savage looked him in the eye. “We’ve been through it, Grollo. Are you going to disobey a direct order?”

Grollo stood defiantly, glaring at Savage, fighting a war within. His stance slumped. “I will obey under protest,” he replied.

“Noted. Could you please send a message to the rest of the team to assemble here post haste.” Savage walked to the front window and studied the scene.

Harry was in deep turmoil. It had been building ever since they had arrived. He was now certain a disaster was in the offing, but he desperately didn’t want to be the one who had to fix it. His hopes had been pinned on Grollo. That had come to nothing.

It didn’t help that they were in Godric’s Hollow. Even now, when Bathilda Bagshot’s house was out of sight, he felt its presence. It made him uneasy.

Harry became aware that Neville was observing him. He looked up at Neville who chose that moment to speak. “It’s time to make a choice, Harry.”

Harry’s breathing became laboured. He felt crushed by the weight of Neville’s expectation, his clear faith that Harry would be able to do something. Why couldn’t Neville do it? But then he understood that Neville would if he could, that nothing would stop him. Slowly, he got his breathing under control. With deliberate steps Harry closed the distance between him and Healer Keyworth. Neville watched as they spent several minutes in earnest conversation.

Grollo returned and soon the whole team had assembled.

Savage didn’t waste any time. “We are going to assault the school. I have---”

“Sir…” Harry cut across him, “You told us during training that any auror has the right to go over the head of his superior if he believes a serious mistake is about to be made. I invoke that right.”

Savage was shocked but then he began to smirk. “Go ahead, Potter. I’m sure Gristlewaite will be thrilled with your appeal.”

Harry took out his wand and cast his stag patronus. The shimmery image rushed away at high speed towards London. Harry spoke. “Minister Shacklebolt. I am requesting that you place me in complete command of the situation at Godric’s Hollow, including over the MLE. Otherwise we are likely to have 17 dead children on our hands. I also request authorisation to interview and order the movement of prisoners to and from Azkaban. I need your urgent reply. The situation is critical.”

Savage was stunned, as were Grollo and Heloise. It had not occurred to them that Harry could or would go straight to the Minister of Magic. The reaction of the DA members ranged from deeply surprised, in the case of Seamus, to the broad smile on Neville’s face.

Kingsley’s response took only 30 seconds. A shining lynx hovered in the room and Kingsley’s voice boomed forth. “You have it, Harry. I trust you understand what you are doing. I will inform all relevant people immediately. Good luck and welcome back.” The lynx disappeared.

“Healer Keyworth,” ordered Harry, “could you inform the hostage takers that the authorities have agreed in principle with their demands but are still working on the details. That you will have more in about 40 minutes and that all bets are off if anyone is harmed. Include the bombs in that if you believe they have the capacity to stop them. Get back here as soon as you can.” Keyworth nodded and set out.

“Neville, could you go and get Ron and bring him through the cordon? I’d like to get his input. He should be in George’s shop.”

“You’ve got it Harry,” replied Neville and he too headed off immediately.

“Grollo, could you let the MLE commander know what’s happened. I would like him and his 2IC to join us in five minutes for a discussion. Terry, could you stay here, the rest of you may want to get back to your observation posts.” They all quickly moved.

“And what do you want me to do, Potter?” asked Savage with some bitterness.

“I’ll want your input on whatever plan we finally develop. You are still by far the most experienced Auror here. If we do assault the school I will also want your wand by my side.”

Savage snorted. “You’ve probably done me a favour, Potter, though you’ve likely killed my career too.”

“Not as quickly or as thoroughly as 17 dead children would have done,” remarked Terry with contempt.

“Now is not the time, Terry,” Harry replied curtly.

 

•○○○○○•

 

Jean Granger had decided she only wanted to work part time now that they had returned to England. She had discovered in Australia that there was more to life than root canals and she wanted to participate in it. Hermione had planned spending the morning helping her mother set up an art studio in the spare room. When she did finally arrive, it wasn’t to help her mother.

Ginny and then Hermione had become increasingly distressed as the morning progressed. It wasn’t just Harry who had been called in early. Percy and then Arthur both got calls and had left by 7:00. Something was clearly happening but no one knew anything.

The Wizarding Wireless Network was silent on the matter. It wasn’t until about 8:30 they finally reported the London bomb. When they mistakenly reported that an auror had been killed Ginny nearly collapsed. Hermione felt sick to the stomach. They had tried to apparate to Auror headquarters but it was in lockdown and they were blocked. When the report was corrected ten minutes later they both felt relieved but were still stressed.

It occurred to Hermione that muggle TV would be doing a far better job of covering the crisis and if she listened to wizard wireless at the same time she could get the magical side of the story too. She and Ginny apparated to the Grangers with a promise to keep Molly informed.

Ginny, Jean and Hermione watched transfixed as the nation descended into panic. They listened sometimes to the TV, sometimes to wizard wireless. Ginny’s amazement of the scope and immediacy of the muggle coverage helped a little to reduce her anxiety. Some aspects baffled her though.

“Why do they keep on repeating themselves and why do the reporters keep on asking each other questions when it is clear they don’t know the answers?” she asked.

Jean laughed. “Many a thesis has been written trying to answer those questions, Ginny. As of yet, no one has come up with a satisfactory answer.”

Jean had her own problems with the coverage. Hearing the wizarding side of the story disturbed her. She realised that the muggle reports were missing the essential ingredients that enabled a true understanding of what was actually happening. She couldn’t help wondering how much of her mental map of the world was, in fact, an illusion.

After a while, they stopped watching. The need to do something became overwhelming and they started working on Jean’s new studio, keeping an ear cocked for developments. It was the mention of increased activity at Godric’s Hollow that brought Hermione and Ginny back to the TV.

“Look, there’s Neville,” shrieked Ginny as the camera focused on a man in uniform whom they described as a member of an elite SWAT team. Ginny’s hand flew to her mouth. Barely audibly she breathed “Oh Merlin, that’s Ron. What’s he doing there?”

Hermione couldn’t answer her. She stood there, white as a sheet, unable to move. Then she turned on the spot and disappeared. She returned a few minutes later.

“What did you find out?” demanded Ginny.

“Neville turned up at the shop a ten minutes ago, said Harry needed Ron urgently. They both left immediately. That’s all George knows,” answered Hermione.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Ginny frowning.

“Yeah it does,” replied Hermione. “It means Harry is now in charge and he wanted Ron’s input on tactics and strategy. If Harry has taken over, the situation there must be desperate.”

Ginny was ashen faced. “Neville told Harry the other day that he might have to step up. They don’t have much faith in their commander. I’m not sure he’s ready, Hermione. This could take him right back to where he was when he had his breakdown.”

Hermione slumped down into a chair. “You know, it was bad enough when I was with Harry and Ron when they were in danger. In some ways this is worse.”

“Welcome to my world, Hermione,” replied Ginny.

 

•○○○○○•

 

“No!” insisted Stephen Keyworth. “They will not agree with it. They will not give the prisoners wands. They are adamant. They will not agree to anything that increases your firepower. I have tried, they won’t budge.”

Keyworth had been negotiating with the hostage takers for over an hour now, making frequent return trips to confer with Harry and his team.

Keyworth continued summarising the agreement that had been built step by agonising step. “The prisoners will be wandless. They will be blindfolded with their hands tied in front of them. We will give you three prisoners at a time. When you see the three prisoners on the other side of the road you will release one child. Two aurors will escort the prisoners to within 15 meters of the school and then withdraw. You will guide them the rest of the way. When you have the prisoners you will release 3 more children. We will then remove the anti disapparition field for three minutes so you can get the prisoners away. We repeat the process until we both have what we want. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” replied the young man in the Death Eaters mask. He was edgy now, but there was also a distinct note of triumph. He had won what he was after.

The bargaining had been hard. Initially, Keyworth had demanded 10 children for every 2 Death Eaters released but in the end had to accept 4 for 3. His opponent was a very skilled negotiator. He also had to concede to the hostage takers the right to determine which prisoners would be released first. Negotiations had almost broken down on that point. Now the deal had been done. And they would all have to live with it. Keyworth returned to his side of the road.

Rodolphus Lestrange looked condescendingly at the Aurors and other officials who stood around him, but he said nothing. He, Avery and, surprisingly, Blaise Zabini had been listed as the first three prisoners to be exchanged. Unlike Lestrange, Zabini was taunting those around him, many of whom were his ex-classmates.

“What’s wrong, Longbottom? Tongue still swollen from that thrashing we gave you?”

“Shove it Zabini,” replied Neville. “An idiot like you …we’ll recapture you in no time. Why do you think we agreed to let you go? It’s morons only in this batch.”

The aurors displayed the three prisoners so that they could be seen from the schoolhouse then waited for the first child to be released. Tension was high. No one could be certain that the hostage takers would actually go through with the exchange. Eventually the door of the schoolhouse opened just enough for a boy, probably around 9, to be shoved through. He stumbled and nearly fell and was blinking in the bright sunlight.

Cho used the Sonorus charm and her sweetest, most reassuring voice to coax the frightened boy towards them. He got half way but then froze, frightened by the large number of strange people on the other side of the road. Cho took matters into her own hands. Moving slowly, she approached the young boy, stopping about ten feet from him. Crouching down she spoke quietly to him, slowly winning his trust. He allowed Cho to approach, and taking the boy by the hand she lead him across the road. She turned him over to Healer Keyworth who held him in a reassuring hug for some time. Keyworth then took the boy to the rear of the house and handed him over to the team of healers who had already assembled to treat the freed hostages and reunite them with their families.

Neville and several others now blindfolded the prisoners and then removed their leg restraints. The prisoners were organised in single file with the person behind resting one hand on the shoulder of the one in front. Neville led the strange looking procession across the road and towards the school.

Almost immediately they had crossed the road, Avery tripped and fell. It took some time to get him up. He almost brought Zabini down in the process. They resumed their slow march. When they were within 15 metres of the school they halted as agreed. Neville and his colleagues retreated to their side of the road.

Fabius poked his head out of the door and tried to guide the prisoners towards the school by voice. They had only made three yards when Avery fell again. When he got to his feet again they started moving in the wrong direction. A woman in a Death Eater mask emerged from the school and walked towards the prisoners. “Take off their effing blindfolds, Janelle,” commanded Fabius who had come outside himself and was giving Janelle cover.

There was a bright flash high above the school and both Janelle and Fabius looked up involuntarily. Instantly, wands appeared in the hands of the three prisoners. Both Janelle and Fabius were stunned and down before their eyes could return to the ground. The three prisoners dashed towards the door of the school. Their hand bindings had dissolved into nothingness.

Almost simultaneously, a wall on the right side of the school disintegrated and then vanished, hit by Evanesco spells from four wands. Six stunning spells flashed through the space once occupied by the wall and hit the three remaining hostage takers before they even registered that the wall was missing. Letting their disillusionment spells drop, ten attackers emerged from near invisibility and rushed the building, making sure the children and two teachers were safe. The whole assault had taken five seconds. Grollo, who had led the main assault, emerged from the building and gave the thumbs up to the onlookers.

Neville, Cho and Harry quickly joined the attackers. They were quickly engulfed in a general round of backslapping.

An army of healers and other helpers now swarmed over the building and began looking after the children and teachers.

The three ‘prisoners’ joined the rest of the victorious team.

“That was a fairly strong dose of Polyjuice we gave you. It may last some time,” said Harry with a straight face. “Do you think Hermione will enjoy kissing Zabini?”

“Shut it Potter,” replied Ron.

“I still don’t know why I had to be the one to play Avery and fall over all the time.” complained Terry Boot.

“You did display a talent for tripping on our first mission, Terry,” winked Pavarti.

“You’ll never guess who Fabius is,” said Seamus approaching Harry.

“Theodore Nott,” said Ron/Zabini.

Seamus looked deflated. “How did you know?”

“I guessed when he put Zabini at the top of the list. They were always pretty tight at school. His father is the only top ranking Death Eater still missing and Nott was always a cold, clever bastard, just like Fabius.”

“Well ‘Zabini’, we better go interrogate Nott,” said Harry “We need to find out about the remaining bombs. Having his ‘friend’ on the interrogation team might shake him up.” They approached Keyworth.

“Stephen I need you to administer the veritaserum and observe the interview of the prisoner as a Healer. We need to do it now.”

Keyworth nodded and accompanied Ron and Harry. Nott was being held in one of the classrooms. He smirked when Harry walked in. “Ah, look who’s here, the boy wonder himself, St Potter.” He then examined Ron/Zabini. “And who’s this, posing as a human being, probably the mudblood Granger. She was always following you around, Potter, like a bad smell.”

Ron tensed, straining to control his anger.

“Ah no, I see it’s the mudblood’s blood traitor lover, the deserter,” Nott added contemptuously.

Ron burst out laughing. “You’re a bit like a boggart, Nott. All I have to do is imagine you in that ridiculous Azkaban uniform you’ll be wearing for the next twenty years and, poof, you disappear.” Nott’s smirk disappeared. It didn’t help that Ron had given a perfect imitation of Zabini’s voice and speech pattern.

“Let’s do this,” said Harry. They held Nott down as Keyworth administered the veritaserum. Five minutes later Harry sent a message to both Kingsley and Gristlewaite. There had never been more than two bombs. The bombs were a cold blooded and deadly diversion designed to cause panic and draw resources from the main game which was the hostage situation. Everyone involved in the plot was at the school and was now in custody, all except Nott Senior who was an old man. His son doesn’t know where he is.”

The crisis was over.

 

•○○○○○•

Ron was waving his fire whiskey in the air. “Deception, surprise, intelligence and …”

“And skill,” chorused everyone else around the table

“Yeah…and skill,” repeated Ron. He was a little drunk. Ron, Harry and his colleagues were in a private room in the Leaky Cauldron.

“There you are!” accused Hermione as she entered with Ginny. “We’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Ginny looked just as irked as Hermione.

“Ah Hermione love, come and join us. I was just explaining the basic requirements for a successful hostage rescue operation,” said Ron. He made room next to himself and summoned a chair. He had somehow failed to notice that Hermione and Ginny were angry. Harry hadn’t.

“We sent you a message saying we were OK and it was all over,” said Harry

Ginny responded indignantly. “You dash off in the middle of the night. People have been dying all over the country. They even reported an Auror had died at one stage, and all we get is one lousy message. We only knew Ron was involved because we saw it on TV.”

“Ooh,” crooned Neville, “Harry and Ron are in trouble with their girlfriends.”

Neville withered under twin deathly glares from Ginny and Hermione.

Ron finally twigged. “There was no time while it was happening to say anything to you. And this,” Ron indicated the gathering round the table, “this is important too. It’s how teams are built and how they start recovering from events like today.”

“We will get better at doing this,” said Harry softly to Ginny.

“Come on, join us.” Ron repeated his invitation.

Hermione decided there was no point maintaining her anger and moved to sit next to Ron. Ginny followed suit and sat next to Harry.

“OK,” said Hermione “I just have to hear your theory on hostage rescue, Ron. But first I have some catching up to do.” She drained the remainder of Ron’s fire whiskey which caused her to splutter and her cheeks to turn as red as Ron’s hair.

Ron looked at Hermione with amusement and then launched into his lecture. “Requirement one, deception; Keyworth did a brilliant job. He negotiated hard on points that didn’t matter to us, but gave then confidence we were genuine. For example, he fought tenaciously on the number of children and prisoners exchanged in each round. All we ever needed was one child released. We also allayed their natural suspicion that the prisoners would be polyjuiced aurors by insisting they be wandless, bound by the hands and blindfolded. That would be the last thing we would want if they really were Aurors.”

“There were other little deceptions,” added Neville. “Ron was polyjuiced as Blaise Zabini. Ron and I put on a little play just in case they were somehow eavesdropping what we were saying when in the open. It turned out they were. Ron mimicked Zabini’s voice and attitude almost perfectly.” Hermione was staring hard at Ron. She had not known that Ron had been involved in the actual operation. She was sick to the stomach.

“The next requirement was intelligence,” said Harry taking up the analysis. “We desperately needed to know the number of hostage takers, where they were positioned and where the children were being kept. That’s why we needed that first child released before anything else. When Keyworth gave the released child a hug I am sure he gave him some real comfort, but Keyworth is also a gifted legilimens. He was able to quickly read the information we needed from the boys mind. We could then choose the appropriate assault plan.”

“Requirement 3; surprise,” chipped in Cherry McGruder who had been polyjuiced as Rodolphus Lestrange. When it became clear that the deal with the hostage takers was holding and no more bombs were going off Gristlewaite reluctantly reassigned Cherry and her team to Harry’s operation. With support from MLE it gave them the manpower they needed.

Cherry continued her description of the action from her viewpoint. “We took as long as we could moving towards the school. That was why Terry/Avery kept on ‘tripping’. We had to allow enough time for the main assault team to move into place. They couldn’t do that until we found out what was happening inside the school. We were also hoping that by fumbling around we could draw some bad guys out of the building to help us and that is exactly what happened. Our blindfolds were fakes. We could easily see through them and the ‘cords’ binding our hands were little more than tissue paper. The brilliant thing was the wand holsters. With them we could bring our concealed wands into our hands almost instantly. Fabius and the woman were down before they even knew we had wands. They’re amazing!”

“Cool, aren’t they,” said Ginny, as her wand suddenly appeared in her outstretched hand. “No girl should go out without one.”

“How did you get one?” asked Heloise in surprise. “I thought only the aurors had them.”

“We brought them in Australia, where they were invented. It was Harry who sent samples to Kingsley Shacklebolt for evaluation by the aurors.”

“What was the next element in your list, Ron,” asked Hermione. “Skill wasn’t it. Well you all have that. You demonstrated that today and I have also seen many of you in action before.”

“You left one important element off your list, Ron,” said Grollo, “Leadership. We were blessed today by an extraordinary display of leadership. I propose a toast to our leader. To Harry!”

“To Harry,” reverberated around the room.

 

•○○○○○•

 

Harry and Ginny were walking towards the Burrow, arm in arm. Ron and Hermione were close behind.

“Are you going to be alright Harry?” Ginny asked. She was concerned that taking responsibility once again in a life and death situation might set back his recovery.

“I think so. I spoke to Keyworth beforehand. He said that in the end I just had to make the choice.”

“Good thing you kept up those exercises, huh,” said Ginny wryly.

He should have known he couldn’t lie to Ginny, thought Harry.


 
 


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