Bang! Creak! Bang! Three crash-after-crashes resounded like stones as a body rolled, tumbled, and fell down the creaky wooden staircase. Neville Longbottom, Auror in Training and laughing stock of the entire Ministry. Unfailingly klutzy.
"Well, bloody glad that's over with," a deep voice muttered when the thumping perished. Jake Ringley, Auror extraordinaire and Longbottom's best mate. Unceasingly sarcastic. "You love to do things the easy way, don't you, Longbottom?"
The limp form ten stairs below grunted and shifted around a bit. "Why do it easy when you can make it hard?"
"Same question I ask myself every day."
Neville did not deign him a response. He had since learned to let the sarcasm drip, ignored.
"I'm coming down, buddy. You've got five seconds to pull yourself together before I get down there and pull you together myself."
Jake cleared his throat, a usual nervous habit for him, and pushed his weight lightly onto the top stair. Creak! Another slow, cautious step. Creak!He tried again, touching the third stair gingerly with the tip of his boot. A protesting grunt from the old wooden plank sent him leaping back up to the landing. "Blimey, every bloody one of these stairs groans and moans like your Gran when she's got a migraine!"
"Whisper, mate, whisper!" Neville insisted from below.
"I would bother if you hadn't already woken the entire county with the racket of throwing yourself down the stairs!"
"You certainly will with all your squawking!"
"Fine!" Jake shot back in his loudest and most obnoxious whisper. "I'm whispering! Happy? Now how are we gonna find the safe?"
"Dunno." Neville's voice was slightly muffled by the musty old carpet into which his face was pressed. It smelled kind of like… his Gran's socks? No, impossible! Nothing in the world smelled like Gran's socks. Besides her socks, of course.
"Well aren't you Miss Hannah Helpful," Jake grumped, breaking into Neville's thoughts.
"Who the hell is Miss Hannah Helpful?!" He raised his head from the floor, assessing the damage as he rolled over. He knew a Hannah, yeah, but she had never been known for her helpful habits.
"How'm I s'posed to know?"
"You said-" Neville sighed. "Never mind. Just try to get down here without waking up the whole bloody house."
"Hey, bloody's my word!" Jake protested. Craning his neck, he gave the stairs a disdainful look and hopped onto the banister. With the agility of a Kneazle, he slid down the rough wood and landed gracefully beside his partner. "So don't even think about taking it." He reached out a calloused hand.
With a soft yelp, Neville let Jake pull him to his feet. Brushing the dust off his long black jacket, he surveyed the lower floor. "Let's find ourselves a safe."
Following Jake into the kitchen, Neville felt totally on his game, despite the fact that he had just fallen down a flight of stairs, head over heels like a man in love. Considering that he was stalking a criminal and investigating the man's sister's house at one in the morning, though, he figured it was probably a good sign that his adrenaline was still pumping. Besides, he was an Auror. In training. Prowling around mysterious houses in the dead of the night came with the territory.
"If I were the sister of a thief, where would I keep his safe?" Jake muttered to himself.
"I'd keep it up his bloody arse."
"Hey! What'd I just say about bloody being my word?"
"You said it was your word."
"Right." Jake was a Ravenclaw to the bone, entirely too possessive about words and their meanings. And everything else, too.
"Come on, mate, let's keep looking," Neville replied, tugging him forwards into the darkness.
Suddenly, the hallway light above them flicked on and Jake froze, holding out a hand in the semi-dark. Grunting, Neville collided with him and struggled not to fall over.
"Who's there?" The high-pitch of the woman's voice grated on their ears. Brief silence. Then, "Ernie? Did you hear that?"
A loud creak from the other side of the kitchen sent Neville spinning for cover as Jake ducked into a shoe closet by the front door. Flailing around wildly for a place to hide, Neville dove onto the floor and shimmied under the table in the center of the room.
Ah, bloody hell! This is the worst cover ever. And it smells like Gran's socks again. Why are you such a Merlin-blast-it idiot, Neville? Why?
A booted pair of feet loomed into view as Neville peered out from underneath the chestnut-wood table. Suddenly he had to sneeze. Think of elephants, think of elephants, he told himself. That was Gran's advice for him, when he caught cold. Now that he thought of it, he realized it didn't make much sense. But he wished he was with his Gran now, and not hiding under some man's coffee table.
"Thought you said you heard somethin', Susan!" a voice from above the boots complained.
"I did hear something! Keep looking!" There was a pause as the man shuffled across the room and turned the corner into the foyer. "I told him that we shouldn't keep it here. I don't like the thought of people prowling around my house!"
"What'd you say, dear?" The feet were back, stomping across the carpet with vigor.
"Nothing, Ernie. And quiet down! You'll wake the kids," the woman named Susan shushed him.
Kids? Neville wondered. Hope my escapade down the stairs didn't wake 'em all up.
"I'm coming back to bed. If we can't find thieves hiding in our own house, we deserve to be stolen from." Ernie grumbled.
"It's not that, dear. It's-" she paused- "you know!"
"What?" The boots came to a halt at the foot of the steps. "Oh, you mean that? Darling, how would anyone know about that?"
"You can never tell with those magicians he insists on hanging around. We should never have agreed to hide it for him!"
Neville bit his tongue. Lifting his head the slightest bit, he craned his neck to catch a better look towards the closet. The door creaked open slowly and Jake's hand stuck out, thumb pointing up. It was a go.
On the count of four, like always, the two leapt from their places, Neville with a bit more difficulty. Grunting and groaning, he shifted over and reached for Jake's outstretched hand.
"Wha-?" the man blabbered, whirling to face them.
"I told you there was someone in here, Ernie! Do something!" Susan shrieked.
"There's no reason to fear, ma'am," Jake spoke first, his tone the usual polite quiet he found when addressing authority figures. Or, it appeared, people whose houses you were caught prowling in the dead of night.
"I'd say there is, what with the two of you invading our living room," Ernie spoke up.
Neville opened his mouth to speak but didn't trust himself to handle the situation in the glib way he knew Jake could. So then he shut it.
"We're not here to hurt you, or to steal anything except what is ours."
"They know!" Susan gasped. "Ernie, they're from his world!"
"So you are hiding your brother's stolen goods here?" Jake inquired, taking a rather menacing step closer to Ernie.
The man put up his hands in defense. "Whoa there, mate, I thought you said you weren't here to hurt us!"
"We aren't," Neville began. "We're just here because-"
But a glare from Jake cut him off mid-sentence. He knew better than to go against that glare. Jake's sarcasm was tame compared to his need for control on mission.
Jake pulled out his wand, keeping it concealed underneath the front of his black cloak. "Are you the sister of a Mr. Henry Laveen?"
Susan's voice caught in her throat as she replied, "Y-yes."
"Then perhaps you are aware that he has been found guilty of stealing from the Leaky Cauldron?" Jake cocked an eyebrow. Aside from Jake's mother, Neville was probably the only person in the world who knew that was what he did just before he lost his temper. Knowledge like that tended to come to you when you prowl around strange places in the dead of a night with a person.
A sharp intake of breath from the woman at the top of the stairs gave her away instantly.
Jake advanced another step, Neville close behind, drawing his wand. "All we want is the goods you're hiding. We will not harm you; we simply need to return the goods to the rightful owner."
"Ernie?" Susan's voice rose, high and questioning, above them.
"It's your bloody brother's fault, bringing them magicians down on us! Who cares if he's convicted. He'll hardly get time for petty theft, aye? Whadya say, Susan? Let's give 'em the loot." Susan's husband appeared to be possessed of a large amount of logic.
"A wise choice, sir."
Neville felt the urge to echo, "Yes, most wise," knowing it would irk Jake, but decided upon restraining himself in light of the fact that they were on a top secret training mission.
"It's all over here, follow me. Go on back to bed, Susan, I'll take care of this," Ernie called up the stairs to his wife.
The man turned and shuffled off to the kitchen, Jake on his heels. Neville looked after them, taking a step to follow, then pausing and turning back to the staircase. "Good night, ma'am, sorry for the intrusion," he said softly, remembering her comment about the children.
"Good night. I- I apologize for my brother's actions," she called back, giving him a small smile.
He nodded politely and trailed after Jake and Ernie into the kitchen.
"Here they are." Ernie gestured grandly to the refrigerator drawer he had pulled open to reveal a thick, leather-bound black book and sacks of coins.
"Right there in plain view?" Jake blurted, unable to hold his incredulity in.
"I'm no thief – how'd I know where to hide goods?" Ernie wondered aloud, more to himself than to the two Aurors before him.
"Of course you wouldn't, sir," Neville pacified, watching as Jake scooped up the loot and dumped the coin pouches into his pack, handing the book to Neville. Books had always been more his territory anyways, despite the fact that Jake was, in and out, a Ravenclaw.
"My wife and I won't be, er, charged with anything, will we? I mean, we're hardly part of that strange world her brother lives in." Ernie gulped nervously.
Glad to assure the anxious man, Neville replied, "No, sir. I can promise you that you won't be troubled by us again, so long as you can keep your brother-in-law out of trouble."
"Or at least his stolen goods out of your house," added Jake, with a wry smile.
Chuckling in agreement, Neville gave Ernie a quick nod. "'Night, sir, sorry for the trouble." And then, with a crack, the two Aurors-in-training were gone, Apparating off into the night.
Jake gave a disgusted eye roll. "Mate, you can't apologize to the targets of missions! It's just not how things are done!"
"But why not? We intruded their house, didn't we?"
"And they were hiding goods that were stolen from the Leaky Cauldron, weren't they?"
"Sure they were. But that doesn't make the invasion of privacy any better. The least we could do is say sorry," Neville protested.
Jake groaned. "What're we gonna do with you, mate? Huh? What?" When Neville didn't reply, as he always refused to when he got annoyed, Jake relapsed into his usual sarcastic tone. "You know, you really are getting the hang of this whole mission business – I'm proud of how fast you're picking it all up."
So the sarcasm's back, Neville thought. If that's how he's gonna play this…"Thanks, glad you think I'm getting on alright. Guess I'll just let Harry know that you think we're ready for a more advanced mission."
"Longbottom." He gave Neville a pointed stare.
"Ringley." Neville stared right back, less-pointedly.
Just then, the door swung open, interrupting their staring match. "Glad you're both back," Harry Potter's voice echoed into the small office, entering with a stack of papers piled high in his arms. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived and Head of Auror-in-training Department. Disgustingly noble.
"Hiya, Harry. We got the loot." Neville got quickly to his feet to shake hands with his best friend.
"Yup, I'd figured that one out, believe it or not," Harry replied with a grin. "How'd it go? Hopefully no accidents this time?" He looked to Jake.
The two Aurors in training exchanged a look, Jake from his chair, Neville's arm stopping its vigorous pumping instantly.
"Well, how would you define 'accidents'?" Jake inquired.
Harry let out a laugh and leaned against the edge of his desk. "Ah, Neville. What're we gonna do with you?"
Neville plopped back down and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I'll get the hang of it, I promise. I'm doing my best, mate."
"You're doing fine," Jake spoke up, patting his friend on the shoulder. "It hardly matters how you do, anyways; you barely even need to be in training at all. We fought in the Battle of Hogwarts! That's enough for anyone, I'm sure."
Because Harry was the Harry Potter, he had been allowed to skip the Auror-in-training stage and was now in charge of the Auror-in-training branch, reporting directly to Head Auror Dawlish and overseeing all training missions.
"Yeah, Neville, don't get your knickers in a twist," Harry added, chuckling to himself at this witticism. "Okay, so wrap on this mission'll be tomorrow – you two've got to head over and return the goods to the Leaky Cauldron. Sound like a plan?"
"Sounds like a plan." Jake gave Harry an enthusiastic smile, a rare thing from the usually cynical nineteen year old. The two hadn't known each other well at Hogwarts, but became friends through their time in the Auror Department.
A sharp rap at the door jerked Harry's head up. "Come in." The hardwood swung open to reveal an attractive redhead. Ginny Weasley, Harry's girlfriend and the Auror-in-training department's representative to the Minister's cabinet. Unbearably efficient.
"Hey, boys! How'd the mission go?" she inquired, stepping inside.
"As good as any mission can go, I suppose," Neville mumbled, running a hand through his black-brown hair.
"I'm sure you guys did great." She handed Harry a folder. "From the Minister," she explained.
"Oh? On what."
Ginny said nothing, yet gave him a look that clearly said something.
He furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. "What?"
She jerked her head just the tiniest bit towards the two Aurors-in-training.
"Yeah, Harry, that. Merlin, you're slow." She smiled broadly and gave her boyfriend a friendly punch.
"So secretive," Jake remarked, elbowing Neville. "Whadya think, Longbottom? Should we pry?"
"Of course." Neville's dark eyes lit up. "What could this most secretive secret of all secrets be, do you think, Ringley?"
"I wouldn't know."
"No, I don't suppose you would."
Harry laughed. "I'd love to tell you, but Minister Shacklebolt has sworn us to secrecy until he can hold a meeting and release the information himself."
"Right, love to tell us! Love to tell us, my arse." Jake glanced at Ginny. "Pardon the expression, ma'am."
"I'm hardly a 'ma'am,' Jake," she responded incredulously.
"All the same." He shrugged. "But you can't deny you're enjoying holding this over us, can you, Harry m'boy?"
Harry's bright green eyes danced with held-in amusement. "Enjoying it? Hardly!"
Neville got to his feet and clapped his longtime friend on the back. "Right, mate. You hate to keep secrets. We all know that." He gave Ginny a wink. "Much as I'd love to hang around and chat about your annoying habits, though, I'm gonna head home. Let's go, Jake. We've got to wrap this mission tomorrow, you know. Well, today, I guess, considering the fact that's it's nearly three in the morning."
"Blimey! You're right!" Harry exclaimed. "What're you still doing here, anyways, Gin?"
"Kingsley needed me to stay late to finish up some documents. Besides, you promised you'd, um, walk me out." She smiled innocently at him.
"Oh, right, so I did."
Jake groaned. "On that note, we'll be leaving. See you tomorrow, Harry, 'night Ginny. You two have a nice, er, walk."