Corporal Harry Potter shook a cigarette out of the pack. He took the filter between his lips and slipped the pack back into his pocket. With a snap of his fingers, the tip of the cigarette caught light and he worked it to an ember glow. He inhaled, held it for a moment, and released the smoke with a sigh. A quite, peaceful morning... it was not something Harry saw a lot of, not with his life. For a moment, he wondered if pitching it all in and running away would be a good idea.
"Ah, well," he said to himself.
Then he kicked open the barracks door, drew his sidearm with his free hand, and fired a trio of acclamatio rounds into the floor. At the loud cracking noises, the sleepers bounded out of bed, grabbing at clothes and fumbling for weapons that were not at hand.
"On your feet, soldiers!" Harry yelled. "Move, ladies and gentlemen, move! While you have been catching up on your beauty sleep, evil has been awake, and the ministry need its Spell Dogs on the job!"
Within a minute, a line of soldiers stood at attention, clothed and ready for action. Harry took a long look over them and gave a nod. He broke open his pistol and emptied the en-runed brass onto the ground. They might have rattled when they hit the concrete; no one could hear, if they did. Harry thumbed three massive new cartridges into the gun, snapped the cylinder closed, and holstered the weapon. He blew cigarette smoke into the air and murmured, "Good. Perhaps the Empire is not doomed, after all." Then he put on his best angry voice and yelled, "Fall in, soldiers! Charlie is dancing the foxtrot, our ride is on the runway, and your best dresses are already loaded! So: MOVE!"
He had to admit, they made good time.
"Got another fag, corporal?" Private Neville Longbottom asked.
"Young fellow like you shouldn't smoke," Harry told him, and tossed him the pack. They had to raise their voices over the hum of the engines.
Neville laughed. "Pretty sure we graduated the same year, sir." He raised his eyebrows as he slid a cigarette out. "Silk Cuts, sir?" he asked. "Maybe you are older than me... like, my gran's age."
There were a few chuckles from the assembled unit. Harry grinned and took the pack back. "Funny you should say that, private," he said, "because I bummed them off your gran last night, after we were... intimate..." The chuckles turned to howls of laughter.
Neville glared. "Not cool, corporal. Not. Cool."
"Yeah," Private Cedric Diggory said with a guffaw, "not cool, corporal, that's Ron's girl you're talking about!"
"Oy!" Private Ron Weasley shouted. He threw a punch into Cedric's shoulder, but the other soldier just laughed.
"Hey, Gin," he called across the hold, "tell your brother to get off me, Nev's gran will get jealous!"
Private Ginevra Weasley rolled her eyes and looked over at Harry. "Corporal, do you recruit this lot from nursery schools?"
At the front of the hold, a loud throat clearing caught everyone's attention. Hermione Granger asked, "If I may interrupt teatime and have everyone's attention..." She wore a sonorus hailer headset.
"Yes, ma'am," they chorused. In best British fashion, they turned it into "mum."
"I would begin with 'your mission, should you choose to accept it,' but we all know you don't have a choice, so...
Ginny laughed. "Good to see Security Service is developing a sense of humor," she murmured to Harry. The corporal grinned.
Hermione waved a hand and a glowing screen appeared before her. From the rear, the soldiers could see Magewise characters scroll up as she glanced over the information. "Last night, around twenty hundred hours GMT, a group of terrorists forced their way into the Lovegood building in the Square Mile."
"How do we know they're terrorists," Harry asked, "and not just thieves?"
"They've given us a list of demands and identified themselves as members of the Death Eaters."
"Death Eaters," Neville repeated. His face darkened.
Harry glanced over at him. "Easy, private," he murmured. "This is an op, not a chance at revenge."
"Yeah," muttered Neville.
"What?" Harry asked.
"Yes, sir, corporal," Neville answered, louder. He ground the cigarette out on the metal bench he sat on.
"Do the demands matter to us?" Harry asked Hermione.
"Not to us, no." She gave him a half smile. "But the hostages do. They have twelve of them, at least. Including Luna Lovegood." With a gesture, she brought a picture of a young woman into the air: long, dirty blond hair, a pale face...
"Old Xenophilius Lovegood's wacko daughter?" Private Lee Jordan asked, in shock. "Heir to the Lovegood fortune?"
"She's kind of hot, in a strung-out way," Private Colin Creevey observed.
"Are you kidding me?" Lance Corporal Cho Chang asked him. "That girl is a combo meal of 'hot,' 'damn,' and 'mess...'"
"With a big side of 'wingnut,'" Ginny added.
"And a tall, frosty drink of 'don't hit that,'" Cho finished.
"Crazy sex is the best sex," Colin observed.
"Remind me not to go on leave with you," Lee muttered. "I prefer to pick up girls who aren't complete lunatics."
"Ahem," Hermione enunciated.
"Sorry, ma'am," they chorused.
Hermione rubbed her eyes. "Anyway, given the situation, the ministry would like it handled quickly, quietly, and without collateral damage. The Service, of course, agrees."
"Of course," Harry said out of the side of his mouth.
"And the Lovegood power and money have nothing to do with it," Ginny whispered.
"Now, they have wards set up to prevent porting or apparition, so you're going to be airdropping in."
"I hope the GSC remembered to load the drop rigs," Lee observed.
"The plan is to drop delta team a block away from the tower; they will then move over land to the base of the building, where they will enter. Meanwhile, alpha team will be dropped on the roof and go in there."
"What's the situation inside?" Harry asked.
"We have complete building plans and the like," Hermione told him. "I'll download all of those to everyone's reader.
"That isn't what I mean," he told her.
"I know." She turned toward the rest of the section. "You're going to have to be fast and loose; non-lethal armament only. The Service..."
"Can I speak to you, Miss Granger," Harry asked. He rose to his feet and grasped an overhead strap.
"I believe you mean, Leftenant Granger," she observed, with a cool look.
"You know," Harry said, "I really don't think I do." He stalked along the cargo bay and grasped her by the forearm. "We need to talk, now..."
"You can remove your hand, corporal, or you can be removed."
"Don't piss with me, Granger," he snapped. Nonetheless, he let go of her arm. He turned away from the soldiers and kept his voice pitched low. "This 'fast and loose' crap is dangerous; it's dangerous to civilians, and it's dangerous to my people," Harry told her. "I know you Security Service lot figure if more bodies are vertical than horizontal after the dust settles, then everything balances out in the end, but I am responsible for lives."
Hermione's cheeks colored. "That is uncalled for corporal!"
"No, it isn't. You may be assigned as our intelligence officer, and you may technically outrank me..."
"No 'technically' about it," she said.
"'Technically,'" he said, "because we both know you've never served time; you went from Hogwarts to Oxford to mil-int."
"Is that what this is about?" She tossed curly hair back. "You don't feel I've paid my dues?"
"I don't feel," Harry said, "that you're competent to establish a plan of attack. If I split my section, that should be my call. This is strictly a military matter, leftenant; and where that is concerned, your rank means nothing. So do me the favor of drawing up plans that won't endanger my soldiers. I've seen enough of them die to last me a lifetime."
She went from red in the face to pale. "Corporal, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking about..."
"I know. So please, don't think about my ops, just give us all the intelligence you have—all of it, everything we need, not just what the Service feels we need to know—and let the soldiers plan the ops." He turned away and headed back towards his seat.
"Harry," she said, voice so soft he almost did not hear her.
He glanced back. "What?"
"What happened between us?" There was sadness in her eyes.
He barked a laugh. "You're asking the wrong question, leftenant."
"It's what didn't happen between us."
"Mumsy and dadsy are fighting," Fred Weasley observed.
"How do you know?" asked George Weasley. George sat in the pilot's seat of the Hippogriff-class air transport, Fred next to him in the co-pilot's seat.
"Because it's too quiet, back there," Fred said. He gestured with a toss of his head toward the back of the craft. "It only ever gets that kind of quiet when the corporal and the leftenant are going at it. And by 'going at it,' I mean..."
"'Getting ready to stab each other in the face,'" George said.
"Correct, my brother."
"Best break the tension a bit, then, hadn't we?" George asked. He picked up the hand-held hailer from its spring-clip and thumbed it on. "This is your pilot speaking," he announced in his best "Virgin Air" voice. "We are currently cruising at a speed of... quite fast... and a ceiling of... rather low, actually. I think I can see my house from here, though. We will be entering London's airspace in, oh, a few minutes, more or less."
He hung the hailer up, but Fred caught it up before George got his hand off of it. "This is your co-pilot speaking," he added, in the same professional voice, "we just thought you might like to know that, as we will be entering London on the Ravenclaw/Slytherin axis, it is entirely probable that we will get blown out of the sky." With a chuckle, he returned the hailer to its clip.
"Everyone have their orders?" Harry asked. He received a chorus of affirmatives. "Good. Let's get dressed for the foxtrot, then." He glanced back at Hermione and lifted an eyebrow. "If you don't mind, leftenant."
Hermione sighed. "In the racks, people." She clapped her hands. "Get hooked up!"
The metal benches lowered into the deck as the soldiers got to their feet. Racks mounted on the ceiling of the bay swung down into position and locked. The soldiers climbed into them, backs against the cradles.
Harry felt a sharp click as the sockets at his wrists and the base of his skull seated into the receivers. One of the dog tags that dangled against his chest glowed as the runes flared to life. He felt his whole body tingle. It was like a limb having the circulation restored. "Prepare to mount," he commanded the section. When he received affirmation from everyone, he ordered, "Mount!"
"Armatura," was whispered around the bay. As Harry spoke the word, he felt the tingle in his flesh vanish. He broke out in gooseflesh. Then, his mount came into existence.
The Cwn Annwn-model powered armor mount appeared around Harry. He felt his rune-sockets lock into their mates in the armor. As he stepped off the mount rack, he reached out and took his caster rifle out of its slot. Around the bay, the rest of the section followed suit, as they checked weapons and settled in their mounts.
"Everyone ready?" Harry asked. "Good. Then get ready to jump."
The sun edged over the eastern horizon. The sunrise turned the color of the sky, and cast a bloody tint over all. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning, the saying goes. No one told London, it seemed.
Ahead and below, London lay on either side of the Thames. At each corner of the city stood a tower of the great houses; Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. For generations, their blood shepherded and protected London and the United Kingdom. In that time, over hundreds of years, they houses changed themselves. Once families that held peerage, they became more than that... now the houses were part extended noble clans, part corporations.
And, still, they watched over London and the Kingdom.
"This is the London Metropolitan Authority," a voice announced over the hailer in the cockpit, "House Slytherin control. Unidentified flight, you are on an entry course into London airspace. Airspace is currently restricted. Please change course immediately."
Fred picked up the hailer. He reached to his panel and activated the security filters. "This is Flight Zulu-One-One. We are on a flightpath to the Lovegood Tower, carrying soldiers from the Special Law-enforcement Division's Occult Group."
"Negative, Zulu-One-One," the voice responded. "Repeat, London airspace is restricted; Lovegood Tower is prohibited. Please change course immediately."
Fred rolled his eyes at George. "Listen up, git: we have authorization to enter both London, and Lovegood Tower airspace. Check your bloody security pouch; we've got Spell Dogs on board. We're the bloody cavalry, you wanker!" Fred blew a long raspberry into the hailer and slammed it back into its clip.
After a moment, George said, "Actually, we would be the bloody infantry. Cavalry involves horses."
Fred gave him a look. "The power armor is called a 'mount,' George. Cavalry."
"Yeah, but that's just a nickname, Fred. They're really called Mobile Armored General Infantry suits. I mean, 'infantry' is right in there. I guess you could argue we're the mounted infantry, if you wanted to be..."
"George," Fred asked, "tell me, when did you decide you wanted to grow up to be a wanker?"
"Fire teams," Harry said, "form up and secure yourselves." They broke into fire teams of four soldiers. Behind Harry, Neville, Ginny, and Lee formed up. Cho took position and Ron, Cedric, and Colin lined up behind her. "Lower visors and activate comm systems." Harry's own helm swiveled up over his head and the opaque visor slid down over his face. Inside the faceplate, he watched the heads up display come to life. It filled with scrolling information, Magewise glyphs displaying all the information he needed.
The mounts looked something like dark olive, medieval plate armor; the breastplates and backs were composed of segmented plates formed into a solid carapace that covered the upper body and descended into tassets. Vambraces covered arms and legs, while a gorget rose to protect the neck and helms covered the soldiers' heads. The Cwn Annwn suits bore hard points at the shoulders and back, though they were running without mounted weaponry, on this op.
As the soldiers latched safety lines onto their suits, they alerted Harry with confirmation of their ready-state.
Hermione stood behind the teams, secured in by a line and harness. Her voice came over Harry's helm. "We will be in position in two minutes. Prepare to drop." He heard her voice change, become hollow-sounding, as she linked to the cockpit. "We are preparing to jump on your signal, Flight Leftenant." She reached over and hit the release switch. The ramp lowered and the sound of the wind rushing about them grew.
They waited for minutes that seemed like hours, until Fred's voice sounded over Hermione's hailer. "Prepare to drop." She signaled Harry and the rest of the section. "Drop!"
Harry hit his safety release and led the way out of the bay, down the ramp and into the open sky. He felt gravity take him, and he began to drop toward the roof of the tall sky-tower below.
"They're away," Fred told George.
Hermione made her way into the cockpit. "Take a high position a klick away. We'll need to return for pickup when this is all over."
"One way or another," George agreed. He guided the craft toward the position Hermione identified.
"Godspeed, corporal," Hermione whispered, "and good luck."
Harry hung against the glass of the second floor of the Lovegood building. Held in place by his terrain rig, and concealed under a disillusionment filter. Nearby him hung Cho Chang, Ginny Weasley, and Cedric Diggory.
High above them, the tower stretched, and edifice of glass and steel twenty floors in the air. The rooftop landing had been nothing; there was a pad there for carriers, and the section had plenty of room to set down. The slow climb down the face of the tower had been something else. Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom, Lee Jordan, and Colin Creevey set the colloportus seals on the ground exits, before they'd cross to the building across the street. Under cover of disillusionment filters, the who set up had been a long, slow maneuver.
Ron, Neville, Lee, and Colin waited atop the building across the street. Lee and Colin were stretched out, the bipods on their weapons set and their sighting rigs live. Ron and Neville waited behind them, ready to fire shells at Harry's command.
"Alright," Harry said into his hailer, "You all know the plan. On my mark, Nev, launch your expulso shells." He settled his weapon in his arms and said, "Mark."
He did not hear the low thump of Neville's underslung shell launcher when it fired. But he felt the impact as it struck the first floor window and exploded. Another shell was just behind it, and a second window blew in.
Right behind came Ron's barrage. Atop the roof, he fired confundo shells as fast as he could. They arced through the breach and down through the open atrium to the ground floor. They exploded and Harry heard shouts and confused yells. He grinned to himself.
A moment later, he heard the cracking sounds of Lee and Colin firing their weapons. "Clear," Lee said over the hailer, "you're go, corporal."
"In we go, boys and girls." Harry released his terrain rig and slipped through the opening below. The others followed close, then scattered in a star-burst formation. Weapons rose and they went over the rails of the walkway and to the ground floor.
A glance showed Harry a line of hostages, bound and laid out on the floor. Many of them were under the effects of the confundo shells, but unable to do worse that wriggle under the power of the seals the terrorists bound them with. The Death Eaters themselves were mostly upright, though the ones that Lee and Colin hit lay stunned on the marble floor.
Harry fired stunner rounds left and right. He could hear Cho's rifle as well, and the howls of Ginny's and Cedric's autos. He saw flashes of silver masks within black hoods, saw Death Eaters scrabble for weapons they never got to draw.
"Corporal!" Cho shouted.
Harry spun and brought up his rifle. A Death Eater was at the end of the line of hostages. He had one, a blonde girl with a dreamy expression on her pale face. With her before him like a shield, he drew a handgun and pressed it to her temple. "Not a move!" he said. His voice was muffled through his mask. "Or the Lovegood girl goes more bye-bye than she usually is."
Luna Lovegood gave Harry a smile that he had to admit was beautiful. Under the circumstances, it was also either very brave or foolishly incoherent. "Hello, soldier," she said. "I do believe he wants to kill me."
"No!" the Death Eater shouted, "I don't! But I will, if you try to stop me." He began to back away, dragging the bound girl with him. Even through the slits in his mask, Harry could see how wide-eyed he was, see how his gaze jumped around the room. He also saw how the man was moving into the area beneath the open atrium.
"When he gets into view," Harry whispered into his hailer, "drop him with a stunner."
"What? What was that? No talking!"
"Just wondering what you hoped to gain from this whole debacle," Harry said. "The takeover and the hostages, and all."
"We do as our leader says!" the man shouted.
"Lord Thomas Riddle..." Harry's eyes narrowed. "I don't suppose he's around, is he? We'd like a bit of a chat with him."
The Death Eater gave a wild laugh. "Lord Thomas is already gone, fool! You cannot capture him, you cannot kill him, you cannot defeat him!" He moved back another few steps.
Harry saw the shot take him right between the eye slits of his mask. He saw it penetrate the thin metal. The Death Eater's head jerked forward and Harry saw a spume of red exit the back along with a 5.56 round. The terrorist collapsed on top of Luna.
All was quiet.
"That was not a stunner," Harry said into his hailer.
"My bad," Neville responded.
"Great shot with just a SUSAT to sight through, though," Colin interjected.
"Excuse me, soldier," Luna said in the same dreamy voice. "Could you please get this body off of me?"
"It was a debacle," Hermione grumbled. She tossed a thick file down onto the table in front of Harry. "We've got the debriefs from the prisoners and the hostages."
"We did our job," Harry observed.
"I'm not saying otherwise," Hermione assured him. She sighed and sat in the seat across from him. "It was Security Service that mucked it all." Harry stared at her, open-mouthed. When she noticed, she glared and said, "Alright, corporal, no need to be sarcastic."
Harry grinned and sipped his tea. "What happened."
"He was there," she said.
"Yes." She sneered at the picture she revealed when she flipped the folder open. "Thomas Riddle, former lord of the empire, now psychopathic terrorist leader. We're still trying to figure out what he was there for, but it's clear now that this whole situation was just to keep us busy while he made it clear. Christ knows where he is, now."
"He can't hide forever," Harry said. "No one can."
"You seem remarkably cheerful about this whole thing," she said. She gave him a suspicious look.
Harry shrugged. "The operation was a success, we rescued the hostages, Luna Lovegood is... well, Luna Lovegood. And no one died." He paused. "No one that matters, anyway. I'm giving Nev a pass on that one, he deserved it after what happened to his parents."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"I do want to talk to you about requisitioning a L129A1 with an ACOG, though. And a Spectre-model MAGI suit. We need better recon abilities, Herm."
She smiled. "You haven't called me that is a while."
"Sorry," he said. "Leftenant."
She shook her head. "There's no one else here, Harry." She looked down at her file and closed the folder. She pressed her hands flat on top of it. "I'm sorry, Harry, about what happened, with the... well. You know. I realize, rank or not, I shouldn't be telling you how to do your job."
"Eh. Drop it."
"No. I am sorry. For that, and..." She looked up through her bangs. Harry recalled similar glances, and suddenly found a hard spot in his chest. "And other things." She swallowed. "I'm going to put in a request to be transferred. I don't think I should be acting as intelligence office for the section, given our past, and..."
"Leftenant." He paused. "Herm." Hermione looked at him and did her best to smile. "If I'm going to risk my life, I want it to be with people I trust. And George and Fred, too." Hermione laughed. "We can get along, I think, for, you know... the children." He jerked him thumb in the general direction of the barracks.
Hermione laughed. "Yes, dear."