Thanks to Arnel for giving a big help with this one. Without people like her, my writing would still stink.
In that vein, I’d like to send a special shout out to KEDme, who’s helping me with a POV problem.
And love and kisses to my wife!
-- -- -- --
When Chris arrived at the bookshop on Charing Cross Road, Ron was waiting.
“Hey,” Ron said, helping Chris out of the cab. “How’s the leg?”
“Good days and bad,” Chris said.
“How’d you break it?” Ron asked.
“Bad parachute jump,” Chris explained. “I was in the Paras before I was Scotland Yard. Where are we going?” he asked, changing the subject.
Ron seemed to sense the shift in conversation and guided Chris toward the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. “Right here,” Ron said, pointing up.
Ron put his hand on Chris’s shoulder, and like the Callander Inn had appeared, a wooden door appeared, and Chris saw the sign for the tavern. Despite himself, he still gave a little start. “Even though I’ve known about the magical world since I was a kid, it still gives me the heebie jeebies to see buildings appear out of no where.”
Ron grinned. “If the roles were reversed, I’d probably feel the same way. C’mon.” Ron held open the door, while Chris stepped through.
“Just ignore everyone, and they’ll ignore you,” Ron whispered. “Typical pub crowd.”
Chris nodded and followed Ron through the tavern which looked like something straight out of the Victorian era, except for the eccentric dress of the patrons. They walked into a dead end alley off the back of the tavern. Ron tapped his wand on a seemingly random brick in the wall, and suddenly, it wasn’t a wall, it had formed itself into an archway. They stepped through and Chris found himself on a shopping street, with shops and stores the likes of which he had never seen.
“Welcome to Diagon Alley,” Ron said, spreading his arms dramatically “the heart of Wizarding London.”
Chris took in the stores: magical pet stores, potion ingredient stores, parchment and quill suppliers. Chris did his best to curb his outright staring. He knew that Ron would prefer if no one noticed he was a Muggle, and he was doing his best. In spite of this, he couldn’t help but openly gape at the broomstick hanging in the window of one store, but since there were a number of children doing the same, he felt better. “You really ride those? I thought that was just a myth. Aunt Anastasia never had one that I remember.”
“Some do, some don’t,” Ron explained. “Quidditch, the primary wizarding sport, is played on brooms.” Ron guided him a little further down the street. They stopped in front of an ice cream parlour. “We’re going to a flat above the parlour,” he said, cutting between patrons to a small door wedged between the two buildings.
Chris expected to find a cramped, narrow staircase behind the small door, but the corridor widened out comfortably, wide enough for two people to pass each other on the stair. The stairs were clad in carpet, clean, but well worn. Ron slowed so Chris could keep up on the stairs.
“The corridor didn’t look this big from outside,” Chris said, already knowing the answer.
“A lot of wizarding buildings are enlarged in the interior so they fit in confined space. Only large business and wealthy families bother to go to the expense to actually build to the actual size they need.” Ron turned down the hall and knocked on the first door.
It opened with a creek. Chris had been looking down the hallway, but the movement caught his eye, and he flicked his gaze back toward the door. He did a double take, and inhaled sharply in surprise. The woman behind the door was Penny Clearwater, the Minister’s secretary.
“Hi Penny,” Ron said. “Thanks again for this.”
“Not a problem, Ron,” she said. “Come on in.”
“Chris, you remember Penny, right?”
“A pleasure to see you again,” Chris said, taking her hand, and meaning it.
“Thank you, Inspector,” she said, her cheeks colouring.
“Please, call me Chris,” he said.
“Unca Won!” A pint sized projectile appeared from somewhere within the flat, and latched himself onto Ron’s leg.
“Arthur Percival!” Penny scolded.
“No, it’s okay, Penny,” Ron assured her. “Hey there big guy,” Ron said, reaching down and hoisting Arthur up. “Oof! You’re getting big!” Ron said, situating Arthur against his shoulder. “Arthur, this is Inspector Collins. Can you say hello?”
Arthur turned shy in the presence of a stranger, pressing his face close to Ron’s shoulder. “Hewwo Inspecta Cowwins.”
“Hello there Arthur,” Chris said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Chris took the opportunity to have a good look at the child. He could see a strong facial resemblance to Penny and the boy seemed tall for three. Judging from Ron’s height, he guessed it was a Weasley trait. And there was no mistaking the auburn hair. It was a darker shade than Ron’s, so it had been influenced somewhat by Penny, but it was definitely red.
Ron set Arthur down on the floor, and he retreated behind Penny’s legs. “Please, come in and make yourselves comfortable,” Penny said.
They entered main room of the flat and Chris found it small and inviting. There were pictures on the wall, mainly of Arthur at various points in life. They were all moving, which didn’t surprise Chris at all. He’d grown up looking at his Aunt’s portraits. He found his eyes drawn to one of the few that didn’t feature Arthur. It was Penny, with a tall, bespectacled red-head who bore a striking, almost eerie resemblance to the Minister. That must be Percy, Chris thought. The couple in the photo hung on each other happily, newly in love and enjoying it. There were no lines in Penny’s face, no haunted expression in her eyes. Chris, as he always did when confronted with something like this, found it terribly sad.
“Can I get either of you something to drink?” Penny asked.
“I’m fine, Penny, thank you,” Ron said, and looked inquiringly at Chris as he took a seat on the short couch.
“I’m fine, too, thank you,” Chris said, settling into the rocking chair.
Penny retreated to the kitchen, and Chris heard the banging of pots and pans, the sounds of dinner being prepared.
“Why here?” Chris asked, first.
“Because it’s the only safe place to talk in London. We could go to a tavern, but I don’t want to be overheard, the Ministry’s still locked down, and I didn’t want to be seen at Scotland Yard. We don’t really make it a habit to show up at Muggle places. I suppose we could have met at your place, but it didn’t occur to me until after we set the meet,” Ron explained. “We could have met at my house, except it’s in Scotland. Same with Harry’s. My parent’s place is over in Devon. Even your Aunt’s is in Cambridge. I thought this would be convenient for both of us. Thinking quickly was never my strong point. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable for you?” he asked enquiringly.
“No, no,” Chris said quickly. “I just don’t want to intrude on Penny, that’s all.”
“I triple checked with her to make sure it was okay first,” Ron replied. “She doesn’t mind.” He leaned forward. “All right, let’s get down to business,” he said. “There was a major prison break this morning from the Ministry of Magic. A prisoner named Draco Malfoy. He was awaiting transfer to the wizarding prison Azkaban, where he was to be executed for a variety of crimes, including several counts of murder, torture and treason. He was the last of the fugitive war criminals from the war a couple years ago.”
“Why did Longwell help him escape?” Chris asked, looking for motive.
“Longwell’s personal records indicate that is likely that he was sympathetic to the cause Draco belonged to, even if he wasn’t directly involved. Also, a trace of finances shows a transfer of a large sum of money to Longwell, but we’re still trying to find out where it came from. Likely guess at this point is that it came from Malfoy, probably through a series of dummy corporations owned by the Malfoy family.”
“So at some point, Malfoy makes contact with Longwell,” Ron began.
“Could have happened before Malfoy’s original capture. A contingency plan,” Chris added.
Ron nodded. “A good supposition. Longwell’s taken some classes in explosives. At some point, he realizes that the new construction at the Ministry brings it very close to the Underground tunnel. He steals plastic explosives, so rather than having to fight their way to the atrium to Apparate, against an Auror corps that would have been warned, they can escape out the back.” Ron leaned back into the couch and steepled his fingers
“At some point, he needs to make contact with this Malfoy, and kills Yardley. Yardley was Malfoy’s solicitor?”
“He was the family’s solicitor,” Ron clarified. “A financial advisor of sorts. He handled financial transactions, and held the wills for the whole family. They kept him on retainer.”
“Rich?” Chris asked.
“One of the richest,” Ron confirmed. “Rotten to the core, though.”
“How’d they end up on the losing side of a war? Folks like that generally see which way the wind is blowing.” Chris rubbed his chin with his hand.
“They were too backward to see the handwriting on the wall. The issue at stake concerned blood purity,” Ron struggled to find the words.
“Some families, like mine, are pure-blooded wizards, meaning we’ve been wizards forever. Others are ‘half-blooded’, meaning they’ve intermarried with Muggles, and some wizards are Muggleborn. Occasionally, a Muggle couple will have a magical child. My wife, Hermione, is Muggleborn.
“The problem is, that some, like the Malfoys, believed that ‘half-bloods’ and Muggleborns were inferior to pure blood wizards, and that they needed to be…well, exterminated.”
Chris thought the room got a few degrees colder. “You’re talking about genocide.”
“Absolutely. They attempted to supplant the legitimate government with one that would do their bidding. Their leader was a man who called himself Lord Voldemort. He was an extremely powerful dark wizard who had cheated death a couple of times. Harry was the one who finally did him in, and the movement collapsed after that. We were years rounding up all the fugitives, though.”
“That’s why people are afraid of Harry,” Chris said, realizing. “Because he defeated this dark wizard.”
“Right in one. Harry held him off a couple of times before that, before he finally got the bastard. Harry’s right ruddy famous as a result. Anyway, getting back to the Malfoys.”
“Right,” Chris said, “Sorry. Rich, genocidal maniacs.”
“Right. So Longwell kills Yardley and begins impersonating him to get close to Draco. They make their plans. This morning, Longwell comes to visit. As he’s headed out, he leaves his attaché case in the conference room where prisoners can meet with their lawyers. The bomb goes off a few moments later, long enough for them to both get clear. Longwell barrels in, fights the guards, gets Draco free, and they flee out the hole before we can respond. That way, they’re clear of the Ministry’s Apparition wards.”
“And on the way out, Longwell demands the rest of his payment. Maybe he tells Draco we’re onto him. He knew we had tossed his room at the hotel.”
“And Draco knows from experience that dead men tell no tells, and he certainly has no qualms about killing. So he offs Longwell to cover his tracks. And then he Disapparates, and he’s gone,” Ron finished. “To parts unknown, and who knows when we’ll find him again.”
“You think he’s gone to ground?” Chris asked.
“What do you mean?” Ron said, confused.
“Well, he could go to ground. Run off to America, so you’d never catch him. But if he’s as fanatical as you say, wouldn’t it be more likely he’d be out for some kind of revenge?”
The room got marginally colder again. “It’s possible,” Ron admitted. “I hadn’t really given it much thought.” Ron turned to look out the window. “Not a happy one. It means that no one is safe.” He paused. “Again.”
Penny entered just then. “I’ve almost finished making dinner. Have either of you eaten?” she asked, looking at the two of them.
Chris looked over at Ron, to follow his lead. “What are you making?” Ron inquired.
“Nothing fancy,” she said, blushing a little. “Just a few breaded pork chops.”
“Pork chops are tempting,” Ron said. “Especially when the alternative is…‘make it yourself, I’m busy with the baby.’”
“I love pork chops,” Chris added. “And my alternative is heating up my own food in the microwave.”
“But I should really head home to Hermione,” Ron said. “But feel free to stay without me, Chris.”
Chris began to get the sinking feeling he’d been neatly manoeuvred. “Well, erm, I wouldn’t want to be an imposition,” he said hastily.
“Oh, no,” Penny said. “Please, stay for dinner.” Penny sounded confused, as if she knew she should be insisting, but wasn’t quite sure what she was insisting on anymore.
“Yes, by all means, don’t let the fact that I’m leaving stop you, Chris. You can stay if you like,” Ron said.
How could I possibly refuse now? Chris thought. If I did, I’d look like a complete boor. Chris found himself a little angry at Ron, but couldn’t bring any heat to it. The truth was Chris didn’t mind the idea of being set up with Penny, he just minded the idea of being set up with Penny. He would have preferred to have taken his own initiative, rather than have been pushed into it. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
Ron apparently took his hesitation for assent. “Good, it’s settled,” Ron said, “I’m off.” He kissed Penny on the cheek, and smiled at Chris. “I’ll be in touch.” And then he disappeared with a pop of displaced air.
Chris and Penny looked at each other for a long moment, and Penny blushed a little. Chris finally broke the silence. “Do you get the feeling we’ve been clumsily manipulated?”
Penny looked shocked for a moment, and Chris was afraid he’d said the wrong thing, and then suddenly she burst out laughing, putting her hands on her hips. “You know,” she said, “You’re absolutely right. It was so clumsy; I probably wouldn’t have caught on if you hadn’t said something. I’m used to more subtlety. I expect this kind of thing from Ginny or Hermione, but not from Ron. I didn’t think he had it in him!” she laughed again, and Chris thought it was a very pretty sound.
“I don’t have to stay, if it’s too much trouble,” Chris repeated. “I mean, I…” he floundered for words, unaccustomed to this. He was a Para for bloody well’s sake. Women were all over the red beret. Before you became a cripple, a voice in his head reminded him. Penny was waiting for him to continue. “I guess…,” Chris scrubbed his free hand through his hair. “Penny, I don’t know if you want me to stay for dinner or not, but I was wondering if I could buy you dinner some night?” He winced. It sounded a whole lot better in his head than out loud.
Penny blinked at him in confusion for a moment, and then understanding slowly blossomed across her face. Chris watched with a sinking feeling as her emotions flickered and her expressions changed. Finally, after a long moment in which she appeared to be staring off into space, her eyes slowly focused on Chris, and the corners of her mouth curled into a shy, uncertain smile. “I think I’d like that, yes.”
Chris felt his heart restart, and felt a smile spread across his own face. “That’s great,” he said softly. “When are you free?”
“I’m not sure,” she said suddenly, frowning. “I’d need to get a sitter for Arthur.” She was silent for a moment, thinking. “Let me check with my mother-in-law.” Penny disappeared into the kitchen for a long moment, and she returned. “She’ll take Arthur on Friday night, is that okay?” she asked. She was biting her bottom lip, and though the rest of her expression was guarded, he thought it was hope.
“Friday’s great,” he said. “Around half past six?” he suggested. She nodded. “And where can I pick you up?” he said, suddenly embarrassed. “I can’t…”
“Oh, right,” Penny said, hurriedly. “I’d nearly forgotten. Erm…I’ll meet you in the café of the bookstore next to the Leaky Cauldron, how about that?”
Chris nodded. “That’s fine. Six-thirty, Friday.” He paused. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Penny smiled at him, but when she answered, there was a note of uncertainty in her voice. “So am I.”
“Well, I guess I’ll go now,” he said. “Erm, how do I…Can I get out of here without you?”
“Yes,” she replied immediately. “The portal to the Leaky Cauldron is always open from this end, just not the other. You know how to get back, right? Back out to the street, take a right and walk all the way down?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Chris said. “Well, I’ll see you Friday.”
“Yeah, see you Friday.” She smiled at him nervously again as he went out the door. He made it out to the street, and as he walked out into his own world again, he was smiling to himself. He had his first date since the incident with his leg. He hoped he hadn’t forgotten how they were supposed to work.
-- -- -- --
While Chris was making his way back to his own world, Penny and Arthur were sitting down to dinner. Penny’s thoughts were in a jumble.
Why did I say yes? Why in Merlin’s name did I say yes?What was I thinking?
She reconsidered her decision making paradigm, trying to figure out how she could have gone wrong. I said yes, because he’s seems very nice, and I want to prove to myself I can move on. She winced internally knowing that wasn’t fair to Chris at all. I should get in touch with him, cancel. I shouldn’t do that to him. Should I?
Penny was beyond confused, even as she went through the normal motions of eating dinner, cleaning up, and putting Arthur to bed. He’s a nice man. I’m attracted to him, she admitted to herself. But a date? Am I ready for a date? She had no idea. She knew that the things Ginny and Hermione had been saying in the last couple weeks were getting to her. Hermione had hit especially close to home. Was she afraid to fall in love again? Was she afraid that she could love someone as much as she loved Percy, just differently? If I had the answers, I wouldn’t be thinking about it.
On the other hand, if she kept putting it of, and waiting, waiting to stop being afraid, she’d never get anywhere. She’d be alone for the rest of her life. She’d never have any more children. And that’s not what she wanted.
You have to start somewhere, she thought. The chances of something working out the first time are exceedingly slim, anyway. So go, try and have a good time, get your feet under you again, Penny instructed herself. Every journey starts with a single step.
Closing her eyes, Penny pulled the sheet up and rolled over onto her side. I hope I’m doing the right thing.