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"Mother, have you been messing around with the local wildlife again?"

"Not lately. Why?"

"Because there's a pigeon on the window sill with something tied to its leg." There's something a little off about the bird itself, though Carl can't place exactly what. It looks a little skinny to be a city pigeon, though, and he can't think who would want to track one of those down long enough to tie anything to it.

"Huh. Okay, I'll see what's up." With that, Mother heads out of the office. Crease sighs and turns away from the window; Carl can only guess he'd rather not watch the free entertainment.

Mother comes back in about five minutes later, carrying a bundle of paper that wouldn't look out of place at a Renaissance fair. The pigeon finds itself something to eat on the sidewalk, then flies back up to the window sill. Without the paper, it looks oddly familiar, but still not quite like any pigeon Carl's seen in action.

"Very strange mail call, apparently. I'd say it's some kind of job offer."

That gets Bishop's attention. He gets up, takes the paper, and reads it, looking more and more confused as he goes along. "Wait, the Ministry of what?"

None of that helps Carl any, but to say Mother's face falls would do a disservice to just how quickly it happens.

"Let me see that again - oh, no. Not the British wizards. I thought it was Americans, from the pigeon, but apparently he's just the relay."

Crease groans. "You have got to be making this up."

"I'm not. And something's fishy about this. The British wizards don't talk to non-magic-users if they can possibly help it, and they don't like Americans at all. I don't know why they'd come to us unless they don't mean well by it."

Carl's been keeping an eye on the pigeon the whole time, partly to see if it goes away (it doesn't), and the rest of the conversation rings enough bells to fill in why it looks wrong. "He's not kidding, Crease. Not unless you know of somebody else who'd be using a passenger pigeon for their mail service."

The office goes quiet. A minute or so later, Whistler says, "What's the pay scale on this thing look like?"

Mother glances at the paper again. "Pretty good on paper. But I'd have to find someone who knows the exchange rate before I could say for sure - they didn't bother translating it."

"Then this is either a very elaborate hoax, or another government offer."

Bishop sighs. "And after the last 'government' offer I got us into... Whistler's right. One way or the other, this is going to take a lot more research before we can answer."

"I'll call Mary later," Carl says. They're due to talk anyway, and she might know something from her own job that would help.

"Good start. We can tear into it in earnest tomorrow. Not much point in starting something new this late."

Carl goes back to the coding experiment he'd been working on before he noticed the pigeon, still keeping an eye on the bird as much as he can. He hears Crease say, "I know I'm going to regret asking this, but how do you know more about this than the rest of us?"

Mother snorts. "I don't care what kind of laws are in place, do you really think I'm not gonna keep tabs on people who could wipe my memory at the drop of a hat?"

Carl just shakes his head. He's got a feeling this is going to get interesting fast.

***

When he gets home from the office, Carl takes a few minutes to unwind, then calls Mary. He's heard a bit about this sort of thing - from people who aren't Mother, which makes him a little more inclined to believe there might be something to the job offer - but he's never bothered to research, and none of the guys want to pick up yet another 'government' offer only to be screwed over. They're going to use all the connections at their disposal.

That includes someone who's worked for the NSA and the FBI, since the offer's not even from an American entity.

"Got a question for you," he says, once they get through the initial pleasantries. "It's... probably gonna sound a little weird."

"Go for it."

"Okay. You know anything about British wizards?"

There's a long pause, but when Mary finally answers, it's not with the 'possibly you've lost your mind' tone of voice he was half dreading. "Why do you ask?"

"Job offer. Supposedly government again, and we're trying to figure out if it's likely to be worse than the last time we were handed that line."

"Huh. This is a bit out of their way, I'd think."

"Yeah, that's one of the things that's got us wondering. You got anything?"

"...Watch Star Wars."

Carl blinks. "Do what?"

"I'm not kidding. It's partly a documentary about what was going on over there in the '70s - something about Lucas going to visit some friends and finding out it was a lot worse than the news let on."

"Sort of thing Mother would love, then."

"I'll take your word for it. Anyway - watch that, substitute magic for the technology, and keep in mind that I think their Darth Vader analog made a comeback recently."

"...Cheerful."

"That's one thing to call it. I'll see if I can dig up anything else that might help you guys out. And..." Mary pauses again, but not as long as last time. "If this looks like it's gonna be any worse than the job we met after--"

"Then we're not taking it. We learned from the last one."

"Good. I'll give you a call when I know what I can find, all right?"

"Sounds like a plan."

After they get off the phone, Carl considers getting the movie out, but figures it'll be better if he just takes it to the office. This offer's getting weirder by the minute, and he's getting the feeling it'll only stick to that pattern before it lightens up.

***

Crease still can't quite believe this is happening.

He'd heard a few rumors that back up what's come out of Mother's mouth since that pigeon showed up, when he was in the CIA, but he'd never had to deal with magic on a direct level, so he eventually dismissed the rumors as cases of people over-indulging in the substance of their choice. Aside from the fact that it always grates when Mother's paranoia pays off, he's still sorting out what to make of those rumors having some truth to them.

Of course, there's also the fact that Carl brought in Star Wars as preliminary research, apparently wholly serious in doing so. Mother came in babbling about exchange rates and the Ministry of Magic's approach to by-laws, but the movie at least did the service of shutting him up in short order - though that might have been the combination of Martin and Whistler telling him to wait.

As the movie nears its end, Martin says, "All right, Mother, what was all that about exchange rates?"

"I tracked one down. Two, actually, since I had to go from their system to pounds and then pounds to dollars. If all went well, we'd end up with about twenty grand each, it looks like."

Crease considers that for a moment. "In light of your reservations from yesterday, I don't think they're expecting to have to pay us."

"I don't either. They probably think they can kill us or wipe our memories before we get out of England - and the latter's entirely legal, over there. If we take the movie as research, it's a safe bet the people in charge won't care if murder's illegal, either."

"Wonderful. This is sounding more and more like we shouldn't take the job."

"On the other hand," Martin says, "now that they've gone to the trouble of fishing us out, they might pull one of those on us anyway if we say we won't do it. I think our choices are to take the offer, or never reply."

Mother shrugs. "If we do it, we can most likely out-think them. British wizards aren't known for their logic, from what I've heard - or for paying much attention to modern technology."

"So I'd be hard pressed to find a computer?" Carl asks, glancing away from his own desktop.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a kerosene lamp, more like."

"...Great. And to top it all off, Mary emailed me. Her hunch last night was right - the Empire did strike back, to stick with the theme."

"So on the one hand," Whistler says, "we'd be walking into a dangerous situation that won't necessarily play to our strengths. And on the other, not being able to rely on magic might help us get through it - and there's a hundred grand in it for us."

Martin nods. "Not to mention, if the government's as badly off as everything we've got suggests, there's got to be more to the story. It's probably nothing we could hear from trying to find their local newspaper, either."

"And if we don't do this, or don't follow through to find out what they're up to, we're probably dead," Carl adds. "If the guy behind this was the model for Darth Vader, I don't see him being content with taking over one country."

Crease sighs. He still doesn't like the sound of this situation overall, but Carl's got a point with the self-preservation aspect.

"All right," he says. "Supposing we do this, how do we go about telling them?"

"Request some of the money in advance," Whistler says. "And probably also ask for some background information, so we know what they want us to think. Whether we think it or not is another story - and highly unlikely, at this point, but they don't need to know that."

"And when we're there, we're just particularly careful," Mother says. "Sounds like a good plan. Let's get something written up, and - is that pigeon still out there?"

Before he leaves for the day, Crease pulls Martin aside briefly.

"Talk to Liz about this, before we leave."

Martin looks positively baffled. "Why? She won't want to go to England - not for our business, anyway. I think she's already done the tourist thing--"

"So she knows you're going into a dangerous situation, Martin. She'll be more upset to hear about it after the fact, and you know that."

"...Good point. She'd probably have my head on a platter."

***

They rule out taking the employees' entrance in about thirty seconds. Bishop wonders how no one gets stuck on the way down; Carl wants to know what teenager contributed to the design; Whistler, upon getting a description, thinks some architect was trying to be ironic about what the Ministry's employees actually mean to the institution; Crease thinks it's undignified, doubly so since these people don't seem to have senses of humor, never mind highly-honed appreciation of irony.

Mother just wants to know how people can flush themselves into work without knowing where those toilets have been. Really, anyone desperate enough to use the employees' entrance deserves what's coming to them.

The visitors' entrance isn't much better, since it insists on providing them with name tags, but at least it's a phone booth and not a toilet. Mother keeps the top of the badge covered, even though it's got an assumed name on it. All anyone here needs to know is the 'official business' part.

The Ministry officials asked them to focus on the atrium and the downstairs area near the courtroom; Bishop and Crease head down to see what they can see, leaving the other three to ignore the rather disturbing statuary as best they can and start looking for potential breaches. It's more than a little outside their realm of experience, in some places, but Mother figures if the Ministry can't keep the magic part in hand, they're doing something wrong.

Not long after the employees start coming in, Whistler pauses, his head tilted to the left. "Guys? Who's over there?"

"Three people," Carl says, after having a look. "Tiny older woman, skinny guy, and a big, burly guy with a beard. They look like they belong here, but... not as a unit, I'd guess."

"Well, they sure as hell don't sound like they belong here. Seasoned employees wouldn't be that concerned about making it through the entrance, and unless those statues you guys mentioned went up yesterday, they shouldn't still be gawking."

Mother gives up on trying to figure out how the hell the architects got from toilets to fireplaces - if there is an answer, it just might be 'magic' - and has a look at the trio for himself.

"That woman's purse is all wrong for this place. Too sparkly for something she should be hauling to work."

"Put it all together, and I think they're someone here doing what we're supposed to stop," Whistler says.

"That'd be my guess - oh, hell, her purse is open. She can't be used to this many people in one place. Carl? How do you feel about your aim?"

"All right, I guess. Why?"

Mother pulls one of his trackers out of a pocket. "I figured before we left that tracking devices might come in handy. And if these people aren't the other side of the Ministry's story... they can probably point us in the right direction. Think you can get one in her bag?"

Carl raises an eyebrow. "I can try. But are you sure we'll be able to track them?"

"Radio signal. These guys have radio programming, so it should work, whatever else is going on around them."

"Well, if you're sure..." Carl takes the tracking device, and lobs it toward the group just as they start to head for the elevators; it banks off the strap of the woman's purse, then falls in, apparently without catching her attention.

The trio get lost in the crowd by the elevators soon afterward, but that's all right. As soon as the guys get away from the building, Mother will be able to find them anywhere within a hundred miles or so. He turns his attention to the visitors' entrance, since that would be any sane person's choice of a way to sneak in, despite the name tags.

Bishop and Crease come back upstairs a few minutes later. Mother doesn't really register their presence as more than background noise until Bishop joins him.

"Find anything interesting?"

Mother nods. "Not so much around the entrance points, but we did catch some people sneaking in. Got a tracking device on them. How's downstairs look?"

Bishop sighs. "Kind of like the employees' entrance. Anyone wanting to get into the Pit of Despair has more problems than we could help them with."

***

When alarms start going off around an hour later, the guys figure it's as good a time as any to get the hell out of the building. The doors are closing fast, when they reach them, but they've got enough time to get out - if barely. Mother can't help wondering what they're using in place of electronics to do that, in a moment of professional curiosity cutting through the panic.

Three people got out just ahead of them - most likely the kids Whistler heard sneaking in, if only from the way they're running like half the Ministry's after them. (Since they probably set off the alarm, that's quite likely, though whoever's giving chase is taking their sweet time about it.)

The guys have almost caught up with the first group within a couple of minutes. In fact, Bishop's got his hand on the girl's arm when they disappear with a loud crack - taking Bishop with them.

"...Well, crap," Carl says, after a long pause. "That's gonna make life interesting."

The four of them left behind keep walking, until they're reasonably sure they're out of the immediate danger zone. Mother gets out his signal tracker, along the way, and watches for it to start working again. When it does, he says, "Okay, we're probably good to stop whenever we want. They'll probably do a more restricted search first."

Crease sighs. "That's all well and good, but how are we going to find Martin?"

"By following him, of course."

"I don't know if you noticed," Carl says, "but he kinda disappeared. I think that's gonna make him hard to follow--"

"Guys, guys, give me some credit. You think I'd be carrying around tracking devices without making sure one of us could find everyone else?" Mother eyes the readout on the tracker. "He's still in the city, which is apparently more than can be said for the kids at the moment. This won't be as hard as you're making it sound."

Chapter Text

The kids are long gone by the time Marty recovers enough to stand upright. Whatever that trick was, it was not his idea of a fun time, and now he's lost his bearings, not to mention the rest of the guys.

Maybe they should have just taken phones and said the hell with the probability they wouldn't work. But knowing Mother, they've each got one of those trackers on their person, and have the whole time. He's still in the city, from the look of his surroundings, so if he just stays put they should find him eventually.

Provided they make it out of the Ministry all right, of course - but Marty has faith in them.

The kids have left him off in front of a town house, in a part of the city the guys haven't been through. At a glance, he wouldn't call it an area the local wizards would give much thought - the remainder of the street looks thoroughly mundane. Even this house does, if one excludes the serpentine door knocker. He's not sure what else to do just now, so he sits down on the front step.

Or he starts to, anyway, but he's interrupted by a three-foot-high... something or other that's putting him in mind of Tolkien... trying to kneecap him with a frying pan.

"Ow! What the hell--"

"What happened to Master Potter? Master Potter and his friends should be back by now - Kreacher has been listening for them. You should not be here." The not-Gollum guy readies the frying pan for another swing.

"Well, you missed them, and I don't know where they went. I was a little busy being sick at the time. Now, will you please stop hitting me? I'll agree I shouldn't be here, but I got separated from my friends and I don't want to get more lost than I already am."

"...How does Kreacher know you speak truly?"

"If it were up to me, I wouldn't be here in the first place. Far as I can tell, I just caught the girl's arm at the wrong moment. Will that do?"

Not-Gollum never answers, but he doesn't hit Marty again. After a while, he wanders back into the house, and Marty sits down on the front step like he'd meant to. At least now he has a last name to consider - and one that was all over the paperwork at the Ministry, to boot. If Potter's one of those kids, he and his friends were probably up to something more than fulfilling a dare, which at least means they had a good reason to be sneaking into such an odious building.

It's got Marty all the more intrigued as to what the other half of the story is. Well, that and the fact that those kids probably couldn't be much less sneaky if they tried.

It feels like a couple hours before there's any sign of the guys, though it might be closer to one. From the looks of things, Marty was right in guessing Mother took precautions. The funny part is when they walk right past him.

"I don't get it," Mother says, after they backtrack. "The signal's pointing right here, but there's no way he'd fit between those two houses."

Carl sighs. "Maybe your tracker thingy's broken?"

"Can't be. I was just working on it a couple weeks ago."

"...It's broken, in other words."

"Cut it out, guys," Marty says, hoping to at least give Whistler a better bead on his location. "Whether it's broken or not, it got you to the right place."

Sure enough, Whistler pauses. "Bish? Where are you?"

"About forty feet straight in front of you guys."

Crease looks right at him, and then sighs. "Stop fooling around, Martin, there's a join between two houses there. Even Carl's not skinny enough to fit that."

"Guys, hang on, let me try something..." Mother walks forward, eyeing the tracker, and stops just short of the front walk. "...Huh. The box shorted out."

"Great, so now we have an invisible house to deal with?"

"I can see it just fine," Marty protests, but he doesn't push the point.

Carl makes one of those faces that tend to happen when he's confronted with particularly recalcitrant programming. "Whatever it is, it's pretty damn strong. Some kind of protection thing - I'd say invisible fence, but then you'd probably be able to see the house."

"But it's not impossible to get around," Whistler says, "or we wouldn't be having this problem. How'd you get back there, Bish?"

"I don't know, not in technical terms. I think I just caught the girl's arm at the wrong time, and by the time I got over the motion sickness, they weren't around to ask." Marty knows where this is going, though - straight into 'what did it sound like?' territory - and so he tries to reconstruct those last few minutes of chaos at the Ministry in his mind.

"One of the kids said something," he finally says. "Right before they left. I don't know how helpful it would be, since they seem to have a habit of plotting out loud, so far."

"Go on."

"I don't remember the exact phrasing, but it was something like, 'We have to get to Twelve Grimmauld now'--"

"The hell?" Carl interrupts, staring at the house like it just appeared out of nowhere. Of course, from his perspective, it probably had, but Marty can't help a little amusement.

"So you can only find it if you already know where it is," Mother says, switching off his tracker. "Must make having company next to impossible."

Marty stands up, and winces; that frying pan's probably left a bruise, at this rate. "Well, if there's anyone inside, maybe we could ask them."

***

They spread out as best as possible to try to get a feel for the house, and they're slowly reconvening in the kitchen. Mother set himself to going through the pantry, partly because he can probably handle cursed food (if there is any), given the state his fridge is in half the time.

Well, all right, three-quarters of the time.

But there's not really anything to speak of in the pantry, cursed or otherwise; it's almost disappointing, in a way. He's taking what looks like a box of tea leaves over to the table when Carl comes in and drops into one of the chairs.

"I really hope we can get to a hardware store at some point."

Mother raises an eyebrow. "Why's that?"

"That goddamn screaming portrait in the front hallway. If we can't duct-tape those curtains on it shut, or something, it's gotta come down before it drives us all insane - especially since I'm pretty sure it's not being polite. And I think it's stuck to the wall, so we're probably talking massive property destruction here."

"Which wouldn't be so bad, really, if one of us could fix it as quickly as whoever built this place."

"Even so, I'd almost rather put up with a draft than all that screaming." Carl sighs. "The duct tape's probably the best plan, but first we'll need to get some."

Crease comes in not long after. "I think those kids were staying here. The place has seen use recently, anyway, but it's not clean enough to be anything consistent."

"If they were here, I want to know what the hell they were eating. You'd think there'd be something in the pantry..." Mother's not really expecting either of them to catch the second sentence, since he's trying to check the far reaches of the pantry without the benefit of electrical lighting, and flashlights can only do so much.

"Maybe they ate all of it before they left," Carl points out.

"I don't know about that - Bishop said they left in a hurry, as far as he could tell. It's possible they were getting food as they went along, but I don't know why they'd do that if they're supposed to be on the run." He emerges from the pantry with what looks to be some salted beef. "Hey, maybe if I can find something to go with this, I could make--"

"No," Carl and Crease say at the same time.

"But I--"

"I've seen the inside of your fridge before," Carl says. "If I'm lucky, I'll forget it before I die. You are not cooking."

Crease eyes the beef for a moment. "And I doubt any of us would want to deal with the after-effects of eating that, whatever they may be. We'll be better off doing our own shopping."

***

What Whistler's enjoying least about this expedition so far is having to use a cane to navigate. Just because he knows the necessity of the evil - the guys can't help him all the time, and none of them are even vaguely familiar with the area - doesn't mean he has to like it.

The kids they started tracking at the Ministry have been bouncing all over the place, and this is the first time in over a month they've come near enough for the guys to have a practical shot at finding them. Why the kids are mucking around in the woods (he has the other guys' descriptions, and the sound and feel of dying foliage, to vouch for that), Whistler couldn't say. Hopefully, they'll have a chance to ask about that.

The foliage underfoot stops being so crunchy, rather abruptly; they must have found a clearing. Whistler keeps moving forward for a bit, then stops, frowning slightly.

"Anyone else hear something?"

"Like what?" Bish says.

"Very low-pitched hum. It's to my right."

There's a pause, and then the other guys say they can't hear it. He'd figured he would be on his own for this one, but it never hurts to ask. He turns in the direction of the noise and moves toward it; after about half a minute, his cane bounces off something that's vibrating in time with the humming.

"Found it! What's over here?"

"...Nothing," Carl says, sounding very perplexed. "A whole lot of nothing. The woods don't start again for at least another fifty yards, probably closer to a hundred."

"Huh. Well, the cane definitely hit something. Mother? Your equipment have anything useful to say?"

"Signal from the tracker's getting stronger... weird, it just shorted this out. It's an invisible fence around nothing."

"No, it's around something," Bish says. "Since the signal picked up, I'd say we found the kids, but can't get to them until they take the fence down."

Carl sighs. "Great. I do so love the 'hurry up and wait' parts."

But they have no other choice, if they want answers, so they settle in. The humming stops near dusk (according to Crease), and confused teenage voices take its place almost immediately.

"What - what are you doing here? How did you even - why are you out here?"

"Funny," Mother says, "we were hoping you could answer that for us."

***

The Muggles don't show any sign that they might go away before they get some answers. If they weren't in such an isolated spot, Hermione would be tempted to wipe their memories and have done with it - but aside from the location, they're Americans. She's read enough to know that Americans are rather touchy about memory charms.

She doesn't see why, as they can have their practical uses, but she didn't make the laws.

So she sighs, and recasts the protection spells with the Muggles inside; Harry and Ron start setting up the tent again, leaving her to deal with the company.

"How did you find us, anyway?"

"Radio signal," the man holding the metal box says. "We've had a tracking device in that Bag of Holding of yours for over a month. The signal carries through spells, and you guys wouldn't have figured out what to do with the tracker if you found it, from the looks of things."

"You can't expect me to believe you just carry tracking devices around for no reason."

"Why not?"

"Because - oh, never mind. Anyway, one of our spells is supposed to keep Muggles from finding us in the first place."

"Well, we didn't see you," the youngest of the group says, "but a whole lot of nothing that manages to short out our equipment isn't exactly subtle."

"Besides," the man with the white cane adds, "something that keeps you invisible isn't all that effective on people who aren't expecting to see anything at all."

Hermione eyes him for a moment, mostly for her own benefit. "The protection spells also keep any noise we make from getting out."

"I didn't hear you, I heard your spells - the minute we got into this clearing. Granted, it's a low enough pitch that most people would miss it, but if anyone walks into that vibration, you might as well be shouting from the mountaintops."

Hermione sighs again; it probably wouldn't do much good to point out how unlikely it is that someone would look for them by waiting to walk into protection spells. Besides, a backward glance tells her Ron and Harry have the tent set up again.

"We might as well move to the tent. Everyone's going to want to hear the rest of this, I'd imagine."

She leads the way into the tent, barely registering the Muggles' astonishment at its interior. Ron and Harry are already sprawled out on two of the chairs in the main room, arguing over whose turn it is to wear the locket. Hermione shuts them up so everyone can go through introductions; after that's done, she asks the Muggles a question that's been on her mind since just after she recast the protection spells.

"You said you've been tracking us for over a month, which probably means the Ministry. How did you get there to find us?"

"The Ministry hired us," the man with the box - why he calls himself 'Mother' she has no idea - says. "They wanted their security tested, and boy did they need it. Anyway, Whistler heard you guys before you really got going, and we'd wanted to get the whole story since the job offer came in, so we figured we'd get a tracker on you and find it out after the fact."

Harry, who'd tensed up at 'the Ministry hired us,' relaxes, but only a little. "How do we know you won't take the information right back to them, though?"

"Our asses are on the line as much as yours are," Carl points out. "More so, actually, since you guys can at least defend yourselves against what the oh-so-charming people in power would attack with. And if this guy gets a toehold here, there's not a lot to stop him from moving on to the rest of the world. We'd really rather not be dead."

"But Vol--"

"Please, don't bring him up by name," Ron says, looking rather nervous. "This... isn't the time. Not when everything's picked up again."

Carl shrugs. "Let's call him Darth Vader, then. He practically is anyway."

Hermione's not sure what he's getting at - and as far as she can judge from facial expressions, neither are Ron and Harry.

"Has a nice ring to it," Ron finally says, and Carl sighs.

"If you kids didn't even pick that up, we may all be doomed."

"What, really? Is it something we should know?"

"Only if you've watched any movies at all in the last twenty years..."

"Oh, there's the problem, then. It's a Muggle thing."

Hermione nods. "I didn't watch many movies before I got to Hogwarts, and I certainly haven't had the time to start since then. And Harry... well, his family's not terribly encouraging."

"Of me, anyway," Harry says. "Dudley's probably seen it, whatever it is. Especially if it has explosions."

"If it has--Jesus." Carl sighs again, and walks away from the main knot of people. Hermione isn't sure what just happened, but he's clearly upset by it.

The dark-skinned man watches Carl for a few moments, looking somewhat concerned, then says, "I think it'll be best for everyone if the three of you explain your side of things. Now."

***

Carl gives it a few minutes before he goes back into the tent. If the kids have half an idea of what they're doing, they'll probably hold out on giving up the whole story for at least a few minutes; he's not expecting more than that, since they've already missed a few things that would help them a lot.

He'd known this was going to be a weird job, but he hadn't expected it to be so utterly alien, in terms of culture.

Once he reaches the point where his head doesn't feel like it'll explode - about the time one of the kids says, "All right, all right, but it's... a bit of a long story" - he heads back into the tent. (He still can't believe the kids are carting a freaking two-bedroom apartment around in the thing.)

"It's..." Hermione pauses, apparently considering her word choice; Carl has to resist a Monty Python crack. "We're sort of on a mission."

He can't resist that opening, though. "From God?"

The redhead's brow furrows. "No, from Dumbledore," he says. "Who's God? Is this another Muggle joke?"

There's a pause, presumably as everyone tries to figure out where to start with that (Carl sure as hell doesn't know), before Hermione finally says, "I'll explain later. Anyway, Dumbledore was our old headmaster. Before he was killed in June, he was giving Harry information about how to defeat - well, you know."

"Why a teenager?" Whistler asks. "Why not find an adult - or better yet, why didn't he go do it himself, before he died?"

"He never explained that," Harry says. "He never explained a lot of things. But I have gone up against... Darth Vader several times - not my idea, the first time he killed my parents - and since the war keeps coming to me, Dumbledore thought it would be good to prepare me to win it."

Mother snorts. "How're you going to do that, by camping in the woods until he gives up?"

"No, this is just because people are probably out looking for us. We were expected at Hogwarts at the beginning of the school year, aside from... everything else. We're trying to keep the details as secret as possible, to keep things out of the wrong hands."

"Admirable goal, but how's anyone supposed to help you if they don't know what you're doing?"

Harry sighs. "We don't want to get anyone else in danger, and anyway, Dumbledore said--"

"All right, we get it," Bishop cuts in. "You are on a mission from God, or might as well be. Hell, if we just had a handy desert, you could make a proper Crusade of it."

"A what?"

There's another pause; this time, Crease is the one covering his face and saying he can't believe this. Carl can't either, for all history wasn't something he paid much attention to. He at least knows the Crusades were a bunch of fanatics being very stupid eight or nine times in a row.

"I'll explain that later as well," Hermione says. "And since you insist, and likely won't draw attention anyway - we're dealing with cursed artifacts. We were in the Ministry looking for one, as it happens. We have to destroy them all before - before the final battle."

"Do you at least know what you're looking for?" Carl asks. "Or how to destroy it once you've got it?"

"We do now."

Carl sighs, and strongly considers leaving the tent again. Lack of use for most of his skill set, completely alien culture, fate of the world pinned on the shoulders of three kids who don't know what the hell they're doing - yeah, this job's got it all, all right.

Chapter Text

"Okay, wait, I think I missed something. What happened before he took off?"

It's about a week before Christmas. The kids finally ventured close enough to London for the guys to meet them halfway again (none of them want to wander around the woods all winter when it's harder for them to keep up and there's a perfectly good, if slightly creepy, vacant house for the crashing in). But there's only two of them, this time; Ron apparently stormed off in a huff, not all that long ago. Carl's wondering why it took this long for one of them to give up, but that's just him.

He just wishes he wasn't the one stuck untangling the story.

"We had a bit of a row," Hermione says, "and Ron ended up saying we weren't getting anything useful done, just sitting out here and waiting for something to happen."

"Can't say he was wrong, really."

"Yes, well, you don't know our timeline. Ron does. Anyway, after we all yelled a bit more, he took off the locket and left--"

"Locket? What locket?" Carl can only think of one necklace that the kids would be concerned about, and he's really hoping he's wrong.

"The one we got from the Ministry, of course. Harry's got it now."

Carl eyes Harry, who's across the clearing trying to gather sticks, for a moment before turning back to Hermione. "Leaving aside for the moment the fact that wearing that thing at all is probably a really dumb move, why haven't you gotten rid of it yet? Mount Doom or no Mount Doom, I'm sure you could find a volcano somewhere."

"What do volcanos have to do with anything?"

"Figured since you've got the One Locket To Rule Them All, you might have to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom or something. But really, any volcano would melt it, I'd think."

"No, Carl, there are very specific magical forces that will destroy those things," Hermione says, not reacting to the literary references at all. "We're doing our utmost to get our hands on one of those, but until then, our best option is to carry it."

"...You really didn't get that, did you."

"Get what?"

"You call yourself a bookworm and you haven't read Tolkien? I don't believe this. Would've thought you'd add it to your summer research list, at least with the epic quest on your hands."

Hermione sighs. "I read, yes, but I read for information. You can't learn anything from fantasy."

"I've learned a hell of a lot from fantasy, actually - and fiction in general. I've learned people can be monumentally stupid even when they're saving the world. I've learned the scariest monsters are the most human ones. And I swear to God I never thought I'd have a practical application for this one, but I've learned that when you've got an artifact that's been cursed by your arch-nemesis, you don't go around wearing it. When Harry gets back, put it in your damn Bag of Holding. It'll save you a lot of bother."

Carl goes back to the van before Hermione can patronize him again. Bishop is finding him an Internet cafe that's open on the holidays so he can hack some of this frustration out of his system before he explodes.

He hopes he wasn't that annoying in high school.

***

Mary -

Not that you would be, at least anywhere someone would notice, but don't panic. We're still fine, and we plan on staying that way. Sorry I didn't let you know sooner, but it's hard to find a mailbox when you're (a) trailing three idiot kids who (b) are more used to sending their mail by owl and (c) insist on camping in the goddamn woods because they don't know how to hide effectively. (This is also the first real chance I've had to get to an Internet cafe. Not being able to really use my skill set is kinda frustrating.)

And they won't listen when Bishop tries to give them hints. You'd think they'd take the advice of someone who's done the fugitive thing before.

Anyway. We got the Ministry job done all right, but we probably won't be telling them that for a while. None of us really think that part would end well - for us, anyway - and we did already secure half the money. Half's better than nothing, if worse comes to worst.

The kids we're following snuck into the Ministry while we were trying to do said job, and made off with a necklace that apparently gives the One Ring a run for its money. (I guess Darth Vader wasn't content just being Darth Vader, so he decided to be Sauron too.) We figured it looked like a good chance to find out the other half of the story, not to mention they need serious help with their being-sneaky skills, so Mother pulled out a radio-signal tracker and we followed.

Turns out the kids are on a mission from God, or might as well be. Far as we can tell, the mission consists of doing as little as possible and waiting for dumb luck to dump the answer in their laps. They haven't even tried to get rid of the One Locket yet. Don't know about you, but I wouldn't be sitting on that thing any longer than I had to. (And they can teleport. A little geographical research and I'm sure they could find a volcano somewhere.)

I really don't get it, and I don't see how these kids are going to manage long enough to get their mission from God done. But if they don't, that's likely a stronger toehold for Darth Vader, and if he gets that, odds are we're all fucked. So, since we'd rather not be dead, we're taking the 'make sure the world's greatest hope isn't too incompetent' strategy.

I think that's the only strategy involved here. One of the guys doesn't do anything, the other one stormed off on the grounds that all of this is going nowhere (how right he was), and the girl keeps patronizing us. Must remind self that they're supposedly doing something important, though if they don't do something soon, I probably won't be able to be held responsible for my actions.

Anyway. That's all I've got for now. I'll try to give you a more timely update next time, but see above re: mailbox/Internet complications. I'm working on something to keep you informed if anything drastic happens, but really, don't panic - you know us. We're resourceful.

Wish us luck,

Carl

***

Ron almost returns to the campsite the moment he lands at the Burrow, but thinks better of it; Apparition's hardly his strong point, and if he tries to go that far again too soon, he'll do more harm than good. Besides, he's still got enough ill feeling in him to think it'll serve Harry and Hermione right to have to get on without him for a while. Odds are they're moving camp now anyway.

The ill will's completely evaporated three days later, but his mum's insistent that he stay for 'a proper Christmas' as long as he's home. He doesn't mind the chance to pump Ginny for information at all (she's still furious that Harry didn't see fit to trust her with details, and Ron rectifies that as much as he feels safe doing); the twins' attempts to test new products on him still grate, but at least keep the atmosphere familiar.

Still, it's not the same as being out there and trying to help, progress or no progress.

He makes up his mind to leave again as the Christmas party draws to a close. The problem is, he hasn't the faintest idea of where to go; Harry and Hermione have surely moved camp by now, possibly two or three times. The Americans and their tracking device might be able to find the camp, but he doesn't know where to find them, either.

He considers checking Grimmauld Place, and almost dismisses the idea out of hand, considering why they had to stop using the house in the first place. On the other hand, though, any Death Eaters who staked the place out have probably given it up as a dead end, by now. And if he knew where to find an enclosed space in this weather, he'd bloody well use it.

He lands on the doorstep, lets himself in, sits through the Order's protective charms, and stops short in the front hall. Someone has been here since the three of them left, and they've sealed off the curtains over Mrs. Black's portrait with an odd silvery substance. He wonders for a moment if it's some kind of modified Sticking Charm, before the sound of someone coming upstairs from the kitchen interrupts his thoughts.

Ron raises his wand and turns around in time to see Crease approaching, with his gun at the ready; they eye each other for a few moments before Crease lowers his weapon and says, "What in hell are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing." He's sure part of the Fidelius, if not the spells put on by the Blacks, is supposed to keep Muggles from noticing the house at all - but if Crease is here, the other four probably are too, so something didn't exactly work.

"One of your friends brought Martin here by accident, in September. We had such a hard time finding the place that it seemed reasonable anyone else would, too."

"Is that who that was? When we got to the forest, Hermione said she thought it was a Death Eater!"

Crease sighs; it's one of those heavy ones that usually follow Mother's theories. "I understand how panic changes judgment, and that was a reasonable assumption, but really. There were three of you and one of him, whether Martin was motion-sick or not. You might have stopped to check before sacrificing your hideout!"

"We're new at this, all right? We're not going to do everything perfectly. And we are really trying to get somewhere with all this work."

"Carl said you'd left because you were getting nowhere."

Ron sighs. "That bloody locket was playing games with my head. Anyway, they'll get less nothing done without me, if that's possible. But they've probably broken camp by now, so I thought I'd see if they'd come back here, what with the weather."

"Do you know whose house this is?"

"Harry's, now. It was in his godfather's family for ages."

Crease looks mildly pained, but doesn't comment - which Ron suspects is only because he doesn't have the words to do a full-blown tirade.

"I did think of your tracking device, actually," Ron says, once the silence starts going on awkward.

"Mother's tracking device," Crease corrects, without looking up from finally putting his gun away.

"It's not ours, is my point. And I doubt Hermione's taken it out of her bag yet. Do you think your equipment could find them?"

"...We'll have to see if they're in range." With that, Crease turns toward the kitchen stairs, and Ron follows.

***

Harry and Hermione are still in range of the signal tracker, it turns out, but just barely; they're well to the west of London. Mother says they need to chase the signal, if they're going to do this thing properly, so the Americans load a few things into their rented van. Ron doesn't expect that cargo to include him until Whistler looks at him - or, at least, faces in his general direction - and says, "What, you think we'd go to the trouble of finding your friends without giving you a ride to them?"

"Well, I thought I might be able to Apparate there--"

"The teleporting trick? Thought you said that was one of your weak points. Besides, we have no way to tell you where they are unless you're there. It's faster on the whole if you come along."

It's wholly unlike Ron's few rides in the Anglia. Between the people, the apparently minimised amount of equipment, and the lack of magical enhancement, it's rather cramped; he can't follow the conversation half as easily; and at no point on the journey are they airborne, unless one counts a few interesting bumps when they get off the pavement (which Ron doesn't). Still, it's serviceable to the job at hand, and somewhere around two hours later, they pull up in a clearing and stop.

"All right," Mother calls from the front. "Signal's in this clearing - the rest is up to you."

Ron climbs out of the back of the van, and notes Hermione's shield charms right away. He starts toward them, then notices some movement at the far end of the clearing, pauses to watch it, and breaks into a run. He doesn't know what Harry thinks he's doing, but it doesn't look good.

***

The end of Ron's yell reaches the van, and Carl frowns. If the running hadn't been ominous enough, anything including the word 'mental' at that volume can't possibly be a good sign.

When Ron comes back, it looks even worse. He's supporting Harry with one arm and carrying a sword in the other hand; Harry's soaking and shirtless despite the temperature, holding his clothes and the battered remnants of the locket. It's good to see the thing's finally out of the way, but what drives Carl to comment are the marks on Harry's neck - which look like they were left by a tightening chain.

"Dammit, Hermione, I told you wearing the evil jewelry was a bad idea!"

He knows she can hear it, even though she has yet to lower the protective spells that would let her rebuttal get out. And Harry certainly doesn't get a pass on his own stupidity - he'll hear about it when he's not apparently half-drowned. But still, it feels good to let one of these idiot kids have it.

Chapter Text

From: terminus_c @yahoo.com 8 April 1998 15:37 GMT
To: ericssonm @fbi.gov
Subject: a little help here?

I wouldn't email you at work if this weren't important (and right now I'm hoping a) you're still there and b) I'll have time to CHECK this before July), but this could be important, since the kids don't seem to know who to trust. Is the state of the print media still the same as when we researched in August?
-Carl

From: ericssonm @fbi.gov 8 April 1998 19:23 GMT
To: terminus_c @yahoo.com
Subject: Re: a little help here?

From what I could gather, yes, it is. And Darth Vader's guys aren't above taking hostages (though they seem to prefer more violence), so if you can talk the kids OUT of whatever it is you're afraid they're going to do, now would be a good time to do it.

Mary

From: terminus_c @yahoo.com 8 April 1998 19:31 GMT
To: ericssonm @fbi.gov
Subject: Re: Re: a little help here?

...great. Don't think we can beat them to the guy they want to talk to. Better move at this point would be keeping ourselves out of their trouble.
(These are kids who thought wearing cursed jewelry was a good idea. I don't think there are words for how much they can screw up their own situation this evening.)
We'll be careful; can't say the same for the world's greatest hope.
-Carl

***

Whistler found a stone bench the last time the guys were up (to make sure the kids weren't dead or otherwise out of the game); today, it's actually dry enough out to put the thing to its intended use. He's not entirely sure why it's there in the first place, unless it's the same principle that drives people in San Francisco to do things despite the fog. In any case, it's kind of nice to feel something other than wet weather, even with the strong, salty breeze coming in off the water.

Someone approaches the spot from his left. He takes note of the footsteps before trying to analyze the muttering - tennis shoes on gravel, unnecessarily heavy tread. More likely one of the guys than those idiot kids they've been chasing all over Creation, then.

The muttering confirms it.

"Fine, fine, do it your way. Disregard the advice of someone who's only been doing this for years, I'll just laugh when your plan backfires-- Oh, good, someone with half a brain."

Whistler makes sure he's got enough room to scoot to one side of the bench. "I like to think more than half of it sees regular use. What's up, Carl?"

"Those kids are saying they need to break into a bank, now."

"Ah. That would be where the professional advice came in, then."

"Yeah. Well, first it was just that they were plotting something, and I asked if it involves another of those One Ring ripoffs, and they said it does, so I said they really shouldn't sit on this one for months on end." Carl sighs. "Probably would've been fine if we'd all left the conversation at that, but then they kept going. They're actually starting with a half-decent plan, for once - getting insider information from someone who worked at the place."

"Not a bad place to start, if they've got a reliable source."

"I'm not so sure they do, or that they've realized it. Asked if they'd found out what they might be up against if they get caught, but they're a hundred percent certain they won't get caught. This despite them saying the damn building warns people that they won't get away with breaking in."

Whistler considers that for a moment. "Yeah, that probably negates their good start. If the bank's confident enough in their preventive measures to warn people off that strongly, it's worth knowing what you might be up against."

"I tried pointing that out, and for my trouble? 'Yes, but that's Muggle banks, Carl.'" He's got a terrible falsetto, but his British accent's improved over the last few months, and the words are dripping with sarcasm and frustration. "She keeps up like this, I'm gonna smack her, I don't care if she's a girl."

"At this rate, I don't think anyone would blame you. Well, except maybe her friends."

"Bet they'd get over it. I really hope they either get their act into shape or just get themselves killed soon. I don't know how much more of this I can take."

***

Harry's steering the dragon as best anyone can steer a giant blind beast - it's giving Ron a new appreciation for how well Whistler navigates - and Hermione's trying to ignore their current height. That leaves Ron to watch the scenery pass under them, wonder what the Americans did with their non-involvement in the Gringotts break-in, and marvel that they've made it this far at all.

For a second or two, he thinks it might be the cup affecting him the same way the locket did. But the cup is safely in Hermione's bag, since they ended up being unable to destroy it at the bank, and anyway, it would be much harder to wear than a piece of jewelry. It really is a miracle they've done so well, especially given the number of times they've thrown away perfectly good advice.

It's amazing, what you can see in hindsight.

When they decide to jump off the dragon, Ron gives the other two a bit of time to recover and tries to find something to eat. While his woodland skills have sharpened over the last few months, he doesn't see anything he recognises as safe to eat, and at this stage of things, he'd rather not take the chance of getting them all sick. Food is, unfortunately, going to have to wait for Harry or Hermione to do the looking, or until they go on to the next place.

He sits down with the other two when he returns, watches the lake they landed in, and finally says, "We should have listened to Carl."

"How do you mean?" Harry says.

"Well, lots of things, but in particular when he tried to help us with this mess."

Hermione bristles almost immediately; Ron almost wishes it were a surprise. "They only know Muggle banks, Ron. It would have only slowed us down. We don't have time to get this wrong."

"We nearly did get it wrong, that's the problem! He didn't want to slow us down. None of them wanted to slow us down. They wanted to help us get through this as best we can. Don't you remember what they said when they found us? If this really takes hold, they'll be the first victims. Slowing us down wouldn't help them at all."

"Don't be simple. Magic got us all into this mess, so it's probably the only thing that can get us out--"

Ron sighs. "If that were the case, the Americans wouldn't have helped me find you two again. I would have had a bugger of a time finding your camp if not for their tracking device. We can out-think the other side if we just let ourselves."

He can't believe he's the one who's finally saying it, and not her - and from the way Hermione splutters, she can't believe it either. Harry doesn't say anything, and a tense silence takes over for a few moments.

"Well," Hermione finally says, "if we're meant to out-think anyone, where do you suggest we start?"

"We have to go to Hogwarts," Harry says, and Ron frowns.

"I kind of think You-Know-Who will expect that--"

"We have to. As soon as possible. There's a Horcrux in there, I'm sure of it, we probably should have looked for it last year. We have to go there, and we have to go there now. It might speed the end up, but hopefully no one's expecting us to be there now and we can beat them."

"I don't know," Hermione says. "We can certainly Apparate to Hogsmeade from here much more easily than we could have done from the bank, but we'd put everyone there in danger."

Ron just looks at her. "They've been in danger all bloody year, to hear Ginny tell it. And Harry's right that if there's a Horcrux there, we need to get to it before You-Know-Who does. It may not be our soundest plan, but it's all we've got."

"Besides, I don't see anything here we can eat," Harry adds. "Hogsmeade will at least have the inns."

Hermione looks between the two of them for a bit, then sighs. "All right. But I still wish we could sort this out a bit more, if we're meant to be out-thinking people."

It becomes painfully clear that she's right, when they get to Hogsmeade and set off the Caterwauling Charm, but Ron still thinks they've done all right, especially without the Americans on hand. He suspects Carl, at least, would be glad they're actually doing something.

***

"How did you guys get in here?"

Mother shrugs. "Probably the same way you did."

"Cut to the chase, in less literal terms," Carl adds. "Figured since we weren't really helping with the bank stuff, and you'd mentioned this place, we'd see if we could guess where you were headed. How'd that work out, anyway?"

Harry considers not saying anything - he knows how upset Carl was with the plan he, Ron and Hermione concocted, and this really isn't the time to revive the argument - but explaining is probably faster than letting the issue sit. "We got what we were after. Barely."

"Good that you managed that, at least."

"You do know this... probably isn't the safest place to be, right now."

"Oh, we know," Bishop says. "We're good at staying out of people's way."

"That may not be enough, if things get..." Harry pauses and weighs his options. While he could make strong arguments against the idea, they're kind of feeble in the necessity of the moment. And as much as these guys have been criticising his every move since October, they have nothing else to help them, in here.

So he hands the Invisibility Cloak to Carl and says, "Here, I'll do you one better."

"...You sure about this?"

"I have other options, for keeping people off my trail. And I know this building a lot better than you do. That probably won't fit all of you, but it'll make it harder for anyone who shouldn't to know you're here."

Crease gives Harry the look he usually saves for when Mother's about to spout off something particularly mad. "Are you certain you'll remember your other options?"

"If I don't, Hermione probably will." He ignores the eye-rolling that line brings on. "Anyway... I should go. Things to take care of, and all that."

"Good luck," Mother says. "And thanks."

"Thank you. We might not have managed out there, without your help." And with that, he hurries off in the direction of the Ravenclaw tower, hoping Luna hasn't got too far ahead.

Chapter Text

Carl's pretty sure he's going to be wide awake for the next couple of days. This battle is... pretty intense, to put it mildly.

They're not in the thick of things, fortunately, but they still found a hiding place within view of the main hall. Of course, it wouldn't have been much of a hiding place without the benefit of Harry's cloak - they probably could have made it work anyway, but only visibly accounting for two people out of five (Crease brought his sidearm, and Bishop... is planning to wing it in the worst case, as far as Carl knows) is a big help.

No one's going easy on anyone, which he supposes is to be expected when dealing with a war. But there are kids out there, fighting and in some cases falling just as hard as the adults. Carl has to give them a lot of credit for sticking it out, especially the kid who's got enough bruises already to suggest he's been tempting fate for a while before this.

He thinks he sees Harry cut across the back of the crowd, at one point, but there's so much going on (even in the so-called ceasefire) that it's hard to say for certain. His re-entry's a little harder to miss, in large part because he's limp and being carried in by a guy who's probably about eight feet tall and five feet wide.

Oh, and because the guy who looks like he's trying to match his giant snake in appearance won't stop gloating. This must be Darth Vader, then; Carl wonders briefly if he's related to the slimy guy who worked for Cosmo.

Everybody just stands there and listens to him spout stuff off for a while, and then the kid with the bruises actually speaks up. And that outrages Darth Vader enough to put a hat on the kid's head and set the hat on fire.

...That's the guy people have been so terrified of the last couple decades? Carl can't help feeling like he's missed something. In any case, the kid's somehow ended up with the sword Harry and his friends were carrying around all spring, and he actually takes advantage of having a weapon and decapitates the snake. Finally, someone in the building's showing a little initiative.

Carl's in the middle of trying to figure out why the kid didn't just go for Darth Vader while he was at it when a shot rings out, and Darth Vader crumples.

The whole place goes quiet, probably in good measure because most of these people have never heard a gun go off in their lives. Carl settles for looking toward the source - an older man in a suit, lowering a handgun and scowling vaguely at Darth Vader's corpse.

"...Oh, for God's sake," Bishop mutters. "How did you get here?"

But the sound carries - the room's got some interesting acoustics, now that the battle's effectively over, and Carl's half expecting that Whistler will want to examine them at some point. The man pauses, turns toward the group's hiding place, and smiles slightly.

"Well, this just keeps getting better and better," he says, and Carl goes still. Forget the next few days, he's going to be running on pure adrenaline for at least a week. The last thing he needed right now was for the last 'government' fiasco to come back and haunt them.

"I could ask you the same question, Marty," Cosmo continues, still smirking. "I was simply in the area to attend to some business."

"So were we. Well, for a given definition of business."

"Obviously. I'd be rather surprised if your business were anything like mine, at heart. You might as well come out of your hiding place - I suspect the worst of this mess is over."

"No!" Carl doesn't realize he said anything for a few seconds, until he manages to look away from Cosmo and notices Whistler grimacing and covering his ear. "Oops. Sorry about that. But I'm not moving."

"I don't think he's going to hurt you," Hermione says, looking like she's still processing the last few minutes. "Anyway, you've already given up your position."

"That's beside the point. As long as he's got the gun, I'm not moving." In fact, he's not so sure he'd be able to if he tried.

Cosmo's still smirking, which isn't all that reassuring, but he does at least put the gun on the floor and step away from it. "She's right that you needn't worry, but I concede your point."

As the guys extricate themselves from their hiding place, Hermione says, "...Wait a moment, you shot him?"

"And why not? It's not as though he was doing anything more than pontificating."

"But - but you can't have done that! There was a prophecy, Harry was supposed to defeat him--" There's a meaningful cough from elsewhere in the hall. "All right, or Neville. But one of them was supposed to kill him!"

"Amazing, what you can do when you don't know someone else is destined to do it."

For all he really doesn't want to, Carl can't help but agree with that sentiment.

***

The Death Eaters either give up or get stunned into submission after their leader dies - Hermione still isn't sure how it worked out that a Muggle could just shoot Voldemort, but she has to admit it was rather effective. A couple dozen of them try to claim they were cursed into supporting the regime, but the Aurors haul all of them back to London in order to make certain of it, this time.

Those who are left at Hogwarts start notifying the families of the dead, where possible, and making burial arrangements where it isn't. No one's quite sure what to do with Harry - surely, he should have revived by now - and in the end, they put him in the infirmary overnight.

"I don't know what's wrong," Hermione says, over breakfast the next morning. "Harry's survived the Killing Curse more than once."

Carl eyes her for a moment. "I think, by calling it the Killing Curse, you just answered your own question. Not that I don't sympathize with your loss, but he looked pretty dead when the big guy carried him in last night."

"No, no, he's survived it before. That was part of what made him special against Voldemort."

"That doesn't sound like the sort of defense that would last forever," Crease says.

"Yeah, seriously. I mean, if you really want to give this a fair shake, I guess you could give Harry a couple more days and see if he wakes up. But I don't really think that's gonna work out so well for you."

Crease mutters something including the phrase 'needlessly messianic,' and turns his attention to his porridge. Hermione sighs. She'd really thought the Americans would have figured out by now that Harry's special.

***

People keep telling her she's done more than enough for the cause, and therefore she's quite excused from the cleanup. But Hermione is restless, after doing so much the last few months, and she can only sit vigil with Harry for so long. So a couple hours before lunch, she sits down in the library and writes out the prophecy, as best as she remembers Harry telling it.

Cosmo's still around somewhere; she's fairly certain of that based on the fact that Carl doesn't seem to have relaxed yet. (She really must get the whole story there, before they all leave. As far as she can tell, they have no reason to be so wary of an ally.) But he's making himself as scarce as possible, so Hermione doubts she'll have the chance to ask him all the questions she'd like. But she doesn't see how the prophecy could not fit, all things considered.

"...Wow."

She glances up, and allows herself an inward sigh. "Hello, Mother."

"Oh, hi. Weren't you planning on helping with the stuff downstairs?"

"I was, but everyone's kept me out of the heavy labor. What brings you up here?"

"Just got to exploring. I don't know the place well enough to really help, and it's not like we had a chance to see much of the building last night. You?"

"I'm attempting to keep myself occupied. And having a look at that prophecy, to see whether it was fulfilled by what happened last night."

"Oh?" Mother makes a beeline for Hermione's table; she supposes she ought to have seen that coming, given his predilection for conspiracy theories and the like. "Mind if I have a look at it?"

"Certainly. I'll have to ask questions to get much further than this in any case."

He takes the parchment she wrote the prophecy out on and reads it, frowning a bit. "This is... really, really inspecific. How'd anyone ever narrow it down to two people?"

"Harry's never mentioned, but I suspect Dumbledore had a hand in it, since he witnessed the prophecy being made."

"Ah. That'd explain a lot." After a slight pause, he says, "I don't really know enough about Cosmo to tell you much about this thing, nor do I plan on asking. You'll have to find him, or maybe Bishop. But depending on when he busted out of jail, that might work for the seventh-month bit."

"He was in prison? But how would that count toward a birth?"

"Faked his death in the process. I'd say having to conduct most of your business under an alias counts as a new life, of sorts."

"I suppose." She wonders, briefly, whether sticking out Divination longer than she did would have helped her at all in this situation. But she suspects it wouldn't have - neither Harry nor Ron ever considered the prophecy to mean anything other than Dumbledore's interpretation, and Professor Trelawney was far more interested in practice than theory.

She's interrupted in her musings by her stomach growling.

"I think it's almost lunchtime," Mother says. "You know the fastest way back downstairs from here? I keep getting turned around on the damn moving staircases."

***

Whistler's not about to chance wandering very far from the main hall by himself, not with the reports of self-mobile staircases and God knows what else around the place. But the acoustics of the hall itself combined with the chaos of post-battle cleanup would give him a headache if he actually stayed in there, so he's seeking out a smaller room, the better to at least get a thick wall between himself and the noise.

He finds one, and after his ears recover a little, he realizes he's not the first one there - someone's crying, and attempting to be very quiet about it. They probably would have fooled anyone else, given the decibel level they'd be leaving behind to come through here.

He'd rather be facing the proper direction before asking if he's unwelcome, but whoever it is, they're not loud enough for him to get a good idea of that, at the moment. So he stops moving, and says, "Who's there?"

"That is the question, isn't it," a girl's voice answers from his left.

"If I'm interrupting, I can go find somewhere else. Don't want to get in your way, I just had to get out of the noise for a while."

"Oh, it's all right, I'm probably due to lay off the brooding for now anyway. It's just..." The girl sighs. "It's been a long few years."

"So I'd gathered. There room for another person to sit down over there?"

"...Might be a bit of a squeeze, but I don't see why it wouldn't work. If it's that bad, I'll stand for a bit."

They negotiate the seating arrangements well enough, and finally get so far as trading names. Whistler can't help a little curiosity at the one she offers, and when she explains, he's almost sorry he asked. He's found 'Erwin' plenty impossible - there's a reason he doesn't use it, after all - but this poor girl's parents saddled her with 'Nymphadora.' He can see why she's going by her last name, and he says so.

"Maiden, actually," Tonks replies. "But it's hard to do away with a name you use on such a regular basis, and I'm not sure how much the ceremony counts after... after he's died." She chokes up again, a little, on the last part.

"Probably only as much as you want it to count. I'm sorry about your loss - was he involved in the battle?"

"Yeah. So was I. Maybe not my brightest move, but I was feeling useless, sitting at home, and Mum's always been able to take care of herself."

"If you knew it might be better to stay home, why didn't you?" He's careful to keep any sign of judgment out of his tone; he's really just curious. Tonks can't be more than Carl's age.

"I felt useless."

"...I think I'm gonna need a little more to work with than that, if it's not too much to ask."

Tonks sighs again. "When I'm... not pouring all my energy into being horribly depressed, I can change my appearance at will. It's been useful, but mostly as a quick and easy way to cheer people up. Making people happy - helping them - sort of turned into a thing. If I can't do it, somehow, I feel like I got something wrong. I went into law enforcement after school partly because of that."

"And then the war came back to haunt everyone?"

"More or less. It got harder and harder to be effective on the job, the resistance effort wasn't exactly resisting terribly well, nobody was in a good mood. I picked up a relationship on the way, but that wasn't exactly a bed of roses, and then I was off work for five months - enforced bed rest and then maternity leave - while my world was going to hell. Not the sort of situation that makes one feel all that helpful.

"I'm not even sure I really helped Remus. I wanted to - he deserved better than what life gave him. But... he wanted to leave, or at least, he said he'd had his doubts about the whole thing before Teddy was born. If he would've said leaving would make him happier, I would've let him." She's not sobbing, or making any other such dramatic noises, but Whistler knows flat despair when he hears it.

After a while, he says, "You've got bigger issues than I can help you with. Sounds like you have for a while - but that might come of changing to try to please people. I do know there's a point where everybody has to fix themselves."

"Yeah. That's the bit I tend to forget."

"There are people out there who make a living from getting people through that sort of thing. Between your loss and the generally high stress level, you might look into that... though it's also possible a real vacation will help, if you can swing it. Ever been to San Francisco?"

There's the sort of pause that Whistler's come to associate with incredulous staring. "...You're joking."

"Not about this. I wouldn't be a very good tour guide, for obvious reasons, but I could ask the guys what they'd think of having another person or two around the office for a while."

"...It wouldn't do to get my hopes up. There's a lot going on here at the moment, and I've got a two-month-old son to take into consideration. But... thanks for offering. I might have to see if I can make it work, eventually. There are plenty of odd stories about American wizards - maybe I could call it job research."

Whistler grins. "That's the spirit. Couldn't tell you anything about the wizards, but you do meet all kinds of people in the city."

"Oh? Do tell."

Whistler launches into a series of stories from various jobs the guys have done. By the time someone comes to collect them for dinner, Tonks doesn't sound better so much as like she's not completely focused on the bad points of recent events.

He's willing to call that a victory.

***

Cosmo's not quite prepared for the barrage of questions he knows is coming from the locals about his involvement in last night's little escapade. That one young lady in particular seemed determined to force events into her worldview, whether it's a feasible undertaking or not - and he's fairly certain he'll give her a headache from the 'illogic' of the situation anyway. If that's the case, he might as well be well-braced for the conversation.

Besides, most people are too preoccupied with getting the building cleaned up to pay the interlopers much mind. So long as he puts in an appearance at meals and doesn't set off anything unfortunate in the interim, he oughtn't have any problems. Being outdoors seems the safer bet, so far as staying out of trouble goes, and so it is that he finds Marty attempting to relax by the lake.

Oddly enough, Cosmo's better prepared to face the people who might well actively hate him than the ones who want to know how he could have possibly taken a civil war off their hands. And that, in its way, makes the idea of approaching Marty somewhat more palatable.

"Well. Fancy meeting you here."

Marty jumps, turns to face Cosmo, and sighs. "Actually, I think we covered that part last night."

"True. Would you mind some company?"

"...If you've got anything up your sleeve, I would."

Cosmo sighs, though he'd half expected such a chilly reception. "I'm not armed, and there's no one here with me - this wasn't the sort of business I'd have trusted with anyone else, even on the sidelines. Will that do?"

"For now. If your business is done, why are you still hanging around?"

"I don't want anyone following me in their quest for answers. I wouldn't put it past them to try, either, and that... could get messy."

"I'm surprised you're even worrying about that aspect."

"This isn't the sort of trouble I want or need to follow me home." He lets that stand on its own for a few moments, then adds, "On that note, I'm quite willing to live and let live, if you are. 'Forgive and forget' would be a bit much to ask of either of us, so I won't."

Marty eyes him. "And how do I know you aren't going to try to screw me over again?"

"There's nothing in it for me. Anyway, I might ask you the same thing." Cosmo knows that's a low blow, but at the moment, he doesn't rightly care. He never did get his answers last time they talked, and he's damn well going to get them now.

"Cos..." Marty sighs. "I've only intentionally screwed you over once, and if you weren't expecting something like that by the end of the whole mess, you didn't remember me as well as you thought. Anything else you might be thinking of was completely accidental."

"So you mean to say that business with the police..."

"You're the one who didn't want to leave the dorm - and if I hadn't, I'd have been caught just as unaware as you. I tried to go back and warn you, but they were already going in, at that point."

"I see." He can't just write off nearly three decades' mounting resentment that quickly, of course - there's a reason he's not advocating 'forgive and forget' - but now Cosmo has his answer. He can live with that, sooner or later.

The silence that settles in isn't quite awkward, which is something; eventually, Marty breaks it. "Why did you come out here, anyway?"

Cosmo smirks. "Removal of an obstacle, Marty, pure and simple. You've seen these people's idea of effective government first-hand, if I heard correctly."

"I don't know if it's theirs so much as the raving lunatic you shot."

"As rumor would have it, it wasn't much better before. I didn't want that idiot getting in my way."

Marty looks at him for a long moment, then shakes his head. "You really are crazy. But other than that, you haven't changed much at all."

***

"...But honestly, changing your grades by subterfuge? Was that really necessary on your part?"

"Probably not. Me slacking off still meant I was passing everything. But it seemed like a good idea at the time, and considering it got me into the best use for my natural talents I can think of, I'd say it worked out pretty well. Anyway, is it really that different from letting your friends copy your notes?"

Hermione sighs. "Yes, it is. There are no rules against lending one's notes to one's friends, and anyway, Harry and Ron were always terrible at staying awake in class."

"Maybe you should've worked on that, then. At least with my approach, the only person I screwed over was myself--" Carl stops mid-sentence and tenses up, his attention quite occupied by something behind Hermione's left shoulder. She almost asks what it is, then decides having a look for herself would be more expedient.

What she sees, however, is somewhere between a comfort and cause for bafflement; there's no immediate danger to be seen.

"Honestly, Carl, it's only Cosmo. I don't see why that worries you so much."

"No. No, you wouldn't." Carl sighs, with more than a touch of sarcasm. "Gee, I wish I lived in the same clear-cut world you did."

"I really don't know what you're all on about, in that regard. After all, you each took a stand against Voldemort, so you shouldn't have such problems with each other's presence--"

"A little advice, Hermione. Most of the world doesn't follow the rules you went to school in, and when the enemy of my enemy once ordered my boss' death? He's still my goddamn enemy. It's not the sort of thing that's easy to let drop, whether he's carrying his gun around or not."

Carl leaves before Hermione can even muster a token protest, or rather, before she can decide which protest is the best one to start with. He can't expect her to have known that already; he can't expect her to believe it, after what she's seen over the last few years; and he certainly can't expect her to stop asking questions after that tidbit. She's about to follow him out of the Great Hall, but then Cosmo sits down next to her and helps himself to some of the roast and mashed potatoes still out for supper.

"Well," he says, after a few moments. "That was interesting, don't you think?"

"If by 'interesting,' you mean even more confusing," Hermione replies, eyeing the remnants on her own plate. "Was it true, what he said about you?"

"I'm afraid so. I did need to talk to Marty, at the time, but trying to pull him under when I didn't hear what I wanted to was... not one of my better-judged decisions. I won't be pursuing that again, though I doubt any of them will forgive me for a long time coming, if ever." He sounds more resigned to the fact than at peace with it, which she supposes makes sense, under the circumstances.

"I still don't understand. Not entirely. If you were at odds with each other before, how can you be working toward the same goal now?"

Cosmo just looks at Hermione for a moment, then sighs. "Marty and I stopped seeing eye to eye some time previously, if we ever really did in the first place. That we worked toward a common purpose in this case was more coincidental than anything, and even in that, we don't have the same ultimate goal."

"What happened? If you don't mind my asking, of course."

He hesitates just long enough to make her suspect he does, in fact, mind her asking, but he does continue. "We wanted to change the world. I did, anyway - it's entirely possible Marty was just amused by putting the government's money in nobler causes' pockets. We were college kids with no idea how to cover our tracks - or any idea that we should cover them, since computers weren't terribly widespread at the time - people caught on, and the police turned up. I didn't know until this afternoon whether Marty left me alone to take the fall on purpose. Turns out he didn't."

"I'm sorry," Hermione says. "What came after that?"

"I spent just over ten years in prison before I found a way out, and... well, I still think I can change the world. But it seems Marty is a man of lesser ambition. I wanted him to answer for what he'd done, if only for my own peace of mind, though I should have realized he would involve the rest of his team. He never did learn to keep his friends out of more personal danger."

Hermione considers that for a few moments, brushing aside the suspicion that the Sorting Hat would drop Cosmo into Slytherin as easily as it would a Malfoy; if she must worry over that, she can do so later. For now, there are two far more intriguing possibilities.

"You would have liked Harry's godfather, I think," she finally says. "Sirius spent twelve years in prison for a horrible betrayal one of his friends actually committed, before he broke out. He would've known a bit about... well, something like your experience, anyway - Azkaban's a bit more intense than most Muggle prisons."

"Another casualty of the war, I take it?"

"Two years ago. He got into a duel with a cousin of his - most of his family came down in favor of Voldemort - she stunned him, and he fell through a veil. This was in the Department of Mysteries, at the Ministry, and no one's entirely certain what it did to him."

"...You do realize, given your choice of words, that he may not be dead."

"We don't have any way to find him. Besides, Dumbledore said--"

Cosmo snorts. "One would think the man was God, the way you all go on about him. Have you even tried to find Sirius?"

"...Well, no. We had more important things to do."

"I'll grant you that. But now that the war is off your hands, you might consider it."

"Perhaps." And certainly, if - no, when - Harry wakes up, he'll be interested in the possibility. "That does lead me to the other thing I've been wondering about, though."

"If it's that prophecy you've mentioned, I'd rather not discuss it."

"Whyever not? It might fit the circumstances."

"Oh, I don't doubt you could perform a lot of verbal gymnastics and odd semantic interpretations and tie it to what happened. But I didn't come here with any expectation of living up to someone else's attempt to tell the future. I came here in order to take care of some business, and I did exactly that. Anyway, to hear your friends tell it, you disregarded the class that would have told you how to deal with the information. I suspect you just want to know how I could cut in on Harry's glory so easily."

Hermione sighs. "Is that really so much to ask, after all the work we did to get to this point?"

"The way you're going about it, it is. After all, it's not as though the answer would be of much comfort to Harry."

She can't give voice to her outrage over that; she still doesn't understand why the Americans are so insistent Harry is really dead. Any hour now, Madam Pomfrey will be calling everyone to the infirmary, and Harry will be wanting to know everything he's missed since he went out into the forest the other night.

But tomorrow's the third day, as Carl suggested timing it, and Hermione's finding it harder and harder to hold back her doubt.

Cosmo finishes his potatoes, sets down his fork, and stands. "If you'll excuse me, Miss Granger," he says, though it makes little difference whether she does or not, and they both know it.

Despite that, she barely notices him leaving. She's got a lot to think about now, and almost none of the implications are pleasant.

***

The school offers the guys a train ride back into London, but they decide to take the van back down themselves. They'll need it on hand when they go back to Heathrow, they'd rather be able to keep an eye on their equipment as they travel, and Mother - as usual - is paranoid about leaving the transportation up to someone else.

Sometimes, Marty wonders how Mother puts up with any of the other guys driving, even.

They get back to London without major incident, and start packing the next day; they're about halfway through that when an owl shows up at Grimmauld Place. Its message informs them that they will be pleased to discuss recent events with the Interim Minister of Magic. It's pretty much the last thing any of them want to hear, this close to finally going home. Still, the owl's only the messenger, so they make it clear that they'd rather this happen on what's become their turf than in some stranger's office.

The day after that, they're joined by a rather imposing thirty-something man, apparently the Minister in question.

"I have to congratulate you for how you handled Mrs. Black," he says. "That had us puzzled for quite some time."

Marty shrugs. "It's only one of duct tape's many uses. Besides, we had to get her to shut up somehow."

"Very true. I take it everyone's gathered in the kitchen?"

Marty nods, and leads the way downstairs. The conversation goes along pleasantly enough for ten or fifteen minutes, though Marty notices that none of them, including the Minister (last name of Shacklebolt) truly relaxes.

Despite having his guard up, by the time Marty notices Shacklebolt trying to draw his wand unobtrusively, Crease has already coughed meaningfully, and Mother's halfway through saying, "With all due respect, Minister, I hope you're not planning to use that thing on us."

Shacklebolt pauses, then removes his hand from his pocket, looking slightly guilty. "It's standard procedure, I'm afraid. You've done quite a bit for our war, but you are, unfortunately, Muggles."

"Be that as it may, I really don't think wiping our memories is a good way to start your tenure as head of government. For one thing, we'd probably never get out of this house."

"For another," Marty adds, "we don't live under your jurisdiction. A good way to turn your government around would be to have a look at why that particular rule doesn't seem to work."

Carl sits up in his seat. "And for a third thing, I can tell you exactly why you're not going to do it."

That stops everyone else in the room; finally, Shacklebolt raises an eyebrow and says, "Go on, then."

"You're not going to do it because someone in the FBI knows we've been here since late August. She heard about the original offer, and we've used her for some last-minute research more than once while we've been out here. She has hard copies of evidence that we were here, and instructions to go to the appropriate authorities if any of us act like we've been doing anything different in the last nine months."

Marty smiles, impressed. "Very good, Carl."

"And he's right," Crease says, beginning to smile as well. "If word gets out that you double-crossed American citizens in such a way, what little goodwill the Ministry of Magic has in America will disappear."

Shacklebolt considers the matter for a few moments, then sighs. "You would appear to have the checkmate, gentlemen. What is it that you'd like from the Ministry?"

"We want to go home," Mother says. "From there, we'll stay out of your hair if you stay out of ours."

"And the other half of the money your predecessors promised us," Whistler adds.

"Very well. In exchange, might I request your findings from your work in September? There's no sign that the Ministry ever received a full report - which makes sense, given how quickly you turned the tables on them."

"We'll have to write it up," Marty says. "And I don't know how much of it'll help you, unless you want to know just how much those guys had wrong in the public areas."

Shacklebolt chuckles. "Believe me, I already have some idea. But at the very least, it can help us move forward, rather than backward."

The Minister takes his leave not long afterward, wishing them good fortune on their way back to California. A few minutes after that, Carl says, "Okay, really. What is it with government jobs ending in big black guys wanting to buy our silence?"

Marty sighs. "I wish I could tell you."

Chapter Text

Cosmo makes an appointment for three days after his return from London, the better to give himself a little time to recover from the travel and find the appropriate drink for the circumstances. After all, if he's acting as the bearer of both good and bad tidings, he'd best do the thing properly.

It also gives him a chance to see to the little souvenir Hermione had pressed on him, before he left, insisting it was rightfully his. It's not as though he's got any use for a wand, no matter how powerful it may be - anyway, something with such a bloody history would only be a liability, in the long run. Better that he puts it through a wood chipper now, while someone with a bit of sense has control over the situation.

The day of the appointment, he returns from lunch to find the recipient of his business studying the shark tank.

"Oh, good. I wasn't sure you'd get the message."

"I did. I'm just not sure why you went to this much trouble - you don't, usually."

Cosmo smiles. "Clearly, you've been working with the wrong people, if they don't do you the courtesy of informing you when your business has been attended to."

"That would explain all the fuss. What did you think of Britain?"

"Beautiful country, but you knew some singularly dim people there."

His client - for the moment, since he's also the closest thing Cosmo's had to a friend since college - barks out a laugh. "I can't argue that, or I'd not have been fending for myself for so long. How did your business go?"

"I'm afraid I have both good and bad news for you, and a drink to match both." Cosmo produces the bottle he'd ultimately settled on; it's not a drink he's personally familiar with, and it's not the British version, but he's fairly certain it'll be well received in any case.

"Well, it is a war. Was. And Dumbledore didn't do half as much as he might have to contain things."

"Such as failing to provide your godson and his friends with adequate information to survive the world, even without a war?"

Sirius sighs, and reaches for the bottle of firewhisky. "Dumbledore meant well, but... I only knew Harry's parents were in danger because I camped out in his office until he told me. He never was good at telling people what they needed to know - it's one of those things that's easier to spot at a distance."

"And yet, everyone seemed to worship the ground he'd walked on. But his stalling ultimately worked out to give me a bit of closure as well as yourself, so I suppose it's uncharitable of us to protest too much."

"What, you'd rather not protest that lives were lost needlessly? Just because you gained from the situation?"

Cosmo shakes his head. "Sirius, I respect you, but sometimes you think too much like Marty."

"And sometimes you think too much like my brother did. The war was grossly unfair the first time, and it shouldn't have come back to haunt everyone at all."

"But it did, and now it's gone for good, provided people have the sense to end the underlying causes." He doesn't have much hope, after what he saw in Scotland, but he won't be intervening again. Curing a symptom is one thing, but it's someone else's disease to eradicate.

"And that, at least, is worth a toast." Sirius finally wrestles the firewhisky open, and helps himself to a drink before tracking down glasses. "...Bit sweeter than the British stuff, but it'll do."

"As a matter of interest," Cosmo says, while Sirius pours out the alcohol, "I did suggest to people that they might want to look for you, now that their more immediate problems are out of the way. I couldn't say whether they'll follow through, but..."

"They certainly won't try coming over the way I did. For one thing, they can't get to it very easily."

"Still, I felt it fair to warn you."

Sirius shrugs. "If they find me, they find me. At this point, I don't think many people could talk me into going back - it wouldn't be the same, anymore. The world's sort of--"

"Changed on you? I know exactly what you mean."

They toast the end of an era in relative silence.