In May of 1944, Alastor Moody had his heart broken by Minerva McGonagall. They’d been going steady for nearly two years and would soon graduate. He asked her to marry him. She said no.
Amelia Bones, 6th year Hufflepuff prefect, had always been friendly with the Head Girl, but when Alastor returned to their common room that evening with a hollow voice and shoulders that shook with the effort it took to hold them square, Amelia couldn’t help but hate Minerva a little bit.
Alastor went straight to his room, and after a quick detour to the trunk in her own, Amelia followed. She found the door to the 7th year boys’ dorm closed, with a sock on the doorknob that meant ‘do not disturb’ in teenage-boy (in teenage-girl, it was usually a hair ribbon, or a Hogwarts tie for those of them that didn’t own hair ribbons). Amelia knocked anyway and opened the door a crack.
“Al? It’s me.” He didn’t reply, so she announced, “I’m coming in,” and slipped inside. She found him sitting on the floor at the end of his bed, knees up and arms wrapped around them, staring at nothing. “Move over,” she told him, and though he still didn’t look at her, he did shuffle sideways. She sat down beside him and set a bottle of Old Ogden’s on the floor between their legs.
“It’s a good thing I finally turned seventeen, otherwise I would have had to nick this from Kettleburn’s office, and I might have lost my badge.”
Alastor snorted, reaching out to wrap his hand around the neck of the bottle. “You would have, definitely. You’d be a terrible thief. Probably turn yourself in when they asked for witnesses.”
“Only if they offered House points for information.”
Amelia glanced at Alastor and he was smiling, albeit in a tired sort of way.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.
“Oscar sent it to me for my birthday. He said it was his duty as an older brother. Wanted me to sneak out into the grounds and drink it with Eddie and think of him when we fell over a suit of armour on our way back to the common room at four in the morning, but, well, I am a prefect. And if I was going to get caught sneaking into the castle drunk in the early hours, it definitely wouldn’t be with my little brother.”
“Who would it be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Hettie Greengrass, maybe? Or Mafalda Hopkirk.”
Alastor lifted the bottle onto his knee, spun it around and peered at the label. “Suppose I can start thinking, now, about who I’d like to get drunk with. Free man, and all."
He looked so desperately unhappy about it that Amelia wanted to give him a hug. She elbowed him in the ribs instead. “You can start with me, idiot.” And she conjured them some glasses.
They didn’t get drunk, not really. Truth was, Amelia had never really drunk except for a glass of wine or two at Christmas, so straight whiskey was strange and strong to her. It sort of reminded Alastor of Minerva, too. Still, after an hour they were onto their second glass, and Amelia was certainly feeling relaxed. Alastor, too, if the loosening of his tongue was any indication.
“I thought...” he said, peering into his drink. “I had a plan, you know? We could move to London, join the Aurors, get married. Maybe have kids, one day, when she was ready. I knew she wanted a career. I thought about it. But she said she doesn’t want to be an Auror, and she doesn’t even really want to get married. I mean, what kind of woman doesn’t want to get married?”
“I don’t,” Amelia answered, sipping her drink.
“Oh. Well, I know that. But you’re different, aren’t you?”
“Just a bit,” Amelia conceded. She’d always known that she was, as he put it, different. Even when she was little, she’d never had any interest in clothes or dolls or ribbons or any of those things girls were supposed to like. She had helped her mother take care of baby Edgar a little bit, but she’d liked him much more once he was old enough to wrestle with. When she was five, her Muggle-born mother had insisted that she be enrolled in school, so she could spend her days around girls of her age.
Amelia couldn’t really blame her mother. After all, Muggle school had done several things for her. It made her magic manifest in self-defence against those who tried to pick on her for being boyish, and it honed her fighting skills, since the only way to keep the magic at bay had been to lash out with her fists. But the best thing it did was introduce her to girls — Alice Crawley with her long, black hair in pigtails; Iris Drysdale with the button nose; Jane Southall with the blonde curls and the blush in her cheeks. Not quite what her mother had in mind, Amelia didn’t think, but a worthwhile experience all the same.
It hadn’t been until Hogwarts that Amelia had really found her place. In her second year, Professor Flitwick started a duelling club. It proved quite popular, though most of the girls that Amelia knew went because Professor Flitwick had the dreamiest blue eyes (Amelia liked him too, but mostly because he was, like her, a little bit different from most people, yet popular and well-respected all the same). The first day, Amelia was paired up with a rather pretty but overly theoretical Ravenclaw girl, who was so busy trying to get the pronunciation of her incantations right that Amelia knocked her on her arse in under thirty seconds. Her spellwork drew the attention of an older Hufflepuff boy — a tall, stocky third year called Alastor that she’d seen in the common room but never spoken to — and she duelled him next. He disarmed her, but it took him a minute and twenty, and that evening he told her that with spellwork like hers she could be an Auror if she wanted.
Aurors turned out to be Alastor’s favourite thing. He had books about Magical Law Enforcement and all the different specialists and their uniforms and equipment. He had old newspaper clippings about midnight raids on dark wizards, and he even had a stack of comic books starring gruff, cigar-smoking Auror Thwaites. He let Amelia borrow the first one. She returned the next day to beg him for the second, and they’d been friends ever since.
Amelia and Alastor shared an ambition and a view of the world. He knew everything about her, and she thought she knew him pretty thoroughly, too. Which was why she felt comfortable telling him when he was being an arse.
“Don’t you think,” she asked, “that it might have been a better idea to ask Minerva about what she wanted to do with her future, and what her thoughts on marriage were, before you proposed?”
Alastor sighed. “We didn’t talk about the future at all. I think we were avoiding it, really. Maybe we both knew that what we wanted wasn’t... Maybe we just wanted to enjoy what time we had. I suppose I just thought... I don’t know. I thought maybe if I sorted it, if I planned it, she might say yes. She likes to have a plan, Minerva. I thought maybe she didn’t have one this time because she didn’t know what mine was. I guess she did, though, and I just wasn’t in it.”
Half an hour and another drink later, they’d moved from the floor to Alastor’s bed. Shoulder to shoulder they only just fit, although Amelia’s toes barely reached past Alastor’s knees. Amelia studied an interestingly-shaped knot in the wood of the frame above the bed.
“Even though things with Minerva didn’t work out,” she said, “at least you won’t still be a virgin when you’re thirty. Merlin knows how long it’s going to take me to find another woman like me, and one who likes me, too.”
“It won’t take you that long,” Alastor said. “Not once you get out of here. I’m sure there are bars full of women wearing trousers and smoking cigarettes and kissing each other. You’ll find them.” A moment later, he added: “I still am, though, you know.”
“You’re still what?”
“Really?” Amelia shifted, half rolling to the side and pushing herself up on one elbow to look at him. Alastor smiled sheepishly, and was that... Was he blushing?
“Well, yeah,” he said. “Minerva insisted that we wait until I turned seventeen, but her parents wouldn’t let us visit with each other in the summer, and she didn’t want to do it in the castle, either. And then she had all her Head Girl duties on Hogsmeade weekends, and we both stayed here over Christmas, and... Well. I don’t know. Maybe she just wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to push her.”
Amelia was surprised. It wasn’t that she thought sex was a prerequisite for a two-year relationship, but Minerva had said several things over that time that suggested that she and Alastor had gone all the way. Amelia supposed people did tend to lie about these things, especially if it made them sound more grown-up and experienced.
“I would have thought,” she said, “that it would be nice to remember that you lost your virginity at Hogwarts. I mean, we do everything else here.”
“Me too. Something to drop into conversation in a few years when you're reminiscing about your school days. ‘I did it on the astronomy tower’, or ‘in greenhouse three.’”
“Or in your dorm room, with a sock on the door.”
Amelia didn’t know why she’d said that, and Alastor did give her a funny look. Then he laughed. “It’s a pity you don’t like men. We agree on so many things. And we both want to be Aurors. Getting married to you would work so much better.”
Amelia smiled. “My mother would love that. I think she always hoped that you and I would end up together.”
Alastor smiled back, and Amelia studied him. They could, she knew. They could get married and it would work — they loved each other, could talk to each other, made each other laugh. They could make a life together, and it would mean never having to explain herself to her mother, or to anyone at all. He knew about her predilections, and they could both have whatever relations they wished in that area. She supposed he was attractive, too, though it was difficult not to see him as just Al, the boy she’d known since third year. He’d changed a lot since then, though — his skin had cleared up, and duelling club had replaced his puppy-fat stockiness with muscle. He had a nice jaw, too, strong and square, but not heavy.
But no. Amelia didn’t think she could live a life like that. They might be content, but they would never be happy. Amelia wanted to wear trousers and fight dark wizards and be called ‘Auror Bones.’ She wanted to live alone and take women to bed. And Alastor wanted a family, at least eventually. She was sure he would prefer a wife he could have a full relationship with, too. And that, well...
Amelia became uncomfortably aware that her breast was pressing against Alastor’s arm, and she’d been laying there staring at him for several moments. They were close enough that she could feel the warmth of his breath, and this was...
“Do you really want to lose your virginity at Hogwarts?”
“I...” His eyes met hers. “Why? Do you?”
“With... With me?”
“I think so.”
“But you. You’re different. You don’t like men.”
“No. I don’t like men in general, but I do like you, and I think... I’d like to know what it’s like with a man. And you and I... We...”
“Yeah. We’re... Yeah.”
“This doesn’t mean I’ll marry you, or that I’ll stop wanting to kiss girls.”
Kissing Alastor was strange. For a moment, Amelia had to fight back the urge to laugh, because this was her best friend, but then he laid a tentative hand on her hip and her body filled up with nervous anticipation and took the laughter right out of her. She had kissed him, but then suddenly he was kissing her as well, and his hand was slipping around her waist, and this was, it was...
All in all, the experience was pleasant. It was awkward, for a little while — they were usually so easy with each other, but this was strange and new for both of them, and Amelia had never expected that the simple act of removing clothes could be so difficult. And then it was cold, until they got underneath Alastor’s duvet. After that, it was nice, then uncomfortable, then nicer. Amelia liked the feeling of being close to Alastor, of sharing this with him. She liked the feel of his arms around her, and the look in his eyes.
But she definitely still wanted to kiss girls.
“I, Amelia Bones, do solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that I will well and truly serve the Ministry of Magic in the office of Auror, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality. I will uphold the fundamental rights of Magical Beings and accord equal respect to all. I will, to the best of my power, cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against Magical Beings and property, protect our Muggle neighbours and uphold the Statute of Secrecy. Furthermore, I declare that while I continue to hold said office I will, to the best of my skill and knowledge, discharge all the duties thereof faithfully according to the laws of the Wizengamot.”
“Well deserved, Auror Bones,” said Augustus Kegg, Head of Magical Law Enforcement, and pinned the Auror’s badge to her red ceremonial robe. Amelia inclined her head in thanks, then lifted her chin and stared straight ahead, waiting for her heart to stop racing as Kegg moved along the line to Derwent, then Easton, Hearst, and finally, Moody.
Auror Bones, she thought. I’m an Auror. She eased a breath in and out of a chest tight with pride.
Once they had all sworn their oaths and received their badges, Kegg gave a short speech about the honour of becoming a member of the Aurors and the responsibility that came with power, then officially welcomed them as members of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. They received applause from the assembled crowd — parents, senior members of the department and this year’s rookies who would soon begin their intensive second year of training — and then they were filing down off the stage, Amelia first, barely aware where her feet were moving until they were back on the solid stone floor of the Ministry again.
A moment later, Alastor’s arm went around her shoulder. “We did it,” he whispered in her ear. “We made it through. Auror Bones.”
Amelia wondered if she would ever tire of being addressed like that. “We did, Auror Moody.” She turned her head to look at him, and was sure that the grin splitting his face in half was mirrored in her own expression. “I’m glad you were with me.”
“Me, too,” he said, and Amelia wondered if he was thinking the same thing she was — that if he’d been a third when she was a rookie, he would have given her more hell than either of them had given any of the newcomers that year.
It could have just as easily worked out that way. Auror intake was every two years. Rookie trainees were mentored (and tormented) in their first year by the third-year trainees, underwent intense group training in their second year, and then mentored (and tormented) the new intake of rookies in their third. Alastor had had to wait out a year pushing paperwork in the MLE before he could start his training, which put him and Amelia together, but if they had been one year older or younger, it would have been Amelia stamping case files and waiting to be a rookie to his third. She was glad that it had worked out the way that it had.
“Now,” Amelia said, “I’d best go and say hello to my family, so let go of me before you start giving my mother ideas again.”
After the obligatory hugs and congratulations from their families, the five graduates shed their official robes and slipped away for a celebratory drink at the Leaky. Tom, noticing the shiny new badges they had all transferred to their shirts, lapels and waistcoats, gave them the first round on the house (Always do, for the graduates, but never again — don’t go in for no bribery, me).
“So,” said Derwent, after they’d downed their first pint, “which of the rookies do you think will flake under the pressure of second year?”
“My money’s on Scrimgeour,” said Hearst. “He’s twitchy, high-strung. Was at school, too. I don’t think he’ll cut it.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Amelia. “I had to mentor him on a few tasks this last year, and he’s clever. Brains and planning will get him further than Appleby, whose main skill seems to be shouting loudly.”
“He does that to intimidate his duelling partners,” countered Easton. “It works, too. He disarmed me a few times. He doesn’t let much faze him. I think he’ll make it. Urquhart, though — I don’t think she has what it takes. Too emotional.”
“Bollocks,” said Alastor. “She’s got the best cursing arm of the entire group, because she means it.”
“Well, I think you’re all wrong,” Derwent said. “Macnair’s unbalanced. They’ll transfer him out in a few months.”
“We’re never going to be able to get drunk in public again, are we?” Amelia asked Alastor. They’d slipped away to another table for a few minutes so Amelia could have a cigarette — a habit she’d picked up in the women’s bars she’d begun to frequent, but couldn’t indulge in while sitting beside Hearst, who was asthmatic. Amelia had noticed that all of them, after quickly downing their first pint, had taken considerably longer to finish their second, and here they were, two hours later, still nursing their third.
“Have you ever been drunk in public?” Alastor responded, peering at her. “Have you ever been drunk at all?”
“I have,” Amelia answered, scowling at him. “A little. Maybe. Once.”
Alastor snorted. “You’re such a rebel. Give me a puff of that, would you?”
Amelia passed the cigarette to him, watched him roll it between his fingers before taking a puff. “Ooh,” she said. “Now you look like Copernicus Thwaites, with your smoke cloud and your badge. Are you going to save the world?”
He passed the cigarette back. “Of course I am. Are you going to help me? I could use a sidekick.”
Amelia arched a brow at him. “Oh, I’ll help. But I’m nobody’s sidekick.”
Alastor grinned. “To saving the world,” he said, raising his glass.
“Saving the world.”
Saving the world, Amelia thought, shaking her head as she ashed her cigarette into the Ministry-issue ashtray on her desk. That’s a laugh. In her first year as Auror, she’d done more paperwork than in all three years of training. Maybe more than in all of her seven years at Hogwarts. Whatever the figure in rolls of parchment, she’d certainly spent more time behind a desk than on active duty. Oh, there had been a few raids on stores that dealt in dark artefacts, and a handful of arrests where she actually got to interrogate the suspect, but for the most part she was the Organiser — the one who had to plan it all out and then let the others go and take all the glory.
It wasn’t that Amelia minded hard work. She was a Hufflepuff, for Merlin’s sake — hard work was what she did — but it was different in the real world. In Hufflepuff, there had been an honour code of sorts: everyone worked hard, but no one took advantage of others’ hard work, and glory — what little Hufflepuff received — was shared equally. If someone did work harder than the others, that effort was acknowledged.
It didn’t seem to work that way, here. Amelia had planned several successful operations, several of the most successful of any conducted since she’d graduated, if she was allowed to congratulate herself. And yet, when they’d selected two people to send to Europe to help the recovering German Ministry round up those of Grindelwald’s followers who were still at large, they’d picked Hearst to go with Moody, despite Amelia’s track record and the fact that she and Alastor had an effortless rapport. When she had asked the Deputy Head why she’d been passed over (so she could improve on whatever was lacking for the next time), he’d told her that "Hearst just has more field experience." Which was a nice paradox, wasn’t it?
Amelia ground her cigarette out rather forcefully. Now, Alastor and Hearst were stuck in Berlin. They’d tracked one of their targets there, a former ally of Grindelwald who’d thrown himself in with the Soviets and continued to play fast and loose with the Statute of Secrecy, but now that the Blockade was in place, they’d been unable to apprehend and remove him without further risking the Statute of Secrecy and making an already tense situation worse.
So now it was up to Amelia — who had been sheltered at Hogwarts throughout the entirety of the Muggle war and so barely had a handle on the intricacies of that, let alone this new conflict; who had barely spoken to a Muggle since she was ten years old; and who, in a more peaceful time, would have given her right leg to be ‘stuck in Berlin’ (wearing a violet in her lapel) — to figure out how to get them all out. Probably so they could send in more experienced Aurors to do it.
“Bones. My office. Bring what you’ve been working on.” Augustus Kegg was standing in the doorway of the Auror office. After Amelia acknowledged him with a nod, he vanished back down the hall to his own. Amelia exchanged a glance with Derwent at the next desk. Kegg’s voice never gave any indication of whether he was pleased with you or about to tear you off a strip. It was unnerving.
Amelia collected the file she’d been working on — the plans for extracting Moody, Hearst and their target from Berlin — and walked into Kegg’s office before she had time to think about being nervous. When she entered, she found Kegg sitting behind his desk. Barnabus Hutch, the Head Auror, was standing beside him.
“Have a seat, Bones,” Kegg offered. It wasn’t really a suggestion. Amelia sat. “Do you have your file on the extraction?”
“I do.” Amelia passed it across the desk, watching as Kegg opened the folder and skimmed its contents.
“Good plan,” he said. “You have a talent for strategy.” He flapped the folder shut, opened the top drawer of his desk and shut the file inside. “Unfortunately, we won’t be using it.”
Amelia sat, still as a statue, holding her face impassive as a wave of fury washed over her. It wasn’t enough that they had her behind a desk, strategising while others were out in the field, now they weren’t even going to use her plans? Even though they liked them? Amelia’s fingers were hot with anger. Hufflepuffs were used to hard work and little glory, but even a Hufflepuff could only take so much. Amelia said nothing, though, just waited. There would be a why, and she would wait for him to divulge it.
It took a few moments, but eventually Kegg spoke. “Hearst returned from Berlin last night. It seems the target became aware of their presence and took action. They were attacked. Hearst managed to Apparate away, but Moody was taken by the Soviets as a spy.”
Amelia’s anger fled immediately, to be replaced by fear. Moody, captured? It took a moment before she could speak. “By...by the Muggles?”
Kegg nodded. “With the aid of his target, yes.”
Amelia squashed the fear, pushed down the worry for her friend. Merlin, think like an Auror.
“So we need a new plan, then,” she said. “Bring down the target and extract Moody. That’s doable. I can modify the current plan to do that. It already takes the Muggles into account in a few ways.”
Kegg took a deep breath, steepling his fingers in a way that made Amelia’s stomach sink. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” he said. “The situation in Berlin is tense at best. As you’re aware, the German Ministry of Magic is all but non-existent, and what little of it there is left is not eager to involve itself in the Muggle conflict. Britain’s own relationship with Germany isn’t at its best. So they’re hardly inclined to risk their own to help us rescue one of ours who was foolish enough to get himself caught.”
“If Moody was caught, it wasn’t because he was foolish,” Amelia said. Her voice came out adamant and cold. It seemed the anger had come back.
“Be that as it may,” Kegg replied, “he was captured.”
“So, what happens now?” Amelia asked. “How do we get him out?”
“It’s out of our hands,” Kegg said. “Getting him out will require negotiations with the Muggles. It’s up to the Department of International Cooperation to decide whether it’s in the Ministry’s best interests to pursue those negotiations.”
“And if they decide it isn’t?”
“Then Moody will remain imprisoned until they decide that it is.”
“Expendable,” Amelia said, slapping her wine glass down onto the table. “He all but said it. We’re expendable. If the Ministry doesn't feel like rescuing him, it’ll just leave him there to rot.”
“That’s horrible,” said Poppy, Amelia’s flatmate. Poppy was a few years younger than Amelia, training as a Mediwitch at St Mungo’s. She and Amelia had met in the real estate office in Diagon, and after chatting for a few minutes, had decided to flat together. It had been a hasty decision, to live together after only knowing each other a half hour, but, they both reasoned, it would mean they could live in the city — much closer to their respective workplaces than they could afford alone — and even a half hour was better than answering a notice on the board at the Leaky. So far, it was working out well. Amelia cooked and Poppy kept the place hospital-clean, and they shared a similar sense of humour.
“I suppose that’s the reality of politics, though, isn’t it?” said Poppy.
“Mm,” Amelia murmured. “But that doesn’t mean I have to accept it.”
As it happened, Amelia knew someone who worked in International Magical Cooperation.
“Thanks for meeting me.”
Amelia waited as Mafalda sat down. She hadn’t changed much since school. A Ravenclaw who’d been in the same year as Amelia, she still wore her dark brown hair in a bob, framing a face with unexpectedly delicate features for someone who dressed in the more form-fitting, monochrome style of Muggle-inspired wizardwear. She regarded Amelia through dark-rimmed glasses.
“It’s always good to catch up,” Mafalda said.
Amelia nodded. “I’m afraid my call wasn’t entirely social, though.”
Mafalda’s lips twitched up in the faintest hint of a smile. “I’d guessed as much.”
“You’ve heard, then? About Alastor?”
“What’s going to happen? What’s Cooperation going to do?”
“Honestly?” Mafalda asked. “I don’t think we’re going to do anything. Not for a while, at least. Germany’s Ministry is weak — Grindelwald’s followers had little regard for the Statute of Secrecy, and they’re still rebuilding the enchantments that separate the magical world from the Muggle one over there. It’s exceptionally difficult for us to negotiate with the Soviets ourselves, and the German Ministry thinks that demanding the return of a British National would constitute taking a side in the conflict. It’s an extremely tense situation.”
“So what happens to Alastor?” Amelia asked. “He risks his life on a mission for his government — a mission to help the German Ministry, I might add — and when he gets into trouble, they won’t even bail him out because it might be difficult?”
“That is the way it is,” said Mafalda, though her expression wasn’t without sympathy. She wasn’t the worst sort of emotionless Ravenclaw. “Surely you know that young Aurors are expendable?”
“What?” Amelia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She’d said it herself, of course, but hearing it from someone else, and with that expression, in that tone... It was like Mafalda was letting her in on some secret everyone knew about the Auror Office except for the Aurors themselves.
Mafalda stared. “Well, just do the maths. There are, what? Twenty senior Aurors? But the department raises three to five new recruits every two years. That’s between fifteen and twenty-five each decade. You must see that that doesn’t add up.”
“Some of the older ones retire,” Amelia said. “And some transfer out to other departments.”
“But a lot of them die,” Mafalda said, “or are otherwise removed from service. And the DMLE never does much to protect them. Unless they’re shaping up to be intelligence experts, of course.”
Mafalda arched an eyebrow, and it took Amelia a moment to realise that Mafalda meant her.
“I’m not an intelligence expert,” she replied, taking a swig from her beer. “I’m just stuck behind a desk all the time while others go out and do everything.”
Mafalda laughed, then sobered. “Merlin, you actually believe that, don’t you? They wouldn’t be keeping you safe behind a desk unless they thought you were worth protecting.”
Perhaps Mafalda thought Amelia would be flattered by that, but instead, it made her angry. “So they sent Hearst to Germany with Alastor because they were protecting me? I’m only here because Alastor is. I never even would have thought to be an Auror if it weren’t for him. Being an Auror is all Alastor ever wanted. It’s his life. And now they’re going to leave him to rot in some Soviet cell because he’s expendable? No. No, that is not going to happen. Even if I have to go there and get him out myself.” Amelia’s hand was in a fist on the table, and Mafalda was regarding her with something like alarm.
“You’ll damage your career if you go after him — if you let something personal get in the way of your job.”
“I don’t care,” Amelia hissed. “He’s my friend, and if I don’t do anything to help him because my career is so important, what kind of person does that make me?”
“It’s a death trap.” Mafalda said. “You’ll never get out if you go in alone.”
“Then help me,” Amelia said. “You have the diplomatic credentials and I have the badge. Help me bring Alastor home.”
Mafalda glanced at the table, bit her lip. “I could get us in,” she said, eventually. “I have the clearance for that, but after that it would be up to you.”
“I have the plan,” Amelia said. “I’ve been working on it for weeks. It just needs a little modification. How are you with a wand?”
“Impeccable,” Mafalda said, with a touch of asperity. “I am a Ravenclaw, after all.”
They planned it out. Amelia would be Mafalda’s escort into Germany. They would enter the Ministry with her diplomatic credentials, and they would try to bargain for Alastor’s release. If that failed, they (though mostly Amelia) would remove him from the Muggle prison through stealth and attack. The Muggles, Amelia knew, would not be difficult to overcome. The unknown was the man who had been Moody and Hearst’s target, and how much he had told his Muggle companions about magic. He was their main adversary, and since he had managed to capture Alastor (or engineer his capture), Amelia wouldn’t underestimate him. None of this plan was sanctioned by either of their departments. Amelia didn’t care. She didn’t think she’d ever broken the rules so spectacularly before, but she would do it for Moody. He’d do no less for her.
They left London late in the afternoon, knowing cover of darkness was not far away. Exiting the Ministry by International Floo proved no trouble at all, and upon their arrival in Germany, Mafalda wasted no time gaining them an audience with the head of Germany’s battered MLE department. Amelia could not help but admire Mafalda all over again as she watched her transform into a skilled diplomat. She squared her shoulders in a way that made her look like she was born in that waist-hugging robe, strutted in her heels in a way that inexplicably made her seem powerful rather than alluring (though Amelia confessed to herself that she found Mafalda both of those things), and laid out their case with a concise, logical confidence that would not have been out of place in a person with an extra decade’s experience in negotiations.
Amelia, for her part, stood in the corner of the room like a strong-arm in her double-breasted jacket, buttoned to hide the Auror badge pinned to her waistcoat, trying not to look astonished at the skill of this woman.
Skill that came to little, unfortunately. The Ministry refused to negotiate with the Soviets, and that, in the end, was that. It was what they had expected to happen, really. Mafalda pushed as a matter of form; it would have been suspicious if she hadn’t. She did it admirably, appealing to the Ministry’s sense of fairness — after all, Moody had been on a mission to assist them — but they were unmoved. And so, citing another meeting in the morning as an excuse to depart the Ministry, Mafalda strode out with Amelia shadowing her silently.
“Well,” said Mafalda, once they’d passed outside the range of hearing (natural or magically extended), “That went about as well as I’d expected. Not as well as I hoped, but as well as I'd expected. At least they let us into the country legally.”
“You were brilliant,” Amelia breathed, hearing herself sound like an overeager schoolgirl. She fell silent immediately, embarrassed by the outburst, but Mafalda just smiled at her.
“You’ll have your turn,” she said.
They rounded a corner and Amelia steered them into an alley, took a firm grip on Mafalda’s arm, and Apparated them to the coordinates of the Muggle compound.
(It had taken Amelia considerable effort to track down said coordinates. She'd made copies of all her notes, but this particular location had not been in the original plan, and there weren’t many accurate maps of the different parts of blockaded Berlin.)
The Soviet compound was a squat, stone structure, fenced with razor wire. Floodlights lit the entrances and the sections of the yard where those heavy Muggle machines were parked — trucks of some kind. Amelia stood in the shadows outside, Mafalda beside her, and just watched for a time. The compound was well guarded, and said guards looked alert, but... Well, they were Muggles, weren’t they?
“Do you know what the wizard looks like?” Mafalda asked in a whisper.
“From photographs,” Amelia replied, voice equally quiet. “I’ll know him when I see him. He’s stocky, blonde, blue-eyed. If you see anyone who looks like that, curse first, don’t hesitate. A full-body bind should do it. Then it won’t matter if you’re wrong.”
Mafalda’s arm was pressed against Amelia’s and Amelia could feel it shaking through her sleeve. Scared. That was unsurprising. It was the reason Amelia had undergone three years of training — to deal with situations like these. Mafalda was scared, which meant that she might be overwhelmed at a crucial moment. Or the adrenalin would kick in and give her what she needed to do what they’d come for. Amelia filed the thought at the back of her mind as another variable.
“You’ll do fine,” she reassured. “Wand in your hand. And transfigure your shoes.”
Mafalda did so silently, then kept her wand out in a pleasingly steady grip.
“All right. We’ll go in by that door,” Amelia pointed, “and through the fence there.” She cast a Disillusionment charm on herself, rolling her shoulders at the familiar tingle of magic down her back. Amelia waited a few moments for Mafalda to do the same, then said: “All right, now.”
Amelia moved forward quickly, eyes scanning the area in front of her. When she reached the fence, she lifted her wand to perform a temporary matter transfiguration, then stopped. She would never attempt to enter a wizarding dwelling this way — it set off wards. And if there was a wizard here...
She ran an unobtrusive scanning spell instead and was glad she did. There were wards on the fence, strong ones. The spell she had been about to cast would have rebounded in a shower of light bright enough to alert every guard here, and more than likely the wizard who cast the spells as well. That could be a useful diversion, she supposed, but not while she and Mafalda were standing here.
“Hm,” she murmured.
“What is it?” Mafalda’s voice was a whisper beside her, though Amelia could not see her through the Disillusionment.
“It’s warded. I just need to figure out how we’ll get in without setting it off.”
Amelia considered. Toying with wards was always risky, and disabling them was difficult. Amelia’s training was thorough, though, she just needed some time to think. Thankfully, time wasn’t an issue.
She didn’t want to disable the wards — that would likely alert the caster. What she wanted was to shift them slightly, so this part of the fence was unprotected. Amelia considered spells. After a moment, she lifted her arm, describing an arc in the air above the section of the fence she wanted to enter through and mouthing the words to a spell as she went. When she was done, an invisible bridge spanned the area over the fence, connecting the two sections on either side. Then, carefully — and this was the dangerous part — she coaxed the tangle of wards upwards, onto the bridge. She sucked in a breath, holding it as she pushed the wards into place.
They went, and there was no shower of sparks, just a barely perceptible shift in the lay of magic. The fence was now unwarded. Amelia cast her transfiguration.
“Now,” she breathed to Mafalda and stepped toward the fence. There was a vague sensation of cool and the prickle of magic, but then she was through.
“All right?” she asked.
“All right,” came Mafalda’s answer.
Getting inside was easy. Amelia Confounded the guard at the door and unlocked it with a simple spell (after first checking that the doors were not also warded — some people went in for that kind of overkill). Once inside, they checked the immediate corridor for threats; then Amelia, after checking that Mafalda was still with her, adrenalin-wise, cast her Patronus into the hall. The pug did a small lap of the corridor before returning to her.
“Find him,” she told the pug, “Find Alastor.” He trotted off (Amelia always imagined that her Patronus was male, or some masculine fragment of her personality, at any rate), and Amelia and Mafalda followed.
Amelia Confounded two more guards on the way, but the trip down the hall was otherwise uneventful. When the dog stopped in front of a door, Amelia did too. Mafalda’s breath was coming fast and shallow beside her.
Amelia’s Patronus vanished beneath the door, a sliver of silvery-blue light. Now, in this moment of stillness, Amelia felt her own heart beating hard. Alastor was on the other side of this door. She could not fail this.
This door was warded; Amelia could feel it before she even started the scanning spell. It was a heavy, cumbersome thing, not even bothering to be subtle. No surprise. Even without a wand, Alastor would have fought hard to free himself.
“I’m going to disable this,” Amelia told Mafalda. “Be ready. He’ll come.” With the strength of this ward, Amelia would be very surprised if the wizard hadn’t rigged it to alert him when it was disabled.
Best to do it quickly. With a single, powerful spell, Amelia tore the ward apart.
Immediately, a loud horn blared. Amelia moved away from the door and hoped that Mafalda had enough of a sense of self-preservation to do the same. There was no cover in the corridor, but Amelia pressed herself against the wall in good view of the corner. Within moments, she heard the thunder of boots against stone, and then four men with guns were rounding the corner. Amelia took out the weapons first, a simple curse that would cause them to jam when fired. There were shouts of alarm as her spells shot out from seemingly nowhere (although they didn’t seem terribly fazed by the magic itself, which confirmed Amelia’s suspicions about Alastor’s target’s blasé attitude regarding the Statute of Secrecy). They tried to fire but couldn’t.
Amelia shifted position before they came for her. She took one out with a sleeping curse, the next with a fainting hex. When one got too close to her position for her liking, she cast a full-body bind. The last, she caught with a memory charm. He wandered away, bemused.
“Homenum revelio!” Bright light filled the corridor, and when it cleared, Amelia and Mafalda’s Disillusionments were gone. Amelia had time to note that Mafalda had moved backwards down the corridor, out of the line of fire, that the wizard was in front of the cell door, and also that there was a jet of light streaking towards her. She deflected it, barely, rolling out of the way of a second, coming up to a crouch on the other side of the corridor. She threw a curse of her own, deflected another, then twisted to avoid a burning hex, but felt it hit her left shoulder, arcing down over her back and blistering as it went. Amelia turned, hurling another hex, but the moment she’d taken to wince had given him the opportunity he needed. Her wand sailed out of her hand as he disarmed her.
“Avada Kedavra!” Green light filled the corridor, hit the wizard square in the chest. He fell back, dead. Mafalda stood in the middle of the hall, wand arm still out, shaking.
Ignoring the pain in her shoulder, Amelia retrieved her wand. Then, slumping slightly against the wall with her wand dangling between her fingers, she caught her breath. Took in the sight again. Mafalda, wand arm lowering slowly; the wizard dead on the floor.
“How...?” She hadn’t even learned how to cast effective Unforgivables in Auror training.
“I’m a Ravenclaw,” Mafalda breathed, voice rattling. “We read.”
No one else appeared. The horn had stopped at some point, and except for the sound of Amelia’s laboured breaths and Mafalda’s shaky ones, the corridor was eerily quiet.
But it wouldn’t be for long. The guards that she’d hit with the fainting and sleeping hexes could come to at any moment — not that they would be much threat to her without their guns or their wizard ally. And more guards could come down the hall at any moment. They had to work quickly.
Only, Mafalda was still standing where she’d been when she cast the killing curse and didn’t look particularly stable. Amelia moved toward her, took her by the arm as gently as possible. “Mafalda, are you all right?”
“I don’t...” she said. “Not really.”
“I need your help.”
That seemed to snap her out of it, at least partly. Her eyes focussed on Amelia’s at any rate. “What do I have to do?”
“Come with me.” Still holding her by the arm, Amelia led her over to the door of the cell. “I need you to stand here, and be ready to Confound anyone who comes around the corner, or these two if they wake up. Do you think you can do that?”
Mafalda bit her lip, nodded. “I can do that.”
“I’m going to go and get Alastor.”
Mafalda nodded again, and Amelia was satisfied. Mafalda was a bit out of it, but for someone who had just killed a man, she was remarkably composed. Need was holding her up.
It was a simple charm to unlock the door, now that the ward had been disabled. Amelia stepped into the cell. Inside, it was dark, but Amelia’s Patronus stood sentinel, illuminating the room. It was a small cell with nothing but a bare bunk, a washbasin and a metal toilet lacking a seat. Alastor was curled up on the bunk, eyes wide, staring at Amelia’s pug.
“Al,” Amelia said, moving toward him. He flinched when she touched his shoulder. “Al, it’s me.”
His head turned slightly. “‘Melia? Is it really...really you? Thought I was seeing things. Your pug. Thought I was imagining...”
“Al,” Amelia’s hand moved up to his head, fingers threading through his hair. The heel of her palm pressed against his cheek and she turned his face so he was looking at her. “It’s really me. We’re taking you home.”
His eyes were wild, unfocussed. He’d been heavily dosed with potions or Muggle medication by the look of it. He blinked at her as if trying to clear his vision. “What about th’wizard?”
“He’s dead,” Amelia said. “Mafalda killed him.”
Unexpectedly, Alastor laughed. It was a dry, raspy sound. “You use a rescue mission to try getting into her pants?”
Amelia chuckled, shook her head. “You are hallucinating. Can you walk?”
“Maybe. A bit. If you help.”
That was going to be a slight problem. Amelia’s left shoulder was stinging from the hex. She could feel blisters rubbing against her shirt, and sharp jabs from time to time told her when they burst. There was no way she could support Alastor’s weight with that shoulder. Which meant it would have to be her wand arm. Amelia could cast with her left — every Auror was taught to use their non-dominant hand for spells — but neither her strength nor her aim were as good with her left hand. Please, Merlin, let Mafalda be coherent enough to cover them on the way out.
“Come on then.” She said, gripping her wand tight in her left hand. “Let’s get you home.”
It was a struggle, but leaning heavily on her good shoulder, Alastor managed to climb to his feet. Once he was up he seemed a bit better, and together they made their way out of the cell, Alastor cringing and shielding his eyes as they stepped out from darkness into light. When he’d recovered, Amelia made to lead him up the hall the way they’d come in, but he asked her to wait. Disengaging himself from her, he shuffled over to the corpse of the wizard, and, after pausing a moment to be sure of his balance, kicked it hard in the ribs.
“He was a mean bastard,” he said, shuffling back over to take Amelia’s assistance again. “I’m glad to see him gone.”
Amelia didn’t have the time or the energy to be shocked by Alastor’s vehemence in that moment, but later on she would have cause to wonder about it. As it was, none of them said anything; they simply made their way out, Mafalda moving ahead to make sure the way was clear, and crossed the yard quickly to slip through the fence the way they had come.
The fallout was both more and less than they had expected. Alastor was welcomed back to the Aurors as though it had been their intention to rescue him all along. He was given time off to recover from his ordeal, but nothing was ever said about what had gone on while he was there, nor about the paranoid twitches he displayed afterwards. Amelia, for her part, was dragged into the Head’s office and formally counselled for breach of protocol and the use of an Unforgivable curse (they had already agreed that it would be best for Amelia to take the blame for that one — Aurors were rarely, if ever, reprimanded harshly for using deadly force in battle situations), but all that meant was enduring a tongue-lashing and a fortnight of desk duties. Mafalda, however, was punished severely for using her diplomatic credentials without authorisation. Stripped of her security clearance, she was transferred to the Improper Use of Magic office, where she would have to work her way up from the bottom all over again.
Amelia felt responsible. After all, Mafalda would never have involved herself in the situation at all had it not been for her.
“It could have been worse,” Mafalda said. “They could have fired me. And you did take the fall for me on the killing curse. You were right, too. Rescuing Alastor was the right thing to do.”
“Still,” Amelia said, “at least let me buy you a drink.”
Mafalda smiled, that impish little grin of hers that lit up her face. “Well, all right. But not as any kind of apology.”
In the summer of 1975, Amelia was monitoring Death Eater activity and organising Auror response to it. Like it or not (and she hadn’t, at first), Amelia did have an analytical mind, and Intelligence was where she shone. It had taken some time, but she had come to embrace her role within the team — not least because being a planner had allowed her to advance more quickly through the ranks, which meant that she could now insert herself into the list of active crew whenever she started to itch for it or felt her skills becoming stale. After all, she reasoned with her superiors — because being a strategist made one valuable in a way that made them reluctant to allow her to take risks — the moment that she forgot what it was like to be out there on the ground with spells flying was the moment that she ceased to be valuable. And so she got to do a bit of everything.
“You’ll never get in that way,” Amelia told Scrimgeour, taking a drag on her cigarette. “You’ll be dead or retreating within five minutes. This entrance will be heavily guarded, or warded, or both.” She gestured at the map with her cigarette. Ashes fell off the end, spilling over the parchment, and she watched Scrimgeour, who had laid the map on the table so that the corners were exactly aligned with those of the desk, stare at the spot where they’d fallen as if physically itching to brush them off. He refrained.
“This is the weakest point,” Amelia said. “If you take most of your wandpower there, you should be able to overwhelm them. And if I were you, I’d leave my backups here and here-” she gestured to different points on the map “-because once they realise where you’re trying to penetrate and send their people there to fend you off, those points will likely weaken too.”
Scrimgeour studied the map, nodding. “That does make sense,” he said. “But what about here?” He pointed to another area. “It seems like a likely escape route, should they decide to flee. Shouldn’t we have some people there?”
Amelia considered. “If your crew do their job right, they won’t have time. But I suppose it couldn’t hurt.”
There was a knock on the door. Alastor entered. His shoulders were heavy and his expression serious. “Amelia, I need to talk to you,” he said. “Outside.”
Those words, that look, they were things that everyone dreaded. Amelia felt something thick and tight take hold of her gut. She should move, she knew, go out into the hall like he said, but she couldn’t force her legs to move.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s happened?”
Alastor stared at her for a moment, as if debating whether to insist on taking her out. He must have seen something of the paralysis in her eyes, though, because he answered. “It’s Edgar,” he said. “And Sally, and Phoebe and Alex. They’re all... Merlin, Amelia, they’re all dead. It was Death Eaters. I’m so sorry.”
Amelia stared at him, expecting, just for a moment, that he would laugh and tell her he was joking. Even though that would be horrible, even though no one ever cracked jokes like that. He didn’t. Of course.
She couldn’t breathe. Suddenly able to use her legs again, Amelia shoved her chair back and stumbled to her feet, pushing past Alastor in the open doorway, and moved up the hallway almost at a run. She hit the button to call the lift, it was coming up from Level Seven. She could hear Alastor behind her, didn’t care.
Oh, sod the lift. Amelia took off, ploughed through the doors to the stairs. Down to the Atrium, two at a time, and Merlin, she’d never realised before just how long it took to get out of this damned place. She pushed through the crowd, heedless of the people she elbowed out of the way. Reached the grates, tossed in a handful of Floo powder, and then she was spinning up to the street. Muggle London. Air. Blessed air.
Amelia pulled out a cigarette. Her hands were shaking so much that it took her four tries to light it. By the time she had, Alastor had appeared. He came toward her. “Amelia,” he said.
“I wanted,” she said, then gave a laugh that came out shrill and desperate. “Wanted some fresh air.” The cigarette smouldered between her fingers. She lifted it to her lips, breathed deep — deep enough to choke, deep enough to burn. It brought tears to her eyes.
“Why?” she asked. The tears stung — cigarette smoke was awful like that — only they didn’t clear once the sting went away, but kept falling of their own accord. “Why them?” She took another desperate drag, willing the nicotine to calm her, but nothing would. Nothing could.
“Amelia.” Alastor stepped toward her tentatively, offering his arms. Amelia hesitated a moment, then all but threw herself at him. The cigarette fell from her fingers as he pulled her close. She felt her fists close around the back of his robes, felt herself heaving great, wracking sobs into the front of them. He held her tight, his large frame wrapped right around her, and after a while she became aware that he was rocking her back and forth, not saying anything — no words of false comfort, no trying to calm her — just rocking, gentle and strong.
Amelia did not know how long they were there on the Muggle street, her crying and him holding, but it felt like a long time. When at last she was ready to, Amelia let go of him, stepped back. He handed her a hanky, large and white, with an ‘A’ embroidered into one corner.
“This is yours?” Amelia asked, with a sniffle but also a trace of disbelief. Alastor, embroidered hankies?
“It was a gift,” he said in his defence. “And it was clean.”
Amelia blew her nose loudly before replying. “Do you want it back?”
Alastor smiled. “You can keep it. Same initial, and all.” Amelia tucked it into her pocket. No doubt she would need it again later.
Alastor shifted on his feet, looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Amelia,” he said her name again, once again quiet and serious. “Edgar was a member of the Order of the Phoenix. That’s... why.”
Amelia had thought she was burned out, that at this moment in time there were no more emotions left to feel, but what she felt now was anger, furious and burning. It took her a moment for the rage to subside long enough to speak.
“Why would he do something so stupid? With a wife and a young family, without any fucking training?” Amelia didn’t often swear, but it felt good this time. Cathartic.
“Same reason as me, I suppose,” Alastor said. “Think it’s important, don’t think the Ministry is doing enough.”
“We’re doing everything,” Amelia hissed. “Everything we possibly can.”
“I know,” replied Alastor, wearing an expression that just irritated Amelia more because it was so reasonable. “But everything the Auror Office can do is not everything that can be done, altogether. The law does have limitations, and sometimes politics comes first, with the Ministry. We both know that.”
They did. It had been after Alastor’s capture in Berlin that he had joined Albus Dumbledore’s underground group. He’d told her about it. Asked her if she was interested in joining, but after she’d declined, he’d told her no more about it. They trusted each other, but some things were bigger than just them.
“But that’s what the Auror Office is for. That’s why we’re trained. That’s why we take the oath, to protect civilians from things like this. Merlin, this didn’t have to happen. And Phoebe and Alex — did he have the right to make that decision for them?”
“What if he wins, Amelia? You-Know-Who, I mean. What if the Ministry can’t do enough, and he wins? Should people just sit around and trust that won’t happen? This is the organisation that left me to die, that's done that countless times, by all accounts, because it was inconvenient or didn’t suit their political aims to help. What about the people with power and money who like You-Know-Who’s ideas? I’m sure they’re throwing their weight around, and there are a whole lot of them inside the Ministry. People don’t want to wait and hope for the best. What kind of world would that be for their children, if it turns out wrong? That’s what the parents in the Order are afraid of.”
Amelia shook her head. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t. Alastor was one thing — he was a trained Auror, with a side interest she didn’t really approve of but could accept — but her little brother? Hadn’t he... Merlin, hadn’t he had enough faith in her abilities as an Auror?
She looked at Alastor. “Is Oscar involved with them as well?” She’d never asked him a direct question about the Order before, but this she felt she had the right to know.
Alastor didn’t respond for several moments. The direct question seemed to have wrong-footed him, and by the time he worked out what to say, Amelia already knew the answer.
“He believes in it as much as I do,” Alastor said. “As much as Edgar did.”
Months later, when Oscar and his wife were taken by the Death Eaters too, Alastor held Amelia again. He tried it again, the bit about caring for a cause enough to die for it, but by then Susan had been born, and Amelia didn’t see how anything could be more important than watching your granddaughter grow up. She visited Susan in her cot — her great-niece was a bald, chubby baby with big eyes — and promised her that they would know each other.
She tossed her cigarettes away that afternoon.
Two months after the end of the Death Eater trials in 1982, when the Ministry was stable and the world was sighing with relief because it was all over, Alastor lost his eye. He wasn’t even working. At the pub, he’d been, enjoying a drink with some lads from Magical Games and Sports, and though he had not been drunk, he had been relaxed and not particularly alert (which was all he ever asked for, he told Amelia, when he drank — relaxing was enough of a luxury). On his way home, a man (who was rather stupid, Amelia thought, and clearly didn’t read the Prophet) had tried to rob him. Wand aimed at his face and curse already half off his tongue, he’d demanded Alastor’s coin purse. It wasn’t until a moment later that he’d caught sight of the Auror badge on Alastor’s chest, half hidden beneath the flap of his open jacket, and the shock of it sent the curse stuttering off the man’s tongue. It hit Alastor square in the eye.
“I brought him down anyway,” Alastor told her, recovering in his bed at St Mungo’s. “Merlin, I had to hand him over to the Hit Wizards. He’s not even dark, just some bloke who lost his job because his workplace was run by Muggleborns and got burned down during the war. Had no money. Now he’s going down for seriously injuring an Auror, and he’ll be in Azkaban for three years. Free accommodation, luxury housemates.” Alastor laughed, then winced. “Merlin’s balls, it hurts. The pain potions make me loopy.”
“So be loopy,” Amelia told him.
Alastor’s good eye looked at her sharply. “No. Never again. Every time I’ve been hurt, it’s always been by some idiot I could take down in my sleep.” Amelia peered at Alastor — at the chunk missing from his nose from his fight with Rosier, the scar in his hairline from the night raid in ’79, and the pock marks on his face from that cursed crystal ball that had exploded on him several years earlier — and she didn’t really believe him, but he was clearly vehement. “Constant vigilance is the only way.”
“Constant vigilance?” Amelia smiled, though the expression was somewhat uneasy. “Now you sound like an old comic book.”
Alastor looked away. “Thwaites never lost an eye to some idiot with overzealous reflexes.”
“Well,” said Amelia, as gently as she could, “he was a fictional character.”
Copernicus Thwaites, smoking cigars and saving the world from criminals. They’d done the latter, all right. Amelia had worked from the control rooms with her maps and charts and intelligence networks, and had been promoted through the ranks faster than anyone for her effort: Deputy Head of Aurors at 55. And Moody, Senior Auror, with more Death Eater arrests to his name than anyone, hailed in the Prophet as one of the most skilled and deadly in his profession. They could have their own comic book, only comic book heroes were never left for dead by their organisations for political reasons. They weren’t scarred and paranoid men with missing eyes. They weren’t overweight lesbians with monocles who gave up smoking because they wanted their nieces to know at least one of their older relatives. She and Alastor had both survived the war and they’d both done their jobs, but none of it had come without sacrifice and pointless loss. Comic book heroes never lost anything pointlessly.
The next day, Amelia visited the same Opti-Mediwitch from whom she’d purchased her monocle. “I’d like to know about your false eyes,” she told the woman.
“Who’s it for?” the Opti-Witch asked.
“A friend. He’s an Auror, so it’ll need to be a good one.”
“An Auror, hmm? Let me get the catalogue. I don’t keep false eyes on the premises. There isn’t a huge call for them.” With a wave of her wand, the catalogue sailed over to her from a cupboard. She leafed through it. “This is the latest, I was looking at it a few days ago. Amazing, what they can do, given our limitations with magic when it comes to mending eyes. Can’t even correct vision.”
“I know.” Amelia smiled wryly, peering at the woman through her monocle.
The Opti-Witch tapped a finger against the page. “Here, this is probably the best one for him. 360 degree vision, night mode. It can see through stone walls, wooden doors, invisibility cloaks and fabric in general, but he’ll get used to that.”
“Oh, I bet he will,” Amelia said, huffing a laugh. “How much does it cost?”
When the Opti-Witch told her, Amelia nearly lost her monocle from the shock. “Wow. Well, that’s still less than the Department will have to pay him to make him redundant because of injury. Order it, and I’ll have it charged to the Auror Office.”
“Alrighty then,” the Opti-Witch agreed with her brightest smile. “When it’s in, I’ll owl you, and you can bring him in for a fitting.”
When she went to give Alastor the good news, there was a sneakoscope beside his bed. “For when I’m sleeping,” he told her.
Amelia just nodded, but she couldn’t help but be worried about him.
Far from curing Alastor’s paranoia, if anything his false eye made it worse. He could now see, he told Amelia, exactly what people did when others’ backs were turned, what they did behind closed doors when they thought no one was watching. He could see what people hid in their pockets, what they did in the shadows, and he said it was frightening how few people could truly be trusted. Worse yet, there were laws about how he could and could not use his magical eye at work — privacy laws that meant he could not arrest, detain or search a person based purely on information obtained through use of his unnatural sense — and so he was forced to allow many people carrying dark objects to continue on their way unimpeded, which drove him to near distraction. Nevertheless, his new abilities gave him a head start on catching criminals, so he remained as terrifyingly effective as ever.
(There were also moments of light, of course. From time to time, he would murmur asides to Amelia about what he could see beneath people’s robes — Rita Skeeter’s press-conference underwear was one of his favourite topics, and on one memorable occasion at a Ministry function, he had come to Amelia, quite flustered, and informed her that Muriel Beamish was not wearing any knickers. Of course, he refrained from mentioning what went on beneath Amelia’s own clothes, apart from the first time she had turned her back to him after he’d had the eye installed. I didn’t know you had a tattoo, he’d said, surprised, to which Amelia had replied, with some asperity, You don’t know everything about me, you know.)
And so Alastor’s mania for self-protection, which manifested itself in a growing collection of dark detectors at his desk and frequent repetition of the catchcry ‘Constant Vigilance!’ was permitted as eccentricity. Senior Aurors, especially ones with records like Alastor’s, were allowed to have quirks.
Amelia knew full well that Alastor’s issues were more than quirks, but she also knew what an integral role the Ministry and his job had played in creating them, and so she was one of his staunchest supporters. When he lost his leg after a misplaced step during a raid in 1987, the Head of MLE wanted to retire him with a pension, but Amelia — by then Head of Aurors — moved him to training instead. There, the sound of his wooden leg thumping down the hall was enough to strike terror into the hearts of the new recruits, and constant vigilance was a must for them, because he punished lack of attention with mild stinging hexes to the backs of ears. Coupled with the fact that he could see out the back of his head, he made a formidable trainer. His groups had the highest rate of drop-out in the first and second years, but the Aurors who made it through were some of the best new recruits Amelia had seen (she rather liked, also, that there were fewer graduates — unlike her predecessors’, her Auror Office would not consider its younger members expendable).
But there was always the sense of borrowed time, and eventually, of course, time borrowed has to be repaid in full.
Amelia met Alastor outside the Ministry dining hall, fresh off the lift from the courtrooms. “Thank Merlin that’s over,” she said by way of greeting.
“Did it go well?” he asked her.
Amelia huffed a laugh. “As well as anything that takes up three entire days can. Merlin, I can’t wait to see what’s waiting on my desk when I get back. We convicted him, though, in the end.”
“That’s the important thing.”
“Mm,” Amelia agreed. “Now. Food. Food, before I do something drastic. I can’t face my desk on an empty stomach.”
Alastor didn’t argue. They moved into the hall and joined the queue for lunch. Merlin, Amelia was starving. The trial had been long and intense, and the worst part of it had been how much work she knew was piling up on her desk while she listened to it. Merlin. She’d thought, back when she was only Deputy Head of Aurors, that juggling Wizengamot duties and a full caseload had been difficult. Then she’d been made Head, and had thought that was hard. But now she was Deputy Head of the entire MLE Department, and having to leave that work to accumulate while she attended Wizengamot trials was her toughest challenge yet.
But she still made time for the Aurors, and most especially Alastor. She missed the camaraderie of their little corner of the Department, even if she enjoyed the new challenge and responsibilities more. These lunch dates were a regular thing.
“How is everything going with Rufus and Gawain?” Amelia asked as they moved along the line, picking up trays and plates and cutlery. “Is the team settling in with them at the helm?”
“Well enough,” Alastor said. “From what I can tell, anyway. Scrimgeour’s a little more pedantic than you were, but they seem to be getting used to it.”
Amelia snorted. A little more? Scrimgeour was borderline compulsive, and temper-driven, but he was clever and he got things done. Amelia had been happy enough to hand over leadership of the Auror team to him, even if she was still a little protective of it.
“How goes the search for Black?”
“It goes. Not well, from what I hear, but it goes.”
Amelia, of course, followed the progress on the search for Sirius Black closely, but thanks to the trial, it had been a few days since she’d had an update. Alastor wasn’t the best person to tell her, though. His position in training kept him busy and largely out of the loop on the most current things.
They reached the front of the queue and fell silent, helping themselves to the dishes that were laid out on self-replenishing plates. Amelia chose the spicy chicken curry, taking care not drape the heavy sleeves of her Wizengamot robes in the sauce as she ladled it over rice. Adding a generous helping of pappadums to the side of her plate, she paid for her meal, then joined Alastor at a free table.
“Your favourite,” Alastor said, glancing at her plate. “They must have known you were coming.”
“Must have,” Amelia agreed, smiling.
Slipping his wand from the holster in his sleeve, Alastor cast a spell over his fish and chips. A faint glow appeared around it for a moment, before fading back to normal. Wand still in his hand, he glanced at her questioningly. Inwardly sighing, she nodded, and he did the same to her own meal. No poisons in either of their lunches, then. What a surprise. Amelia didn’t like pandering to his paranoia, but in some cases, it just wasn’t worth the argument. The taste of magic in her food was something she’d grown used to when he was around.
She snapped a pappadum in half. A few tables away from them, a group of Alastor’s trainees were pulling up chairs, settling in with full trays and a few good-natured jokes. Enjoying their hour of freedom, no doubt. Amelia scooped curry sauce onto her pappadum, noticed Alastor’s false eye swivel in their direction. Amelia ignored them pointedly, asking Alastor another question about the search for Black. He answered, but she could tell that his attention was not on her.
He waited until they’d all taken one bite of their food, then his chair scraped back and his wooden leg thudded into place. Instinctively, they flinched, looking up. Alastor moved toward them, deliberately slowly, the thud, thud, thud of his leg punctuating the tension.
“What have I told you?” he growled, when he reached the table. The trainees stared at him, didn’t speak. Alastor’s wand was still in hand. He flicked his wrist and a plate of chips went flying into the air. “What have I taught you?”
The trainees threw their hands up, covering their heads as the chips rained down on them. None of them responded. Alastor stomped his wooden leg again. “Always,” he thundered. “If you haven’t prepared your own food, always test it for potions and poisons. Constant vigilance!”
He stood there for several moments, eyeballing them all. When none responded, he let out a noise of disgust, turning and moving back toward Amelia at their table. His magical eye was swivelling wildly, marking all the people staring as if daring them to speak. In the end, it was one of the trainees who did.
“Fucking mad-eyed old bastard." It was said like a whisper, but pitched loud enough that everyone at the surrounding tables could hear. Alastor stiffened, turned back, wand arm rising again.
Amelia caught his wrist. “Enough, Alastor.” Her voice wasn’t that of a friend but a superior — Deputy Head of Magical Law Enforcement, member of the Wizengamot. Calling him to order. She’d never spoken to him like that before.
It was enough. Alastor turned back, sat down, but he didn’t look at her, and they didn’t speak another word for the rest of the meal.
“He’s deranged. He’s not training them, he’s terrorising them!”
Amelia sighed. Talk of the incident in the dining hall had made its way back to MLE, and now the Department Head wanted to know why he hadn’t heard it from her.
“Auror training is always intense,” Amelia offered. It sounded feeble, but unlike her, Evander Radford had started his career in MLE with Magical Equipment Control and wouldn’t know what Auror training was supposed to look like.
But he wasn’t an idiot. Sharp eyes pierced her with a stare. Evander Radford was the kind of person one could easily forget had a clever mind. A generously proportioned man with a full head of white hair and moustache to match, his easy smile made him appear a kind of benign Santa Claus, but one didn’t move from Magical Equipment Control to Head of MLE without a good deal of brains and cunning.
“Did your training involve public humiliation?” he asked her.
“Occasionally,” Amelia said, but she wouldn’t insult his intelligence further. “Never in front of anyone but other trainees, though.”
“Never in front of half the Ministry and a handful of Wizengamot members, I’d imagine,” he added.
Radford picked up a quill on his desk, twirled it slowly between his fingers for several moments. “He needs to go,” he said, eventually. “Retire. He’s past it. That stunt in the dining hall was just the most recent in a series of inappropriate actions. He’s becoming a liability.”
“I-” Amelia jumped in to defend him, but Radford cut her off.
“And I think you know it. Otherwise, you would have told me about what happened, instead of letting me hear it through the grapevine.”
“He won’t go,” Amelia said, voice quiet. “Being an Auror is his life. And we can’t force him.”
“We can,” Radford said, eyes meeting hers. “There are mental health guidelines for Aurors. If we send him to St Mungo’s for evaluation, he won’t pass.”
Amelia’s eyes widened. He would...?
“No,” she said, and her voice was so vehement it shocked her. “Alastor Moody has caught more dark wizards for this Ministry than any Auror before or since. He lost a leg on active duty. He was imprisoned by the Soviets for weeks, he’s seen people so full of dark magic they were barely even human, children’s bodies ripped apart with curses. And the first time anyone cares about his mental health is to use it against him? If he’s declared incompetent, he’ll be disgraced. The press will get hold of it and have a field day. No. That is not fair.”
“Well then,” Radford said, and all traces of the benign Santa were gone. “You’ll have to convince him to go willingly, won’t you?”
With a knot in her gut, Amelia knocked on the door. No doubt Alastor already knew she — or at least someone relatively friendly — was here. She’d felt the prickle of his wards as she’d come through the gate. The door opened a crack.
“Amelia,” his voice came through the gap. “What was the most significant thing we did in 1944?”
Merlin. Verifying her identity. Really? Amelia sighed. “We lost our virginities together.”
The door opened. Alastor was behind it. “Sorry, ‘Melia. Can’t be too careful. What brings you?”
“Can I come in?”
“Of course.” Alastor moved out of the way. Amelia entered, past the foe glass mounted on the wall and into the living room. Alastor followed her.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked her.
“That would...” Amelia hesitated. “Yes, please.”
Alastor poured them both a glass of firewhiskey, and Amelia looked around. She’d seen Alastor’s home many times before, of course, but this time it was different. She couldn’t help but look. The place was dim, sparsely decorated. There were a few books on the shelf and catalogues on the coffee table, but everything about Alastor’s living quarters spoke of a man who was hardly ever home. A man for whom a place to live was a practicality. A man married to his job.
Married. Amelia remembered sixth year, remembered Minerva. Remembered what Alastor had said, about marrying and having a family. He’d wanted that, once upon a time. Before the job had swallowed him. What had happened to those dreams?
Amelia was jolted out of her reverie by Alastor pressing a glass into her hand. “Thanks,” she said, a moment too late.
Alastor sipped his own. “You look serious. What’s wrong? It’s not...”
“No,” Amelia answered quickly. “She’s fine. It’s not that.”
Amelia sipped her drink, buying time. Merlin. She wasn’t a person naturally gifted with tact or skill at diplomacy, but her job had forced her to acquire both of those skills. Using them on Alastor, though, that was a different story. He knew her better than anyone. He was her oldest friend. Hell, he could tell that something was wrong just from the look on her face. She owed him more than some carefully constructed sentences. She decided to be blunt with him.
“The Ministry wants you to retire,” she said.
Alastor stared at her for a moment, then barked a laugh. “Well, they know where they can shove that, don’t they?”
Amelia didn’t smile, waited for Alastor’s laugh to fade away. “It’s not as simple as you telling them to stick it, Al. They’re talking about...about sending you for a psychological exam.”
Alastor watched her, snorted. “So? Let them. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Nothing... Oh. Merlin. Amelia had thought... Oh, Merlin’s balls. She’d thought Alastor knew, on some level, just how paranoid he was. Just how irrational his fears were. Just how damaged the job had made him.
She took another large sip of her drink. Took a breath. “You won’t pass, Alastor. And it’s bullshit, because you’ve been through so much on their account, and they’ve never cared before. And there should be more, something in between normal and incompetent, something to help, but there isn’t. There never has been. And I can’t keep covering for you. If you don’t go quietly, they’re going to send you to St Mungo’s for a test, and you’re going to fail it, Al.”
He was staring at her, staring like he’d never seen her before. “You...” His voice was strangely fragile. “You think I’m crazy?”
“No,” Amelia said, twirling the glass of whiskey in her hands. “Not crazy. I think you’ve seen a lot. Been through a lot. And I think it’s made you... Merlin, Alastor, you nearly cursed a trainee for calling you a name.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt him!” Alastor exclaimed.
“Weren’t you? What were you going to do, then?”
“I...” Alastor stumbled. “Scare him a bit, I suppose.”
Amelia, fired on by Alastor’s inability to answer her questions, warmed to the topic. Merlin, she had been stepping around Alastor’s issues for so long, it felt good to finally address them. “And since when has public humiliation been a tactic of yours?” she demanded.
“You think I’m crazy.”
“No. I think you’re...” But she didn’t have a word for it. Was there a word for it?
“Unbalanced,” Alastor finished for her. “Unstable. Crazy.”
“Fine,” Amelia replied, voice cold. “If you want to interpret it that way, fine. But the fact remains that if you don’t retire, they’re going to declare you incompetent. And I don’t want that to happen. You’re my oldest friend, Alastor.”
Alastor watched her with both eyes. “I see,” he said, after a moment. “That wouldn’t look good for the DMLE, would it? Wouldn’t look good for you, if a friend of yours was declared barmy?”
“That’s not-” Amelia protested, but Alastor cut her off.
“You’ve always been the Ministry’s man, Amelia. Quietly climbing the ladder behind our backs right from the beginning. And now they’ve sent you to soften me up, make me leave quietly, and you’re doing it for them.”
His words were like a slap across Amelia’s face. She couldn’t believe... How could someone who knew her so well be so very wrong about her? Behind their backs? She’d hated being the favourite, and she’d fought for him every step of the way.
She set the glass of whiskey down half-drunk. Couldn’t stomach anything more. “That’s not it at all, Alastor. And if you’re so paranoid that your friends are turning into enemies, you’re worse off than I thought. Do...do what you like, Alastor. I’m done.” She strode toward the door.
Before she reached it, he growled: “I’ll go.” She turned to look at him, but there was no softening of his features. “I’ll go,” he repeated. “Think I’ve had my fill of the Ministry anyway. But I won’t forget, Amelia, and I won’t forgive.”
Amelia shook her head, said nothing. Couldn’t, because now she was fighting back tears. Silently, she slipped out the door.
At five o’clock in the morning on the 30th June, 1996, Alastor’s detection wards woke him with a start. His wand was in his hand in an instant. He swung his good leg out of bed and strapped the false one to the stump of his thigh with a spell. Down to an art, that. The eye he could sleep with, but the leg was impossible. He was up a moment later, and only then did he take the time to listen to the wards. Someone at his door, but not a foe. Not necessarily. Alastor threw a robe on over his nightshirt, stomped down the hall.
Rufus Scrimgeour was outside his front door. Alastor opened it far enough to speak but not far enough to disable his intrusion spells. “How did you get your limp?” he demanded.
Scrimgeour nodded minutely. “Wandfight in ’85,” he said. “Didn’t discharge my final spell from my wand properly, then put the wand in my back pocket. Friction made it go off, lost half my backside. You took me to St Mungo’s and promised never to tell anyone that I’d done it to myself.”
“Right.” Alastor opened the door and came face to face with Scrimgeour’s wand.
“And you,” he said. “The last thing you said to me before you left the Ministry?”
Alastor remembered that vividly. “Watch your back,” he repeated, “or it might end up with a knife in it.”
Rufus lowered his wand. “Sorry. Can’t be too careful, under the circumstances.”
“What are you doing here?” Alastor asked, studying his old colleague. He looked tired, like he’d been up all night. As well he might have been, now that the Ministry had finally pulled their heads out of their arses and admitted that Voldemort was back.
Rufus drew himself up, composed his features. “I thought you’d want to know. Amelia Bones is dead.”
It was a muted sort of thud, the thing that landed in his gut. But heavy, solid and heavy, bitter in his throat. “How?” he asked.
“In her flat. She put up quite a fight. They think You-Know-Who did it personally.”
“Of course he did.” Alastor’s voice was steady but bleak. “Would have had to. She was always stronger, faster than she looked. One of the best.”
The day was overcast, cool. Alastor held on to his door, stared out at it. The grey light of early morning, the weight of it in the air. The world waking up, oblivious to what it had lost.
After a moment, Scrimgeour spoke again. “Fudge resigned yesterday. They were going to make her Minister.”
Alastor nodded. They should move out of the doorway. Anyone could come at them. Should move. But the weight had spread to Alastor’s limbs, to the tips of his fingers. Couldn’t move if he tried.
“No one has notified... I thought perhaps you would want to.”
That brought him back. Focussed on Scrimgeour, who looked uncomfortable. No doubt he knew how long...
“Yes,” Alastor said. “Yes, I’ll tell her.”
It was the least he could do.
Alastor Apparated to the outskirts of the village and walked. He needed the time, needed the air, needed to think.
Needed to regret that the last words he had ever spoken to Amelia were angry.
It shouldn’t have been that way, but sometimes life made things difficult. Alastor had been furious with the Ministry for their backhanded dismissal, and Amelia had been the face that came with it. He’d been angry at her, too — for her naivety, for going along with an organisation that increasingly disgusted him. But there had been truth in what she’d said to him. No doubt she’d fought for him, too, and he’d thrown it back in her face. Before he’d had the chance to make amends, though, he’d been attacked in his home by Peter Pettigrew and Barty Crouch Junior, and spent the next year in the bottom of his trunk.
It was ironic, that. For all his vigilance, he hadn’t managed to prevent that attack, and for all the horror of it — the haze of the Imperius curse when Barty opened the trunk, the awful claustrophobia of it — he’d had a lot of time to think. A lot of time to be quiet, even to heal. Barty Crouch Junior had not been needlessly cruel. For all his involvement in the attack on Frank and Alice Longbottom, he had not been inclined to torture. When three interminable weeks had passed without the imposter being discovered (Barty had opened the trunk daily to give Alastor food and water, and after each Imperius to eat, to talk, to not fight his way out had worn off, Alastor had scored a mark in the wood with a fingernail), Alastor had had cause to wonder at how erratic and unpredictable his behaviour must have been, that people who knew him well — Albus, Minerva, even Severus Snape — had not recognised that he was not himself. That a Death Eater and a man who had spent the majority of his adult life in Azkaban was able to imitate him successfully.
Perhaps Amelia had been right, as hard as it was for Alastor to admit. He had intended to make things right, after his recovery — he remembered there being an owl from her during it, offering him an olive branch — but by then she had become Head of Magical Law Enforcement to a Ministry in blatant denial, and he a returning member of the re-formed Order of the Phoenix. Their worldviews had seemed as far apart as ever.
And so the owl had gone unanswered. Alastor knew what the state of the world was, knew how precarious life could be, and yet, where his friendship with Amelia was concerned, he had foolishly believed there would be time to mend things. After all, they’d always survived before.
There were so many things he wanted to tell her. So many things he wished he could ask. Like the way his recovery at Hogwarts and this re-formed Order had brought him closer to Minerva again, and they seemed to be taking tentative steps toward rekindling a romance that they had both thought long dead. What would Amelia think of that? Would she call him a fool for being cautious, or for being sentimental and making the same mistake all over again? Or would she tell him to stop making assumptions and talk to Minerva, for Merlin’s sake?
He’d never know. All those chances were gone now. Lost. Merlin, he’d lost the person who'd known him best, and now he could never...
Alastor stopped in the street, closed his eyes. Took a deep, steadying breath and wished for darkness. Wished for black, just for a moment — the ability to close out the world that most people took for granted. Even with his eyelids closed and a patch over his magical eye so as not alarm the Muggles, he could see everything around him, could never get away from it. Merlin, it had been a long time since he’d noticed that.
He shook himself. No, there were things he could never undo, things he could never get back. But this was something he could do, a small way to make amends, and he would do it. Alastor continued on his way.
She answered the door on his second knock. Just opened it, didn’t even bother to ask him a question. Another time, Alastor would have had something to say about that, but not today. She looked just like he remembered, except that she was wrapped in a purple dressing gown. Her grey hair was as yet unbrushed, mussed from sleep. When she saw him, her face froze.
“Mafalda,” he said.
“Alastor.” When she spoke his name, her voice trembled. “What...?”
She already knew. He could see it in her eyes. They must have looked like his own. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “Amelia...”
A noise came out of Mafalda that was somewhere between a wail and a sob. She swayed on her feet, and before he knew what he was doing, Alastor had moved forward to catch her arm and keep her upright.
“Come on,” he murmured, stepping inside and pushing the door closed behind him. “Hold on to me.” Mafalda clutched his arm and numbly allowed him to guide her. He didn’t know his way around the house, but the foyer opened onto the living room, and he steered her into a plush armchair. Didn’t know what else to do, so he asked: “Do you want some tea?”
Silently, she nodded, then added: “The kettle’s just boiled.” Alastor moved in the direction he presumed the kitchen must be in, but before he got there, she spoke again. “She always said this might happen. It’s why she didn’t want us to live together all the time — better to just spend weekends and holidays together. I agreed because of what happened to her brothers, but I never really believed it would. I mean, what’s the point? Kill one Auror, another will step up and take her place.”
“They were going to make her Minister,” Alastor said, though he doubted anything would make Amelia’s murder make sense. “I think the Death Eaters knew that she would be too effective against them.”
Mafalda let out a humourless, deflated sort of laugh. “They were right about that.”
Alastor waited a few more moments in case she wanted to say something more, but when she didn’t, he turned and made his way into the kitchen. He found the tea things in short order — living together or not, he could see Amelia’s hand in the neatness and organisation of the cupboards. He used the largest mug he could find, added a spoonful of sugar to the cup — he couldn’t remember how Mafalda took her tea, but sweetness would help with the shock. Adding a dash of milk, he carried the mug into the living room and pressed it into Mafalda’s hands. She took it, held it, watched the steam curl off the top.
She was remarkably composed. Alastor wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not, but he remembered her being this way all those years ago. She’d killed a man and she’d been shaking but steady, with the presence of mind to Obliviate the Muggle guards before they departed. Now was the same. She stared into the mug but no tears came. Her composure unsettled Alastor. He could be the support, had been the one who held Amelia while she cried for Edgar and Oscar, but this...
This made him feel like the one who needed something. Here he was in Amelia’s partner’s living room, speaking to her for the first time in years. Standing before her, and what was his excuse that it had taken him this long, that he had waited until it was far too late? What right did he have to need anything from her?
“Amelia,” he said, and his breath hitched. When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse. “Amelia was the best friend I ever had. She was the strongest person I ever knew, and she...” He felt his eyes burn, both of them, blinked tears out of his good one and felt them roll down his cheek. “She was always good to me, even when I wasn’t good to her. I loved her, you know. Never stopped.”
Mafalda looked up at him, and now there were tears in her eyes, too. “I know,” she said. “She never stopped loving you, either. When she heard about what Barty Crouch did to you, she said she wished she'd been there. Said she would have known straight away. She said you'd needed your sidekick.”
"She was never my sidekick," Alastor whispered. "I think I was hers."
Mafalda set the mug of tea aside, rose to her feet, and then her arms were around him. She was small and round, soft like Amelia, and he buried his face against her shoulder, clinging tight.
"I’m so sorry." His voice was raw with the tears soaking into her robe.
"I know," she whispered, and her hand was steady on his back even as her own breathing grew ragged. "I know."