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The Thorny, Twisted Road Never Travelled

Chapter Text

The sun was peeking through a thinning blanket of clouds, pockets of happy bright light streaming down onto the bustling cobblestone street. There were canopies above each shop, and multiple umbrellas in front of a collection of cafes, tea houses and ice cream parlors, each its own explosion of colour. Stalls further crowded the streets, selling everything from charmed jewelry, scarves and decorative nick knacks, to love potions and herbal remedies. While reasonably wide, the street was claustrophobicly packed with people, who were as eclectic-looking and colourful as the rest of the street. They were wearing robes. Some were even wearing tall, pointy hats.

He knew he was still on Earth – the atmospheric pressure, oxygen content and gravity were all right – but this wasn't a part of Earth he'd ever seen before. Hadn't even known it existed before. It felt and looked as alien as any of the planets he'd ever visited. In a daze, he stopped behind a gaggle of children peering into the glass display of a store that seemed to specialize in brooms, of all things.

“Quality Quidditch Supplies,” Daniel read out loud. He raised an eyebrow. “I'm going to assume that's some sort of sport.”

He turned to his companion.

Despite the breeze he could see blowing through the street, her brown ringlets didn't move. She smiled softly at him. “Yes, it is. It's played on flying broomsticks.”

“Hm...”

He turned back to the window and the Nimbus 2000 being proudly displayed. It was odd not seeing his reflection in the shop window, further proof of his intangibility. Of his death. Except not, because he hadn't really died, had he? He'd escaped death mere moments before it took him, the ultimate cheat.

Slipping his hands into the pockets of his jeans, Daniel stepped away from the shop window and began to idly wander on. His companion slid into step beside him. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, her arms clasped demurely in front of her, a quiet confidence in her bearing. Her simple white dress flowed with her movements but, like her hair, did not sway with the breeze. Just like his own.

Seeing the breeze and not being able to feel it: that was another oddity. And he could see it now.

Side by side, they slipped through the mid-morning crowd. No one saw them, of course. They couldn't. But Daniel could see them, and he could see the glow that surrounded their cells, so faint it was beyond microscopic. DNA, Daniel could also see DNA now. Except that it wasn't technically 'seeing' because Daniel didn't really have eyes anymore. Just like he no longer had a corporeal body, only the memory of having had one.

Despite not really occupying the same space as the people around them, Daniel still stepped out of the way as a small, bushy-haired girl ran past him. Her eyes glowed with excitement as she dragged her harried, wide-eyed parents towards a bookstore. Daniel smiled. He understood her excitement, although in his case he'd been even younger and it hadn't been a store so much as a tent. And there had been sand everywhere.

The parents hadn't been wearing robes and their cells didn't have the same faint glow as their daughter. He frowned as he looked over the crowd again. There were a lot of children, more than he would normally expect to see. Then again, Daniel had no idea what the date was... was it the end of the summer already? He watched as several older kids greeted each other enthusiastically, like friends who hadn't seen each other in a while and felt a pang of sadness at the thought of good friends he might never be able to greet like that again.

Unwilling to let sadness mar the excitement of discovery, he let the anthropologist in him take over. He looked around, observing people – children and adults alike – interacting. Some greetings were less enthusiastic, some a bit more shy and awkward, and some carried quite a bit of animosity. But it was all painfully human.

The more he looked, the more something began to niggle at his mind. He looked closer, deeper.

“Morgana?” he said.

“Do you see it, Daniel?” his companion asked in place of an answer.

He pulled back and turned to her. “Yes, I think I do.” He paused. “Is this why you brought me here?”

The corners of her mouth twitched. “In part.” She looked away, into the crowd of oblivious people. Sadness flitted across her eyes. “Mostly, it was something I thought you would find fascinating to learn, that Earth still contains more for you to discover. But, yes, it was partly so that you could see it like this, this world within a world while it's still reveling in the height of its strength.”

Daniel took a deep breath he didn't really need and then let it out slowly. “Before it starts to disappear, you mean.”

Morgana nodded. “Yes.”

“This could be fixed.”

“Yes, it could be.”

“... But it probably won't, will it?”

“No, most likely not, though for now there is still hope.”

Daniel looked away from her, from the compassion and understanding in her eyes. He wanted to be angry with her, but this wasn't something that could be interfered with. There were many things he could fault the Alterans with, but this was neither their fault nor their responsibility.

So he continued to walk onward, past a giant man with a bushy beard leading a small wide-eyed boy with messy dark hair and an eye-catching lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead.

Chapter Text

“So... I think that went mostly well,” said Sheppard as they exited the imposing stone building and found themselves momentarily blinded by the bright noon-day sun.

Cameron Mitchell looked at him with an amused smile. “Mostly?”

Beside him, he saw Jackson shrug. “Well, it didn't go badly, so I'll take that for now. We'll just have to keep working at them.”

“We thank you very much for your help, Daniel,” said Teyla warmly despite the frustration in her eyes. Cam felt kinda sorry for the person she'd be taking said frustrations out on during sparing practice when they got back to base. He wondered if he'd be able to send her in Ronon or Teal'c's direction – assuming Teal'c was staying on base instead of returning to Dakara and Ronon was back from visiting Amelia Bank's parents.

“You're welcome, Teyla, but I didn't really do much more than repeat the same things you were already saying,” said Jackson.

“Hey, don't sell yourself short, Doc,” Sheppard drawled. “You know they would've barely been willing to listen to us if you hadn't been there to give us legitimacy. That's worth a lot to pencil pushers like the IOA.”

Daniel just shrugged. “Well, I'm glad to help in any way I can. Atlantis was built to protect Pegasus. It doesn't belong here.”

“Well, it isn't as though it can go anywhere just yet anyway,” Vala pointed out. “So you might as well enjoy the vacation while you can.”

Sheppard winced. “Ah, so you heard about that,” he said.

Cam laughed. “I'm surprised all of San Francisco didn't hear about that. Seriously, I knew McKay was loud, but I swear my old boot camp drill instructor would've been green with envy at the set of lungs on that guy.”

And, since gossip flew around the SGC at twice the speed of light, it had taken less than two hours for word to spread from Atlantis about the degree – and decibel levels – to just how unimpressed one Doctor Rodney McKay was with the patchwork modifications Doctor Zelenka and the rest of Atlantis' engineering team had done to the stardrive to get it to function as a wormhole drive. And the lack of modifications they'd done to the shield. Between damage to the stardrive and structural damage to Atlantis itself, the city wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

“How are the repairs going anyway?” Daniel asked, sounding amused.

Sheppard shrugged. “As far as I can tell, Rodney's repair list keeps getting longer instead of shorter, but from what I understand, the bottom line is that the stardrive is blown and he needs to completely overhaul it, which will take time.”

“Time we may use to our advantage in order to convince your IOA to allow us all to return home,” said Teyla solemnly. “Though it has been wonderful to finally see your planet for my own eyes, we cannot remain here.”

“No, we can't,” Sheppard agreed, and it struck Cam just how utterly unsurprising he found that Sheppard considered Atlantis and the Pegasus Galaxy home.

He just hoped the IOA didn't underestimate the sort of fight they'd have on their hands if they didn't give Atlantis the go-ahead to return. The self-styled Atlantians were a determined and resourceful bunch, who'd depended on mostly nothing but each other and the occasional intervention of the Daedalus for years.

“We'll do everything in our power to make sure you do,” Daniel assured them. Barely a step behind him, Teal'c nodded solemnly.

They were all silent for a long moment.

“On the bright side,” Vala suddenly spoke up with a grin. “At least they finally managed to tow the city out of San Francisco Bay before someone accidentally crashed into it.”

Cam snorted. “And end the Navy and Air Force having to keep up the world's most awkward cover up, for the world's most obvious conspiracy.”

“Speaking of which, where are we heading now anyway?” Sheppard asked, sounding only idly curious, as though he didn't really care one way or the other.

They all looked at each other.

“Uh, I was thinking lunch?” Daniel finally spoke up.

Cam shrugged. “Lunch sounds good. We're all off the clock too, so beer is definitely in order.”

“That plan is acceptable,” said Teal'c.

Teyla nodded. “I also wouldn't be opposed to getting some food. And perhaps some of that, what did you call it? Genis?”

Daniel chuckled. “Guinness.”

“Ah yes, of course, Guinness. I found it quite pleasant.”

It didn't take them long to decide on a pub – the decision-making process consisting mostly of picking out the one with the weirdest-sounding name. Teyla, of course, found the Earth custom of naming their pubs after ridiculously mundane things endlessly amusing, so they let her make the final call. Ten minutes later found the group sitting under an outdoor canopy that jutted out into Trafalgar Square waiting for their first order of beers.

Daniel leaned back into his chair, happy to have finally shed his suit jacket. Cam and John had also taken off the blazers of their dress uniforms and carefully slipped them over the backs of their chairs. Only Teal'c was still wearing his full suit; he hadn't even loosened his tie.

“This city feels very different to the others I have so far seen on your world,” said Teyla wistfully. “It feels more mature. Like Atlantis, there is an elegance in its buildings.”

Daniel chuckled. “European cities are much older than any of the American ones. London was founded centuries before San Francisco, or even New York. There's a lot more history here. A lot of it quite bloody.” He paused thoughtfully. “You know, if you want I could talk to Jack when we get back. There's really no reason that you and Ronon have to stay on base while you wait for the IOA to finally make up their minds.

And if you're going to be stuck on Earth, you might as well get a grand tour. Europe is full of beautiful places. I'm sure Radek would jump at the opportunity to show you around Prague, and Captain Bezhnev is from a small town, but he studied in Moscow. And then there's Asia. Doctor Kusanagi is from Okinawa, which I've never been to myself, but it's known for its wonderful springs and is supposed to be quite beautiful as well, and I know you have at least three scientists from China and Doctor Khan is from Dehli. Asian architecture is very different from the sort you'll see in Europe and America... And that's just for starters. There's bound to be quite a few who'd love the opportunity to return the favour and show you their homes.”

Teyla's eyes had lit up as he spoke. “Thank you, Daniel, I think I would like that very much. Ronon and I have never quite understood how your people could all come from the same planet and yet have so many different customs and languages between you. Perhaps it would bring us closer to understanding if we were to see it for ourselves.”

Daniel smiled. “Then I'll call Jack as soon as I get back.”

The table went silent when the waitress came back with their beers. If the young woman found it suspicious, she didn't comment and cheerfully took their food orders instead.

“So, our, uh, 'ride' isn't due to pick us up for another four hours,” said Cam after the waitress had left. “Any thoughts on how to spend the time?”

Daniel thought about it for a moment. “Hm, Buckingham Palace isn't too far from here. It's still off-season, so it shouldn't be too packed. Or we could hop on the underground and go to Highgate Park Cemetery, the Tower of London–”

“– Or we could go on the London Eye,” Sheppard interjected. “You know, something a little more exciting.”

“Oh, I don't know, a palace sounds rather exciting,” said Vala, her eyes twinkling mischievously.

“I have heard the view from the London Eye is quite excellent,” said Teal'c.

Daniel smiled. “Yes, it is. You can see most of the city from the top. And it's right by the Thames.”

“Cool,” said Cam with a wide grin.

Teyla looked rather skeptical about the idea.

Daniel opened his mouth to explain to her that the London Eye didn't contain any actual 'eyes', when he noticed Teal'c stiffen. He immediately felt himself tense as well and he shifted in his chair, turning so that he could see what his teammate had spotted.

The dark-cloaked figures were instantly noticeable.

“Whoa, where did they come from?” said Cam, keeping his voice down.

“No idea,” said John in a low tone. “They weren't there a second ago.”

“Well, at least they're not priors,” Vala pointed out.

No, they weren't, thought Daniel as he stood to get a better look. They were something else entirely. The black hooded cloaks were a fantasy genre cliché, worn by everyone from dark sorcerers and witches, mysterious travelers, to ringwraiths. The white mask he saw when one of them turned towards him was different. There was an energy in the air, a very slight tingling he could feel deep in his bones and couldn't identify.

And yet it felt familiar in the way the subtle hum of hyperspace felt familiar. They weren't in hyperspace now, though, and this was a very different sort of hum.

The dark-cloaked figure who'd turned to him raised an arm holding a stick made of smooth dark wood.

Daniel didn't hesitate. “Get down!” he yelled as he threw himself to the ground, hissing as he knee hit a pointed bit of cobblestone.

He heard metal scraping on stone, the clattering of metal and plastic and panicked scrambling. A flash of light sailed over his head and then there was a surge of heat and an explosion. People screamed. Daniel raised his head and looked back to their table. The wooden top was blackened and still smoldering right in front of where Colonel Sheppard had been sitting.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me!” he heard Cam exclaim as he slid his pant leg up to get at the the handgun he was wearing.

If John was at all phased by the near-miss, he didn't show it. He and Teal'c quickly flipped the other two tables over to use as cover. “Teyla, you and Vala get the civilians inside!” he ordered as he brought his handgun up to aim at the unknown enemy. “Jackson, get the hell over here!”

Daniel hesitated only long enough to glance in the cloaked man's direction before scrambling back towards the upturned tables. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw other patrons following their lead. Several more table tops hit the ground. The cloaked man strode forward, his hand extended outwards and the tip of his stick pointing directly at them.

The rest of the square was a chaotic blur of people running, the sound of pounding feet and panicked screams blending jaggedly together. Getting a clear shot was going to be difficult, Daniel realized as he shuffled backwards, keeping low with his gun at the ready. Just in case.

A sickly green beam of light streaked across the space just behind the hooded man and hit a large fleeing woman in the back. Her wide-brimmed straw hat flew off her head and long blonde hair cascaded after her as she stumbled to the ground. Her left hand flopped to the side, a small digital camera tumbling onto the cobblestone. The woman didn't so much as twitch again.

But then the cloaked man advancing on SG1 made a slight movement with his wrist. Daniel threw himself to the ground and rolled to the side. This time he saw a flash of yellow light.

Then he heard three gunshots in rapid succession.

He raised his eyes just as the cloaked man fell backwards with the momentum of the bullets. Though the dark cloak didn't show blood, the bright red bullet hole in the center of his forehead was clearly visible against the pale white mask.

“Nice shooting, Sheppard,” said Cam.

“Thanks,” John answered him lightly. “It's been a really boring couple of months.”

And then, suddenly, another dark-cloaked figure appeared beside the one John had just shot down. Daniel scrambled behind the table shield. He ducked down beside Teal'c just as something hit the tabletop. It instantly burst into angry red flames.

“Daniel? Teal'c?” Cam called out just before squeezing the trigger. The cloaked man lept to the side and Cam cursed as the shot missed.

“We're good,” Daniel called back as Teal'c grabbed the table by its black steel legs and pushed it away from them before the fire could spread to the other one. Remaining crouched, he and Teal'c then hustled away from the flames and in behind Cam and John.

“Our position is extremely limited,” Teal'c pointed out, his eyes already scanning the square. A moment passed and then he nodded to himself. “I will attempt to catch them from behind.”

And then the Jaffa was gone, darting across the pavement to crouch behind a parked car. Daniel's eyes darted back to the the second cloaked figure, who was waving his stick-shaped weapon (he refused to call it a wand, because that was just too ridiculous even for them) above his fellow black cloak. The air above the corpse was glowing faintly. Daniel glanced to the parked car again, but Teal'c was gone.

“Shit, where the hell did he go?”

Daniel's eyes snapped back to the empty space where the second dark-cloaked figure had been. A dark shape appeared in the corner of his eye.

“There!” John exclaimed.

The two air force officers immediately adjusted their aim and put four bullets into the figure. The body jerked with each impact, barely managing a grunt of pain, before crumbling to the ground. A loud, anguished scream filled the air. Daniel looked around, but couldn't see the source. There was, however, an overturned table sitting abandoned in the corner of the outdoor patio, the patrons having apparently already taken shelter inside. Taking a deep breath, he scanned the immediate area again and then raced towards the table.

He suddenly froze, his eyes widening as a beam of light passed in front of him, missing him by a hair's breath. Pivoting to the side, he brought his sidearm up and fired at the first dark shape he saw. This new dark-cloaked figure swished his stick weapon and Daniel a screaming man wearing a grey pinstripe suit came sailing out of nowhere to hover in front of the figure. The terrified screaming turned into pain as Daniel's bullet hit them in the torso.

Daniel froze, horrified – and not entirely sure what had happened.

And then, as though the strings had been cut, the screaming suit fell to the ground and the stick weapon was now pointed directly at Daniel.

“Daniel Jackson, move!”

Teyla's voice propelled him into movement. Not having the time for delicacy, Daniel leaped out of the way of a yellow beam of light and rolled into a crouch behind the overturned table. With all the willpower he could muster, he pushed the image of the man he'd just accidentally shot to the back of his mind. He would be horrified and guilty later; now he needed to concentrate.

And then he felt it again, the faint tingling. It was... coming from his right.

Still not sure what it meant, but knowing instinctively it was nothing good, Daniel reached out and grabbed a chair by the leg as he rose to his feet. A dark-cloaked figure popped into existence in the exact spot the tingling had come from, weapon pointed at him. Daniel swung the chair and threw it at the figure. It sailed through the air and hit the cloaked man dead-on, causing him to use his hands to brace against the impact while stumbling back several steps.

Daniel raised his handgun, but paused when he saw a petite figure dart out from the pub's entrance and grab the figure from the back.

“Do not move any further or I will kill you!” Teyla said, her voice steady and her words only as loud as was necessary. There wasn't a single shred of uncertainty in her eyes. “Drop your weapon.”

The figure only stilled for a moment. “You filthy muggle!” it hissed – the voice was high-pitched but definitely masculine. “How dare you think you can defeat us! Ava–”

As soon as the cloaked man's arm began to move, Daniel shifted his aim and shot him in the shoulder. Whatever the man was beginning to say finished in an agonized scream. Teyla let him go and he slid to his knees before slumping further onto his ground, where he continued to shake. Teyla stared down at him, her eyes hard as diamonds, a bloody butcher's knife in her hand.

Daniel rushed forward and kicked the attacker's weapon away. It clattered against the cobblestone ground... sounding like it was made of wood. He blinked and exchanged a bewildered glance with Teyla. Jack was going to have a field day reading their reports. Teyla crouched down next to the figure and Daniel crouched beside her, his gun up and ready as he scanned the area for more attackers. To their left, John and Cam were conferring quietly as they, too, scanned the area.

“Hey, Jackson!”

Daniel looked up at Cam's call. His team leader was half-turned to him now. “We're gonna make a run for that big building with the tall steps and big stone pillars,” he said.

Daniel blinked. “The National Gallery,” he said with a nod.

“Sure, that thing.” Cam's eyes slid down to the figure on the ground. “You good to cover us?”

“Yes,” he replied, his eyes flitting out towards the square to make sure there was no one new. Then he hurried over to Cam and John's position, keeping his stance as low as he could.

The two Lieutenant Colonels pulled back slightly to let him slide in front of them. Daniel checked his clip. Five bullets and he wasn't carrying any extra cartridges. He took a deep breath and nodded to the other two men. They nodded back and then exchanged a single glance.

“I've got your six, Mitchell,” said John.

“Okay, then let's move out.”

The two of them took one last look around and then ran out from behind their cover and into the street. Daniel brought his weapon up and ready to fire, watching carefully for any dark figures. When Cam and John made it to the cover of the same parked car Teal'c had used earlier, he let out a sigh of relief, though he didn't dare relax. He was now the only one protecting the civilians inside the pub behind him. Unless the dark figures were stupid enough to come close enough for Teyla and Vala to beat them into the ground.

Daniel wished they had radios with them as Cam and John peeked over top of the car and then moved over to the next one, keeping low. He watched their progress out of the corner of his eye, but then he saw movement to his left.

Daniel shifted his aim, registering a dark cloak, and fired. This figure was noticeably shorter than the others, and pudgier. He was also the first to duck down at the sound of gunfire. And then rose enough to point his stick weapon at Daniel. Daniel ducked down behind the table and waited for the beam of light.

For a moment, nothing happened. And then Daniel felt that strange tingling sensation coming from right in front of him. He scrambled backwards and aimed his gun.

And then watched in astonishment as the table he'd been hiding behind began to sprout fur and change shape until he was staring into the eyes of a dark brown, scruffy-looking dog. He blinked at it.

The dog blinked back at him.

Before he'd had the chance to collect his thoughts on what he was seeing, he caught sight of a beam of light and threw himself to the ground. The beam of light hit the pub's stone wall, leaving deep gouges in the stone. Startled, the dog that had once been his cover ran off.

Daniel rolled over, towards a decorative barrel sitting next to a planter of flowers, and came up on one knee. He fired at the cloaked figure, but the attacker disappeared as soon as he'd squeezed the trigger. Daniel let out a rather colourful Jaffa curse. Somewhere in the distance, he heard gunshots and tensed further.

The figure reappeared at the edge of the patio area, directly to his right. Daniel twisted his body. But before he could fire off a shot, the figure screamed and grabbed at his thigh, where a butcher's knife was now lodged.

Daniel sighed with relief and looked over to where Teyla was ducking back down behind the table at the far end. “Thanks,” he called softly to her.

Teyla glanced at him and nodded. “Of course.”

Daniel turned back and aimed at the cloaked attacker. And then froze as he felt the tingling sensation coming from behind him. Knowing he couldn't afford to waste bullets, Daniel thumbed the safety on and flipped the gun around in his hand so that he was gripping it by the barrel. He pivoted around just as a man appeared. Even as he swung the gun at the newcomer, Daniel realized he was dressed differently.

Daniel clipped him on the jaw and the man let out a grunt and staggered backwards. And then Vala was right behind the man with a full tanker of beer. She slammed it over his head, and the clear glass tanker shattered, showering him with shards of glass and drenching him with beer.

The man crumbled to the ground.

“I've always wanted to do that!” Vala exclaimed with an excited grin.

Teyla came up to her, looking down on the unconscious man with a frown. “He is dressed differently than the others.”

Daniel merely nodded. The man was wearing robes, but they were red. He wasn't wearing a mask either; he looked young, possibly in his early twenties, with a short mop of bright red hair.

“Ron!”

Daniel swung around, aiming his weapon at another man wearing similar red robes. This one looked equally young and had dark, unruly hair – although not quite as gravity-defying as Sheppard's. He was pointing one of the stick weapons at Daniel, worried eyes flicking towards the redhead on the ground.

“What did you do to him?” the man demanded. He blinked and the worry was gone. His jaw tensed as he stared Daniel in eye with a quiet fury.

Daniel flicked off the safety of his handgun. “Who are you?” he asked, carefully keeping his voice steady.

After a moment's pause, Teyla spoke up. “Your friend is not dead, merely unconscious,” she said, her words calm as always, but there was an unmistakable edge to her voice.

The young man hesitated.

Daniel decided to, once again, be the diplomat. “I'm Doctor Daniel Jackson with the USAF,” he said. “Who are you?”

“Harry. I'm Harry Potter... with the, uh, Ministry.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “Ministry of what?”

Once again, the young man hesitated. If Daniel hadn't been watching closely, he would've missed the way the man's eyes flicked to the side.

“Shit,” he cursed. Side-stepping, and trusting Teyla and Vala to have his back, he swung around to face another man in the same robes.

“Obliviate,” he heard.

And then his mind went blank.

 


 

Teal'c kept himself low to the ground as he weaved his way through the rows of abandoned cars. Civilians were running and taking cover where they could. He clenched his jaw at the cowardice of the attack. There wasn't a single strategic reason to attack this area, except to create fear.

The group of attackers was not large, but in the face of countless unarmed civilians, great numbers weren't needed. This was a warning, a demonstration, not a show of force. But who was the enemy?

The square was much too big and too populated with people, trees and various structures to give Teal'c a clear view of most of the attackers, but he counted ten in total. They did not move like fighters, their movements too clumsy and full of openings. Although they were admittedly quite proficient with those strange weapons. It was the only fluid part of their attack.

It made moving along the outskirts of the square easier. Gunshots from the direction of the pub told him that the rest of his team were still fighting, however caught without their usual weapons they were no doubt conserving ammunition. Teal'c himself had his gun drawn as he made his way closer to the attackers who had taken positions on the opposite side of square – by a towering stone column topped by a statue of a man and being guarded by four solemn-looking stone lions.

There were three. One had assumed a position by one of the lions. He was the one Teal'c knew he would have to watch out for, as his vantage point was higher than that of the others', who were circling around the square, firing almost randomly into the remaining crowd of panicked people. And laughing. As he got closer, he realized they were laughing at the fear and destruction they were causing.

The one closest to Teal'c circled to the far side of the fountain and Teal'c knew his opportunity had finally come. Carefully, he and tucked his handgun behind the waistband of his pants. The longer he could go unnoticed by the other two attackers, the better.

Eyes never straying from his target, Teal'c circled around the dark-cloaked man, ducking behind a phone booth to wait for him to come even closer. He grit his teeth as he saw the man aim at a young man frantically wheeling his wheelchair down uneven cobblestones. Teal'c's sensitive ears were just barely able to hear the cloaked man say something before a beam of light burst out of the tip of his weapon and hit one of the wheels. The young man cried out in alarm as his chair shook and then went topping over to the side, spilling him onto the cobblestones.

Teal'c's patience was rewarded when the cloaked man moved immediately towards the disabled man, his attention focused on nothing else. He passed by the phone booth, not even glancing in Teal'c's direction. As soon as he passed him, Teal'c pounced.

Lightning quick and quiet as a large jungle cat, he ran up to the attacker and grabbed him from behind. His left hand gripped his chin tightly and pushed it upwards. The man froze in surprise and that moment was all Teal'c needed. Gripping the back of his head with his right, Teal'c twisted it abruptly to the side. He heard the loud crack as the bones in the man's neck snapped. The body went limp and Teal'c tossed him to the ground.

Then he hurried over to the young man, who was now desperately trying to crawl away using his arms. He paused by his side long enough for the young man to see he wasn't one of the dark-cloaked attackers, and then crouched down.

“I will get you to safety,” Teal'c said, not waiting for the young man's acknowledgment before coming closer and gathering him into his arms.

The man was silent as Teal'c carried him towards the same phone booth he'd taken cover behind himself, though Teal'c could hear his breath coming in small, terrified pants. Gently depositing him down, he promised to return with his chair and then reached once more for his handgun.

When he came out from behind the phone booth to rejoin the battle, the scene in the square had changed. The two remaining attackers were now fighting a group dressed in red robes and carrying similar weapons to theirs. Teal'c wondered where they'd come from.

Regardless, it meant that no one's attention was on him. Teal'c raised his firearm, aiming it at the closest dark-cloaked figure. The man fired a beam of yellow light at a dark-haired woman. She screamed in pain and fell to her knees.

Teal'c fired. The dark-cloaked attacker screamed in pain and dropped his weapon in favour of clutching at the gunshot wound on his shoulder. The woman's screams stopped, but Teal'c could see her panting through residual pain.

One of the red-robed newcomers finally noticed him. Teal'c lowered his gun, but did not drop his guard as the man ordered one of the others to secure the attacker and then began to make his way towards him.

Teal'c's attention never left the man while his eyes swept the square. It seemed the attack was now being efficiently subdued. He spotted Colonel Mitchell and Colonel Sheppard speaking to several more individuals with red robes on the steps of a large stone building. He could not see the pub very well, but it appeared to be quiet there as well.

“Uh, hello, that was a good shot there,” the man in the red cloak said when he came close enough to speak without shouting. “Thanks for that.”

Teal'c nodded solemnly. “You are welcome.” He make a show of looking him up and down. “Who are you?”

The man scratched the back of his head with the hand that wasn't holding a weapon, looking a bit sheepish. “Ah, yes, well that is a bit of a complicated answer. A long story you see...”

“Then you should attempt to be as succinct as possible.”

The man paused and blinked. “Uh, right,” he said nervously. “Of course.”

His eyes slid to the side and Teal'c immediately glanced in the same direction. There was nothing there.

“Obliviate,” he heard the man say softly.

Teal'c's mind went blank.

 


 

Kingsley Shacklebolt forced himself to maintain his usual calm demeanor as the lift took him towards the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. From the moment, he'd received the first alert several hours ago, he'd been on-edge and anxious for news. He hadn't been an auror for years, but his gut instincts hadn't just disappeared when he'd taken the post as Minister of Magic.

Today, his gut hadn't just been tingling, it had been screaming at him.

He could already picture the Head Auror glaring at him for hovering over her shoulder even though he'd been the one to convince her to take the post in the first place. It hadn't been easy either.

The lift opened and Kingsley stepped out, nearly colliding in his haste with a small paper airplane floating on the other side. He tried to step around it, but instead of flying into the lift, it flew in closer to him. He blinked in confusion. Then it occurred to him to read the name floating in the air above it.

Feeling rather silly, Kingsley reached for the scroll. No sooner had he touched it, the spell dissipated and the airplane unfolded in his hands. He immediately recognized the messy loops of the Head Auror's handwriting.

Minister Shacklebolt,

I'm not entire sure why I'm bothering to write you a note as you're most likely already on your way over, however you did request to be informed as soon as the team was back from Trafalgar Square. I have four dead Death Eaters and three wounded in custody. The team suspects two got away.

The casualties seem to be the result of some unexpected and rather impressive Muggle resistance. I'm debriefing now and will present you with a more detailed report once I've finished. Assuming you don't decide to join the debriefing, in which case I shall see you shortly.

Angelique Bryant
Head of Magical Law Enforcement, Auror Division

Kingsley chuckled. Apparently, he was getting predictable.

He slipped the small parchment roll into one of the pockets in his robe and continued on. With a wave of his wand, the doors to the Magical Law Enforcement Department swung open and he slipped through, smiling at the young witch at the front desk as he swept past her. The Magical Law Enforcement Department was divided into two divisions, the first of which was largely bureaucratic in nature, its main purpose being to monitor and report on potential threats to the Statute of Secrecy. However, it also dealt with minor law violations and kept track of what went on in the Muggle World, and abroad. Kingsley had spent some time there during the beginning of his carrier, as had been custom for all newly-appointed aurors at the time.

As a result of the war, many such steps had had to be skipped in the training process for new recruits into the Magcial Law Enforcement Department's second division: the Auror Division. The Second Blood War had simply thinned out Britain's auror forces too much. It hadn't been until the last year of the war that the extent of the corruption within the Ministry of Magic had become clear – not only were the casualty numbers high, but many of those who'd supported the New Order had been arrested and stood trial for their participation. Not all had been sentenced to Azkaban, but most had been stripped of their ranks or else retired voluntarily.

The new recruits, fresh out of Hogwarts, had an almost unprecedented level of defensive training and experience fighting dark wizards. And the Auror Division needed them. Immediately. Skipping steps had been – and still was – a necessity, although Kingsley had quickly come to regret it.

Being part of a subversive counter-movement was not the same thing as being law enforcement. Without a strong backbone of experienced aurors to mentor the newly-appointed ones, and a leadership that consisted largely of aurors who never would've been promoted to such high-ranking positions had there been anyone else available, the result was almost inevitable. In less than two years, the Auror Division was in chaos, making it ineffective at best and a danger to itself and the Wizarding World at worse. The general wizarding populace had become frustrated and begun taking matter into its own hands.

Kingsley had done the only thing he could think of: he assigned his assistants the task of gathering names of suitable candidates and advised them to think 'outside of the box' as the Muggle expression went. Unexpectedly, it had been Percy Weasley who'd finally come to him with the perfect candidate. In the eight months since Angelique Bryant had taken the position, the Auror Division was slowly beginning to mold itself into a reliable, effective law enforcement division once again.

He tapped his wand against the Briefing Room door and felt the spark of magic from the wards assessing his magic. Being the Minister of Magic meant he had access to all the Ministry wards, and so the door silently slid open seconds later.

Fierce, electric blue eyes snapped to him the moment he entered. Head Auror Bryant frowned, yet looked entirely unsurprised to see him. Her glossy black curls were pulled back from her face in her usual ponytail, except for two purple strands that hung along the left side of her face. She wasn't a beautiful woman, per say, her brow just a little too pronounced, her nose a little too small, and the scar that ran down the right side of her face – starting just in front of her left ear and curling over her cheekbone and down to her neck – just a little too noticeable. But her skin, which showed the influence of her grandmother's Ethiopian roots, coupled with the brightest blue eyes he'd ever seen, gave her a sort of exotic allure.

Kingsley smiled politely. “Head Auror Bryant, I received your message,” he said smoothly. The last thing he wanted to do was look like he was undermining her authority when, in reality, he was merely curious. “Do you mind if I sit in on the briefing?”

“Why of course not, Minister Shaklebolt, have a seat,” she said dryly.

“Thank you.” He nodded at the auror team sitting around the table. It was Harry Potter's team, though technically the team leader was a young auror named Mateius Langer. As Kingsley pulled out a seat, a strong scent assaulted his nose. He frowned. “Why does it smell like a brewery in here?”

The aurors around the table snickered. All except for Ronald Weasley, who glared at the table at large.

“Ron got himself knocked out by a Muggle the second he apparated to the location,” Auror Dean Thomas cheerfully told him. “Broke a mug of beer over his head. Uh, sir.”

Weasley transferred his glare exclusively to Thomas.

At the other end of the table, Bryant slammed her palm against the table top. “You think it's funny?” she asked in a low voice that held just a touch of menace. Just enough to stop the laughter. She focused on the team leader. “Senior Auror Langer, do you think it's amusing that you'd barely begun your defensive against an unknown number of assailants and were immediately a man down? That as a result of your careless entrance, Auror Weasley apparated directly into the line of fire of an armed Muggle? A Muggle, who I might add, was valiantly defending himself and a number of civilians against an enemy he knew nothing about except that they'd appeared suddenly out of thin air much like all of you did.”

Mateius Langer swallowed heavily, his eyes wide and terrified behind his long dark blond fringe. “N-no ma'am,” he stuttered. “It's not funny at all.”

“And what will you never, ever do again?”

“A-apparate into an area without s-scouting out the situation first, ma'am.”

Bryant nodded approvingly and Langer relaxed. Then she turned her attention to Ron. “And Mister Weasley, what will you never, ever do again?”

“Apparate in front of a Muggle pub,” Ron answered sullenly. Bryant raised a pointed eyebrow at him, though Kingsley didn't miss how the left corner of her lips quirked in amusement. “Or surprise an armed Muggle who's defending themselves.”

The Head Auror nodded. “You were incredibly lucky, Auror Weasley, that the Muggle didn't shoot you or else we'd be having a very different conversation. One you mostly likely wouldn't be part of.” Then she looked around the table once again. “Does anyone else find this amusing?”

The rest of the team was silent.

“Very well then. Langer, if you would, please summarize what you've already told me for Minister Shaklebolt.”

“Yes, ma'am,” said the team leader, straightening himself just before turning to Kingsley. “After my team and I received the alert, we proceeded to Trafalgar Sqaure in three groups. Potter, Weasley and Longbottom apparated to the south side of the area, Patil and Greene apparated to the north side and myself with Thomas and Lloyd apparated into the centre. Upon our arrival we discovered that a group of Muggles was in the process of defending themselves against the Death Eaters using Muggle weapons.”

Kingsley blinked, suddenly feeling much less amused himself. “Muggle weapons? What sort of Muggle weapons?”

“An excellent question, Minister Shaklebolt,” Bryant agreed. “Well? Anyone?”

“They were using guns,” Harry Potter answered with a frown.

“There were Muggles carrying firearms at Trafalgar Square?” Kingsley asked. “Do we know why?”

The auror team exchanged looks.

“Uh, no sir,” Neville Longbottom spoke up. “But one of 'em introduced himself to Harry.”

Harry nodded. “Yes, he did. Said his name was Doctor Daniel Jackson and he was with the, uh, USAF, I think.”

Kingsley's eyes widened. That... wasn't good.

“You think, Mister Potter?” said Head Auror Bryant. “You mean you didn't take down the names of these armed defenders?”

Harry hesitated before turning back to Bryant. Kingsley refrained from wincing at the anger he saw flash in the young man's eyes.

“No, ma'am, they were just Muggles and we already knew what had happened, so we followed protocol and obliviated them,” he replied.

Bryant hummed and then turned to Langer. “Is this true, Auror Langer?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

The silence echoed through the room for a moment, until Auror Padma Patil carefully cleared her throat. “Um, excuse me, sir, but what does USAF stand for?”

It was Auror Dean Thomas, who answered. “United States Air Force,” he said, looking rather shocked. “Bloody hell, they were American military.”

“But that still just makes them Muggles,” said Auror Greene with a confused frown. “Doesn't it?”

“Oh, Auror Thomas is entirely correct to be concerned,” said Bryant. “But we'll get back to that later. Please, do continue Auror Langer.”

The mood in the briefing room changed in that moment, as though the team suddenly realized just how unhappy their leader was with them. To his credit, however, Senior Auror Langer managed to remain calm as he recounted their actions, their observations and their capture of three of the remaining living Death Eaters. Then he described how they'd called in the Statute of Secrecy Maintenance Team (known to the older aurors as the Statute Team, and called by the younger crowd as simply 'the Clean-up Crew'), with whose help they transformed Trafalgar Square from a Death Eater attack into a major traffic accident.

The traffic accident had been Auror Patil's idea. Kingsley had to admit it was a good one and even though the Head Auror's expression was unreadable, he was fairly certain she agreed.

By the end of their account, the young team was once again looking cautiously confident. Ron, Harry and Neville were glancing towards him, as though waiting for him to take over. Kingsley sighed at that. Perhaps he should stop coming to these briefings and simply wait for the reports if his presence made it seem as though he didn't have the utmost confidence in the Head Auror. It may have been true at first – Kingsley was a former auror himself, after all, and leaving the division in the hands of a complete stranger had made him nervous – however, he'd stopped being nervous months ago.

“Now, first off, I'd like to congratulate you, Auror Patil on your quick thinking,” the Head Auror finally spoke. “Turning the attack into a traffic accident was an inspired choice. The last thing we need is to instill more fear and paranoia after the suicide bombings in Muggle Paris several months ago. Or to give Muggle government agencies any reason to dig deeper into the incident.”

Auror Patil blinked and then straightened. “Thank you, Head Auror,” she said with a small smile, obviously pleased by the rare compliment.

Bryant nodded to her, before addressing the rest of the team. “Now, these Muggle defenders, did any of you write their names down? Get any information on them at all, in fact?”

The team exchanged worried looks.

“I talked to two of the men,” Auror Joanne Greene spoke up hesitantly. “I don't remember the first one's name, but they both introduced themselves as 'Colonel' something. I think the second one's name might've been Sheffield or Sheppard or something like that. They were wearing uniforms.”

“Well, that's certainly something at least,” said Bryant dryly. “Go borrow a memory orb from storage when we're done here and get their names. I want your report on my desk before you go home for the day, so I can send a report to my counterpart in the United States.”

“Why do we care about some American Muggles?” Harry asked with a deep frown. “Our job is to hunt down Death Eaters.”

“Your job, Auror Potter, is to enforce the law and thus maintain peaceful functioning of our society,” Bryant snapped. “As Death Eaters are an organization that flaunts the laws and disrupts said peace, then, yes, it is a part of your job to hunt them down and stop them. However, just because they are a major threat whose elimination deserves to be treated as a priority, does not mean you can ignore the rest of your mandate. It includes the Statute of Secrecy, after all. You should know this given that you spent the better part of an hour staging the scene of the attack to give the appearance of a traffic accident.”

“Which means the Statute of Secrecy was preserved,” said Harry, his jaw tense with the effort of remaining calm.

Kingsley winced. He understood Harry's frustration. Under the former Head Auror, he'd been told he was first in line to lead his own team, however one of the first things Bryant had done was send him back into the ranks with the rest of his newly-minted peers. It hadn't endeared her to Harry in the slightest, although the more he saw them interact, the more he understood Bryant's resolute refusal to immediately promote him to a senior auror position.

Bryant stared Harry down silently for several, long moments. “What did you do with the bullets?” she finally asked, her voice low and steady. If she was angry at Harry's challenge of her authority, she wasn't showing it.

Harry, on his part, seemed taken aback by the sudden change of topic. “The bullets?”

“Yes, Auror Potter, Muggle weapons fire small metal projectiles called bullets. It's what killed three of the Death Eaters and wounded one of the others. So what did you do with them?”

The team exchange confused looks.

“Um, well, they're still in the Death Eaters,” Auror Neville Longbottom finally spoke up.

Head Auror Bryant raised an unamused eyebrow at him. Then she looked directly at Kingsley for the first time since he'd sat down. “It would appear that the accelerated auror training was perhaps a little too accelerated,” she told him. As Kingsley winced, she turned back to the team. “Yes, excellent observation, Auror Longbottom, the bullets are still inside the Death Eaters. Tell me then, if the bullets are inside the Death Eaters, then where are they not?”

Auror Thomas groaned. “Inside the guns,” he answered miserably. “They'll probably notice if there's bullets missing from their guns.”

Bryant turned to him. “Yes, I dare say they will. The Muggle military, like the police force, keep very careful track of their ammunition. Dare I ask what you did with the casings?”

Now even Thomas looked up in confusion. “Casings? Do handguns even 'ave casings?”

“Yes, Auror Thomas, they do. All guns discharge casings when they're fired. Those casings can then be used to identify the type of weapon used.”

Kingsley could tell the moment the auror team around the table finally understood what their superior was hinting at.

“Bloody 'ell,” said Weasley under his breath.

If Bryant heard the expletive, she chose to ignore it. “So, to summarize,” she said instead. “We have Muggle police processing what appears to be a traffic accident, except for the unexplained presence of bullet casings from multiple small caliber firearms. We also have at least four armed Muggles who said firearms belong to going home with less bullets than they left with and no logical reason behind their disappearance. The identities of some of those Muggles seem to be entirely unknown, however, we do know that one of the Muggles is a civilian somehow affiliated with the United States Air Force and another two are high-ranking officers, presumably also of the United States Air Force. Since these two have reached such high ranks, can anyone tell me what sort of training they have likely undergone?”

For a long moment, the briefing room was silent.

“Um, survival and weapons training?” Auror Langer tried.

The Head Auror rolled her eyes. “That would count as basic training, something every new recruit undergoes before they're sent out into the field. I meant something a bit more pertinent to the situation at hand. Anyone?” Her piercing blue eyes swept the room. “No? Well, allow me to enlighten you then. By the time they'd achieved such high ranks, both of those men will have no doubt undergone training on how to both withstand torture and resist brainwashing.”

She leaned forward on her arms. “This makes both of them potential risks for throwing off the Obliviate charm.”

“That's possible?” Auror Patil asked with wide eyes.

“With strong enough willpower, and enough of a reason to doubt their own memories, yes, it is possible for a person to break the Obliviate charm,” Bryant frowned at Kingsley. “Despite Ministry propaganda, the charm isn't full-proof. Which is why high-risk cases are supposed to be identified by aurors on the scene and the individual's identities forwarded to the Statute of Secrecy Enforcement Office so they can be kept a closer eye on and the charm – or something stronger – re-administered if necessary.”

“Why isn't something stronger used immediately?” Ron Weasley asked. He was frowning, but his voice sounded genuinely curious.

“Because most of the stronger options carry with them significant risks and require extensive training before they can be used. It's not something taught to most aurors unless necessary.”

“What about the ones that don't have risks?” Harry Potter asked.

Bryant gave him a pointed look. “It's called Imperio.”

“Oh.”

She looked away from Harry. “Does anyone have anything else to add? No? Very well, I look forward to reading your more detailed reports. Also, I realize it's only Wednesday, but I'm changing the duty roster for the weekend. Senior Auror Benson's team will be taking your weekend duty. Which means I want you all well-rested for Monday morning. You'll be spending the week in remedial Muggle Studies. I'll see what I can find to demonstrate Muggle criminal forensics.”

“What?” Harry immediately protested. “But who's going to be on-call then?”

“Senior Auror Dawlish and his team are back from holidays next week and will thus be taking back their usual first responder position. Don't worry, Auror Potter, you'll be in the building for the most part, thus available should something come up the other teams can't handle alone. Any other questions? No? Good. Dismissed.”

Kingsley waited until the team had dispersed before standing. Angelique Bryant joined him and together they walked towards the elevator that would take them up to her office. When the doors slid shut, he turned to her.

“So, there were Death Eaters casting curses, Muggles shooting guns, and Mister Weasley gets knocked out by a beer jug?” he said.

The hardness in the Head Auror's eyes melted, replaced by amusement. She chuckled. “Yes, indeed. I suspect it'll take him ages to live that down. Still, he was damned lucky that Muggle didn't just blow his head off.”

“Thankfully, I think he got the message.”

“One can only hope. That group seems particularly bull-headed when it comes to changing the way they do things. I almost feel sorry for Langer. He's entirely out of his depth when it comes to that lot.”

“Ah. I'd wondered if you'd realized he was in charge in name only.”

“I'm not a fool, Minister. An optimist, perhaps, but not a fool. I'm still hoping that treating him as the one responsible will finally force Langer to put his foot down and take charge in practice.”

Kingsley took a deep breath and braced himself. “You realize it's because they all think Harry Potter should be the team leader?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why? Because he's a war hero?” She snorted. “I'm not going to take that distinction away from him, but he did spend most of the war running and hiding. And yes, yes, I know, he was on a mission given to him by the late Albus Dumbledore. Again, I'm not trying to say he didn't earn the title, but the war is over. Being an auror during peacetime is very different to being an independent agent during wartime. He needs to learn to work as part of a larger unit. Until that boy proves he can work as part of a team and follow orders, I'm not giving him his own team.”

She looked away, a distant, haunted look flashed through her eyes. “Mavericks get people hurt... or worse,” she said softly.

Kingsley opened his mouth to ask, but hesitated. And then the moment passed and elevator doors opened. And so the question on the tip of his tongue remained unasked. Like the two bright purple strands of hair that seemed to clash with her otherwise no-nonsense persona, but she categorically refused to change. Like the thick scar on the side of her face that didn't look like there'd been any attempt to magically heal.

No, he realized, he hadn't quite earned that level of trust yet.

“So, have you gotten any closer to figuring out why the sudden upswing in Death Eater activity?” he asked instead.

“I can only imagine it's because they've finally established new leadership,” Bryant answered. “Though who exactly that might be... Well, my intelligence teams have a few theories, but nothing concrete to point conclusively to one individual over another. I'll show you the reports.”

“Thank you, I'd appreciate that. I've been called to go before the International Council of Wizards next week, so any information you can give me would be appreciated.”

Head Auror Bryant threw him a sympathetic look, which Kingsley appreciated. He was most certainly not looking forward to that presentation.

 


 

Daniel trudged through his front door with leaden feet. It had been a truly exhausting day. Beginning with their presentation to the IOA and then ending with a horrible traffic accident in Trafalgar Square.

Dealing with the IOA was always trying at best. Daniel knew that most of the members respected him at the very least, and quite a few of them actively liked. He wasn't sure what Colonel Chekov had been saying about him before he died, but Daniel had yet to meet a Russian representative who didn't seem genuinely pleased to meet him. The Chinese representative also obviously liked him very much, as did the French representative – a distinguished, well-traveled man who shared Daniel's love of Egypt. But, in contrast, there were other members who refused to allow him to rest on his laurels, which he didn't mind quite so much as the ones who seemed almost determined to dislike him.

He sighed as he toed his shoes off. The IOA would come around eventually, he was sure of it. Daniel was more worried about the top Pentagon brass. Jack was being uncharacteristically cagey when it came to the topic of what they were planning for Atlantis.

Daniel left his shoes by the door and headed for the kitchen to put on a fresh pot of coffee. It was still too early to go to bed and there were a few papers recently published in the Oriental Institute Archaeology Review he'd been meaning to read. It was always good to keep abreast of what his peers in academia were working on.

Coffee brewing, he then dragged himself upstairs for a shower. The smell of fear, smoke and disinfectant seemed to linger in the air around him, a constant reminder of how badly the day had gone.

The accident itself was largely a blur of activity in his mind. He remembered Teal'c stiffening moments before several cars collided. Teyla and Vala had urged people back and into the bar where they'd be safe from any fumes and potential explosions, and out of the way of emergency responders. The rest of them had run to help pull people away from burning, mangled cars. It hadn't been easy within the panicked crowd, but this wasn't the first rescue operation any of them had participated in.

Afterwards they'd been checked out by medics at the scene. And then the doctors aboard the Daedalus. And then had to write up reports on the incident for the London Police's records as well as General Landry.

As he slipped his suit jacket onto a hanger, Daniel remembered his promise to Teyla. He sighed. Jack was his best friend, but he was also a mother hen in gruff military garb, thereby making him the absolutely last person he wanted to talk to right now. He would just call him in the morning, he decided, as he crossed over to his bed.

Planting his foot onto his bed, he slid up the pant leg to unclip his ankle holster. The holster went into the bottom drawer of his nightstand. Daniel opened the top drawer to place the gun itself inside. As always, he first double-checked to make sure the safety was on and then unlatched the clip to check on the ammo.

The ammo clip slid down and Daniel paused, frowning in confusion. There were only three bullets in the chamber.

He tried to remember whether he'd checked the chamber in the morning before leaving. It was something he did so automatically that he couldn't quite remember doing it... Though, that then begged the question of when he'd fired the missing bullets. He couldn't remember the last time he'd used his firearm; this was his own personal weapon, not one he took with him on missions.

Still frowning, Daniel turned and walked over to his dresser. Opening the second drawer from the top, he shoved several pairs of boxers to the side to get at the box of standard '22 caliber bullets he kept there. Filling up the bullet chamber didn't lead to any sudden revelations.

Eventually, Daniel had to simply conclude that he'd been too tired to pay enough attention to his firearm lately and had thus failed to keep it fully loaded. It was a good thing he hadn't needed to use it then, because his Air Force friends would've crucified him if they'd known.

Which was exactly why he would keep this little blunder to himself.

Chapter Text

The wind was sharp and blistery, the rain nearly blinding, when Ron and Harry apparated just inside the Weasley's front gate. After the calm of cloudy and only slightly breezy London, Ottery St. Catchpole felt like a whole other world – a far less pleasant one.

After short exclamations of surprise, the two young men pulled their traveling cloaks around themselves and dashed to the front door. Ron pulled it open and both eagerly entered the welcoming warmth. It took him slightly longer to pull it shut against the fierce wind, but eventually he managed to lock out the storm.

There was laughter coming from the living room, accompanied by a golden glow that had to be the result of a healthy fire in the fireplace. The house looked as it always did, an eclectic mix of old, patched up, and some shiny new – the inevitable result of seven children and a war that still hadn't quite left everyone's conscious thoughts even though it had ended four years ago. To Harry, it felt like a loving embrace. It felt like home.

Ron had shrugged off his travel cloak almost immediately, but Harry paused for a moment, uncaring of his dripping wet hair, to absorb the feeling. Somehow, he still couldn't bring himself to take this house, its atmosphere, for granted.

Down the hall, a head peeked out from the kitchen. “Harry, Ron!” Ginny exclaimed, a wide grin spreading across her face. She ran down the hallway and threw her arms around Harry's neck, her hands carefully not touching him.

Harry laughed, the sound not coming even close to giving voice to the joy that immediately began bubbling in his chest. He put his arms around her and gave in to the magnetic pull of her lips.

“Oh, sure, you say 'Harry, Ron', but the only one you really care about is Harry,” he heard Ron grumble loudly.

Harry snickered as Ginny pulled back, rolling her eyes. She stepped back, once again careful not to touch him with her dirty hands, and then walked over to Ron.

“Welcome back, Ron,” she said and then kissed her brother on the cheek. “Better?”

“Much,” said Ron dryly, though his eyes danced with amusement. “Hermione 'ere yet?”

Ginny shook her head. “No, not yet. Everyone else is, though.”

A loud ringing noise suddenly came from the kitchen.

“Ginny!”

“Yes, I can hear it, mum!” Ginny called back. She looked back to her boyfriend and brother. “Dinner's pretty much done. We can eat as soon as Hermione gets here.”

She rushed back to the kitchen. Harry watched her go and then finally shrugged off his traveling cloak and hung it on the stand next to the door. It was only now that he noticed the two extra cloaks hanging there.

“Bill and Fleur are here?” he asked Ron, surprised.

“Apparently,” his friend answered, also eyeing the cloaks. “And, no, I didn't know they were coming. Thought Bill was still in Albania.”

Harry frowned. “I thought Bill was in Azerbaijan.”

“Whatever, mate. It started with an 'A'.”

They entered the living room to a chorus of greetings. Even Percy was present, though without Penelope, who was apparently away for the weekend with a group of co-workers – a shopping weekend in Paris Percy seemed only too happy to miss.

“I thought you weren't supposed to be back until next week,” Harry said to Bill as he greeted him.

Bill's eyes flitted over to his wife for a moment. “Ah, well, I was able to finish up early and come home,” he said.

Whatever else he was about to add was interrupted by Ron's mum rushing in from the kitchen to greet them both personally. Ron made an irritated noise as she examined them each from head to toe, as though she hadn't seen them just last week. Harry, however, couldn't really say he disliked the attention – even if he wouldn't ever say it out loud – as ridiculous as it was.

It was another half hour after Mrs Weasley disappeared back into the kitchen that Hermione finally arrived. Ron rushed out of the living room at the first sound of the door opening, leaving George snickering after him. Harry found it equally amusing, but he didn't begrudge his friends their privacy.

“Hello, everyone,” Hermione greeted a few minutes later, cheeks slightly flushed, but dry, and with not a hair out of place. “I'm so sorry I'm late. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear my supervisors were Death Eater sympathizers with how much they hate me. Honestly, giving me a new, supposedly urgent, assignment an hour before the end of the day on a Friday is definitely bordering on evil.”

“I thought you were just organizing old files and reports?” said Ginny as she entered the room. She came over to Harry and put an arm around him. “What could possibly be so urgent about that?”

Hermione shrugged. “There are a lot of reports from just before and during the war. Mostly from auror observers and ministry spies working in the Muggle world. Anything vital to maintaining the Statute of Secrecy is always dealt with immediately, but there are still hundreds of reports that get submitted to the discretion of the the Magical Law Enforcement Department and the Office of Muggle Affairs. They're supposed to go over the reports and then decide if anything needs to be done, whether additional monitoring or some form of intervention.”

“It's helped us identify potential problems in the past,” Mr Wealsey added. “Every once in a while a Muggle happens upon something magical. Often they dismiss it as their own imagination, but sometimes one of them starts to get a little too curious.”

Harry thought about that. “Did a lot of these reports get missed during the war?”

Percy snorted. “Undoubtedly,” he said. “Most of the auror observers were pulled from their posts after the first year, leaving Muggle Affairs, such as it was, to pick up the slack.”

Mr Weasley nodded. “With more people in the field, it left less in the office and so a lot of the reports were barely skimmed over before being dismissed. The Death Eater administration certainly didn't care and everyone else had bigger things to worry about.”

“Well, that job sounds horridly boring, Hermione,” said Ginny, and then raised her voice. “But if we're all 'ere, dinner's ready so you should all head on to the table.”

Dinner was loud and full of laughter and Mrs Weasley's wonderful cooking. Harry secretly suspected that Mrs Weasley spent days preparing for the weekly Friday night family dinners. Not that he was complaining; he loved Friday night dinner.

“So, Harry, Ron, I heard it was your team that was sent to take care of that Death Eater attack in Muggle London earlier this week,” Percy said almost too casually once most of the main course had been devoured.

Hermione perked up. “Yes, I heard about that,” she said. “Is it true that Muggles managed to take out most of the Death Eaters before you'd arrived?”

“What, really?” said Bill, sounding surprised. “The Prophet just said the Muggles had put up a valiant defense.”

Harry blinked. “Is that what it said? I honestly hadn't actually read the articles. I figured the Ministry wasn't going to tell them the whole truth, but that's a bit of an understatement.”

He looked to Ron, who just shrugged. “Don't look at me,” he said. “I was unconscious for most of it, remember.”

Harry smile in amusement. “On the positive side, it only took you ten minutes to write your report.”

Ron grinned. “There was that, yeah.”

“Unconscious?” Mrs Weasley exclaimed, looking slightly alarmed. “What in Merlin's name happened?”

The tips of Ron's ears turned pink. “Er...” he said, his eyes looking to Harry for help.

Percy was, however, more than happy to take up the explanation. “Apparently, Ronald here apparated directly in front of a Muggle drinking establishment and one of the patrons clonked him over the head with a pitcher of beer, knocking him unconscious.”

The table fell into a stunned silence during which Ron had hunched in on himself, clearly trying to disappear without the use of magic.

“It actually wasn't all that funny at the time,” Harry spoke up before anyone could start laughing. Ron blinked and looked at him curiously. “I apparated in just after Ron and I didn't actually see what had happened. All I saw was him going down just before a Muggle swung around and pointed a gun in my face.”

Hermione gasped, looking horrified. “A gun? The Muggles were armed?!”

Harry nodded. “They were from the United States Military, er, Air Force.” He frowned and turned to Ron. “Do you suppose there's a difference?”

Ron shrugged. “The Air Force probably flies.”

“Zat is very different to ze Prophet report,” said Fleur.

“Yes, the Ministry decided against informing the public that the most successful anti-Death Eater offensive in months was thanks to Muggle intervention,” said Percy. “The numbers were right, though: four dead and three in custody. It just didn't mention that three of the dead were killed by bullets and one died of a snapped neck.”

“A snapped neck?” said Ginny, looking vaguely ill. “You mean one of them...”

Percy raised an eyebrow at her. “Killed a Death Eater with their bare hands? Apparently, yes.”

“Dear Merlin,” said Mrs Weasley.

“You read the entire report, did you?” said Harry, glaring at Percy for upsetting the table.

“Of course. And the one that came in this morning, where Head Auror Bryant reported our insider at the London Police Department had managed to procure the bullet casings you'd left behind at the scene from their evidence lockup.”

Harry shook his head. “I still don't understand what her problem with the bullets is,” he said. “Why would the leftover casings be important? Bryant said they could be used to identify the type of gun used, but there must be a million guns out there.”

He and Ron both looked to Hermione, who blinked and then scowled at them. “I don't know what you're looking at me for,” she said. “I don't know the first thing about Muggle weapons. However, logically, the only reason the casings might pose problem is if the American military uses different guns than everyone else.”

“Oh.” Harry thought about that. “Yeah, that would make sense, I suppose.”

“Well, I guess we'll find out next week,” Ron pointed out.

Harry made a face, feeling the frustrated anger he'd been filled with all week coming to the fore once again. He clenched his fist. “Yeah, I guess we will.”

He felt Ginny squeeze his hand and he looked over to her. “What is it, Harry?” she asked.

He let out a huff of air. “Oh, Bryant's got us in 'remedial Muggle Studies' for all of next week. Barring any emergencies that Darwish's team can't handle alone, of course.”

“Harry, she must think you need to learn a few more things,” said Hermione reasonably.

Harry, however, didn't feel like being reasonable. “I've been fighting this war since I was twelve!” he spat. “I know how to fight Death Eaters. She was living in France during the war and now she comes in and acts like she knows what's best. She doesn't know what it was like, didn't have to struggle to survive, to live in fear and fight day after day, not knowing who you could trust. She's never lost anyone to Death Eaters, so she should just let us do our jobs and hunt them down!”

“Harry!” Hermione exclaimed in disapproval. He met her eyes defiantly, daring her to contradict him. “You know very well she fought Death Eaters! She lead the French auror teams hunting down Death Eaters who were hiding out and recruiting on the continent. It was in the Prophet's feature article about her appointment. The French Ministry awarded her a metal of courage for her work.”

Harry clenched his teeth. Yes, he'd known that. It had been the main reason he'd been willing to give the new Head Auror a chance when she'd taken the position. Only she'd made it clear very quickly that she didn't care what any of them had been through with the changes she made.

But before he could say anything himself, Ron came to his defense.

“Doesn't mean she knows what she's doing,” said his friend. “I mean, Yeolman was going to make Harry a senior auror and give 'im a team of his own. Then Bryant comes in and the first thing she does is tosses out that plan and put some sort of second string auror in charge instead. 'S not like anyone actually follows 'im.”

“What?!” Ginny exclaimed, turning to Harry with a shocked expression on her face. “You're not going to be a Team Leader?”

He tried to smile at Ginny. “No, I'm not. According to her, I'm not ready for it yet.”

“What a bitch!”

“Ginerva Weasley!”

Ginny met her mother's glare. “What? It's true. Harry's done more than prove he's a good leader. Doesn't anything he did during the war count for anything?”

“I'm sure it does, Ginny,” Arthur chimed in, a clear effort to calm the conversation down. “And while I haven't had many chances to interact with Head Auror Bryant, Kingsley does seem quite confident in her abilities. Just because her style of leadership is different than her predecessor's doesn't mean it's bad. Maybe if you give her a chance, her actions will make sense in the long run.”

“Everyone I've talked to at Gringotts certainly seems optimistic about her,” Bill added. He shrugged at Harry. “Not that any of us know her, of course, but a lot of people like some of the changes she's implemented so far.”

“That's the general sense I've been getting at the rest of the Ministry,” Arthur agreed. “What about you, Percy? I mean you must have more contact with her than any of us.”

Percy lifted his chin. “I think she's doing an excellent job,” he said. “I recommended her for the position myself, after all. Minister Shacklebolt knew things at the Auror Department needed to change and asked me and the other aides to find him a list of people suitable for the position. After a lengthy search, Angelique Bryant was my choice, a French witch with ties to Britain through her father. Everything she's done so far has only proven me right.”

“Oh, yes I remember that,” said Hermione with a thoughtful frown. “Wasn't her father a Muggle? Or was her mother a Muggle? I seem to remember the Prophet calling her a half-blood, but I'm not sure they said from which side.”

“They didn't.” Percy hesitated for a moment. “Her father was a Muggle police officer. He died seven years ago in a Death Eater attack in Central London. Even knowing what he was up against, he still tried to protect as many people as he could.”

Harry blinked, some of his anger dissipating at that tidbit of information. Losing a close family member was something he could empathize with. At least she'd gotten to know her father, a small, bitter voice inside his head whispered maliciously. He swallowed it down.

“That wasn't in the report,” said George quietly.

Percy shook his head. “No, we only gave the Prophet enough information to satisfy them. Not that they can't find it for themselves, but the Head Auror requested that we maintain as much of her family's privacy as we could. I'm only telling you this much to make you understand that while she might've been in living in France for most of her life, she's not been untouched by the war.”

“That means there's more,” said Hermione cautiously.

Percy rolled his eyes. “Of course there's more. She entered the French Auror Academy straight from Beauxbatons, graduated in the top ten percent of her class and then had a very successful career from there. Naturally, there's quite a bit more in her file, but it's all confidential and you won't hear anymore of it from me. Suffice to say, Minister Kingsley has the utmost confidence in her to do her job well and so should all of you.”

Harry bit back a snort of disbelief.

Before anyone could say anything else, Bill cleared his throat. “Yes, well, not that this hasn't been a fascinating conversation, but I think maybe it's time to move to a less, ah, controversial topic.” He exchanged a look with Fleur before turning to the rest of the table. “Fleur and I have an announcement to make.”

“We are going to 'ave a baby,” said Fleur into her husband's dramatic pause.

Bill's lips stretched into a proud grin.

Molly Weasley gasped and then seconds later she was out of her chair rushing over to embrace the happy parents-to-be. The rest of the table erupted into delighted chaos. No one noticed when George disappeared only to come back with a large bottle of champagne.

“You knew!” Ginny accused him.

George shrugged. “They came by the shop on Wednesday during their lunch break and the smell of the freshly-made Canary Creams made 'er ill. Never done that before, so Bill had to explain what was going on before I scrapped the whole lot thinking I'd done something wrong in the brewing.”

“Arthur!” Molly Weasley exclaimed, practically bouncing up to her husband. “We're going to be grandparents!”

Arthur laughed. “Yes, I know,” he said, his eyes glowing just as much as hers.

“Oh! You know, I think we might still have our old crib somewhere in the attic.” She immediately hurried back to Fleur and Bill's side. “You two really should go up and take a look at what's still up there. I'm sure I didn't throw everything away after Ginny was born.”

Beside Harry, he heard Ginny groan. “Oh Merlin, there's going to be no living with her now,” she said as she rested her head on his shoulder. “You realize this is only the beginning. Now she's going to be after the rest of us, wondering when we're all going to give her grandchildren.”

Harry put a hand around Ginny's shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “I'm sure we'll survive,” he said with a wide, happy smile.

 


 

“Should've known anything to do with the Tok'ra wouldn't be as simple as it sounded,” said Cam, wincing as he tried to shift away from the sharp protrusion in the wall that was digging into his lower back. The chain holding his hands above his head jangled with the movement.

Beside him, Daniel rolled his eyes. “Cam, you haven't dealt with the Tok'ra nearly enough to sound that bitter and sarcastic about it.”

“Didn't take much. Besides, I've read all the reports, remember?”

“Yes, we know,” said Vala, her chain jangling softly as she examined the cuffs holding her wrists together. Beside her, Teal'c seemed to be looking on with vague curiosity.

Cam secretly hoped she managed to find a weakness in the cuffs. Because he sure hadn't seen it. They were nothing fancy, just your standard, everyday clunky medieval cuffs – easy enough to pick if they could get their hands to twist into the right awkward angle. Oh, and if they had something to pick them with. Out of all of them, Vala was the most likely to randomly carry something like that up her sleeve. Now the decidedly not-medieval-looking lock on the door was another story altogether.

“You know, the next time I'm told to go without Carter, I'm going to tell them where to stuff their damned mission,” he said.

Not that Sam's presence alone would've been enough to prevent this latest mess of a so-called peaceful mission. They'd been taken by surprise, plain and simple. The crowd that had gathered by the Stargate to greet them had looked friendly enough, their expressions wary, but not outwardly hostile. A few of the men had been carrying long, bladed weapons that looked like something half-way between a long spear and a sithe. But most primitive farming implements looked like weapons, so Cam had learned a long time ago to remain calm and observe first.

The mood had shifted quickly and within moments their greeting committee had turned into an angry, determined – and surprisingly organized – mob. There may not have been any visible soldiers, but the locals moved in and grabbed at them and their weapons with an efficiency that seemed practiced.

As a defense plan it was pretty effective. Such close quarters would've made aiming tricky even if it had been one of the sturdy young men who'd grabbed his arm and not someone's half-blind grandmother.

Daniel snorted softly. “Can I be there for that?” he asked mildly. “I think I'd really like to be there to watch you tell General Landry to 'stuff it'.”

Cam felt himself flush. “Yeah, okay, so maybe I'm not going to use those exact words,” he admitted. “But, come on, I know that I'm not the only one wishing Carter was here right now, where she belongs. I mean, I get that fixing Atlantis is important and all–”

“–I thought she was analyzing the Ancient tech,” said Daniel. “Pretty sure Rodney and his team are doing the actual repairs.”

“Whatever. She's on Atlantis instead of with her team! Where we need her, because she's the only one with the expertise to deal with Ori tech.”

“According to the intel sent to us by the Tok'ra, this planet should not have had any such technology,” said Teal'c in his usual calm, reasonable voice.

“And since when is Tok'ra intel all that reliable?”

Teal'c inclined his head. “A very good point.”

“Not that it matters, really,” Vala interjected. “Sam wouldn't have been much help with these cuffs anyway... Aha! They're really quite ordinary.”

Her chains rattled. Cam craned his head past Daniel just in time to watch as Vala slipped her wrists out of her half-open cuffs, grinning triumphantly. Sure enough, there was a long thin metal stick in her hand. Cam wasn't sure where she'd hidden it, but couldn't help grinning at her resourcefulness.

She went over to Teal'c and got started on his cuffs. “Besides, Cam, you know I spent months on an Ori ship while I was pregnant with Adria,” she said. “You don't honestly think I was there for that long without learning how to pick their door locks, do you?”

Cam felt his grin widen. “Guess I should've known better.”

“Yes, you should have,” Daniel agreed.

As soon as Teal'c was free, the Jaffa crossed over to the cell door to stand sentry beside the small barred window that looked out into the corridor. Vala moved on to Daniel. By the time she'd gotten to him, Cam was full of anxious energy, more than ready to get going so they could complete their mission. He hadn't gotten a great look at the inside of the large stone temple they'd been dragged into by the mob, but the layout hadn't seemed too complicated.

Wasn't the first temple they'd had to escape out of, wouldn't be the last.

“So, anyone got any idea on how to find this Tok'ra operative we're supposed to extracting now that we're going to have to keep a low profile to avoid getting caught?” he asked as Vala went over to the lock mechanism.

“I was hoping they'd meet us at the stargate,” said Daniel.

“Well, if they did, they kinda got lost in the shuffle.”

“It is also possible that they have already been found out and are now dead,” Teal'c pointed out, his eyes only briefly glancing in their direction.

“Let's hope not,” said Vala. “I'd rather this all not have been a complete waste of time.”

“Besides of which, it sounded like whatever intel this operative had was important,” Daniel added.

“Well they would say that if they wanted to be rescued,” Cam pointed out. He wasn't quite ready to trust the Tok'ra just yet. Not after the spectacularly FUBAR start to this mission. “Vala, how's that lock coming?”

“It's a bit different than the ones they use on their ships, but I've almost got it.”

Just then the structure around them shook. It was a fairly gentle shake, just enough to be felt, but not enough to dislodge anything but a few loose specs of dust.

“Uh, what was that?” Daniel asked.

“I do not know,” Teal'c answered. “Perhaps an explosion of some kind.” He paused, listening. “I do not believe we are in any danger here.”

“Yeah, it felt far enough away, whatever it was,” Cam agreed.

“Indeed.”

“Maybe we're in luck and it's the Tok'ra operative creating a diversion to help us escape,” Daniel suggested.

Cam snorted. “We're SG-1. We don't have that kind of luck.”

They waited in silence for a few moments, waiting to see if the ground would shake again. It didn't.

“Got it!” Vala finally announced just as the cell door popped open with a soft snick and a creak of rusty hinges. Cam cringed at the sound and prayed whoever was guarding this corridor hadn't heard it.

Teal'c crouched down and looked back to Cam for confirmation. Cam nodded for him to go ahead. The Jaffa was the stealthiest of them: it only made sense for him to go take out the guards first. Nodding his acknowledgment, Teal'c quietly slipped out into the corridor and Vala took his place watching. Cam, meanwhile, went over to the other side of the door from where he could see the opposite end. Just before they'd been shoved into this cell, he was sure he'd seen the corridor turn not far ahead.

They didn't have to wait long before they heard a faint shuffling sound.

“It's Teal'c,” Vala whispered. “He's got the guard.”

“Good,” said Cam. Of course they had no idea how many guards were patrolling these dungeon corridors, but they could deal with the rest as they came across them.

Vala stood, opening the door wider just in time for Teal'c to drag the unfortunate guard into the room. The way the guard's head rolled bonelessly to the side told Cam all he needed to know about how he'd died. He was dressed in home-spun cloth and a thick leather vest that had been dyed red. He was also wearing a rather unfortunately pointy metal hat on his head that looked like it was trying to catch radio signals.

Teal'c passed him an Ori stave weapon. Cam blinked at it before taking it.

“Well, I guess we now have definite confirmation that the Ori have been here,” he said.

Teal'c nodded as he unsheathed a long, sharp dagger from the guard's side. “We must hurry. I believe the guards patrol the corridors in circuits. I saw another one walking away down a far corridor.”

“The corridors probably loop around and intersect,” said Daniel.

Cam nodded. “Right, so let's move out then. Watch out for more guards and keep an eye out for our stuff. General Landry and the scientists will probably crucify us if we leave that anti-prior device behind.”

“They're not likely to be on this level,” Vala pointed out as they slipped out of the cell, Teal'c automatically falling back to take their six.

“Then we'll have to take a detour and hope there aren't too many guards around,” Cam whispered back to her as he glanced down the opposite end of the corridor.

“Well, from what little I managed to see of the temple, the structure looks Goa'uld in design,” Daniel added thoughtfully. “Someone tore down the statues at the front and it looks like there's been some redecorating done fairly recently, but–”

“–Does any of that help us in getting our stuff and getting outta here?” Cam cut Daniel off before he could spiral on into a long-winded speech that was more likely to get them caught than anything.

He could feel Daniel glaring at his back. “Yes,” said Daniel in a clipped tone. “It means that, since most Goa'uld temples follow very similar architectural designs, then between Vala, Teal'c and I, we should be able to hazard a guess as to its basic layout.”

“Good.”

Cam gripped the stave weapon in his hands tightly as he approached the first junction. Holding his hand up to signal a stop to his team, he then cautiously inched forward to peek into the intersecting corridor, listening carefully for the slightest sound that would indicate someone approaching. The coast was clear.

He hurried across the corridor, hearing the careful movements of his team behind him. Their escort down to the dungeons had been rushed and confusing, with a lot of pushing and pulling from all directions, but Cam was pretty sure the path they'd taken had been mostly straight.

Either way, they had to keep moving and straight ahead was as good a direction as any.

For what was supposedly a dungeon, the corridors were surprisingly spacious: wide enough for three people to comfortably walk down side by side, and tall enough to accommodate the foot-long spikes at the top of the guards' helmets. They were illuminated by what looked like small suspended barbeques – shallow metal bowls filled with burning charcoal hung from the ceiling every five feet or so. Cam thought those seemed like a horrible idea, especially when combined with the spike helmets.

Suddenly, he heard a soft sound and froze, raising his hand to signal the others. He listened. Behind him, he could hear the faint sounds of his teammate's controlled breathing. Something rustled in the cell next to him. And coming towards them from somewhere off to the right, he heard footfalls. They weren't particularly loud, but the person they belonged to clearly wasn't really trying to be quiet either.

Cam slowly inched his way forward, careful to stay as close to the wall as he could without scraping his flak jacket against the stone. He didn't see the intersection in the corridors until he was almost on top of it, only just managing to stop himself from stepping out into the open. This intersecting corridor was narrower than the previous ones and the lights were further back, making the opening less noticeable.

The footsteps were much closer now, but continued at the same steady pace as before. He didn't allow himself to relax, too aware of just how vulnerable they were with only one stave weapon and a knife between them, and only the shadowy edges for cover.

He tightened his grip on the stave weapon, but held it low so the smooth metal wouldn't accidentally reflect light from the fires. Cam quickly turned and motioned for the others to get low. He turned back just as the guard finally stepped into view. The man looked young, though a bushy dark beard made it difficult to tell his exact age. He paused and looked to his right, down the other side of the corridor. Cam held his breath and shifted his weight forward, ready to pounce.

Suddenly, the ground around them shook. More loose dust fell down from the ceiling and, somewhere in the distance, something fell to the floor with a metallic clunk. It was another explosion, closer than the first, but still not close enough to be of immediate concern to them.

The guard paused, his head snapping automatically towards the sound. He stood there, frozen, for several incredibly long moments. Cam suppressed the urge to swallow nervously, knowing all the guard would have to do was look down and a bit to the left to see them. Eventually, the guard took a deep breath. Then he resumed his patrol, his steps quicker than they'd been before.

Once the steps were far enough away, Cam finally allowed himself to relax. Slightly.

“Well, that was a very conveniently-timed explosion,” Vala whispered.

“Guess it means we haven't managed to piss off all the gods yet,” Daniel whispered back. Then he paused. “I wonder what's going on.”

“Let's get out of here and find out,” Cam whispered over his shoulder before carefully leaning out into the corridor and looking in both directions.

He could still see the guard who'd just passed them continuing down the surprisingly long corridor. The other direction was clear. Cam motioned to the others and then quickly darted across, the rest of his team right behind him.

The next intersection was clear. So was the one after that. Cam was starting to get real sick of these dungeons.

“Cam, wait!” Daniel suddenly whispered, the sound unnaturally loud in the silent maze of stone corridors.

He turned to Daniel, annoyed. “What is it, Jackson?”

Daniel pointed his thumb to the right. “We have to go this way.” Then he pointed upwards at the wall behind him. “I remember that burn mark. It was one of the things that convinced me this has to be a former Goa'uld temple.”

Cam looked to the old, rounded burn mark on the wall – it had definitely been caused by a staff weapon. He nodded. “Good eye,” he told Daniel, gripping his shoulder in thanks as he passed him.

The doors along this stretch of corridor were different. They were wider, more elaborately-decorated and made of smooth metal that was obviously meant to slide apart, unlike the more traditional, roughly-built doors from the dungeon they'd been kept in. He touched one door panel out of curiosity, only to find it locked.

Just then, Daniel was beside him pointing at a bit of the carving above the door. “Huh. That's the mark of Pelops. Interesting... we haven't really come across a whole lot of his planets other than Argos.”

“Does that mean we'll find weapons inside?” Cam asked, not really hopeful, but figuring it was worth a shot.

Vala snorted softly. “With Pelops? No, more like the concubine's quarters.”

“Oh.” Cam paused to take a careful breath as he reminded himself that hatred for the Goa'uld wouldn't help him right now. “Then let's get going.”

They continued on in silence, passing by about five such elaborate doors, each with increasingly more elaborate door art. Suddenly, a guard turned the corner up ahead of them. The guard froze in surprise for a scant second, before immediately raising the stave weapon in his hands.

“Shit,” Cam said under his breath as he aimed his own stave weapon and braced himself for the kick-back. They couldn't afford to draw attention to themselves with a prolonged shoot-out.

Cam fired. The guard just barely managed to duck back into the other corridor, his shot going wide and hitting the ceiling above Cam's head. Which made Cam all-too-aware of their own lack of cover. As he lined up his next shot, he noticed Teal'c hurrying past him along the opposite wall.

The guard appeared from around the corner. Cam fired, only peripherally aware of the bright blue shot coming at him until seconds before it hit. He felt someone grab at him and then he was falling sideways, his upper left arm feeling like it had just been engulfed in flames. He wasn't sure how successful he'd been at muffling his scream of pain.

Forcing the bright spots away from his eyes, he began to sit up, aware of arms helping him.

“Cam, are you alright?” he heard Daniel ask.

He looked up to meet his teammate's worried eyes. “Not dead yet,” he said, his tongue feeling heavy around the words. Then he winced as something poked at his arm, right in the middle of the fire that felt like it was trying to burn his upper arm off. He looked over to see Vala examining his wound.

“Well, at least the plasma shot cauterized the wound, which means you won't bleed all over the place,” she said.

“Lucky me.”

The sound of another stave blast made his head snap back towards the guard. The sudden movement sent another wave of pain streaming from his arm and he grit his teeth against it even as he watched Teal'c rolling to his feet in the center of the corridor, away from a now-smoking spot on the wall.

The guard moved his aim to match Teal'c movements. Daniel helped Cam to his feet while Vala darted forward to pick up Cam's dropped stave weapon.

Suddenly a blue snake of light enveloped the guard. He thrashed in the light's grip for several seconds, before collapsing to the ground.

Stunned silence filled the corridor.

“Uh, did that just look like a zat to you?” Cam finally asked.

“Yup,” Daniel answered, sounding equally stunned.

Ahead of them, they saw Teal'c cautiously moving forward. Cam and Daniel followed, with Vala breaking off to their side to cover them with the stave weapon.

Suddenly, a cloaked figure walked into the corridor.

Cam froze, instinctively feeling the need to duck for cover. He blinked and grit his teeth against the reaction. Which was when he realized the figure's cloak was grey, not black. Not that the colour should have made a difference... except that somehow it did. As soon as he realized it was grey, he could feel his instinctive fight-or-flight reaction lessening. The figure stepped forward, into the light of an overhead barbeque, a feminine sway in its hips. The zat in her right hand was pointed downwards and a slender hand reached up to push the hood down, revealing a beautiful woman with pale skin, full lips and shoulder-length hair.

Beside him, Daniel gasped. “Anise, Freya?” he said.

The woman looked to him and blinked in what looked like a very subdued sort of surprise. “Daniel Jackson,” she said. Her eyes slid over to the Jaffa. “Teal'c. I confess I was not expecting SG-1 to be sent for me.”

“The Tok'ra requested our aide in retrieving an operative,” Teal'c explained. “They said they had no ships close enough to do so.”

The woman nodded. And then her features went slack for a moment before her eyes began to glow. “It is good that you have managed to escape on your own,” said the Tok'ra in the usual dual-toned voice of the symbiot. “But we must hurry. The diversions I have arranged should give us enough of a window of time to get to the Stargate, but predicting its exact length is difficult.”

That explained the convenient explosions.

Cam nodded to the Tok'ra. “Then we'd better hustle,” he said as he started forward. “We'd like to retrieve our weapons and anti-prior tech first though.”

The woman looked to him and nodded solemnly. “Of course. Follow me.”

And then she disappeared around the corner with a swish of her long, grey cloak. Teal'c picked up the fallen guard's stave weapon and retreated to their six. Cam nodded to Vala and gestured her to the front, knowing that since the stave weapon required a two-handed grip, she'd be the better shot. The pain in his arm had settled into an insistent, burning throb he could work around, but it made no sense for him to carry one of their few weapons when his concentration wasn't optimal.

The Tok'ra operative had either already taken care of the guards in these corridors or else had managed to infiltrate the village and its temple for long enough to know the guard's patrol schedule. Or they'd actually managed to catch a break for once, because they didn't run into anymore guards in the dungeons.

“So how long exactly have you been on this planet?” Daniel asked her as they hurried down yet another corridor.

“Almost a year,” she replied, this time without the symbiot's inflection. “I managed to infiltrate a trading party and came to the planet as a herbalist. When I realized there was something strange going on in the village, I found a reason to remain behind.”

“This has to do with your important information?”

She turned around for a moment and met each of their eyes in turn. “Yes. I do not have time to explain now, but there is some distressing news I have learned during my time here. Unfortunately, the Stargate is constantly guarded and so I have been unable to leave. Even the one subspace message I managed to send out was done at great risk and could only be extremely short out of necessity.”

“Does this have to do with the Ori?” Vala asked.

The Tok'ra woman hesitated. “In a way. It is a long and complicated story, one better left for another time.”

“Then we should make haste,” said Teal'c from behind them. “For I hear voices coming from behind us. I believe the stunned guard has been discovered.”

Anise/Freya nodded to him. “Of course,” she said and then turned to the left, where they finally found a set of wide stairs leading out of the dungeons.

She motioned to them to stay where they were before carefully heading up the stairs. Cam strained his ears and thought he heard her speaking to someone male for a few moments. Then he heard the unmistakable sound of a zat discharge.

“Come, quickly,” she called down the stairs to them, just loud enough for them to hear.

Cam followed right behind Daniel and Vala, keeping his steps as light as possible. At the top, the space was much brighter, though they were still surrounded by stone walls. The ceilings were higher, with skylights cut into the roof that gave the space a sort of mystical feel, in the way of light peeking through a jungle canopy.

Daniel suddenly rushed off. Cam was about to call after him when he saw him helping the Tok'ra drag a man's body behind a large planter. They arranged him into the shadow against the wall and then moved a lower-hanging leaf of the odd palm-like bush so that it partially obscured the body. It wouldn't fool anyone who was looking, but it might prevent the unconscious body from being found by the first person walking by.

Straight ahead, Cam saw a set of large wooden doors. He felt relieved to know they were fairly close.

Anise/Freya must have seen his look. “We are taking a side door,” she said, interrupting his plans. “Even with the commotion I have created, the main doors will still be well-guarded. Also, I believe your weapons are being stored this way.”

Cam nodded, disappointed but approving the reasoning.

The Tok'ra walked up to a large embroidered tapestry covered in birds and flowers and swept part of it aside, revealing the opening to yet another corridor. Cam raised an eyebrow at that. Well, the guards certainly wouldn't expect them to know about that particular escape route unless they already suspected SG-1 was getting insider help.

This corridor was narrow and much darker than even the ones in the dungeon had been, with only a few burning torches providing light. It was also thankfully short and soon they found themselves entering a large peach-coloured room with several long tables surrounded with dozens of haphazardly-placed chairs. There was half-eaten food and half-full glasses, some strewn papers and even a scattered deck of cards at one table and some sort of boardgame further down on another.

A mess hall of some sort?

The Tok'ra immediately crossed to the right side of the room and entered a sequence into the keypad beside one of the many doors along that wall. She lifted her zat as they slid open, Vala stepping in beside her to cover the room with the Ori stave. A moment later, both women lowered their weapons and stepped inside.

Cam walked in after them. The room looked like both a storage cupboard and an armory in one. Their packs were sitting next to their weapons on a table in the corner. As quickly as they could, they divided up the packs, Cam wincing as the movements and added weight jarred the wound on his arm. He popped a couple of tylenol, but held absolutely no expectation of them doing anything but take a little of the edge off the pain. If he was lucky and their journey to the stargate went smoothly.

He grit his teeth as he held up his P90 and then they were on their way again.

“So, what exactly did you do to make them all abandon the building like this?” Daniel asked when they were back in the unnervingly empty mess hall.

“I set an explosive charge to go off inside an alcohol storage cellar located beneath one of the barns and then a second one at the base of the water reservoir,” Anise stated calmly.

Cam blinked. Having grown up on a farm, he could easily picture the devastation those explosions could've caused. No wonder there was no one around. “What's next to the water reservoir?”

“I arranged it to fall in the direction of the granary.”

“Holy shit.” That meant potential damage to whatever wheat-like grain they used for flour, winter supplies, possibly even seeds for the next growing season. The horror must've come through in his voice because the Tok'ra paused in her steps and turned to him.

“If they are quick, they should be able to minimize the damage to their livestock and food stores,” she told him. “They are well-organized and prepared for such calamities.”

“Beneath a barn seems like a rather stupid place to keep an alcohol cellar,” said Vala with a frown.

Anise shrugged. “The leaders of this town do not know of its existence. The man who uses it is a particularly repulsive excuse for a human being who is only tolerated among the people here because of his relation to one of the council members.”

“Bet that's about to change,” Cam muttered under his breath.

“Most likely, yes,” she said and then, apparently having decided the conversation was over, continued towards an empty alcove at the back of the room.

It wasn't until they reached the alcove that they saw an opening discretely hidden in its shadowed curve. The narrow hallway on the other side was surprisingly bright and airy, its walls a simple beige stone with very few decorative touches save for a couple vases full of large bright flowers his mom would've been jealous of.

Even through the burning pain in his shoulder, Cam found just enough of a spark of humour to be amused at the idea of bringing his mom flowers from another planet. Maybe next mother's day. He was sure Daniel would help him smuggle them out of the Mountain.

The smells wafting out of the kitchen they passed by were amazing. The arched entrance into the kitchens was several times wider than any standard doorway, giving them a good view into the space. There was a large pot hanging over a fire pit, its contents sizzling as they steadily boiled over into the low fire. Cam wished he could go take a peek at what was cooking inside. But, besides the obvious danger they were in, the lack of any living creature in the building was eerie.

“Am I the only one expecting a monster to jump out at us from one of these rooms?” he whispered.

He didn't have to turn around to know that Teal'c was raising one of his eyebrows at him.

“Well, if it does, we'll make sure to push you at it and then run away,” said Vala, sounding all-too-serious for Cam's liking.

Vala,” said Daniel pointedly.

“Oh fine, I suppose I could try shooting at it first. If that doesn't work, then we'll push Cameron at it. Happy?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Hey!” Cam protested and then grit his teeth against the renewed wave of pain from his arm when the movement jarred it a little too much.

Up ahead, he saw Anise shoot them a bewildered look – it was one of the many variations of the 'you Tau'ri are crazy' looks. They tended to get them a lot, some more polite than others.

“Hello?”

SG-1 froze. The pain in his arm was momentarily forgotten as Cam let instinct take over. He raised his P-90 and hurried past Daniel and Vala to the front to assess the danger. Anise turned back for a moment and motioned to them to stand down as the glow disappeared from her eyes. She lowered her zat before slowly approaching the old woman standing in the doorway of the room just ahead of them.

Though her hair was as white as newly fallen snow, and her wrists looked like they would snap like twigs at the slightest pressure, she didn't look feeble. She stared at them with wide pale blue eyes, her expression caught between shock and horror. There was also a sort of desperation in them when her attention latched on to Anise. “Freya, what's going on?”

“I'm afraid I am leaving,” said Freya, her voice quiet and gentle.

“Leaving? But why?” The woman's eyes slid briefly to SG-. “And why are you helping these outsiders? They bear the marks of the enemies of the Ori.”

Cam blinked in surprise. Enemies of the Ori? He thought they'd already dealt with this. Wasn't the Ark supposed to be all-inclusive?

“They are my friends,” said Freya calmly, though Cam noticed the way she shifted her grip on the zat. “They came to help me get home. Amarela, you have been a good friend to me during my stay in this village, but the Ori are not the benevolent gods you believe them to be. They are no more gods than you or I, but rather beings of more advanced knowledge and ability, ones who have been able to transcend their physical form.”

Anger flashed through the woman's eyes. “Their Prior foretold of a great illness befalling us and then came offering the powers of the Ori to save us from it. Without the Ori, my son would be dead!”

“The Prior caused the illness that nearly took your son's life.”

The old woman's eyes widened and Cam could see the moment almost-understanding was shut down by denial. She shook her head. “No, you're lying. The Ori are all-powerful, they do not need to resort to such tricks.”

“She's not lying,” said Daniel softly as he stepped forward. “We've seen it happen. First comes the Prior, followed by a mysterious plague only he can cure. Sometimes, they don't bother with a plague. Either way, those who do not submit to the Ori either fall to the plague or are slaughtered mercilessly from the sky.”

The old woman was speechless for a moment as she stared at Daniel. However, once that moment had passed, she seemed to rally herself. “I, too, have seen the powers of the Priors,” she whispered back to him, her eyes boring into his, suddenly sharp as steel. “You speak of the Ori as though they were conquerors. They are gods. We have not submitted to the Ori, we have embraced them. Once, this village had a god and he was beautiful, but cruel, caring naught for his followers. Hundreds of years passed until we finally rejected him and tore his adornments from his temple. The Priors, yes, they can be cruel and seem uncaring, but the world is also beautiful, yet cruel and uncaring. The balance of the world is reflected in the balance of the Ori and their mouthpieces, the Priors. For the Ori are benevolent and loving to those who have embraced their warmth.”

Daniel was frowning. “The Prior's powers come from an understanding of science and how energy flows through the universe, beneath the surface we can see and feel. It's not magic anymore than the Ori's powers themselves are. They just have a much more advanced understanding of how the universe works.”

And just like that, Cam realized Jackson had found his perfect foil. These two could probably debate this forever. He cleared his throat. “Guys, as fascinating this, we're on the clock, so let's move out.” He looked to Anise and then gestured towards the old woman with an inquiring look on his face.

Anise – or Freya as he supposed she was right now – nodded. “Yes, we should go,” she said. She smiled sadly at the old woman. “I am sorry to have deceived you, Amarela, but I do wish you good health and hope your dreams of a granddaughter are granted.”

The old woman nodded to her solemnly, but said nothing. Then she turned her gaze back to Daniel. “Young man, be careful,” she said, now with a hint of softness in her eyes. “You seek to explain the world. But is that truly necessary? When the magical becomes mundane, what is left?”

“Reality,” Daniel responded immediately.

“Are you certain?”

Cam didn't give him the chance to answer, instead grabbing Daniel by the arm and pulling him forward. “Come on, we've gotta go,” he said, nodding to the old lady as they passed. “It was nice to meet you ma'am.”

The corridor finally came to an end and they exited out of a simple wooden door and walked into a garden. It was neatly arranged and obviously well-tended, but functional rather than decorative, full of vegetables and herbs. Wooden planks had been laid out down the center as a walk-way. Anise took the lead again as they hurried along the not-entirely stable wood.

When he looked behind them, Cam saw wisps of dark grey smoke reaching for the sky from somewhere on the other side of the temple. Refusing to waste any time thinking of the potential consequences of the fire, he turned his attention to scanning the perimeter of the garden for danger. Like the rest of the temple, it was deserted.

The garden ended at a forest. Cam remembered seeing the forest when they'd first stepped through the stargate, a lush green wall that seemed to surround the entire eastern side of the town. Walking through it now, he could tell it was wild, with no attempts anywhere to tame it or create actual paths, but the undergrowth was sparse enough to make walking fairly easy.

When Anise finally led them back out of the forest, they found themselves right behind a large wooden structure. She led them around the structure where they found a convenient and rather sizable collection of barrels and crates. From behind this cover, they finally saw their goal: the stargate. The houses had actually been built in a wide semi-circle around the gate, with a single stone structure behind it, looking like it had been abandoned quite some time ago before being half-swallowed by the forest. The stargate itself was standing on the usual stone dais with the DHD at its base.

Unfortunately, they also saw the guards their new Tok'ra friend had mentioned, all wearing their signature red leather vests and spiked helmets. On the bright side, Cam only saw one wielding a stave weapon.

“It would appear they are waiting for us,” said Teal'c.

“Yup, looks like,” Cam answered him.

Beside him, he saw Anise nod. “I had anticipated this would happen,” she said. “They do not know I am helping you and thus would not expect you, as strangers, to know of the side entrance behind the tapestry. No doubt the guards at the main doors will also be on high alert.”

“Wouldn't that old woman have already warned them about that?” Vala asked.

Anise paused and then hung her head for a moment. When she lifted it again, the glow was gone from her eyes and it was Freya speaking. “Amarela was a friend to me and I recently helped cure her son's wife of a fever that would've killed both her and the child she carries.” She looked back to the stargate. “I do not believe she has told them of my involvement. If she had, there would be more guards here as takes mere minutes to run from the temple to the Chappa'ai.”

She lowered her head again and then Anise was back. “It does not, however, mean she will not tell them eventually, only that she has not yet. Her knees give her problems, she might simply be taking her longer to get to the guards at the front doors.”

“So we've gotta be quick about this,” Cam finished for her, already bracing himself against the pain in his arm. “You've really thought this through.”

She shrugged. “I knew that if the chance for escape presented itself, I would have very little time to consider anything and so I thought of multiple scenarios and prepared in accordance, so that I would be in a position to take advantage of the situation when it arose. As brief as my message had been, I also realized there was a strong possibility of my rescuers getting captured and so I'd set up the diversions discretely in advance. Thus, while you were being taken into the temple, I was slipping away to arm my explosive devices.”

Cam had to admit, he was impressed. He motioned towards the guards at the base of the stargate. “Okay, so do you think those are it, or are there more hiding in the shadows?”

Anise pointed to a tall building about half-way down the front row of houses. “We must first take out the sentries,” she said. “They are in the top room of that house.” She then pointed towards the old stone building. “And in a wooden tower beside that building there.”

Cam squinted past the stargate and into the treeline behind it. “A wooden tower?”

“Yes. It is concealed by the trees. The sentries at both guard posts are armed with stave weapons and are instructed to kill anyone who approaches the DHD without permission.” She looked past Cam. “Teal'c, if you will take the sentries in the wooden tower, I will deal with the ones posted in the building.”

“You've got a plan all set up for them?” Cam asked.

She looked at him, her face expressionless, and blinked. “One of the guards was our lover. He was originally the excuse I used for staying in the village when the trading party left.”

Of all the answers she could've given him, that was the last one he'd expected. “L-lover? You're going to go take out your lover?”

She cocked her head at him. “Yes.” She shrugged. “Freya did not find him particularly satisfying.”

Cam knew he was gaping at this point. “And that was more information than I wanted to know,” he finally said.

Anise frowned. “Then why did you ask?”

“I, uh...” He shook his head as listened to Vala giggled softly. “Next time I won't. So you two go take out the guard towers. Teal'c, two clicks on the radio when you're done. Anise...”

He paused, wondering if giving her one of their radios would be a wise decision.

“I will open the window,” she supplied. “When the guards are no longer a problem, I will open the top right window and drape a blue cloth over its side.”

“Works for me,” said Cam and then turned his full attention back to the area in front of the stargate. There were four guards in front of the gate. And probably at least that many mere minutes away. “Teal'c, when we get the signal from you, we'll respond with one click to acknowledge. Once we've gotten the signal from Anise, we'll give you three clicks.”

He paused for a moment to visualize the battleground.

“When you get to the base of that stone building, give us another click,” he continued at Teal'c while eyeing the distance between the building and the stargate. “That'll be our signal. Daniel, Vala and I will open fire at the guards. I'll aim for the guy with the stave weapon. As soon as he's down we break cover and go for the gate. Jackson, I want you to head for the DHD and start dialing.” Daniel nodded. “Anise and I will divide the other's attention while Vala has our six. Watch for those re-enforcements from the temple. Unless there's more surprises waiting for us, we should be able to take out these guards and have Teal'c join us before those re-enforcements get here, and if we're really lucky, Jackson might even have the gate open by then.”

He looked at his team and their Tok'ra companion. “Any questions?”

They all answered negative.

“Then Anise, Teal'c, good luck to both of you.”

Both the Jaffa and the Tok'ra nodded and then slipped away in their respective directions. Cam turned to his other two teammates. “Vala, keep an eye on that stone building. If something looks like it's going to go wrong, we need to know asap. Jackson, keep a lookout for anyone coming at us from behind.”

“Got it,” said Daniel before hurrying off to the end of the building to keep watch.

They settled in to wait.

With their need for radio silence, their complete lack of knowledge of their surroundings, their necessity to trust a Tok'ra operative they barely trusted – even if Daniel and Teal'c seemed to at least know her – and a shaky, mostly unknown timeline by which to complete their escape attempt, the situation was a perfect recepie for disaster. Cam's eyes kept glancing up at the cloud of smoke that was more visible from this angle than it had been from behind the temple. It looked like it was starting to lessen.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Vala idly twirling a strand of hair around her finger with one hand, even while she continued to watch the stone building with her field binoculars. That meant she was bored, but not yet bored enough to start whining about it. He really hoped Anise and Teal'c got done before that happened.

As he'd predicted, Anise finished first. And despite the eternity it had felt like, it really had taken her less than fifteen minutes. He'd been watching the guards for any change and then glanced back to the tall building and froze, blinking his eyes to make sure he wasn't imaging it. The topmost right window was now open. As he watched a pale blue cloth was carefully placed over its ledge, just enough to be visible, but not enough to look like it was meant to stand out.

“Keep sharp, we're in business,” he whispered to Vala as he keyed his radio and sent out the three click message.

Vala didn't say a word, but she stopped twirling her hair and placed her hand back onto her weapon. Cam looked over his shoulder to where Daniel was watching the other side of the building, wincing at the flash of burning pain from his arm. Jackson must've felt his team leader's eyes on him, because he looked to Cam and gave him a thumb's up. Cam nodded to him and then turned his attention back to the guards.

Teal'c's two clicks came another eternity later, just as Cam was ready to maybe send someone after their teammate to see if he needed help. He immediately sent the one click confirmation. Moments later, Daniel was once again by his side.

Cam glanced to the sky and swallowed. The cloud was definitely starting to dissipate, which meant the townspeople had managed to get the fire under control. The water tower might take them a bit longer to contain and clearing the damage to see what could be salvaged would also take time, but not necessarily require the immediate action of all the townspeople.

Teal'c's last click came through at last. Cam took a deep breath.

“Okay, we're on,” he said quietly. “I've got the one the stave weapon. On three.” Beside him, he heard his teammates settle in and get ready. There came the twin sound of guns being cocked. He took another deep, calming breath. “Three... two... one!”

The sound of their guns firing exploded into the silence with a suddenness that was deafening. There was no way the guards by the temple didn't hear it. Cam's first bullet was deflected off the stave-holder's armor, sending the soldier staggering several steps backwards. Cam cursed under his breath and immediately depressed the trigger two more times, this time aiming for the legs. The guard, however, didn't stand around waiting to be shot at and dove for the cover of a large statue as soon as he got his feet back under him.

Cam was sure one of his bullets had caught the guard in the thigh, but that didn't prevent him from getting to cover. A quick glance to the side showed two sprawled bodies at the base of the stargate. Which left two alive, including the Ori soldier wannabe. He looked back to the statue his target had taken cover behind. He saw movement and fired. A chunk of stone flew off from the statue.

Then he saw the sun reflect off a thin piece of metal from the other side of the statue.

“Get down!” he called as he ducked down for cover.

A familiar blue shot flew just above their heads and hit one of the buildings behind them. Some sort of animal screeched and Cam winced at the high-pitched tone.

“I thought you were going to take out the one with the stave weapon?” Vala asked pointedly.

“He's wearing Ori armor!” Cam snapped at her.

Daniel frowned. “They seem to have a curious amount of Ori left-overs in this village.”

“An annoying amount, more like,” Cam muttered under his breath. He looked up over the barrels they were hiding behind and then ducked back down just as another shot went flying over their heads. “At least they shoot like stormtroopers... and I fondly remember a time when I didn't know what that meant.”

“You can blame Teal'c,” said Daniel as he peeked over a crate. “He's almost at the stargate, by the way.”

“Well, their backup will probably be here any minute,” Cam added. Their window of opportunity was closing. And where the hell was that Tok'ra?! “Okay. I'm going to get in closer. Vala, cover me. Jackson–”

“–Get to the DHD,” Daniel finished. “Got it.”

“Good.” Cam braced himself, pushing the pain in his arm to the side. The adrenaline was making it easier. “Then, let's do this!”

And then he was on his feet and running forward, pausing every few steps to shoot another spray of bullets at the statue, but staying to the left to give Vala a clear line of fire on his right. Behind him, he heard a new burst of gunfire, which meant the fourth guard hadn't been willing to just stay out of it. Cam put that out of his mind. Jackson could handle it.

Vala was unrelenting, never letting up her steady stream of bullets, but Cam knew she had to be getting close to needing a new cartridge. He picked up speed, hustling to get to the statue before that happened.

He was mid-run when the guard suddenly shot up from behind the left side of the statue, the stave already aimed right at Cam.

“Shit!” Cam didn't pause, just threw himself down low and forward and then rolled to the left. White hot pain exploded down his arm and he couldn't help the cry it wrenched out of him. Somehow, he still managed to follow-through and found himself on one knee with his P-90 aimed towards the statue and the guard who was shadowing his position.

Dots of white light and sweat made the guard look fuzzy and unsteady. Cam wasn't sure who the unsteady one of them was, though. He aimed for between the guard's eyes and fired.

The bullet nicked the base of the guard's throat, causing him to cry out and abort his intended shot at Cam. Which Cam was more than happy about, but it still wasn't a killshot. He pressed the trigger again, only to have it hit the Ori armor.

A blue stave bolt suddenly hit the guard from the side, burning through his armour. The guard went down with a scream. Cam blinked at the guard and then looked over to where Anise was hurrying towards them.

“What the hell took you so long?” he demanded.

“The guards from the temple will be here in a moment,” she said instead of answering. It was Freya speaking, and she looked worried. “And we have a bigger problem on its way.”

“Bigger problem how?”

“An Ori ship has just arrived. It will reach the town in approximately twelve minutes. I have stalled them by informing them of the fire in the barns so hopefully that means they will first focus their attention there instead of the stargate, but that will give us a few extra minutes at most.”

Suddenly, a familiar blue bolt of plasma fire burned into the ground by their feet.

“Looks like we've run out of time on those re-enforcements,” said Cam as he instinctively ducked his head and turned to the source of the shot. And, yup, there were those ridiculously distinctive helmets. He stood and braced himself before letting out a spray of bullets at the new arrivals.

Then he ducked behind the statue. Beside him, Anise shot several blasts at the guards. Another P-90 went off and Cam glanced over to see Vala running low towards the DHD while Teal'c covered her. Daniel was crouching down next to the dialing device. The stargate was ominously silent.

“Jackson, what's taking so long?” he called out.

Daniel glanced over to him quickly just before closing the bottom panel of the console. “The crystals were switched!” he called back. “Hang on!”

Cam grit his teeth as he jumped out from behind the statue and let out another wide spray of bullets. At this point, he didn't care if he hit any of the guards, he just wanted them to stay back. There were only about half a dozen or so of them, but they were all armed with Ori staves.

As he finally heard the stargate come to life, one of the guards peeked up from behind the cover of a building and fired at them. Cam could see the shot going too high, so he ignored it. Until there was a crash just above his head. His gaze snapped upwards just as the top piece of the statue burst apart. His eyes widened and he ducked down and turned away, covering his head as pieces of stone hit his back.

None of the pieces that fell were large enough to be particularly damaging, but he knew he'd have some colourful bruises there later.

He straightened and looked first to Anise. Her hair was covered in dust and she had a small cut on the back of her neck, but otherwise looked fine. She'd resumed shooting at the guards – assuming she'd ever stopped.

Cam glanced over towards the smoke cloud – it was visibly smaller now, which meant the fire had definitely been put out. And then his breath caught as he saw a shape materialize through the clouds. White, smooth and gigantic: it was the belly of an Ori warship.

“Jackson!” he screamed.

“Almost there!” Daniel called back.

“Well you've got, like, thirty seconds!”

Another plasma shot whizzed by him as he ducked back down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Anise hadn't moved, only barely shifting to the side to avoid getting hit. Cam wondered if she was suicidal, crazy, or had observed the guards during target practice.

Just then searing pain burned across the back of his left thigh. Cam staggered forward, grabbing hold of the statue to keep himself from falling into the line of fire from the front. He turned so that his hip was leaning against the stone.

“Shit, they've circled around us,” he announced for Anise's benefit. He raised his P-90 and depressed the trigger, letting them have a full spray of bullets. “Goddamn, these guys are actually smart and well-organized!”

“Those aren't guards from the temple,” Anise told him. “The time limit on my diversion has apparently ended.”

“Great, that's just wonderful.”

Cam's gun went silent as his cartridge ran out of bullets. Releasing the empty cartridge and reaching for a fully-loaded one was such an automatic movement he was barely aware he was doing it, his hands moving almost without his conscious thought while his mind worked scenarios on how to deal with the new influx of fighters.

The welcome ka-whoosh of the stargate interrupted his thoughts. He clamped down on the urge to relax, knowing full well it wasn't over until they were actually on the other side. Instead, he aimed his weapon and emptied the clip in the direction of the uninvited backup, hoping to discourage them for long enough to let his team retreat.

“We're green for go!” he heard Daniel shout over the noise of his semi-automatic.

Cam hesitated, wondering how to cover to both avenues of attack at once. “Ah, fuck it,” he finally decided as he grabbed a grenade from his vest and pulled the pin out with his teeth.

He tossed it towards the newest group of attackers. “Anise, get down!”

Anise glanced in his direction and then crouched down just before the grenade exploded. Several people screamed, though Cam couldn't quite tell whether it was in surprise or pain. He took a deep breath and then changed his clip again, before pushing himself away from the statue and turning back to the original guards.

“Anise, I'll cover you,” he said. “Get to the gate.”

She frowned at him. “You are injured,” she said. “It would make more sense if I were to cover your retreat.”

“Yeah, but getting you out of here was the whole point of the mission. We have not gone through all this shit just for you to get killed five steps from the gate. Besides, didn't you say you have important intel?”

Anise nodded. “I do.”

“Then get your Tok'ra ass through the stargate! We can handle this.” At least, he hoped they could. Either way, he wasn't going to have this mission fail. He had a lot of questions of his own that needed answering too. Starting with why the Ark hadn't taken care of this particular problem.

He looked to the sky again. The Ori ship was almost entirely visible now. If he was right, it was preparing to land.

He glanced to his left. Teal'c was still firing at the temple guards from the base of the stargate stairs. Daniel was crouched down at the top of the stairs, also firing. Vala was nowhere to be seen – that was one of his teammates safe.

Cam looked back to the group he'd thrown the grenade at. He couldn't see any movement from them yet. Maybe they'd decided to retreat? He doubted it, but he also wasn't likely to get a better time to hightail it out of his position.

Turning to the stargate, he saw Anise slipping into the event horizon. Teal'c met his eyes and nodded once before increasing the intensity of his bullets. Cam took a deep breath and braced himself for the pain before leaping out from behind his cover. First, he sent another spray of bullets at the guards. Then he grit his teeth as he half-ran, half-staggered as fast as he could across the clearing.

As soon as he hit the steps, he was shouting orders. “Jackson, go now! Teal'c, you're on my six!”

Daniel waited until Cam was half-way up the stairs and then he backpedaled towards the gate. He didn't stop shooting until he was right in front of the horizontal pool. Only then did he turn around and step through the stargate.

Cam didn't bother looking back to see if Teal'c was behind him. It was taking all the energy he had to concentrate on making sure his leg didn't collapse beneath him. Suddenly, there was someone beside him, an arm coming around to prop him up and he was moving up the stairs much quicker.

“We must hurry, Colonel Mitchell,” Teal'c said next to his ear – though for some reason, he sounded very far away. That didn't make sense though, because Teal'c was right beside him.

“Yeah, hurry,” Cam gasped, struggling to get the words out. “Ori ship... right behind us.”

“Indeed.”

And then they, too, were walking into the stargate. The coolness of the wormhole was a relief.

 


 

Bright moonlight streamed into the room where a light sea breeze was making long curtains dance, a streak of brightness in the otherwise dark space. A wind chime made of sea shells, polished driftwood and colourful bits of twisted metal tinkled softly. It was early morning, though barely.

Fabric rustled, a sound of movement from the lone figure in the bed still completely enveloped in dark shadows. A soft gasp, barely heard in the darkness, was the only sound for a long while. But more movement followed, quickly growing agitated. And then the breathing became louder, quicker. Another gasp.

Teyla's eyes flew open. She surged forward, her eyes not yet entirely seeing what was really in front of her, her right hand clasped tightly around an imaginary weapon.

She blinked once. Twice. And then she took a deep, calming breath as her surroundings finally registered. The room was more than familiar to her; it was home in a way no other space had been since the Wraith had first attacked her people on Athos all those years ago. For a few minutes, she merely sat in the dark, letting the familiar sounds of her wind chime combine with the gently lapping waves from outside her window and the hum of Atlantis to calm her racing heart.

Eventually, the after-effects of the nightmare left her and she was able to think about it more objectively. Teyla frowned. The Wraith usually featured quite heavily in her nightmares. Occasionally, she saw the Genii, Michael, or only felt the threatening presence of an unknown danger. She'd seen her teammates, friends and hurt and dying in more than a few. This nightmare had not been any of those.

It hadn't felt like a dream. It had felt the same as the nightmares where she relived her father being taken by the Wraith, where she was Michael's prisoner, where she was sneaking through the corridors of Atlantis, both hiding from the Wraith and hunting them. It had felt like a memory. That it had also featured Daniel Jackson and Teal'c of SG-1 was mildly surprising, but not nearly the most confusing aspect.

She recognized the location: Trafalgar Square. She'd been there only days ago. There had been a traffic accident... At least, she thought she remembered a traffic accident. Now, in the wake of her nightmare, she found herself less certain. Except that she knew the others also remembered the accident – they'd all written reports about it, after all. But what she'd just dreamt was very different from the report she remembered writing.

An image of dark-cloaked figures flashed across her mind's eye. She looked down at her hands. They were obviously empty of the knife she'd wielded in her dream. A butcher's knife. She could still feel its weight in her hand, could see the exact way blood had streaked it when she'd pulled it out of the cloaked body.

She looked away, her eyes drawn to the bright moonlight streaming in through the gap in her curtains created by the breeze. Throwing her covers off completely, she slipped out of bed and crossed the room. Pushing the curtains back a little more, she then looked out into the night. Her view wasn't perfect – even in the small hours of the morning, Atlantis herself wasn't completely dark. But the night was clear and the moon nearly full where it hung in the sky surrounded by a brilliant canopy of stars. For a while she distracted herself by finding the many constellations Rodney and John had shown her and Ronon.

By the time Teyla finally felt tiredness pulling at her once more, she'd already come to a decision. First thing in the morning, she would find John and ask to see the accident reports they'd all submitted.

Mind and body finally at peace, she turned away from the window, leaving the curtains half-drawn to let the moonlight in, and slipped back between the sheets of her bed.

Chapter Text

Time was both a constant and yet meaningless.

It was the ultimate, universal irony: he understood time, could see it in a way he couldn't as a corporeal being stuck within its flow, and yet now that he possessed that understanding, it meant nothing to him. He wasn't trapped by it anymore, his physical body had ceased existing the moment he'd ascended. No, that wasn't right. His physical body had ceased existing past that moment. It was frozen within its final moment, while the rest of the universe continued on.

It should've been a strange feeling. Except that nothing really felt strange. It just felt... real. True.

Like the stones of the castle around him. He could feel their time, their passage through it and the marks it had left on them, invisible to the naked, mortal eye. They carried within them remnants of the earth they'd been mined from and vibrated with the energy they'd soaked up over time. He could see it within each stone, like gentle waves of multi-coloured light – though the colour wasn't really visible, only imagined – the energy that had been used in crafting them, in putting them into place. The force that had been used to create this mighty structure from a flat of land and a pile of stone.

Yes, a force. That was a better word for it, he realized. Words were unnecessary for him now, but he just couldn't drop the habit. He still sought ways to explain what he understood and for that he needed words.

He could see this force around him, soaked into the stones, into the tapestries that hung on the walls, and see how it permeated further down into the foundations and the earth. How it vibrated through the normal, visible world, creating waves that lapped against the smaller waves of the particles of the universe around it. It was beautiful.

Time had no meaning, and so his wanderings around the castle took both hours and seconds.

He saw a grand main hall with banners hangings along the walls – a lion on red, a badger on yellow, a raven on blue and a snake on green – with four long tables running its length and a smaller table on a raised platform at its head. And a ceiling that looked like it wasn't there, as though the hall was completely open to the night sky. At first, he assumed it was a hologram. Then, he looked and realized that it wasn't.

It was that same force, the one that vibrated in the stones. But here it wasn't imbibed into anything. No, here it was... enchanted.

“Magic,” he whispered, finally giving voice to what he was seeing.

And he really could see it. Molecule, by molecule, he could see the spell's construction, the way it expanded into the spaces beyond the visible world and pulled from energies of the universe around it. He stared at the ceiling, mesmerized by the harmony of energies, of the way the waves interacted and weaved a tapestry made up of millions, billions of tiny waves moving many times faster than light.

“Daniel.”

He smiled and turned to face his friend. “Morgana,” he said. “This castle is made of magic, isn't it?”

She smiled kindly, indulgently. “It was constructed using what mortals would call magic, yes, and coated in even more, for protection among other things.”

“Why? What is this place?”

“It's a school.”

Daniel looked around and nodded his understanding. Then he turned to her impishly. “Does that mean there's a library?”

She laughed, a musical sound that was as beautiful as it was rare. Then she motioned for him to follow her and he did.

Chapter Text

The Meeting Hall of the International Confederation of Wizards lay behind a cheerless, forbidding door. It had been crafted from dark mahogany wood with no embellishments apart from a knocker that looked like it had never cracked a smile in its entire existence, and a large carving of a pointed wizard's hat surrounded by a circle of mistletoe – the symbol of the ICW.

What it lacked in decor, it more than made up for in warding magic. Kingsley didn't think there was a more heavily-warded door in the world, warded against everything imaginable with at least as many traps for those who would dare attempt to break those wards. There was so much magic weaved into the door that it was nearly visible to the naked eye, an aura that covered the door in a constant, steady glow. Or as much glow as dark mahogany could give off.

It wasn't Kingsley's first time being called before the Confederation, but the door didn't become any less intimidating through exposure. At least it was in Berlin this time. Last time he'd had to take an international portkey to Boston, because the Meeting Hall moved every few weeks, supposedly to make it fair to all countries. Kingsley wasn't sure that 'fair' was one of the words he would've used to describe it.

Still, he grasped the knocker and knocked twice. The knocker's eye's flew open and stared at him sternly.

“Kingsley Shaklebolt, Minister of Magic for Great Britain,” he announced himself.

The knocker continued to stare at him for a few, long moments. Then there was a loud, ominous 'click', and the door quietly slid open. Kingsley took a deep breath.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” he mumbled under his breath. He remembered some Muggle had written that somewhere, but couldn't remember where or how he'd first heard it. The phrase seemed oddly appropriate.

Kingsley pulled the door open further and entered the Meeting Hall.

It was a colourless, rounded room with walls made from unadorned, grey stone and floors of polished granite. Rows of wooden high-backed chairs surrounded a raised wooden podium in the centre of the otherwise empty floor space in a large semi-circle, each row hovering above the one below it, the chairs rising automatically into the air as they became occupied. Only the large, elaborately-carved seat of the Supreme Mugwump stayed where it was, already on a platform with four steps.

Kingsley took a seat in the observer's section, which faced the ICW but was just off to the side of the speaker's podium. There were about three dozen seats here for members of the press, political observers, presenters and interested citizens (though there didn't tend to be many of those).

Once the final, high-backed chair had risen, the Supreme Mugwump called the meeting to order. He was an elderly Romanian wizard with a dark beard liberally peppered with grey and tanned, weather-beaten skin. His name was mostly unpronounceable and so Kingsley, like just about everyone else, simply addressed him by his title.

The International Confederation of Wizards spent the first hour debating various minor issues before finally calling on him. Kingsley quietly took a deep breath, straightened himself to his full height and smoothed his face into a calm, emotionless mask as he took to the podium. He scanned the wizards and witches staring down at him, trying to gauge just what mood they were in and what degree of questioning he was in for.

It didn't look promising.

He cleared his throat. “Supreme Mudgump,” he began, not bothering to speak above his normal tone, knowing from experience that the projection spells on the podium were some of the best in existence. “And assembled witches and wizards of the International Confederation of Wizards, I am Kingsley Shaklebolt, the Minister of Magic for Great Britain. I understand I have been summoned here before you today to speak to my administration's efforts in subduing the last remnants of the pro-Pureblood group knows as the Death Eaters.”

He looked around the room and saw several people nodding at his words. Probably appreciating that he was getting straight to the point.

“In which case, I can assure you that I, Britain's aurors and everyone at the Ministry of Magic for Great Britain, are doing everything in our power to apprehend these final members and put a stop to their threat once and for all! Is it taking longer than any of us would like? Yes, I'll be the first to admit that it is. But what you all seem to forget is that Voldemort had years to grow his supporters, to spread his ideas and ideals both before the First Blood War and in the interim leading up to the Second. And may I remind you, ladies and gentleman, that many of the Death Eaters we've apprehended over the years have come from countries outside of Britain. These followers hide in plain sight just as they always have and with Voldemort himself dead, his mark has disappeared from their skin making it nigh near impossible to detect them by any usual methods.”

Kingsley looked around at the witches and wizards of the Confederation and allowed a hint of anger to colour his voice.

“If any of you have suggestions on how to identify these Death Eaters, I'm willing to listen. What I am not, however, willing to do is allow this hunt for Death Eaters to become the exclusive driving force of my administration and Britain's Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The war is over and what my people need is peace and stability, not what Muggles would term a 'witch hunt'.”

He paused, wondering if they would allow him to end with this. He meant every word – it was why he'd ultimately decided to make the changes he had in the Auror Department, after all. But, the witches and wizards he was speaking before were intelligent and he didn't think they would let him get away with only some heart-felt emotion and a well-crafted speech.

They didn't, of course.

“Minister Shaklebolt, though we appreciate your efforts and determination to return stability to your country,” said the tall, skinny witch representing Italy. “Truth be told, you are to be commended for those efforts, however it does not change the fact that this peace you reach for seems worryingly far from your grasp. Just last week, there was a yet another attack in Central London, which resulted in the deaths of six wizards.”

Kingsley nodded in acknowledgement, cursing once again the timing of the attack. “The deaths were unfortunate, but unavoidable. The attackers had to be stopped before they caused irrevocable damage to the Statue of Secrecy, and the death of even more Muggle bystanders than they already had. Of those six dead and the two apprehended, only three had been flagged as potentially having ties to the Death Eaters.”

“That does not exactly speak highly to the competency of your Auror Department,” the German delegate commented with a snort of disapproval.

Kingsley grit his teeth. “With all due respect, my Auror Department is stretched thin enough on the ground as it is. They are doing what they can with what is available to them. And, as I have already stated, I will not permit them to use more invasive methods.”

“Ve are not asking you to be more invasive!” the rotund French delegate declared loudly, his high-pitched voice grating on Kingsley's ears. “Only Zat you put a stop to this killing! The magical community iz small enough vithout losing more adult vizards!”

“England's wizarding population simply can't afford to let this rapid decline continue!” added a grim-faced woman with an American inflection he was fairly certain came from Boston. Or possibly Chicago. “It won't be long before it begins to affect the rest of us as well.”

Kingsley frowned. Since when had this become about population?

Before he could say anything in his defence, the Supreme Mudgump silenced the room with a single tap of his wand against the small, innocuous-looking bell dangling from the end of the right-hand armrest of his seat. It looked like nothing more than a small, silver bell, but with a single tap, a low-pitched wave of sound swept across the room, brushing across Kingsley's face and ruffling his clothes.

“I don't think we need to tell Minister Shaklebolt the reasons he needs to put a stop to Death Eater attacks in England,” the Supreme Mudgump practically hissed at the French and American delegates, his eyes narrowing at them in obvious annoyance. “These are, after all, his people and the Muggles within his domain, who are in the most danger from these attacks.”

Then the man looked down to Kingsley, his dark eyes boring into him in a way that wasn't quite threatening, but wasn't entirely non-threatening either. “Minister Shaklebolt, you yourself are a former highly-ranked auror, a decorated veteran of Britain's force. You do not seem to be a man content on waiting for your opponents to move in order to counter-attack.”

Kingsley met his eyes and held the gaze, refusing to be cowed.

“I never said I was,” he answered calmly and, to his surprise, he saw a pleased look crossed the Supreme Mudgump's face. The man blinked, and it was gone. But it was enough to bolster Kingsley's courage and give him hope. He looked away from the ICW leader and addressed the room.

“You've misunderstood me,” he told the international assembly of witches and wizards. “Yes, it's true that we aren't aware of all whom are attached to the Death Eaters, but in the name of peace and stability we've altered our methods of stopping them. At the moment, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement has been concentrating its efforts into two fronts. The first, being the obvious: defending civilians, be they wizard or Muggle, from Death Eater attacks and apprehending the perpetrators. The second, however, is less obvious and certainly more discrete. I currently have a team at ground level, listening to whispers, watching for rumours and suspicious movements. In recent months, the Death Eaters have become more organized in their attacks. We believe this means a new leader has emerged.”

He paused, letting this news soak in.

“This is both good and bad. Obviously, an organized group can do far more damage than unorganized individuals. However, if there is a definitive leadership structure, then that is something concrete we can track. And this is where we are concentrating the majority of our efforts, at identifying this new leader and their new inner circle so that we can then take them down once and for all!”

As expected, not all the ICW members looked thrilled at his proclamation, but there were more nodding heads in the crowd this time. If that was the most he got, he'd take it.

He took a deep breath and braced himself for the next barrage of questioning.

 


 

Hermione never thought she'd ever get tired of reading, of immersing herself into the world of the written word.

Clearly she'd been naive. Though, she also wasn't entirely convinced what she was reading even counted as the written word. She'd been under the impression that working at the ministry first required graduating with a certain amount of OWLs from a reputable magic school. How any of these idiots had managed to hoodwink Professor McGonagall – not to mention Professor Snape – into allowing them to graduate with this atrocious writing was mystifying.

Some of these groupings weren't even sentences, just words hastily thrown together with a prayer that they would somehow add up to something comprehensible. Most of those prayers had sadly gone unanswered.

Reading through auror field reports, Hermione had learned very quickly, was like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle someone had dumped a bucket of paint over. After nearly a month, she was about ready to quit and go teach at Hogwarts, where she could at least give out detention for turning in anything resembling these reports. Though, to be fair, she'd been at that point since the second week of said month, but refused to give the crabby middle-aged witch in charge of Ministry Archives the satisfaction of running her out.

She understood that this was a job that had gone neglected for far too long and Hermione was an apprentice. Some of the reports also contained sensitive information, which meant it couldn't be handled by a junior apprentice. So Hermione knew the task hadn't been given to her entirely out of spite.

Still, there had been quite a bit of spite.

Hermione pushed her chair back and clasped her hands behind her head as she stretched her back, blinking her eyes rapidly to get rid of the tired ache. She then reached for her mug and found it empty except for a few sad bits of tea leaf at the bottom. Obviously, it was time for her to take a break.

She tapped her wand against the side of the mug and whispered a spell. The dredges instantly disappeared. Hermione then stood, taking the mug with her as she walked out of her little office. It wasn't quite a cupboard, but it wasn't much bigger either. However, it was much better than the shared office the junior apprentices had – Hermione liked her own space to work in and, more importantly, the lack of inane, pointless chatter.

At the end of the hallway, she walked into the communal lunchroom. It was an odd sort of room, decorated with an attempt to be welcoming that had somehow resulted in the space feeling like an awkward eye-sore. The walls were covered in bright floral wallpaper, with several paintings of countryside landscapes and tropical beaches (one would often walk by and find former Ministers of Magic or distinguished Aurors from the 'Hero's Wall' sunning themselves on the beaches) and the floors were covered in green carpet that was just a shade too yellow. It wasn't used much, as most people preferred to eat in their offices, but occasionally someone could be found inside, often doing exactly what Hermione was currently doing.

She passed the two large round tables that dominated the main space and went directly to the smaller table against the far wall. It contained a pot of tea, a pot of coffee and a jug of pumpkin juice, all charmed to never be empty. On Fridays there would also be a plate of pastries.

She poured herself a fresh cup of tea and inhaled the aroma. Surprisingly, while not the best she'd ever had, the Ministry of Magic actually made decent tea for their employees. It wasn't always the same blend, but it was generally rather good. Except for that tropical blend they'd had two weeks ago – that had been horrid.

Once back in her office, Hermione sat down with her tea feeling slightly refreshed and re-energized by her short trip. She grabbed the next scroll off her never-ending pile.

Fifteen minutes later, she was frowning.

It had started yesterday, this insistent niggling at the back of her mind that seemed to be telling her there was something more here. That there was a pattern of some sort slowly emerging in what she was reading. It wasn't every report that added to this feeling, but she'd come across a few that seemed to be pointing at the same thing...

Suddenly, she remembered Friday dinner. She remembered Harry and Ron talking about the Death Eater attacks.

The auror field reports she was reading weren't specific, but they weren't meant to be. All they were meant to do was alert the Department of Magical Law Enforcement or the Department of Muggle Affairs to a potential problem. If either department decided more information was needed, they'd respond with a request for more details. And then the auror or a muggle affairs official would go collect more information and compile a more comprehensive and detailed report.

But nothing had ever been done with these field reports, nothing further requested, and so Hermione was reading only brief accounts of what the aurors had witnessed. Sometimes the auror had gotten close enough to get concrete details and sometimes only had observations and conjectures from a distance.

Harry and Ron had mentioned the American Muggle Military had been involved in last week's Death Eater attack. And now, as she read the report in front of her, she realized this wasn't the first one she'd read where she'd seen mention of the American Military.

She stood and walked over to the stack of scrolls she'd already gone through, catalogued and charmed for filing. There was something strange going on, something that had been missed because of the war. Something that probably shouldn't have been missed.

 


 

“Sam, I heard a rumour you were back on base!”

Sam looked up from her laptop and grinned. “Hey, Daniel,” she said as her friend and teammate walked around the briefing table to grab the seat beside her. “So I heard you guys had an exciting mission without me.”

Daniel shrugged as he took a drink of his steaming coffee. “It wasn't anything too crazy. Strange, sure, but nothing we haven't done before.”

“Strange how?”

“That's a very good question, Colonel Carter, and one I'm looking forward to getting answered,” said General Landry as he waltzed in, Anise right behind him. He paused in front of the table and raised both eyebrows. “Where in the hell is everyone?”

“Uh, I know Teal'c went down to the infirmary to get Mitchell,” Daniel answered. “I have no idea where Vala is.”

“She's probably downstairs looking for you in your office,” Sam whispered to him softly.

Daniel looked over at her with a confused frown on his face. “Why would she be in my office?”

“Planning to drag you to the briefing.”

Daniel blinked. “But I'm already here.”

Sam giggled. “Yes, you've done a great job of foiling her plan by being early for once.”

Daniel just blinked some more. Then he turned to their Tok'ra guest – who was eyeing them as though they were a particularly perplexing puzzle. “Good morning, Anise, Freya,” he said.

“Good morning, Doctor Jackson, Colonel Carter,” Freya answered.

“Hey Anise, Freya, it's good to see you again,” Sam lied. She still hadn't forgiven her for her experiment with the Atoniek arm bands, but she was willing to set that aside for now. At least until they got the intell out of her.

“How is your work on Atlantis proceeding, Colonel?” the General asked as he sat down.

Sam straightened in her seat as she turned to him. “It's going well, sir. There's been some damage to the circuitry as a result of Atlantis' crash landing and some minor corruption in a few of the databases, but our main problem is that the Ancient database is simply massive. Doctors Lee and Adams are trying to put together a compression algorithm based on Doctor McKay's model to try and condense it as much as possible for transfer into more portable storage.”

“Do you know how long that will take?”

Sam shrugged. “We're not sure, sir,” she said apologetically. “The main problem has always been that the Ancients' method of data storage onto crystal components uses an entirely different coding system than ours. In a sense, our computers have to first translate the Ancient database, decompress the data, copy it while recoding it for our systems and then compress it for storage. We can do it with small parts, but it's slow and requires a lot of storage room. The crystal data storage is really amazing.”

“Give me your best estimate, Colonel.”

Sam thought about it. She'd seen Rodney and Radek nosing around the team working on the compression problem and with their help it would take less time overall, but both the engineers had more than enough to keep them busy...

“I'd say about another week or two, sir.”

General Landry nodded. He opened his mouth to reply, but paused when they heard voices coming from the corridor.

“I mean, come on, of all the stupid things... we work with fucking alien technology here!” they heard Cam complain loudly.

Moments later, Cam and Teal'c arrived. Teal'c was wheeling the wheelchair, his usual stoic expression on his face, although his eyes looked as though they weren't sure whether to be annoyed or amused. Cam was in a robe and hospital gown and looking paler than usual. He blinked slowly when he saw the General.

“Uh, sorry we're late, sir,” he said. “The elevator was having 'technical difficulties'.”

General Landry nodded in understanding. “I see. Is it being looked at?”

“Yes, sir, maintenance is on it now.”

“Good.”

Teal'c wheeled Cam over to the table and then took the seat beside him, nodding to Daniel and then to Sam. “Samantha Carter, it is good to see you again.”

“You too, Teal'c,” she said with a smile. Between her new duties on Atlantis and his duties on Dakara, they hadn't seen each other in months. “I'm glad our schedules finally managed to align.”

“Indeed.”

Suddenly, Vala rushed into the room. “Daniel, what are you doing here?” she demanded.

Daniel just looked at her. “Um, we've got a debriefing, Vala,” he said.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know that, Daniel. But you're early. You're never early!”

General Landry cleared his throat. “If we're all here, I'd like to get started. Ms Mal Doran, could you please close the door behind you?”

Vala closed the door and then sat down on the other side of Daniel. And the debriefing began. Sam listened closely as the rest of her team described how the townspeople had suddenly turned on them, the former Goa'uld temple with Ori locks and the temple guards wearing leather vests, ridiculous helmets and armed with Ori stave weapons.

“Excuse me, Colonel,” the General finally interrupted Cam. “Did they all have Ori stave weapons?”

Cam shook his head. “No, sir,” he answered. “All the temple guards we encountered did, but only one of the gate guards had a stave.”

“During my infiltration of the guard tower, I noticed only two stave weapons between five men,” Teal'c added.

“The townspeople themselves have access to a very limited supply of stave weapons,” Anise chimed in. “Your capture prompted them to increase their usual number of guards, which meant leaving some without staves.”

“And the armor?” Daniel asked.

Sam blinked. “They had Ori armor? I thought you said they were wearing regular leather vests?”

“Only temple and gate guards wear Ori armor,” said Anise.

Cam glared at her. “And you didn't think we needed to know this when we were planning our attack on the gate?”

She shrugged. “I did not think of it.”

“Hang on,” General Landry interrupted. “I think you're getting ahead of yourselves there, SG-1. How did you get out of those dungeons?”

Cam took a deep breath, obviously putting aside his irritation and then continued on with his story of fighting off one of the guards and how they met up with Anise. The Tok'ra herself then briefly explained the diversions she'd created to keep the townspeople busy so that she could get SG-1 out of their predicament. And, reluctantly, Sam had to admit she was actually quite impressed with the Tok'ra's out-of-the-box thinking and resourcefulness – it wasn't something Sam generally associated with the Tok'ra. However, she frowned when Cam mentioned their encounter with an old lady Freya had befriended.

“She called us enemies of the Ori?” the General asked with a frown of his own. “I didn't think the Ori had any allies left? The Arc of Truth should've taken care of that, shouldn't it?”

“As far as we understood its purpose and function, sir,” Sam agreed.

“Amarela was very clear on the matter,” Daniel spoke up. “She specifically said that they had embraced the Ori, not submitted to them. Among other things.”

“She and Daniel really hit it off,” said Vala.

Daniel rolled his eyes.

“General, it was one of many indications that this town still worshipped the Ori wholeheartedly,” said Teal'c solemnly.

“Well the warship was a pretty big hint,” Cam muttered.

Sam's eyes snapped to him and her eyes widened. “Warship?”

“What?!” said the General.

“Cameron, stop fast-forwarding the story!” Vala admonished Mitchell, looking amused. “Now you've spoiled the ending.”

Cam shot Vala an irritated look, but went back to where he'd left off in the mission report, which mostly consisted of sneaking through the forest until they got to the stargate. Then Teal'c recounted his infiltration of the town's guard tower and Anise described taking out the men manning a control room that overlooked the stargate. Which was where she'd also discovered the approach of an Ori war ship – no, the return of an Ori warship.

A quick glance around the table told Sam that neither the General, nor anyone else, had missed the wording.

By the time Cam had finished giving his report, Sam's frown had deepened. She was sure the rest of SG-1 had questions of their own to ask, probably many echoing hers, but the thing that baffled her most was the DHD.

“So, in short, what you found on this planet was a farming village that not only still worships the Ori, but is in fact using their technology,” General Landry concluded.

“Actually, sir, if I may?” Sam butted in. She waited until the General indicated she continue. “I think it might be more than that. I mean, using weapons is one thing, but what seems even more jarring to me is that they knew what to do to the DHD crystals. That's not exactly something they'd be likely to figure out on their own.”

“Amarela also definitely mentioned the priors,” Daniel added. “So one way or another, there is a Prior involved.”

“Or someone pretending to be,” said Vala pointedly.

Daniel grimaced thoughtfully. “It's possible, but you'd think at some point someone would need them to use their powers. The Priors kinda use them a lot. I know we've seen them fake it when we've got the anti-prior devices around, but that's usually only for a couple of minutes. I'm not sure how well you could fake it long-term.”

General Landry cleared his throat. “Instead of speculating, perhaps we should ask the expert. But first, SG-1, do any of you have anything to add to Colonel Mitchell's report?” None of them did. “Very well then, Anise, you have the floor.”

Anise blinked at him, most likely trying to wrap her head around yet another odd Tau'ri expression.

“What's this intell you say you have for us?” Landry clarified.

The Tok'ra operative nodded in understanding. “First of all, I would like to thank you, General as well as all of SG-1 for coming to extract me. I do not know how much longer I would have been able to remain undetected.”

She paused and met their eyes one by one. Then she turned back to the General.

“As I have already told SG-1, I infiltrated the town just under a year ago as part of a trading expedition posing as a herbalist. It hadn't been my original intention to remain behind, however I quickly noticed the same discrepancies SG-1 had. It was a simple, primitive farming community, however the presence of Ori weaponry and armour stood out to me as it had for them. I also observed several wounded Ori soldiers being treated in their hospital. When I asked who they were, I was told they were brave holy warriors.”

Sam felt her eyebrows rise almost involuntarily. She looked over and met Daniel's eyes.

“That'd get my attention too,” said Daniel.

“Oh yeah, big time,” Cam agreed.

Anise nodded. “It was what finally prompted me to search out a reason to remain behind. Once the trading party had left, I gave the excuse of familiarizing myself with the local fauna and left on a three day hike into the woods.”

“I take it you didn't actually go hiking?” General Landry asked.

She cocked her head at him. “I did. Even then I had noticed the amount of security surrounding the stargate and knew I would not be able to simply leave whenever I wished. Returning with herbs and some knowledge of what grew in the area was necessary to preserving my cover. However it did not take me three days. And a day was all I required for preliminary surveillance of the town. As I was returning to the town, I saw an Ori warship land. When I got closer, I saw that the ship was being greeted as an expected arrival.”

She paused, bowing her head slightly. When she raised it again, her eyes were no longer glowing as Freya took over the explanation. “It took me several months to integrate myself into the town and develop relationships with members of the population.”

She said it in a very straight-forward manner, her voice flat and emotionless, though warmer and more animated than the symbiot's had been. Sam couldn't help but wonder if Freya had enjoyed having those connections, whether she ever missed feeling that sense of belonging, of being human instead of just a vessel for an alien spy. What would the woman have been like without the symbiot?

She shook her head and turned her attention back to Freya.

“...eventually I was able to gain enough information to deduce approximately what was going on. That was when I sent out the message. Up until now I had been able to use my cover as a herbalist to avoid coming into contact with the Prior, however it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so without arousing suspicion, especially as my lover was promoted higher up within the ranks of the town's guards.”

Sam blinked, wondering if she'd missed something. “Your lover?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cam grimace.

Freya simply nodded to her. “Yes, finding a lover was the most expedient way to create a reason for me to stay. Many of the townspeople disapproved of our unsanctified union, however that only helped give me further reason to stay away from many of the official functions attended by the Prior.”

Beside her, Daniel finally spoke up. “Freya, this town had a visiting Prior who still spread the word of the Ori? And this Ori warship had soldiers that did the same?”

Freya nodded. “Yes, it did.”

Daniel sat back looking thoughtful. Beside him, Vala looked equally thoughtful, her eyes calculating.

“Had the Ark of Truth not worked on these followers?” Teal'c asked.

“Yeah, that's what I'd like to know!” Cam exclaimed. “I thought it was supposed to the show the truth to everyone, not just half or just to those born in July.”

“If the Ark didn't work, that's very troubling news indeed,” said Landry with a deep, worried frown. “Not that I doubt your observations, Anise and, uh, Freya, but are you certain the Ark hadn't affected the Prior and his followers?”

Freya hesitated for a moment and then her eyes began to glow, Anise taking over once more. “All we can report is what we observed,” the Tok'ra said sternly. “Had the Prior seen us, he would have immediately recognized us for what we were and as such contact with him was avoided at all costs. Therefore I cannot report on what he himself was like, only his actions. This prior that came to the town is spreading the word of the Ori and is commanding an Ori warship full of soldiers whom have remained loyal to him.”

“That doesn't necessarily mean the Ark didn't work,” Vala interjected. All eyes turned to her and she rolled her eyes, as though her point should've been obvious. “You'll remember that planet where I still pretended to be their God even though I didn't have a Goa'uld symbiot inside anymore?”

Teal'c eyebrows rose. “You believe it is possible the Ori Prior is aware of the truth about his gods and yet continues to spread false truths.”

“Well, the priors' powers aren't really linked to their belief in the Ori,” said Daniel thoughtfully. “The Ori essentially opened up part of their minds, which links them to a sort of universal well of power, or at least that's kind of what it felt like. It's not quite a partial ascension, but it's on the way there...” He shook his head and then turned his attention to his team. “The point is, that those powers won't just go away unless that connection is closed, uh, manually so to speak.”

“Hang on, you're saying the Prior knows his gods are fake, knows they're dead, but is keeping up the ruse anyway?” said Cam incredulously. “Why the fuck would he do that?!”

It was Teal'c, who answered him: “Power.”

Cam blinked at him. “Okay, so the Prior's decided that since the guys upstairs are dead, their 'chosen child' is being kept busy by Morgana and they've still got all their powers without anyone watching over them, they can just do whatever they want? That's... okay yeah, that's kind of obviously what's going on and now I feel more stupid than usual.”

Vala was grinning. “We'll let you blame it on the painkillers,” she said.

Cam rolled his eyes. “Gee, thanks guys.”

“I believe it may be worse than that,” said Anise, instantly bringing the table's attention back to her.

“You think there's more than one Prior doing this?” Daniel asked immediately.

Anise nodded. “While I was careful not to get too close to the Prior, I was able to speak to many of the Ori soldiers or listen in on their conversations. They mentioned coming across other ships and lingering while their priors spoke with each other, often in private. However, there were also two instances when I was asked to come bring herbs and mix healing salves for the hospital for soldiers who'd been wounded in battle. The soldiers were much distressed, speaking of their sadness for their brothers who had turned from the light of the Ori. As I understood it, they believe the Milky Way is becoming a corrupting influence on them and turned many of their brothers against their cause.”

She paused for a moment. “Though they never spoke it out loud, I got the impression that even on their ship, the Prior had executed soldiers for speaking against the Ori.”

“Damn,” said Cam quietly.

Sam felt equally stunned.

“The Prior twisted the Ark's powers into a test of faith,” Daniel said after a long moment of silence had passed.

“That would seem to be the most likely explanation,” said Teal'c. He turned to the General. “General Landry, I will need to return to Dakara as soon as possible. The Jaffa Council should hear this news immediately.”

General Landry nodded. “Of course. I need to inform the President and Joint Chiefs as well. Anise, I'd ask if you could remain at the SGC until I've had a chance to speak to my superiors in case they have any other questions.”

Anise nodded. “Of course.” Her eyes slid to Daniel. “It will give me the opportunity to speak to some of my acquaintances here.”

Sam felt Daniel stiffen beside her and resisted the urge to giggle.

General Landry looked between Anise and Daniel with a raised eyebrow, but remained silent. “Good. I'm sure you'd like to report back to your own superiors to let them know you've been safely retrieved. I'll have someone escort you to the Control Room. Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir!” said the young man standing by the door. He then opened the door and waited for Anise to walk through before following and closing it behind them.

“Geez, these Ori just keep being the pain-in-the-ass unwanted gift that keeps on giving,” said Cam.

“What you didn't think getting rid of them would been as easy as opening a box, did you?” Daniel asked mildly.

Cam glared at him. “Exactly which part of that mission are you calling easy, Jackson? 'Cause I sort of remember being captured, tortured, fighting Adria and, oh yeah, since the rest of that didn't sound like enough fun, replicators.”

“Enough!” said the General. “Does anyone have any constructive thoughts to add to this?”

“Well...” Daniel began, pausing to collect his thoughts. Landry looked to him in interest. “General, I don't think this changes the playing field nearly as much as it seems to. I mean, yes, the Priors now realizing that they no longer answer to anyone, is huge. Especially for the ones to whom the power that came with their position meant more than their religion in the first place. But from the moment they came to the Milky Way, the Priors have been the ones making the decisions and planning the Ori army's attacks. Which is probably how they managed to convince so many of their soldiers that the Ark's influence was in fact the Milky Way corrupting their minds.”

Sam saw Teal'c nodding solemnly. “Many would not want to believe that all the deaths they caused had been done so as a result of a lie. That everything they had sacrificed had been done at the behest of false gods.”

Sam wished she could say it didn't make sense, that the reasoning somehow wasn't solid.

“And some of them probably enjoyed it,” Vala added quietly.

Beside her, Daniel nodded. “By executing or otherwise punishing detractors, the Prior silenced others who would've otherwise spoken out against him.”

“So now the Prior's a dictator as well as a religious leader,” said Cam with a disgusted grimace. “That's just great.”

Daniel shrugged. “Wouldn't be the first. There's a reason why democratic countries have an indoctrinated separation between the state and religion.”

“I'll pass your thoughts onto the President,” said the General. “I'd like your reports on my desk ASAP so that I can add them to my presentation to the Joint Chiefs.” He picked up the stack of reports on his desk. “Now, before I dismiss you, I do have one last thing to bring up. Colonel Mitchell, Teal'c, I've been informed of discrepancies in your reports on your misadventure in Trafalgar Square on Wednesday. Or, more to the point, your failure to accurately account for your ammunition's usage, especially since there's nothing in your reports to indicate why you'd fired your weapons in the first place.”

Sam blinked in surprise. She'd heard about the traffic accident, but was fairly certain she hadn't heard Sheppard or Teyla mention a fight. Surely something like that would've spread through Atlantis. Not being a part of the regular crew would've likely meant she'd be one of the last to hear the rumours, but they would've made it to her eventually.

Teal'c frowned deeply.

“Sir?” Cam asked, blinking in confusion. “There was a traffic accident. We didn't need to fire our weapons.”

“Then why are there bullets missing from your firearms?”

Cam shrugged, hissing in pain as the motion pulled at his wound. “Must've miscounted in the morning, sir.”

Sam couldn't help the way her jaw dropped at the casual way her team leader dismissed the issue.

“Must have miscounted, Colonel Mitchell?” the General asked, his voice raised but not quite loud enough to be a yell. He sounded too genuinely flabbergasted to work up the volume for a yell just yet. “You are aware you're required to report all ammunition use? You're not new to this, Colonel.”

“It... is protocol,” Teal'c said carefully, as though trying to wrap his head around the concept. “It is required to report every bullet used, as every single one must be accounted for.”

“Yes, exactly!” said the General. “And it took quite a bit of convincing to get all of you special permission to carry firearms while you were in London in the first place. So do you mind explaining just why you decided you weren't going to follow protocol on Wednesday? Or did you suddenly forget how to count?!”

“I didn't discharge my firearm, sir, so the missing bullets must've been a mistake,” Cam answered.

“So it wasn't just me?” Sam heard Daniel say softly beside her.

“Daniel?” she asked carefully. “What do you mean?”

Daniel startled and then looked at her. “Oh. I, uh, took my own firearm to London and when I got home and checked the clip it was almost empty, but I was sure I'd checked it in the morning... Except I didn't remember firing it so I figured it was probably my mistake. I mean, I'm a civilian and it's been a busy week so I was probably just tired and not paying attention. It's not like I'd forget firing my gun in the middle of London, right?”

By the end of his ramblings, he was frowning. Sam looked up and met the General's eyes. Ten years ago, this explanation might've been understandable, but Daniel had been with SG-1 for so long that his proficiency with firearms rivalled that of the marines. Most of the time, all but the most experienced eyes would peg him for a professional soldier. Failing to check ammunition was a beginner's mistake.

On a hunch, she turned to look at her team leader again. “Cam,” she said gently, trying very hard not to sound the least bit accusing. “If one of the Lieutenants reported using two clips during a firefight, but had been issued three and the third one was half-empty, what would you do?”

Cam's answer was instantaneous. “I'd bust his ass is what I'd do! What kind of moron can't count how many clips he's used...”

He trailed off, as though suddenly making the connection she'd hoped he would. He was silent for a few moments. “But it was a traffic accident,” he finally said, however this time there was an odd sort of subdued confusion in his voice. He looked up at them, a half-glazed look in his eyes that Sam was sure wasn't entirely from the painkillers. “I didn't fire my gun. There was no enemy. It was a traffic accident.”

Sam looked back to General Landry, who was no longer looking angry, but instead deeply disturbed. It was obvious that something more was going on here.

He looked directly at Sam. “Colonel Carter, get to the bottom of this,” he ordered. “I have a report to make to the President. Get Doctor Lam to do a full medical work-up, pull all the official reports you can find, anything you can think of. And contact Atlantis, apparently Colonel Sheppard's ammunition count was also off and, while I'd expect something like that from Sheppard, I'm finding it hard to believe that half my senior officers have suddenly forgotten how to count! If something more happened in London, then we need to know what it was.”

“Yes, sir,” said Sam. As though she needed the extra incentive. This concerned her team; she wasn't going anywhere until she knew what was going on. She paused. “Sir, if the medical scans don't bring back anything conclusive then I'd like permission to request Anise's help with running a scan using the Zatark detector. She's the Tok'ra scientist who originally brought us the technology and knows it better than anyone we have.”

General Landry nodded. “Do whatever you need to do, Colonel. If you think our Tok'ra guest can help you, then you might as well use her expertise while she's here.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Anything else? No? Then you're dismissed.”

 


 

It was late. He hadn't stayed at the office this late in months. On the first year anniversary of the end of the Second Blood War he'd made a pact with himself to never stay behind past seven o'clock unless there was an emergency. There'd been more of those than he would've liked, but outside of those, he'd remained true to his promise to himself.

This... wasn't an emergency, but Kingsley wasn't quite sure what to call it exactly. And, somehow, it seemed appropriate for him to contemplate it in his office. However, it was after seven, which he decided meant he was perfectly justified in pouring himself a healthy glass of firewhisky.

He sat down and took a sip, savouring the familiar burn as it travelled down his throat while he leaned back and looked up at his enchanted ceiling. It hadn't been there before his inauguration as Minister of Magic, but he'd found himself jealous of the Muggle Prime Minister and the large window he had in his office. He'd had to visit Hogwarts to get his hands on the proper enchantments – under the guise of official business which he likely would've had to do anyway.

Headmistress McGonagall had then come to his office to inspect the spellwork... as a part of equally official business.

As he stared up at the stars – which were brighter and more visible than they would normally be in the middle of London – his thoughts wandered back to his morning audience with the ICW. He couldn't quite put his finger on the cause of his unease, but he'd been an auror for far longer than he'd been the Minister of Magic and after all those years, he'd developed a sense for people. Often his instincts had helped him identify people who were hiding things, individuals who were dangerous, or they'd tell him when something about a situation was simply wrong even if his mind hadn't quite caught up yet.

He'd often joked with Tonks that a good auror's instincts were smarter than they were.

His breath caught at the unbidden memory of the other auror. He swallowed down the grief with a large gulp of whisky.

And then he turned his attention back to the modest stack of scrolls sitting on the corner of his desk. He'd had one of his assistants pull them earlier, shortly after he'd arrived back from Berlin. A compilation of reports from and to the ICW for the past five years.

Kingsley wasn't sure what it was yet, but his instincts were telling him there'd been something off about his entire meeting this morning. It wasn't just one thing, however, but several small things that didn't quite add up to anything he could put into words.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on his door. He jumped slightly at the unexpected sound and then glared at whomever was on the other side. He'd closed his door precisely so that he wouldn't be interrupted. He'd also hoped to make people think he'd gone home. Obviously, his plan had failed on both fronts.

Kingsley sighed and waved his wand at the door to open it.

“Oh, you are still here,” said a familiar voice that made Kingsley relax in relief.

“Yes, I'd hoped to go unnoticed, but I suppose I shouldn't expect such things,” he called in answer.

Arthur Wealsey chuckled as he entered. “Well, you're the Minister of Magic,” he said. “People tend to pay attention to what you do.”

Kingsley grimaced. “Yes, I suppose they do. So, what can I help you with, Arthur?”

“Ah well, nothing too strenuous, I hope. Only Molly was thinking that perhaps it was high time to throw a reunion party. Nothing much, just dinner with some former Order of the Phoenix members. We were all so busy after the war ended that we never really got the chance to celebrate as such and now that things have calmed down, she was thinking perhaps it would be nice to get together again. As friends, not co-conspirators, I mean. Some of us got along quite well if you recall.”

His first reaction was to say no. Kingsley hadn't really had the chance to form friendships with anyone in the Order aside from his fellow aurors; he'd simply been too busy. To see the former members together would also mean counting the empty spots belonging to those who hadn't survived the war.

“Though, if I'm honest,” Arthur continued despite Kingsley's silence. “I think mostly Molly wants the opportunity to tell as many people as possible that she's going to be a grandmother.”

Kingsley blinked and, suddenly, he felt his previous melancholy lift away. “Arthur, that's brilliant news!” he said with a grin. “Fleur and Bill, I take it?”

Arthur Weasley broke into a proud grin. “Yes. We just found out last Friday at dinner. As you can imagine, Molly's over the moon. Her first grandchild.”

“And yours,” Kingsley reminded him. He stood and walked over to the cabinet where he hid his firewhisky. “This definitely calls for a toast!”

He re-filled his glass and poured one for Arthur as well. The soon-to-be-grandfather took it happily.

“To the future!” said Kingsley as he raised his glass. “May it be peaceful.”

“Yes, to the future!” Arthur echoed.

Kingsley motioned to other man to sit down as he, too, sat back down. It was funny, how the mind worked, he found himself thinking, because suddenly, the idea of sitting down with his fellow Order of the Phoenix members no longer seemed quite so daunting. He wondered how the rest of their lives had progressed, how well they'd managed to move on.

“And tell Molly I'll be happy to attend whatever dinner she throws,” he told Arthur. “I'll even bring the wine.”

“She'll be happy to hear that,” Arthur replied.

Kingsley nodded. “Speaking of your wife, I know why I'm here so late, but why are you still here? I can't imagine conveying Molly's dinner plans was that urgent.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Oh no, we had an urgent case pop up in the afternoon. Wild magic in a muggle family and a case of domestic abuse to top it off. The child was eight and watching her father beat her mother caused her magical abilities to manifest prematurely. According to the parents, she simply screamed and then the, uh, re-fridgertor came flying out of the wall and across the room, right at the father.”

Kingsley took a deep breath and forced himself to relax his grip on his glass. “I imagine that made him stop.”

Arthur smirked. “Oh, yes. Broke his right arm as well. Needless to say, the entire family was hysterical when we arrived and it took forever to calm them all down. Especially when we started explaining who we were and telling the parents their daughter had magic.”

“Ah yes, I remember those conversations. Never understood the amusement some got out of them. I really just found them rather irritating. I mean, there's only so many ways you can say 'magic is real' before you start feeling like perhaps you should check that someone hadn't hit you with a translation charm when your back was turned!”

Arthur chuckled. “Yes, well, in this case the evidence was rather irrefutable.”

“Hm. The child's alright, though?”

“Oh yes, she's as well as can be. Rather excited at the idea of going to magic school and kept asking why she had to wait three whole years. Reminded me of Charlie for a bit there.”

“Well you can hardly blame her for her impatience. Eight is rather young to manifest magic. Many wizarding children don't manifest that young. As far as I know, in Muggleborns it's nearly unheard of.”

“You'd be right there. No one else in the department could remember having one so young before.”

Both men jumped at three rapid sharp knocks on the door. Kingsley blinked, instantly recognizing the Head Auror's knock. Sure enough, as he was reaching for his wand to open the door, Angelique Bryant waltzed into his office, a rather determined look on her face.

“What in the world are you still doing here, Minister?” she demanded.

“How did you know I was still here?” he asked her dryly.

Bryant raised an eyebrow at him. “I know everything that goes on in the ministry.” There was a silent, incredulous pause. She rolled her eyes. “Also your assistants gossip like old maids and seem to forget that others around them have functioning ears.”

Kingsley frowned. “I'll have to speak to them about that.”

Across from him, Arthur was also frowning. “I have a hard time imagining my son gossiping,” he said.

Bryant glanced to him and shrugged. “Admittedly, the redhead wasn't among them.” She held out a hand to him. “I don't believe we've been properly introduced yet. I'm Angelique Bryant. You're Arthur Weasley from Muggle Affairs, I assume.”

Arthur stood to shake her hand. “Yes, I am. I didn't think I was that well-known about the ministry. Or are those your all-knowing Head Auror powers again?”

“Not exactly, but you just said Percy Weasley was your son and your name is on the report I just received from Muggle Affairs.”

“Ah, about the muggle-born child who manifested this afternoon?”

“Yes, that one.”

“A sad, if interesting case. I was just telling Kingsley – I mean the Minister of Magic – about it.”

Bryant shot Arthur a bemused look before turning to Kingsley. “Good, then I don't have to explain it to you. Could you sign this for me?”

Kingsley took the scroll she handed him. “What is this?”

“It's for Children's Services. I want that child tested for magic levels.”

Kingsley frowned and unravelled the scroll. It wasn't a form, but a written request from the Head Auror herself. “And why do you think that's necessary?” he asked her, having never seen anything like it before.

Bryant raised an eyebrow at him. “The child managed to pull a refrigerator out of the wall and throw it across the room. And not just throw it randomly, but aim it to hit her father! That's something most fully-trained adult wizards can't do. She needs to learn some form of control sooner rather than later before she manages to seriously hurt someone who isn't her bastard of a father.”

She looked to Arthur. “Speaking of which, did you really have to magically heal his arm? He could've just gone to a Muggle hospital and gotten a cast. A couple months of painful healing would've done him some good.”

Arthur cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. “You know, I don't think that even occurred to us. However, I'll certainly keep it in mind for the future.”

“You do that.”

Kingsley chuckled and reached for a quill. “What exactly did you have in mind as far as training?”

Bryant shrugged. “I was going to leave that in the hands of the Hogwarts' Headmistress. Eight is a little young for early admissions, but perhaps she might be able to find a teacher or seventh year student who'd be able to free up some time for a few lessons in wandwork. Having a wand would, after all, teach her focus and should therefore help do away with uncontrolled bursts of magic.”

Kingsley nodded. “It's a good idea. I'll send an owl to Professor McGonagall in the morning and see if she has any suggestions.”

“Thank you.” She eyed the scrolls sitting on his desk pointedly. “Now, I understand the International Confederation of Wizards isn't always the easiest group to deal with, but what exactly happened today to get you so interested in them?”

Kingsley stared at her and then looked to the scrolls to see if they were somehow labelled on the outside. Then he looked back to her.

He groaned. “My gossiping assistants again?” he asked.

She nodded. “You really should get young Mister Weasley to do anything you don't want the rest of the Ministry of Magic to know about within the hour.”

“You met with the International Confederation of Wizards today?” Arthur asked, looking uncertain, as though unsure whether or not he should be listening.

“Yes, and it was...” Suddenly, it occurred to him that perhaps a second opinion might be a good idea. “I don't really know what to call it, but something about that meeting today just left me unsettled. As though there was something more going on than the ICW wanting a progress report on the Death Eater problem.”

Bryant frowned. “What do you mean?”

Kingsley leaned back in his chair and thought back to the confrontation. “I'm not sure myself entirely, but my instincts are certainly telling me there was something strange going on. The Confederation was almost too aggressive, too invested in England's problems. And a few of their comments...” He paused. “It almost felt as though they were less concerned with the existence of Death Eaters as they were with the fact that wizards were dying during confrontations with them.”

The Head Auror's frown deepened. “We've managed to keep civilian casualties of both Muggle and Wizard down to a minimum and only five aurors have died in the last two years. Not that I'm happy about losing anyone, but I've only had to bury two of my own since taking charge and, considering our situation, that's really rather good.”

“But that's just the thing,” Kingsley stressed. “They seemed incredibly concerned at the casualties from last week's attack.”

“But didn't only Death Eaters die in that attack?” Arthur asked.

“That's correct,” Bryant answered him. “Six Death Eaters and eight Muggles.”

“They didn't care about the Muggles at all, that much was obvious,” said Kingsley. “But they seemed very intent on stressing the need to stop the killing. Not even on weeding out the Death Eaters themselves, but to stop adult wizards from dying.”

Arthur looked worried. “I understand that only one member of the Council is from England, but surely the rest of them should understand the importance of stopping the Death Eaters once and for all, and preventing them from ever coming back in force again!”

“They should,” Bryant agreed with him. “The rest of mainland Europe was also effected by your Blood war, even if to a lesser extent. Voldemort certainly didn't stop his recruitment at the English Channel.”

Kingsley motioned towards the scrolls. “It's why I had them bring out these scrolls. I was wondering if this was something new, or simply something I was noticing for the first time.” He eyed the other two people in his office. “I certainly wouldn't mind a few extra sets of eyes.”

The Head Auror shrugged. “I've nothing better to do tonight,” she said and summoned herself a chair from the other side of the room.

“And I'm fairly certain Molly will understand, especially if I mention the little girl first,” said Arthur. “She would never begrudge anyone anything if it was to help a child.”

Kingsley smiled and stood. “Well, then I suppose I should pour us all another drink,” he said and went to get the bottle and a third glass for the Head Auror.

Chapter Text

It was an enticing, heavenly aroma that finally drew her away from the computer screen.

Sam turned towards the irresistible aroma and found a blue mug dangling inches from her face. She smiled at the SGC logo emblazoned on it in deep black. All the senior staff at the SGC had one – they were the only mugs in existence with embedded microchips to make sure they didn't wander off-base. She knew if she turned it around, she'd find the slogan of the Jaffa resistance written on the back, along with the mottoes of the US marines and the Air Force.

She looked up and blinked as her dry, aching eyes adjusted to the distance. Then she reached up for the mug and smiled widely at its bearer. “Thanks, Daniel,” she said and took a sip, closing her eyes to savour the wonderful taste – this was definitely from his private stash.

“You're welcome,” Daniel answered. He motioned towards her computer screen with the mug in his hand. “How's it going?”

Sam sighed. “I wish I could tell you.”

Daniel frowned. “Landry told you not to share your findings with us?”

“What? Oh, no, no, I mean the evidence, it's...” She gazed back towards the screen as she took a sip of coffee to gain some time to organize her thoughts. “It's one of the best cover-up jobs I've seen in a while and thorough, very thorough. But once I start actually looking at it, there's enough little things off about everything surrounding the incident that I know it has to be a cover-up. Except that I don't know how they could've done it. Nor do I have any idea who they could possibly be.”

Daniel looked around and pulled a chair over to sit down beside her. “So what have you got?” he asked, his entire body leaned towards her attentively.

Sam grinned. It was just like old times. “Well, first of all we've got all the medical scans Doctor Lam did yesterday. We're still waiting on some of the blood tests, but everything else has come back normal.”

“Well, that's good.”

Sam nodded. “It eliminates the obvious cause.” She paused. “Sort of.”

Daniel paused and she could see the wheels in his head turning. “Because just because can't find it, doesn't mean there isn't something, only that we haven't figured out how to detect it. You're thinking it might be something new, something we haven't come across before and subsequently weren't testing for.”

“It's definitely not a possibility we should ignore. I mean, we've come across some pretty strange things over the years.”

Daniel snorted. “That's an understatement. The fact that we're still here is probably proof of insanity.”

Sam shared a mischievous smile with him. “Probably. But which would you rather be: sane or here?”

“I'm pretty sure my already-established insanity would negate any answer I could possibly give by virtue of being a product of my irrational mind.”

Sam laughed. Daniel took another drink of his coffee, looking pleased with himself.

“Okay, so at this point you're mostly sure none of us were drugged or had anything implanted into our brains,” said Daniel once she'd stopped laughing.

Sam sobered. “Yes, from the evidence we've found so far, there's nothing indicating outside interference.”

“But you're still sure something's not quite right.”

“Mostly sure.” Sam pursed her lips. The problem was that she wasn't quite sure herself how to explain everything. “I read through all your reports, and then I read through all the other witness statements. They all say exactly the same thing. Not to the letter, because everyone's speech patterns are different, but they're more or less describing exactly the same progression of events. Which is not only statistically improbable because everyone remembers things differently, but the events themselves just don't add up when you take a closer look at them.”

She turned to her computer and brought up the simulations. “According to witness testimony, the crash occurred when this red Volkswagen suddenly swerved to the side, cutting into the next lane over.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Daniel's reaction. He was sipping his coffee, frowning slightly, his eyes distant. Sam waited, hoping he would fill the rest in on his own.

His eyes flicked to her after a long moment and he sighed. “No, I remember that,” he said, sounding almost disappointed. “There was a loud squeal of tires and then more squeals and crashes and screaming... There was a lot of screaming. Vala, Teyla and I helped get people out of the way while Cam, John and Teal'c went to try and pull people out of the cars and to safety... I saw the damage, it must've been some crash.”

Sam nodded. That was consistent with what all six of them had written in their reports. “And that was the first problem I discovered.”

She hit play on the first simulation and let the roughly-drawn vehicles go through their motions, watching as they crashed against each other and little bubble people were thrown out of the way and ran over as the vehicles spun out of control and rammed onto the sidewalk. There were seven cars involved in total and one produce truck, the others managing to swerve out of the way or break in time. The truck was mostly fine except for a dented side fender, but three of the cars were smashed in the front and one from the side. A blue mini went as far as tipping over onto its side.

Daniel nodded. “That's what it looked like afterwards, yeah.”

“Except that based on the approximate speed of the vehicles in question, their mass, weight and the materials they're manufactured from, and calculating in wind resistance and ground resistance...” She hit play on the second simulation. “This is what it should have looked like.”

The second simulation showed a much less impressive crash. The same vehicles were involved, but this time the little bubble people weren't thrown so much as knocked over by the cars, nothing tipped over and the damage was obviously less drastic.

She waited in silence as Daniel gently reached for her mouse and then played both simulations again, his eyes glued to the screen, taking in every detail. Finally, he sat back again ran a hand across his face.

“I remember the first one,” he said quietly. “I don't know what that means, but that's what the the aftermath looked like.”

Sam nodded. “I know,” she told him. “And the police reports agree with you. All the pictures point to the first scenario, the one you all remember seeing. The physics, however, are saying something else.”

The corners of Daniel's mouth twitched. “Never argue with the physics.”

Sam grinned. “That's my general rule of thumb.”

She turned back to her computer and closed the simulations. Then she brought up the other videos. “There's more, though,” she continued. “The CCTV cameras from Trafalgar Square were mysteriously fuzzy and nothing I or Corporal Orsen in security tried helped clear up the video, however the ones just outside the square were fine.”

“Which means whatever happened caused interference with the feeds,” Daniel added.

“Yep, but that's not actually my point.” Sam fast-forwarded to the correct frame. “See the timestamp?”

“13:07, so that must've been less than fifteen minutes or so after we got to the pub.”

Sam nodded. “And you'll notice the car that's just driving driving into the round-about?”

“The red Volkswagen.”

“Yup. And when I play the video...” She hit play and watched on the grainy footage as the cars drove steadily by.

“Wait, isn't that the blue Mini Cooper? Or, no... was there another Mini Cooper we missed?”

“According to the CCTV cameras around Trafalgar Square, this is the only blue mini that had driven by the area within that time frame.”

And that was really the crux of the matter, because according to the witness statements, the red Volkswagen had crashed into the mini, but the camera placed the mini two cars behind the Volkswagen.

Daniel took a deep breath. “Okay, so whoever did this was professional enough to set everything up and somehow get everyone present to believe they saw the crash happen, but didn't set it up well enough to stand up to close scrutiny.”

Sam shrugged. “To be fair, if not for the bullets we wouldn't be looking any closer at this either. At least eight people died and everyone's content to believe it was a horrible accident.”

Daniel's eyes cut to her. “At least?”

“The coroner's reports say all the dead died from impact wounds of one form or other. There's one that sounds suspiciously like there could've been a bullet wound, but without seeing the actual body or pictures of the body there's no way to tell for certain and they're all UK citizens we have no valid reason to request to examine the bodies. I'm still waiting for a ballistics report on the guns to confirm that they'd actually been fired and approximately how many times. If that confirms they were actually fired, then maybe the General might have a case to take to the IOA, but until then this is all we've got. Which, like I said, is still pretty damned suspicious.”

Daniel sighed. “I know that everything you're saying makes sense to me, but I just... It's not even like when I was missing my memories after my descension, because there was this blank space in my mind where I knew those memories belonged. This... I can see the accident. I can see clearly what happened.”

“It's more like what Nem did to us,” said Sam softly, thoughtfully. “He didn't erase our memories, he overrode them with new ones to make us think you were dead.”

“So basically what you're saying is that we're looking for the Men in Black,” said Daniel wryly.

Sam giggled. “I thought we were the Men in Black.”

Daniel snorted in amusement. “Not quite, although I do think we could pull off the look.”

“Next Halloween.”

“I'll let Teal'c and Vala know.”

“What about Cam?”

Daniel shrugged. “We'll let him stew for a bit. He'll eventually figure out we're planning something and demand to know what it is.”

Sam shook her head in amusement. “You know, you should really stop poking fun at him.”

“He called my briefing boring last week.”

“Colonel O'Neill would have too and you'd tell him.”

Daniel blinked and then gave her a bewildered. “Of course I would have told Jack,” he said slowly, as though she were missing the obvious. “Jack hates science fiction, remember?”

Sam burst out laughing.

“Hey, hey, what's this?” a voice called from the doorway. “You're not allowed to have fun on duty!”

“We're not,” Daniel called back. “It's entirely in your head.”

Sam rolled her chair backwards a few steps, her eyebrows rising in surprise as a widely-grinning Cameron Mitchell walked towards them, a definite bounce in his step. Teal'c and Vala followed two steps behind him, looking amused. “Hey, Cam!” she greeted him. “You look like you're doing a lot better than you were yesterday.”

Cam's grin widened. “Sure am! Doctor Lam decided the injuries were looking like they'd heal nicely, so she gave Vala here the go-ahead and one handy Goa'uld healing device later, I'm just like new.”

“Yes, I am amazing,” Vala agreed readily. She slipped around Cam and found herself a seat on the edge of Sam's desk. “So what were you discussing that was so much fun?”

“Co-ordinated Halloween costumes for the team,” said Daniel vaguely.

“Wow, that's early,” said Cam after a short pause. “What were you thinking?”

Daniel just shrugged.

Sam rolled her eyes. “Men in Black,” she said.

“Hey!” Daniel protested.

She looked at Daniel and shrugged. “I didn't actually agree to your plan.”

Cam stared at the two of them with narrowed eyes.

“Oooh, is that the movie with the large insect alien?” Vala asked.

Daniel blinked and frowned. “I'm pretty sure there are a lot of science fiction movies that could fit that description.”

“It's the one with Will Smith in a black suit and those memory-zapper pens,” said Cam.

“Right,” said Vala. She grinned. “It's SG-4's turn to organize the Halloween party this year, so we should rent a large black van to arrive in.”

“Or a couple of nondescript black cars,” Cam added.

Sam and Daniel exchanged amused looks.

“Colonel Carter, does this mean you have found reason to believe the accident in Trafalgar Square was not an accident?” Teal'c suddenly interjected.

Cam's head snapped to Teal'c. He opened his mouth to retort, then frowned and closed his mouth before turning to Sam. “Wait, is that where this Men in Black thing came from? You think the accident is a cover-up for something and we all got mind-zapped?!”

Sam shrugged. “Honestly, it's as good a theory as anything else I've got at this point,” she admitted truthfully. She turned to her computer screen and brought up the two digital re-enactments. “Here, this is a video we created based on witness testimony and crime scene photos.”

She played the video and then turned to watch Cam and Teal'c's reactions. Cam watched it carefully, nodding along as the cars began to pile up. Beside him, Teal'c began to frown.

“Well, I mostly just heard the crash,” said Vala with a shrug.

“That's pretty much what I remember,” said Cam after the video ended. Pointing towards the screen, he added: “I remember seeing that old beige two-door ram into that red car and thinking 'damn, this is going to be bad'. That was when John and I got up and ran over to help.”

Daniel's head shot up at that. He frowned and looked back at the screen. “Sam, can you zoom out of this a bit so that we can see more of the square?”

“Uh, sure,” she said and adjusted the magnification of the image. “Do you need me to play it again?”

“No, or actually if you could go back to just after the beginning of the accident... Thanks.”

Sam did as Daniel asked, wondering what it was her friend had noticed.

A few moments passed in silence and then Daniel's hand slowly rose and pointed to a spot on the square. “This is the location of the pub we were sitting at,” he said and then moved his finger in a straight line just above the screen towards the crash. “And right here, there's a fountain and a stone barrier. Cam, there's no way you could've seen that beige car from where we were sitting.”

They all leaned forward.

“Daniel Jackson is correct,” said Teal'c after a few moment's pause. “I, too, am finding myself perplexed, for I remember seeing the vehicles colliding as it first occurred and watching as the small blue-coloured car tipped onto its side. And yet, I am aware that had I been seated with you at the pub then this should not have been something I could have seen.”

He paused again, his frown deepening. “I am also finding myself not entirely certain of my memories.”

Sam looked to the Jaffa immediately. What she hadn't told Daniel yet was that she'd spoken to Atlantis yesterday and in doing so found out that Teyla had already been looking into the reports from the accident because something wasn't quite right with her recollection of it. Sam held her breath as she hoped that her own alien teammate might prove just as resistant to whatever had been done to her friends.

“In what way are you uncertain about them?” she asked, trying not to sound too eager.

His eyes flicked down to her, his expression troubled. “I seem to remember the accident, however I am also remembering... individuals who should not have been there. Except that I seem to remember that they were, indeed, there and yet I cannot place them, cannot... fit them into the accident.”

“Individuals?” Daniel asked carefully. “As in people you recognized?”

Teal'c shook his head. “No, their faces were covered with masks and they are wearing cloaks with hoods.”

Sam's eyes widened with surprise. “Cloaks? What sort of cloaks?”

Unexpectedly, it was Cam who answered. “Black cloaks,” he said quietly.

They all looked to him. “Cam?” Sam answered. “Are you remembering something?”

Cam was silent for a long moment, looking like he was considering his answer carefully. “I don't... Not really. It's just that I suddenly remembered a moment in those dungeons two days ago... When Anise first showed up she was wearing a cloak and at first I sort of froze and I remember feeling like I want to jump out of the way. Until I realized it was grey not black and I was okay again, just confused about why the colour mattered and why my instincts had been screaming at me to run.” He looked at them. “I'd completely forgotten about it until just now.”

Sam considered that for a moment.

“Priors wear white robes, so it's not that,” said Daniel quietly. “And the only Goa'uld we've come across who liked the dark evil overlord look were Anubis and Sokar, and both of them were before your time.”

Sam turned back to the screen. “Okay, so we're sure there's a cover-up here.”

Cam snorted, alleviating the tension in the room. “Well, you're the expert so you should know.”

Sam turned back to grin at him. “I'm not actually responsible for most of it, but thanks for the vote of confidence.” She looked back to the screen. “The biggest conundrum is the memory issue. And the speed with which it all would've taken place. From start to finish, there's only a half hour window during which everything, including whatever was being covered up could've taken place.”

“Could someone have altered the timestamps on the CCTV cameras?” Daniel asked.

“Um... maybe?” Sam took a deep breath. “But, honestly, I doubt it. The accident itself is proof enough that whoever did this was in a rush to make sure the truth didn't get out. And there's realistically only so much you can alter the timestamps before something becomes obviously wrong. Someone's more likely to notice if the timestamp freezes or if it's out of sync with the other cameras beside it. In fact, a simple system's diagnostic might pick any of those things up.”

Daniel nodded.

“So what now then?” Vala asked.

Sam looked down at her watch. “Now, I'm going to go get an early lunch. I'm scheduled on a video call with Atlantis to speak to Woolsley, Beckett, Sheppard and Teyla about their findings and then report to the General. Unless the Ancient scanners have managed to come up with something more, then I'm thinking I'll be dusting off the Zatark detector this afternoon.”

“I just love the Zatark detector,” Daniel said dryly.

“What about that memory storage gizmo we picked up on that planet I was being accused of murder on, uh, Galar?” Cam piped up.

“It's at Area 51 at the moment,” Sam answered. She'd already filled out the requisition form and planned to ask General Landry for his signature when she met with him in the afternoon. “The Zatark detector should be able to confirm the memory tampering and show us exactly where the problem is, which might make it easier to focus the memory device. And since Anise is still here, she can help me with it.”

“Basically, you're planning to try everything until something gives you an answer,” said Daniel with a small smile on his lips. “And then a solution.”

“Pretty much.”

“Sounds good,” said Cam. He looked around to his team. “So... lunch?”

Teal'c nodded. “That would be an acceptable plan.”

And so they went to lunch.

 


 

Chicago seemed determined to live up to its nickname as the wind blew through the streets, carrying leaves, newspapers and dust as it ruffled hair and tugged at clothes.

Draco Malfoy was singularly unimpressed. Although, if he were in a more generous mood, then he would be willing to admit it wasn't the city he was quickly learning to despise so much as the pompous, condescending moron he'd been settled with as his guide. Especially as said pompous, condescending moron clearly thought he was being subtle with his derision.

If Draco heard one more sly remark about his family's unfortunate downturn in fortune, he was going to transfigure the man into a rat and leave for the nearest alley cats.

It didn't help any that American wizards didn't stick to wizarding districts, but had a tendency to walk through muggle areas of the city with nothing more than a quick wave of their wands and a Disillusionment charm. While there was certainly nothing wrong with Draco's charms, he couldn't understand the purpose of complete separation if one didn't actually live separately. Why take the risk walking through the Muggle parts of the city when it was just as easy to apparate from one section to the other?

“This is our city just as much as it is theirs,” his Chicago guide had said pointedly. “We don't want nomags to know about us, but that doesn't mean we're hiding.”

Except that they were hiding. The entire Wizarding World was.

Draco had bit his tongue and forced himself not to reply. His family's position and part in the Blood Wars had been well-documented by the media both in England and overseas. While his parents had managed to garner just enough influence and good will to stay out of Azkaban, the effect on the Malfoy name was considerable. It was why he was in America in the first place, after all, where the tarnish was known, but only distantly.

He could hardly afford to antagonize one of the few companies willing to do business with him, even if the man he was primarily dealing with was a complete twat.

Especially as the product they were asking Draco to invest in had quite a bit of potential. Hand-held Floo Connectors (or Hafcons, as the company's owner had called them) were a truly brilliant invention as far as he was concerned. They were shaped rather like a large pearl oyster, made to fit into the palm of a person's hand – if they had very large hands, which the owner and inventor did. A tap of the wand caused them to flip open and activated the fire spell inside. Then all one had to do was throw some floo powder into the flames and they connected directly to the floo network. The connection wasn't nearly as clear as using a fireplace and international floo calls weren't yet possible, but as an invention, Draco thought it was rather brilliant.

It would be worth the aggravation of dealing with the Ministry's Department of Communications just to get one for his own personal use.

Draco side-stepped a Muggle woman dragging along two arguing children, thankful that his guide had gone silent while they walked along the busy street. The man wasn't stupid, which made him at least somewhat tolerable as a companion – occasionally he even managed to get in a witty remark about something other than Draco's family's situation. He was half a head taller than Draco, though slighter in build with dark blond hair and bushy eyebrows above deep-set blue eyes that hinted of Eastern European descent even though his name was Arnold. Arnold Fullman, though he insisted Draco call him Arnold, a familiarity Draco had just begun to get used to over the course of his two-month travels in America and still felt wrong.

Having these strangers calling him by his first name made him feel oddly exposed, as though the lack of formality was somehow stripping a layer of protection from around him. Not that he would ever let that show.

Arnold was currently leading Draco to lunch at a restaurant he swore had the best gumbo this side of New Orleans. Draco, of course, had absolutely no idea what gumbo was and wasn't entirely certain he felt adventurous enough to find out. He'd heard stories about the Wizarding community in New Orleans.

Though as he walked through the streets of Chicago, it occurred to him that perhaps he should've been listening to the stories about the Muggle communities in America. As a pureblood he rarely associated, or came into contact, with Muggles in Europe. It simply wasn't necessary. As a Death Eater he'd seen Muggles, but not in any sense of watching them live and interact.

Those encounters were something he tried not to think of as much as possible.

Needless to say, a lot of the Muggles in America just seemed strange. There were ones who looked fairly normal. And then there were the ones with bright hair and chains, and metal sticking out of their bodies in odd places. Draco couldn't quite figure out whether the metal things were supposed to be jewelry or torture devices. Was this some sort of strange Muggle punishment. They also seemed to all be carrying small flat rectangles and either staring at them or talking into them even though the rectangles didn't seem to actually be doing anything. It was... very strange.

If he hadn't been so distracted, he might've noticed the man sooner. He had short dark hair liberally threaded with grey and small wire-rimmed glasses. The eyes behind the glasses were green and wild – terrified, angry, and not entirely sane.

“You! You think you can hide and then come and hurt me? You can't hurt me! You're real and not real and a dream, but not a dream!” he screamed at Draco while grabbing fistfulls of his deep green traveling cloak.

Draco froze, eyes wide in shock and fear both. This Muggle had somehow managed to see through his charm! He felt his heart beating rapidly in his chest as he glanced around and saw the other Muggles staring at them.

He swallowed down his panic and finally found his voice. “Unhand me, sir!” he demanded, grabbing at the man's hands and pushing back. “I haven't the foggiest idea who you are nor what it is you think I may have done!”

“Daddy!” a woman's voice suddenly cried out.

Draco looked up as a woman with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail ran out of the gathered crowd. She gently put her arms around the man and began whispering frantically to him, urging him to let Draco go.

“He's just a stranger, daddy,” she told him. “He's just walking by, minding his own business. He's not trying to hurt you or me or anyone else. Please, daddy, please calm down and let go of him.”

Then man held on for a long while, though he'd fallen silent at the sound of his daughter's voice. Slowly, he blinked and then seemed to look up at Draco as though he were seeing him again for the first time.

“You-you're young,” he whispered. He frowned, and then added, in a tone that clearly wasn't meant for Draco, “I don't know you.”

“No, daddy, you don't,” the daughter agreed gently and tried once again to disentangle her father's hands from Draco's cloak.

This time, she was successful. The man let go easily and let himself be pulled back. He wasn't seeing Draco anymore, his green eyes were glazed over and looked haunted. The wild anger gone, he seemed smaller than before, fragile.

Draco took a deep breath to calm himself down. He met Arnold's bewildered eyes.

“I'm so sorry about that,” the daughter suddenly said. Draco blinked, startled as she addressed him.

“Yes, well, it was a bit of a surprise,” said Draco, still feeling shaken by the experience.

The woman sighed. She turned to face Draco while keeping an eye on her father who now stood to the side in subdued silence.

“My father used to be a brilliant scientist,” she told him. A sad smile flitted across her face. “When I was a kid, he would tell me he wanted to solve the secrets of the universe. I remember when he would get so excited about little tiny discoveries that meant nothing to almost everyone else.”

“What happened?” Draco found himself asking.

She shook her head. “No one knows. Six years ago he was working on some sort of project. Top secret, couldn't tell me anything about it, only that it was fascinating and very important. And then, five years ago, something happened. One day he seemed perfectly happy, and the next he was having a mental breakdown. The doctors say the symptoms are like PTSD, but he can't remember anything that could've triggered it. It's the oddest things that trigger his episodes too.” She chuckled bitterly. “But then, from what I've read that's pretty normal for PTSD. If only I knew what he'd been working on or who he'd been working for, but he still refuses to talk about it.”

Suddenly, the woman seemed to remember herself. Her eyes widened. “Oh my God, I'm so sorry. Here I am just talking away. Are you alright?”

Draco blinked. “Yes, yes I'm fine.”

“Again, I'm so sorry about my father. I should really get him home now.”

Draco nodded and the woman hurried to her father's side and gently took his arm. She flashed Draco one, last apologetic smile before leading him away.

For his part, Draco took a deep breath and began walking, recasting the Disillusionment charm as he went.

“What in the world was that about?” Arnold asked.

“I have no idea,” Draco answered truthfully as they continued towards their destination. “Something about her father having a mental break or PTSD, whatever that stands for.”

“Never heard of it. Must be a nomag thing.”

“Most likely.”

Arnold paused, his lips thinning for a moment. “Listen, you don't think that had anything to do with you, uh, family's former proclivities.”

Draco stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and glared at him. “Death Eaters wore black robes, black hoods and white masks,” he said coldly, having finally had enough of the constant reminders from this particular wizard. “And, while my family's past allegiances cast a very dark shadow on us, I'd like to remind you that I am very well aware of the difficulties your company has had in breaking into your own market thanks to the larger, privately owned Floo Network Providers. The Ministry operated network in England is a potentially less problematic venture, however at the moment you still need the connections my family has to pull that off.”

Draco paused, noting with satisfaction at the way Arnold had stilled, his eyes suddenly sharper and eyeing him with more interest than before.

“You need me, Arnold, just as much as I need you. Do me the courtesy of not forgetting that.”

Arnold stood there watching him for a few moments. And then his lips widened into a sharp smile.

“Well, well, and here I thought I had you pegged as just another rich daddy's boy,” he said darkly. “It seems you not only have a spine, but also a brain beneath that blond hair.” And then, just as Draco was wondering where this was all going, the American's face brightened into a grin. “I genuinely look forward to doing business with you, Draco.”

Draco blinked at him, realization coming to him quite suddenly. His jaw dropped. “Wait, you were being a complete twat as a test?!”

Arnold burst into laughter. “The best way to figure out what kind of person someone is, is to needle them until they snap. You can tell a lot about a man, by the way he acts when he's frustrated.”

“I'll have to remember that one,” said Draco dryly.

Arnold threw a hand over Draco's shoulders and grinned. “You do that. But in the meantime, I think I owe you some gumbo.”

Draco couldn't help the small smile that tugged at his lips. It was possible that his trip to America hadn't been a waste of time after all. And perhaps, on second glance, Chicago was actually a rather nice city even with all the Muggles.

He still wasn't sure about the gumbo.

 


 

Hermione took a deep breath and knocked on the door of what she privately referred to as the Dark Office. She called it this partially out of a sense of amused irony. In reality, the office's inhabitant's favourite colour seemed to be yellow – bright, canary yellow. She also seemed to like things that sparkled or were covered in feathers. It made her office look like it had been made out of a transfigured bird. With sparkles.

And yet, Celest Willowbe was a plump, middle-aged witch with a perpetual frown on her face and lips made twice their usual size by a generous over-application of lipstick. Hermione had yet to see her smile. Assuming she could even do so without cracking said lipstick.

The door popped open.

“Come in!” came from inside the office.

Straightening her shoulders and smoothing her face into as close to as neutral expression as she could manage, Hermione stepped into the office. In her hand she held a single scroll – her own written report – while a stack of field report scrolls floated into the office behind her. Celest Willowbe eyed both her and the scrolls with her usual scowl.

“Miss Granger,” she said, her voice sweet as honey-coated barbed wire. “What brings you to my office this afternoon?”

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Willowbe,” said Hermione, trying not to let it show just how much her voice set her on edge. “As you know, I've been going through old auror field reports filed during the Second Blood War.”

“Naturally. I gave you the assignment.”

“Yes, of course.” Hermione handed the woman the scroll she was holding. “As I read through the reports, I came across a rather alarming discovery. I've written it all up into that report.”

Celest Willowbe took the scroll looking vaguely interested. Hermione took that as a positive sign and plowed on.

“At first there wasn't anything concrete enough in the reports to paint any sort of picture, but then I came across one about a Muggle archeaological dig at Glastonbury Tor, which as you know is the legendary final resting place of Merlin.”

The older witch rolled her eyes. “Miss Granger, Muggles are always digging around sites like that. However, as they are unable to detect the magic, they never find anything. Glastonbury Tor, in particular, is so seeped in magic and covered in such powerful charms that not even the best charm-breakers have managed to get past them. And given the stories of treasures buried in the mound along with Merlin, more than a few have tried over the years.”

“Yes, I understand that, Mrs Willowbe, however that does not explain the presence of the Muggle military.”

Celeste Willowbe frowned and Hermione crowed inwardly.

“More to the point, the American Muggle Military. The field reports have been written by several different aurors and Muggle observers, so it took me a while to realize the connection because sometimes they used the term 'American Military', or 'Yankee soldiers', or the auror in question wasn't sure and called them just 'Muggle Yanks in uniforms' or, in one case, 'Americans, possibly soldiers or something official-like'. But either way, there seems to be a curious military presence in many of these reports and not just at Glastonbury Tor, but even in reports from the Muggle Prime Minister's Office.”

There was a soft snort. “The Muggle Prime Minister does, of course, deal with the American military all the time. That's hardly proof of anything, Miss Granger.”

Hermione frowned. “I'm not sure it works quite that way, Mrs Willowbe.”

She raised an unimpressed eyebrow at Hermione, who quickly decided it wasn't worth arguing the point.

“Either way, I know whatever's going on is related, because a few of the auror observers caught the names of a few of the Muggles involved. Not only are several names repeated throughout the reports, but two of those names also appear in the report on last week's Death Eater attack in Trafalgar Square in Muggle London. A third man wasn't identified by name, but his description matches that of a Mister Murry, who was present at Glastonbury Tor as well as seen meeting with the Muggle Prime Minister.”

“If it's to do with the Muggle Prime Minister's Office then I'm sure the Muggle Affairs and Auror departments have the situation well in hand,” Mrs Willowbe dismissed her concerns. “However, what I am more interested to know is how you managed to come by the report on last week's Death Eater attack.”

Hermione frowned. “I got the scroll in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. As a senior apprentice, it's within my access level to view.”

“Oh I am well aware of your access level, Miss Granger. However, as you felt the need to remind me earlier, your assigned task was to go through, catalog, and then subsequently archive auror field reports from the Second Blood War. Last week was not during the Second Blood War, was it, Miss Granger?”

“No, of course it wasn't. I was only being thorough. Harry and Ron had been in the auror team dispatched to the scene–”

“–Ah yes, the famous Harry Potter,” said Mrs Willowbe with obvious distaste. “Tell me, does your friendship with the great hero of the Wizarding World have any actual relevance to your report?”

Hermione grit her teeth. “No, of course not. I only meant that it was because of them that I knew about the American Muggle Military's presence in Trafalgar Square! And, the other aurors on the scene were able to confirm two names that I found in other reports: Doctor Daniel Jackson and Colonel Cameron Mitchell. Well, one of the field reports mentioned a Doctor Jencksun, but I'm fairly certain that was mostly their atrocious handwriting.”

“That's a very interesting story indeed,” said Mrs Willowbe. “However, I would've thought that your assigned project had given you enough to do without going off in search of more exciting things.” She sent Hermione a pointed look. “You haven't finished, have you?”

Hermione thought of the pile of unread scrolls waiting for her in her office. “No, not yet.”

“Well then, I think you have plenty of work ahead of you, don't you?”

“But you will read the report?” Hermione insisted. “It could be incredibly important.”

“There are many things that could be incredibly important,” said the elder witch dismissively. “It's been years and nothing has happened, I think that alone should be proof that whatever the Muggles were looking for, they didn't find it. If they had, then surely we would've heard of it by now. Miss Granger, here at the Ministry of Magic we don't offer glamorous adventure or excitement. If that's what you're looking for, then I suggest joining the auror department.”

Celeste Willowbe's lips twisted into a nasty, almost-smile and her eyes flashed maliciously. “Although I hear that even there certain, shall we say, glory-toting elements are being stamped down on and put in their place. Quite rightly too.”

Hermione knew she was glaring at her supervisor quite openly now, but she managed to bite her tongue and keep the angry outburst she itched to make from coming out. No matter what, she refused to give this horrible yellow woman the satisfaction of winning.

“I'm not interested in becoming an auror,” she said, trying to keep her voice as steady as she could. What she really wanted to do was scream: 'It's not the job I hate, it's you!' She didn't.

“Then if that's all you had, I suggest you get back to your assignment.”

Hermione took a deep breath. “Very well, I apologize for wasting your time,” she said and turned on her heel.

She didn't stop until she was back inside her office. Once there, she carefully closed the door and cast a silencing charm. Then she screamed in frustration.

Chapter Text

The elevator doors opened and General Landry stepped out, immediately wincing at the loud squealing pumping sound that greeted him. Growling in annoyance, he headed towards it, hands over his ears in an attempt to protect his eardrums. It was a mostly vain attempt as the high-pitched sound was not only ear-piercingly loud, but its vibrating, pumping quality seemed to dig into his very bones. The sound cut out abruptly just as he reached the lab it was originating from, leaving an equally loud, ringing silence in its wake.

After taking a moment to regain his equilibrium, he threw the door open and stepped inside the lab. Inside, four scientists clustered around a relatively small table placed off to the side of the large lab. An artifact he recognized as something SG-7 had brought back from their latest mission sat on the main table in the center, a variety of sensors attached to it.

“What in the hell was that god-awful noise?!” the General demanded loudly.

The four scientists jumped and whirled around to face him, drawing apart just enough to give him a good view of the contraption they'd been clustered around. It was approximately the size of a basketball and vaguely circular in shape, but mostly looked like a mass of metal and tubes, with wires that were attached to a variety of sensors, computers and a baby naquadah generator. Landry quickly gave up trying to identify it.

“Oh, General, hello,” said the tallest one – he was fairly certain his name was Pike – nervously. “Uh, we're sorry about that. We were just testing our new coupling mechanism. It's having some, uh, teething troubles.”

Landry frowned. “Coupling mechanism?”

“Yes, we're having a bit of difficulty maintaining a constant electro-magnetic field and the fluctuations are causing the metallic sides to scrape against each other–”

Raising his hand to stop the scientist's excited babbling, Landry decided to try again. “What I mean by that is that I wasn't aware we were designing a coupling mechanism at the SGC.”

It wasn't really a question. While Landry wasn't necessarily aware of every single detail of every science project underway at the SGC, he did at least know them all by name. And unless the scientists were using an especially convoluted project header, this wasn't one of them.

The four scientists shuffled uncomfortably.

“Uh, well, it's not really an official project per say,” the only woman in the group finally spoke up. “It's just something we're working on on the side.”

“You know, while we're waiting for the sensors to finish their initial scans of the device we're analyzing,” the tall one pipped up again.

It was almost comical the way the eyes of the other three scientists widened, as they must have suddenly realized what this looked like.

“Oh, of course this is not interfering with our regular work,” the smaller, dark-skinned man added quickly, his voice holding only the slightest touch of India. “We are working after regular hours or while we wait–”

“–Sort of instead of a coffee break,” the woman assured him.

“You see, we were at Area 51 last month for their presentation of the new proposed hybrid battle cruiser,” said the tall scientist.

“It is very, very cool,” said the small Indian scientist. “A battleship with a detachable main weapon's port. It is like Star Trek!”

The skinny, hook-nosed scientist with long blond hair, who'd up 'till now remained silent, rolled his eyes. “More like something out of a Transformers movie,” he said. “It's small, maneuverable and packs enough firepower to be a significant threat. Too small for a hyperdrive, but it'll allow for two-pronged space attacks, or in a worst-case scenario take the heat off the main ship to allow it to escape.”

Landry nodded. “Yes, I know. If you will recall, I was at the same presentation.”

“Yes, but did you notice the way the detachable weapon's port connects to the main body of the ship?” Doctor Pike asked.

Landry couldn't say that he had.

“Hooks,” said the woman with evident disgust. “The two parts are actually just attached by retractable hooks and then electro-magnetically and hermetically sealed. The Area 51 team estimates it'll take about 12 minutes to complete the detaching process after all extraneous personnel are evacuated from that area.”

“Well, clamps technically,” the hook-nosed scientist corrected her. She glared at him and he backed off immediately.

“General, when I first joined the project, I was stationed aboard the Daedalus as a junior engineer,” said the Indian scientist. “It was both wonderful and very, very terrifying. We fought the Wraith twice and so I know that in the middle of a battle 12 minutes is almost like forever.”

Pike seamlessly picked up the thread of the explanation. “And so we thought, that with everything we've come across and learned, surely we can do better than hooks that take 12 minutes to detach!”

“We've been mulling this over and brainstorming scenarios for about a month now,” said the woman. “And we think we might just have a solution. If we can get the electro-magnetic field to remain stable during the connection process.”

“This is our first real-life model,” said the Indian scientist proudly.

Landry held a hand up for silence. “I understand,” he said. He didn't really, but he'd mention it to Carter and let her deal with it. Being in command was about delegation, after all. “Send Colonel Carter an official project proposal. Now, I'm not promising anything, but I'll admit it does sound like a worth-while project, so we might just be able to find some funding for you in the budget.”

The four scientists' eyes lit up. They were in the middle of an enthusiastic bout of thanking when one of the machines surrounding the artifact SG-7 had brought back chimed. Almost immediately, their attention was diverted by the new readings. The scientists had just enough presence of mind to turn off the baby naquadah generator as they abandoned their side-project in order to cluster around the screen populated by data from their main project.

The General couldn't help but shake his head in amusement as he left them to it. Although, even he had to admit it wasn't all amusement – there was quite a bit of pride was in the mix as well. He'd known from the first week of this command that he'd never worked with such dedicated professionals in his career and would be hard-pressed to find better people anywhere else. And nothing he'd experienced since then had done anything to change his initial assessment.

Colonel Carter's office and labspace were at the end of the hallway, it being the largest lab on this level. In fact, the only lab bigger than hers on base was the one Siler and his engineers used two levels down.

This lab was much more silent than the previous one had been, the only sounds being the quiet voices of Carter and Anise as they hunched over the Zatark detector's display screen. Both were frowning at the readings, which didn't exactly fill Landry with optimism. From his seat in the detector's chair, Doctor Jackson was twisted towards them as far as the mechanism attached to his head would allow, listening curiously.

Vala was the first one to notice him when he walked in. She was sitting backwards on one of the wheeled computer chairs, twisting it back and forth with a bored expression on her face. She perked up instantly.

“Hello, General,” she called to him with her usual grin.

“Hello, Ms Mal Doran,” he replied politely. He looked to the other three, who'd all turned to him at her greeting. “Colonel Carter, Doctor Jackson, Anise. Teal'c informed me before he left for Dakara that you were nearly done, so I figured I'd pop on by to get a preliminary report from you.”

“Of course, General,” Colonel Carter said immediately. “Well, the news is mostly good. I mean, it doesn't really help us figure out the how, but I can definitely confirm that their memories were tampered with.”

“In the cases of Colonels Sheppard and Mitchell, Teal'c and Vala Mal Doran the readings from the Zatark detector clearly indicate the presence of false memories,” said Anise. “Teyla Emmagen shows traces of false memories, however it seems that her Wraith DNA has managed to successfully eradicate most of the false memory.”

Landry looked over to the man still in the chair. “And Doctor Jackson?”

“Oh, I'm special,” said Jackson with a sarcastic smile.

Carter and Anise exchanged a quick glance before the Colonel looked back to Landry and shrugged. “Honestly, we have no idea, sir.”

“These readings are unlike anything I have ever seen before,” Anise added.

Of course they were. This was SG-1, after all.

“How so?” he asked.

“Well, sir, since we'd already seen the same false memory in the others' readings, we were able to eventually find it in Daniel's,” Carter began. “But it still took us a while. The Zatark detector is registering a huge region of blocked memory. Now, we're assuming a lot of this is the memory block put on his mind by the Ancients to keep his brain from frying as a result of all the knowledge and information it can't currently process.”

“And I like my brain un-fried,” Daniel pointed out rather needlessly.

“As do we, Doctor Jackson,” Landry assured him.

Carter nodded. “The really strange part is that the false memory seems to have, for lack of a better word, fused with the edges of the memory block.”

“Synchronized would perhaps be a better word for it,” Anise interjected, pointing down at the screen. “It is almost as though its harmonics have adjusted to the Ancient memory block.”

Carter looked to where the Tok'ra was pointing thoughtfully. “Hm, yes, I see what you mean...” She then turned back to him. “The main problem this presents is that with the false memory grafted so completely into Daniel's brain, I don't know that we can use the Memory Device to remove it without inadvertently causing damage to the main memory block. Even if it doesn't fry his brain, it could cause other kinds of damage to his mind.”

General Landry took a deep breath. “This isn't the best news I've heard all week, but it's certainly not as bad as it could be. Keep working at it, Colonel. Maybe get Doctors Lam and Beckett to take a look at it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carry on, then,” said Landry as turned around to leave. Half-way to the door, he paused and turned back. “Oh, and Colonel Carter, I've told the group down in Lab C to send you a project proposal for something they've been working on in their spare time. Take a look at it and let me know if it's feasible. Seemed to me like it could be worth giving it some money from the budget, but I want your assessment first. I wouldn't know science from science fiction.”

“Uh, of course, sir,” said Carter. “I'll take a look at it as soon as I get the proposal.”

“Good, good. Then I'll see you all later at the briefing.”

He checked his watch as he walked back out of the lab. It looked like he had just enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a sandwich from the commissary before his conference call with the Joint Chiefs.

 


 

Hermione got off the lift and took a deep breath. While she had an excuse ready to explain what she was doing up here, out of the archives and in the Muggle Affairs Department, it felt flimsy. She couldn't help the feeling that were anyone to ask, they'd immediately see through it.

Concentrating on the feel of the scroll she clutched in her hand, she raised her head higher and pushed past her nervousness, forcing herself to walk forward. She hadn't been in Muggle Affiars very often, but luckily she remembered the way to the office she needed to find.

Ron's father was hunched over his desk, several reports spread out in front of him over top a mess of scroll on his cluttered desk, a slightly scratched-up bright red muggle mug with a stylized yellow 'W' on the front dangerously close to his right hand. Its placement made sense moments later as Arthur Weasley reached for the mug, took a drink and then replaced it in exactly the same spot, all without looking away from his reading.

Hermione knocked gently on his open door to announce her presence.

Mister Weasley looked up immediately, his face brightening when he saw her standing there. “Hermione, what a pleasant surprise!” he said, wincing as his back protested the sudden movement. He indicated the chair on the other side of his desk with a wave of his hand. “Please do come in and sit down.”

Smiling, Hermione happily did as she was told.

This office was as different from her own supervisor's as could be. There were no bright colours – except for the mug on Mister Weasley's desk – and that made it feel warmer, more welcoming. The shelves along the left wall were packed with books and scrolls, interspersed with the odd knicknack, mostly Muggle in origin. The right wall was covered in framed photos of his family surrounding two framed scrolls, commendations from the Minister of Magic for his work in the Blood Wars. Hermione had one as well, though it wasn't hanging in her office.

“Hello, Mister Weasley,” she said as she sat down. “I do hope I'm not interrupting anything important.”

Mister Weasley smiled. “Oh, nothing so urgent I can't take a short break from it. Now, what brings you up to Muggle Affairs?”

“Ron told me about Mrs Weasley's plans for a large get-together with the former Order of the Phoenix,” she said brightly. “I wanted to come by ask you to tell her I think it's a brilliant idea and that I'm willing to help with whatever she needs.”

“Thank you, Hermione, I'll be happy to pass on the message,” said Mister Weasley, his voice soft. “But you could have told her that yourself on Friday.”

The office fell into silence and he let it linger on the unspoken question. Hermione swallowed, but she hesitated only for a moment. She was going against protocol and her supervisor would be furious when she found out... But Hermione knew she was right: whatever this was, it was important.

“You know I mentioned I've been going through old auror field reports and filing them away,” she began. Mister Weasley nodded, his eyes narrowing slightly. “I found something. A pattern of suspicious activity involving the American Muggle military and, at the very least, Glastonbury Tor.”

Mister Weasley's eyes widened. “Glastonbury Tor? What in Merlin's name would any military want with Glastonbury Tor?”

Hermione shook her head. “That's just it, I have no idea. And since the auror observers received no further orders, it wasn't ever investigated further. This happened about four years ago, but it's not all.” She paused. “Since it also involved the American Muggle Military, I went over the official report from that Death Eater attack in Trafalgar Square. At least two of the names Harry's team got for the Muggles involved in the incident match the names the auror observers got for the Muggles involved at Glastonbury Tor. And another matches the description of a third Muggle who was at both scenes.”

“Oh my. That does sound rather suspicious. Have you told Ms Willowbe about it?”

“Of course I did. I even wrote up a full report about it for her to read. She didn't want to so much as look at it! Said that since the Death Eater attack hadn't happened during the Blood War, I shouldn't even have been looking at it.”

Hermione stopped and took a deep breath. She knew she'd been unable to keep the bitterness and frustration out of her voice, but also knew that getting upset over it wouldn't help her case.

Mister Weasley sighed, rubbing his left temple. “Yes, I suppose it shouldn't surprise me really. Willowbe was very good friends with Doloros Umbridge.”

“What?! How... how is she even still here then?”

The look Ron's father gave her was very pointed. “It's not a crime to be friends with someone. Celest Willowbe didn't actually participate in any of Umbridge's activities.”

Hermione felt her anger and frustration bubbling up to the surface once more. She thought they'd finally gotten rid of that horrible woman and now she was back, haunting them in her absence. Or at least haunting Hermione. How had she even managed to get people to believe the ridiculous dragon dung she'd been spreading was a mystery to Hermione and, while being friends with someone wasn't a crime, perhaps being friends with some people should've been. Guilty by association, wasn't that the term?

Whatever she was going to say was interrupted by a swift, loud knock on the door.

Mister Weasley's eyes snapped to the doorway and Hermione turned in her seat to look to the short blonde witch now standing there. She wore pink robes with large black swirls stitched into the hemlines and a large black bow in her hair. Her lips were painted bright pink and they were pursed together into a thin line while her eyes flashed with anger.

“I'm sorry to interrupt, Mister Weasley,” she said. “But we've just gotten an alert of wild magic in Twickenham.”

The office chair slid back with a screech as Mister Weasley leapt to his feet. “Up by the Muggle racecourse again?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Damn!” Mister Weasley's eyes closed for a moment as the man took a deep, calming breath. When he opened his eyes, they too were cold with fury. “Ms Northridge, send a missive to the Auror Department. Head Auror Bryant wished to be informed immediately should we be required to return to that address. I'll meet you and Fallan at the apparation point in three minutes.”

“Yes, sir. I'll send the notice directly to the Head Auror herself.”

Without another word, the woman was gone. Mister Weasley tapped his wand on the two spread-out scrolls on his desk and they rolled back up.

“I'm very sorry, Hermione,” he said while he rushed to the stand in the corner to retrieve his traveling cloak. “But, as you can see, something urgent has just come up.”

Hermione jumped to her feet. “Yes, of course, I understand. I just...”

Mister Weasley smiled at her. “Leave your report on my desk and I'll take a look at it later, alright? If there really is something, I promise to pass it on up to the Magical Law Enforcement Department.”

She smiled, the tension easing out of her a little. “Thank you.”

Placing her report on top of the other two he'd already been looking at, Hermione then hurried out of the office so that Mister Weasley could lock up after her. She returned back to her own office feeling as though she'd finally accomplished something, even if it wasn't quite enough. Not nearly enough.

 


 

The final chevron locked and backwash exploded out from the gate with the usual blue and white spectacle. It really was quite the sight, both beautiful and yet terrifying at the same time, Daniel though as he watched. Sometimes he wished he could capture that awe and wonder from his first few years of traveling through the gate, back when it was all still new and exciting. Not that traveling to other planets and galaxies wasn't still exciting, but the awe wasn't quite there anymore.

It was just another form of travel now.

Wormhole now stabilized, he turned to the reason he was standing here in the first place and smiled.

“Well, it was good to see you again, Anise, Freya,” he said. “Thank you for everything.”

Anise nodded to him, a small smile on the Tok'ra's face. Light from the gate rippled over her face in an eerie play of light and shadows. “It was good to see you as well, Daniel Jackson. Freya and I were happy to help you and your team. It was the least we could do after your rescue, for which we are both very grateful.”

Her grip was strong when they shook hands, not enough to hurt but enough to remind Daniel of the strength of the symbiot that shared this woman's body. He didn't think they meant it as a reminder, but it served as one nonetheless.

He stepped away and General Landry came forward to also shake her hand and thank her for the information she brought them and for her help with the Zatark detector.

“You are welcome, General Landry,” Anise said in reply. “And on behalf of the Tok'ra, I thank you and the SGC for sending SG-1 to retrieve me. You have once again proven yourselves to be good allies.”

And then the woman walked up the ramp, slipping into the wormhole without another look back. The watery event horizon winked out of existence as the gate shut down after her.

“Well, I suppose it's time to get ourselves to the briefing,” said General Landry after a short pause.

Daniel nodded. “Yippee,” he said sarcastically.

General Landry turned to him, raising a single eyebrow in his direction.

Daniel sighed. “I'm sorry, General. It's just... frustrating.”

Landry's demeanor immediately softened. “I understand that, especially as this isn't the first time you've been to this particular rodeo.”

Definitely not,” said Daniel, emphatically. “My mind's been messed with so many times that by all odds I should probably be blubbering in the corner of a padded cell somewhere. Assuming I'm not and this isn't all my own, very elaborate delusion.”

“In which case I'd be very much obliged if you could just unimagine the Ori.”

Daniel laughed, startled by the playful remark. It was the sort of thing Jack would say. And, just like that, he found himself missing his friend fiercely. He wanted nothing more than to do his usual beer run before driving to Jack's place to irritate his friend by perusing one of the most recent archaeology publications instead of feigning interest in whatever game happened to be playing. If only he could turn back time – just for a few hours.

“I'll get right on that,” he told General Landry.

“You do that, Doctor Jackson.”

And then the General turned on his heel and led the way to the briefing room. Daniel followed, a small smile on his face. If this had been General Hammond, he'd have squeezed Daniel's shoulder and told him not to worry, that they had their best people working on the problem. Landry didn't waste words with such things: he knew that Daniel knew all this. Sam would do everything in her power, use every trick in her intellectual arsenal to figure this puzzle out, and then make up a few more.

The problem wasn't even really the mind blocks – though having yet more scrambled memories in his head didn't make Daniel happy in the slightest – it was that it had happened on Earth. Weird, mind-warping stuff wasn't supposed to happen on Earth. It was what gate travel was for.

Daniel took a deep breath, pulling himself together as he entered the briefing room.

He was greeted by a packed table as both Rodney and Ronon had apparently opted to join their teammates. Doctor Lam was also present, huddled in close to Beckett as they compared notes next to Sam and Rodney, who were doing the same only with more violent gestures. A quick perusal of the table revealed one last empty chair between Vala and Sheppard.

He slipped into the seat just as the General called the briefing to order.

“Colonel Carter, why don't you start,” he said after the usual pleasantries.

“Yes, sir,” said Sam. “First of all, the ballistics reports finally came back and they've confirmed that all four guns had been fired and the amount of residue found in the guns matches the amount of missing bullets. I've added the information to my report and attached copies of the ballistics reports to the information packet for the IOA.”

Landry nodded. “Good. Make sure you forward the final copy of your report to both myself and General O'Neill. I spoke to him two hours ago and he'd like to be kept in the loop.”

“Of course, sir,” said Sam.

Daniel smiled, knowing full well that was likely the very, very summarized version of Jack's request.

“I've also completed my preliminary report on the Zatark Detector scans,” Sam continued on. The motioned next to her. “As per your suggestion, General, I forwarded the Detector's findings as well as a copy of my report to Doctors Lam and Beckett. I believe, they're analyzing them now...?”

“Aye, that we are,” Carson answered. He looked up from the pages he'd been reading over. “I performed scans of me own on Atlantis and there doesn't seem to be any sort of damage to the brain as a result of whatever was done to them. Teyla's brain waves were registering as slightly elevated for several days, but other than a slight fever and a headache, we couldn't find any adverse effects. Most likely it was a result of her brain fighting the false memories. Either way, they've stabilized and gone back down to normal levels again.”

General Landry nodded and turned to Teyla. “Ms Emmagen, do you remember what happened in Trafalgar Square last week?”

Teyla hesitated for a moment. “I believe I do, General, mostly,” she said. “However, my memory is... fuzzy. As though the incident had happened several years ago and not merely a week ago. My only clear memory is sitting at the pub and discussing how different London felt to San Francisco with Daniel.”

Daniel nodded. “I remember that conversation,” he said. “I was saying how I was certain some of your fellow Atlantians might enjoying returning the favour and showing you their countries and that I'd ask Jack about giving your permission to travel outside the US for that... which I haven't actually done yet.” He winced. “Sorry. I'll call Jack tonight.”

Teyla smiled at him warmly. “That is quite alright, Daniel. You have had a lot on your mind.”

“I wanna climb Mount Everest,” Ronon said suddenly.

“Really?” said Sheppard, looking surprised. “Since when?”

Across from him, Daniel saw Rodney look up and roll his eyes at Ronon. “Of course you do,” he snarked. “Thankfully, I will be far too busy to go with you.”

“Amelia's brother showed me a documentary on the Himalayas,” Ronon answered Sheppard. “They looked cool. I've never done something like that just for fun.”

Sheppard made a face. “Yeah, but wouldn't you rather go surfing in Australia? You'd love it there. I've never been to Australia, but they have some of the weirdest animals and amazing waves–”

General Landry cleared his throat. “Ms Emmagen, what exactly is it that you remember?”

Teyla shot Ronon and Sheppard one last amused look before turning to the General. “As I as saying, I remember the conversation quite clearly, however, after that parts of my memory become slightly jumbled. I remember the sounds of squealing tires and the impacts of metal on metal, although I cannot remember seeing any actual cars impacting. Unlike the screaming, which I remember hearing quite clearly as well as seeing people fleeing in fright.”

“Do you remember the crash at all?” Landry asked, sounding curious.

“I...” Teyla trailed off, pausing to collect her thoughts. “I am sorry, it is rather difficult to explain. When I remember the incident it is as though I somehow know there was a crash occurring, however I do not know why I know this as I cannot picture the crash in my mind, even knowing I could once remember it clearly. I have re-read my initial report on the incident, but I'm afraid I no longer have any recollection of the events as I'd described them at the time.”

“That would actually coincide with what the Zatark detector showed,” Sam interjected. “The false memory was in the exact same area as with the others, but it was largely degraded.”

“But not completely gone,” said Daniel. “So you're saying whatever did this, not even alien physiology is able to combat it entirely. Although this still means that the whatever it was, was designed with humans in mind.”

“Well, yes, obviously,” said Rodney with a frown in Daniel's direction. “I mean, it's not like anyone would actually be expecting aliens to be stopping by randomly for a pint of beer in a London pub. Not even the most devout UFO conspiracy theorists are quite that paranoid–”

“–Unless they've seen 'World's End',” Sheppard pointed out.

“I knew we never should've let you watch those movies,” Rodney grumbled as he shot his team leader a glare. Then he continued in a more normal voice: “Look, just based on the fake crash itself, it's clear we're not exactly dealing with particularly intelligent people here.”

Beside him, Sam rolled her eyes. “It does, however, mostly eliminate the idea of either a leftover Goa'uld, rogue NID, or some form of IOA plot. Teyla's Wraith DNA isn't exactly a secret, after all, and Teal'c has always proven very resistant to mind control in the past.”

Landry nodded. “The Joint Chiefs agree with you on that point, Colonel Carter. The known risk wouldn't be worth it. Any three of those factions would have simply killed Teal'c, Ms Mal Doran and Ms Emmagen.”

It was a chilling truth and Daniel couldn't help the shiver that ran down his spine at the bluntness of the General's words, even though he was only saying out loud what Daniel had been thinking for days.

“Unfortunately, eliminating our three main suspects, doesn't exactly bring us any closer to figuring out who's actually responsible,” Sheppard drawled. “'Cause it seems we're all getting flashbacks of guys in black robes and white face masks, but that seems more like a fantasy-con gone rogue than any terrorists I've ever heard of.”

“Wasn't there another group too?” Vala suddenly asked. “I seem to remember knocking someone out with a beer mug, but I'm pretty sure he didn't have black robes and a face mask. I think he might've been a redhead...”

Teyla nodded. “I, too, have some recollection of those individuals, however my memories of them are quite vague. I believe they must've arrived just before our memories were altered.”

“Which means, whoever they were, they might've been the ones responsible for the cover-up!” said Sam. She was practically bouncing with excitement as she turned to the General. “Maybe once the memory device gets here, we might be able to pull some images and start working on putting names to the faces.”

General Landry nodded. “It should be arriving here in the morning, Colonel. In the meantime, I'd like you to make sure the information packet has everything relevant inside so that I can send it off to the IOA. Hopefully, England's representative will be willing to expedite our request to the London Police Department on getting copies of their reports relating to the accident.”

“Yes, sir. I'll have that for you within the hour.”

“Good. Doctor Lam, based on the medical reports, do you believe SG-1 should be kept out of the field?”

Doctor Tam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Sir, medically there is no reason to keep them out of the field,” she said after a moment's pause. “However, since we have no idea how their memories were over-written, I'd recommend proceeding with extreme caution and no high-risk missions for the time being.”

General Landry nodded. “Agreed. In your opinion, Doctor, would there be any merit in trying to forcibly retrieve the memories?”

Again, the doctor hesitated. “I've spoken to our on-base psychologists and they seem to believe there might be some benefit in trying to retrieve the memories using hypnosis, especially since there have yet to be any adverse effects to the memories they've managed to remember on their own. I'm also waiting for a call back from a Doctor Kimberly McLoud, who's an expert in brainwashing and memory retrieval. I don't know how much she's going to be able to tell me without a detailed explanation of the case in question, but I thought it might be worth the try.”

“Forward me her contact information, Doctor. If she's any good, she seems like the kind of expert we might need to consult at some point anyway, so we might as well get her vetted and cleared now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Alright then, SG-1, I'm postponing your mission to P3K1L9 until next Tuesday. We'll meet again on Friday at fourteen hundred, but unless something changes I'm giving you all the weekend off. Colonel Sheppard, Ms Emmagen, I'd like you to remain at the SGC until the debriefing on Friday in case we need any of you on-hand for tests. Anything else?”

No one had anything to add.

“Very well, dismissed.”

 


 

Arthur cradled the mug of tea in his hands, inhaling the soothing herbal aroma with the intensity of an apocalypse survivor as he slowly made his way slowly back to his office. The tea felt like an anchor, his final link to sanity.

The mound of paperwork on his desk felt overwhelming – it had clearly been happily multiplying while he wasn't looking. Well, there were his regular reports, which he needed to get done and out of the way, and then the extra research he was doing for Kingsley, which the three of them had decided to keep between themselves for the moment. Part of Arthur was tickled at being asked by the Minister of Magic himself to help with his investigate, but he'd never been one to work late nights unless he absolutely had to therefore it would look suspicious if he suddenly started now.

And that wasn't even starting on what his wife would say. He hated lying to Molly and she wouldn't be fooled for very long in any case.

Of course this terrible business with the child in Twickenham would work as an excuse for a few nights, but it left a sour taste in his mouth. And, Merlin help him, a desire to crucio someone. Specifically, the girl's father. How in the world could someone look at their own child, at their own flesh and blood, and want to cause them pain? This time the child had held off her magical outburst until he'd started on her. When Arthur and his team had arrived, the little girl had been sporting a severely bruised left cheek and the father was bellowing loudly, his eyes wide with both fear and anger, from where he was stuck to the ceiling like a beer-bellied starfish.

Arthur hadn't even bothered to keep the contempt out of his voice as he dealt with the man. Which the father hadn't appreciated one bit.

“Oh, you think you're so much better than me, do you?” he'd sneered at Arthur. “You with your magic and your nancy robes.”

Arthur had rounded on him. “I have raised seven children to adulthood and never raised a hand to any of them,” he'd snapped at the man angrily. “I am therefore at least seven times better than you are!”

The aurors accompanying them had taken over at that point and Arthur had gladly left them to it. If it were up to him, he'd have taken the mother and child away from there and not looked back. Of course, that wasn't up to him to decide. All he could do was write up the damned report.

Which he needed to do as soon as possible so that some form of intervention could happen.

Oh, and then there was the report Hermione had brought him. Perhaps he'd read that over first. It was mostly just a formality, after all. Hermione was a clever girl and he trusted her judgment, however, it wouldn't reflect well on him if he passed it on without so much as reading it over first. He needed to be able to speak to its contents should the Department of Magical Law Enforcement ask why he thought it was worth their attention, especially if Celeste Willowbe had already dismissed it.

Yes, he decided, he'd start with Hermione's report.

He rounded the corner to his office and paused as he saw a now familiar figure waiting for him inside. After taking a long, fortifying drink of tea, he continued in his steps. Head Auror Bryant looked away from the pictures of his family when he walked in.

“Head Auror Bryant,” he greeted her formally. “What can I do for you?”

Bryant inclined her head at him. “Mister Weasley, Senior Auror Castleman briefed me about your afternoon altercation in Twickenham.”

“Ah, yes, and I'd like to thank you for sending her and her partner along with us. They were a big help. I especially enjoyed it when she asked the father if he'd ever imagined life as a slimy toad.”

Bryant smirked. “I knew I could count on her to be creatively threatening.” Then the smirk, and any amusement she'd felt, disappeared from her face. “I've been in contact with Headmistress McGonagall and have arranged a meeting with her. As the Muggle Affairs Department official in charge of the case, I was wondering if you'd like to accompany me to Hogwarts.”

Arthur blinked. “That was fast.”

She shrugged. “I see no reason to wait and every reason to deal with this matter as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

He observed her thoughtfully for a moment. “The father's a Muggle. It's not actually in our jurisdiction to deal with his crimes.”

Anger flashed through her eyes and her jaw tensed. “And that's exactly how these Muggle-born children fall through the cracks. He's not a Wizard, therefore it's a Muggle issue, except that we can't very well let Muggle law enforcement and social services deal with it because his daughter's a Witch. Really, what we should do is obliviate him except that doing so would also remove the threat of what his daughter can do and what we can do, a threat that will, at the very least, make him think twice before raising a hand to her or her mother. And so we do nothing.”

Arthur nodded thoughtfully. “This is personal for you.”

Bryant's eyes slid to him, narrowing slightly. For a long moment, she didn't answer. Then she looked away and spoke in a low voice: “When I was in Beauxbatons there was a boy two years my junior. He wasn't really my friend, but I helped tutor him occasionally in charms. My father was a Muggle copper, just his father before him and his father before him and even my mother was an auror before an injury took her out of the field, so noticing things, observing patterns, is in my blood. And I did notice him, noticed the bruises he tried to cover up when he came back from holidays, saw how he shied away from contact, the haunted look in his eyes that slowly melted away over the course of each semester. I told my head of house, asked her to help him. She said she'd look into it.”

She snorted. “I never did find out what she did, or if she even bothered to do anything. I thought I'd done my bit, informed an adult, someone in authority. Two days before summer holidays in my sixth year, he snuck into the potions storage room and downed half a vial of Basilisk venom.”

Arthur gasped, and then hissed as hot tea splashed onto his hand.

Bryant waited patiently for him to set his tea down and clean the hot liquid from his hand as well as the few drops that had splashed onto the scrolls scattered about his desk. He wasn't even sure which ones were which in his shock.

“So, you'll be accompanying me to Hogwarts then?” she asked mildly when he had put his wand away again.

He looked up at her. “What? Oh, yes, yes of course I'll go to Hogwarts with you.” He took a deep breath. “Merlin, I can't even imagine how horrible the circumstances must've been for a child to... I just don't understand. How could any parent let that happen?”

“You don't understand, because you're a good man, Arthur Weasley. But then, that wasn't exactly difficult to guess.”

She looked pointedly towards his office walls and Arthur couldn't help notice she wasn't looking at the commendations. He smiled, soothed inexplicably by the portraits of his family, of the bright, happy smiles on the faces of his own children. He would do everything he could to help this child. He would go to Hogwarts, speak to Professor McGonagall and then... then he would go home and hold his wife close, listen to her plans for their first grandchild.

Arthur looked back to the Head Auror. “Please, call me Arthur,” he told her with a smile. “I feel that we'll be working quite closely for a while, so you might as well use my first name.”

Bryant blinked and then her entire face relaxed into a small, barely-there smile. “You are quite correct. But only if you call me Angelique.”

“Done. Now when is it that we're due in Hogwarts?”

“Classes should be just about finishing up for the day, so we should probably leave sometime within the next half hour or so if we want to catch the Headmistress before dinner and not keep her too late.”

“Hm, I can leave at more or less any time. Just give me a few moments to let my deputy know I'm leaving the Ministry.”

“Of course. I'll meet you at the apparation point in twenty minutes?”

“Yes, that should be fine. I'll see you in a bit then, uh, Angelique.”

She nodded and left his office without another word, leaving Arthur with a newfound determination to, well, save the world. Or at least one child's world. Besides, it was always good to see Hogwarts again.

 


 

It was with a weary sigh that Draco looked around yet another foreign hotel room. It was luxurious enough, clean, with thick, dark blue carpet on the floor, cream-coloured walls with gold-painted embossed detailing along the ceiling borders and dark wood furniture. There were also several paintings hanging on the wall, some vases of freshly cut flowers and two small crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Overall, he approved of the simple, yet elegant decor of the room.

He was simply too tired to appreciate it.

Los Angeles, California. The last stop of his two-month long trip to the United States; three more days until he could finally leave this country and have a proper cup of tea.

He almost wished he hadn't left this one 'till last as he was now left with very little enthusiasm for the meeting he had in the morning. It had always been the least interesting of his prospects, but he'd set up the meeting over two months ago, knowing he couldn't assume anything would go the way he'd like it to. Thankfully, Chicago had turned out to be more than promising and, pending some inquiries back in England, one of his meetings in New York also looked favourable. He didn't need this meeting in Los Angeles anymore, but as he was here anyway, there was no point in canceling. Perhaps they would surprise him.

Besides, he'd needed the excuse to come to Los Angeles.

Draco walked over to his trunk, which had been brought up while he'd stopped for dinner in the hotel's restaurant. With a flick of his wand and a whispered code word, the latch snapped open and the lid slid smoothly upwards. Reaching down, he took out the small black box sitting on top and then cast an unpacking spell. He turned away and walked over to the large window as clothes, shoes and toiletries began flying around the room and storing themselves away into the cupboards and closets provided.

The window showed a picturesque view of the wizarding beech behind the hotel, the glass having been charmed to see through the multitude of spells that otherwise hid the beech from prying Muggle eyes. Draco very much doubted he'd get the chance to go down to it himself, but the view from his eighth story room was rather nice. Early evening sun sparkled off the gently lapping water, broken only by the occasional swimmer and what looked like several water-gliders a bit further out from shore.

He observed the water-gliders with interest for a few moments, fascinated by how the slim wood the wizards balanced on glided smoothly over the surface of the water. He'd heard of water-gliders years ago, but this was his first time seeing them in person, even from afar.

No more than two handspans wide, and half the length of the rider, water-gliders were made of wood and were flat on top with a rounded bottom half. They'd been developed by magic users living in the tropical island climates of the southern hemisphere as a method of transportation between islands in place of the brooms used by their northern hemisphere counterparts. They'd become popular in parts of Wizarding America for mostly recreational purposes, but also for sea rescues. Either way, he'd heard that, while their purpose was similar to broomstick, riding on water-gliders was very different to riding a broomstick.

Draco's schedule for the next day flashed through his mind. He seemed to remember a poster for water-glider rentals by the hotel's reception desk when he'd checked in. Perhaps, if he managed to wrap the meeting up early enough, he'd have the time to try this intriguing transportation out for himself.

Suddenly, his stay in Los Angeles was looking less dull.

Behind him, he heard the shuffling stop, followed by a soft snick as his now-empty trunk closed itself. He looked away from the beech and back down to the small black velvet box in his hand. A practiced flick of his thumb and the top opened, revealing a dark green satin interior and the ring inside. The sun wasn't as bright as it had been at midday, but it was still bright enough to make the large diamond in the center of the ring sparkle in a bright multitude of refracted rainbows.

His stomach clenched and his mouth went dry as he realized he'd be going back to England in three days. In four days he'd be asking Astoria Greengrass to marry him.

It had felt so far away three months ago when he'd been in Paris choosing this ring. Since then, he'd stared at the ring so many times that he'd become intimately familiar with every delicate line, with every diamond and emerald chip that surrounded the main diamond, with the curve of each carefully engraved flower on either side of the stones. He'd gone to what had felt like every single jeweler in the French Wizarding district before spying a small little shop tucked away in a side street. As soon as he'd seen the ring, he'd known it was perfect: somewhat elaborate, but not overly large.

Draco took a deep breath and gently closed the box.

He didn't dare try to picture her reaction. Because of her blood curse, Astoria was reluctant to marry. He knew this and had done his best thus far not to chase her away with talk of any sort of permanent commitment. He'd also made no secret of it when he'd requested copies of her medical files from her parents even if he hadn't actually discussed it with her.

That was his main reason for coming to Los Angeles. The Doctors he'd met with in New York and Philadelphia had taken a look at her files and shook their heads sadly. A tragic curse, they called it – one of them had once had patient afflicted with the same – and one with no cure. It was the same answer she'd gotten from all the European doctors she'd been to and Draco had no reason to believe the Doctor here in Los Angeles would have a different answer.

But he still had hope.

Chapter Text

Somewhere in the distance a foghorn sounded, its deep, melancholy tone muffled by fog thickened with magic. Moisture hung in the air beneath pregnant grey clouds in an almost-drizzle that sat heavily in their lungs and further blanketed the dockyards in a thin mist that blurred shapes and hid shadows.

Harry cursed as he squinted and tried to make out shapes in the distance – or at the very least, across the street. For the first time he could remember, he wished he hadn't had his eyesight magically repaired so he could use cast a sight-enhancing charm to see better in the fog. The few charms that wouldn't clash with the magic used in his eyes wouldn't be of any help to him right now.

There was a muffled pop to his right and he tensed, relaxing slightly when he confirmed it was their team leader apparating back from reconnaissance.

Moments later, Mateius Langer cast a short-range voice carrying charm and then Harry could hear him whispering in his ear: “All right, everyone, looks like the Death Eaters are targeting several Muggle ships that had been off-loading cargo at the pier as well as the Port of London Authority Building itself. That equals a lot of people working in the area, so be careful of fleeing Muggles. Knock them out so we can obliviate them later, but make sure you don't mistake them for Death Eaters.”

“They'll be the ones not wearing long black robes and white masks, yeah?” Dean asked.

“Yes,” Langer answered stiffly after a pause, having still not quite gotten used to Dean's attempts at being a comedian. The rest of them had learned to just ignore him a long time ago. “Auror Lehane's team are casting anti-apparition wards and then they'll attack the Death Eaters by the ships. Auror Dawlish's team is heading into the building and both teams will be herding Death Eaters south-east towards us. Our job is to pick off anyone who comes our way, Muggle or Death Eater.”

Harry felt a flash of irritation that they were essentially stuck on clean-up duty, but pushed it aside in favour of getting the job done. There was no point in arguing it now anyway, since it was Dawlish who was in charge of coordinating the attack.

“Right, so, we're going to split up,” Langer continued. He took a deep breath as his eyes scanned them all. “Greene, you and Thomas take high ground and monitor the wards. If the anti-apparation wards fall, let us know immediately. Potter, Weasley and Patil, position to cover the left flank by the townhouses. Longbottom and Lloyd, you're with me on the right flank at the parking lot. No one gets past us, got it?”

They all nodded.

“Then let's get into position. The other two teams will be starting their attack in approximately two minutes.”

Harry saw Dean and Joanne immediately turn to each other while he turned to Ron and Padma and nodded at them to follow him.

The Port of London Authority Building stood on a corner where the street turned at a very sharp angle, leaving a fairly large open space directly in front of the building. As he and his group hid in the shadows of the townhouses across the street, he had to admit it was the perfect spot for an ambush. Death Eaters fleeing the buildings wouldn't see them immediately and had nowhere to take cover behind once they were outside since the area was a no-parking zone.

For a long time, nothing happened.

Then the front door flew open so suddenly that the splash of light was instantly visible even through the thick, soupy fog. Harry saw two dark shapes rush out. He leaned forward onto the balls of his feet.

“We've got two heading in our direction,” he said softly, knowing Ron and Padma would hear him.

“Muggle or Death Eater?” Ron asked.

Harry frowned as he tried to make the shapes out more clearly. They were running full-tilt, arms flailing, one of them with an awkward sort of gait a person used when they were putting most of their weight on the balls of their feet. Like a woman running in high-heeled shoes.

“Muggles,” he answered decisively.

They let them come a bit closer before knocking them out. As Padma levitated them out of the way, Harry and Ron settled back in to watch the doors, which had closed shut on their own. No sooner had Padma returned to their side, a bright explosion of bluish light illuminated the sky behind the Port Authority Building, cutting so easily through the fog that it had to have been blinding up close.

As though part of the spell had been broken, the unnatural stillness that had accompanied the thick, heavy fog vanished and suddenly Harry could hear the distant sounds of screams and shouts coming from the pier behind the Authority Building.

One of second-story windows shattered in an outward explosion of glass. Harry jumped at the sound, his eyes immediately looking up to try and see what was going on. The lights were still on in the building, but the fog obscured his view beyond that. When nothing fell out of the window, Harry turned his attention back to the ground-level entrances.

Then there came a moment of renewed stillness, as though the world around him was taking a deep breath. Harry braced himself.

Moments later, the main doors exploded outwards with a force that sent them flying across the street towards them.

Harry's wand shot out. “Confringo!” he cast and the doors blew apart in mid-air into thousands of splinters.

Now he could hear screams from inside the building as well. The small explosion had cut a path through the fog, thinning it just enough for him to see a lone figure desperately crawling through the front entrance, its suit torn and dirty – though he couldn't tell from this distance, Harry imagined it was blood. The figure screamed with terror moments later, as some invisible force picked it up and tossed it aside like a rag doll.

Harry cursed under his breath, but had no time to consider whether or not the Muggle was still alive as four Death Eaters rushed out of the building. The last one ducked just as a spell came flying out from inside, taking cover before casting a spell back. That left three heading in their direction.

Beside him, Harry felt Ron tense and he glanced over in time to meet his friend's eyes. On Ron's other side, Padma looked determinedly straight ahead, her wand held ready at her side. When Harry looked back towards the building the Death Eaters were half-way across the street. The fog that had been partially blown away by the exploding door was slowly creeping back, once again refilling the scant patches of visibility. There was movement at the far right side of the building, but whoever they were, they continued to head directly towards Neville's group.

The Death Eaters heading their way crossed the street.

“Right, here they are,” Harry whispered.

“On three?” Ron whispered back.

Harry flashed him a quick grin. “Nah, no point,” he said and then darted out from his hiding spot. “Expelliarmus!” he cast at the nearest Death Eater. The Death Eater obviously hadn't seen him coming and seconds later, his wand smoothly sailed into Harry's outstretched hand. Harry resisted the urge to smirk. “Stupefy!”

As his opponent fell to the ground, he heard Ron and Padma to his right casting their own spells. Ron's opponent had managed to defend himself with a decent Protego, but Ron quickly followed up his original spell with a second in the same moment as the Death Eater began casting. Padma's was still giving her trouble, his footwork an odd sort of dancing Harry had never seen before, which made his movements difficult to follow.

Harry crouched down and kept as still as possible, hoping the Death Eater's vision was just as compromised as theirs. Slowly, he raised his wand and waited until the Death Eater had come just a bit closer... then he aimed at the Death Eater's hand. “Diffindo!”

The Death Eater screamed in pain. Which was exactly what Padma needed to knock him unconscious.

She then flashed Harry a smile. “Thanks, Potter! That wandwork was weird, wasn't it?”

“So was his footwork,” Harry added. He frowned. “I wonder if that means they've started recruiting from outside Europe?”

“Brilliant,” said Ron with a snort. “That's all we bloody need.”

Their speculations ended when a terrified group of Muggles came running out of the Port Authority Building, followed closely by three more Death Eaters.

Harry cursed. “Padma, you get the Muggles,” he said. “Ron and I will deal with the Death Eaters.”

And then he was off, Ron on his heels, weaving against the flow of the small crowd. One of the Death Eaters separated from the others and headed towards the parking lot. That left only two for him and Ron. Which was perfect.

These two Death Eaters saw them coming and so didn't go down as easily as Harry and Ron's first opponents. As Harry deflected what looked like a modified blinding charm, he noticed Ron just barely managing to dodge a sickly green Killing Curse. He took a deep breath as he realized he couldn't afford to let this go into a long wizard's duel. Especially not with his visibility compromised; there was simply too much risk of someone sneaking up on them.

Harry cast a rather clumsily-broadcast Confringo even as he reached for his cloak's clasp with his other hand. The Death Eater easily blocked it. Harry feigned left, moving his wand backwards so that the tip touched his cloak.

“Levioso,” he whispered in the same breath as he snapped his cloak clasp open. Then he ducked and spun to the right.

A Killing Curse hit his levitating, billowing cloak.

Harry cast a binding spell at the Death Eater, aiming directly at his unprotected side. The Death Eater had barely begun to turn around to face him once more when the spell hit him. He froze instantly and then toppled to the ground.

Harry smirked as he mentally thanked Severus Snape for being the inspiration for that particular move. The fog was the perfect place for it too. Glancing towards Ron, he saw his friend had it well in hand. But they needed this over quickly and so Harry raised his wand to cast a trip jinx at Ron's opponent, knowing his friend would take advantage of the opening it gave him. He'd only begun to cast the jinx when Ron suddenly threw himself to the ground and rolled to the side. The Death Eater obviously wasn't prepared for the sudden move and Ron's spell from the new vantage point hit him dead-on.

Harry retrieved his cloak and ran over to him. “Nice move,” he said as Ron was getting to his feet.

“Thanks, mate,” he said.

They looked behind them, where Padma had easily handled the Muggles by casting a mass Confundus Charm and then taking advantage of their confusion to herd them to the side. She glanced up at Harry and Ron and signaled to them that she was okay.

Harry and Ron nodded back to her and then turned their attention once again to the building.

“How many of them do you suppose there are?” Ron asked.

“No idea, but there can't be too many more,” Harry answered. “This doesn't exactly look like a big enough target even for as many as we've already seen.”

Ron was thoughtfully silent for a few moments. “Depends on what their objective is,” he said. “Don't a lot of ships come through to the Port of London? And this is the Authority Building, so I'd say that would 'ave to mean it's in charge of the port and keeping track of all those ships... And their cargo too, I guess.”

“I suppose...” said Harry.

They fell silent and dropped down to one knee when they noticed more movement by the main entrance. Suddenly a dark figure flew out of the upper story window.

“Confringo!” Harry cried, aiming at the Death Eater's broom. The Death Eater easily evaded and picked up speed.

Harry reached into his pocket and then, with a practiced flick of his wrist, unshrunk his own broom and mounted it. Not daring to take his eyes off the Death Eater, lest he lose him in the fog, Harry leaned forward on his broom and followed.

He vaguely thought he heard someone calling after him, but didn't allow himself to be distracted.

The Death Eater kept just above the rooftops, swerving to the side only to avoid a spell from Harry. Harry cursed under his breath as the unseating spell missed. He flew higher, which put him outside of where the Death Eater expected him to be when he turned around on his broom to return fire. The spell intended for Harry sailed harmlessly beneath him and to the left of where Ron was following.

Harry aimed at the Death Eater's back. “Sectumsempra!”

The Death Eater managed to swerve to the side just in time to avoid the curse, but not entirely. The broom wobbled in mid-air as a sizable chunk of bristles were partially cut off and then scattered by the wind. To most wizards, this would be incredibly detrimental. However, it was just Harry's luck that this particular Death Eater was not only a decent flyer, but quite possibly a professional quidditch player as well as it took him mere moments to adjust to the change in bristles on his broom.

Those mere moments were, thankfully, just enough time for Harry and Ron to close the Death Eater's lead significantly.

Glancing down, he met Ron's eyes and nodded to him. Ron already had his wand out and nodded back. A thrill ran through Harry as something that hadn't quite been sitting right for a while finally slid back into place. He and Ron didn't need to talk about their plans, they just knew where they each needed to be. It felt so simple, so natural.

He looked away from Ron and leaned forward on his broom. They were far enough away from the dockyards that the fog was little more than a slight mist. Which meant Harry no longer needed to move quite so carefully. He willed his broom faster and it shot ahead. Behind him, he heard Ron cast a Petrificus Totalus, which the Death Eater managed to avoid with quite an impressive barrel roll – if Harry was honest, he wasn't sure he'd be able to pull the move off so smoothly with a compromised broom.

Impressive flying or not, when Harry banked sharply down, the Death Eater wasn't ready for him. This time, the Petrificus Totalus hit dead-center, making the wizard freeze instantly and sending him hurtling towards the ground. Leaving Ron to catch the broom, Harry dived, the wind pushing his hair back as he picked up speed. He passed the falling wizard and pulled his broom up sharply with one hand while casting a binding spell combined with a levitation charm with the other.

The Death Eater's descent came to an abrupt halt less than two metres from the ground.

Taking a deep breath, Harry flew upwards again, dragging the immobilized man behind him. As he'd expected, Ron had caught the stray broom and was waiting for him higher up.

“I see your seeker skills 'aven't gotten too rusty,” said Ron as soon as Harry was within hearing distance.

Harry snorted. “You say that like I haven't been playing quidditch with you and your family for years now.”

Ron shrugged. “Pretty sure we don't ever play that aggressively. I mean, not anymore.”

The 'not since Fred died' remained unspoken.

Their flight back to the Port of London Authority Building took them longer than their chase had, since they couldn't fly as quickly thanks to their incapacitated prisoner. When they arrived back, the battle was clearly over: the magically-enhanced fog had thinned drastically and the area was full of medics, and the witches and wizards of the Clean-up Crew.

Harry landed and dismounted before shrinking his broom and stowing it back inside his pocket. Death Eater floating behind them, he and Ron made their way through the chaotic mess of people.

“Auror Potter!”

Harry stopped and turned to see Senior Auror Dawlish making his way towards them. Though not ever a man prone to needless jocularity, right now he looked especially grave.

“I'll take your prisoner from you,” he continued as he came closer. “Add him to the rest of the ones we're sending by portkey.” He paused. “And I imagine you'll be wanting to check on your teammate.”

“Did someone get hurt?” Harry asked, alarmed.

Dawlish frowned. “Got hit by a double-dose of Bone-breaking Curse and Crutiatus from what I heard.”

Harry and Ron exchanged horrified looks. They handed their charge over to the Senior Auror and then immediately hurried to the cluster of medics leaning over a prone figure on the sidewalk. Suddenly one of the medics moved to the side.

Harry came to an abrupt halt, his eyes widening with horror as he stared at the unconscious face.

It was Padma.

 


 

“Aurors Patil, Evans and Starr will be fine,” were the first words Head Auror Bryant spoke as she entered the room. As an opening line it was quite effective and when she sat down at the head of the crowded conference table, it was to a silent room. She looked over the three auror teams. “Owls have already been sent to their families informing them. Starr is in a magically-induced coma, but should be able to take visitors in a few hours. Patil and Evans can both take visitors immediately, though Evans will most likely be released later this afternoon so long as the flesh-knitting spell goes smoothly.”

She took a deep breath and turned to the auror sitting to her right. “Senior Auror Dawlish, report. What the hell happened out there?”

The senior auror's report was succinct and to-the-point, almost emotionless except for the flash of anger in his eyes and the clench of his fist as he described how two Death Eaters had ganged up on Auror Starr, incapacitating him first before casting a spell that proceeded to slowly strip the flesh from his legs until it exposed the bones. It was barely a stumble in his re-telling of their arrival at the Port of London Authority Building, his assessment of the situation and their preparations to counter-attack. He described entering the building and finding a surprisingly large Death Eater force inside, though he couldn't figure out what, exactly, they'd been doing other than terrorizing the Muggles inside.

He mentioned coming up against several Death Eaters who used unusual wand techniques and gave him more trouble than he'd anticipated when it came to clearing out the building. Two Death Eaters had gotten away from a backroom using a portkey that appeared to have been waiting for them there.

After Dawlish, Lehane took over and described their offensive by the ships which had been moored at the piers attached to the building. Like Dawlish, she also didn't know what about the ships had made them a target, however the Death Eaters had been prepared to engage them, right down to having created a series of booby-traps. Mostly, they'd been simple charms that created localized explosions of light, but Auror Evans had accidentally hit one that been placed next to the refueling station, which had resulted in a much less localized explosion and left him and the Death Eater he'd been fighting quite badly injured.

Finally, the Head Auror turned to Langer. The young man took a deep breath before beginning his report, trying to remain calm and professional the way the two older, more experienced aurors before him had, but his voice shook slightly with nerves. He hesitated for a moment when he reached the end of the fight, his eyes sliding across the table for a moment to glance at Harry and Ron, before he took another deep breath and continued. The silence around the table took on a new weight when he said he'd gone to check on the rest of the team after being given the all-clear and finding Harry Potter and Ron Weasley nowhere to be found and Padma Patil unconscious beside an injured Dean Thomas.

Bryant frowned and nodded. For a moment the room sat in silence. When she finally spoke, her voice was carefully neutral. “So, it seems this attack is meant to look like a randomly-chosen target, and yet the Death Eaters were surprisingly well-prepared and certainly more organized than anything we've seen in a while.”

“But what would the purpose of attacking this target be?” a female auror on Dawlish's team asked with a confused frown.

“Oh, I'm not completely dismissing the possibility that it was random,” Bryant answered with a shrug. “We've been hearing whispers for a while that the Death Eaters are gathering under a new leader. This could've very well simply been practice, or perhaps even a demonstration of the effectiveness of their leadership style. However, that does not mean we should ignore the fact that the Port of London Authority Building is an important Muggle target. Hundreds of ships sail through the Port of London every day and quite a bit of the city's commerce depends on those ships delivering goods and supplies. The Authority is in charge of regulating the traffic going through the port. Unlike last time, there is simply no way for us to spin this as anything other than an attack. Now, Londoners are a hardy sort, but an attack like this still has an impact in the minds of ordinary citizens. You all should understand the power of fear.”

“You're oddly well-informed for someone whose lived in France for most of her life,” Senior Auror Lehane pointed out with an amused smile.

Bryant raised an eyebrow at her. “My grandfather was a weekend sailor,” she said after a pause. “It's been years since I've sailed on the Thames, but I doubt much has changed in that time.”

“I think it's gotten cleaner,” Dean Thomas offered.

The corners of her lips quirked. “Yes, there is that. It's certainly nice to know I might not need to get an injection the next time I fall in accidentally.”

“Did that happen often?” one of the other aurors on Dawlish's team asked.

“Only the one time. Thankfully.” Then she grew more serious. “Dawlish, Lehane, do either of you or your teams have anything to add?”

They didn't.

“Very well, then you and your teams are dismissed. I'd like your written reports on my desk by tomorrow morning. And do try not to all visit your injured comrades at once, I'd rather like it if we were to continue to enjoy a positive relationship with the staff at St. Mungos.”

She waited until the two teams had cleared the room before she turned to the third team. The youngest auror team in the Auror Division's history all stared back at her with bated breath, waiting for her to address the elephant in the room. Except for Auror Thomas, who kept shooting angry looks at Auror Potter while cradling his left arm.

She decided to begin there. “Auror Thomas, how is your arm?” she asked. “The staff at St Mungos informed me you refused immediate treatment.”

Thomas turned to her and blinked in surprise. “Uh, it's fine,” he winced. “I mean, it's broken, but they gave me a numbing potion so it doesn't hurt much unless I bump into something or try to use it. I'll be going back for Skelegrow later. The medics agreed I could come to the debriefing and write up my report before taking it. So I can concentrate better while I'm doing it.”

“If you need helping getting to St Mungos, let reception know and they'll get you a portkey.”

“Thank you, sir. I might just need that.”

“Having done the same thing myself many times in the past, I can more or less guarantee you will, Auror Thomas. Now why don't you tell me what happened to get you injured. According to your team leader's report, he'd assigned you to take the high ground.”

Thomas scowled. “He did. And Joanne–er, Auror Greene and I found ourselves a good position on top of a small building with a flat roof where we could monitor the area. Greene cast the ward monitoring charms, because she's better at that sort of thing than I am and I unshrunk my broom and settled in to watch. We saw a lot of Death Eaters come out of the building and a bunch of Muggles, most of them immediately crossed the street and headed south-west to Potter, Weasley and Patil's position, but they looked like they were handling it. Then, suddenly, this Death Eater flies out of one of the upper story windows. I got on my broom and went to follow when Potter cuts in front of me, already in pursuit. I called to him, but he either didn't hear me or just plain ignored me. When I realized Weasley was following behind him, I looked back to the ground where I saw three Death Eaters come out of the building and head towards Patil. So, I changed direction and flew down to help her. I dove at one of the Death Eaters and Patil took him out while he was distracted, but then the other two ganged up on her. I saw her get hit with their spells and go down screaming, but only recognized the Crutiatus. So, I aimed and took out the one casting it first. The other guy then turned to me. Turned out the other guy was casting the Bone Breaking curse, which I managed to avoid taking from the front, but it still caught my arm. I felt my arm snap and, well, it hurt. A lot. My wand fell out of my hand and I was losing control of my broom so I just sort of aimed myself at the Death Eater and picked up speed.”

He paused. “The next thing I knew there were medi-wizards hovering over me.”

“I commend you for your quick thinking, Auror Thomas, and for adapting to the situation you were given as best you could,” said the Head Auror after a slight pause. She smirked. “Crashing into that Death Eater was particularly inspired. Incidentally, you broke his back.”

Thomas managed a small grin. “Sweet.”

“Indeed.” The humour left her face and she turned her attention to the other side of the table. “Now, Aurors Potter and Weasley, tell me, why did you abandon your position?”

The two young men exchanged nervous looks – Angelique was relieved to see that they understood that they'd made a mistake – before Harry Potter turned to her with determined eyes. “We'd gotten all the Death Eaters coming out of the building and then suddenly one flew out of a broken window on a broom, so I took out my broom and chased after him.”

The Head Auror frowned at him. “And how exactly did you determine that there were no more Death Eaters in the building?”

He blinked. “Er, well there weren't anymore coming out.”

“Did you know how many had been inside in the first place?”

“No.”

“Then, Junior Auror Potter, unless you have X-ray vision, I fail to see how you could've known for certain there weren't any more Death Eaters inside.”

Harry Potter took a deep breath. “I suppose I couldn't,” he said quietly.

She nodded. “Junior Auror Weasley, your friend took off after the Death Eater and you immediately followed. Why?”

Ron Weasley was much less adept at hiding his emotions than his friend and so her nervousness was written all over his face. “Er, I thought 'e might need backup.”

“And you didn't think that your other teammate, the one fighting at ground level on the front lines wouldn't need backup?”

At the mention of Padma Patil, Weasley paled. “She seemed to be doing alright.”

“You thought she would be 'alright' without backup against however many Death Eaters were still inside the building?”

“Um, yes?”

The Head Auror took a deep breath. “Both of you acted rashly and with a disregard for your teammates that, quite frankly, worries me.”

“But we got the Death Eater!” Potter protested.

“And that would've been worth Auror Patil's life?”

The conference room was silent for a long moment before the Head Auror continued.

“You are a strong dueler, Auror Potter, which is no doubt why Senior Auror Langer had you fighting at ground level. Now, you also demonstrate intuitive flying skills, however Auror Thomas' long-distance spell-casting is far superior to yours and Auror Greene far outshines everyone on your team in ward detection and manipulation, which is why those two were assigned the high ground. That's what makes up a team: a group of people with a variety of strengths and weaknesses working together in tandem.”

She paused and then waited until Harry Potter met her eyes. “However, without trust that group of people is still just a gathering of individuals. Auror Potter, Auror Weasley, by abandoning your position to pursue the Death Eater on broomstick, you not only showed Auror Thomas here that you didn't trust him to do his job, but you also showed your team that they couldn't trust you to be where they expected you to be doing yours.”

Ignoring Potter's outraged expression, she looked around to the rest of the table. She was met with wide eyes and several pale faces.

“I'll be honest, when I first took the position of Head Auror and saw that my predecessor had put together a team comprised entirely of rookies, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. However, between your individual records and your team's records, I made the decision to leave things as they were because I could tell you all had the potential to become a credit to the Auror Division with some experience and the proper guidance.” She paused. “I see now that I have done all of you an injustice by keeping things at the status quo. You are neither being challenged enough by remaining with your peers, nor are you receiving the guidance you need to learn and grow as aurors. And so I have come to the decision to dissolve this team. Your new assignments will be ready for you when you return from vacation.”

The team looked stunned. A part of her felt like shaking them and demanding to know how they hadn't seen this coming. No doubt she'd be seeing at least a few of them before the end of the week in her office. She turned to their team leader.

“Senior Auror Langer, I'd like to meet with you in my office tomorrow morning. Let's say nine-thirty?”

The young man looked devastated, but he held his head high as he nodded. “Yes, Head Auror.”

“Good, then you are all dismissed.”

 


 

Harry strode down the narrow, winding hallway, fists clenched as flames of anger burned in his mind.

The Head Auror's office was located at the very back of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, directly between the two divisions, however for some reason wasn't accessible from the front desk. Instead one had to pass through most of either department if they wanted to speak to the Head Auror. As he hurried down the hallway, he only vaguely took note of the familiar doors to storage facilities, training rooms and team offices he was passing. In his early days as an apprentice auror he'd often wondered about the bizarre layout, but right now it barely registered.

Right now the winding hallway only served to give his thoughts more time to stew.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could hear a small, reasonable voice trying to tell him that maybe the Head Auror had a point: he and Ron had left their positions and Padma had been hurt as a direct result. It sounded a bit like Neville, the only one of their team who'd been willing to say it out loud. Even Dean Thomas, as pissed as he was with Harry, had thought breaking up the team was going too far. They'd trained and fought together long before they'd become aurors, faced Death Eaters and Voldemort, in some cases been tortured even. To no longer be a team was simply unthinkable.

“This is your fault, Potter,” Dean had told him with clenched teeth and furious eyes. “Sort it out.”

And suddenly Harry had felt like he was a student at Hogwarts again, being blamed for illegally sneaking his name into the Goblet of Fire because he wanted attention. He ground his teeth against each other and screaming that it wasn't fair. He hadn't wanted to be singled out and given all the attention then and he didn't really want it now beyond recognition for what he'd actually accomplished.

He hadn't quite figured out what he was going to say to the Head Auror to make her change her mind when he found himself finally rounding the corner to her office. Just in time to see another wizard step inside. Harry slowed his steps and then stopped out of sight of the office, not willing to have this confrontation in front of a stranger no matter how angry he was.

“This report just came in from our liaison at the Met,” he heard the unknown man say – his voice had a high pitched nasally quality to it that instantly grated on Harry's nerves. “That would be the London Metropolitan Police O–”

“–I am well aware of what the Met is,” Bryant interrupted him. “My father worked there for over twenty-four years.”

“Er, yes, of course.” There was a moment of awkward silence during which Harry couldn't help feeling amused at the knowledge that it wasn't just him and his team the Head Auror was abrupt and impatient with. Then he heard the sounds of a scroll changing hands. “In any case, apparently the Met received a request for information, with an attached note from the Ministry of Defense that they please comply with the request as quickly as possible.”

“Damn, I was afraid of this,” Harry just barely heard Bryant say. There was another pause and her next words were louder. “The Office of Homeworld Security? Bloody American arrogance. And just to make matters worse, the name on this report is one I've never heard of. Does Colonel Samantha Carter ring any bells to you?”

“No, Head Auror, I'm afraid I've never heard the name before. I double-checked the reports from the attack on Trafalgar Square and none of them mentioned her.”

Harry's eyes widened and his blood ran cold.

“That means she's the investigating officer. I wouldn't have expected such a high-ranking officer to be investigating something like this, which means the individuals involved were even more important than we've been assuming... or else I know even less about the structure of the American military than I thought I did.”

“Was there something you would like the Ministry of Muggle Affairs to do?”

“No, Mister Aubrey, thank you. This is something I'll have to bring to the attention of Minister Shaklebolt and the two of us together will have to decide how to proceed from here.”

Harry took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the wall he'd found himself leaning against. The dismissal in the Head Auror's voice was clear, which meant it was his turn. Which, given what he'd just overheard, was something he was suddenly looking forward to even less.

The official from the Ministry of Muggle Affairs apparently didn't get the hint.

“It's a shame really, that this situation was able to arise thanks to the incompetence of certain aurors,” the man said, derision clear in his tone.

Harry glared in the direction of the room.

“None of my aurors are incompetent,” said Bryant, the frost-bitten edge to her voice surprising Harry. It was a tone he couldn't remember ever hearing from her before.

Somehow, the idiot in her office managed to miss it. Instead, he laughed. “Of course, they're not. And you've made amazing progress getting the Auror Division back up to standard, but this instance is clearly an example of how certain individuals should not be allowed to rest on their laurels and arrogantly assume they are better than the rest of us.”

“I will repeat myself only once, Mister Aubrey,” said the Head Auror's, her voice even colder than before – so cold it cut through Harry's rapidly re-emerging anger. “None of my aurors are incompetent. Some are merely less-experienced than others, a matter not helped by the accelerated training they received fresh from both their schooling and the war.”

“B-but I heard you'd taken Harry Potter's team to task over their handling of the attack in Trafalgar Square,” the man stuttered out, apparently finally cluing into Bryant's displeasure.

“First of all, Mister Aubrey,” Bryant began in a dangerously soft voice that reminded Harry of Professor Snape. “Auror Potter is on Senior Auror Langer's team. Secondly, I shall have to remember to tell Arthur Weasley to assign you more work as you clearly don't have enough to do if you've managed to find the time to gossip.”

Harry held his breath as Bryant paused once more for emphasis.

“And thirdly,” she continued, “Senior Auror Langer's team all followed procedure to the letter. An experienced auror would know to pay more attention to Muggle soldiers, particularly high-ranking ones, and even then it would take an experienced auror with knowledge of Muggle firearms and police procedures to know to do anything at all about the bullets and their casings. At this moment, I can think of only about half a dozen aurors in my division from whom I'd expect this knowledge and experience.

Did I come down hard on them for their oversight? Of course I did. My job is to train them into the best aurors they can be, not to coddle them. And, Mister Aubrey, you can be sure that every single one of those young aurors have the potential to be good aurors. Some, like Auror Potter, even have the potential to become truly exceptional aurors. My job is to make sure they learn the proper skills to stay alive long enough to reach said potential.”

For a long moment, the only sound Harry heard was the thundering of his own heart as he stood rooted to the spot, staring straight ahead at the oddly-coloured peach wall in front of him. He was distantly aware that the conversation in the office hadn't entirely finished, but other than recognizing the irritating voice of the now-much more nervous and embarrassed wizard from the Ministry of Muggle Affairs, he couldn't make out the words.

Rapidly-approaching footsteps finally roused him from his daze. He turned just in time to blink in surprise as Arthur Weasley came rushing from around the corner. Ron's dad paused for a moment when he saw Harry.

“Oh, hello, Harry,” he said, sounding surprise. He glanced towards the Head Auror's office. “Were you waiting to see Angelique, I mean Head Auror Bryant?”

“Er, yes, sort of,” said Harry, floundering as tried to organize his thoughts once more. “I'm not sure I – I mean, it's not important. Um. Were you here to see her?”

Harry mentally kicked himself for the question. The only thing of note this far down the corridor was the Head Auror's office. Naturally that meant Mr Weasly was here to see her.

“Yes, we're working on a sort of project together and I think I've just found something that could help move things along.”

“Oh, that's great. I'll just, um, come back later then.” Harry paused, wracking his brain for an excuse to leave. “I'm meeting Ginny, Ron and Hermione at the pub later.”

Arthur Weasley smiled at him. “That sounds nice. You have a good time then, Harry.”

Harry smiled back, though he wasn't sure how successful his attempt at a smile was. “Thanks. I'll see you at Friday dinner.”

“Yes, excellent! Friday, then.”

With that, Mr Weasley hurried along to the Head Auror's office and Harry escaped in the other direction, wishing he could out-run the new thoughts in his head.

 


 

Boisterous laughter and loud voices attempted to drown out the music in the pub. Normally, Harry enjoyed the atmosphere, loved the lively, happy crowd, the smell of ale, whiskey and pumpkin mead mixed with whatever food the kitchen was featuring that day. Today it was some sort of stew. He couldn't even be bothered trying to guess what sort as it was taking all his efforts to concentrate on whatever Ginny was saying.

It was something about quidditch, something he normally would've been immediately invested in.

Normally. When his head wasn't spinning scenarios in his mind, each one worse than the first. All because of him. Hearing the Head Auror defend him against another ministry official almost made it worse. Because he'd been stupid. Dear Merlin, he could clearly picture Professor Snape in his mind, sneering down at him and telling him what a foolish, arrogant child he was, how he'd let defeating Voldemort get to his hea–

“Harry!”

Harry blinked. And then winced at Ginny's glare. Apparently he'd spaced out again. “Sorry, Ginny,” he said. “I'm afraid I'm not going to be very good company tonight.”

The glare softened. “Is everything alright?” Ginny asked.

He paused, not entirely sure he wanted to talk about it, but also not willing to lie to his girlfriend. “Not really, no,” he said, trying to sound as neutral as possible and wishing Ron and Hermione would just hurry up and get here so he didn't have to come up with an excuse not to talk about it.

A few moments passed in silence. “I can listen if you want to talk about it,” said Ginny as quietly as she could and still be heard over the noisy pub.

“Thanks, Ginny,” he said with a smile. “I'd really rather not though. Maybe later?”

Disappointment flashed across Ginny's face, but she quickly pushed it aside and smiled back. “I'm here whenever you're ready,” she said.

Harry felt his own smile widen in relief. “So, I'm on holidays for the next two weeks,” he said instead. “I was hoping that we could, maybe, go somewhere together, just the two of us.”

Ginny's eyebrow rose pointedly, but allowed the obvious change of topic to go otherwise unmentioned. “Did you have anything in mind?” she asked instead.

Harry bit his lip. “I was thinking Paris?” he said. “I mean, it's rather cliché, I know, but I've never been outside England and while I know you've been to France to visit Fleur's family–”

“–Paris sounds wonderful!” Ginny exclaimed, her eyes glowing with excitement. “I couldn't care less how cliché it is. Everyone should go to Paris at least once!”

A large grin spread across Harry's face. “Good. I'm glad you like the idea. Honestly, it was either that or throwing the names of major cities into a hat and pick one at random.”

Ginny laughed. “Maybe next time we can do that. Could be fun, actually.”

Harry considered it. “Yeah, I suppose so.”

Suddenly, Ginny straightened as her eyes focused on something behind him. “Oh, it's Ron and Hermione,” she said as she waved at them.

“Finally.” Harry turned in his seat to greet his friends. “What took you so long?”

“'Mione's supervisor is evil,” said Ron with disgust as he sat down.

Hermione rolled her eyes. “She's not exactly evil per say.”

“You said she was best friends with Umbridge!”

Harry's eyes widened. “What?” he exclaimed. “How is she even still working at the Ministry?”

Hermione sighed as she took off her coat and hung it on one of the hooks next to their booth. “According to Ron's dad, she didn't actively do anything to help with Umbridge's anti-Muggleborn campaign and just being friends with someone isn't a crime. Still, I must admit, now that I know what I've done to earn her hatred I do feel slightly better, since I was actually involved in the incident.”

Harry nodded. He could understand that and smiled at his friend as she sat down beside him, leaving Ron to sit next to his sister, his shoulders slumped and lips pursed together unhappily.

But then Hermione was turning to him. “Oh, Harry, here I am talking about my supervisor's stupid pettiness when you're dealing with something far worse,” she exclaimed, before throwing her arms around him. “Ron told me all about it! I can't believe they're breaking up your team.”

Blinking in surprise, Harry put an arm around her. “Er, thanks, Hermione,” he said, vaguely aware of how Ginny's eyes had widened at her words. “It might not be as bad as all that...”

He trailed off, not entirely sure what to say to her. Truthfully, he'd completely forgotten about it.

Ron snorted. “Not as bad as all that?” he said, sounding entirely too bitter about the situation. “Bryant wants to split us up. After all we've been through with Voldemort and fighting for our lives, for the Wizarding World, she thinks we're not good enough.”

“No,” said Harry quietly, hardly believing he was even saying this. “She thinks we're too inexperienced as aurors.”

He felt Hermione freeze in his arms and then she pulled back, looking at him with narrowed eyes. “Something else happened,” she said. It wasn't a question. “Ron said you were just as furious as he was, more even. And you've hated Bryant since the moment she took office.”

Harry swallowed around the lump in his throat, wishing he could make himself wandlessly disappear so he wouldn't have to say the words out loud. Knowing he'd mindlessly given into everyone else's assumptions and expectations was bad enough, but saying it out loud...

He took a deep breath. “I went to talk to Bryant afterwards, wanted to see if I could change her mind,” he finally began.

He was a Gryffindor, he reminded himself: Gryffindors were brave. And what was more courageous than to admit to one's shame?

“What did she say?” Ron asked, his voice dull.

“I-I never actually went into her office,” he admitted. “She was with someone. An official from Muggle Affairs. There was a report from the liaison at the MET.”

He looked up and finally met Ron's eyes. “We screwed up,” he said softly. “They'd received a request from the Prime Minister's Office on behalf of the US Ministry of Homeworld Security for all their files and reports about the 'accident' at Trafalgar Square. Apparently, they've found a reason to believe there's something wrong with the official story.”

Harry watched as understanding dawned in Ron's eyes.

“Bloody 'ell,” said his friend. “This is the attack in Trafalgar Square we're talking about, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And you think it was your fault?” Hermione asked carefully.

He snorted. “Remember how stupid I thought it was that Bryant was so hung up on the bloody bullets?” Harry asked. She and Ginny nodded. “Well, according to what I overheard, there was a very specific request by a Colonel Carter about any bullets or shell casings found at the scene.”

Beside him, Hermione gasped.

Harry looked at her with a frown. “Hermione?”

“That can't be a coincidence,” Hermione whispered, her eyes wide.

“What can't be a coincidence?” he asked, confused by her reaction. It seemed a bit too dramatic.

She turned to him with an almost frantic look in her eyes. “Carter,” she said. “You're sure that was the name? As in Sam Carter? Slim, with short blonde hair?”

“Uh... I doubt the report gave a physical description and the official only called her Colonel...”

“Hermione, does the name sound familiar to you?” Ginny asked.

“Maybe... yes, I mean it's too much to be just a coincidence.” Hermione hesitated for a few moments. Harry could see the light in her eyes that meant she'd discovered something big and was trying to decide whether or to tell. Finally, her desire to tell them won out. “Alright, so I been going over old field auror reports and organizing them. Most of them had never been properly filed and certainly never followed up on because, well, with the war on there were more important things to deal with. But as I was going through them I noticed a pattern.”

“Hang on,” Ron suddenly interrupted her. “Before you start, I think we need ale for this.”

Without another word, he stood and went over to the bar. The pub was fairly full, so it took him more than a few minutes to come back, a tray with four glasses and a picture of amber-coloured liquid floating behind him. Harry had to admit, it was much easier to feign relaxation with a glass of ale in his hand.

Hermione then told them what she'd discovered, how she'd tied it to the Trafalgar Square attack and even written it up into a report. Which her supervisor had promptly dismissed as something that wasn't her job and thus something she'd had no business pursuing.

“That's when I went to your dad, Ron,” she said, looking to Ron. “He said he'd take a look at it and pass it on to the appropriate department. I haven't heard anything since about it...”

Ron nodded. “If dad said he'd take care of it, then he will.”

“Unless something else comes up,” Harry pointed out with a frown. “I ran into him in the hall on my way back from Bryant's office. He was on his way to see her, said he's working on something with her.”

Ron and Ginny both looked surprised at that.

“He is?” Ginny asked. “I 'aven't heard him mention anything. You'd think working with the Head Auror personally would be something that would come up at some point.”

“Unless it's top secret?” Hermione suggested.

“In Muggle Affairs?”

Harry shrugged. “He didn't say what it was, but he did look like he was in a hurry.”

They sat in thoughtful silence for a few moments, drinking their ale.

“So, what now?” Ron finally asked.

Harry looked to his friend and considered the question. Then he looked to Hermione. “Do you think you can get your hand on the report from the MET liaison?”

Hermione immediately perked up. “I can certainly try. I should have the authority to view it, unless they're trying to hide the request, but that would be against policy.”

Harry nodded absently. “And we all have two weeks of vacation coming up.” He looked to Ron and grinned. “Fancy a trip to America?”

“Don't get ahead of yourself, Harry,” Hermione interjected. “The United States is a large place. First of all, we have to figure out where the obliviated soldiers are stationed.”

“And we will,” said Harry.

“Then we break into their base, renew the Memory Charms, and get rid of whatever evidence they have,” Ron added with an excited grin. “Easy.”

“That depends on where they're stationed,” said Hermione. “And what, exactly, this evidence is.”

“We managed to break into the Ministry of Magic, Gringotts and Hogwarts when it was in the hands of Death Eaters,” Harry pointed out. “Muggles don't use wards and won't be expecting magic. As long as we're not careless, this should be relatively simple.”

Hermione still looked dubious. “That's all well and good, but I still think we should try and go through official channels first before we go breaking into places in another country.”

Harry and Ron exchanged looks and shrugged. “Fair enough. We can't go anywhere until at least next week anyway. Let's see what the report tells us, and what Mister Weasley comes up with first.”

“Yes, let's.”

Ginny shook her head in amusement. “You three are either completely mad or utterly brilliant.”

Harry grinned. “Can't we be a bit of both?”

They all laughed as they refilled their glasses.

Chapter Text

Hermione stepped out of the elevator and into the Ministry's atrium.

Despite the rush of people eager to head out and start their weekend, she easily spotted Harry and Ron waiting for her by the statue commemorating the Blood Wars. It almost looked out-of-place within the grand hall of the Ministry of Magic with its overly-simplistic design: a tall white marble column with a wand, a wizard's hat and a sword assembled at its base and covered in the names of those who'd fallen victim to Voldemort's reign. She had to admit it was much nicer than the original design which had been a giant statue of Harry holding a wand out, lightning bolt-shaped scar blazing gold on his forehead and cloak billowing dramatically behind him. Harry had fought tooth and nail to make sure that version never got made.

Ron was the first to notice her and his delighted smile was enough to make warm butterflies flutter deep inside her. She was all too happy to let him pull her in as a greeting and revelled in the warm feeling on his lips on hers.

“So, are we going straight to the Burrow, or were you two going to pop by your apartment first?” Harry asked, a teasing light in his eyes.

Hermione pulled back and looked over at him. “As tempting as that might be, I'd really like to talk to Mister Weasley as soon as possible,” she said. “With you and Ginny heading to Paris tomorrow, it won't give us much time to plan our trip if we do need to go.”

Ron made an irritated sound. “I can't believe this is how I'll get to finally see New York,” he said.

Harry frowned. “New York? I thought you said the Air Force base was in Colorado?”

“It is,” Hermione immediately answered. “But the United States only has two major international portkey hubs, one in New York and one in San Francisco. The New York one is older and, from what I can tell, less confusing overall and is more conveniently located with relation to tourist sites. Unless one of you can think of a reason you'd rather visit San Francisco?”

Harry and Ron both shook their heads.

“Then New York it is!” she declared with an accomplished grin.

Part of her had hoped Harry didn't have an until-now unknown desire to see San Francisco because Hermione was actually quite looking forward to visiting New York. There were so many places she was looking forward to seeing in-person, including many of the wizarding parts she hadn't even realized existed until she'd began researching their potential trip. If someone asked, they still had to be able to claim they'd gone on vacation, after all. Which meant having the pictures and souvenirs to prove it.

“Mate, if you thought she hadn't already spent all week researching this, you're a bloody loon,” she heard Ron mock-whisper to Harry.

She rolled her eyes at him.

“Right, I don't know why I hadn't expected it really,” Harry conceded.

“So, shall we then?” Hermione asked, pointedly looking towards the doors.

Together they then walked out of the Ministry of Magic building and into the dreary misty London afternoon. As soon as they'd made their way past the Ministry's anti-apparation wards, they disapparated away.

Unlike London, Ottery on Catchpole was enjoying a lovely sunny afternoon, if a bit on the chilly side. Fleur greeted them as they walked through the front gate from where she was sitting on a chair beside a patch of bright purple and pink zinnias. It was such an odd thing to see that it made them all stop to stare at her.

“Are you alright?” Harry asked her, beating her to it. Not only was Fleur not especially interested in botany, but it was unheard of for Mrs Weasley to allow anyone who was part of the family to just sit on the sidelines while dinner was being prepared (unless the kitchen was already too crowded or said person was either sick or injured).

“I am fine,” said Fleur, waving off their concern. Her nose scrunched delicately in disgust. “Apparently ze smell of frying onions no longer agrees vith me.”

“Oh, that's... unfortunate,” said Hermione. “We'll see you inside for dinner?”

Fleur nodded and they left her enjoying the fresh, onion-free air.

As she walked into the mostly silent house, it struck Hermione that this was the first time since starting her apprenticeship at the Ministry that she'd arrive this early to Friday dinner. Both the realization and the stillness inside the house felt rather odd. It wasn't like she hadn't spent weeks here during the summer holidays when she was at Hogwarts and therefore didn't have first-hand experience of the Burrow as anything other than an inviting madhouse, but those summer suddenly felt like a lifetime ago.

“Ron, Harry, Hermione!” Mrs Weasley exclaimed, a delighted grin on her face as she came out of the kitchen. “My you're all early today! Anxious to start your vacation, are you?”

Hermione grinned back at Ron's mum. “Oh absolutely!” she said. “I worked through lunch to make sure I was done early.”

“You must be starving then! Well, Bill and Fleur are already here, so we're only waiting on Ginny and Percy now since Angelica's grandparents are visiting this weekend so she and George won't be coming. With your help, dinner should be ready in no time.”

They let themselves be ushered into the kitchen, walking in just as Mister Weasley was coming in from the garden with a large bundle of herbs. He greeted them jovially and then froze when he saw Hermione, the smile instantly sliding off his face and his eyes widening with dawning horror.

And, just like that, Hermione knew exactly what had happened.

“Hermione,” he said in a voice that was half whisper and half pained groan. He placed the herbs onto the kitchen counter as he took a step towards her. “I am so sorry. I'm afraid I completely forgot.”

“Forgot what, dear?” Mrs Weasley asked, looking between the two of them

Mister Weasley ran a hand through his hair and took a sighed.

“Hermione found some worrying events described in the field reports she was going over and managed to link them to the Trafalgar Square attack and wrote up a report on them, which her supervisor apparently dismissed out of hand,” he explained to his wife. “She brought it to me and I promised her I'd go over it and pass it on to the appropriate department. Unfortunately, I then got busy and the report must've been buried somewhere beneath the mound scrolls on my desk. I mean, I certainly didn't move it so it must still be there...”

“Arthur!”

Hermione couldn't help but smile at Mrs Weasley's reproachful look. It didn't help the situation, but she appreciated the show of support.

“I know, I know, and I am very sorry, Hermione,” Mister Weasley said before his wife could continue in her reproach. “I promise I'll look at it first thing Monday morning and then pass it on to Angelique myself.”

“Angelique?” Hermione asked with a frown.

Mister Weasley blinked at her. “Oh, sorry, I meant Head Auror Bryant.” He looked to his wife apologetically. “We've been working quite closely together on a couple of projects in the past week and so she suggested skipping the formalities.”

“You're on first names terms with the new Head Auror?” Mrs Weasley asked, blinking incredulously before frowning. “What in the world could the Auror Department possibly be working on with the Muggle Relations that's so important as to involve the both of you?”

Hermione found herself echoing her frown. She hadn't heard about any major Statute of Secrecy violations come up, which was the only thing she could think of that would bring those two departments heads together.

Mister Weasley hesitated in answering, clearly unsure whether he should be saying anything. Then his eyes slid to Hermione and he sighed, his shoulders slumping slightly.

“Look, this doesn't leave this room, alright?” he said. They nodded and then he told them about the eight-year-old Muggle girl whose magic had manifested violently due to her abusive father.

Hermione was both horrified and humbled by the time he was finished his, no doubt abbreviated, explanation. Beside her, Ron and Harry both looked furious, and there were tears in Mrs Weasley's eyes.

“Mister Weasley,” Hermione cut Ron's father off when he tried to apologize once more. “You made the right decision. That child's situation is horrible and infinitely more important than some report about things that have already happened. Honestly, I'm glad to hear the Head Auror is taking this so seriously.”

Harry nodded. “I might not like Bryant much, but I agree,” he said. “I just hope you manage to help her.”

“Yeah,” Ron agreed. “Being afraid of your own father... that-that must be awful.”

Arthur smiled at them gratefully. “Thank you, all of you,” he said. “Still, I really will look at your report first thing Monday, Hermione. If it's as worrying as you think it is, it should be brought to someone's attention even if nothing seems to have come of it yet.”

“Thank you, Mister Weasley.”

“Hey, mum, is this it?” Bill's voice suddenly called out moments before the eldest Weasley boy entered the kitchen. He paused when he noticed the new arrivals and grinned. “Oh, hello you three, you're earlier than usual.”

The conversation then turned to more pleasant topics: their upcoming vacation, the beaded necklace charmed to prevent unpleasing odours from reaching their wearer Bill had gotten down from the attic for Fleur, and dinner preparations.

Harry, Ron and Hermione didn't get a chance to talk alone again until after dinner. Ginny bid them all goodnight as she left them in the study at 12 Grimmauld Place with a roaring fire and a bottle of wine between them to plan their 'vacation'.

 


 

Cassie Fraser stared up at the bright blue sky through the car window and watched the few fluffy white clouds amble by, her mind blank. A dark, murky sky would've probably been more apropos to her mood, but this was... nice. Possibly even poetic.

Her hands were clasped on her lap, if only to give herself something to hold onto, to suppress the urge to fiddle. She almost wished she still had the bouquet of flowers, but she'd left that in the cemetery.

“Cassie,” Daniel quietly interrupted the silence that had enveloped them since the moment they'd stepped into the graveyard. “I know we both have to at least put in an appearance at this thing, but if you want to leave early at any point, just let me know and I'll drive you home.”

Cassie tore her eyes away from the sky and looked over to her uncle, whose eyes never left the road. In the black suit jacket he'd worn to the cemetery, he looked more sombre than usual. She suddenly realized he probably didn't want to go to the barbeque anymore than she did.

“Thanks, Uncle Daniel,” she said with a small smile. “I'll see how the party goes. I'd like to stay at least long enough to see Aunt Sam. And I need to wish little Janet a happy birthday.”

Daniel nodded. “Sam said she shouldn't be any later than three.” He paused. “It's funny how many people seem to forget little Janet wasn't actually born today, but a few days from now.”

Cassie chuckled. “That poor kid's gotta be so confused about it. I wonder how long it's going to take her to ask why she gets an extra birthday party that's not on her actual birthday and always just a little bit sad.”

“Hm. Well, she starts school next year, I think, so probably won't take her too much longer to realize this is all kind of weird. At the moment, I think she's just enjoying the extra birthday cake and presents.”

“Yeah, probably.”

They lapsed into the same, melancholy silence as before and Cassie went back to staring out the window at the beautiful blue sky as the streets of Colorado Springs went by. This time, however, her thoughts were full of flashes and memories of her mother. By the time they arrived at Uncle Jack's house, there were tears in her eyes. She carefully wiped them away as Daniel took off his blazer and threw it over the back seat of his car.

“So, ready?” Daniel asked her when they reached the front door.

She met his eyes and took a deep breath, steeling herself for the abrupt mood shift to come. “Sure, let's do this!” she said, putting a bit of extra pep she most certainly wasn't feeling into her voice.

The corners of Daniel's eyes crinkled with amusement as he smiled back at her before ringing the doorbell. Cassie didn't recognize the woman who opened the door for them, but her smile was warm and inviting and Cassie couldn't help but instantly like her.

“Hello, Daniel,” she said.

“Hello, Teyla,” said Daniel. He then gestured to Cassie. “This is my, and er Sam and Jack's, niece Cassandra Fraiser. Cassie, this is Teyla Emmagen.” He turned to Cassie and continued in a low voice: “You two actually have a few things in common. Teyla here's also from, uh, Toronto.”

Cassie's eyes widened and she looked at the other woman in surprise. The initial backstory they'd given Cassie had gotten turned into a sort of euphemism between them over the years (which had led to some hilarious misunderstandings a few years ago when Cassie had finally visited the actual Canadian city with a couple university friends).

“Only, obviously not your Toronto,” Daniel continued. “More like Montreal... or Vancouver. Or possibly Vladivostok...” He winced. “I'm not sure it works for this very well.”

Cassie giggled. “It's okay, Uncle Daniel. I get it.”

“I'm glad one of us does,” said Teyla, looking both amused and confused at the same time. And wholly resigned to both.

Stepping closer to her, Cassie lowered her voice: “What he means is that I'm not from around here in the same way that you're not from around here, but we're both from different places that aren't around here.”

Comprehension dawned on Teyla's face. “Ah, I see.” She looked at her shrewdly. “Then I find it interesting that you are able to pretend you are, ah, from around here. I was not aware the SGC supported that sort of integration.”

“Not normally,” said Daniel. He paused, as though considering his next words. “It's not something we talk about much and Jack and General Hammond buried a lot of the details from that particular mission... Let's just say that she and Ronon also have a few things in common.”

“Then I am sorry for your loss, Cassandra Fraiser,” Teyla whispered to Cassie after a moment's pause. Her eyes were kind and haunted with her own grief.

“Thank you,” Cassie whispered back. “And, please, call me Cassie.”

Teyla smiled. “Then I am pleased to meet you, Cassie. I am Teyla. Now, come, we should not be standing out here on the General's doorstep.”

Inside, Uncle Jack's house was the same as always, only with more clutter left by guests before they'd all moved outside. He hadn't changed much after moving to Washington – and at least once during every trip to Colorado Springs would talk about possibly selling this house, though as far as Cassie knew it hadn't yet progressed any further than just talk. She was fairly certain he enjoyed hosting barbeques and movie nights whenever he was in town too much to actually go through with it.

Beside her, Daniel sniffed the air. “I see they're already grilling,” he said, sounding amused.

Cassie snorted. “Like you were really expecting them to wait for us,” she said. Whether it was just Uncle Jack being Uncle Jack or a testament to his years of military service, when he said the steaks went on the grill at thirteen hundred hours, the meat touched the grill at exactly 1:00 pm regardless of who was or was not present.

“I believe Colonel Mitchell threatened to start without him,” Teyla commented, sounding equally amused.

Daniel grinned. “You mean he attempted to threaten to start without him.”

“What?!” Cassie exclaimed, mock-horrified. “And without us around to watch?”

“I'm sure someone recorded it,” Daniel answered with a shrug. “I hear cellphones these days are good for that.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “And I would almost buy the old man routine if not for how you bombed my phone with snapchats after I broke up with Bryan. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to ask how you got Uncle Teal'c to make that face.”

Daniel's eyes glittered. “All I can say is that I risked life and limb to get that picture.”

“Uh huh.”

Out of the corner of her eyes, Cassie saw Teyla shake her head at them in amusement. Then she excused herself to get something out of the fridge.

Though she'd spent several hours last night helping to transform Jack's backyard into the bright-coloured streamer, paper lantern and floral frenzy it currently was, she still couldn't believe just how different it looked, especially with the added sounds and people. The large tables they'd dragged out this morning were laden with food. She recognized her aunt Sam's punch bowl acting as a centrepiece at one of the tables, right next to a giant layered cake topped with three plastic My Little Ponies. She assumed that was the non-alcoholic punch. Sure enough, a quick scan revealed a second punch bowl (this one probably also a loner as it looked too big to be the one Jack owned), sitting on a smaller table within easy sight of the barbeque where Jack was holding court with grilling instruments in one hand and a beer bottle in the other.

Uncle Jack raised an eyebrow and then a spatula in greeting to her and Daniel. Cassie waved back across the crowd. Suddenly a high-pitched squeal caught her attention. She looked towards the sound and grinned at the little girl who was being hoisted high into the air by her father so she could, presumably, pretend to be an airplane – or possibly a bird, it was kind of difficult to tell from this angle.

She turned to Daniel. “Hey, I'll catch up to you in a bit,” she told him.

“Yeah, sure,” Daniel replied and then began to wander off towards Jack's group.

Cassie, meanwhile, walked up to the little girl and her father, clutching the small brightly-wrapped package in her right hand. The father saw her as she neared and smiled at her, placing the little girl back down on the ground and then pointing towards Cassie when she protested. The little girl turned to look at Cassie and her face instantly lit up into a blinding smile.

“Hey Janet,” said Cassie as she knelled down to the six-year-old's height and grinned back at her. “Happy birthday!”

“Cassie!” little Janet barely got out before launching herself at Cassie and encircling as much of her as she could with arms and hands that weren't quite so stubby anymore. “You're here!”

Cassie laughed. “Of course I'm here,” she said. She was always amazed just how the little girl acted as though Cassie showing up was the highlight of her day. It made her squeeze the child just a little tighter.

Yes, one day little Janet would come to realize that her growing up with a father was largely because Cassie had lost her mother, but Cassie wouldn't be the one to tell her. It wasn't a burden this little girl needed to carry.

After a few moments, Janet pulled away, her body already vibrating with more energy desperately in need of an outlet. Before she could run off to play with the other children Cassie could see gravitating towards them out of the corner of her eyes, Cassie handed her the package in her hand.

“Here, I brought you a present,” she said.

“Oh wow, thank you!” said Janet, her eyes widening at the giant purple bow that easily eclipsed the package itself as she accepted it.

That was when her father stepped in behind her. “Did you want me to take that, honey, so you can go play with your friends?” he asked. At her indecisive look, he added: “I promise to add it to your pile so you can open it after cake.”

That seemed to be an acceptable arrangement and Janet handed the present over before quickly saying bye to Cassie and running off to join the other children.

Cassie shook her head in amusement as she stood. “I can't believe just how big these parties have gotten over the years,” she said. “I mean, the first year Janet was the only kid and now there's half a dozen of them.”

“Actually, there are also some older kids in the far corner over there,” said the dad, pointing towards a back corner. “Probably commiserating over how embarrassing their parents are.”

Cassie giggled. “Or trying to figure out how to get around guard dog O'Neill to get to the alcoholic punch.”

“Hm, or that.”

His wife joined them a few moments later, having returned from her round-about quest for punch (the alcoholic kind) which had been detoured by no less than four separate conversations. Cassie remained for a little while longer, chatting idly with the couple and remarking on just how large the parties were getting. The first year Jack had hosted this combined memorial and birthday party, there had been a few SG teams, a smattering of hospital staff and a few of the engineers. Now it seemed half the base had shown up along with their families.

After a while, Cassie left them and went to find her Uncle Daniel. She still wasn't sure how long she wanted to remain at the party for, but she no longer felt like leaving immediately. Maybe she'd wait for cake. At the very least she could make sure Daniel ate and relaxed. She wasn't sure just what they working on at the Mountain, but Jack had made a point of mentioning it was important and Daniel had thrust himself right into the middle of the issue.

The hint had been about as subtle as a two hundred pound dancing Jaffa in a pink sparkly tutu, however it did get the point across. A Daniel Jackson on a mission was a Daniel Jackson that subsided on gallons of coffee and the occasional powerbar, unless someone dragged him away to get actual food.

She finally found her uncle talking to three marines and their wives. He had a beer in his hand and an expression on his face that seemed to be hovering somewhere half-way between awkward and embarrassed, and pleased. If the glowing faces of the marines were any indication, Cassie guessed they were singing Daniel's praises to their wives, who were listening on with varying degrees of attention.

As she approached, she couldn't help notice the way Daniel kept stealing glances at one of the wives. Cassie didn't entirely blame him; the woman was beautiful with her dark mocha skin, full lips and lush raven hair. She was a Hollywood red carpet glamorous that had Cassie wishing she'd put just a little more effort into her own hair and make-up this morning. She took a deep breath and dismissed the thought, reminding herself that the two women she admired most in the world hadn't ever needed to be glamorous to be amazing.

“Hey, Uncle Daniel,” she said brightly as she sidled up to Daniel.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the mocha-skinned woman stiffen, which she thought was odd in the same moment as she realized it was sort of weird of Daniel to be stealing glances at a woman like he was. Unless... maybe she looked like Sha're? Cassie had never seen a picture of Daniel's wife, but she'd been told she had been very beautiful.

Daniel turned to her and put an arm around her, pulling her into a half-hug. “Oh, hey Cassie,” he said casually. “How are Janet and her parents doing?”

Cassie leaned into his comforting presence, feeling the tension that had surrounded her while talking to the man who was the reason her mother was dead – she knew it wasn't fair, but a malicious part of her couldn't help herself – dissipate. Of all people, she knew her uncle understood the emotional turmoil best, but at least Teal'c had been Daniel's friend and teammate before he'd been forced to kill his wife. Cassie really barely knew Janet's family, only saw them about twice a year.

“Janet's grown again,” Cassie answered. “She looks happy. Did you see the birthday cake?”

“With the ponies? It's, uh, very pink.”

Cassie giggled.

“You've obviously never had little girls,” said one of the wives with a soft smile. She was blonde with short curly hair and looked like she might've been a former marine herself with her confident stance and straight-backed posture.

“Cassie liked purple,” said Daniel with a shrug. “And brown for some reason.”

“Chocolate's brown,” said Cassie. She remembered wondering why everyone thought it was strange that she liked the colour brown.

“Sound reasoning to me,” said one of the marines with a wide grin. “I have it on good authority that pink monstrosity is layered strawberry and chocolate cake.”

“Strawberry and chocolate?” said Daniel. “I can live with that. By the way, this is my niece, Cassandra Fraiser.”

“You're Doc Fraiser's kid,” said another marine softly. He looked like he might've been the eldest of the three, but it was difficult to tell with his slight frame and distinctly Asian features. He stepped forward and held out his hand. “Captain Andrew Huong. I'm sorry for your loss, Cassandra. Your mother was a great woman.”

“Thank you, Captain,” she said as she shook his hand, relieved to find her voice wasn't shaking nearly as much as she felt it should be. “Did you know her?”

He nodded. “Yes. The other two here only transferred into the Mountain two years ago, but I've been at the project long enough to have been patched up by her a few times.”

Daniel then introduced the other marines and their wives to her. The beautiful, mocha-skinned woman was Peitha, wife of Sergeant Tyler Ainsley, a man who was built like, well, a marine and had a really, really nice smile (had Cassie ever thought to wonder what a gorgeous woman like Peitha was doing with a marine, that smile would've answered her question). Cassie made a note of their names so she could ask Daniel about the wife later.

It didn't take much effort after that to drag Daniel towards the barbeque and food. In fact, Daniel himself was practically dragging her away himself after the marines got started on what was mostly likely yet another retelling of how Daniel's skills had rescued them from the clutches of an evil Arab warlord – who might very well have been a warlord, but Cassie doubted very much had been Arabic... not that she could tell them that.

Not being able to let people who knew about the Stargate that she, too, knew about it never stopped feeling strange.

Uncle Jack put down his beer so that he could hug her in greeting. “Hey there, kiddo,” he said as she breathed in the familiar scent of his aftershave and squeezed just a little tighter than usual despite having seen him this morning. “How'd it go?”

Cassie stepped back with a sad smile. “About as well as it always does,” she answered and then paused. “It gets a little easier every year, but...”

Jack nodded knowingly. “But you're never quite ready for how it hits you.”

“No, I'm not.”

His eyes met hers. “Well, if you need a moment, the guest bedroom upstairs isn't being used for anything.”

“Thanks, Uncle Jack, but I think I'll be okay.” She looked over her shoulder to where Daniel was waiting with his hands in the pockets of his dark jeans. “Uncle Daniel's already offered to take me home whenever it gets to be too much.”

She took a deep breath and then raised an eyebrow up at her uncle. “Also, I think I was promised the biggest, juiciest burger ever for all my help this morning.”

Jack blinked before his face broke into a wide grin. “And so you were! You and Daniel grab yourselves some plates and I'll get you those burgers.”

Cassie was really starting to feel the strain of keeping up a cheery mood when her aunt finally showed up, Uncle Murray and several others in tow whom Teyla immediately went over to greet while Vala ran off to throw herself at Daniel.

“Hey Cassie,” said Sam as she embraced her. “Sorry we're a bit later than planned. The simulations took longer than I'd thought they would.” She grimaced. “One of our, uh, adjacent projects has a major review coming up next week and, well, it's in all our interests to make sure they do well.”

A man coming behind her snorted. He was relatively tall with balding hair and broad shoulders, but the look of a scientist instead of a soldier. “How well we do won't depend on us, but on the idiots doing the evaluating and just how much they want to cut our funding,” he said dryly and with more than a little bitterness.

“But you have accomplished a great many things, have you not?” said Teyla with a frown. “Surely your government cannot ignore that.”

“Of course we've accomplished a lot!” the man snapped. “Hell, what we've discovered and created is nothing short of amazing! Saving the world aside, we could revolutionize the world's, well, everything if it wasn't all classified. It's not what we've done they're going to fight us on, since unless they're complete morons, which wouldn't actually surprise me given that we're dealing with government bureaucrats here, but I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic on that one for now... No, what they'll be concentrating on is what we can do in the future. And, trust me, if those morons think they can cut corners or suggest that we can't do what we want to do because of 'budgetary constraints', then they will!”

Teyla's frown had deepened now. “I thought that was why we were appealing to the IOA.”

The man opened his mouth to reply.

“It's not quite as simple as that, Teyla,” another man answered her, his tone much more relaxed. He wasn't quite drawling the words, but it sounded like it was close. He held himself with a sort of relaxed wariness that reminded her of Jack, but his hair looked like it was defying regulations just as much as it was defying gravity. “Unfortunately, Rodney's probably right. It won't matter what we've accomplished if we can't justify the money for what we'll be doing in the future. And the US government funds a huge chunk of our expe– uh, project with both money and personnel.”

“Hey, hey, what's this I hear?”

Cassie jumped in surprise as Uncle Jack's voice called out from behind her. She turned to him.

“I thought I made the rules clear,” her uncle continued, his voice a relaxed drawl, but there was a glare in his eyes that looked decidedly unimpressed. “No shop talk in the yard. Or in the house. Now go grab yourselves a beer and a burger and ixnay the project-related chatternay. Or you can grab a hotdog. That works too. Just save some room for cake. It's a very character-building pink. With ponies. I'm told they're all the rage this year.”

Cassie couldn't help the giggle that escaped her.

“Sorry, sir,” said Aunt Sam, looking sheepish.

Meanwhile, the man with gravity-defying hair was looking over the crowd towards the tables in the back. “Wow,” he said idly. “That is really pink cake.”

The other man (Cassie she'd heard him called Rodney) rolled his eyes. “Who cares what colour it is: it's cake,” he said. “The important question is does it have citrus in it?”

“I don't know, MacKay,” Jack drawled. “But there's an ingredients list on the box it arrived in. It's in the kitchen.”

MacKay grumbled a few words as he hurried back into the house.

Cassie wondered what project these newcomers were attached to even as she stepped around Aunt Sam to greet Teal'c.

“Cassandra Fraiser, it is good to see you again,” Teal'c said even before she'd gotten a single word out.

She grinned up at him. “You too, uh, Uncle Murray,” she replied. “Daniel says you've been really busy lately, so I'm glad you could come.”

“This event commemorates your mother and I would not miss any event that shows respect to Janet Fraiser unless my will was not under my control,” said Teal'c solemnly. “She was a great woman.”

“The best,” Cassie agreed with a watery smile. She swallowed down her grief. “So, you wanna get burgers?”

Teal'c inclined his head in agreement and, just as solemnly, said: “It is the other reason I am here.”

Cassie's smile became more genuine.

 


 

Draco sipped his tea, breathing in the calming scent of berries and hibiscus, his mother's favourite, as he watched the fire dancing merrily in the study's black marble fireplace and waited.

Against his back he felt the comforting feel of soft calf leather, the rather sizable chair much more comfortable than the hard, high-backed heirlooms it had replaced. The new chairs were his first and only addition to the study after taking over his family's affairs. They made him feel slightly less like an intruder inside what had once been exclusively his father's space. Most days Draco still expected his father to storm through the doors and angrily demand what he was doing playing around in here.

His father, however, hadn't stepped foot anywhere near the study, not since his trial and sentencing. His father never really ventured much of anywhere anymore, mostly alternating between the dining room, bedroom, and occasionally haunting the library and the corridors of the east wing.

Draco took a deep breath and then another sip of tea, forcibly turning his thoughts to less depressing things. The floo call he was waiting for wouldn't benefit in the slightest from anything less than an optimistic attitude. And so, instead, he remembered the look on Astoria's face when he'd presented her with the engagement ring and begged her not to say no just because of her condition. In the box the ring had looked beautiful. On her finger, it was a work of art.

There was a smile on his face when green flames finally burst out from the study's fireplace. He immediately wiped the smile off his face, clearing his throat as he took on a more professional demeanour – being positive was one thing, greeting a business contact with a loony smile entirely another.

“H-hello, is this the Malfoy residence?” a voice called from the fireplace, the green head floating in it fizzling slightly the way incoming international floo calls often did.

Draco set his tea cup down on the side table before standing and walking over to grab a large handful of floo powder. He threw it into the fireplace to accept the call. Thankfully, once the call had been accepted, the projected green head stabilized into a clearer image. Then he knelt in front of the fireplace himself and thrust his head into the flames.

“Hello, Arnold,” he greeted the Chicago wizard cordially. “It's good to see you again.”

“Oh, hey Draco!” Arnold Fullman said with a smile. “Uh, it's good to see you too. Now, you'll be happy to hear that Mark's managed to tweak the ignition mixture in the Haflcons again to produce a more consistent layer of smaller flames. Also, Veronica, who I don't think you actually met when you were here, came up with the idea of adding grip charms to the bottom of the outer casing.”

Draco blinked at the sudden barrage of information, not having expected the other man to jump directly into business. Although, with the unpredictability that often plagued these international floo calls, he supposed it was a smart move on his part. And he couldn't deny that putting grip charms – presumably of the sort that were used on broomsticks – on a hand-held device seemed like a good idea.

“You should save it for a delux model,” he said thoughtfully. “Start off with the basic model at a lower price, let the more adventurous people try it out and then a few months later we can come out with a more expensive model with extra features. By that point word will have gotten around and more people will be willing to spend the larger amount.”

Beneath his bushy eyebrows, Arnold's eyes were already sparkling with excitement. “That's exactly what we were thinking, Draco. Veronica is already working on figuring out more extra features to add to this thing. She'd appreciate any ideas you can think of...”

Draco nodded. “I'll think about it. In the meantime, I've managed to secure a meeting with someone from the Department of Communications for later this week. The application for a new Floo Operations licence has been filled out in triplicate. I sent it to you by owl about an hour ago so you should have it by morning to go over and sign. Let me know if there are any errors.”

“Absolutely. I have to say, I hadn't actually expected you to move this quickly.”

Draco snorted. “Don't worry, the next step is getting Ministry approval. That won't go nearly as quickly, not with the Malfoy name carrying the significant tarnish that it is, as you oh so helpfully kept reminding me when I was in Chicago.”

Arnold only barely managed to suppress his wince at the reminder. “Yeah, well, at least you haven't been attacked by any random crazy former nomag scientists?”

“No, thankfully, that pleasure did not follow me back to England.”

Suddenly, Arnold's face jumped slightly as though startled. He frowned and looked behind him. “Hang on, Draco,” he said and then pulled back and turned his head so that only half his face remained in the flames. His voice, when he called out to whoever had interrupted him, sounded much farther away. “Yes, of course I told him.” There was a long pause and then Arnold rolled his eyes. “No, I'm not telling him about that. Don't be ridiculou-aack. Hey!”

Draco watched with amusement as Arnold was pushed even further back out of the fireplace and a second head appeared from the right, eyes sparkling with excitement.

“Hello, Mark,” said Draco dryly, amused despite himself. Arnold's partner and the man who was the creative mind behind the hand-held floo connectors was an amusing plump little man with chocolate brown skin and almost no hair except for a mustache that looked like it could detach and crawl away all on its own. “I hear you've managed to figure out the flame consistency problem.”

“Oh, he told you about it,” said Mark, his face falling slightly.

“I just told you I had!” Arnold snapped as he pushed his way back into the fire, shoving Mark a bit to the side with a glare.

Mark gamely moved over a bit to allow Arnold to fully re-enter the flames, but completely ignored the glare being levelled his way.

“Anyway, Arnold told me about that nomag you bumped into,” he said, paying no attention to Arnold's pained groan, his eyes once again sparkling with excitement. “You're not the first it's happened to, you know. There've been other wizards who've gotten attacked by nomags who've seen past their disillusionment charms and none of them seemed entirely sane and they couldn't remember anything about how they knew to recognize them.”

He paused for dramatic effect and his voice was a loud whisper when he continued: “They say the Council once employed a group of nomag scientists to conduct research for them. Some say there's proof that magic is disappearing, but the Council's desperate to keep it quiet, which is why they had to get nomags. But then apparently something horrible happened and the Council had to disband the scientists and erased their memories. Except that not even the most powerful memory charms could completely erase the trauma they'd suffered...”

Draco blinked. “The MACUSA did this?” he asked.

Mark frowned. “No, the International Council of Wizards.”

“Oh my God, you're actually taking him seriously,” Arnold interrupted Draco's dawning horror. “Please don't encourage him or we'll all be hearing nothing but ridiculous conspiracy theories for the rest of the day.”

Now it was Mark's turn to glare at his partner. “Except that this one's true! My sister-in-law's cousin's partner used to work as an aide for the Office of the US Representative and she definitely saw proof of nomag scientists being contracted to do research for the ICW.”

“You keep saying that and yet I haven't ever actually seen this proof and neither has anyone else! Also, I'm fairly certain I've heard you mention at least five other theories as to what the supposed nomag scientists were doing for the ICW.”

“Well, that's because no one knows for certain what they were researching! Just because I don't have absolute proof in front of me right now doesn't mean the proof doesn't actually exist!”

“Right. And aliens crash-landed in Roswell.”

“Don't be ridiculous, everyone knows that was an escaped dragon. The aliens landed in Salt Lake City.”

“Of course they did. And there is tangible proof of this is there? Someone took pictures, I assume?”

“Well, yes, I assume they did.”

Draco rolled his eyes, though he couldn't help feeling relief that there weren't actually any Muggles experimenting on magic. Or researching it. He wasn't even sure why exactly the idea worried him – it wasn't like Muggles would ever be able to understand magic, but there was still something fundamentally wrong with idea of mixing Muggle science with magic.

After letting them argue for a few more minutes, Draco cleared his throat. “So, in preparation for my meeting with the Department of Communications later this week, I was hoping we could go over how exactly you were planning to integrate your handheld connectors into the existing floo network. I'd like to go in as prepared as possible.”

“Oh, of course, Draco,” said Arnold after only a slight pause to get himself back on track. “Good idea. Mark, I'll let you take this.”

Mark nodded and then immediately launched into an explanation Draco was dismayed to realize was probably going to take him several go-rounds to fully understand. With a sigh, he summoned some parchment and a quill to him and prepared to take notes.

 


 

“Welcome to the United States,” said the heavy-set redheaded witch as she handed Ron back his wand.

“Thanks,” he said and quickly pocketed his wand before hurrying away towards Luggage Retrieval to meet up with Harry and Hermione. As he was walking away, he heard the witch asking the next person in line the same set of questions she'd just asked him.

It took Ron a little while to locate his friends inside the busy portkey hub. It didn't help that he kept gawking at the scenery like the tourist he was. The New York Hub was the second largest hub in the United States and, according to Hermione, the fifth largest in the world... unless one counted the Beijing hub, which apparently most people didn't because it was actually three separate hubs built close together. (There was a reason as to why the Chinese wizarding community had built three smaller hubs instead of one very large one, but Ron had tuned Hermione's explanation out at that point and so had no idea what it was.)

This wasn't Ron's first trip by international portkey, but the portkey hub in London was mostly an extension of the Ministry of Magic and designed in a similar style and the Romanian hub was much smaller and even more minimalist. The New York Portkey Hub, on the other hand, was a large, high-ceilinged structure – though the ceiling itself was only barely visible behind the pale blue haze of charmed sky with fluffy white clouds beneath which flew a mirad of birds, griffins and other winged creatures. Most notably, Ron saw a giant bald eagle soaring among the charmed clouds, its features sharper and more tangible-looking than any of the other creatures.

He finally looked away after the eagle disappeared behind a cluster of clouds, just in time to avoid running into a large marble pillar. Just as he was about to side-step it, he noticed the symbol carved into its side and paused. He scanned the large, homogeneous layout of the hub before he took his wand out and tapped the symbol.

“Luggage Retrieval,” he said loudly. “For international travellers from England.”

The symbol began to glow faintly orange. Ron stepped backwards as a translucent pale orange hand came out of the pillar. It gave him a quick thumbs up and then pointed towards a corridor just to the left of where he'd actually been headed.

Glad to know he wouldn't be wandering aimlessly, Ron set out in the right direction. It felt a bit unsettling to hear his footfalls as he walked across the stone tiled floor – the Ministry of Magic liked to cast muffling charms on their floors where they didn't have carpeting. However, he had to admit the dark grey stone flooring somehow seemed to fit the hub's layout, allowing the bright colours of the round eagle and flag symbol of the MACUSA painted over them to really stand out.

He found Harry and Hermione easily enough despite the crowd – there was considerably less movement in Luggage Retrieval as most people in the area not wearing the royal blue half-cloaks of hub employees were simply standing around waiting.

“Oh, hey, that was quick,” Harry told him with surprise. “We only just got here.”

Hermione scowled. “The witch in customs gave us absolutely rubbish directions,” she said. “Sent us both to the completely wrong corner of the station. I found Harry and then it took us another ten minutes to figure out we were nowhere near where we were supposed to be!”

“Yeah, she gave me the same directions,” said Ron. “I asked one of the point me charms to be sure.”

Hermione's eyes widened comically. “I read that there were supposed to be plenty of those all over the New York Portkey Hub, but I couldn't find any anywhere!”

Ron shrugged. “I found one easily enough,” he said and then bit the side of his cheek to keep from grinning as his girlfriend visibly ground her teeth together in silent irritation.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Harry suppressing a grin of his own. Just before losing his grip on his smile, however, Harry cleared his throat.

“Right, so are going to go straight to the hotel after collecting our luggage?” he asked.

“Of course,” Hermione answered him. “It's not far from here, anyway, so there's no point in not checking in first. Get that over with. We'll need to move quickly if we're going to take nearly a week's worth of pictures in less than two days.”

“Not to mention getting souvenirs,” Ron added.

“Yes, that too.” Hermione became thoughtful for a moment. “Actually, we could get ourselves matching 'I heart New York' t-shirts that I seem to recall being ridiculously popular and wear those when we go to, I don't know, maybe the Statue of Liberty or something.”

“So we're wearing something noticeably different in at least some of the pictures, you mean,” Harry added with a nod.

“Good idea,” Ron agreed.

“Well, if everything goes well, then we should only need about three days tops in Colorado,” Harry pointed out.

Ron snorted. “You mean you were expecting to actually enjoy yourself on your vacation?”

Harry grinned. Then something seemed to catch his eye and his face lit up further. “Hang on, I think they're releasing our luggage.”

They all turned to see that, sure enough, the large doors along the wall had opened and MACUSA customs wizards were floating cleared luggage out ahead of them.

“About bloody time!” Hermione groused, though her demeanour had visibly relaxed as it was now clear that her ruse had worked and neither the polyjuice she was carrying, nor Harry's invisibility cloak had been discovered.

As they later exited the New York Portkey Hub, Ron looked up at the sky. Dwarfed by the towering forms of Muggle skyscrapers, the white clouds seemed so very far above them and, for a moment, he felt impossibly small and inconsequential.

And then someone bumped his shoulder and he tore his eyes away from the bright blue, cloud-covered expanse and down to Harry's bright green eyes.

His friend's eyes were sparkling with excitement. “Well, I guess this is the beginning of our next adventure,” he said.

Ron grinned, his doubts and nerves momentarily forgotten. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

Hermione rolled her eyes as she barrelled past both of them. They laughed as they set off after her.

Chapter Text

New York. It was the city where he'd spent the second half of his childhood. It was lively: loud with voices, music and traffic, full of people and vibrant with colours, cultures and languages. It was the city that had taken his parents from him and sentenced him to a world of concrete instead of sand.

It all felt distant now. Not a dream, but no longer important. He remembered the emotions he's associated with those memories, but they were mere echoes of themselves, too linked to corporeal existence. Inconsequential.

So, yes, he remembered New York vividly, how he'd left the city after graduating early from high school and never returned. However, he didn't remember this New York.

This New York of hidden alleyways and marketplaces: invisible buildings, districts tucked away between the boundaries of what could be seen with the naked eye. He'd had gotten better at spotting them after curiosity had taken him from London to Paris and then Rome. Little pockets of magic scattered throughout the cities of Europe attracted his attention and drew him in like the flame to his proverbial moth. He went beyond Europe and found more.

Egypt, in particular had lit up with an inner glow, though different than what he'd seen in Europe, older, the waves radiating out into the world were slower, but their was breadth wider. He touched the pyramids with his incorporeal hands and they sang to him, every wave leisurely lapping away at the particles around it like an ocean eroding a rocky shore. It was clear to his sight – though he didn't 'see' so much as 'understand' – where the waves had steadily affected the earth in their vicinity and altered it ever-so-slightly.

Of all the wonders he'd expected to discover, all the revelations he'd anticipated ascension to bring him, the knowledge that magic was real, was far from one of them. Even after all his explorations, it still amazed him and excited him. It was a part of the world he'd never realized existed. No, a part whose existence he could no longer deny as he was now, stripped of all constraints of his former life.

Here, in New York, a city he'd thought he'd known, he saw a society living within the shadows of another, its place meticulously carved into spaces already occupied. He saw the lines created from the waves of powerful magic, the world cleaved apart and then put back together unseen in order to make it fit.

“All the universe to explore, and yet here you are still wandering around your planet of origin,” a voice interrupted his musings.

It wasn't that he hadn't seen him approach – there was no room for stealth in an existence where everything was known and felt – but he hadn't expected the other being to actively engage him.

“I have all of existence to explore the universe,” Daniel answered as he turned to face the newcomer. “So why not start here? It turns out there is still much for me to see and learn.”

The man he now faced was tall and thin, his hair a slightly wavy brown and his face carrying lines that seemed to be formed into an expression of perpetual amusement, matching the twinkle in his eyes and the sly grin on his lips.

“Daniel, the universe is full of such things, things that would've been quite beyond your former imagination, or understanding.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “I am aware of that, Janus. And I'll get to them in time. Something which I now, apparently, have in no limited quantity.”

Janus shrugged, an oddly human gesture for a member from such a stoic, solemn race. “Suit yourself. I suppose it's true that while you might have an infinite amount of time, they certainly don't.”

Daniel turned away from the Alteran – the former Atlantian (Atlantis, with its long elegant towers and smooth lines, was beautiful) – and looked back to New York. He looked to this secret, hidden city... and to its people. Within their cells he could see their past, the path evolution had taken to form their precise strands of DNA – it wasn't the sort of story bards composed ballads about, but a long and intricate one nonetheless. He could also see their future, the potential for future evolution and the many different paths it could take them as members of the human race.

But, most importantly, within those delicate, precise strands, he saw their demise.

He turned back to Janus with a desire to disperse the sudden weight on his heart. “So, do you have any suggestions about where to start this wider exploration of the universe?” he asked him.

Janus' face split into a grin, the light in his eyes twinkling even brighter than before. “I might have a thing or two in mind.”