DISCLAIMER Should I have actually planned this story properly rather than just writing it by the seat of my pants? If so, I don't own Harry Potter.
Chapter One of a new story - see the author notes below - will drop on the usual schedule, two weeks from today.
"I am too old for these four-in-the-morning starts." Sirius is yawning around a mug of tea.
Me, I'm not bothered: the body is tired but the mind inside doesn't need to sleep. I just pulled an all-nighter getting the heaters rigged up and tested and putting the finishing touches to the new garage floor. Twelve and a bit tonnes of coke became a hundred-mil-thick black diamond floor slab and a very surprised expression on Bellatrix's face when she saw it. I wish I'd thought of this earlier, frankly: it's a superb surface for drawing and painting ritual geometries on, hard-wearing, easy to clean, and has some very helpful occult properties. I just have to transfigure it out of the way for the rare few magics that have to be done on the sand layer underneath.
I've also lined the walls and ceiling with plasterboard and insulation - getting some funny looks at the builders' merchant when I accidentally asked for brands that won't be out for fifteen years - to keep the energy bill down and add a bit of soundproofing. It took a lot less time to get the room up to temperature, too, which is why today's ritual robes - scrubs and labcoat in my case - are the lightest-weight cotton we could find.
It also let me partition off the front eight inches or so of the garage and space-expand that bit big enough to park two cars in. If you open the garage door, you see the completely muggle-worthy expanded space. To get at the ritual room, you have to come in from the house.
That lining of the room, though, is also hiding a lot of rune-work and magical geometry that makes it a permanent ritual space, defining the bounds and the cardinal points permanently and with as much precision as my carving skills can deliver. It helps ensure that any ritual work in here does what we mean it to and nothing else, by excluding outside interference. The blackboard paint is just a convenience for chalking figures and texts on the walls and ceiling, when they're needed, but it does make the room feel like a little slice of boundless infinity when it's lit by oil lamps, like it is now. It's a good ambience for doing serious magic in.
Bellatrix is making a last circuit of the ritual space: she joined me at midnight to draw the last few figures and arrange the ritual paraphernalia. The voluminous white cotton shift and undone hair make her look like she just stepped off the cover of a gothic romance novel, while the clipboard and laser-printed checklist are an anachronistic pairing with the goose-feather quill she favours. Muggle pens are 'too heavy in the hand' apparently.
She's fussing, of course. We've both checked all of this three times each already. Although she might be making a seventh check purely for that little extra bit of magical oomph. With ritual magic, going ham on the details like doing things in threes and sevens never hurts at all.
I check my watch. The timing's a little fussier than the first time I did this: Summer Solstice in the Home Counties is so awash with green and growing magic that you don't need to be too terribly precise. This time, however, our Auspicious Moment is the magical upwelling as the waxing moon begins upon the precise moment of the new moon. Much smaller. Every moment you miss the mark by is a moment of magic lost. I turn to Sirius. "Go get Harry up and dressed if he's not already sat up and vibrating with anticipation. It's half past four, and we're going to need to kick off in twenty minutes."
"Sir, yes sir," he drawls out, making a Benny Hill salute and heading into the house to get our special guest star. Having an integral garage saves strain on the muggle-worthiness rune-stones I installed on the property lines.
Harry took an immediate shine to Bellatrix when he came over for his 'sleepover' the night before. He might've been a bit old for the fund of silly rhymes and nonsense poems that she memorised in anticipation of cementing her position as Nymphadora's favourite auntie, but I think he appreciated the effort. He, in turn, is a polite and personable little boy with just enough cheek about him to be interesting. They got on famously: I felt a moment of pity for poor little Tonksie that her aunt never got to follow through.
After we took him upstairs for storytime and a ridiculously early night - Dagworth's Number Four has childrens' doses on the label, and Harry accepted that he had to go to sleep early if he was to be fit for school after doing Big Magic - she did a little bit of a happy dance.
"He's perfect," she said, in between fits of hugging herself, "no wonder he boosted your working as much as he did. Prophesied child, at the centre of great events, with whatever genius Lily Potter worked still clinging to him? And every sign of growing up to be a wizard to really watch? And a little treasure into the bargain? With him helping, we could probably do this in a tin bucket! With a stick!" She showed her working, albeit by reference to sources I didn't even know existed but that she promised to track down for me. Apparently the alchemists who helped me did a really good job, but they're not specialists like the coterie of great aunts who trained Bellatrix in advanced witchcraft and ritual magic.
Here and now, however, she's padding barefoot one last time around the bounding circle, making sure the reaction vessel is aligned just so. I've improved the design from the first one. Instead of a plain sarcophagus shape, it's shaped like a giant lotus-flower bud, so the homunculus inside gets to grow in a proper foetal position. The lid is formed so the seam follows the sculpted lines of the petals, and it's heavy and close-fitting enough to form a hermetic seal all by itself. There's a port for a two-way gas lock and filter arrangement shaped into the tips of the innermost petals, right at the top. I got the impurities down to the point where it's just got a faint yellow tint to it, almost golden. It's a decent piece of sculpture in its own right, though I do say so myself.
Apparently satisfied, she comes over, swaps clipboard for tea-mug, and leans in to my side. "Seven ticks on every line of the list," she says.
I wrap an arm around her shoulders. Need to search my feelings carefully over this one: I don't have a great history with relationships and had more or less given up on the whole business by the time I died. It's not helping that I don't know whether I can trust the signs and signals from her. She's in a position of utmost vulnerability, I don't blame her in the slightest if her first instinct was to run a honey-trap scam by way of self-protection. She doesn't need to, of course, but she can't possibly know that. "If it fails, it's not because we've left anything undone that we ought to have done. To quote a dramatist I can't recall the name of right now, it's possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That's not a weakness, that's life. There's no reason we can't try again on the next new moon."
"True. Moody will be upset if he can't have my corpse on schedule, though."
I have to bite my lip. "Don't make me laugh, woman, I've got hot tea in my hand."
"And god forbid we waste a drop of your precious tea. I've never seen anyone take such ridiculous pains over the stuff. Not that I'm knocking the results, of course, but we could have perfectly acceptable tea, nearly as good, for a tenth of the effort."
I give her a firm and manly harrumph at the very idea of half-arsing so important a cup as the first one of the day. "It's that attention to detail and scientific thinking that gives rise to magic like this. Be appropriately grateful."
"And if I'm a good girl?" She looks up at me, batting her eyelashes outrageously.
"Glyndebourne Festival this summer. Picnicking and opera. Always wanted to go myself, just never got round to it before." I'll have to check the programme when they announce it, though. I'm not turning out for Wagner: three decent tunes packed into fifteen hours of production? You can keep it, unless it's the Bugs Bunny version.
"Belle! Good morning!" Harry has come in. Just as I thought he might, he must have been up and waiting for Sirius to come get him, already in scrubs and lab-coat - new ones, he doesn't fit in his first set any more.
"Harry!" She shifts from flirtatious woman to big kid in an eyeblink, abandoning dignity to get down and give the little man a welcoming hug. She's probably overdoing it a bit to help Harry get in the right mood for the magic, but I think she genuinely likes him. I certainly haven't been able to detect any artifice in how nicely she's treated him - Nymphadora really missed out with this one.
I check the time after giving Bellatrix a decent interval to fuss over Harry, who develops a broad grin from all the attention. "Five minutes, everyone. Harry, you know to stay with Sirius?"
He nods, firmly.
"Make sure you watch everything though, Harry," Bellatrix tells him, "You're going to be a remarkable wizard one day, and getting to watch serious magic like this is where you start learning how. Also, it's fun."
"Good luck!" Harry calls out. And then, "Why isn't Remus helping?"
Because we don't want his curse in the same room as any of this would be the truth, but not something we want Harry thinking about. Bit of a mood-killer. "Well, Belle is doing this for the first time and I'm helping her, so Sirius's job is to look after you and explain stuff as we go along," I tell him. Sirius's job is also to keep the jokes coming thick and fast, we want Harry laughing, "Also, there's a spell made of happy feelings that Sirius and I are going to use to make sure everything goes really well, and Remus isn't very good at it 'cause he's a big ol' misery-guts. So he gets to have a lie-in, the lucky sod." Remus can do a solid mist shield, but he's been so focussed on self-control and armouring himself against rejection and misery for so long, he can't really let go to the extent the Patronus requires for the full-dress version.
"Oh. Will I see him later?"
"Oh, yes, when he comes down for breakfast," Bellatrix says, "And remember to be extra cheerful at him. He's a grumpy old sourpuss first thing in the morning, he needs gingering up."
That gets our first giggle of the morning out of Harry. Off to a good start, but I'm willing to bet 'child-friendly comedy chops' aren't listed anywhere as an essential magical skill. After a moment to finish our tea, Bellatrix actually skips to her starting position. "Count me in, Mal," she calls out as I take my own place, behind and very slightly to her right. My job is to watch the timing and rhythm, see that she gets the ingredients at the right and proper times, and deploy Sid to cover the critical part of the working. In theory, I'm also her prompter, though I doubt I'll be needed.
With my eye on my watch I give her thirty, ten and five second warnings, then: "Three, two, one, mark!"
The first step is filling the reaction vessel, and rather than my workmanlike levitate-and-pour to a plainchant accompaniment, she sets the carboys full of nutrient slurry in a slow, rolling, aerial dance around each other. If that wasn't enough, she braids the streams as they pour out. Her magic isn't just touching it all, it's intimately woven in. I could probably match the feat, I've had a lot of practise since I did this rite, but it'd come out all geometrical and machine-y. Which would serve, and have an aesthetic all its own, but not be half as pretty. The fact that she's got a fine singing voice - and enough magic left over for charms on her throat so she can sing in harmony with herself - makes my effort look exactly as pedestrian and workmanlike as it was.
The lack of humorous noises means we don't get the easy laugh from Harry, but there's plenty of time yet. He's sat with Sirius, leaning over for a one-armed hug from his godfather, watching with open-mouthed joy. Sirius is whispering commentary in his ear, and it provokes the occasional snort and chuckle.
Then it's time for the ritual lighting of censers, lamps and candles, and she kicks it up a gear.
In magic as in most things, there's always more than one way to do it. I drilled the ritual movements and actions and incantations relentlessly, aiming for a nice, efficient, repeatable precision. Bellatrix, however, sings the incantations and dances through the magic: she rehearsed against a metronome, over and over like she had a big opening night coming up. It's much more effort than I put in - was able to put in, Vernon being what he was - and it's paying off in a rapid upwelling of magic that's far more coherent and harmonious than I remember my own working being. I suppose I'm seeing the difference between a self-taught first-timer and a witch trained from the cradle: I executed a procedure - competently, thank you very much, and with an elegant laconic austerity - whereas she's performing.
Harry's watching with big round eyes and hands over his mouth. Can't say I blame him, you could put this on any stage in the land for the artistry of it, and I say that after having seen the Royal Ballet do Giselle twice in the last fortnight. First time because Bellatrix had only ever seen ballet as an interlude in french opera and was curious how it worked as a production in its own right. My own appreciation for the artform not stretching much past 'hur dur pretty girls dancing to pretty music', the second time was because she wanted to see it again and I, ah, rather enjoyed her reaction to the first time.
We come to the bit of the ritual I think of as 'the intermission'. "Brilliant!" Harry exclaims.
"Why, thank you," Bellatrix says, popping a cheeky little curtsey. "Gentlemen, this is your cue. Patronus charms, if you please."
I'm not sure which of us came up with the idea to have active Patroni for the more critical bits of the ritual, in among the week and a half of brainstorming and bracingly energetic four-cornered theory arguments, but the arithmancy suggests it's going to help a lot. Given how obscure the spell's origins are, I wouldn't be more than mildly surprised to discover that this was the original purpose of the spell, back in the days when all magic was ritual magic.
I draw myself up and focus. Getting Hissing Sid out in this place, in this company, is barely an effort, and I can see Sirius giving Harry a hug and a bit of a tickle to really double down on his own emotional run-up and follow-through. Monkey and Sid move smartly to their positions, facing outward from the bounding circle and guarding the ritual east and west of the space. Harry laughs at the antics of the two spirits, which makes them flare with numinous radiance.
Sid, per usual, starts giving off about everything in general and the prospect of violence in particular. "Fuckin' yeah! Come at me, anycunt, I'll fuckin' twat yer one!"
"That's rude," Harry hisses back.
Sid's cluster f-bomb of a response creases Harry up good and proper - swearing is always funny, stroppy snake swearing doubly so - and Bellatrix turns to look at me. "He's a parselmouth?" Raised how she was, of course, her prejudices on the subject are positive.
I shrug. "His mother's side, maybe? Welsh ancestry, with a name like Evans. There's probably a druid or two in her family tree, and they had the secret of making parselmouths, adders were sacred to them. Seems it's the kind of magic that gets to be hereditary. I'm fairly sure there are more parselmouths in these islands than anyone suspects, it's just that most people can go their whole lives without seeing a snake and wouldn't think to talk to it if they did."
She gives me an impish grin. "You too? What with the same genes and all?"
"You know, there's a rumour about parselmouths…"
I give her a Look. "Which we won't be discussing with a seven-year-old in the room." And a smirk. "Although if you want to start a program of testing, I've got some free time later …"
"I think I could learn to like this scientific method."
I bite down on the crack about her getting a snake tattoo. Small child present, after all.
She's been tapping her foot in a steady rhythm the whole while. Keeping time, obviously, "Right, time for the last piece of the working." A look at my watch, and I see she's pretty much on the money.
The genes, the milk, and the bottle of words - Bellatrix's theme was a mother's hopes and wishes for her daughter - are all pre-prepared; only the blood has to be utterly fresh and drawn during the rite. A good thing too: while expressing milk is entirely natural, wholesome even, a witch with her tits out is a bit much to throw at a kid Harry's age without a lot of preparatory explanation that we haven't done.
Bellatrix practising self-administered phlebotomy - I'd remedied my lack of knowledge since last time, so I could show her how - became a regular thing over the week since we realised I'd only have one hand free at this point. Healing charms were very much her friend in the matter, and she got competent enough that she could satisfy the ritual requirement for clean and clinical bloodletting. My only role is to be ready with the cotton-wool and surgical tape, the healing spell can be applied later if needed. I levitate the silver tray with the rest of the ritual items within easy reach - two spells at once isn't hard if one of them is wandless - and we take our places with thirty seconds to spare.
The magic surges up again as the first ingredient, the swab of genetic material, drop into the vessel. It makes Bellatrix sway back to lean against me as she declaims the ritual words. I can feel what the magic is trying to say, that I am involved as more than a mere obstacle to Rodolphus's paternity. That I should play the part to the hilt. Here, in the moment, I'm happy to play along. It feels right to curl my arm around her and hold her close while she finishes the rite. I could make a smart remark about a pretty, sweaty witch in thin clinging cotton, but the rush of the magic is altogether more … wholesome. Sid and Monkey flare bright, uncomfortably bright, and I can distantly hear Harry cheering.
Belle - because from this point on it's important to identify her as strongly as possible with the new life in the reaction vessel - continues the ritual through the other three ingredients. She sags a little as the magical rush subsides, letting me support her as she levitates the lid on and the seals in place. They're blobs of wax with linen strips for the runes, this time, and yes, I totally crafted them to look like Purity Seals out of Warhammer. Because nerd.
After a moment, she stands again and turns to press herself against me, holding on with one arm around my waist. She looks up at me: there's one last thing. She takes a small linen bag of coin from the tray and presses it into my hand; I have to float my wand away to take it. Interestingly, Sid doesn't go out.
She hugs me a little tighter. "I assert that the new body we have made, and all the things and works that are in it, are mine. Let it, and them, be bought by me with these seven galleons, seven sickles, and seven knuts," and with her free hand she grabs my head and pulls my face down to hers, "and this kiss, by way of price."
I can hear Harry wolf-whistling, the cheeky little bugger.
When she lets me come up for air, I can't help the grin. It's probably the magic talking, but I really could see myself catching feelings for this woman. "I earned a tip, then?"
"After the way this went?" She pulls me down for another.
It's hours later, after we're all showered, dressed, breakfasted, and Harry packed off to Privet Drive, in care of Remus, so as to walk to school with Dudley. The garage is sealed up with warning tape so nobody accidentally disturbs it and ruins all our hard work.
"So, success, do we think?" Sirius asks as we settle down in the living room with tea.
"Better than the first time I did it," I allow, "I think we've room for a little quiet confidence."
Belle, sprawled across me in pyjamas and towel-wrapped hair, groans. "I am spent."
"You were … impressive," Sirius says. It's not in any kind of grudging tone, either. I imagine he wishes he'd paid more attention in those Black Family tutorial sessions, although I doubt the great aunts were trying all that hard when it came to the rebel of the family. Kind of wish I knew the great aunts myself. I can grind my way through theory as well as any and better than most, but you don't get nuances of performance like that out of books.
She snuggles in close, and I really don't have much choice but to wrap my arm around her "Alas," she says, "I can't play it off as effortless superiority. It took a lot of effort. Enjoyed it, though. Hold me, Mal."
Yeah, that magic affected her, at least as much as it did me. Possibly more. I dare say I'm in for an interesting evening. And if this is still a scam, it's a fucking convincing one.
After a long silence, she speaks words that are muffled against my chest. "Sirius, you're next in the family entails, yes? Going to be in charge of vaults and settlements and so forth?"
"I am, why?"
"See that a dowry is put aside for me. I mean to marry this man."
Sirius and I exchange a look. We both want to say something, but neither of us wants to be first to start the banter and thereby look like an arsehole.
He cracks before I do. "What have you been doing to that poor girl?" His grin speaks of malevolent glee at the prospect of months of mickey-taking to come. Fair play, I've been mocking his romantic misadventures at every turn. Which he deserves: he let a prize catch like Charity get away from him, the pillock.
I give him as old-fashioned a look as I dare say I have ever given anyone. "Nothing out of the ordinary, thank you very much. It's just that pureblood males set such a low standard, she's quite overwhelmed, the poor dear. Also, a dowry? I'm pretty sure this is the twentieth century, Belle."
She blows a faint raspberry, and falls asleep in my lap. I can feel the damp hair-towel gently soaking through the shoulder of my shirt.
There's a long silence. "You know," Sirius says, picking his words with exaggerated care, "I think she might actually mean it."
I've only got one shoulder free to shrug. The other is burdened with magically-exhausted witch. "She might, she might not. What she's been through, what we rescued her from? Anyone would feel a little infatuated with whoever pulled them out of shit that deep. She might think differently once she's steadied down some. I probably should've insisted she found another way around the paternity problem, but, well, you saw the effect it had on the magic."
"Don't beat yourself up over that. You've got her smile back a lot faster than mine returned, after Azkaban. Whatever you're doing for her wasn't a treatment St. Mungo's offered, oddly enough."
I could point out that the Royal Ballet did more toward that end than anything that happened in bed afterward, fun though it was. Instead, I scoff, "All that says is that Belle here has better game than you. Made a move in less than a week, while you've been here over a year and barely looked in my direction, you heartless brute."
He gives me a scoff in return, and a languid two fingers. Then, "I do have to ask, though, since as she correctly points out I'm kind of soon to be in at least financial charge of the Most Knobbly And Unctuous House of Black. Mal, what are your intentions toward my cousin?"
It's not actually a silly question. The mismatch between my actual age and my physical age makes most relationships problematic. Really problematic for Kid Mal. So in a sense Belle, being in the same boat, is not just not problematic but kind of my only option. Which counts for nothing, of course: nobody has to be in any kind of romantic relationship at all. Indeed, once you get a couple of messy breakups deep, a lifetime of bachelor ease starts to look like what you wanted all along.
Oddly enough, it's the suspicion that Belle is being a lot more cold-blooded about this than she lets on that decides me. Even if she is, she's smart, learned, witty, and good company on a night out. And, yes, gorgeous. She's entirely worth having around on her own merits, so it's really just a question of getting past that ethical lump of taking advantage of her need for a lifeline in a difficult time.
The obvious cure there is time. Time for her to get her head on straight and really think about what she wants in life, with the benefit of an untraumatised brain. If she still wants this when she knows there's no need for manoeuvres, well, I'll see how my feelings are at that time.
Also, time for me to see if therapy, the passage of years, and, yes, untraumatised brain have let me lose some of the emotional baggage that made me such a poor catch, back when. There's an age gap, sure, on the outer limits of what might be considered acceptable, but in Belle's case it's not the years, it's the mileage.
Sirius wants an answer, so I give it him: "When she wakes up I'll tell her to raise the subject again in, oh, a year and a day. Nicely folkloric period of time, that. Long enough for anyone to come to their senses, if they're going to."
"You going to stop sleeping with her that long, then?" He's visibly trying not to start laughing, the arse. If he cracks up and disturbs Belle's much-needed rest, I resolve that it's going to earn him a bogwashing.
I scoff, quietly. "It's going to become mostly a non-issue in eight days and eight nights, she'll be physically eight years old most of the time. And a lot healthier in the brain department, which is the important thing. If takes ageing potion, and asks me to join her, well, I'm trying to do right by her, not get canonised as a fucking saint."
Sirius has to leave the room, biting his knuckles all the way.
One big advantage of doing rituals in winter is that sunrise happens at a relatively civilised hour. My watch says seven forty-nine
"One minute to go," I tell Belle, "do you feel ready?"
"As I'll ever be." She's sitting in one of the living-room armchairs that we've brought in, wand in hand, and dressed in her Azkaban robe. Moody will be by later, and it's a lot easier for her to pull the thing on than for us to dress a corpse. She has towels draped across her lap: this is going to be a bit messy.
That and the fact that she's coming out of the reaction vessel nude is why she asked for me to be the only one present. No, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but then it doesn't have to - we all have our personal squick limits and that's just the way it is.
She looks nervous, as well she might. She has the theory and the praxis for the spell down pat, but of the nature of things it's kind of hard to get any kind of rehearsal in. In theory one might consent, or at least not object, to a body-swap. In practise almost nobody's got the strength of will required to overcome the innate attachment to one's own mortal coil. I can, but I'm enough of a special case that practising on me doesn't appear to help much. She was able to get into and out of my vacant body - with me giving incorporeal encouragement from the sidelines - but couldn't tell the difference between that and possession, which Tom taught her how to do. She did seem to be absent from her own body while she was in mine, but I've never seen an active legilimentic possession from the outside to tell whether that's normal or not. Tom sulks his way throught the whole process and is no help at all, just a constant dull rumble of accusations of theft. From which I conclude he doesn't know either, he's a right know-it-all and wouldn't be able to resist airing his knowledge.
Theory says she'll form a proper attachment to the new flesh she actually owns by law and magic, but it'll get harder and harder to get in the further from sunrise she makes the attempt. Also, the chances of something going wrong rise with uncomfortable speed after the first minute or so. Again, downside of starting this on a new moon rather than summer solstice.
"Fifteen seconds. Opening the gas locks." The seals on the vessel itself are just wax ones: the real obstacle to getting the lid off will be any hermetic seal that has formed: gas locks aren't perfect pressure-equalisers. Vanishing the water in them gives us a satisfying, brief hiss.
That's as close as I dare get my magic to Bella's new body until she's in it. I'm going to have to do the rest of this the old-fashioned way.
"Ten seconds," I call out, and take a firm grip of the lid, knees bent for a safe lift. It's only thirty kilos or so, but throwing my back out at this stage would be catastrophic.
I grunt, straighten, the seals crack and fall away, and I move the lid away and out of the circle in one nice, smooth pivot.
Watch check. "Six seconds."
More haste, less speed. I reach down into the vessel and get child-Belle under the shoulders and knees. Feels like about four stone: she didn't have an enthusiastic little boy wishing her 'Big And Strong'. I've had plenty of practise at picking up small sleeping children. Up, turn, step, step, kneel, lay her in adult-Belle's lap. Watch check. Just in time. "Two, one," and a firm nod to give her her time mark.
The incantation is brief, to the point, and in the dead sacerdotal language of a religion the Tibetan Empire suppressed with utmost brutality in the early eighth century. The original spell was objectionable by anyone's standards, but to buddhists of the period it was the foulest blasphemy. Departing from the cycle of death and rebirth at the expense of another soul? Well, it would be.
Belle touches her wand to her new body's head. Over the crown, on the throat and then on the third eye chakra. With her other hand, she lifts her new eyelids, leans in for close eye contact, and repeats the incantation.
Nothing happens for a whole second, and then her wand clatters to the floor. Adult Belle slumps, empty.
Over and above the obvious, I can tell something happened. Her new body starts twitching and her pupils contract. Evenly, which is encouraging.
"C'mon, breathe," I murmur.
Two little seconds, three little seconds, four little seconds. I can feel Tom winding up to gloat over the failure.
I'm just mentally reviewing the steps for CPR rescue breathing when Belle 2.0 takes in a huge, shuddering breath. And then another. There's panic in her eyes, so I lift her back up and perch her on my knee. She's panting, flailing, and then seems to realise who I am and my arms are full of little girl, all slippery with the nutrient slurry and whooping to get air into her lungs as she grabs me and clings. I rub her back and make soothing noises.
After a few seconds, she pants out "Did it!" and slumps unconscious.
I can use magic again, and summon clean towels to wrap around her. She'll want a bath later. Probably a Belle self-care special, three hours long. It's only when I start getting a little light-headed I realise I've been holding my breath for almost a minute.
Like an idiot.
Once the dizziness passes I get to my feet, Belle cuddled and swaddled in my arms, only her face and feet visible where they poke out from the towels. She's showing no signs of coming round any time soon.
She's definitely present in the body in my arms, and the one in the armchair is slumped and unmoving. Also still breathing. A nudge of telekinesis moves it onto the floor and into the recovery position: we want a particular cause of death for this one, and aspirated vomit isn't it. The other two are just frozen solid, after a peaceful death from anoxia in Rabastan's case. Not that there was much of him left, mentally, after Remus and I were done.
There's colour in Belle's cheeks, and I can see rapid eye movement. Time will tell whether she's out for the count or just taking a brief nap. I guess this is how we learn how normal human mind-and-soul combos react to this procedure.
Giving her a full medical can wait until she wakes up, for now "looks healthy" will do. I walk, moving gently and smoothly so as not to wake her, out of the garage and across the hall to the living room, where Sirius and Remus are waiting, perched on the edge of the sofa.
There's an obvious question in their eyes.
"Success," I say in a low tone, "but she fell asleep right after. Change the armchair into a day-bed, please."
It's while Sirius obliges me with the simple transfiguration that we hear a knock at the door.
"Moody's early," Sirius remarks.
"Go see if it's him, Remus," I add, "and if it's anyone else deal with them on the doorstep or ask them to come back later."
Half a minute and a conjured duvet later, Moody comes in. "It work?" He says, his tone surprisingly soft. Clearly Remus warned him the patient was sleeping.
I gesture down at the bundle of bedclothes. "I have the honour to name to you Isabelle Adhara Ryan, witch of this parish. Later - and I'm sure Remus will see you right for tea and biscuits while you wait - we will surrender the mortal remains of Bellatrix Lestrange into your custody."
"What're we waiting on?" He's easing himself down onto the sofa as he speaks.
Remus comes back in with the armchair that was in the garage, shrunk for ease of carrying. I'm perched on the edge of Bella's day-bed, so Remus takes the armchair rather than try and reclaim his sofa spot from Moody.
"Final checks when she wakes up, and euthanasing the aforementioned remains. I don't think this is going to catch on as a medical procedure just yet. We were able to do it because she's got the right skill-set to learn the transfer spell. And from the looks, it took a lot out of her. She stayed awake long enough to say two words."
"Looks healthy enough, I have to say."
"Physically, yes. And I'm getting a strong sense of presence from her, stronger than if she was just possessing this body. I just want to be sure, yeah?"
"I'm in no rush. I'm off-shift today, so take your time. You know how I take it, Lupin."
"I do. Everyone else?" Orders taken, Remus heads for the kitchen. He's not quite so scientific about it as me, but he'll be back with a decent pot.
"So what story am I going back to the ministry with?"
Sirius leans over and hands Moody the suicide note. He speaks in a measured, formal cadence. "Today, the as-it-turned-out Widow Lestrange tracked me down where I was currently staying, gave the frozen cadavers of her late husband and brother-in-law into my custody, handed me her will and that note, and drank what I now know to have been a pint of laudanum. Whereof she died, and I respected her request to do nothing to prevent that. I sent word for you, Auror Moody, in the hope that I could prevail on you to handle the matter with appropriate respect and delicacy. Having read the note, I'm minded to see her ashes interred in the family mausoleum at Abney Park, once the Ministry has recorded her death."
"Covers all the bases, it'll do. You want any last words recorded in the official report?"
"Unless she has any ideas of her own when she wakes up, no. Or, rather, not that she didn't have any, but that I've chosen not to enter them into the official record."
"Suitably sombre, nobody'll ask follow-up questions for fear of coming off as crass. You've thought this through properly. Reynolds' work?" Moody asks, jerking his thumb at me.
"His and Belle's, yes. My version had knob jokes in it."
Moody cracks up at that, briefly, and fishes a monocle out of his pocket. There are a few minutes of silence while he reads. We packed a lot of disinformation and propaganda into that thing, it's quite lengthy. Nearly four feet of parchment, even in Belle's compact and tidy chancery cursive.
At length, he says, "Nothing in there that limits my follow-up actions, good. Calling 'em 'persons who gave the recognition signs of the Dark Lord's followers, both slave and free,' lets me go after the whole boiling of the buggers. Where she says that 'the Lestranges trusted no-one who lied with public denials of their willing service, or falsely claimed that their submission was unwilling' and that was the reason for them escaping from their rescuers? It'll set back the efforts to clean up more'n a few reputations. As for fitting up You-Know-Who for helping nice married pureblood girls rut with muggles? Genius."
"Thought you might like that one," I say, "Belle added a lot of verifying details that'll make 'em trust it, too." Especially when it leaks to the Prophet, which we're going to do so that her apology to all the victims is public. She's saying sorry for not being strong enough to resist, another poke at the 'I was under the Imperius' crowd. Those buggers have apologised to nobody. We're still fifty-fifty on commissioning Lockhart to write The Tragedy Of Bellatrix Black to really hammer it home.
I go on, "As you might imagine, we've got a wealth of insider information now, and she's coming up A-one to every cross-check we've done. Tom really did trust her enslavement, like her note says, and took her into his confidence. Shame he didn't reckon on clever buggers like us working out what he did and figuring out how to undo it once we had her in our custody."
Moody gives me a deadpan look. "Once we had her in our custody. Do you ever, like, switch that off?"
Sirius snorts. "It's that, sarcasm, or mad magical science with our Mal."
I flip Sirius the V-sign. "You ever stop being an Auror, Moody?" It's the obvious retort.
He snorts. "Take yer point. Reassure me that this bloodcurdlin'-soundin' death-curse is as fictional as I hope it is?"
"Completely. Little bit of psychological warfare, there. Keep 'em rattled and worried. Especially the part that implies it's a You-Know-Who specialty that he might have laid on others, they knew how peevish he could get over the slightest thing toward the end. Gives them something to blame when they keep coming a cropper instead of looking for whoever's really serving them bad turn after bad turn."
"Like Dives Lestrange trying to make a withdrawal the Monday after I saw you in Diagon Alley, and finding the family vault empty?"
I give him a big smile. "The late Bellatrix Lestrange did not admit making any such withdrawal in our hearing today, but she does seem a likely suspect, given the contents of her suicide note. She did not, however, have any cash on her person when she accosted Sirius this morning." Because it was in a chest under her bed. Everything we've told Moody is literally true, except the Laudanum part because that hasn't happened yet. Not our fault if the official record will imply a timing and character to those events that is wholly misleading. "Only that last fact is admissible witness evidence, of course. Everything else I said was hearsay or mere speculation and shouldn't find its way into any official record of our conversation."
Moody looks at Sirius and Remus. "He really is like this all the time, isn't he?"
"Absolutely," Remus says, "My stash of fig rolls went missing and by the time he was finished I was convinced I'd stolen them myself."
I roll my eyes. "I'd already bought replacements by the time you asked me about those, you arse. Getting back to the point, if someone has lightened the Lestranges by a few sacks of gold, I don't think we're under any positive duty to help by eliminating anybody from your enquiries. So we're telling you the literal truth: she did not mention the Lestrange vault for good or ill today. And - speculating here, so it's not evidence - were it to be the case that Bellatrix Lestrange made a substantial withdrawal from her married family's vault, I know of no evidence to say she didn't have a perfect right in law and by Gringotts regulations to do so at the time she did it. So, you know, no crime. Did Gringotts give up the name of the last withdrawal before the vault was discovered empty?"
Moody grins. "Bellatrix Lestrange, as it happens. Except she wasn't seen entering the bank, and I can testify that I saw nobody answering Madam Lestrange's recorded description all that day in Diagon Alley. Most the goblins will say about it is that all humans look the same to them, but the individual passed all security checks as required by their contract with the Lestrange family. Wouldn't even confirm if it was a witch or wizard, just that the clothes were 'of a typically female style'. Funny thing, it slipped my mind to ask if she was accompanied."
Attaboy, Moody. I'm pretty sure that that eye of his can see the dirty great big box of galleons up in the only bedroom we have with women's clothing in the wardrobe. We haven't yet had a chance to go see Huw about getting her set up with real banking.
He goes on, "What concerns me, though, is where she mentions her quote daughter unquote. That might make them think she handed over the cash to you fellas to give to the child." He makes air-quotes around the word 'child', which surprises me mildly. He's clearly spending enough time around his muggle in-laws to pick up a sarcastic gesture that's only just coming in on that side of things.
Sirius gestures with his teacup for emphasis, "Except, as Mal just told you, she had no cash on her when she accosted me this morning. Do record that, let it leak from the Auror Office if there's a convenient way to do so. The way Mal worded her will, it implies that she took the gold and destroyed it somehow out of sheer spite at the way she was treated. I'll be prevailing on my grandfather to legitimise Isabelle as Bellatrix's daughter. He's come around to the idea of half-blood Blacks lately. So she'll have a portion in the Black family wealth, no need for any Lestrange gold."
"What's she leaving herself, sorry, her daughter, in this will?"
"Her wand and any other property the Ministry took from her person when she was imprisoned, to me on trust to give to her daughter when I find her, if she proves to be a witch. She does not wish her daughter tainted with any part of the Lestranges, and not a knut of their blood money." Sirius rattles the answer off like it's a memorised spiel. Because it is. And it's true about the not-a-knut thing. We only took the galleons. "Assuming we can get her into Hogwarts, the official story is that she's under my guardianship."
Moody nods along, taking it in. He won't be writing any of this down, but he'll keep it all mentally filed away. He says, "The Hogwarts thing is seen to. As I promised, I had a word with Albus. He thought it was a wonderful story. Redemption, second chance and what-have-you. Ate it up. I got his owl yesterday confirming her name's down, asking me to let him know if the situation changed." We're going to have to re-admit Dumbledore to the Secret once we've got the Fidelius charms in place, mostly to stop him prying in ways that might cause us trouble if he can't remember why he has two names on the roll that didn't come via the Magic Quill.
Belle wakes up at that point, and I transfigure the mess of towels into a temporary bathrobe. It only has to last until she gets in the tub, after all. A rough-and-ready physical confirms that everything's within parameters, and she goes quickly through some simple wandwork exercises to confirm she's cognitively and magically all there. She heads off to get 'properly cleaned up', so I guess we can write off the big bathroom until lunchtime at least.
After that it's a gastric tube to get the required laudanum into her old body's stomach to match the official story. Moody does the honours with the cleaning charms. Not out of concern for her dignity, but because he's going to have to carry it back to the Ministry and doesn't want to be accompanied by the smell of piss and puke. He chuckles over the state the Brothers Lestrange are in. We didn't quite let our senses of humour run riot over them in the end, but they've both got ghastly looks frozen on their faces and they're twisted up like they're writhing in agony. Let there be speculation about just how gruesomely the late Bellatrix exacted her fatal revenge: it'll fuel the fear of her death-curse.
The paperwork takes hardly any time at all: a single signed statement from Sirius records the true but misleading facts in short, declarative sentences. It's probably going to get him buttonholed by Prophet reporters at some point, but he has a lot of concocted soundbites off by heart. I've drilled him in the necessary rudeness of replying with those rather than direct answers to whatever they ask.
Other than Harry, Number Four Privet Drive is getting the public story until we have the Fidelius in place, at which point we can give them a sanitised version that accounts for Belle occasionally turning up as an adult. Judging from Belle's performance with Harry, Daisy is going to get spoilt rotten. The Tonkses are going to get a similar treatment, accepting guidance from Andi and Ted about how much we tell Nymphadora.
I'm torn between dreading and looking forward to the Belle-and-Dora double act.
I return from walking Skriker at just before six, in time to be up and about with my day. We've a lot to do to get Belle's new life organised, and we need to have a long conversation about how much she needs to learn to pass as a mostly-muggle-raised halfblood. We might be using Fidelius enchantments to hide the deception, but the damned things aren't foolproof - see Potters, fate of - so fleshing out the legend the old-fashioned way still needs at least some effort put in.
Belle is in bed with my sleeping body. This is not unprecedented, of course. Previously, though, it's been because she went to bed with me. This time, it's two kids curled up together in bed. If you don't know the wider picture, adorable. Even if you do, it still looks that way.
I may vomit.
Oh, give it a rest. Not being able to form normal human connections is no excuse for sour grapes on that scale. You're an insult to every neurodivergent kid who had a hard life and didn't chuck a massive tantrum at the entire world. And it looks like there's more of this to come, so try and keep it down to a dull roar, eh?
I'm assuming that Belle is staking some kind of claim, here. Her crack about wanting to get married hasn't been mentioned by anyone since she made it. Even if it was just the post-magical euphoria talking, which I ain't ruled out, we've not yet had the capital-T Talk about the future of things that we really need. I reckoned it'd be best to wait until she was secure in her new body and the start of her new life and wasn't feeling quite so railroaded. Now that's out of the way, it looks like that chat is actually quite urgent.
I'm about to get back in my body and gently wake it up when an alarm charm goes off.
Bellatrix bolts awake and after a moment or two of blinking, calls out "Mal? Are you there?"
I let myself become visible. "Wanted me to know what it was like waking up in bed with a child?" She twitted me about that, every time I let the ageing potion wear off overnight.
She gives me a sleepy smile. "A little. I wanted to be sure of privacy so we could talk. Um. Could you stop spirit-roving? It's a bit disconcerting with you there and here at the same time."
Seems fair enough. Takes a moment to get my physical self awake, and by the time I get my crude-matter eyes open she's cuddled in closer, tucked under my arm with her head on my chest. "Good morning," she says.
The cuddling is nice, well worth being corporeal for, but there isn't a word in the english language for the emotional confusion of waking up intimately entwined with someone you know is thirty-two but who feels like a child. I now understand exactly what she meant. It's compounded by currently being in a child's body myself; the memories of the things we did when we were both adults feel weirdly theoretical. Since I can't say any of that, I go with "Good morning, you. You said you wanted to talk."
"I had a dream."
"Last night? That why you came in here?" I mostly don't dream, apart from the odd occasion when I get back early and let my physical self wake up naturally. I'm a bit loath to do more than that. Between Tom's memories and my own, I've got some messy stuff for my dreaming mind to sort through. Belle's head has some spectacular horrors in it, too, so the occasional nightmare is to be expected.
"No, yesterday morning. And not while I was taking a nap. While I was," she stops to search for a word, "between."
I know the bit she means. It was bloody nerve-wracking. "You didn't start breathing for maybe five or six seconds. You probably don't want to read anything into it, anoxia does funny things to the brain."
"It didn't feel like a dream. I met three women. Old women. They didn't say anything, but one of them, she had a spindle. And she gave me a needle."
The shiver is involuntary, and I'm not quick enough to suppress it entirely. The goosebumps I can't do anything about.
Belle, who nobody ever accused of not being sharp, notices at once. "You know what it means!"
"Possibly. It's nothing we should speak aloud about, to anyone. Probably not even each other." I should have stayed in spirit form for this conversation. I'm afraid. Not just for the obvious implications: communications from the likes of them are seldom well-omened.
I start pacing my breathing: as the body goes, so goes the mind, and I'm going to need to be in control for this.
Belle is the first to break the long silence. "I was with those women a lot longer than six seconds. Long enough to convey meaning. I had a proper education, Mal. Three women, with needle-and-thread symbolism. They're known. And, now, how you reacted to me telling you, you clearly know it too. You mentioned being outside mortal time, but you've been cagey about what you saw there. Did you meet them too?"
I take my time over it, although she has caught me flat-footed with this. "Whatever I experienced, it wasn't so … personal. I was, in every meaningful sense of the word, dead at the time, it was all very surreal. I wrote it off, at first, as the hallucinations of a dying brain. Then things got. Hmm. Look, put it this way, if you're suggesting what I think you are, I interpreted my much more obscure experience as amounting to something very similar, whenever I speculated about whether it was real.
"But then I found myself back in, well, consensus reality, with a very real problem in front of me and very limited resources with which to address it. Wasn't even corporeal to start with, had to do some pretty shady things at the beginning. I figured that if there was any truth in what I experienced, which I wasn't sure there was, well, I was supposed to mend something, right? And here was a thing that needed mending. If whoever wanted the job done wanted it done prettily they could have arranged for me to start with better resources.
"Anyway, by long ways and short, two and a half years later that original problem, well, it's much improved. Not completely fixed yet, mind, but at the point where it's healing naturally, and I'm working to make sure That Arsehole can't undo my hard work. He's responsible for the problem in the first place, however much I damn Dumbledore for his contributions. That aside, we're here, and you just got the same message."
"You think it's a message too? I thought so." She gives me a squeeze. "We should consider what it means. I have an idea, I want to hear your thoughts. A cross-check, if you like."
Might as well, I think. Aloud, "Needles are for making and mending. What are you supposed to make or mend? Could it be the same thing I'm working on, making sure what I fix stays fixed? Is that the significance of getting the needle specifically from she who spins?" I'm aware I've been babbling a bit, falling back on old habits of admitting nothing and talking in generalities. I focus more on occlusion, needing the clarity. It's damned hard with a brain that's this many years from maturity: there's a reason nobody decent teaches more than the foundational exercises of occlumency to pre-adolescents.
Belle gives me a squeeze. "That matches what I thought. I was hoping you could help. That we could help each other. And I know some of what you did. While you're out doing whatever 'walking the Grim' is a euphemism for, there are still memories in your physical brain. Everything you've done while in the flesh, it's all in there. Everything since you drew your first breath and made that dreadful joke to the Flamels. All those memories, all the things you've said and done. I got glimpses of them while I was practising the body-swap on you, just flashes. Sorry, but I got curious."
It just did not occur to me that the normal biological processes were still going on in my brain. It totally should have: I've noticed the difference in my thinking when I'm in body and when I'm out. Everything I've seen and done has been recorded in physical memories. And I've not been home to defend them. Shit. At least this time I'm fully occluded, deep occluded, so I'm not going to panic. This could be bad. I can hear Tom's laughter, distantly, outside the walls around my mind.
Belle goes on. "It's how I know what sort of man you are. That, and Harry vouches for you, no flies on that little wizard. Did you know he's got the makings of being a legilimens? No matter. The important part is that it's how I knew I could come to you with this. The old families, we still remember the root of the word divination. Divine. They, the powers, they send omens, often in the form of dreams. They are omens we ignore at our peril, that we cannot ignore and still claim to be witches and wizards. That needle was important, I felt it. The tears and cuts you've made, that you're going to make, those particular Daughters of Night want them sewn up, after. I'm in, Mal. All the way in."
Well, shit. "And here I thought you were going to ask me to marry you again."
"You said a year and a day. I wasn't all the way asleep for that bit. I liked what you said. Considerate and sensible."
I'm coming to realise that she really does mean it, and, what's more, I'm not knee-jerk opposed to the idea. Not entirely sold either: I've married a smart, pretty woman before, and look how that turned out. "Well, don't think it's a deadline. If it takes you longer to get your head on straight, you should take that time. It's not like we can do anything about it before we're legally teenagers again. Sixteen, if we do it in Scotland, would be the earliest." Sixteen in England, too, but the legal work required to give someone the legal authority to grant us parental permission in the proper form would be tiresome.
There's more, though. Something I hadn't pointed out to her. Didn't realise it myself until too late: I underestimated her intelligence Because Pretty. I was hoping she wouldn't take the last logical step, it not being entirely obvious, but what she just told me? It changes everything.
I wrap an arm around her, squeeze a little, "And, well, you realise you know everything you need to, to be nearly as immortal as me now, right? What you've done once, you can do again. A bit of learning, some study on the muggle side of things, you'll be able to make improvements. You've got time. We've got time."
This time it's her who can't control her goosebumps.
Three And Three Quarter Years Later
Harry James Potter, of Number Four Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, was proud to say he was a perfectly normal wizard, thank you very much.
It wasn't hard to say that, compared to the company he kept. Mal, who was occasionally a grown up, always finding a way to be silly, and insisted that as he was rich he wasn't weird but 'eccentric'. Belle, who used to be under a curse that made her be a terrorist and was now a little girl again, also occasionally a grown up (and really pretty) and mad for music of all kinds. His cousin Dudley, who was close to getting his maths, physics, and chemistry GCSEs at eleven and was going to be getting special tutors at Smeltings. His honorary uncles Remus and Sirius, who were a werewolf spymaster - which was perhaps not that weird but definitely cool - and a high society wizard playboy - ditto - respectively.
The Tonkses were nice and sensible, even if Dora was occasionally A Bit Much. Especially when she and Belle got together.
Harry had no idea about the rest of the wizarding world. Except the Lovegoods, who visited occasionally. They were nice but deeply odd in a rather fun sort of way and had amazing stories of hunting for strange creatures on tropical islands.
Other than them, the only contact he'd had was that one time a squeaky-voiced man in a purple top hat asked him to autograph a book about his mum, and one mad whirlwind of a day shopping in Diagon Alley the day before his eleventh birthday. They'd all got new wands and trunks full of school supplies.
And another half-dozen people, all but one of them witches, had asked him to sign the book about his mum that he really ought to get around to reading.
None of this really told him what it was like.
That was all about to change. They were climbing the stairs up from King's Cross Underground Station: today was the day that Harry and Mal and Belle were going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Plasterboard is one of those universal products that has a different name everywhere. Sheetrock, drywall, gypsum board. Mal wanted the non-itchy insulation, but it's not on the market yet. I left out the resultant swearing.
JKR's version of Lupin's patronus is that it's a wolf and he doesn't like wolves so he only ever casts the mist version. I do not like this, and have substituted my own. Whatever else Lupin might be, he's not a complete idiot: he'd not hamper his defence against creatures as dangerous as Dementors if he could at all help it.
And yes, it turns out that while Mal has educated himself to passing competence in the magics he's been using, there's still a great deal to learn. Tom didn't enslave Bellatrix for her looks.
The final bit in the ritual is cribbed from roman law: there were categories of property, termed 'res mancipi', that had to be conveyed from one owner to another in ritual form - using an ingot of bronze and a set of scales - rather than an arithmantically significant bag of coin - as a symbolic price and ritual words that translate more or less as they are spoken by Belle. Mal scripted it that way for the historical resonance and because he thought it was funny: he still hasn't told Belle that she's technically a slave and therefore res mancipi herself.
Adhara: Bellatrix wanted an astronomical reference in the name of her 'daughter'. The star Adhara is 'the virgin', symbolising her new beginning, and in the constellation of Canis Major, just as she moved into the house of the Big Black Dog.
Abney Park Cemetery was open from 1840 to 1974 as Europe's first wholly nondenominational garden cemetery, and continues as a public park. It was a convenient location for the Blacks, with no muggle religion and they liked the neo-Egyptian aesthetic.
What Mal said wasn't actually hearsay evidence, by the way. He's just giving Moody an excuse not to record it, what with it being the absence of a confession, which would have been admissible hearsay if made: her suicide note absolutely is admissible hearsay. If you want to know more about the Law of Evidence, look it up on your own time.
It doesn't come up in-story, but the idea that the tapestry at 12 Grimmauld is automagically updated with births and deaths isn't in the books (it might be in the movies and certainly is in fanon). As it's described in OotP, Nymphadora Tonks doesn't appear on it at all, only a burn-mark where Andromeda was. So the Belle/Bellatrix deception won't be caught that way.
(Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks Nymphadora is a lovely name for a girl and that maybe she could lighten up about it a little?)
And yes, this is where I'm ending this instalment. I'm going to actually plan the follow-ups - which I probably should have done in the first place. Would have, if I hadn't started writing this on purest whim. (I could probably edit this into better structure, but I only work that hard when getting paid.)
There are, of course, things that are going to happen between that final moment with Belle and Harry's arrival at King's Cross. You'll get them as and when they come up in the story, or as you work out what must have happened to make Harry's first year at Hogwarts look like it's going to.
Do Mal and Belle get together? Are they still together that far in the future? What does Belle contribute to the Raising Of Harry Potter? (And Daisy, for that matter?) Did she get that snake tattoo? Is Dumbledore going to ask Nicolas Flamel for a Stone to store at Hogwarts? What is the Black/Malfoy feud all about? What houses do they all get sorted into? How many horcruxes do they manage to take down before getting to Hogwarts? What's Mal's plan for the Riddlewraith?
Some of these, and probably a scene with singing elephants that I can't quite get out of my head, will feature in the next instalment of this story. Or possibly the one after that, not sure yet. I'm not doing Stations of The Canon, that's for sure.
Finally, Belle's dream is the final clue as to what the Fates were trying to prevent (and there are good in-universe reasons for them intervening, never mind the metatextual ones) by sending Mal. I'll put the answer in the author notes for the first chapter of the sequel for those of you who don't guess it in the meantime.
The next fic from me, however, is going to be unrelated, because I've got a file of notes, several finished chapters and an actual plan. It's an improvement on a fanfic idea I've read a couple of times that needs, shall we say, jazzing up a little. Despite appearances, it will actually NOT be a Harry Potter x Terminator Franchise crossover. While that's posting on the current chapter-every-fortnight schedule, I'll be planning part 2 of this story. There may be some delay as some paid writing work is going to have to be done over the next year, an old contract came back to life.