A/N: See previous chapter for full notes. I'd like to thank everybody for the feedback I've already gotten…I was actually rather surprised this went over so well. Given some of the reactions in the reviews I've received so far, I think I should note, I already consider Harry/Ginny a thing of the past as of the end of the book. All feedback is appreciated. Enjoy.
Vic Sage, no longer in the garb of The Question, stood next to the bedroom window in his Hub City loft and stared out into the night, distractedly adjusting the towel around his waist. It wouldn't do to flash that diabetic old woman in the apartment across the street. It wasn't such a big deal if she called the police—he figured they wouldn't bother with her after the "sounds of domestic violence" she called in last week turned out to be a couple celebrating the husband's promotion by channeling their inner Caligulas. Though now that he thought about it, he doubted very much even the decadent Roman emperor would've wasted food in such a way, being an obsessive neat freak, so maybe another comparison was in order.
No, with his luck the old woman would go into shock and end up in the hospital, and when she came around she'd incoherently mutter something to the nurses about "that reporter fellow across the street" and how "he flashed me" before passing out again and he'd be in a whole other sort of mess that he really didn't have time for right now.
He shook his head and studied his reflection in the glass, watching his damp, now orange-red bangs sway languidly over his milky blue eyes. Sometime since he got the letter eight hours ago, they'd gone bloodshot, and he thought that odd. Sure, they were feeling irritated, but he honestly couldn't remember crying. Then again, he had to admit everything since he finished reading William's carefully worded farewell seemed like a blur, not so much like a dream but like someone had pried him from his own body and hoisted in the air, and everything and everyone was suddenly moving just as quick as The Flash. But he didn't mind; if he tried to slow down and concentrate on what was going on around him and the implications of it all, that tight, painful feeling slammed back into his chest and he couldn't get anything done.
A distant pair of cracks reverberated faintly in the air, thunderclaps on a clear night. Vic frowned and sipped at the glass of iced black tea on his desk. Too close together to be a car backfiring. Gun shots. West of here, maybe as far as five miles. Alleys are a damn echo chamber. Sawyer Street? It was certainly late enough for the pimps and dealers to be working the corners, and the violence had steadily escalated over the last week—it looked like his snitch with the Italians had been right. Mogilevich's people are moving in on Varetti's operations. Gang war starring the Red Mafiya. Step one: "renegotiate" the local streetwalkers' employment. He put the glass down and cracked his knuckles. Great. Even if they weren't just slightly less corrupt than LexCorp's Board of Directors, the Hub City police department was not ready to handle this on their own—if he was right, half the senior command staff was probably on the take from one side or the other. He'd taken it as far as he could as Vic Sage, investigative reporter. It was time for the far less inhibited Question to step in—he had planned to begin his work tonight, but that was before he knew William was dead. Before everything changed.
He took another sip of tea, not finding it as soothing as he hoped. He knew, with his brain as addled as it was, if he tried to go after people as dangerous as the Russian mob—hell, if he tried to go after a mildly incensed mugger—he'd end up supine in a freezer wearing a toe tag by sunrise.
And now, more than ever, death was completely unacceptable.
So here he was, standing in nothing but a towel, dripping water all over his hardwood floor, sipping tea and listening to a gang war percolate outside. And for perhaps the first time since he'd vowed to end corruption in his town, he couldn't say for certain when he'd be stepping in to stop the violence. For now, he had personal matters to attend to. It was time to turn his energies towards the one person in the world who needed him the most, and if that meant neglecting a city full of people who thought he was a dangerous maniac for a little while, that was fine. At any rate, his mind had already crossed the Atlantic; the sooner his body followed, the better.
He rubbed his eyes again and stared bemusedly at explosion of belongings surrounding him. Normally, he despised messes, but no one would have known from looking around his apartment. His bedroom was the worst—all his clothes had somehow burst out of the closets and drawers, and he was having rather unpleasant flashbacks to his college days. Probably making me pack faster.
After Batman left, the vigilante put in a call to William's solicitor. It was early evening in London, and when she answered Vic realized the number he'd been given belonged to a cell phone: she was in a pub, if the background noise was any indication. Once she'd realized who he was, things had gotten much quieter—he assumed she'd stepped outside. Neither had said much. Her insistence that they deal with "the matter at hand" face to face had been a barely-veiled way of postponing what was sure to be an unpleasant discussion.
As soon as he'd hung up, he set about getting ready. The biggest issue was establishing a believable paper trail. Actually flying there from Hub City was out. He had to pack and take care of several important errands first. He wouldn't be able to leave until early tomorrow morning, which meant he would arrive very, very late the next day. He couldn't wait that long. Even though he had no idea what he was going to do, he had to at least see that she was alright, and find out exactly what happened to William.
It only took seven and a half hours to fly to London, and he got the message early enough that his quick arrival there would seem normal to anyone who decided to snoop. Hacking into a major travel agency's systems and making it look like he had purchased a ticket would've been no problem, he could have even made it look like he boarded and disembarked from the plane, but that sort of manipulation took hours he didn't have. In the end, he decided to go with the far simpler route and called up an old friend with a high-class charter jet firm. He was assured that the company's records would show that Vic Sage had taken a flight from Metropolis to a private airfield not far from London. As far as his managing editor at the station was concerned, he was taking a well-deserved vacation.
He knew from experience that it would only take about three days for the local criminal element to realize he had vacated his apartment—he fully expected at least one break-in attempt—so he'd packed up the very few material possessions he considered irreplaceable, including the trinkets belonging to his mother he'd managed not to have stolen during his time at St. Mary's—a hellhole of an orphanage—and tried to ignore the usual depressive pangs when it occurred to him all of it together wouldn't even fill a shoebox. Not like my memories of her amount to much either. The rest of his possessions could sprout legs and walk off tomorrow, and he wouldn't really care.
Well, except for the photo of Helena she gave him to "liven up" his nightstand. He was rather attached to that. But what Huntress doesn't know she can't tease me about.
Vic downed the rapidly cooling tea and moved to his desk, fiddling with the locks on the overlarge leather briefcase—it was easily wide enough to hold a tuba—resting on the dark red-brown workspace. He thought of its contents: a laptop, yellow pad, mix CD with N'Sync's latest and some German group (he had to hide it somewhere), files relating to Vic Sage's investigation of possible graft in the local Housing and Urban Development office, and behind a pair of fake backs, the paraphernalia of The Question. Vic Sage was going because his daughter needed him, but as long with killer werewolves running around committing murder-kidnappings, she wouldn't be safe. He thought of his earlier words to Batman and realized he couldn't just suspend his vigilante endeavors until he and Luna adjusted to each other—he knew it could be months, if not years in the worse case, before the she was even remotely comfortable with him. In the meantime, he had to reestablish some sense of control over his emotions: he had a responsibility to the missing and the dead to find the truth.
And, he had realized with a painful jolt when folding a pair of slacks, Luna could very well be the next target.
Shaking his head sharply, he silently cursed himself; he wasn't used to this. The dizzying effect Helena had on him was pleasantly exciting, but right now he just felt disoriented and almost nauseous—if he didn't know better he would've assumed he'd been drugged.
He hated that feeling. Helplessness, confusion, powerlessness, those were all things he left behind years ago. Or tried to, at least.
Pushing the briefcase aside, he brushed his fingers over the smooth surface of the polished heavy-gauge steel humidor he'd retrieved from his lock box at Hub City First National a few hours ago. He'd gotten some weird looks, and he guessed at least one of the vault attendants thought he was storing Cubans. Not likely, he thought, feeling a flash of disgust as he suddenly recalled a nearly twenty-five year old memory of a dark, seventies-era hospital room with acid green paint, the only sound coming from an ancient breathing machine…
Damn it! He hadn't had this much trouble controlling his imagination since he was twelve. No, the humidor definitely wasn't for those. But it was one of the fancier models, airtight with a vacuum pump that kept out any decomposing agents, perfect for preserving a few treasures he'd never felt comfortable leaving out in the open. They were too valuable, and their existence would've been too difficult to explain to anyone that happened to stumble on them by accident. On the downside, he didn't get to look at them as often as he'd have liked.
Everything's ready to go. Midnight. Still three hours before I need to leave. Mind's not good for much else right now … wouldn't hurt to look. A small smile flitted across his lips as he pressed a thumb to a small plastic square on the front of the box—a little custom work on his part. An instant later he heard a click as the biometric locking mechanism disengaged. Lifting the lid, he peered inside.
Everything was as he'd left it. A plain leather photo album tucked neatly between two thick stacks of folded parchment, each piece addressed and dated in William Lovegood's tiny, impeccable script. He reached for the picture album, but stopped short as a bead of moisture dripped from his hair onto his nose. He suddenly remembered that, excepting a rather flimsy towel, he was completely naked. Vic sighed. Maybe I should get dressed first. He stood up with a grumble and started looking for his pants.
Vic Sage materialized in a London alleyway that ran into to Charing Cross Road and immediately grimaced, shutting his eyes against the bright early morning sun and fumbling blindly in his tan trench coat for a pair of shades. "Well," he muttered, smashing a pair of Oakley sunglasses down on his nose and pulling his brown fedora down, "looks like I'm off to an auspicious start." He smoothed the wrinkles out of his off white suit jacket and brought his watch up, pressing a button on the side and watching as the aviator-style timepiece reset itself to Greenwich Mean Time. 7:45. Better get moving. Hefting a leather duffel on either shoulder and lifting his briefcase off the ground, he took a deep breath and schooled his features into an expression that hopefully screamed "harried, traveling businessman." With any luck, the locals would dismiss him as another self-important American. No one should pay attention to the bags, either; he wasn't that far from an Underground station and there was a Holliday Inn Express several blocks down the street.
As soon as he stepped out of the alley, a surprisingly chill breeze slammed him in the face, and he felt goosebumps sprout across his shoulders. He hadn't noticed it at first—his overcoat was quite thick—but it was far too cold out for July, even standing in the sun. A strange dark grey, almost black, fog drifted up from several sewer grates. Weather Channel wasn't kidding. Normally, even he wasn't paranoid enough to consider strange fog and unseasonable cold a sign of criminal activity—unless the Weather Wizard had escaped again—but where real magic was concerned, ruling anything out would be foolish. And real magic was obviously spilling more and more into Muggle England. Curiouser and curiouser.
He moved swiftly down the street until he found the old, rackety looking inn nestled between a pair of shops, just where he expected it to be. He watched a middle-aged woman come out and step into the flow of traffic, noting how the few the people around her acted like she just appeared out of thin air. They can't see it. Guess I'm still in the club.
A bell rang faintly as he entered. The modestly appointed bar looked empty, and his footfalls echoed dully off the wooden floor. Fifteen years, and it's just the same. Paint on the walls a little faded, maybe. At least it was empty. Bars filled with patrons early before noon were depressing.
With a loud pop, a short man appeared behind the bar. His eyes were wide and his cheeks a little red. Vic raised an eyebrow, feeling slightly embarrassed. The door was open. The man was much as he remembered him, though with substantially less hair. And teeth. He used to have more teeth.
The innkeeper recovered after a few seconds, and smiled pleasantly at Vic. "Morning, young man!" Vic didn't miss the wand the man held at his side. "I must apologize … I'm afraid you caught me in the loo. Got a little clumsy with the orange marmalade when I was seeing to Mrs. Hopkins, it stains if you don't get it out quickly, you know. Those are some hefty bags you've got there. Will you be staying with us, then?" He paused, as if noticing Vic for the first time. The vigilante smiled. Now that he was in the Leaky Cauldron, his appearance would scream—"Say," Tom arched an eyebrow, "you wouldn't be a Muggle, would you?"
"I would," Vic said, keeping his smile warm. If Tom's mind was still as sharp as it used to be, it wouldn't be long before his excellent memory kicked in, and then things would likely get a bit unpleasant. "The door was unlocked," he said mildly, "I assumed you were open for business."
"Oh," Tom blinked, still looking surprised, "of course. You'll forgive my prying, I hope. Most Muggles can't see the door, let alone walk through it." He regarded Vic curiously, his hand hanging casually on the pocket where he'd stuck his wand. Vic wasn't fooled for a second. The muscles in Tom's forearm were poised for action. "Please, sit down."
Bit more suspicious than I remember. Interesting. He moved to one of the barstools, dropping his bags and putting his briefcase next to his feet. "A … few … members of my family are of the magical persuasion. I suppose you could say I'm in the know when it comes to the basics." He suddenly decided it would save the both of them a lot of awkward moments and wasted time if he jogged the innkeeper's memory a bit. "I'm not surprised you don't remember me. It's been a long time since I've been here. Almost feels like another life."
This got the barkeep's attention, interest lighting his features. "Come to think of it, I thought you seemed familiar." He studied Vic intensely for a long moment, then his eyes widened. "Ch-Charles Szasz? Is that you, boy?"
Still sharp, aren't you? Vic couldn't suppress a smirk at the shock on the man's face. "Hello, Tom. Most people call me Vic now," he said calmly, "Vic Sage."
"B-but," Tom ground out, "you disappeared. You were dating that lovely girl from Middlesex—Selene Sharpe—and you'd gone back to America on business and you just … vanished. Everyone thought you had died—"
"I did," Vic said with quiet force, and Tom immediately shut up, looking somehow more stunned than before. Vic had been expecting something like this when he resolved to come here, but decided it was a necessary inconvenience. The old innkeeper was a trusted member of the local magical community; if he could get back in his good graces, things would be much easier. "Or at least I might as well have. I was in an accident," he lied smoothly. "Got my head banged up pretty good. When I woke up I couldn't remember a damn thing, not even my name," he said, not bothering to curtail the bitter regret in his voice. "By the time I got my mind straightened out … Selene had moved on. I had no intention of destroying the life she made for herself," he finished, his voice taking on a faintly hard edge. "It was better for all of them if I bowed out."
Tom frowned for a long moment, and Vic knew he was deciding if he should believe the story. "But not for you," Tom said finally in a low, serious voice. "You always seemed to have a bit of an unfortunate selfless streak." His eyes betrayed an interesting mixture of awe, surprise, confusion, restrained curiosity, and something that might have been pity. Vic found himself studying the various flutes and bottles arrayed behind the squat old man.
"It was for the best," Vic said shortly. "Like you said, she thought I'd died."
Tom frowned for a moment, but then his face fell into a obviously-practiced smile. "So, what brings you back?" he asked casually, as if conversing with someone who was supposed to be dead was something he did every few days.
Disaster. "Something's come to my attention that I need," his voice caught, but he forced it back under control "to take care of. It's … personal."
"I'm sure," Tom frowned slightly. "Look, I'm not going to stick my nose where it doesn't belong, Char—Vic, but surely you realize a Muggle wondering around will attract attention. Your clothes are a bit of a giveaway. And I daresay, you were never supposed to know as much as you found out. If anyone reports you, your memory of all of this will be Obliviated."
Vic felt a flash of anger now. Not at Tom—he meant well—but he'd allowed himself to forget how draconian this place could be. No, Wizards weren't allowed to reveal themselves to Muggles under any circumstances, not even when they were dating. It had to wait until marriage. There were other exceptions, but none really applied to him … until now. He and Selene never made it that far, but she'd never had much patience for her society's "backwards tenancies," as she called them. Flouting the law had only made their relationship more interesting. Control, Vic. You don't have time for this. "I can assure you, that won't be a problem after another few hours. I'd say more, but I don't really have a complete handle on things yet, and I figure everything will come to light soon enough." According to William's solicitor, after his paternal status was confirmed, he'd have the status of Protected Muggle, whatever the hell that meant. At the very least, no one would be able to tamper with his memory.
Meanwhile William's death will be splashed all over that Prophet rag—if it's not already. That paper was the worst excuse for journalism he'd ever seen—sensational, full of gossip and all but run by the government. Tom looked confused, but didn't say anything. "In the meantime, I need a room, if you have one. I'm not sure for how long yet." His voice softened. "I won't cause you any trouble. I would ask that you be discreet about my presence for the next six hours or so. I can't afford to have my memory wiped at this point."
"You always were an odd duck," Tom grumbled. "Don't delude yourself into thinking you've put anything over on me, young man. Your story has holes in it big enough to ride a Ukrainian Ironbelly through, and if it were anyone else, I'd have already called the Department of Magical Law Enforcement." He sighed gruffly. "I'll be wanting a proper explanation before the night's out. You owe me that much."
I owe you a lot more than that. "And you'll get one," Vic nodded. "I'll be able to explain my situation much better after I've gotten a handle on things."
"If you say so," Tom shrugged, seeming to force down his annoyance. "You've picked a bad time to show back up, though. Dark forces are afoot; tread lightly." He shook his head. "So, you're needing a room?" Vic nodded, silently mulling over Tom's oblique warning. "Single, I suppose?"
Vic had no intentions of whisking Luna off to he Leaky Cauldron—it would've been stupid to make any sort of plan without knowing exactly what her situation was—so he nodded. "That would be excellent."
"Well then," Tom fished under the bar and pulled out a large leather book and an ink bottle with a quill sticking out the top, "if you could sign the guest registry, please," he said quickly, the air of astonishment still not gone from his voice. "I'll help you with your bags."
Vic shook his head as he signed his name into the book, watching interestedly as the room number and length of stay filled themselves in (21 and Indefinite). Twenty-one? That was the room she and I … you really do have a good memory, old man. "No thanks, Tom. I'm putting you through enough trouble already."
Tom laughed, and this time he sounded honestly amused. "Back from the dead, and still such a Muggle." With a flick of his wand, the duffels lifted into the air and disappeared with a pop. "You'll find them waiting on your bed … Mr. Sage. Interesting choice, that." He shook his head again, and unless Vic was very much mistaken tossed a longing look at a bottle of some electric blue liquor. "Will you be needing anything else?"
"If you have extra copies of the last few issues of The Daily Prophet, I'd love to borrow them for a bit. Oh," he added as he stood, grabbing his briefcase and trying to sound casual, "a solicitor by the name of Sarah Thomas is supposed to meet me here in about fifteen minutes. If you could point her towards my room, I'd appreciate it."
Tom blinked at him. "Consider it done. Charles," Vic stopped on the third step of stairwell, abruptly realizing he was going to have a very hard time convincing Tom to use his new name—you only had so much sway over a man who hid you routinely in his wine cellar when you were twenty, "do I even want to know what you're up to?"
"I doubt it," Vic frowned. "But you'd find out eventually, and I'd prefer you hear it from me. There's no telling what those morons at the Prophet will come up with. We'll talk later." Without another word, he raced up the stairs, leaving the old innkeeper looking more confused than ever.
The room was bigger than he expected, easily twice the size of his bedroom, and in far better shape than the bar. Upon entering, he'd blinked several times before he remembered magic could be used to make large rooms fit in small places, convinced something was wrong with his sense of depth perception—he'd once shared a four-foot square tent with Selene that was over 500 square feet on the inside. He found his suitcases lying on the bed. The comforter and sheets, like everything else in the room, were done up in lively shades of blue and gold. It occurred to Vic it looked like a casino hotel room.
Laying the briefcase on the desk by the window and hanging his coat on the door, Vic immediately set about unpacking his clothes. He had just finished putting away the last of them when he heard a firm knocking coming from his door. This is it, he thought dourly. He moved forward swiftly and threw the lock, easing the door open with carelessness that belied his frayed nerves. "Good morning, Ms. Thomas." he said, trying to sound friendly. "Please, come in."
The woman was much younger than she'd sounded on the phone, probably no older than twenty-six, neither thin nor overly fat, and he judged her to be just a little over five feet tall. She had short black hair tied back in a small pony-tail, and the large bangs hanging over her eyes made her look even younger. An expensive looking satchel made of what he thought was snakeskin hung over her shoulder. Dark circles under her puffy blue eyes were all that marred her appearance. "Mr. Sage, I presume?" she asked in a professional tone, stepping over the threshold.
"Yes," he returned smoothly, some of the warmth receding from his voice. It seemed she didn't want to play it that way. "Please, make yourself comfortable. Thank you for agreeing to meet me so early." He sat at the desk, feeling suddenly more solid than he had since he'd heard the news of William's death. He was finally in a position to find out what had happened and do something.
She smiled tiredly as she eased herself into a chair by the window, revealing a set of perfect teeth. As she spoke, her voice softened slightly. "I should be thanking you. I didn't expect you'd be able to meet so soon. This," her voice shook slightly, "has all been so sudden. I've only been Will's solicitor for about a year, you know. I was just getting the hang of handling his affairs. A complicated bit of business to get hit with so soon after getting my license."
Vic's eyebrows shot up. "Excuse me?" His voice was a little harsher than he intended, but all sorts of alarm bells were going off in his head. As far as he knew, William had apprised his solicitor of Vic's existence and relationship to Luna when the two of them had made their … arrangement. He'd never bothered to learn the lawyer's name, or even whether or not it was a man or a woman—it never seemed important. But that was years ago. Why would this woman have just found out, unless… Either the casefile had been handed off very recently or for some reason William had never felt the need to mention, or—his eyes washed over the woman, finding the tip of what looked to be a thin, willowy wand tucked into a leather sheath hanging from her belt. He guessed it would take her maybe a second to draw it if her hands were folded in her lap, another to utter any kind of spell if she spoke fast enough, maybe less if she used nonverbal magic. If this was some sort of ruse and she intended to attack him, he'd have just over two seconds to disarm her…
Vic knew most people considered him paranoid. And he didn't really disagree. But unlike most people, he considered a healthy dose of paranoia a healthy trait—those who refused to contemplate the possibilities of evil in their world were always caught unaware when the walls fell, the first to fall when the wicked struck. But he also admitted that sometimes it just made him overly jumpy, and he wasn't really at his most rational right now anyway, so he decided to give the woman the benefit of the d0ubt, as long as her explanation held up. Still… He rested a hand casually on the table edge, waiting to turn it over on her at the slightest provocation. He never let himself lose sight of the wand, deciding a swift, low snap-kick would be the best way to shatter it once she was on the floor, if it came to that…
Miss Thomas, totally oblivious to the machinations of the man lounging deliberately casually across from her, seemed to take his outburst as nothing more than confusion and too much stress. "Oh, yes," she said abashedly, "I should explain, I suppose. My grandfather has always handled Mr. Lovegood's account, and by the time I started with his firm—this was about three months ago, you see—well, he's getting up in years, you know, just hit 120 last month," she didn't seem to notice Vic's eyebrows shooting up, "can't really push himself as hard as he used to. A few weeks ago, he decided I should take over—said Mr. Lovegood deserved someone with more stamina," she blushed lightly. "Honestly? I think I'm being groomed to replace him. Wish he'd be more direct about it, though … wouldn't be surprised if he retires before the New Year."
Vic let himself relax a little. If she was trying to hide something from him, she'd have forgone babbling nervously, and done her best to appear confident. There was such a thing as staged nerves, but that wasn't what he was seeing here. Still, he kept his hand on the desk. "I see," he said mildly. "You delivered the message?" She nodded, again serious. "Then you've been fully appraised of the situation with Luna? My relationship with her mother, our separation, and so forth?" Again she nodded, what might have been pity flashing in her eyes. He allowed himself a small smirk. "Good." The fewer people he had to explain himself to, the better.
"Your situation might not be unique," she frowned slightly, "but it is certainly very rare. I must say I was rather shocked when I heard the details." Her eyes took on a gentle look. "It must've been very difficult for you." She looked like she wanted to say more, but had the sense not to dredge up his past.
You have no idea, he thought bitterly, but his only outward response was slow nod.
"I'm sure you have many questions, and there's a lot you need to know, not just about what happened to William but Wizarding society as well. I daresay you'll have to integrate yourself for Luna's sake. Poor dear. I haven't been able to see her yet, but from what I hear she isn't taking it very well." She stopped suddenly, seeing the glare that burnt its way across his features. She sucked in a breath. "Ahem. Before we can go any further," she pulled her satchel into her lap and released the clasps, "I'll need to perform a paternity test. I'm sure you're who you say you are, but this is a formality we must entertain."
Vic tensed. He'd expected this; he knew he'd have to verify his identity somehow before they'd let him see her. Honestly, he was glad they were being careful. The problem was time—in his experience these sorts of things took far too long. And never mind seeing her. Miss Thomas didn't intend to tell him anything else until the results were confirmed. "I expected as much," he said, not bothering to completely mask his annoyance. "I assume you've got the testing supplies here. How long will it take to confirm the results? I'm prepared to meet again at your earliest convenience."
She blinked at him, looking momentarily confused. Then something seemed to click, and she smiled at him, almost looking bemused. "Oh. You must be thinking of the way the Muggles do it. So crude." Her smile brightened. "I assure you," she continued, pulling out a stoppered, ornate crystal beaker containing a white liquid and setting it between them, "our way is much more efficient. We'll have the results in a few minutes."
A wave of relief rushed over him. He wasn't looking forward to sitting on his ass in a Ravenclaw themed hotel room that did nothing but call painful memories to his mind's eye for the next couple days waiting for results. He looked curiously at the milky substance, wondering what would happen next and feeling a familiar curiosity inject itself into the tangled mix of emotions warring for control of his mind. This place really was like another world. "Am I supposed to drink it?"
She giggled, looking a little embarrassed. "Oh, heavens no! I don't think it would hurt you, but you might turn hot pink for a week." He blinked at her. Apparently the overly serious demeanor she'd entered with was hard to maintain. She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely, "I'm not used to dealing with Muggles who haven't already been exposed to this sort of thing. It must be very confusing for you. Here, watch. It's a bit like a Muggle pregnancy test, you see." She fished a small leather pouch out of her satchel and drew a knotted up bit of dirty blonde hair that Vic almost immediately recognized as Luna's, unstopping the beaker and dropping it in. It dissolved with a fizzing sound and a considerable bit of smoke, and roughly half the liquid turned a brilliant shade of blue.
Vic understood immediately. His hair sample would cause the rest of the potion to take on the same blue shade, most likely. Amazing. He'd always thought magic had a certain sort of elegance. "How much hair do you need?"
"Oh," she grinned, "not much at all. Just a small lock," she started reaching for her wand. "Allow me." But Vic had beaten her to it, his hand disappearing into his trenchcoat and returning with a complicated looking multitool. He pulled on one of the many small pieces of metal, and the solicitor watched in fascination as a small pair of scissors popped out. He cut a small, hopefully unnoticeable tuft of hair from the nape of his neck and passed it to her. Maybe she wasn't evil, but he didn't really want her pointing anything at him.
Ms. Thomas looked curiously at the pocketknife for a moment, then smiled and dropped the red hair into the liquid. It sparked slightly this time, and Vic heard the same fizzing noise, and within a few seconds the whole of the milky substance had turned the same shade of blue. He smiled. "I take it that's a positive result?"
"Yes, indeed," she chirped, "if you hadn't been who you claimed you were, the whole thing would've evaporated. Now, then," and she suddenly sounded much friendlier, "there's just one more bit to attend to." She drew out a parchment and spread it between them. "You'll need to sign these."
Vic leaned forward to get a better look. At the top, in what he honestly considered overly ostentatious handwriting, were the words Change of Guardianship. It read a lot like adoption papers—he was certainly familiar with those—and his name was already written in several spots, but he found nothing that gave him pause. It was surprisingly vague, taking several paragraphs to insist only that he protect and care for Luna to the best the of his ability, and laying out the rights and protections he had as a Muggle parent of a "Magical Youth." Most of it was already filled out. William's solicitor had yet to sign her space at the bottom, and it needed to be dated in several spots. But there was no space for his signature. Before he could ask her what he was supposed to do with it she withdrew a glass dropper from her bag and sucked up a bit of the blue liquid, squirting it over the bottom of the document. The paper glowed for a moment, and several words formed underneath a blank line that hadn't been there before.Vic Sage Relationship to Child: Biological Father Identity Confirmed by Eileen Thomas, Private Solicitor Custody Assumed: July 10, 2005
Vic said nothing, merely reaching inside his suit coat and retrieving a ballpoint. He was just about to sign when Eileen cleared her throat. "Mr. Sage—may I call you Vic? You should know, by signing this paper, you're entering into a binding magical contract. If you should take any actions that violate the terms, the penalties will be … severe."
Vic frowned sharply, suddenly remembering when Selene had told him of Azkaban and the horrible creatures that guarded it. Penalties, indeed. The ballpoint's tip made a slight grinding noise as he swung it across the paper, and he looked up at her as he returned it to his breast pocket. "I understand completely, Eileen." If I hurt Luna, I deserve whatever "severe" penalties you can cook up. "Honestly, I thought these papers would be a bit more … stipulating … in their terms. There's not even anything in here about making sure she acclimates well to her new living arrangements. Equivalent Muggle contracts usually contain conditions regarding mandatory social services visits, counseling, financial stability…" Does this society even have social workers?
She grinned. "You're her biological father. You're connected by blood. That counts for a very great deal in our world. Our government has no equivalent to the Department of Child and Family Services as you know it. We function on a trust system. Parents are trusted implicitly to do the right thing for their children, and the authorities only step in when there's an obvious problem."
Vic kept his face neutral. Convenient for me, but all kinds of wrong. A system like that, no telling how many poor souls slip through the cracks… He forced his mind back to the matter at hand, watching her fold the contract up and return it to her satchel. "Now what?"
She tapped the beaker, muttering "Evanesco!" and the liquid disappeared. She tossed it in with the dropper and cracked her knuckles. "Once I'm back to the office I'll floo a copy of this over to the appropriate Ministry office. I've got a friend there who owes me a favor, so I should be able to expedite things. After about three hours or so, I'm guessing you'll be getting an owl with your Protected Muggle papers. There will be a small identification card with them—keep it with you at all times. It will be enchanted to protect you from any xenophobes who happen to be good at Memory Charms, and will identify you with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. You'll want to stay on their good side, of course." She cleared her throat. "Now, I've got about an hour before I need to leave. We'll be meeting again, but I'm sure you have questions you want answered now."
He nodded, sitting up and narrowing his eyes slightly. He'd been waiting for this—he'd honestly expected it to take longer to get through all the formalities. "William's letter said Luna was physically fine. That's true?"
"Of course," she said gently. "He wrote another version, to be sent had that not been the case, but that was of course unnecessary. She's staying with her neighbors right now. The Weasleys. Delightful family. The husband has a mid-level position with the Ministry."
Vic nodded. William had mentioned them every once in a while. Apparently the youngest—Ginny—was Luna's closest friend, and the family was well acquainted with her. He felt himself relax a little. At least she was with people who cared about her. That left one other question. He kept his voice neutral. "What happened to William?" he asked flatly.
The woman's face grew weary. "I supposed you had to ask sooner or later. I'm afraid … Mr. Lovegood was murdered."
No, damn it! The breath caught in Vic's lungs, and he felt a chill creep up his spine. He'd considered the possibility, but all this time his mind had been doing its best to convince itself this was all the result of an accident or illness. Murder … murder changed everything. He thought of Luna, how William had always described her as kind and gentle, so terribly crushed when her mother died—this would be worse. A thousand times worse. This was no accident. Somewhere deep within him, anger sparked, and when he spoke again, it was with the eerie calm of a faceless vigilante from Hub City. "Who?"
The woman frowned sadly. "It will be difficult to explain, Mr. Sage. Wizarding Britain is at war with a great evil, one who seeks to remake our world to suit his own twisted vision. We had thought him destroyed, long ago, before your daughter was born. We were wrong. He is powerful and terrible … no one speaks his name."
Vic knew a bit more about the recent history of Wizarding Britain than he let on, and the little spark in his chest immediately expanded into a flaming pillar of fury. He hadn't been around for the first war, but he was there every night Selene woke up in a cold sweat, screaming about Death Eaters and crying for her murdered brothers. "Voldemort." The woman across from him paled, flinching as though he'd punched her in the face. But he's supposed to be dead! Admittedly, he didn't know the details. It wasn't something they had wasted their time discussing. He folded his arms over his slightly quaking chest. Suddenly all those strange reports were making a lot more sense. He'd murdered William, and scarred Luna in the process. That would not stand. "Tell me everything."
Arthur Weasley came into existence behind a clump of trees on a hill overlooking The Burrow and vainly tried to force a scowl off his face. It was no good—the thing had been cemented there since he'd awoken two days ago just before sunrise to the sound of his daughter screaming about thick, black smoke coming from the direction of William Lovegood's house.
Blimey. What a mess.
Once he'd roused his brain enough to actually attach meaning to her words, he was up like a shot, smashing his glasses down on his nose and pulling his wand out from under his pillow as he threw the worn, mahogany dress robes he'd worn the night before over his bedclothes. He felt more than heard Molly climb out of bed behind him fumbling with her wand and muttering, and knew she was checking the protective wards the Order had thrown up around their house. When she hadn't immediately screamed or started hurling curses out the window, he decided it was safe to turn his attention to Ginny, who was half asleep herself and babbling incoherently about Luna and busily trying to pull him towards the stairs. Or wrench his arm off. It was pointless, he knew, to try to conduct a conversation with any Weasley when they were on a tear and semi-conscious, so he gently shook her off and sped past her down the stairs, hoping to find someone a little more coherent. At least he couldn't hear anything that sounded like spells being thrown around. That was encouraging.
The sight that greeted him was not.
The twins, even their bloodshot eyes matching—at least he wasn't the only one who'd had too much firewhiskey at the wedding—were standing on either end of the room, wands drawn, casting furtive glances through the windows and looking far too grim for his liking. Luna, her big silver eyes wild, sweat glistening on her brow, stood in her purple, radish covered nightdress in a corner of the room, staring at the door. She held her wand in a white knuckled grip, and blinked. Repeatedly.
Ron and Hermione stood on either side of her, faces pale, hands resting not so gently on her shoulders, wands out and eyes sharp. He realized abruptly that they were probably the only thing keeping her from bolting into the twilight. He'd stood there for a few seconds, an ever more pressing sense of dread welling up in him as everyone's eyes fixed on the staircase. But where was—
Harry's head slid into view in the middle of the room as he pulled his Invisibility Cloak's hood back, and Arthur nearly let his wand slip from his fingers. The boy's green eyes were positively flashing, and the older wizard couldn't tell if it fury, fear, or guilt swirling there—maybe some combination of the three. The rest of his face looked eerily calm; lips drawn into a thin line, brows relaxed, breath coming calmly if not quickly through his nose. He seemed to have aged five years in the space of a night, and Arthur had suddenly realized this must've been the Harry that stormed the Department of Mysteries.
Harry had merely nodded, and when he spoke, Arthur was taken aback at the firmness in his voice. "Ginny found you. Excellent. She should be helping Mrs. Weasley contact the Order now. Something's happened … over the hill. Not exactly sure what. Just a few minutes ago." Arthur opened his mouth to say something, Harry nodded quickly at Hermione, and with a flick of her wand she opened the window closest to George. The acrid stench of smoke wafted into the room, everyone's noses twitching as one. Arthur had nearly retched at the smell.
Harry had looked at Arthur then, and informed him in a clear, firm voice that now that he was there, they going to find out what was going on. A series of affirming noises rose around the room. Before the elder Weasley could say anything more than "Now wait just a minute," Harry beat him to the punch, reminding him it was too dangerous for him to go alone, even if he was an Order member, that waiting for the others could take far too much time, and effectively ending the discussion with a vehement, "I'm not going to stand by and lose anyone else if I can help it." Without waiting for a reply, he ordered Arthur's children and Hermione Granger to Disillusion themselves and moved across the room, still little more than a head, and stood in front of Luna. He could still recall their conversation and the words that followed.
"Luna, you really should stay here, you know."
She blinked at him, and when she spoke her voice was anything but dreamy. "Would you, Harry?"
They stood there staring at each other for several seconds, and then Harry sighed. "Alright." He looked in turn at Ron and Hermione. "Let her go, guys." In one swift motion, he'd removed his Invisibility Cloak and draped it over the Ravenclaw's slim shoulders, fixing the clasp in place. Luna looked at the floor for a moment, towards where her feet should've been, then back at Harry. "Whatever happens, stay close to me unless I tell you otherwise. Keep your wand at the ready, but don't use it unless you absolutely have to. If any of us tells you to run, no matter what, you break for the Burrow and don't look back. Got it?" She had nodded so hard her hair slapped Ron in the face, and he pulled the hood of the cloak over her head as he moved to her side, taking a few of her fingers in his own so he would be able to keep track of her.
"Everybody else," he had said calmly, seemingly addressing everyone but Arthur, "just like we planned. Hermione, Ron: go left of the path, use the bigger trees, bushes, ditches, whatever you can as cover. Fred, George, you take the right. Luna, Mr. Weasley and I will go straight up the middle. If we run into anyone who isn't supposed to be there, they'll be so busy staring at The Boy Who Lived ambling towards them you lot in the brush will have one or two seconds to knock as many of them out as you can before they realize what's going on."
Ron frowned and Hermione clicked her tongue—obviously neither much cared for him using himself as a target. The twins didn't look happy, either, but looked more anxious to tear out the door than anything else. Tapping his wand lightly on his head, he moved to stand next to Mr. Weasley so that Luna was between them. Arthur hadn't dared take the girl's other hand. She was shaking like a badly bewitched tea service, and he doubted very much she would willingly lower her wand. "By then we'll all be in the fight, if there is one, but hopefully we'll have thinned them out."
Arthur had been listening intently to all of it, ready to step in when he found any flaws in Harry's plan. But he was right—it would've been foolish to go alone, and all the wizards and witches in the room were more than capable. Luna included, even if bringing her in her current state was questionable. But when Arthur thought about it, he realized what Harry must've been thinking, that the girl worshipped her father and was going no matter what. Trying to stop her would have only wasted time, and it was better for everybody if she was with people who could watch out for her. At least he was dealing with thoughtful, considerate—if not angry—Harry, and not the raging boy that they'd all had to suffer during his fifth year at Hogwarts.
And Harry had stood there with Luna between them, waiting for some sort of reaction from the older man. Even though he obviously wanted to jump in feet first, he was doing his very best to do things right. Arthur made his decision and nodded once, Disillusioning himself. Harry almost smiled then, and with a "Let's go. Now," the three of them, shoulder to shoulder, led the way out of the house.
Arthur paused at his garden and took a deep breath, catching sight of a smug looking gnome out of the corner of his eye. God. What I wouldn't give to have found an army of Death Eaters instead of that … that … His brain struggled to find a euphemism for the horror they'd charged into, but in the end all he could manage was the cold truth. That crater. Left with nothing else to do, he knocked on the door.
He barely had time to blink before he heard Molly scurrying towards the door, but smiled thinly when she didn't try to throw it open straight away. "Arthur! Is that you?"
Arthur shook his head, unable to keep a tiny smirk from crossing his features. "You know that's not the question, dear."
"Oh!" she hissed through the door, "This is the most absurd—fine. What is your dearest ambition?"
He grinned. The whole procedure was stupid. Even the most brainless fools at Ministry knew it—if a Death Eater came to kill you, they weren't going to knock. But it all fit with the Minister's strategy of doing everything he could to make it look like the Ministry was winning the war. Actually fighting Voldemort was out of the question: the government was too corrupt, too riddled with spies and saboteurs. Meanwhile innocent people like William are dying every day… He cleared his throat. "To find out how airplanes stay up. What do you like me to call you, when we're alone together?"
He could practically hear her blush. "Mollywobbles." The door swung open. His wife pulled him inside, and corralled him into one of the kitchen table's chairs in one smooth motion. Another instant, and she was sitting across from him, using her wand to summon a steaming bowl of last night's onion soup and a half-loaf of French bread across the room flanked by a pair of butterbeers.
It all skidded to a halt on his place setting and she smiled. "Two slices of toast with marmalade is not breakfast, dear. You won't get anything done if you faint from malnourishment." Another wave of the wand and a spoon was hovering in front of his face.
Arthur honestly didn't much like eating, but a sudden growl from his stomach convinced him he'd better give it a shot. Besides, he didn't want to upset Molly anymore than he had to. She might be smiling at him now, but her red, swollen eyes betrayed her. He plucked the spoon out of the air. "Where are the children?"
She sighed, gazing at the family clock that seemed to follow her everywhere now. Unsurprisingly, all the hands remained pointed unerringly towards "Mortal Peril." As far as he was concerned the thing was damned morbid and should be stashed in a closet until the war was over, but he wasn't about to mention it. The last time he tried they ended up in a real, blazing row and he'd almost been (quite literally) banished from their bedroom.
"Fred came by to take Ginny to the shop—some moron at the Ministry accidentally disconnected them from the Floo. She wanted to try to find something to try to cheer Luna up. I don't think it'll do much good, and I'm pretty sure she doesn't either, but I think she just needed to feel like she was doing something. I got an owl from Bill—he says he might be on the verge of a breakthrough with the Goblins. I wish Fleur and I could've talked him into staying on holiday for a bit longer. He needs more time to heal."
Arthur snorted. "We're lucky he sat still as long as he did, dear. He was getting restless, and the Healers said bed rest wouldn't do him any more good. He wants to try to finish what he started." Still, I think we're going to lose them this time around. Voldemort may be evil, but he's competent.
"I suppose. Harry and Hermione left shortly after breakfast to work on making Sirius' house habitable. He's perfectly welcome to stay here as long as he needs. I don't understand why he's dead set on moving somewhere else." Arthur wasn't sure how to respond. He had a few theories about the boy's motivations for reoccupying the place, some more innocuous than others, and all of them sure to set his wife off if he brought them up. She was going to have to accept that he wasn't a little boy anymore eventually, but in the wake of William's murder, Arthur wasn't ready to force the issue. "And Arthur," she continued abruptly, voice suddenly tense with worry, "I've been trying now for at least a quarter-hour, but for the life of me, I can't remember where Harry's house is."
Arthur allowed himself a genuine smile. You're certainly taking it well. "You know, I've been trying for an hour. Looks like Hermione managed the Fidelius Charm. She really is brilliant..." His smile faltered. "I'm sure he'll tell us soon. Probably before the day is out." One way or another. "Where are Ron and Luna? I would've expected them to be under your—err—staying around the house, today." Smooth, Weasley.
Molly giggled derisively. "You expected me to keeping them under my thumb, then? Merlin knows I tried. Luna—saying she was inconsolable wouldn't be right. She's always been off in her own little world, but now she's just so … it's like there's nothing there, Arthur. Her eyes are just … blank. Not even dreamy. She hasn't even cried since the night … it happened. It … it scares me, Arthur. It's not normal."
Arthur felt the now-habitual frown coming back as he squeezed her hands from across the table. He'd expected as much, but it was still hard to hear. "You remember how she reacted when Selene died, Molly. If anything, this is only going to be worse before it gets better." And more complicated than you could possibly imagine. He was beating around the bush and he knew it. He would have to tell Molly what he'd learned eventually, and when he did … "So where is she now?"
"She wanted to go for a walk around the pond over the hill. Alone. I told her it was too dangerous and offered to go with her, but that didn't go over well for some reason. She seemed more agreeable to Ron's accompanying her."
Arthur chuckled. "Imagine that. So you let them go?"
Molly frowned. "She wouldn't have gone with me, and she needs to get out. Ron's responsible enough."
And he's of age, so you couldn't stop him anyway if he really wanted to do something. "He is, isn't he? I daresay hanging out with Harry and Hermione over the years has been good for him."
"Definitely." There was silence between them for a moment, then Molly spoke, sounding hopeful. "I didn't mention anything to Luna yet … I wanted to wait and make sure everything was in order first. Did Erica have the paperwork ready for you?"
He suppressed a growl. It was time to come clean.
Arthur and William had come to an agreement when Luna was four, after they had been friends for several years. If it should ever come to pass that Luna was left an orphan with no living relatives, she would become a ward of the Weasleys. Neither Selene nor William had any family. All the paperwork was already on file with the Ministry's Office of Child Placement. It should have been as simple as going there and signing a magical contract. The whole thing was designed to be instantaneous and as painless for the orphan as possible, something that would happen near-automatically should the unthinkable came to pass. They'd never mentioned it to Luna. For a while, she was simply too young. After her mother's accident, no one wanted to rub her nose in William's mortality.
Thus, when Arthur arrived at Erica Platt's office and asked for the paperwork only to be informed Luna had already been placed in the custody of her last living relative, to say he was shocked would have been an understatement of the grossest degree. What he'd found out after pulling rank on the poor woman and all but interrogating her only made the whole thing more of a mess. And now he had to tell Molly. Joy.
Might as well bite the bullet. "We're not adopting Luna. We can't. She's already been placed in the custody of her … her biological father. Her Muggle biological father." Everything William ever said about her … about Selene. All a lie. Why?
He could almost see the wheels turning behind her eyes as his wife processed this information. Time seemed to slow down as anger, confusion and shock crashed together behind her pupils. And then, just as quickly, the world recovered from its stumble.
"What? " She paled, and her eyes seemed to be in danger of launching themselves violently from her head.
Arthur cursed Voldemort's name then, not even realizing until afterwards that he hadn't used an alias. It didn't seem to matter anymore. No matter what he was called, he was still destroying lives left and right, and now the world itself seemed to be falling apart at the seams. He cleared his throat, and started to explain exactly what he'd heard.