Oddfellows didn't advertise. It didn't need to.
A stone's throw from the most disreputable part of Knocturn Alley, the oldest bar in the world showed the street nothing but a sturdy door bound by strips of iron, its name carved deep into scarred wood. Most people passed by without giving it a second glance, intent upon other, decidedly more dodgy, pursuits.
And despite careful scanning of both sides of the filthy street, Sirius nearly missed it. "Damn," he muttered, halting so swiftly that he only just avoided skidding against dirty cobblestones. Thirteen years had passed since his last visit, and a lot of things had changed. But the door was – almost – always open, no password required. C'mon, Monty, don't have changed your hours.
It was one of the few places in London he could go without attracting stares and whispers. Oddfellows catered to stranger clientele than one ambiguous and recently emancipated Auror.
Ducking under the lintel, Sirius made sure the door closed smoothly behind him. But he hadn't taken three steps past the threshold before someone marked his entrance, and shouted over the hearty bustle. "Sirius Black, as I live and breathe!"
The man who stepped out from behind the bar was thick and short, unchanged but for a few more wrinkles and the completely bald scalp that had once been sparsely covered with orange tufts. Sirius would know the older wizard anywhere. Some things don't change. "Monty."
He extended his wand hand, and the older man grasped it, familiar and warm. The next thing Sirius knew, he'd been pulled into a rough hug. "Damn, boy."
A laugh broke free from him as they separated. "I'm thirty-four, Monty."
"Still a young 'un," the bartender grinned.
Sirius rolled his eyes, feeling sixteen all over again. Great. "How've you been? How's Erykah? Lenox?"
Happiness drained from Monty's craggy face, leaving the man looking old and grim.
Damn. Not five minutes in and he was already dodging hexes down memory lane. Sirius dropped his voice, letting the clink of mugs and jumble of voices from the bar seep between them. "Merlin, Monty, I'm so sorry."
"Erykah's fine," the older man said as if Sirius hadn't spoken. A widower since before Sirius had met him, his only family had been two children that were his pride, joy, and occasional pain in the arse. "Made me a granddaddy. Got three bairnes, the oldest just turned ten. Quite a temper on her, too – she magicked her brother into a package for the post-owls to take to Bora-Bora last month. She'll be at Hogwarts next fall, we think."
"Llongyfarchion," Sirius congratulated him. "That's good to hear."
"Lenox was killed," Monty said abruptly. One hand came up, fingers rubbing over his mouth and the bushy mustache above it. "In eighty-six. Reduction curse. Caught the wrong side of a Death Eater. They never caught the bastard."
Sirius winced. He'd known Lenox briefly; the man had been an almost spitting image of Monty's long-dead wife, according to family and pictures. "I'm sorry."
"Nay, I'm sorry," Monty retreated back behind the bar, and Sirius followed to lean against dark, beer-stained wood, raising a brow in question. The old bartender polished a glass, eyes fixed determinedly on the rag in his hands. "Lenox's death left me in a bad way, and I threw some curses in your direction because of it. It wasn't warranted, and I'm sorry for it."
The Auror blinked, a little unsure. There were people denying his trial, saying even if he wasn't guilty he couldn't be sane and should be in St. Mungo's or back in Azkaban. There were people who still blamed him for the Potters' deaths – himself not least among them. Most people looked at him sideways, having heard only the distorted tales bandied about in the news; it didn't matter to him, because the people who were important to him knew the truth. "It's alright."
"No, it's not," Monty retorted, but without the heat that Sirius had expected. Brown eyes were surprisingly gentle as they settled on him, and a mug of ale was extended his way. "But nevermind. What brings ye back round here?"
"I got your note." The first sip was dark and rich. Sirius shifted sideways, the bar pressing against his side and the wall a few feet from his back as he took in the crowded room.
"Ah!" the bartender brightened visibly. "Right, then. I have something in the back ye probably want to see."
What? Sirius quirked a brow, swallowing a mouthful of ale. He put his mug down, and Monty hissed at him.
"No sense letting good drink go to waste," the bartender chastised. "It'll keep until you're finished, that it will." Someone down at the other end rapped sharply on the bar, and Monty ambled along its length until he reached the customer. Sirius watched as they exchanged a few words, but his attention was soon drawn by the scattered crowd.
All sorts congregated here, but twelve years in Azkaban and one on the run meant Sirius didn't really recognize any of them. Certainly none were familiar from the days he himself had spent tending the bar and running Monty's errands after his parents disowned him. But one particularly shabby man caught his attention. Old cloak, nondescript robes. Mustache and beard hiding most of his face. What skin is visible is dark. Long hair, hangs in his eyes. All tricks that would hinder anyone trying to give an accurate description of him, but combined just gave the impression of general dereliction. Typical for Knocturn Alley, but not so much for Oddfellows; Monty didn't let anyone in who couldn't pay.
Steps behind the bar pulled his gaze away; Sirius glanced at Monty and tilted his head in the man's direction. "Who's that?"
"Who, him?" the bartender grunted.
Sirius nodded, humming an affirmative.
Monty smiled and pulled a rag from behind the bar to sweep dry cloth over its surface. "That there is Mundungus Fletcher. Not much of a wizard, by all accounts, but he keeps his ear to the ground is the word. Always good for a bit of gossip, is ole Dung. And every once in awhile he manages to scrounge up enough Knuts for a pint. Harmless," was the bartender's summation.
The gossip alone would make the man welcome in any bar in London. Indeed, the man looked to be plying his trade even as they watched, muttering lowly to a few other characters who by their clothes had clearly known better days.
Sirius let his gaze travel over the room. Dark beams crossed the walls, white plaster thick over the stones that filled the spaces between. Every so often a window broke the monotony, though they each showed different images from exotic locations rather than peering into the stores sharing Oddfellow's walls. Men and women clustered together at round tables dotted throughout the room, and directly across from the bar itself a fire roared against the iron of a meter-high grate. It definitely wasn't The Witchery, with its upscale lighting enchantments and high-end liquor crowd, not far from the Ministry and catering to most of its employees. He finished the dregs of his ale, settling the mug against the bar.
Sirius looked at Monty.
A gap-toothed smile shone back at him. "Ye ready, then?"
Monty's face sobered, dark eyes measuring as they flicked over his face. "The boy I knew would've been all excitement by now, talking my ear off and threatening a jinx or two if I kept him waiting. Ye have changed."
In Azkaban, Sirius had learned the value of silence – mostly because it was so rare. It had taught him to keep his own counsel; there was no one to speak to, and sometimes he'd been certain that if he opened his mouth, he'd start screaming and never stop. But this isn't Azkaban. Remus kept reminding him, and it looked like maybe his wisdom was starting to stick. And Monty deserved more. So Sirius made the effort and dredged up a small smile. "It was bound to happen."
The bartender grunted, something inflexible hiding in his expression. "This way, then."
Sirius followed the shorter man as he wound his way through tables and past his patrons, tossing smiles and hearty words when he was hailed, but never stopping. The Auror was led to a door tucked in the very back of the bar. Monty's hand hit the handle, and bright letters flared to life at chest-height. Staff Only.
Pulling his wand free, Monty tapped the handle twice and the door slid open accommodatingly.
"I seem to remember having to whisper a password into the keyhole," Sirius commented as Monty led him into a cramped hallway with dozens of crates and three closed doors interspersed along the right-hand wall. At the end of the hall, a staircase disappeared upwards into darkness.
"Yeah," the old bartender huffed. "Damned inconvenient, that was, always having to bend and kiss the lock when ye were carrying crates of Butterbeer. Also, Erykah broke Lenox's nose by accident, some years back."
Startled, Sirius barked out a laugh.
"She was coming out with two bottles of Firewhiskey in one hand and that week's inventory in the other, and she kicked open the door just as he was going to say the password, and that was the end of that." The stocky shoulders preceding him shrugged. "Between the blood and the screaming, and always having a few customers with sharper ears than sense, it was easier to just get a more secure locking-spell. Even if I have to do more juggling to get a wand free, sometimes." He stopped in front of the last door before the stairs, fumbling at his belt for the keys. "Ah, here we are."
Sirius followed him into a room that smelled like dust and spilled alcohol.
Monty muttered a quiet spell, and lamps around the room flared to life. It was a storage cellar, quiet and deeply shadowed. The barkeep moved further in, stepping around and through the assorted bins and clutter with ease. Sirius followed, tangling his feet in a coil of rope after only a few steps, narrowly missing landing face-first in a wooden crate brimming with potatoes. Catching his hand on the edge of the crate, he felt splinters dig into his palm and swore.
The old barkeep laughed. "A few things have shifted since ye were last down here," he called back.
"No, really?" The healing spell Sirius aimed at his palm yanked free the splinters in a blink, blood dotting the skin. His next step took him out of range of the rope on the floor, but Sirius was forced to duck several baskets hanging from a low beam. "Merlin's balls, Monty, what are you keeping back here? And when was the last time anyone –"
He caught sight of black curves trimmed with dusty chrome, and froze.
His old friend was standing by the motorcycle, dark eyes locked on Sirius. "Hagrid brought it here after the – well, the day after. Man didn't know what to do with it, so I said I'd take it."
"Merlin, Monty," Sirius breathed, reaching out. I don't believe it. His hands left wide streaks in the dust and dirt that had accumulated over the years, but Sirius didn't care. The leather seat was dry and cracked with disuse, but the body had been kept dry and there was no obvious rust.
Monty cleared his throat. "Don't rightly know why I kept it, but after the trial, I thought ye might be wanting it back."
"I never thought I'd see her again," Sirius whispered. "I had her that night. I was getting groceries, books, some stuff for Harry. That's why it took me so long to get to Pettigrew's in the first place –" His voice broke, and he snapped his mouth shut. "I left it there. I wonder how Hagrid got it."
But Sirius knew. Dumbledore always was a stickler for details; the man rarely let anything slip. He shook his head, and met his old friend's eyes. "Thank you," he said honestly, though the next words came with difficulty. "This – it . . . means . . . a lot."
"Posh." But Monty's face was ruddy. The older man cleared his throat. "I take it ye'll be getting this clutter off my hands, then? Been taking up valuable storage space."
Sirius looked beyond the bike to the other half of the room, which was completely bare. "I can see that," he said dryly. But he couldn't stop the soft smile as his fingers traced new patterns against the dusty motorcycle. "Yeah, I'll be getting her out of here for you."
"Good." But the expression on Monty's face, assessing and warm, left Sirius with the definite impression that he was talking about something else.
"Squabb's Syndrome? Don't tell me he actually believed that?" She had the notes for today's meeting, the message points she needed to get across, and an agenda for the follow-up with her staff. Pencil, paper, and none of that messy quill-and-ink business.
"He's not exactly the sharpest Crayon in the box," her aide shrugged.
Hana stared. "You're kidding. I thought that was just a rumor!"
"You know what they say about rumors." Jeff sorted quickly through a pile of paperwork, efficiently dividing it three ways.
"They always start somewhere?" Hana suggested. Turning from her aide's desk, she uncapped a bottle of water and took a healthy gulp. Fudge can't possibly be that stupid. At the very least, someone else in the Ministry should have caught it. But even if they had, no one had bothered to inform their boss. If that was the case, the internal government dynamic here in Britain was more negative than she had thought.
"They always have a grain of truth," Jeff corrected absently, attention still on the pile of papers. Some things required individualized attention rather than impersonal spellwork. "In this case, it's more than a grain, apparently."
Hana huffed, glancing at the clock. Ten minutes; just enough time to get to the Minister's office if we leave soon. "I still can't believe Elias pulled out. He was the Ambassador during the last internal crisis they had over here." She walked to the door, juggling her notes to get a hand free.
Jeff tsked, finally pushing himself away from the sucking heaps of parchment. He scooped up his own essentials for the meeting, mouth running as he crossed the room. "Be fair, Hana. He's getting on in years, and yeah, he was Ambassador during the last time this Voldemort guy was on the rise. He said it was like one of the inner circles of Hell, with spies and racist murders all the damn time, everyone on edge and the militia barely managing to keep people from widespread panic. He even got a message from one of the higher Death Eaters assuring him of his safety, given their commitment to positive international relations. Contingent, of course, on his promise to assist in negotiations between Voldemort and Washington."
"Well, that's reassuring," she muttered dryly. They stepped out into the hall together, Jeff making sure to lock the door of their borrowed office.
"No, definitely not," he agreed. "I don't know who his role models are for whatever world domination scheme he's cooked up, but it's a safe bet Hitler was one of them. He's got people terrified to even say his name."
Time to play devil's advocate. "Names have power." Hana gave a brief smile to a passing employee, and got a blank stare in return as the woman strode past them in the opposite direction. Britain. As islands went, she wasn't sure yet what she thought of this one. What I wouldn't give to be back on Moloka'i.
"Power over the individual, yes, and conjuring power over demons," Jeff retorted. They passed from the hallway into a bustling corridor, and he lowered his voice. Hana glanced over to see him speaking from behind a cordial smile, lips barely moving. "He's not a demon."
"That's debatable," Hana matched her volume to his.
"Fine," Jeff scoffed, clearly unwilling to get into a debate on semantics. "He's just trying to strike fear into the hearts of the masses. And from what I've heard, it's not even his real name. Some scary monster that appears out of nowhere is a helluva lot more frightening than someone you remember going through primary school with, even if they are a mass-murderer."
"Point," she admitted, striding along determinedly and forcing a small crowd to part around her as she arrowed towards the elevators. It's not that I don't understand why Elias cut and run. It's just . . . why did they want me for this job? She snorted at herself. And can I have some cheese with that whine?
Jeff hit the call button for the elevator, and there was an almost instantaneous chime. "Good service," he muttered, stepping into the empty car.
"It's about the only thing that's been on time so far," Hana commented as she followed.
Jeff groaned in agreement. "I suppose it is a good thing that we've got a temporary setup in the same building," he said grudgingly. The elevator panel had a wide range of choices, but nothing so clear as floor numbers. She scanned the departments listed, but her aide reached past her to tap a gold button with the label: Minister's Office. "But I'd still rather be working out of the Embassy."
"So would I." Hana couldn't keep the grimness out of her voice. Brown eyes locked on the ostentatious gold button, and she fought back a scowl as the elevator rose. It wasn't subtle, not in the slightest. Does everything around here pander to the man's ego? I wonder if the British have jokes about overcompensating.
She could feel Jeff looking at her. "Tell me you're not going to raise a fuss over this with the Minister."
The smile she sent his way was all teeth. The elevator glided to a halt, doors sweeping open. "Would I do that?"
"In a heartbeat," Jeff grumbled, right at her heels as she strode into the lobby.
It was a decent sized room, the floor luxurious marble. Both walls and ceiling were finely molded, and gilded with pure gold. Several tapestries were present as well, suspended by magic a good two feet out from the walls themselves, so as not to obscure the fine detailing of the architecture. The effect was opulent, and probably intended to be overwhelming. Gaudy, Hana decided. I wonder where they got the money for all this?
The only other thing in the room was a large desk perched on spindly legs, behind which sat a storklike man of indeterminate age. A casual glance told her that he was both too tall and too thin to be the Minister of Magic. He also looked nothing like the man, though Hana had yet to meet Cornelius Fudge in person. Secretary or security guard, she decided, and approached.
"Ambassador Hana Pruitt to see the Minister of Magic."
The man behind the desk – Hana searched in vain for a nameplate – ducked his head, flipping open a thick ledger and sliding one finger down a column of splotchy print. "Ahhh, mmm, yes, Ms. Ambassador," he coughed. "Your appointment isn't until half ten, I'm afraid."
Yes, three minutes from now. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I trust my punctuality isn't disrupting the Minister's schedule in any way?" she inquired, injecting just a touch of acidity into the polite question.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jeff's shoulders shake with suppressed laughter. Jerk, she thought fondly.
"Um, ahh, no, of course not," the – she was going with secretary, at this point – backpedalled. "Ah -"
Hana jumped in before he could continue. "In that case, I would appreciate if you could show me to his office." She made a show of checking her watch. "I had anticipated that we could begin our discussions immediately upon my arrival, as there are several delicate matters which require a timely response. And as my appointment begins now, as a matter of fact, I must insist upon it."
"But of course if you're busy I can show myself in," she offered. Hana scrutinized the walls for a second and made out the door, cleverly concealed in the wall to the left of the desk.
The secretary's face was pasty, a cold sweat shining on his upper lip. "Um, n-no, ma'am, that – that won't be necessary." He stumbled to his feet, barely managing to squeeze in front of her as she paced relentlessly towards the door.
There was a bare knock before he stuck his head into the room. Hana listened, but his voice was muffled. Just the door, or a silencing charm?
The reliance of European wizards on spells and enchantments, even when there was a non-magical solution available, never ceased to amaze.
When the man pulled his head out of the office, his cheeks were a bright red and he wouldn't meet her eyes. "The Minister is just concluding his business," he squeaked. "He apologizes for his meeting running over. He should be able to see you shortly."
Hana might have given him the stink-eye if it hadn't been so obvious that he had no control over the situation. The secretary shut the door, shuffling back to his desk and plopping into his seat. There were no other chairs in the room.
Wonderful. Her anger only grew at that; power-plays were more than childish, especially when they stooped to the point of making people stand around and wait.
It was a full fifteen minutes before a young blonde witch scurried out of the Minister's office. Hana caught a glimpse of slightly disheveled hair and smudged lipstick on a smiling mouth before the woman disappeared into the elevator. Something cold and furious settled in her stomach.
That power-hungry son of a bitch. Thank God Elias gave me everything he had on him before going home.
On her feet, pure anger sparking off her skin, Hana stalked towards the door.
"So is it true?"
Gawain paused, bottle of butterbeer halfway to his mouth. "Is what true?"
Rob rolled his eyes, leaning forward and lowering his voice below the chatter that filled the Leaky Cauldron. "I heard the American Ambassador tore Fudge to shreds in their meeting this morning."
The bottle of butterbeer impacted the bar with the heavy sound of full glass against wood. "How in the hell do you hear these things?" Gawain asked. He rubbed the back of his neck, muscles coiling against rising stress. "Seriously. Because if I need to work on internal security, I'd rather have you tell me now than find out when an assassin gets through to the Minister or one of the department heads."
The reporter flapped one hand carelessly. "I went to the American Embassy this morning on a tip. Looks like the Ambassador has relocated. Also, she gave me a few quotes."
"Did she now?"
Rob coughed. "Um, yes. Unfortunately, only two of them are printable."
Gawain groaned. "Merlin save us from another media shitstorm."
"It won't be that bad," the reporter assured him. His words were almost immediately belied by the way he tilted his head, hazel eyes shooting over the words he'd scribbled into one of his omnipresent notepads. "I think."
"No, but I'll have that Skeeter woman up my arse again for sure," Gawain snapped. He took an angry gulp of butterbeer. It was warm against the inside of his throat, but he was in no mood to be soothed by sweetness. "Merlin curse it."
"If I were you, I'd pay a call to Alastor Moody." Rob ignored his bitter tirade against bone-picking reporters with the aplomb of long exposure. "He'd have an idea of how to handle this."
"Man's retired," Gawain pointed out.
"So?" Rob gave him a curious glance.
"So he told me he'd kick my arse if I interrupted his well-deserved relaxation with politics. And I'd deserve it."
The reporter heaved a sigh, tearing two pieces of paper out of his notebook and folding the little pad away. "It's Alastor Moody, Gawain. How much relaxation do you really think he's getting? Especially with what happened at the -" Rob's face paled, and he swallowed hard. "At the Cup?"
Moody's probably stocking up for another war. Merlin knew Gawain's lieutenants were trying to prepare for one. Just in case. "Fine," he sighed. "But if Moody kills me, I'm going to haunt you."
Hazel eyes rolled. "Fine." Rob folded the papers in his hand, and made as if to put them in a pocket. Some sleight of hand later, he'd produced enough Knuts to pay for his butterbeer, and the papers were safely hidden in Gawain's pocket instead. "I'll see you next week?"
"Sounds good," Gawain nodded, not shifting from his stool. "Take care, and say hi to Amanda for me."
Rob stood, resettling his robes on his shoulders. "Will do."
Gawain watched unobtrusively as his friend headed out the front door of the Leaky Cauldron, walking back to the Daily Prophet's main London office a few streets away. The information Rob had slipped him was heavy in his pocket, but he'd had a lot of practice at pretending nothing was bothering him. Usually there's only enough info for half a page or so. Merlin, but I don't think I'm going to like what I read.
Rob had definitely been more close-mouthed than usual, though the heavy crowd in the bar had prevented him from shielding them and that might account for it. Warm sweetness curled over his tongue as Gawain lifted the butterbeer to his lips and took a long swallow. He waited until a few more people left the pub before draining the bottle.
Time to get back to work.
The old geezer was humming.
Off-tune and only just loud enough to be heard over the fence, but it had been going on for almost an hour now. Bartemius had long ago promised himself this man's head on a plate, for the capture an imprisonment of his compatriots. But now. For his tone-deafness alone he ought to die a slow death.
Bartemius peered through the slats in the fence, careful not to get too close to the alarm spells saturating the very wood. The old man grunted, song breaking off and electric-blue eye rolling wildly in his skull even as he pruned a trailing vine of roses.
Azkaban had not had roses, no, nor sunshine, blue sky, fresh wind. While he had been locked away in a dark, dank tower, this man had been basking in the elements, walking free through Britain. And for what crime?
For daring to believe in a better world than the ineffectual Ministry could ever even hope of providing to the Wizarding populace of Britain. Bartemius had suffered for his devotion to a dream and the man who would make it possible. He owed his dear, departed mother everything for his escape. When his Lord's world came about, he would petition his Lord to have the day he escaped from prison made Mother's Day, so all would honor his mother's sacrifice for Bartemius' freedom. Which he would soon turn into the freedom of his compatriots.
But first, he had a mission given to him by Lord Voldemort himself. A mission of unparalleled import.
And if it cost me my life, I will succeed.
On the other side of the fence Moody raised sharp clippers, snipping away a brown trail of thorns.
Hidden behind an invisibility cloak and the very protections that the former Auror had raised around his home, Bartemius kept careful note of every action, step, and gesture. If his plan was to succeed, it was essential that he become in all ways a perfect copy of Alastor Moody.
The thought was enough to turn his empty stomach.
But in only twelve hours, he would take action. Moody was right to feel comfortable, feel safe in the house he had turned into a fortress. The protections were pervasive, and strong enough to prickle the hair on his arms while simply walking down the street. But his Lord had shown him that nothing was absolute; that there were holes everywhere, waiting to be exploited. And that nothing could stand in the face of the righteousness of their purpose; certainly not Mad-Eye Moody's blind belief in the security of his home. We are going to change the world.
For his goal, Bartemius could withstand any trial, any indignity, and even death itself was not unconquerable. His Mark had flared to life with the rebirth of his Lord, and Bartemius' faith, though it had never wavered, revived itself with a vigor strong enough to break him free from his bastard father's Imperious will.
Though he had wanted to run straight to his Lord, he knew his position so close to one of the vaunted Ministry's Department Heads would make him a valuable source of current information. So he had been forced to wait until the World Cup, playing on his father's limited sentiment for a wife who had died and a son he had never cared to know well, ensuring his attendance there. And he had met his Lord – his Lord, who had granted him the singular honor of being the one to shed the first blood in his renewed war, and to throw into the sky the proud declaration of Lord Voldemort's return.
Oblivious behind his wooden fence, Moody was tying up the roses, training them along a delicate trellis set against the fence. His thick fingers trailed over soft yellow petals, rubbing gently. So, the former Auror who had captured his fellows to condemn them to a man-made hell for all their long wizarding lives had a fondness for flowers?
Bartemius would drag yellow petals through Moody's blood, and make the old man eat them.
First, he had to get inside.
If the pattern the old man had established over the past three days was accurate, it was just about time for him to return to the house for afternoon tea. Which would take up to two hours; a glimpse through the windows had shown the former Auror involved in correspondence with Owls and Fire-Calls, though Bartemius had not yet compiled a complete list of everyone he was in contact with.
Doubtless those fools in the Ministry, and perhaps even the Order of the Phoenix.
It was no secret among Lord Voldemort's followers that Alastor Moody led a cell of members of Dumbledore's Order. A few other leaders were known – Amelia Bones, Minerva McGonagall, Benjamin Travers. And there were others who were most certainly members of that group – families with long histories of unconcern regarding the future of their world. And the large amount of half-skilled, half-blooded weaklings who tried to claim a place in the wizarding world. They would receive their due soon enough.
For now he must concentrate.
After tea Moody generally retreated within the house – to a study, Bartemius believed. For all the opportunity he might have to go out, the old Auror stayed in. Received groceries by special owl order, even. He thinks he's safe. Thinks no one can get to him.
But oh, if Bartemius just wanted him dead, he could set the house on fire. Poison the groceries. Send a curse-bomb through the Fire-Call grate, or even by owl. Wait for the old man to be entranced in his garden, and attack. He could do it any number of ways, and it would be easy. But much as he craved it, killing Moody was not his objective. The old man's death was desired and, at the moment, almost assured, but he had more worth alive. Dead, he could only soothe the fires of vengeance in Bartemius' heart. Alive? Alive, he could deliver into Lord Voldemort's hands anyone his Lord desired. The Minister of Magic himself would not decline a meeting with the most famous Auror of the century.
If Fudge had any worth at all, he might even be a target. Bartemius snorted at the thought. Cornelius Fudge was best left to thinking he ran the Ministry, and with a little corralling and the judicious application of fear, he would lead the Wizarding government right where they wanted it.
Bartemius had a far more valuable target in mind.
He stood from where he had been crouched behind the fence all morning, stretching carefully beneath his invisibility cloak. He draped the folds securely around his legs, the motion instinctual after years of familiarity and allowing him to move freely while remaining securely hidden. Bartemius stalked the perimeter of the fence, noting possible access points where multiple enchantments did not quite evenly join, or where old spellwork had worn thin. For all Moody had many powerful protections, the finer points of his magic had frayed with time. The devil is in the details.
The sun had sunk while he was lost in thought; twilight was drawing near. He had absently noted the arrival and departure of a visitor through the Floo, but he was not quite as attentive as he had once been.
Another thing Azkaban has taken from me.
But in the fullness of time, he would have restitution.
Bartemius found the access point he intended to use – a spot where deteriorating magic was blocked by a haze of spells surrounding three garbage bins set against the inside of the fence, separated from him only by magic and thin wood – and waited for dark.
There was no thought. Only movement.
Block. Spin. Kick. Drop. See the opening – hit. Duck, block, hit – muscles speeding of their own accord, skin slippery with sweat. Use it to slip from the hold his opponent tried to close around his torso, pulling away from grappling close-quarters with the bigger man.
Sudden swift pressure behind one knee sent him tumbling to the mat, and Hayato rolled away. A breath later he surged to upwards, grabbing the opponent that was lunging down to pin him. A quick twist flipped the larger man over Hayato's head.
Adrenaline spiked in his blood with the possibility of victory – he pounced.
The next minute filled itself with straining muscles and grunts of effort. A hand slapped thick padding twice. "Alright, alright, you win!"
"Say it," Hayato demanded, giving in to the smirk that wanted to break his composure.
Layne struggled a bit more, groaning when all it got him was a nearly-dislocated shoulder. More than seventeen stone of weight meant nothing when Hayato got leverage on his side. "Come on!"
The rib cage beneath him heaved in a sigh. Layne twisted his neck enough to glare at him out of one eye. "I bow before your might, Fujoika sensei. Okay? Can I get up now?"
"Eh, good enough." Hayato released him, and stepped back before Layne could act on whatever revenge he was currently plotting. "I own your ass."
"You're a dick," Layne countered, getting to his feet and twisting out his spine with a wet pop and a happy sigh. "Jap."
Hayato sniggered. "Jiggaboo."
"Dink." Layne fell into step next to him as they headed off the mats, beginning to weave through rows of exercise equipment on the way to the men's showers.
"I'm not Vietnamese. Darky." He reached for where his towel was slung over a barbell, wiping the back of one arm across his streaming forehead.
Layne smirked. "You all look alike to me. Pancake."
He'd been stuck on this one last time, unable to come up with an appropriate counter-slur starting with g within their (extremely short) agreed-on time limit. Hayato grinned. Not gonna catch me out on this one again! "Golliwog."
That got him a puzzled, if good-natured, glare; Layne couldn't hold back a laugh. "What the hell? Where in Merlin's name did you find that one?"
Hawk resisted the urge to stick out his tongue. Barely. "You just don't want to admit I won." For all it was almost over . . . I'm having a damn good day.
"Now now, boys, play nice."
And it just got better.
Morgana Horne, lithe and beautiful and utterly deadly, supple curves draped in close-fitting workout clothes, slender hands pristinely wrapped for work on the punching bag that she was currently leaning against. Thick waves of dark brown hair, clear sapphire eyes, red lips, porcelain skin – she was the embodiment of Venus and featured prominently in the dreams of most men she met. Even sweat only seemed to make her sexier.
And Layne had been trying his luck, without success, for the past two years. "I'd like to play with you," he crooned, trying to make his deep bass voice alluring rather than blankly intimidating.
You have got to be kidding me. "Really, man?" Hayato paused to hang his towel over the back of his neck, chuckling. "That's the best you've got?"
Broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I just got my ass handed to me. I'm not on top form."
"Clearly," Morgana drawled.
Hayato liked watching her cut Layne off at the knees – it put him just about at her height, and she usually followed up with a swift kick to the balls just to make sure his ego was pounded into the mat.
But she didn't say anything, which wasn't unusual for Morgana around others, but wasn't the norm when it was just the three of them. Especially not when she's got the opportunity served up to her on a golden platter. "Aw, what's wrong, Horny?"
Chill blue eyes flashed at him, Morgana pushing off the hanging bag and stalking forward. "Hawk. What have I told you about calling me that?"
He tried a grin, swinging a leg over the nearest exercise bench and plopping his butt down. A moving target might have a better chance at survival – scratch that, anything is smarter than staying in range when Morgana's ready to explode in a shower of hexes – but he had a different objective. "Not to?"
"I think," Layne interjected, scrubbing his own towel over his shaved head, "that she said that if you called her that again, and I quote, 'you'll be finding out what it's like to dredge the Thames from the river bottom,' unquote."
"Not really some of your best stuff, Morgana," Hayato mused. "I think I preferred the one where you threatened to disembowel me with a rusty spoon."
If the witch staring at him was a cat, she'd be hissing with claws bared. As a human, she merely propped her hands on her hips and managed to lower the temperature of the room using her voice alone. "Did you now?"
"I was particularly fond of the one where she was gonna rip out your entrails through your nostrils." Layne started stretching, quads and calves the first things that always tightened up on him.
"Ooh, yeah! Definite points for graphic imagery," Hayato nodded.
"I'll remember that," she snarled.
He could feel sweat cooling on his skin, turning his t-shirt cold and clammy. Gonna have to stretch, then shower, then stretch again, maybe. "What about when she threatened to reach down my throat, tear out my heart and make me eat it?"
"I did like that one," Layne reflected, mid-stretch. He stood from his lunge, and reached both arms high above his head as he slowly leant from side to side, pulling gently on his obliques. "Not as much as when she was gonna have you keel-hauled through shark-infested waters, though."
Hayato almost laughed. "Yeah, that one definitely had a certain flair, didn't it."
"I'd have to agree."
Morgana looked back and forth between them, shaking her head. Hayato grinned smugly at his sometimes-partner and always-friend, and got an answering smirk in return. "How did your mothers not drown you at birth?" she wondered.
"It's all a part of our charm," Layne assured her.
Morgana's laugh flowed from her as if she couldn't help it, and Hayato felt his grin turn soft. Mission accomplished. "Really, Morgana, what's wrong?"
Slender fingers tugged at the wrappings on her hands, pulling the edge of a bandage from where it was tucked underneath the careful padding. She met his gaze squarely. "Did you hear that Bones authorized Robard to start heavy-duty recruiting? It came through this afternoon."
"Yeah, we heard." Layne shook out his arms and frowned at her. "So?"
Morgana rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest, used strips of cloth clenched in one tight fist. "So not only are there going to be a whole new bunch of green trainees parading around, Robard decided it would be a good time for everyone to brush up on their sneaking skills, too."
Hayato grunted. Great. Training seminars.
Like Research & Development, the Hit Wizards were a highly specialized subset of the Aurors, and as such subject to the oversight of the DMLE as a whole. Much as none of us want to admit it. Most of the time their assignments came directly from Amelia Bones, but there was the rare occasion that Minister Fudge put pressure on the department to produce results. It was then that all the subsets became lumped in with the Aurors for greater collaboration, and everyone felt it.
Only one reason Morgana would be so tweaked about this. Hayato exchanged a glance with Layne, who had moved to the floor and was pushing himself up into a bridge. "Let me guess. She's making you teach 'em."
The smile that turned his way was grim, and just the faintest bit wicked. "Oh, not just me."
Hayato groaned, falling back on the thinly-padded bench. "Oh, no."
A thump and accompanying moan from his left indicated that Layne had dropped to the floor.
"You guessed it," Morgana tilted an irritated kick at the punching bag, making it vibrate on its chain. "She's tapped all of Minority Report for it. Welcome to the fun, guys."
Fun. Right. No assignments for the duration. Just lesson plans and tests and trying to pound some stealth into people more likely to jump in, wands blazing. Just . . . great.
"Merlin's balls, I hate teaching," Layne whined. There was a considering pause. "She didn't actually call us that, did she?"
Hayato had unintentionally started it, arriving to report in one day at the same time as Layne and Morgana and noting that the three of them were the only members of the Hit Wizards who were not both white and male. He'd playfully called out, "Ms. Bones, ma'am, minorities reporting in!"
And the three of them had somehow been stuck with the moniker ever since. If Bones uses it, we'll never ever be free of it.
"Yep." Morgana did not sound pleased.
Hayato wasn't going to look and see how pissed she actually was. He squinched his eyes shut, debating his chances of survival if he played possum. Yeah, not good.
"Damn it, Hawk," Layne groused. The exercise bench Hayato was draped across shook, hard; the sound of thick rubber clanging off metal told Hayato that his friend had kicked it. I'm not opening my eyes to find out. "And damn your love for Muggle movies. Bad Muggle movies," he added pointedly.
"Hey!" Hayato came up fighting. "My movies are not bad! Minority Report was a great -"
"No it wasn't," Morgana and Layne cut him off together, and then stared at each other warily.
"But it had -"
"No it didn't." Again, in eerie unison.
"Would you stop that!" Hayato grumped petulantly. He only just kept himself from stomping a foot against the floor. "You don't even know what I was going to say!"
"Ask me if I care," Layne muttered, still on the ground.
"It doesn't matter." Morgana waved an elegant hand, dismissing them both. "That movie sucked. No two ways about it."
"I can hex you and make it look like an accident," she said blithely. "I'm good at it."
"I bet there's a lot of things you're good at." Layne was still on the floor, staring up at her. Well, parts of her, at any rate.
"Pity you'll never know," she shot back. Her lips pursed, sapphire eyes flicking over the large Hit Wizard still splayed across filthy carpet. "Better watch yourself, Bakema. You're working your way up my list."
"Your To Do List?" Layne said hopefully.
Hayato blinked, unsettled by the smile that, on any other woman, he would have called sexy. Wow. That's . . . a lot of teeth. Very white. Kind of . . . sharp?
"No," Morgana breathed, leaning over him, all lascivious seduction. But in the space of an instant, the heat she was projecting vanished. "My To Kill List." She rolled her eyes, stepping lightly on his chest and over. "Idiot."
Layne grunted, sitting up to stare after her as she strode away. "Ouch."
"You're lucky you're still all in one piece," Hayato informed him. Morgana really was magnificent when she was pissed. "And your original color. It was pink, wasn't it, the last time?"
His friend found his feet, face foreboding. "Salmon."
"And a very masculine salmon it was," Hayato said agreeably. Upright once more, he headed for the showers, not missing the almost genuine glare Layne tossed his way. "Schvartse," he offered an olive branch.
Layne bumped shoulders with him companionably, nearly sending Hayato sprawling into a tangle of wires and weights. But the big man was fighting a smile; he could see it in the jerking muscles in Layne's check. "Slopey."
"Nig-nog." They were through the gymnasium at last, into the empty hallway leading to the men's locker room.
"Nip." Layne shouldered the door open, heading for the showers.
Hawk grinned, calling out one last insult as he slipped down a row of lockers. "Mudblood!"
Layne's laugh echoed off navy tile. "Moron!"
A/N: Oddfellows has two sources of inspiration; first and most prominently, the bar "Strangefellows" in Simon R. Green's Nightside series, which is in that universe the oldest bar in the world, and has been around for thousands of years. It is my personal belief he took his inspiration from a place in London called Oddfellows, which I heard tell of while I was there. I took the name from the actual place in London, a bit of the concept from Mr. Green, and made the rest up.
A/N2: Yes, the Hit Wizards are using racial slurs against one another. Just as a CMA thing, those opinions projected and actions taken are those of the characters – fictional people, here! – portrayed and do not reflect the author's – that is to say, my – opinions, thoughts, or actions in any way, shape, or form. These two men are, in case you couldn't tell, insulting one another as a way of displaying-without-displaying their affection for each other. Just to reiterate because it's been a long time and I stink that way, SAS is a very rough-and-tumble story. If you want fluffy goodness and sweetness and light, let me redirect you to TQW, which will be somewhat more hopeful. I did do my best to use the slurs I'm unfamiliar with, somewhat in the hopes that it's because they're not as popular/widely-used as others and I won't have overtly offended anyone.
A/N3: And yeah, it's a lame reference to Minority Report, which was kindof terrible, and I'm playing with timelines again, whatever.