That night saw another after-hours meeting in the Hufflepuff common room. Mal and Zoë waited until the rest of their house was asleep before coming out to sit on the huge, comfortable couches by the fireplace. There was not so much tension this time as a grim, resigned feeling of dread. Nothing was unknown or hidden this time. Just a task that awaited which neither wanted to do.

Zoë was the first to break the silence. "We can't just slip away one night for this." She looked up at Mal with an even, determined gaze. "Too suspicious, and neither of us are good enough fliers for that."

Mal nodded his agreement, even as words of protest died in his throat. iThis is wrong,/i a soft voice in his head murmured groggily. iYou know it is./i "Well, it's not like we have a place to go over Christmas. We can rent a room at the Leaky Cauldron for that week, do the job sometime then, and slip away easy as can be. After all," his voice grew hard, "who's to suspect a coupl'a first years a thievin'?"

Zoë's expression softened at Mal's bitter tone. She relaxed her soldier-stiff posture a few decibles. "We still have a choice, Mal."

Mal just sighed. "No, we don't. It's this or Them, and that ain't happening."

Zoë shook her head. "Not what I meant." That earned Mal's attention. She leaned forward close as she suggested, "We could run. Take off during the holidays, catch a ride to King's Cross stations, go wherever from there. We survived a week in Diagon Alley, we can make it out there."

The hope that her tone had brought died down as Mal processed her idea. "Zoë, we survived because we'd taken Their money. Out there it we'd need to make our own living. We'd end up stealing anyway, and ain't no guarentee we wouldn't end up with Them anyway. Child services seem a mite less strict in the wizarding world. This is our best shot, Zo'. We have to try."

Zoë met her brother's gaze for a moment, her dark eyes scanning his to measure how much of his words he had meant. Finally she looked back down at the papers Badger had given them. "Then let's get this done," she said. But neither of them liked it.

The siblings ran over everything Badger had told them. He'd provided them with very rough layout plans for Niska's shop and a list of the kind of spells they'd need to break into his files. They stayed up late into the night practicing spells and planning their break-in, going over every last detail until they had a solid plan down.

The last few weeks before the holidays were almost something of a blur. Much as Mal wanted them to drag on, they seemed to whirl past him faster than light. It hardly seemed to have been a few days before the two of them were being sent by floo network with a few other students to the Leaky Cauldron. Before they stepped into the fire, Headmisstress McGonagall laid a heavily veined hand on Mal's shoulder. "Merry Christmas, Reynolds." Her weathered old face twitched into a rare smile.

Guilt tightened in the boy's chest. iIf only you knew./i He gave her as cheerful a smile as he could manage and stepped into the fireplace. Green flames flared up as he declared, "Diagon Ally," and a few seconds later he was standing in the fireplace of the Leaky Cauldron.

The old bartender, Tom, welcomed them with a toothy grin and some complimentary butterbeer. He knew them well from their previous stay, and luckily he never asked too many questions about the two eleven- year-olds staying on their own. He even gave them their rooms from their first stay.

The night of the job, Mal laid awake on the bed, unable to will himself into sleep. His heart was pounding away like a jackhammer as he turned the plan over and over in his head. Everything had to go just right. Any kind of slip-up meant game over. i'Less of course I think of some daring and clever plan to save us at the last possible second,/i he thought without much real humor.

The tip of Mal's wand lit up ever so slightly from where it sat on the nightstand. Zoë'd found a spell that would cause their wands to light at a specific set time – specifically, the time to start the job. iTime to get to work./i

With a practiced air, the kid slid silently out of bed and slipped noiselessly out of his room. The floors of the Leaky Cauldron were of the old and creaky variety, but Their house had been much the same, which had given Mal plenty of practice of sneaking around without making a sound on them.

He waited in the lobby until Zoë came out to join him. She gave him a tense nod, then led the way out into the back room where the wall that led into Diagon Alley was found. A few late-night drunks were seated at the various tables of the bar – Mal figured they were all too far gone to notice the siblings, but all the same they slipped past them as quietly as possible.

The door to Diagon Alley slid back with the clanging and clinking of bricks knocking against each other, but as Zoë and Mal had tested earlier, it wasn't loud enough to be heard from upstairs where everyone was sleeping. Even if someone did hear it, they'd assume it was one of the drunk going out for a late-night pub. At least that was the hope.

Snow drifted lazily down to the cobblestone pavement of Diagon Alley. The sidewalks and rooftops were all covered with a thick white blanket of the stuff. Any other time it would have looked beautiful, but now it only served to remind Mal of all they had to lose if things went south.

They kept to the shadows to avoid notice. There wasn't much of anyone out, but the few people they passed didn't seem too concerned about the siblings. As long as they stayed out of the light of the lamps that lined the streets, they were practically unnoticeable.

That only became more true when they took the turn that led to Knockturn Alley. No lamps were lit in this crevice of town except a few sickly looking things that hung in the windows of those businesses still trying to look respectable. It was barely light enough for Mal to see Zoë slinking along beside him – all the better for their eventual escape.

They finally came upon a store quite larger than the other ones around it. It sat comfortably nestled in a corner between two dinky little houses, the sign above its door only just readable in the pale light of the lamps. "Niska's Heirloom Recovery and Appraising Services." From the information Badger had given them, the siblings gathered that Niska acquired heirlooms of rich Pureblood families – or things cleverly done up to look like heirlooms – and sold them back to the families in question. Apparently he was making a small fortune off of it. Most of it was forgeries, and what real heirlooms he had were stolen in the first place, so really stealing from Niska was stealing from a thief. iBut you're giving the papers to a thief as well,/i his mind taunted him. iStealing from the greedy to give to the greedy./i

Mal shook the thoughts from his head. He turned to Zoë and gave her a nod. iLet's get to work./i

The shop was closed, but Badger hd told them that a simple unlocking spell should get them in. Zoë pointed her wand at the door and whispered, "iAlohamora./i" With a loud creak that made Mal jump, the door swung open. Mal cracked a slight grin. iThank god for squibs and their crappy security systems./i

The inside of the shop was hard to see in the weak light. Sharp shadows were cast on the ground from the various shelves and tables where expensive-looking knick-knacks were carelessly cluttered. The dark, looming shadows and strange sillouettes of the store's wares were about as uninviting a sight as could be, but the slipped in anyway shut the door silently behind them.

By now both siblings had practically memorized the layout of the shop from what Badger had given them. Their unsavory employer hadn't known exactly where Niska kept the paperwork they needed, but he'd had a few good guesses.

Mal and Zoë split up. While she went off to check behind an enourmous portrait that hung on the far wall, Mal knelt beside Niska's check-out desk. The desk had three drawers, all of which were locked. Mal pointed his wand at the drawer and whispered, "iAlohamora,/i" but nothing happened. iProtective spells, huh? Well now. That's like to be a very good sign./i He pulled a paperclip out of his pocket. iGuess we'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way./i

The good thing about wizards, Mal mused, or at least squibs who were wizard-raised, is that they never considered Muggle devices or ideas worth worrying about. So they never tried to protect against them. The drawers that his magic couldn't open were laughably easy to break into with the simple trick of picking the lock. He'd had more than enough practice with picking locks, the number of times They had locked him in his room as punishment.

iLooks like my whole childhood works to set me up as a perfect little criminal,/i that damn voice in his head whispered nastily. As much as Mal tried to deny it, this whole breaking-and-enterting business was coming just a little too easily to him. It felt almost natural to be sneaking about and picking locks. Fear tightened in Mal's chest. iIs this gonna be my life then? Thievin' just to get by?/i

The idea of it wasn't what scared him. What scared him was how okay he was with the idea of being a thief, if it's what he and Zoë needed to do to get by. Hell, there's a whole lot he'd do in order to get by, most of it enough to give nightmares, without a second thought if it kept him and Zoë safe. And that scared him. iDoes that make me a bad person?

Mal took a deep breath, forcing the fear out of his lungs. iFocus, Mal. Just get the job done, then you can get back to worryin' over moral niceties./i He forced his mind to clear as he methodically began leafing through the papers in Niska's desk. Nothing much of use in there, just some papers of sale and the left-over change from the day's sales. Minutes passed as he kept up his search.

"Mal." It was the first word either of them had spoken the whole heist. Zoë's low voice shattered the eeiriee silence with terrifying volume. Mal started when he heard it. Once his heart slowed down to a normal pace again, he turned to face his foster sister. She wasn't much more than a shadow in the darkness, but weak light lit up part of her face. "I found it."

Mal carefully locked up the drawers again and hurried to his sister's side. Her hand was resting flat on the smooth wooden wall. She gave it a quiet rap, which echoed back strangely. Mal grinned as he recognized the sound – the sound of a wall with something hollow behind it.

Now came the need for magic. They'd researched some of the more basic protection wards, and they were able to recognize the signs of the ones Niska had used. Together, Zoë and Mal worked to remove the wards, two wands pointed and two voices whispering countercurses. Finally, with the presence of all spells gone, a simple ialohamora/i made the door that had been nearly impossible to see moments before swing open, revealing a hidden compartment where a stack of papers were stored. Mal's eyes scanned greedily over the papers that would buy their freedom. He reached out and leafed quickly through, pulling out those papers Badger had asked for and leaving the rest.

The silence of the night was broken by a sharp knock on the front door of the shop. Fear leaped up unbidden in the boy; he and his sister shared a terrified glance before moving into action. As Mal slipped the papers into the sleeve of his robes out of view, Zoë shut the hidden vault door and dragged Mal behind one of the rows of shelves, where they were hidden from view of the front of the shop.

A door from the second floor of the shop, where the store owner Niska slept, opened creakily. Footsteps sounded as someone - probably Niska - descended down the steps and made his way to the front door, which was opened moments later.

"Why, Mrs. Serra." Niska's voice was heavily accented, though Mal couldn't have said where the accent was from. It was quietly polite, but almost made Mal think of a snake, coiled and watching it's prey. "Welcome to my humble abode. Ah, who is this little one?"

A woman's voice, weary and soft, answered, "This is my daughter. Inara, honey, go look around, see if there's something you like." Mal froze at the name of his classmate. The soft footfalls of a child sounded frighteningly nearby.

Niska's voice sounded again. "I must say, I cannot remember the last time a customer brought their child here. Of course, as I understand it, your newest accomodations aren't exactly the safest place to leave a child alone at night. Now, shall we, eh, get down to business?"

There was the sound of a wand being drawn from robes, then the woman whispered, "iMuffliato./i" Her and Niska's voices suddenly sounded distorted, as though sounding from far away. Even as Mal strained his ears he couldn't hear what they were saying.

Inara's footsteps were getting closer and closer. Mal cast his eyes around wildly for somewhere else to hide, but there was nowhere else they could go without being seen. iWe're trapped,/i he thought with a cold pit of dread in his stomach.

Inara rounded the corner, still wearing her school robes. Her eyes widened when she saw the siblings crouched and hiding on the floor. Mal wanted to signal for her to be silence, but instead he met her eyes with a defiant, level glare. iGo ahead, give us away. I dare you./i

Inara cast an uncertain glance back towards her mother and Niska. A few tense moments passed before she turned back to Zoë and Mal. She ducked behind the shelves with them and hissed, "What are you doing here?" Her gaze flicked to the papers, which were poking out of Mal's sleeve. "What are those?"

Mal flashed a fake grin, trying to hide how fiercely his heart was pounding. "Cookie recipes."

Inara's eyes flashed accusingly. "You stole them!"

She reached out to grab the papers, but Mal was quicker. His hand snaked out and grabbed her wrist none too gently. Inara hissed out in pain, but Mal just tightened his grip and jerked her up so she was looking in his eyes. "If you give us up," he said in a low voice, "we ain't just facing detention here. You'll be tossing us out in the street. We'd never do magic again."

Inara hesitated. "It was your choice to come here," she pointed out.

"Yeah, 'cause bein' blackmailed's just the same as havin' a choice," Mal drawled sarcastically.

"Blackmail?" Inara looked less defiant now, her dark eyes portraying uncertainty rather than accusation. She threw a glare over her shoulder at the unsavory shopkeeper before turning back to the siblings, her expression determined. "Fine. I won't say anything. But when we get back to Hogwarts, you better tell me ieverything/i, or I'll tell Headmistress McGonagol about this."

With that, she turned and swept away, her robes billowing gracefully behind her. Mal let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. iWell, that coulda gone worse./i

It seemed like hours before Mrs. Serra and Inara finally left. Niska closed up shop behind them, then made his way up the creaking stairs that led to his room. The second the door to his room closed, Mal and Zoë were racing to the front door. They opened it as silently as they could, closed it behind them, and bolted out into the snow. Mal's heart was pounding hard enough to leap out of his chest. iThat was close. That was way, /iwayi too close,/i he thought shakily.

The siblings didn't stop running until they were back inside the Leaky Cauldron. They slipped inside, panting and trembling, but there wasn't anybody following them. Mal and Zoë began to chuckle breathlessly as they realized that it was over. The job was done, they hadn't been caught, and now they were home free.

Looking back, Mal reckoned they shoulda known it wouldn't be that easy.

I cannot even say how relieved I am to have this part done. This was the hardest and most annoying part to write, and the Firefly characters were suddenly acting very hard to write. The bits in the shop especially killed me, and I'm still not entirely happy with it. Hopefully next chapter will be better.

Up next is a Warriors fic chapter, then more Quiet Before the Storm.