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Title: Between Here and Now and Forever
Fandom: Harry Potter
Characters: The Founders, various OCs
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Rowena and Basil are on their way back to the castle, the Aurae Aurelii are still after them, and Godric's still suspicious of Helga.

Chapter 1
Master Founders Post
Chapter 29

Rowena loved flying. Alone. On her own broom.

What she didn't like was a three-day journey alongside some arsehole like Basil on cheap brooms which were a literal pain in the arse, and which they'd bought in Wyke from idiots who like as not didn't know how to reinforce the steering spells against the damage high wind sometimes caused. She had tried to explain to Basil that it would probably be a good idea to let her go over the spells and perhaps reinforce them or at least shield them, but he had insisted that they didn't have enough time to sit around in Wyke, but being a werewolf, he could see that the spells were fine and so on and so forth, as if Rowena had somehow managed to forget his condition.

Rowena didn't think the spells were fine; she wouldn't have let anybody she liked fly these brooms any further than down the road for some bread, but the only people who were going to be riding these brooms were herself and Basil, and she didn't like either of them much at all, so she supposed it wasn't such a shame if something went wrong, except everybody else would be stranded, of course.

They tried to fly over less populated areas, although they were up high enough that probably nobody would notice them, and the nice thing about air travel was that you didn't really have to worry about running into bandits on the road.

In fact, one of the especially nice things about air travel, as it turned out, was that you could spot bandits from the air. Basil pointed out a crime in progress, and Rowena, who was so bored she had resorted to mentally playing back the Aeneid in her head, having gone through all her favorite stories already, said "Oh, let's go down there and give them a good walloping. How many are there? I can't see a bloody thing."

Basil squinted down. "Seven against four. One of them's a nun."

"...What, one of the bandits?" Rowena asked.

"One of the travelers, obviously," said Basil, starting downwards. "Come on, that walloping idea's the first good one you've had all day. Besides, we'll need the money."

They swept down and attacked the bandits, who turned out to be Muggles and cowards besides. Rowena and Basil easily Stunned three of the bandits, and the elderly nun managed to trip another up with her walking stick and kick him in the head. The others turned and fled. "Shall we go after them?" Basil asked the travelers. It was obvious that they too were Muggles.

The nun spoke up. "They have nothing of ours, do they?" She looked at her fellow-travelers, a monk, a teenage boy, and a little girl. The two children were dressed well, and probably second and third children of some lord. "If they did, it would be nothing important, certainly. You might as well let them go. Perhaps they will change their ways." She smiled, gently. Then the bandit she'd kicked in the head moaned, and she whapped him with her walking stick again until he was quiet. "Thank you for helping us."

"It was nothing," said Rowena, shrugging. "Well, I mean, it was something, but --"

"It was good fun!" said Basil, enthusiastically. "D'you mind if we sort of, er, help ourselves to what they've got on 'em? We're in some trouble ourselves, you see."

The nun looked at her companions. "Any objections?"

Her tone suggested that they would regret it if they voiced any. "Certainly not, Prioress," said the monk, quickly.

"Very good! And where are you off to, then?" she inquired.

Basil was searching the unconscious bandits for coins, so Rowena answered. "Home to Scotland," she said cheerfully, before she remembered they were travelling incognito. Basil shot her a look. Still, they were Muggles, and besides, Rowena liked this prioress. She had most likely taken the veil because she was too interesting or ferocious for her family to marry her off.

"Aah. Yes, both of you are far from home, aren't you? But you, sir wizard, you don't sound Scottish."

"Live there now," said Basil. He shot Rowena another look before evidently coming to the same conclusion as Rowena. "Born and raised in London, though."

"London! And why did you go to Scotland, then?" the prioress asked.

Basil grinned at this as he opened a bandit's money purse. "Well, I just like the weather better. It's very -- ouch!" He shook his hand out, letting the coins fall.

"Is something wrong?" asked the prioress.

"No, no," said Basil, sounding a little strangled. "Just, something sharp in here."

"Oh! Oh, right," said Rowena, suddenly remembering that Muggle money was nearly all silver. "Sorry." She hurried over to take the money for him.

"Will that do us?" Basil whispered, looking at the money in her hand. "I don't know Muggle money."

"...Probably," Rowena said. She wasn't used to travel on a budget, but if things really didn't work she supposed they could steal food.

Basil sighed. "Well, he's the only one with any money, so it's going to have to be enough."

Rowena counted it out. "Think we'll be all right," she said. She took out a third of the coins and went to the prioress. "We'd best be going, but for your church, I suppose a donation is in order. Especially considering you did thwack one of the stupid bastards senseless." She handed the prioress the coins.

"Thank you, but we don't need --"

"Oh, it's no trouble," said Basil, sounding strained. "Really. Yeah. Can I -- can I have a word with you?" He dragged Rowena off the road and hissed, "What'd you do that for?"

"You should always be kind to travelers and strangers," said Rowena. It was basic xenia. "Everybody's a traveler eventually."

"Yeah, like we are now, when we need money," said Basil.

"Look, if you must, think of it as a thanks-for-not-stoning-us gift," said Rowena. "Or a we-occasionally-take-advantage-of-having-magic-to-hurt-you tax."

"You're not even Christian," said Basil, in disbelief.

"Look," said Rowena. "She's an old lady, in the woods. When you're travelling and you meet an old lady in the woods, do you want to be the one who helps, or do you want to be the one who gets eaten by a hag?"

"I have killed plenty of hags," said Basil. "It doesn't require purity of heart. Mainly, it requires reflexes and good judgment, both of which I have in abundance, and you..." He frowned, then said, charitably, "Well, your reflexes are all right. Anyway, I think we'll be fine."

"You do realize she could be anybody, right?" Rowena. "And as I assume she is who she says she is -- a prioress -- she could easily make a bit of trouble for us out of sheer pettiness. I don't think she would. I think she's a harmless --" She paused, then corrected herself. "I think she's a moderately dangerous but well-intentioned old lady. And if you like, you can go right back and tell her to give the money back. But personally, I listen to my conscience."

He sighed. "Fine." He trudged back to the road, muttering, "...her, lecturing me about having a conscience."

They bade farewell to the Muggles -- the prioress suggested a Muggle inn along the road where the innkeeper was honest and the food was cheap -- and they continued on broom. They stayed the night at the place the prioress recommended, and were well-received; she'd apparently reached her abbey and sent messengers out to inform the innkeeper that their strange guests had stepped in to save the prioress from bandits, and that she would pay for their meals. (Rowena was a bit smug about this.)

The innkeeper, an otherwise kind man, had somehow assumed they were a married couple, a notion Rowena wasn't keen to disabuse him of -- and Basil seemed to be of the same mind -- so they handled the conversation about "how long have you been married?" (Basil answered this with the date he'd married Helga, and left out the bit about the Inferi that had attacked the night of) and "got any kids?" (One, a daughter, said Rowena) with minimal strain and a lot of vagueness. They had a short but bitter argument over who would be sleeping on the floor, each trying to out-self-sacrifice the other, but in the end Rowena decided the bed was hardly any softer, and took it for herself. The next morning they left at dawn.

* * *

Clio was willing to bet Leander had never had so many distinguished guests in his bedroom at once before. There was Clio, the Aurelia Imperatrix, lying in Leander's bed recovering from her wounds, and Her Grace the Duchess of Ithaca Magica and of Sarpedon, Most Holy and High Priestess of Apollo Iatrus and of Artemis Locheia, Healer to the Chief of the Wizards' Council, scolding Clio for being so reckless about having tried to walk, and Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Magica, Chief of the Wizards' Council, Duchess of Aeaea and of Caledonia Magica, Thorn in the Side of All Who Knew Her, Devourer of Stolen Baked Goods, Ruiner of Perfectly Good Goblin Blades, and so forth, who was the only cheerful person in the room, mostly because she was telling Leander what to do with his decor.

And hitting on him, which seemed to make him terribly uncomfortable. For once in her life, Clio was glad that Healer Kewesh was here, and also that Healer Kewesh disapproved so strongly of extramarital sex with prostitutes. (Either that or she was a hypocrite, because whatever Healer Kewesh got up to with her sister-in-law, it was pretty damn extramarital.) Lady Aeaeae was inquiring leeringly about a sword hung on one wall, a very fancy one from Damascus that he certainly knew nothing about.

Leander smiled nervously. "Er, I, Clio gave it to me, your ladysh-- hign-- majes--"

"Ophelia," Lady Aeaeae supplied helpfully. She looked like a cat who'd caught a mouse. "Tell me, do you know how to handle a sword?"

"He's absolutely bloody hopeless at it," said Clio, helpfully. Leander catered mostly to the wealthy and powerful, so if he was intimidated by Lady Aeaeae, it was probably because he was a good judge of character, and not just because of her position. Or maybe it was that Clio'd told him some of the horrible things Lady Aeaeae asked for. Certainly, one asked different horrible things of one's bodyguards and one's prostitutes, but horrible people asked for horrible things, and they didn't like to hear the word "no," so if she continued in this vein, Clio would hate her even more.

Lady Aeaeae opened her mouth again to say something else awful, but fortunately Goronwy finally showed up. "Oh good, you're all here," he said, looking around.

"Indeed we are," said Healer Kewesh. "You might've arrived sooner."

"The Portkey from Hogsmeade was late, and then I ran into some vampires on the way," said Goronwy. "This neighborhood is far too close to the Nocturne for my taste, Lady Aeaeae, and I really think Clio ought to be moved."

Healer Kewesh piped up. "I also think this... this place is unbecoming of the dignity of the office which Aurelia Sheffield holds."

Lady Aeaeae looked at Clio. "Do you want to be moved?"

"Nope," said Clio. At least in this, Lady Aeaeae was a good employer. "Sorry, Healer Kewesh. Fuck off, Goronwy."

"A decision has been reached," said Lady Aeaeae. "Thank you, both of you, for your input. Aurelius Grummond, I believe you had news for us?"

"Yesterday, the prioress of Arthington Priory was saved from bandits by a Scotswoman with Mediterranean looks, and a fair-haired freckly Londoner. They descended from the sky on broomsticks and used spells to drive the bandits off, and told her they were going to Scotland," said Goronwy. "So impressed was she by their valor, their charity, their kindness, that upon reaching her destination she straightaway sent a messenger to the Abbot of Bidemere, who of course is a Kentigernian, praising his efforts at instilling Christian values into the hearts and minds of the magical. And the Abbot knew by description that the lady was probably your daughter." He nodded at Lady Aeaeae. "So he sent me an owl straightaway, describing these events, and now we know exactly where they were yesterday, and how they're travelling. I assume the Londoner is Hufflepuff, and that they are getting to Hogsmeade to summon the Transport Key, which means the others we're looking for are still in Wyke somewhere, hiding."

"And Slytherin's allowing us to use his Aurae Cuprorum?" Clio asked.

"He tried to slither out of it, but eventually we got him to agree. They even let us put wards around the castle," said Goronwy.

"And Alfhild sent a note with an earlier Portkey. She said you got into a dust-up with Jasper Slytherin," Clio said pointedly.

Goronwy went red. "The library's full of books I haven't read!"

"And you were as charming as you always are," said Clio, sarcastically.

"Of course I was!" Goronwy said, not catching her tone. "...He called me a commoner," he added, defensively.

Clio rolled her eyes. "Right. Let's talk about the actual relevant bits of the whole thing, shall we? Slytherin was too cooperative. We weren't to trust his coppers at any rate, but there you go, by just giving them to us he's told us they're worthless anyway, yeah?" She looked at Lady Aeaeae, who nodded. "See? This politics bullshit's easy. I could do your job if I liked kissing arses." Clio was fairly certain she was the only person who could get away with talking like this to Lady Aeaeae, but it did get her a raised eyebrow. "So we're not going to let them work for us, at least not unsupervised. They're loyal to Slytherin but they're not so loyal they'd risk trial for treason."

"He does have connections," Healer Kewesh pointed out. "He can spirit people out of Europe -- Hermes only knows where they end up."

"Koschei the Deathless' people seem to think sometimes they end up in Rus," said Lady Aeaeae.

"Koschei the Deathless has people?" Healer Kewesh asked. "I thought we were at war with that frozen corpse."

"'People' is charitable," said Lady Aeaeae. "He has ...things."

"They used to be people," said Clio, helpfully. "Anyway, the last border skirmish was weeks ago and the rotting bastard pays well for unicorn blood."

"Ophelia," said Healer Kewesh, scandalized.

"Look, I've got to make up for budget shortfalls somehow," said Lady Aeaeae. "Next time you're running an empire -- oh, wait, you haven't the nerve or the ambition, have you?"

"Well, I also didn't kill my father," said Healer Kewesh, nastily. She must've instantly realized she'd overstepped some invisible boundary, because she added, "I'm sorry, Ophelia, that was --"

"That was?" Lady Aeaeae demanded, giving her a very stern look.

"Well, he did need killing," said Healer Kewesh, frowning.

The look became a glare.

"I suppose it was more self-defense, wasn't it?" said Healer Kewesh.

An arched eyebrow.

"And he had so many enemies, I suppose he'd have been dead soon anyway," said Healer Kewesh, in what was by far the most charitable and soothing voice Clio had ever heard her use.

"Don't bring up my father," snapped Lady Aeaeae.

"-- I didn't mean --"

"You know better."

"You know," said Healer Kewesh, still trying to be comforting, "they actually celebrate the day when --"

"If you don't shut up I will have your head mounted on my wall at home, and I'll throw the rest of you to that bloody great kelpie that looks like a sea-dragon."

There was an uncomfortable silence. "...So," hazarded Healer Kewesh, "Slytherin could send all his Aurae Cuprorum to Rus, or wherever else he sends people."

"Yes, but then he'd be out all his local human armed forces, and it certainly wouldn't do much for his reputation as a good lord to swear loyalty to. And even if he did want to sacrifice that reputation, he'd have to use his goblins to keep order. Goblins! I should think the peasantry would rebel," said Lady Aeaeae. "Besides, that would use up an awful lot of favors just to keep some grunts alive. It's not practical. And my Aurae can beat up his Aurae, so if we keep them all supervised.... Cliodna, how many of them could one of you take in a fight?"

Clio considered this. "Alfhild, easily six or seven if they're stupid enough to piss her off, otherwise four or five. Jan, there's a good chance they'll underestimate him, probably at least two. Hatim, I dunno, he's all right in a duel but he needs prep time for all his better work, I try to keep him out of the front lines. Leave him to handle anything funny Jasper Slytherin pulls. Bogdanovic will try to kill at least one person if we let him out there, but his attention span's limited, so I think his limit's two, one to watch the other one's back. Maelys... One. Two, maybe? Her spells hit hard but she's got no strategy. Goronwy can probably handle two of them --"

"Two?" Goronwy demanded, insulted.

"You're right, that is giving you too much credit," said Clio. "Two if they're both men. If one's a woman, he's fucked, he'll be staring at her tits. And that leaves me, and I'm out of commission, so none for me. So I'd suggest putting Alfhild on this and Jan, and if we can get Hatim back from ...where is he, Barcelona?"

"He's handling that horrible serial necromancer case, yeah," said Goronwy. "Nasty stuff. I say next time we have something that fucked-up going on, we point Bogdanovic in the right direction and don't ask questions."

"Justice preempts vengeance. But this bullshit preempts justice. Call him back, I want someone good to deal with the arithmancy on this, and he and Jasper Slytherin studied under some of the same people."

"I could handle the arithmancy," said Goronwy. "Besides, that necromancy stuff is..." He shuddered. "Somebody needs to take care of it, and he's good at that finding criminals stuff."

"You're certain you can do this?" Clio asked.

"I got a good look at his library, and I've got all his legal book purchases and loans from the last ...six years, I think?" said Goronwy. "If you know what somebody's read, you know how they think."

Clio didn't really think that was true, but Goronwy was educated and she really wasn't, so he probably knew better. "All right, we've got that covered, but it'd be nice to get to them before they get to Slytherin's castle. I don't know if we've got anybody to spare, but if there are trustworthy allies between Hogsmeade and where they we know they were last... can I see a map?"

Goronwy unfolded the standard-issue map he carried with him, put it in her lap, and charmed a red X onto a town in the North of England. "Yesterday morning they were here. I don't know what they're using for landmarks, but if it was me, I'd go to York, follow Dere Street north, and then I'd --"

She stopped him. There was something wrong with the route he was tracing over the parchment, but she could not for the life of her recall what it was at first. Then she turned to Lady Aeaeae. "Haven't we been having problems with land-elves in the countryside around there?"

"Learmont's on it," said Lady Aeaeae, sourly. Clio had never met the mysterious Learmont, but rumor had it he was the only Aura to survive having his job taken from him. Whatever he'd done had displeased Lady Aeaeae so much that, though he was still technically bound by the Unbreakable Vow, he had been stripped of his honorific, his uniform, and most of his pay, and sent to fight the fae.

"Yes, well, all right, I wouldn't take that route right now," said Goronwy, grumpily, "I'd go around the elves --"

"But they wouldn't," insisted Clio, "because we didn't mention to anyone that it was going on, did we? You said people didn't need to know and Lady Aeaeae -- sensibly," she added hastily, "said that every little thing that goes wrong doesn't have to go out to the public, and Healer Kewesh pointed out that there would be panic in the evacuation and I thought more people would die in the ensuing chaos than they would if we just let Learmont nip it in the bud before they hit any cities. I mean, consider what happens every time it gets out that the Nocturne is restive."

"Er. Well," said Goronwy. "...Are you thinking Hufflepuff and Lady Ravenclaw are going to run into them?"

"Well, it'd be awfully convenient for them if the Seelies got their hands on a couple of valuable hostages," said Clio. "One to make demands of the government," she said, looking at Lady Aeaeae, "and one, to, well... you can't deny that Helga Hufflepuff is extremely powerful when she wants to be. Never mind that half the castles in Britain are guarded by her plants. She'd make a powerful enemy if the elves had her on their side." Clio realized that Lady Aeaeae was uncharacteristically horrified. "Not that Hufflepuff could do much damage long-term," she said, quickly. "Her methods leave a trail, she'd be easy to find, and I think we could defeat her without --"

"We don't have to worry about hostages," said Lady Aeaeae, shakily. "The fairies in question are Unseelie."

There was a very loud silence. Healer Kewesh finally spoke up. "Well, then, send a messenger now! Learmont will have to help -- and perhaps we can intercept --"

"No," said Lady Aeaeae. She swallowed before speaking again. "Cliodna, do you remember the unpleasant but expedient plan we discussed?"

Clio stared at her, and then realized what she meant. But Lady Aeaeae looked so upset that Clio couldn't see how she could mean it. Finally, because Clio was an unsubtle soul and did not like hidden meanings, she said, "You mean you're going to let them kill her?"

Lady Aeaeae started to explain. "If we can replace her --"

"What?" demanded Healer Kewesh.

"I'm so confused," said Goronwy. He peered at his map, folded it up, then unfolded it and studied it again, as if it might explain everything.

"Nobody knows about the fairies stationed there," said Lady Aeaeae, sounding remarkably calm. "It's the perfect way to get rid of --"

"Ophelia!" shouted Healer Kewesh. "...If you'll excuse us? Ophelia, can we talk about this outside?" She practically dragged Lady Aeaeae out of the small room, into the corridor.

Goronwy looked at Clio. "She wants to let the fairies kill her daughter?"

Clio sighed. "It's politically expedient."

"Have you read any of Lady Rowena's work? She's a genius," said Goronwy. "The loss to the field of magical theory would be unimaginable. I mean, she is horrible, but she's a good theoretician."

"I've no use for theory, but personally, I like her writing on the Homeric epics," said Leander, looking up from his book. "Completely mad, but strangely plausible. On the other hand, it does occur to me that it'd be a terrible tragedy if Ophelia Aeaeae was assassinated right outside my door because her two bodyguards were inside faffing about whilst she was having some silly private conversation. Do you mind cracking the door open a bit?"

"You're right," said Clio. "It's our civic duty to listen in. Goronwy?"

Goronwy stealthily slid the door open just a crack, and they all listened in silence. Irritatingly, Healer Kewesh and Lady Aeaeae were speaking too quietly for Clio to catch everything they said, but fortunately Healer Kewesh started to raise her voice.

"...and of course she isn't going to do what you tell her to, but Ophelia, she's your daughter!"

Lady Aeaeae's voice was quiet and icy, and all that was clearly audible was "...not your place... ...terrible decisions."

"Well, of course she is! That's what kids do. Listen, I had to talk my daughter out of becoming a Christian, but you don't see me --"

There was an inquiring-sounding sentence from Lady Aeaeae.

"Well, everybody at university is doing it, it's just a phase -- look, the point is..." And here, she lowered her voice again, frustratingly.

She fell silent in a few moments, and Lady Aeaeae was speaking again, in as cold a voice as Clio had ever heard. She strained to hear, but could pick nothing out.

Then Healer Kewesh spoke again, shakily. "Y-yes, yes of course. I. I mean, no, I wouldn't want that to happen. As a matter of fact, I -- I -- yes. Yes, well." They heard footsteps coming back towards Leander's door, and all three of them tried to look so engrossed in the map that it had never occurred to them to listen in.

Healer Kewesh burst into the room, looking very frightened. "I have a -- a thing. On the other side of the city! Very urgent. Must dash. Goodbye," she said politely nodding at all of them, forgetting even to be disdainful of Leander. She turned to go, then, remembering something, turned back. "Sheffield!" she barked. "I suppose you can start getting back to routine. No riding or Muggle weapons of any kind. Light spellwork only. For a week. Or else. Goodbye!" And then she was gone. This sank in in a moment, and Clio sprang up off the bed to look for anything she'd left at Leander's, because by God she was sick of this room.

But before she could find anything, Lady Aeaeae reentered the room, looking much more like herself -- which was to say that she had clearly got her own way, and didn't look on the verge of tears anymore. "Aurelius Grummond," she said, calmly, "I would like you to assemble candidates to be Obliviated, and remade into my daughter. Now, the main challenge is the appearance, but the Unseelie do like to gloat over their victories; they may return a head, and with that we can make a great deal of Polyjuice Potion. I will assemble a list of requirements, but the most important ones are that they be young women of noble blood, fairly strong magic, in good health, disposable to their families, literate -- but only of average intelligence or lower, and reasonably docile. I think a facility with languages would make her especially convincing, so if you can think of anybody who doesn't quite fit the other qualities...."

Goronwy looked so stunned that Clio worried he might say something to get himself executed, so she decided to step in. "Lady Aeaeae, what happens if they don't catch her? She and Hufflepuff might somehow sneak past, or -- or get away, or take another route."

"If they take another route, the gods have decided in her favor," said Lady Aeaeae, "and I will be very relieved. And if she does go that way, but manages to evade them somehow, which I doubt, well... perhaps she deserves to be my daughter after all." She left without another word, and Goronwy hurried after her.

After a few moments, Leander checked the door to ensure that it was shut. "I don't think anybody deserves to be her daughter," he said. "She's a terror. ...Clio, that wasn't your idea, was it?"

"...No," said Clio, who was looking under the bed for her shoes. "Trust me, Lady Aeaeae might be scary, but the daughter's a piece of work too. At any rate, I don't mean to be rude, but I need to get the hell out of this room," she said. "It's driving me mad. I can't stay another minute. Where's my other bloody shoe?"

Leander tapped on her shoulder, and when she looked up, she saw that he was lying on his stomach on the bed, smirking. He waved the missing shoe. "Here it is, but you can't stay for just a little bit longer?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Well, I suppose getting the hang of dueling can wait a little," said Clio. She took the shoe, dropped it on the floor next to the other one, then grabbed Leander by the front of his tunic and pulled him in for a kiss.

* * *

Godric was starting to feel quite horrible for the innkeeper. Before the Norse contingent had left for Rome, Sindri had taken it into his head to do a spell on one of their rooms, which kept the room hidden unless they personally told anybody about it. This made it easy for them to hide when the Aurae Cuprorum searched the inn, which they had done twice now, but, well, it must be horrible to lose an entire room. Godric hated losing things, and it wasn't a very big inn to begin with.

Godric was feeling especially sorry for her now, because she was currently trying to explain to the Aurae Cuprorum why she'd said she had six rooms when clearly there were only five. The most bizarre thing about this was that he was watching from the doorway of the phantom sixth room and nobody noticed him at all.

"I must've made a mistake," she said, worriedly. "And here I thought I was good at maths, ha!"

One of the coppers made a fist, and Godric leapt back, certain he was going to get punched in the face. The man knocked on the empty air, listening to sounds only he could hear. "It seems like solid wall," he told his partner.

"It looked like there might be a room from outside," said the other one. He shook his head. "Sorry, Mistress Davies," she said.

"Sorry?" she snapped. "You've been in here twice already! And you, Ernald," she said, turning to the other one. "I expected better from you. See if I don't talk to your father about this."

"Sorry, auntie," he said, hanging his head.

"Ern, shut up," said the first one. "Look, it's just procedure. This is the place they were at before, and the bloody Aurae Aurelii are getting all --"

"I don't care if they've threatened to turn you into woodlice," she snapped. "You lot have been over every inch of my inn three times now and it's worrying the customers."

"But I don't want to be a woodlouse," Ern pointed out. He frowned at the doorway again.

"Shut up, Ern," said his partner. "Only you have to admit, it is odd. I always thought there were six rooms up here too."

"Well, apparently you don't know everything, do you?" said the innkeeper. "Now run along back to the Aurae Aurelii and tell them Hiltrut Davies has had quite enough of them and their fugitives and their searches and their orders. And see if I give you any free pie next time you're on break," she said.

"It's very good pie, Mistress Davies," said the copper. When this appeared not to move her, he said, "We'll just run along, then, won't we, Ern?"

Ern got out his wand, and eyed it speculatively. "I wonder if we ought to try --"

"Ern," said the other copper. "Come on."

"Oh, all right," said Ern. The innkeeper shooed them down the stairs, complaining all the while.

"I feel like we ought to apologize to her," said Godric.

"She seems nice enough," said Helga, "but we'd better not. She might turn us in."

"Well, at least we'd get to go outside," said Godric, who had to marvel at Helga's continuing cheer; he was going a bit mad cooped up like this. He wished he had brought something to read.

Helga snorted. "What are you talking about, Godric? When we're home you tend not to leave your office for three days straight. This is a normal weekend for you."

"Well, yes, but it's not like I don't do anything," said Godric. "My weekends are very productive!" Also, he didn't have to deal with people in his office. Helga was mostly all right, but she was still people.

"You don't even go to church," said Helga. "Or supper." She sounded somewhat concerned.

"Well, I'm sorry, but usually I have better things to do," said Godric. If there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was people worrying about him. It made him feel all obligated. And he wished Helga had not mentioned food, because he was getting very hungry.

There was a sudden clatter on the stairs, and soon Adela appeared, carrying two trays of delicious-smelling food. She caught sight of the open door, and frowned. "You're just leaving the door open like that?" she asked.

"It doesn't seem to make a difference," said Godric, shrugging.

"Did anybody notice you?" Helga asked.

Adela shrugged. "I just, you know, grabbed the food from the kitchens and told 'em I was taking it up to room six. I don't think it even registered. Only Mum was yelling at Cousin Ern, so no one was listening anyway. I like Ern, but he's not very sensible," she said. "Anyway, you lot are driving my poor old mother mad, so your friend had better come through soon. It's bad enough I had to Obliviate her. And you," she said, turning to Godric, "you had better put in a good word for me to Prudentia Quigg, since apparently Fudge is retired." She glared at him, as though she thought he was lying.

"He is retired," insisted Godric. "Prudentia Quigg's a much better Transfigurator, honestly."

"He's right, you know," said Helga. "You wouldn't get on with Fudge at all, anyway."

"Right," she said, apparently unconvinced. "There's your food, and this bloody spell had better be off the room when you leave," she said, "or I will hunt you down, turn you into sardines, and eat you." She smiled, sweetly but unconvincingly. "Have a good supper!" Then she turned on her heel and left.

"I don't even know Prudentia Quigg," moaned Godric, once he was certain she was out of earshot. "What if she doesn't care about my recommendation?"

"Have you ever considered becoming a sardine?" asked Helga.

"I can't swim," Godric pointed out.

"Well, it wouldn't be for very long," Helga said, trying to sell it to him. "She said she'd eat us." More seriously, she added, "Godric, you're a really good Transfigurator. You're not as famous as Fudge, but... well... I think your word counts for something. It ought to, at any rate." Godric had decided, for the moment, to put aside the troubling things she was lying about, because he had enough to worry about, but one of the things he found very irritating about Helga was that it was so hard to hate her.

"I don't know," said Godric, feeling that to accept this compliment would make it impossible for him to return to accusing her of lying. "I mean, rumors are just rumors. Prudentia Quigg is probably the best Transfigurator in Britain."

Helga looked pointedly at him. "Before Fudge retired, he was supposed to be the best."

"We did flashy nonsense," said Godric. "That and routine things people needed. I never did anything for him that was, you know, really difficult. Prudentia Quigg's a real Transfigurator. She's an excellent theoretician. She knows exactly what she's doing."

"Oh, right," said Helga. "So impressive-looking stuff that takes a lot of practice to make it look right isn't actually real Transfiguration. And obviously neither is stuff that people need you to do and while it may not look impressive, it's got to be effective or else the other people's spells will fail. Is that right? So exactly what is real Transfiguration?"

Godric sighed. "Helga, sometimes people just want to wallow in misery and despair. Is that so much to ask?" He took a meat pie from one of the trays and took a huge bite out of it. It was quite good, and he finished it off quickly.

"Well, yes, as I'm stuck with your misery and despair until we get home," said Helga, helping herself to some stew.

"Sorry," Godric muttered. He supposed Helga would probably rather be stuck with Rowena than with him. Or Basil. Or, well, anyone, really.

And certainly Rowena would rather be stuck with Helga than practically anybody else. This thought came unbidden, and had nothing to do with anything, really, only he was worried for Rowena and whatever inevitably terrible idea she would act on next, and it also made him a bit angry, really, that Rowena could be so blind to the fact that Helga was hiding something, and not hiding it well.

He didn't even like Rowena. He didn't think he did, anyway. Probably it was just that Godric was a sort-of-good person, and didn't like to see people unhappy or betrayed. But Godric's anger was a selfish sort of anger; it did not feel like righteous anger at all. He felt terribly guilty about it.

He was going over the whole situation again in his head for the second or third time when Helga finally said, "Is something wrong, Godric? There's loads of food left."

"I'm not hungry," he said. All this worrying had killed his appetite. And he had no one to talk to but Helga. Who was the problem, really. Well, he had to say something, he decided. "Look, I haven't forgotten what you said back when we were escaping, I'm not misremembering, and I'm not lying. What's going on, and why are you lying to Rowena?"

Helga's cheerfulness was undamaged. "What, do you honestly think I'm hiding some sort of dark secret?"

He gave her his most unimpressed look. "I know you, Helga, and for the most part, I like you. But you're... you're not being yourself. And I think we both know what it's like to get so caught up in something that you don't notice it's gone wrong."

She raised an eyebrow, looking as if she was having a difficult time not laughing. "Godric. You think I'm a spy?"

"Not especially," said Godric, "but the fact that you jumped to that conclusion does worry me. Look," he sighed, "if you are doing something you shouldn't be, I know that you're not doing it for some simple banal reason like greed. You've justified it to yourself, whatever it is, and you don't think you have a choice. That's what makes this hard to do."

She smiled as if Godric had told a joke he didn't understand. "Are you threatening me?"

Godric rolled his eyes. "Well, a bit. Whatever you're doing, I'm going to find out," he said, sternly. The grin did not vanish from her face. "Look, Helga," he said, frustrated that she wouldn't take him seriously, "you've pretty much admitted to me that you're up to something. I don't like you lying to Rowena about me. She knows perfectly well you're lying, and even if you don't care about me, I know you care about Rowena, and if you've been working with her mother this whole time --"

"Oh come on, Godric," said Helga, who had gone from a smirk to a glower. "You think I would betray her?"

"I don't know what you'd do," said Godric. "All I know is you've got a pretty nasty streak -- you always have. D'you remember the time you and Rowena tied me to my ankles to that broom and just let it fly over the forest? And then there was the time you and Rowena were having a row, so you bribed me to transfigure all her hair into tapeworms. And then there was that irritating French girl who you and Rowena --"

"I don't do that sort of thing anymore!" said Helga, now looking quite appalled. "And believe me, I'm sorry I did. I didn't realize -- I thought..." She trailed off. "...Look. I -- I think I made a mistake. A really, really dreadful, horrible, life-changing bad mistake. And Rowena's mum got me out of it. And -- and she said I would owe her a favor. I didn't -- I didn't know who I was dealing with, she was just, you know, Rowena's mum who runs the world. She was -- she was nice. You know how she can be nice," said Helga.

"I ...don't, actually," said Godric, frowning.

"Well, she can. She can be really, really nice," said Helga, blinking back tears. "And she was the only one who could get me out of trouble, and I thought, well, all right, I'll owe her one."

"I don't understand. Why didn't you just deal with the consequences?" Godric asked. It wasn't like Helga, letting somebody else clean up her mistakes. "I mean, running away like an idiot's something I would do."

Helga was crying now. "I couldn't. The only way --" She took a shaky breath. "There was a mob of people out for my blood. People I'd never met. They didn't even know who I was. But I'd wronged them, and if they ever found me --"

"What did you do?" asked Godric, horrified.

"I don't -- I don't want to talk about it. I don't remember what I did, but -- but I have a pretty good guess," said Helga, shakily. "You can't tell Basil," she said. "Or Rowena. They think I'm a good person. I couldn't bear it if -- I just -- I didn't betray anyone. Not intentionally. But I've done much worse, I think, and I can't ever make up for that."

Godric patted her on the shoulder, gently. "I don't understand what happened, but I'm sorry," he said. Then, hating himself for saying it, he added, "You're going to have to tell Lord Slytherin, though. When we get back. He's going to be really upset with all of us."

"I know," said Helga, looking frazzled and sad.

He didn't really know what to say after that, and they sat in silence for a long while.

Chapter 31

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December 2012


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