For my birthday dinner, Marlene has chosen exactly the same restaurant that Johnny took me to on the evening when he proposed that I move into his flat. The small room isn’t nearly as crowded as it was back in autumn, and the menu has been significantly cut down, with fewer exotic options – but none of these changes suffice to stop me from reliving my memory of the pathetically vulnerable expression on Johnny’s face as he stormed out of the restaurant.

“And he keeps dropping hints that he’s going to propose,” says Marlene, awakening me from this reverie. “At least, I think that’s what he’s hinting at. I s’pose it could just be wishful thinking.”

“Propose?” I say, spilling a forkful of pasta onto the floor. I can hardly scoop the pasta off the floor with my hands, but I feel like an idiot sitting here with a pile of spilled pasta at my feet. Feeling somewhat guilty, I scrape it underneath the table with my shoe. “As in, you know, a proposal of marriage?

Marlene frowns at me. “No, Aislin, I’m hoping he’s going to propose we start taking ballet lessons together.”

“Right, sorry,” I say, snorting at the idea. “It just seems sort of sudden, doesn’t it? I mean, you’ve only been dating for a few months, and you just started living together. Would you say yes to him?”

“I think I would,” says Marlene, biting her lip, which is curled into a smile. She looks healthy: her hair is neatly cut and shiny, her eyes are bright, and she’s wearing a new set of robes. I wonder whether she’s taking extra care with her appearance for Johnny’s benefit, and then curse myself internally for being so nasty. “It’s not really that sudden, mind. We’ve known each other for years – we were both Prefects back at school.”

I’m not sure that wearing matching badges counts as knowing each other, is what I’d like to say. But Marlene seems happier than she has been since we left Hogwarts, so I keep quiet and stuff some spaghetti into my mouth. I’m caught between Remus’ view on the matter (that she’s happy, and that’s what matters, so I should mind my own business) and Sirius’ (that Johnny is a blubbering numbskull and Marlene needs me to drag her back down to reality). I’d be really pleased if Marlene were head-over-heels for anybody else, but the idea of her bearing Johnny Hartford’s children is almost enough to make me regurgitate my dinner.

“Anyway,” says Marlene, not seeming to notice that there’s any conflict going on inside my head. “What about you? Any news about…anyone?”

“Nah,” I say quickly. “I’ve mostly just been trying not to get murdered. Fairly successfully, I’m pleased to say.”

“Hmm,” says Marlene, apparently disappointed by the lack of news. I’m lying on that front, of course – there are plenty of things I’d like to tell her, the most obvious one being the fact that I kissed Sirius. It would also be nice to confide in somebody about that bizarre moment of attraction toward Remus back in March. But on both counts, something holds me back. Maybe I don’t want Marlene getting all excited over two bits of news that are bound to come to nothing. Or maybe, I realize with a pang, we’re just not as close as we were six months ago. “Well, you’re bound to meet someone good eventually,” she says.

“Hope so,” I say, because it’s easier to simply agree with her, than to tell her what’s really going on in my life.

“Anyway,” says Marlene. “Even if he does propose, it’ll probably be ages until we’re able to get married. He’s so busy with work – for a while they were sending him out on day trips practically every other week. And I’ve got loads going on, obviously, so it’ll have to wait for a bit.”

“Yeah,” I say vacantly.

When we’ve finished eating, I give Marlene a hug, thank her for my birthday dinner, and return home with a vague sensation of anticlimax. I’d been looking forward to dinner with Marlene, but the actual event was a pathetic disappointment. Our conversation was stilted and uninteresting, and it feels like I’ve just been to an interview with a reporter, rather than dinner with my best friend.

“Bah,” I mutter to myself, sinking absently onto the sofa, my hands reflexively reaching for a stray pile of case notes. I glance over them without really taking in any information, my eyes dancing over the names and photographs of the Tarot Killer’s victims. Edwin Napier, last seen at Potter wedding, wand missing from crime scene… I shove the notes away, preferring not to think about old Edwin Napier with his clever eyes and love of Ireland, Edwin Napier pinned up like a dead insect on display.

My dad sent me a long, rambling letter when he heard about Napier’s death. He doesn’t write often, so it was a surprise to receive the long roll of parchment covered in his scratchy handwriting, whole sentences crossed-out and re-written: Best damn Quidditch Captain Hogwarts ever had, and A right true Dub, he was, and so on. With a twinge of guilt, I remember that I still haven’t written back to him. I wish I could console him, but I’m not sure I know how. I try to imagine how I would feel if Remus or Sirius or Marlene were killed, but that kind of grief is a world away, unfathomable to me.

I pull my wand out of my pocket and swish it lazily over my head. “Accio Firewhisky.”

“You’re not drinking alone on your birthday?” says Remus, frowning at me as he climbs out of the fire a while later. He’s been busy at the Ministry all day, but he did slip a bar of chocolate underneath my door before he left this morning. I know that I should thank him for the gesture, but for some reason – possibly, the idea of Remus standing right outside my bedroom door – makes me shy away from bringing it up. I’ve never been much good at expressing my feelings, gratitude least of all. “That’s not very festive. Shall I join you?”

“Remus,” I say, shaking my head. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hardly need you getting drunk and getting sick all over the sofa. The poor sofa’s been through quite enough, I think.”

“Then we’ll switch to Butterbeer,” says Remus, deftly snatching the Firewhisky bottle out of my hand as he crosses to the kitchen. He seems more energetic than usual, or less tired anyway. “Anyway, I’ve got some interesting news.”

“Bugger,” I mutter to myself, rolling over onto my side. Bloody Remus, parading into the flat and stealing my liquor. Through the thin haze of the Firewhisky, the world seems terribly unfair.

“There,” says Remus, coming back into view. He presses a bottle of Butterbeer into my hands and pulls up an armchair. “So, Moody’s taken our advice. He sent a couple of Aurors out to Knockturn Alley to see if the shopkeepers could remember any of Madame Luminaire’s customers.”

I hiccup. “And?”

“And, apparently, one of them did,” says Remus. “They had a hard time getting anyone to talk, which only makes sense, Moody says there’ve been loads of Ministry raids on those shops. But, listen to this – according to one shopkeeper, Madame Luminaire had two regulars. One of them was a tall bloke, blond, always wore Muggle clothes. The Aurors showed her a photograph of Kevin North, and she said that was him.”

I sit up, enraptured, leaning in toward Remus. “So North was interested in all that tarot stuff. Well, I s’pose it makes sense, where else would he have gotten all those books on arcane magic? What else did she say? Who was the other regular?”

“She said she never saw his face,” Remus tells me. “He always wore a hood.”

“So, he was somebody recognizable,” I say, remembering the lengths I took to avoid recognition on my visits to Knockturn Alley. “Somebody important, probably.”

“Important enough to want to avoid being seen on Knockturn Alley,” Remus agrees. “Maybe a Prophet reporter, a celebrity, someone from the Ministry.”

“Yeah.” I frown. Something is stirring deep in my head, like a big fish in a frozen lake. It undulates in the depths, begins to surface. “Remus, do you s’pose Edwin Napier Apparated straight back to his flat after James and Lily’s wedding?”

“Probably,” says Remus. “I didn’t take much notice of him, but I don’t think anybody left before midnight. It’s not as if he could have popped into Flourish and Blott’s at that hour, so, yeah, I’d say he probably went straight home. Why?”

“Because you can’t Transfigure wands,” I say quietly, the great big fish taking a strong upward stroke through the cold water, bringing with it a quiet little thrill of horror. I sink back into the sofa cushions, taking a sip of Butterbeer. It’s smooth and sweet and lovely, and I gulp it down, keen to get the lingering, acrid taste of Firewhisky out of my mouth.

“What d’you mean?” says Remus, looking puzzled. But before I can reply, the fire flares up in a whorl of green, and Peter Pettigrew comes stumbling out of it, looking dazed. He takes a few steps into the room, and stops, staring at Remus and me. His mouth hangs slightly open, his eyebrows cinched, like he’s grasping at words but can’t catch them. Gazing back at him through the dissipating veil of Firewhisky and the tangle of my own thoughts (…wand missing from crime scene…), I realize that something is wrong.

“What happened?” Remus stands up, his face turned to stone. “Is it Sirius?”

Wide-eyed and trembling, Peter sinks into a chair. He takes a deep breath, glancing from Remus’ face to mine, and says, “No. They don’t know where Sirius is, but he made it out in time.”

I close my eyes, my head falling back against the cushions in relief.

“It’s Benjy Fenwick,” says Peter, speaking rapidly in a high, squeaky voice. “Emmeline Vance got cursed, she’s recuperating in St. Mungo’s, and Dumbledore sent Benjy in to replace her. It looks like they tracked Benjy and Sirius down, somehow, and... Well, they’re pretty sure it’s Benjy because they found his ring.”

“What do you mean?” says Remus slowly. “Why can’t they identify the body?”

Peter whimpers, looking more like a scared child than a crusader against the Death Eaters. “B-b-because there isn’t a body! They blew him to pieces, they…he…” Peter buries his face in his hands, and sobs.

“I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?” I say, jumping to my feet. Remus nods, looking startled and slightly helpless. I feel a bit guilty, leaving him on his own to comfort Peter, but I can’t stand watching people cry. Dealing with my own emotions is beastly enough to be getting along with, thank you very much.

“But they’re sure that Sirius made it out?” I hear Remus ask, before the kitchen door closes, leaving me alone with the tea kettle and my thoughts.

I never knew Benjy Fenwick. In fact, I’ve never even heard of him, and yet – They blew him to pieces… The idea alone is enough to shake anybody. Sirius, Remus, and the rest of them are playing a dangerous game. Three of their secret society have died this month, and there are bound to be more casualties before it’s all over. I lean forward against the kitchen counter, drumming my fingertips on the hard surface. Like Moody said, it’s time for me to choose a side. In this situation, refusing to get involved is no better than joining the Death Eaters.

I sigh, glancing at the kettle. It’s strange to think about all of the things that have happened in this kitchen since autumn: Remus sitting down to lunch with me for the first time, Sirius nursing me back to sobriety, Barnabus and Marlene over for dinner. It’s certainly been a year of change, I decide, as the kettle reaches a boil.

Wand missing from crime scene. The phrase bounces around in my head while I pour out the tea. I’ve just set the three teacups onto a tray and started for the door, when the realization hits me like a brick to the head.

The tray slips out of my hands and crashes to the floor, teacups shattering, sugar spilling open all across the bricks. I hardly notice – I dash out to the sitting room, grabbing my wand from the coffee table, and making for the fireplace. Remus’ gaze follows me, his eyes full of questions.


“Find Moody,” I tell him, one foot in the fire. “He needs to arrest Johnny Hartford.”

“But…” Remus looks perplexed. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get Marlene and bring her back here,” I say, my heart pounding with determination. “I’m not taking any chances of her getting caught in the crossfire if he puts up a fight. Just get over to the Ministry, and tell him to wait ten minutes, and then Floo to Johnny’s to make the arrest.”

“But, Aislin–”

“Remus, he was at our bloody flat hours before I was attacked!” I half-shout. “You said it yourself, wands can’t be transfigured. That leaves one possibility: someone must have taken my wand in advance, and left behind a duplicate so I’d feel safe enough to go outside!”

Remus is rising from his chair, comprehension dawning on his face. “And he was at the Potter’s wedding. He could have taken–”

“Taken Napier’s wand that night,” I finish impatiently. “Exactly. Now come on, will you, we’ve got to get moving!”

Before Remus can reply, I’m off in a flash of green flame, whizzing through the tangled matrix of the Floo network, and finally tumbling out of Johnny and Marlene’s fireplace, bringing a small avalanche of soot with me. Johnny and Marlene are sitting squished together in an armchair, flipping through one of Marlene’s old photograph albums. They look up at me in surprise as I hover at the threshold of the sitting room. I hadn’t actually thought about what I was going to say once I got here.

“Marlene,” I begin, taking a gulp of air. “It’s Peter, he has news. You’ve got to come quick.”

“What news?” says Marlene, her eyes widening. “Can’t you just tell me?”

“No, I can’t,” I reply quickly, taking a few steps into the room. “He says it’s top secret, he can’t tell me about it, but he needs to talk to you straight away.”

Peter does?” says Marlene, frowning as she gets to her feet. “All right, I s’pose–”

In the middle of her sentence, Marlene freezes, and crumples to the floor with a muffled moan of pain. Before I can process what’s happening, Johnny swishes his wand through the air again, sending me hurtling backward into the wall. My skull smashes against it so hard that my vision goes momentarily black.

“Damn,” I mutter, reaching for my wand - but just I feel it brushing against my fingers, it slips out from underneath them and zooms away, out of my reach.

My vision clears. I look up to see Johnny standing over me, his face gone a horrible, mottled purple. "I'm sorry about this, Aislin," he says. His hand shakes as he points his wand at me. He looks terrified. "I'm really sorry, I don't want to do this, but I haven't got a choice. He'll kill me, Aislin."

I kick out as hard as I can. My feet strike Johnny in the shins, toppling him over, and the moment he hits the ground I launch myself at him. We roll together on the floor, clawing madly at each other and grappling over Johnny's wand. Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of Marlene's crumpled form, lying motionless on the floor.

Johnny winds his arm back, aiming a punch at me. I take advantage of the opportunity to kick him hard between his legs. He howls in pain, and I wrestle the wand out of his hand, gasping for breath.

"Stupefy," I shout, pointing it at him, and Johnny's wand - as irresolute and changeable as the man himself - stuns its master for me.

I pull myself up, onto my knees, staring at Johnny's frozen figure. My brain is still trying to catch up with everything that's happened in the last five minutes. "I haven't got a choice. He'll kill me," Johnny said. What did he mean? Who will kill him?

I suddenly remember Marlene on the floor, and I'm about to go over to her when the fireplace flares up again, and Remus, Moody, and Peter tumble out of it.

"Oh," I say breathlessly, immensely glad to see the three of them. "About time you lot showed up."

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