He adjusted the clasps on Mildred's saddlebags, making sure they were just tight enough. She enjoyed the grain out of the feeding bag while he brushed her. He took the bowl of ale and held it before her, and she happily drank from it.

"Need to keep your pelt nice and shiny," he said, rubbing her nose. "Feel like taking a longer trip today? I might show Hermione the fey woods."

The horse whinnied.

"That's what I thought. She needs to get out more often."

He entered through the back door while Mildred finished her grain.

"'Mornin' Harry," Grotnug grunted.

"'Morning Grotnug."

He took the flagon of ale Grotnug placed before him and drank from it.

"Do you mind if I take Mildred out the east gate this afternoon?"

"Ya, it's fine. But if you lose 'er I'll break yer legs."

"Thanks," Harry said, downing the rest of his drink.

"O an' say hi to Sily for me."

"I will."

Grabbing his sword belt and pack, he went out and guided Mildred through the streets towards the west gate. He waved as he saw Lady Hestius huddled around some guards.

"Good morning, Lady Hestius."

"Good morning, Harry. Heading out?"

"Errand for Grotnug," he said with a nod. "Should I come by the barracks later for your delivery?"

She shook her head. "Pass by the Golden Flounder this evening."

"I will. Have a good day."

"Licht bless your path," she said with a smile.

Out the gates, he mounted Mildred, working up a light trot through Grainsbarrow and Lander Hill. He turned north through the grasslands as he got out of the city towards the forest over the bridge. Half an hour later he spotted the bald fir tree where Silvian would be waiting.

The blonde elf appeared from the treeline with a smile, his gold tooth glinting in the morning sun.

"Harre, good to see you."

"Same, Silvian," he said, shaking his hand. "Grotnug says hello."

"Heh. You hev time?" he asked, pointing to the arsenal leaning on the tree.

"Always."

He walked up and looked over the weapons, hesitating what to take. "What do you think? Bow?"

"You ar helpless wiv bow. I sink shild, you need practice."

Harry nodded and started to clasp the shield to his arm, picking up the blunt short sword beside it. Silvian picked the longsword in both hands.

"Grotnug does well? You help out good."

Harry took a defensive stance and raised his sword.

"Thanks, yeah, he's doing fine."

Silvian lunged the way only an elf could, quick and light on his feet towards Harry's blind spot. Harry barely deflected the blow with his shield.

"So sad about Percy, steal from friend, bad business."

"Yeah, good for me though."

They exchanged a few more blows, Silvian parrying easily.

"What Grotnug do? Never told."

"Broke his legs," Harry said with a smirk.

Silvian laughed. "Of course."

They sparred for a while, taking breaks in between more for Harry's sake than anything else. Around noon, he took out a jug of ale and they had lunch, Silvian sharing his light bread while Harry took out cold roasted potatoes and jerky. He asked about the city as he always did and brought news from the north. Nothing noteworthy lately except a hunter getting too far into the forest and getting his share of arrows for it. Harry noted how peaceful things were.

"Hm. Short life, cannot see beyond nose. Peace is little break."

"What, trouble?"

Silvian shrugged. "I hear crazy rumour, often false. Friend in Laxis say fastfoot find dead walking. Maybe sign, maybe nothing."

Harry narrowed his eyes. "That's rare, right?"

"Who to say? This time, rare. Other time, like morning dew."

Harry stood up and packed up his food. "I'll go for today, thanks. Wanted to meet up with a friend."

"Girl-friend?"

"Not exactly," Harry said with a laugh. "I'm married, remember."

Silvian smiled and clapped Harry on the shoulder. "Next time I teach you about us bonding customs."

"Yeah, right," Harry said with a snort. He took out a purse and Silvian handed him two wrapped packages.

"I see you when?" Silvian asked.

"Three days," Harry answered from on top Mildred. "Take care."

"You too Harre."

He made the way back with full saddlebags. By the time he got back to the Galloping Mongoose, the Floral Market was in full swing. He dropped off Mildred and walked south towards Norbert's Workshop.

"You in the back?" he called as he entered. "It's Harry."

Norbert came pattering out and frowned as he saw who was there. "Oh. What do you want?"

"Hey Norbert, I'm here to take your assistant out."

"Norgariel! How many times?"

"Fine. Norgariel the Wise, can I take Hermione out of the workshop today?"

He sighed dramatically. "I suppose you could."

Approaching Harry, he whispered, "Tell you the truth I think she spends too much time in her books."

"Don't I know it."

The workshop itself was a horribly cluttered space full of what you might see in any wizard's workshop, plus gaudy decorations. He frowned as he spotted a wisp of brown curls behind a mountain of parchment and books. Of course she hadn't noticed the commotion from the shop's entrance.

"This feels familiar."

She turned back with a start. "Harry! Oh, hi. What time is it?"

"Still daylight," he answered amusedly. "Finish up, we're going out."

"I was busy..."

"And you'll be busy tomorrow. Come on, I've wanted to show you this for the past two weeks."

"What about Ginny?"

"You mean if I could get a hold of her."

She seemed to think for a while and nodded, cleaning her quill. "Okay, where are we going?"

"It's a surprise."

She scrutinized him the whole way back to the Galloping Mongoose, but it would be a cold day in hell before Hermione was able to read his poker-face. He stopped in front of Mildred and adjusted the saddle.

"What are you doing?"

"Do you want to walk six miles?"

"Oh God, I hate this."

They started the walk to the east gate.

"You don't like horses?" he said in surprise.

"Horses are just brooms with four legs."

"If they could fly they would be. It's fine, you've done this before."

"I bloody well haven't."

Harry shrugged.

"Hippogriff, horse, this is a downgrade – no offence, Mildred."

Seeing her still doubtful as they exited the gate, he sighed and mounted the horse and extended a hand.

"Put your foot in the stirrups, I'll pull you up."

He helped lift her in front and guided her hands to the horn. "Hold here, you won't fall."

"Okay," she said nervously.

She managed a light trot, but closed her eyes when he worked Mildred into a canter. They arrived just near a side-stream of the Great Bogle River.

"You can open your eyes now," he said with a grin.

"I hate this," she said.

After he helped her down, she hit him in the arm, but a smile betrayed the reluctant excitement she got from the trip.

"So," she said, sitting in the grass beside him, "what are we doing here?"

"What, the nice view and nature isn't good enough?"

"Oh, shut it."

He took out a gourd of ale and took a sip from it, handing it to her.

"It's not for certain. I saw them around half the time when I came here in the afternoon."

"See what?"

"Do you still have your book bag, with the broken clasp?"

She twisted the bag around her neck, tugging at the torn leather strap. "Yes, I should've gotten it repaired earlier this week."

"Just hold it ready."

"I'm not going to fight some monster with my bag!"

Harry chuckled. "Am I really that much of a bloodthirsty thrill seeker?"

"Yes."

"No monsters… this time."

They drank for a while and he thought they wouldn't see anything until he heard the light sound of strings and flutes playing in the bush ahead.

"Don't startle them," he whispered, "and don't try to talk to them directly, just… well, enjoy."

Seemingly out of nowhere, six two foot tall blue eyed creatures shyly approached them, never stopping their music and singing. Harry pulled out another gourd and poured a white liquid into a cup, placing it a few feet away from him.

"W – what are they?" Hermione asked quietly.

"Brownies, apparently. Silvian told me after I asked about them. They're harmless, helpful even, and they like music turns out, and milk with honey."

The brownies approached and sang their song in their melodic language, barely acknowledging the presence of the people present.

Harry handed her a small package with leaves. "Put that on top of your bag and put it in front of them, gently."

She did so with great care. As she pulled back, two of the brownies put away their flutes and took out tools from their tiny sacks, inspecting the clasp, singing all the while. In almost no time, they had it repaired good as new, the barest hint of stitching visible on the leather.

The brownies passed the package and opened it, stuffing the contents into a pipe almost as large as them, lighting up and passing it around, drinking from the honeyed milk. They played two more songs, and at the end of it, bowed. Just as quickly as they came they disappeared back into the forest, pearlescent notes dying in the distance.

Hermione took her bag with a smile on her face and shook her head. "That was incredible."

"That was my reaction as well. Seems like this place isn't lacking in magic… compared to home. Did you have any luck?"

She shook her head, still holding her bag. "Sorry, I really looked, but there's no mention of our world anywhere. And even if there was – transplanar travel – it's almost unheard of. Maybe if I had a larger library, or…"

"I know you're doing all you can, and it's not as if the rest of us can help. Shouldn't have brought it up."

"It's fine. It's not as if it's not constantly in the back of our minds anyway," she sighed. "Three months and four days, or five. I guess it depends on how you look at it, their calendar is different."

They laid back on the grass, watching the clouds go by.

"What was that package?" she asked.

"Starleaf. Silvian sells it to Grotnug, and he has a few customers in the city. Only the elves know where to find it, and they don't trade much – well, except in starleaf and that elven bread and wine. Or maybe Silvian is just weird. Probably that."

"What is it?"

"Some type of plant. I don't know more than that." He turned his head towards her. "Why? Do you want to try it?"

"No… I mean, is it even safe?"

Harry shrugged. "Father Petri has been smoking it since before Grotnug came to Cadmeum and he's still fit as a fiddle."

He glanced over at her and saw her biting her lip. Probably McGonagall or her parents were arguing with her in her mind.

"You don't have to, but I won't judge."

"Oh, darn it! Yes, I'll have some."

"What did I tell you about cursing?"

"Fuck it! Happy?"

"Very much so."

He sat up and took a large pipe from the saddlebag and stuffed it with some starleaf. Hermione stopped him when he was about to take out his tinderbox.

"I have a surprise too. But, well, I was going to wait until I could show you something better..."

She bent her hands down towards the pipe and started to swirl them in a recursive pattern, and muttered something incomprehensible. A small flame appeared in the palm of her hand, and she directed it towards the pipe, lighting it. If Harry hadn't been sitting he would've fallen over. Slowly a large grin appeared on his face.

"You did it, you bloody well did it! Magic!"

She disappeared the flame and rolled her eyes. "It's not much."

He threw an arm around her laughing. "More than any of us have managed."

He took a drag from the pipe and passed it to Hermione.

"My God, you should show Malfoy, I want to see his face when you outdo him once again."

"You can stop now, I'm already blushing."

She took a drag from the pipe too and looked pleasantly surprised with it.

"I thought I would cough it up to be honest. It's nice."

"It's supposed to have magical properties too, Silvian said."

"I should take some back to the workshop –" Harry raised an eyebrow at her. "– for study!"

They passed the pipe for a while, looking up at the clear sky, high on a good day, and also starleaf.

"So you're not cross with me… for me being able to use magic?"

He showed her a questioning frown. "You're my best fucking friend. I might as well be jealous of myself."

"You know, I'm starting to question Robards' judgement in sending you to the states. This cursing is getting out of hand." She paused, turning on her side towards him. "Do you miss it, being an Auror?"

"Kind of," he said, turning to face her. "I don't think about it too much. I'm not in the habit of dwelling on things."

"I know you haven't given up, by the way, despite what Ginny might think."

He weakly smiled. "Thanks, but I don't have many helpful skills here."

"That's bollocks. The way you made friends with all those people, and I would've never seen a brownie if it weren't for you dragging me out here. We cover each other's blind spots… I think."

"Kind of you to say. We do make a pretty good team," he said, holding up an arm at an angle.

She bumped it, laughing.

"We do."

She kept looking at him like she was thinking about something.

"What?"

"I'm still not used to it," she said, prodding his nose. "You know… the glasses."

"Me neither."

"It looks good though, if we get back I hope you get to keep your perfect vision."

If. That was a big change.

"Yeah."

They were still pleasantly fuzzy when they left for Cadmeum. He didn't rush the way back. With Ginny being so cold lately it felt good to spend some time with Hermione. He thought he was used to being alone, but he'd been spoiled the past years.

"This is going to sound awful, but… I'm glad you're here."

She took his arm holding the reins next to her.

"I feel the same way, it's nothing to feel bad about."

On the way back, they spotted Malfoy in his rose red acolyte robes. He was talking with a woman, a girl hopping up and down beside her. They both snickered at the sight; nothing was more amusing than his newfound patience. He waved over as he spotted them.

"You want to get some tea? We're going over to Father Petri." Harry asked.

Malfoy nodded. "I'll go tell the head Priest. Service just ended."

"You don't mind?" he asked Hermione.

"Of course not, I love tea."

"I meant Malfoy," he chuckled.

She waved dismissively. "If we can't live together, we'll die alone."

They walked together to the Temple of Licht, Harry dragging Mildred behind him. They came in through the back, into the garden where he tied her up to a tree. Petri was sitting in the awning of the priest's quarters, reading over some parchment. His eyes lit up as he saw the visitors.

"Ah! How are my favourite templegoers?" he said, ignoring Malfoy's attire.

"Can't complain, Father," Harry said, taking a small package from Mildred's saddlebags and handing it to him.

"Same, same," he answered, going back inside. "I'll boil some tea, be right there."

They sat in the garden, Petri asking about everyone's day. Malfoy had been helping with the preparations for next weeks' Solstice Festival, which Petri seemed very enthusiastic about.

"Ah, the Solstice," he sighed, a glint of nostalgia in his eyes. "In my homeland they'd hold a noon feast to celebrate Licht's highest point in the skies. Fine elven wine and the best halfling pastries were brought in to celebrate. Some of it still happens here in Cadmeum of course. A few households still observe the painting traditions, which I'll be helping with. You should come by that day, it's always a lively affair, even for our modest temple."

"The main temple will be hosting some minor dignitaries, those that won't stay in the keep," Malfoy said, talking about the Great Temple to Cadmus in the noble's district. "I'll probably be too busy."

"We'll come by," Hermione said with a smile. "It sounds… fun."

"Ginny, will she come by?" Petri asked, his wispy hair catching the breeze. "It's been a while since she visited."

Harry tensed up; Hermione noticed. "Er, yeah. I'll ask her."

"Wonderful, wonderful. New faces, always a pleasure."

They finished their tea and went to the Galloping Mongoose, which was starting to fill up with the day's travellers. Harry handed Grotnug the packages and a small coin purse. He still had to treat the inn's beds with flea powder before dinner. Just as he finished, he turned in the hallway to see Ginny make her way to their room.

She brushed past him with a cursory hello, cleaning her hands and face in the wash basin. Harry, with a deep frustrated exhalation, entered and closed the door behind him. Arms crossed, he looked at her, waiting for her to meet his gaze.

Stopping for a moment, she sighed, realizing Harry wasn't going to let things go easily. "Something wrong?"

"My wife won't talk to me," he said blankly. "Maybe you can convince her to."

"I talk to you all the time. Don't be so dramatic."

"You won't tell me where you go all day – at night sometimes. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Gin..."

She squared off against him, but still refused to look him in the eye. "I'm working, I told you that."

"Did you forget I was a bloody Auror not long ago? I hear things, like you wandering off to the north docks all by yourself. I –" He took a deep breath to calm himself.

"Are these just for show, now?" he said, holding up his left hand adorned with a golden ring.

"That's not fair," she protested.

"So talk to me. Can we trust each other?"

Harry held his breath, and was glad to see her give a slight nod. "Okay."

Out of her shirt, she pulled a coin purse and dropped it on the nearby table. It jingled heavily and out of it poured glints of gold and silver.

"How?" he asked, looking wide-eyed at the small fortune.

"If I bring you in on this," she said with a serious look on her face, "there's no backing out. And I know how self-righteous you can be."

"Give me some bloody credit here," he protested. "I'm not the saint everyone thinks I am."

"I know," she smiled. "And I also know you, and you won't like this. It's –"

"Congratulations, now I am worried. But you're my wife, so..."

She collected the coins and motioned to the door; he moved aside. "It's easier if I show you, I was heading over anyway."

Hermione had already left and Malfoy was too busy enjoying his lunch to pay attention to them leaving. They passed the market and moved north. Though the craftsmen's district, past the tanning district to the docks. It was like a different city, even the air seemed more grey and unwelcoming.

"You're telling me you come here often?" he said, observing the scruffy dockworkers congregating on the streets.

She laughed. "Don't worry. If anyone bothers us, it won't be the regulars."

He looked at her questioningly.

"They know me – and not to mess with me."

"So where are we headed?"

"Clayton's."

Harry was unsure what that meant, but he already disliked that Clayton fellow. At least Ginny seemed confident. A few rough and tumble types looked their way, but quickly ignored them, presumably because they saw Ginny. Harry was utterly confused. This was not what he had expected.

They arrived at an unassuming wooden building with a discoloured green door. Ginny rapped on it and a hatch opened, beady eyes looking at them.

"Whose yer friend?"

"Lost pup," she said, holding up a hand at Harry's frown. "Clayton's expecting me."

The hatch closed and the door opened, revealing a large, bulky man with a flat cap and a nose that looked to have been broken more than once. He smiled at Ginny. "How ye holdin' up?"

"So, so. Hard bargaining at the stalls."

"She's o'er there, waitin' for yer," he said, pointing a stubby finger where a woman was sitting, chewing on something.

"Let me do the talking," Ginny said on their way over.

The woman had a rough but healthy look, and in the light of the fire in what Harry realized was some kind of common room, a bar maybe, the tattoos running from her jaw to her neck became visible. Her hair was a very dark shade of red, almost black with a red shine. She spit into a bucket beside her and wiped her mouth with her sleeve, watching the two of them.

"How's my favourite redhead?" she asked, her eyes firmly on Harry.

"Good, Clay."

A look of surprise came over Harry's face.

The woman smiled a yellow-toothed grin. "And you must be Harry."

She extended a hand towards the chairs in front of her for them to sit down and waved for someone to come over. A bald elderly man did.

"Boss?"

"Get us some chicken skewers and ale."

She crossed one leg over the other and leaned back on the chair, dangling it on two feet. "Good timing, bringing your man here."

"How so?" Ginny said, leaning forward.

"Your next job could use an insider."

Harry's jaw tensed. Whatever it was, he wasn't going to fuck over someone who had helped him along the way.

"What is it?" Ginny asked.

"Not sure I should tell you now," she answered, eyes still on him. "Looks like dear Harry isn't entirely on board."

"Clay, he –"

"Can talk for himself, I'm sure," she interrupted.

"A job?" Harry asked, his Auror experience once again conjuring up all kinds of terrible situations. "And you want Ginny to do this?"

The chair slammed forwards and Clayton leaned to Ginny. "You really haven't told him anything, have you? Not sure if I should be glad or worried."

She turned back to Harry. "Simple grab and go, all sneaky like, no one you know."

Harry looked to Ginny with a frustrated sigh. Why the hell was this on the table anyway?

"Can you find someone else?" Harry asked.

"Harry, that's –" Ginny started.

"The missus and me have a deal," Clayton said. "And that deal includes her taking up my generous offers when the opportunity arises. 'Till she pays her dues at least."

"Dues," Harry repeated.

The easy smile dropped off Clayton's face as she dropped a skewer on the wood board. "A quarter talent, in the long run. Connections aren't cheap, lad."

"How much is that?"

"Three hundred gold," Ginny answered.

Harry's jaw dropped. "Three hundred gold to what – not get a dagger in the back?"

Clayton put her hands up and shrugged. "'s cause we have friends. Think you can run, go ahead. Not a city I've heard of the Merchant's Guild doesn't have its hands in. Now I'm just the friendly neighbourhood helper. But you pay your dues…"

"Harry, this is what I can do," Ginny said apologetically. "And she's telling the truth, I've seen what being connected can do for us. If we want to go elsewhere and…"

Remembering that first night, it was hard to not understand. She had brothers, family, friends she missed dearly. Harry missed them too, but maybe not quite as much. It helped, that Hermione was here to keep him sane too. He nodded.

"What's the job?" Ginny asked.

Clayton smiled again. "Well, aren't we all merry. You'll like this one, easy, simple… And if my sources are right – which they usually are – you might have enough to get even, get something extra. As usual my one third fee applies."

"You make regular deliveries at the Golden Flounder," she said, turning to Harry.

"I do," Harry nervously answered.

She took out a small leather pouch, bound at the top. "Next week will be the Solstice Festival, big gathering, all kinds of types entering the city. So much so that it's become hard for the Order and Magistrate to find accommodations for them. One of them will be staying the night before at the Golden Flounder, and that, laddie, is an opportunity.

"And you," she said pointing a finger at him, "will be the distraction."

"I'm not that distracting," Harry quipped, "pretty average, even."

"Well now I see why you settled down with him," she said to Ginny with a hearty laugh. "No, as 'distracting' as you might be, I have something else in mind. A loaner, something I plied off one of those Cadmus clerics. Valuable, no doubt, so don't go losing it on me."

She tossed the pouch to Harry. "Test it out some time, out by your lonesome in the woods or somethin'. You'll see what I mean. Anyway, day before the festival, you enter the Flounder on one of your deliveries, or whatever, you can get inside, and when lil' Gin is ready, you open it. That'll give her enough time to get to Erebus' room – that's your mark by the way – and get whatever goodies that old bastard is carrying. Gems, I imagine. You kick up back to me, and that's that, we all come up a little richer."

Harry rubbed his face with his hands. "So we're robbing someone. Who is he?"

Clayton shrugged. "He's an envoy from Leptor. Bunch of arseholes if I cared about politics – I don't – stinkin' rich region as it is."

Ginny looked to Harry, appraising how he was reacting to everything. He looked resigned at the issue. At least it was 'only' theft. All things considered, it could've been much worse. He nodded to Clayton and that was that, the deal was made. They had dinner, lamb and large helpings of something like whiskey but less refined.

Ginny gave Harry a placating look. He smiled back at her. For a den of thieves, Ginny really could have picked worse.

They ate with Clayton. She invited some other fellows over, one allegedly missing two toes. Ginny seemed to relax. They ate and drank and by the time they bid adieu to Clayton and the bar, Harry was near exhaustion. He felt a little less on edge walking back through the northern district.

"So..." Harry said. "Mind explaining how you got roped into this – hell, why you feel like you had to?"

Ginny sighed and put her arm around him. "Look, I know we trusted Hermione to find a way – something to get us back. But it's been three months and still nothing. I – maybe it's time we moved on."

"To where?"

"They say there's this place across the seas. Somewhere that leads to everywhere… and nowhere."

"The End, that's what they call it?" said Harry.

"Yes… I thought we might find answers there."

Harry thought about it. It was a pretty big deal, especially among the clergy. Apparently it was where all things started and ended, life, death… It reminded him of…

"You know, she is making progress. Maybe not in the way you'd hoped, but..."

"Yeah." Her head snapped to him. "Wait, what do you mean?"

"Oh," he chuckled, "I think she'll give us a demonstration soon."

Harry, who never made plans, had it all worked out. Which was a good reason enough to believe everything would go wrong. He would time one of his deliveries in the Golden Flounder for the night before solstice, Ginny would scope out the target, and they would do the deed.

He had tested the contents of the pouch, opening it in a clearing outside town taking out Mildred for some exercise. As soon as he opened it he was completely blind, enveloped in complete darkness. Inside was something cold and rough, it felt like a stone, but with the darkness it was impossible to tell. It reinforced his confidence in the plan.

By the day before the Solstice Festival, the streets were jam packed with envoys, travellers and merchants. He didn't particularly have anything pressing to do after the morning routine. New clients were served, Grotnug was enthusiastically greeting a caravan party that had arrived in the morning and they were merrily gambling and drinking. Grotnug was talking to a stout fellow with deep set eyes. A dwarf probably, there weren't many in Cadmeum. In the afternoon, he went for a walk to the market.

"Finest Laxian wines! – Spices! Spices from the Leminese islands! – Roast boar! Freshly hunted!"

The smells were overwhelming, of the crowd, the stalls, the food, the perfumes from the common women preparing to dress up for the day after. Harry realized that despite the massive crowd, he still felt some loneliness. Or homesick?

His home had at one point become Hogwarts, and to this day it still brought a feeling of welcoming whenever he thought about it. There was his house, Potter Cottage, an hour's broom ride out of London, which had started to become like a something he could call home. It all seemed so far away now. Half happy and sad at being so distant from a place with both good and bad memories.

His eyes landed on a stall of blades. Short swords and daggers mostly. They looked impressive, but Silvian had taught him how to spot quality. Badly weighted and inferior quality steel. His bronze short sword he kept in the Galloping Mongoose would do much better than this.

"Harry!"

He turned to see Hermione of all people sporting a large puffy bag in her arms, a bright smile on her face.

"Hey! Hermione, I was just –" He laughed. "How are you?"

"Great! Fine! I was just running an errand for Norgariel."

A passer-by squeezed behind her and they were huddled between the masses.

"Want to, er, get somewhere less busy?" he said.

"Yes."

They shuffled to the edge of the pavillion, Harry keeping an eye on the crowd for any pickpockets which were not all that uncommon in the city. They got some meat pies and Harry led them to a side street he knew led to a raised platform between two warehouses. From the railing they watched the plaza below.

"I want to ask you something," he said.

She turned to him attentively, waiting.

"What would you do to get back, or I guess, what wouldn't you do?"

Worriedly, she looked him over. But as shameful as it was, he had experience hiding things from her. "It's just a question. This place is so different and… well."

She stepped closer, taking his arm, her default reaction to any of his existential crises.

"I don't know, Harry. We've done some harsh things to get where we are. But we've also looked out for each other," she said with a sigh. "You're supposed to be the moral compass."

But Harry didn't feel like a compass at all, he felt thoroughly demagnetized. The bell for afternoon watch rang and he said goodbye to Hermione, with some flimsy excuse about helping out at the Galloping Mongoose.

The ringing resounded happily in the busy streets, unknowing of what was to take place. Ginny met him at the entrance of the inn, looking excitedly confident. She told him she had already spotted their mark, Erebus, going through the western checkpoint with his carriage. He would be stuck in formalities for some time before he got to the Golden Flounder.

The tavern and inn was located in the noble's quarter, just on the edge of it. And anyone looking off or unfamiliar would be stopped; this was solved by having Harry there. He knew the guards, even some of the high society by name thanks to his deliveries. Lord Mattington, an eastern merchant having been granted a title recently because of service to the Magistrate, was expecting a package of starleaf that evening.

Ginny would follow him into the district, arm in arm, and wait for him outside. In the commotion, she would slip inside through the servant's entrance and make her way upstairs, where she would enter the room he was staying in and hopefully find his stash. Easier said than done.

The Golden Flounder had locks on each door, and safeboxes for valuables were not uncommon. But she assured him she would need only a few minutes. The danger was a cleric would come by and realize what was going on.

So, nervous but prepared, they set off. Ginny was wearing a pinkish dress, hiding tools for the job underneath it. The Golden Flounder, a large two storey building, was situated between an alley and a glassware shop. They lingered, looked around and made mostly idle conversation.

Eventually Erebus, a stern looking man dressed in sleek red robes, arrived surrounded by his entourage consisting of two guards and men carrying boxes on a cart. They passed the couple and entered the inn. They were graciously received and the servants started to move his belongings.

A few minutes later, the servants came back outside and rolled the cart back wherever it came from. Erebus entered. Ginny nodded for him to follow and make his delivery. Just before going in, he looked back, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Harry had been under some pressure in his time, but almost always with a wand in hand. This time, it bothered him, and he wasn't sure why. He slightly bowed to the doorman – a smiling man with the scars of a previous life and a practised smile – and went inside. Lord Mattington was sitting with one of his merchant friends.

Harry greeted him, discreetly placing the wrapped package on the table. He was invited to have a drink with them, clients sometimes did. He accepted and they chatted for a while. Erebus himself was sitting in one of the nicer booths, alone.

The room was utterly relaxed and quiet, a woman playing a harp in the corner. It was time. He went to his side and opened the pouch around his belt containing the stone.

Cries of shock filled the room immediately, and he thought he heard Lord Mattington dive under the table.

"Stay calm! Search for the wizard!" one man shouted.

He didn't hear any movement going upstairs, but considered that a good thing.

A few minutes, just a few minutes, that'll have to do, otherwise who knew what kind of magic might get them caught.

Counting in his head, he got up to two hundred. He closed the pouch again. A scream erupted from the other end of the inn as light returned.

"Murder!"

Harry realized something had gone very, very wrong.

At the other end, lying in a pool of his own blood was the Leptor envoy, Erebus.

"Good Gods!" Mattington exclaimed. "Someone call the City Guard!"

He turned to Harry. "Better stay close young man, something terrible has just happened."

Harry could only pray, all too aware of the magical item at his side. The crowd stayed in small groups and a few minutes later, two men with the red City Guard emblem came through. He could only observe how one of them at least had formal training in dealing with crimes like this. The man quarantined the space around the body and the inn and the two men started asking questions.

"Everything went dark and then… oh, Cadmus protect us! Murder in the Golden Flounder!"

They started a search of the premises, then turned to the guests. Lord Mattington protested at the insult, but let them search him for a weapon. They turned to Harry.

"You don't look like a regular customer," the guard said.

"No, sir. I was making a delivery for Lord Mattington. He graciously invited me for a drink."

Mattinton eagerly nodded. "A good lad this one! We all know him, don't we?"

A few of the regulars nodded. The guard searched his person. Harry suppressed a large sigh when he didn't open the pouch.

"You're in town?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. I'm Harry, I work at the Galloping Mongoose."

The man motioned to a third guard, who was penning things down on a clay tablet. It took a while for everyone to get searched, for the guards to do a second round of the inn. Eventually they were let out and a pair of men dressed in white and red carried the corpse out.

Thinking better than to rush running back to the Galloping Mongoose, he walked slowly. Surely not Ginny, cold blooded murder, she wouldn't do that.

He ignored Grotnug's hello when he didn't see her in the common room and rushed upstairs. He opened their room. She was there, next to her a small box.

"Harry! Where've you been? It's been –"

"What the hell happened!"

"I got it," she said with a smile. "Look."

Inside the box were some silverish looking coins and some gems.

"Ginny, who bloody cares? Erebus is dead!"

"What?"

"Murdered, shanked, who knows, he's dead. The Town Guard came in, searched the whole place. You're telling me you don't know anything?"

"Harry, I got out of there as fast as possible! I came back just like we agreed when I was done. He's really dead?"

"Yeah," he said, sitting on the bed.

"Okay," she answered, nervously wringing her hands. "I need to talk to Clayton… but not today, guards will be on alert."

"She could've done this."

Ginny shook her head. "She didn't. If she fucked over someone like that, nobody would trust her. I know it sound naive but… I'll clear things up tomorrow."

"I don't like it."

"Oh. There was something else," she said, going over to the box. From it she pulled a piece of parchment.

"I don't know how to read it. I don't know if we should –"

"Give it here," he said, taking it. "Hermione gave me a cheat sheet to practise, it's not that hard."

He read the letter out loud.

Dear friend,

Hopefully you will find compensation for your mission east by my messenger. Things are not well on the home front. If you haven't heard about the debacle in Laxis, you will from the Magistrate. Appease him at all costs! Our mutual friend is growing bolder and less predictable.

Perhaps it is time we took matters into our own hands. We know his power comes from that blasted ring in some way. Better to risk delaying our operation than to have him turn against us. I've been speaking with the Order. They seem to agree but are still hesitant to act. They think he has other allies, I disagree.

I'll pray to Cadmus for your safe return, we will need you in the coming moons.

Safe travels,

Padfoot

Harry swallowed at the name.

"It's –"

"Impossible, I know," he answered.

But his mind was racing already. The veil, different worlds. It was impossible, but even if it was…

"It's something. Maybe us finding that letter... I mean – maybe it's just coincidence, but what if it isn't? What are the odds of that name coming up at random?"

She nodded. "Well, we can't stay here forever. And we have money now. I counted, after paying off Clayton and the cut… Leaves us with two hundred and sixteen gold left."

"We could catch a caravan. It's safe up to High Coren, then we can enter Leptor." He sighed. "I'm getting ahead of myself. And I need some air."

He went to leave, realizing Grotnug might need him. Ginny called after him.

"Are we all right?"

"I'm sure we will be," he said with a wave back. It still didn't sit right with him. At best someone had used them to get to Erebus.

He woke the next morning with the rising sun, music coming in from the window, clear-headed but still rattled about the letter and the way they got it. Ginny had left, as she would usually. He washed his face and dressed, went downstairs where Grotnug was cooking up breakfast for the large gathering of merchants and travellers who had chosen the inn to attend the Solstice Festival.

Harry went up to ask if he needed any help, but Grotnug just grunted and pushed a plate of eggs and bread and a pint of ale into his hands. He changed the sheets in a few rooms and set out into the city. The usually deserted morning city was full of people already.

As soon as he opened the door to Norbert's Workshop, he heard the arguing inside.

"But I'm telling you, I don't have enough. I can't just –"

"Oh just ask your friends!" Norbert cried. "What is five gold to a wizard's future? And like I said, this is to start you on a long and rewarding journey."

"But – Oh! Harry!"

"Sorry to interrupt," he said, walking in.

"Not at all!" Norbert said. "In fact, just who I wanted to see. Hermione needs to go purchase her robes."

"Right," he answered.

He put his hands on Hermione's back and gently started to push her out. "Now, now, just like we said, and tomorrow we'll continue our talk."

Harry was ushered out as well, and they stood confusedly in front of the shop.

"Good morning, by the way," he said with a smile on his face.

"Yes, good morning," she answered, smiling back. "I feel terrible asking you, but I don't really get much pay… because of our agreement with Norgariel. And I need to buy robes, but I only have twenty-two silver."

Harry jingled his pouch, remembering he did have enough. "Sure, no problem."

"If it's too much –"

"Don't worry," he said, offering his arm. "Just a few gold we can manage."

They walked arm in arm up to the edges of the noble's district. Most of the good tailors were there. Apparently Norgariel had told her of a shop he frequented.

"We need to talk, after this," Harry told her, bursting to have her weigh in on last night.

"Oh… okay," she answered worriedly.

The tailor was an old woman, and apparently had gotten wind that Norbert's apprentice would be needing robes. She had prepared several bolts of cloth. Some of them less appealing than others.

"This, marine blue linen. Cheaper, but not as sturdy or refined. Over here, quite popular, red wool. Good for daily wear, but not fit for travel that much. Ah, and over here we have weaver's silk."

The last bolt of cloth looked radiant. It refracted the light in the colours of the sunset.

"Much sturdier, more expensive, but easy to wash."

"It looks very fancy," Hermione said, biting her lip.

The tailor held a part of the cloth up to Hermione, it really fit the colour of her hair.

"Looks good," Harry said.

"It's double the price. Maybe I should pick the wool."

Harry opened his pouch. There was enough there to pay for it combined with Hermione's leftover twenty-two silver. "I think you should pick this one," he said.

"If you're sure," she said with a sigh.

She got fitted. The robes wouldn't be ready straight away, but once the tailor got her measurements they paid and went back out.

"Thank you, really. I don't want to be a burden and I know things are tight."

"Actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about, but..." He looked at the crowd around them. This wasn't the kind of talk to have in public. "Let's head back to the Galloping Mongoose for a bit, we'll talk there."

They went up to his room and he closed the door. She looked worried, then he hadn't very much tried to hide it.

"Last night..."

He told her everything. Ginny's connection with Clayton, the theft, the murder, and the letter. When he was done, she looked rattled too.

"It's going to be really hard to find who wrote that letter," she said, biting her lip. "And even if we do it's most likely a coincidence."

"I know, but it's… something. How much of a coincidence can it be? The name, Ginny finding it, and the murder."

"So it could be a trap?"

"From who?"

"Well, how did we get here? Not by ourselves, we were taken! If you're saying the letter isn't a coincidence, then us being here could be on purpose too. And I doubt if that's the case they would have good intentions."

"We still have to do something."

"Do we? Harry what if it's… What if it's just like with Sirius? Anyone who knows you, knows you would follow that letter."

He flushed, in a way he didn't think it was still possible for him. "Yeah, I get it," he said harshly. "And maybe you're right about me rushing into trouble, but it's the only way I know. I'm not asking you to come with us – Ow!"

"I will slap you if you ever say anything this stupid again!" she shouted at him.

He laughed and rubbed his arm. "Sorry. I didn't really mean it like that. Just that I'd be okay with it if it was just me and Ginny making the trip."

"Well, tough luck, Harry. Wherever you're going I'm coming too."

He smiled and pulled her in for a hug. She seemed pleasantly surprised.

"I think Ginny is clearing things up with Clayton, but I guess if we're doing this there's no point in delaying too much. How will you handle things with Norbert?"

"Norgariel, and to be honest, he has been pushing me to get out and do other things. Something about not everything being found in books. Apparently he travelled around quite a bit before he settled in Cadmeum." She jumped up excitedly. "Oh! I can show you now."

"Let's meet up with Ginny, and… I suppose we might as well tell Malfoy. I don't know what he'll do."

Hermione shrugged. "I think he's fairly desperate. I haven't asked, but ever since I started at the workshop he's been very civil."

Knowing they would be unable to find Ginny, they walked around the festival. Colourful banners, stalls with strange foods, and enough alcohol to drown the entire city was apparently the heart of it. After some time, space was cleared in the centre of the pavilion and four men in robes took place in the middle of it.

It was announced they would engage in a display of magic. Hermione looked like a child being shown birthday presents. The first one conjured a great circle of fire above the crowd, dangling there for a minute or so before it disappeared and left a ring of smoke. The crowd howled in delight. The second made brilliant colours appear above him, the third rose up into the air and threw great gusts of wind onto the crowd. Harry had to tactically jump for Hermione's dress when the wind blew in their direction.

The fourth one was by far the most impressive. After chanting his spell, seven what seemed to look like hippogrifs swooped down from the sky and flew around in a complex pattern. They flew back up and seemed to explode into a shower of flower petals. Some landed on them and Hermione looked interestedly at one. As a finale, the blue robed wizard bowed and disappeared through a door he had created out of thin air.

Harry was amazed at the magical talent before him, and he thought that if they were capable of such feats, the witch beside him would probably end up surprising him once more.

They found something to eat, and drink, and drink some more. Eventually they found Ginny, or rather Ginny found them. Harry had no idea how she did it in the anthill of people around the market.

"Hey," she said.

"Hello Ginny," Hermione answered. "Oh, don't worry, Harry told me."

She was still firmly holding on to his arm, characteristic of her having a few drinks in her. Ginny hesitated before continuing.

"Okay. Well I just spoke to Clayton, everything is cleared up."

"So she didn't..."

"No, no way." She turned to Hermione, who was literally deep in her tankard. "So what are you going to do?"

"Whad'you mean?"

"We're leaving," Ginny answered.

"I know, I'm coming," she answered happily.

Harry shook his head. Ginny sighed.

"We were waiting for you to go see Malfoy," he said.

"Right," Ginny said nervously. "What do you think he'll say?"

"Well, Hermione here," he said, poking her, provoking a high pitched giggle, "thinks he'll come along."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Well, let's go then."

They traipsed through the busy streets north, coming upon Malfoy giving a lecture to a bunch of children of all things. They watched for a bit.

"And then Cadmus standing on the great earth called down from the skies… a great hail of WATER!"

Water came seemingly from nowhere and splashed the children, making them cry out in glee. Harry was completely flabbergasted. He knew he helped out and talked to people, helped with duties, but now he was conjuring water and entertaining children. That just did not make sense.

As he was finished, he handed out a bunch of pastries to the children and they went their merry way, drenched clothes drying in the sun.

"Oh," he said. "What brings you here?"

"What brings us here?" Hermione whined. "That was magic! Oh, and I was going to surprise everyone today!"

Harry patted her back gently. "Don't worry, I'm sure yours is just as good. But yeah, Malfoy. Magic?"

"I got my holy symbol a few days ago," Malfoy said completely seriously. "If you believe hard enough, anything is possible. Praise Cadmus."

"This is weird," Ginny said.

"Oh, God, you're not going to be all jealous now aren't you?" Malfoy said.

"Well..." He certainly hadn't expected that. "Actually we came to ask you something. We'll be leaving soon and, well, I figure us being fellow travellers and everything, we'd invite you along."

"Leaving? What for?"

"We found something," Ginny said cautiously. "It's not certain, but it might be a clue as to how we got here."

Malfoy's eyes widened and he took a step forward. "What is it? Really? You found something?"

"It's nothing certain," Harry said, holding up his hands. "Just a name… my godfather."

"There's a Sirius Black, here?" Malfoy said incredulously.

"No, just a nickname, something he used back in his Hogwarts days. Anyway I don't think… It's not much."

Malfoy sighed and looked back to the temple. "When are we leaving?"

Harry gaped for a moment, as did all of them except Hermione who was staring at some musicians further away. "I – next week? I think I can manage that. Hermione?"

"Lovely!"

They stood there for a moment, after which Hermione snapped at attention. "Oh! Right, I need to show you all! Let's go outside."

They all followed Hermione who was dragging Harry by the arm.

Malfoy ran to catch up. "Wait, where are we going?"

"Magic!" Hermione said proudly.

They found a clearing outside the east gate. They were all huddled around Hermione who fumbled with a pouch.

"What are you going to do?" Harry asked.

She shushed him. "I need to co – consur – concentrate."

"Haven't you had a bit too much?" he said, taking a step back.

"It's fine, I've practised."

Sand seemed to stream from her hand and she started incanting words and waved her arms about ending with a loud 'EY!'. Harry saw a flash of blinding colours and then nothing at all.

Something was violently shaking him when he woke up, thudding his head on the ground over and over. He opened his eyes to see Hermione inconsolably weeping and tugging at his shirt.

"W'happ'n?" he asked, his mouth feeling numb.

"Oh, you're not dead," Hermione said with great relief. "I'm so sorry, I thought I was aiming right, you must've been caught in it."

"Did you just… fugging blast me?"

Ginny giggled. Harry's headache didn't agree. They told him how he got caught in Hermione's colourful blast and dropped like a sack of potatoes. It was really pretty, they told him, and Harry could only reply it was a shame he hadn't seen it. He sat in the grass waiting for his head to clear.

"Well I have to go back, but I'll be ready," Malfoy said. "Where are we going anyway?"

"The City States of Leptor," Ginny answered.

Malfoy nodded and went back. Ginny stood there, hesitating. "I still have some..."

"Oh," Harry said, unable to hide his disappointment. "Okay, fine, I'll see you?"

"Yeah," she said, bending down for a kiss. "Later."

Looking to his side, Hermione didn't seem in much better shape than him for entirely different reasons.

"S'rry I hit you," she mumbled, ruffling her hair ridiculously.

He chuckled and stood up. "Next time, no drinking and casting spells."

The two of them went on looking about the festival. Music, food, lavishly dressed men and women enjoying the day. Thankfully Hermione was mostly silent, still recovering from their earlier drinking. He still felt too disappointed by Ginny's earlier departure. And lonely.

Inside him he recognized a misplaced impulse growing. Misplaced because it should be reserved for his wife, not his married best friend. A deep longing at the way the light hit her soft cheeks, an itch in his fingers at the sight of her brown locks catching the wind.

He let out a long measured breath. All these recent changes were having a destabilizing effect on him. In part this was Ginny's fault, he thought jokingly, she had been the one to channel his urges into something more natural.

Hermione came back from one of the public bathrooms wrinkling her nose. Proper facilities were one of the things a modern witch would miss in this world. A hole in the ground leading to the sewers and corn leaves, still it could have been worse. At least the baths were nice and they had made liberal use of them.

"Ugh," she complained, "I miss plumbing."

"No real dentists either," he said. "At least they have some kind of toothpaste."

"I'd give anything for a real toothbrush. Those sticks we have are really not cutting it."

"Well, you still have the best teeth in the whole city, I'm sure."

"Thanks," she said with a beaming smile. After walking a bit further they stopped at a group of performers juggling knives. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"What?"

"You looked a bit withdrawn earlier," she said with a frown. "And you've been giving me these strange looks."

He cursed inwardly. Had he really been that obvious? "I'm fine," he said, clearing his throat. "Me and Ginny have been having a hard time adjusting to things, that's all."

"You mean Ginny has?"

"No, I mean both of us," he said, holding her gaze. "Besides, I'm the one who should be asking you if you're fine. Are you? We haven't really –"

"I know," she said, looking down. "But it's like you said, why dwell on things?"

It didn't entirely sit right with him, but he had no idea what to say. "I think father Petri is expecting us, we might as well go for midwatch."

She nodded with a smile and they made their way to the public part of the noble's district where the Temple of Licht was located. On the street, many children with painted faces and arms were running around. Women were applying the multicoloured paint to impatient children and a few adults. The markings all had a feather pattern to them.

"Oh. That's beautiful." Hermione exclaimed.

They watched for a moment, the women carefully applying the strangely complex patterns with simple brushes. Smiling at the children showing off their paint, a woman with dark hair and yellow ribbon gestured to them. "Come! I'll paint you both, it's good luck."

Hesitantly they took place on a large sawn off tree trunk serving as a seat. They were directed to roll up their sleeves, as the paint was applied on the forearms. Drawing from different bowls, she alternated between the two of them.

"So, uhm, I haven't seen you around the temple," Harry said. "I'm Harry by the way."

The woman laughed. "I've been coming here since I was a little girl, even before Father Petri took over. I visit on Sunday mornings usually. I'm Lera."

"Hermione," said Hermione. "We came to Cadmeum around three months ago."

"Ah," Lera said, "that explains a few things. But you're not married?"

"Oh, we are," Harry said, showing off his gold ring.

Lera rolled up her sleeve and revealed a much more intricate and beautiful painted arm, except it looked more like a tattoo. "This one is permanent, unlike yours. Tradition for weddings under a Priest of Licht. My husband works as a guard at the West Gate."

"We might have met him then," Harry said with a knowing look to Hermione. She laughed.

She finished, cleaning the brush in a water bowl. "There, all done. Won't be long until the Solstice."

He looked over his and Hermione's arm, their arms mirrored with the painting, his right and her left. Around them the children had different ones, covering mostly their hands. He pressed a finger to it, seeing if the paint came off.

"Oh it will last for a few days," Lera said with a smile and gestured for the next few to come forward.

"Fun?" Harry asked.

"Uh – Oh, yes, I suppose it was," she said, distractedly admiring hers.

They went inside, where Father Petri was hurrying along a few older children who were helping with something. A great smile appeared on his face as he saw them. "Harry! Hermione! Welcome – ah."

He stopped to stare at their arm painting. They looked at each other confusedly.

"Something wrong?" Harry asked.

He laughed nervously. "No, no, of course not. It's just – I'm sure it was just a misunderstanding. You see, these are premarital markings."

Hermione let out a high-pitched squeal, which frankly startled him. "Oh," he said, dumbly.

"Well, in any case the Solstice is just about to be announced. Both go grab a bucket for the display," he said, gesturing to the back.

There were large buckets of water lining the back of the temple and in the garden. They both took one. She looked like it was heavy for her, but he kept quiet.

Outside, Father Petri had assembled a veritable crowd. This was quite a surprise for the modest temple which was usually so empty. Children, parents, a few curious onlookers. "Everyone keep your buckets ready!" he said.

A few moments later, bells started to ring all over the city. Harry didn't even know they had them, but the sound came from all around. Father Petri knelt to the ground and hurriedly stepped back, a gust of wind washing over the crowd. Was he a spellcaster?

Two children threw their bucket of water in the middle of the circle of assembled people. Soon more followed. Hermione shrugged and followed suit. The water shot up again and again. He tossed the water too and looked up to see a glint of rainbow colours in the sky. It seemed to extend even beyond the city, even if it was impossible. A trick of the light.

Cries of 'Happy Solstice', 'Lucky day' and 'Licht be praised', sounded from the crowd. The water came down in a mist, making some step back and some laugh as it came down. Harry stepped back in the archway of the temple with Hermione.

A shiver ran down his spine as he heard words as if whispered in his ear. He turned around, seeing the empty temple. His breath quickened.

"Harry?"

"Did you hear that?" he said, nerves on edge.

"No..." she answered sheepishly.

ome – y

Again, like a whisper in his ear, coming from no discernable direction. He was starting to get really badly spooked.

Come, Harry.

He felt unable to breathe as the statue framed by the entrance came into focus. There was something unearthly about it. His legs started carrying him forward, every step becoming more aware of how the marble eyes seemed to reflect more life than they should. The unease became gradually more oppressive. Why the hell was he moving forward when every instinct told him not to? Get out! Just turn back!

Before he knew what he was doing, he was in front of it, and an unnaturally all-enveloping silence settled over him. The statue slowly bent its head forward, and impossibly he realized its features changed to a smile; his heart was beating out of his chest. It was starting to glow, like in his dream. But it couldn't – shouldn't be possible. He wished to ask 'how', but his vocal chords were paralysed.

His knees buckled and silently touched the stone. Looking upon the sword she was holding, he saw it was beaming bright silver instead of pink-white marble. Slender statuesque arms placed it before him. Mimicking the scene from his dreams, he accepted it. One moment the statue was looking at him, beaming bright light, the next it had returned motionless to its pedestal, an empty space where the sword had been. He could hear his panicked breathing again.

"Praise!" came from an overexcited voice behind him.

Turning back, he saw Herimione, eyes bulging, and Father Petri on both knees, tears in his eyes. "Praise!" he said again, turning his hands to the skies. Harry gulped as he noticed the crowd of onlookers behind Father Petri watching in disbelief. No, Harry thought, no, no, no, no, no.

But Father Petri had risen to his feet and pulled Harry up. "Ch – ch – ch – chosen! Chosen by the Goddess of Light! Praise be! Praise be to the Chosen One: Harry!"

The crowd cheered in ecstasy. Harry felt his life tumbling away. Over the cheers he could hear Hermione utter 'Again?', a sound of despair in her voice that reflected his own.