It was on a cool April morning in the year nineteen-hundred and seventy-eight that the youthful folly of my dearest friend and chiefest companion, Mr. Dylan Mulciber, first bore fruit. The exact date I no longer recall, for the days run together much too fast in my old age, but I do remember it was perhaps a month or two past the first of what were then called the Skull Murders, which I was currently attempting to investigate with the help of Mulciber, who suspected the culprit had something to do with a rather ridiculously named gang of boys he had been part of during his Hogwarts years. His suspicions turned out to be correct; however, that childhood gang turned out to be an organization built upon a scale that neither of us at the time could have scarce dreamed of, though I daresay that both of our powers of paranoia are sufficiently stretched by now.

At the time, though, I fear I was not quite paranoid enough. When Mulciber slipped out of bed that morning early that morning, originally to use the lavatory, I did not get upset when he failed to immediately reappear; instead, I went back to sleep. In my defense I will say that it was a Saturday and, as such, the two of us had been up rather late the night before, enjoying ourselves and generally exhausting each other. Moreover, I recall having drank a vast quantity of liquor the night before, which no doubt only increased my early morning lethargy. However, when Mulciber still was nowhere to be found upon my later reawakening, I panicked. To put it bluntly, I attempted to contact his mother.

Luckily enough it was then that he Apparated into our kitchen, looking for all the world as though he'd been to he been to Hell and back. "Alastor," he said. "We need to talk."

Mulciber lit a cigarette as I poured him his tea. He was staring at the tattoo on his wrist: a black skull and snake. The same design had been found above a half-dozen homes around Southern England that spring, etched in green smoke. The mascot of the Walpurgis Knights, he had told me once, flushing. It was an ugly thing, I had always thought, even though the sensitivity of the skin beneath it had amused me. "Where were you?" I asked, taking my seat next to him.

"Lucius'," he answered shortly, taking a long drag on the cigarette. "At least I think, it was Lucius'. I was a bit disorientated at the time." He took another drag on the cigarette and blew smoke away from me. I wrinkled my nose. Despite having been together a good four years, I still hadn't entirely gotten used to that specific habit of his. Sometimes I thought I never would. "I know who it is," he said suddenly.

I blinked. "Malfoy? I thought he had an alibi?"

"Oh, he does," Mulciber answered, his lips twisting into a bitter smile as he stabbed the cigarette out and lit another. "He's got a very good alibi, does Lucius. Most of them did, at least some of the nights, remember? And now I know why. We were right about it being a conspiracy. We just didn't know the size."

"Fuck." I slid my hip flash out of my pocket and added a dollop of firewhiskey to my tea. I had a feeling I was going to need it.

"Tommy was there," he said, in a voice that seemed half-dead. I reached to squeeze his hand under the table.. "I told you about him, didn't I? Lucius' older friend, the one that did the tattoos for us that Beltane where were all high enough to think it was a good idea? They don't call him Tommy any more. Lord Voldemort. He's Lord Voldemort and we're his goddamn Death Eaters." He laughed then, a wounded sound, and I saw him shaking. I stood up then, scooped him up into my arms. "Those weren't tattoos," he whispered as I carried him to the couch. "Those were brands."

It was a long while before he would say anything more. I held him all that while, stroking his hair and making soft noises under my breath. I have often thought that Mulciber resembles nothing so much as a wounded creature in his fury and it has always been my policy to treat him as such in times of emergency. This, it seems, was to be one of those times.

"The next murders will be in Belfast," he whispered against my neck finally. "I heard some of the others talking about it. I'm to have no part in them, Lucius said. They need my skill with Imperius more in the Ministry. Or maybe they just know I'm shite with offensive curses." He laughed then, wildly. I held him closer and willed for him not to go into hysterics.

"Do you know who they are?" I asked, still stroking his hair. It soothed him.

He shook his head. "We were all masked and hooded. Tomm… I mean, Lord Voldemort's orders. I could recognize the ones I knew before by voice, but there were dozens of others. I'm not sure if I could identify them again." He swallowed. "I never asked for this, you know. I wouldn't have even joined their damn gang if I'd known it was going to end up like this."

"I know," I murmured, pressing my face against the crown of his head. "I know." He was proud and malicious and far too clever for his own good and there were times when he could be a right bitch, but Mulciber wasn't a murderer. I hoped he would never need to be, but I suspected these Death Eaters might try and make one out of him. I hoped to God that they wouldn't succeed.

If only, I thought, there were something to do to stop it.

I was still holding him when I hit on what I thought might be a solution. "Dylan?" I asked. "What would you say to a holiday in Ulster?"

We'd been in Belfast for three days when we saw them. There were three of them: an older man of approximately my age, foreign, and two young men who looked to be some years younger than Mulciber, one fair and the other darker. They'd taken the table next to us at luncheon; we found out soon that they were a regular fixture at the inn we were staying at, drinking the pub attached to it each night. It disheartened me to learn that particular bit of information, later—I'd quite enjoyed sneaking into Muggle establishments with Mulciber, watching him dance as if demon-ridden to the frantic beat of what the Muggles then termed music.

However, at the first sight we had yet to realize what importance those three men would have to our case. Accordingly, we merely took a table outside and set ourselves to the invigorating rigours of fine conversation. Mulciber and I were debating at length the merits of a certain Muggle fashion trend called 'punk' when he pressed his fingers to his lips, motioning me toward silence. In the lull in our conversation I was able to hear the older gentleman deliver something of a speech to the younger two. What it was about, I am afraid that I do not know, for I only caught his words at the end of the speech but what I do remember was that the man's speaking voice was quite distinctive, with the slight trace of an Eastern European accent.

"He's one of them," Mulciber said flatly when they had left. I didn't need to ask who he meant.

I took a sip from my flask. "We'll check the registries at the inn as soon as we get back."

It didn't take much to get the innkeeper to show us his records. In actuality, all it took was showing him my identification as Auror, and he was instantly obliging. He even recommended that we talk to the local Auror representative, one Hieronymus Puckle, in case we needed reinforcement in our investigation—he was fond of drinking in the same pub our suspects frequented, it turned out.

According to our innkeeper, the three men went by the names of Igor Karkaroff, Dorian Wilkes, and Evan Rosier. I wasn't too surprised at the information. The Rosier of my generation had been a first cousin by genetics if not law, a fact entirely due to marital infidelity and my grandfather's roving eye, and this descendant of his definitely had a family look. Karkaroff, of course, was the one Mulciber had recognized—he was evidently a Russian expatriot.

So began our nightly observation of the three men. Once we had met with Puckle and apprised him of the complications of the case, he joined us at the pub as we attempted the task of appearing to converse normally while secretly monitoring every move the men three tables down made. It took six days for our surveillance to fail.

It was a small thing, in the end. The waiter who brought our drinks temporarily obscured Mulciber's and my view of the men, while Puckle was using the loo. By the time we could see the table again, Rosier and Wilkes were gone and I knew in my ibones/i that it was for another killing, just like I also knew immediately that they had left Karkaroff to make sure no one asked questions.

Unfortunately for them, Mulciber and I were not so easily dissuaded and so it was that I readied my wand as he approached the man from behind. "Excuse me," Mulciber said, tapping him on the shoulder, "but you're a Death Eater, aren't you?"

With a furious cry, Karkaroff spun around, wand in hand, but it was too late: I had the tip of my own pressed up against his chin, with Mulciber's against. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Puckle emerging from the corridor in the back of the pub—I nodded to Mulciber, who rolled up Karkaroff's sleeve. Another black skull lay there and it chilled me to my bones to see the evidence of Mulciber's stories in front of me. "You've killed your last, Karkaroff," I growled. "If it were my choice, I'd make sure you got the same, but I think perhaps the Ministry would rather have Azkaban deal with you." There was fear in his black eyes and it made me glad. I remembered those murder sites—Karkaroff and his friends were nothing but the scum of the earth.

I turned my eyes upward, sick of the scum's face. Mulciber was looking at me, straight into my eyes, his expression as serious as a sermon. "Go follow the others," Mulciber hissed. "You know what they're doing and I'm sure Mr. Puckle and I can handle this one."

I nodded and tore off down the street of the pub, blindly trying to follow the tracks of men who were a good five minutes gone and making no real progress. There was a crack of lightning in the sky and green smoke began to resolve on top of the roof at the far end of the row, taking the form of that damned skull and snake—I broke into a run.

It seemed like hours before I made it inside that house—I knew it was no more than a few minutes. There was the stench of a burnt corpse in the sitting room, something that looked almost like the unwrapped mummy I'd seen with Mulciber in the British Museum. There were movements in the kitchen, a chilling sound like the rush of air—it was there that I went next, only to see a woman slumped over a kitchen counter, the dull glaze of the killing curse upon her eyes.

They found me in the hallway. Rosier was the first—he was masked, but I knew he was near exactly my size—and we spent a good few minutes avoiding each other's curses. I heard a movement behind me and my head whipped around, though I saw no one, and Rosier threw something at me. It hit my face and there was an explosion of pain: at first I couldn't see at all and then what there was to see was choked in blood. There were shouted words behind me—Wilkes, I thought—and another burst of pain took the floor out from under me.

The was a wand jabbed in my back, another with its tip digging into my forehead. The drumming of my heartbeat threatened to deafen me. Rosier laughed harshly and poked hard against my skull. "Beg for your life," he growled and I begged. Oh, I begged.

I was going to die here, I realized, die here in a Belfast row house, with Mulciber's bloody tattoo hanging above my head. I was sobbing, my tears mixing with the blood that stung my face. I was going to die and I was going to die alone.

There was a crack in the air, a second. Wilkes fell back behind me and Rosier dropped his wand. I still held my own and I jabbed it into his stomach. "Avada kedavra."

I lay panting on the floor for what seemed to be a long time, though I know now it wasn't. There was a hand on my shoulder, familiar. A soft, faintly accented voice in my ear. "Alastor. Alastor, it's all right. They're dead now. We killed them."

I looked up, trying to see through the red. A face resolved itself: Mulciber's. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. There was something in his hand—a muggle gun, I realized. "How…" I started and then I swallowed. I could guess how, though God only knew where he'd gotten the thing, much less where he'd learned to shoot it.

"Puckle had Karkaroff in hand," Mulciber whispered. He reached out to touch my cheek, stroke it. "I decided to come after you, in case there was trouble."

"And the gun?" I asked, my eyes drifting down to stare at it through the blood.

"Remember the Prophet of Gematria case?" he asked me. I nodded. "Well. Meric said I could keep that piece of evidence if I wanted to. Considering how wretched my curses are, I thought it might come in handy. I've kept in practice."

I laughed weakly. "I ought to arrest you. Those aren't even legal in the Muggle world."

There was a smile in his voice. I could even almost see it on his face. "I know you won't."

"No," I agreed, leaning into his caress. "I won't."

I could hear him swallow. "You're rather banged up," Mulciber whispered. "They got your leg clean off—I'm not sure if even Arianwen will be able to regrow it. And your face…" He swallowed again.

"It's all right," I told him. "I'm alive. And it's not like they aren't familiar with us at Mungo's."

That produced a laugh, a shaken one. "No," he agreed, "it's not." I felt the lightest flutter of lips against my forehead and suddenly his small hand was around mine, squeezing it tight. "Should we just wait here until the others get here?" he asked, settling down next to me.

"Yes," I said. "I think we should."

And so we did.