And YOU want me to do what?
The Burrow was far less dilapidated than I remembered. I couldn’t help but frown, feeling a sense of ‘wrongness’, as I looked over the main structure just seconds after I apparated there. The last time I’d visited, the only straight line in the whole bloody place was on the welcome mat at the front door, and even that was a little frayed. The rest of the house could only be described as relaxed, if only because ‘bent and crooked’ was rather harsh, even if the windows were decidedly rhombus shaped, rather than square.
Now, the place looked like it had been remodeled, if not torn down and re-erected after straightening the foundations. I thought back, and realized that I hadn’t been here since before my apprenticeship. I suppose that during Mr. Weasley’s short stint as Minister, he was paid enough to fix the house.
I walked down the path through the front garden and knocked on the door. A few moments later Mrs. Weasley answered, and even though I was ready for it, her welcoming hug still all but drove the wind from my lungs.
“Harry! Pet, oh it is good to see you!”
I succumbed with good grace to her hug for a few moments before somehow, I managed to disentangle myself from her. “Hi, Mrs. Weasley. It’s good to see you too.”
She ushered me into the house, offering me foods of all sorts. I tried to politely decline, but ended up with some honey on toast as a sort of consolation prize. What did surprise me was the fact that a young house elf was assisting her in making breakfast. It turns out that the idea of a Minister without an elf was rather alien to the Ministry, and a young elf born to a family who already had too many was purchased by the Ministry and bonded to the Weasley family. Mr. Weasley himself soon came down the stairs and joined his wife and I at the breakfast table. The three of us chatted briefly about inconsequential things before I asked if Ron was home.
Mrs. Weasley gave a sort of harrumph, and told me to go and wake him up. I grinned at her exasperation, since I’d bunked with Ron for five years, and knew exactly how difficult it was to get him moving in the morning. Especially on a weekend. Even Mr. Weasley seemed amused at his wife’s demeanor.
The squeaky step no longer squeaked, so I was able to go up the stairs and enter Ron’s room without disturbing him.
I couldn’t help but grin at the décor. The small collection of puke-inducing orange posters that were usually there had been replaced with enough Cannons’ advertising paraphernalia that only one item managed to avoid being overlapped by another. Ron’s own marketing poster was that lone exception.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a smile filled with as much pride as the one on that poster. Poster-Ron gave me a wink and a thumbs up, before going back to smiling broadly again, half turning to show off his Cannons Uniform.
I took a deep breath and shook my head with a bemused sigh. Well, at least he knows what he wants out of life. I can hardly say the same thing. Oh, I know I want to have a normal life, but I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter what I do, I’ll always be seen by others as the bloody Boy-Who-Lived, and therefore, someone not-quite-normal.
I looked over the rest of the room’s ornaments, noting the new addition of a rather large owl cage. It appears that Ron got himself a new pet. I wonder what happened to Pig. The shelves in the room were all filled to overflowing with odd items he’d collected over the years. His old broken wand, his Hogwarts acceptance letter, the DA galleon we used in our fifth year, the omnoculors I bought him at the Quidditch World Cup, even his OWL and NEWT results. Of course, his results were simply lying there, while his offer of employment with the Cannons had been framed and looked as though it was the only thing in the room that was regularly dusted.
I gently shook Ron’s shoulder and grinned with amusement at his sleepy attempts to knock my hand away. “Ron? Wake up mate.”
“G’ way,” he mumbled, groping for my hand to push it away.
I bit my lip wondering how I could wake him up in the most amusing way. Well, he was a Weasley; he’d have certain reflexes ingrained after a while.
“Mate, Fred and George are coming,” I hissed in his ear.
He all but leapt out of bed with a startling yelp, got tangled in the sheets and fell onto the floor with a resounding thump.
Yep, that was amusing.
Yet again, it didn’t take much to convince Ron to join me. The only thing he was worried about was missing a training session. We ran an eye over his contract and found that he was permitted to miss a certain percentage of routine sessions during the year, but not the ones right before a game.
To Ron, who had up till now been the first player to arrive and the last to depart these training sessions, the idea of missing one was rather alien. Still, he did take the time to write a note to his coach explaining his absence, and sent it with his new owl, Chudley. Pig was with Ginny at Hogwarts, apparently.
I felt mildly ill at the name. The owl looked as though he shared my opinion on his name.
Nevertheless, Ron was packed within a few minutes, and we headed back to Grimmauld Place to pick up some stuff for me.
We apparated directly there, rather than use the floo. I still wasn’t as comfortable as others at using the fireplace as a means of travel. Competent, yes, but comfortable, no. We arrived just in time to hear the whoosh of flames from the fireplace behind us. Well, I guess we just missed someone.
“Dobby!” I called. Before I’d even finished his name, he was at my side.
“Master Harry called Dobby?”
“Who is still home?”
Dobby actually frowned. “Mistress Blaise is in the sitting room,” he said nervously. He looked up at me submissively and softly added, “Dobby is not liking yelling.”
I frowned, and reached out to put a comforting hand on Dobby’s shoulder. “Hermione and Blaise were yelling at each other?” I guessed.
Dobby gave a couple of bobs of his head. Ron dumped his bag and looked at me questioningly.
I shrugged at his unasked question. “Don’t ask me. I wouldn’t even try to figure it out.”
A door slammed, making all three of us jump slightly. Blaise stormed into the room with her student bag over her own shoulder. She started slightly too on seeing us. “Well, you just missed your precious Gryffindor,” she snarled at me.
I raised an eyebrow, but stayed silent. A tactic Zab had suggested to me, for dealing with the times when his fiery great-granddaughter was being, as he called it, obstinately willful.
Not arguing back was the right thing to do, since she eventually looked down, abashed.
“Sorry Harry. Granger just makes me so mad!”
Now that her ire had a different target, I felt safe in joining the conversation.
She nodded with a wry smile. “She wasn’t too happy with you, for not waking her up when you got home. Not to mention, leaving before she woke up.”
I eyed Blaise thoughtfully. “That’s not all she was upset about, was she?”
Blaise actually blushed, and hesitated in answering. “I suppose,” she said evasively.
I shook my head with a small smile. “Well, Ron and I are heading over to Italy again for my meeting.”
She raised a manicured eyebrow. “I thought that wasn’t for a few days?”
I nodded. “It isn’t, but my old Master gave me something to do in the meantime.”
Her face darkened a bit. “Did he now?”
You know, seeing Blaise confront Zab now she was an adult would be a rather amusing scene. “He did. Don’t let me hold you up. You’re obviously on your way to work.”
She smiled at me, though I just knew Zab was in for an earful at some point. She stood on tiptoes and gave me a quick kiss, then stepped over to the fireplace. “Oh, you’d better send Granger an owl. If you don’t, she’ll probably try to hex me next time she visits.”
Ron, who knew just how skilled both witches were with a wand, smirked and said, “Can I sell tickets to that?”
Blaise tossed her hair and smirked back at him. “I said ‘try’ for a reason, Weasley,” she said proudly, before flooing to St. Mungos.
I looked over to Ron, whose manic grin made him look like a Batman villain. He took a breath and began to say something before I held up a hand. He stopped, probably because my wand was in it.
“Don’t say anything,” I muttered.
He complied, but his smile said louder than words what he was thinking.
While Winky packed my bags for me, I sent Dobby to Gringotts to get my ‘other’ gear from my vault. If we were going back to the Vatican, I wanted every possible advantage I could get. I rather hoped the stabilization charms I cast on the acromantula silk gloves still held. It would be a bugger of a job to fix them.
“So,” Ron started as I quickly wrote a letter to Hermione. “Where are we going?”
I blinked. “I didn’t tell you?”
He shrugged. “You may have. I was too interested in that wild boar dish you described.”
I tilted my head to one side and stifled a chuckle. “You actually agreed to come overseas with me without knowing where we were going?”
He gave me a blank look as if to say, ‘Yeah, duh!’
“Yeah. Duh!” he said. He turned to Winky, who’d just entered with my packed bags. “Winky, could you get me a snack?”
“Ron, you just had breakfast,” I said.
He shrugged. “Not much of one.”
I nodded to Winky, who was waiting silently for my permission, before turning back to Ron. “Mate, you ate half a bloody pig’s worth of bacon not half an hour ago.”
Ron was rather keen to experience a different method of Muggle transport this time. For some reason, the idea of traveling under the English Channel still gave him shivers. I asked him what he’d prefer, wondering just how he expected to get to Italy.
“Don’t Muggles have boats?
I nodded. “Yes, of course, but we need to be in Italy sooner rather than later.”
“Well, how about going on one of them Muggle aeroplates?”
I sighed. “Aeroplanes, possibly?”
He snapped his fingers. “That’s the one. Dad would be so jealous if I told him I went on one of those.” He frowned briefly, his emotions flickering quickly. “He might be upset though. He still doesn’t understand how they stay up in the air. He might not think they are safe”
I swallowed at his distraction. It would seem that the wounds he received at the Department of Mysteries was still affecting his attention span. “How about I ask Hermione to explain it to him when she next sees your family?” I asked.
He nodded eagerly. “Good idea.”
I jotted a quick postscript to my letter, before rolling it up and calling for Hedwig. My owl, who was approaching a modest middle age, silently drifted from her perch over to me. “Here you go girl. Could you please take that to Hermione? Wait until she gets home though, don’t bother her during her classes.”
Hedwig gave me a pointed look as if to ask me if there was anything else I wanted to tell her about her job that she already knew how to do. For a creature that can’t move her eyes around, she’s rather eloquent in her expressions, my owl.
Dobby arrived back soon after Hedwig left, and after the application of a couple of lightening charms to our luggage, Ron and I headed down to the nearest Tube station.
Buying a ticket at the ticket machine delighted Ron nearly as much as it would have delighted his father. The mere idea that Muggles could create a machine of sufficiently advanced technology that was indistinguishable from magic to him was rather alien.
The train took us to Hammersmith, where we changed over to the platform with trains going to Heathrow. At that point, Ron suddenly became nervous.
“Um, we aren’t going anywhere near Castle and Elephant, are we?” he asked.
I frowned, but looked at the tube map display on the platform. Finally, I picked out the station he was likely referring to. “If you mean Elephant and Castle, then no. Why?”
Ron glanced around nervously. The platform was rather busy this early in the morning, though the rush hour (or perhaps more accurately for London, the rush three-and-a-half-hours) was over. He leaned closer and whispered, “Voldemort attacked there the summer before you killed him.”
I blinked. “Is that a problem?”
Ron shrugged, his demeanor changing quickly. “Nah, I just promised Mum I wouldn’t go there.”
I frowned. “Huh? This is a woman whose two eldest sons have idiotically suicidal careers!” I said mindful of the Muggles around us. “Not to mention the fact that professional athletes with heavy clubs are out for your blood every time you play!”
Ron laughed. “Yeah, but I’m her little baby boy,” said the two-metre-plus Celtic berserker throwback, not without a touch of irony. “Anyway, I’m also your friend, and that means that I’m far more likely to run into stupidly suicidal situations than they are.”
I laughed at that as the station loudspeaker announced the arrival of a Heathrow bound train. We picked up our bags and clambered on, finding a pair of free seats at one end of the carriage.
The trip to the airport was uneventful, though Ron was entranced at the view. He knew London was a large city, but it never really struck him just how spread out it was. Finally, the view disappeared for a final time as we again descended underground for the final few stations before Heathrow.
While not as busy as King’s Cross Station, Heathrow airport was still a bustling mass of humanity. It was rather amusing to see the occasional red-faced would-be-passenger arguing with a check-in attendant that they really needed to catch the very flight that had just left (one person even went so far as to insist that the person who checks in the bags somehow should have the authority to call the bloody plane back).
We made our way to an information desk to ask where we could catch a flight to Italy. We were subjected to a rapid-fire verbal list of by an exasperated clerk. He didn’t even have the customer service skills to look at us while he spoke. Ron and I just shrugged, and went to the closest ticket counter, not caring which airline it was.
I paid for the tickets using a credit card Hermione had organized for me. Whenever I used it, I had to pay it off by converting galleons to pounds at Gringotts sometime in the next month. It was just one more Muggle idea Ron was fascinated by; the concept of getting something by just handing over a small piece of plastic, and then getting it back.
We went quickly through passport control, and once again, I had to convince (magically, naturally) the officer to ignore Ron’s overactive passport photo. As we sat in the waiting lounge, I pondered just how far out of his depth Ron would be if he ever found himself alone in the world without magic. His scattered attention would make it more difficult for him, but I think anyone raised with no contact to the Muggle world would have a hell of a time fitting in.
Once we got on the plane, I graciously gave Ron my window seat. A few seconds after take off, I had to question the wisdom of that decision, when he started panicking at the way the land below us suddenly dropped away. For someone who spends a great deal of his time at great heights, he was rather skittish at the idea that he wasn’t in control of the plane. You just can’t please this guy when it comes to Muggle transportation.
A few hours later, we touched down in Rome. Ron wanted to go to the place that served the wild boar dish immediately (oddly his attention problem didn’t seem to affect him when he thought about food or Quidditch, a pair of facts that had me questioning whether or not Ron was pulling a fast one on the world). He settled down once I told him that the restaurant was in Florence, which itself was a few hours on a train from Rome.
We checked into a hotel, Ron insisting on the best room they had available. For someone who grew up in a fiscally restricted household, he certainly enjoys throwing his money around. The hotel manager gave us a pair of rooms on the top floor, both with balconies.
Once I’d dumped my bags on the bed, I opened my room’s balcony doors, to find Hedwig sitting on the railing with a letter tied to her leg. Figuring it was from Hermione, I was rather relieved to see it wasn’t a howler.
I can’t believe you didn’t wake me when you got home! I am so angry with you right now. I woke up with a crick in my neck to discover not only that you’d been home, but you left again even before I woke up.
I had intended to apologise for how I acted after we returned from Hogwarts; my behavior was atrocious, but honestly, was it too much to ask that you wake me up?
Not only that, but the letter you wrote is two lines long! Your postscript asking me to explain the concept of lift to Mr. Weasley was longer than the rest of your note! When you get back, you have some explaining to do.
I frowned, thinking hard. Hermione was not the aggrieved party here, yet she sounded half-contrite, half-petulant. I crumpled her letter into a ball and incinerated it with a flick of my wand.
I’d think about how I’d approach the upcoming conversation later.
Ron and I spent the next few days doing the touristy thing. Ron helped me recognize the subtle signs in museums and the like that indicated a magical section that was hidden from Muggles the same way as the Leaky Cauldron. In return, I decided to take him to Trevi Fountain, though I was thinking about not pointing out the stone with the drying charm for wizards.
The morning before my meeting, Ron and I ate breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant before setting out.
“Ron, I have to meet someone at the Vatican tomorrow. He has some information for me,” I said, taking a sip of hot coffee. That’s one thing I’d noticed about Italy. Everything goes with coffee.
Ron looked up from his own cup, which given the amount of sugar he’d put into it, could only be described as containing caffeinated syrup. “Who?”
I shrugged. “Dunno.”
“What information does he have?”
I shrugged again. “Dunno. If I knew that, I wouldn’t need to meet him.”
Ron rolled his eyes at my response. “I know that. What does he have information about?”
I sighed. “That, I can’t tell you.”
Rather than look angry, he looked surprised. “Mate, I am a member of the Order, you know,” he said.
I nodded. “I know, but it isn’t Order business.” I paused with a small frown. “At least, it isn’t Order business yet.”
He picked up his toast and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully. “When can you tell me?”
I grinned. “Probably a couple of days after we get back to London,” I said.
He nodded happily, but asked seriously, “Do you need someone to cover your back?”
I nodded. “Always.”
Ron and I entered Rome’s wizarding community with no real difficulty; Ron even managed to pick up that he needed to step on the magical stone before going into the waters of Trevi Fountain. I shook my head and thought about all the kinds of things I’d missed out on by being sent to live in the Muggle world. I thought our entrance was rather inconspicuous, but a great many people took one look at me, gasped, and hurriedly made their way off to do something else.
Even Ron, whose attention span didn’t exactly have a stellar record when it came to things other than Quidditch and food, noticed our reception. “Something you need to tell me, mate?”
I cleared my throat. “Well, yeah, I suppose. The last time I was here, I sort of got into a fight with some punk kid.”
Ron frowned, trying to reconcile the reaction we’d received, with the information I’d just divulged. “Was there anything special about this kid?”
I gave a sort of affirmative sound. “Uh-huh. He was the local mafia boss’ son.”
Ron slowly turned to face me. “Mafia? You’re the guy who killed Falcone’s son?”
I shrugged. “Sort of. How do you know about it?”
Ron snorted. “The Falcone’s have been the most powerful criminal family in wizarding history. Dad heard that someone started a riot here that killed a lot of the family’s most powerful wizards. He was telling me about it one night.”
I felt rather affronted at that. “Hey! I didn’t start a riot!”
Ron’s grin didn’t waver. “But you did kill Falcone’s son?”
I winced. “Well, sort of. I sabotaged his wand. He tried to kill me with the killing curse, only it came out the other end of the wand.”
Ron took a deep breath, trying to control his amusement. “So, just business as usual for you then? Just your average, everyday, hum-dum, Harry Potter holiday. See the sights, try some food, and attract some people looking to kill you.” He cuffed me on the shoulder. “Merlin, were you so bored with life after you knocked Snake-face’s head off that you went looking for some more enemies?”
“Of course not. I just, well, he was shaking down a shopkeeper in front of me! What was I supposed to do?”
He rolled his eyes. “You’ve never heard the saying, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’?”
A small boy, probably not even old enough to go to Hogwarts, cautiously approached Ron and I. Without saying a word, he held out a folded piece of parchment. I made no move towards it, but Ron laughed and took it from the kid. He unfolded it as the scamp raced away, disappearing into the throng.
“What is it?” I asked Ron.
“Dunno,” he said, helpfully as usual. “Here, what do you make of it?”
He passed me the parchment, which contained a few lines of hurriedly scribbled Italian. It was signed, ‘Cerelia’.
I sighed. “Bugger.”
“What?” Ron asked, curious. “I didn’t know you could read Italian.”
I shook my head. “I can’t. But the last time I was here I had a stud in my ear that translated for me. Cerelia was the apothecarist I visited to get some things I needed. She thinks I can speak Italian.”
Ron pursed his lips together in an effort to keep from laughing. “So, she has sent us a warning, but we have no way of knowing what it says. You know, I think you’re right. You are the universe’s spittoon.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, well, keep your eyes open. We may be… To your right!”
Ron knelt down and played with his shoelaces before muttering, “I see them.”
I paid silent tribute to his subtlety. To Ron’s right were four figures, three wizards and a witch. They were not acting like the rest of the crowd, but were focusing on us. Their wands were in their hands, ready and waiting.
I took in our environment in an instant. The various statues that dotted the street could be used as cover, but a wizard skilled in transfiguration could turn them into a weapon, like Dumbledore did at the Ministry.
The witch of the group disapparated. Taking Zab’s lessons to heart, I knew she’d be attacking us from a different direction.
I coughed, clearing my throat. “Remember the ‘bait and switch’ move Angelina and Katie used to practice?”
Ron nodded as he rose to his feet, his wand in his hand. “You bet.” He turned to face me, his back towards the three wizards.
I couldn’t help it. A grin just grew on my face. “Ready for some fun?” I asked as I took both of my wands and placed them side-by-side.
Ron’s responding grin was as evil as I’d ever seen. “You have to ask? One mark directly behind you.”
I gave a curt nod, just as the three wizards behind him snapped their wands up. “Now!” I hissed.
Instantly, his wand arced up and over my left shoulder. I brought my wand up and under his left armpit. We shouted “Protego!” in unison.
Spell light splashed over our shields, each defending the other’s back. With a quick step to one side, like a dance, we stepped around each other, and stood back to back, each facing our attackers. The three wizards in front of me all betrayed shock at our quick actions, which gave me the chance to toss a concussion hex at their feet.
I just got to see the result before Ron grunted and fell backwards, pushing me forward. He cursed inventively, and spat, “Turn!”
I quickly stepped to my left and spun around, allowing Ron to do the same. I was just able to deflect a bone-shattering curse into the sky, which had it landed, would have put Ron in the hospital, had he survived it.
I quickly took stock. Nothing remained of Ron’s shield, but having cast my own with brother wands, it still stood, leaving him protected for now. “Take care of them,” I snapped, shoving him towards the three bewildered wizards. My hex had floored them, which would give Ron the chance to neutralize them.
The witch who sent the spell was fast; I’ll give her that. I don’t think she even waited for her curse to reach us before she launched a pair of disarming hexes. With my attention split between Ron, the three wizards and the witch, I wasn’t able to protect both of us, and she managed to neatly pluck Ron’s wand from his hand. I faired a little better, even without a defensive shield already in place.
Of course, even disarmed, Ron wasn’t exactly helpless. I heard him say, “Hey, you look like a Malfoy. I hate Malfoys,” before launching himself across the ten metres or so separating us from them and slugging one of the rising fellows right on the chin. He obviously figured that a stunned wizard could be enervated, while an unconscious wizard could not. Either that or he had impressive levels of pent up aggression he never got to release on our favorite ex-ferret punching bag.
While I turned my full attention to the witch, Ron jumped at the guy, who was busy spitting out a tooth, pushing him back down on top of his companions, and gleefully burying them under his large mass. The witch had her wand trained expertly on my heart, and fired off another hex.
She was bloody good, I noticed as I again twisted out of the way. In fact, she reminded me a bit of Zab. She didn’t speak, not even to cast a spell. Her defenses were in place before she started attacking, and were robust enough that I’d have to send my strongest spells to penetrate them. She refused to allow anything to distract her, and she didn’t delay casting spells to see what affect her previous ones had. I swallowed past the thick lump in my throat and concentrated.
From the gleeful shouts from my friend, combined with the muffled, yet wet snapping of bone and pain-filled Italian swearing, I concluded Ron could look after himself for the moment.
I flicked my wands, sending some ropes out to try to bind her. She incinerated them absently, and began a series of spells I didn’t recognize. My own shield flashed and wavered, and before I could strengthen it, one of her curses managed to get through, grazing my arm as I dodged. Pain lanced through me, right to the bones, and I found my muscles twitching uncontrollably.
My own (slightly off target) cutting curse forced her to roll to avoid decapitation, and I took the time to end her spell affecting my motor skills. It took a tenth of a second longer than I needed, and she managed to clip me with an odd sort of jinx that made me drop my wands. Not the usual ‘expelliarmus’ either, this one disoriented me at the same time. A wave of dizziness swept over me.
Despite the fact that I no longer had possession of my wands, she kept sending debilitating spells in my direction, including a pair of everbero curses that smashed the flagstones behind me to pieces. I tried to put her off by grinning at her, but she just responded by sending yet another curse at me. With a snarl, I summoned a bright light two inches in front of her face. I enjoyed her shocked expression as I scooped my wands back up. That was the first expression I’d seen on her face besides intense concentration. With a flick, she dispelled my light and sent another hex at me. I batted the spell away
My own eyes widened in surprise as I deflected it. Man, that spell had some power behind it! This certainly wasn’t a recent graduate from school in front of me; this witch was in the prime of her life, and very well trained.
She was skilled, experienced and talented. I wasn’t going to win this contest easily, or quickly if I continued with the tactic of matching her spell for spell. The quickest way to win this fight was to use Zab’s tactic of using an attack she didn’t know I could make.
My respect for her abilities grew as she transfigured the stones near my feet into spikes, restricting my movements and my ability to dodge her spells. Immediately, she followed it with a pair of hexes and cast a shield spell on herself, all in the time it took me to erect another shield and ready myself. Not only that, she didn’t try and taunt me, or waste time by throwing me off balance.
Ron’s shouted, “They’re down!” behind me, which caused the witch to step up the tempo.
I didn’t bother counterattacking, I just focused on deflecting her spells until I got a half-second window to launch my attack. Unable to dodge well, an expelliarmus clipped me, and my wands flew to her hands, giving me my only opportunity.
My sharp, sudden push sent her sprawling through the air, and smashed her bodily into the granite wall behind her with an ugly ‘crack’. She slid bonelessly into a heap at the base, leaving a trail of crimson blood down the wall, beginning where the back of her head had struck the stone. I saw the vacant look in her open eyes before it hit me.
I’d killed another person. I watched as her wand rolled out of her hand, seemingly in slow motion.
“You right, mate?” Ron asked, putting his hand on my shoulder. It took all my control not to spin around and push him away.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Damn it, I didn’t mean to kill her. Coming here was a stupid idea.”
Ron looked over at the corpse. “You’re right. They shouldn’t have.”
I gave him a frown. “I meant us.”
He shrugged, flashing me a grin. It was rather comforting to know that even in the aftermath of a fatal confrontation, Ron would always keep his good humor. “I know what you meant. I was just pointing out that it was an even more stupid idea on their part.”
I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as the rest of the world flooded back into my senses. There was lots of screaming and shouting, with people running around everywhere. Perfect time for another attack. It just wouldn’t be coming from the witch I just fought. Or her companions, I added to myself, after sparing a glance down at the Malfoy look-alike and his chums.
I shook off my stupor and stepped around the spikes on the ground. Cautiously, I approached the dead witch to collect our wands. I picked up all four, tossing Ron’s and the dead witch’s own to my friend. “Here. For now, use this one as a spare,” I said, slipping both of mine back into my sleeves.
Ron caught the two sticks without looking at them, one in each hand. He examined his new wand with a critical eye. “Nice,” he concluded, getting a spark or two with a wave.
“Glad you like it. Cover me for a second, will you?” I finished, dispelling the protective charms on the witch’s clothes before rifling through her pockets. I found a bag of galleons, a document pouch and a couple of personal effects; two rings on a chain around her neck, an engagement ring and a matching wedding band, a locket and a bracelet.
I tried not to think about the fact that I’d just made someone a widower. The bag contained a few hundred galleons, and I put it on the ground beside her. The bracelet was the only other object that was obviously magical, and I wasn’t about to touch that. I checked for curses on the pouch before opening it, finding a bounty notice written in both Italian and English and a couple of letters written in Italian. And one last object that sent a wave of nausea through my stomach that had nothing to do with magic.
“Anything on those three?” I asked Ron absently.
“Um, Harry?” Ron whispered.
Noting the worry in his tone, I stood up and looked around. A group of Italy’s finest had their wands out and pointing at us.
I looked down again at the document pouch in my hands.
Nestled inside, was an auror’s badge.
“You are looking at a long prison sentence, Englishman,” the bulky auror sitting across from me said. He looked rather like Uncle Vernon. Except the lack of fungus on his lip.
I nodded, staying silent, keeping a neutral expression, while looking around the room. Four walls, ceiling. Wooden table, three chairs, one door. Simple description really.
“Killing an auror, well, that’s a good fifty years to life,” he continued, louder this time. His partner kept staring silently at me. I mentally named her Bland.
I nodded amiably again. Zab’s lessons on how investigators intimidate suspects to get them to reveal information was proving to be spot on. His advice on how to counter their efforts didn’t seem to be doing much for their blood pressure though.
“Do you hear me? I said you are going to prison!” he shouted, half standing.
I turned my head to face his partner. “Tell your idiot friend here that I am not deaf,” I said, keeping a lid on my anger. Losing it here, without backup, would help nothing. No one who killed a law enforcement officer had any friends left after the fact. I needed to keep my cool.
The partner closed his eyes for a second and sighed. “Then tell us what we want to know,” he said softly.
I shrugged. “What exactly do you want to know? You haven’t actually asked me any questions yet. All I’ve heard so far are variations on the theme that I’m going to spend some time at your Ministry’s pleasure.”
‘Vernon’ slammed his hands down on the table. “Why did you kill auror Giogi?”
I sighed. “It wasn’t intentional. I just meant to push her away from me.”
“So you admit you killed her?”
Again, I looked over to the quiet partner. “Do you suppose I could talk to someone who possesses some measure of intelligence? Or even someone who hasn’t already made up his mind?” I snarled.
The beefy auror grabbed me by the front of my shirt and effortlessly hauled me to my feet, pulling my face towards his own. “You’ll talk to me until I get the answers I want!” he snarled.
I coughed and twisted my head away from his awful breath. “In that case, at least brush your teeth,” I said insultingly.
With a roar, he drew back his fist, his eyes filled with anger. His partner barked a warning, stopping him from landing the blow.
I stared unafraid into his eyes and concentrated, probing with my mind. In his anger, he’d let his minimal mental defenses slip. I sought memories of the auror I’d killed.
It took him only a couple of seconds to realize he was being violated, and grunted with effort as he tried to expel me from his mind. He wasn’t a fully trained Occlumens, and of course nowhere near Zab’s level of competence, but I only stayed long enough to grab a few memories, before leaving willingly.
“Can you spell ‘Conflict of interest’?” I asked easily, with a smirk reminiscent of Malfoy at his best.
With a shout of rage he hurled me back down into my chair, swearing loudly.
His partner cast a spell, canceling the translation charm on the room before she responded in Italian, and the pair had a heated discussion, though I did pick up the word, ‘legilimency’. Finally, the big fellow spat something nasty at me in his native language, turned and stormed through the door, slamming it shut. Bland then recast the charm.
“You could be charged with assaulting an auror for invading his mind like that,” she said to me.
I wriggled to get as comfortable as I could on the hard wooden seat. “So you’re the good cop?” I snorted.
She pursed her lips. “What happened?”
I shrugged. “He was banging the auror who attacked me.”
She frowned, but obviously filed that piece of information away for further use. “I mean, when you killed auror Giogi.”
“Simple. My friend and I saw a group of wizards and one witch in my peripheral vision ready their wands while looking at us. On a whim, we cast shields, which protected us from their spells. I cast a hex that knocked the three wizards to the ground, where my friend knocked them out. I blocked a spell from your auror friend, and she then attempted to disarm us. She got my friend, but missed me.”
“Did she identify herself as an auror?”
I shook my head. “Nope. She didn’t say a word. Not even to cast spells, which was very impressive, I must say. We traded curses and hexes for a while, before she disarmed me. I wandlessly cast a banishing charm, which came out a little more powerfully than I expected. She hit the wall behind her, hard enough to crack her skull.” I took a deep breath, letting my anger at my actions recede. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for her death.”
Bland sat back, crossing her arms. “I’d be more inclined to believe you if you hadn’t been found robbing her corpse.”
I nodded. “That I understand. I was looking for something that would tell me who hired them. I did find a bounty notice, but didn’t get a chance to look at it. At the time, I thought she was a bounty hunter. If you look, you’ll see that I put her money pouch back down after looking in it.”
“Yet you stole her wand,” Bland said accusingly.
I nodded. “Not for any ulterior motive. Just to give my friend a second one while we were out in the open.”
She leaned forward. “Would you have kept it?” she asked intently.
I stared at her for a long time before answering. “You’ll have to ask Ron, but I imagine so,” I said honestly. “If she had been a bounty hunter, and not an auror, it would have been ours by right of conquest.”
“Not in Italy,” she spat.
I casually nodded in agreement. “Fair enough. That was an assumption on my part.” I took a deep breath. “Would you contact someone for me? I figure this will take a few days to sort out, and I’ll be late for a meeting.”
She nodded carefully. “Who?”
“I can’t remember his name. He’s the head wizard at the Vatican. I was supposed to meet him at two o’clock tomorrow.”
Her reaction was about what I expected. “Don’t waste my time,” she said evenly.
I sighed. “I’m not. The Pope requested my presence. The invitation is with my effects. The big fellow who just left should know where they are.”
She glowered at me for a few seconds. “If you’re lying to me…”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’ll what? Send me to prison for longer that I’d get for killing an auror? This isn’t a particularly bad bluff, you have the proof sitting somewhere in the building.”
She waved my comment away. “It could be faked.”
I gave her a lopsided grin. “Paranoid much? Just go and look.”
After a few moments of silence, she stood, just in time for her old partner to barge back in.
“You’re looking at life,” he barked, an evil smile on his face. “Your friend talked.”
I nodded to him amiably, not believing that Ron would turn on me in the slightest. “Righty ho, when’s my trial?”
His expression didn’t change, but I could sense his confusion. Bland stood up and whispered something in his ear before leaving the room herself.
His smile turned feral. “It’s just you and me now,” he growled, and reached out to grab me.
I rolled my eyes at his attempts at intimidation. “Does that crap actually work on anyone?”
He grabbed me out of my chair and physically hurled me against the far wall, and pressed a forearm against my chest, forcing the air painfully from my lungs. “I’m going to kill you for what you did, English scum.”
Zab’s lessons covered this situation rather well. In the wizarding world, even when in custody, when someone threatens your life, you are permitted to defend yourself. Of course, in a situation where you are disarmed, most people think they can’t be harmed.
I raised my knee sharply, finding the soft collection of dangly bits in his trousers. He gave a sort of “ghunnt” sound, doubling over. I slipped away from him, drawing a deep breath into my abused lungs.
He drew his wand and aimed it at me. I pushed with a sharp, dismissive gesture, sending him flying backwards. He hit the door hard, cracking the frame, but not breaking it. I moved as quickly as I could to cover the distance between us, and kicked the wand from his hand. Once free of his grip, I trod on it and twisted my heel, splintering the brittle wood beneath my boot.
He looked up at me, his eyes showing fear. I calmly took a seat, not showing any aggression.
“Attacking an auror,” he wheezed, in an octave or two higher than usual. “You’ll go to prison for this!”
I stared calmly at him. “We both know that isn’t true.”
Shouts came from outside the door, and my auror friend found himself pushed to the ground as the door burst open and three armed aurors charged in. They stopped in confusion.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” I asked calmly.
One looked down at the auror who attacked me. “What happened?”
He pointed at me, his hand wavering a bit with pain. “He attacked me.”
One of the newcomers looked keen to curse me, but the other two frowned, taking in the scene. “How?”
‘Vernon’ paused for a moment, before saying, “He kicked me, then broke my wand.”
That confused them. “He’s sitting down,” one pointed out.
“Enough,” the obvious leader of the trio said. “Out, we’ll sort this out elsewhere. You,” he pointed at me. “Stay here.”
I shrugged. “As if I could go anywhere without your permission.”
Vernon was assisted from the room, while the more experienced auror covered me. He summoned the crushed wand, frowning at me. “This looks bad for you,” he said flatly.
“I’ll take veritaserum to prove he threatened to kill me, if you like,” I replied.
He nodded, then backed slowly out of the room and closed the door. Well, attempted to at any rate. The frame was ruined.
A second or so later, he sheepishly stopped. “Come with me, I’ll take you to another room.”
The unnamed auror led me to another sparsely furnished holding cell, where I waited for a while. Despite my situation, I even surprised myself at how calm I acted. My emotions were rolling around in my stomach like crazy, both anger at being attacked, and fear that I could be imprisoned for killing an auror. I took some relief in the fact that since I’d broken out of the Vatican itself without a wand, an auror station shouldn’t be too much more difficult.
Besides, if the Vatican wanted me to help them with something, then they’d need to help me first. If what they wanted me for was something only I could provide, I had some more leverage.
I smiled at the thought, wondering if this was how Slytherins thought all the time. I’m quite sure it was how Zab thought all the time.
Over the next few hours, I could hear a lot of shouting. Something was happening that seemed to be upsetting a lot of people. I grinned at the thought. It was about time something happened to other people.
Finally, the cell door opened, and I opened my eyes to see Bland and Vernon standing there with three other people. One wore a black cassock, another wore a neat suit, carried a briefcase and sported a thin moustache, while the last one wore an auror uniform with a lot more gaudy decorations.
What do you think? A priest, a lawyer and a police chief. There has to be a joke in there somewhere.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” I asked brightly.
Bland cast the translation charm again. “Well, we--”
The lawyer coughed. “First things first. The apology?”
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Vernon cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Potter, I apologise for attacking you earlier. I have no excuse.”
I shrugged. “No problem.” Hey, if being gracious in the face of an apology gained me brownie points, I was willing to let bygones be bygones. Judging from the Chief’s expression and the perspiration on his face, either Vernon was no longer on the promotion path, or he’d been torn another one.
Bland cleared her throat. “Why didn’t you identify yourself as Harry Potter when you were arrested?” she asked.
“Like I said before, you didn’t ask. As I recall, you dumped me in a room and started threatening me with prison time.”
The lawyer turned to face the auror chief. “Indeed?”
You know, for a profession that is much maligned as evil, it is rather nice to have a lawyer on your side. Until the bill arrives, I suppose.
Ron was already out and waiting for me. He was sitting at an uncomfortable looking metal table outside a café, with a half-eaten pastry on a plate in front of him, and a newspaper spread out on the table. “Hey, mate. What took you?” he asked with a spray of crumbs.
I clasped my hands together and stretched them above my head. “You know, red tape and all that rot.”
Ron nodded happily, still munching on his pastry. “The lawyer the league hires to defend its players stopped by. Right nasty bugger.”
I raised an eyebrow. “He wouldn’t help me?”
Ron shook his head. “Nah, you’re not a player yet. Besides, the league pays his retainer, not me. I don’t get a say in who he defends.”
I grunted, arching my back. Merlin it felt good to stretch out after being in an uncomfortable room for a few hours. “Well, they’ve taken my statement. We can leave the city but we need to tell them where we are going. Somehow, I don’t think that will be the end of it though.”
I grinned evilly. “I used Legilimency on one of the aurors questioning me. He and the auror who attacked us were having an affair. That fact put the investigation on the defensive. Not only that, but the three hunters you caught squealed when they found out they were hired to catch Harry Potter. They claim that the witch was their boss. Seems she thought it would be a nice supplement to her income with an illegal bounty.”
“So you’re off the hook?”
I sighed deeply. I still wasn’t comfortable about the fact that I’d taken another life. Voldemort, fine, no problems there. Snape, I got over quickly. However, this witch, well, I don’t know. Yes she wanted to either capture or kill me, but there was no malice in it. I wasn’t sorry that it was her and not me that kicked it, but it was still hard to come to terms with. I instinctively felt that I didn’t want to be someone who just shrugged off killing another person. That said, I certainly didn’t want to be the kind of person who didn’t defend themselves enough because they were afraid of killing another.
“Yeah. Apparently arresting the Boy-Who-Lived without due process wasn’t a good move. I think they’re afraid the press will be all over this.”
Ron smirked. “That would be fun, you know.”
I shook my head. “I’m supposed to be here incognito. Too many people know who I am as it is. I need to meet with this guy tomorrow, then the Vatican later on.” I looked up into the darkening sky. “Well, today’s a total loss for sight seeing. What do you say we go and pig out on pizza?”
Ron’s answering grin was a remarkable sight.
The next day, Ron and I made our way to the smallest independent country on earth. The elliptical plaza of San Pietro was just as busy as I remembered. Gaudily dressed tourists bustled about, snapping photo after photo, pointing out landmarks to other gaudily dressed tourists. I’d cast an obscuration on my features, which would make Muggles ignore me and make any photo that captured me would turn out blurry.
Ron had joined the queue to enter St. Peters; he had been rather excited to see the grand cathedral. While he waited in line, I sat and waited at the central obelisk.
Several people had come close, either to take a photo of the column or to examine it. I, in turn, examined them. I was sure Zab’s contact would be difficult to spot. He’d probably be the most unlikely candidate I could imagine.
Noon came and went. I’d told Ron to meet me at the front of the cathedral at four o’clock, so he’d be gone for a while. Half an hour later, there had still been no sign of Zab’s contact.
Just after one, a pair of Swiss Guards and a Cardinal made their way over to me. The Churchman asked, “Mr. Potter?”
I nodded carefully. “Yes?”
“You are expected. I understand that you are going to meet His Holiness. That’s quite an honour, you know,” he said jovially.
I shrugged, not sure what I should be revealing. “I suppose. He was rather nice the last time we spoke.”
The informed Cardinal simply nodded back and said, “Well, I shall escort you inside now. There are a few security measures to go through first, which may take a while. You understand.”
Suddenly, I wasn’t as confident as I had been.
The security measures were a bit more than the usual pat down. My bag of tricks and both wands were taken from me, and I was subjected to a very uncomfortable search. Only Blaise and Hermione had been that intimate with me in the past.
“What’s this for?” one wizard asked me, holding up the gloves I made.
“Spelunking,” I responded. Hey, it could work.
“Caving? Why are you carrying them now?”
I glared at him. “What I’m here for isn’t for you to know. Sorry, but I’m not sure how much I can tell you.”
Rather than being petulant, he nodded easily, accepting my answer, while continuing the search.
The only magical item that had passed the security was the portkey sock. When it glowed under inspection, the wizards had simply nodded.
“Portkeys are allowed here?” I asked.
The wizard shrugged. “Yes, they are permitted. Too many people who visit on diplomatic grounds carry them under their own security protocols. The wards here prevent any usage, so we simply identify and catalogue them.”
I nodded sagely, hoping to look more knowing that I felt. “I remember Dumbledore carrying one the last time he was here. His phoenix medallion.”
The wizard raised an eyebrow, but nodded. “That’s right. You know Dumbledore?”
I grinned. “I went to Hogwarts for five years.”
The rest of the scan went quickly, and I was escorted into the restricted areas of the cathedral. Without the comforting weight of my wands, I felt rather naked, not to mention vulnerable.
“You want me to do what?” I blurted.
The beautifully ornate table in front of me also seated eleven high-ranking churchmen; at least seven of which were magically active. The Pope himself sat serenely opposite me, while the other cardinals and cassocked wizards sat arrayed five to each side, forming a horseshoe with Yours Truly at the focus point. A wonderfully not-so-subtle show of power and dominance. One of the wizards was glaring at me in a manner reminiscent of Snape in fine form. I would have had a déjà vu experience if he’d snapped ‘Detention!’ One of the Cardinals to my left who had up until now been silent said, “We cannot allow a creature of evil to dwell within the holiest of places. It must be destroyed.”
I frowned at him. “So destroy it yourselves. You’ve got your own bloody magical army here,” I said angrily, gesturing towards a couple of the wizards on the other side of the table.
That caused a fair few of them to shuffle their feet. “It is our understanding that you have killed a basilisk in battle before. In medieval times, that feat would have entitled you to take the title ‘Serpentsbane’. You have skills and experience our organisation lacks,” one of the more polite, if somewhat rotund wizards said.
I narrowed my eyes at him. Surely they knew that the idiotically simple crowing of a rooster would kill a basilisk. Admittedly, getting a rooster to crow in a dark, dank dungeon would be nigh on impossible to anyone who hadn’t mastered a second-year confundus charm, but anyone who’d read about the creatures would have discovered that they had a huge weakness. Hell, even Muggle mythology said the same thing.
No, I decided, they did know that, but were betting, or hoping, that I did not. They must be after something else. Something else that only I could give them.
Or, I thought (after Zab’s lessons came to mind), at least something that only I could provide at the price they were willing to pay.
“I had help!” I snapped, continuing the argument, hoping one of them would slip and give me a hint as to what they wanted. “A bloody phoenix pecked the thing’s eyes out!”
The chubby wizard smiled, leaned back and spread his arms. “If a phoenix has come to you before it will come again when called. Simply call on it again to help you.”
I barked a humourless laugh. “I don’t exactly hold the same faith in Fawkes’ master as I used to, let alone loyalty,” I snapped sardonically.
The rather grumpy wizard spoke. Once I heard his voice, I remembered where I’d seen him before. I’d blasted him across the room after waking up tied to a bloody table. Well, that at least explained his demeanor. “You are a parselmouth, are you not?” he snapped back.
“So?” I challenged.
“So if you command a basilisk, it will not kill you,” he nearly shouted, slapping his hand down on the marble table.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, it’s true that a basilisk will not attack any being who speaks parseltongue to command it,” I said in a singsong voice. “Somehow, I’m not sure I’m willing to be a guinea pig to see what action a basilisk takes if it is attacked by someone who speaks parseltongue,” I finished in a snarl.
“Enough,” whispered the Pope, his soft voice instantly silencing everyone in the room. He focused on me and said, “We were dismayed when you reported the existence of the evil creature dwelling beneath us. While centuries ago it would have been a necessary defense against intruders, the state of the art security systems we have in place now more than make up for it. It is no longer necessary for the creature to dwell here.”
I crossed my arms. “So go and offer it a redundancy package, a nice pension and a sewer to live in for all I care. I’m not going to kill it for you.”
The grumpy wizard spoke again, snapping, “You are The-Boy-Who-Lived, are you not?”
I snarled at the moniker. “So what?”
“Are you not interested in ridding the world of evil? It is your duty.”
I kept my face emotionless at that, even if my patience was wearing thin. It appeared that here was yet another brain-dead moron who believed that because I was attacked as a baby, that fact somehow meant that I was somehow bound to clean up all evil in the world, like some prophesized housemaid for the Light. “I fail to see how a big snake living in a cellar it cannot escape from can be classified as evil,” I spat. “It is only a guard, and a damned fine one at that.”
That was enough for him. He rose, with an expression disturbingly like Uncle Vernon when I spoke back to him. “That’s it! Either you kill the basilisk or you won’t leave here again.”
Silence descended on the conference table. I simply raised an eyebrow slowly and said with a smirk, “Exactly how do you intend to enforce that?”
He reached into his pocket and drew out my wands; taken from me during the ‘security measures’ that were required before I entered the building. “We have taken precautions this time. You cannot harm us, and I have your wands here,” he said, as though that was going to help him somehow. He stuffed them back into his robes on an angle that meant that if I fired a cutting curse out of my holly wand, he’d probably be eligible for duties requiring a eunuch.
I rolled my eyes at him. “Well done! You’ve taken ‘precautions’,” I said sarcastically, making quote marks with my fingers. “I don’t suppose it entered your tiny little mind that I may have as well?” I asked him in a mocking voice. His superior expression irritated me enough that I was tempted to cast a spell remotely to wipe if from his face.
Ah, fuck it. “Stupefy,” I cast remotely, pointing a finger at him, pantomiming a gun.
Unless you were looking for it, you would have missed the muted red flash coming from Snape’s spiritual brother’s trousers. The wizard, whose eyes rolled up in the back of his head as my spell stunned him, slumped forward, and incidentally, smacked his forehead loudly against the gold filigree in the table’s ornate relief carvings. Hard enough that it would leave a rather nasty, if interestingly shaped, bruise. The other wizards at the table stiffened and reached for their own wands with comical looks of disbelief and confusion on their faces. The Cardinals themselves burst into a cacophony of denunciations, which I ignored as the Pope and I silently locked gazes.
He slowly raised a hand, immediately silencing the babbling churchmen. “It was not the original intention of this council to threaten you in any way, either with harm or detention.” He turned to the wizard to his left. “I was assured that we would be protected from his magic,” he said sternly.
Wordlessly, that wizard, who I assumed was the senior ranking magic user in the group, drew his wand and gave it a few flicks I recognized. Zab taught me to use that spell to make all invisible shields light up for identification. As expected, a magical barrier separating me from them visibly glimmered for a few seconds. I easily identified the patterns, and knew exactly which shield had been cast. It was one that needed three wizards working in unison to erect, and unlike a personal shielding spell like ‘protego’, it prevented all but unblockable spells from being cast through it on both sides.
“The shield is intact, Your Holiness. He somehow managed to bypass it, rather than overpower it.”
I shrugged as ten pairs of eyes focused on me. “People have been underestimating me all my life. Don’t feel so bad,” I told a purple-faced wizard patronizingly.
The Pope again held up a hand, looking rather frustrated. “Assaults, threats or insults are not productive, from either of us,” he said clearly, causing many of the wizards around him to cough and fidget. He gestured to the unconscious wizard. “Wake him.”
With a quick enervation charm, the aggressive wizard was brought back to consciousness. He looked bewildered for a second or two before focusing on me and rising to his feet. He took a deep breath but was cut off from his denunciations by a sharp word from the Pope before he could start.
The Pope turned back to me and continued calmly, as though nothing untoward had occurred. “You are correct that we potentially have the ability to put the creature down, but equally, you have the skill and experience to do so.”
I leaned back in my chair, crossing my arms. “So, what’s in it for me?”
“What are you, a mercenary?” snapped a Cardinal derisibly. Up until now, he had stayed silent throughout the deliberations.
I laughed aloud. “What, you want me to work for free? Let’s get this straight; I’m not one of your faithful. I’m not an auror, a soldier or a minion of yours. You have no authority over me in any way.”
The wizard I’d stunned surged back to his feet. “I will incarcerate you if need be!”
I rolled my eyes. “Ah, so we’re back to threats again. Fucking wonderful.”
The Pope sighed again, closing his eyes in resignation. “Waldorf, if you cannot control yourself, you shall be removed.”
The wizard dubbed ‘Waldorf’ threw up his arms and spat, “Bah! This council is accomplishing nothing anyway!”
The Pope calmly opened his eyes and stared at the man. “I was not referring to this council, I was referring to your post.”
That brought him up short. Waldorf turned chalk white and stammered, “W-What?”
Not a single flicker of emotion crossed the Pope’s face. He could have been referring to the weather when he said, “I shall remove you as the Archmage of the Holy See if you continue to antagonize our guest.”
Waldorf blustered incomprehensively for a few seconds before the Pope continued. “Your role requires not only magical skill and talent, but also a willingness to learn, Waldorf,” the Pope said serenely. “Not to mention a measure of diplomacy. Mr. Potter uncovered some glaring faults in your security protocols, yet instead of taking the opportunity to improve them, you have set about on a vendetta we cannot afford.”
“I have improved security, Your Holiness,” the wizard whined.
In the same, unrushed tone, the Pope merely replied, “Then could you explain exactly why you were rendered helpless?”
Waldorf blinked, unable to come up with an answer.
“Or even how?” the Pope pressed.
This time, Waldorf glared at me.
“This is not about Mr. Potter, Waldorf, this is about you. Leave Mr. Potter’s wands on the table, and meet me in my chambers in an hour. We will discuss things then.”
Waldorf clenched his jaw tightly as he snatched my wands from his pocket and slammed them down on the table. “You are making a mistake,” he said warningly.
Once again, the Pope’s unruffled calm impressed me. “Perhaps. It is, however, my mistake to make, not yours. You are excused, Waldorf.”
With one final glance around the table, looking for any support, the disgraced wizard stormed out of the chamber.
The Pope took a deep breath, and then coughed slightly. I wondered for a moment if he was ill. “Forgive him, Mr. Potter. He has been under considerable stress since your successful larceny. The first in the Church’s long history.”
I nodded sharply, not believing for a second that the scene that had just played out before me was random. I was far more inclined to believe that it had been orchestrated to encourage me to lower my defenses. Instead, I became more wary. “Very well. Like I said, what’s in it for me?”
The Pope indicated to an aide, who carried over a slim folder of parchment. “I understand that Albus, acting on behalf of the International Confederation of Wizards, has requested that you provide that body with a catalogue of the items in my collection of dark artifacts.”
That was odd phrasing, I thought. “Your collection, Your Holiness?”
The Pope actually smiled. “My… responsibility, rather than my property. My predecessors have all denied the existence of the cache, preferring to keep guard over it ourselves. Since you exposed it to the world, our insistence on protecting it without assistance is being questioned.”
I frowned. “You are merely offering me a list of the items in return for killing the basilisk?”
“If you require any monetary compensation, the corpse of the beast will be ceded to you. It is my understanding that the corpse of a basilisk is highly prized in your world, at least by the owners of apothecaries.”
I snorted. “No, I don’t require monetary compensation. I’m wealthy enough as it is. I don’t have any particular allegiance to the Confederation, so I don’t particularly care about getting them a list of the things you have. Personally, I’d be more than happy to leave the collection in your hands. Like you said, mine was the first successful theft from the cache. And I was only successful because I was uniquely suited to the job.”
The chubby wizard leaned forward. “Then what do you want?”
I smiled softly and shook my head. “There is nothing you have that I want. What I want, no one can give me.” Hey, if they weren’t going to come to the point soon, I certainly wasn’t going to help them.
Apparently, the Churchmen were not used to negotiating with someone who didn’t want what they offered. They shared pointed glances and meaningful expressions. It was all rather amusing from my perspective.
The Pope finally spoke up again. “What if we were to assist you on your self-imposed quest?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Quest?”
He nodded. “The destruction of the ‘Horcruxes’.”
That surprised me. I wondered just how much he knew. “Perhaps. There is only one more I need to find.”
The chubby wizard spoke up again. “Do you have any idea where it is?”
I looked blankly at him for a moment. “Maybe.”
My reaction surprised him. “Mr. Potter, I can assure you that no one at this table has any ulterior motives in this. The destruction of an evil artifact is laudable in any circumstances.”
I pursed my lips, thinking deeply. I didn’t think I needed their help in locating the final Horcrux, since I was confident that Zab’s intelligence network would be capable of that. If there was nothing they could give me that I wanted, perhaps I could get something from them that someone else wanted. I could then trade it away at a later date.
I quickly discarded that notion. There was nothing Dumbledore, the British Ministry, or even the ICW could offer me that would justify me trying to kill another basilisk. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t trust that Waldorf character any more than I would have trusted Draco Malfoy with the key to my vault.
I shook my head. “Sorry, but you’ll have to deal with the basilisk yourself. Your track record of hiding evil rather than vanquishing it means that I’m not prepared to trust you with assisting me in finding the final Horcrux.”
The Pope sighed deeply and sat back in his chair. “Very well. If that is your final word, this council is adjourned. I am sorry we could not come to an agreement, Mr. Potter. Darius, please escort Mr. Potter down into the public area of the Cathedral. Good day, Mr. Potter, I don’t believe we shall meet again.”
The chubby wizard nodded, rose to his feet and collected my wands from the table. At his beckoning, I stood and fell into step, without saying another word to anyone in the chamber.
I walked with the wizard named Darius in silence for a bit. “Um, can I ask you a question?”
He smiled jovially at me. “Of course, my son.”
I caught myself from snapping that I certainly wasn’t his ‘son’, and asked, “Why don’t you just get a rooster, and make it crow down there?”
Darius sighed. “To tell you the truth, we weren’t sure it would work. A great deal of mythology isn’t correct in a technical sense, and His Holiness wasn’t prepared to risk his best wizards on a gamble like that.”
“But he was willing to risk me?” I asked pointedly.
Darius nodded without taking my tone as an insult. “Of course. You’d survived once before, because you could command the beast. It was assumed that you would be able to perform some sort of variation on the old, ‘Look out behind you!’ trick, and land a killing blow.”
I rolled my eyes at the simplistic tactic. “Can we talk about something else?”
Darius smiled at me. “Very well. Well, that was a bit of nastiness, wasn’t it?” he asked jovially.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise at his selection of subject matter. “What, with Waldorf?”
He nodded. “Waldorf was rather put out by your actions. He was…”
At his sudden pause, I glanced around, wary. In an instant, half a dozen wizards rounded a corner in front of us, each with their wands at the ready. A quick glance behind me confirmed that a similar number were behind us, equally as ready.
“What is the meaning of this, Waldorf?” Darius snapped.
I didn’t get to hear an answer, as the corridor was suddenly filled with red light.
I coughed myself awake, grasping around unconsciously for my wands. With a gasp, I glanced around, finding myself on a rather familiar spiral staircase. Below me, the dank air from the storehouse of evil hit my nostrils. I sat up and looked around the spiral staircase, trying to discern where the light was coming from. I slowly walked a turn and a half up the staircase, which still bore the shrapnel and stone chips from my battle there, before coming to the doorway leading to the Pope’s chambers.
Two wizards stood on either side of the doorway, each holding one side a glimmering energy barrier. The head wizard Waldorf stood behind it and glared at me. “Kill the basilisk, or you will not leave,” he said, his expression one of determination. He gestured down, pointing to my wands at the foot of the barrier.
I took stock. Waldorf didn’t appear to be taking pleasure in his actions, he simply looked as though he was doing something necessary, but distasteful.
I fought to keep a smirk from appearing. With Dumbledore’s portkey, I could escape easily. As much as it would be satisfying to shock him, it would be far better to use it where they couldn’t see me. That at least would make them uncertain as to what I could do.
In a voice just loud enough to be heard I muttered some insults about Waldorf’s mother’s obviously perverted sexual preferences, which turned him bright red. I picked up my wands, turned and stomped down the stairs. Knowing what was waiting for me this time, I didn’t bother sneaking.
Before I reached the bottom of the stairs, I dispelled the anticipated tracking charm, and erected my own wards Zab taught me, ensuring secrecy. I wouldn’t put it past these bastards to have a scrying bowl or mirror. They’d probably be sitting down in front of it and betting on the bloody outcome. Shouts of anger and frustration echoed down the long stone spiral staircase, indicating that my efforts at disrupting their viewing had been successful. I doubt I’d get points for jumping and running.
“Someone familiar this way comes,” came a hissed voice from the darkened chamber.
“Did you hear me or smell me?” I asked as I stepped out into the dank chamber.
The massive basilisk coiled back in the almost pitch-blackness. I concentrated, and the white globe of bright light appeared above my head. Instantly, the chamber lit up and filled with crisp, dark shadowy alcoves. The basilisk reared up above me, flicking its metre long tongue out, tasting the air. “Both, young master. It is as good to see you again as it is unexpected. I had not believed that you would ever return.”
I swallowed, again wondering just how I managed to face down a basilisk even half this one’s size at twelve. “I was asked to return,” I said simply.
The gigantic serpentine head drifted down to me, stopping a metre away from my face, allowing the very tips of his tongue to flicker over my skin, which felt disturbingly like moving cobwebs over my skin. I wasn’t about to back away though. “How curious. You were asked to return here? Even after your larcenous attempt? The humans in command here have become lax over the centuries. There was a period when they had a thirst for vengeance. Death was not something to be avoided.”
I winced. “They are not exactly afraid of killing,” I said.
The basilisk actually sounded interested. “Just what is it they are not afraid of killing?”
I swallowed. “You.”
The basilisk was silent for some time, during which I didn’t move. Eventually, it hissed, “So, my tenure is to come to an end. Two millennia of loyal service, rewarded with death.” It paused again. “You do not carry a cockerel. How did you intend to defeat me? Are we to battle? At least grant me that, young one. Grant me a death befitting of the king of serpents. Come, let our titanic struggle commence. There shall one fewer speaker of the noble tongue at the conclusion of our fated confrontation.”
“No,” I said simply.
“No, we shall not battle. I have no interest in killing.”
The basilisk looked down at me thoughtfully, though I focused on its nostrils, not willing to look into its eyes. “You would deny me this? You would have me perish in an ignoble manner? Should you leave this place with your quest unfulfilled, others would come, bearing a humble rooster. My death would be insignificant, rending my vow worthless. No, I beseech you, draw your wand; call forth your sorcery. Let us finish this in a glorious display of power.”
“No,” I repeated. “What vow are you talking about?”
The basilisk hissed and thrashed around with its tail. “I am bound by geas to defend these artifacts,” it hissed angrily.
I glanced around at the forgotten store of evil. A slow grin formed on my face as my mind turned over. “What if you were able to continue to fulfill your vow?”
The basilisk drew in a hissed breath. “Speak your mind, young one.”
Thanks to my betas Patrick, Craig and Nonjon.
And to alphas jbern, IP82, Nonjon, and all those at The-Place-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named