If I ever leave this world alive
The madness that you feel will soon subside
So in a word don't shed a tear
I'll be here when it all gets weird
-If I Ever Leave This World Alive, Flogging Molly
It had been a wild living, these last years. She sometimes wondered how it had been so long. Five years since she'd left England. Five years of day-to-day, busking for money for a hostel bed for the night, for food, and then Apparating to the limits of her reach the next morning, to somewhere new. She'd gone all the way to South Africa that way, then on to Bali, bouncing around in a different pub every night, or taken in by a few hospitable tribes in the less civilized regions. She'd seen the world, sometimes running across magic, letting it find her as it may, never seeking it out.
Today's Apparition had brought her to Geneva, to a seedy pub on the edge of town, filled with smoke and music. Siobhan Fitzgibbon made her way first to the small loo in the back of the pub. It was rather more clean than she'd expected, which was always a nice surprise in a pub. She set her rucksack down next to the sink and rummaged through it for some makeup. The beat-up rose-printed rucksack was the only thing she carried along on her travels, and it was irreplaceable to her. It literally held everything she owned, since it had been magically expanded to hold quite a lot more than a bag that size had any right to hold, and she was never more than a few feet from it.
It had been Cecilia's travel bag.
She finally found the small bag containing her makeup, applied some eyeliner and mascara so her eyes looked a little more seductive, and set back out into the pub, the rucksack slung over her shoulder. She'd barely gotten enough money that day for the night's sleep, so she had to get her drinks another way tonight. That wasn't a problem. She sidled up to the bar and smiled at the man next to her, letting her lip curve invitingly, and a few minutes later there was a drink in her hand and she'd left him behind.
The remnants of her sunburn were stinging her shoulders under the straps of her bra. She'd been in Crete for almost a week, and come back up into Europe through Italy. Switzerland had seemed a good place to stop while she decided which direction to head next. Maybe she'd hear of something interesting happening nearby. She was always on the hunt for strange places to go or bizarre festivals to attend. She'd been to the huge La Tomatina food fight in Spain, a vertical marathon in Thailand, camel wrestling in Turkey, and a strange day in Luxembourg where people painted on cows.
But the first two men she chatted up weren't interested in those kinds of things and knew nothing about anything fun nearby. The third man had a very different idea of fun, and she had to Confund him when no one was looking just to get away. Creepy bastard.
She started to make her way back to the bar for another drink, listening to snatches of conversation as she passed people, hoping for a good lead on something to do. Some of them spoke French, which she did not, some spoke Italian, which she could get by in if they didn't speak too fast, and some spoke English, which came as rather a relief.
“-another damn dragon, like when that Ironbelly got loose in the village, and you remember what a nightmare that was-”
That brought her to a stop, and she looked around for the voice she'd just heard. A pair of men were sitting at a booth behind her, hunched down a bit as if having a furtive conversation. Not furtive enough.
Siobhan slid into the seat next to one of them and smiled brightly.
“Er, hello,” said one of them. He had blonde hair and appeared to be about ten years older than she was. He gave her a strange glance, apparently startled at being interrupted.
His companion, who had dark hair and a rather handsome face, gave her a frankly assessing look and then smiled. “Hello.” He was the one she'd heard talking before. His accent was British, West Country maybe. She wasn't so good at picking out English accents as she used to be.
“Hi,” she said, and then asked without preamble, “Are you talking about dragons?”
They both seemed to freeze.
“Oh yes,” said the dark-haired man, but his eyes were suddenly quite different, though he was still smiling. “We're quite interested in mythology.”
“I see.” She didn't believe him for a moment. There was no Muggle mythology about Ukrainian Ironbellies. She leaned in conspiratorially, and they leaned in as well, without seeming to realize what they were doing. “Only I studied Care of Magical Creatures at school, and they said Ironbellies hunt over the Black Sea, nowhere around here. Has their range expanded since then, or are you on holiday from that area?”
They stared at her. She smiled.
“Are you a witch?” the blonde man demanded.
“Obviously she is,” the dark-haired one retorted immediately, rolling his eyes at his friend before turning back to Siobhan. “Are you a dragon keeper, then?”
“No, I'm...” Fleeing from my old life. She couldn't say that, of course. “Well, I'm not really anything. I've been travelling. Seeing the world.”
“Irish, are you?” The blonde man was examining her closely. “Went to Hogwarts?”
“Yes. I left in '68. Then I left England right afterward and started wandering.” She didn't elaborate, and they didn't ask. Most people did, and she talked about the running of the bulls and the Great Pyramids of Giza until they bought her a drink. She supposed dragon keepers were different from most people. She downed the last of her drink. “I'm Siobhan, by the way. Siobhan Fitzgibbon.”
“Oh, sorry,” said the brunette, colouring slightly. “Dunno where my manners are sometimes. I'm Kevin Stewart, this is Firmin Arceneau.”
“You studied Care of Magical Creatures at Hogwarts, eh?” Arceneau said, giving her a speculative look. “Interested in dragons?”
Who wouldn't be? Dragons were fascinating. So much raw destructive power. She had loved dragons since she'd first found out they were real. “Yes, I am,” she said firmly. There wasn't much she believed firmly these days, but she was definite about that. “I have a N.E.W.T. in Care of Magical Creatures. I did Charms, Potions, and Transfiguration, too.”
“Bloody hell,” said Stewart.
Arceneau leaned forward again, looking eager. “Look, we work at a dragon sanctuary in the Carpathians, and we're always shorthanded. There are never enough dresori, dragon keepers, we're always looking for more. There's five of us right now, so there are enough people to teach you, and you can study the dragons. You're welcome to come back with us if you want a job.”
Siobhan blinked, feeling quite uncertain. A proper job? More importantly – a wizarding job? She had not actively sought wizard society since she'd left England. The Muggle world was what she'd grown up in, and still felt more familiar to her than the wizarding world. When Cecilia had died, she'd felt broken off from that world, with nowhere to belong. She didn't know how to be a witch without Cecilia to guide her. But perhaps... Perhaps it was time to grow up and find her own way. To stop running.
She wasn't a Muggle. She never would be.
It was time to be a witch again.
“The Carpathians? Isn't that in the Eastern bloc?” Maybe she'd been living as a Muggle too long. Did wizards even know about the Iron Curtain? Her wanderings had taken her many places, but never inside a Soviet country.
Arceneau and Stewart exchanged a glance, and then Stewart turned back to Siobhan and asked, “You can Apparate, right?”
“Well then, nothing to worry about,” Stewart said in what seemed an excessively jolly voice. “It is Soviet, yes, but that doesn't really bother the sanctuary, you know? That's for the Muggles to worry about.” His eyes met hers, and she thought he was a very good liar. Too bad for him she knew a liar when she saw one, even when they were very good at it.
“What sort of dragons do you have?” she asked, trying to decide if this was an adventure she wanted. It was starting to sound appealing, she had to admit. Sneaking past Soviet lines with only her wand by her side, chasing dragons...
“Ironbellies mostly,” Arceneau said immediately. They both looked relieved to be off the topic of Soviet countries. “Plenty of Longhorns and Horntails as well, of course, and a few Northern dragons that come down over the mountains. There's a Chinese Fireball, no one knows how she got there, but she's quite old now and can't leave, poor old girl. Can't even fly these days.”
“So what do you say?” Stewart asked. “Interested?”
She grinned. “Yeah. Sounds fun.”
She couldn't see the damn thing anymore, but she could hear it, its tail whipping across the tops of the trees. It was undoubtedly enjoying itself, but it was causing a ridiculous amount of extra devastation on top of what adolescent Ironbellies normally did. This particular one, a two year old male, had eaten half a flock of goats yesterday (to the bewilderment of the Muggles who owned them) and burned down a house.
Normally, the dragons roamed fairly free. Normally, they didn't do quite this much difficult-to-explain damage to Muggles. There weren't enough dragon keepers to handle it: they couldn't spend all day modifying memories of everyone who'd seen the young Ironbelly rampaging. It was time for the young male to do some time in the pens, until it matured past this stage – or was released higher into the mountains.
Kevin Stewart was a few dozen yards to her left, sitting his broom with the natural grace of an athlete, and old Bertók Földi shot up out of the trees to her right, scowling at her as he fell into line. His lips moved; she couldn't hear him at this distance over the wind. Idiot.
She spared Kevin a glance. He was rolling his eyes at Mad Bertók.
Siobhan signalled to each of them the path they should take, and the three dragon handlers shot off into the sky, and suddenly the dragon was in view, flying upward as well.
The dragon was twisting and rolling through the sky, blowing bursts of flame at passing birds and snapping joyfully at the wind, obviously having the time of its life. Siobhan aimed a hex at it, but it somersaulted suddenly and the Stunner missed. It did, however, get the young Ironbelly's attention. It wheeled around and started flying straight at them.
Siobhan let out a string of profanity and shot upward. The dragon was flapping along behind her, breathing in and out like a bellows to stoke its fires, and she felt the rush of magic come up from behind as a pair of Stunners missed the dragon and nearly hit her.
“Sorry!” she heard faintly from below. Kevin. Mad Bertók never apologized.
“Hit it again!” she yelled back as she turned in mid-air, trying to get around behind the dragon again for a good hex.
Kevin threw another Stunner at it, but a second bolt of red light went straight past the dragon as Mad Bertók's spell missed. Again. Stupid old man, he should have retired by now, Siobhan thought angrily. His reaction times weren't what they once were, and he shouldn't even be doing this today, but the sanctuary was short-handed as ever.
Kevin's Stunner hadn't penetrated the Ironbelly's thick hide, however, and it had now turned its attention to Mad Bertók. He turned his broom in midair, and instead of running upward, making the dragon work to chase him into the thinner air of high altitude, he simply shot out over the treetops, flying low over the forest. Siobhan could hear him swearing in Hungarian as he flew.
“Aw, dammit,” Kevin said, suddenly beside her.
“He shouldn't even be out here, he's no good at this,” she grumbled.
“Come on. We'll catch them up.” Kevin swerved aside as he sped away.
She managed to catch up with the dragon before it had regained enough flame to blacken Mad Bertók into a crisp. It was breathing heavily, though, which was always a bad sign from a dragon who'd just let out a large flame. Ironbellies didn't take long to recharge.
“Bertók, you idiot!” Siobhan bellowed. “Get back behind it!”
Mad Bertók listened, for once, but as he dodged out of the dragon's path to loop around behind it, a cloud of leathery black shapes erupted from the trees in front of him. The dragon veered off course to snap at the herd of fleeing thestrals, and Mad Bertók swore loudly as he swerved to avoid slamming into a large thestral and instead flew straight into the top of a tree.
There was no question if he had seen the thestral. Anyone who couldn't see them upon arrival at a dragon sanctuary soon would. Death was a constant companion to dragon keepers. Whether or not Mad Bertók was injured by his crash would have to wait. They couldn't lose the dragon.
Siobhan sped up, trying to catch the dragon as it flew after the thestrals, heading away from the mountains, closer to Muggle civilization. Spooking the wild herds into a panic wasn't helping keep the dragon's presence under wraps. Cursing under her breath, she drew her wand.
“Kevin, where are you?” she yelled, and then as she turned her head she saw him zooming toward her, his wand in his hand.
“On three!” he shouted, and they both aimed their wands at the Ironbelly.
The spell collided with the Ironbelly, with a second barrage right behind it. The young dragon wavered for a moment in the air, and then brought itself around to face them with a sharp deceleration.
Siobhan aimed her broom upward. “Move, move, move!”
Kevin followed her just in time, escaping the sudden burst of white-hot flames that shot toward the airspace they'd just vacated. She looked down; the Ironbelly was starting to fall now, its eyes closed, and Kevin dropped back toward it, just in time to catch it with a levitation spell before it crashed into the earth and did itself an injury.
Mad Bertók was limping toward them, swearing in Hungarian again, his broom slung over his shoulder. The end had splintered and broken where he'd run into the tree, but he didn't seem to be much injured.
He tried to give the downed dragon a kick, and Siobhan shot a spell at him as she landed her own broom. He stumbled back a few steps, glaring at her.
“Wretched English witch,” he snapped.
“I'm Irish, you idiot,” she retorted, then turned to Kevin. “How's the dragon?”
Kevin was examining the beast as it snored in a magically-induced peaceful slumber. “It seems fine. A bit scratched up, but nothing much. Got off light, didn't he?”
“In the old days, we'd have just put him down,” Mad Bertók rasped. “There was none of this preserving when a dragon went on a rampage. We put some well-aimed spells right between the eyes, and that was the end of the problem.”
“Yes, and that helped the dragon population so bloody much,” Siobhan said irritably. Mad Bertók had been on the Carpathian reserve for at least fifty years, and though he was still as spry as a man half his age, he was at least twice as ill-tempered. He didn't even like dragons, although she'd heard he had at one point.
“It helped the human population, and that was the important bit.”
Kevin stood up and dusted his hands off. “It's just because the beastie is so young. He doesn't know his own strength. He's like a puppy chewing on your furniture.”
“You're no better than a Cossack,” Mad Bertók told him. “May God curse your infernal soul, and your bowels rot in your belly.”
Siobhan rolled her eyes.
“We'll get him home. You go have Irina take a look at that leg before you get gangrene. You managed not to get killed by the dragon or thestrals today, but God forbid we lose you to a tree,” Kevin said piously.
Mad Bertók sneered at them and then turned on the spot, disappearing with a loud crack.
“Cheerful,” Kevin remarked.
“He always is. How do you plan to get this bloody thing back to the reserve?” Siobhan asked, nodding at the sleeping Ironbelly.
“I thought you were in charge.”
“I never make plans, you know that.”
“True. Well, I reckon we'll just have to float him along and hope we don't run across anyone. Wand at the ready, might need a Memory Charm at any moment.”
Kevin lifted the dragon, and Siobhan repaired the area it had landed so that the damage to the forest at least didn't appear to be caused by a supposedly mythological creature, and they set off with Siobhan in the lead, scouting ahead, and the dragon bobbing along through the air between them.
They walked along in silence for some time, and then Siobhan asked over her shoulder, “How much longer d'you reckon Mad Bertók will stick it out before he retires?”
“Dragon keepers never retire,” Kevin said immediately. “The flame takes us all in the end.”
“Now who's cheerful?”
“It could be cheerful. You've never done it.”
“True. I think I'll avoid it a little while longer, though. He's still out, isn't he?” She turned to look at the dragon, and they both drew to a halt.
Kevin came around to the front. “Looks it. Should be another hour at least, we did get him on the double, remember?”
“They always make me a bit nervous when I'm the one in front, even when they seem to be aslee...” Her voice trailed off, and she cocked her head to one side. “Do you hear that?”
Kevin looked around. “Patrol. Disillusionment Charm?”
“Well, there's no time for much else, I suppose.” She reached up to cast the charm on herself.
They had just managed to get the dragon Disillusioned when the sound of tracks crunching over the rocky earth just past the treeline grew suddenly louder, and a T-62 tank came into view with a small cadre of soldiers walked four abreast behind it.
They didn't see as much troupe movements these days as there had been when she'd first come to the Carpathians. Siobhan had not kept up with Muggle politics much in the past years, keeping her focus almost exclusively on dragons, so she wasn't sure where they were headed – somewhere north, if they held their course. Their uniforms were Red Army, and the tank was painted with a large hammer and sickle on the hull.
She stood there as they marched past, holding herself as still as possible, trying to keep one eye on the unconscious dragon and one eye on the Muggle soldiers. Her nerves were twanging a bit with the effort of staying motionless, but she couldn't help thinking this was sort of fun – hiding in plain sight with only a rather simple spell keeping fifty armed soldiers from seeing an unconscious dragon and two wizards.
“Fancy getting a drink later?” murmured Kevin, who also thought things like this were fun, under cover of the noise of the tank.
“We could go to Odessa,” she suggested in a low voice.
“The pub near the train station?”
She nodded. They'd been there many times. Odessa was far enough that it felt like getting away of an evening, but not out of safe Apparition range.
After the soldiers had gone, they continued on. The forest grew thicker as they went higher up into the mountains, and the air felt sharper in her lungs. They hadn't bothered removing the Disillusionment charm, in case they ran across more soldiers, and Siobhan was enjoying the feeling of being part of the Carpathians, blended into the trees. There was much more to tramp through up here, underbrush and fallen limbs, but she'd done it so many times that the sound of her footprints blended in with the other normal forest sounds.
This time it was Kevin who heard them, and he grabbed her arm just as she was sliding past an oak nearly as big around as the young dragon. This time something was different. Kevin held her close to the tree, his body pressed up against hers, and then she saw them.
These weren't Muggles.
They wore long robes of a style only wizards wore, black and old-fashioned, and they were cutting across the forest at an angle to the path Siobhan had been taking back to the reserve. They were headed deeper into the mountains.
There were only two of them, but there was a heavy air of menace to them as they walked past, so that they seemed far more dangerous even than those fifty armed soldiers.
Siobhan glanced at Kevin, who met her gaze with a worried expression and held a finger to his lips.
She could only hear snatches of their conversation as they approached. They were speaking in muted voices, and the trees did not bounce sound very well.
“...would have been much faster... far too much magic for Apparition up there...”
“Barbaric place,” she heard the one following say quite clearly. They spoke like Englishmen, and well-educated ones at that.
“Barbaric creatures,” his companion replied. They were getting very close to her and Kevin now, and she hoped the charms were holding on the damned dragon, keeping it asleep and disguised.
“This errand may mean our deaths,” the first man said dourly. “This is madness.”
“Does it matter? You know the price of failure, and this errand, as you call it, is of great importance to our master...”
They were passing beyond where the two dragon keepers were hidden, and the forest swallowed up the rest of their conversation. Siobhan glanced back at Kevin uneasily.
There was something off about that pair. What sort of wizards came to a place like this and avoided the dragon reserve? Surely they knew how dangerous it was here, to just wander about the mountains like that... It gave her a bad feeling.
Kevin was leaning over her, inches away. “They're headed toward the High Tatras,” he breathed, planting his hands against the tree trunk on either side of her.
“What the hell are they doing?” she whispered. “There's nothing up there but ragged cliffs and giants.”
“I don't know.” His face was troubled. “Should we follow them?”
She stared blankly at his face for a moment, thinking hard, then shook her head. “We can't leave the dragon, after all we did to catch it. We'll go find them again after we get the dragon back to the reserve.”
Kevin smiled suddenly. “Maybe Mad Bertók can go.”
She hadn't realized how close he was. She could feel the entire length of his body pressing her into the tree. Kevin's smile faded a bit, as if he'd also realized their positions, but he didn't step away.
“The dragon,” she reminded him.
“Still sleeping like a baby.” Kevin leaned in a bit further. His breath had a sour tinge to it from the kvas he was forever drinking.
“What do you think you're doing?” she said archly.
“Having some fun,” he said, and kissed her.
She pushed him away after a moment. “The dragon, Kev. The spells won't last forever.”
He took a step back, and she slid out from under his arms.
“I thought you liked my kind of fun,” he remarked in a voice that managed to be good-natured with a hint of whinging.
“Only when I'm bored.”
The reserve always seemed to burst from the trees when approached by ground. They'd come around to the back, where the dragon pens and paddocks were kept, and the treeline came right up to the back of the largest pen.
Firmin was waiting, and once they'd wrestled the Ironbelly into one of the smaller pens, they told him about the wizards in the forest. The Frenchman agreed to go after them, and Siobhan headed inside the main building of the reserve with Kevin on her heels.
The halls of the reserve, once so new and fascinating, had grown familiar to her, so that she hardly looked around as she traced her usual path inside, past the infirmary, past the kitchens, past the half-empty dormitories.
Though the buildings of the reserve had become a part of her everyday life, they still weren't home, really. The reserve was just a place she lived. She liked it well enough, but it didn't feel like home. Maybe nowhere ever would. She wasn't sure she even knew what 'home' felt like any more. She must have known once, as a girl, but it had faded from her mind with the years.
Maybe it had always been as meaningless a word as it was now.
They washed up side by side in the ancient and not-well-equipped bathroom. She could see Kevin watching her in the mirror as he dried his hands. Siobhan stared at her reflection as she unpinned her hair, and then turned around and leaned her hip against the sink, meeting Kevin's gaze.
“Are you bored now?” he asked.
She thought about the strange English wizards out in the forest, the giants, and the Dark wizards still waging war in England, and a flash of pale, dead face under glossy dark hair, and she wished for dragonfire to wash it all from her mind.
“Yeah,” she said. “I'm bored.”
A/N: This is very long, I know. Hopefully you got to the end of it and weren't bored. Something about Siobhan's perspective apparently makes me verbose.
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