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Starfall by Slide
Chapter 14 : Black Sheep
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 5


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Black Sheep


'To be super precise,' said Matt as he put on his sunglasses, 'we're not in Monte Carlo. We're in Monaco.'

Rose looked at him and could briefly understand why Scorpius was so sardonic. There were times it was very, very apt. She sighed. 'No?'

But he must have sensed her disinterest, deflating like a balloon with a slow but pride-piercing puncture. 'Er, no. This is Monaco-Ville. On the Rock of Monaco. Technically speaking, that's Monte Carlo.' He pointed west.

Monte Carlo - or Monaco - or wherever the hell they were - was like someone took a steep tumble of high ground towards peerless blue sea and built the most shockingly gorgeous city in the fall. Rose and Matt had just left narrow streets she suspected had seen little architectural attention in five hundred years, sunlight falling upon pale and peach walls dotted with white shutters. Although warmer, more relaxed, and with a flair that Rose could not give a better descriptor than 'Mediterranean', it reminded her uncomfortably of the old quarter of Paris she and Scorpius had been to the night before, and this brought with it the flood of shame and awkwardness that had taken residence in her gut.

It was not time to think about that. Not time to think of him one moment so close and intimate, the next pulling away, running away, leaving her cold and alone and bewildered. It was time to work. So she looked in the direction Matt pointed.

The larger of Monaco's harbours loomed far below, the sea a dazzling turquoise that flickered under the sun. As the land rose up around it, so too did the taller, more modern buildings, glittering in the sunlight with glass and metal, the pure antithesis of the humble, narrow streets they'd come from.

'It'll be prettier at night,' said Matt, awkward. 'I think. I don't know. I've only read about it.' She looked up at him, but his sunglasses hid his eyes and the bulk of his expression. That seemed useful, so she slipped on her own as he drummed his fingers on the railing. 'You okay?'

Her breath caught in her throat. 'What?'

'You. Last night. And Scorpius.' It sounded like the words were being dragged past his lips, and he hesitated as more people passed them on the promenade granting them this magnificent view from the Rock of Monaco, as if they'd overhear and care. 'He crashed in our room.'

'So?'

'And you've looked tense all morning and he's been like a bear with a headache -'

'As if you could tell, you've been hungover to hell -'

'Hey, why am I getting flak for that? It got us through the wall -'

'As if that was your only reason!' Now she was snapping and didn't know why, turning to face him with an accusation in her gut she didn't really feel. But it felt good, somehow, to let off the frustration and uncertainty at someone.

'I don't see what business it is of yours -' Then he stopped, looked away, and gave a slow exhale. When he spoke again, his voice was infinitely softer. 'Something's wrong,' said Matt, nudging his glasses down his nose to look her in the eye. 'You're upset. I'm concerned.'

'And we'll talk about it because we're friends, right?' She gave a wry, choking laugh.

'Yes!'

'Trust me, Matt.' Rose looked away. 'You don't want to know.'

He tensed again. 'He didn't hurt you, or...'

'No - Matt, we shouldn't talk about this -'

'What, so you can bottle this up and let it gnaw at you? Why the hell shouldn't we talk about it?'

'Because it's not fair to you! Because we're not just friends! Because I saw how you looked at me last night!' The words tumbled past her lips unbidden, because for all she valued Matt's company, his wellbeing was not first, or even second place on her priority list right then.

He stepped back, glasses masking his eyes again, and for a moment he was dumbstruck, mouth working wordlessly. 'I - I thought you looked good,' he stammered. 'I'm only human, and you're, well -'

'Mister Doyle? Miss Weasley?'

Rose didn't think she'd been so pleased by an interruption in her life, and her expression was one of perfect control when she turned to see the attendant they'd spoken to fifteen minutes earlier cross the promenade. He was a wiry, mousy man, going grey but young enough to be a wizard who knew how to dress in a Muggle environment - or perhaps somewhere as crowded as Monaco demanded a more savvy magical population. He gave them the same thin smile which didn't reach his eyes that he'd greeted them with at the door. 'Monsieur Guerrier has agreed to see you.'

Matt's expression flickered, then he was all business, straightening his light, linen jacket. She'd rolled her eyes when Selena had insisted they have an impromptu shopping trip before their visit, but she had to concede she’d been right. If they wanted to impress their way in to see a paranoid and recently-burgled man, they needed to look the part. 'Very kind,' he said, returning the deep nod.

'If you'll follow me,' said Guerrier's attendant, and led them back the way they'd come, into the tumbling depths of the narrow streets of Monaco-Ville. He moved like a native, slipping between the crowds of tourists with ease and not waiting for them, and Rose let Matt lead the way, his larger form shouldering people out the way.

But they knew the destination, at least, and it only took a couple of minutes before they turned the corner to see the ramshackle and near-derelict building at the end of a narrow alleyway that her mother had directed them to in the first place. To all appearances it was a run-down place nobody should care about, though Rose had wondered how inconspicuous such a place was in chic Monaco. But the anti-Muggle wards were strong enough to make it pass any scrutiny, and so the three of them were alone as they went down the alley.

It took until the attendant touched the rotten wooden door before everything before their eyes shimmered - and they weren't stood before a small, derelict building at all, but a handsome old house that was taller and grander than most in Monaco-Ville. Sunlight glimmered off its peach walls, the light green shutters gleamed with fresh paint, and when the attendant opened the door to lead them into a huge, opulent hallway, Rose could only wonder how magic could trick light enough that somewhere which had seemed so sheltered could now be bathed in the sun's rays.

'Monsieur Guerrier is in his study,' said the attendant, giving them another bow. 'If you'd follow me.'

Matt had taken off his sunglasses and somehow assumed an expression of complete indifference to the opulence before them. The chandelier above hovered magically, sunlight streaming through a high window to cascade through the crystals and shimmer down upon them in a warm, gentle rain of light. And Matt's indifference did flicker as he spotted a painting on the far wall.

'Is that Ginocchio's Fair Lady?' he blurted out. 'I knew it was in a private collection, but I had no idea Monsieur Guerrier -'

'Monsieur Guerrier is most appreciative of fine magical art,' said the attendant, ushering them up the stairs pointedly. 'I am sure he would be delighted to show you his collection when you are done with your business.'

Matt shut his mouth and the two of them followed the attendant deeper into the mansion. He opened a door without knocking and led them into a gloomy, wood-panelled study, the walls lined with shelves she could see Matt ogling the contents of, another painting above the mantelpiece Rose assumed would be some jaw-dropping original piece of magical art.

But it was to the far wall that they were ushered, where double doors opened out onto a wide balcony that overlooked the bay of Monte Carlo. Rose had to squint for a moment, her mental geography deeming this impossible, but this was dismissed as she spotted the man sat out there. Dressed in a white shirt, relaxing next to a table already laid-out with a white cloth, she recognised him from the file her mother had sent.

'Monsieur Guerrier - Mister Doyle and Miss Weasley of the Crowley Foundation.' The attendant managed to somehow introduce them and then disappear at once, the opening of a meeting laid out in the same instance as he removed himself from his master's private business.

Alfonse Guerrier stood, and his weathered features creased into a smile she could tell was false. He was an older gentleman but had aged well, cutting a tall and distinguished shape in the Mediterranean sunlight, but when he extended a hand in greeting he did not approach. They, of course, had to go to him. 'A pleasure,' said Guerrier. 'And a surprise. I was not expecting visitors from the Crowley Foundation.'

Matt headed over first, shaking the proffered hand. 'We were in the area, and thought we'd take the opportunity of a visit,' he said. She was impressed that this wasn’t exactly a lie.

'Then I am flattered I find myself coming to your attention. Would you like a drink? I was just going to enjoy a Campari and soda myself.' He gestured to the bottles and glasses on the table, laid out like he'd expected them.

They had called ahead, after all. Rose eyeballed the bottle of a dark red liquid she didn't recognise, and gave the most dazzling smile she could summon. 'That would be lovely, Monsieur Guerrier.' Matt, still in the thralls of his hangover, gave a wan smile, but also nodded.

'Wonderful.' Guerrier moved to the table and started to pour the drinks, his movements light, casual - as was his voice when he spoke. 'You must forgive me,' he said, his French accent rolling effortlessly off his words, 'but you both seem very young to be representatives of the Crowley Foundation.'

'My father has done a lot of work for them,' said Matt. 'He's provided us a great many opportunities.'

'It is delightful, then, to see young people following their parents' footsteps.' Guerrier padded over to extend the glasses to them both. Rose had a sip, finding the drink go down easily, while Matt had to hide a grimace at his more discreet gulp. 'And I have long admired the Crowley Foundation's work. You and your colleagues are quite tireless in the pursuit of lost art.'

The Crowley Foundation was, Matt had assured her, an actual organisation, a private group of European wizards dedicated to the recovery of knowledge, art, and relics that time or the unscrupulous had taken from the public arena. They were the second-largest employers of Curse Breakers after Gringotts, and he'd talked about them in a way which suggested to her that employment in their ranks wouldn't be so much pure fiction as living a fantasy. It had seemed the best ruse to get past the security of a man as paranoid as Alfonse Guerrier.

'Thank you. It's very kind of you to say so,' she said, 'and very kind of you to receive us.'

'Mais rien.' He smiled and turned to the balcony. 'It is the least I can do for such an auspicious organisation. And the least I can do for two such auspicious personages.'

Matt froze, drink halfway to his lips. 'Auspicious?'

'You are Matthias Doyle - you mentioned your father working with the Crowley Foundation. This, I did not know. I know your father as Gabriel Doyle the businessman, Gabriel Doyle the information broker. And you, Miss Weasley, are a lady whose family needs no introduction.' Guerrier didn't face them, resting a languid hand on the balcony railing, before he gestured in the air with his glass. 'It will be a shame to upset both the Crowley Foundation and such notable British families today.'

'Upse-' Then a booted foot hit the back of her leg and Rose was knocked to her knees, her glass flying from her hand and smashing on the balcony floor. Matt was likewise struck down, the two on the ground before they knew it.

Rose felt the tip of a wand press into the back of her head and, hands shaking from shock and adrenaline, she only slowly craned her neck to look up at Guerrier. 'I don't know what this is -'

'A shame,' said Guerrier as he turned around, but he was looking at the shattered glass on the floor. 'Those were crystal.' He set his own drink down, then dusted of his hands. 'Merci, gentlemen,' he said to the two wizards who had appeared from nowhere to incapacitate his guests. 'If they so much as twitch, kill them.'

Matt drew a rasping breath. 'I don't know what you're - we're here to talk about buying from your collection -'

'You mean stealing.' Iron now ran through Alfonse Guerrier's polite voice, and the older man leaned forwards, clasping his hands together. 'Your Foundation has been lazy and crude, Mister Doyle. They send you here only a day after I am attacked, and you feign ignorance? You are here to take advantage of me, scope out my collection for what is left for you to seize. Your people think me weak. You are so, so wrong.'

He reached to take a sip of his drink, smacking his lips before he settled back on his chair. 'So, we are going to have a little conversation. About the Foundation, what they know, what they want of mine. And if I do not like the answers, I shall have my friends here ask the questions again. Firmly.'

* *


'It's not fancy, it's over-priced, and it's Muggle, but we need to keep a low profile,' said Albus, looking around the small, sparsely-furnished flat, with its stupendous views of the buildings right next to them which blocked the rest of Monte Carlo from sight. 'And I guess it's as good as we were going to get at the last minute.'

'Without sending ripples through the local magic community, yeah.' But Scorpius slumped past him to one of the two bedrooms, hefting his pack and tossing it through the door.

Monaco lacked a physical magic quarter. There were wizards, of course, there to enjoy the city-state's delights, Muggle and magic, and a casino as huge as the Rabbit's Foot would not be able to survive without a healthy magical tourist trade. But there was no central authority, no hidden street or island, and their portkey had not been an internationally-issued one - which at least meant leaving Paris happened quickly.

Which meant they'd not had much time to find somewhere to stay.

Albus watched Scorpius as he slumped on the couch. 'The others won't take long,' he said with confidence. The judgement had been that starting out with Alfonse Guerrier was their best bet, and Matt and Rose had been the best candidates for such a conversation. Selena had fussed about making them "ready", whatever that meant, which left the two of them to find their new hidey-hole and settle in.

Which meant Albus could try to figure out what the hell was going on. 'So,' he started, and tossed his own bag to the floor next to the sofa. 'Last night.'

Scorpius lifted his hands. 'I don't want to talk about it.'

'It clearly didn't go well -'

'What part of "I don't want to talk about it" don't you understand?'

Scorpius sat up, voice raised, but Albus met his gaze, expression plain and level. 'Don't do this, Scorp,' he said. 'Something's wrong. I know your tricks by now - be a prick to me so I don't want to help?'

'Or, maybe, I'll deal with it on my own terms -'

'Are you going to talk to her, at least?'

Scorpius hesitated - then made a noise of frustration as he rose to his feet, and stalked to the nearest window. The view of the metal-grey of the nearest building was hardly inspiring. 'What do I say?'

Albus shrugged. 'I have no idea, because I don't know what the problem is. Is this about Matthias, again? Because, really -'

'No, we... talked about Doyle.' Scorpius waved a hand. 'It's not him. It's me, mate, it's -' He cringed. 'You don't want to know.'

'I'm starting to think you're right.' He still padded across the room to his friend's side, shoving his hands in his pockets. 'Look. I don't need - I mean - I know we talk girls, sometimes... or, you talk girls and I listen...'

'...yeah, but this is Rose -'

'- and there are things I don't need to hear -'

'It's not like that.' Scorpius squinted. 'Mostly.'

Albus sighed. 'There are times it was easier when you two hated each other.'

'You hated being in the middle of that.'

'Better than feeling like the third wheel.' Albus couldn't keep a wry expression off his face as Scorpius turned to him, shocked. 'Come on, it's a bit true. Last few months, there've been a few times I've not known what to do with myself.'

'I'm sorry, mate, I never meant to make you feel like that -'

'It's not a big deal. I'm learning the cues. And this really isn't about me. My point is, I stuck by you before, I'll stick by you now. If you want to talk. Even awkwardly.'

Scorpius' lips twisted. 'I thought last night was going great, you know? Dinner, wine, we talked, felt like the first time I properly unwound in - I don't even know how long. And then...' He hesitated, gesticulating in that exaggerated manner he did when awkward. 'We got back to the hotel. To the bedroom, I mean. And, well, things got a bit heated up, and -'

He faltered again, but Albus stayed quiet. There was no way he could help nudge this conversation along, and so the uncertain silence stayed stiff for long moments. But of all the things Albus could have anticipated Scorpius saying next, what came out of his friend's mouth was the last.

'I panicked,' Scorpius admitted, glaring at the window. 'I just - she was there, and I was - I panicked, it was like I couldn't breathe, my chest went all tight and - I had to get out. It was like this voice screaming in my head that it was wrong, all wrong, and I, I ran...'

Albus cocked his head. 'What was wrong?'

'I don't know! I thought the problem would be her if it were either one of us - I don't mean problem, I mean, hesitation, and that was fine, she's - I was good to take things slow. But she wasn't hesitating, and -'

'Did that take you by surprise, maybe?' Albus ventured. If dealing with his friends' relationship was wandering into a minefield, then this was the equivalent of striding into the location of an upcoming napalm strike.

'Well, yes, but I don't deal with every surprise by running from the room.' Scorpius had gone red by now.

'Maybe you should talk to her?'

'And say what?' A hysterical note had entered his voice. '"Sorry, you were super hot and that freaked me the hell out"?'

Albus flinched. 'Say it more nicely than that.'

'I can't - this is so damn humiliating.' Scorpius dragged his hands across his face.

Not without some hesitation, Albus put a hand on his shoulder. And then decided to turn it into a manly, reassuring pat. 'It's Rose. She gets you. She likes you. She'll listen. Right now, she's probably upset, yeah, but she'll be more upset not knowing what the hell's going on.' He thinned his lips. 'What were you afraid of?'

'What?'

'In the panic. What was scary?'

Scorpius planted his hands on the windowsill and drew a deep, ragged breath. 'I don't know. Looking stupid? No, that's not it. I don't know, I just panicked.'

'We've got a lot on our plates right now,' said Albus. 'I think being highly-strung is normal. It's probably not that big a deal, it just feels like it because we're dealing with big things. Life and death. So your mind's set to have all stations go at the slightest provocation. But if you don't want to talk to her, yet, you need to get yourself to a state to talk to her.'

'And how do I do that?'

'I think figuring out why it felt wrong would be step one.'

Scorpius' shoulders sagged, but he looked over and managed, for the first time, a thin smile. 'Yeah. I guess. Thanks, mate. And, look - you won't tell her any of this?'

Albus hesitated. 'I won't go to her. If she asks me what's going on, I'm not going to lie and say I don't know. But I'm not going to volunteer it. It's between you and her, and I'll tell her to talk to you. Don't worry, mate.' He clapped him on the shoulder again. 'I've got your back.'

'Oh, good,' said Scorpius, voice wry. 'You can be stood right over my shoulder as I make a humiliating idiot of myself.'

'I've been doing that for six years.' Albus smirked good-naturedly, and was rewarded with a small but sincere grin in kind. 'I think we can both take it.'

* *


'Okay,' said Rose, and was surprised to hear how level her voice was. ‘We can talk about this.'

'That is, indeed, what I am hoping we would do.' Guerrier refilled his glass, the sound of liquid trickling from the bottle louder than it had any right to be. 'Who informed you of the break-in?'

'We're not here to take your collection,' blurted out Matt, and Rose could hear the waver in his voice.

Of course. He hadn't looked death in the eye before. This was a new experience for him.

When had it become routine for her?

'Don't lie to me. The Crowley Foundation has for years known to give me a wide berth. And now here you are. You were not even surprised when I mentioned the break-in to you. You need to be better at bluffing.' Guerrier had a sip of his drink. 'Who told you?'

This situation, Rose mused to herself, had been grossly underestimated. As had Guerrier's paranoia and inclination towards violence.

'Nobody told -' Matt was cut off with a cry of pain as the man holding the wand to the back of his head let off a short spark that jolted through him, prompted by no more than a glance from Guerrier.

Guerrier sighed. 'This is getting tiresome -'

'They took the Chalice of Emrys.' Rose lifted her head. She'd been running through all the options, all the lies, and rejected them while Matt ran through their opening theatrics. The only thing left was the truth. 'Didn't they?'

Guerrier's expression flickered. Rose felt the wand shift at the back of her head, but his gaze flickered over her shoulder and he shook his head. 'What makes you think that?'

'Because if that's what they took, then I know who did it. Because we were after them, and that's what we're after.'

He leaned forward, eyes narrowing. 'Who?'

Matt drew a ragged breath. 'Rose -'

'The Council of Thorns,' she said, ignoring the warning. 'Or, more specifically, Prometheus Thane and maybe someone called Raskoph. They're in town, set to sell some of their goods at an auction at the Rabbit's Foot Casino next week. We’ve been after them. We know they were after the Chalice. And so we looked into local affairs and heard about the reported break-in here.'

Guerrier cocked his head. 'Then why are you here?'

'To find out for sure. To follow the trail. To see what you know.'

'If you wanted information out of me, lying in the first place was not wise.'

Rose gave a humourless smile. 'If we'd said we were nobodies off the street here to ask about the break-in, we wouldn't have got as far as this meeting in the first place.'

She was rewarded by his lips twitching - then Guerrier lifted his hands to the two wizards who had accosted them. He gave a curt instruction in French, and Rose felt the pressure of the wand at the base of her skull disappear. This time, she heard the dull crack as the two wizards disapparated.

'Please,' said Guerrier, leaning back on his chair. 'Be seated. I apologise for accosting you. But a man cannot be too careful in these times.'

Rose got to her feet, cautious and aching from the blow that had knocked her down, but she was quicker to rise than Matt, who crawled into the nearest chair. His sunglasses had come off and though he scooped to retrieve them she saw his eyes, wide and worried, before they were hidden.

'What are you two - British agents?'

'It would hardly be legal for the Ministry of Magic to dispatch agents to hunt the Council of Thorns across international borders,' said Rose neutrally.

Guerrier gave another thin smile. 'So be it. Why does the Council want the Chalice? I have had no trouble from them before now.'

'We believe...' Rose hesitated. Then she remembered how the two wizards who had brutally held them at wand-point could no doubt reappear within the blink of an eye if Guerrier felt he was being misled again. She grimaced. 'We believe they intend to use it to further their development of the Phlegethon virus.'

'The Eridanos virus,' said Guerrier.

'Then you know what I'm talking about.'

Matt rubbed the back of his head. ‘Your father had the Chalice? He took it here from Paris?’

Guerrier raised an eyebrow. ‘Well done. He took it from under the noses of the Vichy Regime and the Thule Society who hunted it, back in 1941. Along with other relics which have since made their ways… around.’

And into your pockets to pay for all of this. 'Then why not sell the Chalice?' she asked.

'It is one thing for me to buy and sell original paintings. Pieces of ancient magical art. Even valuable commodities such as Montserrat's Shroud. But the Chalice of Emrys?' His expression creased. 'Who would I sell it to? Who would pay enough? And then, would I ever be left alone? Able to live and work discreetly, if the world knew I was the man who had such an artifact? The Chalice is priceless. It is literally without price.' He shrugged. 'There was nothing to do with it but keep it, hide it. Until now.'

'And you never used it?' asked Matt.

'I am a collector, Mister Doyle,' said Guerrier. 'Not a scholar. Not a philanthropist. I buy and sell and own for my pleasure. I am not ashamed to say this - I could not make it do anything other than be a cup. And then who in the world, what expert in the world, could I possibly hire to help me with it?'

Matt sighed. 'That's a fair point.'

'You believe that the Council's people are at the Rabbit's Foot Casino. I have heard of the auction next week. Until this happened, I was even considering attending. I think I shall give this one a miss.' Guerrier smiled without humour. 'What do you intend? To arrest this Thane and Raskoph?'

'To stop them. To get the Chalice off them,' said Rose.

He nodded. 'If they are capable of getting past my security then they are formidable indeed. And if they are under the protection of Pierre Maisson and his security, then getting to them, or anything of theirs, will be almost impossible. The Rabbit's Foot is perhaps the most secure building in all of Europe.'

Matt and Rose exchanged glances, and she felt her heart sink. Guerrier was telling them nothing new - just everything they had feared.

'You're telling us to give up?' said Matt.

'I would,' said Guerrier. 'But that would mean someone had pierced my defences and then escaped without ever being held accountable. And my reputation could hardly tolerate such a thing.' He leaned forward. 'You have gifted me with the knowledge of who wronged me, and where they are. You want them captured, or stopped. I want them punished. This would sound to me like we can reach some arrangement, no?'

Rose's heart leapt. 'I think s-'

'Who was your father?' Matt interrupted her with a frown. 'I mean, I know he was a resistance fighter, but how on Earth did he get his hands on the Chalice in the first place?'

Guerrier's lips thinned, and Rose cast Matt a warning look. He gave a brief shrug. 'My father had a very different view of the world to me,’ said Guerrier. ‘Of its treasures, to me. He sought to hide what I thought should be seen. Valued. Appreciated. Even if the Chalice was one matter where we agreed. You know, by now, of the Chalice's history - of its usage and ownership by the Templars for centuries?'

Matt nodded. 'We found where it had been kept in Paris.'

'The Templars expired centuries ago - though they hid so many of their treasures there are always new, exotic prospects arising in my line of work. My father was not one of them... but he was, perhaps, an adherent of their philosophies. Respectful of the work that had came before. And believed that what was hidden should stay hidden. He could only take so much from under the Thule Society’s nose, but he took what he could. Monaco remained free of their presence throughout the war and so he came here, with all he could liberate, with all the funding he had stolen to work to make it... safe.'

'And then you inherited it all years later and, instead of hiding things, became a dealer.' Matt's voice was slow, measured.

Guerrier raised an eyebrow. 'You sound like you disapprove.'

'Of both, truth be told.' He shrugged. 'I don't think things should be hidden. But I don't think they belong to the highest bidder.'

'Mister Doyle... in the real world, everything belongs to the highest bidder. It is just that we do not only bid in money.'

Rose leaned forward. 'You can help us get to the Chalice?'

'I can help you try to beat the Rabbit's Foot. What you do there is up to you, so long as you leave the Council of Thorns' people bloodied and punished for what they have done to me.'

'Do they need to be literally bloodied?' Matt asked anxiously.

'I do not think the Council will balk at some of their goons being hurt. No, I think they will need hurting in a way they will care about. Plans ruined, pocketbooks attacked... power. You must hurt their power. That is how they will care.' Guerrier smiled, his face looking older and more creased, and though the expression seemed sincere there was a definite air of malice to it. Rose had to force herself to keep eye contact. 'Do we have a deal?'

* *


'Christ,' breathed Matt once they were out of Guerrier's front door. He shoved his sunglasses on and ran a hand through his hair, all the better to hide the shake at his fingertips.

But Rose could see it, and she grabbed him by the elbow. 'Not here. We walk away with our heads high,' she said, and all but steered him down the road the way they'd come. Soon enough the mansion behind them looked again like a derelict old building; soon enough they were gone from this magical corner of Monaco and in the old town's narrow, rustic streets surging with tourists.

'That was - I mean, I thought we were dead,' said Matt, still stunned as he followed her back to the promenade where they'd waited earlier.

'Yeah, it wasn't our best ever plan. He was way more paranoid than I expected. We should have figured waltzing in wasn't so bright.'

'He just - I just - bloody hell.'

She looked at him as they left a narrow street to emerge in a square of cobbles sloping down to a park. There was a church on their left, a tall building of gleaming white stone and arched doorways and windows. Matt's eyes lit up at the sight of it, but she didn't let go of his arm, just tugged him down into the greenery and peace of the park overlooking the sea and the bay. 'Culture later. You need to sit down.'

'What?'

'Congratulations,' Rose said. 'You've looked death in the eye and been utterly helpless, but came out the other side alive. These moments come and they go but you don’t forget the first time it happens.'

'I - a golem tried to kill me in Badenheim!'

'Not so bloody loud,' she hissed, but they were in the quiet of the artfully sculpted park by then, and she found the most secluded bench she could, pushing him down. For her part, she needed to stand, to pace, to do something to burn off the churning in her gut. 'That was different. You could fight, you had a wand. And then a sword. You weren't helpless.'

Matt looked like he was going to argue - then sagged, scrubbing his face with his hands. 'I thought we were dead.'

'And now you're not. Air tastes sweeter, doesn't it? You don't always get to enjoy the aftermath. Make the most of it.' Rose's brow knotted. The first time she'd had the chance to enjoy that heady spinning of the head, that awareness of being alive, that intricate sense of connection to the whole world around her, she'd been so invigorated she'd let Scorpius kiss her. Then she'd kissed him back.

'Yeah.' Matt blinked, then straightened. 'I'm okay. That was just a bit close.'

'It was.' She could see he was better. He wasn't weak and this hadn't been too bad. He just needed a moment to get his bearings, and he'd had it. So now she had no compunctions about swatting him on the arm. 'That was a stupid plan!'

He reeled back. 'What?'

'You said you could talk him into helping us!'

'I - I thought I could! I was going to pose as someone looking into his father's collection, but he blew us out of the water before then!' Matt got to his feet, indignant.

'Instead, you talked me into going into some paranoid black market trader's mansion of horrendous security and violent lackeys and almost got our fool heads blown off!'

'Hey, you agreed to this!'

'I thought you had a plan!'

'I did! I told you the plan! That was the plan! I thought at worst he'd kick us out!' He looked desperate. 'Why are you blaming me? God knows I couldn't convince you to do something you didn't want to do!'

Her arms folded across her chest. 'What's that supposed to mean?’

'Exactly that!' Matt stabbed an accusing finger. 'Like something’s wrong but you don’t want to tell me, and there’s not a power in the universe that can change that, even if it's blatantly chewing you up!' The anger was rolling off his voice and swapping for frustrated concern, and as Rose glanced around she could tell they were earning the odd look from passers-by.

So much for being discreet. At least people would think this was no more than a lovers' tiff.

'This has nothing to do with that.'

'Doesn't it?' demanded Matt. 'Then why are you biting my head off for something that I couldn't control or predict? Don't act like I don't know you, Rose, because I do.'

So maybe he hadn't been the only one having an adverse reaction to facing the business-end of Guerrier's anger. Her heart was still thudding in her chest, her mind racing at a thousand miles an hour, and while the sky seemed brighter it wasn't warming, it was blinding and all she could think about was being left last night in the cold and -

Her retort was lost in a choke, and Rose was furious to feel tears welling up, unbidden. She turned away and swatted at her eyes, though it was far, far too late to pretend nothing was wrong. 'I'm fine.'

'Worst lie ever,' said Matt, but his jocular tone was swamped with worry. He shuffled his feet, then she felt his hand come to her shoulder, and with a start realised this was their first physical contact in months.

'I don't -' She took a deep, wavering breath, trying to steel her shakiness. 'This isn't fair to you, Matt!'

'Forget me; you're upset, you're my friend, and I want to help!'

Except you looked at me last night like you used to look at me all the time. Except I'm not telling you that Scorpius ditched me in a panic and now can't even look at me. Except I'm not lamenting my relationship woes to you, because that's not something any of us - not you, not me, not Scorpius - really, really wants to see happen.

If Scorpius was upset about something she'd done last night, she wasn't sure. She was sure he wouldn't thank her for airing their problems to her ex-boyfriend. When she wiped her cheeks again, she was relieved to find no fresh tears. 'Let's not pretend we're just friends and this is normal,' she said, her voice levelling out. 'I don't want to hurt you.'

'You don't -'

'But it would. You know it would.' She glanced at him, gaze apologetic. I don't know what you feel, but if it's an iota of what it looked like, you really don't want to hear all of this. It wasn't his fault. She didn't think she would be thrilled to hear about his romantic entanglements right now.

Matt's lips thinned, and he dropped his hand - but he did nod. 'All right. Just - you talk to someone, yeah? Him. Selena. Albus. I don't know. I hate seeing you cry, Rosie.'

Rosie. He'd not called her that since they'd broken up. She'd never liked it much from him, but then she did call him 'Matty', and so couldn't complain. So she just nodded. 'I will. And… I’m sorry for yelling at you.’

The moment needed to break. The sun streamed down on the coast, the park they were in was well-shaded, the path winding between the sculpted hedges and flowers, the trees and the statues and outdoor artworks with their plaques. It was idyllic - but it didn't feel it. Her gut still churned from their brush with danger, her head still spun with the impossible prospects before them, and her heart still ached with the memory of last night.

'Mum hooked your book up to the Hogwarts Library, didn't she. Did you read more on the Templars?'

It was a cheap move, a clumsy subject change, an easy manipulation - and he plainly knew it. But his eyes still lit up with that spark of enthusiasm and love of knowledge she didn't share with anyone else, and he seemed happy to let her push the topic on.

'Just how the fall of the wizarding Templars related to the fall of the main Order - it's interesting, really, we don't get groups between both worlds which intersect like that any more...'

And then he was off, rambling on a topic he loved and she could listen to him enthuse about, let his voice wash over her. The words were there, interesting and lodging in her mind, but it wasn't those she cared about as she nudged them to head down the park to the path to the flat. She just wanted something to think about which wasn't the painful prospects ahead, and when it came to diversions that gave her something to think about, he was the best.

And almost, almost enough to make her stop thinking about Scorpius.



———————


A/N: Welcome to Monaco! Not much to say on this chapter. The ‘Ginocchio’ and his ‘Fair Lady’ painting are entirely fictitious pieces of magical art. The park in which Rose and Matt have their last conversation is real, as is the church they pass - the Jardin de Saint Martin and the Cathédrale de Monaco respectively.

For anyone wondering, when Guerrier responds to Rose's thanks with "Mais rien", he's saying, "it's nothing" in the same way such a phrase applies in English to mean "you're welcome".

Author’s Notes might be a bit shorter for the next plotline. Adventure awaits, but less history!


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