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Starfall by Slide
Chapter 17 : Let the Chips Fall
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 8


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Let the Chips Fall


When Matt said, ‘I need your help,’ she should have known it would be trouble.

They’d been in Monte Carlo for five days. She’d provided Albus with all the information from Paquet’s mind, and he’d taken to sitting on the balcony surrounded by the scraps of paper and illusions representing the Rabbit’s Foot Casino, piecing together the disparate parts of what he swore blind was a plan that would work. Selena was often off conducting her own prep-work for the mission ahead. And when she’d asked Albus where Scorpius was, he’d assured her that he was working.

Considering she knew he was leaving the flat every morning with his broom, she suspected he was finding somewhere quiet in the local area and getting some flying done. It sounded like his old tactics from Hogwarts when he wanted to brood and avoid her. That was fine. If he wanted to keep on being a child about this, that was his loss.

Matt asking for her help meant she had something else to keep busy with. It was someone seeking out her company, and after being ignored for several days by someone with whom she was allegedly in a relationship, it was only a human reaction to be pleased by this.

They were out on the balcony with Albus. Matt had come back after an afternoon at the Rabbit’s Foot, saying he needed to scrub up before going out in the evening - gambling there in the day and gambling there in the evening being apparently completely different. He was the one doing reconnaissance, though, and she wasn’t going to question his methods.

‘I don’t know if Paquet’s being weird,’ Matt continued.

‘Define weird?’

‘She occasionally looks at me funny. Occasionally shakes up the security protocols. I was hoping to get a copy of the security shift patterns so I could tell if this is unusual, but I figured it might be best if Rose got a look at her.’ He shrugged. ‘Seeing as she was the one in her head, she wiped her memories, she planted the -’

‘Good idea,’ said Albus, not looking up. ‘Rose, go with Matt to the Rabbit’s Foot tonight.’

Rose hesitated. ‘Not that I disagree with the idea of Matt having someone watch his back while he’s out there, but isn’t there a risk I’ll be recognised?’

Albus did lift his head at this, gaze landing on Matt. ‘Have you seen Prometheus Thane there?’

‘Not at all.’

‘Have you seen any of his men?’

‘The only one of his men we have an ID on is Downing,’ said Matt. ‘But I don’t think so, no. It’s a busy place. Look at it this way - if they know we’re after them to the extent they’ve got people looking out for you, then they’d surely know I’m with you and look out for me, too?’

‘He makes a good point.’ Albus bent back over the map of Monte Carlo, the magical one which included the presence of the Rabbit’s Foot across the cityscape. It was three-dimensional, bunching up and crinkling where the casino was in its cramped pocket of space, and even if he flattened the paper it still looked warped, ill-fitting. ‘Thane’s a professional. If he knew we were after him, he’d have Matt identified for sure.’

‘Isn’t this why we sent Matt in the first place?’

‘Because we thought there was a risk of running into Thane on the casino floor. If there’s not that threat, and he’s not expecting us, you can go.’

‘I’ve never seen him,’ said Matt, ‘and it’s a big damned place. And this way she can get a look so more than one of us has been there, and to see if something’s wrong with Paquet.’

‘I’d need to get into her mind to properly assess -’

‘Will a visual check work?’ said Albus.

‘You mean, can I study her behaviour and see if there’s some sort of error with the implanted memories causing erratic actions?’ Rose sighed. ‘Yes. Maybe.’

‘Don’t look so miserable,’ he said. ‘You can have a nice night at a fancy casino.’

‘I’ll be working.’

‘It’s not all work,’ said Matt. ‘Some of it’s fun. That said, I’m supposed to gamble and get my face known and build up a reputation. So my work is what a lot of people would call a holiday.’

‘Great,’ she said. ‘You do that while I watch the Chief of Security to see if she’s going to rip our whole operation apart, without being noticed or captured or recognised.’

He frowned. ‘I was just trying to look on the bright side.’

‘It’s a good idea, Matt. I just don’t like the idea of going in there before the mission. And I don’t like the idea that something might be wrong with Paquet. If she comes unravelled, this entire thing is doomed.’

‘All the more reason for you to go.’ Albus reached for another chart. ‘Go talk to Selena to get a nice frock.’

‘What?’

‘You need to dress up to go somewhere like this.’

‘I have nice dresses!’ Rose paused. ‘Dress. Just the one - fine. I’ll talk to Selena.’

‘Great,’ said Matt. ‘I’m going to shower. We’ll go in an hour?’

‘Sounds lovely,’ said a gruff voice from the doorway, and they turned to see Scorpius, his broom slung over his shoulder, dishevelled and tired. His expression was pinched in that way she recognised from the fights at Hogwarts, that distant, disapproving look which made it clear he was stewing in his bitterness, letting it fester and grow.

And she was thoroughly, thoroughly sick of it. Not least because he was looking at her like she’d committed some gross offence when he was the one who’d mistreated her and was refusing to explain it.

So she made sure to smile. ‘I’m sure it will be. I’m going to see what Selena has. I might as well look good if we’re going somewhere fancy.’

His eyes were cold, and he didn’t move when she headed for the balcony doors until she put out a hand to push him aside - but at that he stepped away, shying from her touch, and she flinched. Had it become that bad? Was being close to her so abhorrent he had to pull away at the mere risk of contact?

So she didn’t touch him. She didn’t even look at him, just ducked her head, muttered, ‘Excuse me,’ and slipped past with the hope that Selena and making herself look good might, might dismiss some of the sense of worthlessness that had been born in Paris.

In the end, she went for something conservative. Selena arched an eyebrow in disapproval, but, knowing what had happened, didn’t press it. While Rose was prepared to do her part for the mission, to fit in for reconnaissance, the last thing she was in the mood for was to try to feel or look sexy.

‘We’ll go with classy,’ said Selena, extending a silk stole. ‘You can be the most aristocratic woman in the room.’

‘I don’t want to be the most aristocratic woman in the room,’ said Rose, fighting with her hair. ‘The entire point is to not be noticed.’

‘Then you won’t fit in if you don’t try. Are you okay?’

Rose sighed and straightened the green dress, and wondered by what magnitude Selena’s wardrobe had increased in their time in Paris and Monaco. There had certainly been shopping expeditions. ‘No. But I get to work tonight.’

‘Yes.’ Her lips thinned. ‘I’m sure that’s what Doyle has in mind.’

Rose chose to ignore that.

He was waiting for her when she stepped out of the girls’ bedroom, adjusting his cuffs, the silver links catching the dim light of the setting sun that filtered in through the windows of the balcony where Scorpius and Albus still sat. She’d not seen him dressed up for the Rabbit’s Foot before; she knew he’d dusted off his suit robes and that Selena had made some judicious adjustments to make it fit that bit better, look that bit better-tailored, make him look that bit more high class.

It worked. And he’d sorted out his hair, sweeping it back and out of his face, reminding her that he could look good if he made an effort, instead of the demeanour of the scruffy academic he seemed to wrap around himself without a care.

He grinned when he saw her, and she was relieved it was a smile lacking his haunted shock when he’d seen her in Paris, a smile without presumption or expectation. Just the smile of someone pleased to see her. ‘Guess we should be off, then,’ said Matt cheerfully, and held a hand out for the door. His gaze flickered to Selena, stood over Rose’s shoulder. ‘Don’t wait up.’

No, thought Rose as she glanced at the balcony, at Scorpius sat with Albus, who had his gaze set on the horizon with a stiffness in his shoulders which made it clear he was adamantly not looking their way. Don’t wait.

* *


Albus sighed as the door shut. ‘You’re an idiot.’

Scorpius’ expression twitched. ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do? Stop her? She’s doing work. You signed off on this.’

‘I did. Because if something’s wrong with Paquet, we’re going to need to know. She can’t remember what happened, and half the plan relies on those implanted memories.’

‘Not the half I care about.’

Albus slammed down his papers. Or he tried to - the result was more of a flumph noise and some flapping pages, but the stern look remained. ‘If I shout at you, you’re going to get defensive, like I’m the bad guy for daring to call you on your shit.’

‘I don’t -’

‘Really? Because in terms of danger, this mission is barely less likely to kill us than the ritual. In terms of overall stakes? Possibly higher. We have to get everything exactly right, and this isn’t going to be easy if you and Rose are sniping at each other!’

‘I can be professional, if we want to call meddling our profession. And I don’t see why -’

‘See?’ Albus jabbed a finger. ‘Defensive.’

‘I don’t know what’s made you go all Supreme Mugwump on us -’

‘Because I can do this. Because we can do this. Because I don’t want any more surprises that get people slashed up, or get people killed. We can’t prepare for everything, but we can do our damned best, so, no, I’m not thrilled you still haven’t spoken to Rose!’

Scorpius looked away, his blazing gaze settling on the rays of dying sunlight creeping through the thick buildings that blocked any great view of Monte Carlo from their balcony. Anger still bubbled inside him, resentment at Albus for criticising him and resentment that he’d been right, he did get defensive. If anyone tried to throw anything at him, he reacted by biting back. He sighed. ‘I… still don’t know what I’d say.’

‘Just try. You think she won’t listen if you try to figure it out with her?’

‘She’s not come to me -’

‘Why should she? You ran out on her and since then you’ve been your old self, your old vicious bastard self, like you were in Hogwarts when you were blaming her for everything!’

Scorpius stood so quickly he rocked his chair. ‘Is this what you call having my back? Jumping on her side -’

‘I am not on her side!’ Albus stood too. ‘I’m on both of your sides, but she’s not a mind-reader, you’ve forbidden me from going to her, and I think she knows better than to ask me if you’re not telling! The onus is on you to act, and I think being your friend and having your back means that sometimes I need to tell you when you’re fucking up!’

‘So that’s what this is. I’m being a fuck-up -’

‘There are times I want to throttle you -’

‘Still feeling the support,’ Scorpius sneered. ‘From you, from her, seeing as she won’t come and talk to me, but she will go talk to Doyle -’

‘Matt knows?’

‘Yeah.’ Scorpius subsided to shove his hands in his pockets, turning back to the view.

‘She told him?’

Yes.’

Albus looked confused. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Does it matter?’ He stabbed a finger back at the apartment. ‘They’re going out tonight to the fucking Rabbit’s Foot anyway -’

‘They’re doing work -’

‘My arse does Doyle want to do work. He’s said that he wants Rose back, that he doesn’t give a shit any more that she’s in a relationship with me. If all’s fair in love and war, then he just declared war.’

Albus sighed, planting his hands on the balcony railing. ‘Maybe Matt does look at her like that. But why does it matter? I don’t get this “stealing” shit. It might make him a crappy person, like Hector was a crappy person to sleep with Miranda, but at the end of the day he didn’t bewitch her or anything, she chose to cheat on you. Hector didn’t trick her.’ He lifted a hand to squeeze Scorpius’ shoulder. ‘Matt can do what he likes. It’s Rose who matters, Rose’s choices, and she’s chosen you. She’s not Miranda.’

‘I know she’s not -’ Scorpius stopped mid-sentence, not because of anything Albus had said, but because even though he was stood calmly on a balcony, having done nothing more tiring in the last ten minutes than stand up, he could feel his heart thudding in his chest with a fervour which beat even his frustration and his anger. ‘…she’s not Miranda,’ he muttered. ‘She won’t - she’s not - shit.’

‘What?’

Scorpius dragged a hand across his face, forcing his breathing to slow. ‘She’s not the same,’ he muttered to himself.

‘Scorp?’

He didn’t say anything for a moment, planting his hands back on the balcony railing. ‘She hurt me before.’

‘Rose? With Hector?’ Albus hesitated. ‘She did. Though you hurt her too.’

‘I - I know. Maybe if it hadn’t been Hector, maybe if it hadn’t been another girl picking Flynn over me - that’s not the point. Not even - I know it went two ways. I just, she doesn’t - Miranda was a bitch, and Rose…’

‘Isn’t?’

‘Yes!’

‘You’ve lost me.’

Scorpius turned to him and grasped his shoulders. ‘You’ve been a good friend. Are a good friend. You know that?’

Albus blinked. ‘I, er…’

‘When I - with Methuselah - when I was going to go out there…’ Scorpius faltered, finding the words. ‘The ritual. I wanted him to tell you that you were the best mate I could ever have. ‘Cos you are.’

‘Thank you. Are you ill?’

‘No.’ Scorpius’ lips twisted. ‘You’re the only person who never hurt me. You’re the only person who never put me second place to someone else, or something else. You’re the only person who never betrayed me, or walked out on me. You’re the only person who always, always treated me like I mattered most.’

‘Are you dying? You’re actually dying -’

He gave a tired laugh, and Albus beamed the bright smile he gave when he was really pleased. ‘I’m not,’ said Scorpius, hands dropping. ‘I just - I need to talk to Rose. Really talk to her. Only, couple problems with that. I still need to be really sure what I’m going to say. And tomorrow we’re doing the last bits of prep. And the day after, we’re taking action.’

Albus nodded, gaze going sombre. ‘Tonight?’

‘Tonight…’ Scorpius sighed. ‘Tonight she’s going to a high-class casino on the arm of Matthias Doyle.’

* *


‘What makes the Rabbit’s Foot kind of different,’ said Matt as they swept across the casino floor, ‘is they’ve got hardly any gambling contraptions.’

‘Contraptions?’

Fitting impossibly between two ancient Muggle buildings overseeing the water-front of Monte Carlo, filling a space of three inches and yet sprawling and huge at the same time, the Rabbit’s Foot Casino was a sight to behold. There were the surging crowds of the more well-dressed of wizarding society, the manned tables boasting a variety of gaming options, the unmanned gambling magical contraptions lined up at the far end - though, as Matt said, not many of them. Excitement fizzed in the air, the promise of winning, and winning big - and, even in the case of losing, of getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience of anticipation and luxury along the way.

‘Slot machines, high rollers - stick your coin in, watch the lights flash and spin, see if you’re a winner!’ His voice took on the light mockery of a salesman trying to woo her in their direction. ‘All rigged, of course. The house always wins. But you’re less likely to lose big. Still, they’re very anti-social.’

‘I don’t get coming to a place like this and then just sitting at one of those.’

‘There’s atmosphere. But you don’t get noticed. And we’re here to get noticed.’

You’re here to get noticed. I’m here to watch Paquet.’ Her gaze ran across the heady crowd of patrons lit up by the glimmering chandelier high above. ‘Getting noticed would be pretty unhelpful.’

Matt’s brow knotted for a moment - then he forced his expression to clear, forced a smile. ‘You’re right, of course. Not to a table, then. To the bar? There’s a good vantage point. And you need to look like you’re doing something to be unobtrusive.’

‘I can look -’

‘Smile.’

She blinked at him, at his hopeful, encouraging grin. ‘I smile -’

‘Not for days.’ Again, Matt’s brow knotted. ‘I know stuff’s weird. But if there’s one thing I’ve found in trying to fit in around here? Actually relaxing, feeling like you’re a part of it, feeling like you’re here to enjoy yourself… you can fit in better, and have some fun. If you want to look like a patron who’s here for an evening of sumptuous atmosphere and a little bit of fun, then being such a patron, even a little bit, is a good start.’

‘That sounds suspiciously like an instruction to relax.’

‘Would that be so bad?’ He shouldered his way past the crowd to get them a space at the bar, and Rose watched him as he extended a hand, caught the bartender’s eye, gave the man an easy smile. He’d grown more confident over the last year, she thought, or however much of it he’d been conscious for. When they’d got together, there was no way he’d have let himself fall into a crowd, wear a room like a second skin; no way he’d have dared. Somewhere down the line, some time since she’d stopped herself from watching him, it was like his confidence had grown a full foot. ‘You look like you could do with it. What do you want to drink?’

‘Iced water will -’

His lip curled and he rested a hand on the bar next to her, leaning in. ‘Rose. We’re in the middle of the Rabbit’s Foot Casino, possibly the most opulent and extravagant place in Europe. People are going to watch us, and you - people are going to notice you. We do not walk up to the bar and order cold water.’

Her chin jerked up half an inch. ‘Believe it or not, this isn’t my first foray into the fancy. Fine. I’ll have what you’re having.’

His smile widened. ‘Martini it is.’

‘What’s even in one of those?’

Matt didn’t answer for a moment, gesturing to the bartender and holding up two fingers, and the man seemed to know him well enough to know what this meant. ‘Gin, an olive. Some vermouth. Just how much vermouth is a matter of debate. Some schools of thought seem to think less is more - show the glass the cork of a bottle. Maybe merely let the shadow of the bottle fall over the glass.’ His crooked grin grew even broader. ‘Winston Churchill thought it was sufficient to pour the gin, produce the olive, and then bow in the direction of France.’

She had to laugh at that. ‘I think we’ll stick with “less is more” on the quantities. I am still working.’

‘Sure.’ He took the two glasses and passed one to her, leaning against the bar with a practised air. ‘But we can enjoy the first one, at least. Cheers.’

She managed to not cough at the taste. Gin was a belter of a drink. ‘What were we even drinking to?’

‘You can choose.’

Rose opened her mouth - then hesitated. To not making this any more awkward than it is? She’d be lying if she said that fussing over little, inconsequential things like what to drink was relaxing. There was no self-consciousness, no worry over her words being good enough, over herself being good enough. And Matt was calmer, more self-assured than he’d been in Paris, than he’d been the day of their arrival in Monaco.

Everyone was allowed a little time to reel as the world changed under their feet. Whatever had been chewing him up seemed to have passed. And besides, she knew she’d probably take a little time to sort her head out, however much she might be over him, if and when he got with another girl -

‘You kissed Selena?’

The words tumbled out before she realised what she was saying, and Matt almost choked on his martini. ‘…I wasn’t going to drink to that.’

‘No, I mean -’ She closed her eyes. ‘Wow, I was the most subtle thing in the world there, wasn’t I?’

‘Little bit.’

‘She mentioned. She was upset - not - I mean - she said you guys talked it over, that it wasn’t a big deal, that it was fine. That it was one of those things that happened.’ Rose pursed her lips. ‘And you weren’t wrong in Germany to say that it’s not really my business -’

‘No, I was - that was shitty of me,’ said Matt, straightening. ‘I shouldn’t have got sharp with you. I was still figuring things out. Still getting used to you and Malfoy. It’s a process, isn’t it? Moving on. Killing old habits, like that twist in your gut, even if it’s only there because nobody got around to telling it to go…’

‘It’s not really my business. I shouldn’t have asked.’

‘You didn’t really ask a question - I mean - I did kiss her.’ Matt coloured, and she was relieved that he was finding this difficult, too. Not that she wanted to make things awkward, but he’d been sounding in control, and it was comforting to know she wasn’t the only one struggling. ‘But, no, it didn’t mean anything. She was upset, and I was being dumb and upset.’

He looked away at that, at the implications as to why he’d been upset that night, and she took another gulp of her martini. Gin went a lot smoother when it was being used to wash something down. Like the taste of awkward.

‘I am okay,’ he said after a moment, grey eyes sweeping across the crowd. His tension was fading, and the mask of the Matty she knew crumpled, leaving this man who could stand in a room and watch it like he owned it. ‘I was knocked for six that night, I won’t lie. You and him, going out, you looking like that - yes. I was jealous. But it was that old habit. It was something I had to deal with, and it might have been a bit difficult, but I needed that smack around the head.’ Then he looked at her, and his smile was softer. ‘I’m okay.’

She sighed. ‘Thank you.’

‘For what?’

‘Being honest. And for dealing with this. I know I’ve not been ideal -’

‘You’ve been trying to be. Like not talking to me about you and Malfoy. That wasn’t fair of me to ask - I wanted to help, yeah, but it would have been a bad idea. I was…’ He gestured vaguely. ‘I wasn’t sure how we should handle it. You and me, or, rather, there not being a you and me. I was trying to act like there was no issue. Which is silly. We were a couple, that did happen, it’s immature of us to act like that never happened, pretend like we can be normal friends.’

She sipped her martini. ‘We can be friends.’

‘Yeah. I hope so.’ He smiled. ‘I just think the way to be friends isn’t to pretend like there’s no issues, that we’re not still learning how to be not a couple around one another. We were together. We had good times. We were even good together, until we weren’t. I still think you’re great. But we can build on that to make a friendship. Instead of trying to act like there was nothing. So long as we know where we both stand, we’re allowed to be awkward, at times.’

‘That’s… sounding remarkably like a mature stance.’ She side-eyed him. ‘What happened to you?’

He laughed. ‘I had a lot of time to think things over while going through really easy, boring poker games.’ Then his eyes grew more serious. ‘I will be fine around you and M- Scorpius. If I walk off, if I take time, just leave me to it. I’m just fine-tuning those habits, making them sit down and shut up. And you’re allowed, you know, to find things about me awkward, even if you’re happy in a relationship.’

‘It’s not a big deal, I just wanted to make sure - I mean, Selena’s been through a lot -’

‘There’s something Mum told me about relationships I didn’t used to get,’ he said, cutting off her protest. ‘She says you don’t fall out of love, you just become a different person as time goes by. And maybe the person you become isn’t in love with who the other person becomes. But the person you used to be’s still in there, somewhere, and so’s the person they used to be. Sometimes all we feel are the memories of ghosts.’

Love. That’s a dodgy word to throw around at the best of times. ‘I think this is still sounding frighteningly mature,’ Rose sighed. She turned to watch the crowd, watch the string of men in security uniforms come from one of the main stairwells onto the floor and caught a glimpse of a woman who could have been Paquet. It was hard to tell at this distance, but for now, she could watch. ‘What happened to you?’

‘What?’

‘You. You’re different. Older, I guess.’

He shrugged. ‘I told you John and I went travelling a bit last summer. Cleared our heads after OWLs. Tibet, in the end.’

‘Tibet - I thought you meant, like, camping in Cornwall.’

Matt laughed. ‘No, my dad spent some time out in Tibet. Has some friends out there. We didn’t do much, but it was somewhere different. Just us. Let us be a bit more self-sufficient. I think I needed it, you know? Some time to just be me. Or, well, me and John.’

‘I don’t -’ Then Rose’s hand reached out for his elbow. ‘That is Paquet. Over there, breaking off from the security team who just came onto the main floor.’

Matt frowned that way. ‘And she’s not alone. Some old guy and - oh, and that’s Bellegarde, I took about fifty galleons off him at one of the poker tables yesterday…’ He pondered this a moment, then drained his martini and extended his arm to her. ‘Maybe we should have a little drive-by -’

‘Is that really sensible?’

‘She shouldn’t recognise you. Bellegarde might even get us into a conversation, so you can assess her properly. Sounds like a perfectly good plan to me.’ Matt noticed her eyeballing his extended arm. ‘I’m sorry, but seriously, this is the best cover. If it makes you feel any better, think of it as helping my cover.’

Your cover -’

‘I’m meant to come across as a young man from a good family with more money than sense and a penchant for poker. Having a different pretty girl on my arm on different evenings only helps me blend in more.’

She took his arm, but she did frown. ‘What different girls -’

‘I just mean on the night it’ll be Selena!’ He grinned crookedly. ‘No need to get defensive.’

‘I am not -’ But they were on the move, then, slipping through the crowd to where Paquet was talking with Bellegarde and the older gentleman, security moving past them to sweep across the room. It seemed mundane, nothing more than walking past the gaming tables to ensure everything was well, presenting a firm appearance of the Rabbit’s Foot Casino being a safe, secure place. But she watched Bellegarde anyway. ‘Why’s he talking to her?’

‘Hm? Oh, he’s a regular at this place, comes down to Monte Carlo for a few weekends every summer. They know him. I wanted to get in with that kind of crowd specifically so they’ll take me more seriously on the night, and he brushes elbows with Paquet sometimes, and even Maisson when he comes down… don’t know who this old fart is…’

‘Monsieur Doyle!’

Rose’s breath caught in her throat as Bellegarde turned to them, and the hopes of doing a quick drive-by assessment of the security chief died. She stiffened, but Matt gave her arm a quick squeeze as he turned to the trio, flashing them a broad smile. ‘Bellegarde, old chap, didn’t see you there - you’ll be at the card tables later, I trust?’

‘Of course I will. I still have some money to win back.’ Bellegarde was a short, portly wizard, prone to expansive hand gestures. With one of these he summoned them closer, although the sweep of his hand might have been enough to bring the whole room forth had he wished it. ‘Madame, Monsieur, I should make some introductions,’ he said to his two companions, and though she only spared the older man a glance he seemed oddly familiar. ‘This young fellow has been most upsetting me and my friends this week.’

‘That would be because you’re terrible at cards, Monsieur Bellegarde,’ said Paquet, the ribbing familiar, good-natured. ‘But it’s always a pleasure to meet someone who’ll put you in your place.’

‘You have no sympathy for my suffering, Madame, none at all,’ sighed Bellegarde, and grinned as Matt and Rose joined the trio. ‘But in which case, it should be your pleasure to meet young Matthias Doyle here and, euh, I’m afraid I don’t know the young lady…’

Oh, Christ, he used his real name. It took Rose a moment to remind herself that, if anyone cared enough to look into Matt’s background, they were probably screwed anyway, and a false name would raise more suspicions - but in that moment everyone was looking at her expectantly, and when she opened her mouth for some clever cover story, none came out.

Matt put his hand at his back. ‘My guest for the night, Miss Riley. She won’t be staying long, so I thought I’d show her the place.’

Bellegarde kissed her hand when he took it, and she settled for just giving a polite smile. There were worse things she could do, Rose reasoned, than look pretty and smile and say nothing. ‘My pleasure, of course,’ he said, all old-fashioned airs and graces, then he straightened and swept a hand to his right. ‘And may I introduce the Chief of Security here at the Rabbit’s Foot, Madame Paquet.’

Paquet did not kiss hands, though she did shake Matt’s, and Rose found herself studying every inch of her movement, every shift of her expression, especially when she looked her in the eye. There was nothing there. No flicker. No oddity. Absolutely no recognition. Not the slightest hint that anything was wrong, that the implanted memories were crumbling or the erased ones were coming back. She was fine.

Then Paquet turned to the third of the group, the older man, tall but still like a rod of iron, cheeks gaunt and eyes sunken and yet, even in his silence, severe and imposing. It wasn’t until that moment Rose realised why he’d seemed familiar to her, and by then, Paquet was speaking. ‘And this is one of Monsieur Maisson’s special guests, Colonel Raskoph.’

Matt did falter this time - but within seconds was sticking his hand out. ‘Colonel. A - a pleasure, I’m absolutely sure,’ he stammered, and Rose reasoned it was just as well that Raskoph’s eyes were cold and charmless, that it would appear perfectly normal to be staggered by being in the same conversation as such a pitiless figure.

Or their reaction to standing in the presence of Prometheus Thane’s employer, his paymaster from the Council of Thorns, a surviving member of the Thule Society and former follower of Grindelwald, would have come across as particularly suspicious.

‘Hm.’ Raskoph gave Matt’s hand nothing more than a perfunctory shake, then his gaze settled on Rose. ‘Your name was Riley, Miss?’ His voice was like thunder dragged through gravel, the German accent light, and his eyes locking on her was like a punch to the gut that knocked all air from her lungs. She settled on another mute nod, and cold disinterest replaced the cold assessment. ‘Hm. You had looked familiar to me, I was thinking. No matter.’

Paquet flinched, though Rose thought this a reaction to discourtesy rather than some familiarity of her own rising. ‘I was taking the Colonel on a tour; he’s most interested in the arrangements we have here,’ she said. ‘So we should be on our way. A pleasure to meet you both, and good evening.’

‘Yes, yes, of course!’ Bellegarde smiled happily, then turned to Matt as the two left. ‘Are you joining me at the tables tonight, Monsieur Doyle?’

‘I - perhaps later? Tomorrow, for certain, and then if that goes well I was wondering if I might join you and your friends at the table?’ Matt still looked nervous, but it seemed he was working these nerves into his request, making his hesitation and anxiety seem normal.

‘The high-stakes game? Are you sure you’re ready for that?’

‘I don’t know, Mister Bellegarde. Are you?’

Bellegarde laughed, and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Let’s see how tomorrow goes, hm? But I should leave you to your evening, and your lovely companion. I do hope I don’t see you later,’ he said, then winked and disappeared into the crowd.

Rose drew a slow breath once they were alone, once she was sure only he would hear the shake. ‘We need to get out of here.’

Matt’s lips thinned. ‘Yeah. Yeah, okay,’ he said, and they moved as quickly as they could without drawing attention through the crowds, towards the front doors, and within minutes they were no longer in the middle of the Rabbit’s Foot’s humming gathering of people, but out in the open air, the huge front square that was the final arena before the wards which hid the entire building from Muggle sight.

Rose didn’t say anything then, didn’t speak until they were far from the doors, across the square and reaching the steps that led to the night-clad streets of normal Monte Carlo. She could feel her knees shaking with every step, and so she didn’t trust herself to speak until she knew they wouldn’t be heard. ‘Stupid… stupid!’

He hurried after her, brow knotted. ‘What? That was unlucky -’

‘That was stupid!’ She reeled around to face him, stabbing an accusing finger. ‘Raskoph! Thane’s boss! And he almost recognised me! Maybe he did! We might have blown the entire damned thing open just because… because… what?’

‘If he recognised you, we wouldn’t be walking out of there,’ said Matt, opening his hands, voice placating. ‘And we went there for a good reason.’

‘Did we? Paquet’s fine. She and I came face to face and there wasn’t the slightest flicker - and I would have seen it, I’ve been in her head. What on Earth made you think something was wrong?’

He faltered. ‘There were - the security shifts -’

‘That made you panic to the extent you wanted to put my face in front of Thane’s boss?’

He scowled. ‘Of course I didn’t expect that! What kind of idiot do you think I am -’

‘Did you really think something was wrong with Paquet?’

‘Yes!’ Matt paused. ‘Sort of!’

‘Matt…’

‘You have looked miserable for the last week!’ The words came bursting from him, like he’d been holding them in all night. ‘Because he’s not even been looking at you, let alone talking to you! Because you might be talking to Selena, but you looked like you needed a break! Don’t tell me you didn’t have a nice time.’

She faltered at that. ‘I did, but - you know, I could have very easily just had a bloody night out with Selena!’ Realisation came at her sideways, and her jaw dropped. ‘Everything you said in there - us just being friends - moving past stuff - that was -’

‘What, because we’re just friends, I can’t want to be the one to make you feel better? I can’t be the one to show you a bit of fun? I can’t show you that I can switch off sometimes?’

‘You never switch off. That’s your problem, Matty - everything feels like a competition, like it’s super-important, and that’s not just your fault, because I’m pretty bad at it too, and between us both it makes everything - everything - the end of the world, a challenge to beat, a crisis to respond to -’

Her own words from their breakup a year ago came howling back at her, and she turned away, gaze going to the shimmering streets of Monte Carlo rushing past only metres away, but with the wardings between them they might as well have been on the other side of the city.

Tonight wasn’t a crisis. A challenge. We had a nice drink and a nice talk and he didn’t treat you like you’re a leper

‘Okay,’ she said, voice wavering, and he stepped up beside her. For one terrifying moment, she thought he was going to put his arm around her, and that really would have been a step too far in an evening of boundaries too blurry for her to be comfortable. ‘We had a nice evening.’

‘Yep.’

‘And Paquet’s altered memories are still perfectly intact.’

‘Yep.’

‘And we’re friends.’ She looked at him and forced herself to not say ‘just’ friends.

‘I do hope so.’

‘Okay,’ Rose said again, and scrubbed her face with her hand. ‘I’m going back to the flat. You should go play some cards with Bellegarde, or something. I’ll let Albus know nothing’s wrong.’

And I think it might be best for Scorpius if we don’t come home together, looking like we’ve had a nice evening.

Even if I’m not convinced I owe Scorpius that much thoughtfulness right now.

‘Nothing’s wrong,’ Matt confirmed, doing up the top button of his shirt. ‘Everything’s going to go fine. This plan is going to work.’

* *


‘This isn’t going to work,’ said Eva Saida, arms folded across her chest as she looked across the small office at Thane and Downing.

‘You give yourself too little credit,’ said Thane. ‘They’re in the city. They’ll make their move. We let them make their move. And then you do your part. You’re excellent at what you do.’

‘This isn’t what I do.’

‘It’s one of the things you do. You can be most effective at persuasion when you want to be. And they will have every reason to believe you.’

‘Besides,’ grunted Downing, ‘we’ve hit a brick wall otherwise. We need more leads.’

‘Read more books!’

‘Raskoph is checking his resources,’ said Thane. ‘He may come up with something. But the five have been tremendously resourceful, and so they are a resource I would want to tap. We give them one little thing… and then we are poised to take everything. But you’re the only one who can do this.’

‘Does Raskoph agree?’

Thane and Downing exchanged looks. ‘I thought you didn’t care what Raskoph thought?’ said Downing.

‘So he doesn’t know.’ Saida tossed her hands in the air. ‘Fine. I don’t like this. But if you think it’ll work…’

‘Of course I do.’ Thane wandered over, wearing his small smile, the one she liked to think he only reserved for her - even though she knew, deep down, it wasn’t true. His hand came to her chin, thumb again running along the scar puckering the corner of her jaw. ‘I know you. I know you don’t understand failure. And there is nobody else I would trust with this task.’ Then he pulled his hand back and turned away. ‘But this needs to be believable.’

Saida’s voice was flat as she watched Downing draw his wand. ‘So you get to beat the shit out of me. Great.’

Downing gave a wry smile. ‘I’d say I’m not going to enjoy this. But that would be a lie.’

Thane whirled to face him. ‘You will do what is needed to make this convincing and if you step so much as an inch over the line, Elijah, I will flay you. Is that understood?’

Downing faltered. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good.’ Thane gave Saida one last look. ‘I’ll see you soon, my dear. Remember. I believe in you. I trust you.’ He gave Downing one last, warning look, before he left the room.

The two looked at each other, expressions equally flat. ‘Well,’ said Saida. ‘You weren’t going to get the chance to beat me up if I didn’t let you.’

‘Shut up. Sit down, and I’ll make this go as easy as possible. And I’ll try to not enjoy it. Just for him. Can’t guarantee I’ll succeed.’

Saida scowled, but sat on the chair and tried to not brace herself as she closed her eyes. Being tense would just make it hurt more.

And then Downing’s first blow landed, and she wasn’t Eva Saida any more.


———————

A/N: Not much to say on this one. Some people might recognise Matt’s “words of wisdom” about love; indeed, Jen Riley said them back in Beyond This Place, and thus the boy is, like he said, echoing his mother.

Otherwise I want you all to know I should be working on my second book, and instead I’m remaining sucked in writing Starfall. Finished Chapter 30 today (and it’s a good one). Starfall is definitely going to be my longest fanfic yet; we’ve broken 180k words. I wouldn’t be surprised if this bad boy’s 50 chapters.

Next - the heist begins!


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