Disclaimer: You're welcome, internet.
A/N: Surprise, I'm still alive! Here's a good lil chappie to keep you going, folks. I'm back at uni now so updates may be a little more sporadic than usually. A big thanks to all my constant and new reviewers. There have been a few of late with real substance to them that actually inspired me to finish this chapter. One in particular from Kneazle. Cheers, buddy.
Harry Potter and the Wastelands of Time
Chapter 17 – Just Saving the World
Part Eight – The Joker
You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money, when you're sittin' at the table.
There'll be time enough for countin', when the dealin's done…
There are moments in this life that are set to break you.
Moments that will break you.
And you will face these moments, when you have to, knowing full well that only the broken are guilty enough to understand the true responsibility that comes with any power.
All power consumes.
All power consumes, I thought, swimming through a dark and narrow tunnel that could be leading down all the way to Hell itself. Always a sobering thought, given the nature of my quest and the ultimate outcome… what was at risk, and what I had lost more than once.
Light from my wand shone and flowed across the jagged walls. They were man-made, littered with dead runes of the Old World, and crusted with millennia of silt and dark growth. Every few feet I chanced a look over my shoulder to make sure there were two further spots of light following me through the darkness.
Fleur and Tonks.
We had been swimming now along this tunnel for the best part of fifteen minutes, moving slowly but surely towards what I had promised was a cave of wonder and ancient splendour. The water was faintly green, and the pain in my side from that damn stab wound was flaring up under the strain of the swim.
As the tunnel narrowed further it also began to head upwards. There was a noticeable incline in the dark corridor even as the walls closed in on all sides and the slick, slimy river weed ran creepily across my back. Just when it seemed the passageway would narrow into a dead end, I broke through the darkness and surface of the water, arriving in a flickering world of dark, damp rock.
I hauled myself out of the slim pool, dripping wet in my suit pants and collared shirt, and stepped onto relatively dry land. The roof was low and the path ahead dark, but there was a path – just as I remembered, steadily rising off into the distance.
Fleur and then Tonks breached the surface behind me and I turned to help them out of the water, offering an arm each. Once we were all out of the muck and mire I cancelled my Bubble-Head charm and took a deep breath of the cool, stale air.
"Zat was very… uncomfortable," Fleur said, banishing strings of algae that were clinging to her blouse. "'Arry, so far I am not impressed."
"Nor I," Tonks said, drying her clothes with a touch of magic.
I kept my wand alight as the girls cleaned themselves off, keeping one eye on the tunnel ahead for any unsuspected demonic surprises, and one eye on the way Fleur's and Tonks' wet clothes were hugging their frames. One could get lost in those curves, given enough time – yet time was in short supply 'round these parts.
"We're standing in a corridor built some ten thousand years ago by a man who may have been the strongest wizard ever, what's not to be impressed with?"
"Ze damp," Fleur said.
"The dark," Tonks added.
"Ze foul smell."
I noted their concerns with half a grin. "Company's good though, right?" I chuckled. "Let's see where this leads…"
We set off single file up the rocky path, taking it slow so as not to stumble. Fleur muttered a few charms from behind and I felt my clothes and hair drying out. This was the third such secret deep place I had been in this week, yet I couldn't help the knot of anticipation tightening in my stomach. There was magic ahead, and lost treasure, and here I was alive to seek it.
There was also danger, and perhaps a touch of destiny. I hate destiny with a passion rivalled only by accepting this fate of mine. Calling all of this destiny, my fight and this damn war I kept desperately trying to win, was weak. Destiny sounded fantastic, allowed for the impossible, but it also allowed for the acceptance of failure and an immovable fate.
And that was not acceptable.
Because this time things had to change. Destiny, my defeat, had to be thwarted, and I had to make it happen now.
"Janus was a figure in Greek and Roman mythology," I said into the darkness, my voice echoing back to me along the long tunnel. We were still rising, heading up through the tunnel and into the heart of the mountains bordering the lake and volcanic crater of Sebanti. "The myth says that he was a god, an ancient deity and the keeper of gates and doorways. He ruled all beginnings and all endings."
"Oui," Fleur said, her voice low to minimise the echo. "I've heard zis before. Ze month of January is named for Janus."
Tonks put two and two together. "Are you saying that mythical Janus and the Janus you say built this underground passage are one and the same?"
I nodded. "All myth is grounded in reality, Tonks. All myth. As far as I can figure it out, Janus was the only wizard to survive the cataclysm that befell Atlantis roughly ten millennia ago. I don't know what happened," that was true, I didn't, "but he spent the rest of his life devising a way to keep the power that had destroyed the most advanced nation the world has ever seen from being used again." I took a breath. "He hid Atlantis, what remained of it…"
"How do you hide a city?" Tonks asked.
"It takes Time," I said. "A lot of time and very little Time…"
"What does zat mean?"
"You'll see…" I couldn't explain it without giving too much away about my own dabbles in Time magic. "It was never meant to be found again, the Lost City," I continued. The corridor was widening, the ground becoming smoother and more of a floor. "But Janus knew that magic had no limits, not really, and he assumed someone would – purposely or inadvertently – find a way back."
"Lord Voldemort," Fleur muttered, as Tonks said, "You mean…"
"Oh yeah," I said with a sigh. "You got it. So, knowing it was inevitable, Janus devised his own way back to Atlantis, and left a map in the form of a bound manuscript for anyone that would dare follow it."
"Is that what you're doing?" Tonks asked. "Following an old treasure map?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm following an old treasure map."
"What? Crazy?" I asked abruptly, but my frustration turned quickly to idle sadness. "Of course it is, Tonks, everything about this is crazy, but crazy doesn't mean it's not true."
A silence fell between us. There were runes again on the walls here, and as before they were lifeless, nothing but silvery scars carved long, long ago.
"How did Voldemort find a way then?" Tonks asked.
"By tearing his soul into enough scattered pieces that he was half in and half out of this world anyway," I said bitterly, not really caring if it made little sense to Tonks and Fleur. I always lost my cool when thinking of this, of what had been done to achieve such terrible ends. "Horcruxes, vessels of the damned, killing yourself a little so you can live forever. Voldemort breached the shadows of the Old World and pretty much built himself a bridge between this time, and Atlantis Time."
"Atlantis… time?" Fleur asked.
"You'll see…" I repeated, and if my voice sounded ominous and dark then so be it. "In about a week, you'll see everything." Except my truth.
"So you're saying that's where Voldemort is now?" Tonks pressed the explanation, she always did. I admired her tenacity as much as her curves. "In another world? Another time, even, if I understand what you mean?"
"Yes and no," I said, actually pretty impressed. Her guess was fairly close to the truth as close as I could explain it. "I don't know how to put it… but he's not in another time, he's in Atlantis Time – and that's folded back on itself thanks to Janus."
"I am confused," Fleur said.
"Me, too," I laughed. "I've managed to piece this together from glimpses into Voldemort's head and pictures in a ten-thousand year old manuscript." That was how I originally did it, back in the day, but by then it had been too late – Atlantis had risen from the depths of the Old World, and along came the fire and dust to settle the destiny of the New.
"Is You Know Who there alone, Harry?" Tonks asked after a long moment.
I paused and turned to look at her, both her and Fleur in the pale wandlight casting our shadows across the rune-capped walls. "Are you saying you believe me?" I asked with a grin. "Do I have you convinced, Tonks?"
Tonks shrugged. "You have me doubting myself, Harry Potter."
I nodded. "Wait till you see what's up ahead then. If I'm right," and I was, I'd done this before, "then we're about to see something quite spectacular."
I turned and continued on along the passageway, moving quickly now as it was fast approaching lunchtime. "Oh," I called over my shoulder, "there are Death Eaters at Atlantis, too. The inner circle, for the most part. Voldemort took them with him when he crossed over."
Fleur tsked and sighed at that.
"Great," Tonks said. "Didn't want to get all the way to Atlantis and have nothing to do. Just great."
We were laughing at the darkness, all in our own way. It always, always came down to either laughing or screaming. Sometimes both at the same time. And those words are straight from the mind of someone who has done this all before, and is only just starting to get it right.
Remind me, if you will, exactly what we're fighting for…
The corridor was now fully worked stone, carved out of solid rock in the heart of the mountain. On either side there was a small gutter flowing with fresh clear water, water flowing upwards toward whatever lay ahead.
It was Tonks and her sharp Auror eyes that noticed it first.
"That water's flowing the wrong way," she remarked.
"So it is," I agreed. "We're nearly there."
Water served as a conduit in places like this, places close to the space between our world and Atlantis. Water also served as protection against letting creatures of the Old World out of places like this. There was a ring of solid enchanted water circling this entire mountain; a sliver of protection should the Bone-Men break through Janus' Gates of Atlantis.
"Zere's something else, also…" Fleur tilted her head. "I can feel wards, I theenk."
"Right as well, Fleur. Anti-Apparation wards for the most part. Janus didn't want your average witch or wizard just coming or going here."
All of a sudden the corridor came to an abrupt end in front of a conical shaped wall. There was no way forward, not even for the water, which disappeared down dark drains spiralling away from the two gutters. There was a small groove cut into the wall, an empty basin carved out of the rock itself.
"A dead end," Fleur said, mildly disappointed. "Surely not, 'Arry."
"Not to worry," I said, and reached into my pocket. From within I removed a melted clear bottle etched with runes and filled with a softly glowing light.
Starlight. One of the two beer bottles I'd filled with the magical ingredient a night ago in New York City. I'd picked it up before leaving the villa just over an hour ago now…
"What's that for?" Tonks asked.
"Lighting the way, Tonks. This is for lighting the way."
It was a delicate procedure opening the bottle. It had been fused shut and reinforced with several runes and spells in order to ensure it wouldn't crack and rupture, blasting apart everything in a hundred-metre radius. I broke a few of the runes, vanished the containment spells, and placed the very fragile bottle in the basin set against the wall barring our path.
"Okay… get ready to run if I screw this up," I said. "Not that it'll matter…" That was funny enough to warrant a small chuckle. "Sil-othrinum!" Carefully, ever so carefully, I melted a hole in the roof of the glass bottle, minding the heat, and then turned the bottle on its side to pour the contents out into the basin.
The starlight flowed from the vessel, eating the unprotected outside of the glass and destroying the very thing that had kept it contained. It flowed into the basin, and I counted one, two, three…
"Four, five, six, sev—"
The passageway blazed with light. All at the same time, every rune on the walls, those dead silver gouges that had faded almost to nothing, came alive and began to flow and move across the stone surfaces. Electric-blue and fierce bruised-purple, emerald-green and crimson-red, the runes moved swiftly and surely, absorbing the energy offered by the starlight.
"Ta-da," I said, loving Tonks' amazed expression and Fleur's gentle laugh of enjoyment. "Impressed yet?"
"Oui," Fleur said. "But you better not 'ave brought us down here for just a light show."
"Of course not," I said, feigning mock-outrage. "You can extinguish your wands now. There's enough power in that little bottle of starlight to keep these runes glowing for a decade."
"What are they doing?" Tonks asked.
"Moving this wall," I said, nodding towards the starlight basin. "Be prepared for spectacular, ladies. Right… about… now!" I raised my arm in anticipation of the main event, but the wall barring the path remained firmly in place. "Damn. Timing's off… keep waiting for it…"
"This is starting to feel pretty anticlimactic, Har—"
A tremendous gust of wind roared through the solid wall before us and sent us back a few irresistible steps. The wind drowned out Tonks' voice, drowned out all noise save the pure raw howling… the dead-end began to fade away, as runes of all colours, shapes, and sizes poured into the stonework.
Yes! Here was Old World magic at its finest, still fresh and alive after ten-thousand years lying dormant.
The wall faded, the runes flooded into the darkness that lay beyond, and no longer were we trapped in a narrow corridor of cold dead rock and crafted stone. The whole world shook as the runes spread into the cavernous, cathedral-like hall beyond the tunnel. We stood at the foot of a space so large that the entire mountain must have been hollow… but that was just perception.
The howling wind faded to a dull roar that echoed back and forth across the vaulted arched ceiling high over head. The walls and the roof of this central chamber within the mountain were overrun with runes fading and brightening, fading and brightening… running across tiled mosaics depicting lost ancient towers, depicting a silver city in the prime of its life, and mighty ships navigating both the seas and the skies above…
Hundreds of feet of rock and stone had been smoothed and tiled to replicate a glimpse of a once-proud city, now lost to the ravages and wastelands of time. All across the massive mosaic flowed runes of sheer power, showing more and more of the city as the light spread… There was a garden of roses, white roses, amongst the walls of a castle that shone as bright as steel above the rest of the city.
It hit me every time. Good god… This was a city I had to breach, that I had to wrestle from Voldemort's control. I felt the need to fall to my knees, to beg for forgiveness and redemption, but I remained standing, ever defiant and ever stupid.
There was a lot more to see.
From where we stood the path meandered across a wide chasm on either side. Darkness remained within this abyss, yet it was eclipsed by the raw majesty of the cavern. The path led to a wide plateau in the centre of the space. The plateau was covered in what looked like old chests and what I knew to be several tonnes of gold coin and bullion.
But beyond that, rising dead centre and stretching towards the arched ceiling high above, were two spears of jet-black stone. No runes flowed across the surface of these twin spires. They rose high, at least two hundred feet into empty space, and then curved across each other to create a massive, monumental archway.
But not an archway… I thought. A doorway. Beyond yonder way lay the terrible Gates of Atlantis, just waiting for the right push.
"What is this place, Harry?" Tonks managed, as the roaring wind settled into distant echoes…
"This…" I said, savouring the moment. "This, ladies, is the only real proof that the secret world exists."
"Zis… zis iz amazing, 'Arry!" Fleur exclaimed. "I believed you, you know zat, but zis is proof, non?" She laughed, clear and pure. Caught in her excitement, her accent was coming through thick and strong. "Atlantis 'as to be real! Just look…"
We did look, all three of us, marvelling at the city on the walls, and at the plateau in the near-distance that would take us there all too soon. I wasn't wrong to feel a moment of panic and perhaps even fear. It was well deserved, now that I had confirmed even to myself that the fiery memories tearing through my mind were true.
Fleur laughed again, delighted. She then spun to face me, put her hands gently on my shoulders, and placed her soft red lips against mine.
Fleur kissed me.
I tasted strawberries, I was sure of it, before she pulled back half an inch and whispered, "Thank you, 'Arry,", her breath warm on my face. "Thank you… for everything."
I blinked, smiled, tried for words but found none, and then leaned in to kiss her again, driven purely by shock and desire. Fleur didn't shy away. I caught her lips once more and made it count this time.
A moment passed… another…
"Ahem…" Tonks cleared her throat. "When you two are quite done."
We broke away and I couldn't help but grin. "Done? Oh I'm just getting started," I whispered, low enough so only Fleur could hear me.
She tilted her head, trying to hide a smile and a petite giggle, before we separated, turning to look back out at the marvellous cavern, hand in hand.
I let out a shuddering breath as carelessly as I could. Whoa… well, I did not see that happening. I could still feel her beautiful lips on mine, the heat and the pressure. I was flustered, breathing heavily, and blind to all thought save the memory of the moment.
That had been a long, long week in coming.
And everything had changed yet again…
If all power consumes, then this should be an easy game to play. I'm as guilty as the rest, more than most – guilty as sin.
But it's not easy. It's hard and getting harder. So…
Is that a glimmer of redemption I see surfing the twilit horizon?
The pathway across the gaping chasms on either side was wide enough for comfort, and we walked three abreast towards the Gates of Atlantis. Running water could be heard in the impossible darkness far below, and even up above, as if the seas painted across the monumental cavern were rising and falling on the whim of some imaginary tide.
"Don't touch a thing when we reach that plateau," I said. "Really, don't touch anything. A lot of it's cursed to maim and kill."
"Merlin, why?" Tonks asked.
"Some final test crap or something." I shrugged. "About resisting temptation and greed. We must be, heh, pure of heart."
"There's a lot of gold, Harry."
"Aye." I kicked a pebble and sent it skipping over the side of the abyss. We wouldn't hear it hit the bottom. "And it's about to fall for a really long time."
Fleur squeezed my hand. "Really? Over ze side?"
"Every last shiny piece, I'm afraid. Don't worry, there'll be plenty more treasure before we're done."
We were approaching the end of something now. In a week, give or take a few days, we would breach these massive gates and behold something long forgotten and reduced to the fabled halls of fairytale, alongside the Deathly Hallows and the Chamber of Secrets.
It would change the world.
Yet the majority of my mind was thinking on those two brief kisses with Fleur. Stolen kisses, caught up in the moment, yet there had been a spark – of course there had been a spark. She still held my hand now, our fingers entwined… I wanted more of this.
Did I deserve more, considering what was at stake and the lies I had told to get this far?
Maybe yes… and maybe no.
"Maybe yes, maybe no," I said, before my mind could catch up with me.
"Pardon?" Fleur whispered, keeping her voice low to minimise the resounding echo across the cavern.
"Frowning out loud again," I said. "Wands at the ready, ladies."
We reached the sparkling plateau with the monumental obsidian gates and found ourselves surrounding by glittering piles of ancient gold and raw precious gemstones. Stacks of the stuff six feet high, valuable metal the lot, shimmering in the light of the speeding runes sweeping across the vast walls.
A fortune vast enough to last a lifetime – and then some. The goblins would have seized my fortune by now, made it disappear. I needed a new fortune. This wasn't it.
"Blast it over the sides," I said. "Every damned piece. Reducto!" I got the ball rolling with a blast of spell power and a nearby stack of gold was scattered across the plateau and over the endless abyss beyond.
Fleur and Tonks hesitated only a moment until they were sure I was serious and then began to cast their own spells. It soon began to rain gold galleons and glittering diamonds over the side of the chasm.
As the last pieces fell away there was a rumble and the sound of flat river stones grating against one another, tumbling along the bed of white water rapids. Away to our right, alongside the plateau, a secret pathway became visible…
"What iz zat?" Fleur asked.
I held up my hand, gesturing for her to wait and see… Heavy stones fell into place, floating on nothing but air. A set of massive steps curved up and away from the obsidian gates, several metres wide and clear. Whether they had been invisible before now or were appearing from the nothingness below, I couldn't tell, but there purpose soon became clear.
The massive slabs of stone created a bridge between where we stood, where we had come from below the earth, and into the shining mosaic still glittering on the cavern walls. There was a tremendous crack, like broken steel against castle stone, and an archway formed in the side of the mountain – at the base of the secret pathway.
The Old World stonework cut through the mountain within the newly formed arch, and as we watched blue sky, white clouds, and a breath of warm summer air entered the cavern for the first time in several thousand years.
"That's why we had to banish the gold," I said, glaring up into the bright sunlight of the day. "It was a trigger. That's our way out, and our way back in, through the wards and without having to go for a swim again."
"What would've happened if we'd touched it?" Tonks asked.
I shrugged. "Worst case, this platform beneath our feet would've disappeared and dropped us into a very long freefall. Best case, we'd have died instantly."
"Yeah…" I ran a hand back through my hair. "Come on then, its lunchtime. This'll bring us out halfway up the mountain above the villa and the lake. We can Apparate once we're outside."
"But 'ow does zis work, 'Arry?" Fleur asked, gesturing towards the looming Gates of Atlantis.
I glanced at the massive charcoal doorway. Even in the direct sunlight from above they still appeared dark and menacing. The light seemed to go out of its way around the gates. "Works on pizza, beer… and the best of our good intentions," I said, then relented. "Starlight – needs a lot of starlight – and we need Jason Arnair, his clever mind, to decipher the order of things in the Voynich Manuscript."
"And what will happen if it does work?" Tonks asked, falling in to step on my other side.
I looked at her sideways, appraising her from behind my glasses. "That depends… are you going to go run to Dumbledore with this?" I asked. "Or even the Ministry?"
Tonks took a moment to reply, a brief hesitation. Was she going to lie to me? Or was she merely gripped by conflicting loyalties and indecision? I hoped it was the latter. More often than not, it had been the latter… Before.
"I… I'll think about it over lunch," she said.
I shrugged. Best I could hope for, really. I felt more than saw Fleur glare at Tonks overtly on my right. I wanted Tonks with me, needed her with me. Her quick wand and special abilities made for a useful ally. But it was more than that, more than I could remember through the burning headache…
"Everything I do I do to stop Voldemort," I said, speaking as much to myself as to Tonks. "Call me the Chosen One, if you like, there's certainly enough prophecy to say as much there, but prophecy or not, I'm out to stop him, Tonks." I met her eyes as we ascended into daylight and the cool mountain air. "I don't need people trying to stop me from doing that out of misguided worry for my safety. I can't fight a war from behind locked doors and old ward schemes. Just think about it, about what's more important in the long run…"
They can't hurt me – the pain, the torture, the mind-rape – none of it works because I'm wired to take it, time and time… and time… again. I'm built for the pain.
They can't hurt me, so they hurt those I care about.
Trusting to fate, to her good will, to what I felt was the right thing, Fleur and I left Tonks alone in the villa that afternoon and travelled downriver via Apparation into Rome.
I'd promised Fleur that she could owl her family, let them know she was alive and that, more importantly, I had not kidnapped her. The letter would be brief, to the point, and explain that I couldn't have assassinated Thomas Laurent, as I had been cooking salmon in her family kitchen at the time.
No doubt, it would work its way into the hands of the authorities and Dumbledore, and no doubt it would be traced back to Rome, back to the Via Magicka, but I had at least a day before that happened.
Still, the search for me would centre on Italy after this. Tonks had said that Dumbledore knew she was in Italy, that a few other members of the Order were in Italy, too. It had been in Rome, in the Magnus Fontis beneath the city's ancient streets, that I had given the old man the slip. I still regretted that, lying to Dumbledore, but we're all of us bastards in the long run…
"We need to be quick," I told Fleur. We ambled along the streets of Muggle Rome, heading towards the Via Magicka. "And I don't think I'll be coming with you to the Owlery – there's a helluva chance I'll be recognised, even under glamour."
"You are still a wanted fugitive, non?" Fleur smiled, her hand on my shoulder, but there was true worry behind that smile. "What if I am recognised?"
I shrugged. "Apparate away. I doubt we'll run into enemies today, but don't hesitate if something feels off, okay."
I handed her a small purse of wizarding coin. After buying all the trunks and supplies in New York for Atlantis, only about one hundred and twenty galleons remained of the two-thousand I had tricked out of Miguel Blue. There was a letter in my pocket for him, as well, that Fleur would send on… pretty lies to stop him making my life difficult for a few more days. I passed her the parchment scroll, too.
"Here you go. Twenty minutes, okay. Any longer and I come in wand-blazing, no doubt to your rescue."
"My hero," Fleur said, rolling her eyes.
The Via Magicka was about a block over, near the river and where I had first met Saturnia as a decrepit old woman, listening to Hey Jude on the radio. I kept an ear out for that tune, now. There was a Muggle café on the corner of this street. Maybe they were licensed and I could get a beer. I had plenty of Muggle currency in my briefcase.
"Okay, I'll wait here, sweetheart. Best of luck." I smiled. "Oh, and if you go past anywhere selling cigars, get me a couple, would you?"
Fleur leaned over, smelling of fresh soap – of strawberries and rainfall – and kissed me on the cheek, close enough to brush the corner of my mouth. "You be safe, 'Arry Potter. No bleeding while I let you out of my sight, okay?"
I watched her disappear around the corner, her cloak caught in the breeze and her legs ending in white boots, footfalls as soft as feathers alighting on the cobblestones… there wasn't much I wouldn't do for Fleur Delacour.
I took a seat at one of the free tables outside the quiet little café overlooking the harbour below and had a browse of the laminated menu, scanning the Italian for a beer list and coming up empty. Shame that. Still, there were a few things that caught my eye, and one of them was staring at me from across the road.
He must think I'm blind, I thought, watching the figure out of the corner of my eye. My hand twitched towards my wand. Or he doesn't care that I can see him.
A cute waitress came over in flat heels, a short skirt and a low cut white blouse. Her hair was red, her eyes were dazzling. A guy could fall in love with the way she tucked a loose strand of auburn hair back behind her ear.
I ordered a bowl of ice cream, for the sugar, and a jug of fresh juice. Then I thought about it, shrugged, and ordered the same again. All the while my unwelcome watcher stood with his hands in his pockets across the road. The scant crowds coming and going towards the harbour moved around him as if he wasn't there.
I suppose, in a way, he wasn't there. Not in any sense of humanity, at least.
I gripped my wand all the tighter, feeling his eyes boring into me like some ravenous termite. At least, I reasoned, if he's here, then Fleur's not in danger.
I gave the situation a moment's thought as I was waiting for my ice cream. If he was going to attack, if he was in one of his moods, he would've already done so… I turned and looked him right in the eye. He smiled back as if he'd been waiting for that, and waved.
I waved back, waved over for him to join me under the late afternoon sun, at this small friendly café with a terrace of cloth and a half dozen or so other customers, lounging in the comfy armchairs before a tiny window garden of white roses. It was a surreal scene, as surreal as diving down to the bottom of a lake and emerging in a cavern of lost wonder.
"'lo, Chronos," I said, shielding my eyes against the glare of the sun. His shadow fell across me and I lowered my arm. "What a crazy coincidence, seeing you here."
Chronos grinned. "Is that because I should be dead, Harry James Potter? Burned to nothing at our last encounter, yes, yes?"
"Partly. Speaking of which, you're looking well."
"I feel young again, as they say. May I sit?"
"Please," I said, willing to maintain this charade of niceties. Although Chronos did look good – young and handsome. No older than I, even. His jaw was set, coated in rough stubble, and his eyes were bright beneath his dark hair. "How can I help you today? There are no graveyards to raze to the ground nearby – no pun intended – but if you're looking for a fight we could go off and find one."
Chronos shrugged and chuckled. "Actually, we're in Old Rome, Harry James Potter. There are dead cemented in the very walls of some of the buildings around here…"
"Oh," I looked around at the old, dusty cobblestones. "Yeah, I suppose so."
"I am not here to fight you, though, not today."
"You'd get your ass handed to you again anyways…"
"Perhaps." His eyes sparkled in that damned way Dumbledore's did, but they held no malice… or kindness. They made him seem more than what he was, below the human skin he wore.
"What are you, Chronos?"
"Neither enemy nor friend, man or demon. I'm something new this time."
"That much I know," I said, tapping my forehead.
"Ah, of course, your other lives – other deaths and other crimes. How lonely it must be in there, yes, yes?"
The cute waitress came over with a tray and placed my order on the table with a smile for me, and a better smile for Chronos, who was definitely appealing to the female eye. He looked without age, I suppose, sitting across from me in a suit that was of no particular make or style, resting his chin on his hand. The waitress seemed put out that he didn't even glance at her, but kept his unblinking eyes solely on me. She turned on her heel and walked away.
"I got you ice cream," I said, shoving one of the bowls towards him. There was a fair serving in the bowl, along with little cups of chocolate pieces and sprinkles on the side. A thin wafer and strawberries coated the vanilla scoops.
Chronos blinked and looked down at the table, pulling his eyes from me. "What?"
"It's delicious, you eat it." I shrugged and picked up my spoon. "I was being courteous and unnerving all at the same time."
"I'm afraid I don't understand." He picked up his own spoon and dug into the frozen cream. After a moment's hesitation, he slipped it into his mouth. "Delicious," he said, savouring the taste. "I've no need to eat, Harry James Potter, but perhaps I should more often, yes, yes?"
I nodded indifference and sat back in my chair, spinning my wand around on my knee. I didn't think Chronos was going to attack, but you didn't get to be my age without a touch of caution.
"It reminds me of something," Chronos said, taking another spoonful. "Yes, of something…" He paused for a moment and then looked back to me. "You did something today, didn't you?"
"What do you mean?" I hoped Fleur didn't come back early. The less contact she had with this man who had sworn her death and knew my secrets the better.
"Don't play dumb. I felt it in my bones, as the saying goes. This part of the world blazed like the sun a few hours ago. I almost feared you'd breached Atlantis early and I'd missed it."
I scoffed. "Believe me, when I make my way to Atlantis, they'll feel it on the other side of the planet." I wondered how much to say, if anything at all. "You already know what I did."
"I think I know," Chronos said, raising his hand. "There's always a world of difference between thinking and knowing, isn't there? Like, I think you broke through Janus' defences around the Gates of Atlantis, but I know you are dying, Harry James Potter, from your exposure to Time every time you're sent back."
Dying… I thought. I'd suspected as much, and the way Chronos confirmed my fears, with a simple detachment, made me believe him. "If I keep going back to Before…"
"Even the device you call a Time-Turner leaves you unconscious after its use, does it not?" He laughed. "There's a lot I know, isn't there?"
"What does that mean?" I asked. He had something to tell me, I was sure.
"Time is a loaded gun, Harry James Potter, and we're all of us shooting wildly into the dark."
"What does that mean?"
He stopped eating his ice cream and spent a long minute in silence. Then, "They're coming for you."
"Everyone." Chronos shrugged. "You've a lot of enemies in this world. I'm telling you they are coming, before the week is out they'll find you up at that lakeside villa you've fortified. The goblins, the wizarding authorities, bounty hunters… Everyone you've pissed off in this last week and then some."
"And how will they find me there?" I asked and then frowned, my hand clenching around my wand. I answered my own question. "Because you're going to tell them."
Chronos nodded. "Forgive me, but yes."
"Same old why, Harry James Potter, because part of me wants to see you fail, part of me wants to see you die, part of me wants to breach Atlantis with you, the land of dreams and fairytales, no? Ha-ha! But most of all, because I want to see the shit hit the fan. I'm an agent of chaos, after all… of the Red and the Damned."
"Are you?" I asked, wondering what the hell that was. "What are you?"
"What are you, Time Warrior?" Chronos shook his head. "You ask who I am, I ask who you are – we go around in circles, Harry James Potter, like the hands of some infernal clock, no?" He laughed, sprinkling chocolate bits over his ice cream. "Very well, if I must… pay close attention now! Try to imagine, if you can, just for a moment, the vastness of infinity. Can you picture it?"
"All too well," I said, a touch unnerved. The roaring, fiery memories of Before spoke of infinity better than I liked.
"Imagine the universe as a clock, Harry James Potter. As clockwork. Imagine the greatest mechanism ever set into motion, with time always ticking forwards, going simultaneously ahead, towards entropy and the inevitable darkness at the end of light and warmth… aeons away." Chronos savoured another mouthful of ice cream. "Absolutely delightful, yes, yes. Can you see it? Good. Now imagine that this world – and others like it – full of life and, more importantly, magic, as a cog in our universal time piece. Can you see that, too?"
I began to fear where this was going. It must have shown on my face, because Chronos sighed at my expression and looked regretful.
"Yes, yes, you see… you see all too well. You've had lifetimes not to think, but to know. Now imagine, Harry James Potter," and here his voice hardened into something terrible and ancient, something with the weight of time behind it, "imagine that some mortal fool challenges Time and Fate itself and sends that cog back against the flow of all things, against the law of entropy. Can you imagine that? This is what you have done. If the universe is naught but a giant clock, and this world a gear in that clock, then what happens to the flow of all things when a gear starts grinding and skipping a beat every time you die?"
I took a deep breath. "It has to be that way—"
"Why? So you can win one world from the clutches of destruction? Have you not listened? Entropy must prevail, all must turn to dust in its proper time. It is the way of the universe – and you have disturbed that balance, the Hands of Eternity have fallen silent. The Infernal Clock must be repaired!"
"And that's why you want Atlantis, is it?" My temper flared. "Be damned to you, Chronos, you and Saturnia both. Atlantis is mine. Time… is mine." I let out a low, shuddering breath. "I sold my soul to that fucking Clock so I could stop a madman from using a terrible power to destroy this world, my world." My rules, my life, my Fleur, my Tonks, my everything. "You can't come along this late in the game and expect to play on my field, you son of a bitch."
"Spoken like the blind fool you have proven to be, Harry James Potter." Chronos jabbed his spoon into the remainder of his ice cream and glared at the frozen treat. "Today I do not want to kill you, tomorrow I may… but to kill you only sets the gears grinding once more, only worsens the damage." He came to some sort of internal decision. "Kill you, I will, though, again and again until you see reason and concede Atlantis to me. Until you mend the… the Infernal Clock."
I watched a single tear roll down Chronos' cheek and curve into the corner of his mouth. "What are you, really?" I asked.
He chuckled without mirth, without looking up from his melting confection. "Me? I'm the king of ice cream!" He snarled and disappeared in the blink of an eye.
I watched him fade. His entire youthful form, shrouded in his dark and menacing clothes, folded into a point as if he Apparated away. In the time it took to blink – less than that – the seat opposite me was empty.
Chronos was gone.
Gone to tell the world where to find me.
Damn it all.
The system we call society is nothing but a collection of boundaries.
And those boundaries are always, always artificial. Take away the bread and circuses and watch the anarchy fly!
Fleur sent her owl off home without a hitch and we spent the last few hours of sunlight in Muggle Rome purchasing a few boxes of foodstuffs and general household items that would make our stay in the villa a touch more comfortable. I didn't tell her about my run-in with Chronos, but plans would need to be made tonight to fight off any armies that would be heading my way over the next few days.
I expected armies, at the very least.
I had to work on the worse case scenario: that Chronos had already told the goblins and others where to find me. At best, that gave me a day. If he held off for a few days, I may stretch out the week, but the risk of discovery was too great either way. I needed Jason Arnair to get to work on deciphering the ever-changing Voynich Manuscript, but if I pushed him too soon I'd lose him entirely. And then nothing less than murder and making my own horcrux would get me to Atlantis.
I was well and truly backed into a corner. Saturnia remained unaccounted for, as well. Waiting in the wings, no doubt, for a moment of weakness on my part. Crazy bitch liked the taste of my blood, after all.
The sun was setting across the peaks of the Sebanti Mountains when Fleur and I returned to the lake north-east of Rome, laden with boxes of supplies. We Apparated just outside of the ward platform surrounding the villa, a ward platform that now felt wholly inadequate in light of the storm I could feel on the horizon.
Chronos had been many things since I'd met him, but so far had not proven himself a liar. I believed he would betray me to my foes, and I believed he'd do it just for shits and giggles.
Tonks wasn't going to be impressed with my list of newly created enemies. She'd want to go to Dumbledore straight away, bring the Order in, but that would get good people killed… Fleur had said there were wanted posters in the Via Magicka with my face on them. The French wanted blood for blood, it seemed. Perhaps I should keep my plans to myself for a day or two, until it was too late to go to Dumbledore.
What would one of the other Harry's burning through my mind do in this situation? My memories were strangely silent on that. I was on my own, as I'd always been before and after the end of the world.
God, but I was tired of this. Beyond tired. It was me against the world – Harry fucking Potter vs. Everyone. I wanted nothing more than those few scant moments with Fleur in the dark, her lips pressed against mine. Was that so much to ask?
Yes and no. Maybe yes. Mostly yes.
There was no way to speed up my crossing into Atlantis, not and remain human, and leave all these pitiful problems and enemies behind. Did I need allies? Should I put them all in danger? Did I dare go to Dumbledore and trust that he'd trust me, after the stunt I'd pulled in the Magnus Fontis?
Night was spreading fast across the sky from the east, and I'd need to set out a few more bottles tonight for some starlight. It was going to take a tonne of the stuff to wrench the rusty old gates open in… five days from now. Yes, five days was manageable, depending on Jason Arnair. I'd have to hurry him along without scaring him off.
I could hold out for five days.
I'd have to.
Even if it meant killing. It was long past time for some killing anyway. And I suppose that was my choice made for me right there. I had plenty of time to kill, so to speak.
Tomorrow I'd fortify this villa and valley, as well as the archway up on the mountainside above me leading to the Gates of Atlantis. Tomorrow I'd turn this place into a war zone waiting to happen.
Let the idiots come and challenge me.
I'd tear them apart like I'd done for the whole wide world time and time…
And Time again.
A/N: 'A kiss is just a kiss…' Oh yeah, Harry got a taste of some action. Did he deserve it? We'll find out in chapters to come. Let me know if you see a problem with this development, folks. I know Fleur and Harry have only been travelling together for a week, but a lot has happened in that week (sixteen chapters worth!) and, on Fleur's end at least, they've been through a lot together. The kiss was pure affection for Harry, and I think at this stage it is justified. It suggests the possibility of more, but it doesn't come at an epic make-or-break moment. It was just a kiss.
As you can most likely see things are going to come to a head in the next chapter or two, in the form of a bloody brawl that will decide who will be going to Atlantis, perhaps reveal Chronos' real motives, and give us our first real glimpse of Voldemort.
How about that Voldemort, eh? Or Chronos? Learnt a little about both in this chappie, too. Gosh, but was it as important as Harry getting some French tongue, so to speak? Heh. I'll get my coat….