Word count: 6350

It was mid-December now and Hogwarts was covered in thickening patches of snow which made the inside bitterly cold as students shuffled along the draughty corridors from class to class. Leaving the roaring warmth of their common rooms behind, they all hunched into themselves and their robes to somehow stay warm. This proved futile in Snape's class down in the dungeons where anyone's exposed hands and cheeks became stiff as if their blood had frozen no matter how close they tried to stay near their hot cauldrons. The cold environment hardly seemed to affect the professor himself if not give him a malicious twinkle in his black eyes whenever he could take away a point from anyone who sneezed too loudly during his lectures.

Thankfully, the eleven-year-old Gryffindors weren't in Potions today but Charms where Professor Flitwick was teaching them a warming spell. Scipio could hardly focus on taking notes for the first half of the lesson because his mind was far too busy preparing for his return to Venice. There just seemed to be a dozen things he had to take care of by the time he got there between the orphans and dealing with his father. And that was when he wasn't busy scouring through a multitude of books in the library with Prosper.

He really wanted to learn more about dueling. He also wanted to stay away from dark magic. Yet they were still without luck in finding anything particularly informative about the pompous Salem Lonemidnight to decide if he was really the kind of instructor they wanted to learn from.

"It all pretty much says the exact same stuff," Prosper had moaned, throwing his hands up in frustration. "He was one of nearly hundreds of dueling champions at that time and that he was Salazar Slytherin's first victory before meeting Godric Gryffindor."

The only real interesting facts they had learned so far was more information of Hogwarts' founders and that Professor Flitwick had been one of those many dueling champions throughout history. While Prosper was keen on asking Professor Flitwick for help, Scipio was more convinced that they wouldn't find anything else about Salem unless they retrieved his book from the restricted section. But they still needed a signed permission slip from a professor to gain access and that wasn't likely to happen for a pair of first years.

"And what if Snape finds out what we're up to?" Scipio had argued, which actually made Prosper second-guess his own idea.

By now, he was becoming convinced that the potions master seemed to have some kind of vendetta against his friend. Enough of one to always find a reason to accuse him of misbehavior and have a disturbing twinkle in his eye when he did.

So after going back and forth to eventually reach a tentative agree to not let any of the teachers know what they were doing. This put them back at square one. They tried not to dwell on it much after this, which was easy enough with the growing workload and all the holiday cheer going around as their first break drew nearer.

Professor Flitwick had just commanded everyone in the class to stand up so they could begin practicing the warming spell. As soon as Prosper was on his feet, an envelope fell next to his foot and when he stooped to pick it up, a loud heavy crash sounded over his head followed by his ink bottle shattering into pieces. The room fell silent when he shouted,


His owl was lying in a heap of limp feathers and shattered vials on the desk. Dean gingerly poked at Kaspar with his finger.

"I think he's still alive, Prop," he said.

Professor Flitwick toddled over, looking sympathetic. "Is everything ok, Mr. Lawson?" he asked.

"It's my owl, Professor, I-I don't know why…I think he's hurt," Prosper explained faintly, scooping the creature into his arms. He put a hand over Kaspar's chest and was relieved to feel that it was warm and still moving.

"Very well, why don't you run along to see Hagrid the gamekeeper? He's been nursing quite a few owls in a similar condition. I'll wait here for you to come back and collect your homework after," said Professor Flitwick. "You know where his hut is, correct? Past the greenhouses with the pumpkin patch out front."

Nodding, Prosper dashed out of the room at hyper speed. The absolute last thing he wanted was for something to happen to his pet. It only gave him the sickly feeling that if something bad happened to Kaspar then something was wrong with his mom back in Germany. A stupid notion, he told himself angrily, but his childish fears would not be silenced easily.

He was out of the castle and passing the greenhouses where Professor Sprout had a lesson with third-year Ravenclaws, and towards a small wooden house resting near the pumpkin patch he'd been told about. It acted as the only border between Hogwarts grounds and the forbidden forest. Prosper shuddered and then turned to knock on the door.

After some heavy footfalls and the sound of scrambling paws, a large, shaggy head poked outside.

"'Ello there," greeted the man, his beetle-like eyes looking down at the trembling boy.

"Er…um, Mr. Hagrid, sir? I'm Prosper and my owl…" Prosper blurted, holding up Kaspar in case the man couldn't see since his head was far above the ground.

To his relief, Hagrid pulled the door open wider. "Come on in. Make yerself at home."

Prosper only had a second to look around the one room inside with pheasants hanging from the ceiling and a copper kettle boiling in the fireplace before a large, black creature jumped at him and licking as much of his face as possible.

"Back, Fang!" Hagrid grunted as he hoisted the great boarhound away from the stunned Gryffindor who quickly used his robes to wipe the drool away. This must've been why his mom preferred cats—at least they didn't get drool all over you.

"All right, let me have a look at him." Hagrid scooped Kaspar into his colossal palms and gently turned him around to examine him from all angles before finally giving a diagnosis, "He'll be jus' fine. A bit disoriented from his journey with the weather an' all. Not the first time that's happened this month."

Prosper, who'd been holding his breath, let out a long sigh which made his host chortle.

"Why don't yeh sit for a bit while I give him a bit of a pepper up medicine? Tea?"

Prosper nodded and found an empty seat under a spread of newspapers.

"Here. Some rock cakes to take yer mind off for a bit," Hagrid offered kindly.

Prosper managed a half-smile and accepted the treat. That, in addition to Hagrid's cheerful ramblings about the upcoming Christmas feast, did ease his mind and nearly broke his teeth in the process. He politely refused a second offer.

"Well then!" Hagrid said next. "Yer owl will be ok in the next day or two, so why don't I show yeh a real treat to cheer yeh up? Follow me."

Eagerly, Prosper followed him outside where he went behind his hut to grab a great fir tree to start dragging up to the school. Prosper could only marvel at this amazing show of strength as he fell in a step behind.

They were on their way to the Great Hall when Scipio and Ron intercepted them.

"There you are! How's Kaspar?" Scipio asked.

"He'll be ok in a—" Prosper's answer was cut short once he caught sight of the splendid decorations of the hall. It had a silvery glow all around thanks to the tiny icicles, glass and crystal ornaments floating in midair or decorating the twelve Christmas trees lined around the room. Glittering streams stretched from one wall to the opposite which also had holly and mistletoe hanging from them. The boys were all quite enraptured by the sigh until Ron spoke first.

"Anyway, Prop, don't forget to go see Professor Flitwick," he said, throwing his thumb over his shoulder.

Prosper slapped his forehead. "Oh yeah! I nearly forgot. I'll see you guys back in the common room. And thanks, Hagrid, for everything."

The gamekeeper smiled, and waved him off.

Taking the stairs two at a time, he made it back to the empty classroom save for the tiny professor who was rubbing a handkerchief over a small goblet-sized trophy sitting on his desk.

"Um, Professor?" Prosper said.

"Ah, Mr. Lawson!" Professor Flitwick chirped. "How's your owl?"

"Ah, Hagrid said he'll be fine pretty soon."

Professor Flitwick nodded approvingly before picking a roll of parchment to pass to him. Prosper didn't take it right away, his eyes staring at the trophy which was for 'Dueling Excellence in 1959.' His mind went back to the agreement he and Scipio had made, which he still hadn't been completely on board with. Maybe Flitwick would understand that they just wanted to get better at magic…Or he might simply know something about Salem.

"Mr. Lawson? Is everything ok?" Professor Flitwick asked, cutting into his thoughts.

Prosper shook his head. "Fine, sir. I was just noticing your trophy actually," he answered truthfully.

Professor Flitwick seemed to brighten at this and looked over at his prize. "That was a long time ago, m'boy," he said humbly. "Too long that I'm quite out of shape in my old age now."

"But…you must still know loads about dueling and spells right, sir?"

"Well, I wouldn't say that." Yet Prosper didn't miss how the tiny man's face turned bright pink, obviously pleased that someone was taking an interest in his past accomplishments. "Why so curious, Mr. Lawson?"

"No reason," Prosper lied quickly, mentally debating with himself all over again. "I just…er, was interested in dueling because Professor Binns mentioned an old dueling champion named…Salem Lonemidnight in class at one point."

He surprised himself by how smoothly the lie came out and started to feel bad at lying to his favorite teacher. Nonetheless, he bit his lip and watched Professor Flitwick rub his chin as his wrinkled his middle-aged face even more with a contemplative frown.

"I have heard the name. I do believe there's a book by him in the school library"—his sharp eyes saw the boy perk up before he could disguise it to look as neutral as possible—"but I'm afraid it's in the restricted section," he added quickly.

"Is there any way I could…read it, sir? Just for research," Prosper replied, flexing his fingers at his side.

"You don't intend on trying to perform any of the spells in that book, do you?" Professor Flitwick asked pointedly. "Attempting to use them on your classmates would be strictly forbidden, Mr. Lawson."

Prosper quickly shook his head. "N-No, sir! I was just curious!"

Mentioning that he and his friend were planning to cast the spells on each other might not have been worth mentioning at the time. Professor Flitwick took a moment longer to answer until he folded his hands behind his back, facing his student.

"I will trust you are being honest with me. However, you need written permission from a professor to have access to such a book and it's not common to introduce a first-year student to the books in the restricted section," he said slowly. "What I can do is use the break to read the book for myself to make sure there is nothing…inappropriate. I can let you know what I've decided when we return."

There wasn't any question of whether or not Prosper liked this arrangement, but he wasn't about to say no. This was the closest thing to success that he and Scipio had seen.

"That'd be great, Professor. Thank you!"

Professor Flitwick's stern expression melted back into its usual friendly one. "You're welcome. Now, run along. The holidays are coming up and it's no good to overwork yourself with more homework."

Prosper nodded, thanked him again, and took off back to Gryffindor Tower. His roommates were in the common room with Scipio demanding to know what took him so long. Prosper only murmured halfhearted apology as he joined them. If it all worked out and Professor Flitwick did give him permission, he had no idea how he could explain to Scipio that he'd renegaded on their decision. But like the Charms teacher had said, the holidays were coming up. There was no need to fret about such a dilemma until next term.


Christmas holidays weren't that much different from Scipio's normal days. He'd wake up and find his father either locked away in his office or gone on a business trip, leaving him alone or with his mother. But even that was on rare occasions, so it was really just him left alone with a bunch of servants who pretended to care about him just so they wouldn't get fired. And every year, his presents were always the same: a fancy office desk set that he never used, and an envelope stuffed with a few lire. In fact, he'd given these things to the kids at the Stella: the money had gotten them started for the first few days, and they were using the desk set to write him letters.

He wrote them a short letter telling them he'd be coming to see them soon while half-listening to Prosper talk about his usual holiday routines.

"Bo is probably going to jump all over me and keep me up all night with questions," Prosper groaned, but he hadn't stopped grinning throughout the whole conversation.

For him, reading his mother's neat handwriting and Bo's sloppy squiggles just wasn't enough compared to being with them and hearing them loudly tell silly jokes. And intently listening to muggle mystery stories on the radio every Christmas Eve as they sat together on the living room floor with mugs filled to the brim with hot cocoa until Bo fell asleep an hour after his bedtime.

"Mum makes a bunch of Weasley sweaters," Ron explained, "and fudge. We're all staying behind this year though since they're going to visit my brother Charlie in Romania."

"Sounds like my mom," Prosper laughed. "She likes to make beanies for me and Bo. And make hot chocolate. She thinks eggnog is the worst drink ever invented."

"My dad watches the football games," said Dean, "and then he'll take me out to have snowball fights."

"My parents have snowball fights with each other," Seamus added.

Scipio was happy to let them all talk so he wouldn't have to explain what his holidays were like.

All of their families sounded so happy and warm and…like everyone actually cared about each other. Scipio had never played in the snow with his dad. Nor had he ever seen his mother humming away in the kitchen trying to make him hot chocolate. She probably didn't even know where the kitchen was as far as he was concerned.

But it didn't make any sense!

He secretly knew his family was probably richer than all of theirs combined and he could have anything he wanted if he just asked. His father would give it to him just to make him shut up and to show off to the other rich families how much better he was than them.

Yet despite all this, Scipio felt like he had nothing. And all of that could just as easily disappear if his father simply changed his mind. If he suddenly decided that he hated having Scipio as a son. Or if he simply wanted to teach the boy a lesson, he could snap his fingers and Scipio would be on the streets utterly alone.

He almost broke his quill, clenching it so hard in his hand as he forced back burning tears. Crying wasn't going to solve anything.

He just had to stick to the plan: become a first-rate wizard, leave his family behind forever to stay in the wizarding world, and take care of himself. They could take away his inheritance if they wanted, he would survive on his own two feet and never look back.

Yet he was pulled out of his dark thoughts as soon as the boys agreed to exchange Christmas gifts early.

Prosper gave him a mini lock-picking kit that he could wear around his neck, which left the young Master Massimo quite speechless.

"Wow…thanks, Prop, this is the best gift I've ever gotten." And he meant it too, which made Prosper grin toothily.

"No problem. I know we can always use the Alohomora spell, but since we can't do magic outside of school and you're really good at sneaking into places, I dunno, I just figured…" Prosper trailed off with a shrug, then set to work on opening his gift from Scipio.

"Holy cow, Scip! This is awesome!" he exclaimed, holding up the leather-braided bracelet which had an hourglass pendant weaved into it. It was no longer than his thumb and had a swirl of blue smoke inside.

Scipio held up his own and the other boys' were resting in their laps. "I've seen my mom use them with her coworkers and they change color to let you know if one of us is in danger or late for a meeting…typical stuff," he explained. "I figured leather wouldn't look too girly."

"So it's kind of like a mood ring, or Neville's Remembrall thingy," said Dean, examining his with keen interest.

"There's a ring that tells you what moods to feel?" Ron blanched.

While Dean explained the muggle jewelry to him, Neville stopped by to give them his gifts, having overheard them from his dorm room. He seemed genuinely touched, if not as surprised as Prosper, when Scipio gave him Magical Water Plants of the Mediterranean at the same time he gave Scipio a box of cauldron cakes.

"What?" Scipio grumbled, embarrassed. "It just seems like Herbology's the only class you don't blow things up in." He threw in a small smirk, which made Neville chuckle.

Prosper in turn gave Neville a large bag of chocolate frogs, which he shared with all of them as they continued chatting throughout the night.


Scipio stood in the cavernous foyer of Fondamenta Bollani 223, clutching his suitcase and secretly wishing that he was back on the vaporetto that had brought him here.

"Ah, you're home at last, Scipio."

He couldn't help but flinch at the deep, bored voice that echoed from overhead as soon as his father appeared at the balcony.

Dottor Massimo stood tall with his hands folded behind his back and not a hair of his slick, black hair was out of place. He wore a pressed button-up shirt and pants, and perfectly shined shoes. His eyes—so dark they were almost black—bore down on his son with distaste he didn't even try to conceal when he saw the sloppy clothes and unkempt hair.

"Of course it was stupid of me to think that you would at least clean yourself up for once, knowing you were coming home," he said, coming down the spiral stairs.

With a start, Scipio quickly tried to smooth his hair down with his free hand.

"S-Sorry…Father," he murmured in a small voice.

"Rosa," the dottore turned to the nearest nanny. "Lock Scipio's things in the storage room."

Scipio instinctively pulled his suitcase back when the plump, brown-skinned woman reached for it.

"B-But my clothes and school things—" Scipio stopped when he spotted a tiny vein pop up on his father's neck as the man went rigid.

"Don't you dare challenge me," the dottore spat. "I don't want anything from that damned school in my house in the first place. If you don't like it, go stay in a hotel for your holidays. Or a ditch, for all I care."

Scipio quickly ducked his head to hide his quivering lip, but let Rosa take his suitcase and scurry off in case the master wanted to take his anger out on someone else.

The dottore took a steadying breath and almost instantly regained his impassive composure. "That's better," he said. A pause of silence. "And what do you need to say to me, Scipio?"

Scipio only said the bitter words to get the taste out of his mouth. "My apologies, Father."

The dottore seemed satisfied with that, which made Scipio want to sigh in relief as he started for his room. Until he heard his father clear his throat

"I didn't dismiss you, Scipio, and look at me when I'm talking to you," he commanded.

Scipio froze in place and turned to obey, hating the very sight of the man who he would grow to resemble in the future.

His father continued, "I'm having a dinner gathering tonight with my associates from Prague. You will not attend"—Scipio almost did a backflip at this—"but will stay in your room and make no noise. Rosa will bring you your dinner, but you will take yourself to bed if you think you can manage that. If I see anything funny or hear anything to disrupt us, you will regret the day you were born. Am I clear?"

With each word, the dottore took a step forward until he was towering directly over his son with a severe look. Scipio tried to lean back, his eyes darting to the man's hands to make sure one didn't fly at his face as they sometimes did when his father wanted to get a point across.

"Y-Yes, Father. I p-promise to be quiet."

"I mean it, boy. You keep that nonsense out of my house or so help me…" He raised his hand and Scipio dropped his head, anticipating the contact and the sting that followed.

A small smile crossed the dottore's lips, glad to see his son's rebellious look being brought to heel. He dropped his hand behind his back.

"Very good. You are dismissed," he said, and then turned to return to his study.

Scipio didn't move right away, squeezing his eyes and teeth together otherwise he would've screamed for the man to go straight to hell. Soon, he calmed himself enough that a smile of his own came up.

Don't worry, Father. I'll be so quiet, it's like I'm not even here.


"Look, Prop! Let's put these on too!" The small, angel-faced boy cheerfully held up the two glassy penguin ornaments.

"Sure thing, Bo," Prosper said, speaking German for the first time in months as he looked for an empty branch on the Christmas tree.

There were already more than enough lights and decorations on the thing that its branches were sagging, but Prosper just didn't care as he tried to make his baby brother happy. This was one of the many things he had been looking forward to doing as soon as he jumped out of the fireplace and into his mom's arms.

He sniffed the air again and quietly sighed at the familiar smell of beef stew—one of his favorites. He could hear pots clattering and the water running in the kitchen underneath the radio playing on top of their fireplace mantle.

When he and Bo were done their mom, Elaine Lawson, called them to the table for dinner at last. She was a petite woman with determined blue eyes, and blonde hair as wavy as Prosper's that was pulled back into a messy bun. With a flick of her wand, she floated their bowls over to the steaming pot and filled them to the brim before floating them back to the table.

"Hey, Prop, is it really true?" Bo asked hopefully, his eyes sparkling as he looked up at his brother.

"Is what true?" Prosper asked before shoveling spoonfuls of stew into his mouth.

"Did you really kill a troll at school? How'd you do it?"

Prosper spluttered, sending his food halfway across the table, which made both his mom and Bo burst out laughing.

"H-How did you—"

"Professor Dumbledore sent me a letter, explaining how brave you were," Elaine said, still smiling. "And that's a letter I never thought I'd get from him after only a month."

Prosper stared down at his lap, blushing furiously. "I didn't…I just—It wasn't like that…More of an accident really," he stammered.

But she only shook her head and sighed, "Goodness, Prosper, you and this Scipio cause more trouble than the Marauders did back when I was in school."

"The who?"

"They were a group of Gryffindor pranksters who"—she was cut off when a several harsh coughs racked her body.

"Mom!" Prosper shot to his feet but she waved him down while she caught her breath.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," she wheezed, "stop worrying so much, love."

Prosper frowned, unconvinced. "But…you were coughing like that before school started," he murmured.

She cleared her throat and gave him a pointed look that made him reluctantly take his seat again even though he didn't once take his eyes off her.

"Are you ok, Mum?" Bo asked in a small voice.

Elaine smiled and reached over to gently run a hand through his curly locks. "I'm fine, liebchen," she said softly. "Now I want both of you to wipe those sad looks off your faces. You don't need to worry about me because Aunt Esther will be here on Christmas Day to help me around the house."

While the statement did in fact get rid of the boys' troubled expressions, they were far from smiling.

"Why does she have to come over?" Bo whined, scrunching up his small nose before planting his forehead onto the table. "The house is going to smell like stinky hairspray for a week after Esther leaves again."

Elaine snorted into her soup before fixing him with her most stern look, which was already failing as she fought back a smile.

"Boniface, don't talk about your Aunt Esther like that," she said. "We haven't seen her or Uncle Max for over a year, so it'll be good for the family to get together."

"Do you think they'll bring us those silly pink teddy bears again, Prop?" Bo asked, turning away from his mother.

Prosper shrugged absently, his brows furrowed at the sudden announcement. He'd been wondering the same thing as Bo, but didn't dare voice his objections out loud.

Esther hated magic, which was the main reason she hardly ever came to visit. She'd been like this ever since she and his mom were kids and was against anything unnatural or fantastical. Every time she overheard Elaine telling them the most elaborate stories about the magic of Venice or even simply reading to them from The Tales of Beedle the Bard, she would loudly complain that children shouldn't be encouraged to believe in silly wishes that never came true. And then they'd all stick their tongues at her as soon as she turned her back with her nose high in the air.

"Look, boys," Elaine said, looking directly at Prosper as if reading his thoughts. "They're only going to be here for a week. Aunt Esther's going to help me out a bit—"

"Why?" Prosper interrupted sharply, his eyes wide. "How can she possibly help out when we have magic?"

"You both know the drill: no magic around your aunt and uncle," Elaine said firmly. "Especially you, Bo."

Bo made a note of protest in the back of his throat but only poked his bottom lip out as her glared at his stew.

"It's not like I do it on purpose," he grumbled.

"I know, liebchen, but you'll just have to be extra careful."

Prosper, however, knew his mother was avoiding his question. And he didn't like it one bit, especially when Esther was concerned.


As soon as the hallways were filled with pompous laughter and business chatter, Scipio flicked off his bedroom light, slipped on his bird mask and buttoned up his long, black coat. He pushed his window open and stepped out onto the slanted roof and into the cool nighttime air where his breath came out in icy puffs. After leaving the window slightly open, he carefully slid down the roof until he reached the edge where directly below him was a slick, cobblestone pathway within the walls of a narrow alley. He latched onto a rusty gutter pipe and slid down, landing silently.

A stiff breeze bit into his unprotected hands as he took off down the dark, empty streets of Venice. There was an eerie quiet all around, but he actually preferred it like this. It was like the Venetian nights held all kinds of secrets from the world that only a select few were allowed to know about. Every night he snuck out, Scipio felt like he was in on the secret.

He turned onto the next street, which only had one streetlight to fight off the cloudy darkness. All the buildings lined up here seemed to be abandoned and loomed over him when he came to a stop. Taking a deep breath, Scipio tried to inhale as much of Venice as he could because when it all came down to it, it was still his home and often he couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

His moment of quiet, however, ended all too quickly when someone barreled headfirst into his back and sent them both crashing to the ground. Scipio heard a strange crack and, for a second, thought his nose had broken against the pavement but he realized it was actually the beak of his mask.

"OW! Who the hell—RICCIO?!"

The "RICCIO?!" in question was a full head shorter with wild, chestnut hair that stuck out in every possible direction. His clothes were slightly too big for him and quite worn while his rotten teeth poked out from his gaping mouth.

"Scipio?!" Riccio cried back in the same shocked fashion. "What are you doing here?"

Scipio straightened his posture to stand slightly taller than his thieving underling.

"I should be asking you that! I told you guys I was coming to the hideout tonight," he said. "Why aren't you—"

"Riccio! Hurry! We've gotta go!" Another boy came running down the street, but Scipio almost couldn't even make him out because his skin was as dark as the shadows. Only the whites of his eyes and his lumpy red jacket defined his large form.

"Mosca, look! It's Scipio!" Riccio exclaimed, waving the boy over.

Mosca froze in place with the exact same expression Scipio was wearing.

"Holy cow, Scipio! When did you"—Before Mosca could finish, a shrill screech tore through the air.

"Over here! I heard shouting over here, sir!" called a distant male voice.

"It's the cops!" Riccio cried.

"The what?" Scipio roared.

"Just shut up and run!" And Mosca tore off into the nearest alley.

Scipio and Riccio scrambled after him, but then Scipio remembered his mask. Right when he turned back to get it, a bright light shone in his face and there were two adult voices straight ahead. Cursing under his breath, he spun around and went after the two other boys. Despite his short legs, he managed to catch up to them easily.

"What the hell did you guys do?" Scipio called after them, his face getting hotter more from his growing temper than the running.

Whether they didn't hear him or chose to ignore the question, it didn't matter. There were obviously more important things to worry about at the moment.

They skidded around a corner and down a new pathway, lit only by the moonlight. Scipio could vaguely hear the policemen's footfalls just entering the alley, but his heart was pounding so hard it was almost deafening and he expected half of the city to be awakened by it. How in the world had he landed himself in this mess not even twenty-four hours back home? He certainly didn't want to imagine the look on his father's face if she showed up at the front door in handcuffs in front of all his party guests.

"Not much farther!" Mosca called over his shoulder.

It took Scipio a second to register the familiar route back to the Star-Palace. In a desperate burst of inspiration, he started knocking over trashcans as he went and was satisfied to hear crashing behind him as the policemen tripped over each other.

The three thieves ran through the streets a little while longer before finally squeezing themselves into a crumbling brick alley where they came to a door sitting in the wall with a cord hanging over it. Mosca yanked at the cord and a tinny bell clanged with each pull. At that moment, Riccio turned to Scipio with a wide grin and passed him a squashed raspberry pastry that had been stuffed in his pocket the whole time. Scipio, who was gasping with relief, squeezed the pastry into mush and gave the smaller boy a severe glare that clearly stated: No way are you getting off that easy, hedgehog.

Riccio shrunk back with fear and the door opened, revealing a girl about Scipio's age leaning against the frame. She had bright, defiant eyes and brunette hair pulled back in a braided ponytail.

"It's about time you guys got back. What took you so long?" she demanded, sounding very much like she was their mother.

"Give us a break, Hornet. We just barely dodged the cops not long ago, but we got the loot," Riccio answered, quickly ducking away from Scipio to scamper inside the theatre.

"I told you it was risky now and that they've probably caught on to you breaking in—SCIPIO!"

Upon seeing their mysterious caretaker, Hornet practically jumped on top of him in a tight embrace and nearly sent them both crashing to the ground.

"Whoa, Hornet! Calm down!" he cried in surprise. "It's, er…good to see you too."

"I would think so!" she said, pulling away with a slight frown. "You've been gone for ages! We were starting to think you'd never come back."

Scipio winced as he shielded his eyes from the bright light that suddenly assaulted them once he stepped into the Star-Palace. Mosca closed and locked the door behind them.

"Didn't you get my letter? I said I'd be coming over," he said.

"Of course we got it, but still…where did you disappear to?" Mosca asked, pulling a loaf of bread from under his shirt. Looking back at him, Scipio realized that there were other pastries stuffed inside his jacket, which explained its lumpiness.

"Don't worry about that," Scipio answered, waving a dismissive hand. "Even the Thief Lord has to keep his own secrets at times, Mosca."

The three of them walked down dimly lit corridor with a red-carpeted floor, torn and movie posters, and stray lamp wires dangling from the low ceiling. Pushing past a velvety curtain, Scipio stepped out onto a large, dusty stage set before a dimly-lit, cavernous room with endless rows of crimson-cushioned seats and an old-fashioned popcorn machine perched in a corner. Looking around, he caught a glimpse of several mattresses and blankets crowding the second floor balcony along with various contraptions such as a simple bucket pulley system, and scattered radio pieces.

"You guys sure have been keeping clean," he snorted, placing his hands on his hips.

"I tried to tidy up a bit, but could hardly get much done with those two off robbing pasticcerie!" Hornet shot the other two an angry look, which they ignored until Scipio whirled on them with renewed anger.

"What part of lay low do you not understand?" he snapped. "Do you want to get arrested and shipped off to an orphanage? How stupid do you have to be to—"

"Calm down, Scipio!" Hornet said, jumping in front of the boys who had become smaller and smaller under his telling-off. "Honestly we didn't have much choice since our cashbox is nearly empty."

"No way! The price of those gall—I mean, gold coins should have lasted you a lot longer than this," he said, frowning. "How much did Barbarossa give you for them?"

Mosca and Hornet looked sheepish and scuffed their heels against the floor. "One hundred thousand lire," Hornet answered meekly.

"What?! You've got to be kidding me!" Scipio cried, nearly jumping in the air with every word. "They're worth way more than that!"

"It's not our fault!" Mosca argued. "The redbeard's tricky and we don't know how to haggle with him."

But Scipio was too busy massaging the bridge of his nose with his fingers and pacing around the room while wracking his brain for an immediate solution. The answer was easy enough: he would just bring them more galleons to sell off, but what was the point if they weren't even getting enough money in return?

"All right, all right," he groaned. "I'll bring you some more stuff to give to Barbarossa and then we'll figure out how to get you more money."

"Are you going on another raid then, Scipio?" Riccio asked eagerly, peeking out from behind Hornet.

"I hadn't thought about it really," Scipio answered, pursing his lips still in deep thought. "I'd rather take a break right now."

"But you can't! Not just yet!" Riccio protested disappointedly. "It'll be easy enough this time around since loads of people will be out shopping and hardly paying attention to their wallets." His eyes were already twinkling with devious pickpocket plans.

"You're not to do anymore pickpocketing this time, Riccio," Scipio said sternly. "I'll be back Christmas Day with presents and enough cash so you'll actually do what I say and lay low."

Riccio gulped and looked down at his pockets where he was pulling out squashed pastries to start nibbling on. Mosca chanced to step forward and hand Scipio a small chocolate cake dusted with powdered sugar. Scipio sighed and accepted it, finally letting his anger dissipate.

"So," he began a little more cheerfully. "Tell me what you've all been up to and then I'll tell you about how I saved a young maiden from this giant man who tried to club her to death!"

Ok, finally got a proper update in! Sorry, I'm still a bit late on this one. Thanks for being patient and I hope you all had a really good Christmas and New Year's. As for the story, Christmastime is not yet over for the kids and will hopefully conclude by the next update. I would've loved to make this entire chapter the Christmas one, but I would've been even later with updating if I had. I'm just glad I finally got to write a little bit of Scipio's adventures in Venice.

Kairan1979, you made a really good point in your review and I honestly hadn't thought about it, so thank you for that! Now I have something to keep in mind for future reference.

As usual, if there are any mistakes or questions, let me know!

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by to read!