I don't know how I keep updating on Wednesdays now. I'm trying to just stay on time, guys.
Whew! This chapter was a tough one to get out, but also fun to write. I'm worried that the parts closer to the end aren't too stiff or rushed. I was trying not to drag the scenes out too long. Let me know what you think. Hope you all enjoy and thanks for reading!
Word count: 5403
I got your book in the mail and it's absolutely brilliant! Just what I needed actually. Thanks a lot. Hope you like your present. Girls usually like these kinds of things, right?
Without even realizing it, a grin stretched the young girl's face as far it would go before she reached into the envelope and pulled out a pair of silver, winged lion earrings. She must've stared at them for much longer than necessary because her mom had finished wrestling a tacky striped sweater over Mr. Granger's head and called into her daughter's far away thoughts,
"Hermione, love, those are beautiful! Who gave you those?"
Hermione came back to reality with a start, a light blush creeping up her neck.
"Um, n-no one, Mum!" she squeaked. "Just Scipio Massimo." Then she mentally cursed herself for she had meant to say "a friend from school" but the boy's name came tumbling out of her mouth instead. She groaned inwardly when her mother's round, chocolate-colored eyes lit up and she glided over to her daughter's spot by the Christmas tree.
"And who is Scipio Massimo, darling?" she asked keenly, taking her daughter's hand to examine the earrings more closely.
Hermione covered her eyes with her other hand and only shook her head. "Mum! He's no one...just my housemate," she stressed the last word but Mrs. Granger didn't seem to care.
A tiny giggle escaped her as she nodded approvingly at the gift. "Yes, I'm sure he is, Hermione, but he gave you earrings. That's quite romantic!"
"It is not!" Hermione said abruptly, snatching her hand back. "It's only b-because I gave him Fantastical Spots Within Venice. That's all!"
"Come on now, dear, stop teasing her. We've only got her for a few weeks," Mr. Granger interrupted calmly. He shook out his newspaper and crossed one leg over his knee the way Hermione often did when she was studying.
Hermione couldn't have been more grateful for his intervention, until he added with a half-smile:
"Besides, she still hasn't finished all of the books in my study yet, so I don't think she'll be eloping anytime soon."
Ignoring her parents' giggling, Hermione set the earrings aside and started to unravel the fairy blue scarf Prosper had given her. Yes, the two boys had saved her life but she still couldn't believe they were actually giving her Christmas presents. Even Lavender and Parvati, who she didn't really feel that close to, had each sent her something.
So this is what it's like to have friends, she thought excitedly.
"Bloody hell!" Scipio cried out just like he often heard Ron do so.
He almost fainted but instead laughed in amazement when he saw himself in the mirror—or rather didn't see himself, only his floating head.
He simply couldn't believe his eyes as he spun around to see this wonder from every angle. He was startled when he heard a door upstairs swing open. In a mad dash, he threw off the silver cloak he'd been wearing and buried it under his other few presents. As soon as he turned around, his father appeared.
"What the devil is all this noise for?" He barked, his face slowly turning purple with anger. "I'm trying to work!"
Scipio bowed his head. "Sorry, father. I just...saw the desk set you got me and got too excited," he mumbled. When he raised his head, he saw his father scrutinizing him with narrowed eyes as if able to realize that Scipio almost wanted to laugh in his face at the quick lie.
It seemed forever before the dottor finally spoke. "Well, keep quiet. I don't want to have to come down here again."
Scipio nodded fervently and waited until his father had completely disappeared before running back to his pile of presents. He pulled out the cloak again but this time, a small note fell out. Once he smoothed it out, it read:
Use it well.
That was all it said. There was no name or anything, which only confused him even more but his confusion soon surrendered to boyish excitement for his new treasure.
A cloak that made him invisible.
Just thinking of all the possibilities and adventures he could have if no one could see him was more excitement than he could bear. If only he could try it out now and disappear for the day. Of course, it was too risky and he certainly wasn't keen on anymore run-ins with his father today. Not when he was having the best Christmas in his whole life.
First there had been the book from Hermione, which spoke of another, magical side of Venice much like Diagon Alley. Then there was the grey beanie from Prosper's mom, and then the crimson Weasley sweater from Ron's mom. Of course, there were the usual gifts from his parents which he'd be getting rid of in no time to give to the kids at the Star-Palace. Quickly and quietly, he darted up to his room to drop his haul onto the bed. He stuffed the cloak behind his dresser until it was completely out of sight. He'd save it for later tonight when he put his plan into action for solving the gang's money problem. He'd been cooped up inside for the past couple of days, scheming it all the while dying to be out on the streets again. It was dangerous and probably very stupid, but the best he could come up with.
Scipio spent the rest of the day alternating between reading Hermione's book, getting snacks from the kitchen, and counting down the hours until nighttime when the Thief Lord would get back to work.
Prosper went down to breakfast Christmas morning to find his mom and brother gathered around the Christmas tree with Aunt Esther and Uncle Max Heartlieb cooing over Bo.
"Here you go, darling. These are all for you," Esther purred, seizing him in a tight squeeze to plant large kisses on his baby cheeks.
Meanwhile, Uncle Max took a small box in his oversized hands and placed it in a disgruntled Bo's lap. By now, the little four-year-old would normally start swatting away hands or threatening to bite fingers but under his mom's pointed glances, he only pursed his lips and grumbled,
"Thank you, Aunty Esther."
Then his eyes locked onto Prosper in a silent plea for help. This was when Aunt Esther's attention fell on Prosper for the first time.
"Ah!" she barked, "You're finally awake, young man."
"Yes," said Prosper.
Aunt Esther squinted at him sourly. "Well, it's about time. While you were sleeping in, your poor mother had to start breakfast and get all these presents ready by herself," she snapped back.
And Uncle Max shook his square head. "Really now, as the man of the house you need to take more responsibility than this. You can't afford to be selfish when your family needs you," he added.
Prosper felt his stomach clench and was bursting to argue, but his mother beat him to it.
"Actually, Esther, Max…Prosper helped me out all day yesterday and even prepared the eggs for scrambling last night and even laid out the pans for me to use." Her tone was mostly mild except for the slight clip that almost dared her sister and brother-in-law to say otherwise.
Prosper could stop his face from relaxing into a small grin. It didn't go unnoticed by Esther, who threw him a disdainful glare like she didn't really believe Elaine but kept her mouth shut.
Prosper found a seat on the floor and Bo scampered to escape Esther to hand him a red and gold wrapped package.
"Open it, Prop! Go on!" the little boy cheered.
Prosper happily obeyed to find a thick, hardbound book titled: One Thousand Things You Need to Know about Collecting Marbles. His face fell a little, but he tried to hide it.
"A very appropriate book for a lad his age," Max said with an approving nod.
As soon as he and Esther went back to trying to coax another large present towards Bo, Prosper cast a halfway glance at his mom who, to his surprise, winked at him. Right away, he wanted to laugh. He should've known! Discreetly, he lifted the paper flap up to see golden letters etched onto the book front spelling out a very different title: Intermediate Charms and Practices.
"Thanks, Mum, Bo! I love it!" he exclaimed, which seemed to surprise his other relatives a bit.
They had gotten him a present also: a set of pink, wool socks since he was "too old for toys and needed more sensible things."
And then Esther offered a stale apology for the color since the store didn't have any other. Yet Prosper forgot about the lousy present as soon as he opened the next one that was from Hermione. It was a black journal with a self-inking quill and was magically charmed so no one else could open it except him. There was also a Christmas card.
I hope you'll like this gift. You can use it for class notes or private thoughts—anything really. Merry Christmas and thank you for being my friend.
Prosper felt himself swell with excitement and gratitude that he decided not to wait a second to write a reply. He hurried upstairs to do so and once he sent Kaspar away with the note, he went back downstairs to see Bo opening his seventh present from the Hartliebs, not looking anymore excited about it than the last six. His face must've been hurting by now forcing so many smiles.
"Here, another present," Esther said to Prosper, holding out an envelope.
He was almost too stunned to take it and was actually curious this time since they never gave him more than one gift. Elaine was also intrigued and watched him pull out a brochure.
MARTIN LUTHER ACADEMY
-For the Youth of Tomorrow-
Prepare for your first term!
Prosper read this aloud, his eyebrows furrowing deep into his forehead. Esther sat up straighter and was actually interested in talking to her older nephew this time.
"It's the most prestigious academy in the country. They'll be accepting new students next August and admissions only open once every three years." There was a pause as she gave him time to appreciate this information, but instead Prosper blurted out,
"What do I do with this?"
Simultaneously, Esther's lips thinned into an irritated scowl while Max's eyebrows shot into his wrinkled forehead.
"Don't take that tone with me, young man," Esther snapped, "don't you understand that this is a genuine opportunity?"
"But Esther," Elaine interjected, "Prosper's already enrolled in school."
"I know, Elaine, but I'm talking about next year. I should think he'd like to transfer," Esther said matter-of-factly.
"No I don't!" Prosper said at once.
"You can't let him decide these things, Elaine. He's too young to understand how important it is that children go to the right kind of schools early on," Esther continued, ignoring him completely.
"But you can't take Prop out of Hogwarts!" Bo wailed, throwing down his brand new toy fire truck. "It's the best magic school ever! And I'm going there too!"
This time Max pounded his thigh with his fist. "My goodness, Elaine! Is this how you raise your children? To talk to adults with no respect?" he cried indignantly.
"Prosper, Bo, calm down," Elaine said, turning to the boys.
"No!" Prosper yelled, crumpling the brochure in his fists. "She's not going to take me out of Hogwarts for some stupid muggle school! That's the only reason they came here, isn't it?"
Elaine marched over and firmly grasped his shoulders to make him look her straight in the eyes.
"Prosper, please, I'll take care of this. Take Bo outside to walk for a bit," she pleaded, and then gently cupped his cheek. "No one's going to stop you from going to Hogwarts…I promise."
Prosper was not ready to relent just yet, but seeing the circles under her eyes and the strained smile made him take a deep breath before pulling away to grab Bo by the wrist. His brother was starting to sob hard enough that it was easy to coax him up the stairs and into his winter jacket. He grabbed a few money bills from a jar under his bed and head downstairs. The living room was deathly silent as they opened the front door to step outside. Prosper was practically dragging Bo behind him as he marched down the streets, ignoring the sting of the frosty air that bit into his cheeks like invisible needles.
There was a light flurry of snow hailing from above and covering the streets in a light layer of powdery dust, but it would thaw as soon as it landed. As the two brothers came closer and closer to one of the local parks, the snow thickened around their feet and slowed their steps.
There were other families around, all laughing as they gathered around the top of a small hill with the parents cheering the kids to slide down on their sleds.
"Prop, they're not really going to take you out of Hogwarts, are they?" Bo asked in a small voice.
For the first time, Prosper turned to him relieved to see that he wasn't crying but his face was still troubled from underneath the tight wrapping of his scarf.
"No way," Prosper said firmly, tugging at his own. "Mum won't let them. And neither will I."
There was enough conviction in his voice that he believed his own words just as quickly as Bo did; a small smile stretched Bo's chubby, reddened cheeks and he suddenly announced,
"Well then let's go sledding!"
Prosper grinned and ran after him to grab one of the free sleds piled together. They played in the snow for a good hour, laughing harder and harder each time. With snow clinging to their clothes and hair and coldness starting to seep into their bodies, they'd finally had enough to start on their way back home. Prosper could easily sense that Bo was starting to feel apprehensive about this, so he made a pit stop at a small street cart that was selling hot pommes and bought a cupful for them to share. The snack brought some warmth back to their bodies but it disappeared almost instantly when Prosper led them back inside their quiet home.
He stepped ahead to peer into the living room and was surprised to find it empty now.
"Weird," he murmured.
Bo crept up behind him. "Maybe they all went to sleep?" he suggested.
"Your mother did," said another voice.
Jumping back, they spotted Esther coming down the stairs, her face impassive but regarding them carefully.
"She was feeling a bit dizzy, so I took her to bed. Don't make any noise for her," she continued.
"I want to check on her," Prosper said, straightening himself to look as tall as possible.
"Didn't you hear what I just said?" Esther snapped. "You will leave her to rest. Now go up to your rooms so I can start on dinner. Go!"
All kinds of arguments and insults danced on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed them back. He would just start yelling at her, he knew, and it wouldn't do any good.
"Let's go, Bo," he said flatly.
Without his mask, Scipio felt very exposed that he began to have second thoughts about this whole ordeal. But he was already outside and well on his way towards his next great heist so there was no turning back now. Even though the streets of Venice were often deserted in December, he kept to the shadows of the back alleyways on silent feet and alert eyes. With every pause to listen for signs of other life, he would feel his pockets to make sure the cloak was still there.
He ran on, treading carefully on every stone and skirting past every window or obstacle that would betray his stealth. When he reach the third bridge, he quickly estimated the height from the pathway below before nimbly leaping over the railing and landing in a perfect crouch. No one was even around! Sneaking out of his house wasn't even a challenge this time.
Yet the hard part was coming up as he neared Barbarossa's shop and came across his first complication. There was a dim light shining through the windows. He hid behind a wall just across the road and peered around the corner, remaining completely still. Inside the shop was a large, round shadow that somehow managed to weave in and out of the cluttered area. Scipio watched and waited, biting his lip as he tried to figure out what to do next.
Didn't the redbeard have anything better to do other than count his money on Christmas Day? Scipio's new cloak may have turned him invisible but it didn't stop him from being solid. And with Barbarossa's fat body sauntering around it made his chances of getting caught even greater. His only consolation was that the lights were dark enough to give him some cover. It was at this moment that he realized that he was stealing for real this time. And it was nothing like stealing from an unused room in his house. He had to flex his fingers to keep them from shaking.
I have to do this, he repeated to himself over and over.
He had a responsibility now to the other kids. Plus, this would really put his skills to the test. This would truly determine if he was worthy of being called the Thief Lord. But for the first time, he didn't find this prospect exciting at all.
Once the shadow had pulled away from the front window, Scipio darted forward into the nearby alley, letting the shadows engulf him again. He hurried to pull out his cloak and threw it over his head. Treading deeper into the alley, he approached the back door.
It was unlocked.
He opened it, inch by inch, and peered inside. The door led into a large storage room with only the light seeping in from the shop's front helped him see. There were all kinds of items that the redbeard had yet to put an outrageous pricing on, from golden framed paintings to the cheap lion statuettes tourists were often losing around the city.
A velvety curtain separated this room from the main shop allowing Scipio to hear Barbarossa's heavy, slow footfalls as he perused the area. At last he spotted it—the iron safe Riccio had once mentioned seeing—wide open and inviting with its high stacks of lira, gold watches, and a handful of glittering jewelries. It looked like a real treasure chest that Scipio forgot where he was to stare at it open-mouthed. Granted, his family had way more money than this, but he was still somewhat impressed. Shaking himself out of his trance, he slowly reached into the safe and grabbed a great handful of the money sitting in the far back corners. He started to count out a rough guess of how much the redbeard really owed the orphans, but threw caution to the wind and instead grabbed enough to fill both his hands. His stomach twisted into all kinds of knots as he hurried to tie the money with two thick rubberbands and stuff it into his coat pocket. He had just readjusted his cloak when he felt complete darkness on his back as Barbarossa threw the curtain aside, marching into the room. Scipio clapped his hand over his mouth to keep from screaming as he stumbled back.
For a second, he hoped he was imagining the noise but when he felt the brass bowl hit the back of his leg, his heart plummeted. Barbarossa whirled around and looked right at him, his piggish eyes wide and searching.
"Who's there?" he shouted.
Scipio willed himself to stay perfectly still while he could hear the man's heavy body frantically scrambling around. A bright light hit him in the face and he shrunk back, his heart pounding.
He can't see me. Please don't let him see me…
Wielding the flashlight like a weapon, Barbarossa started towards the safe and Scipio barely sidestepped away from the huge, hairy belly poking out from beneath his sweater. Barbarossa immediately turned to his safe, examining it slowly before slamming it shut. Slowly, Scipio made his way backwards but not before bumping into some rickety old chair that noisily clattered to the floor.
"Aha!" Barbarossa roared, jumping around to see his intruder.
Instead he saw his curtain ripple and twist aside of its own accord. Sucking in a sharp breath, he lumbered back into his shop.
Keeping low and holding the hem of the cloak tightly to his chest, Scipio ran past a giant urn and across the room. The beam from Barbarossa's flashlight swung over his head.
"Who's in here? Show yourself dammit!" the redbeard snarled, though there was a slight squeak in his voice.
Scipio thought about making a desperate dash for the back door, but he knew that was hopeless. There was too much junk everywhere to try and navigate through that, in his hurry, he was bound to trip on something. Barbarossa would be alerted. He'd have the Thief Lord cornered.
Barbarossa edged to one of the far sides of the shop, turning his back on Scipio, who eased open the door to a giant, mahogany cabinet behind him, hoping to wait until the man had given up and then make his escape. Carefully, he squeezed through the rectangular frame until was standing in a tiny wooden space leaving him feeling slightly claustrophobic.
Scipio waited and time passed. It felt like ages before he dared to turn the door handle. A streak of light invaded his hiding spot, which made him hold his breath as he stuck his head out. Soft lights filled the room, but no one was around except for the many rows of dark wall-shelves stacked with scrolls, books, and jars filled with pickled nonhuman body parts. Other shelves sitting in the middle of the room had small, smoking cauldrons sitting on top while others contained empty glass vials or crystal balls. Scipio squinted, thinking maybe the cloak was showing him some illusion, and then pulled his head free.
He wasn't seeing things.
He wasn't in Barbarossa's shop anymore.
Glancing around, he stepped out of the cabinet and examined it. It was exact same one, which could only mean that it had somehow—magically—transported him somewhere else.
Scipio would have taken the time to try and figure out how this had happened (and why the redbeard had a magical item in his possession) but something brushed against his leg and made him jump back, knocking into the checkout counter.
Looking down, he wanted to scream. The orange and white ball of fur sat looking right back at him with penetrating green eyes.
"Stupid cat," he grumbled, rubbing his throbbing arm.
The cat tilted its head and chirped at him, as if trying to argue with the unnecessary insult. Scipio ignored it and ran to the window. Outside were people dressed in robes and pointed hats of all colors who seemed to be having a raucous celebration. There were floating lanterns instead of streetlamps, but they were all burnt out. Instead, fireworks filled the sky and some even came to life, like the dancing Christmas tree that soon exploded into a shower of green lights making the crowd even more excited. It was nothing like the barren streets he'd wandered barely an hour ago. Was this the same magical part of Venice Hermione's book had talked about?
Scipio completely forgot that he was nothing more than a floating head to the innocent bystander, but no one here was paying any attention to him. Even the pair of drunken wizards stumbling in front of the window only burst into hearty laughter when they spotted him, and then went on their way. As much as he longed to stay and explore this place, his watch told him that daytime was coming up soon. He would have to break his promise and see the orphans another time.
Checking his pockets one last time to make sure the money was still there, he shrugged off his cloak and stuffed it in his coat. A yowling sound made him turn back to his feline host who had not taken its eyes off him the whole time.
"What are you looking at, you"—he stopped, frowning down at the animal.
Then it hit him.
"You?" he cried, "No way!"
This wasn't just any cat. It was one of the strays he'd often chase after whenever he went to the city on his own before he'd left for Hogwarts. The cat seemed satisfied that he had finally remembered and affectionately rubbed against his leg with his head. Smiling now, he stooped down to pet its head.
"I didn't know you lived here," he exclaimed.
The cat merely rolled over on its back to give him access to its belly and that was when he spotted a collar with a golden tag dangling from the end.
"Nocta," he read, fingering the smooth surface. "So that's your name, girl?"
Nocta gently pawed at his hand, orange ears alert and pointing forward.
"Look, Nocta," he began, "can you show me the way out of here? I've got to get home fast."
He didn't know if wizards considered it silly to talk to cats, but he didn't care because he was certain cats could understand more than they let on. And Nocta certainly seemed to because she jumped to her feet and trotted over to the front door, prodding at it while looking back at him expectantly.
He pushed the door and followed her into the streets. It was still as cold here as it was in muggle Venice, running after the cat warmed him up in no time. It was hard, keeping up with such a nimble creature while fighting his way through the throng of people. He had almost knocked over a petite blonde woman in his hurry that she nearly dropped her cigarette, but he kept his eyes on Nocta the whole way.
His heart was drumming against his chest but thankfully, the crowd was beginning to thin the close he got to the exit. Looking up, he saw that he was heading straight for a solid brick wall, hidden in the dark behind two neighboring shops. He almost stopped running, but then wondered:
Maybe it's like Platform 9 ¾…
At this moment he hoped so, because he kept running. He shut his eyes the split second before he hit the wall. There was a brief sensation of flying in midair before he felt the stinging splash of cold water. For a moment, the boy was blinded, fighting for air. Then he rose to the surface and found himself staring up at the indigo sky dotted with fading stars. A quick gust of wind hit him. That was when he realized, with great relief, exactly where he was. Back to the Venice he knew, albeit floating in one of the not-so-clean canals. He kicked his feet, propelling himself across to the stony edge where he pushed himself up to collapse onto his back once he was on solid ground again. He sat up and groaned when he felt the soaked wads of cash squelching inside his coat. His cloak was in the same condition that he had to ring it out twice.
He dragged himself to his feet, completely exhausted. But slowly daylight was breaking into the city. He spun around and ran.
Prosper lay in bed that night, holding his breath and waiting to see if someone would come to knock at his bedroom door. At two o'clock in the morning, that seemed highly unlikely, but there were voices coming from downstairs so he couldn't be sure. All he knew was that they were talking about him. Ever since the argument on Christmas Day, they were always talking about him. Finally unable to bear the unknown any longer, she peeled back her blankets and crossed into the hallway on bare feet.
He inched towards the stairs before crouching low behind the railings, gripping them tightly. After a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Bo was still asleep, he saw the lights in the living room were on and anxious shadows paced across the floor. Yep, they were definitely talking about him.
"Please, Esther, try to keep your voice down," he heard his mom coax in her most calm voice. Mixed with stress and the late hour, however, it came out somewhat strained.
"I'm sorry, Elaine, but…you can't keep doing this. You can't keep pretending that everything is ok. I hate to say it, but you are not getting better. Look at those circles under your eyes, and I know you still get those tremors in your hands."
Prosper didn't need to see his mother's face to know that she was wearing that same look of distress and probably shaking her head.
"I am getting better. It's when we argue like this, that I look so terrible." She tried for a laugh, but stopped in the middle of it and sighed. "Why are we always fighting now? Because of Hogwarts?"
Esther's shadow froze before abruptly spinning around. "This has nothing to do with that awful school!" he hissed. "You wanted to spend your life running off to learn hocus pocus, fine, but think of your boys—"
"They're all I think about, Esther," Elaine countered softly. "They're all I have." She wiped at her eyes.
This made Esther cross over to sit next to her, their shadows merging into one as she threw her arms around her younger sister. There was silence, but when Prosper strained his ears to catch something he heard soft sobbing. But he couldn't tell who it was coming from…maybe both of them.
He wanted to go back to bed and just wish that this wasn't happening, but he couldn't make himself ignore the conversation below or the fact that he hated all the trouble Esther was putting them through.
"Elaine, I don't want to fight with you," came Esther's shaky voice, followed by a sniff. "Not now…not ever. I don't want anything to happen to you."
"Nothing's going to happen to me," Elaine said soothingly. "Everything will be fine."
"I just want what's best for Prosper and Boniface," Esther went on, "and I know that school won't do them any good. They'll just end up like their father—"
"—who abandoned you. Who probably doesn't even care that you're—"
"Stop right now." Elaine's voice had risen slightly at this point, taking on a steely edge Prosper had never heard before. "Don't talk about him like that," she said, "please don't."
Esther made an indignant sound in the back of her throat and shook her head.
Elaine spoke again: "Prosper and Bo should go to Hogwarts only if they want to. Let them decide which world they live in, Esther. Promise me?"
Esther pulled away, putting her head in her hands. "It's ridiculous, Elaine…"
"Promise me. You'll let Prosper stay in Hogwarts for as long as he wants to. And you'll do the same for Bo when he gets older. That's all I'm going to ask from you, Esther." A pause. "I…I want to have a hundred years with them. But if I can't….I need you to do it for me."
Another long pause until Esther sighed.
"Ok…I promise. I won't take them out of Hogwarts, if that's what they really want."
Elaine stood up and placed a hand on her sister's shoulder. "Thank you, Esther…thank you."
Prosper couldn't move as he listened to this. It made him feel cold inside, but at the same time he almost smiled. He couldn't believe this side of Esther even existed. Was it really true? Would she really let him stay at school for his mom's sake? He wanted to believe it. He really did.
By the time he'd snapped out of his thoughts, the lights below had just flicked off so he quickly crept back into his room.