The first letter arrived on the morning of June 17th, 2010. It was crammed into the steel mail slot for apartment 1601 with no small effort and several speckled brown feathers shed on the part of its bearer. The building was one of the most exclusive and secure in Sofia, but there were no closed-circuit cameras in the mail room, and as the residents of the building were such to be either long since at work or yet still sleeping at nine o'clock in the morning, there was no one to marvel at the sight of a Eurasian Eagle Owl picking a lock.
There were two cameras in the lobby. One was trained on the front door, which was doubly guarded by a doorman and an electronic lock. The other gazed out over the water feature and the careful arrangement of wing-back chairs to a pair of lifts. Neither camera recorded the subsequent arrival of the owner of 1601; they never did. The front door opened, and first one device and then the other seemed to find something very interesting on the ceiling to fix its gaze upon.
"Good afternoon, sir," said Ivo Todorov, the daytime doorman, touching his cap.
The owner of 1601 was a tall, thin man in his mid-thirties with olive skin and a neatly trimmed beard. He had moved in approximately two years prior and remained something of a mystery to Ivo, who was not paid to think about the residents' personal lives but nonetheless could not help but notice that the gentleman kept irregular hours, never carried a briefcase, and was never seen speaking on his phone in public.
Had the man been handsome, Ivo might have taken him for a model or kept boy, but he had an almost strikingly homely face, with a hooked nose and dark, thick eyebrows that nearly met in the middle. He was too well-dressed to be an artist, was home and away in the wrong seasons to be a designer, and walked with too much of a graceless, self-effacing slump within his fashionably old-fashioned suits to have been born into money. He played some sort of instrument, occasionally leaving the building with a long, flared case that might have held something like a sitar, but on those days he was dressed more fittingly for a workout than a performance, so Ivo doubted he was with an orchestra.
"Good afternoon," the man said brusquely, shoving his hands into his well-tailored pockets and proceeding to the mail room, where he was the first to notice the scattering of feathers but dismissed them as the detritus from some unfortunate hat.
He retrieved his mail and crossed the lobby to board the lift. Behind him, the lobby cameras resumed their duties while the one in the lift blinked off. He riffled through the stack of letters, which included a statement from his bank, something from Nimbus, and what was likely the latest newsletter from Wizards Against Sanguinism. He frowned faintly when he reached a bare envelope that bore the unmistakable imprint of talons.
Who in the world still used bird post? Between instant message parchment and psychic stamps for the Mundane post, sending letters by owl was nearly as dead as the telegram these days.
He turned the letter over, examining both sides. The envelope was well-made, of heavy stock and sealed at the back with beeswax. Rather than being pressed with a ring or even a thumb, it bore the anonymous imprint of something round and smooth and crimped—a bottle cap perhaps. On its face, in Latin script and neat black ink-and-quill printing, was nothing but his name: Viktor Krum.
He was about to open it, but at that moment the lift chimed, and he tucked the letter back into the stack as the doors slid open. One of his neighbours was waiting on the other side with two beautiful, laughing young women hanging off his arms. Viktor muttered a greeting, trying to remember if that one was the football player or the actor, and squeezed around them as they staggered onto the lift. He escaped with no more than a goosed left buttock and continued down the hall to his flat.
There he halted, freezing stock-still in front of the door. The hair on the back of his neck bristled. His security wards had been disabled.
He drew his wand, his other hand slipping inside his jacket and coming out with a flick-knife. He had started carrying it after the first break-in. His involvement with W.A.S. was no secret, and his house in Bankya had been the target of its share of broken windows and Neo-Grindelwaldian graffiti before he had moved to the city. Living in a Mundane building had seemed an effective deterrent—at least until now.
At a motion of his wand, the doorknob turned quietly. He squared his shoulders, drew a deep breath, and then kicked the door open.
The door hit the wall with an echoing bang, and Viktor's gaze swept keenly around the flat. His wand did not so much as dip, but his eyebrows knitted together when he saw no broken glass, no paint, no signs of a hurried search.
"Oh really, darling..." a woman's voice said dryly.
Viktor spun on his heel, wand levelled towards his kitchen bar.
An impeccably styled shock of silver hair rose above the pile of paperwork that nearly hid the kitchen from view. It was followed by the familiar face of Magda Romanov as she glared disapprovingly at him. "...put that knife down. You look ridiculous."
He breathed out hard in exasperation. His wand was lowered, and the knife's blade was retracted with a petty click. He shut the door behind him and put the wards back up. "For God's sake, Magda. How did you even get in here?"
Magda scoffed, as though it were a foolish question. "I have your emergency key and passwords, of course."
He glowered as he hung up his coat and then took a closer look at the pile of papers she had amassed. They proved to be the receipts from his last investigative trip to Poland. "And what, do tell, was the emergency?"
She waved an immaculately manicured hand. "I was in the mood to crunch some numbers, and you weren't home. I was hardly going to sit at the bus stop like an old pensioner waiting for her grandson."
Viktor crossed the kitchen to peer into the refrigerator, which was as empty as it had been yesterday. Then he looked into the wine cabinet and discovered that Magda had uncorked his last bottle of white. "I've been retired for four years, and you've been retired for three. You don't have to do my bookkeeping anymore."
"You'd be lost without me, darling," Magda said, sniffing sharply over what looked to be his hotel invoice from Warsaw. "Are those more bills padding your pocket? Hand them over. Come on, give to Magda."
He obliged, tossing the whole stack onto the bar before stalking over to the sofa and throwing himself down with a soft grunt. He had gone out last night and, as it happened, had stayed out. A nap, a shower, and re-acquaintance with his toothbrush were in order.
"Who's the lucky girl or boy?" Magda asked, neatly eviscerating his mail with her letter opener.
He snorted. "Me."
She unfolded a letter and whistled. "Oh my, you certainly are. Nimbus wants you for their new leathers campaign."
"I know," he said, taking out his mobile telephone and flipping it open. The glass window lit up, and the image of a scroll appeared, filling with a list of names. "They've been calling incessantly."
"Nimbus always pays well. Is there a reason you haven't got back to them yet?"
He smiled sweetly at her. "My agent retired."
"Tsk. Smarten up."
He chuckled, winding up the little scroll to see if Anna, whose charming flat he had found himself turned out of this morning, had tried to telephone him. She hadn't. "I don't need to have my photograph put around."
Magda made a displeased sound, but perhaps that was at the sight of his bank statement. He had retired at thirty, at the very first twinge that had heralded his decline, and he now lived off the interest and investments of a small dragon's hoard. Nonetheless, Magda—with the tempered pessimism that had made her such a good agent—insisted almost weekly that he was breaths away from bankruptcy.
She waved the unmarked envelope at him. "More hate mail?"
"Quite possibly," he said, setting down his telephone before closing his eyes and folding his arms across his chest. He had warded the mail slot to incinerate any Howlers or hexed letters upon delivery, but he allowed everything else through for his own amusement.
There was the sound of Magda opening the envelope and unfolding a piece of paper. Then there was silence for several seconds before she spoke. "Hm. That's odd."
He opened one eye and then the other. Then he sat up entirely as Magda sent the letter sailing towards him. He caught it, turned it the right way around, and felt his eyebrows climb as he read the single line in the centre of the page. It was written in Norwegian, and in the same careful, quill-and-ink printing as on the envelope, it read: "Thorfinn Rowle, Death Eater, is alive and dwelling in Akureyri, Iceland."
"You'd starve without me," Magda announced, setting breakfast down in front of him as he pored over the sprawl of open dossiers on the coffee table.
Of course, as Magda would starve without delivery, breakfast was a lukewarm platter from whatever restaurant she'd found open at this hour—a Mundane one, as evidenced by the plastic containers in place of retrievable plates, as well as by the excess of salt. He speared some rubbery poached egg on a plastic fork and slurped at a cup of yogurt, frowning down at the array of reports and photographs before him.
There was no telling how many Grindelwaldians and Death Eaters still haunted the world. After the continental war, the blood fascists had scattered, scuttling off into the shadows like rats fleeing the light. It was easy in those days to cover one's tracks, to steal some dead cousin's identity, to lie low until the trials ended and then speak very softly of the terrible wrongs one had undergone at the hands of the British and the traitors and progress itself. The battle between the armies of Thomas Riddle and Harry Potter had hardly ended any more neatly. A great many Death Eaters had been killed or captured, allies informed upon and hunted down, but the school itself had been nearly levelled, and afterwards, there were bodies that were never found. There were tracks in the woods, and there were sightings, uncertain at first and then substantiated.
"Which one is this Rowle fellow?" Magda asked, nibbling at a piece of toast and looking over the collection with the tepid politeness one might muster for an album of stamps or a birding log. She did not entirely approve of his pastime.
He swept his wand over the pile, separating the photographs first. They flipped by like a grisly cinema show: the graves, the Dark Mark, and the grey walls of Nurmengard, behind which his grandfather had been imprisoned for three years before dying of disease and starvation. He then singled out the later photographs, the ones of Thomas Riddle's second wave of followers, and shuffled through them manually.
Some of the photographs were originals that he had managed to collect at no little expense; there was a ghoulish trade in such things. Others were copies or clippings from various newspapers. Then there was one that he had come by through other means entirely, and the worn edges of it caught his fingertips. He paused, examining it for a brief moment.
The other pictures had been marked up in ink, labelled with names and dates, the relevant faces circled. Those who were dead or imprisoned bore a red slash across their images. He did not differentiate between those who had met their downfall during their own wars and those who had survived on their own cowardice for a time, nor did he differentiate between those brought to justice by the authorities and those brought to justice by W.A.S. There was only "dealt with" and "to deal with," as impersonal as a shopping list in its own way.
This photograph was not marked, at least not in ink. It showed two young men—29 and 19, he happened to know—standing in front of the fireplace at a Christmas gathering. The first man was tall and wore fur-trimmed robes. His face had been obliterated, scratched out so thoroughly with the point of a dry quill that the figure no longer moved. Still, Viktor knew to heart every part of him that remained: the set of his shoulders, the shape of his hands, the slight indolence of his posture. The younger man beside him was still animated, turning now from his faceless companion to regard Viktor with lazy amusement.
Severus Snape, spy and hero. Over a decade later, Viktor still remembered him well, and the man he had met at Hogwarts during the Tri-Wizard Tournament lurked around the edges of the boy's face. Sometimes he thought he could see what his mentor had been drawn to, long past the petty jealousy he'd held then for this mysterious predecessor, and an admirer of the stories told about the man after his death. And, as always, he could pity that youth in the photograph, as he pitied anyone who had ever been foolish enough to love Igor Karkaroff.
He put the photograph aside and continued shuffling until he found a copy of a wanted poster featuring the haughty face of a large, Norse-looking man of middling years. He laid it on the table in front of Magda.
"He fought at the Battle of Hogwarts," he said. "There were two teeth found in the wreckage that were matched to his bloodline, but nothing more."
"Ten years in Iceland might as well be a prison sentence," Magda said. "If he really is in Iceland. This has all the hallmarks of a fan looking for attention."
He considered that and nodded. "I'll have to go see for myself, then."
"Don't be ridiculous, Viktor. Isn't that what your little group is for?" She had once been under the impression, she often told him with a sigh, that he had joined the organisation as a celebrity endorsement. She had been imagining galas and fundraisers, or perhaps a tasteful series of public service advertisements. So had the W.A.S. board members, for that matter, until he had made it clear that he intended to get his hands dirty.
"I have no proof. What I do have is too much money and the time to investigate."
She arched an eyebrow. "And if the crank wants to lure you abroad, get you alone, and make you into a commemorative rug?"
He smiled. "Then I will have no one to blame but myself. And I will make sure you get royalties from any future sale of the rug or subsidiary products."
She hit him on the head with one of the file folders, which he bore stoically. "Do be careful," she said.
"I always am."
He picked up the letter again. It had been years since he had read or written in Norwegian, the lingua franca of Durmstrang, but the writing had the careful, copied look he remembered from his own translations. Could the sender be someone he had gone to school with? He chewed pensively on the last piece of toast and mentally scanned his roster of old classmates for the Icelanders, or anyone with whom he'd shared no other language. A few candidates presented themselves, but none whom he could fathom wishing to hide their identities.
He carefully refolded the letter and tucked it into his breast pocket. Then he let Magda busy herself booking him the cheapest International Floo trip to Iceland that could be wheedled.
When the man who called himself David Yalçin was a boy, he had visited his grandfather's farm every year on the day after Christmas. His grandfather raised sheep, and his memory of the place was to this day overlaid with the overwhelming smell of wet wool and wet dog. He remembered green hills soaked with rain or dusted with snow, bounded by low stone walls on one side and black, skeletal trees heavy with ravens on the other. The land had lain quiet and still under blank grey winter skies, and the idiot boy he had been then could only think that he himself would never live in such a lonely and provincial place when he grew up.
Fitting then, perhaps, that he ended up here: sitting on the crooked front steps of an old farmhouse with a cup of tea in hand, his head tilted back to watch a dark speck in the cloudless blue sky as it swiftly approached. This place—which was still called the Joliet Farm by the locals, who knew him to be an itinerant stranger even after seven years in residence—bore little resemblance to his grandfather's ancestral land. It was flat enough to see for miles where the sprawling green trees didn't block the view, and a narrow brook ran through it, noisy with the chirping of insects and spawning frogs. The sun warmed his shoulders, and the breeze rippled the tall grass. It was picturesque, in its own shabby way.
The property was only a few miles from the village centre, and perhaps fifty from the city of Brussels. He visited the former once a week on foot and the latter a few times a year by train. He did not own a vehicle, which was odd for the area, but which didn't seem to surprise those who know him. He had sharp ears, and he knew it was widely supposed that he was on some manner of disability pension, which he did not deny, as it neatly explained why he rented out his fields to his neighbours and grew only greenhouse herbs: chives and rosemary, thyme and sage, tarragon and parsley, oregano, dill, and three kinds of basil, all of which one of his neighbours brought to market for him and only marginally cheated him on.
Perhaps there was even a settlement; he was aware that this was the speculation. He had paid for the farm in cash, something he didn't realise at the time would be conspicuous. His parents had bought their house outright, after all, but that was decades ago, and the Muggle economy was a changeable thing. In truth, he had stolen this place, as much as anything bought with Muggle money—which was all cotton paper and electricity and imagination these days—could really be stolen. There was no way to reliably counterfeit coins short of alchemy, but he had discovered many years ago that replicating banknotes was a much simpler exercise, provided one remembered to change the serial numbers.
He did not consider the farm any less his own in light of the deception. On the contrary, he had come to discover that a stolen life was, in its way, more genuine than the fickle circumstances of fate and luck. He had also discovered that country living bred amateur philosophy.
The speck in the sky took on the shape of a bird of prey, and he let out a sharp whistle. The Eagle Owl ignored him, swooping down into Mme. Toussaint's turnip field instead, perhaps after an unwary diurnal mouse. It took its time eating whatever it had caught before flying the rest of the way to the house and perching on the edge of the step beside him, grooming its feathers and looking impossibly pleased with itself.
There was no letter in reply, but he hadn't expected one. He set down his cup of tea and removed from his pocket a crust of toast and an overcooked bit of bacon, which were both sharply pecked from his hand and devoured. Thus rewarded, the owl took off, lifting itself slowly on its full stomach and flying through the high window of the ramshackle barn, where it presumably hunkered down to sleep in the rafters after its long journey.
The man rose slowly to his feet and entered the house. It was cooler inside, chilled with the mid-morning shade. The breakfast dishes were, uncharacteristically for him, still in the sink, and the non-perishable half of yesterday's groceries sat in their basket on the counter. The cat, which like the owl had moved in when the property was abandoned and had yet to leave, lay stretched out imperiously in a sunbeam.
He hesitated, standing still for several long moments with his hand on the kitchen table. The last seven years had shaped his life into a narrow set of habits, and he found himself feeling dangerously exposed now that he had poked his head out of that comfortable rut.
Usually, he rose every morning several minutes before the cockerel crowed and went out back to feed the chickens and gather the eggs before making breakfast. He would work in the greenhouse until midday, when he would take a break for a cold lunch and the preparations for dinner; he avoided using magic when he could, and simple tasks still moved more slowly without it. In the afternoons, he saw to the greenhouse records, the seed catalogues, and the finances. He ate his dinner at seven o'clock sharp, after which he usually read or worked on crossword puzzles until nightfall.
The only regular diversion from this schedule occurred on Wednesdays, when he would walk into the village in the morning, arriving at the library just as it opened. He would then spend an hour or two with the newspapers—those that they knew they subscribed to and those that they didn't. There had obviously been another wizard or witch in the village at some point in the past, as there was a cupboard most did not seem to notice into which a newspaper was delivered weekly. He had shown the subscription stub to the sole librarian once, and she had blankly attributed it to her predecessor's predecessor. No one else seemed to touch the cupboard, and so he surreptitiously read its contents along with the other newspapers, sometimes making notes, before attending to the matter of banking and marketing.
Today was not a Wednesday, however, and the cat raised its head and made a querying trill at the novelty of finding him inside at this hour.
Slowly, with great deliberation, he sat down at his desk and unlocked the bottom drawer. He withdrew a box, which he also unlocked. Inside, there were several government documents and manufactured keepsakes, including a series of carefully copied Belgian and Turkish identification papers attesting to the fifty-year existence of David Yalçin. It continued to be a good name: foreign but not markedly so, common but not suspiciously so. It had no ties to his old life, held no secret significance, made no clever anagram. It was only a name, and one that had thus far served him well.
Underneath the documents was a stack of envelopes and writing paper, along with a quill, some sealing wax, and a stray bottle cap. He meant to keep these things together in case they needed to be destroyed at a later date. It was a risk, contacting Krum, but in the end it was a calculated one. Of course, he did not know that Thorfinn Rowle was alive and living in Iceland, but "Thorfinn Rowle owned an undisclosed tax dodge in Akureyri circa 1980" did not, he had decided, have the proper drama with which to incite a young turk's curiosity. Something would come of it, or it wouldn't. In the meantime, he could only wait.
Beneath the writing paper were the yellowing edges of several hastily clipped newspaper pages. Their presence was far more incriminating, but he could not bring himself to burn them, not yet. He drew them out one after the other, laying them across the desk like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and then read each through once again.
"I'm not mad," he muttered.
The cat roused itself at the noise and leapt onto the desk, sending the clippings askew.
He cursed, gathering the papers up with clumsy haste and returning them to the box. He locked the drawer again and then absently stroked the insistent cat, which purred loudly under his hand. Then, reminded of his homeland as he could not help but be, he decided that the only thing to do in this situation was make another cup of tea.
To Viktor's dismay, Magda had booked him on a bus from Reykjavik to Akureyri. Admittedly, he did not fly well in aeroplanes, and perhaps considering his destination's nearly non-existent magical population, roaring into town in a charm-powered sports car might not be the most discreet entrance he could make. Still, he was not overly pleased to spend four and a half hours folded into a cramped seat with a large, metal-framed rucksack balanced precariously on his lap. His seatmate was an elderly woman whose English was about on par with his own. She prodded him for details on his supposed backpacking trip and university studies, and on his purported desire to go whale-watching, and she in turn removed a seemingly inexhaustible supply of family photographs from her various suitcases and parcels.
"...and this one, he is Eva's second boy, he is perhaps your age..."
He could still pass as a tertiary student with the right clothing and a touch of a glamour. It was rare that anyone recognised him out of context these days, but he never knew where he might meet a fan. Polyjuice was too convoluted, and full glamours bred migraines if maintained for more than a few hours at a time, but he had learned that little changes could go a long way. This time he had shortened his nose and lightened his eyes and hair to a nondescript brown. He had shaved his beard and rubbed a little oil on his face as well as conjuring a blemish or two. With some dungarees and tee-shirts purchased from a second-hand Mundane shop, the impression he gave was of an unremarkable, forgettable young traveller.
The bus pulled in to the terminal in the late afternoon. Viktor helped Mrs. Fridleifsdottir with her luggage before disembarking. The town proved to be ruggedly charming. It was rocky and cool, with an arrangement of white and brightly coloured buildings warding off the bleak sky overhead. He walked from the terminal to the hotel Magda had arranged for him, enjoying the brisk sea air. He liked to travel, a necessity in his former line of work that nonetheless made him an oddity in his family. Only his father had willingly left their village before him, having served an apprenticeship in Sofia. As a child, Viktor had heard all about the strange, labyrinthine city streets, and about his father nearly calling out to strangers, thinking in his homesickness that he saw the faces of friends and family just around the corner.
He himself enjoyed being anonymous, however. He checked in at the hotel under the name of Aron Jensen and, after a pleasant fish dinner, soon began his investigation. He could flatter himself, but it did not in fact take much digging. This was a small, isolated city, and everyone knew each other's business. He made idle inquiries at the hotel bar about distant cousins who would have once lived in the area—one of the daughters married an Englishman named Rowle...?
Oh yes, a barman remembered, that would be Bragi Dagsson's girl.
Oh no, one of the women at the bar insisted, insinuating herself into the conversation. He probably meant that strange family that used to live on the other side of the Pool. The property was still there, a mile from the Thorvaldsson place, but no one had lived on it for years.
Ah well, Viktor murmured. He did not really know them. He would only have paid his respects, being in the area.
The next day, he assembled his travel broom and flew across the fjord. From there he hiked along the main road, admiring the hills and mountains to one side and the woods and water to the other until he felt the unmistakable flicker of warding spells. They were in a derelict state, but he supposed there was little need to refresh them out here. He followed the invisible walls around the property until he felt the strongest resistance, and there he knelt, digging in the dirt until he found where a pair of antlers and the rotted remains of an animal heart had been buried. He plucked at the net of spells and then pricked his thumb with his flick-knife, spilling blood onto the old bone. The wards sagged before him, and he slipped in through the slack gap.
The house was old and falling down, but obviously inhabited under its flimsy diversion charm. A pair of rubber boots sat out on the front step, a handful of worn shirts hung on the clothesline, and a fresh pile of chopped wood stood next to the shed.
Viktor remained there all day, camped out under a disillusionment charm in the tree line, watching the house. The sole resident was a man, and while he could not get a close enough look to confirm that it was Thorfinn Rowle, neither could he rule it out. The man left in the morning, going out on a small fishing boat and not returning until the early evening. He then sat alone in his house, frying up fish and listening to the wireless for some time before retiring. He was tall, that much Viktor could see, but not as powerfully built as Rowle had once been. His greying blonde hair was cropped close to his skull, and his face was sunken. He looked like an old man before his time, not unlike the wretched survivors of Nurmengard.
There were some, he mused, who would pity this man, even if he were indeed Thorfinn Rowle. He had been taken aback three years ago at the letters W.A.S. had received when Pandora Ingles had been unearthed; less so last year when the same letters came in support of Oldrich Vojacek. Let the past lie, people said. They're old men and women now. What use is it to have them end their lives in prison when they've lived with their consciences for sixty years?
He watched as the last light went out in the house, and he tried to muster some sympathy for this man, for this lonely man, aged and worn thin with secrets. The image of Igor's blood-drained face flashed in his mind, an intimate phantom.
No, he thought, his heart hardening. He only felt satisfaction to imagine these ghosts exorcised from their victims' lives and brought into the light to be seen for what they really were.
He returned to his hotel that night, but he couldn't sleep. He paced the narrow, anonymous confines of his room, thinking about the letter-writer. He wondered if he or she might be someone who lived in the town, someone who had recognised Rowle but had been too afraid to confront him. One of his former victims, perhaps? Viktor shuddered at the thought and withdrew the now-creased letter from his bag and examined it again, peering at it as if the ink might rearrange itself into a name or a face if only he stared hard enough.
Eventually, he folded the letter back up and took out his mobile telephone instead. It was too late to call his parents, and he doubted anyone at W.A.S. who might still be awake would care to hear from him. They were uncomfortable with his initiatives. Writing articles, erecting memorials, speaking at schools—these were the safer battles. His propensity for direct investigation had earned him a few admirers but no real friends in the organisation.
He rang Magda instead, but there was no answer. A blank scroll appeared on his screen, and he scrawled a message across it with his portable quill: If you're out, I hope you aren't doing anything I wouldn't do. If you don't hear from me by this time tomorrow, you have permission to worry.
The next morning, Viktor returned to the house, and after the little fishing boat had launched, he went in by a poorly latched window and began his search. The place was filthy. Food scraps rotted in the bin and sink, and the floor stuck to his boots. He walked carefully so as not to disturb the dust as he looked through the cupboards and drawers, finding little but rusty utensils, worn clothing, and half-empty bottles of pain medications and spirits. He knocked on walls and swept for hidden hatches, to no avail.
He had begun to think that either the man was innocent or smarter than most when, as might occur to anyone who had boarded at school, he lifted the mattress. The smell of mildew assailed him, and though he saw nothing lying against the slats, he patted the underside of the damp mattress to be certain.
There was an opening cut into the fabric. He cautiously reached in and touched something cold. At the faintest tug, the object slid out, and he found himself face to face with a smooth silver mask. Its eyes were dark and empty, hiding the flesh behind them. Its lips were faintly curved.
Viktor returned the smile.
That evening, when Rowle returned, Viktor was waiting for him. The man might have once been fast, but a decade in hiding had evidently dulled him. When he turned on the light in his kitchen to find a stranger sitting at his table, he stared stupidly for a full second before scrabbling for his pocket. It was too late. Viktor hit him with a shackling spell, and he went down with a shout.
"Who are you?" Rowle snarled, thrashing like a landed fish as Viktor removed the wand from his pocket. "I didn't do anything! I'm an innocent man!"
Viktor laid the man's wand aside and reached for a grimy sleeve. He unbuttoned the cuff and yanked it up roughly, revealing the faded black outline of a skull with a serpent in its mouth on the man's weathered skin. "No," he said. "I do not think you are."
He gagged Rowle with a silencing spell and telephoned Magda again, glowering impatiently while the chimes rang. Mercifully, this time she answered.
"Magda—no, no, I'm fine. I need you to place a fire call for me. To the I.C.W. They still haven't updated to telephones, if you can believe it. Tell them I need someone at the following location..."
Magda took him to dinner in late August to celebrate the setting of Thorfinn Rowle's trial date. Dressed in a chic suit that put his own to shame, she charged into the restaurant of the minute without a reservation and in short order had secured the second-best table in the house while Viktor hung back, looking embarrassed as he always did when she breezily wielded his name. It was a warm evening at the end of a hot day, and they were soon shown out to the private terrace where they shared a bottle of good Spanish red and listened to the sounds of the city.
Viktor gazed at the sunset, admiring the golden glow behind the scattered clouds and squinting slightly when he thought he saw an owl on the horizon.
"Stop it," Magda said sternly, waggling a salad-laden fork in his direction.
He blinked and looked away from the skyline. "Stop what?"
"Stop looking to the heavens like you expect a fleet of doves to drop you another letter."
"I was doing nothing of the sort," he said, returning his attention to his baked peppers. The restaurant was, to his mild annoyance, exactly as good as Magda had promised.
"You're a terrible liar. Empty your pockets."
"I beg your pardon? I'm an excellent liar."
"Empty your pockets," she said again, smiling smugly over the rim of her wine glass, "and prove to me that you aren't carrying around your latest love note."
"It is not a love note," he protested.
The letter was, in fact, merely the continuation of a discussion on whether Amycus Carrow could possibly have survived the Battle of Hogwarts based on the muddled blood evidence left behind. Although if Viktor were being entirely honest, that thread of conversation had unravlled into an argument about the social merits or lack thereof of European Quidditch.
"Mm-hm," Magda said sceptically.
Viktor sighed and reached into his jacket pocket. This last letter was the longest yet at nearly three pages, and though it had only come two days ago, the fine paper was already slightly worn and its creases dull from several readings. He slapped the letter down on the table, and Magda snatched it up.
Her lips moved faintly as she read, and then they quirked sharply. One of her eyebrows arched. "A 'puerile exercise in jingoism'? A 'charade at war for the impotent masses too cowardly to leave their hearths'? Oh my, she isn't a Quidditch fan, I take it."
"He," Viktor corrected.
Magda took a slim pair of spectacles from her handbag and peered more closely at the letter. "She. No man makes his ells so daintily."
"He. The Norwegian letters used masculine adjectives."
"Perhaps her Norwegian is as bad as yours."
"My Norwegian is not that bad. And he would not be caught erring in a foreign language. He is very...exact."
Magda fell silent as the server arrived with their main courses. Then she cut into her veal with sharp, efficient knife work. "You're talking as if you know her."
Her voice was softly chiding, and Viktor's shoulders hunched in defence as he examined his pork. Yes, he was being foolish. He knew it as well as she did. Still, the knowledge of it did not blunt the odd, fledgling kinship he felt with the sender of the letters. He had never been someone who took to people easily, yet he had found himself waiting for replies to his letters with growing eagerness over the last several weeks.
He and the Snitch—for so he'd come to privately think of him, knowing to his marrow the particular pleasure of glimpsing something quick and elusive and of great value from the corner of his eye—seemed, on paper, very much alike. For Viktor, that was a novelty. They were both a little too modern for tradition, moderate in their politics, and each with their weaknesses for the Mundane world. Viktor could not resist a sleek sports car, and his correspondent had confessed a fondness for mystery novels before clamming up stiffly for several letters to follow. Yet they were both too traditional for the whirligig of modern laissez-faire, agreeing firmly on the dubious value of television and renovations.
The Snitch's open dislike for celebrity of all stripes was particularly refreshing. Viktor still met few people who didn't feel the need to either bring up the 1994 World Cup or avoid the topic so thoroughly as to make it clear that they did not consider him any more famous than they were. His correspondent's disdain for the game seemed sincere, however, and while Viktor obviously disagreed, he could not help but respect the impression the viewpoint gave of a serious, Spartan man. The sort that people pretended to be when they feigned ignorance of any popular style of music or paid a working man's daily wage for a plate of figs and honey or a bottle of olive oil.
"I know something of him," Viktor finally said.
Magda peered at him, scanning his veiled expression and evidently spying something in the gaps. "You really do have a schoolboy crush." She shook her head. "Oh, darling. She could be as old as I am, for all you know. And not half as handsome."
"You are the most gorgeous centenarian I know," he said, deflecting, "and if you cared a jot for the male sex, I would propose tonight. Name the date and I will bring you the diamond."
Magda made a rude noise, but he saw her smile.
He retrieved the letter from her and tried to picture the femme fatale she was no doubt envisioning. A blonde, perhaps—no, a brunette, like that Mundane film star with the lovely lips—tall and striking and straight out of a spy novel. And, of course, coldly after the fortune that Magda swore he did not have.
It was not an unpleasant image, but unless his Snitch was trying to mislead him, he could only take him at his word as to his gender. As old as I am, Magda said. Perhaps. He could imagine a respectable elder, as restless in his retirement as Viktor was, writing from an attic study in some married daughter's house. He didn't think it was so, however. There was something in the way the man wrote, revealing in a sharply chosen adjective or mocking euphemism more bitterness towards Thomas Riddle than Gellert Grindelwald, whom he discussed far more academically than Viktor could.
If he were to speculate—and it seemed he did little else in recent weeks, between research and investigative correspondence—he would imagine the man to be forty, fifty, sixty perhaps. Old enough, Viktor supposed, to have read the accounts of Thomas Riddle's terrorism if not observed them himself, but younger than Grindelwald's defeat. British, almost certainly. He was possessed of that certain dry pessimism that Viktor had encountered in the more fathomable breed of Englishman, and the way his writing slanted unhappily on the phrase "Death Eater" and the way his old-fashioned quill dripped a speck of ink as it hesitated before the word "Riddle" attested to some connection.
Sixty was not so old, he thought, picturing some mature, scholarly type. Then, of course, he thought of Igor, and his stomach curdled.
"Is there something wrong with your pork?" Magda asked, already looking around for a server to flag down. "I'll get you an order of this veal—it's divine."
He shook his head. "No. It's fine."
Chewing without tasting, he pushed the thought of absent mentors aside and let Magda take over with talk of the current Quidditch season and harmless gossip about his former teammates.
The cat twined around his ankles, purring distractingly as he dipped his quill in the ink pot for the fifth time, only to frown at the blank paper for nearly a minute before wiping the quill nib clean again. It was two o'clock in the afternoon, but he was not scratching at the ledgers or poring over the botanical magazines as he ought to be. Instead, he sat at his desk with Viktor Krum's latest letter at hand, attempting the third draft of a reply.
"I've wasted quite enough time," he informed the cat, who paused, looking up at him with narrow green eyes before returning to its pacing.
That he was not particularly embarrassed at having said this aloud was indicative of the issue at hand. The man who called himself David Yalçin was no stranger to silence. Perth, Athens, Istanbul—he could count on his fingers the number of people whom had spoken to on three continents in as many years. His muteness had not been entirely elective during those travels. For a very long time, even drawing a cold breath had been agonising, as if his throat were full of rough-edged stones. Yet the trite axiom proved true for once, and in time, the pain had eased, and the silence had become his own. Some might have mistaken it for paranoia, but by the time he reached Belgium and this quiet village where a man might stand on his own land and hear nothing at all but the sound of the brook and the wind through the trees, he had ceased shunning company for the sake of safety, and instead shunned it solely because he wished to.
That early freedom had been potent. His first year here was a haze of homely, solitary pleasure. He had spent whole days out of doors or cloistered inside, at no prompting save for the weather and whim. He'd kept no schedule at first, owing nothing of himself to anyone here: not money, or duty, or even politeness. Sometimes, yes, he had startled at the call of a bird or the passing of a vehicle on the road, but just as his wounds had healed, so too did the knot between his shoulders slowly loosen. Like an adolescent away from home for the first time, he had let his beard grow and his habits run lazy. He'd had chocolate cake for breakfast and eggs for dinner. He had let books pile up in teetering stacks in all corners. Once, clumsily and covertly, he had climbed a tree.
The novelty wore off gently. In time, he learned how to cook properly for himself, and he relearned how to trim a beard. He swept the floors every day, and he took long baths in the evening, and one day while in town, roughly a year after his arrival, he bought a large wooden bowl at a rummage sale. When he got home, he placed it in the centre of his kitchen table, and from then on, he kept it filled with apples. The stacks of books, however, remained as they were.
Now years had passed, and while he had still never felt that particular ache that others called loneliness, he supposed he was like the convalescent who one day wakes to find the bed a warder rather than a nursemaid. Some part of him was finally tiring of the silence.
Sometimes he caught himself speaking just to hear the sound of his own voice, to feel the rumble in his throat and know that he was still capable of speech. He hummed his opinion at the wireless as his father used to do, or he made small asides to the cat. This itch, this philosophical bedsore, had thus far never been enough to spur him into some sort of society. Yet it seemed that somehow, against his better judgement, society had found him nonetheless.
He glanced once again at Krum's letter. Who would have thought that the boy would make such an engaging conversationalist?
Here he snorted. "The boy," he said to the cat, which had lain down over his foot. That "boy" was thirty-four years old, a man by several years' grace in even the most conservative wizard's reckoning. He was a man, and by all evidence he lived a life of respectability and moderate social crusading in a faraway city. Perhaps he was married, perhaps even a father. His letters had not made it seem so; rather, they gave the impression of irregular hours and frequent jaunts abroad and a meddlesome friend of indeterminate origin who made it his or her mission to keep Krum's ego in check. But then, what sensible husband or father would expose his family to a faceless, nameless stranger who sent letters unsolicited? Viktor Krum was, he thought rather approvingly, nothing if not sensible.
He picked up the quill again and drew a deep breath that only stung his throat slightly. The window was open, a faint breeze making the corner of his paper rustle against the desk, which in turn was bathed in warm late afternoon sunshine. He did not wish to leave this place; and, if Viktor Krum were capable of plucking a certain worrisome inconvenience in Brussels out of his way, perhaps he would not have to. Outside, the leaves rustled in turn, and he heard in the distance the guttural caw of a blackbird.
Any magpie can pluck a copper from the dirt.
The words slithered coolly through his mind, and goose-flesh broke out along his arms despite the heat of the day as he remembered pale fingers plucking at the wool of his robes, and coarser hands rummaging through his satchel, and all of them giddily on watch for blended fabrics or white pulp paper—forbidden books or food of dubious provenance—all of them full of self-importance and eager to inform on one another.
"Quite enough time," he muttered, and he set quill nib to paper and the crux of his plan into action.
Viktor looked at himself in the tailor's mirror, adjusting a cuff and then straightening his tie.
He was not undermining Magda's hard work booking his trip to Brussels so much as he was augmenting it. It was a day of telephone calls and running errands. Magda meant well, and she was a marvel at making arrangements on short notice, but not every trip called for thrift. He had contacted the hotel she had chosen and upgraded his room, and then, upon recommendation from the front desk, had been forwarded to a company that would have a rental automobile waiting for him upon his arrival. He had then once more tried the number for the telephone he had sent the Snitch, but as usual, it rang as long as he let it, and finally he had given up and decided to go shopping for a new suit.
The red striped tie, he decided. It was bolder.
He remained unconvinced that a fugitive lurked behind the letters in the Brussels newspaper, but there was likely a pocket of Neo-Grindelwaldian sentiment in the area for someone to be so bold. Therefore, he had no intention of going unnoticed. Distasteful though it was, it took little excess of his natural inclinations to make him all that a resentful young pure-blood might wish to be. He was wealthy, and idle by circumstance. He dressed well and enjoyed the finer things in life. He was educated and well-mannered, and he was privy to the minutiae of protocol that society adopted to keep the wrong sort out.
And yes, he owed it almost wholly to his blood status.
He had been the first in his family to attend Durmstrang. All four of his grandparents were of ability, his grandfather's Mundane-born parents deemed just distant enough forty years after the war when his parents applied to have him educated. He was considered new to the school in a way that the other first-years were not, but he was from the country, which forgave some sins of ignorance under the blessing of the folkish, romantic tales they read in their literature and history classes. He was clever, and he worked hard, and he could fly, but all of these would not have mattered a jot if he had not been able to attend the school and to thus catch the eye of Igor Karkaroff.
Viktor frowned, tugging at a loose thread until the tailor clucked in alarm and scurried out of the fitting room to fetch some scissors.
He had been twenty years old and a wunderkind no longer when he began to read his own press. Rags to riches, the sport writers liked to say. A home-grown success story. He was part of a great tradition, the newspapers and magazines assured him, unlike his Mundane-born teammates or rivals who, they liked to remind their readers, had not even laid eyes on a broom before the age of eleven! What tradition was this? Viktor knew it well. Once, they had told stories of poor but pure-hearted and pure-blooded peasants who outsmarted beguiling Mundanes and won fame and riches. Now they made believe that playing Quidditch was the fulfilment of the same great destiny. Viktor's father had been a cobbler for forty years, and he was a very good one—but even the Mundane could make shoes, so where was the story in that?
He looked down. He would need new shoes, or perhaps a good pair of city boots.
The errant thread was soon clipped, and then he was left alone again as the tailor went with his assistant to fetch shoes from the back. Feeling suddenly restless with thoughts of his school days, he took his telephone out of his pocket and flipped it open. Magda had her book club on Wednesday afternoons, and so he found himself dialling the Snitch's number again just to occupy his hands. It rang three times, four times, five. He was about to hang up when, unexpectedly, he heard the faint whistle of the call connecting.
"What can I do," the voice on the other end said sharply, "to make you stop this infernal ringing?"
Viktor, to his shame, nearly dropped the telephone. The voice was low and rich and very slightly hoarse. The English was accented, although with what, he could not say.
He wet his lips. "You can change the tone, you know."
Disdainful silence was the only reply.
"I do not suppose," Viktor said, "that you found this telephone in a ditch."
He knew the answer. It was ridiculous, but the moment he heard the voice, he knew it beyond a doubt. Unfortunately, he had a peculiar weakness for a good voice.
"No," the Snitch said shortly.
"I leave for Brussels in the morning," Viktor said, and he must have frowned more ferociously than he intended to when the tailor peeped through the curtain, because the man sprang back and pulled it shut again.
"Good. Maybe then you can stop calling at all hours."
There was the sound of unpractised fingers trying to turn the telephone off.
"Pawn to D4," Viktor said hastily.
A pause. "I beg your pardon?"
The voice did not sound confused, however, but rather pleased. Darkly so, perhaps. It was a dark voice, and Viktor found himself plucking uncomfortably at the slightly itchy constriction of his new shirt as he flushed hot in the confines of the fitting room. Damn it. He hated it when Magda was right. "You heard me. Do you have a chessboard?"
"So we can play. I have a long train ride tomorrow, and you haven't written me."
"And I suppose I exist to entertain you?"
"I could entertain you," Viktor said, shaking his head when it came out sounding more flirtatious than he'd intended.
The Snitch chuckled breathly. "D4 is a half-entertaining choice."
Igor had been a traditionalist in all things save chess, where he had delighted in teaching Viktor annoying modernities, which made him unpopular with those classmates he played against. In retrospect, perhaps that had been deliberate on Igor's part, a way of keeping Viktor all to himself. He wondered what forward-thinking master the Snitch had himself learned from when the next few moves took them into the King's Indian Defence.
"Pawn to G6," the Snitch said smugly, and before Viktor could take his next turn, the connection was severed.
Viktor had been to Brussels before, but only in his Seeker days. Travelling the world was one thing, but doing so as part of a Quidditch team was something else entirely. In his decade of play, he had visited dozens of cities on five continents, but all he really saw of them were pitches and way stations, and hotel rooms, which tended to look very much the same the world over.
Brussels was pleasant from the street level. It was cooler than Sofia had been when he'd left, mildly overcast above and smelling of recent rain below. The train station was in the middle of the city, surrounded by a mixture of the medieval and modern, with towers of stone and glass rising up on the skyline and a crowd of people bustling around him.
The sun briefly peeked out from behind a cloud as he walked a block to find the car that was waiting for him. He broke into a grin despite himself when he saw the sleek silver beauty. It was a Spyker, a modified C8 Aileron, and ludicrously expensive even to rent. However, like a faithless man away from his wife for a week, he was flushed with guilty excitement at the indulgence. The vehicle was hardly touched by the looks of it, and fitted out, he had been promised, with all the latest in automotive enchantments.
He ran an appreciative hand over its spare, almost severe lines, and it obligingly swung up the driver's side door. He slipped inside into the embrace of the leather seats, thumbed the button for the wireless, and was soon speeding into town with a Flaming Manticores baseline pulsing over the Spyker's sweet purr.
His telephone chirped as he was turning onto a wider street, rounding the corner towards the Old Town, the principal wizarding district in Brussels. He turned down the wireless, put the auto-drive on, and answered: "Krum."
"You arrived in one piece, I take it," Magda drawled in his ear, and he guiltily recalled that he had promised to call her as soon as he arrived.
"It was a remarkably boring train ride," he said. "All I did was take a memory potion and read two phrasebooks. I'm still waking up."
It was a half-truth. The journey had taken nearly a day, but the Snitch had obligingly picked up the telephone three times in those twenty-four hours to continue their game. They were both keeping records, writing down moves and sketching out boards—Viktor with his telephone tucked in the cradle of his shoulder, and the Snitch eccentrically putting his down entirely to scratch his own notes. The last call had been just as Viktor was tucking into his bunk for the night, and he had lain awake for some time afterwards, wondering if that voice really did sound distantly familiar, or if he was only giving himself leave to speculate and conjure a face to accompany it.
"Good," Magda said. "Boring train rides are the best kind. I half-expected you would be attacked by spies and end up duelling atop the cars."
He snorted. "You listen to too many serials."
"At least I don't try to live them, darling. What's that sound? Are you in an automobile?"
"Mm," he said. "A very old one, I'm afraid. One of those ridiculous three-wheelers."
"You're still a terrible liar, Viktor Krum."
He smiled and revved the engine. "You are simply too astute for me."
"Save the receipts, or I'll box your ears when you get back."
His hotel was a large, medieval affair that stood at the edge of the Old Town, serving a mixed clientele of Mundane and magical. He had upgraded to the penthouse, which afforded a strategic view over the wizarding neighbourhoods, and which looked very comfortable aside. After reluctantly entrusting the Spyker to a valet, he was shown to his room, where he showered and dressed in his smart new suit.
Straightening his tie in the mirror, he tried ringing the Snitch. It rang a dozen times, and he idly found himself trying to picture the room at the other end, as if he might peer down the network of Floos and satellites to catch a glimpse. Where was the man when he was not there to answer? Out on his country property somewhere, shooting perhaps, or reading. Or was he taking that long walk to parts more populated to buy milk and bread? Or perhaps he wasn't gone at all, but simply let the telephone ring out of pique—or because there were other ears about.
Viktor paused at that, his hand lingering on the silk of his tie, tracing the red stripes. He did not truly believe that. It seemed obvious to him that the Snitch lived alone. There were never any voices or sounds in the background, and there was something simply...unpractised in the way the man spoke sometimes, like someone who once played an instrument very well striking the wrong notes before his fingers warmed up. He found, however, that he liked the idea of there being something slightly illicit in their association. As if they were not simply fellow hobbyists.
He shook his head and went down to the street and through the gates into the wizarding district. His first stop was the tailor's, where he browsed the selection of gloves and bought an umbrella just in case the clouds gathered closer. Then he continued on, aware that he was drawing attention as a lone tourist. He had been wary of putting on too strong a glamour here; other wizards and witches were more likely to see through such a charm than were the Mundane. Rather, he had again sacrificed his beard, and he had used some tonic to grow out his hair. A few illusory tweaks blunted the more severe of his features, and he glanced at his reflection in shop windows and in the spectacles of a not-unattractive young lady, confident that even the most ardent fan would not identify him as Viktor Krum.
He had a small dinner alone at a pleasant British-style public house and then continued his stroll through the narrower alleyways, which was where he spotted—or rather, was spotted by—precisely the sort of young men he had come here to meet.
"Eh!" one of them called out.
Viktor paused, raising one eyebrow sharply and mentally assigning wand, fists, and umbrella to each of the three should they intend to rob him.
The young men were all in their early to mid-twenties. They wore robes, and their wands hung conspicuously at their belts in decorative holsters. One had Grindelwald's rune worked into the leather of his holster. Another wore a ring with the symbol. The third, a tall, thin redhead in sombre black wool, did not wear the mark anywhere Viktor could see, but he was the most unnerving of the group as he stepped forward, his pale eyes glinting with interest.
"Nice cloak," the redhead said in Dutch.
Viktor pretended to be flattered and inclined his head in acknowledgement. The young man did not seem the type to write letters to a newspaper, or even to read them, but Viktor's cloak was unremarkable save in its existence; few but old-bloods wore cloaks at all anymore, and in summer even more rarely, for all that it was once considered an integral part of any wizard's suit.
"Thank you," Viktor said, and he nodded to them smartly before continuing down the street. He went only a couple of blocks before doubling back and cutting across an alleyway to follow the group at a discreet distance. They ambled along the streets and eventually went into a small corner establishment whose sign read, "Café Wocart."
He idled a few minutes before going inside, at which point he gave the group a bland smile as if mildly surprised to happen upon them again and went to the front to browse the menu and place his order. The woman behind the counter was middle-aged and plump, with her silver-streaked black hair drawn back into a tight bun. Her expression was unpleasant as she emptied out the till, but when she spotted Viktor, she looked him over appreciatively, and her mien lightened.
"Carole Wocart," she said, introducing herself in accented Dutch as she poured him a coffee. "I haven't seen you in here before. Are you new in town?"
"Albrecht Knochen," he said. "Just visiting, I'm afraid."
He signed a note of credit and took his cup to a corner table, where he scanned his guidebook and studiously pretended not to notice the occasional glances that were sent his way until the trio of young men gathered their drinks and food and disappeared into one of the back rooms. He was considering going around back to see if there were windows when his telephone quietly chirped.
He reached to turn it off. He could make excuses about Mundane trinkets, but there was no sense in ruining the image unduly. Still, he hesitated. There weren't many who had this number, and Magda had already called him. He chewed his lip in thought and then made short work of the rest of his coffee before going outside to take the call.
"So I realise."
Viktor smiled ridiculously at the wry, impatient tone. "I'm in Brussels."
"Have you found out anything?"
"I was in the midst of doing so when you called."
"Well, get on with it, then."
He chuckled. "I will." Then he hesitated a moment. "How are you?"
There was a matching pause. He thought he could hear a steady, rolling sound, like a cat purring, but then, he was far from a hearth and the connection might have been bad.
"Fine," the Snitch finally said. "And you?"
They were both silent for several moments, the sound of their breathing awkwardly mingling, and then Viktor heard the familiar fumble of the Snitch's phone clicking shut.
Travelling on the business of espionage was, as it happened, a much more pleasant pursuit than travelling on the business of sport. Viktor spent the better part of a week in and out of the Old Town, taking the Spyker up to comfortable speeds of 110 or 130 on the motorways outside of the city, or else sightseeing at the museums and galleries, or researching at the libraries, where he looked through the letters to the editor in every magical newspaper he could lay hands on. He read the Mundane papers as well, scrolling through microfiche or maladroitly clicking on the computer that one of the librarians set him up with. It was there if you squinted: a noticeable rise over the last five years of vandalism, robbery, and petty arson around the borders of the Old Town.
He had occasion to see it for himself as he was walking back to his hotel one afternoon after a jaunt to the outskirts of the city to watch a minor league game. The Quidditch pitch didn't offer parking, as he'd rightly guessed, and so he had taken the Metro and was now pleased to be stretching his legs on a sunny day. He had nearly passed Café Wocart entirely when a flicker of motion in the side alley caught his eye. There he saw the owner with a bubbling bucket and bristle brush, scrubbing energetically at what proved to be a six-foot tall painting of Grindelwald's rune emblazoned on the alley wall in gleaming red.
His fists clenched momentarily, and frowning, he intervened. Mevr. Wocart was not an old woman, perhaps only sixty or so, but she was not as tall as the defacement, and the job seemed to be taking the wind from her.
"Would you like some help, mevrouw?" he asked.
She spun around, one hand reaching for her pocket and the other wielding the scrub brush. He held up his hands in placation, and she smiled when she saw it was him. "My, aren't you the chivalrous one?"
He took off his cloak and rolled up his sleeves before taking the scrub brush from her.
"Let me get you something to drink and nibble on," she said with a wheezy little schoolgirl giggle.
Viktor set to, scrubbing mercilessly at the wall. The sound of it grated on him, but not as badly as the sight of the mark did. It was the better part of a half hour's work, but he did not pause when his arms began to ache—reminding him of how out of shape he was these days—nor when Mevr. Wocart brought out a tall glass of limonade and a plate of pastries. He gritted his teeth, putting his back into the work until every last trace of the paint was scoured from the brickwork.
"Oh, lovely," Mevr. Wocart said, clapping her hands in delight when she saw his progress. "Good as new."
He threw the brush into the bucket and stretched. "Does this sort of thing happen often?"
She looked uncomfortable, and he saw her glance up the street. Those same three young men he had encountered earlier were approaching. She smiled brightly and waved her hand dismissively. "Now and then. Boys will be boys."
Viktor nearly told her exactly what he thought about the sort of "boys" who idolized Gellert Grindelwald, but the young men were in earshot now. They were looking from the wet splotch on the wall, to Mevr. Wocart, then to Viktor. So he shrugged his shoulders. "There is a time and a place for such things."
Mevr. Wocart seemed relieved at his diplomatic answer, and he wondered if she wasn't being intimidated by the young men.
"Come inside," she said. "I'll chill your drink back up."
Viktor obliged and was followed inside by the trio. The cafe was comfortably cool after his exertion, and he was soon presented with an iced glass, which he took to the central table along with his pastries. The young men joined him, spilling into the extra chairs with deliberately lazy postures that spoke of careful practice.
"A time and a place?" the one with the ring said.
Viktor regarded them coolly and then nodded. His hand made a gesture that he hardly recognised. No, rather, he recognised it too well. He was aping Igor as he languidly pointed out the jewellery they wore, and he let the phantom slip into his voice was well. "A ring or a pendant, or a piece of leatherwork. These things are elegant. Understated. A splash of paint on a wall, which clashes with the bricks besides? It is too much. It is common vandalism, and it proclaims to all who look at it that vandalism is all the symbol is worth."
The redhead seemed to consider that, looking Viktor over with as little discretion as red paint on a wall. The young man was dressed in an imitation of what had been fashionable sixty years ago, his outfit cobbled together for period rather than style, as if he were acting in a play. Viktor rolled his sleeves back down and carefully straightened his shirt cuffs.
"I'm Julien," the redhead said finally, offering his hand. "That's Ludo and that's Florian." He nodded to the one with the ring and the one with the holster respectively.
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, gentlemen," Viktor lied through his teeth, shaking hands firmly with all of them.
"So where are you from, Albrecht?" Julien asked.
Viktor raised an eyebrow sharply. "I do not recall introducing myself."
Julien chuckled. "I asked Mevr. Wocart. You've made an impression around here."
"Well, well," Viktor said, attempting to look amused rather than ill at ease. "What a friendly neighbourhood this is."
"It's a town," Florian said firmly. "The Mundies built their city up on our land, but the Old Town was here first."
"I stand corrected," Viktor said. "This is my first visit to your town. I live in Sofia."
"There's a lot of Mundies in Sofia, isn't there?" asked Ludo.
"A fair number," Viktor said, thinking fondly of the noise of the streets, the hum of cars and music, the buzz of electricity, all of it like the warm chirruping of crickets. Then he let Igor take over again. "But it is like insects. Put up good screens and do not leave food out, and you won't be overly bothered."
The young men laughed.
"Come with us in back, Albrecht? We're having a little social club meeting," Julien said. "I'll have the old girl make us some sandwiches."
"Thank you," Viktor said. "It is always nice to meet like-minded people when travelling."
One of them patted him on the back as they went into the private room, which was furnished with a large table, comfortable chairs, and a sofa for lounging. He took a seat at the table and was soon a captive audience for their crudities.
"So I saw this Mundie slag walking around near the gates yesterday with her tits hanging out..."
"...someone should teach that old Mundie-loving bastard a lesson..."
"...then I said to the little half-breed, 'Who do you think you're talking to?'"
Julien grinned at him. "Hey, Albrecht—how many Mundies does it take to start a fire?"
Viktor opened his mouth, but Ludo eagerly cut in:
"Only one—if you use enough kerosene!"
Viktor met Julien's coldly amused eyes across the table, and his skin tightened over his flesh. He had spent six years at Durmstrang; he was thus no stranger to anti-Mundane jokes. There had been times when using his fists was no option, and he'd had to bite nearly clean through his tongue to get through the day.
This was something more, however. He felt it in the jangling, reckless energy of the room—in the high-pitched laughs and the too-hard poundings of fist against table. He feigned a smile and took a long drink of his limonade. The Snitch was right. Something rotten was going on in the Old Town.
The man who called himself David Yalçin was not a drinker by habit. He did not frequent the local pub, which went some way in explaining his lack of social standing in the village, and he did not sample the wares of the many brewers of note who operated in the area, turning out beers both fanciful and overly serious. "Liquid courage," he had heard it called, but on the few occasions he had ever been drunk, he had only felt more a coward than ever: small and sorry and, after, snoring so loudly that he woke himself up in the middle of the night.
Thus he was surprised, after imbibing four shots of decent whisky bought in town, to find himself resolutely setting the mobile phone on the night table. He could always pretend in the morning that this had never happened, he told himself. He was very good at forgetting things. He had excised quite a few unpleasantries from his life—some more literally than others—and on a good day, he was forgetful enough that the whole of his past was akin to some impressionist landscape, all flecks of light on darkness that blurred to nonsense if one peered too closely.
He opened up the phone and pecked at the buttons with one finger, dialling the number that he had long since committed to memory. Then he put the phone to his ear and listened to the ringing chimes.
"Krum," the voice on the other end said.
He knew how telephones worked, and he could guess at how this magical adaptation was jury-rigged together. There was no reason allowed by magic or physics that the voice should sound appreciably closer now that Krum was in Belgium. Yet it did, as if the young man were in the room, or only around the corner, about to step into the bedroom and join him.
"I know," he said. He swallowed hard.
The conversation that followed was perfectly decorous, in the way that he was far more at home with politics and violence than with sex. They discussed the case at hand, the relative dullness of the investigation peppered with Krum's pique at being forced to congregate with the young Neo-Grindelwaldians. They sounded like an uncouth bunch, he decided, and then uncomfortably reflected that perhaps that was always the case.
"They aren't worth your ire," he said, sitting down at the edge of his bed. The bed springs squeaked loudly, and he winced, wondering if they had been heard on the other end. He remembered, suddenly, another phone—one mounted to the wall with a long cord. Sometimes, when he was very young and his parents were otherwise engaged, there would be a telephone call in the night from a friend, and he would sit in the dark pantry for quiet conversation, winding the curling cord around his finger.
His fingertip turned circles on the cold, smooth back of the mobile phone.
Krum was not so easily put off, however. His voice was almost wretchedly passionate and young as he relayed the jokes and the bragging to which he had been subjected. He listened, the cadence of it nearly rocking him back, urging him to lie down on the bed. The bed springs squeaked again, and the young man's voice halted for a moment. When it returned, it had lowered to something he had to strain to hear. Something that made him nearly feel the soft hiss of breath in his ear and made him aware of his own slow, careful breathing.
"Sometimes...sometimes I think I am angry because I know how easy it would be to be them."
"What do you mean?"
He could faintly hear the cloth sound of the young man shrugging and remembered stooped, rounded shoulders and a serious frown.
Krum took a deep breath. "When I was young...I knew a man."
"A mentor, I suppose. He made much of me. "
"As will happen."
Krum's low chuckle made goose-flesh spring up on his neck. "Yes. As will happen."
"I take it things ended poorly." They always did, really.
"He was...not who I thought he was. Or perhaps, as you say, he was sensible enough to become less so. I thought that because he cared for me, it meant he believed certain things."
"Ah," he said flatly. "He was a sanguinist."
"Are you Muggleborn?" He knew the answer already, of course. Even to this day, to the best of his knowledge, Muggleborns did not attend Durmstrang.
"No, but my grandfather was. He was killed at Nurmengard."
Another heavy breath was heaved. "I did not know him. Perhaps that was why Igor's talk was so tempting."
"I don't take your meaning," he said, and once upon a time, he was better at lying. He blamed the years of silence.
"He made me feel proud of my heritage, this man. I was far from home for the first time, away from a place where everyone knew me to where no one did. Magic was all we had in common, my new friends and I. He made it...easy to believe that all that was good in me came from my blood. He made it easy to believe that the things I did not like at home were because my parents and grandparents had mingled. He did not say these things outright, you understand."
"Yes," he said.
"But I was a boy from a town with more sheep than people. And he made me feel like I was destined for great things."
"Anyone who says we hate what we don't understand," he said slowly, not entirely aware at first that he was speaking aloud, "is a gibbering idiot. We hate what we understand all too well. Those boys, they say Muggles are parasites. How many of them work, I wonder? They say that Muggles are animals, but how many of them have pissed on a Muggle shop's doorstep?"
Krum hummed, a low, smooth sound that made him close his eyes tightly. "Perhaps you're right. I have seen little, though, to think that they have a leader beyond Julien. They seem to keep to their group. They frequent a café, drink, eat, and make much of themselves, but they're all too young to have ties to Death Eaters."
"No. There's someone."
"You sound certain."
"Hm. Then I will find him."
Not a boy, no, but still so young. The corners of his mouth twisted bitterly. "Now you sound certain."
"I am. I do not like to think of any of them having the luxury of a common life. Terrible things happened. Someone has to pay for it."
"We all pay for our sins eventually," he said, and then he turned the subject to chess, and when their moves were made, he listened to Krum talk about the sights of Brussels and imagined them anew through more optimistic eyes.
"I..." Krum eventually paused, sounding uncertain.
He said nothing, prepared for anything.
"Are you close?" Krum asked. "To Brussels, I mean. Might I see you before I leave?"
Anything but that. His mouth hung open, and the silence stretched out long and taut.
"I don't think that would be wise," he finally said. Fumbling, he hung up the phone.
Socializing in the back room of Café Wocart was not entirely unlike being back in the locker rooms of his Quidditch days. He had never had a reputation for being a difficult teammate. He played for the Vratsa Vultures for most of his career until he was traded to Bigonville, and he flew for Bulgaria in four World Cups before bowing out. He was known as someone who came to practice, played his best, and did not try to beat out his teammates for good press. However, being drafted for the national team while still a schoolboy came with its trials. He was set apart from the beginning, and he was slow to trust after Igor's betrayal. He would join the team for drinks after a game and celebrate appropriately, but he never really made friends with anyone but Magda, and the distance had only grown worse as he grew older and his teammates grew younger.
He was currently biting his tongue and gamely attempting to seem like one of group as Julien made grandiose plans of travel and conquest, and Florian made ugly jokes, and Ludo talked bitterly about all the young women who would not go to his bed.
Viktor had extended his stay, telling the young men that he was considering moving to the area for its strong wizarding presence, and he began joining them almost every day for coffee and conversation. They were not nearly as discreet as they fancied themselves, hedging talk of "projects" and "meetings" with much winking and nudging. The night after a nearby shop was set on fire, they all came in with cigars and re-lit them often, smirking at each other. Fortunately, the fire had been put out early and no one had been hurt.
The only one he felt any real sympathy for was Mevr. Wocart, and that was born of pity. She often breezed into the back room with drinks and snacks that he never saw anyone pay for. She was a good-natured woman, and the young men flirted shamelessly with her. Viktor gathered that she was an expatriate, and from the way she took to the young men's flattery, he suspected she had left some son or younger brother behind.
One afternoon, she came bustling in with an overladen tray. "I hope you boys have been behaving." Beaming, she started gathering their empty glasses.
Viktor rose to his feet. "Let me help you."
"Oh, you. " She smiled at him slyly as he took the tray, and she waggled her finger at the others. "You could learn something about manners from Albrecht."
The others nodded obediently, already descending on the platter of cakes.
Viktor followed her to the kitchen, glad to be out of that room. He had been recording the whole wearisome conversation on his telephone, but he had thus far gathered no hard proof of their criminal guilt. All he could prove was that they were disgusting.
The kitchen was tiny and hot, and Mevr. Wocart immediately began loading up another tray.
He caught her arm gently. "Mevrouw..."
She halted, looking at him him worriedly.
He had to tell her. Never mind discretion. If he could do nothing else here, he might at least see those three thrown out on their backsides and an innocent woman disentangled from them. "I need to tell you something about Julien, Florian, and Ludo."
Her frown deepened. "Is everything all right? "
"They are not good men. They're involved in some very bad trouble, and I don't want to see you dragged down with them when the law gets involved."
She stared at him for several seconds and then whapped him with a dish towel, giggling. "Oh they're only boys. Boys make mischief sometimes. I don't know what I'd do without them."
Viktor was about to reply, but his telephone chirped. "I ought to take that. My boyfriend makes me carry the thing. He worries when I'm abroad."
Mevr. Wocart nodded in understanding. "Do be patient with the boys. They just need the right influence."
He hummed skeptically and stepped out the back door into the alley. "Krum."
"You do realise you're the only person I call."
A smile spread across his face. "That is good to know. For all I know, you have agents all over the continent. You could be like M."
"A Mundane character. Never mind."
The tension bled out of him, a knot in his stomach unwinding. They had not spoken since the night the Snitch had called him. There had been something there, he was sure of it, recalling the hot flush that had turned his cheeks red and the tension in their pauses. I don't think it would be wise. So? Many things were not wise. Executing the Wronski Feint. Playing a black knight as an opening move. Sometimes they paid off.
There was an uncomfortable silence, and it occurred to him that the Snitch might have called to give him the brush-off. He immediately launched into an update. "I tried to tell Mevr. Wocart about those three, but she will not listen." Rather uncharitably, he imitated her little wheezy laugh. "'Boys will be boys.'"
He could nearly hear the Snitch's frown in the pause that followed. "Wait. What does this woman—"
Then the telephone was falling from his hand. He watched it slowly drop and bounce off the concrete. He could faintly hear the voice coming from it, saying his name over and over, but then all he could hear was the blood rushing in his ears as his knees went weak and he crumpled to the ground.
He sat at the kitchen table, the cat winding around his ankles, and stared at the phone. It was emitting the distant sound of foot traffic. There was no sign of Krum.
Break it—that was his first thought. Break it, burn the pieces, and dispose of whatever was left in some distant location that could not be traced to him. He would then burn the letters, the papers, and the newspaper clippings and scatter them to the wind. Something had obviously gone very wrong, and it was not his fault.
"It's not my fault," he said to the cat. "Whatever he's gone and done, it's not my fault."
The cat flopped over onto its back, looking up at him and trilling.
He picked up the phone. "Hello?" he said again.
When there was no reply, he turned off the phone and stood up. He began pacing the house restlessly. The cat scrambled back to its feet and followed him.
"He knew the risks. I'd have to be mad to go there."
He was not mad. This was something he told himself with such regularity that at times he worried it was itself was a sign of madness. The whole point of this little exercise had been to deal with the unpleasantness in Brussels before the unpleasantness dealt with him. What sense would there be in needlessly exposing himself? He liked it here. He liked his house, with its empty rooms and quiet alcoves. He liked the greenhouse, which was warm and lush all the year through, and smelled like the sort of kitchen he had not grown up in. He liked the wide fields and the gurgling brook and the sheltering trees, and he liked the forgetfulness of this place, where there were no lost loves and no lost lives.
"I'm not responsible for him," he muttered.
He wasn't responsible for anyone here. This wasn't the real world, where one could be a murderer just by handing off a phial of a potion—where a blind eye was as much culpability as hands around a tender throat.
"There's nothing I can do," he said, and he found the half-full bottle of whisky and drank from it directly. He gasped at the fiery pain in his throat.
His own wheezing breath made his blood run cold. There was nothing he could do. He was old now, old before his time, weak and weathered. He had done nothing wrong. He had not seduced Krum the way the young man had been seduced before. All he had wielded was words, ink on paper, invisible waves on the air between two telephones.
Then he thought of the jokes and the sly murmurings. He thought of the rousing speeches that had once made his chest swell with pride. Only words.
"What good would it serve, getting myself killed too?"
The cat blinked at him.
His fingers tightened around the bottle. He considered hurling it against the wall, but he was too numb to summon the fire for it. That was what his life had come to. He was a dead man already. He had paid his price.
It was a strange thing, he had noticed as part of his farmyard philosophising. The less one wished to live, the more likely one was to survive. What sort of cruelty was that? What just god would allow it?
"No one is minding the shop," he muttered.
He raised the bottle, and he brought it down hard onto the phone. He heard the sound of breaking glass. Then he hit it again and again until the stench of burning resin and a thin stream of smoke rose from it. He hit it until the bottom of the bottle cracked and whisky ran out in bloody dribbles.
The man who called himself David Yalçin, despite his throat-clearing and vigilance, was a ghost. After all this time, he had earned the right to have his hand pass through whatever he touched. If he could not have the pleasures of a real, warm, breathing life, why should he bear the responsibilities for one?
"I told him what he was getting into. It's not my fault he didn't listen."
Viktor Krum was not some headstrong boy, however, now was he. His hand groped at the broken pieces of the phone. A piece of glass bit at his finger, and he watched as a pearl of blood bubbled against his skin.
He climbed the stairs to his bedroom with tight-jawed stoicism. The cat followed him curiously, and he shut the door before it, locking it out. Inside, he opened a drawer full of socks and trousers and reached to the bottom of it, where his fingers closed around his wand. The elm warmed against his skin, and the unicorn hair core nearly crackled, lively after sitting unused for many months. He felt the shock of it up to his shoulder.
Outside the door, the cat cried piteously.
Briefly, he considered setting this place ablaze. His wand sang in his hand as it had not done in years, and he could not help but remember the smell of fire and smoke on a cold night, and the sight of the Dark Mark rising glorious and terrible in the sky. He imagined watching the farmhouse burn, although whether from the inside or the outside, he could not decide.
He shoved his wand into his pocket and stormed back downstairs. He put on his boots and his coat, and he left the window open for the cat in case he did not come back and it needed to find someone else to mooch off.
"You pay," he said, "and you pay." The only ones exempt were the ones who were well and truly dead, like lucky Igor Karkaroff in his dark, restful tomb.
"Bastard," he added as he left the house, although he wasn't certain if he was referring to Karkaroff, or himself, or Krum.
Behind him, the cat leapt down from the windowsill and scaled the silver maple tree. There she perched near the top, watching her master as he walked towards the road. Then, in the blink of an eye, the man disappeared. The cat looked about, startled, but the man was nowhere to be seen. She waited patiently for a time and then closed her eyes and napped in the afternoon sunshine.
Viktor had once fallen from his broom at two hundred feet. It was distance enough to know he was falling, to brace himself, and to hit the ground anyhow with a sickening thump that had rattled the teeth in his head and knocked the breath from him so hard that he had lain there blankly gasping for several long seconds before he could draw in a desperate breath.
That was roughly how he felt when he woke up in the back room of the café in a full body-bind. His forehead was bleeding, presumably from hitting the pavement, and it was obvious that he had been kicked in the ribs and abdomen several times. His gaze swam dizzily down. And spit on, he amended.
He closed his eyes and tried to listen. It was dark outside now, and he could hear Julien, Florian, and Ludo holding a low, urgent conversation on the other side of the door.
"...gone to get the cauldron..."
"...I don't know. I think we bleed him out, then use the blood to ..."
He could not catch the rest of that sentence, but he did not need to. He had read enough about how the Death Eaters had earned their name. This did not bode well. Magda was going to kill him.
His gaze flickered about, trying to focus. There was a chance he could fit through that window, but only if he could actually move. He shifted through sheer force of will and felt the weight of something in his pocket. They had taken his wand, but they had left the flick-knife. It was wood and steel, which was terrible at conducting magic, but he had heard of sorrier makeshift wands working in a pinch.
A distinct thud in the cafe made his breath quicken. There was a shout, and then another thud, and then a third. Viktor strained against the magical bonds, feeling like he was moving through jelly. He pushed, his teeth gritting, until his fingertips brushed the knife. With aching, clumsy slowness, he managed to get his fingers around it and point it towards the door. He felt it warm in his hand, reacting to his desperation, and he focused all of his energy on a disarming spell as the doorknob turned.
But it was not Julien, or Florian, or Ludo, or even Mevr. Wocart who stepped through the door.
It was Severus Snape.
His thoughts tripped over each other in the ensuing scramble. Severus Snape was alive. Fifteen years older, yes, and bearded, his throat scarred and his hair salted with silver, but Viktor recognised him in an instant. Severus Snape was alive. There was something odd about his coat. The left sleeve was folded in half and pinned up. Severus Snape was alive. He had feigned his death at the Battle of Hogwarts and then fled the country, and in the intervening decade, had obviously...what? Hoisted his true colours? Amassed his own petty army of sanguinist thugs?
He steadied his grasp on the knife.
Then Snape spoke. "You? Are an absolute imbecile."
Viktor's eyes widened. He remembered, suddenly, a story Hermione had once told him about a Quidditch game in which Harry Potter had caught the Golden Snitch in his mouth. He had chuckled then and told her that in the game, sometimes you found the Snitch, and sometimes you got very lucky and the Snitch found you.
A rush of laughter shook him, making him gasp in pain as his injured ribs were strained. The Snitch—Snape, he thought madly—hurried to him, looking him over first in worry and then in growing disapproval. "Are you laughing?"
He tried to nod and mostly managed it.
Snape rolled his eyes. "You have a concussion."
Viktor attempted to reply, but something made him look up. A shadow had fallen across the doorway, and there stood little Mevr. Wocart, a fearsome expression on her round face and her wand drawn and levelled.
"Who, exactly, do you think—"
She got no further, for at that moment, Snape turned around, and Viktor saw her go deathly pale.
She moved with a speed that Viktor would not have credited her with mere seconds before, and the duel that followed was short and ugly. A blue bolt shot from her wand, and Snape barely ducked in time, diving behind the table and volleying back a blood hex that scored cuts across her face. She screamed and staggered towards Viktor, blood pouring into her eyes, and Snape pressed his advantage with a stunning spell, but she dodged it, shrieking out:
Viktor's heart nearly stopped, and he mustered all his will and strength to kick out, hitting her hard in the ankle. She went over, and the spell misfired, hitting the window and turning the glass into sand.
She rallied, but by the time she got one foot under her, Snape had picked up a chair, and he brought it down over her head.
With a sickening crunch of wood and bone, she went down hard.
Snape stood over her, panting, and then stepped on her hand, his boot grinding down until she relinquished her wand. He pocketed his own before levelling the fairly won wand at her head.
Viktor cried out in protest.
Snape's jaw snapped shut, and he whirled to look at him, his expression thunderous. Viktor held his gaze urgently.
The wand shifted to him.
"Renervate," Snape said, and the feeling came rushing back into Viktor's limbs. This was not necessarily pleasant, as now the slightest motion jarred his injuries.
"Don't," he managed to croak. "She will be tried. She will be sent to prison."
"She knows I'm alive," Snape said. The wand swivelled back.
Viktor sat up with a pained groan, clutching his sides. "You're better than this."
Snape laughed. It was not the warm, wry chuckle that Viktor knew from the telephone. It was a strained, unpleasant sound. "Oh, grow up, you idiot boy. Of course I'm not. What do you think I sent you here for? To rid the world of hermit fishermen and bigots with spray-paint and matches? You were convenient. I wanted whoever wrote those letters gotten rid of so that I could live my life here in peace. Nothing more, nothing less."
Magda always knew when someone was lying. It was not a gift that Viktor usually possessed. Yet sometimes his own serious stolidness allowed him to see what was plainly in front of him. He dearly hoped it wasn't the concussion steering him, but he knew better than anything what betrayal tasted like, and at the moment, the only bitterness in his mouth came from the clotting copper of his own blood.
"You wanted my help," he said quietly. "You needed help, and you asked me for it in the complicated way I would expect of you." He considered his own words and nodded in satisfaction, regretting it an instant later when the contents of his skull seemed to slip to one side. "Oof. Well, good. I am happy to have helped you. I hate being idle, and I am proud of what we have done so far together."
Snape wavered at that. The tip of the wand dipped.
Viktor heaved himself to his feet and immediately doubled over. He saw the way that Snape started towards him and could not help but weakly smile. "And now you have helped me. This is good too. Do you have your telephone?"
There was a slight pause before Snape said, "No. It's broken."
He did not ask. He merely propped himself up against the table. "Bind Mevr. Wocart—Carrow, I mean—and see if you can find mine. And my wand."
Snape obliged, and Viktor looked out through the doorway to see Julien, Florian, and Ludo all in red-faced body-binds on the floor of the café. A one-armed man against three young amateur duellists. When he was recovered, he was going to have to ask for pointers.
Once reunited with his wand and telephone, he dialled Magda.
"Magda? It's Viktor." He coughed and winced. "Never mind now. I need some help, and I need it done subtly. The 'I told you so' can wait..."
He covered the mouthpiece when she began shouting at him, and he beckoned Snape over from where he was hovering in the doorway looking flighty and bleak.
Snape approached warily. Viktor drew him closer until they were mere inches apart. His hand lightly traced a hip, an empty sleeve, a too-sharp cheekbone. Then it curled in Snape's collar and yanked him even closer.
The kiss was hard and sharp and nearly split his lip again, but it sent a hot jolt right through him, and it was not wholly with pain that he made a rough sound in his throat when Snape pressed hungrily against him.
He drew back, his breath slightly ragged. "We will do that again when I am not bleeding so much," he said, and he found himself regarded most interestingly by two sharp dark eyes.
"Magda? Yes, I'm still here. First things first, the I.C.W., a private healer, and my name kept a hundred miles from Brussels."