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Bakin' Magic

Chapter Text



I have been in love and been alone

I have travelled over many miles to find a home



"This... isn't red."

At the sound of Ron's broken-hearted voice Harry is pretty damn tempted to redo his new bakery on the spot. Not because of the utter desolation in his tone or the despair on his face, but because Ron has repeated this for literally fifty times in the last minute, slyly using the fact that Hermione is busy finishing up the charmwork on the ceiling. He is trying to wear Harry down into compliance.

It almost works.

Harry glowers at his friend. It's either this or hurling whatever he's holding at the redhead. Since he is holding a lamp, Ron probably won't appreciate that.

"It... still isn't red," Ron says again.

He looks more miserable than a disgruntled cat hopping out of a bathtub full of water. Harry's hands clench tighter around his lamp. But damn, it's a nice lamp. Fragile, too. Ron's head is made of iron and will survive the impact, but Cho and Ginny will bitch if they have to hunt down something else. They pretend they don't enjoy Italy's awesome flea markets.

"For God's sake, Harry, will you set this lamp down? You've been holding it for the last ten minutes."

"But Hermione! He's so annoying! I can't believe he's moping co much just because I haven't put any Gryffindor colours here. Which, I think, is understandable after living for nine years surrounded by red and gold."

He doesn't count their camping-out year, of course, but he does include the time spent at the Weasleys' house and their extra eighth year of school... the whole idea of which Harry, quite frankly, still finds unfair. He'd won a war for them and they, what, put him back in school?

He didn't almost die just to get an Acceptable on his History exam.

Hermione sighs.

"All right, I'm done." She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and beams at Harry, inviting him to look up.

She's charmed the ceiling to look like night-time sky, all starry twinkles across a canvas of dark blue.

Flying just under it…

Is Hedwig.

Harry's heart thumps. It's a little difficult to breathe.

"Hello, girl," he says. He stretches his hand, and when she hoots and perches, he almost cries. When she looks at him with gentle, wise yellow eyes and nibbles on his finger like she used to… He shakes his head. Pretends his tears are just water. "It's been so long, huh?"

He folds her into a hug. Tenderly. Carefully. The way he used to during those cold and lonely nights in a barred room with only his dark thoughts for company, staring through the figments of his window at the unwelcoming lights of neighbouring homes.

Of course, this isn't his real owl. Hedwig's body died on that fateful day, eight years ago.

But she lives on. In his memories, she's always there. Harry has never been as happy about having magic as he is now, holding the ghostly form of his familiar to his chest like a teddy bear.

He mentally thanks Andromeda again for inventing this spell. Basically, it's a mix of the Patronus Charm and the memories you draw from your mind to put into a Pensieve. Andromeda has never truly come to terms with her daughter's death, nor her son-in-law's. She's invented this for Teddy so he can move on where she doesn't.

Harry's friends give him a moment. Hermione tactfully organises the parchments and documents in her bag – they've both come here immediately after work – while Ron's ears are red and he glances awkwardly around like he always does when someone expresses feelings.

Harry gives Hedwig a little nudge, and she flutters up, then around his café.

"I hope you approve," Harry tells her gently, watching as she perches on a bookshelf. "We might be sticking here for a while."

"Of course you're sticking here for a while," Hermione cuts in. Her hair frizzes indignantly despite those layers of Sleakeazy she rubs into them every morning before work. "We didn't go through all this trouble to find you a house you actually like just for you to suddenly disappear off elsewhere... did we?"

Glowering, she dares him to say something. Harry raises his hands in surrender.

"When have I ever disappeared?"

Ron stares, unimpressed. Harry pouts. And these people call themselves his friends? No faith at all.

"I hope you have examined all the materials I've left you on how to manage a business. I've made your research for you and compiled everything into neat categories that will get your bakery booming – without explosions for once, I hope. It's just a little bit of light reading. You will find everything you need to know in those folders, from recommended prices to instructions regarding the accounting side of your trade, to tips, to biographies of successful-"

Ron mouths, "Stop her!"

As soon as Hermione learnt that Harry would open a bakery, she gathered a bunch of reading materials summing up to two thousand pages, all topped with a passive-aggressive note to read or else. The 'or else' usually implies that she will look at him with disappointed eyes and rant. And maybe give him a knitted hat with a SPEW badge.

Two thousand pages of pure torture or a twenty-minute rant and a cool hat?

Hermione still fails to understand that her opinion on what light reading is doesn't coincide with that of simple mortals'.

"I've read it! All, um, two thousand twenty-five pages," he lies.

Hermione huffs and crosses her hands on her chest, which, coupled with the cumbersome robes she's wearing as a promotion of some muggleborn business, makes her look like Hedwig's brown-feathered sister.

"It's two thousand three hundred and five pages."

Ron whistles, while Hedwig's eyes grow somehow bigger. She hoots in horror.

"I just hope you're not expecting me to make smart business decisions? I mean, hello. I'm here on a break. To have fun. How do I have fun when I've got taxation to think about?"

"We poor mortals manage somehow," Ron mutters with a long-suffering look but it lacks the malice and jealousy that would have marred it a decade ago.

"That aside," Hermione intervenes with a frown on her face, "while I'm incredibly happy that you're actually taking the time to rest… Harry, are you going to abandon your job? That would be such a shame! You're incredible at it, and I know you love what you do!- And there is no guarantee that this will even work!- So please don't stop your projects just because Luna-"

"Whoa, stop, stop, stop right here!" Harry laughs and bumps his best friend on the shoulder. "No one's abandoning anything. My job... Is something that I am proud of, for once. There is actually quite the impressive reading and research list waiting for me upstairs! It's going to take me a while to dig myself out of all this backlog I've got going on. And once I've run out of everything I have here to study and improve, Florence is a quick broom ride away."

"That's bloody awesome." Ron nods energetically. "Anyway, mate, if anyone's giving you trouble here, I'm just a mirror-call away. Uncle Ron will show 'em!"

Hermione lets out a long, long sigh.

"They are muggles, Ronald. You can't exactly take out your wand and start waving it around – which you should know since your father AND your brother work in the Department of Muggle Affairs!"

"Ha. Joke's on you because I'm not gonna use my wand. Gotta say that a kick in the balls hurts just the same. And it's totally muggle-friendly!"

Harry is pretty sure there is nothing friendly about kicking someone where it hurts, which means Ron's mixing up the terminology again, but he decides to tease Hermione instead of pointing it out.

"Wow. Fifteen years and my girl Hermione is finally a real witch, thinking of how to solve things with magic first." Harry wipes an invisible tear. "What happened to 'OH RON BUT THERE IS NO WOOD HERE WHERE DO I GET THE WOOD'?"

"Savage." Ron grins, and they bump fists like true bros.

"Ouch!" Harry snatches his hand away and rubs his knuckles. "What the heck, Ron? Are you on steroids? Do steroids even do that? It hurt!"

"Oh. Um. Sorry, mate." Ron laughs awkwardly and rubs the back of his head. "Kinda forgot to Finite that strength-enhancing spell. We're all very into physical fitness now at the Auror Department. And by physical fitness I mean we spell the hell out of ourselves whenever we're on a mission."

"Ouch," Harry repeats. "Parkinson is one heck of a slave-driver. Something tells me she wanted that Head Auror position just out of sadistic inclinations."

"Wouldn't surprise me," Hermione snarks, her voice cool. "I am astounded she has not attempted to sell out anyone at the Department yet. With her record."

Harry winces.

Hermione does not forgive. It is this trait, rather than her amazing knowledge, that Harry is jealous of sometimes.

Ron, however, shakes his head.

"She's a pretty good boss. Bloody hell, can't believe I'm saying THIS. Plenty more good than those other options, anyway. Fuck, I'd have gone right out the door had Bones appointed Cormac McLaggen on the post."

Coughing, Hermione hides her face. Without even scolding Ron about his language. She doesn't want to admit McLaggen exists – Harry doesn't judge her. That guy still sends her lusty stares, and last they saw each other, Harry was treated to the charming sight of McLaggen making out with his ice-cream at Fortescue's in vain hopes Hermione would look there.

Yep, definitely erase that from his memory.

"What about you, Ron?" Harry asks. "What about all that prestige? Fame and glory?"

"And deal with the paperwork every bloody day?" Ron barks in laughter before shoving his elbow into Hermione's side, to her annoyance. "Nah. I'm pass. I'll leave the fame and glory to Parkinson and spend more time on things that truly matter."

With a bright red flush that would put a fire hydrant to shame, Ron quickly pecks Hermione on the cheek before coughing awkwardly and looking anywhere but his two friends.

Harry smirks, and even Hermione can't hide a smile.

"Congratulations, Ronald. Your emotional range has officially evolved from a teaspoon to a tablespoon."

"Aww, he's blushing again. What happened to my brave friend who snogged the lights out of Hermione when we were all in the middle of something? The guy who dredged up the courage to declare to Molly that he will – oh horror! – be sleeping in the same room as his bride – how old were you then, twenty-one?"

"Twenty and nine months," Ron grumbles.

They all continue in the same vein because this is the last time they will be able to meet each other for a while. Harry is already shocked and flattered that they have been visiting every day, helping him settle the paperwork and furnish his house. Their jobs, however, are calling.

After they've left, Harry sits in his café for a while, just devoting time to Hedwig. She doesn't fly around. Rather, she hovers over him for hours, watching as he ticks off which recipes he's going to use the next day, as he makes his first batch of pastries, as he walks around and repositions tables, and flowers, and jars with tea leaves. His familiar accompanies everything with soft, gentle croons.

She is not truly real, but it feels like she has missed him, too.

"It's just you and me, then, Hedwig?" he asks. Lets her nip his finger, although of course a gust of magic cannot hurt him. "Like always?"

Will it forever be like this? He wonders.

But he lives in a world where Pansy Parkinson is a Head Auror bringing Dark Magic users to justice, where Ron prioritises people over recognition, and where Hermione lets him talk badly of a book once a year.

So many things are changing, so many people, that Harry cannot help but hope that this change will come to him, too. If his owl's presence makes believing easier, well, it's no one's business but his own.

Like most things in his life, Harry's bakery is a collective work.

Luna is the one to name his café, since the only names Harry is capable of are 'Bakery', 'Bakeshop', and 'Bakehouse'. Or 'Firebolt', which is not better. Seems like Hedwig's name was the single burst of inspiration in his life, and now whoops. The well is dry. If Harry had a kid, he'd probably name them something ridiculous, like 'Lily Luna' or 'Lily Hermione' for a girl and 'James Sirius' or 'James Remus' for a boy. The pinnacle of his creativity would be 'Albus Severus', and that's if he is very inspired.

...Actually, it's a good thing he doesn't have a kid.

Ron tried to chip in, but his suggestions ended up along the lines of 'Defeating Voldemort Since 1981'. That's a bit of a mouthful neither Harry nor muggles are ready to see every day.

Now, the sign outside proudly proclaims 'The Midnight Snorkack' in English. The letters of gold glitter (courtesy of the Sticking Charm) are carved into the signboard painted black. A small emblem of metal, the logo, hangs below. It vaguely looks like an owl mid-flight, but only if you have a good imagination and if this owl really wants to be a unicorn. Little stars circle it.

That's pretty much all Harry allowed Luna to do. The interior was handled by someone else.

"Here, the blueprints. Run wild with those," is what he said, and what Cho and Ginny did.

His café is mostly done in navy blue and pastel yellow. The girls insisted on pure white, but Harry would simply be too scared to touch anything, let alone work there. Besides... Pristine white tables bring up bad memories, and he is twenty five, almost. He is a big boy now. It's time to leave Aunt Petunia's kitchen.

There is a bookshelf opposite the displays and the till, and it contains the muggle books and newspapers Hermione and Andromeda have chosen for him as well as a wicker basket full of drawing supplies for children or adults who would want to kill time and hang around. Teddy has shared his crayons, pencils, albums, and colour paper.

The starry ceiling flows seamlessly into the walls, and there is a golden tree spreading its painted branches on one of them, glittering in the distance. It's not simple paint: Hedwig can actually enter the walls and the star-littered ceiling, roaming the expanses, perching upon the branches of gold whenever she wants to stay still.

This is a detail Harry chose himself.

"At least in death you will have the freedom to fly without restraint, like you never could in life."

He can give his familiar this.

The bakery is small, inside there is only enough room for a few round tables accompanied by chairs with differently-patterned cushions, as well as a high table in front of the large window by the door. It's not like he imagined when the thought of opening a bakery first struck him, but the floor is of warm wood, and Hedwig is here, and everyone he knows has gifted him with a reminder of how loved he is.

"Th-this is a very pretty café," his last customer of the day stammers out. His ears are flaming red. "A-a-and your walnut ca-cake is so good I c-c-could die."

"Ah, I hope not," Harry replies calmly, wrapping the large order. His second day, and he sells out everything before it's even two p.m. "Who would buy it, then?"

He smiles, and it works like a double whammy on the poor soul. The guy whispers something like "H-he smiled at me!" and just... drops.

Harry winces when the body hits the floor.

This isn't the first time it happened. Not even the second. Luckily, Harry has already developed an algorithm of sorts. He sighs. His hands push the packaged pastries and bread to the side.

"Excuse me, could you please?.." he asks the couple of men standing nearby, incapable of finishing the sentence but simply gesturing at the body.

They perk up. They have been standing here for the last three hours just for this purpose, and they're not the first ones to show this type of behaviour. Someone is always standing awkwardly in the corner near the painted tree. Sometimes they take a book from the bookshelf and flip through, sometimes a newspaper is put to the same use, while other times people just... watch the wall. Harry hopes they find a secret of the universe there. Otherwise it's a lot of wasted effort for a plain wall.

Thankfully, there is only one body this time. It's put away quickly. If these people seem a bit too used to storing bodies in the corner, well. Harry believes it's too early in their acquaintance to asks questions.

He still makes a mental note to put up some stronger wards around his house. Just in case.

Harry hums a catchy tune he's once heard on the magical wireless as he pulls out a tray of blueberry biscuits with lemon glaze. He has a few minutes until he opens the café, which he uses for some finishing touches. He's tempted to use some of those secret recipes from the cookery book Minerva shared with him, but it's better to put those off until the weekend. For now, he'll take the well-trodden path and cook the things that Molly's taught him.

As always, a horde is waiting for him outside, crowding the little stairway leading up into his shop. Why? Why do people here act like he's a godly being they want to touch and revere?

It's strange, but even more strange is the fact that none of them rush in as soon as he opens the door.

At least, the answer for this is granted soon.

"I see you're settling well," comes a voice from the doorway, distracting him from his task.

Harry blinks when he sees the woman. His contact told him she would come at some point, but it's strange seeing her in reality and not through a conjured image.

Daniela, his contact called her. Daniela Vongola.

In many ways she reminds him of Minerva. A lady with quite a few decades tucked under her belt but whom you can never call 'old' or 'elderly' because she's brimming with life, with vitality, and isn't afraid to show it through scathing remarks or a good old whack to the head. A woman who knows her place in the world. Who is satisfied by it.

Vines and twirls of a flower tattoo hide in the creases on the left side of Daniela's face. Her white hair is gathered in a high ponytail (it's almost jarring to not see a strict bun instead) and she wears a jumpsuit of an orange so bright and brilliant it's almost red.

She looks strict, yet it's not the cold and unforgiving severity of Snape but something milder, gentler, and there is a mischievous spark in her brown eyes that waits to be ignited.

Daniela glances at Harry's badge even though he's certain she knows his name just like he knows hers.

"It's such a pleasure to have you here, Mr Harry Potter," she greets him with a smile. She says his name in an Italian manner, with an aspirated 'H' and strong 'r's. It sounds charming.

She speaks to him in English, however. Harry could sigh in relief because what idiot told him that Italian would be easy to learn?

"Just 'Harry' is fine. And shouldn't I be the one saying that?" he shoots back, raising an eyebrow at her companion, because of course she doesn't come alone.

The man that accompanies her... Well. Harry has enough experience of working with people to discern two things: (1) one of his arms is prosthetic, and (2) he can move with incredible grace... but is too unmotivated to do that now. So, the black-clad, black-haired stranger stands there, a couple of steps behind Daniela, like an awkward blur of blackness. He's aged, his face dignified like of a gentleman's of old, but he dresses in leathers, and buckles, and gothic accessories like a teen in the edgy phase.

He looks sullen and uncomfortable, as if all he needs is a hood that he'll plop on and draw the strings tight, hiding his face from the world. The thought amuses Harry; he misses half of Daniela's words.

"-chocolate-banana cake certainly looks enchanting, doesn't it, Tyr?" she finishes, sighing dreamily at the display. Subtly, she smirks at Harry; she guesses he wasn't listening, but doesn't call him out.

The man with her, Tyr, grunts. His face doesn't change at all.

"No? Then what about the vanilla tarts? I could very well do with one myself."

There's a frown this time.

Harry blinks. Wow. It's almost like watching someone try to have an intelligent, human conversation with Uncle Vernon.

Daniela, however, seems to understand him.

"Brilliant. Then, I would like a slice of this beauty-" She points at the chocolate-banana cake."-as well as one vanilla tart." She throws a look at her companion. "Five vanilla tarts."

Tyr's frown vanishes. Harry wishes he could read people as well.

"All right. Anything to drink?"

Squinting at the blackboard behind him, Daniela gasps.

"Oh no. Please tell me you have something warm that isn't tea."

"Not a fan?"

"The only people who drink tea in our day and age are nationalists and stressed-out nutcracks with issues."

Harry's pretty certain this statement is rude, uncalled for, and fifty shades of incorrect.

"You... have a lot of opinions on tea."

"Once - once! - do I tell my right hand that tea helps me de-stress. I did it because she is my Guardian, and you would know how it is with them. And now guess what? She has been drowning me in tea for sixty years," the woman hisses out with a spark of orange in her eyes and an irritated gesture.

Tyr's lips quirk 0.0009th of a degree upwards.

"You could talk to her- Oh wait. Let me guess. She gives you the puppy eyes?" Harry asks, leaning forward on his elbows. He's fallen prey to this deadly technique more times than he cares to count. Now, if he senses someone trying to pull that on him, he uses his go-to method: he blasts them with a fainting spell right into sweet oblivion.

And voila!

No one can do puppy eyes when they're unconscious.

"Indeed she does," Daniela agrees with a mournful nod. Should he share his secret with the poor woman?

"Ouch. Anyway, it's not JUST tea. I've got coffee here, too!" Harry bends down to rummage around the closest cupboard and digs up two tins of instant coffee and a box of cappuccino packets. He raises his trophies victoriously. "Tada!"

Daniela is not impressed. Tyr's lips quirk a whopping one degree downwards.

"Instant coffee. Really. Things are that depressing?"

Harry sighs and puts his load down. What's wrong with instant coffee? All his other customers are perfectly fine with it! Besides, Hermione drinks this stuff whenever she has to deal with annoying people, which is always. Well, he has told her to stay away from Ministry jobs if she's allergic to stupidity. All people's problems stem from the fact that they never listen to their good ol' friend Harry.

"You're a hard lady to please," he complains. Seriously, finding a drink for this one is tougher than dragging Ron out for clothes shopping.

"Oh, wouldn't you love to know just how to please me?" she purrs and winks at him salaciously.

Dear Merlin. This isn't happening. Can he, like, fight ten mother dragons or something instead? Banish evil spirits?

Considering her age and how much she reminds him of Minerva… Harry clears his throat. He hopes he won't remember this. Why are old people even allowed to flirt with younger ones?

He should pull a Voldemort and conquer a world or two just to outlaw this.

It makes him remember those drinking nights with the Hogwarts professors, and even though he has never invited Minerva (OR Flitwick) to drink with him again after THAT time, he still can't bleach his brain. He's already been traumatised for life. He doesn't want to add any more trauma, please and thank you.

"Well, I guess I do have something else, too. How do you like your coffee? All-black, mocha, latte, frappuccino? Just tell me whatever you want, and chances are I'll make it in the back," he blurts out hastily to escape this situation. "There's a... trade secret. Um, my friend shared it with me."

"Oh? This sounds so delightfully shady. Fine. My heart craves some... strawberry latte. And a cappuccino for Tyr. To go, two sugars for each. Challenge accepted?"

Harry snorts. "Not much of a challenge, this. Wait a moment."

He goes into the kitchen, secure in the knowledge that his wards and spells would prevent any theft. He doesn't expect it, of course, but CONSTANT VIGILANCE. Even a nice lady with an overgrown emo-boy could be assassins sent for his life.

Harry hasn't missed the scars webbing across Daniela's fingers or the burns hidden by the bright flowers of her tattoo. Hasn't missed the way her eyes scrutinise his café, calculate everything. Evaluate him as a threat.

He hasn't missed the glint of metal in the sleeve of Tyr's prosthetic arm, which appeared when Harry leaned forward.

Without Daniela's approval it would have been impossible to settle in Riccardo. He appreciates that. His gratitude, however, will not blind him.

Sighing – why are people so complicated, why? – he reaches a shelf to pull down a mini trunk. It's patterned with tiny lilies and green leaves, and it's a present.

Harry's lips pull up in a smile at the thought of his friend.

Gabrielle is such a busy girl. She's working part-time in a café in one of French magical districts, and apparently vials of powder coffee are all the rage there now. Upon finding out his plans, she immediately gifted him with a very large selection. And a cute blush. It's still an inevitable part of their interactions. She also flirts with him nowadays, but this flirting he doesn't really mind.

Harry opens the small trunk, crammed to the brim with elegantly crafted vials of colourful powder, each labelled in French cursive and with a little drawing. It's a lot of work for something that will essentially be used one, two, three times and then thrown out, but in his years of freedom Harry has acquired a liking for the beautiful and the ephemeral. He should thank Aunt Petunia and his loving family for that – he would have paid less attention to nice things had he the chance to own them during most of his life.

His fingers nimbly select the right powders before he reaches into the cupboards for the cups. Thankfully, the powders don't require any water – magic is magic for a reason. He pours the contents of a vial into the cup and marvels at the slow rise of pinkish foam. He repeats the procedure, this time with the cappuccino, before making a small bone picture with the cocoa powder. He hopes Tyr appreciates it.

The principle of the whole thing is very similar to its muggle counterpart, except that the taste is somehow majestic, like fresh coffee made on the spot by the best barista in the world. The temperature is also always right for the drinker, no matter the preferences.

The coffee aroma disperses through the room. Harry closes his eyes and inhales. It almost tempts him into making some for himself but-

Harry smirks.

Tea sounds much better at this time of day.

Done, he scribbles the names of his customers in yellow on the dark blue cup, right next to the logo, hoping his scrawl is at least moderately legible, before striding back to his patiently waiting patrons. Well, at least one of them is patiently waiting.

"Here you are." He beams and passes them the cups. He's already taken care of their other orders during the conversation, so now all that's left is to sip his tea and watch Daniela's face contort.

They do say rightly that sadism is an acquired taste.

"Tea drinkers," the woman mutters into her strawberry latte. Is it a trick or does he feel oddly warm for a second? "I'm surrounded by tea drinkers."

"Actually, I'm more of an 'I'll drink whatever the heck I find around' drinker."

The café is still empty outside of Daniela and her companion, which is... Unusual. A few familiar people lurk outside, but no one dares to come in. A couple of faces peer anxiously through the window. Some of them are scared. All of them are awed.

"Well, it's been a pleasure, but the break is over." Daniela sighs, leaning into Tyr's prosthetic hand. "I looked forward to retirement, but who would have thought that I would do the same amount of work when I'm pushing hundred as I did when I was a teen?"

"If it's any consolation, all retirement ends with death. I'm pretty sure you'll rest then. Have a nice day- try not to drown in tea again!" Harry waves her off cheerfully.

Tyr helps Daniela – his boss? friend? colleague? client? – down the stairs, and it's like a switch has been turned off. Suddenly everyone crowds back into the café. They are respectful and thoughtful as always, no one grumbles impatiently or hurries him, no one says a single impolite word.

Harry is so thankful for that.

After all, his mind isn't in his work.

As soon as Daniela leaves, it smacks him right in the heart – the lack. All the time she was in the room, there was warmth. Like the crackling fire of the fireplace in the Gryffindor common room, something a little like home, nostalgic and beautiful. The hearth in the Burrow, when everyone is there. The air in the lab Harry shared with Andromeda and George when they lived together.

It's familiar. It reminds him of people, too. Even those of whom he doesn't have fond memories.

The warmth in Dumbledore's eyes when Harry woke up from his adventures with no injury to his name. The single second of warmth in Voldemort, the heart-stopping second when Tom Riddle looked at him before choosing hate over remorse.

It's the warmth that resides in Harry's own heart.

It's the warmth that constantly makes him yearn and ache with yearning.

It's the warmth that wants to be given, yet it doesn't tell him whom or what it seeks as a recipient nor how to soothe it, and it frustrates him, because it's a part of himself but one that feels distant and stubborn. Disconnected. Always reminding him of his fear that perhaps Voldemort's shard cost him something precious that cannot be taken back.

So, he doesn't think of the people he's serving. Barely stops himself from running out and grabbing Daniela to seek answers. His magic thrums inside him, and the restlessness that has made its home within him since Voldemort's death sharpens. The desire to reach for something is unbearable.

Suddenly, Harry realises that all this time everyone in this town has been giving off the energy that puzzles him. Dying Will Flames, they were called. It's stronger in these people than in anyone he knows… but even they leave this mysterious part of him dissatisfied. Disappointed, too, perhaps?

Was he right in coming here? Will this place really give him answers about this energy that's been driving him mad for years?

He hopes so.

Selfishly, he also hopes... that others find his own warmth just as beautiful.

Freedom is both lonely and intoxicating.

Ever since Voldemort's death Harry has sought to alleviate these bouts of loneliness and restlessness that plague his days. As of yet, he has found three ways.

Flying is the best of them.

For Harry, flight is a conversation with his body, with his self. He re-evaluates his life. His actions. Even when he thinks of nothing at all, the rush of freedom refreshes and energises him.

The town of Riccardo is situated not far from Florence, the hub of Italian magical community. One of the reasons Harry chose Italy is how much people here appreciate flying – not only Quidditch or other games, but the act itself. There are clearly marked broom paths in the air all along the best flower trails of Tuscany, pamphlets indicating the most scenic routes, and stables of magical creatures you can rent.

Right now, Harry is too unbalanced to try anything other than throw on his Invisibility Cloak and ride the wind, but next time…

Next time, he will go on an adventure.

He wishes there could be someone else to appreciate the freedom of the ride, a person he could take with him and share in the excitement…

But there will be no one.

Harry makes his peace with it, and nothing dampens his wild smile as he sketches figures in the air.

Talking about the weather is supposed to be a British thing.

Not here.

In the town of Riccardo everyone is concerned about the weather. He is always hearing about storms rampaging in another region of Italy (Harry doesn't hear anything about it on the news though), or clouds growing in number (here Harry just stops and stares at their awed faces because isn't it just what clouds do?), or someone founding a family of rains (well, it's been a while since Harry's been to muggle school, he just doesn't do natural sciences anymore)...

Half the time it isn't even accurate weather.

"Quite Sunny today, isn't it?" Daniela greets him. The throng of people, many of them dressed in canary yellow today for some reason, parts.

Harry looks past her at the sheet of rain behind the misty window.

"If you say so," he mutters dubiously and automatically packs away ten vanilla tarts. Tyr is with her today, as he's been the whole week, and he grunts a little happier every time he receives the treat.

"But you are too high-quality for all this rabble," she continues. She briskly lands into the chair Tyr pulls out for her. "You deserve someone just as… delicious." She smiles like a cat that's got her mouse. "And I know just the person. You will love him, that sadistic little troll."

"This qualifier isn't exactly endearing."

"Oh, he will charm your socks off. He is perfect at everything he does, even unmotivated. And this? A Sky? He will be very motivated." Daniela sends him a sharp grin. "He has been waiting for someone like you for a long, long time."

Her voice is very loud. It rings across the room, and something in his heart echoes, shifts, and something wants to silence her, while the rest of him sighs in pure relief, as if it is the end of a very long and lonely journey.

"I think you might be his only hope by now," the woman continues. "You might want to get ready; he won't let you go once he meets you, no chance at all."

Harry swallows.

He has already been someone's only hope, and it's a place he never wishes to return to.

"I'd thank you not to send unstable stalkers with dubious personal qualities my way," he says calmly. His hands grip the edge of the counter. "In any case, I've tried out a new recipe today. Cranberry crumble. Would you like to try it?"

The lady agrees with a bark of laughter, while Tyr is as motionless and silent as ever. Harry and Daniela exchange pleasantries, play the usual game where both would mine for information, and prod each other.

Harry enjoys this. Wouldn't mind if it becomes regular routine that stretches into years, because Daniela is dangerous but charismatic. Yes, she probes him, but it's done out of prudence rather than malicious intent. After all, he is a dark horse on her territory, in the town she cares about. He would have been insulted had she just accepted his presence here and let it go, because he has been solving mysteries since childhood and smells a secret when he there is one.

This town is a tangle of them.

This is how his first week goes.

He sells his pies, and breads, and buns at an alarming rate. (Take that, Hermione, and he hasn't even read a page out of that manual!)

He talks to those customers that don't faint, and he has found a convenient place to dump those who do. They are treated to a biscuit or a cup of tea on the house when they wake up – after which half of them promptly faints again. Harry wonders if there is something in the air.

The emptiness lurks on the outskirts of his life as it has done for the past eight years, but he staves it off by researching the heck out of those Dying Will Flames.

Someone watches him whenever he goes out, but that's not a novelty nor a problem.

He listens to the beautiful piano melodies coming from the shop next-door in the morning, goes out for a broom ride every other evening, writes letters, works on his projects, or simply plays with Hedwig while contemplating the mysteries imbuing every corner of this charming town.

It's a routine. Pretty boring and normal.

Like everything normal in his life, it dies fast.

Damn it. Of course his little saving-people thing would one day grow into a huge people-hoarding problem!

Chapter Text



Not a spell gonna be broken

With a potion or a priest

When you're cursed you're always hoping

That a prophet would be grieved




Harry loves his new home.

It's a narrow four-storey house situated high up in the mountains, nestled between a shop that sells musical instruments and an old building rumoured to be cursed. Unlike in most other Italian mountain towns Harry has seen, the houses here are not too crowded together, maintaining respectful distance from each other like old ladies and gentlemen at a business gathering. And even when they are forced to stand close, the windows and balconies of opposing houses are never on the same level, which makes peeping actual hard work.

His balconies overlook the town, valley, and fields below with nothing obstructing his view. He's pretty sure the way his bakery is positioned is a pretty damn huge safety hazard: on the slope, with only a narrow road and that tiny extra bit of space before the flimsy barrier that protects passers-by from tumbling down the mountain into the streets below. Yet no one speaks up against it. No one even acts bothered by it.

It's like the town is full of extra-agile assassins with super-abilities or something.

There are also words to be said about the very peculiar naming traditions that, according to Daniela, originated from the town's founder, whose name was – surprise-surprise! – Riccardo.

Harry's bakery is situated in the street with a lovely name 'Riccardo's Strangulation'. There is even a cartoon-ish picture of hands strangling a neck carved onto a metallic plate hanging modestly off the balcony of the first house in the street, right beneath a pot of cheerful pink flowering maple. Harry wonders if it's Riccardo who loved to indulge himself in the activity or if that's how someone finally ended him, but doesn't dare ask.

All streets here have 'Riccardo' as part of their name. 'Riccardo's Rage', 'Riccardo's Wrath', 'Riccardo's Mist', 'Riccardo's Coup', 'Riccardo's Cornobbling', 'Riccardo's Determination'…

There is a disturbing amount of streets that mention the guy's body parts. Some are tame, like heart, right hand, or muscle... Then there is a street named "Riccardo's Left Nipple". Harry's almost scared to ask what happened to his right one.

Most public buildings are named in the similar vein-

All except for a garbage dump at the very edge of the town. It is a tiny space barred by a menacing black metal fence with gothic letters curling into: 'Giotto'. And right underneath: 'Garbage'.

Riccardo must have really hated that Giotto person.

Then again…

'Giotto' might not be a person at all. Isn't it the name of the muggle company producing various painting supplies? There was that one time Andromeda had to leave for a health check at St Mungo's and asked Harry to babysit Teddy for her, leaving a bunch of colour pencils and lots of cutesy albums with baby birds. They had a lot of fun drawing cucumber people together.

But maybe Riccardo didn't like cucumber people either.

Anyway, the joke's on him because that Giotto garbage dump? The cleanest place in town. People are almost reverent when they talk about it (not to Harry, because there's still that fainting problem), and bouquets of flowers cover the perimeter. It's almost the same attitude they show towards him.

All in all, it's a strange town. Wacky, with an atmosphere that feels like crack high on LCD, but nonetheless charming. It reminds him of all the craziness of magical enclaves, which immediately puts him at ease.

Albeit Harry does wish there were fewer little green people here. Or at least what looks like them: every once in a while he glimpses something small and green from the corner of his eye as well as snatches of white fabric not unlike the hem of a robe or a lab coat. It flashes by in unexpected places before it disappears. Almost like lightning he can never catch.

(Actually, he can catch lightning – there are spells and runes for that, and Hermione could probably write a dissertation on the whole thing because there are few things Hermione cannot write dissertation on, but the little green person probably would not appreciate being dragged through the air towards him. Magic, unfortunately, disregards people's comfort when it comes to transportation. He doesn't want to be rude).

Oh well.

If he is truly meant to meet this creature, he will.

That faint sixth sense he has acquired since Voldemort's defeat hums softly in agreement. It's not a reassuring hum.

All the users of Dying Will Flames have one single overarching desire – desire for Harmony.

Unfortunately, Reborn is no exception.

Dying Will Flames are believed to be the manifestation of a person's soul and powerful resolve. There are seven of them, each granting a certain ability: Rain – Tranquility, Sun – Activation, Mist – Construction, Cloud – Propagation, Lightning – Hardening, Storm – Disintegration... and, finally, the most precious, Sky – Harmony.

Abilities are not the only things gained when one activates their Flames. Human souls are needy and social, all of them trying to cling to each other, form a connection. Find a home, perhaps. And the only place that can contain that home is Sky. Nothing else compares, which leaves the users of the other six types at a disadvantage, desperately searching, begging, and obsessing, revering the ground Sky users walk on – anything to quell that silent pain of not belonging.

Reborn has never wanted to be incomplete, but he has never wanted to end up cursed into a baby form either, and yet look where he is. Upon awakening his yellow Sun Flames he has also awoken the loneliness and ache for a Sky he could bind himself to.

Most of the time, he doesn't mind. It's just a price to pay for being even more amazing.

Reborn is a hitman, and while he would definitely still be a damn fine hitman even without the whole magical soul mumbo jumbo (all his numerous university degrees and overall perfection prove it), Flames add a certain... flavour to his life.

His fedora shades his eyes as he smirks. Chaos Shot, his trademark attack, lights up the clearing with a boom.

"H-hey, Reborn!" Dino Cavallone, that blond idiot of a student of his, yelps as he tries to dodge the bits of trees blasted by the attack. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Language," Reborn tells him curtly. He contemplates hitting his student with a green mallet but nah. Too much work. He releases a round of normal bullets instead, dark satisfaction washing over him when Dino shrieks and teeters on his feet. "I was thinking and you interrupted me."

"How the hell did I interrupt you, I was trying to ignore you-"

"Your general existence interrupts me."

Another shot stops the whining.

Reborn doesn't regret temporarily discarding his hitman profession, not when he gets free amusement like this. He was bored, before. Everything stopped being a challenge, and while he firmly believes that he does deserve people whispering his name in fear, fleeing from the mere mention of it... It's just not fun when no one steps forward to even try doing him in. For the past few years he barely got the opportunity to use his Flames, be it for healing or for blasting someone to smithereens.

So, when a friend, the old head of the Cavallone famiglia, begged him to train his son Dino, Reborn accepted. Much to the poor boy's horror.

Well, he promised that Dino would survive and become a great boss, not that he would enjoy the process.

It's Reborn who gets his kicks out of the whole thing. After all, the deal with Skies is that Elements vying for their attention is not always a good thing. The mad desperation sitting in the hearts of Elements too often twists, warps, and becomes violent obsession. Both bullying and kidnapping attempts are a Sky's unfortunate friend, and that's not even counting the assassins.

They are just really unlucky to try kidnapping this particular Sky.

Reborn, dressed in a squirrel costume, tilts his fedora in a subtle gesture at one of the hidden bodyguards to clean up the guts and mess created by the rival famiglia members that he destroyed with his attack. Dino didn't notice anything. He notices even less when Reborn gives him another impossible task or ten.

That boy will learn, but the time isn't now.

Refreshed and content, Reborn reclines on an opulent chair of solid gold he's made his student carry for him all day long. This is how he deals with depression.

Shooting an idiot a day keeps the mental doctor away.

"Signore!" his student's Rain Guardian shouts, panicking. He flies to his Sky's side and babbles, "I've heard shots- Are you all right? Has something happened? Are you really all right? Should we call-"

Reborn's expression doesn't change because showing emotion is for commoners and how would he keep people in line without his poker face? – but he wants to twist his lips at the display.

...Most of the time, he doesn't mind being unbonded. He accepts it with bitterness, but also resignation, just like the Arcobaleno curse he bears.

But sometimes there are moments like this. Quiet, painful. Moments when he watches his blond student's warm, orange Sky Flame tangle with the Flames of his bonded Guardians, and is forced to feel the lack in himself.

The only reason he doesn't 'let his hand slip' and throw a grenade on the scene is because having Dino gather Guardians is part of his job, and Reborn doesn't allow himself to be anything less than perfect.

The silent footsteps of an assassin distract him. He doesn't react because he recognises them; in a few moments Bianchi Scorpione, a thirteen-year-old girl with light pink hair and dreamy green eyes steps into his line of vision. Her red Storm Flames flare to announce her presence, gaining a bright smile from Dino and a nod of approval from his Rain Guardian.

Bianchi is the head of the Scorpione famiglia as well as an assassin with a flair for Poison Cooking. After her father's mysterious death by poisoning that came after her mother's even more mysterious death by drowning, she had no choice but to inherit the famiglia she's learning to lead. Rumours whisper about a younger brother who vanished as mysteriously as everything that happens in that family. Any questions about his whereabouts would lead to the asker vanishing as well.

Originally, Reborn invited her for being part of the Vongola Alliance and having a territory neighbouring with Dino's but he has long since noticed the potential Guardian Bond fluttering between them. Hundreds of schemes to bring them together unfold in his mind.

"Dino has made a lot of progress even though it's only been a few months. Don't you think so, Reborn?" Bianchi asks him with a soft smile at the clumsy Sky.

He doesn't respond.

Irritating the Head of the Scorpione famiglia would not be a clever move, and he cannot agree because he looks at his student and sees only the imperfections he needs to correct, all weaknesses he needs to turn into strengths. He shoots yet another rubber bullet at his student when Dino commits yet another mistake. Reborn always chooses shooting over speaking.

Bianchi sighs and lets him jump onto her shoulder, sitting down on the gold chair herself.

She doesn't comment on his behaviour, unlike any other potential Guardian who would bristle at anything causing harm to their Sky.

Then again, she always holds back from acting like a true Guardian, always disturbs the Storm-Sky bond she is forming with Dino before it snaps in place, despite the heartbreak painting itself over her face and Flames. Reborn hasn't discovered the reason yet but he would be a lousy teacher if he weren't getting there.

"You are just like me," she told him when they first met. Reborn still has not deciphered the meaning of her words, but he has felt it, too, a strange sympathy. A connection.

That's why he doesn't mind sitting in her arms and even lets her call him his lover when she wants to escape the advances of the less moral mafiosi who don't restrict their disgusting advances because of her young age. He simply relaxes as much as he can ever let himself relax, and they watch Dino fumble around with learning how to use a whip.

There is something beautiful in spending time with someone who suffers as much as you do.

Initially, when Harry thought his bakery wouldn't be popular with customers, he planned to spend most of his time reading or tinkering about behind the counter for the majority of the day. It didn't quite turn out like that. However, since everything sells out so fast, he still gets his alone-time. Rather than come upstairs and actually use his study, he spends his days in his bakery, accompanied by Hedwig and the smell of pastries wafting across the room from the kitchens, surrounded by tomes and inkwells and old parchment.

That's why when it's pouring outside and his shop has long closed, he notices a tiny figure huddled on the steps.

Well, that just won't do.

With a sigh he banishes his papers, gently motions at Hedwig to go explore the starry ceiling, and gets the door.

Sitting there is a girl of about eight years (but may be older since she doesn't seem too well-fed), rain-soaked and listening intently to the music drifting from the shop next-door. Her red hair clings to her forehead. Eyes wide and purple, she stares up at him as the door swings open.

Harry tries for a kind smile. He hopes it comes out fine and not too creepy because he doesn't want this poor girl to sit there and soak but he's going to invite her to his, well, home, and it might come out a thousand sorts of wrong since he has never actually communicated with kids outside of Teddy and Victoire. And all Uncle Vernon told him about stranger danger in his childhood implied that he should welcome it.

(Uncle Vernon also boasted that normal people would never be mistaken for someone creepy, but he had his constipation face on and was nailing down the door with a fruitcake, so Harry's not sure he can trust that).

Harry cringes back in alarm when the girl gasps and blushes hard.

Yeah. He forgot.

People here have the unfortunate tendency to swoon when they're around him (and by now he knows it's him, not them). When he wished that girls would swoon at the sight of him back at school, he didn't exactly mean this.

If she does faint, he'd have to leave her outside. Unconscious. Soaking wet.

OR he could bring her inside. Go and... drag an... unconscious... little girl... into his house.

...There is just no way to make it look good, is there?

Thankfully, she saves him all the trouble by bracing herself with a determined look and resolutely staying conscious. Harry puts an extra beam into his smile.

"Why don't you come in? You are here because of the music, right? The sound is pretty good inside as well."

She blinks before smiling.

The smile is artificial and so wrong on such a young face, as is the tension in her body as if she's ready to bolt or smack him with a chair any minute. Harry notices her clothing – a yellow sundress beneath a denim jacket with little stars cross-stitched onto it, all oversized and bearing signs of belonging to someone larger, richer, and with zero care for their things.

Something in Harry clenches.

"Aren't you closed?" she asks, motioning uncertainly at the sign hanging on the glass door.

"Not really. Just sold out for the day." He waves her inside but doesn't push. Her feeling safe is more important than him getting his good deed for the day done. "But I think I can scrape up a treat for you. Oh, and leave the door open, if you want – we'll hear the song better this way, after all."

The promise of food and leaving the door open do the trick. With Hedwig and the unnamed little girl his lunch break is the most crowded it's ever been since coming to Riccardo.

He excuses himself into the kitchen. Picking up some basic ingredients, he throws together a few smoked-bacon sandwiches, spells the potatoes from the fridge warm, and chops some vegetables into a light summer salad. Spending lots of time with Molly Weasley made him a Molly Weasley, and now he just can't wipe the urge to feed people. Especially when they're so bony and small.

He lays everything out on a tray, conjuring forks and plates with cartoon butterflies and a stack of napkins with starry skies.

Okay, he's not a design guru, but looks cute enough. Hopefully.

The girl, sitting with her eyes closed at a table nearest to the exit, startles when he returns. Her eyes widen when she sees the tray he's carrying.

"W-What?" she mutters and almost jumps when he sets his load down.

"Didn't I promise food?"

"People often promise things," she mutters with a dark cast over her purple eyes. "And I didn't expect this much-"

"Just eat what you can, I won't get angry if you don't finish," he promises gently, pushing the plate closer to her. "Actually, I might help you because this sandwhich? Looks damn good if I say so myself."

He picks up one and takes a bite. Hopefully it'll show her that the food isn't poisoned or anything.

She doesn't turn him down despite the slight mistrust in her eyes, picking up a potato with her little fork.

His smile is sad even when she moans around the fork and scarves down the majority of the food in the blink of an eye. As a kid, he wouldn't have turned down free food either – the Dursleys didn't abuse him in the general meaning of the word, but he would always get the smallest portions, and at school Dudley would try to force him into giving up his meals.

Some random guy pops his head into the café at some point, but Harry shoos him away. The guy stumbles backwards as if Harry's dealt him a mortal blow, but it's honestly not important.

It doesn't take long to find out the girl's name, since she becomes his regular un-paying customer and comes up to his bakery every day after school. She's sitting at her favourite seat, the high chair by the window, and doodling something on a lined slip of paper she found in her school bag. A melody, flute this time, washes over them.

"I'm Maria," she introduces herself unexpectedly. Harry stops wiping the countertop. "But I hate this name." Her pencil zigzags across the paper, leaving uneven, angry bars of red. "I'm going to change it someday."

"Why tell me at all then?"

"Because you have money and feed Maria," she tells him with a childish smirk that softens the bluntness. She's got a lot more open in just a few days. Not poisoning someone does wonders for building friendships. "Also, at school we're taught that introducing yourself helps establish contact." Pouting, she adds under her breath, "They were actually talking about targets but..."

Suddenly Harry wonders if she's adept at dragging around bodies, too.


He probably shouldn't snoop into this too much. He shouldn't judge a little girl for often talking about targets, hits, potential clients, as well as carrying books titled 'Self-Help for the Beginner Hitman' by Romeo Bovino (there is a big red what not to do written all over the cover with a red highlighter), 'The Fine Art of Cute and Gentle Assassination' by Luss, 'The Art of Politely Telling Varia to Go Hang Because No I Won't Join Your All-Male Gig Because I Want My Patients With Boobs' by T.S., 'Taking Out the Trash' by XX, 'Assassinate' by Tyr, and the like.

(Harry did peek into 'Assassinate' because Tyr writing a book? Now, that's unexpected. He wishes he didn't. But he does admit Tyr has an astounding talent for stretching a single sentence for two pages.)

Shaking such thoughts out of his head, Harry scratches the back of his neck.

"Would you like some actual paper?" he offers.

Maria stops nibbling on her pencil, nodding.

Hiding a smile, Harry pulls the basket of drawing supplies from the shelves. A flash of movement attracts his attention. It comes from a jar rolling on the stack of albums-

A jar of animal-shaped erasers that act like actual animals because they were charmed to imitate them.

Harry slaps his forehead.

Great. Of course Teddy, who has spent most of his time in the magical world, doesn't really understand the concept of 'dear, give me something for a muggle cafe, please'.

The erasers are a product of Harry and George trying to teach Teddy his first runes, and what's better than interactive learning, study-as-you-play, all that jazz? So, since discovering his artistic flair as well as mad love for animals, they both decided to teach him the animation rune: easy and unlikely to blow up.

These erasers ended up as the very first successful attempt at this (totally illegal and unsanctioned by the Ministry) piece of charm-work. All of them have certain... behaviour issues.

Harry shakes the jar and sighs as the tiger and lion paw at him, while the elephant lifts its trunk, eyes an angry red. Yep. They don't... behave. Which is the reason Harry ended up taking them away from Teddy, but the boy has managed to somehow find and reclaim them, apparently.

It would be easy to cast a Finite, but he can't. The first magic is special. It's the first proof that you're not a Squib, that you have not only the legitimate right to see the magical world, but also experience it in full.

Not to mention that Harry is a ridiculous sap who cannot destroy any object that has a memory tied to it, not when he knows too intimately that such objects can be all that remains of a person dear to him. His parents' things, Sirius' things... The belongings of Teddy's parents... they all still have a place in his life that even the passing of years cannot erase.

That's why he just sighs, wipes his forehead, and mumbles at the miniature animals to keep quiet.

Let's hope the Statute of Secrecy won't be broken by a pissed-off giraffe eraser with passive-aggressive tendencies.

Now, Harry has learnt to be very liberal and laid-back in the past years. He's even chill with his fans (or rather, he's learnt to masterfully escape them). But he sets some boundaries.

His bakery is closed and he's thinking of retiring upstairs because it's evening and the only light in the room comes from the stars on the ceiling and the lamps outside. He still catches a presence lurking in the shadows.

"You know," he starts conversationally, preparing two cups of raspberry tea, "I was fine with you stalking me during my work hours, and when Maria came to visit, and when I went for a walk, and the rest of the time. But it's eleven in the evening now and what you're doing is just rude."

A pocket of air shifts, as if in indecision, before opening like jaws into a void and vomiting a tiny figure wrapped in a cloak hiding everything but a small mouth with a stubborn quirk to it.

"Mou, how did you know I'm here?" the... baby? No, that can't be right... The being asks him in an almost monotone voice, undecipherable emotions simmering just beneath.

Harry calmly stirs the sugar in his own cup before placing a few pastries and biscuits he has saved for himself onto a flat plate. He fills up a small bowl with cantucci. Using the time to think, it's only when he has delivered everything to one of the tables that he deigns to answer.

"Trade secret," he tells the figure cheerfully and tries not to frown when he gets too close.

The trade secret is that something evil hangs about the not-child.

It's muted. An average witch or wizard wouldn't catch the tendrils of vile, rotting darkness that twitch around this person, but Harry has had more than enough experience with Dark Magic to instinctively feel it there. It's not unlike Voldemort's Horcruxes – that taint imprinted too deeply into his mind to be forgotten – but perhaps even more revolting.

"Please help yourself," he says politely, trying to keep his inner turmoil from showing. "I wasn't sure of how much sugar you like in your tea. Oh, and don't hold yourself back from the croissants – this one is strawberry, and these two are custard."

When in doubt, revert to the policy of aggressive food-giving: a guide book by Molly Weasley.

The little cloak person sniffs and pokes at the strawberry croissant before daintily nibbling on it with no preamble. After the first bite, there is a pause. Then the nibbling is two times faster.

"I have met few stalkers as dedicated as you," Harry compliments them because it is something deserving praise. Harry has tried to help Ron out on a mission once. He was transfigured into a poodle to stake out their target easier, and dear Merlin was he an unhappy poodle by the time a couple hours had elapsed. He thanked himself for not going into the Auror training programme. That's one childhood dream he's happy to bury.

The not-baby nods, simply accepting the praise. They don't seem to be much of a talker. Or maybe they're just too busy decimating Harry's pastries – he swears that little bowl of biscuits was full a couple of minutes ago.

"You offered the food to me yourself, I won't pay you," the being notifies him, primly wiping their little mouth with a napkin, the teacup and plate sparkling clean.

"That was fast," Harry says with a blink.

The not-baby smirks.

"I suppose I'm not going to receive an answer if I ask why you've been following me the whole day?" Harry asks with a sigh into his own teacup. The smell of raspberries tickles his nose. "Oh wait. You've been following me for much longer than that, haven't you?"

Because he's certain he's been feeling that sick aura for a while, in bits and snatches all around the town and even in his own bakery sometimes.

"I can answer if you pay me," the not-baby drawls after a moment of deliberation.

"Thank you, but no. Money isn't an issue but something tells me I won't like the answer, so why pay for my own trauma?"

"Wise approach." The not-baby nods. "Except that money is always an issue."

"You'd be good friends with Maria."

"Mou, I don't make friends with the destitute."

"I've changed my mind. You'll make good friends with someone else I know."

"I'm not looking for friends," the being declares. Harry feels on the receiving end of an affronted glare and smirks in response.

"Oh, I can see that. You wouldn't spend days just watching me otherwise. Don't you have anything else to do? This is a legitimate question, by the way, because it's probably not healthy to waste so much time you could spend on something actually productive."

"I never waste time," the not-baby huffs in offence, reminding him of Hermione in a tick.

They click small fingers – and another rift in the air opens wide to dump a mountain of papers onto the table, barely avoiding the plates and teacups. A small frog lands on top of the pile. Croaking, it stares at Harry.

"I can multitask just fine," the not-baby concludes and preens proudly before banishing the paperwork. The frog remains, its huge eyes drilling into Harry's soul.

Harry would have found a frog trying to stare him down cute, but he's more preoccupied with figuring out what type of magic the baby uses. Definitely not wand-connected magic. Actually, the tendrils of spiritual rot aside, this warping of space (it definitely wasn't a summoning charm nor conjuration) reminds him of Ginny's Dying Will Flames, except that more powerful but at the same time... chained. Subdued.

Harry has travelled a lot in the past few years, which has broadened his understanding of magic considerably. While he mostly sticks around Europe and North Africa, even the magical communities within this range of countries have opened his mind to unbelievable diversity in how magic can be used.

There are so many ways to channel magic, so many ways to twist it and to use it, to mould it and to wield it.

He has heard songs incurring firestorms, participated in dances summoning the desert rains, battled against assassins trying to strike him with talismanic magic, carved runes onto spell-casting gauntlets, banished the poltergeist of a Polish castle, watched a Pensieve being made, and called upon spirits of old.

His travels have also acquainted him with people who don't have his breadth of magic but instead possess a single talent – Espers, Seers, gypsies, and fortune-tellers.

Even here, in Riccardo, a lot of strangeness points to the presence of witchery, even if it's not the witchery he's used to.

And the more he's here, the more he's convinced that at least some people are capable of using Flames, even though he hasn't been able to prove it yet with his lacking knowledge of Italian magical communities. It would even explain why the people here are so... well. Weird. And also twitchy and secretive – wixen communities are not exactly fond of sharing knowledge between each other. Too much bad blood, misunderstanding, and prejudice on all sides.

This is why Dying Will Flames so far remain one of the more mysterious forms of magic for him.

Out of all his friends, Ginny is the only one to freely use her Flames, and even then she confessed that it was a result of the possession by Tom Riddle in her first year. With her breath always catching, she described her Flames as a tangle of sunshine yellow and broody, almost viscose indigo.

Harry cannot see Flames nor activate them. A warmth always sits in his chest, but he cannot tug it up to the surface.

A frog jumps into his hand.

Blinking, Harry smiles and pets it lightly between its burgundy eyes.

"Hello, little guy," he greets softly, politely ignoring the 'Fantasma, you traitor!' coming from the not-baby. Hedwig flutters above, reminding him that he probably shouldn't pet another animal while she's forced to stay glued to the ceiling to avoid attracting attention.

Is it his imagination or does the frog smirk smugly a little?

Anyway, Hedwig reminds him that it is getting late. Which means sending his... guest? stalker? off to bed, too.

He glances side-ways, at two heavy crates of goodies sent from Hogwarts this morning, likely some plants from Neville and paraphernalia from the rest. There are 'No Magic!' signs stamped on top. They signal that the crates contain items that could be broken if Feather-Light Charms or other magic is cast. Those poor school owls probably had to take a breather at several international owl post offices, because otherwise no one would have bothered with the stamps. Harry knows everything about this type of things from Parvati Patil who works in the International Owl Post Regulation, and because it was there that he was swept into doing the job he has now.

"Hey, mind lending me a hand and doing some useful stuff that isn't mindless paperwork?" he asks innocently. "These crates won't go upstairs by themselves."

If the frog could erupt into evil chortles, this one would have. Its red eyes are actually a little scary. A lesser man would have quailed.

The not-baby purses their lips. They're not impressed. An uncomfortable, awkward silence hangs in the air.

"...I don't believe in manual labour."

"But what if manual labour believes in you?" Harry rubs the frog with a cheery smile. "How do those motivational posters put it? Believe in yourself! Never give up!"

He doesn't need to raise his eyes to feel the presence lift. The air is cleaner, as if purified. With a reluctant croak, the froggy, Fantasma, dissipates into feathers of mist as well.

That's how you get rid of unwanted guests.

The first time Reborn hears about him is through a phone, just as he decides which way to teach Dino finances would be the most painful and humiliating.

"There is a Sky in Riccardo," Daniela tells him. Reborn hates himself for that one mad second in which his heart just stops.

He breathes in. It beats again.

"Which family?" he asks, calming down.

No matter how rare and revered Skies are, he is World's Greatest Hitman, an Arcobaleno – one of the Strongest Seven, people chosen for their power and cursed for it. He has seen his share of Skies. It has not always been a pleasant experience – greater power means greater idiots competing for his attentions, some so pushy and overbearing with their Sky Attraction that he pushed them. Off a cliff. With his Chaos Shot. His natural respect for Skies be damned because he is still a human being, not a commodity to be had.

So far, the only Skies he has found friends or at least allies in are Daniela, Luce, Dino's father, and a scattering of several others, much weaker both in Flames and rank.

Of course, he is going to do his damn best to ensure Dino grows up at least half-way competent, too.

"And that's the interesting thing," Daniela says, distracting him from sadistic schemes, "he doesn't seem to have one."


His fedora falls onto his eyes.

"And yet, Riccardo."

The mafia 'retirement' town – although everyone who matters knows just how 'retired' the mafiosi there are.


"With a high possibility that he is a civilian, you still allowed him in?"

"He came highly recommended. I fully expected him to be mafia, because a dear friend vouched for him." Daniela barks in laughter. "But this is better. You know our custom to greet any Flame users worth their salt who come to live here? He slaps them in the face with Sky Attraction when they try to say hello. It's beautiful."

A grin creeps onto Reborn's lips.

"You are not going to do anything to sort it out for him."

"Are you joking? It's the train wreck I had never known I needed in my life. And anyway, however retired I am, I am a mafia boss, not Mother Teresa. He should have been warned by the people who told him about my town – I have no duty to fix their fuckups."

She pauses before sighing longingly.

"And trust me, you'd kill for those pastries he makes."

"Oh, I've killed for much less." Wait. What? "Pastries?"

He hears the cat-like grin in Daniela's voice.

"Ah. So, I haven't told you? He's opened a bakery. He made it all the way here just to open a bakery."

Reborn can't help it: he laughs.

Skies are like royalty, the emperors and empresses of the underworld- Actually, scratch that. They are so much more than that. A Sky means the whole universe to an Element. Of course, bonded Elements – Guardians – are the most devoted to their Skies, but even unattached Elements like Reborn and the rest of the Arcobaleno feel the pull, even though they're too strong to ever form a complete bond.

Skies are warm. They entice, play, tempt – even if it's against their wielder's wishes, their Flames have a mind of their own, just like with any other Flame user.

Being with a Sky makes you feel wanted and all-powerful. Even without the bond, you feel in your rightful place around them.

Again, it's a feeling most Flame users would do much more than kill to experience. Which, of course, means that without proper education and training a Sky would grow up into a self-entitled arsehole who believes everyone owes them. This belief would be reinforced further by the crowds of adoring fans. Skies are still only human, after all.

Every Sky ever would rather slit their own throat than be satisfied with some substandard position or with a job that doesn't involve leading masses of people. That has always been the immutable truth for Reborn – and by 'Reborn' he means the entirety of the mafia world, of course, because anyone worth a damn would agree with him. He is Reborn, World's Greatest Hitman. World's Greatest Everything, because he isn't into falsely humbling himself down; he deserves all that hype about him.

And now there is a Sky that challenges that worldview.

A Sky that has just flipped the bird to all conventions and decided that... he would rather bake cakes than dominate the world.

Reborn's black, withered little heart beats faster.

"What about his Guardians?" he asks because of course Skies always have those. Reborn always ensures to treat Guardians with a barrel of extra vitriol for having what he does not.

Daniela keeps her silence for a long minute before murmuring, "His bonds... They are weak and some Elements are missing. Not surprising, considering how powerful he is. But even existing bonds are not reinforced by active Flames... Or the right emotions."

Reborn grinds his teeth and shoots a vase nearby. It's not his vase, so it's fine.

Weak bonds develop when the Sky or Guardian is a civilian and their Flames are too immature to support them, but this is fixed by Flame Activation. Another reason would be that the bond is fledgling and the bonded just need to undergo shared experiences, get to know each other on a deeper level.

Finally, bonds are weak when a Guardian is abusive.

Abuse of a Sky is never taken lightly.

Suddenly, Reborn's restless Sun Flames bubble beneath his control, radiating murderous intent for kilometres. There are probably people trembling throughout the whole mansion. He is fine with it. Nothing like a good scare to keep a mafioso on their toes.

"So, how about a short break from your job? A private investigation, so to speak. An enigmatic Sky of unknown origins, with no famiglia, with no decent Guardians, arriving to a town like mine with a good recommendation..." Daniela purrs into the phone in a voice Reborn emulated when learning to seduce his targets. "Aren't you tempted?"

"Incredibly," he admits honestly. "But I have obligations to fulfil."

He is training the Cavallone heir, and there is still a lot to work on.

He will not do a half-arsed job for the dream he has given up long ago.

"Besides," he continues, taking a second to feel disgusted at his squeaky voice that came part and parcel with his baby form. He loathes it even more right now, when he's talking to a person he respects, who acted as his mafia mother for a good part of his life. "Private investigation? Don't expect me to do all the work for you."

"Don't worry about it, I already have someone on the job," Daniela says with a laugh.

They both ignore the truth that she would have still used the results of his information gathering. They also ignore the truth that Reborn might have concealed part of the information for his own uses because he is freelance and only loosely tied to the Vongola famiglia.

"Ho? Lal Mirch?"

"Not exactly. She is a little busy right now."

'Right now'? Reborn reads between the lines. So, she will get to Riccardo soon.

He wonders if any of the others have visited that Sky as well, but even if they did... The Arcobaleno have never really been a family, and the Curse broke any possibility of that. Seeing each other is too painful. It's not easy, but doable to forget about the curse when they are surrounded by lowly mafia underlings that tremble at the whisper of their power, but seeing each other as outsiders forces them to confront just how pathetic they have been for the past twenty years.

They have even situated themselves as far away from each other as possible: Fon has retreated into the Asian region, back to the Triads, albeit nowadays he teaches instead of annihilating enemies; Viper died soon after they were cursed; Verde doesn't leave the confines of his lab; Colonello claimed the Mafia Land; Lal Mirch excels at camouflage and spying, and even Reborn is hard-pressed to pick her out in a crowd sometimes; Skull has tangled with lowly famiglie far beneath Reborn's notice; Luce has fallen ill...

Reborn himself is too proud to ever hide. He remains out in the open, daring anyone to comment.

He is still happy to avoid meeting them.

"This Sky is powerful, Reborn. More powerful than me," Daniela admits with no resentment. Reborn's world turns upside-down, but it's easy to right it again. Luce surpasses Daniela in power as well, after all.

"This is no guarantee of anything."

"Renato," she murmurs, and Reborn twitches at his old name. "No matter what you all think and wish for, I am not immortal. My time will come soon enough – a decade more is the longest extension of my lifespan possible."

Reborn carefully doesn't revisit all the emotions this statement causes because he is World's Greatest Hitman, and both grief and insecurities are beneath him because they are yet another flaw that needs fixing.

She continues, likely guessing his emotions, but as always too diplomatic to point them out, "I would like to pass away with the knowledge that my oldest son – shush, I do consider you as such – is not a miserable trigger-happy bastard moping around and envying other people's Guardian bonds. At the very least I'd like you to be a content trigger-happy bastard. So, how about giving this Sky a chance? Humouring an old woman?"

Former mafia bosses are good at weaving their words and truths into masterful manipulations. The hell can he say here?

"Perhaps Dino might profit from a trip to Riccardo," he tells her reluctantly. "But not anytime soon. He is an idiot."

It's not that he minds seeing that guy. He just puts business before pleasure unless it can be combined. He would definitely meet this Sky one day and perhaps even get to shoot some abusive Guardian-wannabe morons to keep himself calm and happy.

Or they could meet some other way. Life is unpredictable.

Either way, Reborn has quite the sweet tooth.

Lying in his bed at night, Harry cannot help but think that meeting the cloaked baby was the start of something. He doesn't know of what, but the warmth in his heart vibrates in reassurances.

That night, it pulls up an old dream to the surface.

...Or is it a memory?

Harry was around five years old when he saw that man.

He started gardening for the first time, inspired by a snippet of a conversation wherein Aunt Petunia told her friend how much she hated lilies for being her sister's favourite flower. So, he conquered himself a patch of the garden in the back, filched a packet of seeds from Piers' house when Mrs Polkiss invited him and Dudley for tea (he was really sorry about that because she was a nice lady and even gave him treats, but he wanted something his mum liked even more), and even though he knew nothing about growing flowers, he wished to see them very hard.

The next day, there was a bush of multi-coloured lilies at the back of their house. He didn't know which ones his mum loved most, so his magic provided him with a whole gamut, including the most impossible colours.

Aunt Petunia paled, her eyes tearing up, before excusing herself and retiring to the bedroom.

Uncle Vernon's reaction was not as peaceful.

"What- You- Freak," he hissed, dragging Harry by the ear to stand next to the bush. His giant boots stomped the flowers no matter how much Harry protested, how much he kicked and scratched. "Who gave you the right to do THIS-" He tugged on Harry's hair painfully. "-to our household? I'll stamp this nonsense out of you, just like these filthy things-"

Very soon, Harry's lilies were a pile of leaves, dirt, and broken petals.

Even his very favourite, the fiery orange tiger lily.

He saved just one, clutching it in his hands, and Uncle Vernon tried to wrench it away from him... but he never did. Harry gasped as the man's eyes went glassy, empty, before he released Harry and ambled back into the house. As if nothing happened.

"He will not bother you again," a slightly raspy voice said from behind him.

Harry whipped around to face a young man with glasses – round like Harry's but with a delicate frame untouched by tape – and shoulder-length white hair that made Harry think he was a woman at first because no man in Private Drive would wear their hair that long. He didn't look Caucasian and wore strange clothes that resembled Uncle Vernon's posh dressing gown, except silky and light.

"Who are you?" Harry asked curiously. He hadn't overheard any gossip regarding this guy, and he should have. Aunt Petunia and her friends didn't hold back on badmouthing someone.

"No one of concern," the man told him, even though it was blatantly untrue. He looked at a clear pacifier in his hands, as if wanting to give it to Harry, which the boy bristled at; he was almost five, a grown-up, he was way too old for a pacifier! The man sighed. "You are still too young for this – they won't agree to have a five-year-old boss, no matter how strong a Sky he is."

The man sounded very done with the world. Harry, for his part, didn't understand what this adult was muttering to himself.

He did understand the important stuff.

"You helped me, right? With my uncle?"

The man swept him with a disdainful look.

"I didn't do it to be nice. I was going to use you, but now I see it is impossible yet. Besides... I prefer not to deal with witchlings. The worlds should not collide too much."

Harry didn't understand the concept of using people – people were living, they weren't objects, right? that's what they were taught, at least – and the words sounded harsh, but Harry knew the tone the man used. The same voice as Aunt Petunia's when she did something nice for him and justified it to herself.

That's why he just ignored the man and said, "Thank you."

Peeling his little hands open, he stared at the flower he preserved. A black lily. He thought to keep it as a memento, but an instinct urged him to give it to the stranger. The white-haired man looked like he could use a lily.

Harry was never a boy held back by hesitation, so he stretched his hand.

"Here, to make you happy."

He thought the stranger would tuck the flower into his hair like he'd seen neighbourhood girls often do – and why else would you wear long hair? – but the man stilled. His skin whitened and he stared at the half-crushed black lily in Harry's palm as if it held his world.

"There is no happiness, only duty," the stranger whispered bitterly. As he accepted the lily, their hands touched. The man's fingertips were strangely cold despite the summer heat, as if invisible energy cooled them from the inside. "Arcobaleno Skies don't live long, so we shall see each other in the future. I hope you are not as attached to this world by then, because our next meeting will not be as amicable."

With this string of incomprehensible information, cradling the little lily to his cheek, the stranger walked away until he melted with the wisps of fog engulfing the neighbourhood.

Harry thought he would never forget him – but the routinous life at the Dursleys proved otherwise. Very soon he was once again running away from Dudley's budding gang, trying to find the peace to do his homework, enduring Uncle Vernon's light smacks (somehow much weaker after the stranger's visit), and tuning out Aunt Petunia when she harped at him for every little misstep he ever made.

Eventually, the stranger, the words he said, the promise that he made, all faded into dreams.

Chapter Text


And starving hurts the soul

When you're hungry for

Some love



Harry never thought that one day he could say something like "my new friend is an assassin baby with a bank account and a frog with a horrid personality" and have it actually be his life, but just look at him right now!

After that first appearance, the tiny being doesn't wait long to visit him again: the next day the not-baby is here, cloak and all, smack in the centre of The Midnight Snorcack. Nooked comfortably in a pocket of invisibility, they watch Harry as the English wizard goes through the usual throngs of customers. Some of the patrons – particularly those who wear shades of indigo clothes; so many of them, is it the new trend? – shudder every time the not-baby's hood tilts in their direction. Harry makes a mental note to brush up on heating charms since obviously his café must be very cold for Italians. Urgh. So spoilt.

Occasionally, he would raise his head and mouth a comment or two to the not-baby, but mostly ignores them.

Fantasma hops around his bakery. She jumps on everything: his pastry displays (although not on the actual pastries), the till, some customers' heads, the bookshelves and the chairs, the windowsill and the people in the Fainting Corner. A couple of times she adds people to the Fainting Corner – puzzlingly, a couple of patrons shriek when she jumps into their faces to fix her heavy ruby stare on them.

Harry doesn't mind. Let a frog have her fun. He did put a framed trigger warning on the window that his bakery houses a random frog today. Aside from the one time Fantasma accidentally plonks straight into a vase without any hope of getting out and he has to fish her out (the not-baby is very unimpressed; he doesn't see their face but he knows), Harry leaves her alone. Neville will be proud of him.

She does show inordinate interest in Hedwig though. Every few minutes her red eyes would set upon the owl with intensity rivalling Ron's when he sees breakfast.

Come to think of it… Didn't Hedwig stay in a different place the previous evening? And she's supposed to be painted? With muggle paint? So she's not… really supposed to move?

Actually. This happened every time? Because Harry isn't some monster to have his beloved owl stay in the same position every day just for some customers. He didn't open his bakery for them. But… it's probably a little strange that no one has brought this up yet. Probably.

Oh well. Muggles are pretty unobservant anyway.

Throughout the whole day Harry doesn't forget to leave small plates of pastries both for his guest and Fantasma as well as charm a pair of teacups into a smaller size. Neither thank him verbally, but when the time comes to close the shop, Harry is rewarded with the frog's affectionate nudge against his scarred hand and a flirty wink of huge red eyes. Her owner only nods at him.

Once the not-baby disappears soundlessly, taking their familiar away as well, Harry makes a move to cast a cleaning spell – only to freeze. He stares.

All the plates are sparkling clean and rest by the sink. The chairs cushioned in different patterns of blue and saffron are pushed neatly into the tables. All the crumbs are gone, the rubbish bins emptied. Even the wooden floor beneath his feet gleams with a shine that wasn't put there by Harry's magic.

Harry doesn't hold back a smile. It's... nice. Seeing his small gestures reciprocated. Lifetimes can go by, and he will never grow used to it. Will never learn to take kindness for granted.

Hedwig lands on a counter and hoots. Harry comes closer.

The tiny teacup his guest used is there, but it's not empty. A slip of paper lies inside. Only one word is written. A name.


Another morning Daniela enters his bakery looking dead to the world – but as soon as she enters, she freezes before smiling like she wants to make someone else dead to the world. Preferably permanently. Harry hopes it's not him. Knowing how vain his hopes most often are, he prepares a couple of really heated spells in the back of his head.

"If you've come here to commit a murder, I'd like to ask you to take that somewhere else, please and thank you," he tells her even if his hands are reaching to grab Tyr's favourite treats to bag them. Tyr doesn't really look troubled by any murders that might be potentially committed in his presence; he is in a world where there exists only he and his vanilla tarts.

Daniela snorts. Her brown eyes glint with amber; soothing warmth envelops him and he doesn't bat it away. Harry relaxes his hold on a wand he doesn't remember grabbing.

"Don't worry, it's not on my agenda for this morning and I do so hate to deviate from my timetable."

"Let's pretend that I believe you but just so you know, I'm armed- er. I mean. I'm a good citizen and prepared to fulfil my civic duty by calling the police."

By the way, does Riccardo even have the police?

Daniela smiles at him knowingly, which makes Harry think that probably no, it doesn't. Lovely. This is the perfect murder town for a mystery novel.

"Today, I'd like-" she starts before freezing again. A haze covers her eyes, the type of dullness familiar to Harry from the times he has seen people listen to the words no one else can hear. But…

Maybe the reason is much more mundane?

Harry has always been horrible at health and healing stuff.

He leans forward over the counter, concern in his eyes because she did tell him she is old as heck and oh sweet Morgana what if she is having a stroke? Can she have a stroke? What is he going to do? He would be useless in this type of situation although of course he can call Dean who would definitely be able to deal with-

That train of thought breaks off when the woman shakes herself out of the stupor and barks a rough laugh that rumbles from her chest.

"That's an incredible relationship I didn't see coming," she tells Harry through a grin.

A weigh lifts from his chest. Thank all the deities he won't have to prevent someone's heart attack today. Hopefully.

Daniela's eyes sparkle as she glances in the direction of Mammon's cosy nest of themselves, mountains of number-covered papers, and small baskets of pastries being vandalised by a happy Fantasma who looks like world's cheeriest frog.

Tyr grins. Harry's jaw drops. This is the most positive emotion he's ever, ever seen from this guy.

…Okay, maybe the vanilla tart Tyr is surreptitiously trying to munch helps, too. When did he even get it? This guy must be as sneaky as an assassin.

Still laughing, Daniela gently shoves an elbow into Tyr's rib – that shove looks like it can dent a skyscraper; oh dear Merlin is this a crack – and smiles at Harry as if she hasn't just tried to casually maul her friend.

"I'm so happy you are on the way to acquire your first real friend," she tells him warmly. Harry rubs the back of his neck at the unexpected feelings.

"Thanks, but I already have real friends? Lots of them."

Even if a voice always in the back of his mind whispers that it's not enough. Luckily, Harry has learnt that just because he can hear a voice doesn't mean he should listen.

"Oh, but I am talking about special friends." The italics are almost tangible. The wink she sends him doesn't help.

Harry glances at Mammon as they scrawl something in a thick leather notebook that could be at home in the magical world. Um. No.

"I… don't think I want special friends?"

"Nonsense. All people like you and me need them eventually."

"Excuse me? Now, that's quite offensive, ma'am."

"Besides," Daniela dismisses him. Harry will definitely hex her to make all the coffee she drinks taste like tea. "Mammon is a lovely match. The greatest in their field, you could say. I'm sure you will be perfect for each other; why, I'm already feeling the connection!"

Harry the not-baby again. Still nope. Mammon valiantly pretends to ignore the conversation, doubling the pressure on their pen.

"We haven't known each other for long, you know?"

"What does it matter when your Flames are sparking into Harmony with each other? Reaching for each other? Of course, you need to make the decision to take the final step seriously, even though a lot of people will try to coerce you into doing it fast. Selfish bastards. If anyone tries to force themselves onto you, you can sock them in the face. Women count, too. Anyway, back to dear Mammon here – can you not feel your weary souls grasping for each other?-"

The wizard tunes it out because this? This is the most horrifying and confusing bullshit of The Talk that Harry has ever heard in his life, mixed with serious hippy vibes and Luna-sanity. He can't even respond to it because he would probably scream at her to stop.

Harry isn't a vindictive person but-

He'll hex her. He swears she won't be capable of drinking coffee for a year.

"Aah." Daniela stretches her hands up with catlike grace. Smirking, she turns to Tyr. "Remember the times I was young and newly awoken?"

Oh dear, is that a blush dusting Tyr's pasty white ears before he hides them under the high collar of his black shirt?

Merlin. Harry never wants to know.

(He doesn't miss Mammon's cheeks reddening just beneath the hood as they are forced to listen as well. It's nice that he doesn't have to suffer this alone).

Harry has to grant it to Daniela – her only visit when she addressed Mammon in his bakery has brought them together. Because after surviving some experiences you just can't help but bond, and this was more daunting than the troll back in his first year.

"I'd like to invite you to dinner tonight. Any allergies?" Harry asks the not-baby absently as he is leafing through Molly's cookery book.

"I'm allergic to paying," Mammon admits readily and with no remorse.

"Is this a hint? When have I ever made you pay anyway?"

"On Sunday. 10 euros and 79 cents."

"You were insufferable on Sunday. What did you have against that poor girl in the purple dress?"

"Not purple – indigo," Mammon snaps the words like one would snap a neck.

"So what? Your cloak is the same colour. Are you… were you jealous of her fashion sense?"

Harry blinks when the wooden floorboards by his shoes creak, and spread apart, and splinter, and break to gurgle out… snakes?

They twine together, cool brown and black scales glistening in the dim light of the artificial stars above them. They rise. They hiss. Harry cannot understand their unintelligible threats, which tells him easily that they are as false as Mammon's killing intent that seems more like a hissy fit than anything – no pun intended.

A stray serpent separates from the fold to entwine around his leg. Harry stoops to pet it between the eyes, distractedly noting Fantasma's and Hedwig's death stares. He can't help it: it seems like quite the affectionate little buddy. It attempts to bite him but since Harry doesn't believe it's real, it only tingles slightly. He should thank Ginny later for providing him with practice.

"So, any dinner preferences?" Harry continues the important topic. A few other reptiles join the cuddle session. There is some more pleasant tingling. The visible part of Mammon's face freezes into a mix of incredulity and heart attack. "No guarantee that I'll whip up anything edible but you probably won't get anything worse than a mild indigestion, which is almost a win."

Mammon watches him pet his new snake friends before sighing. It smells of resignation.

"…frog legs."

For the rest of the evening Harry has to abandon the little three-feet biters to console a miserable Fantasma.

Another quiet evening finds them both at the same table. Mammon frowns at a stack of papers with tables, columns, and numbers crowding every inch. Their little pen taps softly against their lips. Harry would have melted at the cute sight except that he is too indignant to do anything other than fume.

His warm mug of milk is forgotten as he crumples a letter in his hand. Harry thanks himself for not being a pyromaniac because he wouldn't have resisted the urge to burn it otherwise. There is a whole mess of letters, broken wax seals, greeting cards, and little trinkets in envelopes in front of him, another pile lying in wait in a small wooden chest by his side. Harry has charmed everything to be incomprehensible to anyone but him, so he isn't worried about Mammon sneaking a peek or two. He's seen them trying, even if the little snoop is subtle.

Fan mail. All of it.

Harry doesn't want to poke open that bag of worms. However, Ron direly needs a pick-up now more than ever, so he is willing to brave the horde. Especially since Harry contributed to the Auror Department's sorry state. Everything was official this time, at least. Hermione worked very hard. Pansy Parkinson still has no idea whether to hug him or to screech at him whenever they meet; her pinched face is the funniest thing ever.

(Harry prefers to think of them rather than to think of them. The real reason he decided to take a break. The things walking into his nightmares like one would walk into a home, corrupting everything that even Hedwig's light can't heal).

A lot of the fan mail is actually fun. Heart-warming, even. There are compliments and flattery, words of honest admiration and respect, confessions and gratitude for salvation. Sometimes Harry sees letters he can't help but reply to: letters of how he gave the courage he lacked once upon a time, letters from people writing in the darkness of a cupboard, letters from those who can never forget or disregard the impact he's had on their lives. Sometimes he makes epistolary friends.

Then comes the usual lot: marriage proposals, racy offers, photos that made him blush at first... The real filth as well as hexes are filtered out by the charms he's placed.

Then, there is the last category.

Criticisms. Threats. Cleverly made attempts to shame him for whatever made-up reason. Traps and delusions. Slurs of his friends that are simultaneously so ridiculous he wants to laugh but so repulsive he wants to bash someone's head in.

Fictional stories about himself and his friends.

Harry takes a sip of his milk.

"Don't you ever receive some piece of dubious writing that just makes you want to strangle someone?"

Mammon's pen stops tapping. Their pout is neutral; like they don't even have to think to reply since an opinion has already been formed.

"Always. People are horrid when alive."

"Well, my personal experience dictates that being dead doesn't make them any better," Harry says dryly, remembering inferi. Still, it's an emotional milestone already for Mammon to not even ask him to pay to receive an answer. They should celebrate – but Harry would get charged for that. "To be serious, though, most people are actually really nice and helpful; it's just that the arseholes have that annoying tendency to stick out."

Mammon hums, which neither confirms nor disproves his opinion.

"But this time it's not even arseholery; it's plain idiocy," the wizard continues. Upon seeing Mammon's teacup empty, Harry stands up and takes it to the counters for a refill. Mammon gets way too cranky when they run out of tea and snacks. "Someone wrote a story about a rough time my friends went through. I'm so pissed off with how insensitive the whole thing is."

Harry sets down a full cup of steaming rooibos tea in front of Mammon before dropping a neatly cut orange slice inside. He would have offered a pastry, but those don't survive long in the not-baby's company, which means they ran out a couple of hours ago. At least he saved a little something for Fantasma who would drop by later.

Mammon gives him a thankful pout. They waver.

"You can tell it to me if you wish."

"Because it's information and information is money?"

Mammon's lips curl into what can almost be called a twist of hurt.

"…because it upsets you."

They drink from their cup slowly, the teacup covering the visible part of their face.

Harry sits down, pushing down mild guilt – he didn't expect any human feelings or sympathy from a being he's secretly dubbed a goblin in disguise, but he should have known better. People can encase the tenderest of hearts in ice.

Mammon has never given him a reason to treat them any differently from how Harry would treat his many crazy friends.

"I thought you didn't like stories," the wizard says softly before gently swirling sugar in his own teacup. "Didn't you mention it once?"

Mammon hesitates. "I hate stories that aim to degrade my choice of lifestyle. They remind me of an acquaintance I unfortunately have. However, I admit their importance. I… disregarded just a story once."

Something inside Harry tugs at him to clear the ache clinging to the undertones of Mammon's voice.

"Well," he starts with a soft smile. "This tale of folly starts like this…"

It becomes an evening ritual. Harry dissects the most ludicrous, outlandish stories. Mammon sometimes adds hilarious if unnecessarily vicious comments. He writes out some conversations to send Ron, always accompanied by the redhead's favourite red velvet cake charmed with preservation spells.

There is always tea (except for oolong which Mammon hates with passion) and people to poke fun at.

"…Can you imagine, someone just sent me a backstory for a snake that belonged to a villain I once slayed," Harry announces.


"Leaving aside the fact that being a damn huge pet snake to a guy trying to commit genocide is pretty much all the backstory a cool, self-respecting snake needs, it's not even a good backstory. It doesn't even sound realistic." Harry looks at Hedwig hoping to rake in some sympathy. "Imagine there is this Dark spell called Maledictus that targets only women and forces them to become beasts with time – how would you even create a gender-based spell anyway?

"And there is this show… woman? Who is cursed with it and becomes a snake eventually? Like, the snake. The villain's snake. When there is really no indication that she is anything other than an overgrown reptile who represses her stress from being bound to a madman by overeating."

"…Eating sounds nice."

"She overeats on humans."

Mammon sighs. "Mou, I didn't come here to have morals with my tea."

"What is this sorcery?" the cloak-clad baby asks, distrustfully poking a plate of very realistic-looking coins with a tiny finger. "I know they are not real, but my mind keeps telling me you are attempting to feed me money."

Their voice – Harry still has no clue as to the baby's gender; they are going through impressive lengths to conceal it even though Italian is that pesky language where you need to change your verb endings – rises a little at the end. Mammon's lips clamp so tight they tremble. Even the tattoos on their pale face – two purple stripes running down their cheeks – stand out more vividly.

Harry simply smiles mischievously. Hopefully mysteriously, too – he is now living the 'mysterious stranger moving into small town' trope, it'd be a sin not to milk this.

"Well, haven't you answered it yourself? It's sorcery."

Fantasma the Frog croaks in laughter at the upset downturn at Mammon's mouth.

Once more, the baby prods a chocolate coin covered in golden glaze. Harry made it realistic thanks to his skills, he would thank you not to doubt him, but he also reinforced it with a compulsion spell to make everyone think they are actual money to find out whether the cursed baby would recognise the magic at play.

Like with every other experiment so far, this one shows that while in some cases Mammon can sense the influence of Harry's magic, they have no way to counter it. They don't even recognise it as magic.

Which means that Harry was right: while Mammon definitely wields some type of power, it is different from any common traditional system. The not-baby also has no knowledge of magical communities, which Harry has confirmed during several conversations where he hinted at popular wixen realities as much as the Statue of Secrecy would allow.

He wonders whether he has been tested in a similar way.

That aside, he has tried similar things on other citizens. He treads lightly, of course, because he doubts Italian Aurors would appreciate him testing out magic on muggles or what may be a community of wixes with limited abilities. Daniela would not be impressed either. Nor does Harry ever do anything immoral. He's not some scum, for Circe's sake. But he sees nothing wrong with finding out whether these muggles would be able to tell that something has been concealed by muggle-repellent wards (they can't) or that they feel happier after eating this croissant because of a Cheering Potion (they don't).

All of them show even less awareness than Mammon, and none have managed to fight his magic yet even when they display signs of recognising that something is not right.

Of course, some people would perhaps consider even that unethical, but honestly?

Harry puts up with a hella lot of stalking that intensifies every day, a mountain of gushy love letters on his doorstep every morning, and the fact that everyone watches him obsessively but blushes and runs away before he could even try to talk to them.

He considers it quite the fair deal at this point.

(The letters are very endearing though. They compare him to 'boundless skies' and say something sweet but unintelligible about feeling at home with him, which Harry appreciates and finds very romantic even though he doesn't return the sentiments. And can't read Italian cursive very well).

Fantasma blinks her red eyes before sneaking to the plate and gulping down a handful of the chocolate coins at once. It prompts a disgruntled hiss from Mammon who competes for the rest, while Harry thoughtfully stares at the pair.

Indeed, if there is one being who has shown awareness of magic, it is Mammon's frog familiar.

Magical pets sometimes attach themselves even to full-blooded muggles with not a single talent in them, so that's not particularly surprising to Harry, but he has spent enough time with the pair to recognise that something with Fantasma is not quite right, the same way the black fumes of the curse mushrooming around the baby sometimes are not quite right.

Oh well. He trusts himself to get to the bottom of that mystery in no time.

There live people here who have snatched a place in his heart, after all.

One morning a flower saunters up the steps to his bakery. Harry isn't troubled by this, even if a few of his patrons tremble in fear for some reason. Even Maria raises her head from a sketch of Fantasma posing with a rose.

Harry, however, knows the flower very well.

"How is Snorkack-hunting going these days?"

"Oh, I caught one a long time ago. You look lovely, Harry."

A sad frown crumples Luna's brows but her eyes light up when she skips to a stop in front of him, cutting the queue. Everyone is staring. Well, except the Fainting Corner, but that is understandable.

Layers of pale pink silk wrap around her like the petals of a blossom, her feet bare. A large hat sits regally on her blonde hair. A flower. An orchid? It's violet, with sharp home-grown crystals scattered in a strange pattern. Dewdrops?

Luna smiles gently at the customers. Some scatter immediately like spooked cats, some tense, while others draw out guns and other sorts of killing equipment. Harry has only ever seen so many war hammers in one place in the Hogwarts dungeons.

However rare it happens, Harry's heart always clenches when he sees this smile because Luna was incapable of it before Malfoy Manor.

"It would be nice if my old friend and I could catch up a bit alone, don't you all think so?" Luna muses aloud in her usual soothing, calm voice. Her eyes glow for a second. A trick of light?

Most customers hightail. A few hesitate, especially the regulars like that elderly couple at the nearest table, or the vaguely familiar white-haired man with glasses reading journals by the bookshelf, or the mother-son duo by the window. They send him… worried looks? Harry's eyes widen as warmth settles in his chest, even if he isn't sure what he's done to merit concern from anyone. He gives them a sign that it's okay to leave. Luna is safe. She is just… Luna.

Maria lingers even as the others flee. Her childish face scowls at Luna as she declares, "I'm the best in my shooting classes, by the way." Pulling a shawl Harry has gifted her tighter around her shoulder, she stomps out of the café. Harry prefers to ignore how realistic is the toy gun that she clenches.

"Not that I mind your dramatic entrances or anything, but didn't you say you'd be drowning in work for months?"

"I am. I was just feeling very sad and thought that seeing you would make me feel better."

"Did it work?"

Luna's expression softens.

"Yes. Thank you."

"Would you like anything, signorina?" Harry gives her a horribly flirty wink, making his Italian even more accented than usual on purpose. Luna is unfairly good at it. "One of Gabrielle's amazing coffees? Maybe give me a chance to stun you with the new cake recipe I'm trying out?"

He swiftly picks up a little scrap of yellow parchment covered with neat rows of Molly's handwriting to wave it in the air. 'Orange and cardamom cake' sits at the top of the page in bolded cursive.

Luna, to his disappointment, only smiles and shakes her head, making her head-gear wobble. Harry supposes she should be thankful for sticking charms, because otherwise the weird plant contraption would have fallen to its demise right there on his floor… but then again, it's Luna. Perhaps she would just say it's destiny, shed a tear, and move on after making a little grave for her hat. She's done this to quite a fair number of costumes already.

"Thank you for the offer, but I'm afraid you'll have to wait for another occasion to stun me, my dear Harry. However, I wouldn't be against some spring water in a watering can."

Harry puts his recipe back down with a wistful sigh. Blinks.

"It can be done, no trouble, but why… the watering can?"

"Because why not?"

Luna shrugs serenely, making the flower on her head bob. Thankfully, it doesn't fall. A costume funeral avoided.

It's easy to conjure a cute watering can that would be small enough to drink from it comfortably. Once Harry passes it to his friend, she pulls out a bottle of dried, ground petals from the invisible folds of her dress.

"Dried False Ambrosia. Neville gave me some – very sweet of him, don't you think?"

She adds a dash to the water. The shrunken corpses of petals float to the surface in scattered bits.

"It's very tasty and I'm almost certain it's not completely poisonous. You can sprinkle it over your morning treat. Here, you look like you need some." Luna sets the bottle on the display case, side by side with the sugar packet holder for the customers in the form of a crescent moon and toothpicks peeking out from a little star-shaped holder.

"Thanks. Always dreamed of looking like I need some not-completely-poisonous flowers in my breakfast."

Still, Harry did not grow up to be a wasteful man. He leans over the counter to stash the little bottle away in a cabinet by the till; there might always come along a person he doesn't particularly like. Mission accomplished, he turns to Luna only to remember something important.

"Wait, aren't you a flower right now?"

"I suppose so. Doesn't everyone want to be one at some stage in their life?"

"That's deep but also not the point. I mean- If you are a flower and you are eating flowers… Isn't this cannibalism?"

"None of us is without fault." She frowns. "You've become rather judgemental in the short time we haven't seen each other."

"I'm pretty sure disapproving of cannibalism isn't just me 'being judgemental' and it's definitely not an attitude problem that needs correcting."

Luna just hums, scrutinising the sketches Maria left, paying special attention to Fantasma depicted in some of them. It might look like she isn't listening, but Harry knows she does. Luna always listens.

"Try this jelly," he says, remembering to dig out a small jar he stashed away for her. "Bought it at a nearby farmer's market, it's amazing."

"Thank you. Speaking of markets, here." A tattered parchment booklet falls out of Luna's sleeve. "The timetable for the magical markets in Italy. You should visit them sometime. The one in Perugia will be of particular interest to you, Harry. Go there on the twenty-fifth of May and you won't regret it."

Harry raises an eyebrow but accepts it, flipping through the little book and watching the people, vegetables, and furniture in the photographs wave at him cheerfully.

"That's pretty specific. I know that people always mistake your intelligence and ability to see through their bullshit for the gift of foresight, but sometimes you can be so precise in your predictions that even I feel like it may actually be true. Any luck with lottery numbers yet?"

"I would have told you had I been a Seer." Luna's light eyes sparkle mischievously as she puts a finger to her lips. "But perhaps I know one."

Harry doesn't push at her to tell him more; by the way she gazes softly into her drink, it's obvious this person is precious to her, and being a known Seer is a dangerous thing. Harry has enough trust in his friend to know she'll tell him if it ever becomes relevant, but being friends doesn't mean they need to know absolutely everything about each other's lives.

He takes her cool hand gently in his, absent-mindedly tracing the webbing of her scars extending every year.

"Would you like to go with me if it's so important?" he offers. "I need to hunt down a few nifty rune books as well as some pixie dust and maybe a new carving knife if I find me a nice one. Some types of magical glass. Street food would be good, too – this town is nice and all, but I'd appreciate something other than panini and prosciutto at this point."

"I'm so sorry, Harry, but no can do." Luna shakes her head sadly. "While I'm pretty sure I could find some Crackpot Creamberries there... I have some Hunting of my own to carry out. Some Egregious Wooble-bellies in the area refuse to remove themselves and need some help with it."

She is as serene as always as she says this, but right now is the moment Harry notices that the home-grown crystals on her flower head-gear aren't supposed to be dew drops but are instead shining, sharp teeth reflecting the light streaming through the window, and Luna's violet hat is giving him a blood-thirsty smile.

"Are you sure Eg-whatever Wobble-bellies need that help?" he asks carefully. Luna hums.

"Wooble-bellies. And need or not, they will receive it anyway."

Well, Luna has always been a helpful girl.

"Ah. How nice. Good luck with... culling their numbers, I guess?" Harry is already mourning the population of Egregious Wobble-bellies. "And I could try finding those cranberry thingies for you."

"Thank you, Harry. You're very lovely."

Luna beams in that dainty and tranquil way of hers before finishing off her watering can - without forgetting to drop a little water in her flower hat - and flouncing outside, managing to avoid stepping on a single body. Her smile is just a little brighter than when she entered.

Now, Harry just needs to figure out what the heck he's signed up for. Well, at least being Luna's friend is never boring, and it's not like there is much for him to do here now, with Mammon busy even when they're there, Daniela and Tyr only having time in the mornings, and Maria being a little girl who should honestly pay more attention to school than spend time with an old man like him.

Perhaps he should embark on the search for those little green people? Or person?

Then again, they are still very reticent and shy, always fleeing whenever he glances their way. He's polite enough to not disturb them in their creepy stalking.

Still, it's a bit sad that they always avoid actually talking to him.

There is next to no opportunity for Harry to meet friends in magical Italy, especially since he's so taken with the cafe and his projects. Thus, when he senses magic during one of his broom outings, he has to investigate.

He descends in the town of Montaione, beautiful amidst green hills and fields. Harry immediately sends out a pulse of magic to announce his presence. Italian wizards and witches, unlike their British counterparts, apparently love to gather together and find each other, so such an action isn't as intrusive as it would have been back in Harry's homeland. Unfortunately... He is late. The witch or wizard must have apparated away since any traces of a presence are gone. Magic still remains, which might mean that someone lives here, but it's not like he can just enter a person's home when they aren't there. Harry's not sure why the idea even entered his mind. Must be the company he keeps.

But in the end, he doesn't mind: an hour-long walk round the city later, and Harry is inhaling the soft scent of fresh bread he carries in a paper bag in his arms, while in his pocket there is a shrunken package of homemade pickles (stuffed peppers, garlic, a variety of others he's dying to taste) he's planning to send Molly in response to her own care packages, as well as a couple of bottles of olive oil he was running out of anyway.

The sunlit streets are bright and cheerful, the houses made of pastel bricks and stucco all have red roofs to top them, and the air carries the after-scent of rain. Harry smiles and steps into one of the numerous puddles littering the narrow roads. The evening is only just beginning - not that you can tell yet in this fine weather - but the bars are crammed with people enjoying an aperitif, and sounds of animated conversations carry over from the balconies draped with flowers.

He's looking for an empty and adequately suspicious little alley to put on his Invisibility Cloak and take off with a broom (always the hard task in small towns) when he jolts.

First, there is unease.

The type you feel when you are at home alone, with no neighbours nearby, and suddenly there is a knock at the door at midnight. The type you feel when you've strayed into gloomy byways of an unfamiliar town.

Then there are screams of static in Harry's ears. The sensation that he isn't even here but watches from a distance.

Since childhood Harry has been more attuned to magic than the others. The past six years he has worked hard to perfect this ability, but now he wishes he had not been quite as good because then the sheer pressure of the advancing force would not drown him like this.

It comes closer and in its coming erases all the good this day has brought.

An orb of concentrated darkness hurries to meet him.

It's disgusting.

It reminds Harry of cold and hunger, of bluish hands breaking through the surface of a lake, of a skeletal man emerging from the cauldron, of the emptiness inside his chest that wakes him in middle of the night, of Deathday parties where the cheer can't make you forget the rotten food, of animalistic, soul-sucking fear and despair. It's darkness in its vilest form. The only thing that keeps Harry from screaming and hurling the strongest spell he knows is the conviction that it's imprisoned within a cage it can't get out of – even though it tries. Oh, it does.

It tries, and thrashes in its confines, and beckons Harry like Dementors beckon their prisoners for the final kiss.

Its cage is a tiny orb. Harry stumbles back when he realises that the orb – no, not an orb, a pacifier – is attached to a person.

The person runs towards him still.

"What..." is the only thing he can utter.

The person is a baby, or rather, a not-baby in the same way Mammon is, only Mammon doesn't make Harry's world shudder, and stumble, and shake. With Mammon, the darkness is a whisper, just a hint of something more. Here, it's a threat, a promise that is held back for now but will be fulfilled, be it now or in a century because it can wait. It can wait.

(And it will be very angry when it comes).

Every cell in Harry's body screams that this thing cannot be released.

Harry takes a closer look at the carrier of such a heinous object. The not-baby is even odder than Mammon: dressed in a black-purple leather jumpsuit, with purple eye make-up and tiny lips glistening with black lipstick. A violet teardrop tattoo and a pierced lower lip. Harry isn't even sure how he can walk around muggle settlements without the authorities fussing up a storm.

It takes Harry a second to realise that the not-baby's make-up is getting ruined because he is in tears. It doesn't stop him from wearing a determined expression before he jumps on Harry and clings to his leg like a very determined octopus. Harry's trouser leg is suddenly warm and oh Merlin is there rain on his knee? Because it's definitely getting wet from the not-kid's face.

If Harry expected an attack, this was not it.

(He dims his magic-sensing ability to the maximum just to breathe).

"Um," he begins. That's always a good start to anything. "Are you crying?"

The not-baby flinches and jumps away.

"WHAT?" he squeals. His voice is high-pitched, but not in the way a real toddler's would be – this is the voice of a teen, a young adult. "Skull-sama is not crying, you are crying! My eyes are just... invaded. By evil ninja onions."

Wiping fat globes of makeup-dirtied tears and drops of snot, Skull... sama? glowers at Harry defiantly.

Well, at least he doesn't faint. Harry doesn't know what has become of his life that this is suddenly a very important and relieving fact.

"I was actually in the middle of something," Skull-sama continues. He sticks up his nose. Harry suddenly gets the image of Draco Malfoy in this purple getup with smeared makeup and in a ridiculous leather outfit. It's not an image he ever wants to have again. "Before you came and distracted me. Now, to make up for it, you need to help me."

"That's quite the strange turn of events, considering you've just tried to tackle me to have a crying fit on my leg," Harry points out even though he is amused and very willing to discover what the hell is going on because it's not everyday you meet a sobbing de-aged emo Malfoy with an artefact worse than all the contents of the Black manor put together.

"Skull-sama was not crying," the not-baby insists with a furious blush on his pale face.

"Oh, pardon, getting invaded. Also, '-sama'? Isn't that a Japanese suffix denoting respect? Sorry, buddy, but you don't seem very Japanese."

True, Harry doesn't know much about Japanese culture, but still. He knows a bit after meeting a foreign friend of Cho's at one of her and Ginny's parties. The friend was a Chinese priestess lady who looked after an important magical temple in Japan. Very lovely and fierce, too; destroyed several Quidditch teams before retiring – manually beat them all half to death because they broke the rules.

Harry's heart was almost prepared to get stolen before he discovered that not only was she married but also had a kid. At least Harry did get invited to visit their home in Japan in the end. Some quaint little town. He even considered settling there before Luna brought up the subject of Italy.

"If you don't like calling me Skull-sama, fine." The not-baby puffs out his chest. "You can call me The Great Master Skull. I'll make an exception. Just one. Only because you're special and will help me now."

Harry wonders if being so obnoxious is a talent you must be born with.

"How are you even still alive?" he wonders out loud. It's a shame they are in a tiny nook of a by-street and there are no benches nearby; he is sure it would be quite a long account.

Skull stills. Smiles.

Suddenly, Harry's fingers find his wand hidden in his sleeves and wonders if the orb's darkness has leaked through his defences.

"Who says I am?"

There is nothing dramatic in this question. Skull delivers it in the same tone he spouts everything else... but what are these shivers of unease that raise the hairs on his arms?

Harry looks right into the violet eyes of the not-baby. It's a silent conversation, one that feels like they are two people speaking languages the other doesn't understand.

"Just kiddin'!" The heavy presence lifts, as if the moment could be erased with the swipe of a hand, just like that. The blackness swirling in the pacifier, entangled with bright purple fire, lingers. "Now, don't you just stand there. Come, come. Skull-sama has already asked you twice."

Skull jumps on his leg again – Harry strangles the instinct to kick him and the evil thing away – before tugging at his trouser leg to direct him. Harry recovers his amused state of mind, although he doesn't let go of the wand. Thankfully, it's covered by the long sleeves of his denim jacket.

"How are you even sure that I can help you at all?"

Skull leads him towards a tiny alley that smells strongly of cats. A shadow-coated cranny, really, where the sun hasn't reached to dry out the wet dirt and the puddles. There are a couple of windows above, hidden as they are by the veils of ivy, but the Venetian drapes are closed. After casting a wandless, wordless life-detection spell (that isn't as easy as it sounds like and was only learnt due to Pansy going all slave-driver on Ron and his team), he can assure himself that no one will spy on them.

If the baby has decided to murder him, this is quite the ideal setting. Harry's gut, however, tells him that he's going to live to see another day.

"I'm not sure, but look." Skull cranes back his head to look at Harry with the most pinched expression he has ever seen on any human being excluding Snape. Faint flush paints his cheeks again. "Even Great Master Skull doesn't have the mastery to deal with every problem he encounters."

He points at a cardboard box plopped upon a few stones so it won't sink in a murky puddle. Harry steps closer but he already knows what he's going to find.

With hands carefully peeling apart the upper layer of the box, Harry peeks inside to see a kitten curled in a violet helmet. It has a strange colouring: light grey-violet, with a white spot on its forehead that resembles a skull as well as startlingly dark spots sitting above its closed eyes like eyebrows. They make the kitten look ominous and angry even as its skinny paws twitch a little as it dreams.

Harry reaches a careful hand to touch it but its eyes snap open immediately. They are glowing orbs of violet, a bewitching colour just like Skull's, unnatural and making Harry believe that this is a half-kneazle he is dealing with. The intelligence shining in them confirms his theory.

"What exactly are you planning on doing with it?" Harry asks Skull even as he raises his hands in defence when the kitten hisses at him aggressively.

"Taking it with me would be nice," Skull sighs out wistfully. It's the first sentence that is not obnoxious or suspicious. "But for a start I'd like to feed it. However, I've been coming here for days – and I'm a very busy person, by the way! No, really, I am! – but it doesn't want anything."

Skull waves a small hand at a mountain of cat treats of various kinds half-hidden by the box. A small bowl of water sits by their side, still full.

"Hmm... How old is it?"

"The hell would I know?"

"You're useless."

The kitten has stopped hissing but is now huddled with its back against the farthest corner of the box. It's not scared and there is no trembling, however. It glowers at Harry like it wants to slaughter him and all his living relatives to feast on their insides. Voldemort would have found a friend here.

"This kitten looks like the kind of stranger you shouldn't trust around children," Harry comments. His hand is safely outside the cardboard box.

"Hey! She is beautiful and trying her best!" Skull sniffs. He is also significantly closer to Harry than he was only moments ago, which makes Harry happy that he hasn't released his wand yet even if he's more careful about not having it be seen.

Harry sweeps the food with a look again before setting his eyes on the kitten's bony frame. It's really tiny, especially for a half-kneazle who generally grow up to be bigger than normal cats; Harry can fit two creatures like this one in his palm.

He thinks he might know what the problem is.

"A moment, please." Harry makes show of reaching inside his bread bag with his wand hand before conjuring a dropper wordlessly. "Here. Let's try with this."

Taking in a little water, Harry makes the most peaceful expression he can while stretching his hand out to feed the kitten. It glares at him with distrust before mustering up the most self-loathing expression he has ever seen on a non-human being and latching onto the dropper.

Water is not the perfect beverage for a kneazle or a half-kneazle kitten, which this grumpy ball of fluff definitely is. They need either mother's milk or a special mixture to sort out their magic. Harry will need to contact Hermione and ask whether she can spare some (Crookshanks and other adult kneazles apparently love this type of stuff as well) or, if everything else fails, he can always call Hagrid and have his arms full of a sobbing half-giant and several litres of everything the kitten would ever need in the next five years.

"You are my saviour," Skull breathes out, crouching next to Harry. The wizard tightens the restraints on his sensing ability. "And Teschia's."

As the kitten thirstily gulps down drops of water, a thought enters Harry's mind.

"Wait. Did you name her... Teschia? Isn't 'teschio' the Italian for 'skull'?"

The not-baby beams so proudly it's like even his piercings and leather suit are shining harder.

"Yep. But she's a girl."

"Is 'teschia' even a word?"

"Who cares? It's a name."

"Why did you pick her up at all? Of course it's really nice of you but..."

Harry glances down at the skull-like spot just above those intimidating 'eyebrows'. Suddenly, he knows.

"Wait," he says for the n-th time this day. "You... are doing all of this... because she's a violet cat with a skull?"

"Yep. And damn, mate, did you see her eyes? They're literally the same shade as mine! Isn't this just awesome?"

"The only thing that's awesome here is how shallow you can be! You're just that much of a narcissist, aren't you."

"Don't judge Skull-sama! There is nothing wrong with a little bit of self-love." Skull lovingly caresses Teschia's tail which she promptly wraps around his tiny hand. Apparently she thinks the same and absolutely adores her human lookalike. "If you don't love yourself, who else would?"

Skull is an irritating baby with a narcissistic streak that would make Malfoy drop dead from envy, and Harry still wonders how many people have tried to assassinate him already, but the strange gleam in his purple eyes prevents him from making a witty remark. Harry can recognise this expression, even though he hasn't had a real cause to see it in the mirror since he was eleven and discovered a world where he could be loved.

If you don't love yourself, who else would... indeed.

"Well, at least you are not the only one who sucks at naming stuff," Harry decides to change the subject. "I would have probably named her FloofyMcFloof, which would have made no one happy."

Teschia already isn't. She stops drinking before meowing demandingly. She paws the air and looks at his hand. Harry is sceptical about offering it, but nothing daunts him after Hagrid's lessons and blasted-ended skrewts who only got more vicious in their eighth year after being locked up because even Death Eaters wanted nothing to do with those things.

Harry politely presents his hand. A second – and it's full of kitten. He just… sighs. Pressing her against his chest and smoothing its soft fur, Harry wonders whether cats were created to be a means of therapy except that something went dreadfully wrong.

"You know, you're an all right guy. Skull-sama knew his gut would never fail him. You've officially passed the test!" Skull says with a resolute nod. Harry blinks before sending an amused smile down at the not-baby.

"Yeah? Do I get anything out of it then?"

"Skull-sama's undying devotion, which is a damn great thing to have. Oh, and Teschia. 'Cause you gotta take care of her from now on. Don't look at me like that. Y-you can't leave her now, can you?"

"Well, I can. Actually, don't you think that she kinda looks at me like she wants me to leave her-"

"Nonsense. She just has a face that makes people misunderstand her easily."

Harry doesn't think there is any misunderstanding happening in this case. There goes that self-loathing kitty mug again. Apparently, his new cat has only two default expressions: disgusted and young Voldemort.

"That too. Probably. But I thought you wanted to take her-"

"I'd love to, but my octopus is a jealous bastard. Besides, Teschia isn't fond of humans-"

"Exactly! She hates me-"

"-and my work is full of humans. That's kinda the point of the human trafficking department."

Human what. Is this some epithet for a recruitment office or something?

Hah. And Dudley would say that wizards and witches have a weird naming sense.

Skull must have seen something in his face because he hurries to continue, "But that's only temporary! It should be obvious but everyone knows I'm worthy of so much more. I just can't decide between organ trafficking and strategy. Everything depends on what suits my goals most. However! Don't worry, you just wait for me and I'll come back. Pinky promise!"

"...Why are you talking like I'm a pregnant wife you're planning to leave with child while you are going overseas for work?"

"You know, you're quite right. I do expect you to look after Teschia like you would after your own kid."

"Are you missing my point on purpose?" Harry asks. Suspicion coats his voice.

Something mischievous flits in Skull's eyes, while Teschia paws at the front of Harry's shirt.

"Who knows? Skull-sama is mysterious, right?" Skull winks. "Anyway, thanks, mate. You're quite the rare find and- Yeah. Just thanks."

"I hope you are very grateful because it seems like I am indeed going to take this ball of murder home." Harry sighs, looking down into Teschia's enchanting purple eyes. "This was supposed to be a vacation."

"Hella nice vacation it is, then!"

"Yeah. Hell-a."

Skull drags a purple motorcycle from behind a flower-bed, so small it looks like a toy except there is a crate strapped to its back. Something jingles inside softly as it moves. A few keychains with skeletons and Gothic designs dangle down the handles.

Harry feels a pang of wistfulness for a second; the same pang he feels when he passes the numerous bike and Vespa rentals in the zone. The Dursleys, however, never even dreamt of teaching him how to bicycle, and he can't justify learning himself when he has a trusty broom always at hand.

Skull beams proudly at his moto, sketching Harry a complicated bow like a stage magician starting a show.

"This is my trusty tool with which I save the world – or well, a tiny bit of it but important nonetheless – ain't the whole world made of tiny bits?" The not-baby grins at Harry. "That's why Skull-sama is so damn busy all the time – you gotta book an appointment to see Skull-sama! No, ten appointments! Because who knows if Skull-sama will be busy even then! – but!" He raises a finger to the sky. "Just for you two, this mechanic baby and its outstanding owner are gonna be free whenever you need us."

"We feel so privileged."

Teschia lets out an unimpressed mew from within Harry's arms. She voices the opinion of them both.

"As you should!" Skull nods. He doesn't understand sarcasm. "Oh yeah! Generally, you can just scream and I shall come – but in case you're those boring folks who need boring stuff like securities and certainties, you'll receive Skull-sama's number – and, and, and... where is it? Ah, here. And this – just in case. 'Cause it's your lucky day."

Skull easily lifts the crate, which makes Harry raise his eyebrows because the thing looks freakishly heavy, then shoves away what looks like a very dirty leather uniform similar to the one he wears now, and rummages around in the numerous pockets of a bag before pulling out a crumpled paper with a cellphone number in beautiful curly handwriting. Then, several keychains similar to those on the motorcycle.

Even before Skull drops his haul into Harry's waiting hand, he faintly senses the magic soaking them. Harry suppresses the urge to whistle because this is some serious enchantment going on.

"What is this?" Harry asks even though he can already decipher the function of a couple of the keychains. Protection spells. Made by someone with not too much formal training, as evidenced by the lack of certain runic loops traditional in tying together magical blessings. He needs his senses back to decipher more, but to hell with it. He doesn't want to drown in the sensation of slugs crawling all over his skin yet again, which would happen if he lets the thing on Skull's neck affect him.

"You might think these are useless trinkets, but you're wrong. Skull-sama doesn't do useless trinkets. These are powerful artefacts crafted exclusively to promote our great goal – but today I've decided that they are yours."

"I don't think these are trinkets." Harry smiles wryly. "And they are definitely as powerful as you say."

Surprise flashes in Skull's face; Harry realises that it's the first time he reads him so clearly throughout the whole conversation. He pulls Teschia tighter into his arms.

"Y-you believe Skull-sama?"

"Is there a reason not to?"

Skull snorts, his expression just a notch warmer. "Nah. It's just… Not many people do." Skull jumps onto his motorcycle. A grin full of wonder livens up his face; it suits him. "Anyway. Been really nice and all, but Skull-sama really, really, really must go now. Or you are gonna get caught up in something bad, which won't be nice. Can't have you dyin' on me when I've just found you. See ya!"

Skull strikes a pose, stares seriously into Harry's eyes, puts on the helmet, and rides off into the sunset. There are exclamations and a shriek coming from somewhere around the corner, which provides suitable background setting. They all sound terrified but it doesn't matter: the whole world lifts from Harry's shoulders as the aura of blackness deserts the alley.

He looks down at the thing purring in his arms.

"Are all kneazles so ugly or are you just an exception?" he tells her dryly. A violet eye opens to glower at him angrily. Harry isn't sorry. "Then again, Mrs Norris was skeletal as hell and Crookshanks still looks like someone has stomped on his face too many times when he was a kitten..."

It would be easy to disregard the promise that he never gave and get rid of this sudden invader of his life...

Harry sighs. Pats Teschia's head a little.

Damn his soft heart.

"Please don't look at me like I've just brought home the fruit of my adultery," Harry tells Hedwig as soon as he enters the cafe and greets stern yellow eyes that don't look all that forgiving. He sets Teschia down on the nearest table, absently waving his wand to put the kettle on; some aromatic chamomile tea would be perfect right now.

Hedwig hoots. It's the result of so many years of perfect harmony that he can understand her so well.

"No, she won't be taking your place. Teschia is just a guest here until someone comes to take her back."

He hopes that Skull would take her back, at least.

After shrugging off a denim jacket, Harry hangs it on a hat stand and yawns. He doesn't forget to pet Hedwig several times, even if the sensation is strange, as if he were touching lightly condensed smoke.

"Have you ever met a person who is so annoying, obnoxious, and overbearing... that he is actually charming? In that 'I kinda want to strangle him but I also kinda want to make him live so he can suffer more' way? Yeah. I don't get it either." Harry sprawls in a cushioned seat by the bookcase. His hands absently pull out a few paper sheets and some colour gel pens from Teddy's basket. "Anyway, I've got to write a letter to Hagrid since I probably need to feed our cat, and if I don't do it now, I'll procrastinate until she dies of hunger, which may or may not be an unfortunate outcome."

Harry ignores the burning in his chest as his owl watches him write. She misses carrying his letters.

Hooting twice, she descends from her perch in a beautiful circular swoop. A flutter of ghostly wings – and she is preening Teschia's fur, who can't visibly decide whether she enjoys the sensation or not. Well, Harry thinks, even if she doesn't, she'll have to make a compromise. He wasn't planning to babysit a baby kneazle either.

He would like to meet Skull again however.

Mammon is gone from the bakery for a week.

It's strange to think of them as 'gone' when they are technically just a customer, but… After a month and a half of constant company, Harry feels a lack, as if a precious family member has gone away with no cause or warning. There are times when a comment dithers on the tip of his tongue but there is no one who would hear; times when he prepares two extra teacups but there is no one who would drink from them.

Even Maria sulks because Fantasma isn't there to pose for her sketches anymore.

Harry worries so much he is ready to bring this up with Daniela (who looks unhappier every time she comes; Harry takes pity on her and postpones his hexes), but the grouchy, money-grubbing presence returns before he can.

"There is a cat here," Mammon informs Harry as soon as the bakery opens, in a voice that implies they really hope he just hasn't noticed and is going to fix the problem soon.

It's very easy to smile brighter.

"Her name is Teschia," Harry tells them cheerfully. He automatically levitates a plate of strawberry pastries reserved for his cranky hooded guest. He has been setting some aside every day for the whole week. "I hope she and Fantasma get along."

He smiles encouragingly at the frog that hops over to have a cowboy-style stare off with the little kitten that looks less and less like a dainty graceful feline and more and more like a hardened felon every day.

"Teschia? Fascinating."

Mammon nibbles on their lower lip, which is a sign that they are interested. It's not a good sign.

"Do I want to know what you're thinking?"

"Even if you do, it will cost you."

"What about discounts for friends?"

"'Discount'? Mou, what is this heresy?"

The scary thing is Harry can't even tell whether they are joking or for real. He sighs. Better just give up and… make some more cake. Cake has never been the wrong answer to anything in his life.

"Do you even like animals?" he decides to ask when Mammon settles as far as possible from their familiar and Harry's pet guest, their pout growing irritated when the little beasts hit it off immediately after failing to browbeat each other.



"Well, you must like frogs at least."

"I thought I liked frogs. Then I had Fantasma."

"Poor Fantasma."

Mammon puffs their lower lip in offence. Harry can barely withhold a smirk.

"Poor me. Mou, why couldn't I choose a snake?"

"I'm pretty sure it's not the animal's fault it takes after its master," Harry says before dodging an unfriendly tentacle trying to grab him by the neck. Mammon seems to favour tentacles and vines quite a lot, and the wizard wonders if he should bring up some Freudian comment just to see what happens. "Things would be the same with another animal – speaking of, snakes? You like them?"

"I find snakes rather… aesthetically pleasing."

"That's quite the long-winded way to say 'snakes are cute'."

Mammon huffs, making the edge of the hood flutter just slightly. "Mou, enough chatting. This is my limit of useless social interaction for today," they snap vindictively and proceed to ignore him.

Harry doesn't mind because he has enough things to do himself: the café can clean itself, but not when outsiders are present, and he rather likes doing menial tasks because they let his hands work while his mind concentrates on something else.

If Harry hears Mammon hiss at the animal trio, "No, Fantasma, you three may not create a boy band – none of you are even boys!", well. He'd rather pretend he's wiping up the glasses that magic has already cleaned for him. He'll leave his friend some shreds of dignity.

Chapter Text

Believe me, this wasn't what I wanted

But no, I can't leave, he's got me.

Won't you shine in my direction and help me?

Won't you lend me your protection and help me?



Maria isn't a simple girl; she is a girl with a body count.

Since the appearance of a powerful Sky in Riccardo, that count is only going up.

"That's not bad, sweetie, but you could have got rid of him sooner. How can you hope to protect your Sky when you are so slow, hmm?" sorella Lussuria chastises her gently as she prods the corpse with a foot. Maria resists a wistful sigh at the sight of those shiny thigh-high leather boots, shuffling a little to hide her worn Mary Janes. "You're lucky I was just dropping by today or you would have died. There wasn't even anyone around to appreciate your pretty little corpse!"

"I'll try to work harder next time. I-I promise," Maria stutters out.

Her hands fist the front of her mud-spluttered, torn dress. She probably looks horrid. And this is her penultimate dress, which wouldn't have been that bad had she not been an orphan stuck living in Riccardo with few chances of getting out. The prices here are insane – saying goodbye to the mafia has costs. Same with the protection for those in hiding or those who want to have some training and go to school in peace. As much peace as they can get.

She should have gunned that man down sooner.

Now Maria wants to scream in frustration at herself for having all those pesky things like morals, and compassion, and regrets. Being around foolish Skies like Harry only worsens her condition. He's always going on about the importance of being nice, friendship, family, mutual respect, helping others, yada, yada.

He's the stupid sort of Sky (and she's dizzy at the realisation that she is thinking like this about a Sky. A Sky!) who actually treats Maria like a kid when she's already eleven and has been doing assassination for two years (okay, she's a bit of a late-bloomer, but it's not like her family circumstances had allowed her to begin work sooner; the condescending stares she gets at school always remind her of her inferior experience).

Next time she'll shout at Harry for making assassination hard. It's her future job!

His lectures haven't got her anything other than scrapes and bruises because that kidnapper (one of the many who have been coming for Harry to abduct him or worse) noticed her when she hesitated to shoot and engaged her in hand-to-hand combat. At which Maria sucks.

She eyes Lussuria's beautiful musculature bulging under a tight shirt enviously.

"It's not me you have to promise anything, poppet. It's your problem if you fail and die," Lussuria sing-songs distractedly, still staring at the body through the black sunglasses. "Aww, this one's ugly." A sigh. "As my boss says, if it's trash, throw it away. He doesn't like clutter. Always makes me throw away half my collection, can you believe it?"

Lussuria's gloved finger taps her pouting lips.

Maria shivers as she feels a spark of powerful Sun Flames come to life. She knows what they're going to be used for.

While Storms and Mists are generally regarded as the best at body disposal, Suns have quite a few tricks in their sleeves as well. One of them would be to Activate all the cells in a body to move along the whole process of decomposition. The bones are the tricky part, of course. However, a strong Sun would be able turn them into dust. They just haven't gone over that part in school yet - but every teacher ever always repeats that if your Will is strong enough, if you put all of yourself into intent, you can succeed without breaching the specifics.

Maria isn't the strongest assassin out there.

She learnt few things useful while her family was around, and she's horrid at martial arts, and she's got no stamina at all, and the technique she's developing for her clarinet needs loads of work, and her only hitwoman trait is her excellent marksmanship, really-

But her Sun Flames are potent.

Even all those who despise her just for the famiglia she came from can attest to that.

It's one of those things that help her resist Harry's Sky Attraction when that insufferable man flares particularly bright (what kinda famiglia he came from to brandish his Flames like that?).

And now there is a person who can see this. Not just another ignorant kid who doesn't even know what they are talking about, or a teacher biased from the start, or one of those other unfortunate souls living in a warren tucked into the small forest at the edge of the town so that their suffering wouldn't be an eyesore to the mafiosi who enjoy a serene retirement after robbing thousands of people of the chance to ever do the same.

Maria recognises sorella Lussuria, because who wouldn't recognise one of the commanding officers of Vongola's elite assassination squad?

The Sun officer who often recruits promising, strong Suns.

Like Maria.

This- This might be her chance. To be useful, to prove she is worth something. To justify her existence when her family is six feet under and everyone says she should have disappeared in Professor Verde's labs.

"Um, I can do it!" Maria wants to wince at how high, how forceful her voice comes out, but it's fine. It's better to seem arrogant and pushy to hide the insecurities beneath. "Maria knows how to dispose of these."

Well. Kinda. Having strong Flames doesn't really mean knowing how to use them.

Harry pops into her mind again.

"Aw, this is delightful, sweetheart!" Lussuria claps her hands excitedly. The sound is cheerful and jars them out of the scene: both standing over a fallen man, his limbs twisting and a grimace of fear frozen forever on his face. Maria doesn't get to see sorella's eyes from behind the glasses. "I hate sparing energy on uglies. He's all yours!"

"Um, thanks," Maria mutters before focusing on the matter at hand.

She kneels beside the body, since she isn't good enough yet to control her bubbly energy over long distances. The stench of various bodily fluids thickens here but she braves through it anyway. The bursts of Sun Flames come alive underneath her skin as she hovers her palm over the fallen man.

Basic Flame Theory 101: you can use your Flames in two ways. Either you think through all the specifics of what you want to happen, precisely directing your power to achieve the best and most-controlled result… or you kinda wing it. Just concentrate on your wishes, dredge up all the resolve you can, and if you're strong enough, if your determination is good enough… something is going to happen.

Maria mentally prays to Madonna that the something is going to play in her favour.

Luck smiles upon her because in a few minutes of nerve-wracking tension and concentrated pouring of her Sun Flames, she is done. The grimace is no more. A pile of ashes and rot marks her effort. Took her longer than it would someone who is more practised at this thing, but the fact that she's succeeded at all is already a miracle. She'd like to brag about it, but in the mafia you have to keep some skills secret: unwise to graduate school leaving the information on your abilities within easy reach.

"Hmm, that wasn't bad at all," Lussuria chirps brightly. Maria isn't sure whether this means anything because the assassin commander is still inspecting the spot the body lay in. "Who knows if such skills may come in handy one day? You've all acquired quite the trouble magnet of a Sky, I hear."

"You have no idea," Maria mumbles under her breath.

There were some remnants of the Estraneo famiglia just last week, and they were all supposed to be in hell and six feet under! She has no idea how all those folks are digging themselves out of their holes just to get their hands on Harry.

And Harry isn't bothered by all this at all! He tried to offer some strange free biscuits to the Bloody Twins when those came to kidnap him, for God's sake! And then entered a conversation with the creepy assassin called Birds, spending several hours chatting about owls and bird care!

"Skies are so horrible sometimes," Lussuria sighs out. A note of wistfulness flits through her voice. "But that's why we love them, doll." She flattens her hand across the shaved side of her blonde hair. "Well, take care."

Lussuria turns around - letting Maria appreciate that muscled masculine back and the tight leather of sorella's trousers - but the girl has one more question to ask.

"Wait! Oh, um, sorry. Just- Why did you help me?" Maria squeaks out. She wills her knees to stop their trembling. "I don't have anything to repay you."

She would have never dared to be so direct before, but spending so much time with a powerful Sky like Harry lends her strength. Conviction. If she has managed to do something as brave, as wonderfully incredible as befriending a Sky - he even gives her gifts! Cooks food! For free! And she isn't even his Element! What kind of Sky does that? - she can manage this.

Lussuria grins brightly and makes a victory sign with gloved fingers.

"Sun solidarity time! We don't want to be like those nasty little Mists and Clouds, do we? Greedy, possessive creatures. Don't appreciate the beauties of working in teams at all - but we're not like that, are we?"

Actually, Maria has seen quite a few possessive Suns, both in the Mafia Academy and around the town. However, Lussuria seems so clearly convinced in the superiority of Suns when it comes to team building, it would be unwise to bring it up. She merely nods and stares at the form of the Varia commander strutting away with a martial artist's grace.

Did she leave an impression?

She hopes so. Getting a place - even a recommendation! - in the Varia is the height of Flame Users' wishes. Well, for those homicidally inclined anyway.

Although she likes living in Riccardo, especially since she's found a reluctant friend in her classmate and now in the second resident Sky, she knows it can't go on like this forever.

As her feet turn towards the bakery, Maria wonders what Harry's combat skills are.

Visually, he doesn't seem much of a fighter even in a scuffle against a random thug in a back-alley. He's of average height (a little on the tallish side) and very thin, especially for someone who is so awesome at baking pastries you cannot help but put them in your mouth again and again.

Actually, he's really great at all types of cooking. Maria wonders how he doesn't spend his lifetime in the kitchen just eating what he's cooked because he's. That. Good. God-like. Is this a natural talent or the result of years of passion and learning? She doubts it's the second variant since Harry honestly isn't a scholarly guy. She tried to ask him for help with maths once. Basic maths. Because she was too lazy. It's a mistake never to repeat again.

Maybe he used to cook for someone who demanded absolute perfection?

Anyway, even if Harry has some combat ability, it's not like a Sky should protect themselves. Skies are homes, they are Important, and Valuable, and Precious - all those things the other Elements are so often not. Not everyone is born to go down like cannon fodder.

Oh, of course Skies are trained and encouraged to learn to fight because the world is filled with scum (Maria has seen enough of it in her family; now she sees herself), but it's not a requirement. Moreover, it's outright shameful for an Element to let their Sky fight for themselves unless it is part of some elaborate training. It serves as a sign of their incompetence. A dangerous sign in flame mafia.

Even unbonded Elements are encouraged to protect Skies, an urge reinforced by their natural desire for Harmonisation.

All these facts come down to this: a Sky's fighting prowess is only tested in a battle against another Sky. Or at least some high-ranking head of a famiglia. That's acceptable, too.

Maria hopes Harry would never have to fight.

He doesn't look like he's seen in a battle in his life, that adorable dork.

Harry getting into a fight is pretty unlikely, of course. He's in Riccardo, a town of 'retired' (more like 'stored away for the rainy day') mafiosi under the total control of the Vongola Alliance. No Sky would bother Harry in Riccardo unless Ottava allows it, which is doubtful: even Maria has heard rumours of the friendly relationship between them. Not to mention that having a powerful Sky as Harry both attracts enemies foolish enough to go against the Vongola Law (and thus giving a valid reason to kill off enemy famiglia members as well as freelancers who could potentially join those famiglie) and serves as a way to get on the good side of the powerful Sky who could potentially attract powerful Guardians.

Maria is really curious whom Harry would choose. She just hopes it would be someone worthy of him.

Meanwhile, there are people like Maria around. They would all protect Harry where he can't.

The air is rife with the smell of apples. Harry received a whole bunch of them from a friend - all the while muttering something about being the reluctant co-Founder of the Carnivorous Apples Protection Society. He even promised Maria an honorary member badge when she pestered him about it. She would pin it to her chest and show off at school.

Because wouldn't it be so cool?

The new local Sky (and they did steadily start to consider him theirs in the town of Riccardo) gave her a present. Her. When all of them try so very hard to turn his attention upon them.

Well. Tough luck. Maria got there first!

(And they are all bastards anyway).

Harry is a strange Sky, she cannot help but think as she ducks around the queue of unfriendly mafiosi trying to subtly one-up each other so they can get served first.

He often spouts things that puzzle Maria. She doesn't mind, however, and his friends sound so madly interesting! (Or scary, like that Cloud lady who came the other day). Much better than school where they only learn boring stuff like maths, Italian grammar, marksmanship, knife-throwing, mafia history, and the like. Oh, and of course the endless hours of Japanese they have.

Maria flounces to the cake display, her whole face lighting up as she traces the smooth, slightly cool glass and eyes the cakes now laid out on delicate paper doilies instead of the previous simple trays. There are not many of them left, since she has just come back from school and there are barely any pastry survivors at this time - school takes everything nice away from them, urgh - but even then she can't quite decide between the apple meringue and apple strudel.

"So, you did follow my advice!" she pipes up brightly as a greeting. Harry smiles at her as he counts a few bills before thrusting them at a protesting customer. Silly man. As if he doesn't know that all these people will hand over their wallets and houses for a mere glimpse of a chance to obtain Harmony.

"Why wouldn't I? Need me some designer help when all my friends are busy. You fit the bill quite nicely."

Harry winks at her even as another customer comes up.

"For a man with such a cute cafe, you have no taste." Maria wrinkles her nose even as she points to the strudel to let Harry know to set a piece of this aside for her.

"Ah, well. My friends were the ones to design and do everything around here. I just… moved in. Well, after approving of some stuff. Making key decisions, you know. Like… moving in." Harry wears such a half-done, half-smiling expression that Maria giggles into her sleeve.

He reaches out to land a warm, long-fingered hand on her bob of red-orange hair. And then-

No. He wouldn't-

He does.

Maria sighs when the pulse of ambient Sky Flames intensifies, freezing everyone sitting at the tables before so many faces around her explode with blushes, and there is the tell-tale sound of a body dropping to the ground. Those weaker potential Guardians who have no chance of Harmonising with such a strong Sky as Harry but vie to do it anyway, always coming here. This is pretty much how they all end up.

Even Maria, despite her powerful Sun Flames and her condition, feels her body tingle lightly as her brains turn to mush.

For some sadistic reason, Harry's decided to power up his Sky Attraction again today. Why. Why is he doing it to all of them.

Meanwhile, the Sky just pats her hair one last time - she almost whines when the hand leaves - before tapping her on the nose with a finger and hurrying to the kitchen, presumably for her supper.

"Why are you like this?" slips out of her mouth as soon as he comes back.

His smile dims slightly as his eyebrows furrow a little in incomprehension. Even the container of food he always makes just for her sags in his arms like a puppy with its ears down.

"What do you mean? Why I cook for you? Um, that's... Because you deserve to be treated nicely?" he trails off. Uncertainty paints his voice but his green eyes shine with determination. Green. An unusual colour for a Sky, since they tend to have blue- or red-toned eyes on average. At least from what the teachers tell them. And from what Maria has dredged up the energy to listen because some classes are so dreadfully boring and not all of them will aid her in her future career.

However, as she sees Harry's confusion she can't help but sigh and give up. She just can't stay irritated at him long.

She doesn't have the time to think up what to say because a woman is coming up to the till.

"Um, everything that's left, please, Signor Cielo!" the last customer for the day blurts out, interrupting their conversation. It's not an unusual request. It's a good thing that Harry put a ban on ordering everything at once, or the bakery would be closing with its first customer every morning.

Harry smiles before packing a few slices of apple-caramel cake, a couple of apple muffins, and some cinnamon biscuits into a biodegradable cake box with the weird cafe symbol stamped onto it on top. Maria's mouth waters.

"Here you go. Have a nice day!" Harry says with a cheerful smile, flustering the poor green-clad Lightning woman.

"Oh, th-thank you," she mumbles with a flush. Sticking her hands into the pockets of her dress, she fishes out fistfuls of coins, so many they barely cram together. "Here, a tip. Thank you f-for everything. G-goodbye!"

With a metallic racket, she drops the pennies into the glass tip jar with a wolf hand-painted onto it, filling it at once, before fleeing the bakery. Her hands hold her darkened cheeks.

"Wonder what's wrong with her," Harry says mildly, looking on as she runs away. An angry murmur of voices accompanies the scene; others wanted a chance to get a pastry. The lucky customers at the tables send them smug looks. "Oh well. But why do these people insist on this?"

Clink. Harry taps the tip jar with a nail. An irritable frown wrinkles his forehead.

Maria stares at him. Are all adults so weird or it just Harry? Is she going to end up something like this when she grows up? Madonna, she hopes not. She's a girl with common sense, thank you very much.

"They give you money because they like your cooking... among other things," she tells him slowly.

What famiglia does Harry come from? Tthey were horrid at explaining basic things.

"But I've just cleaned out this damn thing!" Harry groans, like coins and bills are rubbish. He shakes the jar in the air; it's so full it barely jingles. Maria stares at it enviously. "I've got barely any room left where to empty it anymore!"

The girl gets on her tiptoes to peek behind the displays when he crouches to pull out a crate from underneath. His arms visibly strain as he huffs to heave the thing onto table with a rattle. It's crowded with coins of various currencies and value; stray rolls of bills pop up here and there. Harry, a scowl on his face, grabs the jar to empty it into the crate. Jingling, the money scatters into a messy mountain. Some coins spill over the top and roll down the wooden floor. Harry doesn't bother to pick them up, just muttering something about doing it later.

Maria's heart clenches. This money will be enough to pay her dues for a couple of months.

"You can take it," Harry tosses carelessly her way, making her head snap up. He casually leans his elbows onto the glass of the display case. "It's not like I need all this. Actually, never intended to keep this stuff anyway."

Maria hears a sound like someone letting out a strangled gasp at this. Her imagination? Or some Mist playing around with invisibility? Mists are tricky, annoying bastards, difficult to catch or even guess their motives, and she hopes she'll never have to work with one.

"Are you sure?" she asks even though she isn't in any position to reject this gesture of good will.

"Of course!" Harry grins and pushes the crate at her. Or tries to. It barely bulges. Grimacing, he adds, "We'll need to find a way to get it to your house first. I'll help-"

"No!" Maria blurts out. Like hell is he going into her home! It's a horrid place. Although Harry sometimes looks at her like he understands what's it's like to be part of a house's dirty secret you won't want to flaunt in front of guests... She doesn't want anyone she likes to see. "I'll do it myself. Maria is stronger than you look, anyway."

She glances away even as she senses Harry watching her with that sad face like he understands.

"Oh well. I'll trust you to do it, then. But now's supper time! You must be hungry, right? And no growing girl should go so long without food." Harry catches himself before snorting and shaking his head. "Sweet Morgana. I've turned into such a Mrs Weasley."

Maria doesn't know who Mrs Weasley is but she must someone nice if she has even a fraction of Harry's personality. The girl takes her container from Harry's outstretched hands - strange how hot the food is even though he hasn't microwaved it; she knows the heat will last even 'till she gets home and eats it - before looking around the small bakery to see a familiar face or a free table.

There's Elder Talbot daintily sipping his tea with an unknown elderly woman. She's not his wife - or is she? - but it's not like anyone can comment if Elder Talbot wants to bring enigmatic old ladies on regular dates. Maria wouldn't have known anything about this situation - she has no idea what Elder Talbot does or why he is apparently so respected – if not for all those people liberal with their tongues around her, as if her being a young girl dressing girly and with girly interests made her a badly written one-dimensional character instead of a budding assassin from a prominent if dead famiglia. More experienced former hitpeople don't make the same mistake.

There are a couple of people she recognises, a few she doesn't, a poor rookie sleeping off Sky Flames shoved in the corner so he wouldn't bother their Sky, two hitwomen flirting with each other, a pervert in a lab coat getting slapped by Elder Talbot's date, and-

Maria's face lights up. Perfect.

Harry's container, as usual, consists of two parts: one for now and one for dinner. She tucks away the dinner container in her bag, putting it side-by-side with a bunch of notebooks, a small old-fashioned gun (the standard one given to all the orphans), some hairclips, and a tiny notepad for doodling when classes get too boring. In the evening she'll have to leave something for breakfast since she's not sure Harry's cafe will be open on time because he likes his sleep (honestly, that guy's work ethics! His Sky-ness is the only reason no one has gutted him).

Seems like she'll have to share her supper this time, too.

The boy muttering under his breath and scribbling furiously in a spiral notebook raises his head to glare at her with irritation as she approaches. His green eyes are really pretty, almost the same shade as Harry's but with a sea-foam blue tint to them. They are shielded by reading glasses which gleam at her maliciously once she shows no sign of staying away.

"Damn. You again," he grunts out with pursed lips. Even his silver hair pulled into a tiny tail fluffs up like the tail of Harry's adorable grouch of a purple kitten who stares at them from its perch on a shelf over the table.

Maria shoves a mountain of notebooks away to liberate space for herself and her entourage of food, a bag, a shawl, and a jacket. She fleetingly notes that her dress is strangely clean and tear-free - she's pretty sure it wasn't this way just minutes ago.

"Maria is joining you!" she declares as she drops into her seat. She pushes some of Hayato's books away to clear up the space for her own notebook. And food. Never forget the food.

Hayato clicks his tongue. "That's what I never fucking needed."

He's one of those kids who think that swearing makes them sound scarier and adult. Maria doesn't have the energy to disillusion him.

"Hush. Isn't it more romantic to suffer through Japanese homework together?" She pulls out her study materials even though she'd like to doodle something to... warm up. Yes. She needs to do something fun before homework. It's not for procrastination purposes at all.

"What suffer, woman? I've literally completed everything." Hayato forcefully taps the cover of his Japanese textbook with a pen. "All the answers are here-"

"Thank you for being so understanding! Let's do this again sometime!"

Maria shamelessly snatches Hayato's Japanese workbook to copy a few answers. Such a pity she can't copy the composition! Why do teachers insist on always including essay writing in the learning process of absolutely any language? Don't people know how damn hard it is to cheat one's way through an essay? This is horribly inconsiderate of all of them.

At least Harry shares her plight; he likes lamenting about his Italian learning even though he's got much better at the language.

Maria shoves a sandwich at Hayato to shut him up.

"You know, if you just asked, Harry would have given you these, for free," Maria offers casually. She instantly shivers, as if someone has taken offence at her words- but it's not like there is anyone to overhear their whispering.

Hayato hushes her with a furious flush and cheeks full as he munches on the treat. He gulps it down audibly with a glass of water once he's finished.

"Don't call Signor Cielo like that!" He glances anxiously at Harry who is re-arranging cookery books on the shelves and desperately trying to pretend he isn't overhearing them even though Hayato's voice is just. So. Loud. "Goddammit, woman, ever heard of respect?"

"I don't know her." Maria shrugs and picks up a pencil. Flipping her notepad open, she starts a new sketch, just above those of Harry's adorable froggy.

Scratch, scratch.

A page fills up with tiny Gokudera faces and tinier dynamites.

She stretches her hand to grab the art basket and pulls out a few gel pens, groping for her favourite golden one to colour in the fire on the dynamites. She ignores a roar coming from a glass jar with erasers. When you are dealing with Harry regularly enough, you learn to ignore a lot of things. Not because you aren't curious but because Harry absolutely sucks at lying them away decently and you just want to put him out of his misery. (Seriously, who is Roonil Wazlib?)

"Why are you so- Urgh." Hayato's head hits the table with a small bang. "This is a Sky. Sky! SKY! …Shit. Don't look at me, I didn't mean to shout!" He puckers his lips. "What the hell? Is this Sky Attraction influencing me?"

"No, just your average stupidity!" Maria gives Hayato longer hair on her sketches just because she can.

Hayato raises his head from where he has it nestled in his arms.

"Fuck you."

"When we're older maybe?" Maria sticks out her tongue. "So sweet of you to offer!"

She wonders if she's any good at drawing human beets; she is seeing one right now.

Hayato finds his voice even as he lets his face drop on the table again. "I hate you," he grumbles into his notebook with his arms caging in his head.

"Say something more original."

"A lot."

"Still boring."

Hayato lifts his head slightly to scowl at her again. His hair frames his face really prettily; if he hadn't been such an amazing musician, Maria would have advised him to go for modelling.

"And you're a disrespectful twit," he snaps at her. "Don't you have any idea how to treat a Sky? Have you forgotten?"

"I've never once forgotten what he is," Maria says quietly. The song of Home Home Home thrums all around them. It's beautiful, like the clarinet melody she's once played. Like liberation. A lovely, soft glow of orange Flames envelops everything if she strains her senses enough to see them. "But he doesn't like it when we treat him like this. Why doesn't everyone realise it already and just stop?"

It won't stop the assassination and kidnapping attempts, of course, but honestly. Even Maria can understand that their forceful courting just makes Harry fidgety, and tense, and sad, and Maria has the emotional capacities of a pile of bricks!.. Or so she's been told by people who tell her to smile however unhappy she is, because a girl must always be seen smiling. After all, if you see people act unhappy, then they probably are, and that means actually addressing someone's pain.

Hayato blinks at her before snorting.

"Hah. So, you're not a complete dolt. Do us all a favour and show us this side more often than your usual simpery shit?"

Maria frowns at him in disapproval at the swears. He'd look way cuter without them and the constant smell of dynamite powder choking the air around him like cologne someone has applied too much.

She sends a glance towards Harry. The man's entered a one-sided conversation trying to explain his cat that jumping on customers with its claws out just because it's had a bad day isn't the socially correct response. Judging by the way the kitten looks at the ceiling with an expression of 'with you, all days are bad; I deal in all the ways I can', it's not going very well.

She likes him a lot, like an older brother she never got to have.

True, sometimes Harry treats her a little too much like she's still a child and can be rather condescending to her, but that's fine. It's not malicious. Awkward, rather. Like he doesn't quite know what to do with kids her age. He's probably too used to dealing with younger children, if at all.

But he is a lovely, attentive person in all the ways that matter, and subtly tells off jerks that try to bully Maria, so it's only natural for her to treat him the way he wants to be – like Harry, rather than the powerful Sky they all want to collect as their own.

If Harry has learnt anything at all in the course of his acquaintance with Mammon, it's that you can always count on the not-baby to never ever offer to pay for something.

His world explodes when this one immutable truth burns and dies.

Harry jerks when two small drums appear at his bakery early in the morning, just as the grey, foggy dawn rises slowly over the town. The weather promises to be one of those days when you're glad that there is glass separating you from the outside, all wet and lazy and greyscale. But the bakery is comfortable and warm, Harry's hands smell of spices and fruit, dough is resting on a table as he's chopping apples into small cubes for another apple pie because damn Neville did you have to send thirty crates of apples to commemorate that one time Harry got drunk, went to the ICW and the Wizengamot, spoke up for the rights of oppressed carnivorous apples, and founded an apple society lauded all across the world?..

Anyway. Now two drums plonk on a table in the corner.

Fantasma hops onto one of them immediately. Then hops in place again. And again.

Harry's hand stops cutting.

Is this rhythmic hopping... supposed to be music?

The frog's vivid burgundy eyes blink at him in response to his stumped expression.

Huh. Fantasma isn't actually that tone-deaf.

Teschia jumps onto the table beside the other drum in all her purple fluffy glory. She throws Harry, and Fantama, and Hedwig, and the rest of the empty bakery a look of utter disgust and hatred before batting a paw against the surface of the free drum. Again. And again. Her violet eyes glower violently at Harry all the while, like she blames him for all of this madness and imagines that the drum she's beating up is his face. She ignores Fantasma altogether.

There is some kind of energy in all of this, although Harry is uncertain how to feel about it.

Harry realises that all this is supposed to imitate drumroll because very soon a patch of space warps, and Mammon decides to expose their presence. 'Expose' because they love just lurking about the place, that little peeping tom.

"Mou, begone, you two, before I make a frog-cat stew for lunch," the not-baby hisses darkly, making the music stop. When Harry feels a heavy gaze land on him, he feels almost guilty for tapping against the wooden table in tact to the melody. He hides his hands behind his back quickly. Almost gives in to the urge to whistle innocently.

"What brings you to us on this lovely day?" Harry asks brightly instead, happy that he doesn't have to go outside.

The nature of silence between them shifts. A note of anticipation hangs between them. Harry tenses when Mammon's tiny hands tremble a little around a- oh, is this the smallest indigo froggy purse he has ever seen? Internal squealing is absolutely manly.

"A matter of grave importance," Mammon says after several encouraging croaks from Fantasma. They're even paler than usual, making the tattoo lines on their face stand out even more, and it seems like they can't find the words, opening their mouth repeatedly. Opposite of their usual unwillingness to speak (at least for free).

"…Go on," Harry encourages. He pushes himself away from the table to reach the not-baby. A wordless cleaning spell gets rid of the remnants of the apples on his hands; whatever's going on is too momentous to waste on the bathroom. "Did something bad happen?"

"Yes. Happening. Right now."

Harry's brows quirk when the not-baby almost stutters. Mammon's pout is unreadable.

"Breathe," he tells them gently. "Just tell me, I'm sure we can solve whatever the problem is. I promise I'll help you."

His fingertips gently fall on Mammon's hood, tracing the soft, smooth black fabric even as the not-baby stiffens.

This is the first time they've touched, Harry realises. Physical distance is one of those barriers that Mammon frequently conjures. Barriers - veils, so many that once one of them lifts, another falls down in its place. Harry respects the need for privacy and doesn't tear them away. His touch is light and he is watching for the signs of Mammon's discomfort, but they only lean into his hand subtly, giving him wordless acceptance.

"You are part of the problem," they tell him despite their actions. Their voice is breathless but strained, like they're trying to cover up this breathlessness with nonchalance and it doesn't work. "The reason for it."

Harry jerks away. "W-what did I do?"

"…Mou, this is going wrong." Mammon takes in a fortifying breath likes one would breathe in a hundred grams of vodka for courage. "Today, I am… p… p-paying."

Hedwig's hoot is the only sound in the ringing silence. She descends from the ceiling to perch herself on Harry's shoulder and watch the proceedings from up close with stunned, huge yellow eyes. Her reassuring weight grounds him in this trying time.

"Why?" he finally asks.

Mammon purses their lips. "Don't ask unless you're prepared to shell out money."

"You know, for this, I'll gladly do it-"

"No. Don't ask period. Just- Here. I'm going to take…" Mammon browses the day's menu written both on the small blackboard behind Harry and a page taped to the display with night-sky-printed washi tape. "The tart tatin. Smallest slice- Wait, no! The-the apple biscuit. One will do nicely."

It's the cheapest item on menu right now.

"Are you sure? You know I've got some strawberry shortcake just for you, I know how much you love this stuff."

Harry can read the temptation in all the lines of Mammon's figure.

"No. Not today," Mammon strains out like a superhero gearing up for the final sacrifice. The image doesn't suit them at all. Mammon is more of a type to rob the hero while s/he fights against the villain.

"Anything to drink then?" Harry turns on the balls of his heels to march to the kitchen for a drink that would help poor Mammon with this sudden fit of self-harming charity when he is stalled by another surprising answer.


Harry eyes them dubiously.

"You hate water."

"No one hates water, idiot, we would die without it."

"Yes, but you hate drinking plain, uncoloured water like this. You know I won't ask you to pay for tea? Hell, you Italians are so weird with your coffee obsession that I'm happy I've got you to get all this tea off my back because it's like no one else drinks it here!"

"Barbarians," Mammon sniffs. "But yes, I'm sure. Water is free, right? In some places at least because not everyone is stupid enough to make it so. But you don't strike me as a person to take money for it because your business intelligence is non-existent- You don't even make them pay for the bottled water that you pay for, what sort of blasphemy is this?"

"Wait, what! Some people actually make you pay for water? That's awful! So what if it's bottled water? You can't make people pay for something they need to drink to live!"

Harry cannot see Mammon's eyes but he is pretty sure Mammon is raising their gaze to heavens. It's a sensation he's become very intimate with in the past two months.

"...I'll pretend I didn't hear anything," Mammon sighs out eventually. They obviously don't care whether someone lives or dies of dehydration. "Anyway. Name your price."

They speak like someone ready to make a deal with the Devil and not just place an order in a non-pricey bakery.

"That'd be one euro," Harry tells them as gently as he can.

Fantasma pats Mammon on the hood consolingly as the not-baby strangles out a 'fine'. Under the frog's reproachful eye Harry feels like he's just killed a unicorn. Ridiculous.

Whereas usually Mammon is quick to devour whatever Harry offers, today they savour every last crumb of their biscuit, slowly, demonstratively, accompanying every bite with a sip of water in a tall glass. After they've finished, they stare mournfully at the empty little plate.

Mammon takes in a shuddering breath.

"...Mou, now for the final thing," they say in an absolutely miserable but resolute voice. "I'm going to give you a tip."

Even Teschia stop licking her paws to stare at the not-baby. Anticipation of something unknown tingles down Harry's spine, reminding him of the moment Skull saddled him with the cat not unlike staking a claim. Harry hopes Mammon won't gift him Fantasma. A mischievous frog living with him full-time isn't exactly what his life needs.

"You really shouldn't."

"Do you doubt my resolve?" Mammon snaps even as they float past Harry and to the tip jar.

"Actually... I do."

Mammon ignores him, drops a coin into the jar with a chime, turns their hood to glare at Harry one last time, and dissipate into wispy bits of mist. Harry can feel them escaping his house via the window but doesn't call them out, as always. Friends don't spoil friends' dramatic escapes and it's not like muggles (or Flame-users) can apparate.

Finally, Harry glances inside the tip jar curiously before bursting into snickers.

On the very bottom, a single British penny looks into the distance with Elizabeth the Second's profile.

Shopping list is a good thing to keep on hand when you are wandering the winding, twisting paths of something as mysterious and thronged as the open-air markets of magic Italy. Unlike the sophisticated and contained British markets, usually held in abandoned castles with enhanced space for the crowds to roam, the Italian ones web across streets charmed to be forgotten for the duration of the event, cross weather-beaten staircases, branch-off into tiny by-ways and even dare creep into the corners of sunlit piazze.

The slip of paper with everything he needs scribbled onto it in hand, Harry slowly explores the beauties of the Perugian fair on the exact date Luna suggested to him. A notice-me-not charm coats his form to avoid any altercations, but the people here bustle about so busily and frenetically he doubts they'd care even if he dropped it. Harry doesn't because maintaining charms is always a good exercise. Useful when he's got so lazy working in his bakery for the past two months: paging through Molly's and Minerva's cookery books suddenly excites him more than delving into the bloody history of cursed artefacts or descending into the gloomy tombs of magical Egypt to find treasures. Harry considers it an improvement of his mental health.

He is becoming normal.

Still, another book on Flames would be a good thing to find. True, he could ask - but he'd prefer to figure out as much as possible himself first. The easy way out isn't Harry's style: the story of his life.

His only source of information about Dying Will Flames was what knowledge Ginny retained from Tom Riddle's diary (to be taken with a grain of salt) and what they all scraped up from a thin, 16-17th century research notebook with a name 'Elena S.' beautifully etched in golden ink on top.

They had a hella hard time deciphering the information in neat Italian cursive.

It reminds him of the time he lived with Teddy, George, and Andromeda. All of them supported Harry in his Italian-learning misery by studying the language with him. And trying to read the notebook, of course.

It had... interesting consequences. Especially for Teddy, who rarely babbled anything more complicated than 'hello teddy bear poo' in English at the time but really took a liking to Italian phrases such as 'mind control', 'disintegrate you!', 'tranquilise to death', etc. The boy used them to accidentally subjugate his entire wixen kindergarten class. In the end even Andromeda stopped reading the angry letters Teddy's teachers sent her with owls every week. It's not like the kids complained. Teddy definitely didn't.

Other than that, from the information in the notebook Harry's figured out that this 'Elena S' and someone else were researching an experimental form of magic which they tentatively called 'Flames of Resolution'. They also offered variants like 'Deathsperation Flames', 'Soul Fire', 'Flames of Determination'… Tom Riddle, however, was pretty secure that in the modern society they are called 'Dying Will Flames', or 'DWF' for short, and Harry has no reason to doubt this bit.

The notebook gets rambling and confusing, especially since it's written in some antiquated Italian dialect no one makes heads or tails of, but Harry's pieced together that there are apparently seven main types of Flames.

The author never specifies their names. This Elena S. person apparently dropped the whole research for some reason; it feels incomplete and lacking, but Harry's picked up the main functions of each Flame (at least according to the book):

1) La Costruzione - Construction.

Has effects similar to mind magic such as Legilimency and Occlumency. Even ghost-like possession. Help with the conjuring side of Transfiguration.

Dark Magic? (this footnote has a lot of question marks, like Elena S wasn't sure herself how to categorise it, especially since in the end she concludes that DWF aren't really magic at all, which confuses Harry because on the first pages she claims otherwise. But what can he expect from a work-in-progress).

It's one of the two Flames that has a colour attributed to it: dense, dark blue-purple. Ginny affirms it.

Definitely not something Harry has, remembering his misfortune with the Occlumency lessons.

2) La Tranquilità - Tranquility.

Perfect for working with magical creatures. What it says on the tin: pacifies everything and everyone. Might be good to have if you're going into politics and diplomacy jobs.

Harry would be pretty glad to have it. Wouldn't be surprised if Hagrid did if he had Flames at all.

3) L'Attivazione - Activation.

Friend of Herbologist witches and wizards. Healing? Potential key to immortality? Very helpful in the making of beauty potions anyway.

Voldemort would have probably loved to have it.

4) L'Indurimento - Hardening.

Helps make transfigured items more permanent. Strengthens shield charms. Potentially can make them resistant to Avada Kedavra, but only by an extremely strong user.

There are lightning bolts scribbled next to it, which made Harry laugh on the first read.

Maybe this is his? Although, to be fair, instead of shield charms, he got by with Expelliarmus... Still, Harry believes that his Flame is this Hardening thing. If only there were more information about it that he could understand...

This one is described as green, and feels almost electric to the touch.

5) La Disintegrazione - Disintegration

On the contrary, good at smashing those shields. Generally aids to utilise destructive magic as well as brew antidotes for poisons. A witch could use it for dismantling wards and curses faster, which is a great boon in curse-breaking.

6) La Propagazione - Propagation.

Powers up any magic. Has the words 'healing' and 'immortality' scribbled next to it as well, although Harry doesn't see how it's connected. But he understands that this one is great if you want to be showy and impress everyone you meet into the ground.

A word 'annoying' is also written in the margins by another hand, Elena's partner.

7) L'Armonia - Harmony.

The last one is confusing. Something about balance and merging? Seer abilities, intuitiveness, sensitivity. Indispensable in group rituals, wand-making, dispelling illusions and possessions, getting along with creatures - literally everything. It's even marked with a little crown, setting it apart from the other Flames. The word 'greatness' is underlined next to it like a bad omen.

Harry just ignores this one because it's not like he's gonna have it - he isn't good at everything - and the Hardening Flame sounds way more fun anyway.

All these Flame names have suggestions for alternatives in the margins. There's something about the nature there, too, which makes Harry wonder about the weather forecast stuff he's constantly overhearing at the bakery.

"How can I help you?" a wheezing voice tears him out of his musings as Harry enters a dirty little tent on the edges of the market.

"Ah, I would just like to, um, look around. If you don't mind," Harry says after a greeting, looking around Vetreria di Verdana, full of glassware and crystalware of the magical variety.

"I'm always here if you want advice," the old witch tells him softly before sinking in an armchair to leaf through a catalogue of antiquities.

Wisely keeping his hands to himself - it's never smart to touch anything in a magical establishment, for your own good - Harry examines the shelves lined with copious vials and bottles made resistant to spills and breakage, vases made to retain the contents forever the same, some alchemy equipment, glass boxes so bright with magic Harry's can't enumerate the functions they're charmed to have, whiskey tumblers that detect poisons, self-stirring spoons, colourful glass jewellery for enchanting...

"Do you have any glass that can retain potent Dark curses inside?" Harry asks the old woman as soon as he comes to the conclusion that he could stay here forever and never find what he is seeking.

"Retain? What exactly do you mean?" the soft-spoken witch, Verdana, asks after a pause. "Seal off like a barrier so it wouldn't affect anything or act as the holder for the curse to transfer it?"

Harry thinks back to Skull, to what whiffs of darkness he catches from Mammon and even that green little person who is most likely yet another not-baby instead of a shy gremlin looking to make a friend like Harry first assumed.

"The second variant," he responds, licking his lips. "Also, the glass should restrain the curse so it affects only one victim... almost merges with them, without transferring onto anyone else."

The old witch's face crinkles into a frown at these specifications. Harry understands her.

Curses are clingy. Voldemort's Gaunt ring, for example. Even Horcruxes interacted with the environment easily despite their imprisonment in objects. (Harry shudders at the implications that he might have affected the people around him, too, even if the memory that the people he met before winning the war always acted on their worst impulses around him, were the worst versions of themselves… only strengthens those fears).

The pacifiers, however, despite giving off that really creepy vibe, don't impact the world around them at all. Harry has brushed against Mammon's pacifier before; nothing happened.

"I'm afraid I haven't heard of anything this specific," Verdana admits after browsing her wares with intense eyes. "If you have ever stumbled across an item like this, it might have been modified enchantments." She stares him down sternly. "Do you need this knowledge to re-create such an object or destroy it, young man?"

"Destroy it," Harry responds without a pause. He has never been interested in cursing anyone; hell, his job is all about combatting curses.

The old witch nods after a minute of watching him intently.

"Good. Of course, no matter your end goal, first you need to work with such an object. I don't know how exactly it is done, but I can point you in the right direction and give you several items with various types of enchanted as well as inherently magic glass and crystal. They have properties you'll find helpful."

Harry nods, glancing at the sparkling, transparent trinkets to his side.

"Thanks. That'd be great. I'll experiment to figure out the rest."

He procrastinated on the pacifier curse thing before because the corruption didn't seem to bother Mammon, and he barely caught anything from the green not-baby because they didn't have much contact with each other and Harry only saw them from afar... but after meeting Skull...

Harry almost sways with nausea at the thought of his friend yoked down by that.

If Mammon suffers under such a heinous curse, Harry wouldn't be himself if he let the not-baby continue on this path.

He isn't a curse-breaker for nothing, after all.

Perfect, Harry mentally cheers as soon as he sees it.

What better to top off an exhausting but productive day than food? And it's not your typical stall with Italian sandwiches either.

Of course, the promise of dinner is accompanied by yet another not-baby with a pacifier glowing red and rotting darkness on a level somewhere between Skull's and Mammon's, but Harry is so not surprised that his appetite doesn't diminish in the slightest.

"Hello, what can I offer you?" the not-baby greets him with a smooth baritone. It's soothing. Soft.

Harry can't make out his features since he is disguised as an adult man, with dark round glasses, and, a scarf, and a bodysuit of sorts clad into cumbersome dark clothes. Harry would have passed him by if not for the taint the curse exudes.

The food smells unfamiliar but tempts his senses all the same. He looks at the menu but finds the handwriting illegible. The not-baby, meanwhile, takes off the glasses, revealing a cute childish face with puffy cheeks and expressive warm brown eyes. A tuft of soft black hair peeks out from a knitted hat too warm for the weather.

"Is there anything you could recommend? I don't know much about this type of foods, even though my ex's girlfriend tried to explain it to me once," Harry admits as he scrutinises the appetising buns with steam curling upwards into his nose. There are also... tea eggs? This sounds crazy. Harry loves the idea. He just hopes it won't be like bouillabaisse. He's just not a fan of most of the non-sweet French cuisine, okay? Blame Fleur and Gabrielle.

"Mapo tofu is a personal favourite of mine," the not-baby tells him with a small smile before his face falls. "But unfortunately I don't have any right now."

"Ah, that's fine!" Harry rushes to reassure the crestfallen guy. "I can... do my research. Cook it myself if I have the time."

"I could help you," the not-baby offers swiftly. His smile brightens, grows into something more genuine. Like he puts more of his soul into the smile. It shows. "I would gladly teach you myself if you wish."

The not-baby's face retains that small smile even if a hint of desperation in his eyes leaks the fact that he would be more glad about this situation than Harry.

"Um. Maybe?" Learning something new like this sounds exciting. He could brag to his friends and Molly about it later. Maybe defeat her again in their yearly cook-off.

It may not be the smartest decision to invite an absolute stranger home, especially when the stranger knows your name, but wards are an amazing invention. And it's not like this is his first time. Harry invited Mammon two months ago, and we all know how that ended. And even now Harry's expecting Skull because he hasn't signed up to take care of a mini-Voldemort in in a furry suit forever.

"Wonderful," the not-baby says, his eyes flashing with emotion. "My name is Fon. I'm very pleased to meet you, Harry."

Why do even muggles know his name wherever he goes? He'd just like to introduce himself for once, damn.

"You know my name?" he asks without any surprise. He worries more about what he's going to eat, but Fon seems invested into watching him intently instead of preparing anything. Food: so close yet so far.

"Why wouldn't I?" Fon's eyes widen marginally as he lowers his head apologetically. "I apologise, I should have pretended not to, right?"

"Would have been nice, yeah."

"Civilians are difficult," Fon says with a troubled downturn of lips. His head popping out of the inflated body suit thing looks comical.

"Good thing I'm not one," Harry throws off-handedly as he contemplates whether he is hungry enough to just grab those dumplings/meat buns that look so appetising and run away with them.

"Oh? How interesting. That's not the information I have, but it simplifies everything," Fon says. He smiles when he finally notices how Harry longs to just eat, damnit all to hell, and wraps one of what he calls baozi to serve the wizard.

"People always think they have all the information on me." Harry scowls, which even distracts him from the warmth of the baozi in his hands. "I bloody hate it."

He bites into the bun with irritation. He barely restrains a moan; majestic.

"Understandable. That's why it's best not to reveal anything," Fon points out the obvious with an irritatingly lecturing voice like Harry hasn't tried to do this for years.

"It's less me revealing and more others being annoying sneaky bastards." Harry nibbles down the rest of the bun before scrutinising its friends in the wooden pan thing. Will he? Yes. Another one. "Urgh. Wish I could get rid of them or something."

"I have a piece of advice for this." Fon looks on in amusement as Harry demolishes his cooking.

"Really? I mean, I don't have as much of a problem with the whole thing as before, but a solution would be helpful."

"Martial arts."

Harry cocks his head. "What? How would they help me shut up all those people?"

"Permanently. If you wish." Meeting Harry's flat stare, Fon sighs and corrects himself, "Or not, if you still want them breathing. But leaving them alive carries the possibility that they will keep being 'annoying sneaky bastards'." Fon narrows his brown eyes slightly, which freaks Harry out because it looks plain creepy with his half-smile. "Are you sure you are not a civilian?"

Harry looks at the not-baby carrying the curse he's trying to break, at the tiny white monkey crawling out of Fon's pocket to stare at the wizard with cute large eyes, at the half-eaten baozi in his hand...

"You know what? I don't care. Give me another meat bun."

The rest of the conversation is surprisingly calming, even amusing, especially since Harry gets the feeling they are on completely different wavelengths and either of them warps the words they exchange to suit their own mind-sets. Fon, too, is very interested in the weather, which would fill Harry up with dread had he not been too drained to worry about anything.

The monkey, Lichi, is the sweetest cinnamon roll ever, insisting on giving him more food and allowing herself to be pet, and Harry secretly plans to trade her for Teschia. Especially since his pet Voldemort is being punished for attacking yet another customer - she has a thing against people who wear violet. And Harry. He doesn't know why he's picked up so many kneazle treats for her at the market.

"Ah, about those cooking lessons-" Harry remembers just as it's time to go and the evening chill settles in the air.

"Don't worry, I know where you live," Fon tells him with a smile that only turns to puzzlement when Harry stares.

Harry is almost ready to go home - but there's one thing he totally forgot. An item Luna asked. Her sad face from the last time they saw each other fresh in his mind, Harry takes a shortcut through non-magical alleys to get to the shop she specified-

He never gets there today.

Harry knows Luna will forgive him.


A gigantic iron sphere with spikes destroys the wall of a house opposite him. Harry throws up a shield to protect himself from the sudden onslaught of splinters and bits of stonework. He extends the shield into a barrier to cover a few other people - several men and women in torn black suits, each bracing themselves for the impact that never comes.

All to defend themselves against a lonesome man who approaches with a vacant look in his dark eyes and tattoos on his scowling face. On a chain he carries the iron sphere that wrecked the wall.

His opponents gather themselves quickly, gearing up for another attack, yelling out strange things like 'ferocious rain needles', or 'butterflies of disintegration', or 'mist shield: level three'...

Despite the interesting names, Harry doesn't see it working beside wreaking even more destruction on the street. Passingly, he wonders why isn't anyone running to investigate... but then again, don't other people prefer to stay out of danger? Harry's never understood it.

He has renewed the notice-me-not charm, so he can pass by unnoticed and pretend this isn't happening.

He doesn't.

Being a witness to the crime and doing nothing when he can save the day is almost the same as committing that same crime, and Harry still has too much humanity persisting in his soul to ever do this.

Also… Something else smothers the man with the iron sphere, something that makes Harry's blood boil and his lips twist into a cold, vindictive smile.


Memories of second year, of Ginny's pale, still body, of Ron's grimace of fear, of Hermione lying motionless in the hospital bed, of sheer terror pervading his beloved home - they all explode inside his mind.

It's been a while since Harry's dusted off his fighting skills.

He unveils himself in a fluid wand motion.

Every single head in the street turns to him. The offending man's right eye briefly flashes with a black symbol painted on red.

"Look," Harry starts in a low, almost purring tone. His wand springs into his hand like the old friend it is. "This is generally not my business. I've learnt many skills and the most vital of them is to just let things be. However, I can sense this home-grown attempt at possession from kilometres apart, and I have a bit of a thing against possession. Especially possessing people to kill others. Nothing personal."

Harry's wand lets out a Bombarda that races through the air and blows up a few metal rubbish bins, barely missing the possessed man who is surprisingly agile enough to dodge in time despite his heavy build and incredible height.

The onlookers try to meddle into his fight, but Harry bats them away with a summoned gust of strong wind. He won't be able to fight when he's more concerned about them. Also, Obliviating is a bitch.

"Somnum," he murmurs with a twirl of his wand. Off to sleep they go.

Actually, he might also-

His opponent, the hulk of a man who remains standing, smirks. It's empty, like he died and had his face manipulated into this ugly expression post-mortem. Lifting his rattling chain, he shouts loudly, "Senja Reppa!"

His voice rings off the walls of the alley.

Harry blinks even as he spins away from the attack just as the ball crashes into the ground where his feet stood.

His limbs don't work when he tries to shift into another position, but that's easily solved by casting a verbal but wandless charm that removes any obstacles to movement. He puzzles over something else.

Is this Japanese? Harry's pretty certain it is. It can't be a spell; Harry doesn't feel any sort of magic in the air at all. Might this be the name of an attack?.. In Japanese? But why would all these people shout out the names of their attacks for all the world to hear? It's not like they are incantations that often need the actual, you know, incantation to work better or at all. Why would you want to declare the name of your attack anyway, especially if you don't expect your opponent to survive?

Harry doesn't understand Italian muggles at all.

"Damn. I knew that muggle fighting just isn't for me." Harry easily side-steps the spikey ball of steel he slows down with a weaker form of Arresto Momentum. "Boring and unimaginative. Can we please wrap up and go home soon? I have a cat to feed."

Judging by the eyes glaring at him ferociously from the tattooed face, no one is letting him go any soon. Sucks to be him.

"No worries, there are cats you'll feed in hell," the man whispers. It strikes Harry as odd since it doesn't fit the bloke at all- Ah, but possession. Drastically changes people.

"No intention of going there, but I'm pretty sure that's where mine came from."

Concluding that the chain has no effect on Harry, the man abandons it to throw himself at Harry.

A fistfight? Harry compares their sizes, remembers that the last time he did any exercise was years ago at Hogwarts for the Quidditch team.


"Time to wrap this up," he sighs out. He blocks the man's attack by erecting a shimmery sphere around himself that blocks any physical objects. Useless in a magical duel. Renders him invincible against a muggle.

The suited man stumbles away from the invisible wall when he runs in it; Harry points his wand at him before he could contrive a plan to go around it.

"Somnum," he speaks firmly into the air again. The spell slices through the barrier.

The man's eyes - one black and one red - widen before he surrenders. A smile of relief shadows across his lips. The body drops onto the dusty ground with a heavy thump.

Harry crouches down beside the fallen man, poking the back of his head thoughtfully before signing in resignation. It feels like this type of sighs is all he's been doing recently. Probably says something about his life. It's strange though how he doesn't feel any anger or annoyance at ending up in this type of situation.

He makes a decision. Not everyone will be happy with it but, well, it's not his job to be a ray of sunshine and bring joy to everyone.

He would have liked to easily lift this monster of a man, toss him across the shoulder, and heroically carry him home, but life doesn't work like that. Harry's arms are twigs. It's been a while since he's had to strain any actual muscles, so he does what he has learnt to do: lazily twirls his wand and grins in satisfaction when the stranger ends up suspended in the air with the help of the ever-reliable Wingardium Leviosa. Apparating is going to be quick and easy, and then he can dump this guy at home to sleep off this little bout of possession before Harry gets him back on his legs again.

His grin falls off when he remembers something.

"First a cat and now this. My owl is going to kill me dead for bringing all these strays home."

The stranger is deaf to his plight.