The Sugar Quill
Author: Blue Byrd  Story: Paperwork  Chapter: Chapter 1: Class of '95
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

 

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros, Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended. The "fucking close to water" joke is Monty Python's Flying Circus' (see, Vonny, I credited them! You happy now? :oP), though I'm pretty sure they weren't the first either.

A/N: Besides due credit to Jedi B, my SQ beta and the only one so far to have actually caught the Highlander ref *sighs*, big boogles to Aunt Beast, who is everything a witch could wish for in a Kneazle. Thanks also to Sada Steel, for picking out some potentially embarrassing journalistic cock-ups, and finally to Ali Wildgoose for confirming my suspicions, and forcing me to act upon them. A big bag of spicy almonds to whoever manages to pick up on all references, cinematic as well as musical and pictorial, in the following.

 

Paperwork, Pt 1: Class of '95

"Ruby... What do they call this again?"

Somewhere on the second floor of the Daily Prophet's Diagon Alley office, in a draughty corner of Metropolitan Issues, a young photographer looked up at the face that came with the voice - thin-lipped, dark-eyed, ski slope-nosed and currently staring suspiciously into a chipped Hogwarts, Class of '90 mug.

"I think it's supposed to be coffee."

A blonde reporter - the owner of both face and voice - snorted derisively into her mug. "Suppose they've got a better sense of humour than I'd have given 'em credit for, then."

She wheeled about in her chair, set down the mug and looked wistfully at the fourfold crest painted on its side.

"You know, Mack... Sometimes I think the one thing I miss most about the old place is the food and drink. Though maybe absence has made my heart grow fonder than those kitchen elves actually deserved?"

Ruby shook her head. Her own NEWTs had ended only months before, but the Hogwarts kitchen was already beginning to resemble some distant utopia. A symbol of glorious childhood, a more romantically inclined soul than hers might have suggested. Hufflepuffs in general preferred to keep their feet firmly on solid ground, though, in everything but Quidditch, and Ruby Mackenzie was no exception. As it was, the previous year at Hogwarts had been anything but glorious, what with the Triwizard Tournament and the loss of Cedric Diggory.

Poor bugger, Diggory. She'd never thought too highly of his strategic insights, but now that he was gone, she doubted she'd ever be able to get on a broom again without an image of him in pursuit of the Snitch springing to her mind. She wasn't even sure she'd ever want to pick up a Beater's bat again.

Usually, around this point, Ruby's train of thought would veer off into steadily deepening depression, but this time, a faint but urgent scratching - a Remote DictaQuill on parchment - was enough to draw her back to the present. She looked expectantly at her blonde colleague, the only other member of staff present, who got up dutifully and walked over to the telex at the far end of the Met Issues room.

"Harriet? What is it?"

Harriet waited until the quill had lifted its nib from the parchment, pulled the sheet from underneath it and ran her eyes down the page. "Fire... In Oar-O'-Sonte Alley. Casualties expected, though not yet confirmed..." She wheeled around, drew her wand and pinned the report to the Allocations notice board under her initials before pocketing a DictaQuill and some parchment. "Meyers and Johnson should turn up any moment now, they'll manage the obits on their own. You coming?"

Ruby made a grab for her camera and some extra film, and followed Harriet out onto the Daily Prophet's broom park. Months before, the thought of going out of her way in search of misery, death even, would have repulsed her. Things had changed, though. For everyone. If there'd been anything her final year at Hogwarts had taught her, it was that people needed to know. They deserved to know.

Besides, Harriet was going. The woman seemed to ward off any lingering hesitance or doubt within a thirty foot radius. Following Harriet's strident lead, occasionally reining her in with whatever subtlety she could muster, had become second nature. The young Hufflepuff hovered round her acerbic Ravenclaw colleague like the Beater she'd been, on and off, for the past five years, deflecting bitchy Bludgers Harriet wouldn't have thought twice about confronting head-on, but which Ruby knew might just knock her off her broom. All in all, the two of them made a pretty good team.

Ruby shook her head as she lifted the locking spells (four in all; you couldn't be too careful, these days) from her Nimbus. Why was she thinking in Quidditch metaphors? Had to be all those brooms strewn across the courtyard. Freudian though it might sound, she felt her best with a broomstick clasped firmly between her legs, even with Cedric's memory hanging heavily on to the bristles. She'd kicked off and circled the yard several times, doing a casual corkscrew loop just for the hell of it, before Harriet rose calmly beside her.

"My, we're in the mood today, aren't we? Lead on, Mackenzie..."

Unsurprisingly, it was Harriet who ended up in front, and steered towards the colossal columns of smoke up ahead, only a street or two from the Prophet's Diagon Alley office. Rounding the owl tower, the two witches came into full view of smouldering ruins and thick black clouds, coiling darkly around a sparkling spectre that hovered over what had once been Miles Bloom's Wizard's Outfitters, 21B Oar-O'-Sonte Alley. Smokey green sockets gazed down disdainfully at a bustle of Hit Wizards, neighbouring shopkeepers and sightseers, a serpent tongue flicking lazily from side to side in its lipless mouth.

"Oh fuck..." Ruby heard Harriet murmur; she'd slowed as if held back. "It's a sodding Dark Mark..."

Ruby looked again; she'd never seen a Dark Mark before, not live. The two of them didn't normally cover Death Eater attacks, and even in those rare cases when they had, they'd never arrived before on-site Aurors had already terminated the relevant spell, whichever it was. To an eighteen-year-old suspended in chilly autumn air, dawn only just breaking to her left, the effect was positively hypnotic.

She blinked, tried hard to connect this eerie image with what she knew it stood for, and remembered. She recalled what it'd felt like the year before, after the Third Task, and the words Harriet had read off the telex minutes before slammed into her. "Casualties expected... Not yet confirmed..."

Ruby swayed in mid-air as a peculiar mixture of anger and urgency made her head spin. She had to do something down there. Anything. She had to help...

Harriet veered around. "You OK, Mack?"

Ruby's knuckles had gone white with the effort of remaining airborne. "We have to do something," she blurted out, breathlessly.

Harriet leant over and gently squeezed her shoulder. "We'll all do whatever we do best when we get down there. Us, the hit squad, and the Aurors. They'll be doing their bit, more than adequately, I'm sure, and we do ours. You don't help where you're not needed, Mackenzie. Right?"

Ruby looked into Harriet's eyes, and found herself staring back from them with a strength she didn't know she had. She nodded. Together, they touched down between mercantile facades so ancient and sagging they nearly touched opposite, and made their way through to the edge of the containment charm the Hit Squad had cast around the site of the attack. Whipping out her press card, Harriet strode up to the nearest Auror, a lanky youth with overeager puppy eyes, who seemed rather more unnerved by her approach than by the desolate scene behind him.

"Ah! You'd be... Wurttemberg, wouldn't you? How's the leg?"

She'd cocked her head expectantly, a sure sign she was about to cash one of her little mnemonic credit notes - the result of tirelessly combing every source of information available to her. Harriet being who she was, these sources extended across an amazing variety of media, both Muggle and magical, and Ruby wasn't sure she wanted to know whatever Harriet did about this particular wizard's more private endeavours. By the sight of him, Wurttemberg had much rather she didn't. She shot her partner in grime what she hoped was a questioning and highly interested look. The young Auror swallowed.

"It's... I'm fine. Thanks."

"Uh huh." Harriet was smiling. Wurttemberg's eyes darted to and fro, desperately seeking back-up.

"So... D'you think you could find us anyone who can tell us what's been going on here?" Wurttemberg relaxed visibly. "Right..." He drew his wand, traced a sign in the air until it emitted three short beeps, and spoke into one end. "Sir? It's Walter... Press call. Thought you'd better handle 'em..." Without waiting for a reply, he terminated the connection and pocketed his wand. Ruby could've sworn she heard several more urgent beeps originating somewhere among his robes, but Wurttemberg seemed not to notice, and soon a stocky, middle-aged Auror became visible through the smoke and lingering darkness.

"Wurttemberg, what the hell made you think you could let..."

The sight of Harriet holding a press card in one hand and a DictaQuill in the other stopped him dead in his tracks. He glanced her up and down wearily, then shot Wurttemberg an understanding, if exasperated, look before finally addressing her. "You."

"Lovely to see you too, inspector."

The inspector sighed, then gestured to Wurttemberg, who opened up the Containment field to let them through.

"Could've been worse, I guess... Least you don't take too many liberties with what a wizard says. Unlike some of your buddies. Haven't seen her before, have I?" He gave a nod in Ruby's general direction. "New, are you?"

Harriet patted her on the back. "Oh, quite, but she's got drive. Don't you, Mack?"

Ruby nodded absently while she surveyed her surroundings. The one term that kept coming to mind was "desolate", but somehow she felt she'd never be able to adequately put words to what she saw, and decided firmly she'd never envy Harriet her job. Fitting her own kaleidoscopic perception into neat little frames was turning out hard enough as it was. Images, even wizard ones, couldn't possibly do this place justice, the thickness of the air, the damp heat and the stench of burning, or the shrill female voices she could make out over the general murmur as they walked on. Harriet shot her a concerned look and turned to the inspector.

"How bad is it? Any deaths?"

"One. Owner of the premises. Muggleborn tailor. Wife suffered some pretty hefty burns when she tried to get in through a first-floor window by broom, but she's being taken expert care of. Children are fine, thank Merlin. Apparently, the oldest was staying over at a friend's. Mum gets an express owl, in the middle of the bloody night, he's had an accident. Hurries over to St Mungo's right away, of course. And guess what?"

Harriet raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, her DictaQuill scratching to an expectant halt. The Auror leant over to them.

"Little one's not there. Never left his friend's home. Nothing had happened. And when she comes back..." His voice trailed off, and he gestured vaguely at the scene before them.

Harriet's eyes narrowed. "Someone was trying to protect her... Someone on the inside..."

The inspector nodded silently.

"And the others?" Ruby broke in. The Auror's eyes lit up.

"Ah, yes, the youngest... That's an interesting matter, that is... Quite remarkable, really."

A slight pause. Harriet chewed her lip. "Well?"

"Well... We found her in the same room we found her father's body, right there in her cot. Crying her little eyes out, of course, and soaked to the skin, but fine. Not a scratch on her. And you should see the cot, it's just bizarre..."

Ruby's nerves finally got the better of her.

"Will I be able to get some shots eventually, sir?"

The Auror seemed to snap out of something. "Oh... Yes, I suppose so. I can't let you enter, though. There's some high energy magic being used in there at the moment, and we can't have anyone interfering with our preliminary investigation. 'Specially the press..."

It was remarkable, Ruby reflected, how much one could make a five letter word sound like a four letter one.

"Now if you'll excuse me..."

He turned around and stalked off once more towards the edge of the containment bubble, returning with a brown-haired wizard in his early forties, and seemed about to escort them back to the hapless Wurttemberg until further notice. Harriet, however, hadn't quite finished.

"Inspector, aren't warding charms part of every household's security kit? What's so special about this child's survival?"

The Auror seemed to be nearing his boiling point. "Miss Mills, I'd really like to see you try and stop a fire using a curse ward."

I'm sure you would, Ruby thought to herself. Then, to everyone's surprise (including, it seemed, his own), the inspector's brown-haired companion cut in.

"There is actually a considerable range of warding charms that block purely physical, non-magical trauma. Those were originally developed to prevent common household accidents, bruising, cuts, scalds, that sort of thing. We just took to improving them..."

Though she couldn't see his face, Ruby felt sure the inspector had rolled his eyes.

"And who would "we" be, exactly?"

Harriet had smelled blood. The inspector shook his head resignedly, then tapped the brown-haired wizard on the shoulder.

"Remember, Harris, they're with the Prophet. Try not to give away too many trade secrets." He wheeled about and strode over to a group of neighbourhood women clustered around what Ruby guessed was the victim's widow. Harriet, meanwhile, was homing in on Harris.

"So you were in charge of security at this particular address?"

The wizard nodded. "That's right. Maynard & Harris, 79 Diagon Alley."

"Yet you have no idea what spell saved that little girl's life?"

Harris of Maynard & Harris scratched his chin thoughtfully. Throughout the exchange, he'd been blinking constantly, as if perpetually bewildered at the world in general. Ruby found her own eyes watering in sympathy.

"Miss - Mills, was it? - as a member of senior management, I do not cast any of our charms myself. This particular assignment was carried out in person by one of our junior researchers, and he hasn't yet informed me of the nature of every single one of his current projects... Though so far, I daresay they've proved effective enough - as I'm sure you'll both agree.

"Now, in case you and your colleague can muster the patience to remain for another few minutes, I alerted the wizard in question by Floo the minute the alarm came through to me. He should be here shortly. I'll be wanting to speak to him myself first, of course."

The conversation seemed to have ended there. Harris and Harriet stood in silence, waiting for further developments, and Ruby decided she wouldn't be missed. Screwing a PermaGlo filter onto her camera - dawn hadn't quite progressed beyond the point where she could trust the daylight to produce adequate images - she sidled towards the charred remains of the Blooms' family home.

The actual ground-floor shop had been left relatively untouched, with the exception of "Mudblood Property" etched in blood red across the door-posts and shattered remains of the window display. Even without the blackened facade above, it made for a powerful image. Ruby stepped back a bit to include parts of the adjoining buildings, and did what she'd been hired to do, flashing her press card at the occasional passing Auror. After a moment's thought, she went back for her broom and circled the crime scene, getting some prime bird's eye shots of what looked like a ugly dark gash in the side of London's wizard quarter.

On her way down, Ruby hovered briefly at first floor level, wondering vaguely if she'd be able to shoot any more material without actually entering the area under investigation. Cautiously, she peered inside.

And nearly fell off her broom.

In the middle of a room strewn with the twisted and molten debris of family life, surrounded by walls covered in soot and dripping with mucky water, stood an elegant wrought-iron cot, pale blue bedding soaked but completely intact. Within three feet of the cot, the carpet and everything on it - including, Ruby couldn't help but notice, a nappy bag - hadn't been touched by the blaze.

"Merlin's beard..." she whispered, thoroughly awed. An Auror standing watch at the door turned to face her.

"Hey! Who gave you permission to come up here?"

Ruby threw up her hands. "I haven't entered the premises, have I? The inspector said I could do as I liked, as long as I didn't enter." She shrugged, smiling sweetly. The Auror chewed her lip, obviously annoyed, but once more turned her back. Ruby made a grateful grab for her camera.

Getting the right angle was proving rather tricky. Carefully clasping the broom between her thighs and leaning to the side - a move that had proved its worth in many a game of Quidditch - she eventually did obtain the image she was after. She touched down once more, stretched for a bit, and wondered whether she should go over to the bustle of neighbourhood women busying themselves with the victim's widow. Personal angle, a little voice inside of her said. Human interest.

Parasite, said another. Vulture. Feeding off another's grief. Revolting.

Ruby slapped herself inwardly, and asked the one question which had sustained her through four months of professional journalism so far: what would Harriet Mills-Henry do?

She'd go for it, of course, and with good reason. People needed to see what it was like, what these attacks led to. She'd show them.

She stepped forward.

Mrs. Bloom was leaning against a Medimage carriage, clasping a blue bundle of wet cloth to her chest with a tender despair that broke Ruby's heart. On her right, a Mediwitch was leaning over her, talking to her in a quiet voice, while on the other side, a dark-haired witch in frilly pink night robes held a blanket around her shaking shoulders. A little way off, more neighbourhood witches stood talking in twos and threes, throwing the young widow the occasional curious, pitying glance.

Ruby went to stand at what she hoped was a respectful distance, yet gave her a clear view of the whole dismal scene, and cast a silencing spell on her camera before proceeding to take shots. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice her - though she couldn't shake the feeling she was intruding. Defiling, even. The sinking feeling that had been creeping up on her ever since she'd first caught sight of the Dark Mark was becoming positively claustrophobic. She had to get back to Harriet.

Before she could move, however, something overhead caught her attention. She looked up.

A broom was approaching at breakneck speed, on a collision course, it seemed, with the upper boundary of the Containment Charm. Seconds before impact, however, the broom's occupant drew his wand and took aim. The Charm field wavered, dissolved, and closed behind a figure Ruby was all too familiar with. True, the usual green-and-silver garb was missing, but the rock-hard resolve wasn't, and neither was the wild glint in the young wizard's eyes. The last time Ruby had seen that particular statement, she'd ended up getting head-butted by the face wearing it.

Marcus Flint - for it was indeed Slytherin House's infamous former Quidditch captain - jumped off his broom amidst bewildered Aurors, wheeled around to absorb its momentum, drew himself up to his full height and pounced on the nearest Auror.

"Where is she?"

The question sounded like a threat, even to Ruby, familiar as she was with Flint's peculiar, raspy growl. The wizard in question, whom she now recognised as the unfortunate Wurttemberg, stared back in mute terror. Flint gave him a withering glare and whirled about, scanned the scene briefly and stalked off towards the Medimage carriage.

The carriage. Flint was looking for Mrs. Bloom? Why? What was he doing here, anyway? What connections could he...

Someone was trying to protect her... Someone on the inside...

Ruby clapped a hand to her mouth. Could it be? Could he be involved? He was a Slytherin, of course, but still... Marcus Flint, an actual Death Eater? The thought hit her like a Bludger. To think they'd played Quidditch together... On opposite sides, of course, and he'd never thought twice about giving her the odd concussion, but they'd both played, all the same...

Flint had by now reached the small buzzing crowd of neighbours, which fell silent and parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses. The young widow shuddered and looked up.

"Is she OK, Mrs. Bloom?"

Ruby did a mental double take. Who was he talking about?

Mrs. Bloom came to her feet unsteadily and held the wet bundle out to him. Flint came forward hastily and reached for the stained blue fabric. Silently, he whisked the cloth aside and stared at the baby girl's blotchy face, then back at that of her mother. The bundle shifted, and a pitiful wailing came from within. With a startled, protective gesture, Mrs. Bloom pressed her daughter to her and collapsed against Flint, burying her face in his robes before she, too, started sobbing uncontrollably. It seemed a silencing charm had been lifted - as Flint clumsily stroked the weeping witch's damp hair, the crowd around them started buzzing anew, with even greater vigour than before.

Soon, the Mediwitch and the neighbour in pink had convinced Mrs Bloom to come back with them to the carriage. Flint was left standing alone, broom dangling from his left hand, looking rather dazed, and Ruby wondered briefly if she should go up to him. She'd barely decided she would when someone beat her to it.

"Mr. Flint! Congratulations on a job well done!"

Harris, of Maynard & Harris, was practically running towards him, hand outstretched. Harriet followed closely. Shaking the young wizard's hand vigorously, Harris turned to Ruby.

"If you're still looking for a photo opportunity, Miss Prophetess, you might want to seize this very moment! You're looking at a true, ah, Wiz kid..."

Flint's eyes focused briefly, first on her, then on Harriet, who'd taken up position next to her colleague. "Harriet..."

"Marcus." Harriet was smiling, with true warmth this time. "Research and development, eh? Told you you could do it..." Then, to both Ruby's and Harris' utter bafflement, she ruffled his hair.

Ruby winced. To her, refraining from ruffling a Slytherin's hair, even playfully, had always been one of the principles of surviving the Hogwarts Quidditch season. Far from hexing her, though, Flint gave Harriet a crooked grin.

"Not done too badly yourself, it appears. You in Met Issues, now?"

"Yup." Harriet slung a gangly arm around Ruby's shoulders. "We're a right dream team, us two. Harpy and Huffy..."

At this point, Harris cut in, blinking furiously. "Much as I hate to interrupt this heart-warming reunion, I suppose I'd better inform Inspector Ratcliffe of your arrival, Mr. Flint. I'm sure he'll want to hear all about the ward in question. As do I, by the way. When will you be resuming your tasks at the lab?"

Ruby did her best to stifle a smile - Flint had started blinking, too.

"Mr. Harris, sir... Would you mind if I took the day off?"

Harris gave him a jovial slap on the back. "Of course not, dear boy! All this excitement... Would only distract you if you called in today, wouldn't it? Besides, you're by no means through here..."

He turned and beckoned a nearby Hit Witch, motioning for her to fetch the Inspector. Flint wiped his eyes and turned to Harriet.

"Don't know about you witches, but this wizard could do with a drink. What time are you off?"

Harriet shrugged. "Mack here just needs to get her film back to the office, and I'll need some time to sort these." She held up a scroll of parchment covered in DictaQuill ink and her notebook. "How's noon at Talbot's?"

Flint nodded briefly, then punched Harriet in the arm before joining his employer. Harriet stood watching him for a while, grinning affectionately, before she finally picked up on Ruby's incredulous stare.

"What?"

~***~

Talbot's, one of Diagon Alley's trendier establishments, did not so much resemble a pub as some sort of subtropical lagoon. Its sandy yellow walls were hung with exotic magical paraphernalia of various geographical origins, alternating here and there with the occasional piece of suitably ethnic art; its greenish pastel floor swirled into foaming eddies beneath the waitresses' feet while a ceiling fan sloshed lazily overhead. Ruby felt rather out of place, a scruffy hack amidst the truly Artistic. Harriet didn't seem too bothered; perhaps going to places like Talbot's on a regular basis would gloss you over, like a speck of dirt turning to a pearl inside an oyster. She smiled at the thought.

Harriet looked up from her steaming Cinnamon Sin (extra sweet, easy on the cream) and smiled back at her. "Told you you'd love it here. How's your Honey from Heaven?"

Ruby looked down at the frothy mug in front of her. She'd never really been the coffee type, but Harriet had been even more insistent than usual she try a variety she herself had described as "the real thing for beginners".

"You'll thank me for it once you've tried, I know you will," her exact words had been. "I mean, of course you hate the stuff we've made such an unfortunate habit of down here. As I once heard a wizard from Boston put it, English coffee is like making love in a canoe - fucking close to water. But this..." - she'd closed her eyes blissfully - "This is heaven in a mug."

Though still rather sceptical, Ruby had to admit that whatever it was the waitress had plunked, with fashionable disdain, in front of her, it did smell absolutely divine. She put her hand round the mug. "Still a bit hot..."

Harriet nodded sagely. "Best to wait till it's dropped to just above body temperature." She leant across the table. "What's up? Still feeling guilty, are you?"

Ruby sighed. "I just can't believe how little it took for me to start suspecting someone I know of being a Death Eater..." Jumping to conclusions had always been a more questionable Hufflepuff trait.

Harriet shrugged. "I'm sure he's used to it. I hear Slytherins get these things an awful lot. And he's never been the most subtle of wizards, now, has he?"

"I know." Ruby giggled. "He head-butted me once in a Quidditch game..."

"Were you Keeper, then? I thought you said you were a Beater..."

"Well, I was most of the time, but Cedric supposed I'd be the only one who could take on the Slyth Chasers, so I played Keeper whenever we played them."

"High praise indeed. Would Cedric be the Diggory boy?"

Ruby's face fell, and Harriet made a hasty retreat back on topic. "I suppose neither of you were suspecting Marcus to get carried away like that, were you? What's that move called again? An Eagle attack?"

"An attack in Hawkshead formation. I take it he thought I'd get out of the way, silly little Hufflepuff cow, but I didn't, and..." She gestured. "Wham."

Harriet grinned widely. "A true classic. Bit primitive, though."

Huh? "What?"

Harriet's grin became even wider. "Classic come-on, though a tad outmoded by now, I'd say..."

Ruby spluttered incredulously. "Whatever gave you that idea? He's a Slytherin. Slyths don't dig Huffies... They have them for breakfast."

Harriet tutted. "And to think people claim Slyths are prejudiced... Have 'em look at the Huffies for a change, it'll be a revelation..."

Ruby had turned a fetching shade of red when something occurred to her. "Harriet... How did you know about the formation when Flint slammed into me?"

Her colleague gave a shrug. "He told me. He talked about you quite a lot, actually - seemed quite impressed with your flying skills. Said your tenacity was awe-inspiring, even for a Hufflepuff. I can't believe I didn't realise sooner it was you he was on about. Though I hadn't met you at the time, of course..."

Ruby's eyes had taken on Trelawnean proportions. "When?"

Harriet chuckled throatily. "Cool it, Mack. Remember what I told you about me starting off in the owl room at the Prophet?"

"Yeah..."

"Two years ago, Flint came to work with us for the summer. There was Flint, myself, and two more Slytherins who, come to think of it, probably shared a brain. Great time we had, just grand..." Her eyes glazed over slightly. "Remind me to tell you about it some more next time Johnson sends us off to cover the annual Puffskein Breeders' Convention..."

Ruby took a sip of her coffee. It was as wonderful as Harriet had made it out to be, and she closed her eyes to take it all in, the spicy blend of creamy sweetness and bitter overtones, until a current of cold autumn air sent shivers down her spine. She turned to see who'd come in, only to find an elegant if oversized Fluttering Fern blocking her view. Then again, Harriet's reaction told her all she needed to know.

"Marcus! Over here!"

He still wore his old Slytherin scarf, over a simple black winter cloak he hadn't been wearing that morning. Folding both over a chair, he plumped down next to Harriet and rubbed his eyes. Ruby examined him closely, something she'd never really had the chance to do at Hogwarts. Back then, proximity had usually been accompanied by furious ducking and weaving whilst trying to intercept or avoid the various objects lobbed her way. His presence was familiar enough, but as a person, Marcus Flint was still a complete stranger to her, and she hadn't a clue as to what she could possibly say to him. Thankfully, Harriet stepped in with one of her inimitable opening moves.

"Marcus, my man, I think you deserve a hug."

Flint glanced up at her between his fingers, with that slightly bemused expression Ruby had seen so many times before on people who'd come to know and love Harriet's conversational style.

"You know... I could do with one of those, actually..." He stretched lazily. "That and a drink or two..." He slumped back against the seat's creaking back rest and jerked his head imperiously at a waitress who'd been examining her fingernails at a nearby window. Her response was positively Pavlovian, her feet moving before her mind seemed to realise why, and Ruby felt a stab of envy at the display of effortless Slytherin authority.

"Get me an Irish Coffee and a double Ogden's."

Ruby felt surprised the waitress didn't salute before turning and making for the kitchen. Butch, aren't we, she thought, looking back at Flint, and felt instantly sorry when she remembered what had happened earlier. Harriet put an arm around the wizard's shoulders and drew him close.

"Here's to our man of the day."

Flint was staring doubtfully ahead. "Close one, that was, actually... I remember thinking it wouldn't make a difference, but I added the one burn ward anyway, just to be sure. I almost didn't..."

"But you did." Harriet said matter-of-factly. "And a great job, you did, too. Go on, Mack, show him the picture."

Silently, Ruby took out her pocket portfolio. She slipped Flint an early print of one of the photos she'd taken through the Blooms' first-floor window. He stared at it dumbly, Harriet peering over his shoulder.

"Beauty, isn't it? That one's going on tomorrow's front page. 'Ward works wonders in DE raid'."

Flint turned to Harriet in alarm. "You're not naming anyone, are you? Can I see the story?"

Harriet shook her head. "Sorry, Marcus. No can do."

"What's that? Some place near Katmandu? C'mon, Harriet, cut me some slack here..."

"Look, it's all completely crystal."

"It's what?"

Harriet tapped a finger against an empty glass on the table in front of them. "As clear and solid as this glass here."

Flint frowned. "Glass isn't really a solid, though, is it?"

There was the briefest of pauses before Harriet continued.

"Well, never mind that... Anyway, no need to worry. Your employer's in there somewhere - they'll be thrilled, I'm sure - but no one's mentioned by name. You're right, there. Got to be careful with these things..."

Flint snorted. "Can't have any of my House mates come over to sort us Muggle-loving traitors, now, can we?"

Though Ruby was hardly the most perceptive of witches, his bitterness wasn't lost on her. In the short silence that followed, she flushed even deeper than before, before finally managing an awkward attempt at conversation. "Is... Is there anything I can do for you?"

Flint grinned, exposing frightfully crooked teeth. "A back rub would be nice..."

The waitress returned, setting down his order rather more carefully than she had treated either of the journalists'. Flint downed his double Ogden's in one and grimaced. The waitress shivered and hurried back to the kitchen. Ruby tried again.

"So... Warding charms. Interesting career choice."

Flint nodded morosely. "Yeah. Gonna have to work pretty fucking hard to keep up with demand, the way things are going..." He frowned. "People just became so sodding complacent when the Troubles ended. Did you know there's hardly been any development in hex wards for over a decade now? Never mind those meant to check non-magical trauma... That burns ward I used at the Blooms' - it's one of three, only three, and those are ones we developed over the past year. It's like no one in the wizarding world realises just how many ways there are to hurt, maim or kill someone, other than cursing them..."

He was looking at Ruby, fists clenched on the table in front of him. She jumped slightly when he spoke again.

"Ever wondered what's wrong with my voice? Don't tell me you never did, Mackenzie..."

Well, he was right, there. Apart from his unbelievably kooky teeth and impressive build, Marcus' harsh, grating voice was his most distinguishing feature. It reminded Ruby of a Muggle film she'd once seen at a halfblooded friend's house, about a group of people who were immortal as long as they didn't get their heads cut off. One of them, the "baddy", had sounded rather like Marcus. Though theories among fellow students had been many and imaginative, she didn't think anyone had ever had the courage to ask him about it.

Flint took a deep breath, tilted his head back, and ran a finger across his throat. "See that?"

Ruby leant across the table. Sure enough, a diagonal scar of some three inches was faintly visible just above Flint's Adam's apple. Harriet frowned; obviously, this was new to her, too. Flint shifted, took a sip of his Irish Coffee, and continued.

"When I was tiny, my parents often left me and my brother Rufus with my aunt Flora, who shared a flat in Oxford with a Muggleborn couple. One night, my mum and dad took Rufus with them to a recital at Rawlinson End, and let me sleep over at my aunt's. I don't think my mum ever quite forgave herself for that."

Ruby shifted in her seat. She wasn't at all sure she liked where this conversation was going.

"That night, there was a raid on aunt Flora's flat. They went for the Muggleborns first, of course, but Death Eaters aren't the type to take prisoners, and anyone who'd live with a bunch of mudbloods had to be a traitor, so my aunt was next. Resourceful witch that she was, though, she'd cast a few curse wards on me, and they couldn't get to me at first, not by magic. So instead, they decided to see just how much a toddler would bleed if they cut it a few times.

"I suppose the usual DE disgust at Muggles meant they'd never learnt to use any weapons other than their wands, since they seemed to have some difficulty finally slitting my throat. The Hit Squad found me in a pool of blood, unconscious and covered in cuts. Most of the wounds didn't scar. 'Cept this one."

He put his hand to his throat again. Ruby sat staring at him, open-mouthed. How could he sit there like that, relating something so horrific, that casually?

Flint swallowed the rest of his coffee, and shrugged.

"Not that I remember any of it now. My first memories are of the party my family threw when I came back from St Mungo's. As far as I'm concerned, it's always been like this."

Ruby closed her mouth, swallowed, then opened it again.

"I think we could all do with a drink," she said finally.

~***~

"Sorry for dragging you into my childhood traumas, Mackenzie."

They were standing outside Nicholas B. Byrd's Delicatessen, waiting for Harriet to return with the spicy almonds she'd insisted upon dropping by for.

"I mean, I know people hate to hear about those things..."

Ruby turned to face him.

"Traumas I can handle. Or maybe not, but I've got Harriet handy, so I'm sure I'll get the hang of it sooner or later. No sense in pretending stuff like that never happened, especially now. However..."

She leant closer - which didn't really have the desired effect, considering she was just under a foot shorter than he was, but she pressed on regardless. "However, next time you feel like picking a fight, you can jolly well wait until you're alone. I mean, what's Harriet going to say when she sees that guy again, huh? What if they won't let her into that place next time she goes there?"

Flint shrugged. "Hey... Not my fault, was it? Never laid a spell on him. Can't blame me if a wand-happy Gryff feels like having a hex..."

"Oh, and I suppose inquiring after his boyfriend was a completely innocent move on your part?"

Flint snorted indignantly. "How am I supposed to know whether or not someone's come out yet? And what's with the Gryffie homophobia, anyway? I'm telling you, there's a whole lot of witches in for a big disappointment once they find out just which team old Woody boy plays for..."

"Who? Oliver Wood?"

"Oh yeah... You telling me you thought he was just friends with perfect Percy Weasel? My child, you have much to learn... Positively flaming, that one."

"Now you're being homophobic..."

Flint shook his head. "Nah. Don't care which way he swings, he's a jammy cunt anyway..." He fell silent. "Now there's an image..."

Ruby whacked him on the head. Flint laughed coarsely, then clasped a hand to his forehead and reached for the shop window with the other. Ruby seized his arm to steady him.

"Shit... I didn't mean to, honestly..."

Flint shook his head, gingerly. "That wasn't you... Must be that last hex..."

"What's this?"

Harriet had come back, munching almonds by the handful. "Said something you shouldn't have, Marcus? Good for you, Mack, you show him. Have some spicy almonds while you're at it."

"No, it's the hexes... Ah, fucking hell..."

He sat down on the pavement, shading his eyes. Harriet shot Ruby a concerned glance. After a few seconds, Flint relaxed. Harriet squatted down next to him and turned his head so she could look him straight in the eyes. "You sure it's not the drink?"

Flint pushed her away. "What d'you think I am, a bloody house elf? Get off, I'll be fine..."

Harriet folded her arms. "Long gone are the days I'd take your word on matters concerning your health. You're coming with us."

"Oh, and I suppose you're a fully qualified Mediwitch all of a sudden?" Flint gave her a trademark Slytherin sneer.

"Two words, Marcus: Floo. Magda."

The sneer remained firmly in place, but Flint heaved himself to his feet and silently followed the two witches to their flat on Fine Alley.

~***~

"Ah yes, Mr. Flint. How could I forget?" A round, matronly face peered sternly out from amongst the flames. "Glad to see you've taken my advice to heart. No use putting off proper medical attention, after all."

Flint shot Harriet a foul look, but said nothing. Harriet was smiling cordially at the Prophet's chief Mediwitch, whom she'd Flooed at her office from their living room.

"So... Nausea, stabbing headaches, general disorientation and/or dizziness... Anything else?"

Flint shook his head.

"Alright... A pretty straightforward case of spellshock, altogether. Thankfully, we seem to have caught up with it before the onset of any paranoia or panic attacks. Prescribing psychoactive potions is never a pleasant task, what with the side effects reported to date... As it is, a simple Craniostabilis solution should do the trick, possibly in combination with some pepper-up potion. I should have plenty of both in stock. Now if either of you could come over and fetch the quantities required..."

Harriet dipped her hand into a small earthenware bowl that sat atop the mantelpiece, threw the powder in to the fire, and stepped into it. This left Flint alone with Ruby, who was stroking Aunt Beast, Harriet's pet Kneazle, as it lay purring contentedly in her lap.

"She likes you."

"What, that thing? How's that?"

The Kneazle came to its feet, padded over to Flint, and started nuzzling his boots. Ruby smiled. "No one's got hurt yet, have they? That's always a good sign."

Flint scowled briefly at Aunt Beast, who seemed to mimic his expression before stalking off huffily towards the kitchen. As he stood gazing impatiently into the fire, Ruby was struck by the random thought that his eyes were really much lighter than she'd previously thought. Must've been the eyebrows.

She frowned. Where had that come from?

Before she could get down to proper self-analysis, small puffs of green smoke and ashes erupted from the fireplace, followed by Harriet, hacking and coughing into her sleeve.

"Ah, bloody hell… Great reminder of why anyone'd bother getting their Apparition licence, that is… Here are your potions." She thrust two phials into Flint's hands. "Had Magda put 'em on my file, seeing as you're not with us anymore. She needs the phials back, though."

"Thanks." Flint studied the phial Ruby assumed contained the Craniostabilis solution. It was a milky white, swirling and sloshing as if it possessed a mind of its own. "Do I take this now?"

"I suppose so. Soon as possible, anyway. Before your condition deteriorates any further." She looked him over. "Scary thought, that."

Flint gave her a half-hearted shove, and uncorked and drained the phial, pulling a face. "Kiwi? Ugh…" He held up the second phial, half full of pepper-up potion. "Now what do I do with this?"

"That's in case the solution gives you the shivers. You're not supposed to Apparate anywhere, either, now, for at least 36 hours."

"You sure?" Flint didn't seem too thrilled to hear this. "Then how do I get home?"

Harriet gestured in the general direction of the fireplace. Flint's face fell even further.

"You're joking, Mills, right? Tell me you're joking… I can't Floo. Not while I'm in this state…"

"I'm sure you'll be fine. One of us'll come along to make sure you're alright." She turned to Ruby. "Won't you, Mack?"

Hang on. Had she missed out on something?

"Me?"

"Mack, if you're thinking I'm going through there" - she gestured towards the fireplace - "again, while you sit here twirling your wand, you've got another thing coming. Your turn. Come on. Do it for Marcus."

Ruby sighed, but got up and took a handful of Floo powder. "Where are we headed?"

Flint took up position next to her. "Canterbury. Broad Street."

Canterbury? Impressive. "Very well…"

She threw the powder into the flames and waited briefly for them to turn a pale green. "Marcus Flint's, Broad Street, Canterbury." She stepped into the fire.

After about half a minute, the spinning slowed, and as soon as she felt she could trust her legs, she took a step forward into what she hoped was part of Flint's Canterbury home. She opened her eyes and blinked a few times before realising the gloom wasn't due to any residual smoke or ashes, but to lack of light. The curtains had been drawn, the walls painted a dull gray; the only discernible colour came from a huge poster on the wall facing the fireplace. It depicted a copper-haired young woman in a garden, stretching languorously; a giant snake curled itself around her naked body. She gave Ruby a small, conspiratorial smile.

"Lilith…"

Ruby wheeled around. Flint was standing behind her, pointing at the painting with his wand.

"What?"

"That's her name. Legend has it she was Adam's first wife. She left him when he refused to let her go on top half the time…"

He grinned. Ruby looked away. Flint cleared his throat.

"Anyway… Hang on a sec…" He released the Containment charm he'd set up around the fireplace, and ushered Ruby over to a black leather couch. "Have a seat. Can I get you anything?"

"I… I think Harriet's expecting me back right away…"

Flint stopped clearing away the Runic Resonance discs that had been cluttering the couch. Ruby looked at the one he was holding; it showed six bare-chested men who glared moodily back at her against a single, giant, orange chrysanthemum. "Herzeleid," she read. Heartache. She smiled.

"Oh, them, Harriet's told me about them... Aren't they Muggle, though?"

"Only half..." Flint indicated three figures in the middle. "They went to Durmstrang. During the Troubles. Must've been kind of like Slytherin, only on a global scale."

Ruby looked at the broad-shouldered wizard at the centre of the picture, who glared back at her defiantly. "He looks really pissed off..."

Flint snorted. "Wouldn't you be? If people kept lumping you in with the vilest fucking scum of the earth? If they went looking for links to the Darks Arts in everything you did? Whatever you did?"

He looked at Ruby; she was biting her lip anxiously, tugging at the sleeves of her robes. His expression softened. He put the disc down and went back over to the fireplace.

"Let's get you back home. Before Harriet gets it into her head I'm trying to take advantage of you... You got a light, Mack?"

"No - but I'm pretty sure Harriet's got a dark blue overcloak..."

Flint gave her a look people usually reserved for Harriet, then lit the fire himself, chucked in some Floo powder and stepped aside. Ruby was just about to indicate her destination when he spoke. "Will I see you again?"

Ruby turned. "I'm pretty sure you will. You'll bump into Harriet soon enough, no doubt, and I'll probably be tagging along, so yes."

"D'you think we could have lunch together some time?"

Ruby blinked. "Yeah. Yeah, I suppose we could. Floo me at the office, OK?" She turned back to the fire. "Mackenzie, Fine Alley, London." She stepped into the flames.

Back at her place, she waited almost a full minute before opening her eyes. The dizziness wouldn't go away, even when she'd plumped down into one of Harriet's beanbags. By the sound of it, her flatmate was in the kitchen. Making tapas for tea, no doubt. Aunt Beast slunk over to her and laid a furry head against her thigh. She tickled the creature's ears absently.

"He scares me, Auntie."

She lifted the Kneazle into her lap and held it close until the room stopped spinning.

 

//
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