The Sugar Quill
Author: Blue Byrd  Story: Paperwork  Chapter: Chapter 2: Pretty Vacant
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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.

Paperwork, Pt 2 - Pretty Vacant

A/N: Once again, besides the usual nod to Jedi B, my SQ beta, big boogles to aunt beast (one of these days, I'll get you a brand spanking new chew toy, awright?), plus a big thank you to Tess, for helping out with characterisation relevant to the HMS Hawkshead, and to Sharon K, for lending the following some journalistic cred. Furthermore, I'd like to thank my mate Vonny for her brilliant R-rated pencil-on-parchment rendition of Jackson's doodle, currently up at aunt beast's.
A quick note on slang terms: "Manc" is short for Mancunian, "from the city of Manchester". "Skinning" is an alternative term for the Quidditch foul listed under "blatching" in Quidditch Through the Ages: "flying with intent to collide".
Finally, a big bag of spicy almonds to whoever picks up on all musical references. And that includes the making-your-own-guitar-out-of-an-old-mantelpiece one. ^_^

If anyone had bothered to ask Clarence Cloverleaf at, say, age sixteen, what he thought he'd be doing for a living in five years' time, "hexing Puffskeins" wouldn't have been his most likely answer. Still, that was basically what he did, firing curse after curse at the custard-coloured balls of fur humming sedately in their wires cages at the lab on Clinic Alley. Thankfully, none of his efforts had hit home yet. He hated to see the little creatures suffer, loathed those occasional lab jokers who'd set him on an inadequately protected batch. One of them had eventually got fired, which had been mildly satisfying but did little to erase the memory of an unfortunate test subject exploding in his face.

He'd had severe misgivings about today's session, too. The wizard in charge of the project they were testing looked like a nasty piece of work. Clarence hadn't gone to Hogwarts himself, on account of a multitude of allergies, but he'd heard enough about Slytherin House and its occupants to decide this Flint fellow was bad news. So far, everything seemed to be going smoothly - but then again, these were minor hexes, unlikely to cause irreversible or indeed even mildly entertaining injury. He braced himself and upped his efforts a notch or two.

The Puffskein in question, blissfully unaware of any kind of assault whatsoever, stuck out a sticky, pink tongue. Flint reached into his lab robes and fished out a Cauldron Cake, which he broke up into chunks and dumped in a little heap beside the creature.

"Carry on."

As Cloverleaf progressed to steadily nastier hexes and curses, their test subject curled its tongue around piece after piece of pastry, dragging them back into the deepest recesses of its furry body. Cloverleaf felt immensely relieved, but after a while, part of him was actually getting rather annoyed. He was by now working up a steady sweat, and all he had to show for his efforts were an incessant humming and a stringy pink tongue fishing around for crumbs. Technically, he'd already completed the set of spells he'd been instructed to include in that day's session, plus a good few more. In a final burst of uncharacteristic, vindictive machismo, he skewered the air with his wand and heard himself hiss a word which, in other circumstances, would've been very likely to get him arrested.

"Crucio!"

The ward field flickered for a moment, and the humming stopped. Flint drew his wand and peered intently at the Puffskein's still form. After a few tense seconds, however, a low humming rose from the wire cage once again, and Cloverleaf exhaled guiltily. Flint turned to him, wand hand still raised.

"I don't recall anyone telling me Unforgivables were to be included this early in the programme."

Cloverleaf seemed utterly fascinated by his own fingernails.

"Encouraging results, though... Be a shame not to report this in detail, wouldn't it?" He picked up the cage, examined its occupant carefully from all sides, humming tunelessly to calm it down, and grinned at Cloverleaf. "You can make me the baddy, if you like."

Cloverleaf nodded mutely and made his way out as fast as his feet could carry him, while Flint returned the puffskein's cage to the relative peace and quiet of a shelf laden with row upon row of similar containers, all full of similar, fluffy spheres. Their combined humming was deafening; it took a good few minutes for his ears to stop buzzing once he'd shut the door on them. He handed his lab robes to a passing house-elf and made for the nearest Floo terminal.

Flint kept his eyes and mouth carefully shut as he whirred past countless fireplaces, griddles and furnaces, his arms pressed stiffly against his sides. Nobody really liked to travel by Floo, no matter what they claimed; it was merely the cheapest means of transport available, with Floo powder at some seven sickles a pound. A broom ride would've been greatly preferred, the journey from the Guildford lab to Diagon Alley just long enough to break the daily grind of calculating, designing and testing spells on small, furry animals. The risk of Muggle sightings over London, around noon, would've been unacceptable, though. The spinning slowed. Flint braced himself for arrival.

He managed to stumble forwards into the reception area with most of his dignity intact. The girl at the reception desk, a twenty-something witch in altogether too much make-up who, he dimly recalled, had once introduced herself to him as "Sharon", was addressing a dark-haired witch in emerald green robes. Flint decided he wouldn't bother with such niceties as reporting. He'd been doing this job for, what, fifteen months now? Surely even Sharon could've figured out his routine in the meantime?

Before he could slip unnoticed into a nearby stairwell, however, the dark-haired witch turned, and with arms akimbo, called out to him.

"Hey, Skinner… How's the rain on the rhubarb?"

The actual words meant far less to him than the voice did. The words could've dealt with anything, the weather, today's youth, the price of Floo powder, but the voice would've spoken of damp, early mornings on a draughty pitch, changing room smells of mould and sweat, tearful rows, and his four glorious years BP. Before Potter. He turned around.

Of course it was her. Who else was he expecting to see?

Bletchley.

"Karen…"

"Marcus."

She looked more or less the same as he remembered her, only sharper, somehow. She still - maybe now more than ever - resembled some small bird of prey. A falcon, perhaps, not too big in human form to be lifted, whirled about, and given a bear hug. Flint was more than happy to oblige.

"Fuck, Skinner - and here was me hoping I'd never have to look at your ugly mug ever again."

She hugged him back and, once he'd let go, stood looking him up and down, shaking her head. "Merlin... How long has it been? Years..."

"Two years. Two and a bit. What're you doing here?"

Bletchley leant against the reception desk. "I'm with Accidental Magic Reversal. Been sent off to discuss a major order on the Ministry's behalf, I have." She waggled her eyebrows. "How about you? D'you work here?"

Flint grinned at the way she kept pushing her fringe out of her eyes. So familiar. Never thought he'd miss it that much.

"Not here, exactly." He gestured to the Floo terminal. "Our lab's down Guildford, but Ade and I have lunch together most of the time, so I'm headed for Accounts now."

Bletchley's eyes lit up. "You've got Ade working here, too? In Accounts?" She pulled a face. "Man, I got to see that... Can I come?"

"What, for lunch? What about your appointment?"

Here, Sharon gave a fluttery wave to attract their attention. "I think Ms Sargeant's left for lunch, too, so you won't be able to see her for a while, anyway. Best to come back around half two, I'd say."

"Well, that's settled, then." Bletchley turned and made for the stairwell. "Which floor?"

"Hang on..." Flint turned back to the receptionist. There was something about Sharon that had been bugging him for a while. "Haven't I seen you at the Prophet? Similar job?"

"Don't think so... Never worked there." The receptionist frowned. "Oh, that must've been my cousin Shannon." She smiled and nodded. "People confuse us all the time. Can't think why, really..."

Flint nodded vaguely and followed Bletchley to the stairwell, leaving Sharon to her newly-painted nails. Footsteps echoing emptily along the corridor, they made for the top floor, past water coolers and corporate-sponsored modern art, garish combinations of movement and colour on canvas that made your head spin and your eyes water. Flint wished he could pull that nifty Slytherin single-eyebrow raising shtick, but settled for raising both and hoping Karen would notice. She did.

"What?"

"I'm not used to you being this silent. Especially now we haven't spoken in years."

"Alright, then - what do you want me to say?"

Flint shrugged. "Well, you could start off telling me where you live these days. Must be pretty close by..."

"How would you know?"

"You don't sound half as hard-boiled a Manc as you used to. Hanging with Southerners, now, are we? Getting posh?"

She snorted. "Carry on like that, and I'll give you posh in the face..."

"Hang on - we're there. Stay put."

He left Bletchley in the corridor and poked his head round the door to Accounts.

"Ade - you'll never guess who's just turned up."

Adrian Pucey looked up from a pile of parchment and dumped a form into his outbox. "Eva Baker? Enlighten me, Marcus, please."

Bletchley stepped out into the office, followed by Flint, and made her way over to Pucey's desk. Pucey flung down his quill and held up his hand for a high five.

"Karen, you fucking sneaky cow! Should've warned us you were coming, we could've called for bloody back-up... What the hell are you doing here?"

"What the fuck are you doing here? In bloody Accounts, of all places?" She whacked her forehead. "Ade, what were you thinking?"

Pucey shrugged apologetically; Flint plonked down into a nearby chair.

"The lady's a bigwig with the AMR Department these days, aren't you, Karen? She's here to place a big-arse order for the Ministry, and we should all bow down to her greatness..."

Bletchley whacked him in the arm. "Buying me some lunch will do for now. And no footsie under the table, either, Marc A. Flint."

Pucey sniggered and went back to his pile of parchment, locking various folders away into ward-protected compartments in his desk. While he fished around in an extended drawer for his cloak, a mousy sort of wizard made his way over to them from his desk across the office.

"Yes, Jackson?" Pucey seemed a bit bewildered by his co-worker's interest in his friends.

"You're Marcus Flint?" Jackson was watching Flint apprehensively, his voice just barely audible over the general rustle of parchment being folded and filed. Flint slipped into Big Bad Slytherin Bully mode almost without realising.

"And what if I am?" He milked his awfully gritty voice for all it was worth. Scaring the clueless shitless was one of his guilty little pleasures - the guilt usually brought on by what those present, other than his victims, would hurl at him later.

Jackson stood his ground. "Someone's been here looking for you. Just now."

Pucey frowned. "How come I didn't see them?"

"You were having a coffee break. Your sixth today, I believe..."

Pucey rolled his eyes. "Did you get a name? What they wanted, maybe?"

His beleaguered colleague's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "A young witch... Said she was on her lunch break... Didn't get a name, but I took the liberty of drawing her portrait. I think I got a pretty good likeness, even if I say so myself..."

He reached into his robes and pulled out a piece of parchment, which he handed to Flint. Bletchley glanced over his shoulder as he looked the portrait over, then back at Jackson, and slowly got up from his chair.

Very slowly.

Never taking his eyes off Jackson's.

He seemed ready to grab the hapless wizard by his robes and throw him across the office - which wouldn't have been without precedent - when Bletchley let out a cry of recognition.

"Hang on - that's that Huffy keeper, that is... The one you used to spy on down the changing rooms after games..." She peered closely at the picture before handing it to Pucey. "Wow. He's really captured her arse, hasn't he?"

Flint wheeled around. "Ade, say something!"

Pucey studied the picture carefully. "Well, I haven't seen her for a couple of years now, but as far as I can tell, the likeness really is pretty good..."

Flint threw up his hands. "You know what I'm talking about! Just look at the pose! It's obscene!"

Bletchley chuckled. "Oh, so the stuff you used to pull when you and the guys played Hufflepuff wasn't? Mind you, all that made it a lot clearer to me what you meant when you said you wanted your Keepers a bit bigger than me, Skinner." She whacked herself on the behind with both hands. "Something to hang on to, so to speak."

Flint looked around frantically to find, to his immense relief, that Jackson seemed to have discreetly sidled back to his desk, and not caught any of the latter part of the exchange. He walked up to him and leant over his desk, aiming for his most menacing whisper.

"Where'd she go?"

"Talbot's. But that was over half an hour ago, don't know if she'll still be there. And you can keep the picture," he added. Flint merely growled and returned to his fellow Slytherins, who followed him outside.

"Bit of a head case, that one, if you ask me. Jackson, I mean," Pucey told Bletchley as they strolled along Diagon Alley, on their way to its most happening watering hole. "I mean, we tried, Skinner and me, we really did. Asked him along to a game, the other day. A right classic, too, Arrows versus the Wasps. He wouldn't come until Skinner'd put an industrial strength Impact Ward on him. My guess is it was a bit late for that - seems he's had a good few whacks in the head already. Though in a way, I suppose he might be onto something, what with his artwork and all... His style's a bit rough, but then I don't think he's ever had any formal training."

Flint scowled. "It's soft core porn, is what it is."

Pucey shrugged. "Yeah, alright, he does tend to exaggerate certain features of the female anatomy, but then that's never done Robert Crumb any harm , now, has it?"

"Who?" Bletchley, who was currently not talking to Flint, was walking to Pucey's other side.

"Graphic artist from across the Atlantic. Muggle. Bit of a women's bum fixation."

Bletchley frowned. "What's with you being into Muggle culture all of a sudden?"

"It's a great way of pissing off pureblooded parents, that's what... You should've heard them when I found out about the Sex Pistols."

Bletchley pulled a face. "I can imagine..."

"Can't see why you'd want to piss off your parents any more than they already are." Flint was sulking slightly. "Some of us don't even need to try."

Bletchley rolled her eyes. "Oh, get out of it, Flint... This is the place, right?"

She managed to heave the door to Talbot's open, pulling against a strong draught that only gave in upon a third attempt. Flint scanned the rows of wooden tables; no sign of Ruby. Or Harriet Mills-bloody-Henry, for that matter. He exhaled.

Bletchley went for a hexagonal table beneath an African sorcerer's mask, which Flint felt sure would start pulling faces at them once they'd turned their backs on it. Pucey tapped the table top with his wand.

"Let's see... Today's special... Salad with goat cheese in puff pastry and a honey sauce. Sounds better than the one they had yesterday. Hang on - East German milk soup? With steamed dough balls on the side? They'll be having stir-fried Flobberworms next..."

He ordered three goat cheese salads and a plate of red herring on toast, and nodded knowingly when Flint recounted the incident down the lab earlier that day.

"Yes, well, what can you expect from a guy who goes around hexing Puffskeins for a living? Beware of the alliterating ones, my friend…"

Flint had started building something out of beer coasters. "Wasn't that the hyphenated ones?"

Pucey tapped the side of his nose. "Ah, that's just the alliterating ones trying to divert attention away from themselves... Best to try and get the hyphenated ones on our side. Take that Finch-Fletchley boy, for instance. Muggleborn, yeah, alright, but you can tell he's going places. As for that Mills-Henry woman, well, what can I say?" He sighed. "Sees right through you. Like you're standing bum naked in front of her."

Flint seemed utterly fascinated by a beer coaster he was now meticulously tearing into tiny pieces.

Their salads arrived. Bletchley sat delicately licking honey sauce off her fingers, occasionally breaking off pieces of pastry and chucking them at Flint, who snapped them up in mid-air, grinning broadly whilst trying desperately not to show too much of his picket-fence front teeth. Pucey merely enjoyed the show, and steadily finished his lunch in no time at all. When Flint and Bletchley were only about halfway through theirs, he glanced at his watch and put on his cloak.

"Sorry, duty calls. Jackson may have a fucking broom up his arse - he was right about the coffee breaks. Piles to catch up on before the end of the day." He sighed. "Flint, please remind me why I took this job?"

"Well, you need to keep your parents from chucking you out of that flat and renting it out to someone who'll pay for it..." Flint started checking off points on his fingers. "You need to finance that band project of yours - that still on, by the way? Wouldn't want to miss out on the world's first runically amplified guitar..."

"It's not really the first, actually, it's the fourth prototype Terry's done so far. He's been experimenting with the placement of the activation rune." He turned to Bletchley for elaboration.

"You activate the amplification field, like, by sliding the catch that contains the activation rune into place among the others. Basically a one-touch on-off mechanism. Doesn't require maintaining Sonorus like previous systems, so you can concentrate on the music a bit more. Terry's made me a prototype of my own, out of a dismantled Floo terminal and the handle of my old Cleansweep… I'm boring you, aren't I?"

Bletchley smiled. "Your observational skills just keep getting better and better, don't they?" She leant back. "Would that be Terry Higgs, then?"

Pucey nodded.

"Haven't seen him in ages, either. Weird, really, if you look at all the things we have in common… Kicked off the same team around the same time…"

Flint moaned. "Will you give it a rest, Karen? Please? I mean it. You're right, I fucked you two over no end, but it was best for the team." He slammed back in his chair; its backrest protested loudly. "What's the bloody point of being Slytherin if you can't be properly Machiavellian once in a while, eh?"

Pucey got up. "I think this is where I leave you, if only for the sake of self-preservation. Don't be too hard on him, Karen, we're two short in Research as it is…"

When he'd gone, Bletchley sat playing with the remainder of her salad, shoving crumbs of cheese around her plate, until she glanced up to find Flint looking at her intently.

"What?"

"C'mon, Karen. Don't tell me this is still about the team."

Bletchley carefully cleaned her plate. If there was going to be any confronting, she was bloody well going to be the one doing it.

"What's with you and the Huffy?"

Flint stifled a smirk. Bletchley chewed her lip. She hated being obvious. "Well?"

He shrugged. "Nothing, as yet. She's trying hard to be civil, but she gets all worked up with the effort."

"Then why bother? It's because she's stood up to you before, ain't it?" Bletchley leant forward. "Am I right?" Silence, and a dismissive wave. "Can't say I blame you… No fun when they back down right at the start, is it? Nah… It's all about the ones that won't budge…"

She rested her chin in her hands.

"But then, once they give in… Who knows? Once you've scored, the game might as well be over, right? And they always give in, in the end."

"You don't, though. You never budge."

Bletchley smiled. "Probably not, no. They might score, yes, but I'd never let 'em end a game all by themselves. Takes two to play, don't it?" She thrust her hand into her pocket and pulled out a delicate silver watch.

"Gone one. Better be getting back."

They walked, silently, back to the office, past Sharon, into the stairwell.

"Think you could find your way up there by yourself?"

Bletchley scowled. "Love to say I could. Probably couldn't, though." She gave a low, resigned grunt. "Go on, then. Show me."

The journey up to Accounts was even less eventful the second time round. Pucey sat engrossed in his forms, torn between the call of duty and that of long-neglected friendship as Bletchley settled in a chair opposite Sargeant's office. Flint leant across his desk.

"What's keeping her? I thought Karen said they had an appointment at noon or something?"

Pucey looked up at the door to Sargeant's office. "She hasn't come out since I got back. I hear she's in some sort of meeting with a couple of Aurors."

Flint frowned. "What would the Aurors have to talk to your boss about?"

Pucey pinched the bridge of his nose. "Well, there's the rather worrying increase in Death Eater activity over the past few weeks... Though I suppose things might've been a great deal worse if it hadn't been for our standard package."

Flint nodded. "Good to know we're doing something useful here."

"Less of the 'we', alright? You might feel you're actually doing something, you get to go out there and cast wards in little children's bedrooms. I'm stuck in here all day with a roll of parchment and a bloody quill. Wouldn't matter much if I didn't show up at all, now, would it?"

Flint was about to launch into a pep talk - he'd rather missed those in the eighteen months that had passed since his days as Quidditch captain - when the door to Sargeant's office opened, and three grave figures made their way into Accounts. Ms Sargeant herself, a thirty-something witch who'd put a lot of care into looking casual, was looking dazed and a bit incredulous when she glanced over at Pucey's desk and found it occupied. Given Pucey's record of absence, this in itself might not have been cause for alarm, had it not been for two imposing wizards in Auror's robes who followed her out and stood looking at Pucey with the same appraising scepticism. Bletchley, who'd risen impatiently - eager, as always, to get on with things - faltered, eyes darting from Pucey's puzzled face to Flint's deepening frown. One of the Aurors reached into his robes.

"Adrian Pucey?"

Ade rose behind his desk. "Yes?"

The Auror whipped out a card. "Ministry, Dark Arts Department. We'd like you to come with us and answer a few questions."

~***

She'd made an effort. No one would be able to say she hadn't tried. She'd gone up there all by herself, under the scrutiny of that dreadful receptionist who'd made no effort to hide the fact that she was measuring her up, the way witches always seemed to do, grinning smugly upon finding her arse bigger than their own. Or so Ruby had assumed; she'd been too busy staring at the floor, hoping it would open up and swallow her, to pay much attention as the receptionist informed her she'd better give Mr Pucey a Floo to ask at what time he was expecting Mr Flint. Or maybe it would be best to go up to Accounts - top floor, third office on the right - herself and wait there? She'd nodded mutely and fled into the stairwell.

The corridors had been stuffy, the artwork that broke the monotony of panel after panel of grey had made her eyes water, and to top it all off, neither Pucey - out of all members of the Slytherin Quidditch team, she'd always liked him best - nor Flint were in when she'd finally made it to Accounts. The only wizard present had sat looking at her from his desk at the far end of the office as if hypnotised, scribbling mechanically on a piece of parchment, before she'd finally spoken up to ask if he knew when Marcus Flint would be in. He didn't, and she'd decided she'd done just about all that could be asked of her.

Not as if any of this had been her idea, anyway. Being around Marcus Flint tensed her up, made her feel terribly self-conscious, and just generally gave her the willies. Being able to stand up to someone within the context of a Quidditch game was one thing; socialising with them in an atmosphere of friendship, possibly even intimacy, was an entirely different thing altogether. Still, she'd promised herself she'd give him a chance - if only to make up for earlier misconceptions, her assumptions that he would be involved in the Dark Arts for no reasons at all, other than his having been Slytherin. Well, she'd tried. She'd made her move. The next would have to be his. For now, Ruby would stick to more familiar territory. Watching Johnson and Harriet quibble over at the Daily Prophet editorial office, for instance. And trying her best to keep from cheering the latter on while they were doing so.

"Oh, and Mills?"

Looked like she might be in for a treat.

"Yup?"

"We've had another complaint from Stanley Cupp."

Harriet frowned. "I'm pretty sure we corrected those dates in his obituary... The very next issue, if I remember correctly. What's wrong this time?"

Meyers, a prematurely crumpled junior reporter who appeared to be joined at the elbow with Johnson, scratched his head absently. "Er... Something about your coverage of the recent Death Eater attacks. Mr Cupp's a prominent member of the, er, spiritual community..."

"Not to mention a highly vocal one..."

"And it seems there's a growing uneasiness within that, er, community, regarding your use of the term 'dead' in your reports."

Harriet leant back against Johnson's desk, arms crossed, gazing silently at the ceiling. Ruby played with the teaspoon sitting in her mug, and held her breath expectantly. Harriet cocked her head.

"What terms should I use instead? Oh hang on, I think I know..." She started gesturing in mid-air, as if drawing out headlines. "'These wizards are no more; they have ceased to be. They've expired and gone to meet their maker.'" She gave her superior a questioning look that stopped about half an inch short of sincerity.

"Or perhaps something more like, 'These are late witches. Bereft of life, they rest in peace'..."

"That'll do, Mills..."

"'They've rung down the curtain, joined the choir invisible - these are ex-witches!'"

"Are you quite finished, Mills? This isn't funny. We can't afford to give offence, to any portion of our readers. According to Mr Cupp, the preferred term among ghosts is 'corporeally challenged.'"

Harriet bit her lip. "I think that one might just lose us a lot more readers than the ones I've suggested so far. Especially among the constipatorially challenged. Not to mention the cost of having to adjust column width."

Before Johnson had had the chance to catch up with just what it was she'd just said, the sole window to Metropolitan Issues grew dark. A set of dappled brown wings blocked out the light; a rhythmic tapping of beak against glass broke the sudden, surprised silence. Harriet - who else? - came forward, and started tapping back, a sequence similar, but not quite identical to, the owl's. The creature settled on the windowsill as she opened first the ward field around the office, then the window itself, and removed a small cylinder from its left leg. She turned around.

"Ruby, hand me that Beefy Wand off Meyers' desk..."

Meyers spluttered indignantly as Ruby handed Harriet a stringy brown sausage, which she tore in half and started feeding to the owl. "Hey! That's my lunch!"

Harriet tossed him the remaining half. "Honestly, Meyers. When did filling your stomach gain priority over filling the Prophet, hmm? It's vital we hang on to our sources, especially the more elusive ones." The owl flew off again into the wintry afternoon, and she closed the window behind it.

"Now - what is it our Paddy was so anxious to get across to us?" Whether she was referring to the owl or its owner, Ruby couldn't quite tell. Harriet unrolled the tiny scroll that had been enclosed within the cylinder and ran her eyes over its contents.

"Ooh, seems the Aurors have a lead..." She looked up at Ruby. "Remember Ratcliffe telling us about there having to be someone on the inside? Apparently, they're questioning someone from... Uh oh. Someone from Maynard & Harris."

"Flint's firm?"

Harriet nodded. "Someone from Accounts, though... Name of..." Her eyes screwed up to make out the words crammed hastily onto the tiny square of parchment.

Then, they went wider than Ruby had ever seen them.

"What? Who? Harriet, what is it?"

Harriet shook her head, scrunched up the parchment, tossed it into the air and incinerated it with a wave of her wand. Then, reaching for a DictaQuill with one hand, and for Ruby's sleeve with the other, she was off to the broom park, leaving Met Issues to two rather bewildered wizards.

"Where are we going?" Ruby yelled up to Harriet, who hovered impatiently overhead as she stood struggling with the locking spells on her Nimbus. "Who've they arrested? And what can we do about it?"

"We're going to have a little chat with Inspector Ratcliffe," Harriet yelled back as they hurtled along Diagon Alley, weaving in and out of the assigned lane for airborne transport, past rickety second-hand Bluebottles and sleek Cleansweep minicabs. "There better be a bloody good explanation for all this…"

"For what?" Ruby yelped; she'd got cut off by a Firebolt.

"Ever heard of a bloke named Pucey? Off the Slyth Quidditch team?"

"What, Ade Pucey? What's he… Oh."

Neither of them spoke again before they'd touched down in front of the Ministry's DADA London HQ. Harriet strode up to the reception desk, staffed by a young witch who, despite the Auror's robes, Ruby thought to herself, bore a remarkable resemblance to the Prophet's own Shannon. Like that receptionist over at Maynard & Harris had, come to think of it...

Oh, great . She'd started seeing connections, now. Nice one, Mack.

"Excuse me… Mills-Henry and Mackenzie. Inspector Ratcliffe's expecting us."

The witch frowned. "I don't recall…"

Harriet gave her a dismissive wave and a forgiving smile. "That's okay, we know the way, thanks."

Leaving the young Auror to ponder just in what way whatever had just happened differed from the way things were supposed to go, Harriet led Ruby out of the crowded hall. They entered a coldly-lit corridor lined with fidgety figures arguing frantically, both with one another and with the occasional passing Auror. Ruby tugged Harriet's sleeve.

"You sure we won't get into trouble for this? For saying the Inspector's expecting us?"

Harriet shrugged. "Why would we? And why wouldn't he? If I were him, I'd be expecting me by now…" She peered ahead. "Oi! Marcus!"

Ruby broke out in a cold sweat. Flint. Of course he'd be there, Pucey had been his best friend since Hogwarts. Something in her stomach started doing somersaults. Well, at least she wasn't alone, this time.

But then, neither was he. As they approached the far end of the corridor, Ruby spotted a broad-shouldered, dark-haired witch at the hulking Slytherin's side. She looked vaguely familiar. Something about those green robes she was wearing - another Quidditch team member? But which position? Not a Chaser…

"Harriet… Merlin, you don't half keep track of things, do you?" Flint frowned. "I mean, we only got here half an hour ago, and we were there when they came for him…" He stood back and gestured at the dark-haired witch. "Harriet, this is Karen Bletchley, she's a mate of Ade's as well."

Bletchley, that was it. Keeper, a couple of years back.

"Karen, this is Harriet Mills-Henry, a force to be reckoned with…" They shook hands. Flint turned to Ruby. "Mack… You've met, of course."

Bletchley looked her over, sizing her up, a carefully honed Slytherin sneer spreading slowly across her face. Why did they always have to do that? And why was Flint looking even more uncomfortable than she was?

"What are they charging him with?" Harriet had whipped out her quill and notebook.

Flint shrugged. "I don't think he's actually been charged with anything yet. Seems they've just taken him in for questioning." He leant against a white-washed wall. "What gets to me is, why him at all? He's never had anything to do with the actual casting, or the extent to which any of our wards held during raids…"

"Very good point. Be a shame not to try and answer that one, wouldn't it?" Harriet walked up to a nearby door. "Through here, if I remember correctly… You coming?"

Flint gave a curt nod and joined her. Ruby made to follow, but Harriet shook her head.

"Best not to storm Ratcliffe's office all at once… Could you two just hang on in here till we get back?"

Before Ruby could mouth even the first few words of, "Please, don't leave me with her!" Harriet and Flint had disappeared into yet another corridor. Somewhat distraught, she went over to a nearby wooden bench and sat down heavily, not feeling at all useful to anyone. Bletchley came sauntering calmly after her and went to sit on the floor, leaning against the wall opposite and staring at her impassively in a way that made the palms of her hands itch. When, after a minute or two, avoiding that awful gaze only seemed to make it more intense, Ruby took a deep breath and looked straight back into Bletchley's dark eyes, raising her eyebrows the way she supposed Harriet would have. Her hawk-like adversary shifted, and spoke.

"Think you could take him?"

What?

"Do you honestly think you have what it takes to keep him even remotely interested?"

Who? Ruby's brow furrowed. Bletchley leant forward, elbows resting on her knees.

"I've known him longer than today. Longer than you, certainly, and a lot better, at that. I know a good few things about just what makes him tick. And let me tell you something, honey - it's going to take one hell of a lot more than a fleshy rear and a head of auburn curls to keep him hanging on. Especially with your split ends…"

What the hell? "Now hang on a minute…"

Bletchley breathed out noisily and played with the buckles on her left boot. "Alright, sorry for that. That was uncalled for. But just think about it…"

She looked up, and met Ruby's eyes with something akin to concern. Or maybe regret.

"I know he doesn't mean any harm, but I'll bet you a week's wages all this'll be over as soon as you give in to him. He doesn't realise, and neither will you, but that's the way it's going to be, trust me. Put up a fight, and he'll keep going, trying to break through your defences. Then, once he's worn you down, and you let him have his way, he'll have scored, and as far as he's concerned, the game will be over."

Ruby was staring at the wall over Bletchley's head. She'd got a pretty good idea what this was all about, now, and like most things happening to her these days, it was turning out a lot more complicated than she would have liked it to be.

"Hey…" Bletchley came to her feet and sat down on the bench next to her. "Don't let it bug you, alright? It's not your fault wizards have to make a bloody battle out of just about everything in life…You're not really into him, by any chance, are you?"

Ruby shook her head. "Nah. You can have him."

"You what?" Bletchley's head had snapped around. She snorted disdainfully. "What the fuck would I want him for?"

Ruby smiled faintly and gave a slow shrug.

Little more was said until the door a few yards down slammed open, and Flint and Harriet spilled back into the corridor. Harriet in particular was looking grave. Ruby started towards her. "Well?"

Harriet stood leafing through her notes. "Well, it would seem that for the past few weeks, Maynard & Harris have had a number of orders for the standard warding package coming in from families and individuals who found themselves under attack by Death Eaters only days after casting. Furthermore, at least two of the most recent orders have been confirmed not to have originated with the clients themselves."

"Which means?"

Flint raked his fingers through his hair. "Usually, an order is the first step in the administrative process. Orders go up to Accounts, where they get a reply, by means of a confirmation, which would include a price indication, as well as the name of whoever they need to contact to make the actual casting appointment. Now with those orders Harriet mentioned, there doesn't seem to have been any correspondence before the confirmation got filed."

Ruby's brow furrowed. "Couldn't those orders have just got lost?"

Harriet threw up her hands. "Theoretically, yes, of course they could. Thing is, how likely is it for a whole series of DE raids to target only those places that have all been newly fitted with a set of top-of-the-range warding spells? All things considered, I think it's a fairly safe bet to assume someone's been trying to force security measures onto people about to be attacked."

"That someone being Ade Pucey?"

"They're questioning him because he handled most of the clients whose places were attacked, as well as the two claiming they never placed an order in the first place. Ratcliffe says he's got signed confirmations for both of those, written out by Ade only last week. Both have had castings, one has been attacked - the one at New Merrick Alley, day before yesterday, Mack, remember that one?"

Ruby nodded. "How come they had a casting if they didn't order it?"

Harriet shrugged. "Fear, I guess. Something like, 'Shit, yeah, I'm at risk here, why not have one of them castings and get some adequate protection while we still can?'"

"But if... Someone... Is basically just trying to make sure people don't get hurt, why would they get arrested?"

Bletchley snorted. "Call yourself a journalist, do you?"

Ruby scratched her head. "D'you think I should? I mean, I got one of these..." She held up her press card. "But I thought they were just the latest in cardboard accessories..."

"Whatever. Anyway, sweetie, if someone started warning you about oncoming, top-secret Death Eater attacks, wouldn't you be anxious to know how they'd found out about them?"

Well, there it was. The man on the inside. Not Flint, as Ruby had assumed, for about thirty seconds, a few weeks before, but Pucey. Loud, gangly, clownish Adrian Pucey. Looks could be deceiving, she should know that by now.

She wasn't buying it this time, though. The whole thing just didn't make sense, and that which didn't make sense tended to upset Harriet no end.

Ruby wasn't going to stand by and let Harriet get upset.

She fetched their brooms. As the four of them started to make their way along Diagon Alley, Ruby once more turned to Harriet.

"Have they questioned him under Veritaserum yet?"

Harriet shook her head. "Nope. And I'll bet you they'll find he never even touched those confirmations when they do."

"Then who could it have been?" Bletchley was doing her best to make a contribution, not to mention keeping up with Harriet and Flint on their way back to the Prophet. Or maybe Maynard & Harris. Who knew? Who cared?

"Basically, everyone in the office would've had access to whatever was on Ade's desk. He locks his stuff away when he goes out for lunch, but I don't suppose he bothers with that when he goes on a coffee break. And he takes one hell of a lot of coffee breaks." Flint was staring blankly ahead, brow furrowed while he tried, and failed, to narrow the range of possibilities down in any way.

"I suppose any administrative members of staff could've mastered the spells required to copy the signature... But then, with a bit of an effort, so could all the others."

Harriet was chewing her lip. "You don't have a mail room, do you?"

"No, we have separate mailboxes at the entrance. Why?"

"In situations like this, it's usually best to start off by talking to those who get in touch with the most people, the most frequently, most of the time. Got a regular at reception, do you?"

"Yeah. Sharon."

"Good. Try and find out if she can tell you anything that'll get us any further."

Ruby doubled her pace until she'd come level with Flint. "She the one who looks kind of like our Shannon?"

Flint grinned. "That's the one, alright… Like they're fucking mass-produced, isn't it, sometimes? Though with them, a bit of a likeness is to be expected, I guess. Turns out they're cousins…"

"Are they?" Harriet's brow knit thoughtfully. "Who told you?"

Flint shrugged. "She did. I asked her, and she said she was Shannon's cousin, Sharon."

Soon, they'd got back to the Daily Prophet's main editorial office. Harriet halted in front of a lamp post and wheeled about to address the other three.

"Alright, I need to take my notes up to Met Issues to whip up a quick report, in case we don't come up with anything else before tonight. After that, Marcus, I think you and I should go and pay this Sharon a little visit…"

Flint gave her a puzzled look. "Why do you want to come along?"

Harriet chewed her lip. "Because I know our Shannon's cousin Sharon, and she's just started her second year at Hogwarts."

~***

Harriet had insisted on checking one last time with Shannon from reception before deciding on a definitive course of action. She'd turned out to have been right, of course - Shannon only had a single female cousin, Sharon, who'd be turning thirteen the following February, and had never even set foot inside Maynard & Harris, let alone worked there. What was more, a description of the latter's receptionist, provided by Flint and confirmed by Bletchley and Ruby, failed to ring any bells.

Someone was trying to throw them off track, which greatly irked Harriet. They also seemed to know more about them than they did about her.

This was unforgivable.

Ruby was pacing up and down the Prophet's main entrance hall. A team that already included Harriet and two former Slytherin Quidditch players wouldn't need her, now, would it? She'd be sure to end up as little more than baggage, basically. A liability, a point of weakness if this Sharon would indeed turn out to have connections with Death Eaters. They'd be far better off without her.

Right?

"D'you think I should come, too?" she asked Harriet, who was grimly strapping her wand to her wrist as a precaution against disarming spells. "I mean, do you want me to?"

Harriet's expression softened as she looked down at the fidgety photographer.

"You don't have to if you don't want to. You could get started on my stack of obits if you get bored. Probably a good thing, anyway, having someone hold the fort here. To explain what we were up to down there when we call the Aurors for back-up…"

Ruby frowned. "You're not planning on telling them beforehand, then?"

Harriet snorted. "You try and keep Ratcliffe from barging in after you when you're trying to be subtle. He's pretty good with all the sleuthy stuff, but I don't think "stealth" has ever been part of his vocabulary."

Once Flint, Bletchley and Harriet had left, Ruby made for Metropolitan Issues, poured herself a mug of coffee from the machine Harriet had insisted they be provided with several weeks before, and settled down to next issue's obituaries. Finding inoffensive alternatives for "dead" was turning out a great deal more strenuous than she'd expected it to be, and after some fifteen minutes of wondering just how Harriet kept this up, day after day, she cleared the desk and rested her head on her folded arms, trying desperately not to think of the obituary someone - not her, she couldn't possibly pull that off - just might have to write her friend after today.

What had she been thinking, just now, letting her take off like that? She should've stopped her, or at least told the Aurors. She shouldn't have let her go up there without some decent professional back-up. Wasn't that what she was for? For reining Harriet in when she was going too far, too fast, in some dodgy direction? Harriet had always had the drive and the direction; Ruby had the brakes. Without Harriet, Ruby'd stop dead, not knowing how to get moving again.

Without Ruby, Harriet would keep going forever, crashing violently into everything in her way. And eventually, inevitably, one of those things wouldn't budge.

The knot that had been tightening in her stomach for the past ten minutes screwed into a sickness that was about to cross over into actual pain when a Floo terminal at the far end of Met Issues flared up greenly, and Shannon's voice came ringing out from among the flames.

"Hello? Anyone in?"

Ruby got up hastily, knocking her chair over, and stumbled into view of the connection. "Yeah? What is it?" The knot in her stomach had released all at once, and she was feeling a bit giddy. "Something bad?"

Shannon shook her head. "Don't think so. There's just this urgent owl up in the Tower with a sealed message for, and I quote, 'The one who took all those pictures after the DE raids'."

Ruby nodded. "That'd be me."

"Could you go up to the Owl Tower, then? It won't let anyone else near it."

"Alright. Put me through."

Sam "Spanner" Rawlinson, a former Slytherin stranded at the Prophet after dropping out of Hogwarts, was waiting for her on a landing about halfway up the Owl Tower, at one of the few Floo terminals allowed anywhere near the stockrooms stacked with parchment and quills. He regarded her quizzically.

"You the piccy bird?"

"Uh huh." She looked him up and down. "You must be Spanner. Harriet's told me about you…"

Spanner nodded. "You hang with Mills? Explains a lot, that does. The Amazing Harriet and her Incredibly Secretive Informants... Oh well. Follow me."

They went up a few flights of stairs and into the main Aviary, a draughty half-open space filled with neat rows of perches, a locked cabinet under a frost charm, and a penetrating smell of bird droppings. When Spanner had closed the door behind them, a rather nondescript barn owl wearing a British Owl Services tag on its left leg came swooping down to settle on Ruby's outstretched underarm. She unfastened the small scroll tied to its leg while Spanner held out his own arm for the bird to hop over to, and watched as he opened the cabinet and summoned a small chunk of meat, which the owl caught in mid-air before taking off again. Spanner turned to Ruby.

"Fat chance of me finding out what that's all about, is there?" he asked hopefully, with a vague gesture towards the scroll.

Ruby nodded, smiled, blew him a kiss (did she just do that?) and left the Aviary. She went down what seemed to be dozens of flights of stairs before retreating into a corner of the main entrance hall and unrolling the tiny scroll of parchment.

Three short sentences, in a small, neat hand. The Kneazle, 4.30 pm, it said. Time for answers. Incinerate this note.

As if, Ruby thought as she Flooed back to Met Issues and banished the scroll to Harriet's desk. If she was going out there all on her own, at least she'd have someone know where she'd gone. Where they might find her. Or her body.

She shuddered. The Sleazy Kneazle was one of a chain of dodgy bars featuring topless waitresses and pole dancers, and a preferred hangout to many of Harriet's sources. They would lurk facelessly in semi-darkness, not quite at home, but not in entirely unfriendly territory either. Besides, the management wouldn't stand for any kind of unpleasantness, and tried to steer clear of Auror intervention and Dark magic alike.

She should be alright. True, she'd have to face whoever it was all by herself this time - if she managed to get in at all - but at least she'd be doing something more useful than sitting at a desk wondering which font size would be required to fit the term "corporeally challenged" into standard-width Prophet columns. Ruby slung her camera around her neck, stuffed her pockets with extra rolls of film, and made for the Prophet's broom park.

Had she cast one last look around Met Issues before closing the door behind her, she might have noticed the scroll on Harriet's desk curling at the edges, small blue flames starting to spill across the writing.

 

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