The Sugar Quill
Author: Lone Astronomer (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: No Such Place  Chapter: Chapter Two: Three Ring Circus
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Chapter Two: Three-Ring Circus

Disclaimer: Not mine! Characters, locations, pretty much everything belongs to someone who isn't me and I'm still poor. How unjust.

Author's Note: The bunnies decided that No Such Place has a plot, after all. It's hardly a happy one. In fact, it's rather bleak. Charlie-angst at every turn. Also note that war is not good for the psyche. He's not in a very good mood...

Summary: A day in the life of Charlie Weasley! Meet the F.L.A.M.E.s, discover a softer side of Kate. Also beware of the darkness that is Charlie's mind.

*

Mirrors on the ceiling
Pink champagne on ice
And she said,
"We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device."

-Eagles, Hotel California

*

The next morning, Charlie was up very early, owing to the fact that he had to work. Kate was still asleep on the sofa bed when he started the coffee, which he left stewing while he had a shower. By the time he was done, however, Kate was quite awake.

"'Morning, Charlie," she said cheerfully, passing him a plate of eggs. He smiled. Whatever else you said about Kate, the fact remained that she was a fabulous cook.

"Good morning," he replied. "I thought you cooked for no man," he teased, referring to the time he had commented on how strange it was that nobody had tried to marry her yet. While other women would have been indignant, Kate had laughed at him and told him exactly why she wasn't high-class marriage material.

Kate faked a hurt look. "If you don't want your breakfast, Charlie, just say so." She moved to take it away.

He kept it out of her reach. "Oh, don't worry. It's just fine where it is."

Her reply came by way of a rather typical snort of laughter. She glanced at her watch. "Wonderful. Another twenty minutes before work." She wrinkled her nose; for a bureaucrat, Kate was a very unbureaucratic person. "Mind if I use your facilities?"

"Go ahead," he said distractedly. Something had just occurred to him. Something ugly. "Kate, when you leave, will you take the Floo network?" he asked abruptly, scribbling something on a piece of paper and handing it to her. "The password," he explained at her confused look. It burst into heatless flames. "Just promise me you won't walk and Apparate. Not after what happened yesterday."

Shaking her head at his paranoia, she finally conceded, "Whatever you say."

He sighed. If she'd only meant that, it would be so much easier to keep her out of trouble. Unfortunately, while you could try to keep the girl away from mischief, it had a way of catching up to Kate. "Thanks." Then his eyes lit upon the clock, whose time now read, 'You're going to be late!' "Looks like I've got to fly." He Summoned his broomstick and Everyday Cloak. "Bye, Kate!" He left through the kitchen window again, just barely hearing Kate's farewell before it was lost to the howling wind.

*

It was a lucky thing, Charlie thought, that his clock was five minutes fast. He made it to F.L.A.M.E. HQ with moments to spare, propped his broom up in the space reserved for him, and ran his fingers through his windblown hair.

"Cutting it a little close today, aren't we, Red?" Charlie turned at the voice of his sister-in-law Angelina Johnson-Weasley, formerly of the Wimbourne Wasps.

"What are you talking about? I had plenty of time!"

Angelina laughed as her point was proved by the automatic engagement of the security wards. They remained open for only twenty minutes between shifts, so if you were late- tough luck; it was the nightshift for you to make up for it.

"So where's Patterson?" Charlie asked as the two of them navigated the maze of corridors, heading for their conference chamber. He was referring, of course, to Agnes Patterson, their supervisor and Angelina's constant companion.

"What, you hadn't heard?" She tutted at him. "Maybe you should pay more attention. Her pregnancy leave started Monday."

"Pregnancy leave!" Charlie exclaimed, wondering once again what it was with happy couples that made them have children. (His tentative answer leant towards masochistic tendencies.) "Good Merlin. What a time to have a baby." He wondered if this many people were always having children or if he simply found it remarkable because of the war.

"I'm sure Aggie was thinking much the same thing." They reached the conference chamber and slid into their respective seats. Because Charlie had seniority, he was closest to the head of the table. "Any idea what topics we're going over?"

Charlie pressed his lips together. He did, in fact, have some idea. "Well, we've got to get a new member and another commander, presumably." In keeping with traditional Quidditch teams, F.L.A.M.E. squads were limited to seven members, plus their pygmy dragon familiars. "Riley will probably make captain. He's been working overtime a lot." Not to mention that Riley was as natural a leader as Percy was an office rat. He did not mention the suspicions he had concerning a certain Hogwarts professor; everyone thought he was biased, anyway.

Sure enough, when the Unspeakable in Charge stepped into the room, it was to announce what Charlie had predicted. Then Riley took over the directing of the meeting.

Riley was your stereotypical Elf. Actually, most Elvish stereotypes were probably based on him. He was the entire reason behind the common conception that the species were nymphomaniacs. Riley had been propositioned by Muggle nuns. Kate had commented on this once. She'd said, "Riley's the one your mother warned you about, but you never regretted." Charlie couldn't speak from experience, but he had to wonder if Kate could. Contemplating that was not likely to get Charlie anywhere except for really hacked off, so he skipped it and started listening.

"First off," said the Elf, twitching one pointed ear almost imperceptibly, "I've got the pleasure of introducing our newest team member. He's fresh from Romania, and he knows just as much about dragons as our current expert." Riley nodded at Charlie, apparently sensing his curiosity. Charlie wondered if he'd met the new member before. "Now you've got two people you can go to if your familiar gets a throat infection." There were halfhearted chuckles around the table. Every one of them had been reprimanded by Charlie at least once for not taking proper care of their partners.

The door opened again and in stepped a tall, severe-looking man about Charlie's age. Charlie knew he had seen him before, but the man's name and identity seemed just out of reach behind some old boxes on a shelf in his mind. "May I introduce Corporal Jonathan Chortos."

Against his will, Charlie's fists clenched. He stared defiantly up at the other man, stubbornly resisting the urge to stand up and commit acts of physical violence. This man. He was sure that he was showing signs of the legendary Weasley temper, but didn't care. This man was the cause of his best friend's misery. Charlie felt like he needed to spit.

Instead of offering the usual tokens of welcome, the room's attention was focused on Charlie. "Something wrong, Lieutenant Weasley?" Riley asked, his voice steely.

Yes. The bastard hurt my friend. I need to make him pay. But Charlie would not let himself be so easily embarrassed. "Sir." It was all the affirmative Charlie felt he could give without ranting.

"Is it going to be a problem?"

"No, sir." The words tasted bitter on his lips. But again, it was the only answer he could give. Like hell there's not.

Riley nodded; Charlie knew he would be approached again later, as an equal and a friend rather than a subordinate officer. "Good. Next order of business-" He conjured a diagram not unlike that of a Quidditch play, numbered and labeled. "Tactics. Let's face it, even though the Death Eaters are a lot stupider this time around, we need some new ones. Now I hate to start out by giving you homework, but tactics are tactics- I want all of you to draw up a similar diagram of how three or four of you could capture five of them. I'll be reviewing that tomorrow. Then in the block on Thursday we'll polish them up, see what works and what doesn't."

Charlie made a few notes in the margin of his agenda, adding 'block' almost as an afterthought. It was basically a controlled simulation room, complete with actors, for use in practicing for uncontrolled situations.

"Now," Riley continued, snapping his fingers and causing the diagram to disappear, "who can tell me what this is?" A casual flick of his wrist had a bubbling purple vial in his hand.

Angelina peered at it overtop of her reading glasses. Jonathan just seemed confused. Had Charlie been more inclined to give the man a break, he would have conceded that Riley, nervous as Charlie knew he was, whether he showed it or not, had the tendency to jump topics rather rapidly.

Nonetheless, Charlie had seen a similar vial at the last meeting of his Order of the Phoenix cell. "It's a vaccine," he said. "Against the Dormius Curse."

The small conference room buzzed with a few confused voices. "Almost," said Riley, nodding at Charlie. "It's a method of preventing symptoms. Believe it or not, it does have a practical use." Another diagram popped up behind him. This one was titled 'The Effects of the Dormius Curse on the Wizard Population.' Not very concise, Charlie thought, although that particular thought was short-lived. It was quickly pushed out of the way with concern for his friends- namely, Kate, who had been exposed to the Dormius Curse just a day previously. He was suddenly itching to get out of the council chamber.

"As you can see," Riley continued, "exposure to the Dormius Curse does have severe effects on the mental health of wizards. Approximately a week after exposure they start having nightmares. As far as we can tell they are not unusually severe." Breathing a mental sigh of relief for small mercies, Charlie made a mental note to keep a closer eye on Kate. "A week after that, victims start getting careless. They experience chronic insomnia and loss of appetite. Brain activity jumps; the victim becomes paranoid and socially reclusive." Apparently there was also bad news. Charlie was paranoid and reclusive enough for two people already.

Riley snapped his fingers again. The display disappeared. "So what does this mean for you?" He sank down into a chair and covered his eyes with his hand. "It means all of you are in more danger than I thought. At least half of you have been exposed, at one time or another, to the Dormius Curse. In this line of work, any of the symptoms could be fatal. So unless you're deathly allergic to any of the ingredients on this list-" Yet another diagram popped up, plain text instead of graphs this time- "your vaccinations are tomorrow." The Elf seemed to deflate, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "Dismissed."

*

"...And I'm supposed to just sit here and watch it happen?" Charlie finished unhappily. "I'm telling you, Riley, I don't know if I can work with that guy. Not knowing what he did. If Kate finds out-" He sighed in frustration. He knew how that sentence was predestined to end. If Kate found out that her ex-flame was in England, she would be gone before he could even say goodbye. On the other hand, he couldn't just not tell her...

"I know what you're thinking," Riley interrupted. "And you can't tell her, anyway, Charlie, because it violates your job security, so you might as well quit worrying."

"But if Kate finds out what I'm keeping from her, she'll kill me," Charlie said, unable to accept Riley's simple solution. And then she'll leave England forever, like she left Romania, and Merlin knows how I'd live without her. Not that that was even relevant, because he'd be dead.

Riley was shaking his head at him. "You can't tell her. I hate to abuse my authority, but I forbid it."

Charlie didn't bother trying to convince him otherwise. He had sensed it coming, even deliberately pushed Riley towards it to avoid having to make a decision.

"As for Jonathan," the Elf continued. Charlie winced. "Don't sweat it," he said. "You're with Angelina and me. Let Oliver deal with him. And then if he washes out..." Riley shrugged. "We get a new team member and everybody's happy again. End of story."

Charlie was about to protest that it wasn't a very happy ending when the emergency siren sounded. Riley got to his feet and clapped his hands. "Sector twenty-one, everyone!" he called loudly, glancing up at the map. "Brooms and familiars, let's go!"

Charlie's brain was still processing wildly. Sector twenty-one. Oh, Merlin- they'd hit King's Cross.

*

The team arrived under cover of Stealth Charms, dragons included, flying standard four-point formation: Riley front and center with Angelina and Charlie on either side, Jonathan and their second-newest member, a young ex-archaeologist called Callie Callahan, just behind and between them. Ex-secretary Alison Bardot and Quidditch fanatic Oliver Wood guarded their backs, their dragons flying to their right and left rear respectively. Pygmy dragons, much as Charlie hated to abuse their immunity, made very good shields and so generally flew just to the outside of the formation and half a wingspan behind their familiar.

He realized that they were a somewhat perverse group of misfits. They were none of them innocent, with the possible exception of Oliver, and all very angry. He even let himself remember for a moment that most of them had started out as washouts from more regular professions, usually for anger management problems. By all appearances, they had come a long way, but inside-

Angelina had watched her best friend die at the hands of Lucius Malfoy. Charlie had been unable to get there in time to stop anything from happening, and could only to testify against him later in court. But of course Malfoy had gone free; Malfoys were always going free…

Callie, tried and tested in colorful curses, had been discharged from her post as a head researcher following an inquiry into sexual assault, although she had not been the defendant of said inquiry. After losing her assault case, she'd been dismissed. She'd sued for wrongful termination, but was still awaiting a court date.

It was generally assumed that Riley had disobeyed orders and that that was what had gotten him into the F.L.A.M.E. Nobody had the courage to ask him. An Elf with secrets was an Elf with a past, after all. Nobody really knew what Oliver was doing there, either. There was some speculation that he had a rival Quidditch player that had joined the Dark Forces. It didn't seem very likely, however. Aside from the strangeness of the fact that he had joined the team at all, Oliver was probably the most normal of the whole bunch. Alison Bardot had quit her job because of the ridiculous amount of stress in her ridiculously unimportant department. She'd been working under Percy and had had quite enough of bureaucracy.

Charlie already knew what Jonathan had done wrong. And as for himself-

But there was no time; they were landing. Charlie had noted when they'd taken off that once again Riley was flying without an escort. Now, descending on the scene of another horrendous crime, he filed it away for reference in case the Elf got himself in a bind, which he seemed prone to doing.

The train station below him looked like the alley in Muggle London must have looked like after being blown apart by Peter Pettigrew all those years ago, only on a much larger scale. People were everywhere; most moving, many not. Somewhere a baby was crying. Charlie had a bad moment when he remembered the arrival of Sirius and Anya's first child a few weeks previously, then relaxed slightly when he started discerning words among those infantile screams.

Between platforms seven and eight were the Death Eaters. There were three of them, by the looks of things, sinister and black-robed. They had not noticed the slight distortion in the sky to the south, and had no way of knowing that a temporary Apparition ward was about to make their lives miserable. While the ward could last only a few minutes without an official permit, it was usually enough time for a short confrontation- just short enough that, if the team was in a bad situation, they could still escape relatively unscathed.

The Death Eaters were surrounded by enough evidence to condemn them to a Dementor's Kiss at least once, had the Dementors still been on the Light side. The carnage was disgusting, even from a distance of thirty meters. Angel grunted restlessly beside Charlie; he flew without hands for a moment to pat her reassuringly on the flank.

And then they landed. By default, the Stealth Charms terminated the minute one set foot on the ground. Because of this, squads spent some time every week coordinating landings so that the Enemy got as little warning as possible. Charlie would have worried about Jonathan's landing, but to do so would go against his instinctive dislike of the man. The sooner he washed out and went back to Romania, the better. For better or for worse, though, the landing was as uneventful as the takeoff had been, at least until the Death Eaters noticed they were surrounded.

The dragons guarded their backs as the Death Eaters formed a tight circle and began throwing curses in every direction. This was their advantage, Charlie realized, ducking under a blue-tinted Imperius Curse. "Stupefy multica!" he countered, but it was blocked. The Death Eaters could point their wands in any direction, but the F.L.A.M.E.s had to be careful not to miss and hit members of their own team. Charlie threw off another curse and cast an Impedimentia hex, wondering why the Death Eaters didn't just Disapparate. The ward had surely worn off by this time.

"Gyrus Flammare!" he shouted, trying to buy himself a few more moments to figure out the mystery. There were only two reasons he could think of for prolonging the inevitable like this. Either it's a trap- but I know there are no other Death Eaters or Dark Arts being practiced in the area- He glanced up at Angel to make sure that he did, in fact, know this, and was not disappointed. Or else they're just keeping us busy, preventing us from being somewhere else. But where?

And suddenly, Charlie knew. "It's a trick," he yelled, stepping forward in the circle. Not much had changed since the beginning of the battle; Callie was sporting a nasty bruise; on the other hand, one of the Death Eaters seemed to have been rendered completely boneless. Probably Callie's work; she had a penchant for spells like that one and an odd talent for revenge.

"Oh really?" shouted Riley back sarcastically. "What tipped you off?" He blocked another curse, sending a second Death Eater sprawling. The third Disapparated before another spell could be cast.

"This was a decoy," Charlie explained to the rest of the group as they caught their breath. "What do you want to bet that a quiet but more significant attack is taking place somewhere else right now?"

Angelina, being the youngest, understood first. What color could drain out of her face, did. She looked very ill. "You don't think that-"

Charlie interrupted, "I think we should get back to HQ, and fast." Despite slight injuries, they made the flight in record time.

*

It was something of an embarrassment, though also a relief, to return to find that the grounds at Hogwarts were still quite secure. Charlie could not shake the feeling that there had been an attack somewhere, although the message board showed nothing. The Cleanup Crew returned from King's Cross with the two captives and nothing further to report; Charlie began to wonder if the Dark Forces' new plan was to keep him in a state of paranoia until he died. There seemed to be little evidence of even this, which made Charlie distrust the situation further.

There were no further alerts that day, but Charlie went home tired and distraught, still lost in the complexity of his thoughts.

*

Instead of flying home directly, he decided to stop by George's shop in Diagon Alley. The Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes chain was doing well, with two large warehouses (Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley) and the week previously they had bought out Zonko's, taking over the chain they had earned their first detentions for. Fred preferred to work in Hogsmeade because he enjoyed playing tricks on his Hogwarts patrons; George had taken responsibility for the other branch because his Katie lived in London. So far, he hadn't actually admitted that this was the reason he had taken over the Diagon Alley shop, but Charlie figured it was only a matter of time.

He was pleasantly surprised upon arriving to find both of his twin brothers there, entertaining a customer. It was difficult to discern what exactly she was doing in George's shop: she was at least eighty and, in Charlie's mind, didn't seem the type to be buying supplies for practical jokes. However, she had evidently bought something; she had a very full shopping bag adorned with three familiar interlocking Ws. "Bye now, dears," she called to Fred and George as Charlie approached the counter.

The twins waved a cheerful goodbye. "See you next week, Ms. Mostrestnig!" George yelled after her. When she'd gone, they turned their attention to Charlie.

"Friend of yours?" he asked with a sardonic but half-felt grin, plopping a few bags of Feel-Good Fizzbees on the countertop. They were the hottest new candy since the war, tending to give an emotional and physical boost. Charlie's first experience with them had left him semi-addicted; he ate them constantly because alcohol, the other solution, was a depressant.

"Every Monday without fail," Fred answered with a grin. "She's enamoured with George." He eyed the packages skeptically. "Ouch, Charlie. Nursing your addiction? Bad day at work?"

Charlie could tell that Fred was genuinely concerned, though probably more for Anglina than him. "Not as such," he replied, setting the appropriate amount of money on the counter. "Just unusual."

George, to his credit, said nothing. The secrecy of Charlie's job had been a sore spot with his family since it had begun, and the fact that Fred knew about it only compounded their frustration with him.

Fred seemed about to ask more, but held back for George's tolerance's sake. "Right. Look, these aren't good for you. Much as it is unbusinesslike of me to say so, I think you ought to learn to live without them."

Perhaps partially because his day had been more trying than he'd admitted, Charlie was not in the mood to be patronized. He didn't bother to keep his tone light. "Give me the candy, Fred."

His brother pushed the bags at him wordlessly. Charlie tossed them into his rucksack and started for the door. "Mum wants you to owl!" he heard George yell before it closed behind him. Then, quieter, "What's wrong with him?"

He felt Fred's puzzled, calculating gaze on him, but he didn't turn back.

*

"Charles Weasley! Open this door right now!"

Charlie groaned and put his head under his pillow. The last thing he was planning on doing was answering the door. Although, if he thought about it, he wasn't going to let Kate keep pounding on it like that. First of all, he wasn't sure any enchantment could keep his the door upright against an incensed Australian, and secondly, it was likely to give him a monster of a headache. Luckily, he didn't have to do anything; Kate had her own key.

"I'm coming in! You had better not be drunk!" There was a slight pause, "Or naked!"

He snorted. Typical Kate.

His amusement was short-lived, however, because she'd just slammed the door to his apartment and she looked even angrier than she sounded. Charlie sobered.

Kate stopped in front of him, crossed her arms, and sighed. The anger drained from her face. "What are you doing to yourself, Charlie?"

Somehow she always made him feel like a disobedient child. He fidgeted uncomfortably under her gaze and stared down at the top of his coffee table, or rather, he stared down at what was preventing him from seeing the surface of his coffee table. It was littered with newspapers, quills, ink, scratchpads, and several candy wrappers. Realizing that Kate was not to know any of what happened to be scribbled on those valuable notebooks, he cast a charm to close them all. "Nothing," he answered sullenly. "I'm just working."

She made a very exasperated sound and dropped onto the couch beside him. Ignoring the organized chaos of the spread of newspapers, she put her feet up on them, thus forcing Charlie to look at her.

Kate honestly wasn't angry, he found. She was just concerned. "Well, if you're working to alienate family members, you're doing really well." She held out a piece of parchment to him, but snatched it away before he could read it. "Your mother sent this by owl post today. Arthur says she's beside herself with not knowing what's wrong with you. You might as well spill the beans, because if you don't, more people are just going to get hurt."

It was amazing, the way she could patronize, wheedle, and guilt trip a person into doing something. Charlie supposed that that was why she was meant for an office job, after all. She could probably convince Moody, Dumbledore and Malfoy into reelecting Cornelius Fudge as Minister of Magic. Well, maybe that was overdoing it a bit. Maybe she only had supreme influence over him. "I can't tell you, Kate. We've been over this."

"Not this exactly," she contradicted. "We've been over your job. You can't tell me. Fine; I respect that. For now, at least. But you're cutting everybody off, Charlie. I do talk to the rest of your family, you know. Probably more than you do. That has to change."

He sighed. She had a point, he had to admit. But sometimes it seemed that it was always the people close to you that got hit first- the previous day's incidents proved that. Why not distance oneself? "It's dangerous," he heard himself say. "Not only for me."

"Don't go all noble on me," Kate retorted, beginning to show signs of recurring anger. "Unlike us less fortunate humans, you have a family who cares about you. Don't you care what you're doing to them? You're tearing them apart!"

"So I should just let them get hurt physically, is that it?" he shot back. If she was itching for a row, he was certainly up to the challenge.

"Right, Charlie," she said scathingly. "Because it's only them you're concerned about. Of course. That was apparent."

No, Charlie thought in a moment of stinging clarity. It's not only them. "Leave it alone, Kate. It's obvious that you don't know what you're talking about."

"No, I don't." The admission surprised him; he blinked and searched her face for clues to her new tactics. "I don't know what I'm talking about, Charlie. Go on, then. Enlighten me."

He knew he'd lost. It happened a lot with Kate, although to be fair, he didn't generally feel very good about himself when he won. "All right," Charlie conceded finally. "I'll owl Mum, if that's what you really want."

"Not what I want," she reproved him gently. "What you need. Half the point of having a mother is using her shamelessly to make yourself feel better. In your case, however, might I suggest apologizing first?"

Charlie managed a wry grin. "Okay, I get the point. Me bad, you good, I'll serve my punishment tomorrow. Happy?"

"Quite." Kate managed a very smug look, drew her feet up on the couch, and stretched her legs out so that they were across his lap. "Got any food?"

*

They had been sitting there for close to two hours, eating vegetable soup and watching a documentary on John Fowles on Charlie's television and just making idle chat when a sleek, professional-looking gray owl lit on the windowsill.

Kate removed her legs from Charlie's lap. "Look alive, sleepyhead. You've got mail."

He got up and went to the window, saw the Order of the Phoenix seal on the scroll, and opened the window. The owl flew down and settled on the perch in the kitchen beside Woodstock as if it owned the place. It held out its leg importantly.

Charlie untied the message and brought it back to the living room. "Who's it from?" Kate asked curiously, stretching her legs over him again as he sat down.

He shook his head. "I don't know yet." I don't think it's particularly good news, either. Charlie reached for his wand and touched it to the seal, which began recognizing him. It flashed green and disappeared.

"Good idea, that," Kate said approvingly. To her credit, she didn't even try to look over his shoulder.

But Charlie stopped paying attention as he read the letter, feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach. His blood turned cold, then began burning furiously in his veins. He felt his eyes stinging and found that, in fact, he was crying. Under other circumstances this might have alarmed him, but now he noted it with a curious sort of detachment, because it didn't really matter. It was immaterial. It didn't matter, nothing he did mattered, all was forsaken; they didn't have a chance.

"Charlie?" Kate said softly, breaking into his thoughts. She sounded unsettled and sympathetic. But that didn't matter, either. "What is it?" She drew her feet up and knelt next to him on the sofa.

Through the terrible haze that flooded his mind, he managed to get his eyes to function properly. He looked up, trying to safeguard against the sensation that all emotion was leaving him. He felt at the same time a strange desire to experience pain and the desire to experience nothing again. "It's Dumbledore," he said fiercely, but the words thudded dully in the room because they didn't matter, either. He fought against the lump that wanted to form in his throat. "He's gone."

End part two.

//
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