A/N: JKR is a genius. I am not. But my betas, melian and theelderwand1 might be!
Dorcas Meadowes sat in her parchment-infested cubicle and stared at the collection of miniature snow globes on the shelf above her desk, trying to shake the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She picked up her favorite, the one with the tiny Eiffel Tower and shook it up, watching the specks of glitter swirl around and slowly settle to the bottom. All of them were cheap plastic trinkets that littered the Muggle souvenir stores in places she’d only dreamed of. She didn’t know why, but she kept thinking about the report she’d filed yesterday about the latest Dark Mark.
He went to see his mother.
An absent-minded tug at a stray black curl… she couldn’t decide what bothered her more, that the war had caused more dead bodies to pile up at St. Mungo’s, or the fact that someone she knew had had to stare into the lifeless face of someone he used to know and love.
At half-past eleven, she snapped the last folio shut and walked it over to the front desk. "Here's the north side inspections file for the current year, Marlene. All finished?"
"Nope. There's another one." Marlene moved slowly in her seat, with one hand supporting her back as she bent over and came back up, producing a folio from under the desk. "And I have these other folios for you too. More license inspections, you lucky girl! Here's the file for the south side of Diagon Alley.” She gave Dorcas a sly wink. “Oh, and they took you up on your offer." She handed over a second folio.
Dorcas took it with a startled look.
"Don't tell me you're surprised it was still open,” Marlene said with a chuckle. "No one else is daft enough to go into Knockturn Alley wearing a Ministry badge!"
"What happened to the two-week waiting period for personnel approvals?" Dorcas arranged the cumbersome books under her arm.
“After the Ministry approved a ‘capture by any means necessary’ policy?” Marlene tisked. “They could care less about who files documents anymore.” She looked up at Dorcas. “Of course that doesn’t mean…"
“I know.” Dorcas waved her off. “Somebody has to do it. Besides, I get more out of it than most people.”
Marlene smirked. “That’s because you’re not most people, my dear.” She leaned back in her chair and stretched. "You're coming tonight, you hear me?"
Dorcas gave Marlene a weak smile. “I’m not really up for a party, Marlene.”
Marlene frowned. "You need to get out. It’s New Year’s Eve. Live a little. Besides, it’s time to stop moping about. I’ve given you a solid three weeks to get over that good-for-nothing-lying, cheating, backstabbing-whore of an ex-boyfriend of yours. And since I’m hosting, I can guarantee that he won’t be there."
Dorcas glanced over at the empty desk across the hall. “Speaking of…”
“Oh no you don’t,” Marlene snatched a roll of parchment from her desk and slapped Dorcas on the back of her head with it. “All he ever did was leer at you like you were a piece of meat. I told you never to date Aurors.”
“But you’re an Auror.”
“Pity my husband then.”
For having to put up with her complaints about the forced light-duty, Dorcas finished the thought for her silently. It was either get out of the field or quit. And Marlene wasn’t a quitter. Then, out loud, “And my father…”
Marlene waved a hand. “Left when things started going bad. When the position became less than honorable.”
“He should have stayed.” Dorcas fought to keep her voice steady. It had been years, but she’d never gotten used to the fact that he’d run out on the war. He could have sent her mum and brother away on their own, but he’d left with them.
She’d been barely of age then and stayed to fight. Someone had to.
“No one blames him for leaving, Dorcas. A lot of people left when things went bad. They’re still disappearing.” She gave Dorcas another wink. “And I wouldn’t mind if that Josef Graves never showed his face around here anymore, either. I would spit on his desk if I thought I could hit it.”
“He was no good for you. And don’t you worry, he has too much pride to just up and leave. He’d rather parade his fancy arse around the office than do anything useful. He’s probably nursing a hangover – probably started his New Year’s celebration a day early – out somewhere with someone unsavory. Hope he catches something! I don’t know what you ever saw in him, dear.”
Besides the broad shoulders, well-defined biceps…. She stopped herself and breathed before she earned another whack from Marlene.
“That’s beside the point. What I was going to say was his report was off. Things didn’t make sense and I have questions.”
“Then maybe you can have him penalized for something.” Marlene leaned in, whispering. “Make it something to stick on his permanent record.”
“You’re awful!” Dorcas admonished her best friend. But it felt awfully good to have Marlene stick up for her.
“And you’re coming to my party!”
Dorcas sighed. "Alright. Because I'm so much fun to be around." She started to head back to her tiny cubicle with the new folios and heard Marlene call after her.
"You're brilliant, you know? Don't ever forget that… and lunch!" Dorcas waved a hand, pushing her personal problems away as she went back to her desk.
Think about something else, she told herself, shuffling the loose parchment around distractedly. At least no one around her had died yet. It could have been Marlene’s mother on that slab yesterday. She closed her eyes and took a few calming breaths.
Her eyes snapped open at the sound of approaching footsteps, an unmistakable noise, because no one else wore those boots. She gathered up the documents for her report in anticipation.
Alastor Moody was much as his name implied. He strode down the aisle, his open robe revealing faded tan Muggle overalls and large lace-ups with thick soles and hard toes. He blatantly ignored the Ministry's black robe dress code, and no one took issue with him. Rumor was that he liked to be dressed ready for a fight. He stopped by Dorcas' desk and delivered a glare and a pile of fresh forms.
And yesterday she’d thought she had been all caught up.
“My office," he grunted. Moody’s mood turned worse when leads were slim. They hadn't had a solid lead in three weeks.
Dorcas rose numbly, grabbing her folio and followed him in. His office looked more or less like her cubicle, except for the absence of files. That's because all his reports are on my desk, she thought. He was a field agent, the best Auror they had, having single-handedly apprehended more criminals in the last three months than the entire department had in the last year. He didn't belong in an office.
Dorcas barely had time to sit down before he started in.
“The Ministry is struggling. People are dying.” As if she needed reminding.
"Got something on Malfoy?"
He frowned. "The Carrows? The Blacks?" He paused. "Travers?"
Who? "No." She made a note to check that last name against her records.
If he was going to read through the entire list of suspected supporters of the Dark Lord, the Evil One, the One-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named… whatever they were calling Voldemort these days, she would be here a long while. Probably miss her lunch with Marlene. She tried not to fidget with annoyance. She had a name for Him and it wasn’t any nicer than the other ones.
Especially if he made her late for lunch.
Moody looked downright hostile... and she hadn't even submitted her report. "What have you got?"
Dorcas sifted through the stack of parchment, pulled out her list of facts, charts and supporting documentation, and gave him a rundown on the status of her projects. Through her contacts, she'd discovered a warehouse that was rumored as a delivery spot for the Death Eaters, the kind of place she thought the Ministry should seize and search thoroughly… if she could produce enough evidence. Somewhere into the third chart, she glanced over and saw Moody's eyes glaze over with disinterest, but without all the facts, his hands were tied.
"Karkaroff is planning something. I don't know what, but he was last seen here..." she pointed to a side street off of Diagon Alley on the map. "I'm trying to get access to it, but..."
“Daft idea." Moody snapped out of his facts and figures-induced coma. "Who’s got your back down there?”
Moody looked ready to lose his mind. “Protocol, Meadowes!" She sat up straighter in her chair. "We didn't give you that extra training for nothing. You're supposed to approach dangerous areas with a team. Who can you coordinate with?"
"I'll be under the authority of the Ministry, as a license inspector," she stated simply. “They’re short on inspectors.” They were short on everyone these days. "The Ministry doesn't send them out in teams. It would look suspicious."
Moody leaned forward over the desk. "Mothers tell their children not to go into that place, Meadowes. They tell them about the evil man that turns your head into a pumpkin and the little gnomes that cut off your feet at the ankles." He looked hard at her. "Those are just the stories. The reality is a lot worse."
"We’d get a better idea about their operations if we knew what was down there,” Dorcas said calmly. The records were outdated by at least a decade. Besides, she’d been involved in operations much more dangerous than license inspections down an unsavory alleyway.
He set a Silencing charm around them and sat up. "The Ministry won't allow us to do anything outright to these people without proof. And proof is something they are extremely good at disguising. That's why I want you to notify the Order of this, whatever you find. Speaking of which..." Moody shuffled in the back pocket of his overalls and pulled out a sealed envelope.
“This just came from Dumbledore. It’s another defector. He wants you on this straight away. Tonight,” Moody growled. “Wouldn’t let me open it, but I checked for hexes." He handed it over. "Says you can handle it.”
She opened the letter, feeling Moody’s eyes on her as she read it. The name was all too familiar. He’d just been here yesterday after his mother’s death. She nodded. “I know this one,” she said.
“Watch your back, Meadowes.”
“Yes sir.” So much for Marlene’s party. I guess I’ll be bringing in the New Year with another runaway, she thought brusquely. Not what she had planned, but then her job never allowed for much planning. Things simply happened and she got to deal with the aftermath.
“And if you get into trouble…” he paused, gritting his teeth.
Dorcas smirked, unfazed. “You’ve never heard of me.”
She’d done this before. Bring them in. Offer them protection, shuttle them anonymously out of the country and make them disappear. She frowned briefly at the name again. Someone like this though, someone who might be able to help bring it all to an end instead of running away. It always disappointed her that there were so many cowards in the world.
Moody smiled at her briefly. “Nah. You’ll do fine.” But then his scowl returned. “Just don’t get yourself killed. We didn't bring you into the Order for this, but he insisted. You’re supposed to be a..."
“Ministry underling, pushing your reports around." she finished for him.
“Right. Go find a reason for me to bring someone in.”
Dorcas stepped into the humming throng of the Leaky Cauldron Inn. It was not typically this crowded or this exuberant, especially for a nine o’clock Thursday evening, but then it wasn’t typically New Years Eve.
Maybe they’d all been here since yesterday, she mused, seeing the half-drunken state of the room.
The place was packed; the bar was standing room only. A lone fortuneteller had claimed the table by the front entrance and propped up a sign, “Readings” and was shuffling a worn deck of cards for no one in particular. All the attention was at the far end of the bar, directed at a gaggle of pay-per-view women who were clearly not dressed for the weather and getting more business than they could handle. Dorcas frowned with the fortuneteller at their blatant attempt to lure in their marks.
She ran her fingers through her tangled hair, matted from the cold drizzle outside, trying to seem less uncomfortable. There were a few people she recognized from the Ministry, some she knew well and waved to politely. Some she wished she’d never known. Josef Graves was halfway down the bar, busy with someone she didn’t recognize – not the same someone she’d caught him with three weeks ago.
Bored with her already.
She turned her back on him, hopefully before she was spotted, suddenly self-conscious at her unruly hair and her “hard day at the office” appearance. She glanced again at the front door where the fortuneteller was clearly thinking the same thing, mussing with her hair and trying to catch the eye of the next person to enter the Inn.
If it weren’t for this assignment from the Order, I’d be at Marlene’s, sipping a fruity drink by now.
Dorcas pushed her way into the crowd, hoping to avoid an unpleasant confrontation, but ended up elbowing her way straight into the person she was trying to avoid and his companion who was much too interested in hanging off his arm than Dorcas had ever been.
“Dorcas! How good to see you!” he slurred, and then caught himself before he toppled onto a table of partiers. “Have you met my, err… friend?”
“No, I haven’t.” she tried to push past her latest mistake and failed miserably, the tide of the crowd pushing her back.
“Aww, you don’t have to be so shy. How about you come and join us for a drink?” Josef waved his free hand towards the bar. “It’s on me.”
“No, thank you.” Dorcas tried again to leave but Josef grabbed her arm and pulled her back to him.
“I insist,” he said, glaring at her now. “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you and my friend here.”
Josef had been an arse, a pompous overbearing twat most of the time, but he’d never been forceful. Something was not right with him.
“Let me go,” she said, all pretense of friendliness gone. “I’m meeting someone.”
“Let her go, love. We can talk to her another time.”
Ugh. The woman sounded as syrupy as she looked.
Josef let her go, his companion looking on from over his other shoulder. Broad shoulders, Dorcas thought. Not as appealing as they used to be. Needs them to hold up his fat head. His companion gave her a sickly smile, one that seemed to say run away as fast as you can because this one is MINE.
“You can have him,“ she muttered under her breath and finally the sea of people parted enough for her to push her way through to get a good look at the rest of the room.
Someone must have done an expansion charm on the place because she stepped into a space with three times the tables and chairs than normal occupancy, all full of unreasonably happy people toasting to the end of another year, giddy with drink over the turning of the clock. Not that nineteen eighty-one would be any better than last year. And there, in the far corner, she found him. Head down, sitting alone.
She’d told Moody that she knew this one. But seeing him now, she didn’t really. Not anymore. Even that afternoon, running into him at the Ministry, he hadn’t acted the way she remembered him from school, she wasn’t sure exactly how, just… different.
She made her way through the maze of tables and chairs and sat down across from him. Usually her contacts were anxiously searching the crowd with helpless needy eyes, ready to jump out of their skins, but here was Severus Snape, not scared or beaten. He looked rather… busy. Lean, professional and intent on scribbling something in a notebook with his quill. A drink sat, untouched next to him. He was oblivious to the mulling throng around him.
She found herself annoyed again at the thought of another one, in over his head. Now he wanted out. Never mind the rest of us that have to stay behind and try to fix the mess.
If they’d taken his family, he was probably next. She might not like that he was running away, but she could understand why.
She scooted her chair closer to the table and said, “I’m here.”
He looked up, shifted his eyes around the room and back to her, the intruder in his space, and finally spoke. “Sorry. What are you doing here?”
He looked pained for a moment, but then closed his notebook. “I don’t… never mind. I assume you have more questions. Did I miss a signature?”
Dorcas got out the folded parchment from Dumbledore and put it in front of him. “You sent for someone. I’m supposed to give you this.”
Severus’ eyes got wide. He glanced at it, then back to her.
His wand was suddenly out and before she could draw her own, he’d muttered something under his breath and put it away. Dorcas sat motionless, her pulse quickening. It was a simple Silencing charm, but it could have been deadly. She reached reflexively into the folds of her robe and fisted her own wand.
For a moment, she had forgotten who she was dealing with. She’d have to pay closer attention.
“You?” He sounded less than thrilled.
He reached into his pocket and placed his own folded parchment in front of her. “I knew a Ministry job was too blasé for you.”
“It pays the bills.” She let out a breath. "There were rumors, but you actually did it? You joined them? I’d always hoped… I thought you might not have.”
He fingered the edge of his notebook, rubbing a crease in the leather. “When he said he would send someone,” Severus lifted his chin to look at her, “I didn’t expect you.”
So he doesn’t want to talk about it. “Who did you expect?”
He shrugged. “Someone experienced. Not a Ministry girl.”
Dorcas frowned at the jab. Her cover hardly gave her the credit she deserved for her role in the Order.
“Listen,” She leaned forward. “It’s not like there’s a lot of us to go around. Dumbledore put my name on the assignment and unless you want to tell him yourself that he made a mistake, I’m the one who has to deal with you.”
“They’ll do worse than kill me if they find out I’ve contacted the Order. I sent the letter because I thought I was already dead. I expected to be mangled in a ditch somewhere outside of town by now.”
Dorcas found his attitude annoying but she was determined to do her job. Dumbledore thought she could handle this, and so she would. “Then I guess,” she said as she pushed her parchment closer, “that you’re lucky I’m just a Ministry girl from Inspections.”
She looked at him intently, starting to remember things about him that had stuck out back in school. “Didn’t your hair used to be greasy all the time?"
He met her eyes coldly from across the table. "And you are still in the habit of effortlessly insulting people?"
"Sorry." Dorcas said, checking herself. "There's something different about you. You've changed."
"You have too." Severus let the grim expression slip away. After another sip, he continued. "You never used to apologize."
Dorcas looked down at her drink and softened. “You didn’t deserve that. I guess we’ve all grown up a bit since school, I’d like to think.”
“Most of us,” he said, watching the bar on the other side of the room where a bloke with ridiculous hair and his two chums were leaning into the bar, ogling a barely-dressed female who looked slightly bored with her current company. She brightened up when she was handed a drink by the burly guy next to the one with the hair.
“Hey mates, look over there,” called the stupid hair. “He’s got himself a real girl!” He raised his mug in the air towards Severus, snickered and turned back to the bar.
Dorcas raised her eyebrow. “Mates of yours?”
“Not that I would admit to.” His eyes flickered to another commotion at the bar and Dorcas saw Josef Graves throw them a look across the room that was all but friendly.
“Ex. Toerag. Bad habit. I’m trying to quit.” She squeezed her mug to stop herself from babbling anymore about it. They’re not worth the trouble. I should swear off men. Starting now. It’s that time of year anyway.
She raised her eyebrows further.
He cleared his throat and swirled his drink. “For you, I meant. Here’s to evolution. Maturity. Whatever you want to call it.”
“That’s something I can drink to. So how does this work, exactly? Since you’re not sitting here to piss off an angry boyfriend and I’m not sitting here going along with it.”
Dorcas ignored the jab and flipped to a blank page in her folio.
Severus swirled his drink, watching the amber liquid catch at the lip of the glass. “Seriously, the Ministry? It still seems too mundane for you, Meadowes.”
“Just some facts to get straight before we continue.”
Severus knocked back the rest of his drink. ”There’s another form to sign.”
“You are employed in Diagon Alley.”
“I have an apprenticeship.”
“With Theodorus Netterheim? That’s impressive.” Dorcas smiled at his surprised expression. “License inspections,” she stated. “I’ve been reviewing the Ministry files for weeks. Are there any long-term projects you’ve been working on, for the Guild?”
“What about it?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“It’s got to be more interesting than license inspections.”
"There's not much to tell. It’s theoretical at this stage. I’m pushing the limits of solvency."
Something in his voice made her want to hear more. "I see." She propped her elbows on the table, waiting for him to continue.
He cleared his throat, clearly not used to being listened to. “It’s… complicated. I’ve been adding stabilizers to a common solvent in order to absorb a higher concentration of active ingredient. If I can get it to work, potions can have higher concentrations and instead of an entire vial, one would need only a drop to achieve the same effect.”
“Hmmm,” she said. It sounded plausible, but from what she remembered, it seemed flawed somehow.
“What, hmm?” he asked, looking irritated.
“Well,” she paused, not wanting to get him miffed. “You just said that you’re using stabilizers to increase solubility.”
“Yes. Charms and additives are common practice.”
“Doesn’t that affect the solvent’s ability to absorb? Adding inert ingredients? Why not use an elemental approach?”
He winced. “That’s an outdated theory. No one uses elemental properties in practical applications.”
“Why not? They used to. Don’t you think that the solubility would be naturally higher without adding all those inert ingredients?” She smiled. “You weren’t the only one who paid attention in seventh year potions class.”
“Yes. But…” he lost focus for a moment and then snatched up his quill to scribble something else in his notebook. When he looked back up, he narrowed his eyes, staring at the far end of the bar.
"What is it?" Dorcas asked, turning around to see the sleazy woman buy her mistake a drink.
"Nothing,” he said. The woman was now sitting in a rather revealing position, showing off her long legs.
Dorcas snorted. “He can be with whomever he pleases as long as it’s far enough away from me.” She set her back to the bar and continued. “What else can you tell me about your employment. Any long-term customers that might ask after you if you disappear?”
Severus sipped his refilled drink. “What’s this about? Why all the questions about my job? You haven’t asked anything about what I know.”
“There are things that need to be taken care of before I run this through,” she said, exasperated. “Travel booklet, a new identity – all that takes planning and in order for you to disappear properly, we need to tie up all the loose ends so no one comes around asking questions later after you’re gone. It’s all important. Why are you making this difficult?”
He looked affronted. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“What do you mean… oh great.” She threw up her hands. “You can’t be serious. It’s New Year’s Eve, I’m in this place with him and… and you and now this?”
If he didn’t cooperate, she’d have to bring him in and she didn’t want to do that. “Why am I here? You shouldn’t have made contact if you weren’t serious. I’m sorry I’ve wasted my time with you.” She snapped her folio shut and started to get up.
His eyes narrowed, dark pupils blending in with everything else. “I’m very serious.”
She huffed, but sat back down. She needed to get out of here. “I can have the documents you need within a week. Do you need any protection between now and then?” She began her usual spiel.
“No. I can’t leave yet,” he interrupted. “I want… I want them to pay for what they did. For my family. He said you could help me do that.”
She looked at him intently. “Who are you talking about?”
“Them.” He leaned in and tugged at his shirtsleeve, barely revealing a faint swirl of ink at his wrist.
It was worse than she thought. He was one of them. She’d never had to help anyone already marked before.
“And I want to help,” he finished. He smoothed out his sleeve and addressed the forgotten drink on the table.
Dorcas saw the pained lines on his face – not fear – determination. She eased back into her seat and her pulse kicked up a notch. Finally. Someone was willing to fight back.
“Alright then.” She flicked her quill out and blotted it against the damp napkin under her mug. “Tell me what you know.”