Chapter 3 : Sweet and Sour
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“It can’t be true.”
“It is.” Genevieve Bell leaned over. “Oh, it is, alright. Whether you want to believe it or not.”
“I don’t want to.” Cho shook her head. “No, that’s just stupid. Interdepartmental transfers don’t just happen that abruptly, you know. There’s – there’s always a reason, and then there’s the paperwork, and that has to be done months in advance and even then – ”
A brown-haired man beside her nodded. “Well, I suppose that’s true.” He eyed Genevieve apprehensively. “It’s just a rumor. And these kinds of sources tend to be – er…disreputable.”
Beside Cho were the two other secretaries of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement: harried Tom Derwent and tempestuous Genevieve, both freshly laundered from Hogwarts and perpetually in disagreement as a part of some competition to annoy each other, much to Cho’s general embarrassment.
“Shut it, Tom. Don’t be such a tool,” snapped Genevieve. “I have my sources.”
“And who would that be, precisely?” snorted Tom. “Your mum doesn’t constitute as a source, so don’t start spreading around this kind of rubbish before someone important hears it – ”
“I overheard it from the Auror Department, you idiot. Happy now?”
“It can’t be,” croaked Cho again. “Oh, it can’t be. That would be just horrible.”
“Why, incidentally?” asked Tom curiously. “Anyone else would be excited.”
“If Hermione Granger is transferring to take over the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, things would be just – just – ”
“You don’t seem to like her very much.”
“ – well…yeah…” finished Cho lamely. “She doesn’t exactly like me either. So if she ends up overlooking this Department, things would be a nightmare.”
“It’s not much of a surprise if you think about it,” said Tom, shrugging, “I mean, Mrs. Burbage said she wanted to retire months ago. It was about time they’d add someone in this office. And she’s Hermione Granger, you know? She’s smart, she’s got connections. No reason for her not to do whatever she wants.”
Cho sighed. Genevieve stood over her desk and swatted Tom hard on the head.
“Ow! You ninny, what was that for?!”
“For being an insensitive idiot!” Gen gave him a glowering look before turning to Cho. “Look Cho, don’t be so paranoid. Whatever happened between you guys was years ago. I’m sure she’s moved on like you have. She’s not going to be after your blood or anything.”
“I hope so.”
“Everything’ll be fine,” said Tom, still rubbing his head and giving Gen a vindictive look, before presenting a very Tom-like solution for any problems: more work. “Here – there’s some work on tracking down some former Death Eaters. We’re trying to track down whether or not they’re deceased and it’s a pain in the arse, honestly – first, you’ve got to pick apart the family tree – here, let’s use the Urquharts here as an example – ”
In the back, Genevieve was rolling her eyes. She put her feet up, before reaching for the newest edition of Witch Weekly.
Things were difficult enough at the Department without know-it-all Granger bustling in and changing everything.
“Come on, you can do it.”
“No, I’m doing this all wrong! I’m going to spill it or break it or - or – ” Tears were springing to Hannah’s eyes.
Susan set down the dishcloth, rested her elbows on the counter and sighed. “Look dear, you’ve got to stop this.”
“I know, I know, I – I – I’m sorry – I’m so horrible at – ” Hannah desperately willed the tears in her eyes to spring backwards. Instead, they made a steady spill onto her cheeks. She stared at her shoes, her face burning.
“No, you’ve got to stop worrying so much. You’ve got absolutely no confidence, love. It’s no wonder you keep mixing everything up.”
“I can’t get a tray from one side of the room to the other. I can’t remember who ordered what. I keep making the wrong drinks for people and I’ve nearly poisoned three of them.” It came out sounding like a watery, pathetic laugh. “Look at me. I’m – I’m – I’m just a joke!”
“That’s not being fair, Hannah. You know you’ve been a mess since Neville and all that.”
“It’s not just that,” said Hannah, hiccupping. “I – I mean, he made it worse and all, but I’ve been horrid from the start. Uncle Tom’s just wasting his time on me.”
“He is not. He isn’t. Really, Hannah, stop it. Stop doubting yourself so much. Come on, try again.”
Hannah sank into a chair. “I’m sorry, Susan.”
Susan sighed once more, before walking around the counter. She gave the arid, dingy inside of the Leaky Cauldron an exasperated look. There was far too much old wood and cramped furniture in the small space to suit her tastes. “Neville isn’t worth all this agony. He really isn’t.”
“It isn’t just Neville…”
Everything was going wrong.
It had been nearly three years since her mum passed away and every day, the thoughts of a childhood long departed haunted her. Since graduation, since the war, everyone had risen up splendidly. Gone places far past and done great things. Yet here she was – still in the bottom of the Leaky Cauldron ranks, provided for only on the mercy of people who loved her. Still struggling to arrange glasses, still tripping, still crying.
Years had passed and life had moved on. Become something more than she could have ever expected it to be in the dismal days of her sixth year when everything ended.
Neville was supposed to be everything. In the end, that had come to nothing.
There was still tired, gray happiness. There was a flat and a room with light walls that embraced sunshine and had a view of trees and fields. There were still friends who drank too much Firewhiskey and tripped over themselves and yelled rubbish in their sleep. There was still Cho and Padma and Alicia.
At least she still had that.
She looked up.
Susan’s kind, familiar face was looking down at her. The girl who she had known for years, the girl who had once been her best friend, was smiling in concern. “Hannah?”
Hannah mopped her eyes before murmuring blearily, “I’m fine.”
“Let’s try this one more time,” said Susan gently. “But slower, alright? Come on, you’ll be fine.”
Hannah smiled feebly. A cloud blotted out a patch of sunlight in the distance as she watched.
“Alicia! Alicia Jane Spinnet!”
“Oh here she goes again,” muttered Alicia Spinnet.
A blackhaired girl beside her grinned appreciatively. “Can’t blame her, Cee. You’re horrible.”
“Shut up, Mandy. You were supposed to remind me about it.”
Mandy Brocklehurst fished a tube of bright pink lipstick from the side of her desk. Alicia smiled fondly at the gesture. Mandy was as close to a protégé as Alicia would ever admit herself to having; a more modest, more punctual and distinctly less fashionable protégé, but close enough nonetheless. “Don’t try pinning it on me, Cee. Nobody’ll believe it. Last week you tried telling her it was my fault that you didn’t get that rubbish on bridal robes done in time.”
“It was your fault.”
“I was in Romania, you ninny - ” began Mandy, before she was cut off by another rousing chorus of, “Alicia Spinnet!”
Alicia and Mandy winced in unison.
A brunette with a long face and rectangular glasses strode from one end of the cramped Witch Weekly office to the other. The stormy expression on her face elicited giggles from the other girls. The brunette navigated her way around the serpentine labyrinth of desks, mountains of parchment, rubbish bins, and the occasional typewriter expertly before arriving at the mess that was exclusively Alicia Spinnet’s.
“Hello Penny,” said Alicia lightly, regarding the irate face of Penelope Clearwater with mild amusement. “Not getting yourself worked up, are we? Remember what your Healer said about that.”
“Shut it,” snapped Penny. “I told you I wanted the article on housecleaning by this morning! Where is it?”
“Erm, about that – ”
“No excuses, Spinnet! I’ve given you a two week extension as it is!”
“Calling me ‘Spinnet’, see – now that hurts my feelings. Really, it does. I might cry. I might sob. I might even smudge my mascara.”
Penny sighed. “Alicia!”
“Alright, look, I’ve told you before, I really don’t want to keep writing on rubbish like housecleaning. Nobody cares about how to clean their kitchens, alright?”
“You being a pig does not justify lack of punctuality in your work,” snapped Penny in exasperation. She slid her glasses off her face before sinking into a seat between Alicia and Mandy’s desks.
Penny massaged her temples as Alicia and Mandy shared a look over her head. “God, I’m an awful editor. I shouldn’t’ve taken this job. I’m wretched.”
“Don’t judge yourself on Alicia’s stupidity, Penny,” said Mandy brightly. “Because she’d be like that with or without you. Nobody can change her.”
Alicia scowled. “I hate you, Mandy.”
“It isn’t just that.” Penny turned to Alicia, looking frazzled. Penny Clearwater, had, as it was well-known, been the Hermione Granger of her class. Achieved all sorts of incredible and amazing things that warranted the well-intentioned nods of approval of her parents: gotten a respectable boyfriend at an early age, got more NEWTs than probably healthy or possible, already bought a lovely flat, and risen to the position of editor in a matter of years. “Alicia’s right.”
Around them, the girls who had been typing away or chatting deliberately leaned slightly to the left to listen in. Alicia gave them an irritated, pointed glare.
“She is?” asked Mandy, her eyebrows disappearing into her air. “Why, what’s wrong?”
“Nobody wants to read this kind of stuff! Housecleaning – kitchens – I mean, really, this stuff’s for my mum!”
“Well, that’s part of our demographic, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but nobody our age wants to read this anymore! Everyone’d rather go for those new fashionable magazines. You know – the kind that show Quidditch players shirtless.”
Alicia kicked the third drawer of her desk firmly shut and coughed. “Oh – yes – well, I can see how that’d be a problem.”
“We’ve got to improve our readership. It’s just dismal. I’m doing a pathetic job.”
“You are not,” said Mandy, patting her hand. “Hold on, I’ll go get some water for you, Penny. You look awful. Just calm down for a bit.”
Penny swatted her down. “I want to do a renovation.” She turned around, not raising her voice, to address the walls casually. “Everyone heard what I said, right?”
There was much shifting of weight that occurred. Girls reddened, gave furtive looks away, denied eavesdropping and mumbled to each other.
“Oh come on,” said Mandy loudly. “All of us know you lot heard.”
There was silence.
And then general agreement.
“Good,” said Penny matter-of-factly. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, girls. Spinnet, go ahead and finally finish your article, please. Brocklehurst, I want you to cover the Quidditch matches of the last week. Spinnet, after you’re done, you’ll be helping her. Get some interviews if possible.”
“The Cannons, the Harpies, the Wasps…” said Mandy to nobody in particular, counting off on her fingers. “Alright, got it.”
Alicia groaned. “Not Quidditch matches again, Penny – ”
She was silenced by a quelling look from Penelope Clearwater, who promptly snatched a spare bit of parchment off of Mandy’s desk and began rattling off to the room at top speed as she scribbled.
“I want Charlotte Seward and Heather Fay on reporting the stuff that’s been happening at St. Mungo’s. Lavender Brown – you’ll be doing the same stuff as always. Robe lengths, fashion, talk to Madame Malkin if you can on sale trends. Desdemona, you’re still reporting on public trials, right? And I must have an article on the impending pregnancy of Fleur Delacour-Weasley. Vane, take care of it.” She looked up cautiously. “But I must insist on reminding you this time, Romilda, absolutely no trespassing will be tolerated, understand?”
The room of girls exchanged looks.
“Alright, come on! Let’s get at it!”
“Penny’s going to work herself to death,” said Mandy.
“You know what she needs?” said Alicia.
“A fit boyfriend. Shags tend to fix this kind of thing. And that old hat Percy Weasley doesn’t count.”
“Alicia! Do you have to be – do you have to be so vulgar all the time?”
“I’m very tasteful, I’ll have you know.” Alicia inspected a bright red, perfectly lacquered nail. “Percy Weasley is a ponce that would be more likely to choke himself snogging than any twit on the planet.”
“You’re not doing it right.”
“No, you’re not.”
There was much clearing of throat that occurred, before Theodore Nott cautiously said, “Yes, I am.”
There was a pause.
“Well, I don’t know, I’ve never done it quite like this.” Padma was peering at her feet, steadily reddening and counting down the moments until she could flee to her flat and openly rant to her friends on what had thus far been yet another agonizing day. “I always drop a line after I send the materials over, never before – ”
“It’s quite all right,” said Theodore generously. “I’ve found they’re tolerant of both ways.”
For one moment, he seemed as though he wanted to pat her hand, but steadied himself and instead gave the desk a tap.
From several feet away, Anthony Goldstein and Fanny Folwell split an amused look among themselves. They promptly descended into loud whispers and open pointing.
Padma reddened even more. Unsociable prats.
This was excruciating enough as it was.
Theodore hadn’t yet noticed she had lost herself in the distance. He was still addressing the letter stamped to South Africa, writing as patiently as he had since the beginning of the morning.
This was awkward.
So very, very awkward.
It was the kind of awkwardness that birthed stories people mocked decades. The kind of awkwardness that could be cut with a knife and served as dessert.
But, she supposed, working with a former enemy would be awkward. A former enemy that seemed to have grown out of his enmity as smoothly as she had, but the memories of sixth year and Potions lessons and several detentions and a rather lot of immature yelling were still in her mind.
“Shut your hideous face before I transfigure it, Nott.”
“Feel free to. Fortunately, I’ve found that you’ve already been transfigured since birth, Patil.”
Years had passed. She had left all of it behind. (Supposedly.)
This was Theodore Nott’s sixth week at the Department of International Affairs. He had yet to bring up the past or make any indication he had known her very well at Hogwarts. Their introduction had been polite. If he had been surprised to see her, he hadn’t let it show.
Perhaps he’d simply forgotten?
It was simply not possible to forget someone who had lobbed three frog’s hearts in your face and ended up earning detentions for the both of you cleaning bedpans in the Hospital Wing for a full week. People were simply not prone to forgetting that kind of thing.
“Uh…alright then,” said Padma uncomfortably, “well, I suppose you’re right. You can go ahead and mail this.”
“Didn’t mean to bother you with this,” said Theodore apologetically, “but Mrs. Marchbanks is rather insistent of having you look over anything before the Department officially mails it out.”
Padma muttered under her breath.
“It must be an honor,” mused Theodore. “She really trusts you.”
That old bat.
“I am her assistant,” said Padma with finality. “Okay Nott, you’re done here.”
He gave her a neat, even smile that left her feeling as awkward as before. “Thanks.”
Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see Anthony Goldstein positively collapse into laughter at the sight of her stiff posture.
At least it was time to go home.
The day was unraveling itself. Papers were ruffled inside, shelves were closed in a hurry. Throughout the Ministry, the echo of footsteps on marble was audible. Shouts of goodbyes rang through as doors slammed and windows shut. As Padma took an elevator upstairs, then exited into the cool air of the night, she saw dusk painted across the cityscape.
The sky was a calm pink smudge and the clouds were streaking across to build castles and palaces out of what had been nothingness for the coming stars.
Home was only an Apparition turn away.
Friends. Noise. Chatter. A warm shower and dinner.
The weekend was nearly here. It would be Cho’s birthday within a day and that promised all kinds of happy and sad revelations.
Work ended and life began.
Author's Note: And the rewrite has begun in full swing! Please let me know what you think of Padma, Cho, Alicia and Hannah so far and of the story in general. I'd love to get more responses for this story, even though it's not the typical popular story archetype.
Thank you so much for reading and please don't forget to review!
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