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The Middle Man by academica
Chapter 5 : five.
 
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After three months of being a chaperone, Albus finally had a morning to himself.

He sat alone in a sunlit café, tracing figures atop the wood grain in his table with idle fingers and staring through the window at the slow traffic inching along the street. Chewing on his lip, Albus glanced down at the two small bundles of parchment he’d brought with him. One, looking as pristine as the day it was purchased from Scribbulus, contained an entire inkwell’s worth of tightly packed script. This roll detailed the adventures of Rose Weasley, hair care experimenter extraordinaire. Its sister, which looked a bit more wrinkled, held only a few sparse notes reported in light, neat letters. Lily had been a bit more abstract in her judgment, it seemed.

Albus chuckled, sipping his Earl Grey as he studied the results he would later present to Darcy, as requested. Lily had enjoyed little success with McCormick’s line of hair tonics, finding that they all made her strands unusually dry and frizzy. Unsurprisingly, the same product had worked wonderfully for Rose. His cousin had even attached a photograph for proof, in which she posed like a veteran and used a Breeze Charm to blow her hair back dramatically. The luster was quite evident.

A few lines from the bottom of the last page, Rose had crossed out a scribbled phrase, then double-struck the word she had initially chosen to replace it. Albus squinted, trying to decipher the writing. He managed to make it out by rotating the page – color stripped – right before he managed something else: spilling his tea.

A curse escaped his lips – hopefully the cup was not secretly a living being that had been transfigured for a quick dishwashing-related fix – and he lifted the wet parchment, watching the drops fall hopelessly to the floor, as if they were privy to the notion that their brethren would be enough to soak the page. Rose’s perfect script became illegible in places, and some of Lily’s notes suffered the same blurry fate as the spill moved beyond Albus’s reach. Quickly, he accepted a napkin offered by a sympathetic waitress and began to mop at the parchment as best he could.

“So, let’s talk hair products.”

He glanced up, offering a guilty smile to Darcy, whose mouth had fallen slightly open. He hadn’t even noticed her enter the shop and come to a halt before him. Thankfully, this seemed to distract him from the pink rush beneath her skin.

“Sorry,” he murmured, continuing to blot fruitlessly at the ruined assignment. “I can tell you that McCormick’s hair potion line may or may not be en vogue this season.”

“Unfortunately, I’ll need a little more than that,” Darcy replied, letting the tip of her wand poke out from its hiding place within her sleeve. She reached forward, gently prying the parchment from his hands, and whispered a quick Drying Charm. A tiny dot of light emitted from her wand’s tip, and the girls’ reports were salvaged.

“There are Muggles here,” Albus said quietly, frowning.

“Don’t be so old-fashioned,” she said, tucking her wand away. “I was discreet. Besides, you’re sitting here holding rolls of parchment. It’s the twenty-first century.” It was Albus’s turn to blush, which caused Darcy to smile shyly. “So… the story.”

“Should I have picked a different place?” he cut in.

“What?”

“Have you been here before?”

“Of course. It’s three blocks from the office.”

“Really? It’s three blocks from the flat, too.”

Darcy smirked. “I’ve never seen you here.”

“Rose likes to take the tea and go. She’s never been one for sitting still.”

“I can see that,” Darcy replied, glancing at Rose’s glamorous photographs.

“You really don’t like her, do you?”

Darcy sighed, watching the miniature Rose dance about in the animated picture. “I was honestly trying not to be too obvious about it,” she finally said, glancing up at him.

Albus met her eyes, using the shredded napkin to wipe up the last bit of the tea, which had begun to stick itself to the table. “I’m not surprised. She has a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Her shenanigans have gotten me in trouble before.”

She forced a smile. “I’ve seen a lot of girls like her working at the magazine. They’re a Sickle a dozen, you know? Just once, I’d like to see a model really just be herself.”

“That must be why you get along better with my sister.”

“She seems much more modest,” Darcy admitted.

“They’re quite a pair. Would it be surprising to know that this was Lily’s idea?”

“Modeling, you mean?” Darcy asked. “That’ll be something for the story.”

“Yeah. Lily…” Albus trailed off, contorting his face slightly as he tried to figure out how to put what he wanted to say delicately. “I mean, she wasn’t a bad student, not at all, but she never really found where she could shine. She was a hatstall, too.”

Darcy jotted down a note. Writing the article might not be so tough, after all.

“Anyway,” he continued. “Her exams didn’t leave her with a lot of clear direction as to what to pursue for a career after graduation. Lily’s always been pretty, of course, so Rose suggested that she try modeling. It would be quick and easy money, and she could travel. Lily was too scared to do it alone, though.”

“So how did Rose get involved? Were her exams fairly useless, too?”

“She’s actually really smart,” Albus countered. “She kind of had the opposite problem. She took a bunch of classes for fun, and even though she didn’t go to them half the time because she was too busy watching Scorpius Malfoy practice Quidditch, she still managed decent scores on her exams. She had a few too many options.”

“Clearly her looks weren’t a problem.”

“No. She’s not as naturally pretty as Lily, but she knows her way around a makeup kit. This hair potion trial thing you had them do – it’s all quite familiar to my cousin.”

Darcy smiled despite herself. “I see.”

“I get that you don’t really like her, but she got into this to help Lily. Some of it was probably selfish, you know, her drive for curiosity, but… please be nice to her.”

“I won’t talk to her more than I have to. How’s that?”

“I mean in the story,” Albus replied, frowning.

“Oh,” Darcy said. “I—yeah. Of course I will. I’ll be professional, it’s just personally…”

“Right,” he said. “Thanks.”

Darcy sighed. She was actually thankful when the kind waitress interrupted them a moment later, asking if she would like a cup of tea as well. She ordered breakfast tea, staring uncomfortably down at her notes and waiting as Albus tore his judgmental green eyes away from her and calmly requested a refill for himself.

“So, what all is the story about?”

She cleared her throat. “I’d like to get some information about what sort of projects the girls have done previously, and where they’re planning to go next for the fall. Any little quirks, like the things you’ve told me, will just be used to add flavor.”

“That sounds good,” he said, trying to smile to show her that he wasn’t upset.

“Let’s start by talking about their most recent event.”

“Okay,” Albus responded. “They did a show in Edinburgh last week for charity.”

“Which one?”

“The one in Scotland.”

Darcy pursed her lips. “Come on, I haven’t got all day.”

Albus chuckled. “The Rubeus Hagrid Foundation for Magical Creature Progress.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, really. Hagrid is a good friend of our family.”

“What does this charity do?”

“Well, ostensibly, it’s supposed to promote the idea of making Care of Magical Creatures mandatory up through seventh year at Hogwarts, and to provide magical creatures with jury trials just like the ones wizards and witches get at the Ministry.”

“Interesting.”

“Secretly it’s a front for getting them wands and Hogwarts admission.”

Darcy’s mouth fell open again.

“Don’t write that.”

She smirked. “Let’s just say they modeled to help the less fortunate.”

“Good,” Albus replied, looking out the window again. A car beeped loudly at a passing pedestrian, and a dog dragged its owner along as it chased a squirrel.

“Was the show a success?”

“Sure. The purebloods all showed up trying to make further amends after the war. It was a bit funny to watch Astoria Malfoy try to keep a straight face the whole night.” Albus paused, accepting his tea from the waitress, who also handed a cup to Darcy. “Well… it went fine for the most part, anyway. There are always little hitches.”

“Like what?” Darcy asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“They jumped into this historic fountain and ruined some expensive formal wear.”

“What?” she asked, surprised at his flat admission.

“Maybe we shouldn’t put that in there, either.”

She shook her head, crossing out where she had started to write fountain. “What other offers have they recently received – besides ours, I mean?”

“They get invited to Beauxbatons a lot,” Albus said. “They love Lily and Rose there.”

“They were graduates of Hogwarts, you said.”

“I know. I guess when Dominique’s mother got her first wrinkles, well…”

“You’re a bit catty,” Darcy observed. “I think you’ve been in the business too long.”

“Don’t I know it,” he said with a sigh.

“So what does Beauxbatons want with a couple of Hogwarts alums?”

“They’re pretty girls. As I understand it, before I came into the picture, Madame Maxime would regularly write asking them to give tours and attend dinners. I think she’s hoping that Rose and Lily will give the school some money when they make it.”

“She stopped when you came in to defend them, though, right?”

“She slowed down. Fleur still drops hints every now and then at Sunday brunch.”

“What does the rest of the family think of Lily and Rose’s success?”

“Mum’s all right with it, but I think she wishes Lily had pursued something as a backup, just in case things don’t work out,” he mused. “Aunt Hermione doesn’t let on about it, but she keeps clippings from every single event Rose attends. I think Dad and Uncle Ron will pick up this issue of Witch Weekly when it comes out.”

“That’s nice,” Darcy observed. “That’s the kind of stuff I want to flavor the article.”

“Yeah,” Albus agreed, meeting her eyes. “It’s nice of you to make that the focus.”

“I’m sure they’re both nice girls,” she replied. “They definitely have promise.”

“Thanks,” Albus said. “I hope people still think that after the fountain incident.”

“Well, maybe if you’d stop bringing it up…” Darcy smiled shyly.

He chuckled. “Right, point taken. I’m still sort of new at this whole thing.”

“I know,” Darcy said. “You’re not bad. I’ve got some good information here.”

“What else is going to go in there?”

Darcy smirked. It was kind of cute, how concerned he was about the girls’ reputation. “I’ll add in a few of the things I picked up from the tester session the other day, as well as what I can still read from these hair trial notes. Little details and product plugs like that can add a nice practical touch to the cover story.”

“Okay. What else do you need from me?”

“Nothing right now.” Darcy stood up, tucking the parchment rolls into her bag along with her notebook and quill. “I’ll let you know if I find any holes, though.”

“Well, why don’t we set something up just in case?” Albus suggested, standing and finishing the remainder of his tea in a too-large gulp. He quickly wiped at his lips with a fresh napkin. “Are you free for dinner anytime soon?”

I’m always free for dinner, Darcy thought, but she erred on the side of caution regarding her level of honesty. “Sure.” I just told you that I have all that I need.

“Great,” he replied. “How about you pick the place this time?”

“Okay,” she said, smiling. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the waitress leaning idly on the counter, pretending to wipe it down as she watched them. The girl’s eyes darted from Albus to Darcy and back again, a soft smile upon her lips.

“Right,” Albus interrupted awkwardly. “Do you have my address, for the owl?”

“Of course I do.”

“Right,” he repeated in a mutter.

“Well, we’ll worry about details later,” she said, slinging her bag to the other shoulder just to create some noise. “It was nice seeing you again, Albus.”

“You too, Darcy. Let me know if you need help with the article.”

“Thank you,” she said, and then she turned quickly and stepped out into the street.

As she neared the Floo point that would take her back to the comforting solitude of her flat, Darcy mentally scanned the hundred other ways the conversation could have gone. She had always known she was terrible at flirting, but this was horrific. He’s never going to owl you back, she thought bitterly. He’ll want to forget you exist.

Little did she know that Albus was thinking something very similar.


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