Chapter 2 : B is for Babies, Blasphemy and a (Nervous) Breakdown
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(since it’s a fact that breaking the law is a synonym of “inadvisable”)
“Good morning, Alicia,” Thierry says from behind his newspaper the moment I step out of my bathroom.
Unfortunately, the only thing concealing my nakedness is a rather thin towel wrapped around me, which is the reason I let out a loud yelp, enter my bedroom in record speed and slam my door behind me. I'm standing with my back against it, panting at the unexpected shock of my ex-boyfriend sitting in my lounge, when I hear Thierry's distinctive drawl permeate through the door.
“I don't know why you're bothering. It's not like I haven't seen you naked before.”
I frown. “It's the principle, Thierry.”
While I speak, I step forward and rifle through my underwear drawer before grabbing a dress out of the wardrobe. I'm in the middle of getting dressed when I hear the front door open, and my sister's familiar footsteps entering our flat.
“Oh hey,” she says. “Hasn't Alicia come out of the shower yet?”
Even though the door is closed and there's a four-inch wall of concrete in between us, I can't help glaring at Leanne. So it was her who let Thierry in before eight o'clock in the morning while I was in the shower, and then swanned off without giving me warning. Which is also the only explanation that makes sense, considering that Leanne and I are the only people living in our apartment and Thierry's much too posh to be a burglar.
“I already came out of the shower, Leanne,” I call out, before proceeding to explain what just happened. Although I can't see my sister, I know her well enough to be fairly sure that she's grimacing right now, and when I open the door – this time, wearing a red and white polka-dot dress, a blazer and heels – I'm proved right. “Where did you go anyway? It's nowhere near opening time.”
Leanne holds up a paper bag with the Starbucks logo emblazoned upon it and points at a cardboard drinks holder with four foam cups nestled inside. “I got coffee and muffins.”
“Breakfast,” Thierry clarifies. “Although I do hope at least one of those muffins are low-fat. My coach is of the opinion that I need to be on a better diet.”
“What your coach doesn't know won't hurt you,” my sister shrugs. “I'm going to leave you guys to talk business now; I'll see you at work.”
She leaves two of the coffee cups and the bag of muffins on the table, taking the remaining two with her on her way out. Thierry and I both bid our goodbyes, and after the door shuts behind Leanne, he puts his newspaper down abruptly. I sit down on the sofa opposite him, trying to understand what's happened. I've never seen Thierry act like this before; he's always been so careful about upholding the Mercier family name. They're not too well-known over here, but they're famous in France, and he's always been careful not to jeopardize their reputation.
“I need your help, Alicia,” he says, running his fingers through his hair. I say nothing, waiting for him to continue. If I speak now, I run the risk of making him clam up. After a long pause, Thierry continues talking. “I'm completely, utterly screwed. Piper Swift is pregnant.”
This fact is surprising for two reasons: Piper Swift has been single for the past six months, yet shows no sign of a baby bump courtesy of her ex-husband, nor has she made an official announcement. I know she's no longer a professional Quidditch player - her injuries in the last Australia versus England match ended her career - but she's a coach for the Falmouth Falcons now and I'm sure there's some kind of regulation that says female coaches have to declare pregnancies to the Department of Magical Games and Sport in the interests of safety, just like players.
“I've got a source in the DMGS, and he's never mentioned it,” I admit. “How do you know?” It’s a valid question, given that if the Department of Magical Games and Sports has no idea, it’s unlikely the general public will too.
Thierry sighs. “She told me – nobody else knows, because according to her, I'm the father.”
I close my eyes, hoping that I've just grossly misheard. The likelihood of Thierry Mercier embracing parenthood is about as probable as me waking up tomorrow to be four again.
“So what do you need the agency for?” I ask.
“I only slept with her once,” Thierry answers. “It was just before I started dating Sophie, and I used protection. It was the good quality stuff, you know, so I can't understand how she's pregnant. I know that it's not foolproof, but Swift's has a bit of a reputation since her divorce and I'm worried that she's pretending the baby's mine because of my career and my family money – in those terms, I'd fit the mould of ideal dad as opposed to some deadbeat.”
“Let me get this straight,” I tell him, standing up and walking over to the breakfast bar where some spare parchment and ink are. “You want us to investigate Piper Swift, golden girl of the English Quidditch team, and find out if there are other potential fathers, because you're scared that if you voice your fears and the baby turns out to be yours, she'll never stop reminding you of how you suspected her of lying.”
“Sort of. There's a new potion that's been developed in France, which isn't available in England yet. It's basically a paternity test while the baby's still in the womb,” he explains. “She's said that she's visiting a medi-witch tomorrow to have her bloods taken to check the baby's health, so I can bribe the medi-witch for an extra vial. I just need to get a sample of her blood pre-pregnancy, so that the potioneers know what her DNA is – apparently, the potion is so specific, it'll pick up the child's DNA in the mother's system as well as her own, so they need a sample of the mother's blood to use as a comparison sample."
“Where do you expect me to get Piper's blood from?” I ask, sitting down again. “Thierry, why don't you just talk to her? Voice your concerns?”
“I can't, Alicia,” he protests. “If I piss her off, there's every possibility that she'll go to the papers or worse, tell Sophie. I never cheated on Soph, don't get me wrong, but that doesn't matter – a situation like this is going to really rock the boat. I care about Sophie; I don't want to hurt her.”
Thierry looks more upset than I've ever seen him, and it's worrying. The cool, unruffled manner he had when he arrived is gone; now he just looks like death warmed up. I want to help him, but I don't know how, considering that the likelihood of getting a sample of Piper's blood is next to nil, never mind a sample taken before she got pregnant – which is nearly three months ago at the latest.
“Alicia,” he says, and I look up at him again. “Don't all Quidditch players have to provide samples of their blood in case they sustain injuries that disfigure them, so that their identities can be verified?"
I nod. “And Piper's a coach, so her blood's on file too. But Thierry, those records are kept deep in the Ministry archives; the only way to access them is to break in.”
He stands up and begins to pace the room. “Jordan and Parsons have done illegal activities before; you can do it again.”
“Thierry, this is in a whole new league. This is breaking into the Ministry,” I protest. "The extent of our law-breaking amounts to falsifying documents, cleaning up crime scenes, providing fake abilis - things like that. Nothing that'll land us with sentences in Azkaban."
“How much do you want the agency?” Thierry blurts out, and I pause.
“Alicia, your parents are selling half the agency -”
Before he can finish his sentence, I interrupt him. “They already have. To Albus.”
Thierry pauses, staring at me with an unusual expression on his face. He's just as surprised as I was, but right now, his panicking is overwhelming his shock.
“Fine,” he sighs. “If you choose to pull this off, then I will buy Albus' share of the agency for you. I don't care how much it costs; my family have enough money in the bank that they never spend anyway. I just need to be sure. If I really am the father to Piper's baby, then I will endeavour to be the best father in France. But I must know.”
For a moment there is silence as I stay silent and Thierry stops speaking, before he suddenly stands up and brushes past me to pick up the quill and parchment on the breakfast bar and begins scribbling something. I watch his hand skim the parchment, leaving a trail of black ink before he puts down the quill, picks up the parchment and begins to shake it in the air vigorously in an attempt to dry the ink quickly before he places it in my hands.
I stare at his handwriting, not sure if I’m dreaming. “Is this…?”
The wording in Thierry’s letter is familiar, because they’re words I’ve written myself on numerous occasions. This is a statement of consent - similar to a Muggle cheque, though those went out of fashion years ago, apparently - that’s written by the holder of an account at Gringotts. It details Thierry’s name and account number and my name, with a space for my account number above a request to transfer funds from his account to mine. I know that if I hand this piece of parchment in to the Gringotts goblins, they’ll compare it to a sample of Thierry’s handwriting that they’ll have on hand and when it matches, they’ll transfer the funds to my vault. My gaze skims the page, searching for the amount of money he’s stated I can have, but instead there’s just one word where the numbers should be.
“This is crazy,” I protest. “This situation is so simple, and you’re blowing it completely out of proportion! There’s no actual need to break the law and risk everything when you could simply swallow your pride instead of coming up with some convoluted plot and trying to drag me and my team into it, is there?”
In response, Thierry lifts the parchment from my hand so that his handwriting is directly in my line of sight.
“Unlimited, Alicia,” he repeats. “However much it’ll take to get Albus to sell you his half of the agency, you can have. Don’t you want the agency? Don’t you want this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?”
“I do, but -”
“- but nothing. It’s Jordan and Parsons, not Jordan and Potter and if you really think Albus is just going to put all his faith in you, you’re mistaken. He might think he can handle believing in you, Alicia, but you and I both know what you did. Sooner or later, he’s going to crack from the stress of trusting you and hoping that you won’t betray him like you did before, and when that happens, you’ll lose forty-nine per cent of the agency. Are you willing to risk that?”
I shake my head, and Thierry pushes the parchment into my palm, and I close my hand around it.
“I must be crazy,” I mutter.
In response, he smiles. “Thank you, Alicia.”
I can’t believe I’m doing this. For all I know, I could be making the biggest mistake of my life. Then again, my parents brought me up to help out my friends, and in a way, isn’t that what I’m doing?
“I need to go to work,” I say as I take a step backwards from Thierry, pick up my handbag and get ready to leave, my breakfast abandoned. “We’re going to need to start planning. When do you need the blood by?”
Thierry sighs. “I need to send off both samples of blood together, and calculating the time it’ll take for an owl to fly from here to France with the time limit we have before the bloods become non-viable…”
“Just say it!” I groan, standing in the front doorway ready to leave. Because Diagon Alley rents cost a fortune, Leanne and I live in a Muggle apartment which doesn’t have a fireplace, so I have to get to work on the Underground and if I don’t go now, I’ll be late.
“Tomorrow afternoon, three o’clock at the latest,” Thierry admits.
I have less than thirty-seven hours to break into the Ministry of Magic, steal the blood of a famous Quidditch player-turned-coach, and find a way to eradicate all evidence pointing towards the agency.
What have I let myself in for?
It is clear from my attire that I did not intend to visit Knockturn Alley, and despite attempting to cover up as much of myself as possible with my coat, I cannot stop that fact from being broadcast to all those I pass. While my clothes would not appear to be suggestively revealing anywhere else, this place, filled with men whose only experience of women are ugly spinsters or trumped-up tarts, is an exception. In hindsight, I should probably have stopped to change before I left my flat, but my thoughts had been too filled with Thierry's impending deadline to consider that a well-dressed rich girl would look out of place in the roughest part of wizarding London. A man covered in suspicious boils eyes me with an expression that I'm not entirely comfortable with, and I press against the filthy wall of the hallway to keep the distance between us as great as possible. Suddenly, I feel something that isn't the wall pressing against my hip, and I look down to see that it's a door handle. A quick check of the flat number informs me that this is Nick's flat, and so I knock tentatively against the wood. For several long moments there's silence, and I'm beginning to wish that I'd gone to the agency and Flooed to his flat instead because he doesn't appear to be home, and if he's spent the night at Molly's then I'll have to walk back out through Knockturn Alley.
To my relief, Nick finally opens the door, although he looks surprised to see me here and I don't blame him. Instantly, he stands aside to let me in, and I step over the threshold quickly - I don't want to stay a second longer in this filthy place than I need to, despite the fact his apartment is sparkling clean unlike the rest of the building. I know that the only reason he lives here is because of his criminal record - during the aftermath of the Second Wizarding War, the majority of landlords started checking their tenants' criminal records to avoid letting their properties to ex-Death Eaters or Voldemort's supporters and many of them continue to do so. For a moment, it hits me that if things had gone differently, I might be forced to live in one of those filthy apartments too or have to live with my parents, but before I can dwell on the past Nick begins speaking.
"What are you doing here, Alicia? Has something gone wrong with the agency?"
"No," I answer, shaking my head. "The agency's fine - but I do need your help."
"What is it?" he asks.
I sigh, taking a step closer to him and putting my hands on his shoulders. "Nick, I don't think I've ever needed your help more than I do now. I know this is difficult for you, because you promised Molly you'd keep out of jail and I understand that. I promise that if you say no, it won't affect your job at the agency - I'll tell the others that too, but you're the most important person because without you, I won't be able to pull this off."
"Pull what off?" Nick asks, clearly confused. "Alicia, what's going on?"
"We've got a new case - I've got a new case, and it requires us breaking into level three, possibly level four of the Ministry archives," I explain.
"Alicia," Nick says, every syllable he utters slow and clear. "Have you gone crazy?"
I shake my head. "Please, Nick. We're going to need a plan, and your expertise - none of us have any idea what kind of protective charms there are, but you'll be able to take a guess, and you've had practice countering them too."
"When?" he sighs.
"Tonight," I answer. "Our deadline's tomorrow afternoon, and unless you want to break into the Ministry in broad daylight -"
"- Yes," Nick says, interrupting me and I smile, thinking he's agreeing to help me but he continues quickly. "I've been in the archives before; they're underground and they echo like a bitch, so every little sound we make will alert the guards or any employees working late. We'll break in during the morning rush - it'll be jam-packed with people rushing to get to their offices in time... Oh no," he groans, shaking his head, and I'm instantly concerned.
"Nick?" I query, taking a step back so that I can look him in the eye.
"It's Molly's and my anniversary tomorrow," he explains. "I'm taking her out for the day."
"This is major, Nick - can't you cancel? I swear, I wouldn't ask if it was important!"
Nick shakes his head. "No. I'm not cancelling."
"But -" I begin.
"No buts, Alicia! This is important to me! I love Molly, and I don't want to let her down, especially not on such an important day in our relationship. You know, this place might be a hellhole, but it does have one thing going for it and that's the dirt cheap rent. I've been saving up, I've got enough now to buy a small house somewhere for me and Molly. In fact, I'm going to propose to her tomorrow - that's why I can't cancel. I want it to be special, on our anniversary. Another date wouldn't be the same."
I nod in acceptance, but my disappointment is apparently clear to see because Nick grabs my hands and holds them tightly.
"Alicia, I will do everything possible to help you. I'll work out a plan A for you - and a plan B, a plan C - hell, I'll go through the entire alphabet and work out a plan Z for you if you want. And if you ask, if you say the words out loud, I will come with you because we've been friends since we were babies - but please, I'm begging you not to ask that of me. Remember when I took the fall for you nine years ago? You've been trying to repay that debt, haven't you, by giving me the job at the agency? But we both know that a job's not enough to make up for the way people look at me, the things the think about me, the damage that's been done to the Creevey name - but I promise you, Alicia, if you let me have tomorrow with Molly, then we're quits. We won't owe each other anything. Yeah?"
"The problem is that we need someone to guide us around the Ministry - I don't know how to recognize protective charms, and I'd bet fifty Galleons the others won't. If you won't be with us tomorrow, who's going to counter the charms without alerting the security guards?" I ask, shaking my hands free from his grip and running my fingers through my hair.
"There is one person you can ask," Nick answers. "Roxanne Weasley."
"She won't help us! She hates me, remember?" I exclaim.
"Remember your motto, Alicia," he says. "Remember what you taught me: everyone has a price, you just have to work out what it is. I know Roxanne doesn't like you, but even she has a price - you just need to figure out what it is."
I don't say anything in response, simply mulling over Nick's words as I walk over to the fireplace. In other circumstances, I'd try to see if Roxanne would help, but this is serious business. If I fail this assignment, I don't just risk the agency's perfect case record - I'll be risking the team being arrested and Jordan and Parsons itself, because if I end up in jail then Albus will have the right to run the place into the ground as co-owner. This has big consequences if we get caught, and I don't know if I can put my faith into Roxanne not to double-cross me after what's happened in the past. Then again, Nick has been a more than wonderful friend to me, and he's right - I do owe him big time. Silently, I take some Floo powder from the tin on the mantelpiece and throw it into the fire before stepping into the green flames and turning to face him.
"I hope she says yes; that tomorrow's worth it," I say, and I know I've made the right decision at the sight of Nick's face lighting up in glee. "I'll see you at work - tell everyone I'm going to be late, won't you?"
He nods, and then I take a deep breath. I'm not looking forward to this. In a few seconds, I'm going to name the Leaky Cauldron and Floo there, then I'll walk to Diagon Alley and to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes to track down Roxanne, even though I don't really want to. Then again, I don't have much of a choice - I just hope she doesn't curse me on sight.
"The Leaky Cauldron!" I shout.
And as I begin spinning into the flames and up the chimney, there's only one thought running through my mind.
It's time to eat some humble pie.
Author's Note: I have a confession. When I started this chapter, I had a vague plan but nothing really fixed. The events here have now contributed to this chapter's existence, chapter three being 2/3rds written with the remainder and chapter four completely planned at the time of putting this into the queue ^.^
I hope you like this chapter! What did you think of Thierry and his convoluted plans? Alicia and Nick? Did I give enough background information without going overboard? I'd love to hear all your thoughts - even one line would really make my day! ♥
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