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Like Catching Smoke by dominique_fox
Chapter 4 : Four: The Real World
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3


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“All right,” says Ragnar, when we reassemble in the incident room on Monday. He prowls around the room, looking more impressive and leonine than ever. “Let’s get to work.”

“Had a great weekend, thanks for asking,” mutters Darren under his breath.

Our team has officially taken over Incident Room C for the duration of the case, and made it our own: pictures of the crime scene and victims are stuck all over one wall, and pictures of the victims’ friends and family members are stuck to the adjacent one.

“We keep coming up empty-handed from our house calls,” says Ragnar. “So it’s time to take a different approach. Any ideas?”


“I’ve got one,” says Ada immediately. (“Typical,” mutters Charlie venemously.) She looks fresh-faced and competent as ever, wearing another set of immaculately tailored robes. “If the friends and family don’t want to tell us anything, maybe we should start talking to people who didn’t like the victims so much.”

“Like who, exactly?” says Darren.

“Well, Harris and his mates were all Gryffindors,” says Ada. “We could start with the Slytherins who were in their year. Even if they just want to gossip, we might be able to extract something useful, or something that leads to something useful.”

“You’re just assuming that the Slytherins from their year are going to want to gossip about them?” says Charlie. I wonder vaguely what House he was in, in his Hogwarts days. “Seems pretty presumptuous.”

“Have you got any better ideas?” snaps Ada. Charlie rolls his eyes.

“Not a bad thought,” says Ragnar, nodding. “Get started on on that, and take Smith with you. Holcombe, Grimm, the two of you are on research.”

What?” groans Darren.

“As far as we can tell, somebody put a curse on the four victims,” continues Ragnar, as if he hadn’t heard Darren. “If they broke through the defensive enchantments on the flat, the disturbance would have showed up in our tests. So they did it remotely. See if you can find out something about a remote Imperius Curse. We’ll meet back here tomorrow morning.”

With that, Ragnar turns and prowls out of the room.

“What’s he going to do,” sneers Charlie, “get his hair done?”

“Ragnar’s in charge of three other cases at the moment,” snaps Ada. “Sorry if he doesn’t have time to chat with you about your feelings. Come on, Fiona.”

I start toward the door with Ada.

“Don’t you think we should mix things up a bit,” says Darren hopefully, “and have Fiona come with us to do research? She ought to get to know the whole team.”

“Get to your damn work, Grimm,” says Ada, already out the door.



It doesn’t take long for Ada and me to pop over to Hogwarts, have a look at their student records, and obtain a list of the students who were in Slytherin House in Ken Harris and his friends’ year.

“Why don’t we split up?” says Ada when we’ve returned to the Ministry. “You interview the girls, I’ll interview the boys. We’ll get it done quicker that way, and people’ll probably be more willing to open up if they’re just talking to one person.”


“Yeah,” I say eagerly, feeling relieved that Ada trusts me enough to let me do house-calls on my own after the events of last Monday. We stalk down through the Auror Office side-by-side, and I for the first time, I feel like we’re really co-workers, partners in crime. Well, partners in fighting crime. “Do you have any pointers?”

“Yeah,” says Ada. We reach her cubicle and she turns to look at me, leaning back against her desk. “You know when someone says something really stupid, and you process how stupid it was, and then that judgment kind of registers on your face, but you assume the person’s too stupid to notice?”

“Er…” I look around, wondering if she’s having a go at me.

“Even stupid people are smarter than you think,” says Ada firmly. “You’ve got to keep your face impassive. Stone cold. People read microexpressions faster than you can blink, and even if they don’t process them consciously -- even if you can’t tell that they’ve noticed -- that’ll influence the way that they think about you. Make sense?”

I squint at her.

“Think about it this way,” she says, waving her hand at me. “Sometimes the little inferences, or judgments, or whatever that you make about people show on your face, without you even realizing that they’re showing. But if you want to be good at interviews you’ve got to make all that subconscious stuff conscious. The more control you have over the way you project yourself to them, the less you give away. So put on a mask. That way you can lead people places without them knowing where you’re taking them. See?”

“Yeah,” I say, still a little unsure. “I think so.”

Ada smiles. “Don’t worry. You’ll be great.”

“Thanks,” I turn to to -- and then turn back, edging a little closer to Ada. “Er, can I ask you something?”

Ada raises her eyebrows at me.

“Darren and Charlie,” I say, unsure of how to phrase my question. “They’re such… you know…”

“Jackasses?” says Ada.

“Yeah,” I nod. “Yeah, that. And they’re always muttering dumb stuff in our meetings, right under Ragnar’s nose, and it’s really unprofessional, but nobody ever says anything to them. I mean, not in a serious way.”

“I see what you’re getting at,” says Ada. She sighs, sweeping her hair back behind her ears. “Okay. So the thing is, Charlie Holcombe’s mum is a witch named Orianna Holcombe. And she’s the Editor-in-Chief of Witch Weekly.”

I shrug. “So what?”

“You can’t underestimate the power of Witch Weekly, Fiona,” says Ada, shaking her head grimly. “People don’t take it very seriously, not compared to the Prophet, anyway, but it gets delivered to most magical households once a week. People read it. People believe it. Orianna Holcombe’s got a lot of power in her hands.”

“But what does that have to do with Darren and Charlie being gits?”


“You are a dewey-eyed, sparkling baby bird and your naiveté is honestly very touching,” Ada tells me. “But you’re going to have to get a grip on the way the real world works if you want to survive in the Ministry. Everyone’s scared to death of the Holcombe family. Charlie and Darren can say whatever the hell they want, and as much as it may make the rest of us want to rip our brains straight out of our skulls, no one’s ever going to take a firm hand with them -- because they’re too afraid of what Orianna Holcombe might do.”

“Did you call me a baby bird just then?” I say, still taken-aback. Ada purses her lips at me, and I nod quickly. “Okay, yeah, I s’pose that makes sense.”

As I return to my cubicle to prepare myself for my day of interviews, I pass by Darren and Charlie’s desks. They both look up at me -- Charlie winks, and Darren blows me a kiss. I look away from them and pick up my pace, but I can hear both of them sniggering in my wake.

My hands curl into fists.

I don’t particularly care how powerful their connections are -- the two gits are part of my workplace, and they have just as much of a responsibility to be professional as anyone else. I reach my desk and sit down, resolving internally to bring up the issue with Ragnar next time I’m alone with him.

But no. The idea of having a heart-to-heart with Ragnar about my social concerns is far too unnerving. I think of his stern, icy demeanor -- of the disinterested way he greeted me on my first day with the team. I can’t imagine him taking much of an interest in my woes. If anything, he’d probably take the fact that I’m upset about Charlie and Darren’s attitudes as evidence that I’m too sensitive to be a proper Auror.

I scrunch, floundering between my dislike of Charlie and Darren, and my paralyzing fear of Ragnar. Fear wins out in the end, and I return to my work with a defeated sigh.



“I’m a bit confused as to why you’re questioning me, of all people,” says Valerie Nott, settling herself into one of the gigantic, leather armchairs that loom like monoliths in her sitting room. Her birdlike form contrasts noticeably against the chair; its boulderlike gigantism makes her look even more delicate than she did when she greeted me in her doorway. “Make yourself at home.”

“Thanks,” I say. I perch warily on the seat of an armchair, half afraid it’s going to swallow me up into its leathery immensity. “Well, this isn’t meant to be a formal interview -- nothing you say will be used as evidence. We’re just trying to build a fuller picture of the victims’ lives.”

Valerie nods. “Oh,” she says suddenly, as if just remembering something. She leans elegantly over the arm of her chair, picks up a small, silver bell that’s sitting on a stand, and rings it. “Will you have some tea?” she asks.

“Thank you,” I nod, wondering how exactly this tea is going to be served. My question is answered a fraction of a second later, when a tiny House-Elf appears in the middle of the sitting room, bearing a large tray laden with teatime paraphernalia.
I try not to let my surprise register on my face. Sometimes, when we were wandering romantically around the corridors of Hogwarts castle and the mood struck, James would take me to the Hogwarts kitchens for a chat with the House-Elves who lived there. Thing was, those House-Elves were properly compensated and treated like individuals. Before now, I’ve never seen an old-world House-Elf, the kind that works for no pay and wears old rags in the place of clothes.

“Thank you, Ruthie,” says Valerie dismissively, leaning forward to serve herself tea from the gigantic tray. The House-Elf beams pathetically, her knees quavering under the immense weight of the tray. “Help yourself, please, er… was it Felicia?”

“Fiona,” I correct Valerie. “Thanks very much.”

I quickly serve myself a cup of tea, trying not to look at the House-Elf too much for fear my head will actually explode with rage. It’s still technically legal to keep House-Elves as slaves in domestic households, but it’s practically unheard of among educated people. For a mad half-second, I’m possessed by a mental image of myself stripping all my clothes off and throwing them at Ruthie’s feet, liberating her.

“That’s all we’ll be needing, Ruthie,” says Valerie, and the House-Elf disappears again.

I take a polite sip of my tea. “Okay, so I’m really just wondering what you might remember about Mr. Harris and his friends from their school days -- or afterward. Did you know them at all?”

“Oh, not really,” says Valerie in a slightly superior tone. “They weren’t really my kind of people, you know.”

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as determinedly and assertively unpleasant in my life.

“What was your impression of them?” I ask, trying to project neutrality in everything from my facial expression to the way I grasp my teacup, as per Ada’s advice.

“Well, they were fairly inseparable, those four,” says Valerie. She takes a tiny sip from her teacup, and sets it neatly back on its saucer. “They were Gryffindors, but they were sort of bookworms, always holed up in the library. And I think they were all in the Gobstones club together.” She rolls her eyes, smiling meaningfully at me, as if there’s some very funny joke about the Gobstones club that we’re both in on. “So, obviously, they weren’t very popular with the girls in our year.”

“Did Mr. and Mrs. Harris get together at Hogwarts?” I ask.

“They started going out in seventh year,” Valerie tells me. Her eyes light up at some memory, and she leans toward me conspiratorially. “Actually, that was about the most interesting thing I ever heard about their circle. See, it wasn’t Ken Harris that Rachel was involved with, not at first. It was one of the other three -- Toby whatever-his-name-was. And then a couple months later, she switched to Ken.”

“Was there some kind of a fight?” I ask, making a small note on my scroll of parchment.

“That was the really odd thing,” says Valerie, frowning. “Even though Rachel had just tossed Toby aside for Ken, they were all just the same as ever. You’d think Toby would’ve been pissed, but it was like nothing had happened, as far as they were concerned.”

“Interesting,” I say, scribbling this information down. “Do you have any idea of what Rachel and Ken’s relationship was like after Hogwarts?”

Valerie frowns, apparently casting her mind around for some pertinent information. “They got married in a heartbeat after Hogwarts. No, I didn’t hear much about them afterwards. But I did see Rachel, a couple times, hanging out in bars with Toby. I think Rachel was good friends with all four of them, but it still made me wonder, seeing them like that, whether there was something more going on between them.”

“Interesting.” I swirl my tea around in the cup. “Is there anything else that sticks out to you about Ken and his friends while they were at Hogwarts? Did they ever get into trouble, say, or make enemies of themselves with other kids?”

“Nah,” says Valerie. “For the most part, they were too involved with their Gobstones to do anything especially interesting.”

...

“Oh, no,” says Rose, when she and Jasper come over for dinner on Tuesday. “He kissed your nose?”

“Yeah,” I say, blinking at her. “What, is that supposed to be a bad thing, now? Like, if a bloke kisses your nose, watch out, that probably means he’s secretly a cold-blooded killer, according to Witch Weekly?”

Jasper lifts his head off the table, where he’s been resting it for the past five minutes, drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness. “Did Fee just make a joke?”

I nod.

“Nice one, Fee,” he says supportively, and then bangs his head back down on the table.

“What’s up with Jasper?” I ask Rose.

She scrunches up her own nose. “He was out late last night. He went to that bar in Hogsmeade where the bartender’s got a crush on him, so he always drinks for free.”

“That’s a recipe for disaster,” I say darkly, sipping my tea. “Speaking of drinking, you know, I’m never drinking again after Saturday night. I’ve got responsibilities. You lot’ve got to stop trying to corrupt me.”

“Oh, come on,” says Jasper’s voice, muffled by the table. “It’s not as if you’re some kind of--” He breaks off into laughter.

“Anyway,” says Rose. “Nose-kissing is textbook cutsie stuff. I know it seems harmless, but next thing you know you’ll be three years into a committed relationship, and he’ll be living in your flat with you and you’ll have, like, five cats. You don’t want cute stuff, right? You’re supposed to be focusing on work right now. You want emotionless, stress-releasing sex that you can forget about the next day.”

“Hmm.” I stir some more milk into my tea.

Jasper’s giggles finally subside, and he lifts his head off the table again. “Lads, lads,” he says. “I was just about to say, like, it’s not as if you’re some kind of Auror or something. But you -- you totally are.” Shaking his head, he succumbs to paroxysms of laughter.

Rose rolls her eyes at Jasper. “You’re still drunk,” she says, and turns back to me. “Think about it this way, Fee. Once a guy gets emotionally involved with you, he inevitably starts thinking he can make decisions about your life. Do you want another James on your hands?”

“No,” I say firmly, but internally I’m not convinced that one little nose-kiss could have such catastrophic consequences. “I suppose he did stay almost until dinner on Sunday. That’s probably not good, either, is it?”

“That’s horrible,” says Rose. “That means he was in your flat for almost twenty-four hours. Next time you’ve got to send the bloke away as soon as you wake up. Better yet, you go back to his place instead of him to yours, so he doesn’t know where to find you.”

“Okay,” I say, still a bit doubtful.

“Good,” says Rose. “So, don’t get in touch with Xavier. It was a nice first effort, but let’s leave it at that. We’ll find you someone else, someone who won’t fall in love with you.”

...

A/N: Hi! In the next chapter, Fiona will reconnect with Xavier, and have a run-in with the infamous James Potter. Please review! :)


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