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Like Catching Smoke by dominique_fox
Chapter 10 : Ten: The Garden Party
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 1


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Friday crawls by at a flobberworm’s pace. Though Darren returns to work -- fully restored to health by the Healers at St. Mungo’s -- Ada is nowhere to be seen, and the energy in the meeting room is dull and lethargic. Ragnar doesn’t even drop by to give us any updates. We bury ourselves in paperwork and case notes, debate calling in various witches and wizards we’ve already interviewed, and guzzle down tea to make up for the cold feeling in the room.

No one wants to say it, but I’m sure we’re all thinking the same thing: Without Ada, we’re lost. The case seems to have reached a dead end, at least until we get Lorna’s test results back, and none of us has the slightest idea of what to do with ourselves in the meantime.

I spend hours poring over the Ministry’s criminal records of every living person who could possibly have been involved in the murders. Rachel Dawson has a second cousin who used to sell dodgy Potions supplies, fake unicorn hairs and so on, but that hardly seems like grounds to pull her back in for another round of questioning.

Finally, at half past five, Ragnar prowls into the meeting room -- stopping the three of us dead in the middle of a snarky conversation about which Senior Auror is the snappiest dresser.

“I personally think Clearwater does a cracking job matching those patterned scarves to her ro-- Oh, hi, sir,” I say, quickly changing tracks as Ragnar enters.

“She’s been asked not to come back in until further notice,” he says without interlude, apparently referring to Ada. “They’re going to conduct a full inquiry, they’ve pulled a few members of the Wizengamot off the bench to take part in the investigation.”

“The Wizengamot?” says Darren, the color flooding out of his face. “Doesn’t that seem a bit serious?”

“This is serious, Grimm,” growls Ragnar. “That’s exactly the message I’ve been trying to nail into your head since the story broke.”

“And how are we supposed to solve the damn case,” says Charlie hotly, “when we’ve not even got our whole team together?”

“We’re going to get a few more Aurors, starting Monday,” Ragnar tells us. He runs a hand through his long hair, and for a fleeting moment the icy, professional facade slips, allowing his tiredness to show. I blink, realizing that he looks exhausted: there are dark circles under his eyes, and the pigment has faded from his cheeks, leaving his face pale. “The case is in the public eye, now, so we’re getting a lot of pressure from higher-up for a quick solve. Potter’s going to take some people off lower-priority cases and send them to us.”

“Won’t that be fun,” mutters Darren sarcastically.

“No word back about the substance test results?” Ragnar says, turning to me. He’s acting, as usual, like he can’t hear Darren’s snide retorts, but as he faces me I realize that his jaw is a little tense. I wonder whether Darren and Charlie’s insolence is wearing on him now because of all the stress of Ada’s investigation -- or whether their attitudes always put him on edge, and he just does a good job of hiding it most of the time.

“No, not yet.”

“Right.” He falls silent for a moment, his eyes boring into mine as if he were trying to communicate some vital message without words. They’re very blue, his eyes. Then he frowns. “I could use a bit of help drafting a press release, actually. Would you mind giving me a hand in my office?”

Charlie snorts, and leans over to mutter something to Darren, who snickers wickedly in turn.

“Yeah, okay,” I say with a shrug. I’ve never written a press release in my life, and I’ve no idea why Ragnar would want my help with that kind of thing -- but at the moment, I’d do just about anything to get out of the atmosphere in the meeting room. “Right now?”

Ragnar nods. “I’ll ask that useless assistant to bring us some tea. How do you take yours?”

“Er, just with a bit of milk,” I tell him, not sure whether I should be more surprised that Ragnar’s inviting me to have tea with him, or that he does actually eat and drink like the rest of us mere mortals. “I’ll be in to you in a minute, then?”

“Perfect.”

Ragnar sweeps out of the meeting room, leaving me extremely aware of the fact that I’m on my own with Charlie and Darren. They turn innocently back to the reams of parchment at their desks, but I’m not fooled. I start to gather up my things as quickly as I can, hoping to get out of their way before they can say or do anything truly nasty. Just as I stand up, sticking my quill behind my ear, Charlie looks up from his parchment with a sly grin.

“Quick enough turnover, don’t you think?” he says, in a voice so casual he might as well be commenting on the weather.

I frown. “What?”

“I mean.” He shrugs. “He’s obviously through with Ada, now that she’s been cast out of the Ministry in disgrace. But I would’ve thought he’d wait a week or two, out of respect, before moving on to the next pretty, female team member.”

I take a deep breath and manage, with difficulty, not to blush. “Ada hasn’t been cast out of anywhere. She’ll be back by the end of next week.”

“You’d better hope so,” says Darren in a sing-song voice, without looking up from his scroll of notes. “Or else you might find yourself becoming Ragnar’s new toy.”



My knuckles have barely made contact with Ragnar’s office door when it flies open of its own accord. My eyes immediately focus on an enormous, silver tray of tea things, which must have been arranged by the snarky office assistant -- what’s his name, again? It floats in the air between the two of us as I enter his office, laden with teacups, cakes and scones, and assorted jams.

I blink, lingering in the doorway. “I guess that’s one of the perks of being a Senior Auror.”

Ragnar inclines his head, allowing me a small smile. “Believe me, I paid my dues. When I first started out in the Auror Office, the Senior on my team had me alternate between fixing his sandwiches and filing paperwork.” He motions to the chair opposite his desk. “Have a seat. Have some tea.”

Or else you might find yourself becoming Ragnar’s new toy. Darren’s words ring in my ears as I cross the room and sit down. I try to brush them away, reminding myself that Ragnar has never been anything but coolly, and perhaps dismissively, polite to me. Still, I can’t help looking at him with new eyes; considering the lustrous hair and stern, angular face as if I’m seeing him for the first time. The tea tray floats over to me, and -- grateful for the distraction -- I help myself to a cup. Ragnar waits patiently while I stir in a splash of milk, watching me with his steady, sharp eyes.

“I’ve already written that press release,” he tells me as I nervously take a sip of tea. “The press has made it more than clear that they’re willing to source details from whatever unofficial backchannel they can access. We can’t stop them from printing whatever they want about the case, so Mr. Potter figures we might as well give them just enough information to ensure that they won’t go looking for it in other places. Anyway, you must have already guessed that none of this has any bearing on what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Sir?” I say, relaxing my knees as they start to stiffen, and my fingers as they start to form a vice around my teacup. I tell myself I’m being stupid; that he’s undoubtedly the most professional person I’ve met and he would never make a pass at a much younger Auror who was under his supervision. I tell myself that I wouldn’t want him to, even though my blood has all gone hot.

“They want your help with the investigation,” says Ragnar. “The investigation of our team, I mean. The Wizengamot didn’t ask for you, personally, but they thought it would be useful to have a pair of eyes and ears within the team.”

We stare at each other. I lower my teacup, resting it on one knee.

“They want me to spy on the team?” I ask slowly.

“In effect,” confirms Ragnar, beckoning to the tea tray -- which zooms over to him so enthusiastically that several cakes are sent toppling onto the floor. Ragnar flicks his wand dismissively, and the cakes return themselves to the tray. He reaches for the teapot and pours himself a cup, apparently waiting for me to speak again. It looks funny in his large hands, out of place somehow.

“Why?”

“Why you, you mean?” Ragnar gently returns the teapot to its tray. “For one thing, you’re new. That makes you the least likely to hold any personal biases. Then there’s the fact that the Head of the Auror Office personally vouched for your integrity.”

“But I mean…” I blink, feeling as thick as a troll, as this last bit registers with me. Mr. Potter vouched for me. He wants me to do this. A wave of anxiety rolls over me, and now I can’t help my knees from buckling or the blood from rushing to my face. I’ve got a lot to work to do if I want to become as unreadable as Ragnar. “Why have a spy at all? They’ve already questioned us, and they can do it again if they need to.”

“But they’d have to know which questions to ask,” says Ragnar calmly, before downing his cup of tea in one gulp. “Say one of us had found a way to cheat the investigation. For instance, say I had arranged a way for some reporter to listen in on the office. You would have to ask exactly the right question to induce me to reveal that: if you just asked whether I’d told anyone about the case, the answer would be no. Or if one of us had concocted some new antidote to Veritaserum, they’d have no way of knowing. So while they investigate Lynch and the rest of the office, they’re asking you to keep an eye out for anything odd. Nothing more than that. You’re free to say no if you want to.”

“Can I think about it?” I hedge. On one hand, I’m not in love with the idea of spying on my own team. On the other hand, one of them could be letting Ada take the fall for their own mistakes (or worse), and, as Ragnar said, Mr. Potter volunteered me for the role.

Ragnar hesitates, thinking. “Take the weekend if you want,” he agrees after a moment. “It’s not a decision I would want anyone to make lightly.”



The second I step over Jasper’s threshold, I decide that I’ve made an enormous mistake.

All of his cleverly mismatched furniture has been cleared from the sitting room, along with his treasured assortment of paintings and collection of antique Muggle vases. An enormous umbrella floats at the center of the room, and baskets full of flowers hover around the walls.

“It’s a garden party,” Rose informs me, nudging me farther into the room. “You know, like Muggles have.”

“How long do we have to stay?” I gripe, but my voice is drowned out by a sudden, collective roar from Jasper’s party guests -- most of whom have done themselves up with colorful, floppy hats and pastel attire. The whole aesthetic clashes horribly with the grungy, thrashing music and the utterly indecent contortions of their bodies. Jasper’s set up a makeshift bar in the corner of the room, where he’s serving the cheapest and strongest firewhisky in England out of chintz teacups. The irony is almost overpowering.

“Let’s get some drinks,” suggests Rose, leading me through the crowd of sweaty bodies.

I sigh. It’s been a long and stressful week, what with all the trouble at work and the drama with Xavier, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than curling up in bed. However, Rose and Jasper have made other, nefarious plans for my Saturday night, and I don’t have the energy to resist them. Before I know it, there’s a teacup full of firewhisky in my hand, and I’m bobbing along to the music in a little circle with Rose, Jasper, and a few of Jasper’s arty friends.

“I notice you’re not wearing costumes,” Jasper leans in to yell at us over the music. “Even though I specifically said to, on your invitations.”

“What invitations?” Rose shouts back at him.

“The ones I left under your pillows,” says Jasper with a debonair shrug. Then he lifts his hand to point at something over my shoulder. “Hey, Fee, isn’t that the nose man?”

“What?” My head whips around, and I squint through the crowd for a moment, searching. Sure enough, within seconds I’ve spotted Xavier and his usual pair of friends sulking around near the bar. He’s put on a sensible Muggle shirt for the occasion. I turn to glare at Jasper. “You invited him?”

“Fee, darling. I am wounded by your baseless accusations,” says Jasper, pressing a hand to his heart. Then he rolls his eyes. “No, I didn’t invite him. I didn’t invite half the people here. But I can’t exactly help it if I’m terrifically popular and everyone in London is dying to attend my parties.”

“He’s got a lot of nerve,” yells Rose, practically into my ear. “Showing up at your mate’s flat after what he did. We should tell him to leave.”

“I could take off my clothes again,” offers Jasper enthusiastically, and a couple of his friends erupt into deafening cheers. “Oh.” Jasper makes a face. “Fee, he’s spotted you. He’s coming our way. Hey, his black eye looks a lot better. You should’ve seen it the other day, turns out our man Potter can really throw one hell of a--”

I wheel around, and find myself face-to-face with Xavier. He’s as attractive as ever, even in his Muggle clothes, and he’s holding a drink in each hand -- one of them extended towards me. I cross my arms reflexively over my chest, overcome by a mess of wounded pride, resentment, and furtive longing. I should’ve known that the universe wouldn’t let me have a nice, boring weekend.

“Hey,” he says simply. He looks down at his hands, and seems to remember that he’s holding the drinks. “I brought you this,” he says, nodding toward the extended one. “It’s a peace offering.”

I stare at him, carefully keeping my face smooth and blank. “What are you doing here?”

“Right.” He lowers the teacups slightly. His eyes are enormous and glossy-brown under the flickering lights. His eyebrows furrow over them, making his whole face look apprehensive and vulnerable. “I know it was probably stupid of me to come. But I thought you wouldn’t like it if I showed up at your flat again, and I wanted to talk to you about the other night.”

“I didn’t ask James to punch you,” I tell him blandly. “That’s between the two of you, and I’m not going to apologize for it.”

“Are we talking about how James punched nose man?” says Jasper loudly over my shoulder.

“That’s not what I wanted to talk about,” says Xavier, stepping a little closer. He leans in slightly, and suddenly I’m breathing in the smell of him, and catching myself remembering how nice it feels to wake up in his arms. “I wanted to talk about us.”

I stare at him, and for a moment, I’m actually tempted. There’s something so romantic about the idea of him, with his tattoo and his slick haircut and his easygoing charm. But I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk in on him with another woman only hours after I’d left him in my bed. “There’s no us,” I tell him, and turn away.

“WHOA!” shouts Jasper, throwing up his hand to give me a high-five. “Fee, are you Voldemort in disguise? Because that burn was dark magic!

I glance sideways at Rose; she shrugs wearily. I lift my hand into the air and tap it against Jasper’s. Then his fingers have closed around mine, and he’s twirling me around and around while Rose and the others cheer. Jasper’s bellowing along to the song lyrics: “Devil’s snare’s got nothing on the way I’m gonna squeeze you, baby!” Xavier has faded into the background, and the teacup of firewhisky I’ve drunk has begun to set in -- and despite everything that’s happened this week I can’t help but fling my head back and laugh.

The night goes by in flashes: Now Jasper’s hipster friends are making me try on all their fancy Muggle hats; now I’m standing in a corner making faces at Rose while Albus and Scorpius explain their latest big idea (“it’s like a book, but instead of you reading it, it reads you”); now I’m patiently allowing Victoire Weasley to explain why I should “really avoid wearing most shades of red.”

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake, Vic,” says Dom, slinging an arm over her sister’s shoulder. “Can’t you just mind your own business?”

Vic frowns at her sister, and flips a lock of long, blond hair over her shoulder. “I’m only trying to be helpful.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Dom, shaking her head. “Why don’t you go and find Teddy? You haven’t been over to snog him in nearly five minutes, he’s probably getting worried.”

“HA,” says Jasper, who’s been listening in. We all turn to look at him, eyebrows raised. “It’s funny,” he announces, wagging one finger instructively in the air while he leans against me for support, “because Vic and Teddy always snog.”

“Keenly observed,” says Dom dryly.

“Yeah,” I agree, staggering sideways under Jasper’s weight, “not much gets by him.”

“Hey, you lot,” says Rose, appearing at my side with a pop. “Fee, Jasper. Is nose man still around?”

“I don’t know,” I say, frowning at the vague memory of Xavier armed with his teacups. “Why?”

“James and Evangeline showed up,” she says with a shrug. “And I suppose we were all sort of hoping we’d get to see someone punch someone.”

“James is here?” says Dominique with interest. “Did he bring my tent back?”

Your tent?” Victoire objects hotly. “In what sense, exactly, is it your tent?”

Dominique makes an aggravated noise and rounds on Victoire. Jasper, Rose, and I huddle closer together, leaving the Weasley sisters to duel things out. Dominique and Victoire have never been the best of friends: Victoire’s a bit on the sensitive side, and Dominique tends to be very impatient where Victoire is concerned. On the bright side, as Louis has told me hundreds of times, you can always count on them for some entertainment at a boring family dinner.

“I thought James was gone for the week?” I say, peering over Rose’s shoulder for a glimpse of him through the tangle of dancing bodies.

“Yeah, they were supposed to come back tomorrow,” says Rose with a shrug. “But it turns out Evangeline isn’t a particularly avid camper, so they came back early.”

Rose raises her eyebrows and purses her lips, implying that in her view, this is a very serious defect. I suddenly spot Evangeline standing alone on the other side of the room, looking lovely as usual under the colorful lights, and my heart goes out to her.

“I’ll be back in a sec,” I tell Rose and Jasper, deciding to make a peace offering of my own. Rose catches me by the arm as I start to move away.

“If you see Scorpius, for the love of Merlin don’t tell him I’m over here,” she says.

I shoot her a thumbs-up, and drift away through the sea of partygoers. I can’t understand how Jasper could possibly know a quarter of these people, nevermind half. There are witches and wizards of every age; an ashen-faced vampire flirting with a group of young men; a circle of house-elves sipping Butterbeers and laughing in high-pitched voices. I dodge around them, and draw up to Evangeline, who’s examining one of the floating floral arrangements.

“Hi,” I yell, and she looks up in surprise. I smile and stick out my hand, figuring I might as well go all-out with the whole friendliness thing. “I’m Fiona. I should’ve introduced myself before now, I suppose.”

“Hi,” she says, shaking my hand very stiffly and quickly dropping it again.

“I, er…” I wonder vaguely how drunk I am. “I just wanted to say, in the spirit of female solidarity: well done for sticking up for yourself, you know, with the camping. I hope it wasn’t too awful for you.”

She hesitates, and then smiles. “Thanks. I’d never been before -- it took me a few days to work up the courage to tell James that I hated it. He took it pretty well, but I think he was disappointed.”

“That whole family is freakishly obsessed with camping,” I say, shaking my head. “I know they’re the darlings of the public eye, but honestly, they’re a bunch of weirdos.”

“You know what? They sort of are,” agrees Evangeline, raising a hand to cover her mouth as she laughs. She leans forward conspiratorially. “You know what I don’t get? What’s the whole thing with Mr. Weasley and Bulgaria? It’s so--”

“Hey.” Suddenly James is at Evangeline’s side, depositing a teacup in her hand. His arm slips around her waist and from behind his circular glasses, his eyes meet mine. He nods at me, with a look that’s not exactly hostile, just slightly challenging.

“I just thought I’d introduce myself properly,” I explain hastily, taking a reflexive step backwards and colliding with the wall. Fiona Smith, world’s greatest Auror, says a snide Rose-like voice in the back of my head.

“Great,” says James, and though his voice is cool and measured, the look on his face says that I’m unwelcome. He turns to Evangeline. “Come on, there are some people I want to introduce you to.”

And he drags her away, leaving me alone in the corner. My shoulders fall, and I lean backwards against the wall. The room has gone a little blurry, which might have something to do with all those teacups full of firewhisky Jasper and Rose have been pushing on me. So James didn’t want my peace offering, doesn’t want anything to do with me. But he did punch Xavier in the face for me, or at least, it seemed like it was for me. It’s all very confusing and I’m not feeling well at all.

“Hey, Fee!” says Scorpius Malfoy, appearing out of nowhere, his platinum-blonde hair disheveled over his bright eyes. He staggers toward me, holding his arms out for a hug. A drunk Scorpius is a very affectionate Scorpius. I slump into his arms, my head spinning. “Any idea where Rose’s gotten to?” he yells into my ear.

“Yeah, she’s over there with Vic and Dom,” I say, pointing in the direction I’ve come from.

“Cool,” he says enthusiastically, setting me aside. “I think I’m gonna kiss her!”

“Right,” I murmur, swaying a little on the spot.

“Hey,” he squints at me, holding me by the shoulders. “Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”

“I need…” I frown up at him; his face swims dizzyingly before my eyes. “Another drink,” I decide, flopping my head up and down in some semblance of a nod. “That’s what I need.”


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