Strange Glamour

by riptey


Summary: On what should have been a routine drug bust, Ron learns the hard way that he's too honest to work undercover. Luckily for him, Pansy isn't.
Warnings: Drug use, addiction
Disclaimer:
All characters and canon situations are the sole property of J.K. Rowling.
Author's Notes: This was written for Interhouse Fest on LJ. My prompt was "Heads Will Roll" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I was inspired partially by the lyrics but mostly by the video. To do it justice, I wanted to write a story that was strange and fast-paced and exciting and a little bit dangerous. I hope I've succeeded. Also, Mr. Croop's name is an homage to the delightfully malicious Mr. Croup, from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.

Also: In the context of this story, "alk" is short for "alchemy," which is itself a slang term for a recreational potion that brings about a transformed state of mind for the drinker.


.


In the mirror, she saw her face smooth as chrome. She saw her hard red nails press inward, watched herself drag them delicately down from eyes to chin. She blinked. Smooth again.

The shadows were a strange illusion, when it was herself alone in such harsh but meagre lighting. She looked like a shadow herself, a hazy dream of a woman with no fixed corporeal form. She could be anyone and no one, both at once, each feeding off the other like a snake swallowing its tail. She, too, swallowed in her dry throat, stood from the vanity and took a long drink of cold water. She looked beautiful right now, and for now it was enough.

Her footsteps echoed down the corridor with the stone walls until someone blocked her path. Shorter than her but stocky, Mr. Croop wore his hair slicked back with its own oil.

"Pansy," he said, "do you know anything about this?" He held a black glass potion bottle in front of her face and tipped it from side to side.

"No," she said, but it was telling enough that she knew what it was. "Ask Natasha—she's been especially strung out lately. Soon she'll need a bellhop for the bags under her eyes."

Mr. Croop smoothed his hair with his free hand and dropped the bottle into his front pocket. He leaned forward to inspect her face, like he could tell whether or not she was lying. She blinked.

"I hope that's true for your sake," he said. "I'm on my way to search the cocktail girls' dressing room, so we'll find out soon enough."

"When did you start caring?" she asked, not that it mattered to her. She didn't use potions, and if she did, she wouldn't bring them to work.

"We're under investigation, pretty bird." He flicked the feather fascinator on the shoulder of her dress. "Someone's coming undercover, most likely tonight. They think this club is the centre of an alk ring. Isn't that silly?"

"Very silly," she said.

"Utterly preposterous," he concluded with a smile. He brushed past her in the narrow corridor, making full-body contact in the process.

She readjusted her feathers and continued forward, toward the heavy door at the end that pulsated with the beat of music on the other side. Before she could open it, Natasha stumbled through and shoved her against the wall without even making eye contact. With Pansy out of the way, she broke into a run, dry heaving occasionally, all the way down the hallway and around the corner.

Pansy brushed herself off and walked onto the floor, reflecting on mental toughness and the capacity for human beings to withstand more than they could have predicted. A person could be presented at a débutante ball with diamonds at her throat and then, just a few years later—with that memory still fixed so crisply in her mind that it might as well have been the day before—serve cocktails to men as rich as her father used to be with a little shimmy. It was a strange and unfair world, Pansy had decided, but at least she could still be glamourous.

Nothing interesting happened for the first hour of her shift, but then things took an abnormal turn. A lone man sat at her table, staring straight ahead. She'd thought he was someone she knew at first, almost recognized him out of the corner of her eye, but he was actually a stranger. When she introduced herself, he saw her face and blanched, then turned his head quickly away. He began to fidget nervously, as though she'd caught him doing something embarrassing.

He wasn't looking at any of the girls or making any effort whatsoever to enjoy himself. It was like someone had forced him to have a drink there, and he wasn't happy about it. He mumbled his drink order to the table, and she realized something as she went to ring it in: he was quite obviously the inspector. In typical Ministry fashion, they'd turned what could have been a routine alk bust into a big stupid mess by sending in their least-qualified man. She would have tried to turn the situation to her advantage, but it occurred to her that she wouldn't need to—this inspector was likely to do it for her. She only needed to see this through, to make him think she was meeting him half-way, and she'd find out how it would benefit her.

By the time she returned with his firewhisky, he'd collected himself a bit. "Anything else tonight, sir?" she asked.

He smiled indulgently all of a sudden. "Sir," he repeated. "I guess you make a pretty good cocktail waitress."

She studied his face again, but she had no idea who he was—probably a glamour. The form he'd taken was quite stereotypically attractive, with perfect dark hair and a strong jaw. He was a little too chiseled and generic for Pansy's personal taste, though. It reminded her a bit too strongly of past flames that had all fucked her over in the end. It was the face of a liar. No character. "Do we know each other?"

"No," he said. He was a poor liar, she thought, and also he was mocking her. "I was just wondering why a lady like you would work in a place like this."

"Oh, it was my dream," she told him venomously. "Ever since I was a little girl."

"Yeah," he said with satisfaction. "I'm sure it was."

"What about you?" She should have bit her tongue right then, but she couldn't resist. "Was it your dream to get your cover blown by a cocktail waitress your first time in the field?"

He blanched again, opening and closing his mouth repeatedly. "I don't know what you're talking about."

She rolled her eyes dramatically. "Right. I must be mistaken. However, if you do run into the Ministry inspector that we're all expecting, you should tell him he might as well go home if he can't get any further than ten metres from the front door. He won't find anything out here. Obviously." She slammed her check onto the table and attempted to storm off, but he called after her.

"Oi, Parkinson!" She spun around on her heel.

"Who are you?" They had to yell to hear each other over the music, and she hoped they weren't making too much of a scene. "How do you know me?"

"Doesn't matter," he said, standing up. He walked up to her and grabbed her wrist. "Does your mum know you work here?"

"Yes," she bluffed.

"Really? Then you wouldn't mind if I owled her about it?"

"Of course not." Her body stiffened, and she knew he noticed. He smiled indulgently again; it was a familiar smile, a particular smugness that she knew and hated. It reminded her briefly of Harry Potter, but he wouldn't have been so nervous. "Fine," she said after a tense pause. "Whoever you are. Don't owl my mother."

"I won't if you help me," he said.

"You are the worst Ministry inspector I've ever met," she informed him, and indeed it was true. He was simply awful, and she found herself wondering what he would have done if he hadn't found her—probably had a drink, stuttered awkwardly to his waitress, and went home a failure. She shook her wrist, and he let her go.

"You're a surprisingly decent waitress, like I said, but that's not much of a compliment."

"I won't be one forever," she said. He craned his neck to scan the room with no subtlety whatsoever. "And stop being so bloody obvious! Who trained you in stealth, anyway, a hurricane?"

He looked slightly embarrassed, then angry. "You can't judge me. I mean, look what you're doing with your life! Besides, you're the one who threw me off—I didn't expect to run into you here, of all people."

Her blood ran hot in her chest. "I wish I knew who you were so I could call you a wanker by name. I'm doing what I have to do." Furthermore, it wasn't what she was doing with her life. It was just what she was doing right now. Just to get some money in the meantime. She hadn't needed to worry about money for most of her life, and it wasn't a good feeling.

"Whatever you say," he said. "Just take me to where the employees keep their stuff."

She scanned the floor herself this time, much less noticeably than he had, then started walking. She would have flagged down another server and asked to have her section covered, but she was starting to get this weird feeling like this would be her last night as a cocktail waitress. It was multiplied by the feeling that she really wouldn't mind. There would be another job somewhere—hopefully a job where half her coworkers weren't alk addicts. Even in a strange and unfair world, Pansy Parkinson was better than this. Also, the place would probably get shut down as soon as he searched the dressing room.

It had taken her some time to grow into it, but one of Pansy's greatest assets in this world was her flexibility: by making few personal ties and revealing little about herself, she was able to consistently get out while the getting was good. She'd made many clean breaks in the past few years, breaks that left no mark on her record, and this would be another. If a situation arose in which she had to take a side, she'd also developed a keen sense of who would ultimately win.

When they reached the heavy door, she gestured for him to wait off to the side. Finding it empty, she dragged the inspector in behind her. It was silent again when the door closed, and neither of them spoke. She slipped off her shoes to muffle her footsteps and let them dangle from her fingertips. They passed several empty, dark rooms on the way. Mr. Croop was the owner of the club, and so he didn't usually hang around in back unless he had a good reason to. It was safe to assume he'd only been there today because of the inspection rumours. He might still be around, or he might not. Thinking of Mr. Croop, who was most definitely a slimy career criminal, it was now clear to Pansy how the inspector could be her ally: the club wasn't going to come out on the right side of the Ministry after tonight, and she knew what it was like to be on the Ministry's bad side. It was fortunate that the inspector had come to her table, and now it was time to be helpful.

She turned and showed him a sugar-sweet smile, and he gave her a look of absolute confusion. "Now that I think about it," she whispered, "I'm just as concerned as you are."

"About what?" he whispered back.

"About the... you know. The illegal substances. I suspect some of the other girls might be using potions."

"But not you."

"No, never. I wouldn't even know what they looked like." She smiled again, and she could tell from his face that he didn't believe her. It didn't matter, though. She was just getting a head start on denying her involvement.

The cocktail girls' dressing room was dark like the others, so she assumed it was empty. She turned on the lights and gestured for the inspector to begin his search. He opened a few drawers and soon pulled out a tiny black bottle—it was the same kind as the one Mr. Croop had shown her earlier, but smaller. He headed next for a pile of coats in the corner, but it turned out they weren't alone after all. Natasha stood up, gasping, from her position on the floor beside one of the vanities.

She launched herself forward and pushed the inspector against the wall, catching him off-guard. Pansy grabbed her from behind and pulled both her elbows behind her back, and she screamed like she was being murdered.

"Shut up," Pansy breathed in her ear. "This is my, er, boyfriend. We just wanted some alone time."

"He was going through my things!" she screamed.

"Relax. He was just looking for my coat," Pansy said soothingly. She made eye contact with the inspector, who nodded vigorously. "Now, why don't we find a place for you to lie down?"

Natasha was calming down, but it was too late. The damage was already done. The inspector's eyes widened at something behind her, and he put his hand behind his back to hide the potion bottle. Pansy followed his gaze to the doorway: Mr. Croop was standing greasily between two bodyguards, who looked fantastically tall and burly beside the fat little man.

"What seems to be the problem, ladies?" he asked conversationally.

Natasha pulled herself free and rubbed one of her elbows. "Pansy's boyfriend was going through my stuff," she said.

"He wasn't," Pansy snapped. "He was getting my coat."

"Boyfriend?" Mr. Croop repeated, fixing his eyes on the inspector. "I didn't know you were seeing anyone."

"I didn't think it was any of your business," she said, as haughtily as possible.

"Show me your hands, Pansy's boyfriend," Mr. Croop said, ignoring her response. He took a step forward, and so did his entourage.

The inspector raised both arms reluctantly, with the bottle clearly visible in one hand, and Pansy wanted to smack herself in the forehead.

"That's mine," she said quickly. "We came back here to get it. So the inspector wouldn't find it."

Mr. Croop nodded and took a moment to think before speaking. "You lied to me, then."

"Yes," she said. "I did."

He walked across the room and plucked the bottle from the inspector's hand, while his bodyguards moved together to block the doorway. "Then you'll have to dispose of this," he said.

"Yes, sir." She held eye contact steadily, trying to figure out what side she should be on. She considered sacrificing her alliance with the inspector, but she still believed the Ministry would win out in the end. They only had one inexperienced officer out here now, but there were plenty more where he came from.

"And you say it's yours," Mr. Croop continued.

"It is."

"Then drink it."

She made eye contact with the inspector, and they shared a look of terror. She watched him glance at the bodyguards in the doorway. No way out.

"I was saving that one," she said. "We already had some tonight."

"What harm is a little more?" Mr. Croop asked. He furrowed his brow in a poor imitation of sympathy. "Oh, Pansy, I just want to make sure I have everything under control tonight. For all we know, the inspector's already here. As you know, I am in no way involved with these... illicit activities." He paused to shrug his shoulders. "And I don't want there to be doubt in anyone's mind that you girls act of your own volition."

She was thinking carefully, trying to plan. It wasn't working. She and her ally were already wildly out of their depth, and her personal best-case scenario was that she left tonight and never came back, while the Ministry sent someone else in for a raid. "Fine," she said. She looked at the inspector for help, and he seemed calmer now, possibly resigned. He gave her a small nod, and she steeled herself for the inevitable. "We'll drink it, and then we'll all get on with our lives."

Mr. Croop went to Pansy and took her small hand, turned it over, and pressed the bottle into her palm. Her fingers closed reflexively around it. "Good," he said.

He watched closely as she unscrewed the cap, smelled the contents experimentally, and took a small sip. It tasted spicy and rich, and it tingled when it coated her throat. She drank until the bottle was half-empty, and then she walked deliberately across the room, where the inspector was already standing with his hand outstretched. She almost admired his courage in that moment; he couldn't break his cover now, and he was filling it out better than he had an hour ago. He was committed. He straightened his shoulders and even offered her a smile. Impulsively, she stood on tip-toe to kiss him on the mouth. He stiffened only for a second, then relaxed as she ran a hand through his hair, moaning dramatically for good measure. If anyone knew how to kiss a man for show, it was Pansy Parkinson. She pulled away and slipped the bottle into his hand with an impish wink. She could tell he was shell-shocked, but he managed to stay in character.

"Thanks, Pans," he said, before downing the rest in one quick swallow.

"Anytime," she replied.

She smiled at Mr. Croop, too, who seemed satisfied now. He was buying it. He rubbed his hands together and looked between Pansy and the inspector. "I appreciate your cooperation. Also, Pansy, I'm afraid you're fired."

She sputtered, still tasting the spicy potion. "What?"

"You've been using illegal potions at work," he said, with another contrived shrug. "Company policy."

"But you made me drink it!" It wasn't losing this job that upset her, really. It was the principle of the thing.

"After you admitted it was yours." He walked past her toward the door, signaling the end of the conversation. "Make sure to leave the dress."

"What about Natasha?" she called to his retreating back.

"She and I have a special arrangement," he said, without turning around. His bodyguards moved aside to let him pass, and then they followed him into the hall.

Once they were gone, Natasha attempted to sit back down in the same spot she'd been when they arrived, but Pansy grabbed her arm and hauled her to her feet. "My boyfriend and I still need some alone time," she spat. "Find someplace else to pass out."

The other girl snatched her arm back with a huff, but then she left as instructed, swaying unsteadily as she walked.

The potion hadn't taken effect yet, so she and the inspector had a few more minutes of mental clarity to discuss their situation.

There was a long moment of uncertain silence, and he spoke first: "This did not go according to plan."

"I already told you to stop being so obvious," she said. "I thought I was going to end up on the right side of this."

He ran a hand through his once-dark hair, which was beginning to lighten. His glamour was wearing off. "As much as I hate to admit it, you will. What's it going to feel like when the potion kicks in?"

"I don't know. I already told you I've never used it."

He considered her for a second. "So, you were telling the truth." She rolled her eyes in response, and he ignored it. "This can still work out, all right? It's not that far off from what I expected. I was supposed to get a waitress to take me back here to buy some alk, and I was supposed to find out if Croop was involved. I just wasn't supposed to take it myself."

She sat down in a nearby chair, trying to decide if she felt any different yet. She looked at herself in the mirror and fingered the feathers at her shoulder. "Well, I'm not giving this dress back."

"You won't have to," he said. "This place won't be running for much longer anyway."

She met his eyes in the mirror. His hair was a deep auburn now, and his face was beginning to rearrange itself in a grotesque sort of way. "Soon I'll find out who you are," she said.

"Soon we'll be off our heads." He straightened his tie, surveying his own reflection, then cleared his throat. "How'd he find out someone was coming, anyway? This wasn't supposed to be a one-step process, you know. I was just here to find enough evidence to justify a full-scale raid."

"Is that why they sent you?" she asked. "You know, as opposed to someone competent."

His face burned red with anger at that, and the contrast made it clear that his skin was steadily lightening along with his hair. "I am competent! I just wasn't expecting you!"

She shrugged, fixing her hair as she waited. "A competent inspector would've been able to handle something unexpected."

He gave her a dirty look, quite immaturely in her opinion, especially considering that she was right. "We should get out of here before that potion starts working," he said, bypassing her comment.

"Mm, good point." She thought of places they could go—private places where they could wait for the potion to wear off without making utter fools of themselves in public. Ultimately, she decided that her own flat was the best option. The inspector already knew who she was, anyway, and she could kick him out in the morning. It was better than going to a stranger's home before she even found out his name. "We're going to my place."

"No," he said immediately.

"Why not?"

"Because—we don't like each other."

She turned half-way round to face him from her chair. "We're not 'going to my place' like that, pervert. Also, your face looks positively hideous at the moment."

He glanced at the mirror and cringed. It was still in transition—a good glamour would wear off slowly, so the user had plenty of time to sneak away and renew it before his identity was revealed. "Why don't we go to St. Mungo's?"

"Are you serious?" She'd never taken alk, but they hadn't exactly overdosed—she knew from watching her coworkers that a few sips each was nothing. Natasha would've drank a tiny bottle like that twice in a shift just to make herself normal. "And explain why we were drinking illegal potions? That's way too much work. We'll just go to my flat and wait it out, and then tomorrow you can go to work and show them that bottle you found."

He looked conflicted, as though they had other options. At last, he sighed heavily. "All right. I'd say we should go home separately, but I have no idea what's going to happen. I feel like we should keep an eye on each other."

"Good choice." Also, she had a feeling there was still a chance he'd make himself useful. After all, she was in the market for a new job, and the Ministry was cushy—she'd been looking for a way in at an office job like that ever since she started needing to work, and that was two years ago.

She took his hand and Apparated them both into her living room. The energy was building deep within her now, as though a previously-unknown switch were turned on. She twirled a few times in place, feeling her skirt ebb and flow around her thighs, and then she stopped abruptly. The glamour wasn't all the way off, but there was enough of his true face and hair that she could recognize the inspector. Ron Weasley was standing in her living room. Immediately, she felt a strong urge to brush her teeth.

"Ew, I kissed a Weasley! Oh, gross." She rubbed at her lips with the back of her hand, hard enough to stain her skin red with lipstick.

"Now you know how I felt," he bellowed back. "And I couldn't even react."

She shook her head, and she could feel every strand of hair that brushed her cheeks. Everything was amplified. "That is completely different," she said. "I am an attractive woman. You're... you." He wasn't chiseled, that was for sure.

"And you're you!" It occurred to Pansy that the two of them were making considerably less sense than usual. It was not a night for intellectual conversation. "Ew," he added.

She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking, but the excess energy wasn't unpleasant. It made her feel like she was more than human somehow. It made her feel like she could be more. And it made it hard to be mad at Ron Weasley just for being Ron Weasley. "Listen," she said. "Why don't we try to have fun? I think I'm already having fun. I don't remember what it's like not to have fun."

"We can't just—I mean, I like fun, but this is no time for it." His face was screwed up in concentration as he continued attempting to think clearly

She ran a finger over her lower lip and relished the sensation. "I don't think we have a choice, Weasley."

He stared at her for a long moment, then nodded. "I guess, well... You know, this is the first time in my life that I've ever felt like dancing."

"I've seen you dance," she said. "You're awful." She started laughing then and couldn't stop. She felt like dancing, too. Every part of her was pulsing with joy.

"I know," he said, laughing with her. It surprised her, since Weasleys weren't known for being able to make fun of themselves. "That's why I never feel like doing it."

"Hang on," she said. She lifted a finger to tap his nose, which made him laugh even harder, and then she spun around with a swing of her hips. She pulled her wand from the pocket of her dress and used it to turn on some music—the same kind they placed at the club, fast and heavy.

Then, she began to dance. All her muscles were relaxed and perfectly in sync, and it was a thrill just to move. She turned around and saw his hair, so fiery now with the colours all turned up. In that moment, she rather liked it. He was only tapping his foot, and so she took his hand and forced him to twirl her.

"Come on," she said. "It's easy. It's so easy!"

He swiveled his hips experimentally, and she placed her free hand on his side to encourage the movement. He followed her lead. She pulled him forward out of the entryway, and he spun her around again, then placed his hand on her waist. She knew it was only the alk, but this was getting intense. She looked into his eyes and swayed more slowly, grinding against him. His eyes were really quite blue.

"Your lips," he said. "They're so red."

"I know," she said. "It takes ages to get them like this."

She snaked her arm around his back, and he swallowed hard. "Oh."

"You know, we've already kissed anyway," she said. She moved her other hand to cradle the back of his neck. "It wasn't so bad."

"Maybe, er, maybe we should've gone home separately after all." His face was flushed again, but not with anger this time. He turned his eyes to the ceiling, probably thinking about Quidditch to keep his resolve. "This is not... a good idea."

"You're single, aren't you?" she whispered, with her lips near his neck. "So am I."

"But, as we said before, you're you—and I'm me," he sputtered. Yet he still did not make any effort to pull away. "And there can't be an us."

"Not even for one night? I helped you, after all. We didn't work so bad together." Putting the moves on Ron Weasley was not something Pansy had ever thought she'd do, but watching his too-perfect glamour wear off had made him seem rather fit by comparison. He had character. If his glamour had been the face of a liar, there was no liar left when it was gone. Also, there was the potion surging through their veins, but that was neither here nor there, or at least it seemed like it at the time.

"I was surprised when you helped me. And that you worked there." He kept looking anywhere but at her, but his body was still responding. "I thought you were rich."

"I was," she said, but she didn't want to talk about it. "Bit of a sore subject, really."

"Right," he said.

She ran her fingertips along his jaw, and he shivered, but he wouldn't meet her eyes. "You know, I bet you're the only person who can still be awkward on alk."

"I'm not being awkward," he said tensely, "I'm trying to be responsible. It's you."

"You already said that. Why not me?" she asked in his ear. "Why not?"

His conviction was shrinking, she could feel it. "I don't understand why you want me, either. You almost scrubbed your mouth off when you realized you'd kissed me."

"The thing is, Weasley, I've realized why you're bad at your job—"

"Hey!" He almost pulled away, but she eased herself against him and pressed a finger to his lips.

"Shut up and listen, I'm about to pay you a compliment. I don't give many, you know." He fell silent and closed his eyes. "It's because you're a terrible liar. You're too honest to be a spy."

"I'm supposed to an Auror, though."

"But that's not all Aurors do." She moved her hand up to caress his cheek, and his eyes opened wide. "You can't be bad at everything." She would have believed a few years ago that Ron Weasley was incompetent and useless to his very core, but they'd only known each other as children. In the interest of fairness, there was a chance that he possessed a useful skill.

"You're not so great at pep talks," he observed.

"But I was, for several months, an astounding cocktail waitress." She lifted her head up with mock-pride, and he laughed. She pressed a soft kiss to the side of his neck, and he didn't resist. "And I helped out the Ministry." Another kiss, a low chuckle. "And got myself fired in the process, and this is the thanks I get?"

Finally, his resolve shattered. He dipped his head to kiss her with a heat she hadn't felt in years. She ran her fingers through his real hair this time, and it was coarser than the fake shiny stuff he'd worn earlier, but she didn't mind. Pansy could appreciate an honest man who wore his flaws on his sleeve—she did the same thing. If someone ever was to wonder, is Pansy Parkinson a bitch?, well, they would only need to ask. Yes. She'd tell them straight-up, no frills. Weasley's flaws were different from her own, but he laid them just as bare.

He cradled her body in the crook of his long arm, and the height difference was getting obnoxious. She grabbed his tie, loosened now, and used it to pull him slowly toward the couch and down on top of her. He braced his weight on either side and pressed his body against hers, kissing her fiercely, breathing like the air alone could never be enough. She heard her own fast panting, her own trapped heart beating, and somewhere that seemed very far away, the music still pulsed along with them.

"How bad are we going to regret this?" he whispered, in what must've been his last moment of clarity for the night—more like a second, really. A nanosecond of almost-clarity.

"So bad," she whispered back. "So, so bad."


.


And she did, when she woke up into the brightest morning of her life. She'd never been so hungover. Her brain felt three sizes too big, and she realized quickly that she was naked. Her feathered red dress was on the floor near the bed, and she was alone in the room beside an incriminating indentation in the mattress. She'd thought Weasley had already left, which would have made her feel relieved and annoyed at the same time, but then she heard him in her bathroom. He was vomiting with great force, so loudly that it must've been his retching that woke her up.

The sound made her queasy, but she wasn't feeling it in her stomach as much as her head. She felt clumsily for her wand on her nightstand, but she must've left it in the other room by the couch. She stared at the ceiling and mentally surveyed the damages: she'd lost her job, she'd slept with Ron Weasley, and she felt like her scalp had been cut open and stuffed full of needles and acid. The sex had been incredible, as far as she could recall, but that might have just been the alk. Some small part of her wanted to find out for sure. She spent the next few moments in a haze of pain and confusion, and then she heard her toilet flush and the water begin to run. Not long after, Weasley walked slowly back into her bedroom and stood at the side of the bed.

His eyes were wide, and his face was waxy and pale. He sort of cringed at her, then cleared his throat. "Morning," he rasped.

"Yeah," she said. "It is."

"I'm going home now." He glanced around aimlessly. "Thanks for, er, helping me."

"Sure." She pulled the blankets tighter around herself and turned her body away from him. She listened to his footsteps as he wandered into the hallway and then the pop as he Disapparated. In the moments before she returned to sleep, she thought something about the man who'd just left: he was the sort of man who said goodbye in the morning, no matter how awkward he was feeling about the night before. It was courteous of him, she thought, and rather brave.


.


He owled her a few days later, all business:

Parkinson,

The Ministry appreciates your help with our investigation. We'd like you to come in and work with us on the next phase. I know you've got nothing better to do, seeing as you've just been sacked. Come in today before five, or owl back to schedule something else.

Weasley

He was right about her having nothing to do. She'd applied here and there, but no one had gotten back to her yet, and she didn't want another waitressing job after the last one. She had enough saved up to pay her rent for the month, and so she'd been taking a few much-needed days off to pamper herself as she so richly deserved. She could also see that this was an opportunity: it was what she'd been waiting for. A foot in the door for a salaried position at the Ministry. They didn't have to ask her twice.

She dressed nicely and painted her lips deep red, just like she used to do at the club, and went to meet Weasley as soon as she was ready. They gave her a visitor name tag at the Ministry guest entrance, and she got more than a few odd looks on the way to his office—they knew who she was because her father used to work here a long time ago. She held her head high and continued until she reached his door, which was part-way open, and let herself in without knocking.

Weasley was sitting at his desk, and it was the absolute polar opposite of the last time they met. It was oppressively quiet there except the rustling of papers and muffled footsteps down the hall, and it felt as though there was no relaxation in the entire building. Like there was a rule against it or something. He heard her enter, met her eyes, and immediately began to blush.

"Good, you made it," he said.

"As you so tactfully observed, I didn't have plans today." She inspected her nails nonchalantly and then took the opportunity to inspect his office. "Cute closet they gave you," she added. "Really cozy."

"When you've got a real job, sometimes you have to work your way up." He raised his eyebrows and put aside his paperwork. She almost had a good comeback ready, but he cut her off before it had a chance to crystallize. "So. You know Mr. Croop, and you know the other girls at his club. And you're a good liar."

"Unlike you," she said.

"Unlike me. We'd like you to go back in with a glamour and find out what Croop has to do with this."

"I thought you had enough evidence for a raid." She was trying not to seem too eager, with the prize so close. She'd be back in financial security, with a job that would actually impress people. It would make her look good, and it would make her feel good.

"We do, but if we go in now, Croop could pin it on the waitresses. We can't prove he's involved yet." He paused, staring down at his desk. "I mean, he is, right?"

"Oh, definitely." She'd never seen it first-hand, but she had a pretty strong feeling about it.

"Do you think you can find hard evidence that proves it?"

"Yes, sir." She smiled wickedly, and he smiled back for the first time. "On one condition: I want a job. Here."

His smile faded, and he narrowed his eyes. "If you do well tonight, we'll talk about that after."

"Deal," she said. "I'm better than good, Weasley."

He blushed again, then shook his head like he was trying to get some unwelcome thoughts out of it, the nature of which Pansy could easily guess. "Follow me," he said, once he'd collected himself.

He stood up, walked around his desk, and led her out of his office and down the corridor to a dressing room not unlike the one she'd shared at the club, only better-lit. Weasley left, and a woman entered to apply her glamour and fit her with all the trappings of a successful cocktail waitress impersonator. If Pansy had thought she was beautiful before, it was nothing compared to how she looked when the process was complete. She was a blonde now, with piercing green eyes beneath a curtain of luxurious dark lashes, with larger breasts and a smaller waist and longer legs. Her glamour version was as perfect as Weasley's had been, and she now wore the face of a liar. The glamour specialist sent her back to Weasley's office, and the increased beauty had oddly made her more insecure. Her shapely legs quavered as she walked, uncertainty in every step, while her hips stayed rigid and her lips resisted a smile.

He looked at her strangely when she entered, and she couldn't tell what he was thinking. He looked her up and down clinically, narrowed his eyes, and nodded. "That'll work," he said at last. He beckoned for her to take a seat across from his desk. "First of all, we've already sent in a dummy inspector the night after I went in. He talked to Croop and didn't find anything, obviously, since they knew who he was. Hopefully, they think the investigation is over. You'll go in and do whatever you have to do to tie him to the alk sales—apply for a job, talk to the other girls, I don't know. You know better than we do."

"Isn't this awkward for you at all?" she asked. He was still avoiding eye contact, but he'd managed to stop blushing.

"Not relevant," he said, and he began to blush again.

"Right," she said. "I'll take that as a 'yes.'" It was fun to play with him, a man so honest that he couldn't hide his feelings for a second.

"You can go now," he said, rather petulantly. "Make contact when you've got something."

"I will." She stood and headed for the door, but turned around at the last second to blow him a kiss. He turned his head away and stared at the wall of his tiny office as though it were the most intriguing thing he'd ever seen.


.


Even a few hours later, it was still too early to be at a night club, but she was prepared to work that to her advantage. For one thing, there wouldn't be a shift change for half an hour: everyone on the floor would've already taken her break, and none of them were likely to be in back. Her glamour was so beautiful that she could get away with just about anything in a club like this, which meant she didn't do a whole lot of planning in advance.

She simply walked straight in through the front door, past the other patrons and through the heavy door to the back. No one tried to stop her or even gave her a second glance. She'd learned something in the last couple of years, with job after totally different job, picking up a new one as soon as the last one proved unsatisfying: extreme confidence could make a person untouchable. As long as she looked like she knew exactly what she was doing, everyone assumed that she did. With her wand by her side, she walked all the way to the dressing room like she owned the place.

It was empty. She looked more carefully than before, but no one was passed out in a corner this time. She went through Natasha's drawers and removed every bottle of alk, then took two more out of her coat pockets. She shrunk the bottles and hid them in her bag, and then she Apparated just outside the front doors—walking back out the way she'd come in wasn't worth the risk.

She waited a little while, then reentered and sat in Natasha's section. Natasha would've taken a break at the shift change, but she worked a double every Friday, and by now she would've noticed that her stash was missing. Alk withdrawal came on quickly, as Pansy had learned recently, and it was nothing to scoff at.

Natasha didn't arrive on the floor when she was supposed to, nor did she arrive within fifteen minutes, and Pansy grew impatient. She flagged down Adele, another waitress who she knew used potions.

"Excuse me," she began, "isn't Natasha here tonight? I said I'd come visit, but I haven't seen her yet."

"Are you a friend of hers?" Adele asked. "'Cause she needs a friend right about now."

"Is something wrong?" She feigned concern to the best of her ability, with her lying new face.

"Come with me." Adele hurried off toward the heavy door, beckoning Pansy to follow. "We're short-staffed as it is, and Tasha can't work like this. Please help her out. If I had any extra, I'd give it to her, if you know what I mean."

"I know," Pansy said.

Adele opened the door and pointed down the corridor. "Dressing room's all the way down and to the left, then first door on the right. Can't miss it. Good luck." She left Pansy there and practically ran to one of her tables.

Pansy walked down the corridor alone again, just as she had so many times before, and entered the dressing room to find Natasha sobbing at one of the vanities, resting her forehead on the table. "Are you all right?" she asked.

The crying girl lifted her head and looked at Pansy with wide, red eyes. "Who are you?"

"I'm new here," she said. "What's wrong?" She came to Natasha and crouched beside her to put one hand on her cold cheek, moist with sweat.

Natasha surveyed her with suspicion. "Who hired you?"

"Mr. Croop, of course. I wasn't sure if I wanted to work here, but he threw in some extra benefits."

"What did he give you?" she asked frantically. Her eyes were wide and wild.

"What do you think?" Pansy asked coyly. "What does he give you?"

Natasha grabbed her arms then with unexpected strength. "He gives me potions. Today, he gave me enough for me and enough to sell, and it's all gone. Someone robbed me! Someone stole it all."

"Oh, sweetheart, relax." She stroked Natasha's limp hair with one hand and fished a bottle from her bag with the other. Natasha froze on the spot and watched as Pansy grew it back to its original size and pressed it into her palm. "This one's on the house. So, Mr. Croop gives you all the alk you want?"

"It depends how much I sell," she said absently, unscrewing the bottle. She took a long drink, paused to exhale, and then finished the rest. "But I'm good at selling."

"How many people work for him?" she asked, taking a seat at next vanity. "I'm wondering if there's an opening."

She tipped her head back and sighed in contentment, eyes closed. "Mm, maybe. There's only a few of us. Me and Christine and Lina."

"Does he brew it himself?"

"Yeah, that's how you know it's good. That's why it's so good."

"I see," she said. "Well, I'll see you on the floor—Adele's looking for you."

"Oh, right." She let her head loll off to the side. "Tell her I'll be out in a minute, would you?"

"Of course."

On her way out, right through the front door again, she did just that. Adele was relieved, and no one had bothered to even ask for her name. With Pansy at the helm, this whole operation was just as easy as it should've been to begin with. Interrogating an addict in withdrawal wasn't difficult unless you were Ron Weasley, so honest you couldn't even assume a cover. If she were perfectly honest with herself, she liked that about him.

She went home and removed her glamour immediately. Once it was gone, she owled Weasley and told him to come over, that she had everything he needed. As she waited, she went to her own vanity in her bedroom and stared into the mirror. She ran her fingertips over her eyebrows and cheekbones, skimming her lips on the way down her neck. Her face had character, she decided. It wasn't too perfect.

There was a knock at the door soon after, since her wards wouldn't have allowed someone to Apparate right in. She looked at herself for just one more second, then stood and went to answer it, smoothing her hair again on the way. He hesitated after she opened the door.

"Hi," he said, lingering just outside.

"Come in," she said, standing to the side so he could enter. Slowly, he did, and she reckoned he was remembering the last time he was here. He stood in her entryway, stock-still, and looked at her.

"That was fast," he said.

"I know," she replied, tipping up her chin with pride. "I told you I was good."

"What's your proof?"

"I've got about seven bottles of alk in my bag," she said, holding it up. "And a Pensieve-ready memory where Natasha admits that she and two other waitresses deal for Mr. Croop, and that he brews the stuff himself."

She could tell he was impressed. "How'd you get her to turn on him so quickly?"

"Withdrawal," she said simply. "And I'm rather persuasive. Now, let's talk about my new job."

"I still can't be sure about that." He turned his head away. "But I'll give you a recommendation, I guess. Man, things you never thought you'd say."

She stepped forward, too close for comfort, and looked up at him. The honest man. "How about a date? Will you give me a date?"

It was too forward, she knew, and it embarrassed him utterly. She wasn't even sure she wanted it herself, but it felt like it was worth a shot. In the best-case scenario, she broke his heart. In the worst, she made a personal tie.

"I, er. Well," he said articulately.

"I had fun the last time we were together," she said. "Didn't you?"

"Well, yeah, but wasn't that the potions?" He ran both hands through his hair, avoiding her eyes.

"That's what I want to find out," she continued smoothly.

Finally, he really looked at her. Stared, almost, for a moment. "You look better without the glamour, you know. It was too... perfect."

"Is that a yes?" He looked away again, but she grabbed his chin and turned him toward her. Then, just as outrageously as the first time, she stood on her toes to kiss him. He kissed back more quickly than before, placing one unsteady hand on the small of her back.

After they broke apart, she stayed close and leaned against his chest. "All right," he said softly. "I guess. Yeah."