AN: Hey, Y'all! You know about my solemn vow never to start posting a story until I finished it, right? Well. That's why you haven't heard from me in forever. Stress is a Muse-killer, and my stress levels achieved ludicrous heights, to the point where I was screaming, "What? What? Can't you see I have too much to deal with right now?" at the poor woman handing out free samples in the supermarket.
However, at long last, things simmered down for a minute and one of my half-baked stories finally found an ending. Unfortunately, it's not the one I was reeeeally hoping it would be, namely, the fic that I've been working on for drinkingcocoa. I promise, hon, I will find a way to finish that one. One of them. I ran the first one into a wall, so I actually started a second one for you. Then I ran that into the wall as well. I will get it done, I swear on my first born. It's just really starting to look like I won't have it done before last Christmas, like I'd hoped. o.O This fic, was started a year ago, and abandoned seven months ago, but my blowzy muse popped back up and handed me the end a couple of weeks ago. There's no SPaG beta, I just wanted to slap it up and not make anyone, including myself, wait any longer. However, it is undergoing an intense BritPick by my ever-patient Hebe GB, and requires a good amount of editing so it stops reading like chapters were written a year apart. Therefore, there will most likely not be any massive chap spam.
Not Mine, No Money.
Hermione sat at her desk in her tiny office in the Ministry and stared at the newspaper with shocked sadness. The small article in the Daily Prophet told of the tragic demise of Fawkler Sparrow, 38 years of age, married with three children. He had apparently suffered a fatal splinching upon returning home from the pub two nights ago. The article went on to exhort the public to be more mindful of the possible dangers of AUI—Apparating Under the Influence—and cited grisly statistics intended to scare them into compliance.
Hermione winced at the parable-like tone that seemed to erase the tragedy, rather than magnify it. Her section of the Department of International Magical Cooperation might have been small, but it was tightly knit, and the death of a member was a hard blow for them. Fawkler had been universally liked within her section.
"Miss Granger?" said Alonso Behari from the doorway. "Did you see the paper this—Oh, you have it there."
"Yes, I just saw it," she said. "What are we doing?"
The Assistant CSO sighed heavily, his long, silver-shot moustache twitching from the grief he tried to contain. "I've owled the florist, and begun a collection for his widow. I fear we might not collect as much as when Rigley died. Too many deaths in the department this year. People are never as generous with a third one."
"Third?" she asked, looking up. "Who else?"
"Emerson Thackeray. He was out running the lines when he fell off his broom a couple of months before you took over for Philips." Alonso heaved a heavy sigh and waved a hand toward the newspaper she still held. "May this be the last. They say tragedy strikes in threes, and three deaths within a small department in one year are too much."
Hermione winced at the grief in the man's tone.
Alonso might have been her junior in the hierarchy of things, but he was old enough to be her great-grandfather and far more qualified for her job. He'd been an enormous help to her when she'd been thrown into the office upon the sudden retirement of her predecessor. He'd declined the position of Chief Section Officer himself, saying that he and his wife were planning on moving to India early next year. He'd only agreed to help the Department transition her into the job before he left.
Hermione didn't know how she would cope when he left. She depended on him for everything. She'd still been a mere administrative assistant in the Office of the Ministry Budget when she'd been tapped for this job. What had seemed like a huge promotion at first blush appeared to be a bit of a dead-end with hindsight.
Still, however boring the job was, the pay was good, and the people under her had been warm and welcoming, a far cry from the dozens of bean counters she'd worked with before who could never remember her name.
"When is the wake? And how is it none of us knew until we got the paper this morning?"
"Fawkler's Maire had to be sedated," Alonso replied, "and his lambs went to stay at his mother's. No one thought to tell any of us. The wake is tomorrow. The Funeral is the day after."
Hermione dropped the paper on her desk. "Let the staff know that tomorrow will be a half day, and the office will close Wednesday for the service." She sucked in a breath and blew it out, before looking up at him. "Should I do more?"
The kindly man shook his head. "No, dear. You did fine. Keep your chin up, and circulate around the office. Just give an ear, let them all talk. Remember you have to keep a small distance, they will want that veneer of Authority for comfort."
She nodded. "Thank you, Al."
"Would you like me to send for some tea?"
She nodded. "That would be lovely."
"Such a tragedy," whispered Erina Kith as they walked together from the Apparition site toward where the family was gathered by the gravesite. "So much tragedy…"
Hermione pulled her handkerchief from the sleeve of her tailored black robes and pressed it into the field agent's hand. "It is. It really is. Chin up; we must be strong for the little ones. I fear if we all go to pieces, we will only upset Fawkler's girls even more than they already are."
She patted the other woman on the back and urged her on toward where the rest of their coworkers were standing. Hermione stepped off to the side, trying to gauge the proper distance. Family took precedence; she could see them gathered around Maire Sparrow and her three girls, forming a buttress of support. Next came friends, of which most were the deceased's former coworkers. They spread out around the smaller group like an honor guard. Hermione stood just beyond them, but to the side, so she could easily be seen. She thought that struck a good balance between being his boss, and therefore a representative of the Ministry, and also being the one person here who knew him the least.
She kept her face somber, and made sure her own grief didn't show. It was difficult. Fawkler had been a boisterous and gregarious man, and it had taken little effort to like him. He, like most of the field agents, only came in to the offices once a week, but the whole place had seemed to light up when he was there.
And they had needed that. The atmosphere in the office was heavy. It had only been four months since they'd lost Rigley Pepperton, another field agent. He'd been only twenty-nine when he'd died in his sleep from an irregular heartbeat. Hermione hadn't known him well either, and had only been in the department for a few weeks. She felt she'd fumbled badly when it had come to expressing her sorrow to his partner. She was determined to not make a hash of things this time.
The minister straightened up from where she had been speaking softly to the widow and a ripple of throat clearing and deep breaths signaled that the ceremony was about to start. She took a quick look around to see if anyone was missing, and smiled when she saw Caleb Lloyt walking up to the group with his usual rolling gate. He gave her a nod and a wry twist of the lips that conveyed both pleasure at seeing her and sadness at the circumstances. She nodded to him, hoping it looked comforting and managerial at the same time.
Caleb was the one person in the department that she had trouble maintaining boundaries with. Mostly, because he was a bit larger than life. Nearing fifty, he was at the peak of his rugged good looks. His straight brown hair was just showing a bit of grey, and his perpetual five o'clock shadow only highlighted the scar on his cheek that disappeared into the wrinkles around his squinty, brown eyes. First impressions made him out to be a bit of a rebel. His long coat, leather trousers, and the watch-fob perennially dangling from the pocket of his knitted waistcoat gave him the air of a cowboy. This would lead one to underestimate his intelligence and his sardonic wit.
More than half of the women in the office had a crush on him, and Hermione was honest enough to admit she was one of them. However, as his boss, he was off-limits, and so she struggled to try and keep him in his place.
He knew this and took perverse pleasure in making it difficult.
She sighed and turned toward the minister who was raising her hands to begin.
"Let us bow our heads…"
"I tell you it's more than passing strange," Alonso said again, lifting his pint to his mouth before he continued. "Three in a year? Our section only has seventeen people total, it defies statistics."
There were murmurs of agreement around the common room of The Tweed Dragon. It was a regular hangout for Ministry workers, and a logical place for Hermione to suggest when her people had seemed reluctant to disperse after the service.
"You think it's some sort of curse?" asked Keith Remor, her office manager.
"Could be," Zara Hornsby.
"I hope not, because so far only field agents have died," put in Erina. "I have better things to do than worry if I'm the next one."
"Don't be stupid," said Ruben Jordan, another field agent. "Who the hell would want to curse us? We don't do anything worth noticing. We're the least noticed section in the Ministry."
That last was met with mixed reactions and Hermione sipped her Gillywater and let them argue the point. There was a jingle of coin-filled pocket to her left and she turned her head to see Caleb sliding into the booth next to her with his pint. She smelled his spicy scent and shook her head.
"Do you think there is anything to their talk?" she asked gesturing at her employees with her glass.
He narrowed his eyes at them, making the untanned lines around his eyes disappear. After a long moment, he shook his head. "No," he replied. "They're just trying to make sense of their loss, that's all. Ruben's on the right track. Nothing interesting has happened in our section in over four hundred years. We track ley lines, Granger. We're not interesting enough to draw the evil eye."
Hermione suppressed her reaction to his muted, Southern Welsh accent and pushed her glass away. "I supposed you're right." She sat back and cocked her head to look up at him. "So nothing interesting ever happens?"
"Not as far as work is concerned. Not in the seven years I've been with them. We take readings, we send in reports. You desk jockeys tidy them up and file them, and no one ever looks at them. The only things of interest around here are the people. They squabble, patch things up, marry, divorce, have babies, and—" he tipped his glass at the rest of his coworkers, "—die. Sometimes more often than we're comfortable with."
She nodded, seeing her small workforce as poignantly representative of life in general. And so it goes, she thought, taking a sip and setting her glass down. She turned her attention to the man next to her, ignoring the way her mind and body seemed to whisper their opinions of him.
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
He tilted his head toward her. "I've been hoping you would," he said in a soft voice that made her shiver.
"Stop that," she said. "I was wondering why you've turned down three promotions."
He smiled, showing off his gold tooth, and leaned back in the booth. Whatever had given him that scar had cost him the tooth as well. It had to have been something terrible if magic hadn't been able to fully heal it. He turned toward her, resting his arm along the back of the booth behind her shoulders. "You've been checking up on me. That's a good sign."
She felt herself color slightly. "I've been checking up on everyone in my section, Caleb. I will thank you to keep your libido in check."
He chuckled, a deep, rolling sound that did bad things to her in good ways. "I like the field work. I like being out in the open. I can't stand being cooped up behind a desk. I had enough of that when I worked in the Department of Mysteries."
"You did?" She was annoyed at how her voice reverted back to her 'foolish-little-girl' voice. She'd dubbed it that whenever her interest in a new topic had earned her the wrath of Professor Snape back in the day.
Caleb gave her a slow smile. "I did."
She frowned and reached for her glass again. "I suppose you can't tell me about it."
"Au contraire, since my section was closed down, I actually can."
"Really? Then tell me! What did you do there? And why was it closed down?"
He gave her a long look, his brown eyes dancing with barely concealed mirth. "I worked in the field of chronological research. That is, until a group of schoolchildren overran the place and destroyed all of our equipment."
Hermione choked on her sip and blushed furiously. She took the napkin he offered her with a laugh, and dabbed at her eyes and then the table.
"I'm so sorry," she said quietly. "I was one of those students."
He laughed again. "I know. That fact was hardly a mystery." He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table, looking back over his shoulder at her. His fringe dropped into his eyes. "Don't you worry yourself, Granger. I was sick of the job anyway. One could even say you freed me." He lifted his drink and took a sip. "Once free, it was impossible to get me behind a desk again."
She sighed in relief and smiled. She felt better knowing he was out in the field because he was happy. There was something far too wild about Caleb to ever picture him behind a desk.
When she realized where her thoughts were going, she pushed her glass away for the final time. It was time to take her leave.
"Off already?" he asked. "I didn't get a chance to buy you a drink." His eyes sparked with promise.
"I'm afraid I must," she said as he stood up to let her out of the booth. "I've just enough time to get back to the office and finish one of your useless reports from behind my desk." She stood up to her full height, which only just made it past his shoulder.
He leaned in towards her and murmured. "You don't belong behind a desk, Granger. You belong on one."
She felt the conflicting reactions instantly. Her spine snapped straight as her legs turned to jelly. "Mr. Lloyt," she hissed. "You go too far." She lifted her nose in the air and turned her back on him.
As she wished the others good health and a quiet evening, she heard his quiet chuckle behind her.
Hermione sat with her feet up on the coffee table and swallowed a mouth full of pot noodles. It was Friday Night, and that meant dinner at Grimmauld Place with Harry and Ron. It was Ron's turn to make dinner, and that meant Pot Noodles.
"It is more than passing strange, as Alonso said, but I think Caleb made the most sense. There's nothing about our job that would make it a likely place for anything more than random bad luck."
"Who's Caleb?" asked Ron with his mouth full.
"One of my field agents," she replied without looking up.
"I dunno," said Harry with a wave of his fork. "It does seem suspicious on the face of it. I mean, you have a population of seventeen and three fatalities in eight months. Looking at it as an Auror, it makes my hair stand on end."
"Everything makes your hair stand on end," Ron replied.
Harry flicked his fork at Ron in dismissal. "Look at it this way, you had one guy die in his sleep from a heart attack before he was thirty, another fell off his broom when he rode a broom as part of his job, and a third Apparated home after a night at the pub and splinched his head off. What doesn't look suspicious about that?"
Hermione blinked. "Well, when you say it like that…"
Ron shook his head. "Motive. What motive would anyone have for killing blokes that ride around taking readings of magical impulses along ley lines? I mean, who cares?"
She swung her head back to Harry with raised eyebrows.
He looked annoyed to have been foiled by logic. "Well, most often the motive is personal gain. Money, power…"
"How do you profit from a natural phenomenon?" Ron asked. "Is it possible to manipulate or change the magical energy grid?"
Hermione shook her head. "No. It would be like trying to control the air outside. The energy runs along the ley lines, but the magical residue is everywhere. We channel the energy for our personal use, but you can't dam it up like a river, or direct it off into another area. Only tap into it. "
Harry sat back against the couch cushions. "Well, I still say it's suspicious."
"We're Aurors," Ron said. "Everything ends up looking suspicious. The only way to keep from ending up like Moody is to know when to leave well enough alone. There's nothing we can do without some sort of tangible suspicion." He turned toward Hermione. "If you find us a something that looks even vaguely like evidence of wrong-doing, I'll let Harry play." He looked back at Harry and gave him a stern look. "Until then, we have three other cases to deal with. Stop looking for more."
Hermione smiled at the way Harry slumped down and sulked. Some things never changed.
After a weekend spent poking at the issue like a flap of skin on the roof of her mouth, Hermione walked into her office the next Monday and pulled the employee files for Fawkler Sparrow, Emerson Thackeray, and Rigley Pepperton.
And we're off...
Reviews are lovely, but I will be honest and tell you that real life is really a booger, and replies will be sketchy at best.