Author's note: You will not recognize most of the characters in this story. Anyone you do recognize belongs to J.K. Rowling. Wendy Woodward was first mentioned in For Keeps and my thanks go to Kateydidnt, who prodded my muse and asked questions about the reporter's background until I had a lot of plot bunnies to work with. She was also kind enough to beta this several times.
Many children grow up with older siblings who delight in terrorizing them. I had a cousin who was always good for a ghost story and who could find a local legend about wherever we went for family holidays. I think I got my fascination with story-telling from him.
The person who taught me fear, though, was my Nanny. She never used eerie voices or dramatic endings, but I learned more about wizarding history from her than Professor Binns. She would usually keep a chin up when the grandkids came to call, but on some nights, she would grow very quiet and tell us cautionary tales. She had never seen a ghost or been stalked by a mad Inferius, but she had been a girl when Grindelwald came to power and she could frighten the most stout-hearted of us.
The thing that I learned from Nanny was a survival skill. When betrayal happens-and it always does, she would say-keep your head down and hope that cooler heads will prevail.
I shouldn't have even known about the fall of the Ministry. The takeover was virtually silent and there were no sweeping declarations from the key players. Sure, there had been rumours for weeks that certain Ministry officials had realigned their allegiances, but that was not something that the Daily Prophet would put in print if they wanted to keep their collective arses out of Azkaban and their newspaper under private management.
I shouldn't have even known that the Ministry had fallen, but I had spent four years of Potions lessons sitting next to a smart, freckled Gryffindor named Percy Weasley and he did me a favor. Someone else must have tipped off my boss, since I got a second owl post not ten minutes after Hermes left, ordering me into the office.
I had only seen an all-hands summons like this once before, when the story had broken that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had been spotted on Ministry grounds. It was no surprise that the murder of the Minister of Magic and the coup that had followed would be another cause for panic.
When I arrived at Mr. Cuffe's office, though, the place was relatively deserted. A few flame-controlled torches were lit to make sure that no one ran into the desks, but the ruckus that I associated the Prophet offices-the constant scratching of quills, the distant bangs of the printing presses, the murmur of reporters' voices and the almost-daily arrival of Howlers-was completely absent. Not one of my colleagues was on the main floor, so I headed directly for Mr. Cuffe's office.
I had only been in here twice; on my first day, he had invited me in to make me feel a part of the team that he captained and six months ago, he had called me in to formally offer me a transfer from classifieds to obituaries. It hadn't been a cheerful promotion or much of a promotion at all, but the pay raise they gave me for working such a thankless job was nice. That pay also let me get my own flat in Chiswick and no matter how many depressing tales I had to tell, that was well worth the effort.
Visit Number 3 was a lot more crowded than either of the previous interviews. It still didn't look as though the rest of the staff had been called in, but there were sixteen people crammed in.
Staff meetings were also not usually this quiet. The last time I could remember a group this despondently quiet was when we were informed that Professor Dumbledore had been killed. No introductions were made and no pleasantries were exchanged. No one even spoke until a few minutes later, when our number grew to twenty-three and Mr. Cuffe closed the door behind Demeter Dalton.
"Thank you all for coming," he said in a voice that was higher than usual. "I won't keep you long. You've all heard about the Ministry?"
It was something that the more paranoid of us might have seen coming, but it was our job to be ahead of the times. Mr. Cuffe was showing his usual tendency to assume that if something drastic had just happened, we already had a draft ready to go to press on the Prophet's position.
"I had a visit from a Mr. Yaxley earlier today. Yes," he said at a sharp intake of breath from the witch who ran the book review, "that Yaxley. Under the new Ministry..." Cuffe took a deep breath at the phrase and it was another moment before he continued. None of us spoke. "Under the new Ministry, many departments have seen a restructuring. Pius Thicknesse is the new Minister for Magic and one of his first acts was to name Yaxley as his successor in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."
"But what business does he have here?" an older man who I remembered as being one of the senior editors demanded. "An obituary for Scrimegour?"
I hoped not. I wasn't in the mood to find something nice to say about the man who had compensated for Fudge's lack of action by sometimes jumping to conclusions. He was a man who didn't demand that we print lies, but he had been too inclined to arrest first and find actual guilt later.
It was something that had theoretically sounded like a good way of rounding up alleged Death Eaters, but they had taken it too far. John Grafton, an Irish reporter who had written brilliant political assessments for a good ten years without more than a few angry Letters to the Editor in response, had been arrested for suspected Death Eater sympathies only two months after Scrimegour took office. The official story was that he had collaborated with a man arrested for an attack on Muggle-borns over the summer, but that made no sense. As far as any of us could tell, Graf had known the man during his Hogwarts days in Slytherin and sat next to the man at a friend's wedding reception. Scrimegour had made an example of him and he had earned three months in Azkaban for his crimes, plus a black mark on his record that had effectively kept him from ever taking another stand against the Ministry.
Scrimegour had been no Fudge, but people had suffered for his policies nonetheless. If they asked someone as low-ranking as myself to handle a ministerial obituary, I'd claim that it was too important a job for a junior copywriter such as myself.
"Perhaps he'd like to give us an exclusive interview, Jorgensen," Demeter deadpanned.
The banter cut off a lot sooner than usual. Under more cheery circumstances, Demeter and David Jorgensen would have let the speculation run its course until it became outright abuse of whoever was taking it upon themselves to tell the Prophet staff what to do this time. Instead, after these two comments, silence fell again. We were too tense to care if Yaxley was announcing his plans to marry a hippogriff.
"He's in charge of enforcement," Cuffe reiterated, "and that means he's got a load of new policies that we will be helping him enforce."
"Such as what?" I asked. "Ministry censorship officers at each desk?"
"We put up with it under Fudge," Jorgensen pointed out. "And we kept our jobs."
"Because we weren't allowed to do our jobs," I responded. "I don't much like the idea of having to run everything past a Death Eater before I send it off."
Especially if said Death Eater sent me off to Azkaban for showing too much sympathy to the anti-Voldemort movement with a misplaced word. I was, after all, not their preferred brand of witch.
"That's not what we're here to discuss." Cuffe's voice, which had been at a nervously high pitch dropped into a bass register. It seemed he had found his backbone again and was sounding much more like the blustering old Barnabus Cuffe that I knew distantly. "You'll notice we've only got a fraction of our usual staff here. Can you sort out why?"
Before I could even give another thought to it, David Jorgensen grunted an answer. "Blood status."
I didn't know everyone there, but I knew from a conversation we'd had in the cafeteria that Demeter Dalton was a half-blood and Betty Braithewaite, the witch who had recognized Yaxley's name, was a Muggle-born. That still didn't explain why I was here-Mum had been a Ravenclaw and Dad had been a well-known Beater on the Slytherin Quidditch team in his day-but it was a place to start.
"So far, we know that they despise anyone who is Muggle-born," Cuffe said, "but there is no telling how far they will go. Yaxley assured me that we will receive more details on the laws pertaining to the Muggle-borns, but they are cracking down on those they consider to be half-bloods and blood traitors and it's probably not long before they think anyone who might have a Muggle second cousin by marriage should be hauled in for questioning."
Or...there was the old slander against Dad's father. He had chosen to avoid a Hogwarts education and the smaller minds in our world tended to whisper that he might have been a Squib.
"So you're giving us the sack, then?" Emma Eccles burst out. "I've been here for twenty years, I'll have you know..."
She wasn't alone.
"No one asked for a family tree when I won the O'Flaherty Prize for Excellence in..."
"I'm not going and I'll Permanent Sticking Charm my bum to my desk chair if I have to..."
He weathered this storm for about half a minute and then held up a hand. Eventually, the tirades died away.
"I'm not giving you the sack," he said quietly. "I'm giving you more of a chance than the Death Eaters will. By the end of the week, Yaxley wants this office to represent the finest pureblood minds in journalism, but he has nothing to say about our freelancers. It might be months before he even thinks to pass a law that says a Muggle-born can't be our foreign correspondent to America or that the person covering the banking journals can't have spoken out in favor of the Muggle Protection. We will have an office of purebloods, as he requires, but if you permit it, the Prophet will keep on employing the finest minds in the wizarding world, no matter what their blood status."
"So, what, the purebloods get to be on the front lines and I'll be writing the Quidditch scores from the comfort of my summer home in Cork?" Jorgensen sneered.
"You will retain your salaries and benefits, but rather than finding yourselves out of a job in the new regime, you will ride out the storm under what protection I can provide."
This time, there were no protests, just sullen glares from a good two-thirds of the people in his office. I was one of the ones in that majority, since having a grandfather rumored to have been a Squib was making me lose what little position I had at the paper.
"Now," Cuffe said in a perfunctory tone, "if there are no more questions, we shall start with the winner of last year's O'Flaherty Prize for Excellence in Journalism, whom we payed nearly 5,000 Galleons last year. Are you determined to report Quidditch scores or would you, perhaps, like to take on one of the city desks? Our affiliate in Dublin would love to have someone of your expertise..."
"Oh, shut up," Jorgensen snapped. "You'll be paying me handsomely to be bored out of my mind. I'll take the next Knight Bus to the office on O'Connell and see what they can do to entertain me."
"Excellent," Cuffe said, making a note on his parchment. "Next, Ms. Braithewaite..."
I was doomed. They were going by seniority and I had as much of that as the new security guard downstairs. Quidditch scores, which I would have been only too happy to follow, went to Adele Robinson, the Muggle-born who usually covered Arts and Entertainment.
It was then that I remembered that this wasn't exactly where I had pictured myself three years out from Hogwarts. I had left school with the unfortunate knowledge that I didn't really have a career picked out. I had excelled in everything, but there were no jobs for general know-it-alls, no matter how many NEWTs they got.
Maybe this was the time to put aside my pride and decide once and for all if I wanted to use my Outstanding NEWT in Care of Magical Creatures or Exceeds Expectations mark in Ancient Runes.
Then again, with Death Eaters in control, I could find less creative ways to commit professional suicide.
"And last but not least, Miss Woodward."
I hadn't been paying attention at all. I couldn't even remember what options were still open to me, so I decided to be the soul of humility and hope for the best.
"I don't know," I confessed. "I'll do whatever needs doing as long as it's not covering the weather divinations column."
"I can handle that myself," Cuffe commented. "No one believes the storm-seers anyway and if I predict rain for most of the week, I'll be right half the time."
Cuffe sighed in a very put-upon kind of way.. "That's a once-weekly job currently held by a pureblood who breeds hippogriffs in his spare time," he said, "and we wouldn't be able to pay you full salary for such a specialized position as it is."
Of course, it was unreasonable to expect that I'd make as much writing 500 words a week as I did with 15,000.
"I don't suppose I can remain a low-ranking lackey in obits?" I asked hopefully. "No one notices me there, anyway."
"The obits are no longer a feature of the Prophet," Cuffe said. "Yaxley thinks..." His mouth twitched into an almost-smile. "They would be bad for morale. But I think you'd be well suited to advertising."
I wasn't any good at talking up worthless things, my work in classifieds aside. The rest of the gathered staff had trickled out to commiserate or say their fare-thee-wells in the outer office, so I was alone with Cuffe. I decided to haggle a little for the sake of not spending my days looking for the lowest price on wand polish..
"I'm not sure that's the best idea."
He gave me the sort of look that indicated I had better not overstep myself because he was being kinder to me than the circumstances warranted.
"I think you'd rather write adverts than work in the owlery," he said pointedly.
"Adverts can't that be bad," I decided quickly before he could make the threat stick. I hated making up catchy slogans and wording fine print, but I would rather take that than owl droppings. Being my mother's daughter, though, I couldn't give up with a little more debate. "There aren't any jobs available requiring a comparable skill level?"
If I had been given notice, I might have been able to research the laws on this sort of thing. Right to work and all of that. I was, after all, a former Ravenclaw and shouldn't have been caught without my homework done. Mr. Cuffe was kind enough not to mention that my employment was based on little experience and being generally good at a number of things. I didn't exactly have a skill level, just a talent for sympathy and careful wording.
"I'd prefer to give all of my..." He hesitated on the word. "Freelancers a comparable job, but in the current political climate..."
I didn't finish the sentence out loud, but mentally added "You'll have a job with little dignity for disproportionate pay and you'll be thankful for it."
Neither of us had anything to say for a few more moments. Finally, he shuffled a few pieces of parchment-mostly for show, I suspected-and gave me a winning grin.
"How do you feel about Mrs. Skower's Magical Mess Remover?"
I thought that I couldn't have sunk any lower than my original job, but if Adele could handle Quidditch with ten years tenure and several prizes, I could handle glorified soap with grace.
"I've never used it," I admitted.
"Perfect," Cuffe chuckled. "Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
He removed his wand and tapped it twice on the parchment. Before our eyes, the names on it vanished and the parchment folded itself neatly into the shape of an envelope before zooming into the bottom drawer of Mr. Cuffe's filing cabinet.
"You all have one week paid holiday coming to you," he announced. "Take that time to make what arrangements you need and let me know by owl where to send your new contracts."
I was going to spend the holiday researching defensive spells and grilling Mum about how far back we had to look to find a Muggle in the family tree. And then, maybe, I'd go see Nanny in Dover and ask her for more advice on waiting out a war.
"We'll see you in one year to renegotiate your positions," Cuffe promised. "Until then, we thank you for your hard work and hope to see you a lot less often."
It was the strangest benediction I'd ever heard, but with war looming on the horizon, I took what I could get.