“Nothing like a powder over here,” says Charlie, tossing a human skull casually over his shoulder. It tumbles down the pile of Dark objects he’s been sorting through, and lands face-down at my toes. “But, hey, here’s an old Celestina Warbeck record. I wouldn’t call that Dark Magic, exactly, although I guess some people might consider it torture.”

“Yeah, no dice here,” I sigh, craning my neck to scan a long shelf of daggers, coiled whips, and assorted nasty-looking devices. “A lot of whips, though. Do you think those are for Dark Magic, or is it just a sex thing?”

“Could be both,” says Charlie thoughtfully. “We could inquire with the shopkeeper, if you’re that interested.”

“Ha, ha,” I reply dryly. Then a glimmer of bone-white in my peripheral vision catches my attention. There’s a long, spiraled horn laid out across one of the upper shelves. It’s been lovingly polished and cared for. “Charlie,” I say, freezing where I stand. “Charlie, there’s an Erumpent horn in here.”

“What?” Charlie straightens up, rubbing his neck. Like me, he goes perfectly still when he sees the horn. “Blimey,” he says, wide-eyed. “That is super illegal.”

“Should we bring the shopkeeper in for it?” I mutter, not even daring to speak too loudly for fear that vibrations of sound might disturb the horn.

“Theoretically,” says Charlie out of the corner of his mouth. “Let’s go and see how Darren’s getting on with him.”

We tiptoe back to the front of the shop, where the disgruntled shopkeeper (a tiny, shriveled wizard with a black beard that reaches his knees) has been reluctantly answering Darren’s questions for the last ten minutes. The shopkeeper’s back is hunched, his arms crossed over his chest: everything about his body language indicates disinterest and dislike.

Darren, on the other hand, is clearly in his element. He turns to us as we approach, his eyebrows flying up in curiosity at our slow, careful movements. “What’s up? Find anything interesting?”

“Nothing to speak of,” says Charlie, shoving his hands into his pockets. Suddenly, he’s a picture of relaxation. I’m not sure what he’s up to, but I follow his lead, smiling at Darren and giving a little shrug. “What about you, learned anything useful?”

“No,” says Darren, glaring at the tiny shopkeeper. “Solomon here is not being particularly forthcoming.”

“Hmm, that’s a shame,” says Charlie sympathetically. Then he grins. “Oh, wait -- I’ve just remembered. Didn’t we see something odd back there, Smith? Something sort of long and pointy that definitely didn’t belong where it was?”

“Ah, yeah.” I nod, catching on. “Pretty sure that was an Erumpent horn, Holcombe. That’s a Class B Tradeable Material, which means you need a pretty serious license to carry one -- unless you want to risk paying a hundred-Galleon fine and spending a week in Ministry custody. Oh, and losing your General Trade License.”

“Wow, interesting,” says Darren, turning back to the shopkeeper with a predatory smile, like a wolf that’s chased its prey into a corner. “So, I s’pose you have a license, then?”

The shopkeeper’s face twists in a scowl. “What is it you want to know?” he spits.

“We were really just wondering if you’d heard any talk about a new poison on the market,” says Darren amiably. “You know, the same question I’ve been asking you for the last five minutes. That’s all.”

“I’ve heard rumors,” mutters the shopkeeper, looking away from us all. “Only rumors. Everyone’s heard them.”

“Would you care to elaborate a bit about the rumors?” says Darren, injecting each syllable with cloying pleasantness. “Sounds really interesting. Unless you’d like to take a trip to the Ministry, of course.”

The shopkeeper’s face screws up in anger, and for a moment I think he’s going to put up a fight. Then he lets out a long breath. “All right,” he says. “There’s been a lot of talk about a kind of poison that doesn’t kill you right away -- first it makes you lose your mind, go vicious, like a rabid creature. They just call it White Smoke.”

“Where is it coming from?” asks Darren immediately. “Who has access to it? Have you seen it before?”

The man shakes his head. “Just talk,” he grunts. “But the talk’s all over Knockturn Alley.”

“Who was the first person you heard the rumor from?” I ask, cutting in. “Do you remember?”

The man’s eyes scrunch up in his wrinkled face. “I couldn’t tell you, little Miss Auror. I hear a lot of things from a lot of places.”

“You must be really popular,” snaps Darren, his back snapping up straighter. “I’m sure you have a bustling social calendar to attend to, so we’ll leave you in peace now. Come on.”

He leads us out of the dim, dusty shop and into the bleak light of Knockturn Alley. It’s an improvement over the inside of Moribund’s Dark Artifacts, but still not an altogether agreeable environment. It’s not the place you’d want to build your summer home, put it that way. All the windows are layered with cobwebs and grime, and the people milling about look like they’ve never been introduced to the concept of bathing -- all except for one dark-haired young man who’s striding down the alley. It takes me a moment to recognize him without a bottle of Firewhiskey in his hand and Scorpius at his side.

Albus is a full head shorter than James, with a slightly stockier build. I remember him being angsty about his frame when we were all a bit younger: disappointed that he’d never be a star Chaser like James, or a Seeker like his dad. But according to Potter-Weasley family lore, he gets his sturdy build from his Uncle George and late Uncle Fred. One summer, George gave Albus a talking to and explained that although he might not be Chaser material, he’d make one hell of a Beater. That September, Albus made Beater on the Slytherin Quidditch team, and from then on he held his head a little higher in the corridors.

“Oi, Albus!” I call, grinning. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Albus blinks, looks around, and spots me.

“Hey, Fee,” he says, with his usual, agreeable smile. “Nice place for it. What’re you doing here?”

“Ministry business,” I tell him. Then I remember that Darren and Charlie are hovering at my side. “Oh, this is Darren Grimm and Charlie Holcombe, we all work together. Lads, this is--”

“Albus Potter,” says Charlie, nodding. “Everyone knows that, Smith.”

“What brings you to this forsaken corner of the planet?” I ask Albus, ignoring Charlie.

“Same as you, Ministry business,” says Albus. “There was a rumor about a bloke who had charmed some Muggle fire starters to explode when they heat up, which is seriously bad news, so I’m just having a look around here for him.”

“Sounds like fun,” I say, grinning. To his grandfather Weasley’s delight, Albus took an early interest in Muggle Studies, and ended up following his footsteps straight to the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office. Albus is a lot less eccentric about the whole business than his grandfather, but he’ll still corner anyone who mentions the word “electricity” and give them a twenty-minute lecture about copper wires.

“There’s a bloke in there who’s got an Erumpent horn,” says Darren suddenly, pointing over his shoulder at the shop we’ve just left. “Unlicensed. You should bring him in.”

“Yeah,” says Albus, looking surprised. “Thanks for the tip-off. I suppose I could bring him in and let the trade standards people have a go at him. Probably not going to catch my baddie around here, anyway.”

“No problem,” says Darren, nodding.

“Well, I’ll see you around, Albus,” I say, smiling in surprise when he leans forward to give me a quick, one-armed hug. Drunk Albus is always the huggy type, but it’s rarer to get a show of affection from his sober alter ego. “Say hi to Scorpius for me.”

As Albus moves away from me again, our eyes meet -- and some unspoken acknowledgement passes between us. His faces freezes for a second; his mouth opens and then abruptly closes. We must be thinking the same thing: Scorpius and Rose.

“Hey, do you want to stop by mine for dinner tonight?” he asks, just a little too offhandedly.

“Yeah,” I nod vigorously, understanding at once that he wants to have a gossip about the two of them. I haven’t had a chance to confer with Jasper yet about Rose’s news, and I’m dying to swap stories with Albus, who always has the inside scoop on Scorpius. “Definitely. I’ll pop over around seven?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Cool.”

Albus disappears into Moribund’s to apprehend the shriveled shopkeeper, and Darren, Charlie, and I continue our stroll down Knockturn Alley. My thoughts of Rose and Scorpius subside for a moment, and something strikes me. “Hey,” I say, glancing at Darren. “Why’d you set Albus on that guy? He cooperated with us pretty well, once we had some leverage.”

Darren doesn’t look at me. “Didn’t like the way he talked to you,” he says after a minute. “He called you ‘little Miss Auror.’ It pissed me off.”

I squint at his profile, caught between surprise, suspicion, and another emotion that feels oddly like comradeship. Sneering git though he may generally be, as we continue down Knockturn Alley I find myself actually liking him -- which is even weirder than being suddenly attracted to Ragnar. Then I remember how he treated Lorna Whitlock during yesterday’s meeting, and the surge of goodwill dies down. One second he’s disrespecting female coworkers, the next second he’s standing up for them. The boy’s a complete mystery to me.

“We haven’t been in there, yet,” says Charlie, pointing to another squalid shop. “Shall we?”

“Yeah, might as well,” says Darren gruffly, ducking through the door.

The day drags on in an endless montage of unfriendly shopkeepers and grotesque Dark paraphernalia. I hate to admit it, but I’m glad I’ve got Darren and Charlie with me. Their small talk brightens the dark corners of Knockturn Alley, and the more I see them in action, the more obvious it becomes that the two of them are Aurors for a reason: they’re both deadly at their jobs. By the end of the day, I’m feeling so magnanimous toward them that I agree to stop by the Leaky Cauldron for a pint before heading home.

“Here’s to Class B Tradeable Materials,” says Darren, raising his glass of Firewhisky. Despite what was drilled into my head back in training, it doesn’t seem like other Aurors show a lot of restraint when it comes to drinking.

I raise my mug of Butterbeer and take a big, foamy gulp. I’ve always loved the Leaky Cauldron, but it feels even warmer and cozier than ever in contrast to the dinginess of Knockturn Alley. The pub is bustling with people and filled with the sounds of laughter and cheerful conversation. Is this what normal people’s lives are like? I wonder.

“I didn’t even remember that you can lose your General Trading License for that,” says Charlie, grinning. “Nice memory, Smith.”

“Yeah, we had our doubts about you at first, but you’re pretty useful after all,” says Darren cheekily, nudging my arm with his elbow.

“Don’t be too quick to say that,” I tell him, laughing. “You’ve never seen me in a duel.”

“What, are you crap at dueling?” asks Charlie with interest.

“Obviously she’s not crap at dueling,” says Darren, rolling his eyes. “You can’t be crap at dueling and pass the Auror Examination.”

“I’m just not confident about it,” I admit, shrugging and going in another fortifying sip of Butterbeer. “I was all right in practicals, but I’ve never been in a real duel -- in the field, you know -- and I s’pose I’m always a little worried that I might freeze up.”

“You do know that you can get a refresher course anytime you want it, don’t you?” says Darren. I shake my head, and he frowns. “Yeah, Aurors and Hit-Wizards can get a course of dueling lessons whenever. They want us to keep our skills sharp, you know. And there’s a sparring rotation as well. You know that bit of parchment posted on the inside of the break room door?”

“The weird grid thing?” I ask.

“Yeah, that.” Darren nods. “You can just put your name on there, and you get matched with a different person to spark with each week, just to practice. The office assistant organizes it -- you know, the sort of dour looking, disagreeable bloke.”

“Oh,” I say, surprised. “Cool.”

“I can’t think why Ragnar wouldn’t have told you all that,” Darren continues, his expression darkening. “Too busy with his personal life to take care of his own team, I s’pose.”

Charlie makes a scathing noise, and I blink, unsure of what to say. It would’ve been nice to have known about these resources earlier, especially as we’re working on such a high-profile case. But they’re hardly being fair to Ragnar, who’s dealing with multiple important cases.

“You really dislike him,” is all I can muster.

Charlie sighs. Darren throws a cautious glance around the pub as if to make sure that Ragnar isn’t listening over his shoulder, and then leans closer to me.

“Look, you probably think we’re a couple of gits who a problem with authority,” he says heavily. “But the truth is, Ragnar’s bad news for the Auror Office. He’s had a dazzling career, been involved in some really glamorous cases. He’s all set up to take over for Potter some day. But he’s not the man people think he is.”

“First of all,” intercedes Charlie, “there’s the whole sordid business with his wife. I mean, it’s their relationship, whatever, they can shag as many people as they want. But you’re high up in the Ministry and your name is getting dragged through the mud on a daily basis, it’s time to grow up. It reflects on us badly, you know? Makes people think we’re all corrupt.”

“Does Ragnar’s name get dragged through the mud on a daily basis?” I ask, feeling a bit lost.

“Glance through the Witch Weekly gossip columns sometime,” says Charlie gloomily.

“There are rumors about him around the office,” Darren cuts in vehemently. “You haven’t been around for long enough to have heard them, but believe me, those stories would shake anyone’s confidence.”

“Rumors about what?” I’m at a complete loss to imagine what Ragnar could have supposedly done to make Darren and Charlie feel this way about him.

“Like tampering with evidence,” says Darren. “Like doing everything he could, even if it was illegal, to make sure that whoever he thought was responsible got convicted so that he’d look good in the papers.”

What?” I say, stunned. I remind myself that these are just rumors, and there might be no truth to them at all. Still, it’s hard to see why someone would invent the kind of stories Darren is describing.

“Yeah, so now you know,” says Darren, leaning back in his chair. “Ragnar’s not all he’s cracked up to be.”

I’ve never been inside of Albus’ flat before, but it’s about what I would’ve expected: a complete disaster. The table in the sitting room only has three legs; one corner is being held up with a stack of old Hogwarts textbooks. There’s a hoard of Muggle comic books scattered across it, as well as an impressive collection of dirty plates and empty bottles. On the floor beside the sofa sits a baffling object that looks like a giant, metal knot.

“It’s a car engine,” Albus informs me cheerfully, tipping a box of Chinese food into my waiting hands. “I think I tipped the delivery man right, I always try to be careful with Muggle money but it’s devilishly tricky.”

“Yeah, they could’ve thought of an easier system,” I say, shaking my head. “I mean, you’ve got the papers, you’ve got the coins, it’s a lot to remember.”

“Bless them,” says Albus fondly. He sits down in an armchair and digs into his box of slippery noodles. The spends a long time chewing, then clears his throat and leans forward over the coffee table. “So. How about Rose and Scorpius?”

I laugh. “I knew that’s why you invited me over. Do you think we’re the only two people in London who know?”

“Well, aside from Rose and Scorpius,” says Albus. “Yeah, we probably are.”

“Aside from Scorpius,” I correct him, grinning. “Rose can’t actually remember who she shagged. I wasn’t certain it was Scorpius until I saw you this afternoon. The look on your face confirmed it.”

“Cracking detective skills, as usual,” says Albus, looking a little abashed. “I guess I sort of spilled the beans, then. The thing is...” He frowns, looking down into his box of noodles. “That changes things, Rose not remembering.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, Scorpius Flooed over right away to brag about it,” says Albus, rolling his eyes. “As in, I’d barely gotten back from Jasper’s flat, I was getting into bed to sleep off all the Firewhiskey, and then all of a sudden -- there’s Scorpius, standing over me and grinning like a lunatic.”

“That’s why he left afterwards,” I realize, shaking my head in revulsion. “Because he had to tell someone about it. That’s bloody disgusting.”

“I think he was just really, really pleased with himself,” says Albus with a shrug. “I mean, it’s been a long time coming. It would’ve been nice if he had glossed over some of the finer details, seeing as Rose is my cousin, but it’s Scorpius. Anyway, he was hammered, that might have been the drunkest he’s ever been. He got sick all over my sofa right after he told me.” Albus pauses thoughtfully, and I shift gingerly on the sofa cushions. “I think I’d better tell him Rose doesn’t remember. If I know Scorpius, he’s been gleefully planning his next move since he woke up on Sunday. And I know Scorpius.”

“Ah.” I make a face. “Yeah, wouldn’t want to get the poor fella’s hopes up.”

“Are you going to tell Rose?” asks Albus. “Or just leave it?”

“That’s a tough call.” I slurp up a mouthful of noodles and think it over while I chew. “On one hand, she has a right to know the truth. On the other hand, I think it’d destroy her self-respect.”

“Scorpius isn’t that bad,” says Albus indignantly.

“I don’t think he is,” I agree. “But it’s Rose. She’s had a vendetta against him ever since he got it into his head that he fancied her.”

“Maybe we should just leave it,” says Albus, “and things will go back to normal.”

“Yeah.” I shrug. I’m not sure what to do with this new information. Telling Rose would probably be the right thing to do, as I’m supposed to be her friend and whatnot, but then how would I explain where I’d gotten the information? I can hardly tell her that Albus and I had a get-together just to gossip about her.

“So, er,” Albus is peering up at me cautiously over a forkful of noodles. “How has it been, being back in London? We haven’t really gotten a chance to talk properly since you’ve been back.”

“What, because every time we’ve seen each other, we’ve both been drunk out of our minds?” I laugh. “It’s been okay. Nice to be able to hang out with your lot again, obviously. Work’s been a mess, but a really interesting mess. So, yeah, all in all, pretty good.”

“To be honest…” Albus is still giving me that faltering, searching look. “Well, we were just a bit worried that we wouldn’t see much of you, because of the whole business with James. I know this is weird, I just thought someone ought to tell you that we’re all glad to have you back.”

“Thanks,” I say, feeling stunned by this sudden gesture of kindness. Albus has always been a nice guy, but not exactly an expressive one. I attempt a smile. “Although I’m not sure you’re all glad to have me back.”

“Ignore James,” says Albus, shaking his head. “Look, you had no way of knowing it, but he was in bits after you left. He was a nightmare to be around, always in a temper and -- well, you know James. I think that was why he avoided you when you visited last year, and why he’s been a bit cold since you got back. It’s his way of moving on.”

Moving on. James is moving on. Suddenly, my stomach feels queasy. I stir my noodles around in the box. Have I moved on? I wonder. Is that what the whole business with Xavier was, me moving on? Is it really that easy to forget about someone you used to love: just find another partner and the happy memories will fade away?

“I suppose,” I say lightly, taking a bite to give my mouth something to do.

Albus and I chat for a while, finishing up our noodles. Afterwards, I head home, throw on a pair of ancient pajamas, and hop into bed with a tin of biscuits and my childhood copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I’m hoping to lose myself in the old stories for a few hours and then drift off peacefully to bed, but try as I might, I can’t concentrate on Babbity Rabbity.

Moving on. The phrase keeps popping up in my head, making me frown and reach for biscuit after biscuit. James is moving on, and maybe that changes everything. I had taken his dismissive and disinterested behavior to mean that he was jealous of me and Xavier, or that he didn’t like painful reminders of our breakup. But maybe those explanations seemed palatable to me because they meant that, in some way, I was still the center of James’ universe. And if the truth is that he’s just done, he doesn’t care, he wants me to be a stranger -- in other words, that he wants to move on -- then I suppose he has a right to do that.

I close the book gently and set it aside, then burrow more deeply into my bed. I’ll keep my distance from now on, I decide, squeezing my eyes shut. I’ll stay away from Potter-Weasley dinners. I won’t insert myself into his life if he doesn’t want me there.

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