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Playing Hero

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Cover of Playing Hero (Book 1)

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 Soundtrack: Way Down We Go - Kaleo

 Aster Jane Potter ground her teeth, her hands clutching her mobile so hard that she was sure that the device would eventually break under the strain.

 “I’m sorry, but Mr. Wayne is booked until the August 29th,” replied the sweetly condescending voice of Bruce Wayne’s assistant, over the phone. Aster wanted to reach through the mobile and hex the twit. ,

 The thought of making this woman snort out bats through her nose marginally calmed down Aster’s rising temper.  

 “I know that Mr. Wayne is a busy person,” Aster conceded, thinking that he was just probably busy buying another penis compensation of a car and shagging his way through the rest of the female population of Gotham City. “Mr. Wayne is an influential person in Gotham and his presence at the Pride Gala would do a lot to help the LGBT centre and a lot of disadvantaged—”

 “Mr. Wayne would, of course, consider giving a donation.”

 “Yes, a donation is always welcomed but—” Aster’s face flushed; her hand dipped towards the other sleeve where her long-sleeved blouse concealed her wand holster when there was a knock on the door. Since the assistant continues to talk over her, Aster muted the call, sure that the other woman wouldn’t notice.

 “Come in.”  

 The door opened, and Aster gave a tired smile as she recognised her first real friend in Gotham, Loren Marbury. They stood there in the doorway, a person about two centimetres or so shorter than her own 1.76 meters. They had short light blonde hair that fell around their head in a neat bob. Their face had delicate almost elfin type features,  high cheekbones, and uncharacteristically haunted blue eyes. Aster waved Loren in, and they nodded forcing a shade of their usually bright and bubbly smile that seemed to light up every room Loren walked through.

 Aster frowned dread pooling in her stomach. Shaking her head, Aster hurriedly unmuted the call and thanked the assistant politely for taking her call and that, of course, she would be available if Mr. Wayne changed his mind. She hung up the phone and quickly circled around the desk to hug her friend.  

 As Aster hugged them, she realised that Loren had lost a lot of weight. Aster stepped back out of the embrace and studied their features. Their face was dangerously gaunt, and there were dark circles under Loren’s eyes.

 “Are you okay?”

 Loren’s mouth stretched into a wide grin.“I’m fine, more than fine actually!”  they chirped in that familiar southern accent, as their eyes darted around the office and to the door.  Loren looked back at Aster, and the corners of their lips started to slide off of their face before it was pasted right back at with apparently forced earnestness.

 “I got some wonderful news!” Loren announced excitedly as they took a seat in a guest chair.  Instead of going back to her chair, she perched on the corner of her desk. Aster’s arms crossed as she frowned at her friend.

 “So, I finally quit Candies.”

 Aster gasped, her eyes going wide with shock.  Loren had been working as a stripper at Candy Girls  Strip Club since before Aster moved to Gotham. The place was a cesspool, and the customers were creeps.  Aster had been begging her friend to quit forever, but Loren stubbornly refused. Least to say it had been the start of many arguments.

 “Oh my god, Loren!” Aster shot up and hugged her friend. “I’m so proud of you.”

 Loren hugged her back but looked away once again to throw a glance at the door.

 “Do you have another job lined up?” Aster asked excitedly. “You know Mr. Janney was complaining how short-staffed we are here after the whole...” She was the one to dart a look at the door this time before whispering. “The whole embezzlement scandal.”

 Aster felt a little silly whispering it, but her tyrant of a boss Robert Janney had banned all talk about how the almost the whole upper management was caught embezzling from the centre. Not that she wasn’t grateful for being promoted to -- read: forced into -- being Event Coordinator despite the fact she was categorically rubbish at it.

 Loren wrung their hands, and that feeling of dread that had been building since her friend’s arrival rose steadily up inside of Aster.  

 “Lo, what’s going on?” Aster asked, concerned.

 Loren finally looked up to meet Aster’s green eyes, “I’m leaving Gotham.”

 It felt like all of the air had been sucked out of the room. “What?”

 Besides, Ron and Hermione, who were all way across the pond in England,  Loren was her best friend. They were always either exchanging texts and calls or Loren would often drag her out of the office on Friday nights to make sure she had ‘fun’.  Loren’s version of fun was doing pub crawls, watching terrible rom-coms at their flat, and trying to set Aster on a series of lousy blind dates. Yet, despite all of that Loren had taken up the empty space in her lonely life and she suddenly didn’t know what to do without Loren in it.

 “I-I got a new job lined up working at Nordstroms in Metropolis, and I’m applying to Metropolis University.”

 Aster blinked back tears, “I’m so proud bloody proud of you, mate.”   Aster was entirely telling the truth. Despite her own despair at losing her friend,  Aster was really happy for them, this was all she had wanted for Loren. Loren was brilliant, but for all of Loren’s intelligence, they somehow had slipped through the cracks.

 “So, how does Gio feel all about this?”

 Loren froze, their eyes wide and filling with unshed tears.  They sniffled and wiped away their tears. “It doesn’t matter what Giovany thinks.”

 “What?” This was so unlike Loren. Giovany Brizzi and Loren had been together for four years, and they were that couple.  Loren and Giovany were utterly in love, they were always all over each other and were practically attached to the hip. Come to think of it, Aster was pretty shocked that she hadn’t even noticed the mountain of a man’s absence.

 “W...What happened?” Aster asked, shocked.

 Loren shrugged, “We grew apart. It happens to the best of them.”

 “Bollocks!”

 Loren uncharacteristically threw a resentful glare at Aster. They shot up to their feet. “It’s none of your business, okay?!”

 Taken aback, Aster put her hands up. “I’m sorry, but this is not like you Loren.”

 “You just can’t be happy for me,” Loren shot back.

 “I am happy for you,” Aster hurried to reassure them but finally sighed. “But this is all so sudden.”

 Loren sighed, a shaking hand through their hair. “I’m sorry, but this is how it is.”

 Aster slumped, utterly defeated. “When are you leaving?”

 “My bus leaves tomorrow.”

 Aster mouth dropped, “So sudden?”

 “Yeah, I start the new job in a few days, and I wanted to get a move on.”

 ‘Liar’ Aster wanted to protest, but the rise of Loren’s chin told her that there was nothing she could say to change their mind. “Can I at least drive you to the bus station?”

 Loren shook their head. “No, that’s okay. I already got a ride.’

 Aster sighed, “Okay.”

 Loren hugged her, and Aster held her friend close to her as a wave of sadness flowed through her.

 “This is only goodbye for now,” Loren tried to reassure Aster.  “Besides, I’m going to be sending you texts, emails, and all the postcards, so much you will probably get sick of me.”

 Aster snorted and wiped away the tears that had finally fallen down her cheeks.  “Never.”

 Loren stepped back and smiled. “See you around, Ash.”

 “See you around,  Lo.”

 And with that Loren turned and walked out of the room. As Aster watched Lauren’s retreating back, she couldn’t shake the feeling of foreboding.


 Soundtrack: Change - Lana Del Rey

The rest of the day crawled at an infuriatingly slow pace. Aster had a million things she had to do to get ready for the centre’s Pride Gala. Aster still had vendors to call, press releases to write, invoices to fill out, and she still hadn’t picked up a dress.

 Yet, despite Aster’s best intentions, the meeting with Loren earlier that afternoon haunted her. Aster’s Auror instincts couldn’t quite shake that Loren was in some type of trouble. Her thoughts kept replaying the earlier meeting. The breakup with Gio, the way Loren looked like they hadn’t slept in days, and how jumpy Loren was.

 Finally, finally, it was the end of the day. Aster looked at her messy desk. Papers, folders, and discarded empty cups on every surface. Aster sighed, she was going to have to take her work home with her again.  Wincing, Aster started to sort through the paperwork, shoving what was important into her magically expanded briefcase.

Aster grabbed her purse, turned off the lights, locked the door, and hurried out of the office. Abruptly, Robert Janney, an older man in his late fifties in a tailored expensive navy blue suit and slicked back brown and grey hair, unknowingly passed her. ‘He's probably heading to my office to harass me about the Pride Gala,’ Aster thought sourly to herself. After her earlier blunder with Wayne’s assistant and her complete inability to tell a convincing lie, Aster knew he would get the whole sorry affair out of her in no time.

 Aster quickly cast a notice-me-not spell, throwing a guilty look at the receptionist, Samirah Niazi, who was in a cute lavender hijab today, answering phone calls. Aster would typically stop to chat about the office gossip which Samirah had a seamless pipeline into. Today, however, Aster hurried out the building, into the busy streets of Gotham to her favourite place to apparate was an abandoned office building a few blocks away.

 It took Aster no time to get there, despite being pushed and shoved as the mass of people hurried off to get to their destination.  Once inside the building, Aster took out her wand and thought about home and her beloved dog Sirius (named of course after her beloved Godfather)  who would be eagerly awaiting his meal. Aster smiled ruefully to herself, her dog would be whining pitifully like he had hadn’t ate in days instead of merely hours.

 Then her thoughts wandered back to Loren and Aster sighed in resignation. There was no way Aster could ignore all of her gut instincts that told her Loren was in trouble. For the first time in over a year, Aster couldn’t push aside her visceral need to save people. She sighed; Sirius would just have to wait a little longer than usual. Aster apparated in an alley behind the old abandoned sweet shop in the Narrows, about two blocks away from Loren’s flat, and with a pop, Aster disappeared.

 


 Soundtrack: Kids (Ain't All Right) - Grace Mitchell

Aster arrived in the alleyway with a pop. A stray cat who sat on top of dustbin fell onto the ground and hissed at her before running away. Aster recast the notice-me-not spell and decided to add a muggle-repelling charm on herself as well, for good measure. This was probably the worst neighbourhood in Gotham. And since this was Gotham City, that was saying a lot.

 She hurried out of the alley into a street that was the very definition of run-down. Shops with bars on the windows that made them look more like fortresses than shops. Dotted in between the shops were abandoned buildings with graffiti all over the walls, some sagging in their foundation, the doors and windows boarded up. Honestly, they looked worse than Aster’s own house that had sat abandoned for well over fifty years. As Aster was walking down the street, she passed a few homeless people sitting in doorways, laying on benches. On the corner, there was drug dealer nonchalantly selling drugs in under an unlit street lamp.   

 Aster shook her head. This was so typical of Gotham. From what she initially researched before she moved here that the city didn’t quite recover from the 2008 recession and neighbourhoods similar to the Narrows outnumbered the ones that came out from the recession unscathed.

 With a sigh, Aster quickly went down the street until she spotted Loren’s block of flats. It was just as run-down as the rest of the road. As Aster cast an Alohomora and made her way inside, she immediately noticed that the interior was just as horrid as the outside. Peeling paint, graffiti on the walls, trash everywhere, and it smelled oddly of piss.

 Aster noticed the lift but groaned in frustration when she spotted the out of order sign taped to it. She would have tried to apparate straight to the flat, but it would gather too much attention. Aster put a wandless cushioning spell on her heels and hurriedly climbed up the stairs.

 With her heart pounding in her chest. Aster was panting for air, as she climbed step after step. When Aster finally, finally, got to the fifth floor she idly thought maybe she wasn’t as in shape as she thought was.

 After taking a moment to catch her breath, she made her way across the long narrow hallway that had long stretch doors on either side. It took no time for Aster to find Loren’s apartment, the door was open. A shrill scream rang out, and her wand was instantly in her hand.

 Had this been fifteen years ago and Aster was still in  Hogwarts, she would have just stormed through the doors, wand at the ready. After five years of Auror training, and two years of being on hormones, Aster’s physical strength had significantly decreased. It was one of the many reasons Aster was ordinarily hesitant to jump impulsively into a fight. Unfortunately, with her friend in trouble she had little choice in the matter.

 Aster opened up her briefcase, thankful that she took it near enough everywhere. She reached deep down into it and, pulled out a pouch of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. Then she cast a spell that would make her see in the dark. Aster took off her heels, and crept closer towards the door, before she opened the pouch and slowly opened the door a bit wider, throwing a good pinch of the powder into the room.

 “What the fuck?”

 “Who turned off the lights!”

 Aster hurried inside, rage boiling inside of her at the sight of two men who were looming over what was obviously Loren’s prone figure. With a  sharp whip of her wand and Aster shouted: “Stupefy!” Both men immediately went rigid and fell to the floor with two distinctive THUDS. Aster hurriedly stepped over the prone bodies of the men and knelt down beside her friend.

 She took their pulse. It was steady, and they had bumps and bruises and a quiet spectacular black eye, but Loren looked to be okay.

 Panting, adrenaline pumped into Aster’s veins as she looked at the prone bodies around her and groaned. “How in Merlin’s name am I going to explain this to the police?” ”