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and the mermaid drowned

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✠ | The highest concentration of deathworkers in the United Kingdom has always, historically, resided in a tight-knit cluster in London, and they've been there since the area was called Tuiccanham, ceded to the Bishop of London at the turn of the eighth century in a charter that was signed with twelve crosses: one for each of the bishop's delegates they put in the ground. They've largely been left alone since then: Tuiccanham became Twickenham, an area known for its attractive tree-lined boulevards, its magnificent manors and grottos.

You've never been there, but you heard it's nice, for a deathworker town.

 

✠ | The laws in your country regarding cursework are incredibly strict. The fines for showing skin below the wrist in a public place are, frankly, frightening, and the way people went very still and quiet when a puppy in a pet shop playfully tugged your glove off with its teeth when you were six made you think somebody had just died; you've never forgotten it.

The stricter the rules, the less likely the infraction, is supposedly how that one goes.

You suppose it's just their way of making up for Australia. It's the only country in the world where cursework is legal, since it was largely colonized by penal workers who decided that, given the high volume of workers in the population, cursework was much better off legislated, legalized, and supported than systematically crushed or swept under the rug. The UK only tightened its control on cursework in response, as if to prove that anything the Australians could do, had to be wrong.

 

✠ | Your mother is a physical worker. You know this the way you know her hair is red, her cheeks are round, and she develops a dank, chesty cough every time the weather gets cold that never really goes away.

Whenever you were ill as a child, feeling achy and sniffly and like your head weighed more than your neck, your mother would make you a bowl of soup and tuck you into your parents' bed, smoothing your hair back with her bare hands and singing to you until you fell asleep, nestled snug under their heavy quilt, and you always felt right as rain when you woke up again. You'd just assumed she was magic.

Charlie takes after her. He works at the Sea Life Aquarium down on the South Bank in Lambeth, and one time your family had the aquarium director and her husband over for dinner. Your mother got all flushed and pleased when, over pudding, the director told you all that she's never seen the animals get so calm as they do when Charlie gets in a tank with them. It'll do wonders for their longevity, being so low-stressed.

"He's just got that touch," your mother says, beaming.

 

✠ | Deathworkers tend to marry deathworkers, and their children tend to be deathworkers, too. By all accounts, that makes no sense, because there's nothing about the hyperbathagammic gene that suggests particular types of cursework are hereditary. Yet, cool as you please, the deathworker families that live in Twickenham almost always birth more deathworkers.

(They probably do it out of spite, now that you think about it.)

Your whole family are workers. You can trace the hyperbathagammic gene up your family tree back to when William the Conqueror got it into his head that he wanted a private island and only the British isles would do.

Not all of you do cursework, of course -- Percy makes a point of never taking his gloves off, even inside the house, and your father leads by example and has to periodically remind the twins to be careful, which they always take to mean don't get caught. But you're still workers, the same way you are still red-headed, still freckled, still poor; the potential is still there. People who know what you are always try to pretend they're not uncomfortable when they have to talk to you on the street.

"They outnumber us ten to one," her father tells you quietly, when you come into his study, asking if he could work some good dreams for you, maybe ones with dinosaurs? "And they are afraid of us. Never underestimate what a dangerous combination that is."

 

✠ | You are eleven the first time you meet a deathworker. Your father promised you to take you to the book market underneath the Waterloo bridge when he's done with work, because you're looking for a copy of the Phantom Tolbooth and books there are only, like, £3, and you've got that in your pocket right now, so you've been tagging along behind him all afternoon. Your legs are very short and his strides are very long, and with every step, the moneybag hanging from his utility belt clinks. Your father checks parking meters and gives tickets for a living, and he always gets in trouble with his supervisors because he'll throw tickets away if people come out and apologize and move their cars immediately. They call him soft.

You sit in the bus shelter and kick your legs and watch as he punches into his ticket device, standing in front of a silver car with strange, blueish LED headlights that's parked right at the kerb in an area that says "KEEP CLEAR - BUS" on it in really big letters. The ticket churns out, and he rips it off.

Just then, a man comes bustling out of the nearest door, yelling. He's got on a dark green peacoat that flaps open, and his hair is very long, silvery and blonde; hair rarely stays that blonde after the age of three, so you wonder if it comes from a bottle.

Your father adopts an expression of polite disinterest, and tucks the ticket under the windshield wiper.

The man yells louder, red in the face now, and then -- you scream -- starts to take his glove off, finger-by-finger. Two strangers in orange construction vests leap down from the nearby scaffolding and tackle him to the ground, but not before you see the three blackened stubs where his fingers used to be.

 

✠ | That man's name Lucius Malfoy. You learn this because you stick a big wad of chewing gum in his son's hair the next year: you get in so much trouble and they call in your mother to have a Talk, but it's worth it. He'd been making fun of Ron, and, fine, not about anything you haven't made fun of him for hundreds of times before, but it's somehow completely different when it's coming from somebody else. There's being a sister, and then there's just being a right prick.

 

✠ | The problem is, Draco is on your radar after that, and you are on his. There's always one person who makes that sour first impression that stains every interaction thereafter, and Draco Malfoy is yours: you start grinding your teeth whenever you hear his voice, with that horrible "I should have gone to Eton, but I just couldn't be bothered with the whole thing" accent of his. He comments to his friends, very loudly, how glad he is that his parents are getting him a new phone. He wasn't eligible for an upgrade, originally, but it was just so traumatic, having to shave all his hair off like that, that they're going through with it anyway.

He glances sidelong to make sure you've heard, and you clench your fists inside your pockets, because your mobile used to be Percy's and doesn't even have messaging.

The one time he catches you on your own, it's in a Tesco Express, and you don't spot him until it's too late to leave without being really obvious. All you want is a bag of Walkers, because your usual bus route has been diverted due to all the construction going on in the East End and now takes forty-five minutes longer to get you home, and you get awful peckish before that time's up, but he spots you before you can join the queue.

For a fleeting second, you wish one of your brothers were here.

"Hello, Weasley," Draco goes on a long drawl. His gloves are fitted, black, and his jumper is so soft-looking you can practically smell Regent Street on it. "Fancy this coincidence."

You say nothing, and shuffle along with the queue when it moves. Six brothers taught you long ago that the quickest way to annoy somebody is to pretend they don't exist, so you feign deafness.

Draco's undaunted. He leans against the shelves and says, casual, "You know, I've never asked, seeing as you're so far beneath my notice, but what kind of cursework do you do? Family like yours, you have to do something. Or are you trying to keep quiet about it? Can't be an embarrassment like those brothers of yours. How many times have they been cited for indecent exposure?"

Fred and George do dream work and emotion work, respectively, and they've never confessed to doing the same thing twice, so no one outside of family has ever been certain who does what, exactly. They don't share your father's discretion, but none of those charges have ever stuck.

The woman in front of you in the queue is openly staring, two bargain bottles of wine tucked under one arm. You really wish you'd just gone to the newsagent's instead.

 

✠ | You don't say anything about that incident, nor the two that follow.

Things work differently for the deathworkers of Twickenham. Nothing ever sticks to them. It's as if that much money congregated in one place changes all of the rules that the rest of you have to live by. You know for a fact that Lucius Malfoy was never charged for indecent exposure after what he did to your father, and that's the kind of privilege they're raising Draco into as well. Twickenham is a deathworker town, and deathworkers work, well, quietly.

 

✠ | The only memory worker you know is Neville Longbottom, who has asked you to a few school functions and always treated you like a gentleman. Colin, a fairly twee boy in your year who keeps on trying to get you to come to his photo club after you said it looked cool once, tells you that you can do so much better, but you don't see why you would want to. Neville is perfectly lovely, if forgetful.

He never tells you. The only reason you know is you overheard the teachers talking about it by the vending machines once: Neville's memory is abysmal because, when he was just a child, they (you never learn who "they" are) used him to wipe his parents' memory completely, thus preventing them from testifying. His parents are still in hospital, and the blowback left Neville unable to even remember left from right without using his fingers.

When you were younger, you often wished you were a memory worker. How much easier would your life be if you could just make people forget things, or remember things that never happened?

After you meet Neville, you stop thinking that.

 

✠ | Sometimes, you get this restless feeling under your skin, like nothing you make or do or say has any meaning, so why are you pretending?

It usually gets like this after Fred or George get taken in again or your father faces an inquiry at work because some sore loser got a ticket and had a weird dream that night or Draco Malfoy starts a rumor that you took off your gloves for him after Friday's match. You start wondering why cursework is illegal, why the normal world hates everything that you are, why respect isn't something you can just take?

But then you catch Neville's eyes across the grounds, and he gives you that smile and a wave, like he just wants to say hello and won't be insulted if you don't acknowledge him, and you remember again.

You're used to your family, but the rest of the world never forgets that cursework is often used for evil.

 

✠ | There are no living transformation workers.

You know, because your country was responsible for the last one, and that's not an experience anybody is eager to repeat anytime soon.

Your mother met him once. "You were all such wee things back then," she peers around at you all, like she's surprised to see herself surrounded by adults instead of the children who clung to her apron strings and cried when they were sick until she worked them. "Ginny hadn't even been born yet. I was coming out of the A&E at Mile End with Charlie and there he was, cool as you please, waiting by admissions. Had on this big, ugly cloak and he'd transformed himself, changed his face so that --"

She gestures vaguely around her nose and eyes, and you don't need her to elaborate. You all know how to work Google: Voldemort wore many disguises over the course of his career, and there are probably several deaths that have never been properly attributed to him, but towards the end, he used to favor the inhuman, the reptilian.

"-- later, as I was thinking about it, that must have been right after he killed the Fawcetts. Turned them into a locket, remember, that broke them into two? Wore it around his neck for a week. Oh, quick, somebody talk about something cheerful, I've got shivers."

You were seven weeks old when he died. He was killed by his own blowback, and Harry Potter remains the only person who's ever survived being transformed into an inanimate object and back.

 

✠ | Your brother Ron is a luck worker.

This doesn't really mean much, because Bill's one, too, and so's Percy, so it's not like he's a rarity in your family or anything. Something like 65% of all hyperbathagammic are luck workers; some go their whole lives without ever knowing. It's hard to tell, is the thing, what's good luck and what's cursework, what's bad luck and what's a luck worker's ill-wishes.

You're pretty sure Percy's never worked a day in his life. He's never going to stop trying to live his own name down, and probably finds the sight of his own bare hands scandalous. Your father tells you that you should let Percy be his own person, and your mother's torn between pride in your curseworking heritage and hurt because Percy thinks that same heritage is shameful, and the rest of you think he's a git. Being a worker and not using it ... that's like having a lovely operatic voice and then getting a desk job and never singing again.

You don't know if Bill uses his luck work. If he does, he's done a very good job of hiding it. He has a job at a bank in Switzerland, always seems to get concert tickets two days before they officially go on sale, and is engaged to a French race car driver who has a permanent guest spot on BBC's top-ranking period drama of the year, but that might just be because Bill is ten times cooler than everybody else.

Hypothetically, if a luck worker only works good luck, then he'll only ever experience good luck as blowback, but you've lived with Ron your whole life, and the good luck always just seems to happen to other people.

You catch him touching the nape of Harry Potter's neck once with the bare back of a knuckle, saying, mate, you've got a loose thread. You widen your eyes at him, and he shrugs back, discreetly pulling his glove back on.

The next day, Harry asks Cho Chang out.

"Yeah, well," is all Ron says, and he's smiling.

 

✠ | The Malfoys host extravagant parties; you know, because Draco can reliably be expected to brag about them the next day. All the deathworker families in Twickenham invite each other around for elaborate get-togethers with cocktails and the kind of hors d'oeuvres that are probably illegal in a few countries and shouldn't be allowed anywhere near an open flame, if only for the purpose of mocking each other at length as soon as they leave.

Slughorn's Christmas party is the first time you ever set foot in that town. It's fifty minutes away by Tube, and you have to transfer lines twice. You tell your mother you're going to Hermione's.

You're invited because your team's going to the national championships, and everybody knows you're the best player on the team. It probably isn't fair that Slughorn invited you and not the other girls, but you're the youngest of seven and rarely get any kind of recognition, so you're willing to be selfish about this.

Most of the the young Twickenham crowd is there, even though you're pretty sure the only one who was actually invited was Blaise Zabini. There's no point in telling the rest of them where they should and shouldn't be.

"Doesn't it scare you?" Draco asks you. Christmas lights are strung all along the edge of the terrace, and fake, glittering icicles hang from the awning. You can see the pinprick of light reflected in his eyes from how close he's standing. "Being here?"

"What, on the terrace?" you reply, dry. "Terrified. I'm pretty sure I saw Pansy vomiting in this flowerpot earlier," you point helpfully. "I can see how that might frighten you."

He scowls, and you brighten. "It's okay, I'll protect you!" you reassure him, because after ignoring him didn't work, you learned the quickest way to annoy Draco Malfoy was to remind him that you were, in fact, female, and could still do better than him in everything you try.

He swallows down a retort, and then straightens his shoulders. "You know what I mean," he says darkly. "You're in our court, Weasley. We could do anything to you."

He lifts one hand so close to your face you wonder for one bizarre moment if he's actually going to touch your cheek, but then you see the holes cut into the fingers of his gloves. The flesh underneath is pale, smooth, and grey in the low light, like a worm's.

You burst out laughing.

"Oh, Draco," you say at the outraged look on his face, and your voice goes low and affectionate entirely against your will, because that was adorable. "Don't embarrass yourself. You can't work me. You're not a worker."

Something flashes in his eyes. From inside, you can hear the faint sounds of idle chatter, Slughorn's booming laugh, and a violin overture to Lady Gaga's Telephone.

You take the opportunity to muse, since you have his full attention. "They always tell you that Twickenham is an incredibly closed-lipped, close-knit community. But what they don't tell you is that you've been a close-lipped, close-knit community for almost a thousand years. How inbred do you think the deathworking families can get in a thousand years?" You thin your eyes at him, thoughtful. "The Slug Club, celebrating Britain's brightest, youngest talent. Please, could you be any more obvious. Cormac, Hermione, Harry, Luna, me? We're all workers. Oh, sweetheart, how many of you have had the hyperbathagammic bred out of you?"

"What do you know about it?" he fires, belligerent.

Under his suit jacket, he's wearing a football jersey. You can barely make out the emblem that says "Twickenham Death Eaters."

You smile, and reach up. You shake your hair free of your headband, pulling it all to one side, and from right behind your ear, you tug loose a stunted, sooty streak of black.

 

✠ | The first person you ever killed was your uncle Bilius.

You were nine years old. You had braces on your teeth and a green scrunchie in your hair, the elastic mostly worn out, so that stray pieces of hair kept falling into your eyes. You were alone: your mother had gone to the toilet to splash water on her face, saying she didn't want to see her brother all soppy with tears; it didn't matter that he was unconscious, he'd still find a way to tease her for it.

Uncle Bilius looked really peculiar, with all those tubes coming out of his face. He'd hit a big, black dog with his car, which you think was a really stupid thing to do, although you suppose he hadn't done it on purpose. The doctors told your parents that the "prognosis was grim," and that maybe it would be kinder just to let him go?

You swung your legs and you looked at your uncle and you thought of the way your mother worked away all your scrapes, bruises, and colds, laughing off concern whenever blowback made injuries bloom under the cover of her blouse, made her cough, dank and chesty, all winter long. It's worth it, she always said, the same firm way she told you to tie your laces and make sure your gloves were snug and to never cross the street without looking. To have the ability to work somebody else's pain away. It's a gift.

Nobody was looking. It was easy to hide your movements beneath the bedrail, easing your glove down off the heel of your hand. You pressed it to your uncle's bare arm, right above the tape that held his IV in.

It was the easiest, most natural thing you've ever done, stopping his heart.

The machines started screaming, making you jump and burst into tears, and you didn't notice a strand of hair come loose from your ponytail, turn black, and fall out.

 

✠ | The only people who know are your family. Everyone assumes you're a physical worker, like Charlie, like your mother. How else would you be so good on the field, how else would your team be going to championships in Manchester if the most formidable of your opponents hadn't suffered some unfortunate injuries that rendered them unable to compete?

(That one's easy. Your brother's a luck worker, didn't you hear?

"Yeah, well," Ron goes, and only swats at you half-heartedly when you kiss his cheek.)

 

✠ | You're sitting in the waiting room at the dentist's to get your teeth cleaned, reading the Evening Standard that the lady handed you coming out of the Tube station, when Hermione emerges from behind reception to say hello. You startle, because you'd forgotten this was the Grangers' practice, and she laughs, throwing herself into the seat next to you.

You told Draco she's a worker, but you're not sure if it's true. If she is, she's never mentioned it.

Statistically, if she's never had a history of it in her family, it's unlikely that she is (although not improbable; hyperbathagammic has to start somewhere,) but you're so used to be surrounded by cursework that you automatically assume that the people you like best must be workers as well.

Her laughter fades into a frown as her eyes catch on the headline of the newspaper in your hands. "This again?" she sighs.

You nod grimly.

With a short, sharp huff, she pulls a lock of hair forward, picking at the split end. One of her knee-high socks has ridden lower than the other.

"It's not fair," she bursts out, a tight exhalation between gritted teeth, and she glowers darkly at the headline. "That they'll go and make legislation concerning 'worker welfare'," she makes air quotes. "When no workers are allowed to sit in Parliament! They banned the hyperbathagammic as soon as they found a reliable test to determine it, and even before that, it was really rare. The last worker to have a seat in our government was in 1903, and he was this dodgy old codger in the House of Lords anyway. And they still think it's their right to make a --" she grabs the edge of the paper, pulling it up so she can read "-- 'a bill restricting the unpredictability of hyperbathagammic children in primary schools' when they won't even let workers in government!"

You're fairly used to Hermione's frustrated outbursts, as she's both very bright and very passionate and the combination of the two leaves her frustrated and disillusioned by the state of the world on a daily basis.

"There's got to be something we can do," you say, rhetorically.

She snorts. "Not unless you've got somebody in Parliament in your pocket. And let's face it, if you did, you'd be living in Twickenham."

You grow very still, and start thinking.

 

✠ | When you're twenty-three, you get snakebite piercings in your lower lip, and your mother about births kittens on the kitchen floor when you drop by for a visit.

"They're just so -- so --" she tries, but you're not a temp. You don't work in a bank, you don't work in an office, and you can pierce what you damn well please. You're not yet old enough that she can start lecturing you on when you're going to act your age, although you suppose it's coming soon. She certainly tries it often enough with Fred and George, and they've got their own gig on some major comedy network in America. They have tours. She switches track. "And I don't like what you've done with your hair. You look -- well," she lowers her voice. "Sweetie, it looks like blowback."

"Mum!" you laugh. "That's the point! It's edgy," and you flash your teeth.

Your mother sighs, and gives it up.

The bottom half of your skull is shaved, the growth ashy and black, and you still have the rest of your ginger, swept into a ponytail. It's a rather fetching look, in your opinion, half-black half-red, and you'll probably be sad when the next round of blowback makes it uneven.

 

✠ | You've got wing seats at a Wednesday night showing of We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theater, you and Draco, when you kill for the second time.

You don't want to think about how young you were, although you imagine you must have felt very old at the time.

Draco's pretending to humor you when you scalp the tickets off some kid in the year below you and offer to take him, but you've seen his iPod: there's a lot more Queen in there than he'll ever admit to. It's the finale of the show, and the audience is on its feet, stomping to the title song and bellowing at the top of their lungs, when you see someone in a shabby overcoat slip into your largely-empty aisle. The strobing lights catch on the blade of the knife he pulls from inside the coat. He's looking right at Draco, his nose twitching like he can smell the Twickenham on him. Things were very tense that year, you remember, with that bill on worker legislation passing through the House of Commons.

You learn later that the man's name was Greyback. You don't care right then.

You move, stepping around Draco and working your hand free of your glove fast as a silver fish. Greyback doesn't have time to register the threat, the bare hand coming towards him, before your fingers touch his face. You're not in the back row, you're not even discreet, but everybody's shifting and shout-singing and nobody notices you catch Greyback's weight and set him down in a seat as best you can. Nobody notices you grab for Draco's hand and pull him towards the exit.

You burst onto Tottenham Court Road with a scream caught behind your teeth, shedding hair across the sidewalk.

Draco squeezes your hand with every pulse of your pounding heart, and later you'll learn that this is his way of saying, I'm sorry I'm not a worker, I'm sorry I can't take this part away for you.

He's sorry for a lot, but he needs you and you need him, so you're not.

 

✠ | Your whole family does cursework. It's in your blood. You refuse to be registered, you refuse to be jailed, you refuse to be shamed. If you have the green thumb, you grow. If you have the muse, you write. If you have the voice, you sing. If you have the gene, you work. Your mother takes away pain. Your brothers bring good luck, good dreams, feelings of love and safety.

And you?

You, Ginny Weasley, you are a deathworker.

You protect what's yours.

 

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