Regardless whether you want it to or not, word travels fast in a place like the Ministry. After barely two weeks, I was sure the Minister himself must have been aware that Percy and I were seeing each other.
Lionel had worked it out quickly - owing, I believe, to his surprising powers of perception, general propensity for gossip, and aversion to doing any work for more than five minutes at a time.
“So,” he said one afternoon, after I’d finished chatting with Percy in the corridor - something about a new book I was reading - and returned to my desk. He leaned against the wall and gave me a mischievous smile. “You and Weasley, hmm?”
Noah stopped writing and looked up. Madeleine, as always, appeared disinterested, but her silence became more pointed as she reviewed a stack of product complaints at her desk.
I gaped at Lionel. It wasn’t as if Percy and I had been concerned about keeping it a secret - it just wasn’t the sort of thing one flaunted in the workplace.
“I - well, I, um - how do you - ”
“I’ve had it from Gemma Stone, who has it from Miles Claremont. Not sure how Miles knows, actually, but he’s a reputable bloke.”
I had no idea who Miles Claremont was. I recognized Gemma Stone as the name of a girl who worked in Percy’s office.
Lionel continued as I opened my mouth to inquire into Miles Claremont’s apparently sterling reputation for rumor mongering. “Also, Weasley acts almost human whenever he’s around you. Doesn’t try to murder you with his eyes the way he does with the rest of us.”
Appalled, I closed my mouth.
“Hang on.” Noah stared at us oddly, as though trying to process a great deal of information all at once. “Audrey and…Weasley?” He looked to me, then to Lionel. “As in, Audrey” - he pointed to me - “and Weasley” - he gestured in the general direction of the I.U.M. office.
I nodded, feeling mortified by all of the attention. Noah just continued to look baffled, glancing around at the rest of us as though expecting someone to announce it was a joke.
“Wow,” he said finally. “You mean…really? No. Really? You mean he’s not into blokes?”
Lionel burst out laughing, and Madeleine let out little snort (which, for her, was quite an amused reaction).
“Well, bugger, I just lost that bet.” Noah looked at me again in disbelief and slight frustration, as though this shocking turn of events were all my fault.
And then they all stared at me expectantly - or rather, Lionel and Noah did. Madeleine was giving me a look out of the corner of her eye that clearly said, Well, get on with it, if you must. I started to imagine that even Mr. Dibble’s secretary Violet was peering at me from her spot back in the corner of the office, over her assemblage of potted plants and stuffed bears.
It all seemed very untoward. When did people start getting it into their heads that someone’s going to share personal information with them just because they’ve decided they want to hear it?
I could contain my bewilderment no longer. “Do you always act so oddly when two people start - ” I stumbled over the next word “ - seeing each other?” I didn’t ignore the fact that phrasing it that way made me feel giddily happy.
“Actually, we were much more poorly behaved when Madeleine started going out with Jeremy.” Lionel and Noah exchanged a devilish look as Noah broke into peals of laughter.
“Oh, I see, so I’m a special case.”
“I reckon ‘special’ is one word I’d use to describe someone dating Percy Weasley.” Noah could hardly get the words out for laughing.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” I protested.
“Well, it’s just - he’s just so damn poncy and - with the glasses and everything - what in the hell do you possibly do together?”
“Ugh, no details, please, I’ve just eaten.” Madeleine raised one hand if shielding herself from unpleasant concepts, then went back to scribbling notations about the product complaints in front of her.
Now wanting nothing more than to just crawl under my desk, I had to settle for staring down at it instead. “Noah, you really don’t have to make this into more than it is.”
He gave me an appraising sort of look, then broke into one of his boyish grins. “Ah, well. You’ll come out with us one of these days and we’ll get you all lagged up, then you’ll tell all.” Having given himself that assurance, he began whistling as he combed through a stack of files.
I knew what they all thought of me. Uptight and prudish. No fun at all. Probably wondering how they got stuck dealing with someone like me every day.
I couldn’t have cared less what they said or did; it was my business I didn’t need them in. Not like that.
Desperately needing to escape for a moment, I grabbed a nearby stack of reports and acted as though I had some business to take care of over in Inspections. I found Percy skulking a short distance away when I stepped outside the office; he wasn’t normally one for skulking, but this time I got the distinct impression that he was.
“What are you doing?” I asked suspiciously, catching up with him.
“Hmm? Um - ” He looked down at the parchment he was holding, while following along beside me. “Very important, um, top secret…” He coughed importantly.
“Liar. Why are you acting dodgy?”
I’d noticed his face seemed pink, but that seemed to happen a lot, so I didn’t think anything of it first. Then it dawned on me.
I gasped. “How much did you hear?”
“Not much, only something about ‘damn poncy,’ which I did think was amusing, but not as much as you getting lagged up - which, actually, I’m having a very hard time envisioning, but I think I’d pay good money to see it - ”
“Eavesdropper!” I accused in a low voice as he started laughing.
“I am not!” He feigned affront. “I was on my way to the Auror Offices - now you’ve got me going entirely in the wrong direction, by the way - and besides, Marcum doesn’t exactly keep his voice down, does he?”
I covered my face with my free hand. “I’m so sorry about that…”
“Whatever for? I could care less what they’re saying, as long as they’re being nice to you.” He stopped walking and looked down at me, and my head started to feel fuzzy and useless.
“If it’s any consolation,” he continued, “the things they’re saying in my office about you are a lot more complimentary. You know, you’re much more well-liked than you seem to think.”
I sniffed pointedly, while internally trying to compose myself. “Well, I’m not an eavesdropper, am I?” I nudged him a bit with my elbow. He nudged me back, and I got in a second jab before saying, “Oh, go do some work, won’t you?” Then I gave him a shove in the direction he was supposed to be going.
At that point, I didn’t really have a choice but to continue on to Inspections so it would look like I’d gone down there for a reason. The fact that I didn’t actually have any business there didn’t matter at all, as Brian Lambert and the other Inspectors preferred to spend time asking me about my family. Each time I saw them, without fail: How was my dad? How was my mum? Was my mum still teaching? What was my sister doing now? Give my dad their best and give my mum their love. And occasionally, when time permitted, they moved on to What was I doing working in a stodgy place like this?
So it often turned out that, as much time as I thought was wasted in my own office, a lot more was wasted in Inspections, though I’d begun not to mind so much. They were pleasant fellows who treated me in a very fatherly way, and I found I enjoyed talking to them. And they always seemed to be in good spirits and humor, rather than simply slogging through one dreary day after another.
Then again, their work often involved blowing things up, so that may have had something to do with it.
In spite of the fact that I was getting absolutely no work done, my visit with Brian started off as pleasant as ever - Would I like some tea? Would I like some biscuits his wife had made? How was my dad? - and then, of course, because I hadn’t been embarrassed enough that day:
“So what’s this I’m hearing about you and a young man over in the Improper Use Office?”
“Oh, would you look at the time…!” I stood up and brushed myself off unnecessarily.
Brian watched me in amusement as I moved towards the door, explaining the massive amount of work I had to do.
“Oh, Audrey, love,” he called after me, “what was it you came over here for, anyway?”
I poked my head back into the office. “You know…I’ve completely forgotten…”
“Ah, well. You’ll come back and visit us soon, eh? Give your dad my best!”
Why was it that the days when I didn’t get any work done were always the most exhausting?
Darcy came to visit later that day, after almost everyone else had packed up and gone home.
“You’re still here!” I observed as she pulled up a chair next to me. “This must be a record for you. Where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Yes, well, while you’ve been gallivanting about with Mr. Prematurely Receding Hairline - don’t even bother arguing, yes he has - work has been dreadful lately.”
“You mean they’re actually requiring you to do work.”
“Hmm,” was her dismissive response. “Anyway, something about Russia throwing a tantrum about signing a treaty - ”
“Should you be telling me this?”
“ - and recently the Norwegian Minister made that comment about our domestic affairs still in shambles, everyone’s been in an uproar. All I ever wanted out of this job was to go to Italy.”
“You don’t speak Italian.”
“It’s called language immersion, my dear.” She poked at a nearby potted plant with a quill, until the plant raised one of its long leaves and slapped her hand away. “Ow! Damn stupid thing. But what’s new and fascinating in the world of magical equipment?”
I searched my recent memory for anything that might qualify as new or fascinating. “A lot of backfiring wands lately and evaluating the new imports from South America.”
“Boring and boringer.” She waved towards the doorway, at an Auror called Rodney who was passing by.
“The wand dilemma is actually quite interesting. And anyway, it beats regulating the Floo Network, doesn’t it?”
She rolled her eyes in an exaggerated manner. “Oh, lord, yes. But speaking of that, I’ve just seen Moira and she said to remind you she hasn’t seen you in about a month - though I’m sure it would be a lot easier to want to go down there if it weren’t for that cretin Cornwell. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there - what I really came to ask you is if you fancy a bit of shopping on Saturday. I have a feeling I’m going to be overwhelmed over the next couple of days and thought I might not see you before then.”
I thought that sounded wonderful, and Darcy agreed to Floo to my place on Saturday morning. Then she made a comment about risking turning into a pumpkin if she stayed at work much later, making sure to give the potted plant a spiteful little kick on her way out of the office. The plant furled one of its leaves like a fist and shook it at her retreating back.
I waited until she’d gone and then stroked one of the plant’s leaves. “She’s okay once you get to know her,” I said.
The plant crossed two of its leaves in front of itself, and sulked that way until probably long after I’d left as well.
Saturday found me trailing after Darcy through various Muggle clothing shops as she prattled away about her parents and other people who were getting on her nerves lately. It never bothered me as so many people assumed it might. She liked to talk, and I, for the most part, liked to listen.
“I’ve been able to make them back off by telling them most of what I’m doing is confidential, foreign negotiations and rubbish like that, so they’ve stopped pressing me for information about what I’m doing every minute of every day - I think my mum doesn’t exactly believe me, but she’s an apothecary, what does she know? - You should try this - ” she flung a dress at me “ - you’ve actually got a waist.”
“First of all, not much of one,” I replied, returning the dress to its proper place. “Second of all, it’s ghastly, what’s wrong with you?”
She shrugged and moved on. “I can’t even talk to my mum about who I’m seeing, it’s like a Third War every time I do - definitely not going to tell her about Rhys. You know, the absolutely sick part is that they’d both die of happiness if I brought home someone like your new fella.” She made a face. “Want my parents? And can I have yours? I do love them dearly.”
I ignored the last bit about our parents. “You’re really having a hard time of this, aren’t you? Percy and me.”
Darcy made a noncommittal sound.
“You’re the only one who has to be happy with it, but frankly I’m having a hard time seeing the appeal in such a pompous, pretentious bore, I’m starting to wonder if you’re quite well…” She selected another dress and held it up to appraise it.
“You hypocrite! Who was it set me up with Cepheus Whatsisname? - the guy who probably has monogrammed underpants.”
She looked around at me distractedly. “He’s got monogrammed underpants?”
“He didn’t say as much, but you only have to talk to him for five minutes and you know he has.”
“I sure as hell wouldn’t mind finding out for certain.” She tried on a hat and then threw it back down in frustration. “I think I’m done. Nothing this season is doing anything for me. Where to next?”
I took her wrist and looked at her watch. “Well, if we’re going to Diagon Alley today, let’s do it now - I’m having him over for dinner and I’ve got to get home by about four…”
“You’re cooking for him?”
“That’s normally what you do before you eat, yes.”
She gave me a look of distaste. “Well, he seems like the sort who’d like that kind of thing. Has he told you you’re to be seen and not heard and accompany him to stodgy Ministry functions?”
“Darcy, do shut up.”
“Going to be a disaster…”
“I should have done lamb…”
I stopped pacing and looked at Vivian, who had emerged from her room with her Healer’s robes slung over one arm.
“Stop being so anxious, you’re making me want to tear my hair out.”
“Sorry,” I replied, wringing my hands and opening cupboards at random. I checked the Madeira cake as if to make sure it was still where’d left it five minutes earlier.
“Earth to my daft sister. You look lovely, your cooking is divine, exactly what is your problem?”
Vivi and her rubbish. Okay, maybe I cooked almost as well as my mother, but also like my mother - and probably as a result of the cooking - I carried an extra stone. Usually I was fine with this. That evening, I felt like a cow.
Vivian checked the clock. “It’s about time for me to make myself scarce, is it not?”
“Yes, yes,” I answered distractedly, waving my hand. “Go away.” I placed my face in my hands and muttered to myself, “Should just bin the chicken…”
“Do not bin the sodding chicken!” With those words of wisdom, Vivian Flooed out of sight.
I’m not sure how I made it through the next half hour. But the next thing I knew, I heard a knock at the door and just about jumped out of my skin.
Percy gave me an apologetic look as I opened the door. I was concentrating on breathing like a normal person, but I probably just looked daft and confused.
“Um…Flooing seemed impolite,” he explained.
I stepped back to allow him in.
“Hi,” he said softly.
He leaned over and kissed me hello, and I knew I must finally be losing it when Sod dinner started going through my mind.
I broke away and collected myself again. “Just…make yourself at home. But stop distracting me, you’ll make me ruin dinner.”
He smiled a bit and followed me. “It does smell fantastic - oh, wow…” His eyes scanned the kitchen, which was rather involved for two girls living alone.
I poked at the chicken and vegetables with my wand to see how much longer they needed.
Percy examined the overstuffed spice rack. “You don’t actually use all of these, do you?”
I glanced at the spices. “I’ve used every single one of them, at one point or another, why?”
“Well, I did tell you I like to cook.”
“I know, but you made it sound like an idle hobby, not…”
“Obnoxious?” I supplied. Darcy had told me on multiple occasions that my kitchen was exceedingly obnoxious.
“No…Impressive? Frightening, but impressive.”
I turned to give him a small smile. “I take it you don’t cook much.”
He shrugged. “I eat a lot of takeaway.” He chuckled when I gave him a scandalized look. “Bad habit…necessity…I’m a bloke, so sue me.”
I supposed the fact that I was feeding someone who lived primarily on artificial food made me feel a bit less anxious. If Percy had any complaints about the cooking, he didn’t say so. I however, could barely eat.
He insisted on taking care of the cleaning up. I wouldn’t have let him, but he was quite fast and had the dishes doing themselves before I could go for my wand. Then he turned to me with a smug little expression and said, “Not quite so useless, am I?”
Later as I prepared the tea for dessert he contented himself with leaning against the countertop and observing me with his hands stuffed in his pockets - until I told him to stop trying to make me nervous, and he drifted over to the bookshelf in the adjacent room, which held a few spell books and a lot of novels, primarily the classics. He whispered something to himself about “weird Muggle books,” and then I heard him say -
“Oh, now!” He pulled a paperback from one of the lower shelves and tried to contain his laughter. “What’s this? This is very academic…”
From across the room, I recognized it by the cover as one of Vivi’s romance novels. “That’s my sister’s!” My face felt like it had been in the oven for an hour.
I grabbed it away in a haughty manner and stuffed it back onto its shelf. “Should go over to your flat and find things to make fun of you for…”
Percy looked down at me and was quiet for a moment, then said, “Well, you’re welcome there whenever you like.” He shrugged. “But it’s kind of boring.”
He glanced distractedly toward the bookshelf again, but at nothing in particular, like he was collecting his thoughts. He had, I thought, a rather striking profile.
The tea and the Madeira cake were utterly forgotten when he finally decided to put his arms around my waist (hmm, I guess I did have one). I rejoiced silently, but very exuberantly, inside my head when at last I got up the nerve to touch the coveted ginger hair. And it was with apparent reluctance, some time later, that he noticed the time and said he ought to get home.
Partially due to the fantastic amount of kissing that had gone on, and partially due to the fact that I couldn’t sleep at all that night, I was in a right state the next morning.
When Vivi returned home from work, she took one look at me and raised her eyebrows. “I think we’re happy we didn’t bin the sodding chicken?”
"I think we are."
She looked around and lowered her voice. “He’s not here, is he?”
“Vivi, please don’t be stupid this early in the morning. He went home at a reasonable time last night.”
“Ugh, he’s one of those types.” She trudged off towards her room.
“Chivalrous blokes are an endangered species, you know!” I called after her.
She heaved a great sigh of frustration and amusement and called back, “You are supposed to be thinking about shagging him, not what good manners he has!”
I sniffed in a dignified way as she disappeared into her room.
Of course I was thinking about it. I just didn't tell her that.