“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.” Percy gave a stiff nod to a stumpy-looking wizard before pushing his lunch trolley into the lift. The golden grilles banged shut behind him, and he made popping noises with his mouth while gazing at the ceiling. A cool voice on the lift speaker floated out into the atrium, notifying Percy that he had pressed a button that would take him to Level Seven, the Department of Magical Games and Sports. Audrey watched him zoom up out of sight, and then dashed to the stairs.
“Madam!” Eric Munch called out from the security stand. “We need to register your wand!”
She flashed a rectangular coupon for a free pumpkin slushie at Terrortours (for a limited time only, and with the stipulation that you buy one of their holiday packages to Transylvania), brandishing a very toothy smile at him so that he would be sure to pay attention to her face rather than to the coupon she was trying to pass off as a clearance badge. “Don’t worry, I’m important!”
It was a relief that Percy hadn’t gotten an itch to go to Level One, which would have been quite inconvenient with such disgustingly long flights of stairs. As it was, she only had to clamber up one flight before reaching a door outfitted with a metal number ‘7’. A bevy of voices was already penetrating it, the sound of a Quidditch game blaring out of a wireless accompanied by about twenty roaring men.
She gingerly opened the door, doing a quick tap on her wig to change its color to vivid blue. Someone might recognize the red hairpiece’s real owner, and she couldn’t afford to be conspicuous.
“Nice wig,” said a tall, thin man who leapt across the corridor from one room to another. He shut the door behind him with such force that the placard reading ‘Triwizard Tournaments’ (which had been crossed out with globby black ink) swung upside-down; as well as the placard below it that read ‘General Bad Ideas’.
Audrey patted her fake hair nervously, creeping forward with another Quick-Quotes Quill at the ready. Continuing down the corridor, she tiptoed through a large, open room full of cubicles that was the Ludicrous Patents Office, following the jangling of Weasley’s squeaky trolley wheels. When she came upon him in the British and Irish Quidditch League Headquarters, she ducked behind a knee-high dustbin and watched.
“Would you care for a pasty?” Percy asked an exceptionally beefy man whose face was painted pale blue with metallic silver arrows on his cheeks. His robes had two enormous double A’s on the front, and he wore a hat with an Appleby Arrows logo that periodically bellowed ‘Appleby Arrows undefeated in the European Cup! Wimbourne Wasps suck!’
“Oho! Robbins, look. A patsy Percy proposing pasties.”
“Hehehe,” Robbins chortled, swinging around in his revolving chair. He wadded up a thick neon pamphlet that would have taken Audrey all day to fold in half, closing one eye as he zeroed in on his prey. “Hold still, Pasty Patsy. I want to see if I could be a Beater.”
He then tossed up the crumpled pamphlet-turned-ball and whacked it with his wand, launching the thing straight at Percy’s forehead. Percy ducked as the ball sailed over his head and through the open office door of GRUDEST F. IRONFACE, HEAD OF DEPARTMENT. Immediately, Robbins and the Appleby Arrows fan hastily turned around in their chairs to pore over their desks, pretending to be very busy at work.
“JUELUE!” someone shouted. Percy jumped, along with his trolley, sending a rogue pasty rolling down the carpet. Audrey snatched it up and busied herself behind the dustbin with unwrapping it as noiselessly as possible.
A tiny goblin stormed out of the office, his glassy black eyes narrowing on Mr. Appleby Arrows. The unfortunate Quidditch fan’s hat chose that precise moment to shriek profanities about the Wimbourne Wasps. He bent his face more closely to his desk, wincing. Audrey could see that the tips of his ears were bright red.
“Juelue!” the goblin barked. “Are you the moron wasting the earth’s resources?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Ironface, sir,” Juelue mumbled to his desk.
The goblin waved his fist at him. “Make any more Quaffles out of expensive parchment and I’ll move you over to Section Six.”
Juelue jumped out of his seat, eyes enormous. “Six! But that – that’s the Wasps! I hate the Wasps…sir.”
“Then you’d better think it through next time you throw rubbish at me.” His eyes landed on Juelue’s messy desk. “Clean that up. And take that stupid hat off! No unapproved vocal apparel.”
“It was approved,” Juelue insisted in a feeble, flimsy voice. “My wife got it for me for my birthday…”
“I don’t believe in birthdays!”
And with that, Grudest Ironface marched back into his office and slammed the door shut. As soon as he was gone, Juelue and Robbins wheeled around on Percy. “Way to go, Pasty-Boy!” the latter hissed. “Trying to get us into trouble, are you?”
“N – no,” Percy stammered, clutching the handle of his trolley with both hands. “I was merely trying…I was only attempting to sell – to sell –”
“I was only tr-tr-tr –” Juelue mocked, reaching out one leg to kick at the trolley. It overturned, spilling loads of plastic-wrapped sandwiches and frosted cupcakes all over Percy’s shoes.
“Sorry,” Percy muttered, even though it had obviously not been his fault. “Just trying to earn an honest living.”
“Take your muffins somewhere else,” Robbins ordered as loudly as he dared, eyes cutting to Ironface’s closed door every other second. “Don’t want ‘em here.”
“They’re cupcakes, not muffins,” Percy began to say, when a third man strolled down the aisle between the two cubicles and swiped a sandwich. He took a large bite out of it and then tossed it over his shoulder back into the trolley. Juelue and Robbins snorted, clapping quietly.
“Very funny,” Percy snapped, still plucking his snacks from the floor while Robbins repeatedly jostled the trolley with his foot. Once he got his things in order again, he put his head down and hurried on. Audrey crawled on her hands and knees behind a series of palm trees in pots, following Weasley’s squeaky wheels.
“Care for a sandwich?” he inquired hopefully of more cubicle-people, working up a smile. Smiling didn’t look natural on him. It made it look like he wanted to eat someone. Combined with his hair, which one of the other blokes had turned green, he looked a bit like a monster (and not of the vampire variety, either).
He was met with relatively the same response no matter where he went, and continued up to Level Six. By the time he was dragging himself and his still-full trolley around the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, his green hair now on fire, Audrey had filched three sandwiches from his stash and was beginning to wonder who the hell this person was.
He had been totally flattened!
He was a complete pushover. Audrey could only imagine that all this was due to the near-constant public expectations swirling over his head that he would try to become the Minister for Magic someday – an aspiration he had been trying fervently to distance himself from since the fall of You-Know-Who. From what Audrey could see, nowadays he was bumbling around the Ministry, walking into things and falling down in order to avoid redirected memos flying at him from all sides to box him in the ears.
So this was his plan, eh? To ‘lie low’ from media scrutiny suspecting his future rise to power, like another He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, while slumming it out with a squeaky sandwich trolley?
IT WAS GENIUS.
Audrey had to hand it to him. All this business of pretending to be the lowest-level drone of all low-level drones, and secretly he was a vampire plotting to overthrow the Ministry altogether. She wouldn’t have been surprised if it turned out that he already had a lair prepared with airproof vessels where he would store all the walking blood banks in Diagon Alley, complete with multicolored straws for plenty of neck-sipping.
His stammering, his blushing, his struggling not to interrupt people when to do so was clearly a force of habit, was a marvelous work of performance art. Audrey had to cover up her jaw with both hands so that it wouldn’t unhinge. This man’s total lack of confidence was so convincing that she nearly forgot for a second that he was actually a bloodthirsty madman.
She dug around in her robes for her binoculars, adjusting them a bit here and there. Oddly, she couldn’t seem to get a clear focus on Percy. It was as though he’d cast some sort of vampire mumbo-jumbo on them to prevent her from getting a closer look…
Percy Weasley, meanwhile, had abandoned his trolley and scurried along one wall to hide behind a palm tree, peeking between the green leaves at a hunched, insane-looking woman with blue hair who was goggling at the opposite wall with a pair of binoculars. His first instinct was to shout for security, as he’d never been able to resist the opportunity to get someone else into trouble – petty tyranny and all that.
He had to bite his tongue to quash the urge to tell on her, and as he did so he realized with a warm, funny feeling that she looked somewhat nice – in a homeless person sort of way. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to drop change into a violin case to pay her rent or ask her out for a drink at The Leaky Cauldron.
He cranked his head to the left and then to the right, clearing his throat. Already he could feel his collar dampening with sweat, and a small voice in the back of his head said ‘She has a boyfriend, she has a boyfriend. Everyone says they’ve got a boyfriend when I go up and innocently talk to them, even the little old ladies.’ Another voice wondered if perhaps he should ask her to The Hallows Café instead, since it was a bit more posh than the Leaky, and a third voice that turned out to be a Howler yelled at him to get out of the way.
After clearing his throat two more times (the second time made him gag and he had to rush behind the palm tree again to recover), Percy sniffed his underarms and then surreptitiously doused them with water from a fish tank decorating the corner office.
“Oh, no,” he murmured pitifully, examining himself. The water had only made his underarms darker, of course, and now he smelled like fish. He had not thought that impulse through at all. With a sigh, Percy debated whether or not to approach the blue-haired woman who evidently thought he couldn’t see her when she had sunglasses on.
“Go for it, Perce!” championed his inner George.
“You’re going to strike out,” inner Charlie chimed in. “You know how these birds are. They’re full of things to say when you’re talking to them, but the moment you owl they’ve suddenly forgotten how to write back.”
“Nah, she’ll write back,” added Ron. “Just tell her you’re well-connected. It’s all about who you know.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Bill. “Connected to whom?”
“Me,” replied Ron defensively. “What? I saved the bloody world, didn’t I? If that isn’t cause for bragging rights, I don’t know what is. Plus I’ve grown some stubble, I’ll have you know.”
“You’re all stupid,” Ginny cut in. “What am I even doing here? I’m supposed to be meeting Harry for lunch today… Hmm. I wonder if I should go with the green blouse to off-set my hair or the cream cardigan that makes my skin glow...”
There was a unanimous groan, followed by Ron’s tactful statement of, “Ginny, no one wants to hear about your girl problems. If you want your skin to glow, why don’t you go swallow a Patronus or something.”
“It’s not Ginny’s fault she’s saying things no one cares about,” George reasoned. “Percy’s the one standing there like a prat with his mouth hanging open while he listens to his imaginary sister talk about her imaginary wardrobe dilemma.”
Percy jerked back to his senses, blushing profusely. As luck would have it, the blue-haired woman didn’t appear to have noticed his ill-timed stupor, even though he was standing just three feet to her right. Huzzah! She was still adjusting her binoculars, frowning a little.
He cleared his throat one final time, reaching over as far as he could bend (without physically stepping any closer, as he thought he seriously might fall down on her from all the pressure in his head of arguing Weasleys) to tap her on the shoulder.
“Wha – what!” She dropped the binoculars, large brown eyes roving up to his. Her eyes then went oddly blank, and her mouth fell open. A wee string of drool escaped. “Uhhhh.”
“Hello, I’m Percy,” he said with a smile.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Arthur Weasley piped up. “Congratulations, son, you didn’t die! Go on, then, strike while the cauldron’s still hot. Invite her out for some tea!”
“He’ll ask her out for tea if he wants to go shopping for her grandmother’s loo roll later on while he wears a ‘best friends forever’ jumper,” said George. “He’s got to be aggressive. Tell her that she sets your pants on fire.”
“George!” Molly scolded. “I certainly hope that this is not how you approach young ladies. You’ve got to court them. They like that. Percy, don’t listen to your brother, he’s an insensitive wart. Listen to me, I know what I’m talking –”
“Your facial hair looks so stupid, Ron,” Ginny interrupted with a derisive laugh. “Is that what you call ‘stubble’? It reminds me of carpet burn.”
“Oh, stuff it, Ginny.”
“Ronald Bilius Weasley, you mind your language or I’ll –”
“You look like Auntie Muriel, Ron. Does Hermione fancy you looking like Auntie Muriel?”
“Mum! George! Everyone! Please just shut up for a minute, I’m trying to ask her if she has a boyfriend!” Percy let out a breath, pinching his eyes closed, and that’s when he observed that the entire office had fallen silent.
“Getting carried away with your trolley over there, eh nutter?” yelled an elderly wizard with six quills lodged in his tufty hair. “Maybe you should take it easy.”
Oh, no. Oh, no. Please, please tell me that I did not just say that out loud.
“Are you talking to me?” George sniffed. “If so, you can turn right back around, young man. This Weasley’s sympathy is closed for business. I’m offended that you’re ashamed to speak to me in public.”
“You know, I think we ought to seriously consider uninviting Percy for Christmas if he’s going to treat us like this,” Bill remarked.
“That and he’s completely barmy,” added Charlie. “Still sitting here listening to us. Say, does anyone want to get together this weekend for a knitting circle? I could really go for one of those.”
“Ahem,” Percy said out loud, desperate not to lose his mind in the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes. The workers on this floor would be all over him so fast that he’d be Obliviated and hanging suspended from the ceiling before he knew which way was up.
The blue-haired woman was still watching him, chewing on her sunglasses. “Were you going to ask if I had a boyfriend?” She glanced all around her. “You were…you were talking to me, right?”
“Eee-yeah...” He shuffled his feet nervously. “Yeah, I was. I mean, you don’t have to tell me or anything. It’s none of my business.”
A voice in his head that sounded very much like George called him a wimp, but he ignored it.
“So,” he went on with much more bravado than he felt. “How about hot pants? I mean – pants on fire – I mean…ahhh…” He smacked himself in the face, straightening up. “Tea!” He was fairly screaming now. “Please? Do you like tea? Does your boyfriend like tea? You and I and your boyfriend could all go out for tea together. My treat!”
“This is grim,” Ron whispered loudly. “Seriously, mate. Get a hold of yourself.”
“Or just your boyfriend and me, really. I wouldn’t mind that, I like boyfriends. You could stay here and watch my trolley and I’ll just…I’ll just be off…”
“Off your blooming onion!” yelled the tufty-haired wizard.
But to Percy’s intense surprise (along with everyone else in the office), Audrey smiled.
“No boyfriend,” she assured him. People were gazing curiously at her. Well, damn. So much for going incognito; one of them was bound to recognize her, which was the one and only downfall of having such a marvelously memorable mug. Detective Wood would be down here in two shakes if she didn’t get the hell out of dodge. “Tea! Yes! That! Let’s go!”
After all, she thought to herself, this would be a fabulous opportunity to grill him for details.
“Don’t you dare! You’re on probation!” called out her inner Oliver Wood, but she made a rude hand gesture at him that seemed to confuse Percy, and the two of them set off for their impromptu lunch date.
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