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Irrational by RonsGirlFriday

Format: Novel
Chapters: 20
Word Count: 97,451
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Contains profanity, Scenes of a mild sexual nature

Genres: Romance
Characters: Percy, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings:

First Published: 08/13/2009
Last Chapter: 04/19/2021
Last Updated: 04/19/2021

Summary:

Gorgeous banner by my bestie aurevoir <3

 


Most people seem to judge him -- but Audrey doesn't.

Most people seem not to see her -- but Percy does.

 

(Percy/Audrey)

 

Golden Snitches Winner 2010: Most Romantic Fic & Smexiest Character (Percy)

Golden Snitches Runner-Up 2009: Best Minor Character (Audrey)

HPFT Nargles Winner 2020: Best Multichapter

HPFT FROGS Finalist 2020: Best Romance and Best Family

 



Chapter 1: Monday
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Recent censuses consistently place the size of the British wizarding population somewhere around 3,000 people. Of those of us who are adults, nearly twenty percent work in government. For hundreds of us, our day-to-day lives as witches and wizards have nothing to do with potions or hexes or flying.

 

Instead, we send letters and write reports.

 

It’s reliable, predictable work, and I suppose that’s why I never minded. So steady was my routine that I hardly needed my alarm clock anymore; my body was programmed to come to life everyday at precisely eight o’clock.

 

I admit that when I woke that day, clinging to the edges of a comforting dream I could barely recall now that I was conscious, I considered staying there under my quilt, face buried in my pillow. But the day was going to start, with or without me, and so I dutifully pulled my mind out of that hazy stage between asleep and awake, and put my feet on the floor.

 

Yawning and squinting against the light peeking through the curtains, I shuffled to the door, barely registering my own movements.

 

Then, staggering out of my bedroom, I ran headfirst into the broad, bare chest of my sister’s boyfriend, who had just emerged from the bathroom with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist.

 

This had been a fairly new addition to the daily routine.

 

The morning grogginess was gone, at least. If that won’t wake you up, nothing will.

 

“Vivian!” I groaned, my hand still covering my eyes. “Tell your fella to stop walking around without his clothes on!”

 

“Why?”  My sister’s bubbly laugh drifted through her open bedroom door. “Is he starkers?”

 

“Almost.”

 

“Good! Someone as fit as him should walk around naked! You go right ahead, Michael!”

 

“Morning, Audrey,” Michael finally said in his low, easy voice. He was still chuckling as he stepped back to allow me access to the bathroom.

 

“Morning, Michael. Don’t you have practice?”

 

“They’ve changed it to a later time, thank heavens.”

 

“Oh, good,” I mumbled.

 

Michael was a second-string Beater for the Kenmare Kestrels. He’d met Vivian when he suffered an injury during a particularly brutal match and was taken to St. Mungo’s for treatment. Vivian, who was a Healer, had been on duty when Michael was brought in and, after getting a good look at him, had run off to ask one of the other Healers to treat him so that she could ask him out later without having to worry about any impropriety in dating a former patient.

 

My sister had a lot of nerve and very little shame.

 

Michael disappeared into Vivian’s bedroom as I closed the bathroom door behind me. I turned on the tap and splashed cold water on my face, feeling my skin perking up to face a new day.

 

Monday. I didn’t detest Monday like a lot of people did. I didn’t love it, either. No, Monday and I had a calm, mutual understanding that bordered on indifference. Monday understood that I had to have a respectable job, and I understood that Monday was necessary in order to do it.

 

Just as I finished brushing my teeth and washing my face, I heard a tap at the door.

 

“Morning, dearest,” said Vivian as I pulled the door open. I noticed she was still in her pajamas and assumed she didn’t have to work that day.

 

“Morning, Vivi.”

 

“I wanted to let you know they’ve got me on the night shift this week – well, for the next few nights, at least.” She gave me an apologetic look. “Sorry.  I know how you hate to be here alone at night.”

 

“Don’t worry about it – I’ll be fine. What happened, though? I thought you said you were set with the morning shifts.”

 

“Oh, somebody’s botched up the scheduling, no doubt.” She rolled her eyes. “But at least you won’t have to worry about Michael being around for awhile. He’ll be staying at his place.”

 

I waved my hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that. You know I don’t mind him being around.  Really, I don’t.” Apart from the occasional, partially-nude ambushes, Michael was alright.

 

She gave me a look. “Are you sure?” she asked.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Of course, if you did have a problem with it, you wouldn’t tell me anyway, would you?” Her voice carried a note of gentle reproach, but she laughed as she said it.

 

I smiled back. “No, probably not. Guess you’ll just have to trust me.”

 

“That I can do, I suppose. Sorry again about the night shift.”

 

Vivian, ever the big sister, always looking out for the baby of the family. It had never once surprised me that she’d chosen Healing as a profession. Like our mother, my sister was an innate nurturer.

 

I pushed her away from the door with a groan. “I’ll be fine, Vivi! I am an adult, you know.”

 

“Well, good – one of us has to be. Anyway, I don’t suppose you have time for a proper breakfast?”

 

Knowing it to be a quarter past eight already, I wrinkled my nose. “Sorry, I don’t think so…I’m going to try to Floo to work by eight-thirty. I’ve got a stack of papers sitting on my desk calling my name.  I wouldn’t argue with a bit of toast, though.”

 

“Oh, fine. I understand – heed the Ministry’s siren call.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, I stood in front of the fireplace finishing a piece of toast smothered in the homemade orange-ginger marmalade that Vivian and I had perfected after months of experimentation. Wishing for a moment that I could have stayed to cook breakfast with my sister instead of heading off to the Ministry to approve Portkey permits or whatever happened to be waiting for me that day, I swallowed the last bite of toast and grabbed a handful of Floo powder from above the fireplace.



 

At work I took the lift up to the Department of Magical Transportation on Level Six. I said hello to Moira Davies, a kind, motherly woman who had been the assistant to the Head of Department for nearly as long as I had been alive. Then I sat down to complete a comprehensive report on a new broomstick model that was set to hit the market that summer, assuming it passed inspection by our Department. I worked without interruption until late morning, when the sound of someone barking my name roused me from my concentration.

 

“Greene!”

 

I looked up to see Sheldon Cornwell, the Head of my Department, peering out of his office.

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“Join me in my office. I’d like a word with you.” He frowned as his beady eyes lingered on me for just a second before retreating into his office and slamming the door. Mr. Cornwell rarely ventured out of his office, and regardless of whether he was in or out, he never left the door open longer than absolutely necessary.

 

I sighed. I had no idea why Mr. Cornwell wanted to talk to me. As far as I knew, I hadn’t made any errors in my work, and I hadn’t been tardy with any projects. In fact, the work in this Department was so simple, it was nearly impossible to make any errors as long as you were moderately conscientious.

 

I was convinced, however, that Mr. Cornwell didn’t like me. And it had nothing to do with the quality of my work; I completed whatever projects were handed to me, I was always on time, and I didn’t distract my coworkers. Despite all of that, Mr. Cornwell thought I was an idiot.

 

I think I was a little too quiet for his taste. Mr. Cornwell, like so many other people, assumed that someone without a forceful personality must have a level of intelligence equal to that of a developmentally delayed flobberworm. Someone who had a tendency to keep to herself was not likely to find herself in Mr. Cornwell’s esteem.

 

After straightening the papers on my desk and receiving a bracing smile from Moira, I approached Mr. Cornwell’s office and hesitated a few seconds before knocking. Even though he had just asked me in, it didn’t feel right to simply barge in after he had closed the door. He was, no doubt, aware of this fact – else he would not have taken such great care to make sure it was closed every minute of every day – but I still knew exactly what his response would be once I had knocked.

 

“Well, come in, already! I just asked you in, didn’t I?”

 

Without speaking, I opened the door. Had I not knocked, I would have been berated for that, so I always chose to err on the side of respecting his privacy. My friend Darcy, who used to work in the same Department, had always erred on the side of invading his privacy – just for the sake of irritating him. Darcy was one of those people whose personality Mr. Cornwell respected, even while he chastised her for putting off her projects until the last minute.

 

“And don’t forget to shut the door, for heaven’s sake.”

 

I had never once forgotten to close the door. Taking care not to slam it, I shut it behind me as I stepped into the room.

 

“Sit down, Greene, I haven’t got all day.”

 

I took a seat across from him. “Yes, Mr. Cornwell?”

 

For someone who didn’t have all day, Mr. Cornwell took quite a long pause before speaking to me. He regarded me with a look that, for him, could have indicated contemplation, frustration, or irritation – or any mixture of the three. He pursed his lips while wrinkling his nose at the same time, giving him an expression that embodied his general distaste for everything in life.

 

“I’ve spoken recently with Demetrius Dibble, over in Magical Equipment Control. He seems to think they have a position there that you would be a good fit for.” Mr. Cornwell eyed me dubiously, and I could tell he was wondering why anyone in their right mind would want me in their office. “Are you interested?”

 

I was stunned. Magical Equipment Control was under the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Ever since I started at the Ministry, I had wanted to work in magical law or international cooperation; I had just never been able to find a route out of my current office. Advancement opportunities at the Ministry were thin for anyone who didn’t take a grab the dragon by the horns approach to life.

 

After about three-quarters of a second of silence on my part, Mr. Cornwell sighed. “It’s not a hard question, Greene. Do you want to transfer?”

 

No interview? No application? Nothing?

 

“Yes,” I managed. “I – I would like that.”

 

“Fine. Guess we’ll have to get a new hire now. And train them.” He glared at me as if this were my fault entirely. “Alright, you’re excused. If I don’t tell you otherwise, plan on starting with Magical Equipment Control next Monday.”

 

“Sir,” I interjected tentatively, “do you know what the specific position is? Or what kind of work they’ll be wanting me to do?”

 

“How am I supposed to know that? I’m just a messenger, Greene. You’re excused. And don’t forget to shut the door.”

 

Moira smiled up at me from her desk when I emerged from Mr. Cornwell’s office. “Well? What was that about?”

 

“I – I’m being transferred to Magical Equipment Control.”

 

“Oh, that’ll be a lovely change of scenery for you, dear. Are you happy about it?”

 

“Yes, I am…but I don’t understand why they want me. I don’t know anybody in that Department!”

 

Moira shrugged mysteriously and tapped her nose with her finger.

 

I stared at her for a minute. “Moira! What did you do?”

 

She gave me an innocent look, but her eyes gleamed in her delicately wrinkled face. “Nothing at all! I didn’t do anything. Except maybe talk about you a few times to the other secretaries. You know, we do talk about things besides the weather and our favorite recipes.” She laughed at my shocked expression.

 

“Now, look here,” she added, shaking a stern finger at me. “You’re too smart to be stuck here helping us regulate the Floo Network. You’re a talented young lady, and I refuse to let your brains waste away under the neglect of Sheldon.” Moira was the only person who could get away with calling our boss Sheldon, and that was because she was almost old enough to be his mother.

 

I felt more than slightly stupid. Could I not do anything for myself? Darcy had managed to get out of this office by talking up the right people – why wasn’t it that easy for me? If it hadn’t been for Moira, I might have been stuck in this Department for several decades, and probably in no position higher than the one I already occupied.

 

“Thank you,” I breathed. “Really, Moira, thank you.”

 

She held up a hand to stop me. “No, no, none of that. I only have one condition: that you come visit me now and again and tell me about the brilliant work you’re doing and tell me stories about the boys you’re seeing.”

 

“I don’t know about that.  When was the last time you knew me to be dating anybody?”

 

“Too long ago, whenever it was, for a pretty girl like you. You don’t give yourself enough of a chance, Audrey – ”

 

“What’s going on out here?” Mr. Cornwell’s bald head was poking through a tiny space between his door and the doorframe.

 

“Nothing, Sheldon.” Moira flashed him a tolerant smile. “Anything I can do for you?”

 

“Actually, yes, I was wondering whether you can send away for some early lunch. I’m starving.” With that, pulled his head back into his office and slammed the door.

 

Moira rolled her eyes. “That’s why he’s in such a horrid mood all the time – he doesn’t eat properly. I try to get him to eat before ten each morning, but he never listens.” She tutted softly.  “I thought I was finished raising children when my own boys grew up.”

 

I resumed my work with a smile on my face. Mr. Cornwell’s poor eating habits notwithstanding, he could do nothing to ruin this day for me – no matter how hard he tried.



 

I took a detour on the way home, Apparating to my parents’ house in Derbyshire instead of Flooing back to my flat. My parents still lived in the same house in which Vivian and I had grown up – a lovely stone-built farmhouse near the small Muggle town of Whaley Bridge.

 

I wanted to tell my parents about my transfer to Magical Equipment Control, but really, I never needed much of an excuse to visit my childhood home. I loved spending time there, and each time I looked out over the fields and hills surrounding our house, I had to wonder exactly what I was doing living in a tiny flat in a dodgy part of London.

 

The best answer was that Vivian and I had to move out on our own at some point, and it made sense for us to live together, and it made sense for us to live in London, since we both worked there. It all made perfect, rational sense. But that didn’t mean I had to like it, and it didn’t mean I never felt homesick, even though we tried to make it home for Sunday dinner as often as possible.

 

After nearly three years, I still didn’t understand the appeal of London. It was crowded and hectic and never felt quite right to me. As far as I was concerned, that city didn’t hold a candle to the wide, open spaces of Derbyshire, where everything was welcoming and you could always take a moment to close your eyes and breathe easily. Vivian loved London, though. It matched her energy and made her happy; and when Vivian was happy, I was, too.

 

The sun was hanging low in the sky when I arrived at my parents’ house, and after Apparating onto the front step I paused to take in the surroundings. It was April, and a thick covering of wood anemones had erupted all around the perimeter of the house. I had a feeling Dad would be working with his plants, so instead of knocking at the door I walked around to the greenhouse in the backyard.

 

“Dad?” I stood on my toes, searching over the seemingly infinite rows of plants. The greenhouse wasn’t very large on the outside, but Dad had cast an Undetectable Extension Charm on it, to allow enough room for all of his projects.

 

He looked up from a row of shrubs and broke into a smile.

 

“Sweet pea!” He doused his dirty hands with water from his wand and wiped them on his trousers before wrapping me in a hug.

 

“What are you experimenting with today?” I asked with a suspicious glance over his shoulder.

 

Dad liked Herbology, Muggle gardening, and everything in between – which meant he liked to experiment with cross-breeding magical and mundane species. In fact, the wood anemones that surrounded the house had been cross-bred with the Flutterby bush, so that they swayed and rippled even in the absence of a breeze.

 

His fascination with Muggle gardening had begun several years earlier, when he had developed some heart problems and a Healer recommended he quit his strenuous job on the Magical Law Enforcement Squad. Dad had been a Hit Wizard for a while before moving to a desk job, and the Healer suggested that he quit law enforcement altogether in favor of something with an easier pace, like Herbology.

 

Dad decided it would be humorous to take it a step further and work in Muggle horticulture…and as ironic as he meant it to be, he found that he actually enjoyed it. He ran a nursery in Bakewell, where he sold Muggle plants that were so vibrant and lasted for such a long time, his customers swore they seemed to have been grown by magic. At home, he had a flourishing garden full of magical and Muggle plants. There was nothing he couldn’t grow…and very few things he wouldn’t attempt.

 

He chuckled at my question. “I’m glad you asked. I’ve done a very nice combination between a Venus Fly Trap and a Venomous Tentacula.”

 

I gasped. “Oh, Dad, you didn’t!”

 

“No, you’re right, I didn’t. Your mother would kill me.” He had a glint in his eye. “So that means that, when I finally do accomplish it, you have to promise not to tell her. But, in all seriousness, I do have something to show you.” He reached behind a row of flowers and pulled out a miniature rosebush in a clay pot. It was studded here and there with tiny, pink tea roses.

 

“It’s…nice, Dad.” I gave him a questioning look. It was beautiful, but knowing my dad, I had expected it to be something a little more out of the ordinary.

 

He rolled his eyes. “I know what the problem is. It’s being shy. Here, let’s talk about something else so it doesn’t feel self-conscious.” He angled his body away from the rosebush as I tried to make sense of what he had just said. “You haven’t told me yet – to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

 

“Oh.” I tore my gaze away from the pink tea roses. “I wanted to tell you – wait, is Mum here? She’ll want to hear this, too.”

 

“I afraid she’s not here – off doing some function at school.” My mother, a Muggle, was a teacher at a primary school in a neighboring town.

 

“Oh…well, I wanted to tell you that I’m being transferred to the Office of Magical Equipment Control.”

 

Dad gave me a steady look. “And…is that a good thing, then? Are you happy about it?”

 

“Yes, of course – I can’t believe I was finally able to get out of Transportation! I thought I’d be stuck there forever. And being in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement…well, hopefully now I can start doing work that’s a little more meaningful.”

 

“I’m sure you will. You’re a smart girl, always have been.”

 

I was silent for a minute. “Sometimes I’m not sure that’s enough, though. I’ve always felt like my personality doesn’t work at the Ministry.”

 

“No, you’re not the political sort, I’ll give you that. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people don’t appreciate the kind of temperament you have, even though they should. But I wouldn’t have you any other way, sweet pea. Things will work out, you’ll see. You’ll find your way. I think you just haven’t found your passion, and I don’t blame you – it’s a hard thing to find at a place like the Ministry.”

 

I knew I hadn’t found my passion. I worked at the Ministry because it was good work, and it seemed like the reasonable thing to do. My parents, particularly Mum, had always put a lot of store in academics, hard work, and achievement; consequently, I was a bit of a stickler for doing things properly, and I felt I should have a job that wouldn’t disappoint them. I never felt that they demanded too much, but for their sake as well as my own, I wanted a job that anyone could be proud of. I didn’t know whether I was fulfilled at the Ministry, but I was satisfied, at least…and in the beginning that had seemed like enough.

 

As I pondered my father’s words, I glanced at the miniature rosebush and let out a surprised gasp. Half of the tiny roses had turned yellow.

 

Dad grinned. “Ah, see, it’s starting to warm up to you. I wish you could see it change though…here – ” He leaned over and whispered close to my ear, “Keep an eye on it, but pretend you’re not looking, so it doesn’t know you’re watching.”

 

I raised my eyebrows. “Mum’s right. You really have gone mad.”

 

“Shh.” He gestured to the rosebush with his eyes.

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as one yellow rose slowly closed into a tight bud and then unfurled itself to reveal a new color – this time a soft peach.

 

“See?” he asked. “It’s getting a little more comfortable. It’ll do that on and off, though there’s no rhyme or reason to it – sometimes it changes more often, and sometimes it likes to stay the same. It’s a sight when it really comes alive and they all start going, one right after the other.”

 

“It’s really lovely,” I said, smiling at the rosebush.

 

“I’m rather fond of it,” he admitted. “It makes me think of you.”

 

My cheeks grew warm and I smiled more broadly. “Thanks, Dad. So, when’s Mum supposed to be back?”

 

“Not sure…later in the evening, that’s all I know.”

 

“And she’s left you to fend for yourself for dinner?” I teased.

 

“You might be surprised to know that I do very well for myself. I may have been spoiled by having three excellent cooks around, but I’m not completely hopeless.”

 

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, fine, then, if you’d like to do it all yourself…”

 

“Hey, if you’re not too cool to spend dinner with your old dad, I say let’s go get started, because I’m starving.”

 

He headed for the door of the greenhouse with me but then doubled back and picked up the potted rosebush.

 

“We’d better take this in with us,” he said. “It’s yours, and I want you to have it. I think it likes you.”

 

As if in response, the little plant unfurled a new rose, this one as deeply red as a wild cherry.

 
 

A/N 11/13/19: I'm back and updating! There's a new chapter up, and I've just revised this chapter a bit. I may have some tweaks and revisions to make to Ch 2-9 as well, soon, so please excuse my dust while I do that. Nothing that will change important aspects of the story, however. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 



Chapter 2: Something Different
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On the date of my transfer to my new office, I arrived at work early to gather my things and turn in my old robes – I would now be wearing the crimson robes issued by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, rather than the ghastly orange robes of the Transportation Department. After a final thank you and farewell to Moira, and a quick goodbye to a grumpy and underfed Mr. Cornwell, I hastened to the lifts, hoping to ensure that I would arrive at my new office before the day fully began.

 

No sooner had I stepped off the lift than I realized I had no clue where the Office of Magical Equipment Control was. I had never been to Level Two before, and Magical Law Enforcement was quite expansive. To my left were a set of doors marked “Auror Offices”; obviously my new home wasn’t anywhere in there, so I took off down the corridor in the other direction.

 

On the left, I passed a door that had been propped wide open, so that I wasn’t able to find the name of the office anywhere. I decided I would double back to it if I didn’t find the correct office further down the hall. On the right, I passed the Magical Law Enforcement Administrative Offices, and finally, after passing another open door on the left and a break room on the right, I came to…

 

Another corridor. Full of doors as far as the eye could see, with even more hallways branching off to each side.

 

I had never been able to figure out whether the Ministry had been intentionally built in such a confusing way, or whether it was the careless result of hodgepodge expansion and addition of new offices through the years.

 

One almost expected to encounter a Minotaur while navigating the complicated labyrinth of corridors.

 

Resolving that I would certainly not be running into any skulking Minotaurs, I turned and stared in the direction I had come from. I would simply pop into the nearest office and ask for help.

 

A harassed voice carried through the open doorway as I approached.

 

“ – no, because Blevins can’t seem to do anything right, and now I’m the one who has to go sort it all out with the legal staff – ”

 

It didn’t sound like a conversation I ought to interrupt.

 

But as I attempted to slide discreetly past the office, the owner of the voice burst through the doorway a mere two steps in front of me, cutting short his tirade about Blevins in mid-sentence.

 

“Oh!” I scooted back in surprise, my heart faltering.

 

One really shouldn’t go charging through doorways at such a pace; it’s an accident waiting to happen.

 

“I – I’m so sorry,” I managed, resisting the urge to shrink away from his irritated expression. He was very tall, so that he was quite literally looking down his nose at me. His nose, like the rest of his face, was long and thin, and upon it were perched a pair of thick glasses. He looked to be all business and seriousness, and the only thing remotely cheerful-looking about him was his hair, which was such a lively shade of red it could almost be described as orange.

 

“No, pardon me,” he said stiffly.

 

“I’m sorry to delay you,” I began as he moved past me, “but could you tell me where Magical Equipment Control is?”

 

He really did look as though this was a huge imposition, but he turned towards me once again and said, “New, are you?”

 

Was it necessary to say it with such a condescending attitude? It was Sheldon Cornwell all over again.

 

“Well, yes, I’ve been transferred…”

 

He pointed down the corridor. “Next door on the right, just before the lifts.”

 

I thanked him, received a quick nod in return, and watched him disappear into the adjacent Administrative Offices in a purposeful fashion.

 

My heart thumped wildly with embarrassment, and I drew a steadying breath to calm myself. I was off to an excellent start.



 

As it turned out, the incident in the hallway was no indication of what life would be like in my new office. Magical Equipment Control was a cheery little place, comprised of one large room, a private office for the manager, and a staff of five people – now six, including me.

 

Whereas Magical Transportation had been a dull, drab place, enlivened only by the horrid orange robes we were required to wear and the bright flowers on Moira’s desk, the Office of Magical Equipment Control was adorned with photographs, personal trinkets, and colorful posters bearing such slogans as Cauldron Care Averts Accidents! and Finicky Fireworks Foster Fiascos!

 

My new boss, Demetrius Dibble, was the anti-Sheldon.

 

“Oh, God, none of that!” he protested when I addressed him as Mr. Dibble. “Urgh!  Makes me feel old. It’s Demetrius – or Dibble, if you must.” I nodded, knowing I was certain to break that rule a hundred times over, out of sheer habit.

 

He was, I noticed, quite young – perhaps in his mid-thirties. He had a cheerful face and excessively curly brown hair.

 

“We’re very glad to have you aboard – Violet’s heard wonderful things about you from Moira Davies.” Violet, I soon learned, was Mr. Dibble’s secretary, and one of Moira’s co-conspirators.

 

“So take the morning to get situated,” he continued, “and I’ll have Lionel show you the ropes, make sure you’re absolutely comfortable here.” He gave me a friendly smile.

 

Lionel Grigsby was Mr. Dibble’s second-in-command, equally welcoming, cheerful, and overwhelmingly energetic. He reminded me of Vivian’s boyfriend – similar height and build, jovial nature, and confident, carrying voice. The main difference was that Michael was a bit mellower, whereas Lionel was positively bouncing off the walls.

 

“So good to meet you!  Here, here’s your desk, right next to Noah’s, you can just chuck your things there, and I’ll introduce you…” With that, he placed his hands on my shoulders and steered me across the room, where he introduced me to Noah Marcum and Madeleine Ward.

 

Judging by looks, Noah and Madeleine were about my age, although I learned that they had been working for Magical Equipment Control for over a year. Noah was short and stocky, with an angular jaw and an easygoing manner. Madeleine had a dainty face and immaculately kept, straight, black hair. After shaking my hand, she leaned back in her chair and regarded me with pursed lips and a dubious expression.

 

“So does this mean I finally get to share some of this ridiculous amount of work that’s been sitting on my desk for the past three weeks?” she inquired of Lionel. Her voice was low and flat, with a bit of an edge to it.

 

“Thank God you’re not being friendly, Mads,” chuckled Lionel. “It breaks my heart when you are.” Noah chuckled, and Madeleine rolled her eyes.

 

I jumped in tentatively. “I can get started right away, on anything, really, just tell me what needs doing – ”

 

My voice trailed off, drowned out by Lionel’s enthusiastic reply as he waved away my offer. “We’re not going to load you down with work your very first day here! Thought maybe we’d just get to know you a bit, maybe take an early lunch – Dibble doesn’t want us scaring you away before you’ve even had a chance to sit down!”

 

I wasn’t sure how to tell him that the prospect of doing research and writing reports was much less frightening than the idea of trying to impress a roomful of new people.

 

As promised, the next hour consisted of questions about my previous position with the Transportation Department, where I lived, what my family was like, what my interests were – all of which I answered, albeit self-consciously, until I had shared almost the entire story of my life, which really wasn’t that interesting to begin with.

 

Lionel and Noah were fascinated by the fact that I had been homeschooled, especially since I’d studied both magical subjects and Muggle subjects – Mum had been quite adamant that Vivian and I receive a well-rounded education. I spent a great deal of time answering their questions about what that experience was like: yes, we were busy; no, Muggle subjects weren’t boring; yes, we took OWLs and NEWTs…

 

I rather felt as though I were under an exceedingly friendly interrogation.

 

I learned a few things about my coworkers as well. Noah wanted to teach at Hogwarts someday, although he hadn’t exactly been a model student and hadn’t received many NEWTs. He was still hopeful, however, and said he would gladly accept a position teaching Muggle Studies, a subject that came naturally to him since he was Muggle-born. Lionel had wanted to be an Auror, but that didn’t work out for him; he said he was now perfectly happy in his current position and didn’t want to do much else besides manage an office in Law Enforcement.

 

Madeleine didn’t say much to me – indeed, she didn’t say much at all, choosing instead to punctuate other people’s sentences with irritable scoffs and sighs. Noah assured me that this behavior was normal and had nothing to do with me, which still didn’t make me feel any less intimidated. I did glean, however, that she was quite a talented witch who aspired to work in the Department of Mysteries.

 

I couldn’t help feeling a trifle jealous of my coworkers, all of whom seemed to know exactly where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do. Even Noah and Madeleine, who hadn’t yet achieved their goals, were only using this office as a stepping stone. I, on the other hand, wasn’t sure where this job would take me – if anywhere.

 

Moira’s words from the previous week stuck stubbornly in my head. Was I wasting my talents? Was this yet another dead end? Would my identity be lost in the winding halls of the Ministry, buried under stacks of papers, and shuffled along with the hundreds of people who crossed the marble floors of the Atrium?

 

My thoughts were interrupted when Lionel inquired as to my interest in Quidditch – it seemed there was a good deal of friendly rivalry in this office – and I had to admit to them that I didn’t know much about Quidditch at all. My knowledge of the sport was limited to the fact that my dad supported the Appleby Arrows, and that my sister and I were forbidden to marry anyone who supported the Wimbourne Wasps.

 

The result of my confession was that a large part of our lunch hour was spent talking about Quidditch, as Lionel and Noah tried to describe the sport’s finer points in a way that I could understand. Unfortunately, I only felt more confused, although I tried to appear as though I was following along.

 

By the time we returned from lunch, I felt perfectly exhausted, and I hadn’t done one bit of work yet. I was beyond relieved when Mr. Dibble finally approached me with a task.

 

“I’m so sorry to give you work on your very first day, Audrey,” he said, “but would you mind taking on a small assignment?”

 

I looked at him in astonishment. He was apologizing for asking me to do my job. I felt very out of place here.

 

“That’s what I’m here for, of course,” I replied.

 

“Well,” he continued, “we often have a bit of overlap between our office and the Improper Use of Magic Office, and sometimes files get set off to the wrong place. So about once a week, we need to sort that out – Lionel has this week’s files for I.U.M., and I’d appreciate it ever so much if you could run them over there.” He returned to his office, but not before reminding me that the door was always open and that I should never hesitate to ask him any questions.

 

“So, where is the Improper Use of Magic Office?” I asked Lionel after accepting a large stack of bulging files.

 

“Just down the corridor, next door on the left. You, um…” He gave me an abashed, almost apologetic look, although I wasn’t sure why. “There’s a bloke there called Percy Weasley, that’s who takes them, and he may have something to send back to us. Tall redhead with glasses – can’t miss him.”

 

A flush crept up my face as I recalled the lukewarm reception I’d received earlier in the corridor.

 

“You alright?” Lionel gave me a look of concern.

 

I nodded vigorously and cleared my throat. “Oh, yes, just thinking. I’ll be right back, I won’t be a moment!”

 

Maybe the Department of Transportation wasn’t so bad, I thought glumly as I hurried down the corridor. I shifted the stack of files in my arms. They weren’t particularly heavy, just bulky and somewhat awkward.

 

Stopping just outside the open door of the Improper Use of Magic Office, I took a moment to collect myself, drew a deep breath, and stepped into the doorway. Perhaps there was room for a good second impression.

 

Straight ahead, sitting at his desk, looking very busy and important, was Mr. Tall-Redheaded-and-Bespectacled himself.

 

He didn’t look remotely happy to see me. My stomach gave an unpleasant twinge as he raised one eyebrow above the thick rim of his glasses and stared at me expectantly.

 

“Hello,” I said, flashing a nervous smile as I approached. “My name’s Audrey…Audrey Greene. I’m – well, I’m sure you remember, I’m new in Magical Equipment Control…”

 

“I remember,” he said dryly.

 

Under somewhat calmer circumstances than our first meeting, I noticed his appearance in better detail. I realized that his businesslike air and the weary lines across his brow made him look older than he probably was. In actuality, he seemed quite young – not more than two or three years older than I was.

 

His mouth was narrow, just barely wider than his thin, perfectly straight nose. And his eyes, which were a pleasant, earthy brown, were sharp and alert behind the thick lenses he wore. All of his features had the combined effect of making him appear highly focused at all times.

 

Before I could say another word, I found myself accepting two thick files from Percy and balancing them atop the stack I already held.

 

“Those go to your office,” he said. “And would you please tell Dibble that he really must talk to Harmon Finch and tell him, for the last time, that wands do not fall under the purview of this office? They’re clearly defined as magical equipment, and Finch won’t seem to listen to me, no matter how many times I remind him, so tell Dibble it’s out of my hands.” He rattled all of this off at lightning speed and spoke with the tone of someone who had been over this a thousand times before.

 

I nodded, trying to remember each piece of information while at the same time extracting files from the bottom of the stack I was holding. Honestly, he could have waited until my hands were free before giving me more things to hold. The pile tipped precariously, and then – 

 

Sheets of parchment…All. Over. The floor.

“Oh, damn,” I whispered. My face grew warm as blood rushed to the surface in the apples of my cheeks. Gathering my wits, I reached for the files now strewn about the floor next to Percy’s desk. “I’m so sorry, I’ll get – ”

 

I heard an exasperated sigh and a terse, “Just – it’s fine, I’ve got it. Accio 3-8-5-8-2 and 3-8-7-4-0.

 

Two files righted themselves and flew into his outstretched hand. He held them out to me with a dubious look.

 

“These are for your office,” he repeated. I glanced at them as I accepted them from him.  Numbers 38582 and 38740.

 

He memorized file numbers that didn’t even belong to his office.

 

Percy then scanned at the remaining file covers and flicked his wand at the mess of parchment on the floor, so that the loose leaves began sorting themselves into several piles.

 

He sighed again, and his eyes met mine. “Is that all?” he asked, rather rudely, I thought.

 

My stomach flipped over. “Yes,” I squeaked.

 

“Alright. Thanks.” He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, picked up his quill, and said nothing further to me.

 

I must have looked odd when I returned to my office, because Lionel raised his eyebrows and inquired after my wellbeing.

 

“I’m fine,” I replied, placing the new files on his desk. “I, um…I think I rather irritated him, though…”

 

And this entire day has been rubbish, I added to myself, and I can’t seem to do anything right, and –

 

To my bewilderment, Lionel burst out laughing.

 

“There would be something wrong with you if you didn’t irritate Percy Weasley. It’s not a difficult thing to do.” He laughed some more. “I have to admit, though, I thought maybe he’d take to you a little more kindly – you’re so nice, you see. He doesn’t get on well at all with Noah or me – does he, Noah?”

 

Noah grinned. “Nope. And Mads flat-out refuses to deal with him.”

 

“Tosser,” was Madeleine’s contribution to this conversation. “He’s only an assistant and thinks he runs the whole bleeding Department.”

 

“He sort of does for I.U.M. what Lionel does over here,” Noah explained to me, “only with a much better attitude.” He didn’t manage to get the last bit out with a straight face, and burst into a fit of giggles at his little joke.

 

Lionel coughed in a vain attempt to cover up his own laughter. “Well,” he said, turning to me, “guess you’ve been initiated now. Really, you’ll get on just fine here – might just have to be a bit more forceful whenever you’ve got to deal with Percy.”

 

Me, forceful. That was a laugh. I would have had a better chance at sprouting a pair of wings and flying to outer space.

 

I busied myself with some general office work for the remainder of the day, thinking that at the very least I was sure to amass a large collection of entertaining stories about my new job to share with Moira.

 

At a quarter to four, an Interdepartmental Memo flew into our office and landed neatly on my desk. I smiled a bit to myself as I read it; it was a welcome distraction.


Hello, friend,

 

I’m slipping out a bit early today. I like to keep these people on their toes. I know there’s no chance of talking you into sneaking out, so promise me we’ll have lunch this week so I can hear about your new spot in M.E.C.

 

x x

Darcy


Dear Darcy. Slipping out early on a Monday.

 

I rubbed my eyes as the realization hit me: it was only Monday.

 

At least I had lunch with Darcy that week to look forward to…

 

As long as I wasn’t eaten alive first.

 

 



Chapter 3: Romance By Stealth
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Dedication:  To my friend Barbara, whose dating misadventures helped inspire the character Cepheus Tomlinson in this chapter.

 

 

 

“Stupid, evil cow!”

 

Vivian was in quite a temper.  I was surprised she had the energy, considering she had just come home from a twelve-hour overnight shift.

 

“What’s the matter?”  I followed the sound of her voice into the kitchen, all the while attacking the snags in my hair with a brush.

 

“Hateful woman!” she huffed, wrenching open cupboard doors – searching for what, I didn’t know.  “I can’t believe this – she knew I wanted that spot – we have nothing to eat!

 

That wasn’t the slightest bit true.  Our kitchen was stocked with plenty of ingredients, most of a higher quality than we could really afford; considering we both worked so much, we reckoned it was alright to indulge our shared passion for cooking.

 

“Vivi, sit down and have some tea – I’ve just put some on.”

 

Sighing, she leaned against the countertop and placed her forehead in her hands.

 

“Eloise bleeding Camden denied me the spot in the Children’s Ward when she knew I wanted that spot – she knew how much I wanted it!  But no, sodding Jane Bryson gets it, the woman who can’t perform a decent Clotting Charm to save her own life, never mind someone else’s!”  She paused, and I remained silent, waiting for her to continue.  “It’s because Eloise thinks I want her spot – as if I wanted some rubbish administrative position!  That job is for Healers who can’t actually do any damn Healing, isn’t it?”

 

I gave her a sympathetic look and extracted her favorite teacup from the cupboard.  Our tea set, which had once belonged to our grandmother, was a hodgepodge collection that Nana had amassed over the years.  There were nearly two dozen teacups of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, and each bore the decoration of a different flower.  Vivi’s favorite was a fluted cup adorned with a sunflower; mine was a sturdy little cup bearing the image of the sweet pea.

 

“I’m sure you deserve that spot more than anyone,” I assured her as I prepared tea for both of us.

 

“Too right I do,” she said in a sullen voice.  “It’s all damn politics, though.  Jane Bryson doesn’t even like children!  Oh, this makes my head ache something awful.”

 

She closed her eyes for a moment and sighed.  “How have the last few days been for you, dearest?” We’d hardly seen each other since she’d started working nights.

 

“Oh, fine,” I said.  “Just fine.  Can’t complain, really.  Been keeping busy, so hopefully I’m making a good impression…”

 

“You work too much,” she chastised.

 

“Hark who’s talking,” I retorted.

 

She gave me a tired smile.  There were dark circles under her eyes, a natural product of her constantly shifting sleep schedules.

 

Vivian and I looked alike in several ways, the main difference between us being that she had a more petite figure.  We both had round faces and dark brunette hair, though Vivi experimented with her color frequently.  But Vivian had a powerful, natural energy about her, so that she always seemed vibrant, even when she was exhausted.  Physical similarities notwithstanding, she wore the signs of sleep deprivation in a way that I never could.

 

We stood in silence for a few moments, sipping our tea, and when I was certain Vivi’s anger had dissipated, I joked, “Perhaps they thought your hair would frighten the children.”  My sister’s hair currently had garish strips of magenta intermixed with her natural brown.

 

Her eyes flashed with amusement.  “I’m going to do it all purple now, just to spite them.”  She grinned, pondering this idea with apparent relish.

 

Vivi got away with quite a lot at work because she was such a talented Healer.  Even considering her current troubles, she knew as well as I did that St. Mungo’s would never let her go – she was too great an asset.  Not only was she skillful, she also put patients at ease in a way that few Healers could; some people insisted that simply being in Vivi’s presence was more therapeutic than any form of spellwork.

 

Yawning, she kissed me on the cheek.  “I’m going to go to my bedroom and sulk,” she said in a wry sort of way that reminded me of our father.  “Have a good day at work.”

 

I remained in the kitchen for several minutes, breathing deeply and savoring the sound of silence – magic did wonders for improving sound insulation in even the dodgiest of flats.  The kitchen was perhaps my favorite spot; it stripped me of my worries and anxiety.  I didn’t like to think of it as small and cramped – to me, it would always be cozy and welcoming, decorated in bright reds and yellows.  It was the site of morning gossip and many a late-night discussion with Vivian regarding pressing matters such as shoes, men, and careers.

I hoped Vivi wouldn’t fret too much over her job…she would probably wind up getting the spot she wanted within the month.  She was too good not to get it.  And this setback certainly wouldn’t deter her.  Vivi always found a way to push the boundaries, and she did it in a way that people respected – she never met a mountain she couldn’t move.

 

As for me, I didn’t even go so far as to toe the line, preferring to walk safely on the appropriate side of things.  It’s funny, how doing things the ‘right’ way doesn’t get you where it ought to…but even so, I continued to do it.  Moving mountains wasn’t in my repertoire.

 

 

 

“Why don’t you do something wild today, and return from lunch a few minutes late?” teased Darcy as we perused the menu at a café during our lunch hour.

 

“Ha-ha.”

 

Darcy MacKenna was not what most people expected any friend of mine to be.  She was brash and crass and considered an unvoiced opinion among the deadliest of sins.  She was quite talented and intelligent but found pleasure in shirking her duties here and there.  It wasn’t that she was lazy or irresponsible – she simply got a sense of satisfaction out of demonstrating how much control she could exercise over her own time.

 

“Really,” she pressed, “Dibble won’t even notice, and you know Grigsby won’t care.”

 

I didn’t bother to ask how she knew the first thing about Mr. Dibble or Lionel.  Darcy seemed to know everything about everybody at the Ministry, even people she had never met before.  She was a networking mastermind – it was no surprise that she’d finally achieved her coveted spot in the Department of International Magical Cooperation.

 

“What would I do if I didn’t have you to single-handedly preserve my sense of independence?” I asked after we had placed our orders.

 

“I’m sure I don’t know.  You’d probably be locked in the bowels of the Ministry writing reports for two Knuts a day.”

 

“I like writing reports,” I answered in earnest.

 

“Which is why you’ll be checked into the loony ward at St. Mungo’s before you reach the age of thirty.”

 

I sometimes felt rather more like a pet to Darcy than a peer. A project, even. She’d adopted me when we both worked for the Department of Magical Transportation. I was a captive audience, and I think she felt she could help me. “I am woman,” and all that. Still, I couldn’t dislike Darcy. She was kind and for some reason went out of her way to spend time with me. I had someone to talk to - or, rather, someone to talk to me - and her stories were endlessly entertaining.

 

We transitioned into normal chitchat and a good amount of new gossip on Darcy’s part.  We talked for such a long time that I really was in danger of returning to the office late if we didn’t leave right away.

 

“If we must go back now,” said Darcy, “at least promise me you’ll come to the Hinkydrunk after work today.”

 

I bit my lip in uncertainty.  “I don’t know – ”

 

“Come on, when was the last time we went out?  There’ll be people from I.M.C. there, I can introduce you if you want.  Good people to know, in case you get bored in Equipment Control.”

 

After a moment of indecisive silence on my part, she continued, “I will come to your office and make a scene, you know I will.”

 

 

 

The Hinkydrunk wasn’t quite as debaucherous as its name suggested.  It was a comfortable pub favored by the twenty- and thirty-something crowd that worked for the Ministry.  It smelled faintly of oak and barley and cigarettes, and if Muggles had been able to see it, it might have appeared like any ordinary Muggle establishment. It was the trend among younger wizards and witches to swap their robes for Muggle attire after work, and we came and went without drawing any attention or suspicion.

 

As it was a Friday evening, and as I generally left work later than most others, the pub was already overflowing with patrons by the time I arrived.  I wound my way through the crowd and finally found Darcy standing amongst a group of her office mates.  After greeting everyone, I found myself being pulled aside by my friend – and, being Darcy, she got right to the point.

 

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she said, handing me a pint of ale.

 

I stared at her for a moment: something in the deliberately casual tone of her voice did not sit well with me.

 

“Someone you’d like me to meet,” I repeated.  If I knew Darcy – and I did – it was a guy.  An impromptu blind date.  Romance by stealth.

 

It was an ambush.

 

She gave me a smug look.

 

“This is unbelievable,” I sighed.  “You could have at least told me that’s why you invited me out – you haven’t given me any warning!”

 

“Nonsense.  It’s not why I invited you out – I invited you because I desire the pleasure of your company.  Besides, I only talked to him this afternoon, after we had lunch.”

 

I glared at her, fully aware that I must have looked like a petulant child.

 

“And at any rate, it doesn’t matter, because you would never have come if you knew what I was doing.”

 

She had me there.  I would have made an excuse and gone straight home.  Darcy meant well, but these guys she set me up with never worked out for me.  She always seemed to choose the guys who were more suited to her than to me.  Darcy was a dear, but her taste in men was rubbish.

 

“You’ll love this one,” she assured me.  “Cepheus Tomlinson.”

 

“Pardon?” I interjected.  I tried and failed to suppress a giggle.  “His name’s Cepheus?  Branching out a bit, aren’t you?”

 

She waved an impatient hand.  “Look, his name really isn’t important.  What matters is that his family’s rolling in Galleons, and he’s dishy.”

 

“Charming,” I replied with a pointed look.  “But I really don’t know if this is a good idea…”

 

“You wouldn’t leave the poor bloke standing all alone with nobody to talk to, would you?”

 

I hardly believed that Cepheus Tomlinson, whoever he was, would have any trouble finding someone to talk to if he was as rich and attractive as Darcy claimed.  But no, as per usual, I wouldn’t leave him standing all alone, not after Darcy had apparently promised to introduce him to me.  I couldn’t in good conscience leave without at least saying hello – it was only good manners, after all.  Darcy knew this perfectly well, which was why she continued to do this to me.

 

She bustled away to fetch Cepheus, and I pressed myself rather awkwardly against the wall, attempting to be as unobtrusive as possible.  While I waited, I scanned the pub for familiar faces – it would be nice to have an escape route, if possible.  My office mates had mentioned they might be there after work, although Noah was enamored with another pub called the Boggart’s Hideaway, so it was likely they had gone there instead.

 

A few patrons shifted out of the way, revealing a head of meticulously and conservatively styled ginger hair across the room.  Directly below that hair was a pair of thick glasses, and behind those glasses was a bored expression.

 

He was standing amongst a group of people I assumed were his coworkers from the Improper Use of Magic Office, and he was tipping the glass in his hand absently from side to side, looking as though he wondered what on earth he was doing here.

 

I watched as he forced an uninterested smile onto his face in response to someone’s words, nodded and offered a few words himself, then glanced around the pub.  His eyes found mine, and his mouth twitched, and I tore my gaze away, embarrassed.

 

“Audrey?”

 

I turned around and knew right away that this was Darcy’s miracle man.  He had the air of a god walking among mortals.  Typical.  I decided I was going to kill Darcy.

 

“Cepheus Tomlinson,” he announced, shaking my hand.  He inclined his head a bit, and I marveled that he was physically capable of it, since he spent the rest of the time with his chin held jauntily high.  His eyebrows were cocked in a perpetual expression of condescending amusement above a pair of inhumanly blue eyes.  He was certainly attractive, and he was well aware of the fact.

 

After the initial exchange of pleasantries, I asked, “Er…so, how do you know Darcy?  She neglected to mention…”

 

With that, he was off and running; there was no need for me to talk at all, as he had that covered well enough himself.  I learned that he worked for International Magical Cooperation, though he really didn’t need to work, but he felt compelled by his duty to his country to assist with matters of diplomacy, particularly considering his parents knew this family in France and that family in Spain, and his dad had once played Junior Quidditch with the Japanese Minister of Magic – but, lord, that was years ago, and now the two families only exchanged Christmas cards!  He was currently working on an urgent diplomatic issue – a pet project of his, he said with a laugh – to convince the Ministry to start using Italian-made robes, because heaven knew these current robes were rubbish and it would be well worth it to use imported ones because Italian stitching was clearly superior.

 

It never failed to amaze me that a person could talk about himself at such length.  Cepheus didn’t interest me at all, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I listened attentively, thankful for the fact that the conversation didn’t actually require any talking on my part.

 

Twenty minutes later, I was still nodding politely while surveying the pub in what I hoped was a discreet manner.  Darcy was chatting up some guy in a corner, twirling a strand of her curly auburn hair around one finger, and she winked at me when she caught my eye.

 

Across the way, Percy Weasley appeared a bit more at ease as he laughed and smiled in response to something that was said.  As he spoke, he made a few gestures that I associated with men talking about Quidditch, and while he wasn’t as boisterous as any of the guys surrounding him, he seemed more engaged than he had been earlier.

 

His face looked so much more pleasant that way, though it still retained an aloof quality – a distant expression layered more or less permanently over all others, occasionally lapsing to reveal a certain amount of hesitant enjoyment.

 

I focused my attention once again on Cepheus, who was now explaining the intricacies of the Italian stitching on his shirt – custom made, of course.  I made a feeble attempt to excuse myself but found it impossible to get a word in edgewise.

 

Finally, when he paused to take a drink, I took my opportunity.  “I – I’m so sorry,” I rushed, “but I’ve just seen a friend I haven’t talked to in a long time, and I really must catch her before she leaves.  It’s been lovely meeting you.”

 

“Until we meet again, then,” he said, raising his glass to me.  He hadn’t the slightest clue that I was trying to get as far away from him as possible.

 

Now faced with the dilemma of what to do, since I had just ditched Cepheus for a non-existent person, I maneuvered my way through the throng of patrons until I sighted an empty spot at the bar counter.  I still had my drink in my hand, but I took the spot nonetheless – I really had no choice.  Turning my back to the crowd, I attempted to look as if I weren’t standing there completely alone and without purpose.

 

“Pardon me,” said a stilted voice over my shoulder, “is this spot taken?”

 

My body tensed, and I closed my eyes for a second before turning my head to see Percy standing there with an inscrutable expression on his face.

 

“Er…no,” I replied, mentally kicking myself and wondering whether Cepheus hadn’t yet found a new person to talk to.  Regardless, perhaps I could just leave – but no, that would seem odd, wouldn’t it?  Not that I didn’t look odd to begin with, hovering there for no apparent reason, talking to nobody in particular.

 

I glanced around at everything and everyone except for the redhead standing next to me, and I saw that Cepheus was, indeed, still standing alone, looking as though he required no company other than himself.

 

“Friend of yours?”  Percy leaned stiffly against the bar, arms crossed, and when I directed my attention to him, he nodded in Cepheus’ direction.  His face was still largely stoic, but I thought I caught a hint of amusement behind his glasses.

 

Not sure how to answer that, I delayed for a moment before replying, “No…um…bad blind date…”

 

I prayed that the floorboards would part and that I would sink into the ground.

 

“Ah, yes. My friends like to do that to me, too,” he admitted, one corner of his mouth pulling up in a passable imitation of a smile – it was barely perceptible, but it was there.  He looked kind and handsome that way.  “I usually end up like that poor sod.”

 

I didn’t know what to make of that comment, but the expression in his eyes turned from amusement to horror, as if he deeply regretted what he had just said.  A flush started to creep his neck.

 

Hours seemed to pass as we stood in uneasy silence.  I averted my eyes once again, staring into the depths of my drink as a form of distraction – I had never cared for the bitter at this pub; it tended to be almost sweet.  My straight hair hung shapelessly around my face, and I tucked it compulsively behind my ears about fifty times.  When I finally glanced at Percy again, he seemed to be thinking intently about something.

 

Finally, he spoke up, his voice straining against the din of the pub.  “The reason I…that is, what I wanted to say is that I believe I might have been rude to you the other day.”

 

Well, yes, perhaps a bit.

 

“No, not at all,” I assured him.  “I’m sure you were just busy and…work and everything…”

 

“Oh, yes.”  He nodded emphatically.  “It was a horrendous day.  I mean, you tell people a hundred times, and you’d think they would learn after awhile – especially in an office like I.U.M., you really can’t afford to do things incorrectly.  Just last week we had three cases completely mishandled, and of course on Monday it fell on me to sort everything out, so first I had to go and – ”

 

He stopped abruptly, and the flush continued up the sides of his neck, creeping onto his face, until his freckled cheeks were tinged with pink.

 

“Um…well…Mondays are rubbish,” he finished.

 

I offered him a smile.  “Mondays are rubbish,” I agreed.

 

“At any rate, I’m sorry I was rude.”

 

“No offense taken.”  I said it so quietly that I wasn’t sure he heard me.

 

I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I’d had to lean towards him in order to hear what he was saying, and I pulled away feeling uncertain.  Four days ago, I’d been downright terrified of Percy; now I didn’t know what to make of things.  He seemed much more decent than anybody gave him credit for.

 

His eyes fell on mine and then flickered away in almost the same second.  He cleared his throat.

 

“Anyway,” he said, “I’d better…well…”  He motioned in the direction of his office mates, nodded goodbye to me, and then he was gone.  In all the time he had been at the bar with me, he hadn’t even ordered a drink.

 

Darcy was waiting for me, and she gave me a frustrated look when I finally made my way over to her.

“Please don’t tell me you ditched that gorgeous man” – she pointed to Cepheus – “to chat up Percy Weasley.”

 

“I wasn’t chatting him up!” I protested.  “And I’ll have you know, Cepheus is a total bore.”

 

“Oh, and Weasley isn’t?”

 

My face grew hot.  “Well, that’s not – exactly how do you know him, anyway?  I know you know almost everybody, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of person you’d take interest in.”

 

She laughed.  “He’s not, trust me.  I’ve only heard about him from others.  The only interesting thing about him is that his brother is best friends with Harry Potter.”

 

Suddenly, he seemed quite intimidating again.

 

Darcy gave Percy an appraising look.  “To be fair, he could be pretty fit.  He really needs to do something about those glasses, though – they’re horrifying.  And he’s so thin – I wonder if his mum forgot to feed him.”  This thought seemed to amuse her.

 

She turned her attention to me once again.  “So, no luck with Cepheus, then?”

 

“Not exactly my type, as you very well knew before you even introduced me to him.”

 

“Mind if I have him?”

 

When I departed a short while later, she kissed me on the cheek, wishing me a good weekend and promising loads of details about Cepheus that I really had no desire to learn.

 

I chanced a look at Percy once more before exiting the pub.  He looked as uncomfortable as ever; and though I was certain he locked eyes with me for a second, his face gave no response and he turned his head away quickly, as if he hadn’t seen me at all.

 

I left feeling baffled and remembered why I so rarely went out at the end of the week.  Happy hour was much more trouble than it was worth.
 

 

 



Chapter 4: Damn Lifts
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Special thanks to Jellyman, SnitchSnatcher, Violet Gryfindor, and Alopex, without whose encouragement this chapter might never have been posted. 


 

 

 

I couldn’t deny that, on the whole, Magical Law Enforcement was turning out to be much pleasanter than Magical Transportation.  Most of the people I encountered on a day-to-day basis were inconceivably kind and well-humored.

 

“Good morning, Mr. Lambert - er, Brian,” I corrected myself yet again as I popped my head into the office of the Senior Magical Equipment Inspector.

 

“Good morning, love!” said Brian.  He was a genial person who made me feel quite at ease despite the fact that I’d only known him for the couple of weeks I’d been with Magical Equipment Control.  He had salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache to match.  All in all, he reminded me very much of my father - and, in fact, he had known my dad when Dad worked at the Ministry.

 

“I hate to be a bother,” I began, “but…”

 

“Ah, yes, the evaluation for the new cauldron import.  I have it here somewhere - it’s finished, but I didn’t expect it to be picked up so quickly.  Seems you’re the only person here who cares about deadlines.”  He winked as he extracted a roll of parchment from the mountain on his desk and handed it to me.

 

I was still getting used to the idea of being playfully chastised for being attentive to my job.  At least, I think it was all playful.

 

“Well, I want to have my report finished by Friday, and seeing as tomorrow’s a holiday…”

 

“Yes, yes, for heaven’s sake, no working tomorrow!  If I hear about you doing any such thing, I’ll report it to Dibble.”

 

“Ha ha.”  I smiled.  “Thank you, Brian!”

 

“Of course.  Come visit us down this way more often!  And tell your dad I said hello.”

 

I promised I would, and began the trek back to my office.  For some incomprehensible reason, someone had decided to place the equipment inspectors all the way down at the other end of the main corridor on this level, past the administrative offices and Improper Use of Magic, around the corner, and past a set of maintenance lifts.  The only explanation for it was that, as the Ministry had grown and various Departments expanded, offices were added on in new locations, irrespective of all logistical consequences.

 

Of course, maybe it was also because of the explosions that invariably accompanied magical equipment inspections.

 

I hurried down the corridor, running through my list of tasks in my mind.  But I slowed and hesitated as I turned the corner and approached a familiar door on my right.  The Improper Use of Magic office.  Every time I walked past it, I was struck with the urge to glance through the open door…and I repressed it each time.

 

Because directly inside that door, straight ahead, sat Percy Weasley’s desk.  And I was trapped in that strange, vague limbo of acquaintanceship.  I hadn’t had any further interaction with Percy after his apology at the pub, except to pass him in the corridor now and again.

 

How exactly were you supposed to act when you weren’t perfect strangers but nothing close to friends?  I hadn’t yet worked out the answer to that question, which was why I avoided unnecessary contact altogether - even a casual glance in the direction of his office.  After all, what was supposed to happen if he was there and I caught his eye?  Should I smile and wave and keep walking?  Should I stop to say hello and ask how he is?  I would probably be inclined to pretend I just hadn’t seen him at all.

 

All in all, an awkward situation.  My sister was the type of person who handled these situations expertly.  But she was also the type of person who was perfectly at ease making conversation with total strangers.

 

I was decidedly not that kind of person, so I focused my eyes straight ahead and continued on to my own office.

 

“Good lord, Audrey,” said Lionel when I began reviewing the cauldron evaluation from Brian, “you’re not going to start on that report today, are you?  Tomorrow’s a holiday, you know.”

 

The holiday to which we referred was the anniversary - four years now - of the end of the War.  In the true habit of every other holiday in existence, it always crept up on me whenever I had the greatest amount of work piled up.

 

“Yes,” I replied, setting aside the evaluation and shuffling through the sheets of parchment stacked on my desk, “I know, which is why I want to get as much done today as possible…but first I have to finish this memo for Demetrius’ signature, and then I have to - oh, damn!”  I picked up a few files and stared at them in dismay.  “I completely forgot to take these over to I.U.M.!”

 

I stood, prepared to charge off to I.U.M. straight away to exchange the misplaced files, and as I did so I felt a pleasant and inexplicable sensation in my stomach at the thought of having an excuse to say hello to Percy.

 

“Er - you know,” began Lionel, “don’t trouble yourself about that, there’s not much they can do about it today anyway, so you might as well just wait until after the holiday…”

 

“No, no, no,” I responded distractedly, scooping up the files in my arms, “I’ll just get it done now.”

 

“Audrey, wait.”

 

Something in his voice made me stop and turn around.

 

“You, uh…well, today’s really not the best day to deal with Weasley.  He’s in a right foul mood.”

 

“And that’s different from any other day because…?” contributed Madeleine.

 

“Oh, shut it, Mads,” snapped Lionel with uncharacteristic irritation.  “Have some respect, will you?  You know what it‘s about.”

Madeleine just rolled her eyes and resumed her inspection of her fingernails for nonexistent chips in the polish.

Lionel peered out the door and down the corridor in both directions, then steered me by the arm to a corner of the office and spoke in a low voice.

 

“He’s always in a bad mood around Victory Day.  It’s…well, I probably shouldn’t gossip about it to you, but almost everyone knows anyway.  His family fought in the War - in the Battle at Hogwarts - well, so did he, actually.  And he…he lost a brother.  It’s a very bad time for him, and whatever he is the rest of the time, he’s twenty times worse today and takes it out on anyone who crosses him, so just…leave the files, alright?  Trust me, you‘ll thank me for it.”

 

I gaped, unable to find an appropriate response.  Then, gathering my wits, I nodded and resumed my seat at my desk.

 

It was all very sad, I mused as I pored over cauldron specifications and test results.  I’d known of people who died in the War, of course, but it was usually through someone who knew someone who knew someone.  When you actually met someone who had been touched by it directly…well, it changed the way you looked at them, even if you didn’t know them very well at all.

 

He had suffered the equivalent of me losing my Vivian.

 

Pushing the unpleasant thoughts out of my mind, I worked steadily the rest of the day, resisting my coworkers’ attempts to persuade me to leave at a normal time.  I stayed and worked until I was quite sure I must be the only person left at the Ministry.

 

As I stood over my desk, gathering my things and double- and triple-checking to make sure all the unfinished projects could be left for a later date, a figure walked briskly by the door.  Then it backtracked a few steps and peered into the office.

 

“Audrey!” came his surprised voice.  I glanced over in time to see him adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose.  “Why are you still here?”

 

“Just…finishing a few things, it didn’t seem right to leave them and come back to a load of work after the…”  My voice faltered.  “After the holiday.”  In context, it seemed rather morbid to call it a holiday…like it was supposed to be something enjoyable.

 

“Same for me,” he replied.  I didn’t know what Lionel was talking about - Percy wasn’t being unpleasant at all.

 

Percy appeared hesitant, then added, “Are you nearly done, then?  I’ll wait for you…you shouldn’t be here alone, you know.”

 

I blinked.  I didn’t especially fancy the idea of walking down empty corridors and across the massive Atrium after hours, when the whole place was dark and quiet, and the thought of company was a welcome one.

 

“If you wouldn’t mind,” I answered apologetically.  “I was just leaving, actually.”

 

The following five minutes were some of the most uncomfortable in my entire life.  It was like we picked the slowest damn lift in the entire place.

 

Finally, Percy broke the silence. “Have any plans tomorrow?”

 

“Um…no.”  I didn’t elaborate.  I never said I was a great conversationalist.  “What about you?”  I cringed as I said it.  What a thing to ask - Have any fun plans for the day your brother died?

 

“Just working,” he replied.  That threw me off.

 

“Really?”

 

“Nice to get things done when it’s quiet, you know?”  There was that hint of a smile again. He gestured for me to go ahead of him as the door of the lift opened, and we headed for the row of fireplaces.  “Hope I don’t see you around tomorrow - er, I mean - I didn’t mean it that way.  I only meant I hope I’m the only one stuck here on a holiday.  Sorry.”  He looked down at the floor and adjusted his glasses again - rather unnecessarily, I noticed, as they seemed quite straight to begin with.

 

Another moment passed in silence as we reached the fireplaces and I looked up at him.

 

“Thanks,” I said.  “Nice of you to make sure I wasn’t left all alone.”

 

“My pleasure…I’ll see you around, then.”

 

He stepped into a fireplace and vanished, and I Flooed home, wondering whether anyone would believe me if I told them that Percy Weasley was downright kind to me on the day he was supposed to be in the worst temper imaginable.

 

 

 

No, they certainly wouldn’t have believed it.  Just like the administrative assistants didn’t believe it when, about two weeks later, I ran into a terribly stressed-out Percy, claiming he needed to be in three places at once and had absolutely no help at all around this place, and I offered to take care of whatever needed doing in administration since I was headed there anyway.  Apparently, it was unheard of to do Percy any favors if it could be avoided.

 

Nor would anyone have believed, unless they’d seen it with their own eyes, that he had started saying hello to me in the corridor and even going so far as to stop for two seconds to ask how I was doing on occasion.  I encountered him a number of times when he seemed irritated or appeared to have just finished telling someone off, but if he had any inclination to be uncivil with me specifically, he didn’t show it - though he had the sort of expression that told you exactly how many things were on his mind even as he talked to you.

 

Then, one Thursday as I was saying goodbye to Darcy after chatting with her outside International Magical Cooperation, Percy emerged from the main door to their offices.

 

“Oh - hi, Audrey.”  He glanced at Darcy and gave her a distant nod.  She raised her eyebrows and responded with a sardonic smile.

 

Honestly, she didn’t have to like him, but she could at least be nice to him!

 

“Percy, hi!  I’m just about to head for the lifts - you as well?”

 

He nodded, and I gave Darcy a quick kiss on the cheek, telling her I’d talk to her soon.  She gave me a searching look and then shook her head slowly, as though she were my mother and I had brought shame on the family name.  Then she disappeared back into the I.M.C. offices.

 

“Didn’t think I’d run into you here,” I offered as we walked.  I supposed other people might have thought of something more interesting or clever to say.  I was not one of those people.

 

“Yeah, I was…just had to talk to someone.  What about you?”

 

“The same.”  I pressed the button for the lifts.  “My friend Darcy - that’s who I was talking to - she works there.  I thought I’d like to work in that Department once, but Darcy has had more success climbing the ladder here than I have.”

 

“Probably for the wrong reasons, I expect.”

 

I gave him a questioning look.

 

“Not that - I don’t mean to insult your friend - I only meant…just being good at what you do is not always rewarded around here.”  He appeared deep in thought for a moment, then shrugged.  “Anyway…are you liking Equipment Control, at least?”

 

“Oh, yes, it’s…it’s great, everyone there is really wonderful to me.”

 

“They certainly get more done now that you’re there.”

 

The door to one lift opened, and we stepped inside, where two young men in Auror robes were engaged in conversation.  Well, one was conversing rather heatedly - a tall, skinny, redheaded boy - and the other was listening patiently.  The silent one was, without a doubt, Harry Potter, and I caught myself staring and looked away in complete embarrassment before remembering to press the button for Level Eight.  Both of them waved to Percy in greeting, and the redheaded one continued without pausing as the lift descended.

 

“ - and I talked to him, and he wants to tell me, Oh, well, I lost my wand, and I said yeah, right, it’s probably just stuck up y- ”

 

“Lady present!” snapped Percy.

 

The other redhead looked at Percy as though he were speaking gibberish, then turned to the other Auror and shrugged, continuing his conversation in a low voice.

 

The lift stopped at Level Seven, and the two Aurors exited.  The doors closed again, and we continued down to the Atrium.

 

“Sorry,” said Percy, looking pink in the face, “that’s my brother.  One of my brothers, anyway.  He has a bit of a mouth on him.”

 

I laughed.  “It’s alright.  I think he’d get on well with my sister.  I’ll bet she’s worse.”

 

The doors opened, and I stepped out into the Atrium.

 

“Oh…” said Percy distractedly.  “I have to go back up to Level Two.  Wasn‘t even thinking…”  His face colored again.  “You’re going home, then?”

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

“Oh.”  He held the door to the lift with his arm and glanced around, still flushed.  There were a number of people in the Atrium, either milling about the fountain or heading towards the fireplaces, but nobody seemed to be paying us any heed.  “Hey, do you…uh…”  He reached up and smoothed a few misplaced pieces of ginger hair.  “I mean…fancy bumping into me again tomorrow?”

 

I found my voice approximately five hours later and laughed uncertainly.  “Well, yeah, I couldn’t really avoid it if I wanted to, right?  Your office is right by mine.”

 

It sounded a lot stupider coming out of my mouth than it had in my head.

 

“I…I know, but…”  His voice became very quiet.  “Would you have a drink with me?”

 

The lift started to make an angry sound that signaled it had been held open too long, but he ignored it.

 

“Okay,” I breathed.  I didn’t elaborate because, naturally, I’m an idiot.

 

“Okay,” he echoed.  He adjusted his glasses unnecessarily and nodded, smiling.  “Okay.”

 

The door closed, and he disappeared from sight, and I stood there trying to wrap my mind about it.

 

There was no way anyone would ever believe this.  I could hardly believe it myself.


 

 



Chapter 5: A New Friend
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A/N: Thanks to Molly (SnitchSnatcher) and Georgia (Jellyman) for looking this chapter over for me!  And on that note, thanks to them for sticking with me through the tough spots and being awesome in general!

 


I woke up the following morning and seriously considered staying home sick.

 

It was completely irrational, of course, and therefore I did no such thing.  I did, however, have an unpleasant sensation in the pit of my stomach all day.  I suppose it could be called butterflies, though it felt as though they were tap-dancing instead of fluttering around benignly.  Tap-dancing whilst wearing wooden clogs.

 

“Are you alright, Audrey?” asked Noah an hour before the workday was over, as I tapped my quill in an erratic rhythm against my desk while editing a report.

 

“What?”  I jumped a bit.  “Yes.  Yes, I’m fine.”

 

He grinned broadly.  “You don’t go out enough.  You’re all wound up.”

 

I let out a nervous laugh and accidentally changed the word cauldron to Caledonia.

 

“We’re going out again - you should join us.  Can’t keep refusing forever, you know!”

 

“Oh…where are you going today?”  I knew perfectly well I wouldn’t be joining them but thought I ought to act interested, lest they think I had something personal against them.

 

Lionel was bouncing around the room at that moment and offered, “Boggart’s Hideaway again.  Noah fancies the bartender.”  Noah colored but didn’t deny it.

 

“It sounds great,” I replied, “but I’ve made plans already…”

 

Noah crossed his arms and looked unconvinced.  “What are you doing this time?”

 

“I’m…meeting a friend.”  I let it drop at that.

 

As expected, my office mates all left about half an hour before the workday was actually over.  In the next hour, I didn’t get a single bit of work done.

 

I did, however, tap my foot anxiously, smooth my hair about seventy-five times, pace across the room, sit down, stand up, sit down again, adjust my dress, and practice as much French conjugation as I could remember.  I then repeated all of the above three or four times.

 

I also felt like an idiot.

 

What on earth was wrong with me?  I was only going out for a friendly drink with someone I thought I could get along with.  Darcy was fantastic, but it was about time I made a new friend, wasn’t it?

 

Never mind that he was tall.  And polite.  And serious about work, a rare trait in guys my age.  And looked like Buddy Holly, glasses and everything.

 

Nothing to be nervous about.  Except for the fact that, once he got to know me, he was going to find out that I had absolutely no personality and that would be that.

 

I resumed my fidgeting.

 

Halfway through my silent conjugation of réussir, a familiar pair of glasses appeared at the doorway.

 

“You’re here,” he said, sounding almost surprised.

 

“You know me, I’m always here at this time.”  I made a mental note to stop voluntarily highlighting my own swottiness.

 

“I see you’re ready to go, though.”  He was referring to the fact that I had shed my Ministry robes in favor of a normal Muggle dress.  He was also clad in Muggle attire, and I decided I could get used to the sight of him wearing jeans instead of those godawful uniforms the Ministry required us to wear.

 

“I have to say, I’ve always preferred Muggle clothing to robes.  It just seems so much more practical.”  He looked around as though concerned someone would hear what he had just said.  Then he looked at me again. “So…shall we?”

 

For a moment, I wished I had stayed home sick.

 

 

 

“I don’t much feel like going to the Hinkydrunk,” he offered once we were outside.

 

“No, nor do I,” I admitted.  I didn’t fancy being in a room full of people from work.  Then I remembered a nearby pub, which Vivian had introduced me to, frequented by the St. Mungo‘s crowd.  “I know a place, not far from here.  It’s nice there, and you can actually hear yourself talk.”

 

He glanced sideways at me, now following my lead down the street.  “I spend all day listening to myself talk,” he said wryly.  After a pause, he added, “You don’t talk much, though.”

 

I shrugged a bit in acknowledgment.

 

“Right.”  He said it almost to himself, and so quietly I thought I might have imagined it.

 

The whole thing was going to be a spectacular disaster, I knew it.

 

Until we walked into the pub.  And got our drinks.  (He paid, despite my protest that it wasn’t necessary - “My parents would be digging my grave if they knew I ever let a lady pay for anything,” he offered by way of explanation, turning a bit pink.)  And then we sat down and he started asking me about myself.  It wasn’t like the near-interrogation I’d received from Lionel and Noah.  He just listened and prodded me on when I needed it - and in the beginning, I needed a lot of prodding.

 

People have admitted to thinking me cold or even snobbish at times because I don’t say much.  Percy just watched and listened like he couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather hear than the story of my life.  Unfortunately, I doubted the story of my life would get us through the first pint.

 

Having already asked me how I liked my job in Magical Equipment Control, he asked me what my experience in Magical Transportation had been like.  How much was there to say about sitting in a corner quietly writing reports?

 

“Mr. Cornwell didn’t really like me, though,” I finished after a moment reminiscing about my old position.

 

“Sheldon Cornwell?”

 

“You know him?”

 

“Cornwell’s an idiot.”  His tone was abrupt, but bracing.

 

I blinked at him.

 

“I’m sure you’re much better appreciated in M.E.C.”  He watched me for a second, then took another drink.

 

I asked what he’d done before joining I.U.M., and he shrugged and said something about having bounced around International Magical Cooperation for awhile before joining Magical Law Enforcement.

 

“I do like I.U.M. - there’s always so much to do.  People think it’s all sending stern letters to kids who accidentally blow things up during the summer holidays, but there’s a lot more to it.  I do wish we had more support, though.  The place ran like clockwork when Leonidas Bell was in charge, but he retired a year ago and now we have Marv Blakely.  Blakely’s alright, but he relies on me for just about everything - I really don’t mind, but everything takes twice as long to get done as it did when Bell was there.  I think Blakely’s just allowed everyone to get too complacent and it always seems to fall on - ”

 

I was half listening and half watching the way he kept running his hand over the back of his neck as he rambled on, when, just as I’d witnessed him do on previous occasions, he stopped abruptly and looked down, contemplating his drink.

 

I snapped out of it.  “Everything alright?”

 

“Oh, yeah, I just…get carried away.  Like I said, I spend all day listening to myself talk.  Difficult habit to break.”

 

“I don’t mind.”

 

Something unreadable crossed his face before his mouth turned up in a half smile.

 

“I really think you must be the nicest person I’ve ever met.”

 

He didn’t say it the way most other people said it.  Not like Vivian, who teased me for it; not like Darcy, who made it sound like an unfortunate character flaw; and not like my  parents, who always said it with an undertone of worry that I might spend the rest of my life as a doormat.

 

He said it as though it were something valuable.

 

“Thanks.”  It came out more dismissively than I meant it to, and an awful moment of silence followed in its wake.  I glanced around the pub, which wasn’t very busy yet - it would fill up shortly, after the evening shift change at St. Mungo’s.

 

“You’re right, this place is quiet.”

 

I looked at him.  “It’ll be full of Healers in a couple of hours - that’s how I know it, my sister brought me here a few times.”

 

“Is she a Healer?”

 

I nodded.

 

“And is that your only sister?”

 

“Yes, it’s just the two of us - and our parents, of course, they live in Derbyshire.  My sister’s a bit older than I am.  She’s really wonderful.”  I smiled thinking about her.  When it came to talking about myself I was rubbish, but I could talk about Vivian forever.  “She’s an excellent Healer, and she’s so funny.  Everyone adores her…you know, she sort of…makes you feel alive, I guess, it’s really wonderful.  She’s really good for me, too, because I’m so quiet.”

 

His tentative smile returned as he watched me babble on.  “And your parents - what do they do?”

 

Not that I could imagine why he would be interested in that, but I responded, “Well, my mum, she’s a Muggle, and she’s a teacher at a primary school.  And my dad, well, it’s a funny story with him.  He’s very into gardening and Herbology, so now he owns a nursery and grows plants all day, and he loves it.  But he used to work at the Ministry, and he spent most of his career on the Hit Squad.”

 

Percy choked on his drink.

 

“Sorry,” he coughed, bright red creeping up his face even in the dimly lit pub.  “Sorry.”

 

“He’s really nice, though,” I said earnestly.

 

“I’m sure.”

 

This was a common reaction from guys when they found out what our dad had done for a living.  Vivian got a sadistic sense of pleasure out of divulging this information and using it as a sort of test of one’s courage.  I just smiled apologetically and steered things in a different direction.

 

“What’s your family like?”

 

“Enormous.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah.  Five brothers, one sister.”

 

“Poor thing.”

 

That drew a laugh from him.  “You’re referring to my sister, or to me?”

 

“Both, I suppose.”

 

“Well, don’t pity my sister - she’s the youngest, but she holds her own.  Actually, she’s a bit frightening.”  The pride in his voice when he talked about her didn’t go unnoticed.  “She plays Quidditch professionally - it‘s funny, because none of my brothers ever let her play with them, and now she plays professionally and none of them do.  I’ve never really liked the Harpies, but she’s brilliant, I’ll say that much.”

 

I had a vague knowledge of the existence of a team called the Harpies, but beyond that I was completely lost.  The expression on my face must have betrayed me, because he asked, “Not a Quidditch fan?”

 

“I don’t know a thing about it.  My dad loves it, and he took us to a match when we were younger, but I think I must have been much too young to understand it.  Vivian pretends to like it because her boyfriend plays for the Kestrels.”

 

“Oh, who is he?”

 

“Michael Reilly.  You probably wouldn’t know him, he’s a substitute Beater…”

 

“He’s the bloke who got knocked off his broom in that match against the Wasps!”  Percy’s eyes got huge.  “That was a dirty hit, Eckols should have been suspended from the League for that.”

 

Now completely lost, I shrugged and shook my head.

 

“I’ll try explaining it to you sometime - I’m sure you’d pick it up right away.  It’s a really exciting sport.”

 

“Do you play?”

 

His smile turned rueful.  “No, I’m the only one who didn’t.  The others all played, though.  They got Quidditch, and I” - he removed his glasses and held them out demonstratively - “was the only one to get these stupid things.”

 

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them.”  As I said it, I noticed how much more boyish his face looked without them.

 

“And I think you’re a terrible liar.”  He had laugh lines at the corners of his eyes when he allowed himself to fully smile.

 

With glasses finally restored to their usual position, he nodded at my near-empty glass.  “Are you going to have another?  Unless you have to be home, I mean - whatever you like.”

 

It was that expression again - the one I couldn’t quite get around.  I couldn’t tell whether he was suggesting I leave or suggesting I stay.  So I was just honest.

 

“I don’t have to be anywhere.”

 

“Oh.”  The same tone of surprise I’d heard earlier when he found me waiting in my office.  “Alright…I’ll be right back.”

 

I watched as he made his way up to the bar.  I didn’t know what Darcy was talking about - sure, he was a bit lanky, but if I were being honest, I didn’t see the problem.  I watched as he ran his hands over his hair a few times.  I watched as he glanced over his shoulder and caught me staring.

 

Damn.

 

Mercifully, he pretended nothing had happened when he resumed his seat across from me.  We stayed and watched as the pub slowly filled up, and we stayed even when the place did start to grow a bit too loud for our liking.  And we talked about nearly everything we could think of - more than I would have even imagined I could talk about in the first place.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t self-conscious, or if I said I wasn’t trying ten times as hard to make myself seem interesting.  But I also couldn’t deny that talking to him was easier than talking to just about anyone else.  It was with no small amount of reluctance that I finally decided it was getting late and I really should go home.

 

As it was a wizarding pub, the fireplaces there served as Floo gates.  We stood in front of one, him with his hands in his pockets, standing perfectly straight, and I felt very small next to him, though I had never considered myself a short person.  It was, I decided, a pleasant feeling.

 

“I’ll see you on Monday, then?”

 

I nodded, hesitated, and, remembering my manners, added, “I really enjoyed talking to you.”

 

“The pleasure was mine.”  His expression was inscrutable.

 

My face was extraordinarily hot, which I decided to blame on the fireplace.

 

He tilted his head towards the fire.  “After you.”

 

“Good night.”

 

“Good night.”

 

I arrived home and let out a breath I felt like I had been holding all day and all night long.

 

I’ll see you on Monday.

 

Now I had a new reason to look forward to the start of the week and at the same time want to avoid it like the plague.  As certain as I was that he couldn’t possibly be feeling the same, I was forced to admit to myself that I was beginning to like Percy Weasley very much.

 


 

 

 

 



Chapter 6: It's Really Nothing
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“Audrey met someone,” Vivian announced with affected innocence during dinner with our parents on a hazy Sunday in late June.

 

“Vivian!”  It was meant to come out indignant and instead sounded rather whiny.

 

“Have you really, dear?” my mother asked.

 

“I - no - ” I spluttered.  “I didn’t meet someone.  I just…met someone.”

 

Vivian giggled.

 

“I mean, I’m not seeing him, I’m just - ”

 

“Seeing him?” supplied my sister.  I scowled at her.

 

Mum placed a warm hand on my arm.  “Well, why on earth should you be embarrassed about it, darling?”

 

“Mum, it’s not like that.  We’ve just become friends, if you can even call it that, you know I never talk to anyone at work, but he’s nice and normal and I can just talk to him, and aren’t you always telling me I need to make more friends?”  The last bit was directed at Vivi.

 

“I’m only teasing you.  And anyway,” she looked to my parents, “they go out every Friday after work and talk until all hours of the night.”

 

I gaped and looked to Dad for support, but Dad’s policy was to stay out of these high-strung female discussions.  He was contemplating a potato with vague interest.

 

“Dad.  Dad.

 

He looked up at me.  “What’s his name?”

 

Obviously Dad was going to be no help at all.

 

“He hasn’t got one, because the guy Vivi is talking about doesn’t exist,” I sniffed, feeling clever.

 

“Audrey.”  For some reason, the father dining with us tonight was Hit Wizard Dad instead of Herbologist Dad.

 

I sighed.  “Percy,” I replied grudgingly.

 

“Oh, he’s one of these fellows who doesn’t have a surname, is he?”

 

I glared across the table at Vivi, then turned to my father again.  “Weasley,” I muttered, beginning to feel embarrassed at my own behavior.  Vivi was supposed to be the difficult one, not me.

 

“Oh.“  Dad’s voice carried a note of surprise.  “Must be one of Arthur’s boys.  Good man, I always liked him.  Hmm.”  He speared a piece of roast and directed his next comment at Vivian.  “I think that’s enough torturing your sister for one night, pixie.”

 

Vivi looked smug.  I kicked her under the table.

 

“Well, how is everything else, darling?” asked Mum, pouring me a second glass of wine.

 

“Oh, it’s…same as always, I suppose.  Work is fine, not much else going on.”  I didn’t miss the brief look Mum sent Dad across the table - the one that expressed concern for my wellbeing and worry that I was wasting the talents they were convinced I had.  Mum turned her attention back to me as I continued.

 

“Everyone there is very nice to me - ”

 

“Some nicer than others,” interjected Vivian in a would-be offhand way, prompting another kick from me.

 

“And Brian Lambert says hello, Dad,” I continued, otherwise pretending I hadn’t heard her.

 

Dad shook his head.  “That old boy needs to retire.”

 

“What have you been working on lately?”  Even though Mum was a Muggle, thirty years of being married to Dad and raising us had made her sufficiently acquainted with the magical world that she could reasonably participate in conversations about our work.

 

“There’s a new wandmaker who wants a permit to start selling, so we’re evaluating his proposal.  Unfortunately, his wands seem very temperamental.”

 

“I still don’t know what person in his right mind would compete with Ollivander,” Dad declared.  “They’ll always be the best, even when his son takes over.  I confess I’m surprised Swynn’s is still around.”  Swynn was a Welsh wandmaker who’d gained a respectable foothold in the wand market over the past several years, no doubt owing greatly to the period of time when Mr. Ollivander had been, tragically, indisposed.

 

“This new one’s even more unorthodox than Swynn’s.  French.  Some of their wands use Veela hair.”

 

Veela hair?”  Dad let out an incredulous laugh.  “Galloping gorgons.  What won’t the French think of next?  Entire country will be blown sky-high with people waving all these experimental wands about.”

 

“Well,” I swallowed my bite of roast, “speaking of explosions, it seems even unicorn hair’s not safe. We’ve been receiving reports of unicorn hair wands backfiring lately.”

 

Dad was taken aback.  Contemplating his own wand, which I knew to contain unicorn hair, he set it aside very gently and said ironically, “Well, thanks for the warning, sweet pea.”  Vivian scooted her chair away from the wand pointedly.

 

Suppressing a laugh, I shook my head.  “No, Dad, they’re only from wands purchased in the past four years so far.”  Dad looked slightly mollified.

 

The discussion turned to Vivi’s job, which allowed her to abuse Eloise Camden and Jane Bryson some more - she still wasn’t over the slight of being denied a position in the Children’s Ward.  

 

Vivi and I saw to the dishes after dinner, and when Mum asked Vivi to put the crumble in the oven, I slipped outside to find Dad sitting on a wrought iron bench in front of his greenhouse, pipe in hand and Heathcliff the cat purring on his lap.

 

“Have a seat, sweet pea.”

 

I sat down next to him and scratched Heathcliff behind the ears.

 

“This stupid animal,” said Dad, “tried to have a go at the Tentacula the other day.”  When I gasped, he continued, “Oh, he’s fine, don’t worry, despite an apparent lack of survival instincts.  Won’t try that again, will you, you barmy beast?”

 

In response, Heathcliff jumped off Dad’s lap, found a large patch of dirt, and began to roll around in it, happy as can be.

 

“Oh, dear.”  Dad sighed, watching the cat.  “Lucy will never let you back in the house now.”  The cat remained decidedly unconcerned.

 

Darkness had settled and stars had begun to emerge.  I sat back, enjoying the peace and quiet and concentrating on the soft rustle of the Flutterby bushes, until Dad’s next words broke through my meditation.

 

“Alright, Audrey?”

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

“Your sister is only teasing, you know.  It’s her job.  As the younger sister, it‘s your job to irritate her and whinge about everything, and I‘m afraid to say you‘ve failed miserably in that regard.”

 

I smiled against my will.  “I know she‘s teasing, I’m not bothered about it.”  I paused and wrinkled my nose.  “You weren’t much help, though.”

 

“Only doing my job.”

 

“There’s really nothing going on,” I mumbled.  As I said it, I felt very sad about the idea.

 

Dad contemplated his pipe.  “I’m not going to ask whether you like him, sweet pea, because that’s none of my business.  But the way I see it, if some young man is spending all this time with you, and you think there’s nothing on his end, you’re either daft or willfully ignorant.  And as I refuse to believe the first and am rather disinclined to believe the second, I have to conclude that you have much less confidence in yourself than you ought to.”

 

He meant to be helpful, but I didn’t feel any better for it.  “I don’t want to talk about it, Dad,” I said, more sharply than I meant to.

 

He nodded.  “Alright.  We’ll say no more about it.  Your mum wasn’t pestering you about it in there, was she?”

 

“No.”

 

“Good.  You know she’s the one you have to worry about, not me.  Now let’s go inside, before your sister eats all the dessert.”

Mum was in the kitchen when we returned to the house.  “Jack?”

 

“Yes, my tulip.”

 

“I want to put those flowers in a different vase.  Will you get one down for me?”

 

Dad smiled.  Mum was considerably shorter than Dad and was constantly asking him to retrieve objects that were beyond her reach.  She could have asked Vivi or myself, as we could have magicked anything she needed from the highest shelves, but she always asked Dad to do it.

 

He reached up into a cupboard and grabbed a vase.  “Will this one do?”

 

“No, I want the other, please.”

 

I watched fondly as he smiled and grabbed a different vase, kissing Mum on the top of her head before placing it in her hands. Vivi mimed gagging as she carried the dessert plates to the table.  I whacked her with the serving spoon.

 

Back at our flat that night, Vivi tapped on my bedroom door as I dressed for bed.  “Are you very upset with me?”

 

I finished pulling a jumper over my head and opened the door for her.  “No, of course not.”

 

“I was only teasing you.”

 

“I know.”

 

She followed me into the kitchen and was mercifully silent as I prepared herbal tea for both of us.  This, of course, made me suspicious, as it always did when Vivian was quiet.  She accepted her tea and pressed both palms around the cup, staring at me in a pensive manner.  I concentrated on blowing on my tea to cool it off.

 

Finally, she spat out the words I was sure she’d been dying to say for the past few minutes, if not the past week.

 

“You do like him though, don’t you?  I mean, every other day, it’s, He said this, and then I said that, and then we talked about this, and then in the corridor at work yesterday he asked how I was doing - which is code, of course, for I want you to have my babies - ”

 

“Oh, shut up, won’t you?”

 

She grinned at me.  “Fine, I won’t say anymore about it - at least for now.  But you know I’m right.”  With that, she kissed me on the cheek and skipped off to bed.

 

With a forced air of nonchalance, I raised my teacup to my lips, and my eyes fell on the miniature potted rosebush sitting innocently on the windowsill.  As if it had somehow sensed me looking at it, a dozen tiny red roses unfurled right before my eyes.  The plant quivered - so slightly it was almost imperceptible - though nobody had touched it, and there was obviously no breeze inside my flat.

 

The stupid thing was giggling at me.

 

I lowered my cup and stared crossly at the little plant.

 

“You shut up, too.”

 

 

 

I would like to have decided that Vivian was a complete lunatic and had no idea what she was talking about…but I could only delude myself for so long.  As per usual, Vivian was right.  It was borderline infuriating, how often she was right about things.  Her instincts and ability to read people - including me - were equal parts art and science.

 

Really, though, she was only right about half the situation - not that that fact brought me any comfort.

 

It was disconcerting, how easily she’d picked up on my feelings for Percy.  I had long since admitted it to myself, but I was determined to weather it out until I got over it.  The last thing I needed was everyone else - particularly Percy - being aware of the stupid idea that had managed to lodge itself in my head.

 

But that was just it, wasn’t it?  Vivi had been able to figure it out based on a few offhand conversations.  Honestly, I hadn’t even realized I’d been talking about him that much.

 

Had everyone else been able to figure it out too?  Had he?

 

If he suspected anything, he certainly didn’t act like it.  He was as friendly as ever, but gave no indication that he saw me as anything more or less than someone he could chat to about work, books, and the daily news.

 

And that was where Vivi was wrong - a rare occurrence that I should have relished with good humor, but couldn’t because I was too busy feeling like some pining teenager.

 

Because the logical truth of the matter was that - whatever Vivi might have to say about it - “How are you?” simply meant “How are you?“  It did not mean “I want you to have my lovely ginger children” or any remotely similar sentiments.

 

I decided I could deal tolerably with this disappointment - I had done it before, after all, on a few occasions in the past.  Really, I was just happy to finally feel so comfortable around someone who wasn’t Vivian or Darcy.  I’d spent so much of my life feeling as though I just didn’t fit in with the rest of the world - like something was wrong with me.  I was too quiet, too serious, too bland.  Just wrong, like there was a flaw in my design.  There were times when I’d even felt that way around my sister and my best friend.  But I didn’t feel that way around him.

 

Aside from drinks at the end of the week, and the unnecessary errands I always found an excuse to join him on, we’d developed a habit of dropping in on one another during the lunch hour when almost everyone was out of the office.  Percy had as much of an aversion as I did to taking long breaks.  That’s not to say he never took any at all.  I learned quickly that Percy had a bit of a crossword puzzle obsession.  As soon as everyone left for lunch, the Daily Prophet was out and he was scribbling away.  That was how he disconnected from work for twenty minutes a day.

 

I dropped in on him one afternoon, a week after Vivian’s ridiculous dinner announcement.  Seeing that the I.U.M. office was empty but for him, I pulled up a chair and propped my elbows on his meticulously organized desk.  Right away I noticed there was something very different about him: he had apparently dispensed with his usual, thick-rimmed glasses and was now sporting sleeker, more modern-looking frames.  I had become very attached to the Buddy Holly look and was not entirely sure I approved of its unceremonious disappearance - but on the other hand, the newer, simpler glasses did something for his features that I was definitely not going to argue with.

 

He said hello but seemed deeply immersed in whatever problem that day’s puzzle was presenting for him.  He had the Prophet folded in half, so I moved to sit directly across from him and said something stupid and silly about trying to read the articles that were upside-down on the page facing me.  I got the impression that he was trying not to laugh.

 

Robbie Saunderson walked in at that moment - Robbie was a very nice boy who worked in Percy’s office.  He was barely two years out of school and was eager to please, though as far as I could tell, he did tend to muddle things up more often than not.  His job was apparently to follow Percy around like a puppy and do whatever Percy asked of him.  This seemed to scare Robbie out of his wits.  I couldn’t say I was surprised.

 

“Um…Percy?”  Robbie looked mildly ill over something.

 

Percy lowered the Prophet.  “Saunderson.”

 

“I, uh…I went to file the closed cases, and…well, and Laura Stebbins told me they have to go through the Head of Department first.”

 

“That’s ridiculous.”


“Yes, but…that’s what…that’s what she said.”  Robbie clearly would rather have received twenty lashes than have this conversation.

 

“Okay.”  Percy put down the paper and brought his fingers to his temples for a moment before continuing.  “This is how this works.  Laura Stebbins does not decide what gets filed.  Nor does she decide how the process works.  Her job is to accept whatever we give her, whatever our office has approved and sealed.  She would know this if she’d read the code book, because it’s in Chapter Six of Article Four.  Obviously she hasn’t, so your job is to explain things like that to her and make sure it gets done.”

 

Robbie didn’t look like he was up to this task, and I couldn’t blame him.  Laura was notoriously difficult to work with.  Her goal in life seemed to be to thwart everyone else’s.  She didn’t care if some underling got chastised by his superior for something that was entirely her fault to begin with.

 

However, Robbie also wasn’t about to argue with Percy, so he hovered for a moment, then stuttered, “Al-alright.  Is there anything else you need?”

 

“No.”  Percy picked up his paper again.  “Thank you.”

 

As Robbie shuffled out of the office, Percy muttered under his breath, “Unless you know the twelve-letter name of the wizard commonly credited with discovering Gillyweed.”

 

“Marjoribanks,” I replied automatically.  As soon as I said it, I blushed.  I really needed to stop being so pedantic.

 

“Marjori- no, that can’t be it…”  His brow furrowed as he studied the puzzle.

 

I threw him a teasingly challenging look.  “It is, too.”

 

“Is not, look, it doesn’t work with - wait a minute.”  He began scribbling away again.

 

I tapped him on the arm, and he looked up at me.

 

“Robbie is terrified of you, you know.”

 

He didn’t say anything, just stared at me.

 

I pressed on.  “You really shouldn’t be so hard on him.  That wasn’t his fault, and he really is trying.”

 

Percy looked dubious.  “Yes, but all he’s got to do is explain to her that she’s got it wrong - he doesn’t need to run back to me and act like he couldn’t do it.”

 

It was my turn to look doubtful.  “Earth to Percy Weasley: Are we thinking of the same Laura Stebbins?  And you expect someone like Robbie to just explain something to her and that will be that?”

 

He had no response - I had him there.

 

“Robbie’s really very nice, you know.”

 

“Right.  Nice and somewhat incompetent.”

 

“What an awful thing to say!  I’m sure he’s not.  He’s still learning.  You forget, not everyone is as naturally good at this as you are.”

 

He scoffed.  “What, bureaucratic navigation?”

 

I stifled a laugh behind my hand.

 

“I am rather good at it, aren’t I?  I think I’ll have them put that on my name plate…”

 

“Stop it.”  I tried to put on my serious face again.  “And be nice to Robbie.”

 

“Fine.  Because you asked.”  He said it very quietly and turned his attention abruptly back to the crossword for several moments.  “Oh, damn, it is Marjoribanks.”

 

I grinned with mock pride.

 

“Clever you,” he said.

 

“What, clever because I’ve memorized lots of useless trivia?”

 

“I’m just glad I’m not the only one who has.”  He filled in the last few squares of the puzzle and rose from his chair.  “Alright, then, let’s go so I can make sure Saunderson hasn’t been hexed by Stebbins.”

 

We left the I.U.M. office, and Percy was about to disappear into the administrative offices, when I touched him on the arm.  He stopped and spun around to face me, and as the situation would have it, because I was still walking, we were left with a conspicuous lack of personal space between us.  I didn’t find this remotely unpleasant, but it wasn’t very proper, so I took a quick step backwards.

 

“Sorry!  I…I just forgot to ask you - What happened to your old glasses?”

 

His face fell, which was a reaction I wasn’t expecting.  “These ones aren’t very good, are they?”

 

“No, no, that’s not what I meant!  It’s just different - I was surprised.”

 

“Oh.”  He touched them as if to confirm they were still there.  “Well, I…my sister confiscated the other ones.”  He smiled a bit.

 

“Too bad, I liked them,” I replied.  “But I like these, too.  I mean it.”

 

“Good - I mean, thank you.”

 

“Hey, Audrey!”

 

I turned to see Lionel, just returned from lunch, walking towards us.

 

“I’ve just remembered something I need from Brian,” he said as he drew level with us.  “You don’t need anything while I’m over in Inspections, do you?”

 

I shook my head.

 

“Alright, then.”  Lionel clapped Percy on the back in a good-natured way.  “Weasley, quit flirting with my staff.”  He continued on and disappeared around the corner.

 

I stared after him and tried to avoid eye contact with Percy for as long as possible.  When I finally looked up at him, he was still staring down the corridor, mouth slightly open, an astounded and somewhat irritated expression on his face.  Then he looked down at me with no expression whatsoever.

 

“Okay, I’m gonna…”  He motioned over his shoulder to the administrative offices, then turned and disappeared into them with a quick “I’ll see you later!”

 

I supposed the situation could be considered a positive one, if you considered the fact that he hadn’t run screaming in the opposite direction.

 

Back in my office, I looked resolutely down at my desk when Lionel returned.

 

“Sorry about that, Audrey,” he said as he passed by.  “I have to poke fun at him.  Didn’t mean to embarrass you, though.”

 

“Who, Percy?” asked Noah.  “Speaking of whom, has everyone seen the new look?” I assumed he was talking about the new glasses.

 

“Must be trying to impress someone,” mused Lionel. My stomach fluttered.

 

He looked at me and explained, “He’s been trying to get back into I.M.C. for probably a year now.  Someone’s making it very difficult for him.  It’s anyone’s guess as to why.  I mean, for all his neuroses, he really is brilliant.  I can only assume someone just really wants to keep him here.”

 

“Bastard, whoever it is,” muttered Madeleine, sorting through the afternoon post.  “Anyway, I don’t see how new glasses are going to help if he continues to wear his hair as if his mum’s done it for him.”

 

I didn’t contribute to the conversation.  I liked his glasses, I liked his hair, and I wanted to keep him here.

 

I popped by Percy’s office that evening before heading home.  It wasn’t terribly late, but most people at the Ministry were already gone, including those from my office.  Percy was the only one left in I.U.M. at that time, except for Marv Blakely, whose presence was indicated by a lamp burning in his office all the way at the back.

 

“I just wanted to see if you were still here,” I offered.

 

“Going home?”

 

I nodded.

 

“I’ll go with you - er, I mean, I’ll walk with you to the - hang on.”  He darted back to Blakely’s office.  “Marv, I’m going home.  Good night.”  With that, he set off towards the lifts with me.

 

“I’ve been very nice to Saunderson all afternoon,” he reported, finally breaking the awful silence that had inserted itself into the situation.

 

I smiled.  “Good.”  And silence fell again.

 

We wound up in front of a fireplace, looking at each other in total silence, neither of us saying good night.  A couple of maintenance workers strolled across the Atrium, and I watched them until they disappeared into a maintenance lift.  Half the lights in the Atrium had already been extinguished, so that odd shadows were cast over the walls and floors.

 

I could have just said goodbye, gone home, and been done with it.  But I didn’t want to.  I’d told myself that I was going to be reasonable, acknowledge it for what it was, and get over it.  But at that moment, I just didn’t want to.

 

I did not want to go home feeling like there was a slowly expanding balloon inside my chest, or try to sleep with a stomach full of butterflies.  Of course, I wasn’t expecting anything.  I just wanted to know.

 

Percy’s hands were in his pockets, and he looked down at the floor for a moment.  “I…What Grigsby said earlier…If I’ve ever done or said anything inappropriate, I apologize…”

 

My heart sank.  It was considerate.  It was sweet.  But it did not seem very promising.

 

“No,” I said quietly.  “You haven’t.”

 

And then he just looked at me.  Total silence.  I looked back.  Total silence.  This went on for who knows how long, until I realized that he was leaning towards me - and we were not very far apart to begin with.

 

Then he shook his head, as though mentally talking himself out of a stupid idea, and began to stand up straight again.

 

By now I was completely confused, and more than a little bit irritated. What on earth was wrong with him?

 

I did something odd then - completely impulsive and for no other reason than that I simply felt like it.  I took hold of the front of his robes, pulled gently until his face was an inch from mine, and pressed my lips to his for half a second.

 

Maybe two seconds.  Five, tops.

 

When I released him and took a step back, he didn’t move.  He looked stiff, paralyzed, staring at me with wide eyes.  Mortified, I brought my hand to my mouth and said my three favorite words.

 

“I’m so sorry.”

 

He blinked and raised his eyebrows, but stayed more or less in the same position, still staring at me.  “Uh…no need to be.”

 

I wasn’t sure I believed him until he kissed me again.  He was very cautious, respectful, and - good lord, he was nervous.  Well, that made two of us.

 

Before long, he broke away and said with a shaky laugh, “Okay, better stop before the maintenance crew decide they want one, too.  Very forward, that lot.  And they say Todd Stone hasn’t had a date in ten years, so he’ll probably start following you around.”

 

I laughed with him.  “Okay…I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

 

“Oh, I’m looking forward to it.”

 

I didn’t want to go home - mainly because I wanted to memorize the way he was looking at me - but I did.  Back in my own flat, I leaned against the wall and covered my mouth with both hands, drawing questioning looks from Vivian, who was finishing her dinner before heading to work.

 

It was decidedly the best Monday of my life.

 


 

 

 



Chapter 7: Rumor Has It
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

For Celeste, Annie, Gina, and Gubby

 


Whether you want it to or not, word travels fast in a place like the Ministry.  After barely two weeks, I was quite 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 uninterested, but her silence became more pointed as she reviewed a stack of product complaints at her desk.

 

I gaped at Lionel.  It wasn’t that Percy and I had gone to great lengths to keep it a secret, but it wasn’t the sort of thing one flaunted in the workplace, either.

 

“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 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 discomfited 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 opted 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 sozzled, 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 sozzled - 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 couldn’t 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, looking amused, and this went on back and forth for a moment until finally, I got in the last jab and said, “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 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 much 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.  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.”

 

 

 

“Oh, no…”

 

“Audrey…”

 

“Going to be a disaster…”

 

“Audrey.”

 

“I should have done lamb…”

 

Audrey.”

 

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 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?”

 

Vivian 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 right 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 following 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.

 

“Hi.”

 

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?”

 

“You’re kidding.”

 

“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, which ranged from the classics to...those with very little literary quality.

 

“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 lurid cover as one of Vivian’s romance novels.  “That’s my sister’s!”  My face felt like it had been in the oven for an hour.

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

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…”

 

“Well, you’ll have your turn.”  He suddenly seemed very interested in his shoes.  “But it’s sort 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 laughed and nodded.

 

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 men are an endangered species, you know!” I called after her.

 

She heaved a great sigh of frustration and amusement.  “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.

 

Well, really.

 

Of course I was thinking about it.  I just chose not to tell her that.
 

 

 

 

 

 



Chapter 8: A Nice, Respectable Job
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Having neglected my old friend Moira for an embarrassingly long time, I took an early lunch and dropped in on her one day.  She waved away my apologies for having done such a poor job of keeping my promise to visit, asked me what I was working on in M.E.C., and pretended to find it much more interesting than Darcy had, before moving on to the topic I should have known she was much more keen to talk about.

 

“Now, you did promise to tell me about boys, you know.”  This was accompanied by the kind of look old ladies give you when they’re reading your mind about something.

 

“Oh, Moira.”  I covered my face with my hands for a second.  “Don’t tell me word’s made it all the way over here, too!”  Did people have nothing better to do in life than talk about other people?

 

“Well, Darcy brings me news, even if you don’t.”  She punctated this with a chastising finger.

 

“I’m sure she gave you a glowing overview of the whole thing.”

 

Moira seemed to understand what I was getting at.  “Darcy’s a bit quick to judge, I’m very mindful of that.  Personally, I really don’t know anything about your young man.”

 

I had to smile when she called him that.

 

Mr. Cornwell chose that moment to poke his head out of his office.  He blinked at me in surprise before demanding, “What are you doing here, Greene?”

 

Audrey is my guest, Sheldon,” responded Moira in a tone that was both amused and reproachful.  “Isn’t it nice of her to come visit?”

 

Mr. Cornwell grumbled something incoherent.

 

“Is there anything I can do for you, Sheldon?”

 

“What?  No, I - ”

 

“Then do go back inside your office if you’re going to be unpleasant.”  She punctuated this with a sweet, motherly smile.

 

Mr. Cornwell narrowed his eyes before retreating back into his office and slamming the door.  Moira watched this behavior with some satisfaction before turning back to me.

 

“You can take that as a compliment.  You’re very sorely missed around here, you know.”

 

“Oh, am I.”  I didn’t believe it for a second.

 

“Thad is a dear boy,” she said, referring to the person they’d taken on to replace me, “but he doesn’t quite have your attention to detail.”

She paused and regarded the door to Mr. Cornwell’s office.  “Are you hungry, Audrey?  What do you say we step out for a bit and have details over lunch, hmm?”

 

Some time later, when I was able to escape Moira’s well-intentioned clutches, I returned to the office to find Noah and Madeleine sorting through a stack of papers.

 

“Wait, put this one - ”

 

“Don’t be daft, Noah, it goes with those.”

 

I sometimes felt bad for Noah.  They teased him for liking the bartender at the Boggart’s Hideaway, but I often got the distinct impression that Noah fancied Madeleine.

 

“Hey, Audrey,” he said, glancing up at me.  “You missed a good show a while ago.”

 

“I… what?”

 

“Your fella over there is in a wonderful mood today.  Told Lionel off not long after you stepped out - it was about, um…”  He looked at Madeleine.  “What was it about, Mads?”

 

“The question presumes I actually listen to anything that comes out of his mouth.”  Madeleine brushed a piece of hair off her delicate face.

 

“Yeah… well, anyway.”  He turned his attention back to me, his blue eyes alight with amusement.  “Least he’s got the decency to wait until you’re not here to show off his most congenial side, eh?”

 

I didn’t say anything.  I hadn’t spent much time with Percy over the past few days.  He’d been busy and seemed more preoccupied than normal, which was saying something, as he was one of those people who always seemed to be thinking about five different things at once.

 

I shuffled through the recent contents of my inbox, waited until Noah and Madeleine had gone back to their project, then stepped out of the office and headed in the direction of the Improper Use Office.  I hesitated along the way, but pressed on, and when I reached the door I poked my head in cautiously.

 

The office was largely empty at the moment.  Robbie Saunderson and Damian Stewart sat towards the back, talking in low voices.  Percy, a bit closer to the door, was leaning with his back against the wall, arms crossed, looking quite agitated as he regarded a piece of parchment and a quill floating in front of him, the quill making notations here and there.  His face was trying and failing to be impassive, and he seemed fidgety, tapping his wand against his arm in an erratic manner.  At one point, he wrinkled his nose - a habit of his when he found something irritating or distasteful, as far as I could tell, and particularly when he thought nobody was looking at him.  For some reason I was always tickled to see him do that, and I would have enjoyed it then if not for the fact that he looked extremely put out about something.

 

“Hey,” I whispered.

 

He seemed to snap out of whatever thought he was in the middle of.

 

“Hi.”

 

“Am I bothering you?”

 

He gave the faintest of smiles.  “Don’t ask silly questions.”  The parchment and quill set themselves down on a nearby desk as I approached him.  I liked the fact that his expression always seemed less distant when he talked to me.

 

“Stressful day?”

 

Shrugging, he allowed, “Well, when isn’t it, exactly?”

 

“You know, if Lionel needs telling off, you could just ask me to do it.  I mean, I’m there already.”

 

My comment had the intended effect, and he contemplated the idea with apparent amusement.  “I would actually love that, but I think you would probably be too easy on him.”

 

“What’s the problem, anyway?”

 

“It’s, ah…”  He shook his head vaguely.  “You know most of this already - we don’t get on at all, as to how things ought to be run around here.  It’s not even anything new, but I suppose that makes it more frustrating.  Always one thing or another.  He can’t take anything seriously, can’t get anything done on time.  If it only affected his job, I’d have nothing to say, but with the amount of interaction between these offices, it affects my job, too.”

 

He paused, but I sensed he wasn’t done talking and waited for him to speak again.

 

“You think I’m kidding when I tell you they got nothing done there before you came along, but I’m not.  Ward is perfectly competent,” he added grudgingly, “but she’s made it her mission in life to frustrate the achievement of anything around here.  Universally adored by upper management, though.  Unfathomable.  Life’s great mysteries.”  He wrinkled his nose again.

 

A pair of voices out in the corridor grew louder as they drew closer, and Percy glanced over the top of my head towards the door. “Brilliant.  Here we go with this again.”

 

Gemma Stone and Eoghan Lynch, both of whom worked in the Improper Use Office, swept through the doorway, bickering as was their usual habit.

 

“ - it isn’t relevant, Gemma - ”

 

“Yes, it is!  Yes, it sodding is relevant that the spell isn’t done the proper way to begin with - ”

 

“But you don’t even have that part right.  There are two ways, they’re both accepted - ”

 

“That is total nonsense.”

 

“Look, I’ll show you - you can do it the standard way, like this - ”

 

Which particular spell they were arguing about, I never did learn, because as Eoghan attempted to demonstrate the one way versus the other, his wand seemed to explode in a cloud of sparks and smoke.  It was a relatively small explosion, though quite loud, and Eoghan dropped the wand as though it were a firecracker that had gone off in his hand.  Gemma covered her head with both arms, and Percy, I realized, had automatically thrown one arm in front of me, though he regarded the scene before us with a calm, unimpressed look.  Then he raised his other hand to his forehead like he had a slightly troublesome headache.

 

The smoke cleared, and Eoghan stared at the wand now lying, innocuous, on the ground, as though it were a poisonous snake.  The office was silent except for muffled snickering by Robbie and Damian.

 

“Let me guess,” I volunteered.  “Unicorn tail?”

 

Eoghan gave me a dazed look.  “Yeah.”

 

“Wand less than four years old?”

 

“No, actually...Six? Seven?”

 

Well, this was a new development.

 

 

 

We went to Flourish & Blotts together after work - Percy wanted to find some new history book, and I never turned down a chance to walk around a bookstore.  I ran my fingers along the rows of engraved spines, and as we passed the small section on wandlore I plucked something basic-looking from the shelf.

 

“New hobby?” he asked.

 

I laughed and began thumbing through the book.  “No, but I’m going to have to learn something about the subject if I’m to be of any use in sorting out this wand dilemma.  Working out that the wands have unicorn tail in common was only the first step.  No clue yet whether it’s a problem with all unicorns, those from a specific area - no real pattern so far as to when the wands were created.  What a mess.  I think it’s going to require working with R and C of Magical Creatures.  And I still have no idea how specific the wandmakers’ records are or how helpful they’re going to be…”

 

“Wands aren’t regulated enough,” said Percy absently as he scanned a shelf for the book he wanted.

 

“Yes, well, what is regulated enough for your taste?”

 

He cocked his head to the side and appeared deep in thought for a moment.  I couldn’t tell whether this was purely theatrical or whether he was really searching for an answer.  “Hmm.  I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.”

 

“I think that answer makes my point sufficiently, don‘t you?”

 

He didn’t say anything but seemed entertained.  I flipped through a few more pages in the book I was holding.

 

“Audrey,” he said a moment later, as if the thought had just occurred to him, his hand pausing on one of the history books, “why does someone like you work there?”

 

“You mean the Ministry?  Or Equipment Control, specifically?”

 

“Either.  Both.”

 

“Well…”  I shrugged.  I’d never been able to come up with a good answer to that question.  “I suppose nobody wakes up one day and decides they really want to spend their life regulating cauldrons and telescopes… or transportation, for that matter, where I used to work… but someone’s got to do it, right?”

 

“Someone as smart as you chooses to work somewhere because ‘someone’s got to do it.’”  He said it in a tone of dry disbelief.

 

Other people had tried to have this conversation with me.  On those occasions it was embarrassing at best and irritating at worst, and all I could ever do was try to brush it off as best I could.  Sometimes I could talk about it with Vivian, but even then it tended to be frustrating.  But I didn’t mind so much when Percy asked.  In fact, I was beginning to think there was nothing I couldn’t talk to him about.

 

So I gave in a bit.  “If you really want to know, I suppose I just thought I should have a nice, respectable job, regardless of what it was.  And you don’t have to say anything, I’m perfectly aware how meaningless that makes my life sound.”

 

His expression was inscrutable as he pulled a book from the shelf and began flipping the pages slowly.

 

“And what did you want to do originally?  I mean, when you were younger?”

 

I smiled self-consciously.  “Well, when I was really young, I fancied being an actress.  Then I started to realize you need a personality in order to do that.”

 

He rolled his eyes ever so slightly.

 

“And then,” I continued, closing the book on wandlore and sending it back to its shelf, “I thought I’d like to be a teacher, like my mum.  I like kids.  And when Vivian started talking about being a Healer, I considered that, but I was worried I wouldn’t be any good at it.  In the end, I thought… I like things that are methodical, I like details, I like routine… so here I am.”

 

Percy looked down at the book he was holding.  “This doesn’t look very good after all.”  He placed it back on the shelf.

 

“You’re thinking how pathetic this all sounds,” I guessed wryly.

 

He was slow to respond, and didn’t look at me right away.  “I think I can safely say that I’m in no position to judge you.  And anyway, for reasons I think are obvious, I’m glad you work where you do.”  He flashed his half-smile, and my stomach fluttered.

 

“Well, what about you, then?  Why do you work there?”

 

“I probably can’t put it any better than you did.  Nice, respectable job.”  He paused.  “Well, I could add more, mostly having to do with myself as an egotistical teenager who really liked the idea of seeing his own name on brass nameplates, but I’ll spare you for now, and just say that ‘nice, respectable job’ about sums it up.  And if you, for some incomprehensible reason, think anything about yourself is pathetic, try the fact that I wanted to work at the Ministry since I was about twelve.”  He pushed up his glasses and gave me a sardonic smirk.  “Bit sick, isn’t it?”

 

He took my hand and started leading the way out of the bookstore.

 

“You’re not happy where you are now, though,” I observed, recalling something Lionel had once said about Percy trying to transfer to another Department.

 

“No, I probably don’t do a good job concealing the fact that I’d rather do something better than assist Blakely in running the Improper Use Office.  But advancement opportunities are apparently thin right now.”  He shrugged and gave my hand a squeeze, continuing brightly.  “For now I suppose we’ll each have to accept the fact that what we really do for a living is sort out other people’s messes.  You and I must be two of the most overqualified maintenance workers in the world.”

 

“I do enjoy your optimism.” This drew a laugh from him, and I continued, teasing, “By the way, I am going to need to hear this business about you being a teenager sometime.”

 

At that, his laughter faltered, and he gave a little tilt of his head that gave me the distinct impression he was having a silent conversation with himself. “You will,” he responded simply, though his face was not unkind, and I did not press further.

 

Fingers still laced with mine, he raised my hand and kissed it.

 


 

 

 



Chapter 9: When Good Sense Goes on Holiday
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I knew I must be losing my mind when I agreed to go to a Quidditch match with him.

 

I’d only ever been to one Quidditch match in my life.  Dad took Vivian and me to one when we were kids.  I didn’t understand it, and while I couldn’t recall much of it, I’m fairly certain I was bored by it.  Then again, I was only ten years old, and I think a lot of things tend to be boring when you’re ten.

 

Still, I was going to feel very bad if I ruined Percy’s day by being hopelessly lost or anything less than enthusiastic.

 

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather take someone else?” I asked him at work the day before the match.

 

“Like who?  Him?”  He pointed vaguely toward Robbie Saunderson, who looked like he was currently suffering a mental breakdown over a sheet of statistics at his desk.

 

“Well, you’ve got brothers, haven’t you?”

 

Percy’s eyes grew wide.  “These are really good tickets.  My sister was able to get them through someone she knows from Puddlemere, and she gave them to me on very hard terms.  Please do not make me waste them on one of my brothers.”

 

He gave me an amused look and added, “And stop trying to get out of it.  I think you’re going to like it.”

 

“What if I don’t?” I challenged.  “What if it’s dreadfully boring and steals three hours of my life that I can never get back?”

 

“Well, don’t blaspheme, Audrey, this is Puddlemere we’re talking about!”

 

Defeated, I rolled my eyes, and, since nobody was around but Robbie, stood on my toes and kissed Percy on the cheek before heading back to my own office.

 

“We could be lucky,” he added before I reached the door.  “It might be a long match that steals three days out of your life.  You‘d be stuck with me the entire weekend.”

 

Well, no complaints here.  Bring it on, Quidditch.

 

 

 

I came home that night to the scent of Vivi’s legendary chocolate cherry scones.  This was one of her specialties.  It was likely that either she was trying to make someone very happy, or she was wildly depressed and planned to eat them all herself.

 

Vivi’s voice floated out of her bedroom and I presumed she was talking to someone on the telephone, so I took the liberty of reaching for one of the scones that were cooling on a tray.

 

As soon as I touched it, I received a sharp zap, like a tiny volt of electricity.

 

“Ow!”  I shook my hand.  “Damn, Vivian!”

 

I’d forgotten just how much that smarted.  It was a trick Vivi and I had learned rather quickly when we were younger, to keep Dad - and occasionally each other - from nicking whatever we were cooking.

 

“Serves you right!” announced Vivian, emerging from her room, still holding the phone to her ear.  “What?  No, Mum, Audrey’s just got home.  Hold on a moment.”

 

“What was that for?  Have you got national security secrets baked into these?” I demanded.

 

“No, mostly it’s just funny.  I knew you’d try to nick one.  Go on, have one.”  She waved her wand.

 

“What’s the occasion?” I asked, breaking off a piece and popping it into my mouth.

 

“Work.”

 

“Work?”  That was suspicious.  Vivi must want something.  “Um… why?”

 

“It’s called sucking up, darling!” she declared happily.  “I’ll have Jane Bryson’s spot if it’s the last thing I - hold on, Mum!”

 

If only all evil villains tried to take over the world using delicious pastries.

 

“Should a medical professional really be encouraging people to consume sweets like this?”

 

But Vivi was no longer listening to me - she was rolling her eyes at something Mum was saying.

 

“Well, I’m sure I don’t know - why don’t you talk to her yourself?”  Then she thrust the phone towards me, covering the mouthpiece with her hand as she whispered, “Please talk to her, she’s been talking my ear off for an hour!  Michael’s been expecting me for almost two!”

 

“Scones are clearly more important than being on time,” I observed, taking the phone from her.

 

“My sodding career is more important!”  She began poking about the kitchen, muttering about how she’d like Jane Bryson to be stranded on an island with a tribe of cannibals during her upcoming holiday.

 

“Hi, Mum,” I said into the phone.

 

“Hello, darling.  It’s rather late for a Friday, isn’t it?  Have you been stuck at work all this time?”

 

I paused.  “Mostly, yes.”  And kissing my boyfriend, do you mind?

 

“What are you doing this weekend?”

 

“Um, Quidditch match with Percy tomorrow.”

 

“Oh, that sounds fun.”  Then she spoke away from the phone, obviously to my dad.  “Audrey says she’s going to see a Quidditch match tomorrow.”

 

This was typical of most conversations with Mum - every now and again she had to pause to fill Dad in on something Vivi or I had said.  It was the primary reason our phone calls with Mum lasted as long as they did.  Dad couldn’t have cared less about what Elsa Norwood said to Vivi about Kitty Martin at work, but he was generally forced to hear it all anyway.  This time, however, he took the phone from my mother.

 

“Sweet pea!”  He chuckled.  “Quidditch!”

 

“It isn’t nice to laugh at people, you know.”

 

He ignored me.  “You must really like this fellow.”  His voice became suspicious.  “He isn’t a Wasps supporter, is he?”

 

“No.”  I tried to remember the name of Percy’s favorite team.  “Puddle…something.”

 

“Puddlemere.”

 

“That’s the one.”

 

“I suppose that’ll do.  You know, it used to be if you wanted to get involved with a girl you were supposed to agree with her dad about Quidditch.”

 

“Politics, Dad.”

 

“What?”

 

“He’s supposed to agree with her mother about religion and her father about politics.” Not likely in my situation, knowing Percy and knowing my dad.

 

“Quidditch is politics, sweet pea.  You know I could never have one of my daughters running around with some witless Wimbourne…”  He trailed off, apparently thinking.

 

“Having trouble thinking of an insult beginning with ‘w’ that you’re willing to use in front of me, aren’t you?”

 

“Yeah.  But you get the point.  Let’s talk about religion and politics instead.”

 

“Dad, give the phone back to Mum before I throw myself out the window.”  I started looking absently through my wardrobe.  What did one wear to a Quidditch match, anyway?

 

“Alright, alright.  Oh, hey, how’s that wand issue at work coming on?”

 

I sighed.  “It’s a mess.  I feel like I’m getting nowhere.  There’s no apparent pattern other than the unicorn hair.  And what are we really going to do, recall every unicorn hair wand made in the past year?  It’s ridiculous.  We’ve asked the Magical Creatures Department to initiate an investigation on their end, and hopefully we’ll get somewhere.  But right now I’m just not seeing any good solution.”

 

“Well, mind you don’t drive yourself mad over it.  You put too much pressure on yourself sometimes.”

 

While trying to think of a good response, I noticed something about the contents of my wardrobe was off.  Something was missing.  I waved my wand, and two of my shirts and a skirt came flying into my room from Vivian’s and replaced themselves, prompting a surprised “Oi!” from my sister.

 

“I’ve no doubt you’ll find a way to sort it out,” continued my dad.  “But it might not have the perfect solution you’re looking for, so don’t torture yourself.  You know, when you really think about it, some problems aren’t even meant to be solved.”

 

I knew he was just trying to make me feel better, but I scoffed anyway.  “Well, this one can’t not be solved.  And may I say, that may well be the least helpful piece of advice ever.”

 

“One day I think you’ll come to realize it’s the most helpful piece of advice you’ve ever heard.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“Anyway,” he said after a pause, “have fun at the match tomorrow.  Say, when are you going to bring this guy around?”

 

“When you learn to behave yourself,” I replied, raising my eyebrows and recalling what it was like bringing my other boyfriends home to meet my parents.

 

“I do behave myself.”

 

“How quickly we forget the Bobby Price debacle.  I’m still embarrassed.  And the time with Nev Baker.”

 

“That kid was weird.”

 

“You’re weird, Dad.”

 

 

 

Saturday was beautiful.  It was sunny and warm, perfect for a late afternoon Quidditch match.  Just one of those days that makes you feel happy and alive.  It was the kind of day when my dad would be out in the garden for hours on end and my mum would walk down the road to a neighbor’s house, just to take advantage of the sunshine.  I was glad to be getting out of the city so I could enjoy it properly.

 

The match was in Exmoor, near the coast, and the view was breathtaking - which was perhaps the one good thing about having seats so high up in the stands.

 

When we reached the right spot, I placed a cautious hand on the railing in front of me, peered out across the pitch, then, against my better judgment, looked straight down.

 

“Oh!”  I stepped back and grabbed hold of Percy’s arm as though it would keep me from plummeting to the ground.  “This…this is really high.”

 

He chuckled.  “You’ll be alright.  Would I let anything happen to you?  Here - ”  He guided me forward.  “Stand here, and don’t look down, you don’t need to anyway.  Unless one of the players tries to take out the spectators in the stands.”

 

I looked around at him in shock.  He tried and failed to suppress a grin.

 

“Oh, you’re very funny.”

 

Repressing further laughter, he put one arm about my waist and with his free hand started pointing out the important aspects of a Quidditch pitch and explaining how the game was played.  I recognized a few terms I’d heard my dad mention before, but for the most part I was concentrating hard on processing all the information - all the while gripping the rail in front of me like a lifeline.  

 

As the stadium continued to fill up, a few people passed by who tapped Percy on the shoulder or called his name, and on these occasions he turned briefly to say hello or shake someone’s hand.  At one point, after shaking the hand of a short, blond man, he turned back to me with  a perfectly straight face and whispered, “I have absolutely no idea who that is.”  He then went on spouting a great deal of Quidditch information that I knew I could never keep track of.

 

When the players finally flew out onto the pitch - Puddlemere, I learned, in blue and gold robes, and Montrose in black and white - Percy began pointing out players.

 

“She’s good, Number 8, she’s a Chaser… 17, he’s a Chaser, too, he’s alright… 10 is rubbish, don’t pay any attention to him… That one, the Keeper, 18, I went to school with him…”

 

As soon as the match started, however, I was utterly lost.  It was a fast-paced game, and there seemed to be too many things going on all at once - and add to that the noise coming from the crowd, which grew about five times louder when Montrose scored the first goal (I could follow that much, at least).

 

“Bugger,” muttered Percy.  “They should have been watching for that.  What’ve they been doing for the past three months?”

 

I had to ask a lot of questions about what was going on, and I started to worry that I was becoming quite irritating.  But he seemed content to wrap both arms around me and keep up a running narrative of the match, filling me in on what was happening and what to watch for. This was, in some respects, helpful, and in others, not.  I could feel my heart beginning to pound in such a way that I was sure he would notice it.  I tried to rationalize this to myself as a product of the fact that we were up so high - but this was pure fabrication.  I was actually beginning to feel very safe.

 

It took me a while, but I finally started to catch on.  At one point, I let out a little laugh as a player in black and white robes caught the Quaffle, then promptly dropped it.

 

“That wasn’t very good, was it?” I noted, proud that I had at least some inkling what was going on.

 

“Well,” he deadpanned, “for that guy, it’s bloody spectacular, but generally speaking, no, not ideal.”

 

Then he brushed my hair aside and kissed me once on the back of my neck.

 

Oh my.

 

“Excuse me,” I said, “do I know you?” That made him laugh.

 

“Quit bothering me,” I teased, “I’m trying to watch a Quidditch match.”

 

“This is not a Quidditch match.  This is a farce.”  He seemed pained by the fact that Puddlemere was losing. 

 

“Well, I like those, too.”

 

“You’re so agreeable,” he remarked.

 

“You’re so contrary,” I returned.

 

He made an amused face that said he wasn’t about to disagree with me.

 

Puddlemere continued to trail Montrose, and when all was said and done, Percy sighed with disappointment but told me he figured it gave him a good reason to take me to another match sometime.

 

“You did like it, right?” he asked later that night when we wound up back in my flat after dinner.  “You had fun?”

 

“Of course I did!”  I had both my hands in his.  “I had a really good time, especially since I can understand it now.  Well, sort of, anyway.”

 

He looked down at me with a dubious expression.  “Are you sure?”

 

I nodded.

 

What I really wanted to know was how he could stand there and ask me whether I liked Quidditch when my heart had been attempting to hammer its way out of my chest for hours and all I wanted was to feel his fingers in my hair.  He seemed to be unsure about something.  I had no idea what, nor why.

 

When I pulled him closer and went to kiss him, he finally started acting reasonable and kissed me back - well and properly, I might add.  Good lord.

 

His glasses were in the way.  How was I supposed to snog him properly with his glasses in the way?  I liked them, but like all other things they had their appropriate time and place.  He removed them and reached over to set them on the kitchen worktop without looking, but he missed and they dropped to the floor.

 

“Oh,” I started, “you - ”

 

Percy shook his head like he couldn’t be bothered, and managed something that sounded like, “Forget them.”

 

And who was I to argue?

 

Something came over me then - unanticipated but, if I were being honest, not entirely shocking. Giving in to the feeling of weightlessness that overtook me, and a pleasant spinning sensation in my head, I momentarily lost track of all good sense and almost said something very ill-advised - well, it seemed like a good idea at the time - but reason came flooding back to me and I caught it before it could leave my mouth.

 

I love you.

 

I almost clamped my hand over my mouth, though that would have required me to break away from him.  What on earth was wrong with me?

 

Stupid, Audrey.  Perfectly and thoroughly stupid.  What a way to make a complete idiot of myself.

 

I did say something else, though.  I tried to talk myself out of it, but my attempts were feeble - and anyway, it was all shoulds and shouldn’ts.  Should wait a little longer, Audrey.  Shouldn’t be so forward, Audrey.  But ultimately, I wasn’t interested in these thoughts.  I wouldn’t say I dismissed my good sense entirely, but I did send it on a mini-holiday.

 

“Stay.”

 

I think his eyebrows just about flew off his face.  But other than that, his response was something like “Uh-huh” and a lot of nodding.

 

Trying to pull someone from one end of your flat to the other and into your room, while kissing and consequently not watching where you’re going, can never be a totally dignified act.  I bumped into a table and I think I almost broke a lamp.

 

“Smooth,” he commented, causing me to crack up momentarily.

 

Somewhere along the way, as he was kissing my neck, he whispered, “Audrey?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

There was a pause before he shook his head and breathed, “Nothing.” I didn’t know what he’d been about to say, but I was beyond thinking at that point.

 

I did learn that Percy thought I was beautiful - well, he said so, anyway.  I suggested he retrieve his glasses, to which he responded by smiling and countering, “I’m short-sighted, I can see you just fine.”

 

I learned Percy had freckles on his shoulders from a bad sunburn he once received on a day at the seaside.

 

I learned Percy snored.  Loudly.  On balance, though, I’d have to say it was worth it.

 


 

 

 

 



Chapter 10: Everyone Is Stupid
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Percy was still fast asleep when I awoke the next morning, even earlier than I usually did. The powers that be, perhaps, granting me a precious moment to wipe drool from my cheek and smooth my hair. My inner troll would have to wait until another day to reveal herself.

 

Percy’s hair was a right magnificent mess, which I think was more my doing than the pillow’s.

 

I have been known, on occasion, to take pride in my work.

 

Deciding to take this opportunity to brush my teeth, I pulled on my robe and headed for the bathroom. But now that I was properly awake, I heard Vivian’s voice in the kitchen. Was she talking to herself? Perhaps she was upset. I slipped out of my bedroom and, distracted from my initial goal, walked toward Vivian, who I could now see was on the phone.

 

“On Tuesday,” she was saying, “and I don’t work tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll get back on a normal sleeping schedule -- what?” She let out a sound of exasperation. “Mum, you’re just going to gossip with her at church later -- Mum, seriously, if you put me on hold, I will hang up on you -- ugh!” Obviously Mum did put her on hold, because Vivi mimed banging the phone against the wall before placing her hand over the mouthpiece and grinning at me.

 

“Look at you,” she whispered. “Number one Quidditch fan, are we?”

 

“What are you talking about?” I muttered back.

 

“You’ve got that stupid look on your face.”

 

“I haven’t got a stupid look on my face.”

 

“Oh, I’m the one looking at it, and it’s definitely stupid.”

 

“You’re stupid,” I replied lamely. “Why’s Mum on the phone at this hour?”

 

“I called her. Don’t change the subject.”

 

“Well, now she’s going to think it’s all right to call this early,” I complained. I picked at a loose thread on the sleeve of my robe.

 

“No, she won’t.”

 

I looked at her in disbelief. “Have you met Mum?”

 

Vivian shrugged. “I only had to tell her something about work. He’s still here, isn’t he? That pullover hanging off the back of the sofa doesn’t seem quite your size.”

 

“Ha ha. Yes, he is,” I responded, still whispering. I picked up Percy‘s glasses, which Vivian had been kind enough to place on a shelf. “So do me a favor and try not to be yourself.” This only made her smile more widely.

 

Then her eyes shifted to a spot over my shoulder, and she raised her eyebrows pointedly at me before turning away and searching vaguely through the kitchen cupboard, the phone still to her ear, in her best effort to pretend she wasn’t there. Bless her, Vivi could actually be discreet when necessary.

 

Percy, still looking sleepy, had emerged from the bedroom in his jeans and now terribly wrinkled shirt. I held out his glasses. “These are yours,” I said, stupidly stating what was rather obvious.

 

“Thanks.” He smiled and put them on, planting a slow kiss on my forehead. “Good morning,” he whispered. “Don’t stay away too long.” He looked rather shy as soon as he said it, then disappeared in the direction of the bathroom. I turned back to Vivi, suppressing a grin.

 

Vivi looked at me and let out a laugh.

 

“What?”

 

“You,” she mouthed. She made an exaggerated, grotesquely silly face and pointed at me.  “Stupid face.”

 

“I do not.”

 

She laughed harder, then abruptly turned her attention back to the phone. “Nothing, Mum, just something funny on the telly… Oh, I think it’s that stupid program Dad likes to watch… I don’t know, that one with the bloke with the stupid hair and the stupid ties…” She listened for a couple of moments. “No, Audrey’s asleep… I’m sure she did, you’ll have to ask her about it later. Hey, Mum, I’ve got to get some sleep, I’ll talk to you later, alright?… Okay, yeah, real quick, then… Hi, Dad.”

 

This phone call could last years. I went to fetch my toothbrush, seeing that the loo was once again vacant.

 

“Thanks, Dad,” I heard Vivi saying after I’d finished brushing my teeth. “I’ll talk to you later, it’s past my bedtime now… Okay, love you, too, Dad. Bye.”

 

“What’s going on?” I asked as she hung up the phone and slammed it onto its receiver dramatically.

 

“Oh, finally got assigned to work with the kids, and got back on a normal schedule.”

 

“Oh, that’s --”

 

“--not what you should be concerned about right now because you have more important things going on?” she interrupted. “I agree. Don’t know why you’re still out here, actually.”

 

“Well done, Vivi.”

 

She shrugged. “Just goes to show you can achieve anything by being a pain in someone’s arse long enough.”

 

“Oh, that’s how it’s done, is it?”

 

We were interrupted by the ringing of the phone.

 

“I told you!” I exclaimed. “There’ll be no stopping her now.”

 

Vivian picked up the phone. “Hello. Hi, Mum… Okay… Okay… Okay, Mum, I’ll tell her… Okay, love you… Bye.” She hung up. “Mum wants to know if you’d like to have Sunday dinner tonight, and if you’ll bring your boyfriend. You know she’s beside herself not having met him.”

 

I groaned. “Mum needs a hobby. And I’m sorry, I’m not subjecting him to Mum being a busybody and Dad being…ugh…himself…” And all his science projects of questionable legality. “Not this early in the scheme of things, anyway.”

 

Vivian looked at me like I was daft. “You’ve been seeing him for about three months.”

 

“No, no, that’s not true.”

 

“Oh, fine, you’ve been talking about him for three months.”

 

“Shh! He’s in there, you know.”

 

“Yes. I seriously don’t know why you’re still out here.”

 

I sighed in response, and as I turned on my heel I heard Vivi add lightly, almost as if to herself, “Anyway, I doubt it will matter how psychotic Mum and Dad act.”

 

“Oh, how do you gather?” I asked over my shoulder.

 

“Because he had a stupid look on his face, too.”

 

I ignored her and closed the bedroom door behind me, my face burning. “Sorry about that,” I sighed vaguely, satisfied that Percy didn’t seem to have heard anything too embarrassing.

 

“You know,” said Percy, toying with the loose ends of the belt on my robe, “I don’t have flatmates.”

 

“Oh, well, good for you.”

 

He smiled and removed his glasses, placing them on a shelf. “And I don’t have a telephone,” he added in a cheeky manner.

 

“Nobody likes a person who brags.” I cocked my head and paused for a moment, deciding. “Well, since you’re in such a good mood, I don’t suppose you’d like to put up with having dinner with my family tonight.” Before he could say a word I rushed to add, “It’s quite last minute, I understand if you— ”

 

“I think dinner is one of the three most important meals of the day,” he replied with mock seriousness.

 

 


 

Hours later, he seemed to have come to his senses and realized just as well as I did that this was going to be a disaster. He stood staring at the face of my parents’ house like it was a puzzle to be worked out. He’d barely said a word in the past hour.

 

“Come on,” I said, taking him by the hand and leading him to the front door. “Dinner is one of the three most important meals of the day,” I reminded him.

 

“Of all the clever things I say, that’s the one you remember.”

 

I squeezed his hand and led him through the front door and into the house. I could hear the sounds of laughter coming from the living room.

 

“Mum? Dad?” I called.

 

“Sweet pea!” answered Dad at the same time as Mum’s “Darling!” from the kitchen.

 

Dad got there to greet us first, giving me a hug and a kiss before shaking hands with Percy. Mum popped out of the kitchen for a moment, drying her hands on a towel, to say hello.

 

“Your sister and Michael are in the living room,” Dad said to me, “but first…” He turned his attention back to Percy. “I’ve got a question to ask you.”

 

Percy, who actually stood slightly taller than Dad, looked like he was going to throw up.

 

“Oh, Dad, seriously, nobody’s impressed,” Vivian commented from the other room.

 

Dad ignored her. “What do you think about the increase in free agents in the British and Irish League?” he asked Percy.

 

“I -- sorry?”

 

I suppressed a laugh at the look on Percy’s face.

 

“I’m hoping we can get a voice of reason in here.” Dad put a hand on Percy’s shoulder and started leading him into the living room. “I’ve been talking about it with Michael, and he can sometimes be what you might call…delusional.”

 

Michael let out a good-natured groan.

 

Percy glanced at me, as if he wanted me to clue him in to Dad’s opinion on the subject so he could give the correct response. I could only shrug uselessly. I didn’t even understand Dad’s question.

 

Vivian had a quick introduction with Percy, mercifully pretending she had not already encountered him in his disheveled state at seven that morning, then excused herself and followed me to the dining room, where she opened a bottle of wine and poured a glass for each of us. “I think they’re going to be fast friends. Dad’s in there pouring him a drink. I’m just glad it gave me a reason to get out of there. I just spent the past fifteen minutes pretending to be interested in how Quidditch teams choose their players.”

 

“What exactly do you and Michael talk about when you’re together?”

 

She shrugged. “Michael talks about Quidditch. I watch Michael talk about Quidditch.”

 

“Oh, Vivi, that’s rather unhealthy, don’t you think?”

 

She handed me a stack of dishes in response, and we went to work setting the table, moving in sync the way we had done since we were four and seven.



 

 

“She’s a phenomenal Chaser,” Dad was saying to Percy when Vivian and I rejoined them, Mum having shooed us from the kitchen and told us to enjoy our fellas. Save them from Dad, more like.

 

Percy’s face glowed with pride, and I presumed they must have been speaking of his sister. “She is.”

 

He went automatically to place his arm around my waist, but then froze, arm floating about as if he weren’t sure what to do with it. I took his hand and placed his arm about my shoulders, lacing my fingers with his. Dad looked amused.

 

Dad and I would have words.

 

When Percy excused himself ten minutes later I looked at Percy’s glass, then at Dad. “Take it slow, Dad.” Dad believed in persuasion rather than force. I knew his game.

 

Dad chuckled. “He’s fine, sweet pea.”

 

I pointed, as formidably as I could. “I’m watching you.” I hesitated, dropping my voice after ensuring Vivi and Michael were occupied and out of hearing range. “I like this one.”

 

“Well…” Dad contemplated the depths of his own whiskey glass. “He’s a bit uptight…”

 

I sighed and opened my mouth to interject, but Dad cut me off, holding up one hand.

 

“He’s got absurd thoughts about Quidditch…”

 

I waited, staring.

 

“But. He is polite, and he comes from a good family. So.”

 

“‘He’s polite and comes from a good family,’” I repeated. “Seriously. That’s what you’ve got.”

 

“Well, now that you mention it, he is rather dreamy.”

 

“Oh my god, Dad.”

 

When dinner was ready, I pulled Percy back, stalling before we followed everyone else into the dining room.

 

“Is he being fair to you? I hope he’s not prying.” Another thought struck me. “Oh god, he hasn’t started talking about football, has he?” Dad may have been a Quidditch fanatic deep in his bones, but retirement and being married to a Muggle had afforded him plenty of opportunity to develop an appreciation for Muggle pastimes.

 

“I’ll tell you a secret.” In sharp contrast to my fretting, Percy looked entirely at ease by now. He was very clearly not drunk, not anywhere close, but his eyes shone a little brighter with perhaps two glasses of whiskey and his usual half-smile conveyed a rare self-confidence as he leaned over and boasted playfully to me, “Parents really like me.”

 

When we sat for dinner, he pulled out my chair for me. Mum went fully starry-eyed and stayed that way.

 

It was Mum’s turn now to direct the conversation, though I wasn’t quite as concerned with her as with Dad. Mum rarely found it in her heart to disapprove of anyone. Mum had also become quite vocal with my sister and me these days about her desire for grandchildren, and I think she’d decided she was willing to accept any candidate who wasn’t raised by wolves.

 

Mum had never ceased to marvel at the details of Wizarding society, nor missed an opportunity to learn about the lives of its citizens whenever she met one. After pronouncing praises upon Percy’s mum for having raised seven children, she asked with keen interest what each of his siblings did now.

 

My heart skipped. I hadn’t told them. I should have said something, to prevent them putting him on the spot.

 

Percy handled the question with aplomb, as if he had rehearsed his answer. He buried the reference to Fred in the middle, his eyes flicking downward only for a moment as he said it before proceeding with the rest of the list.

 

“...George and Fred went into business together -- Fred, ah, passed. Four years ago in May. Ron’s an Auror, Mr. Greene will know all about that. And my sister is the best Chaser in the British and Irish League, but I suppose I’m biased.” He smiled modestly.

 

“Oh, my dear.” Mum patted Percy’s arm for a moment but elected not to dwell or pry any further. “They all sound lovely.”

 

“Dreadful time, that, dreadful time” was Dad’s contribution. He had, no doubt, done the math. He nodded bracingly before skewering a piece of potato and moving the conversation along. “Has your dad retired from Ministry service?”

 

“He has.”

 

“Excellent. I’m glad to hear it. He deserves it.”

 

Dinner continued without incident, and when it came time to leave -- hugs and kisses having been exchanged and Dad having stated emphatically that he was very much looking forward to seeing Percy again and resuming their Quidditch debate -- Percy and I decided to take a walk, taking advantage of the warm summer night.

 

Percy had his hands in his pockets, and I linked one arm through his. He was quiet and seemed preoccupied, though I wondered whether that was simply the effect of having spent the past few hours having to be personable. I understood that, at least.

 

“Sickle for your thoughts?”

 

“Oh, surely they’re worth more than that.” He looked down as we walked, nudging pebbles out of the way with his toes.

 

“Your family is lovely,” he finally spoke.

 

“But?”

 

He looked at me oddly. “No ‘but.’ I enjoyed them.”

 

“I have to apologize.” I couldn’t hold it in. “I should have told Mum and Dad not to ask about -- ”

 

He shook his head. “Audrey…” He appeared to gather his thoughts before continuing. “It’s going to come up. It does come up. I haven’t enjoyed any semblance of anonymity for years. You know, my sister is engaged to Harry Potter, my brother is well known to be his right-hand man, and somehow that dolt has a reputation as a war hero -- ” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, clarifying, “My brother is the dolt, not Harry. George’s personal worth by now rivals the wealth of Gringotts. Point is...people know these things. They know when they hear my name, put two and two together. I could hardly hide it. And I should talk about him. It would be wrong not to.”

 

He was silent again for a moment before adding, “I know I should tell you more about it. It’s just not...pleasant.”

 

“I don’t think ‘should’ has any place in it. You’ve no obligation to me.”

 

His brow furrowed and he put his arm around me. After a distance, we slowed.

 

“It’s getting late,” he said. “Would you like to come home with me?”



 

 

Percy’s living space was practically spartan. He’d told me once he had one set of dishes, and I believed it. A half-drunk cup of cold tea, I suspected from the morning before, sat on the coffee table next to the Prophet.

 

“Hasn’t got as much personality as yours, I’m afraid.” He gave a tiny but naughty-looking smile and I knew he was recalling Vivi’s book collection.

 

“You’re terrible.”

 

A framed photo sat on a shelf, one of the few on display. In it, an older couple danced happily, dressed as if for a special occasion. The man looked familiar somehow. “Who are they?”

 

He glanced over his shoulder, in the act of filling two glasses with water. “My parents,” he said. “That was my brother’s wedding. Bill, I mean.”

 

“Ah!” I pointed to his dad. “You look just like him.”

 

Percy grimaced, ran his hand across his hairline, and made a sound like hrmm.

 

I gasped gleefully as my eye caught upon another photo, a black and white group picture. “Is this you? You’re so -- what’s that you’re wearing? Is that a fez?

 

“I suppose I deserve this, don’t I?”

 

I squeezed his hand as I admired the picture. “Look at how young you are! You’re adorable.”

 

“Seventeen-year-old me is pleased to hear it.” He took the photograph and examined it. “This was in Egypt. Which explains the headwear. We all look ridiculous, but…” He shrugged. “It’s the last picture we took of everyone together.”

 

Nearly a decade ago. I took his meaning. “Oh. That’s a shame.”

 

“Yeah.” He looked pensive once again, as he had on our walk. “Yeah, it is.”

 

And here we were again.

 

“I’ve managed to bring this weekend to a fantastic close, haven’t I?”

 

“Well, it’s not quite over yet.” Having returned the photograph to its place, he drew me to him by my waist and with his other hand tucked my hair behind my ear. Sometimes I thought blokes only picked these things up in Muggle films; but Percy had come up in a magical family, so who knows -- maybe it was innate.

 

“You don’t know how long I’ve been wanting to do this,” he whispered in my ear, and I decided this could not be something that had been taught; he was too wonderfully earnest about it.

 

Affecting nonchalance, I took his wrist and checked his watch. It was interesting, his watch -- old-fashioned, possibly an heirloom, well-maintained but not expensive, even bordering on shabby; in stark contrast to everything else he wore, which always seemed pristine and impeccably tailored.

 

“Four hours?” I teased after noting the time. “Because I seem to remember this afternoon -- ”

 

He cut me off with a kiss, which was perfectly fine by me; but while it was nice, I noticed he seemed to have reverted to the same Percy who’d kissed me by the Floo gates in June, cautious and uncertain -- not the one who’d pinned down my arms while he nipped at my neck the night before. Variety may be the spice of life, but I felt as though he wasn’t really there with me.

 

My suspicion was confirmed when, some time later, I began to lift his shirt and he pressed my hands away.

 

“I’m sorry.” He pulled back and shook his head.

 

I froze in confusion. “What’s wrong?” A pause followed, during which he looked to be warring with himself. “Have I done something?”

 

“No, of course not.”

 

I waited, but he didn’t elaborate. “Well...what is it?”

 

He drew a breath and dropped onto his sofa. Puzzled, and feeling an unspecified fear rising within me, I followed his lead and perched next to him.

 

“I think that,” he began, trailing off as he stared at the floor and ran his hand through his hair and over his neck. “I think… I haven’t been fair to you.” He said the second part quickly, as if against his own will, and dropped off once again. It was agitating. One can’t just say something like that and leave it.

 

“What do you mean?” My mind was beginning to race.

 

He was now passing his hand over his mouth as he continued to avoid my eyes. We had entered the realm of Deep In Thought Percy, but I was still struggling to catch up.

 

“I’m afraid if you don’t explain I’m going to have to assume the worst.” I meant it to be a joke, but it fell flat.

 

Never in a million years could I describe precisely the look he gave me then, apologetic, fearful, resigned. I got the distinct impression that he knew exactly what he wanted to say but wasn’t at all happy about it. An awful thought struck me then, because what else could possibly be worth this sort of grief?

 

“Oh, my god. Are… are you... married?”

 

“What? No!” He gave an astonished laugh but was otherwise unhelpful.

 

I didn’t like that it seemed to have fallen on me to fill the silence, but I couldn’t help doing so. Searching, I happened upon another possibility that I also didn’t like but seemed rational, and therefore all the more plausible.

 

“It’s been too much, hasn’t it?” I offered, feeling resigned that this must be the issue. “Too soon.”

 

“No!” He said it rather more sharply than I would have liked.

 

“Well, I’m out of questions, so perhaps you can help.” I said it much more passively than I mean to. I placed my hands in my lap, waiting patiently because I could think of nothing else to do. If we had to die of old age here waiting for someone else to speak next, then so be it.

 

“I’m… not sure how to put it.”

 

“Well, I wish you’d thought about that before -- ”

 

“I didn’t plan this, Audrey!” I saw shades of the impatient man I’d met the very first day.

 

Vivian would have been gone by now, were she in my place. Or she’d be yelling.

 

I stayed, inspecting my bracelet.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said again. He kept his distance from me, slender fingers steepled against his lips whenever he paused. “You’ve done nothing. You’re...extraordinary. This weekend has been the best… You’re extraordinary,” he repeated.

 

I thought about arguing that he certainly wasn’t acting like it, but I held my tongue.

 

“There are things I haven’t told you. About myself. And I’ve met your family now and -- I wanted to, believe me,” he added when he looked at my dispirited face. “I just… I’ve gone about everything so backwards. And last night… I didn’t intend to take advantage of you or…”

 

I didn’t know which I’d been expecting less: the fact that he’d said that, or how offended I felt. “It’s 2002, Percy, how naive do you actually think I am? I don’t need a reason to — ” I stopped myself short, feeling my face grow hot.

 

The look on his face was almost as if I’d slapped him. “No. Obviously not. Nor do I.” His tone was barbed. “But if you want the same things from me that I want from you... and I don’t know, maybe you don’t.” He still had a look about him like he’d been struck. “But I think I ought to have told you. Before we became more…”

 

“Involved,” I finished. He nodded, and after a moment I ventured to confirm, “You’re not married?”

 

Nonplussed, he allowed himself a feeble laugh. “Never. Cross my heart.”

 

“What, then? Have you killed someone?” It was meant flippantly.

 

That caught him off guard, but he answered in absolute seriousness: “Well. Yes. But that’s not what I meant.” Seeing the look on my face, he added, “In the Battle, Audrey, not for fun.”

 

“Oh.” After another pause, I continued, “So what is it?”

 

“It’s difficult. I don’t ever talk about it. And it’s late and I don’t think right now is the time to unravel it.”

 

“When is the time?”

 

He looked at me uselessly.

 

“What am I meant to do in the meantime?”

 

He ignored the question. “I’m trying to do the right thing. I wasn’t expecting the things that have happened, not so quickly. I didn’t go over there with the intention of — ”

 

Embarrassment overtook me, the thought that this was my prize for putting myself out there as I’d done.

 

“I see. This is my fault.” I stood and fetched my purse. “You were perfectly proper, and most unwilling.”

 

He also rose. “That’s not fair! You know I wanted to make… you know I was happy to be with you.” His voice had dropped to an unnecessary stage whisper and his face was almost uniformly pink. Under any other circumstances I might have found the awkward modesty endearing.

 

“I’ve never had anyone angrily tell me he enjoyed spending the night with me. This has been nice.” I could feel tears beginning to surface, in that way they do where you know they won’t be stopped no matter how the situation may resolve itself.

 

He intercepted me as I reached for the Floo powder above the fireplace. “Wait. Please.” He took a breath and released it slowly. “This wasn’t at all how this should have gone. I should have done better. I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s late,” I said. But more than that, I needed to escape; I was not keen to cry in front of him. 

 

“I’ve hurt you,” he observed, the flush still lingering in his nose and cheeks.

 

“Well spotted.”

 

“I never wanted to. Please just give me some time and I’ll explain myself.”

 

I barely got the words out. “Take all you need.” Then I Flooed home, stepping into my own flat just as the tears broke loose. 

 

Vivian was digging into a second piece of pie she’d brought home after dinner. She paused with her fork halfway to her mouth.

 

“What did he do? I’ll kill him.”

 

I merely shook my head and managed, “Goodnight, Viv.” Then I retired to my room, shutting the door behind me, and did not sleep.

 



Chapter 11: Answers and Still More Questions
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Author's note: So, uh, HEY, I updated this fic a few weeks ago after a hiatus of like 8 years, and apparently there are still people reading???! My god, whoever you are out there, I love you. I well and truly love you, those reviews on chapter 10 made me want to cry happy tears. I am committed to finishing Percy and Audrey's story and hope you will consider sticking with me and them! You amazing people, you. <3

 

Just a note if you read chapter 10 before today (1/26/20) -- I went back and made a few revisions to it, nothing major, but just fine tuned a few things I wasn't happy with.

 

FYI, this fic is also posted at AO3, FFN, and HPFT, if you read on any of those other sites (because I'm never sure what will happen with this site again, although I am glad it's back up! I appreciate reviews, as always, here or those other places according to your preference.

 

And now, more Percy and more Audrey!

 


 

“Why on earth should you be sneaking about as if you’re the one who’s done anything wrong?” asked Vivian on Tuesday morning as I prepared to go to work, timing it so I was sure to miss Percy’s arrival.

 

“I don’t even know what I would say to him -- ow!” I exclaimed, poking myself in the eye with my mascara.

 

“I’ve got some words you can borrow.”

 

“That’s not helpful, Vivian.” I rubbed my eye furiously. “I’m not even sure I didn’t entirely overreact.”

 

“Nonsense! You’ve got to assert your dominance early on.”

 

“Sure,” I muttered, beginning anew with the offending mascara, “that’s what I was doing. Asserting dominance.”

 

Every time I thought of our argument, it made me angry. It seemed like the stupidest conversation I’d ever had in my life. So many words and yet we said absolutely nothing. Still, I wondered whether I’d been completely fair to him.

 

I resolved that I couldn’t decide that until he came out and said whatever he meant to say. But as soon as I thought that, I felt like a hypocrite. I myself was not known for my directness.

 

On the other hand, I didn’t hint at regretting what we were doing and then leave him hanging. What on earth could he possibly have to tell me? And hadn’t he had plenty of time to go about it? I thought back to the weeks — months! — we’d spent together, lingering over pints or glasses of wine for hours at a time, our conversations drifting to the most unimportant and inane things because neither of us had wanted to part and go home.

 

Wouldn’t that have been a good time to slip it in? Well, Audrey, in all fairness, I should warn you about something before I go making you fall in love with my orange hair and my glasses and the way I look at you. 

 

I grew indignant again as I thought back to the regret he’d seemed to express over how we’d spent our weekend together. As much as I appreciated being treated like a lady, I certainly didn’t need to be patronized. I was twenty-three years old and I’d shag whomever I damn well pleased —

 

“Of course you will, dearest,” my sister said supportively as she passed by the bathroom. I hadn’t realized I’d actually been muttering to myself.

 

I looked at my uneven mascara in the mirror, feeling dissatisfied and completely out of sorts, before giving up and Flooing to work.

 

Monday had been mercifully quiet in the office. Noah had been gone that day, which cut the office banter fully in half. I’d left work right after Madeleine, a full half hour early; Lionel had given me a thumbs-up.

 

“How was the match?” Noah asked me upon his return this Tuesday morning.

 

“What?”

 

“The Quidditch match, didn’t you go?”

 

“Oh.” Saturday felt like a week ago. “I was a bit bored, to be honest.” I slammed closed the drawer I’d been searching through, a good deal harder than I meant to.

 

There’s a good reason wise people — wiser than I, for sure — tell you not to date at work. It was impossible to avoid him for long.

 

At lunchtime I stood waiting for the lift. When it opened, I was greeted by the sight of Percy and the redheaded Auror whom I now knew to be his brother.

 

“I’ve...forgotten something,” I faltered, backing away even as Percy started to open his mouth. “Sorry.” And I headed back to my office. As the door closed again, his brother muttered something I didn’t quite catch, but I distinctly heard Percy’s irritable response.

 

“Shut it, Ron.”

 

 

 

On Wednesday I left halfway through my ordinary lunchtime and headed to Diagon Alley to do some research into the exploding wand situation personally, as our written requests to the wandmakers had gone unanswered. That was likely to keep me out of the office for the rest of the day, which was fine with me.

 

My first stop was Ollivander’s. The old Mr. Ollivander was quite feeble these days, and the shop was mainly run by his son, whom I’d never met. It was August, but fortunately the shop was not yet overrun with students preparing for the school year. I expected there would be a mad dash in the last couple of weeks of the month.

 

The younger Ollivander had a round, pleasant face, though he seemed prone to excessive sweating. He waved me inside with a welcoming smile.

 

“Hello, young lady! What can I do for you?” As he spoke he pulled out his measuring tape, and I put my hand up.

 

“Oh, no — thank you.” I displayed my wand. “Beech, dragon heartstring, good as it ever was. Mr. Ollivander —”

 

“Please, Mr. Ollivander is my father. Call me Gerry.”

 

“Um. Gerry —”

 

“Is that one of ours?”

 

“Yes indeed. Thirteen years ago.”

 

“Well, surely your children are too young for wands still.”

 

“Oh, surely,” I replied, amused. “No, that’s not why I’m here, either.” I briefly explained the exploding unicorn hair wands and that I was researching the sources.

 

“Ah. I think you’ll want to try Swynn’s, then. I think you’ll find our wands have no such problems. And, you know, unicorn hair provides the most consistent magic, so it’s even more unlikely —”

 

“Mr. — Gerry,” I corrected myself, “I hate to be a bother. But some of the reports we’ve had do indicate some of your wands were involved. The oldest purchase we know of being seven years ago.”

 

His brow furrowed in cautious concern. “I see…”

 

“I’m not here to cast aspersions on your fine wandmaking,” I assured him. “My family’s bought Ollivander’s wands for at least five generations. I’m only here because without help from you — and from Mr. Swynn — we’ll have no way of finding the pattern. We can hardly recall every single wand with a core of unicorn tail.”

 

“No…” He pondered, but his kind face was wary. “Well, I’ll have to speak to my father. We’ve never been called on to discuss our trade secrets.”

 

I nodded. “I think that’s a start, at least. I would appreciate it.” There was not much else I could do. We didn’t exactly have a way to compel Ollivander to provide information to us, not without escalating it to the Wizengamot, perhaps, and even then, it wouldn’t be easy. Wandmakers enjoyed an almost untouchable status, and forcing them to turn over their sources and secrets was almost without precedent, as far as I was aware.

 

I could hear Percy’s voice in my head giving his opinion on that subject, almost as clearly as if he were standing next to me, and I sighed and tried to push it out of my mind.

 

Swynn’s was at the opposite end of the alley, and as I strolled, I passed a bright storefront I was sure I must have seen dozens of times in recent years and just never really registered: Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes.  I understood a little better what Percy had meant by a lack of anonymity. If I could hardly get away from his name, he certainly couldn’t.

 

As I passed by, I peered into the window of the shop and saw a scene of utter chaos. Kids ran to and fro, and two shop clerks about sixteen years old looked fit to lose their minds. Business was good, clearly.

 

Swynn’s had opened their Diagon Alley branch two years previously, to much controversy and the chagrin of Ollivander’s loyalists. I’d never been inside. It was smaller than Ollivander’s, but brighter. I was greeted by a team of two women, which was a pleasant surprise. Wandmaking had been male-dominated for centuries.

 

I was greeted first by the dark-haired one with dark eye makeup, Mona, much in the same way Gerry Ollivander had greeted me. I again displayed my wand to assure them I would not be shelling out Galleons today for a new product.

 

“Beech,” the taller one with light brown hair and large hoop earrings repeated after my description of my wand. Her name was Ina.

“Partners well with elm.”

 

That caught me off guard. “Pardon?”

 

“Your partner,” she said. “Your beau. They’ll have a wand of elm, I’d stake my month’s earnings on it.”

Wandlore as matchmaking. Oh, ladies, this was not a good look for our gender.

 

“Ah.” I shrugged. “Well, I don’t have one of those.”

 

Mona muttered something about Ina putting her foot in her mouth again.

 

I indulged my curiosity on the subject, if only because I was completely baffled. “So, what if one is ‘partnered’ with a Muggle? How does that factor?” My old boyfriend Bobby Price had been a Muggle, and if I recalled correctly, Nev Baker’s wand had been made of willow, whatever in the world that was supposed to mean.

 

Ina seemed miffed by the question.

 

“It’s a guideline,” Mona responded on her behalf, “and it’s an area that’s still being studied.”

 

“Hmm,” I replied noncommittally. 

 

Mona and Ina Swynn were hardly more receptive to my plea for information than Ollivander was. They said they’d speak to their parents and that I should write them in a week or so, and use an official Ministry seal. Despite the credentials I’d shown them, I honestly think they suspected me of being some kind of spy.

 

 

 

On Friday, I arrived a full hour earlier than anyone in Equipment Control or Improper Use was typically known to. While I was lagging from my abrupt shift to the earlier morning hours I was keeping, I had to admit it was wonderful to be able to work there in silence, with a clear mind. Almost clear, anyway.

 

At half past seven I heard the lift chime in the distance and a pair of shoes making their way down the deserted corridor. I knew it was him before he appeared.

 

“Audrey.”

 

He stood in the doorway, his work robes slung over one arm and his other hand in the pocket of his trousers. He wore a waistcoat, which like everything else on him was impeccably tailored to his long, lean figure. My stars, but he looked dashing, and I was annoyed with myself for thinking so.

 

Unable to muster any sort of comment or greeting I’d be happy with, I shook my head slowly and looked down.

 

He walked to my desk solemnly, pulling up a chair adjacent to mine and sitting.

 

“Audrey.”

 

I glanced up. The circles under his eyes were more pronounced than usual. “If you’re free after work, I’d like to explain myself. Fully.” His voice was stiff but not rude.

 

I allowed myself to engage. “When will you be off?”

 

“Whenever you’d like.”

 

I hesitated. The time would drag slowly. “Three thirty?”

 

He nodded and made no protest. “Half past three it is. Thank you.” And without any further spectacle, he was gone.

 

 

 

Percy was a nervous wreck that afternoon when I accompanied him to his flat where we could speak privately. He seemed to be trying to affect composure but could not or would not look directly at me, and his eyebrows appeared to have been permanently knit together. I supposed the sleep deprivation -- which seemed plain to me when I again noted the circles under his eyes and the paleness in his face -- did not help. Distractedly, he asked me if I’d like anything to drink as he undid his very top shirt button and pushed up his sleeves. I declined and took a seat on the sofa, hoping he would take a hint because he was driving me mad, and not in a good way.

 

He did sit, and he bowed his head, contemplating his clasped hands for a moment, before he finally began; and when he did, though his speech was halting, his demeanor became calmer, as if the act of speaking had opened a pressure valve.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, “for what happened last weekend. I realize how that looked. Sounded. I wasn’t thinking.

 

“You know, when we were walking in Whaley Bridge that day, after dinner? You said something, you said that I have no obligation to you. I don’t — well, I don’t know what you meant by it, exactly, but at the very least, I think I owe you the truth. I have no idea where you stand on this… us… but I care for you, very much.”

 

No idea where I stood?

 

“How —”

 

He held up a hand, but not unkindly. “Please. I’m afraid I’ll make a mess of this as it is.

 

“I’ve had no intention — ever — of messing you around. And if any part of you sees a… sees this going anywhere, with me…” His cheeks colored. “Then I think you ought to have honesty from me. So you can decide. If you still want anything to do with me.”

 

I was dumbfounded. “I don’t understand. Do you tell this dark secret, whatever it is, to everyone you date?”

 

He made a rueful expression that could almost be a smile. “I think you might be assuming I’ve been out with more women than I actually have. But… no. I wouldn’t tell everything to someone I didn’t feel I could…”

 

I waited with bated breath for the missing word. But he simply shook it away uncertainly and asked, “Do you understand?”

 

“I don’t know. Why didn’t you just say all this before?”

 

“I wasn’t sure when I should, or could. Thought I’d have some more time. It’s not easy, and I wasn’t sure you’d still have me. I’m not proud of myself for it. And then we, well, got closer. More serious.” His face flushed pinker. “I think we did, anyway. I don’t regret it, not a second, I swear to you. Please don’t think that. But in retrospect, I felt very guilty, as if I’d misled you. I realized, quite suddenly, that there were things I couldn’t keep from you any longer.”

 

Where his gaze had previously been flicking about in the space between us, he now locked eyes with me and added very softly, “I don’t want to lie to you, Audrey. Not even by omission. Not even if it’s something you wouldn’t have known to ask about.”

 

“And I gather you’re going to tell me these things… now?”

 

He drew a long breath and let it out just as slowly. “Yeah.”

 

We sat, opposite ends of the sofa, me watching quietly and he mainly staring at his shoes, as he recounted everything beginning when he was eighteen. He removed his glasses and covered his eyes with one hand as he spoke of his catastrophic fight with his parents. His voice faltered as he recalled the coup, the Muggleborn trials, how he was in too deep before it all happened. How he believed himself responsible for many innocent deaths, even if indirectly. Simply by doing the paperwork.

 

“You couldn’t have known before it happened,” I offered, referring to the coup, though I was still working uneasily through this information. “And once it had, what were you to do?”

 

“I shouldn’t have tolerated it from the beginning. I should have seen the signs.” He interlaced his fingers, hands twisting fretfully, before speaking again in an abrupt tone. “Did you know I’ve been pardoned?”

 

“Sorry?” I hadn’t thought it possible to be any more surprised, but I was.

 

“You heard me right. Pardoned.” Despite the softness of his voice, he said it with an emphatic bitterness. “Like a common criminal. They said it was only a formality, to foreclose any future questions. Said it had to be done for everyone in a similar position to me. But that’s never made it any easier to swallow.”

 

My voice cracked as I responded, “I’ve never -- nobody has ever said -- ”

 

“No. They wouldn’t. It’s like an unspoken agreement. There are a few of us, and whatever else everyone there thinks of us -- of me -- and I know what else they think of me, by the way -- everyone seems to have arrived at this understanding, that it’s something we don’t speak of.” He sighed. “It’s held against me, of course, it always will be. Why do you think I can’t get back into I.M.C.? But as far as gossip goes, miraculously it’s an untouchable subject. Those who were there during the war remember what it was like, and those who weren’t… well, they learn the unwritten code quickly enough, if it comes up.

 

“I should have done more,” he continued after a few moments had passed in silence. “To this day I’m not sure what I should have done, but I should have done something. I was afraid. More afraid than I would like to admit to you.”

 

“And you were alone that whole time?”

 

He shrugged. “I made a friend -- well, I don’t know that he would call me a friend -- a contact, I suppose. In Hogsmeade. He’s the one who alerted me when the Battle began.”

 

“You went,” I pointed out. He merely nodded.

 

Very slowly, he removed his glasses with one hand and bit absently on one of the temple tips, working up to what he said next. When he did say it, it was hardly more than a whisper.

 

“I was there when Fred died. I was right next to him.”

 

I felt my heart stop.

 

He was gazing at his coffee table but looked as if he could see right through it, through the floor and down to the street below.

 

“I was awful to him. Our whole lives. I was an absolute tosspot. To put it mildly.”

 

“Why?” was all I could think to ask, rather stupidly.

 

Almost unwillingly, he met my eyes, his expression stricken as if he realized the insufficiency of what he said next. “He annoyed me.”

 

There are times when you can actually hear a person’s heart breaking, even when they haven’t made a sound. I think that if Percy were one for crying, he would have done it then. Perhaps he’d done his crying years ago and had no more tears to give. Perhaps he’d never cried in his life.

 

I felt foolish. We’d grown so close, so natural, so easy with one another in fairly short order that I could almost have convinced myself I’d known him for years, not months. I’d believed I understood the inner workings of his mind, his likes and dislikes, his moods -- and I’d observed with satisfaction the way he often deferred to me when gently challenged, only confirming my beliefs that much more.

 

But he was right: there were a lot of things about Percy Weasley I had not known. 

 

We seemed to have reached the end of what he had to tell me. I felt as though I should say something, but everything I could think of felt absurd. What could ever be enough in response to what he had shared with me?

 

“I’m sorry,” I whispered at last. And then: “Thank you for telling me.”

 

He nodded, his glasses now returned to their proper position atop his nose. His usually perfect posture was nowhere to be seen; he looked crumpled, exhausted.

 

“I think… I think I need some time myself now,” I admitted.

 

He nodded again. “Yes. I thought you might.”

 

This was certainly my cue to leave, but I hardly knew how to go about it. Did I kiss him goodbye -- hug him, even? Would that be irresponsible of me? It seemed unfair, somehow, though whether it was more unfair to him or to myself, I didn’t know. We were back to square one, stuck in the damn lift, cordial on opposite sides of an invisible barrier.

 

I rose and walked uncertainly to the fireplace, reaching for the Floo powder. He joined me there, propping one arm on the mantle, watching me with an expression I could not quite read. Then he reached out and took my free hand and simply held it for a moment.

 

A self-deprecating grimace crossed his face, the very one I’d seen him make on occasion when there was no one else around but me. “I think I’d give anything to have something perfect to say right about now.”

 

“I won’t tell anyone.”

 

He almost smiled.

 

I looked at our joined hands and realized there was a significant part of me that did not want to let go. And that, I supposed as I broke away and Flooed home, had to mean something.

 


 

Author's note: 

So, in the real world, at least in the US (and from what little I know of UK law, it's similar there as well), when someone is pardoned it actually means they have previously been charged and convicted of something but subsequently the punishment is set aside as an act of executive power.

 

I've used the term "pardon" differently here, considering we know the Ministry operates very differently from the Muggle government, and plays fast and loose with a lot of things like legal procedures. So I think it stands to reason that certain terms would have a different meaning in the wizarding world.

 

As I've used it here, it basically means that Percy's actions during Deathly Hallows (in working for the Death Eater-controlled Ministry) were assessed, scrutinized to some extent, there was some sort of process and hearing, possibly some people spoke on his behalf, and ultimately it was determined that he may have done the alleged actions but he had a justification for doing so (basically duress). So it's sort of a similar concept to justifiable homicide -- you killed the guy, but you had a legally valid reason to.



Chapter 12: If It's a Saint You Want (Part 1)
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I might have lost count, but I believe Vivian increased the bottle’s worth of wine three times during the course of the evening I told her what Percy had revealed to me. That action, plus an occasional nod and the creeping of her eyebrows closer to her (now blue) hairline, had been her only response to what I was telling her until she was certain I’d completely finished. She hadn’t made so much as a peep during my rambling, fretting narrative. And once I’d concluded and looked at her, hoping for some magic answer, she simply blinked and said: “Well.”

 

“That’s it?” I asked, annoyed. “‘Well’?”

 

She shrugged and topped off my glass. “I’m impressed he told you all that.”

 

This was not the reaction I’d been counting on from Vivian, who always had an opinion about something and could hardly be deterred from giving it.

 

She looked thoughtful as she sipped her wine. “What do you think about all this?”

 

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m telling you. I don’t know what to do…”

 

“‘Do’? What do you mean, you don’t know what to do?

 

It was like a tennis match but with words. “I mean I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to think — Did you listen to anything I just told you?”

 

“I did, I heard you tell me that your boyfriend is a human being. One who’s apparently willing to tell you every insecurity he has in his life. Some people pay lots of money to be able to admit those things and not until they’re forty.”

 

“You don’t think I should be, I don’t know, concerned or...”

 

“Well, look. He said that he was a twat when he was seventeen,” she began.

 

“Eighteen.”

 

“Whatever. Who the hell isn’t a twat at that age? Except you, you were perfect. The rest of us were perfectly monstrous.”

 

“That might be oversimplifying things. Can you imagine ever speaking to Dad in that manner?”

 

“Oh, there’ve been times I wanted to tell Dad where to stick it. Although no, probably not in that exact manner,” she admitted. “But it sounds like the comparison may not be apt.”

 

I thought back to what Percy had told me on that point the previous evening. I’d spent most of Friday night and Saturday trying to organize my thoughts in such a way as to allow me to pinpoint exactly what I was concerned about. It was difficult, with so much information to parse.

 

While it paled in comparison to his tale about working under You-Know-Who’s regime, the fact of his temper and how it had led to his three-year estrangement from his family begged some thought. I supposed there were two separate issues there: his argument with his dad about status, and the whole Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore thing.

 

The fact of his humble upbringing was one that had very obviously not pleased Percy to have to share with me. He’d pointedly avoided looking at me when he’d first broached that subject.

 

“It was hard,” he’d said. “And there were so many of us, and that was its own problem, always stepping on each other’s toes, never a moment’s peace with nine people in one house. But you could… you could see the way that people looked at us. At least, I could. And I have to imagine Dad could, too, except it never seemed that way to me, not at the time. He seemed fine with it.

 

“My father is a good man,” he had clarified. “But I was so angry with him back then. We never had enough. Ron had to use Charlie’s old wand for about two years when he started school — the core was all wearing through the end, too — that wasn’t fair to him. How was he supposed to succeed with a wand that hadn’t even chosen him? But that was just how everything always was, and I always assumed Dad had the power to change it and just didn’t care to. Because he wasn’t at school with us, you know, he didn’t hear the comments the other kids made…”

 

Vivian was right; it was difficult, if not impossible, to accurately compare ourselves to him. We may not have lived like royals, but we were always comfortable — privileged, even.

 

“Audrey.” Vivi’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “You’re making lists in your head, aren’t you?”

 

“More like diagrams,” I countered, my mind moving to the next point. “Do you find it odd, all that stuff about not believing Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore?”

 

“Do you find it odd that we did?

 

I frowned. “We had no reason —”

 

“We believed it because Dad believed it, and he didn’t so much believe it as accept it.”

 

I took her point. Being home-schooled, Vivian and I had never met Dumbledore, who had always seemed to be part man and part myth. Dad respected him, having attended Hogwarts and later worked for the Ministry during the First War. I was sixteen when the news broke with Dumbledore’s and Harry Potter’s claims about You-Know-Who’s return. Dad had a look of consternation about him whenever reading the paper, and he’d started talking about work even less at home. When Vivi had asked him one day about the claims, he’d responded, “I just don’t see what reason Dumbledore would have to lie about something like that.” But as he’d said it, he’d seemed like he was trying to convince himself.

 

I shook my head in response to Vivian. “But Percy made it sound like Harry Potter was practically part of his family by that point. Said he was there over almost every holiday.”

 

“People who are close to us always tell us the truth, do they? Despite all evidence to the contrary? We always know exactly what’s going on with them? Even you have to admit —”

 

“Okay, point taken!” I protested, suspecting I knew what example she was about to bring up. I did not want to talk about Nev Baker, who had cheated on me repeatedly with some financial analyst.

 

Vivi held up her hands in surrender but continued in a similar vein, “I’m your sister, and what would you think if you heard me saying that I’d just seen, I don’t know, Benito sodding Mussolini walking around a Tesco?” When I made a face at her, she added, “And not what would you Audrey think, because you give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but what would you a normal person think?”

 

“Mussolini wasn’t a wizard,” I pointed out.

 

“No shit. He’s still dead. What spells have you been aware of that can raise the dead?”

 

“Well, they said You-Know-Who --”

 

“I know what they said in ‘98 after all was said and done, but in 1995, what spell were you aware of that could raise the dead? Even Dad wasn’t aware of that stuff they later said he did. That was some Dark shit, you don’t find that in a standard curriculum, do you?”

 

Vivian was making entirely too much sense during a time when I was convinced I should be fretting. I mulled things over for a minute, picking at a loose thread on my sleeve, while Vivi sipped her wine and twirled her hair around her finger.

 

“And what about…” I hesitated. “You know…”

 

She propped her chin on her fist. “What, the totalitarian puppet thing?” She said it in a calm, thoughtful voice as if we were discussing a moderately interesting newspaper headline.

 

At that phrasing, I placed my face in my hand. “Oh god, Vivian…”

 

She let out a little snort. “Sorry, I know it’s not funny. But I dunno. Can’t be much help there. I don’t know what it was like, I wasn’t there.”

 

I hadn’t been there, either. While I’d come of age in 1995, Dad had all but forbidden me to go into Ministry service at that time; he hadn’t trusted the political climate. A good thing, too — I don’t know what I would have done if I’d walked into work one day, two years later at the age of nineteen, to find my office was suddenly run by Death Eaters.

 

“Only…” Vivian chewed her lip pensively.

 

“Only what?”

 

She spun her wine glass by the stem, examining the condensation on the bowl. “Do you remember how scared Dad was?” Her voice was soft.

 

I nodded. I couldn’t forget.

 

“Well, could you have ever imagined Dad being that scared?”

 

Dad had already retired from Ministry service, but only just. When the coup happened, and the Muggleborn Registration Commission was established, he was beside himself. We had all presumed that Vivian and I were safe, being half-bloods, but Dad hadn’t trusted that the problems were going to stop at Muggleborns. Death Eaters didn’t abide magical-Muggle marriages, and Dad had been convinced that the persecution would eventually extend beyond Muggleborn witches and wizards, and that the regime would start hunting down mixed households. 

 

He’d tried to convince Mum that we needed to leave the country — or at least, Mum needed to. She had refused, said she wasn’t going to leave the only place she’d ever known as home. Mum was never a particularly audacious person, nor was she daft, but she seemed to have placed a naive amount of trust in the power of magic in general and Dad in particular to protect her from that type of threat. It had been an awful row, one of the worst I’d ever heard my parents have.

 

Dad, the Hit Wizard, who’d been through one war already, had wanted to run.

 

I shook my head in response to Vivian’s question. “I’ve never seen Dad so scared.”

 

We fell silent, and I fished a bit of cork out of my wine glass as I tried to collect my thoughts and make sense of everything. For some reason, I felt like crying.

 

“Audrey.”

 

I lifted my eyes to meet hers.

 

“Look.” Vivi had her serious face on; her voice was low and sure. “If what you feel is that you don’t want to date him, then don’t date him. It really is as simple as that. Don’t look for reasons to make yourself do it. Your fella’s obviously no saint. So if it’s a saint you want, then maybe it’s not him.”

 

The only thing I could be certain of at that moment was that if I’d said the words “I don’t want to date Percy Weasley” out loud, it would have been a barefaced lie. Wondering whether this conclusion had been Vivi’s objective, I nodded in acknowledgment but did not say anything further.

 

With a kind, bracing smile I suspected was usually reserved for St. Mungo’s patients, she squeezed my free hand. “So, then. Movie? Your choice. Oh, but don’t say —”

 

Casablanca.”

 

“Always sodding Casablanca, I swear it’s not healthy.” But as she said it, she waved her wand to extract the video from our collection.

 

“It’s the greatest love story of all time!” I gestured a little too vigorously with my glass and some of the wine splashed out and onto my pyjamas.

 

“Fifty times a year you watch this movie, and guess what? She always gets on the goddamn plane.”

 

 

 

Violet Guildenstern, secretary and self-appointed gatekeeper for Demetrius Dibble, was tiny woman old enough to be Moira’s mother. She wore her white hair close-cropped, and her overlarge glasses gave her an owlish appearance. She had a nervous energy about her and did like to make a show of checking that Demetrius was available to speak to whomever was requesting to do so, even though he’d always said he had an open-door policy. She didn’t give me too much grief whenever I did have to speak to him — I suspected because of whatever recommendation Moira had given on my behalf. About a month prior, on her birthday, I’d given her one of Dad’s creations to add to her potted plant collection — snapdragons that actually snapped when harassed (Lionel and Noah were fond of testing this theory, and I’m pleased to report that the plant delivered every single time). Ever since then, Violet didn’t interfere with me entering Demetrius’s office at all, and probably wouldn’t have even if the Minister of Magic himself were in there.

 

“Wasson, Audrey?” Demetrius had something of the West Country about his speech, not unlike Percy, actually, though the latter would never admit it and had obviously gone to some lengths to try to hide it — it did tend to creep out on occasion, though; most often when he was especially annoyed about something (or when he’d had perhaps one and a half too many pints).

 

Demetrius set aside the Prophet and removed his feet from atop his desk as I took a seat across from him. What I had to talk to him about, I’d previously raised with Lionel, but Lionel had been decidedly unconcerned. Fortunately, Lionel seemed to have no problem with someone going over his head to his superior; I think it actually relieved him.

 

“Demetrius, I need to talk to you about this wand issue. I think it’s getting out of hand.”

 

He steepled his fingers, tapping them against each other. “Go on.”

 

“We’re up to nearly twenty reports of unicorn hair wands backfiring. All within seven or eight years of purchase. From both Ollivander’s and Swynn’s.” I paused for a reaction that didn’t come. “By my understanding of current estimates, that’s about three percent of all unicorn hair wands under a decade old currently claimed by witches or wizards in Britain and Ireland. Three in one hundred seems… a lot.” Especially for wands, which were practically an extension of oneself. Even though I’d told Gerry Ollivander the previous week that we could hardly recall every unicorn hair wand in existence, the more I’d thought about it, the more unavoidable that result had seemed.

 

Demetrius sighed. “And we don’t know why?”

 

“No, and we’re not going to without the wandmakers’ cooperation. I’ve done a preliminary inquiry with R. and C. Of Magical Creatures, but they can’t say that they’ve noticed anything out of the ordinary with known unicorn populations. No diseases or anything.”

 

He shook his head, his mouth twisted in consideration. “Wandsmiths will never cooperate. And they’re not required to.”

 

“That seems so odd to me.”

 

He merely shrugged. “Been that way since 17… whenever the Ministry was established. And I’m sure it was similar under the Wizard’s Council before that. Their secrets have always been respected.”

 

“But we grant them permits to operate,” I pointed out. Well, at least, we’d granted Swynn’s a permit and were currently denying the new French wandmaker; Ollivander’s had long since been grandfathered in to permitted status from a time before permits were a concept in anyone’s mind. “Under what circumstances can we revoke them?”

 

“Revoke them?” This thought had clearly never occurred to my boss. “Well…I suppose if one wandsmith started selling demonstrably shoddy products, that would be a basis.” He looked uneasy. “But, as you say, the wands are coming from both shops, so the fault is hardly with the wandsmiths individually.”

 

“No,” I allowed, “but I think we can safely call this an issue of public concern, if not safety, and shouldn’t they be required to do what they can?”

 

“What do you have in mind?”

 

“Well, as a temporary solution, stop selling all unicorn hair wands created in the past eight years — ten, to be safe.” It occurred to me at that moment that just because the wands were purchased in the past ten years didn’t mean they’d only been created in the past ten years, but the situation was complicated enough, so I shelved that thought for the time being.

 

“You want the wandsmiths to stop selling a significant percentage of their merchandise? They’ll never agree.”

 

“Well, I’ll get to that, but I was also going to suggest we issue a notice to recall all such wands currently in use. Or at least issue a public notice of the hazards. Wandmakers will get hundreds of new customers who need to buy different wands.”

 

Demetrius blew out a slow breath as he took in these suggestions.

 

“But,” I continued, “that’s really just addressing the symptom. What are we going to do, ban all unicorn hair wands? Forever? More than a third of the population use wands containing unicorn hair. If we want to avoid that, we have to try to understand why these wands are backfiring, and in order to do that we need the wandmakers to cooperate.”

 

“How do you suggest we do that?”

 

“Condition them keeping their permits on two things: first, pull the recent unicorn hair wands from their shelves; second, provide us the information we need to research the unicorn sources used for the affected wands.”

 

He sucked in a breath. “They’re not going to like that.”

 

“What’s our alternative? I mean, I wish we could just do something like issue them a subpoena or -- ”

 

“A what?”

 

“Never mind, sorry. What else are we to do?”

 

He contemplated a poster of a Quidditch team called the Falmouth Falcons affixed to his wall.

 

“We’ll start out this way,” he decided at last. “Issue the notice to the public. A copy in the Prophet, copies to every Office here. Informational only, not a mandate to turn in their wands. And start on a memo for my review to Gawain Robards about revoking permits unless the wandsmiths pull the wands created in the past decade. We’ll see what he wants to do with it. I don’t even know if present law allows us to do that. But who knows -- maybe the public information about the issue will encourage the wandsmiths to do their own work to fix this.”

 

I very much doubted that, as Ollivander and Swynn had a corner on the market and would still draw plenty of business anyway, but I nodded and set off to do just that. I exited Demetrius’s office to find Percy and Lionel apparently wrapping up some conversation near Lionel’s desk.

 

“All right,” Percy was saying, “I’ll tell Oduye, think it’ll be fine.”

 

“Sorry, mate, don’t know how that happened — ”

 

“Don’t worry about it.” Percy was all business, but in a melancholy sort of way. “I’ll sort it out.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Percy noticed me over Lionel’s shoulder and gave me a tiny smile of acknowledgment, which I returned, before he swept from the M.E.C. office and I returned to my desk. It had been nearly a week since our talk. I hadn’t been avoiding him, not the way I had previously. We weren’t unfriendly; we just weren’t “us” — not until I decided what to make of everything.

 

“That was weirdly civilized.”

 

I glanced at Lionel, the source of the statement; he looked positively stunned, but I didn’t inquire. I set myself to the unenviable task of composing a memo to the Head of Department, requesting permission to threaten our top wandmakers with revocation of their permits if they refused to pull more than a quarter of their merchandise from their shelves. Not ten minutes into this, Noah strolled into the office, a mad grin on his face.

 

“Never guess what words just came out of Weasley’s mouth.”

 

I swear, the Ministry would only need about half its workforce if everybody actually spent their time getting things done instead of talking about one another all day.

 

He paused a second or two for effect. “ ‘Proper job, Saunderson.’ ” Noah emphasized it with a stage whisper. “ ‘Proper job’! I mean, to be fair, he looked depressed as he said it; must be a new sensation — but still!” He looked at me. “I don’t know what you did to him, but do more of it, yeah?”

 

“Will do,” I mumbled, wanting very much to deflect any attention of this sort away from myself, and thinking that agreeing with him would be the quickest way to do it.

 

Lionel was chuckling along with Noah, and as I bent my head over my work I heard a huff and a sound I’d come to associate with Madeleine slamming her quill down onto her desk. A moment later, a perfectly manicured hand appeared in my field of vision. It drummed its purple fingernails on the surface of my desk in a brisk manner and I looked up.

 

“Let’s go to lunch,” she said, her dainty face stoic.

 

Having no idea what to make of this, I stammered, “Oh, thank you, but I don’t — ”

 

“Audrey. Get your things, we’re going for lunch.” I didn’t know whether Madeleine had children, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if she did; she had that kind of look that tells you it will not be in your interest to argue. Obediently and, I admit, curiously, I set aside my work, removed my work robes revealing my Muggle clothes underneath, retrieved my purse, and followed her to the door. At the threshold, she paused, turned back to Lionel and Noah, and held up a finger as if to deliver a lecture. “You two are bastards,” she said in a clipped voice before sweeping into the corridor, leaving the other two in a state of utter confusion. Appalled as I was, I have to confess I enjoyed it.

 

Neither of us spoke again until we’d entered an empty lift.

 

“You don’t actually have to come to lunch with me,” she said, and indeed, she looked perfectly unconcerned as to what I decided. “I needed to get away from Moron One and Moron Two, and I suspected you did as well.”

 

“What makes you say — ”

 

“Please. I know you’re discreet, and trust me, I appreciate it. Can’t stand it when people blather on about their personal issues. But it’s obvious that Weasley’s not acting like he’s been cut down to size because of anything good, and you’re also not the picture of stoicism, though I admit, you come close. By the way — ” She held up a finger to stop me speaking, even though all I’d really intended to do was gape in astonishment. “This is not an invitation to talk about him. I’ll be honest with you, all right: I don’t like your boyfriend. I think you must be a saint or a masochist to willingly deal with that when you’re not being paid to, but that’s your business. The point is, I don’t want to hear about him. I just wanted Lionel and sodding Noah to shut up already.”

 

“Fair enough.”

 

“You are welcome to join me for lunch, of course,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “Can’t rescind an invitation, I’m not quite that awful. I am meeting my girlfriend, though, so as long as you don’t mind being a third Bludger.”

 

“I thought they said you were dating that guy Jeremy in MAC?” MAC, pronounced “Mack,” was what we called the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes.

 

She rolled her dark eyes. “They only knew that because he couldn’t keep his gob shut in the first place. Anyway, I broke up with that fool months ago, but they don’t know that. I let them think it so they stay out of my real business. Besides, when men find out you’re dating a woman they get all disgusting about it.”

 

Also fair enough.

 

“I assume I can trust you’re not going to say anything?” she asked.

 

“When do I ever?”

 

“Good. And for what this is worth, in the future I’d recommend dating outside your Department. For all our sakes.”

 

We reached the Atrium and exited the lift. My mind was reeling a bit from this new interaction. Everything Madeleine had said in the past minute or so seemed sensible enough, but I was uneasy. “This is more words than I think you’ve said to me in the past four months altogether.”

 

“Ditto.”

 

If we’d been in a movie, this would certainly have been the part where we cast hesitant smiles at one another in acknowledgment of the fact that we’d each just made an unexpected friend, but nothing quite like that happened. Madeleine’s voice was neither warm nor judgmental, but matter-of-fact.

 

“I don’t hide the fact that I’m not here to make friends,” she continued, “so we’re not going to, you know, plait each other’s hair and talk about our holiday plans. I suspect you’re similar, which I suppose is ironic when you think about it.”

 

“Is it?”

 

“Who knows. After that one Muggle song, the meaning of the word went out the window entirely. Anyway, I overheard you and Dibble talking about that wand issue. How’s that coming on?”

 

“Hardly at all.”

 

“Uphill climb on that one. Dibble needs a spine.” We had slowed to a stop just past the Atrium fountain. “I do think it’s an interesting issue, though. If he does approve you taking real action and you’d like a second pair of eyes on it, I’m glad to do some research and contribute. You know Lionel and Noah will be useless there. I’d rather it be sorted out before my own wand explodes.”

 

“How old is it?”

 

“Fifteen years, but at this point that hardly seems any guarantee.”

 

“True. Well, thanks. I’m sure I’ll need all the brainpower I can get.”

 

“Watch, in a few years we’ll all find out it was a batch of depressed unicorns or something mad like that.”

 

I caught a glimpse of red hair by the little coffee stand in one corner of the Atrium: it was Percy’s brother Ron, the Auror, holding two drinks. He handed one to a petite brunette in hunter green robes, her hair pulled sleekly into a French twist. She looked familiar somehow, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

 

“Well, have you decided?” asked Madeleine.

 

“Oh — you go on. Think I’ll head home for lunch. Thanks for the invitation, though.”

 

“Sure.” With that, she set off towards the telephone box lifts that would take her up to the streets of Whitehall.

 

 

 

“We have to stop meeting like this,” I said wryly as I encountered Percy in the lift when I returned early from lunch.

 

His face froze for a moment, until I cracked a little smile. “Oh — oh, you’re joking.” He relaxed a bit, and the way he looked at me made my heart ache.

 

“Dibble treating you all right, I hope?” he ventured.

 

“Yes, what makes you ask?”

 

“Oh, you looked… I don’t know, annoyed? When you came out of his office earlier. Of course, you annoyed is still pleasanter than most.”

 

I chuckled. “Perturbed, maybe. Loads of exploding wands will do that to you. You were right, wands aren’t regulated enough.”

 

“Oh, those are some words I rarely hear.”

 

“What?”

 

“ ‘You were right, Percy.’”

 

I laughed again, grateful for the joke. “I am actually shocked that there’s no way to compel wandmakers to produce their records and cooperate with an investigation in the face of a safety concern like this.”

 

“Well, our laws have historically been pretty reactionary, and we’ve never had a situation exactly like this.”

 

“Seems it might be time for an amendment.”

 

“Might be.”

 

“Think Demetrius might die of shock if I were to say that. He hardly wants to issue a public notice of the problem.”

 

“Dibble’s smart enough when he wants to be,” he allowed, “but he doesn’t like to ruffle feathers. But when this all blows up — excuse the phrasing — it’s going to be on him, and I doubt he wants that, either.”

 

The lift stopped at Level Two and he gestured for me to exit ahead of him.

 

“You know…” He slowed us to a stop in the corridor not far from my office. The Department was quiet, as most were still at lunch. “For what this is worth to you, and it’s just a suggestion… The Wizengamot accepts proposals for new legislation endorsed by a Head of Office or higher. If that appeals to you, well, it might be worth looking into. And you could ask Dibble to endorse it or send it to the Head of Department. But Dibble would never take the initiative to set you the assignment or write it himself.”

 

“Wouldn’t that be a bit… controversial of me?”

 

He thought for a moment. “You’d have the protection of being backed by your Head of Office. It wouldn’t make you a rogue or an upstart. The people who will have a problem with it are those it affects. And I somehow doubt you were going to come out the other side of this best friends with Ollivander, anyway. Some people will talk, they always do when there are changes, but you know, you’re not banning wands, you’re just asking the wandsmiths to be accountable for what they sell. Besides, most people tend not to care about what’s happening with regulations and procedures; it bores them.”

 

“What makes you think Demetrius would ever entertain such a thing?”

 

“He wants the solution to this problem, his job depends on it. You just have to lead him to it, that’s how he is. If by chance he doesn’t like it, then that’s the end of it and no harm done for you — and you’ve still attempted something impressive, which I’m sure will surprise no one.”

 

I shook off the compliment. “Well, I don’t know anything about writing laws.”

 

“You’re in luck, neither did most of the people who wrote the current ones.” He nodded to a couple of Aurors passing by. “But, um… look, if it’s something you’d like to look into, or even if it’s not but you need Council or full Wizengamot approval for anything else you’re doing, Ron’s fiancee does a lot of work in front of them, and she’s authored legislation. Do you know Hermione Granger?”

 

I raised my eyebrows. “Heard of her, certainly.” Percy seemed to know everybody important. Hermione Granger’s reputation preceded her, and her doings tended to create a buzz of conversation in her wake. Not unlike Percy, she gave the appearance of being quite busy, focused, intense -- though I don’t think she was known to be quite as cross as him. I recalled seeing Ron and the woman in green robes in the Atrium, how I’d thought she’d looked familiar, and the information clicked.

 

“Well, if it would help at all, I could ask her to talk with you. She knows just about everything there is to know about the process.”

 

“If I know anything about her, it seems she’s got enough to do without having to mentor a perfect stranger.”

 

“She’d do it if she knew it were important to me. And, um…” His eyes flicked away for a moment before coming back to me. “She’s heard of you, too.”

 

I supposed that shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering I’d already introduced him to my own family and talked about him plenty — but damned if it didn’t feel good.

 

“Well, thank you.”

 

“My pleasure. Audrey?” he asked as I headed towards my office once more. I looked back at him. “You’ll let me know, won’t you? One way or the other?”

 

I did not entirely think we were still talking of wands.


 



Chapter 13: If It's a Saint You Want (Part 2)
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“Sure you wouldn’t like some toffee?”

 

Brian Lambert again offered me the tin at the conclusion of our chat, during which he’d assured me that he’d been unable to find signs of tampering with any of the backfiring wands (or fragments thereof) so far — and I, in turn, had assured him that my parents were doing wonderfully as always and I would be sure to pass along Brian’s greetings. The toffee looked delicious but I didn’t have much of a stomach for anything sweet at that moment.

 

“Oh — no. Thank you. I’m… watching my figure.” As a general rule, this was not particularly true, but it seemed politer to blame my abstention on myself rather than risk suggesting that the toffee was unacceptable.

 

“Good gracious. Hope somebody hasn’t put that sort of thought in your head!”

 

“No, not at all.” Nobody but society, for centuries.

 

“Ah, good. Wondered if that might have something to do with the fact your young man in the Improper Use office has been walking around like a dragon who’s been de-fired.” Whatever look came over my face at the mention of Percy, Brian seemed to notice it. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s good, now and then, for young ladies to remind their fellas who’s queen of the castle.”

 

I nodded as I rose from my seat and headed for the door. At the threshold, though, something made me stop and turn — a question that had been burning inside me ever since my talk with Percy, even since my heart to heart with Vivian, who could not answer it. One that could be answered by few people, as the cross section of those with the requisite knowledge and those I trusted was almost nonexistent. Dad was among the number, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to apprise him of the current state of affairs. I seized my chance to ask it while the other Inspectors were still out of the office.

 

“Brian, I wanted to ask you something — it’s terribly inappropriate for me to even bring you into this, but...”

 

“Oh, my pet. I came up in a time when appropriate was hardly a concept.”

 

I chewed my lip, my hand on the doorframe. “Did you work here during the… the time when You-Know-Who…” I couldn’t bring myself to look at him as I said it.

 

“I did,” he said in a measured voice, though his surprise was evident.

 

“And — and so… you would know about other people… who worked here and were part of it… or not part of it.” Never in my life had I had such a difficult time stringing words together into a sentence.

 

“Ah. We’re still talking about your young man, aren’t we?”

 

I nodded again and finally met his eyes, and in them I saw something like concern, maybe even pity.

 

He seemed to contemplate something before he spoke again. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a break for a minute or twenty. Would you humor an old man by joining him for coffee in the Atrium?”

 

I hadn’t been expecting that, but I agreed, wondering sincerely what Brian had to say to me that prompted him to extend the invitation.

 

I’d never had much cause to frequent the little coffee stand in the Atrium, confined to my office as I always was. The stand — where I’d seen Ron the previous week greeting his sweetheart — was tucked in a corner, and spread before it were a number of sticky metal tables and chairs that never had all four legs flat on the floor. About a quarter of said tables were occupied when we exited the lift, by employees and visitors chatting to each other or reading the newspaper.

 

Brian and I ordered our drinks from Benny, the ancient wizard who operated the coffee stand, before taking a seat on the edge of the fountain. The centerpiece of the Atrium, the fountain consisted of a huge bronze statue of a phoenix erupting from the water, with small spouts of water all around it. It was said that the intricately detailed phoenix had a feather for every death suffered as a result of both wars -- magical and Muggle, human and nonhuman. I’d never counted. But there were easily five hundred feathers on one wing alone.

 

A witch in sky blue robes sat on the opposite side of the fountain, reading a book while an enchanted crochet hook beside her produced an impressive afghan, and every once in a while people passed by, coming and going, but the babble of the fountain and the general chatter throughout the space seemed enough to afford us some privacy.

 

“What’s troubling you, love?”

 

Like a fish out of water, I gaped pointlessly, struggling for the best way to put it.

 

“Well, why don’t I start with this?” he amended. “Who was it who brought this up to you? Because they really shouldn’t be — ”

 

“He did. Percy. He told me.”

 

Brian raised his eyebrows and he chuckled under his breath. “Well. Better man than I would be.”

 

“Please, please don’t tell anyone I brought this up...”

 

At that, he raised his right hand as if taking an oath. “On my mother, God rest her.”

 

Not knowing where to start, I asked, after a moment's further hesitation, “What do you know about him?”

 

“Personally? Not much. Knew of him. Seen him around. Knew his dad, well enough as you can know anyone you work with. Good family.

 

“Driven sort,” he continued, musing. “Bossy, I suppose. But then, what’s the point of youth if you can’t flex your muscles a bit, y’know?”

 

A raucous group of wizards in the robes of Magical Games and Sports descended upon one of the tables, the chair legs scraping harshly against the floor as they took their seats.

 

“He’s not one of them,” Brian added abruptly after the din of metal screeching against the floor had quieted. “He wouldn’t be here if he was.”

 

“No, of course not. I know that. I just… he said he did— had to do whatever they asked. Around here, I mean. Said he served as court scribe for Muggleborn trials…”

 

“Yeah. I’ve no personal knowledge, but there was talk afterwards.” Brian stroked his salt-and-pepper moustache. “Have you ventured to think what would have happened to him if he’d refused?”

 

The answer was obvious and unavoidable. “He would have been sent to Azkaban.”

 

“Sure. If he were not fortunate enough to be killed outright, he’d have been sent to Azkaban.” Brian’s voice was quiet but there was a hardness there I’d never heard. “Or worse, I suppose. Turned out that whole family was connected with Harry Potter. I must confess I’m surprised any of them avoided being taken as some kind of bait. Can’t imagine it would have been difficult. And you don’t need to be unharmed to be bait — just alive.”

 

I did not like this line of conversation at all. Setting aside my coffee, I gripped the cold tile edge of the fountain on either side of me.

 

“I’m sorry to upset you.” His voice had softened again.

 

“No. You haven’t. And I’m sure I need to hear it.” I retrieved my coffee and pressed my hands around it, feeling my palms grow hot after the chill of the tile. “Starting to wish I had something a bit stronger to put in this coffee.”

 

“Ah, you should’ve said something. Got some in my desk.”

 

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

 

He watched me for a moment as if to make sure I wasn’t going to have a fainting spell. Then he continued. “You know, many of us here went about doing our jobs hardly any different than before. Inspecting cauldrons doesn’t change much no matter who your boss is. Course, it could have been the cauldron that was used to brew You-Know-Who’s beauty cream, what do I know? But I was fairly unimportant and was left well enough alone. And even so, I was terrified.

 

“We were all being watched, to some extent. We knew that. While we were here and maybe near our homes. There was no way to know, so you had to assume, and conduct yourself accordingly. But looking back on it, your young man, his surname, well… he’d have been a high priority for that sort of thing. I’d wager they’d have known how much sugar he put in his tea at home. If he went to Mass one day at ten instead of eight there’d be questions about why he was changing his routine.”

 

Percy had indeed said he’d known they were watching him. He’d told me of the threats, both express and implied, against not only his own life but those of his loved ones. He’d told me that, as much as he’d come to regret breaking with his family, after the coup he’d believed sincerely that contacting them or disobeying orders could be a death sentence for them all. Not that this appeared to bring him any peace.

 

“There was nothing noble about it, I know there wasn’t,” Percy had said to me during our talk. “Maybe I could convince myself I was protecting them, but at what cost? So many people died, or were imprisoned. Was it better that they were strangers and not my mum? Traded one set of lives for another, didn’t I? Selfish.” He’d said the word bluntly. “Weak.”

 

But even considering my conflicted feelings about the whole situation, I was having a hard time convincing myself that “selfish” or “weak” were words I’d be willing to apply to Percy Weasley.

 

Now wishing very much to get off the subject of speculating about Percy being threatened or harmed, I asked Brian, “Did you expect it to happen? The takeover. Did you see it coming?”

 

“Can’t say I did. Happened quiet like. But you could tell once it did happen. When I came to work that day… the air was different, you know? Radical changes in management. Everyone talked quieter, if they talked at all. You didn’t know who you could trust, so you kept to yourself if you were smart.” He scratched the tip of his nose and took a sip of his coffee.

 

I didn’t want to reveal anything else that Percy had told me in confidence. I felt bad enough that I’d told Vivi, but I’d had to talk it over with someone, and Vivi could be trusted to take secrets to the grave. What little I’d said to Brian so far had been, technically, public knowledge.

 

“It seems it did come as a surprise to just about everybody, even if they knew You-Know-Who was stirring something up,” I mused, hoping to come at the other issue obliquely. “Suppose it was a surprise to us all that the Ministry wasn’t more secure. I wonder, though. Did you ever meet anyone who didn’t actually believe it back when Harry Potter came out saying all those things?”

 

Brian gave a humorless little laugh and stared into his coffee, which he was drinking without a lid. “Met one? You’re looking at one.” He sighed. “By the look on your face, I’m guessing the Greene household had a different view. It doesn’t surprise me. Jack always did have a good instinct about things.”

 

“Do you… do you mind telling me why?”

 

He seemed to struggle for the explanation. “It just wasn’t conceivable. It was like saying up had become down.” He paused as we watched a couple of Aurors stroll by. “Dangerous, too. You start saying things like, ‘You-Know-Who’s back,’ and suddenly all the nutters who actually believe in the Dark Arts feel free to come crawling out of the woodwork. But I was proved wrong, obviously.”

 

He finished his coffee and magicked the empty cup into a bin near the coffee stand.

 

“I’m afraid I have to ask something of you now,” he said.

 

“What is it?”

 

He cleared his throat. “Please don’t mention what I just told you to anybody. Especially the fellows I supervise in Inspections. They never knew my personal thoughts on the matter, and I’d like to think they respect me, even just a bit.” He gave me a sad smile.

 

“I think they do,” I said earnestly. “And I do, too. And I won’t say a word.”

 

 

 


Alone at home that evening -- Vivi was working an extra shift -- I settled onto the sofa with dinner and a copy of Remy Wiseman’s European Wandlore. By this point the reading was more recreational than work-related.

 

Though I was certainly nowhere near to becoming an expert on wands, the lore was interesting -- at least, that which was available to read about. Wandmakers guarded their secrets scrupulously, but there’d grown a considerable body of knowledge -- certain truths about wand characteristics, behaviors that could be observed by any witch or wizard -- passed down over the centuries. For example, wands of yew buried with their owners had been known to sprout into trees guarding the witch or wizard’s grave. Hazel wands possessed the unique ability to detect underground sources of water. Laurel was said to issue a spontaneous lightning strike if anyone attempted to steal a laurel wand from its master.

 

And then there were a number of adages, just as old, which didn’t concern any verifiable phenomena, but which seemed to be taken just as seriously. I was familiar with the platitude, “Wand of elder, never prosper” (and had never met a person whose grandmother didn’t believe it wholeheartedly). But I learned a few more from the book, such as, “Rowan gossips, chestnut drones, ash is stubborn, hazel moans” (and was surprised I’d never heard that one from my own grandmother; it sounded like the sort of thing she’d say).

 

Despite my research having begun with wand cores, I found myself engrossed in the discussion of wand woods, which, in addition to explaining that certain wand woods were better suited to some forms of magic, also implied not-so-subtly that the type of wood was in some way connected with the attributes of the owner. Holly was believed to choose owners who were hotheads. Larch was reputed to instill confidence in its master. Poplar had a supposed affinity for those with strong morals, and it was rumored that no poplar wand had ever chosen a politician.

 

I had to confess myself thoroughly amused when my eyes fell on the proverb, “When his wand’s oak and hers is holly, then to marry would be folly,” and I flipped back to find the publication date of the book: 1919.

 

It seemed that the Swynn sisters had not been the first to theorize about romantic compatibility as foretold by wands.

 

Feeling like that was quite enough of that, I closed the book and took my empty plate to the kitchen to clean up. My miniature rose bush was displaying half a dozen soft coral blooms but had been fairly quiet lately. If you could describe a plant as quiet.

 

“Notice you haven’t been contributing to the discussion lately,” I observed aloud, feeling as daft as I knew I sounded. “You’ve nothing to say? Nothing at all?”

 

The plant kept its mouth shut.

 

Once I’d set the dishes to washing themselves, I studied my wand and amused myself with concocting my own inane wandlore.

 

Beech. Favored wand of quiet witches with soft, squishy tummies, who did everything they were supposed to. Who excelled at Potions and Transfiguration but barely passed their Defense NEWTs (and only because their Hit Wizard fathers, who were paranoid by trade, had insisted on them mastering the skill). Witches prone to overthinking and self-doubt.

 

The wand of witches who’d had to make difficult decisions before. Who turned down sweet boys like Bobby Price, my first boyfriend who’d never had a cross word for anyone but had earnestly wanted to get married at the far-too-young age of eighteen. Witches who did not regret that decision at all -- who, perhaps, should trust their own judgment more often.

 

I’d spent nearly two weeks turning over the conversation with Percy in my mind, and it seemed I kept coming back to the same conclusions. I had not turned down a naive life in Whaley Bridge years ago just so I could grow up to be someone who ran from imperfection and complications — just so I could judge someone like Percy Weasley from the safety of my own little existence, where even in my wildest dreams I’d never found myself in situations remotely like what he’d been in — just so I could allow myself to make decisions out of fear, particularly vague fears I’d invented to distract myself from what I really wanted.

 

Percy had a past, but I knew him in the here and now. And what I knew at the present time was an inescapable truth that had presented itself to me over and over again.

 

“He expected me to reject him,” I commented abruptly, looking at the rose bush. “He does expect me to reject him.”

 

He knew he’d made mistakes, and it seemed the understatement of the century to say that he regretted them. But more than that, he’d laid them out before my eyes and shown me the exit, if I wanted it. And I knew instinctively that if I took that opportunity, he would neither complain nor try to stop me.

 

Two of the coral roses furled and unfurled again into blooms of yellow with red tips.

 

“No. I don’t think I do want the exit.”

 

One more blinked itself into a white blossom.

 

“He is a good person,” I agreed.

 

Beech. Preferred wand of witches who liked wizards with sharp minds, an interesting mixture of dignity and insecurity, and -- I’d wager -- extraordinarily high blood pressure.

 

My mind wandered, until the little plant chose the most inopportune time to break out in a dozen roses that were a curiously familiar shade of red-orange.

 

“How rude,” I protested. “I am not turned on by him bossing people around.”

 

Beech. The wand of witches who loved wizards who were not saints.

 

 

 


I determined that I would talk to him after work the following day, but once there it felt like the end of the day would never come. Time crawled like treacle, and even though nearly two weeks had already passed since Percy had opened up to me, somehow the remaining few hours felt unbearable. I wondered whether I was even worth this sort of wait for an answer.

 

At a quarter to two, I heard the familiar hurried pace in the corridor outside, the quick, dull clop of leather soles against tile. I jotted a note on a piece of parchment, folded it, and sent it flying after him when I saw the back of his hair pass by the M.E.C. door.

 

Yes, the note said, I think I will have you.

 

The rhythm of leather against tile stopped, and it seemed like a full minute before it resumed down the corridor.

 

He came to see me after everybody else had gone home for the day; I’d been tidying my desk, preparing to leave with the very same intention of going to see him. In his fingers he held my note. Holding it up in reference, he spoke, incredulous:

 

“Not that I want you to change your mind, but… dare I ask why?”

 

“Because you’re the sort of person to even ask that question.”

 

I saw the familiar lift of his eyebrow, the little twist of his mouth that indicated he found something amusing and had something to say about it. “That’s a bit circular, isn’t it? You didn’t know when you wrote this that I would ask you that.”

 

He never stopped thinking; it was as if he couldn’t.

 

I rose from my chair and approached him silently. I stood so close to him that I imagined I could smell what lingered of his aftershave, and I placed my palm over the center of his chest. It felt so nice to touch him again.

 

“Then I suppose it’s because I believe this still works.”

 

His face was solemn, almost stunned. “Yes,” he replied quietly, “I think maybe it does.”

 

Covering my hand with his, he raised it to his mouth and kissed the backs of my fingers before wrapping me in a hug that felt more intimate than any kiss I’d ever had in my life. He said nothing as he buried his face in the curve of my neck, just hugged me. I took this opportunity to run my fingers up through the hair above the nape of his neck.

 

“I feel bad,” I whispered after a few moments of this.

 

“Why?”

 

“I missed your birthday.”

 

He laughed against my neck. “You wished me happy birthday last week when you saw me.”

 

“Yes, but I didn’t get you anything.”

 

“That’s okay. Prat tax.” He squeezed me more tightly. “But it might be a good time to tell you that my parents are having my party a bit late, anyway. This weekend, for my sister and me. She’s August, as well.”

 

“That sounds nice. But I can’t say I like waiting that long to spend time with you.”

 

After a pause, he said, “Hear that?”

 

“No, what is it?”

 

“It’s the sound of my schedule clearing up for the rest of the week.”

 

 

 


My sister had given me a lot of advice over the course of my life -- most of it sound, some questionable, but all of it from a place of love. Once, when I was sixteen (and still a couple of years away from any intention of putting such advice into practice), Vivi had said to me, “Don’t sleep with anybody who isn’t completely grateful for the opportunity.”

 

I’d never known exactly what to make of that. Sometimes it struck me as cynical, an invitation for a power struggle where it didn’t belong, the same way Darcy liked to say that it was better to date a bloke who’s more into you than you are him.

 

Other times it just seemed unrealistic. It was all well and good for Vivi -- who’d always seemed to draw everyone’s notice and have plenty of options -- to say such a thing (even if she didn’t actually take her own advice half the time); but I wasn’t winning any popularity contests or beauty pageants anytime soon. Ultimately I’d adhered more to the “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do” standard (also, to her credit, Vivi’s sisterly advice), which seemed eminently more attainable and a lot less murky.

 

Anyway, how could you tell who was really grateful and who wasn’t? Just about everybody seemed happy at the moment they were falling into bed with someone, didn’t they?

 

But if you’d asked me, when I went home with Percy after work that next day, I’d have had to admit that he made me believe -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- that he saw nothing else in the world besides me.

 

Later that night, I lay propped on my elbow, entertaining myself with running my fingers through his hair, fluffing it up and making it lay flat again, and all manner of silly things. Eyes closed, he was tolerating this nonsense with good humor.

 

“You’re so fascinated by my hair,” he observed with a trace of amusement, his voice low and languid.

 

“I am,” I admitted. “It’s lovely.”

 

He scoffed. “I hate my hair.”

 

“I’ll thank you not to talk that way about my fella.”

 

Even with his face half buried in the pillow, I could see him beam. After a pause, he ventured, “You’ll be scandalized to know I tried to do it brown once.”

 

“That is a scandal. How dare you.”

 

“Don’t worry. It looked ridiculous. Apparently my face is only suited to being ginger.”

 

“It’s very well suited.”

 

“All this flattery is going to make me arrogant.” He drew me to him, my back against his chest.

 

“Well, charming people often can be.”

 

He let out a delighted sort of laugh as he swept my hair to the side. “What an outrageous thing to say! I’ve never been accused of being charming in my life.”

 

Then he proceeded to commit the entirely uncharming act of kissing down my neck and across my shoulder, before I turned my head and kissed him back, soft and unhurried. When at last he pulled away, he studied my face for a moment, brushing his fingers across my cheek to catch a length of my hair, letting it trail languorously through his fingertips.

 

“What is it?” I couldn’t stop myself asking, feeling irrationally self-conscious at the close attention being paid.

 

He shook his head. “Just happy, is all.”

 

“Me, too.”

 

After a final kiss on my temple, and after reaching for his wand to turn out the light, he nestled his face in the curve of my neck, lacing his fingers with mine. I heard his breathing grow progressively slower and more even.

 

Then, as so often happens when one is trying to sleep, a ridiculous thought popped into my mind. And being in a dozy, recently-pleasured stupor as I was, it seemed like a good idea to entertain it.

 

“Percy?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“What’s your wand made of?”

 

“What?” Though drowsy, he managed to sound bewildered.

 

“Just curious.”

 

His voice was thick and somewhat muffled against my skin. “Elm. Dragon heartstring.” He yawned. “Stubborn. Why?”

 

“No reason.”

 

“Oh. ‘Tsnot going to explode, is it?”

 

I chuckled. “No.”

 

“Good...” Snore.

 

I thought of Ina Swynn and her look of cool certainty.

 


 

Author's note:

All of the information about wandlore in this chapter -- wand woods' unique properties/abilities, wand proverbs, wands' connections with their owners temperaments -- are from an article by JKR on Wand Woods posted on the Wizarding World site (formerly Pottermore).

 

Except for Audrey's own made-up lore about her beech wand, and the author and title of the book she's reading -- those are mine!



Chapter 14: Love and Laughter
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“Maybe we should just stay here today,” remarked Percy when Sunday morning came around.

 

I was presently using his stomach as a pillow and felt tempted to agree, but someone needed to be the voice of reason.

 

“It’s your birthday, you can’t miss your own party.”

 

“Hardly seems reasonable.”

 

I looked up at him. “Come on, it can’t be that bad.”

 

“You’ll give them so much more credit after you meet them.”

 

“Will everyone be there? Well, except for Charlie, I suppose?” Percy had previously told me that his brother Charlie was working with dragons in China.

 

“I had thought so, but Bill and Fleur are on holiday in Mauritius. Bill’s very upset he won’t be there to meet you, by the way, but he said it was already planned. I’m sorry, as well. I think you’ll like him when you do meet him. And I know he’ll like you.”

 

“What about Charlie?” I had always got the impression that Percy cared a great deal about his elder brothers’ opinions especially.

 

Percy made a show of placing his fingers against my neck as if to feel for a pulse. Apparently satisfied after a couple seconds of this, he said, “Yes, you’d like Charlie.”

 

Laughing, I swatted his hand away. “No, would he like me?”

 

“Of course, he would. And, just so you know, whenever you do meet him, he’ll flirt shamelessly with you just to try to annoy me.”

 

That was interesting. I couldn’t resist. “Would it annoy you?” I asked coyly.

 

A moment’s silence followed, during which he appeared to be thinking. Finally, he said, “I’m certain there’s a correct answer to be given here, but I don’t know which it is, so I’m keeping my mouth shut.”

 

“Oh, you will do nicely,” I flirted. Then we did not leave the bed for nearly another hour.

 

When the time to go finally rolled around and we stood before Percy’s fireplace, it was my turn to hesitate.

 

“You’re sure this dress is all right?” I’d spent far more time than I’d care to admit to anyone picking it out the previous day. Vivian had watched patiently -- or at least done a very good job pretending -- as I’d tried on nearly the entire contents of my wardrobe to find something modest but not fussy, casual but not frumpy, presentable but not pretentious.

 

“It’s perfect,” he assured me, kissing my hand. “You’re perfect.”

 

The first thing I heard after we stepped into the cozy, bright, slightly cluttered sitting room of his parents’ home, was the pleasant mezzo voice of a young woman: “Let’s see who’s here now!”

 

I recognized Percy’s sister Ginny from her photos as she entered the room carrying a little girl with plaited strawberry blonde hair who couldn’t have been much older than two.

 

“Oh, it’s Uncle Percy! Yes, it is! And he’s got a friend with him, let’s go say hi! Come here, you,” she added to Percy, and he obliged by leaning over so she could peck him on the cheek. “Here, Victoire, say hi. My arms are killing me. She’s got this thing about wanting to be held all the time.” With that, she unceremoniously passed the little girl off to Percy, shook out her arms a bit, then turned to me and extended her hand with a vibrant smile. “You must be Audrey! I’ve heard so much about you! I’m Ginny, I’ll be the normal one.”

 

The child named Victoire had taken this all in stride and threw her arms about Percy’s neck. “Hello,” he said with an awkward smile, patting her on the head. “When did you get so big?” He then pried her gently off of him and set her on the ground. I suppressed a laugh as I said hello to Ginny and wished her a happy belated birthday.

 

Ginny let out a little snort as she noticed Percy’s uncertainty at how to entertain a toddler. “Well, that was short-lived.”

 

“I see this is not meant to be an easy afternoon for me,” he remarked.

 

“You have no idea. Ron and George have had weeks to prepare.”

 

“But wait.” He glanced down at his niece. “I thought Bill and Fleur were in Mauritius.”

 

“They are.” Ginny tucked her long red hair behind her ear. “How romantic is a holiday supposed to be with a toddler? Celebrating their anniversary,” she explained to me before directing her comments once again to Percy. “And especially if Bill takes that job in Peru, they won’t exactly be able to drop her with Mum whenever they want time alone, so I suppose this could be their last chance for a while. Anyway, come in, Mum’s been asking after you.”

 

“Mum’s been -- ” Percy looked at his watch. “I’m two minutes early.”

 

“Yes, and?” Ginny rolled her eyes and explained to me in a confidential tone, “Percy’s the favorite, you ought to know.”

 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed. “Favorite’s obviously Bill, isn’t it?”

 

“Well, Bill’s on holiday, so you’ll have to do.” She started leading the way out of the room. “Audrey, let’s get you a drink. Or five.”

 

Percy looked somewhat helplessly down at Victoire, who was tugging at the leg of his jeans. “Uh, Gin?”

 

Ginny glanced over her shoulder with a little smile. “Oh, good lord. She doesn’t bite. Much.”

 

He attempted first to appeal to Victoire’s sense of reason. “Can’t move without my leg, you know.” The little girl just stared up at him as if that were not at all her problem. Then he extended his hand to her. “Compromise?”

 

But that, apparently, was unsatisfactory, and she held up her little arms in response and commanded politely, “Up, please.”

 

With a laugh, Percy relented, picking her up again and commenting, “You’ve made short work of me, haven’t you?”

 

His obvious awkwardness notwithstanding, to my eyes it was not at all an unpleasant image. Hoping my face wasn’t betraying my absurd thoughts, I accepted his outstretched hand as he shifted Victoire into one arm, and allowed him to lead me through to what served as a kitchen and a dining room. A woman with fading copper hair looked up from the act of squeezing a platter of food onto the already full table.

 

“Hi, Mum.”

 

“Percy, dear, there you are!” She wrapped him in an earnest hug, kissing his cheek, and when she let go, her eyes flicked between him and me expectantly. I drew a breath.

 

I supposed I had no good reason to be worried -- Percy had done nothing but speak well of his parents and how welcoming they were, and had assured me they’d love me -- but I was still a bundle of nerves. There’s nothing quite like the swift, appraising look a woman can give you when she’s trying to decide whether you’re fit for her son, and Mrs. Weasley -- though her face was kind -- was certainly giving it to me then. The last time I’d received this look was from the Baker family matriarch, whom I was fairly certain had decided the answer to that question in the negative (Nev’s family having been far more well-to-do than mine).

 

“Mum,” he said, putting his hand on the small of my back, “this is Audrey.”

 

“Hello,” I began in a voice smaller than I wished, “it’s so nice to meet you. Thank you for having me.”

 

“Molly,” she said by way of introduction, taking my proffered hand in her warm one. “It’s lovely to meet you, dear. You’re very welcome. I’ve heard so many nice things about you.”

 

I threw Percy a look. “Oh, you’ve been exaggerating.”

 

“I don’t exaggerate.” He glanced towards the door that led to the garden behind the house. “Dad!” He waved. Then he turned his attention back to his sister, imploring, “Ginny, can you…” He motioned with his eyes to Victoire.

 

“Oh, fine.” Plucking her niece from Percy’s arms, she stage-whispered, “Uncle George has sweeties. But you have to keep bothering him until he gives them to you.” When Victoire ran, wide-eyed, out the door to the garden, Ginny turned to me and asked, “Beer or wine?”

 

“Oh -- wine, I think. Thank you.” But I was distracted by the arrival of Percy’s father.

 

Once we’d been introduced -- Mr. Weasley protesting that I must call him Arthur -- Percy offered, “Audrey’s dad worked for the Ministry, as well. Same time as you.”

 

“Oh, really? What’s his name?”

 

“Jack Greene,” I replied. “He was a Hit Wizard.”

 

Arthur appeared to think for a moment. “Tall, sturdy chap?”

 

“Huge,” muttered Percy with some chagrin, and I suppressed a laugh.

 

“Blond,” continued Arthur. “Geordie?”

 

Dad had, in fact, grown up near Newcastle.

 

“That’s right!” I said, accepting a glass of wine from Ginny. “Though, not quite so blond anymore, more gray.”

 

“Well, aren’t we all?” replied Arthur pleasantly, passing a hand over his own hair, which, like his wife’s, was actually threatening to turn strawberry blond -- a lovely characteristic of aging red hair, in my opinion. “I do remember Jack, wonderful man. His partner for many years, in the 70’s and 80’s, I believe, was…” He trailed off, thinking, before turning to his wife. “Molly. Jack Greene. Hit Wizard. His partner, was it Malcolm…?”

 

“I think you’d mentioned him running ‘round with Benwick, dear. Broderick’s brother.”

 

“Yes! Benwick. Benwick Bode.”

 

“That does sound familiar,” I agreed. “I have heard him talk of Mr. Bode.”

 

“Marvelous,” he said earnestly. “Jack Greene’s daughter. How funny these things turn out. Your dad’s a very amusing man. Never did get much work done when he was around. What’s he doing now?”

 

I told them about Dad’s nursery business, which then led to a conversation about what Mum and Vivian did, until I noticed Mrs. Weasley clearing an empty plate from the table and sending it to the kitchen sink for washing.

 

“Oh, Mrs. Weasley, I’m sorry, what can I do to help? You seem to be doing so much.”

 

“Please, dear, ‘Molly’ will do. And thank you, but nothing, I’m almost finished anyway. And as a matter of fact -- Arthur, you should allow Percy to go introduce her to George and Angelina. They’re outside,” she added, looking to Percy. “We’re still waiting for Ron and Hermione. And Harry.”

 

Percy threw Ginny a questioning look, to which she responded, “Harry and Ron worked until about five in the morning. Doing God knows what. I told Harry to come along whenever he wakes up.” With that, she picked up a plate of mini sausage rolls and led the way through the door to the garden, where a couple were seated at one end of a long table, talking and observing Victoire as she sang to herself and scavenged for tiny flowers in the grass.

 

As we approached, the young man -- also, of course, a redhead -- threw his arms out wide. “H.B.!” he called with a Cheshire cat grin.

 

I glanced at Percy, who simply shook his head and said, “Just something stupid.”

 

George and Angelina rose to greet us. George, clad in a striped rugby shirt with the sleeves pushed up to the elbow, was much shorter and stockier than Percy, and his wife Angelina was quite tall, with the unmistakable physique of an athlete.

 

Once the introductions were made and everyone sat, Angelina said to me, “I understand you work for the Ministry as well?”

 

Responding in the affirmative, I explained that I worked for Magical Equipment Control, nothing too exciting, when Percy offered, “She’s being modest. Have you read about the exploding wand situation?”

 

“I have. It’s completely bizarre. Are you working on that?” Angelina asked me.

 

“I am, yes, and that is interesting, actually, but I’m afraid it’s the exception to the rule in M.E.C. Most of the time it’s evaluating, you know, new products and imports, making sure they’re up to spec before they go on the market -- everything from cauldrons to telescopes. And then we also receive the product complaints if they do fail.”

 

“Cauldron thickness and so forth,” observed George. He had an interesting manner about him, easygoing and charismatic as Percy had described him, but with something shrewd and mischievous in his tone as well.

 

“Yes, exactly, sometimes,” I replied, and crinkles formed at the corners of George’s eyes as he glanced at Percy, who was sitting next to me.

 

“That’s so funny, actually, because when Percy here was seventeen -- ” He was stopped short by a light whack on his upper arm from Angelina, and he threw her a look reminiscent of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

 

“Oh, I don’t think I can let that one go,” I said keenly. “When Percy was seventeen, what?”

 

But it was Percy who responded, rather than George. “When Percy was seventeen, he had a big mouth and talked about all sorts of poncy, uninteresting things.” Arms crossed easily, he asked George, “Does that sound accurate?”

 

“Yeah, but it’s so much more colorful when I say it.” George grabbed a couple of sausage rolls and popped one into his mouth as Angelina inquired further into the exploding wand situation.

 

As the conversation continued, turning eventually from my work to the subject of Ginny’s and Angelina’s recent Quidditch matches -- Angelina, I learned, also played professionally, for Falmouth -- Percy rested his arm on the back of my chair, playing with my hair absently. Victoire, who’d been amusing herself with chasing gnomes and tumbling about in the grass, finally decided to join our group, sidling up between Angelina and me, as Angelina was concluding a lively rant about another team’s Beaters.

 

“Hello,” I said when I noticed her there.

 

Victoire managed a shy “Hi” as she picked a piece of grass out of her disheveled hair.

 

“Oh, your plait’s come undone,” I noticed quietly, so as not to interrupt Ginny’s response to Angelina; Victoire’s bobble was clinging to a few strands of hair, threatening to fall off. “Would you like me to fix it for you?” When she nodded, I allowed her to stand in front of my chair as I ran my fingers through her soft hair to sort out any tangles and bits of grass. Percy’s fingers had paused in their attention to my own hair.

 

When I’d finished plaiting Victoire’s hair, I patted her on the arm. “All finished.” Percy silently took my hand as Victoire turned her attention to trying to grab Angelina’s wand; finding herself thwarted in that endeavor, she skipped around the table and clambered onto George’s lap.

 

“She likes you, I see,” I commented to George during a break in the conversation. He was obligingly entertaining his niece by conjuring wispy figures of animals from his wand. Victoire giggled and grasped at them as they ran to and fro on the table top.

 

“Yes, but don’t say that too loudly,” he replied, peering around in the direction of the house as if to check for anybody coming. He looked at Percy and Ginny. “Mum’s been relentless. And it’s only going to get worse if this lot move to Peru.” He gestured to Victoire as he said it.

 

“What are you talking about?” asked Percy.

 

“Oh, you know, apparently when you get married -- and nobody told me this, by the way -- when you get married, Mum takes that as her cue to start inquiring into your bedroom activities -- ”

 

“Oh, Jesus, really.” Percy placed his face in his free hand, a note of horror in his voice, as Ginny let out a bewildered laugh.

 

“Well,” George let out a good-natured laugh of his own, “let’s leave him out of this, all right, Mum’s bad enough.”

 

“Should have known better than to ask,” Percy lamented into his hand.

 

“George, stop trying to make it into something crass.” Angelina rolled her eyes but seemed to be repressing a smile.

 

“What?” he challenged. “That’s exactly what it is. Try to tell me that’s not exactly what’s going on when Mum asks us when we’re having kids. I swear. She’s so concerned about it. You’d think we were humanity’s last hope.” He was shaking with mirth.

 

“What a terrible thought,” remarked Ginny.

 

“It’s seriously every week,” continued George. With that, he affected a falsetto imitation of his mother. “When are you having kids? Now? How about tomorrow? No? Well, how about the day after? And then you say, ‘Hey, Mum, let’s cool it,’ and a week later she’s back at it: All right, how about now? Are you having kids today?” He placed his hands over Victoire’s ears, continuing seamlessly, “Are you shagging right this second? I’m about to give her our schedule so she’ll shut up.”

 

Percy looked to be screaming internally, staring daggers at his brother. But I did not have it in myself to find George off-putting. And having a mum who tended to be a little too much in one’s personal life at times was something I could relate to.

 

“Well,” I offered, “at least your mum waited until you were married to start bothering you about kids. I think my mum was willing to forego that step entirely for my sister and me. Wouldn’t have put it past her to trot us out in the lonely hearts column -- you know,” I explained, “they’re personal advertisements in Muggle newspapers, people looking for someone to date or whatnot.”

 

George raised his eyebrows. “Hang on. You mean to tell me you could have specially ordered someone and instead you wound up with him?” He grinned at Percy.

 

“It’s a funny story, really,” I mused. “He followed me home one day and I thought he was cute and decided to keep him.”

 

Though flushed, Percy wore a look that I could almost have described as smug.

 

 

 

A short while later, I had excused myself for the loo and asked everyone whether I could get them anything while I was up. When I’d finished up in the house and meant to return to the garden, I saw that Percy’s brother Ron had arrived with someone I assumed must be Hermione, though she looked different than I’d seen her around the Ministry. At work she wore her hair sleek, businesslike, polished. Intimidating, somehow. But that day, her hair was a mass of frizzy waves. I could hardly blame her for not wanting to waste weekend hours on exhausting beauty rituals.

 

Ron’s eyes met mine in a silent, awkward acknowledgment of the fact that we knew each other but didn’t exactly know each other.

 

I extended my hand. “I’m sorry, we’ve seen each other so many times but never said hello. Audrey.”

 

“Hi. Ron,” he replied, shaking my hand. Though not unkind, his manner was short, lacking George’s charisma or Percy’s polish. He inclined his head towards Hermione, but she stepped forward eagerly and introduced herself.

 

“I’m Hermione. I’ve heard so much about you.”

 

“Oh, dear. I don’t think I like having so much to live up to.”

 

She waved this away. “Percy’s told me everything you’re working on. We should talk!”

 

“Oh, yes, he’s told me about you, as well. Not that he really needed to; you’ve made quite a name for yourself.”

 

She blushed a bit. “Which years were you at Hogwarts? I’m sure I must have seen you -- ”

 

“I wasn’t; my sister and I were homeschooled. My mum managed our Muggle secondary education, and my Nan, my dad’s mum, managed our magical education.”

 

Percy’s dad was next to us at that moment, as his mum was now saying something to Ron, and I’d begun directing my comments to both Arthur and Hermione.

 

“Which year would you have started at Hogwarts, had you gone?” asked Arthur. “The year you turned eleven.”

 

“Would have been...1989.”

 

“Oh, wonderful, same as the twins. So, how was it at your house growing up? Did your family mainly use magic, or Muggle technology, or both?”

 

“A good mix of both, I’d say. I suppose we could have done away with a lot of Muggle appliances, but I think Mum would have felt odd about it. And my mum’s a better cook than my dad, so if we’d relied entirely on magic I think we all would’ve starved.”

 

“Well, I think that’s wonderful. I’ve always thought there was really such an appalling lack of knowledge or interest in Muggle technology in our community, but it’s always been that way. Maybe your generation will be the one to change it finally.”

 

I had a very pleasant conversation with him about Muggle life, until Percy popped into the house. “Oh, there you are.”

 

“Sorry, we were just talking.”

 

“Not at all. Here -- ” He took the empty wine glass I’d been twisting in my hand and went to fill it.

 

As Percy was procuring more drinks for us, Ron sneaked up behind him and reached past him to grab a drink for himself. With his other hand, he flicked Percy’s shirt collar. “Missed the very top button there, H.B.”

 

Percy swatted Ron’s hand away. “Get out of it.” But his hand moved in an automatic fashion to his collar and began fastening the button -- until he glanced down, as if surprised to find his fingers acting of their own accord, and undid the button again with an exasperated sigh.

 

“Well,” ventured Molly, “I suppose we should go ahead with lunch, and poor Harry can join us when he gets here.” She went to call the others inside.

 

“‘Poor Harry.’” Ron rolled his eyes. “If he’s not here in an hour, I’m going over to wake him up. With George’s fireworks.”

Percy and I were the first to sit down outside with our lunch, and he threw me a long, knowing sort of glance before raising his eyes skyward, his lips pursed in a familiar way. I knew that look.

 

"I can tell you want to say something, so spit it out."

 

Sighing resignedly, he gave me a wry little smile. "He's gone and done it, hasn't he? My dad. Talked to you about plugs.”

 

“Absolutely, he did. But I was surprised he didn’t know about laptop computer chargers. I told him I’d show him one the next time I see him.”

 

He stared at me for a moment, one of those occasions when I couldn’t actually work out what he was thinking, but it must have been something good because he leaned over and kissed me.

 

“Oi, trying to eat,” protested Ron as he arrived and took a seat across from us.

 

 

 

After most everyone had finished eating lunch, Percy joined me in insistently helping to clear the table and start the dishes, until Molly practically ordered him to make me stop doing any work. When we’d rejoined the group outside, Ginny was heatedly responding to something as George suppressed laughter.

 

“ -- If I get one more anonymous delivery of socks, I swear. I know it’s you or Charlie sending them.”

 

Ron snickered, and George must have noticed the confused look on my face, because he leaned towards me and explained in a stage whisper, “Talking about the wedding. Ginny’s got cold feet.”

 

“Shove off! My feet are perfectly warm -- ”

 

“Because of the socks,” offered Ron, who was pestering Hermione by picking up sections of her hair, holding them aloft before allowing the strands to float back down and rest lightly atop the fluffy mass that was the rest of it.

 

“-- it’s just this wedding’s going to be a press nightmare, neither of us wants that.”

 

“You know,” said Arthur thoughtfully, “you should evade legions of prying eyes.” He wore a knowing smile as he leaned back in his chair, staring up at the sky.

 

Ginny threw him a look that I was fairly certain I’d given my own dad two hundred times over the course of my life. “What are you on about, Dad?” Arthur just laced his fingers behind his head and looked sure of himself.

 

Comprehension dawned on Percy’s face. “I think Dad’s right,” he said. “You should edit lots of personal essays.”

 

“Exactly,” replied Arthur. “Encourage leaving out people entirely.”

 

Percy laughed, but Ginny did not look amused at whatever this game was.

 

“Oh, I see,” said Angelina. “Yes. Ginny, educate lorikeets on practical economics. Could be a good idea.”

 

Ron’s brow furrowed. “Are you all spelling out ‘elope’?”

 

All at once, George groaned, Angelina clapped her palm to her forehead, and Percy muttered, “Subtle as a Bludger…”

 

But the most pronounced response came from Molly, whom I, with my back to the house, had not realized was anywhere nearby.

 

“Nobody is eloping!” she chided, stalking up to us and pointing an accusing finger at each of her children. “Hear me? Nobody!” Ron held up his hands as though he were on the wrong end of an armed robbery.

 

“But you and Dad -- ” began Percy reasonably, until some look or action by his mum, which I did not see at that moment, prompted him to conclude that thought with, “Nevermind,” and close his mouth smartly. Arthur was still staring blithely up at the sky.

 

Apparently satisfied that nobody would be running off and getting married unceremoniously anytime soon, Molly informed Ginny that Harry had just arrived, and Ginny followed her mum back to the house.

 

Ron looked thoughtful. “So, if Harry does e-l-o-p-e -- ”

 

“You know Mum can spell, right?” interjected Percy.

 

Ron ignored him. “-- does he still get a stag do?” He looked to George, across whose face crept a wicked grin, paying no heed to Hermione’s “Oh, honestly...”

 

“I don’t see why not,” replied George. “We should ask the expert, though.” At that, both he and Ron turned their heads to stare at Percy. “Have you anything to say about stag parties?”

 

I could not miss the lovely color that crept over Percy’s face at that moment. Arthur seemed to consider this his cue to leave the group, taking Victoire with him.

 

To my amusement, however, Percy replied with a sly little smile, “I do not.” Then, leaning over to me, he added, “Don’t listen to a thing they say about George’s stag do, it’s all lies.”

 

“The hell it is!” countered George gleefully.

 

“And by the way,” Percy continued, “now you’re just getting lazy about it, aren’t you? Picking the low-hanging fruit.”

 

“You are the low-hanging fruit,” returned Ron.

 

“Oh, sorry, H.B.” George feigned amazement, an exaggerated tone to his voice. “Didn’t know you’d earned a NEWT in the fine art of Taking the Piss.”

 

A look of delighted astonishment on Percy’s face gave way to a very good chuckle, and everyone else started snickering as well, until it became one of those moments of contagious laughter where nobody within earshot stood a chance.

 

“Well, how many does that make, eleven?” ventured Angelina.

 

“Eleven?” Percy stopped chuckling long enough to answer. “Don’t insult me. Makes thirteen, thank you.”

 

George groaned.

 

Astonished and distracted, I couldn’t help myself. “Do you mean to tell me you got twelve NEWTs? How did I not know that? I didn’t even know that was possible.”

 

“Wait, wait.” George was beside himself now. “He didn’t lead with that?!”

 

“Oh, stop it,” protested Percy.

 

George buried his face in his hand with an infectious, high-pitched giggle ending in a snort, which only made it worse for everyone.

 

“What’s going on?” Harry Potter approached us, looking bemused.

 

“Talking about Percy’s thirteenth NEWT,” managed George, now pink in the face from laughter.

 

“Brilliant,” said Harry, clearly too late to join this particular party. “What’s this Ginny’s saying about you lot talking about eloping?”

 

Nobody is eloping!” ordered Molly from some distance, causing Percy, Ron, and George to utterly lose it. I could not recall having seen Percy laugh so hard in all the time I’d known him.

 

Harry seemed not to be terribly fazed by this, and he turned to me as I stifled my giggles and extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Harry.”

 

“Audrey. Nice to meet you.”

 

“You, too. I’m going to get something to eat, and then maybe this’ll be funnier when I come back.”

 

“I wouldn’t count on it,” said Angelina, fanning herself with her hand.

 

“Hey,” added George, “don’t say the E-word to Mum unless you want the cake thrown at you.”

 

Percy looked up. “Hey, that’s my cake. I definitely don’t want it thrown at anyone, thanks.”

 

The cake, as it turned out, did not get launched at Harry or at anyone else, and a good thing, too, because it was as delicious as the company. The afternoon passed in comfort and ease -- barring a little meltdown by Victoire when she became overtired -- and while I could see what Percy had meant about his family’s ability to be overwhelming at times, I found myself in no hurry to leave them. When Harry and Ginny were the first to say their goodbyes, I realized that the time had passed much more quickly than I ever could have anticipated.

 

“Ron, don’t forget,” called Harry, as if by afterthought, as he and Ginny began making their way to the house, “midnight.”

 

Ron let out a frustrated groan and replied, “If we have to spend one more night chasing this guy, I’m killing him or I’m killing you.” Harry waved this away with his hand, and I noticed Ron turn to Hermione and mouth, Sorry, followed by a look that made me avert my eyes for fear I was intruding on a very personal silent conversation. A moment later, Ron announced that they, too, were leaving, claiming he needed a few hours of beauty sleep.

 

“It doesn’t seem to be working, mate,” responded George.

 

“It’s not working because of Harry’s midnight missions. I was gorgeous when I was eleven.”

 

“I heard that,” shouted Harry before disappearing into the house.

 

As Ginny had done only moments before, Hermione gave me an enthusiastic hug. “You must call me,” she said; she and I had exchanged phone numbers that afternoon. “Or stop by at work anytime. And the next time Ginny and I do something, I’ll let you know.”

 

“That would be nice.”

 

Grinning, Hermione flung her arms around Percy while I accepted a careful, awkward hug from Ron.

 

“So,” ventured George when it was just the three of us in the garden, his parents and Angelina having stepped into the house earlier, “how long did it take Dad to start talking about plugs?”

 

Percy pondered his watch. “About an hour, maybe.”

 

Tsk. Losing his touch.”

 

“Yep. But get this, she told him about other plugs he doesn’t have yet.”

 

“Oh, no. Have to decide whether that cuts in your favor or against you,” George said to me with a wink.

 

“I’m afraid I also told him what I gave you for your birthday,” I mentioned to Percy. “So if he bothers you about that, it’s my fault.”

 

“What’d you give him?” asked George with a keen look.

 

I explained that I’d given him (as a belated gift) a few CD’s of Muggle artists Percy had grown to enjoy after time spent at my place listening to my radio or my own collection -- and, of course, something to play them on. In particular, Percy was absolutely enamored of my Coldplay album -- so it was perfect timing that they’d released their second album earlier that very same week.

 

George raised his eyebrows. “She’s got you listening to Muggle music?”

 

“It’s way better than our music, have you heard it?”

 

“What, do I live under a rock?” Then George addressed me once again, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Well, it’s settled. Anything happens between the two of you, we’re keeping you and getting rid of him.” With that, he slapped Percy on the arm and offered me a hug. “I’d better not keep Angie waiting. See you later, H.B. Let me know if you hear from Bill, yeah?”

 

As I watched George disappear into the house, I felt Percy’s eyes on me, and when I looked up at him the air between us felt impossibly thin.

 

Unnecessarily, as there was nobody around, he leaned over and murmured close to my ear, “That’s not the only glowing review you received today.” When he pulled back, he was looking at me in that way again, the one that made my heart feel fit to burst.

 

“Shall we say goodbye to my mum and dad and then...” He shrugged. “Had enough of me for one solid weekend?”

 

I shook my head. The truth was quite the opposite, and it was becoming ever more difficult not to come out and say so. But I continued to hesitate, because it was not something to be taken lightly, and it was definitely not something that could be taken back. I hesitated because he hadn’t said it, either -- and whether it was because he didn’t feel it or because he had the good sense to know it was still too early, I had no idea. I hesitated for fear of looking foolish.

 

The fact of the matter was, it was getting harder and harder not to tell him that I loved him, when he seemed to be giving me so many reasons to.

 


 



Chapter 15: When Business Is Also Personal
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Hermione Granger’s office was organization in theory and chaos in practice.

 

She had trays, dividers, and cabinets in abundance, but every inch of every surface seemed to be covered with stacks of parchment, as if the sheer volume of work -- or perhaps an inability to work on only one thing at a time -- made maintaining order an impracticable prospect. Every so often, parchments within various stacks seemed to rearrange themselves unbidden.

 

“Audrey, hi!” she exclaimed when I was shown into her office later in the week following Percy’s birthday party, before shifting her attention abruptly to my escort, an assistant in Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. “Oh! Magnus! Will you please return these to Archives before I forget again?” With a wave of her wand, three volumes unearthed themselves from underneath various piles of parchment and presented themselves neatly to Magnus. “And ask Marta about the status of my request from last Friday?”

 

“Right you are,” replied Magnus in a slightly bored tone before seeing himself out.

 

“Thank you!” she called after him before gesturing for me to sit.

 

Our perfectly lovely interactions at the party notwithstanding, I found myself intimidated once again, particularly without the relative security of the group setting and Percy’s facilitation. Fortunately for me, Hermione was one for getting down to business. She waved off my thanks for meeting with me and eagerly asked me to tell her everything about the wand issue.

 

“How much have you heard?” I asked.

 

“Only what I’ve read in the public notice of the issue. Percy didn’t add much except to say that you’re looking to involve the Wizengamot.”

 

“I’m not quite sure about that yet,” I cautioned. “Though I admit it’s beginning to seem unavoidable.”

 

“What have you done so far?” As she spoke, she absently straightened the stacks of books and parchment on her desk.

 

“Well, we’ve just demanded the wandmakers withdraw from sale all wands containing a unicorn hair core produced in the past ten years. At the moment, we’re trying to avoid a widespread public recall. Though really it just seems we’re delaying the inevitable. I put in an inquiry with your Department as to any noted issues with unicorn populations in the past ten years -- though, now I’m wondering whether I should amend it, go back further -- but there’s nothing. No diseases, no significant changes in the population. I mean, it’s also occurred to me that they could be sourcing the cores from outside Britain and Ireland, though I don’t know why they would. We’ve plenty of unicorns here, relative to the size of the wand-bearing population, and their hair is a renewable resource. I’d think sourcing the cores internationally would be an unnecessary cost.”

 

“And you’re certain the wands have only been produced within the past decade?”

 

“No, I’m not at all certain, that’s the problem. So far the exploding wands have all been purchased in the past eight years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s impossible to know how far back the problem goes without the wandmakers’ records.”

 

Her brow furrowed and she shuffled through a stack on her desk until she found a clean sheet of parchment, onto which she suddenly jotted a note, which she folded and sent flying out of her office.

 

“Just seeing if I can’t expedite things for you,” she explained. “I’ll have them send you information on known unicorn populations going back thirty years, just in case. You’ll get it much more quickly than if you’d requested the normal way.” She looked expectantly at me once more. “Anyway, now what will you do?”

 

“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said, feeling more than a bit ridiculous.

 

She raised her eyebrows. “But Percy said you had a lot of good ideas.”

 

“Well. He seems to be the only one interested in them.”

 

“Try me?” At that moment, an interdepartmental memo flew into her office and she caught it in midair and unfolded it. “I’m so sorry, I just want to see what this…” She trailed off as she scanned it, which was fine by me, as it allowed me a few seconds to gather my thoughts.

 

As I did, my eyes caught on a framed photograph behind her, in which Harry, holding what looked to be a bag of sweets, tossed one at Ron, who tried to catch it in his mouth but missed wretchedly and clapped a hand over his eye as they both fell into a fit of laughter. It was displayed with as much prominence as photographs of Hermione shaking hands with the Minister and presenting before the Council.

 

Ultimately, Hermione set aside the memo, remarking, “Not important.”

 

“The problem I keep running into,” I explained at last, “is the confidentiality afforded wandmakers and their records. I haven’t been able to find a way around it. It’s sacrosanct. It doesn’t matter what process we use to try to get at the information; it’s just going to end in them invoking that protection.”

 

“I’m sure you’re right. But humor me, what processes are available to you, if you were to try?”

 

“Well, either we ask the Council to initiate an investigation, and summon the wandmakers as part of the inquiry — that’s disfavored, I understand, unless other avenues are unavailable or have been exhausted.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Or else we initiate an enforcement action against each of the wandmakers for the faulty products. For the protection of the consumers. Typically, we should only do that if they’ve failed to take steps we’ve asked them to, to remedy the problem. So, for example, withdrawing affected products from sale, and replacing affected products already in the hands of consumers. If we really wanted to, we could try to initiate it based on what we have now, but they really ought to be given an opportunity to comply with our directives first. And as I’ve said, they’re only going to invoke their confidentiality anyway, so there’s no point jumping to it.”

 

“And you absolutely need the answers from the wandmakers?”

 

“Unless we want to recall every wand made with unicorn hair in the past decade, maybe longer, yes.”

 

“Might you end up doing that anyway, even if you continue to push the matter with the wandmakers?”

 

“Yes, it’s entirely possible. But it’s a superficial solution, isn’t it? Both because we don’t know how deep this problem goes, and because, well, what if a similar problem arises in the future?”

 

“You need a way to compel them to share information with you. Which requires changing the law.”

 

“That’s exactly it, as much as I’d like to avoid it.”

 

When she gave me a quizzical look, I elaborated, “My Head of Office isn’t keen on the idea. He doesn’t want to make any difficult decisions, really. But Percy seems to think that if I prepare a good proposal, it might persuade him. Make him come to terms that there are no other options. But as you can imagine, this is unfamiliar territory for me.”

 

I hesitated before adding, “And quite uncomfortable, if I’m honest. I don’t fancy being in this position. I never expected I would be. I don’t know that I’m at all qualified to be the one addressing this problem. I’m concerned that I’m meddling with something I ought not to be. But… I feel there’s literally no way for me to do my job otherwise. It feels like a dead end.”

 

Hermione sighed. “The people who see to the day-to-day operations in the Ministry are in the best position to see the issues that need changing, but rarely do you have the real tools to do it. It’s why so many of our laws on the books are completely haphazard. This isn’t the first time I’ve said this, but I don’t understand why we don’t have proper lawyers. Well, I mean aside from wizard solicitors, but you know...”

 

“Yes. No government lawyers to speak of, no real barristers. Nothing like the Muggles’ Office of Parliamentary Counsel.”

 

She nodded eagerly. “Yes! I’d like to address it, personally, but there’s so much else to do first, and I get enough resistance as it is. The Wizengamot can still be very conservative -- ”

 

Another interdepartmental memo soared into her office and flapped around her head erratically as she grasped at it.

 

“Are you serious?” she protested under her breath, finally snatching it from the air and unsealing it. It was addressed on the back in an untidy hand.

 

She scanned it quickly, turned a bit pink, then deposited it into her top desk drawer with a muttered, “Stupid...” (but she looked fairly pleased, if I were being honest).

 

“Can you ask for the project to be handled by somebody else in your office?” she asked. “Although, personally, I think you should hang onto it, it could be quite significant for you.”

 

“Oh, I’m… not quite so concerned about that. But everybody else in my office seems content to wring their hands for a minute but then do nothing.”

 

“I think Wring Our Hands and Do Nothing has been the Ministry’s motto for decades, if not centuries.”

 

I let out a laugh. I struggled to put my finger on what, exactly, it was about Hermione that I found so imposing -- even after having seen her in jeans and frizzy hair the prior weekend, leaning back easily against her fiance and rolling her eyes at just about everything Ron, Harry, and George said -- but nevertheless, she was. While she was younger even than me, she spoke with the authority of someone who not only knew just about everything, but also knew she knew it.

 

And yet, even while this made her intimidating, in a way it made her such a relief to talk to -- not unlike Percy, really. Her manner inspired confidence.

 

“The Wizengamot’s quite resistant to change,” she continued. “It just seems to be built into them. That’s not to say they won’t do it, but they’re going to want to see that you’ve explored every possibility and this is the only way. They typically want any changes to be as minor as possible -- which isn’t to say you ought not seek more significant changes, but they’ll push back against it when they question you -- ”

 

“When they what?”

 

“When you present your proposal before them.”

 

“Oh, God.” I put my face in my hand.

 

“Well… you can have your Head of Office do it; it’s actually his prerogative to take the lead on it since he’ll have to endorse it.”

 

“Right,” I muttered. “I definitely see Demetrius doing that…”

 

“Well, we’ll talk more about that later. The wandmakers will have to be given an opportunity to be heard before the Wizengamot to oppose the amendments. And then… the proponent. Meaning you, or somebody from your office. You can, I suppose, submit it without speaking before them, but you might as well not even bother at that point.”

 

My face was frozen in what I could only imagine looked like abject terror. 

 

“If you’d like,” she added, “I’ll take you with me to the hearing chambers the next time I present to them. It’s not all that bad, really.”

 

I kept my mouth shut and wondered whether the Department of Magical Transportation would be interested in taking me back.

 

“I’m going to give you…” She trailed off as she searched under the stacks of parchment on her desk, until she located a quill, tapping it with her finger and snapping at it. The quill jumped to life and began jotting notes. “I’m going to find you some samples of legislation I’ve written recently, and if I come across any precedent for what you’re doing, I’ll send it to you. At some point I should introduce you to Marta in Archives -- you’ll get what you need so much more quickly if you talk to her directly, and if she knows I’ve sent you, she’ll help you -- ”

 

“You really seem entirely too busy to be doing any of this for me,” I insisted, but she waved this away.

 

“One, the existing laws are unreasonable and seem to be actively hindering public safety. Two, Ron’s wand is made with unicorn tail, and it would really be just like him to have some part of himself exploded before our wedding. And three…” She paused and drew a little breath, looking me directly in the eye as she concluded, “Percy’s really happy.”

 

 

 

 

“I was starting to think you’d been avoiding me.”

 

“I haven’t been avoiding you!” I protested, joining Darcy at the lift to the street above for a long-overdue lunch date, the week after my meeting with Hermione.

 

Technically, I supposed it was true. I hadn’t been avoiding her, exactly; I just… hadn’t been going out of my way to talk to her. I couldn’t fathom telling Darcy back when I’d had my falling out -- or whatever it was -- with Percy, and certainly not anything he’d told me. Even if I hadn’t been keeping the latter part in confidence, somehow I couldn’t imagine that I’d have liked anything she had to say about any of it.

 

Besides, Darcy was the sort who liked to ask, with affected innocence, whether there was “trouble in paradise” at the slightest hint of romantic conflict.

 

“I’ve been busy,” I explained, which was the truth, anyway. “Finding every dead end in the quest to stop the exploding wand apocalypse.”

 

“Oh, yes.” The lift began to ascend. “I hope that’s why you’ve been spotted at R. and C. of Magical Creatures lately. Because if you’re looking to make a transfer, you could do so much better than that Department. Although, on the other hand, you could do a lot worse than to ingratiate yourself with Hermione Granger.”

 

I suppressed the urge to gape at her; at this point in my relationship with Darcy, I was hardly surprised by anything. “Whoever your spies are, I certainly hope they’re well compensated.”

 

“Please. There’s no such thing as privacy when it comes to that lot. She’s still with that gawky ginger Auror Weasley, yeah? The one permanently stuck to Harry Potter?” When I didn’t answer immediately, she insisted, “Your boyfriend’s brother?”

 

Then, when I didn’t deny it, she smiled and said with a note of approval, “Well done. It hadn’t even occurred to me before.”

 

We exited the lift — or telephone booth, to anybody watching — onto the busy street and set off automatically for our favorite lunch spot.

 

“What are you on about, ‘well done’? What hadn’t occurred to you?”

 

“Your fella. Given you the key to damn penthouse, hasn’t he?” She threw me a conspiratorial look. “I expect you’ll be on a first name basis with the Minister within a month if you keep this up.”

 

Minister Shacklebolt’s reputation for being amicable -- if somewhat aloof -- notwithstanding, I had no desire to be on a first name basis with him. I felt I could have gone happily my entire life without having to hold a conversation with anybody higher up in management than Demetrius.

 

“That’s…” She couldn’t possibly be saying what I thought she was saying. Apparently it was still possible for her to surprise me. “I’m not with him because I wanted in with Harry Potter and his people and the Minister, are you mad?”

 

“Maybe not, but it’s a damn nice bonus, isn’t it? In retrospect, I’d have shagged the guy myself if I’d been thinking about the big picture.”

 

I decided not to tell her that I hardly thought she was Percy’s type.

 

Not that I really knew what his type was. If I’d had to guess, I’d have supposed that he -- like I assumed all blokes did -- preferred willowy blondes with sparkling personalities who liked sport.

 

At any rate, it seemed a safe assumption that Darcy would have given him a migraine.

 

“Audrey.”

 

I snapped out of it. “Hmm?”

 

“I said, you have shagged him, yes?”

 

“Come on,” I protested as we slowed to a stop at an intersection, waiting to cross.

 

“That bad, was it?”

 

My cheeks burned. “It certainly isn’t.”

 

At that, she leant over to look me in the eye as if to discern whether I was telling the truth.

 

“Ah,” she finally said with a grin. “Well, good for you, then. Why so secretive, anyway? You didn’t have a problem telling me about Whatsisname last year.”

 

“Yes, actually, I did, and you did this then, too. But I didn’t work with him, for one, and for another thing, I wasn’t… I wasn’t this serious about him. All right?” Taking advantage of a split second of hesitation on her part, I added, “And look, if you want to talk about shagging so much, why don’t you tell me about Rhys?”

 

“Oh, I broke up with him three weeks ago.”

 

“Oh. Are we surprised or not surprised?”

 

“We’re not put out about it.”

 

“Oh, good.”

 

“Anyway,” she continued as we crossed the street towards the cafe, “do you remember Cepheus? From the pub?”

 

“Who could forget Cepheus From the Pub?”

 

She gave me a little smirk.

 

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, Darcy, no! He has no soul!”

 

Six months earlier, I might have envied Darcy’s social life, or even felt that there was something wrong with me for not operating the same way. Now, however, I felt almost as if there was something that I understood, that she did not.

 

For the sake of my personal sense of peace, I determined not to discuss with Darcy — now or later — the fact that I really was on social footing with the famous Harry Potter at this point. He wasn’t the most gregarious bloke, but we’d certainly come out of Percy’s birthday party on a first name basis. As well as Percy’s famous Quidditch player sister. And famous entrepreneur brother — and his famous Quidditch player wife.

 

My life had become something very surreal, very quickly. It was a mercy that they were all insanely normal.

 

Under most circumstances, this would have seemed like critical information not to omit, but Darcy wasn’t incredibly bothered to find out about the progress of emotional intimacy in my relationship. Apparently as long as I was being shagged properly and had good career prospects, she was satisfied (even if grudgingly so).

 

I believed Darcy did care about me, in her way, and I couldn’t recall her ever having been unsupportive of me. She’d been a lifesaver back when I’d been going through my worst with Nev Baker (she still refused to use his name, if and when the topic came up, only ever referring to him as “That Wanker”), and she’d spent a great deal of time and energy telling me I deserved better. It just seemed that I’d discovered the divergence between my opinion and hers, as to what “better” really meant.

 

“Better” for Darcy was Cepheus From the Pub, with his Italian-made robes and piles of Galleons; or ‘Whatsisname’ the Healer I’d dated the year before -- who, I admit, was quite handsome and charming, though he did tend to get so caught up in entertaining a crowd that at times it had almost felt like I wasn’t there at all, and he’d seemed to firmly believe that I could simply will myself to “just have fun.”

 

I did wonder whether it would have made a difference to Darcy, if I’d spoken with even half the passion that I felt for Percy, rather than the quiet contentment I allowed myself to express. Maybe she thought that the right person would make me suddenly larger than myself.

 

But I suspected that, no matter how loudly I could have proclaimed my happiness, in the end it would not have occurred to Darcy that “better” just might be a perpetually annoyed, walking ball of redheaded stress, who acted as though he had everything to prove to the world, while at the same time he seemed to believe that I didn’t need to explain myself to anybody.

 

 

 

 

If there was one thing about Percy that needed changing, it was the state of his kitchen. I hadn’t thought it possible for anyone living in a tiny flat in London to have unused space in their kitchen cupboards, but he’d managed to accomplish it.

 

The first time he’d allowed me to go through it, I’d found one frying pan. One.

 

I’d asked him when was the last time he’d actually used it, and after about fifteen seconds not receiving a response from him, when I’d asked whether he’d heard me, he’d replied, “I’m trying to remember.”

 

We’d spent quite a lot of time at my place in the beginning but had rapidly shifted to more time spent at his, and no longer just on weekends. It gave us our privacy, and Vivian hers (she was considerably displeased with the state of Michael’s flat), and while I sometimes felt guilty about so many nights spent away from her, she’d waved this off and told me she didn’t mind at all. When I’d still fretted, she’d reminded me casually, “You do know every time the lights flicker, I know exactly what you two are doing?” I knew it didn’t actually bother her a bit -- Vivi was impossible to embarrass -- but she’d achieved her purpose, and I’d stopped arguing the point and embraced nights at Percy’s with a newfound freedom from guilt.

 

Sometimes we started off at my flat, like those times when I was introducing him to some film or another. (Incidentally, Percy did not share my fondness for Casablanca, giving me a scandalized look at the end and exclaiming, “That’s a terrible ending, why do you like this?”)

 

Others, like this night, I went home only to gather a change of clothes and leave a note for Vivian. To that end, with Percy’s blessing, I’d brought over several additional kitchen supplies (I simply could not work under those conditions), and even whilst I’d second-guessed myself about invading his space, he’d simply grinned and told me to do what I needed to do.

 

Percy always seemed enthralled with watching me cook, and had since the first time he’d watched me do it, when he’d noticed that I did almost everything the Muggle way. I could cook using magic — it would have been easier and faster, as he’d pointed out — but it was my mum who’d taught me to cook, not my dad, and I’d been doing it since before I was allowed a wand. There was just something soothing about chopping vegetables, something satisfying about kneading dough by hand, and it had always seemed to me somehow that the food tasted better for it in the end.

 

But while Percy found it quaint, he wasn’t nearly as much of a lost cause as I’d thought he might have been when I’d set him once to chopping carrots for me and challenged him to do it without magic. When I’d been presented with a finished product that looked like every slice had been measured with a ruler, he’d explained that his potions teacher had been something of a taskmaster and they hadn’t been allowed to use magic in preparing their ingredients there, either. He’d also looked a bit smug, bless him.

 

His services were not needed on this occasion, when I’d decided to put together a quick tomato-baked chicken dish that I could have done in my sleep. As I arranged everything in the pan, I prattled away about the latest developments at work, now that I’d had an opportunity to review some of Hermione’s exemplars and had some semblance of an idea what the Wizengamot might expect. Not that I was any more keen on being in this position, which was why the next part was so significant to me.

 

“I have to say, it’s so… heartening, I suppose, that Madeleine’s offered to help with the project -- ”

 

“Madeleine?” he interjected. “Madeleine Ward?”

 

“Yes, I was beginning to think I’d gone mad, nobody else seems to see the situation as quite so important as I do. Well, Demetrius knows it’s important, I suppose; he just doesn’t seem to want to make a decision about it.” I washed my hands and turned about, drying them on a dish cloth. “Anyway, Madeleine’s offered to help with any research and -- Why are you making that face?”

 

He blinked and schooled his expression (or tried, anyway). “I’m not making a face.”

 

It took all of three seconds of me raising my eyebrows for him to sigh and tilt his head in concession, drumming his fingers on his tiny kitchen table as he appeared to search for the words.

 

“I just… Ward… Be careful around her, that’s all.”

 

“‘Be careful around her, that’s all’?” I repeated -- the cloth hanging, almost forgotten, from my hands. “What are you talking about?”

 

He sighed again, his lips pressed together, one hand stowed in his pocket and the other still tapping on the tabletop. “You can’t trust her.”

 

His manner was calm and earnest, which only made it all the more disconcerting.

 

“Can’t trust her? But you said she was good. I distinctly remember -- ”

 

“I believe if I’ve ever said anything about her, I said she was competent,” he corrected. “And she is. She’s intelligent and knows the work. Her work ethic varies as suits her fancy, and she sometimes verges on defiant. But yes, she’s perfectly competent.”

 

Then, seeing the stunned look on my face, Percy gave me the tiniest of smiles. “Did she never mention that she used to work in Improper Use of Magic?”

 

I searched for my voice for a moment, recalling my first day in Magical Equipment Control when I’d learnt all about my new colleagues. “She — she did. I believe she did mention it. Or Lionel did, I can’t remember…”

 

“And I assume she doesn’t exactly speak kindly of me?”

 

“Well…”

 

At my hesitation, his sardonic smile grew larger. “I mean even less kindly than others do.”

 

My cheeks burned and all I could do was stare at him.

 

“If I told you that Blakely — and Bell, when he was still Head of my office — have always delegated to me the task of conducting our employees’ performance appraisals… Well, without me saying anything I’m not allowed to tell you, might you put two and two together and deduce part of the reason why she really doesn’t like me? Aside from the part where we hardly ever got on in the first place.”

 

“Oh.” I cast about for a moment, putting the bake in the oven and setting the heating charm to give myself something to do. “But what’s that got to do with not trusting her? She seems to do a good job now, maybe it was just IUM that didn’t suit her?”

 

“Diplomatically put,” he said with an expression of amusement. “And I’ve no doubt she does a good job when she wants to. But that’s not why I’m concerned. What you need to know about Ward is…” He stopped to ponder before speaking again.

 

“What I’m going to tell you is something you could have heard from anybody, not just me. She’s been accused, in the past, of stealing work from others. Passing it off as her own.”

 

“Accused?” My mind raced. “Well, was there an inquiry? Did anything ever come of it?”

 

“Assuming I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you, you know that.”

 

I did, in fact, know that, but it still didn’t stop me blurting out, “Don’t you trust me?”

 

“I’d trust you with anything,” he replied without a second’s hesitation. “But that’s not the point.”

 

“Well, surely if it had been found true, she’d have been sacked. Or suspended, at the very least?” When Percy remained silent, I urged, “I know you can affirm standard disciplinary policy.”

 

He cast a glance at the ceiling as though the answer were contained there. “Yes. In that situation, suspension would be warranted. Barring exceptional circumstances, I suppose, at the Head’s discretion, like anything else.”

 

“And... was there ever a time after the accusation was made, when she didn’t come to work for several days without any explanation? Which anybody could have noticed, not just you?”

 

While he certainly wasn’t being flippant about it, I swear there seemed to be a part of him that was enjoying this repartee.

 

“There was not.”

 

“So it doesn’t seem it was found true.” I searched his face. “But you still think she did it.”

 

He bent his head and stared at me over the top of his glasses. “All I’m asking is for you to take care when working with her. I couldn’t not say something about it.”

 

Hardly able to sort out my thoughts well enough in that moment to respond, I nodded vaguely and set about opening a bottle of wine with a waiter’s corkscrew.

 

In retrospect, particularly in light of what Percy had just told me, it might have seemed a bit odd, Madeleine going out of her way to be helpful to anybody. But what Percy wasn’t considering was that, even while Madeleine had offered to help me with the project, she still wasn’t friendly. She was aloof as ever, and had remained so even after she’d saved me from Lionel and Noah’s oblivious teasing weeks earlier. Her involvement seemed to be motivated by a combination of self-interest (as the owner of a unicorn hair wand herself) and irritation at the lack of urgency expressed by just about everybody else in our office.

 

Really, she hadn’t offered anything since the time we’d spoken in August. The next time the subject had been raised was after I talked to Hermione, when I’d returned to my office and asked Madeleine whether her offer still stood. Her response: “Fine.”

 

Surely, if she meant to take advantage of me, she could have tried much harder to ingratiate herself with me personally, to put me off my guard.

 

And at any rate, Demetrius already knew I was working on the project. What did any of this really matter as long as the work was done and my boss was pleased with me?

 

“I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody open a bottle of wine annoyedly,” Percy’s remark broke through my rumination, “but I do believe that’s what you’re doing.”

 

“I’m not,” I protested, though I did now feel a bit peevish as I realized that, in my distraction, I had completely misaligned the arm of the corkscrew and was unable to get the cork all the way out. He took the bottle gently from my hand as I sighed in exasperation.

 

“I never understand why you won’t just use a charm,” he said fairly, trying to undo the damage.

 

“I’ve never been able to generate force strong enough for this.” That, and tightly sealed jars.

 

“But you’ll do it by hand.”

 

“Well, the corkscrew uses the physics of a lev-- nevermind.”

 

“I’d have done it for you,” he said kindly, before scrunching up his nose in that way I always loved, as he tried to extract the cork (by hand, I decided not to point out in that moment; he must not have had his wand on him). “But I think maybe you were annoyed with me?-- Oh, bugger!” The cork came flying out of the bottle, and with it, several red droplets that assaulted his white shirt, and he looked down at himself in dismay.

 

“Here.” Stifling a laugh, I took the bottle and corkscrew from his hands and set them aside. “I can get those out.” Really, he probably could have, as well, but I wasn’t thinking about that in the moment. I set about unbuttoning his shirt; he didn’t seem interested in stopping me.

 

My fingers stalled at the third button down, and I offered quietly, “I’m not annoyed.”

 

But when I glanced up at him, I saw it was his turn to give me a look that made me immediately backpedal.

 

“All right, maybe I was annoyed.” When he didn’t speak, I focused quite deliberately on the fourth button before pausing and looking up into his eyes. “It’s just… well… If you thought there was something I ought to watch out for, why wouldn’t you have said something before?”

 

“Well, when would that have come up?” He ran his hands up my bare arms to my shoulders. “Should I have just come up to you in the beginning and said, Hello, my name is Percy, I think you’re very pretty, and by the way, your coworkers range from barely competent to possibly untrustworthy ?”

 

“It certainly would have been a memorable line.”

 

His eyes gleamed. “Would it have worked?”

 

I ignored him and undid two more buttons, before I felt an arm around my waist and a hand brushing my hair back.

 

“It didn’t occur to me,” he said earnestly. “You know, I don’t exactly go around telling every person who sets foot in that corridor my unsolicited opinions about everyone who works there -- ”

 

“Oh, you don’t, don’t you?” I gave him a skeptical look.

 

He broke into a grin as he retorted, “Not exactly like that, I don’t.” His fingertips were now situated quite casually and comfortably inside the waistband of my skirt, and his other hand was still running through my hair.

 

“It would hardly be appropriate for me to go talking about what essentially amounts to nothing more than an accusation, to every person I come in contact with. And by the time you and I started talking, you’d already been assigned there for a minute. You’d already got to know them, before you knew me. Who would I have been to assume you needed my input?”

 

I listened as I untucked his shirt from his trousers to get at the last button.

 

“I never got the impression that she worked closely with you on anything. And to be honest, before this wand business started up, there was nothing happening in Magical Equipment Control that would be interesting or significant enough for her to try to make a name for herself. Why do you suppose she might have been transferred there in the first place? Even if the accusation was never substantiated.” He paused, then added, “Which I couldn’t tell you one way or the other, obviously.”

 

“It’s an insignificant assignment,” I responded uneasily, staring at the collar of his undershirt. I supposed I’d known that, though I hadn’t stopped to think about it in that way exactly.

 

He shook his head and slouched to look at me more closely. “Don’t do that. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s important work, you know I believe that. But it’s not glamorous. Is it?”

 

“Definitely not,” I agreed, relaxing as I pushed the shirt off his shoulders.

 

“I could be wrong,” he allowed. “I hope I’m wrong. But… I think I was right to tell you.” It almost came out as a question.

 

“I think you were.” I kissed him to show I meant it, and he took that opportunity to cast off his shirt and throw it over the back of a chair -- though how he managed that whilst it felt like his hands never actually left me, I had no idea.

 

“How long’s that meant to take, then?” he whispered when we finally broke apart, gesturing to the oven with a nod.

 

“Oh.” I threw a glance behind me as if the answer were written there on the hob. “About twenty minutes more.”

 

“Brilliant!” He gave me a wicked look. “I only need about half of that.”

 

(He was a liar. It was the first time in my adult life I’d ever noticeably overcooked chicken.)

 


Author's note: So, wow, I definitely did not mean for this update to take this long. If you're still reading, thank you!! I truly did not and do not intent to go months between updates like this. I've been posting lots of new fics over at AO3 and FFN (this is the only one I'm still posting to this site).

Lots going on in the world right now. I hope you're staying safe and healthy! Love to you all.



Chapter 16: Connections
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“Should I be thanking you, or do I have an admirer?”

 

Percy looked up from the tea he was preparing in the break room and gave me a little smile. I was referring to the vase containing one dozen absurdly perfect roses I’d found on my desk when I’d arrived at work not half an hour earlier.

 

“Both,” he replied mildly. “And you’re welcome.”

 

I watched as he added a truly baffling amount of sugar to his tea — something I’d yet to understand about him — when he asked hesitantly, “I hope they were all right? I didn’t think you’d like anything too ostentatious.”

 

“You thought correctly. They’re perfect.” I nodded at the kettle. “Is there some for me?”

 

“Of course, there is.” He moved aside and was quiet for a few seconds before adding, almost hopefully, “I can do ostentatious, you know.”

 

“Oh, somehow I don’t doubt that. But please don’t on my account. Besides, you’re in enough trouble as it is.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“Well.” I leant against the worktop and looked up at him as my tea steeped. “Now everybody’s worked out it’s my birthday.”

 

“How horrifying.” He wasn’t sorry at all. “I suppose I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”

 

“You’d certainly better. I’ve got to do a group lunch now.”

 

“Oh dear.”

 

“Ought to drag you with me.”

 

“Shame, can’t. Blakely’s had some sort of family emergency, I’m filling in today.”

 

“Oh, yes, and Mr. Blakely never took lunch, did he?”

 

“He may have, but I’m determined to leave the office in a better state than I found it.”

 

“Ambitious for a Friday.” It wasn’t Percy I doubted; it was everybody else. “Are we still on for five o’clock?”

 

“Of course, we are.”

 

Something at that moment drew his gaze from my face to the doorway behind me, and he looked as though he were resisting the urge to roll his eyes.

 

“Dare I ask?” he remarked dryly, and I turned to see Eoghan Lynch standing there with the distinct air of someone who had drawn the short straw for this mission.

 

“Ah, well, you see, there’s a bit of post just arrived for Marv, and we didn’t notice for a few minutes that there was a — ”

 

But Eoghan neither could go any further, nor did he need to, for at that moment there came a thunderous shouting from the direction of the Improper Use Office, an unfamiliar voice that seemed to fill the air accompanied by the unmistakable clangor of an ignored Howler unleashing itself. Either due to shock or because I lacked context, I could not quite make out the complaint, but Percy cocked his head and listened, his face impassive, until the rant had finished.

 

“Oh,” he said when all was over, his voice dripping with ironic calm, “I had thought we hadn’t heard from Mr. Leveret in quite some time.”

 

We followed Eoghan back towards the office, and when Eoghan had disappeared inside I threw Percy an uncertain look.

 

“Five?” I confirmed again.

 

“Trust me, I’m counting the minutes.” With annoyance semi-permanently affixed to his face, he disappeared into his office, whereupon the laughter of the other employees inside abruptly stopped.

 

He wasn’t the only one. I had, as I’d told him, been roped into having lunch with my coworkers, and while it wasn’t the first time and I didn’t typically mind so much, it was a different matter entirely when I was meant to be the center of attention. Even Demetrius and Violet decided to join us, though Demetrius’s usual practice was to exclude himself from lunch outings with his employees because he thought we ought to be free of the specter of management during our personal time.

 

“Weasley not going to join us?” Lionel asked with a grin as he walked his typical bouncy step along the pavement towards our lunch destination shortly before noon. As he didn’t seem all that put out by it, it was clearly a rhetorical question.

 

“Oh, no. He’s quite tied up. Apparently Mr. Blakely’s out today.”

 

“Yes, I hope he’s all right, poor fellow,” said Demetrius mildly. “Dev — his partner, you know, works in Games and Sports — he’s also out today, apparently.”

 

“Sounds like skiving off if I’ve ever heard of it,” said Lionel, his bright tone suggesting he held no censure for it.

 

“Doubt it. If that were the case I’m certain Marv would’ve just said he was taking a personal day. At any rate…” Demetrius turned his attention to me. “Speaking of skiving off, mind you don’t stay too late today. Leave early, even. I hope you’ve got something fun planned?”

 

“Yeah, ditching us.” Lionel feigned offense; I’d informed him earlier that happy hour wasn’t possible. Lunch was held to be an extremely poor substitute in his estimation.

 

“I’m afraid so,” I regretted again, before replying to Demetrius. “I’ve got dinner plans. In Plymouth.”

 

“Do you? I grew up not too far from there, you know.”

 

Percy was taking me somewhere he said had a wonderful view over Plymouth Sound, and I chatted with Demetrius for a bit before asking Noah whether he and Lionel planned to go to their usual haunt after work.

 

“Nah, found a new pub,” he said. “Muggle place, in Camden Town, near Lionel’s flat.”

 

We’d reached our destination, and Noah held open the door to the cafe for Violet, Madeleine, and me.

 

“Noah’s gone and made an idiot of himself in front of the bartender at the Bog— at the other place,” Lionel corrected himself in the presence of Muggle ears just inside the doorway.

 

“No, I don’t believe it,” I said earnestly. I’d have believed it of Lionel, probably.

 

Noah merely shrugged with a little smile, before glancing at Madeleine. “When are you going to join us again, Mads, and bring Jeremy? You know, we usually get a couple of people from MAC and Games to go with us.”

 

“When Crups fly,” was the response. As ever, this seemed only to amuse Noah and Lionel.

 

Upon being escorted to a table, I dodged the seat at the head, managing instead to situate myself between Madeleine and Violet, who inquired about any other birthday plans. When I said I’d be having dinner with my family on Sunday, Lionel’s ears perked up.

 

“Your sister still with that Kenmare Beater? Reilly? Will he be there as well?”

 

“Michael?” I shot a glance around us to check for Muggles, but the closest table to us was, as of yet, unoccupied. “I’m sure he will be.”

 

Lionel grinned. “Weasley succeeded in making a Quidditch fan of you yet? Your connections are really too good for you not to be one, what a waste.”

 

“Connections?”

 

“Your sister’s boyfriend, for one, but also… well… Weasley’s sister, yeah?”

 

Right.

 

“True,” I admitted, dropping my eyes to the menu in my hands and hoping very much that this conversation was not headed in the direction it seemed to be.

 

“There’s a Falmouth player also connected with the family somehow,” mused Demetrius, whom I knew to be a Falmouth fan because of the poster in his office. “Angelina Johnson?”

 

“Er… yes, Angelina’s married to Percy’s brother.”

 

“Oh, that’s right. Bloke who owns that shop, I think?”

 

“George, yes.”

 

The conversation was, in fact, headed in exactly the direction it seemed to be.

 

“You’ve met them, then?” asked Noah, his eyebrows raised with interest.

 

My chair suddenly felt quite uncomfortable, and I allowed my eyes to flick back and forth between Noah and my menu, though I really wasn’t absorbing any of the words.

 

“His family? Yes, of course.”

 

“Is his sister really cool?” interjected Lionel. “She seems cool.”

 

Before I could answer, Noah had jumped in again.

 

“So, wait, you’ve met her? But then… does that mean you’ve also hung out with Harry Potter? And Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger?”

 

“Ah… we’ve met, yes.”

 

I tried not to pay too much heed to the stares I was receiving, which ranged from intrigued to expectant, as though I might at any moment regale them with family gossip or heretofore unknown personality quirks of the twenty-somethings who had saved magical Britain.

 

Even if I had been so inclined, the only thing I really could have said for any of them was that they were perfectly lovely — that Ron was a tremendous laugh, even if he and George had been hellbent on giving Percy a hard time; that Hermione was a lively conversationalist, to say the very least; and that Harry had a genial, if reserved, manner about him, occasionally punctuated by amusingly sardonic remarks.

 

Though, truth be known, something told me that my colleagues would have been much more entertained and gratified to hear that they were all secretly wretched people.

 

In the end, I parried the issue entirely.

 

“It’s really not that odd, is it? Anyway, they’re Aurors, you’ve all seen them around — and you all know I spoke to Hermione the once about the wand problem. I was hoping she might know something we haven’t considered about the unicorns, or perhaps even what we can do to get the wandmakers talking. And she’s a wonderful resource, knows her way around the process with her eyes shut. I actually plan to go watch her present her latest proposal to — ”

 

My comments had the desired effect, as Lionel finally protested, “Now remember, we said no work at lunch!” and the conversation found itself safely diverted back to the topic of Quidditch, with me only being requested to contribute whether I had yet been able to watch Ginny and Angelina play in person.

 

On the walk back, I fell behind with Madeleine as Lionel and Noah led the group, bantering about exactly how Noah had or had not made an idiot of himself in front of the bartender at their favorite pub.

 

“It’s just as well for us,” she remarked tonelessly, “that they’re not interested in anything you say about the wand thing,” and I recognized that she was referring not only to that day but to a previous occasion in the office when I’d philosophized about the wandmakers’ confidentiality and been met with politely blank looks.

 

When I responded with a quizzical look, she continued, sounding for all the world as though she might have been commenting to herself instead of me: “Now that the Prophet’s started poking around, can you imagine sodding Lionel blathering on about half-baked ideas we haven’t actually finalized yet? We look incompetent enough not having gained control of this for months. Though I suppose it’s hardly your fault that Dibble and Lionel allowed the most junior person in the office to sort out the complaints in the beginning.”

 

I tried to work out whether this grudging concession was intended as an indictment of our supervision or of me. Vaguely, I considered asking what in the world anybody else in that office could or would have done differently than I already had, but instead I settled for asking whether she’d had a chance to review the unicorn population records from the past thirty years.

 

“I did.”

 

“And did you notice anything? Aside from what I noted about the Forbidden Forest population?”

 

Lips pursed, she replied with a terse shake of her head.

 

“Do you think a decline of six percent is significant in a population that size?” I pressed.

 

“How on earth I should know that, I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter anyway. They weren’t diseased, and you can’t use the hair from a dead unicorn anyway.”

 

More accurately, you could, but the residual magic would only last a few months and would be highly unreliable — that much was clear from the wandlore that was known — but in essence, she was correct.

 

“I don’t suppose we’d have any way of knowing whether it was something they were eating that could have affected their magical properties before they died, as opposed to — I don’t know — natural predators?”

 

“Who knows. All sorts of mad things live in that forest, apparently.”

 

We continued on in silence until we had entered a lift from the street to the Ministry, when she spoke again.

 

“We need to tell Dibble it’s time for a public recall.”

 

“I’ve definitely tried raising that with him, but — ”

 

“Dibble won’t pull his head out of the sand until forced.” This clipped statement was accompanied by a shake of the head as we stepped into the Atrium and headed for the set of lifts that would take us back to our office.

 

Our coworkers stood alongside another group returning late from a lazy Friday lunch, and with a wave Madeleine and I declined to squeeze into the next two lifts with the entire gaggle, deciding instead to wait for an empty one. We appeared to be the only two still waiting when a third lift arrived, its few occupants disembarking.

 

“Oi, hold the lift?” came a hopeful voice some distance behind us as we entered, and when I turned around to hold the door I saw Harry and Ron breaking into an easy jog.

 

“Thanks,” said Harry, at nearly the same time Ron nodded with an “Alright, Audrey?”

 

“Alright,” I replied. “Good lunch?”

 

“Dunno,” said Ron with a pointed glance at Harry. “When we finally get to eat I’ll let you know.”

 

Harry shrugged. “Sorry. I was getting a really weird feeling about that fire hydrant.”

 

“Yeah, whatever. I think I’ll eat your lunch, by the way, it looks better than mine.”

 

Having thrown his partner an amused glance, Harry directed a polite nod towards Madeleine and the sort of awkward, indistinct “Hey” one uses when encountering people who are neither stranger nor acquaintance; I ventured to introduce them, though it did feel bizarre introducing two people whose names and faces were known in every magical household in the country. But if Madeleine was starstruck as the rest of my office, she didn’t show it, merely giving them a little nod. When I noted that Ron was Percy’s brother she commented to him dryly, “Sympathies,” prompting a little laugh from him and forcibly reminding me of Percy’s and Madeleine’s less-than-complimentary opinions of one another.

 

The more I thought about it, the more I allowed that Percy’s assessment of Madeleine — no matter how sincere — was likely informed by a distaste he’d developed from the very beginning. Reading between the lines of what he’d told me, it was apparent that the accusation lodged against Madeleine a year or more previously, before she’d switched offices, hadn’t actually been proved — yet Percy, predisposed to think poorly of her, still clung to his opinion.

 

Unfair, to be sure — but perfectly human and not particularly surprising.

 

At any rate, I could see that Madeleine was anything but a passive bystander in her own life, and a conversation with Demetrius after returning from lunch gave me a glimpse into what her working relationship with Percy must have been like.

 

Halfway through the afternoon post, Madeleine crossed to my desk and dropped a letter in front of me, which turned out to be notice from Ollivander’s that they sought to contest our directive to withdraw unicorn hair wands from sale. Swynn’s had responded with a similar notice earlier that week. Wordlessly, I handed back the letter and followed as she turned on her heel and strode to Demetrius’s office, ignoring Violet’s protestations about needing to make sure Demetrius wasn’t busy. I held up a placating hand to Violet, who sighed and waved me through the open door as she always did.

 

“Dibble,” snapped Madeleine purposefully, catching him in the act of throwing a miniature Quaffle at a small hoop on the opposite wall. The ball flew wide of its goal as Demetrius’s attention was diverted to us.

 

“What can I do for you two?”

 

In response, Madeleine thrust the missive at him, and he bit at his lip as he perused it.

 

“I suppose we knew this was coming, didn’t we?” This was followed by a little sigh through his nose. “No reason for them not to contest it, doesn’t disadvantage them in any way. But they’ve got no grounds, Audrey’s checked that, so we’ll meet with them, allow them to be heard, and then reaffirm our directive.”

 

“No, of course they’ve got no grounds,” said Madeleine, her bearing steely and aloof as ever but her cutting voice radiating condescension. “But they’ll cause us delay. It’s time for a recall; it really should have been done a month ago.”

 

Demetrius raised his hands in appeasement. “Audrey and I have discussed it, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

 

“We’re no closer to a solution, and without knowing exactly which wands are affected, they’re all going to have to go, at least the ones from the past ten years. The Prophet’s already all over this, you know, and right now they’re critical of the wandmakers, but you know how fickle they are. If we give the impression we’re only giving the wandmakers a hard time instead of protecting the public it’s going to allow the wandmakers to manipulate the whole issue and then you’ll really be in a world of shit.”

 

Pulling a face that was both amused and bemused, a lock of curly hair falling in front of his eyes, Demetrius replied, “Now, I would hardly say we’re giving the wandmakers a hard time.”

 

“Well, we are, really, only it’s justified. But you go making them take a loss on, what, nearly a quarter of their merchandise, plus what Audrey’s saying about forcing them to talk to us else we put them out of business — ”

 

“Sorry, what?” He glanced at me in alarm, and the lock of hair he had just swept back fell across his forehead once more.

 

“No, no,” I clarified, “remember when we talked about the possibility of conditioning their permits on them talking to us about the sources of their wand cores? Well, I’ve looked into it, and we actually can’t, so that’s that — we would have to actually change that law, which — ”

 

“Yes, I had thought so.” Relieved and decidedly uninterested in pursuing the rest of that controversial thought, he turned his attention back to Madeleine. “So what you’re saying is…”

 

“If this were anything other than wands, we would have already made this decision, you have to admit that.”

 

Demetrius had the distinct look of someone who did not want to admit that but indeed had to.

 

“Right.” He let out another uncomfortable sigh. “Well, then, pen a memo to Robards. And, uh, when are we supposed to meet with Ollivander and Swynn to discuss this?” He waved Ollivander’s letter demonstratively.

 

“Week after next,” replied Madeleine, whose face had not lapsed from its usual cool composure this entire time. “Also, I remind you that Lionel did tell me the last time we had one of these hearings — you remember, with the haunted telescopes — that at the next one I can sit second chair to assist you. Or him, whichever of you does it.” She glanced at me. “Audrey’s never seen one, so this is a good opportunity for her to observe.”

 

“Well, that sounds reasonable.” He stared vaguely at his Falmouth Falcons poster for a moment, his thumb and fingertips rubbing together pensively, before glancing back at us and asking with an apprehensive but good-natured little grimace, “Anything else?”

 

Deciding now was not the time to get into my idea of pursuing radical legal avenues — eventful as this afternoon already was for him — I shook my head and withdrew from the office after Demetrius bid us both a good afternoon and me a happy birthday.

 

Madeleine returned to her desk without another word until I ventured an appreciative remark for her help with Demetrius. She glanced up and offered by way of explanation: “Well, I don’t much fancy looking like an idiot, do you?” Then, without waiting for a response, she returned her attention to the afternoon post, lips pursed in concentration.

 

Having now seen Madeleine all but bully our boss into making a decision he’d initially been opposed to, I could only imagine what Percy’s attitude must have been the first time Madeleine tried to challenge him in such a fashion — or, for that matter, the tenth or twentieth time. But while he might not have appreciated it, I had to be grateful for the fact that Madeleine had been able to prevail with Demetrius where I had not.

 

 

 

 

 

“Isn’t this the girl we don’t like?” asked Vivian as we relaxed in the garden at home in Derbyshire later that weekend, sipping wine and enjoying the cool, dry evening while Mum finished up in the kitchen. Heathcliff the cat, having been ejected from the kitchen by Mum after he’d tried to nick dinner, was keeping us company, brushing against our shoes. Percy had long since disappeared into the greenhouse for a tour with Dad, who could have easily talked about his plants for hours if you’d let him.

 

“No, we don’t not like her,” I said fairly. “Only I just never really talked to her — I mean, she doesn’t talk to anyone. Nor do I, really. She’s not friendly, sure, but I suppose that’s all right. It’s just business, which is perfect considering everyone else there tries to be a bit too personal.”

 

I took a sip of my wine. “Anyway, it’s sort of amusing the way she can’t stand Lionel and Noah and they’ve got it in their heads that she’s funning along with them, like it’s all an act. I can’t decide whether it’s more merciful for her to let them think so, or to tell them once and for all that she thinks they're dolts and ought to cut it out. I’ll say this for her, though: for someone who doesn’t talk much, she damn well commands attention when she wants to.”

 

“Hmm.” Vivi plucked a fallen leaf from her shirt and let it flutter to the ground (where Heathcliff promptly began to do battle with it) before giving me a playful smile. “Would I like her?”

 

“Think she’s probably too high maintenance for you. And too cynical,” I teased. “Too aloof. You’re a romantic even if you act like you’re not.”

 

“Hmm,” she repeated, spinning her wine glass pensively before blurting out almost in protest: “You know, Jane said something like that the other day — ”

 

“Who?”

 

“Jane. You know. St. Mungo’s. Bryson, Jane Bryson.”

 

My brain caught up. “The one we don’t like?” I echoed her earlier comment.

 

“Well, yeah, we still don’t like her. Stupid cow. You should have seen how long it took her to mend a broken arm the other day, I finished War and Peace while she did it. But she talks all the damn time and unfortunately I’m obliged to listen.”

 

“And she’s got an opinion about your love life?”

 

“Got an opinion about bloody everything. You know she actually said something about me needing validation? Imagine the nerve! I don’t know how you get on dating someone you work with, people must talk about it incessantly, don’t they? What do you even do when he pisses you off and everybody there knows he’s the reason you’re in a strop?”

 

It was quite a… specific question.

 

“Well, I don’t have strops, but more importantly, is everything all right with Michael?” I kept my voice deliberately light.

 

“Oh, he’s being a twit, but nothing too out of the ordinary.” Her voice, too, was deliberately unconcerned.

 

“Talk about it?”

 

“Nah. Rough patch, you know? It was bound to happen.”

 

“I know I haven’t been around much, but you’d tell me, right, if anything was really wrong?”

 

“I’ve told you not to worry about that. You can’t live with your wretched sister until you’re fifty, I won’t allow it.” Her eyes smiled at me before our attention was drawn to Percy and Dad emerging from the greenhouse some distance away, Dad gesturing animatedly as he spoke and Percy nodding with an interest that at least seemed genuine.

 

Then Vivi took my hand and I looked back at her.

 

“I like seeing you happy. Are you?”

 

Looking her in the eye so she knew I meant it, I nodded.

 

“Good.” She squeezed my hand and flashed her cheeky smile. “Because I’m not living with my wretched sister until I’m fifty.”

 

Chuckling, we turned our attention back to Dad and Percy slowly making their way back to the house, Dad pointing to something in the distance.

 

“Does he ever shut up?” sighed Vivi, shaking her head fondly, before a wicked grin curled her lips. “Think he’ll tell Percy about all that stuff he used to do to Mr. Baumgartner?”

 

“God, I hope not,” I muttered, recalling our old neighbor with whom Dad did not get on at all, and upon whom Dad liked to exact petty revenges such as charming his apple trees to grow cherries and his cherry tree to grow apples — and then would stand in our garden sipping his tea, enjoying the scene of confusion from afar. “I fear we might discover a limit to how much Percy… likes me.”

 

She shrugged. “What’s a few misdemeanors between lovers?”

 

I stared at her. “Are you some sort of poet now? Well, you’re terrible at it.”

 

It was then, as we sat giggling, that Percy approached and Dad disappeared into the house, Heathcliff close on his heels.

 

“What’s so funny?” Percy asked, offering his hand and pulling me to my feet.

 

“Oh, you know. Just wondering exactly how many questionably legal experiments Dad just showed you.”

 

“Oh, maybe three. But really, it depends how you interpret the phrase, ah, ‘poses a danger to the public safety.’ And anyway...” He tapped the tip of my nose before leaning in conspiratorially, his voice low in my ear: “Ask me to tell you about the car sometime.”

 

 

 

 


Sunday with Mum and Dad for my birthday (Vivian worked Saturday) meant we missed out on a get together with Percy’s family meant to celebrate Hermione’s birthday, and I lost count how many times I apologized to Percy until he assured me that his parents never forfeited an opportunity to have a party and I would soon be sick of them, mark his words and be careful what I wished for — a sentiment echoed, a bit more graciously, by Hermione when I met her for lunch the following week and apologized again.

 

“You may have surmised as much already, but there’s always something going on in Ron’s family. It’s always somebody’s birthday. Or wedding. Or who knows what. That party Bill’s having in October, for example, it never ends, really. You can’t go to all of them, and if you do you might go mad, so.”

 

“Have you yet?”

 

“What, gone mad? Apparently not, but I might be immune.”

 

I smiled at her over my menu. “How long have you and Ron been together?”

 

She looked as though she wanted to laugh at a private joke. “That’s the subject of some debate, but officially I suppose… four years? Ron would say five, but don’t listen to him.”

 

I recalled that Percy had told me Hermione had grown up friends with Ron, and we segued easily into reminiscing about our childhoods, the way we’d started when I’d first met her at Percy’s birthday party. Back then we’d talked of our studies, magical and Muggle subjects; and now we spoke of our families and upbringings, the interesting divide we’d each straddled between our two worlds, our experiences similar and yet so different — her with Muggle parents but having spent years wholly immersed in magical society, and me raised as a witch from birth but my life almost evenly split between the two.

 

We’d stumbled onto the topic of the theater, of all things, before we noticed how much time had passed when our intention had been a working lunch.

 

“Did you happen to look at the same records you sent to me?” I asked when we’d finally redirected the conversation to the wand problem.

 

“I managed a cursory review, but do tell me what you found.”

 

“Well… nothing. I can’t say I found anything. No diseases noted in the years the populations were monitored — ”

 

“Which admittedly was not nearly enough, but yes, go on.”

 

“No drastic changes in population, except…”

 

Pausing in the act of picking through the remains of her salad, she stared at me expectantly.

 

“Well… is a six percent decline in population significant? Over a period of seven years? I don’t know enough about it to have any idea.”

 

“Without any cause noted? Could be due, I suppose, to the population of natural predators during that time? I’m not aware of any cases of unicorn poaching since the fifties. What years were these?”

 

“1987 to 1994 when the next official count was taken. In Scotland.”

 

She froze abruptly in the process of spearing salad on her fork, and the tomato she’d been trying to skewer slipped out from underneath the last forceful stab and shot off her plate, rolling off the edge of the table to the ground. Hermione made a movement as if to duck under the table to fetch it but then thought better of it and sat up again.

 

“Where in Scotland?” she asked with measured interest.

 

“The forest. By Hogwarts?”

 

After a pensive moment she spoke again. “I’d like to check with someone about that. But… well, let’s say there were a predator — predators — killing at a higher rate than normal. You can’t use hair from a dead unicorn anyway, everyone knows that, the wands would hardly have worked in the first place, let alone for several years. You’re looking for something affecting living populations.”

 

“I am, but I’m certainly not finding it.”

 

She stared at an indistinct spot in front of her for a moment. “Are you familiar with the research and theories of Tir Gazanian?”

 

I was a bit taken aback. “The fellow who tried to make the wands without cores taken from animals? In the… nineteenth century, was it?”

 

“Yes, him.”

 

“I know he believed the repeated taking of hair from a single unicorn or feathers from a phoenix might ultimately weaken the magical properties of the creature itself and any remaining hairs or feathers, but… his theories were debunked, weren’t they?”

 

Tipping her head in reluctant concession, she allowed, “I suppose they were. Disappointing, really, I wish he’d been successful at making wands without animal products. Just because they don’t suffer any harm that we can measure and prove doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth pursuing for the principle of it. But after that, everybody dismissed it out of hand.” She punctuated this with a huff.

 

With a nervous laugh I replied, “Might have something to do with the fact that wand cores formed from plants or artificially created with charms never lasted above half a year. Imagine your wand just giving out when you most need it.”

 

“Well, that can happen anyway, it just takes longer.”

 

“About twenty to thirty years longer, I believe.”

 

“Comes down to whether the creature’s autonomy is outweighed by our convenience, I suppose,” she responded, with an unexpected tone of agitation.

 

“I think it’s certainly an interesting area to explore,” I said carefully. “Unfortunately, I don’t really know enough about it to have an opinion, and it also doesn’t get me any closer to working out what’s going on currently.”

 

She was quiet for a moment, looking at me thoughtfully. “No, I suppose it doesn’t.”

 

“But it has put me in mind of something I read, which is that one ought not take a hair from a unicorn that’s currently wounded, because a physical injury, while rare, can temporarily weaken a unicorn’s magic. On the other hand, I fail to see why a wandmaker would use a hair from a wounded unicorn knowing it’s compromised, or why that would happen more than once and how so many people would coincidentally end up with such wands.

 

“And,” I continued as she nodded along and continued to poke at her lunch, “in the end, this gets me nowhere because I need the wandmakers to confirm this information. I can speculate all I want, but how can my office make a determination that we know the cause of the failing wands with any certainty?”

 

“Have you given any more thought to what we talked about? Seeking an amendment in the law, I mean.”

 

“I have,” I said reluctantly. “I just truly don’t imagine my boss agreeing to support it.”

 

“Has he said he won’t?”

 

“Not precisely, no.”

 

She held up her palms and gave me a pointed look as if that settled it. I averted my eyes.

 

“You won’t even try?” she asked in disbelief.

 

As I searched for the words, she added, “Have you actually written a proposal?”

 

“Not yet. Just researched.”

 

She nodded as if she suddenly understood something, before leaning forward and speaking in a keen, conspiratorial manner.

 

“They hate change. It’s built into them. The Wizengamot, your boss, my boss, Percy, I… even Ron, for God’s sake. They often don’t see it until you’ve spelled it out for them. I had this same problem when I first started here, until I worked out that nobody listens to you when you’re saying ‘What if?’ It’s harder for them not to listen when you’ve done the work up front.” She shrugged. “It might be extra work for you, but try putting together a proposal of the changes you’d like to see. Give it to your boss when it’s something more than a vague idea he can’t bring himself to imagine.”

 

 

 

 


While I’d deliberately omitted the bit about him being part of The Institution, Percy seemed to agree overall with Hermione’s assessment when I filled him in as we left work that night — though I’d expected him to be a bit more loquacious on the subject. Instead, his expression of agreement was downright passive.

 

“Madeleine’s made it fairly plain that she thinks it’s a waste of time,” I sighed, continuing on the subject of the legislative proposal.

 

Percy’s silence was pointed, and I added, “So I don’t know whether that means she won’t want to help with that bit. I suppose Hermione’s willing to look things over for me, and… I don’t know, you, perhaps, if I can trouble you? Lionel and Noah won’t do any extra work, you know, and Madeleine did raise an interesting point that, since the Prophet’s reporting on this now and Demetrius is, well, equivocating, and Lionel and Noah aren’t exactly known for their discretion… perhaps there’s a limit to which I ought to be blabbing about these ideas, lest the information get spun out of control. Only imagine Demetrius getting owls about things his office is doing that he hasn’t approved yet — ”

 

At the look on Percy’s face, just a bit too carefully blank, I conceded as we slowed in front of a fireplace in the Atrium, “Yes, okay, I know how you feel about her — ”

 

“Oh — oh, no,” he spoke for perhaps only the second time since we’d left our Department. “It’s not that — I mean, it is, but I’m distracted, sorry.” He gestured to the fireplace. “After you?”

 

Back at his flat, I kicked off my heels and set them next to the fireplace as he set down his bag and shrugged out of his work robes with mechanical movements before finally sinking onto his sofa, where he looked at me and absently loosened his tie.

 

“Well, the first thing is as much as I hate to admit it, Ward’s probably right about being discreet, though I hardly think you needed to be told that, since I don’t exactly imagine you going around promoting what you’re doing. I don’t see the harm in talking to Dibble about it, but Hermione may have a point.

 

“However — ” He raised a finger, a bit more engaged by now. “Ward is right about the Prophet, and on that subject, really, mind you be careful with them. They really will look for any reason to suggest the Ministry is mishandling anything, and the truth is often of very little consequence to them.”

 

To this lecture he added, almost as an afterthought, “I’m sure you already know that, I just don’t want you to be… well, Dibble and Grigsby are the ones paid to have to sort out the press in matters handled by your office and to have their names dragged through the mud if anything goes wrong, not you.”

 

Tucking my legs underneath me, I laid my arm across the top of the sofa and allowed my fingers to brush through the hair just above his neck.

 

“Well, now that you’ve warned me against the dangers of the free press” — I succeeded in drawing a sardonic chuckle from him — “do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

 

“Wrong?”

 

“Why you’re distracted? Has there been a mutiny?” I asked, cheekily referring to the fact that Percy had assumed his boss’s duties three more days over the past week.

 

He rolled his eyes. “Not yet.”

 

“I saw you coming out of Mr. Robards’s office earlier, you looked a bit harassed.”

 

“I am a bit harassed.”

 

His expression was just wry enough that I recognized it as a joke, but then I refocused: “Is everything all right, though?”

 

“Yes… and no.” In response to my questioning look, he adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose and assured me, “I’m fine. It just seems I’ll be heading up the Improper Use of Magic Office for some time longer. So, I suppose I might be busier for a while.”

 

“Oh. Well, I’d like that to be happy news, but what’s happened to Mr. Blakely? Is he ill?”

 

Percy’s eyes were fixed on a spot in front of him. “He’s had a death in the family.”

 

“Oh, how awful.”

 

He merely nodded.

 

“How long is he meant to be gone?”

 

“We’re not certain. I’d be surprised if it were any less than three weeks.”

 

“Goodness. It must have been someone very close to him.”

 

“It was his son.”

 

I brought a hand to my mouth.

 

“How awful,” was all I could think to whisper again.

 

He, too, nodded again, slowly undoing his tie and drawing it from around his neck as if for the purpose of having something to do; and while I wasn’t sure precisely what was preoccupying him the most, I couldn’t find the value in pressing it. So I allowed the silence to fill the space around us, not between us, until he finally spoke again, a troubled expression having overtaken his features.

 

“I didn’t think anybody died of dragon pox these days who isn’t over eighty years old.”

 

 


 

A/N: I'd hoped to post an update way sooner than this. Some things happened, struggles were had, mistakes were made -- the point is, if you're still here reading this, you're awesome. I have a not-insignificant amount of the next few chapters already written, so stay tuned. I'm still here, still excited about Percy and Audrey, still in it for the long haul and hope you are, too.

 

I'd like to thank tatapb for the beta work for this chapter and not hesitating to tell me (lovingly) where my draft sucks and could be better, and I'd especially like to thank you, whoever and wherever you are, for reading and commenting. <3

 



Chapter 17: Terrifying Words
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A persistent mizzle, Percy had warned me, could not be trusted to drive most of his family indoors when we attended the gathering at his brother’s house in Cornwall — a last hurrah before Bill and his family moved away for work — and indeed, when we arrived at the cottage by Floo and had a quick introduction with Percy’s sister-in-law Fleur she directed us to the back garden. There we spied George and a tall redhead with a long ponytail immersed in conversation next to a cheerful fire pit — George reclined in a wooden chair with his arms crossed and the other, identified to me as Bill, standing with one foot propped on the stone rim of the fire, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, stray bits of hair whipping about his face with the occasional gusts of wind coming off the cliffs. A charm provided a barrier to rain coming down directly above them, and us when we joined them there.

 

“Well, well,” grinned Bill when he’d spotted us approaching, tucking his hair behind one ear. “Look who’s taken a few hours break from striking fear into the hearts of improper practitioners of magic everywhere.”

 

He was, no doubt, referring to the fact that Percy had been absolutely buried the past couple of weeks as Acting Head of his office.

 

“And what do we call you now?” he continued. “Is it ‘my lord’?”

 

“Think it’s ‘Your Grace,’” offered George.

 

“Oh, shut up,” protested Percy with exasperation already evident, removing his glasses to clean off the tiny droplets of rain. George shook with silent mirth. “And anyway, it’s nothing to be happy about, is it, considering my boss is on bereavement.”

 

“Right,” said Bill with a shrewd look. “But exactly how long did it take you to work out what you were going to wear the first morning you went in to take over?”

 

When Percy pointedly ignored him, George laughed, “Check Audrey’s face, she knows.”

 

I did, in fact, know how long it had taken him, but I schooled my expression as best I could and chose not to share.

 

“But my manners, where are they?” Bill extended a hand to me and introduced himself, followed immediately by the earnest inquiry whether I’d prefer to go inside seeing as it was a “bit nippy” and the insistence to at least get me a drink. A moment later he’d conjured a glass of wine for me and a tumbler containing an unknown liquid, which he thrust into Percy’s hand.

 

“Alright, what the hell is this?” asked Percy suspiciously. Refilling his own glass, Bill rose his eyebrows in amusement while George unsuccessfully tried to suppress a laugh.

 

“Calm down, alright,” replied Bill, “it’s a family evening, isn’t it? No funny business.” Raising his drink to his lips, he added in an undertone, “Not like it’s somebody’s stag night.”

 

“Thank you, we’ve been over it,” was Percy’s clipped reply.

 

“Oh, have we?” Bill looked to George.

 

“Yeah. You were on a tropical island, mate.”

 

Fortunately for Percy’s nerves, the conversation moved on to small talk, and for a while it was just the four of us, chatting around the fire as waves crashed in the distance and the drizzle began to clear up promisingly. We’d arrived on the earlier side, Percy having said he thought it would be nice for me to meet Bill and Fleur first and have a few moments before being accosted by the entire crowd; I rather suspected this was as much for his own benefit as for mine.

 

Partway through, we were joined by Victoire, who came skipping out the back door of the cottage, made a beeline for George, and clambered onto his lap.

 

George let out a defeated sort of sigh. “Get it out of your system before Nana gets here…”

 

At that, Bill chuckled wickedly, and George glared at him. “Easy for you to laugh, you’re going to a different hemisphere.”

 

“What have you decided to with the place?” asked Percy with a nod towards the cottage, drawing the topic back to Bill’s impending move.

 

Bill shrugged. “Guess we’ll let it, maybe just to holidayers, haven’t quite decided. Until whenever we come back. Ron and Ginny both said they don’t need it.” He raised his eyebrows. “Sure you won’t take it for a while? I’d rather have family living here.”

 

“Bit ridiculous, what would I need with this many bedrooms?”

 

“Bet Mum’s got a suggestion,” offered George darkly; he seemed to be splitting his attention between the conversation and listening to Victoire tell him exactly how much she liked airplanes and starfish.

 

“Thank you,” Percy replied with a pointed look, his face flushing more deeply than the pink it had acquired from the sting of the wind.

“How about you?”

 

“Me? I like where I live.”

 

“Yeah, you like it because you don’t pay for it.”

 

“Oh, I pay for it, all right. Dinner once a week with Rupert and Imogene, no exceptions.” With that, George addressed me in a conspiratorial stage whisper, “In-laws, am I right?” accompanied by a look of mirth.

 

His attention snapped back to Victoire, who had managed to locate his wand sticking out of his sleeve.

 

“Oi! What is it with you and wands? Kneazle, too, temperamental buggers, there won’t be a house left…” He rescued the wand from Victoire’s grip and held it in one hand behind the back of his chair.

 

“Kneazle?” I asked curiously. “Your wand?”

 

“Oh, yeah. Few years ago I — well, we, Fred and I — we got new ones, the old ones were beat to oblivion. It was… must have been ninety-six, ninety-seven, after school and before this one got married.” He tilted his head towards Bill. “Anyway, Ollivander was… well, you know, indisposed, so we went to Swynn’s at their first shop in Wales. Good wands, honestly,” he said fairly. “They use some different cores to Ollivander’s. I think the kneazle whisker’s clever, myself. Mighty territorial. But they use the typical ones, as well. I was a bit surprised, actually, when Fred got unicorn tail. Traditionalist in spite of himself.”

 

With a fond sort of look in his eye, he went to take a drink from his glass, his other arm having been freed when Victoire hopped off his lap and skipped over to Bill; she was running in and out between her father’s legs in a kind of game only she seemed to understand.

 

Suddenly George let out a chuckle into his glass — a gleeful, wicked-sounding thing that made Percy glance at him with a wary, “What?”

 

“Oh, you know.” George sniggered again. “It’s just, Fred always said you don’t leave a party until it’s over. We always disagreed, I say you leave it at the high point, and he said you shut it down. And now look at him. Buggered off before the unicorn wands started exploding. Bloody hypocrite.” He laughed and took another sip.

 

Percy placed his forehead in his hand. “Wonderful…”

 

Bill seemed somewhat amused but still shot George a sharp look at the same time he caught Victoire — who seemed to be making herself dizzy — from toppling over.

 

“Well,” he said to George, “as a wise man once said, get it out of your system before Nana gets here.”

 

“Wise man or wise-arse?” offered Percy.

 

“Oh,” said George brightly, “speaking of arses — ”

 

“Mate, d’you mind?” Bill rolled his eyes as he gestured to his daughter.

 

“What? He said it, too.” George pointed at Percy with an air reminiscent of a child taking his sibling down with him.

 

“Oh. Well, he said it posh, I hardly noticed.”

 

“It was a genteel bit of profanity,” agreed George before directing his next comment to Victoire. “Oi, my darling, do this.” He placed his hands over his ears demonstratively (where they’d have been, anyway, had he had both) and Victoire followed suit.

 

“Anyway,” he said once Victoire’s ears were covered. “Did I tell you about the time — I think I told you, but I dunno if I told you — about the time Freddie nearly got gored in the arse by a unicorn in the Forbidden Forest?”

 

Percy muttered something into his own drink that sounded like, “Keeps getting better and better.”

 

George acted as if he hadn’t heard him. “We were collecting unicorn hair, of all things. I mean, not from the actual unicorns, just the ones they’d already shed. They say those ones aren’t used for wands, but they still make excellent stabilizers. At least, we found they did. But Fred got a bit too close to one of them and — well, we reckoned they weren’t using them anymore so they wouldn’t care, but I suppose they saw it different. Never seen him run so fast.” George laughed again.

 

“You are absolutely making this up,” protested Percy.

 

With an affronted look, George raised one hand as if taking an oath. “On Freddie’s perfectly intact arse, I’m not! He never would let me tell anyone about it back then.”

 

Percy looked supremely annoyed, and I interjected, “Did you never have trouble with the unicorn hair you did collect, then?”

 

“No, but on the other hand, we used it mainly for the fireworks, so — ” he shrugged —  “explosions were the goal anyway.”

 

Victoire, tired of holding her hands over her ears, had chosen that moment to wander back to George and become deeply interested in his drink.

 

“No, no, not that either. Check back with me when you’re at least twelve.”

 

A burst of laughter sounded from the house, and Bill craned his neck in an attempt to see who might have arrived, before a thought seemed to strike him.

 

“Oh! Almost forgot. Wanted to show you, before there are too many people and she gets a bit shy. Victoire.” He crooked a finger at her and she shuffled towards him once again. “Tell Uncle Percy what you learnt for Peru. Remember what you wanted to show him?”

 

Victoire scuffed her toe on the ground for a shy moment, her long strawberry blonde hair hanging about her cheeks, dampened a bit from the drizzle, before obliging. “Teng… tengo dos años… Soy de Angle—  Inglaterra.” Then with a giggle she looked up proudly.

 

Amused, Percy looked from Victoire to Bill, asking the latter in a hushed voice, “Am I meant to know what that means?”

 

Bill rolled his eyes, whispering back, “Will you tell her ‘Well done,’ you idiot?”

 

“Oh, yes. Right.” Percy redirected his attention to his niece, who was patiently awaiting her praise.

 

“That was very well done,” he said kindly, if a bit robotically. Then, looking to Bill again, he asked, “All right, what did that mean?”

 

“It’s Spanish for I’m two and I’m from England.” Bill scooped up his daughter, planting several kisses in rapid succession on her cheek before swinging her over his shoulder where she dangled upside down over his back, giggling madly. “Three languages under the age of three, fantastic, isn’t it? Should pack you off to Uncle Charlie in China next.”

 

Addressing me then, Bill continued, “She’s fluent in French, as you can imagine, though you might never hear her speak it. She’s worked out in her mind that Daddy’s family is supposed to speak only English, and Maman’s family is supposed to speak only French, and she’ll almost never cross the two. Watch.”

 

With that, he hefted Victoire back into his arms and said, “Dites à l'oncle Percy ce que nous avons fait en France. Rappelles toi? Quand nous avons rendu visite à Grand-Maman et Grand-Papa. Mais, dis-lui en français.

 

Victoire simply gave Percy a skeptical look that made me giggle into my hand.

 

“Don’t worry, Perce,” said George, “he probably told her to say something rude anyway.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure.”

 

“She won’t do it with you lot,” observed Bill. “It’s really uncanny. Though she’ll do the Spanish, probably because she hasn’t put it in a certain category— Hi, Mum!”

 

Percy’s mum had appeared through the back door of the cottage, followed closely by Percy’s dad as well as Ron, Hermione, and Harry; Ginny and Angelina arrived later in the evening. Over the course of the next hour or two I spoke some more with Bill, and Ginny, and Fleur, who was lovely to me but — like Harry — exhibited a certain reserve that the rest of the family did not. I’d also made good on my promise to show Arthur a laptop power cord, which delighted him, though when he asked keenly why it came in two parts I had to admit that I had absolutely no idea.

 

I found myself eventually, just off the little kitchen inside the cottage, immersed in conversation with Hermione, particularly about work; she’d sent me a note earlier in the week about needing to talk, but schedules unfortunately hadn’t permitted.

 

I filled her in on the hearings we’d had with both Mr. Ollivander (the younger) and Mr. and Mrs. Swynn about our orders to them, and how during those hearings Demetrius and Madeleine had tried to gain their cooperation in providing us with information about their wand sources, but to little avail. At my urging in a note, Demetrius had finally asked whether any of the cores were obtained from unicorns in the Forbidden Forest; I still wasn’t certain whether that bit of data I’d noticed was relevant, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. Mr. Ollivander had maintained he could not reveal that information, but the Swynns had informed us that they never set foot in the Forbidden Forest and they collected their wand components personally.

 

Both wandmakers had offered to replace wands for customers who they believed might have purchased affected wands, based on the ones that had already backfired, seeing as they had the means to trace those to specific unicorns and we still did not. This sort of resolution would still leave us entirely in the dark and was limited and fallible if the wandmakers were not communicating with one another — for how could either of them determine the real extent of the damage? And so our intention was to push forward with the order for them to remove from sale all of their unicorn hair wands created in the past ten years.

 

“But,” I concluded to Hermione, “it seems that bit about the Forbidden Forest was a false trail, if the Swynns never went there. So now we’re back to square one.”

 

If they’re telling you the truth,” she pointed out.

 

“Why would they lie about that?”

 

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s just that there might actually be something to that data.”

 

“How do you mean?”

 

“I had a suspicion ever since you brought it up to me. But I had to talk to Harry. It’s not something widely known, not by the public, at least. I did wonder if I should even tell you, but I don’t think it’s avoidable given the circumstances, and Harry finally agreed.”

 

I nodded, wondering what sort of information could possibly necessitate the involvement of an Auror.

 

“In ninety-one, ninety-two, there was something… unnatural… killing unicorns in that forest. A lot of people don’t know this, but when Voldemort— Oh!”

 

She exclaimed at nearly the same moment I let out a gasp, my heart trying to thump its way out of my chest. It was the first time in my life I could recall hearing somebody actually say the name — in my presence, anyway. In the years following the war I’d seen it in print, of course, though it had taken the Prophet quite some time to come around to printing it, and when they did, they did it sparingly. But was another thing entirely to hear it spoken aloud.

 

I’d started violently when she’d said it, and I wasn’t sure whether she was reacting to my audible intake of breath, the blood having drained from my face, or the fact that my wine glass had broken when my hands had clenched around it, the pieces plummeting to the floor.

 

I supposed I’d known there were circles where the name was said, but never in the offices where I’d worked, and it certainly wasn’t something one bandied about the corridors, let alone in social settings. Yet Hermione had said it like it was nothing.

 

She gaped for a moment as I looked uselessly between her face and the shards of glass at my feet, my brain trying to catch up with what had just happened. She regained her voice before I did.

 

“Oh, I’m — Audrey, I didn’t — ”

 

“Audrey,” interrupted another voice at my shoulder, “are you all right?”

 

“Um…” I shook my head to try to clear it, my heart still pounding as I looked up at him. “I…”

 

“Your hand.” Percy took my right wrist and rotated it to look at my palm, which I now realized was bleeding. “What happened?”

 

“It’s nothing, I’m so sorry, I was clumsy.” I became painfully aware of how quiet the room had grown.

 

Percy, who clearly did not believe this at all, looked expectantly at Hermione.

 

“It — I think it’s my fault,” she offered matter-of-factly, waving her wand to vanish the shattered glass and spilled liquid on the floor. “We were talking and I think I just caught her unprepared when I said Voldem—”

 

Having scarcely recovered from my initial shock, I winced, glad for the fact that Percy had his arm firmly around my shoulders by that point. He, by contrast, appeared to have had no reaction to the name at all, except that he had fixed Hermione with an unmistakable glare.

 

“Thinking before you speak,” he said acidly. “You might try it sometime.”

 

I regained my wits just in time as she opened her mouth to retort, looking offended.

 

“Oh, please, not on my account. It was just an accident, I’m fine, really. It’s okay.”

 

He looked eminently unhappy as he tore his eyes away from Hermione and simply muttered, “Let’s see to your hand,” and steered me down a small corridor. I went gladly, wanting nothing more than to get away from the scene I’d just created.

 

“I’m so sorry, that was completely ridiculous of me…”

 

“It’s not ridiculous; she should have known better.” His voice was tight as he guided me into the bathroom.

 

“It is, there’s no reason anybody should have to act differently just because I’m being foolish — ”

 

“Audrey, stop,” he said curtly — but while his voice bore unmasked annoyance, he was inspecting my palm with concern.

 

“I don’t think it’s very bad at all. I hardly feel it.” I hoped the lingering tremor I saw in my hand was all in my mind.

 

He was quiet for a couple of seconds before allowing, “No, it doesn’t look too bad. But Fleur’s going to be much better at healing spells than I am. May I bring her in?”

 

While I didn’t fancy making my hostess trouble herself over the injury I’d sustained breaking her glassware at her own party, I also didn’t feel up to arguing about it — and at any rate, my hand did need to be sorted, and she’d be the one to know where the supplies were.

 

Percy returned with Fleur, who immediately and silently took up my hand, all business. Percy remained in the doorway, but after a few seconds Fleur decided she’d had enough of that.

 

“How am I supposed to do anything with you hovering over my shoulder? Shoo!” she commanded him, and he obeyed without question.

 

After casting a spell wherein she touched the tip of her wand to the heel of my hand, she decided, “There is no glass in the cut.” Her speech was formal and lightly accented. “Put your hand under the tap, please.”

 

I did as she said, and after a moment holding my hand under the stream of water I ventured, “I’m sorry for breaking your wine glass. So silly of me. And Hermione vanished it before — ”

 

Fleur shook this off. “I have many wine glasses. And, you have not been very much around Bill’s family, I think, but there will be many, many broken dishes, I promise you.” She turned off the tap and glanced at me. “Some of them on purpose.”

 

I laughed a bit, still all nerves, as she began to raise her wand to perform the healing spell, when she paused and added, “And, the brother you have chosen… Well, I think perhaps you will be breaking more dishes than I.”

 

She said it with the air of making a dry little joke, but something in the deliberately light tone of her voice, combined with her guarded attitude, made me wonder whether this was a typical Percy joke or simple personality conflict… or whether, perhaps, not every member of the family had so readily forgiven him for the conduct he’d previously confessed to me.

 

When we rejoined the party I ducked into the empty kitchen to avoid inquisitive eyes for as long as I dared, and there through the window I spied Percy and Ron conversing in the garden, which was now illuminated by floating lights. Ron’s hands were jammed in the pockets of his coat, his face imploring as he spoke animatedly, gesturing towards the house with his elbow; he raised his hands, still ensconced in his pockets, in a helpless sort of way before huddling back up inside his coat.

 

For Percy’s part, he looked the way he did at work whenever someone got it into their head that they were going to criticize something he’d done, only to find that in addition to defending himself he was more than willing to tell them what they’d done wrong instead. He was shaking his head, his nose quite high in the air, and whatever he was saying made Ron roll his eyes and heave such a great sigh that I saw a cloud of breath rise from his mouth in the chilly air.

 

A sense of unease came over me, my suspicions confirmed when they both reentered the house and I — peering from the doorway — watched as Hermione stared daggers across the room at them — or more accurately, probably, at Percy. Between her expression and Ron’s look of resignation, I gathered Ron was in for a long night. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was really my fault.

 

Much as I wished to disappear from the entire scene, there was nothing to do but set the matter right; I drew a steadying breath and emerged from my hiding spot, laying a hand briefly on Percy’s arm in assurance before crossing to Hermione and asking whether we might chat when she’d finished talking to Ginny.

 

“I’m sorry,” I said when she’d joined me. “That was… awkward. And I wish Percy hadn’t said what he’d said, that wasn’t fair to you.” I paused, in case Hermione wanted to say anything about her part; it turned out she didn’t, and she merely nodded a bit, her lips pursed.

 

“We got a bit off track,” I offered, “and you didn’t get to finish telling me what you’d found out. Only — maybe if we could just avoid the name, now that we’ve established who we’re… It’s just… the way I was raised, you see, we didn’t — ”

 

“It’s the fear that gives it any power,” she insisted, “and the more you use it, the less you’ll feel that way.”

 

“Y-yes,” I faltered. My eyes flicked to Percy, hovering nearby with his arms crossed, tensed as though waiting to barge in any moment. I returned my attention to to Hermione. “I suppose. But all the same…”

 

She regarded me a bit dubiously before speaking. “All right. Back in ninety-one, You-Know— ” She rolled her eyes and corrected herself “— well, he — had already begun the process of… coming back.” At the confused look on my face, she added hastily, “I know it really wasn’t until later years, but back then he didn’t… well, he didn’t have a proper form, but those details really aren’t important at the moment; the important part is that to sustain himself he was living off unicorn blood. Which can extend one’s life. I believe that accounts for the anomaly in the unicorn population at that time.”

 

“How on earth do you know this?”

 

She waved this away. “Harry saw him.”

 

I was in a bit of a daze again. “In nineteen ninety-one?” I’d have been barely thirteen years old then.

 

“It’s a long story, and yes, we’re sure. Anyway, it’s not precisely a state secret, but I wouldn’t go spreading it around, either, unless someone needs to know relative to the wand business. Only imagine how people might panic if they thought their wands were, I don’t know, tainted by Dark magic or some such thing — it’s nonsensical, of course, but you know how myths like these get started. I just thought you ought to know that the numbers aren’t, in fact, an aberration.”


 


 


“Did you know about all this?” I asked Percy back at his flat that night, still trying to process the fact that You-Know-Who had been haunting the same grounds as a bunch of schoolchildren for a year.

 

His response was delayed for a second, as he’d chosen that moment to pull his jumper over his head, emerging from it with his glasses askew. He righted them on his nose and smoothed his hair, tossing the pullover into the laundry basket.

 

“I learnt of it a few years ago, yes. The basics, anyway, not the particulars. Excuse me a moment.” Then he disappeared into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

 

By the time I’d done my own, he was in his pyjamas, sat cross-legged on the bed, looking contemplative as he brushed miniscule pieces of lint off the blanket. His silence wasn’t atypical, especially during times when he was under stress, but something about it on this occasion seemed pointed, and I knew precisely why.

 

The first time I’d met his family, it had felt so easy, so normal, like maybe I could fit. And while I’d known they’d led exceptional lives and done great things, not until tonight had I been thrown into such sharp contrast with them. There wasn’t one person in that lot — not even their partners — who hadn’t done some valiant thing or another, and they dropped You-Know-Who’s name in casual conversation at a party as if discussing some petty misdemeanant.

 

I, on the other hand, was a sheltered girl from Nowhere, Derbyshire, who pushed papers into a seeming dead end and fell to pieces over a spoken word.

 

I stood out like a sore thumb.

 

He perked up a bit when I sat next to him, extending his hand and taking mine.

 

“Good as new,” I offered quietly when he contemplated my palm and glanced a silent question at me.

 

He nodded but seemed to lose himself in thought, running his thumb over my hand.

 

“I’m sorry I embarrassed you,” I continued, earning a sharp look from him.

 

“You haven’t embarrassed me. I mean it,” he insisted when I showed my skepticism. “Is that what you think?”

 

“Well, I know I lost my wits like a total — ”

 

“Like anybody else would have, and with good reason? Because Hermione behaved with all the tact of a Stunning Spell?”

 

“I don’t think that’s quite true.”

 

“It is true, and it isn’t just her. Thought perhaps they might have waited a bit longer before showing you exactly how much decorum they don’t have.”

 

“Well, I confess I am surprised to learn that you of all people come from a family of strong personalities.” I stared ironically at him to make my point, until he cracked a smile and relaxed, drawing me down to to lie with him. He smelled of mint toothpaste and faint, lingering traces of cologne, though that might also have been the pillow.

 

I propped my head on my hand, watching as he lay on his back, rubbing his eyes under his glasses.

 

“They’re just… a lot, they can be a lot. Even where they might not be separately. You just get everyone together and then you have Hermione, Ron, Bill, Dad… Mum was all right tonight… and then George…” He let out a satirical little laugh. “That was about as awkward as he could have been. Bravo.”

 

“The bit about your brother?” I guessed.

 

He nodded, his lips pursed a bit, and I ran my fingers through his hair over his ear.

 

“Did it bother you very much?”

 

The question almost seemed to surprise him.

 

“What, George? Me?” He let out a chuckle. “No, it’s quite normal for him. As normal as it can be. We’re used to it. Just not the sort of thing you say in front of…” He rubbed at his eyes again and then removed his glasses entirely, setting them on the nightstand.

 

When he settled again, he was facing me, and he spoke as if offering an explanation.

 

“He didn’t talk about him at all for the longest time. Most of us didn’t, really. But George especially. And then when George did come around to talking about him, it was like he’d made it his goal to just be as shocking as possible. Always joking, at least. As long as he doesn’t make the darker comments in front of Mum and Dad, it’s fine.”

 

He trailed off, as if in reflection, and I waited, until a small smile crept across his face.

 

“Would it surprise you if I told you that of the two of them, George was the quieter one?”

 

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

 

“They were very much alike, as you can imagine, but Fred was sort of… bigger, I suppose? When they were young, especially. Fred was the one who seemed to wake up every morning with a list in mind of all the pandemonium he was going to cause. He had all the grand ideas, and George was definitely not innocent, but every now and then you could see even in George’s face — Fred would be leading some mad enterprise or another, and you could just see George at five years old looking like, Jesus, can’t we just rest today?

 

A warm, genuine laugh escaped him; it infected me so that I couldn’t help smiling, and this seemed to encourage him.

 

“I doubt George would ever admit that, but I remember. There was one time when they — well, for Divination class, we had to keep these dream journals — all ‘round terrible idea, honestly, but they — ”

 

“Divination?” I interrupted in astonishment.

 

He seemed almost surprised at my surprise. “Yes. What?”

 

It somehow hadn’t occurred to me until then that if Percy had achieved all twelve NEWTs, that must have been one of them.

 

“I’m just a bit surprised, is all. What got you interested in that subject?”

 

He shrugged. “It was offered.”

 

Intrigued as I was, it was certainly not the time. “Hmm. Well, go on, I’m sorry I interrupted you. But we might have to loop back around to this bit later, mind.”

 

“Oh, might we?” He seemed amused as he propped his head on his hand, mirroring me, his other hand idly playing with the fabric of my shirt at my stomach.

 

“Well, we had these journals we were supposed to write in every day, to remember our dreams. Over the holidays, at home, Fred and George got hold of mine and filled it with, ah… well, let’s just say some very rude things. I don’t recall the specifics, but even if I did I’m not sure I’d like to repeat some of them to you. I threw a magnificent fit when I found it.”

 

After a contemplative pause, he added, “Some of them, though, were quite creative, really. I wish I could remember better… Anyway, the point is, it was George’s handwriting — they both tried to act like they hadn’t done it, said maybe Ron or Charlie was behind it, but I’d have recognized the handwriting anywhere; I’d looked over enough of their homework by then. But even though it’d been written by George, it had the distinct ring of Fred about it, if you will. He tried to play it off but he looked…”

 

“Guilty?”

 

“No, not guilt. I don’t think he really felt guilt ever. It was more like… satisfaction. Pride, even. He always seemed sort of torn between wanting to get away with something and wanting you to know what a clever thing he’d done.”

 

There followed quite a long moment wherein several times Percy seemed as though he might be on the verge of speech, only to stop himself each time. Our hands found each other and he looked at them rather than me.

 

At last, he came out with it.

 

“Do you remember when I… when I told you that I was awful to him? Because he annoyed me?” The last few words trailed off from a whisper until the “me” was silent, and I merely watched him, waiting for him to continue.

 

“The thing is, I… sometimes I don’t think that I was? Sometimes I do but sometimes I don’t, I don’t know. Not always, anyway.” The question seemed to distress him, and the next bit he appeared almost to say to himself. “We were just so different, is all. I didn’t understand him, and he sure as hell didn’t understand me.”

 

He was staring at an indistinct spot between us, and his face relaxed into a far-away expression, pensive and rueful.

 

“But I remember… it wasn’t always like that, not when we were little.” He glanced up at me as if to gauge my response to this development, and whatever he saw was apparently satisfactory, because he continued, a hopeful tenor to his voice: “I think we got on all right when we were kids. I used to read to them. I couldn’t say exactly when it changed, but things were never really the same after I went to school. You know, not seeing anybody except for holidays. Same with Bill and Charlie, when they went away to school before I did, things were never really the same.”

 

With a shrug he added, “Or maybe that didn’t matter at all, maybe I was always going to be too young for Bill and Charlie and too old for Fred and George, and maybe they were always going to think I was… weird.”

 

I wondered where Vivian and I might be, if she’d spent nearly three entire years away from me in early adolescence before I joined her at school; if instead of spending nearly every night talking to me before going to sleep she spent it with others her own age; if she cared about me but didn’t rely on me in the way we’d come to.

 

“It’s complicated,” I offered softly, and when he nodded with an ironic smile I asked, “Will you tell me something else about him?”

 

This time his nod and smile were appreciative, and he took a moment to situate himself, lying back once again, drawing me closer until I was resting my chin on my hands atop his chest.

 

“You know those particular books that aren’t your books?”

 

“They’re not, and I don’t appreciate that cheeky look on your face.” I felt rather than heard him laugh. “But yes.”

 

“Well. My mum also likes those books, and the reason I know that is Fred and George found them one day while my parents were out, and proceeded to, ah, regale the rest of us with dramatic readings of the contents. Fred’s idea, of course.”

 

“Oh dear.”

 

“You have no idea. They were… well, Bill had gone off by then, but not Charlie; so the twins must have been about thirteen. In retrospect, it was sort of impressive how long they were able to go reading aloud without falling into hysterics — because you could tell they were trying not to. I wasn’t really finding the humor at the time, though. You know, you haven’t really lived until you’ve sat yourself in front of your ten-year-old sister’s bedroom to make sure she can’t come out and hear about things that are… quivering.”

 

“Was Charlie there when they did it?”

 

“Oh, yes. He was critiquing their delivery.”

 

“Did your mum find out?”

 

“God, no. Hiding things from Mum is maybe the one thing we can all agree on when we don’t agree on anything else. In fact… All right, this is something literally nobody in the world knows but George and me. And Fred.”

 

“What an exclusive club.”

 

“It is. But I think you can keep a secret.”

 

I obliged him by drawing an imaginary zipper across my lips.

 

“Mum still thinks it was a very confused owl that demolished half the kitchen, including our great-gran’s vase, nearly fifteen years ago. What she doesn’t know is the owl’s name was Fred-and-George-Playing-with-Bludgers-In-the-House-Again. It supplied me with decent blackmail material for a while. Until it didn’t because they’d already got in trouble for far worse.”

 

We continued in this vein well into the small hours, Percy reminiscing about his brothers’ antics, stifling a yawn now and then as the night grew later. It was as if a dam had broken once he’d started speaking; and it wasn’t until he had trailed off and his eyelids began to flutter, that I planted a kiss on his temple and reached for my wand intending to turn out the light.

 

He spoke again then, slowly, his voice low and thick.

 

“You know how you have these inane thoughts in the moment that don’t make any sense? I had the weirdest notion, the night I arrived at the castle for the battle and saw everyone for the first time in… years. There was a lot going on, commotion, and I wasn’t really focused on anything at first, except, well… except I couldn’t look at my dad, not right away, I looked everywhere else. And Fred was just…”

 

He held up a hand in front of him, just off to the left, before letting it fall limply back atop mine on his stomach. “He was just there, first one I really saw. And the most bizarre thought went through my head, the very first thing, I thought, Charlie, you’ve lost weight. Because he did, for a second, he looked like Charlie. He hadn’t shaved in probably two weeks and he just looked so different to the last time I’d seen him. Older. You wouldn’t think people would change that much, but…”

 

After a massive yawn, he managed the rest with what appeared to be no small amount of effort, some of the words half-formed. “The impression was come and gone so quickly but I still think about it all the time…”

 

It was the silence that followed, combined with his deep, even breathing, that told me that Percy had talked himself entirely to sleep.

 

 


 


“I didn’t think I should wake you,” Percy explained when I found him the following morning lounged lengthwise on his sofa with a book — still in his pyjamas, his hair sticking up on one side, though he tried in vain to flatten it when I entered the room. “Kept you up late enough.”

 

By way of response I merely joined him, stretching out atop him, claiming his chest for a pillow, and my eyes fell on that day’s crossword puzzle laying on the coffee table. As it was Sunday, it was the Prophet’s more difficult Muggle edition, and Percy had made a valiant effort, completing half of it.

 

Picking it up, I lifted my head and studied it for a moment, until a question having to do with Muggle astrology jogged my memory.

 

“Can’t believe you didn’t get 18-Down,” I remarked.

 

He peered at the paper in my hands and then scoffed. “Muggle Divination?”

 

I tossed the crossword down again. “I confess I’m still having a difficult time envisioning you getting on with that subject.”

 

“Well…” He lowered the book to his side, a finger marking his page. “It depends how you look at it, I suppose. A lot of people think it’s about learning how to tell the future and… it is and it isn’t. You can’t teach Sight, you know. I gather the class can be useful for discovering who might have a real aptitude for it, but as far as I could tell, nobody in my classes seemed to. Nor did my teacher, really, which was why I did self-study after the OWL. But in the end, at least where the exams are concerned, it’s less about making predictions based on tea leaves and palm-reading — because those are so open to interpretation, even confirmed Seers have disagreed — and more about understanding the theory. How Sight manifests and what signs can be trusted and which ones less so. Certain things always behave according to natural magical law. Runes, for example…”

 

With a little shrug, he pressed his lips together and brushed a bit of my hair away from my forehead.

 

“Go on?” I encouraged.

 

When he lifted a dubious eyebrow I nodded, and he obliged.

 

“Well, runes have been trusted for millennia for guidance, you know, they’re not just a tool, they possess magic inherently. And a lot of people take Ancient Runes and don’t realize that about a quarter of the time they’re studying something just next door to Divination…”

 

I listened as he went on for a few minutes, explaining the use of runes in Divination and the uses of runes that might not appear to have anything to do with Divination at first glance. Some of what he said was familiar, but some things I hadn’t known, having not studied runes past my OWLs.

 

“So,” I concluded, “what you’re telling me is you can’t, in fact, read this.” I waved my hand playfully in front of his face; he caught hold of it and gave my palm a haughty look, which quickly turned to one of mild surprise.

 

“Actually… This is very strange, I’ve never seen this before.”

 

“What?” I asked, caught entirely off guard.

 

“It’s bizarre, it says…” He squinted a bit. “It says, Bugger… off… you… tosser—

 

“It doesn’t say that!” I laughed, pulling my hand back, but he held onto it.

 

“It does, who’s the expert here?” He planted a kiss on my hand before releasing it.

 

“Go back to your reading about — What are you reading about?”

 

“History of magical monetary standards and exchange rates.”

 

“Am I in the way?”

 

“No. Stay right where you are.” He flipped open his book in one hand while with the other he stroked my hair as I relaxed, laying my head down once more. The steady rise and fall of his chest threatened to lull me back to sleep — until he spoke again.

 

“I love you.”

 

There was an ease with which he said it, a plainness — calmly, as if he were accustomed to it. As if he’d been saying it for years.

 

And though my heart jumped with conspicuous force, the words came without resistance, without need for thought.

 

“I love you.”

 

Openly; easily. As if I’d been saying it for years.


 


 

A/N:  Two months between updates is better than three, right? I've also made decent progress on the next couple of chapters already, so I anticipate you won't have to wait this long for the next one (famous last words, right?)

 

The thing Bill says to Victoire in French is, "Tell Uncle Percy what we did in France. Remember? When we visited Grandma and Grandpa. But tell him in French."

 

Forgive me if it's not exactly right -- I'm relying on high school French from about 20 years ago. XD

 

Whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope they are or have been beautiful, joyful, and safe. Take care of yourselves. 2020 sucks, but Percy lurves Audrey, so there's always that. <3



Chapter 18: Form and Formalities
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“Miss Granger, not twelve months ago you stood before this Committee and asked us to pass a law abolishing the Werewolf Registry — ”

 

Approaching hour three of a hearing before the Wizengamot’s Legislative Committee, Hermione showed no sign of discomposure or agitation that I could see, aside from shifting her weight, scratching her left ankle with her right foot before tapping the toe of her shoe against the floor.

 

“ — and now you propose that the law further involve itself in the lives of werewolves. Forgive my confusion as to whether you want the Ministry to regulate werewolf affairs or not.”

 

From where I was sat, I couldn’t see Hermione’s face as she addressed the Committee, but rare were the occasions when she’d so much as ducked her head to consult her notes before responding.

 

“No more than the Ministry regulates the affairs of Muggle-born witches and wizards, which is to say, not at all. Not for simply having the audacity to exist. But I think you’d agree, Mr. Shafiq, that under the Blood Status Act of 1962 — paltry though these provisions may be — all witches and wizards are considered equal under our laws, or at least are supposed to be.”

 

“With that being the case, I wonder at the need for your current proposal.”

 

“Putting aside the fact that lycanthropy is not a blood status question…”

 

The Committee — a subset of the full Wizengamot — was convened for the Second Reading of a bill proposed by Hermione that would make it illegal for anyone to deny werewolves employment or housing. The Second Reading, in the Ministry’s lawmaking process, was meant to be an opportunity for the Committee to enquire publicly into the details of the proposal before taking it under submission and inviting public comment at the next stage.

 

Officially, this was supposed to be a preliminary information-gathering process; in practice, it appeared much more adversarial. Hermione parried question after question — many of which seemed more like arguments — from nearly every member of the twenty-three-seat Committee. While a couple remained silent throughout the proceeding — and in fact, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that one was napping — and a few made perfunctory inquiries for their notes before sitting back with their arms crossed, the rest of the hearing was dominated by a handful of personalities.

 

There was Madam Featherwood, whose every question was met with a response by Hermione that the information sought had already been provided in supporting research attached to Hermone’s bill. There was Madam Badali, the Chairwitch, who was fond of asking what sounded like the same question five different ways in the hopes that Hermione’s responses might change. There was Mr. Fawley, whose constant interruptions of Hermione preceded a marked, impatient change in the pitch and tempo of her speech — as it did now, when Mr. Fawley broke through her explanation of the particular hardships encountered by lycanthropes in magical society.

 

“What I still don’t understand is what good any of this will do when one considers the lack of interest shown by most werewolves in leaving the pack lives they’ve led for hundreds of years.”

 

As it had half a dozen times before, Hermione’s response came rapid and emphatic on the heels of Mr. Fawley’s enquiry.

 

“My bill doesn’t concern itself with how witches or wizards should live their lives or with whom. Merely their ability to find employment and a roof over their heads. It’s not for this Committee, or for me, to tell anybody that they ought to leave pack society and integrate themselves into our communities, so long as they have equal opportunities to do so if they choose. Wizards not afflicted with lycanthropy are perfectly capable of making all sorts of choices you may not agree with as well, including whether to live in magical or Muggle society — the point is, they’re given an equal starting point on the pitch, to put it in Quidditch terms.

 

“And in fact, it is the failure of society to accept those with lycanthropy, that has historically driven so many of them to pack life — for what else is available to them? We cannot blame them for the lives we have driven them to, and this Honorable Committee should ask itself which came first: the dragon or the egg?”

 

Mr. Fawley stared dispassionately at Hermione during her answer, at the conclusion of which he dropped his eyes to his notes in an apathetic manner without a word of acknowledgement.

 

No further questions followed, and Madam Badali cleared her throat.

 

“Well, Miss Granger, have you any closing remarks for this Committee?”

 

“Yes, Madam Chairwitch. I want to make it very clear that I harbor no illusions that this law would solve every problem when it comes to werewolf relations. No doubt those afflicted with lycanthropy will continue — at least in the foreseeable future — to encounter hatred and social ostracization. It’s an experience I don’t believe anybody here would like to volunteer for. I recognize the limits of the law, and that we can’t command witches and wizards to like werewolves, to befriend them, to take tea with them — but I also recognize, as I think this Honorable Committee does, the potential of the law. We can, at a minimum — and I do mean minimum — demand that with respect to such essentials as employment and housing that these people be treated as equals, because they are.

 

“I ask this Honorable Committee to consider the research I’ve attached to my proposal, in particular the findings of Professor Lilliput which debunk those of Warlock Fitzgriffin from 1813. And I’ll reserve any additional comment for the Third Reading.”

 

“Very well.” The Chairwitch checked her watch. “Seeing as it’s already half eleven, we’ll adjourn now for the midday hour and take up the next matter after lunch.” She directed her next comments to a young wizard with a short ponytail seated in the first row directly behind Hermione. “Mr. Choi, we’ll begin the reading of your bill at half past one.”

 

Mr. Choi looked less than pleased at finding his business bumped past lunch in the wake of Hermione’s debate, but he nodded and stood with everyone else as the Council filed out of the chamber. When the door had thudded shut behind the last Councilmember, Mr. Choi looked at Hermione, who was securing her notes in a file.

 

“Thanks for that, Hermione,” he said dryly.

 

She looked up, her face impassive and her voice light. “I did tell you there wasn’t a chance they’d get to yours before noon.”

 

“Gonna propose a bill that you don’t get to take the morning sessions anymore.”

 

She rolled her eyes with a long-suffering sigh, but she was also smiling a bit. “Have a good lunch, David.”

 

“Well, what did you think?” she asked me once the few other spectators had cleared the chamber and we’d begun making our way to the lifts.

 

I had quite a lot of thoughts but decided to start with, “I hadn’t expected it to take that long at this stage.”

 

She let out a huff. “It usually doesn’t, or shouldn’t. But for this particular bill I expected it. It’s controversial, it makes them nervous. They treated this more like a Third Reading before the full Wizangamot. Only thing missing was the public comment.

 

“I wouldn’t expect yours to be anywhere near this prolonged or complicated,” she added as we joined a small group waiting for the lifts. “Not at the Second Reading, anyway. Also, I’ve got a history with them now, and they always try to convolute the issue with my other bills. Yours should be much cleaner.”

 

Our conversation lapsed until we’d exited the lift again for Hermione’s office.

 

“How on earth do you manage not to get flustered? All those people. Talking at you. Interrupting you.”

 

A cynical hmmph escaped her and she gave me a knowing look, adding, “He never does that to Choi.”

 

Then after a little shake of her head she continued fairly, “But, at any rate, you can only answer one question at a time, can’t you? It’s no different really, to having only one person ask the questions. And it’s just a matter of being prepared — knowing your research, your proposal, working out ahead of time what they’re likely to ask you.”

 

“It seems a few of them are fond of asking questions that haven’t anything to do with anything,” I pointed out.

 

She sighed. “That’s entirely true. My suggestion, have someone else read it over and tell you what questions they have. In your own office but also — honestly, sometimes I have Ron interrogate me about some of my bills, encourage him to be as difficult as possible, even. He sees things in a different way, and sometimes he comes up with issues I hadn’t considered. Even if it’s just traditionalist nonsense that wouldn’t have crossed my mind.”

 

She shrugged as if to herself. “And sometimes he’s just flat-out obstinate. But so’s the Wizengamot.”

 

I chuckled. “And it doesn’t bother you, him debating your work?”

 

Hermione flashed me a wry look as we entered her office. “When he’s wrong, it does.”

 

Three interdepartmental memos were waiting for her, fluttering around the airspace above her desk apparently playing some sort of game with one another. They delivered themselves onto the desk in front of Hermione as she plopped unceremoniously into her chair and I took the one across from her.

 

“A lot of their questions invariably have to do with why it’s necessary — why they should be expending the time and ink when things work so much better as they are now. You’ve just got to explain to them why it’s not good enough now.

 

“For example — ” She picked up the draft of my proposal I’d given her the day before for her review and suggestions, brandishing it demonstratively. “They’ll ask you, what’s the point of forcing Ollivander to tell you whether they get their components from the Forbidden Forest or not? How will that help in the slightest?”

 

“It wouldn’t just be that,” I explained. “As far as we know, wandmakers track details such as the precise unicorn that gave hair for wands, which wands, and when. Even if a pattern were still difficult to pin down, we should have a much more specific idea of which wands have been compromised.”

 

“Exactly.” She delivered this with a bright smile as though that were that.

 

It seemed it could hardly be that simple, though.

 

“But isn’t it entirely different once you’re before the Wizengamot? Intimidating?”

 

“It doesn’t have to be.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well…” Her brow creased as she pondered for a second. “You’ve explained your bill to me, yes?”

 

“Right.”

 

“And if Percy asked you to tell him what it’s about, you’d be able to?”

 

“He has done, and yes.”

 

“And has he had any questions about it or talked it over with you?”

 

“Yes…”

 

“And has he seen your draft, and given any critique?”

 

“He did have a chance to look at it, and he was very complimentary, but he’s been so busy and he said you’d be able to give me much better feedback anyway — ”

 

She waved this away. “Well, alright, but if he had asked you about it — say he asked you to explain, oh, I don’t know, why it’s insufficient to trust the wandmakers on an honor system, to trace the affected wands themselves and trust that they’ll set it right if we order them to do so. Would you be able to tell him why that’s not a good enough solution? Or me, for that matter? Or your boss?”

 

“Of course.”

 

She splayed her hands with a satisfied look. “So why should it be any different just because the person asking the questions is wearing purple robes?”

 


 


Percy had quite enough to be getting on with at the moment. He was handling his boss’s role on top of his own usual duties, and when I’d asked him once whether it would be possible for him to delegate some of those responsibilities to someone else in his office he’d looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head.

 

While he remained perfectly put together at work, he wasn’t sleeping nearly enough, and even his appetite had diminished, and I’d have suspected him of being worried if not for the fact that he really wasn’t one for fretting. But if he was, he didn’t say.

 

He’d told me before that the official reason given to him by the Powers That Be for denying his request to transfer to another Department that year, was that his talents were most needed in his current assignment — and skeptical though he’d sounded, I suspected it was true. If someone like Lionel had been in Percy’s position, that office might have fallen to pieces when Mr. Blakely went out.

 

I found him lost in thought in an otherwise empty Improper Use of Magic Office when I went to say goodbye after work that day, already well past quitting time for any of our colleagues.

 

“Blakely’s got Council hearings on the schedule for next week,” he explained when I asked him whether he intended to stay much later.

 

The Council of Magical Law was yet another subset of the Wizengamot charged with hearing certain violations of law, an inferior court of sorts.

 

“Really? I thought you only ever held hearings up here?”

 

The cases handled by the Improper Use Office were typically infractions warranting only administrative sanctions, and the bulk of them seemed to be unauthorized underage magic. Percy had told me that these matters were typically decided by a small tribunal comprised of the Head of Department or their representative, one member of the Council, and a delegate appointed by the Minister’s Office. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement Hearing Chambers bore little resemblance to any type of courtroom I was aware of, appearing more as an over-important conference room.

 

Percy rubbed at his eyes under his glasses. “Usually, yes, but now and again we have to escalate to the Council.”

 

“For criminal proceedings?”

 

“Very occasionally, but more often contempt. Take this one, for example.” He tapped one finger on a parchment next to where I perched on the edge of his desk. “He’s been sanctioned eight times — never paid a Knut, by the way — and we had to have him personally ordered by the Council to cease his activities. Blakely did, anyway; I wasn’t there. The short version of this story is: He didn’t stop. So now he’s being brought up for contempt.”

 

“Eight times? What’s he been doing?”

 

“He’s had a longstanding feud with his neighbor. A lot of petty Muggle baiting.”

 

“Lord,” I scoffed. “It’s not my dad, by chance, is it?”

 

Percy raised an interested eyebrow. “Not unless your dad’s changed his name and moved to Cumbria.”

 

“Good. Forget I said anything.”

 

He gave me a wan smile. “This particular one’s been a thorn in our side for two years. You wouldn’t believe how long the case was kicked back and forth down the corridor when we first got it. Aurors didn’t want it, he’s definitely not Dark; but whenever someone’s messing with Muggles you have to alert them at least. Magical Criminal Investigations didn’t want it, he’s not dangerous or serious — they didn’t think so, anyway, but we did at first, until we realized that everything he was doing constituted petty offenses. He goes right up to the line where it would otherwise cross into something more serious, like he knows the loopholes.

 

“This whole process is the reason Investigations don’t want it, by the way — a lot of work for very little payoff; there’s not much we can do to him but order him to pay a fine and then essentially watch as he incinerates the orders and keeps doing it. Until now, when we’ll ask the Council to hold him in contempt.

 

“Anyway,” he concluded with a dismissive shake of his head, “I’ve never actually done one of these; it’s always the Head of Office.”

 

“Are they particularly difficult?”

 

“Shouldn’t be.” His face did not manage to look as unconcerned as his voice sounded, and he leant back in his chair with his arms crossed, but he did not elaborate.

 

Then after a few seconds’ quiet his eyes fell on a copy of the Prophet at the corner of his desk, and he shifted topics.

 

“It was a good article, I was surprised. Didn’t know where they’d come down on the issue.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“Well, the article they did about the wands.”

 

“Oh, I hadn’t realized they’d done one already.” I flipped through the pages until I found it. “I haven’t had a chance to look at the paper today, actually.”

 

“It was quite an extensive statement by Dibble,” he said as I perused the article. “I assumed it must have been prepared by you.”

 

“No…” I replied vaguely, trailing off as I continued reading, until finally I added, “Madeleine handled the press enquiry; good thing, too, I certainly don’t want to talk to any reporters. And it only makes sense, considering she’s taken on a larger role ever since we took official action.”

 

I could actually feel the look he was giving me without raising my own eyes from the paper. “Yes, I know, you have opinions about her.”

 

“That’s one way of putting it.”

 

Folding up the Prophet once again, I swatted him lightly on the head with it. “She’s been in the office longer than I have, and Demetrius had promised her to be able to assist with the next major case. Which is this. And like I said, I don’t want to deal with the press anyway, and it’s allowed me more time to explore the legislative possibilities.”

“Dibble finally taken to the idea, then?”

“No, I still haven’t talked to him about it. He’s quite harassed as it is by the whole thing, I really wanted to have everything in perfect order before I go there. Hermione’s looking over my completed draft now.”

"Sounds like it should be soon, then?"

 

"Think so, though I talked with Madeleine today, and you know, up until now she hasn't seemed to think much of pursuing legal change, but she told me she's done some more thinking and believes it might be a good idea with a few tweaks. Thinks there may be a better way to frame it so it's more likely to pass." I ran my finger along the folded edge of the newspaper, pondering. "So I suppose after I get Hermione's comments, we'll talk about it a bit or -- I don't know, maybe presenting Demetrius with two options will encourage him to actually go with one."

 

Percy eyed me over the top rim of his glasses. “Is there any point in asking whether you’ve placed a security charm on your work?"

 

“What on earth for? It's not exactly state secrets, is it? And it's not a competition. Besides, what would happen if I were — I don’t know, hit by a bus one day — ”

 

“Don’t say that.”

 

“ — and then nobody could get access to what I was working on? Assuming anybody found it the slightest bit important.”

 

“You mean if Dibble were to go looking for the thing he apparently didn’t know existed in first place because you haven’t told about it yet?”

 

I swatted him again. “Don’t be smart. Or paranoid.”

 

Whatever retort he had was overtaken by a yawn.

 

“Are you sure you have to stay?”

 

He nodded mulishly.

 

“Well, then.” I straightened out a bend in his collar. “I should leave you to it so you’re not here until midnight. See you tomorrow?”

 

He looked regretful. “You can still go to mine if you like? I just hate to keep you waiting, is all.”

 

“No, it’s a good chance for me to see my sister anyway. I think she’s off today. I’ve hardly seen her the last few times I’ve been home — she’s either at work or shut up in her room sleeping.”

 

“All right.” He reached out for my hand. “Tomorrow, then.”

 

“Tomorrow.” I gave his hand a little squeeze. “And by the way, you do know what tomorrow is, don’t you?”

 

“Friday?”

 

“Bonnie’s birthday.” Secretary to Percy’s boss — or, at present, Percy.

 

He blinked. “Oh. She didn’t mention.”

 

“Shall I take that to mean you haven’t got her anything, then?”

 

I derived a good deal of enjoyment from the look of abject confusion on his face.

 

“What?”

 

“You should always give your secretaries gifts, you know. They’re got very underappreciated jobs.”

 

“She’s not my secretary, she’s Marv’s, and she’s made that very clear to me.” His tone was glib and his eyes darted to his watch. “Anyway, bit late for this information.”

 

“Hmm. It might be. Luckily for you, I’m prepared.” With that, I summoned from my own office, tucked under my desk, a potted snapdragon, the same type I’d once given to Violet.

 

“Bonnie’s mentioned wanting some of these ever since I gave some to Violet,” I explained, offering him the plant, which he accepted with a slightly dazed look. “Watch your fingers.”

 

He pulled his right hand out of harm’s way just in the nick of time as one of the blooms nipped at him. “You just had this sitting around? For… emergency birthdays?”

 

“They’re usually not emergencies, they’re on the same day every year, you see.”

 

The satiric look he threw me was immensely gratifying.

 

“Anyway, no, I was going to give it to her. But now you are.”

 

“But… then, what about you?”

 

I shrugged. “Not to worry, I’ll bake something.” Then I laughed, unsure whether the eyebrow he raised at me was suspicious or impressed. “Trust me on this.”

 

The plant was still in his hands, and I took it and placed it on his desk before leaning forward to press a kiss to his forehead. “All right, now I’m really off.” I put my hand on his cheek until he looked me in the eye. “Please don’t stay too late. And sleep, yes?”

 

He nodded, almost convincingly.

 

“All right. See you tomorrow.” I stood, smoothing my skirt, and headed for the door, pausing briefly to add, “And seriously, watch your fingers. That one’s particularly feisty, I don’t know what Dad did to it.”

 

“I’m sure we’ll get on famously,” was his dry response, sending me chuckling towards the lifts.

 

Once home, I found Vivian in a pensive state in the kitchen, apparently doing nothing and looking at nothing in particular as she slouched against the worktop.

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked immediately upon seeing her there.

 

“What?” Her voice was thick and her demeanor vague. “Nothing.”

 

I eyed her in disbelief. Her eyes were red, the circles there prominent; her limp hair was its natural brown, without a trace of color; and she was engulfed in an oversized jumper.

 

“Come on,” I protested.

 

“I’m just tired, is all. Been busy. Picking up double shifts.”

 

“You look like you’ve been working every shift. Have you been…” I peered more closely at her. “Have you been crying?

 

“No!” she insisted crossly. “I’m just… puffy.”

 

She sniffled, and I glared until she let out an exasperated sigh and began to stalk off towards her room without further explanation.

 

“Wait!” I said. “What were you doing just skulking about in the kitchen, staring at the wall?”

 

“What?” She turned. “Oh. Oh, yeah, I was going to make tea. Forgot.”

 

She drifted back towards me but I cut her off and reached for the kettle myself. “Well, I’ll do it; sit down, won’t you?”

 

“Audrey,” she said irritably. Vivian was much better at mothering than she was at being mothered, but this was rare form even for her. “I don’t need you to — Ah-choo!

 

“A-ha. You’re getting sick,” I accused.

 

“I’m not getting sick, I can’t get sick right now.”

 

“Well, maybe you need to. Maybe you’ll actually sleep. And you can glare at me all you want, I’m making you tea and then you’re going to lie down. You’re not working tomorrow, are you?”

 

She picked sullenly at a loose thread on her sleeve. “No, but I’m on Floo.”

 

We passed a minute in silence as the kettle boiled and I watered my roses, which were particularly lush lately and showing off in a cheeky shade of peach — and when Vivi still showed no inclination to chat, I turned to the refrigerator to locate some butter for baking, finding it at last behind a few of Michael’s high protein drinks and bottles of a dark ale that Vivi had never drunk before she’d started dating him.

 

A thought struck me when I handed Vivi her tea, and I offered hopefully, “Want to set up on the sofa? Watch a movie?”

 

There was the briefest pause before she shook her head. “Nah. I should just go to bed.” Then after a quick “Thanks; night,” she disappeared into her room, the door clicking shut behind her.

 


 

A/N: 

Many thinks to my friend and fellow writer cassielassie, who drunkenly role-played a Ministry of Magic legal argument with me in a google doc back when I still wasn't sure how extensive Hermione's scene with the Wizengamot was going to be in this chapter. Cassie ended up using some of what we created as inspiration for a Dramione fic because she hates me or something -- but it's cute and fluffy and you should go check it out: it's called The One With Technical Difficulties, and I'm not sure whether she's posted it on these archives but it's on AO3 for sure.

 

We don't know much about the Ministry's legislative process, except that we're never told they have any kind of parliament, and I don't even know whether they have elections, considering I think the Minister is appointed, not elected. Anyway, I decided to make the Wizengamot their legislative body, which on the one hand seems problematic because the Wizengamot is also their judiciary -- but on the other hand, this seems par for the course for the way the MoM does things. I borrowed loosely -- and I do mean loosely -- from some aspects of the legislative process of Parliament to create the MoM's system here.



Chapter 19: A Touch of Blue
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Half seven on the morning of his Council hearings found Percy standing before his closet holding two navy and burgundy ties, apparently comparing them. I’d awoken early and was attempting to capture a few more minutes of sleep, until I looked again and realized that he was, in fact, glaring at them.

 

Nothing in his closet deserved to be scowled at in such a cynical manner. It had quickly become apparent to me that his attire was the only thing Percy seemed to spend money on.

 

“What’s wrong?” I yawned.

 

He glanced at me over his shoulder. “Morning. Nothing, go back to sleep.”

 

“Mmm.” I burrowed back into my pillow but then opened one eye to catch him select the one on the left; I watched surreptitiously as he tied it about his neck before walking out of the bedroom.

 

Not thirty seconds later, my eyes flew open once more when he strode back into the room.

 

“Disaster…” he muttered, looking in the mirror as he loosened the knot.

 

Now I propped myself up on one elbow. “What are you doing?”

 

“Hmm?” He still seemed to be speaking more to himself. “Oh, this one’s blue with red. The other’s red with blue…”

 

“Oh.” I peeled back the covers as he withdrew the red-with-blue tie from his closet and eyed it skeptically. “Which robes?”

 

He plucked demonstratively at the sleeve of a set of slate blue robes hanging there. I liked those ones on him.

 

“Good choice.” As he hadn’t made any movements to actually put the tie on, I slid out of bed and took it from his hand, meeting no resistance. “Come here.”

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“What are you doing?” I returned.

 

When he shook his head and fidgeted a bit, I slid the tie around his collar, murmuring, “Stand still, won’t you?”

 

Hands resting on his hips, he did grow quite still as I ensured the ends were the right lengths; the only sound I heard was breathing as I did him up, biting my lip a bit as I went across, around, over, through, and when I glanced up I saw his eyes were locked on me.

 

I finished the knot and slid it up to his collar. “Now you’re set, I think.”

 

A sound of dissent escaped him as he lifted one hand to regard his watch and then me… watch… me — but this time with raised eyebrows.

 

“Whatever that look’s about,” I said, “wipe it off your face immediately.”

 

“I don’t think I will, thanks.”

 

“Thought you had things to do before your hearings.” However, I did not step back.

 

He remained stock still, hands at his hips again, his voice low. “In all fairness, who’s going to say anything?”

 

“Well, when you’re in charge, you’ve got to set the example.” I threw him a haughty look as I reached for his slate blue robes.

 

“Oh, say that again?”

 

“What, set the example?”

 

“The bit before it.”

 

“That you’re in charge?”

 

His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Oh, yeah, that’s doing it. Say it again, will you?”

 

Then he laughed as I thrust his robes into his arms, before standing on my toes to kiss him, whispering, “Get lost, please.”

 

 


 

 

I left for work half an hour after Percy and already had a stack of post waiting for me — replies we’d solicited from any and all witches and wizards who’d purchased unicorn hair wands in the past decade and who would like them replaced — the best we could do at present, it seemed, without mandatorily recalling all of them. Whatever we ordered surrendered would have to be replaced free of charge, and currently Swynn and Ollivander were contending they should only bear the cost of those wands they identified as compromised based on their records. Madeleine’s idea was that if we threatened to hold them responsible for the cost of replacing every single unicorn hair wand in use they might ultimately bend and be willing to provide information that would narrow it down; so far they weren’t falling for the bluff.

 

I’d just finished opening a letter from a Ms. Anemone Hirschfield of Dorset (with a wand of unicorn tail and poplar, eight and a half inches, sold by Ollivander in 1996), when a memo fluttered in and delivered itself neatly atop the pile in my inbox.

 

          Audrey,

          Are you free around lunch? I have some notes for you!

          — Hermione 

 

I penned a quick reply and then buried myself in parchmentwork again for the better part of an hour before anything interrupted me. The office was uncharacteristically — and blissfully — quiet that morning.

 

Halfway through a letter from Mr. Grimm Decklebury of Appleby-in-Westmorland, about his son Sylvester’s wand (unicorn tail and vine, ten inches, sold by Swynn in 2000), someone caught my attention.

 

“Audrey?”

 

Robbie Saunderson was in the corridor, peering through the doorway, making what I believe he thought was a furtive gesture for me to come speak to him. I glanced around, catching the eye of Noah, who upturned his palms with a blithe, if not somewhat intrigued, expression. Madeleine threw an irritated glance at Robbie before raising her eyebrows at me as if it was me who had summoned him there in the first place. Setting down my quill, I joined him in the corridor, guiding him a little further away from the door.

 

“Robbie, hi, what’s wrong?” Him looking worried wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary, but him seeking me out in this manner was.

 

“It’s, erm — ah — Percy, well — ” He gestured with his hands in a hopeless manner and seemed to be using his eyes to try to convey what his words could not in that moment.

 

I sighed apologetically. “Oh, what’s he done?”

 

“No, no, he — in the courtroom, he — well, he had an… an episode?”

 

That took me aback. “Sorry?”

 

“You know, like… like he couldn’t breathe?”

 

What??

 

“Well, except he could — ”

 

Robbie was a dear, but in this moment I could understand why he drove Percy absolutely mad sometimes.

 

“Robbie, what is going on?”

 

“Just — come on.”

 

Bewildered though I was, I didn’t speak again until we were in the lift descending to Level Ten. “Robbie, what on earth — ”

 

“I don’t know, I don’t know.” His hands fidgeted and fluttered helplessly at his sides. “It was weird…”

 

“Well, I hope someone sent for help? Before you came all the way — ”

 

“Well, no, he’s fine now, I just thought…” He averted his eyes. “I dunno, I thought you should be there, I thought…” He now looked like he was going to be sick.

 

“It’s all right. Let’s just…” I brought my hand to my forehead for a moment, trying to think. “Okay, what happened?

 

“I don’t know, we were about to start one of the hearings and he looked like he was taken ill, all of a sudden, fanning himself like it was fifty degrees in there; and then he excused himself from the courtroom and went out into the corridor like… like he couldn’t draw a proper breath, you know? Told me off and said he was fine, but he didn’t look it…”

 

When we reached Level Ten we hurried along the corridor to Courtroom Six, Robbie leading the way and me shuffling as fast as I dared in my shoes on the slick floors. But once there, instead of entering the courtroom, Robbie directed me to a small interview room just across the way. I knocked briefly before letting myself in.

 

Percy was sat in a chair, elbows on his knees, head in his hands, his glasses resting on a table next to him. His work robes were in a heap on the floor, his shirt sleeves pushed up haphazardly, and when he lifted his head I saw his shirt was unbuttoned halfway, revealing his undershirt, his tie hanging undone around his neck.

 

His look of confusion upon seeing me lasted a nanosecond, quickly replaced by unmistakable fury.

 

“Saunderson!” He was staring daggers at the both of us, and I resisted the urge to take a step back. “What the hell were you thinking?

 

“Don’t yell at Robbie!” I insisted, and Percy responded with a pugnacious look, though he also looked, well, wretched. His face was somehow both flushed and pale at the same time, his eyes were suspiciously wet, and sweat glistened at his hairline. In his hand he clutched what looked like a balled up handkerchief.

 

But aside from his exhausted presentation, he seemed not to be in any immediate distress, so I allowed myself a moment to turn to Robbie and murmur, behind the cover of the partially-opened door, “It’s all right, you can leave us. You did right, don’t worry.”

 

“Tell the Council I’ll be ten minutes,” added Percy in a voice designed to make himself understood; he was staring at the wall instead of me when I glanced back at him before returning my attention to his assistant in the corridor.

 

“Robbie,” I whispered. He’d already begun to head back to the courtroom and spun on his heel at my address. “Make it twenty.”

 

Then before he had a chance to argue, I left a fretful Robbie in the corridor and joined Percy in the tiny room, closing the door behind me.

 

He was staring now at the floor, running his hand through his hair. “He shouldn’t have brought you down here.” His voice was hard.

 

I pulled up an empty chair and took a seat beside him, hands in my lap. “And why not? What’s happened to you?”

 

He shook his head. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

 

It seemed it would be rather unhelpful of me in that moment, to point out that he was not, in fact, fine.

 

I’d decided to give it a few minutes before trying again — as he was still pointedly avoiding looking at me but also wasn’t throwing me out — when the door opened again, preceded by a perfunctory rap. Percy flushed anew when Hermione’s head popped through the doorway.

 

“What are you doing here?” he demanded in dismay.

 

I was about to chastise him for speaking to her that way, when she beat me to a response.

 

“Hmm,” she mused, apparently not at all put off by his reaction, “you know, I think those might have been the first words a Weasley ever said to me. How funny.” She stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. “How are you?”

 

“Oh, brilliant,” he muttered darkly. “How did you even…”

 

“I’m always down here,” she said, as though that explained everything. Percy let out a huff and muttered something to himself.

 

“Percy, you needn’t be ashamed of it,” she said with a manner that fell somewhere between reassurance and frustration. Percy stared at the floor again, head in his hands, blowing out long, slow breaths.

 

“It’s a panic attack,” Hermione explained, looking to me. “That’s what they call it. It’s supposed to feel like having a heart attack. You know Ginny gets them, too,” she added to Percy, though it didn’t seem to make him feel any better.

 

“Anyway,” she concluded, receiving no response, “I just wanted to see that you were all right. Is there anything I can do?”

 

“Yes,” said Percy sullenly, “get on the wireless, I think there might be three people in Lancashire who don’t know about it yet.”

 

“I’m sure everybody understands. You’re under stress as it is, and when you think about the things down here that you — ”

 

“Sorry,” he snapped, “did you say you were here to help?

 

Hermione’s face was a cool mask. “Well, since you seem to be back to yourself and in good hands, I’ll leave you to it.” Then, as Percy went back to staring resolutely at the floor, Hermione mouthed something to me and made a vague sort of gesture that I decided to interpret as her asking me to come see her later.

 

Several moments passed in silence, and I was quite certain that Percy must have memorized the terrain of the marbled tile floor by now. Robbie’s good intentions notwithstanding, it did not seem that my presence was helpful, nor welcome.

 

“I’m sorry,” I said at last. “Please don’t be embarrassed. If you really are okay now, I’ll leave you be, if you like.”

 

I’d placed my hand on his knee briefly, and I removed it and stood to leave, when suddenly he caught hold of it. His own hand was cold and clammy, and his eyes met mine regretfully.

 

Looking for all the world as though it pained him to say it, he offered, “I didn’t want you to see me like this.”

 

“Why?” I took a seat once more.

 

He pulled a face. “You know why.”

 

Then he dabbed at his forehead a few times with the handkerchief he was still holding, before stowing it in his pocket.

 

“This has happened before,” I inferred, having noticed that neither Percy nor Hermione had seemed surprised about it. “How many times?”

 

“I don’t know. Ten, maybe. But there hasn’t been one for four years,” he added hurriedly, as if he thought some reassurance was necessary.

 

“Do you know why they — why it comes on?”

 

He shrugged. “The first one was in my Seventh Year. I was studying for NEWTs. There was one the following year, I think, maybe one the year after, I don’t remember exactly. A few during the… well, you know, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, thereabouts. And for a while following the battle. And… nothing since, not like this. I thought they’d gone away…” He grimaced, rubbing at his eyes.

 

At some point during this, I’d begun stroking his hair right above his ear. “What made it all stop before? Back then?”

 

He stiffened. “I, erm… I saw someone — you know, managed it — thought I had it sorted…”

 

“And do everyone else know this happens to you?”

 

“They certainly do now,” he said irritably, casting a look at the closed door.

 

“No, I mean your family.”

 

He nodded.

 

A heavy silence filled the air before I asked, “Is there anything I can do?”

 

He shook his head, his hands twisting together in agitation, before reaching for his watch which had also been cast off onto the table. He exhaled a sigh when he regarded the time, rising finally from his seat, and I stood with him.

 

“Do you have to go back in? Can you postpone it?”

 

“No.” He fastened the watch around his wrist.

 

“Can you ask someone else to handle it?”

 

No.” His glasses were next, and he fixed me with a look of contrition. “Sorry, I just — I can’t very well go avoiding the entire of Level Ten for the rest of my life, can I?”

 

He sighed again and looked down at himself, muttering distractedly, “Christ, I’m a mess, though…”

 

“Come here.” Even as I said it I stepped towards him and began buttoning up his shirt; he didn’t stop me, and when I’d finished I moved onto his sleeves, rolling them back down, buttoning them up, letting my hands linger on each of his for a moment.

 

“What you said just now…” I began. “And you said you haven’t had one for four years… Have you not been on this level in all that time? Has it got something to do with that? The last time you were down here…?”

 

“Was under completely different circumstances, yes,” he finished, fixing the bits of his shirt that were coming untucked from his trousers.

 

I hesitated, thinking to myself as I smoothed his shirt as best I could.

 

“Whatever it is, you can ask,” he said, sounding resigned, if a bit apprehensive.

 

It seemed easier for both of us that I keep us busy, and I began adjusting the tie about his collar until the ends were right.

 

“Which thing were you thinking about?” I managed at last. “The… the Muggleborn trials? Or… your own hearing after?”

 

“Well, why do one when you can do both.”

 

If he was going for sarcastic, it didn’t succeed in masking the bitterness in his voice, and I halted in the process of doing his tie and looked up at him.

 

Apparently assessing the expression on my face, he gave me a look of chagrin and utter disappointment.

 

“See. This is the last thing I wanted, you tiptoeing around me because I’m — because I’m broken.”

 

I gave no immediate response, instead abandoning his tie for the moment being and retrieving his robes from the floor and dusting them off.

 

“I’ve no intention of tiptoeing around you,” I offered finally, handing over his robes. “I think everyone else has got that covered well enough.”

 

When he cocked an eyebrow at me, I added, “And if you don’t believe me, then I’ll start by demanding that you not accuse yourself of being broken. I don’t like it.”

 

His mouth twitched as he started to draw the slate blue robes around him. “Anything else while you’re being bossy and not tiptoeing around me?”

 

“Yes. Apologize to Robbie, please.”

 

Now both ginger eyebrows went up, and I hastened to add, “And Hermione.”

 

He looked more dubious about the second bit than the first, but after something of a stunned pause he inquired, “Do you need to be there when I do it, or do you trust me?”

 

“Of course, I trust you.”

 

He did not break eye contact. “Done.”

 

“Thank you. Chin up, please.” I gave it a little tap to guide him even as I said it and went back to his tie.

 

“This one was a good choice,” I commented, sliding up the knot.

 

“It is, isn’t it?” He buttoned his robes and smoothed them and his hair before glancing himself over once more. “Will I do?”

 

I made sure he noticed me giving him an appraising look. “Well, I’d shag you.”

 

The earlier flush that had begun to recede from his face started to spread across it once more as he reached for the doorknob, a reluctant smile on his face, and with his other hand he pointed to his tie.

 

“It’s because of the red with blue, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes. That’s exactly it.”

 

Perching myself on the edge of the table, I stayed back until he’d gone — a process that involved him taking half a step out the door, before pausing at the threshold, taking a few silent breaths, then holding his head up and striding purposefully down the corridor. I waited until his footsteps had disappeared into Courtroom Six and the heavy door thudded shut behind him, before making my way back to the lifts and to Level Four.

 

Hermione’s office door was open, and I knocked at the threshold to announce my presence. Her face brightened when she looked up.

 

“Now a good time?”

 

“Yes, yes, sit down, I’ve got your draft here, I’ve just got a few suggestions if you’d like to talk about it.”

 

She shuffled through the contents of a stack of parchment atop a low cabinet behind her desk.

 

“Percy all right, I take it?” she asked lightly.

 

“Seems to be.”

 

A lull followed until Hermione located what she was after and extracted it from the middle of the stack, commenting, “It’s genetic, you know.”

 

It seemed a curious thing to say.

 

“What, the panic attacks?”

 

Turning her chair back around to face me again, she held out my draft with a wry smile.

 

“The pride.”

 

 


 

 

In the middle of the night, I woke to discover an empty space next to me where something ginger should have been, and a bit of light filtering in through the slightly ajar door. I found him on the sofa, apparently working at a book of crossword puzzles.

 

“Sorry, I couldn’t sleep.”

 

“That’s all right.” I hesitated. “Would you prefer to be alone?”

 

He didn’t answer right away, and I took the opportunity to come around behind him and drape my arms over his shoulders. I noticed that he wasn’t completing the crosswords at all, but was scribbling lines and shapes and patterns in an absent sort of way.

 

“Afraid I’m not much of one for talking right now,” he cautioned finally, but he didn’t object when I squeezed in behind him, fixing my arms around his torso and my bare legs around his waist.

 

“Just as well, I was sleeping anyway.” 

 

My cheek found his shoulder and my fingers his hair, and I traced my hands up and down his neck and arms until he allowed himself to lean back against me, the book of puzzles falling closed in his lap.

 

Neither of us spoke again until he caught himself starting to fall asleep and suggested we go back to bed.

 

In the meantime, I allowed the silence to be enough, when words were bound to be insufficient.

 


A/N: When I first started writing this fic in 2009, I think I had a faulty belief that it was canon that all the different MoM departments have uniform color robes, because of the fact that we know the Wizengamot wear plum and maintenance wear blue. So I wrote the beginning chapters with a detail of each of the departments having their own color and standard issued robes. This side of 10 years, I don't love that I did that. 

 

So there's a bit of... retconning of that detail, I suppose? in this chapter. I intend to go back to earlier chapters to revise those bits at some point. Just wanted to explain in case anyone caught that.



Chapter 20: Hiding Spots
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“Harry says if Seamus keeps using his office as a hiding spot Harry’s going to write Kingsley to revoke his Order of Merlin,” Ginny was saying wryly to Hermione as I returned with another round of drinks to the table we’d occupied for the last hour and a half at the Leaky Cauldron. “I swear, I don’t understand what’s so difficult — thanks, Audrey.”

 

She drained the rest of her current pint and started again. “I don’t understand what’s supposed to be so difficult about this, he’s being a big baby.”

 

Hermione threw a glance sideways at me and filled me in. “Friend of ours works for the Ministry — in MAC — and he’s having a bit of an awkward time having to work around his ex-boyfriend. Seems to be finding himself in Ron and Harry’s office more and more these days.”

 

Turning her attention back to Ginny, she added pointedly, “Not at all like, say, someone refusing to go out in public much these days?”

 

“That’s different,” insisted Ginny. “I can’t walk out of my house or off the damned pitch without someone popping out of the shrubbery to ask what color my flowers are going to be or what I’m planning to do about my surname — the only reason I even came here tonight was that Tom said he’d hex anyone who tries to bother us.” She jerked her head in the direction of the bar. “I’m not allowed to do it myself, apparently it’s ‘bad PR.’” She made little air quotes with her fingers before bringing her fresh pint to her lips.

 

“What, who said that, your mum?” inquired Hermione, prompting Ginny to choke a bit on her drink.

 

“Lord, no, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Lovely…” She brought her napkin to her lips a moment. “No, my manager. Do you know, that pain in the arse reporter Sidney Bogstandard — ”

 

“Who?” I interjected in confusion. “What an unfortunate name.”

 

“I don’t think that’s actually their name,” supplied Hermione conspiratorially.

 

“Well, it should be,” replied Ginny. “Sidney Bogsander actually asked me if I already know when I’ll be retiring from Quidditch to start a family; it’s getting very difficult to keep my wand to myself.

 

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind,” she mused thoughtfully. “It just isn’t Witch Weekly’s business, is it?”

 

She sighed. “And I want to talk about the stupid thing — or I did. I want to talk about flowers and be excited — but with, you know, you — ” She gestured between Hermione and me — “not with Quidditch sodding Quarterly or people from school who wouldn’t have given me the time of day ten years ago. And not with Mum, she’s driving me mad…”

 

I had to stifle a smile. In that moment I could almost hear a bit of Vivi in her voice. The stars really are just like us sometimes.

 

“Alright, Audrey?” Ginny’s question snapped me out of my thoughts.

 

“Oh, yes.” I took a demonstrative sip of my drink, which I hadn’t otherwise touched. “Not really feeling myself today. Might have eaten something funny.”

 

It wasn’t a lie; I was feeling a bit off and had grown significantly less chatty over the past hour.

 

“Sorry,” I added, “I don’t think I’ve been very good company. Just out of it — ”

 

“Nonsense,” replied Ginny. “Listen to me prattling on, I could spend an hour talking about my wedding without once actually talking about the damn wedding; that’s how much all of this has put me off it.”

 

“Is that why you always change the subject when I talk about mine?” wondered Hermione.

 

“No, I change the subject because you have charts.” Ginny said it like a dirty word. “And… what do you call them again?”

 

Hermione’s eyes brightened. “Spreadsheets.”

 

“Yes.” Ginny scrunched up her nose before looking to me. “Do you know about those?”

 

“What, spreadsheets? Yeah, for organization. Seems like it would be necessary, no?”

 

“She’s got eighteen!” protested Ginny as Hermione laughed. “It’s demented— Oh, bugger, what’s he doing here?”

 

Hermione and I turned to see George, just entered into the pub from the Diagon Alley side, approaching us with upturned palms and an affected look of indignation.

 

“What, I wasn’t invited?”

 

“No, you weren’t,” said Ginny archly. “Piss off.”

 

“Ooh, someone’s still miffed about that loss to Ballycastle.” Ignoring the daggers in Ginny’s eyes, George pulled up a chair, sitting astride it backwards and crossing his arms easily atop the back. “Lads joining us or is it just us girls?”

 

“Where’s Tom when you need him?” quipped Ginny. “Quick, somebody talk about spreadsheets so he’ll go away.”

 

George’s brows drew together as he took a sip of Ginny’s ale. “What, you mean like ledgers? Odd, but all right, I was just doing a bit of inventory — ”

 

Wedding spreadsheets.”

 

“Ooh, lovely.” An impish grin spread across his face. “You know, I read in Witch Weekly that you ought to avoid pink; apparently it clashes with the hair. Supposedly red’s all right, which seems strange, doesn’t it, but then again, I don’t make the rules…”

 

Ginny placed her face in her hands with an exasperated sigh.



 




 

My malaise had intensified by the next morning — not enough that I could put my finger on what was wrong, but enough that I was nowhere near top form at work. There was a distinct throbbing behind my eyes, but I wasn’t nauseous or stuffy; if I hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought I had a hangover. And so did everyone else, apparently.

 

“Bit too much at the pub last night, Audrey?” asked Lionel cheerfully as I held my head in one hand and read the same letter from Mrs. Valena Wojcik in Birmingham about her wand (ten inches, ash, purchased in 1995) about a dozen times over.

 

Demetrius, thankfully, was a bit more charitable when he begged a word with Madeleine and myself in his office.

 

“Alright, Audrey?” He gave me a look of concern at whatever I was clearly doing a horrible job concealing on my face.

 

“Just a bit of a headache.”

 

“Oh. Well, perhaps you ought to head home early.”

 

I’d been at work only an hour and a half by that point. “Not at all, I’ll be fine, but thank you.”

 

“Well, you’ve got my blessing if you change your mind. Anyway, I’ll get right to it.” He glanced between us. “Robards wants the Mysteries involved in the wand business.”

 

“How so?”

 

“Try to discover the source of the problem, seeing as we’re getting nowhere. I confess I think it’s the thing to do, seeing as we appear to be in over our heads on the subject, and any experts we could engage happen to be the very ones who don’t seem to want to talk to us much.”

 

“Well, as to that, actually — ” I began, but Madeleine cut across me.

 

“What the hell is Robards thinking? What are the Unspeakables meant to do that we haven’t already? The point isn’t to learn how wands work, the point is to work out where these specific wands came from!”

 

“Yes, and look how far we’ve come on that front,” quipped Demetrius amiably.

 

“Well, we’ve got a plan, I’m telling you, if they don’t want to work with us, they can pay to replace every single potentially compromised wand until they get tired of watching their gold disapparate before their very eyes — ”

 

“Yeah. As to that.” His hands were clasped in front of him, fingers flexing pensively. “It seems the Ollivander family has a couple of old friends on the Wizengamot — no surprises there, but they’ve, er, exercised those connections to express their displeasure with our clever plan.”

 

“What,” I interjected, “that’s not the proper way to appeal our orders at all.”

 

Demetrius’s response was merely a resigned lift of his eyebrows.

 

Madeleine looked unimpressed. “So they’ve got a friend on the Wizengamot, what’s that got to do with the price of pumpkin juice? Wizengamot’s fifty people.”

 

“That may be, but already Robards has been hearing some things from Level Ten that suggest we wouldn’t win that battle, were it to come to that. Not to mention he and I are already receiving owls from the Prophet asking for statements about us trying to undermine wandmaker confidentiality, so that tide may be turning as well.”

 

As I fidgeted in my chair, trying surreptitiously to alleviate a stray tickle on my back, all the while continuing to push through my burgeoning headache, it occurred to me that the proposal I’d finally completed — no matter how polished — was unlikely to be well received at this juncture.

 

“Robards doesn’t even want to try?” Madeleine wasn’t making much of an attempt to conceal her disdain.

 

“Well, look,” began Demetrius fairly, “I’ve got a meeting with him this afternoon. These are just my preliminary orders. We’ve still got our own role to play in all this, but for the time being, we’re to provide copies of whatever research you’ve managed to do so far, give that over to the Mysteries — no need to reinvent the broom, you know.”

 

He scratched under his jaw, and I scratched absently at a sympathetic itch on my own neck as he continued, looking to Madeleine, “You could do worse, you know, than to have your work brought to the attention of the Mysteries if that’s still where you want to go one of these days.”

 

But this sentiment held little credit with Madeleine, who pulled open her desk drawer with a pronounced sigh once we’d returned to our own desks. Nor did it seem to help when I pointed out that we’d still have our own part to play, since the Department of Mysteries could hardly be expected to handle the bureaucratic matter of the recall.

 

“Oh, right,” she muttered, dropping a stack of parchment on her desktop in an attitude. “We get to do the tedious bits nobody cares about, while the Unspeakables get all the fanfare.”

 

“Just as well,” I quipped in a last-ditch effort to smooth things over. “I don’t much care to be the center of the spectacle, personally.”

 

“You and Dibble both.”

 

Then as a prickly silence befell us, we each set back to work.

 

I muddled my way through the morning, and after lunch I even fancied I was starting to feel myself again, until Lionel and Noah decided to start up a sort of comedy routine between them, for nobody’s benefit but their own. Another day I might have found it amusing. Today, however, it was driving me a bit mad. Once Noah decided to affect a falsetto impression of his grandmother, I found myself seeking refuge in Percy’s office with an armful of work.

 

“Why don’t you just tell them to shut it?” Though his tone was mild as he kept his eyes on his own work, the question was a bit pointed.

 

With a futile shake of my head, I shrugged. “I don’t know… Oh, but I can go, if me being here’s a problem — ”

 

“What?” He glanced up briefly, a look of vague confusion passing across his face. “No, no, sit down, that’s not what I meant at all.” He flashed me another look in quick succession, his quill paused half an inch above the parchment. “You’ll let me know, though, if anyone in here annoys you?”

 

“Probably not.”

 

The little sound he made as he went back to his work might have been a laugh.

 

Gemma Stone being absent that day, there was none of the usual bickering to be had between her and Eoghan Lynch — the only thing that might have made the I.U.M. office intolerable to me — and I spent the afternoon in blissful calm, not speaking much again to anybody until Percy returned from a trip to the Administrative Offices, asking me if I had any idea what Mr. Robards was meant to be doing in a meeting with Demetrius. I told him everything I knew from my own conversation with Demetrius that morning.

 

“You’ve let him know, though, about your idea?” The question was rhetorical. “So he can take it to Robards?”

 

I couldn’t quite meet his eye as I hesitated before shaking my head — and when I did, he looked perplexed.

 

“Why not?”

 

“It just seemed… Well, it turns out it’s not at all the direction we want to take.”

 

“And you know that because Dibble heard that Robards heard that someone on Level Ten heard Ollivander complaining informally.”

 

“Well, when you put it like that.” I pondered for a moment, my gaze flicking away from what I think Percy must have believed was a politely puzzled expression on his face.

 

“It just seemed more a foregone conclusion, the way Demetrius put it…” Awkwardness seemed to be manifesting itself in my body as a renewed sense of fatigue. “And I know this entire thing was meant so I’d have something well prepared to suggest, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether it wasn’t just completely presumptuous of me. Hmm.”

 

“It isn’t presumptuous to be productive. And what’s the worst that can happen? He says no?”

 

Somehow I imagined that if Percy were in my position, he wouldn’t take being shot down with any amount of equanimity; but I appreciated whatever he was trying to do all the same.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Getting to bed a good three hours earlier than normal seemed at first to have sorted me out, and I woke the following morning without any immediate indication that anything was still wrong. That thought was dispelled, however, as soon as I sat up and promptly pinched the bridge of my nose as a fiery sensation flared up behind it.

 

A cold I could manage, but what I couldn’t manage at the moment was how literally cold it was in the flat. Wondering what Vivi could have done to the temperature and why, I shivered into a thick jumper and hopped out of my room while pulling on socks. I found her as she was just turning off the kitchen tap, and she glanced over her shoulder at me.

 

“What on earth have you — ” I began, interrupted by a sneeze that I felt throughout my eyes.

 

“Bless you.” Vivi dried her hands on a dish cloth.

 

“Thanks…” I shook my head to clear it. “What’ve you done to the temperature, why’s it about ten degrees in here?”

 

“I haven’t done a thing to it. Here, have some tea. I’m just about on my way out, actually; got some things to do before work.” She brushed past me and into her room, emerging again seconds later with her bag and her work robes. Meanwhile, I squirmed itchily inside my jumper, wondering vaguely whether it was possible to develop a wool allergy as an adult.

 

“I don’t know whether you’ll be here later,” she added brusquely, stepping into her shoes, “but I might pick up another shift tonight. Michael shouldn’t be coming over, but he seems incapable of remembering any schedule that hasn’t got to do with Quidditch lately, so if he does, could you please just let him know and send him on his way?”

 

“Okay,” I said thickly. “But before you go, do you know what might help with — ah-choo! Ow!”

 

My hand flew to my nose, where I felt an intense burning sensation.

 

“You all right?”

 

“Yeah, I just, my face feels like it’s about to split — ah-choo!” I froze in horror after seeing what appeared to be sparks — actual sparks — fly out of my nose.

 

Vivi turned to stone for two seconds before dropping her things and striding towards me; she grabbed my wrist, pushing up my sleeve without explanation and examining my forearm.

 

“What are you doing?” I asked as she held her arm next to mine, apparently comparing the two — but for what, I had no idea. Then, without preamble, she hitched up my jumper and shirt.

 

“Steady on!”

 

She ignored me and examined first my stomach and then my back, until she let out a low swear before smoothing my shirt back down and standing in front of me again.

 

“You’ve got dragon pox, my dear,” she informed me flatly.

 

What?! What are you on about?” But even as I said it, I felt that itching sensation on my arms and back again. Then, before she could respond, I stormed off to the bathroom and pulled up my shirt to reveal my stomach, which seemed to be an ashy shade of sage green. Aghast, I twisted around to examine my back as best I could, and there I spotted, well, spots — green ones — in a small cluster to one side.

 

“Oh, my God,” I whispered. I couldn’t decide whether Vivian’s stoic countenance was reassuring or terrifying.

 

“How?” I demanded.

 

“I must have picked it up at the hospital. ‘Tis the season.” Her voice was still dull. “Kids, you know.”

 

“But you haven’t got a rash!” I protested.

 

“I was sick recently.”

 

“With a cold!”

 

“Well, that’s what I thought but if you’ve got it now… Two percent of cases are said to present without a rash, and actually the recent studies suggest the number is much higher; and that’s saying nothing of the six percent that are completely asymptomatic.”

 

I gawped at her as she huffed and muttered, as if to herself, “Incredible luck, that…”

 

You? I’m green!” A thought occurred to me then. “Oh my God, am I going to stay green? Forever?”

 

“Don’t get up on your high ropes, it isn’t the nineteenth century anymore. And it’s quite an early stage, we’ll get you a potion, put you to bed, you’ll be grand. But for the time being, you should stick your nose in some ice water.”

 

“I should what?

 

“Helps with the sparks. Seriously, do it so you don’t set the place on fire. I can pop to work and come right back here with a potion — ” She stopped abruptly, her face softening as she looked at me trying to keep my wits. “Audrey. Don’t freak out, it’ll be all right. It’ll be sodding painful, I can’t tell you it won’t, but you’ll be fine.

 

“Kids — ” She cleared her throat. “Kids get this all the time, only reason we didn’t was probably because we lived around Muggles. And actually, come to think of it, has Percy had it before? Because he shouldn’t come around otherwise.”

 

“I don’t know, it’s not exactly the sort of thing that comes up — ”

 

“Don’t scratch,” she commanded, as I’d begun to do exactly that on my arm. “Seriously, if you don’t want scars, don’t scratch. That’s why everyone back then looked the way they did after having it. I’ll get you something for that, too.”

 

By the time Vivian returned with my potion — which tasted like a liquefied campfire but was as frigid as arctic water — the itchy spots had begun to spread to my stomach and chest, and were apparently expected to have taken up residence everywhere on my body by the end of the day and stay there for a week. Vivi was in full Healer mode, though less talkative than usual — setting me up on the sofa, spreading a purple cream that smelled of licorice on my back where I couldn’t reach, and tucking me in and ordering me to stay put before she headed off to work. I gave her two urgent letters to post to the Ministry for me — one to notify my boss, and one to Percy explaining what had happened and cautioning him to stay away.

 

I was halfway through a third episode of EastEnders, attempting to distract myself, when a folded note flew into the room via the Floo Dispatch and set itself on the table in front of me. When I opened it, I saw Percy’s neat handwriting:


 

I’m coming over after work. Be there at 5.  x x


 

“No,” I moaned, “what’s wrong with you?”

 

However, I was stuck. The Floo Dispatch only worked one way, for urgent Ministry communications, and I couldn’t send a letter back to him that way; nor did we have an owl of our own (being less than ideal for city dwellers).

 

By 4:30 the bumps and pistachio tinge had spread punctually to my face, and I’d relocated to my bedroom and shut the door to impede Percy when he arrived so I could talk some sense into him. Thereafter, I wasn’t watching the clock, but at what I suspected was 4:58, I heard his voice from the sitting room.

 

“Audrey?”

 

A few seconds later there was a soft tap at my bedroom door.

 

“Audrey?”

 

“You can’t come in,” I called in a small voice.

 

There was a pregnant pause. “Why?”

 

“I don’t want you to catch it.”

 

“Don’t be silly, I’ve had it. We all have.”

 

When I didn’t answer, another tap sounded. “Can I come in?”

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

 

“Are you feeling all right?”

 

“Yes,” I lied, and he knew it.

 

“Come on. I just want to check on you. Have you been here all alone all day?”

 

I hesitated, and he decided, “All right, look, I’m going to come in. I’m not going to catch anything.”

 

When the door opened I dove under the covers, pulling them securely around my head.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

I felt the bed dip as he sat next to me, and I whimpered a nonsensical protest.

 

“Come on, now I really want to know if you’re all right.”

 

“I’m fine, I’m just…”

 

“Just what?”

 

I sniffed and hoped maybe he wouldn’t hear my next pitiful remark.

 

“I’m green and spotty.”

 

He breathed out a low chuckle. “It’s all right.”

 

“No, it isn’t!” Another awful thought struck me. “And now I’ve just been vain!” I lamented.

 

“What?” His voice was bewildered.

 

“Conceited.”

 

“I know what ‘vain’ means. What are you talking about?”

 

I moaned obstinately into the blanket.

 

“Audrey, come on out.”

 

Something in the gentle tenor of his voice persuaded me to peek the top half of my face out from under the covers, and when I did his concerned expression turned into one of understanding, a little smile creeping across it.

 

“You are green and spotty,” he agreed sympathetically, stroking my hair, and at the miserable glance I threw him the smile slid off his face. “I know it’s no fun. Can I get you anything?”

 

I shook my head and scratched absently at my arm under the blanket, only to find him putting his hand atop it to settle me.

 

“Don’t do that, it’ll make it worse.” The words flowed straightforwardly, bossy and pragmatic. Then he touched the back of his hand to my forehead, wrinkling his nose at how hot I was.

 

“Are you serious?” I protested the care.

 

“Well…” He glanced around. “It is a trifle warm in here, now that I think about it.”

 

“I know, but I’m so cold otherwise.”

 

After a second’s thought he said, “Very well,” and kicked off his shoes while removing his tie. Then he stood and his waistcoat followed.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Never you mind what I’m doing.” He started in on the buttons of his shirt, and when he was down to his undershirt and trousers he stretched out next to me, head propped on his hand.

 

“You don’t mean to stay here?”

 

“Whyever not?”

 

I searched for a good reason. “Haven’t you got… things to do?”

 

He looked at me as if I’d lost the plot. “No.”

 

At some point during this exchange I’d crept out a bit more from my hiding spot, peeling back the covers. Percy took one of my hands in his and grimaced at the blisters he observed between my fingers.

 

“Those are the worst. Stop, stop,” he said, pressing my hand down when I fidgeted my fingers in an unsubtle attempt to scratch the itch I seemed to feel whenever I became conscious of another part of my body.

 

“You know,” he added, “if you’re willing to lift the heating charm in here, the cold will actually help.”

 

When I gave him a dubious look he continued, “Or have you tried a bath of murtlap and pungous onion yet?”

 

“No…”

 

Muggles got oats and calamine lotion for chicken pox. We got murtlap, pungous onion, and purple licorice paste. It hardly seemed fair.

 

“Would you like me to help?”

 

“No!” I declared, thinking about him seeing every green and spotty bit of me, soaking in a bathtub full of a substance I didn’t even want to imagine the color of. “I draw the line.”

 

He looked to be trying not to smile. “Okay, then.”

 

Exhaling, I made a mental note to ask Vivian to set me up with the essentials the next day. “I’m sorry. I know I’m being difficult.”

 

“You’re being what?” he asked, amused.

 

“I don’t think I’m usually this difficult when I’m sick, I try not to be — ”

 

“This is not difficult.” He drew my covers around me more tightly, tucking them in along my sides; and I couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was doing it to immobilize me so I couldn’t scratch. “Believe me, I’ve seen difficult. I’ve seen the entire spectrum of difficult.”

 

“Oh? Well, now I’m curious; so who was the worst in your house?”

 

“My mum,” he answered unreservedly, looking quite pert. He raised his eyebrows, thinking. “And then Charlie, definitely. Charlie’s awful. Next would probably be… Ron. And then, I suppose, me.”

 

“Top fifty percent in being difficult,” I observed.

 

“It does seem like it ought to be higher, doesn’t it?”

 

I stifled a giggle before musing, “I don’t think any of us in my family are particularly bad; we all sort of just weather it out — Well, no, Vivian can be a bit of a menace, but that’s just because she doesn’t like anyone taking care of her.”

 

“You don’t say.” He looked at me pointedly.

 

“Well, I’m not always this miserable, I’m just…” But wishing to get as far as possible from the subject of this particular insecurity, I changed the topic, squirming my shoulders against the sheet in an effort to relieve an itch I couldn’t have reached if I’d tried. “I don’t understand how kids are supposed to get through this without scratching if I can’t even do it; how did you ever manage?”

 

“For starters, I think my mum kept the temperature in the house about five degrees, no matter what we said about it — it really does help, I mean it. And I can’t entirely rule out the possibility that she was putting whiskey in all our drinks.”

 

“Not a bad thought, honestly; I’ve no idea how I’m going to sleep. I didn’t even think to ask Vivi to get me something for that…”

 

“Why don’t I go and fetch something?” It was more a statement of intention than an offer of assistance, and he started to get up out of bed immediately. “And have you eaten anything?”

 

I shook my head. “I can’t, I’m not hungry at all.”

 

When his mouth twisted dubiously I added, “And if I do get hungry there’s plenty here I can have, but I swear I won’t be able to manage more than a biscuit, probably.”

 

“If I remember correctly, that’ll change in about two days and you’ll want to eat everything in sight.”

 

“Pity,” I joked weakly. “Thought this might’ve been a perfect way to lose half a stone.”

 

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

He departed shortly thereafter, but not before asking twice more whether he could get anything else for me while he was out and then placing a glass of water on my nightstand and ordering me to have drunk all of it by the time he got back.

 

Half an hour later, I’d relocated once more to the sofa and was scrolling aimlessly through the television channels when Percy returned with a large bag of shopping and an explanation that the apothecary hadn’t had the right sort of sleeping draught already made, so he’d simply got the ingredients and was going to make one himself.

 

“Is there any use in telling you not to go to all this trouble?” I asked.

 

“I doubt it.”

 

But before he set to working, he placed a glass of a suspicious, murky green liquid in front of me.

 

“What’s this, then?”

 

“It’s a nutrient tonic, if you’re going to refuse to eat. I’d like you to sleep, not faint.”

 

I took a cautious sip and nearly spat it back out.

 

“No.” I set the glass on the coffee table as far away from me as possible. “I’m not drinking that.”

 

Percy merely crossed his arms. “Now who’s being difficult?”

 

In the end he won that dispute, in addition to informing me that he had every intention of stopping by every day if Vivian was going to be busy. I managed to negotiate a concession from him that he was to leave as soon as I’d fallen asleep, because sleeping draught or no, I expected to be completely wretched and said one of us may as well get a good night’s sleep, as well as there was no point to imposing further on his time once I was unconscious.

 

Plus, the spots on my face seemed to have grown worse, which I hadn’t even thought possible. I spent the rest of the evening curled up on the sofa with a blanket — my knees tucked up to my chest so I could bury half my face in it — emerging maybe once to go to the loo and once to spread more purple cream all over myself; and I was far too thankful to resist Percy’s offer to help with my back.

 

“Sorry.” I handed over the jar. “I know you hate licorice.”

 

“Good thing it’s not going on me, then. Shirt up, please.”

 

“Cheeky.”

 

“Spotty.”

 

Fortunately, the sleeping draught he’d made was finally a potion that wasn’t disgusting; it was almost tasteless despite its unnaturally blue hue. As it was slow-acting, he demanded I drink it as soon as he’d finished brewing it. And when he caught me eventually starting to doze off, he gave my shoulder a little shake and then helped me to my room. My mind was in a hazy pre-sleep limbo that apparently made me fond of talking.

 

“Thank you,” I mumbled as I crawled into bed. “Taking care of me.”

 

“It’s my pleasure. Always.”

 

“Ts’not a pleasure,” I countered drowsily. “Ts’awful.”

 

He made no reply, and when I snuggled into my quilt and shivered, he draped over me a second blanket that Vivi had left at the foot of my bed.

 

“You prob’ly think it’s ridiculous,” I added, unable to keep my eyes open. “That ’m embarrassed for you to see me. Prob’ly think I’m a twit…”

 

“You have a short memory, my dear.” He kissed the top of my head. “Love you. Floo me if you need anything.”

 

“I don’t like being a dragon…”

 

“No, not many people do.”

 

“What if I’m green forever… I mean… not Greene, you know, but… green… or something…”

 

“You won’t be. Sleep, please.

 

“What if I am?”

 

He kissed me again. “Green’s a very nice color.”



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