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.”
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.
“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?”
“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.
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