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.”
“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.
“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.
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?”
“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.
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