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.
“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.
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.
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 —”
“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 -- ”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“ ‘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.”
“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.
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