“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.
“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.”
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.
“What’s your wand made of?”
“What?” Though drowsy, he managed to sound bewildered.
His voice was thick and somewhat muffled against my skin. “Elm. Dragon heartstring.” He yawned. “Stubborn. Why?”
“Oh. ‘Tsnot going to explode, is it?”
I chuckled. “No.”
I thought of Ina Swynn and her look of cool certainty.
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!
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