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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.

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