“Should I be thanking you, or do I have an admirer?”
Percy looked up from the tea he was preparing in the break room and gave me a little smile. I was referring to the vase containing one dozen absurdly perfect roses I’d found on my desk when I’d arrived at work not half an hour earlier.
“Both,” he replied mildly. “And you’re welcome.”
I watched as he added a truly baffling amount of sugar to his tea — something I’d yet to understand about him — when he asked hesitantly, “I hope they were all right? I didn’t think you’d like anything too ostentatious.”
“You thought correctly. They’re perfect.” I nodded at the kettle. “Is there some for me?”
“Of course, there is.” He moved aside and was quiet for a few seconds before adding, almost hopefully, “I can do ostentatious, you know.”
“Oh, somehow I don’t doubt that. But please don’t on my account. Besides, you’re in enough trouble as it is.”
“Well.” I leant against the worktop and looked up at him as my tea steeped. “Now everybody’s worked out it’s my birthday.”
“How horrifying.” He wasn’t sorry at all. “I suppose I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”
“You’d certainly better. I’ve got to do a group lunch now.”
“Ought to drag you with me.”
“Shame, can’t. Blakely’s had some sort of family emergency, I’m filling in today.”
“Oh, yes, and Mr. Blakely never took lunch, did he?”
“He may have, but I’m determined to leave the office in a better state than I found it.”
“Ambitious for a Friday.” It wasn’t Percy I doubted; it was everybody else. “Are we still on for five o’clock?”
“Of course, we are.”
Something at that moment drew his gaze from my face to the doorway behind me, and he looked as though he were resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
“Dare I ask?” he remarked dryly, and I turned to see Eoghan Lynch standing there with the distinct air of someone who had drawn the short straw for this mission.
“Ah, well, you see, there’s a bit of post just arrived for Marv, and we didn’t notice for a few minutes that there was a — ”
But Eoghan neither could go any further, nor did he need to, for at that moment there came a thunderous shouting from the direction of the Improper Use Office, an unfamiliar voice that seemed to fill the air accompanied by the unmistakable clangor of an ignored Howler unleashing itself. Either due to shock or because I lacked context, I could not quite make out the complaint, but Percy cocked his head and listened, his face impassive, until the rant had finished.
“Oh,” he said when all was over, his voice dripping with ironic calm, “I had thought we hadn’t heard from Mr. Leveret in quite some time.”
We followed Eoghan back towards the office, and when Eoghan had disappeared inside I threw Percy an uncertain look.
“Five?” I confirmed again.
“Trust me, I’m counting the minutes.” With annoyance semi-permanently affixed to his face, he disappeared into his office, whereupon the laughter of the other employees inside abruptly stopped.
He wasn’t the only one. I had, as I’d told him, been roped into having lunch with my coworkers, and while it wasn’t the first time and I didn’t typically mind so much, it was a different matter entirely when I was meant to be the center of attention. Even Demetrius and Violet decided to join us, though Demetrius’s usual practice was to exclude himself from lunch outings with his employees because he thought we ought to be free of the specter of management during our personal time.
“Weasley not going to join us?” Lionel asked with a grin as he walked his typical bouncy step along the pavement towards our lunch destination shortly before noon. As he didn’t seem all that put out by it, it was clearly a rhetorical question.
“Oh, no. He’s quite tied up. Apparently Mr. Blakely’s out today.”
“Yes, I hope he’s all right, poor fellow,” said Demetrius mildly. “Dev — his partner, you know, works in Games and Sports — he’s also out today, apparently.”
“Sounds like skiving off if I’ve ever heard of it,” said Lionel, his bright tone suggesting he held no censure for it.
“Doubt it. If that were the case I’m certain Marv would’ve just said he was taking a personal day. At any rate…” Demetrius turned his attention to me. “Speaking of skiving off, mind you don’t stay too late today. Leave early, even. I hope you’ve got something fun planned?”
“Yeah, ditching us.” Lionel feigned offense; I’d informed him earlier that happy hour wasn’t possible. Lunch was held to be an extremely poor substitute in his estimation.
“I’m afraid so,” I regretted again, before replying to Demetrius. “I’ve got dinner plans. In Plymouth.”
“Do you? I grew up not too far from there, you know.”
Percy was taking me somewhere he said had a wonderful view over Plymouth Sound, and I chatted with Demetrius for a bit before asking Noah whether he and Lionel planned to go to their usual haunt after work.
“Nah, found a new pub,” he said. “Muggle place, in Camden Town, near Lionel’s flat.”
We’d reached our destination, and Noah held open the door to the cafe for Violet, Madeleine, and me.
“Noah’s gone and made an idiot of himself in front of the bartender at the Bog— at the other place,” Lionel corrected himself in the presence of Muggle ears just inside the doorway.
“No, I don’t believe it,” I said earnestly. I’d have believed it of Lionel, probably.
Noah merely shrugged with a little smile, before glancing at Madeleine. “When are you going to join us again, Mads, and bring Jeremy? You know, we usually get a couple of people from MAC and Games to go with us.”
“When Crups fly,” was the response. As ever, this seemed only to amuse Noah and Lionel.
Upon being escorted to a table, I dodged the seat at the head, managing instead to situate myself between Madeleine and Violet, who inquired about any other birthday plans. When I said I’d be having dinner with my family on Sunday, Lionel’s ears perked up.
“Your sister still with that Kenmare Beater? Reilly? Will he be there as well?”
“Michael?” I shot a glance around us to check for Muggles, but the closest table to us was, as of yet, unoccupied. “I’m sure he will be.”
Lionel grinned. “Weasley succeeded in making a Quidditch fan of you yet? Your connections are really too good for you not to be one, what a waste.”
“Your sister’s boyfriend, for one, but also… well… Weasley’s sister, yeah?”
“True,” I admitted, dropping my eyes to the menu in my hands and hoping very much that this conversation was not headed in the direction it seemed to be.
“There’s a Falmouth player also connected with the family somehow,” mused Demetrius, whom I knew to be a Falmouth fan because of the poster in his office. “Angelina Johnson?”
“Er… yes, Angelina’s married to Percy’s brother.”
“Oh, that’s right. Bloke who owns that shop, I think?”
The conversation was, in fact, headed in exactly the direction it seemed to be.
“You’ve met them, then?” asked Noah, his eyebrows raised with interest.
My chair suddenly felt quite uncomfortable, and I allowed my eyes to flick back and forth between Noah and my menu, though I really wasn’t absorbing any of the words.
“His family? Yes, of course.”
“Is his sister really cool?” interjected Lionel. “She seems cool.”
Before I could answer, Noah had jumped in again.
“So, wait, you’ve met her? But then… does that mean you’ve also hung out with Harry Potter? And Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger?”
“Ah… we’ve met, yes.”
I tried not to pay too much heed to the stares I was receiving, which ranged from intrigued to expectant, as though I might at any moment regale them with family gossip or heretofore unknown personality quirks of the twenty-somethings who had saved magical Britain.
Even if I had been so inclined, the only thing I really could have said for any of them was that they were perfectly lovely — that Ron was a tremendous laugh, even if he and George had been hellbent on giving Percy a hard time; that Hermione was a lively conversationalist, to say the very least; and that Harry had a genial, if reserved, manner about him, occasionally punctuated by amusingly sardonic remarks.
Though, truth be known, something told me that my colleagues would have been much more entertained and gratified to hear that they were all secretly wretched people.
In the end, I parried the issue entirely.
“It’s really not that odd, is it? Anyway, they’re Aurors, you’ve all seen them around — and you all know I spoke to Hermione the once about the wand problem. I was hoping she might know something we haven’t considered about the unicorns, or perhaps even what we can do to get the wandmakers talking. And she’s a wonderful resource, knows her way around the process with her eyes shut. I actually plan to go watch her present her latest proposal to — ”
My comments had the desired effect, as Lionel finally protested, “Now remember, we said no work at lunch!” and the conversation found itself safely diverted back to the topic of Quidditch, with me only being requested to contribute whether I had yet been able to watch Ginny and Angelina play in person.
On the walk back, I fell behind with Madeleine as Lionel and Noah led the group, bantering about exactly how Noah had or had not made an idiot of himself in front of the bartender at their favorite pub.
“It’s just as well for us,” she remarked tonelessly, “that they’re not interested in anything you say about the wand thing,” and I recognized that she was referring not only to that day but to a previous occasion in the office when I’d philosophized about the wandmakers’ confidentiality and been met with politely blank looks.
When I responded with a quizzical look, she continued, sounding for all the world as though she might have been commenting to herself instead of me: “Now that the Prophet’s started poking around, can you imagine sodding Lionel blathering on about half-baked ideas we haven’t actually finalized yet? We look incompetent enough not having gained control of this for months. Though I suppose it’s hardly your fault that Dibble and Lionel allowed the most junior person in the office to sort out the complaints in the beginning.”
I tried to work out whether this grudging concession was intended as an indictment of our supervision or of me. Vaguely, I considered asking what in the world anybody else in that office could or would have done differently than I already had, but instead I settled for asking whether she’d had a chance to review the unicorn population records from the past thirty years.
“And did you notice anything? Aside from what I noted about the Forbidden Forest population?”
Lips pursed, she replied with a terse shake of her head.
“Do you think a decline of six percent is significant in a population that size?” I pressed.
“How on earth I should know that, I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter anyway. They weren’t diseased, and you can’t use the hair from a dead unicorn anyway.”
More accurately, you could, but the residual magic would only last a few months and would be highly unreliable — that much was clear from the wandlore that was known — but in essence, she was correct.
“I don’t suppose we’d have any way of knowing whether it was something they were eating that could have affected their magical properties before they died, as opposed to — I don’t know — natural predators?”
“Who knows. All sorts of mad things live in that forest, apparently.”
We continued on in silence until we had entered a lift from the street to the Ministry, when she spoke again.
“We need to tell Dibble it’s time for a public recall.”
“I’ve definitely tried raising that with him, but — ”
“Dibble won’t pull his head out of the sand until forced.” This clipped statement was accompanied by a shake of the head as we stepped into the Atrium and headed for the set of lifts that would take us back to our office.
Our coworkers stood alongside another group returning late from a lazy Friday lunch, and with a wave Madeleine and I declined to squeeze into the next two lifts with the entire gaggle, deciding instead to wait for an empty one. We appeared to be the only two still waiting when a third lift arrived, its few occupants disembarking.
“Oi, hold the lift?” came a hopeful voice some distance behind us as we entered, and when I turned around to hold the door I saw Harry and Ron breaking into an easy jog.
“Thanks,” said Harry, at nearly the same time Ron nodded with an “Alright, Audrey?”
“Alright,” I replied. “Good lunch?”
“Dunno,” said Ron with a pointed glance at Harry. “When we finally get to eat I’ll let you know.”
Harry shrugged. “Sorry. I was getting a really weird feeling about that fire hydrant.”
“Yeah, whatever. I think I’ll eat your lunch, by the way, it looks better than mine.”
Having thrown his partner an amused glance, Harry directed a polite nod towards Madeleine and the sort of awkward, indistinct “Hey” one uses when encountering people who are neither stranger nor acquaintance; I ventured to introduce them, though it did feel bizarre introducing two people whose names and faces were known in every magical household in the country. But if Madeleine was starstruck as the rest of my office, she didn’t show it, merely giving them a little nod. When I noted that Ron was Percy’s brother she commented to him dryly, “Sympathies,” prompting a little laugh from him and forcibly reminding me of Percy’s and Madeleine’s less-than-complimentary opinions of one another.
The more I thought about it, the more I allowed that Percy’s assessment of Madeleine — no matter how sincere — was likely informed by a distaste he’d developed from the very beginning. Reading between the lines of what he’d told me, it was apparent that the accusation lodged against Madeleine a year or more previously, before she’d switched offices, hadn’t actually been proved — yet Percy, predisposed to think poorly of her, still clung to his opinion.
Unfair, to be sure — but perfectly human and not particularly surprising.
At any rate, I could see that Madeleine was anything but a passive bystander in her own life, and a conversation with Demetrius after returning from lunch gave me a glimpse into what her working relationship with Percy must have been like.
Halfway through the afternoon post, Madeleine crossed to my desk and dropped a letter in front of me, which turned out to be notice from Ollivander’s that they sought to contest our directive to withdraw unicorn hair wands from sale. Swynn’s had responded with a similar notice earlier that week. Wordlessly, I handed back the letter and followed as she turned on her heel and strode to Demetrius’s office, ignoring Violet’s protestations about needing to make sure Demetrius wasn’t busy. I held up a placating hand to Violet, who sighed and waved me through the open door as she always did.
“Dibble,” snapped Madeleine purposefully, catching him in the act of throwing a miniature Quaffle at a small hoop on the opposite wall. The ball flew wide of its goal as Demetrius’s attention was diverted to us.
“What can I do for you two?”
In response, Madeleine thrust the missive at him, and he bit at his lip as he perused it.
“I suppose we knew this was coming, didn’t we?” This was followed by a little sigh through his nose. “No reason for them not to contest it, doesn’t disadvantage them in any way. But they’ve got no grounds, Audrey’s checked that, so we’ll meet with them, allow them to be heard, and then reaffirm our directive.”
“No, of course they’ve got no grounds,” said Madeleine, her bearing steely and aloof as ever but her cutting voice radiating condescension. “But they’ll cause us delay. It’s time for a recall; it really should have been done a month ago.”
Demetrius raised his hands in appeasement. “Audrey and I have discussed it, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
“We’re no closer to a solution, and without knowing exactly which wands are affected, they’re all going to have to go, at least the ones from the past ten years. The Prophet’s already all over this, you know, and right now they’re critical of the wandmakers, but you know how fickle they are. If we give the impression we’re only giving the wandmakers a hard time instead of protecting the public it’s going to allow the wandmakers to manipulate the whole issue and then you’ll really be in a world of shit.”
Pulling a face that was both amused and bemused, a lock of curly hair falling in front of his eyes, Demetrius replied, “Now, I would hardly say we’re giving the wandmakers a hard time.”
“Well, we are, really, only it’s justified. But you go making them take a loss on, what, nearly a quarter of their merchandise, plus what Audrey’s saying about forcing them to talk to us else we put them out of business — ”
“Sorry, what?” He glanced at me in alarm, and the lock of hair he had just swept back fell across his forehead once more.
“No, no,” I clarified, “remember when we talked about the possibility of conditioning their permits on them talking to us about the sources of their wand cores? Well, I’ve looked into it, and we actually can’t, so that’s that — we would have to actually change that law, which — ”
“Yes, I had thought so.” Relieved and decidedly uninterested in pursuing the rest of that controversial thought, he turned his attention back to Madeleine. “So what you’re saying is…”
“If this were anything other than wands, we would have already made this decision, you have to admit that.”
Demetrius had the distinct look of someone who did not want to admit that but indeed had to.
“Right.” He let out another uncomfortable sigh. “Well, then, pen a memo to Robards. And, uh, when are we supposed to meet with Ollivander and Swynn to discuss this?” He waved Ollivander’s letter demonstratively.
“Week after next,” replied Madeleine, whose face had not lapsed from its usual cool composure this entire time. “Also, I remind you that Lionel did tell me the last time we had one of these hearings — you remember, with the haunted telescopes — that at the next one I can sit second chair to assist you. Or him, whichever of you does it.” She glanced at me. “Audrey’s never seen one, so this is a good opportunity for her to observe.”
“Well, that sounds reasonable.” He stared vaguely at his Falmouth Falcons poster for a moment, his thumb and fingertips rubbing together pensively, before glancing back at us and asking with an apprehensive but good-natured little grimace, “Anything else?”
Deciding now was not the time to get into my idea of pursuing radical legal avenues — eventful as this afternoon already was for him — I shook my head and withdrew from the office after Demetrius bid us both a good afternoon and me a happy birthday.
Madeleine returned to her desk without another word until I ventured an appreciative remark for her help with Demetrius. She glanced up and offered by way of explanation: “Well, I don’t much fancy looking like an idiot, do you?” Then, without waiting for a response, she returned her attention to the afternoon post, lips pursed in concentration.
Having now seen Madeleine all but bully our boss into making a decision he’d initially been opposed to, I could only imagine what Percy’s attitude must have been the first time Madeleine tried to challenge him in such a fashion — or, for that matter, the tenth or twentieth time. But while he might not have appreciated it, I had to be grateful for the fact that Madeleine had been able to prevail with Demetrius where I had not.
“Isn’t this the girl we don’t like?” asked Vivian as we relaxed in the garden at home in Derbyshire later that weekend, sipping wine and enjoying the cool, dry evening while Mum finished up in the kitchen. Heathcliff the cat, having been ejected from the kitchen by Mum after he’d tried to nick dinner, was keeping us company, brushing against our shoes. Percy had long since disappeared into the greenhouse for a tour with Dad, who could have easily talked about his plants for hours if you’d let him.
“No, we don’t not like her,” I said fairly. “Only I just never really talked to her — I mean, she doesn’t talk to anyone. Nor do I, really. She’s not friendly, sure, but I suppose that’s all right. It’s just business, which is perfect considering everyone else there tries to be a bit too personal.”
I took a sip of my wine. “Anyway, it’s sort of amusing the way she can’t stand Lionel and Noah and they’ve got it in their heads that she’s funning along with them, like it’s all an act. I can’t decide whether it’s more merciful for her to let them think so, or to tell them once and for all that she thinks they're dolts and ought to cut it out. I’ll say this for her, though: for someone who doesn’t talk much, she damn well commands attention when she wants to.”
“Hmm.” Vivi plucked a fallen leaf from her shirt and let it flutter to the ground (where Heathcliff promptly began to do battle with it) before giving me a playful smile. “Would I like her?”
“Think she’s probably too high maintenance for you. And too cynical,” I teased. “Too aloof. You’re a romantic even if you act like you’re not.”
“Hmm,” she repeated, spinning her wine glass pensively before blurting out almost in protest: “You know, Jane said something like that the other day — ”
“Jane. You know. St. Mungo’s. Bryson, Jane Bryson.”
My brain caught up. “The one we don’t like?” I echoed her earlier comment.
“Well, yeah, we still don’t like her. Stupid cow. You should have seen how long it took her to mend a broken arm the other day, I finished War and Peace while she did it. But she talks all the damn time and unfortunately I’m obliged to listen.”
“And she’s got an opinion about your love life?”
“Got an opinion about bloody everything. You know she actually said something about me needing validation? Imagine the nerve! I don’t know how you get on dating someone you work with, people must talk about it incessantly, don’t they? What do you even do when he pisses you off and everybody there knows he’s the reason you’re in a strop?”
It was quite a… specific question.
“Well, I don’t have strops, but more importantly, is everything all right with Michael?” I kept my voice deliberately light.
“Oh, he’s being a twit, but nothing too out of the ordinary.” Her voice, too, was deliberately unconcerned.
“Talk about it?”
“Nah. Rough patch, you know? It was bound to happen.”
“I know I haven’t been around much, but you’d tell me, right, if anything was really wrong?”
“I’ve told you not to worry about that. You can’t live with your wretched sister until you’re fifty, I won’t allow it.” Her eyes smiled at me before our attention was drawn to Percy and Dad emerging from the greenhouse some distance away, Dad gesturing animatedly as he spoke and Percy nodding with an interest that at least seemed genuine.
Then Vivi took my hand and I looked back at her.
“I like seeing you happy. Are you?”
Looking her in the eye so she knew I meant it, I nodded.
“Good.” She squeezed my hand and flashed her cheeky smile. “Because I’m not living with my wretched sister until I’m fifty.”
Chuckling, we turned our attention back to Dad and Percy slowly making their way back to the house, Dad pointing to something in the distance.
“Does he ever shut up?” sighed Vivi, shaking her head fondly, before a wicked grin curled her lips. “Think he’ll tell Percy about all that stuff he used to do to Mr. Baumgartner?”
“God, I hope not,” I muttered, recalling our old neighbor with whom Dad did not get on at all, and upon whom Dad liked to exact petty revenges such as charming his apple trees to grow cherries and his cherry tree to grow apples — and then would stand in our garden sipping his tea, enjoying the scene of confusion from afar. “I fear we might discover a limit to how much Percy… likes me.”
She shrugged. “What’s a few misdemeanors between lovers?”
I stared at her. “Are you some sort of poet now? Well, you’re terrible at it.”
It was then, as we sat giggling, that Percy approached and Dad disappeared into the house, Heathcliff close on his heels.
“What’s so funny?” Percy asked, offering his hand and pulling me to my feet.
“Oh, you know. Just wondering exactly how many questionably legal experiments Dad just showed you.”
“Oh, maybe three. But really, it depends how you interpret the phrase, ah, ‘poses a danger to the public safety.’ And anyway...” He tapped the tip of my nose before leaning in conspiratorially, his voice low in my ear: “Ask me to tell you about the car sometime.”
Sunday with Mum and Dad for my birthday (Vivian worked Saturday) meant we missed out on a get together with Percy’s family meant to celebrate Hermione’s birthday, and I lost count how many times I apologized to Percy until he assured me that his parents never forfeited an opportunity to have a party and I would soon be sick of them, mark his words and be careful what I wished for — a sentiment echoed, a bit more graciously, by Hermione when I met her for lunch the following week and apologized again.
“You may have surmised as much already, but there’s always something going on in Ron’s family. It’s always somebody’s birthday. Or wedding. Or who knows what. That party Bill’s having in October, for example, it never ends, really. You can’t go to all of them, and if you do you might go mad, so.”
“Have you yet?”
“What, gone mad? Apparently not, but I might be immune.”
I smiled at her over my menu. “How long have you and Ron been together?”
She looked as though she wanted to laugh at a private joke. “That’s the subject of some debate, but officially I suppose… four years? Ron would say five, but don’t listen to him.”
I recalled that Percy had told me Hermione had grown up friends with Ron, and we segued easily into reminiscing about our childhoods, the way we’d started when I’d first met her at Percy’s birthday party. Back then we’d talked of our studies, magical and Muggle subjects; and now we spoke of our families and upbringings, the interesting divide we’d each straddled between our two worlds, our experiences similar and yet so different — her with Muggle parents but having spent years wholly immersed in magical society, and me raised as a witch from birth but my life almost evenly split between the two.
We’d stumbled onto the topic of the theater, of all things, before we noticed how much time had passed when our intention had been a working lunch.
“Did you happen to look at the same records you sent to me?” I asked when we’d finally redirected the conversation to the wand problem.
“I managed a cursory review, but do tell me what you found.”
“Well… nothing. I can’t say I found anything. No diseases noted in the years the populations were monitored — ”
“Which admittedly was not nearly enough, but yes, go on.”
“No drastic changes in population, except…”
Pausing in the act of picking through the remains of her salad, she stared at me expectantly.
“Well… is a six percent decline in population significant? Over a period of seven years? I don’t know enough about it to have any idea.”
“Without any cause noted? Could be due, I suppose, to the population of natural predators during that time? I’m not aware of any cases of unicorn poaching since the fifties. What years were these?”
“1987 to 1994 when the next official count was taken. In Scotland.”
She froze abruptly in the process of spearing salad on her fork, and the tomato she’d been trying to skewer slipped out from underneath the last forceful stab and shot off her plate, rolling off the edge of the table to the ground. Hermione made a movement as if to duck under the table to fetch it but then thought better of it and sat up again.
“Where in Scotland?” she asked with measured interest.
“The forest. By Hogwarts?”
After a pensive moment she spoke again. “I’d like to check with someone about that. But… well, let’s say there were a predator — predators — killing at a higher rate than normal. You can’t use hair from a dead unicorn anyway, everyone knows that, the wands would hardly have worked in the first place, let alone for several years. You’re looking for something affecting living populations.”
“I am, but I’m certainly not finding it.”
She stared at an indistinct spot in front of her for a moment. “Are you familiar with the research and theories of Tir Gazanian?”
I was a bit taken aback. “The fellow who tried to make the wands without cores taken from animals? In the… nineteenth century, was it?”
“I know he believed the repeated taking of hair from a single unicorn or feathers from a phoenix might ultimately weaken the magical properties of the creature itself and any remaining hairs or feathers, but… his theories were debunked, weren’t they?”
Tipping her head in reluctant concession, she allowed, “I suppose they were. Disappointing, really, I wish he’d been successful at making wands without animal products. Just because they don’t suffer any harm that we can measure and prove doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth pursuing for the principle of it. But after that, everybody dismissed it out of hand.” She punctuated this with a huff.
With a nervous laugh I replied, “Might have something to do with the fact that wand cores formed from plants or artificially created with charms never lasted above half a year. Imagine your wand just giving out when you most need it.”
“Well, that can happen anyway, it just takes longer.”
“About twenty to thirty years longer, I believe.”
“Comes down to whether the creature’s autonomy is outweighed by our convenience, I suppose,” she responded, with an unexpected tone of agitation.
“I think it’s certainly an interesting area to explore,” I said carefully. “Unfortunately, I don’t really know enough about it to have an opinion, and it also doesn’t get me any closer to working out what’s going on currently.”
She was quiet for a moment, looking at me thoughtfully. “No, I suppose it doesn’t.”
“But it has put me in mind of something I read, which is that one ought not take a hair from a unicorn that’s currently wounded, because a physical injury, while rare, can temporarily weaken a unicorn’s magic. On the other hand, I fail to see why a wandmaker would use a hair from a wounded unicorn knowing it’s compromised, or why that would happen more than once and how so many people would coincidentally end up with such wands.
“And,” I continued as she nodded along and continued to poke at her lunch, “in the end, this gets me nowhere because I need the wandmakers to confirm this information. I can speculate all I want, but how can my office make a determination that we know the cause of the failing wands with any certainty?”
“Have you given any more thought to what we talked about? Seeking an amendment in the law, I mean.”
“I have,” I said reluctantly. “I just truly don’t imagine my boss agreeing to support it.”
“Has he said he won’t?”
“Not precisely, no.”
She held up her palms and gave me a pointed look as if that settled it. I averted my eyes.
“You won’t even try?” she asked in disbelief.
As I searched for the words, she added, “Have you actually written a proposal?”
“Not yet. Just researched.”
She nodded as if she suddenly understood something, before leaning forward and speaking in a keen, conspiratorial manner.
“They hate change. It’s built into them. The Wizengamot, your boss, my boss, Percy, I… even Ron, for God’s sake. They often don’t see it until you’ve spelled it out for them. I had this same problem when I first started here, until I worked out that nobody listens to you when you’re saying ‘What if?’ It’s harder for them not to listen when you’ve done the work up front.” She shrugged. “It might be extra work for you, but try putting together a proposal of the changes you’d like to see. Give it to your boss when it’s something more than a vague idea he can’t bring himself to imagine.”
While I’d deliberately omitted the bit about him being part of The Institution, Percy seemed to agree overall with Hermione’s assessment when I filled him in as we left work that night — though I’d expected him to be a bit more loquacious on the subject. Instead, his expression of agreement was downright passive.
“Madeleine’s made it fairly plain that she thinks it’s a waste of time,” I sighed, continuing on the subject of the legislative proposal.
Percy’s silence was pointed, and I added, “So I don’t know whether that means she won’t want to help with that bit. I suppose Hermione’s willing to look things over for me, and… I don’t know, you, perhaps, if I can trouble you? Lionel and Noah won’t do any extra work, you know, and Madeleine did raise an interesting point that, since the Prophet’s reporting on this now and Demetrius is, well, equivocating, and Lionel and Noah aren’t exactly known for their discretion… perhaps there’s a limit to which I ought to be blabbing about these ideas, lest the information get spun out of control. Only imagine Demetrius getting owls about things his office is doing that he hasn’t approved yet — ”
At the look on Percy’s face, just a bit too carefully blank, I conceded as we slowed in front of a fireplace in the Atrium, “Yes, okay, I know how you feel about her — ”
“Oh — oh, no,” he spoke for perhaps only the second time since we’d left our Department. “It’s not that — I mean, it is, but I’m distracted, sorry.” He gestured to the fireplace. “After you?”
Back at his flat, I kicked off my heels and set them next to the fireplace as he set down his bag and shrugged out of his work robes with mechanical movements before finally sinking onto his sofa, where he looked at me and absently loosened his tie.
“Well, the first thing is as much as I hate to admit it, Ward’s probably right about being discreet, though I hardly think you needed to be told that, since I don’t exactly imagine you going around promoting what you’re doing. I don’t see the harm in talking to Dibble about it, but Hermione may have a point.
“However — ” He raised a finger, a bit more engaged by now. “Ward is right about the Prophet, and on that subject, really, mind you be careful with them. They really will look for any reason to suggest the Ministry is mishandling anything, and the truth is often of very little consequence to them.”
To this lecture he added, almost as an afterthought, “I’m sure you already know that, I just don’t want you to be… well, Dibble and Grigsby are the ones paid to have to sort out the press in matters handled by your office and to have their names dragged through the mud if anything goes wrong, not you.”
Tucking my legs underneath me, I laid my arm across the top of the sofa and allowed my fingers to brush through the hair just above his neck.
“Well, now that you’ve warned me against the dangers of the free press” — I succeeded in drawing a sardonic chuckle from him — “do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“Why you’re distracted? Has there been a mutiny?” I asked, cheekily referring to the fact that Percy had assumed his boss’s duties three more days over the past week.
He rolled his eyes. “Not yet.”
“I saw you coming out of Mr. Robards’s office earlier, you looked a bit harassed.”
“I am a bit harassed.”
His expression was just wry enough that I recognized it as a joke, but then I refocused: “Is everything all right, though?”
“Yes… and no.” In response to my questioning look, he adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose and assured me, “I’m fine. It just seems I’ll be heading up the Improper Use of Magic Office for some time longer. So, I suppose I might be busier for a while.”
“Oh. Well, I’d like that to be happy news, but what’s happened to Mr. Blakely? Is he ill?”
Percy’s eyes were fixed on a spot in front of him. “He’s had a death in the family.”
“Oh, how awful.”
He merely nodded.
“How long is he meant to be gone?”
“We’re not certain. I’d be surprised if it were any less than three weeks.”
“Goodness. It must have been someone very close to him.”
“It was his son.”
I brought a hand to my mouth.
“How awful,” was all I could think to whisper again.
He, too, nodded again, slowly undoing his tie and drawing it from around his neck as if for the purpose of having something to do; and while I wasn’t sure precisely what was preoccupying him the most, I couldn’t find the value in pressing it. So I allowed the silence to fill the space around us, not between us, until he finally spoke again, a troubled expression having overtaken his features.
“I didn’t think anybody died of dragon pox these days who isn’t over eighty years old.”
A/N: I'd hoped to post an update way sooner than this. Some things happened, struggles were had, mistakes were made -- the point is, if you're still here reading this, you're awesome. I have a not-insignificant amount of the next few chapters already written, so stay tuned. I'm still here, still excited about Percy and Audrey, still in it for the long haul and hope you are, too.
I'd like to thank tatapb for the beta work for this chapter and not hesitating to tell me (lovingly) where my draft sucks and could be better, and I'd especially like to thank you, whoever and wherever you are, for reading and commenting. <3
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