A persistent mizzle, Percy had warned me, could not be trusted to drive most of his family indoors when we attended the gathering at his brother’s house in Cornwall — a last hurrah before Bill and his family moved away for work — and indeed, when we arrived at the cottage by Floo and had a quick introduction with Percy’s sister-in-law Fleur she directed us to the back garden. There we spied George and a tall redhead with a long ponytail immersed in conversation next to a cheerful fire pit — George reclined in a wooden chair with his arms crossed and the other, identified to me as Bill, standing with one foot propped on the stone rim of the fire, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, stray bits of hair whipping about his face with the occasional gusts of wind coming off the cliffs. A charm provided a barrier to rain coming down directly above them, and us when we joined them there.
“Well, well,” grinned Bill when he’d spotted us approaching, tucking his hair behind one ear. “Look who’s taken a few hours break from striking fear into the hearts of improper practitioners of magic everywhere.”
He was, no doubt, referring to the fact that Percy had been absolutely buried the past couple of weeks as Acting Head of his office.
“And what do we call you now?” he continued. “Is it ‘my lord’?”
“Think it’s ‘Your Grace,’” offered George.
“Oh, shut up,” protested Percy with exasperation already evident, removing his glasses to clean off the tiny droplets of rain. George shook with silent mirth. “And anyway, it’s nothing to be happy about, is it, considering my boss is on bereavement.”
“Right,” said Bill with a shrewd look. “But exactly how long did it take you to work out what you were going to wear the first morning you went in to take over?”
When Percy pointedly ignored him, George laughed, “Check Audrey’s face, she knows.”
I did, in fact, know how long it had taken him, but I schooled my expression as best I could and chose not to share.
“But my manners, where are they?” Bill extended a hand to me and introduced himself, followed immediately by the earnest inquiry whether I’d prefer to go inside seeing as it was a “bit nippy” and the insistence to at least get me a drink. A moment later he’d conjured a glass of wine for me and a tumbler containing an unknown liquid, which he thrust into Percy’s hand.
“Alright, what the hell is this?” asked Percy suspiciously. Refilling his own glass, Bill rose his eyebrows in amusement while George unsuccessfully tried to suppress a laugh.
“Calm down, alright,” replied Bill, “it’s a family evening, isn’t it? No funny business.” Raising his drink to his lips, he added in an undertone, “Not like it’s somebody’s stag night.”
“Thank you, we’ve been over it,” was Percy’s clipped reply.
“Oh, have we?” Bill looked to George.
“Yeah. You were on a tropical island, mate.”
Fortunately for Percy’s nerves, the conversation moved on to small talk, and for a while it was just the four of us, chatting around the fire as waves crashed in the distance and the drizzle began to clear up promisingly. We’d arrived on the earlier side, Percy having said he thought it would be nice for me to meet Bill and Fleur first and have a few moments before being accosted by the entire crowd; I rather suspected this was as much for his own benefit as for mine.
Partway through, we were joined by Victoire, who came skipping out the back door of the cottage, made a beeline for George, and clambered onto his lap.
George let out a defeated sort of sigh. “Get it out of your system before Nana gets here…”
At that, Bill chuckled wickedly, and George glared at him. “Easy for you to laugh, you’re going to a different hemisphere.”
“What have you decided to with the place?” asked Percy with a nod towards the cottage, drawing the topic back to Bill’s impending move.
Bill shrugged. “Guess we’ll let it, maybe just to holidayers, haven’t quite decided. Until whenever we come back. Ron and Ginny both said they don’t need it.” He raised his eyebrows. “Sure you won’t take it for a while? I’d rather have family living here.”
“Bit ridiculous, what would I need with this many bedrooms?”
“Bet Mum’s got a suggestion,” offered George darkly; he seemed to be splitting his attention between the conversation and listening to Victoire tell him exactly how much she liked airplanes and starfish.
“Thank you,” Percy replied with a pointed look, his face flushing more deeply than the pink it had acquired from the sting of the wind.
“How about you?”
“Me? I like where I live.”
“Yeah, you like it because you don’t pay for it.”
“Oh, I pay for it, all right. Dinner once a week with Rupert and Imogene, no exceptions.” With that, George addressed me in a conspiratorial stage whisper, “In-laws, am I right?” accompanied by a look of mirth.
His attention snapped back to Victoire, who had managed to locate his wand sticking out of his sleeve.
“Oi! What is it with you and wands? Kneazle, too, temperamental buggers, there won’t be a house left…” He rescued the wand from Victoire’s grip and held it in one hand behind the back of his chair.
“Kneazle?” I asked curiously. “Your wand?”
“Oh, yeah. Few years ago I — well, we, Fred and I — we got new ones, the old ones were beat to oblivion. It was… must have been ninety-six, ninety-seven, after school and before this one got married.” He tilted his head towards Bill. “Anyway, Ollivander was… well, you know, indisposed, so we went to Swynn’s at their first shop in Wales. Good wands, honestly,” he said fairly. “They use some different cores to Ollivander’s. I think the kneazle whisker’s clever, myself. Mighty territorial. But they use the typical ones, as well. I was a bit surprised, actually, when Fred got unicorn tail. Traditionalist in spite of himself.”
With a fond sort of look in his eye, he went to take a drink from his glass, his other arm having been freed when Victoire hopped off his lap and skipped over to Bill; she was running in and out between her father’s legs in a kind of game only she seemed to understand.
Suddenly George let out a chuckle into his glass — a gleeful, wicked-sounding thing that made Percy glance at him with a wary, “What?”
“Oh, you know.” George sniggered again. “It’s just, Fred always said you don’t leave a party until it’s over. We always disagreed, I say you leave it at the high point, and he said you shut it down. And now look at him. Buggered off before the unicorn wands started exploding. Bloody hypocrite.” He laughed and took another sip.
Percy placed his forehead in his hand. “Wonderful…”
Bill seemed somewhat amused but still shot George a sharp look at the same time he caught Victoire — who seemed to be making herself dizzy — from toppling over.
“Well,” he said to George, “as a wise man once said, get it out of your system before Nana gets here.”
“Wise man or wise-arse?” offered Percy.
“Oh,” said George brightly, “speaking of arses — ”
“Mate, d’you mind?” Bill rolled his eyes as he gestured to his daughter.
“What? He said it, too.” George pointed at Percy with an air reminiscent of a child taking his sibling down with him.
“Oh. Well, he said it posh, I hardly noticed.”
“It was a genteel bit of profanity,” agreed George before directing his next comment to Victoire. “Oi, my darling, do this.” He placed his hands over his ears demonstratively (where they’d have been, anyway, had he had both) and Victoire followed suit.
“Anyway,” he said once Victoire’s ears were covered. “Did I tell you about the time — I think I told you, but I dunno if I told you — about the time Freddie nearly got gored in the arse by a unicorn in the Forbidden Forest?”
Percy muttered something into his own drink that sounded like, “Keeps getting better and better.”
George acted as if he hadn’t heard him. “We were collecting unicorn hair, of all things. I mean, not from the actual unicorns, just the ones they’d already shed. They say those ones aren’t used for wands, but they still make excellent stabilizers. At least, we found they did. But Fred got a bit too close to one of them and — well, we reckoned they weren’t using them anymore so they wouldn’t care, but I suppose they saw it different. Never seen him run so fast.” George laughed again.
“You are absolutely making this up,” protested Percy.
With an affronted look, George raised one hand as if taking an oath. “On Freddie’s perfectly intact arse, I’m not! He never would let me tell anyone about it back then.”
Percy looked supremely annoyed, and I interjected, “Did you never have trouble with the unicorn hair you did collect, then?”
“No, but on the other hand, we used it mainly for the fireworks, so — ” he shrugged — “explosions were the goal anyway.”
Victoire, tired of holding her hands over her ears, had chosen that moment to wander back to George and become deeply interested in his drink.
“No, no, not that either. Check back with me when you’re at least twelve.”
A burst of laughter sounded from the house, and Bill craned his neck in an attempt to see who might have arrived, before a thought seemed to strike him.
“Oh! Almost forgot. Wanted to show you, before there are too many people and she gets a bit shy. Victoire.” He crooked a finger at her and she shuffled towards him once again. “Tell Uncle Percy what you learnt for Peru. Remember what you wanted to show him?”
Victoire scuffed her toe on the ground for a shy moment, her long strawberry blonde hair hanging about her cheeks, dampened a bit from the drizzle, before obliging. “Teng… tengo dos años… Soy de Angle— Inglaterra.” Then with a giggle she looked up proudly.
Amused, Percy looked from Victoire to Bill, asking the latter in a hushed voice, “Am I meant to know what that means?”
Bill rolled his eyes, whispering back, “Will you tell her ‘Well done,’ you idiot?”
“Oh, yes. Right.” Percy redirected his attention to his niece, who was patiently awaiting her praise.
“That was very well done,” he said kindly, if a bit robotically. Then, looking to Bill again, he asked, “All right, what did that mean?”
“It’s Spanish for I’m two and I’m from England.” Bill scooped up his daughter, planting several kisses in rapid succession on her cheek before swinging her over his shoulder where she dangled upside down over his back, giggling madly. “Three languages under the age of three, fantastic, isn’t it? Should pack you off to Uncle Charlie in China next.”
Addressing me then, Bill continued, “She’s fluent in French, as you can imagine, though you might never hear her speak it. She’s worked out in her mind that Daddy’s family is supposed to speak only English, and Maman’s family is supposed to speak only French, and she’ll almost never cross the two. Watch.”
With that, he hefted Victoire back into his arms and said, “Dites à l'oncle Percy ce que nous avons fait en France. Rappelles toi? Quand nous avons rendu visite à Grand-Maman et Grand-Papa. Mais, dis-lui en français.”
Victoire simply gave Percy a skeptical look that made me giggle into my hand.
“Don’t worry, Perce,” said George, “he probably told her to say something rude anyway.”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
“She won’t do it with you lot,” observed Bill. “It’s really uncanny. Though she’ll do the Spanish, probably because she hasn’t put it in a certain category— Hi, Mum!”
Percy’s mum had appeared through the back door of the cottage, followed closely by Percy’s dad as well as Ron, Hermione, and Harry; Ginny and Angelina arrived later in the evening. Over the course of the next hour or two I spoke some more with Bill, and Ginny, and Fleur, who was lovely to me but — like Harry — exhibited a certain reserve that the rest of the family did not. I’d also made good on my promise to show Arthur a laptop power cord, which delighted him, though when he asked keenly why it came in two parts I had to admit that I had absolutely no idea.
I found myself eventually, just off the little kitchen inside the cottage, immersed in conversation with Hermione, particularly about work; she’d sent me a note earlier in the week about needing to talk, but schedules unfortunately hadn’t permitted.
I filled her in on the hearings we’d had with both Mr. Ollivander (the younger) and Mr. and Mrs. Swynn about our orders to them, and how during those hearings Demetrius and Madeleine had tried to gain their cooperation in providing us with information about their wand sources, but to little avail. At my urging in a note, Demetrius had finally asked whether any of the cores were obtained from unicorns in the Forbidden Forest; I still wasn’t certain whether that bit of data I’d noticed was relevant, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. Mr. Ollivander had maintained he could not reveal that information, but the Swynns had informed us that they never set foot in the Forbidden Forest and they collected their wand components personally.
Both wandmakers had offered to replace wands for customers who they believed might have purchased affected wands, based on the ones that had already backfired, seeing as they had the means to trace those to specific unicorns and we still did not. This sort of resolution would still leave us entirely in the dark and was limited and fallible if the wandmakers were not communicating with one another — for how could either of them determine the real extent of the damage? And so our intention was to push forward with the order for them to remove from sale all of their unicorn hair wands created in the past ten years.
“But,” I concluded to Hermione, “it seems that bit about the Forbidden Forest was a false trail, if the Swynns never went there. So now we’re back to square one.”
“If they’re telling you the truth,” she pointed out.
“Why would they lie about that?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s just that there might actually be something to that data.”
“How do you mean?”
“I had a suspicion ever since you brought it up to me. But I had to talk to Harry. It’s not something widely known, not by the public, at least. I did wonder if I should even tell you, but I don’t think it’s avoidable given the circumstances, and Harry finally agreed.”
I nodded, wondering what sort of information could possibly necessitate the involvement of an Auror.
“In ninety-one, ninety-two, there was something… unnatural… killing unicorns in that forest. A lot of people don’t know this, but when Voldemort— Oh!”
She exclaimed at nearly the same moment I let out a gasp, my heart trying to thump its way out of my chest. It was the first time in my life I could recall hearing somebody actually say the name — in my presence, anyway. In the years following the war I’d seen it in print, of course, though it had taken the Prophet quite some time to come around to printing it, and when they did, they did it sparingly. But was another thing entirely to hear it spoken aloud.
I’d started violently when she’d said it, and I wasn’t sure whether she was reacting to my audible intake of breath, the blood having drained from my face, or the fact that my wine glass had broken when my hands had clenched around it, the pieces plummeting to the floor.
I supposed I’d known there were circles where the name was said, but never in the offices where I’d worked, and it certainly wasn’t something one bandied about the corridors, let alone in social settings. Yet Hermione had said it like it was nothing.
She gaped for a moment as I looked uselessly between her face and the shards of glass at my feet, my brain trying to catch up with what had just happened. She regained her voice before I did.
“Oh, I’m — Audrey, I didn’t — ”
“Audrey,” interrupted another voice at my shoulder, “are you all right?”
“Um…” I shook my head to try to clear it, my heart still pounding as I looked up at him. “I…”
“Your hand.” Percy took my right wrist and rotated it to look at my palm, which I now realized was bleeding. “What happened?”
“It’s nothing, I’m so sorry, I was clumsy.” I became painfully aware of how quiet the room had grown.
Percy, who clearly did not believe this at all, looked expectantly at Hermione.
“It — I think it’s my fault,” she offered matter-of-factly, waving her wand to vanish the shattered glass and spilled liquid on the floor. “We were talking and I think I just caught her unprepared when I said Voldem—”
Having scarcely recovered from my initial shock, I winced, glad for the fact that Percy had his arm firmly around my shoulders by that point. He, by contrast, appeared to have had no reaction to the name at all, except that he had fixed Hermione with an unmistakable glare.
“Thinking before you speak,” he said acidly. “You might try it sometime.”
I regained my wits just in time as she opened her mouth to retort, looking offended.
“Oh, please, not on my account. It was just an accident, I’m fine, really. It’s okay.”
He looked eminently unhappy as he tore his eyes away from Hermione and simply muttered, “Let’s see to your hand,” and steered me down a small corridor. I went gladly, wanting nothing more than to get away from the scene I’d just created.
“I’m so sorry, that was completely ridiculous of me…”
“It’s not ridiculous; she should have known better.” His voice was tight as he guided me into the bathroom.
“It is, there’s no reason anybody should have to act differently just because I’m being foolish — ”
“Audrey, stop,” he said curtly — but while his voice bore unmasked annoyance, he was inspecting my palm with concern.
“I don’t think it’s very bad at all. I hardly feel it.” I hoped the lingering tremor I saw in my hand was all in my mind.
He was quiet for a couple of seconds before allowing, “No, it doesn’t look too bad. But Fleur’s going to be much better at healing spells than I am. May I bring her in?”
While I didn’t fancy making my hostess trouble herself over the injury I’d sustained breaking her glassware at her own party, I also didn’t feel up to arguing about it — and at any rate, my hand did need to be sorted, and she’d be the one to know where the supplies were.
Percy returned with Fleur, who immediately and silently took up my hand, all business. Percy remained in the doorway, but after a few seconds Fleur decided she’d had enough of that.
“How am I supposed to do anything with you hovering over my shoulder? Shoo!” she commanded him, and he obeyed without question.
After casting a spell wherein she touched the tip of her wand to the heel of my hand, she decided, “There is no glass in the cut.” Her speech was formal and lightly accented. “Put your hand under the tap, please.”
I did as she said, and after a moment holding my hand under the stream of water I ventured, “I’m sorry for breaking your wine glass. So silly of me. And Hermione vanished it before — ”
Fleur shook this off. “I have many wine glasses. And, you have not been very much around Bill’s family, I think, but there will be many, many broken dishes, I promise you.” She turned off the tap and glanced at me. “Some of them on purpose.”
I laughed a bit, still all nerves, as she began to raise her wand to perform the healing spell, when she paused and added, “And, the brother you have chosen… Well, I think perhaps you will be breaking more dishes than I.”
She said it with the air of making a dry little joke, but something in the deliberately light tone of her voice, combined with her guarded attitude, made me wonder whether this was a typical Percy joke or simple personality conflict… or whether, perhaps, not every member of the family had so readily forgiven him for the conduct he’d previously confessed to me.
When we rejoined the party I ducked into the empty kitchen to avoid inquisitive eyes for as long as I dared, and there through the window I spied Percy and Ron conversing in the garden, which was now illuminated by floating lights. Ron’s hands were jammed in the pockets of his coat, his face imploring as he spoke animatedly, gesturing towards the house with his elbow; he raised his hands, still ensconced in his pockets, in a helpless sort of way before huddling back up inside his coat.
For Percy’s part, he looked the way he did at work whenever someone got it into their head that they were going to criticize something he’d done, only to find that in addition to defending himself he was more than willing to tell them what they’d done wrong instead. He was shaking his head, his nose quite high in the air, and whatever he was saying made Ron roll his eyes and heave such a great sigh that I saw a cloud of breath rise from his mouth in the chilly air.
A sense of unease came over me, my suspicions confirmed when they both reentered the house and I — peering from the doorway — watched as Hermione stared daggers across the room at them — or more accurately, probably, at Percy. Between her expression and Ron’s look of resignation, I gathered Ron was in for a long night. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was really my fault.
Much as I wished to disappear from the entire scene, there was nothing to do but set the matter right; I drew a steadying breath and emerged from my hiding spot, laying a hand briefly on Percy’s arm in assurance before crossing to Hermione and asking whether we might chat when she’d finished talking to Ginny.
“I’m sorry,” I said when she’d joined me. “That was… awkward. And I wish Percy hadn’t said what he’d said, that wasn’t fair to you.” I paused, in case Hermione wanted to say anything about her part; it turned out she didn’t, and she merely nodded a bit, her lips pursed.
“We got a bit off track,” I offered, “and you didn’t get to finish telling me what you’d found out. Only — maybe if we could just avoid the name, now that we’ve established who we’re… It’s just… the way I was raised, you see, we didn’t — ”
“It’s the fear that gives it any power,” she insisted, “and the more you use it, the less you’ll feel that way.”
“Y-yes,” I faltered. My eyes flicked to Percy, hovering nearby with his arms crossed, tensed as though waiting to barge in any moment. I returned my attention to to Hermione. “I suppose. But all the same…”
She regarded me a bit dubiously before speaking. “All right. Back in ninety-one, You-Know— ” She rolled her eyes and corrected herself “— well, he — had already begun the process of… coming back.” At the confused look on my face, she added hastily, “I know it really wasn’t until later years, but back then he didn’t… well, he didn’t have a proper form, but those details really aren’t important at the moment; the important part is that to sustain himself he was living off unicorn blood. Which can extend one’s life. I believe that accounts for the anomaly in the unicorn population at that time.”
“How on earth do you know this?”
She waved this away. “Harry saw him.”
I was in a bit of a daze again. “In nineteen ninety-one?” I’d have been barely thirteen years old then.
“It’s a long story, and yes, we’re sure. Anyway, it’s not precisely a state secret, but I wouldn’t go spreading it around, either, unless someone needs to know relative to the wand business. Only imagine how people might panic if they thought their wands were, I don’t know, tainted by Dark magic or some such thing — it’s nonsensical, of course, but you know how myths like these get started. I just thought you ought to know that the numbers aren’t, in fact, an aberration.”
“Did you know about all this?” I asked Percy back at his flat that night, still trying to process the fact that You-Know-Who had been haunting the same grounds as a bunch of schoolchildren for a year.
His response was delayed for a second, as he’d chosen that moment to pull his jumper over his head, emerging from it with his glasses askew. He righted them on his nose and smoothed his hair, tossing the pullover into the laundry basket.
“I learnt of it a few years ago, yes. The basics, anyway, not the particulars. Excuse me a moment.” Then he disappeared into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
By the time I’d done my own, he was in his pyjamas, sat cross-legged on the bed, looking contemplative as he brushed miniscule pieces of lint off the blanket. His silence wasn’t atypical, especially during times when he was under stress, but something about it on this occasion seemed pointed, and I knew precisely why.
The first time I’d met his family, it had felt so easy, so normal, like maybe I could fit. And while I’d known they’d led exceptional lives and done great things, not until tonight had I been thrown into such sharp contrast with them. There wasn’t one person in that lot — not even their partners — who hadn’t done some valiant thing or another, and they dropped You-Know-Who’s name in casual conversation at a party as if discussing some petty misdemeanant.
I, on the other hand, was a sheltered girl from Nowhere, Derbyshire, who pushed papers into a seeming dead end and fell to pieces over a spoken word.
I stood out like a sore thumb.
He perked up a bit when I sat next to him, extending his hand and taking mine.
“Good as new,” I offered quietly when he contemplated my palm and glanced a silent question at me.
He nodded but seemed to lose himself in thought, running his thumb over my hand.
“I’m sorry I embarrassed you,” I continued, earning a sharp look from him.
“You haven’t embarrassed me. I mean it,” he insisted when I showed my skepticism. “Is that what you think?”
“Well, I know I lost my wits like a total — ”
“Like anybody else would have, and with good reason? Because Hermione behaved with all the tact of a Stunning Spell?”
“I don’t think that’s quite true.”
“It is true, and it isn’t just her. Thought perhaps they might have waited a bit longer before showing you exactly how much decorum they don’t have.”
“Well, I confess I am surprised to learn that you of all people come from a family of strong personalities.” I stared ironically at him to make my point, until he cracked a smile and relaxed, drawing me down to to lie with him. He smelled of mint toothpaste and faint, lingering traces of cologne, though that might also have been the pillow.
I propped my head on my hand, watching as he lay on his back, rubbing his eyes under his glasses.
“They’re just… a lot, they can be a lot. Even where they might not be separately. You just get everyone together and then you have Hermione, Ron, Bill, Dad… Mum was all right tonight… and then George…” He let out a satirical little laugh. “That was about as awkward as he could have been. Bravo.”
“The bit about your brother?” I guessed.
He nodded, his lips pursed a bit, and I ran my fingers through his hair over his ear.
“Did it bother you very much?”
The question almost seemed to surprise him.
“What, George? Me?” He let out a chuckle. “No, it’s quite normal for him. As normal as it can be. We’re used to it. Just not the sort of thing you say in front of…” He rubbed at his eyes again and then removed his glasses entirely, setting them on the nightstand.
When he settled again, he was facing me, and he spoke as if offering an explanation.
“He didn’t talk about him at all for the longest time. Most of us didn’t, really. But George especially. And then when George did come around to talking about him, it was like he’d made it his goal to just be as shocking as possible. Always joking, at least. As long as he doesn’t make the darker comments in front of Mum and Dad, it’s fine.”
He trailed off, as if in reflection, and I waited, until a small smile crept across his face.
“Would it surprise you if I told you that of the two of them, George was the quieter one?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
“They were very much alike, as you can imagine, but Fred was sort of… bigger, I suppose? When they were young, especially. Fred was the one who seemed to wake up every morning with a list in mind of all the pandemonium he was going to cause. He had all the grand ideas, and George was definitely not innocent, but every now and then you could see even in George’s face — Fred would be leading some mad enterprise or another, and you could just see George at five years old looking like, Jesus, can’t we just rest today?”
A warm, genuine laugh escaped him; it infected me so that I couldn’t help smiling, and this seemed to encourage him.
“I doubt George would ever admit that, but I remember. There was one time when they — well, for Divination class, we had to keep these dream journals — all ‘round terrible idea, honestly, but they — ”
“Divination?” I interrupted in astonishment.
He seemed almost surprised at my surprise. “Yes. What?”
It somehow hadn’t occurred to me until then that if Percy had achieved all twelve NEWTs, that must have been one of them.
“I’m just a bit surprised, is all. What got you interested in that subject?”
He shrugged. “It was offered.”
Intrigued as I was, it was certainly not the time. “Hmm. Well, go on, I’m sorry I interrupted you. But we might have to loop back around to this bit later, mind.”
“Oh, might we?” He seemed amused as he propped his head on his hand, mirroring me, his other hand idly playing with the fabric of my shirt at my stomach.
“Well, we had these journals we were supposed to write in every day, to remember our dreams. Over the holidays, at home, Fred and George got hold of mine and filled it with, ah… well, let’s just say some very rude things. I don’t recall the specifics, but even if I did I’m not sure I’d like to repeat some of them to you. I threw a magnificent fit when I found it.”
After a contemplative pause, he added, “Some of them, though, were quite creative, really. I wish I could remember better… Anyway, the point is, it was George’s handwriting — they both tried to act like they hadn’t done it, said maybe Ron or Charlie was behind it, but I’d have recognized the handwriting anywhere; I’d looked over enough of their homework by then. But even though it’d been written by George, it had the distinct ring of Fred about it, if you will. He tried to play it off but he looked…”
“No, not guilt. I don’t think he really felt guilt ever. It was more like… satisfaction. Pride, even. He always seemed sort of torn between wanting to get away with something and wanting you to know what a clever thing he’d done.”
There followed quite a long moment wherein several times Percy seemed as though he might be on the verge of speech, only to stop himself each time. Our hands found each other and he looked at them rather than me.
At last, he came out with it.
“Do you remember when I… when I told you that I was awful to him? Because he annoyed me?” The last few words trailed off from a whisper until the “me” was silent, and I merely watched him, waiting for him to continue.
“The thing is, I… sometimes I don’t think that I was? Sometimes I do but sometimes I don’t, I don’t know. Not always, anyway.” The question seemed to distress him, and the next bit he appeared almost to say to himself. “We were just so different, is all. I didn’t understand him, and he sure as hell didn’t understand me.”
He was staring at an indistinct spot between us, and his face relaxed into a far-away expression, pensive and rueful.
“But I remember… it wasn’t always like that, not when we were little.” He glanced up at me as if to gauge my response to this development, and whatever he saw was apparently satisfactory, because he continued, a hopeful tenor to his voice: “I think we got on all right when we were kids. I used to read to them. I couldn’t say exactly when it changed, but things were never really the same after I went to school. You know, not seeing anybody except for holidays. Same with Bill and Charlie, when they went away to school before I did, things were never really the same.”
With a shrug he added, “Or maybe that didn’t matter at all, maybe I was always going to be too young for Bill and Charlie and too old for Fred and George, and maybe they were always going to think I was… weird.”
I wondered where Vivian and I might be, if she’d spent nearly three entire years away from me in early adolescence before I joined her at school; if instead of spending nearly every night talking to me before going to sleep she spent it with others her own age; if she cared about me but didn’t rely on me in the way we’d come to.
“It’s complicated,” I offered softly, and when he nodded with an ironic smile I asked, “Will you tell me something else about him?”
This time his nod and smile were appreciative, and he took a moment to situate himself, lying back once again, drawing me closer until I was resting my chin on my hands atop his chest.
“You know those particular books that aren’t your books?”
“They’re not, and I don’t appreciate that cheeky look on your face.” I felt rather than heard him laugh. “But yes.”
“Well. My mum also likes those books, and the reason I know that is Fred and George found them one day while my parents were out, and proceeded to, ah, regale the rest of us with dramatic readings of the contents. Fred’s idea, of course.”
“You have no idea. They were… well, Bill had gone off by then, but not Charlie; so the twins must have been about thirteen. In retrospect, it was sort of impressive how long they were able to go reading aloud without falling into hysterics — because you could tell they were trying not to. I wasn’t really finding the humor at the time, though. You know, you haven’t really lived until you’ve sat yourself in front of your ten-year-old sister’s bedroom to make sure she can’t come out and hear about things that are… quivering.”
“Was Charlie there when they did it?”
“Oh, yes. He was critiquing their delivery.”
“Did your mum find out?”
“God, no. Hiding things from Mum is maybe the one thing we can all agree on when we don’t agree on anything else. In fact… All right, this is something literally nobody in the world knows but George and me. And Fred.”
“What an exclusive club.”
“It is. But I think you can keep a secret.”
I obliged him by drawing an imaginary zipper across my lips.
“Mum still thinks it was a very confused owl that demolished half the kitchen, including our great-gran’s vase, nearly fifteen years ago. What she doesn’t know is the owl’s name was Fred-and-George-Playing-with-Bludgers-In-the-House-Again. It supplied me with decent blackmail material for a while. Until it didn’t because they’d already got in trouble for far worse.”
We continued in this vein well into the small hours, Percy reminiscing about his brothers’ antics, stifling a yawn now and then as the night grew later. It was as if a dam had broken once he’d started speaking; and it wasn’t until he had trailed off and his eyelids began to flutter, that I planted a kiss on his temple and reached for my wand intending to turn out the light.
He spoke again then, slowly, his voice low and thick.
“You know how you have these inane thoughts in the moment that don’t make any sense? I had the weirdest notion, the night I arrived at the castle for the battle and saw everyone for the first time in… years. There was a lot going on, commotion, and I wasn’t really focused on anything at first, except, well… except I couldn’t look at my dad, not right away, I looked everywhere else. And Fred was just…”
He held up a hand in front of him, just off to the left, before letting it fall limply back atop mine on his stomach. “He was just there, first one I really saw. And the most bizarre thought went through my head, the very first thing, I thought, Charlie, you’ve lost weight. Because he did, for a second, he looked like Charlie. He hadn’t shaved in probably two weeks and he just looked so different to the last time I’d seen him. Older. You wouldn’t think people would change that much, but…”
After a massive yawn, he managed the rest with what appeared to be no small amount of effort, some of the words half-formed. “The impression was come and gone so quickly but I still think about it all the time…”
It was the silence that followed, combined with his deep, even breathing, that told me that Percy had talked himself entirely to sleep.
“I didn’t think I should wake you,” Percy explained when I found him the following morning lounged lengthwise on his sofa with a book — still in his pyjamas, his hair sticking up on one side, though he tried in vain to flatten it when I entered the room. “Kept you up late enough.”
By way of response I merely joined him, stretching out atop him, claiming his chest for a pillow, and my eyes fell on that day’s crossword puzzle laying on the coffee table. As it was Sunday, it was the Prophet’s more difficult Muggle edition, and Percy had made a valiant effort, completing half of it.
Picking it up, I lifted my head and studied it for a moment, until a question having to do with Muggle astrology jogged my memory.
“Can’t believe you didn’t get 18-Down,” I remarked.
He peered at the paper in my hands and then scoffed. “Muggle Divination?”
I tossed the crossword down again. “I confess I’m still having a difficult time envisioning you getting on with that subject.”
“Well…” He lowered the book to his side, a finger marking his page. “It depends how you look at it, I suppose. A lot of people think it’s about learning how to tell the future and… it is and it isn’t. You can’t teach Sight, you know. I gather the class can be useful for discovering who might have a real aptitude for it, but as far as I could tell, nobody in my classes seemed to. Nor did my teacher, really, which was why I did self-study after the OWL. But in the end, at least where the exams are concerned, it’s less about making predictions based on tea leaves and palm-reading — because those are so open to interpretation, even confirmed Seers have disagreed — and more about understanding the theory. How Sight manifests and what signs can be trusted and which ones less so. Certain things always behave according to natural magical law. Runes, for example…”
With a little shrug, he pressed his lips together and brushed a bit of my hair away from my forehead.
“Go on?” I encouraged.
When he lifted a dubious eyebrow I nodded, and he obliged.
“Well, runes have been trusted for millennia for guidance, you know, they’re not just a tool, they possess magic inherently. And a lot of people take Ancient Runes and don’t realize that about a quarter of the time they’re studying something just next door to Divination…”
I listened as he went on for a few minutes, explaining the use of runes in Divination and the uses of runes that might not appear to have anything to do with Divination at first glance. Some of what he said was familiar, but some things I hadn’t known, having not studied runes past my OWLs.
“So,” I concluded, “what you’re telling me is you can’t, in fact, read this.” I waved my hand playfully in front of his face; he caught hold of it and gave my palm a haughty look, which quickly turned to one of mild surprise.
“Actually… This is very strange, I’ve never seen this before.”
“What?” I asked, caught entirely off guard.
“It’s bizarre, it says…” He squinted a bit. “It says, Bugger… off… you… tosser— ”
“It doesn’t say that!” I laughed, pulling my hand back, but he held onto it.
“It does, who’s the expert here?” He planted a kiss on my hand before releasing it.
“Go back to your reading about — What are you reading about?”
“History of magical monetary standards and exchange rates.”
“Am I in the way?”
“No. Stay right where you are.” He flipped open his book in one hand while with the other he stroked my hair as I relaxed, laying my head down once more. The steady rise and fall of his chest threatened to lull me back to sleep — until he spoke again.
“I love you.”
There was an ease with which he said it, a plainness — calmly, as if he were accustomed to it. As if he’d been saying it for years.
And though my heart jumped with conspicuous force, the words came without resistance, without need for thought.
“I love you.”
Openly; easily. As if I’d been saying it for years.
A/N: Two months between updates is better than three, right? I've also made decent progress on the next couple of chapters already, so I anticipate you won't have to wait this long for the next one (famous last words, right?)
The thing Bill says to Victoire in French is, "Tell Uncle Percy what we did in France. Remember? When we visited Grandma and Grandpa. But tell him in French."
Forgive me if it's not exactly right -- I'm relying on high school French from about 20 years ago. XD
Whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope they are or have been beautiful, joyful, and safe. Take care of yourselves. 2020 sucks, but Percy lurves Audrey, so there's always that. <3
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