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Irrational by RonsGirlFriday
Chapter 1: Monday
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My life had been confined to the same schedule for years, and that day was no exception.
Cheerful sunlight filtered through the curtains, demanding my attention, and soft music drifted from the wireless set on my bedside table. I hardly needed the alarm anymore; my body was programmed to come to life everyday at precisely eight o'clock.
It would have been lovely, to lie there with my face still buried in my plush pillow, curled up under the quilt my grandmother had made for me, clinging to the edges of a comforting dream I could barely recall now that I was conscious. But the day was going to start, with or without me, and so I dutifully pulled my mind out of that hazy stage between asleep and awake, and put my feet on the floor.
Yawning and squinting against the light, I shuffled groggily to the door, barely registering my own movements. I was so familiar with this routine, I could have done it even if I had been asleep. No changes, no excitement, steady as it had ever been...
Then, staggering out of my bedroom, I ran headfirst into the broad, bare chest of my sister’s boyfriend, who had just emerged from the bathroom with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist.
So, maybe not quite as boring as every other morning.
I threw one hand instinctively over my eyes, using the other to steady myself against the wall. He chuckled as he caught my upper arm so I wouldn’t stumble over.
The morning grogginess was gone, at least. If that won’t wake you up, nothing will.
“Vivian!” I groaned, my hand still covering my eyes. “Tell your fella to stop walking around without his clothes on!”
“Why?” My sister’s bubbly laugh drifted through her open bedroom door. “Is he starkers?”
“Good! Someone as fit as him should walk around naked! You go right ahead, Michael!”
“Morning, Audrey,” Michael finally said in his low, easy voice. He was still chuckling as he stepped back to allow me access to the bathroom.
I lowered my hand cautiously. “Morning, Michael. Don’t you have practice?”
“They’ve changed it to a later time, thank heavens.”
“Oh, good,” I mumbled.
Michael was a second-string Beater for the Kenmare Kestrels. He’d met Vivian when he suffered an injury during a particularly brutal match and was taken to St. Mungo’s for treatment. Vivian, who was a Healer, had been on duty when Michael was brought in and, after getting a good look at him, had run off to ask one of the other Healers to treat him so that she could ask him out later without having to worry about any impropriety in dating a former patient.
My sister had a lot of nerve and very little shame.
Michael disappeared into Vivian’s bedroom as I closed the bathroom door behind me. I turned on the tap and splashed cold water on my face, feeling my skin perking up to face a new day.
Monday. I didn’t detest Monday like a lot of people did. I didn’t love it, either. No, Monday and I had a calm, mutual understanding that bordered on indifference. Monday understood that I had to have a respectable job, and I understood that Monday was necessary in order to do it.
Just as I finished brushing my teeth and washing my face, I heard a tap at the door.
“Hello, dearest,” said Vivian as I pulled the door open. I noticed she was still in her pajamas and assumed she didn’t have to work that day.
“I wanted to let you know they’ve got me on the night shift this week – well, for the next few nights, at least.” She gave me an apologetic look. “Sorry. I know how you hate to be here alone at night.”
“Don’t worry about it – I’ll be fine. What happened, though? I thought you said you were set with the morning shifts.”
“Oh, somebody’s botched up the scheduling, no doubt.” She rolled her eyes. “But at least you won’t have to worry about Michael being around for awhile. He’ll be staying at his place.”
I waved my hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that. You know I don’t mind him being around. Really, I don’t.” Apart from the occasional, partially-nude ambushes, Michael was alright.
She gave me a look. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“Of course, if you did have a problem with it, you wouldn’t tell me anyway, would you?” Her voice carried a note of gentle reproach, but she laughed as she said it.
I smiled back. “No, probably not. Guess you’ll just have to trust me.”
“That I can do, I suppose. Sorry again about the night shift.”
Vivian, ever the big sister, always looking out for the baby of the family. It had never once surprised me that she’d chosen Healing as a profession. Like our mother, my sister was an innate nurturer. I think I had it, too, although Vivi was able to put hers to greater use – as both a Healer and a protective older sister.
I pushed her away from the door with a groan. “I’ll be fine, Vivi! I am an adult, you know.”
She gave me a teasing smile. “Well, good – one of us has to be. Anyway, I don’t suppose you have time for a proper breakfast?”
Knowing it to be a quarter past eight already, I wrinkled my nose. “Sorry, I don’t think so…I’m going to try to Floo to work by eight-thirty. I’ve got a stack of papers sitting on my desk calling my name. I wouldn’t argue with a bit of toast, though.”
“Oh, fine. I understand – heed the Ministry’s siren call.”
Fifteen minutes later, I stood in front of the fireplace finishing a piece of toast smothered in the homemade orange-ginger marmalade that Vivian and I had perfected after months of experimentation. Wishing for a moment that I could have stayed to cook breakfast with my sister instead of heading off to the Ministry to approve Portkey permits or whatever happened to be waiting for me that day, I swallowed the last bite of toast and grabbed a handful of Floo powder from above the fireplace.
The morning progressed as usual. I Flooed to work and took the lift up to the Department of Magical Transportation on Level Six. I said hello to Moira Davies, a kind, motherly woman who had been the assistant to the Head of Department for nearly as long as I had been alive. Then I sat down to complete a comprehensive report on a new broomstick model that was set to hit the market that summer, assuming it passed inspection by our Department. I worked without interruption until late morning, when the sound of someone barking my name roused me from my concentration.
I looked up to see Sheldon Cornwell, the Head of my Department, peering out of his office.
“Join me in my office. I’d like a word with you.” He frowned as his beady eyes lingered on me for just a second before retreating into his office and slamming the door. Mr. Cornwell rarely ventured out of his office, and regardless of whether he was in or out, he never left the door open longer than absolutely necessary.
I sighed. I had no idea why Mr. Cornwell wanted to talk to me. As far as I knew, I hadn’t made any errors in my work, and I hadn’t been tardy with any projects. In fact, the work in this Department was so simple, it was nearly impossible to make any errors as long as you were moderately conscientious.
I was convinced, however, that Mr. Cornwell didn’t like me. And it had nothing to do with the quality of my work; I completed whatever projects were handed to me, I was always on time, and I didn’t distract my coworkers. Despite all of that, Mr. Cornwell thought I was an idiot.
I think I was a little too quiet for his taste. Mr. Cornwell, like so many other people, assumed that someone without a forceful personality must have a level of intelligence equal to that of a developmentally delayed flobberworm. Someone who had a tendency to keep to herself was not likely to find herself in Mr. Cornwell’s esteem.
After straightening the papers on my desk and receiving a supportive smile from Moira, I approached Mr. Cornwell’s office and hesitated a few seconds before knocking. Even though he had just asked me in, it didn’t feel right to simply barge in after he had closed the door. He was, no doubt, aware of this fact – or else he would not have taken such great care to make sure it was closed every minute of every day – but I still knew exactly what his response would be once I had knocked.
“Well, come in, already! I just asked you in, didn’t I?”
Without speaking, I opened the door. Had I not knocked, I would have been berated for that, so I always chose to err on the side of respecting his privacy. My friend Darcy, who used to work in the same Department with me, had always erred on the side of invading his privacy – just for the sake of irritating him. Darcy was one of those people whose personality Mr. Cornwell respected, even while he chastised her for putting off her projects until the last minute.
“And don’t forget to shut the door, for heaven’s sake.”
I had never once forgotten to close the door. Taking care not to slam it, I shut it behind me as I stepped into the room.
“Sit down, Greene, I haven’t got all day.”
I took a seat across from him. “Yes, Mr. Cornwell?”
For someone who didn’t have all day, Mr. Cornwell took quite a long pause before speaking to me. He regarded me with a look that, for him, could have indicated contemplation, frustration, or irritation – or any mixture of the three. He pursed his lips while wrinkling his nose at the same time, giving him an expression that embodied his general distaste for everything in life.
“I’ve spoken recently with Demetrius Dibble, over in Magical Equipment Control. He seems to think they have a position there that you would be a good fit for.” Mr. Cornwell eyed me dubiously, and I could tell he was wondering why anyone in their right mind would want me in their office. “Are you interested?”
I was stunned. Magical Equipment Control was under the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Ever since I started at the Ministry, I had wanted to work in magical law or international cooperation; I had just never been able to find a route out of my current office. Advancement opportunities at the Ministry were thin for anyone who didn’t take a “grab the dragon by the tail” approach to life.
After about three-quarters of a second of silence on my part, Mr. Cornwell sighed. “It’s not a hard question, Greene. Do you want to transfer?”
“Yes,” I managed. “I – I would like that.”
“Fine. Guess we’ll have to get a new hire now. And train them.” He glared at me as if this were my fault entirely. “Alright, you’re excused. If I don’t tell you otherwise, plan on starting with Magical Equipment Control next Monday.”
“Sir,” I interjected tentatively, “do you know what the specific position is? Or what kind of work they’ll be wanting me to do?”
“How am I supposed to know that? I’m just a messenger, Greene. You’re excused. And don’t forget to shut the door.”
Moira smiled up at me from her desk when I emerged from Mr. Cornwell’s office. “Well? What was that about?”
“He – I – I’m being transferred to Magical Equipment Control!”
“Oh, that’ll be a lovely change of scenery for you, dear. Are you happy about it?”
“Yes, I am…but I don’t understand why they want me. I don’t know anybody in that Department!”
Moira shrugged mysteriously and tapped her nose with her finger.
I stared at her for a minute. “Moira! What did you do?”
She gave me an innocent look, but her eyes gleamed in her delicately wrinkled face. “Nothing at all! I didn’t do anything. Except maybe talk about you a few times to the other secretaries. You know, we do talk about things besides the weather and our favorite recipes.” She laughed at my shocked expression.
“Now, look here,” she added, shaking a stern finger at me. “You’re too smart to be stuck here helping us regulate the Floo Network. You’re a talented young lady, and I refuse to let your brains waste away under the neglect of Sheldon.” Moira was the only person who could get away with calling our boss Sheldon, and that was because she was almost old enough to be his mother.
I felt more than slightly stupid. Could I not do anything for myself? Darcy had managed to get out of this office by talking up the right people – why wasn’t it that easy for me? If it hadn’t been for Moira, I might have been stuck in this Department for several decades, and probably in no position higher than the one I already occupied.
“Thank you,” I breathed. “Really, Moira, thank you.”
She held up a hand to stop me. “No, no, none of that. I only have one condition: that you come visit me now and again and tell me about the brilliant work you’re doing and tell me stories about the boys you’re seeing.”
I felt my cheeks grow hot. “I don’t know about that. When was the last time you knew me to be dating anybody?”
“Too long ago, whenever it was, for a pretty girl like you. You don’t give yourself enough of a chance, Audrey – ”
“What’s going on out here?” Mr. Cornwell’s bald head was poking through a tiny space between his door and the doorframe.
“Nothing, Sheldon.” Moira flashed him a warm smile. “Anything I can do for you?”
“Actually, yes, I was wondering whether you can send away for some early lunch. I’m starving.” With that, pulled his head back into his office and slammed the door.
Moira rolled her eyes. “That’s why he’s in such a horrid mood all the time – he doesn’t eat properly. I try to get him to eat before ten each morning, but he never listens.” She tutted softly. “I thought I was finished raising children when my boys grew up, but working for this bugger has proved that theory wrong!”
I resumed my work with a smile on my face. Mr. Cornwell’s poor eating habits notwithstanding, he could do nothing to ruin this day for me – no matter how hard he tried.
I took a detour on the way home, Apparating to my parents’ house in Derbyshire instead of Flooing back to my flat. My parents still lived in the same house in which Vivian and I had grown up – a lovely stone-built farmhouse near the small Muggle town of Whaley Bridge.
I wanted to tell my parents about my transfer to Magical Equipment Control, but really, I never needed much of an excuse to visit my childhood home. I loved spending time there, and each time I looked out over the fields and hills surrounding our house, I had to wonder exactly what I was doing living in a tiny flat in a dodgy part of London.
The best answer was that Vivian and I had to move out on our own at some point, and it made sense for us to live together, and it made sense for us to live in London, since we both worked there. It all made perfect, rational sense. But that didn’t mean I had to like it, and it didn’t mean I never felt homesick, even though we tried to make it home for Sunday dinner as often as possible.
After nearly five years, I still didn’t understand the appeal of London. It was crowded and hectic and never felt quite right to me. As far as I was concerned, that city didn’t hold a candle to the wide, open spaces of Derbyshire, where everything was welcoming and you could always take a moment to close your eyes and breathe easily. Vivian loved London, though. It matched her energy and made her happy; and when Vivian was happy, I was, too.
The sun was hanging low in the sky when I arrived at my parents’ house, and after Apparating onto the front step I paused to take in the surroundings. It was April, and a thick covering of wood anemones had erupted all around the perimeter of the house. I had a feeling Dad would be working with his plants, so instead of knocking at the door I walked around to the greenhouse in the backyard.
“Dad?” I stood on my toes, searching over the seemingly infinite rows of plants. The greenhouse wasn’t very large on the outside, but Dad had cast an Undetectable Extension Charm on it, to allow enough room for all of his projects.
He looked up from a row of shrubs and broke into a smile.
“Well, hello, sweet pea!” He doused his dirty hands with water from his wand and wiped them on his trousers before wrapping me in a hug.
“What are you experimenting with today?” I asked with a suspicious glance over his shoulder.
Dad liked Herbology, Muggle gardening, and everything in between – which meant he liked to experiment with cross-breeding magical and mundane species. In fact, the wood anemones that surrounded the house had been cross-bred with the Flutterby bush, so that they swayed and rippled even in the absence of a breeze.
His fascination with Muggle gardening had begun several years earlier, when he had developed some heart problems and a Healer recommended he quit his strenuous job on the Magical Law Enforcement Squad. Dad had been a Hit Wizard for awhile before moving to a desk job, and the Healer suggested that he quit law enforcement altogether in favor of something with an easier pace, like Herbology.
Being as wry as ever, Dad decided it would be humorous to take it a step further and work in Muggle horticulture…and as ironic as he meant it to be, he found that he actually enjoyed it. He ran a nursery in Bakewell, where he sold Muggle plants that were so vibrant and lasted for such a long time, his customers swore they seemed to have been grown by magic. At home, he had a flourishing garden full of magical and Muggle plants. There was nothing he couldn’t grow…and very few things he wouldn’t attempt.
He chuckled at my question. “I’m glad you asked. I’ve done a very nice combination between a Venus Fly Trap and a Venomous Tentacula.”
I gasped. “Oh, Dad, you didn’t!”
“No, you’re right, I didn’t. Your mother would kill me.” He had a boyish gleam in his eye. “So that means that, when I finally do accomplish it, you have to promise not to tell her. But, in all seriousness, I do have something to show you.” He reached behind a row of flowers and pulled out a miniature rosebush in a clay pot. It was studded here and there with tiny, pink tea roses.
“It’s…nice, Dad.” I gave him a questioning look. It was beautiful, but knowing my dad, I had expected it to be something a little more out of the ordinary.
He rolled his eyes. “I know what the problem is. It’s being shy. Here, let’s talk about something else so it doesn’t feel self-conscious.” He angled his body away from the rosebush as I tried to make sense of what he had just said. “You haven’t told me yet – to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“Oh.” I tore my gaze away from the pink tea roses. “I wanted to tell you – wait, is Mum here? She’ll want to hear this, too.”
“I afraid she’s not here – off doing some function at school.” My mother, who was a Muggle, was a teacher at a primary school in a neighboring town.
“Oh…well, I wanted to tell you that I’m being transferred to the Office of Magical Equipment Control.”
Dad gave me a steady look. “And…is that a good thing, then? Are you happy about it?”
“Yes, of course – I can’t believe I was finally able to get out of Transportation! I thought I’d be stuck there forever. And being in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement…well, hopefully now I can start doing work that’s a little more meaningful.”
“I’m sure you will. You’re a smart girl, always have been.”
I was silent for a minute. “Sometimes I’m not sure that’s enough, though. I’ve always felt like my personality doesn’t work at the Ministry.”
“No, you’re not the political sort, I’ll give you that. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people don’t appreciate the kind of temperament you have, even though they should. But I wouldn’t have you any other way, sweet pea. Things will work out, you’ll see. You’ll find your way. I think you just haven’t found your passion, and I don’t blame you – it’s a hard thing to find at a place like the Ministry.”
I knew I hadn’t found my passion. I worked at the Ministry because it was good work, and it seemed like the reasonable thing to do. My parents, particularly Mum, had always put a lot of store in academics, hard work, and achievement; consequently, I was a bit of a stickler for doing things properly, and I felt I should have a job that wouldn’t disappoint them. I never felt that they demanded too much, but for their sake as well as my own, I wanted a job that anyone could be proud of. I didn’t know whether I was fulfilled at the Ministry, but I was satisfied, at least…and in the beginning that had seemed like enough.
As I pondered my father’s words, I glanced at the miniature rosebush and let out surprised gasp. Half of the tiny roses had turned yellow.
Dad grinned. “Ah, see, it’s starting to warm up to you. I wish you could see it change though…here – ” He leaned over and whispered close to my ear, “Keep an eye on it, but pretend you’re not looking, so it doesn’t know you’re watching.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Mum’s right. You really have gone mad.”
“Shh.” He gestured to the rosebush with his eyes.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as one yellow rose slowly closed into a tight bud and then unfurled itself to reveal a new color – this time a soft peach.
“See?” he asked. “It’s getting a little more comfortable. It’ll do that on and off, though there’s no rhyme or reason to it – sometimes it changes more often, and sometimes it likes to stay the same. It’s a sight when it really comes alive and they all start going, one right after the other.”
“It’s really lovely,” I said, smiling at the rosebush.
“I’m rather fond of it,” he admitted. “It makes me think of you.”
My cheeks grew warm and I smiled more broadly. “Thanks, Dad. So, when’s Mum supposed to be back?”
“Not sure…later in the evening, that’s all I know.”
“And she’s left you to fend for yourself for dinner?” I teased.
“You might be surprised to know that I do very well for myself. I may have been spoiled by having three excellent cooks around, but I’m not completely hopeless.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, fine, then, if you’d like to do it all yourself…”
He grinned back. “Not that I’d ever argue with your cooking. If you’re not too cool to spend dinner with your old dad, I say let’s go get started, because I’m starving.”
He headed for the door of the greenhouse with me but then doubled back and picked up the potted rosebush.
“We’d better take this in with us,” he said. “It’s yours, and I want you to take it back to your flat. I think it likes you.”
As if in response, the little plant unfurled a new rose, this one as deeply red as a wild cherry.
A/N: What's this? A new story? I must be a glutton for punishment. But Percy = love, and so I just had to do it! Please drop me a review and let me know what you think so far!
I want to thank Jellyman for reading over this chapter for me, and for giving me helpful feedback for this story in general. I don't think this story would be possible without her!
And of course, I'd like to thank my fabulous beta Ilia. :-)
(Revised September 2, 2009)
Chapter 2: Something Different
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Awesome chapter image by Drowned at TDA!
On the day of my transfer to my new office, I arrived at work early to gather my things and turn in my old robes – I would now be wearing the crimson robes issued by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, rather than the ghastly orange robes of the Transportation Department. After a final thank you and farewell to Moira, and a quick goodbye to a grumpy and underfed Mr. Cornwell, I hastened to the lifts, hoping to ensure that I would arrive at my new office before the day fully began.
No sooner had I stepped off the lift than I realized I had no clue where the Office of Magical Equipment Control was. I had never been to Level Two before, and Magical Law Enforcement was quite expansive. To my left were a set of doors marked “Auror Offices”; obviously my new office wasn’t anywhere in there, so I took off down the corridor in the other direction.
On the left, I passed a door that had been propped wide open, so that I wasn’t able to find the name of the office anywhere, and I decided I would double back to it if I didn’t find the correct office further down the hall. On the right, I passed the Magical Law Enforcement Administrative Offices, and finally, after passing another open door on the left and a break room on the right, I came to…
Another corridor. Full of doors as far as the eye could see, with even more hallways branching off to each side.
I had never been able to figure out whether the Ministry had been intentionally built in such a confusing way, or whether it was the careless result of hodgepodge expansion and addition of new offices through the years.
One almost expected to discover a Minotaur while navigating the complicated labyrinth of corridors.
Resolving that I would certainly not be running into any skulking Minotaurs, I turned and stared in the direction I had come from. I would simply pop into the nearest office and ask for help.
A harassed voice carried through the open doorway as I approached.
“ – no, because Blevins can’t seem to do anything right, and now I’m the one who has to go sort it all out with the legal staff – ”
It didn’t sound like a conversation I ought to interrupt.
But as I attempted to slide discreetly past the office, the owner of the voice burst through the doorway a mere two steps in front of me, cutting short his tirade about Blevins in mid-sentence.
“Oh!” I jumped back in surprise, my heart faltering.
One really shouldn’t go charging through doorways at such a pace; it’s an accident waiting to happen.
“I – I’m so sorry,” I managed, resisting the urge to shrink away from his irritated expression. He was very tall, so that he was quite literally looking down his nose at me. His nose, like the rest of his face, was long and thin, and upon it were perched a pair of thick glasses. He looked to be all business and seriousness, and the only thing remotely cheerful-looking about him was his hair, which was such a lively shade of red it could almost be described as orange.
“No, pardon me,” he said stiffly.
“I’m sorry to delay you,” I began as he moved past me, “but could you tell me where Magical Equipment Control is?”
He really did look as though this was a huge imposition, but he turned towards me once again and said, “New, are you?”
Was it necessary to say it with such a condescending attitude? It was Sheldon Cornwell all over again.
“Well, yes, I’ve been transferred…”
He pointed down the corridor. “Next door on the right, just before the lifts.”
I thanked him, received a quick nod in return, and watched him disappear into the adjacent Administrative Offices in a purposeful fashion.
My heart thumped wildly with embarrassment, and I drew a steadying breath to calm myself. I was off to an excellent start.
As it turned out, the incident in the hallway was no indication of what life would be like in my new office. Magical Equipment Control was a cheery little place, comprised of one large room, a private office for the manager, and a staff of five people – now six, including me.
Whereas Magical Transportation had been a dull, drab place, enlivened only by the horrid orange robes we were required to wear and the bright flowers on Moira’s desk, the Office of Magical Equipment Control was adorned with photographs, personal trinkets, and colorful posters bearing such slogans as “Cauldron Care Averts Accidents!” and “Finicky Fireworks Foster Fiascos!”
My new boss, Demetrius Dibble, was the anti-Sheldon.
“Oh, God, none of that!” he protested when I addressed him as Mr. Dibble. “Urgh! Makes me feel old. It’s Demetrius – or Dibble, if you must.” I nodded, knowing I was certain to break that rule a hundred times over, out of sheer habit.
He was, I noticed, quite young – perhaps in his mid-thirties. He had a cheerful face and excessively curly brown hair.
“We’re very glad to have you aboard – Violet’s heard wonderful things about you from Moira Davies.” Violet, I soon learned, was Mr. Dibble’s secretary, and one of Moira’s co-conspirators.
“So take the morning to get situated,” he continued, “and I’ll have Lionel show you the ropes, make sure you’re absolutely comfortable here.” He gave me a friendly smile.
Lionel Grigsby was Mr. Dibble’s second-in-command, equally welcoming, cheerful, and overwhelmingly energetic. He reminded me of Vivian’s boyfriend – similar height and build, jovial nature, and confident, carrying voice. The main difference was that Michael was a bit mellower, whereas Lionel was positively bouncing off the walls.
“So good to meet you! Here, here’s your desk, right next to Noah’s, you can just chuck your things there, and I’ll introduce you…” With that, he placed his hands on my shoulders and steered me across the room, where he introduced me to Noah Marcum and Madeleine Ward.
Judging by looks, Noah and Madeleine were about my age, although I learned that they had been working for Magical Equipment Control for over a year. Noah was short and stocky, with an angular jaw and an easygoing manner. Madeleine had a dainty face and immaculately kept, straight, black hair. After shaking my hand, she leaned back in her chair and regarded me with pursed lips and a dubious expression.
“So does this mean I finally get to share some of this ridiculous amount of work that’s been sitting on my desk for the past three weeks?” she inquired of Lionel. Her voice was low and flat, with a bit of an edge to it.
“Thank God you’re not being friendly, Mads,” laughed Lionel. “It breaks my heart when you are.” Noah chuckled, and Madeleine rolled her eyes.
I jumped in tentatively. “I can get started right away, on anything, really, just tell me what needs doing...”
My voice trailed off, drowned out by Lionel’s enthusiastic reply as he waved away my offer. “We’re not going to load you down with work your very first day here! Thought maybe we’d just get to know you a bit, maybe take an early lunch – Dibble doesn’t want us scaring you away before you’ve even had a chance to sit down!”
I wasn’t sure how to tell him that the prospect of doing research and writing reports was much less frightening than the idea of trying to impress a roomful of new people.
As promised, the next hour consisted of questions about my previous position with the Transportation Department, where I lived, what my family was like, what my interests were – all of which I answered, albeit self-consciously, until I had shared almost the entire story of my life, which really wasn’t that interesting to begin with.
Lionel and Noah were fascinated by the fact that I had been homeschooled, especially since I’d studied both magical subjects and Muggle subjects – Mum had been quite adamant that Vivian and I receive a well-rounded education. I spent a great deal of time answering their questions about what that experience was like: yes, we were busy; no, Muggle subjects weren’t boring; yes, we still met other children…
I rather felt as though I were under an exceedingly friendly interrogation.
I learned a few things about my coworkers as well. Noah wanted to teach at Hogwarts someday, although he hadn’t exactly been a model student and hadn’t received many NEWTs. He was still hopeful, however, and said he would gladly accept a position teaching Muggle Studies, a subject that came naturally to him since he was Muggle-born. Lionel had wanted to be an Auror, but that didn’t work out for him; he said he was now perfectly happy in his current position and didn’t want to do much else besides manage an office in Law Enforcement.
Madeleine didn’t say much to me – indeed, she didn’t say much at all, choosing instead to punctuate other people’s sentences with irritable scoffs and sighs. Noah assured me that this behavior was normal and had nothing to do with me, which still didn’t make me feel any less intimidated. I did learn, however, that she was quite a talented witch who aspired to work in the Department of Mysteries.
I couldn’t help feeling a trifle jealous of my coworkers, all of whom seemed to know exactly where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do. Even Noah and Madeleine, who hadn’t yet achieved their goals, were only using this office as a stepping stone. I, on the other hand, wasn’t sure where this job would take me – if anywhere.
Moira’s words from the previous week stuck stubbornly in my head. Was I wasting my talents? Was this yet another dead-end? Would my identity be lost in the winding halls of the Ministry, buried under stacks of papers, and shuffled along with the hundreds of people who crossed the marble floors of the Atrium?
My thoughts were interrupted when Lionel inquired as to my interest in Quidditch - it seemed there was a good deal of friendly rivalry in this office - and I had to admit to the others that I didn’t know much about Quidditch at all. My knowledge of the sport was limited to the fact that my dad supported the Appleby Arrows, and that my sister and I were forbidden to marry anyone who supported the Wimbourne Wasps.
The result of my confession was that a large part of our lunch hour was spent talking about Quidditch, as Lionel and Noah tried to describe the sport’s finer points in a way that I could understand. Unfortunately, I only felt more confused, although I tried to appear as though I was following along.
By the time we returned from lunch, I felt perfectly exhausted, and I hadn’t done one bit of work yet. I was beyond relieved when Mr. Dibble finally approached me with a task.
“I’m so sorry to give you work on your very first day, Audrey,” he said, “but would you mind taking on a small assignment?”
I looked at him in astonishment. He was apologizing for asking me to do my job. I felt very out of place here.
“That’s what I’m here for, of course,” I replied.
“Well,” he continued, “we often have a bit of overlap between our office and the Improper Use of Magic Office, and sometimes files get set off to the wrong place. So about once a week, we need to hand over some files to them and vice versa – Lionel has this week’s files for I.U.M., and I’d appreciate it ever so much if you could run them over there.” He returned to his office, but not before reminding me that the door was always open and that I should never hesitate to ask him any questions.
“So, where is the Improper Use of Magic Office?” I asked Lionel after accepting a large stack of bulging files.
“Just down the corridor, next door on the left. You, um…” He gave me an abashed, almost apologetic look, although I wasn’t sure why. “There’s a bloke there called Percy Weasley, that’s who takes them, and he may have something to send back to us. Tall redhead with glasses – can’t miss him.”
A tall redhead with glasses.
A flush crept up my face as I recalled the lukewarm reception I’d received earlier in the corridor.
“You alright?” Lionel gave me a look of concern.
I nodded vigorously and cleared my throat. “Oh, yes, just thinking. I’ll be right back, I won’t be a moment!”
Maybe the Department of Transportation wasn’t so bad, I thought glumly as I hurried down the corridor. I shifted the stack of files in my arms. They weren’t particularly heavy, just bulky and somewhat awkward.
Stopping just outside the open door of the Improper Use of Magic Office, I took a moment to collect myself, drew a deep breath, and stepped into the doorway.
Straight ahead, sitting at his desk, looking very busy and important, was Mr. Tall-Redheaded-and-Bespectacled himself.
He didn’t look remotely happy to see me. My stomach gave an unpleasant twinge as he raised one eyebrow above the thick rim of his glasses and stared at me expectantly.
“Hello,” I said, flashing a nervous smile as I approached. “My name’s Audrey…Audrey Greene. I’m – well, I’m sure you remember, I’m new in Magical Equipment Control…”
“I remember,” he said dryly.
Under somewhat calmer circumstances than our first meeting, I noticed his appearance in better detail. I realized that his businesslike air and the weary lines across his brow made him look older than he probably was. In actuality, he seemed quite young – not more than two or three years older than I was.
His mouth was narrow, just barely wider than his thin, perfectly straight nose. And his eyes, which were a pleasant, earthy brown, were sharp and alert behind the thick lenses he wore. All of his features had the combined effect of making him appear highly focused at all times.
Before I could say another word, I found myself accepting two thick files from Percy and balancing them atop the stack I already held.
“Those go to your office,” he said. “And would you please tell Dibble that he really must talk to Harmon Finch and tell him, for the last time, that wands do not fall under the purview of this office? They’re clearly defined as magical equipment, and Finch won’t seem to listen to me, no matter how many times I remind him, so tell Dibble it’s out of my hands.” He rattled all of this off at lightning speed and spoke with the tone of someone who had been over this a thousand times before.
I nodded, trying to remember each piece of information while at the same time extracting files from the bottom of the stack I was holding. Honestly, he could have waited until my hands were free before giving me more things to hold. The pile tipped precariously, and then –
Sheets of parchment… All. Over. The floor.
“Oh no,” I whispered, bringing my hands to my mouth. My face grew warm as blood rushed to the surface in the apples of my cheeks. Gathering my wits, I reached for the files now strewn about the floor next to Percy’s desk. “I’m so sorry, I’ll get – ”
I heard an exasperated sigh and a terse, “Just – it’s fine, I’ve got it. Accio 3-8-5-8-2 and 3-8-7-4-0.”
Two files righted themselves and flew into his outstretched hand. He held them out to me and gave me a steady look that I interpreted as, For the love of the prophets, please do not drop these again.
“These are for your office,” he repeated. I glanced at them as I accepted them from him. Numbers 38582 and 38740.
He memorized file numbers that didn’t even belong to his office.
Percy then scanned at the remaining file covers and flicked his wand at the mess of parchment on the floor, so that the loose leaves began sorting themselves into several piles.
He sighed again, and his eyes met mine. “Is that all?” he asked, rather rudely, I thought.
My stomach flipped over. “Yes,” I squeaked.
“Alright. Thanks.” He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, picked up his quill, and said nothing further to me.
I must have looked odd when I returned to my office, because Lionel raised his eyebrows and inquired after my wellbeing.
“I’m fine,” I replied, placing the new files on his desk. “I, um…I think I rather irritated him, though...”
And this entire day has been rubbish, I added to myself, and I can’t seem to do anything right, and –
To my bewilderment, Lionel burst out laughing.
“There would be something wrong with you if you didn’t irritate Percy Weasley. It’s not a difficult thing to do.” He laughed some more. “I have to admit, though, I thought maybe he’d take to you a little more kindly – you’re so nice, you see. He doesn’t get on well at all with Noah or me – does he, Noah?”
Noah grinned. “Nope. And Mads flat-out refuses to deal with him.”
“Stupid git,” was Madeleine’s contribution to this conversation. “He’s only an assistant and thinks he runs the whole bleeding Department.”
“He sort of does for I.U.M. what Lionel does over here,” Noah explained to me, “only with a much better attitude.” He didn’t manage to get the last bit out with a straight face, and burst into a fit of giggles at his little joke.
Lionel coughed in a vain attempt to cover up his own laughter. “Well,” he said, turning to me, “guess you’ve been initiated now. Really, you’ll get on just fine here – might just have to be a bit more forceful whenever you’ve got to deal with Percy.”
Me, forceful. That was a laugh. I would have had a better chance at sprouting a pair of wings and flying to outer space.
I busied myself with some general office work for the remainder of the day, thinking that at the very least I was sure to amass a large collection of entertaining stories about my new job to share with Moira.
At quarter to four, an Interdepartmental Memo flew into our office and landed neatly on my desk. I truly smiled for the first time all day as I read it:
Audrey, my dear,
I’m slipping out a bit early today. I like to keep these people on their toes. I know there’s no chance of talking you into sneaking out, so do promise me we’ll have lunch this week so I can hear about your new spot in M.E.C.
I don’t know how many times I had told Darcy she really ought not write such things in memos that anyone could open and read – sneaking out early, indeed. And on a Monday!
I rubbed my eyes as the realization hit me: it was only Monday.
At least I had lunch with Darcy that week to look forward to…
As long as I wasn’t eaten alive first.
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to my sister Madelyn, after whom Madeleine Ward is named (but who also has a better attitude than Madeleine!)
A few edits have been made to Chapter 1, at the suggestion of my wonderful beta, Ilia.
Please leave me a review and let me know what you think!
Chapter 3: Romance By Stealth
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Dedication: To my friend Barbara, whose dating misadventures helped inspire the character Cepheus Tomlinson in this chapter.
Lovely chapter image by Drowned at TDA!
“Stupid, evil cow!”
Vivian was in quite a temper. I was surprised she had the energy, considering she had just come home from a twelve-hour overnight shift.
“What’s the matter?” I followed the sound of her voice into the kitchen, all the while attacking the snags in my hair with a brush.
“Hateful woman!” she huffed, wrenching open cupboard doors – searching for what, I didn’t know. “I can’t believe this – she knew I wanted that spot – we have nothing to eat!”
That wasn’t the slightest bit true. Our kitchen was stocked with plenty of ingredients, most of a higher quality than we could really afford; considering we both worked so much, we reckoned it was alright to indulge our shared passion for cooking.
“Vivi, sit down and have some tea – I’ve just put some on.”
Sighing, she leaned against the countertop and placed her forehead in her hands.
“Eloise bleeding Camden denied me the spot in the Children’s Ward when she knew I wanted that spot – she knew how much I wanted it! But no, sodding Jane Bryson gets it, the woman who can’t perform a decent Clotting Charm to save her own life, never mind someone else’s!” She paused, and I remained silent, waiting for her to continue. “It’s because Eloise thinks I want her spot – as if I wanted some rubbish administrative position! That job is for Healers who can’t actually do any damn Healing, isn’t it?”
I gave her a sympathetic look and extracted her favorite teacup from the cupboard. Our tea set, which had once belonged to our grandmother, was a hodgepodge collection that Nana had amassed over the years. There were nearly two dozen teacups of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, and each bore the decoration of a different flower. Vivi’s favorite was a fluted cup adorned with a sunflower; mine was a sturdy little cup bearing the image of the sweet pea.
“I’m sure you deserve that spot more than anyone,” I assured her as I prepared tea for both of us.
“Too right I do,” she said in a sullen voice. “It’s all damn politics, though. Jane Bryson doesn’t even like children! Oh, this makes my head ache something awful.”
She closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. “How have the last few days been for you, dearest?”
“Oh, fine,” I said. “Just fine. Can’t complain, really. Been keeping busy, so hopefully I’m making a good impression…”
“You work too much,” she chastised.
“Hark who’s talking,” I retorted.
She gave me a tired smile. There were dark circles under her eyes, a natural byproduct of her constantly shifting sleep schedules.
Vivian and I looked alike in several ways, the main difference between us being that she had a more petite figure. We both had round faces and dark brunette hair, though Vivi experimented with her color frequently. But Vivian had a powerful, natural energy about her, so that she always seemed vibrant, even when she was exhausted. Physical similarities notwithstanding, she wore the signs of sleep deprivation in a way that I never could.
We stood in silence for a few moments, sipping our tea, and when I was certain Vivi’s anger had dissipated, I joked, “Perhaps they thought your hair would frighten the children.” My sister’s hair currently had garish strips of magenta intermixed with her natural brown.
Her eyes flashed with amusement. “I’m going to do it all purple now, just to spite them.” She grinned, pondering this idea with apparent relish.
Vivi got away with quite a lot at work because she was such a talented Healer. Even considering her current troubles, she knew as well as I did that St. Mungo’s would never let her go – she was too great an asset. Not only was she skillful, she also put patients at ease in a way that few Healers could; some people insisted that simply being in Vivi’s presence was more therapeutic than any form of spellwork.
Yawning, she kissed me on the cheek. “I’m going to go to my bedroom and sulk,” she said in a wry sort of way that reminded me of our father. “Have a good day at work.”
I remained in the kitchen for several minutes, breathing deeply and savoring the silence – magic did wonders for improving sound insulation in even the dodgiest of flats. The kitchen was perhaps my favorite spot; it stripped me of my worries and anxiety. I didn’t like to think of it as small and cramped – to me, it would always be cozy and welcoming. Decorated in bright reds and yellows, it was all at once energizing and relaxing, uplifting and rejuvenating. It was the site of morning gossip and many a late-night discussion with Vivian regarding pressing matters such as shoes, men, and careers.
I hoped Vivi wouldn’t fret too much over her job…she would probably wind up getting the spot she wanted within the month. She was too good not to get it. And this setback certainly wouldn’t deter her. Vivi always found a way to push the boundaries, and she did it in a way that people respected – she never met a mountain she couldn’t move.
As for me, I didn’t even go so far as to toe the line, preferring to walk safely on the appropriate side of things. It’s funny, how doing things the “right” way doesn’t get you where it ought to…but even so, I continued to do it. Moving mountains wasn’t in my repertoire.
“Why don’t you do something wild today, and return from lunch a few minutes late?” teased Darcy as we perused the menu at a nearby café during our lunch hour.
“Ha-ha,” I responded, rolling my eyes.
Darcy MacKenna was not what most people expected my best friend to be. She was brash and crass and considered an unvoiced opinion among the deadliest of sins. She was quite talented and intelligent but found pleasure in shirking her duties here and there. It wasn’t that she was lazy or irresponsible – it was that she got a sense of satisfaction out of demonstrating how much control she could exercise over her own time.
As forceful as she was with every word that came out of her mouth, however, she lacked the self-important attitude that seemed so prevalent at the Ministry. On more than one occasion, she’d informed me that I should hex her if I ever felt she was taking herself too seriously. She was tolerant and accepting, too, even if she did occasionally make ridiculous suggestions in her quest to help me break out of the shell she was convinced I was living in.
“Really,” she pressed, “Dibble won’t even notice, and you know Grigsby won’t care.”
I didn’t bother to ask how she knew the first thing about Mr. Dibble or Lionel. Darcy seemed to know everything about everybody at the Ministry, even people she had never met before. She was a networking mastermind – it was no surprise that she’d finally achieved her coveted spot in the Department of International Magical Cooperation.
“What would I do if I didn’t have you to single-handedly preserve my sense of independence?” I asked after we had placed our orders.
“I’m sure I don’t know. You’d probably be locked in the bowels of the Ministry writing reports for two Knuts a day.”
“I like writing reports,” I answered in earnest.
“Which is why you’ll be checked into the loony ward at St. Mungo’s before you reach the age of thirty, my dear.”
Our banter transitioned into normal chitchat and a good amount of new gossip on Darcy’s part. We talked for such a long time that I really was in danger of returning to the office late if we didn’t leave right away.
“If we must go back now,” said Darcy, “at least promise me you’ll come to the Hinkydrunk after work today.”
I bit my lip in uncertainty. “I don’t know – ”
“Come on, when was the last time we went out? There’ll be people from I.M.C. there, I can introduce you if you want. Good people to know, in case you get bored in Equipment Control.”
After a moment of indecisive silence on my part, she continued, “I will come to your office and make a scene, you know I will.”
“I know,” I laughed. “Alright, I’ll go – only for a bit, though! And I’m not leaving work early, so you’ll have to be patient.”
“Patience is my middle name.”
“I thought Tact was your middle name.”
She drained the rest of her tea. “It varies in accordance with my virtues.”
The Hinkydrunk wasn’t quite as debaucherous as its name suggested. It was a comfortable pub favored by the twenty- and thirty-something crowd that worked for the Ministry. It smelled faintly of oak and barley and cigarettes, and if Muggles had been able to see it, it might have appeared like any ordinary Muggle establishment, since it was the trend among younger wizards and witches to swap their robes for Muggle attire after work.
As it was a Friday evening, and as I generally left work later than most others, the pub was already overflowing with patrons by the time I arrived. I wound my way through the crowd and finally found Darcy standing amongst a group of her office mates. After greeting everyone, I found myself being pulled aside by my friend – and, being Darcy, she got right to the point.
“There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she said, handing me a pint of ale.
I stared at her for a moment: something in the deliberately casual tone of her voice did not sit well with me.
“Someone you’d like me to meet,” I repeated skeptically. If I knew Darcy – and I did – it was a guy. An impromptu blind date. Romance by stealth.
I was being ambushed by my own best friend and some man I’d never met before.
She gave me a smug look.
“This is unbelievable,” I sighed. “You could have at least told me that’s why you invited me out – you haven’t given me any warning!”
“Nonsense. It’s not why I invited you out – I invited you because you’re fabulous and I desire the pleasure of your company. Besides, I only talked to him this afternoon, after we had lunch.”
I glared at her, fully aware that I must have looked like a petulant child.
“And at any rate, it doesn’t matter, because you would never have come if you knew what I was doing.”
She had me there. I would have made an excuse and gone straight home. Darcy meant well, but these guys she set me up with never worked out for me. Part of the problem was that she tended to choose the guys who were more suited to her personality than to mine. Darcy was very dear to me, but her taste in men was rubbish.
“You’ll love this one,” she assured me. “Cepheus Tomlinson.”
“Pardon?” I interjected. I tried and failed to suppress a giggle. “His name’s Cepheus? Branching out a bit, aren’t you?”
She waved an impatient hand. “Look, his name really isn’t important. What matters is that his family’s rolling in Galleons, and he’s dishy.”
“Charming,” I replied with a pointed look. “But I really don’t know if this is a good idea…”
“You wouldn’t leave the poor bloke standing all alone with nobody to talk to, would you?”
I hardly believed that Cepheus Tomlinson, whoever he was, would have any trouble finding someone to talk to if he was as rich and attractive as Darcy claimed. But no, as per usual, I wouldn’t leave him standing all alone, not after Darcy had apparently promised to introduce him to me. I couldn’t in good conscience leave without at least saying hello – it was only good manners, after all. Darcy knew this perfectly well, which was why she continued to do this to me.
She bustled away to fetch Cepheus, and I pressed myself rather awkwardly against the wall, attempting to be as unobtrusive as possible. While I waited, I scanned the pub for familiar faces – it would be nice to have an escape route, if possible. My office mates had mentioned they might be there after work, although Noah was enamored with another pub called the Boggart’s Hideaway, so it was likely they had gone there instead.
A few patrons shifted out of the way, revealing a head of meticulously and conservatively styled ginger hair across the room. Directly below that hair was a pair of thick glasses, and behind those glasses was a bored expression.
He was standing amongst a group of people I assumed were his coworkers from the Improper Use of Magic Office, and he was tipping the glass in his hand absently from side to side, looking as though he wondered what on earth he was doing here.
I watched as he forced an uninterested smile onto his face in response to someone’s words, nodded and offered a few words himself, then glanced around the pub. His eyes found mine, and his mouth twitched, and I tore my gaze away, feeling mortified.
I turned around and knew right away that this was Darcy’s miracle man. He had the air of a god walking among mortals, and looked as though he breathed conceit rather than oxygen and ate arrogance for breakfast. Typical. I decided I was going to kill Darcy.
“Cepheus Tomlinson,” he announced, shaking my hand. He inclined his head a bit, and I marveled that he was physically capable of it, since he spent the rest of the time with his chin held jauntily high. His eyebrows were cocked in a perpetual expression of condescending amusement above a pair of inhumanly blue eyes. He was certainly attractive, and he was well aware of the fact.
After the initial exchange of pleasantries, I asked, “Er…so, how do you know Darcy? She neglected to mention…”
With that, he was off and running; there was no need for me to talk at all, as he had that covered well enough himself. I learned that he worked for International Magical Cooperation, though he really didn’t need to work, but he felt compelled by his duty to his country to assist with matters of diplomacy, particularly considering his parents knew this family in France and that family in Spain, and his dad had once played Junior Quidditch with the Japanese Minister of Magic – but, lord, that was years ago, and now the two families only exchanged Christmas cards! He was currently working on an urgent diplomatic issue – a pet project of his, he said with a laugh – to convince the Ministry to start using Italian-made robes, because Merlin knew these current robes were rubbish and it would be well worth it to use imported ones because Italian stitching was clearly superior.
It never failed to amaze me that a person could talk about himself at such length. Cepheus didn’t interest me at all, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I listened attentively, thankful for the fact that the conversation didn’t actually require any talking on my part.
Twenty minutes later, I was still nodding politely while surveying the pub in what I hoped was a discreet manner. Darcy was chatting up some guy in a secluded corner, twirling a strand of her curly auburn hair around one finger, and she winked at me when she caught my eye.
Oh, yes, I was going to kill her. Slowly.
Across the way, Percy appeared a bit more at ease as he laughed and smiled in response to something one of his mates had said. As he spoke, he made a few gestures that I associated with men talking about Quidditch, and while he wasn’t as boisterous as any of the guys surrounding him, he seemed more engaged than he had been earlier.
His face looked so much more pleasant that way, though it still retained an aloof quality – a distant expression layered more or less permanently over all others, occasionally lapsing to reveal a certain amount of hesitant enjoyment.
I focused my attention once again on Cepheus, who was now explaining the intricacies of the Italian stitching on his shirt – custom made, of course. I made a feeble attempt to excuse myself but found it impossible to get a word in edgewise.
Finally, when he paused to take a drink, I took my opportunity. “I – I’m so sorry,” I rushed, “but I’ve just seen a friend I haven’t talked to in a long time, and I really must catch her before she leaves. It’s been lovely meeting you.”
“Until we meet again, then,” he said, raising his glass to me. He hadn’t the slightest clue that I was trying to get as far away from him as possible.
Now faced with the dilemma of what to do, since I had just ditched Cepheus for a non-existent person, I maneuvered my way through the throng of patrons until I sighted an empty spot at the bar counter. I still had my drink in my hand, but I took the spot nonetheless – I really had no choice. Turning my back to the crowd, I attempted to look as if I weren’t standing there completely alone and without purpose.
“Excuse me,” said a stilted voice over my shoulder, “is this spot taken?”
My body tensed, and I closed my eyes for a second before turning my head to see Percy standing there with an inscrutable expression on his face.
“Er…no,” I replied, mentally kicking myself and wondering whether Cepheus hadn’t yet found a new person to talk to. Regardless, perhaps I could just leave – but no, that would seem odd, wouldn’t it? Not that I didn’t look odd to begin with, hovering there for no apparent reason, talking to nobody in particular.
I glanced around at everything and everyone except for the redhead standing next to me, and I saw that Cepheus was, indeed, still standing alone, looking as though he required no company other than himself.
“Friend of yours?” Percy leaned stiffly against the bar, arms crossed, and when I directed my attention to him, he nodded in Cepheus’ direction. His face was still largely stoic, but his eyes betrayed a hint of amusement behind his glasses.
Not sure how to answer that, I delayed for a moment before replying, “No…um…bad blind date…”
I prayed that the floorboards would part and that I would sink into the ground.
“My friends like to do that to me, too,” he admitted, one corner of his mouth pulling up into a self-conscious smile – it was barely perceptible, but it was there. He looked kind and handsome that way. “I usually end up like that poor sod.”
I didn’t know what to make of that comment, but the expression in his eyes turned from amusement to horror, as if he deeply regretted what he had just said. A light flush started to creep up the base of his neck.
Hours seemed to pass as we stood in uneasy silence. I averted my eyes once again, staring into the depths of my drink as a form of distraction – I had never cared for the bitter at this pub; it was too sweet. My straight hair hung shapelessly around my face, and I tucked it compulsively behind my ears about fifty times. When I finally glanced at Percy again, he appeared anxious and seemed to be thinking intently about something.
Finally, he spoke up, his voice straining over the din of the pub. “The reason I…that is, what I wanted to say is that I believe I might have been rude to you the other day.”
Well, yes, perhaps a bit, I thought.
“No, not at all,” I assured him. “I’m sure you were just busy and…work and everything…”
“Oh, yeah.” He nodded emphatically. “It was a horrendous day. I mean, you tell people a hundred times, and you’d think they would learn after awhile – especially in an office like I.U.M., you really can’t afford to do things incorrectly. Just last week we had three cases completely mishandled, and of course on Monday it fell on me to sort everything out, so first I had to go and – ”
He stopped abruptly, looking embarrassed, and the flush continued up the sides of his neck, creeping onto his face, until his freckled cheeks were tinged with pink.
“Um…well…Mondays are rubbish,” he finished.
I offered him a smile. “Mondays are rubbish,” I agreed.
“At any rate, I’m sorry I was rude.”
“No offense taken.” I said it so quietly that I wasn’t sure he heard me.
I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I’d had to lean towards him in order to hear what he was saying, and I pulled away feeling uncertain. Four days ago, I’d been downright terrified of Percy; now I didn’t know what to make of things. He seemed much more decent than anybody gave him credit for.
His eyes fell on mine and then flickered away in almost the same second. He cleared his throat.
“Anyway,” he said, “I’d better…well…” He motioned in the direction of his office mates, nodded goodbye to me, and then he was gone. In all the time he had been at the bar with me, he hadn’t even ordered a drink.
Darcy was waiting expectantly for me, and she gave me a frustrated look when I finally made my way over to her.
“Please don’t tell me you ditched that gorgeous man” – she pointed to Cepheus – “to chat up Percy Weasley.”
“I wasn’t chatting him up!” I protested. “And I’ll have you know, Cepheus is a total bore.”
“Oh, and Weasley isn’t?”
My face grew hot. “Well, that’s not – exactly how do you know him, anyway? I know you know almost everybody, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of person you’d take interest in.”
She laughed. “He’s not, trust me. I’ve only heard about him from others. The only interesting thing about him is that his brother is best friends with Harry Potter.”
Suddenly, he seemed quite intimidating again.
Darcy gave Percy an appraising look. “To be fair, he’s pretty fit. He really needs to do something about those glasses, though – they’re horrifying. And he’s so thin – I wonder if his mum forgot to feed him.” This thought seemed to amuse her.
She turned her attention to me once again. “So, no luck with Cepheus, then?”
“Not exactly my type, as you very well knew before you even introduced me to him.”
“Mind if I have him?”
Comments like this were to be expected from Darcy, but I still laughed in disbelief at the absurdity of it all. “He’s a man, not a jumper I’m lending you!”
“I wish I had a jumper that looked like that.”
When I departed a short while later, she kissed me on the cheek, wishing me a good weekend and promising loads of details about Cepheus that I really had no desire to learn.
I chanced a look at Percy once more before exiting the pub. He looked as uncomfortable as ever; and though I was certain he locked eyes with me for a second, his face gave no response and he turned his head away quickly, as if he hadn’t seen me at all.
I left feeling baffled and remembered why I so rarely went out at the end of the week. Happy hour was much more trouble than it was worth.
A/N: Thanks for reading, everyone! Reviews are always appreciated, and for those of you who decide to leave a review, I'd be very interested to know your opinions on Audrey's characterization and voice, as well as the tone of the story. Is it working for you? Anything I can improve at this point? Anything that you really like? Thanks again!
Chapter 4: Damn Lifts
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Special thanks to Jellyman, SnitchSnatcher, Violet Gryfindor, and Alopex, without whose encouragement this chapter might never have been posted. And thanks to those of you who are still reading after this story's incredibly long hiatus. If you are reading, you should probably be sainted.
Breathtaking chapter image by Drowned at TDA!
I couldn’t deny that, on the whole, Magical Law Enforcement was turning out to be much pleasanter than Magical Transportation. Most of the people I encountered on a day-to-day basis were inconceivably kind and well-humored.
“Good morning, Mr. Lambert - er, Brian,” I corrected myself yet again as I popped my head into the office of the Senior Magical Equipment Inspector.
“Good morning, love!” said Brian. He was a friendly, good-natured person who made me feel quite at ease despite the fact that I’d only known him for the couple of weeks I‘d been with Magical Equipment Control. He had salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache to match. All in all, he reminded me very much of my dad - and, in fact, he had known my dad when my dad worked at the Ministry.
“I hate to be a bother,” I began, “but…”
“Ah, yes, the evaluation for the new cauldron import. I have it here somewhere - it’s finished, but I didn’t expect it to be picked up so quickly. Seems you’re the only person here who cares about deadlines.” He winked as he extracted a roll of parchment from the mountain on his desk and handed it to me.
I blushed. I was still getting used to the idea of being playfully chastised for being attentive to my job. At least, I think it was all playful.
“Well, I want to have my report finished by Friday, and seeing as tomorrow’s a holiday…”
“Yes, yes, for heaven’s sake, no working tomorrow! If I hear about you doing any such thing, I’ll report it to Dibble.”
“Ha ha.” I smiled. “Thank you, Brian!”
“Of course. Come visit us down this way more often! And tell your dad I said hello.”
I promised I would, and began the trek back to my office. For some incomprehensible reason, someone had decided to place the equipment inspectors all the way down at the other end of the main corridor on this level, past the administrative offices and Improper Use of Magic, around the corner, and past a set of maintenance lifts. The only explanation for it was that, as the Ministry had grown and various Departments expanded, offices were added on in new locations, irrespective of all logistical consequences.
Of course, maybe it was also because of the explosions that invariably accompanied magical equipment inspections.
I hurried down the corridor, running through my list of tasks in my mind. But I slowed and hesitated as I turned the corner and approached a familiar door on my right. The Improper Use of Magic office. Every time I walked past it, I got the instinctive urge to glance at the open door…and I repressed it each time.
Because directly inside that door, straight ahead, sat Percy Weasley’s desk. And I was trapped in that strange, vague limbo of acquaintanceship. I hadn’t had any further interaction with Percy after his apology at the pub, except to pass him in the corridor now and again.
How exactly were you supposed to act when you weren’t perfect strangers but not exactly friends? I hadn’t yet worked out the answer to that question, which was why I avoided unnecessary contact altogether - even a casual glance in the direction of his office. After all, what was supposed to happen if he was there and I caught his eye? Should I smile and wave and keep walking? Should I stop to say hello and ask how he is? Honestly, I would probably be inclined to pretend I just hadn’t seen him at all.
All in all, an awkward situation. My sister was the type of person who handled these situations expertly. But she was also the type of person who was perfectly at ease making conversation with total strangers.
I was decidedly not that kind of person, so I focused my eyes straight ahead and continued on to my own office.
“Good lord, Audrey,” said Lionel when I began reviewing the cauldron evaluation from Brian, “you’re not going to start on that report today, are you? Tomorrow’s a holiday, you know.”
The holiday to which we referred was the anniversary - four years now - of the end of the War. In the true habit of every other holiday in existence, it always crept up on me whenever I had the greatest amount of work piled up.
“Yes,” I replied, setting aside the evaluation and shuffling through the sheets of parchment stacked on my desk, “I know, which is why I want to get as much done today as possible…but first I have to finish this memo for Demetrius’ signature, and then I have to - oh, damn!” I picked up a few files and stared at them in dismay. “I completely forgot to take these over to I.U.M.!”
I stood, prepared to charge off to I.U.M. straight away to exchange the misplaced files, and as I did so I felt a pleasant and inexplicable sensation in my stomach at the thought of having an excuse to say hello to Percy.
“Er - you know,” began Lionel, “don’t trouble yourself about that, there’s not much they can do about it today anyway, so you might as well just wait until after the holiday…”
“No, no, no,” I responded distractedly, scooping up the files in my arms and heading for the door, “I’ll just get it done now.”
I stopped and turned around.
“You, uh…well, today’s really not the best day to deal with Weasley. He’s in a right foul mood.”
“And that’s different from any other day because…?” contributed Madeleine.
“Oh, shut it, Mads,” snapped Lionel with uncharacteristic irritation. “Have some respect, will you? You know what it‘s about.”
Madeleine just rolled her eyes and resumed her examination of some minor chips in her nail polish.
Lionel peered out the door and down the corridor in both directions, then steered me by the arm to a corner of the office and spoke in a low voice.
“He’s always in a bad mood around Victory Day. It’s…well, I probably shouldn’t gossip about it to you, but almost everyone knows anyway. His family fought in the War - in the Final Battle - well, so did he, actually. And he…he lost a brother. It’s a very bad time for him, and whatever he is the rest of the time, he’s twenty times worse today and takes it out on anyone who crosses him, so just…leave the files, alright? Trust me, you‘ll thank me for it.”
I gaped, unable to find an appropriate response. Then, gathering my wits, I nodded and resumed my seat at my desk.
It was all very sad, I mused as I pored over cauldron specifications and test results. I’d known of people who died in the War, of course, but it was usually through someone who knew someone who knew someone. When you actually met someone who had been touched by it directly…well, it changed the way you looked at them, even if you didn’t know them very well at all.
He had suffered the equivalent of me losing my Vivian.
Pushing the unpleasant thoughts out of my mind, I worked steadily the rest of the day, resisting my coworkers’ attempts to persuade me to leave at a normal time. I stayed and worked until I was quite sure I must be the only person left at the Ministry.
As I stood over my desk, gathering my things and double- and triple-checking to make sure all the unfinished projects could be left for a later date, a figure walked briskly by the door. Then he backtracked a few steps and peered into the office.
“Audrey!” came his surprised voice. I glanced over to see him adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose. “Why are you still here?”
“Just…finishing a few things, it didn’t seem right to leave them and come back to a load of work after the…” My voice faltered. “After the holiday.” In context, it seemed rather morbid to call it a holiday…like it was supposed to be something enjoyable.
“Same for me,” he replied. I didn’t know what Lionel was talking about - Percy wasn’t being unpleasant at all.
Percy appeared hesitant, then added, “Are you nearly done, then? I’ll wait for you…you shouldn’t be here alone, you know.”
I blinked. I didn’t fancy the idea of walking down empty corridors and across the massive Atrium after hours, when the whole place was dark and quiet, and the thought of company was a welcome one.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” I answered apologetically. “I was just leaving, actually.”
The following five minutes were some of the most uncomfortable in my entire life. It was like we picked the slowest damn lift in the entire Ministry.
Finally, Percy asked, “Have any plans tomorrow?”
“Um…no.” I didn’t elaborate. I never said I was a great conversationalist. “What about you?” I cringed as I said it. What a thing to ask - Have any fun plans for the day your brother died?
“Working,” he replied. That threw me off.
“Nice to get things done when it’s quiet, you know?” He smiled slightly as the door of the lift opened and we headed for the row of fireplaces. “Hope I don’t see you around tomorrow - er, I mean - I didn’t mean it that way. I only meant I hope I’m the only one stuck here on a holiday. Sorry.” He looked down at the floor and adjusted his glasses again.
Another moment passed in silence as we reached the fireplaces and I looked up at him.
“Thanks,” I said. “Nice of you to make sure I wasn’t left all alone.”
“My pleasure…I’ll see you around, then.”
He stepped into a fireplace and vanished, and I Flooed home, wondering whether anyone would believe me if I told them that Percy Weasley was downright kind to me on the day he was supposed to be in the worst temper imaginable.
No, they certainly wouldn’t have believed it. Just like the administrative assistants didn’t believe it when, about two weeks later, I ran into a terribly stressed-out Percy, claiming he needed to be in three places at once and had absolutely no help at all around this place, and I offered to take care of whatever needed doing in the administrative offices since I was headed there anyway. Apparently, it was unheard of to do Percy any favors if it could be avoided.
Nor would anyone have believed, unless they’d seen it with their own eyes, that he had started saying hello to me in the corridor and even going so far as to stop for two seconds to ask how I was doing on occasion. I encountered him a number of times when he seemed irritated or appeared to have just finished telling someone off, but if he had any inclination to be uncivil with me specifically, he didn’t show it - though he had the sort of expression that told you exactly how many things were on his mind even as he talked to you.
Then, one day as I was saying goodbye to Darcy after chatting with her outside International Magical Cooperation, Percy appeared out of the main door to their offices.
“Oh - hi, Audrey.” He glanced at Darcy and gave her a distant nod. She raised her eyebrows and responded with a sardonic smile.
Honestly, she didn’t have to like him, but she could at least be nice to him!
“Percy, hi! I’m just about to head for the lifts - are you on your way back to the office?”
He nodded, and I gave Darcy a quick kiss on the cheek, telling her I’d talk to her soon. She gave me a searching look and then shook her head slowly, as though she were my mother and I had brought shame on the family name. Then she disappeared into the I.M.C. offices.
“Didn’t think I’d run into you here,” I offered as we walked. I supposed other people might have thought of something more interesting or clever to say. I was not one of those people.
“Yeah, I was…just had to talk to someone. What about you?”
“The same.” I pressed the button for the lifts. “My friend Darcy - that’s who I was talking to - she works there. I thought I’d like to work in that Department once, but Darcy has had more success climbing the ladder here than I have.”
“Probably for the wrong reasons, I expect.”
I gave him a questioning look.
“Not that - I don’t mean to insult your friend - I only meant…just being good at what you do is not always rewarded around here.” He appeared deep in thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Anyway…are you liking Equipment Control, at least?”
“Oh, yes, it’s…it’s great, everyone there is really wonderful to me.”
He smiled a bit. “They certainly get more done now that you’re there.”
The door to one lift opened, and we stepped inside, where two young men in Auror robes were engaged in conversation. Well, one was conversing rather heatedly - a tall, skinny, redheaded boy - and the other was listening patiently. The silent one was, without a doubt, Harry Potter, and I caught myself staring and looked away in complete embarrassment. Both of them waved to Percy in greeting, and the redheaded one continued without pausing as the lift ascended.
“ - and I talked to him, and he wants to tell me, Oh, well, I lost my wand, and I said yeah, right, it’s probably just stuck up y- ”
“Lady present!” snapped Percy.
The other redhead looked at Percy as though he were speaking gibberish, then turned to the other Auror and shrugged, continuing his conversation in a low voice.
The lift stopped at Level Two, and the two Aurors exited. The doors closed again, and we continued up to the Atrium.
“Sorry,” said Percy, looking pink in the face, “that’s my brother. One of my brothers, anyway. He has a bit of a mouth on him.”
I laughed. “It’s alright. I think he’d get on well with my sister. I’ll bet she’s worse.”
The doors opened, and I stepped out into the Atrium.
“Oh…” said Percy distractedly. “I have to go back down to Level Two. Wasn‘t even thinking…” His face colored again. “You’re going home, then?”
“Oh.” He held open the door to the lift and glanced around, still blushing. “Hey, do you…uh…” He reached up and smoothed a few misplaced pieces of ginger hair. “I mean…fancy bumping into me again tomorrow?”
I found my voice approximately five hours later and laughed uncertainly. “Well, yeah, I couldn’t really avoid it if I wanted to, right? Your office is right by mine.”
It sounded a lot stupider coming out of my mouth than it had in my head.
“I…I know, but…” His voice became very quiet. “Have a drink with me?”
The lift started to make an angry sound that signaled it had been held open too long, but he ignored it.
“Okay,” I breathed. I didn’t elaborate because, naturally, I’m an idiot.
“Okay,” he echoed. He adjusted his glasses unnecessarily and nodded, smiling. “Okay.”
The door closed, and he disappeared from sight, and I stood there trying to wrap my mind around it.
There was no way anyone would ever believe this. Especially when I could hardly believe it myself.
A/N: I'm so sorry it took me this long to update. I plan on taking a personal day from work in a couple of weeks to catch up on writing, and I hope to use that day to get a few chapters ahead on this and my other WIP's.
Part of my writer's block with this story was due to the fact that I started thinking first person wasn't working out quite right. I was considering a rewrite, but I now feel better about it, after talking to other writers who are much wiser and more talented than I am. Reviews are always appreciated, as they help me know whether I'm on the right track. Thanks again for reading!
Chapter 5: A New Friend
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A/N: Thanks to Molly (SnitchSnatcher) and Georgia (Jellyman) for looking this chapter over for me! And on that note, thanks to them for sticking with me through the tough spots and being awesome in general!
I woke up the following morning and seriously considered staying home sick.
It was completely irrational, of course, and therefore I did no such thing. I did, however, have an unpleasant sensation in the pit of my stomach all day. I suppose it could be called butterflies, though it felt as though they were tap-dancing instead of fluttering around benignly. Tap-dancing while wearing wooden clogs.
“Are you alright, Audrey?” asked Noah an hour before the workday was over, as I tapped my quill in an erratic rhythm against my desk while editing a report.
“What?” I jumped a bit. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine.”
He grinned broadly. “You don’t go out enough. You’re all wound up.”
I let out a nervous laugh and accidentally changed the word cauldron to Caledonia.
“We’re going out again - you should join us. Can’t keep refusing forever, you know!”
“Oh…where are you going today?” I knew perfectly well I wouldn’t be joining them but thought I ought to act interested, as they were starting to think I wasn’t interested in socializing with them. Actually, they probably believed I was just antisocial in general.
Lionel was bouncing around the room at that moment and offered, “Boggart’s Hideaway again. Noah fancies the bartender.” Noah colored but didn’t deny it.
“It sounds great,” I replied, “but I’ve made plans already…”
Noah crossed his arms and looked unconvinced. “What are you doing this time?”
“I’m…meeting a friend.” I let it drop at that.
As expected, my office mates all left about half an hour before the workday was actually over. In the next hour, I didn’t get a single bit of work done.
I did, however, tap my foot anxiously, smooth my hair about seventy-five times, pace across the room, sit down, stand up, sit down again, adjust my dress, and practice as much French conjugation as I could remember. I then repeated all of the above three or four times.
I also felt like an idiot.
What on earth was wrong with me? I was only going out for a friendly drink with someone I thought I could get along with. Darcy was fantastic, but it was about time I made a new friend, wasn’t it?
Never mind that he was tall. And polite. And serious about work, a rare trait in guys my age. And looked like Buddy Holly, adorable glasses and everything.
Nothing to be nervous about. Except for the fact that, once he got to know me, he was going to find out that I had absolutely no personality and that would be that.
I resumed my fidgeting.
Halfway through my silent conjugation of réussir, a familiar pair of glasses appeared at the doorway.
“You’re here,” he said, sounding almost surprised.
“You know me, I’m always here at this time.” I made a mental note to stop voluntarily highlighting my own swottiness.
“I see you’re ready to go, though.” He was referring to the fact that I had shed my Ministry robes in favor of a normal Muggle dress. He was also clad in Muggle attire, and I decided I could get used to the image of him wearing jeans instead of those godawful uniforms the Ministry required us to wear.
“I have to say, I’ve always preferred Muggle clothing to robes. It just seems so much more practical.” He looked around as though concerned someone would hear what he had just said. Then he looked at me again.
For a moment, I wished I had stayed home sick.
“I don’t much feel like going to the Hinkydrunk,” he offered once we were outside.
“No, nor do I,” I admitted. I didn’t feel like being in a roomful of people from work. Then I remembered a nearby pub, which Vivian had introduced me to, frequented by the St. Mungo‘s crowd. “I know a place, not far from here. It’s nice there, and you can actually hear yourself talk.”
He glanced sideways at me, now following my lead down the street. “I spend all day listening to myself talk,” he said wryly. After a pause, he added, “You don’t talk much, though.”
I shrugged a bit in acknowledgment.
“Right.” He said it almost to himself, and so quietly I thought I might have imagined it.
The whole thing was going to be a spectacular disaster, I knew it.
Until we walked into the pub. And got our drinks. (He paid, despite my protest that it wasn’t necessary - “My parents would be digging my grave if they knew I ever let a lady pay for anything,” he offered by way of explanation, turning a bit pink.) And then we sat down and he started asking me about myself. It wasn’t like the near-interrogation I’d received from Lionel and Noah. He just listened and prodded me on when I needed it - and in the beginning, I needed a lot of prodding.
People have thought me socially inept, unfriendly, disinterested, and even snobbish at times because I don’t say much. Percy just watched and listened like he couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather hear than the story of my life. Unfortunately, I doubted the story of my life would get us through the first pint.
Having already asked me how I liked my job in Magical Equipment Control, he asked me what my experience in Magical Transportation had been like. How much was there to say about sitting in a corner quietly writing reports?
“Mr. Cornwell didn’t really like me, though,” I finished after a few moments of reminiscing about my old position.
“You know him?”
“Cornwell’s an idiot.” His tone was abrupt, but bracing.
I blinked at him.
“I’m sure you’re much better appreciated in M.E.C.” He watched me for a second, then took another drink.
I asked what he’d done before joining I.U.M., and he shrugged and said something about having bounced around International Magical Cooperation for awhile before joining Magical Law Enforcement.
“I do like I.U.M. - there’s always so much to do. People think it’s all sending stern letters to kids who accidentally blow things up during the summer holidays, but there’s a lot more to it. I do wish we had more support, though. The place ran like clockwork when Leonidas Bell was in charge, but he retired a year ago and now we have Marv Blakely. Blakely’s alright, but he relies on me for just about everything - I really don’t mind, but everything takes twice as long to get done as it did when Bell was there. I think Blakely’s just allowed everyone to get too complacent and it always seems to fall on - ”
I was half-listening and half-watching the way he kept running his hand over the back of his neck as he rambled on, when, just as I’d witnessed him do on previous occasions, he stopped abruptly and looked down, contemplating his drink.
I snapped out of it. “Everything alright?”
“Oh, yeah, I just…get carried away. Like I said, I spend all day listening to myself talk. Difficult habit to break.”
“I don’t mind.”
Something unreadable crossed his face before his mouth turned up in a half-smile.
“I really think you must be the nicest person I’ve ever met.”
He didn’t say it the way most other people said it. Not like Vivian, who teased me for it; not like Darcy, who made it sound like there was something terribly wrong with me; and not like the parents, who always said it with an undertone of worry that I might spend the rest of my life as a doormat.
He said it as though it were something valuable.
“Thanks.” It came out more dismissively than I meant it to, and an awful moment of silence followed in its wake. I glanced around the pub, which wasn’t very busy yet - it would fill up shortly, after the evening shift change at St. Mungo’s.
“You’re right, this place is quiet.”
I looked at him. “It’ll be full of Healers in a couple of hours - that’s how I know it, my sister brought me here a few times.”
“Is she a Healer?”
“And is that your only sister?”
“Yes, it’s just the two of us - and our parents, of course, they live in Derbyshire. My sister’s a bit older than I am. She’s really wonderful.” I smiled thinking about her. When it came to talking about myself I was rubbish, but I could talk about Vivian forever. “She’s an excellent Healer, and she’s so funny. Everyone adores her…you know, she sort of…makes you feel alive, I guess, it’s really wonderful. She’s really good for me, too, because I’m so quiet.”
He smiled more as he watched me babble on. “And your parents - what do they do?”
Not that I could imagine why he would be interested in that, but I responded, “Well, my mum, she’s a Muggle, and she’s a teacher at a primary school. And my dad, well, it’s a funny story with him. He’s very into gardening and Herbology, so now he owns a nursery and grows plants all day, and he loves it. But he used to work at the Ministry, and he spent most of his career on the Hit Squad.”
Percy choked on his drink.
“Sorry,” he coughed, the bright red creeping up his face again, even in the dimly lit pub. “Sorry.”
“He’s really nice, though,” I said earnestly.
This was a common reaction from guys when they found out what our dad had done for a living. Vivian got a sadistic sense of pleasure out of divulging this information and using it as a sort of test of one’s courage. I just smiled apologetically and steered things in a different direction.
“What’s your family like?”
“Yeah. Five brothers, one sister.”
He laughed. “You’re referring to my sister, or to me?”
“Both, I suppose.”
“Well, don’t pity my sister - she’s the youngest, but she holds her own. Actually, she’s a bit frightening.” The pride in his voice when he talked about her didn’t go unnoticed. “She plays Quidditch professionally - it‘s funny, because none of my brothers ever let her play with them, and now she plays professionally and none of them do. I’ve never really liked the Harpies, but she’s brilliant, I’ll say that much.”
I had a vague knowledge of the existence of a team called the Harpies, but beyond that I was useless. The expression on my face must have betrayed me, because he asked, “Not a Quidditch fan?”
“I don’t know a thing about it. My dad loves it, and he took us to a match when we were younger, but I think I must have been much too young to understand it. Vivian pretends to like it because her boyfriend plays for the Kestrels.”
“Oh, who is he?”
“Michael Reilly. You probably wouldn’t know him, he’s a substitute Beater…”
“He’s the bloke who got knocked off his broom in that match against the Wasps!” Percy’s eyes got huge. “That was a dirty hit, Eckols should have been suspended from the League for that.”
Now completely lost, I shrugged and shook my head.
“I’ll try explaining it to you sometime - I’m sure you’d pick it up right away. It’s a really exciting sport.”
“Do you play?”
His smile turned rueful. “No, I’m the only one who didn’t get the Quidditch gene. The others all played, though. They got Quidditch, and I” - he removed his glasses and held them out demonstratively - “was the only one to get these stupid things.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them.” As I said it I noticed how much more boyish his face looked without them.
“And I think you’re a terrible liar.” He had laugh lines at the corners of his eyes when he smiled.
With glasses finally restored to their usual position, he nodded at my near-empty glass. “Are you going to have another? Unless you have to be home, I mean - whatever you want.”
It was that expression again - the one I couldn’t quite get around. I couldn’t tell whether he was suggesting I leave or suggesting I stay. So I was just honest.
“I don’t have to be anywhere.”
“Oh.” The same tone of surprise I’d heard earlier when he found me waiting in my office. “Alright…I’ll be right back.”
I watched as he made his way up to the bar. I didn’t know what Darcy was talking about - sure, he was a bit lanky, but if I were being honest, I didn’t see the problem. I watched as he ran his hands over his hair a few times. I watched as he glanced over his shoulder and caught me staring.
Mercifully, he pretended nothing had happened when he resumed his seat across from me. We stayed and watched as the pub slowly filled up, and we stayed even when the place did start to grow a bit too loud for our liking. And we talked about nearly everything we could think of - more than I would have even imagined I could talk about in the first place. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t self-conscious, or if I said I wasn’t trying ten times as hard to make myself seem interesting. But I also couldn’t deny that talking to him was easier than talking to just about anyone else. It was with no small amount of reluctance that I finally decided it was getting late and I really should go home.
As it was a wizarding pub, the fireplaces there served as Floo gates. We stood in front of one, him with his hands in his pockets, standing perfectly straight, and I felt very small next to him, though I had never considered myself a short person. It was, I decided, a pleasant feeling.
“I’ll see you on Monday, then?”
I nodded, hesitated, and, remembering my manners, added, “I really enjoyed talking to you.”
“My pleasure.” His expression was inscrutable.
My face was extraordinarily hot, which I decided to blame on the fireplace.
He tilted his head towards the fire. “After you.”
I arrived home and let out a breath I felt like I had been holding all day and all night long.
I’ll see you on Monday.
Now I had a new reason to look forward to the start of the week and at the same time want to avoid it like the plague. As certain as I was that he couldn’t possibly be feeling the same, I was forced to admit to myself that I was beginning to like Percy very much.
Chapter 6: It's Really Nothing
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“Audrey met someone,” Vivian announced innocently during dinner with our parents on a hazy Sunday in late June.
“Vivian!” It was meant to come out indignant and instead sounded rather whiny.
“Have you really, dear?” my mother asked.
“I - no - ” I spluttered. “I didn’t meet someone. I just…met someone.”
“I mean, I’m not seeing him, I’m just - ”
“Seeing him?” supplied my sister. I scowled at her.
Mum placed a warm hand on my arm. “Well, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Audrey…”
“But Mum, it’s not like that. We’ve just become friends, if you can even call it that, you know I never talk to anyone at work, but he’s nice and normal and I can just talk to him, and aren’t you always telling me I need to make more friends?” The last bit was directed at Vivi.
“I’m only teasing you. And anyway,” she looked to my parents, “they go out every Friday after work and talk until all hours of the night.”
I gaped and looked to Dad for support, but Dad’s policy was to stay out of these high-strung female discussions. He was contemplating a potato with vague interest.
He looked up at me. “What’s his name?”
Obviously Dad was going to be no help at all.
“He hasn’t got one, because the guy Vivi is talking about doesn’t exist,” I sniffed, feeling clever.
“Audrey.” For some reason, the father dining with us tonight was Hit Wizard Dad instead of Herbologist Dad.
I sighed. “Percy,” I replied grudgingly.
“Oh, he’s one of these fellows who doesn’t have a surname, is he?”
I pouted across the table at Vivi, then turned to my father again. “Weasley,” I muttered, beginning to feel embarrassed at my own behavior. Vivi was supposed to be the difficult one, not me.
“Oh.“ Dad’s voice carried a note of surprise. “Must be one of Arthur’s boys. Good man, I always liked him. Hmm.” He speared a piece of roast and directed his next comment at Vivian. “I think that’s enough torturing your sister for one night, pixie.”
Vivi looked smug. I kicked her under the table.
“Well, how is everything else, darling?” asked Mum, pouring me a second glass of wine.
“Oh, it’s…same as always, I suppose. Work is fine, not much else going on.” I didn’t miss the brief look Mum sent Dad across the table - the one that expressed concern for my wellbeing and worry that I was wasting the talents they were convinced I had. Mum turned her attention back to me as I continued.
“Everyone there is very nice to me - ”
“Some nicer than others,” interjected Vivian in a would-be offhand way, prompting another kick from me.
“And Brian Lambert says hello, Dad,” I continued, otherwise pretending I hadn’t heard her.
Dad shook his head. “That old boy needs to retire.”
“What have you been working on lately?” Even though Mum was a Muggle, thirty years of being married to Dad and raising us had made her sufficiently acquainted with the magical world that she could reasonably participate in conversations about our work.
Whether she - or anyone else - enjoyed talking to me about my work was another matter entirely. I knew perfectly well that it was a boring, tedious subject, even to my own family. But they always listened as though it were worth hearing.
“There’s a new wandmaker who wants a permit to start selling, so we have to evaluate his products and make sure they’re safe to be introduced into the market. Unfortunately, they’re very temperamental, and at this point they’re just too unstable to be safe.”
“I don’t know what person in his right mind would compete with Ollivander,” Dad declared. “They’ll always be the best, even when his apprentice takes over - and I expect that’ll be very soon. The man’s looking more frail every time I see him.”
The discussion turned to Vivi’s job, which allowed her to abuse Eloise Camden and Jane Bryson some more - she still wasn’t over the slight of being denied a position in the Children’s Ward.
Vivi and I had helped with the dishes after dinner, and when Mum asked Vivi to put the crumble in the oven, I slipped outside to find Dad sitting on a wrought iron bench in front of his greenhouse, pipe in hand and Heathcliff the cat purring on his lap.
“Have a seat, sweet pea.”
I sat down next to him and scratched Heathcliff behind the ears.
“This stupid animal,” said Dad, “tried to have a go at the Tentacula the other day.” When I gasped, he continued, “Oh, he’s fine, don’t worry, despite an apparent lack of survival instincts. Won’t try that again, will you, you barmy beast?”
In response, Heathcliff jumped off Dad’s lap, found a large patch of dirt, and began to roll around in it, happy as can be.
“Oh, dear.” Dad sighed, watching the cat. “Lucy will never let you back in the house now.” The cat remained decidedly unconcerned.
Darkness had settled and stars had begun to emerge. I sat back, enjoying the peace and quiet and concentrating on the soft rustle of the Flutterby bushes, until Dad’s next words broke through my meditation.
“Your sister is only teasing, you know. It’s her job. As the younger sister, it‘s your job to irritate her and whinge about everything, and I‘m afraid to say you‘ve failed miserably in that regard.”
I smiled against my will. “I know she‘s teasing, I’m not bothered about it.” I paused and wrinkled my nose. “You weren’t much help, though.”
“Only doing my job.”
“There’s really nothing going on,” I mumbled. As I said it, I felt very sad about the idea.
Dad looked at me. “I’m not going to ask whether you like him, sweet pea, because that’s none of my business. But the way I see it, if some young man is spending all this time with you, and you think there’s nothing on his end, you’re either daft or willfully ignorant. And as I refuse to believe the first and am rather disinclined to believe the second, I have to conclude that you have much less confidence in yourself than you ought to.”
He meant to be helpful, but I didn’t feel any better for it. “I don’t want to talk about it, Dad,” I said, more sharply than I meant to.
He nodded. “Alright. We’ll say no more about it. Your mum wasn’t pestering you about it in there, was she?”
“Good. You know she’s the one you have to worry about, not me. Now let’s go inside, before your sister eats all the dessert.”
Mum was in the kitchen when we returned to the house. “Jack?”
“Yes, my tulip.”
“I want to put those flowers in a different vase. Will you get one down for me?”
Dad smiled. Mum was considerably shorter than Dad and was constantly asking him to retrieve objects that were beyond her reach. She could have asked Vivi or myself, as we could have magicked anything she needed from the highest shelves, but she always asked Dad to do it.
He reached up into a cupboard and grabbed a vase. “Will this one do?”
“No, I want the other, please.”
I watched fondly as he smiled and grabbed a different vase, kissing Mum on the top of her head before placing it in her hands.
Vivi mimed gagging as she carried the dessert plates to the table. I whacked her with the serving spoon.
Back at our flat that night, Vivi tapped on my bedroom door as I dressed for bed. “Are you very upset with me?”
I finished pulling a jumper over my head and opened the door for her. “No, of course not.”
“I was only teasing you.”
She followed me into the kitchen and was mercifully silent as I prepared tea for both of us. This, of course, made me suspicious, as it always did when Vivian was quiet. She accepted her tea and pressed both palms around the cup, staring at me in a pensive manner. I concentrated on blowing on my tea to cool it off.
Finally, she spit out the words I was sure she’d been dying to say for the past few minutes.
“You do like him though, don’t you? I mean, every other day, it’s, ‘He said this, and then I said that, and then we talked about this, and then in the corridor at work yesterday he asked how I was doing’ - which is code, of course, for ‘I want you to have my babies’ - ”
“Oh, shut up, won’t you?”
She grinned at me. “Fine, I won’t say anymore about it - at least for now. But you know I’m right.” With that, she kissed me on the cheek and skipped off to bed.
With a forced air of nonchalance, I raised my teacup to my lips, and my eyes fell on the miniature potted rosebush sitting innocently on the windowsill. As if it had somehow sensed me looking at it, a dozen tiny red roses unfurled right before my eyes. The plant quivered - so slightly it was almost imperceptible - though nobody had touched it, and there was obviously no breeze inside my flat.
The stupid thing was giggling at me.
I lowered my cup and stared crossly at the little plant.
“You shut up, too.”
I would like to have decided that Vivian was a complete lunatic and had no idea what she was talking about…but I could only delude myself for so long. As per usual, Vivian was right. It was borderline infuriating, how often she was right about things. Her instincts and ability to read people - including me - were equal parts art and science.
Really, though, she was only right about half the situation - not that that fact brought me any comfort.
It was disconcerting, how easily she’d picked up on my feelings for Percy. I had long since admitted it to myself, but I was determined to weather it out until I got over it. The last thing I needed was everyone else - particularly Percy - being aware of the stupid idea that had managed to lodge itself in my head.
But that was just it, wasn’t it? Vivi had been able to figure it out based on a few offhand conversations. Honestly, I hadn’t even realized I’d been talking about him that much.
Had everyone else been able to figure it out too? Had he?
If he suspected anything, he certainly didn’t act like it. He was as friendly as ever, but gave no indication that he saw me as anything more or less than someone he could chat to about work, books, and the daily news.
And that was where Vivi was wrong - a rare occurrence that I should have relished with good humor, but couldn’t because I was too busy feeling like an irrationally heartbroken teenager.
Because the logical truth of the matter was that - whatever Vivi might have to say about it - “How are you?” simply meant “How are you?“ It did not mean “I want you to have my beautiful ginger children” or any remotely similar sentiments.
I decided I could deal tolerably with this disappointment - I had done it before, after all, on a few occasions in the past. Really, I was just happy to finally feel so comfortable around someone who wasn’t Vivian or Darcy. I spent so much of my life feeling as though I just didn’t fit in with the rest of the world - like something was wrong with me. I was too quiet, too serious, too bland. Just wrong, like there was a flaw in my design. There were times when I even felt that way around my sister and my best friend. But I didn’t feel that way around him.
Aside from the occasional excursions for drinks at the end of the week, and the unnecessary errands I always found an excuse to join him on, we’d developed a habit of dropping in on one another during the lunch hour when almost everyone was out of the office - on days when I wasn’t whisked away by Darcy, of course. Percy had as much of an aversion as I did to taking long breaks. That’s not to say he never took any at all. I learned quickly that Percy had a bit of a crossword puzzle obsession. As soon as everyone left for lunch, the Daily Prophet was out and he was scribbling away. That was how he disconnected from work for twenty minutes a day.
I dropped in on him one afternoon, a week after Vivian’s ridiculous dinner announcement. Seeing that the I.U.M. office was empty but for him, I pulled up a chair and propped my elbows on his meticulously organized desk. Right away I noticed there was something very different about him: he had apparently dispensed with his normal glasses - yes, the fantastic Buddy Holly glasses - and was now sporting younger and more modern-looking frames. I had become very attached to the Buddy Holly look and was not entirely sure I approved of its unceremonious disappearance - but on the other hand, the new glasses did something for his features that I was definitely not going to argue with.
He said hello but seemed deeply immersed in whatever problem that day’s puzzle was presenting for him. He had the Prophet folded in half, so I moved to sit directly across from him and said something stupid and silly about trying to read the articles that were upside-down on the page facing me. I got the impression that he was trying not to laugh.
Robbie Saunderson walked in at that moment - Robbie was a very nice boy who worked in Percy’s office. He was barely two years out of school and was eager to please, though as far as I could tell, he did tend to muddle things up more often than not. His job, apparently, was to follow Percy around like a puppy and do whatever needed doing. This seemed to scare Robbie out of his wits. I couldn’t say I was surprised.
“Um…Percy?” Robbie looked mildly ill over something.
Percy lowered the Prophet. “Saunderson.”
“I, uh…I went to file the closed cases, and…well, and Laura Stebbins told me they have to go through the Head of Department first.”
“Yes, but…that’s what…that’s what she said.” Robbie clearly would rather have received twenty lashes than have this conversation.
“Okay.” Percy put down the paper and brought his fingers to his temples for a moment before continuing. “This is how this works. Laura Stebbins does not decide what gets filed. Nor does she decide how the process works. Her job is to accept whatever we give her, whatever our office has approved and sealed. She would know this if she’d read the code book, because it’s in Chapter Six of Article Four. Obviously she hasn’t, so your job is to explain things like that to her and make sure it gets done.”
Robbie didn’t look like he was up to this task, and I couldn’t blame him. Laura was notoriously difficult to work with. Her goal in life seemed to be to thwart everyone else’s. She didn’t care if some underling got chastised by his superior for something that was entirely her fault to begin with.
However, Robbie also wasn’t about to argue with Percy, so he hovered for a moment, then stuttered, “Al-alright. Is there anything else you need me to do?”
“No.” Percy picked up his paper again. “Thank you.”
As Robbie shuffled out of the office, Percy muttered under his breath, “Unless you know the twelve-letter name of the wizard commonly credited with discovering Gillyweed.”
“Marjoribanks,” I replied automatically. As soon as I said it, I blushed. I really needed to stop being so pedantic.
“Marjori- no, that can’t be it…” His brow furrowed as he studied the puzzle.
I threw him a teasingly challenging look. “It is, too.”
“Is not, look, it doesn’t work with - wait a minute.” He began scribbling away again.
I tapped him on the arm, and he looked up at me.
“Robbie is terrified of you, you know.”
He didn’t say anything, just stared at me.
I pressed on. “You really shouldn’t be so hard on him. That wasn’t his fault, and he’s really trying.”
Percy looked dubious. “Yes, but all he has to do is explain to her that she’s got it wrong - he doesn’t need to run back to me and act like he couldn’t do it.”
It was my turn to look doubtful. “Earth to Percy Weasley: Are we thinking of the same Laura Stebbins? And you expect someone like Robbie to just explain something to her and that will be that?”
He had no response - I had him there.
“Robbie’s really very nice, you know.”
“Right. Nice and somewhat incompetent.”
I stared at him in shock. “What an awful thing to say! I’m sure he’s not. He’s still learning. You forget, not everyone is as naturally good at this as you are.”
He scoffed. “What, bureaucratic navigation?”
I stifled a laugh behind my hand.
“I am rather good at it, aren’t I? I think I’ll have them put that on my name plate…”
“Stop it.” I tried to put on my serious face again. “And be nice to Robbie.”
“Fine. Because you asked.” He said it very quietly and turned his attention abruptly back to the crossword for several moments. “Oh, damn, it is Marjoribanks.”
I grinned with mock pride.
“Clever you,” he said.
“What, clever because I’ve memorized lots of useless trivia?”
“I’m just glad I’m not the only one who has.” He filled in the last few squares of the puzzle and rose from his chair. “Alright, then, let’s go so I can make sure Saunderson hasn’t been eaten alive by Stebbins.”
We left the I.U.M. office, and Percy was about to disappear into the administrative offices, when I touched him on the arm. He stopped and spun around to face me, and as the situation would have it, because I was still walking, we were left with a conspicuous lack of personal space between us. I didn’t find this remotely unpleasant, but it wasn’t very proper, so I took a quick step backwards.
“Sorry! I…I just forgot to ask you - What happened to your old glasses?”
His face fell, which was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. “These ones aren’t very good, are they?”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant! It’s just different - I was surprised.”
“Oh.” He straightened them unnecessarily. “Well, I…my sister confiscated the other ones.” He smiled a bit.
“Too bad, I liked them,” I replied. “But I like these, too. I mean it.”
“Good - I mean, thank you.”
I turned to see Lionel, just returned from lunch, walking towards us.
“I’ve just remembered something I need from Brian,” he said as he drew level with us. “You don’t need anything while I’m over in Inspections, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Alright, then.” Lionel clapped Percy on the back in a good-natured way. “Weasley, quit flirting with my staff.” He continued on and disappeared around the corner.
I stared after him and tried to avoid eye contact with Percy for as long as possible. When I finally looked up at him, he was still staring down the corridor, mouth slightly open, an astounded and somewhat irritated expression on his face. Then he looked down at me with no expression whatsoever.
“Okay, I’m going to…well...” He motioned over his shoulder to the administrative offices, then turned and disappeared into them with a quick “I’ll see you later!”
I supposed the situation could be considered a positive one, if you considered the fact that he hadn’t run screaming in the opposite direction.
Back in my office, I looked resolutely down at my desk when Lionel returned.
“Sorry about that, Audrey,” he said as he passed by. “I have to poke fun at him. Didn’t mean to embarrass you, though.”
“Who, Percy?” asked Noah. “Speaking of whom, has everyone seen the new look?”
I assumed he was talking about the new glasses.
“Must be trying to impress someone,” said Lionel.
My stomach fluttered.
He looked at me and explained, “He’s been trying to get back into I.M.C. for probably a year now. Someone’s making it very difficult for him. It’s anyone’s guess as to why. I mean, for all his neuroses, he really is brilliant. I can only assume someone just really wants to keep him here.”
“Bastard, whoever it is,” muttered Madeleine, sorting through the afternoon post. “Anyway, I don’t see how new glasses are going to help if he continues to wear his hair as if his mum’s done it for him.”
I didn’t contribute to the conversation. I liked his glasses, I liked his hair, and I wanted to keep him here.
I popped by Percy’s office that evening before heading home. It wasn’t terribly late, but most people at the Ministry were already gone, including those from my office. Percy was the only one left in I.U.M. at that time, except for Marv Blakely, whose presence was indicated by a lamp burning in his office all the way at the back.
“I just wanted to see if you were still here,” I offered.
“I’ll go with you - er, I mean, I’ll walk with you to the - hang on.” He darted back to Blakely’s office. “Marv, I’m going home. Goodnight.” With that, he gathered a few things from his desk and set off towards the lifts with me.
“I’ve been very nice to Saunderson all afternoon,” he reported, finally breaking the awful silence that had inserted itself into the situation.
I smiled. “Good.” And silence fell again.
We wound up in front of a fireplace, looking at each other in total silence, neither of us saying goodnight. A couple of maintenance workers strolled across the Atrium, and I watched them until they disappeared into a maintenance lift. Half the lights in the Atrium had already been extinguished, so that odd shadows were cast over the walls and floors.
I could have just said goodbye, gone home, and been done with it. But I didn’t want to. I’d told myself that I was going to be reasonable, acknowledge it for what it was, and get over it. But at that moment, I just didn’t want to.
I did not want to go home feeling like there was a slowly expanding balloon inside my chest, or try to sleep with a stomach full of anxious butterflies. Of course, I wasn’t expecting anything. I just wanted to know.
Percy’s hands were in his pockets, and he looked down at the floor for a moment. “I…What Grigsby said earlier…If I’ve ever done or said anything inappropriate, I apologize…”
My heart sank. It was considerate. It was sweet. But it did not seem very promising.
“No,” I said quietly. “You haven’t.”
And then he just looked at me. Total silence. I looked back. Total silence. This went on for who knows how long, until I realized that he was leaning towards me - and we were not very far apart to begin with.
Then he shook his head, as though mentally talking himself out of a stupid idea, and began to stand up straight again.
By now I was completely confused, and more than a little bit irritated.
What on earth was wrong with him?
I did something odd then - completely impulsive and for no other reason than that I simply felt like it. I took hold of the front of his robes, pulled gently until his face was an inch from mine, and pressed my lips to his for half a second.
Maybe two seconds. Five, tops.
When I released him and took a step back, he didn’t move. He looked stiff, paralyzed, staring at me with wide eyes. Mortified, I brought my hand to my mouth and said my three favorite words.
“I’m so sorry.”
He blinked and raised his eyebrows, but stayed more or less in the same position, still staring at me. “Uh…no need to be.”
I wasn’t sure I believed him until he kissed me again. He was very cautious, very respectful, and - good lord, he was nervous. Well, that made two of us.
Before long, he broke away and said with a shaky laugh, “Okay, better stop before the maintenance crew decide they want one, too. Very forward, that lot. And they say Todd Stone hasn’t had a date in ten years, so he’ll probably start following you around.”
I laughed with him. “Okay…I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Oh, I’m looking forward to it.”
I didn’t want to go home - mainly because I wanted to memorize the way he was looking at me - but I did. Back in my own flat, I leaned against the wall and covered my mouth with both hands, drawing questioning looks from Vivian, who was finishing her dinner before heading to work.
It was decidedly the best Monday of my life.
A/N: So...took me a bit longer than expected to get this chapter up, but here it is! In the meantime, I've had some lovely chapter images made - they can now be found in chapters 1-4. (I'm sure more will be coming in the future, after I get a few more chapters posted.) Check out the new ones, drool over Percy, etc., and leave a review for this chapter if you feel up to it! Thanks for reading!
Chapter 7: Rumor Has It
[Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]
For Celeste, Annie, Gina, and Gubby
Regardless whether you want it to or not, word travels fast in a place like the Ministry. After barely two weeks, I was sure the Minister himself must have been aware that Percy and I were seeing each other.
Lionel had worked it out quickly - owing, I believe, to his surprising powers of perception, general propensity for gossip, and aversion to doing any work for more than five minutes at a time.
“So,” he said one afternoon, after I’d finished chatting with Percy in the corridor - something about a new book I was reading - and returned to my desk. He leaned against the wall and gave me a mischievous smile. “You and Weasley, hmm?”
Noah stopped writing and looked up. Madeleine, as always, appeared disinterested, but her silence became more pointed as she reviewed a stack of product complaints at her desk.
I gaped at Lionel. It wasn’t as if Percy and I had been concerned about keeping it a secret - it just wasn’t the sort of thing one flaunted in the workplace.
“I - well, I, um - how do you - ”
“I’ve had it from Gemma Stone, who has it from Miles Claremont. Not sure how Miles knows, actually, but he’s a reputable bloke.”
I had no idea who Miles Claremont was. I recognized Gemma Stone as the name of a girl who worked in Percy’s office.
Lionel continued as I opened my mouth to inquire into Miles Claremont’s apparently sterling reputation for rumor mongering. “Also, Weasley acts almost human whenever he’s around you. Doesn’t try to murder you with his eyes the way he does with the rest of us.”
Appalled, I closed my mouth.
“Hang on.” Noah stared at us oddly, as though trying to process a great deal of information all at once. “Audrey and…Weasley?” He looked to me, then to Lionel. “As in, Audrey” - he pointed to me - “and Weasley” - he gestured in the general direction of the I.U.M. office.
I nodded, feeling mortified by all of the attention. Noah just continued to look baffled, glancing around at the rest of us as though expecting someone to announce it was a joke.
“Wow,” he said finally. “You mean…really? No. Really? You mean he’s not into blokes?”
Lionel burst out laughing, and Madeleine let out little snort (which, for her, was quite an amused reaction).
“Well, bugger, I just lost that bet.” Noah looked at me again in disbelief and slight frustration, as though this shocking turn of events were all my fault.
And then they all stared at me expectantly - or rather, Lionel and Noah did. Madeleine was giving me a look out of the corner of her eye that clearly said, Well, get on with it, if you must. I started to imagine that even Mr. Dibble’s secretary Violet was peering at me from her spot back in the corner of the office, over her assemblage of potted plants and stuffed bears.
It all seemed very untoward. When did people start getting it into their heads that someone’s going to share personal information with them just because they’ve decided they want to hear it?
I could contain my bewilderment no longer. “Do you always act so oddly when two people start - ” I stumbled over the next word “ - seeing each other?” I didn’t ignore the fact that phrasing it that way made me feel giddily happy.
“Actually, we were much more poorly behaved when Madeleine started going out with Jeremy.” Lionel and Noah exchanged a devilish look as Noah broke into peals of laughter.
“Oh, I see, so I’m a special case.”
“I reckon ‘special’ is one word I’d use to describe someone dating Percy Weasley.” Noah could hardly get the words out for laughing.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” I protested.
“Well, it’s just - he’s just so damn poncy and - with the glasses and everything - what in the hell do you possibly do together?”
“Ugh, no details, please, I’ve just eaten.” Madeleine raised one hand if shielding herself from unpleasant concepts, then went back to scribbling notations about the product complaints in front of her.
Now wanting nothing more than to just crawl under my desk, I had to settle for staring down at it instead. “Noah, you really don’t have to make this into more than it is.”
He gave me an appraising sort of look, then broke into one of his boyish grins. “Ah, well. You’ll come out with us one of these days and we’ll get you all lagged up, then you’ll tell all.” Having given himself that assurance, he began whistling as he combed through a stack of files.
I knew what they all thought of me. Uptight and prudish. No fun at all. Probably wondering how they got stuck dealing with someone like me every day.
I couldn’t have cared less what they said or did; it was my business I didn’t need them in. Not like that.
Desperately needing to escape for a moment, I grabbed a nearby stack of reports and acted as though I had some business to take care of over in Inspections. I found Percy skulking a short distance away when I stepped outside the office; he wasn’t normally one for skulking, but this time I got the distinct impression that he was.
“What are you doing?” I asked suspiciously, catching up with him.
“Hmm? Um - ” He looked down at the parchment he was holding, while following along beside me. “Very important, um, top secret…” He coughed importantly.
“Liar. Why are you acting dodgy?”
I’d noticed his face seemed pink, but that seemed to happen a lot, so I didn’t think anything of it first. Then it dawned on me.
I gasped. “How much did you hear?”
“Not much, only something about ‘damn poncy,’ which I did think was amusing, but not as much as you getting lagged up - which, actually, I’m having a very hard time envisioning, but I think I’d pay good money to see it - ”
“Eavesdropper!” I accused in a low voice as he started laughing.
“I am not!” He feigned affront. “I was on my way to the Auror Offices - now you’ve got me going entirely in the wrong direction, by the way - and besides, Marcum doesn’t exactly keep his voice down, does he?”
I covered my face with my free hand. “I’m so sorry about that…”
“Whatever for? I could care less what they’re saying, as long as they’re being nice to you.” He stopped walking and looked down at me, and my head started to feel fuzzy and useless.
“If it’s any consolation,” he continued, “the things they’re saying in my office about you are a lot more complimentary. You know, you’re much more well-liked than you seem to think.”
I sniffed pointedly, while internally trying to compose myself. “Well, I’m not an eavesdropper, am I?” I nudged him a bit with my elbow. He nudged me back, and I got in a second jab before saying, “Oh, go do some work, won’t you?” Then I gave him a shove in the direction he was supposed to be going.
At that point, I didn’t really have a choice but to continue on to Inspections so it would look like I’d gone down there for a reason. The fact that I didn’t actually have any business there didn’t matter at all, as Brian Lambert and the other Inspectors preferred to spend time asking me about my family. Each time I saw them, without fail: How was my dad? How was my mum? Was my mum still teaching? What was my sister doing now? Give my dad their best and give my mum their love. And occasionally, when time permitted, they moved on to What was I doing working in a stodgy place like this?
So it often turned out that, as much time as I thought was wasted in my own office, a lot more was wasted in Inspections, though I’d begun not to mind so much. They were pleasant fellows who treated me in a very fatherly way, and I found I enjoyed talking to them. And they always seemed to be in good spirits and humor, rather than simply slogging through one dreary day after another.
Then again, their work often involved blowing things up, so that may have had something to do with it.
In spite of the fact that I was getting absolutely no work done, my visit with Brian started off as pleasant as ever - Would I like some tea? Would I like some biscuits his wife had made? How was my dad? - and then, of course, because I hadn’t been embarrassed enough that day:
“So what’s this I’m hearing about you and a young man over in the Improper Use Office?”
“Oh, would you look at the time…!” I stood up and brushed myself off unnecessarily.
Brian watched me in amusement as I moved towards the door, explaining the massive amount of work I had to do.
“Oh, Audrey, love,” he called after me, “what was it you came over here for, anyway?”
I poked my head back into the office. “You know…I’ve completely forgotten…”
“Ah, well. You’ll come back and visit us soon, eh? Give your dad my best!”
Why was it that the days when I didn’t get any work done were always the most exhausting?
Darcy came to visit later that day, after almost everyone else had packed up and gone home.
“You’re still here!” I observed as she pulled up a chair next to me. “This must be a record for you. Where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Yes, well, while you’ve been gallivanting about with Mr. Prematurely Receding Hairline - don’t even bother arguing, yes he has - work has been dreadful lately.”
“You mean they’re actually requiring you to do work.”
“Hmm,” was her dismissive response. “Anyway, something about Russia throwing a tantrum about signing a treaty - ”
“Should you be telling me this?”
“ - and recently the Norwegian Minister made that comment about our domestic affairs still in shambles, everyone’s been in an uproar. All I ever wanted out of this job was to go to Italy.”
“You don’t speak Italian.”
“It’s called language immersion, my dear.” She poked at a nearby potted plant with a quill, until the plant raised one of its long leaves and slapped her hand away. “Ow! Damn stupid thing. But what’s new and fascinating in the world of magical equipment?”
I searched my recent memory for anything that might qualify as new or fascinating. “A lot of backfiring wands lately and evaluating the new imports from South America.”
“Boring and boringer.” She waved towards the doorway, at an Auror called Rodney who was passing by.
“The wand dilemma is actually quite interesting. And anyway, it beats regulating the Floo Network, doesn’t it?”
She rolled her eyes in an exaggerated manner. “Oh, lord, yes. But speaking of that, I’ve just seen Moira and she said to remind you she hasn’t seen you in about a month - though I’m sure it would be a lot easier to want to go down there if it weren’t for that cretin Cornwell. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there - what I really came to ask you is if you fancy a bit of shopping on Saturday. I have a feeling I’m going to be overwhelmed over the next couple of days and thought I might not see you before then.”
I thought that sounded wonderful, and Darcy agreed to Floo to my place on Saturday morning. Then she made a comment about risking turning into a pumpkin if she stayed at work much later, making sure to give the potted plant a spiteful little kick on her way out of the office. The plant furled one of its leaves like a fist and shook it at her retreating back.
I waited until she’d gone and then stroked one of the plant’s leaves. “She’s okay once you get to know her,” I said.
The plant crossed two of its leaves in front of itself, and sulked that way until probably long after I’d left as well.
Saturday found me trailing after Darcy through various Muggle clothing shops as she prattled away about her parents and other people who were getting on her nerves lately. It never bothered me as so many people assumed it might. She liked to talk, and I, for the most part, liked to listen.
“I’ve been able to make them back off by telling them most of what I’m doing is confidential, foreign negotiations and rubbish like that, so they’ve stopped pressing me for information about what I’m doing every minute of every day - I think my mum doesn’t exactly believe me, but she’s an apothecary, what does she know? - You should try this - ” she flung a dress at me “ - you’ve actually got a waist.”
“First of all, not much of one,” I replied, returning the dress to its proper place. “Second of all, it’s ghastly, what’s wrong with you?”
She shrugged and moved on. “I can’t even talk to my mum about who I’m seeing, it’s like a Third War every time I do - definitely not going to tell her about Rhys. You know, the absolutely sick part is that they’d both die of happiness if I brought home someone like your new fella.” She made a face. “Want my parents? And can I have yours? I do love them dearly.”
I ignored the last bit about our parents. “You’re really having a hard time of this, aren’t you? Percy and me.”
Darcy made a noncommittal sound.
“You’re the only one who has to be happy with it, but frankly I’m having a hard time seeing the appeal in such a pompous, pretentious bore, I’m starting to wonder if you’re quite well…” She selected another dress and held it up to appraise it.
“You hypocrite! Who was it set me up with Cepheus Whatsisname? - the guy who probably has monogrammed underpants.”
She looked around at me distractedly. “He’s got monogrammed underpants?”
“He didn’t say as much, but you only have to talk to him for five minutes and you know he has.”
“I sure as hell wouldn’t mind finding out for certain.” She tried on a hat and then threw it back down in frustration. “I think I’m done. Nothing this season is doing anything for me. Where to next?”
I took her wrist and looked at her watch. “Well, if we’re going to Diagon Alley today, let’s do it now - I’m having him over for dinner and I’ve got to get home by about four…”
“You’re cooking for him?”
“That’s normally what you do before you eat, yes.”
She gave me a look of distaste. “Well, he seems like the sort who’d like that kind of thing. Has he told you you’re to be seen and not heard and accompany him to stodgy Ministry functions?”
“Darcy, do shut up.”
“Going to be a disaster…”
“I should have done lamb…”
I stopped pacing and looked at Vivian, who had emerged from her room with her Healer’s robes slung over one arm.
“Stop being so anxious, you’re making me want to tear my hair out.”
“Sorry,” I replied, wringing my hands and opening cupboards at random. I checked the Madeira cake as if to make sure it was still where’d left it five minutes earlier.
“Earth to my daft sister. You look lovely, your cooking is divine, exactly what is your problem?”
Vivi and her rubbish. Okay, maybe I cooked almost as well as my mother, but also like my mother - and probably as a result of the cooking - I carried an extra stone. Usually I was fine with this. That evening, I felt like a cow.
Vivian checked the clock. “It’s about time for me to make myself scarce, is it not?”
“Yes, yes,” I answered distractedly, waving my hand. “Go away.” I placed my face in my hands and muttered to myself, “Should just bin the chicken…”
“Do not bin the sodding chicken!” With those words of wisdom, Vivian Flooed out of sight.
I’m not sure how I made it through the next half hour. But the next thing I knew, I heard a knock at the door and just about jumped out of my skin.
Percy gave me an apologetic look as I opened the door. I was concentrating on breathing like a normal person, but I probably just looked daft and confused.
“Um…Flooing seemed impolite,” he explained.
I stepped back to allow him in.
“Hi,” he said softly.
He leaned over and kissed me hello, and I knew I must finally be losing it when Sod dinner started going through my mind.
I broke away and collected myself again. “Just…make yourself at home. But stop distracting me, you’ll make me ruin dinner.”
He smiled a bit and followed me. “It does smell fantastic - oh, wow…” His eyes scanned the kitchen, which was rather involved for two girls living alone.
I poked at the chicken and vegetables with my wand to see how much longer they needed.
Percy examined the overstuffed spice rack. “You don’t actually use all of these, do you?”
I glanced at the spices. “I’ve used every single one of them, at one point or another, why?”
“Well, I did tell you I like to cook.”
“I know, but you made it sound like an idle hobby, not…”
“Obnoxious?” I supplied. Darcy had told me on multiple occasions that my kitchen was exceedingly obnoxious.
“No…Impressive? Frightening, but impressive.”
I turned to give him a small smile. “I take it you don’t cook much.”
He shrugged. “I eat a lot of takeaway.” He chuckled when I gave him a scandalized look. “Bad habit…necessity…I’m a bloke, so sue me.”
I supposed the fact that I was feeding someone who lived primarily on artificial food made me feel a bit less anxious. If Percy had any complaints about the cooking, he didn’t say so. I however, could barely eat.
He insisted on taking care of the cleaning up. I wouldn’t have let him, but he was quite fast and had the dishes doing themselves before I could go for my wand. Then he turned to me with a smug little expression and said, “Not quite so useless, am I?”
Later as I prepared the tea for dessert he contented himself with leaning against the countertop and observing me with his hands stuffed in his pockets - until I told him to stop trying to make me nervous, and he drifted over to the bookshelf in the adjacent room, which held a few spell books and a lot of novels, primarily the classics. He whispered something to himself about “weird Muggle books,” and then I heard him say -
“Oh, now!” He pulled a paperback from one of the lower shelves and tried to contain his laughter. “What’s this? This is very academic…”
From across the room, I recognized it by the cover as one of Vivi’s romance novels. “That’s my sister’s!” My face felt like it had been in the oven for an hour.
I grabbed it away in a haughty manner and stuffed it back onto its shelf. “Should go over to your flat and find things to make fun of you for…”
Percy looked down at me and was quiet for a moment, then said, “Well, you’re welcome there whenever you like.” He shrugged. “But it’s kind of boring.”
He glanced distractedly toward the bookshelf again, but at nothing in particular, like he was collecting his thoughts. He had, I thought, a rather striking profile.
The tea and the Madeira cake were utterly forgotten when he finally decided to put his arms around my waist (hmm, I guess I did have one). I rejoiced silently, but very exuberantly, inside my head when at last I got up the nerve to touch the coveted ginger hair. And it was with apparent reluctance, some time later, that he noticed the time and said he ought to get home.
Partially due to the fantastic amount of kissing that had gone on, and partially due to the fact that I couldn’t sleep at all that night, I was in a right state the next morning.
When Vivi returned home from work, she took one look at me and raised her eyebrows. “I think we’re happy we didn’t bin the sodding chicken?”
"I think we are."
She looked around and lowered her voice. “He’s not here, is he?”
“Vivi, please don’t be stupid this early in the morning. He went home at a reasonable time last night.”
“Ugh, he’s one of those types.” She trudged off towards her room.
“Chivalrous blokes are an endangered species, you know!” I called after her.
She heaved a great sigh of frustration and amusement and called back, “You are supposed to be thinking about shagging him, not what good manners he has!”
I sniffed in a dignified way as she disappeared into her room.
Of course I was thinking about it. I just didn't tell her that.
Chapter 8: A Nice, Respectable Job
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Having neglected my old friend Moira for an embarrassingly long time, I took an early lunch and dropped in on her one day. She waved away my apologies for having done such a poor job of keeping my promise to visit, asked me what I was working on in M.E.C. and pretended to find it much more interesting than Darcy had, and then moved on to the topic I should have known she was much more interested in.
“Now, you did promise to tell me about boys, you know.” This was accompanied by the kind of look old ladies give you when they’re reading your mind about something.
“Oh, Moira.” I covered my face with my hands for a second. “Don’t tell me word’s made it all the way over here, too!”
Did people have nothing better to do in life than talk about other people?
“Well, Darcy brings me news, even if you don’t.” She shook a chastising finger at me.
Darcy. Of course.
I sighed. “I’m sure she's given you a glowing account of the whole thing.”
Moira seemed to understand what I was getting at. “Darcy’s a bit quick to judge, I’m very mindful of that. Personally, I really don’t know anything about your young man.”
I had to smile when she called him that.
Mr. Cornwell chose that moment to poke his head out of his office. He blinked at me in surprise before demanding, “What are you doing here, Greene?”
“Audrey is my guest, Sheldon,” responded Moira in a tone that was both amused and reproachful. “Isn’t it nice of her to come visit?”
Mr. Cornwell grumbled something incoherent.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Sheldon?”
“What? No, I - ”
“Then do go back in your office if you’re going to be unpleasant.” She punctuated this with a sweet, motherly smile.
Mr. Cornwell narrowed his eyes before retreating back into his office and slamming the door. Moira watched this behavior with some satisfaction before turning back to me.
“You can take that as a compliment. You’re very sorely missed around here, you know.”
“Oh, am I.” I didn’t believe it for a second.
“Thad is a dear boy,” she said, referring to the person they’d taken on to replace me, “but he doesn’t quite have your attention to detail.”
She paused and regarded the door to Mr. Cornwell’s office. “Are you hungry, Audrey? How about we step out for a bit and have details over lunch, hmm?”
Some time later, when I was able to escape Moira’s well-intentioned clutches, I returned to the office to find Noah and Madeleine sorting through a stack of papers.
“Wait, put this one - ”
“Don’t be daft, Noah, it goes there.”
I sometimes felt bad for Noah. They teased him for liking the bartender at the Boggart’s Hideaway, but I often got the distinct impression that Noah fancied Madeleine.
“Hey, Audrey,” he said, glancing up at me. “You missed a good show awhile ago.”
“Your fella over there is in a wonderful mood today. Told Lionel off not long after you stepped out - it was something to do with, um…” He looked at Madeleine. “What was it about, Mads? I forget.”
“The question presupposes I actually listen to anything that comes out of his mouth.” Madeleine brushed a piece of hair off her delicate face.
“Yeah… well, anyway.” He turned his attention back to me, his blue eyes alight with amusement. “Least he’s got the decency to wait until you’re not here to show off his most congenial side, eh?”
I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t spent much time with Percy over the past few days. He’d been very busy and seemed more preoccupied than normal, which was saying something, as he was one of those people who always seemed to be thinking about five different things in the back of his mind.
I shuffled through the recent contents of my inbox, waited until Noah and Madeleine had gone back to their project, then stepped out of the office and headed in the direction of the Improper Use Office. I hesitated along the way, but pressed on, and when I reached Percy’s office I poked my head in cautiously.
The office was largely empty at the moment. Robbie Saunderson and Damian Stewart sat towards the back, talking in low voices. Percy, a bit closer to the door, was leaning with his back against the wall, arms crossed, looking quite agitated as he regarded a piece of parchment and a quill floating in front of him, the quill occasionally making notations here and there. His face was impassive, but he seemed fidgety, tapping his wand against his arm in an erratic manner. At one point, he wrinkled his nose - a habit of his when he found something irritating or distasteful, as far as I could tell, and particularly when he thought nobody was looking at him. It made him look very boyish, and I would have enjoyed it then if not for the fact that he looked extremely put out about something.
“Hey,” I whispered.
He seemed to snap out of whatever thought he was in the middle of.
“Am I bothering you?”
He gave the faintest of smiles. “Don’t ask silly questions.” The parchment and quill set themselves down on a nearby desk as I walked towards him. I liked the fact that his expression always seemed less distant when he talked to me.
Shrugging, he allowed, “Well, when isn’t it, exactly?”
“You know, if Lionel needs telling off, you could just ask me to do it. I mean, I’m there already.”
My comment had the intended effect, and he contemplated the idea with apparent amusement. “I would actually love that, but I think you would probably be too easy on him.”
“What’s the problem, anyway?”
“It’s, ah…” He shook his head vaguely. “You know most of this already - we don’t get on at all, as to how things ought to be run around here. It’s not even anything new, but I suppose that makes it more frustrating. Always one thing or another. He can’t take anything seriously, can’t get anything done on time. If it only affected his job, I’d have nothing to say, but with the amount of interaction between these two offices, it affects my job, too.”
He paused, but I sensed he wasn’t done talking and waited for him to speak again.
“You think I’m kidding when I tell you they got nothing done there before you came along, but I’m not. Ward is perfectly competent,” he added grudgingly, “but she’s made it her mission in life to frustrate the achievement of anything around here. Universally adored by upper management, though. Unfathomable. Life’s great mysteries.” He wrinkled his nose again.
A pair of voices out in the corridor grew louder as they drew closer, and Percy glanced over the top of my head towards the door. “Brilliant. Here we go with this again.”
Gemma Stone and Eoghan Lynch, both of whom worked in the Improper Use Office, swept through the doorway, bickering as was their usual habit.
“ - it isn’t relevant, Gemma - ”
“Yes, it is! Yes, it sodding is relevant that the spell isn’t done the proper way to begin with - ”
“But you don’t even have that part right. There are two ways, they’re both accepted - ”
“That is total nonsense.”
“Look, I’ll show you - you can do it the standard way, like this - ”
Which particular spell they were arguing about, I never did learn, because as Eoghan attempted to demonstrate the one way versus the other, his wand seemed to explode in a cloud of sparks and smoke. It was a relatively small explosion, though quite loud, and Eoghan dropped the wand as though it were a firecracker that had gone off in his hand. Gemma covered her head with both arms, and Percy, I realized, had automatically thrown one arm in front of me, though he regarded the scene before us with a calm, unimpressed look on his face. Then he raised his other hand to his forehead like he had a slightly troublesome headache.
The smoke cleared, and Eoghan stared at the wand now lying, innocuous, on the ground, as though it were a poisonous snake. The office was silent except for muffled snickering by Robbie and Damian.
“Let me guess,” I volunteered. “Relatively new wand?”
Eoghan gave me a dazed look. “Three months.”
“You’re not alone, we’ve had a couple dozen of those already.”
Eoghan and Gemma just stared. Percy glanced at me and then looked at the others with an expression that seemed almost smug.
We went to Flourish & Blotts together after work - Percy wanted to find some new history book, and I never turned down a chance to walk around a bookstore. I ran my fingers along the rows of engraved spines, and as we passed the small section on Wandlore I plucked something basic-looking from the shelf.
“New hobby?” he asked.
I laughed and began leafing through the book. “No, but I’m going to have to learn something about the subject if I’m to be of any use in sorting out this wand dilemma. Working out that all the backfiring wands have unicorn tail in common was only the first step. No clue yet whether it’s a problem with all unicorns, those from a specific area - no pattern so far as to when the wands were created. What a mess. I think it’s going to require working with Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. No idea how specific the wandmakers’ records are or how helpful they’re going to be…”
“Wands aren’t regulated enough,” said Percy absently as he scanned a shelf for the book he wanted.
“Yes, well, what is regulated enough for your taste?”
He cocked his head to the side and appeared deep in thought for a moment. I couldn’t tell whether this was purely theatrical or whether he was really searching for an answer. “Hmm. I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.”
“I think that answer makes my point sufficiently, don‘t you?”
He didn’t say anything, but seemed entertained. I flipped through a few more pages in the book I was holding.
“Audrey,” he said a moment later, as if the thought had just occurred to him, his hand pausing on one of the history books, “why does someone like you work there?”
“You mean the Ministry? Or Equipment Control, specifically?”
“Well…” I shrugged. I’d never been able to come up with a good answer to that question. “I suppose nobody wakes up one day and decides they really want to spend their life regulating magical equipment… or transportation, for that matter, where I used to work… but I guess someone’s got to do it, right?”
“Someone as smart as you chooses to work somewhere because ‘someone’s got to do it.’” He said it in a tone of dry disbelief.
Other people had tried to have this conversation with me. On those occasions it was embarrassing at best and irritating at worst, and all I could ever do was try to brush it off as best I could. Sometimes I could talk about it with Vivian, but even then it tended to get frustrating. But I didn’t mind so much when Percy asked. In fact, I was beginning to think there was nothing I couldn’t talk to him about.
So I gave in a bit. “If you really want to know, I suppose I just thought I should have a nice, respectable job, regardless of what it was. And you don’t have to say anything, I’m perfectly aware how meaningless that makes my life sound.”
His expression was inscrutable as he pulled a book from the shelf and began flipping the pages slowly.
“And what did you want to do originally? I mean, when you were younger?”
I smiled self-consciously. “Well, when I was really young, I fancied being an actress. Then I started to realize you need a personality in order to do that.”
He rolled his eyes ever so slightly.
“And then,” I continued, closing the book on Wandlore and sending it back to its shelf, “I thought I’d like to be a teacher, like my mum. I like kids. And when Vivian started talking about being a Healer, I considered that, but I was worried I wouldn’t be any good at it. In the end, I thought… I like things that are methodical, I like details, I like routine… so here I am.”
Percy looked down at the book he was holding. “This doesn’t look very good after all.” He placed it back on the shelf.
“You’re thinking how pathetic this all sounds,” I guessed wryly.
He was slow to respond, and didn’t look at me right away. “I think I can safely say that I’m in no position to judge you. And anyway, for reasons I think are obvious, I’m glad you work where you do.” He flashed his half-smile, and my stomach fluttered.
I looked down. “Well, what about you, then? Why do you work there?”
“I probably can’t phrase it any better than you did. Nice, respectable job.” He paused. “Well, I could add more, mostly having to do with myself as an egotistical seventeen year-old, but I’ll spare you for now, and just say that ‘nice, respectable job’ about sums it up. And if you, for some incomprehensible reason, think anything about yourself is pathetic, try the fact that I wanted to work at the Ministry since I was about twelve.” He pushed up his glasses and gave me a sardonic smirk. “Kind of sick, isn’t it?”
He took my hand and started leading the way out of the bookstore.
“You’re not happy where you are now, though,” I observed, recalling something Lionel had once said about Percy trying to transfer to another Department.
“No, I probably don’t do a good job concealing the fact that I’d rather do something better than assist Blakely in running the Improper Use Office. But advancement opportunities are apparently thin right now.” He shrugged and gave my hand a squeeze, continuing brightly. “For now I suppose we’ll each have to accept the fact that what we really do for a living is sort out other people’s messes. You and I must be two of the most overqualified maintenance workers in the world.”
“I do enjoy your optimism.”
Laughing, he raised my hand and kissed it.
Chapter 9: When Good Sense Goes on Holiday
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I knew I must be losing my mind when I agreed to go to a Quidditch match with him.
I’d only ever been to one Quidditch match in my life. Dad took Vivian and me to one when we were kids. I didn’t understand it, and didn’t remember much of it, but I’m fairly certain I was bored by it. Then again, I was only ten years old, and I think a lot of things tend to be boring when you’re ten.
Still, I was going to feel very bad if I ruined Percy’s day by being hopelessly lost or anything less than enthusiastic.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather take someone else?” I asked him at work the day before the match.
“Like who? Him?” He gestured vaguely toward Robbie Saunderson, who looked like he was currently suffering a mental breakdown over a sheet of statistics at his desk.
“Well, you’ve got brothers, haven’t you?”
Percy’s eyes grew wide. “These are really good tickets. My sister was able to get them through someone she knows from Puddlemere, and she gave them to me on very hard terms. Please do not make me waste them on one of my brothers.”
He gave me an amused look and added, “And stop trying to get out of it. I think you’re going to like it.”
“What if I don’t?” I challenged. “What if it’s dreadfully boring and steals three hours of my life that I can never get back?”
“Well, don’t blaspheme, Audrey, this is Puddlemere we’re talking about!”
Defeated, I rolled my eyes, and, since nobody was around but Robbie, stood on my toes and kissed Percy on the cheek before heading back to my own office.
“We could be lucky,” he added before I reached the door. “It might be a long match that steals three days out of your life. You‘d be stuck with me the entire weekend.”
Well, no complaints here. Bring it on, Quidditch.
I came home that night to the scent of Vivi’s legendary chocolate cherry scones. This was one of her specialties. It was likely that either she was trying to make someone very happy, or she was wildly depressed and planned to eat them all herself.
Vivi’s voice floated out of her bedroom and I presumed she was talking to someone on the telephone, so I took the liberty of reaching for one of the scones that were cooling on a tray.
As soon as I touched it, I received a sharp zap, like a tiny volt of electricity.
“Ow!” I shook my hand. “Damn, Vivian!”
I’d forgotten just how much that smarted. It was a trick Vivi and I had learned rather quickly when we were younger, to keep Dad - and occasionally each other - from nicking whatever we were cooking.
“Serves you right!” announced Vivian, emerging from her room, still holding the phone to her ear. “What? No, Mum, Audrey’s just got home. Hold on a moment.”
“What was that for? Have you got national security secrets baked into these?” I demanded.
“No, mostly it’s just funny. I knew you’d try to nick one. Go on, have one.” She waved her wand.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked, breaking off a piece and popping it into my mouth.
“Work?” That was suspicious. Vivi must want something. “Um… why?”
“It’s called kissing up, darling!” she declared happily. “I’ll have Jane Bryson’s spot if it’s the last thing I - hold on, Mum!”
If only all evil villains tried to take over the world using delicious pastries.
“Should a medical professional really be encouraging people to consume sweets like this?”
But Vivi was no longer listening to me - she was rolling her eyes at something Mum was saying.
“Well, I’m sure I don’t know - why don’t you talk to her yourself?” Then she thrust the phone toward me, covering the mouthpiece with her hand as she whispered, “Please talk to her, she’s been talking my ear off for an hour! Michael’s been expecting me for almost two!”
“Scones are clearly more important than being on time,” I observed, taking the phone from her.
“My sodding career is more important!” She began poking about the kitchen, muttering about how she’d like Jane Bryson to be stranded on an island with a tribe of cannibals during her upcoming holiday.
“Hi, Mum,” I said into the phone.
“Hello, darling. It’s rather late for a Friday, isn’t it? Have you been stuck at work all this time?”
I paused. “Mostly, yes." And maybe snogging my boyfriend.
“What are you doing this weekend?”
“Um, Quidditch match with Percy tomorrow.”
“Oh, that sounds fun.” Then she spoke away from the phone, obviously to my dad. “Audrey says she’s going to see a Quidditch match tomorrow.”
This was typical of most conversations with Mum - every now and again she had to pause to fill Dad in on something Vivi or I had said. It was the primary reason our phone calls with Mum lasted as long as they did. Dad could have cared less about what Elsa Norwood said to Vivi about Kitty Martin at work, but he was generally forced to hear it all anyway. This time, however, he took the phone from my mother.
“Sweet pea!” He chuckled. “Quidditch!”
“It isn’t nice to laugh at people, you know.”
He ignored me. “You must really like this fellow.” His voice became suspicious. “He isn’t a Wasps supporter, is he?”
“No.” I tried to remember the name of Percy’s favorite team. “Puddle…something.”
“That’s the one.”
“I suppose that’ll do. You know, it used to be if you wanted to get involved with a girl you were supposed to agree with her dad about Quidditch.”
“He’s supposed to agree with her father about politics.” Not likely in my situation, knowing Percy and knowing my dad.
“Quidditch is politics, sweet pea. You know I could never have one of my daughters running around with some witless Wimbourne…” He trailed off, apparently thinking.
“Having trouble thinking of an insult beginning with ‘w’ that you’re willing to use in front of me, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. But you get the point. Let’s talk about politics instead.”
“Dad, give the phone back to Mum before I throw myself out the window.” I started looking absently through my wardrobe. What did one wear to a Quidditch match, anyway?
“Alright, alright. Oh, hey, how’s that wand issue at work coming on?”
I sighed. “It’s a mess. I feel like I’m getting nowhere. There’s no apparent pattern other than the unicorn hair. And what are we really going to do, recall every unicorn hair wand made in the past year? It’s ridiculous. I’m waiting for the Magical Creatures Department to finish their end of the investigation, and hopefully we’ll get somewhere. But right now I’m just not seeing any good solution.”
“Well, mind you don’t drive yourself mad over it. You put too much pressure on yourself, Audrey.”
While trying to think of a good response, I noticed something about the contents of my wardrobe was off. Something was missing. I waved my wand, and two of my shirts and a skirt came flying into my room from Vivian’s and replaced themselves, prompting a surprised “Oi!” from my sister.
“I’ve no doubt you’ll find a way to sort it out,” continued my dad. “But it might not have the perfect solution you’re looking for, so don’t torture yourself if you don’t find it. You know, when you really think about it, some problems aren’t even meant to be solved.”
I knew he was just trying to make me feel better, but I scoffed anyway. “Well, this one can’t not be solved. And may I say, that may well be the least helpful piece of advice ever.”
“One day I think you’ll come to realize it’s the most helpful piece of advice you’ve ever heard.”
“Anyway,” he said after a pause, “have fun at the match tomorrow. Say, when are you going to bring this guy around?”
“When you learn to behave yourself,” I replied, raising my eyebrows and recalling what it was like bringing my other boyfriends home to meet my parents.
“I do behave myself.”
“How quickly we forget the Bobby Price debacle. I’m still embarrassed. And the time with Nev Baker.”
“That kid was weird.”
“You’re weird, Dad.”
Saturday was beautiful. It was sunny and warm, so the weather was perfect for a late afternoon Quidditch match. Just one of those days that makes you feel happy and alive. It was the kind of day when my dad would be out in the garden for hours on end and my mum would walk down the road to a neighbor’s house, just to take advantage of the sunshine. I was glad to be getting out of the city so I could enjoy it properly.
The match was in Exmoor, near the coast, and the view was breathtaking - which was perhaps the one good thing about having seats so high up in the stands.
When we reached the right spot, I placed a cautious hand on the railing in front of me, peered out across the pitch, then, against my better judgment, looked straight down.
“Oh!” I stepped back and grabbed hold of Percy’s arm as though it would keep me from plummeting to the ground. “This…this is really high…”
He chuckled. “You’ll be alright. Would I let anything happen to you? Here - ” He guided me forward. “Stand here, and don’t look down, you don’t need to anyway. Unless one of the players tries to take out the spectators in the stands.”
I looked around at him in shock. He tried and failed to suppress a grin.
“Oh, you’re very funny.”
Straightening his glasses unnecessarily, and repressing further laughter, he put one arm about my waist and with his free hand started pointing out the important aspects of a Quidditch pitch and explaining how the game was played. I recognized a few terms I’d heard my dad mention before, but for the most part I was concentrating very hard on processing all the information - all the while gripping the rail in front of me like a lifeline.
As the stadium continued to fill up, a few people passed by who tapped Percy on the shoulder or called his name, and on these occasions he turned briefly to say hello or shake someone’s hand. At one point, after shaking the hand of a short, blond man, he turned back to me with a perfectly straight face and whispered, “I have absolutely no idea who that is.” He then went on spouting a great deal of Quidditch information that I knew I could never keep track of.
When the players finally flew out onto the pitch - Puddlemere, I learned, in blue and gold robes, and Montrose in black and white - Percy began pointing out players.
“She’s good, she’s a Chaser… He’s a Chaser, too, he’s alright… He’s rubbish, don’t pay any attention to him… That one, the Keeper, I went to school with him…”
As soon as the match started, however, I was utterly lost. It was a fast-paced game, and there seemed to be too many things going on all at once - and add to that the noise coming from the crowd, which grew about five times louder when Montrose scored the first goal (I could follow that much, at least).
“Bugger,” muttered Percy. “They should have been watching for that. What’ve they been doing for the past three months?”
I had to ask a lot of questions about what was going on, and I started to worry I was becoming quite irritating. But he seemed content to wrap both arms around me and keep up a running narrative of the match, filling me in on what was happening and what to watch for.
This was, in some respects, helpful, and in others, not. I could feel my heart beginning to pound in such a way that I was sure he would notice it. I tried to rationalize this to myself as a product of the fact that we were up so high - but this was pure fabrication. I was actually beginning to feel very safe.
It took me awhile, but I started to catch on. At one point, I let out a little laugh as a player in black and white robes caught the Quaffle, then promptly dropped it.
“That wasn’t very good, was it?” I noted, proud that I had at least some inkling what was going on.
“Well,” he deadpanned, “for that guy, it’s bloody spectacular, but generally speaking, no, not ideal.”
Then he brushed my hair aside and kissed me once on the back of my neck.
“Excuse me,” I said, “do I know you?”
That made him laugh.
“Quit bothering me,” I teased, “I’m trying to watch a Quidditch match.”
“This is not a Quidditch match. This is a farce.” He seemed very pained by the fact that Puddlemere was losing.
“Well, I like those, too.”
“You’re so agreeable,” he remarked.
“You’re so contrary,” I challenged.
He made an amused face that said he wasn’t about to disagree with me.
Puddlemere continued to trail Montrose, and when all was said and done, Percy sighed with disappointment but told me he figured it gave him a good reason to take me to another match sometime.
“You did like it, right?” he asked later that night when we wound up back in my flat after dinner. “You had fun?”
“Of course I did!” I had both my hands in his. “I had a really good time, especially since I can understand it now. Well, sort of, anyway.”
He looked down at me with a dubious expression. “Are you sure?”
What I really wanted to know was how he could stand there and ask me whether I liked Quidditch when my heart had been attempting to hammer its way out of my chest for hours and all I wanted was to feel his fingers in my hair.
When I pulled him closer and went to kiss him, he finally started acting reasonable and kissed me back - well and properly, I might add. Good lord.
His glasses were in the way. How was I supposed to snog him properly with his glasses in the way? I liked them, but like all other things they had their appropriate time and place. He removed them and reached over to set them on a nearby shelf without looking, but he missed and they dropped to the floor.
“Oh,” I started, “you - ”
Percy shook his head like he couldn’t be bothered, and managed something that sounded like, “Forget them.”
And who was I to argue?
I felt drunk even though I hadn’t been drinking. It was a sense of weightlessness and a pleasant spinning sensation in my head. I momentarily lost track of all good sense and almost said something very ill-advised - well, it seemed like a good idea at the time - but reason came flooding back to me and I caught the words before they could escape.
I love you.
I almost clamped my hand over my mouth, though that would have required me to break away from him. What on earth was wrong with me?
Stupid, Audrey. Stupid, stupid. What a way to make a complete idiot of myself.
I did say something else, though. I tried to talk myself out of it, but my attempts were feeble - and anyway, it was all shoulds and shouldn’ts. Should wait a little longer, Audrey. Shouldn’t be so forward, Audrey. But ultimately, I wasn’t interested in these thoughts. I wouldn’t say I dismissed my good sense entirely, but I did send it on a mini-holiday.
“Stay.” It came out almost as a question.
I think his eyebrows just about flew off his face. But other than that, his response was something like “Uh-huh” and a lot of nodding.
Trying to pull someone from one end of your flat to the other and into your room, while not watching where you’re going, can never be a totally dignified act. I bumped into a table and I think I almost broke a lamp.
“Smooth,” he commented, causing me to crack up momentarily.
Then, somewhere along the way, he whispered, “Audrey?”
There was a pause before he shook his head and mumbled, “Um… nothing. Nothing.”
I didn’t know what he’d been about to say, but I was beyond thinking at that point.
I did learn that Percy thought I was beautiful - well, he said so, anyway. I suggested he retrieve his glasses, to which he responded by smiling and countering, “I’m short-sighted.”
I learned Percy had hundreds of freckles on his shoulders from a bad sunburn he once received.
I learned Percy snored - loudly. On balance, though, I’d have to say it was worth it.