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Chapter 3 : Romance By Stealth
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“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!
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