Chapter 5 : A New Friend
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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.
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