Chapter 6 : It's Really Nothing
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“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!
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