He could think of little else as he bopped around Diagon Alley a few days following their lunch date. He was walking on sunshine (and people’s feet, on several instances, as he could not be bothered to pay attention to his surroundings due to warm fuzzies doing the conga in his heart). He’d spotted her a few times since then, thanks to his sleuthing skills and the ability to look good in a fedora. She hadn’t noticed him.
She was fond of disguises, it seemed. Every time she popped out of a different shop, she was wearing an extra article of clothing: A ski mask, a scarf wrapped around her mouth and nose, a nun’s habit, purple Wellies, and fake pixie wings made out of plastic. It appeared as though she thought she blended perfectly into the scenery so long as she was wearing this hodgepodge of disguises, completely unaware that they actually made her all the more conspicuous.
She was certainly conspicuous to Percy.
“Skiving off work, are we? Tsk, tsk, tsk. What would the Minister say?” said a voice right behind Percy. He jumped, closing his eyes in agitation.
“George,” he replied tersely.
“Is that it, then?” George squinted at the young woman slinking along outside a shop window, her attention trained on a squirrel as she furiously took notes on her pad of paper. (She was convinced that she was tailing an Animagus version of the outlaw Mundungus Fletcher.)
“Is what it?” Percy muttered, trying to edge away from his brother. George firmly clapped an arm around Percy’s shoulders and pulled him into an unwanted hug. George knew how much Percy disliked hugging, especially hugging George himself. The man-child smelled perpetually of rubber chickens and something that just exploded.
“The reason why you’ve stopped coming round the Burrow, badgering Dad to hand out more of your sandwich trolley coupons. I’ve grown to miss your smarmy little face at dinner.”
Percy grunted, swatting at his brother. “Go away. I’m on official Ministry business.”
George looked Audrey up and down. “I’d love to make that my business, too.”
“I’m not joking! They assigned me to the task of…of watching her.”
“Is that a fact?” George sniffed him. “You could definitely use a shower, mate. You reek of desperation.”
“Shut it,” Percy growled. “I’m busy right now and entreat you to shoo. Go make people hang upside-down or whatever it is you do with your obscene amount of free time.”
“You’ll never learn, will you, laddie?” George sang, hooking his arm through Percy’s. Percy made an ugly face and attempted to extricate himself, but George only tightened his grip and pulled the brim of Percy’s fedora lower over his eyes. “If you want to catch a bird, you’ve got to preen your own feathers. As it stands, you look like you’re on the prowl for illicit sugarplums.” He tossed Percy’s hat behind them, vigorously ruffling Percy’s hair. “You could do with a smart jacket…and shoes that don’t glow in the dark.”
“I don’t need style tips from you!” Percy insisted hotly, shrugging George off. “I’m just working up the courage to talk to her…per the Ministry’s orders, of course. She may or may not have accidentally supplied me with the wrong owling address.”
George’s eyebrows shot up. “Accidentally, eh? Just like when Clearwater ‘accidentally’ Obliviated herself so that she wouldn’t have to remember anything about your existence?”
Percy glared at him. George had a lot of nerve, bringing that up. Penelope was always a sore subject.
“I’m quite confident that Miss Bellpepper returns my feelings,” he said stiffly, flattening his hair. “Professional feelings, that is. And she’s an agreeable sort, mind you. She ticks off all my boxes.”
“I’m sure she does,” George laughed. “But come on. Miss Bellpepper? Oh, Perce. You poor, naïve sap. She’s yanking your wand! Don’t you think that if there were such a person, I would already be on first-name terms with her?”
“She hates you,” Percy said, walking faster. “She expressly said that she despises everything about you and you’re not her type.”
“What, she doesn’t like smart, handsome, well-to-do businessmen with an impeccable taste for humor? You’d be perfect for her, then. You’re about as exciting as a flobberworm, whereas I can run the gamut from sensitive scientist to bad-boy with authority issues without batting an eye.”
“Don’t you dare try to charm her! I’ll hex you within an inch of your life!”
“You and I will do no such thing.” George smiled brilliantly. “She’s wearing a sombrero, in case you haven’t noticed. I like them with a little flavor of crazy, but this one’s a few sneezeworts short of a Befuddlement Draught. I’ll leave you to it.”
“That’s right, you will.” Percy drew himself up to his full height. “You’ll get away from here right this second, if you know what’s good for you.”
George placed his hand over his heart. “You’ve certainly put me in my rightful place. Please stop being so authoritative, you’re making me tremble.”
Percy rounded on him. “You have until the count of three to disappear, or I’ll tell Ron that you’re the one who switched out his Deluminator with a Muggle cigarette lighter.”
“Do you think I’m afraid of Ron? He might be playacting as an Auror these days, but all it takes to keep him docile is dangling a tarantula outside his bedroom window at night. I’ve got him in my pocket.” George grinned evilly, sprinkling some itching powder down the back of Percy’s robes without him noticing it.
Percy crossed his arms. “Let’s see how confident you are once Mum hears that you’re the reason why Ron burned down the garden.”
Panic sprang to George’s eyes, though he tried not to show it. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would do it twice, and then go back in time and do it again.” Percy smirked triumphantly. He had George right where he wanted him. This was why he always kept stock of his siblings’ secrets; you never knew when one of them could be used as leverage later on. “And while we’re at it, you can go ahead and set up a baked-goods stand at your little Wheezy Wheezing shop. Make some gold for me on the side with my special Polyuice Potion cupcakes.”
“No bleeding way in hell.”
“You’ll do as I say or I’ll empty your dirty laundry all over Britain!” Percy barked. “I own your arse!”
“That might be so,” George replied with a wink, “but you’ve been so busy worrying about me tagging along and making you look bad that you haven’t noticed Bellpepper giving you the slip.” He nudged his brother’s shoulder. Percy whipped around, frantically searching the crowd, and found that George was right.
And as George Disapparated, Percy became aware of a crawling itch inching up his spine.
Audrey slammed her hands on Detective Wood’s desk, belatedly remembering that she had Transfigured her arms into tree branches for maximum blending-in with the trees lining the outside pavement. Wood glanced up at her through his sunglasses, which he was wearing because he had ordered the custodial personnel to put a small sun in his office just so that he could feel like he was frying on a beach somewhere.
“You have leaves growing out of your fingers.” He turned the page of one of his reports, leaning his chair back onto its two hind legs to showcase how bored he already was of this conversation. “You’re not supposed to be in here, Bellpepper. Need I remind you of your mandatory holiday? Violating the Statute of Secrecy sixty-seven times in one week?”
“The Statute is a sham and we all know it,” she quickly replied, her leaves changing colors and falling onto Oliver’s shiny desk. She shook a bird out of one of them, who had been in the process of building a nest. “I’m on a case.”
“That’s impossible,” Wood said loudly, flipping another page. She was certain that he was flipping pages now just to appear busy, because there was no way he was genuinely reading that fast. “You’re on probation. I explicitly ordered you to…how did I put it? Oh, yes. Keep yourself from being my problem for two months.”
“You’ve got a bigger problem than me.” Audrey shimmied out of a hula skirt to reveal a pair of boots shaped like goblin legs. “And it’s a sociopath by the name of Weasley.”
“Weasley?” This caught Oliver’s attention. He even forgot to keep flipping pages.
Oliver snorted. “You’re mad. Percy’s harmless. Poor social track record, but harmless.”
“And what if I told you that we’re looking at the next You-Know-Who?” Audrey countered. “From what I’ve observed – and I can give you a copy of my notes if you wish – he covers up his evil doings with a pleasant smile and chivalry, a clear indicator of psychological warfare. You yourself taught me that.”
“Once again, you skew my wisdom.” Oliver slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose, peering up at her. He was wearing more pomade in his hair than usual. Must have hired a new secretary. “That’s nothing new: You once tried to eat a ghost to absorb its powers because I told you my favorite flavor of tart was cranberry. You take completely unrelated things and squish them together into a tiny universe of weird nonsense.”
“Just listen to me,” she snapped impatiently, taking off a curly wig. Underneath her wig was another short, black wig, and underneath that was a tiara, and underneath that was a feather headdress. “All signs point to villain. He sweats like a swamp, he cringes at garlic, and I overheard him using mind control powers over his brother. It’s easy pickings.”
“What the hell are you even talking about?”
Audrey slammed her branches on his desk again, eyes wild. “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my entire life! He needs to be chucked into Azkaban pronto before he destroys the world.” And with that, she turned around and stomped out of his office.
Percy Weasley, as fate would have it, was fiddling around on the pavement outside, gaze roving over the windows. “Those offices are an extension of the Ministry,” he noted to her, offering a wibbly smile. “Do you work in there?”
“It’s the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Super Under-Undercover Branch.”
“Oh?” He skidded the toe of his trainer over a crack in the concrete. “Are you on a case, then?”
She pursed her lips. “You could definitely say that. Just tying up a few loose ends…”
When she didn’t say anything more, Percy summoned enough bravery to say, “Actually, I’ve been hoping to run into you.”
With your fangs, Audrey mentally added.
“You must’ve given me the wrong address on accident,” he went on. “I owled you and received a reply from someone named ‘Harold’.”
As it turned out, Harold was abundantly interested in going on a date with Percy. He’d even sent along a bouquet of roses in his return letter.
But Audrey wasn’t listening to him. Her attention had zeroed in on a splotch of something red on his collar. Also, he was picking at one of his incisors. (Unbeknownst to her, Percy had partaken of a cherry pasty not too long beforehand. His teeth were allergic to cherry and that was why he kept rubbing at them.)
“Listen, Peasley,” she said, snapping on a pair of surgical gloves.
“Peasley?” he interrupted before she could finish.
She cleared her throat. “It’s your new nickname. Get cozy with it. People like me don’t have the time to say full names, so I whipped up a Percy Weasley combo. Capiche?”
“Oh – okay,” he stammered, stepping back a little. He kept scratching at the back of his neck, no doubt because of all the direct sunlight hitting him.
“It’s only due to the ignorance of the boss-man that you’re still walking my streets. But I want you to know that I’m watching you, sonny.”
“You are?” Percy wondered whether or not this was a good thing. He decided it must be a good thing. Watching people usually meant interest, so it was reasonable to assume that she was falling in love with him.
“But why can’t you just call me ‘Percy’?” he couldn’t help asking. “You don’t have to include Weasley in it – in fact, I would rather if you didn’t. Percy works fine. I wouldn’t mind being on a first-name basis –”
“Watching!” she yelled. “Watching you! Keep an eye over your shoulder at all times, Peasley.” She threw a scarf around her face as mysteriously as she knew how and stalked off. She was so busy congratulating herself on a discreet and enigmatic exit that she slammed right into Oliver Wood.
“Olivood,” she greeted viciously, adjusting her scarf. “Would you care to guess where I’ve just been?”
“Assaulting the innocent citizens of London with your garish apparel?”
“Wrong.” She pointed her nose high in the air. “I’m not saying that I’m the cleverest private investigator north of the Equator, but if you said it I wouldn’t argue with you.”
“No one is saying that you are the cleverest private investigator. No one says that. Ever.”
“Who are you kidding, I’m a natural,” she scoffed. “I’m such a good private investigator that sometimes people hire me as a pirate investigator, too. For birthday parties. I wear an eye patch and everything.”
“You wear an eye patch because you get punched in the face a lot.”
“I get things done!”
“You blackmail families!”
She huffed. “I have just Apparated to the household of one Percy Weasley and back, and can confirm that he sleeps in a coffin. So put that pie in an oven and bake it until it’s crispy!”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Strange choice of sleeping arrangements, but it’s not damning. I’ll need more than emo bedcovers to put out a profile.”
Audrey scrutinized him. What more did the man need? To see Percy waltzing around with some poor soul’s head on a pike? “I didn’t want to go there, but I can also attest that his skin burns when touched with holy water. I added a bit of it to his tea.”
Oliver just stared at her.
“Hard evidence,” she finished coolly. It was a lie, of course, but she didn’t think much of it because she was positive there were coffins in Percy’s lair and that he would burn when touched with holy water (or toothpaste with too much fluoride, as mentioned in a Quibbler article about secret vampire weaknesses).
It would all disclose itself after a proper investigation was launched, and she would be right there at the head of command – at which time she expected the entire Ministry would be falling all over themselves to inundate her with gifts, seeking forgiveness. She was still contemplating whether or not to register at her favorite boutique (where they exclusively sold confetti and tiny party favors) to make their present-selection all the easier.
Stretching the truth was a career move she would be stupid not to make.
“Well,” he said after a long pause of studying her closely. “It seems that I owe you an apology, then. I had no idea you had any solid proof.”
“You owe me loads of apologies, plus all the half-priced Fortescue Frosties I had to give up when your bossy lot confiscated my stuff.”
He replaced his sunglasses to his face, staunchly turning away from her. “Very well. A vampire in our midst…” He gazed into the sunset, pensive. It was clear he knew exactly how dashing he looked at sunset while wearing expensive sunglasses. Audrey wondered how it had inexplicably become sunset when it had just been afternoon thirty minutes ago.
“Good work, Bellpepper. I’ll look into it.”
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