Percy Weasley's world effectively ended on a nondescript Monday morning in June.
Needless to say, at the time, this rather upset him.
There were warning signs, of course, but no one -- certainly not Percy -- would have thought things would come to a head so quickly. The day started out normally enough: inbox, outbox, report, report, memo, tea trolley, a brief pause for Earl Grey and a lemon-currant scone, report, memo, memo.
Percy had to read it twice. When he looked up he should have been less surprised, considering what he'd just read, to see two burly security wizards standing between his and Williams' desks.
"I'm afraid, ladies and gentlemen," said the taller of the two, "that you're all going to have to come with us.
"Has there been a bomb threat?" Williams, a slim, Muggleborn brunette who'd taken a first at Oxford in political science and routinely won the Ministry's Most Shag-able poll in Wizard's Quarterly, asked hopefully.
"You wish. Get up or we'll have to get rough with you." The security wizard sounded just a shade too excited about that for Percy's taste.
"See here-" Percy began, standing up.
"You're out, Weasley, the whole lot of you. Fudge resigned five minutes ago, so hit the bricks -- and good riddance, if you ask me."
"Nobody did ask you!" Williams was on her feet now as well.
"Look," said the second security wizard. "We're just doing our job. We're very sorry it has to be this way, but everyone on Fudge's personal staff is required to have a security escort from the building effective immediately." He shrugged. "It's standard procedure."
He attempted to smile winningly at Williams, who made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat, wrenched open a desk drawer and began throwing personal effects into her designer messenger bag.
The world began to swim sickeningly and Percy's knees felt suddenly weak. He sat down heavily in his chair.
Fifteen minutes later, all twenty members of Fudge's personal staff were standing on a London street corner, clutching bags, boxes, potted plants and, in more than a few cases, several hundred Galleons worth of purloined office equipment.
Twenty minutes later, they were joined by at least a dozen undersecretaries, department heads and other Fudge appointees who had, apparently, been very loyal, very stupid or simply not fast enough to switch sides before the ax dropped.
"What happened?" asked a junior typist, who was clutching a potted ficus tree to her bosom and looked on the verge of tears.
"Harry fucking Potter happened," said the head of the Ludicrous Patents Office, shaking open his copy of The Daily Prophet. "What else is new?"
This news was greeted with a round of heartfelt swearing.
"Well," said Williams at last, "I don't know about you lot, but I'm going to find the nearest bar and get too drunk to see."
The Welsh Green was famous for this sort of thing. The bar had begun life as a dive and, one hundred and fifty years later, it was still a dive. The only difference now was that it was a very popular one. The place struggled for nearly fifty years, barely breaking even through The Great Exhibition, Darwin, Dickens, Gilbert and Sullivan and the Queen's Jubilee. By 1914, on the other hand, business was booming. The Welsh Green, it seemed, thrived on misery, and the Twentieth Century had that and some to spare. Wars, scandals, stock market crashes, the Chudley Cannons 1986 season, all brought despondent patrons to the bar. It was like the Titanic of drowned sorrows.
"Not enough lifeboats."
Percy turned unsteadily to look across the table at Jenkins, the former (as of this morning) Undersecretary of... well, something-or-other. It hardly mattered now.
"Lifeboats," Percy said again. "There weren't enough of them. On the Titanic."
"Oh, well then. Is that all?"
"We're all going to drown!" Percy said, downing the last of his drink. He thought it was probably whiskey, but at this point couldn't be sure. His taste buds were no longer on speaking terms with his brain.
"That's politics, Weasley," Williams said, shaking her head and tossing back another shot of some overpriced Bulgarian vodka with an unpronounceable name.
"That's bloody easy for you to say! Do you know what this opportunity cost me?"
"We've all got a sad story, Weasley," she said. "Have another drink."
He did. Vodka this time, and it woke his taste buds up rather rudely.
"Good Lord, Williams," he choked. "How do you drink this stuff?"
"I'm plowed," she responded. "Wasted, wrecked, pissed, three sheets to the wind." She toasted him with her glass. "You're cute… in a bumbling, middle-child sort of way. Pity we're so drunk."
At which point, Williams fell off her chair.
Percy, rather gallantly if he did say so himself, paid her tab and got her settled into a cab and on her way safely home before any permanent damage was done. Something he hoped she might be grateful to him for once she sobered up.
Percy was, in spite of everything else, a generally decent sort underneath it all. He simply had some unresolved family issues, and who didn't?
He stumbled back to his chair, snagging what was left of Williams' fifth of vodka and pouring it clumsily into his glass. Jenkins was snoring loudly, his head on the table. Percy was beginning to feel a bit woozy himself, come to think of it, but he finished the vodka anyway.
At a corner booth, the chair of the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee was singing a rather off-color song accompanied by two speech writers, a bottle of Ogden's and a mail clerk who'd had the misfortune to be Fudge's second cousin's godson.
He looked up. There wasn't anybody there.
"Over here." A pause. "No, here. To your right, you dimwit."
Percy turned to the right and realized that, somewhere along the way, his glasses must have gone, because he couldn't see. He reached up to touch his face and missed.
"Percy?" whoever was standing there said again. They were blurred beyond all recognition, and Percy had the sudden sensation that he might be violently sick if he didn't get some fresh air.
The blur was sort of gold-ish around the middle and cherry red toward the top. It appeared, unlikely though this was, to have a halo of some sort. It glowed slightly around the edges. It was entirely possible that it had wings. Percy began to feel a bit nervous. If this was an angel, he was in very deep trouble indeed, because it also seemed to be rather angry with him.
"You suck, Percy."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You suck," the blur said again. "Like a Hoover."
"I-" Percy began. "I need another drink."
"Wow. You really are pathetic."
"Well," Percy said, hefting his glass with no little difficulty, "I don't suppose you'll get any argument there."
And that was when Percy passed out.
There were voices coming from the kitchen when Percy woke up. It took him a very long moment to distinguish them from the pounding in his head and the ringing in his ears, but they were most definitely voices.
"What I don't understand is why you didn't call your mother," the first voice said, over the obscenely loud noise of a carton of milk being opened, "or at least one of your brothers."
"Maybe because I wanted to get him home in one piece?" a second voice replied. "Though in the cold light of day, I'm beginning to wonder why I bothered."
"Because he's your brother and you love him?"
There was an extended pause and then a very undignified snort. "Oh, sure. That must be it."
Gingerly, Percy sat up. He was still in his Ministry robes, but the side of his face felt oddly numb. He stumbled toward a small, square mirror on the far wall, just barely keeping himself upright.
"Oh, dear," said the mirror. "That isn't going to come off, if you ask me."
The room tilted threateningly and it was almost a full minute before things stayed still long enough for Percy to actually look at his own reflection. When he finally did, he ran a hand over his left cheek and blinked. At some point during the evening someone had apparently written I am a massive wanker across his face. In permanent ink.
"Holy hell, woman," one of the someones said from the kitchen, followed by the sound of a cup being flung hurriedly into the sink, "is that meant to be coffee?"
"What else would it be?" This voice was definitely familiar, and female.
"I don't know, considering it very nearly ate a hole through my tongue."
"Stop being such a big baby." A pause. "If you don't like it, Kingsley, next time make it yourself."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Steeling himself, Percy made his way out of the bedroom and toward the kitchen. He was in no mood to deal with whoever was out there, but he also knew that if he didn't have a very large glass of water in very short order, he was very probably going to die.
His sister, Ginny, was sitting on the counter eating ginger-lemon biscuits directly from the box.
"Good morning, Percy," she said cheerfully, drumming her bare feet against a cabinet door. "You look awful."
"Oh, thank you ever so much," he groaned, just barely making it to a chair before his knees gave out.
"Yes.” He fixed her with a look. “Kindly stop eating all my biscuits; they were expensive."
She stood up and flung the box into the sink. "Fine. Next time I get an owl that you've been sacked and are in danger of slipping into an alcoholic coma, I'll just leave well enough alone, shall I?"
"I didn't ask for your help!" Percy snapped. "And who the hell are you?"
"Kingsley Shacklebolt." The only other person in the kitchen held out a hand, which Percy pointedly ignored. "Your sister asked me to help you get home last night. You weren't in much shape to make it by your-"
Percy narrowed his eyes. "Don't you work for the Ministry?"
Shacklebolt looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Yes, I do. But I'm also an old friend of your father's." He paused. "Though, I'll admit we don't exactly advertise that fact these days."
"Because of Fudge."
"Among other reasons."
Shacklebolt looked over at Ginny, who was now calmly spooning sugar into a cup of black coffee. She glanced up and Shacklebolt shook his head just fractionally. Percy had the distinct impression they weren't telling him everything.
Not that he cared, of course.
"I appreciate the assistance," he began as Ginny shoved the mug of coffee into his hands. "I appreciate the," he took a sip and grimaced, "coffee. But hadn't the two of you better be going?"
"That's a nice thank you, after we carried your drunk carcass home from the pub and babysat you all night to make sure you didn't choke on your own-"
"Ginny," Shacklebolt said, "it's all right. Your brother clearly feels better-" He looked Percy over. "At least a bit better now. We'd better leave him be. Besides, your mother is going to be wondering where we've got to."
"Fine," she said, picking up her sandals. "I'm supposed to go see Dean this afternoon anyway."
Percy's curiosity got the better of him. "Who's Dean?"
Ginny gave him a supremely disgusted look. "My boyfriend."
"Ah," Percy said, feeling a bit blindsided that his baby sister, who was standing in his kitchen with a strange wizard at least twice her age, also suddenly had a boyfriend. "Do our parents know that you've taken up running about with strange men?"
"Percy, I've known Dean for four years. You've known Dean for five. He hardly qualifies as a 'strange man' and, not that it's any of your business, but Mum and Dad think he's perfectly charming. Dad is quite keen to see a West Hamm match with Dean's father."
"Oh, Thomas. Artistic chap. Likes football. I do remember him."
"I'm not exactly a stranger either, Percy," Shacklebolt said. "If that's what you were worried about."
"I wasn't- I didn't mean that exactly. I just wondered why Ginny chose to call you last night instead of any of our-"
"Maybe because no one else would have come," Ginny said bluntly. "And, honestly, I'm beginning to remember why.
"I said I was grateful-" Percy began, but Ginny and Shacklebolt were already on their way out.
"You're a massive wanker, Percy," Ginny said, and slammed the door.
For the record, Percy spent the entirety of the following week in bed.
At first it was the hangover. It held on for a record-making three days and made Percy wish he were dead. Then, after surviving on nothing but antacids, lukewarm water and melba toast, his head began to clear, the reality of the situation came home to him and he really wished he were dead.
Here he was: Percy Weasley, age 20. Less than a week ago he'd been the youngest Junior Assistant ever to a Minister of Magic. Now, granted, that Minister was also likely to go down in history as one of the least effective to ever hold the office, but that had never bothered Percy much. Everyone had to start somewhere. But now, a scant two years out of Hogwarts, he was unemployed, alone and on the verge of being very, very broke.
He thought about this as his alarm went off on the morning of the fourth day and decided that, really, he was much better off in bed.
For the rest of his life.
This plan was disrupted on Friday morning, however, by the unexpected arrival of a visitor. They banged on the door for a full five minutes, while Percy lay very still underneath the covers and tried not to breathe too loudly.
He'd just dared to raise his head slightly when the front door to his flat banged open and Ginny barged in, saying, "I know you're in there, Percy, so it's no use pretending you aren't."
She marched straight into the bedroom, put her hands on her hips and gave him a look that reminded him of his mother – on a very bad day.
"Get up, already! Enough with the brooding. It's getting really old." Ginny yanked the drapes wide, and Percy retaliated by flinging the bedclothes up over his head.
"Does Mum know you're here?" he asked through the quilts.
"Are you kidding?" Ginny sat on the edge of the bed and flung the covers back. "Now get up. I'll make coffee."
"No!" Percy said, sitting up quickly. "I mean, don't bother."
He reached over the side of the bed, searching for his slippers. "How did you get in here, anyway?"
"The door was unlocked. If you don't want coffee, how about some tea?" she asked, and walked out of the bedroom without waiting for an answer.
Not quite sure what else to do, Percy got up and followed her into the kitchen.
He sat down at the table, pulling on his dressing gown. He ran a hand across his face and realized that he hadn't shaved in at least three days.
"You look like hell," Ginny said, filling the kettle with water.
Percy ignored her. "Why are you doing this?"
"Generally, boiling water is considered the first step."
"You know what I mean. Why are you here? Why are you speaking to me?"
Ginny sighed heavily. "When I figure it out, I'll let you know."
Percy laid his head on the table and closed his eyes.
"Are you going to just sit around forever?" Ginny said, finally, as the kettle began to whistle.
"My plan included more laying than actual sitting, but, generally, yes," Percy replied, without bothering to look up.
"I can't believe you. After everything you did – after everything you said – you're just going to give up at the first sign of a little trouble. Well, it's nice to see that you walked away from your entire family for a purpose."
"Why do you think I'm so angry?" Percy snapped, sitting up. "I gave up everything I'd ever known and look how I've ended up."
"This is angry?" Ginny said with a snort. "Lolling about in your pajamas and feeling sorry for yourself? Well, gee, remind me never to make you mad. Sca-ry."
"Oh, go to hell."
Ginny slapped a mug of tea down on the table in front of him, slopping it onto the tablecloth. "Well, that's a bit more like it, at least."
Percy groaned. "Why don't you just leave me alone? Did you come over here for the sole purpose of abusing me?"
"I came over here because-" Ginny stopped, casting around for the right words. She stamped her foot against the kitchen floor in frustration. "You make it really difficult, you know that, Percy!"
"So sorry to inconvenience you," Percy grumbled, picking up his cup of tea.
Ginny threw up her hands. "Oh, be a man, Percy," she said, and picked up her bag and left.
Percy let his mug drop to the table with a thump. He was really going to have to stop letting her get in the last word. But he stared at the door for a few minutes after she'd gone, then went into bathroom and got cleaned up.
Waggley, Nystram and Nystram was one of the most exclusive career placement services in wizarding London. Under normal circumstances Percy wouldn't have even been able to afford to walk in the front door. But Celia Williams was extremely well-connected and wrangled free consultations for a few of the (former) members of Fudge's staff, Percy included.
He walked through the frosted glass double doors and breathed a sigh of relief. The pavement outside was nearly buckled with the heat, but Waggley, Nystram and Nystram kept the temperature in their offices a cool, permanent sixty-five degrees. Percy walked up to the reception desk, across a wide marble foyer and between two wide, curving metal staircases. Behind the desk was a flat, upright glass fountain embossed with the company logo. The receptionist swiveled around in her thousand-galleon ergonomic chair to face him and politely bid him good day in public-school tones.
Business, apparently, was very, very good.
"Percy Weasley," he said. "I have a nine o'clock."
The receptionist settled him, after asking whether he would care for a mineral water or a cappuccino, in an elegantly appointed waiting room at the top of one of the main staircases. After a few minutes, he was ushered into a small, circular office by a tall, statuesque witch with electric blue hair piled elaborately atop her head.
"Have a seat." She pulled out an ultra-modern chrome chair for him. "Coffee?"
Percy shook his head.
"I'm Sascha and I'll be your career counselor today, Mr.-" She checked her clipboard. "Weasley. All right, let's get started."
He settled back, as comfortably as possible, in his chair.
"Let's see. Your previous position was with the Ministry of Magic?"
"Did you enjoy it?"
Percy hesitated. "Bits of it, certainly."
"Which bits exactly?"
"The responsibility, the decision-making. I'd always wanted to work in government, so it was quite exciting for me. I was also quite fond of my co-workers."
Sascha was scribbling on her clipboard. "And the bits you didn't like?"
"Well, there was the part where my first supervisor went mad, and then my father tried to sabotage my career -- but that's really more a personal issue, I suppose."
Percy looked up, surprised. "Hobbies?"
"Yes," she said. "You know, things you enjoy doing in your leisure time." There was an extended pause. When Percy still didn't answer, she prompted, "Things you do for pleasure."
"Have you ever worked in government?"
"No, Mr. Weasley, I haven't actually."
"Well, there's your problem. We generally don't have much time for things like 'leisure time' or 'pleasure'."
"Ah, I see," Sascha replied seriously, though Percy suspected she was working to hide a bit of a smile.
She held up a stack of cards. "Tell me the first thing that pops into your head when you see each of these." She began to flip quickly through them.
"A cauldron. A lion. The Queen Mum. A sunflower. And is that a blancmange?"
Sascha nodded and put the cards away, pausing briefly to make notes on her clipboard.
"Stand up, please. In the center of the room, if you please. That's right." She picked up her wand. "Now, sing a few bars of something for me."
"You can't be serious."
"Do you want a job or don't you? Now, sing."
Percy managed to get through two choruses of "Ain't got no coffee that's perking, Ain't got no winnings to lose, Ain't got a dream that is working, I ain't got nothing but the blues" before wavering to a halt and looking up expectantly.
"Not bad," she said, thoughtfully. "Go ahead and sit back down, this will only take a minute."
Sascha spent a few minutes doing something obscure with her wand and an enchanted quill before coming up with a rather unimpressive scrap of parchment. Percy began to feel relieved that he hadn't had to pay for the privilege.
After another minute, she handed the parchment over. It was embossed cardstock with a corporate watermark and probably cost more than Percy had made the previous year.
"We here at Waggley, Nystram and Nystram pride ourselves on providing the most comprehensive career aptitude testing and counseling the wizarding world has to offer," Sascha recited crisply. "If you need any help understanding your test results or wish to try our career placement service for a free thirty days, please make an appointment with the receptionist."
He turned to go.
"And, Mr. Weasley?"
He stopped and faced her again.
"Things aren't always what they appear to be. I wouldn't discount any of those options if I were you." She smiled and closed the door behind him.
Once outside, he looked down at the card. It read:
Career Analysis: Weasley, Percy
1. Wand Salesman
2. Lounge Singer
3. Personal Administrative Assistant
4. Chartered Accountancy
5. Champion for the Good of Humanity
Things began to look up after that. Not so much because Percy had a job or a future or the love of his family, but simply because Celia Williams turned up and asked him whether or not he liked curry.
"Because," she said, "I know this fabulous little Indian place. They make the world's best vegetable curry."
So, while it wasn't exactly a career or a purpose in life, dinner with the six-time winner of WQ's Ministry's Most Shag-able was still a great improvement over the rest of Percy's life.
"Thank you, by the way," she said over the naan bread, "for making sure I got home safely last Monday. I wasn't really in any shape to take care of myself."
"None of us were."
"Well, I appreciate it."
They were at a low table in a tiny, crowded Indian restaurant. The waiter arrived with steaming dishes of lamb vindaloo, chicken makhani, a platter of pakora and a variety of curries.
"Do you really think we can eat all of this?" Percy asked, surveying the food skeptically.
"Haven't you ever heard of leftovers?" Williams asked with a smile. "I don't cook. Without leftovers and take-away, I'd starve to death."
Percy shook his head. "My mother always did all the cooking. When I moved out, I couldn't even successfully boil water by myself. I had to learn." He paused. "Of course, if I don't find a new situation soon, I won't even have a pot to boil anything in."
"Tell me about it," Williams frowned, a wrinkle creasing her forehead. "I seem to be all out of luck in that regard."
"You're having trouble finding a position?" Percy asked, somewhat taken aback. "But you were the Ministry's shining star. I'd have thought people would be queuing up to hire you."
"Emphasis on the 'were' apparently," she said wryly. "The progressives -- Albus Dumbledore and his ilk -- hate me because I've been tainted by association with Fudge, and the conservatives don't want me because I'm Muggleborn, and I went to Oxford -- which is, as far as most of them are concerned, one step away from running off to join a vegetarian nudist cult."
"Why did you go? Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with it," he added quickly.
"I went because I'd always wanted to. When I was a little girl I decided I was going to go to Oxford when I was old enough, and nothing was going to stop me. That included the very unexpected revelation that magic was real and I was a witch. I simply never felt the need to change my plans."
The waiter brought them another bottle of wine, and she smiled encouragingly at Percy.
"What about you, Weasley? Any hopes and dreams?"
"When I was sixteen I wanted to be England's youngest-ever Minister of Magic. You can see how well that turned out." He took a long drink.
"Oh, yes." She nodded knowingly. "I think every bright young thing who starts out in politics has that dream at some point. The reality is slightly less glamorous."
"Pity I had to learn that lesson the hard way."
"Everyone does. Though, to be fair, I suppose your disillusionment was particularly brutal. Bloody Fudge. I should have seen it coming, I suppose."
Percy sighed. "I suspected it might happen. What surprised me was that it happened so soon."
She shook her head. "The widespread fear that an attack by the evilest and most feared wizard of all time is imminent does funny things to the normal rules of the game." She paused. "What do you think, incidentally? Do you think it's true, or has it been blown all out of proportion by the papers?"
"Truthfully, I don't know," Percy said. "I know Harry Potter. He's a friend of my brother's. I always liked him, but he's... rash. He has a tendency to be stubborn, especially when it comes to believing in things, or people. If Dumbledore were to lead him in a particular direction I think he'd follow, without question – and my brother would follow Harry. That concerns me."
Williams nodded, watching him thoughtfully.
After dinner, Percy walked her back to her flat, even though she insisted it was too far out of his way.
At the door, she said, "Would you like to come in?"
"Maybe next time," he replied, with a smile. "I had a very nice time tonight. You were right about the curry -- it was excellent."
She put her key in the lock, then turned and kissed him briefly on the cheek. "Thanks, Weasley. You're a decent guy. Those are pretty rare, you know."
"Good night, Williams," he said, and made sure she was safely inside before strolling down the block.
It was getting late, the streetlamps giving off fuzzy globes of light and managing to make the shadows even darker than they would have been otherwise. The night breeze was warm, though, so Percy didn't hurry. He could have Apparated, but the walk home sounded appealing. The streets were empty and quiet, the night peaceful and calm. Percy actually found himself whistling as he walked. He grinned a bit and shoved his hands into his pockets.
"Aren't you delicious?" a low voice said suddenly from the darkness.
Percy jumped, looking around for the source. It was behind him, somewhere in the shadows of a side alley.
"Look, friend," Percy replied, moving unconsciously toward the sound. "I'm sure that's quite flattering and all, but that's not how my bread's buttered, all right?"
"Never much cared for bread and butter," it said. "Always wanted a little red meat."
That was when it hit him. The thing, whatever it was, moved so fast Percy was never sure where it came from or how it took him so completely by surprise. It hit him again, hard enough to knock his glasses right off his face. He went down like a sack of potatoes.
"Oof," Percy said.
He tried to sit up but the creature was crouching over him. It pushed him hard against the damp pavement and made sure he stayed there.
"The blood of an Englishman," it whispered, laughing softly. "Still smells pretty good to me."
It leaned close and Percy had the sudden, horrible realization that it was going to bite him. He rolled over, bringing both hands up to ward it off. The creature, nothing more than a vague shadow backlit by the streetlight, hissed and scrabbled at Percy's hands with its long-nailed fingers. Percy kicked at it, taking advantage of the distraction to pull his wand from his pocket.
"Expelliarmus," he managed, and the force of spell knocked it from its feet.
He attempted to get up and run, but the thing recovered, overtaking him and knocking his feet out from under him. Percy hit the pavement again, taking the impact hard on the flats of his hands. It kicked him in the ribs, making a sound halfway between a screech and a curse. Percy rolled over, still struggling to get to his feet. The creature hit him hard in the back of the head and he went down again. He heard footsteps coming down the alley and tried to raise his head to call out.
"Stay down!" a familiar voice said.
Percy did. The creature staggered back a few steps and slammed into a brick wall. Percy turned his head in time to see Kingsley Shacklebolt sail overhead and sock it right in the mouth.
The thing got in a good shot or two, but mostly Shacklebolt was kicking its ass.
He had it cornered, and pulled out his wand with a flourish, but instead of casting a spell, Shacklebolt shifted around behind it and stabbed it straight through the heart with his wand. The thing collapsed in a shower of fine, grey dust.
He shook his head. "Sometimes the simplest ways are the most effective."
He walked over and offered Percy a hand. Pulled to his feet, Percy said, "Mr. Shacklebolt, thank you."
His eye was beginning to swell shut and he found he couldn't put full weight on his left ankle.
"Here, kid," Shacklebolt said, snatching something up off the ground and handing back Percy's glasses. "Let's get out of here."
"All right then… Kingsley." Percy hobbled after him. "Was that- Was that what I thought it was?"
"It was if you thought it was a particularly nasty vampire."
"A vampire? Here in London? But the Ministry-"
"I know." Kingsley stopped, looking lost in thought.
"What is it?" Percy asked, stopping as well.
"There's only one reason I can think for one of those guys to be here."
"Not- Surely not You-Know-Who?"
Kingsley shrugged. "It wouldn't be the first time Voldemort called on dark creatures to do his dirty work." He paused. "But whatever it means, it's not good."
"I feel so idiotic," Percy said, shaking his head, "but the last thing I would have imagined was a vampire. Especially here."
"It could have happened to anyone. Still, lucky I was here."
"Why were you here anyway?" Percy asked, a sudden suspicion forming in his mind. "Were you following me?"
"No, I-" Kingsley began. "Listen, son, I just thought maybe you could use someone to talk to."
"I'm not your son, so I'd thank you not to speak to me as if I were. And I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."
"Oh, quite," Kinglsey murmured, a trace of irritation in his voice. "You know, kid, at some point you're going to have to learn how to accept help gracefully."
"I assure you, I am just fine on my own." Which would have been a whole lot more convincing if Percy's ankle hadn't chosen that exact moment to give out.
Kingsley grabbed him by the arm, holding him up. "Come on. Let's get you home."
The lights were on in Percy's flat when they reached it. He couldn't remember whether he'd left them on or whether that meant there was another unwelcome visitor waiting for them. At that point, Percy wasn't sure he cared much.
When they reached the building, Percy shook Kingsley's hand from his arm and hobbled up the front steps to unlock the door. He limped up the stairs to his flat, pointedly refusing any help. His black eye was beginning to swell in earnest, so he had a tendency to list slightly to the right as he walked. Kingsley followed, with the softest of exasperated sighs. They wrestled the door open only to find Ginny seated at the kitchen table, calmly waiting for the pair of them. Percy just barely stifled a groan.
Catching site of their appearance, though, Ginny jumped to her feet. "What happened? Are you all right?"
Percy flopped into a chair and didn't answer.
"We had a bit of a run-in," Kingsley said.
Ginny went over to the icebox and began pulling out the last of Percy's frozen food. "Death Eaters?" she asked, taking the wrapping from a cut of top sirloin.
"No. At least, not really."
"I wondered what was taking so long," she said, sitting down next to Percy and offering him the steak. "I'd been here awhile without hearing from you."
"Why are you here, anyway?" Percy asked.
"Oh, that's nice," Ginny sniffed, and clapped the steak to his eye with rather more than the necessary force. "You know what your problem is, Percy?"
"I have the suspicion you're about to tell me."
"Aside from the fact that somewhere around puberty you transformed into a massive pompous jerk, that is…"
Percy made a strangled and somewhat feeble noise of protest.
Ginny ignored him. "Your real problem is that you won't let anybody in." She pulled another steak from the icebox and began unwrapping it for Kingsley. "We're only trying to help. I've been so angry with you for the last year that I couldn't see straight, but I'm here, willing to help you if you'd only let me. The rest of the family would listen, too, if you'd only try to talk to them."
Percy sighed, squinting at his sister with his good eye. "It's not that simple, Ginny, and I think you know it."
"Maybe not, but at least it would be a start." Ginny handed over Percy's last steak to Kingsley, who looked, Percy noted, a lot worse for wear in the light.
"It got you, didn't it?"
"Look who's talking," Kingsley snapped, holding the frozen meat against his bruised cheek.
"I only meant, I didn't think it was able to hit you. You acquitted yourself very well."
"What was able to hit who now?" Ginny asked, sitting down again.
Kingsley sighed. "If I tell you, you've got to promise not to tell your mother. Okay?"
Ginny gave him a look. "I'm fifteen. You really think I'm telling my mother much of anything these days?"
Kingsley cracked a smile. "All right." He set the steak down on the table with a thunk. "We ran into a vampire."
"A vampire? In England?"
"That's what I said," Percy mumbled.
"Now, don't go saying anything about this till I have a chance to tell Dumbledore. I'm not sure what it means but it might have something to do with V-" At the look on Percy's face, he stopped. "Well, you know."
"Are you going to tell the Ministry?" Percy asked, even though he wasn't exactly sure why.
Kingsley looked thoughtful. "I suppose I'll have to. I can't have Aurors walking around out there without knowing there's a possibility of running into a vampire."
"It may have been a fluke."
"It may have." Kingsley stroked his chin thoughtfully. "But these days I'm not very inclined to believe in flukes, or coincidences. I'll just have to be very careful how I tell the Ministry." He looked at Percy. "And how much I tell them."
Percy shifted in his seat, bumping his ankle against a table leg, and winced.
"Let me take a look at that ankle," Kingsley offered.
Percy shook his head. "I can see to it," he said, too tired and sore to put any real annoyance behind the words. "You ought to get Ginny home. It's late and Mum will be... Well, it's late."
Kingsley watched Percy for another moment, then nodded. "Come on, Ginny, let's go."
"At least it looks like you managed to get out of bed today," Ginny said to him, and for once didn't slam the door behind her when she left.
His career assessment card from Waggley, Nystram and Nystram was still on the kitchen table, propped against the peppermill. Percy picked it up absently and stared at it for a few minutes without really seeing it.
He got up, taped the card to the icebox and thoughtfully poured himself a scotch.