New York was never silent, but it did have its moments of curious quietude.
There was a certain time of day, about an hour and a half before sun-up, just before the morning newspapers were even spirited out to all the stands around the city, that was Percival’s favorite.
These meetings gave him an excuse to actually walk out into that cool stillness, instead of watching it crawl by from the window with his coffee in hand.
It amounted, every other month, to fifteen blocks alone with his thoughts and the sluggish crawl of the city readying itself for morning.
Mariene’s was close enough to the Woolworth building to be convenient for all manner of MACUSA business, but far enough afield to be readily mistaken for any overnight no-maj diner.
The sky, today, wasn’t even coming up gray as he ducked out of the chilly morning air and into the little restaurant, nodding to the woman behind the counter as he shuffled to his usual little booth. Aside from the cook in back, they were alone, for the moment.
The woman’s name was Dutch - family or given name, he’d never asked, and never intended to.
What he did know: Dutch poured the coffee, Dutch took the orders, and Dutch probably knew juicier gossip than Percival had heard in the entire course of his life five times over.
“How ya keepin’, Percy?” she asked, setting the empty coffee cup in front of him, pouring from the pot in her other hand.
“Knees are getting worse by the day. You?”
“Come back and talk to me when you’re varicose all over,” she snorted, with a smile.
He watched silently as she ambled back to the counter, picking back up in the dime-novel she’d been reading when he’d walked in.
The coffee was awful, but strong - stronger than the brew he made himself in the mornings. He secretly adored the way the first sip would make him grimace, followed rapidly by the feeling of the last sleepy cobwebs sweeping themselves out of his mind.
He paused with the cup halfway back to the table, raising an eyebrow at the young man he had not noticed come in.
“Now, that’s gonna depend on who’s asking.”
The impeccably-dressed stranger held out a hand, slim and long-fingered, nails short but clearly well-kept.
“My name is Credence Barebone. I’m overseeing Ms. Goldstein’s appointments today.”
Caution getting the better of him, Percival glanced from that hand to the stranger’s face.
“Do you mind me asking you to verify that?”
“Not at all.” The stranger reached into an inner fold of his coat, then passed over a slim leather wallet.
Percival took a calm glance over the typed and stamped and crisply-sealed card within, pausing long enough on the tiny identification photo to watch the stranger’s facsimile shift through a few different facial expressions.
“Yeah, alright,” he nodded, handing it back and gesturing to the seat across from him. “But I’d think that the Assistant Director has gotta have better ways to spend his morning than drinking bad coffee with squibs and going over budget reports.”
“Ah. Well, I'll certainly take your paperwork to pass along, but that isn't why I'm actually here,” Barebone nodded, sliding into the booth.
“Well, you've certainly got my attention,” Percival ventured, pushing the envelope of typed receipts across the tabletop.
“We’re in the middle of a sort of... personnel inventory. An internal census, if you will, that I have determined to take a personal hand in,” Barebone said, slipping the envelope into an inner pocket of his coat. He was quiet and so serious, and Percival couldn’t for the life of him understand how he’d made it past being anyone’s secretary. “And if you would be so gracious as to answer a few of my questions, I won’t tell Dutch what you just said about her coffee.”
There it was. Not spoken with a grin, not spoken with mirth, but there was something to it that turned it into an obvious joke.
“Last I knew, I wasn’t actually on any payroll,” Percival shrugged, raising his eyebrows as he raised the coffee cup for another sip.
“Then call it professional curiosity,” Barebone offered, pulling a thin notebook from the same region of his coat as he kept his credentials. “It’s not every day I get to play gossip columnist.”
Another joke, though his tone still didn’t reflect it.
“Now there’s a game I can play,” Percival grinned, watching Barebone open the little ledger and extract the tiny silver fountain pen from its binding. When he opened his mouth, expression all geared up to protest, Percival waved it down. “You’re not the first one who’s come to gawp.”
Barebone accepted the coffee that Dutch brought over to him, and took a careful sip, expression never once wavering.
“So I should just go for right the low-hanging fruit?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Percival nodded. “It’s not every day I’m in the society pages anymore.”
It was only as Dutch was back behind the counter that when Percival felt the muffling barrier go up around them, a little zing of something shifting in the air.
“Coming from the family you do… it doesn’t make much sense how you live,” Barebone said, picking the pen back up.
“Sure it does.”
Barebone shook his head.
“No. You could have done anything. Married reasonably well. Had any number of good careers. Charity work would make sense, but you actually… live there. At the orphanage.”
“If I didn’t come from money, I could’ve been any one of those kids,” he said, watching the loop of Barebone’s writing on the little page. “So maybe I can make sure they have some kind of solid ground. All the, begging your pardon, Rappaport bullshit? How many of these kids slip through the cracks?”
“12 documented manifestations since you’ve been at the orphanage, correct?” Barebone asked, seemingly ignoring the comment.
“Correct. 12 children who have been fed and clothed and housed between school years. 16 squibs, 19 no-majs, and we always see to their schooling. Everyone treated exactly the same.”
“Without once breaking the statute, in the six years you’ve been there?”
There was no condescension in it.
“It is surprisingly simple to chalk things up to children's imaginations. Any rate, I don’t run things any differently than the prior administrator.”
“And I understand you’ve petitioned the lower councils five separate times in the past few years regarding statute reform.”
If that was meant to be a trap, Percival wasn’t going to trip.
“Seven, and yes. You’d be amazed how many of these kids were probably abandoned just because they would be proof of a supposedly illegal relationship. How many of the squib kids certainly were.”
There was a fleeting glance up, the barest pause in the writing.
“That what happened to you?”
“You know, everyone likes to imply that until they see a picture of my father. No, I’m just a… big ol’ fluke,” Percival grinned, rubbing the back of his neck.
“So there’s never been any magical manifestation for you?”
That was complicated, wasn’t it? And surely, this man had elsewhere to be today - goodness knew Percival did.
“Nothing of substance,” he said. Technically, it was not a lie. “It apparently has something to do with the epilepsy.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” Barebone commented, not looking up from his writing this time.
“Well, it’s what every doctor and healer and specialist from here to Geneva to Peking and back seems to think, but the seizures didn’t start until I was a teenager. Well past the time we knew.”
Barebone pulled the pen tip away from the page, milling a thought as his gaze fixed on Percival’s hands.
“Should you be drinking coffee?” he asked, quietly.
Percival almost laughed.
“The concern is touching, but that doesn’t actually seem to matter. Lack of sleep, or particular stress, on the other hand… sure.”
“You’re responsible for at least nine children, at any given time. Is that not a stressor?” Barebone asked. Percival was starting to get a sense for this - his lack of outward expression.
“I’m not going it alone, and with very few exceptions, a stable environment does wonders for a kid. Even rowdy teenagers.”
“But surely, there’s days.”
The arched eyebrow was implied, somehow.
“Everyone has days. Mine just mean I lose a couple minutes and then put myself back to bed once I’m back in my body.” He was watching the flow of words onto that little page, the ink fading to indigo as it dried, and added, “Can I ask you a question?”
“How come you don’t use shorthand?”
“Oh. Never learned. I went straight into the field, out of training.”
“Must have done some exceptional work,” Graves said, finally.
“So I’m told. That, and I find it makes people uncomfortable, not knowing what’s being written.” He looked up. “You’d understand it, though, wouldn’t you? You did something… clerical, during the war, yes?”
The reminder that this was some form of interrogation actually made Percival grin.
“The seizures made me a combat liability, and someone has to keep the supply lines running.”
“Not to mention the espionage,” Barebone offered, tone still just as even.
“Well, I don’t know about your security clearance, so forgive that I won’t discuss anything you haven’t read on your own.”
The flat gaze was tempered by the barest hint of a smile for a moment as Barebone nodded.
“Of course. And you stayed in Europe for nearly two years after your commission was up, yes?”
(Percival shoved the word lovely out of the front of his mind as promptly as it occurred.)
“I understand that you spent most of that time in... a monastery.”
He had to steel himself for a moment, pushing his nearly-empty cup in a gentle circle by the handle.
“You know, most people open with that one.”
“Do I come across as most people, Mr. Graves?”
Barebone came across as a studious accountant who was entirely too soft-spoken to have found his way into his current position on purpose, but Percival was not about to open that can of worms.
“I know how dicey religion can be. It’s why we have most of the statutes to begin with. But I had a lot to work through at the time, and… it was just where I needed to be. The abbott was from a wizarding family himself, actually. Part of how I ended up there to begin with. Down toward the end of the commission, one of our French liaisons mentioned his distant great-uncle… you know.”
“Was he a squib?” Barebone asked, pausing for a sip of coffee.
“You know? I’m not actually sure. I never saw him practicing.”
Barebone flipped back a few pages, glancing at an old note.
”And this was in Gard, correct?”
“Just outside of Quissac.”
With a slow nod, Barebone said, “Tell me about it.”
That alone could have taken hours. Days. He took a final, deep drink from his cup before he answered.
“I mean, I did manual labor during the war. Kitchen duty and latrine duty… everyone did that. But this was… gardening, and mending, and baking. All kinds of things I’d never had to do here, in my whole life. And it was quiet, and calm. Clean and simple, surrounded by all of that gorgeous countryside. And the prayer was very centering. Lots of beautiful poetry to fill the day with.”
“Do you consider yourself a believer?”
Percival mulled that over, tapped a fingernail on the edge of his cup. He wanted to ask why it mattered.
“In a way. There was a sense of fulfillment in that life, and that much I can’t discount. Some of the habits have stuck. And I can’t discount that I went… fifteen? Maybe sixteen months without a seizure. But then, nothing lasts, does it?”
“Did they think you were possessed?”
Percival let himself take a steadying breath, shrugged with one hand.
“That’s a little bit reductive, but in a way. I guess it frightened two of the brothers who actually saw it, and the fact that I’d had one at all, after so long…”
“So, what triggered it?”
He took a pointed look at the pen that Barebone was holding.
“I don’t know as that’s relevant, if it’s all the same.”
Barebone nodded to him.
Dutch was coming back around, and they both moved their cups to the end of the table. Percival could feel the edge of the muffling charm slide against his fingers and wrist as he waited for her to pour.
The sensation tugged at him, something in that place at the bottom of his ribs where he tried to pretend his resentments didn’t live.
He pulled the cup back, steadying himself with a silent prayer for serenity. Did he believe, even now? Not precisely, but a calming action was a calming action.
“So, connect the dots from the monastery to the orphanage,” Barebone was saying, and Percival nodded, bringing himself back to the moment.
“I took a week to think about it before I went to the abbott. I told him I didn’t think that the monastery was my true calling, that maybe I wanted to come home, or close to it. He wanted me to be sure, but he was very gracious. Wrote some old friends, got me in touch with some people. One of the places was an orphanage run by an older squib named Loretta Giardi. Took me all of two letters to decide that was where I wanted to be. It was here or an orchard upstate, and… I didn’t think hiding away again was going to do me too much good.”
“What convinced you?”
Percival was toying with the coffee cup again, and he glanced over his shoulder, out of the window at the front. The sky had finally begun to lighten as they’d been speaking.
“She seemed kind,” he admitted, turning back. “She wanted to be kind to others as much as possible, give a good, simple home to those who didn’t have one. She wanted to find new families for them where she could. The way she wrote about it… was very genuine. That was enough for me. Maybe she took me in as much as any of the kids, at the end of the day.”
“Were the two of you involved?”
It wasn’t the first time Percival had heard that particular accusation. He held in a laugh, as this felt more like legitimate curiosity than anything.
“Straying from relevance again, aren’t we?” he teased.
“Maybe so,” Barebone allowed with the slightest hitch of a shoulder.
“For many reasons, no. She’s just a dear friend,” Percival relented. “Lives down the coast with her brother, these days. Winters here weren't doing her joints any favors.”
“From what I hear, she's been thriving,” Barebone answered, distant, not looking up from his notes.
The immediate confusion slipped past as the realization set in. He kept his eyes fixed on the writing, on the slow motion of Barebone setting the pen down.
“How many years did we miss each other by?” Percival asked, more quietly than he needed to, considering the muffling charm.
“Almost three. I graduated a year early. If your files are correct, I went into training while you were in Prague.”
“You could’ve mentioned. I might've been more open.”
Barebone shook his head.
“People are the most honest when they feel defensive. It's all in the face.” At Percival’s raised eyebrow, he added, “I'm much better with other people's emotions than I am with my own, Mr. Graves.”
“And what were you looking for in mine?”
“Whether you're as good a man as everyone claims. Tina and Loretta vouched for you, but I had to see for myself.”
“Because it matters. Because-” Barebone dropped his voice, hushing himself even in the confines of the charm, catching Percival's gaze again. “Because you’re right. The laws are in place with good reason. But anyone with sense can see that they endanger children as much as any exposure does. But I need hard data to back me up, and I need to be sure that the witnesses I bring, when I do, have been protesting the statutes for the right reasons.”
Whatever Percival had been expecting, that wasn't it, and he had to stumble his way into words.
“...Do I pass?”
“You have a very honest face, Mr. Graves,” Barebone replied carefully, re-capping the pen at last. “Would it be alright if I’m in contact? I might have more specific lines of questioning for the inquiry.”
“Sure,” Percival nodded, watching him stow the notebook.
He stood, adjusting his coat, and Percival finally felt the charm dissipate. Barebone was reaching back into a pocket, producing a third wallet - an actual wallet this time, from which he extracted a few dollar bills.
“Did we drink that much coffee?” Percival asked, eyeballing the money with concern.
“Goodness, no. But Dutch deserves a good tip, and you should get a sandwich to take back. Tina said that you insist on walking,” he said, setting the money down. He paused for a moment, his fingers pressed to the bills. “If you don’t mind me saying so, I think you’d have made an excellent detective in another life.”
“With a slick haircut and a good coat, I suppose?” Percival laughed. “I’ll keep my sweater vests, thank you, Assistant Director. Give my regards to Ms. Goldstein, would you? And tell her that strudel recipe went over like a shot.”
“I’ll be sure to. It was good to meet you, Mr. Graves.”
Percival watched him go, walking in great long strides to the door, and out into the brightening morning.
He wondered if it would be disingenuous to buy a slice of pie instead of a sandwich.