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Twenty-nine

Chapter Text

ooOoo

I

Getting involved with A Piece of News

ooOoo

 

The news had appeared in the previous Monday’s edition of The Prophet. Three columns, although only one had text. The rest was left blank, to be filled during the day as the story developed.

 

WENZEL CORRIDAN, PUDDLEMERE UNITED OWNER, FOUND DEAD.

By Betty Braithwaite

Weymouth, Dorset.

Wenzel Corridan (52) businessman and owner of the Quidditch team Puddlemere United, has been found dead in his house in Weymouth, Dorset. Mrs Dalia Fisher (45), a gardener by trade, was the one to find Mr Corridan and alert authorities at 8:00 am this morning.

Initial reports from the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol suggest that Mr Corridan’s death might not answer to natural causes. Details to follow during the day.

 

Details followed, and what details they were. Despite the Patrol’s best efforts to keep things quiet it had soon been known that Corridan had been stabbed multiple times in the back. Stabbed. Meaning he was murdered. People always lost their minds with a good murder.

People talked and thought of little else during that day. The days of the war were far away, when people going missing or turning up dead came with a bitter flavour attached. When everybody was half mad with fear and no one felt safe, because, well, because even being a pure-blood wasn’t a guarantee of safety. But this was different; this was a crime in peacetime. You could get all the thrill and none of the fear because you were better than the victim (victims always deserved it a little bit, if only because they failed to notice the danger).

But that had been on Monday and Percy hadn’t cared.

ooOoo

The Department of Magical Transportation was a dismal, soul-sucking and miserable place, but it had its virtues. For starters, nothing like working in a desolate abyss of burden to make you appreciate life in a desperate, clutching way and to take your enjoyment where you could. It also turned you resilient to many of life’s inconveniences. It was the netherworld, but it made you stronger.

Plus, most people didn’t waste their energy on gossip. This Percy knew very well, because he knew what the employees of the Department thought about. Namely, and in the following order:

 

1) How am I going to fix this floo route? How do I fix this without breaking two more?

2) For Merlin’s sake, shut up and die already Titus.

3) I will kill you. I will kill you, Weasley. Another one of your pet projects and I will kill you and everyone in this room.

4) Judith, you fucking daft cow shut your mouth. You hypocritical bitch, your parents have a floo connection now, don’t tell me you don’t have time to visit them. You just don’t want to. Reg helped them fill out the paperwork because you couldn’t be bothered to help, you arse.

 

Keep in mind that people do tend to swear more in their thoughts. Also Judith seemed nice and sweet and bubbly but was a massive – uh, bad person. Not nice at all.

Okay, she was a bitch. But Percy didn’t like using that word. It seemed to him that it was unnecessarily vulgar.

But this wasn’t about Judith and her pig-rat double face. This was about how the department didn’t care much about external affairs. Monday they’d heard the news about Corridan’s death like anyone else. They learned that it was a murder a couple of hours later than most people at the Ministry, with the exception of the guys from the Magical Maintenance Department, who never knew a word about anything. Overall they didn’t care much because they had a whole new line of commercial broomsticks to examine and see if they fulfilled regulation, and the people from the Department of International Magical Cooperation and the idiots from Magical Games and Sports were making noise about a new European regulation for Quidditch broomsticks, so they all had their plates more than full.

That was Monday. Tuesday was the surprise accusation and arrest of Oliver.

Caramel Oliver.

                   Shut up.

If Percy was in the Atrium that Tuesday to see the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol bringing Oliver in, if he was there to hear that laugh that was almost obscene, that laugh like the sound of a glass thrown over a shoulder after drinking, it was only thanks to Euterpe. Or rather, Euterpe’s boyfriend who worked in Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures but evidently did very little control and regulation over there because he had brought to the Department of Transportation a dwarf malquash that soon got loose and devoured half the lunches in the office and all of their tea supplies, including the teapot.

Percy knew that if they went two hours without tea available he would have a riot on his hands. Never mind the previous affirmation that people in that Department could deal with most of life’s inconveniences; that did not apply to tea. He also knew he needed all the goodwill he could gather because the expanded floo network had doubled their workload. So Percy had gone out and bought two boxes of tea and a new teapot because, even if they managed to recover the old one, he didn’t think they should use it. On his way back he was right on time to see and hear.

Percy had little experience with this. Sure, there had been murders during the war, but those were different. There was One side and there was Another side and the difference between them was very clear. This here had nothing to do with that and Percy didn’t know what to do other than feel shock and horror.

Get involved.

Yes, that was very easy to say, but it wasn’t that simple.

Get involved.

         Get involved!

         Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved. Get involved.

 Shut up all of you.

         GeeEEEeet iiIIIIiiinnnvooolveeeEEEEEd.

Well, yes. If Percy suspected that Oliver was innocent, he should do something about it. But he could hardly go to the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol and tell them they should let Oliver go because Percy had heard a voice say so. Two voices, actually.

Wouldn’t that be funny.

He started to sort the supplies in the kitchenette, organising the boxes of sugar and not-sugar-what-is-this-is-it-even-sweet? He had his head down, focused on the task. Either there had been a sudden emergency and the whole department was stampeding towards him or the rushed steps Percy was hearing were all in his mind and just meant that his nerves were rattled.

The noise always increased when he was under stress, and it probably meant something that he had been under more stress at Hogwarts than in the Ministry during the war.

He dared to take a peek around. Everyone was sitting at their desks even if Percy could still hear some frantic running, as if someone were being chased by a monster. Nerves, then.

Get involved, the voices said. But it wasn’t so easy. Get involved how? He had no idea of what to do. None of the books he had studied had any directions for what to do in a case like this. Well, none of the serious and proper books like the ones in the library at Hogwarts. There were the others, the leisure books, but you could hardly take them as a reference. They were not meant to be taken seriously.

Percy had read a few mystery novels, as they were called. The detective genre had always been so popular in the muggle world that it was just a matter of time before it got its magical counterpart. But even though Percy had read many of them during the summer he turned thirteen, he had soon abandoned them because he found them frustrating. According to Hermione, who had only read one, the magical ones were garbage and an insult to her intellect and many other things that no one listened to because they were all in awe at her sudden and intense indignation that warranted swearing. Even Harry, who was usually mellower about these things, said that they were not very good and the muggle ones were better. He didn’t swear, though. Harry was remarkably polite in the way he spoke, it was just everything else about him that was impolite.

“I don’t get it, Perce,” Ron would tell him over cold sushi and pickles. “Hermione gave me a muggle one to read and I just kept thinking why don’t they use magic to fix this? Why don’t they apparate? It seems like so much work.”

There was also that serial on the wireless that was insanely popular. Percy had heard a few episodes when he was at the Burrow doing whatever chore needed to be done. There were robberies and mysterious disappearances and even the occasional murder, and in all those cases the plucky detective had a reason to get involved. An invitation to the party, a concerned neighbour asking for help, a niece writing a letter asking for advice. But Percy had none of that. No one was going to ask his opinion and they wouldn’t want it if he offered it.

No. He couldn’t just get involved, regardless of what the voices said and that was that.

ooOoo

Percy worked diligently through the rest of the day. He always did when he was stressed, or worried, or the impulse to kill himself rose alarmingly. Work, and work a lot, because he didn’t like leaving things unfinished and because he didn’t like delays no matter that it was a personal crisis that produced them. Work in anticipation of the day he wouldn’t be able to, so there wouldn’t be a backlog.

He worked and once it was five he left, just like everyone else. He got in line and started to glare at Herbert Benfield, Head of Security inside the Ministry. It was a beautiful moment in which everyone in the department, everyone, including the always-confused Titus, got together and shared their hate and contempt in a venomous glare. They were the workers from the Department of Transportation. They knew the ins and outs of the floo network and of apparition zones and portkey limitations and they did not think that they should be standing in line when it was time to go home. They should not. They should be able to leave directly from the fireplaces in their offices.

It might have been Percy’s only personal project that was warmly embraced by everyone. They had worked out the how, made a nice detailed dossier explaining it, and when the Treasury had made noises about unnecessary expenditures Alice had come up with a self-funded alternative. It was all good to go and the guys from Magical Creatures were waiting expectantly to see how it went so they could be next. They had even pooled the money and were visiting Transportations daily to ensure that they would be next (hence today’s little incident with the dwarf malquash).

And then Herbert Benfield, selfish and vain toad that he was, said that he had concerns about vulnerability and had vetoed the whole project. The internal security of the Ministry was of the upmost importance, he had said, and now, for his sins, he had fifty people glaring at him daily. 

They had to stay in line with everyone else regardless of whether they were flooing home or popping outside to Whitehall or jumping to the public entrance to the wizarding district in Diagon Alley. How stupid was that? It hadn’t been like that before the war. Why were they still using that system?

Percy liked the short walk to his apartment. It took exactly twelve minutes. He supposed he could floo directly there and, after having to stand in line for longer than that, it would make sense for him to go straight home. But instead he always went to the Flower Gate in Diagon Alley – so called for the engraved stone in the wall, no actual flowers there – and walked to his apartment building. Fridays he might also do a bit of grocery shopping so he wouldn’t have to do it during the weekend. Wednesdays he went to the city library and got a book to last him through the week (he had acquired a broad and miscellaneous knowledge of muggle culture). Today it was Tuesday but not a last-of-the-month Tuesday so he could just walk home, prepare his lunch for tomorrow and Thursday and finish his book (twenty pages to go; he had already formed an opinion on the Montague and Capulet conflict).

While he measured the cups of rice and waited for the water to boil, he took some time to think.

Percy was thinking two opposing things and that in itself was a sign of something. First he was thinking that he was very clever and he should be proud that he had found a solution so quickly to his little conundrum. He was also thinking that his solution was mad, just like Percy was mad and no one as crazy as him should be allowed outside.

He couldn’t go to the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol with the story about the voice because it was ridiculous and they wouldn’t listen. Plus they would realise that Percy was crazy and he would ruin his reputation and he might even lose his job and all his projects would be scrapped. He didn’t particularly like his job but someone had to do it and he knew he was better than most.

(He might have received lots of criticism for the Knight Bus, but he had also gotten a box of mints from that old goblin lady who had nothing else at hand to give but wanted to give him something in thanks.)

So, if he couldn’t go to the Patrol with that story, Percy reasoned that he should go with something better, something they would have to listen to whether they wanted to or not, like evidence and maybe even a confession. They would listen to that, they had to, and nobody would have to know he was crazy, and wasn’t that a great idea?

We are going to get killed.

         What’s that “we”? There is no “we.” This is not a demonic possession. It’s just Percy.

And the voices.

         Percy and us, the voices. But not we.

We all live here in the same head, and we are going to get killed.

         So why don’t you go ahead and get started? Shut up and die.

                   Nobody is dying here.

I am not sure that a voice can be considered to be alive, to begin with.

I, for one, think this will go splendidly. Look at how well we did with Alan.

         We did basically nothing.

                            (snigger) Lay back and think of England

                   Lots of doing, though. Lots of doing.

He was, like, a professional spy. Alan was. And we deceived and manipulated him.

         Ah, true.

                   So we are good.

Still think I’m going to die.

ooOoo

On Wednesday Percy bought the newspaper on his way to work. One of the advantages of being the de facto Head of the Department was that he had his own office and therefore a bit of privacy.

Alice had made a poster with Belfield’s face on it. In fact, it looked like one of those “Most Conscientious Worker” portraits they had over in Health and Safety (Security was just a subdepartment there, it was bewildering that Belfield could have so much power.) It wasn’t beyond possible that Alice had stolen it. Without a doubt, she was responsible for the added horns, flies, and smell lines to the picture. Percy doubted that they would have let the poster hang in Health and Safety with those additions.

She had even drawn a pattern of little poos on the neck and cuffs of his robes. Percy admired that woman’s attention to detail.

“Miss White,” Percy said drily. Alice looked at him with a mixture of guilt and defiance as if begging him to let her hang it up, at least until Titus arrived. “This belongs in the trash.”

“Mr Weasley,” she said like a soldier who had been told by a superior officer that they can’t appropriate a cannon and shoot at will. In the background Reg sniggered because Reg was the one who usually designed and wrote their forms and so he was used to paying attention to phrasing. Nice guy, Reg. Percy was fond of him.

The Corridan Case was on the front page of the paper, but Percy still waited fifteen minutes before reading it because he had to double check that he had nothing urgent to do. Then he got delayed making a work plan and sorting tasks so he could be more efficient and fit the investigation in his schedule. It wasn’t until half an hour later that he got to read the news about what else had been discovered.

There was a whole page dedicated to Oliver because apparently he was something of a celebrity. It was extremely weird reading the gushing text that detailed his stats (Percy supposed they were good, he didn’t really follow Quidditch that much), charity work and “woodland allure and enviable physique.” The photos accompanying the article to illustrate the latter point were very nice but they had Oliver in them, not an unattainable celebrity. It was Oliver with whom Percy had roomed for seven years, Oliver who often forgot to turn off the bathroom light and always left a bit of toothpaste on the sink and smelled of freshly baked bread and would kill spiders when asked without making fun of you for asking. He was not the person the paper was talking about.

It has been more than ten years.

There was a second section, this one dedicated to the relationship between Oliver and Corridan. Given that Oliver was experiencing great success with Puddlemere and that Corridan was the owner of said club, one would think that the relationship would be splendid. However, the paper was happy to explain that all was not well and that there was much turmoil and disorder in the Puddlemere locker room. Oliver had completed his best season yet and the Montrose Magpies had bid to have him transferred to their team.

Even Percy knew that Montrose was a championship team. Percy knew about them, that’s how good they were. Playing with Montrose meant a guarantee of playing in the European League and a good chance of bringing the cup home. Corridan, however, had refused the deal, although the exact words in the article were “sell.” He did not sell Oliver to the Montrose Magpies.

This, by the way, was the reason why Charlie decided not to pursue a career as a professional Quidditch player and announced he was going to work with dragons instead. Not that Corridan hadn’t sold Oliver, that hadn’t happened yet, but that players were talked about as if they were horses. Charlie, despite his big frame and ability to crush a man’s skull with his hands – not proven, it was the twins’ assessment – was a very kind soul and did not like to be treated like cattle.

I like Charlie.

                   Charlie wouldn’t mind that I am crazy.

Charlie rejected the opportunity of making lots of money, has no known girlfriend, works for almost nothing and has a tattoo. He would love anything that distracts Mum from pestering him.

                   Yes. But he still wouldn’t mind that I am crazy.

                   No, no he wouldn’t.

                                               Should we get a tattoo?

Percy was getting distracted. He shouldn’t think about this (A tattoo of a constellation on the chest, it would be so cool.) What mattered here was that there was a clear motive for the crime.

He stopped reading for a bit and shifted his attention to the latest inter-departmental report from Magical Games and Sports about the European broomstick regulation. Out of habit, Percy corrected the language mistakes (sixteen spelling errors, two wrong word choices, a sentence with no verb).

Then he went back to The Prophet. They had pictures of Corridan (alive and smiling, but Percy was sure they would have loved getting one of his corpse) and of his house. According to official sources, Oliver had arrived to Corridan’s house at a quarter to nine in the evening and a house elf called Mintii (might be his real name or it might be a mistake) had opened the door. Mintii had showed Oliver to the study before leaving at nine o’clock since she (although they had called her a “he” just two lines before) was a part-time elf.

Nowadays there were more house elves charging for their work and putting in hours at different houses. Corridan wasn’t an Old Name like the Slughorns or the Macmillans so he probably didn’t have an elf line associated with the house. He would have had to hire the service. It was quite a lucky stroke for the wizards investigating the case that Oliver had arrived in time for Mintii to witness it.

The initial medical report from St Mungo estimated the time of death between eight and ten that night, and since Mintii had seen Mr Corridan alive at nine, it had to be after that hour. The report also confirmed the cause of death: three stab wounds on the back.

Oliver had stayed in the house until ten, when the neighbour from across the street, Mrs Portman, saw him leave. She had no doubt that it was him, she recognised the shade of his hair and the line of his jaw and shoulders from the pictures in the paper. She was also very concerned with explaining that she was not a nosy woman and she didn’t pay attention to other people’s business, she minded her own and didn’t make a habit of watching the neighbours, you know. She had gone to the window because she’d heard a crash and rattle from the rubbish bin and she wanted to check if Jules had arrived.

Jules was a cat. A big silly naughty boy who kept leaving for days at a time. At her insistence, the paper had included a small picture of said cat, who looked like a manticore.

It was pretty obvious, then, that Oliver and only Oliver was in the house when the murder took place. But it was also possible that someone else had arrived after the house elf left. Oliver would be a witness then, not a murderer.

There were also two thinkpieces about the murder. One spoke of athletes’ natural impulsive spirit, their need to take decisions in a split second and what not. The murder was a tragedy born from the heat of the moment and a terrible instant in which a young man took leave of his senses. The other piece made a portrait of a cold-blooded killer who had gone to the house with ill intent. It also made a very unfortunate mention of Oliver’s half-blood status that made Percy instantly ill. You would think that blood wouldn’t matter any more but the old habits were hard to shake. Even now some people wanted to blame the half-bloods and muggle-borns for having provoked the atrocities of the Death Eaters.

It was a bit early for lunch but Percy needed to walk. He got up from his desk and grabbed his coat. On his way out he noticed that Alice had put Belfield’s portrait in the rubbish bin as instructed, although she had carefully glued the picture to the bottom of the bin. Belfield now had a ketchup moustache.

ooOoo

The Ministry had a cafeteria and there was a break room in the Department where they could have lunch, but Percy needed to feel the cold air on his face. There was something comforting to him in feeling the wind, cold and biting, on his cheeks.

He walked to St James’s Park and ate his lunch there, sitting on a bench. It was cold but not so cold that you couldn’t see other people, mostly muggles, taking their breaks there too, though most were smoking rather than eating. Percy had always thought that he would like to smoke. He had even tried to pick up the habit when he was fourteen and stupid. No, when he was fifteen and had the OWLs looming over him. The twins were not planning on becoming professional pranksters yet, it was before they got serious about their inventions, and yet they still managed to steal Percy’s cigarettes and switch them for something made of cayenne and cruelty. Percy thought that he was going to cough his lungs out and he threw up twice.

The worst was that the twins had waited to play their prank on Christmas break, so Percy couldn’t curse them or chase them because then Mum would learn that he was smoking and she would kill him and bury him behind the garden shed.

(Bill used to tell them that he was not the oldest. There had been an older brother called Uther that got Mum angry enough that she threw him inside a cauldron, put the lid on top, and buried it with him inside. This was why Percy liked Charlie much better than Bill. Bill was horrible.)

Percy had finished his lunch. He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and packed everything away, sending a last glance of regret at the smokers. His feet were starting to get cold and there was that familiar feeling of anxiety in his stomach because he had not worked enough today. He had not. All of his movements were accompanied by the ringing of a silver bell and the soft brush of skirts or robes as someone walked silently.

He was thinking about the murder. About something that bothered him beyond the fact that, well, it was a murder and Oliver Wood was implicated. There was something wrong with it. Like those games in the newspaper: Find the odd ingredient for the potion or one of these spells is not like the others.

When Percy returned to the office he took a piece of parchment and began to write a list. He liked lists. They were soothing and made the voices shut up for a bit.

Percy’s handwriting was very nice. Clear and easy to read, but with something added to it that made it beautiful. Nobody ever mentioned it because people don’t pay compliments in general and even less when they are about penmanship, but everybody liked it. Percy’s handwriting was very pleasant.

Percy thought of the war and carefully wrote down the name of every person he knew that had been murdered. Moody and Professor Lupin and Tonks (Charlie once convinced her to turn redheaded and hang out with them at the train station and see how long it took Mum to notice that there was an extra kid. As far as Percy knew it was the first time Charlie had talked to her and yet the girl had said yes.) There was also Dumbledore, how could he not be there? And Prime Minister Scrimgeour, poor brave man. There were those who were good and those who were bad because Percy was being thorough. His hand shook a bit as he wrote the first “l” in Bellatrix Lestrange right after writing Sirius Black. Name after name after name, every single person who had been killed.

Everyone but Fred. He could not write his name.

You killed him.

         No, no.

He did not put his quill back in the inkwell, but he did have to stop for a second and close his eyes. The ink fell to the parchment and left a splotch.

Oliver might be sentenced to death for this.

         Will you kill Oliver too?

He forced his memory to look further back, to the time before the war because wars were statistical aberrations. People were not themselves during a war. Even the voices had been different back them, tainted with fear and madness. Wasn’t it funny, though? That there could be a time when the voices in your head sounded crazier than yourself.

Percy wrote four or five more names. A couple of family acquaintances, a couple of DADA professors.

And now that he had his list, he looked at it. This was a nice list, despite the topic.

Even.

         Smooth.

And he knew, he just knew, that despite having been murdered Corridan’s name did not belong there. He stood out for some reason. One of these murders is not like the others. Someone was beating a fast rhythm on a drum.

Percy looked at the names one by one, jumping quickly from one to the next, looking for the pattern that had to be there. If he found it then he would find whatever it was that struck him as odd in Corridan’s case.

Beyond Oliver’s involvement of course.

Percy was a very intelligent man. Sometimes he didn’t know what to do with that intelligence and he thought wrong thoughts, but he had the talent. He could do it. He looked at the list once more and then he saw:

There had always been magic involved.

Those that died during the war succumbed to the Avada Kedavra for the most part. Others fell to curses and powerful transfigurations. Even those names at the bottom, the very old names like Mrs Lovegood or Professor Hargreaves, had magical accidents. There was a rare case of poisoning with Venomous Tentacula, but that was a magical plant under strict control, so it still counted as magical.

Was it possible that Corridan was the first person in thirty years to die a violent death not related to magic? Other than poor Professor Rosendahl everyone else had died by a wand. It was what felt right and natural. Wizards and witches had their wands with them at all times. They killed and saved lives and hurt others and themselves with their wands.

So why would anyone use a knife?

Perhaps… perhaps because they were angry and it was unplanned. Yes, something born out of the heat of the moment. They, for whatever reason, didn’t have their wand with them and took whatever was at hand and stabbed Corridan to death.

The paper didn’t say anything about the weapon, whether it had been found and what kind it was. Percy would like to know and he was sure that the tribunal would like to know too. There was a difference between angrily grabbing something sharp in the room and bringing your own knife from home.

Technically, Percy hadn’t made much progress. He realised that and he disliked it. But at least he had found something worth investigating. He wrote WAND at the top of the list and set it down on his left while he went back to work.

That was the thing, there was always work.

Also Percy had to go to the library to return his book. Such a small and simple chore. It used to fill his Wednesdays, going to the library, and now it was a delay and an inconvenience in between his thoughts of knifes and wands.

ooOoo

The sound of a flock of birds taking flight; a monster, big and hairy and full of teeth, breathing heavily and growling; a man thinking about having sex with a girl; an old woman regretting the food she’d had and wishing she was sat at the loo; a middle-aged man looking at a book and thinking gleefully about an obscure word that could be used in a crossword.

And there was someone thinking about red hair, about how even at the roots and under the curls where it was darker it was still red.

The flock of birds and the monster weren’t real. The monster had been growling at Percy ever since he entered the library and before he crossed to the wizarding section. The man thinking about having sex was playing with the idea of hiring a prostitute. He didn’t really have the intention, at least Percy hoped so because – oh, he was thinking more about being able to do whatever he wanted without worrying about the other person judging him.

Still, not the worst Percy had heard.

“Excuse me,” said a low voice. It was a library, after all.

Red hair has way more gold tones in it than blond hair, yet it is blond that is described as golden. People just don’t know their metals. This is golden hair if ever saw some.

Percy blinked in confusion. He’d left work and come to the library deep in a haze of thoughts. He had walked automatically, letting his legs take him to his destination while his mind contemplated the knife that was embedded inside his head. He was only barely aware that he had stopped home at some point to get the finished book and return it. He had no idea of which section of the library he was in, muggle or wizarding, or what had he been browsing.

Someone had called him, might have called him. Percy put a neutral but polite expression on his face and turned in the direction of the sound. He didn’t say anything because there remained the possibility that no one had uttered a word after all, and in that case Percy didn’t want to embarrass himself.

There was a goblin standing there, face scowling. His eyes were a beautiful shade of violet and Percy felt his shoulders relax, despite the goblin’s scowl, just by looking at those eyes. They were so beautiful that it felt like a gift to see them and know they existed.

“You are Mr Weasley,” the goblin said. So he had spoken after all and Percy was free to let his face show expression.

“One of many, yes,” he replied. At the front desk the woman with an upset stomach rose her eyes. Percy looked at her and blinked, acknowledging the order to be quiet before she could utter it.

“The one in the Ministry.” Goblins had this way of talking where they didn’t really ask questions. They presented a fact and let you confirm or deny it.

“Yes,” Percy confirmed, and then added in a lower voice to appease the librarian. “Transportation Department.”

The goblin nodded. Red hair was like copper but it also shone with gold and no one could convince him otherwise. “Him” was the goblin with violet eyes.

“This is yours,” he said, as he extended a hand in a closed fist. Not “this is for you,” or “I want you to have this,” but “this is yours.”  A declaration of ownership from the race that still said the sword of Gryffindor (and seventy-three other relics) belonged to them.

Percy bowed and crouched slightly and offered his hand palm up. The goblin opened his fist and deposited something on Percy’s hand, then he inclined his head and left in the direction of the Children’s section.

Percy looked down at his hand. It was a ring, too pale to be made of gold and too warm and pink to be silver. Just a plain band of metal with five gaps where one might embed a small stone. The gaps were empty, though.

Later that night, when Percy returned home, he deposited the ring on a tea saucer and left it right at the centre of the table. There was a something significant, something that might be important about the ring, but he could only think of a knife that had been lost.

 

ooOoo

II

Percy makes more lists

ooOoo

 

On Thursday Titus Titanicus came to ask Percy why the Department of Health and Safety had submitted an official complaint of harassment, persecution and humiliation against one of their employees. Percy had to say that he had no idea (the voices in his head cheered and declared him a consummate liar well suited for the Corridan investigation) and promised that he would look into it. International Cooperation submitted their report, which contradicted the Sports and Games’ one on at least half the points, so Transportation would have to be the tie-breaker. Judith made Wynfor cry with one of her snide comments that cut like a knife and since Wynfor was a man he felt very embarrassed by it and had to hide in the bathroom. (Didn’t matter, Percy could still hear him crying. Although he thought the rest of the office did not.) Maintenance was giving them a grey day and it was raining in two corridors.

What if you are wrong?

Oh, Merlin, no. Please no, no no no. Other than the voice telling him he had killed Fred, this – this was the worst. Hearing that he was unlikeable and that no one in his family cared about him wasn’t that bad. Percy could tell himself that he might be unlikeable but at least he was useful and he was doing good things in his job. But if there were doubts about it, if he lost that…

You have been wrong before. You were wrong about Fudge.

You wanted to believe him so hard. Scrimgeour too.

When the voices got like this, there was no telling them that he was older and wiser now, or that at the time the fear had been making him crazier than the voices ever could. When the voices got like this they were nagging and unmerciful and didn’t attend to reason.

So Percy did what he always did to quiet the voices, the only thing that ever worked: A list. He took a piece of parchment and wrote REASONS WHY OLIVER HAS TO BE INNOCENT on top and began to write. He didn’t even feel guilty about the work he wasn’t doing because he wouldn’t be able to focus on anything anyway. The whispered accusations that Percy was wrong (and also had killed his brother) were drowning out everything else. How could a whisper be so loud.

The fact that Wynfor had only just returned to his desk with his head hanging low didn’t help. Alice White got a chocolate bar from her bag and threw it at him without turning her head.

“1. Oliver is a nice person,” Percy wrote.

Was. You have not seen him in years. Maybe he never was.

Percy underlined the word “nice.” While he was at Hogwarts, Oliver had been nice.

“2. Oliver is not stupid,” he added underneath.

So?

So, and this required an arrow and indenting the next sentence to signal that it was a consequence of Oliver’s lack of stupidity,

“à If Oliver were to kill someone, he would not go there bare-faced.”

There. What did the voices have to say to that, eh? Because it seemed to him that one just didn’t go to someone’s house and ring the bell while planning to murder them. You would get a disguise or something. Certainly wouldn’t give your name to the servants.

Voldemort did.

Yeah, well, but Voldemort was making a point about not being scared of a toddler or something, and he was dead in any case.

Maybe he didn’t plan it. Maybe he went there to talk, got angry, and killed him and you are an idiot for believing otherwise.

That… that would explain why Oliver had gone there without any disguise.

But not why he had left as if nothing happened. Percy didn’t have much experience with crime but he supposed that if you killed someone in a fight you either broke down and confessed immediately or you panicked and tried to cover your tracks. You didn’t leave the place as if you were innocent, as if nothing had happened, leaving behind all the evidence of your crime. That would be mad and stupid and people were rarely both.

Bartemius supplied a voice with an oddly jovial tone, as if this were a quiz game. Yes. Percy’s first boss, Mr Crouch, had been murdered and it had not been planned and even then Barty Crouch Jr had thought of transfiguring the body and hiding it. One could argue that Crouch the Younger had significant experience with crime and murder and that he’d had an exceptionally cool head, but even so. Why would Oliver leave Corridan’s body like that, waiting to be found? Why not just hide it or pretend Corridan had suffered an accident?

The murderer had taken the murder weapon, hadn’t they? The paper would say if it were around. There would be a lyric and gruesome description.

Percy was a methodical man and this lacked method. If you were planning on killing someone, you took measures to hide yourself. If it was an accident and you hadn’t planned it, you did something to hide what had happened. What you didn’t do was wait like an idiot for your arrest. That, if anything, should prove his innocence.

But, what if he knows that it would be seen that way and he purposefully made himself look guilty so he would appear innocent?

Oh, come on! Oliver was far from an idiot but he would not come up with something like that. He was not a Slytherin master mind.

When a noise has been playing for a while it is very difficult to notice its absence, but the grandfather clock that had been ticking off-rhythm had stopped now.

ooOoo

It was still raining in the corridor that went to the lift so Percy couldn’t go outside for lunch. He couldn’t use the break room either because he’d had to have a group talk with the whole office about Benfield’s complaint and creating and sustaining a positive working environment. Basically he had had to tell them off for hating a very hateable guy while he couldn’t chew Judith’s fat head off because she was the Queen of the passive remark and would insist she didn’t mean it and had no idea what they were talking about. He couldn’t go and take over their break room in addition to that.

Instead he retreated to his office even though he disliked eating in the same place where he worked. It made him sad. The grey view from the window made him sadder even though, as all good Englishmen, he had grown inured to the grey. He still sat looking at the window because he couldn’t stand the idea of having lunch at his desk.

The window glass was cold. Percy breathed over it and when it fogged he drew quickly the eight stars that made his favourite constellation. There were more than eight. That was one of the things he liked about constellations. You learned to see the bare lines and once you knew them you saw that there were more layers to them, more details, and began to understand how people could see warriors and maidens and monsters in them.

He ate his lunch quietly and feeling cold, looking out of that boring window because he already looked at his desk enough throughout the day. It wasn’t even a real window since the building was underground. It was an illusion spell, so Maintenance could have put a park or a mountain outside the window; but they had made a London street because someone wanted to keep that feeling of business and official work and being in the city. Having imaginary people wander around the street increased the difficulty of the spell so for the most part the street was empty and all the more sad. Very occasionally there was a car or a single man walking. They were outdated by at least fifty years.

While he ate, he thought. Percy might have managed to make the voices go quiet, but he still had a feeling of pushing and pulling, of something being out of place, not fitting in. He thought about it so he could stop the stomach ache from growing.

The idea was this: If Oliver didn’t kill the late Mr Corridan, someone else had to do it. Someone had to be in the house at that time.

Anyone could have come after the house elf left. Maybe even before that. There were many ways to make yourself unseen, even without Harry’s cloak. (Was Percy supposed to know about that cloak? He thought not, at least not when he was a Prefect. Lately Ron didn’t care as much and had confided a great deal of scandalous things to Percy.) The murderer could have been hiding inside.

Usually houses were barred against apparition and unwelcome flooing, but not all. Especially the floo access. Sometimes houses had more than one fireplace connected to the network, old licences that weren’t renewed so the department closed them. But the connection remained in place. It was easier to simply shut off the service than to completely destroy the connection. If you knew it was there and if you had a steady hand and weren’t afraid of the dark, if you could cast a charm non-verbally… you could use one to get inside.

Risk suffocation.

         Suffocation? Risk being crushed to death!

But it could be done.

         You would have to be very crazy.

                                                        (Like you)

         And have that knowledge.

                                               (Like you)

Or maybe one could just go through an open window. What did Percy know about entering a place unnoticed? He was not the one sneaking out of the house and returning late at night. That was his brothers, all of them, and Ginny too. All of them coming and going and waking Percy up with the creepy steps.

ooOoo

That night Percy had a lot of trouble falling asleep. The voices kept talking over each other while someone dragged a chain down a spiral staircase, and the memories. Percy was remembering all his interactions with Oliver, all he knew about him, how he had smiled at Percy when they sat at the Gryffindor table for the first time. He had been handsome and sure of himself and talked easily both with Percy the pure-blood wizard and Kyle the muggle-born. He was the king of their dorm room, the one who stopped everyone from missing home.

How could such a boy be a murderer?

He felt asleep thinking of a man hiding inside a fireplace connection, suffocating slowly as he listened to the conversation on the other side and biding his time. He felt asleep with the thought of a knife in his mind.

ooOoo

On Fridays Percy usually had a simple sandwich for lunch because he was tired of cooking by then. He compensated by having something hot and fatty for dinner. Most people did something on Fridays, went out and saw friends, but Percy wasn’t that social and he didn’t really have friends. He did not have a standing date to go get a few pints with the lads. There may have been a time when that made him feel lonely and sad but now he had turned it around and every Friday he indulged himself with tasty food and a good book. Occasionally a film, even though going to the cinema was draining and a big adventure.

The wizarding world didn’t have their own movies and the muggle ones were often terribly confusing. Not to speak of the fact that in order to go one had to turn their galleons into pounds, don discreet attire, brave the muggle public transportation system and give the right amount of money when buying a ticket. You would be pretty tired by the time you reached your seat. Also, all of the drinks in muggle theatres were fizzy.

Percy went twice a month. He wouldn’t say that he understood what he watched, but he always enjoyed it. He liked the ones with Chinese people flying around.

This Friday Percy might have gotten to leave work early, which was always a treat. He had cleared his schedule in preparation for The Dreaded Interdepartmental Meeting in which International Cooperation, Sports and Games and Transportation would fail to reach an agreement about the new broomstick guidelines. However, in a sudden bout of energy and responsibility Titus had announced that he would attend and Percy didn’t need to go.

Technically, this was Titus’ job but by now everyone had gotten used to him not knowing what was going on and spending his days moving papers in confusion. Him doing his job made things worse for everyone. For one, Percy wasn’t sure that Titus had read the memos submitted by the other departments or the one Percy had prepared with the points they had to change if they wanted to agree on something.

Monday was going to be a loooooong series of messages while the people in each department desperately worked to reach a corridor agreement, meaning that they would figure out a solution themselves and later let their Heads of Department sign off on it. For now, however, Percy had a sudden gap in his schedule and he couldn’t make any progress with his work because it depended on today’s meeting that he wasn’t attending.

Percy took his things and left the office. But when he reached the lifts, instead of pressing the number for the Atrium, he chose the lowest level, number nine, and then took the stairs to the floor underneath. The Wizengamot.

ooOoo

For some reason Percy thought that he would have more trouble trying to see Oliver but the bored guard at the station only asked him to sign his name before opening a door to a long corridor and simply saying, “fifth door to the right.”

There was another guard inside that corridor, sitting on a chair at the back and looking, for all intents and purposes, dead. He smelled dead, too, and Percy wondered if he was the result of an unfortunate experiment in the Department of Mysteries.

There were around a dozen cells in total, most of them empty. There was a hairy wizard with big whiskers in one of them, saying that he was following Dumbledore’s orders and they had to let him go; a snoring blonde witch who emitted a strong smell of firewhisky occupied another cell; and behind the fifth door to the right was Oliver Wood.

Oliver was pale, and tired, with huge shadows under his eyes. He was dishevelled and dirty and looked like he hadn’t brushed his teeth in days even though Percy was too far away to know for sure. He was also, despite all of this, objectively handsome. Oliver was one of those people who could suffer from diarrhoea and projectile vomiting and dragon pox for a week and still look better than most people in their party attire. It wasn’t even the shine of his hair or the line of his jaw or the symmetry of his face, or his stupid brown eyes, Percy thought. Oliver had something like an inner light, a candle in the place of his heart, and the light shone through. He was beautiful like a flame was beautiful.

“Oh my god, Percy!” Oliver exclaimed as soon as he saw him, jumping to his feet.

Blue! said a voice. Blue, blue blue.

“Hello, Oliver.”

So blue.

Oliver seemed very grateful to have someone visiting him. His lawyer and his father had come, but his mother had been forbidden because she was a muggle. There had been a postcard from his team telling him to be strong and that of course they all believed in him, but no one had dropped by. Of course he understood that they had training and were worried over who was managing the team at the moment, but still. No one else had come. In fact, the most encouraging message to date had been a howler from Harry, Harry Potter. The boy might be part-dragon given how possessive he was with people. Supposedly the Weasley family had informally adopted him, but sometimes Percy thought it might be the other way around. Harry had given the twins the money to start up their business, and risked his life to save Ginny. Harry hoarded his friends and took care of them fiercely.

“It is kind of funny,” Oliver said smiling fondly. Harry was so small and so protective. Well, he had grown and was a strong handsome man these days, but both Percy and Oliver could remember some instance where they had to get him something from a high shelf in the Gryffindor common room. “It hasn’t burned out yet. You can still hear the message when I get it out of the envelope.”

He proceeded to do so and Harry’s voice took over the corridor and the cells.

“OhmygodOliver! Don’t worry, I will help you. I’ll come as soon as I can. Someone pass me my broom!” A fainter but decidedly yelling voice in the background exclaimed “Auror Potter, no!” before the message stopped.

As said, Harry was beyond loyal. He was also, if Percy remembered right, at the start of a five-week mission in the Hebrides and if Harry was still as good with charms as he usually was there was no way they would let him cut it short. It would mean halting the whole mission and that wasn’t happening.

Oliver smiled faintly and it was a beautiful smile, with light on it, but it was also sad. “I, I don’t even know if I want my mother to come. I don’t want her to see me in a place like this.”

“I think she would like to see you,” offered Percy, based on what he knew about mothers in general. His would descend to Hell itself to visit her kids. She would go wandless to Azkaban to get five minutes with Fred.

It was a stupid prohibition in any case. It wasn’t anywhere near Percy’s line of work, but he tended to pick up information and his memory was excellent. Squibs could come to the Ministry to do paperwork and they could attend Wizengamot hearings. Muggles… Yes, muggles too had been called as witnesses on occasion. Lupin. Greyback. How did the story go? Fenrir Greyback pretended to be a muggle when he was arrested and accused of being a werewolf. Of course that was back when merely being a werewolf was a crime, even if you hadn’t hurt anyone.

“I can give a look to the rulebook, and I can bring her myself if necessary,” he promised more than offered. “I should have a word with your lawyer in any case, I have some ideas that might help. Who has your case?”

“Fullerton.”

“From Fullerton, Leaghy & Associates?” That was a good firm. They had lost half their clientele in the after-war trials, but they had also managed to save the other half from long stays in prison.

Oliver waved his head. “No, just Fullerton. I think he is the outcast younger brother.”

Dear Merlin.

Percy was glad that he had cultivated the ability to keep his face under control. He didn’t want to show his concern over his lawyer to Oliver.

“Look, Oliver. I have been thinking.” Percy went straight to the point. “There is much that doesn’t make any sense.”

Oh, the blue sparkles.

Percy ignored the stupid voice talking about colours of all things and went on. “I have read about the case and – ”

“You haven’t asked me if I did it,” Oliver interrupted.

Percy was taken aback by that. He had just assumed, of course Oliver was innocent, and everyone else ought to think the same. Harry quite obviously agreed. And Oliver didn’t do it in any case! Percy had a list explaining it.

But of course neither Harry nor Percy were your average wizard. They both believed and thought different things.

Oliver was holding his gaze, firm and calm. He was trying to be brave, trying to pretend that he understood the doubts from everyone, and because he was so stupidly nice he was extending Percy the courtesy to have those doubts too. He had dark brown eyes that, to Percy, were the colour of honesty.

“You didn’t,” Percy said, because he had already thought about it and it couldn’t be Oliver. Also, he thought that if it had been him the voices would have said something by now other than their sudden absurd obsession with the colour blue. There was nothing blue around except for the dark blue uniform of the guard and the bluish light of the cells.

“I didn’t. But you didn’t ask,” whispered Oliver. He let out a soft exhale of relief, exhausted and happy. Percy wasn’t trying to help an old friend whom he thought guilty. He wasn’t helping despite that guilt. He honestly believed in Oliver’s innocence and evidently that was very important for Oliver. His smile in that moment lighted up the whole room and might have brought warmth to the place. This wasn’t just Percy being embarrassingly poetic all of a sudden. The witch smelling of firewhisky said so. “You could light up a party with that face, lad.”

Percy blinked and averted his eyes. There was too much strength in Oliver’s gaze. It was too much. Too much of what Oliver was seeing in Percy and not saying. Oliver always had a way of looking at people and making them feel seen.

The way Oliver had said “you didn’t ask,” he was hinting but not asking outright how could Percy be so sure.

“I know you didn’t,” Percy said, letting his certainty show in his voice. “I have a list.”

Oliver laughed and it was honest and open mirth, better than when he showed him Harry’s howler. The man claiming to be following Dumbledore’s secret plan pressed his face to the bars.

“Of course you do!” Oliver said with a fond smile. Seven years, seven years as roommates and classmates even if Percy had become weirder and weirder through those years as the constant noise drove him mad. Oliver had been weird too, obsessed with Quidditch.

“The murder weapon,” Percy went on, building momentum. He couldn’t stop now or he would be flattened by the strength of Oliver’s stare. Percy didn’t do well with people paying attention to him. Sure, he liked to be listened to, but there was always some risk. “First murder in over thirty years that doesn’t use a wand. That’s strange. They haven’t found the weapon, as far as I know, and I wonder what else they haven’t found? Maybe they missed something, some ashes by the fireplace or an open window in the kitchen.”

This is so blue.

Shut up about the blue already!

“Oliver, I need you to think carefully and remember,” Percy tried to convey how important this was. Any detail that Oliver had noticed might direct him to where the murderer was hiding that night and how he or she got inside the house. If he proved that there had been someone else there that night…

“Was there anything out of place? Did you notice anything the night you went there?”

Oliver gave him the weirdest look, almost as if his inner light had been killed with a stroke. The witch might have let a sad “ooh” in the background. Percy couldn’t say that he had payed attention to what she did, too worried by Oliver’s expression.

“But, Percy…” Oliver said, sounding adamant and tired and disappointed. “It’s what I have been saying to everyone. I wasn’t there.”

What.

What.

         What?

         He… what?

                   He wasn’t there?

                            HE WASN’T THERE?

But they saw him!

what.

                                                                  Fuck, that blue is amazing.

                            Not the moment!!

“You weren’t there?” Percy was proud of how neutral he sounded. Not a hint of disbelief or ridicule. 

“No. We have trainings on Monday mornings. Sunday I was at home and I went to bed early. I wasn’t anywhere near Corridan’s place.”

That… that changed everything. It also explained why Oliver had looked almost defiant when he pointed that Percy hadn’t even asked if he had done it. Oliver had to be aware of how ridiculous it sounded. He could claim that Corridan was alive and well when he left and maybe he could be believed. Percy had been expecting that and preparing to figure out how a murderer could get inside the house and out in less than twenty minutes. Or how they could get inside earlier that day, remain hidden all through Oliver’s interview with Corridan, and then kill Corridan in the small timeframe between Oliver leaving the house and the estimated time of death. It was difficult but Percy was ready to figure it out. But to say that he wasn’t there? People had seen him! People had seen him as he arrived and as he – oh!

How lucky that someone saw him come and go.

                   You idiot. You should have noticed this earlier.

         Please, don’t, not right now.

                   Such help you are.

“Do you have anyone who could confirm that you were at home?” Percy asked anxiously.

“I wouldn’t be here if that were the case, don’t you think?” Oliver could be sarcastic sometimes. Not often, but he could be.

“No, no. Of course not.” Percy was aware that he was moving his hands too much and possibly ruffling his hair. That wasn’t good. It had taken him years to finally figure out how to make himself presentable and passably attractive. If he started to fidget and tousle his hair he would look like the sad wet cat he secretly was. He grabbed the bars of the cells so he would have something to occupy his hands. “And, and, you always have practice on Mondays, I assume? How many people would know that?”

Oliver shrugged. “Anyone who cared to know it, I suppose. It is not a secret, people come see us train sometimes. Say, Perce, you believe me?” he added, a bit more hesitantly and disbelieving.

“Of course I believe you,” Percy answered distractedly but firm, very firm. He was having a small freak out and couldn’t be bothered with more doubts. Oliver wasn’t there! This changed everything. He had to sort his thoughts, find a new line to put them in order.

He looked at Oliver and offered him a reassuring smile of sorts. He hoped it was a good smile. To this day George and Ginny still thought that Percy looked like a constipated lizard and Alan thought that most of the time Percy smiled like someone who had read about smiling but had never experienced it. “If you say you weren’t there, then you weren’t there. It’s a pity, you might have seen something, but at least now we know how they got inside.”

This is the very best kind of blue. Oh my god, I want to die. This blue.

Of course it was very unfortunate that Oliver’s lawyer was a useless nobody and that Percy was going even more insane by the minute. He had to hurry up and get this sorted before he snapped for good. At least both the Knight Bus and the Extended Floo Network were up and running. Percy didn’t care if the International Broomstick Regulations fell through.

So blue.

         Dear Merlin, we are raving mad. Oliver is doomed.

 

ooOoo

III

A walk by the sea

ooOoo

 

Saturday mornings Percy usually went grocery shopping (if he hadn’t gone on Friday) and cleaned his apartment. He liked the feeling of accomplishment it gave him, of being functional and reliable and not an utter mess. This Saturday, however, he went a bit quicker than usual and he didn’t bother putting the groceries on the shelves when he returned home, dropping everything on the kitchen counter instead. He had dusted and vacuumed, because he disliked dust profoundly, but he should still mop and wipe the bathroom and kitchen. He also disliked having soap scum and water marks on the shower and sink, but he could live with them.

Then he went to look at his shelves and took the Guide to the British and Irish Wizarding Pubs. He looked up the entry for Dorset and then the pubs in Weymouth that were connected to the floo network. Puddlemere was located east of Dorchester but, as it is often the case with the coast, the life and the money were by the sea, in Weymouth, and that’s where the late Corridan had his residence.

Of course Percy didn’t know where exactly in Weymouth. All he had was a photo from The Prophet and the intuition that it would be near the sea. The man owned one of the most successful Quidditch teams in the country, of course he lived in a house looking at the sea. It was that or an old castle.

Once he arrived in Weymouth, Percy found the house by using the very analytic and highly intellectual method of walking along the coast path looking at the newspaper clipping until he found the right house, which happened to be right by the end. Percy’s feet hurt because he had not brought the proper shoes for this, like an idiot. Nobody had told him that this detective work would involve walking. Usually in the wizarding mystery stories the intelligent and sagacious wizard figured it out because he had recognised the wand wood of one of the suspects. (Anything with oak or dragon string was a sure sign of guilt. Everybody knew that wands with a dragon string core were drawn to the Dark Arts.) Another popular trope was the patronus that from afar looked like a big dog but later turned out to be a lion thus pointing at the humble and brave hero who had previously recued someone in secret. This was invariably discovered during a gentle stroll in a garden.

Nobody spent their Saturdays morning combing through a city in search of a house, was the point.

He supposed it wasn’t strictly necessary to have come to Weymouth. He had planned to, back when he thought that someone must have entered the house while Oliver was there and waited for him to leave before murdering Corridan. Percy had intended to look for any signs of entry around the house, but he didn’t have to anymore. He knew how the murderer had gotten inside, didn’t he?

Still, he needed to see the place. See the street and the houses around, the lamp posts and the rubbish bins. The house was locked with magic wards, but Percy could walk all the way to the top step and look at the nice ornate eaves that hung over the door and offered shelter from the rain. He could look at the garden, beautiful and lush. Wasn’t the gardener the one who found the body? It was obvious that someone was tending it and that they were being well paid. Even in November the place was full of flowers. It was a magnificent garden.

He turned around, looking for the house of Mrs Portman and the window from which she saw Oliver leave the house that fateful night. It could either be the one up on the first floor or the one of what he supposed was the living room on the ground floor. She had said something about a cat, and in fact there was a tabby one and a white one perched over the stone hedge. She had also mentioned something about the rubbish bins. Percy looked for those. She would have been looking at them, not at Corridan’s door.

He descended the short stairs slowly, his eyes fixed on the house across the street. He stopped when he got to the border of Corridan’s front garden and gave a step back, then he started walking again, still looking at the house. A seagull screamed at him and Percy jumped, startled. It was a real seagull, not an imaginary one, and it was terrible.

He had to take three more steps before reaching the lamppost on the street.

Mrs Portman, Percy decided, must have a very long neck. Something in the vicinity of fifty centimetres. Corridan’s door wasn’t visible from the top window, the angle was too narrow and the door itself was obscured by the eaves and the taller plants. The rosebush and the two hedges presented similar problems for the ground floor window unless she had her head almost touching the ceiling of the room.

Alternately, she had seen someone come out of Corridan’s beautiful garden and walk up the street, passing under the lamppost. That would be well lighted, right in her line of sight, and wouldn’t require a monstrous neck.

Percy liked to walk, even if today he had brought the wrong shoes. He liked the short walks to and from work and to the library or muggle London. He was the only wizard he knew who did that, the only one. Alice, from the office, thought that it was beautifully ironic that the de facto head of the Department of Transportation preferred walking to places. She had a postcard on her desk that said “walk, dammit!”

Anyone coming out of Corridan’s house would have had around three metres of shadows in which to disapparate before reaching the street and the lamppost light and the zone where good Mrs Portman could see them. Instead, they, this person wearing Oliver’s face, had chosen to walk all the way to the street and then turn right.

There was nothing to the right. Five more houses and then the end of the town. Percy could see it from here. A stone marker, a muggle sign, a few trees. Even the muggle bus stop was across and to the left. There was absolutely nothing of interest in that direction.

Except the lamppost, of course.

Percy walked to the end of the street and of Weymouth. The smell of the sea wasn’t as strong as he had expected, almost as if winter had muted it together with the sun. He noticed the smell more as soon as he apparated outside his apartment and was assaulted by the comparatively drier and hotter air of London.

He let himself inside in silence and went to put away the groceries he had neglected earlier. Some lettuce, a bag of oranges, bread. He was hungry and didn’t feel like cooking. He was thinking that he had to step into Muggle London in any case, and he had enough muggle money in the drawer by the door that he could get lunch there.

Something that the wizarding world hadn’t perfected or even begun to explore was good take-away food. It was all pea soup and kidneys and onions with them and while that was good and nice it was not a bag of chips, hot and salty and soft in the middle and sometimes that was just what one needed. There was, as far as Percy knew, just one fish & chips vendor in a smelly corner of Diagon Alley and the quality was very poor. Muggle London, on the other hand, had thousands on offer. He and Ron were big fans.

So Percy went out and got himself a shawarma with hummus and chips. In the shop next door he got a big box of Maltesers, although that wasn’t for him. He had a late lunch back in his apartment. He ate while staring at the wall and the constellations there instead of reading as he usually did. It wasn’t a bad thing because his fingers were oily and he would have stained the book.

He was thinking that any good lawyer should be able to argue reasonable doubt based solely on the sheer irrationality and stupidity of Oliver’s supposed behaviour. That ought to force the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol to look more deeply into it to gather evidence against Oliver and while doing that they were bound to find something pointing at the true murderer. It was their job, after all. Surely they would find something even if Percy hadn’t found anything else.

         Sure, sure

Percy was feeling rather down, however. He had acquired even more arguments to support his idea that Oliver didn’t do it and that was pretty good. But the fact that he seemed to be the first person to notice or care was very disheartening. It seemed so obvious, too!

He is so fucked.

         Language.

No, but the Patrol should have seen it and asked questions.

Also, not allowing Oliver’s mother to visit him was just cruel. What a Gorgon’s Nest was that? It reminded Percy of how the Ministry was run under Fudge and Thicknesse and he didn’t like it.

ooOoo

He had meant to inspect the ring the goblin with violet eyes had given him. To at least do the very basic checks that it wasn’t cursed. Not that he thought or expected it to be cursed but Percy’s little sister had been possessed by what looked like a perfectly ordinary notebook and rings were never fully ordinary. He had to check it, he meant to do it, but he didn’t.

Instead he thought some more about what he had seen that day and what awaited him tomorrow, argued with the voices that it wasn’t hopeless to try and help Oliver, and read a bit of the library book he had gotten on Wednesday. Something about people going to the North Pole, of all places, to achieve fame which seemed stupid because one couldn’t expect to find much of anything at either pole. The North Pole was surprisingly populated, though, and now there was a man talking extensively about his experiments. Percy found it all distressing and it seeped into his dreams, people making awful decisions, some of them wearing Percy’s face.

Percy was so scared, so, so scared, of causing the death of someone else.

ooOoo

Percy had Sunday free. Of course, being a young single wizard one could very well assume that he had all of his Sundays to himself to dispose of as he saw fit. That would be true, if it weren’t for a meddling bossy Frenchwoman. Bill didn’t mention her name at all and let them assume that it was all his idea, but Percy had heard better.

Fleur, for reasons known only to her (and maybe Bill), but probably good reasons since she seemed a very sensible young woman, had decided that Mr and Mrs Weasley should receive a visit from one of their children on Sunday, every Sunday. Something about stability and routine and maintaining family bonds. She also understood that, as much as the Weasleys loved their family, they also needed time apart and maybe that had been her objective all along, to get a guilt-free Bill willing to go hiking with her on weekends.

Bill had called them all to his cottage and they had sat down at his table and written their names on a calendar. Charlie was excused because he lived abroad, but when he came to the country he was forbidden from dicking around visiting friends. He had to spend at least half his time at the Burrow. Harry didn’t count, but Fleur added him in the margins as an emergency replacement so that the Weasleys wouldn’t go a Sunday with no visit.

At first it had felt like a punishment, but now, two years in, they all liked it. They only had to go once every five weeks, they had a clear schedule so they could prepare beforehand, and Mrs Weasley couldn’t kill them with guilt about how they never visited anymore.

It was Ginny’s turn today. Next would be Bill and the one after that, Percy. So today Mrs Weasley would complain about Ginny’s dating life now that it seemed she and Harry were being serious when they said it wasn’t working out. The next Sunday it would be Bill’s hair with a dose of veiled hints about children. The one after that she would tell Percy that he had to get out more and she would look sad, almost as if in preparation for the visit from George and Angelina. Percy was sure that she didn’t look sad with them because they were a lovely couple full of light. It was just that there was a gap. Fred had been nine minutes older.

In any case, even if Percy didn’t particularly like his visits to the Burrow, he was not the one with real cause for complaint (poor Ron). Mum hardly had any complaints or reasons to scold Percy and he could always have a chat with his father about muggle artefacts and Ministry regulation. Ron had to hear comments about not dating Hermione any more, his new job, the length of his hair, arguing with Harry, and unacceptable living arrangements.

So Percy had his Sunday free except today he did not. Today Percy was preparing for a far worse visit. Today he was going to face the Queen of Jibes, the Mother of Taunting, The One Who Belittles, She Who Will Disparage and Deride. And he was going there knowing that at soon as he stepped inside she would say, in one breath: “Percival, it has been a year and half since the wedding of Cassius. You are still single, I see. Are you Head of Department already or have you still not gotten a promotion? What a pity. How is your mother?”

And Percy would take all that and say, “Hello, Aunt Muriel.”

ooOoo

There were two wonderful things about Aunt Muriel. They were not wonderful in the sense of funny and amazing, but rather in the sense that one was filled with wonder and incredulity.

The first was that she was still alive despite being well over a hundred years old, alive and with her ability to recall names and gossip intact, mind you. The second, which Percy might be the only one to know, was her debilitating love of muggle confectionary and Maltesers in particular. Percy had shoved the box in her hands the moment she opened the door and she had been too pleased to say anything else beyond inviting him to come inside and take a seat. She might have mumbled that it was a pity that his mother wasn’t a Head of department and that Cassius was married while she accompanied him to the sitting room, but Percy was wise enough not to take it into account.

They had used her house as a safe place, back during the worst of the war, and even Kingsley Shacklebolt acquired a tone of dismay when he talked about it. Muriel was a perfect example of someone who could be a good person, generously offering her house and wealth to shelter them from the war, while also being utterly dreadful. You could be both. Percy had met Death Eaters who were charming and pleasant to be around, just the opposite of Aunt Muriel.

“It seems your sister won’t marry the Potter boy after all. Silly girl, that would had been a good marriage. I don’t know how she let him escape, the boy seems quite wet, although I suppose he is not completely gutless if he has killed a dark lord. Still, Ginevra won’t be getting better prospects and she is twenty-four now, isn’t she? Almost a spinster. I understand why Molly hardly ever visits. Seven children and only one married, and to a foreigner. I would be so embarrassed the mirrors would crack. Your hair is longer, child. You keep it back with hair grease, I don’t know why. It’s like pretending that you don’t have long hair when you do.”

At this point she stopped to take a breath and open the box of Maltesers that Percy had carefully wrapped in a tasteful silver paper.

Aunt Muriel was terrible, but there was also something great at the root of that terribleness. She knew, she remembered and she was accurate. She always had the right name and the right date. She wasn’t petty or small, was the point, mixing names and half-remembering events. She was a monster of gossip that had to be admired, just as dragons and sea snakes.

The funny thing was that Percy knew just how to treat her. The voices said that it probably took a monster to defeat another one which was a bit cruel, but those were the voices for you. Whatever it was, Percy dealt with her better than anyone else. He never bragged about it because it was far more sensible to keep that ability secret. Not even Ron knew.

Percy, it might have been mentioned before, was also blessed with a magnificent memory and he had developed a good eye for detail. He could meet Aunt Muriel step for step.

“It is the same haircut as Uncle Philip,” he said without hesitation. “I think he looks very elegant in that photo, the one with the white ferret.”

The photo wasn’t even in the living room where they were sitting. Aunt Muriel had to admit that it was a similar style and that Philip (nephew) looked very elegant in it. Nowadays people just didn’t know how to dress in style. Percy hummed in agreement and hoped there would be tea soon.

There was. Aunt Muriel complained a bit more about current fashion while she poured the milk before abruptly jumping back to the lack of new marriages in the Weasley family. Terrible, terrible thing, and they didn’t visit her enough to get an idea of what they had to offer so she could find and agreeable match that wasn’t very closely related.

“George has a girlfriend,” offered Percy because one had to make sacrifices when dealing with Aunt Muriel and it was better to sacrifice someone else. No qualms and no regrets. You didn’t have to be terrible like her but you had to be hard.

Aunt Muriel fell over the sacrifice like a prehistoric monster-god. Angelina Johnson: Half-blood, as if there weren’t any good witches from old families around. Although lately not even the old names could keep their prestige and dignity intact. Some were getting horizontal, Aunt Muriel had heard, boys and girls dollymopping for money and political favours. At least the Johnson girl was gainfully employed, wasn’t she? Girls nowadays were so attached to their jobs that they kept them even after marriage. It was embarrassing but not as embarrassing as those with a profession if Percy knew what she meant. Of course the girl wasn’t white, which was a pity, but you found them in all colours nowadays and at least she was British.

This is exhausting said a voice, an old one.

“What matters is that they do things right and don’t fall into cohabitation. At least William and the French girl did that right. Too many people think that just because there is a war going on we can stop following rules and live like the savages.”

Aunt Muriel paused briefly to pop a Malteser ball in her mouth. Percy sipped his tea and waited. This was a good moment to bring up the topic he wanted to discuss, but he knew Aunt Muriel, he understood how she worked. She was mean and abrasive but she was not stupid. If Percy spoke now, she would know he was after something and he would have to double the sacrifice. Better let her think that he had come to tell her about Angelina.

Percy waited patiently and let Muriel talk, listing all the things that were wrong with Angelina. (“She played Quidditch? She will look horrible in a wedding dress then. Thick arms.”) At the right moment Percy mentioned Philiphbert (different guy from Uncle Philip) who had emigrated to America and married a coloured woman, as they said back then. Therefore, Percy said, George and Angelina were hardly shocking or new as a couple and, as Aunt Muriel had pointed, she was British. Rather than taking this as a rebuke or, dare I say it, opposition, Aunt Muriel looked pleased. Percy had shown Knowledge Of The Family. He was worthy.

Talking with Aunt Muriel was a constant test of character and knowledge. The point of the test was to prove that Aunt Muriel was right and you knew nothing. However, once you understood that it was a test it became much easier. The trick was knowing that Aunt Muriel cheated and didn’t always say what she thought. She spoke and taunted just to see what people did and then judge their reactions.

And because she likes being above others.

Well, that too.

Aunt Muriel got up from her armchair and went to rummage in a cupboard in the corner. She returned soon after with a wooden box painted with flowers, full of papers. She ate another Malteser as she sat down and proceeded to show Percy that Nora (the black woman in question) was A Real Lady and Philiphbert couldn’t have done any better. Nora was smart, elegant, demure and, above all, she sent postcards like the ones the box contained. Even today, when she had to be nearly a hundred years old herself, she sent Aunt Muriel a postcard for Christmas and another on her birthday.

Percy was sure that having an ocean in between made keeping in touch much easier. He also suspected that Nora Marie Lestrange, née Barnett, was an Aunt Muriel of her own.

Philiphbert was a Lestrange?

How are we related to these people?

         We are related to everyone. Even the Dumbledores.

Not the Potters, though. I think that’s why she is so disappointed that Ginny and Harry didn’t work out.

Angelina Johnson wasn’t good enough. That was a fact. But if you agreed with the assessment or failed to defend her then you would be far worse. Worse than Cousin Berta, even. How dare you let Aunt Muriel win?

No wonder I’m good with her. You have to be crazy to follow this.

Exhausting repeated a weary voice. This was exhausting.

But Aunt Muriel was having a great time. As she got up to put the Nora box away, Percy noticed a stack of newspapers on a basket near the fireplace. The one for today was on the living room table, open. Percy could see the Sunday Strip, but he doubted that Aunt Muriel cared about the cartoons so she had probably been doing the crossword when Percy arrived.

This was the time. When she returned to her seat she noticed him (because Percy wanted her to and had let his eyes linger) looking at the newspapers and she began to talk about information today, which was better than during the war but only slightly so and how she preferred to get her news from the radio which was far more reliable. Also, the Ministry wasn’t paying attention to the important matters, as usual.

Percy hummed and nodded and slowly and carefully nudged the conversation towards crime and safety (much improved since the war, but still) and let Aunt Muriel talk about the supposed dangers a frail old lady like herself faced; about Bathilda Bagshot who was killed at her home; about that Horrible Crone that was Augusta Longbottom (one day Percy was coming to visit just so he could get the whole story of that animadversion) who had to flee her house due to crime (never mind that it was during the worst of the war). And at last, at last, she focused on the dangers of the house, that sacred place of solace and refuge, and how people were being murdered in them, look at the Potters.

“Or that rich gentleman,” Percy said in a tone that had no intention whatsoever. “Wenzel Corridan.”

Tides stopped. The current of rivers paused as Aunt Muriel inhaled and shifted on her seat. This was a New and previously Untouched topic to discuss.

Percy grabbed his teacup tighter, smiled, and let the wave of gossip wash over him.

ooOoo

That evening while Percy prepared his lunch for the next day and the one after that, he had to cast muffliato and put on earplugs and even then he could hear the frantic steps of someone running down a metal spiral staircase with occasional whispers from behind a locked door thrown in for fun. Oh, and a seagull too.

This was all because of Aunt Muriel. He was glad he had gone to see her, she had given him everything he wanted, but he was exhausted. Tired physically and mentally.

Maybe the crazy comes from the Lestrange side.

         Bellatrix was born a Black though.

I’m sure we are related to them too.

Aunt Muriel, however tiring, should be included in all procedures regarding crimes and investigations. She was a fountain of knowledge and –  with Bathilda Bagshot dead – the oldest witch in Britain, something that made her inordinately proud. Now that she had achieved that title, she would never die, Percy was sure.

Compared to yesterday, when he only confirmed what he already knew, today had been a very fruitful day. Percy had learned lots of things he didn’t know, and they were useful and interesting things.

Wenzel Corridan was known for being the owner of the Puddlemere, but he also had shares in a line of Quidditch robes, owned two or three houses and a company based on the Isle of Wight. No one was sure what it was supposed to do and Aunt Muriel couldn’t even hazard a guess. Percy could, though, and his guess was “tax evasion.”

Corridan was pure-blood in a very recent way, as Aunt Muriel put it. Both of his parents were wizards born of wizards. Born of witches would be more accurate, actually. His grandparents, however, were half-bloods and muggle-borns. When your grandfather grew in a muggle house believing he was going to become a dock worker, you were not pure-blood at all.

Corridan had married, something that evidently everyone had forgotten because there was no mention of his widow in the papers – which proved, once again, how little everybody knew of everyone else and how important nice old ladies like Aunt Muriel were for society. The wife was a foreigner, a Russian witch, or maybe Polish. Pale and skinny and blonde, she was a beautiful woman who looked like a murderous swan. All the women from those countries looked the same. She had given Corridan a son, Dusan, although it might have had some of those funny symbols foreigners added on top of their letters.

In any case, the marriage didn’t last long. Apparently Mrs Corridan (Ruzena Something-ova) didn’t approve of her husband’s constant infidelities, so she took her son and left the country. Corridan behaved like a true knave and barely gave her any money which was shameful. Not that Aunt Muriel approved of divorce, because she did not, but she also understood that if your spouse decided that they couldn’t stand you and they would rather live on the coast of France, then you had to pay to support them. Married, but in different countries. That was the how things were done and what was proper.

Really, Wenzel Corridan was a character and that was the truth. He never outright claimed to be a pure-blood, but he gave himself airs. He was also very attached to his money, to the point he might get nasty about it. None of this was different from how many other actual pure-blood wizards acted, including having a shameful secret to hide.

(Here Aunt Muriel made a pause to say that the Weasleys were the only ones who flaunted their shames and Percy realised that nobody knew about Ginny being possessed by a piece of the Dark Lord and maybe they were actually better at this than everyone.)

In Corridan’s case the secret was a woman named Elaine. Funnily, she was not his lover but his sister. A decent witch and pretty enough. She had married a muggle, which in her case was all right because her grandparents were muggle-born. At least she had a daughter and was still married to the muggle. Aunt Muriel approved.

Of course, things had become a bit difficult for her during the war. Her daughter was a witch, but that meant very little back then. Witch or squib, if your father was a muggle you were in trouble either way, look at that poor girl, Dora, and she was an Auror. Elaine had had to take her family and move to the continent and evidently she had expected more support from her brother, who didn’t even pay for the bus fare. They had a spat and the sister left swearing she wasn’t talking to him ever again.

Aunt Muriel knew all this because she knew the people who had helped them get away from England. Aunt Muriel also had opinions of people who didn’t help family during times of war, and they were some of the more scathing opinions Percy had ever heard her proffer. Really, in comparison all her usual nagging criticism seemed like gentle corrections. She was also very foul mouthed in her thoughts. Sons of bitches was said many, many, times.

Perhaps Corridan was feeling lonely (over 50 and no family who would talk to him) or maybe he had developed some guilt over the years, or maybe it was just a last insult to his sister. In any case, rumours said that he had included his niece in his will, giving her as much as he could give that didn’t rightfully belong to his son. Not a small sum for either of them, that was for sure. Even if Corridan were to squander all of his personal wealth, there would still be a handsome inheritance thanks to Puddlemere United and the associated business.

So here Percy was looking at his soup. He couldn’t remember what kind of soup it was, but it would do. Tomorrow’s lunch was ready and so was dinner.

He now had at least four possible suspects. Two women who could have killed Corridan out of hate and a young man and woman who could kill out of greed. Four people who might have taken their time and prepared well and made sure that suspicions would fall somewhere else. Four people who directly or indirectly benefited from Corridan’s death.

Inside Percy’s head the steps were still descending the stairs as if they were fleeing from someone or something. There were wind-swept papers and something dragged over a stone pavement, steps over gravel and the soft susurrus of a cape shaken by the wind. There was also a voice. Someone was whispering insistently from behind a locked door. Someone small and cold and frantic that had been whispering all evening. After a while the words became clearer.

Danger the voice said.

Danger. Danger. Danger.

 

ooOoo

IV

The last Tuesday of the Month

ooOoo

 

Percy’s lunch on Monday was sad and disappointing. The rest of the day wasn’t much better, but Percy judged his days based on his lunches. It was a good measuring system although today’s mark was not. His soup was cold, his salad soggy and warm and he had to eat them while he worked (which he despised) because he had used his lunch break to go see Mr Fullerton, Oliver’s lawyer.

Good points of the day: He had scared Fullerton into submitting a polyjuice defence to the tribunal. People barely bothered with them anymore because at some point polyjuice defences had become everybody’s go-to excuse so tribunals tended to dismiss them by default unless they were accompanied with a nice irrefutable alibi with trustworthy witnesses. Of course, the defence of choice for crimes committed during the war was the imperius curse which had about a fifty percent of a chance of being accepted.

(It had been accepted with Thicknesse until Harry and Ron arrested a couple of fugitive Death Eaters who put them on the track of a third wizard who knew all about Thicknesse’s previous interest in blood supremacy and was happy to testify about it in exchange for two years shaved off his sentence. Even then Thicknesse’s punishment had been lighter than average in Percy’s opinion.)  

When Percy had left Fullerton’s law office the man had looked ruffled and anxious but also energetic and excited because he’d had no idea of which direction to go and now he had a plan. Fullerton, a Ravenclaw of indeterminate age (could be just past thirty, could be well past forty), was one of those people with intelligence but no wisdom or sagacity. He had given Percy the impression that he knew the law and knew it well, but he had no idea of what to do with his knowledge.

Percy had given him a list. He watched over him while Fullerton wrote and Percy wondered if he was making a man fifteen years his senior write his homework or if he was just a couple of years older. At least his handwriting was neat and he didn’t make spelling mistakes.

Fullerton’s list of things to do said:

1) Argue polyjuice defence and file for Oliver’s release.

2) Argue partial and unjust application of law regarding the prohibition of Mrs Wood’s visiting her son.

3) Argue an investigation bias, given that they hadn’t even interrogated the four other possible suspects. Oh, how they picked the handsome half-blood with honest brown eyes just because he was seen there! (This last note was made by Mr Fullerton, who was a good man after all and maybe that’s why he wasn’t a better lawyer.)

Bad points of the day: Percy didn’t have time to eat his lunch, so he had to do it over his work. He had stained a report with some drops of vinegar. This has already been discussed.

Terrible points of the day: As expected, The Dreaded Interdepartmental Meeting on Friday caused a new chain of problems. They agreed to things they shouldn’t have agreed to and they confused rules with regulations. They were getting queries about flyer safety and the economic impact for British broommakers if they were to follow the new European regulation and the effect it would have on owls and other creatures from three or four different departments.

Euterpe’s boyfriend had been banned from coming to visit her, not because of the dwarf malquash incident but because Creature Control was being a pest (ha!) with their queries about owls. Owls had been sharing the same airspace with broomsticks for a while and seemed to be doing fine but it appeared to be a concern now. Alice was thinking about murder even more than usual for her and she had also run out of chocolate. Judith was being terrible and stressing everyone out. She made Wynfor cry again and Miranda snapped at her which in turn made Judith say that she was mean. Reg was hiding in the supply closet so he could work in peace.

Hopeful points of the day: Tomorrow was the last Tuesday of the month and he would have dinner with Ron. Ron seemed to be one of the sanest persons in the whole world, so Percy was looking forward to seeing him.

That evening Percy forgot again to check whether he now owned a cursed ring or what. He read two more pages of the North Pole book and had to set it aside because now it was talking about someone dying and someone else going slightly bonkers and trying to bring them back to life and it just – It was too close. He could see how this young man was going to make a series of awful decisions with catastrophic consequences, but he could understand.

If Percy hadn’t been so broken with grief, so dulled and dampened, if the grip guilt had on him hadn’t been so paralyzing, he could see himself going down a similar path. He could see himself turning into a monster like Voldemort all because he wanted to gain power over death.

He just wanted to have Fred back. To have once chance to erase his mistake.

Percy, he knew, should never be allowed near a time turner.

ooOoo

To this day, people still commented on Ron’s eating habits with disgust. That was pretty unfair because Ron knew to chew with his mouth closed and he didn’t make any mess eating soup. The comments most likely came from the fact that a skinny guy like him ate like a maniac who had just escaped from prison and crossed a desert. If he at least were a bit fat, people would tolerate it better, but Ron ate and ate and never seemed to gain any weight. It all went to height, it would seem.

Percy didn’t mind because Percy was the same. Tall, lean frame, bony elbows and ankles just like their father. He (like Ron, but strangely not like Arthur) also had a voracious appetite that put fear in the hearts of men. He thought the base of his friendship with Oliver at Hogwarts was that since the moment they turned fourteen onwards they both needed an extra meal between lunch and dinner.

Oliver had also introduced him to the other elevensies, which was the small snack taken after dinner so they didn’t wake up in the middle of the night with hunger. Percy had always liked that time. It was a time just for the two of them. They would sit on the stairs to the boys dormitories so as to not wake up anyone with the noise of their voices and they would share a handful of nuts and a piece of bread or a small fruit and they would talk.

It hadn’t been quiet but it had been peaceful.

When Percy and Ron couldn’t help it – when Ron had been in Auror training or with a difficult mission; when they had just implemented the new floo network and everybody had been on tenterhooks about it – they had quick improvised meals in Percy’s apartment or right there in the shop where they got the food. The point then was to meet and keep the long and uninterrupted series of dinners; the food and even the conversation was secondary to the need to not let it fall, to be there. But when they had time, oh then they did it right. They had dinner sitting down and asked for two sides and dessert.

Ron had asked for the baked potato and salad. Percy had gotten chips and a bowl of cabbage and bacon. They both had big steaks on their plates and the waitress had raised her eyebrows when she put the plates in front of them.

“So how are things at the shop?” Percy asked, half of his chips already gone. “You were inventing a… pink… gum.”

Ron, a third of the steak eaten plus half the baked potato, stared at Percy.

“Is it that bad?” asked Ron.

“What?”

“I know that tone,” Ron said, which was annoying because since when had Ron become so observant? He certainly wasn’t so perceptive with anything or anyone else. He had been surprised when he and Hermione broke up for good, for Merlin’s sake.

Percy sighed and ate two forkfuls of the cabbage thing.

“They want to introduce new broomstick regulations and it is a mess and every department wants to have its say. Everyone in the office hates each other and one of my charms casters spends half the day in the bathroom crying. Health and Safety filed a complaint against us. I think we may be going to war against the guys from Creature Control.”

“Oh, Merlin.”

“And I went to talk to Oliver the other day,” Percy added. It felt good having everything out. Everything except his visit to Aunt Muriel, of course. Percy had a mental clock counting down to the moment when she would write either to Mum or to George demanding to know when they had stopped considering her part of the family to the extent that they hadn’t introduced her to Angelina yet.

“Percy,” Ron said, sounding a lot like Bill when he had discovered any of them doing something they were not supposed to do. Bill would keep your secret from Mum, but he would also chastise you himself.

“He didn’t do it, Ron.”

“Oh, Percy.”

But the good thing about Ron was that he had grown to be very accepting. He certainly wasn’t like that when he was a child, desperately clinging to his things, getting upset whenever something changed and distrusting what he didn’t know. Of course if he had been too tolerant and acquiescent back then the twins would have eaten him alive with a side of potatoes so it was perfectly understandable that Ron preferred things to be a certain way. Over time, however, Ron had become much more broadminded. Percy was certain that it all had to do with Harry. They became friends, and Ron just began to accept everything with barely a shrug.

It was nice when Ron was, like, defending werewolves like poor Professor Lupin or not freaking out because his friend was a parseltongue. It was less nice when, for example, he asked Percy what had he inherited from Rufus Scrimgeour.

“What?” Percy had said, while in his mind rose an echo of voices going what? What? What did he say? Rufus? what?

“They say that he and you…”

They said that the late Minister of Magic Rufus Rutilius Scrimgeour had had a torrid and passionate affair with his Junior Assistant, Percival Ignatius Weasley. The rumour had later evolved into a one-sided love on the part of Scrimgeour. Percy might not have returned the affections of the Minister, but Scrimgeour had burned with love in silence and put him in his will.

“He once threatened to choke me with my own cravat because I used the word elucubrate,” Percy had said when Ron told him about it. A war hero he might have been, but Scrimgeour was not an intellectual. Percy had also heard him speak with disgust of those who “engaged in buggery” as if they were still in the times of Ulick Gamp.

But Ron had asked because, well, it could be, never mind what Scrimgeour said in public. It could be, just as Severus Snape had turned out to be working for Dumbledore all along. You never knew what was going on in people’s private lives.

Ron might accept that Oliver was innocent when Percy said so, but it was a hollow acceptance with easy conviction behind it. It was the same as how he easily accepted when the papers said that Oliver was guilty.

“I talked to him and to his lawyer,” Percy went on a bit defiant. He didn’t know why but it was important to not only to look into Oliver’s case but to defend him, too, to say in public and out loud that he believed in his innocence. “It wasn’t him. I really think it was polyjuice.”

“Polyjuice?” Ron had finished the steak and the potato and was turning to his salad. “That’s what they always say. It’s never polyjuice.”

I have taken polyjuice, came the thought, like the ripple in a pond.

“But it could be,” Percy insisted.

“It could be,” Ron conceded, and now spoke Ron the ex-Auror. “But it usually isn’t because it is harder to brew that most people think. It takes over a month! And some of the ingredients are very hard to come by.”

I should know, the thought added.

“Ron.”

“The recipe is under restriction, but really just the difficulty alone of the brew is a good enough deterrent.”

“Ron.”

“Even during the war it was hardly used, and you would think Death Eaters had the time and resources to prepare it.”

“Ron, have you at any point brewed polyjuice?” Percy asked firmly. “And I include Hermione in that you,” he added quickly.

Ron was very interested in hunting down a cherry tomato with his fork. Percy didn’t need to hear his thoughts to know that the answer was a strong yes.  

“Merlin’s balls, Ron. When was this? Was it in your third year? So Harry could go to Hogsmeade even when Black was hunting him down?”

“Oh, that would have been a good idea!” Ron rose his head, but he frowned immediately. “But, no, the effects last around an hour. By the time he arrived there he would have looked like himself again. Although professor Moody was polyjuiced the whole year after that. Well, not Moody, but you know what I mean.”

Percy was impressed. His expression, however, was extremely unimpressed.

“When was this?”

“During the Triwizard Tournament, of course.”

“Ronald.” Percy grabbed the dessert menu and held it against his chest. Ron didn’t deserve any.

“We might have gotten in our heads that Draco Malfoy was behind the attacks when Ginny… you know.”

Percy stared some more.

“So we brewed the polyjuice and Harry and I got inside the Slytherin common room to ask but Draco knew nothing about it.”

The dessert menu returned to the table, but on Percy’s side. Second year. His baby brother had brewed an illegal potion when he was twelve.

“We used it during the war of course,” Ron went on. Evidently he didn’t realise the absurdity that three teenagers had used something that Death Eaters found difficult to acquire. “When we got Harry out of the muggle house. Moody and Kingsley brought that batch. And later when we infiltrated the Ministry to get the locket. That was so stressful, Harry’s identity turned out to be a Death Eater and I had a wife. And a few months later Hermione pretended to be Bellatrix Lestrange so we could get inside Gringotts.”

I have no idea why I ever considered Ron to be the sane one.

         Who else is there? The dragon lover?

Am I the sane one?

                   All right, all right, let’s not get too carried away here.

Insane! – that voice was particularly venomous. Maybe it was the cabbage – Completely mental. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong in the head.

“In retrospect,” Ron said, furrowing his brow and everything. “I think we might have planned things better.”

The dessert menu was pushed to the middle of the table. Ron grabbed it with sparkling eyes and Percy heard an echo that wondered whether to get cheesecake or something with chocolate.

“I think the hardest part is getting the ingredients,” Ron said casually as he looked at the menu. “Boomslang skin and horn of bicorn. Very rare, and the boomslang skin is restricted. You need a special license to buy it and they will put your name on a registry.”

“So people can’t simply buy the ingredients and brew the potion themselves even if they know how,” Percy said immediately. He had already decided on peach cobbler himself.

“That’s the idea. There is always theft, of course.” Here a voice whispered Hermione’s name and it couldn’t be – surely Ron or Harry would steal ingredients, not Hermione.

Of course, no one would suspect her so she was the best choice. Ron kept talking, completely unconcerned by Hermione’s criminal career.

“There are always apothecaries willing to sell some stuff under the counter. But it is very risky. You never know if the apothecary will report you to the Ministry. It is also way more expensive, we are talking big galleons here, and they might sell you something else. Plus the Auror Department always keeps an eye on them.”

All Percy was hearing was that it was possible. Difficult, yes, and expensive, but possible.

“That reminds me,” he said. “Harry wrote to Oliver.”

He left the sentence like that, short and simple. You never knew with Ron whether he was angry with Harry again or not. Truly, Percy hadn’t ever known a pair of friends who argued more than those two. There had been a time, about a year and half ago when Harry and Ginny broke up for good and Ron threw a huge tantrum over it, when Percy noticed that Ron was worried. He reassured Ron telling him that if they fought so much it was because they were sure of their friendship. When you are not sure and want to keep it forever, you don’t say certain things, you are less honest. But he and Harry fought and said hurtful truths because they knew that when the steam blew over and the waters receded they would still be tight and close friends.

It didn’t mean that at any time Ron might not declare Harry the Biggest Idiot that Ever Lived and also a Butthead.

“He is not supposed to return until January,” Ron said. So apparently they were not fighting at the moment. “Something to do with dementors appearing up north.”

“He seemed very adamant about returning.”

Ron smiled and in that instant it was easy to see why they were still friends despite how hard it was at times. That absolute and blind trust, that fondness for the defects of the other that were also virtues, like dropping everything and diving head first to help a friend.

“It wouldn’t make a difference,” Ron said, and then he interrupted himself because they were bringing their dessert and he had to breath in the smoking hot chocolate cake.

“They didn’t use a killing curse,” he explained later, when he had eaten half the cake and he could go slower. “It is a bad and sad thing, but there is nothing dark about it. Auror intervention is for Dark Arts only. If they had used a curse, even if it wasn’t avada kedravra, they might had argued that it was dark magic and the Aurors could intervene. But it was a knife wasn’t it?”

Percy nodded. “A knife or something like it. They haven’t found the weapon.”

“In that case it is all for the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol. They used to be in charge of disappearances, even when Voldemort was alive and everybody knew there were Death Eaters behind those disappearances. No dark magic, no Aurors.”

There should really be a restructuring of the department of magical law enforcement.

         Shut up, you. Shut up. Transportation is enough. I am not taking over a second department.

Yes, but it would be good.

                            Erase the division between dark, non-dark and misuse.

They weren’t too far from Diagon Alley and the Wizarding District so after they left the muggle restaurant (Percy paid because he was better with muggle money) they returned walking. There was a flat over the W.W.W. shop and an empty room there, but Ron had never occupied it. It was one of those things. They had all mourned and gotten over their grief and these days George smiled most of the time and they could say that he was happy. But there were still things that one could not do, like taking over Fred’s room. Besides, George was dating Angelina now and he liked having some privacy.

Ron’s living arrangements were as rocky and ever-changing as the rest of his career. First at Harry’s while they trained for the Auror Academy together, a few ill-advised months with Hermione that led to their first break-up, some weeks back at the Burrow, then a shared flat with Seamus Finnigan, a Ravenclaw called Anthony and a fourth boy who worked as a translator in the Ministry and might not even be British. Then a couple of changes in addresses and flatmates. Percy could only remember that Neville Longbottom was with them for a few months and also someone called Zacharias Smith who was something like the second Dark Lord given how Ron spoke of him. And now the current situation which had Ron, Seamus and Anthony the Ravenclaw (who was working in the Ministry and Percy was sure they had crossed paths but he still didn’t know his last name) but no fourth flatmate.

In comparison, Percy seemed greedy having a whole apartment to himself. No wonder people believed the Scrimgeour inheritance story. But Percy’s salary as a Junior Assistant to the Ministry had been very handsome, higher than what he was making now, and he had been fresh out of the Burrow and used to not spending on anything ever. He had mended cuffs and darned socks so not only he could afford to live alone, he had been able to buy the place.

Ron should be able to afford a bigger place now, one with fewer roommates. But Percy thought that his brother just liked the company. It could be very lonely, when you have grown up with so many siblings.

“All right, Perce,” Ron said on the corner where they parted ways.

“Good night, Ron.”

“See you at Christmas, next. But we are still doing Last Tuesday on December.”

“Oh, absolutely.”

There was some fog wetting their cheeks and the tips of their noses and their hair. Percy went for a handshake, as he always did, and Ron batted his hand away and gave him a hug, as he always did. It was a fun ritual now, but there had been a time when it wasn’t.

And how the voices did scream back then, at the batted hand, at the hug.

ooOoo

While he was preparing his breakfast the next morning Percy dropped and broke his favourite mug. He could fix it easily with a quick reparo (it was only when the spell stopped working that the Weasley household thought about replacing an item) but he just knew it was going to be a difficult day.

He was bored already with the new European Broomsticks Regulations and they were far from reaching an agreement. And that was before they submitted anything to the European Council. Now the local broommaker companies were understandably starting to pressure all departments to make a decision already, preferably one that would mean few changes for them and would heavily tax foreign manufacturing. Someone from the Treasury had come to ask about it, but thankfully he had taken a look and thought better of it, leaving without a word. Reg gave an impromptu fifteen minutes rant over the difference between “burst” and “blast” of air that kept being used wrong in the memos. The whole office stopped to listen.

Percy liked Reg for his attention to detail and because the late Rufus Scrimgeour would have murdered him with his own two hands.

Speaking of murders, The Prophet announced with delight that Oliver’s defence was arguing polyjuice. The text was gleefully full of venom, although since it was signed by Magda Marlowe the venom was evenly directed everywhere. First to Oliver, who of course was saying that he didn’t do it and it was someone using polyjuice, but also to the Wizarding Patrol in charge of the investigation for not looking into a “niece overcome by greed and revenge, her thoughts influenced by a mother full of spite.” There was also a column about the former Mrs Corridan, photo included of a solemn and beautiful blonde woman, stating that she had been seen recently on their island.

All in all, it was… not bad. Oliver didn’t look good, there was the suggestion that he had been seduced by the niece to do the deed which was still damning, but at least the piece asked questions and provided other theories beyond Oliver Did It For Sure.

Percy suspected that Fullerton, the lawyer, had contacted Marlowe and told her about the other candidates. He wasn’t sure what to think about it. It was a bold and clever move, but also dangerous. Perhaps she had contacted Fullerton first, asking for a quote, and he had made the best of the situation. That was more plausible and in that case he had done very well. Magda Marlowe was a snake.

She was like Rita Skeeter, but much more. She was younger and prettier and maybe she wasn’t blonder because she cultivated an image of Bookish (and plucky) Brunette, but she had bigger boobs.

(Percy didn’t pay much attention to breasts, but they were very evident in every picture of her. Not to say that Skeeter hadn’t used some low-cut robes in her time.)

But those were just surface details. As much as Skeeter payed attention to her appearance, what made her unique and successful as a journalist was the way she turned words around as well as her keen sense of smell for blood. Magda had even more of a hunter instinct. She prowled and watched and when she jumped she went for the neck and dragged her prey down. She used adjectives like someone of little understanding with a thesaurus, choosing words more by how they sounded than by what they meant, but her style was easy to read and gave the impression of being refined even when it wasn’t.

She was also – and this was probably the biggest difference between Marlowe and Skeeter – working for The Prophet.

Skeeter was not.

Not that The Quibbler was bad, not now anyways. It used to be fun and silly but when they published Skeeter’s interview with Harry the magazine earned a well-deserved reputation as An Alternative. Even more during the war, when Lovegood fought against the Ministry’s pressure for months. They had to kidnap his daughter to make him change his editorial line. That will give a patina of honesty to any paper. Their research articles were much improved too. So much so that Marlowe’s leather satchel and thick black glasses couldn’t compete for that aura of true journalism that The Quibbler had.

But The Prophet was published daily while The Quibbler was a weekly magazine. If you wanted to get the news out quickly, The Prophet was the way to go.

It was just that Marlowe could quickly turn against you and write a full page in your blood. Skeeter, too, but she was older and had grown cautious. She thought through it well before betraying someone these days. She had already experienced losing all her friends and allies.

ooOoo

That evening two of the exits were closed for maintenance and it took them half an hour before they could all leave the Ministry. Wynfor, gentle giant that he was, had to physically restrain Alice from assaulting Herbert Benfield, Head of Security. People were cranky and Percy got a headache behind his eyes from listening to them.

He forewent his walk home and apparated directly there so he could grab his book, read the last five pages right away, and return it to the library. It was a relief, to be honest. Percy didn’t need to read about people with good intentions making terrible mistakes and monsters feeling lonely and losing all sense of perspective and hubris. It all hit too close and made Percy think of what might have been and, what was worse, of the mistakes he could still make, of not helping Oliver and making things worse.

On impulse he got a book on goblin goldsmithing knowing that most likely he wouldn’t get to read it and even if he did he would understand very little.

ooOoo

Many, many things happened over the next couple of days, things that started on Wednesday. Percy had a headache almost constantly. On Thursday he forgot to bring his lunch and the voices wouldn’t let him fall asleep at night.

The most important thing was that all of them – International Cooperation, Games and Sport and, of course, Transportation, – finally managed to approve a proposal for the bloody broomstick regulations. Such a simple sentence when read like that, but it had taken hours and tears and Percy worried that Alice might come one day and burn down the whole building. Also Judith was nit-picking when it was least useful to be and criticising everyone for not working as much as her.

(Alice was going to burn the place with all of them inside, Percy just knew.)

There were other things. People were talking about Oliver’s case constantly, hence Percy’s headache and the way the voices were all riled up. The Magical Law Enforcement Patrol finally seemed to find a lever big enough with which to unstick their heads from their collective asses and started to investigate. Corridan’s niece, a petite girl who was also called Alice, was found and interrogated on Thursday. Marlowe wrote two pages on the case in the evening edition and described Alice as “a doe-eyed gentle creature with a shrewd mind.” Ruzena Kucera, the ex-wife, was “an ice princess” according to Marlowe. Nobody had managed to find the son yet, which was a pity because a wronged and abandoned son would make a splendid murderer.

And then the Wizarding Patrol decided to arrest Alice. Not his Alice, Alice White, they would never get her alive, but Alice Sudworth, the niece. They arrested her simply because she had a motive as good as Oliver’s. They didn’t investigate further. They didn’t search for the murder weapon or check if she had pressing debts and needed to speed up her inheritance. They didn’t release Oliver, either, now that it was obvious that the case was more complicated and that they shouldn’t be rushing their actions. The whole point of giving them more suspects had been to get Oliver released, force them to do some actual detective work and find the bloody murder weapon. Percy thought the murder weapon ought to be important in a murder case.

But no, they kept Oliver in his cell and accused Alice Sudworth of being an accessory to murder even though there was no proof that she and Oliver had ever crossed paths.

Percy had to go throw up in the bathroom while the voices rose around him with the sound of slamming doors and metal dragging over stone.

They yelled about failure, about making things worse, about how thanks to Percy two innocents were now in prison. They yelled about how Percy was like a curse, like the plague, bringing death and sorrow to everyone, a monster like the one in the book yearning to be in contact with humans when he was a danger to them and should go die instead.

About how he had killed Fred.

He had killed Fred.

He had killed Fred.

 

ooOoo

V

The Lestrange Look

ooOoo

 

Percival Ignatius Weasley, born 22 August under the sign of Leo, was a Gryffindor.

He had gotten Outstanding in all his OWLs and in ten of his twelve NEWTs. He had sat and passed every NEWT. That was something that merited its own sentence, passing twelve NEWTs. He had also redesigned a failing department and turned it into something good and profitable in which the workers were slightly less soul-dead than before.

But he was a Gryffindor, not a Ravenclaw.

He had created as many hindrances as he could think of against the totalitarian government of Voldemort and Thicknesse. He had lived and slept with a spy without eliciting the slightest suspicion. He had made contact with Aberfoth Dumbledore. He had hidden his madness from everyone.

But he was a Gryffindor, not a Slytherin.

He had kept living, despite all the voices telling him that he should end it, despite his own grief and heartbreak. There was some Gryffindor courage there and also a lot of Hufflepuff determination in how he kept going after Fred’s death. Just as he kept going even when he thought he was going completely mad.

But he was a Gryffindor, not a Hufflepuff.

Really, this house division was a bit stupid. Everybody had a bit of everything.

But Percy was a Gryffindor, just a Gryffindor, there was no doubt about it. Born under the sign of Leo and everything. Percy was a Gryffindor because after throwing up and rinsing his mouth he took a deep breath and left the bathroom. He didn’t return to his office (sod it, they had their stupid broomstick regulations already, nothing else was that urgent). He walked all the way to the lifts and took one to the ninth floor and then descended the stairs to the next level, the Wizengamot. He crossed through the doors and the long corridors and signed his name at the desk and went to the holding cells.

He stood before Alice Sudworth, who was indeed doe-eyed although he didn’t know yet if she had shrewd mind, and he apologised.

ooOoo

“I am terribly sorry,” Percy repeated. Alice Sudworth sniffled. Her nose was a bit red. “I promise, I will fix it,” he added with a chest that felt made of stone.

“Oh, My, God, Percy,” Oliver exclaimed again. He was angry. Or surprised, Percy didn’t know. Alice, on the other hand, was sweet and understanding. She had said “I understand” at least six times.

“You didn’t mean to,” she said now. Her voice was clear even though she still seemed about to cry. She shrugged her narrow shoulders. She looked so petite and vulnerable and Percy wanted to knock his own head against the wall. “You wanted to help. Nobody was helping Oliver.”

“I don’t need any help!” cried Oliver from the cell next door.

“Oh, hush. You so need help.” And in that moment there was something wooden and full of spark in Alice. Not wooden like someone still and stilted, but wooden like someone made of trees and strength and all the creatures living in the woods.

She turned to Percy again. “And I need help too. This is ridiculous. I feel like they are doing nothing, merely arresting whoever could have done it. I’m surprised the house elf isn’t here yet.” She had a nice voice, like a melody, and Percy felt even worse that such a nice girl was locked in a cell because of him. He didn’t know her as well as Oliver, but she didn’t seem guilty and Percy could usually tell right away if someone was honest or not.

He noticed, just now, that Alice Sudworth wasn’t particularly pretty. She had big brown eyes very much like Oliver, that was true, but everything else was a bit plain. Her lips could be fuller and redder, her cheeks rosier, her hair shinier, her nose smaller and a bit thinner. But when she spoke she seemed like a very beautiful creature. It was only when you looked at her closely that you realised that she was not.

Percy said once again that he would fix it and he would help. Oliver told him not to, sounding angry, and Percy could feel his own eyes growing wet. Alice was right. Nobody had helped, but maybe it would have been better if he hadn’t helped either. Percy’s touch was like rot. He had meant to show that the investigation was crooked and incomplete and obviously biased. He had meant to bring Oliver up and away from those holding cells, not to drag anyone else down.

         What does a creature like you know about light?

         Monster.

Stupid blue.

“Can – Can you do something for me?” asked Alice, and Percy took a few seconds to answer, like the hopeless idiot that he was, because he had been distracted by the voices going once again even more insane than usual. Not because of the name monster, he knew what that was about and that horrible book he had read didn’t help. It was the other madness.

Blue like a song. Blue is the colour of a song.

“Of course, of course. Anything,” he said quickly and desperately. Please ask something of me so I can do it and pay the price for my mistakes.

“Mum came to see me earlier,” Alice said softly. She sniffled once more. “But they didn’t let Dad come. I guess that’s all right. I don’t need to see him. But, you know, he has always been a big support for my Mum and if she is going to insist to come see me again, I would like him to be there. For her if not for me.”

The word was “stupor.” That’s what took over Percy. Even the voices grinding him down with the blue nonsense and the reminder that he was a failure who ruined everything stopped in surprise.

“You mean to tell me…”

“Yeah, my mother can’t come either,” Oliver said from his cell. He was resting his arms on the bars, looking hot and careless despite the situation. It looked as if he had only been there an hour rather than almost two weeks. Dear Merlin. Two weeks.

“I talked to your lawyer. I told him to raise a discrimination complaint.”

“He did,” Oliver said calmly. One shouldn’t sound so flippant when a government is obviously working against you. “She still wasn’t allowed to come.”

Blue is the colour of magic.

         REALLY NOT THE MOMENT. QUIT IT.

“If you will excuse me.”

Percy turned around without another word and walked to the exit. What in Merlin’s pants. What was that. What.

How dare they?

         I am incensed.

The bored wizard at the reception desk gave him the hours. They were open to visitors from 10 to 5 on weekdays. Saturdays they were not. Percy stared at him and apparently in that moment he sprouted some Lestrange characteristics because the wizard remembered, with a violent suddenness, that they were also there on Saturdays. Why did he say they were closed? They were not.

There was a witch with a strong smell of alcohol in one of the cells on the other side. Percy didn’t remember if she was the same one from the previous week. She was cackling and pointing at the wizard at the desk. She could see him from her cell. The dead-looking guard who was supposed to stay inside, by the cells, was nowhere to be found.

Percy was perfectly composed when he returned to the cells, but then again he was perfectly composed in every situation of his life.

“Could I have your address, Miss Sudworth?”

ooOoo

This isn’t all bad, said a voice as Percy made his way back to his office. The piece of parchment where he had written the Sudworth’s address was burning him through the fabric of his robe.

It is horrible, said another voice.

Horrible. Horrible. Horrible, chanted the others in chorus.

         I ruin everything, added another voice in singsong.

No, the first one said again, firmly. It was difficult to appreciate any different qualities in the voices. It was enough that he could tell apart the old and the young ones and tell where they were coming from. If he had to describe this one, he would say that it was red-brown.

No, said the red-brown voice. It is not horrible. Now we know. If Alice isn’t the killer…

Nice Alice.

Then it had to be the son.

         Such optimism you have.

But the voice had a point. If it wasn’t Alice, and it was hard to picture her as a murderer (you never know, though!) then it had to be Dusan Corridan-Kucera who would have an economic motive as well as an understandable grudge against Wenzel Corridan.

Now if only they knew where he was. Not even on the night of the murder, just now, generally. There had been a short extract in The Prophet saying that their tireless reporters had contacted Russian authorities but they hadn’t been able to provide any information on the young man. The short column was signed with initials, probably because Magda Marlowe didn’t want her name associated with such failure.

Percy took a very long time to get back home that day. He had to finish some work and send a couple of owls and wait for the answers and read sixty pages of the Ministry regulations. Fortunately he kept those in his office, all twenty-seven tomes, bound in a nice purple cloth.

(Huh. Maybe he had inherited something from Scrimgeour after all and he didn’t even blow the man.)

He also did his weekly shop because he wouldn’t be able to tomorrow, and realised with distaste that December started on Sunday and he didn’t have a chocolate calendar. Titus Titanicus dropped a surprise project on him, a joint project with International Cooperation (them again, why?) and Creature Control about importing new messenger birds. That had happened earlier, of course, before the groceries. Percy’s boss didn’t follow him outside of the Ministry to assign him more work. If that were to happen Percy would burn down the place himself before Alice got to it. It was just that Percy had so many things in his mind that they were coming up in disorder. So, joint project. Lots of responsibility, lots of work, good on the resume. He was totally delegating that to someone, either Euterpe or Miranda. Also, those grapes might be on discount but they looked about to rot. Better stick with the oranges.

It wasn’t raining but there was a bothersome drizzle. Percy took a shortcut through the side streets between Knockturn and Diagon. (Why were they called Alleys to begin with? They were like a boulevard or an avenue.) He should have apparated directly in front of his house, but stupid wizards who get nice young ladies arrested for no good reason deserve to walk in the cold and under the drizzle. Besides, even if the cold was numbing his feet and his hands, it was good for his head. He was slowly growing calmer after all the agitation of the day.

As he went past the closed shops, he could hear the voices whisper.

(Be calm. Be calm. Breath.)

(You can do it.)

(You are smart and you are prepared. You can do it.)

And later, fainter. (nobody will know.)

ooOoo

Oliver’s dad, Mr Wood, had the same open face as his son. His hair was blonde going white, though, rather that the rich golden brown of Oliver. Mr Wood was a Hufflepuff and an engineer at the Comet Trading Company which explained a lot about Oliver. The hard work and the niceness and the Quidditch obsession, all of it came from his dad. In fact, Oliver’s first act of magic occurred when he made himself float so he could grab a snitch from a jar on the top of a wardrobe. They had soon given him his own kid broom because it was safer having him fly with one.

The brown hair and eyes and the Gryffindor courage came from his Mum, no question about that. Mrs Wood was a woman full of energy and with a gravitational pull. People circled around her, helplessly following her trail.

She had come dressed as a muggle. It might had been easier if both she and Roger (Mr Sudworth), had come in wizarding attire. It would delay the objections, for sure. But Ann Wood wasn’t about to concede anything.

“Come on, Roger,” she said over her shoulder, already starting to walk. “Benedict,” she added, calling to her husband.

They followed her, liked good satellites, to the Ministry entrance in the telephone box near Whitehall. Percy couldn’t help feeling like he wasn’t really needed. He just had to point Ann in the right direction and watch her shoot.

Elaine, on the other hand, Elaine Sudworth née Corridan, was wringing her hands and looking like she needed all the support. Her nose was red, just like her daughter’s, and her hair was a bit out of place. She was dressed in a grey and pink robe that was nice and well cut and probably expensive but didn’t sit very well on her small frame. She looked very fragile and very tired, like a doll that had passed through many girls before becoming a toy for the dog.

It was interesting to see these two couples. Both mixed, both with a magic child, but the Sudworths had been more at risk simply because the muggle one was the husband rather than the wife. A wizard marrying a muggle woman was bad, but when a witch did it, it was far worse. She was more of a traitor, somehow. Witches owed it to the wizarding world to marry and breed with wizards.

There were also the obvious differences in nature. Percy had no doubts that Elaine was a strong woman, she had had to be to protect her family during the war, but she was also nervous and anxious and a bit of a mess. Ann Wood, for her part, was equally nervous but far more collected, like a soldier in those terrible minutes before close combat. During the war she had used her muggleness to her advantage, walking between dementors that affected her but could not kiss her, so she could send a message and get her family out.

Elaine hadn’t been able to sleep at all, Roger told them. She hadn’t eaten either. They tried some tea but she couldn’t hold anything down.

Funnily, Percy couldn’t shake the feeling that something about Elaine Sudworth was… fake. That sad little woman with wet eyes and a red nose, gutted by the idea of her daughter sitting in a cell, seemed a bit too much to Percy. That was horrible, casting doubt over the misery of this poor woman, and yet Percy couldn’t help looking at her and think that she was playing it up.

Maybe she is only crying because they got her daughter.

         Of course she is crying because her daughter was arrested! I would cry too.

No, but, maybe she cries so much because it is her fault. And they got her daughter.

What a funny little thought to have. What if Elaine, petite and blonde with bad posture, had murdered her brother? What if she had made sure to divert the attention from herself and now she found that she had done it too well? She didn’t seem like the kind of woman who could take polyjuice and kill someone, but Percy had seen some old pictures of Mrs Barty Crouch and she didn’t seem the type to get a dangerous Death Eater out of Azkaban either. There was something very dangerous and very mad in these frail women.

They got halfway to the Atrium before the first witch from Health and Safety came to kindly ask them to take the muggles away. Percy had already told them to keep walking no matter what and when someone like Ann Wood walked ahead of you, you didn’t stop for anyone. Certainly not for a short witch staring at you through horrid green glasses. The witch had to hop-run behind the group while she repeated that muggles weren’t allowed in the building.

Percy stopped, because Percy was the one who had researched and came prepared to fight against any obstacles. He looked at the short witch (Lorna or Lindsey or possibly Laura, something with L) with what he was internally calling The Lestrange Look of Insanity. He was finding that it made people very receptive to what he said.

“That is not true,” he said simply.

Loreen took a deep breath and pursed her lips at Percy with distaste. She repeated, once again, that muggles couldn’t come to the Ministry and threatened to ask a supervisor to come to the Atrium or even the Head of Security himself.

“Please, do,” Percy said sweetly. “I am sure that he will be able to confirm the stance of the regulation on that matter. If not, I will be very interested in witnessing that. Someone in a supervising position should be very familiar with points 20 to 26 of Article LIII, Madam.”

He quoted the first lines of points 20 to 26 of Article LIII at her. The witch squeaked, clutching both her wand and one of her sleeves, and didn’t give another step when Percy walked away and towards the lifts.

Percy was a fast reader and had an excellent memory but most people had neither of those abilities. It was going to take them a while to look at the rules Percy had quoted and see if they meant what he said they meant. If they got very difficult about it, he was planning on accusing them of trying to take competencies from the Law Interpretation Committee since they were taking it upon themselves to read and explain the regulation.

(Technically, this was something they could do. The Committee was only there to offer advice and clarification when requested, but there were probably just four people in the Ministry who knew that.)

They were stopped twice more. The first time happened in the fifth floor, when the Vice-Head of Security managed to get inside the lift. Percy quoted the regulations again and pointed at Mrs Sudworth and Mr Wood and himself noting that their muggle guests were properly escorted. Because that was the thing, there was nothing clear in the directive about muggles coming to the Ministry but it did talk an awful lot about proper escorts. A vice-head of department such as Percy was an excellent one.

The Vice-Head of Security (which was a sub-department of Health and Safety, so he was like a quarter or an eighth of Head, negligible, terrible) wasn’t interested in staying longer in that small lift with Ann Wood looking like she was going to set him on fire on one side and Percy’s unnerving eyes on the other. He left on the next floor.

The wizard manning the reception desk before the holding cells also complained. More out of habit than any real interest, Percy thought. After a short back and forth and Percy assuring him that if there was a problem with their presence they would had been stopped sooner, he let them through. Mrs Wood rejected the quill and defiantly got a pen from her bag with which she signed her name.

ooOoo

There was a stone wall between each individual cell but the front side was a series of thick bars with a door in the middle. Each door had goblin-made locks.

They were good holding cells. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. They were a bit cold, though, a bit wet, and the lighting in them had a bluish tint that made the scene very sad.

Maybe that was why Percy kept thinking about the colour blue whenever he came down here. It was a stupid and sad tone of blue, though. It was cold and lonely and sharp.

No wonder the voices liked it.

However, today the voices had nothing to say about the colour blue. Instead, what Percy heard when he walked in the room was something closer to a sob.

There was a stone wall separating each cell, but it wasn’t very wide. If someone were going to sit next to it, with their back against the bars, they could get an arm out.

They could reach across.

If someone on the next cell were to do the same, they could hold hands. They wouldn’t be able to see each other, they would each be looking in at the horridly blue cell they were locked in. But they would be holding hands and it would be comforting. You can find such great comfort in holding a warm hand.

It hurts.

It did hurt. Percy wasn’t sure why, but it hurt.

He only exchanged a wavering smile and an awkward wave with Oliver and Alice. He didn’t want to rob them of any time and he felt, suddenly, very much out of place. So he stepped back and let them talk to their families. There had been many times when Percy felt unwelcome and out of place, so he was able to bear it. He still didn’t like it, though. There was something like a snake coiling and uncoiling in his stomach and it made him think of the special brand of madness of the Lestrange.

The witch with a smell of firewhisky was gone. There was a man wearing only a pair of trousers and a sock who informed Percy that they had taken his flaming sword.

“Those bastards,” Percy said softly, which seemed to appease the man.

I have a flaming sword of my own.

         What?

                   What?

Come on. It would have been a funny answer.

When they had been there for forty minutes, the quiet wizard in the back who looked dead told them that they would have to be going soon which was a dirty lie. Percy reminded him that they could stay there up to an hour and they still had a good third of that time and it was very impolite to interrupt them and rob them of that precious time.

Flaming blue.

The wizard shrugged and went back to his desk. He did not seem like a man who cared much about anything. If he usually spent a lot of time in the company of drunkards and people claiming to have flaming swords Percy could understand that attitude.

“Oh, I just hope they find him soon,” mumbled Elaine after blowing her nose and dabbing at her eyes with a corner of her handkerchief. The second one that day.

“Who?” asked Alice. Both she and Oliver had moved away from the wall and were standing in the middle of their respective cells.

“Dusan, of course!”

“Oh, Mum!” exclaimed Alice. Her voice was like clear water, powerful and frank and a bit disappointed. “Mum, no. It wasn’t him. How could it be him?”

“You never know,” Mrs Sudworth said primly. “He has a lot to gain and you don’t know the boy.”

“I also have a lot to gain,” Alice said simply. Not accusing, not excusing, just a mere statement of fact. She had just as much to gain if not more than her cousin. “And I do know him. I met him once.”

“Alice, darling, you were three. That doesn’t count,” Mr Sudworth intervened.

“It wasn’t him and I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

Maybe it was a trick of the blue light, but Percy thought that Oliver was smiling at Alice’s words.

When the hour ended and they finally had to go, Percy heard a voice whisper almost regretfully Goodbye Blue.

ooOoo

That night Percy dreamed that he was in an Astrology exam. It was late evening, when the sky is dark blue rather than black. It was beautiful, but the stars weren’t as visible and he couldn’t find them and draw them on his parchment. The sun, for whatever reason, wasn’t setting. It was right there, an orb of gold hanging to his left like a big fat snitch. He tried to catch it so it would be night already and he could complete the exam, but it was too far and he had no broom. Someone with a broom could help him, but Percy had no one around.

It was, overall, a beautiful dream. The images were very pretty. But Percy didn’t like it. He didn’t like that feeling of knowing what to do, knowing that he could do it and do it well, but not being able because there was a bright obstacle impossible to remove.

ooOoo

If Percy weren’t already so involved in the matter he would never have noticed.

That Sunday was a big day for news. The Prophet ran a summary of what had happened so far in the Corridan case (five columns) and invited many personalities to share their opinions (Percy didn’t see why he should care). The Quibbler had its own competing article. It was not as new or as fresh but Rita Skeeter had had a whole week to chew and let it simmer. She was also, despite what one might think, better at getting sources. She might twist the words and take them out of context, but she got people to talk to her and say more than they intended.

As in many magazine articles, there was the main text and then there were coloured boxes of text with things that didn’t exactly belong there but were related to the topic. Expansions on one of the terms used or some of the factors playing into the case. The one that caught Percy’s attention was a red box with a black border that said that Britain was seeing an increase in crimes and that good old wizards and witches were not Safe, with a capital S. The kind of thing that would give the Aunt Muriel types perverse delight.

Doris Purkiss claimed to have suffered a kidnapping attempt by former Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge. A pub in Gloucester had all of its beer spoiled, the windows smashed, and some obscure and dark graffiti painted on the door that might allude to something ominous. Conrad Pinkman, a potioneer whose shop wasn’t quite in Knockturn Alley, had suffered a break-in during the night on Friday. Nothing of value had been stolen but Mr Pinkman had sustained some injuries while he fought the burglar. It was only thanks to the quick intervention of a vampire who happened to be in the vicinity and was not already inside the apothecary at all, that they managed to scare the burglar off.

These were violent crimes indeed.

A dark apothecary!

It was not on Knockturn Alley, it says right there.

A dark apothecary that would sell restricted ingredients.

You don’t know that for sure. I don’t.

Oliver’s defence argued polyjuice and now they tried to kill the person who sold the ingredients.

Dear Merlin.

Percy was sounding madder than The Quibbler.

         You really are.

But, but, they had tried to kill someone else! They didn’t steal anything. The potioneer was injured. Why think that it was an interrupted burglary when it could be an interrupted murder attempt?

It’s my fault.

         Yeah, yeah. It’s always your fault said a voice sounding perhaps a bit exasperated.

                   Your fault. Your fault. Your fault sang the chorus.

You play with fire, you get yourself burned continued the exasperated voice, who evidently didn’t think there was much to the apothecary story. It was probably an unhappy customer or someone trying to get some pricy bezoars.

                  Youuu aaare insaaane sang another voice in a catchy tune. You are mad, mad, mad, see plots everywheeeeeere.

It’s my fault. I spread the polyjuice story and now they are cutting the loose ends.

                   Your fault. Your fault. Your fault.

There was one more voice, low and tentative. It was hard to hear it over the high-pitched sing-song accusations of it being his fault (and also a made-up delusion, it was both his fault and not real). Somehow, the voice singing about his insanity was managing to convey the idea that there were legs kicking in the air to the tune.

But, the low voice.   

If I’m right and they tried to off the apothecary attendant, should I still be involved with this? it asked. It was followed by a quick succession of thoughts. Someone was obviously very invested in keeping things as they were. They wouldn’t like Percy nosing around, poking at their story. The Sudworths knew he was involved. If it was Elaine after all and Percy got too close to the truth, if against all instincts it turned out to be Alice and she had said something to her Mum… Mothers were capable of doing terrible things to wash away the sins of their children. He couldn’t take out of his mind the image of Mrs Barty Crouch.

These were very deep and dense thoughts, but this was still Percy Weasley’s mind. Percy Weasley, born under the sign of Leo, sent to Gryffindor house despite how different he was from his brothers.

Every single voice in his head, even the ones that had been mercilessly singing and the ones preparing to say Fred’s name, claimed at once:

OF COURSE.

There had almost been another murder.

Of course he was getting involved.

ooOoo

On Monday, Percy remembered to buy the paper while he went to work. He forgot to bring his lunch, though. The voices didn’t remind him which was frankly rude. They could remember every little failure of Percy but apparently not this.

There was a cafeteria in the Ministry and Percy went there at lunch time, but he didn’t like it. It was always too cold or too warm and moist, it smelled weirdly of foods that they never served, and it was also very noisy even if there were only two people sitting there and they were not talking to each other. Something about the acoustics of the place.

Percy got some red soup, a yellowish white mass and a brown sludge with orange bits. It was probably named after something edible, but Percy preferred to view it like this. At least he wouldn’t be disappointed.

He opened the paper and began to read as he attacked the red soup.

(It was not tomato soup.)

The Prophet was sure that “certain magazines” were getting carried away and rather irresponsibly inspiring fear in the general population with their wild claims of crimes.

The Prophet had amazing cheek.

Fudge was still in Dover, living in quiet retirement and taking care of the petunias (or maybe it was gardenias). The Magical Law Enforcement Patrol (note that it was not the Aurors) were already looking into the pub break-in business. All evidence pointed at a pair of drunk trolls. As for the break-in at Mr Pinkman’s apothecary, it was nothing remarkable considering his suspicious engagement in shady business. Why, all evidence suggested that he had been in the process of purchasing some exotic produce from the vampire. It was his responsibility, in any case, to ensure that all restricted materials were secure and could not be easily stolen.

The Prophet would also like its readers to know that they would never stoop so low as to make wild assertions to get readership.  

Bloody Ha!

         This coming from the guys calling Potter crazy.

After lunch, Percy sat at his desk to look at the owl project that Titus had dropped on him with a feeling of dread and déjà vu. They had only gotten the last interdepartmental project going with just enough wind to guarantee that it wouldn’t fall immediately and the broommakers were still pestering them with requests. This project would be even more complicated since they were dealing with living creatures.

Parallel.

Yes, he saw it too. Thank you so much, Voice.

Life and Death.

Yes. Thank you.

An hour before it was time to leave he received a message by owl and he could feel the whole department perking up with curiosity. Percy received dozens of messages every day, but this one came by owl rather than through the usual paper plane system the Ministry used. This could mean two things:

1) It came from outside.

2) It had something to do with the new owl project that was obviously way more important that the stupid Quidditch brooms. For a department that dealt with transportation they were all very uninterested in broom sports, be it Quidditch or racing.

It was a letter from outside. If only the workers in his department were a bit more alive they might have recognised the owl (Vaarsuvius) or at the very least the rich purple of the paper that, together with gold, formed the corporate colours of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.

It was from Ron. Percy didn’t even have to touch the letter to know that it came from him. George never wrote to Percy for anything, but, beyond that, he knew it was Ron’s even before he turned the envelope around and saw his handwriting. Somehow you could always tell with Ron, as if he left something of himself in everything he touched. His siblings, and particularly Ginny, would say it was a strong smell and oily hands but that was just fun banter between brothers. It was also easier to phrase. There was no easy way to explain that Ron had something of a presence and you could tell if he had been somewhere long after he had left. It was weird, too, because people usually didn’t pay attention to him when he was around unless he spoke up.

Ron’s handwriting was disgusting. Percy didn’t understand how he had survived school and the exams. Well, Ron didn’t sit the NEWTs, and the OWLs… They were probably more lenient that year, after Umbridge. That was it. How had Hermione managed not to kill him though? Really, it was close to indecipherable. All vowels looked the same. An “o” and an “i” shouldn’t look the same. They really shouldn’t.

After looking at the letter attentively Percy came up with something like this:

Forgot the pre-Christmas reunion like idiots. Bill is very disappointed. Emergency meeting tomorrow at WWW for name drawing.

The three “W” were mashed together and missing a couple of legs. It was closer to VWN.

Percy sent his answer with Vaarsuvius right away. He would be there at lunch time. Also, Percy was sure that they hadn’t marked the pre-Christmas reunion in the calendar so Bill could shut it.

How interesting, though, that Percy hadn’t remembered. He was the kind of person who remembered these things.

Even before they had reached an agreement and a working schedule for visiting their parents on Sundays, they had had to do something for Christmas. It was about a year after Fred passed away, Percy thought, their second Christmas without him. They were all adults then, all earning their keep. They were also eight people and it was hard to buy Christmas gifts for everyone, especially when they were all drifting apart with the many demands of life.  

It had been Bill and Percy’s idea. Well, it was Percy’s, but he had let Bill present it to the others because at the time Percy didn’t think that anyone would want to listen to him, the one who caused Fred’s death. The idea was that they would all pool their money to get some decent gifts for their parents rather than each trying to get something decent. Some years they made two groups to decide what to buy for each of them, some years someone already had an idea prepared. Fleur had the best suggestions. Fleur was becoming indispensable for the smooth working of the family.

It took a lot of stress away and probably a lot of awkward moments because no one wanted to see what Ron or Charlie would gift their parents if they were left alone. This way Arthur and Molly got something nice and classy and a bit expensive, something that they would never get for themselves, and it was all good. 

That meant that they still had five siblings each to find a gift for at a time when they had more money than ever but little time. Plus they were all growing and becoming different people with different tastes. The next step was obvious: At the same meeting when they decided what to get for their parents they each drew a paper with a name from a hat and got a gift for that person. They even had a price range. It was practical and a huge relief for everyone.

Percy disliked those meetings. No, dislike wasn’t the word. It was revulsion. It was the feeling you get when you look at fish after you have had food poisoning. It put tears in his eyes and sweat on his hands, although he was always far too calm and composed for anyone to notice. He had fooled the whole Ministry during the war, he could pretend for an hour in front of his siblings.

It’s just, it was so loud. It was always loud whenever three or more Weasleys got together. It would be loud later, when they celebrated Christmas at the Burrow. But this had a different quality. It was loud and strident and, during the first years after Fred, full of grief and anger and pain. It was just so evident at that time that Fred wasn’t there with them.

Percy wasn’t the only one pretending and putting on a good face.

It wasn’t the individual snippets of thoughts he got. Percy could understand why Ginny and George were less than happy to get his name in the draw. It was the general feeling of annoyance bouncing in all of their heads. It was the discordant note played again and again. It was missing Fred powerfully, immensely, agonizingly, and it was feeling that Percy was only there out of habit but it would be a relief if he went away.

The first time Ginny got Percy she cheated, saying she had gotten herself, and they all had to put the names back. Percy knew because he could hear George’s confusion; he had had Ginny’s name. Bill had clued in the second time and told her to prove it and show the name card.

(Bill really enjoyed his Oldest Brother role.)

It didn’t matter. They always owled Charlie his piece of paper so it was easy to switch his with yours if you didn’t like it. If that didn’t work, you could beg someone to switch with you. So far, Charlie had gotten Percy three times, Ron the other three and Bill two. Percy now owned some seriously ugly ties and scarves, a book about owls that he already had and a nice kettle.

They weren’t supposed to know who got which gift, but it was easy to figure it out. Easier still when the voices were telling him together with how much it cost and how long it took them to buy it and what other things they had considered.

Percy always gifted them books that he knew they didn’t read. Ron had gotten a positively constipated look when he received a compilation of poetry, but he had found something there to help him when he broke up with Hermione and Percy was immensely glad.

Giving Beowulf to Ginny was just because Percy had a sense of humour too. Like the time, two years ago, that he gave Bill The Kama Sutra and sat there, in their parents’ living room, perfectly composed while Bill tried to hide his blush.

“It has Indian aphorisms and useful life advice,” Percy had said, not even caring that Bill would know it had been him. Muggle literature was sadly unknown in the wizarding world even by many half-bloods. Only the muggle-borns were familiar with it and Harry wasn’t around to give he joke away. (He tended to pick up lots of missions around Christmas.)

Everybody believed his description of the book, which wasn’t false, exactly. Bill, who had opened the book at random and had luckily gotten one of the illustrations, was looking at Percy like he might eat his head whole. He was also obviously reconsidering everything he knew about him and wondering if maybe some of the pranks blamed on the twins were actually Percy’s.

They could be. Ginny has spent years pulling pranks and letting the twins take the blame. She had stopped once Fred was gone. One had to wonder, though, why the twins had let her get away with it.

ooOoo

That night, at last, Percy got to open the book on goblin goldsmithing and read the index and the introduction and realised immediately that he would need at least three more books to get a good and solid base. Sure, goblins were wonderful crafters and their work often had special properties, but that wasn’t all. There was symbolism and intention and community and it wasn’t the same, having something crafted for a goblin or a non-goblin. Some properties weren’t immediately evident; some items didn’t have any special qualities and were nothing more than a beautiful display of artistry; some acquired a character of their own with time. There was a whole chapter on spoons, which seemed to be very important, and scissors. The one about scissors was fascinating.

         You don’t have a pair of goblin scissors.

No, he didn’t. But it was really illuminating. Percy didn’t have to deal with any species other than human in the Department of Transportation, otherwise he thought he would have found this very useful. Goblins had some really convoluted family relationships.

All this for a single ring that wasn’t even properly silver or gold but an unidentified pale rose metal; and when Percy was busy with other things like the murder case and the horrible way it was developing thanks to Percy himself. But Percy needed to understand. He couldn’t just leave the ring in a drawer and forget about it. He had to know. Not right now, perhaps, but ideally at some point before he went completely bonkers or got himself killed. 

Also it was kind of pretty.

 

ooOoo

VI

First Tuesday of the month

ooOoo

 

Percy yelped, jumped, and had his wand in his hand in no time. He didn’t cast because he realised now that it was no threat, but he couldn’t help letting out a scream.

“Ah, you have met Z,” said George coming from the storage and into the shop.

“Have I?” said Percy, his heart still beating madly. The human-looking creature before him moved and talked and breathed, but it wasn’t capable of thought. There was nothing, not even a bleep, coming from it. Not even the faintest of murmurs.

It was the single most horrifying thing Percy had ever seen. He just knew he was going to have nightmares about it. Possibly combined with Fred’s face for maximum horror.

“It’s one of our special products for Christmas. We expect many orders from Hogwarts; hopefully they will come to the shop to pick it up because it is a bit bulky as a package,” George explained with a proud proprietary air.

Percy stared at the, the, mannequin, he guessed. The life-like doll sitting on a green chair that stood up and took his hat off when someone came into the shop.

“What am I looking at, George?”

George dropped a hand on Percy’s shoulder and the other on the nightmare that had just regained its seat.

“It’s Z! Z because it is sort of silent. Ron helped a lot with the design of this one. They used something similar in Auror training, for casting and such. But the dummies in there are horrible. Much more scary than this one, if you saw their faces.”

Almost as ugly as your mug. George thought, but didn’t say. He wasn’t comfortable enough to rib on Percy, not any more. Percy wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. Some days he missed it, but the twins had tried to lock him in a pyramid. It was more peaceful this way, if less interesting. 

“The idea is that you can put it in your bed,” George went on, “And it will breath and move as if a student were sleeping there. It can repeat up to five sentences with your own voice.”

“What happened to putting some pillows under the cover?”

“Come on, Percy, this is much better. The chest moves and it has a face. For a little extra you can customise the hair.”

Just as George didn’t feel like teasing Percy any more, Percy didn’t feel like he could ask the OBVIOUS question. That doll might be intended to be used for deceiving parents and prefects while one went out for a good night of mischief-making, but some people were going to use it for something else altogether. How come neither George nor Ron had realised? Percy didn’t have much of a social life but he was privy to many thoughts and they were filthy. People were very free with what they thought.  

Percy turned around. He found that having the monster at his back wasn’t any better, precisely. “I have to go back soon,” he said, which wasn’t exactly true but it wasn’t a lie either. He did have to go back because the mannequin made him want to take his own skin off.

George showed him to the workroom where they designed their products. It was a different room from the storage room after one too many accidents during design and Verity crying that she was sick of cleaning their messes. Ron had mentioned something about a jelly monster.

                   Better not know what they were trying to do with that.

The kettle was on, but Percy wisely declined any offers of tea.

Ginny was there, laughing about something. Maybe about Percy’s scare with the doll. But, really, it was a terrible doll and anyone with a bit of sense and the ability to detect thoughts would be scared witless. She had a cup of tea in her hands but Ginny was fearless and also fearsome so she could be sure that her brothers wouldn’t prank her.

They would have to wait for Bill who was, as always, running late. This was Percy’s chance to ask Ron something he had had on his mind, but he felt suddenly nervous with George and Ginny here.

He did it anyway. Percy was brave. Not like Ginny, but brave nonetheless.

“I saw The Quibbler on Sunday,” he started. Ginny’s face immediately lit up. She was a big fan of the magazine. One time they had featured her and they managed to print a three-page interview without mentioning Quidditch a single time. Ron, on the other hand, gave him A Look with capital letters.

“I loved what it said about Fudge,” Percy started. He had to interrupt himself at the loud “Ha!” coming from Ginny.

“Of course you would,” she said. There was a bit of mirth in her voice and a bit of an angry tang.

Nobody would say it out loud because they wanted to keep all their fingers and their innards inside, but Ginny was like a small chili pepper. However, Percy was a master student of the Aunt Muriel School of Nasty Conversations. He could have a chat with his little sister no matter how abrasive she got.

“I don’t know why you haven’t married him,” mumbled Ginny, leaving the mug on a perilously crowded table and crossing her arms.

“Fudge?” Percy asked feigning surprise. And then, in a perfect deadpan. “Never. You know I always preferred Scrimgeour.”

I’m hilarious.

He really was. Sadly unappreciated too. Ginny had no idea what this was about, bless her innocent heart. George, though, narrowed his eyes wondering if Percy was serious or if he knew about the rumours and had been making a joke.

(Percy was never ever making a proper joke near the twins again, never.)

Ron was looking at him with a stern face. I’m never telling you anything ever again, he thought, loud and clear. Loud enough that it drowned the waves of awkwardness coming from George and Ginny.

Percy wasn’t sure when it had gotten so uncomfortable to be near them. He thought that maybe it had always been like this, maybe they never liked each other very much.

Because you are unlikable.

         Yes, yes.

The second voice was oddly dismissive, as if the old thoughts weren’t as important anymore. There was an echo, maybe from that second voice, maybe from another one, saying that in a family of seven children it was a wonder if you could get along with more than three of them.

“And that thing about the potioneer,” Percy went on, because that was what he really cared about. Not Fudge and not the awkward air with his siblings. “Terrible business. Mr Pinkman, I mean.”

That was a bit of an exaggeration given that the man had merely been attacked, not killed, and nothing had been stolen. But the place was a mere dozen of blocks away and to the left. What could this mean, Percy wondered, for honest shopkeepers like George and Ron?

There were some hums of acknowledge, but they weren’t all that concerned. An apothecary was an apothecary and it kind of invited that sort of funny business. The accusations against Fudge were much better.

“Do you know him Ron? Mr Pinkman?” Percy went on, not even trying to sound casual now. “I thought maybe, through work.”

How very unimpressed Ron looked. He had no business looking unimpressed when not so long ago he admitted to having used polyjuice when he was twelve. Percy was just inquiring.

“Yeah.”

“Do you?” Percy rose his eyebrows in an attempt to look innocent. According to Ginny he just looked like a jack-in-the-box, but she didn’t suspect anything. “Was he a person of interest?”

“Yes. But, Percy, in his line of work these incidents are pretty common.”

“Of course, of course.”

Before either George or Ginny could ask what was all that about Bill stomped in with long strides and big boots. His hair and shoulders were a bit wet; it had started raining.

“All right, I only have fifteen minutes. Things are crazy at the bank right now,” he said, talking very quickly. He was also smiling and it was so warm and good. It was always very good to have Bill around. He just gave that feeling that he would have your back no matter what. He also helped to keep the family going out of sheer force of will, anger and enthusiasm. “We are getting Dad some fancy cologne and gold earrings for Mum. Fifteen pieces each. Are the names ready?”

Ginny brought a hat with the papers while everyone else took their purses out and counted the coins.

She has marked the papers.

Clever kid! Percy wasn’t even mad. He appreciated cunning.

They were done in less than two minutes. Ginny went first and they followed in order from young to old. Bill repeated the rules, no more than twenty galleons each, no less than ten, and left with Charlie’s pick because he just couldn’t trust any of them to remember or do things right, you horrible monsters.

“I have to go, too,” Percy said, putting the paper (George) in his inside pocket. He shuddered when he walked past the mannequin on his way out. The mannequin informed him that it was studying and couldn’t be interrupted and Percy hurried out. When he arrived to the Ministry he was wet, but at least the rain hadn’t ruined his hair, carefully slicked back with gel.

ooOoo

“Mr Weasley, sir?”

Oh Merlin, Merlin, Merlin.

Percy lifted his head from the memo he was reading. Miranda was standing by the door to his office. He motioned her to come inside and take a seat, which she did, looking extremely hesitant. She tugged at her robes, smoothing wrinkles that weren’t there. Percy looked at her in perfect silence. He could tell that this wasn’t exactly work-related.

Merlin, merlin, merlin, Merlin. Hufff. Breath. Come on. Just say it.

Percy grabbed his wand carelessly, without looking, and with the simplest motion closed the door. It was something he had seen some Death Eaters do. Not closing doors, but using their wands as if they weren’t there, as if the wands were coming to their hands by themselves rather than having to hold them. Of course many other Death Eaters were flashy and waved their arms a lot, but somehow it was these tiny gestures that spoke of real power. In contrast, he had seen many Aurors move stiltedly, each motion perfectly correct and also a bit unnatural. The Aurors under Kingsley were a bit better, more fluid, but still so focused on precision that they lost something of what made magic magic

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Percy used his wand like a Death Eater. It was just the image that came to mind for him. In truth, Percy used his wand like Grindelwald used to, a comparison that of course Percy would like even less. There had been something beautiful in how Grindelwald practiced magic, something organic and invisible that was also in Percy.

Miranda relaxed slightly when she heard the door close behind her. That was telling. People rarely liked that. They preferred having an exit open behind their backs.

Percy lay his wand back on the right side of his desk and picked up the quill again.

“Speak when you are ready, Miss,” he said, his eyes focused on the text. It was one of those end of the year reports. Once again, Transportation had brought a nice revenue to the Ministry.

MERLIN’S PANTS! 

Miranda waited until he had finished the paragraph, making a note on the margin in his neat handwriting. She managed not to fidget in her seat.

“It’s about the owl project, sir.”

“Yes?” Percy said politely and calmly.

“I, um, that’s it, they say, maybe I’m wrong.”

Percy went back to reading. “In your own time, there is no rush.”

Dear Merlin, this man isn’t real.

Really? Percy might be hard and cold, but he wasn’t cruel. He could tell she needed time and she didn’t bother him by sitting there. He knew how to work with distractions, he was a Weasley. 

Eventually Miranda got her voice and her words in order. It was said around the office that Percy was going to delegate that import owl project to someone. Percy mentally prepared himself for the inevitable speech in which she would postulate herself as a candidate, thinking that someone who needed ten minutes to bring up the topic couldn’t be a good pick for interdepartmental work. Miranda’s work was good otherwise, she always did things on time. Percy felt comfortable assigning her delicate work. This project, however, would require fighting with other people and being assertive just to set a date for the next meeting.

“So, they say I might be one of the candidates you are considering, sir,” Miranda went on. “Me and Euterpe. And maybe I am wrong, please excuse me if I am being too forward. I just wanted to say that if that is the case, if I am under consideration I mean, then I would rather not be.”

Percy rose his eyes in surprise. That was new.

“Not… be?” Percy blinked and touched his quill quickly to reassure himself that it was in its place and not leaking ink. This was so weird. “If I understand you correctly, you don’t want to take on that project?”

Miranda nodded and then shook her head no. “No, sir. Sorry sir.”

Miranda, it turned out, had a son. Percy blinked quickly at hearing that because he had called her “Miss” earlier. He made a point of learning names and addressing people right. The idea that he might had been wrong was upsetting.

Not wrong a voice said, sounding awfully sure.

No, he wasn’t. Miranda had a son but no husband. Nothing worth raising eyebrows; nothing that Percy cared about, certainly, although now he understood some of the remarks Judith had made to her better. The point was that Miranda was busy enough as she was, and Percy guessed that she was lonely, too. She had excellent organisational skills that allowed her to do everything as it was at the moment, but the project would mean more work and quite a lot of meetings that she wasn’t sure she would be able to attend. Or if she went to them she had no idea where she could leave her son, is what Percy surmised. Since she was doing well where she was, Miranda would rather stay there, please and thank you, sir, respectfully sir.

She had also decided to tell Percy ahead of time because she was not one to waste people’s time.

If only everyone were like her.

“Thank you, Miss, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts,” Percy said at last in exactly the same neutral tone he had maintained through all the meeting. “I will take it under consideration.”

Miranda nodded, smiled in relief, and stood up. She nervously smoothed her robe once more. “Thank you, sir,” she said, doing a weird combination of a nod and curtsy.

“Oh, one more thing,” Percy called. He looked at her for a second and quickly moved his gaze to a drawer. He didn’t need to open it or look at the papers inside, but he knew that his eyes made people nervous even when he wasn’t giving them The Lestrange Look of Insanity. Something in his gaze.

“Yes, sir?”

“Are you planning on having your son attend Hogwarts?” he asked, feeling very proud of the way he had phrased it. If she said no, it could be because the boy was a squib or because he would be going somewhere else. It was delicate and considerate. Percy thought that the world could do with a bit more consideration. 

He went on, without waiting for her to answer. “If so, we can make sure that you have the first of September free, and on Christmas break too, for taking him to the station. You can put a request through administration services. If there is any trouble let me know and I will sign a special green order.”

The paper he was holding was actually a request for materials, but she didn’t have to know that. She said “thank you” almost as if Percy had dived into a lake and saved her life. It was pretty embarrassing, such a small thing! She was entitled to the free days, Percy was just making sure that she got them when they were most useful.

Percy saw her return to her desk. As she walked past the other workers she smiled to Euterpe, nodding and showing her thumb up. Euterpe grinned and immediately turned to Alice White, sitting across from her, who made a happy face. They giggled. There weren’t many giggles in the Department of Transportation. No giggles or chuckles or chortles, not even cackling. Percy thought this was very nice, especially when it seemed to suit everyone and they were all happy. Miranda had her time, Euterpe would be just as good and evidently Alice understood that she was not suited for so many meetings involving idiots. 

They were still in a good mood when he left, almost an hour later, for a meeting with Treasury.

I can’t believe that stick in the mud agreed, he heard a voice say. But he didn’t even flinch. He was used to hearing so much worse, and this had almost an admiring quality to it. I think I may kill him last, Alice thought idly as he walked past. He didn’t know where that came from, but it was a big deal. As far as he knew, there were only two names on her no-kill list.