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Twenty-nine

Chapter Text

ooOoo

THE STORY OF A LIFE

Leading to a moment of eavesdropping

ooOoo

 

“A cup of tea, Weasley? I don’t think we have had the opportunity to talk.”

Don’t drink the tea a voice said, while Sertorius McAllister smiled at Percy.

The tea.

         The TEA.

Don’t drink it.

There is something in the tea.

 

Percy supposed that there had been silence while he was a baby and before the twins were born. Bill and Charlie were in the house, too young to go to Hogwarts yet, but they weren’t that noisy. Well, Charlie did have a lot of accidents involving fire and brooms and Bill kept poking the ghoul and they developed their magic powers very quickly. Maybe it had never been quiet but it certainly was much noisier once the twins learned to walk. Raucous, even.

Hogwarts was also full of noise. Even in his bedroom or in the library Percy could hear people humming and laughing and running around not even trying to be quiet. He got tired of asking people to keep it down and it was so bad that sometimes he could hear people talking, whispering, laughing, but when he got out of his seat to go hush them he found that there was nobody around and that his mind had made it up.

He learned to ignore them, the real noises and the phantom noises that his brain was making up – no doubt because it was used to hearing so many of them. Percy was thirteen and he could hear doors creaking and slamming, feet darting quickly across the room, people calling and muttering and giggling, and he had learned to ignore it all. He was thirteen and two months and he had learned to cast muffliato by himself. He couldn’t understand why they didn’t teach it earlier. The noise went down and it was wonderful, but some of the whispers and giggles and footsteps remained and Percy had to wrestle with the ugly idea that he might not be casting the spell right. He didn’t like that. Percy was a good wizard and a good student and he didn’t like the notion that he might be doing something wrong.

But he must have been doing something wrong because he still heard the noises.

Then Percy was fifteen and a Prefect and he was studying for the OWLs and all his teachers said that he was talented and a good student and expected him to get Outstanding grades in all twelve subjects. Each and every one of Percy’s spells were flawless and yet he still didn’t cast muffliato right and he still heard noise. He had even swallowed down his pride and asked Professor Flitwick to correct his casting of muffliato for he knew he was doing something wrong, but Flitwick said there was nothing wrong with his muffliato and that he was performing at NEWT level.

In the quiet of the night – when everything was still and there was only the soft breaths of his three roommates and the softer rustle of the blankets – then Percy had to admit, scared and tired, that all the noise, the whispers and the giggles and the steps and the knocks on the door, everything, was all in his head.

And he didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know. He didn’t know what to think. He was terrified, just terrified, of what people would say. It wasn’t okay, hearing noises and voices that lived only in your head.

It wasn’t okay.

People made fun of Uncle Bilius for being a bit eccentric, and everybody said the Lovegoods were mad and Percy was so scared.

Gryffindor won the House Cup that year. Percy got Outstanding in all twelve OWLs and he wasn’t insane.

It got even worse the next year when the voices became louder. Sometimes they were just offering suggestions and running commentary, sometimes he could hear people speak, loud and clear, when they quite obviously hadn’t opened their mouths. Sometimes their words were innocent enough but many times they were gross and nasty.

The worst was when he heard something talk who had no business speaking, even in the wizarding world. The first time he heard his old pet Scabbers say he wished he could have a cold butterbeer, Percy almost dropped all of his books in shock. He managed to conceal his agitation and he quickly left the common room and sought refuge in the Aviary where the screeches of the owls drowned out everything else.

He gave Scabbers to Ron, who would treat him well. Hermes the owl screeched very loudly – which was distracting and annoying, but he only screeched. Percy learned to tune that out and stay away from his old rat.

By the end of Percy’s seventh year Ron had gotten rid of Scabbers (thank Merlin) and Percy had passed all twelve NEWTs with the highest marks (although it wasn’t that impressive because Bill also had twelve NEWTs). He was very good at keeping a neutral face, even if the twins said he looked constipated, and no one suspected a thing. The voices could get as rude as they wanted, he was unflappable.

He got a job in the Ministry, which was impressive. People didn’t just get a position of prestige right after Hogwarts. Mum was happy and all the voices saying the family could have congratulated him a bit more and showed more pride could shut up about it.

Percy was very good at his job. He was precise and efficient and knowledgeable and he had the invaluable ability to anticipate his boss’ wishes. Almost as if he could see the future or read minds. Although how was he supposed to have known that his boss had been under the imperius curse? Besides, there was no proof that had been the case. But people were trying to blame Percy for not noticing and he was really scared that if they kept asking questions he would slip and they would find something else.

People said Harry was crazy. They wrote about him in The Prophet and they encouraged the rumours and the jokes and it scared Percy, it scared him a lot. He was nineteen.

He cried the day they proved that Harry was saying the truth all along. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or heartbroken. If Harry was telling the truth, then Percy was the only one, the only one who –

It scared him, that feeling of loneliness. The voices were scared, too. And the people. Voldemort was back and everybody was scared.

Percy went through that year in a daze, like a man crossing a swamp made of noise and fear. He thought about killing himself exactly twice and he dropped the thought quickly. Percy was very much a Gryffindor and no one would ever know it. How the air and the water tasted of fear; how all Percy could hear was the panic. Not panicked voices, those were fainter. He was hearing Panic itself.

Sometimes he wished he could go home. He hadn’t seen his family in too long and he had made some stupid choices that pulled him away.

But… it was easier, you know? It was easier to keep going as he was. It was easier not to know whether the voices were right when they said his family wouldn’t take him back. That his family would say they hadn’t missed him. Percy wasn’t fun like the rest of his siblings; maybe it was better this way.

Dumbledore’s death brought a change. There was way more fear in the air and the voices grew louder. Percy started to distinguish between them a bit. They were young and old, familiar and strange. The young voices came from farther away and they were so afraid that they smelled bad, like acrid sweat. Some were so afraid that they became cruel just so they would have something hard to cower behind.

The old voices were closer and stronger even if the young voices were usually louder. The old voices were nothing more than loud whispers, but they were angry and raw and they knew Percy better. Sometimes Percy couldn’t distinguish between the old voices and his own thoughts.

Percy hated the noise in his head, he hated that there was never a moment of quiet, he hated that the voices followed him all day and taunted him before he fell asleep. He hated it all and – as already said – he had thought about ending it all twice. The noise was going to kill him eventually. The voices said that no one would miss him.

But this year, while everyone was scared and people were dying, they saved his life.

ooOoo

Sertorius McAllister was a handsome middle-aged white man. He smelled of soap and cologne and his eyes were blue. He was offering Percy a cup of tea and a smile.

Death! a young and an old voice said at once.

Deathdeathdeathdeathdeathdeath.

He is death.death.death.death.death.death.

                   (There is something in the tea)

                                                                           Death.

Sertorius dropped a warm and friendly hand on Percy’s back, right between his shoulders. He smiled a nice smile, teeth not too white but clean and very even. Sertorius worked in the new Minister’s cabinet and Percy couldn’t say no to his offer. Sertorius was very impressed with Percy’s work. (“Thank you.”) Percy was a very talented young man. (“Too generous. Thank you.”) Sertorius saw a bright future for Percy and wanted to know him better. Maybe they could work together more (“…”), include Percy in projects with more responsibility. (“Thank you.”) Did Percy take his tea with sugar or milk?

                            The tea.

Do not drink the tea.

                                               Tea. Black tea. He is black. He is tar. Under the mask. 

He is death.                                       Hollow. Hollow.

                   He wants you to drink the tea.            Drink. Eat. Death.

Look at how he asked…

                   You know what he is.

                            We know what he is.

Percy asked for milk and sugar and took the cup with both hands and smiled that clumsy artificial smile that the twins always mocked. The fake smile that looked so natural that everyone thought it was Percy’s actual smile.

“Thank you,” he said and took the cup to his lips with both hands still wrapped around it. Sertorius was looking at him closely. When Percy’s throat moved as he swallowed, the man blinked.

Percy’s life was full of noise and perhaps because of that, to compensate, Percy had learned to be quiet. He didn’t need to speak to cast a charm and he didn’t need his wand to evanesco a drink. Of course, wandless, he couldn’t empty the whole cup, but he wasn’t pretending to drink the whole cup.

Truth. Now he will tell the truth.

         This is good.

No, it’s not. But he is happy. He is pleased.

Sertorius certainly looked even more agreeable than before. He sat with his elbows on his knees, leaning forward as if he were really interested in whatever Percy had to say. He was both fatherly and seductive. He was sure that Percy’s best was yet to come and he hoped that nothing would be a hindrance to his career.

When at last he asked after Percy’s family, the voices rose in a tumult like the twins on a birthday or the Gryffindor common room after they had won a Quidditch game.

VER.IT.A.SER.UM.

         That bastard!      (Veritaserum)—VERITASERUM!

I told you not to trust the tea.

         The tea!                          He is Death.

He asks.                                  Mask. He wears a mask.

Later Percy would feel a bit sad at how easily the words had come to his mouth. He had nothing to do with his family. He was very embarrassed by them. They had very different ideas. He hoped his younger brothers could be re-educated, with time.

He hadn’t drunk the tea, but even if he had, most of what Percy said was true. Percy didn’t know where his family was.

He could guess, because they were his family and he knew them. Ron would be with Harry, Bill with his new wife in a house warded with many charms (maybe even fidelius), the others would be divided between Muriel’s and Bilius’. But Percy said he had no idea where they could be hiding and Sertorius had to believe him because he had seen Percy drink the tea.

It wasn’t the first time the voices had told Percy something useful or interesting.

The voices had told Percy about how the Minister knew he was under the imperius curse and found it quite pleasant. They had told him that someone was going to break into Wizengamot Administration Services and steal a list with names and addresses so the children of muggle women and wizards could pass as pure-bloods. They had told him that Dolores Umbridge felt an almost orgasmic pleasure when she scared and humiliated people and they also told him, snickering, that she was mortally afraid her half-blood status would be discovered by the WPIA.

The WPIA was the Wizarding Purity Intelligence Agency and supposedly it did not exist. The Ministry had created the Muggle-Born Registration Commission to identify and arrest muggle-borns so there was no need for another department. But the head of the Registration Commission was scared of them and the voices in Percy’s head were quite adamant that the WPIA was real; and that they weren’t focused on muggles so much as they were on gathering intelligence and blackmail material on everyone regardless of blood purity.

Of course Percy realised that he shouldn’t make decisions based solely on what the voices in his head said. But they were right, weren’t they? Sure, he also didn’t have any proof that Sertorius’ tea had had anything added to it, but his questions had been very suspicious.

The voices said that Sertorius didn’t work for the WPIA; he just wanted to learn where the rest of the Weasleys were because he was a plain old Death Eater who wanted to kill blood traitors. The WPIA was different. It didn’t want to kill, but to control.

Percy thought it was very discerning on the voices’ part.

ooOoo

It was in December of that year that Percy met Alan. Alan had beautiful green eyes. That was what Percy noticed first. They were fully green, not even a bit of hazel in them, and when Percy looked at them he felt a pull in his chest and his stomach. They were the kind of eyes that yanked and dragged you towards their owner.

Alan also had brown hair, nice skin and an even nicer smile. Percy noticed all of this second. He was a very beautiful man and he was smiling warmly and apologizing to Percy for bumping into him when he got on the lift as Percy got out. Percy accepted his excuses mechanically and for once he couldn’t hear what the voices had to say because there was a loud hum and a beating in his ears drowning everything else out. Who could think that a simple colour would have the ability to drown out sound? Alan’s green was deafening.

The next time he came across Alan they bumped into each other again, only this time Alan was also carrying a mug of tea that he dumped all over Percy. He blushed with embarrassment and apologised profusely and Percy had to accept Alan’s offer to buy him a tea so he would stop saying sorry. Alan admired the way Percy got rid of the stain in his clothes, not only the wet spot but the brown colour too, with just a flick of his wand. Percy didn’t say that he had learned it from his mother, that they couldn’t afford to get new clothes often and their mum had stressed the importance of caring for the ones they had because they would have to pass them to their younger brothers. He had never liked talking about his family’s poverty and nowadays he never spoke of his family at all.

Instead he smiled and said something trite and silly about how he cared about the pulchritude of his professional appearance and about his wand technique. Something stupid. But Alan smiled and averted his eyes, those incredible green eyes with the pulling effect, before looking back at Percy and saying that he was sure that he would like to see more of Percy’s wand technique.

The voices said… a lot, a lot of things and very loudly. Percy had to wait until that night. After he and Alan had finished their drinks and gone their own ways and Percy had gone back to work and finished his day and gone home. He had to wait until then, when he could sit back and let the voices each say their piece and sort them out in groups.

He saw Alan twice more. Once in a corridor at the Ministry and the other waiting in line to buy their lunch. They sat together, their hands brushed, and this time Percy didn’t have any doubts about the intent in Alan’s eyes.

Percy hadn’t gone home for Christmas the year before, or the one before that, but this was the year he actually wished he could, the year his family had to go into hiding. He was lonely and aching and he accepted Alan’s offer to have dinner with a group of friends who were too busy and rich and pretty to even think of spending the holidays away from the city. They were a merry crowd who seemed unaware that there was a terrible war developing. Percy ate and drank and laughed with them and afterwards let Alan kiss him, softly and sweetly, on the balcony of the hotel room they had rented for the party.

He felt his heart go soft and melt like a spoonful of butter when Alan took his hand and smiled at him trying to look impish and naughty and looking instead incredibly sweet. His eyes made Percy think of velvet and moss and a soft plush place in the shade.

Alan kissed Percy’s hand and pulled him along; said goodbye to the host of the party (a blonde witch in a pretty dress who had been drunk for the last two hours); and took Percy to the fireplace. They kissed again, softly, softly. Percy’s head was a bit dizzy from the alcohol and Alan was being so soft and caring. They flooed to Percy’s place and Alan made love to him right there, on the floor before his fireplace, and it was very hot and very sweet.

Percy lost his virginity on Christmas Day at the age of twenty-one. He thought it was a nice date and time, easy to remember.

They talked a bit. Alan asked after the maps of constellations that hung on the walls and Percy said that beyond the Astronomy and Arithmancy and even Divination that required studying stars, he just liked looking at them. He showed Alan his second and third favourite constellations and talked a bit about the myths they were supposed to represent and then Alan began kissing his neck, closing his eyes as if he couldn’t get enough of Percy’s taste and smell, and they made love again, this time in Percy’s bed.

It had been a very enjoyable evening. Percy had also had a truly pleasant night. He closed his eyes, simple blue eyes, nothing like the enchanted green of Alan’s, and exhaled with satisfaction.

He didn’t hear Alan cast muffliato and get out of the bed. Of course, after all he had drunk and two rounds of sex, Percy should have been fast asleep. Alan probably shouldn’t have had to worry about making any noise. Still, he was very quiet, which Percy appreciated. People were often so careless with the noise they made.

It was unnecessary, though. Percy wasn’t asleep and Alan wasn’t going to find anything incriminating in the apartment.

He was very thorough, which Percy also appreciated because he liked efficiency and effectiveness. It might even be a kink for him. Alan went through the whole apartment methodically, checking every drawer and nook and cranny and jar of cookies and underwear drawer.

He found nothing because Percy had made sure there would be nothing of value to find long before he even met Alan, right after Sertorius and his suspicious conversation over tea. He had checked again the third time he saw Alan, when they met in a corridor in the Ministry and Alan’s warm hand casually rested for a second on Percy’s elbow. Percy had dedicated two full evenings and half the weekend to making sure that they couldn’t find a single thing linking him to his family, not a letter or a photograph or any kind of gift or memento. He had gotten rid of or hidden most of them months ago, when Thicknesse first stepped into the Atrium of the Ministry.

The voices had rattled a pretty syncopated rhythm, telling Percy of the awful reach of the WPIA, its touch stretching over everyone and everything. They also spoke about all the horrible things that would befall Percy the day he was arrested, he of the muggle-friendly family. Percy ignored the second voice and focused on the first and expanded the extent of his own search.

He made sure that there was nothing of his time at Hogwarts. Nothing that could suggest that he had ever interacted with another human being during those seven years. No photo or letters from Penelope, no notes from Oliver and Kyle, no birthday card from the other Prefects. Percy had taken it all out and he wasn’t so much protecting himself as he was protecting them. Born to a well-known blood-traitor family as he was, interacting with a muggle-born or half-blood during his school years would hardly be a damning charge for Percy when the surname Weasley hadn’t been enough to arrest him. Yet Percy erased them from his life, burned every trace, and thus made sure their names wouldn’t come up in any investigation, not through him at least. He wouldn’t be the one to bring attention to those names and make someone go, “We have nothing on Weasley, but what about them?”

And because Percy was Percy, because not only he had passed twelve NEWTs but he had gotten Outstanding grades on all of them, because he was brilliant and cursed with intelligence, he made an extra effort and took care of the details. He took out the box in which he kept his diaries and went through them page by page, entry by entry, erasing names.

That wasn’t enough. Don’t think for a second that was enough. The absence of evidence can be just as suspicious as its presence. He had once seen his mum searching the twins’ pockets and when nothing of relevance was found, she had started a full and thorough search of the house certain that they were hiding something. The search had yielded quite a lot of firecrackers and a dirty magazine.  

His mum would have made such a good Auror! Although Percy was pretty sure the magazine had been Charlie’s.

So Percy brewed some tea and took a quill and added a few entries. “Received letter from Mother. Sent back unopened.” “Write letter announcing severance of all ties & request they do the same.” “Deny Scrimgeour’s petition re: contact with family.

It looked cold and fanatical, but Percy knew he had the face and wardrobe to pull that look off. The cold and fanatical acolyte. It was probably the horn-rimmed glasses.

Alan returned to bed almost three hours later, having found nothing. Percy was still awake, quietly pretending to be asleep. He had discovered something without moving from his bed.

It wasn’t about Alan. He knew, had known for a while. Even if the voices hadn’t told him that Alan was a spy sent to gather incriminating info on Percy, the time and manner of Alan’s approach would have still aroused suspicion. He was too beautiful and suave, too charmed by Percy.

No, it was the fact that Alan had cast muffliato and Percy hadn’t heard him get out of bed. He hadn’t heard the rumple of the duvet or his steps across the floor, he hadn’t heard the soft murmur of drawers opening or the susurrus of pages turning. He hadn’t heard Alan’s breath or heartbeat or when Alan got cold and hunted down a robe to put on while he continued his search.

He hadn’t heard any of it and yet he had known every single thing that Alan was doing. It was late and it was quiet, quieter still with the muting charm in place.

It couldn’t be denied. That was it. It couldn’t be denied that Alan had cast muffliatio and Percy could not hear his movement and yet he could hear everything else. How mad was that? Percy could hear the familiar voices whispering in his ears with the softness of a flannel blanket. It was very mad, they said. Percy was mad. Percy could not hear sounds but he could hear voices and intentions and that was madness. 

He realised now that in the raucous turmoil that was his head, some of the voices were voices but some of them were… something else. Maybe he had suspected it before, but this was confirmation of a sort.

He didn’t hear Alan move, he was sure of that, but he heard Alan’s actions and intentions, he heard him noting the places he had to look first. He heard him look at Percy and think that he was arrogant and stupid but not insufferable. Percy was so eager to please and easy enough on the eyes that Alan found his assignment quite bearable. Depending on what Alan found Percy might be arrested and executed before the New Year or it might turn into a long surveillance. After all, given Percy’s position in the Ministry he had access to a lot of sensitive information. Even if he had nothing useful now he might come across it in the future. You never knew when someone was going to defect to the Order or when someone might try to contact Percy with something important.

Percy heard all of that and he heard Alan go through his things and form an image of the person Percy was pretending to be. At times Alan was cold and cruel and it hurt terribly to be thought of in that way. At times he was oddly kind and appreciative. Mostly he was detached and assessing like a scientist who only cares about getting a result without any preference for a particular one.

Alan returned to bed and slid close to Percy so Percy stopped pretending to be asleep and fell asleep for real.

He woke up late. Alan was already up and half dressed. Tea was ready and there were eggs in the pan. Percy thought that this was very nice and that he liked it. He was feeling languid and mellow, and even though his head was full of noise he didn’t feel the usual pressure to keep it down.

Alan kissed him softly on the lips and Percy saw him considering whether he ought to have sex with Percy again or not. Percy was a bit sore and his muscles were aching in a funny way so, although he had enjoyed it very much, he smiled and sat down for breakfast and made a small show of being shy and prudish when the sun was out.

Alan said he had some business to attend to, which was true because he had to redact and send his report on Percy, so he kissed him quickly and left. Percy could feel for a while the warmth of Alan’s hands where he had last touched him.

Then it was just a matter of waiting to see if Percy passed the test. He was calm about it because not only did he know there was a test, he was also pretty sure that he would know if he had failed it with enough time to do something about it. It would be the first time in his life that Percy failed any sort of exam, so of course it would be a life or death situation.

He kept his wand with him at all times.

ooOoo

It was the morning of the 27th of December. Everybody was focused on their work and actively avoiding any thoughts of friends and family, which made for an interesting energy. Percy had a cup of tea by his side (Earl Grey; today felt like something bitter and classic) and he was cleaning his glasses with a cloth. There was almost a meditative state around the room and so he was able to examine his thoughts and the sounds in his mind.

There was a soft sound of silver bells. Very faint, hardly disruptive.

There were the old voices, offering commentary about how Percy’s family was likely dead and he was just sitting here in the Ministry, but for the most part they were taking a back seat while Percy thought.

And there were the young voices, only now Percy could see they were not voices. They looked like voices, but they were not, they were something different, something in disguise. They were ragged and tattered and quick and intense, like thoughts that had fallen through the barriers of a mind.

It was a very interesting discovery.

All I say, said one of the actual proper old voices, is that I’m very glad that at least the boy is getting sex.

Oh, come on! That was another old voice, or maybe it was Percy’s thoughts.

He is making the best of a bad situation, said the first voice reasonably, and it did have a point. Cassidy over there was also under surveillance. (Percy was starting to think, who wasn’t?) Poor Cassidy, he knew that he was under surveillance and was terrified about it. Percy had experience with fear and with hiding a part of yourself from the world, so he could sympathize. It was a particularly exhausting kind of fear.

There was an owl cleaning its feathers and hooting softly right next to Percy. Well, no, there wasn’t, but Percy could hear it. It was annoying, it made him worry about feathers and bird’s feces getting on the report he was working on.

ooOoo

Alan came back to him on New Year’s Eve. Percy was deemed to be beyond reproach and useful to the New Government (the “New” was actually capitalised), but at risk of being seduced, blackmailed or coerced by his old relations. The fact that he had let Alan in was proof enough that he could be compromised, so Alan would be kept around to stop any others from getting too close and gaining undue influence over Percy. This would provide an additional point of view on Thicknesse and The Court would like that.

Percy didn’t know who or what “The Court” was. He supposed it was Voldemort’s inner circle. The ones with the ultimate power to decide.  

He worried a bit that Alan might want to make a proper relationship out of it, because Percy wasn’t ready for that and had little idea of what to do. He had let Alan in because he figured that it was better to give them what they wanted and let them spy on him than to keep fighting it. They would get what they wanted eventually; it would be better if Percy could control at least part of it. The higher he built his walls the harder they would push against them, and Percy wasn’t sure he had the strength and ability to repel them indefinitely. Being with Alan was nice and soft and easy. He liked easy.

That was what he said to himself, to the voices. That he was being clever and practical. But the voices could be very honest and unforgiving so he had to admit that he was also doing it because he was lonely, because he was aching, because even if he was very aware of his talents Percy didn’t have a high opinion of himself. He wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t deserve them or because he was that repulsive, but he knew he didn’t get nice things often so Percy wasn’t going to turn them away just because they were fake.

He didn’t mind having Alan around, not at all, but having him close all the time could make things difficult. Fortunately, Alan contented himself with lunches and dinners and spending at least three nights a week at Percy’s. He didn’t press for more and he didn’t move in with Percy because, as it turned out, he was also carrying on a secret affair with somebody else, someone married and with children, which Percy found quite shocking.

Percy got a few snippets of Alan and the other man that made him gasp and squirm and think that he should improve his performance in bed because, wow, Percy must seem very boring. Of course, of course he had yet another thing to feel self-conscious about and of course he wanted to make a good impression on the man paid to spy on him.

Percy tried to practice by himself, to be more elegant, to fumble less. Percy had just learned to accept a dick inside of him, to not flinch in pain and even find pleasure in it. He thought he was doing all right given the timeframe and he liked sleeping with Alan, but it seemed to him that he should be doing much more than that. There were things like plugs and clamps and restraints and being on your knees while someone slapped you and made you say humiliating filth. It seemed to Percy that he must be unbearably boring and that he had to step up his game.

Later he thought that no, he wasn’t going to change anything. In fact he might even feel a bit sorry for Alan and the requirements of that other assignment.

There was this one time, around February. It was sunny and extremely cold. Percy didn’t know what had happened, only that Alan’s mind kept going back to it and that he was distraught. Even though Alan was here, kissing Percy with a pretty mouth full of lies, his mind was far away and Percy couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Perhaps he just sympathised with having to hide your own distress, but Percy didn’t think it mattered. Whatever the origin of his feelings, what mattered was that he felt them; Alan was upset and he was sorry for him.

The voices had something to say about Percy showing sympathy to the WPIA spy. In any case, Percy stepped back and smiled and said he felt like having chocolate milk and he prepared two mugs and told Alan about his sixth favourite constellation while they drank the hot beverage. He put an arm around Alan’s shoulders and rested his head in the crook of his neck, content to be just like that. Percy could feel something like a gust of wind coming from Alan, hate and love and relief all together in Alan’s chest.

Percy thought that being kind to the people you liked was easy and of little worth. What was interesting and moral and valuable was showing kindness to your enemies.

I can’t believe you, said one of the old voices.

Percy also thought it was a pity that the WPIA were investing so much in spying on him when he really couldn’t do much one way or another. His apartment was too small to be holding secret meetings and, although his job carried a lot of responsibility, if he were to do something outside the script it would be noticed immediately. So, really, other than waiting to see if someone attempted to contact him and arresting that person, it was all for nothing.

ooOoo

Not to say that Percy had quietly accepted his role in Thicknesse’s government. But he was not so stupid as to try and forge papers or steal documents or any of the other stupid things people had done in an attempt to fight against the new government (Percy capitalised it in reports but refused to do it in his thoughts.) That kind of thing was easily noticed and stopped and it often started a bigger investigation and made things worse for everyone. You altered the documents for one person and even if you weren’t caught that person would be, and then they and their entire social circle would be sent to interrogation and a new and more complex design would be put in place to make forging harder.

People had eventually realised it. Nowadays there was only open rebellion, fighting and hiding; intel gathering (which involved contacting people close to Dumbledore and was extremely risky); and obtuseness. Losing papers, delaying things, misfiling. But obtuseness could also put you on the spot. Being too bad at your job, even if it wasn’t politically motivated, could get you a harsh punishment. Look at Diggle.

Percy didn’t know where he would go if he decided to drop everything and embrace the open fight. He certainly wasn’t about to start spying and sending information to the Order, he’d known that even before he knew for sure that they were watching him closely. And he was too good at his job to suddenly become a blundering fool.

That was what had hurt so much, two years before. When he was promoted from the Department of International Magical Cooperation to Junior Assistant to the Minister and his father had said that it was a ruse to keep tabs on Dumbledore. As if it were unthinkable that Percy could earn such a promotion for his talent, as if the only thing of merit in Percy was his connection to his family and to Dumbledore.

His father had probably been right, but so had Percy. They could have demoted him when Fudge stepped down, they could have sent him away when Thicknesse took over from Scrimgeour and Percy became a vulnerable employee. But they didn’t, they hadn’t, because Percival Weasley was very good at his job.

So he couldn’t suddenly turn clumsy, you see. In his case, any mistake would be a symbol of open rebellion and a declaration of guilt because Percival Weasley just didn’t make mistakes, ever.

He couldn’t go rogue, he couldn’t spy and he could not botch things, but he could do something else. People lacked imagination and a proper respect for the rules. All their thoughts of rebellion involved some rule-breaking when in fact rules had to be respected.

That had always hurt too. How people acted as if Percy were the one in the wrong for wanting to do things right. Like that time Bill told him to shut up already with the legislation on cauldron bottoms, as if it were silly and unimportant.

A cauldron without the adequate thickness could leak copper particles and contaminate the brew. Bill had taken Potions to the NEWT level, he should know that the presence of copper or iron in acid-based potions could have fatal consequences.

But Bill acted as if it were silly and unimportant and the voices in Percy’s head kept repeating his words for days, telling Percy again and again that he might be right but nobody cared because nobody liked him. He was boring and a nuisance and people didn’t want to listen to him.

They were terrible, the voices, they had quite a character.

There was a point to this. Rules. They were important, they were useful, and people tended to be against them and not bother thinking why they had been put in place. His first year in the Department of International Cooperation, with the Quidditch World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament, had been highly educational. Percy hadn’t questioned his promotion because after that year he had become one of the most knowledgeable persons on regulation in the Ministry. He might not be an expert in every field, but he knew plenty about all of them and he knew where to look for a specific rule, or statute, or canon, and he understood what they meant. If you were drafting a new law, Percy was the person who could tell you where it would fall, what rules would complement it and which ones would clash and who were the experts that could tell you more.

Percy was becoming even more of a stickler for the rules this year. From the outside he looked just like a punctilious and stiff government worker, a dedicated employee who verged on the fanatical. You would need a very good understanding of public administration and a lot of time and patience to realise that his fastidiousness and attention to detail was becoming counterproductive. Percy had been so, so, delicate in his meticulousness that you could stand right behind him and wouldn’t see that because of him, because of the rules he kept extracting and applying, marking someone as a mudblood was taking thrice as long as it should.

Thrice as long was, in many cases, enough time for word to get around and escape before arrest.

Because Percy was thorough and strict, the Wizengamot processes – bogus as they were – were going at a snail’s pace. He had also stalled all international relations and in a few months of diligent work he hoped to strike at the budget hard enough that the government would collapse by itself in less than thirty-two months if they hadn’t managed to stop Voldemort by then. Collapse was a strong word. It made Percy think of the actual Ministry building crumbling down – which wouldn’t happen, at least not immediately, they had good charm casters working there. But collapse it would and Percy wasn’t completely certain that once the government fell they would be able to put it back.

Harry better hurry, then.

Hasten.

What?

         Make haste. Harry better make haste.

         Get a move. Wake up and get to it.

Harry and the others better get to stopping Voldemort before Percy annihilated the New Government and left only ashes and debt behind.

ooOoo

Percy was doing all this and he heard voices in his head and he hadn’t seen or talked to his family in months. Going home to someone who welcomed him with hot kisses and open arms was really nice, even if it was a deception.

He and Alan were together for six nice hot months. They were together under false pretences but the warm feeling was real and Percy cherished it despite its hollow origin. Percy was working to weaken the foundations of the government and any wrong move could mean his doom, but as long as he didn’t make any mistakes he would see success. The noise in his head was as loud as always and fearful and hateful, but it was manageable and now he knew how to sort the voices better.  Like the potioneer who can tell one poison from another at a glance. Like those times in class when Professor Snape would know a brew was wrong just from the rolls of steam rising from the cauldron. Percy picked the small, viscous voices that had fallen into his mind like a gardener picking the slugs off the plants and he threw them outside with the same distaste. Some voices were rooted deep in his brain, growing taller and stronger everyday, and Percy couldn’t shake them loose. But he could take the slugs and squash the buzzes All in all, it wasn’t the worst time of Percy’s life. The year working with Fudge had been harder, and the really hard years were yet to come.

ooOoo

The incident at Malfoy Manor was kept secret, but that didn’t stop the voices from telling Percy about it. The details were fuzzy but Percy got the fundamentals, which were:

1) Harry was alive, thank Merlin. Percy didn’t have very high hopes for him, to be honest, and he was glad that he had gotten so far. Harry had a tendency towards unkemptness that Percy found exasperating, but he was nice enough and Percy felt for him, if only because he understood how utterly lonely Harry must have felt that year the Ministry went after him.  

2) Hermione was alive, might have been hurt but not severely. Hermione was smart and responsible and neat and Percy approved of her wholeheartedly. The world needed more people like her.

3) After months in the dark, they had resurfaced making a scene. This meant that more things could happen and Percy should prepare.

Of course he had also heard that Ron was with them, but it barely registered in his mind because, well – it was quite absurd, but he just hadn’t considered that something bad might happen to Ron. Ron was Ron. He was tall, skinny, far from reaching his full potential either because he didn’t care or didn’t know his own talent. He was Percy’s baby brother and it simply didn’t occur to him that Ron might get hurt. Bill, yes, because Bill tended to draw attention to himself, and Charlie of course, he worked with dragons. But he didn’t think that anything bad could ever befall his younger siblings.

The voices all agreed: Something is going to happen.

Move.                    Where to? No, don’t move.

         Call.            No, no. Silence.                         Alan.

Risk.           Do something.        Keep going. Don’t bring attention.

But, call?               No!

They didn’t agree on anything else.

That night he had dinner out with Alan and then they went back to his apartment and they made love in his bed, very slowly and gently. Percy supposed that might be the wrong term. Alan didn’t love him, even if he was really good at pretending, and Percy didn’t love him either, although he was quite fond of him. His green eyes still had that enchanting quality that pulled at something inside of Percy’s chest. It wasn’t love but it wasn’t shagging or fucking either. That made it sound too dirty and casual and this was not it.

Percy’s easy acceptance of such a peculiar amorous situation made a lot of sense because Percy knew that he didn’t deserve more or better. He was not like the others. He wasn’t well. He was unbalanced, as much as it pained him to recognise it even in the intimacy of his own head. He was crooked so he should have things that were also a bit wrong. Who would have thought? Brilliant student, serious, responsible, but he was the odd one out of the family. The perfect son was the one hiding the biggest cracks. The joker and prankster siblings were having more success, at least until they had to go into hiding.

Percy and Alan were lying together in a sweet embrace under Percy’s cosy duvet, warm and languid. The afterglow still ran through him and Percy felt very at ease, all things considered. Then Alan sighed and began to carefully roll away. He checked Percy’s breathing surreptitiously to see if he was asleep (he was not, he never was). Apparently he wanted to go through Percy’s mail.

I think you should be more upset about this.

         I don’t know. Alan is a professional.              I like Alan.

Green.

You should not be okay with this.        This is bad. Bad!

         You are bad.

Alan waited thirty minutes and Percy was almost truly asleep when at last he got out of bed. It was the sudden rush of alert thoughts and voices coming from Alan that made Percy stir. It was like someone poking a pile of rocks with a stick; the old voices came tumbling down in disarray. They half-heartedly reminded Percy that he was not like others, he was unlikable, crooked, broken, how bad and broken to accept this, to sleep with his enemy, spread his legs for him, such a shame, shame of the family. Albus Dumbledore also had a weird and unlikable brother he never talked about. Percy was just like him and like Uncle Bilius. The family embarrassment. Shame.

There was also a quick flash of Fred and George with long beards, growing up to be wise and powerful and slightly odd, like Dumbledore, while Percy would be the odd one. The one they pretended to love only because he was family, the one they pretended not to be embarrassed about. That was Percy. Also Alan wasn’t finding anything of use in Percy’s mail, as expected.

But wait, the brother.

Aberforth.

                   Nobody likes him. They mock him.

                   They will mock you.

Alan doesn’t like you.      Aberforth.              There is movement.

Harry Potter.

Percy could make contact with Aberforth Dumbledore.

A weird rejected brother, like Percy. He could make contact with him without risking either of them. He might even bring Alan with him. Call it “an adventure,” as it would probably be if they ate something in that pub.

ooOoo

Alan said that he had a cold and that even though he had taken Pepperup potion he was feeling a bit off. He wanted to spend the next couple of days in bed and he would stay in his own flat so he wouldn’t pass it on to Percy.

The truth was that Alan didn’t feel like going with Percy to Hogsmeade (he hadn’t even mentioned The Hog’s Head yet) and he had to check on his other lover, the married one who, unlike Percy, had a lot of interesting things worth noticing and also some very perverse desires.

(Percy thought that it might be someone in the Department of Magical Transportation skimming money or accepting bribes, but he was far from certain.)

So Percy went to Hogsmeade alone and saw that the town was full to the brim with people with secrets. People under imperius, people who would later claim to be imperiused but were perfectly in control of their actions, people governed by fear just as tightly as if it were the control curse, and also a surprisingly high number of Dumbledore loyalists. They were all spying on each other and stepping on each other’s toes and getting very little of value, because they could hardly move to do anything without three spies following them.

It wasn’t difficult to make contact with Aberforth. They even got to have a conversation, brief but very illuminating and comforting. Afterwards Percy felt giddy with excitement, as if this was the first risky thing he’d ever done, as if he were carrying something very valuable in his chest. He thought it might have less to do with making contact with an Order member and more with the fact that Aberforth, strange as he was, was standing his ground and being useful. Maybe people would talk less about him from now on. Merlin knew that there were others that deserved way more criticism. Mundungus Fletcher came to mind. The late Alastor Moody, too.

Percy bought some chocolates and sent them to Alan with a feel-better note like a naïve and besotted fool should do. Alan had been very careful not to mention where he lived so Percy couldn’t drop by unexpectedly, only send him letters via owl.

He had dinner and went to bed alone. The next day he cleaned the house, darned some socks and cleaned and mended the collars and cuffs of his work robes. He didn’t utter a word. At midday he got an owl from Alan thanking him for the chocolates, saying that Percy was a doll and that he missed him and would see him on Tuesday. Since Alan wasn’t there in person the note felt very nice and very real. That was what Percy thought, this must be how it feels for normal people. He kept thumbing the note until the corner got dog-eared and even then Percy decided to keep it inside a book, a memory of something that never was.

He listened to the radio. He read a bit of a book (Goblin Trade Agreements). Alan thought that Percy’s taste in books was nauseatingly boring and he always groaned inwardly when he saw the title of whatever Percy was reading. The book was a bit dull and dry but Percy needed to know if Gringotts would bail out the government after Percy had bankrupted it.

He went to bed, again alone. The next day, he went to work.

Percy went through the motions quietly and meekly. He had been keeping things stored in his chest (or rather, in his head) for a long while. He knew how the dance went.

He saw his father from afar, coming from a corridor where he had no business being in the first place. He saw Rockwood seeing him. Today Arthur Weasley was still a pure-blood and able to take risks, but soon that wouldn’t be enough.

ooOoo

Alan and he made love (not shagged, not fucked, not screwed) for the last time on a Tuesday. It wasn’t as good as the first few times. It had become a bit dull and mechanical. Alan didn’t undress completely because there was something on his back that he was hiding from Percy. It might be something as simple as a few scratches but Percy suspected it was flogging marks. Afterwards Percy told him about the different kinds of snowflakes, the ones that looked like the pictures and the ones that were round. He didn’t feel like talking about stars and constellations but he didn’t want to simply thank Alan and turn around.

Their last kiss was on a Thursday and it took Percy by surprise because there was something thoughtless and natural in it.

Percy got a feel for what was happening long before Aberforth’s message reached him. He thought that many people felt it because there was a sense of urgency and anticipation in the air. He looked at the owl flying away wondering how it could even fly when the air was full of tension and voices and silver streams.

Aberforth had only sent an empty envelope, as agreed. No note with explanations or directions so Percy decided that he would go to Hogsmeade and see how it went from there.

Only, Alan was standing between him and the door, looking ill and frazzled. Alan had instructions on what to do if Percy ever made a sudden move or tried to defect, but those instructions were feeling very outdated after everyone had seen a freaking dragon fly out of Gringotts with Harry Potter riding on his back. Those instructions were from back when Voldemort looked invincible and there was very little opposition, weak and disorganised.

“Alan, take your wand and run,” Percy said calmly. He thought that this should be more dramatic and that it should take place somewhere else, not in his living room with its walls decorated with constellations. “Nobody will look for you now. You can get at least a full day, maybe two.”

How very green his eyes were. How soft and sweet. They were nothing like Harry’s eyes, Harry’s shone like gemstones whereas in Alan’s eyes there was something mute and lush that spoke of vegetation. His eyes were staring at Percy and trembling like the leaves of a weeping willow in spring.

He didn’t say Goodbye or Thank you. He simply grabbed his wand tighter and left. Percy waited until he heard the pop of apparition on the street before closing the door of his apartment, going down the stairs, and doing the same.

ooOoo

Percy didn’t remember much of that day, fortunately. He remembered how loud the explosion had been and he remembered that afterwards there was silence. He didn’t hear the screams or the curses or the sizzle of spells flying by. He didn’t hear the cries.

He didn’t hear the voices.

Yes, even the voices, old and young, the voices and the thoughts that dropped out of people’s minds and leaked into Percy’s, even those were quiet.

It was absolute and perfect silence, unlike anything Percy had ever heard before. That’s what Percy experienced when his younger brother died. The complete absence of a sense to mirror the emptiness he felt in his chest.

Sound returned later that evening. It had probably come back earlier because Percy had dueled and fought and run and helped Kingsley Shacklebolt organise the arrest and detainment of fallen Death Eaters. He must have been able to hear to do all that, but it didn’t register. It was only now, sitting on a cold stone bench and holding a ham sandwich of unknown origin in his hands, that he noticed the noise returning. The crack of a fire nearby, the calls for help in the improvised mediward, the cries, the voices of those around him.

The voices that were thoughts bumping into him.

The voices in his mind.

You have killed your brother.

You killed Fred.

It’s your fault.

ooOoo

The evening after they buried Fred Percy sent his resignation letter to Kingsley. Even though Percy had been a Junior Assistant to Fudge, Scrimgeour and Thicknesse, he knew he wasn’t good enough for Shacklebolt.

He added a list of things they had to undo so the Ministry would run smoothly. The financial matters were particularly important because they were slow to arise but they tended to build momentum and Percy still had no idea if Gringotts would bail them out. Goblin culture was complicated. Also, even though Percy had nothing to do with it, he told them to look into the transport system, especially the Knight Bus. It made no sense that it had to be hailed with a wand. If you had a wand you should be able to travel freely by apparating, so the only users of the bus at the moment were underage wizards and people who had splinched and were too afraid to try apparition again. If they substituted the wand raising for any other method of calling, then the bus would become available to squibs and goblins. This would increase revenue in addition to offering better service.

Kingsley came to see him a week later. It wasn’t unusual to find people from the Ministry and the Order coming and going from the Burrow, which had become the default place to meet and drop messages. Percy’s presence was more unusual, even now, but his mother was broken and dazed so Percy had been going there every day to help with the household.

He slept in his apartment, though. It was the only place where he could sleep. He couldn’t even go near his old bed in the Burrow.

“I admit I might have dozed off a bit,” Kingsley said. Percy’s resignation letter might have turned into a twelve-foot rant on the Ministry’s structure. “But I like the Knight Bus proposal and it seems you know how to implement it, so go for it.”

That was a behemoth of a task. It was one thing to identify a need and figure out the basics of what to do, and another thing to see it done. Kingsley had failed to mention that the former Head of the Department of Transportation had turned up dead. They had put a quiet and mousy man with lots of seniority in his place as a sort of emergency replacement, but the poor man, Titus Titanicus, was lost and overwhelmed. Percy would be the Vice-Head of the department and the de facto Head.

Percy started to laugh. Percy’s brother was dead and it was Percy’s fault and the voices kept telling him so and he was broken and could hear voices in his mind. Yet here was the new and shiny Minister of Magic offering Percy a job. Percy could hear himself laughing hysterically but, despite giving Kingsley a good glimpse of the madness he had inside, Kingsley chose not to see it and Percy still got the job.

ooOoo

There was only one voice who had something different to say. The others all agreed, it was Percy’s fault.

If you hadn’t returned.

         If you had gone somewhere else.

If you had closed your mouth. Why did you have to speak? Nobody likes you, why did you have to make a joke? You tried to be funny and popular and you got Fred killed.

                   He was laughing.

                                               You distracted him.

It’s your fault.

         You shouldn’t have come back.

                                      If you hadn’t left.

It’s your fault.

There was the one voice saying it was not, but it was very faint and probably lying. For the most part the voices were honest with Percy, but sometimes they didn’t know everything or they outright lied, like this one.

It was the spell. It was the explosion. It wasn’t you.

It’s your fault.

It’s your fault. It’s your fault.                                            You did this.

It’s your fault. It’s your fault. It’s your fault.             You killed him.

It’s your fault. It’s your fault It’s your fault. It’s your fault.            You spoke.  

It’s your fault. It’s your fault It’s your fault. It’s your fault. It’s your fault.          Fred.

That wasn’t the worst part. No matter the horrible things the voices said, Percy tended to agree with them. In any case, they were his voices, they were inside his head and belonged to him. He could deal with them.

It was the voices from outside, the younger ones.

I can only ever have six children, Percy heard, coming from his mother’s direction while she swept a floor that had already been swept that morning.

He came back just as Fred left, his father thought, lips pressed tightly and eyes shining as he took an empty cup of tea to the sink.

It’s as if we couldn’t have everyone. Percy came back so Fred had to leave.

He wasn’t sure who thought that one. Maybe everyone did. He did. It felt like some sick barter and Percy wished he could reverse it. Maybe if Percy left, if Percy died, they could all have Fred back.

Percy might have killed himself then. He thought a lot about it and he would have done it in a second. He had even chosen the method and cleaned his apartment.

If he didn’t do it, it was because whenever he was determined enough to take the step the voices reminded him in a mocking tone that his death would solve nothing, his death wouldn’t bring Fred back. He was that useless.

That, and Percy didn’t think that his mother could take it. She wouldn’t mourn him as much as Fred, he was sure of that, but it might be the final strain and it would all be Percy’s fault.

Life had become intolerable and he wasn’t allowed to leave. But maybe that was right. He should do his penance. 

ooOoo

Percy was just coming down from the attic. The resident ghoul had picked up on the desolate air of the house, the shared grief, and it had begun howling and rattling the rafters at all times so Percy had gone up and gotten him to shut up. Mostly he had used charmed lights but Percy also thought that it helped to show it the pain he had inside. He wasn’t sure if it was pity or intimidation but it had worked and the ghoul went quiet.

Bill could probably have done it because Bill had a NEWT level in DADA, and Ron, on account of him sharing a bedroom with Harry Potter and fighting brilliantly in the war, but it was midmorning and neither of them was there. Percy was, so he had done it and now he was coming down thinking he might get a cup of tea before he left. He was feeling particularly hollow today.

It was… Sunday. Probably Sunday given how many people were in the house. Why the Ministry couldn’t speak directly with Hogwarts, he didn’t know, but it seemed that everyone was still using the Burrow as a midway, a place to leave messages and documents for others to read and pick up. To be fair, Hogwarts was pretty damaged and the Ministry was in quite a disarray too. The Burrow looked unstable but it wasn’t missing significant chunks of the structure and there were always a lot of sandwiches available. Molly had turned to cooking and, although she sometimes made sandwiches with nothing inside or forgot to put ham in the ham and mustard sandwich, they were good and tasty. People always took one with them. Percy would, too, if he could manage to be hungry.

So that might be why people were gathering in the Burrow.

He didn’t care. He was going to get his tea and leave.

“Oh, here is Percy,” said…

It was a bit hard nowadays, to know where the voices were coming from or if they were speaking aloud or not –

…said Hestia Jones. “Percy knows him, don’t you Percy? Alan Blackburn?”

“Mmh?” said Percy in the dullest and deadest of tones. He should have gone home right away and gotten his tea there. “Has he been arrested?”

“No, we don’t know where he is, actually,” said Sturgis Podmore, who had a long scroll sitting on his knees and was clutching another one, just as long. He and Diggle were in charge of all the paperwork in the Auror Department and Percy had serious doubts about their record-keeping ability. “And he is not a priority. We were just saying that you know him.”

“I have made his acquaintance but I wouldn’t say that I know him very well,” Percy said calmly and truthfully, but not honestly. Or maybe the other way around. He wasn’t lying but he wasn’t saying the truth, much like Hestia and Sturgis.

“But… you know him,” Hestia said in a way that made Percy think that the mention of Alan’s name hadn’t been as innocent and casual as they had made it seem. However, Elphias Dodge in the corner looked as uninterested as always, and so did Horace Slughorn. “There are some reports that you spent a lot of time together.” Hestia looked down quickly at some of the papers on her knees. Maybe those were the reports she was talking about, the secret files on Percival Ignatius Weasley, devoted employee who turned rogue after all.

“Yes,” Percy said neutrally, perhaps a bit of a questioning note in his voice because he didn’t know where they wanted to get with this. He wanted tea and to spend the rest of the day without talking to people, looking at a print of a constellation in his apartment.

“He… he was a spy, you know,” his father said at last. He was standing casually by the fireplace. Percy had cleaned it yesterday and refilled the floo powder jar.  

It seemed that it was Arthur Weasley’s job to tell his son when someone was using or deceiving him. As if his promotion with Fudge hadn’t been enough. They should really have made someone else tell Percy this.

“You-Know-Who didn’t trust non-Death Eaters,” Hestia added as if that would lighten it. As if being found untrustworthy by a dictatorial state were offensive and Percy ought to be upset by the revelation that he had been spied upon.  

“Ah, yes,” Percy said lightly, because it was light to him. “The WPIA had everyone from the Minister to two levels down under surveillance.”

He noticed that there was a bit of surprise and a bit of disappointment that he already knew and wasn’t shocked by what should have been obvious even without the voices whispering him clues. There was also a wave of amusement coming from Ginny, the rascal. How she enjoyed seeing people flustered and confused.

But, really, Thicknesse had had three agents close and ready to apply pressure on him and he had been compliant and imperiused. Of course everyone else had been under close surveillance. The offense, if anything, was not being spied on. It meant you were unthreatening and unimportant.  

Like Podmore.  

Nothing else came of it, except a short interview with Kingsley and another Auror (couldn’t remember her name. Nose-Face, was all the voices could supply) about the surveillance and pressure on the Cabinet. Percy grew a bit nervous when they asked him how he knew, but he managed to shrug it off and they didn’t press him on it. They were more interested on what he knew and comparing the reports they had found with his testimony. The WPIA had filed reports on everyone and everything to the point of ineffectual paranoia. Percy had never thought there could be something as too much information.

But that was it. No more questions about him or Alan or their relationship. All they wanted to know was how trustworthy the WPIA reports were when they said someone was loyal.

Not very, considering Percy’s own file.

That was pretty much it – well, that, and the way Ron reacted. Ron, who had just arrived to the Burrow when the Alan conversation took place. Something interesting happened with him. The only way Percy could explain it was that it felt as if a button or a lever inside Ron had been pressed and a bright and circling light inside Ron’s head had turned on. Not even Ron could express it coherently. He just knew that something lit up and he had no idea of what or why.

Ron was not the most observant person and Hermione had often accused him of being emotionally deaf (Ginny agreed). So it was all the more surprising that he had noticed something.

and

and then

Ron came to Percy a few days later, when Percy was in the kitchen doing the dishes. These days if Percy was at the Burrow he was always doing something. He couldn’t stand being there chore-less. The good part of this was that he had managed to fix the little window on the stairs that had been stuck for as long as he remembered.

“Soooooo,” said Ron, unsubtly leaning against the counter. And he wanted to be an Auror? He better practice his spell work because they would see him coming from miles away.

Ron crossed his arms over his chest and immediately uncrossed them so he could card his fingers through his hair. He had gotten it cut recently, it had been longer during the battle. “Your friend,” he said at last. “Alex.”

At least there was no meaningful intonation to the world “friend,” so kudos to him.

“Alan, you mean?” Percy said. He didn’t have that many friends and he was too tired to pretend he didn’t know what Ron meant. “What about him?”

“You knew he was spying on you.”

Percy might have said “me and many others” or “why else would someone like him approach me?” or even, “I am crazier than Uncle Bilius and Mr Lovegood put together, but the madness has its advantages.”

But he only said, “Yes.”

Ron stood there, enthralled by the dishcloth wiping the inside of the glasses. Percy paid him no mind and started to work on the mugs. They were brewing and consuming amazing quantities of tea lately. Percy checked the mugs one by one, carefully removing any tea stains with his wand.

“It must have been lonely,” Ron said softly.

“The war was lonely for everyone.”

“Yes, well.” Ron said nothing else, but he stood there until Percy was done and after that he helped put everything back in the cabinets.

ooOoo

Ron announced to Percy that from now on they would be having dinner together every last Tuesday of the month. He said it with such firmness that Percy didn’t have the heart to say anything other than yes.

There was something. Something that Ron had noticed and that bothered him.

The voices said that if Ron, who was notoriously obtuse about this kind of thing, had noticed… Ron, who wrote to their mother in a panic on the twenty-third of December because his friend Harry didn’t expect to get any presents for Christmas, the twenty-third and not a day sooner. If he had noticed something about Percy, then the others must have noticed it sooner but they were doing nothing about it because Percy didn’t deserve it (Unlikeable) and they didn’t care.

Nobody likes you.

Percy was very firm when telling the voices to shut it. Ron was being observant and sensitive for once and Percy wasn’t about to let some disembodied voices ruin it. They could drive him to the verge of despair only to pull him back all they wanted, but they were not messing with Ron.

Besides, it wouldn’t last long. Ron had entered the Auror Academy and their training was notoriously hard and intense. He also had friends and a girlfriend. Ron had been trying to learn to play an instrument (any kind of instrument) since he was six and he still couldn’t get a two-note tune out. It wouldn’t last long. They would meet twice and then something would come up and Ron would have to cancel and he would have forgotten about his resolution inside six months.

He was right. Percy was often right. He was used to it.

They had dinner three times. The fourth month, Ron wrote to postpone and never got to reschedule. The fifth time he simply forgot. This was not a problem. Percy had never expected more of Ron. The problem was that life was still intolerable and Percy still wanted to kill himself, but the voices had changed their tune.

What about Ron? they said.

         What about Ron?             Ron.                      Ronald.

Ron.            What about Ron?             His nose is long.

If Percy were to put an end to it and end his miserable life, Ron would think about what he had noticed and what he had missed. He would think of the postponed dinner that never happened and of the cancelled one he had forgotten about and it would gut him.

How could Percy be so selfish?

There was also the matter that Titus Titanicus was a hapless moron of amazing proportions and that the rest of the department seemed to have been dementor kissed. If Percy left they would never get the Knight Bus changes done. Never. Never mind that he had explained it to Kingsley and that he had a detailed and comprehensive plan, it would just never get done. It might not be a big thing, changing the mode of hailing, but for certain people it would be very big.

So Percy didn’t try to kill himself, not right away as he wanted. It was five months after Fred’s death already and it was too close to Christmas now and it was just rude to ruin everyone’s holidays like that. So he pushed it until February. He could hold on until February. He could die then. It was a stupid month in any case.

ooOoo

Christmas was terrible.

Fred wasn’t there. It was the first Christmas with Percy present in three years.

Nobody wants you here.

         Nobody cares.       

Charlie came, which was nice because he couldn’t make the trip often and it was too much trouble for a mere week. He came, and it was nice, and it didn’t help at all. In fact, neither Charlie nor Percy should have come. If they weren’t there then it wouldn’t have been so obvious that Fred was gone.

Percy thought that he wouldn’t attend the next year and he simultaneously received a cheer and a slap from the voices in his mind.

By the twenty-first of January Percy had a solid design and an implementation plan ready so his Knight Bus project could be carried to term without him there. They would only have to read the memo and follow the steps. It was very simple. He had made diagrams and everything. Anyone could do it.

But why would they?

         Nobody cares.        Nobody cares about you.

                                      Nobody cares about it.

                   They will just throw it in a drawer and forget.

Coward!

What?

You keep thinking of leaving, of dying. Coward!

The squibs won’t get their bus because of you.

Almost as if on cue, Ron dropped by his office at the end of January. His hair had grown a little bit and he had shadows under his eyes. He said that training was crazy and was eating his life and would Percy help him? He needed Percy to help him.

Percy couldn’t say anything other than “yes.” It wasn’t until three years later that he realised that Ron probably knew.

What Ron said was that he was very tired and very busy and that he needed to get his life in order and manage his schedule better or he would have no life worth of that name. And here came Percy’s part, how he could help: Don’t let Ron cancel plans ever again. Please. Could he do that? Not accepting Ron’s excuses, not being understanding. Ron needed to prioritise and learn how to have a life in addition to Auror training. He really needed these monthly dinners, please don’t let him forget about them.

Percy agreed to everything while inside he was thinking, “Ugh.” Now he really couldn’t kill himself.

Amazingly, Ron didn’t miss a dinner ever again. In the following months and years Ron arrived tired and sleepy, dirty, injured (twice), worried, angry, and once covered in soot from head to toe. They met in pubs and restaurants and, when Ron was really tired, at Percy’s apartment for something easy and casual. But he was always there, no matter what. Thrice he was so tired he fell asleep on Percy’s couch.

In that year Percy finished the Knight Bus project. The bus could now be hailed with the traditional wand call or by saying “Department of Magical Transportation: (Your name), bus call.” There was much debate and criticism of the changes and the formal and stilted way of calling. They wrote letters to The Prophet and included it in a satirical cartoon. But eventually the novelty wore off, people forgot they were outraged if they ever really were and the Knight Bus tripled its revenue – something unexpected even by Percy’s most optimistic calculations. It was a very popular choice of transportation for foreign visitors who couldn’t apparate to a place they didn’t know.

The one-year anniversary of Fred’s death came and went. After Percy endured that date for the third time, he decided he wasn’t going to kill himself after all.

He didn’t stop blaming himself.

The dinners were good for Ron too. They might have pulled Percy back from the brink, but they also helped Ron. Maybe he had been honest when he told Percy that he needed them. Percy was there to listen to Ron’s woes as he trained to become an Auror, as he fought more and more with Hermione and feared losing her friendship above all else, as he fought with Harry who was an idiot but would always be Ron’s friend.

Percy knew that Ron would break up with Hermione before Ron himself, and was there for him with hot and greasy fish and chips. He and Hermione made up and tried again three months later. They would break up twice more and the third time would be permanent.

Percy was there with good food and a listening ear for Ron. He was there, once a month, once a month. He was there the day Ron almost didn’t arrive, the day Ron was very lucky and things got too close. It was remarkable that Ron still made it to dinner because if he’d ever had a good excuse to cancel it was that night, sitting in front of Percy with his hair shiny and plastered to his head with manticore spit and blood. It might be that he didn’t want to cancel, that he really needed Percy that night. Percy was there to hear from Ron that he was going to try something quieter, help George around the shop. Even if the twins’ – even if George’s inventions leaned toward the explosive, at least there was no risk of being nearly swallowed alive by a monster.

This was around the time of Ron and Hermione’s second break-up. The Knight Bus project had long since been completed and Percy was starting to write his proposal for the Expansion of the Floo Network. The Knight Bus was good, but having access to the floo would be even better. Not just squibs but also muggle parents of wizards and witches who couldn’t ride the Knight Bus at all and would benefit from a more direct access to the wizarding districts.

(And he just knew there was going to be crazy, rabid opposition. Fierce, angry, mad, but Percy would try anyway because he could see that it would be good.)

Anyway, it was around that time when Percy noticed something about the voices. The voices lied. The old voices that tormented him, they lied. Not always. Some days they could be supportive and some days they said the truths that Percy needed to hear. But they couldn’t always be trusted. Percy had thought that they said the truth more often than not, but he was beginning to revise that thought. Ron would not be better off if Percy disappeared. Ron didn’t hate spending time with him. The voices that said so were lying.

That wasn’t all.

The young voices, the thoughts leaking from other people, they lied too. When Ginny looked at him and thought that she would rather have Fred alive, when she almost wished that Percy had died instead, it didn’t have to be true. She might think it, but it was a lie. Just like the old voices were lying to Percy, her thoughts might be lying to her. Just as it was a lie when Mum had a similar thought, or when Dad mused that maybe Percy didn’t have as much potential as they used to think, since he didn’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend, barely any friends, and he was still a Vice-Head in the irrelevant Department of Transportation.

It made things better. It told Percy that maybe everyone was at least a little bit mad and he was just particularly sensitive to it.

ooOoo

Percy was twenty-nine and he was alive. He had saved money so he could buy the flat where he was living, he worked in the Department of Magical Transportation and still had Titus Titanicus as his boss. He didn’t have a partner but he wasn’t looking for one either. It was a life, headed nowhere as all lives are. Perhaps his was slightly different and more interesting because he had gone through a war, although he didn’t see any combat, and because there was always noise around him.

Sometimes he wished he heard music. It would be more pleasant than the voices and the occasional steps and the bells and the giggles and the metal dragging over stone and the flap of wings. But by now he had gotten used to it and, frankly, it could be much worse. There had been a time, when… well, you know, when it happened, when Fred… Afterwards the voices had been angry and full of hate, but nowadays they were pretty mellow, if a bit sarcastic. They were fine. Percy was fine.

He was alive, he could hear voices and he was in the Ministry Atrium that early morning in November. That cold Tuesday morning when Percy heard what no one else could.

Word was going around the Ministry that they had found and arrested the person responsible for the murder of Wenzel Corridan. They were bringing him in right this minute to the holding cells in the Wizengamot. 

Percy didn’t particularly care. He didn’t care about the murder, the victim or the murderer. Percy was a person of order and murder was a disruption. He didn’t care.

Until he did. Perhaps because Percy was a bit of a romantic even if he was very much the sceptic. He liked to believe that other people could have lives like in the books, that things could be good for them, that there could be harmony in the world. Not him, because he was terribly twisted and broken, but others, they could have that. He was a sceptic with the soul of an idealist and even though he repeated to himself that he didn’t care about the world, the truth was that he did.

He cared. When Percy heard about the murderer being Oliver, Oliver Wood, he was struck with this gut-clenching feeling of denial, his stomach and his throat closing and all the voices in his head rising in a unanimous No! that felt like a punch to the base of his head. It was Oliver, but it couldn’t be, all the voices agreed. Oliver Wood, Hogwarts roommate, Quidditch player and team Captain the last four years of school. Handsome and devastatingly nice. It would have been much easier to dislike Oliver for all his virtues, for being handsome and athletic and talented, if he weren’t so damned nice to everyone.

They had arrested him and the buzz was that they had some very good evidence against him. They had arrested him and half the Ministry had gone up to the Atrium to see him dragged to the holding cells. They had arrested him and all around there was shock and that morbid pleasure that murder cases produce, that hungry curiosity.

Percy was short of breath. The shock had seized his stomach and was pressing down hard, not letting go. Oliver! Percy was feeling dizzy. The place was crowded and excited. It was like holding a box with a swarm of bees and a cloud of flies inside and sticking your head in said box. It was a loud buzz with different notes and variations and Percy was hearing every one of them. Not just a buzz but dozens of different hums and drones talking, talking, talking.

Is that him? I can’t believe it! Death. Kill him! Should be kissed by a dementor. Reminds me of that traitor. War. So surprised. That death Eater chasing me. He is a Quidditch player, isn’t he? I wish I were that famous. He was handsome like him. The man who tried to kill me. Kill him! I wonder if the trial will be public? They should have killed the lot of them after the war. He is a god player. That coward! I would never had thought. Kill, kill, kill. I want to see his execution, dementor kiss is too good for him. I have to get the paper and see what they say. Edna is going to be so jealous when I tell her I saw him. He reminds me of that boy. I was so scared in that forest. I hope he suffers. Oh, wait till I tell the boys. Death!

And a laugh. Laughter.

Percy was hearing laugher.

He couldn’t tell its origin. Usually he could tell who thought what if he stood close or if he knew most of the people around. It was impossible, in the crowded Atrium of the Ministry, to even tell who was speaking let alone who might be laughing internally. Laughing like, like, oh, how to describe a laugh? Laughing like a knife under a tap of water, like a glass of champagne falling to the floor and breaking.

He couldn’t find the source but he still tried because the world was going crazy, Oliver had been accused of a murder, and someone was laughing. He couldn’t. The place was loud and swarming and Percy couldn’t find it. There was bile in his mouth and he had to swallow it back. People had horrible thoughts when there was a murder case.

Death. So Surprised. Hope he is punished. HA! Murder. Wonder how it feels. I want to kill too. Fly. Broom. Azkaban. Ha! So dark. So cold. Handsome like him. HA! I had to kill him or he would have killed me. HaHAha! Kiss is too good. Harsher. Lash him. Haha! Pain. Make him pay. Make them pay. HA!

Percy pushed his way through the crowd, pale and sweaty. He got a very brief glimpse of the wizards taking Oliver down to the holding cells, just a glimpse before someone with wider shoulders pushed his way before Percy. There was an uproar of people thinking about punishments for murder and about murder itself, about pain and torture and killing and being killed and Percy had to get his handkerchief out and spit into it.

The laughter was gone. Like the reflection of the sun on the crystal beads of a bracelet, it had shone right into Percy’s eyes and then disappeared with a quick flick of a wrist. No one was laughing and it seemed that there had never been any laughter, that it was yet another layer of madness from Percy’s mind.

Except…

Except for one, two, two thoughts, two minds. Moving sinuously through the crowd like eels until they reached Percy. Two different people who were certain, absolutely certain, that Oliver Wood didn’t do it.

It wasn’t Percy’s shocked reaction, it wasn’t the wish that it weren’t true because Oliver was so nice, the horror of hearing about it and instinctive denial. It was absolute certainty, hard and glossy, that Oliver was an innocent man.

Oliver was preceeded by the Head Patroller, two Magical Law Enforcement officials at his side.

Two people were certain Oliver didn’t do it and they were saying nothing. Someone had seen him in cuffs and had laughed.

And no one else could possibly know about it, only Percy.

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.

 

Chapter Text

ooOoo

VII

Enlightenment

ooOoo

At least on Wednesday Percy remembered to bring his lunch. He used to have such a nice schedule and it was all messed up now. He had barely read his book and he hadn’t watched any muggle films, his apartment was dusty and he hadn’t properly cooked in days.

He had gone more than three days without eating warm food now. That was unheard of in the Weasley family. Well, Ron probably didn’t eat very well that year he was camping with Harry and Hermione, but those were extreme circumstances. Even Charlie, when he was deep in the mountains of the dragon reserve, cooked some nice hot dishes for everyone in the party. Percy knew because Charlie had told them that the other dragon trainers teased him about it; apparently carrying a pot and saucepan around was undignified, but they were very gentle in their teasing because they all wanted to enjoy his food. That was how important good hot food was for the Weasley children. Even in dragon-infested mountains they managed to prepare some.

Although Charlie would say the mountains weren’t infested. It was the dragons’ natural habitat.

The point was that Percy’s life was more chaotic than usual and today the confusion was blowing up and he was tired already.

It started when he got The Prophet on his way to work and there, on the front page, a smug Magda Marlowe announced that she had found the elusive Dusan Corridan-Kucera, the remaining suspect in the investigation. A New Development, they called it. A Superb Example Of Journalist Investigation. The Prophet had always abused the use of capitals. Percy read with his heart beating fast in his chest because they couldn’t possibly make three arrests. They would have to let the others go, investigate, and then pick one.

It turned out that the boy was Czech, not Russian or Polish like some media (The Prophet, actually) had claimed. He was also in possession of a strong alibi for the whole week of the murder. You could say that being in Czechia at the time should be good enough, but he had also been working picking some kind of mountain flower that had a very small interval of harvest so there were plenty of witnesses who could swear that he hadn’t sneaked out for a quick international murder trip.

Percy lowered the paper and stared at the street, frozen in place. What was he supposed to do now? Someone had killed Corridan and it wasn’t Oliver, but he was pretty sure that it wasn’t Alice Sudworth either. She just didn’t seem the type. Not because she was gentle, sweet and weak, but because she was the kind of woman who found murder distasteful and would find a better alternative to it. Besides, she was going to inherit anyway and didn’t seem in a hurry to get that money. And now it turned out that Dusan Corridan-Kucera who had excellent motives wasn’t the killer either. He supposed either Elaine or the ex-wife could have done it but it appeared they both had alibis, too; and in any case, if they hadn’t done it before there was no reason why they would have to do it now and implicate a charming young Quidditch player too.

It could be that Corridan had other enemies. He might have been blackmailing someone, blackmailers always turned up dead in the radio serials. But Percy was against that idea because if Corridan had been pressuring anyone to do something against their will, that would have been Oliver, and Oliver didn’t kill him, that was the one thing Percy was sure about.

This was very confusing and very distressing. Percy didn’t like it, he didn’t like it one bit. He didn’t like the idea that maybe Alice was a magnificent liar, someone so cold that the voices couldn’t pick up a single peep from her.

He was also going to arrive late if he didn’t move. Folding the paper and shoving it quickly in his bag Percy made his way to the Ministry still thinking deeply, eyes going glassy. Perhaps it was Elaine after all. He couldn’t think of anyone else who would want to see Corridan dead and he supposed that Marlowe must have looked into it by now, too, and she hadn’t found anything either. There weren’t any spurned lovers, any betrayed business partners, any other athletes whose career he had hindered. It was just his family, who didn’t like him but were going to inherit from him all the same, and they all had alibis for that night.

Except Alice. But it wasn’t her. If she needed the money that much she could have asked him for it and Corridan would have given it to her just to spite his sister.

It was not as if Percy had been wanting the killer to be that Dusan boy. Poor guy, rejected so young by his father. Percy was glad that he seemed to be doing well. It was just that it was really inconvenient and now he was going to have to review everything and try to figure out how it could have been Elaine.

He still didn’t like Elaine much. The way she cried, the way she appeared weak. She was hiding something, strength at the very least, maybe also unhealthy hate.

He almost thought that it could had been a muggle; wizards never thought of that and it would fit with the use of a knife (if it was a knife, because it was still missing). But he dismissed the thought quickly and the voices told him he was a veritable dunce because a muggle couldn’t use polyjuice potion and how else did someone with Oliver’s face get in the house?

Besides, Percy had heard two people, two, think that Oliver was innocent and he had heard it standing in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic where muggles weren’t allowed.

Who else knew Oliver was innocent?

                            You   

                   And him

         And the murderer.

Percy usually knew the mood of a room before he stepped in it. He did notice that the air in the office was charged with emotion, he noticed as soon as the lift reached their floor, but since he was preoccupied with other things he noticed but didn’t register it. He got out of the elevator and walked the full length of the corridor to the entrance of their office (they shared that floor with Magical Education) and it was only once he passed through the door that he realised that the feeling nudging his mind for attention was a combination of anger, shame, and utter, absolute despair of the kind that had people jumping off bridges or taking deathly potions.

Which was a bit of an overreaction, if you asked him. It was hardly the worst picture he had seen.

Pictures. Plural.

The floor of the department was covered in glossy photographs of a woman that Percy supposed was the same lady smiling at him and blowing a kiss from the big poster that hanged, or possibly hung, above the door of Titus Titanicus’ office.

Beautiful lady too. She was wearing a bright red wig in the photographs so it took him a few seconds to realise that it was a younger Euterpe. She was wearing a frankly undersized robe that barely covered anything and, oh, that was the point.

Idiot.  

The photos scattered over the floor were of the same quality. “French Postcards” is what Aunt Muriel would call them. The red-headed witch smiled and waved and shook her hips teasingly while wearing a variety of skimpy costumes. Mediwizard, Auror, Quidditch Player and, uh, Survivor of a Dragon Attack Dressed in Rags.

That’s a dementor.

         Uh?

Sexy Dementor Costume.

Sexy Dementor, of course. He wasn’t even surprised.

What was surprising was that the department was covered in said pictures. None of this had anything to do with transportation.

There were a few other workers standing in the room, looking around in puzzlement. Percy overheard a couple of comments. They were debating whether or not it was Euterpe, but the general consensus was that it was her and also that she was a dirty slut, just like the Slytherin one, ha!

Shame         Shame         Shame         Shame         Shame         Shame

The lady in question was near the back of the room, under the big poster that kept smiling and waving at whoever stepped into the room. She was sobbing so hard that her hands were trembling and she could hardly breathe. Alice White was by her side, her anger heating the air in the room.

Shame         Shame         Shame         Shame         Shame         Shame

I want to die

“Oh, I think this one is my favourite,” said Marcus in a mocking tone, holding a bunch of the photographs and pointing at one of them with his finger. He was a man well past his middle age who worked enough to do the bare minimum and nothing more. Percy had never liked him. Reg was standing by his side, blushing and looking very uncomfortable as he didn’t know where to look. Certainly not at the picture Marcus was pointing to.

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH OR I WILL FUCKING CUT YOU!” yelled Alice from the other side. She let out a stream of flames from her wand for emphasis. The fire caught a few of the pictures but as they burned new ones began to appear, falling in their place and sliding across the floor.

Geminatio curse, duplicating the thing you wanted to destroy. And, if the scorch marks on the wall were any indication, the poster hanging there had been warded against any tampering.

The duplicating photos knocked some parchments to the floor and Euterpe began to cry harder. Percy kept hearing a steady stream of shame shame shame shame coming from her, a feeling of being gutted in her stomach whenever another co-worker, especially a male co-worker, came in and saw the pictures. And, above all, the horror at the possibility of Gerald learning of this.

Gerald?

Gerald Brown-Burke supplied a voice. Her boyfriend. Good formal family. Traditional but not violent. Everybody works in legislation except him because he likes animals.

Oh, right, right. Percy liked Gerald in a sort of abstract distant way. Good chap. The one who let the dwarf malquash out.

I want to die!!

         shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

No, please, no, just let me die, let me die, let me die.

shameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshameshame

Alice had abandoned the stacks of photos and was desperately attacking the big poster with little success. After a particularly loud “pop” of one of her spells Reg shook himself out of his stupor and vanished the pictures that had fallen over his desk. They went away but were immediately replaced by twice as many.

A picture of Euterpe wearing stockings and nothing else came gently flying to Percy’s feet.

She was desperate for money whispered a voice that was like white feathers. Parents deceased. Young sister to care for.

Not that it mattered. In fact, her reasons mattered very little. What mattered was that Percy’s department was flooded with naughty pictures that were distracting everyone from work.

“Good morning, everyone,” Percy said in a louder than usual tone. He let his gaze travel through the room. With the exception of Titus, who was always at least twenty minutes late, everybody else was there. Everybody. Looking surprised and sorry and upset and horny and amused and in one case, utterly delighted. That was what grabbed Percy’s attention, how could someone watch the humiliation of that young woman and feel delight. Arousal he could understand, even if he found it nasty, but delight?

“Please,” Percy went on in his Pompous Prefect tone. “Take your seats and begin to work.”

And then he took his wand out, waved it at what he guessed was the original source of the pictures, and vanished them all.

There was a moment in which they all collectively held their breaths, waiting to be swamped by the pictures that would inevitably duplicate. It almost felt as if Percy had vanished the oxygen together with the photographs and they would only be able to breathe once the pictures came back with twice the strength and numbers. But they didn’t reappear and they all had to take a breath in the now empty room. Percy then pointed his wand at the poster and made a gesture of a crossed wave. The poster rolled itself up and burned from the outside in, leaving nothing more than a few ashes behind.

Percy walked to his office accompanied by utter and deep silence on the outside, the kind of silence that is often described as deafening because of its density and depth. There was a clamour of voices, however, in the inside of his head. There was so much screaming. He couldn’t even make the words, it was just senseless yelling, but he got the surprise and admiration at his performance.

Twelve NEWTs, all with high marks. Of course Percy could counteract a gemino curse and an anti-removal spell. Please.

Percy’s life was difficult, very difficult at times, but he thought that it had to be close to unbearable for the people who struggled and couldn’t make magic really answer to them. Knowing that there was a magical solution but not being able to do it – it had to be terrible.

Percy dropped his bag by his desk and went to hang his coat on the hook. His mind was spinning and agitated. He just wanted to think about Oliver, about how to get him out of that cell and hopefully not get hurt himself in the process or ruin anyone else’s life. He wanted to think about who had killed Wenzel Corridan and in the background he wanted to think about all the things he wasn’t doing or had left for later. He had to buy George a Christmas present. He had to do laundry. He had a goblin ring that he hadn’t even looked at. But now all those thoughts were being haphazardly pushed aside to make way for the big fat WHAT? caused by the pictures. He felt his attention desperately trying to grab a thought, just one, and focus on it properly, but they were all shoving each other out of the way and Percy just couldn’t think.

The loud thoughts from everyone in the office weren’t helping either.

And then, right then, Titus Titanicus finally walked into the office and Percy was hit by a wave of, of, satisfaction and thrill. It was anticipation and pleasure and it was so, so, similar to that laughter he had heard two weeks ago, that laughter made of burnt caramel and pride. Percy felt dizzy and had to support himself on the wall for a second. Could it – ? But why would anyone in the department want Corridan dead and Oliver arrested?

Titus was coming in, greeting everyone in that absent-minded way of his. Percy had cleaned up the disaster but it seemed impossible that someone could walk in and not notice the awful tension in the air, the wild gazes, Euterpe’s red eyes.

People had listened to Percy and everyone had shuffled to their desks, although no one was working and the ones in the back were all standing by the kettle and craning their necks so they could see better.

You are still going down, bitch.

Percy could feel the anticipation building under his tongue and on the tips of his fingers. It wasn’t the nice kind of anticipation, the thrill when he was on the last chapters or a book or when he was about to crack down a puzzle. It was tense and electric and raw.

Okay, but why? Why that sudden happiness? Percy had gotten rid of everything and Titanicus was an oblivious idiot. Why that certainty? It had come just as Titanicus arrived so this wasn’t a promise for later punishment. This was something that was going to happen now. Something against Euterpe.

“Good morning, sir,” Percy greeted since Titus was already standing by his office door. He needed to win time, desperately.

“Good morning, Weasley,” Titanicus answered, because the man was polite, that was something one had to recognise. He had good manners. He even turned to look at Percy when he spoke and Percy, tall Percy, could look over the little man’s head and see the mail tray sitting on his desk.

It was beautiful. The day so far had been pretty ugly, but this… Oh, if only someone had recorded it, if only you could see it in slow motion. It was beautiful.  

People heard “twelve NEWTs” and imagined someone hunched down day and night in the library and sure, he had had to study a lot, but the exams also had a practical component and you only passed it if you had lots of practice. Lots. It was exasperating when people forgot that. And then, of course, there was the fact that Percy had been the default target for the twins’ pranks at home and in Gryffindor Tower so learning to cast quickly and accurately had been basic survival. In fact, all the Weasley children were very good at casting under the table and it had a lot to do with their mother’s hawk eyes.

Ginny and the twins had always been flashy even when they wanted to be sneaky. There was something eye-catching in everything they did, something splendid. Ron was neat in a way his handwriting wasn’t. He was like an instructional manual. Bill was like that too, but Percy thought (and he didn’t think it just because Ron had grown to become his favourite brother), that Ron’s style was even neater. Clean and crisp.

Percy was organic and natural. Percy was like those muggle magicians that made it appear as if they could grab coins out of the air. You saw the result but not the trick.

It was beautiful.

Percy’s eyes fell over that mail tray and it all came together. That smug thought that they weren’t done yet. A voice like a bell screaming in his right ear to look at the mail. That closed envelope on top of the pile, just the right size, addressed to Titus.

Titus Titanicus was already entering his office. There was an ugly laugh resonating inside Percy’s head. Ugly like the sound of glass breaking, like sharp metal grating against each other.

Laughter should always be happy and joyful, although Percy had also heard mocking and cruel. But this was, it was, it was perfume over something rotten, it was pain and pleasure mixed in the worst way.

Percy cast from behind his back, non-verbally. The charm’s stream of light ought to have been a clear sky-blue but it was almost transparent. Titus’ reading glasses, that he had just been putting on, fogged as if a thin cloud had decided to sit on them.

“What is…?” mumbled Titus, grabbing the top envelope. But he couldn’t see. He couldn’t see without glasses and he couldn’t see with them.

“Oh, allow me,” Percy said as he smoothly, so, so smoothly took the envelope from him. “It’s from International Cooperation. That project you mentioned? I already assigned it to Euterpe, I don’t know how it made its way to your desk. My apologies, sir.”

“Make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Titanicus said, because he did like to remind everyone that he was the Head of the Department, thank you.

“Of course, sir,” Percy smiled gently, just as he used to smile gently at Crouch, at Fudge, at Scrimgeour. At Thicknesse he didn’t smile. It would have been out of place. “Your glasses, sir,” he added, pointing at them and getting a handkerchief from his breast pocket.

“Ah, thank you, Weasley. No need. I can just – ” Titus tapped the glasses with his wand, but they remained murky and unusable. He blinked at them in confusion.

“If I may,” Percy tapped them with his wand and, if his brothers had always said that he looked like a lizard, in that moment Percy smiled at Titus like a crocodile. The fog disappeared from the lenses and the glasses were clear once again. He wiped them with his handkerchief nevertheless. “I have experience with this,” he added, pointing at his own glasses.

This man is a LIAR!! roared Alice’s voice in Percy’s mind. He supposed it was true, but there was no need to be like that.

He dropped the envelope on Euterpe’s desk. He felt that he shouldn’t be the one to destroy those pictures. Or maybe it was just that he wanted her to see that he hadn’t opened it. It was hers.

Percy went back to his office feeling drained. What a day. What a day and it wasn’t even ten yet. He couldn’t wait for lunch time.

I would kill for this man, he heard a voice say, which was nice, possibly the highest praise he had ever received. But what really mattered, what Percy really enjoyed, was that Euterpe had stopped thinking that she wanted to die. She still had a constant stream of shame and embarrassment, but the death wish was gone. That was a bad smelling thought and Percy had had enough with his own death wishes.

ooOoo

When the clock’s hand finally made it to ten Percy had done very little. He had put together all the information about the owl project to drop it at Euterpe’s desk. That was nothing because he already had it all together in a red folder. All he had to do was grab it from the pile. He hadn’t even handed it to her yet.

He was feeling exhausted.

He just, he didn’t understand. The only other competitor for the project was Miranda and she had stepped away willingly. Why do this then? Even if they had succeeded, even if he or Titus had decided that Euterpe wasn’t a suitable candidate anymore, even if the poor woman had been fired from her job, the project wasn’t going to anyone else. The most likely result would be that Percy would take over it, as he often did, rather than delegating to someone else.

Percy wasn’t an expert, but he had seen his fair share of evil deeds. He would like to say that it was only during the year he worked for Thicknesse, but he had seen some pretty nasty examples before that. He was used to people being cruel when it suited them. He thought of Alan, despite himself, and of his other mission. How that other man had enjoyed himself. But this? Why would someone do something so despicable if they weren’t benefited?

The voices tried to tell him something, but he was too tired.

After taking a deep breath, he grabbed the folder with all the information and went to give it to Euterpe. She wasn’t crying anymore and even if her eyes were still a bit red, her cheeks were clean.

Soft green, said a voice, which didn’t make much sense because nothing about Euterpe was green except her earrings. But Percy agreed. Soft green indeed, like new grass growing in spring.

“There is a meeting scheduled for next Tuesday,” he told her. “I want a list of talking points by Monday at nine so I can review it. Do let me know if you have any questions.”

“Yes, sir,” she squeaked. The envelope, the one addressed to Titus, was poking out from the inside of her bag. She would probably wait to burn it until she was somewhere private.

Percy recognised the handwriting on it. The hand that had written “To the attention of Titus Titanicus, Head, Department of Transportation.” Percy recognised it.

He always paid attention to that kind of detail. He liked studying other people’s handwriting and learning something of them through it. Not that he needed to in this case, because the department wasn’t that big and the thoughts –  first of joy and later of resentment after he took the envelope from Titus – had a familiar tone of cloying sweetness, like biting on a pastry that was nothing but hard sugar and food dye.

The laughter (so similar to that other one Percy had heard in the Atrium) had thrown him for a loop; but the thoughts wishing Euterpe ill, those he knew who where they coming from.  

“A word in my office, Miss Swanson.”

Percy wondered if Judith could feel Alice’s fiery eyes fixing on her and following her until she closed the door to his office.

ooOoo

All his life, Percy had been either too well behaved or too sneaky, so he had no familiarity with scoldings and reprimands. He had no idea of what to say. As a Prefect it had been easy because he only had to point the rule they had broken and then take points and escort the miscreants to their bedroom. Now… He wasn’t sure of how to act now. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” is what he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure that you were allowed to swear during a reprimand.

“You understand, you were never under consideration to take on that project,” he said at last because he needed to start somewhere and even more he needed this to make sense. If that harpy had deluded herself into thinking she had a chance at the owl project, then yes, Percy could see her shooting the competition the best way she knew to get that position for herself.

But it didn’t seem to be the case.

“I, I don’t know what you mean, sir,” Judith said innocently. She was ready to burst into tears to show Percy that he was wrong and she was perfectly innocent and oh, why did everyone hate her? They were. all. so. mean. She batted her lashes and arranged her posture, showing the contour of a leg under her robe. A promise and an act of casual innocence. Ingénue, was probably the word and what she was aiming for. The young girl who was naively unaware of her own allure. Nothing at all like the shameless woman outside, that wanton and brazen whore. She was the bad one, dirty and impure, and Judith was good and nice and clean.

“I mean that if Miss Caterham were to be discredited I would be taking over that project. It would not go to anyone else,” Percy explained calmly, and then pinned his eyes on Judith and looked at her attentively. She bore his unsettling blue gaze with unexpected ease.

Fuck her, her thoughts said, ugly and violent. It was so sudden and so strong that Percy blinked quickly and gave an unwilling step back.

And then, at last, he understood. How innocent Percy was, despite all he had seen, despite the grief and sorrow he had endured, despite the horrible thoughts and voices living with him and taunting him every day and telling him the secrets of the world. How innocent he was and how innocent the voices were, too, thinking that people acted with reason. How innocent he was, to think that people are only evil when they have a motive for it.

To think people need a motive to do harm.

Judith had found about Euterpe’s past and she had used the knowledge to harm her in the worst possible way simply because she could, because she didn’t like her, because she wanted her to suffer, and she had done it when it would cause most harm. It was the most selfless act of evil, the most disinterested torment. Percy stared at her in confusion and amazement.

“I really don’t know what this is about,” she tried again, pouting a little bit.

“Shut up,” Percy snapped.

Shut up Judith, and shut up voices. It was too loud and he had a headache and Percy wasn’t done with his moment of enlightenment and true understanding. This moment in which two of the thoughts whirling in his head had clashed together and exploded in a burst of light, of enlightenment.

She looked at him affronted, this petty little woman, this cruel harpy. She lowered her eyes and took a deep breath while her hand clutched her robe and grabbed her thigh like the talons of a hawk. She was deciding, in just that instant, if she was going to cry and play the little victim or if she was going to accuse Percy of something, if she could hurt him in any way. Maybe tear her own robe and smudge her lipstick and come to the Titanicus fool with an awful, awful, accusation. Maybe cry that they all hated her and were willing to do anything to see her discredited. That would be a nice spin. Add some hints that Weasley might be getting something special from those species he helped so much. The goblins and the trolls that were now allowed on the Knight Bus.

That stupid stick in the mud, that pompous sod. He had ruined her pretty plan and he should be sorry. She would make him feel sorry.

Or not, as was the case, because Percy finished his little crisis first. He focused his blue eyes back on her and looked at her like a crocodile watches the world. Percy wasn’t a cruel man, not at all. He was, in fact, quite kind in his own stilted way. He wasn’t cruel but the voices in his head were. They were hard and cruel and unforgiving. They were unrelenting. They were great at finding a weak spot and digging their nails in and tearing the cover apart and exposing the weak and tender flesh.

He looked at her and told her what she didn’t want to know. Told her that she hurt others because she couldn’t stand that they would get attention and not her. He told her the name, that name that burned in her mind through the day and put fire in her nights, the name of that person she wanted above all. What would that person think of her, if they knew what she had done? How would they look at Judith?

Judith left his office in tears and had to go seek refuge in the bathroom where so many others had cried because of her. Percy didn’t feel good about it; he just felt tired and emptied.

But now I know.

         So stupid.

No, not stupid. How was I to know? I couldn’t know. No one else did. No one else does.

No one.

He had been so innocent. Now he knew why Wenzel Corridan had died. Now he understood what had really happened, saw the real crime.

Corridan wasn’t the victim. Well, sure, he had been murdered, poor guy, but it wasn’t about him, it was never about him. He was just the means; nothing more.

What was the element that didn’t fit in the story? Oliver. Oliver who didn’t have an alibi. Oliver who had left so many witnesses. Oliver who had little to gain from the murder other than a release from his contract… It was Oliver, it was him, he was the victim. It wasn’t about killing Corridan and not being found, it was about having Oliver arrested and hopefully, if there was enough of a popular clamour, kissed by a dementor.

It was about hurting someone even if there was nothing else to gain.

ooOoo

That evening Percy abandoned his usual walk and instead apparated home right away. Well, not home, home-adjacent. He still had to use his keys to get inside.

He didn’t go to the library. He had barely touched the book on goldsmithing. Instead he cooked, properly cooked, and made dinner and lunch for the next two days. He cleaned the whole apartment, dusting, sweeping, mopping, and sure, he had magic to help, but it was still a chore. If it weren’t people wouldn’t hire house elves. He also did his laundry and cleaned the bathroom, scrubbing at the soap rings forming in the bathtub.

He fell into bed exhausted and satisfied. He had been tired since early that morning and he needed his body to catch up with his mind. It was a good kind of exhaustion, for once. The kind that came from having made a big effort and achieved something. It was so much better and so different from that weary exhaustion provoked by nothing, that tiredness with nothing to show for it. There had been times, after Fred, when going through the day, simple as it was, had been enough to deplete all his energy.

Not now. Now Percy went to bed knowing he had a lot to think about, but he would do that tomorrow. Tomorrow, once he had rested and his thoughts had sorted themselves in groups.

That night he dreamed of every time he felt people didn’t like him, but the dream itself wasn’t as bad as it sounded. He also dreamed of the goblin with violet eyes, telling him something in a language Percy couldn’t understand; and Alan and his eyes with the green of the forest, those lying eyes that had been so tender.

He felt changed when he woke up. He couldn’t say if it was for better or worse. Just that there was something different in the air around him and in his blood. Perhaps it wasn’t good or bad yet; it was a change full of potential and for him to decide.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

                                                                                                                          ooOoo                                                                                                                          

VIII

Percy writes a fourth list, and a fifth.

ooOoo

 

Percy sat at his desk with a freshly made cup of tea. Titus Titanicus was taking a cat nap in his office, Judith was sullen and silent, everyone else was working diligently. As soon as he had arrived in the office they had taken a look at him and began to work as if they wanted to show him something.

From their surface thoughts, they were thinking more about him vanishing the pictures and playing Titus like putty than about the pictures themselves. He supposed that was good.

Since everyone was working or sitting quietly not bothering the others, Percy had time to sit down and think. He had been thinking wrong about the case, but he could do it right now.

He got a piece of paper, nice and clean, dabbed the quill in the inkwell and began to write.

 

REASONS TO HATE OLIVER WOOD TO THE POINT OF COMMITTING MURDER TO INCRIMINATE HIM.

 

1) He is talented. He is a very good wizard and Quidditch player.

2) He does speak a lot about Quidditch.

3) He is very handsome.

4) He acts as if people with brown hair and brown eyes couldn’t be considered attractive when there he is looking like a summer day full of good news. I hate that.

5) He is nice to everybody.

6) He makes you feel like he cares. Why would he?

7) He is brave.

8) He is half-blood and proud of it.

9) He leaves messes behind (see: toothpaste).

 

Percy took a sip of his tea while he re-read the list. It didn’t seem very useful. He set it aside and took a roll of parchment, cutting a piece from it. At the top, he wrote:

 

PEOPLE WHO MIGHT HATE OLIVER | PEOPLE WHO DON’T.

 

Harry Potter was at the top of the second column, he most definitely didn’t hate Oliver. There might be a few old blood purists who would hate him, though. Beyond that, Percy had no idea. He didn’t know Oliver’s circle well enough. He supposed he could go ask him, but he knew he wouldn’t get much out of him.

He added a tenth point to the previous list: Reasons to hate him.

 

10) He doesn’t notice when people dislike him.

ooOoo

Percy was surprised at himself. He had just gotten up and left his office to go to the Wizengamot holding cells once again without a second thought for his work. He felt no guilt about the inevitable pile-up or the fact that he was doing this during working hours. He just went. This provided further proof for his assessment that morning that he was feeling different.

Oliver and Alice were sitting side by side against the wall so they could hold each other’s hands. Percy’s chest did something weird that he couldn’t stop to examine. They were fighting, Alice and Oliver, which was a strange thing to witness. A fight in which they couldn’t see the other’s face and in which they didn’t let go of their clasped hands.

The core of the fight seemed to be that Oliver was stupid and reckless and refusing to listen to Alice. Percy wasn’t sure where that came from.

“Is that Percy?” asked Alice. Her cell was closer to the door so she caught a glimpse of Percy earlier. “Oh, Percy! Percy, you are a reasonable man. Come here and tell Oliver that he is being an idiot. He will listen to you.”

“I, I don’t…”

But Alice explained, quickly, with words running into each other, half her body turning to Percy while also staying close to Oliver. She explained, with that beautiful voice of hers. A voice for speaking truths and difficult things, like when she said she understood and that she wasn’t forgiving Percy because it wasn’t his fault that the MLE Patrol was arresting everyone without an alibi. Like when she refused to believe that her cousin Dusan could be involved. What a marvellous woman this Alice was.

She spoke and afterwards there was only one thing that Percy could say.

“She is right.”

Alice beamed and half turned to try to look at Oliver’s face, but she couldn’t.

“No, she – ” argued Oliver.

“Oliver, that is a very stupid plan.”

So stupid. Merlin’s pants, it was so stupid.

They had had a visit from their lawyers earlier that day. Oliver’s polyjuice defence had been rejected by default, which was disappointing and irritating but not exactly a surprise. The witnesses’ accounts had been accepted, also by default, but at least they hadn’t been declared of trust. That would have meant that nothing short of a vehement confession from the killer would call their testimony into question. It used to be that the status of trusted witness was reserved for Ministry officials and most pure-bloods, but nowadays it was only some Ministry officials and “important members of society,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Luckily for Oliver, it was just a house elf and a witch of no consequence who saw him. His lawyer could do something with that.

But that wasn’t all. Although the investigation hadn’t offered any evidence beyond a motive and an opportunity in Alice’s case, the tribunal wanted to move forward. Meaning that next week they were taking them from the Wizengamot holding cells and moving them to Azkaban.

And sure, Azkaban didn’t have dementors anymore but it was still a cold and humid fortress in the middle of nowhere.

Will there be blue there?

Seeing their situation, Oliver had come up with the brilliant idea of confessing to the crime so he could at least exculpate Alice Sudworth. Alice disagreed with the same vehemence she had opposed any accusation against her cousin.

Alice wasn’t a beautiful woman, exactly, just pretty enough, and she didn’t look pretty at all sitting on the floor of her cell with the sad grey clothes they had been handed. Her hair was dirty and she had a zit on her chin. Percy was sure that whenever he remembered this moment, she would look beautiful though. She had a way of making you forget her appearance and focus only on what she said, what she was. And what she was, was angry and scared and adamant that Oliver should listen to her. Everyone should.

“You could die!” she yelled, clutching Oliver’s hand harder and pulling a bit, as if she wanted to bring that hand to her mouth or her chest. “Tell him, Percy!”

“Um.”

“Nonsense,” argued Oliver. They had both turned around so they could look at Percy. His eyes were the sweetest brown. “There haven’t been executions in Britain in decades.”

“In Muggle Britain, maybe,” said Percy, who had actually studied History of Magic rather than muddling through with someone else’s notes. “But the death penalty hasn’t been abolished in the wizarding world. It is rare, though. I don’t think it has been formally used since Grindelwald’s war, with Hannah the Cruel as the last criminal to be executed. Dunked, if I recall right. Tied to a chair and lowered inside a pool. I think she had killed a whole family. Did horrible things to the house elves too, but that wasn’t considered murder, just destruction of property. In fact, house elf murder wasn’t typified as a crime until five years ago, which is shameful.”

Both Oliver and Alice were staring at him now and Percy was aware that he was lecturing. He couldn’t help it. He knew that it was pompous and annoying because his brothers had told him plenty of times, but if his mind opened the folder it was really hard not to dump everything.

“See?” said Oliver with that cheerful air of his, although today it was a bit hollow. He pulled Alice’s hand comfortingly and one of the voices inside Percy’s head began to cry. “No capital punishment. And it will get you out.”

“Of course,” Percy said, almost feeling as if it were someone else speaking. “Every death penalty sentence since then has been substituted with the dementor’s kiss, which Irving and Hugh both argue is pretty much the same thing if not worse. The Ministry’s current policy is not to work with dementors, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t invent something just as terrible, Oliver, just as terrible.”

Alice rose her brows and pursed her mouth, as if saying “See?”

Oliver gave a small step back, just enough that Alice wouldn’t see him, and looked straight at Percy. He was tired, even if he still looked as handsome as a dream. The shadows under his eyes were deeper and darker and his skin was clammy. He was tired of waiting, of not being able to fight, of keeping up the good spirits for everyone’s sake. He was tired and he needed to do something. Percy could understand, he really could, but it was still a stupid plan.

“It won’t work,” Percy said. “If they are willing to convict you as is right now, with no hard evidence, a confession won’t change things. They will argue that you are trying to exonerate her, which is the truth, and Alice will be convicted same as you.”

“But what if I ask to use veritaserum?”

“You can fight veritaserum with training. Also, Oliver, if you take veritaresum they will see your confession is a lie. They will ask: Are you doing this just to exonerate Miss Sudworth? And you will say yes.”

“Might do us good,” mumbled Alice. “At least they would be forced to listen to what we have to say.”

Percy didn’t say anything right away. The voices were wondering if the sea around Azkaban would be blue, like this, or grey and black. If they were the ones to enter the motion to use veritaserum their lawyers could have some say on the questions. Otherwise it would only be the prosecutor and the tribunal asking.

“But if we take veritaresum and they don’t like what we say, they will argue that we had built up an immunity, is that it?” asked Alice. She seemed to have a very good sense of how things were working. Very sharp mind for a woman who looked like an allegory of one of the most boring virtues. Patience, perhaps, or Humility. Her mother had insisted that she study at Beauxbatons which was very lucky, because if she had been sent to Hogwarts Percy was sure she would have ended up in Slytherin and that wouldn’t help with the case.

I don’t see how blue can be the colour of a song, said a voice.

Thank you!

                            I just want to have that blue with me when I die.

“I’m sorry, Oliver,” Percy said at last. “I promise, I will try to stop the transfer. And I have been thinking about this and I think I am on the right path now.”

So pure. Blue doesn’t lie.

         Please, stop.

“Say, Oliver, you can’t think of any enemies you might have, can you?”

Of course not and just as Alice refused to entertain the idea that her cousin Dusan might be a murderer, Oliver couldn’t fathom that anyone, friend, teammate or rival, would wish him ill.

It was frustrating and irritating and Percy wanted to insist, but he also knew he wouldn’t get anywhere. It was number ten on the list.

ooOoo

When he returned to his office Percy picked again the list he had made of people who might wish Oliver ill. It was wrong and incomplete. Terrible. He could do so much better. He drew a line down the middle and wrote on top:

HATE | BENEFIT

The names of the blood purists belonged to both, he supposed. They wouldn’t like a half-blood very much and it would benefit them if he were to be found guilty of murder. Below he wrote Quidditch rival?? with two question marks because who knew? Not him, certainly, he didn’t follow Quidditch. That made him think and he moved the quill to the right column, the one about benefit.

Whoever has taken his place on the team, he wrote. He supposed he should also include Quidditch rival in that category because Oliver was good, there was no doubt of that, and maybe making this list was stupid because he was just writing the same thing again and again.

         Bet, said one of the voices. It also agreed that Percy was stupid and had many failings, but the voices couldn’t stop themselves before a list. They had to contribute.

Percy wrote the word gamblers in the benefits column. Then he put the quill back in its place and looked at the paper. What a botched and embarrassing list he had made.

Most Quidditch games were on the weekends so if Percy wanted to find gamblers he should do it then. Blood purists had meetings on Mondays and Thursdays and Percy wondered how exactly and when he had learned that. Just… how? Had he been invited to one? He was the odd Weasley out but you would think that his policies in Transportation would make him persona non grata.

         In the library.

Oooh, right. He had overheard it in the library. Someone thinking about the standing date the next day, Thursday. Today was Thursday! Today was Thursday! Lucky him, how convenient.

The Quidditch players stayed on the list but those were easier because Percy was the brother of one so he had a vague idea of their routine. They had a lot of practices but they also got plenty of free time at odd hours and intervals. The key was finding them together because Percy was in a bit of a hurry and Percy couldn’t just go checking on them one by one.

Percy felt… Well, it was difficult to describe. Agitated, but that was very incomplete. He was restless and troubled and very, very, tired but also overcome by a strange energy that came from his anger at the evil of the world. Funny that he would be so angry now and not when he was deep in the den of the wolf during the war. But those had been very difficult times, full of fear. He didn’t have energy left for anger then.

Maybe that was it. For the first time in his life Percy didn’t feel any fear. That might be considered good and liberating but fear is a wonderful natural mechanism of survival. One shouldn’t let fear dominate them, but there should always be a little bit of fear inside for the bad decisions.

In any case Percy was in a strange state of mind and he was aware of it but he didn’t care much. Which is why he decided to get started immediately.

ooOoo

It was in the line to exit the Ministry, the place where all the workers came together and waited for fifteen unbearable minutes. Percy let the others go ahead, had to insist, in fact, and lost himself in the crowd looking for a thought.

Obviously there weren’t any Death Eaters working in the Ministry, even those who had successfully argued imperius were banned since they had proved to be so susceptible to that curse. But that didn’t mean they didn’t have some sympathisers, or people who said they didn’t like them but they had a point, not all wizards were the same, traditions had to be respected.

Percy pushed his way through a group of Treasury workers who were all thinking about food. It was either them or the people from the Department of Mysteries and Percy felt wrong going near them. He was not supposed to know what they were thinking, they were called Unspeakables for a reason, and in any case their thoughts were too weird. Less of the inner workings of life and death and love and more of the talking giraffe variety.

The group of International Magical Cooperation had what Percy was looking for. A staunch traditionalist who was certain to be above foreign wizards and muggles. He would be meeting with similarly minded people soon enough.

Percy followed him.

ooOoo

He returned home at the very reasonable hour of nine, thoroughly disappointed. He had followed the man, Eversleight was his name, to a locked house. There Eversleight had met with about a dozen other wizards and witches and they had put on special robes and given a ridiculous salute followed by something that was half song, half oration and promised to take very good care of the homeland and destroy the infidels and the contaminated. Then there had been drinks.

And nothing else. It was… It was like any other club meeting. Percy wanted to say that this one was far more disgusting and hateful but he knew that people got way more heated with Quidditch. There wasn’t even a proposal. He heard, because their security wasn’t that good and he could just stand by the window listening, he heard thirty-six calls to action and not a single proposal of what action could be. None.

Honestly, if the meeting had at least deviated into some sort of ritualist group sex Percy could admit that they had done something with their evening. But not even that. They merely drank beer and complained about the state of the government these days and the cheek of the muggle-born and other species. It was so unthreatening that Percy was inclined to think that it was healthy. They got to vent and feel very righteous without doing anything whatsoever.

The most these people would do was vandalise someone’s garden and write anonymous letters. They could not plan anything like the Corridan murder. It would be too much effort.

So that was a group of suspects rejected, but Percy didn’t feel accomplished. There wasn’t anything else to clean in his house but he still felt like he had to do something. The voices were antsy and so was he. Do something, do something, do something. Also one of the wizards had a song stuck in his head and now Percy had that song stuck too.

He read the papers from the last few days to find what was going on in the Quidditch world, but that wasn’t enough. In the end, since it was obvious he wasn’t going to fall asleep, he grabbed the book on goblin goldsmithing and began to read until it was well past midnight and his mind was full of details about spoons and scissors and swords and metal alloys and clan designs and heirloom patterns. The last chapter was about rings but he fell asleep right before reading that.

 

ooOoo

IX

Awful decisions

ooOoo

 

The Prophet on Friday came with a delectable promise for Sunday. A relative of someone involved in the Corridan case was ready to Tell All in an exclusive interview with Magda Marlowe.

The expression would be that Percy felt his heart fall –  but he didn’t because ever since Judith’s little spectacle on Wednesday he just couldn’t muster up any surprise at people’s actions.

The Prophet hinted, but didn’t say, who would talk and what they would have to say but given the timeframe Percy could make an educated guess. Oliver and Alice would be transferred to Azkaban on Monday, Tuesday at the latest. This was the time to do something so there would be a change of plans.

The question was whether the mysterious relative who wanted to Tell All would speak in defence of both Oliver and Alice or only one of them.

Percy forced himself to work diligently through the day although he still found himself drifting often, staring at the wall without seeing. His robes were itchy, his shoes suddenly uncomfortable, he was thirsty but he didn’t want any water. He was tired but under that tiredness remained a vein of energy. He wanted to do something, needed to do something, but not even the voices in his head could tell him what and the feeling of unrest followed him the whole day. At least he had a list with three items, the first one already struck through.

After work Percy took a detour and dropped by Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Even though he came knowing what awaited him and had been mentally preparing himself since he hit that part of the street, Percy still yelped and jumped when the unholy horror sat up and wished him a good evening.

And maybe he also punched it in the face which was a very un-wizardly reaction to have. And Percy was so nervous and jittery that he stepped on his robes, lost his balance, and fell together with the stupid mannequin.

Ginny laughed so hard that George’s protests of his treatment of the merchandise lost all their heat. That was the best thing about Ginny, her laugh was an instant mood lifter. She could be obnoxious at times and always very angry (at least around Percy) and a bit oblivious to the workings of the world, but hearing her laugh was amazing.

She was there with two other girls from the team who were also laughing but offering some words of concern too. This was excellent because Percy had come with a Quidditch-related question, (like anything involving Oliver). While he had thought that Ron could help, Ginny and her teammates should be able to help more and it was really lucky that they had all decided to come. Lucky, but not strange because George and Ginny were really close, as close as a twin could be with anyone else; Ginny was also close to Ron if only because of their age and because they shared Harry.

Ron had left early to do some business at the bank and afterwards he would go home or to see some friends. He wouldn’t return to the shop, was the point, so the soonest he would hear that Percy had been there was on Monday.

Ron was still Percy’s favourite, but Ron had a certain way of looking at Percy and knowing he was hiding something. Percy wasn’t hiding anything but he still didn’t want Ron to see him because Ron would question Percy’s sudden interest in Quidditch and the Puddlemere United in particular. He would frown. He might even think that Percy was about to do something stupid.

Percy wasn’t. He was just asking a couple of questions.

It stung a bit when Percy said, “just something I was discussing with a friend,” to justify his question and Ginny’s instant reaction was to think, you don’t have any friends. She thought it and it stung but she didn’t say it aloud and Percy supposed that was what mattered. Besides, she wasn’t wrong. Percy didn’t have any friends. It had been hard making friends in school and after Hogwarts it was too difficult to keep those school friendships, shallow and passing, and then he had deliberately cut all connections during the war and he never got them back. It was true and it hurt and he would have hated her for saying it, but she didn’t, she only thought it, loud and full of energy like all of Ginny’s thoughts. He couldn’t hate people for what they said in their minds.

Well, he could and he totally did, but his siblings got a free pass.

She answered the question, too, regardless of Percy’s weak excuse for asking it.  Percy thanked her and wished them all good luck in their game on Sunday. Everybody laughed when he jumped once again as he walked past the mannequin. He didn’t punch it this time, but he did raise his wand and shudder because it was a soulless monster and everyone should be wary.

Nobody questioned why he had gone to the shop. They didn’t question his interest in Quidditch and they didn’t question his visit, which was very good because Percy hated having to come up with a pretext. He suspected that he wasn’t a good active liar and that he always botched the delivery of his excuses. Keeping secrets was different and he did it well. Disguising his intentions was harder. But they didn’t ask, because they were all distracted by his reaction to the mannequin.

Ron would so have seen through it. Maybe not the first time, but totally the second, as Percy left.

ooOoo

What are you doing? said a voice.

This is dangerous, said another.

                                      Terrible idea.

                                                                                     Do it.

                                                                           Do it.

                                                                  Do it.

Percy wanted to do it. The first voice informed him that he was engaging in risk-taking behaviour and that given his mental state that was not a good idea. Percy had to laugh at the fact that a voice in his head was chiding him on his conduct and mental state. Laughing in public probably wasn’t a good symptom either.

Dangerous, sang a voice. It was a nice tune.

He did it. On his way back home he took the side street that went to Knockturn Alley. There weren’t many shops there. Shopkeepers preferred the clear and wide streets of either Diagon or Knockturn Alley. But the ones that were on Dawn Street were all very interesting. A bookstore, a clothes shop, an apothecary.

No. Don’t. NO.

                                                                  Yes, yes, come on, come on.

Percy went inside, into Mr Pinkman’s Brew Supplies and Apothecary. It smelled strongly of aniseed and clove and was surprisingly well lit.

“Good evening.”

Mr Pinkman was a blond man with a bland face and he reminded Percy of himself. Sure he was stocky and short when Percy was tall, tall, tall and thin; but his manner, the insipid politeness, Percy recognised himself in that. There was something hiding behind the trite manners.

He bought a jar of essence of ditany and five drams of poppy heads and then he asked if there was anything else with a relaxing effect. Recreational drugs is what Percy meant. Was there anything that produced relaxation and also euphoria?

Of course there was, and Mr Pinkman often sold it to his most selective and discerning clientele. But he wouldn’t sell it to Percy even though a well-dressed young man entering his shop on a Friday with such a request was far from being extraordinary. Mr Pinkman didn’t trust Percy’s red hair, such a Weasley sign, and didn’t like the blue of his eyes. He said no, curt and firm, and asked if he could help Percy with anything else.

Percy didn’t want it in any case. He didn’t know what he wanted, exactly, other than knowing what kind of face Mr Pinkman had. The voices were wondering what was Percy doing and a few of them were insisting that he should go, that being there was dangerous, that there was nothing to gain from coming into the apothecary.

He had seen Mr Pinkman, he could go.

Percy had also learned that Mr Pinkman was the man to see when you needed some hard-to-find ingredients. Whether they were hard to find because they were rare and expensive or legally restricted was between you and him and a handsome amount of gold.

Ron already said so. Let’s go.

                            go

                   go

What Percy hadn’t know, but could have guessed, was that you had to come recommended before being granted access to Mr Pinkman’s special stock. He wasn’t selling to just anyone. Certainly not to a Weasley, Weasleys were trouble.

Percy took his purchases and left thinking that it hadn’t been such a bad idea.

ooOoo

There was nothing else to clean in his apartment. He wasn’t hungry and he didn’t want dinner. He was tired in a strange way. He tried to read but he couldn’t focus.

He had a list of things to do, people to investigate, but it wasn’t a good list. It was badly organised. Maybe that would help, if he could rewrite it.

Percy took some paper, blue. The paper was blue for whatever reason. Percy owned coloured paper of different kinds and he really didn’t know why. Just that one day walking through muggle London he had seen it through the window of a shop and he had ended up with a big stack of paper sheets in different colours.

(Truth was that one of the voices had been insistently telling him that he should go ahead and kill himself because he was a bother for everyone, including Ron. Especially Ron. Ron would do better if he didn’t have to deal with him. But the moment Percy laid eyes on the paper the voice had stopped talking. It seemed that all of Percy, including the mad voices in his mad head, had a deep appreciation for office supplies.)

He re-wrote the list of enemies and suspects on the blue paper which was, as always, very soothing. He put a tick mark next to the blood purists and that was soothing too, a step already done. He was almost there, almost getting over that awful feeling of nerves, so he turned the paper around and wrote a second list of things to do.

Afterwards he sat on the floor of his living room and stared at the prints of the sky maps, looking at the constellations one by one in the order in which he had learned them. That was soothing too. The book on goblin goldsmithing was sitting next to him, open, the ring between Percy’s forefinger and thumb because he wanted to compare it to one of the illustrations.

At eight-thirty he got up, got dressed, and left the apartment. He absentmindedly put the ring in his pocket, like a complete fool. One should never lose track of where a ring was.

ooOoo

The Magpie and the Ruby was a big place, with at least three rooms connected to each other and two fireplaces, all just on the ground floor.

It was also pretty crowded that Friday evening. The place was hot and wet, the result of dozens of breaths and warm bodies all shoved together. It smelled of beer and of roasted ham. It was loud in a way Percy usually disliked but after half a pint it became tolerable. He could probably stand it better if only he went out more.

He wasn’t here to “be out” though. The Magpie and the Ruby, according to Ginny and her teammates, was the pub of choice for the members of the Puddlemere United, from the mediwizards and broom workers to the player themselves.

And Percy wanted to see those players. One in particular, Bill Darnley, the man who had taken Oliver’s spot on the team.

Darnley was a young man with a shaved head because he was already balding at nineteen, poor guy. He smiled a lot and joked a lot and currently had one of the mediwitches pissing herself with laughter, one hand on her knees and the other on the table.

He was also, Percy knew, under a lot of stress. The Keepers in Quidditch weren’t as important as the Chasers or Seekers until the team had a bad Keeper and then they became fundamental.

Oliver was a very good Keeper, gifted with an intuitive knowledge of how the game was going to play out, which way the quaffle would take to the rings. Darnley wasn’t bad, none of the Puddlemere players were bad, but he wasn’t as good and in the last game he hadn’t done great, precisely. They had won, but it was all thanks to someone called Berric, their star Chaser, and the quick intervention of the Seeker who grabbed the snitch at precisely the right moment and not a second too early.

Darnley wished Oliver were still with them. Darnley was sure that he would perform better. Darnley was a bit scared and very stressed.

None of this meant that he was innocent. Just because the consequences weren’t like he expected it didn’t mean that he didn’t do it.

How to know, though?

                            I’m kind of hungry.

Not the moment.

                                               This place is very hot and very noisy.

                   And horny. Wow.

It was all those things.

Percy hovered near the Quidditch group, out of sight, sipping slowly at a pint of beer and listening to their conversation and their thoughts. He wasn’t actually expecting someone to think, or even say out loud, that they had killed Corridan and incriminated Oliver, but…

Well, okay, he had been expecting something like that. Percy thought that if someone were to get away with murder it should be all they could think about. It had certainly been so in Thicknesse’s case.

And maybe Percy had done something about it then, even if it was just putting a curse on him. (Again.) A good nasty curse, too, none of that sea-urchin transfiguration.

He waited around an hour, drinking his beer slowly. Halfway through it he got the waiter’s attention and ordered a sandwich because the hunger was impossible to ignore. Percy might have forgotten to eat anything earlier which wasn’t like him, actually, but today (and yesterday) Percy had a weird energy.

When the hour was done Percy had yet another firm disappointment. Darnley didn’t do it. Darnley had all of the mediwitch’s attention, and he couldn’t enjoy it because he kept thinking of his performance, his awful nerves, the pointers Oliver gave him. Because Oliver was so stupidly nice that he helped the second Keeper and didn’t consider him a competitor. Oliver said “may the best win” and meant it.

And Darnley wondered what the hell had happened to make him snap and kill Corridan who, granted, was very killable; awful guy, bound to happen, but Darnley always thought it would be the Seeker.

Darnley thought that Oliver did it and it crushed Percy’s heart to hear that, to know what Oliver’s teammates thought of him, but it was also proof of Darnley’s innocence.

The murderer was the only person who knew that Oliver didn’t do it. 

Percy had failed again and unless he met a particularly desperate and resourceful gambler during the weekend Percy didn’t know what he was going to do. He still had time; transfer to Azkaban wasn’t a death sentence. It wasn’t even what it used to be a few years ago, when the place was run by dementors. He could still help Oliver once he was taken there.

But Percy wanted to get things done sooner. Percy wanted to avoid Azkaban altogether. Besides even if there weren’t dementors there anymore, the place was miserable enough that every few months one appeared there and the Auror Office had to send Harry or one of his apprentices to destroy it. Harry was in the Hebrides. What if a dementor appeared and there was an accident and Oliver was hurt? What then?

There was a voice laughing without restraint, the kind of laugh called a belly laugh only this voice couldn’t possibly have a belly because it lived inside Percy’s head. It was laughing at him, at what a hapless idiot he was, at his motivations and his future suffering when Oliver went to Azkaban despite all of Percy’s best efforts.

He went to the bar and got another beer, his second one, and let the voices laugh.

ooOoo

Percy leaned against the bar letting his eyes go over the room. In that precise moment, with his lazy but confident posture and the intense way he looked at nothing in particular, he was very attractive.

That was funny because Percy had never considered himself remotely attractive. This wasn’t due to the voices tormenting him or his shaky self-esteem. He just knew.

First of all, he was a redhead.

People heard “redhead” and either went “A Ginger, Kill him!” or “Oooh, the ones with fire in their hair, what a lustful and adventurous creature. SO Sexy.” Those people hadn’t heard a fourteen-year-old Ginny screaming that she hated them all because she had found seventeen new freckles in her face and it was just the first week of summer.

Or a fifteen-year-old Bill crying in the bathroom because he had no eyebrows.

And pretty much everyone in the family, except Charlie, had spent at least a month angsting because their lashes were invisible. Ron had even thought of using mascara until Harry thankfully told him it wasn’t a good idea.

Now, both Bill and Ginny had grown up to be extremely attractive people so they could make the hair and the stupid complexion work for them, but it wasn’t easy. With a head of orangey-red hair and skin that looked as if it ought to belong to the fairies, there weren’t many colours they could wear. Dressing in black made you look like a drowned corpse, dressing in white made you a ghost, pink was out of the question, green was tempting but looked weird, yellow and red were too much.

It was difficult, was the point.

There was a second factor to take into account and this was most unfair: Percy had curly hair. Who else had curly hair in the whole family? His mother, that was who. And Aunt Muriel. No one else. Huge family, too. What were the odds?

And don’t you start. No. Don’t think of it and don’t say it.

Percy knew, oh, he knew. People were drawn to curls like the stupid moths going to the flame. Curls were so cute! They bounced and shone so prettily! Oh, how they wished to have those curls and be a happy summer child of the meadow! To look so innocent and pretty.

Well, fuck them and fuck you and fuck everyone.

Curly hair had a life and personality independent of its owner. Sometimes Percy would wake up and, through no action of his own, have a luscious and glorious crown of hair as if he had just stepped from a Renaissance painting, one of those with bodies of water and naked people. But most days, listen to this, most days he would wake up and wonder what kind of party was his hair invited to last night. Curly hair had to be combed, not brushed, and it had to be hydrated, but not too much, and sometimes it could twist itself out of a braid, if the curl was strong enough. (He had seen it happen to Hermione Granger, her braid began to curl over itself.) Plus, if for whatever reason he went to a dry climate (Egypt) the curls went away and he was left looking like a sad sheep.

A sad red sheep.  

Unlikeable.

Right you are, mate.

There were only two options for this. Either you learned to ignore the hair and gave up on it ever being presentable, known as The Harry Potter Route to Wild Hair, or you cared about it and then spent years and quite a lot of gold trying to get it right.

And Percy didn’t care too much about his appearance, but he cared. Everyone wants to look good, if not head-turning car-crashing gorgeous. Through trial and error Percy had found that his hair looked actually pretty good if he grew it long and then slicked it back with gel, despite Aunt Muriel’s opinion on the matter. That haircut Percy used to have during Hogwarts, with the curls on his forehead and the top of his head, hadn’t been doing him any favours, what had he been thinking? But suddenly once they were pushed to behind the ears he looked… fancy.

That and some nice blue attire that complimented his skin and Percy got somewhere in the vicinity of striking. He looked both familiar and exotic, unusual without being outlandish. Such red shine in his hair, such cold blue in his eyes.

It was all thanks to Alan, Percy didn’t mind admitting it. At some point while Percy was still a teenager it seemed that everyone around him had sprouted biceps while Percy was left behind looking like a small lizard. He had worn big clothes to try to hide his ridiculous small frame and build some bulk for years. Since Percy’s idea of good clothes was that they covered most of him and were reasonably warm, he had looked like some kind of swamp creature that had learned to walk on its hind legs. Things like fabric and colour and cut were lost on him because even when the Weasleys bought something new it wasn’t actually new, it was from a second-hand shop, or it was in the cheapest range of new clothes.

But Alan, oh Alan knew how to dress to impress and he also knew that slim and sleek was the way to go and what many people liked. Percy had no idea. He and the voices were all very surprised. Apparently bulk and biceps and a chest like a rock slab weren’t all there was to male beauty. There was also the option of looking sleek like a snake and people liked it!

Like the young man staring at Percy with interest from across the room. The young man who had arrived a mere fifteen minutes ago. Now, that was someone attractive, muscular and strong and with nice blond hair that didn’t curl ridiculously. He did not have a winning smile (like Oliver) or a sinful mouth and eyes to die for (like Alan), but neither did Percy. What he had was very nice hair, shiny and wavy and well cut, and a pair of arms and pectorals that were very evident under his tight clothes.

And his mind… He was sitting a bit too far away and the pub was crowded so there was a lot of interference, but what interesting thoughts he had.

The voices had something to say about that.

Come on.

                   Just like Alan.                          Oh, Alan.

Just like that. Just like him.

                                               Look at those arms.

Percy looked at the man and wished very strongly that he would come closer and talk to Percy. He wished it very much and some of it must have shown in his eyes. He was not using the Lestrange Look of Insanity but Percy was aware that there was a certain intensity in his gaze right then, an almost desperate want.

Come on. Come on. Come on.

His hand had gone to his pocket and he was toying with the goblin ring. Percy was feeling wild and crazy, had been feeling like that for days and days, and he needed to do something about it. He had had two beers already and he hadn’t slept much last night. He wanted, he needed. The voices were insisting.

The young man left his table and came to him.

“Hey, how are you doing?” he said, with the ease and confidence of someone who knew they were handsome.

His name was Berric Summerwind. He didn’t usually go after men but he was interested in Percy. He was also feeling a bit wild tonight.

Please control your smile, begged one of the voices. You are going to scare him away.

                   Come on, come on, just like Alan.

Percy put the goblin ring on his little finger so he could free his right hand and shake Berric’s. The voices cheered.

 

ooOoo

X

A wild night

ooOoo

 

Berric kissed Percy softly on the corner of the mouth, but that was the only soft thing about him.

Yes, sure, there was a joke in there. But it wasn’t about that. It was about how he behaved and about the thoughts that he was loudly broadcasting into Percy’s head. If Percy had met Berric at Hogwarts when he was fourteen and going crazy with all the noise, he would have drowned himself in the lake just to get away from that loud voice.

Berric was thinking that he would like to see Percy, straight-laced and prim, all flustered and bothered. He was thinking that Percy seemed so vanilla and prudish that once he got hot enough he wouldn’t know what to do with himself and he would be submissive and pliable and an absolute delight. Berric could make him choke on his cock and Percy would thank him afterwards, coughing and with tears in his eyes. Or maybe Percy would be more than that. Those prudish nerds had filthy minds. Berric could tie him up and spank him and mount him like an animal and he would be begging for more.

Percy thought that this was a huge assumption to make just because he dressed formally and wore glasses. Also, a gentleman should not abuse their partner’s inexperience and hesitation to say no to get more than what they were willing to do.

But he is not a gentleman.

No, he was not. His kisses had grown stronger and frantic, his hands more daring as Percy let him touch and fondle and squeeze. He stepped back briefly and looked at Percy who was slightly taller than him. Percy began to breathe deeply, letting his chest move visibly. He had the vague idea that it would look innocent and excited.

“Do you want to come with me?”

This was quicker than expected. Percy had a six-step plan on how to do this and they had skipped five of the steps and gone straight to the last one.

“Y-yes,” he said, because he could adapt. He had to adapt.

“Okay. Then hold tight,” Berric said, pleased, as he offered a nicely defined arm.

“No, wait.”

Berric made a gesture of annoyance. His mind flashed with the idea of slapping Percy. Percy really didn’t want him to change his mind, he wanted to go with him, oh did he, but he also had to be prudent.

He ignored Berric’s brief consideration of slapping him and said. “Are you… should you be apparating?” It was a very sensible concern because Berric had been drinking copiously while he chatted Percy up and attempted to get him  very drunk and the chances of splinching were pretty high. No wizard liked to hear that, however. For some reason everybody bragged about how well they apparated drunk. Berric frowned terribly.

“I just…” Percy looked down. It was ridiculous and he thought that everyone should realise how ridiculous it was. A Vice-Head of a Department acting tongue tied and shy. But Berric was drunk and he was seeing what he wanted to see, what Percy was giving him.

“I would hate if there was a… spliching accident,” Percy said at last, a perfect mix of innocence and innuendo. Berric licked his lips and smiled.

“Oh, you know, I have plenty to spare,” he said and Percy had to bite his cheek to stop himself from rolling his eyes. Please. “But don’t you worry, pet, we can take the fireplace.”

They did. Nobody seemed to pay them any attention as they crossed one of the pub rooms and went to the fireplace. They stepped out into Berric’s place, a big, airy flat at least six floors up.

Berric was on him instantly, clumsily biting Percy’s mouth and burying a hand in his hair and pulling just this side of painful. His other hand snuck under Percy’s clothes and inside his pants, grabbing at his ass hard, the point of a finger just brushing his hole.

I do not like this.

                                               You are such a slut.

He had thought that it would be easier. It had been easy with Alan. He had even enjoyed it despite not feeling anything for him. It should be easy with Berric, just a small adventure, an impulsive but beneficial decision.

It wasn’t. It wasn’t easy and in fact it was becoming increasingly difficult.

It was time to do something about it.

Percy tried to break the kiss, but Berric’s hands were holding him in place against the wall. Percy had hands, too, so he pushed at one shoulder and tugged at Berric’s hair until he could get Berric away from his face.

Berric smelled like beer and salt and sweat. He was perhaps slightly more muscular and stronger that what Percy had first estimated. He felt huge, pressing against Percy.

Berric pulled Percy closer. Now both of his hands were down, exploring as if were the master of the place rather than a guest. He sucked lightly at the lobe of Percy’s ear before biting not too gently at his neck. It was, apparently, one of Percy’s best features. That elegant line of neck and shoulder.

I do not like this!

         Yes, yes. On it.

Very bad decision.

                            Shut up.

                                                                                              Whore.

“Shall we take your clothes off?” Berric said, thinking that Percy would probably blush when naked. “I want to see you.”

Absolutely not. Percy’s wand was in his pocket. This wasn’t a dirty play on words. He just didn’t want to be away from his wand.

Don’t tell him that.

                                      You are a slut.

                                      Slut.

Listen! Nobody cares about the slut thing so quit it already.

Percy had no idea of what to do but it seemed to him that if he didn’t do something Berric would just help himself.

“Not yet,” he said. Good. That was in character. He stepped closer and let his left hand wander down Berric’s chest and down to his crotch, pressing, closing. Berric’s fingers were digging into Percy’s waist hard enough to leave bruises. He was also debating whether to let Percy continue or to push him down to his knees.

Berric grabbed him tighter and put a thigh between Percy’s legs. Excellent thighs he had, like all professional Quidditch players, no complaints there. It was amazing how Quidditch toned their bodies despite how it was mostly sitting on a broom. Percy buckled against it and moved his right arm back to the long folds of his robes and the pocket with the wand.

“Oh, you like it, don’t you?” Berric chuckled. “You slut.” He kissed Percy again, hard. Slipped his tongue inside Percy’s mouth and thrusted his cock against him twice. He pressed Percy again against the wall.

And to think that professors stressed so much the importance of holding a wand properly, of pointing straight in the direction you wanted to cast, of never doing it under your desk or through your clothes. Yet here Percy was, right arm down and in an awkward position so he could cast undetected, his left hand increasing the pressure on Berric’s cock because he was terrified that he would notice what Percy was about to do.

There is just no good way to explain why you are sneakily grabbing your wand when you are about to have sex.

Berric’s mind was a mess of images and sensations. There was satisfaction and lust and the image of Percy’s neck nicely circled by his clothes. From time to time a thought flashed in Berric’s mind: stepping back, pulling Percy around and spanking his rear before fucking him roughly right against the wall, having him desperately try to find something to hold, some purchase.

Not going to happen.

Not that Percy disliked the image per se. (You are such a slut.) He just disliked it very much if it came from Berric. (Whore.) He didn’t like Berric. He had liked Alan, even if he didn’t love him. (You big whore.) He didn’t like Berric, though. Berric was a brute.

But when Berric broke the kiss, Percy chased after his lips and made a desperate trail of kisses and licks from Berric’s mouth to his ear. Berric was only slightly shorter than him and much bigger in every other aspect and Percy disliked it very much. He was used to towering over people. He breathed over Berric’s skin, hot and soft, while his left hand pressed harder on Berric’s crotch. He rub his thumb over the bulge.

I think it’s very funny that someone with so many voices inside can cast in perfect silence.

Percy had his mouth in just the right place, close to Berric and hidden from him. It was such a delicate spell too. One of those cases when casting non-verbally made it weaker. Now, if only Berric would stand still for a second so Percy could cast a spell. He had to be precise and careful and –

Berric grabbed him by the hair and pulled him away harshly. It wasn’t hard enough to bring tears to his eyes because Percy had a pretty high pain threshold, but it was hard and he yelped in surprise.

What. The. Fuck.

         Merlin’s beard. Merlin’s beard. He noticed it!

“You little cock tease,” Berric said. Percy had no idea if that was good or not. Was that an insult? “You wanna get a closer look?”

He really, really, did not. Not even out of curiosity.

Percy ignored the pressure on his head as Berric tried to push him down. Instead he licked his lips and went to open Berric’s trousers, looking down and then up and straight at Berric. He didn’t give him a smouldering look because to smoulder was to be hot and even if Percy could manage to get his general appearance hot, his eyes were blue and cold and not hot at all. He did blink with something that might pass for innocence and lust, and Berric’s mind caught on fire.

Percy fumbled with the laces long enough that Berric batted his hands away in frustration and did it himself. His head bowed down…

Percy cast, quick and light and perfectly silent. The air trembled like the ripples around a flame. It wasn’t very obvious, it was not a stream of red light, but it could be noticed.

Nothing happened. Nothing happened. Berric closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath but then he opened his eyes again and got his pants undone even if his movements became slow and sluggish. It was nothing short of admirable and Percy stood there staring with amazement and thinking how just a few days ago he had been so proud and stupidly arrogant, thinking how miserable must it be when magic didn’t respond to someone and didn’t do what they wanted. This was much simpler than vanishing a picture with a geminatio curse, too. It was a basic spell and yet here Berric was, standing proudly and unfazed. He put a hand on Percy’s shoulder and leaned against him as he got his cock out. 

“You are gagging for it, aren’t you pet?”

This is not the way to talk to your one-night stand.

                                                        I just want to be home in my bed.

         But you are here, you big whore.

Berric tried to push him down to his knees again. He was strong, but he was also a bit slow and clumsy now and it wasn’t hard for Percy to remain where he was. In fact Percy could have punched Berric silly; might have done it a while ago and been done with it. He should have done it a while ago, actually, the moment they got there and Berric crowded him against the wall. But Percy hadn’t. He had let him push him around and grope him and he insisted on being subtle about this.

Slut.

         No, really, quit it.

“It’s… very big,” Percy said hesitantly. It wasn’t very big. It was just above average. He closed his left hand around it hoping that would be enough to appease Berric for the moment. Since Berric was looking down and very interested in Percy’s hand around his cock, Percy cast again.

Berric remained on his feet.

Goddammit!  

         Okay, but this man must be taking something. Five pints and two spells and he is still standing.

“Get to it, then,” Berric said with a touch of impatience. This time both of his hands were on Percy’s shoulders, pressing down. “If you suck me well enough I may fuck you afterwards.”

Well, doesn’t someone think highly of himself.

Apparently Percy was supposed to immediately drop to his knees and start  sucking while thanking Merlin for his luck. He didn’t and Berric didn’t like the delay. He yanked Percy’s hair hard, very hard, and then pushed him down. Percy fell to the floor on his hands and knees.

For the first time that night Percy felt a stab of fear, cold and proper fear seizing his lungs and his heart. Before it had just been discomfort and uneasiness and maybe a bit of distress. Now he was feeling something close to fright as he heard Berric moving behind him, mumbling something that was just a tad too aggressive to be considered dirty talk.

You got yourself into this, slut.

Well, enough of that. Percy still wanted this, whatever this was, to read like a night of fun and sex and nothing else. He wanted absolutely no trace of the slightest possibility of funny business of any sort. At all. Percy was merely feeling antsy, like many people did, and had gone out and fooled around for a bit like hundreds of people did. If he had to change his character and the script to have it his way, so be it, and if Berric didn’t like it tough for him. Percy was having his fun and perfectly innocent night, except for the adult parts that weren’t so innocent.

He stood up, quick and nimble. Percy hadn’t drunk much that night. He drew his arm back and slapped Berric across the cheek hard and loud.

“You do not treat me like that,” Percy said, calm and clear. It wasn’t a snarl, it wasn’t a threat, it was the sober and efficient Ministry worker calmly stating a fact.

(It was also quite hot. Percy was just a tiny bit ruffled, with his hair mussed and his clothes in disarray, but he was dressed and composed and oh, dear.)

Berric stood frozen in place with his reddening cheek and his cock hanging out. This was hardly the first time someone had slapped him, but usually they left right away on the verge of tears. They didn’t stay and look at him as if he were a naughty student. His cock twitched at the thought.

“Are you going to suck me or not?” he asked, demanded, because he was a man very focused on his goals. He didn’t move, though.

“No, I don’t think so,” Percy said and he could see the heat and anger rising again in Berric’s eyes. Lots of anger. This was a man who didn’t like to be denied and didn’t take defeat well. “But if you take your clothes off,” Percy went on magnanimously, “I will ride you like a machine. And, if you behave, I might suck you afterwards.”

I should have done this from the start.

                                      Such a slut mouth. Of course you knew what to say.                                                                           Quit it.

Berric almost tripped and smashed his head against the table in his haste to comply. He didn’t even get his trousers all the way off or move to the bedroom. He lay on the floor, right there in the middle of his living room. The carpet was soft enough and there were a couple of cushions.

“Aren’t you going to take your clothes off?” he asked as Percy sat astride him with the most serious and business-like expression.

“No,” he said curtly. He caressed Berric’s chest and leaned over him. It was a nice chest, he supposed, with muscles well defined. In fact, Berric was an attractive man. Percy simply didn’t like him. It was a pity because if Berric could shut up and stop broadcasting his thoughts Percy might enjoy having sex with him.

He still kissed him because Percy was a filthy liar. A lying whore a voice supplied but it was hushed quickly by the others because the last part wasn’t true. Percy was just a liar, period.

Berric’s hands were on him, getting under his robes and trousers once more and clutching at his ass. Percy casted again with his wand pointed directly at him.

Dormit, he thought but didn’t say.

Berric’s hands stayed where they were but released their grip. His eyes were closed and his mouth slightly open. He was deep asleep.

Fucking finally.

Percy could have cast stupefy and been done twenty minutes ago. But as good as the spell was for making someone unconscious, stupefy was flashy and noisy and was an unmistakable bright red. If Percy had used stupefy Berric would have some memories and some questions once he woke up. Dormit was better. A soft and kind spell used to help children go to sleep. Percy had seen his mother cast it hundreds of time. He had even used it himself when Ginny was little and had colic.

Percy felt dirty for using that spell, with its warm and gentle memories, in this context, but he thought he would feel dirtier if he had followed Alan’s strategy to the letter and shagged Berric. Besides, Berric seemed very selfish. He doubted he would have enjoyed it even a little bit.

Percy waited a few seconds and then shook Berric by the shoulder. He remained deep asleep. As difficult as it had been to make him fall asleep, it seemed that he wasn’t going to wake up any time soon. Nevertheless, Percy wanted to make sure because, well, look at him and Alan. He hadn’t been asleep, had he?

Berric still had a prominent erection and he had been very eager at the prospect of having sex so it was pretty unlikely that he was pretending to be asleep now. Percy was aware that he was being ridiculously cautious, but he could still feel the sting of fear in his chest. There had been a moment…

He climbed down from Berric. He didn’t straighten his clothes, even if he was itching to. If Berric woke, or someone came, Percy wanted to look natural. A hook-up leaving the flat half-dressed.

The flat was nice although a bit messy. Percy had to stop himself from folding the discarded clothes and arranging the shoes neatly against the wall. He made a first sweep to get a mental map of the place. It was obvious that the Puddlemere paid its players well. Just the living room was three quarters of Percy’s whole apartment. There was also a big bedroom, bigger than Percy’s office, with a luxurious bathroom attached. Then another bathroom, a spare room and a kitchen that saw little use.

Percy found something interesting there.

First, dust. There was dust on the corners and over the kitchen appliances. This was nothing extraordinary. Percy owned a yogurt maker that he barely  used and had some dust on it. It was quite common, in fact, dust in the corners.

But a place like this, with so much white furniture and fluffy carpets and immense mirrors, was a place that required a house elf to keep it clean and shiny, maybe two. Yet there were no house elves around. Even if they were hired to come a few days a week, even if Berric knew which nights he expected to come back with company and dismissed them beforehand, there would be no dust if a house elf were coming frequently.

Percy didn’t have a house elf working for him. He cleaned his apartment himself. But Percy was neat and meticulous and stingy with his money while Berric was not. He was none of those things.

The absence of a house elf was strange, just saying.

Maybe he just doesn’t like using elf labour.

Maybe.

There was something else. In one of the lower cupboards in the kitchen there was a cauldron and a set of potion instruments.

It was, in fact, the exact same cauldron every single Hogwarts’ students used for at least five years. It was as unremarkable as a chocolate frog. Less, even, because some of those frogs had rare and valuable trading cards. This was a poor simple cauldron and there was no reason for Percy to look at it with such a frown.

Only…

Admittedly, Percy didn’t have many friends. He had no friends, in fact. Ginny was right even if it stung. So he didn’t have much ground to compare, maybe he was wrong in his generalization. It was just that he didn’t know anyone who brewed their own potions. No one. He had grown up in a poor family in which they passed down clothes and books and wands and even then his mother tended to buy potions rather than making them herself. 

It was too much of a hassle. Potions required a lot of time and attention and careful and detailed work. Many of the ingredients had a short shelf life so half of them went to waste before they were used again, and of course you had to clean everything thoroughly afterwards so it wouldn’t affect the next brew.

Who brewed their own potions? He thought maybe the Lovegoods did, but who else?

Berric Summerwind, apparently. The cauldron had been used recently. It had no dust.

The spare room was full of Quidditch paraphernalia. At least two broomsticks, three different sets of robes, multiple red balls (Quaffles, said a voice, seriously, you know this) and a multitude of ribbons and awards. There were also posters with Berric’s face and the Puddlemere United crest. The whole room was a shrine to Berric.

Ugh.

         Yes.

There were many clippings from The Prophet and some dedicated Quidditch magazine Percy remembered having seen at the Burrow. Quidditch Digest or something like that. Most articles focused on the Puddlemere at large, with only two or three solo articles for Berric Summerwind, star Chaser of the Puddlemere and Best Scorer two years in a row. (Last year the honour went to one of the girls on Ginny’s team, he knew that.)

Oliver was in many of the photos, looking handsome as always and perfectly innocent. After a long time perusing Percy even found the late Corridan in one of the pictures. There was also a mousy little man who was the main Chaser and captain of the team. According to the caption, he had retired two years ago.

There was something there. Percy suspected that if only he knew a bit more about Quidditch he would be able to see it and understand it. Ron would spot it too. Ron knew about Quidditch and had training solving mysteries and chasing bad people. Ron would also eat his own arm if he discovered that Percy had gone to a pub and picked up a total stranger and gone to his house.

Percy didn’t want to know what Ron would do if he were to explain that he had picked that stranger based not so much on looks, which were pretty good in any case, but on how suspicious his surface thoughts had seemed to Percy. Or thought, just one, just the way his mind had vibrated when someone said that they hoped Oliver got what he deserved. The way Berric had agreed was not like the others and it had caught Percy’s attention.

Of course, given how awful Berric had been the rest of the night, how rude and brutish, one could very well suppose that all of his thoughts were a bit different. At no point had Percy heard a voice go, “I did it. I killed Corridan and framed Percy. Hur hur hur,” which would have been very helpful. It was just that someone said a sentence and Berric was pleased. The other three Puddlemere members agreed and wanted Oliver punished because they wanted justice for a crime that had ruptured their world. Berric didn’t want the justice, just the penance.

All Percy had were some foggy thoughts and a dusty kitchen with a clean cauldron and he realised he was being the weird one here, going through Berric’s stuff.

While Percy completed the search, the voices began to argue between themselves. Some thought that Percy was a dirty whore, or a dirty coward who couldn’t even be a whore, that he was extremely weird and low, just an all-around snake and he probably deserved whatever terrible thing Berric might had done to him. (Or might still do to him if he were to wake up – there was a single voice constantly fretting about that but it was being ignored under the tumult of the others.) Other voices said that he was demonstrating initiative and nerve and that this was a perfectly good way to acquire information. Some said that Percy had snapped and was doing things wrong and who was he to investigate?

They all agreed, however, that Berric was a steaming pile of hippogriff manure. That much was clear.

He left the luxurious apartment just a couple of hours after getting there. Percy felt a cold wave of relief when the door closed behind him with a soft click. He began to sweat and he suddenly felt very cold. He had to wipe his hand against his trousers twice before he felt calm enough to attempt apparition.

 

ooOoo

XI

Weekend

ooOoo

 

Percy took three showers on Saturday.

He woke up late feeling thirsty and crummy and sweaty and just wrong. He drank a glass of juice and then crawled to the bathroom where he had his first shower of the day.

He hadn’t drunk that much and he had certainly avoided doing anything that would lead to regret in the light of day, but he still felt terrible. His mouth was dry, his skin felt dry and, worst of all, he kept hearing those bloody steps coming down a metal spiral stair.

The kettle kept whistling even after he had taken it off the flame and made his tea and emptied it. Whenever he turned his back, he could hear the whistle again. He did not have a good breakfast.

The goblin ring was still on the little finger of his left hand and he couldn’t remember if he had tried to remove it last night and failed or if he had forgotten about it. It would serve him right if the ring were cursed after all and he had to cut his finger off. That would be a permanent reminder of what happened when one acted impulsively and thought himself very clever. Like yesterday.

Fred’s death isn’t enough to remind you of your arrogance?

                            You killed Fred.

                            He is dead because of you.

Percy wanted to put his head in the sink and open the tap and drown. He went to buy his groceries for the week instead, walking to the shop in a daze. His mind was foggy with the steam of the kettle that still whistled faintly, the steam from the hot shower and the less obvious vapour from the hot wet ambience of the pub. The haze parted and he found himself standing in the fruits and vegetables aisle of a muggle supermarket. Percy bought his groceries inside and outside Diagon Alley indiscriminately; or that’s what he thought. Now he believed that he had slowly come to prefer the muggle shops because what they had on offer was more interesting.

He was staring at a small brown fuzzy “fruit.” The name was familiar. He knew that muggles ate it in drinks and yoghurts although it seemed far too small to make any juice with it. Percy was intrigued. Wizards had some delicacies that didn’t exist in the muggle world, like pumpkin juice or the far richer liquorice, but they also refused to try new things. It was probably Grindelwald’s fault. People were more open to contact and experimentation before him. You got one genocidal maniac and people began talking about identity and tradition and how they had to be protected, one fruit at a time.

He picked one of the intriguing fruits. Kiwi, was its name.

“Excuse, Madam, how do you eat this?”

The muggle lady contemplating the mangoes smiled at Percy. Mangoes were also a funny exotic fruit suspected of subversive anti-traditional habits, which was why Percy asked the lady examining the mangoes rather than the couple studying the apples. Apples were perfectly normal and British.

You could eat kiwis with a spoon, as it turned out. You didn’t have to make smoothies with them. Some people, the lady informed Percy, ate them whole with fuzzy skin and all, but something in her tone told Percy that this was not good conduct.

He thanked her and bought five, secretly thinking that he would also try to eat one whole, fuzz and all. The couple studying the apples had chimed in to say that they once had kiwi in a fruit salad. Everybody agreed that kiwis had to be soft. The lady of the mangoes picked one for him so he would know what to look for.

Oh yes, you are sooo wild eating the nasty fruit that looks like balls. As if last night didn’t happen and you weren’t super weird.

         So weird. Going out.

                            Picking someone.

                                               Going through his bloody things. What are you doing!? Are you a burglar now?

         I think that you have to break inside to be considered a burglar.

You are a whore. Whore!

Percy arrived back home with the distinct feeling that his hair was greasy and he hadn’t washed it properly, so after he put the groceries away he stepped back into the shower and scrubbed himself raw.

As he got out and went to the bedroom to get dressed his eyes fell on the blue piece of paper where he had written a list the day before. Lists were wonderful, they quietened the voices. It had helped him yesterday when he wanted to crawl out of his skin although it had also helped him make a questionable decision.

This list said:

HOW TO APPROACH SOMEONE AND SEDUCE THEM TO GAIN SECRET INFORMATION.

(Based on the work of Alan Blackburn)

It explained, in six points, precisely how to approach someone and gain their trust, culminating in point 6: Seek private time and engage physically.

This was a tried and true approach, but it was also slow and required talent and a wonderful pair of eyes that made you feel like a changed man after you saw them. Percy didn’t have such eyes and so, although he had written the list yesterday, he hadn’t expected to be able to follow it.

It was just something to have, something to know. He didn’t need to go all the way to point number six. He just needed to get close to someone and talk to them and Percy had no idea how. He didn’t have friends and he didn’t date. The Alan Blackburn method of getting to know people was his only model so that’s what he had tried to use.

As it happened, he had gone straight to point number six and he still didn’t know how that had happened, given his lack of formidable eyes that haunted your dreams. He thought that by mere fortune Berric had been feeling as wild as him last night and in need of something to settle his nerves and his mind. It had been very lucky.

It had also been upsetting and awkward and scary at times and just plain unenjoyable. Alan had made it look so easy! You just got close to someone, pretended to like them and they would tell you stuff and give you access to their secrets. Easy.

Then again, Percy had not seen Alan when he wasn’t with him, so maybe pretending to like Percy wasn’t such an easy endeavour. He had seen Alan when he was away from that other lover he was also spying on, and that had been hard. It had been so hard and so difficult that even today Percy didn’t feel any real resentment towards Alan. Everybody had been scared that year and people did what they did to survive.

Maybe spying on people like Percy was easy. He wanted to think that he had made things pleasant and easy for Alan. People like Berric and that unknown Ministry man were harder to spy on simply because of their personality.

He was starting to get cold so he went to get dressed. He prepared lunch and ate and focused on silencing the whistling kettle and the running steps and the murmurs and when all that failed he grabbed some paper (pink) and made a list with all the suspicious attributes and qualities of Berric Summerwind. This only helped slightly, but it helped, and Percy was feeling a bit better, so he grabbed another paper sheet (soft yellow) and started to note down ideas for George’s Christmas present.

The ring was still on his finger. When he grabbed it, it came off smoothly, not even catching on the knuckle. Soft grey pink and five little holes and a story behind it that Percy didn’t know and didn’t have the time to learn.

He was feeling much better. He was in a strange space that wasn’t calm but wasn’t the frantic need of the previous days. Percy spent the rest of the day lounging and re-reading favourite fragments of books and even reading the goldsmithing chapter on rings which was very interesting and a bit worrisome, because rings did tend to have magical properties or even acquire them over time by themselves, simply because they were rings. Percy decided that the best path to follow was taking it to a shop to be examined. He should have done that first, actually, two weeks ago.

It was still a pretty ring and Percy liked looking at it.

A bit after dinner time he laid in bed and touched himself which was, well, it was difficult, had always been difficult. He had never really had a space for himself, always having to share with people and even when he finally got a room for himself in the Burrow, it was the Burrow and there was no privacy there. There was also very little privacy at Hogwarts.

When he did get some time alone, it was extremely difficult to get in the mood and enjoy himself when he had a cacophony of voices telling him that a) he was going to be get caught b) people would laugh c) it was probably wrong to do it d) regardless of what the other voices said, people masturbated frequently so it was very unlikely that it caused blindness and drained your magic e) how did those legends even start in the first place? f) shut up please, I am trying to do something here g) you are so very broken inside h) nobody will ever like you, a wank is all you are going to experience in your miserable life.

Time and having his own space had made things better, but it was still difficult. More so when he began to suspect that most people didn’t have such difficulties getting aroused and finding pleasure and also were a bit more dependent on and interested in sex than Percy. It was yet another thing in which he was different and a bit broken. Maybe that was why he had embraced Alan, not because they would have sent someone else to spy on him if Alan failed, but because Percy was curious what the big deal was about. Why, when everything else in his life was crazy, why wasn’t he mad about sex?

I mean, there is the whole trusting the other person thing.

         And not knowing what they are thinking.

And relaxing.

                   Probably focusing on it, too, instead of thinking of something else.

But today he managed to get into it, slowly, slowly, being gentle with himself when he rarely was, and also being hard in all the right and delightful ways. It was almost like the feeling of your ears popping, as he was approaching orgasm and all the voices and the noise went off one by one until he got something very, very, close to silence, just the sound of fabric and the possibly imagined sound of the rain.

He had to bite his lower lip to stop himself from crying because that would be pathetic. It was such a relief, though, the building tension tipping over, the silence, the warm pleasure. He felt almost normal afterwards, anchored inside his body.

He took a short shower to clean up the mess, which of course he could have vanished with a wand, but this felt better. Then he went to bed and fell asleep to the sound of the rain outside.

ooOoo

Sunday was Percy’s turn to go visit his parents and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. He didn’t feel like leaving his bed, let alone dragging his sorry self to the Burrow. It was cold and windy and it wasn’t raining proper but the air had water in it all the same; the kind of water that is very cold and always lands on the nape of your neck and chills you to the bone.

He went to the Burrow by floo and his mother handed him a mug of tea almost as soon as he stepped out of the fireplace because it was even colder out there in the country. It was still a long hour until lunch, but the whole point of visiting wasn’t eating the food but to be in the house and talk, or rather hum at the right moment, and help out however they could. Bill had done some work on the roof the previous weekend, fixed a couple of leaks, so Percy went outside and cleaned the gutters because he would rather not have his Dad climbing the ladder. Sure, Arthur argued that he was still strong and full of energy, but that energy would be better spent tending the garden than climbing an old ladder on a windy day.

It was pretty cold and Percy’s hands turned pale white, but other than that Percy didn’t mind. He had a good cloak and he had turned up the lapels and tied a wool scarf around them so he was warm enough. He had foregone his dress shoes for an old heavy pair that he didn’t mind getting dirty with mud.

There was quite a lot of gutter to clean and while he worked he did some thinking. He thought that he had gone to a lot of trouble for little consequence. He had found someone suspicious quickly enough, someone who more or less fit the idea Percy had in his mind of the real murderer. But, so what? Just because Berric was obviously brewing something in his kitchen that no one was supposed to know about it didn’t mean that it was polyjuice. It might be Felix Felicis. They had very strict controls against it in Quidditch games, but who was to say that Berric hadn’t found a way around them? He had shown remarkable endurance and resistance to sleep.

Was that a frog? How did a dead frog get in the second floor gutter?

Percy found himself looking around reflexively because whenever something odd happened in the Burrow you could expect the twins to come laughing soon after. But… No, of course not. Not anymore. They were older now, too old to play pranks between siblings, and there were no twins. It was just George.

He hesitated when he was about to vanish the dead frog and on a whim he levitated it to the broom shed. The door didn’t close or open well and someone was bound to give it a look and try to fix it soon. Either George or Ginny would have a dead frog fall to their heads.

If Berric is brewing something else, then I will have been wasting my time.

         Like an idiot.

                            Idiot.                                        You are a dirty slut.

He was. The problem was that Percy had been too focused on going along and getting Berric to invite him home, too sure that he would find answers there. He should had been less concerned with that and instead made Berric talk about Oliver, see if the voices caught anything interesting and definitive. Then he would know for sure.

Although you would have no evidence.

         I have no evidence now. And no certainty.

                                                                                              (whore)

There was a charged smell in the air. The clouds were black in the middle and white on the outside. It might rain again, but Percy thought that they brought snow. Either way, a clean gutter would help and thank Merlin that Bill had already looked at the roof. He thought that they had already worked on it during the summer, but maybe that was the summer before. Time went by quickly and the house was pretty old. Good house, still. They all liked helping to fix it up.

Berric had taken an inordinate amount of time to fall asleep, even though he had had training that day, a celebration, five pints and three sleeping charms. Maybe he was getting some extra energy in the shape of a potion. No, scratch the maybe. He was getting extra help from somewhere.

He is still a selfish pig and I don’t like him.

No. Percy didn’t like him. But not liking someone and them being a murderer was a big jump. Last Friday he had returned home thinking he had finally found something, but today he was full of doubts.

Lunch was pretty nice. Percy’s hands and ears were cold from working outside but the food was hot and as good as always, although it could do with more spices and less butter, not that he would ever say so to his Mum. Still, it was good. They let him talk about his job for almost fifteen minutes without interrupting. Then it was Dad’s turn and he happily talked about the dealings of Misuse of Muggle Artifacts.

Muggles had invented portable phones. No one had gotten one to misuse it, which was the point of Arthur’s department, he was just excited to tell them about the portable telephones. Mum frowned at him, reminded him that they did not have a line in the house and they were not getting one, portable or not, and then proceeded to tell Percy about Bill’s visit, who was definitely looking paler and thinner because his wife didn’t cook properly.

“I don’t think Fleur cooks at all,” Percy said honestly. He didn’t have to say anything else for the rest of the meal. He did wonder at the lack of mention of Aunt Muriel. It was about time that she sent a note asking why she hadn’t met Angelina yet and whether they were ashamed of her since they were hiding her from the rest of the family.

There was a quick moment in which Percy was overcome by a dreadful feeling of shame. There he was, sitting at his parent’s table, the horrible son who went away and returned too late, the one who got Fred killed. And what was he doing two nights ago? Getting all close and personal with a horrible guy and learning nothing. What a knave. Slut. Whore.

I so need some good news happening to me.

After lunch he went with his Dad to the shed and was shown a microwave (not working) and a thermos (that one did work). It was nice how little his Dad had changed with time. After a while Mum called them back inside. The wind was picking up, a few snowflakes were starting to fall, though they melted almost as soon as they touched the ground. Molly had some fruitcake ready and wanted to have tea early.

Percy had gotten up late and then gone to the Burrow right away so he hadn’t had a chance to look at the Sunday papers yet. It was one of those delicious ironies of life and maybe a small blessing, too, since he had been asking for one earlier. Good news, those were his exact words.

The paper was lying open on the coffee table.

The Prophet had an emotive and poignant piece (signed by Magda Marlowe, of course) in which they interviewed the tragic yet courageous Elaine Sudworth, sister of the tragically deceased Wenzel Corridan. Elaine gazed languidly at the readers from a picture that took almost half a page, wearing an outdated hat and a small bunch of roses resting on her lap.

“Oh, that poor woman,” Molly said when he noticed Percy looking at the paper. “Her only child, you know.” She laid her hand gently over the photograph, as if wanting to give her strength, from the mother of seven who had lost one, to the mother of a one who might lose her child too.

Percy had completely forgotten about The Prophet’s promise of a juicy story on Sunday, busy as he was having doubts and harassing himself. He grabbed the paper and began to read, feet taking him automatically to a safe corner. Percy had always been an avid reader and even when the twins weren’t targeting him he was always at risk of bumping into someone, or rather having someone bump into him. Finding a place out of the way and making sure that he didn’t leave a long leg out and accidentally trip someone was now deeply ingrained in him.

He began to read, quickly, avidly, committing everything to memory. It was pretty much what Percy had imagined. Elaine Sudworth was a good, kind, courageous woman; an example of temperance and humbleness who really knew how to endure untold suffering.

(Marlowe told everything there was to know about the untold suffering on page six.)

Alice Sudworth was equally kind and good and a typical English Rose despite having studied at Beauxbatons. She was so sweet and gentle and innocent and one might be inclined to think she was also mentally deficient if Marlowe’s description of her character was to be believed. Alice was forgiving to the point of stupidity.

She was also unable to commit a crime, which undoubtedly was the whole point of Elaine agreeing to the interview. Alice’s nature and brain weren’t those of a criminal. She was too sweet, too pure, too virginal. (The latter was implied.)

Elaine didn’t outwardly accuse Oliver. In fact, all she said was that her brother Wenzel had always had a difficult character and he often had terrible outbursts. So terrible that it wasn’t impossible that someone with a passionate character might react in kind. When two hot temperaments collided someone was going to burn.

“Milk, Percy?” asked Molly as she poured tea in a mug.

“No, thanks Mum.” Percy accepted the mug without looking and took a first sip even though it was hot and he hadn’t added any sugar.

Elaine didn’t outwardly accuse, but the word “Gryffindor” was in the text seventeen times (Percy had counted them). “Gryffindor” and “Passion” were synonyms in everyone’s minds (Percy blamed Dumbledore and Harry’s theatrics). She didn’t accuse, that would have been too obvious, an evident effort to clear her girl’s name. But excusing someone was also an accusation by default. Surely he didn’t mean to…

That bitch!

                            Brilliant.

It was. So. Clever. And Marlowe’s prose was exquisite! The Wizengamot might be stubborn and keep the accusation against Alice, but she would have the popular vote and everyone’s favour. There was no way Alice would be charged with anything, especially if she refrained from any violent outbursts during the trial. If they managed to get her some flowers to wear on her dress, she would be out in a minute.

Percy turned the page feeling his stomach roll. He felt so very alone, the only one seeing the truth of this case, the only one seeing how many problems remained in the Ministry and in the wizarding world. And Oliver was alone too. Alone in his cell awaiting justice from a system that was anything but fair. Both of them were alone, together.

Molly was saying that a girl would never commit such a criminal act and Arthur, after taking a bite of his fruitcake, reminded her gently that she herself had finished off the notorious mad killer Bellatrix Lestrange. That, however, was an entirely different case and Arthur ought to see it. That young girl, Alice, was much younger and innocent. It had to be the other boy.

“Wood…” mused Arthur “Wasn’t he in your year, Perce? Or was it with the twins? They, um, they talked often…”

Percy answered quickly that Oliver was in his year, before his Dad’s unfinished sentence grew too big. Still, after eight years, they didn’t know if they ought to say “the twins” or just “George.” They had always been “Fred and George”, and now George was “_____ ___ George.” George with two missing words before his name. They had learned to live with it, they had learned to make that space before George’s name smaller, but sometimes that blank space was huge and hurtful.

Times like this, perhaps. Because Arthur and Molly loved their children and loved having them visit regularly, but they were following a very obvious order, Bill, then Percy, then George and Ron and Ginny and there was no missing the jump between Percy and George.

Fred had been the eldest. Nine whole minutes older than George.

Percy went back to looking at The Prophet because he already felt his stomach tightening and he didn’t want to discuss Oliver with his parents. He didn’t want to see the doubt in their faces when he said that he firmly believed that Oliver was innocent. After all, Percy was the one who misjudged people.

There were other, less juicy, news in the NATIONAL section. A goblin in possession of a wand refusing to surrender it. A fight breaking out in a gambling house. A most likely exaggerated resurgence of dark objects in the market. Someone slipping and breaking their neck as they fell down the stairs of their house.

Someone dying with no magic involved.

Accidents happen.

No, not just someone. Mr Pinkman, resident of Dawn Street, between Diagon and Knockturn. Found dead Saturday evening after he didn’t show up for an appointment and someone went to his place to check on him.

Mr Pinkman from the not always upstanding and legal apothecary.

The one who had suffered a robbery attempt. When was it?

Last weekend.

Last weekend. Last weekend someone tried to enter his shop at night and now he was dead.

Freak accident.

Dead.

Percy had seen him. He had seen him on Friday. He had refused to sell anything illegal to him because he was a Weasley.

Someone with the ability and lack of scruples to sell the ingredients for a polyjuice potion was dead. Dead in a manner that, to Percy, was very similar to Corridan’s death. Dead with no magic involved. Killed to get rid of a pesky witness or possibly a blackmailer if Mr Pinkman had read the papers and learned of Oliver’s polyjuice defence.

He had broken his neck as he fell down the stairs, the little blurb said. But Percy had been there Friday, he had seen how well lighted the place was.

It still doesn’t have to be Berric.

         No? What head do you live in?

                            He came to the pub at least two hours after the others.

         He was excited.

A teapot was whistling somewhere. Rain against the windows. Steps on a marble floors, running, running. They were closer. They were there, about to slam against Percy’s side.

Merlin’s balls         !

                   Language!

NiiiiiiiinoooooooooNiiiiiiiiiiiinoooooooo

I went to his house. He has killed twice and I went to his house.

NiiiiiiiinoooooooooNiiiiiiiiiiiinoooooooo NiiiiiiiinoooooooooNiiiiiiiiiiiinoooooooo

         This is why he was feeling so nervous and looking for a hook-up!!

NiiiiiiiinoooooooooNiiiiiiiiiiiinoooooooo

         What did I do?

                            You slapped him! You slapped him across the face and then sent him to sleep.

“Percy, dear, are you all right?”

Percy lifted his eyes and looked at his mother. A small gesture, but it felt as if he had five stones balanced over his head.

“Wonderful. This cake can take a man’s senses, Mum. It is very good.”

“Oh, you have to take some with you then.”

Alaaaarm Alaaaarm Alaaaarm Alaaaarm Alaaaarm Alaaaarm Alaaaarm

One day, Percy was going to meet someone with particularly good hearing who would be able to hear the voices in his head. The clamour. It was amazing that his parents couldn’t hear the blaring.

Percy’s face betrayed nothing.

ooOoo

How loud it was.

The voices, the door slamming, the bell tolling a secret code. There was a monster moaning and panting, jaws about to close around Percy’s neck.

It didn’t have to be Berric. Percy could be wrong and Berric might simply be a jealous bastard with sadist tendencies. It didn’t have to be him. Maybe Percy had just gone home with an asshole, not a murderer.

That didn’t change the fact that someone had murdered Wenzel Corridan and that after Oliver’s lawyer pleaded the polyjuice defence someone had tried to kill an apothecary. They had failed and the apothecary lived but they had tried again and they had succeeded. Percy was just certain that Mr Pinkman had been murdered.

The point about trying again was important. This person had killed twice now. They were scared and entering the frame of mind in which murder was the solution to everything. Percy had been in the Ministry during Voldemort’s reign, he knew what he was talking about. The first time, the first death, the first sentence, those were hard. Afterwards, though, it was very easy to keep going. You knew you could do it.

It was raining hard and Percy was tired. It had also been raining the night before. Percy wondered if someone had checked if there was water in the apothecary’s house and also if he might have already been dead when he fell down the stairs.

He wanted to take another shower to clear his head, but that might be excessive and the beginning of an obsessive disorder so he only changed into his pyjamas and looked at the star maps.

 

ooOoo

XII

Very stupid thoughts. Very bad decisions.

ooOoo

 

You know what? He didn’t need this. No, really, Percy didn’t need this. It was enough that he had voices in his head and that he had learned to differentiate between the ones that lived there and the ones that were visiting, so to speak, all without ever giving a hint of what was going on. That was plenty. Percy didn’t need nor did he deserve visual hallucinations. If he got those now he was dropping everything and moving to live on the moors of Scotland where he would recite gibberish to the hikers.

“Well, hello there, mister,” Berric said with a cocky smile. The people in the Ministry Atrium were parting as Berric moved towards Percy, which might indicate that he was real since they saw him too. That didn’t explain why the Chaser of the Puddlemere United was standing in the Ministry Atrium on a Monday morning, though.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” asked Percy, which was rude of him and also slightly out of character, but he didn’t have much patience. He never had on Monday mornings. Try him on a Wednesday afternoon and he might be more inclined to put up with people’s drama.

Hohohoho.

No, but he would.

                            Right.

Berric blinked and the self-assured smile froze on his face. He smelled different. There was still a hint of salt, but there was also a perfume of pine and amber. The kind of cologne rich men who were unsure about their wealth used.

“Oh, don’t tell me you are angry with me,” Berric said at last, fake pouting. He slapped Percy’s arm. “Didn’t you have fun?”

“No. Why are you here?”

“Special Commission for Honesty and Integrity in Games,” Berric recited with a smile, a stupid smile that didn’t have even a little bit of heat or light in it. “Monthly visit to check we are being good boys and girls and all our luck comes from the gods.” He looked up and raised his hands as he said the last words, smiling impishly right away. Then he winked, Percy didn’t know why.

The voices were working quickly, or maybe it was all just Percy’s brain. A monthly meeting would put Berric in the Ministry three weeks ago, when they arrested Oliver. It also meant that he wasn’t using Felix Felicis or Fortis Sanguinem or any of the top ten potions used to get an illegal advantage in Quidditch. So what was he brewing, eh? What?

Actually… Berric was using something. That man was like a radio and he was quite loudly broadcasting his satisfaction with having found a way to get an advantage. Something to do with oxygen, though.

“Now, don’t look so sour,” Berric added, pushing Percy lightly on the arm. This was Percy’s usual face so he resented the comment. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Not really,” Percy said honestly.

“Ouch!” Berric put a hand over his heart and looked wounded. Not wounded enough, though. “Come on. Don’t feel bad. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in you darling. You must understand, we athletes follow very hard training regimes. It had been a long day.”

Percy stared absolutely dumbfounded at Berric’s smug and self-confident face. Here he was, convinced that Percy was upset because they didn’t have sex and not because, say, Berric had been terrible ungentlemanly, sort of abusive and quite scary. Percy had seen some terribly narcissistic people – it was almost a requirement to thrive in the Ministry – but this was something else. This had a level of denial that was cruel.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Berric went on, speaking like a medieval king or a pirate captain who wanted to make a show of generosity. “I have to stay around for a little bit anyway. Let’s have lunch. None of that horrible grub from the Ministry” – here Percy had to agree – “I will take to you a fancy place, Le Cigare Volant. Very posh and exclusive, but there won’t be a problem when you come with me.”

Percy knew Le Cigare Volant. He and Ron had been there a couple of times and found it overpriced and unimaginative. Its biggest virtue was the cultivated air of exclusivity and sophistication that charmed its rich clientele. It certainly wasn’t the food. Ron had a lot to say about their scallops.

“See you there at half past noon,” finished Berric, happy to give Percy’s silence whatever meaning suited him best.

“Yes,” murmured Percy. This was somewhere on the seduction list after all, and he might get some useful information while keeping a wooden table between them.

He watched as Berric went back to an equally big man with dark hair, another Puddlemere player, and they lost themselves in the lines for the lifts.

ooOoo

Immediately after this little encounter Percy had to quickly step out from the line to the lifts and go throw up in the bathroom. He had no idea why, though. Honestly. If someone were to ask him and if it were someone in whom Percy had a lot of trust, he still couldn’t tell that hypothetical person why he was suddenly feeling sick. Must have been something he had eaten and he just hadn’t noticed the symptoms until now, a deep turning motion in his stomach and a suffocating feeling, as if someone were pressing a hand against his nose and mouth.

Yes, that must be it. A stomach bug. Perfectly normal. Also explained the sudden need to cry.. He was sick.

Of course the voices had something different to say. They said that he was a useless whore, and that he was throwing up because he was afraid. They said that Berric would probably try something, drag him to the bathroom or the alley behind and that Percy wouldn’t be able to stop him. They said that he had killed Fred, that he had been too clumsy and too slow and too thick. Stupid, stupid, stupid. They said that he would probably get Oliver killed, too, and even though he knew very well that there were no dementors in Azkaban anymore, the voices did a very good job of convincing him that Oliver would be kissed by one nonetheless.

There was sweat on his temples and the back of his neck. Percy dabbed at it quickly with his handkerchief after washing his mouth and face. The voices were still talking, hounding him, but they had stopped stinging.

ooOoo

When Percy finally made it to the office, work was very far away from his mind. Euterpe got up from her desk as soon as she saw him and went to him holding something in her hands and speaking a foreign language.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The talking points for tomorrow’s meeting, sir,” Euterpe repeated in English. She had been speaking English all the time but Percy’s brain had stopped understanding it. “Foreign Owl Importation.”

“Ah, yes, yes.”

He motioned her to follow him and they went to his office and reviewed the list together. It was a very good list and Euterpe had done her work well. Every point was important and well-researched and backed with arguments. She still needed Percy’s supervision because, sweet innocent child that she was (previous risqué work notwithstanding), she was working under the assumption that this would be something mature and dignified and that well-researched points were important.

“Include our official position on Owl Crossbreeding,” said Percy, scribbling a note in the margin. Their official position was against whatever Creature Control said. “Also, definition of foreign and/or non-native birds insofar it affects Irish birds and birds from the colonies.” Percy stopped for a second to think. This was the kind of thinking that he enjoyed in his work and it gave him some kind of exhilarating energy. “Yes. Gibraltar. They had some sort of small little parrot there. Awful nuisance.”

“Oh?” was all Euterpe managed to say as she wrote it down furiously.

“We don’t really care about any of this,” Percy confided. “But Creature Control is obsessed with breeding and mating.” Euterpe bit her lip at his words and didn’t look up. Of course, her boyfriend. Uh. “International Cooperation isn’t consistent over what is and isn’t foreign and they made some big messes over it, so they are very afraid of being scolded by the Minister again. Now, you take these points and argue against whatever they are saying and refuse to compromise.”

“But, sir.”

“This is not the time to be rational and mature. You refuse and refuse and don’t give anything without getting as much back.”

“Oooh,” she snapped her head up and pointed at a section in the text almost without looking, she knew it so well. “Owl ownership by non-wizards.”

Percy extended his hands, palms up, with a beatific expression. “For example.” Owl ownership for muggle parents and for goblins and vampires and squibs, oh, the squibs. Most squibs already had owls but this would make it official and it would make their dealings with the Ministry bureaucracy much easier. 

There were three or four more points of contention but by the time she left, an hour later, Euterpe had a good line of strategy defined and detailed notes about everyone in the commission. Percy had an excellent memory, and he knew who would be the first to throw a tantrum and who owed them favours and who would agree to anything just so they could cut the meeting short and go eat something.

It also did good to Percy who had come in feeling mad and untethered and only now was beginning to feel the ground under his feet. He went to get himself a cup of tea and when he returned he felt almost like a person. “Almost like a person” was very good. Many days he couldn’t get any better than “Monster in disguise.” 

ooOoo

Percy could have taken the lift on the left, but he deliberately let it go because he saw that Quinn was in it. Quinn was the Head of the Department of Mysteries and, unlike every other person working there, he seemed like a perfectly normal man. He didn’t even look weird, no odd skin tones or extra appendages, and Percy hadn’t heard anything bad about him. But whenever he was in his proximity Percy heard a buzz like a swarm of flies. He didn’t like that feeling of having flies in his head.

So he let that lift go and called the one in the middle instead and when it opened on his floor the lift had the spirit of early spring in it: that moment of the year when it is still cold, the ground is hard, but there is hope in the rays of the sun, the possibility of warm and growth.

“Percy!” said the spirit of early spring in a sweet and desperate accent. Her face was still plain and unremarkable, her dark hair hanging loosely around it. “Oh, Percy!”

Percy found himself with an armful of Alice Sudworth, hugging him as if he were an old friend.

“I’m being released,” she said as if that weren’t good news. Elaine’s heartfelt interview had worked wonders. “Oh, Percy, we have to do something! They are transferring Oliver tomorrow. They are going forward with the accusation. Those wretched, bludger-head idiots.”

One of the wretched bludger-head idiots escorting Alice to the Atrium coughed. Percy looked at him, eyes of blue and ice and the insanity of the Lestranges. The idiot gave a small step back.

“I…” Percy began to say. He had been wrong many times before. He didn’t dare give Alice hope, saying that he was onto something, that he might had found the one.

Even if he had found the murderer, and Percy wasn’t absolutely sure of that, finding him wasn’t enough. Percy needed proof. They didn’t need proof to arrest Oliver and ruin his life, but he would need it to rescue him.

“I’m working on it,” was all he said. “He is innocent. I am not deserting him.”

Alice smiled and pressed his arm and said, “Whatever you need.”

But Percy didn’t know what he needed.

ooOoo

Percy was hungry enough that the prospect of eating at Le Cigare Volant was a welcome one. However, with every step he took towards the restaurant from the spot where he had apparated (in front of a flower shop because Percy always recollected places with interesting smells better, and a good recollection helped with apparition) – with every step, was the point, he felt his stomach tightening. Maybe he wasn’t so enamoured with Le Cigare Volant’s food.

Berric had just apparated by the door to the restaurant. He might have changed clothes, Percy wasn’t sure. He thought he might have been dressed mostly in blue in the Ministry, something sporty that said he was an athlete not a worker there. Now he was wearing a silk gold overtunic, too thin and delicate for the current weather, and a heavy coat with white fur that was, somehow, too much. It was cold, but it would probably rain or snow later that day and the water would ruin the fur. A good simple oilskin would be better. Overall, the ensemble looked very expensive and magnificently cheap and crass.

Berric smiled widely when he saw him. He had a good smile, teeth even and white, but anyone would see right away that it lacked something. It was too little or too much. Mostly, it was very obvious, if you had met Oliver, that Berric’s smile had nothing of the quality of Oliver Wood’s. Oliver’s smile had wood in it (ha!), the kind of sweet scented wood used in temples in India, and it also had a smell of lavender and freshly-cut grass. It had the promise of autumn and spring in it. It was a smile of gentle summer and good things.

Berric’s smile was just made of lips and teeth.

He looked at Percy with satisfaction and a tinge of proprietorship. His thoughts were so crassly loud that Percy was perfectly able to hear them. Berric was glad to see him coming, glad that Percy was doing what he was told and following his lead. He was glad because he thought that it was yet another proof that Percy was gagging for it, for a bit of attention. Never mind the show of temper, the slap; with the right doses of attention and denial Percy would do anything and everything.

Love is nice, and so is sex. But possession, the feeling of owning someone, that is something else. It is a rush of blood and energy, it is a taste of power that feels like bitter liquor. It is intoxicating and leaves you wanting for more.

Berric had found lately that he liked being in control. No, not that. He liked having control over someone and over a situation. He was going to like it very much when he had Percy under him and Berric controlled everything he did, everything Percy thought and felt. It would be really nice, telling him how he was supposed to feel and seeing him adapt to it, comply, obey. Oh, the things he would make him do, inside and outside of bed.

Percy thought that he was just going to order soup and salad because he didn’t think that he could stomach anything else.

The maitre d’ gave them a nice table. It might be that Berric really was rich and a tad influential after all. Voldemort had dragged down many of the old families when he fell, so there had been an elite vacuum that was promptly filled with an assortment of war heroes, athletes, and pretty people with questionable talents. Percy thought that his family might be part of that elite now, at least some of them. Dad and Ginny and Ron and maybe Bill and George too.

Percy ordered his soup and salad. He was supposed to order one or the other and a main dish, but the waiter was so elegant that he only showed his scandalised disdain with a subtle movement of his eyebrows.

He didn’t notice what Berric had ordered. Pasta, he thought. He payed attention when Berric also asked for a bottle of white wine because Percy didn’t want any. He said so, he insisted, he looked at the waiter with a pleading expression and begged for cold water.

The waiter brought them the wine. Berric insisted on pouring Percy some and that they had to toast and all Percy could think of was that he wanted to throw the wine in his face and then make him swallow the whole glass.

To be fair, this was a pet peeve of Percy’s. It didn’t have anything to do with his suspicions or Berric’s awfully entitled behaviour or the alcohol itself. He would have had the same wish, the same thought, if it had been anyone else filling his glass.

The funny thing was that Percy drank, in moderation. He just was violently opposed to any pressure to do so. He had been formidably terrible about it when he was a Prefect. There had always been someone who had sneaked a bottle of something and there had always been one kid who didn’t want to try it. Percy would be there for them, killjoy and party pooper, bringing detentions and removing the pressure.

He remembered now… Such a small thing. He hadn’t thought about it in the last few years but he embraced the memory fondly now. Oliver dragging the twins by the ears, just like Mum, and going through their bedroom so he could make sure that they didn’t have any more firewhisky. Percy didn’t know if Oliver had acted like that out of a certain loyalty to Percy or because he wanted everyone in the team to be in top shape (very likely) or because Alicia Spinnet had snapped at them and maybe Oliver, like Percy, bristled at that kind of pestering.

It was a nice memory in any case. He was glad for having it back.

“You seem distracted,” Berric said, surprised that he didn’t have Percy’s undivided attention.

“Mmh?” Percy said, because he had been distracted. He shouldn’t be, though. He had something important to say, something very important to learn. “Oh, yes. I met someone on my way here, as I was leaving the Ministry. They mentioned… well, of course, you know him.” Percy gave him one rare smile, a real one, mixed with sadness and apprehension. “Oliver Wood.”

Percy was now looking at Berric. Having Percy look at you could be disconcerting and alarming even when he wasn’t using the Lestrange Gaze. Even at his most relaxed, Percy looked at people as if he could see them naked. As if he could read minds, was the sentence. A bit like the late Severus Snape used to look at people, but without the lip curled in distaste.

Berric was delighted. He was a man who didn’t shy from attention and thrived on it. He easily ignored the most distressing qualities of Percy’s gaze and began to enthusiastically talk about the horrible, horrible, affair of Oliver Wood and Wenzel Corridan, who would have guessed it? Oliver seemed very nice, although he had always had an awful temper, that was the truth. Berric knew it well. It had been all for nothing, too, because the Montrose Magpies would never take him now, even if Oliver somehow managed to elude prison, and there was talk that he would be kicked out of the Puddlemere by mid-season regardless of him being outside or inside Azkaban.

Percy hadn’t mentioned Azkaban at all, but he supposed that Berric, being on the same team and having visited Games and Sport that same morning, would have heard about it.

“It’s truly a pity,” Berric finished with a sight that was pretty close to sad. He had his brows down, too. What a sad, sad, affair. Yet there was a little smile, something very small made of lips and teeth and greed.

“He is innocent, you know,” Percy said because… because. Same reason why he had told Ron or why he frowned at his parents. Because someone had to do it. Because he had told Alice that he was doing something, even if that something was just not giving up. Because Berric’s sadness and shock was fake.

Because speaking the truth was good and cleansing.

“Oh, Percival, dear, aren’t you the sweetest?” Berric would swear he wasn’t mocking, just praising, but everything in his voice and his gesture was derisive. He wasn’t even very good at being subtle. Bill was much better. “What are you, a Gryffindor? Oh! But you are, aren’t you?” Berric laughed at the discovery as if it were utterly charming. “I’m a Ravenclaw myself. You know, they say that the Hufflepuffs are the loyal ones, but you Gryffindor boys are really close and tight. Very good for team sports, don’t look like that, I’m saying it is good! But, you have to understand, sometimes there is someone who isn’t playing for the team.”

A Ravenclaw. Of course.

Percy hated Ravenclaws. Everyone always complained that Slytherins were snobbish little shits, and it was probably true, but Ravenclaws were amazingly prideful. They were just so sure of their intelligence! They looked down on everyone, too. Looked at people as if they were amusing little monkeys. Berric was doing it now! Talking to Percy as if he were a stupid child, amusing in his naiveté.

Merlin, but he hated Ravenclaws.

Penelope.

Penelope was a stuck-up elitist. He liked her and she liked him back, but she was very unkind.

Euterpe.

Euterpe wasn’t a Ravenclaw. She was a Hufflepuff. Had a crest on her desk and everything. Unless it was her boyfriend’s.

The Lovegoods.

Ah, yes. Most of the Lovegoods were Ravenclaws. 

Fine, maybe not all Ravenclaws, but a significant portion. It was all the worse because no one ever pointed it out, that awful pride they had, and if anyone did the Ravenclaws accused them of being jealous and resentful of their intelligence.

It does explain why this moron was able to brew polyjuice.

True. Perhaps Percy had been prideful and unfair too, because given Berric’s profession and general behaviour he hadn’t been inclined to believe him capable of anything.

“Oliver is one of those cases,” Berric went on. He barely bothered looking sad or even mildly upset, although at least he wasn’t openly relishing the smearing of character he was doing. He tried to look concerned and worried and heartfelt when he said, “He doesn’t deserve your loyalty.”

Percy had to look down and focus on his salad, grabbing the fork tight to hide the trembling of his hand. He was feeling sick once again, like he might throw up once more, and it had all to do with how easily Berric was defaming and slandering and taking someone who was good, Percy knew that Oliver was just good, and sullying his image. It wasn’t corruption, it wasn’t turning Virtue into Vice. It was taking Virtue and setting it on fire.

“I don’t think so,” he said. It was difficult to breathe.

“Come now, don’t be – ”

“No,” Percy interrupted firmly. And, and, and then! Then. All the voices were talking together in a mad cacophony and his ears were ringing and Percy could either vomit what little he had eaten, or he could vomit the truth. He could say what he thought, what he had bottled up inside. Percy was brimming with secrets and he wanted to just let this one out, just one.

Maybe Percy didn’t have any way to prove it and maybe he couldn’t help Oliver after all, but he could look Berric in the eye and show him that he wasn’t so clever, that a stupid Gryffindor had figured it out. He could show Berric that someone else knew.

“No,” he went on. Berric was still looking at him with a faintly amused and patronising expression. He was also idly thinking that it was going to be very fun to take that determination and douse it, show Percy that he was made to serve and comply.

“No, you see,” Percy said, his voice trembling a little bit from what he was saying and what he was hearing, from the hate he felt towards Berric. “I think he was framed.”

The words were followed by the sound of seven silver bells ringing. Seven silver bells all moving in unison in Percy’s mind. A drum began to beat a slow rhythm.

“Framed?”

         You heard me.

Didn’t expect that, eh?

                                               Slut.

                                      Not now.

                                               No, him. Slut.

“Yes,” Percy confirmed slowly. He was still clutching the fork tightly. “I think someone took polyjuice and went to Corridan’s house wearing Oliver’s face and that he murdered him so they would blame Oliver.”

Berric’s expression had shifted. He was thinking some pretty loud thoughts, but Percy couldn’t really stop and pay attention. He had to keep talking, quickly, quickly, quickly. He had to get it all out, like a purifying ritual, and he had to look Berric in the eye, blue and innocent eyes, and see. Percy still had doubts, yes, even now, he was used to doubting, to having voices in his head telling him that he was wrong, that it was another way. But once he spoke his piece and looked at Berric’s face he would know for sure. No matter how good an actor Berric was, some things couldn’t be fully concealed.

“And I think that later that same person murdered the owner of the apothecary that had provided the ingredients for the polyjuice. He made it look like an accident. He was very careful to only involve the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol rather than the Aurors because the Aurors have many Gryffindors and, as you said, they help each other.”

Berric was very, very still, which was to be expected after such an onslaught. Percy had shut up and was trying to get his breath under control. He didn’t feel like throwing up anymore. He took the glass of wine that Berric had insisted he try. It was bitter and sour and left him with a dry mouth.

He looked at Berric’s face and knew, for the first time, a special kind of relief. The bells were tolling in harmony. The voices humming an old song.

“That… is…” Berric spoke slowly. He was playing with the bread, making a little ball with the dough. “An idea, certainly. Say, do you have any proof to support it?”

Bells, drum, hum.

How very telling.

An innocent person would have asked why would anyone do that, not if there is any proof.

Innocent? INNOCENT? Didn’t you pay attention to what he was thinking??

I don’t know. I’m not paying attention now.

                   Dear Merlin.

                                                                           Say yes.

What?

                                                                           Say yes.

                                                                           Say you have proof.

                   That is a terrible idea.                         Say yes.

Oh, yes! See what face he makes.

Yes!

Oh, yes!       No.    

                   Nonononono. You weren’t listening. I was!

“Yes,” said Percy, easily ignoring the dissenting voice that was screaming that this was a terrible, terrible, idea. “I think so. I am writing a report. I went to check the apothecary and I found something that could be important. I need to check out something first. I will send it in tomorrow morning.”

Such good liar that I am.

                   Like that’s going to do any good.

                                                                           No, no, no.

“Well, I still think that this is house loyalty speaking,” Berric said. He smiled easily and still a bit patronisingly and made Percy toast with him to loyalty and to mad ideas. Then he ordered dessert to share and said that he would like to see Percy again. Thursday there was a Yule Concert in the Oxford wizarding district, followed by a special ball. Berric, of course, had an invite and he would like to take Percy along.

It was the kind of thing that Percy was supposed to like, so he said yes. He agreed that Berric would pick him up at half past seven, because Berric was a gentleman. Then he got up to leave because some of them had proper jobs in offices and were supposed to go back to them in time.

Berric insisted on hugging him and kissed him softly on the corner of his mouth, not a full proper kiss but not a kiss on the cheek either. Percy let him, and he also let him kiss him a second time outside the restaurant, where people could see. Berric reminded him of their date on Thursday. He stayed behind and watched Percy disapparate.

 

Chapter Text

ooOoo

XIII

The Thirteen Hour

ooOoo

It was Monday and yet Percy was feeling immensely happy. He had it. He had it! Sure, he didn’t have any hard evidence or a confession, but he had the knowledge and that was the important part. The novels and radio serials focused on that, on getting the truth and bringing it into the light. So far everything had been suspicions and speculation, but now he had the truth, bare before him, the truth he had guessed.

He wasn’t crazy. Not about this. Maybe he was mad because having all those voices in his head wasn’t normal. But he was right and for once he didn’t have any doubts whatsoever about it and he even knew what was going to happen next and what he should do. It was amazing. It was a feeling that filled him with energy while also giving him a sense of calm, of serenity. Absence of worry is what it was. He wished he could have it more often. Being able to see the future and know what was to happen ought to be very relaxing.

Of course usually one went around getting clues that became evidence and lead inevitably to the murderer. Percy, being Percy, had to go at it wrong and find the murderer first without any proof whatsoever. It didn’t matter, he thought. What was important was the truth, naked and glossy and hard truth. The truth was big, bigger than anything, bigger than love, bigger than death. Once you had reached it, once you were at her feet, how difficult could it be to look for and find the path you should have walked? How hard could it be to find proof?

Mostly Percy was just happy that his madness wasn’t that bad. He might be mad but he could still tell right from wrong, truth from lie.

That feeling went with him all the way back to the Ministry, through the Atrium and the lifts and to the Transportation department where he found that Angelus Ackerson, Head of the Department of Health and Safety and Herbert Benfield, Head of Security and archenemy of everyone in the office, were waiting for him. Evidently Titus hadn’t returned from his lunch break, which wasn’t surprising because he usually wasn’t back until three.

Both Ackerson and Benfield were standing next to Alice White like one of those old prints of medieval or biblical stories in which someone accuses a woman of adultery or witchcraft. The second was ridiculous and the former was unlikely so Percy wasn’t sure what their purpose was.

He didn’t have time to wonder because as soon as he came near them they began to recite a long list of crimes and offenses allegedly performed by Alice. Percy seriously doubted that she was responsible for even half of them because she was smarter than that and wouldn’t have left a trace, and because Ackerson and Benfield were getting so incensed as they followed Percy into his office and watched him hang his coat, that the list of crimes now included breathing in their direction and chewing loudly while she was in their vicinity in the cafeteria.

Percy noticed that during all this, the always spiteful Judith was sitting at her desk, eyes glued to her work and conspicuously quiet. She was probably the only one doing that.

Percy had brought his own lunch that day which now sat untouched on his desk. He calmly opened the bag and fished out a piece of fruit. One of the interesting fuzzy ones. Kiwi.

He stared attentively while Benfield explained how Alice had sneezed in their direction with ill and malicious intent (that, Percy almost believed) and demanded that she be fired on the spot, possibly literally. Percy nodded calmly and without breaking eye contact he lifted the kiwi to his face and bit into it, fuzz and all.

He chewed. He thought he preferred it without skin, but it wasn’t too bad.

“What, what are you eating?” asked Ackerson looking perplexed and mildly alarmed. “It looks like goblins’ balls!”

Percy rose his eyebrows as if saying “you would know what goblin testicles look like” and said nothing. His eyes were like a calm clear pond. He kept staring at them.

The situation soon became so tense and awkward that Ackerson and Benfield mumbled something about it not being proper or professional and left without any more fuss. Percy followed them with his eyes.

Now everyone will believe that you eat goblin parts.

         So?

“That was amazing, sir, if I may so.” Evidently Alice knew what a kiwi was and had no fixed opinions on the way to eat them. She was failing to keep her grin under control.

“Carry on, Miss White.”

Percy got very little work done. Mostly he thought about what was going to happen next, what he had seen in Berric’s mind in a quick flutter of terror. Berric was pretty intelligent –  Percy had to give him that – and had hatched a plan in seconds.

He also thought a lot about human nature, about how both Judith and Berric had gone to great lengths in order to ruin someone’s life. How hate and jealousy could be very powerful motivators. Look at Alice, too, Alice White, how she managed to do everything she did while keeping a high standard of work quality.

And there was someone else who would go to great lengths in order to get one over on somebody else. Someone who could help Percy get what he needed.

If Percy were to ask for their help he wouldn’t even hurt their rival. It would be constructive, not destructive.

He wrote a letter.

You could build great things through feuding.

ooOoo

George was checking the prices of some wreaths that sang winter songs and occasionally yelled witty insults to passers-by when the door opened.

“Hello George,” Percy said merrily and not sounding like a maniac at all. He had only taken a step inside, so he extended a long arm and put a finger over the sleeping mannequin’s head that still sat near the door. “Can I have it?”

George blinked twice and gave Percy a very serious look. Percy didn’t know that George (and he supposed, Fred) could ever look that serious. It was quite thoughtful and solemn.

“Why? What are you going to do with it? Will it be damaged?”

Percy shrugged and nodded. “Possibly. I’m not going to lie.” That was a nice little addition to his general good mood. He was telling the truth a lot.

“Then no,” George said sternly. It was very strange. As if their roles were reversed.

“Okay. Can I buy it?” Percy tried again. He supposed that would be fair if he was admitting to a more than likely wear and tear. He wouldn’t mind going a bit wild, once he was done with it, and doing something else like watching it burn.

“Buy it?”

“Yes,” Percy nodded again, firmly. “Buy it. I have money. You said they could be customised? I am interested in that.”

The serious expression abandoned George’s face, although he still didn’t look relaxed. That was understandable since in the last eight years Percy had only made two purchases in the shop: A nice shape-shifting Christmas ornament that Ron had created and a bottle of invisible ink. Overall he hadn’t reached a galleon of expenditures. And now this, one of the most expensive and cumbersome products of the shop.

George stepped forward and grabbed the mannequin (‘m asleep, leave me) as if he feared that Percy might make a dash with it. “You will pay the family rate,” he warned.

Percy decided to get fully inside and close the door behind him. It was beginning to rain. He nodded at George. “25% increase, I know, yes, that’s fine.”

George paused, thinking, and came to a decision.

“All right, then. What sort of customization did you…?”

“George?” That was Ron, stepping out from the workshop. Percy didn’t know why they had even hired Verity because she was never around to greet Percy when he came to the shop. It was always Ron and George and sometimes Ginny.

Ron was wearing a leather apron and goggles; it was a bit of an unnerving image. Everyone was used to the twins’ (George’s) antics, but seeing Ron work on something had that extra layer of unknown danger. Ron smiled when he saw him. “Oh, hi Perce.”

“Percy wants to buy one of the Z dolls,” George explained with a tone that said this was something out of the ordinary but not necessary worrying because it was Percy and Percy was boring. Everything Percy did had to be boring too. He wouldn’t even want the doll to leave it at his desk and get longer lunch breaks. Rather on the opposite, George suspected that Percy wanted it to monitor corridors and bathroom breaks. Boring.

Ron, evidently, differed in his judgment.

“Why?” asked Ron every little bit the Auror he used to be; even worse, the student going with Harry Potter and getting in trouble.

“I would rather not ask, Ronny,” George said, making a funny face. Again, because this was Percy, haha. We don’t like the things Percy does.

Percy smiled and tried to look boring and meek and not at all as if he were up to something. He suspected his mouth was doing something weird, though.

“Percy, why?”

“Reasons,” said Percy quickly. George let out a surprised smile.

“What reasons, Percy? Ginny says you were here the other day asking about the Puddlemere United.”

Ron was a horrible little boy who had no business growing up and being clever and noticing people’s conduct, in particular Percy’s.

There was cajoling and arguing and sassy dodges of the truth and in the end Percy stepped out of there with a mannequin customised to his tastes and a fizzy sherbet lemon, free of charge, that Ron had given him in a fit of fond and frustrated infuriation.

Then he had dinner, a bit larger than usual because his lunch hadn’t been very good. The possible stomach intoxication from the morning was long forgotten. Tomorrow he would have his prize.

ooOoo

It rained that night, like it had been doing at intervals since last Friday. At some points the rain became sleet, chilly and sharp and numbing.

Percy’s apartment was on the fourth floor of the building. There was nothing else above him, just the roof and the attic. It meant that the apartment was colder than the rest of the building, but it was also quieter which, to Percy, was a big plus. It also got a lot of light; few other buildings in the area were higher than this one. Percy loved having a place with lots of light and little noise while in the city.

Like every other wizarding house, be it a cottage, a mansion, a penthouse or a little apartment in the crammed wizarding district, the place was barred with anti-apparition spells and the floo had a locking system. The building was old, a proud survivor of many wars, so it had other charms on it protecting the lobby and the stairs. Remnants of the Anti-Heathen League and Grindelwald’s war.

But, like almost every other wizarding building, including manors and schools that were also castles, they had forgotten to do anything about the windows. Windows were windows and owls went through them so they were only closed in winter. This from a society that also had broomsticks that flew. Unbelievable, but hardly the most absurd or stupid thing they did.

Of course people never expected anything other than owls or the occasional pigeon to come through the window, especially on the fourth floor. Maybe it wasn’t that stupid.

It wasn’t difficult. It wasn’t difficult to apparate in a dark corner of Diagon Alley (and there were plenty of those), a corner from where one could scurry to the side of Percy’s building unseen. Late at night and with this rain nobody would be looking, and those who did wouldn’t pay attention or think anything of a dark figure hurrying past. It was raining, of course people would be hurrying past.

It wasn’t difficult to get on a broomstick and fly to the fourth floor.

It was a bit more difficult to keep the broomstick in place. Broomsticks were made to move and having them stay still in the air was very hard. Ask any Quidditch player. The air and the broomstick’s own energy would make it drift and it took a lot of strength to counter that. Incidentally, this is why Quidditch players were so toned. Except for the Seekers, who were moving constantly, everyone else had an amazing core.

It was difficult, but it wasn’t impossible to keep the broomstick in place, despite the wind and the rain, and carefully and gently float next to one of the windows. It was difficult but one could check inside for signs of activity and, when none were spotted, cast alohomora and open the windows.

Getting inside, from the broomstick to the living room, was an exercise in gymnastics. At any point someone with less training would have lost their grip on the windowsill or the wind would have moved the broom, and they would have tripped and possibly fallen the four flights down. This wasn’t the case, though. The person entering Percy’s apartment twenty minutes after midnight was in very good shape. He was strong and nimble and had no trouble keeping the broom steady and slipping inside. It was almost ridiculously easy for him.

He closed the window behind him and leaned the broom against it. A few drops of water fell to the floor.

The apartment was dark and quiet. The lights down on the street barely reached it. Because of the rain outside no light from the moon or the stars got to it either. Some corners of the living room were pitch black, while the rest was deep blue and grey.

It was silent.

There were papers on the floor and on the coffee table and in the small space between it and the couch. The signs of a place that was inhabited. There was also a roll of parchment clutched tight in the hands of the sleeping figure lying on the sofa, exhausted. His face was turned to the side, towards the back of the sofa.

Berric didn’t hesitate, not for a second. The one time he had hesitated he had botched it and had to try again. He was lucky enough that he could try again because Pinkman lacked ambition and brains, but this time he wouldn’t have that privilege. Tomorrow is what Percy had said. He had to be stopped tonight.

He crossed the distance between the window and the couch quickly, quiet and nimble like a cat. He crouched on his way there, picking up a cushion that had fallen to the floor, and in that same motion, without a second to take a breath or blink or look at the sleeping face, without a second to think about what he was doing, he put the cushion over the sleeping man –

and pressed

down.

They never tell you this. In the books and the movies, when it happens, it is always light and quick, so quick. The struggle, if there is any, stops in ten seconds.

It takes three whole minutes to suffocate someone. If they fight back and managed to gasp a breath it takes even more. It takes close to five minutes of uninterrupted pressure while the other person thrashes, while they scratch the arms of their attacker and try to push them away, while they fight and fight and fight for their life because no one ever goes away easy, not when it is like this, not when they wake up and panic because they can’t breathe.

It takes five minutes of this. Five minutes of pressing down. Five minutes of muffled cries. Five minutes of hands scratching at your arms. Five minutes to think about what you are doing.

At any point you could stop. At any point you could step back and with that give them their life back.

Five minutes of panic and desperation.

They will probably pass out a bit earlier, after the terror has made them hyperventilate and use up all the air. The good murderer knows not to let out yet, to keep pressing until the lungs are completely empty, until the brain and the heart have turned off. Two or three minutes in which the victim is completely vulnerable, helpless. Those minutes are worse than the previous ones, when they fought back. Now you are taking a life without giving them a chance to fight for it, to keep it. It will never take more will than in this moment, the ultimate determination to kill.

He had fought back and it didnt’ make a difference.

Berric was planning on filling the bathtub and putting Percy there afterwards. However, he was thinking now that it would look better if he made a noose with the sheets. It would look even more like a suicide. He might or might not leave a letter. With a stuffy and straitlaced man like Percy it might not be necessary. People wouldn’t really be that surprised that he had killed himself.

Berric lifted the cushion. The body, for it was now nothing more than a body, had stopped moving a while ago. An arm had fallen limp, the hand brushing the spot near the wand that was on the floor. So close! If only there had been less panic, if only he had moved his hand there, looked for his wand, instead of fighting Berric’s arms, he might have been able to do something. Percy could cast non-verbally.

But he hadn’t and Berric’s arms were very strong.

Berric was breathing fast and it was almost like a sick joke that he could take in air so quickly, so greedily. His hair was dishevelled from the little fight and the struggle. His face, however, was remarkably calm. Taking a life wasn’t enough to break his poise. If anything taking a life had restored Berric’s composure.

The rain and the wind had picked up. There had been two or three flashes of lightning while he – while Berric tied up that loose end. There was another flash now and it briefly illuminated the room. Berric got a glimpse of his victim lying on the couch like the eponymous puppet with cut strings. He looked smaller, too. But Percy didn’t have much meat on his bones even if he was tall. He should look small.

There was no thunder. Four flashes now and no thunder following them. Berric was suddenly very aware of that. It happens, sometimes, that the mind hyper-fixates on a small detail because it doesn’t want to focus on the bigger thing at hand. The lack of thunder was important, the person he had just killed was not.

Maybe, if he found some sleeping potions around, he would drag the body to the bathtub after all and make it look like Percy had drunk two doses and let himself drown. Yes. He would have to get him naked though, remove everything.

Still no thunder. How far away was that storm? It was raining here, he should hear the thunder.

When it finally came, it was so strong, such a crack and boom that Berric jumped in the air and bumped his leg against the coffee table. Nothing surprising; many people had this reaction when confronted by this portent of nature, along with paralysis, quaking, dry mouth, bowel movement and stuttering.

“Mr Summerwind, would you say that this was a cold-blooded murder or were there more personal reasons?” asked the thunder, with the voice of Rita Skeeter. Another flash captured Berric’s bewildered and frightened expression.

“Mr Summerwind, there are allegations that it was a sexual impulse that lead you to take Mr Pinkman’s life,” Skeeter went on without pity. “Would you consider yourself a sexual deviant?”

“What. No. I, no, I didn’t touch him.”

“… possible that you find erotic pleasure in…,” Rita was saying, unperturbed by the scene.

“No! I tell you, what the fuck? I wasn’t even close. I killed him from a distance and let him fall down the stairs. There was none of that rubbish.”

Skeeter was very blonde and dressed in bright colours and so she looked more mean than smart. She had an acid tongue and dressed in acid green robes and she was nasty and devious and unscrupulous – and yet she didn’t look smart. People were yet to realise that there was a motive to her nastiness. She twisted words, sure, and she would take things out of context, but when she said those things, those awfully outrageous and patently false things, she did it, quite simply, because she knew people couldn’t help but refute them.

And they always spoke too much.

See above for an example.

Skeeter was a harasser too. She couldn’t give them space to breathe or time to think, it was just jab, jab, jab, and seeing how they reacted, how they defended themselves.

“Is it or is it not true that spurned by Mr Corridan, with whom you were having a homosexual affair, you killed him a jealous rage?” she said, her quill hovering next to her and scribbling everything at a manic pace.

“No! No you daft cow!” yelled Berric. He hadn’t even questioned what was she doing there, in Percy’s flat. “It was Oliver!”

“Were you spurned by Mr Wood?” Rita Skeeter was like a terrier.

“I was spurned by no one! I am great and everybody knows it!” Berric was panting now, like a wounded animal. He was a wounded animal, the fox chased and injured by the hounds. “It doesn’t matter, I’ll, I’ll – ”

At which point the body lying on the couch rose to a sitting position and gently and faintly begged “no! no!” in a sad tone. They had to tune his reaction time better.

Berric screamed and cast avada kedavra with lighting fast speed, something that no one involved had expected. It wasn’t the kind of curse that one cast lightly and reflexively. The force of the curse was so strong that it blew the body’s head off which made Berric scream again, louder, and then turn towards Rita Skeeter and attempt to cast the killing curse at her.

He was stopped immediately, of course, and with prejudice on Ron’s part. Percy, sitting a couple steps to his left, was very impressed. Baby brother was a man now.

Percy had expected Berric to try something. He knew, he had heard him think so, the panic at hearing that he had left something behind at Mr Pinkman’s apothecary, the resolution to destroy all evidence.

Percy valued being right far more than any possible personal danger, so he hadn’t minded much the rest of Berric’s thoughts. He had asked Percy on a date to get his address so Percy knew what to expect. He had gotten his truth and he was going to get his evidence too. Well, not him; Rita Skeeter. Percy wasn’t completely certain that he would come through unscathed.

What he hadn’t expected was for Ron to make good on his threat of casting petrificus totalus on Percy if he didn’t explain why he wanted to buy the mannequin, or for George to be so on board with everything.

Percy was also surprised by how many people fit in his little apartment. There was him, of course, acting as a host, and Ron, because someone had to be the sensible adult for Merlin’s sake I can’t believe any of this; and Rita Skeeter and her photographer, elated at the big scoop she had snatched; and three Aurors carefully selected because they weren’t Gryffindors so they couldn’t be accused of house loyalty. Aurors were trusted witnesses by default, even in cases that didn’t involve the Dark Arts, not that it mattered now because the moment Berric had casted the avada kedavra it had become a Dark Arts case and they had been all too happy to arrest him.

George was also there, even though his presence wasn’t strictly necessary. He had been the one to bring the Enhanced Peruvian Dark Powder that would keep them in shadows but allow them to see. He was talking at Rita’s quill. Not at her, at her quill.

“For the reasonable price of 46 galleons and 7 sickles you too can own a Z mannequin,” George informed her while the quill dutifully took his quote. “Good for sneaking out, avoiding detention, playing pranks or any murder deception needs. Request yours today! Customisation available.”

Berric screamed a lot of abuse and profanity, most of it directed at Percy. He also confessed more than anyone had thought possible, thanks to Rita’s careful and expert prodding. He swore he would kill Percy, rape him too, and the Aurors dragged him away.

“Come,” Ron said, once the Aurors had seized Berric’s wand and broomstick and taken pictures of the window, the broken mannequin and the scorch mark the killing curse had left on the ceiling. “You are sleeping at George’s.”

“What? No. I like it fine here.”

Ron merely hummed an “Uh huh” and pushed Percy towards his bedroom so he could pick up his things. They were the last to leave the place, George and Ron and him. Afterwards the flat was empty and quiet; as calm and beautiful as always, as if nothing horrible had happened in it.

ooOoo

The flat above the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes shop had two bedrooms, just one bathroom, a small kitchen, and a beautiful and roomy living room. Percy went straight to the couch, dropping his hastily packed bag and them himself on it.

“Perce,” George said softly. He suddenly looked very tired and quite lost. “You – you don’t have to. I mean.”

Percy knew what he meant, but he was also feeling very tired so he couldn’t speak and save him the effort. It might not be right, too. George needed to say it.

“Take the room, will you?” George said at last.

The other room available. Fred’s room.

George hadn’t let it sit untouched all these years, but he hadn’t changed it dramatically either. Fred’s clothes were there and so was his bed and his things. There were also more things. The bedroom had been sort of re-purposed as an office space with the addition of a bigger table and a small cabinet. Only there wasn’t any kind of office-related work going on in there, not since Ron joined the business and he was put in charge of money and paperwork. Instead it was the place where George kept the board games and the colouring pencils and a flute he still didn’t know how to play. All the fun and creative things. As if he had accepted that he had to keep going on through life without his closest friend, but he still wanted to share those things with him.

Percy slept in there and it was probably much more comfortable than the couch.

ooOoo

The story should end here. The villain had been defeated, justice had been served and the hero had his reward in the form of a nice bed in which to sleep. Order had been restored and once things are in order the story loses its interest. Percy knew this very well.

But this wasn’t a story, it was a life, and life goes on inexorably, brutally, unstoppable.

It didn’t end here.

Chapter Text

ooOoo

THE FOLLOWING DAYS

Blended together in confusion

ooOoo

The Quibbler was a Sunday magazine but occasionally it could make a special edition during the week if it was under pressing and exceptional circumstances such as: the main writer swearing she would kill every single person in the room if they didn’t give her a special edition.

So that Tuesday every subscriber of The Quibbler, and there were quite a few of them nowadays, received a special edition with Skeeter’s story on the front page. NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN CORRIDAN CASE. REAL MURDERER DISCOVERED AND ARRESTED.

In contrast The Prophet was opening with Magda Marlowe’s coverage of Ministerial spending. Nobody cared about Ministerial spending when you had a murder case to fuss and fret about.

It was the drive to kill and eat and chew and spit on the enemy, as Percy had observed. And Skeeter had done it with one of the most desirable pieces of journalism. It was well known: everybody liked to have the latest picture and quote of someone who had recently died, and everybody liked to be the first to get the news about a death and possibly a gory picture too. But what everybody wanted most (and had led to some inventive and dangerous journalism) was to get that middle instant, that hinge that changed everything, the moment of the death itself.

Skeeter had gotten that.

Of course the rest of the paper was a mess because they had had to print the Monday draft. Lots of empty space and headlines that said GOBLINS ARE FRIENDS. 3 COLUMNS. or DEATH BY POTATOE. But the article written by Rita Skeeter was perfect. She had stayed up all night to write it and even had a quote from Harry Potter, and he was notoriously difficult with the press. Harry had said that Oliver was very nice.

The paper had a nice, if slightly dark, picture of Berric Summerwind suffocating someone with a cushion. Enzo, the photographer, had also managed to snap the last seconds of Berric casting the second avada kedavra. Probably out of terror, but still. Very few things could beat that, especially considering that Berric was a minor to medium celebrity.

Skeeter was pretty decent about it. Oh, she was absolutely poisonous in how she described the investigation and the ineptitude of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol and she also criticised those journalists who didn’t do their due diligence. But she exhibited something close to a work ethic. She didn’t name too many names.

The next Sunday The Quibbler ran a special issue. Sadly people were left to wonder about the possibly deathly qualities of a potato because the space was used for something else, but it was the most popular issue of the magazine since the one with Harry Potter’s interview about Voldemort. The Z mannequin was advertised on the back cover.

The Sunday edition had an interview with Percy. Percy didn’t want to do it and after seeing how much Berric had said he had wanted to even less, certain that he too would end up saying too much and some keen-eyed reader would notice how utterly mad he was.

Surprisingly, Rita took offense when he told her to write whatever she wanted since she tended to make things up either way. So Percy had to sit with her and let her ask. He even gave her a copy of some of the lists he had made to help him think. Certainly not the one about how to seduce someone for information, but the others, the ones about Oliver.

The interview was four pages long and had a couple of pictures of Percy in which he managed not to look extremely awkward. Rita titled it “The Nagging Voice of Conscience,” which both Percy and the voices found hilarious.

The people from the Department of Transportation didn’t care much about any of it. They hadn’t cared when the news of the murder broke and they didn’t care now except for the mention of their boss. In the last couple of weeks they had seen him counteract a curse, put some sort of hypnosis spell on Judith so she would stop being a shrew and allegedly eat the egg of a manticore or whatever that fuzzy green thing was in front of those bastards from Health and Safety; his involvement with a murder case wasn’t particularly shocking or interesting. His Judith-taming had produced much more gossip.

There was a brawl between the Auror department and the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol that luckily broke up before Minister Shacklebolt had to intervene. For once Potter wasn’t involved and he even sent a sassy letter saying so and noticing how he was still in the Hebrides and how he had an unfounded and unfair reputation as a troublemaker.

Oliver was being transported to Azkaban when the news about Berric came out so he spent half of Tuesday travelling to Azkaban, arrived there, and was immediately sent back to London where he was formally released late that night. Percy hadn’t been planning to be there because he felt he had done enough and this was a private moment to be shared with family, but Alice Sudworth came personally to take him, dressed in pink and looking much better. Mrs Wood gave him a trembling kiss on the cheek and Oliver hugged him tight when he finally came out to the Atrium.

And then it was almost Christmas and Percy had presents to buy and they had to get things ready in the department for the few days they were taking as holidays right at the time when people travelled the most. 

ooOoo

Christmas was something to be dreaded rather than enjoyed. There were many voices inside and outside Percy’s head and Fred’s absence was still a loud howl. Mum did everything by herself and expected Ginny and Fleur to help, Ginny invariably got angry at her and her brothers and Fleur engaged in passive-aggressive warfare. Angelina was excused from all this because she spent the day with her family and joined them later. Percy tried to help but he was very anxious about it, and in any case Mum acted as if he would burn the house down or drown himself in the pot with the soup and ruin the potatoes for dinner, so doing anything more than taking the dishes to the table was a real struggle.

The worst of it was the situation with Fleur, without a doubt. Percy was very confused because he hadn’t been there for the beginning of the relationship between her and Bill or her first visit to the house. All he knew was that there had been a fish soup that was a very grave insult, the consequences of which they were all suffering still.

When Harry was around he was always willing to help and he was so sweet and eager that there was no way to refuse him. He also did something to the meat that was amazing. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Seasoned. But Harry wasn’t coming this year, just as he didn’t the one before. He was still very welcome in the Burrow, of course, but the year before he and Ginny had broken up for good and agreed that it would be awkward, for the others if not for themselves. Especially for Ron, and to a lesser degree Molly and George.

It wasn’t as if he was spending the holidays alone in that dark house of his. If that were the case Mum would slap them all silly and bring Harry by the ear. He had picked up another long case even though he had just finishing with the dementors. He said that he didn’t mind, Christmas had never been that special for him, and the other Aurors were very grateful.

This year Mum and Fleur argued over the salad dressing. Ginny put a curse on the chairs so someone would have to go help her peel the potatoes. Percy retired to a corner of the kitchen and silently dealt with the green beans. After ten minutes, Ron wandered in and began to help too.

It was noisy and loud and there was an insistent clapping in his head, but the voices weren’t saying anything awful other than how they missed Fred.

ooOoo

On the morning of the 25th all the Weasley family members had hot chocolate together and exchanged gifts. Molly put on the earrings, which were very nice, and said that they shouldn’t have, and it was too much, but she looked very pleased.

They all got knitted sweaters. Percy additionally received three pairs of wool socks from Charlie. Ginny got a pretty nice pink scarf with little stars sewn on it. It was from Ron, and Percy was surprised that he had managed to choose something so beautiful. He suspected that he and Hermione were talking again, which should be good news but would probably only bring more heartache. He so wished he could spare him that.

George’s face when he received Basic Sign Language for Dummies was a poem. He liked it, though. He liked it very much. It was one of those things he had always meant to try. He and Fred, actually, although they didn’t need a secret language to talk between themselves when they already seemed to share a single mind. It was going to be painful for George when he didn’t have anyone else to learn with, but George would still like to learn another language and a silent language was incredibly cool.

The voices hummed a lullaby.

It was well after the Christmas dinner was done and they had played at least one hand of exploding snap. There was music on the radio and the room was warm. It was just about that time when people were debating whether they ought to leave now or have another glass of hot cider even though their stomach told them not to. Percy had retreated a little bit from the room, listening to Charlie tell him something about owls in Romania when precisely two owls arrived.

One brought a message to Percy from Oliver. If he had time later today, Oliver would like to see him so he could give him a present in person. The other was for Molly and even though it was Charlie who caught it, Percy still recognised the handwriting on the envelope. He decided immediately that it was time to go and that he could send Oliver his answer from his flat. He wished everyone goodbye at top speed, kissed his Mum and left before either Ron or George might raise any questions about his behaviour.

He already had one foot in the fireplace when he heard his mother yelp.

“How did she know??” cried Molly. She was looking with a dismayed expression at George and Angelina who, for the first time, had joined them after the meal. “I swear, this woman.”

Percy wasn’t there for the Aunt Muriel’s Informant Investigation.

ooOoo

Oliver was spending Christmas with his muggle side of the family in Bristol, but he was happy to apparate to Diagon Alley and meet Percy there.

“This is not a thank-you gift,” Oliver said after the first exchange of greetings. “I have no idea how I can thank you, but I know this is not it, it will be something bigger and much better.”

Oliver had already thanked him multiple times and Percy insisted that it was plenty. He had just done what was right, he had done a right to fix a wrong. There had been others who had helped too.

Of course they hadn’t risked being murdered. Oliver was very aware of that and very insistent.

“I didn’t bring anything,” mumbled Percy when he was presented with a big, heavy square package wrapped in gold and green paper.

“See? Excellent. Now you can feel awkwardly in debt too.” Oliver smiled as he spoke and it was a magnificent smile. He had been out of it for the first few days, which was to be expected considering he had been right at the door of the fortress in Azkaban. Of course he was a mess of feelings and emotions when he returned. Now, though, in this moment, sitting at small table in a tiny goblin café (only place open since goblins didn’t observe Christmas), he looked grounded and comfortable and handsome as ever.

Percy chuckled at his words. “Who keeps count between friends?” he said, desperately hoping that Oliver would listen and take his words to heart. He didn’t want Oliver to feel that he owed him. Oliver owed nothing. Percy had done what he had done because he wanted to do so and he had expected absolutely nothing.

He opened the package carefully. He knew it would be a book even before he lifted the first corner of paper, but he burst out laughing when he saw the title. This always happened with Oliver, he made Percy laugh despite himself.

“I know you like lists,” said Oliver, scratching the back of his neck. “Hell, if it weren’t for your study lists I would not have done so well on the NEWTs. My Seeker kept fainting, they took his Firebolt away, there were dementors and an escaped murderer around. It was a difficult year.”

The book was titled Lists of Note and it seemed to be exactly that, a compilation of lists. Percy had only seen the cover and already loved it.

“I saw those other lists you wrote,” added Oliver, softer, running his fingers through his hair. “The ones in The Quibbler.”

Percy had no idea why he was suddenly blushing, but he wished he could stop. He clutched the book with both hands. The book was good and real and contained a hundred lists. Lists were soothing.

“I was nervous about the interview,” he confessed. “Rita can make you say things you didn’t mean to say. She is terrible.”

Oliver had had to give her an interview too. He understood. “But you had written those lists,” he said.

Percy nodded. He felt as if he were participating in a different conversation altogether and he had no idea how to navigate it. Alice could probably help explain what was going on. Either of the Alices.

It is not a sky blue, though.

         Merlin’s pants. Are we back with the blue again?

But not ice blue, either. Storm blue.

“I really like this,” Percy looked down at the book, where it was safe. It was big and solid and it felt good to hold it in his hands. “Thank you.”

Oliver smiled with delight.

“How is everything?” Percy asked, knowing that it was an awful question but he still had to ask.

Oliver sighed heavily. Sometimes, even when things have taken a turn for the better there is still a lot of stress and fear and a hundred little problems.

“Alice has been really nice,” he said, voice full of relief. “I mean. I didn’t know if I was going to accept the Magpies’ offer, but it fell through after the arrest and now they don’t want to make another one even though I have been cleared. They were talking about kicking me out of the Puddlemere too, after the end of the season. They fear I might drive the public away.”

“And?”

“Alice said no way. The team is hers now, you know.” Percy nodded. Magda Marlowe had interviewed The New Princess of Quidditch last week. She was the owner of the Puddlemere and everything associated while her cousin had gotten half of the money and one house.

“We are sort of friends, she and I, you know?” Oliver went on. “Days and days locked together with no one else to talk to. Well, there was that man rambling about a sword. And you! Of course! But – ” Oliver was inexplicably surprised by something that seemed only natural.

“I know what you mean,” Percy assured him. “You two were the only ones on that side of the bars. Plus you spent a lot of time together. Of course you will forge a bond. Shared experiences and all that.”

Oliver was staring at Percy with a very curious and attentive gaze, as if Percy were explaining to him some deep mystery of the universe. Percy was quite puzzled by it.

“She doesn’t like Quidditch,” Oliver said at last.

Ah, there he had it. That was why Oliver talked as if he were excusing himself.

“Neither do I,” pointed Percy, laughing.

“Nononono. This is different. She doesn’t like it at all! And she went to school in France, and she played some magical equivalent of cricket.”

“It’s a wonder you are friends at all,” Percy said drily. It was also a wonder why he and Oliver were friends if they only considered their likes and habits.

“See?” Oliver exclaimed and immediately chuckled, aware of how ridiculous he was. “We talked a lot, though. And I do mean, a lot. We talked about things we hadn’t told anyone, not because they were secret but because we hadn’t even thought about it.”

They must had discussed some very deep topics, because Oliver was looking at Percy with an intensity usually reserved for Quidditch’s tactics. Percy wasn’t sure why the idea bothered him, that Oliver had forged such a strong bond with Alice. He liked that Alice.

“Marcelus the Elder wrote his History of the Donnington Castle while locked in prison there. I think it helps a lot with reflection and meditation,” Percy said, more for his benefit than Oliver’s. People thought a lot and got weird while locked up.

Oliver nodded as if satisfied, as if Percy had said something much more illuminating than a random tidbit of History.

“Anyway, she said that she wasn’t letting me leave the team even if she dropped dead that instant. She would return as a ghost to make her will known and everyone should be ashamed of their wickedness, forcing a nice young lady like her to forsake eternal rest so she could state her will after-dead. But they insisted, the people from managing and communications strategies – I really don’t know what they do, it has nothing to do with real Quidditch, I think they design our robes or something.”

Percy grinned helplessly at Oliver’s aside. He was furrowing his forehead as if only now realising that there was more to Quidditch than the game.

“They were super worried about brand image and Alice said the Puddlemere’s brand is that we are an honest, hard-working team who stands by its people, and to prove it we will complete the rest of the season without replacing Berric.”

Percy took a second to understand the meaning of this.

“He was a Chaser, wasn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“You have two others, then. It’s not too bad.”

Oliver laughed, honest and open, at Percy’s dismissal of the player who was often considered the most important part of the team together with the Seeker. Head Chaser, the one on point leading the attack, the one scoring all the points.

“If you do your job well and your Seeker is fast, you can win in no time,” added Percy, who gave no consideration whatsoever to the spirit of the game. It seemed very reasonable to him.

“That’s what she said to our coach, after he finished explaining the rules to her.”

They laughed together for no good reason because it wasn’t that funny. The old goblin lady sitting two tables down from them rolled her eyes.

“Oh! Alice is hosting a party on New Year’s Eve,” Oliver said. “Well, it is sort of a tradition for the Puddlemere, but since she is the new owner she wants to make it something special. Do you want to come?”

No. Percy didn’t like parties and the last one with his family was extremely recent and he hadn’t recharged his energy yet.

For some reason, though, he stayed quiet and said nothing.

“I know you don’t like parties much,” Oliver said as if he could read minds or something. He also scrunched his face self-deprecatingly, as if he ought to have started with that. “But… it’s so weird. I am back. Berric is gone. Corridan is dead. We have a new and terrifying owner.”

Percy smiled at that description of Alice. Sweet, sweet Alice Sudworth, the girl from spring. She didn’t seem the kind of woman to be intimidated by a shareholder council or to keep her absolute ignorance of Quidditch from managing the team well.

Oliver was about to say something else. About how, for three weeks, his teammates had thought him a murderer. Maybe they hadn’t really believed it, maybe they had been just as shocked and incredulous as Percy, but the idea had been there nevertheless, fed and nurtured by Berric. Now there was the space the idea had occupied and the children the idea had delivered.

“I’ll go,” Percy said. He smiled broadly to make himself believe that the idea was fine. “I can answer questions too.”

“You don’t have to, if – ”

“No, no. It’s fine.” Percy was smiling so much. He tried to surreptitiously check his reflection in one of the engraved mirrors on the wall because he didn’t want to look like a crocodile. The goblin lady caught his eyes and pursed her lips.

He didn’t remember what else they talked about. Probably about the lists included in the book.

ooOoo

It was a goblin jewellery shop so the floors were carpeted and the counters, with the exception of one, were pretty low. They were already helping someone at that one, a human wizard wanting to purchase a necklace, so Percy went to the next and didn’t mind that he had to squat.

“I have this,” he said, getting the ring from his little finger on the left hand. He really, really should stop wearing it. What was wrong with him?

Do you want a list?

Number 1: Giving your address to someone planning to murder you.

         Number 2: Wearing a ring of unknown origin that may very well be cursed.

                   Number 3: Eating a kiwi whole, fuzz and all.

“I don’t know if it has any properties,” Percy said, easily ignoring the voices chiding him. They used to be terrible. Now they were only annoying.

The goblin waiting on Percy had green eyes that were nothing like Alan’s or Harry’s but were striking nonetheless. So light they were almost white. He looked at Percy with an assessing look and then at the ring. His face showed nothing. His mind was thinking a very loud How? and a dry What.

“I’m pretty sure it is not cursed,” Percy offered because he thought the goblin was judging him precisely for that. He was also thinking that he would like to have a lock of Percy’s hair to examine its colour better.

The goblin looked at the ring under three different lights, studied it with a lens, measured the width and thickness and even the distance between the five small holes and the depth of each one. Then he called a colleague, a goblin woman with pale blue eyes, who did some magical tests with salt and bread and seven liquids in tiny glass bottles.

“It is not an engagement ring, is it?” Percy asked, suddenly assaulted by a thought. It would serve him just right to accidentally marry someone.

Both goblins looked at him and the woman bit down on a smile. They had rings, too. The green-eyed goblin had a thick silver band on his thumb and two others on his middle and ring fingers, one of them with a greenish hue over the silver that was quite enchanting.

“Not if you don’t want to, sir,” he said.

The woman lifted her hand, she had two rings on it with similar gaps (five and seven) only there were little stones embedded in them.

Since Percy had read the goldsmithing book he understood most of what they said. The ring could become whatever he wanted, although they warned that it was difficult to control what magical properties it acquired. It was a personal ring, a life ring, and you could add stones to it to symbolize important events. Birthstones were a popular choice, so you could have the whole family represented. But it could be for something else, marking different triumphs or struggles or quests.

Percy’s ring, they told him, was already starting to get a personality. Apparently this ought to be evident but they weren’t too surprised that he hadn’t noticed, because he had also failed to realise it was made of gold.

“Gold is yellow,” Percy said weakly. They scoffed. Gold could be many colours, a fact that interested the voices immensely. Percy’s ring was pink gold and already awake. Percy was advised to stay away from Dark Arts if he didn’t want the ring to become too powerful and desirous. Goblin artefacts had a mind of their own about who should wield them. This explained a lot about Gryffindor’s sword, actually.

“Hand cut, maybe head cut too,” said an old goblin over his shoulder on his way to the back of the shop.

Percy thanked them and insisted on paying for the consult and they gave him their card and told him to come again when he was ready to get a stone embedded.

There was something they didn’t say because it was so very obvious to them that it didn’t occur to them that it had to be said. They didn’t say it and they didn’t think it and Percy didn’t learn about it until he got a second book from the library. Even then it was just a passing reference because it was so evident. Although Percy, and the voices agreed with him, thought it was not, it was not evident at all and it should had been mentioned before.

Of course – the book said – the use of these rings, both in the sense of their magical properties as well as status symbols, is restricted to the community.

Which meant that it was a goblin ring meant for goblins. One didn’t just hand things meant for goblins to humans. Percy might be the first human (wizard or muggle) to be handed a goblin artefact since Tobias the Strange and Tobias was usually represented as a human but he had probably been a half-something.

Percy saw in his future a difficult conversation with Aunt Muriel in which he explained that he had been informally adopted by the London goblin clan. There wasn’t a Maltesers box big enough.

She doesn’t have to know.

                   You didn’t realise it. She might not realise it either.

Do we really want to keep a secret from her?

Bill better hurried up and have a child already so Percy could be the bringer of the news.

Also, the voices said they wanted something green for the ring. Percy thought that maybe this would be good for the voices, to ground them a bit.

ooOoo

The New Year’s Eve party wasn’t that bad.

There was some tension, but Percy was surprised to find that it was nothing compared to a multi-departmental meeting that was running late or one of Judith’s worst days. At the first opportunity, Percy proceeded to tell the attendees why it would never have been Oliver because he was too nice and also how if he were to kill someone it would be unplanned and nearly unconscious, like the time he wanted his Seeker to ride a broom that could have come from a dangerous lunatic or Lord Voldemort himself given the pattern of those school years.

The Puddlemere Seeker, a small mousy boy, or possibly girl, a small mousy person, nodded with enthusiasm.

“Oliver helped me move. Got the bed upstairs and everything. But he yelled at me for letting the snitch go when I got a concussion.”

Everybody laughed, Alice chastised Oliver, and just like that the tension dissipated and it was a party and they had fun.

They missed the countdown to the New Year though. Not the party, but they, he and Oliver, they missed it. Percy had retreated to a quiet corner where he could take a break from all the socialising; Oliver had joined him and they had chatted just like they did at Hogwarts when they shared an after-dinner snack.

Just like at Hogwarts, there was a lot of noise. There were footsteps and clinking glasses and laughter and music in the background and a heated discussion about the best wood for broomsticks and voices and voices whispering over each other.

One of the voices was saying:

It is not aquamarine. It is blue like a happy song, blue like flying and magic.

Perfectly absurd, except Oliver was staring at Percy with the absorbed and goofy expression of someone enraptured with a work or art.

This idiot, said a voice with an awed tone, is thinking of your eyes.

Which were very boring and simple eyes if you asked Percy. Blue, true, but like many other blue-eyed people. They were not electric or innocent or reminiscent of the sea. They were perfectly devoid of any poetry and not even very good to see with, hence his need of glasses since age nine (probably earlier).

“KISS HIM ALREADY,” yelled Jamie, the big blond Beater. (Not to be confused with James the big brunet Beater.)

Percy had already been feeling a bit awkward because he was at a party and he wanted to make a good impression on everyone for Oliver’s and Alice’s sake, if nothing else, and discovering Oliver’s completely unfounded opinion of his eyes had left him discomfited, so he could be excused for jumping to action and kissing Oliver on the lips before it even occurred to him than the order had been directed to someone else. To Oliver, actually, as he would learn later.

By then Oliver had both of his arms around him and was kissing back with enthusiasm and dedication so it didn’t really matter. The countdown and the cheer and the toast to the New Year, went by unnoticed. Percy’s ring was shining on his finger and the noise in his head was taking the shape of a song.

When they parted for breath, he spotted Alice standing across the room with a glass of champagne giving him the thumbs-up, only why would she – ?

Oh.

It was meant for Oliver too. They really had talked a lot, hadn’t they?

ooOoo

They each went to their own place to sleep because it was late, they were very tired and (at least in Percy’s case) needed to scream into a pillow to let out the giddy energy. Plus, Oliver was supposed to have lunch with his family on New Year’s Day and there was a Weasley New Year’s Breakfast tradition too.

Mum interrogated them about Aunt Muriel’s sudden demand to know more about Angelina. Ginny and Ron were her primary suspects and she completely forgot that Percy existed or could ever speak to anyone. Just in case, Percy made sure to have his mouth full of food at all times. George tried his new book on sign language with him until Angelina pointed that it worked the other way and Percy should be the one signing.

“She. Clever,” signed Percy, after a quick search in the book. And then: “Too Good For You.”

“Don’t I know it,” George said, looking at her fondly and giving her a kiss.

Instead, he and Oliver met for tea at Percy’s apartment. While Percy went to the kitchen to get the water boiling Oliver stayed in the living room, looking around like people do.

“I see Orion is in a place of honour,” Oliver said, raising his voice so Percy could hear him. “Still your favourite, isn’t he? You know, no one else has ever made me think about my favourite constellation.”

Percy could feel himself melting inside.

Oliver’s favourite constellation was Monoceros, the unicorn. You would think that he would prefer something that flew, but he liked the simple lines that made the unicorn. He also liked that Percy still sorted such things into lists and categories.

There was cake and tea and a deep conversation about everything, including favourite star arrangements and the unbelievable depth of human cruelty. It was a long talk.

“How did you know?” asked Oliver with a closed-up throat. They were sitting on the couch very close together and Oliver was looking up, at the scorch mark the killing curse had left and that Percy still hadn’t painted over. “You said that you never had any doubts about me, but how did you know? That it was him?”

He should really have painted over that stupid mark. Funnily enough, Percy had barely given any thought to the fact that a man had broken into his apartment to kill him. It didn’t upset him.

“I just…” Oliver continued, “I need to know. Because I thought he was my friend. No,” he stopped and said more firmly. “He was my friend and I never, I never thought – ”

Like everyone else on the team, except the Seeker, Oliver was wondering if there was something he should have seen, some clue, some sort of hint of what had lain under Berric’s amicable exterior. The mousy Seeker had never liked Berric so he, or she, Percy still wasn’t sure, hadn’t been surprised to learn how awfully rotten Berric was because it had been confirmation rather than news. But for the others it was news and it was upsetting and shocking. An actual shock to their world, like a jolt, something that took things and set them upside down.

Percy hadn’t mentioned his hook-up with Berric to Skeeter. He just made it seem that he had investigated the case and taken note of everything and just like that arrived to the right conclusion. In her article she had written that Percy had an unerring ability to judge a person’s moral character which had made every single member of the Weasley family roll their eyes and purse their lips internally. Percy? Percy, who took Fudge at his word? Please. Didn’t he have a boyfriend who was a spy?

Ron was the only one who was still wondering how Percy had known. He knew that Percy had omitted something and he was only waiting for a good time to ask.

Just as the Weasleys didn’t buy Skeeter’s explanation, but didn’t pry further, it also wasn’t enough for those who knew Berric. What was there to see that Percy had noticed but not them? Were they really that blind?

Oliver had considered him a friend. Not a close friend, but a friend nonetheless.

Percy sighed. He really didn’t want to do this, but it might be good to tell the truth to someone, and Oliver would keep his secret. If he thought that Percy was too mad and it was too much and didn’t want to have anything else to do with him, so be it. Oliver would still keep quiet.

He touched his goblin ring with the pad of his little finger, took a big deep breath, and began to talk. He told him everything. Just. Everything. Once he had started it was actually difficult to leave anything out, although he glossed over the part when he went to Berric’s place. He shared everything else: the voices, the different quality to some of them, the things the voices knew, the things Percy had learned. Once he knew the truth it had been a matter of making his way backwards to a piece of evidence, to something more tangible than a whisper inside his head.

“I am quite mad, you see,” Percy finished. That was the big conclusion. He was quite mad indeed. “You can go, if you want to. It’s all right.”

Oliver didn’t look in a rush to move. He was still sitting very close and looked relaxed and at home. They had been talking for ages now.

“So you are a legilimens,” he said, opening his hands.

“What? No!” Percy said quickly with that certainty pure-bloods had about how the world was supposed to work. “Legilimentia doesn’t work like that. You have to train and practice, like animagi, and you have to cast a spell each time you want to read a mind.”

Oliver scoffed. It was very annoying. His eyes were deliciously dark and untroubled. He was a glass of iced coffee on a summer night.

“It’s like my Mum always says,” Oliver said, obtusely wrong. “Wizards will create the most random limitations and put up lines that aren’t even there. Well, she doesn’t say it like that. She says: Oh, so you are telling me that talking dragons are too much, Benedict? You just admitted that there are multiple dragon breeds, with different colours, but suddenly having them talk it’s too much. Well, maybe they don’t want talk to wizards, not with that attitude.”

He closed his mouth and looked at Percy with a mix of defiance and satisfaction and in that moment Percy could totally believe that there were dragons capable of speech who simply weren’t interested in talking to wizards. Before Percy could say anything else, Oliver thought of another argument.

“And supposedly you don’t survive a killing curse, but I know of a little Seeker who begs to differ, so I don’t see why you can’t be a natural mind-reader.”

Which was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever said to Percy. Percy couldn’t really do anything about it other than grabbing Oliver’s shoulders tight and kissing him with everything he had.

They had sex, sweet and warm and with an interesting note of spice. Percy on top of Oliver, thighs burning as he rode him, and maybe it wasn’t sex but making love.

It was, the voices told Percy and was later confirmed by Oliver himself, Oliver’s first time. Oliver was objectively handsome and highly desirable and looked like an August dream and had been a virgin until that night because he simply hadn’t been interested. It was a strange sign that perhaps Percy wasn’t as broken or weird or different as he liked to think. He had thought that in this, too, he was irredeemably different and wrong and funny but apparently he wasn’t or, if he was, it didn’t matter and all he should care about was kissing Oliver again.

If Oliver didn’t have any experience Percy had plenty to make it work for both of them. He showed Oliver how to move and how to touch and held him close when he spilled inside him. Oliver was a fast thinker and a fast learner and he mouthed at Percy’s neck and chest while he wrapped a hand around him and brought him to orgasm. Oliver’s voice was the only thing Percy heard.

They did it again, not much later, Oliver on top of him and moving with a perfect rhythm, Percy’s legs wrapped around him and, and, and holding hands, too, both of them, kissing clumsily and licking and biting everything within reach. Oliver shivered when Percy bit on his earlobe and Percy gasped when Oliver freed a hand and grabbed his waist and pulled him closer and all he could hear was the sound of rain on the windows and gasps and moans and a very low sound of a vibrating string.

They had to take a break when they realised that it was past ten and they were hungry. They wolfed down some hastily made sandwiches, sitting side by side much like they used to do, only this time they were naked and Oliver, who had a beautifully inventive and strategic mind, was busy trying to broadcast filthy thoughts right into Percy’s mind with moderate success.

Blowjob.                                            So soft.

         A penis in a mouth, yes.

Hot. Warm.

“Are you offering or requesting?” Percy said, swallowing the last bite.

Oliver smiled brightly and didn’t say, satisfied with having passed the message. So they did both and it was fantastic.

When Percy came back to his senses he was lying on his back in bed, his legs spread open and cum leaking out of him. He was feeling wet and filthy (Slut?) and very relaxed. Oliver’s head was resting on his inner thigh and Percy reached down to caress him blindly. It was glorious. The voices agreed. Not one of them had anything different to say. Nothing else was important.

It was an excellent beginning of the year.

Chapter Text

 

ooOoo

EPILOGUE

ooOoo

For some reason, nowadays whenever any team member of the Puddlemere United came to the Ministry for their mandated anti-doping check ups they took a detour afterwards to come visit Percy and examine his eyes to report on their colour.

He didn’t mind at all, but it was a bit strange. He had a sister on another Quidditch team and she never came to his office. But now all of his boyfriend’s teammates came to visit.

Oh, yes, he had a boyfriend now.

More than a boyfriend. “Boyfriend” was a word too small for all the things that Oliver was to him. Oliver was kind and funny and very handsome and sexy and understanding. Oliver had the ability to make Percy go weak in the knees. Oliver knew that sometimes Percy heard voices that didn’t exist and he didn’t mind. Oliver dragged Percy to parties and events but he also brought him books and tea and carried the weight of conversations so Percy wouldn’t have to.

One of his boyfriend’s colleagues wandered now into the department when they were having yet another standoff with the stuck-up bastards from Health and Safety. James (blond) stood in shock as two-thirds of the Department of Transportation aggressively ate fruit at the representative from the Work Hazards Sub-Department. Alice winked at him while she also, inexplicably , managed to eat a date-plum in a murderous way.

Alice was Percy’s friend now. Both Alices were, actually. Thankfully they hadn’t met each other. That would be too many Alices altogether. This Alice might be the first proper friend Percy had made as an adult, though.

Percy was meeting many people now that he was dating Oliver. Every month there was a birthday and one or two Quidditch games that he just had to go to. Percy was learning the names and stories of everyone on Oliver’s team, plus their girlfriends and boyfriends and families. He suddenly had quite the active social life and at times it was exhausting. But beyond that, Percy had made a friend all by himself. One that didn’t come from Oliver’s side. He wasn’t sure how he had managed to make a new friend past the age of twenty-four.

She shouldn’t be Percy’s friend because she was his employee but Alice didn’t care. At some point she had decided she liked Percy as a person and this meant showing interest in his life, sharing baked goods with him, having lunch together in the break room twice a week and discussing muggle cinema.

Alice was a good friend.

Percy wore his goblin ring on the little finger of his left hand. He liked touching it with his thumb while he thought. He hadn’t put any stones in it yet, even though the voices still said that they would like a small light green one and Percy also thought he would like to get a lavender one, like the eyes of the goblin who had gifted him the ring. He had seen him one more time in the library but they didn’t talk.

Anyway, he was taking things slow with the ring.

Instead, when spring came Percy got a tattoo. Nothing fancy or moving, it didn’t even have charms imbued. It was just the stars that made the constellation of Orion, drawn on the left side of his chest, in that place that wasn’t neck and wasn’t shoulder and that Oliver liked to kiss so much. The stars lived there now with Percy’s freckles and they gave him a profound sense of peace. Percy was messed up in many aspects, but he was also all right.

He didn’t plan on getting any more tattoos, not even for when he eventually married Oliver, and yet at the end of the next winter Oliver accompanied him to get a new one on his right wrist, so low that it was almost his hand. Many people were shocked by it because Percy didn’t seem the type to get a tattoo, let alone one so visible. Oliver was always happy to smugly inform them that Percy had another one, much bigger, and that would distract their attention so they wouldn’t ask any more questions about the little firecracker on his wrist. It was a very important reminder.

But that was a story for next winter.