It’s good to be back! The wedding was wonderful. The honeymoon was great. I managed NOT to get hopelessly sunburned, but because I was using SPF 50 sunscreen, I also didn’t get a tan. C’est la vie.
Thanks to Arnel for being my splendiferous beta.
And, for this first time, I get to dedicate something to my WIFE! Whohoo!
-- -- -- --
“Hello Mother,” Penny said, leaning down to give her mother a kiss on the cheek.
“Grandmummy!” Arthur squealed.
“Shhhh,” Penny scolded, as Arthur drew stares from the other patrons. “Indoor voice, please, Arthur.”
Her mother smiled weakly at her grandson. “Hello, Arthur.”
Penny didn’t understand why her mother insisted on meeting her for lunch at these ridiculous tea houses. They were far too formal a setting to expect Arthur to be well-behaved. They were full of little biddies with grey hair and wearing pearls. She never felt quite dressed enough.
“How are you today, my dear?” her mother asked, sipping her tea. A waitress appeared from somewhere, brought a teacup for Penny and poured her tea – “two sugars, and milk.”
“I’m fine today, and you?”
“Well, you know how it is,” her mother waved her hand. “The women at the club are so insufferable sometimes. The planning for the bazaar is just not going all well at all. It’s so very frustrating.”
“Of course,” Penny said. As always, she found it hard to get excited about her mother’s problems.
The Clearwaters were old money. Not as old as some, like the Malfoys, but old enough to be among the leading families. While they’d never seriously bought into the same kind of pureblood nonsense that the Malfoys and the Blacks had advocated, they certainly had prejudice when it came to money. Marrying a Muggle was never taboo in the Clearwater family, so long as he came from money.
It was no surprise, therefore, that her family had not been keen on her marriage into one of the oldest, yet chronically poorest, wizarding families on record. Her father had expressed outright disapproval, and even her mother had counseled against such a match. And that was before she became pregnant with Arthur.
Her father was furious, and had threatened to disown her entirely. Her mother, on the other hand, had suddenly done an about face, and pushed the wedding planning along as quickly as possible, hoping to force things along to the point that no one would notice the discrepancy between the dates of the wedding and the eventual birth. Penny had been so frustrated with her mother’s constant chattering about her “social reputation” that she’d had Percy announce, at the wedding reception, that they were expecting, simultaneously horrifying her mother and arranging her father’s near withdrawal from her life. She had only seen him once or twice since the wedding. He hadn’t even bothered to come to Percy’s funeral, something Penny wasn’t sure she would ever forgive.
Her mother had tried to be supportive, but she didn’t understand too well, isolated and sheltered from real life by her legion of house-elves, who had done everything for her, including raising Penny. Penny didn’t take the money she offered, and refused to move back home, so her mother was really at a loss. She tried to do what she could.
“So, I spoke with Mrs. Zabini the other day, she has a cousin whose son will be in town next week. We were thinking of having him to dinner next week. Do you think you’d be available?”
Lately, her mother’s idea of helping was to not so subtly set her up with young, eligible men from wealthy families.
“I don’t think so, Mother. I’ve been so busy with Arthur I hardly have time to think. And the work is piling up at the office.”
Her mother pursed her lips. The fact that Penny was a working woman did not sit well with her mother. Even the prestige of working in the Minister’s office did not offset what her mother saw as the disgrace of having to do common work. Of course, the fact that Penny’s father-in-law was the Minister didn’t help either. Neither her mother nor her father cared for some of Minister Weasley’s more progressive policies, and their distaste for him was not well concealed. But her mother didn’t say anything. This time.
“And how are your in-laws?”
“They’re doing well. Ron and Hermione’s new baby is doing well, and Ginny is excited about her new relationship with Harry.” The one thing guaranteed to deflect at least some of the hostility her parents felt toward the Weasley’s was their relationship to the Boy Who Lived.
Her mother brightened considerably on mention of Harry. “Have you seen Harry lately?” she asked. “How is he?”
“He’s fine. Apparently, he stopped at the Ministry day care to read to the children there. He read one of the Martin Minks stories.”
“Unca Hawwy!” Arthur proclaimed happy. “He wead to us!”
“That’s right, big guy,” Penny smiled at her son. “Uncle Harry read to you.”
“What else have you been doing lately, Arthur?” her mother asked solicitously, finally moving her attention from Penny to Arthur.
“I played with Jimmy and we made bwooms and we flew them around the woom, and we went woosh! And then, and then, we told Awiel that we had been made Auwows, and then we…”
-- -- -- --
Sunday, Hermione invited Penny to bring Arthur over to see the new arrival. Penny and Hermione had a close friendship that had begun the summer between Hermione’s sixth and seventh years. Hermione was living at Grimmauld Place that summer, after her parents’ death. Penny had joined the Order after Percy’s reconciliation with his family. Penny and Hermione’s contribution to the Order was their mutual love of books and research. They had spent many an afternoon combing through obscure volumes at Dumbledore’s behest, looking for anything they could use against Voldemort. Their commonalities, as well as their attachment to Weasley men made them natural friends.
“Dat the baby?” Arthur asked curiously, suddenly acting a little shy in front of the tiny bundle.
“Yes, that’s right,” Penny said softly as Hermione held Charlie so Arthur could see him. “This is your new cousin, his name is Charlie.”
“Chawee!” Arthur held out his hand, and Charlie wrapped his tiny fingers around it. Arthur looked down at Charlie. “What should I say to him?” he asked Penny.
“Any thing you like,” Penny said.
“Hi Chawee, my name is Awthuh,” Arthur began. “I’m your cousin. That means we’we welated. We have a big family…”
The two mothers smiled as Arthur continued to describe each member of the Weasley extended family.
“How are you doing?” Hermione asked Penny quietly “I’m okay. Better, I guess. Been talking to Ginny?” she asked, hazarding a guess.
“I got a little bit about it from Ron, actually,” Hermione replied. “And of course, Ginny was telling me that she attempted to get you out a little bit.”
“She means well,” Penny replied. “I don’t really think I’m ready, but even if I were, I certainly wouldn’t find anyone at a place like where she took me.”
Hermione chucked. “Ginny can be a little…over-enthusiastic sometimes. And her idea of a good time is, well, different from ours, certainly. She’s always been much more…what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Forward? Flirty?” Penny offered. “She’s always had a touch of flair, almost of the scarlet. Not that I’m suggesting that…” Penny said hurriedly.
“Oh, I know what you mean,” Hermione said. “She doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s not like she’s kept a string of lovers, either. Harry’s always been the one for her, there never has been anyone else, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to have a good time in her own way. She’s much more social than either of us.”
Penny sighed. “Yeah.”
“Mummy?” Arthur said, turning away from Charlie, eyes wide and curious. “Was I like Chawee?
“What do you mean, dear?” she asked.
“Small, like Chawee?”
“Yes, you were, you were once that small. You were a little bitty baby, and I could hold you in one arm,” Penny said, smiling.
“Wow,” Arthur said, turning back the Charlie and picking up his running commentary.
“I think he likes to talk almost as much as Percy did,” Hermione said with a grin.
“Yeah,” Penny smiled. “A lot like his dad.” She sighed, and turned back to Hermione. “I know Ginny means well, but when I’m ready, I’ll be all right on my own. My own terms, and my own time.”
Hermione nodded. “I can’t claim to know what you mean, but I think, in your shoes, I’d probably feel the same way.”
“Some days, I feel like its okay, I’m getting better, other days…well,” Penny shrugged. “I just don’t feel ready.”
Hermione looked at her for a moment. “You’re sure?” she asked.
“What?” Penny furrowed her brows, confused.
“Well, it just you keep saying that. Are you sure you’re not ready, or do you just want to believe you’re not ready?” Hermione asked gently.
Penny paused for a moment, emotions churning within her, she opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Never mind,” Hermione said hurriedly, “Forget it.”
Penny smiled weakly and nodded.
But she couldn’t forget it.
-- -- -- --
Hermione’s quiet statement had haunted her all night, and was still on her mind when she got to work the next morning.
If Hermione was right, there must be a reason for me to be convincing myself that I’m not ready, Penny thought. She hadn’t managed to get beyond that stage yet in her thinking. It was a busy morning, as Monday’s usually were, and she hadn’t really had the time to chew on it very long.
Penny was doing correspondence when Ron walked in. The man with him was a little shorter, probably about Harry’s height. He had sandy hair and he looked to be her age. Except for his eyes, she realized with a start. His eyes were old, with furrowed lines around them; they looked as if they had seen years. Harry had similar eyes, although he hid it better nowadays. This man looked like Harry had when he left Hogwarts.
He walked with a pronounced limp that almost reminded her of Mad-eye Moody. Despite it, though, he walked with the near swagger of someone who was supremely confidant in who he was. And yet, he also looked a bit cowed by his surroundings. Well, lots of people are in awe of meeting the Minister, remembering that it was a privilege she took for granted. But that didn’t seem to be it either. He looked almost a little out of place. She was intrigued. Ron smiled at her as they entered the waiting room. “Hey Penny,” he said. “Is he ready for us?”
“He’s meeting with the head of International Cooperation right now, Ron,” she replied, looking over his companion again. There was definitely something different about him. She knew that Ron had been coming in that morning, but she had no idea who it was he was bringing with him. As she looked at him again, and tried to puzzle out why he seemed just a bit…different, it dawned on her that it was possible that he was a Muggle. A Muggle in the Minister’s office? “He’ll be with you shortly.”
Ron nodded and took a seat in one of the plush chairs. The other man joined him, and Ron leaned back and closed his eyes, whistling nearly silently between his teeth. Penny tried to sneak another glance at the stranger.
Suddenly it struck her that she found him attractive, and her hand began to shake a little with the weight of the realization. She was being silly. It wasn’t the first time since Percy died that she’d found a man attractive, but it was the first time she’d caught herself doing it unconsciously, by herself, without a friend to say, “Isn’t he cute?” The stranger was hardly handsome, and yet there was something arresting in his facial expressions, like someone who had seen pain, and understood it. He was no carefree young bachelor, the kind Ginny or her mother wanted to set her up with. The pain in his past was written on his face for the whole world to see.
“How’s little Charlie, Ron?” Penny asked casually, trying to strike up a conversation in order to solicit an introduction. “Is he still having trouble sleeping?”
Ron’s cheerful, carefree countenance faltered. “A little,” Ron replied, without opening his eyes. “It’s just one of those things I guess. We try and take advantage of the time when he is asleep.”
“Absolutely, sleep when the baby sleeps,” Penny agreed immediately, nodding at Ron.
She heard the stranger mutter something at Ron, and Ron shivered with what she recognized at repressed laughter. She plunged forward with the conversation.
“When Arthur was that age, I never seemed to get any sleep,” Penny continued, and the immediately regretted it. Sure, just go ahead and admit to having a kid, she thought. What does it matter? another voice said, You’re never going to see this person again. Yeah, he’s good looking, but there are lots of good looking guys in the world. Besides weren’t you just telling Ginny and Hermione that you weren’t ready for someone new? Her emotions were in turmoil. Of course, Hermione could be right…
“How old is your son now?” the stranger asked, an expression of polite curiosity on his face. He seemed naturally inquisitive.
“He’s nearly three,” Penny said, replied, smiling at him.
Ron sat up suddenly. “Oh, introductions,” he said. “Penny, may I present Inspector Chris Collins of Scotland Yard?” Ron said with a flourish.
“How do you, do, Inspector?” Penny said. A Muggle police inspector? What on Earth is he doing here? What’s going on? It explained the inquisitiveness, however.
“Chris, this is Penny Clearwater, my father’s excellent assistant, and a good friend,”
Ron announced, and Penny felt herself blushing a little at his praise. And then she realized that he had introduced her by her maiden name.
“It’s a pleasure,” Chris said, rising and extending his hand.
Penny looked over Chris’s shoulder at Ron, questioning him. Ron grinned back at her and shrugged, an expressive gesture she interpreted as what’ve you’ve got to lose? She crooked her eyebrow at him oddly, then shook her head and returned her attention to Inspector Collins. “As well, Inspector.”
She sat back down, wondering what Ron had meant. Was everyone trying to set her up with someone? Had Chris betrayed some interest that Ron had picked up on?
Just then the door opened behind them, and a Minister Weasley appeared with the Head of International Cooperation.
“Ron,” Mr. Weasley said, turning and smiling. “Good to see you. So sorry to keep you waiting.”
Ron shook his father’s hand warmly. “Thanks, Dad,” Ron said. “Let’s head inside, all right?”
“All right then,” the Minister said, “Penny, no interruptions unless the world is ending, all right then?”
“Of course, Minister Weasley,” she replied properly.
Penny turned back to her correspondence, trying to put the whole incident out of her mind. You’re just being silly, she told herself. I’m still not ready for this, and besides, who on Earth would be interested in me? She nodded. I’m not ready anyway, she repeated to herself. But the Inspectors eyes stuck in her mind, their hazel depths showing knowledge beyond their years. “I’m not ready,” she said aloud in frustration to the empty reception area. “I’m not ready.”
But now, even to her own ears, they sounded like the words of a petulant child.
-- -- -- --
Chris and Ron left the Minister’s office the way they came in, and Chris had another look at Penny, the Minister’s secretary.
For a moment, before going in, he thought perhaps she was showing some interest in him, but that illusion had shattered when she mentioned her son. And then things got a little strange. When Ron had introduced her, she had shot him a strange look that he had been unable to interpret. Before he could fathom out what exactly was going on between the two of them, the Minister had called them into his office.
Now Chris had a parting opportunity as Ron conversed with Penny about his new son, who Chris had determined was named Charlie.
Penny was not stunning by most standards, but she had an attractive face that was framed with curly brown hair. She was sitting down now, but when she rose to shake his hand before going in, he had noted that she was not stick thin, but rather properly proportioned. Her figure that wouldn’t turn any heads on the fashion runways, but was very nice in a girl-next-door kind of way.
But it was her eyes that truly arrested his attention. They were a soft blue, but all around them and in them, he could see that she had seen and felt pain. It was the kind of pain he had seen before. He had seen it in the eyes of the families he had visited bad tidings on, knocking on doors in the middle of the night, announcing death. He wondered what loss had caused those blue eyes that pain.
Abruptly, Ron patted him on the shoulder, and Chris realized he’d been staring. Ron gave him a smile and they walked down the corridor back to the elevator. They had to wait for it.
“What’s her story?” Chris asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“What do you mean?” Ron asked, looking at him askance.
“I could see it in her eyes, Ron. Something happened to her,” Chris explained. Ron was an inspector; he would understand what he was talking about.
Ron sighed, and ran a hand through his hair, and then rubbed the back of his neck. “She was married,” Ron said finally, sighing a little. “To one of my brothers.”
“Oh,” Chris said the strange look Penny had given Ron clicking into place. Ron had introduced her by her maiden name. What did that mean? Chris wondered. “What…erm…happened?” he asked, knowing that the answer could really only be one thing.
“He was killed, in the war,” Ron said, and he continued quickly seeing Chris’s confused. “There was a war, here in England, with a Dark Wizard. Very bad. Ended about three years ago now. Percy…he died while Penny was pregnant with Arthur. She took it real hard.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Chris said automatically, knowing it was meaningless anyway.
Ron shrugged. “Yeah.”
Chris pondered a moment in the silence. “I knew something had gone on,” he said. “Aunt Anastasia took a long holiday in America. She was gone for something like a year and a half.”
Ron nodded. “A lot of people did that. They didn’t want to be involved.” Ron paused again. “Penny’s a nice girl, though. Hated to see her like that. She’s better now, and she’s doing a good job keeping up with Arthur.”
“She got any family to help her out?” he asked.
“Not really,” Ron admitted. “Her family is one of those rich, snobby, families that didn’t approve of the match. That, and they nearly disowned her when Arthur came along a little too soon after the wedding.” Ron shrugged philosophically. “They were hard times, though, no one knew if they were even going to be alive the next day. I certainly didn’t hold it against them.”
Chris nodded. “So she works for your Dad now?”
“Yeah,” Ron said. “He asked her to come to work for him when he was made Head of Magical Law Enforcement during the war. She followed him up when he became Minister.” The elevator arrived just then, and they got in. “Why so curious?” Ron asked, giving him a look.
“No reason,” Chris said.
Ron arched an eyebrow at him for a moment then turned away. “Her mother keeps trying to set her up with rich young bachelors from their social circle, and she keeps shooting ‘em down. Says it’s because she’s not ready. I just think she’s sick of that type of guy,” Ron said, nonchalantly.
Before Chris had an opportunity to ask what Ron meant, the elevators stopped at the next floor down, and several people joined them. Ron immediately started a conversation with someone he knew, and it cut off further conversation.