Diagon Alley on Christmas Eve was a beautiful sight to behold. Every shop was draped in garlands of Holly and fairy lights; every door had its wreath. The street lamps where tied with great red bows, the snow was charmed to stay fresh and spotlessly white; the Chamber of Commerce had even managed to change the rain that had been predicted to fall that day to snow. Carolers sang on every corner, the shops were offering mulled cider and cookies to the throngs of merry last-minute shoppers, and the air was filled with gaiety. It seemed that everyone in the world was happy.
Percy Weasley, however, was in a right foul mood. He should have Apparated directly home from work; he hadn't remembered until the end of the day that he had no food in his flat. So, here he was, stumbling through the snow, his cloak billowing around his ankles, his hat about to fly off his head.
He knew he should have gone to the Minister's Christmas party, it would have been a good career move to mingle socially with the people of the Ministry, but he had ended up working late, instead. In it's own way, this was also a good career move, he reasoned. He snorted. It also kept him from having to mingle socially, something he had never been good at. He probably would have made a disaster out of it, setting his career back, instead. Better a quiet dinner at home, he thought bitterly.
He reached the grocer's and stepped inside, straightening his cloak and tucking his hat behind his belt. He grabbed a basket and headed to the prepared meals section; if he hurried he could be home before dark. He was debating the merits of canned curry versus prepackaged roast beef and potatoes when he caught a glimpse of a familiar face. He turned to look, and came face-to-face with his ex-girlfriend from Hogwarts.
"Penny- Penelope Clearwater?" He reached out to touch the woman's arm; then thought better of it and just brushed her sleeve.
The woman looked at him blankly for a second, then her eyes widened with recognition and she clapped a hand over her mouth, "Percy? Is that you? My God, it is! You are the last person I expected to see here! How are you?" She moved to fling her arms around him, and instead dumped her handbag all over the floor. Blushing furiously, she bent to retrieve the contents of her bag.
Percy squatted down to help her. "I'm quite well, quite well! And speaking of the last person one expects to see! What are you doing back in London?"
"Being clumsy, evidently. That hasn't changed." Their eyes met for an instant; then she laughed nervously and looked away. "I'm here to have Christmas with some friends." She beamed at him, that old, familiar smile. "It's so good to see you! God, it's been so long! You haven't changed a bit! You're working at the Ministry of Magic, aren't you? I read about you occasionally in the papers"
"I have worked at the Ministry since I left Hogwarts; I'm Deputy Minister of Magic, now," Percy chuckled, a bit nervously. She read about him? "I guess I haven't changed that much; I work until I drop and then wake up and work some more. What about you? What have you done for the last fifteen years?" Was that accusation in his voice? Why?
"Oh, nothing much, traveling and working. I started my own firm, we do research for, well, whoever wants to hire us. Listen; do you have to go anywhere right away? We could go get a drink or something, do some catching up." She smiled at him, hoping she didn't sound too eager.
"I have some free time just now; let's go to Rakarowciewitz's; they should still be open." They brought her groceries to the check-out line, where they waited in awkward silence while the things were totaled up and bagged. While Penelope was paying the jolly witch at the register, Percy was looking at her hair. It was as long and lush as he remembered it; it still caught the light and made a halo around her head. He wondered if it was as soft as it used to be. His hand twitched, as if to touch it. He sighed and put his hands in his pockets. Penelope shrank the parcels and stuck them in her purse as they left the shop.
"So, what is Rakaro-shew-its's?" She frowned, struggling with the unfamiliar word; remembering that Percy never had trouble pronouncing even the longest, most foreign-sounding words.
"Rakarowciewitz's. It's a coffee shop, where Florian Fortescue's used to be. Rodolfo Rakarowciewitz opened it a few years after Fortescue disappeared. He has the best selection of any shop in London. Also, they have the most comfortable chairs of anyplace on Diagon Alley." He grinned at her, remembering her fondness for squashy chairs.
They walked on in silence for a while. Penelope watched Percy out of the corner of her eye. He still looked as confident as he had always been, but something had changed, around his eyes. He looked as if there was no true joy in his life, no time for fun, or relaxing. She reckoned that wasn't really a change for him; he had always been work-before-play. She also noticed he still had the most beautiful complexion, and she wondered if the skin on his temples was as soft as it used to be. Her hand twitched, as if to touch it. She sighed and put her hands in her pockets.
Inside the coffee shop was warm and quiet, with the comforting smells of freshly brewed coffee, hot milk, and baked goods. Soft Christmas music was playing in the background. The place was nearly empty; not many people had time for a coffee on Christmas Eve. They chatted while they got their drinks and some enormous cookies, and settled on a cloud-like purple sofa in the corner.
"So, Deputy Minister of Magic! You always said you wanted to be Minister of Magic one day, and it seems you're almost there. You're doing so well, you must be incredibly happy." She hoped he was. He had certainly suffered enough from his choices.
"Yes, I'm very happy." Was he? "I have certainly gotten to meet many people I wouldn't ordinarily have had contact with. I've had the pleasure of working on many international agreements, to forward the goal of international magical cooperation." He smiled. "I've also been fortunate to attend quite a few state dinners and balls. But it is not an easy job; there is always more work to be done than there are hours to do it in, we put in many late nights. And if anything goes wrong, it's often the future relationships of nations that are irreparably damaged. It's horribly stressful at times. I've definitely had to make personal sacrifices; it' s hard to go out on the town when whatever you do might end up on tomorrow's front page. But that is such a small thing beside the importance of what we do." As he leaned forward to pick up his coffee, he caught a whiff of her perfume, the same one she had worn at Hogwarts. With it came the memory of how the back of her neck had felt in his hand... He pushed the thought away. "The last time I saw you, you were off to travel around the world, with nothing but a knapsack! Here you are, fifteen years later, with your own firm! What sort of research do you do?"
"Like I said, we will gather information about almost anything a client wants to pay for." he was looking at her in that intense way she remembered, as if what she had to say was the most important thing in the world. He had always listened to her, even when no one else would. When her parents had told her she was foolish, that some idea she had was ridiculous, Percy would always listen. He must have to treat everyone that way, now; listening must be an important skill for the Minister of Magic. "We mostly do document searches, for members of the Benevolent Congress of Magickind; also, many attorneys use our services. We get a lot of requests from journalists and authors, but they often can't afford the fees. We've even done some work for Universities, but they usually prefer to do their own research. We get many requests from wealthy college students," she laughed at his disapproving look, "but we refuse all of those." she laughed again. "In fact we have a special letter we send to them: 'Although we will be glad of your business in the future, we feel that we cannot accept your request at this time. Your education is a valuable asset; it is not wise to let another party do this important work by proxy.' If they persist, we threaten to tell their mothers... That works every time."
She could tell he was impressed; there was that little crease between his brows, and she could practically see the wheels turning behind his eyes. She had forgotten how lovely his eyes were, blue and as changeable as the sea. His lashes were far too pretty for a man, thick and long and coppery-gold. She remembered how they felt on her cheek . . .
"You live in America, then?" Percy had wondered why his letters had come back. Owls wouldn't cross the ocean.
"I do. After Hogwarts, I toured around Europe and Asia, just like a thousand other grads. It was sort of hard keeping in touch with people, since I was usually surrounded by Muggles. I would send mail whenever I found a wizarding kiosk to owl from, which is where I met a group of wizarding kids from America. I spent the rest of my trip with them, and when it was time for them to go home, they asked me to go with them.
"The wizarding community in America is wonderful! They don't avoid Muggles like we do, although they're careful not to do magic where Muggles can see. They marry Muggles more often, too, and they have a very close-knit community. Many American wizards dress in Muggle clothing all the time, and some even drive cars! They do work hard at keeping Muggles from finding out about the whole wizarding community." She giggled, " Although, if a Muggle does figure it out, they try to get that person to marry a witch or wizard!
"I had planned to return to England, but then You-Know-Who came back, and I decided to stay in America." Penelope took a sip of coffee. Percy looked... Stunned? Before she had left, they had had such a row; he had begged her not to go; had told her they could go later, after they had established careers, and finally, that it was over for them if she left him. But she had gone, anyway, had needed to go. "I had to get a job, of course. I had always loved research, so I went to work in the Library of the Magickind Congress. After a few years, some of the Foyerists asked me to find some information for them; they paid me better than the Government did, and my firm was born.
"Anyway, to put a short ending on it, I got homesick for England, so, here I am, back where I started. How's that for adventures?" God, she sounded far too perky.
Percy was indeed stunned. She had lived so much more than he had. He had never traveled for pleasure. Never gone out with his colleagues after work. Never married. Never gone outside his cramped little universe. "Merlin! Those are some pretty impressive adventures." His voice sounded so strange. He took a large swallow of coffee.
She sighed. "So, haven't we both gotten to be grown-ups? When I used to dream about the future, it never included Government, and certainly not America." It had included Percy, though, once upon a time. She forced herself to smile at him. "Congratulations to you, though, you have just about everything you ever wanted." She cringed. Please, don't let that sound bitter. "Deservedly so, I've never known anyone who works as hard as you."
He looked down into his coffee cup and muttered, "Sometimes, work is a poor substitute for experience." He cringed. Please, don't let that sound bitter. He forced himself to smile at her. " But you have definitely lived every minute of your life. You have done things that most people never dare to." He blushed, and said softly, "And, you are still as lovely as you ever were."
"Thank you!" It was Penelope's turn to blush. Surely he didn't . . . She looked around the room; she certainly couldn't look at him just now. Her eyes came to rest on the huge clock across the room " Oh, my God! Is that what the time is? I've been gone much longer than I said I would; everyone is probably wondering what's happened to me! I need to go!" She jumped up off the sofa.
"I should get home, too." Percy was startled to see how long they had been talking. They left their mugs on the counter and walked out into the street.
"It was so nice to see you, Percy." She faced him in the snow, a bit too close.
"It was good to see you, too. Happy Christmas, Penelope." He could see his breath touch her face . . .
"Happy Christmas!" She stood on her toes and kissed him softly, then turned and walked away. Percy wanted to call her back, wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her back, to tell her he wanted her to come back and stay. But he just watched her go. And, just for a moment, he was eighteen again, watching her leave, thinking he would never see her again. He was surprised at the almost unbearable pain he felt; it filled his chest, inhibited his breathing. Then, the feeling passed. He sighed, and turned to go home. The snow that had been falling all day had turned to rain.
A/N this story is based upon the song Same Auld Lang Syne, by Dan Fogelburg. It was popular around 25 years ago; you can still hear it sometimes at Christmas. It is a lovely, melancholy song; if you can, track it down and listen to it.
This is dedicated to anyone who has ever had a second chance and let it go.