As they climbed the stairs to the second tower, Percy kept himself busy by trying not to notice Audrey’s legs. Because he was entirely unsuccessful at ignoring any part of Audrey, he completely missed the large eye that was painted on the door of the tower flat until Audrey pointed it out.
“Do you really think he lives here?” she asked with shining eyes.
“Who?” He leaned closer to look at the golden writing shimmering within the dark iris of the eye. Maybe it was a foreign language, or he wasn’t reading it right, since the word inexplicably looked like “kinderjedi.”
“The Artist!” Audrey exclaimed. “They call him the artist with the Kinder Eye because that’s how he paints his subjects — but no one knows his real name. He signs everything with this logo.”
“His name is probably Art,” Percy said, not trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He wasn’t looking forward to meeting some pretentious poof who signed his name with a picture.
His sarcasm was rewarded by a smack in the arm. “It’s not ‘Art.’ I know that for sure. And be respectful — he’s world renown for his portraits. Celebrities are always vying for him to paint them.”
Percy shrugged. “No wonder — if he paints with a kind eye, they’re going to look good.”
“Oh, he doesn’t flatter,” Audrey said, warming to her subject. “I heard an interview on the wireless with him once. He talks in metaphors, so you really had to think about what he was saying.
“Brilliant,” Percy groaned. “Metaphors.”
“Stop it. He’s a genius. I wish I could remember everything he said, but this really struck me — he said that the portraitist’s calling is not only exposing another’s virtues or faults but looking upon them with compassion as well.”
“I s—” He was about to say ‘I see’ and stopped himself. He had no idea what she was talking about.
Audrey quirked a smile at him as if she realized that he had caught himself, but she didn’t change the subject. “Now, this is the brilliant part.” She put her hand on his arm to emphasize her point. “Once the portrait is finished, it’s not only the artist who has the ‘kinder eye’ but the viewer of the portrait as well. Art as edification — just think about it.”
Audrey really did have pretty blues eyes — especially when she was talking about art as edification — whatever the hell that meant. “So he isn’t the bloke who painted the dogs playing poker?”
She laughed and smacked him again. “No.”
“How do you know? I think he got the inspiration from Kay Nein’s mutts.”
“You’re not going get his vote if you keep making snide comments.”
That brought him up short. He had almost forgotten why they were here — and only one of them was going to get the flat. It was a sobering thought.
“Right.” He nodded. “Go ahead and knock.”
A small man with sleek dark hair, glittering silver eyes, and a dark, pointed goatee answered the door. “Why are you here?” he asked after his eyes darted from Percy to Audrey and back again.
“Er — the flat,” Percy answered, feeling disconcerted by the intense scrutiny. Those piercing eyes didn’t look so kind.
“The flat,” the artist repeated. “That is your quest.”
Percy looked to Audrey for help.
“Yes,” Audrey answered. “It’s our — I mean — it’s the quest for each of us.”
The artist stood in the doorway, stroking his goatee, staring at them. Percy could feel the color rising in his face. Finally the artist said, “You match.”
“You must break apart before I can see you clearly,” the artist said, clapping his hands twice. “Over there — by the north wall.”
Percy found himself following the artist’s directions, even though he thought the man was trying too hard to be an eccentric genius artist. His studio certainly looked the part. The north wall was entirely of glass. There were half-finished paintings on easels, bright pots of paint standing open on a long table, and scores of pencils and drawing pads strewn about. To add to the ambience, a lone flute was playing a New Age tune in the corner.
The artist pointed Percy to an “x” taped on the floor. “Stand there.” He arranged Audrey in a similar manner. “Now we begin,” the artist said, looking a Percy. “Father?”
“Er — I don’t under —”
“Your father’s name?”
“Arthur.” Percy almost added ‘No one calls him ‘Art’’ but he didn’t think the humor would be appreciated.
The artist held up his hands so that the thumbs touched and he was looking at Percy through the square he had formed. “How many sons of Arthur?”
“Er — six.” He winced. “Five living.”
“And what number are you?”
Percy stared at him blankly. “Er — third son. Three.”
“Three,” the artist smiled and dropped his hands. “The kingdom was depleted.”
“What?” Percy forgot his manners, but he didn’t think the artist noticed.
“The kingdom was depleted and therefore you went on a quest.” The artist took out his wand and shot a spell at Percy. “Like so.”
Percy felt the magic wash over him and when he looked down it appeared he was wearing a suit of bronze armor.
The artist asked the same question of Audrey. “Father?”
“Owen,” she answered without hesitation.
“Sons?” the artist asked.
“Ah,” the artist said viewing Audrey through his hands. “A tyrant king.”
“I wouldn’t —” Audrey began to protest.
“So the maiden must seek her own destiny.” He waved his wand and Audrey was now dressed for battle with an armored breastplate, heavy gauntlets, and a helmet with a visor that covered all of her face except for her eyes.
“But you seek the same thing,” the artist continued, now stroking his goatee thoughtfully. “So the picture is not complete.” He gestured with one hand. “Please meet at the ’x’ in the middle.”
Percy shuffled to the ’x’, not trying to hide his impatience. He felt ridiculous and it bothered him that Audrey was so hidden by the visor.
“Ah,” the artist, waving his wand yet again, “I can see you both clearly now.”
Percy didn’t know what that spell had done to his appearance, but it had transformed Audrey’s. Her visor was gone, as was her armor. Her hair was loose and her robes were now white and gauzy and — his eyes widened — see-through.
Anger surged through him as he moved between Audrey and the perverted artist, his wand out. “Finite Incantatem.” Then he spun around and disarmed the artist of his wand. “You leave her alone,” he said, meeting those keen silvery eyes.
The artist merely smiled. “I wonder what that spell allowed you to see?”
“Percy.” Audrey tugged at his arm. “What are you doing? Give him his wand back.”
He turned to look at her. She was again in her neat blue robes, her hair pinned in place. It was a shock to see her looking so fierce and disapproving. The image of her with soft flowing hair and wearing a transparent gown was still stamped in his brain.
She seized on his moment of incredulity and pried the artist’s wand out of his hand. “Here,” she said, giving the artist his wand back. “I’m sor —”
“Audrey,” Percy interrupted, “you don’t know what he did. He —”
“I don’t think you know, either,” she said, giving him a cold stare.
“Ah, but I do,” the artist interrupted, beaming at both of them. “I would show you on a canvas, but this entire exercise was to allow me to vote wisely — not to create a portrait.”
“I still think —”
“Since I have made my decision, I’ll ask that you leave,” the artist said, waving his wand to open the door.
The artist ignored Audrey. “Run along. I’ll tell Lucy that my vote is for ‘and.’”
“And?” Percy repeated.
“Good-bye.” He turned his back on them and picked up a paintbrush. The flute kept playing its annoying tune.
Audrey was angry — or maybe she was brooding. He couldn’t see her face as they descended the stairs, but he could see the tension in the straight line of her shoulders. He should have known she wouldn’t appreciate his efforts to shield her from the artistic “genius.” This Audrey — the one with the killer glare and the sensible robes could take care of herself. The other Audrey — the soft, vulnerabl-looking one in white robes — might have been grateful.
On top of making Audrey angry, he seemed to have mucked up the votes. What kind of vote was “and”? Did that mean both of them got a vote? Percy and Audrey? Or was it a half a vote each? Or no vote at all?
This quest was getting tiresome — and he was tempted to just forget about the flat.
Except that it would be impossible to forget.
He would always wonder if he could have won the flat on his own merits or if Audrey was really the witch in blue or the witch in white. He had to see this through — no matter what happened.
Unfortunately, it seemed like no matter what happened — whether he won the flat or not — he wasn’t going to be happy.
Because if he won, then Audrey lost. And he didn’t want her to be unhappy. But if he lost, then he would be without a flat.
Was it possible for both of them to be happy?
Audrey stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked down the corridor. Percy followed her glance. It was the handsome paneled door of the flat they both wanted.
On impulse, Percy stepped around Audrey and strode to the door. Maybe if he saw the flat again, it would help him sort out what he really wanted. It was a ridiculous impulse since he didn’t have a key, but to his surprise, the door opened as soon as he touched it.
The spacious, formal front hall, tiled in black and white, was just as he remembered — it felt like he was entering an elegant home and not an anonymous flat. There were three closed doors — one led to the two small bedrooms, one to the galley kitchen and one to the sitting room/library — the room that made this flat so special.
It was a large paneled room with a wall of windows on one end, and a fireplace on the other. A thick oriental rug, in deep jewel tones, muffled his footsteps as he walked across the polished wood floor to look out at the walled garden. There were two apple trees and a peach tree in one corner. Red climbing roses smothered a trellis. The small swath of grass glowed emerald green in the shadow of the late afternoon sun.
He felt rather than heard Audrey come to his side.
“This is what I always imagined England to be like when I was growing up in Egypt,” Audrey mused. “Quiet, tasteful rooms that would be cozy in foul weather, and beautiful landscapes that were ripe and lush by the end of summer.”
Maybe Audrey wasn’t angry with him if she was talking to him like this. Maybe now she realized how that artist was trying to exploit her by casting some kind of transparency spell on her robes. Maybe —
“I’m not sure why you’re so keen.” She wasn’t looking out the window anymore; she was looking at him.
Because the apple trees reminded him of the orchard at the Burrow, and the windows reminded him of Hogwarts and he was tired of not feeling at home wherever he went. And in some perverse way, now that he had to fight for it, he wanted it even more. “Like you said, it’s a remarkable property,” he said finally. “Close to the Ministry.”
She didn’t believe him and she was throwing his own words back at him. He decided not to take the bait. “We should be going,” he said. “There are two more flats to visit.”
“So why — if this flat is so important to you — did you practically attack the artist?”
“Because he was using some kind of transparency spell on your robes!” Percy blustered.
“And you didn’t think I could defend myself?”
“I —” There was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t feel to this conversation. “I wasn’t going let him get away with it.”
Tyrant King. She probably thought he was as highhanded as her father.
“I thought for a moment that perhaps I was more important than your quest.”
He blinked. It was shocking to hear her put it so baldly. She was Audrey in white again, this time with her arms crossed in front of herself.
When he didn’t say anything, she laughed harshly and looked down at the carpet they were standing on. “You know, I think this is a magic carpet.”
“Surely not,” he said, feeling nothing but relief to change the subject. “Magic carpets are illegal in England.”
“Importing them is illegal. This one is already here.” She knelt down and ran her hand over the plush nap of the colorful rug. “It’s bigger than the one I had in my room in Egypt, but I think it will do the same thing.” She waved her wand and the carpet lifted a foot off of the floor.
She sat down with a plop and the carpet began to gently undulate. “Better sit down or you’ll fall.”
Her warning was too late. He fell headlong, losing his glasses on impact. Luckily the carpet cradled his fall and he only had the wind knocked out of him.
“Are you all right?” Audrey asked anxiously, leaning over him.
He turned onto his back and peered up at her indistinct features. “Yes,” he answered, feeling foolish. “The carpet is soft.”
“Your eyes are blue,” Audrey stated.
“You didn’t have your glasses on when the artist did that last spell — and I wondered how accurate it was.”
“Oh.” He wondered what else he didn’t have on during that last spell. “Was? Er — Was the spell accurate?” he asked.
“Yes,” she murmured. “They’re the same blue.”
“Oh.” Whatever that meant.
“Why didn’t you say, ‘I see?’” she taunted.
“Because I don’t see,” he answered promptly. “Not without glasses.”
She laughed and handed him his glasses.
At that sound, he felt himself relax somewhat even though he still wasn’t sure of her mood or what exactly they were doing floating on a magic carpet in the middle of an empty flat.
“You’re rather a goal-oriented person, aren’t you?” she asked.
He was instantly on alert — what had that spell revealed about him? “I believe quest-oriented is the correct terminology.”
“Yes. Quest-oriented.” She sounded disappointed; or maybe that was his imagination, because she didn’t say anything for a few moments.
The lulling motion of the carpet again worked its magic, and he began to relax — enjoying the novelty of lying around in the middle of a workday. Audrey sat next to him and idly traced the designs with one finger.
“I used to nap on a magic carpet when I was little,” Audrey finally said. “My nanny elf would sing ‘The Secret Song’ until I fell asleep.”
Percy smiled. It seemed every witch or wizard knew that little song about the Secrecy Act — even in Egypt. Then he frowned. Audrey wasn’t smiling. Either it wasn’t a pleasant memory or —
“Er — are you speaking in metaphors — like that artist bloke?”
Her laugh seemed a little strangled, but she swiftly touched his face and then looked away. “Yes, I suppose I am.”
Now he really didn’t see.
She waved her wand again and the carpet slowly sank to the hard floor. “We should go,” she said.
He scrambled to his feet, his face still tingling from where she had touched him, not at all sure what was going on.
The next flat was one floor up. Big band music, the kind they played at weddings and Ministry social events, drifted out from the open door. It sounded like a party — and, judging from the laughter, a good one.
They stood in the doorway and watched about ten couples whirling about an incredibly large dance floor with mirrored walls.
“An infinity room,” Audrey said. “As long as you keep moving, you’ll have plenty of space.”
“Welcome!” a large man, who rather looked like Father Christmas complete with white beard, threaded his way through the shuffling couples. “I’m Herbert Starr and my wife, Edna, is over there dancing with Mr. Tippin. We have —” He squinted at his pocket watch. “—Ten minutes left before our weekly dance club is finished.”
“We can come back,” Percy began.
“No, no. Join us.” Herbert Starr looked them both up and down. “You do like to dance?”
Audrey smiled. “I do.”
Percy didn’t mind dancing — between all of the weddings he had been going to lately, he had had a lot of practice. “Shall we?” he asked, holding out his hand to Audrey.
She took it and they moved to an empty spot on the dance floor. Percy put his free hand on her waist and she put her hand on his shoulder and they began to move —
In opposite directions.
“I’m supposed to lead.”
“Sorry.” Audrey sounded annoyed. “Since I was the tallest, I always got to lead at school.”
They danced in silence for a few steps. “I don’t know why the wizard always gets to lead,” Audrey complained.
“Because we’re usually taller,” he answered.
She laughed. “So this particular custom isn’t sexist at all — it’s about height.”
Audrey was easy to dance with since he didn’t have to stoop or mince his steps. The only problem was that, with this close contact he was again aware of… her. And the more he was aware of her, the less he could relax and enjoy the dance. He was not going to think about the soft texture of her skin or the scent of her hair or how well his hand fit on the curve of her waist or her long, lovely legs…
“It’s funny how things get decided,” Audrey said a bit breathlessly.
Percy was startled out of his reverie. “What?” It was almost as if she knew where his thoughts were going. Then he realized that the tune had changed and the tempo had slowed and it was a reasonable time to talk.
“How things get decided,” she repeated. With the slowing of the music, the room got smaller and they were forced to move even closer together. “Like who leads in dancing.”
Don’t think about her breasts. “Or who gets a flat?” he asked, more harshly than he intended
She raised startled eyes to him. “I keep forgetting.”
So did he, but he wasn’t going to admit it. “I don’t suppose drawing straws would work.”
“For who leads or who gets the flat?” she asked. Then she sighed. “Oh, never mind. We both know —”
Audrey never finished telling him what they both knew because the song ended and the dancers began to file out of the flat.
“Don’t forget dancing with the Starrs next Friday!” Herbert called down the corridor.
“So now,” Herbert said after the last guest departed, “Edna and I are supposed to vote on the next occupant of flat number seven. Am I right?”
“You are, dear,” Edna said. “But I think we should at least sit down before we start vetting them.”
He nodded at his wife and conjured several chairs. Now that the dancing had stopped, the room appeared to shrink to normal size, although the mirrors were distracting.
“Can we get rid of the mirrors?” Edna asked. “I’m due for a permanent next week and I can’t stand to see the frizzy ends.”
Herbert rolled his eyes, but dutifully changed the walls to ugly flocked wallpaper.
“You dance beautifully together,” Edna said earnestly, looking from Audrey to Percy. “Are you sure you want to compete for this flat? Maybe you could both have it?”
“Edna,” Herbert scolded. “They are competing for the flat. There’s no point in changing their minds now.”
“I hate deciding these things,” she fretted. “There’s always hard feelings.”
“We understand, Mrs. Starr,” Audrey said. “We won’t take it personally.”
“All the other tenants but one have done their duty,” Percy pointed out.
“Annette Butler interrupted Days of Destiny to talk to us,” Audrey said, backing him up.
“Oh, that was a sacrifice,” Edna said with round eyes.
“Yes, this is a duty,” Herbert agreed. “We’re helping Lucy with the flat.”
“It’s too bad Tippy left,” Edna mused. “He was just here dancing and he could have given his vote as well.”
“Mr. Tippin. You might have heard of him. He played Quidditch years ago for the Cannons.”
“Tippy Tippin!” Percy cried, momentarily forgetting the flat. “Chaser. He had a terrible arm and had to fly right to the Hoops to tip in the Quaffle instead of throwing it. I think he used to live in Devon. My father talked about him.”
“Yes, that’s him,” Herbert said.
“He’s rather tippy on his feet these days,” Edna said sadly. “All those Bludger hits to his head have affected his balance. The Healers said that dancing would be good physical therapy for him — especially if he had a partner to hang on to.”
“So about the flat…” Percy began. Then he caught Audrey’s disapproving eye. Obviously, he was being too blatantly Quest-oriented.
“Yes, yes,” Edna fluttered. “I do get sidetracked.” She looked to Herbert and whispered, “Should I ask them to sing?”
Percy felt Audrey stiffen next to him.
Herbert beamed at them. “If we had someone in flat seven who could sing, we could have sing-alongs on Saturday nights like the old days.”
“Er — perhaps we should see Mr. Tippin first,” Percy suggested, standing up. “That way you could put your flat back to rights and…”
“And I could do something with my hair!” Mrs. Star finished happily. “Yes — that would work out beautifully.”
Percy took Audrey’s arm and led her out to the corridor. Audrey didn’t look particularly grateful to be spirited away — she stood pale and straight in front of him. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I —” He frowned. “I thought you’d welcome the reprieve before you had to sing.”
“Reprieve?” she asked in a dangerously low voice.
He straightened, feeling a surge of anger go through him. “My mistake. I thought singing in public made you uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable is not the word I would use,” she said flatly. “But I never run away from confrontation. I was planning on telling them ‘no’ until you decided to be solicitous.”
“Sorry for being solicitous.” He could feel the heat rise in his face. “I thought this would be a good chance for you to start singing again.”
Her voice shook with anger. “What makes you think I want to sing again?”
“That Days of Destiny story line you couldn’t resist.”
“I have a career now.” Audrey crossed her arms in front of herself. “I don’t need singing.”
To Percy, it sounded a little hollow. “I see,” he said slowly.
“No, you don’t —“
“I do see. I’m not suggesting you sing again so that you can go back on stage. I’m suggesting you sing again for yourself.”
“For myself,” she repeated, sounding a little lost.
“I know it’s not a metaphor, so I’m not going to sound as brilliant as that artist bloke, but I do think you need to put whatever happened behind you.”
“And you think setting myself up to fail again is the way to go about it?” she asked sarcastically.
She averted her eyes and licked her lips. “What if I fail?”
“What if you do?”
Her beautiful blue eyes filled with tears and then she turned to face the wall. “I can’t go through that again.”
“You won’t be going through that again.” He gently put both hands on her arms to turn her to face him. “This is completely different.”
“How is it different?” Her eyes searched his face. “I’m singing to prove something — to earn something. And if I fail, I’ll lose out.” She gulped. “Already I’m nervous.”
“You’ll have someone with you this time, someone who —” He stopped, not at all sure what he was about to say and not sure if he wanted to know. “Um. It will be different.”
She frowned at him. “Are you a remarkable singer or something? Is that why you’re doing this?”
“Me?” He laughed. “I can’t carry a tune in a cauldron.”
She nodded, seemingly lost in thought. “Percy,” she said in a small voice, “I don’t know if it’s going to be enough — you being here.”
His felt a twist of pain in his stomach at her words and dropped his hands. Suddenly he realized that she had become important to him — but obviously he wasn’t as important to her, not enough to help in a situation like this.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be enough,” she repeated, holding out her hand. “But it’s more than I’ve ever had before.”
“Oh.” He swallowed and took her hand. She was Audrey in white again, vulnerable and alone.
She looked him in the eye. “I don’t want to fail.”
And she was also Audrey in blue — the witch who had the courage to admit what she was feeling.
“I don’t want you to fail, either,” he said simply, squeezing her hand. “We’ll sing together after we see Mr. Tippin.”
She looked at him uncertainly.
“And soon the Starrs will know which one of us is the diva.”
She gave him a weak smile.
Percy hoped that Tippy Tippin would keep it short and sweet. By now he knew that Audrey was the type who would never back down once she gave her word, but delaying the inevitable might make her even more nervous.
A casual observer would never guess that she was going to face something unpleasant in a short time. She looked as cool and unruffled as always — except for the stiffness in her shoulders and the vulnerable line of her neck. She was fragile and formidable all at once.
No wonder he didn’t know whether to admire her or to protect her — or both.
“Percy!” she squeaked, pointing down the short flight of stairs that lead to yet another corridor. “Is that Mr. Tippin?”
It was Mr. Tippin — lying crumpled and unconscious on a stone landing six or seven steps below them. “He must have fallen,” Percy said, running down the stairs to the still figure. Up close he could see that Mr. Tippin must have hit his head. There was an ominous trickle of blood seeping from his mouth. To Percy’s great relief, he could feel a faint, fluttering pulse.
“Audrey, run and get Annette Butler — she’s a Healer,” Percy said after he conjured a blanket. “I’ll send St. Mungo’s a Patronus, but I’m guessing she’ll get here faster.”
“Okay. I think I remember where she lives.”
Percy looked up at Audrey’s white face. “I can send her a Patronus, too.”
“Oh.” Her voice trembled. “Yes, you do that.”
“Here,” he said, standing up, “you stay with Mr. Tippin and I’ll —”
“No!” Her eyes widened in alarm. “What if something happened? I wouldn’t know what to do and —”
“Okay,” he said soothingly. “Let’s not worry about that right now.” He put one arm around her and then flourished his wand. A silvery owl shot out of the end. “St. Mungo’s,” Percy told it. Then he waved his wand again and conjured another owl Patronus. “Annette Butler and tell her to hurry.”
The owl flapped away.
Mr. Tippin started to stir, so Percy knelt down next to him. “Mr. Tippin?”
Mr. Tippin groaned, but didn’t answer.
“Is there anything else you can do?” Audrey was practically wringing her hands with worry, but Percy didn’t dare do anything more for Mr. Tippin until a qualified Healer showed up.
“Oh, my goodness!”
They both turned with relief at the sound of Annette Butler’s voice.
“I told Tippy he should never use these stairs to go to his flat. The third step goes missing now and again.” Annette knelt next to Mr. Tippin and began casting spells with her wand.
“Concussion,” she murmured, closing her eyes as if visualizing a map of his brain. “I can’t tell, but I hope that’s not a clot and then that vein…”
There was an Apparition pop and two medi-wizards appeared, carrying a stretcher. “Kevin! Burt!” Annette said. “We need to transport this patient stat. Is Healer Wood on duty? I think we’re in danger of an aneurism.”
Percy stepped back and took Audrey’s hand while the medi-wizards carefully lifted Tippy Tippin on to the stretcher and then Disapparated.
Annette turned to them. “I’ll go now and look out for Tippy — he doesn’t have any immediate family left.” She put her hand on Audrey’s arm. “Now, don’t worry. He’s in good hands. It’s lucky you found him when you did. No one uses these stairs much.”
“He just came from dancing at the Starrs.”
“Ah, yes. It ends at half past.” Annette looked at her watch. “So he can’t have been out all that long. That’s good to know.”
“Will you let us know how he’s doing?” Audrey asked. “Although, I don’t know where I’ll be…” She looked at Percy as if she realized the whole quest for the flat was now up in the air.
“We should know how he is within the hour,” Annette said. “Healer Wood is our top man for head injuries — and like I said, he’s the best. If you could let the other residents know what’s happened and then meet me at St. Mungo’s?”
So Percy found himself making another circuit around the Inglenook Building with Audrey. This time he let her do the talking since she kept interrupting him to describe how Percy knew “exactly what to do” and how horrifying it was to see Mr. Tippin lying so still.
It surprised him in a way that she was so upset about a wizard she had never spoken with, but then, Audrey was rather sensitive. And of course, she hadn’t been through the rigors of war, so his simple attempts at first aid probably did look impressive.
And he was never going to tire of hearing her praise him, even if it wasn’t all that deserved.
They found themselves monopolizing a waiting room at St. Mungo’s with the rest of the Inglenook Building residents. Kay Nein brought two of her “quietest dogs,” but Percy thought that “biggest” was a better description since they took up an entire settee. Linda, who was a lot less combative now that she had taken a nap, showed off a cooing baby Simone to the artist. The artist cooed back by pontificating about “innocence and experience and white lambs” and possibly other things that Percy tuned out. Mrs. Starr, with half of her hair still in curlers, chatted with Madame Chambers, while Mr. Starr looked uneasily around the dingy room.
Percy didn’t blame him. He hated hospitals, too.
Audrey, for her part, sat straight and silent next to him, jumping whenever footsteps approached or a voice sounded from the corridor. When she jumped for the third time, he put his arm across her shoulders. That must have been some sort of signal since everyone stopped talking and turned to look at them.
“Oh, my goodness. I forgot about the flat!” Madam Chambers said, fluttering her hands. “What did everyone decide?”
“Janus picked Mr. Weasley.”
“I picked Percy.”
“I voted for ‘and’.”
“We never had a chance to vote.”
Everyone talked at once, until Madam Chambers stood up. “So Mr. Weasley has the most votes?”
“No,” Percy said quickly. “Annette voted for Audrey — and if you give the Starrs a chance, I know they’ll vote for her, too.”
Madam Chambers frowned. “If Tippy can’t vote —”
“Don’t say that!” Kay Nein implored. “Tippy will be all right.” She turned to Mr. Starr. “Won’t he?”
Mr. Starr opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again. One of the dogs whimpered in sympathy. An uneasy silence fell over the room.
Then Audrey took a deep breath and softly began to sing the song that had comforted her when she was in the nursery.
“I know a secret
It’s about you.
You have magic
It’s amazing and true.”
He had thought her speaking voice was beautiful, but these clear soft tones matched the wonder and the joy of the lyrics.
“You don’t have to shout it
Nor whisper it, too.
Magic is within you
No matter what you do.”
His rusty voice then joined hers, as he remembered the words from his childhood.
“Shelter your magic
As much as you can
Share your magic
With those who understand.
The Starrs, Madam Chambers, Linda, Kay Nein — even the artist — added their voices.
“That is the secret
Of this little song.
Keep your magic close
And you’ll never go wrong.”
Mr. and Mrs. Starr burst into applause. “Oh, wonderful. You have a beautiful voice, my dear.”
“Thank you,” Audrey said.
He could feel her trembling from some sort of delayed reaction, so he tightened his hold on her.
“I think we know who to give our vote to,” Mr. Starr said, winking at Audrey.
“Don’t keep it a secret,” Percy quipped.
“Let’s sing another,” Mrs. Starr suggested.
“Did I hear singing?”
Everyone turned to the voice at the door. It was Annette in her Healer’s scrubs with another Healer behind her.
Madam Chambers stood up. “Yes, we were singing to pass the time. Don’t keep us in suspense, my dear. How is dear Mr. Tippin?”
“He’s going to recover fully,” Annette said smiling. “Healer Wood repaired the damaged vein and with the increased blood flow, Tippy shouldn’t be so ‘tippy’ anymore.”
“Wonderful!” There were glad cries all around the waiting room. Percy was surprised at the relief he felt, even though he didn’t know Mr. Tippin at all.
Annette looked around the room expectantly. “Well? Isn’t someone going to tell me who got the flat?”
Percy frowned. “I think we’re tied for votes, Miss Butler. Unless Mr. Tippin is well enough to break the tie?”
She shook her head. “Not for another day or so.”
“So how are you going to decide who gets the flat?” Kay Nein asked Madam Chambers.
Percy exchanged glances with Audrey. He knew what he wanted — he wanted Audrey to have the flat — but Audrey would want to win it fair and square — not have it given to her.
“You’re obviously going to have to share the flat,” Madam Chambers said, shrugging. “Until you can work out another alternative, I don’t know what else to do.”
“There should be a name on the lease, though.” Percy said, thinking this would be a good way to make Audrey take the flat. “And I think it should be Audrey’s. Alphabetical order, you know.”
“Alphabetical order?” Audrey’s eyes flashed. “Is that how things get decided in England?”
Mr. Starr laughed. “Apparently so. Come on, Edna, at least we know we’re going to have weekly sing-alongs.”
Healer Wood made his excuses and left with Annette trailing after him. The rest of the residents drifted out of the room after congratulating Audrey. Finally, only Madam Chambers was left.
“Madam Chambers, I don’t think—” Audrey began.
“The lease, my dear,” Madam Chambers said, talking over her. “Here it is. For one year.”
“Can we make it for twenty-four hours?” Audrey asked.
Madam Chambers was taken aback. “A twenty-four hour lease?”
“Yes.” Audrey stared her down.
Madam Chambers shrugged and then altered a few words on the lease. Audrey quickly signed it.
“I’ll speak with you tomorrow,” Madam Chambers said, handing Audrey the key. “Enjoy your first — er — night in your new flat.”
Finally they were alone in the dingy waiting room. Audrey looked at the lease with satisfaction. “Flat number seven — for twenty-four hours.”
“What are you up to?” It was now dawning on him that Audrey was doing her own maneuvering — she had the flat as he wanted, but only for a short time.
She raised her eyebrows. “Don’t you see?”
“No, I don’t see — not even with my glasses on.”
“Our quest isn’t finished — and we were running out of time — so this gives us twenty-four more hours.” Her eyes sparkled in anticipation.
“But the flat —”
“Wasn’t our quest — it’s where it takes place.”
His heart started pounding. Twenty-four hours — with Audrey — in that beautiful flat.
Her smile faltered. “Don’t you…?”
“Oh, I understand the metaphor now,” he assured her, since she looked like Audrey in white again. He drew her close.
”I do. But I have to say this first.” She was still Audrey in white. “You sang for everyone without being asked,” he said, kissing her gently on the mouth. “You were amazing.”
“Do that again,” she whispered, wide-eyed.
He complied, this time kissing her with more passion. She put her hand on the back of his neck and kissed him back.
“You kiss better than you sing.” She sighed happily.
“I do everything better than I sing,” he replied.
She smiled and looked into his eyes. “I want to know,” she said. “I want to know all the things you do better.”
He could think of many, many things he could do better — with her. “We have twenty-four hours.”
“More if we decide to share the flat,” she said rubbing against him. “I didn’t want to just be handed that flat, you know. Not by you or Madam Chambers. I want us to decide together.”
He looked down his nose at her. “You’re rather quest-oriented yourself, aren’t you?”
“And I think you have diva tendencies,” she countered.
“Just in the bedroom.”
She laughed and then her eyes darkened. “I want to see that performance.”
His blood leaped at the possibilities. “It will call for audience participation.”
“Let’s go home,” she whispered.
“No need to hang around here,” Percy agreed, smiling. “We have a flat.”