They managed to shower without too much distraction; well, perhaps they were rather more assiduous in their ablutions than was absolutely necessary, but they nonetheless managed to cleanse themselves in a fairly timely fashion, had dried off and were beginning to dress.
Percy turned away, not out of any sense of shame, but not wishing to see the lean glory of her shutting itself away from him. You’ll see her again, he told himself, but a niggling part of his mind, the one that always reminded him that his efforts rarely met the standards that he set for himself, murmured in his mind, She’s going back to America…
“Ready,” announced Audrey just as Percy was smoothing the creases on his robes’ cuffs.
He looked over his shoulder, and saw that she had turned away too. He couldn’t imagine that it had been out of modesty. Her back, which had so transfixed him earlier, was covered in black now, and yet seemed just as full of promise. Of potential.
She turned toward him, using her wand to finish drying her hair. “Didn’t think I was going to be getting dressed up at all this trip, sorry. I only brought my BPs.”
“No problem.” Every mid-level Ministry employee the world over had a set of Black Protocol robes—formal enough for any occasion, but not so flashy that they took attention away from the guest of honour (or, for that matter, the boss). “You look lovely. You would look beautiful in any robes.”
“‘And even more beautiful out of them.’ Yeah, I’m sure.” Audrey smirked, but she was also managing to blush.
“Hmm.” Her lips were the most amazing plum colour….
“C’mon,” she said, her voice a little breathless, “we’ve got a wedding to get to.”
On the way down to the Calico Cat’s innyard, they ran into Sally Fawcett, a classmate of Luna and Ginny’s whose family owned the place. Percy greeted her, and Sally mumbled in response but didn’t look up from her copy of Witch Weekly. The only visible flesh—Sally’s nose, her forehead, her neck—were flaming.
“I think we may have been a bit loud,” whispered Audrey as they strode out toward to Apparition point.
Terror at what Sally’s mother would be telling Percy’s mother quickly retreated before his certainty that he would be introducing Audrey to his parents that evening. He cleared his throat in a manner that even he found ridiculously priggish in himself. “Hold onto my arm,” he said, “and I’ll Apparate us there.”
October 23, 2003 — 4.53 PM
They arrived in the lane leading to The Burrow. A pair of Aurors stood at the gate—Hennessy and Hine, both new enough that they looked pleased to be serving as the security detail at Harry’s wedding. Harry and Ginny’s wedding.
Audrey whistled. “Wow. I guess this is a fancy do. Aurors at the gate?”
“Yeah,” said a very familiar voice from behind Percy, “they want to keep out the riffraff, like my brother here.”
“Hello, Charlie.” Percy turned, sighing at the inevitability of it all; he should have expected that what dignity that remained to him in Audrey’s eyes would be savaged by his brothers. “May I introduce Audrey Abbott? This is my second eldest brother, Charles.”
Audrey extended her hand, which Charlie shook with typical vitality. “Pleasure,” she said with a smile, and cocked her head to the dark, quiet figure to Charlie’s left.
Charlie grinned. “This is Bullroarer.”
The man winced.
“Is he your… date?” Audrey asked, managing to sound both diplomatic and piquantly pert.
Charlie laughed, and the man called Bullroarer favoured them with a scowl and a quick, “No.”
“Charlie prefers the company of females,” said Percy. And then, because Audrey’s presence seemed to inspire him, he added, “Of course, in general they have a forty-foot wingspan, breathe fire and lay eggs.”
Charlie laughed again. Even Bullroarer managed to scowl a bit less.
“You must be Charlie,” said Audrey. “The dragon handler.”
Charlie winked at Percy—the sort of signal that the other male Weasleys all seemed to comprehend instinctively, but that Percy had never understood—was Charlie sharing a joke? Was he letting Percy know he approved of Audrey? Was he flirting with her? Charlie grinned and opened his mouth to speak, but the saturnine Bullroarer raised his hand to Charlie’s mouth, stilling whatever vaguely obscene remark he was about to make, and they all laughed.
Once they had settled down, Hennessy, who was always eager, called to them, “Invitations?”
Percy took the opportunity to wink back at Charlie, though what Charlie might take him to mean by the wink he himself couldn’t have said, and showed his invitation to the Auror.
Once they were all through, Audrey turned to Bullroarer and asked, “So, do you work at the dragon reserve as well?”
“Huh. And… Is your name really Bullroarer?”
There was a pause. “No.”
“Ah.” Audrey turned toward Percy; she seemed to be holding in laughter.
“Oi!” George strode up to them in dress robes of eye-watering chartreuse. “If it isn’t two of my favourite brothers! Say, Perce, your date’s a hell of lot prettier than Charlie’s!”
Bullroarer grunted, and Charlie snorted. “He’s not my date. I brought him because I wanted him to meet—”
“Hey, speaking of dates, Percy, just thought I’d warn you…” George gave Audrey a cagey stare, and apparently decided her worthy. “Hysteria’s here.”
Percy nodded. He’d objected to his siblings’ nickname for his one-time fiancée, but in the moment, he realized how well it fit. “Yes. I assumed that she would be.” Thank you ever so much, Mater.
“Yeah, well, what you won’t have guessed is that she decided that her invite entitled her to bring a bloody guest.” George lowered his voice. “And you’ll never in a million years guess who.”
Percy prayed that it wasn’t Smith, Zabini, Harris or Parkinson; he’d seen altogether more of them—all of them—than he would ever need to see. “Oh?”
“Malfoy,” George whispered.
“Mal…?” Charlie muttered. “Thought they left the country!”
“Apparently ferret-boy came back.”
“Ferret-boy?” Audrey’s face returned to the blank, diplomatic mask that Percy had seen so much of in the first days of working with her. Does she know something?
George snorted. “Maybe he’s come back to visit Daddy in Azkaban. Doesn’t matter. He’s here now.”
Looking at Audrey’s now-unmoving face, Percy said, “The Malfoys were a family with Death Eater sympathies. Though they defected during the final battle, the father had committed a number of atrocities for which he has been serving a term in prison.” Could the raid on the funeral that killed Audrey’s mother have been one?
“Yeah, well, that’s not why we call Draco-the-Son ferret,” sniggered George, and Charlie gave a snort. George winked. “A professor of ours… Well. You’ll understand when you see him.”
“I look forward to it,” said Audrey, a smile blessedly melting her poker face.
“You lot are the last of the guests,” said George. “Head on around to the garden—there’s a marquee set up, you can’t miss it. I’ve got to go let our young tiger out of the cage Hermione’s had her in all afternoon.” With that, he bounced back into the house through the front entrance.
“Wasn’t the Malfoy brat the one who was always being rude to Ronnikins about our house?” mused Charlie.
“So I recall,” said Percy, gazing up at The Burrow, whose ramshackle eccentricity had been the shame of his youth. “He must feel quite compelled to be here, to swallow what is left of his pride and come here as a guest.”
“Maybe he’s a Quidditch fan,” said Audrey with a smirk that almost looked sincere.
Charlie laughed. “Come on, let’s go see Gin-gin get herself hitched.”
“You talk,” Audrey said, “as if she were doing this on her own.”
Now it was Bullroarer who laughed.
Percy took her hand as they walked around to the back of The Burrow. “Our sister is quite independent. But she has wanted this for a very long time.”
“Yeah,” agreed Charlie, thinking as Percy no doubt was of the endless weddings to Harry Potter that she had staged as a little girl—with her brothers rotating the roles of groom, guests and minister. Percy had most often been the minister, which had suited him well enough.
As they turned the corner into the back garden, a vision in buttercup yellow floated toward them. “Hello, Percy. Hello, Charles.”
Percy swallowed down a twinge of mingled panic and regret; Luna looked lovelier than ever, and half as earthbound. “Good evening, Luna. May I introduce Audrey Abbott?”
Audrey extended her hand with a politician’s practiced poise, and Luna took it, gazed at her, then rather shrewdly at Percy, leaned forward and kissed Audrey’s fingers. Even a politician couldn’t stand up against Luna for long—it was one of the reasons for which Percy had been so fond of her—and so he didn’t blame Audrey for allowing her jaw to drop.
“You must be a very wonderful lover,” said Luna with her sunniest smile. “I’ve never seen Percy look so like himself, not even after he and I had had sex all night long.”
Percy’s jaw joined Audrey’s on the browning autumn grass.
“You know,” Charlie guffawed, “I’m sure you’re right, Luna! Here, I’ve brought someone along too, someone I wanted you to meet. This is my friend, Bullroarer. Bullroarer, this is the young lady I was telling you about, Luna Lovegood.”
Smiling that same moon-cloud smile, Luna released Audrey’s hand and took Bullroarer’s.
He was staring at Luna with an expression either of fascination or terror; it was difficult to tell. He gave her hand a minute shake; his jaw worked for a moment before he started to talk: “I’m… not…”
“Charlie’s lover? No. I should imagine not,” Luna burbled. “Though if you were that would be perfectly all right as well. Charles and I have very similar tastes, you know.”
“Is your name really Bullroarer?”
“No,” came the usual terse reply.
“He doesn’t talk much,” said Audrey.
“He spends the coin of speech wisely,” offered Percy.
Luna took the taciturn gentleman’s arm in hers. “Oh, Mr. Not-Bullroarer, I bet that I could get you to string three words together.”
For the first time, Bullroarer gave them a small, dark smile. “You’d lose.”
They all chuckled as they approached the marquee.
Charlie, Bullroarer and Luna wandered in. The guests were all still standing, mingling, but it did look fairly full.
“So,” said Audrey, and when Percy peered at her, she was staring at him with her head cocked at an angle, as if seeing something in him that she hadn’t expected. “Luna?”
Percy sighed. “Yes. Luna. For six months or so, a couple of years after the war.” That twinge—definitely both panic and regret now—fluttered through him again. “We both recognized that it could never work. She was much younger than I, of course.” The same age as Asteria, not that that stopped you.“Of course, she said that I was the youngest soul that she had ever met.”
“I suppose I can see that,” Audrey said with a grin. “Lucky for you, I like younger men.”
“Indeed. Lucky for me.” He took her hand again. “Do you approve?”
“Of Luna? Absolutely!” She stepped closer. “And not just because she thinks I’m a very wonderful lover.”
“You are, you know.” He closed the distance between them. He was sure that protocol could withstand a man kissing a beautiful young woman at a wedding. If it couldn’t, he wasn’t entirely certain that he cared.
“Oh, look, Draco!” A smooth, high voice pierced Percy’s reverie. “It’s the last of the Weasley brothers to arrive. He worked at the Ministry with me, did you know?” Asteria strode out of the marquee, her curvaceous body—gracious as she so rarely was—oozed out of dress robes that looked to be a size too small. She was pulling along a thin, pale, rather threadbare Draco Malfoy. Clearly she had been awaiting Percy’s arrival for just such an opportunity.
“How lovely to see you, Miss Greengrass,” Percy said, putting on his own politician’s smile. “Mr. Malfoy.” He didn’t say, Actually, Malfoy, you arrogant young twit, she used to work for me, until I found her in our bed with four of her friends, whereafter I transferred her into Records and she quit. He was quite proud of his own restraint. “May I introduce Audrey Abbott, from the—”
“Charmed,” said Asteria, extending a taloned hand. “You don’t need to tell us what… agency you got her from, Percy, dear, though it clearly wasn’t one of the more exclusive ones. I know your family wasn’t terribly sophisticated but advertising for her is hardly comme il faut.”
Rage flooded through Percy. Even Malfoy had the good grace to wince his needle-nosed face.
Audrey took Asteria’s hand as if she were greeting the Minister himself. “It is a pleasure, Miss Greengrass. I’ve heard so much about you.” Before Asteria could continue, Audrey stepped back and looked at Percy with an expression that definitely fit the cat-who-swallowed-the-canary cliché. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been the one to pay Percy for his company this evening—what was it, Percy, twenty-six million Galleons?”
“Actually,” said Percy, as his fury gave way to something like exultation, “if you factor in the amortized interest on short-term loans that you have allowed us—that is, me—to forego, something closer to thirty-eight million. And a half.”
“Right. And a half. Tell me, Mr. Malfoy, did Miss Greengrass pay you as well as that?” Audrey smiled at Draco now, and the smile became increasingly predatory. “Perhaps not, since, from what my sources tell me, Miss Greengrass likes to hire escorts… in bulk.”
Draco managed to lose what little pigment he had—except for the sharp tips of his nose and chin, which pinkened—while Asteria stood frozen, but bright, bright red.
“Tell me, isn’t Asteria the name of a hotel?” asked Audrey, her smile now sweet and—to all appearances—innocent.
“No,” answered Percy, amazed and pleased that his voice sounded even. “As it happens, it’s a kind of flower. Rather a common one, actually.”
Percy watched Asteria twitch, watched her fingers flutter up to the sleeve on her opposite arm where she would have stored her wand. Try it, he thought. Please, please, try it.
“Er, Asteria, my love,” said Malfoy in a pinched drawl, “perhaps we ought to find a seat?”
Percy’s erstwhile fiancée shook herself, like a dog shedding water. “No, Draco, darling. That won’t be necessary. We’re leaving.”
“What a shame,” Percy said. “Are you certain you don’t want to stay for the reception, at least? You always did rather enjoy a nice tuck-in.”
Asteria growled—really, that was the only word for it—and dragged a rather bewildered-looking Draco Malfoy with her away around the front of the house and blessedly out of sight.
Once they were gone, Percy turned to Audrey, who was looking at him rather thoughtfully. “Audrey?”
“Yeah, Flash,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze.
The pressure seemed to flood him with warmth—or perhaps it was the nickname, and the memory of how they’d been tangled when she’d bestowed it on him. “Audrey Abbott, I have to tell you... You are my hero.”
She laughed that golden bell of a laugh, and they kissed again. She murmured into his lips. “So, likely to be any more girlfriends I’m going to have to rescue you from at the wedding?”
“I shouldn’t think so. There is only one woman here—my mother and sister notwithstanding—that I care about, and I don’t need or want rescuing from her.”
She laughed—he could feel her whole body laughing. “Flatterer. Come on, let’s go in before your sister’s hitched and we’ve missed the whole thing.” Still holding his hand, she led him toward the tent.
“Audrey,” Percy found himself saying, “I’m sorry that you’ve had—”
But Audrey had dropped his hand and stopped: her expression had frozen, so that the smile looked more like a grimace.
“Audrey?” Percy followed her gaze. “What—?”
“Shit.” She was staring at the far end of the tent, where Ginny’s groom-to-be seemed to be looking back at her, a hand raised in an almost-wave, an air of vaguely pleased shock on his face. “Oh. Oh. Shit. She’s marrying Harry?”
And with that she began to back up, slowly at first, but then more and more and quickly, until Percy was all but jogging to keep up, and then she stumbled over the threshold of The Burrow’s rear entrance and fell backward into the kitchen, landing gracelessly—though beautifully, Percy couldn’t help but feel—on her bum, her head resting on white satin slippers that happened to cover Ginny Weasley’s feet.
Audrey stared up at Ginny. Ginny, astonished but amused, stared back down. From behind Ginny’s shoulder, Hermione seemed to be sending frantic semaphore signals signifying… something.
“Ginny,” said Percy, falling back on protocol, which had so often saved him in the past, “may I introduce Audrey Abbott? Audrey, this very beautiful bride is my sister Ginevra. And yes. The lucky gentleman whom she is about to marry is indeed Harry Potter.”