As his counterpart slowly put her notes in order and filed them in her voluminous bag, Percy scanned his agenda, trying desperately to find something that they hadn't covered; alas, he could find nothing. Her clarity and his efficiency had allowed them to slice through the thorniest of the problems that they had faced—the renegotiation of the repayment schedule for the loans that the Americans had made to the British Ministry to aid in its rebuilding process. Between them, he and Ms. Abbott had found a way to allow the Americans to show their fractious constituents that the British were still grateful and were honouring their debt, while allowing Kingsley Shacklebolt's government to remain solvent. Both the American Secretary of Magic and the Minister would be pleased.
Unfortunately, that meant that there was no reason for them to continue to meet. As far as Percy knew, she would be taking an International Portkey back to America as soon as she left the Ministry building. And Percy found, much to his own shock, that he rather wanted their meetings to continue. Wanted that rather emphatically.
Partially, of course, it was that Miss Abbott was very attractive. Not in a typical way—not even in particularly British way, like her blonde, cream-complected cousin Hannah. Her hair was short and rather messy. She looked as if she spent a great deal of time out of doors; her skin was dark, tanned—at least compared to Hannah, or to Percy's own family. And she was tall. Taller than any of the girls that he'd seen over the years. Nearly as tall as Percy himself. But she carried herself with a kind of graceful self-assuredness that made him begin to wonder…
What it would be like…
What it would be like… to dance with her…
Something bumped against his glasses.
She laughed, that rich, brassy laugh that made Percy's soul scream for release from the bureaucratic straitjacket in which he'd imprisoned it. "Who the hell's sending you memos at six o'clock on a Friday?"
Percy grabbed the paper aeroplane before it could slam into his nose. He immediately recognized the handwriting. "Ah. My mother." He folded the parchment and put it into the pocket of his robes.
"Your mother works at the ministry?" When she smiled, the bridge of her nose wrinkled in a quite fascinating way. Her eyes closed to little, sea-green crescents…
"My father, actually." Percy looked down. He could feel the familiar, familial warmth creeping up his neck. "He's a department head in Magical Law Enforcement, and so he is cleared to receive owls directly. I'm sure that my mother sent him the letter to forward to me."
"Ah. I'd give you a hard time about getting owls from your mom, but honestly, I think it's sweet."
"Well, that your mom is fussing over you. Or, you know, whatever."
He peered at her. She was still smiling, but with none of the evil glint that he was so used to seeing in his siblings' eyes when they decided to play Take the Mickey Out of Percy. "Well," he said, trying not to let bitterness or embarrassment show, "when one is grown, it can feel a bit constraining."
"I bet." Her smile did not fade, but rather deepened, as a note of sadness entered her expression.
"Perhaps it is different for a daughter." Percy mentally set aside his own sister's statements to the contrary.
"I… wouldn't know. My mother died when I was at Salem."
Percy felt as if a wall had fallen on top of him. "Oh. Audrey. I'm so sorry."
She shrugged and then her smile brightened again. "That's okay. Don't worry about it. So aren't you going to see what your mom's noodging you about?"
"Noodging. Bugging. Riding. Bothering."
"Oh." His hand rose unconsciously to his pocket before he stopped it. "I know what she was… noodging me about." He stepped around the small table at which they'd been working for the previous week.
"Oh?" She stood her ground, which pleased him enormously.
He found himself speaking without considering what he was going to say. "Would you do me the honour tomorrow evening to accompany me as my guest to my sister's wedding?"
That at least elicited a spark of surprise.
"That is," Percy blurted, "if you don't have any—"
"I'd be happy to," said Audrey, peering at him.
"Oh. Good." More than good, Percy felt fantastic. His brothers would no doubt have described the feeling as bloody marvellous or wicked or something equally inane. Twin waves of relief and surprise washed through him.
"I was actually planning on staying here in England over the weekend."
"Oh. Well, I suppose you had plans—"
"I was going to go hiking."
"In Wales, maybe, or the Lake District." She smiled again.
"The Lake District?"
"I think I had a Lizzie-Bennet-goes-to-Pemberly image in my head." The smile widened and twisted.
"Sorry. Once a Muggle Studies major, always a Muggle Studies major."
Muggle Studies. Penny. "Ah! Pride and Prejudice, yes. What was her name—Maudlin?"
"Well," Percy said, pleased to have the opportunity to take advantage of the time he'd spent reading Muggle novels for his first girlfriend's sake, "my family are more from Thomas Hardy country."
"You're from the West?"
"Indeed. And if I promise you that you will find no lovelier spots for walking in all of Britain, perhaps I could spend the day showing some of them to you?"
Again, Percy found himself falling into twin sea-foam crescents. Audrey reached out, touching his shoulder. "I'd love that!"
"Wonderful," said Percy, warmth now spreading to his chest—and downward. Taking out his self-inking quill and the letter from his mother without opening it, he scrawled beneath where his mother had written his name, Will be attending with Audrey Abbott of San Francisco, California. Then he tapped the letter, murmuring, "Plivolatus," and watched with an enormous sense of pleasure—and relief—as the memo folded itself back into an aeroplane shape and flew out through the clerestory over the meeting room door and back up to his father. "There," he said, looking back at Audrey, who was smiling quizzically at him. He smiled back. Merlin. Her teeth are so… white…. There, at least was one task nicely sorted.
25 October, 2003 - 9.11 AM
Early the next morning, Percy Apparated to the American mission house, not far from St. James Park. Though he had his dress robes shrunken in his pocket—carefully Petrified to avoid creasing—he was dressed as he would have dressed were he helping his mother in the garden: loose trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat with a floppy brim, to keep the sun off of his ridiculously fair skin. At least he had managed to fight off the urge to put on gloves.
He was not, therefore, expecting Audrey to meet him at the mission's entrance wearing shorts, a clinging, sleeveless t-shirt that appeared to bear the name of some Muggle university whose founding date seemed to be somewhat after Dumbledore's time as a student at Hogwarts, and a pair of hiking boots that Percy could not help but think of as pretty.
He stood with his hand on the door handle, knowing that his mouth was hanging open.
"Hi!" she laughed. "Should I have dressed warmer?"
"Hmm?" The tree at the centre of the university's seal drew Percy's eye up… Her breasts. Her breasts. They were small and perfectly shaped, and there was no brassiere…
"Well, you're the local expert. Should I be dressed for cooler weather?"
"Sorry." Percy blinked, looking belatedly up into Audrey's eyes. "Oh. Yes. No. I'm just very sensitive to the sun, you see."
"Sure. Yeah. I got my colouring from my mom's side, so I guess I never have to think about that." Her tongue danced over her lips. Oh… "So, this okay?"
"Perfect," croaked Percy, feeling sure he was making an absolute fool of himself. Nothing new in that, at least. "It's been a lovely, warm Octopus, and the weather is sure to remain—"
Percy blinked. "I beg your—?"
"You said it's been a lovely, warm Octopus."
"Of course not. I…"
She raised an eyebrow.
"Did I really?"
"Oh. I… I beg your pardon. I have no idea why I said that."
"Well, that's a relief. If you'd turned out to have a thing for eight-armed sea creatures, I'm not sure that we'd have had much to discuss." She crossed her arms in front of the lovely, ice-cream-scoop-sized…
Percy closed his eyes. He was feeling quite fifteen years old. "No. No. I don't have any particular interest in cephalopods. Warm or otherwise." Perhaps Luna Lovegood might….
"Good." Her voice sounded as if she were grinning. And her hand touched his arm. "Why don't you take me where we're going? While we hike, you can tell what kinds of things you do have a particular interest in."
25 October, 2003 — 10.28 AM
"Wow. You mean, like King Arthur?"
Percy nodded. "Just like."
"Wow." She peered at the gorgeous gothic spires that seemed to have sprung up from the cliff. "I thought it was a ruin?"
"Ah, you must have seen Muggle photos. No, it's largely intact, but Muggle-proof." He pointed down the cliff, where a long path was carved into the rock. "I thought we might walk down to see Merlin's Tomb."
Her dark eyebrows arched. "You sure know how to show a girl a good time."
"I do my best." He fought down the habitual stiffening.
"And I have no doubt you leave them smiling," she said, looking over her shoulder with a sly grin as she started down the path; Percy remained stock still. "So, you going to join me, or will you be showing me that good time by Firecall?"
Percy shook himself awake. "I was merely enjoying the view."
"Glad you like it." She let her hips sway more than was probably advisable on the narrow, cliff-side trail, and Percy's eyes locked where he had no doubt she'd meant them to: on her shapely, khaki-clad glutei and those long, tan legs. Merlin, those legs…
She was definitely flirting with him; even Percy could see that. What he wasn't sure of was whether he should make anything of it or not. Audrey didn't seem like an indiscriminate tease. Was she actually attracted to him? Was she merely winding him up? Or was this merely how people from San Francisco, California said hello?
"So tell me about this wedding," she said, after Percy had followed her—followed her posterior—down the trail for a minute or more. "Shouldn't you be there early? Aren't you in the wedding party?"
"Ah, no," Percy said, snapped once more out of a trance induced by her long, swinging limbs. "It's a private affair, quite small. Just the maid of honour and my youngest brother as the best man. Mind, there are sure to be some gate-crashers."
"You sister marrying a movie star or something?"
"Muggle moving pictures."
"Really?" Percy had a vague memory of his father babbling on about such things, but he certainly wasn't listening closely. That was before Penny… "Um, no. And besides which, Ginny is well known in her own right. She played for the British World Cup side this year."
"Oh, Quidditch." Audrey managed to make the game sound positively quaint.
This suited Percy perfectly; aside from cheering on his brothers and his sister and a few bets that he'd made with Penny and Luna, both of whom were Quidditch-obsessed, he'd never found anything particular in the game to hold his interest. "Yes. Quidditch."
"Scott Morgan was on that team, right?"
"Yes." And was—so certain people had made sure that Percy knew—very close to Ginny for some time while she and Harry were on hiatus. "I believe that he's actually an American citizen, though his mother is British."
Audrey shrugged. "My little sister's a huge fan of his. Thinks he's the bomb. I have to say, though, athletes don't do a thing for me."
"And certainly not American athletes." She stopped for a moment and gave Percy a smile that was both openly flirtatious and yet somehow a little sad. "I like British men."
Percy felt his diaphragm flutter. "Oh?"
"Yup." She looked him directly in the eye. "Skinny Brits who wear glasses."
He couldn't answer that at all.
After a moment, she smiled again, and set off down the trail. "So," she said after a moment, without looking back, "what kind of witch do you like?"
"Or is it wizards you're into?" She threw him a wicked grew that told him she had a very good idea that that wasn't the case.
"N-no," he spluttered, stumbling on a loose rock.
What sort of witch did he usually fancy? All shapes. All colours. They'd all been bright, of course. But really, there wasn't any other point of commonality. Penny was tall and solidly built, with curly, dark hair. Luna, of course, had had curly hair as well, though it had been blonde, and she was about as far from solidly built as it was possible to be.
He'd managed to go two whole days without thinking about her….
Because he'd been with Audrey.
"You," he said, far more calmly and directly than he thought he had any business doing. "You are very much the sort of witch that I am, as you say, into."
She stopped again and turned toward him, clearly surprised, and Percy feared that he'd gone too far—that he had pushed too aggressively past playful banter into rather uncomfortable territory. "That is—"
"Good." She seemed to be regarding him with the same sharp focus that she'd levelled on the draft reports that they'd hammered out. "I wasn't kidding, Percy. I do find you attractive."
"Ah," he said. "Good."
She crossed her arms. "So. May I ask why a Ministry up-and-comer like yourself didn't have a date to his own sister's wedding?"
"I…" Percy shifted from foot to foot. "Well, the wedding was on fairly short notice. Six weeks." Seven, actually.
She seemed to be waiting.
He looked down, so that the brim of his ridiculous floppy hat blocked the sight of her face. The words dragged themselves out of him. "I… did."
"Ah." When she crossed her arms, Percy realized that what he had been looking at where those lovely, lovely—
"I had been engaged. To be married."
He forced himself to look up. Her face was serious, as he had so infrequently seen it, but she was listening. "She—Asteria—is much younger than I. She comes from an old family, which I only say to explain how it was that she managed to be assigned to the Department for International Cooperation straight out of Hogwarts."
"You come from an old family too." When he blinked at her, Audrey smiled—that wicked smile again. "I did my homework."
"I would expect no less from you. In any case, we were engaged. But it didn't work out. The invitations to my sister's wedding had already… My mother was quite solicitous, as she is wont to be. She has been sending me owls daily with the names of prospective young ladies to bring to the wedding ever since. None struck even the slightest interest."
She raised an eyebrow.
"Truly," he insisted.
"Okay. I'm… honoured. What was your fiancée's name again?"
"Asteria. Asteria Greengrass."
"Sounds like a hotel."
"Actually," he answered with a bit of a smirk, thinking that comparing Asteria to a public lodging was remarkably apt, "it's a flower."
"Uh-huh." Her arms remained crossed. "Any lingering anything for… Asteria?"
"No." Again her eyebrow arched, but Percy held his ground. "It had been clear to both of us for some time, I think, that our views of marriage—of the world—were rather different. She was looking for a traditional pureblood alliance. I was—" (The more fool I) "—looking for something that included love and commitment."
Again Audrey looked as if she were auditing his words carefully. "Her loss."
"I would like to think so."
"So who broke it off?"
Percy tasted the sour anger of the memory. Finding Asteria once again… dallying. "Me."
"May I ask why?" Audrey's gaze was clear and level. She stepped closer. "I know it's a personal question, but if you can answer it, it'll give me a better idea of who you are. And, Percy, I really do want to know who you are."
He felt his breath flutter again. "Let us simply say that she had demonstrated—and not for the first time—that her ideas of what constitutes the basis for a marriage differed greatly from mine."
"Ah." Audrey smiled again, but it was a sad smile. "Found her in bed with someone?"
"At… the same time?"
"Don't be. It was the best thing that could have happened."
"I suppose. I can see why you wouldn't be in a hurry to find another date, though."
"True. And… She will be there tonight." He closed his eyes again. Waiting for the explosion.
It didn't come—not precisely. Audrey whistled. "Wow. Why in the hell would she want to come to her ex's sister's wedding? To rub your nose in it? Doesn't sound like much fun."
Percy shook his head, daring to look at her again: her high bronze cheeks were bowed in scepticism. "As I said, this is a rather major social event. I think she would rather have chewed her own foot off than miss it. And when the invitations were owled out, my mother had sent Asteria her own rather than slight her, as I believe Mother saw it, by having her attend merely as my guest."
Audrey whistled again. "Ouch. I suppose rescinding an invite isn't exactly protocol."
He shook his head.
Favouring him with a wink, Audrey laughed. "No wonder your mother is so desperate to set you up with someone. She must feel awful!"
Percy hadn't thought of it in quite that way; it was hard enough to get past his own mortification. "Well, yes. I suppose that is part of it. In any case, I… I should have told you before asking. I apologize."
She smirked; it was a look Percy was very comfortable with, having been at its receiving end through so much of his life. "Nah. Family events are always little melodramas waiting to happen. I won't know anyone here but you; it's no skin off my nose."
He nodded, relieved. "I'm glad. Thank you."
"My pleasure." She inched closer again.
"And you?" asked Percy, before the urge to lean in to those eyes, those lips overwhelmed him.
"Any wizards across the pond? Any plans to jump a broomstick any time in the near future?" He tried to make the question a light one, but he knew he had failed.
It didn't matter. The smirk had vanished, replaced by a sad, thoughtful look. "No one across the pond. And…" She bit her lip and shook her head; she was standing close enough now that her short hair brushed the brim of his hat. "Not so long ago I would have told you that I had no interest in ever getting married. That marriage was just another word meaning indentured servitude for witches."
"Ah? And you've had a change of heart."
She nodded, looking away.
"And what caused this change?" When her eyes met his again, he could see that she was unsure whether to answer. "I understand that it is a personal question, but I assure you that, if you answer it, it will give me much better idea of who you are. And, Audrey, I am very, very interested in getting to know who you are." He reached out and took her hand.
She nodded, a bit grimly, but did not pull back from him. "I… was having what I thought was a really casual, really pleasant relationship. It was a rebound relationship for him, just a fling, we both knew it; I was the one who initiated it, because…. But when it ended—when he left, heading back to the girl he was in love with—I realized that I…" She bit her lip again.
"What? You wanted something more?"
She shrugged and then nodded.
"I can understand that." He squeezed her long fingers. "And any feelings still for…?" He waited for her to provide the fool's name, but she seemed to be thinking about something else entirely.
"Nah," she said, and reached up, removing his hat, stepping close so that the space between them seemed to be made up mostly of heat.
"Audrey, you're leaving soon."
"Yup. And we're going to have an ocean between us."
"True." He let his hand slip along her long waist. "Then again, someone wise once told me that anything's possible if you have the nerve." And with that, he leaned forward, capturing her lush lips as he had longed to do through all of those long, complex, dry discussions of depreciation schedules and interest rates. She whimpered into his mouth, her hands pulling him closer, and it felt as if Percy were kissing for the first time, though this was hardly the case. Yet with none of the others had kissing ever felt so right, so complete, so—
"I am terribly sorry," piped a creaky voice from behind Percy. "I do so hate to interrupt, but I am afraid that you are blocking the path."
Breathless, reluctant, Percy broke from Audrey, turning and adjusting his glasses to find an ancient witch and wizard in loden robes peering up at them. "I am so sorry," he said.
"Perfectly all right," said the wizard, smiling up them. "I know that Merlin's Tomb has enormous historical and architectural significance. However, I must say, were I you two, I should find a rather more private venue—preferably one with a nice feather bed handy—before continuing any further. Wouldn't you say so, Plumeria, my sweet?"
The witch laughed—really, it had to be characterized a cackle—as the old pair toddled along, pausing only to pinch Percy on the bum as she passed.
Once they had turned the bend, Percy looked back down at Audrey. Her eyes—the same colour as the Irish Sea behind her—were wide. Her mouth—red as dew-washed roses—was open.
"Inn," Percy said, as the sensation of her pounding heartbeat, of her fingers still searching against the back of his shirt pressed thought and breath from him. "Same village as the wedding?"
She nodded and pressed her lips, her self to him, and Percy, visualizing nothing more or less than her naked form in one of the feather beds at the Calico Cat, turned them both, Apparating away from the Cornish coast.
For once, the constriction of Apparating wasn't the slightest bit unpleasant.
Not long after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I had the good fortune to beta a wonderful, emotionally complex fic entitled Intermezzo, by the wonderful irislock.
In it, she introduced a character by the name of Audrey Abbott—an American cousin of Hannah's. Now, I loved Audrey, and when JKR's family tree of the Potter/Weasley clan came out not long afterward, revealing that Percy's wife was in fact named Audrey, I swore to irislock that I would write a Percy/Audrey Intermezzo-verse fic.