A/N: This is my Secret Santa Story for kinderjedi who asked for a story describing how Percy fell in love with Audrey. Apparently, it took thousands of words for Percy to fall in love with Audrey!
Percy stepped out of the Floo at the estate agent’s office with one minute to spare. It had been inconvenient to leave the Minister’s budget meeting to sign the lease for his new flat, but it would be an even bigger inconvenience to not have a place of his own the first of next month.
He brushed the soot off of his shoulders and scowled at the deserted receptionist’s desk.
Madam Chambers couldn’t have stood him up again. This was the third time he had attempted to see her. Barely controlling his impatience, he rapped once on the paneled door of the inner office.
He rapped again — this time more insistently.
He thought he heard the creak of a chair and then footsteps. Someone was in there.
He knocked again. “I’m not going away until this door is opened.”
A tall, brown-haired witch opened the door. She had high cheekbones and a direct gaze. After staring at him for a heartbeat, her cool blue eyes narrowed. “Yes?”
Percy frowned. This must be the errant receptionist and — unfortunately for him — one with an attitude. “I’m Percy Weasley. I have a two o’clock appointment with Madam Chambers.”
The witch raised her eyebrows. “An appointment at two o’clock? I think not.”
He couldn’t believe her rudeness. “Forgive me,” he retorted with exaggerated politeness. “I must have my days mixed up. It is Friday the 29th, is it not, Miss…?”
She bristled at his tone, just like he knew she would. Disrespectful people hated to be treated with respect.
“Don’t condescend to me, Mr. Weasley. You know damn well it’s the 29th. I’m sure we can both read a calendar, but apparently Madam Chambers can’t. She’s double-booked us. I also have an appointment with her at two o’clock on the 29th.”
“You don’t work for Madam Chambers?” he asked stupidly. It was obvious she didn’t now that he looked at her. Her elegant navy blue robes were unlike the fashionable attire the junior staff workers at the Ministry wore and her manner was far from deferential.
“I thought I had established that,” she said, crossing her arms in front of herself and glaring at him.
“My mistake,” he said through gritted teeth.
She didn’t say anything and she didn’t move, either, she just continued to stare at him with dislike.
He drew a deep breath and attempted to reign in his irritation. “I don’t have time for this. I left an important budget meeting at the Ministry and —”
“Then you should return,” the witch interrupted in falsely sweet tones. “Now.”
“I’ll just leave Madam Chambers a note,” he said, trying to step around the witch to enter the office.
“Oh, no, you don’t!”
To his surprise, he felt her palm on his chest. She wasn’t going to let him enter and she was trying to physically intimidate him to boot. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to stay irritated. She might be tall for a witch, but he was taller — there was no way she could win that sort of confrontation. “May I inquire as to why you don’t wish for me to enter this office?”
“Yes, you may inquire.” Her eyes flashed and she pushed him again. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll answer.”
He felt a strange satisfaction at that push. He was getting under her skin — her pale cheeks were now flushed pink with emotion and one wispy lock of hair had escaped from the bun on her head. “I see.” He looked pointedly at her hand over his heart.
Her eyes met his in a startled glance, and then she dropped her hand from his chest as if realizing what she had just done. Her haughty mask slid back into place. “No, you don’t see,” she said in clear, arctic tones. “I need this flat and I need it at the advertised rate.”
“Wait,” he interrupted, his mind switching back to the original purpose his appointment. “Which flat?” He frowned. “It’s not the one in the Inglenook Building, is it?”
“You’ve just worked that out, have you?” Her tone was scornful, but she again crossed her arms in front of herself protectively. “We both want the same flat. Madam Chambers is obviously hoping for a bidding war.”
He felt his face warm. He should have known better. After all of the years he had spent at the Ministry, he should have guessed that Madam Chambers was playing some sort of game with him. She had rescheduled this lease signing three times already.
“Well, what are you going to do?” the witch asked brusquely. “Are you going to start a bidding war?”
Her chin was sticking out defiantly, her lips were clamped in a firm line, but her expressive eyes gave her away. They were a warmer blue now, glittering with suspicious moisture. She was worried, even though she didn’t want to let on.
He hardened his heart. He was NOT going to let her have that flat — no matter how appealing her eyes. He would have to start his search for a flat all over again and he didn’t have the time. “No. I won’t indulge in a bidding war.”
Her facial expression didn’t change, but her shoulders dropped by a fraction.
“It’s illegal for Madam Chambers to accept more than the advertised rate,” he continued loftily. “I will follow the law and I’ll make sure all parties follow it as well.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Oh? How noble of you.” She smirked at him. “With gold off the table, how do you propose Madam Chambers decides which one of us gets the flat?”
“The fair way would be for Madam Chambers to honor her word. I looked at the flat at the beginning of the month. We had a verbal agreement. I should therefore get the flat.”
“Don’t sound so smug,” the witch shot back. “I looked at the flat on the fifteenth and I have a written agreement.”
She reached into the side pocket of her severely tailored robes and pulled out a small scroll. “Read it and weep.”
Percy grabbed the parchment out of her hand and scanned it quickly. Her name was Audrey Anderson and Madam Chambers had agreed to lease the flat ‘with provisions.’ At those words, his heart leaped. “There’s a loophole in this contract.” Percy couldn’t keep the triumph out of his voice. “Ms. Audrey Anderson.”
“Loophole?” Audrey Anderson snapped, snatching the paper from him. “Where?”
Before he had a chance to answer, there was a whirl of green flames in the fireplace.
“Oh, my dears. I’m terribly sorry I’m late. I was showing a property in the Hebrides and you know how slow the Floo is once you’re past Oban.” The two ostrich feathers in Madam Chambers’ hat fluttered merrily as she hurried toward them. She shook Audrey’s hand and then Percy’s. “I’m so glad we finally had the chance to meet at a mutually acceptable time.”
“Wait,” Percy said. “Mutually acceptable? I’m here to sign a lease — that should have nothing to do with anyone else.”
Madam Chamber’s black eyes opened wide. “Oh, my dear Mr. Weasley. I thought I told you how special Inglenook Building was when I showed you the flat.”
Percy frowned. She had, but to him, it had just sounded like the harmless sales blather that estate agents liked to indulge in and he had tuned her out.
Before he had a chance to answer her, Audrey Anderson spoke up. “Madam Chambers, I don’t understand why my written —” She looked sideways at Percy. “—contract mentions provisions. What are those provisions? You know I have enough money to pay and —”
“My dear, don’t let that contract worry you,” Madam Chambers said, patting Audrey on the arm. “This has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with community harmony.”
Percy glanced at Audrey — she seemed just as at sea as he did.
“I don’t understand,” Audrey admitted.
“Sit down,” Madam Chambers coaxed. “Both of you.”
They arranged themselves in matching straight-backed chairs and watched Madam Chambers shrug off her bright purple cloak while the feathers in her hat flapped it to a high shelf.
“Now,” Madam Chambers said brightly. “A pot of tea, I think.”
They both protested at once.
“Oh, no —”
“I really don’t have time — the Ministry —”
“But, my dears, how are we going to settle this with the flat?” Madam Chambers asked, flourishing her wand. The door flew open and a tea trolley rolled through.
Percy suppressed a groan. This was going to take an hour at the very least.
“Of all the applicants for the flat, you were my top two choices,” Madam Chambers said chattily as brought out bright blue china cups. “Milk?” she inquired.
Percy shook his head.
“Biscuits?” She held out a plate.
Audrey shook her head.
Percy took a handful. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a chance to eat any since Madam Chambers began her questions and he didn’t want to mumble with his mouth full. He pocketed the lot as Madam Chambers began to talk.
“And how are your parents, Mr. Weasley? I helped them find their first home. It was in Devon.” Madam Chambers smiled. “A DIY special if I ever saw one — and so tiny — hardly more than a chicken coop. But they were young and in love and thought they could add on if needed.” She cocked her head. “Where do they live now?”
“Er — still in Devon,” Percy answered wryly, thinking of the “chicken coop” they had managed to expand to house nine people.
“Beautiful area,” Madam Chambers nodded. “Within Apparating distance to London. You’ll never go wrong investing there. Now your brother, Bill, and that cottage by the sea —”
“They’re very happy with it,” Percy interrupted before she managed to talk about every house sale his family had ever been involved with. “As you know, I work at the Ministry.”
“Ah, yes.” Madam Chambers settled a pair of spectacles on her nose and picked up Percy’s application. “As an aide to the Minister?”
“How long have you worked at the Ministry?”
“Ten years. Since I left Hogwarts.”
Madam Chambers nodded and jotted something on the parchment before her. Surely that was a good thing? Percy thought. Job stability.
“No ambition to go higher?”
“I — er —” At one point he had thought he wanted to be Minister for Magic — or head of an important department, but after seeing what those jobs really entailed, he didn’t think he would like the endless public appearances or the endless petty spats or the paranoia of having to watch his back. “Aide to the Minister is fairly high up.”
That probably had sounded arrogant, but he was simply stating a fact. He squared his shoulders and ignored her.
“How long have you been at your current flat?”
“Er — nine years.”
“And why are you leaving it?”
“Someone bought the building. They’re turning it into office space.”
“I see.” Madam Chambers turned to Audrey without another word. Now Percy was worried. Maybe if he had a sob story? Then he realized how far-fetched that would sound. He made plenty of gold to afford a flat. But he didn’t want just any flat; he wanted this one.
Unfortunately, Audrey Anderson did, too.
“Anderson,” Madam Chambers mused. “The only Anderson I know of is the new top wizard at Gringotts.”
Audrey’s teacup faltered midway to her mouth but she recovered quickly. “Yes, I’m fairly new to London,” she said crisply. “My move happened to coincide with my father’s, but I have not been part of his household since I came of age.”
“A young witch on her own!” Madam Chambers exclaimed, looking worriedly at Audrey.
Audrey appeared to be suppressing the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m hardly a naïve young witch, Madam Chambers, and child neglect is not something I would accuse my father of now, or seven years ago for that matter. I left home to pursue a career on the stage, something he did not approve of.”
Percy was listening with interest. So Audrey was Owen Anderson’s daughter. By all accounts — from what he had heard at the Ministry and from Bill — the new top wizard at Gringotts was an unfeeling tyrant, albeit an effective one. No wonder…
“The stage?” Madam Chambers inquired as she looked over Audrey’s application. “It says here that you’re a guild representative.”
“I am. For the last few years, I’ve represented various guilds in all sorts of contract negotiations.” She put her teacup down on Madam Chambers’ desk and added proudly, “My latest success was convincing the Ministry to drop the archaic price controls on theatre tickets.”
Percy would have begrudged her the smug tone in her voice, except that he knew what that success actually meant. He had not been part of the negotiations, but he had heard about this “ice princess” who held her own day after day in meeting after meeting until the Minister and the Head of Magical Games and Sports had finally relented. The theatre district rejoiced, but the collateral damage was that Quidditch tickets had also increased in price once the law was lifted — and it proved to be a vastly unpopular decision amongst the public.
“I don’t understand, my dear,” Madam Chambers persisted. “How you could go from pursing a career on the stage to contract negotiations? It seems to be quite a leap.”
A flicker of… Percy couldn’t name the emotion that flashed in her eyes because it was gone before he could register it. “Not really,” Audrey answered coolly. “I’m not the daughter of a banker for nothing. There was no money in singing for me — or for most other performers, either. The numbers don’t add up to a decent living.” She raised her chin. “So I decided to do something about it.”
“But all of that training… Surely you —” Madam Chambers stopped speaking at Audrey’s quelling stare. Now Percy knew why Audrey Anderson had been dubbed an ice princess. The silence stretched until Madam Chambers blinked and changed the subject.
“There are six other flats in the Inglenook Building as you know,” she said, now including Percy in her gaze. “I still can’t decide which one of you should get the flat — so I will rely on my tenants as I have done in the past.”
“Why, of course. The residents of Inglenook Building will be your neighbors and therefore they should have the final say.” Madam Chambers stood up. “I’ve arranged for you to meet all the tenants and they will vote on which one of you gets the flat.”
Percy’s mouth dropped open and Audrey gasped.
“Unless, of course, you wouldn’t mind sharing the flat,” Madam Chambers suggested hopefully. “There are two bedrooms.”
Within minutes, Percy strode out of the spacious Floo that served the residents of the Inglenook Building. It was the one of the first things he had noticed about the place — not having to bend or slouch to use the Floo. He heard Audrey whirling in the flames behind him, but he decided not to turn around and politely help her across the hearth. They were rivals and he had to remember that.
At his side, Audrey shook the ash off of her robes.
Percy thought Madam Chambers should have introduced them to each of the tenants at the very least. Now it seemed that he would have to work through awkward introductions as well as try to win over the neighbors. How he hated this.
“Now what?” Audrey muttered.
He squared his shoulders. “I don’t know about you — but I’m going to start with flat number one.”
“I’m going with you.”
There was nothing he could do to stop her. “Suit yourself.” He raised his hand to knock on the bright red door.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she whispered, trying to elbow him out of the way. “I’ll knock.”
The jab to his ribs hurt. “No, I will.” He leaned so that she could feel his full weight against her side.
She stumbled. “Stop it,” she hissed.
He was suddenly aware he was pressed up against a soft length of female flesh. “We’ll take turns knocking,” he answered and hastily moved away.
Was she blushing?
He nodded abruptly as if to close the matter. Then he knocked on the door.
They heard the yaps of several dogs and then the deep tones of a baying hound. Percy shuddered. A dog lover. Pets had their place, but he wasn’t that fond of dogs.
A petite woman with flyaway gray hair opened the door and then stuck out her leg to keep a wild-eyed border collie from bolting out the door. “Come in!” she cried. “My angels won’t hurt you. They’re just excited Mummy has visitors.”
Percy couldn’t help but glance at Audrey after this ridiculous greeting. She raised her eyebrows and then swept her arm to indicate he was to go first. The challenge was officially on — no matter how ridiculous the contest.
“Please sit down,” said the witch, indicating a lumpy high-backed settee that was furry with dog hair.
He remained standing, as did Audrey. “I don’t want to take up any more of your time than necessary, Ms…?”
“Nein,” the witch answered with a toothy smile. “My first name is Kay. It’s no wonder I love dogs.” She bent slightly to rub a huge Doberman behind the ears. Most of the other dogs had settled on the settee or on the rug. Audrey had a furry white dog covering her feet — she looked like she was wearing novelty bedroom slippers.
“Er —” He wanted to laugh, but didn’t think that would make a good first impression.
“I suppose we should get on with the vetting,” Kay Nein said thoughtfully. “I think I’ll have Janus decide. He’s a much better judge of character, than I am.”
“Janus?” Audrey asked with a frown.
“He’s behind the settee — his usual spot. He’s rather shy.”
Percy looked over the top of the settee and was startled to find two pairs of eyes looking back at him. “Oh!” He jumped back.
“I know,” Kay Nein whispered, the color high in her cheeks. “A three-headed dog with only two heads… The breeder was going to dispose of him as a puppy, can you imagine?”
Percy could imagine, but he merely nodded.
Audrey, meanwhile, was skirting the settee while stepping over several dogs to get to one of Janus’s heads. Not to be outdone, Percy quickly joined her and awkwardly began to pat the free head. His head didn’t seem to mind the petting but it kept looking over at Audrey who was talking in a low, soothing voice to its twin. Percy found that he was rather mesmerized by her voice as well. It was throaty and cooing and sort of… sexy. No wonder Janus was putty in her hands.
Percy was stymied. How could he ever compete against that voice? He felt a wet, snuffling nose bump into the pocket of his robes. A curious dachshund had discovered the biscuits in his pocket.
The biscuits! Of course.
He reached into his pocket and offered it to his Janus head. The biscuit was gone in one gulp. Janus’s eyes watched him hopefully. Percy gave it another biscuit. At this point the head that was being petted by Audrey realized it was missing out and turned toward Percy. Percy gave it a biscuit. The dog’s tail began to thump on the floor, and the creature turned his whole body toward Percy so both heads were facing him and ignoring Audrey.
“I hear a thumping tail,” cried Kay Nein. “Janus has made a new friend.” She looked over the settee at Percy. He immediately put his hands on the dog’s heads and smiled. Luckily, the heads were done licking their lips and the intense interest in their eyes appeared to be slavish adoration of Percy.
“I knew Janus would like you!” Kay exclaimed. “His constant companion was Shamrock, an Irish Setter with blue eyes — the same coloring as you, Mr. Weasley.” She smiled sadly. “Dear Shamrock died of old age, not two months ago. You’ll have to visit Janus often once you move in, Mr. Weasley.”
“I see you stoop to bribes, Shamrock,” Audrey said as they walked to the next flat.
“Pity you didn’t think of it.”
She snorted and knocked on the door. “Round one to you, then. But I’m going to win this war and I won’t stoop to unethical behavior.”
Percy hardly thought feeding a dumb beast was unethical, but he decided not to argue the point since they had a bigger problem in that no one was answering the door. Audrey frowned and knocked again. She put her ear against the door. He listened, too.
Odd, even though they had only walked a few steps from Kay Nein’s flat, he couldn’t hear the dogs.
Percy marveled again at how magical this building really was. It reminded of Hogwarts in a way — quirky and spacious, with some intriguing magical features. Perhaps that’s why he wanted to live here so badly. He had loved Hogwarts.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a clearing throat. “I say, don’t you two know what time it is?”
Startled, Percy looked up at a gargoyle suspended over the door.
“Well, what?” Percy asked.
“The time,” the gargoyle reminded them.
“It’s three o’clock,” Audrey cut in. “And Madam Chambers assured us that everyone in the building would be home this afternoon.”
“Miss Annette Butler is home,” the gargoyle explained with patient disdain. “She is always in at this hour since her shift as Healer doesn’t begin until seven in the evening.”
“Is she awake?” Percy asked.
“Yes, it’s her habit to awaken by three o’clock so she won’t miss the opening scene of Days of Destiny.”
“Days of Destiny!” Audrey smacked her forehead. “I should have known. They perform it in the mornings and capture it in the studio Pensieve. Gerard said they aired it later in the day, but I didn’t know the actual time.”
“Wait,” the gargoyle turned its long sharp nose in Audrey’s direction. “You know the actors on Days of Destiny?”
“Yes,” Audrey answered. “I’m their representative for the Actor’s Guild.”
“Pardon me for one moment,” the gargoyle popped his head back into the wall, like a cuckoo going back into a clock.
After a short wait, Percy heard high heels clicking and then the door swung open. “Come in!” said a smiling, curly-haired woman. “We have five minutes to chat.” She held out her hand to Audrey.
“I’m sorry you’re missing Days of Destiny,” Audrey said.
“I won’t miss much. The first set of adverts are on now and Will — that’s my gargoyle — is listening in case my favorite plot line comes up.”
Percy realized he was being ignored in favor of Days of Destiny. It wouldn’t be the first time, he though glumly as he looked around the entryway that seemed to have been styled after an Italian villa. Every witch he knew — including his mother and sister — loved that show. He sighed and looked around at the mosaics on the walls, the terracotta tile on the floor and the three-tired fountain that bubbled merrily.
“Well, my enduring favorite plot line is Fiona and Roderick, of course,” Annette said in answer to Audrey’s question. “But my new favorite story line is about that singer — Roxanne. You know — the one who suffered such terrible stage fright and ruined a big production in Vienna that she vowed to never sing again? The actress who plays Roxanne has such a beautiful voice that I’m quite as determined as Roderick for her to sing.”
For some reason, pink color had risen in Audrey’s face. “Well, I don’t —”
“Wait,” Percy felt he had to at least try to endear himself to this Days of Destiny fan. “Why does Roderick care if this Roxanne ever sings?”
Annette Butler turned her dark eyes to Percy for the first time. “Because she’s Roderick’s long lost niece.”
“I thought Roderick was a lone hero?” He looked from Annette to Audrey. “With no family ties. I remember my mother saying —”
“Season fifty-two,” Annette interrupted eagerly. “Roderick discovered his long-lost half brother, Roland, who had been imprisoned in Lord Lyle’s dungeon. Roxanne was just a child then. Her beautiful singing captivated her jailors, so she was never harmed, nor was her father.”
“Oh.” At a loss, Percy stared at one of the mosaics until he realized that it was of a half-naked warrior in a loincloth. He abruptly tuned back to the conversation.
“Roxanne will never sing — at least the actress who is playing her won’t,” Audrey said.
“Oh.” Annette pouted. “Is it in her contract or something?”
“Well, no — I mean, I can’t —”
“Wait!” Annette squealed and grabbed both of Audrey’s arms. “You’re the voice of Roxanne!”
To Percy’s surprise, Audrey smiled. Obviously she was not immune to flattery. “It’s an uncredited part,” she explained. “I happened to be on the set one day and they needed someone…”
“I CANNOT believe that I actually have someone from the cast of Days of Destiny in my flat!” Annette squealed. “This is UNBELIEVABLE.”
Even though he knew he had lost this vote, Percy had to laugh. Annette was simply too happy not to share in her enthusiasm. “My mother won’t believe it, either,” he said with a grin.
Annette’s eyes widened at Percy’s words. “I have to owl my mum! No, wait. Not until after this episode is over. It’s Friday and I can’t miss it. But I want to ask you more questions,” she turned breathlessly to Audrey, clearly torn between fawning over Audrey and getting back to the program.
“Miss Butler,” Will the gargoyle called, “Lord Lyle has just broken into Roxanne’s bedroom and hexed her with a Silencing Spell.”
“Oh, no!” Annette eyes were round. “I have to go!” She gave Audrey a quick hug. “After you move in, we can listen together! I can hardly wait!”
“Yes, well...” Audrey began, but Annette had already vanished.
“Are they always like this?” Percy asked as they left the flat.
“Days of Destiny fans. Are they always like this?”
“I’ve never met one,” Audrey answered stiffly. “Until now. Like I said, I have an uncredited part — and like you just heard, my character has been Silenced by the writers — at my request.”
Percy frowned. “But why? Are you that busy with the guilds?”
Audrey looked around. “I wonder where the staircase is? When Madam Chambers showed me the flat, we didn’t go this way.”
Her attitude about Days of Destiny was puzzling. “I still don’t see why you would want your character silenced.”
“It’s none of your business.”
He felt a quick stab of anger at her cold response. “I see.”
She rounded on him. “You always say that, but you don’t see. I told the writers that in order to be realistic, Roxanne should never sing again.”
She held up her hand. “I know about this subject. No one — especially a character like Roxanne — could ever recover from the shame of such a public humiliation.”
“But one mistake?”
“It wasn’t a ‘mistake,’” Audrey retorted. “Letting that many people down isn’t a mistake. Picture it — your face and name on the posters and in the papers — advertising for weeks in several languages. Thousands of Galleons invested for the production. Thousands of hours invested by the actors and the crew and the orchestra and the directors.” Her voice cracked. “And you watch the audience filing in — you see your father — your grandmother. And you’re so nervous you think your heart is going to pound through your chest. But you don’t tell anyone — you’re too proud. And you go on stage and then you freeze and then the booing begins —” She swallowed and looked at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “Well, that’s what happened.”
She sucked in a breath and then raised her chin. “Yes, to Roxanne!”
Percy was at a loss. Obviously the story she had told him was closer to Audrey’s life than to fiction.
She needed to get over it.
He doubted she would appreciate that insight.
“I’m sure the writers will come up with some sort of happy ending for Roxanne,” he offered after a long pause.
“What sort?” she asked scornfully. “It was really her evil twin who messed up? She’ll find the meaning of life in Lord Lyle’s dungeons? She can only sing under water? All of those people — including her father — will forgive her?”
He blinked at her vehemence. “Maybe she’ll forgive herself for messing up,” he said quietly. “That would be a start.”
She turned away. There was something poignant about the line of her back as she bowed her head. He almost wanted to offer a cup of tea — or a hug — but was spared the embarrassment of a rebuff when she straightened her shoulders and said in a calm voice, “I think we should find the next flat.”
The next flat was in a tower. An arched blue door opened to a narrow stone spiral staircase. Audrey began the climb first. Percy tried not to notice the very nice shape of her hips — or the way those nicely shaped hips moved — or the way the skirts of her robes lifted to give him a glimpse of lovely long legs. But it was difficult to ignore the view when she right there in front of him. He should start counting the number of stairs or something. She was his rival, for Merlin’s sake — he had to stay focused.
Luckily, he was able to focus on something else when they reached the top landing. He could hear a baby crying through the heavy door of the flat.
Audrey frowned at the noise. “A baby?” she inquired as if such a thing was an alien species.
“If the Inglenook Building allows dogs, surely it would allow children.”
She bristled. “I don’t know anything about babies — and I’m not apologizing for that lack of knowledge. The only thing I learned about children in the theatre is that they tend to upstage the adults.”
Percy laughed. “Sounds accurate.”
“Don’t tell me you know about babies.” She raised her eyebrows and stood back so he could approach the door.
“I was the third of seven children so I remember when my sister and youngest brother were infants,” he answered smugly, thinking he might be able to win this vote. “And now I’m an uncle a few times over.”
He gave her a sidelong glance after he knocked on the door. She had her head cocked and was biting her lip.
“Do you think something is really wrong?” Audrey asked anxiously as the baby’s wails increased.
“The baby thinks so.”
“Well, obviously — but…”
The door was opened abruptly by a frizzy-haired witch with a white cloth on her shoulder and a swaddled infant in one arm. Percy’s heart sank. He knew this witch. She was Linda Smythe, one of Penelope’s roommates at Hogwarts.
Linda Smythe — one of Penelope’s roommates who had hated him.
Linda hadn’t noticed Percy yet — she was looking imploringly at Audrey. “Do you happen to know the Nappy-Changing Charm? Or would you mind holding Simone whilst I look it up in What Do You Do With Your New Witch or Wizard? I’m so sleep deprived I can’t remember anything.”
“I don’t —” Audrey looked positively frightened as Linda thrust baby Simone into her arms.
“Er — I know that charm,” Percy volunteered, taking out his wand.
Linda mustn’t have been that sleep-deprived since she recognized him right off. “Percy Weasley? What the hell are you doing here?”
“The Nappy-Changing Charm,” he said calmly as he waved his wand at the squirming infant. Linda might still dislike him but he couldn’t let a baby cry like that.
A wave of blue, scented magic washed over the child and spilled out on to Audrey’s sleeve. Oops. He had cast the spell too wide. Audrey didn’t seem to notice because she was gingerly crooning to Simone. Hopefully she would just think that baby powder smell was from holding the baby.
Within seconds he was holding a not-so-nice smelling bundle and baby Simone was cooing back at Audrey.
“I’ll take care of that,” Linda said wearily as she Vanished the nappy bundle from his hands. “The loo is to the right of the sitting room if you want to wash your hands.”
The sitting room was a mess, but the flat itself was an architectural marvel, blending old and new styles. The rounded tower walls were glass brick, the windows were arched and trimmed in some sort of silver metal and the ceiling was fashioned of stained glass in hundreds of shades of green. The entire effect was that of being deep in a virgin forest — albeit a messy forest with piles of washing strewn about.
After he washed his hands, he lingered in the doorway outside of the sitting room. It was cowardly, but he didn’t relish being the target of Linda’s barbs — especially with Audrey listening. He sighed as he heard Audrey’s animated voice and then Linda’s. They were getting along well. There was no chance he could win Linda’s vote.
“I could tell you all kinds of stories about Percy,” Linda said. “But they would be horribly biased on my part. Percy and I never got on — probably because he was one of the most annoying prefects in my year.” She paused. “Er — Maybe I shouldn’t say that about prefects. Were you one?”
“Me?” Audrey said with a short laugh. “No, I was never a prefect. I wanted to be loved by my friends, not respected.”
“That’s typical of a teenaged girl,” Linda said in that strident way that always set Percy’s teeth on edge. “Our culture conditions girls — women — to be people pleasers.”
“I don’t know if it’s our culture,” Audrey said slowly. “My father certainly pushed me to think for myself and not be a people pleaser. Of course, I went to an all-girls school so there was an emphasis on leadership roles for witches.” She laughed. “I think it was a just a weakness in my character at the time. I wanted applause — I wanted people to be happy because of me.”
“I’m glad you grew out of it,” Linda said, taking the now-sleeping baby from Audrey. “Alan and I are going to raise Simone to be her own person.”
“Even if Simone wants something different from what you want?” Audrey asked archly.
Percy was pleasantly surprised at this question. Audrey wasn’t letting Linda get away with her glib pronouncements.
Percy was further surprised that Linda didn’t take offense. “Touché.” Linda laughed. “Simone doesn’t even want to sleep when I want to sleep. Why would I expect her to blindly follow my philosophy when she’s a teenager?” Then she stifled a yawn. “I really need to sleep when the baby sleeps.”
Audrey immediately stood up and then caught Percy’s eye. “Yes, we should be going.”
“Er — yes,” Percy agreed. It was startling to hear Audrey say “we” — it felt like they were together rather than rivals. “It was — er —”
“Just like old times,” Linda supplied, as she too stood up. “Percy Weasley is still helping those in need in the most annoying way possible.”
“Sorry,” he said angrily, feeling the blood rise in his face.
“Don’t be,” Linda said, looking down at her daughter. “It’s your nature to be annoying — at least that’s how Penelope used to defend you.”
“I see,” he said, even though he didn’t see how that was a defense. And it hurt to think that Penelope had said such a thing — even if it had been over a decade ago.
“Actually, Penelope always defended you by saying ‘that’s just the way Percy is.’” Linda smiled. “Then she would wax lyrical about what a fantastic kisser you were.”
“Erm —” He must be positively scarlet by now.
Linda seemed to be enjoying his discomfiture. “Obviously we weren’t impressed with that bit of logic — and teenage girls are a jealous lot.”
He opened his mouth to say ‘I see,’ and then realized that he didn’t see and that turn of phrase was getting to be a habit. He was further disconcerted by at the expression on Audrey’s face. She was watching him with her head tilted, as if she had just discovered something interesting.
“We weren’t very fair to you back then,” Linda continued. “So I’m going to tell Lucy — Madam Chambers — that the responsible prefect, the Head Boy extraordinaire of Hogwarts should get the flat.” Linda grinned at his astonished expression. Then she turned to Audrey. “I expect I’ll see you around the building — no matter who officially gets the flat.”
“Oh?” Audrey drew herself to her full height. “I don’t see why that would be.”
Linda laughed. “I married Alan because of Lucy Chambers. Pop in for tea one of these days and I’ll tell you all about it.”
They descended the tower stairs in silence. Percy tried to sort out what had just happened and gave up once they entered the main corridor. He would chalk up this vote to doing a good deed and let it go at that. It didn’t do to dwell on ancient history — especially with witches involved.
“I don’t like this,” Audrey said.
Percy stopped walking. “What do you mean?”
“This —” She waved her hand at the next open door that lead to yet another tower staircase.
“I know,” he said. “At least the flat we’re — I mean, I’m — interested in is on the ground floor.”
“I’m not talking about the stairs. I’m talking about Linda and what she —”
“I didn’t think she would give me her vote, either,” Percy said quickly, in case Audrey was going to accuse him of having an unfair advantage because he knew more people in England than she did. “Sometimes it’s better if —”
“I’m not talking about votes, either!” She grabbed his arm and tried to turn him toward her. “Would you listen?”
Her grip on his arm, more than her words, kept him from replying in kind. She was genuinely upset. Back in Madam Chambers office she had pushed him because she felt threatened by him — but now she was hanging on to his arm as if they were in this together somehow.
Which, in a way, they were.
At his silence, Audrey loosened her hold on his arm somewhat and took a deep breath. “What do you think about what Linda said?”
“About Madam Chambers being responsible for Linda marrying her husband?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” he said.
“Think about it now, then,” she retorted, her eyes flashing.
He tried, but his mind was a complete blank — probably because he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to marry a shrew like Linda.
“You’re not getting this, are you?” Audrey sounded annoyed.
“No, I’m not.” He was just as annoyed. “And your nails are sharp.”
She quickly pulled her hand away. “So it doesn’t bother you that Madam Chambers has other motivations besides flat-letting?”
A chill went down his spine. Had he done it again? Misjudged someone because he was blinded by his own needs and wants?
“Do you think Madam Chambers is up to something with this building or us —” He swallowed. “— something— unethical or illegal or —?”
Her eyes widened. “I don’t think —”
“I’m asking because I don’t know that I’m a very good judge of character. I once had a boss who was under the Imperius Curse and I didn’t realize it at the time.”
“But how could you have —“
“It doesn’t matter,” he said impatiently, thinking she was going to berate him for being so stupid. “That was the past. But I don’t want to make the same kinds of mistakes again — I don’t want find myself on the wrong side of anything again because something seems right or comfortable or what I want.”
“I keep forgetting about the war,” she said quietly. “At the time, I was in Egypt with my father — tucked away at the Witch’s Academy. And you were…” Her eyes searched his face. “You must have been at the Ministry — dealing with…”
“Death Eaters and collaborators and desperate people who didn’t deserve what was happening to them,” he said flatly, looking past her shoulder and seeing again that hideous statue that had defiled the Atrium at the Ministry. “I don’t — I’m not very good at —” He ran his hand through his hair. What was he thinking — talking to Audrey about this? She was his rival, he reminded himself.
His rival who was listening with wide, sympathetic eyes.
“I mean to say that I don’t think like —” He could feel his face getting hot. “I don’t understand hidden motives and I miss things. You seem to be better at it.”
“What do you think Madam Chambers is up to?” he asked, trying not to feel too anxious.
Audrey blushed. “Don’t you see? Madam Chambers is trying to match-make.”
A wave of relief swept over him. “Is that all?”
Her mouth dropped open. “Is that all? Don’t you care you’re being manipulated?”
“I’m not being manipulated,” he said loftily. “Madam Chambers doesn’t have any power over me — in fact, she gave away all of her influence when she said the tenants were going to decide who gets the flat.”
“But why is she doing this?” Audrey asked in a troubled voice.
“I don’t know.” Percy shrugged. “Maybe it’s a hobby? Or witches in that age group like to pair people off? My mother is always asking when I’m going to settle down.” He patted her arm because she looked so worried. “She can’t make you do anything you don’t want to.”
“I know that,” she said in a small voice. “I just don’t like the feeling someone is trying to play a game with my life.”
“You’re in charge of your life,” he said in his best avuncular voice.
She rolled her eyes at him. “Did you read that off an inspirational poster?”
He was glad to see some of her fighting spirit back and decided to push her a little more. “It seemed like the right thing to say to a diva.”
“I’m not a diva — I don’t sing!”
“But you’re still starring in your own drama.”
Startled, she stared at him as if to gauge the intent behind his words. Then she smiled. “Aren’t we all?”
“Pity — there’s only one diva on stage at a time.”
She laughed. “I’m going to upstage you at the next flat,” she said, heading for the tower stairs.
“We’ll see about that.” He almost didn’t care about the next flat at his point. Audrey had laughed — such a warm lovely sound.
Rivals, he reminded himself as she started up the stairs. We’re rivals for the same flat.