by Seldes Katne
"Look, Mummy, that lady has an owl!"
Percy Weasley, striding across the main floor at King's Cross Station, took an involuntary step toward the voice and narrowly missed walking into a set of luggage carts. Glancing around to make sure no one had seen his misstep, he caught sight of the owner of the voice. A little girl and her mother were standing a few meters away, and the girl was pointing to a woman sitting on a station bench.
The woman did indeed have an owl, a small tawny, which was standing on the perch bar of a wire cage. Percy's lips narrowed into a disapproving frown; not only was the woman openly displaying the owl in a public place full of Muggles, but she was making only a marginal attempt to dress like a Muggle herself. She wore a long skirt of dark blue with gold flecks, a blouse of similar material, dark boots, and a long cloak.
Percy considered for a moment. Obviously it was a good thing his father had asked him to accompany two of the Ministry's cars to the train station. Not only would he be able to report a successful foray into the Muggle world (an experience that would, of course, look good in his job file), but he'd also be able to stop a potentially embarrassing scene with the witch and her owl. He glanced as his watch. And he'd still have time to meet the train at Platform 9 3/4.
Percy drew himself up, tugged the bottom of his jean jacket into place over his dress slacks, straightened his tie, and strode purposefully in the woman's direction.
The woman was smiling at the girl and her mother. "His name is Hannibal, and he's a tawny owl," she was saying. "Would you like to look at him?"
"Excuse me," Percy interrupted. All three of them turned to look at him, and the girl began to giggle. Percy, focusing on the woman, ignored her. "Could I have a moment of your time?"
"Uh, certainly," the woman replied, eyeing him with a hint of amusement. She turned back to the girl and her mother. "I'll be right back. You can look at him as much as you like, but please don't open the cage or poke anything between the bars."
As soon as Percy judged they were far enough away, he began, "Do you have any idea how much trouble you could be getting yourself into?"
The woman blinked at him. "No, I guess I don't, Mr., ah....?"
Percy pulled out his identification card with its Ministry of Magic insignia on it. His picture promptly squared its shoulders and all but barked, "Percy Weasley, Department of International Magical Cooperation, Ministry of Magic!"
The woman stared at the card, a delighted smile spreading across her face. "Remarkable! Where did you get this?" She turned the card over to reveal the picture of Percy's late supervisor, Bartemius Crouch, who vouched for the authenticity of the card's owner.
"It's typical Ministry ID," Percy replied smugly, tucking the card back into his pocket. "And you are?"
"Eva-Marie Steward," the woman replied, offering her hand. "But I'm afraid I don't have any cards as fancy as that one."
Percy waved the last comment away. "Listen, Miss Steward, you really need to be more careful in a place like this. We don't want to give ourselves away to the Muggles."
"Er, we don't?" Steward said, sounding puzzled.
Percy glanced around to make certain no one was standing too close, and the woman copied his gesture; her gaze lingered on something over Percy's shoulder before returning to his face. "Certainly not," he continued. "For one thing, you really need to make more of an effort to wear appropriate clothing, so you blend in when you're in Muggle society."
Steward studied Percy's outfit of jean jacket, blue flowered shirt, striped tie, dress slacks, and white sneakers. This time there was a definite twinkle in her eye. "Like yours, for example?"
"Yes, except that you'd want something more appropriate for a woman, of course." Percy relaxed a little; he could probably get away with just giving this woman a verbal warning without having to actually report her to the Improper Use of Magic Office. "Oh, and another thing; you really need to keep your owl hidden."
"Do tell," Steward remarked dryly, folding her arms. Again her gaze went briefly over Percy's shoulder.
"Absolutely, Miss Steward. We can't afford to let the Muggles see any signs of our activities. It's far too dangerous."
"Muggles," she repeated. "And they would be...?"
"Everyone here who can't work magic," Percy replied promptly. "All we'd need is for them to spot one owl carrying the post, or one of us dressed improperly--" He trailed off, a nagging suspicion suddenly becoming a clear and alarming thought. Everyone in the magical world, no matter what his or her background, knew what a Muggle was. If Steward didn't know, that could only mean....
Steward was giving him a look that suggested he belonged in St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, preferably in a room with padded walls and no sharp objects. "Owls carrying the post? People who can't work magic?" Her eyes narrowed. "Excuse me, but which department of the government did you say you worked for again?"
Percy began backing away; he needed to get Steward somewhere less crowded. A Memory Charm in front of this many people -- he'd be the one hauled into the Improper Use of Magic Office. "Er, well, perhaps we should discuss this someplace else--"
He suddenly bumped into something solid. Turning, he found himself staring up at a station guard, undoubtedly the person that Steward had been looking at over his shoulder. The guard scowled down at Percy. "Stop right there." His gaze went past Percy to Steward. "Is there a problem, Miss?"
The woman smiled. "I don't believe so, Officer. As I was going to tell this young, ah, gentleman when I could get a word in, my name is Dr. Eva-Marie Steward, and I work for the Hutchins Institute and Bird Sanctuary." As she was speaking, she reached into a pocket of her cloak and drew out a sheaf of papers. "My ID." She showed them a plastic card with her photo and name. "Among other things, I do school presentations on birds. My companion and I--" she pointed to Hannibal the owl, still in his cage and being admired by the girl and her mother, "--are on our way to an assembly at a primary school this afternoon."
Percy could feel the blood draining from his face.
"I do have a permit for him," Steward was continuing, showing the guard another piece of paper, "and permission to take him on public transportation." She smiled. "I usually drive, but my car's in the shop."
The guard glanced over her paperwork and handed it back. "Seems to be in order." He looked meaningfully at Percy, who was now beginning to perspire.
"He was expressing concern about my owl," Steward explained, smiling at Percy. "Which was quite thoughtful of him, but really unnecessary. Hannibal was a little nervous about being in a place this crowded and noisy, so I took the cover off to check on him."
She slid a small rectangle of cardboard out of the sheaf of papers and handed it to Percy. "Here's my card, Mr. Weasley. If one of your, ah, postal owls ever gets injured, bring him 'round to see me. We also do bird rehabilitation." She nodded to the owl in his cage on the station bench. "That's how we acquired Hannibal last year; a group of children found him in a hollow tree and threw stones at him. He'll never fly properly again. But as you can see, he does help us teach other children to respect wild birds."
"Oh, ah, yes, an -- an admirable goal," Percy stammered. He accepted the card with trembling fingers.
The guard still wore a suspicious scowl as he turned his attention back to Percy. "All right," he said finally. "Beat it. I don't want to see you harassing anyone here again."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Percy bid both Steward and the guard a hurried good-bye and retreated as quickly as decorum would allow. Steward and the guard gazed after him.
"Interesting fellow," Steward remarked with a chuckle, tucking the papers back into her pocket. The guard shook his head.
"We get all kinds here, Miss."
"I'm sure you do," Steward replied. "Thank you, Officer." With that she turned back to the mother and daughter who were waiting patiently for her.
Percy all but fled King's Cross Station, stopping only when he had found an alley he was certain was empty. Then he took a moment to catch his breath and resolutely Apparated to Platform 9 3/4 to pick up his family and a couple of family friends. By the time he had assembled his siblings, gotten carts for the luggage and escorted everyone safely across the barrier, Dr. Steward and the guard had both disappeared.
He wasn't worried about the guard, who basically knew nothing. Dr. Steward, he thought uneasily, was another matter entirely, but of course by now it was too late for a Memory Charm. Although he did have her card....
As he ushered everyone into the Ministry cars, he was relieved to think that at least he hadn't been arrested and sent to a Muggle prison. At the very least, he probably would have lost his job; it would have added insult to injury if his family had gotten involved. He wasn't sure which would have been worse: having his father running loose in a Muggle "please-station" trying to rescue him, or giving Fred and George yet another golden opportunity to laugh at him for the rest of his life.
By late afternoon Dr. Steward and Hannibal had returned to the Institute, and Steward was addressing an envelope containing a copy of a report she had promised to a colleague. She was interrupted by a tap on her office door.
"Dr. Steward, I'm ready to let the barn owl go," one of her assistants told her. He had the owl perched on a heavy glove on one hand; the bird swiveled its head as it studied the office. Steward looked the owl over carefully and nodded.
"All right, Ed, I guess he's ready. Let's take him out back." She laid the envelope on her desk.
In the field behind the offices, Steward unlaced the jesses and removed them from the owl's legs. Her assistant tossed the owl into the air.
The owl's wings snapped open and it glided across the field toward the woods. Then it banked and glided back, past the two startled scientists, and flew through the open window of Steward's office. Steward and her assistant exchanged stunned glances. A moment later the owl soared back out the window, Steward's envelope clamped firmly in its beak, and began flapping southward.
Both humans watched it go in silence, Ed shaking his head in amazement. "I've never heard of anything like that happening before."
Steward said nothing for a moment; then she glanced at her watch. "Ed, remind me to call Dr. Coolidge tomorrow afternoon."
"To tell him why the report's going to be late?"
"No." She watched the owl's receding form. "To see if his post arrived on time."
note: I don't know how many wildlife rehabilitators there are carrying owls
around in London train stations, but this idea was too much fun to pass up.
Percy Weasley and his family (and family friends) belong to author J.K. Rowling,
as does the Ministry of Magic, its various offices and departments, the concept
of postal owls, and St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.
The Hutchins Institute and Bird Sanctuary is, as far as I know, completely
fictitious. However, there are several rehabilitation centers with
websites for those interested in more information on this profession. The
http://www.owlpages.com/links/raptors.html for The Owl Pages (a list of links to Bird of Prey sites);
http://www.nbpc.co.uk for National Bird of Prey Center;
http://www.realm.ca/owl/ for the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society; and
http://website.lineone.net/~hawkandowl/whois/welcome.html for The Hawk and Owl Trust.