Disclaimer: Harry Potter is not mine.
A/N: A nod to Sally Cinnamon, whose offhand remark that someone should write a Percy/older woman fic inspired this monster. And many heartfelt thanks to tudorrose1533, whose Twenty Random Facts About Penelope Clearwater I adore (and borrowed).
A million thanks to LilithBoadicea, the wonder beta!
Chapter One -- Completely Above Reproach
Remus Lupin looked down at the list he'd made up for himself. "For our next item of business," he began. "I had hoped this...situation would resolve itself in time, but I don't think that's very likely anymore." He swept his blue-eyed gaze over all the Order members, making sure he had everyone's attention. "Percy Weasley has become a liability to this organisation."
The reaction was immediate. Molly Weasley burst into noisy tears and needed to be consoled by Arthur, who looked a bit grim around the mouth. Charlie and Bill, the latter of whom had only recently been released from Madam Pomfrey's care, exchanged meaningful looks. When the other members of the Order shifted uncomfortably, unsure what to do or say, Lupin went on. "You must understand, Molly, Arthur," he said gently. "Percy might not know what the Order is doing exactly, but he knows his own family and Scrimgeour knows that. You told me yourself that Scrimgeour used him as an excuse to visit the Burrow last Christmas. He could use Percy for even more, in order to extract the information he wants, and Percy wouldn't think to deny it to him."
"What should we do?" Bill asked hoarsely. "Perce's stubborn when he really wants to be." Charlie nodded in agreement.
"Exactly," Lupin said, "which is why I don't think there's any way we're just going to convince him of the errors in judgment he's made. I think someone should be assigned to watch him."
"That's it?" said Sturgis Podmore. "We just -- watch him?"
"To make sure that Scrimgeour doesn't learn anything we don't want him to," Lupin clarified. "He or she would be promoted to the Ministerial staff, just as Percy is, and simply keep a close eye on him."
"And we can do that?" Sturgis said.
"As it happens, one of Scrimgeour's staff members left his employ last week to go on extended maternity leave," Lupin said, looking down at a report, "so yes, we can. Whoever we elect to the position will simply monitor all of Percy's exchanges with Scrimgeour, and notify the Order at once if anything potentially threatening comes up."
"I'll second that," Molly said in a wavery voice. She wiped at her eyes with a frayed old handkerchief. "I worry about my Percy out there alone, without any protection."
"But you said yourself, Remus, he barely knows about the Order's existence," Elphias Doge wheezed. "Why bother? What's he got to pass on?"
"Not for much longer, he won't," Hestia Jones said grimly. "What with the attack at Hogwarts, and then last year's event at the Department of Mysteries, people are starting to notice that certain of us just happen to be present whenever the Death Eaters come calling."
"Jones is right," Moody barked. His magical eye swiveled madly to look at them. "It was all over the Daily Prophet that I was at the Department of Mysteries."
"And you're ostensibly retired from the Auror force," Lupin finished. "Yes, I fear the Order's underground nature will not last for much longer. And Percy is an intelligent lad, I'm sure he'll be able to put two and two together."
"So if we're going to do this," Charlie said slowly, "it'll need to be someone whose name hasn't been in the papers connected with Order business."
"Which drastically reduces the number of people we can use," McGonagall said primly. "We also cannot use someone who is an Auror."
"That's right," said Kingsley. "I can't let anyone go from my department."
"And Bill and I are out," Charlie said. "Percy would know something was up the moment he saw us."
"I suppose we could go to outside help for this," Tonks suggested. "I know my mum wants to help out the Order in any way that she can."
"Andromeda Tonks?" Diggle said, fingering the rim of his violet top hat worriedly. "They would never hire her in the Ministry. One sister's a Death Eater, the other's married to one."
The room's hopes, so briefly lifted, sank again as everyone realized Diggle was right. "It was a good plan, Remus," Kingsley said, when Lupin sighed in frustration. "I do think Percy Weasley needs to be monitored, just not in that way."
Moody harrumphed loudly. "Merlin, don't they teach problem solving anymore?" he growled. "The answer's staring you in the face."
McGonagall frowned at him, and a lesser man would have withered away under such a gaze. "What are you on about, Alastor?" she said.
"You need someone who's not an Auror" -- he ticked off on his gnarled fingers -- "hasn't appeared in the Prophet, isn't in the Weasley family, and is an Order member with some undercover experience. That eliminates all of us save one person."
There was silence for a full two seconds until Hestia Jones jumped a little in her seat. "Dear Merlin," she said, cheeks even rosier than usual. "You mean me."
"Well, Hestia?" Lupin said, raising his eyebrows. "Would you be willing to going undercover for us?"
"I'm on the guard duty roster," she said. "Are you sure --"
"Potter's seventeenth birthday is next week," Moody said. He was in charge of the roster, and had drawn up the original shift schedule. "We can accommodate your absence until then, when we stop posting guards."
"And you do already work at the Ministry," Lupin pointed out. "If you prefer, we can give you a day or so to think it over --"
"No," she said firmly, shaking her head. "I'll do it. Just help me get my foot in the door in Scrimgeour's staff, and leave the rest to me."
"All in favor of the plans as they currently stand," Lupin said, "say aye." The Order was in resounding agreement.
Lupin approached Hestia once the meeting was adjourned, and everyone was sitting around the kitchen helping themselves to Molly's delicious homemade fudge. Worry showed on his pale face, and Hestia wondered if there was perhaps more to this mission than he had let on. "Hestia," he said, "I feel as if we pressured you into --"
She waved away the rest of his sentence. "I'm doing it because I want to, Remus," she assured him. "I wasn't forced to do anything, don't worry."
He nodded, and looked out over the rest of the room for a moment, silent as he watched the others socialize. "I cannot stress enough that you must tread with caution," he said at last, turning back to her.
Hestia blinked. "The boy isn't a closet Death Eater, is he?"
"No no, just the opposite," Lupin said. "I had him as a student his seventh year, and he follows the rules to the letter, Hestia. I've never met anyone else like him. He is completely dispassionate, and will turn against his own friends and family if they don't adhere to the laws with the same strict interpretation." He gestured with his hand. "His break with Molly and Arthur being a case in point. What we're doing in the Order isn't exactly condoned by the Ministry."
"Are we talking about a Gryffindor or a Slytherin?" she said dryly.
Lupin gave her a wry smile, and poked at his fudge with his fork. "He's a Gryffindor all the way," he said quietly. "He always does what is right. Always. Which means that your surveillance of him must be perfect, completely above reproach. If he suspects anything on your part, he will not hesitate to report you to Scrimgeour, and the mission will be a failure."
"Thanks for the heads up, Remus," Hestia said, smiling a little. "Don't worry about me, I'll be fine."
Afterwards, when the members of the Order were heading off to their homes or to Surrey, to keep an eye on the Boy Who Lived, Hestia cautiously approached Molly. The older woman was washing up the dismal kitchen, humming under her breath. "Can I help?" Hestia asked.
"Oh, er..." Molly cast her eyes quickly about the room. "Elphias spilled something on the table, and I'm having a horrible time getting it out." Before she was even finished speaking, Hestia had gone to the dark stain on the table and started trying every stain-removal charm she could think of. Molly smiled, pleased, and turned back to scrubbing the plates and silverware.
"You know," Hestia said after awhile. The stain really was rather stubborn. "I think I've met all of your children now except Percy."
When no answer was immediately forthcoming, she looked up to see Molly dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief again. "A mother's not supposed to have her favorites," she said tearily, "but if I had one, Percy would be it."
Hestia bit her lip, wondering how to continue without upsetting her any more, but Molly solved the problem for her when she went on. "You do need some information if you're going to be keeping an eye on him, don't you?"
"Every little bit will help," Hestia said.
Molly finished with the dishes and the counter, and took a seat at the end of the long trestle table; Hestia gave up on the stain and sat too. "He's third oldest, our Percy," Molly began. "Three years younger than Charlie, and two years older than the twins." She reached into her robes and pulled out an untidy stack of pictures, store receipts, and coupons. Out of these, she withdrew a fairly new photograph and handed it across the table.
Hestia took the photo and looked down to see a tall, thin young man with a serious expression on his freckled face, dressed in somber navy robes. Wire-rimmed glasses perched precisely on the bridge of his nose, and he clutched a book in one hand. He looked the most like Bill, with his clear blue eyes and strong jaw, but there was a slight curl to his carroty hair, just like Ginny and the twins, and that was Ron's long nose he shared and Charlie's generous mouth. As she watched, Ginny darted into the frame and tried to pull him out of his position, but Percy held steadfast, nose in the air, staring directly at the camera, so Photo Ginny eventually gave up and stomped off. Such focus and determination in one so young. She knew the symptoms well: here was a young man who had grown up far too fast, and had suffered silently for it.
"He's a good boy," Molly was saying, and Hestia handed back the photo. "The twins were nearly the death of me, and Ron was a fussy baby, but Percy was always there to help me and do what I asked." She straightened proudly. "He was Head Boy his seventh year, did you know that? And a prefect before that. Earned twelve O.W.L.s, too!"
"Just like Bill," Hestia said, remembering another conversation she'd had with Ron, some months ago.
"Yes, just like Bill, but these things matteredmore to Percy," Molly said, frowning. "He had to be Head Boy or else. Not that we would've been upset if he hadn't made it, Arthur and I aren't like that, but it was so important to him."
"I've known one or two men like that," Hestia said dryly. "They don't care about anything but the next promotion, or the big paycheck, or the recognition."
"Yes, so true," Molly said, nodding sadly. "I don't think he had any friends in school, which always worried me. Oh, he has a girlfriend -- last I heard, they live together somewhere in London -- Penelope Clearwater, Ravenclaw, lovely girl. But no other friends that I know of. He wants to be Minister one day, and I have no doubt he'll do it." Her lower lip trembled as she gazed down at his picture. "But he's so changed now. I don't even know my own son anymore." She shook her head.
"You have my word I'll look out for him," Hestia promised. She reached out and touched Molly's hand, and gave it a comforting squeeze. "I'll make sure he's safe from harm."
"Thank you," Molly said, smiling through her sadness. "That's all I can ask of you. Watch over him until he comes back to us. He's a good boy, Percy, he just..." She wiped at her eyes and sighed.
"I'll keep him safe," Hestia said again, as Molly dissolved into tears.
"Well, that should be all for today, Weasley," Scrimgeour said, yawning hugely.
Percy Weasley nodded and made a few last notations on his scroll. "Nothing else I can help you with, sir?"
"Actually --" Scrimgeour looked suddenly alert, but Percy missed it. "I heard something this morning, slipped my mind until now. Dolores told me that your father successfully put an end to an illegal Muggle artifacts ring last week."
Percy stiffened under Scrimgeour's gaze, fighting back the bitterness that came whenever a family member was mentioned. "I'm glad the lawbreakers were caught, sir," he said evenly. "I remember hearing you say last month that they'd been causing a great deal of trouble."
"Oh, but you haven't spoken to your parents about it?" Scrimgeour leaned across his desk, shaggy eyebrows raised. "I would've thought the whole family would've been happy for Arthur's success."
"I'm sure they are, sir," Percy said. "If there's anything else you need...?"
"We're invited to dine with the Parkinsons in a few weeks," Scrimgeour said, shuffling a few papers around on his desk until he found the invitation. "It's a formal event, several of the prominent wizarding families and Minstry officials will be there. Parkinson's never given me a reason to think he's up to no good, but I still've got my eye on him."
"As you should, sir," Percy dutifully agreed. "You said I'm invited as well?"
"Yes, so wear your best robes and bring that lovely girlfriend of yours." The Minister gave him a benevolent smile. "It should be quite a night."
"I'll mark it on my calendar," he said, scratching a note for himself in the margin of his parchment.
"That's all for now, then, Weasley." Scrimgeour dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
"Very good, sir." Percy stood and left the Minster's expansive and expensive office to head for his own, pitifully small one down the corridor, looking over the list of things Scrimgeour had given for him to do before he left for the evening:
Draft proposal for Wizengamot -- memorial for Dumbledore?
Check in with Azkaban guards re: security of prisoners
Look into recent Death Eater sightings
Read and summarise report on Inferi attacks
Purchase treacle tarts for Mafalda Hopkirk's birthday party
Drop off ceremonial robes at Kwik Kleen -- Diagon Alley
Percy sighed as he looked up at the tiny clock on the wall -- it was nearly four. He'd be home late again, after he'd promised Penelope that he would try to be on time. They were going to her parents' home in Brighton that evening for dinner, and she had pleaded with him to make it his priority to be there.
"It'll make a good impression if you're there on time," she had said crisply, her tone not allowing for argument. "Please, Percy, I'm practically on my knees --"
"I'll do my best, Penelope," he'd said, kissing her forehead, before he went back to studying the Annals of International Wizarding Law in Europe and the Americas.
And so these two vitally important options sat weighed in the balance, teetering back and forth. Did he leave early, his work undone, in order to see the people that might one day be his future in-laws? Or did he skip the dinner and fulfill his duty to the Minister and, by extension, the wizards of England, by staying to finish his work?
To Percy, the choice was a painfully obvious one.
Penelope simply didn't understand how important his job was, Percy decided, as he began drafting Scrimgeour's proposal for a memorial to Dumbledore. She worked as a junior librarian in the Agrippa von Nettesheim Library at the end of Diagon Alley, and she didn't have to handle all the same pressures he did. No, she spent her day cataloguing books and helping researchers with whatever topics they were interested in, hunting down the books that would complete their quests for knowledge. She didn't have to be fluent in Russian, or memorize the French cabinet's exact tea preferences, or remember to ask the American Secretary of Magic how his daughter's Quidditch career was going. Penelope had been upset with him before, but she always understood. He was positive she would understand this time too, her parents's opinion notwithstanding.
So it was with no small reassurance of her empathy that he returned to their flat in Earls Court, shortly after nine, and expected to find her waiting for him. Penelope usually saved some supper for him, kept warm with Heating Charms, and left it sitting neatly on the tiny table in their equally tiny kitchen.
But tonight, there was nothing there. The kitchen was dark and cold.
"Penelope?" he called, frowning. Had something happened? Perhaps she had gone to her parents's house alone, when she realized he wasn't coming home? He set down his bag by the wall and walked towards their bedroom, noticing that a thin line of light showed underneath the door.
He heard her stifled sob before he pushed inside, and saw Penelope's red face before she noticed him standing in the doorway. "Oh, there you are," she said. A few tears glistened her eyes, but her body was tensed with rage. "So happy you could grace me with your presence." She flung another set of robes onto the bed.
No, not onto the bed. Into her suitcase.
Percy blinked, frozen in place. "Pen--"
"I hope someone died in a freak accident," she went on, throwing clothes into her case, "or there was a Death Eater attack at the Ministry, or you were struck with a Body-Bind Curse and were unable to get out of it."
"Those are the only excuses I'll accept," she said, glaring at him. As he watched, a lone tear trickled down her cheek, but she scrubbed it viciously away with the heel of her hand. "I told you specifically, Percy, that my parents wanted to have us over for supper tonight --"
"And I remembered that," Percy said, stepping into the room. "I never forgot. The thing is --"
"Yes, tell me what the thing is with you," she said, stopping her haphazard packing. "Why would you rather spend time being an errand boy for that man than be with your girlfriend?"
"That man is the Minister of Magic," Percy ground out, his eyebrows drawing together, "and I'm not some ill-treated little intern, you know. What I do is very important and ensures that --"
"Like I haven't heard that before," she said dryly. With a fierce swish of her wand, she flipped her suitcase closed and zipped it up. "My parents weren't pleased, you know. I had to tell them yet again that my wonderful boyfriend couldn't come by to visit them, because he was off licking Scrimgeour's boots --"
"Don't talk about the Minister like that!" Percy cried, eyes flashing angrily.
Penelope only gazed at him for a moment, her wand hanging limply by her side. "A little boy made fun of me when I bollocksed up a simple Severing Charm last week," she said. "You were there, Percy. Standing right next to me."
He couldn't see where she was going, so he remained silent, confused.
"You didn't say a word to him," she said. Another tear slid down her face, and this time she didn't wipe it away. "You just looked at him and kept talking."
"Penelope," he said, hands spread wide. She just had to understand, the way she always did. "You shouldn't have listened to that boy. He didn't even look like he'd been to Hogwarts yet! But when you talk like that about the Minister --"
"Get him to warm your bed then," Penelope said, her voice catching slightly. She grabbed the handle of her suitcase and pulled it off the bed. "I won't any longer, since that's obviously what you want."
"What I want?"
"When was the last time you did anything for me?" she said. "When was the last time you told me you loved me?"
"Penelope, I do love you," he pleaded, stepping in front of her.
She closed her eyes briefly "I can't do this anymore, Percy," she whispered, gazing up at him with pitying eyes. "The way we live -- the way you're gone all of the time -- it doesn't work for me."
Percy felt his heart sink at her words. She couldn't really be leaving him, could she? She had threatened to before, but she would say it in a joking way, to show she didn't mean it. "Penelope," he implored, "we've gone through rough times before, and I was always there for you. When you thought you might be pregnant, our seventh year --"
"You told me it would be better if we got rid of it," she said bitterly. "Lucky for us I miscarried, didn't I?"
"Well," he spluttered, regrouping, "it was the best for both of us --"
"Do you really believe in what you say, Percy," Penelope asked, tilting her head to one side, "or do you just say it because it's the right thing to do?"
"Of course I believe in the right thing," he said, insulted that she thought otherwise. "There's a reason it's called the right thing. Now look, I know I haven't exactly been fair in working late so often --"
"You've made me promises before," she said, shaking her head. "And do you know how many you've broken? All of them, Percy. Every single bloody one. I'm through. I'm gone."
He only stood numbly as she shouldered past him, headed for the door. His mind raced to catch up with what she had said, what she was about to do. She was really leaving him. After having dated for nearly four years, it was over. Just like that. Percy thought that maybe he should feel more remorse that they couldn't have worked out their issues, compromised, come to an agreement -- he wasn't exactly thrilled to see her go. He was accustomed to her presence in his life.
He left their bedroom and reached the front room just as she was about to step out into the hallway.
Penelope gave him an unreadable look. "Begging won't work, Percy," she said.
"I know," he replied, steadying himself with a deep breath. "I was going to say that it's going to be better this way. You can find someone willing to spend more time with you, and I won't be burdened by commitments outside my duties at the Ministry."
She blinked, shocked speechless a moment, then covered her mouth with her hand. "Burdened?" she said, her voice hitching again. "Oh God, Percy..."
"I'm serious, Penelope," he said. The more he said it, the easier this would be, he knew. "We obviously can't meet in the middle --"
"I know you're serious," she said, "and that's the worst part." She sniffed and wiped at her face. "Goodbye, Percy. Merlin help the next witch that falls for you."
She shut the door behind her, and the finality of the sound made him jump, still reeling at everything that had happened. Part of him knew this was the only way it could be -- their lives just didn't synch the way they used to, and if he was going to be Minister of Magic one day, his work required his full attention. And yet, living without Penelope...could he imagine anything more empty or lonely?
A bird pecked at the window, and he raced to get it when he recognized Scrimgeour's private eagle owl. The attached note said that there was going to be an emergency meeting early the next morning to discuss what steps the Ministry would take after Harry Potter turned seventeen. He needed to brush up on everything he knew about the first war, see that he had an up-to-date list of present and suspected Death Eaters, and he wasn't to forget to bring everyone breakfast.
Penelope was suddenly the very last thing on his mind.